Monday, 16 January 2017

All For Violet (A Diaper Dimension Story) | 1 - Vultures

The beach had been invaded by news crews while Flynn was away.

"Guess you were right, Vi," the little remarked, coming to a stop beside his wife. He cast an incredulous eye over the mass of cameras and boom-mics at the top of the boat ramp, barely a stone's throw away. Was one lousy fashion designer worth such a fuss? Apparently so. "Ten points to Gryffindor." 

"You sound surprised. Of course I'm right." Violet threw a dour gaze across the water, at the inescapable nuisance only a hundred meters offshore. Cecil Winters, owner and namesake of the country's most prestigious clothing line for female littles, was even louder in life than he was on the television. It was a fact which had been growing steadily less and less tolerable as the afternoon progressed. The Amazon ripped across the water at blistering speeds, pushing his jet ski to the point of protest as he raced up and down the beach. The demonstration was presumably meant to be impressive, but between the growl of the motor and the curtains of spray, it was nothing more than obnoxious. "Besides, who else would it be? How many celebrities come from the Isles, of all places?"  

"I wasn't aware you'd be one to know." Flynn passed his wife the drink he'd bought her, and his heart soared at the grudging smile it earned him. It was something of an endangered species in recent times. At least when it concerned him. "Since when do you follow celebrity...well, anything?"

"Since some idiot with a jet ski decided to be a pest on the first day of my vacation." She patted the phone resting on her bare midriff and pretended not to notice as her husband's eyes subsequently slid to the top half of her bikini. "I had it puzzled out even before the vultures showed up. It's him, alright."

I can barely contain my excitement. "Okay, Vi.The sand was pleasantly warm beneath Flynn's bare feet, and without further delay he lowered himself onto the beach. Violet moved aside to make room on the beach towel, but he waved her off, content to entrench himself in the sand's embrace. "You're in Sunrise City - Sunrise freaking City - and you want to spend your time stressing about some prick with a jet ski?"

"I've been here before. You know that."

"Not with me you haven't." He donned a silly grin and made a show of laying a wet, slobbery kiss on her cheek. Violet squealed and wriggled away, and he let her go, laughing. He abruptly realised that he was the happiest he'd been in a very long time, even despite his wife's (admittedly exasperating) lamentations. Since he'd got laid off, at least, and how long ago had that been? Six months? Longer? "This is exactly what we need, Vi. I couldn't be happier, and you're going to offend me if you don't feel exactly the same."

It was true. Flynn and Violet had been happily married for two amazing years when along came the unemployment train. The firm Flynn worked for downsized in May (seven months, he realised), and his job ended up on the cutting room floor; the result was one unemployed little and one unimpressed wife. Although Violet's managerial job at the local Beds R' Us was enough to get the couple by, she'd been forced to take on additional hours, and as such, the hours they spent together grew fewer and fewer. Her support gradually turned to derision as her husband remained jobless, and what began as a thin tear in the fabric of their relationship soon deepened into a deep, yawning chasm.

Violet never outright said she resented her husband for his lack of success finding employment, but she hardly needed to. It was hard to miss the way she turned up her nose as she walked through the door at 10pm each night, or how stiff she became in his arms when he tried to kiss her. The "I love yous" became strained and perfunctory. Their sex life dissipated. Their relationship became a chore.

And yet...here they were! Sunrise freaking City, Pearl of the Coral Sea! Sure, it was a less of a holiday than an attempt to mend their fractured relationship, but it was something. After a couple of long, torturous months spent on rocky ground, the postcard beaches of Sunrise City were a welcome relief. Flynn inhaled the ocean breeze the way a man in the desert might inhale water. It was cool and salty on his tongues. Paradise, just like everything else found at the number one holiday destination east of the Spine.

Minus the fool in the water, at least.

"What does he get out of this?" Violet mused, shaking her head at the spectacle. Cecil Winters might be a household name everywhere between Gloam and the Dawning Isles, but a hundred meters out from shore, he was little more than a faceless nuisance in a bright yellow life-jacket. Even as they watched, the most famous fashion designer in the country performer an abrupt U-turn and went hurtling back the way he'd come. Ten seconds later, he repeated the gesture. Spray rained from the sky, and waves lapped at the shore like a lovesick dog. "I don't get it. Surely that can't be fun."

Flynn shrugged and looped his arm around his wife's shoulders, savouring the feel of her bare flesh against his own. He couldn't say he cared all that much about some narcissistic celebrity right then. Not when his wife was happy to talk to him. "We can go somewhere else if you like," he suggested. "The beach goes up a long way."

"I'd rather he just showed a little respect. He doesn't own the beach."

Not that he couldn't afford it, if he wanted to. "I can't make that happen. I can move us somewhere a little quieter."

"And let him win?" Curls the colour of dark chocolate fell over Violet's eyes as she nodded in Cecil's direction. She brushed her hair aside with a dramatic sigh. "I don't know if I can stomach that, Flynn. I just don't."

Flynn could only shake his head. Easy to anger and long to forget, Violet was like to keep any bee she found in her bonnet well past the point of reason. She was as stubborn as she was beautiful, and as much as he loved her, he had to admit her act did wear thin on occasion...such as this one, considering the circumstances. He was about to open his mouth to point out that she should be more appreciative of their situation, of the good they were doing for their relationship, when Cecil Winters pre-empted any further discussion by veering towards the shore. Thank God, the little thought to himself. His eyes slid to his wife and found her tracking the jet ski's trajectory, same as him. That'll make her happy. 

It also made Cecil's entourage happy. The crowd of paparazzi was close enough to where the little's relaxed that Flynn could practically see their eyes light up at the realisation their victim was en route. There was a sudden flurry of activity as they rushed to finalise their preparations, but the Amazon in the water was upon them before they'd made it halfway down the boat ramp.

"What's this?" The media darling known as Cecil Winters hailed his reception with a resonant, baritone rumble that made Flynn think of the opera. He was a handsome man, only just entering his forties and still untouched by the true ravages of middle age. Rippling muscles the colour of ripe olives gleamed beneath his light-jacket, clad in nothing more than a sheen of moisture that sparkled in the sunlight. His hair was dyed a tasteful shade of grey. "Can't a man enjoy an afternoon on the water without being pestered by gulls like you lot?"

"Mr Winters!" A lady in heels and a suit totally unsuited to the climate called out. She waddled down the ramp in short, mincing steps, brandishing a microphone in front of her like a weapon. A guy with a boom mic followed close behind. Neither seemed cognisant of the fact their target was too far off shore to be picked up by their equipment.  "Julia Light, from Little's Weekly. Is it true you are expanding the scope of Cecil Winters to include a fashion line for male littles, and if so, when do you expect to go public with an announcement?"

The man in the jet ski laughed. It was the sound of an avalanche. "If I was keeping such information from the public, than why in the world would I be inclined to share it with you, Ms Julia Light from Little's Weekly?" Cecil swung down from the jet ski and landed in thigh-deep water. A bemused grin graced his lips at the sight of the boom mic craning towards him. "That was a rather silly question, don't you think?"

"Mr Winters!" Another reporter pushed past a very flustered Ms Light. "Where is Little Miss? Your daughter is well known to love the beach, but I don't see her anywhere. Surely you haven't left your her alone at home? Does she have a babysitter?"

"Ha! And that's the sort of question that's like to get you banned from future interviews." Cecil's smile was anything but irritated, however. In fact, he looked rather smug, and it was this expression which predicated Flynn's understanding of what the man had been trying to achieve with his aquatic shenanigans. He was getting their attention, the little abruptly realised. The sheer, calculated cunning of it made him grin. Make it nice and obvious that the great Cecil Winters is out on the waterfront, and all the press come running. They get a couple of pictures to post on their website, and he gets a tonne of free publicity. Brilliant!

The Amazon tethered his jet ski to the jetty, and without preamble attempted to pick his way through the orbiting throng of press. He answered a handful of questions as he walked, mostly with as much sass and substance as in the first two instances, but it was evident he was enjoying himself. If his smile ever faltered, Flynn certainly didn't notice - the man seemed perfectly at home in the spotlight, and it wasn't hard to understand why. His face would be plastered across every gossip magazine in Sunrise City before the day was through. It was a narcissist's wet dream, and it was hard to believe Cecil Winters was anything but a narcissist.

"They're eating out of the palm of his hand," Flynn remarked. He found the taller man's manipulation of human nature utterly fascinating. "He's a natural."

Violet snorted. "He's a tosser, that's what he is."

The fashion designer reached the line of asphalt at the top of the ramp, and there he stopped, smiling that same charming smile that had won the hearts of TV viewers all over the country. Had Flynn any inclination to bat for the other team, he imagined the sight would have made him weak at the knees.  "Now, now," Cecil chided as he turned back to face the sea of cameras. The same tone could have been used to lecture a nagging child. "I'm happy to answer all of your questions, but first I have to get my vehicle out of the water. If you'd be kind enough...to..."

By sheer chance, the Amazon's gaze soared over the crowd and fell squarely upon Flynn. His voice broke off, and for a long, pregnant moment he simply stared at the little. Frank interest blossomed on his face the way wild flowers blossomed in the Springtime. It took Flynn a second longer to realise that he was the object of the celebrity's attention, and when he did his heart performed a sickening barrel roll.

"Uh. Flynn?" Violet's voice was cautious as dawn, and when the cameras began to turn their way, she outright shrank into her husband's chest. "They're all looking at you, aren't they? He's looking at you."

