Magic Word – Parts 3 to 5

THREE

Spaghetti hoops on toast for lunch.

Spaghetti hoops are the best.

Long before, growing up, Mark has to eat everything on his plate. His parents, French blood, thought their children should eat the same food as them, made from scratch, torturing toddlers with interesting flavours and textures.

Okay, it meant that Mark was never a fussy eater, he had the broadest of palates. At the same time, he was always glad to have dinner at a friend’s home. Fish fingers? Pizza? He wolfed it down, jealously, gleefully.

Does Mark have trouble eating spaghetti hoops on toast for lunch? C’est du gâteau.

They sit at the kitchen table and Rachel looks at his progress with a satisfied expression. “Eat up. Good to dilute the sparkles a little. We don’t need you a drooling mess, you’re not a baby.”

No, Mark isn’t not a baby.

Rachel doesn’t ties a bib around his neck, she lets him feed himself, and she doesn’t fuss when he spills tomato sauce on his shirt.

“You look a little saucy,” Rachel says when Mark is finished.

“Huh?” Mark asks. He’s not sure of her meaning.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rachel replies.

Mark pushes his plate away. “My tummy’s full,” he announces, wiping his mouth with his shirt sleeve.

They go through to the living room. Where’s your mum? Mark thinks of asking, but doesn’t. Where’s your Dad?

They don’t need them. Rachel’s a very big girl and Mark’s not a baby.

There are baby toys on the carpet; plastic blocks in primary colours, reminding Mark of something secret, something delicious. He glances at them with a devious expression before complaining, “Those are for babies.”

Rachel nods. “For my brother.”

“Huh,” says Mark. He wants to ask, Where’s the baby? But he doesn’t ask this either. He feels jealousy threaten to curdle the contents of his stomach and leave him with indigestion. He doesn’t want to remind Rachel, for her to blink in sudden recollection and say, “Oh yes! Let me get my brother, we can all play together!”

No, Mark wants Rachel to himself. That was the deal, right?

He only wants to play with Rachel. He only trusts Rachel.

They sit on the rug, both with bare feet (“No shoes in the house, Mummy gets cross if I forget”), their socks rolled up and forgotten. Rachel stretches out her legs and wriggles her toes. “Can you do that?” she asks.

Mark laughs and demonstrates. “Of course!”

Rachel smiles. “Of course,” she echoes. “I keep forgetting, you’re a big boy, not like my brother. I bet you’re much more fun to play with.”

Mark take the compliment well, reassured about his status.

Rachel stretches her arms above her head and says, “So what next?”

Mark feels a tingle of surprise. Is it up to him? Will Rachel let him choose? He looks around the living room more diligently now, surveying his options.

But on second glance, the evidence is the same. Baby stuff, for Rachel’s stupid brother.

He points to the corner of the room. “We can watch TV,” he suggests.

Rachel shrugs. “We could,” she agrees. She tilts her head and looks at Mark. “But didn’t you come for some numbers?”

Mark blinks. “Oh yeah.” The idea feels like a headline missing a story. What kind of numbers? He closes his eyes long enough to run through the possibilities. Age, shoe size, school year, money.

His eyes spring open.

“I’m gonna get paid,” he says triumphantly.

He gets a thumbs-up from the pretty girl sitting opposite him. And then he watches as she takes a red bucket and turns it upside down, spilling a mess of foam letters and numbers onto the rug.

“We can use these,” she explains. “For your numbers.”

So colourful. Mark could reach out and take some in his hands. They look like fun.

But he twists his lips and says, ” That’s not real money, though.”

Rachel giggles. “Of course not, silly! These are just toys,” she says, taking some of them and arranging them in a row in front of her. Shifting to sit on her knees, she seems taller than Mark as he sits on his bottom, legs splayed out in front of him.

But she’s not really bigger, of course. And Mark isn’t sure why he suddenly needs to check that, to look down at his shirt and trousers, to reassure himself that everything still fits.

No problem, no baggy muddle. Just the jumble in his head, the one that has made him so forgetful, so dependent on a teenage girl.

He scrapes at the sauce stain on his shirt with a fingernail.  It reminds him of the patch on his trousers, the ice-cream memory of the little boy in the park. The longer he stays in this town, the messier he gets.

“I suppose we should separate the letters and numbers first,” says Rachel. She gives Mark a bright smile and says, “Can you help me do that?” And abruptly she sounds like a teacher, and not a maths teacher, a nursery school one, trying to be sweet and engaging with small children.

