Because you want to be a good little employee who makes her boss weak at the knees, she miserably reminded herself for what felt like the twentieth time.
The actually tally was considerably higher than that.
It had all really started about a month ago, just after word came from the higher-ups that they were going to install a playground at the branch she worked at. Brianna's was a particularly busy outlet, and as such must have seemed like the perfect place to trial the idea. Good for the higher-ups. Not so much for the lower-downs.
"It's really just the same logic McDonalds uses," her boss Tammy (who was actually a Tamika) had told her over their lunch break, not long after the idea had been given the green light. She hadn't appeared pleased about it herself, and her face contorted into the distasteful grimace that is normally associated with sucking a lemon as she sipped from her bottle of Coke. It had nothing to do with the Coke. "You know, because it entertains the kids and it gives the parents some peace and quiet while they shop. They think it's a good PR move, but you know what I think, Bri? I think it's a fucking nightmare waiting to happen. Do you want to be the one that has to clean up some kid's vomit when they decide they can't be fucked getting out of the ball pit to find the bathroom? Do you want to get inside the slide and wipe it down after some over-excited kid pisses all over himself?"
Brianna had dutifully shook her head as much to placate Tammy as to genuinely give her opinion.
"Neither do I," Tammy sighed. She rubbed the bridge of her nose and fixed Brianna with a bleak, exhausted look. "Neither do I. But someone's going to have to, aren't they?"
The day finally came when the playground opened, and the crew rostering was altered to accommodate it. Of the handful of crew who would finish at closing time, one of them suddenly found themselves with the glorious honour of being the lucky individual responsible for cleaning and tidying the playground in preparation for the next day. The closing crew rejoiced. Wine was shared. Toasts were made. Tears of joy were shed.
Brianna normally wasn't one of those people - she was studying Mathematics at university, and as such really only had time to work on the weekends. However, the year was coming to a close, and she reluctantly came to the conclusion that offering to take that shift no one wanted, even if only once or twice a week, would make a good impression in Tammy's eyes. It might persuade her boss to give her more shifts over the holiday break, which she could really use, and if she was really lucky, it might even net her a promotion. Brianna the Shelf Stocker no longer! She could be Brianna the Manager!
And that was why she was here.
Half an hour till close.
"It's in the far corner," Tammy sighed. They stood side by side at the ball pit's gate, staring out into a technicolour sea of everything wrong in the world. "The kid's cow of a mum said he fell into it...there-ish."
She pointed vaguely towards the back right corner of the pit. To Brianna, it looked no different than the back left, the front left, or really any part of any ball pit in the entire world ever. There could be anything under there.
"You know, I was having a good day," Tammy went on. She shook her head angrily and turned to her employee. "Not one complaint. Not even a query. I played more Solitaire than work, you know? It was one of those days. Of course something has to go to shit right at the end. Doesn't it always?"
Some kid had discovered a pool of vomit in the ball pit that had gone unnoticed for God knew how long. His mum had gone to the effort to explode at Tammy concerning just how 'unacceptable and disgusting this is for an establishment such as your own.'
"Tell you what. You clear out the puke, Bri, and I'll clear out the kids. Sound fair?"
It was hard to believe, but even at 11.30pm there were still four or five kids noisily frolicking around in their private ocean of rainbow paradise. They might not have school or kindergarten or whatever the next morning, but Brianna still found it hard to believe that parents could keep their kids up so late. The oldest one, a blonde girl in a frilly green sun-dress and nerdy glasses, couldn't be any more than seven or eight. Some people shouldn't be allowed to reproduce, she thought to herself. The last place these kids want to be right now is hardly fucking K-Mart. It's the last place I want to be on a Friday night, and I work here.
Before she could ruminate any longer, her boss got the ball rolling.
"Alright, my dear rays of sunshine!" Tammy announced in a voice so sickly sweet Brianna cringed. "Look, I love the lot of you, but we need to clean the pit. So...like, get out."
One boy was having none of it. "But my mummy's busy with - "
"We'll find her," Tammy retorted in her sing song voice. She turned her attention to her heckler, a sweaty four year old half submerged in every colour of the rainbow. He looked more frightened than upset, and considering who was talking to him, that wasn't entirely surprising. Tammy had that effect on people. "We'll put a word in to Charles. You know Charles?"
"Um, I - "
"The Magical Man of the Intercom," she concluded with a winning smile. "Now get out."
They all hesitated for a moment. Brianna silently urged them to just get out and not force Tammy to blow her top (as the girl had been known to do from time to time when around little kids)...and then with some grumbling, they all began to drag themselves towards the exit. She sighed with relief. For a second there, she had expected a fight. It had happened before.