"He sure is." Flynn considered waving at the celebrity, figured that was a step too far, and instead smiled a weak, awkward smile. Cecil made no response but to stare him down. The giant's eyes were the colour of ash. "What do I do?"

In the end, he didn't have to do anything. Cecil Winters broke from whatever spell had possessed him all by himself. The Amazon returned to reality with a sudden, unsightly jerk, as if someone had slapped him flush across the cheek. "...yes, if you could just, uh, wait somewhere out of the little - the way, the way." There was a note of confusion in his voice. Flynn heard it clear as day. "My apologies, someone must have...must have walked over my grave. Yes, that's it. Now, please get out of the way. It's such a nice day, is it not? It'd be a shame to end it with one of you under my trailer."

The cameras were returning back to Cecil, Flynn noted with some relief. There was an outburst of appreciative laughter from the crowd, and with a final flash of the pearly whites the giant took his leave, striding across the car-park to retrieve his car and his trailer.

"What was that all about?" Violet poked her husband's ribs. Her voice was unsteady. "What did you do, Flynn?"

"Nothing," he answered honestly, flinching away from the impact. He realised he was shaking. As a little, attention from the taller folk of the world was never a good thing. Most individuals at that altitude held the archaic view that the people flitting about their kneecaps were little more than up-jumped children, to be tolerated until there was an excuse not to, and despite numerous protests, demonstrations and civil right's movements, this remained true across the vast majority of the country. There was the odd exception to the rule, such as Fallvale - Fallvale was a state founded by littles, after all - but here in the Dawning Isles, civilisation had yet to catch up with modern ideals. It wasn't at all uncommon for a little to find their adulthood revoked with scant provocation or justification; one spilt drink might be all it took for a passing giant to decide you were too childish to use anything but a sippy cup, for instance. From there, it was a short trip back to diapers, afternoon naps, and relearning your ABCs. It was as ridiculous as it was demeaning, but it was what it was.

"Well, don't make a habit of it." Violet sounded as disturbed as he felt. She pulled away from Flynn and lay down on the towel, shuddering as she did so. "I quite like this bikini, thank you very much. Diapers aren't anywhere near as fashionable."

"A Cecil Winters diaper might change your opinion on that."

His attempt to make light of the situation fell flat. "A diaper is a diaper, Flynn."

That was a hard line to argue with.

The couple watched as Cecil Winters disappeared around the far side of the jetty, wary as a cornered animal. The assorted press directed a few curious glances in their direction, but for the most part they seemed content to do as they'd been instructed. The mob gradually moved out of the way, making room for the Amazon to reverse his trailer down the boat ramp, and a moment later Cecil returned to do exactly that. He was halfway down when he came to an abrupt stop, wound the driver's-side window down, and poked his head out into the mid-afternoon breeze. He looked directly at Flynn. "You there!" the most famous man in the country cried. "You, the little in the blue shorts! Come give me a guide!"

For a second, Flynn believed neither his eyes nor his eyes. When he realised he had no choice, he began to panic. This is a dream, he thought wildly. Frantically. He looked to Violet for support, but her eyes were as wide as his own. Her face had gone to colour of week-old milk. No way this is happening, not to me, not now, this was meant to fix things, I can't fix things if I'm in a -

"Yes, you! Come on, I don't have all day!"

Still half convinced he'd been lulled to sleep by the warmth of the day, Flynn gave his wife what he hoped was a reassuring pat before stumbling to his feet and hurrying across the sand. Cecil smiling down at him from the front seat, and the little couldn't help but notice how white his teeth were. They were the colour of snow and the shape of tombstones.

"He...hello," he managed to stammer out, nervous beyond all belief. He glanced over his shoulder for moral support and saw Violet watching from a safe distance. Her hands wrung a lock of her hair as if it were a stress ball. "What do you need?"

"A guide. Didn't I just say so? Tell me how far back I need to go."

His brain was made stupid by nerves. "To go back...for..."

"For the ski, my dear boy, the ski." Cecil laughed his deep, booming laugh. "I'm not going to eat you, if that's what you're concerned about. I'm on a strictly vegetarian diet these days. I have to watch my figure, you see - the last time I let myself put on a few pounds, my gut made the front page of National Inquiry. I've had to cut littles from my palette altogether. It's terribly unfortunate, but what can you do?"

"I...I don't know." Stupid, he screamed at himself. Stupid! Stop talking!

Cecil's smile grew. It reminded Flynn of a shark. "Please don't run off after we've sorted out my ski. I'd like to have a word with you...if that's to you and your lady's likings?" He looked over Flynn's shoulder then, undoubtedly sizing up Violet. When he looked back, his expression had turned thoughtful. "I'm not doing a particularly good job of winning your trust, have I? You littles are a flighty lot, after all."

Images of diapers and ABC blocks flashed past Flynn's eyes. "I don't know what you're trying to say," he managed to get out. "Now if you don't - "

"What's your name?"

He hesitated. "Flynn."

"Fantastic. Well, if you haven't already been introduced to me by that flattering picture on the front page of National Inquiry, then you should know my name is Cecil Winters, and in all seriousness I have no wish to eat you, harm you, or in any way take advantage of you." He dropped his voice then, low enough that no one would be able to overhear their conversation. "I already have a daughter, Flynn. I love her dearly, and I don't have room for another little in my life. All I ask for is an audience. You're free to say no, but you should know that I will more than make it worth your while." He shook his head, and now his gaze flickered to the paparazzi just up the road. There were a handful creeping closer, intrigued by the quiet conversation between the celebrity and the little, and this was not to Cecil's liking. Eyeing the approaching mass of humanity with perceptible irritation, the giant picked up the pace. "After we're done here, I am going to go straight to the Square Rose," he murmured. He shot the words out his mouth like bullets from a machine gun. "It's a restaurant on Beachside Row. I'll wait there for an hour. I'll buy you and your lady friend lunch, and afterwards you can take or leave the proposition I wish to make you."

Flynn stared. "But what - "

"I'd rather not say, with the gulls about as they are."

What in the hell? "But - "

"The Square Rose. Beachside Row." And with that, Cecil's face once again broke out in a monstrous, sunny grin. He glanced back at the approaching media one last time before pulling back inside the car, and with no warning whatsoever, proceeded to scare the living daylights out of Flynn by slamming the car horn with a clenched fist. "Begone, my boy!" he cried at the top of his lungs. He looked from the cameras to Flynn, and to the little's undying incredulity, the giant winked at him. It'll be our secret, the expression said. The Square Rose. Beachside Row. "Begone! To the ski, before I decide you can't be trusted without a little padding between your legs!"

To be continued in Chapter 2: All For Violet

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Promise | Epilogue

One month later...
The woman kneeling in the front garden must have been beautiful in her youth, and even with the first traces of middle age starting to make their presence known, she was stunning. Honeycomb hair streaked with grey cascaded from the confines of a floppy straw hat, falling to her shoulders like a waterfall of liquid gold. Her face was lined but noble; her frame thin but sturdy. She was enamoured with her gardening and didn't look up as the car came to a rest on the opposite side of the street, even when Raymond lowered the windows to let the afternoon breeze inside. Cherry watched her work with no small amount of relief. She'd half expected to find the house deserted. After everything Evelyn had put the poor woman through over the last year, it wouldn't have surprised the little in the slightest.

"That's my mother," said Lucas. His voice was solemn as he leaned past Raymond to lay eyes on a family member for the first time in months. The in-betweener had been restored to his former height mere days after leaving Thornbridge, and the effort required wasn't as enormous as it might have been a few weeks ago. "Man, she's still here."

Francis Pearce toiled away in her garden bed, as of yet completely oblivious to her son's return. Cherry couldn't see exactly what it was she was doing, but the older woman had a spade in hand and a variety of plants scattered about the grass beside her. The sight fascinated Lucas to no end. The in-betweener looked as if he didn't quite believe his eyes, as if he fully expected his mother to evaporate in a puff of smoke at any given moment. Cherry had felt the same way concerning her sister during that first week back in Hearth, and she had to grin. It was heartening to watch someone else go through the same experience.

"Should we go say hello?" Dawn suggested. The little had made every effort to cloak herself in adulthood since the night of her escape, and as a result the smile on her lips was the colour of freshly picked grapes. She'd taken to makeup like a burning man took to water over the last month, and today was no exception. Her face wouldn't have been out of place at a sit down dinner. "She's waited long enough, don't you think?"

"She's going to freak." Lucas glanced over his shoulder with an easy grin. "Sarah too, if she's here." He shook his head wondrously, then almost as an afterthought added, "God, I hope she's here."

"Shall we go find out?"

They got out of the car then, pausing only long enough to collect their belongings before making the short trek across the road. Lucas led the way, with Cherry, Raymond and Dawn only a step behind. The little marvelled that the minuscule boy she'd rescued a month previous was the same giant who's shadow she now literally walked in. Raymond had driven the three of them to a local little's clinic in Hearth the very same day they'd returned, and without any questions or fuss the doctor present had cured Evelyn's victims of their assorted afflictions. All Cherry remembered of the experience was being sat down in front of a pulsing screen in a sterile hospital room; when she came to, she'd been catapulted an hour into the future and into the back of Raymond's car, free of her nasty thumb-sucking and pants-wetting habits. Both Lucas and Dawn had undergone a similar reversal of Evelyn's hypnotic suggestions, and on top of that, the doctor had also returned Lucas' height to him. After spending a week with a tiny boy confined to his hands and knees, Cherry didn't think she'd ever adjust to the new Lucas. He was only slightly shorter than Raymond these days; he was level with the Amazon's chest, and she was level with the in-betweener's belly-button. She stared at the back of his head as they crept up behind Francis, marvelling at the chain of events that had led them to this moment. It was a crazy, crazy world.

