Darien carefully set up the antique Ouija board on his small glass table, which he had positioned in the center of the living room of his apartment. The table was perfectly round, and surrounding it was a carefully consistent, sprinkled circle of salt.
Taking a seat at the table within the circle of salt, Darien cracked his knuckles and began rhythmically flexing and relaxing muscle groups all over his body, working himself toward a state of relaxation and focus. His thinking was clear, his mind open and brimming with willpower. He rubbed his thumbs against his index fingers until he felt a slight tingle travelling between his arms through his chest. His power channels were open. Good.
He moved his hands over top of the ouija pointer and slowly lowered his middle and index fingers into their accustomed positions. The pointer seemed to vibrate and his hands jolted minutely from the contact. And then he was channelling, focusing his will on the board, opening his mind to the unseen forces on the Other Side, those which had helped to develop the sixth sense he now used. He did not understand where the Other Side was in relation to his world, only that it was not heaven nor hell, nor Limbo, where the lost or restless souls of the deceased are said to wander. The creatures on the Other Side, the demons, had never been human, he was also sure of that. Though they liked to pretend to be ghosts, they lacked too many human qualities and had relatively uncomplicated, almost synthetic personalities.
His mind sought out and found his demon servant waiting for him. Lackey, as Darien called him (since demons never gave you their real names without a fight) was obviously on the lower end of the hierarchy of demons, for it had limited intelligence and very little power. It was a scavenger, performing errands for its superiors, and preying on the occasional weak human mind if opportunity presented. For the past six months it had been hanging around Darien's ouija board, tempting him with promises it could not fulfill. It was likely ordered to spy on him, to keep tabs on him and ferret out his weaknesses.
Darien did not have many weaknesses, but somehow Lackey had managed to offer him one of his greatest secret desires, and the very possibility of its fulfillment made Darien feverish whenever he thought of it. The procedure was risky; according to Lackey, it required Darien to allow a powerful demon into his body. But Darien could not resist the temptation, so he did his homework and learned everything he could about dealing with and controlling demons.
'Tell your master that I am Ready,' Darien told Lackey. He did not need to speak aloud, but figured that it was a good way to make sure that he didn't forget to breathe during this crucial time.
Lackey hesitated for only a second, then disappeared from Darien's consciousness. 'Here we go,' he breathed, forcing the knots out of his stomach. 'This will work!'
A new presence began to fill Darien's consciousness like a cloud of smoke. It was so large that it blinded Darien to everything else on the Other Side. A whisper slid through Darien's mind, and he swallowed his fear and replied, 'I am ready to make a deal.'
Suddenly, Darien's mind exploded with noise. The banter part of the conversation was over. What happened next was a multi-conscious battle of wits and wills, too fast and deep in the mind to be held verbally. It is difficult to describe; essentially, the demon was trying to get Darien to concede to a concept, or 'deal'. The demon was crafty and pushy, like the best appliance salesman. This way of dealing was especially dangerous, since it dealt in complex visions which were geared to be misinterpreted as being more in your favour. There was a give-and-take of ideas, and Darien slowly gained ground, holding to the ideal in the back of his head.
They finally came to an agreement. The demon would be allowed to possess Darien's body, so long as Darien had his wish granted to him when he spoke it aloud.
Of course, Darien knew that the demon had no intention of ever relinquishing control of his body, never have to allow Darien to speak his wish, and therefore never have to grant it. However, when the demon began to suffuse Darien's flesh, Darien tossed back a shot of salt. When the demon seized control, the salt prevented the demon from controlling Darien's mouth, and so Darien was able to intone the beginning of a banishing ritual. The demon tried to move Darien's body, but found itself restricted to the circle on the floor.
Darien fought off the invader, and was thrilled to find himself winning. The demon, finding its physical presence confined within the circle, reluctantly gave up the struggle and withdrew.
The demon's presence was still clouding the region, however, and Darien could feel that it was furious. It was waiting for Darien's next words, he knew, intending to fulfill the first foolish thing he requested.
Darien carefully schooled his mouth as he picked up the piece of paper he had prepared for his little speech. He dared not so much as spit out the salt, in case the demon could somehow maliciously interpret the jesture. As the demon listened, Darien looked down at the piece of paper he had prepared and carefully read, 'I wish for the ability to alter my physical age on desire and when desired.' He might have used his wish for something better, but the demon's sphere was Change, and was limited to the human body. He could have asked for more if he wanted to wrestle a bigger demon.
He waited apprehensively. He shivered slightly, but otherwise nothing seemed to happen. His hands started to shake with his nervousness, until he could no longer hold the piece of paper. As he watched the paper slide through the air toward the floor, it burst into a gout of purple flame and vanished instantly, leaving not even a sprinkle of ash behind. And gone just as instantly was the demon.
Darien hurried to the bathroom to watch himself in the mirror (and to purge his saline saliva into the sink). He looked more flushed and excited than usual, but that was to be expected, under the circumstances. He closed his eyes and yearned to be younger. He did not picture a particular age, only desired over and over again to be less mature than he was. When he opened his eyes again, his heart skipped a beat.
He couldn't believe it! He had won! He grinned like a fool at his reflection. His ears stuck out more, his neck seemed to elongate even though his eye level began to sink; his chest thinned and his biceps became lanky. His pants began to lose their purchase on his slimming pelvis, and began to gradually slip from his waist. He watched them hang, baggy and ever-expanding, until they finally dropped in a heap around his ankles, baring skinny legs.
His excitement was well expressed by his fully erect penis, which was all that was keeping his underwear from joining his pants. The bottom of his t-shirt slid further down his body, beginning to bunch up on his erection. He gently unhooked the underwear and let it drop, and let his t-shirt down.
The sixteen year-old in the mirror shrugged to its reflection in mock helplessness, the collar of his shirt slipping off one shoulder. Then the teen ran to the bedroom to dive onto the waterbed. He pressed himself against the viscous surface of the bed as he propped himself on his elbows to look into the headboard mirror. The grinning face of a fifteen-year-old gazed back, shiny-eyed and flushed from excitement. He rolled onto his back and began to pant as he stroked himself through his t-shirt. *I'm getting YOUNGER!* he told himself again and again. And because he was in control of it, it was happening exactly the way he had always fantasized. His groin was becoming more sensitive by the second, and though he was barely touching it, he began to gasp in rhythm, the muscles in his feet spasming to the sensations as they hadn't done in over a decade. He continued to will himself younger, one month every two heartbeats. He could feel his feet drag across the bed as his legs grew shorter, and his hairless backside slid deeper into his deflating t-shirt. He laughed out loud in delight, his laughter a full octave higher than it had been less than an hour ago. The excitement heightened and he approached a climax he had no chance of controlling. As his orgasm began to surge, he suddenly pictured himself at ten years old. His body seemd to contract suddenly as it abruptly dropped below puberty. His mind exploded in colours as the climax overwhelmed him, his senses seemed to shut down from the sheer magnitude of the sensations.
He lay still for several minutes as his senses slowly returned. When Darien could think again, he looked down at himself. He had shrunk so much from when he first laid down that his body had slid down into the t-shirt until the collar was all the way up to his ears. There was no mess because he had pushed himself into prepubescence just in time. He continued to lie still as he listened to himself breathe a shallow rhythm that was foreign to him. He was still getting younger, but he had lost track, and so didn't know his own age any more. He decided to play a guessing game. Slowly, he sat up in bed, his back to the mirror. *Don't want to make it too easy.* First, he looked down at his bare legs and feet, protruding spread-eagled from the bottom of what had become a nightshirt. The sight of his legs tugged at memories of how he had thought as a child, thoughts he had been incapable of recalling since shortly after puberty, when, like most teenagers, he had divorced his childhood. So far, he could be anywhere from nine down to five, since he did not really have a way of scaling his size.
Next, he carefully examined his hands. Every wrinkle and vein had disappeared from their backs, his knuckles were becoming dimples, and his finger nails were extra pink and smaller in proportion to his fingers. He brought one hand to slide across his smooth, round cheek, and could hardly believe the delicate sensitivity in both his hand and his face. Giggling, he drew his t-shirt up to expose his hairless crotch. 'Long time no see, old friend,' he giggled in a high-pitched voice. He continued to giggle as he listened to his own voice. He was pretty sure that it was slowly rising higher, a semi-tone at a time. 'Younger younger younger, younger younger younger,' he sing-songed, then finally looked over his shoulder at the mirror.