"See?" Tammy said brightly as she turned back to face Brianna. "Easy as pie."
I could have told you that. That's why you chose to do that and leave me to handle the fun stuff.
She did like her boss. Really.
Tammy just made it difficult sometimes.
A moment later, four of the five kids had managed to extract themselves from seventh heaven. They clustered awkwardly by the side of the gate, watching the two adults uncertainly. For whatever reason, though, the elder girl in the dress that had Brianna had noticed before had yet to move. She sat bonelessly in the middle of the pit, her back turned to the ensemble and seemingly oblivious to the situation.
"Hey you!" Tammy exclaimed. "You! Girl! Are you deaf? I said move your ass, come on."
No answer. Not even a cursory glance.
Brianna cringed yet again as her boss' face flushed with irritation. "Hello? Are you stupid?"
"Tammy, you're going to wake up tomorrow with a lawsuit on your - "
But she wasn't listening. All Brianna could do was watch with mounting unease as the one person in the store that should know better demonstrated that she quite obviously didn't. Tammy simply clenched her fists and wading into the pit herself.
The rustling sound of disturbed plastic reverberated ominously in Brianna's ears as she watched her boss cross the distance in a few short steps. To the kids huddled beside her, the pit was an intimidating obstacle course fraught with peril - the tallest wasn't tall and the smallest was positively minuscule. To someone Tammy's size, though, it was barely knee high, and she was there in seconds. Brianna restrained herself from running in herself as her boss literally grabbed the girl by the shoulder and shook her violently.
My God she's probably just asleep it's almost midnight after all what the fuck are you doing you're going to get sued and I'm going to get fired stopstopstopstopstopstop -
The girl's voice was soft but perfectly audible. She never sat up and looked around at her antagonist - she simply slurred her quiet protest and continued the fascinating activity of ball watching. Both Tammy and Brianna hesitated. 'No' was the last answer either of them had been expecting.
Brianna recovered first. "Tammy!" she tried one last time, knowing perfectly well her boss' retort was unlikely to be particularly pleasant. Tammy was a nice enough person when isolated from both her job and little kids, but when exposed to one or another (or God forbid, both at once), her fuse was exceptionally short. It was something she was renowned for amongst pretty much anyone she associated with on more than a passing level.
She sprang forward, hoping against hope she could diffuse the situation before her idiot of a boss made things worse than they already were. It was bad enough she had even touched the girl, people went to jail for less than that these days. She had heard the horror stories of parents being arrested for taking pictures of their own children at swimming carnivals and whatnot. She wasn't going to let Tammy give the girl's parents any more reason to lodge a formal complaint.
She wasn't going to make it. Short as the distance was, she had seen the thunderclouds drawing close on Tammy's face before she had taken even her first step.
"Listen here, you little shit, I have a job to do and you're getting in the - "
"I said I don't wanna. I wanna play."
The girl final looked around, and for a moment Brianna swore she saw something blatantly impossible. Were...were her eyes...
No. No way.
The girl's eyes were still glowing. Her irises and pupils had vanished altogether, leaving only two unmarked balls of neon green jelly in her eye sockets. They illuminated the entirety of her face with a sinister aura that made Brianna uneasily think of radiation. She had a fleeting, ridiculous thought of the Springfield PowerPlant in the Simpsons.
"What the actual fuck - "
Brianna didn't hear the end of her boss' startled exclamation. The girl stood up, everything flashed green...and then everything changed.
She didn't know how long they crawled around the ball pit. All she knew was that when she abruptly returned to her senses, enough time had passed for all but one of the kids to disappear, and that they were being watched. The one kid in question was the one doing the watching; she was sitting on the railing of the ball pit, quietly ogling at the pair through her ridiculously geeky glasses whilst munching what might be the last little segment of a cinnamon doughnut.
At that moment, Brianna realised her arms and knees were aching, as if she'd spontaneously contracted a severe case of arthritis, and she moaned in surprise as much as pain as she settled herself down on her butt to ease the strain on the relevant body parts. Where had that come from? For that matter, why was she on all fours? Balls clustered uncomfortably beneath her, as if she was sitting on a mattress filled with all manner of unpleasant things. "Tammy?" she called uncertainly, looking around to find her manager. What just happened? She didn't see her, but she had to be around. She was there just a minute ago. "Hey, are you - "
The 'okay' to finish the sentence died soundlessly on her lips, because at the moment she both found her boss and realised that no, Tammy most certainly was not ok. Somehow or another, the pair had ended up literally down on their hands and knees in the ball pit.and judging by her aching joints, they had been that way for quite a while. Brianna did not even recognise the fact that there was a gap in her memory where this scenario should have been, at least at first.