Lucas came to a halt a scant meter away from his mother, and for a long moment he hesitated. "Do you need a hand?" he finally asked. His voice was uncertain, as if he was afraid she might turn around and send him off to Evelyn all over again. "Mum?"

His mother had been bent over her task, and at the sound of Lucas' voice she quite literally fell forward into the dirt. Francis' hat came lose and tumbled away, but she paid it no mind. The in-betweener spun around, her face flustered and startled, and when she at last caught sight of her son her eyes immediately began to water. "I'm dreaming," she declared uncertainly. Her voice had gone hoarse in the split second it took to recognise her son. "You died, all the papers said you...you died. She took you from me, and when her place went up you...she..."

Her voice trailed off as Lucas spread his arms. "Someone forgot to tell me I was meant to be dead." He grinned. "Oops."

Lucas' mother caught sight of the group behind her son then, and when she saw Dawn, she let out a weak, wet chuckle. "Hello there. You're looking very grown up these days. How did you convince her...too...no, wait." Francis wiped at her eyes, suddenly angry. "No, you're meant to be dead too. Both of you are meant to be dead." She climbed to her feet and stepped away from her son. "Is this a trick?" she snapped. "Has she sent you to grab one of your sisters? I won't have it, I should never have let her take you, so if you think you're going to run off with Sarah or Ashleigh you can damn well - "

"Mum." Lucas matched her retreat and slipped his arms around her waist. He was a half a head taller than his mother, and he rested his chin on the crown of her head."It's not a trick. I'm...I'm home."

Cherry wasn't sure when everyone started crying, but before she knew it, everyone was crying. Francis starting bawling, and then Lucas started bawling, then her sister starting sniffling beside her and there must have been something in the air, because by God, she started sniffling too. Raymond was the only one immune to the rampant emotions wrecking havoc on the front lawn; he took one look at his roommate before chuckling to himself and shaking his head, looking away across the street to give everyone some privacy. The exasperated look on his face drew a choked giggle from Cherry. She patted at her eyes with a handkerchief and quietly thanked God that she hadn't put on any eyeliner that morning, unlike her sister. Dawn was going to look like a raccoon in a minute. The thought made her start giggling all over again, giggling like a lunatic until she was gasping for air.

After a long minute, Francis at last pulled away. Cherry didn't think she'd ever seen someone so happy. "How did you get away?" she asked in a rush. Words tumbled out her mouth like rain from the sky. "Did she let you go? There was that massive fire, they think it was because she was a dealer, did you - "

Lucas cut her off with a grand, sweeping gesture in Cherry's general direction. "Mum," he began cheerfully. His smile was gash that threatened to slice his head in half. "I'd like to introduce you to Cherry, prison-break extraordinaire and the bravest little to ever live. "

Cherry smiled awkwardly as the spotlight fell squarely upon her shoulders. "Raymond helped," she added helpfully. She looked up at her roommate and grinned. "It was a team effort."

"Someone had to break the doors down." Raymond shrugged and returned the smile. He ruffled her hair, laughing as she shrugged away. "Cherry can't even break down a pet door."

"You'll have to tell me everything." Francis' eyes were shining as much from tears as excitement. Having got over the initial shock of having her dead son returned to life, she was suddenly as animated as a bee on a caffeine high. "Come inside, I'll put a cup of coffee on." She turned back to her son, and seemingly unable to help herself, she hugged him again. "Your sisters are going to be thrilled, Lucas. You've been away a long time."

"Sarah hasn't moved out yet?" Cherry could hear the naked hope in his voice.

"Lords, no. I can't even get her to move out of her bedroom." Francis laughed to herself and bounced away, crossing the front garden in what seemed like all of two steps. "Come in, all of you, come in!" She called over her shoulder. "Make yourself at home. I'll go tell the girls you're here!"

Then she was gone, and they were alone on the front lawn.

"She's very happy for someone that just saw a ghost," Dawn quipped. She seemed incapable of banishing the smile from her face. "Two of them, in fact."

"I'm surprised she remembers what you look like. She only ever saw you once or twice." Lucas chuckled to himself and wiped his eyes. He looked about sheepishly, embarrassed at having been caught crying. "I didn't realise how much I missed her till just now. She's right; I was away a long time."

Dawn hugged him as best she could from her altitude. "You're home now," she offered gently. She flashed Cherry a smile over her shoulder, and the younger little knew what she was thinking. The connection made her all warm and fuzzy inside. It makes everything worth it, she thought to herself. "That's all that matters. You have plenty of time to make up for it."

"I guess you're right." He hugged her back. After a minute, they pulled away, beaming at each other, and without a word made for the front door. Smiling to herself, Cherry went to follow them...

...only to have Raymond pull her back.

"Hey," she exclaimed, following the enormous hand on her shoulder up to her friend's grizzled visage. There was an odd look on the Amazon's face, one that was simultaneously affectionate and uncomfortable. Cherry raised an eyebrow. "What gives?"

"You did a good job, you know."

She wriggled free of his grasp. "So did you. I meant that."

"A good job of what? Breaking down a door or two?" Raymond shrugged and sat down on the ground. Even seated, he was still taller than his roommate. "Cherry, you were the one who did all the heavy lifting. All I did was watch from the sidelines."

"That's bullshit, and you know it."

"Is it?" The Amazon didn't look convinced. "Unless I'm very much mistaken, you were the one the infiltrated the daycare from Hell. You were the one who suffered through Daisy Bell."

Cherry stared at him, bemused. Why was he so keen to write himself out of the story? Infiltrating the 'daycare from Hell' had even been his idea, after all. He wasn't being fair. "Yes, but - "

"You were the one who arranged a playdate with Lucas." He was literally ticking criteria off his fingers now, one by one. "You were the one who put up with the thumb sucking, with the diapers and the God knows what you're too embarrassed to tell me. You were the one who convinced your sister she couldn't help herself unless she helped us, and you were the one that suffered through my psychopath girlfriend every step of the way." His eyes bored holes into her soul. "You realise that you're the hero of the story, right?"

How many heroes wear diapers, though? Cherry sat down beside her friend."What's your point, Ray?"

"I know you," he answered, eyeing the open the door a stone's throw away. "We're going to go in there, and they're going to shower you with praise, and you're going to talk it down. Like it was no big deal. Well, you're free to do that...but what you did was a big deal, and I want you to know that." He ruffled her hair again, and when she'd managed to clear it from her line of sight, she was shocked to see that Raymond was tearing up. "You saved two people from a really horrible fate, Cherry. I'm proud of you."

The warm fuzzy feeling she'd felt before returned like a tsunami. "I'm touched, Ray."

"I mean, I get where you're coming from," he went on. "But don't go telling everyone I have an equal share in the glory, okay? I almost ruined everything." He abruptly looked away, shaking his head and staring at the grass between his splayed legs. "Absolutely everything. I forced Sylvia to come along, forced her on you every step of the way. If I'd been smart enough to realise she was a lost cause, that last night in the motel would never have happened. That was as much my fault as it was hers. We were all this close - " he held his thumb and forefinger a scant inch apart " - to spending the rest of our days in a crib, waiting to be fed from a bottle and getting our diapers changed. This close!"

"You couldn't have known."

"Of course I could have. That's the problem." He sighed. "How could I have missed it?"

They were quiet for a long minute then. The little watched her roommate, watched the gears ticking in his head. Sylvia had been wrong in thinking there'd ever been a romantic interest between the two of them, but right then, Cherry had never loved him more. Here he was, beating himself up for selflessly jumped into a volatile situation to help a little in need. Sure, Sylvia had ended up being a right piece of work in the end, but all Raymond had wanted was to reconcile her differences with the smaller folk of the world. No one could ever hold that against him. "What did you do to her?" Cherry heard herself ask. She caught his eye. "Afterwards."

The look Raymond gave her was unreadable. The last Cherry had seen of Evelyn and Sylvia, the Amazonian waiter had been escorting them up the front steps of the Thornbridge Correctional Facility for Troublesome Littles, an etiquette school and adoption agency rolled into one. He'd returned all by himself, and he had yet to divulge a word of what he'd instructed the matron there to do with his prisoners. The look on his face implied that this was not something that was about to change, and sensing a blunder on her part, Cherry rushed to say, "I mean, if you're comfortable - "

"I'm not."

Oh. "Okay."

Her roommate got to his feet. "We should probably go inside," he said, brushing himself down of grass and dirt. "We're the main attraction, after all."

"That's a little egotistical." Cursing her own stupidity, Cherry followed in his footsteps, accepting the hand he offered to help her up. Of course he doesn't want to talk about what he did with Sylvia, she chided herself. It's only been a month. He's still not over her. "More important than Lucas?"

"Of course." His grin was as unexpected as it was welcome. "As far as I'm concerned, you and I are the two most important people on the face of the planet. You should know that by now."

She laughed with him, and the last vestiges of doubt dissipated like frost in the afternoon sun. "Me too?" she teased. "That's a bit risky, isn't it? You're putting your faith in someone that's proven she has every chance of pissing on your carpet."

Raymond chuckled at that, and for the third time that day he ruffled her hair. This time, she let him. "Cherry," he said, taking the little's hand and pulling her into Lucas' family home. "You can piss on my carpet anytime you like."

