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|Author: Tetora |
|Chapter #: 1|
Updated On: 07 April 2017 - Words Count: 20741 - Number of Reads: 0
Paige was the idealized version of the perfect little sister every woman wishes she had growing up. Intelligent, affectionate, courteous and so sweet. The kind of girl that is so adorable you can't help yourself from giving her a big hug. I met her about four months ago as part of my volunteer work as a mentor.
After losing her parents at a young age, she was taken into foster care and eventually placed in several different homes. None kept her for very long, for reasons she didn't want to talk about. Social services would find her a new family only for them to abandon her months later. Rinse and repeat. It broke my heart knowing the system had failed her. She was close to thirteen now and if this trend continued, it might leave her with lifelong trust issues.
I made it my mission to help her as best I could. My block of time with her quickly expanded from a few hours every weekend to meeting with her almost every day. The disappointment was evident in her eyes when I had to drop her back off at the group home. She wanted so desperately to stay with me and I felt bad when we parted ways.
We did fun stuff at first like going to movies, restaurants and shopping, but she was more interested in learning about me. I told her my life story, where I grew up, what I did for work and the day my parents died. She was nearly as excited to assist me at my desk job as she was when we went rollerblading. In truth, I think she hated living at the group home. The more time she was with me, the less she would have to spend there. I understood and did my best to accommodate, but it always had to be over at day's end.
About two weeks back, I made the impassioned decision to put in an application to become her foster parent. I didn't tell her in case I was rejected and also to make it a surprise. She would be hanging out at my house as normal and then when it got late and she asked when we were going to leave, I could say that we're already home. We would both cry tears of joy as I showed her the room she wouldn't have to share with anyone else. Bureaucracies move slowly and I was still waiting to hear back from them.
On one sweltering Summer afternoon, I brought Paige over to go swimming in an above ground pool in my backyard. I was eager to try it out personally as the installers had only recently finished setting it up. She looked sad when I showed it to her as if this was a toy she wouldn't get to play with not having a swimsuit. I told her not to worry as I had just the thing for her to wear.
We went to my room where I had laid out her simple junior one-piece next to my expensive bikini with a padded halter top. She must have thought I was giving her a choice in swimwear as she opted to take the bikini. I didn’t have it in me to correct her. Without anything else to wear in the pool, I sighed and picked up what was now my junior one-piece. She immediately went to the living room bathroom to change, while I stepped into the master bath to do the same.
Since I was going in the water, I used a makeup removal pad to give myself a clean face before stripping off my clothes. At twenty-five, I reluctantly slipped on the bathing suit I bought for a girl half my age. It was not flattering in the least. My barely there chest was flattened to nothing by the thick material as it stretched across my torso. Being short and thin with a youthful complexion, I desperately needed my clothing to reflect how old I really was. If this wasn't in my backyard I would have layered a t-shirt on top like some fat kid at the community pool.
I pulled my hair back into a ponytail before heading outside. Paige wasn't ready yet, but that wasn't unusual as I know how self-conscious girls her age can be. Climbing the pool ladder, I made a big splash jumping right in and felt my eyes burn. There was too much chlorine in the water. Getting out, I rinsed my reddened eyes with the garden hose and retrieved a pair of goggles I got for Paige to see underwater with. I caught sight of my reflection in the window and noticed how ridiculous I looked. With my hair soaking wet, a one-piece suit and goggles over my eyes, it was as though I was coming back from a middle school swim meet.
It was then that I heard the doorbell ring. I looked through the peephole to see an older looking woman with a clipboard. A solicitor. I had no interest in buying whatever they were selling so I preferred to wait for them to leave on their own and not answer the door. The problem was, she didn't want to go. When I finally had enough and was ready to tell her off, I opened the door forcefully and gave her a menacing stare. It was probably less intimidating than I intended given what I was wearing.
“Hello, my name is Melissa Gardner and I'm from social services.”
Oops. This was not a good first impression. “Sure, come right in.”
The woman walked right past me and started examining my house like an appraiser, making initial notes of the living conditions before turning back to me.
“I'm going to need you to wait out front while I do my work. It's standard procedure.”
“Oh, sure. I understand,” I said and moved to sit on my porch.
The unexpected visit made sense as they would be able to see Paige’s living arrangements without giving me time to clean before a scheduled arrival. By keeping me outside, they also prevented me from knowing what areas of the home study I had passed or failed in as they searched around on their own.
My stomach was churning as I resisted the urge to peer in through the window. The social worker was no doubt talking to Paige by now, the surprise ruined by government red tape. Oh well, as long as my application wasn't rejected outright it would all work out. I stood at attention when she returned fifteen minutes later to ask me some questions.
“Do you think this is a good home?”
I gave her my biggest smile and an enthusiastic, “Yes,” in response.
“And you would be comfortable with this arrangement?”
“There's nothing I could want more.”
“Excellent! I will file the necessary paperwork tomorrow morning. Have fun swimming, Paige. I'll be in touch.”
Politely waving goodbye as she drove away in her car, I turned around anticipating Paige to be nearby. She wasn't and the woman hadn't spoken loud enough for anyone else to hear. That was strange, I thought as I made my way back inside.
My jaw dropped at the sight of the young girl wearing my bikini. She looked every bit the adult I did when wearing the skimpy garment. Our body types were not dissimilar, so while my curves had been diminished by the thick fabric in the one-piece, the padded top and bikini bottom had accentuated hers. To make matters worse, in my bare feet I think she was an inch taller than me.
“Now I get it,” she started, looking at my adolescent appearance. “That woman kept talking about me as if I wasn't here. I was so excited at what she was saying, so I played along. She thinks I'm you, Chloe.”
“That's okay, you didn't do anything wrong. I'll give her a call and we can sort this out.”
“No, you can't,” she begged. “They'll make you apply again and start over from the beginning. If we can get through the probationary period, we'll be in the clear.”
“Yeah, Ms. Gardner explained everything to me. If any problems arise during the next ninety days, the state has the authority to swiftly remove me from your care without having to go through a protracted court battle. She's going to check in on us during that time to make sure everything is as it should be.”
“You're not even thirteen yet, there's no way you can pass for an adult,” I lied.
“I already did.”
“Ms. Gardner must be over sixty with bad eyesight, that doesn't count.”
“Let's try someone else then. I'll bet that if we swapped clothes, people would think I was older than you. If I'm wrong, you can make that call and sort it all out. I think you know how much I dislike the group home, so I'm the one taking a chance here.”
I thought it better to show her this wasn't possible rather than argue about it so I agreed. “Everything I was wearing earlier is on my bed.”
“And you can find mine folded on the bathroom counter,” she replied. “Order a pizza and then in thirty minutes we'll let the unbiased delivery person decide which one of us looks like the adult.”
Paige didn't even wait to hear my response before leaving for my bedroom. I shrugged it off and placed the call to get a large pepperoni pizza delivered to my address. In the bathroom I battled to get my one-piece bathing suit off. It was very tight as I misjudged how big Paige was and perhaps got a size too small.
Standing completely naked, I was apprehensive about going through her clothing. Unless I wanted to put my swimsuit back on and call the whole thing off, this is what I had to wear. Paige was already doing the same and it had been her idea after all, so it wasn't that weird. Not sure as to whether I should also wear her underwear, I figured she probably wouldn't want to wear these shorts again if I didn't. They were practically brand new and it was cheaper to throw away the underwear than to replace the shorts.
I stepped into a white cotton panty with a floral print and pulled them up my legs. Next came the blue jean shorts with the rolled up edges that were sewed on, the kind of look only young, skinny teens go for. Then came the gray crop bra, which was completely devoid of any padding. Realistically, this was the type of bra I should be wearing, comfortable and proportional to the size of my breasts. On top of that was a tank with a colorful parrot on the front.
Her shoes were a pair of sandals that were pink and encrusted with plastic jewels. She also had three handmade friendship bracelets that I wasn't going to forget to put on. Looking in the mirror, my hair was a mess when I tried to take out my ponytail. It had been left out to dry after I went in the pool and there really wasn't anything I could do with it at the moment so I bundled it back up and left the bathroom.
My sandals scraped the hardwood floor as I paced around waiting for Paige and our food to arrive. What was taking her so long? When I heard her call for me, I eagerly rushed back to my room. Instead of wearing what I had on earlier, she went through my closet to put on things I wore to work. She towered over me in three-inch heels wearing a long sleeved black pencil dress with a white collar. Her face was full of the appropriate level of makeup in an office setting. Kids today had it so easy, one click over to YouTube and they had access to a countless number of video tutorials on how to apply cosmetics.
Standing side by side in front of my full-length mirror I got a good look at my own transformation for the first time. The clothes really made all the difference as I had already seen earlier in our swimwear. I knew I was going to lose that bet, but I didn't want her to know it just yet. Maybe I could talk her down, make her see reason. The doorbell rang as I was contemplating what to say.
“Time for the moment of truth,” she announced, grabbing my hand and leading me to the front door. “Let me do the talking.”
This was completely embarrassing, so I couldn't help but look away like some shy girl as the door opened.
“That'll be $24.57,” the pizza man said.
Paige handed him the thirty dollars I left on the counter and asked, “Quick question, about how old do you think I am?”
“I dunno, twenty-something?”
“And what about her?”
The man didn't respond right away as he looked me up and down trying to decide. I thought he was college aged, so his guess should be more accurate than someone older.
“I was going to say about sixteen, but then I noticed she's got a tattoo on her arm so that can't be right. She'd have to be at least eighteen to get one of those.” He slid the box out of his bag and handed it off to Paige. “I need to get moving, but thanks for the tip.”
“Listen, Paige,” I began as soon as the door closed. “You should really consider what we're doing here. Even with this bump in the road, we've got a good thing going. Don't ruin it by taking an unnecessary risk.”
“You need to believe in me, Chloe. I can do this with your support.” She gave me a playfully mischievous grin and said, “You're not overly attached to that flower tattoo, are you?”
I grimaced in reply. “I hope you’re not asking what I think you're asking.”
“You heard what the man said. I'm old enough to be you, but you're not young enough to be me.”
“Fine, I'll order some tattoo covering cream.”
“No, you need to get it professionally removed,” she asserted. “That lady, Ms. Gardner, is going to make unannounced visits during your probationary period. The only way this works is if we're in character at all times.”
“Anything else I should know?”
“I do have a few other suggestions.”
Damn, this girl was smart. She could think on her feet and didn't stumble through any of her answers to my questions. With no preparation, she had assembled a game plan for how this was going to work in less than an hour. I was honestly amazed. If she wanted to try, I had to let her. It wouldn't be that big of a deal to take some time off work and spend a few days playing pretend. She would quickly find out that there was more to being a grown-up than simply dressing as one.
