Cherry wasn't sure how long she was alone. It might have been only a minute, or it might have been twenty; she was too distraught to mark the passage of time. However long it was, she emerged from that miserable haze staring at the treads of a nanny-bot. She lifted her tear-stained face to find the robot holding an equally teary Dawn by the wrist. Her sister's face was red and flushed from the exhaustion of running a positively gargantuan distance of fifteen meters. Judging by her fascination with the ground, she'd clearly been dragged back against her will.
"I thought you didn't want to talk to me," Cherry said wetly. She brushed the tears from her eyes, embarrassed at having been caught crying.
The nanny-bot unhanded Dawn, who snatched her arm away the moment she was free to do so. "Good girls don't push," it grated emotionlessly. The pulsing line on the screen changed from a lifeless grey to a questioning yellow as it pushed the recalcitrant little forward with an eely appendage. "Say sorry, hug and make up."
"I'm sorry I pushed you," her big sister unexpectedly rushed to say. Her voice was quiet - shy, even. "I...I got carried away."
There was genuine regret in Dawn's disfigured face. Her eyes were locked firmly on her little sister's face, and she looked nothing short of miserable. All the fear and anger she'd harboured only minutes before had seemingly vanished, although how much of that was due to being reprimanded and how much was down to manhandling her sister was a mystery.
And what do we make of that?
Cherry had no idea. "It's okay," she answered reluctantly. Maybe if she played nicely, she’d get the answers she needed sooner. "I guess I kind of aggravated you, anyway."
"Hug and make up," the nanny-bot instructed.
Both sisters visibly hesitated, and it was Cherry who made the first move. Throwing herself around her sister, she squeezed Dawn with all the love she could muster. For a long second, it went unreturned...and then she was encased in the sweaty arms of her sister.
Sweaty arms or no sweaty arms, it felt good to be hugged by Dawn again.
God did it feel good.
"I don't know what's going on," she whispered in her big sister's ear, hoping she was talking quietly enough to be inaudible to the robot. She wasn't sure if that really mattered, but it didn't hurt to be safe. "And I'm not trying to trick you. I swear. I'm here to help."
Dawn stiffened, but said nothing.
They broke apart, and the nanny's 'face' turned green. "Good girl," the robot said with all the personality of Microsoft Sam. "You can go back and play now."
Cherry had a better idea. "Come play with me," she offered hopefully instead. She glued her eyes to her sibling's. "We can play...I don't know. Our own game of tag? Just the two of us?"
She wasn't sure she'd have succeeded even if she was convincing. Dawn gave her little sister a lingering look laced with both suspicion and a wild, wishful longing...and then she turned and hurried away in search of her friendship group. A second later, the nanny-bot rolled away in the same general direction, clearly content that it had taught a naughty girl a good lesson in manners.
You'll get there. There's still the whole day ahead of you.
She'd win her sister back yet.
For the time being though, Cherry was alone again, and she absently brushed away what was left of her waterworks and sat straight back down in the dirt she'd just vacated. She needed to think, and she needed to be focused to do that. She couldn't afford to be distracted with self pity.
Cherry stared sightlessly at the wooden fence before her as she turned inside herself. Saying that the situation was far, far worse than she and Raymond had anticipated was the textbook definition of a euphemism; the situation wasn’t even what they’d presumed it to be. They’d assumed that Dawn had sent the letter as soon as she wrote it, but in light of newfound information, that suddenly seemed like a silly assumption to make. If that had been the case, then she'd only been a captive for three months, and there was no way she could have put on that amount of weight in so little time. That was completely ignoring how quickly she'd had a change of heart about the baby treatment, as well as the fact that she'd somehow managed to leave out the detail of her not even needing a training bra. That was hardly a small thing. It just didn't add up.
Another minor detail she had picked up on was the fact that Dawn had alluded to being diapered in her letter. It was impossible to be sure with her bulging in unusual areas and not so much in the expected ones, but Cherry was relatively confident that her big sister wasn't expected to sit in her own waste. Cherry should have been able to see some indication of the padding through Dawn's clothes, even just a faint outline, but there had been nothing. Her underwear situation had clearly changed since writing her letter...and was that likely in a week?