No, what cut her off was the fact that her boss was dressed like a baby.
Tammy (also known as The Hardcase to her employees, the girl who had enough venom and vitriol on her tongue to put a cobra to shame) was rolling around in the ball pit in nothing but a pink My Little Pony t-shirt, a ridiculous, frilly tutu, and...Jesus, was that a diaper peeking out from beneath? Brianna thought it was, and if she had any doubts, it was dispelled when she actually heard the damn thing crinkle as her boss crawled around through the pit just off to her right.
Yep. That was as authentic a diaper as there was.
"Tammy?" she tried again, even less certain than before. She wasn't just worried now - she was outright scared. While she herself seemed to be entirely in control of her own senses, it didn't appear that she and her boss had that in common. Tammy didn't seem to care in the slightest about her outfit; if anything, she was embracing it. The K-Mart manager was crawling and rolling and diving and playing in the balls, giggling like a moron and apparently having the time of her life. As Brianna watched, her jaw roughly in the vicinity of her ankles, the diapered manager fell down on her behind and promptly crammed a ball in her mouth.
Well. She tried to, at least. As it turned out, the ball was just a little to big to fit comfortably, and as such she simply made out with it and drooled.
What the fuck.
Brianna tore her attention away from her boss, fighting to keep herself under control. The girl in the green sundress had jumped down into the pit and was staggering towards the pair, wading awkwardly through the pit with precise, careful footsteps. She was a little taller than the other kids had been, but not by much, and was having trouble making her way over without stumbling.
Brianna stared blankly at the newcomer for a moment, then the memory of this girl's eyes turning green returned to her. The memory of the toxic, pulsing glow. Her nerves, jumpy as they were before, suddenly bore a strong resemblance to a buzzing bee after a few too many cups of coffee.
Did she do this to Tammy?
The girl carefully rearranged her dress as she sat down directly in front of Brianna, staring at her curiously all the while. Balls rattled noisily as they rearranged themselves around the intrusion. Brianna stared back, wordless. She noticed that although they weren't glowing now, this girl's eyes were still an unusual shade of green. She'd never seen anyone with eyes quite that colour before.
"Hi." The voice of a chipmunk.
"Er. Hi," the K-Mart employee answered uncertainly. Judging by the tone of the girl's voice, she found absolutely nothing unusual about this at all. Then again, what was unusual about mentally handicapped, diapered adults? Nothing, spare the thought!
"I'm Clara," she said in a purely conversational voice. "I made you normal again because you tried to be nice to me. Not many people are nice to me."
Brianna eventually found her tongue. "Um," she began stupidly. "How - I mean, what...I mean, you did this to her?" She nodded cautiously in the direction of Tammy, who had removed the ball from her mouth and was now splashing the pit around her with clenched fists, giggling with delight as the surface rippled like water.
Clara nodded, once again with the air of someone who apparently did this so regularly it was absolutely nothing of note. Just another day in the office, Bob, Brianna thought, feeling the first hooks of hysteria. Put a few girls in diapers and flagged a plane down with my eyeballs. You know, the norm'. "And you too!" she added. "But you were nice to me, so I made you a grown up again."
At the same time she realised she actually had no recollection whatsoever of how Tammy had ended up the way she had, Brianna looked down at herself. She was wearing a blue t-shirt and opaque tights over a bulging diaper.
Just another day in the office!
"It was fun playing with you while you were just a silly baby," Clara went on as Brianna's head swam. Christ, how did she end up wearing this? When? What was happening? "But I felt bad because you were nice to me. Not like her."
She gestured at Tammy.
It had gone AWOL yet again, but Brianna managed to locate her tongue a second time. "Clara," she said slowly, forcing herself to remain calm and carefully considering her next question. "How and why did you do this? Because...because my boss wasn't nice to you?"
Clara shrugged. "Mummy says I'm special," she answered simply. She grabbed a ball and threw it at Tammy without provocation, who had made it to the far railing of the pit while no one was paying attention. It bounced off the back of her diaper with a dull thud. "I can do things, you know. Like this. I can make people do things. My mummy says I'm like that girl from Harry Potter, Her-minnie!"
She paused, then added, "And I guess so, yeah. I did it because your friend was being mean and told me to get out. I didn't want to get out, I was playing. I got some new friends out of it, too!"
I...I don't think I'm your friend, girl. Not in the slightest, in fact.
Not entirely sure how to answer herself or the girl in front of her, Brianna looked down at herself again. Yes, somehow, this was happening. Someone had dressed her up like an oversized baby, and they'd somehow done it without her realising. She supposed that she might have somehow been drugged and redressed while unconscious - that seemed to make the most sense, but the way this girl was talking...