THE END

Monday, 26 December 2016

The Promise l 25 - The Promise

It was as if the hand of God had fallen from Heaven to smite Evelyn Goldsworthy's house from the face of the planet. There was a colossal crack, as if the world itself were breaking in two, and then a pillar of fire burst forth to link the sky to the ground. It blazed amidst a cloud of debris as black as the ace of spades. Cherry felt her teeth ache and her heart sink as she watched the rear-view mirror light up like day. So much for this not being a movie, the stunned little thought to herself. She couldn't tear her eyes from the spectacle. Or being subtle. 

Raymond pulled over to the curb, and for a long moment all any of them could do was peer through the back window at the cataclysm they'd wrought. Wreckage rained from the night sky like shrapnel, and Cherry's heart further sank from her gut to her toes as she saw just how far some of it was being flung. They'd not only nuked Evelyn's house, they'd nuked a sizeable chunk of suburban Thornbridge. The realisation that freeing her sister was going to potentially injure innocent strangers left a bitter taste in her mouth. She'd gone from being a liberator to an arsonist. How had it come to this?

Her sister evidently shared her train of thought. "If I'd known this was going to happen, I wouldn't have even thought of leaving." Dawn ripped her gaze from the carnage to look Cherry in the eye, her face pallid and distraught. The chubby little wrung the hem of her nightie as she said, "I never thought I'd say this, but spending a lifetime filling my pants suddenly doesn't sound so bad. I might have even smiled as I did it."

"Speak for yourself. I'm just disappointed Mama wasn't inside." Lucas had to physically stand up to peer out the back windscreen. The inferno eddied and swirled on his face like rippling water. "It's the least she deserves."

Cherry grimaced. Horrible though Evelyn may be, the little wasn't one to wish death upon anyone. "That's awful."

"More awful than what she did to me and your sister?"

Raymond spoke up before his roommate could force herself to make a half-hearted rebuttal. "We should get going," the Amazonian waiter said quietly. His knuckles were white on the wheel, and unlike his companions, their chauffeur seemed physically incapable of looking anywhere but the road ahead of them. Sweat lined his brow despite the chill of the night. "We've already stayed to long."

He wasn't wrong."Keep it together, big man." Cherry gave her roommate's thigh a reassuring pat, wishing she could feel as confident as she sounded. As it was, she wasn't confident she was capable of controlling her bladder anymore, let alone ending the night a free woman. "The end's in sight, isn't it? Let's get moving."

"I guess you're right."

"Aren't I always?"

He didn't look convinced. All the same, Raymond gave a curt, reluctant nod, and then they were off once more, rushing down the streets of Thornbridge as if the devil himself were snapping at their heels.

*

“ – except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair,” an earnest voice half spoke, half sang over a frolicking piano line. A glockenspiel chimed in agreement, echoing the melody of its companion. “The night’s busting open and these two lanes will take us anywhere...”

“Turn it off,” Dawn ordered thickly.

“You don’t like the Boss?” Raymond’s voice was a full octave higher than its usual, gravelly self. “Everyone likes the Boss.”

“We got one last chance to make it real...”

“I don’t care. Turn it off.”

“...and trade in these wings for some wheels...”

Seemingly unperturbed by Dawn's protests, the Amazon then took it upon himself to indulge his inner rock star. “Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the tracks,” Raymond attempted to sing. He looked ready to cry. “Whoa, oh, come take my – ”

Her friend was never going to find employment in the E Street Band. Cherry punched the off button and slunk back in her seat. “We just nuked her house,” the little muttered, closing her eyes and resting her head against the leather. “And you’re fucking singing?”

“I thought you might appreciate my singing because we just nuked her house. You all look like you’re about to piss yourself.”

“So do you.”

“Exactly.” The shakiest laugh Cherry had ever had the misfortune of hearing followed Raymond's remark. “Ex-fucking-actly...and unlike some of us, I'm not equipped to deal with that particular situation." He threw a pointed glance at the junction of the little's legs before returning his attention to the road.

All Cherry could do was cringe and pretend she didn't know what he was talking about...although once again, her roommate had a point. They couldn't take back the destruction of Evelyn's...well, everything, so what were they achieving by stressing like they were? What was done was done. They'd be better off looking forward to all the things they now had to look forward to.

If we we don't get arrested. How many years in prison do you get for incinerating a city block? 

"So how does it feel to be a free woman?" Cherry called over her shoulder, pondering whether she'd prefer living the rest of her life behind the bars of a crib or a cell. "You're wearing your last diaper, sis."

Her response was a disbelieving snort. "I wish," Dawn disagreed. The pudgy little glanced down at her crotch, where the bulge of her underwear was outlined in perfect clarity against her leggings. "My potty training is fifty fifty at best these days. I'm not getting out of these anytime soon." She sighed and glanced across at Lucas. "Although I guess you have it worse."

"I'd kill for fifty fifty," the inbetweener agreed. He slapped the padding between his legs, grimacing at the muted thud the collision made. "You didn't have that disk mess with your head. You can at least get your potty training back if you work at it; mine's gone for good."

"We'll get you to that Moore guy Evie was talking about," Cherry reassured him. She tried a smile on for size. "She said that was what he specialised in, didn't he? Un-messing heads?"

"I guess." Lucas' own smile was tentative, but a tentative smile was better than no smile. "Hey, maybe you're right."

They were quiet for a short while then, content to watch the world whiz by the window, when Dawn at last said, "This is really happening, isn't it?"

Cherry met her sister's eye in the rear-view mirror. "You better believe it."

"I mean, you're right." Dawn nodded thoughtfully at Lucas. "I will eventually get my potty training back, and you will eventually have your head sorted out. Ma - Evie's not going to be around to stop that from happening. We're going to go home, we're going to get out of these stupid clothes, we're going to go back to being normal people, and we'll...we'll..." her voice trailed off. "Man, we're going to be normal people again. We're going to be adults."

The nervous smile Cherry had sighted on Lucas' face before began to blossom into something magical as he too began to consider the freedom his future held. "You're right," he said slowly. A stupid grin broke out across his face. "Geez, I can go back to school. I can drive again. I can..."

"You can see your sisters again," Cherry suggested, suppressing a grin of her own.

The look on Lucas' face made everything she'd suffered through over the last week worthwhile.

Dawn evidently agreed, because she immediately began to laugh. She threw herself at her adoptive brother, hugging him as tight as the seatbelt allowed. "Oh my God, we're not related anymore!" She ruffled his tuft of hair and beamed at the startled boy. "Thank Christ. You're the worst little brother a girl could ask for."

Lucas looked as if he'd seen a ghost. "Thank you?" He cast a tortured glance Cherry's way, smothered in his companion's meaty embrace. "Dude, you're sweating like a pig. Get off me."

"Nope." Dawn rocked her companion in her arms as if he were a teddy bear. Her laughter tapered off to ecstatic giggles, and to the shock of absolutely everyone present she plastered a fat, wet kiss on the smaller boy's cheek. "We got away, Lucas. We got away!"

They pulled into their motel's carpark then, and the very first thing Cherry noticed was that their room light was on. Her joy evaporated instantly. That golden window could herald only one thing, and that one thing could only be Sylvia. Neither Cherry or Raymond had heard from the giantess since her dramatic departure yesterday afternoon, and she felt her heart sink at the realisation that they were going to have to get reacquainted.

"She ruins everything, doesn't she?" Raymond muttered to himself as they came to a stop in front of their door, voicing the thoughts of everyone present. He glanced at Cherry. "What do we do?"

The little sighed. "Do we have a crucifix handy?"

"I have one in my back pocket. Never leave home without it." Raymond shook his head and killed the engine. "Seriously, Cherry."

"How would I know? She's your girlfriend." She shrugged and returned her roommate's exasperated stare. "What was it you said yesterday? 'Get out of this room, get out of my life, and don't come back?' Just do that again, that did the trick."

"It obviously didn't do the trick. She's in there, isn't she?" Raymond grunted as he undid his seatbelt and kicked the door open. "And she's not my girlfriend anymore. You're the last person I'd expect to forget that. Come on, let's just get this over with."

Half a city removed from the ruins of Evelyn's mansion, the night was surprisingly quiet. Sirens could be heard wailing in the distance, but they were far enough away to be muted and inconsequential. The loudest sound was Cherry's own anxious breathing, and the crunch of their footsteps on gravel as they made the short trek to the door. After everything she'd endured over the last week, the little felt half in a dream as she watched her big sister toddle along in front of her, Lucas balanced precariously on her hip. Everything both girls had suffered through had built towards this moment, and now that it was here, it was almost hard to believe. Every trial, every scheme, every indignity had been a stepping stone bringing them that little bit closer to where they now stood. It was as awesome as it was unbelievable, and Cherry had to smile. Well, it's all over now.  

"Here we go," Raymond grumbled to himself as he fumbled with the key. He hesitated only long enough to make an agonised face at Cherry before letting himself inside. "Sylvia!" He called as he crossed the threshold, an entourage of littles hot on his heels. "I meant what I said yesterday, you're not going to get any sympathy. You've got ten seconds to leave before I call the police, so you should...uh..."

His voice trailed off, and peering around the Amazon's legs, Cherry quickly surmised the reason why. There was a little girl standing in the far corner of the room, facing the wall with her hands planted firmly on top of her head. The back of her dress was tucked into the waistband of a diaper discoloured from overuse, revealing a pair of reddened thighs that had clearly endured a brutal spanking in the recent past. The girl squirmed at the sound of Raymond's voice, but she made no move to turn and face him.