“Of course I can,” says Mark, grabbing a bunch of the foam pieces. “I’m not stupid.”

“I know, poppet,” Rachel replies.

Mark rolls his eyes. “Not a poppet,” he mutters as he works.

And then it’s Rachel’s turn to say under her breath, “Now I see why Katie loves that necklace so much.”

“Who’s Katie?” asks Mark suspiciously. Not another sibling, surely, not a little sister, someone else for Mark to compete for Rachel’s attention with.

Rachel sighs. “Let’s just say…” she begins, and she reaches for Mark’s feet and tickles his soles, making him laugh and pull his legs back, “Normally Katie’s the one taking care of stuff like this.” She winks at him. “Katie’s better at numbers.”

Mark nods. He gets it. “I’m really good at numbers,” he says.

“So let’s see it,” says Rachel showing her palms. “What’s the number?”

“Easy,” says Mark. “I don’t want all of it, just what’s fair.” He sets out a row of the foam numbers and then screws up his face. “I need a seven but there aren’t any left.”

Rachel looks in the bucket and then around the rug. She shifts her legs and laughs. “Here, I was sitting on it!”

Mark giggles. He adds the seven to the row. “There,” he says. “Sorted.”

“Clever boy,” Rachel says, admiring the numbers, running her finger along them. “That’s a lot,” she says.

“It’s fair,” says Mark. “There’s still plenty left, I promise.” He doesn’t want Rachel to think he’s greedy.

“I believe you,” Rachel says gently. “I trust you like you trust me, right?”

Mark smiles and nods. “Yeah.”

“But one thing’s confusing me,” Rachel says, staring at the foam numbers.

“What?”

“How do you get the numbers so they’re real money? Do you get a bag of gold coins, or a treasure chest like a pirate?”

She grins at Mark, and he knows she’s just kidding, but the question itself deserves an answer.

“It’s digital,” he replies. “No coins, no cash. I put it in my account.”

Rachel makes an ‘o’ with her mouth. “I see. And then I suppose you need another set of numbers for that. Like a password thingy.”

Mark smiles. “Numbers are good, but I have a better way, to keep my stuff safe.”

“Oh yeah?”

It’s an invitation, to divulge, to share a secret. And how can he resist, telling this sweet girl, sitting there in her school uniform? Butter wouldn’t melt.

But Mark shakes his head apologetically. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s private.”

Rachel frowns. “But we’re friends, aren’t we?” She pouts. “And besides, you can trust me.”

Mark feels a smile tug at his lips. He can trust her, that’s the biggest thing he knows. But the more he thinks about that, the less certain he feels.

“I can trust you,” he agrees diplomatically, “But some things are private.”

Rachel looks down at her hands thoughtfully. “Like secret passwords, you mean?”

Mark nods. “Yeah.”

Rachel pulls out her phone and takes a picture of the numbers. “I think you trusted me more in the park,” she says. “I wish I’d asked you back then.” She gives him an appraising look. “It’s a tricky balance, because I want you to trust me, but I don’t want you to be all mushy between your ears.” She grins, and Mark returns the smile, although he’s not sure what she means.

“Babies can’t talk about passwords and codes,” Rachel says, collecting the foam numbers and tidying them back into the bucket. “Babies aren’t very clever at all when it comes to numbers.” She puts the bucket aside and smiles at Mark. “But they trust me absolutely. My brother,” she says, affection filling her face, “He adores me.” She shrugs. “So it’s tricky.”

“What I need,” she says after a pause, “Is for you to be a poppet.”

Mark grimaces. “I’m not a poppet,” he says. “That’s babyish.”

“But it would be lovely if you were.”

Rachel reaches behind her and retrieves a plush toy elephant from the pile of toys. “I think this belongs to you,” she says casually, and tosses it into Mark’s lap.

Mark frowns at the toy. “That’s not mine,” he says, peering at the grey animal.

Except it’s not completely grey.

He smiles down at his lap as a feeling that had been gradually fading comes back more strongly.

“Like  the park,” Rachel says, and she shifts over to sit beside him. “Isn’t that better?” she asks softly, like a ticklish whisper in his ear. “Isn’t that nice and simple?”