"What do you want from me?" she asked weakly."What happens now?"
There was absolutely no hesitation on Clara's behalf. "I want to play," she answered, her eyes brightening. "My mummy left me with a babysitter for the weekend, and she was boring and wouldn't let me play...so I took care of her and came here coz I knew there was a cool playground here, and then she - " she gestured at Tammy - "wouldn't let me play either, So I took care of her too."
That was a lot to take in. Brianna nodded, and bit her tongue before she did a Tammy and made things worse for herself. Maybe she should take inventory before she opened her mouth again.
Here was a girl (Brianna refused to use the word 'witch', but...well, was it wrong? Clara had come close to calling herself that anyway.) who had the ability to alter people on both a mental and physical level. Here was a girl that, if things didn't go her way, would make things go her way. Clara had 'taken care' of her babysitter, whatever the hell that entailed, just to go to the local K-Mart and play in the ball pit. When she got there and was stopped, she made the people stopping her into her playmates. Brianna thought she had made sense of the situation, and it all really added up to one thing.
Clara was dangerous.
She didn't even want this fucking shift. How did she get herself into this?
You don't have time for self pity, she whispered to herself.
Ok then. Next question. What was she going to do about it?
What was Clara going to do about it?
The smaller girl's face abruptly brightened, suddenly glowing with excitement. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "You study numbers at school, right? Wanna play in the walker? That has numbers!"
Huh? How in the hell does she know -
But once again, before she could protest, Clara's eyes began to glow that disturbing shade of green. Brianna eeped and instantly tried to scramble away, pulling herself backwards through the tumbling balls as fast as she could. That light had been the start of this mess in the first place. It surely wasn't about to get -
And then, again, everything changed.
When she opened her eyes, she was (predictably) in the walker.
Well. Sort of. The walker they normally had was about a tenth of the size, intended for toddlers. This one fit her snugly.
I can do things, you know.
This time, though, there was no time lapse, because both Clara and Tammy were still in the ball pit exactly where they had been moments before. The pre-teen witch had a satisfied smile on her face, seeing that her...well, whatever it was that she had done to Brianna had been a total success. She climbed to her feet with a little difficulty, offered Tammy a "Be a good baby and stay here, ok!" then pranced out of the pit and over towards the walker.
She had no idea what else was in store for her, but Brianna thought this had gone on quite enough.
"Clara," she said softly, trying not to sound like she was begging. "Clara. Please. You can't do this to people. Let me go."
Clara froze a few steps away from Brianna, her smile faltering.
Good job, genius. Now you've pissed off the witch.
"Look, I'm really sorry we had to kick you out," she was babbling now, almost paralysed by terror. This girl had reduced two grown women to drooling infants on a whim. This was not a good individual to upset. "Really, I am, and she is too. But we had a job to do, people can get sick if the pit isn't cleaned. Change us back. Please."
"But. If I change you back, I can't play anymore," Clara sounded heart broken. She looked over at Tammy again. "She won't let me play anymore. It's not as fun playing with some stupid baby. Won't you stay and play with me a while?"
I don't believe there's anything I'd rather do less, my freaky little friend.
She opened her mouth to say that in a much more polite manner.
"I'm not a freak!" her tormentor exclaimed. Her eyes were beginning to brim with tears. "And you wanted to play before, didn't you? You did. You did!"
You study numbers at school, right?
It suddenly became obvious that Clara could read her mind.
She began to sweat.
"I did it before because you made me - "
"No one ever wants to play with me," Clara was saying. Her brimming eyes were beginning to leak, and her breath was beginning to come in short, ragged fits and starts all at once. She was on the very brink of meltdown, all at once. Brianna felt her heart sink. This couldn't be good. A normal kid throwing a tantrum was a nightmare - a kid with the ability to fuck with reality was not someone you wanted to see throw a tantrum. "My mummy won't let me go to school because she's scared I'll hurt someone and I'm always alone and I have no one to play with and I hate it. She's scared of me too, you know. She tries not to show it, but I know. I know!"
She yelled the last two words, but it somehow seemed louder than even that - Brianna's teeth suddenly ached and her eyes began to water. Apparently Clara lost control of herself when she got upset. Brianna felt her bladder let go out of sheer fear.
If you don't calm her down, she's going to literally dissolve you into a pool of liquid K-Mart employee.
She didn't know if Clara heard that or not, but she intended to heed the warning.
"Clara, it's ok. It's - "
"No it's not!" she shrieked. She was finally at the point of hysterics. "You don't know what it's like. It's not ok for everyone to be scared of you all the time. It's not ok when even your mum won't play with you. It's not ok."