Dawn had been here a lot longer than she'd first thought. That much was clear. What wasn't clear was why she was so reluctant to engage in an adult conversation, as well as her lack of acquaintance with the letter that started it all. That in particular was concerning; it raised possibilities that little woman didn't like to ponder. Had the letter been nothing more than a trap to lure Cherry herself into the clutches of...someone?
That train of thought sent a shiver racing down her spine. Was she the ultimate prize in all of this?
Oh, sis, Cherry mentally lamented to herself, covering her face with her hands as she did so. She didn't want to cry again, but she wasn't convinced she was capable of stopping herself. She fought to maintain control. What have you dragged me into?
Maybe she should -
"Lack of fun detected," the nanny-bot drawled.
Cherry nearly jumped out of her skin.
She felt cold steel around her mid-section, and then she was airborne. A frightened 'eek!' escaped her lips, and then she was moving, carried in the arms of the robot she hadn't even realised had been watching her. Her heart practically imploded. Where the hell had that come from?
"Put me down!" Cherry squealed, still partly in shock at the sudden intrusion into her personal space. She tried to squirm free, but it was futile - what hope did have escaping a creature purpose built to grapple with wriggling youngsters? She could hear the 'fingers' of the thing clicking and whirling beneath her armpits as they made minute adjustments to retain their hold on her without inflicting harm. "What's the matter with you? What did I even do?"
"Lack of fun detected," the machine repeated dumbly.
She went limp, her legs dangling uselessly beneath her. They even policed fun. Great. "I'll show you a lack of fun if you don't put me down," she snapped. “Let go of me!”
It didn't put her down.
They were rolling towards the sandpit, and Cherry could see two Amazonian children playing together by the concrete lip. She had a sinking suspicion that she was about to become acquainted with the duo, and a moment later her fears were confirmed. The nanny-bot plonked her down in the sand next to the kids - twin girls, she quickly realised - and then it craned over to look at her. "It's not good for little girls to sit by themselves," it informed her matter-of-factly. "Ms Bell wants you to make friends with Tyra and Simone."
She turned. Daisy had come outside at some point and was sitting by the door, watching the conversation unfold between the little and the machine. When she saw that she had Cherry's attention, the Amazon gestured pointedly at the twins, then back at to her.
Oh fuck off.
"Ms Bell also wishes to inform you that failure to do so will result in a spanking and corner time," the robot added helpfully.
Daisy must have seen the gears whirring in the little's head, because to illuminate her point she reached down and retrieved a small, wooden paddle that was conveniently located on the ground beside her. She mimed what Cherry presumed was the spanking she'd get if she didn't comply, making a pass with it mid-air before smiling innocently across the yard. The message couldn't have been more clear - Daisy might not have made the decision that earned the little a spot in daycare, but she sure as hell was going to enforce it.
Cherry knew where she could shove that paddle.
Still, she didn't want to have her backside tanned, and the day was still young. There'd be plenty of time to interrogate her sister later, and she could use this time to plot. Forcing a look of civility on her face, she waved pleasantly at the woman she suddenly detested almost as much as a certain bovine cretin she knew, and then sat herself down in the sand with her new playmates. "You can go now," she called over her shoulder to the nanny-bot. "I'm about to have a rollercoaster of fun. Trust me."
"Ms Bell wishes for me to make sure you are assimilating agreeably."
"I'm a great assimilator, the best. I don't need a babysitter."
"Ms Bell wishes for me to make sure you are assimilating agreeably."
"I said - "
"Ms Bell wishes for me to make sure you are assimilating agreeably."
She couldn't convince the contraption that there were surely better uses of its time than babysitting a grown adult, and she quickly gave up.
The twins had cottoned on to the conversation as it concluded and had stopped their play to watch, staring at the little with wide, curious eyes. Tyra and Simone were identical in every detail, right down to the placement of the freckles around their noses. They wore the same blue sundresses, they wore their pigtails the same way, they both had the same rectangular birthmark on their right cheek. They even had the same toenail polish, a ditzy pink with glitter that was striking even beneath their sand caked onto their feet. "You can play with us," the one on the left said pleasantly, clearly noting Cherry's reluctance. "We like making new friends!"