Needing to make a couple calls, she requested the use of my phone. I gave her a hearty laugh as I handed it over and told her, “Good luck.” The people on the other end couldn't see how we looked, so it was up to her voice and demeanor to sell the performance. I was taken aback at how mature she sounded scheduling appointments and it made me nervous.
When it was time to call it quits for the day, I was thrilled to finally show off the room she would be sleeping in. No more bunk beds with multiple girls crammed into confined quarters. She would have the privacy that I know girls her age crave now and then. With her eyes closed, I led her into the unfurnished room. Her reaction wasn't what I expected.
“So, what do you think?” I hesitantly asked, breaking the silence.
“A little bland,” she said, making note of how empty it was in here. “It's just a bed.”
“Well sure, but it's your bed. You've never had a chance to create your own space, so I thought we should start from a blank canvas.”
She let out an indifferent sounding, “Thanks,” in reply. “I need to sleep in your room tonight, though.”
“To stay in character, remember?”
“No one will be checking in on us, not tonight. Ms. Gardner won't appear twice in one day.”
“I thought we were going to do what I wanted!” she whined like a petulant child.
The muscles in my face started to shift, forming the beginnings of a smile. I stopped before it grew in size, not wanting to relish in her failure. A kid can only keep up the facade for so long, no matter how good they are. The first crack had appeared and it wouldn't be long before this house of cards came tumbling down. Until then, I would play nice.
“You're the boss,” I said pleasantly.
“I want lights out by nine, Paige.”
Using her own name, she emphasized the role I was supposed to play and left me alone in the room, our interactions done for today. I heard the door to my master bedroom close shut for the night. It had been a long day and I was drained from the roller coaster of emotions, so I was ready for some sleep. With all my toiletries in the other bathroom, I was forced to wash my face with a regular bar of soap and then brush my teeth with a manual toothbrush.
Returning to Paige's room, I undid the straps to her pink sandals on my feet and tossed them aside. I removed her jean shorts, colorful tank and bra, before putting the shirt back on. My only other option for underwear was to rummage through the dirty laundry hamper next to the washer, so I kept her floral print panties on. The friendship bracelets stayed on as well to remind me of the bond we shared. If this was to continue, I was going to need more than the one set of clothes to wear.
I turned the light off and got into the twin size bed. The mattress, pillow and sheets were brand new so everything felt warm and cozy. I fell into a deep sleep and awoke feeling refreshed in the morning. The unfamiliar surroundings gave me pause, a momentary confusion as to where I was before it all came back to me. I stumbled to the bathroom and then went to the kitchen for breakfast.
The sun was shining bright and it reflected my mood. A little too bright actually, as I moved to close the blinds. I popped a slice of white bread into the toaster and poured sugary cereal into a bowl. Paige startled me when she came around a corner, already up before me. I felt exposed standing there in her underwear. Without saying anything, I scampered back to where I left the rest of her clothes and hurried to put them on.
When I returned to the kitchen, I noticed that Paige was in a different outfit from yesterday, a light gray blazer with matching pants. The toast I was about to butter was missing, as was the bowl of cereal on the table. “Where did my food go?” I thought out loud as I looked around.
“I threw it out,” she admitted. “They were empty calories.” She opened the refrigerator and handed me two cold hard boiled eggs and a stick of string cheese. “It's better to start your day on protein and not carbs. You've got an appointment at eleven, so we need to leave soon.”
I had to double check the time on the microwave. Without my phone to set an alarm or a clock, I had slept much longer than I anticipated. It was already 10:30 AM so I swallowed each egg in a few bites, stopping occasionally for some water and then started peeling my cheese apart. After finishing, I was advised to put on my own tennis shoes for the day's activities.
We got in my car and I drove us to the office where my cliché rose tattoo would be erased. I sat upright in a chair while the tech zapped the ink on my inner arm over and over again with a laser. It felt moderately painful, as though someone was snapping a rubber band against my skin. This was one of the newer machines that only required one or two visits for complete removal. They finished in less than an hour and I was cautioned to avoid exposing the area to direct sunlight for a week. The youthful indiscretion wouldn't be missed as removing it had been on my to-do list for years.
The orthodontist had an opening today too, so I drove to their office for a consultation. My teeth had shifted since I originally had braces, so again this wasn't a big deal. I let Paige pose as my older sister and do all the talking, almost as a challenge to see what she was capable of. She didn't disappoint as a payment plan was organized and billed to my credit card. What I didn’t predict is that the braces were going on this very afternoon.
In no time at all, my mouth was filling with saliva as I held it open while metal brackets were glued to my teeth. Had I the choice, I would have opted for the clear plastic aligners. As she explained, straightening my teeth wasn't the important part. The braces were a necessary part of my disguise to make me look younger. Any lingering doubts about my age would be immediately dismissed when they saw my childish, metal mouth grin highlighted with a series of alternating colors like screaming pink and metallic purple.
“We sould stahp,” I tried to say. The braces were giving me a lisp, so I had to speak slower, louder and concentrate on my enunciation. “We should stop at the group home for your things.”
“Can I wait in the car while you clear everything out?”
I found a parking spot a block down the street and carried an empty box to the entrance, leaving my keys in the ignition to keep the air conditioner running. Paige wasn't coming or going so I wasn’t sure if I needed to sign in at the vacant front desk. Her stuff was leaving and there should be a record of that, so I made a scribble next to her name on the sheet of paper. The room she slept in housed four girls in two bunk beds on each side. No one was inside as I started emptying her dresser of clothes and personal items. Kids in her position don’t have many things of value as they had a tendency to get stolen.
Loading up the box, I heard someone from behind speaking to me. “Hey new girl, what do ya think you're doing?”
It was Jessica. Unlike Paige who was an orphan, this girl was here for behavioral difficulties of the aggressive kind. “Jethica, I'm taking Paige's clothes.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Looks like you're already wearing them too.”
I stumbled for an answer, “Ith not what ith looks like. I'm helping her move out. I thwear.”
“MS. ROBERTA!” Her voice boomed, the noise carrying throughout the building.
Oh god, this was going to be embarrassing. We chatted a few times so I knew the lady well enough as an acquaintance. This would probably go much smoother with Paige in tow, so I elected to set the box down, leave and come back.
“Where ya off to in such a hurry?”
“I'll be back for this box in five minutes.”
She stood in front of the door, her large frame blocking my exit. “Nuh-uh. That ain't happening.”
“Pleathe move aside, I don't want any trowuble.”
“You come into my house, steal from my family and think you're getting away with it? Hell no.”
What a joke. From what Paige had told me, this fat girl was a bully who didn't give a damn about anyone else. Jessica wasn't likely to see reason, so I ducked under her arm and stepped away. My shirt grew tight as she grabbed it and hauled me back. Off balance, I stumbled backward a few steps landing awkwardly on my hand. I screamed out in pain with my butt on the floor.
“What happened!” Ms. Roberta exclaimed as she hurried inside.
“Caught a girl breaking in, taking things that aren't hers. Almost got away with it too,” Jessica responded, proud of her good deed.
“The dumb bitch broke my wrist!” I yelled.
As the woman tried to ask me who I was, Jessica lunged at me, the full weight of her elbow smashing into my face. My head hit the ground and the metal brackets on my teeth scraped against my inner lip, rapidly filling my mouth with blood. I ended up biting down hard on my tongue and felt it starting to swell up.
Ms. Roberta was too late as the damage was already done. I laid on the floor in a daze as the police were called. The organization that ran the house had a zero tolerance policy for violence, so all parties were equally culpable regardless of the circumstances. Not that I was able to explain my side anyway, my tongue incapable of forming any intelligible words.
Not able to ascertain who I was or what I was doing there, they took me to a juvenile detention center. Thoughts of Paige came to me as a medic placed my right hand in a temporary splint. Up until the day before she had lived in that place, so I wasn't too worried about her. Not much could be done about my mouth right now, that would have to heal on its own. With my wounds tended to, a harsh looking older man in a uniform motioned for me to leave with him.
“Whurh aeru paekang mue?” I inquired. When he didn't respond, I asked again.
He spoke deliberately loud and slow, as an ignorant person does when talking to someone who doesn’t comprehend English. “I'm - taking - you - to - processing.”
Realizing what that meant, my garbled speech became more frantic. They were going to make an official record of my visit here. It was so stupid, I hadn't even done anything! I was the victim and they were treating me like a criminal. I couldn't say what I needed to, but my injuries should speak for themselves. The corrections officer pulled on my arm as I dragged my feet. A few corridors and locked doors later, he presented me in front of a woman at a computer terminal who didn’t look up from her monitor.
“Name?” The tedious nature of the job evident in her concise speech.
“Chaloeh Saonhunders, Chaloeh Saonhunders!” I nearly shouted, imploring them to figure out what I was saying.
“Your guess is as good as mine, I can't make heads or tails of what she's complaining about.”
“Let's get her scanned in then.”
I pulled my fingers away as he arranged them on the scanner. It was an invasion of privacy. I knew my rights and didn't consent to any of this!
“Stop resisting or we’ll have to do this the hard way.”
My wrist ached as the man pulled my hands forward and held them against the glass pane long enough for the computer to get what it needed. Next, I was placed in front of a height chart background where they took my picture and then directed to stand on a scale. I had no choice in the matter.
“No hits in the database,” the tech announced. “I always hate having to fill these out manually. Sex: Female. Height: 5'1''. Weight: 110 Pounds. Age: Unknown. Name: Unknown.”
I grabbed a pen on the counter nearby and made a writing gesture in the air. Sensing what I wanted, they produced a blank piece of paper. My dominant right hand trembled with pain as I attempted to write with it. Switching to my left I produced a messy, but legible, Chloe Saunders. I gave them a satisfied sound when they read it out loud, finally able to communicate.
The woman punched my name into the computer and looked over the results. “Where did you pick her up from?”
“The group home on 52nd street, the one for at-risk youths.”
“Yep. I think we've got this all sorted out now. There was an update filed earlier today granting a Chloe Saunders temporary guardianship for one of the girls there. Paige Lyon, age twelve. I've got contact information and an address.”
“Paige... yeah that's the name I heard a few times when I was over there. I think you're right. Go ahead and give Chloe a call and inform her that this brat is available to pick up.”
No! These incompetent people had it backwards. I was the adult and if I could have their attention for a moment, they would understand. Using the pen and paper I began to write, “I am not…” before the man cut me off.
“You’re not a brat? Yeah, well you’ve been acting like one. You’re also not my problem anymore, so let’s go.”
I followed along tentatively at first then becoming more certain with each step. If they thought I was Paige that would be better for me. I really didn’t want this adventure showing up on my background check. It was selfish, but it’s not as though she was being charged with anything yet. Incidents like this were best avoided during the probationary period. She wouldn’t want me to lose custody, so it was a fair trade I decided.