"I understand," Brianna said weakly. "Clara, really, I do. But you can't just turn people into your playmates against their will, even if they - well, one of them - did deserve it."
That shut her up. Clara stared at her silently with those terrifying, leaky eyes.
She held her breathe.
In a last ditch effort, she quickly added, "I'll even play with you for a little while now, if it makes you feel better. But you have to fix everything at the end. Ok?"
The wide-eyed, relieved expression of joy that Brianna had been hoping for never appeared, but Clara did nod slowly and sniffle a little. "Well, fine," the girl in green said sulkily. "Whatever. We'll do that."
Cue moment of awkward silence. Brianna felt a bead of sweat trickle down the back of neck.
Clara shook her head in a movement that was far too angry for the older girl's liking. "How about you play with your numbers," she said. "I'll go check on the baby while you do."
Brianna nodded, and turned her attention to the contraption she inhabited as her companion turned tail and returned to the ball pit without further comment. She didn't trust herself to open her mouth; she feared she might break down and cry if she did. The last thing she had expected when she clocked on earlier this afternoon was to be held hostage by a witch half her size.
Focus, girl. You're meant to be playing, remember?
The walker hadn't changed at all beyond the size upgrade. There were a handful of toys along the outer edge of the tray, and on the inside was a miniature child's abacus. There were four horizontally parallel bars set into the plastic, each one impaling a number of rainbow beads, all of which could be moved along the bar as far as the bead next to it allowed. It wasn't really anything that was going to entertain a young kid, but Brianna supposed it might be vaguely educational. Maybe. Vaguely. She didn't think a K-Mart was the place for kids to learn their numeracy either, but hey, what did she know? She just stocked the shelves.
Author's Note: Brianna's abacus has considerably more beads than this!
What the fuck was she meant to do with this?
When she thought about it a little more, there was no borderline about it. This was insulting.
Still, her options were limited, so she found herself listlessly running the beads up and down their respective rails, paying more attention to Clara and Tammy than the task she'd been left with. The witch had managed to convince the babified woman to awkwardly stagger to her feet, and as she watched the two began the difficult task of waddling and stumbling out of the ball pit. Before long, they found themselves back on firm ground again and paused together by the gate. Clara pointed to the play mat just off to the side of the pit, clearly gesturing for her companion to make her way over - Tammy, being in a state of complete and utter idiocy, simply looked back at her without comprehension, sucking a thumb that had magically gravitated into the orbit of her lips.
"Come on, go play with the stuffed toys!" Clara exclaimed brightly, waving her arm around in eccentric circles. She looked more excited than the K-Mart manager looked stupid. "Look at all the animals there are to play with! They're all yours, go have fun!"
Tammy at last turned her attention around, and as she did so Brianna found herself flushing with embarrassment on behalf of her manager that couldn't. A stupid, vacant grin had crossed her boss' face, an expression so intellectually desolate that the shelf stocker was surprised Clara's IQ didn't take a sudden and sheer dip at the sight of it. A moment later, Tammy let out a squeal of excitement and bounded across the short distance that separated her from an enormous teddy bear that certainly hadn't been so big an hour ago, her diaper crinkling cheerfully all the while. She collapsed on it's gigantic leg and hugged it with more affection than Brianna would have thought possible from such a bitter individual. As far as she could tell, the diapered woman had decided to fall asleep there. Apparently ball-pitting was hard work.
Meanwhile, Brianna was feeling sick. Physically revolted. The bitter, diapered woman in question would be screaming if she could see herself.
Clara had no such inhibitions. Job done and apparently satisfied, she dramatically rubbed her hands together and made her way back to her other prisoner. The shattered, mopey child of only minutes before was gone, and in her place was a seven-ish-year-old girl practically giddy with glee.
Why are you so happy all of a sudden? Hmm?
The girl was grinning, but it wasn't a particularly comforting look. If anything, it appeared sinister, like she had evil plots and schemes in mind that she preparing to execute. It was the look of a child about to endeavour in a daring display of mischief.
Considering her current predicament and what the 'good' incarnation of the girl had produced, Brianna found this fact positively terrifying.
"Are you having fun?" Clara asked brightly, stopping only a step away from the larger girl. She smiled widely, a look that was presumably meant to look innocent but was anything but. "See, I knew you'd enjoy yourself! This was perfect for a numbers student like you!"
Brianna smiled uneasily. "I sure am," she said with a lilting laugh. It sounded fake and ridiculous even to herself. "It's more fun than my uni classes, I'll give you that much."
That wasn't even far from the truth.