He couldn't have been older than seven. His rosy cheeks were still flushed from his earlier activity. His hair had lightened dramatically to a dirty blonde, and had degraded to an unruly mop with semi-curls on the ends. He grinned again to find gaps opening in his dentition; his permanent cutter teeth almost completely buried in his gums.
The little boy carefully rose to his feet on the bed, but had difficulty because his shirt, now hanging to his knees, was big enough to tangle all of his limbs. He pulled it over his head, noticing as he did so how heavy it seemed to him now. He looked back to the mirror. Where once he could only see the lower half of his body from this position, now he was small enough to see everything from his neck down. His feet used to sink to bare inches from the wooden bottom of the water bed, but now they barely made a dent, even when he shifted all his weight to one foot.
And he was skinny. No, skinny did not begin to describe it. His ribs were plainly defined under his skin, and if he sucked his belly in, he could almost wrap his hands completely around his middle. But this was uncomfortable, and he soon stopped trying. When he let his belly back out, it hung out further than it had a moment ago. He glanced back into the mirror, and found that he could see that his pudgy little nose joined his reflection if he tilted his head foreward and downward. His belly, indeed his whole body, was almost visibly cultivating fat, as the mirror crept higher to gradually expose more of his face. The boy smiled again, and found his mouth full of baby teeth.
Now he grew nervous. He was becoming very small. The mirror now showed the top of his blonde-haired head, and cleared it by an inch. The rejuvenation halted as his courage failed, and his desire to be younger faltered. He looked at the three year old in the mirror as he considered. He hadn't meant to go so far on his first attempt. Luckily, his brain did not seem to be degrading into lollipop soup as he had feared. He moved his body around carefully, measuring his balance, testing his control over his body. The reflexes of his twenty-year-old self were not completely gone, though he had become awkward from the change to his body weight and proportion, and his vast reduction in strength. He felt light and limber, but he was less confident in his coordination.
He held his breath for a moment, then decided to continue. He was about to enter a stage of life that almost nobody could remember, and he was curious. He let his breath go and flapped his hand at the kid in the mirror. 'See ya,' he piped. He almost added, 'Wouldn't want ta be ya,' but realized that he would probably have freaked himself out and lost his bravado altogether.
Since Darien was expecting he would lose the ability to stand, he decided to sit down first rather than risk toppling off the bed. The baby fat on his stomach creased and folded, making him grimace at how obese it made him appear. He looked into the mirror at the toddler's eyes and willed the figure to become yet smaller.
The effect was immediate and visible. The child's face grew rounder, his neck showing creases as it thickened with yet more fat. As his body diminished, it gave the illusion that he was moving away. His hair thinned, becoming too fluffy to lie flat on his head any longer. His nose continued to shrink into the middle of his face, his eyes seeming to grow big by comparison.
The two-year-old, shocked by the display in the mirror, stopped watching and laid down on his back. His breathing was shallow and rapid, and yet he continued to wish he was younger. It was difficult to lift his head, so he raised a leg to look at his foot, surprising himself with his new flexibility as his foot came all the way up to his chest. This could be a neat form of yoga, he thought to himself, and laughed out loud. What he heard was the pleased chuckle of a baby. His teeth were beginning to disappear, he noticed, and as he moved his tongue around his mouth, he must have triggered his saliva glands, because he started to drool almost uncontrollably. He swallowed most of it, and wiped the rest from his chin with -- what was left of his arm! His hand was a pudgy little fist and shrinking before his eyes!
The baby's vision blurred, and he cried out in terror, a high pitched wail that slid from soprano to baritone in three seconds.
Darien sat up, trembling and dizzy from the sudden change back to his real age. What once he had forgotten as a matter of natural course, he wished he could forget again now; the utter impotency of being an infant, the inability to control his emotions and body, the complete dependancy on other living beings for care and comfort. Being a baby the first time around is survivable because you don't know better. But being trapped in that tiny body of twitching flesh, fully aware... he shivered again and shut out the thought.
That was when he realized that he was sitting in wetness. His bladder had let go during his fright. Rolling his eyes in disgust, he got up and set about changing the bed, then jumped into the shower.
He was shampooing his hair when it struck him that he wanted to take a bath with the advantage of being short enough to stretch out fully. He plugged the drain so that it would begin to fill. As he languorously rinsed his hair out, he kept his eyes closed and willed himself gradually younger again.
The act of will was easy for him; he had been practicing it every day since he was thirteen. Only this time, he actually got results. He stood up straight and felt the streams of water leave his shoulders and climb his neck to his hair. When the water overshot his head and splashed into the far end of the tub, he reached behind him and tilted the shower head further down. He imagined that the water was washing the years from his body, like the fountain of youth as a hot spring. His imagination was more vivid than normal; maybe the reality of his shrinking was enforcing it, maybe childhood was returning it to him. Probably both.
He found that he had to step a bit forward to keep the ever-widening cone of water from splashing into his face, making it hard for him to breathe. Finally, when he had to rise to tip-toes to grab the shower head that was once eye level, he sat in the deepest part of the tub and watched as pooling water melted away the last of his body hair. He fascinated himself with the feeling of his growing feebleness, as the tub continued to grow and the water level rose higher. The water also seemed to grow hotter as his skin became more sensitive.
Shortly before the tub would have overflowed, common sense broke the surface of his reverie, and he shut the water off. He was more than short enough, so he stopped his rejuvenation and floated in the large tub of warm water.
Darien found his young body was too restless to lie still for long, so he drained the tub and wrapped himself in a towel that now covered him from shoulders to just below the knee. He almost tripped on his way out of the tub, since the side was now as tall as his shin. He padded over to the sink, which had risen to his chest. To his dismay, he found that the mirror on the medicine was far too high for him to see himself. So instead, he walked back out and into his bedroom to gaze at his reflection. A very wet but enthused six-year-old regarded him back. 'Is this the new me?' he wondered. Do I want to start over? Is that what my obsession is all about?
He shrugged off the philosophy, filing it under 'Must Consider Later', dropped the towel, and dug through his drawers until he fount the smallest shirt he owned. It had been tight on him when he was sixteen; now, it covered him to his knees. After a quick whim, he grew a few inches, and the t-shirt was more manageable to the eight-year-old he had become.
Satisfied, he trotted to the kitchen to get something to eat. This became an adventure in itself, since he had to climb the stove and stand on the counter just to reach the cupboards, which he used to use without a second thought. He settled for filling his diminutive stomach with a few cheese crackers and a glass of juice.
Then, thoroughly exhausted, he climbed onto his couch and passed out.
By noon of the next day, Darien was bored. He had awoken fully refreshed at the crack of dawn and enthusiastically spent the morning enacting every fantasy he could remember. But the satisfaction of fulfilling his dreams was fleeting. He came to the conclusion that his fantasies, when brought to life, were exactly like any other obsessive behavior -- terribly redundant. Physically revisiting any part of his life was starting to lose its novelty for him -- though he still didn't have the guts to see what the future held.
The magic if his fantasies spoiled for good, Darien's will to change dropped off, leaving him around the age of ten or so. He sat down to half-heartedly watch cartoons.
Maybe the problem was that, when it came down to it, self-satisfaction is not enough, not for anybody. Being special does not matter unless it gets you some attention. Maybe he needed to show off.
The main problem was that he had kept his passion a secret for so long that he was afraid to share its fulfillment with anyone. After all, it isn't as though he could have told anyone that his goal in life was to return to his childhood, post haste. (Though it would have made for an interesting yearbook caption.) And besides, people would label him a freak; he would probably be experimented on like a lab rat, forced to change his age over and over as scientists poked and prodded him, until they took out their frustrations on him and killed the golden goose in their scientific quest for immortality.
He was flipping through channels to see how long it would take him to go from 2 to 57, with the (slight) handicap of having to surmise the gist of each transparent and predictable plot, when the sounds of playing children floated up to the window of his fifth storey apartment. He walked out onto his balcony and watched them over the railing.