Mark nods and grins. “Yeah,” he says, not afraid this time as the sparkles leave the elephant and litter his hands. He gazes at his palms, and for a few moments he is made of magic, he is filled with light, and he closes his eyes to enjoy the feelings.

“You wanna be my poppet now, sweetie?” Rachel asks sweetly, and Mark feels her hand stroke his back and then pull him against her for a cuddle. Her tone is syrupy when she negotiates, “Just for a little while? Just for a little play?”

Mark nods giddily. “Oh-kay,” he sing-songs, feeling delightful. “Jus’ for a liddle…little bit.” He blinks heavily. He might just fall asleep, he might just curl up on Rachel’s lap, magically, like a toddler and take a nap.

“Good boy,” Rachel says, and she takes the elephant away, holding it between pinched fingers and throws it onto the couch.

“Not too much,” Rachel says, her tone mock-scolding. “Don’t want you all mushy, do we.” And she tickles Mark’s sides with skilled fingers, making him giggle.

“I’m not muh-mushy!” he protests.

“Good,” says Rachel. She kisses his cheek. “But you are my poppet, right?”

Mark blushes and nods. “Uh-huh.”

“In that case, you better show me the special code. Show me what a clever boy you are, hmmm?”

The man nods. “It’s a secret, though, you can’t tell no one else.”

Rachel cuddles Mark again. “Of course! You can trust me.” She sighs and says, “But I really want to know the code, because you’re so clever and I’m just a silly girl, I don’t know hardly anything about numbers and stuff.”

Mark looks at Rachel, surprised by the change in tone, from sweet schoolteacher to that of a young child. And yes, there’s Rachel, playing with her hair with twiddling fingers, looking so silly and ignorant that Mark bursts out laughing.

“You’re not silly, you’re just puh…pretending!”

Rachel giggles. “So show me, poppet. Shall I get the numbers, will they help?”

Mark grins and shakes his head. “No,” he says, “it’s not about numbers. They’re too easy.”

He looks at the range of baby toys. “I know.” He crawls over to the coffee table and finds a net sack of building blocks.

“What are you doing?” Rachel asks curiously .

“You’ll see!” Mark says excitedly, pulling the bag back to the rug. He empties the bag onto the space between then and arranges the blocks in a sequence.

“There.”

“What?”

“There,” he says. “That’s the code.”

Rachel peers at the row of blocks. She shrugs. “I don’t get it.”

Mark laughs with delight. “The code isn’t numbers, silly! It’s colours.”

Rachel stares at Mark and then the blocks. She gasps.

“That is so clever!” she says. “You’re so clever!” She smiles sweetly. “And it looks pretty, too.” She takes a picture with her phone and shows Mark. “Look how pretty it looks!”

Mark smiles proudly.

Rachel spins around and poses with her phone. “Secret selfie!” she declares, and then she puts her phone away and then looks around the room theatrically before whispering to Mark, “We better put these away, so it stays our secret.”

Mark grins and he can’t resist kicking at the row of blocks, returning them to a jumble.

“You’re definitely feeling like my poppet,” Rachel says with a laugh. She pats his head. “You’re my clever poppet.”

“Uh-huh,” Mark replies. He can still feel the sparkles, he can still enjoy them if he closes his eyes.

“You look sleepy,” Rachel says, “and no wonder, you’ve had such a busy day!” She hugs him. “Time for a nap.”

“I’m not sleepy,” Mark grumbles, but then he produces a yawn.

“Hmmm,” Rachel says, “I think you might be.” She gets to her feet and holds out a hand. “Come on, let’s get you in some comfy jammies and then we can read a nice story. We’ll see if you’re as good with your letters as with your numbers.

Mark can’t resist taking Rachel’s hand, and he is sleepy, just as Rachel told him, and he does like his pyjamas, just as much as he likes the story they read together once he’s in bed.

It’s a brand new story, Mark has never heard of it , but he’s so glad Rachel suggested it. He loves it, just like she promised; all about a pigeon who wants to drive a bus!

The best part of the story is that it takes two people to read it. Mark insists on Rachel being the pigeon and Mark gets to be the person left in charge of the bus. And it’s a loud story, with such a needling, protesting, sneaky, whining bird, and Rachel plays it perfectly.

How refreshing, to be the one in charge, as Mark reads his lines with only some occasional help from Rachel, and he gets to tell her No each time. She can’t drive the bus, not for money, not to be her best friend, not because her mummy says it’s okay.  