Clara's own smile widened. Brianna feared it couldn't do much more of that without the corners connecting behind her head and cutting it clean in half. Which really might not be such a bad thing, she thought to herself. "That's good," the witch said. "I bet you're glad I didn't keep you as a silly baby, huh?"
"I sure am," Brianna said again, offering an uneasy laugh that she knew instantly wasn't going to placate her tormentor. On the inside, she was screaming, not laughing. Laughing? Get real. She was totally at this girl's mercy and the shit coming out of her mouth was hardly any better than begging for freedom and mercy. How was she going to get out of this?
"Well you've only just started," Clara said. She crossed the short distance between them and looked down at the beads Brianna was meant to be toying with. The trapped girl followed her stare, and the beads stared back with all the expression of a...well, a coloured bead. "You can play with it for a little longer, ok? How about you show me how good you are with your numbers? That sounds fun."
I'd rather pour gasoline down the front of this diaper and light up my pubes.
"It sure does," was her actual answer.
There was a moment of awkward silence where Clara looked on expectantly and Brianna looked back, totally clueless as to how to proceed.
Let's get this over with...
"So," she offered nervously. "How does this work as a multiplayer game?"
Clara giggled. "I'm not playing anything," she said cheerfully. "You're showing me how good you are at maths. I'm just eight. I don't know my numbers very well, I'd lose if we both played."
"How about I quiz you?" Clara suggested. She examined the beads between them once again, smiling all the while. "How about I ask you sums, and you can...you can..."
She paused, apparently devising the game on the spot. Brianna waited impatiently, the thread of her nerves fraying a little more each second.
"I'll give you a number," Clara at last said slowly. "And then you can use the top two rows to show me two numbers that add up to my number. Ok? Ok!"
"Show me two numbers that add up to six," Clara said. Her smile was hungry.
Wordlessly, Brianna slid the beads around and produced the answer in promptly thirty milliseconds flat. Three on the top rail and three on the one beneath it.
Apparently, this demonstration of profound intellect made her something of a prodigy in her captor's eyes. "Good girl!" the smaller girl exclaimed brightly, and patted Brianna on top of the head. The older girl squirmed away with a small, indignant 'hey!' Who did this girl think she was? She was a K-Mart employee, not a puppy!
"I wasn't sure if you'd get that one," Clara said. The fucking girl was looking down at her and talking to her like she was an actual child. "That was a hard one!"
Funny, huh? You little shit.
Brianna forced a smile. "Guess the university pays off, huh?"
Clara didn't answer and her smile didn't falter. "Nine!" she instead prompted.
Once again, Brianna made the necessary adjustments without a word and zero thought. Five and four.
"You're really smart," Clara again said brightly. "You must be top of your class at uni!"
"Clara, you made me an adult again, remember?" Brianna said uneasily. Her heart was suddenly attempting to flee her chest cavity with all the grace of a runaway bull; all she could think about was being turned into a toad or something for her rebuke. "You don't need to baby talk me."
Her fears of becoming an amphibian at first seemed to be groundless. Clara's smile actually grew, and Brianna felt a moment of relief...and then she saw noticed something much more concerning in the girl's face.
Clara was smiling...but that was about as strained and forced a smile as Brianna had ever seen. Brianna could practically see the individual muscles in the girl's face struggling to maintain the look. Her eyes were cold, lifeless and full of contempt.
Alarm bells went off. Clara wasn't enjoying this anymore.
Had it always been like that and she just hadn't noticed? Or had she just set the girl off?
As it turned out, she didn't get the chance to find out. "Twelve," Clara said flatly. "Show me twelve."
Keep cool, girl. Keep. Cool.
Hands shaking a little, Brianna moved her beads around for a third time and showed her jailer a confident twelve.
She was so absorbed with her own mounting terror that she almost missed Clara shaking her head. It wasn't until the girl spoke that she fully returned her abruptly stupefied attention to the external world.
"Sweetie, that's eleven," Clara said. She pointed at the abacus, and after a moment Brianna realised that she was right; that was eleven. There was a row of five, and a row of six. "You were meant to do twelve."
"I wasn't paying enough attention," she said slowly, not sure how she could have done that. She looked up at Clara defensively. "I thought I moved another one across here." She pointed at the row of five.
Clara shrugged. "Whatever," she said. The excitement in her face was long gone, and Brianna concluded that that almost definitely wasn't a good thing. "You're at two out of three right now. How about you show me fourteen?"
Brianna wasn't sure if her quiz results were going to impact her chances of getting out of here, but she wasn't taking any chances. She focused, and after a moment came up with fourteen.
Clara was shaking her head almost before she was done. "Bri," she said. "That's twelve."
Like FUCK that's twelve.
She refused to be goaded into this. She looked down at the tray in front of her, and no, she WAS right. Seven and five. That made...fourteen...