The apartment property had a small playground with a jungle gym to help keep little kids off the streets. There was a group of five children paying tag, and two women and a man watching over them. He watched them with his usual troubled envy as they shrieked and chased each other, happy and free.
*It doesn't matter how young I make myself,* Darien realized. *I will never really be a child again.*
Darien sighed and turned his attention to the parents, as the man and one of the women, apparently a couple, called their children in for lunch. The parents were in their late thirties, and not carrying their age well. Both were considerably overweight; they looked like they stopped taking care of themselves around the time their youngest child was born. But the other woman...
Darien stood on a chair to get a better look at her. Could a mother really be that beautiful? She had light brown hair she had tied back in a pony tail. She was sitting in a plastic chair, and she squirmed beautifully as she tried vainly to get comfortable. She was wearing a short top that exposed her belly that was no stranger to the sun she was enjoying. Long legs, growing out from the cut-off jeans she wore, were crossed at the knee and she watched the children serenely from behind her dark sun glasses.
As Darien tried to see more detail on her face, a little blonde girl looked up and spotted him. She shielded her eyes from the sun and waved hello.
The boy suddenly realized that he was leaning dangerously over the railing. Vertigo washed over him, and he pushed himself away from the railing and back into his apartment proper.
As he recovered his nerves, an idea occurred to him: he wasn't enjoying himself because he wasn't playing the right games! His stupid fantasies didn't make any sense in the light of day. They were never meant to be acted out as games. If he wanted to be a kid, then he should play like a kid! The idea had seemed impossible to him, even the night before, but it screaming at him now. He was burning with the need to get out of the stuffy apartment and... and... make friends!
He was remembering in consternation that he didn't have anything appropriate to wear when he realized that the shirt he wore was covering him to his knees. He checked himself in a mirror and found a restless and excited eight-year-old. Odd, he thought, since he remembered he was ten when he ended his last game. But he shrugged it off because it was not as important as his need to play. He left the apartment, and raced to the elevator.
It was not until he had crashed his way through the outer door leading onto the playground that he felt a gust of wind on his private parts and realized exactly how inadequate he was really dressed. Not to mention, he had forgotten to bring his keys with him. He would not be able to get back into the building on his own.
But the blonde girl was there, and when she spotted him again and smiled, he immediately forgot all of his worries and ran up to her. 'Hi!' he said enthusiastically.
'Hi!' she returned cheerfully. 'You were up there, right?' she asked, pointing to Darien's balcony.
'Yep!' he replied, blushing a little.
'Good! We just moved here. Can you play with me?'
Darien looked around and noticed that the couple and three of the children were no longer on the playground. All that remained were two blonde girls and the woman. 'Uhm... I don't know. But I can try.'
She giggled at his strange response and stuck out her hand. 'I'm Stacey.'
He shook her hand a little timidly. 'I'm Dar-' he said before he could stop himself. He mentally kicked himself for not thinking of a fake name. He should have been more prepared, but this girl's smile scrambled his brains. Sure, girls have had that effect on him before, but not little girls! She was less than nine, yet her beauty still dazzled him.
'Dare?' she asked suspiciously. 'You called that because you get into trouble a lot?'
'Me? No... not anymore, anyway.'
A little girl came bounding up, expecting to be introduced.
'This is my kid sister, Jessie,' Stacey supplied with some disdain. Jessie was about two years younger than her sister, like the siblings of many families. She stuck out her hand, obviously imitating her big sister's earlier gesture.
'Charmed, I'm sure,' Dare drawled playfully and kissed the back of her hand. He had started to feel more naughty and adventurous, for some reason.
Jessie screamed shrilly in disgust and pulled her hand away, which drew the attention of the woman in the chair.
'Stacey!' the woman called.
Stacey looked back at her mother for a moment, then sighed and took Dare's hand. 'Come on. You have to meet my mom.'
Up close, Stacey's mother fascinated Dare. She had a serene face with a smooth complexion, but to his surprise, he felt no physical desire for her. It was as though he felt too much reverence for her to lust after her anymore. She was almost as tall in her seat as he was standing, and she took his smaller hand gently into hers in greeting.
'Mom, this is Dare. He lives up there,' she added, pointing. She giggled after a moment when she realized her rhyme.
'Hello, 'Dare'. Is that what your mother calls you?'
She waited for him to continue, then prompted, 'Well, what does she call you?'
'Aw, come on Mom! We're just gonna play!' Stacey grabbed Dare's arm again and dragged him away.
Dare and the two girls were involved in a good-natured game of tag. He thought it was impossible to ever have so much simple, pure hearted fun.
Eventually, Mother announced that it was time for the girls to pick up Jessie's toys and prepare to head inside. While the girls carried out their orders, Mother called Dare over to talk to him. This time, she was standing up, and Dare had to look way up at her. Her long legs made her so tall that he was looking up from under her breast level. The fact that the size difference felt more natural than it had when he first met her unnerved him.
'Dare,' she said softly, 'did your mother let you out of the house dressed like that?'
'Like what?' Dare asked, feining innocence, though he began to blush in guilt and shame.
She was not in the mood to play games, and said abruptly, 'Without shorts on.'
'Um...' he was blushing hotly now, and glanced over at the daughters. Thankfully, the conversation was quiet enough that the girls were out of ear shot, though they gave curious glances as they worked. He felt completely exposed, and berated himself for an idiot. He decided to tell the truth, since lying was too risky in his current condition. Besides, with no money and no keys, he was stranded. He needed this woman just to get back into the apartment building. 'I got excited and I ran outside without thinking.'
Mother was slightly taken aback by the straight-forward maturity of his answer. 'I see,' she responded, then called for her girls to follow her inside.
Dare was still blushing like mad when he followed them into the apartment building. Rather than wait with them at the elevator, he headed straight for the stairs and climbed for the top floor...
... which was far more laborious than it used to be. Normally, he could take the steps two at a time and outrun the elevator. But this time, the steps were twice as big, his legs an eighth as strong. He slowed to a walk after the first flight, and found himself climbing the railing more than walking on the third flight. By the 4th floor, he was out of breath and his leg muscles burned terribly.
Darien threw off his shirt as he entered his apartment, dragging his feet, and wished most sincerely to be twenty again. The sudden return to his normal size almost made him faint, dropping him to his knees. When the dizzy spell lightened, he climbed to his feet and staggered into the bedroom. He had been expecting his grown body to easily fight off the exhaustion with its increase in strength, so he was surprised to find no improvement in his condition.
As he fought for breath, he struggled to get dressed. He needed the time and space to think, somewhere other than home. Something was seriously wrong. He should have known that his wish would be skewed, but what exactly was the result? He couldn't put his finger on it. Was his frequent age changes starting to rot his mind? Were they reviving the personality of the child he used to be, bringing it to the fore of his mind? He had never factored psychological impact into the equation.
After dressing, he had regained his breath, but his muscles still burned. He snatched up his keys, wallet and jacket, and headed for the door. He yanked the door open and stepped into the hallway -
And blacked out.
When he awoke, he was lying on his couch.
'How are you feeling?' Stacey asked from beside him.
Darien started with alarm. Stacey was in his apartment. 'I'm fine,' he replied, sitting up. His voice was soprano again. His adult clothing was drooping on his small frame; his pants were already around his knees, though he had been lying down. He wondered how he had gotten to the couch.
'Where's your mom and dad?' Stacey asked.
'Somewhere,' in another city, he added to himself. 'I think my dad's in the bathroom.'
'No, sweetie. Nobody is here but us,' replied Stacey's mother as she walked out of his bedroom. 'I think I'll have to take you to the doctor.'
Darien's blood chilled. 'NO!' he almost screamed, his attempt to strangle it turning it into a whine. *Make it seem like it's not a big deal, and maybe they'll go away.* More calmly, added, 'No. I'm fine.'
'What happened to you? What do you remember?'
Dare sighed miserably. It looked like time alone was becoming a near-impossibility. 'I remember walking out the door, but then nothing. I just woke up.'
'I was walking in the hallway,' Stacey filled him in. 'I was looking for you so I could ask you something. Then your door opened, and you fell out. That's when I ran and got my mom.' She looked a little shaken. 'You okay, Dare?'
