Cherry was a good girl for Ms Bell on Thursday morning. She answered the saccharine greeting she received at the door with no more than a polite "good morning," and she let Daisy sit her down with the kids to watch show and tell afterwards without a word of complaint. When Daisy pulled her aside after that, she received the appraisal of her good behaviour with an agreeable "thank you Ms Bell." She even managed to hold her tongue when she was subjected to a spontaneous diaper check, something which involved holding her stupid little green dress out of the way to show off her Tinkerbell pull-ups to anyone who happened to walk by. What was there to be gained by fighting the inevitable, after all? She'd learnt her lesson yesterday. It was much easier to roll with the indignities than to make a fuss and bring Daisy's wrath upon her again.
So it was that the undercover little burst into the backyard with mounting excitement once she was finally allowed to run free. Feeling fit to burst with anticipation at the prospect of being reunited with her sister (and the sense she'd apparently reacquired since their last meeting), she sped past a nanny-bot holding one end of a jump-rope for a group of squealing toddlers, past the sand pit and its sprawling cityscape of crude castles, across the yard, through the playground...
...only to stand in the cubby's threshold and discover that she’d made a grievous miscalculation somewhere along the line.
Referring to the structure before her as a cubby was like calling a diaper a toilet; you could argue a case for it, but some fool with a dictionary was liable to slap you silly. In this case, someone had decided to board up the gaps between the playground's support beams to make a shaded place for the kids to play in, and although it was technically sound, calling it a cubby was stretching the truth. It was really nothing more than an enclosed square of dirt. There were a couple of toys scattered around the ground and a mock kitchen set wedged into the back corner, but there was little else notable about it.
The more important detail was that the figure seated beside the plastic cook-top was not her sister.
"You?" Cherry asked uncertainly, looking over her shoulder in case Dawn was still en route. "What are you doing here?"
"Me," Lucas agreed. His voice was as delicate and airy as that of any prepubescent boy. He smiled crookedly. "Try and contain your excitement, new girl. I can only take so much."
"I was expecting - "
"My darling sister, right?" The compliment rolled off his tongue with enough sarcasm to wilt grass. No explanation followed. "Fat chance of that. Ha."
"Your sister?" Cherry echoed, sizing up her companion. Lucas was the model two-year old, with his diaper bulging out around the crotch of his onesie and a pacifier dangling from a lacy chain around his neck, but the educated lilt to his voice and the keen interest in his eyes instantly pegged him as something other than a mindless baby. "I was expecting Dawn - you know, the fat girl who's around here somewhere making a fool of herself. Who's your sister?" Cherry hesitated as a thought occurred to her. "If you're with the twins..."
Lucas cracked that same lopsided smile. It was almost a grimace. "Simone and Tyra? It's bad enough breathing the same air as them a few hours a week. Can you imagine actually having to live with those hateful little things? No, it's just me."
Just Lucas. In that fragmented expression on her companion's face, Cherry saw all her hopes and dreams spontaneously combust in a gigantic, all-consuming fireball. There were no survivors.
Lucas indicated that she should sit, and after a moment's hesitation Cherry did exactly that, already re-calculating her game plan. She'd spend a few minutes here seeing why this guy had orchestrated such an elaborate ruse to get her here, and then she'd hunt down her sister. The thought of having to weather Dawn's lack of co-operation yet again did little to raise her spirits. She'd been so ready for an easy win. "No, the fat girl's my sister, bless her many chins," the tiny boy continued, unperturbed and apparently oblivious to his companion's disappointment. His eyes were locked on her own. "And from the way she reacted yesterday, I'm going to guess you know her."
And just like that, Dawn was on the back burner again.
Your sister? "We're talking about the same fat girl? Dawn?" Cherry asked uncertainly.
"How many fat girls do you see around here?"
"Dawn is your sister," The little repeated sceptically, raising a disbelieving eyebrow as she carefully leaned back against the wall. The wood was hard and unforgiving, and she shifted uncomfortably. "Are you sure about that?"
Lucas said nothing.
"That's great and all, but I think I'd know if she was your sister."
"And why would that be, new girl?" He leaned forward, his face alight with a hunger that was incredibly disconcerting on such an innocent face. "You spent all of yesterday mooning over her - don't think no one noticed - and from what I overheard, you're trying to break her out of this shithole. Right?"
She started, instantly on the defensive. "How did you - "
He cut her off. "Are you or aren't you?"