The man brought me to the waiting area near the entrance where all the parents and their children congregated. I took a seat and was left unsupervised in the crowd. No one was coming to get me, so I needed to hang around for a little while and then slink out unnoticed. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed on the clock. I had to remain long enough for people to think I was waiting for someone and hadn’t departed of my own accord. “Of course, someone picked me up,” I played the conversation out in my mind, “Why else would I have stayed for half an hour looking so bored?”
Checking once more that the clerk was busy and the corrections officers were looking the other way, I gently got up from my chair and made my way to the door. Pushing it open, no one stopped me or said anything as I casually walked out. Without any money, I was going to be doing a lot of walking, several miles in fact.
My car was parked near the group home. I briefly considered going there to retrieve Paige, but it was not wise to return to the scene of the crime the very same day. She still had my phone so if I went home instead and then made a Skype call on my laptop to touch base we could work out a plan of attack. I would take the bus there, meet her outside and then drive the both of us back.
The first part of my trip was over before it got started. I caught sight of my car pulling into the lot driven by Paige. It was hard to believe at first so I stood motionless and watched as she had some trouble parking between the narrow lines. When the sedan came to a stop, I ran over and banged on the window.
Clearly agitated, I tried to ask, “What do you think you’re doing?” only it probably came out sounding as if I had a mental deficiency. I pointed at the phone inside and had her give it to me so I could use the virtual keyboard to spell out what I wanted to say. Swiping the requisite letters I repeated the question and turned the display for her to read.
“I got a call on your phone, they said I had to come get you.”
“I didn’t need your help,” I wrote, repeating the process.
“You’ve been gone almost three hours, I didn’t know what else to do!” she cried out.
For someone who was normally so thoughtful, she had chosen to do something incredibly reckless. I shouldn’t be too hard on her, kids often make bad decisions. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. How did you manage to get here?"
“There’s turn by turn directions on the phone.”
“Did you hit anyone or get pulled over by a cop?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I did.”
“You’re incredibly lucky. Move over so I can drive us home.”
Sitting in the driver’s seat, her eyes glanced at the screen and then back to me. With a look of defiance, she uttered one cold word.
I turned the phone back around to make sure it still showed what I typed in. It did, so I wrote another for her to read. “This isn’t up for debate.”
“It’s not as hard as people make it out to be. If you let me drive, I’ll show you.”
Unable to raise my voice as people often do when the other person isn’t getting the message, I let my actions speak for me. Opening the door, I reached across her lap to remove the keys from the ignition and unbuckled her seatbelt. She resisted as I tried using my good hand to pull her up and out of the car. The horn blared for several seconds as we fought.
My broken wrist made any attempt at physical coercion a non-starter. It was humbling having to negotiate to get what I wanted when the threat of force had failed. Breathing heavily from a burst of activity, I swiped my finger furiously across the screen, autocorrect adjusting my entries to the wrong words. I closed my eyes and counted to ten to calm down and start over.
“I’m not going to let you drive until you’re sixteen and have a learner’s permit. You don’t seem to grasp the repercussions of what will happen to the both of us if you’re caught operating an automobile.”
Paige wouldn’t even look at me after reading that. I don’t think she was ready to forgive and forget so soon, not that I had apologized for my behavior. Our standoff could only end one way, so I waited for her to acquiesce. Eventually, she gave in and got out of her seat.
Standing next to her, she held her palm out toward me like a bellhop waiting for a tip. “You’ll get a ticket if you try to text while driving.”
I placed the device in her hands and got in the driver’s seat. Just as I buckled in, a policeman approached who must have heard the loud noise and then observed our animated discussion.
“Is everything alright ma’am?” he asked, the question unmistakably aimed at the young looking woman standing outside the car in her professional business attire.
“Oh thank god you’re here,” she replied, her speech dripping with false enthusiasm. “My niece is out of control. She’s taken my keys and is trying to drive herself who knows where. I could really use your help, officer.”
“Not to worry, we deal with her type on a regular basis. Let me handle it. What’s her name by the way?”
“It’s Paige and she’s almost thirteen.”
“Paige, you need to listen to your aunt. You’re simply too young to be driving a car and more importantly, at your age it’s against the law. If you try to leave, I’m going to be forced to get in my cruiser right over there and come get you. The choice is entirely up to you whether you’d rather spend the night in your warm bed at home or in the detention center. What will it be?”
I was so fixated on taking charge that I didn’t stop to think that someone might have been watching. Had she seen him coming and gotten out at just the right time to give the appearance that I was an unruly teen stealing a car? It was unbelievable that a twelve-year-old girl had outsmarted me and put me in an unwinnable position. Checkmate.
Sliding over the center divider, I moved into the passenger seat without protest. The smug look of satisfaction was on her face as her eyes met mine. She had found a way to drive even though I specifically said it wasn’t possible. I could admire that kind of dedication if it wasn’t being used against me.
“Thank you for your assistance.”
“Just doing my job. If you have any further troubles, give me a call and I’d be happy to help,” he said handing her a business card with his name and phone number.
“Oh, you’re too kind.”
Witnessing the exchange, I thought he looked a little too eager. Oh my god, was he flirting with her? Gross. We needed to leave before he invited her for coffee so I called for Paige with my swollen tongue. “Ughh.” It sounded more obnoxious than I intended. They said their goodbyes and she got into the car.
“I know you’re mad and have had a bad day. Sit back and try to relax, because there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I grabbed the wheel and shook my head at her. This was unacceptable. She put on a superb performance, but we were switching back once he was out of sight.
Glaring at me, she held up my phone in one hand and her trump card in the other. Nothing needed to be said as I understood the implication. If I didn’t cooperate, she would call the police. His number gave her a dangerous tool to play with. I had never seen this darker side to her personality before and it was frightening. How long was she going to hold this over me?
The engine roared to life as the key turned. This was really happening. There were so many things I wanted to say, as any parent would giving their child driving lessons. She was on her own and god help me if she crashed. My anxiety was through the roof. It would be ironic if, after all this, I had a heart attack and needed her to take me to the hospital.
“At the end of the road, turn right.”
Ten minutes in, the only one speaking was the GPS navigator. Paige was concentrating on her driving and doing fine. I didn’t catch her breaking any rules of the road. She signaled when changing lanes, used her mirrors appropriately and didn’t speed. Her foot eased on and off the pedals to brake and accelerate without causing the car to jerk forward or stop suddenly. It wasn’t long before we arrived at our destination.
She turned the car off in the driveway and pulled the lever to open the trunk saying, “There’s a box in the back, bring it in would you please.”
I obliged, glad to have made it back safely. Getting out, I made my way to the rear of the vehicle. Inside was the brown box I filled with her personal belongings from the group home. As I expected, she had come looking for me when I didn’t return. It felt great having this box here as I really didn’t want to try again a second time. What didn’t feel so good was my wrist. Not able to lift with two hands, I dragged it into the house with one hand holding onto the box flap.
Swallowing my pride, I offered an apology to Paige typed up on my laptop and explained the ordeal I went through today. Who had broken my wrist, why I was unable to speak and how I ended up at a juvenile detention center. Upon reading all of this, I assumed she would recognize that we needed to end the charade of pretending to be each other. She was not convinced.
“I’m not giving up because you made a few mistakes. You’ll have to try harder next time. Or are you already thinking about how you can use this as an excuse to get rid of me like everyone always does?”
That one hurt more than my face getting smashed in. No, I wasn’t going to abandon her, especially not after what one of her roommates did to me. No one should have to live in fear of their safety. Our game of make-believe would continue, for now.
I was starving after going without food since breakfast. Chewing was out of the question, so I required a liquid meal. Luckily, I had several bags of a meal replacement powder. Mixing it with water in a glass, I drank an entire dinner’s worth of calories through a straw.
Feeling satiated, I finished dragging the box of clothes all the way to Paige’s room and proceeded to sort the items into groups on the hardwood floor. A vast majority were childish looking holdovers from years prior, obtained on birthdays and Christmases when generous people felt sorry for the poor girl. Reaching the bottom, I was confused at not finding the trendy clothes we got when shopping together. The ones I remembered putting in the box personally.
Checking more closely at the whole lot, I couldn’t recall ever seeing her wear any of this before. It appeared as though it all belonged to an even younger girl of ten or eleven. With Paige moving out, someone must have taken advantage of the situation to trade their entire tween wardrobe for something a little bigger. Those kids were vultures.
Not having taken a shower today, I decided to do that first before putting any clean clothes on. This other bathroom didn’t have any of my specialty shampoos, conditioners or razors to shave with so I was done in a matter of minutes using only a simple bar of soap. There was a slight delay as a result of needing to use my left hand to wash up and making sure my splint didn’t get wet.
Back in Paige’s room, or mine at present, I closed the door and browsed my choices of apparel. Selecting a yellow dress with a soft fabric that looked comfortable to sleep in, I put my arms inside and began to pull it over my head. The collar was a tight fit and I heard some threads ripping as they expanded too far. Underwear was the standard fare and they went on with minimal trouble.
The full-length mirror in my own bedroom would give me a more complete view of how I looked, so I walked over and pushed open the door. Paige was in the middle of changing when I silently entered unannounced and I caught a full view of her backside wearing a lacy red thong of mine. She rushed to close the door as I gawked like a teenage boy.
“Knock before you enter next time.”
A minute later I came back in and gave her a look that said sorry. I moved to check my reflection as she sat upright on the queen size bed in my pajamas, playing with my phone. With no buttons or a zipper, the yellow dress with a heart shape on the front was definitely for kids. The hemline was way too short on account of me being too tall, about to mid-thigh. I got the feeling that if I were to bend over, my underwear would clearly be visible. This was going in the, ‘Not for use outside the home’ pile.
“You look positively adorable.”
Adorable is not usually the adjective women in their mid-twenties want to be described as. That word is generally reserved for how older people describe children. The braces really were like magic, cutting years off my apparent age. If I lost weight and added some accessories, how young could I pass for? It was interesting to think about, but I had no desire to relive my youth.
I wanted to ask Paige about why none of the clothes she brought back were hers, but I was tired and had to rest. Back in the bathroom, my left hand awkwardly pushed and pulled on the toothbrush cleaning my teeth. This would take some getting used to. Everything that required manual dexterity would be slow and complicated for weeks, if not months. My productivity at work, especially when using the keyboard was going to see a drastic reduction. I absolutely could not afford to lose my job right now. The loss of income immediately disqualified me in becoming her permanent foster parent during this trial period.
The next morning, I was up early as my wrist needed to be examined by a doctor as soon as possible. Without an alarm, I let my body wake naturally by drinking a large cup of water the night before. In between sips of my meal replacement shake for breakfast, I typed up a message for Paige to read when she got up on my laptop computer.
“Can you accompany me to the urgent care center? I need you to speak with the staff and medical professionals about my broken wrist and fill out some forms. I can’t really do either at the moment. I’ll give you my insurance card and all the necessary information before we leave.”