'I'm okay, really.' Dare slapped his forehead expressively, like he'd just remembered something. 'You know what? I forgot to eat lunch before I went outside. That was it.'
Mother's frown lightened, but didn't disappear. 'Well then, it is a happy coincidence that -'
'Oh Mom! Let me tell him!' Stacey cut her off. 'I came up here to see if you wanted to come to our place for a snack!'
Dare smiled wanly. 'Uh, thanks for the offer, but -'
'I'm sorry, Dare, but I must insist,' Stacey's mother cut in softly but sternly. 'Where does your father keep your clothes?'
'They're, uh, in the laundry,' he answered lamely. 'My father must be in the basement doing the laundry right now.'
'ALL your clothes?' Stacey asked in disbelief, but her mother simply offered her hand to Darien. 'I can find you something of Stacey's to wear. Let's go.'
Even as a piece of him recoiled at the idea of going with them, he reached out and took her hand automatically, like he she was compelling him to obey.
Stacey's mother stuck a Post-It note to the door of the closet in the entryway as they left. The note identified her as Sarah Richmond, apartment 406, and that she had discovered Dare by himself and had taken him in. At the bottom, she added her phone number. With that, 'Sarah' used Dare's keys to lock the door behind them, and they were off.
The trip down to 406 was uneventful, and far too fleeting for Dare, whose mind was frantically racing. Never in his entire life had he felt more trapped, flanked by his hosts and hand-led by someone twice his height. His 'free' hand he kept pressed against his hip, preventing his underwear from sliding down his legs in the commotion of walking. He really had to hustle to keep pace with the tall woman's easy but purposeful gait, his bare feet patting hastily along the carpeted hall. When he slowed, he found himself hauled effortlessly though unintentionally off balance. Not wanting to trot to keep up, or skip as Stacey was doing, Dare took the longest strides he could manage, which made him look like he was playing some game. He had to admit to himself that the feeling of futility was slightly exciting, though it was bordering on distress.
Soon after they entered the girls' apartment, Stacey's mother surprised Dare when she scooped him under the arms and placed him on a chair at their table, beside Jessie. Dare was again struck by the peculiar sensation of accepting the sensation of being carried, though it had not happened to him in decades. The wooden seat of the chair was cold on Dare's legs; his knees were on the edge of the seat and so his feet dangled at least half a foot from the floor.
Leaving him with instructions to eat something, Stacey and her mother headed off to peruse Stacey's wardrobe.
Fortunately, 'something' turned out to be a collection of prepared finger foods, on a large plate in the center of the table. He had the choice of apple and pear slices, crackers, bite-sized cubes of cheddar cheese, and strips of bologna. He moved a few crackers to his plate and popped a pear slice into his mouth. He really was hungry, and very tired as well.
'Hi Dare.' Jessie saluted him cheerfully with a piece of apple.
When Dare noticed the bits of food stuck in the gaps of the six-year-old's smile, he decided that he needed to be elsewhere. He couldn't just leave, though; he didn't have his keys, and besides, he worried that Mrs Richmond would come after him.
Sounds of a hot debate between Stacey and her mother, over what clothing Dare was allowed to borrow from Stacey's wardrobe, drifted from the other room. Dare slid off his chair and snuck away to lock himself in the bathroom, hoping to but himself time to get his head (and his story) straight. He just could not think straight with anybody watching him.
This bathroom was almost twice the size of the one in his apartment, and appeared even larger due to his current lack of height. Unlike his medicine-cabinet mirror, this bathroom had a bonified, 3' x 3' mirror over the sink, and was low enough to be at least marginally useable by anyone taller than three feet.
As he paced the bathroom floor, he quietly racked his brain. His underwear finally dropped to his ankles; he irritably kicked them into a corner and continued pacing. 'Who am I? Who am I?' He needed a name that he could readily acknowledge as his own when someone spoke it. 'Keep it in the D's...' He stopped pacing and looked thoughtfully at the tired but cute child in the mirror. 'Don...?' He turned sideways and raised an eyebrow charmingly. 'Hello, I'm Donovan. Don for short. You can call me 'Dare'. Why Dare?' he asked himself, resuming his pacing. 'Dare because... I always take on a dare? No.' He stopped again and shrugged to himself in the mirror. 'Because I like it,' he told it. 'Simple as that. Since when do kids need a reason to be trendy? Now, who do I live with, where are they now, and why don't I even have a pair of shoes to wear?' He resumed pacing, gently rapping his knuckles against his forehead as if to shake the answers loose.
All too soon, there was a knock on the door. With Dare's nerves frayed, the noise made him shout in alarm.
'Are you okay in there?' It was Stacey's mother.
'Yes!' Dare called back.
'I have some pants for you to try on.' She paused for a moment, then asked, 'Are you decent?'
'No, but you already know that,' he answered somewhat crankily. Dare grasped the knob, which was even with his shoulder, and opened the door a crack to see the woman's concerned face. As soon as he saw her, he blushed, feeling ashamed for his bitterness. 'Thank you,' he whispered, his face showing sincerity rarely ever seen on a child's features.
She smiled down at him and ruffled his hair. 'Hey, don't mention it. Come out soon, okay?' she added gently.
'Sure,' he replied and quietly shut the door. Dare stripped off his baggy shirt and chucked it into the corner, completely baring his juvenility and leaving him feeling very immature.
The package she had handed to him smelled pleasantly fresh, as though recently laundered. It contained a child's version of cotton track pants and a t-shirt. The pair of pants was green, and its knees were almost worn through. Since he was too unfamiliar with his body to balance, Darien had to sit to pull them on. Though they had seemed impossibly small, they fit him like a glove. Then he turned his attention to the shirt, and winced when he saw a faded a Sailor Scout posing on it. With a bitter twist in his lip that threatened to become permanent, the boy quickly tugged the shirt over his head and tucked it into the pants, hiding his round, hairless belly from sight. Now that he was appropriately dressed, he began feeling like a human being again. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands before making his way surreptitiously out of the bathroom.
When he first emerged, the girls were sitting at the table. But that quickly changed; as the sound of the bathroom door reached their ears, they came running over like a stampede (despite their mother's protests) to see how he looked.
Bare foot, arms crossed over the Sailor Scout, Dare avoided their faces and blushed timidly. 'They're nice. Thank you,' he told Stacey dutifully.
'Weird!' Jessie commented. 'It's like he looks like you, but he doesn't!'
'It's because those are my clothes, Dumb-Dumb!' Stacey replied, not at all gracious for sharing the clothing, and intent on letting everybody know it.
The three of them returned to the table to eat. Dare noticed that the girls kneeled on their chairs, improving their reach, and he followed suit. It seems there were a lot of childhood practices that he would have to relearn. Soon, he was feeding ravenously.
When snack time was done, Stacey's mother clapped her hands. 'Okay, girls. I want you to go use the Nintendo in the bedroom for a while, okay? Not you, Dare,' she added as he slid to his feet to follow. 'You girls can show him your games in a minute. I need to talk to him first.'
Jessie started to protest, but Stacey tugged her arm. 'Come on, brat, or I won't let you play with me.'
A lump formed in Dare's throat as Stacey's mother put her hand on his back and steered him to the bedroom. She sat him down on the couch and took a chair facing him. She gave him a reassuring smile. 'You aren't in trouble, Dare. I just want to ask you some questions.'
*Aren't I, though. Who's responsible for me? Me. How did I end up like this? A really idiotic whim.*
'Let's start with when you were born.'
That through Dare for a loop. 'Pardon?' He hadn't been expecting it.
'How old are you?'
Dare barely resisted the urge to laugh. 'Twenty,' he answered honestly, and wasn't disappointed by her incredulous reaction.
'That's not funny, Dare,' she scolded. 'Lying is not funny.'
'I'm not lying,' he returned bravely. 'I thought I wasn't in trouble?'
'You aren't.' The woman paused to reconsider the situation, and Dare gazed at her. She really was a captivating woman, he decided.
'I don't know how old I am anymore,' he admitted. A yawn began from the back of his throat and grew until it stretched his mouth wide and long, leaving his eyes watering.
'Where are your clothes?' she tried again.
'Laundry,' he replied sleepily.
'Where's your father?'
'What is your name?'