"That's right," Clara said, shaking her head as Brianna realised she had genuinely failed at basic addition. "Twelve. You missed by two."
"I..." Brianna stuttered, surprised at herself. How was that even possible? "You're right. I messed up. Sorry?"
"Of course I'm right," the witch said dismissively. "Should we try minuses? Or is that going to be too hard for you?"
"Minus me up," she growled. A minute ago she was top of the class.
"Let's do the same thing. Top row minus second row equals my number. Three. Go."
Reassured by the fact she had a nice and easy number, Brianna turned her attention back to her beads...and hesitated.
What minus what equalled three?
Suddenly she wasn't sure.
Her uncertainty must have shown on her face, because Clara snorted. There was no amusement in the noise; just the flat 'I should have known you were an idiot' implication. She didn't give the witch the satisfaction of looking up; she just did her best, re-arranging the beads rapidly in what she hoped was the right arrangement.
How the fuck can you not know if it's the right arrangement?
"Four and one," Clara said slowly, observing the results.
Brianna nodded. That was right, wasn't it? It had to be.
It was. To her relief, Clara nodded. "Lucky guess," she said dully. "Ready for more?"
She hesitated. Could she tell Clara that? Surely they'd done this long enough...
She looked in the girl's eyes. Saw the same deadpan expression.
Why was that so difficult? Brianna's mind was reeling. You're a UNIVERSITY LEVEL MATHEMATICIAN. I mean, you're not freaking Einsteen but if THIS girl can figure out that four minus one equals three, it's not fucking hard. What's wrong with you?
The problem was, she didn't -
"Clara," she said uncertainly. "You're not...you're not making me find this really difficult, are you?"
A small smile crossed the younger girl's face. It was only the ghost of her prior merriment. "Would I do that?" she said innocently.
Fuck yes you would.
She didn't deign that with an answer. "Give me a number," she instead said.
She could do basic subtraction, for the love of God. Magical intervention or no magical intervention. She'd get it right.
But she didn't. Eight was the next number, and her ten and one only gave her nine. Five followed that, and her ten and three gave her seven. The time after that, she managed to produce the desired four with a row of seven and a row of three, which she confidently called a row of six and a row of five when Clara asked her what she'd just produced.
In other words, she fell from top of the class to bellow the bottom.
"Wrong again," Clara said smugly as Brianna let out a short grunt of frustration and smacked the beads. It achieved nothing but hurt her hand, and she winced and whined softly. "I guess this is too hard for you. Maybe we should - "
"No," she interrupted. "No, we're not doing anything. I'm a university student, Clara. Don't you fucking tell me I can't do simple subtraction. You've done something to my head, just like you did before. Only this time, it's just my numbers. You know I can - "
"You've thought some really mean things about me," Clara interrupted. Her strained expression never faltered.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand now you're boned.
"I don't know what that means, but yeah, you are," the witch went on. "I made you big again because it was the right thing to do and I thought you might like playing with me. You know, as a big girl. But the whole time you've just thought mean things about me and you're not having fun and I don't like it. I think I liked you better as a baby. You're just like your friend."
And just like that, Brianna realised she was well and truly screwed. For the second time in half an hour, she wet herself without realising it.
"Clara," she said as the witch took a dainty step backwards. The green-eyed girl never took her eyes off her prisoner's face. "Clara. Please. I'm sorry, I am, really. You have to understand that situation I'm - "
"I just want to play," Clara sighed sadly. Her glasses were slipping down the bridge of her nose, and she absently pushed them back into position. They gleamed under the fluorescents on the roof."And I want to play with you. But you don't want to."
"Clara - "
"Clara? I thought I was 'the little shit?'" she said dully. "And that you would rather set yourself on fire than play with me?"
"Well...well, yeah, maybe, but that's - "
"I don't want to hear it," Clara said, and this time there was a touch of sadness in it. "You've made me sad, Bri. We could have had so much fun."
"Clara - !"
But the witch's eye glowed green one final time, and that was the last thing Brianna knew for a while.
Clara moved Brianna onto the bear right beside her boss, and then after a moment's consideration shrank the walker down to its original size too. There was a faint pop as it was engulfed in a green nimbus, then it rushed to do as she ordered. She smiled faintly as the aura vanished, leaving behind a contraption sized appropriately for a toddler. It was a slightly melancholic expression. She was done here.
The K-Mart employee, once again equipped with a brain no more sophisticated than a baby's, snuggled up against the stuffed toy she'd been placed upon and promptly closed her eyes. Clara at first thought she had gone to sleep, but it was not the case - she was just lying there, and as the girl in green watched, she actually reached for her superior's hand and took it in her own. She wasn't sleeping. She was just being affectionate with her playmate and keeping her company while she slept.