“It’s not fair!” whines Rachel finally, kicking her feet in her finest impression of a spoiled child.

How silly, how perfect for Mark to have the power, all the sweeter because it’s just for fun, because Mark knows that really Rachel is the one in charge, she’s still in her school uniform while Mark is in his pyjamas, She’s the one sitting on the duvet while Mark is under the covers.

And then the story is over for the second time and yes, it’s time for Mark to go to sleep. Rachel agrees to stay with him until he’s dreaming, but it doesn’t take long, Rachel lies beside him and strokes his hair and in a matter of seconds, Mark is gone, lost in sparkling dreams.

 

 

FOUR

Two hours later, Mark wakes up alone.

No sparkles now. Not a glimmer. Just a muddled fog, and then a building unease as he pieces together the events of the day.

Confusion, and then concern.

And then horror.

He sits up in bed. A child’s bed, a child’s bedroom. The wallpaper sports jungle animals, the duvet features Batman.  

For a moment, Mark is certain he must be smaller. He slides out of bed and stands by the closed curtains, getting the shape and size of his arms and legs.

He’s a grown man. But he hadn’t felt like one, not with Rachel, and he’s not dressed like one either. Powder blue pyjamas with a grinning crocodile on the front, and Mark traces the upside-down lettering to read No sleep makes me snappy.

He frowns. Crocodile or alligator?

And then he shakes his head. Bigger issues, right now. A bucket full of problems.

Think back to the games. With foam numbers, and then, Mark feels a fire of anxiety fill his chest and threaten to end with half-digested spaghetti hoops on the carpet as he remembers.

Shit.”

He showed Rachel the colours. He used a baby’s building blocks to show her.

The schoolgirl has his code. She has the key to everything , she can ruin him.

Ruined.

Mark closes his eyes – didn’t that feel nice before? – but there’s no return of the pleasant, reassuring feelings, when his mind was cuddled in a fleecy blanket.

Now there is just reality. He gave his network access code to a teenage girl, and he’s left with nothing but pyjamas that would appeal to a five year old.

Mark reaches down and pinches the meat of his thigh.

Stupid. Think.

Get out, go to the police.

Just kidding. That option is a Monopoly play that would send him straight to prison.

Get out, find a laptop with Internet. He can shut his network down, if he gets to it in time.

How long was he asleep? He looks around the bedroom. No clock, and no sign of his suit (he’d take back that stained shirt and trousers in a heartbeat, he’d kiss them). His phone, his wallet – of course they’re gone.

This town wants to make him disappear.

Get out.

Where is he, in relation to the park, the train station?

And how far will he get, dressed like he is, with no identification, no money?

Go.

He looks down at his bare feet. Oh. Oh, this will get messy.

Mark leaves the bedroom and walks down the hall. There’s a bathroom and he feels an ache in his bladder.

Later. Everything is later. Everything is after he gets out of here.

Another bedroom, a baby’s nursery – the brother, Mark thinks fleetingly, he must actually exist – and then what must be the front door with an entrance to the living room on the right.

“Thought you were going to sleep the whole day away!”

Not Rachel.

Mark’s head snaps to the right and there’s a woman with her arms folded, looking him up and down.

“If you’re up, honey, we should get you out of those jammies.” The woman is dressed plainly, in a sweatshirt and jeans, her feet in comfortable-looking slippers, but she is very pretty, with a face that looks all too familiar to Mark. She adds, “Although you do look awfully sweet in them.” She steps towards him and Mark flinches back, he leans left and to the front door.

It’s locked. He pulls on it anyway, rattles the handle. Locked tight.

Of course.

The woman says coolly, “If you’re going outside, I definitely want you to put some clothes on. It’s chilly out there!”

Mark stands with his back against the door. “I don’t have any other clothes,” he says. “The girl took them. She took all my stuff.”

The woman nods. “Rachel? She’s at school. She had double-maths after lunch, didn’t want her to miss that.” She sighs. “She’s missed so much already.” And then she smiles at Mark.

“I’m Cecelia, ” she says. “Rachel’s mum.”

Mark almost laughs. It’s a family business. He thinks of his code and points a finger at Cecelia. “Your daughter took something…stole something that belongs to me. I need her back here.” His finger changes direction, points down at the floor. “Right now. Or I’m going to the police.”

Cecelia gives him a pitying smile. “Dressed like that?”

Mark squares his shoulders. “I’ll do what I have to.”