Christ, where did this come from? "I think that's on a need to know - "
"Don't waste my time. That's a yes, just spit it out." He grimaced, for real this time. He looked agitated. "I've explained myself badly, haven't I? Look, the point is that if you break me out while you're doing Dawn, I'll help you. I'm your man."
"You'll help - "
"You're a slow one, new girl. Yes. I'll help you." Lucas shook his head angrily. "Look, we need to be quick or Daisy is going to come to see why we're hiding under here, and this isn't a conversation I particularly want to explain to her. Or Evie, for that matter. It'll get back to Evie one way or another."
Who pissed in your fruitloops? Cherry stared at her companion in disbelief. For a second, she considered serving this rude creature a piece of her mind...but as irritable and cynical as Lucas may be, he wasn't wrong. They had a clear view of the daycare through the open cubby 'door', and she could see Daisy sitting by the door. She wasn't actively looking their way...but at the same time, it was awfully coincidental that she'd chosen to seat herself directly in line of sight of her newest charge, wasn't it? Cherry doubted her caretaker could do much worse to her than she already had yesterday, but she wasn't willing to put that to the test.
She reigned in her irritation. "You want me to break you out? Well, I'll think about it." Cherry pursed her lips. "Before we get to that, though...Dawn. Explain. You've got ten seconds."
Lucas' mood visibly soured - an impressive feat, considering he wasn't a beacon of joy in the first place. "I just told you. She's my sister."
"She's not - "
"She's my sister in the same way you're a little kid or Evie is my Mama," he said bluntly. "I was 'adopted' into her fucked up family. Maybe if I call her my sister enough I'll start to believe it, right? I think that's the logic I'm supposed to follow." He didn't sound convinced.
Well you couldn't have just said that. "And why have I not heard of this before?" Cherry scrutinised the minuscule figure opposite her with some scepticism. She was intrigued, but at the same time there was something about this that didn't rub her right. She'd had a letter to analyse and a day to interrogate her sister, and apparently Lucas' existence hadn't warranted a mention in either. Why not? "Since when?"
"What do you mean, since when? Since a while. What's so surprising about it?" He leaned out far enough to look out the cubby door, and after confirming that Daisy was still minding her own business, he turned back to Cherry. He was nibbling his lower lip. "You're a little, you must be used to tall creeps deciding you're just the thing they need in their life. It's not exactly a new concept."
No, but... "Okay. Since a while. Go on."
He examined her for a long second, clearly not sure what to make of his companion, but in the end he decided on a shrug. "Whatever, new girl. What am I going on with? That's all there is to say about Dawn."
They stared at each other.
Uncertain as to what to make of this newest revelation, Cherry paused a moment to consider her options. So she hadn't heard a word about Lucas' relation to Dawn up till now - well, what did that mean? Was she being set up?
You already know you've been set-up, she grouched to herself. Dawn would have praised you as the second coming if you hadn't been. Someone's played you.
But the letter still had to at least be half true, because it had led her right to her sister, regardless of whether or not her sister had actually wrote it. Why hadn't it mentioned Lucas?
Her hesitancy struck her companion as funny. "You don't believe me," Lucas grinned. The humour didn't reach his eyes.
She didn't have enough information to make a decision just yet. If he was telling the truth, Lucas would be an invaluable asset, and she couldn't afford to waste that. "How about you tell me who this Evie is," she said at last. She'd already worked out that that letter had been sent a lot longer than three months ago - maybe Lucas had come in after that? "I heard Dawn mention her yesterday too, and - "
The change in her companion's demeanour was instant. Black humour dissolved into disbelief in a heartbeat. "You want to prison break Dawn and you don't know who Evie is?"
There were barbs in that outburst, and Cherry felt every last one of them. The little's face hardened, ready to retort, but he wasn't done. With rising frustration, Lucas growled, "Of course you're going in blind, that's just my luck. Here's stupid me thinking I'm getting out at last, and here's stupid you going in blind. Great. Just. Fucking. Great. "
"How old are you, Lucas?"
His rant tapered off. "Sixteen."
Figured. Unable to contain herself any longer, Cherry snapped, "I thought so. Either try and string two sentences together without resorting to insults, or shut your idiot mouth. I have much better things to do than sit here and listen to your shit. Okay?"
Puppy guilt danced across his face, and she felt a distinct sense of satisfaction. Not so tough now, are we?