Her sister - Cherry had no idea which was which - nodded agreeably. "What's your name?"
Well, they were cute. She'd give them that. Doing her best to ignore the robot's looming shadow, the little answered, "Cherry."
The first girl smiled toothily. She had braces. "I'm Simone," she said. "I'm four."
"I'm Tyra!" her sibling chimed in. "I'm four too. We're building a city!"
"I'm twenty-three with a university degree and a career in architecture. Nice to meet you."
Neither girl seemed to know what to make of that. Sighing, Cherry recalculated and decided to play nicely. Simone and Tyra were real kids. It wouldn't be fair to give them a hard time just because they'd accidentally stumbled into the path of an outspoken little with grand ideas about her place in the world.
The twins had an arsenal of toys at their disposal, ranging from colourful, plastic shovels and buckets to moulds designed to turn loose sand into detailed castles with buttresses, ramparts and merlons. They had clearly been well on their way to finishing their 'city' before Cherry showed up. A sprawling, haphazard assortment of buildings dotted a good quarter of the sandpit; they were all identical and clearly made from the same mould. Some of them were surrounded by moats with drawbridges, and all were linked by what were presumably roads. At least, that's what Cherry thought the lines in the sand were meant to implicate.
"So what am I doing?" Cherry asked cautiously, feeling incredibly self conscious. Was she really asking how she fit into this game? "You look like you're almost done."
Simone pointed at an empty region of the sandpit beyond the current sprawl. "We're gonna cover the whole sandpit before snack time," she giggled. "Wanna help?"
Do I get a say in the matter? "Sure."
And just like that, Cherry was building sandcastles with two four-year-old girls.
Being careful not to break any of the girls' existing work, the little cautiously made her way through the cityscape to the area she'd been allocated, grabbing one of the moulds as she passed it by. The thought of going along with this charade willingly didn't exactly fill her with joy, but for the time being she figured it was in her best interests to shut up and make sandcastles. Both of the twins were on the far side of their creation, anyway - she was going to be more or less alone, at least for the time being. That was good. It meant she could still go about doing what she was here to do.
Sitting down in the sand, she temporarily put her new task on hold and scoured the yard for sight of her sister. There were children everywhere, running and screaming and generally having the time of their lives, and locating an individual amidst the throng was no small task. Ignoring the ones running around willy-nilly, there was a group by the playground taking turns going down the slide, complete with a little who looked even more at peace with his condition than Dawn was herself. There was a group of girls sitting just beyond the sandpit playing some inane version of patty-cake. Beyond the playground and by the fence, there was another group of Amazonian children huddled around another kid on his hands and knees, his diapered behind plain to see. From where she sat, it looked as if they were bullying the poor guy, and apparently one of the nanny-bots had come to the same conclusion. She watched the robot rush to the kid's rescue.
It took her a long minute to locate her sister. Dawn was beneath the playground itself, in a small cubby situated underneath the slide. Her back was to Cherry, visible only through a small window in the wall, and the only reason Cherry recognised her sibling from the back of her head was because she'd shared a house with that head for sixteen years. Her older sister was with the same kids as before, and they all looked to be immersed in a deep, meaningful conversation. If she had any interest at all associating with Cherry, there was no indication of it.
Cherry figured she should feel some measure of horror at the fact her sister was conversing with toddlers as equals, but she felt nothing. She was beginning to get over her initial shock, and instead found herself contemplating her next move. As soon as the nanny-bot was gone, she decided, she was going to get Dawn by herself, and she was going to get the information she needed. She needed to know what security existed within Dawn’s household, and that meant she needed to interrogate her sister. Better still, she’d get the play-date invite she’d initially hoped for and actually see the dangers before she braved them...but somehow, that struck Cherry as unlikely now.
What if she doesn’t even want to tell me? Cherry chewed on her bottom lip. That was a frighteningly real possibility. If Dawn was happy to insist she was incapable of writing a letter, what were the odds she was capable of co-ordinate her own prison break? Where does that leave us?
She didn’t know.
It didn’t do to dwell on the negatives. Cherry pushed those thoughts away and got to indulging her inner architect.
The nanny-bot didn't leave for a while.