“I’d love to help,” Cecelia says, “But she won’t answer the phone when she’s in class. The school has rules about that.” She makes a tutting sound, as if just thinking about  doing it is worthy of disapproval.

“Look at me,” Mark says. “You know this is crazy, and Rachel did it.”

“Yes,” Cecelia replies calmly. “It’s crazy.” She  beckons him into the living room with a gesture, and Mark follows, furious.

Here’s where it happened. Baby toys still on the rug, just where they left them. Here’s where he revealed the code he’s never told anyone, how he’s kept his business, his livelihood safe.

“Rachel wouldn’t normally leave a job half-finished but had to go back to school,” Cecelia says gently. “You don’t want her to get into trouble, do you?”

A hand on his arm, and Mark pulls away. “Don’t.”

“Honey,” says Cecelia, “If Rachel did this to you, she must have had a reason.” She walks over to an armchair beside the fireplace and settles into it. “She takes her job very seriously.”

Mark stares at the woman. “What job?”

Cecelia puts a finger to her mouth. “Don’t you know what we do here?”

The man shakes his head.

Cecelia gives a faint smile. “Should have done your homework, honey.”

Mark walks over to the armchair. He’s prepared to shake the answer out of her. “What happens here? What’s going on?”

And Cecelia won’t answer. She’ll keep her mouth shut and Mark will have to get physical, and right now, in this red mist, he’s almost relieved at the idea. Do some damage, get it out of his system. What has he got to lose?

“They give people second chances,” Cecelia says. “And that can mean making people younger. Like Rachel’s baby brother.” The woman looks up at him. “He was a grown-up, but Rachel rescued him, gave him a new life here in Parkdale.”

“She made him a baby?” Mark says. “Bullshit.” And he turns away, not interested in the rest of Cecelia’s story. She’s just as crazy as her daughter.

Yes, the girl did something to his head, filled him with a drug that warped his thoughts, left him vulnerable, open to suggestion. Rachel made him feel like a child with his babysitter.

But he’s still adult. You can’t make someone younger, not for real.

Which brings Mark back to his better idea, better than listening to crazy stories.

“I’m not staying here,” Mark says.

“You should,” Cecelia replies. ” Rachel will be back soon. You wanted to talk to her, didn’t you?” She smiles at him. “She told me when she left, how much fun you had reading that silly pigeon story, but you’re all grumpy now.” She rests her hands in her lap and says, “Maybe you needed a longer nap!”

“I’m going to the police,” Mark says flatly. He won’t fight her, he’s not a violent man, even in these desperate circumstances. Besides, what would violence give him? Answers from an unbalanced mind?

No, he has to leave. Remember the plan, before Cecelia distracted him. Yes, of course, she wants him to stay, to stay and get confused again.

And then what? Spending his days as an idiot, trailing around after Rachel like a lovesick puppy, with as much as sense as that little boy in the park?

That idea makes Mark wonder about something impossible. Could the boy…? No, and he shakes his head to get rid of such thoughts.

Don’t be crazy. Don’t be like Rachel and her mother.

Remember the plan. Get online, fix the system, lock the door, change the code. He can’t have much time. Could Rachel really just be at school?

Hardly. She must be with her employers, laughing at how easily they tricked him, thanks to some drug that left him with the mind of a small child.

But not anymore. Thank God, his wits have returned, and he won’t be distracted for another second.

“I’m leaving,” Mark says firmly.  

The woman smiles. “To the police?”

“Absolutely,” he replies. He can scare her at least, he can give her something to chew on. “I’ll tell them everything.” He stands his ground, even wearing such childish pyjamas, feeling the soft carpet under his feet.

“I don’t think so,” Cecelia replies. “Because you were naughty, weren’t you. You can’t tell the police why you came here.”

Hands on his hips, Mark says, “I haven’t done anything wrong, I just provide a service.”

Cecelia raises an eyebrow. “Sounds to me, and I’m no expert, but sounds to me that you were asking for protection money.” She lowers her voice and whispers, “Sounds rather like blackmail to me.”

Mark shakes his head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. He gestures to the mess of toys on the carpet. “But what your daughter did…she drugged me, she kidnapped me.”

“Oh dear,” says Cecelia dryly, “A grown man kidnapped by a schoolgirl.” She puts her fingertips together. “Quite sure you want to go to the police with a story like that?”

“She drugged me,” Mark says again. “She took my clothes, my wallet.”