The Amazon shot Cherry a quizzical look, which she could only return with a shrug. "Hello?" Raymond's voice was uncertain, and he crossed the room the way a tiger might stalk its prey. Cherry watched, feeling the first twinges of unease in her belly. She'd suffered enough deviations from the original plan for one night. Why was there a stranger in their room? "Little girl?"

"I'm sorry." The voice that spoke up from the corner was small, broken and awfully familiar. "You were right all along, I didn't know, I'm sorry, you've got to leave, Ray, she's insane, she's here, you've got to - "

Two things happened in that moment.

One, Raymond's hand fell upon the intruder's shoulder, and he spun her around to reveal the little girl in the loaded diaper was none other than his ex-girlfriend. Sylvia's face was flustered and streaked with tears, and she'd somehow managed to shave off over half her height since Cherry had last seen her, but there was no mistaking her long-time antagonist. The shrunken giantess stared up at her boyfriend with a potent mixture of terror and shame. "I'm sorry," Sylvia sobbed, shrugging free of his grasp and pressing herself against the wall. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

At the same time, the door dramatically slammed shut. Evelyn Goldsworthy stepped out of the corner, a frown on her lips and a gun in her hand.

Everything seemed to slow down. It was as if Cherry was watching the world in slow motion, as if her brain simply couldn't process the impossibility of the situation fast enough to run it in real time. The little's heart skipped a beat, then began to work overtime to catch up. She could see everything with perfect clarity - the way the firearm gleamed beneath the overheads, the way Evelyn's wrinkles were pulled taut as she scowled, the way her sister physically flinched and began to tremble. No, she wanted to shriek. No, you weren't meant to be here, we were so close. 

Her tongue felt like an anchor. Paralysed, all she could do was watch with round, horrified eyes. A gun, she has a gun!

"It's about time you lot showed up. If you'd taken any longer, your friend would have been too tired to stand up." A grim smile graced Evelyn's face as she surveyed the scene. Her gaze came to a rest on Cherry's face. "It's nice to see you again, Tyra. Or should I say Cherry?"

"What did you do to her?" Raymond spun away from his terrified girlfriend and took a threatening step towards the giantess, only to come to an immediate halt when she spun around to level the gun in his direction. His face collapsed into a mask of black fury. "What did you do to her?" 

"She shrunk her." Lucas' voice was meek and frightened. He'd slid off Dawn's hip at some point, and now he gesticulated wildly at the device in his adoptive mother's hand from the floor. "With that."

"The boy has the right of it, for once." Evelyn shrugged, as if the matter was of no more concern than a buzzing bee. She never removed Raymond from the sight of her gun. No, not a gun, Cherry abruptly realised. A shrink ray. The shrink ray. "Your friend here came to see me yesterday afternoon, and she had quite a tale to share. Something along the lines of how the girl I welcomed into my household wasn't who she said she was, and that she and her sociopath roommate were going to kidnap my daughter later that night." A hard glint appeared in the older woman's eye. "I already knew little Tyra wasn't who she said she was, but the kidnapping came as quite a shock. I had to do something about all that, didn't I?"

"So you shrunk her?"

"She thought I'd be happy to hear from her." Evelyn bared her teeth at Sylvia, who promptly cowered behind Raymond's leg. "Her, who conspired to take my daughter away from me. If she wants to tattle like a child, then she can be a child."

Sylvia's demotion to diapers, sweet though it may have been in other circumstances, was the last thing that concerned Cherry right then. "You knew?" the little blanched, suddenly dizzy. She thought she might be sick. "What do you mean, you knew? For how long?"

The giantess' eyes momentarily flickered to the little before returning to Raymond. "You weren't particularly crafty, dear. That's what I mean." She grimaced and shook her head. "I had my suspicions from the beginning - isn't there another girl named Tyra at Pumpkin's daycare? - but I knew for sure once you decided to open your mouth in the bathtub. Did you really think I'd leave you alone after the mess you made of my living room?" She clucked her tongue. "Come on, dear. I'm old, not senile."

Her heart was a stone in her throat. "But...you said nothing." Cherry glanced back to where Dawn stood frozen in the doorway. Her older sister's face was a rictus of terror. She supposed her own mustn't be all too dissimilar. "If you knew, why didn't you - "

"I was curious." Evelyn shrugged yet again. "And it wasn't like you ever had a chance, dear. You weren't getting into Annie's room by yourself, so there was no risk leaving you to your devices. The only real chance you had was tonight...and your friend ruined that by running her mouth."

"Ray, I'm sorry." Sylvia's voice was ragged. Her arms snaked around her boyfriend's leg, and she clung there like a koala in a tree. She buried her face in the back of his kneecap. "I was so mad yesterday, I never thought - "

Raymond recoiled from her touch. Wordless, he shook himself free and marched across the room to stand between the littles and their antagonist, pointedly ignoring the way Sylvia's face crumpled as a result. "What do you want?" he asked stiffly. He crossed his arms and glared daggers at the shrink ray scant inches from his face. "You're going to shrink me, too? Add me to your freak show?"

There was no amusement in Evelyn's smile. "You have to be very brave or very stupid to be running your tongue right now, all things considered."  

He didn't rise to the bait. "I asked you a question."

"I want my daughter." The giantess' glanced past Raymond to the obese little in the doorway, and for a split second she looked every year her age. It was only for a second, though. She shook her head, and once again she was as cold as ice. "And I want her sister. Tyra, Cherry, whoever she is on any given day. You can take the boy and leave, I don't give a fig for either of you. You just leave us be, and no one needs to get hurt."

"Leave you be to ruin my friend's life?" Raymond crossed his arms. "I don't think so."

"No?" Evelyn cocked the gun and raised it till it was level with the Amazon's face. "You're not exactly in any position to barter, dear."

Raymond stared down the barrel. A tiny bead of sweat dropped from his brow. "You're mad," he declared unsteadily. He balled his hands into fists, clenching and unclenching them over and over again. "Stark raving mad. You have no right, you - "

"You want to lecture me on who has the right? You, who broke into my house and abducted my daughter, want to tell me I have no right?"

"She's not your daughter." Raymond stood tall in the face of adversary. Had she not been terrified, Cherry would have beamed with pride. "We'll call the police."

"The police aren't like to believe a naked little with a tall tale, alone in a motel room at the crack of dawn." The gun was quivering in Evelyn's hand. "I've had quite enough of this nonsense, dear. This ends now. You can join the boy and your girlfriend in a crib, it's no skin off my nose. Pumpkin and I will drop the three of you off at the orphanage, and we'll go about our lives like this never happened. I'll be laughing all the way to - "

And that was when Lucas struck.

The in-betweener had managed to crawl into position, unnoticed whilst the spotlight was elsewhere, and now he threw all of his weight into the back of Evelyn's calf. The older woman staggered forward, cursing and twisting to lay eyes on her assailant. "What - " she managed to gasp, her eyes narrowing at the sight of her antagonist, but by then it was too late. Raymond struck out, fast as a striking snake, and the gun went flying. It sailed towards Cherry, and with adrenaline lancing through her veins, the little leapt to catch it. This is it, she thought wildly, watching the weapon draw closer and closer. This isn't over, we can still get out of here, I just need...to...

But as she had once reflected to Lucas, she was only the size of a chihuahua, and her legs simply weren't tall enough for the task. The gun sailed high over her grasping hands, crashing into the floor with a colossal clatter. Her heart in her throat, Cherry spun to find it, tasting bile and hearing a thunderous drumbeat in her ears...

...to find that Evelyn's hidden ace had landed right in front of Dawn, who promptly lunged to grab and level it at her adoptive mother. "Get back," she yelled in a shrill, terrified voice. Her grip on the weapon was clumsy and uncertain. "Get away from them, I'm warning you."

Evelyn's relief was palpable. She laughed a shaky laugh and opened her arms. "Pumpkin," she began with a tenuous smile. She began to move towards the little. "Pumpkin, look what these...these thugs have done to you and your Mama. You've got to - "

"These thugs are my friends." Dawn strode across the room, her nightgown swishing about her legs and the gun shaking in her hand. Taken by surprise, Evelyn squeaked and retreated. She found a wall at her back and a very angry little at her front. "And you are not my Mama. You never were."

"Pumpkin - "

"Dawn." Dawn raised the shrink ray straight up into Evelyn's face. "My name is Dawn."

 "I took you in." Evelyn's face was pale save for two bright spots high upon her cheekbones. "I could have had you arrested for what you did, and I took you in. I fed you from my table, I clothed you, I - "

"You only wanted me to replace your daughter. Your real daughter."

The giantess look as if she'd been struck. "Pumpkin - "

"DAWN."

"It's not fair." Evelyn yelped and flinched as her antagonist prodded her thigh with the barrel of the gun. "Everything I did, I did for my family. For Harry and...and for her. I did horrible, horrible things so they could live an easy life, and some monster murdered her before my eyes. My Annie was taken for me, because some monster couldn't wait another week for his fix." Her eyes began to water. "I didn't deserve to watch my daughter die. I didn't deserve to have my husband divorce me, to have him ha...hate me. I don't - "

"I am not Annabelle Goldsworthy."

The air left the giantess' lungs. "No, of...of course you're not." Tears began to fall down her cheeks in earnest. "No, heavens, you're not, but you're...you're all I have. Pumpkin, you have to - "

Dawn took a step back. "Stop calling me that." Her face was as wet as her mothers. "I'm not your pumpkin, damn you. Not anymore. My name is Dawn. DAWN."