A good half-hour had passed, and in that time Cherry hadn't had a moment to herself. Her hopes of being left alone had been dashed as soon as her first sandcastle collapsed into rubble the instant she removed the mould. Surprised, she could only watch as it crumbled to nothing. What had she done wrong?
"Don't you know how to make sandcastles?" one of the girls - she thought it was Simone - had giggled. She'd picked her way through the construction to Cherry's side. "You've got to use wet sand, silly! Everyone knows that!"
She probably had known that once upon a time. Twenty years ago, to be precise. Her current line of work didn’t generally deal with sand as a construction material. "And where am I going to get wet sand from, exactly?"
The girl had gestured to the side of the sandpit, and following her lead Cherry noticed a dripping tap. "Put your sand in this," Simone had instructed patiently. "Then go put water in. Then your castles won't fall over."
Well, she'd done exactly that, and her sandcastles thanked her for it...but Simone hadn't returned to her side of the city after that. She’d gone to grab her building utensils and her sister, and then she’d returned to help the little work on their combined masterpiece.
Well, she’d helped for a little while, at least.
"You're really good at this," Tyra observed as Cherry removed the mould on what must have been her twentieth castle. Although they’d helped for a short while, both twins had quickly decided to take a break and watch the little do their dirty work for them. That was exactly what she was doing, too; making building after building in neat, orderly rows while constantly running back and forth from the tap to the construction site. They offered the occasional word of advice or a compliment, but they seemed happy to watch. It was a little odd. Like they were waiting for...something. There was a sense of suspense in the air. "Are you sure you haven't done this before?"
"Truth be told," the little answered a little snappier than she intended. The sun-sail could only do so much, and she was hot and bothered. Between the heat, the actual labour she was undertaking and a growing impatience to be on her way, she was finding herself with a shorter and shorter fuse every minute. "I'm actually a world-class sandcastle builder. I've got awards and trophies and everything to prove it."
Both twins found their jaws around their ankles. "Really?" Simone exclaimed in shock. She shared an amazed look with her sister, who looked equally stunned. Both had apparently forgotten that the little woman's first attempt had ended in catastrophic failure.
Under different circumstances Cherry might have found it endearing. "Really. They call me Ms Sandcastle."
Tyra had stars in her eyes as she watched Cherry fill her mould to the brim with sand yet again. "How many castles didcha have to make to be Ms Sandcastle?" the little girl said wondrously. "Can I be Ms Sandcastle too?"
"Fifty seven," Cherry answered with an accompanying eye roll as she returned to the tap. It was the first number that occurred to her. "And yeah, sure. Why not."
"I dunno how many numbers that is," Tyra said hesitantly. "Is it bigger than ten?"
It earned her a light shoulder-punch from her sister. "Doesn't matter. Cherry is Ms Sandcastle," Simone said pointedly. She wagged a reproachful finger in her twin's face and gave her an odd look. "Wait your turn."
"I wouldn't want to give up a title as prestigious as that anyway," Cherry agreed. "Sorry."
She was on her way back to her city when she noticed that the nanny-bot had vanished. The place it had occupied by the edge of the sandpit was beautifully empty.
Relief flooded through her. Cherry smiled. She was itching to move on to something that actually mattered, she'd been here too long as it was.
She carried her fetus sandcastle back to where the twins sat, intending to finish it off for their sake before hurrying away to do her own thing. Sure, having to play with little kids as equals was a little embarrassing, but she didn't bear them any ill will. It wasn't their fault she'd had to join them here. If anything, she'd taken a liking to them. "Well, that's it for me," Cherry happily declared. She fell to her knees and upended the newest addition to their city, and was a little embarrassed to feel the slightest tinge of pride as the mould came away to reveal a flawless castle. She shouldn't be taking pleasure in this, but...damn. She was Ms Sandcastle. "I've had fun playing with you, but I have to - "
That was when Simone jumped on top of it. It exploded into oblivion beneath the little girl's bare feet, spraying Cherry's shins with sandy mortar.
Cherry's smile drooped. "Huh?"
Then Tyra did the same to another. The girls looked at each other, and the glint in their eyes bespoke mischief that Cherry hadn't thought was possible from the angels she'd played with for the last half hour.