"And it's Cherry. Like the fruit. Cherry. None of this new girl shit."
"I...yeah. Sure. Sorry. Cherry."
A pause. Then, "Cool name."
Her knight in shining armour was an angsty teenager. Fantastic. "Forget it. You were telling me who Evie was," Cherry prompted with a sigh and a roll of the eyes. If this didn't go somewhere productive, she wasn't going to be happy. "I'm trying not to go in blind. That's the point."
"I...yeah, right." He shook his head, suitably chastised. "Anyway. She's Annie Wilkes."
"I could have told you that."
"She's...well, she's Evie. It kind of explains itself, if you know her," he went on uncertainly. "Where do you start?"
His ten seconds had to be up, surely. "Find somewhere."
"Well...for one, she's a psychopath. I guess that's worth mentioning?"
"You already did. Annie Wilkes."
"I guess." He looked a little flustered as he floundered around for the words to explain himself. "She's insane, and I'm Exhibit A. I used to be an in-betweener, believe it or not. Apparently there are ways to change that."
Lucas would be hard-pressed to convince her she was a little. "I wasn't even sure you weren't two till about five minutes ago."
"Yeah, well, that's where Evie comes in. She's got a little gun...thing," he said, and he suddenly was much quieter. Between Cherry's reprimand and the topic at hand, the boy had become nothing but meek. The fire had sizzled out, and the change was startling. If he'd been like this from the start, Cherry might have even liked him. "It's literally a shrink-ray. She showed up at our place one night and told my mum to hand me over. I’ve been Dawn’s little brother ever since."
He shook his head. "Because that's what sane people do, right? She was going to put the whole family in diapers if we didn't co-operate."
Shrink rays. Cherry had never heard of one before, but at the same time it didn't surprise her. Some of the Amazonian technological creations, made for the sole purpose of babying those smaller than themselves, were quite ridiculous. From nanny-bots to shrink rays, there existed all types of devices you'd only expect to find existing in really bad fan fiction on anonymous message boards in the backwaters of the Internet. The truth was stranger. "That's horrible," she commiserated, and she meant it.
"Isn't it? And you know what the worst bit is?" His voice rose slightly. "She didn't start with me. She started with my dad. He was her groundskeeper, and he must have fucked something up, because one day she showed up at our door and did exactly the same thing to him. Hand him over or I'll put you all in a nursery. I don't know where he ended up, but..."
He shrugged. "Money was a little tight, but we made do," was his nonchalant observation. It didn't strike Cherry as genuine. "I guess my mum and my sisters are better off now with one less mouth to feed, right?"
If that wasn't the most depressing thing Cherry had ever heard, she didn't know what was. "I'm sorry." Any frustration or dislike she harboured for Lucas temporarily took a backseat. It was bad being a little, sure...having some rich creep prey on your entire family, however, was something else altogether. Suddenly she was just sad. "Man, I'm sorry. That's terrible."
"Anything for Dawn," he grumbled darkly. He began to trace shapeless squiggles in the dirt between his legs with his index finger. He wasn't looking at Cherry. "Anything for precious, fat little Dawn."
"You don't like her?"
"I don't like Evie."
That didn't really answer her question...but with that said, she didn't really care what this hormonal teen thought of her sister anyway.
"Evie," she said out loud instead, testing the word on her tongue. Did her nameless enemy at last have a name?
"Evelyn Goldsworthy," Lucas confirmed bleakly. He dramatically threw his arms in the air. "That's Ms Goldsworthy to you and Mama to me. The one and only, bless her black heart. Praise be."
The words rebounded around Cherry's head like a runaway pinball. Evelyn Goldsworthy. The woman responsible for kidnapping and imprisoning her sister. The woman responsible for physically mutilating her and reducing her to flat-chested, pre-teen-lookalike, presumably for no reason other than the fact little girls didn't have boobs. That was the type of logic Amazons used, wasn't it? It was certainly callous enough.
Cherry saw red. "Tell me more about...Evie. Who is she?"
"There's not much more to tell. She's a prissy old lady that's obsessed with her precious daughter." He brushed away his squiggles with a curiously angry stroke of the hand. "She dotes over her. Don't ask me why - I don't get it, all she does is eat, shit and sleep - but Evie lives for my beloved sister. She has for as long as I've been there. It's a little creepy, when you get down to it."
Creepy doesn't begin to describe people like this, kid. "And how long have you been there?”