His eyelids were drooping. 'Dar-er-Don. Ovan. Donovan.'
'Ah. Well, hello Donovan. My name is -'
'Sarah, I know.'
'How did you know that?'
'Wrote it on the note.'
'I see. You're a good reader.'
Donovan nodded and blinked his eyes shut, only to find when he opened them again that he was lying down and having a cushion tucked under his head. He tried to protest, but yawned mightily again.
'We can talk later,' Sarah reassured him, tenderly touching his cheeks and forehead as he drifted off.
The next thing to intrude on Dare's consciousness was the exaggerated sound of Jessie's whispering, followed by the rustling of paper. He opened his eyes to find that Jessie and Stacey were kneeling at the coffee table in front of him, coloring. He watched their unusual tranquility for a few moments, as the urge to join them and doodle gradually formed in his mind. Finally, he was ready, and slid to the floor between them.
The girls greeted him quietly. Stacey put a finger over her lips. 'My mom's in bed, too. Creep over here kept her up all last night.' Rather than argue, Jessie just shrugged and continued to colour.
Dare took a blank sheet, and a green crayon between thumb and forefinger, and sketched a dragon with expert strokes. He was considering how to shade it when he realized that the girls had stopped colouring to watch him.
'Can I colour it in?' Jessie asked. Dare handed it over and tried not to wince as she scribbled purple lines through the dragon's chest.
'Can you teach me how to do that?' Stacey asked, impressed.
'I can try,' he responded, and he did try. But after five sheets, Stacey was almost crying in frustration, and Dare regretted his attempt to teach. Elementary school art just was not his forte. 'Look,' he tried consolingly, 'you are doing fine. Really. It takes lots and lots of practice to get good. Years.' He gave up when he realized that she was too jealous of him to be satisfied.
Jessie had left the table two sheets ago, and as her sister got up and stomped her way into the kitchen, Jessie walked back into the room carrying an armload of stuffed animals. 'Let's have a tea party!' she whispered.
Dare couldn't believe his ears. He was too surprised to laugh or snort as Jessie positioned the toys around the table. She handed a teddy bear to Dare and said, 'Here, you make Zeddy talk.'
Dare felt peculiar. At first, he felt like he was caught in an awkward and embarrassing situation, like having to explain where babies come from. But as he participated, his vague recollections of how to 'imaginate' became clearer. His discomfort slipped away and he began to enjoy himself.
'I think I want more honey,' Terry Bear was saying, when Dare noticed that there was no response. He looked up to see that Jessie was staring at him, wide-eyed with wonder.
'What?' he asked testily. And then it dawned on him. His voice was higher. He looked down. Sure enough, his borrowed clothes were noticeably baggy on his tiny body. A chill ran through his spine.
Jessie stood and stepped over to him, and despite his reluctance, grabbed his arm and pulled him up to stand in front of her. When they had first met, the top of her head had been under his chin. Now, they were eye-to-eye.
'You're shrinking!' Jessie exclaimed excitedly.
Dare tried to shush her, and even tried to put a hand over her mouth, but she turned away and ran to the kitchen.
'Stacey! Dare's shrinking!'
Despite Dare's panic, he managed to picture himself at age eight and was relieved when he felt the loose clothes tighten on him. He frantically adjusted the pants before Jessie could lead her sister into view.
'What are you talking about?' Stacey whispered harshly as she looked Dare over.
Jessie gave Dare a double-take. Unconvinced by what she now saw, she walked up to him to compare heights. 'You were small!' she accused, pulling down on his head with both hands as if to make him shrink again. 'You were!'
Dare grabbed her wrists. 'Back off!' he growled. He'd had enough; it was time to get out of there. He saw his keys on the table, moved Jessie bodily out of his way, and went for them.
'What are you doing?' Stacey asked, watching him.
'I'm getting out of here,' he replied, heading for the door. He didn't get far.
The girls headed him off. 'Nuh-uh!' retorted Stacey. 'Mom said that you're supposed to stay here.'
'But she's not my mother,' Dare reminded them, trying to push past them.
'Okay,' Stacey replied, shoving him back. You're not leaving with my clothes. Take them off.'
'What?! I will not!'
'Take them off!' Stacey insisted, a nasty smile on her face. He backed away as she started to pluck at him, trying to grab a hold of his borrowed shirt. Jessie grabbed onto one of his legs.
Painful memories flooded Dare's mind of when his big sister used to torture him. Suddenly, Stacey was his sister, and the memory came to life. 'Please,' he whined. 'Leave me alone!' He began to feel dizzy, and the will to fight drained from him completely.
Jessie was surprised when the pants she held slid effortlessly down his legs.
Dare toppled over backward. Starting to sob, he kicked and slapped ineffectively at the girls, trying to make them go away.
The hands suddenly left him alone. After a moment of silence, both girls said, 'Cool!' in unison.
Dare opened his eyes fearfully, wiping tears from them to see the girls staring down at him with wide eyes. He struggled to his feet, to find that the girls and the room were bigger than he had ever seen them. The shirt hung almost to his knees, and even Jessie was a head taller than him.
'I told you!' Jessie whispered triumphantly.
'He gets to wear your clothes now,' was Stacey's only reply.
They stepped toward him and he fled, scrambling under the dining table.
'Stacey?' came their mother's voice from the bedroom.
All three of them froze. 'Yes, Mom?' Stacey answered innocently.
'You aren't fighting, are you?'
'Is Dare awake yet?'
Dare shook his head at the spokesgirl frantically.
'Uh, nope. He's still out of it.'
They heard the mother sigh. 'Then either quiet down or take a nap.'
'Yes Mom, we will,' she replied dutifully.
Jessie had begun to head for her mother's room to blab the news, when Stacey caught hold of her and stopped her. The older girl whispered in her ear, 'Don't tell Mom, or he'll get taken away. He's like an E.T.!'
With that, the girls turned as one to stare at the boy under the table.
Dare, who had retrieved the pants and had pushed himself back up to about four feet tall, was feeling ill. All of this age changing was taking a physical toll on him, not to mention scrambling his brains. 'Look,' he said wearily. 'I am not an alien. I'm just a guy who screwed up.'
'How do you do it?' Stacey asked, taking his arm and helping him to stand.
'I just decide how old I want to be.'
'That's why you were wearing big clothes!' Stacey reveled.
*She catches on quick,* Dare thought grimly. *Kids are too willing to accept the super-weird.*
Stacey helped him back to the couch, where he lay down. 'How old are you, really?' she asked suspiciously.
'I'm a grown-up,' he admitted miserably. Now that his secret was known, there was little point in holding back. 'I thought I'd be happier as a kid because I had been happier when I was a kid. But when you cheat... cheating is a bad thing. Never cheat. Cheaters get cheated.'
'But, how do you do it? How can I do it?' Stacey asked excitedly.
'Can you make me older?'
'Nope. Only myself.'
'Let me see you grow up! Pleeease?!'
'No!' Jessie cut in. 'I want him to be MY new friend.
Stacey sighed. 'Jessie!'
'NO!' The six-year-old jumped onto the couch and sat on Dare's chest. 'Get small again!' she demanded.
Dare started feeling Jessie's weight increase on his chest, and he desperately fought to keep his age.
Stacey hauled Jessie off of the couch and shoved her away. 'Leave him alone, Jess!'
The six-year-old backed off a few steps, but squeezed her eyes shut in concentration.
Dare tried as hard as he could, but his head began to ring with fatigue. The image he tried to keep of himself at age eight blurred until it was useless. He pushed his palms into his temples as pain began to fill his skull.
Stacey watched as the struggling boy slowly shrank, inching his way up the couch. He kicked his legs out ineffectively, causing the legs of his pants to swallow his feet.
Stacey looked back at her sister. 'Stop it! You're hurting him!'
Jessie opened her eyes and looked at the couch. 'Dontcha see?' she squealed, as though finding a shiny new toy. 'We can change him, too!'
Tears flowed freely down the boy's face, which was turning red and puffy. At least his changing seemed to have stopped.
Tears flowed freely down the boy's face, which was turning red and puffy. At least his changing seemed to have stopped. Putting an arm over the small boy, Stacey tried to comfort her strange friend.