"You can't do this to me." The giantess finally broke down completely. Her chest rose and heaved, and her voice was hoarse and hysterical as she sobbed, "Annie, you can't do this, I'm your Mama, how can you do this to your own Mama, please, you can't - "

Tears streamed down Dawn's face like swollen rivers. "You're not my Mama." She pulled the trigger. There was a blinding flash of green light, and then all there was was a shattered old lady with a red face and a snotty nose. Evelyn stared mutely, as if she didn't believe the little she'd cherished for so long had actually shot her, shocked into silence and inaction...

...and then the changes started, and she had no choice but to believe it.

"No," Evelyn gasped, hugging herself as her body began to fold into itself. Her arms disappeared into the sleeves of her coat, and her pants began to slide down her thighs. The giantess blushed, squealed and snatched them up, and as she did so her hairnet slid off her bun. It clung to the side for an instant like some grotesque insect before falling to the floor. "No, you can't do this, you can't...you...this isn't how it was meant to be."

She was fighting a losing battle with her clothing. Already, Evelyn had lost a third of her height, and all of a sudden she resembled nothing more than child playing dress-up in their parents clothing. For a long moment, she fought to right her clothes even as she found herself swimming inside them...until, recognising the futility of it all, she attempted to shed them completely. By then, however, she was too short to do so. Naked fear ran unchecked across the giantess' face as she realised her fate was inevitable, and with a miserable wail, Evelyn melted away into her clothes like a snowman in Summer. In the end, her best efforts left her nothing more than a struggling, misshapen lump beneath a pile of oversized clothing, no taller than the average little.

It took the older woman a minute to disentangle herself from her own attire. Clutching an enormous shirt about her body in an attempt to preserve what little was left of modesty, Evelyn fell to her knees and wept. "What have you done?" she lamented, hiding her face in her hands. Her body was wracked by sobs as violent as they were loud. "This isn't fair, you can't do this to me, I'm...I'm..."

"You're a little." Cherry could scarcely believe it, but her eyes did not deceive her. She was standing eye to eye with the woman that had made her and her sister's life hell. Even after spending a not inconsiderable amount of time in Lucas' presence, the fact that such a transformation was possible didn't fail to awe the little. "Jesus, you're even smaller than me."

It was small comfort to the traumatised giantess. All Evelyn could do was cry and mourn the loss of everything she'd ever held dear, loud enough for the dead to hear.

Dawn stood at the forefront of the scene, staring down at her reduced tormenter with morbid fascination. "It's the least you deserve," she said dully. The look on her face was equal parts disbelief, guilt and rage. "After everything you've done, a taste of your own medicine is getting off easy."

Evelyn didn't seem to hear her. She simply sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, something which apparently irritated Dawn to no end. The chubby little scowled at the wreck before her with disgust. "To think I was terrified of you," she wondered through gritted teeth. "You're pathetic. You were always pathetic."

"I just wanted us to be happy." Evelyn wiped at her eyes and sniffled dramatically. "You and me and your sister, just one big happy - "

"We can't stay here."

Cherry glanced up at her roommate. Raymond was as transfixed by the spectacle as anyone else in the room, but his face was drawn and exhausted where the rest were curious. He looked down at the little by his side and answered the question in her eyes with a sigh. "She's going to attract more attention than we need right now," he said in a detached voice. "And you better believe that there's going to be police scouring the city after what we did to her place. We need to pack up and go. Now."

That distracted Evelyn from her misery. She looked up, confusion etched into her flustered cheeks. "What are you talking about?" She looked from Raymond to Cherry and back again. "My place? What did you do to my place?"

Raymond elected not to answer that question. "Up we go," he said, and with no pretence of concern for the reduced woman's wellbeing he pulled her to her feet. It had the unintended side effect of causing Evelyn's shirt to fall away, and the newly-minted little squealed as her naked body was revealed in all it's glory. Before anyone could process the sight, she was being marched across the room and unceremoniously pushed into the bathroom.

"You can stay in here while we get our stuff together. Out of the way, where no one can accidentally hear you." Raymond glanced around the room for his associates' approval, and upon finding it, turned to meet his ex-girlfriend's traumatised gaze. His face was unreadable. "You too, Sylvia."

The giantess was hiding under the table, watching the proceedings with puffy, bloodshot eyes. They grew wide at the proclamation that she was to join Evelyn in the bathroom. "Ray - "

"It's not up for discussion."

"I tried to help you," the woman protested weakly. "As soon as you walked in, I told you it was a trap, that she was here, that - "

"Sylvia." Raymond's voice cracked as he spoke, and he cleared his throat before continuing. The night's events were finally taking their toll on the last Amazon standing, and it was with some effort that he finished, "Sylvia, you sold us out. Don't make this harder than it has to be."

Whatever she saw in her towering boyfriend's face ended whatever protests she was formulating. The once-giantess crawled out from under the table, brushing off her kneecaps and meekly crossing the room. "I still love you," she said quietly as she took her position beside Evelyn in the bathroom. She seemed utterly unperturbed by the crying, naked woman beside her. She had eyes only for Raymond, seeking absolution in his rugged visage.

"I know you do," her boyfriend responded. "I love you too."

With that, he closed the door, removing both women from his life forever. When he turned back to face what remained of his cohort, Raymond's face was as wet as anyone else's. He wiped at his eyes angrily before getting straight down to business.

"Neither of them can be allowed to convince anyone that we had anything to do with what happened tonight," he began. His voice was choked and thick. "We're going to drop them off at some etiquette school on the way out, and they can lose the use of their tongues. Better yet, we find someone that can change their faces around a little so they don't look like someone that might know something. We don't need the police to find a miniature Evelyn Goldsworthy. Agree?"

A taste of her own medicine indeed. The thought was an uneasy one, but Cherry nodded along with her accomplices all the same. "That's pretty messed up, Ray," she allowed quietly. She could see her misgivings mirrored on Lucas' face, and even Dawn looked a little skeptical. "Can't we just - "  

"Can't we just what?" Raymond shook his head. The Amazon looked less than happy, but his face was set. "If either one of them blabs about us being related to that explosion, we're toast. It's no less than she'd have done for us, Cherry. She said it herself."

She glanced past her roommate, towards the bathroom. She imagined Sylvia and Evelyn listening to their fate through the door and wondered what was going through their minds. "I guess you're right," the little conceded reluctantly. It galled her to stoop to the level of the woman she'd been working to thwart, but when she got down to it, what choice did they have? "I guess you're right."

"You don't need to guess. You know I'm always right." Raymond managed a weak smile and a phlegmy chuckle. "Come on, we don't have time to debate ethics. Pack your bags, Cherry. We're going home."

The Promise concludes 
(at last)
 in the Epilogue

Friday, 8 July 2016

The Promise l 24 - Dancing on the Edge of the Grave

Dawn's nightlight was perhaps the most irritating device Cherry had ever had the misfortune of encountering.

“I never thought I’d see the back of this place,” Dawn said wondrously, seemingly unperturbed by the horrific buzzing emanating from the corner of the room. She yanked her nightie over her head and threw it aside with a careless flick of the wrist, stopping in her tracks to watch it flutter through the air. She turned to her dresser only after it came to a crumpled rest against the wall. "Even when I sent you that letter, all those months ago, I don't know if I ever really expected you to get me out of here." 

"You didn’t think I'd come?" Cherry pointedly avoided looking at her big sister as Dawn rummaged through her drawers, naked except for the training panties around the waist. She’d seen more than enough of her sibling to last her a lifetime these last few days; she certainly didn’t need to see Dawn’s junk again. As a result, the little instead directed her attention at the nightlight in the corner of the room, glaring at it as if doing so might instigate world peace. Whatever issue it had, it didn't seem to be affecting its output. The device was bright enough to be noticeable even with the main light overshadowing it. If wasn’t for that damned crackle, she’d have been none the wiser that something was amiss. "When I promise something, sis, I keep my word. You know that."

Dawn emerged with a pair of bright yellow leggings in hand. She made a face at the garish garment, shook her head, and then stepped into them all the same. "Oh, don't get me wrong. I never doubted you'd try. Of course you’d come." She pulled the fabric up her legs, grimacing at the effort it took to pull them up over her puffy underwear. "You're you, of course you would. My concern was whether or not you'd succeed. After everything Evie put me and Lucas through, my money was firmly on her." She threw an apologetic smile over her shoulder before turning back to her drawers to find something for her top half. "I don't like betting against the home team, but she has all sorts of tricks up her sleeve, Cherry. You've seen what she's capable of."

Don't I know it. Cherry's hands unconsciously went to her own padding, brushing against the bulge in her pants. She absently wondered if she was wet. The little hadn’t felt herself go since she got in the car with Raymond earlier that evening...but at the same time, she wasn’t sure if she would feel it, either. She hadn’t had any warning in the bath last night, had she? For all she knew, she was seconds from leaking all over her thighs. Fuck me, don't I know it. 

They'd split up after freeing Dawn of her tracking device. Raymond had rushed downstairs with the key to liberate Lucas of his own padlock, and Dawn had made the trek to her bedroom to change into something warmer in preparation for the night ahead. Not wanting to leave her sister alone at such a pivotal moment in her life, Cherry had followed in her wake. It had seemed like the right thing to do, although if she was being honest, she did have ulterior moments. There was a conversation they needed to have, and she wasn’t sure when she’d next get the opportunity to pursue it. They were officially on the run as of...well, now, and Cherry had a suspicion they weren’t going to be separated from Raymond and Lucas for a while as a result. Who knew when she’d next get her sister alone? It had to be now.

Here goes nothing. “I have to ask you something,” the little began uncomfortably. She squirmed in place on her sister’s bedsheets, dreading what she knew was going to be an awkward talk. “About...about this morning.”