"Hey, what are you..."
Her voice trailed off as she watched the twins set about ruthlessly destroying everything she'd built in their company without any apparent provocation. Neither girl showed the slightest ounce of mercy as they systematically trod over each and every castle that Cherry had produced, giggling to themselves all the while. They left all of their own work intact; it was just Cherry's additions that they decided were worth pulverisation. The tiny woman was reminded of Godzilla, if Godzilla had been a little more clinical in his approach.
After a while, they decided they were done, and they stood amidst the ruins of civilisation looking at the little with something that could only be contempt. Cherry stared back, utterly perplexed and a little hurt. Sure, they were just sandcastles...but she'd be lying if she said she hadn't enjoyed the girls' company a little. They were sweet.
Well, they had been, at least.
She shook her head. "What was that for?"
Simone looked over her shoulder, and Cherry realised they had been waiting this whole time for the nanny-bot to leave before they went on their rampage. "Mummy says dwarfs are silly," the little girl giggled once she’d she confirmed that they weren’t being supervised. "You're a dwarf. We don't want you in our city."
"I...no shit I'm small. Look at me," Cherry shot back incredulously. "What's your problem?"
Both girls giggled. "We don't want you in our city,” Tyra echoed. “Dwarfs are stupid."
That hurt more than Cherry wanted to admit. "But...but you told the machine that - "
"Well we don't want a spankin'," Simone answered laboriously, as if the explanation pained her to part with. "That hurts!"
"Mummy says all the dwarfs here are big kids that were naughty," Tyra took over eagerly. "You're here because you were naughty, weren't you? Whatcha do?"
"I...I have no idea what you're talking about. And can you stop calling me a - "
"I bet you still wear diapers," Simone said suddenly. There were barbs in her voice. "Our little sister wears diapers, and mummy says most dwarfs aren't potty trained. Not like us." She looked quite proud of herself. "You should be playing with her, not us."
Cherry flushed at the comparison. "I'm not wearing a diaper."
There was a glint in the girl's eyes. "Show us."
Simone began to giggle again. She turned to her sister. "I bet she's peeing herself right now," she said in an overly loud, conspiratorial whisper. "She probably can't control it."
Tyra nodded wisely. "Like a little baby," she agreed, and they redoubled their efforts to giggle harder than ever.
Feeling incredible small standing before these kids in the padded underwear she totally wasn't wearing, Cherry felt her heart. There was clearly no escaping the Sylvias and Daisys of the world, even in a child's sandpit, and that revelation filled her with a profound sense of sadness she hadn't thought she was capable of. It was a sad day when two four year olds thought they had the right to tease a grown woman. What was wrong with the world?
The worst part was that she'd been quite taken with these two till they'd proven to be two-faced, backstabbing bitches. They were cute.
She sighed. "I don't have to put up with this. Leave me alone."
"Or what? You'll tattle to Ms Bell?" Simone retorted snidely. Nudging her sister, she said, "Just like - "
"You're damn right I'll tattle to Ms Bell," Cherry shot back furiously. Both girls blinked, clearly not expecting to get a blatant confession of what they perceived to be the height of immaturity, but she wasn't done. Not by a long shot. "What's the matter with you, huh? You think it's cool to pick on people for things they can't change? What if I started bullying you because of that stupid birthmark on your face, huh? It kinda looks like a dick. What if I started calling you a dickhead?"
The little voice in her head piped up to say that she was going too far as their eyes bugged out in shock at her crude comeback. Knowing she'd probably regret ignoring it, Cherry ignored it. If it earned her a spanking, so be it. It would be worth every blow to her behind. God had these deceitful creeps touched a nerve. "You like being a bully? Here's a life lesson for you from someone who knows - bullies go nowhere. They're sad, pathetic twerps who get what's coming sooner or later, and when that time comes, they normally get more than they gave, too."
She snorted. "Figure it out. Thanks for wasting my time."
She wasn't interested in hearing their response. Fighting back that stupid urge to cry that had haunted her all day, Cherry turned a stiff back to the two four-year-olds, and went to find her sister. It was long overdue...
...and if she was honest with herself, she didn't think she could bear seeing her ruined empire again.