When she heard her mother rising in the next room, Stacey became frantic -- she was sure she would be blamed for this. She turned and grabbed Jessie's wrist, yanking her closer to the couch. 'Mom's getting up!' she hissed. 'We have to make him my age again. Fast!'
The game over, the two of them concentrated in earnest. As the boy began to elongate again, his breath became ragged.
'He's dying!' Stacey screamed.
Sarah hurried into the room at the shriek, to see Stacey panicking over their wheezing guest. 'Stacey! Why didn't you call me?' She felt Dare's forehead and pulled the neck of his shirt open. 'Donny! Can you hear me? Try to breathe slowly.' She opened his mouth to make sure he wasn't choking, then ran for the phone.
Darien's world was full of dull pain. Everything looked gray to him, as though it was late twilight, and nobody had turned any lights on. He heard voices. He tried to ask one of them to turn the lights on, but when he tried to use his voice, it reverberated through his head, magnifying his pain. The world went completely dark again.
When he next drifted to consciousness, he became aware of a steady beeping noise, and he felt someone holding his right hand. And there was air rushing up his nose. He opened his eyes and managed to focus them. On a white ceiling. Connected to four white walls. He closed his eyes again.
The hand holding his tightened a little. 'Dare?' spoke a high voice. 'Mom, I think he's awake!'
Darien knew that voice. He thought it might be his sister's, only it was too nice, too full of concern for him to be hers. 'Lyn?' he croaked.
'It's me, Stacey,' the girl whispered urgently. 'Dare, I'm really really sorry. You got so thin...' she choked. 'You're in the hospital. You're about the right size, so Mom didn't notice.'
Nothing she said made any sense to him. He tried to move and found his limbs too heavy to move. He opened his eyes and looked down this time, into the worried face of a cute girl a little older than him. 'I can't move,' he whispered back.
'They tied you down so you wouldn't hurt yourself. See, there's a tube stuck in your leg. Mom says that it would be in your arm if you were bigger. It's got glue-coze in it.'
A shadow loomed over the girl, It was a doctor, with a cheerful, bedside manner. 'How's our little patient doing?'
Dare groaned, not really feeling like quantifying his pain.
'Glad to hear it,' the doctor answered the groan. 'Donovan, is it? I'm Dr. Stein. Really, how are you feeling?'
*Like I'm tied to a bed and stuck with a tube,* a voice whispered for him in the back of his mind. *I mean, really, how would you feel?* Dare blinked in surprise and smiled as an image formed in his mind, of the doctor sticking himself with an IV in an earnest attempt to find out how he felt. 'What's wrong with
me?' he asked weakly. *You can be Frank with me, Dr Stein,* the voice continued its commentary. *As long as your middle name doesn't start with 'N'.* Dare giggled.
Dr. Stein raised an eyebrow. 'Well, you seem to be a little silly. Besides that, your body's very hungry.' He took Dare's hand from the girl. 'Can you squeeze my hand, please?'
*I'm not into these macho contests, Doc. Unless what you intend -- you're not going to fart, are you?* Dare's giggle grew into a laugh that shook his frail frame.
The girl started to giggle as well, but the doctor only frowned, concerned that the boy was delirious or hysterical. He looked around, hoping to spot what was tickling his patient's funny bone. 'What are you laughing at, Donny?' he asked politely, turning back.
'Yer... you're not going to fart, are you?' Dare quoted between giggles.
The doctor smiled. 'Well, your grip seems to be fine. You can let go now.' He pulled out a pen light. 'Let me see those eyes.' He tested Dare's dilation reflex, then got him to track his finger.
When he was satisfied, he said, 'You are doing much better, Donny. But it's late, you need your rest. Your guests can see you again tomorrow. But there is a woman here who needs to meet you. Ms Vaughn?'
Ms Vaughn was a friendly enough woman with care lines all over her face, and a permanent, maternal smile. She came forward from Dare's peripheral vision and shook his hand with formality that could only mean one thing. 'Social services?' Dare asked warily.
'How did you know?' Ms Vaughn replied. The girl beside the bed was escorted out of the room by the doctor, looking over her shoulder as she went, and Ms Vaughn pulled up a chair and sat down. 'You've talked to us before, huh.'
He shrugged. 'Don't know.'
'Uh huh,' she replied, unconvinced. 'How old are you, Donny?'
Dare was surprised to find that, unlike almost every other kid in the world, he didn't know his age. 'Um...' He glanced at the girl as she left. He had felt she was older than him. So how old was she?. 'Eight?' he ventured for himself, guessing a bit higher than he felt.
Ms Vaughn frowned at his uncertain response. 'What is your name?'
'What is that short for?'
'What is your last name?'
'Grant. I think.' He wasn't sure, what with everyone calling him Donny.
She pulled out a photograph. 'Do you know this man?'
The picture rang a bell in Dare's mind, but he couldn't quite place it. His brow furrowed. The man looked a little like his father. *That's me, can't you tell?* the voice quipped. *People say that I look a lot shorter in person.* Dare burst out laughing again as though tickled.
'Do you know his name?' the woman prompted after his outburst subsided. Dare shook his head. Though the tone of her voice was still pleasant, Dare could tell she was stressed.
'You aren't a doctor,' Dare croaked at the voice's prompting.
Ms Vaughn was taken aback. 'That's right. Why?'
'You don't have enough patience.' He started to giggle again.
The woman blinked and then smiled. 'It was nice to meet you, Donny. We'll talk again soon.'
'Abby?' he called out, as she turned to go.
Abigail Vaughn stopped in her tracks, her eyebrows rising in surprise. 'Yes?'
'Where are my parents?'
'We don't know, Donny. But we're trying to find them. Can you remember your phone number?'
One came to mind, and he gave it. She eagerly wrote it down 'Thank you, Donny. I'll call them right away. Get some sleep.'
*Phew! That was a close one.*
Dare looked around. 'Where are you?' he whispered.
'Right here,' the voice said, right beside him. Dare would have jumped out of bed if he wasn't strapped in. A little boy with jet black hair was peeking at him through the railing on the left side. He was just tall enough to see over the mattress of the tall hospital bed. He winked at Dare mischievously, his eyes twinkling with a shining red light, like you see in photographs.
'Who are you?' Dare asked, embarrassed at being so startled by a little kid. He looked kind of familiar, even with the weird eyes.
'Don't you remember me?' he asked playfully as he sauntered down to the foot of the bed, running his fingernails up and down the railing to make a muted clattering noise. He seemed about half Dare's age, and was clothed in denim, with the exception of his worn running shoes.
'Sort of.... What's your name?'
The boy reached the end of the bed and ducked out of sight.
'Hello?' Dare called after him, looking around nervously.
The boy leapt high in the air and landed on the end of the bed, well past Dare's feet. The beeping noise escalated again as the boy grinned, showing unnaturally long canine teeth. 'Hi. Call me Loki. It's time to play.' He crawled slowly toward Dare, like a cat stalking a mouse.
The nurse on duty heard a brief cry from Dare's room. She briefly checked his chart, then went in to see him, figuring he was probably having a nightmare.
The boy looked up at her pleadingly as she brushed his hair from his sweaty forehead. 'Help me,' he begged.
'Ooh, you are warm. What can I do for you, sweetie?' she asked, folding his sheets back.
'Make me better.' His small hand locked onto one of her wrists.
Suddenly, she felt like she couldn't breathe, like the wind was being sucked out of her lungs. The forty-year-old nurse glanced down at her captured hand to find liver spots beginning to darken her graying flesh. 'Oh my god, no...' she pleaded in a strangled voice, which screeched and warbled with decrepitude.
The boy's drawn features strengthened with vitality as quickly as hers faded. 'Untie me,' the boy instructed her, 'or I will leave you this way.'
The world had ceased to make sense to the decaying nurse, whose greatest fear had suddenly sprung to life, consuming her body. Suddenly, nothing mattered more than getting this boy free of his straps, if only he would make her nightmare end.
As she freed him of his last arm strap, the strength left her body altogether, and she crumpled to the floor.
'Never mind, I will get the rest,' the boy volunteered, releasing her bony wrist and pulling the oxygen hose from his nostrils before undoing his leg straps. He shut off the monitors beside him, then used her folded body as a stepping stool as he climbed off the bed to the floor.