“You should stay,” says Cecelia. “I’m sure we can work all this out.” She points at the baby toys. “Why don’t you help me tidy up the mess and before you know it, Rachel will be home and we can all have a nice chat.”

And is there a part of Mark’s mind that sees that as a good idea. Yes, something small but vocal, a tingling sense that makes his head want to not, to pull his lips into a smile, to force him down onto his bottom so he can be a good little boy.

He shakes his head again, harder this time. “Shut up.”

Cecelia frowns at him. “That’s very rude.”

Mark opens his mouth to put it more strongly and then sighs. Forget it. She’s wasting your time.

He gestures to the main entrance. “You can unlock the front door or I can break a window. Up to you.”

“Oh,” Cecelia says, her face filled with disappointment, and Mark can hardly believe it. Did she really think he would stay? That he wanted to be here, dressed like this, being treated like a child?

“Well,” she says, getting to her feet, “I certainly don’t want a broken window. What would the neighbours think?” She reaches into the pocket of her top. “I have the key right here, dear.”

There it is, a brass key, in her hand as promised, and surely she’ll throw it, something crazy, a final distraction, but instead she presses it into Mark’s open palm and says, “I don’t believe in keeping people against their will. We do help people here, give them second chances like I said, but only if they want it.” She gives him a sincere look. “We’re not monsters.”

“Whatever,” Mark says, clenching the key in his fist.

“I won’t keep you,” Cecelia says, her tone suddenly bright, as if they’d been enjoying a pleasant afternoon tea together. She walks across the living room, stepping over toys and the rug in her slippers.

As easy as that?

Mark turns to follow, and he almost jumps when she cries out.

“Oh!” she says suddenly. “Look at that!” She points towards the TV. “Is that your wallet, dear? Is that your phone?”

“What? I don’t see…” Oh, for God’s sake. There’s something, it could be…he changes direction, walks over the rug, barely noticing the thick softness under his feet, concentrating on avoiding the plastic toys that seem intent on tripping him up as he makes his way to the television.

“Well?” Cecelia calls over. “Do they belong to you?”

“Hang on,” Mark says, and he realises part of him doesn’t want the problem solved so neatly. Because if his valuables really are just sitting there in plain view, does that mean Rachel didn’t steal them after all. And what about the rest of it, in that case? Did she really trick him into giving away the code?

He reaches the TV set.

One wallet. One phone. One set of keys. Everything’s there.

“Well?” asks Cecelia.

“That’s my stuff,” Mark says. He grabs the items, wishing there were pockets on his pyjamas, at least.

But now he has money. And he can use his phone to lock the system, to lock Rachel and the others out.

He smiles at Cecelia. She probably doesn’t even know what he can do with the phone. She’ll be one of those older women who uses her iPad for playing Candy Crush and boasting about her kids on Facebook.

“Looks like you’ve got everything you need,” Cecelia says.

“Except my clothes,” says Mark. But he’ll quit while he’s ahead.

He walks back across the rug.

“Oh yes,” Cecelia says. “Rachel took your suit to the dry cleaners on the way to school, said a little boy make a mess of the trousers and she felt responsible.”

No, Mark thinks. That’s not why she took my clothes. She did it to make me look childish, to make me feel like a little boy.

But Cecelia goes on, “Your shirt’s in the tumble dryer, she washed that as well.” She checks her watch. “Probably be done in five more minutes. If you stay that long, at least you’ll have a grown-up top.”

Mark frowns. That would be better than just walking out in his crocodile (Alligator? he wonders again fleetingly) pyjamas.

“Although like I said earlier,” Cecelia adds, “You do look sweet just as you are.”

She smiles and Mark smiles back. It’s automatic, it’s just good manners.

“Are you a snappy crocodile?” Cecelia asks, pointing at the character on his top.

Her smile widens, ready to laugh, but it’s Mark who looks down and giggles. They are funny pyjamas.

“There,” Cecelia says brightly. “You’re feeling better, aren’t you.”

Mark begins to nod and then he frowns. “Huh? Whaddid…What do you mean?”

Cecelia looks down at Mark’s feet. “You got some special sparkles, dear,” she says, “Make you feel all better again.”

Mark stares at his feet, and for a moment he couldn’t be more confused, and then, lifting the sole of his right foot, he gets it, he understands everything, why Cecelia put his wallet where she did, why she wanted him to walk over the rug.