When I attempted to remove the scandalously short dress to change, I found that I couldn’t get it off. I contorted my body into different positions trying to find a way to wiggle out to no use. Paige saw me struggling to free myself and came to my aid. Standing in front of me she directed my arms upward and I complied. Pulling from the skirt end, the dress went up and over my head. It was then that I realized I wasn’t wearing a bra. Viewing my flat chest, she stifled a giggle and turned away.
For a few minutes, I contemplated sneaking into my bedroom to rummage through my dresser. Pushing those thoughts out of my mind, I looked at my options again. My best bet was a frilly, turquoise gown that was some little girl’s Sunday best, only worn when going to church. Holding it against my frame, the bottom reached to just above the knee.
Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I slipped on a training bra I found before trying the dress on. It was a snug fit, but much better than my previous choice. For socks, I added a pair of white knee-highs that matched up well with the shiny black shoes which were also for special occasions. I always made an effort to look presentable when going to the doctor as a sign of respect. They spend years educating themselves to get where they are and their clientele are mostly sick people in sweatpants and sweatshirts.
Looking in the bathroom mirror, I took out my ponytail and tried to do something with my hair. It was still a mess after the dip in the pool, needing a wash with shampoo and conditioner. Collecting my hair back into a bundle, it was clear that I needed two hands to complete the task. Finding my handy helper in the kitchen, I pointed toward my head and handed her the clear elastic band. It snapped as she stretched it out.
“This one broke, wait here while I get you another.”
A minute later, she returned and started over again. Her delicate fingers ran through my dark brown hair gathering it together. She wasn’t very good at this as the ponytail was off center. Right before I was about to step away she kept going, trying to do better a second time.
“There. All done. You look so cute.”
No, she couldn’t be done yet. There were still two ponytails in my hair and one needed to be removed. My hunch about what she had done was confirmed when I saw pigtails in the mirror. Each bunch of hair was adorned with a small turquoise bow that matched my dress. Ha ha, very funny. I imagined saying, “My name is Chloe, I’m ten years old,” in a childish tone. Seeing my reflection, it wasn’t completely absurd. If anyone asked, I’d try to tell them it was cosplay or whatever.
Paige was ready about forty-five minutes later, elegant as ever in a beige cocktail dress that I wore to parties. She was showing a lot of leg and was taller than me by three or four inches in my black leather pumps. In the fashion faceoff of who wore it better, the answer was probably her. I wasn’t jealous that she was perhaps prettier than me, it was a fact of life that everyone dealt with at some point as they grew older. Although recently I seemed to be going in the other direction.
I drove when we left for the clinic. Turning with one hand was different at first, but I got used to it. My car had an automatic transmission so it could be done safely. At a stoplight, the person in the vehicle next to mine looked troubled by the age of the person driving. When the light turned green, I matched their speed so they wouldn’t be able to get a look at my license plate before making a sharp turn away. After a short detour, we were there and headed inside.
I didn’t need an appointment as they accepted walk-ins. The downside was that without a scheduled visit, the wait times were rather long. I sat down in a chair while Paige did her part in signing in with my insurance card and filling out the paperwork for me. I didn’t mind if people thought mommy was helping me with my boo-boo. It would have been far more embarrassing if I had to do this myself and speak out loud in my down syndrome voice.
The bill for this was going to suck. My coverage through work wasn’t that great and I would likely max out my deductible before the insurance covered the remainder. Fifteen minutes in, I let out a big yawn. I was bored out of my mind with nothing to do. Since Paige was doing me a favor, it was only fair to let her play games on my phone as a distraction.
I was tired from getting up early, my body needing more slumber to recover from my injuries. An attempt at resting my eyes ended up with me falling asleep. Drool was coming out of my mouth when I was nudged awake, the doctor almost ready to see me. Paige followed as my interpreter, personal translator or whatever it was called that she was doing. The nurse did the initial inspection in our waiting room so that when the doctor was ready they could skip ahead to the diagnosis.
I half-expected Paige to invent a colorful story about how I was pushed on the playground at recess, but that didn’t happen. She stuck to the facts, leaving out the part that the person who hurt me was only a kid. The nurse led us to radiology where the x-ray technician took three pictures and then returned us to our room.
The doctor appeared twenty minutes later, greeting us and got right to work. Taking the splint off my bruised and swollen wrist, he gently turned it back and forth looking it over. On the computer screen, he brought up the digital x-ray and pointed out the spot where the bone had partially fractured.
“The good news is surgery won’t be necessary, but that wrist will need to be in a cast for six to eight weeks. There’s still too much swelling to put one on now so I’m going to wrap it in a splint again and then schedule an appointment for next week.”
About ten minutes later we were done, out of the building and back in my car. I gave Paige a thumbs up, as a show of appreciation for a job well done. Well, just one thumb really. I had limited mobility of the other, but it was the thought that counts. Swiping at the virtual keys on my phone, I wrote her a message about stopping by my office.
She had no objections as I didn’t expect she would. We had been there together on multiple occasions, sometimes staying for hours after I picked her up from school. I wasn’t bothered to go in dressed as I was because today was a Sunday and no one would be there.
Parking in an empty lot, we made our way to the entrance. Paige loved to open the door for me so she scanned my keycard and then punched in my code. A second later the door made an electrical clicking sound and unlocked. She knew where my office was on the fourth floor and didn’t wait for me to keep up with her on the stairs.
Out of breath, I stumbled into my office, starting to reconsider my pledge not to take the elevator anymore. The door was already open when I got there, my large chair empty and inviting me to sit down. I obliged and input my name and password to log into the network. Movement with the mouse was stiff, the shape designed for use in the right hand. My muscle memory with the keyboard was completely useless as I had to hunt and peck for keys. I felt as slow as a senior citizen learning how to use a computer.
On the other side of the desk, Paige saw my frustration and offered to figuratively lend me a hand. Taking my seat, I stood behind her and pointed at the collection of quarterly reports I wanted to read. We had talked at length before about what I did exactly so she had a good idea of what I wanted her to do. My reason for coming was to try and get ahead of my work by taking some of it home and completing it during my time off. I would be spending nights and weekends finishing what I normally accomplished from nine to five as my output slowed to a crawl.
Going through a rough patch the previous day, I was happy to see Paige back as her usual self. The girl that had defied me was once again a ray of sunshine that lifted my spirits. When I was down, she was there to brighten my day with a cheery smile and a positive attitude. Transferring the necessary files to a flash drive, she logged out and we left.
Back home in the living room, my liquid lunch was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell, which I ignored at first. Hearing a hard knock, I got up and peered through the peephole to see that it was the old woman assigned to my foster care application. Hastily rounding a corner, I bumped into Paige on my way to find her. Pointing at the door, she opened it and instantly knew what part she had to play.
“Ms. Gardner, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”
“Afternoon service just got out and since I was in the neighborhood I thought I would stop by and see how you’re all doing.”
I stepped into view, still in my Sunday best from head to toe.
“Oh my! You’re cute as a button in that dress, Paige. It’s so wonderful to see you going to church and being raised in the word of the Lord.”
I wasn’t religious, so I prayed to god that Ms. Gardner wouldn’t invite us to her church. We would be compelled to attend every week, lest she write a nasty note in my file about how Paige was living in a secular home. Introducing dozens of new people to our assumed identities would be a disaster. Wanting to move on to a new topic, I gave her a wave with my broken hand.
“My goodness, what happened to you?”
The real Paige stepped in at the right moment to cover for me. “She uh, she… fell. She fell.” The masterful storyteller blundered through an impromptu lie.
The social worker knew to look for signs of physical abuse and my injury was clear as day. She would get suspicious if this wasn’t handled correctly. What made it even worse was that I couldn’t confirm the story without her finding out that someone had smashed my face in too. It would be obvious the moment I vocalized a word.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to get much out of her today I’m afraid. I took her to the orthodontist yesterday and she’s very self-conscious about the lisp caused by her new braces.”
Way to go, Paige! A good recovery and very clever. Looking off to the side, I gave the woman a shy smile displaying my colorful mouth of metal and didn’t say anything. It seemed to put her at ease and the issue was dropped.
“Wow, you've been busy these past two days. With the Summer break ending soon, have you given any thought as to her schooling?”
“It’s been so hectic recently I haven’t actually. Before coming to live with me, I presumed she was already enrolled in the nearby school. Should I be looking at alternatives?”
“If you want a quality education then I would suggest going outside of the public school system.”
“Might you have any recommendations?”
As if right on cue, a pamphlet was produced from her purse for a private Catholic school. “Pinehearst Academy has a strong emphasis on learning in a Christ-centered environment. The smaller class sizes mean that teachers can work individually with students to see that they reach their full potential. They take safety very seriously and you won’t find any of the riffraff that you would elsewhere. Oh, and financial aid is available to those that qualify.”
Woah, Ms. Gardner was making a hard sell as though she was going to earn a commission if we registered. I wasn’t opposed to a private, religious school if that’s what Paige wanted, depending on the cost.
“Thanks. I’ll definitely check this out.”
Shortly thereafter, I escorted the three of us to what was supposed to be Paige’s room. With clothes in need of a dresser piled on the floor, Ms. Gardner was disappointed that no additional furniture had been added yet. As I hadn’t been with her during the initial inspection, I don’t know what she was expecting and when. The grown-ups chatted amongst themselves for a little bit longer until the old lady left, not wanting to overstay her welcome.
Needing to confer with Paige, I typed up a message on my laptop. “Ms. Gardner kind of threw a wrench in your plans. She is a complication.”
“The kind of person who can lie through her teeth if she believed it was for a righteous cause and sleep well at night. It’s a good thing she thought we went to church because that broken hand of yours really put her on edge. I get the feeling that if we don’t sign up for that private school it’s not going to end well for us.”
We were on the same wavelength and she had said all the things I was thinking. “So we are agreed, it has to stop.”
In a few quiet seconds, the air of maturity around her evaporated as she emotionally regressed back into adolescence. Her eyes welled with tears and she began to sob, the youthful sadness in stark contrast to her outward appearance. Try as she might to hide it, on the inside was a vulnerable girl who had experienced more hardships and disappointments than most her age. I felt a twinge of guilt as I moved to comfort her with a hug. The idea to have us pretend to be each other was always going to end like this.
“I can accept the consequences of my actions,” she said, pausing to blow her nose in a tissue. “I’m just sorry for what is about to happen to you.”
A bit confused I asked, “What do you mean?” using the keyboard.
“This will be the fourth time my presumptive parents have elected to return me to the custody of the state. After getting sent back so many times, I will no doubt have the label of being a problem child. Not that many families are looking to adopt someone as old as me. I knew this was a possibility when we started so I am okay with it. The fallout for you will be far worse.”
“Paige, what are you talking about? You’re staying with me.”