“Later,” Dawn said without looking up from her dresser. “When I’m not half naked, okay?”

Cherry winced. “Sis – ”

“Later.” Clothes went flying over the little’s shoulder as she dug through her childish wardrobe. “You already know everything you need to, anyway. There’s nothing more to it than what Evie told you this morning.”

“So that was the truth?" Cherry felt her heart sink. She'd known all along that she was being silly, but deep down she hadn't wanted to believe it. She'd hoped that Evelyn had been embellishing the truth, or that she'd been projecting her own illicit operations onto her victim, or even that she'd been outright lying for one reason or another. The last thing a little sister ever wants to do is think ill of her big sister, after all, and if avoiding doing so meant ploughing ahead without logic or reason, that was what exactly Cherry had intended do. So much for denying reality. "You...you were...”

Dawn paused, gripping the open drawer before her as she considered how best to tackle the question. “If there’s one thing Evelyn Goldsworthy is not, it’s a liar,” she at last crooned at the wall. Her imitation necessitated dropping her voice an octave. “You can trust that. Dear.”

I'm not going to get annoyed. “That’s not funny,” Cherry sighed. Was that meant to get a laugh out of her? She couldn't think of anything she'd have found less amusing . “I’m worried about you. Are you...you know. Clean?”

“I don’t need a change, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Cherry bit her tongue, crossed her arms, and glared at the back her sister’s head. "Dawn."

Her tone was impossible to miss. "I don't want to talk about it. I've already said that." Dawn resumed her excavation as if the topic was as consequential as a discussion of tomorrow’s lunch. “It’s in the past, okay? It's been the best part of a year. Just...just let it drop.”

She had no intention of doing any such thing. "Is it still an issue?" Cherry persisted valiantly. She watched her sibling like a hawk, feeling her heart throb in her throat. It killed her to know the demons her sister must have faced, even before Evelyn had entered the picture. If she understood the timeline correctly, than Dawn had either been an addict or on her way to becoming one at the same time she’d last been in Hearth. All this time, Cherry had treasured that reunion. It was one of the rare instances she got to catch up with her sister, and that alone had earned it a place on the top shelf where she kept her happy memories...but for Dawn, it had been the beginning of a steep plummet into hell. That ate away at the little in a way words could not describe. "Sis, you have to talk to me. Are you okay? Is it - " 

"I don’t have to do anything.” The pudgy little still failed to look up from her dredging, but there was a sudden change in her voice that was telling. It had been light as air whilst she did her best to dodge the topic, but suddenly she just sounded regretful and world-weary. It was the voice of a woman who wanted nothing more than her troubles to end. "Look, it’s been the best part of a year. Trust me, it hasn't been an issue in a long time. Can’t we leave it at that?"

For all the wrong she'd done, it seemed that Evelyn had managed to help her adoptive daughter in one way, at least. “Okay,” Cherry conceded reluctantly. What else was there to discuss, if that was the case? She eyed her sister pitifully, noting the way she slumped despondently over the dresser. No, now wasn't the time to press the issue. "Okay, sis."

And that was that.

If the time wasn’t ripe to steer the conversation towards a less tender topic, then it never would be.  "What's that thing's problem?" Cherry asked, rushing to fill the silence and nodding towards the most infernal contraption in the world. The nightlight flickered and crackled in the corner as if to taunt her. "I don't know how you do it, sis. If I had to put up with that for a year straight I'd have offed myself ages ago." 

Dawn at last glanced up from the drawers, and a tired but knowing smile creased her face. "It's old. That's what its problem is." She returned to her search for the nth time. "The globe in mine blew out a little while ago, so Evie dug that one up for me. It's only a placeholder till she gets down to the shop to buy a replacement...although I guess that's not happening now, is it?" 

"It sure isn't." Cherry slipped off her sister's bed and hurried across the room to get a closer look. It didn't look faulty; the glowing ballerina perched mid-twirl looked as graceful and as regal as was undoubtedly expected of her. Her entire body glowed atop the chunk of plastic she posed upon, and as far as Cherry could see, that was exactly the way it was meant to be. She wasn’t chipped, she wasn’t cracked, she wasn’t broken, she wasn’t anything. Once again, Cherry reflected that if it weren't for the buzzing, she wouldn't have known that something wasn't doing what it was meant be doing.

I wonder if this was Annabelle's, once upon a time. She knelt down on the carpet and went to touch the top of the ballerina's head...and immediately shrank back with a yelp. The globe was red-hot and scalding to touch. The little thrust her fingertip into her mouth, sucking the pain out of the abused digit. Christ, that hurt!

“Adfsdfa?” Cherry called over her shoulder, as worried as she was intrigued.

“Huh?”

Well, it wasn’t her thumb this time. That was something. "Is it meant to be this hot?" she tried again. She gestured at the nightlight once she had her sister’s attention. “Have you felt this thing?”             

"I don't exactly make a habit out of fondling my nightlight." Dawn had acquired a shirt and a thick, fuzzy jacket while Cherry was preoccupied in the corner, and now she trudged across to look over her sister’s shoulder. A curious expression came over her face as she examined the plastic dancer, and when she spoke again, her voice had an acquired a tremor that betrayed more of her thoughts than she'd maybe intended. "You know, if I ever see another ballerina it'll be too soon. Any money says that used to be her daughter's."

"Probably," Cherry agreed uncertainly. She glanced up at her sibling, knowing what was going through Dawn’s head. "It’s the right theme.”

Her companion said nothing. Dawn simply eyeballed the ballerina on her wall as if it were a bomb set to explode.

Cherry felt her heartstrings pluck a resonant, singing chord that reverberated from her head down to the tips of her toes. “Look, sis,” she began quietly, looking back the nightlight’s way. The dancer frolicked about on her perch without a care in the world “I'm sure she genuinely wanted to help you."   

Her sympathy garnered her a sceptical snort. "And what makes you say that?" 

"Well...she could have chosen any little off the street. You said that yourself. She didn't, though; she chose you, the little she knew had issues. Wouldn't it have been easier to hijack one in good health?" She shrugged, as uncomfortable as ever with acknowledging her sister’s least favourite topic.  "It'd have been less work for her. I mean, all she'd have - " 

"I don't want to talk about this, either." Dawn laughed and hugged herself. Her skin was the hue of melting snow. "Look, Cherry, I know you're just trying to help, but right now I'm a total wreck. Let's leave the therapy for a little while, okay?" 

Smooth, idiot

Cherry had her mouth open to apologise, cursing herself for being as clumsy as she was when it came to offering a shoulder to cry upon, but as it turned out the little wasn't done. Dawn shook her head, and when she looked back at the nightlight, Cherry could see just how distraught the sight made her big sister. 

"It's not right, you know." Dawn's voice was as shaky as a leaf in a hurricane. Her eyes never left the ballerina. "I mean, it's never right what her kind does to people our size, but this...this is something else. Say what you will about them, but at least they care for the littles they kidnap. Mama didn't even want me." She looked ready to cry. "She was using me."   

"Of course she wanted you," Cherry murmured. "Dawn - " 

"No, she didn't. Not really." Her big sister shook her head violently. "All this time, I thought she was looking out for me in her own way, as messed up as it was. I didn't enjoy it, but I could respect it, you know? I thought that regardless of what she'd done, she was just trying to help...but no. I've lost my shape, my chest, and a whole year of my life because some old bat decided she was better off traumatising a stranger than seeking help." She took a step closer to the nightlight, and Cherry noted with some alarm that there was budding murder in her eyes, right beside the misery and self-loathing. It made her sister’s piggish face all the more unappealing. "I was just her plaything. After all this time, she didn't want me, she didn't love me, she just needed a stand in for Annabelle."

"Sis - " 

"No, don't sis me!" Dawn's voice had become nearly as shrill as Sylvia's had been that morning. "After all this time, she wanted me as much as she wanted Lucas, and I'm...I'm...I don't even know what I am right now. I'm hurt, I'm confused, I'm mad, and I don't even know why. I never loved her, Cherry...so why am I so upset? Why has this messed me up so bad?”

“It’d mess anyone up,” Cherry suggested. She shifted uncomfortably on her knees. “I’d say it’s the natural reaction, to be – ”

“I guess it doesn’t matter, at the end of the day. I’m free, aren’t I? As of tonight, I’m out of her life forever.” Dawn talked right over the top of her sister’s condolences. Her face hardened. “What do you say we leave her a little parting gift, eh? A little something to remember her favourite stand-in by.”

What? “Dawn,” Cherry said cautiously, looking back up her sister. There had been murder budding in her eyes before, but now it had gone into full bloom. Dawn looked like she might strangle the ballerina with her bare hands. The sight frightened Cherry. “What are you – ”

She didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence. Before she could, Dawn had drawn back her foot and kicked the nightlight into smithereens. The plastic shattered beneath her foot with a muffled crack, as if a bolt of lightning had just struck somewhere in the distance...

...and then there was a flash of light, a rush of heat, and the next thing either little knew was that the carpet was on fire.     

Oh my God. "Dawn!" Cherry scuttled away on her hands and backside as fast as was humanly possible, brushing an errant ember from her thigh as she did so. Tiny, smouldering cinders suddenly dotted the floor around the charred remains of the nightlight, turning the carpet into a galaxy of orange pinpricks. Before the little could as much as blink, the pinpricks had sought each other’s company and evolved into a handful of smoking, flickering blazes, turning the galaxy into a much-more-concerning supercluster. "Jesus, what have you - put it out, sis, put it out!" 