"A few months," he answered vaguely. He shrugged. "I really don't know. Six at most, but I don't think it's been that long. It's hard to keep track of time when you're stuck watching cartoons and playing with dolls."
That seemed to gel with what Cherry knew so far. She was operating under the assumption that Dawn must have been there for much longer than the three months mentioned in the letter, and if that was the case, it made sense that she wouldn’t know of Lucas’ existence. He wouldn’t have entered the picture until after it was composed. "I see." She sat back against the cubby's wall, pondering her next question. If Lucas was telling the truth - and she had no reason to believe he wasn't, when she got down to it - than this boy's brain was a goldmine of information.
At last, she asked, "Has Dawn always been...like she is?"
"Like a babbling ball of blubber?"
The little cringed. "Well, you’re not wrong.”
"Yes. She's been a boobless, spineless sycophant as long as I've been there."
Kid, what is your problem with my sister? "Ah."
"I can't even ask her why she is how she is." He paused. "She won't talk above the level of a little kid. It's always been that way. I used to work with my dad in the garden – I’m more of the bookworm type, but money is money – and although I never really had much to do with her then, as far as I know it was the same deal. It's why I was so surprised that you got such a big response from her yesterday." He looked up at his companion in a manner that was almost sly, as if he'd been building up to his next comment for some time. "How did you do that? You actually got her to swear at you. Here I was thinking my sister has a phobia of potty words."
And just like that, Cherry was annoyed again. Had this boy been eavesdropping on her for all of yesterday? Had she really allowed herself to be that indiscrete? "Nothing gets past you, does it?" She snapped.
He grinned, the first genuinely positive expression to cross his face that morning. Dropping the cynicism did wonders for his complexion. "We littles here - or, you know, in-betweeners-turned-littles - keep together. Nothing too overt, obviously, because Daisy will catch on, but..." He shrugged. "Don't think some of us didn't notice that the most convincing toddler on the planet was a little on edge yesterday, or that it had something to do with the newcomer that harassed her all day."
Great. Now he had a network of spies. "Varys eat your heart out," Cherry remarked dryly.
His grin widened. "I don't know about that. It's nothing fancy. We littles look out for each other, and we talk when we can. That's all."
There was a momentary lull in the conversation, and Cherry took the opportunity to consider her new ally. Lucas could help her, there was no question about that. He was her inside man, and with Dawn not wanting to co-operate, an inside man was exactly what she needed. He knew the layout of Dawn's prison. He knew the dangers. He knew Evie. Lucas was her best chance of breaking her sister free, and she'd be foolish to let him go. Raymond was fine and all, but he was just tall, scary muscle in the grand scheme of things. Information was what she needed, and information was what she'd just stumbled upon.
She decided to take a leap of faith. "Lucas," she said. "You're officially a part of my band of outlaws. Welcome aboard."
He didn't seem particularly excited. "I have two conditions."
"You have to take me with you. I'm not spending the rest of my life filling a diaper. When you break Dawn out, you break me out too." He paused before adding, "I'm not helping you out of the goodness of my heart. I'm done with the diapers and...everything else. Help me, and I'll help you. I'm just down the hall from my sister, it won't cost you a thing."
Did he really think she'd be heartless enough to literally run past his door with Dawn in tow? "Of course. Goes without saying."
"Okay. Good. Secondly, you tell me who you are and what's going on. Then we can talk business."
She smiled at that. "Done."
Cherry did her best to make her exposition dump as user-friendly as possible. She quickly filled Lucas in on how she knew Dawn, Raymond and Sylvia, before going on to explain how she'd received her sister's S.O.S in the mail. She explained how their grand plan of sneaking into daycare to get information from Dawn had backfired spectacularly and left them pretty much clueless as to how to proceed beyond hoping they could get through to Dawn.
"Which," she concluded grandly. "Judging by what you've just told me, isn't likely to happen anytime soon. Although I guess that doesn't matter so much now."
"You never had a hope," Lucas agreed. He smiled his grimace. "Honestly, you're lucky she hasn't ratted you out. She probably thinks Evie sent you to test her loyalty. She's not exactly one to take any chances."
"She wouldn't do that to me. I'm her sister." Even as the words left her lips, though, she thought of some of the comments Dawn had made yesterday. There had been more than a few that corroborated with Lucas' theory, hadn’t there? Surely, though...