The witch sighed, disappointed and miserable. She wanted to play, but there wasn't much point doing it with someone that would rather burn off their privates than do so. Brianna had had her chance to play as a big girl; that hadn't gone to plan, and now she was going to spend the rest of the night as a two year old. Clara briefly entertained the thought of playing with the girls like this, but brushed it away. No. After reading Brianna's thoughts before, she wasn't in the mood to play with these two. They were mean.
Besides, they looked quite content as they were.
"I should probably make them comfortable," she grumbled to herself, and if there had been any onlookers (and there weren't, for Clara had injected the belief that the store closed at 11.30 into all other employees ages ago. The rest of the warehouse was deserted), they would have seen her eyes flash green once again. It lasted only a moment, and then Brianna's tights and Tammy's skirt vanished. Neither of the girls opened their eyes, and she felt a hint of irritation. That was the thanks she got for helping them sleep comfortably?
So what now?
She didn't know.
Maybe she should head back. She had turned her babysitter, Cindy Ruth from down the road, into a three year old and arranged for a nanny to come and look after her while Clara was away. It probably wasn't fair to leave that poor woman in such a state for much longer. It had already been a few hours, certainly enough for her to have had a supervised potty training session and be fed her dinner from a high chair. Cindy would probably be in her nursery right now, sucking on a pacifier and wearing only a night-time diaper. She'd be steaming from the ears.
Clara felt a pang of guilt at that. Contrary to popular belief, she was not a cruel individual. She fully understood the notions of right and wrong, even at age eight, and she knew she couldn't leave her unfortunate babysitter that way. She shouldn't have even done it to start with, but she hadn't had a choice. She had wanted to play, and nothing was going to get in the way of that!
She was a nice person. It wasn't her fault that people sometimes made that difficult.
That's not true at all. What about these two?
Well. They'd had it coming, hadn't they? She wanted to play, and they were both nasty to her and the other kids that had been in the ball pit. Clara actually thought that she'd handled the situation quite well, and she certainly hadn't been cruel. That was the word her mummy always used to try and make her feel guilty. Cruel. Well, she hadn't been cruel. It wasn't like she was going to leave them like this, and they had kind of deserved it anyway.
You can try and make it ok as much as you like, but this is the reason you have no friends.
Clara pushed the thought away angrily. It wasn't her problem people didn't like her. She had been made in God's image, as her mummy told her, and no one could judge her but herself. It upset her, but it wasn't her fault.
If you say so. What now?
"I guess I should make these two big again," she said to herself reluctantly. "Then I should head back and fix Cindy..."
ShouldshouldshouldshouldshouldshouldSHOULD. You're already out here. How about you do what you want to do, not what you should do? Wasn't that the point of turning Cindy into a baby?
She hesitated. Could she leave three grown women in the respective states they were in for a little bit longer? She would return to all of them and change them back eventually...surely that wasn't cruel...
She turned her attention to the ball pit. Maybe she could go another round in there. It wasn't anywhere near as fun by herself, but she couldn't do much about that unless she played with the two K-Mart employees. She cast a glance their way, briefly reconsidering. Neither girl had moved from a top the bear.
Well, I'm gonna play anyway. Even if it's only for an hour. Then I'll change them back, go and fix up Cindy, and mummy won't have to know a thing!
With that, Clara smiled grandly and raced to the ball pit. It was her first genuine smile of the night. Ignoring the gate entirely, she vaulted over the edge and splashed down with enough force to create a tidal wave out of the rainbow orbs she was suddenly immersed in. They splashed over her (the sensation drawing a giggle from the lonely witch's lips), the entire pit and even over the rail into the play area. Had she not been beneath the rainbow surface, she would have seen a bright green ball actually roll all the way over to Tammy and politely tap the girl on her bare heel.
Thoughts of right and wrong abruptly left her mind. There was no more guilt or ponderings of social status. This was what she had been waiting for all night and now that she was here, she quickly realised that the time she had spent trying to play with Brianna had been a waste of time. This was the good stuff. This was what she had had been looking for ever since she'd been interrupted by that mean girl with the crude tongue.
A little way off, Brianna and Tammy slept peacefully, totally unmindful of the eight year old witch laughing and splashing only a little ways off to their left. The shelf-stocker had officially made the transition from K-Mart to Dreamland, and she sucked her thumb with one hand and held her boss's with the other. It felt good to hold Tammy's hand. It made her feel warm and safe. She wished she could sleep with Tammy every night.
Brianna dreamed of rainbows and unicorns and didn't once stress about anything at all.