She didn’t, though. Dawn stared at the carnage she'd wrought with wide, startled eyes, not moving even when the baby flames began to look increasingly grown up. "What - " she began, looking about the room with dumb surprise. Her hands went to her nightie and found it missing. "I didn't mean to - " 

"Well that fixes everything, doesn't it?" Cherry leapt to her feet and began to stamp on the nearest blaze, but by then it was already too late. The fire was spreading unchecked across Dawn's furred floor, growing higher and higher by the second without check or concern. The drapes began to smoke as Cherry watched, and she felt her heart plummet into her toes at the realisation that they were only seconds from going up in flames, too. If they didn’t act quickly, the whole room was going to catch, and if the whole room caught...well, they were going to be two very toasty littles. Cherry had no intention of becoming a toasty little. "Dawn!" 

"What?” Dawn was staggering back towards the door. She caught Cherry's eye for a split second, and it was then that the little noticed her big sister was crying again. The sight would have normally elicited sympathy from Cherry, but right then all she could do was try not to panic and stomp on flame after flame. There was no time for tears right then. “What do you want me to do about it?"”

If she was being honest, Cherry didn’t know herself. She wasn't even sure what she could do. The curtains were well and truly on their way to becoming a pile of ash, and the knee-high inferno had spread almost all the way to Dawn's bed. Smoke was beginning to accumulate in the air, and right as she made that realisation Cherry began to cough. A knife of fear lanced through her bowels as she staggered backwards, looking about the room with despair. This is hopeless, she thought as she attempted to cough up her lungs, aghast. All we’re going to achieve by staying here is dying.

After everything she’d gone through over the last week, Cherry had no intention of dying. Seeing the futility of her actions, she grabbed her sister by the wrist and pulled her out of the room, stumbling down the hallway and only stopping when they’d made it to the top of the stairs. "You're an absolute fucking idiot," she informed Dawn between coughing fits. She shook her head and glanced back the way they’d came, unable to believe that yes, that really was smoke creeping out of her sister’s room. They’d firebombed her fucking room. “Has anyone ever told you that? It had an electrical fault, anyone could see that, why the fuck would you - "

"I wasn't thinking. Okay?" Dawn leaned down and grasped her sister’s forearms, looking her dead in the eye. Cherry could see the terror in her big sister’s pallid face, so much so that it had even temporarily halted her crying. “Cherry, breath. Breath. Don’t die on me.”

“No time for dying.” She brushed aside her sister and half ran, half staggered back to the bedroom door. Dawn's bed had been the next victim of the inferno - the entire thing was ablaze, from the pillows to the canopy overhead, and as Cherry watched the latter collapsed in on itself and littered the mattress with debris. She bit her lip, looking about the rest of the room. The flames were as tall as she was now, and on top of that, they were starting to edge dangerously close to the door. "This...this is an issue," she admitted in a voice she didn’t recognise as her own. “Man, this is why architects don’t pretend they’re detectives.”

Her sister had come up behind her while she was distracted, and when Dawn spoke it was from surprisingly close to her ear. "What do we do?" The chubby little peered over Cherry’s shoulder, worry etched into her face with the clarity of scripture. "Cherry, what do we do?" 

We might as well waltz down to the local police station and ask for a mugshot. "We should get out of here,” Cherry said out loud. She glanced about the bedroom, hoping against hope she’d spontaneously think of a solution that would solve all their problems. When such a miracle failed to occur, she shook her head and continued, “There’s nothing we can do, unless you’re particular - " 

That was when the smoke alarm went off.

" – particularly set on dying," she finished with a grimace. The ear-splitting wail of the alarm was a hundred times worse than the buzzing nightlight had been. It shrieked like a banshee in the throes of love. "Close the door, though. That should hold it inside for at least a little while." 

Her sister made no effort to do so. "I'm sorry," Dawn instead began. Her waterfalls began anew as she shook her head from side to side, her pigtails flying wildly about in the air around her. "I didn't mean to do that, sis, I didn't - " 

"I know, sis. Just...stop. Okay?" Cherry shook her own head. Suddenly, she was just tired. They'd accomplished what they'd set out to achieve, but the joy she'd been expecting never hit. All she wanted to do was crawl back into her bed in Hearth and have a nice, long sleep, preferably without a diaper around her waist or her thumb in her mouth. She deserved at least that much, didn't she? She was a good person, damn it. Good people shouldn’t be forced into situations where they had to become arsonists. "Come on, let's get out of here." She yanked Dawn’s door close, grabbed her sister’s hand, and promptly dragged her away down the stairs as fast as her legs could carry her.

They found Raymond and Lucas in the driveway, staring up at the house in mute shock. “Cherry," the Amazon breathed as the littles ran up beside him. His face was bathed in a sinister orange glow that did nothing to mask his incredulity. He stared at his roommate for a long, speechless moment. "What...what did you do?"

"I did nothing." She glared at her sister. "Why? How bad is it?" 

He pointed.

It was as if a great beast made of flame was struggling to wriggle through the remains of Dawn's bedroom window, trembling with fury and spitting tongues of fire at anything within reach. The ivy plastered to the brickwork was its first victim; fiery cobwebs clung to the side of Evelyn’s manor like macabre Christmas lights, and as Cherry watched part of the vine fell to its demise. It landed on the grass a stone's throw from where she stood, and then the grass there was on fire, too. Similar occurrences were happening everywhere along the front of the house, filling the entire yard with fire, smoke and ash. It was only going to be a few minutes before the entire property went up like a bonfire, and if they were still around when that happened, then they were undoubtedly going to end up as cooked as the rest of the place. The thought opened a pit in Cherry’s stomach the size of her roommate. Christ, what had they done?

Raymond was evidently thinking the same thing. "This whole place is going to go up any minute," the waiter said nervously. His hands were on his head as he surveyed the ruins of Evelyn’s garden. He shot a traumatised glance Cherry’s way. "We should go." 

Lucas spoke up then for the first time since they’d left him to keep watch. "You torched the place?" he exclaimed loud to be heard over the crackle of the blaze. Unadulterated amazement turned his face into that of an infant discovering something for the very first time. "I wanted to get out of here, sure, but this is insane. What made you think this was a good idea?" He looked back at the fire. “I thought the plan was to be subtle.” 

Oh, it was. "It was an accident," she answered on Dawn's behalf with a sigh. Why did everyone always assume she was the one to blame? Did she look like a firebug? She hadn't even wanted to break those doors down, let alone incinerate the place. Sure, if there was anyone that deserved to have their place reduced to rubble, it was the kidnapping, psychopath meth-dealer, but that didn't mean...that...

Her internal monologue ceased as something truly horrific occurred to her. 

Meth-dealer

“The gas,” Cherry breathed. All the blood drained from her face. “Oh, fuck.”

“What?” Raymond was too enamoured by the sights to pay attention to his roommate’s expletives.

"We have to go, now." Without waiting for permission, she grabbed Lucas by the arms and dragged him onto her hip as best she could. He yelped in surprise, but made no effort to stop her as he was roughly manhandled into place. "Ray!" 

"What?" Startled, Raymond at last tore his gaze from the fire to see what the sudden commotion was. "What's the - " 

"The gas," Cherry hissed again. She gestured violently in the direction of the garage. "How many cans has she got in there? In the basement?" 

Her roommate at last got the point. "Oh," he said softly. Suddenly, he looked like he might vomit. "Oh, fuck." 

“That’s what I said.” Cherry began to stagger towards the car, struggling to hurry with Lucas’ weight resting on her side. After a moment, Raymond took him off her hands, and then they were all running, sprinting as fast as their legs could take them for safety. “Come on, run!”

They fled through the flame-wreathed undergrowth that had once been Evelyn’s garden, stumbling into the car with the grace of a drunken sea lion. Raymond kicked the car into gear, and with a squeal of rubber they were on their way, fleeing down a driveway surrounded on all sides by burning hedges and trees. Visibility was nigh non-existent by the time they made it the gate, and it wasn’t until they’d burst out of Evelyn’s smoke-choked property that the world began to reappear outside the window. They shot off down the street like a cork from a bottle, watching the orange glow disappear in the rear-view mirror. 

Ray was muttering something to himself as he drove, but his words were on the very fringe of reality for Cherry. She was lost in her own world, staring sightlessly out her window as she struggled to calm her racing heartbeat. For a horrifyingly long few minutes, she’d been sure she was going to die. She’d been sure they were all going to die. She wasn’t sure she’d ever been so scared in her whole life. A nightlight, she thought numbly to herself, looking in the rear-view mirror at her sister. Dawn looked as traumatised as she felt, and Lucas didn’t look much better beside her. All of this, because one stupid little kicked her nightlight.

It took her a long minute to calm down enough to tune into her roommate’s mumblings. "It’ll take a while to reach to the gas,” he was saying to himself. His eyes were wide and frightened, glued to the road in front of him. The speed-o-meter told Cherry that they were far, far beyond the legal limit. “Someone will get there in time, it’s not going to go off. That’s stupid, this isn’t a movie, real life doesn’t work – "

“Ray,” Cherry interrupted wearily. She fell back in her seat and closed her eyes.  “You’re stressing me out. Stop.”

“You should be stressing out. That whole place is going to go up like Hiroshima and you’re not stressed?” He laughed a shaky laugh. “I might need to borrow one of your diapers, Cherry.”

“You just said this isn’t a movie.”

“She has seventy or eighty of those fucking things, Cherry. Who the fuck knows what that much – ”

That was when the world exploded behind them.