Wearing only a hospital gown, the boy stepped into the hallway and grinned as he noticed the line of doors in the special care pediatric wing. 'Mmmm, smorgasbord,' he crooned happily to himself as he padded down the hallway, randomly choosing the next contestant.
When the black cloud next lifted itself from Dare's mind, he found himself gagging violently against a bad taste in his mouth. He took a foothold in the awareness and, as his stomach emptied through his throat, he fought to purge the darkness completely.
The nausea passed, and so did the cloud; Dare collapsed, panting, against cold porcelain, and tried to collect his wits. Someone was patting and rubbing his back in circles soothingly, and a woman was asking him if he was all right. He turned quickly, putting his bare back to the nearby bathtub, and looked up into the wrinkled face of an unfamiliar, elderly woman. 'Agh!' he exclaimed in surprise, before he could stop himself.
Startled by his sudden motion, the woman pulled her hand away as though from a wild animal. She seemed more afraid of him than he was of her when she timidly said, 'I am sorry. I did not know the food would make you sick. Please do not be angry!' The jogging suit she was wearing looked like it belonged on a much younger person.
Dare shrugged uncomfortably. No adult had ever talked to him in such a begging tone before. 'Forget it,' he replied, pulling himself up the tub to sit on it. He found that he was shirtless and bare foot, but wearing a pair of jeans.
'Would you like some ice cream?' the woman asked eagerly.
'Yeah, sure,' he replied guardedly. She's probably afraid that I will tell on her for making me sick,
Dare reasoned. Had she been baby-sitting him? He didn't remember. In fact, he didn't remember her at all, nor how he came to be in her care.
The old woman's eyes lit up with hope and she smiled eagerly. 'I will go fix you a bowl, while you wash up.' She stood and walked backward out of the bathroom until she turned into the hallway.
'God, she's weird,' Dare whispered to himself, and was struck by the feeling that not only was he in an odd situation, but that there was something not quite right with his voice. He looked around the bathroom, deciding that he didn't recognize it. Was he kidnapped? A chill ran down his spine at the thought. But no, that didn't explain the woman's treatment of him, nor the fact that he had apparently just been eating something that he couldn't remember. He flushed the toilet without looking into the bowl, unwilling to risk a relapse of nausea just to jar his memory with the sight, and looked at himself in the mirror instead.
The reflection was not what he expected, though it was definitely himself. His hair was all wrong, a little wild and parted on the wrong side, and he looked skinnier, making him feel gawky. He sighed and leaned against the hip-high counter. He hated being twelve. And he knew that over the next few years, his awkwardness was only going to get worse. He really missed being ten. When you were ten, you were perfect. You were still a child: your body was still nicely proportioned; your cheeks still round, your nose much smaller and smoother; that strange, uncomfortable body hair was not to be found. Your parents let you do more things on your own than ever before, yet your responsibilities remained few. And the girls were starting to get more interesting, Dare smiled to himself, but they didn't confuse you and make you stutter like they do now.
Dare broke out of his habitual reverie when he realized that his perspective had changed. His eye level was at least four inches closer to the bottom of the mirror. He wasn't stick-thin anymore, and the cold tile of the counter was resting against his rounder midsection, covering his belly button. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief, but that changed nothing. His now baggy jeans were proof that he was not imagining things. He looked down the front of his pants, and then back at the freckled boy in the mirror, eyes wide with astonishment. 'I'm ten again?' he piped softly. 'What...? How...?' Puberty had definitely gone into remission, returning the timbre of his voice to the familiar soprano of his past. As he pulled his jeans up almost to his chest, he started to tremble in fear and excitement. His wish had been granted. 'This is unbelievable!' What would his mother think? How could he possibly explain it? Would he have to go back to grade five? That idea was truly frightening. 'You are dreaming,' he told the boy in the mirror matter-of-factly.
'Your ice cream is ready,' the kind old lady said from the doorway, making him jump.
He looked up at her with trepidation, but she didn't seem to notice his decline in stature. She gently took him by the shoulders and led him out of the bathroom. Now I know I'm dreaming, he thought in bewilderment. It was like one of those naked dreams, where nobody realizes you are naked except you.
The hallway she led him through revealed a small apartment that Dare was all the more sure he had never seen before. It was not musty like his grandmother's had been; there were no antique clocks or china. In fact, the woman seemed pretty hip for her age, with a hi-fi stereo and television system that seemed to border on science fiction to Dare. The woman was certainly big on plants; the living area was covered in green, with healthy shoots climbing the walls and cabinets as if they owned the place.
The weathered hands guided him to a glass table, where sat a bowl with a good helping of vanilla ice cream, as well as a cup of chocolate chips, a cup of walnuts, and one bottle each of chocolate and caramel syrup. 'Sit yourself down and make it up just the way you like it, and I will get you your new pajamas.'
Dare was really starting to like this woman, despite the fact she patted him on the head before leaving him. He was going to enjoy this dream while it lasted. He dug in and ate with zeal. He noticed through the glass table as he kicked his feet that only his toes peaked out from under his pant cuffs. But that didn't matter to him because he was about to change out of them anyway.
He had gulped down half his desert concoction when his head began to throb. 'Ouch!' Why am I getting an ice cream headache in a dream? he wondered, as he held his head in suffering.
The lady was right beside him immediately, patting his back again. 'Oh, poor dear. I can't seem to do anything right for you. Here, let's see if a hug will warm you up.' She wrapped her arms around the boy and held him close.
And Dare found that he was comforted. And then he remembered what wasn't so great about being ten; he was too big for his mother to pick him up. She hadn't carried him for over four and a half years, to Dare's twelve-year-old memory. He had always envied his younger cousins when they were allowed to sit on their parents' laps, commanding love and attention, while he had to stand or sit to the side, forever out of that lime light. He closed his eyes, held on tight around her neck, and imagined for the moment that he was small enough to pick up. Wouldn't that be even more fun? he asked himself.
'You poor thing,' the woman soothed, stroking his back. 'Here, let's get you dressed in your PJ's. Then you'll be nice and warm.'
Dare felt the woman lift him off the chair and his eyes flew open in surprise. The woman was bigger than his mother, but she was also much older, and shouldn't have been able to pick him up without at least an 'umph!' of effort. She split his legs with her hip and carried him away from the table.
His jeans were still on him, but they were ridiculously large. The boy felt like he was wearing a pair of denim hip waders, because the waist would have reached his nipples if it wasn't gaping open far from his chest. The cuffs hung several inches past his dangling feet as the woman's swaying gait brought them into the apartment's only bedroom.
The woman plucked him from her hip and laid him gently on the bed. After slipping his jeans and underpants easily from his skinny legs, she then turned to unfolding a pair of blue pajamas beside him.
Now completely naked, Dare felt exposed and vulnerable, but not at all embarrassed. He lay there in a daze, watching as she fluffed out the pajama bottom, wondering if she was going to dress him, too. She didn't look so old, he decided. Maybe a little older than his mom. And she looked much more at ease now, like she was enjoying him. Oh well. Everything changes quickly in dreams Maybe she likes me better when I'm small.. He sat up, and noticed how light and limber his skinny little body had become. He was surprised, when he looked down, by how much smaller and less notable his equipment had become, though he knew he shouldn't have been; he was a little kid again, after all.
'No you don't!' the woman scolded playfully, accosting him with tickling fingers. 'You lie down and get those legs in the air!'
Dare burst into laughter and collapsed onto his back again. He had become so ticklish that he was helpless against her relentless fingers! He thrust his legs into the air enthusiastically to get her to stop, almost kicking his tormentor on the chin.
She pulled the bottom down over his legs and lifted him easily to complete the process, then tickled one of his feet, prompting him to roll away from her. 'Did you want me to put your top on you too?'
Dare smiled coyly, sat up, and stuck his little arms high in the air.
She settled the top over his arms and even buttoned it up for him. The suit was a size or two too small; the legs rode most of the way up his shins as he sat cross-legged; the top was tight across his chest, and the sleeves were halfway up his forearms. She stood him up and looked him over with concern, but Dare just shrugged happily.