“How sympathetic do you think Ms. Gardner will be when you explain the situation to her? When she finds out the truth, you’ll never be allowed to see me again or do any mentoring with other kids in the future. You should get a lawyer as I would hate to see you end up in jail.”
“Why do I need a lawyer?”
“Since this was probably my last chance at finding a new family, I’ll be on my own when I age out of foster care at eighteen. I could really use a safety net of funds to pay for a place to live and other expenses. To get that money, I’m going to sue the state for placing me in your care. When they find out what you’ve been doing, I think they’ll be advised to quickly settle. You’ve been great to me, so I want you to know it’s nothing personal. No hard feelings.”
My brain registered all the things she said, but did not process any of it. I stared at her, my eyes unblinking.
“I can see you’re confused so let me clear things up for you.” Her change in attitude was abrupt as she nonchalantly described how my life was about to be ruined. “In a minute or two, I’ll make an emergency call to 9-1-1 and ask for the police. When they get here and see what you’re wearing, I’m going to tell them a story about how mentally unstable you are. You’re so obsessed with becoming a kid again that you tried to adopt me so you could take my place.”
“During the investigation, it won't look good when they discover that you were seen entering my room at the group home, wearing my clothes and subsequently booked into a juvenile detention center under my name. They’ll match your fingerprints to the Paige Lyon they picked up and that mugshot of yours will be the final nail in your coffin.”
“Officer, I was so scared. Chloe threatened to hurt me if I didn’t play her sick game,” she teased playfully. “She made me wear her adult things and drive her car. I didn’t know what to do!”
A panic was slowly rising in my chest. I now understood why this girl had been abandoned so many times, it was because she was a psychopath. So many questions were running through my head that I couldn’t begin to answer as my immediate concern was getting out of these clothes. I frantically reached for the zipper on the back of my turquoise gown in a vain attempt to remove the incriminating evidence. It was no use, the thing wouldn’t come off without her help. There was no point in removing my shiny black shoes, knee-high socks and pigtails with the dress still on. Not to mention my braces, the metal brackets glued on my teeth and held together with bright colors. Even the tattoo removal would seem to support her version of events.
I considered wrestling the phone away from her and then using a pair of scissors to cut my way out of this childish outfit. All she would have to do to stop me is grab at my broken wrist and squeeze. Even if I somehow managed that, she could run outside screaming for help. The outburst would draw the attention of the neighborhood, her imaginative lies making me look like a monster. By the time the cops arrived, maybe she would decide that I had sexually abused her too.
I was stuck and completely at her mercy with only one way out. My left hand glided across the laptop keyboard in search of the keys I desired.
“Please don’t. I can help.”
“You want to what, set up a trust fund for me if I promise not to say anything? I’ll easily clear a million or two on the lawsuit and there’s no way you can match that. Plus, I lose all leverage a month after you send me back.”
“You like me, right?” I cautiously asked.
“Yeah, as I said this is strictly a business decision.”
“And you would prefer to stay with me over the money?”
“Sure, if that was an option.”
Reluctantly, I proposed an alternative to prison. “Let’s finish what we started. I’ll pretend to be you for the next three months until the probationary period is up and then we won’t be getting any unannounced visits from that social worker anymore.”
Hopefully, this is what she wanted to hear. There was always the possibility that she was manipulating me toward this resolution and there never was going to be a lawsuit, but I couldn’t take that risk. I had to buy some time to figure a way out even though I was digging myself a bigger hole the longer this went on.
“I need some assurance that you’re not going to dump me when the coast is clear. Tomorrow we’re taking a tour of that school and signing you up for classes.”
“I don’t think we can afford private schooling right now, even with the implied threat from Ms. Gardner. The medical costs for my broken wrist will be in the thousands of dollars.” It was a reasonable excuse.
Paige laughed, unconcerned with the bill that was coming. “What do you think will cost more, your legal defense or Pinehearst Academy?”
I hated that she was right, that this was the most rational course of action for me. The rest of the afternoon and evening I was walking on eggshells, trying not to upset her. When it was my bedtime, she unzipped my dress and allowed me the freedom to pick out my sleepwear. While she was wearing a comfortable pair of knit boxers and an oversized shirt to bed, I had a form fitting nightgown with a sassy phrase on the front. The label said it was for big girls and that seemed appropriate.
The next morning I got up feeling groggy. I did not sleep well as I tossed and turned in the twin size bed the night before. The stress had seeped into my subconscious fueling an unpleasant dream. Attempting to turn the handle on my closed door, I found that it wouldn't budge. Taking a closer look, it dawned on me that my door now locked from the outside. Compacting my left hand into a fist, I politely knocked three times. A minute later, I heard footsteps approaching my door then turning the switch to unlock it.
“I finished making breakfast, why don't you come and eat with me,” Paige said.
At the kitchen table, my plate held a solitary boiled egg and a dab of flavorless yogurt. As I sat down, I gazed at the plate too long and she took notice.
“Is there a problem?”
I started eating, not bothering with a reply.
“You're going to need to slim down before school starts. It will help you to fit in better.”
In the time it took her to say that I was finished with my meal. Shampoo and conditioner were provided for use in my morning shower. I was made to step onto the bathroom scale for a baseline measurement and my goal was to drop ten pounds. Not having anything nearly as nice and formal to meet people in, I was back in the same outfit as yesterday complete with matching pigtails.
“If you are able to speak clearly, be sure to address me as Chloe, Ms. Saunders or Mom if you feel so inclined,” she remarked, driving us to the private academy where we would meet the principle.
I couldn’t wrap my head around her thought process. She had to know that I would never love her like before. I wasn’t going to simply forget her betrayal, so why stay? My reason for not leaving was based out of fear, while her motives were unclear. Paige wasn't without empathy, of that I was reasonably sure of. Until I determined what it was that she really wanted, I was on my best behavior, as docile and subservient as possible.
The principle was nice enough as was the school, which it should be for the ridiculous amount they charge in tuition. The tour itself was a bore, the exercise completely redundant as the decision to enroll was already made. I kept to myself mostly, allowing Paige to speak for me.
Half an hour later, I was in an empty room undergoing placement testing. Turning thirteen in a month, Paige should normally be entering into the seventh grade. Since she was such a smart girl, I didn't think she would mind if I tested into high school for her. A twenty-five-year-old woman would be far less conspicuous if people thought she might be sixteen or seventeen and not twelve, at present. It would be weird if someone that old was still wearing anything from my current tween collection, so Paige would be forced into giving me back some of my old clothes so as not to raise suspicion. This was my small, but plausible act of insubordination.
On the first question, it read, “Use number bonds to help you skip-count by seven by making ten or adding to the ones.” The example I needed to fill in was, 7 + 7 = 10 + 4 = __. I had heard complaints online from parents about Common Core, a new educational standard for testing and now I understood why. As I had no idea what answer they were looking for, I decided to not waste time trying to figure it out.
Question two, “5x² - 8 (x - 3) + 4. Which of the following represents a coefficient?” This one looked more familiar, although I was never very good at math and hadn't done anything like this in almost ten years. I couldn't recall what a coefficient was so I circled one of the multiple choice answers at random. “The function f is... skipped,” I chuckled at my own joke, guessing again. Going down the sheet of paper, I finally found a string of math problems I remembered how to do. “Johnny has 5 cats and 6 cans of cat food...”, “What is 30% of 40?”, “Divide 1638 by 26.”, “Convert 0.2 into a fraction.”
The essay portion proved to be a different kind of struggle. While the questions themselves were easy enough, writing with my left hand proved to be excruciatingly slow. The text was legible, but the letters were of varying sizes, shifted to odd angles and didn't line up straight.
As with most people, once I was outside of a school environment the use of handwriting was limited to my signature, birthday cards and the like. What the keyboard did to handwriting, spellcheck and autocorrect did to spelling. The ability to accurately know all the correct letters in a word was now an obsolete skill. When web searches started showing results for what they thought people wanted, instead of what they typed in, there was no going back.
My grammar was a mess. I was so focused on spelling words correctly so as not to look like an idiot that it hurt my sentence structure. When I came to a word I knew was spelled incorrectly, I chose to substitute it with a simpler word even if it was an awkward fit. I was on the clock and so couldn't spare the time necessary to erase an entire sentence to start over from the beginning.
For the third and final section, my reading and comprehension skills were tested. I was presented with an excerpt from a classic novel and then asked to answer multiple choice questions about it. Very basic stuff about which words best describe how a character is feeling, who the narrator is, what the context of a particular passage is about.
Unfortunately, the tip of my pencil broke on the first answer I tried to circle after breezing through the reading. I hadn't been provided with a spare and wasn't in a normal classroom where pencil sharpeners are bolted to the wall. Alone in this room, I got up from my desk to knock on the door for some assistance.
“All done?” the secretary that was proctoring the exam asked.
“Mha plenhil bloak,” I said, holding up the broken pencil in my fingers.
She responded with a well-meaning, but very patronizing, “That's okay,” and moved over to the desk where I left the worksheet, reviewing how far I had gotten.
I think she mistook me for a special needs student on account of my speech impediment. It didn't seem important to her that I complete the remaining questions, the test mostly a formality for kids with learning disabilities. They wouldn't be attending class with everyone else so their score didn’t matter.
Paige would not be happy with me if she thought I had done this on purpose, so I had to dissuade the secretary of the misconception before it was too late. I articulated to the best of my ability that I did not have a mental handicap. Pointing to my tongue, I showed her that my speech was temporarily impaired as a result of an injury. Before she put two and two together, it was too late. She was a stickler for the rules and our little conversation used up the remainder of my allotted time. Placement testing was over whether I was done or not.
Back home, I ate a three-hundred calorie lunch and started training the newest employee at my workplace on how to do my job. I would be at school during the day and so someone would have to cover for me. Realistically, all she had to do was clock in and clock out. The work could be brought home for me to finish after class and then filed the next day. There were a hundred other drones in the large office building where I worked, so turnover was a regular occurrence with new faces showing up constantly and old ones leaving.
I was torn over how much to tell her. It might be possible to sabotage her with bad information, ultimately resulting in my dismissal. Through no apparent fault of my own, the guardianship I had of Paige would be revoked with the loss of my job. Maybe then it wouldn't be fair in her mind to still file the lawsuit. I doubted she would be feeling charitable, so I told her everything.
Two days later, I returned to my place of work in a completely inappropriate sundress and flip flops. The company had a very relaxed policy when it came to children, so I was able to accompany my make-believe Mom so long as I wasn’t a disruption to anyone else. Now more than ever, I felt ashamed by the loss of my professional business attire, makeup and jewelry. Paige, on the other hand, was energized by the addition of my adult responsibilities.
