Dust spun and twirled in the air as the carving of the little boy moved faster and faster, as something invisible smoothed out the edges of the statue. Lena would have been surprised if the thing turned out to be as simple as a statue, the concrete brick was quickly concealed by a cloud of toxic dust. What happened if one inhaled a couple pounds of concrete dust? An uncomfortable death? A thousand things ran through Lena’s head, one of them being a very irked feeling as she saw Emma’s growing smile as the dust could cleared.
“Glad to see everyone’s here!” Carlton clapped his hands together, emotionless smile seemingly glued on his pasty little features. “Well, everyone that needs to be here anyways.” He paused, surveying the area. “I trust you’ve all had more than enough time to read the contract? No? What’s the point of bringing in fully matured adults if they cannot fathom a simple survival task?” He made a tsk, tsk noise as he tapped his chin, turning in the air, smiling at all of them. To her, the face he made was more of a knowing sneer, but it was gone too fast for her to figure out whether she’d imagined it.
Looking through him and across to Emma, whom, if Lena knew that look, was about to jump up in the air and shout the answers at the little brat; left a feeling of being sucker punched in the stomach.
“No matter,” he continued in a childish singsong voice. This was more unsettling than the adult tone he used when he was kicking her awake. If Emma was the one dreaming, she needed to wake up; preferably sooner than later. “I’m sure you all know what to do with a contract!” With that he changed his size, he stood in front of the contract, flying around like a deranged bee. Slightly taller than a standard 15 inch ruler, he waved his now tinier hand in a come here motion.
Here she was again, standing stick straight, two feet from the contract. Only instead of dead center, she was to the right of it; she couldn’t move her head yet somehow she knew in the middle was the stranger, and to the left was Emma. She also knew that this order was very deliberate.
“In front of you, you will find a line at waist level.” She looked, she did not find a line. “Well, most of you anyways.” Her ear drums popped, Carlton was nowhere to be seen. A quick snap and her head jolted up by itself, putting her field of vision to the top of the contract. “As you can see, I have influence over every single thing that happens here. It’s put a bit harshly in the scripts for my taste. However,” he smiled cruelly, “that does not make it any less true.” Lena bared her teeth, then quickly concealed the shock over being able to move her own face. She recognized a show of power when she saw one, she had the scars to prove it.
“Moving on,” he made a show of clearing his throat, “I happen to like games, all the fair competition and what not.” The sing-song voice was making a reappearance, like nails on a chalkboard as she listened to him. “Provided the twists and turns are entertaining enough for it to be fair.” At his leering expression, Lena knew her version of fair and his did not coincide.
“I am sure by now, unless you do not harbor a string of common sense, you know I brought you here.” She swallowed, if arrogance were food this kid could have fed a small country for decades with that one sentence. “Each of you possess a delightful trait that will either proceed you through this game or hinder your chances tremendously. It all depends on how you use it.” He gazed down at each of them for seconds that could have been hours. “As for the prize,” his voice dripped with distaste, as if he had just stepped in vomit, “you get the choice to leave, or join me.” His entire stance changed as fast as one of those baby toys where you pull the handle and it tells you what noise a cow makes.
“Not one player, I am sad to say,” the only way this little boy was sad was if delight had replaced it in the dictionary, “has ever made it that far. As for not separating, I would consider that another survival strategy.” A psycho eight year old in nineteenth century clothing, who just happened to be updated in media horror tactics. It did seem like a dream Emma would have; though, that didn’t explain why she had her own narrative. Lena was sure of one thing, this was not her dream, it couldn’t be; she had never had a dream a day in her life.
“I believe that brings us onto the next subject, differing from the rules will bring varying forms of punishment.” With a smirk down at them, Lena realized she had complete control over her body. A shrill shriek and she whipped around; cement was growing up around Emma and wrapping around her limbs with its liquid tendrils. Without thinking she lurched forward to get to her friend, and promptly collapsed to the ground. She was calf deep in cement, and her hands quickly started to sink as well.
“But no one has broken any rules!” Lena turned her head to look at the frantically yelling stranger. While she was sinking, and Emma was being… for lack of a better word, groped, by the cement, the other man was simply becoming part of the road. From the knees down and growing up further, he was a cement statue.
“Well, aren’t you all a complaining bunch when made just the teensiest bit uncomfortable?” That ear drum popping feeling and there they all were, looking up at him from the front of the contract. “The contract does not say breaking the rules, the contract says differing from them. Honestly, is listening also on the list of weaknesses for this group?” Rolling his eyes he continued. “Breaking the rules of such a binding document has its own consequences. Look to paragraph 6, subsection B please.” With a loud popping noise, the cement had risen up and formed chairs. “Take a seat, take a seat.” She didn’t take one, some invisible force picked her up and shoved her in one. The ruler sized Carlton was wearing glasses with a laser-pointer; a really odd looking combination considering the nineteenth century children’s suit.