Her new friend wasn't so certain. "Oh, she would," the diminished in-betweener insisted sagely. "Trust me. Been there, done that. At the very least, she's got her underwear to think about now. Evie’s only started letting her wear pull-ups during the daytime recently. Slightest misstep and she's back on the changing table next to me." He wiggled around in the dirt to emphasise his point, looking disdainfully down at his semi-exposed diaper as it crinkled. "Potty privileges are hard to come by in our household. Can't say I blame her."
"I guess so," Cherry admitted uncertainly. She was suddenly conscious of the padding between her own legs. It was bulky enough to make walking something of a chore - any thicker and she'd be outright waddling. She had faith in her sister's loyalty...but at the same time, she couldn't imagine having to wear a full-fledged diaper around the clock. After being stuck like that for so long...well, who knew what that had done to Dawn's priorities?
They fell into a companionable silence for a minute as they both digested what they'd learnt. All around them, the sound of kids at play assailed the senses, and Cherry was forced to recognise that they'd been talking for quite a while now. It was a miracle Daisy hadn't come looking for them. Suddenly nervous, she cast a look over her shoulder to see where her nemesis had got to. The result did little to ease her concern. Daisy had vanished from sight.
"So Dawn sent you this letter?"
The rhetorical comment came out of nowhere. Lucas had a faraway look on his face, as if contemplating something of great complexity. Cherry studied him curiously as she said, "Well...that's the thing, isn't it?"
"It makes sense that she did, because...my dad," he said slowly. He looked stricken. "I never found out what my dad did to piss Evie off, you know. She just showed up one day, blasted him with her ray gun and took off into the night, never to be seen again. I kind of half hoped to find him with Dawn when I got hit with it too, but...”
His voice trailed off, and suddenly he looked nothing but sad. He shook his head as he finished, “What if he's the gardener from your letter?"
What if he's the gardener from the letter?
It proved to be the missing link.
"That..." Cherry said thoughtfully, examining her companion closely. He seemed lost in his own thoughts. "Would make sense."
"Dawn sent you the letter through the groundskeeper, and as far as I know there hasn't been another one since my dad vanished. Her place was overgrown even before I moved in, and you should see it now. It's like the Amazon." His face drooped. "That has to be it, they have to be the same person. Evie must have found out my old man was trying to help Dawn, and she...she..."
Things began to crystallise for Cherry.
"Dawn did write the letter, but Evie intercepted it," the little mused. Her eyes widened. "She found out Dawn was trying to escape, and she punished Dawn by...taking her boobs."
"It is, isn't it?" Cherry exclaimed. She sprang to her feet and began to pace back and forth, following her stream of consciousness. Excitement pounded through her veins. "Evie must have taken Dawn pretty much as soon as she got home from seeing me. She came to visit so we could celebrate the fact she survived her gallbladder surgery. Yeah, that makes sense. That fits." She could practically see the scene playing out before here, re-enacted in a half-visible dreamscape in the air before her. "Dawn plays along for three months - that's what she said in the letter, three months - and eventually she has enough of it, and she sends for help via the sympathetic gardener. Evie intercepts it, though, and she punishes both the gardener - your dad - and my sister. Your dad gets shrunk and put in an orphanage or something somewhere. Dawn has her boobs taken and ends up too terrified to try a stunt like that again."
"I guess it fits," Lucas admitted. He sat there watching his companion pace restlessly from his groove in the dirt. "It also means you're screwed."
Cherry hesitated mid stride. "What do you mean?"
"Let's assume Evie did intercept the letter," he said impatiently, as if explaining it to a young child. The know-it-all teenager momentarily made a reappearance, replacing the abandoned child with ease. He looked her in the eye. "So how does it end up at your place?"
They looked at each other for a long moment.
"It's a trap," Cherry answered slowly. She felt her heart sink. She’d known it all along, of course, but... "Evie ended up with the letter after Dawn failed to get it out. She’s the only one that could have sent it. She wants me to rescue Dawn."
"She wants you to try to rescue Dawn," Lucas corrected. He smiled sympathetically. "Do you reckon she wants you to get away with it? You've been set up."
She bit her lip, thinking. "But why wait months and months before sending it out?"
Lucas shrugged. "Beats me."
It beat Cherry too. She had no answer. One thing was blatantly obvious to her though, and that one thing was far more important than the fact a letter got lost in transit for a little while.
She'd walked right into Evelyn Goldworthy's trap.
"Oh, crap," Cherry breathed, horrified.