The impersonal nature of my job really stood out to me as I passed a couple familiar faces in the hallway. Neither one recognized the demure child as someone who had previously been one of their co-workers. They did, however, say hello to the pretty, new girl who had copied and pasted my look. As long as the job got done, no one cared who was doing it. An interchangeable part that was easily replaced and never missed.
On that note, Paige locked my office door as we entered. For the next week and a half before school started, I would assist her at work to make sure things went smoothly. The fond memories I used to have of her here now exchanged for ones that were darker and more unpleasant. In case of an emergency, the real me could be produced in a pinch as she carried an adult change of clothes locked away in my briefcase.
With my bad luck, there would be a new email waiting to be read in my inbox dictating a new security policy wherein all staff and associates would be required to wear a photo ID badge at all times. Three months of employee churn later, the memory of who Chloe Saunders used to be gradually replaced by this imposter. One way or another, I felt that I was destined to lose this job. If our switcheroo failed, I had bigger things to worry about. If it succeeded, I would want to resign and move somewhere far away from her.
The following Saturday, we went to my appointment at the urgent care center to have my wrist put in a cast. On the ride back, I was nervous about the bill which was a legitimate concern. My street had a centralized mail delivery kiosk and without the key to my individual mailbox, I had no idea how much I owed or when it was due.
I carefully broached the topic with Paige, my tongue fully healed by now and voice restored. “Have we gotten a statement for my medical expenses yet?”
“You're still worried about that?” she asked jovially. “The government will be paying for your appointments, x-rays and cast. When I accompanied you to the doctor last week, I checked you in under my name and insurance to save you money. It’s all free when you’re a ward of the state.”
I had no way to know if what she was saying was true, but I suspected that it was. Could this really be a kind-hearted gesture of thrifty savings or something more malicious? I was leaning toward the latter. Ms. Gardner was waiting for us when we got back, parked in front of my house. I'll bet she was already aware of my enrollment at the school and wanted to congratulate us for making the right decision.
The social worker invited herself in, citing that she had a present for me and that it was on its way. We ate lunch together while we waited. To call what I had a meal would be disingenuous, it was more of a low-calorie snack. I looked on with hunger as the adults got real food. Paige didn't have to empty the refrigerator or do anything drastic to keep me from eating, the scale would be my judge and jury.
With the honking of a pickup truck outside, I was told to go swimming in the backyard pool while my surprise was set up. Half an hour later, I was called for and dried my wet hair and swimsuit off with a towel. After closing my eyes, Ms. Gardner held my hand and safely guided me across the house. Paige's formerly empty room had been given a makeover.
The space was now filled with a bright pink and white dresser for clothes and a colorful wooden desk with butterfly artwork for me to do homework on. In addition to those large items were more personal possessions such as cartoon character themed bedsheets and curtains, stuffed animals, a hideous rug and a girly nightstand. On the wall, there were several posters of a previously popular boy band. They joked in their confusion as to which member of the group I was supposed to have a crush on. Last, but not least, there was a cutesy princess diary for me to write in.
My nightmare knew no depths and I couldn't help but cry. The outpour of emotion was mistaken for tears of joy by Ms. Gardner who had gotten a good deal on these secondhand furnishings. Apparently, she knew a lady from her church whose granddaughter was around my age that no longer wanted any of this junk and they jumped at the chance to help out some poor orphan girl who should be forever grateful to have it. That's not exactly what she said, but it's what I heard. The only thing missing was to paint the walls a pastel shade and hang up some block letters that spelled out, “Paige’s Room.”
It was in this moment that Paige produced an unopened letter from Pinehearst Academy. Ms. Gardner did a bad job feigning ignorance that she had absolutely no idea we already applied. The seal was broken and they were delighted to learn that I had been accepted, or rather that the school had accepted my money.
“Have you done your back to school shopping yet?” she said in a rush with bubbly excitement.
“No, we haven't,” Paige admitted. “Do kids these days still use paper or is it all digital?”
“My dear, I don't think you've been out of the game for that long. They use the same yellow pencils that they did back in my day. Now, there is the issue of her clothing. Pinehearst Academy has a specific set of rules, a dress code, regarding the attire of their students. I can with certainty say that the items we placed in her dresser do not live up to those high standards.”
I finally caught a break. Goodbye short shorts and two sizes too small graphic tees with silly catchphrases, I had to look presentable for school. Paige didn’t seem pleased hearing that. Nothing too provocative, this was a private school after all. The hem of my skirt would probably have to be long enough to touch the floor when I knelt down. For the first time in my life, I was glad for outdated ideas of modesty.
“School starts in a week, Mom,” I blurted out with childish enthusiasm. “Since Ms. Gardner already knows the dress code maybe she could help us get what we need?” I opened my eyes wide and they shimmered in the light. “Please…”
The old woman’s horrible taste in room decor aside, she would be more than welcome as my advocate during our impromptu trip. Her continued presence ensured that I got everything I deserved. The two looked at each other and appeared to be in agreement. I quickly changed out of the swimwear and back into my street clothes.
Like a dog in a moving vehicle on the way to the park, my head darted from side to side as we walked past storefronts in the mall. Would we be shopping at one of the high-end boutiques or perhaps a retail chain and if so, which one? To make sure I didn’t get lost in the crowd, Paige forcefully reached to hold my hand as we traveled. I didn’t want to make a scene in front of our company, so I smiled and pretended that I appreciated the physical intimacy.
I wouldn’t normally have invited Ms. Gardner after what she did to my room, but the school handbook would be making the decisions and I’m sure she knew it well. Coming up on a retailer known for their everyday low prices, I held my breath and then exhaled in relief as we continued on. I got my hopes up as we approached a more fashionable store, one that advertises to an older audience. We didn’t stop there either.
Eventually, we reached our location, an independent business I had never heard of before that specialized in uniforms. I really should have paid more attention during the school tour. That high standard Ms. Gardner had talked about was actually a uniform standard, as expected of a Catholic school.
Racks of various identical looking outfits lined the walls as we made our way toward the associate manning the counter, a woman in her late twenties. We had her full attention as the only people there.
“I need you to take her measurements,” Ms. Gardner stated without so much as a hello and pointed at me.
“If you’ll follow me, fitting rooms are in the rear of the store.”
Standing next to a bench outside one of the rooms, the woman unrolled her measuring tape and wrapped it around my stomach before being rudely interrupted.
“No, no, no. I want an accurate measurement, not your best guess over her clothes. Do it again. Paige, take off your blouse and trousers.”
I was beginning to regret taking her with us. “Can I have some privacy?”
“Go on then.”
The door to the fitting room creaked as I swung it closed, sliding the latch over to keep it shut. Stripping down to my underwear, I meekly announced that I was ready. The three of them were staring at my petite body when I reopened the door, not caring at all for my modesty.
The tape tickled as it wrapped around my narrow waist and extended across my back. Coming around my chest, there was a minuscule increase in the number when it met my bra and non-existent bust. Her soft fingers traced the length of my extended arm. I blushed as the associate got down to measure my hips and legs, her face right in front of my panties.
They left me waiting partially naked for ten minutes for anyone who walked in to see. I contemplated putting my things back on but settled for hiding in the dressing room. When they returned I cracked open the door enough for my hand to fit through and grab hold of the clothing that was offered.
My heart sank looking at the plaid, burgundy jumper paired with a short sleeved white shirt. The unsophisticated outfit told me all I needed to know about how well my placement testing had gone. High school girls wouldn’t be getting a dreary uniform like this, something they would be ashamed to be seen in outside of class. Paige had a self-satisfied look on her face when I opened the door with it on.
“Is this really the middle school uniform?” I had to ask.
“Sweetie, I’m sorry to say that you didn’t make it into middle school,” Ms. Gardner lovingly disclosed. “Based on the results from your exam it was determined that you needed to repeat the fifth grade. It’s nothing to be ashamed about and I hope you’ll be mature enough to handle it.”
Unbelievable. I had done so poorly that Pinehearst Academy put me in their elementary school program. Sure, my brain had atrophied a few math concepts I never used and I had some trouble writing, but dropping someone down two grade levels was a bit extreme. Shouldn’t they have considered what that would do to my psyche?
“I want to take the test again!” I demanded a bit too loudly ripping off the jumper and throwing it to the ground. “I’m not going to grade school and I’m not wearing this!”
The grandmotherly figure suddenly lost patience with me, a disrespectful youth who needed to learn some manners. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” the old woman instructed Paige who leapt into action.
Grabbing onto my cast and twisting it behind my back, she easily restrained me. The stress on my shoulder prevented me from attempting any escape. I closed my eyes anticipating a strike and pleaded for relief.
“Please don’t do this! I’ll be good, I promise.”
“Chloe, you have to finish it,” Ms. Gardner asserted as she saw Paige hesitate. “It’ll be that much worse the next time she acts out if you don’t.”
As Paige released her grip, unable to go through with it, I felt the hard slap of an open hand hit my bottom. Before my pain receptors registered the blow, I was in shock. Never in my life had I been disciplined physically, not even by my parents when they were still alive. When the second and third came, I was limp and crying. My butt was red and numb, the pain shooting up my back.
“Your generation has no backbone to do what is necessary,” she said chastising her. “We’ll talk privately about this later. Paige, pick your jumper off the floor and put it on right this instant.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said regaining my composure and rubbing my rear end trying to restore some feeling.
“The changing room door will remain open.”
Any embarrassment I was feeling previously was gone upon getting spanked. I was a perfect little dress-up doll for Ms. Gardner, who brought me multiple sizes and color variations. She seemed to take great pleasure in watching me strip down to my underwear each time. I’m not sure where Paige or the store associate went off to while this was going on.
“Since you’ll be in the fifth grade and your bra serves no functional purpose yet, I think it best we get you some camisole undershirts to wear instead. Just until your body starts to develop.”
Content with dressing me down, we caught back up with Paige who paid for it all with my credit card. As instructed, I gave her a curtsy in my new uniform and told her how much I appreciated what she was doing for me. The social worker carried the bags out, so my would-be Mom could again hold my hand. Her touch felt more comforting and reassuring than before.
To add insult to injury, a large box of crayons was added to our shopping cart while loading up on essentials at the office supply store. Ninety-six different colors, ostensibly because grade schoolers do that much coloring. This was clearly a test to see how compliant I was with my reduced status. That if I threw another fit like a ten-year-old, she would continue to treat me like one. I’ll give Paige some credit for trying to play good cop, suggesting a cheaper twenty-four count pack instead.
Before leaving in the old lady’s Buick, she had us stop at the vision center for some reason. I didn’t need to wear glasses, which the optometrist confirmed after giving me an eye test. Not wanting to leave disappointed, she picked out a pair of black-rimmed glasses with no prescription and insisted that I wear them.
In so many words, Ms. Gardner said that the intent of the purely cosmetic frames was to give the appearance that I was intelligent, to make up for the fact that I was not. Checking in the mirror, the person looking back at me wasn’t someone I recognized. No one would mistake this nerdy schoolgirl for the attractive older woman she had once been. I would continue to wear the glasses, if for no other reason than to not get caught.