Standing on the bed, the boy was almost as tall as the woman. As she fussed over him, straightening his sleeves and pant legs as if to stretch them, Dare felt funny. Somehow, she was slowly managing to make them hang longer. She didn't stop until they reached his wrists and ankles, and the chest had loosened considerably. When he looked back up at the woman, he gasped. Even on the bed, the top of his head was now lower than her chin.
The woman's face lit up cheerily. 'Oh, you are so precious!' she gushed, gathering little Dare in her huge arms, her embrace sweeping him completely off his feet.
Dee's sudden panic melted in her embrace. He knew that Nanny would take care of him; she would never let something bad happen to him.
Nanny was energetic. She bounced little Dee around, gave him piggy back rides, and they wrestled for a long time. Nanny won by blowing fraps on his belly until he was too tired to even laugh anymore. They fell asleep in each other's arms.
Dee awoke some time later to see Nanny still sleeping, huge beside him. His pajama sleeves were too long. Instead of pushing them up, Dee playfully batted Nanny with them, trying to wake her up. She was much younger than Mommy. How come he had thought she was a Granny?
But Nanny was fast asleep, so little Dee slid out of bed by himself to go pee. He almost tripped and had to pull his bottoms way up to his arm pits. The ends stayed over his feet, but that was good because the floor was cold and he wanted to walk on them anyway.
After Dee finished peeing in the toilet, he grabbed the rim of the sink with his little pink fingers, stood on tiptoes, and looked up at the mirror. He could just see the top of his blonde hair sticking up. He giggled.
He was about to walk from the bathroom when he had the feeling that he was missing something important. He stuck a finger in his mouth and looked around the bathroom, wondering what he was forgetting. Gosh, this is hard! He wished he was older, because everything was easy when you were a big kid.
Something in his brain twinged, and suddenly his pajamas fit him again. He had to step off of the pant legs to pull them up properly.
Dare thought and he thought, but he still couldn't remember what was missing. Another twinge, and suddenly the pajamas were very tight on him. He could easily see himself in the mirror now, and he vaguely wondered why he was wearing pajamas which fit so poorly that the shirt left his belly sticking out. The nagging feeling became whispers, which grew louder and louder until they became a torrent of sounds and images flying through his mind like a speeding train. Dare dropped to the floor, gripping his head and screaming in terror.
The images settled into place in his memory, the needle-sharp edges of their clarity losing their sting, and Darien 'woke up'. He was more himself, at least mentally, than he had been in days. He was fuzzy on what had just been happening to him, but it only took him a moment to take in his situation; he was shorter than normal, and scrawny, yet wearing pajamas much too small for him. He was in an unfamiliar bathroom.
A woman was in the doorway, looking down at him with, what, disappointment? Concern? Darien scrambled up to his knees as she crouched down beside him, tsking. She seemed a bit familiar to him; he guessed he must have been spending some time with her during his mental vacation. 'This is no good, sweetie. Here; let me fix it for you.'
What are you talking about? Darien wondered, as he looked up at her in fear and confusion. With both of them on their knees, he was still almost a head shorter than her. Her eyes had an odd look, and Darien was positive she had lost her sanity as she began to tug on his sleeves. Darien's thoughts grew fuzzy with embarrassed confusion as he tried to move away from her. But her hands were warm, making him tingle where they touched his skin, on his arm and under his collar. He brought himself to push away and stand up, and found himself only a little taller than she was, and she was still on her knees!
She smiled at him with that glazed look. 'That's better,' she cooed. 'Just a little more...'
'No!' he barked, making her flinch. 'Look, lady, you are very nice and all, but I have to be going.'
The only problem was, she was blocking the only escape route from the bathroom. Still smiling dazedly, she stood up. 'Oh, please don't go! I don't want you to leave angry with me.'
Darien looked up at the gigantic woman from beneath her breasts. He hadn't been so afraid of a woman for fifteen years, since his mother used to strap him. This was worse because the woman before him was a stranger, her crazed demeanor even scarier than his mother's temper. And she seemed to be growing taller.
Anger sparked in Darien's mind, and grew quickly into a smoldering blaze, fueled by his confusion and fear until his vision tinted red with its heat. He had always hated to be pushed around, and had sworn to himself to never be bullied again. He lowered his head, placed a foot on the bath tub behind him, and then propelled himself head first into her abdomen.
With a breathless 'oof' she folded double and fell backward. Darien landed on top of her and immediately scrambled over her. The woman managed to grab his leg before he could completely get over her, but he easily slipped out of the not-so-tight pajama bottom, regained his feet, and ran into the hallway. He skidded to a halt on one foot as he spotted the bedroom door, then scampered through it and slammed it shut behind him. He leaned against the door for support as he tried to calm down.
Closing the door seemed to have a cathartic effect, for he immediately began to feel better, think clearer. He noticed with dismay that the door had no locking mechanism. 'I'll never be able to hold the door against her,' he told himself aloud, partly to force his breathing to regulate. 'I've gotta get bigger.' He placed a foot against the bottom of the door to keep it closed, and stripped off his top, leaving him naked. Then he closed his eyes and focused on his desire to be big again.
His entire body began to tremble and radiate heat as tissue all over his body expanded and developed, his bones making minute crackling noises only audible to his inner ear as he began to stretch. The process was definitely much slower and more laborious than on his first day, and this worried him tremendously. Why was it so easy for him to get young that he could do it subconsciously, yet it was becoming so hard to grow?
His body slowed around puberty, and his head started to throb again. He felt exhausted, like he had just run a marathon on an empty stomach, but he forced the exhaustion away and tried to meditate, looking ever deeper for a reserve of energy he may have overlooked. As he slipped into another state of consciousness, he felt an aura of quiet fruition nearby, and sought to breathe in its purity. To his delight, it began to flow into his chakra, and his body's transformation accelerated. He felt his limbs sprout, then his muscles grow around them even as he flexed them.
When he opened his eyes, he was more of a man than he had ever been. His body was powerfully built, as though he had been physically active every day of his life. He was not a body builder, as his muscles did not bulge, but all his muscles were well defined, his abs rock hard beneath a coat of dark hair that had spread down the middle of his torso from his chest.
The woman was at the door, trying to get it open. Darien felt unstoppable. His anger flared again and he yanked the door open to confront his captor. The woman tumbled into the room and looked him up and down in shock. 'Oh m-my,' she managed, trembling.
'Where is my clothing?' he demanded in a booming baritone he had not meant to use. The frightened woman hurried to her closet and pulled out a shopping bag, which she handed to him. Darien's anger for this frightened woman was fading fast, being replaced by embarrassment at his state of dress. He knew he had to get out before his fire went out completely. He snatched the satchel from her with a gruff 'Thanks,' strode back to the bathroom and locked the door. Breathing a sigh of relief, he opened the bag.
There was a lot of clothing in the bag, all of it brand new. From what Darien could briefly surmise, there were more than three pairs of jeans, shirts and socks, each a different size. He sorted out the biggest of each and quickly dressed. The shirt barely fit his chest, and was stretched tight, revealing his wonderful muscles. Darien smiled to himself. All this time he had wasted looking backward, he could have been moving on to bigger and better things in his life. Well, now was an okay time to start.
Bracing himself for resistance, he walked out of the bathroom.
The woman was hovering around the living area, surrounded by a curtain of wiry brown vines, and weeping. When she saw him, though, she quickly wiped her eyes and tried to smile.
She's obviously insane, he thought to himself. Why else would a woman in her thirties live in an apartment covered in dead plants? 'I will be going now,' he told her, in a tone of voice that warned her not to try anything.
Instead, relief flooded her face. Her smile brightened into sincere joy and she said, 'Oh, thank you! You have been a gracious guest!' She hurried to the door to open it for him.
Curiouser and curiouser. He wished he could ask her exactly what had happened between them, but he didn't want to stay long enough to find out. That she obviously knew about his talent made him nervous enough. 'Where are my shoes?'
She frowned and looked apologetic as she picked up a small set of running shoes by the door and handed them to him.
'Oh, I see,' he said, disappointed. There hadn't been any shoes in the shopping bag. He had to choose between changing his age again and going barefoot. Ignoring the more convenient choice, he dropped the shoes into the shopping bag and left the apartment without further ado. It wasn't until he was well on his way to the elevator that he stopped to pull off his white socks.
End part Nine