His feet are covered in glitter, in a drug that is soaking through his skin, just as it did at the park and when Rachel wanted to get the code from him.

The revelation is terrible. Sparkles in the rug, brain-simplifying dust on his feet. He bats at them frantically, fumbling his wallet and keys to the ground, and Cecelia is there to take his phone.

He looks at her, balancing on one leg, flapping at his feet, trying to fix a problem that is past remedying, Fear turns his bladder hot, threatening to make him wet himself, and the thought of standing there in stained pyjamas, like an incompetent nursery-schooler, is horrifying.

But there is mercy.

The fear only lasts a moment. It doesn’t stand a chance against the drug, and when Cecelia she tells him to put his feet down or he’ll fall over like a silly boy, Mark does as he’s told and looks at her with wide eyes.

Don’t you know what we do here?

“That’s a lot of special baby dust, honey. If you have anything important to say, you should say it now.” Cecelia looks at her watch and says, “I don’t suppose you have more than a minute before your brain has turned to silly mush.”

Mark opens his mouth. What can he say? Is this forever, is this a one-way street?

Is there anything he can tell her, to be granted mercy, to reverse the process that is already wiping out memories and intelligence.

What’s the magic word?

“Don’t wanna….”

“Yes, dear?”

“Doan…”

“You can tell Auntie Cecelia,” the woman says sweetly. She cuddles him, and Mark feels a final wave of the drug as it hits his mind, knocking out any last trace of resistance.

He never stood a chance, and all that’s left is for him to prove the outcome, and the evidence is a darkening patch on the front of his pyjama bottoms as he feels a rush of wetness.

“Someone needs a nappy,” Cecelia announces mildly. And she strokes Mark’s hair and tells him what a good boy he is, so good for letting it all go, and Mark responds by producing another mess, until he’s empty, mind and body, able to stand but no more, and it’s probably Cecelia’s hands that keep Mark upright because the man has the mind of a nine month old baby.

And what a good baby Mark is, when Auntie Cecelia cleans him up. He’s content to play with his toys, mouthing a yellow block as she wipes his bottom and between his legs.

“What a mucky pup you were!” Cecelia exclaims good-naturedly. “What a messy little boy!”

Mark smiles around the block. He would tell Cecelia how happy he is, but all the words are gone, only senseless babble remains, but it’s okay, she seems to understand him perfectly well.

She pins him into a thick, soft nappy and winks at him. “You feel so nice, don’t you dear. All those icky grown-up thoughts, gone away, leaving you all free and fluffy, just like your nappy!”

Cecelia tickles Mark’s stomach and then, seemingly inspired, blows raspberries on his belly, earning a delighted, gurgling squeal for her trouble.

“Aren’t you excited,” Cecelia says. She gets him to his feet and takes his hand, and he toddles through to the nursery where Cecelia dresses him in new pyjamas.

“Lucky boy, looks like they keep some clothes in your size after all. “You’re going to look so handsome!”

Mark doesn’t understand a word. He just lets the nice lady dress him in the soft red pyjamas that zip up the front. No more snapping animals, crocodiles or otherwise. Just sweet, cute softness.

“Gorgeous,” Cecelia declares with a nod of satisfaction. “All dressed up and without a care in the world, right honey?”

As if to voice his agreement, Mark waves his arms up and down and chortles, and it’s obvious that there’s nothing in the way of coherent thought left in his head.

“Let’s find you some toys to play with,” Cecelia says. “Rachel will be here soon, and I can’t wait to show you off.”

Mark allows the lady to lead him back to the living room, where he sits and plays with the building blocks, delighted by the textures and colours, spending his time and concentration gnawing on them and then knocking them together. No more codes, just infantile play, and he must be doing very well, because Cecelia rewards him by giving him something new and lovely; a blue dummy to suck on.

“What a happy boy,” Cecelia remarks. And from the contented expression on Mark’s drooling face, she must be right.

 

 

FIVE

Everybody’s home. Everybody’s in the lab.

Rachel settles Mark on a play mat that looks comically small underneath him, and the man seems perfectly happy with a collection of plastic blocks. No more accidents. He’ll be wearing nappies for the foreseeable future.

“Everything go all right?” Dr Sucette asks. She’s busy at a high-chair, feeding Scott.

“You’ve got this place wired,” says Rachel, “I think you know.”