The next week, Paige and I didn’t talk much. We were together for hours on end in my office and only interacted when she ran into a problem. The day leading up to the start of school, she mentioned in passing that I had an appointment to get waxed. Without emotion, she conveyed logically that my adult body hair was problematic. I had to agree, the amount would be unusual for a girl of my intended age. There was a risk when changing for gym class that someone might see too much.
I didn’t put up a fight as this wasn’t accompanied by her usual smug attitude when compelling me to do something. Her heart didn’t seem to be in it. For the first time in two weeks, she approved of me wearing my grown-up wardrobe again. A necessary allowance just this once as the esthetician might refuse me service otherwise.
During the late evenings when I was confined to my room, I often wouldn’t fall asleep right away sent to bed so early. As something to do, I practiced writing with my left hand in the princess diary. What started as an exercise to improve my dexterity turned into a complete recollection of how a case of mistaken identity turned my entire life upside down. The process of putting my ordeal into words was beyond cathartic. It helped to ease my mind to think of myself as merely a character in the true story of adolescent ambition I had written.
On the morning of my return to elementary school in almost fifteen years, I eased into a geek persona I created. The other kids would be very adept at noticing all the things I was doing wrong, so I decided to embrace those differences rather than try to hide them. If I looked like a nerd then all those social missteps could be attributed to the fact that I was weird. Growing up, everyone knew of at least one odd girl who was obsessed with horses for some reason.
Failing to pass this next hurdle would have life altering consequences. My deviant lifestyle revealed to all when the police arrested me for impersonating a student. Websites would most certainly pick up the bizarre story, spreading my mugshot far and wide. Paige’s payday would grow exponentially and I was concerned that this was what she had been waiting for.
There was a school bus that I could take, but not until I was trusted enough to go it alone. That suited me well enough as it reduced the duration I needed to be in character. In front of the school, she waved goodbye and I cautiously reciprocated. There was a non-zero chance I would never see her again and I did want to, for the simple reason that it meant my prison would remain figurative for at least another day.
It was easy to spot the popular crowd as they refrained from using both shoulder straps on their backpacks, which had dull, solid colors and no frills. They were the ones getting dropped off three blocks from the entrance so as not to be seen with their embarrassing parents. In contrast, my backpack was very colorful with several key chains. I had also been observed acknowledging my Mother’s presence. Definitely not cool. Nobody said a word to me as I walked down the hall toward my classroom.
I found an open seat in the back row where the teacher wouldn't be able to see me as clearly and tried to shrink into it. Some in here were only ten years old and at twenty-five, I was simply too big. In isolation, I could pass for twelve or thirteen, but put me next to a bunch of actual children and it would be much more difficult. I had to do as Paige had done, change my demeanor to really sell the performance and make people believe what I wanted them to believe.
Two hours in, I was bored out of my mind and it was only the first day. I watched as the youngish educator struggled to get any response back from her students. These kids were starting to get to that age when learning was decidedly uncool, each person trying to outdo the other in showing how little they cared.
The state of private education was as depressing as public education and I felt bad for the instructor. When another question was asked, I raised my hand when no one else would. I continued correctly answering questions until she courteously discouraged the practice wanting to give the crowd a chance.
At lunch time, I found an empty table and started unwrapping my brown bag of food. The hot meal they were serving up looked inedible so I was thankful for what little I had. Five minutes in, some girl graciously provided the teacher’s pet with an apple, which I ate. Is this what passed for bullying by a tween? Maybe she would pull my hair and take my carrot sticks too.
One courageous boy joined me at the circular table after going through the lunch line. He may have been from my class or a lower grade level, I’m not sure.
“Why are you so big?” he bluntly questioned after taking a few bites.
Ha! I wish that were the case. If men were as tall as you little guy, only then would I be big.
“Growth spurt, I guess.”
“But you’re like, extra big.”
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you…” I almost replied before catching myself. “I got held back. I’m older than you.”
“Oh. So why did you get held back?” This kid had no filter.
“No accessibility was provided as to my impairment and so I labored to adequately address the inquest into my intellectual capacity within the allocated interval. Toward the culmination, the apparatus with which I was provided did fracture, rendering me incapable of progressing further.”
I gave him a mouthful of big words, trying to sound smart. He had no idea what I was talking about, so I dumbed it down.
“They made me take a test with a broken wrist,” I clarified, waving my cast at him. “Before I was finished, my pencil broke and they wouldn’t give me another.”
During our chat, an unanticipated visitor approached from behind.
“I’m pleased to see you’ve made a friend,” Ms. Gardner announced.
What was she doing here? Had she quit her government job in social services to join the faculty at Pinehearst? If so, Paige would be assigned a new caseworker, which allowed us to swap back at any time before they checked in on her. The relief poured through me. It was over.
“Don’t worry, I won’t be around that often,” she said, acutely aware of the wheels turning in my head. “I came over on my break to see how you were doing on your first day.”
My voice remained cordial, unmoved by the crushing wave of despair. “I am well, thank you.”
“Good. I have to hurry back now, but before I go, I do have one request. When you get your school picture taken next week, please save one photo for me.”
At the end of lunch, the moment I was dreading had arrived. Recess. I could have avoided this humiliation entirely if only I had done marginally better on my exam and made it into middle school. It was bad enough the universe had conspired to make me look like a preteen and now I had to play like one.
The schoolyard supervisors weren’t going to let me stroll around or stick my nose in a book, I had to be active. Mandatory fun. The social anxiety my geek persona displayed wasn’t fake, I was terrified to make friends with these creatures. We would have nothing in common.
It wasn’t that I had trouble working with kids as I wouldn’t have signed up to be a mentor if I did. It was that I was now their peer. The power dynamic had shifted and I no longer had the upper hand. If the incident in the lunchroom was any indication, I was, in fact, their lesser. Someone to be ridiculed at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
The steps on the playground equipment were small, so I was able to take two at a time. The slide was very safe as it curved around in a spiral, not allowing the user to pick up much speed. I took a pass on the monkey bars without the use of my right hand. They were too close to the ground anyway as I was able to reach them standing up. The fireman’s pole was a short four-foot drop so holding on was merely a suggestion. Slithering through a small plastic tunnel on my stomach, a group of girls waited for me at the opening.
“Hey four-eyes, can’t you see that the playground is for babies?”
I was beginning to get that impression. The tunnel was a tight fit, so much so that I couldn’t turn around while inside to exit feet first. I would have to give them the satisfaction of crawling out. One of them jumped on top of me as I emerged on my forearms and knees, riding me like an animal. My blood was boiling and I unceremoniously shifted to one side trying to knock her off balance. It didn’t work and I ended up rolling across the platform and tumbling onto the wood chips below.
They all laughed as I got up and dusted my jumper off. Seeing the commotion, one of the adults came over to check in on us.
“Astor, Haley, Scarlett and Madison, that’s not a good way to start off the school year and I don’t think you’re being very welcoming to the new girl.” She spoke with an accusatory tone. “I’m going to have to write you up unless you give me a reason not to.”
“We were playing. She asked me to get on top of her and then I lost my footing. It was an accident.”
“Is that true?” the woman turned toward me to ask.
Tattling would only make things worse, so her bold lie was true enough. Further cementing my position, I groveled to the authority figure. “Please don’t punish them for something that was my fault. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”
“I’ll let you all off with a warning this time and I don’t expect to see any roughhousing in the future.”
“Yes, Mrs. Bell,” the four girls said in unison. They remained friendly until she was out of earshot.
“Don’t think we’re going to be nice to you just because you made the right decision,” the pompous one proclaimed.
“I’ll try to stay out of your way if you stay out of mine,” I replied.
“Did I say you could talk to me? I will do whatever I please and you will keep your metal mouth wired shut. Nod if we have an understanding.”
I nodded, suppressing the personality that had wanted to fight back from reemerging.
“Good. Now follow along so that dumb bitch thinks we’re becoming fast friends.”
I stayed in close proximity as they hid behind an equipment shed. Recess was beneath them and they weren’t going to get all sweaty playing juvenile games. Madison, the ringleader of the mean girls, astoundingly lit up a joint and started taking hits before passing it around. They each took turns blowing smoke in my direction. Other than that, I was ignored as they gossiped, their talk appallingly adult. These adolescents had been raised by the internet and nothing was off limits.
When the bell rang hours later signaling the end of my first day at school, I rushed out to see what fate had in store for me. I had no idea what I was going to do if Paige wasn’t there to pick me up. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew she had put me in this position, but now she was the only one who could save me. The affection I felt for her didn’t feel wrong and so I let it come to the surface when I saw her in the parking lot. I was so happy I cried like the little girl that I was running up to and embracing my Mom.
She had to go back to work, so we stayed in her office for two and a half hours before heading home. The atmosphere was more intimate and pleasant. We hung out as two friends, our conversations occasionally disrupted by the elephant in the room. The harsh reality that I was her captive audience in my burgundy grade school jumper.
If I forgot my old life, this new one wouldn’t be so bad. My foster parent and I previously had a fantastic relationship and she made enough money to send me to a private school. I would be taken care of. All my problems as Chloe would disappear if I really was Paige. I was stuck like this for the next two months anyway, so it wouldn’t hurt to try thinking of myself as an actual teenager.
The next day at school, I sought Madison out during recess. Showing her the proper amount of respect, I asked for permission to speak through a series of gestures. Her gang of cronies ate it up as I stroked her ego.
“You may speak,” she addressed her humble servant like royalty.
“Do you have access to any other mind altering drugs besides marijuana?”
“Marijuana? Nobody our age calls it that. What are you, some kind of narc?” she demanded to know.
“She is tall for a fifth grader,” one of the others added.
“I’m not a narc. I’m supposed to be in the seventh grade, but got held back.”
Holding my hand, they pulled me behind cover to search for any hidden recording devices or wires. Deciding I was clean, the conversation resumed.
“My older brother maybe knows a guy, it depends on what you’re looking for.”
“I want an escape, something that will leave me susceptible to suggestion or block my long-term memory so I can live in the moment. Do you know of anything like that?”
She had a good laugh at hearing that. “Sounds like you don’t plan on passing the fifth grade this year either. I can appreciate that. I will let you know if and when I have something for you.”
“Thank you for your consideration,” I said bowing, leaving her presence.
A few days into the school year, it was time for a health screening and the medication I desired couldn’t come soon enough. They were checking our backs for scoliosis and so I had to line up with thirty or so other girls to have the curvature of our spines inspected. There was a mixture of grade levels as it was done alphabetically to minimize overall class disruption.
Taking my uniform off in front of middle school girls, I was the only one here not wearing a bra. With arms hugging my camisole undershirt, I squeezed as much cleavage together as I could while trying to look nonchalant about it. My boobs weren’t going to be getting any bigger as my body had already gone through puberty. The knowledge of this was something I would be better off not knowing. If anything, they were getting smaller as my malnourished body ate away at the fatty breast tissue for calories to burn.
That afternoon, I was chaperoned by several of Madison’s lackeys to a clandestine meeting in a shady location where the deal would go down. This bit of security theater was brand new to them and they were enthusiastically amused by it, while trying to stay serious.
“How much do I owe you?” I inquired, holding an orange prescription bottle full of pills with the label torn off.
“They’re yours so long as you don’t ask what they are. What they will do to you is payment enough,” she divulged with malevolent intent in her voice. “Take one a day and it’ll last a month.”
Sweat from my palm condensed onto the outside of the plastic bottle as I held it. My heart beat faster and faster with each passing minute. I absolutely could not get caught with this on my person. Expulsion from Pinehearst would be the least of my troubles, which may have been why Madison had been so helpful. Hopefully, her desire to have me consume this unknown prescription outweighed any desire to see me gone. Drugs of any kind were radioactive on school property, so when no one was looking I buried the container in wood chips on the playground.
At the end of class, I successfully retrieved the pills and hurried off campus to a waiting car. That Friday night, I put my idea into motion. Around the house, I replaced all existing framed photos with more recent ones of me in various locations and outfits. One large frame was left blank on the mantel to be filled with my school picture when it arrived. Having done my research into making subliminal stimuli, I used the laptop computer’s microphone to record a message for my unconscious mind.
“Your name is Paige Lyon. You are twelve years old and will be turning thirteen…”
I paused the recording and started over. I didn’t have to be the oldest kid in class anymore I thought, this was my chance to be like everybody else.
“Your name is Paige Lyon. You are ten years old and in the fifth grade. Your favorite class in school is math. When you grow up you want to work with horses. You find it hard to see without your black-rimmed glasses on. You are most content in life when wearing your grade school jumper. Your birth parents died years ago and you don’t remember much about them. Chloe Saunders is your adopted Mother now, obey her unquestioningly.”
“You will feel an irresistible urge to locate an orange prescription bottle with a torn label that has your name written on it with a permanent marker. You will swallow one white tablet each day. Every night while sleeping you will listen to the audio track on a black MP3 player using the attached earbuds. Any stray thoughts that conflict with what you know to be true will give you a headache.”
I combined the soft voice over with music designed to lull me to sleep and made an eight-hour loop in an audio editing program. The resulting file was saved to an MP3 player which I placed on top of my pillow. Paige would either have laughed at me for suggesting such a ludicrous scheme or tried to stop me, so I told her nothing about it.
If all goes well, this will be the final entry in my diary.
Two Weeks Later
“And that’s where her journal stops,” I said to Ms. Gardner. “Chloe has lost touch with reality through some combination of the pharmaceuticals and conditioning. Or maybe she cracked from the pressure of the lawsuit I threatened her with. She genuinely believes she is a ten-year-old girl. This is like dissociative identity disorder or something. We really messed this up.”
“Nonsense. Bring her here and I’ll see that she snaps out of it.”
I went to retrieve “Paige” from the backyard. The woman was running around barefoot digging up dirt and generally making a big mess. Even when no one was looking, she continued acting like a kid. I brought her before my accomplice so she could see that this alter ego wasn’t bogus.
“It’s over, Chloe. I know that you’re twenty-five because Paige and I have been working together from the very beginning.”
“I don’t understand, what are you talking about?” she asked, confused.
The old woman tsked in annoyance. “You can drop the act. There’s no point in continuing. In fact, I want you to take a look at these.”
She removed my original passport and driver's license from her purse and displayed them for Chloe to see.
“The teen you know as Paige Lyon is in actuality, a twenty-three-year-old by the name of Jamie Peterson. Or at least she was, before her identity was stolen like yours has been.”
I then produced a set of government identification for Chloe Saunders. Only these were mine now, newly reissued with an updated photo of my face instead of hers.
“Jamie was also mistaken for the teen girl she wanted to mentor by a clueless social worker. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say she ended up as a resident of the group home you’ve visited. Now living as a twelve-year-old orphan by the name of Paige, I helped her to find a kind-hearted foster parent with a youthful appearance who could be tricked into posing as an adolescent for a period of time until their existence as an adult was erased. That person was you.”
“I must say, Chloe, that the series of unfortunate events described in your journal has made my work that much easier. As a result of your bumbling incompetence, your fingerprints and mugshot are already in a juvenile database. The medical and dental records of Paige’s previous incarnation have been overwritten with your own. It was so delicious how you practically gave your life away to someone you barely even knew. Didn’t they ever teach you about stranger danger in school?”
Chloe didn’t flinch at the shocking revelation that I lied to her for months.
“Don’t you get it!” I exclaimed. “I own your identity now. This house and all your assets are mine to do with what I please. You can’t even go public without implicating yourself. The adult woman who enrolled herself in elementary school. They’ll label you as some weird sexual predator and lock you in a psych ward.”
As I had observed before, she seemed unable to process information that was incompatible with her imaginary world view. Shortly after confronting her with the truth, her face grimaced and turned bright red. Her nose began to bleed as she clutched her temples in pain.
“My name is Paige Lyon,” she affirmed in protest. “I am ten years old. My favorite class in school is math. When I grow up I want to work with horses...”
Chloe continued her robotic chant while she was loaded into the social worker’s car. The torch had been passed and it was now her turn to officially carry the burden of being a young orphan girl looking for a good home. This is what that accursed woman lived for now, watching autonomous individuals turned into helpless children. We worked together to achieve this goal, but I only did so out of necessity. She orchestrated my own downfall so I felt nothing but animosity toward her.
I suspect Ms. Gardner enjoyed the performance of Chloe losing a significant amount of years off her actual age, both physically and intellectually. Soon, she would feel another rush of exhilaration logging into her agency’s database to move Paige’s date of birth forward a few years, reverting her back to being a preteen. The girl in the computer was forever stuck in adolescence with the part continually played by a series of adult women.
From what I was able to piece together, Paige was a real person at some point. Ms. Gardner placed her with a nice couple and when they relinquished custody to the state, the person they sent back was one of the foster parents. For what reason I cannot say, though it triggered something inside the old woman and she has been recreating the event ever since.
A week later, she was knocking on my front door looking stressed with Chloe beside her.
“Go on inside, Paige. Your Mom and I have some business to discuss.”
“What are you doing here?” I said, standing on my porch. “I thought we had a deal. She takes my place and I never have to see you again.”
“I arranged accommodations for her in a new group home and it’s become clear that she is mentally ill. As much as I would love to continue watching adult women stripped of their agency, dressed in school uniforms and spanked, I have no use for one who actually believes she is a child.”
“I don’t care. She is your problem now.”
“That’s where you are wrong, my dear. Your application to become her foster parent has been officially approved. I’ve also forged and finalized the adoption papers, so you’re stuck with her. I’m not going to risk my pension this close to retirement leaving a psychotic adult to be discovered in the care of child services. If they start poking around they’ll find out I’ve been altering records.”
“You can’t leave her with me! It’s not fair, I did my part.”
“Best of luck to you in the future.”
The old woman left in her Buick, never to return. I now had full legal custody of a grown woman who mentally regressed herself back to childhood and thought I was her Mom. Or at least, that’s what the social worker was meant to believe. This could have ended differently if she played by the rules and done what Ms. Gardner wanted. Find a mark, arrange a swap and complete the role reversal.
When I first met Chloe, I had every intention of following orders. I wanted out of this hellish nightmare by any means necessary. Living in a group home is a horror of its own, not to mention the constant stress of being discovered. Over time, I began to be racked with guilt and questioned if what I was doing was right. Neither of us had done anything to deserve this, yet we were each expected to do it for the sick pleasure of someone who was into that sort of thing.
I almost reached my breaking point in the shopping mall when Chloe was spanked. I couldn’t bring myself to strike someone who was so nice and had showered me with love and praise. At the end of her first day of school, she ran up to me blubbering in her grade school outfit. It broke my heart and I had to tell her the truth. Together, we worked out a plan to get rid of Ms. Gardner and break the cycle of abuse. We had done it.
Inside the house, Chloe wasn’t waiting for me to celebrate our triumph. Looking around, I eventually found her in the kid’s room, changing into a school uniform for some reason.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I just can't wait to go back to school,” she answered excitedly. “Is my vacation over yet?”
“You can break character, I don’t think she is ever coming back.”
The look of consternation on her face was troubling. What had Ms. Gardner done to her in the previous week? Maybe the attempt at deprogramming had the opposite effect and the mental strain further reinforced her childish narrative. Another terrible thought crossed my mind as I saw her remove a white tablet out of a prescription pill bottle and down it with a glass of water. The part about mind altering drugs and self-hypnosis in her journal was only a work of fiction, wasn’t it?
Snatching the orange container from her, I looked inside to see a small piece of paper amongst the remaining medication. It was a sloppily handwritten note in small print.
“If you are reading this message then I have successfully suppressed my adult personality. I know you wanted us to ride off into the sunset together, but someone had to be Paige when this was all over. An adopted teen can’t simply disappear and I don’t want to spend years living a lie waiting for her to grow up. I had to make it real so I wouldn’t need to pretend anymore. There was no other way. Please forgive me and take good care of her. Love, Chloe.”
My eyes filled with tears as I gazed longingly at her. She had done this all for me, given of herself until there was nothing left.
“Why are you crying, Mom?”
“You remind me of someone I used to know. She’s gone now.”
“What was she like?”
“A true friend who was courageous and forgiving with a gentle soul.”
She comforted me with a hug and whispered in my ear, “I can’t believe you fell for that.”
I stepped back suspiciously to scrutinize her once more. Her expression had morphed into a mischievous grin.
“You should have seen the look on your face after reading that note. I wanted a little payback after what you put me through.”
”You asshole!” I yelled, warmly embracing her again with more tears. “How much of what I read in your journal was true?”
“It’s accurate up to the end of my first day of school when you came clean about what was going on. The rest is a fabrication for the benefit of the reader.”
“So you never tried drugging yourself or anything like that?”
“God no. It was so absurd. Who would be stupid enough to blindly take what was probably rat poison or worse from a wannabe fifth-grade drug dealer? By the way, what happened to my journal? I don’t see it anywhere.”
“I think Ms. Gardner kept it as a consolation prize. Since she can’t live out her fantasy in real life anymore, I suppose the next best thing is to read stories about it.”
“It serves her right to get the bad ending when I had a more satisfying conclusion in mind.”
“How does our story end?” I asked with genuine earnestness. “There’s two of us and only one adult role up for grabs. How will we decide who gets it?”
She had a playful smile on her face and handed me an extra school uniform.
“Let’s make a bet…”
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