Sucette spoons carrot into Scott’s mouth and says, “You are such a good eater!” Without turning around, she says, “I like it when a family can work together.” She wipes Scott’s face and says, “Adorable. You took a picture, I think?”

“Here.” Rachel walks over and puts her phone on Sucette’s instrument tray.

“I did my part,” the teenager says.

“Well,” Sucette says, “Your mother helped.”

We did our part,” says Rachel. “So what about Scott?”

“What indeed,” Sucette says. “Here you go, mummy,” and she hands the jar of food and spoon to Cecelia who takes over with the baby.

The doctor glances at Scott and looks at Rachel.

She shrugs.

Rachel stares. “What does that mean?”

“Inconclusive.”

“Jesus,” Rachel whispers. She looks to her mother and then back at Sucette. “You don’t know if you can bring him back?”

“Oh,” says Sucette. “Sorry, no, I didn’t mean that.” She gestures at the baby. “I could bring him back in a heartbeat. Special case, that boy. I mean, we practically re-built him after he came here the first time.” She rubs her hands together. “Remember, after you regressed him without permission.”

Sucette smiles. “I know where your little brother gets his bad habits from.”

“So if you can do it,” Rachel says slowly, working to keep a lid on her temper, “What’s stopping you?” She points at her phone. “I did the job.”

Sucette doesn’t shrug this time. “You did a job, Rachel. And you did well, I know Katie will appreciate you stepping up like that.”

Did the doctor expect Rachel to fail?

Rachel touches the back of her neck, running fingers over smooth skin. Funny how Parkdale can’t make her hair grow long, how they can’t separate. If Rachel wanted her pigtails back, she’d have to take the rest of her back as well.

Sucette says, “Definitely earned some Brownie points. But I’m going to need a bigger favour.”

“What?”

“Something’s coming, my dear.” The doctor turns to Cecelia and says, “I really need to be sure we’re on the same team.” She kisses the top of Scott’s head and then looks at the photo on Rachel’s phone.

“Huh. How clever.” She goes over to Mark. “Not so clever anymore, are you,” she says in a syrupy voice. “Playing with your block-blocks!”

Mark looks up and grins, drool running down his chin and making a mess of his new pyjamas.

“Maybe we should make you the same size as Scott, what do you think?” Her tone sours when she says, “Or maybe we’ll send you to New Zealand. One-way.” And then her nursery school voice returns in time for Sucette to add, “That’s the kind of thing we do with people who try to extort money.” She taps Mark’s nose gently with her finger and says, “Shall we just put you in a special school where everyone’s got the I.Q. of a grapefruit?”

Mark giggles in response. He’s beyond worries about his future, even though his fate seems balanced on a knife-edge.

Sucette turns to Rachel and her family. “Not for you to worry about.” She touches Rachel’s arm. “You did well today, I’m actually impressed. Take your brother home, stay out of trouble.” She gives both mother, daughter and son a smile. “I’ll be in touch soon. Let’s see if we can find a win-win.”

That’s it?

Rachel stares at the doctor. Sucette has been here for so long, she seems impossible to read. For a moment, Rachel is tempted to tell the doctor about her history class, to ask whether Scott is out of chances.

But this isn’t about rationing, it’s not about the 1950s, even though Sucette could tell her all about growing up in post-war England, despite her thirty-something face.

Rachel looks down at her hands. Leave it. And maybe later, a deal, something real she can put her hands on and bring her brother back from the nursery. She looks up to see Cecelia pick Scott out of the high-chair.

What a happy mother she looks, devoted. Maybe this is the right age for Cecelia, looking after a baby. She’s continued to bond with Scott, they seem inseparable and Rachel can hardly feel bad about such a positive relationship. Happy families.

But Sucette is dangerous. The town has rules and secrets that Rachel has only begin to unpick.

Go home?

Maybe they should move. Maybe they should run for their lives. Perhaps.

Park. Dale. It’s two things combined. It’s a banal, meaningless name for a town. It’s title-lite.

But it’s scary inside, scarier the more you know.

You can get lost here. You can forget yourself.

Maybe they should move. Maybe they should run for their lives.

But first, they should go home. Put the baby down for a sleep. Then up again, for playing, for dinner, for bath-time and a story he won’t understand but loves anyway.

Yeah, first, they count their blessings.

Rachel nods at Sucfiette and turns to her mother. “Let’s go, Mum.”

 

                       THE END