“As I was saying, paragraph 6 subsection B,” he moved the laser-pointer to the middle of the contract, “each player gets three chances. A chance gets taken away when someone breaks the rules.” Carlton stared past her, onto the stranger. “When the third chance is struck, just ticked, right off the list…” he trailed off, pausing, tapping his chin. “List seems a bit dull now doesn’t it?” He was silent for a few seconds then an actual light bulb appeared and lit up over his head. “Yes, yes, you are quite right to agree. That does beckon a question though; what to replace the lists with? You have to know how many chances you have left, why without a casual rule breaking things would never be as interesting would they?” Another silence. “No, they would not indeed.”
The chin tapping proceeded, the light bulb faded away. Lena was just happy to have a break from that voice, something about it made her skin crawl. Admittedly, the whole cement monster attack thing he did earlier had her feeling a bit shaky, nothing she hadn’t learned to hide. The thing about being a model for a living is moving on and becoming a different person everyday, then returning to you at the end of the job. No matter how many evaluative psychiatrists and therapists she’d had, she passed with flying colours. This was adult, twenty-two year old Lena, and she had learned a bunch of coping mechanisms that even her mother’s “quirky side” couldn’t get a good reaction out of her. This little eight year old agitation was nothing.
“List… mist… fist… wrist. Yes, that has just the right twist to it, wrist.” With a smirk towards them, Lena felt a searing pain on her left wrist. “How poetically appropriate! Left is the side the heart’s on isn’t it? What a great metaphoric lifeline! Sometimes I just get me.” He inspected his nails, blew on them, and wiped them on his suit jacket.
Lena looked down at her wrist, she couldn’t move her arms from the way they were resting on the chair, her hands gracefully folded in front of her. How she got into this position she didn’t care to think about; furthering on the list of things she did not want to know, there were three tick marks on her wrist. If she didn’t know better she would say they were drawn in sharpie. Someone was trying way too hard to be creative, and was also way too fond of rhymes.
“Well, that's out of the way.” He yawned, lounging in midair, twiddling his thumbs. “We have to find a way to keep things interesting, or else we will find ourselves in a rut. All of these rules, all of the talking; I mean really? Who has the time?” He smiled. “To answer my own question, not that any of you are making even the slightest ounce of a try, I do. However, do any of you have time? Any idea, and figment of a sense, to how long you have been here? Surely,” the little beady eyes flicked to the stranger beside her, “People are worried about you.”
Full size child again, only there were three of him. Walking slowly towards them, each child smiling that stoic emotionless way. Lena's copy reached her, putting its tiny hands on her knees, leaning on its tiptoes until he was inches from her face. The cement chairs rose up, separating themselves from the road, circling each other. Lena held down a gag as she watched Emma's version cuddle her lap like she was his nanny. The stranger's child on its knees resting it's head on his lap. Where Emma looked overjoyed, the stranger's expression mirrored Lena's, distasteful, bordering on disgust. A faint voice in her head told her she was reading the stranger wrong, projecting her own feelings onto him. The stranger's face had just a lick of terror beneath all that worry and confusion.
“Look at me!” The child took his hands off her knees and grabbed her face, forcefully pulling her to face him once again. “I am yours and they are theirs.” She really did not like that tone. “Everyone you think is worried right now, looking for you; trust me when I say they aren't. Take pleasure in the knowledge that they never have to feel those unpleasant grievous emotions.” A loud pop and he was staring at his reflection in the glass wall, once again just himself. “They won't even remember you.” The chairs slammed into the ground below where they were levitating. She stood up from the wrecked pile, she should be hurt, she should be...
Lena felt her spine turn to ice. They won't even remember you. There was a numbness there within the cold, no more secrets to keep from her Father, no more protecting her mother from white jackets and padded rooms. No more double checking nothing was going to set her off. A weight should have been lifted, but it wasn't, if anything realizing how much better life out there would be now, made the icy feeling within her go deeper.
“Oh, just look at you all sulking.” He turned around. “A bit of good news and it gets taken completely out of proportions. I might as well quit while I am ahead, save this day from getting dreary.” Crossing his arms and looking straight through them he started to nod. “Yes, a brief intermission and then we will all come back to this with a new sight.”
“You haven't explained anything.” The stranger's voice came out behind her like a brick to the side of the head. Slamming her back to reality.
“Survival instincts have to be honed at some point, consider this my gift to you.” He smirked at him. “Besides the rest of the contractual stuff is really boring, pretty self explanatory. Anyhow,” turning to Lena he smiled, “I know I have given you all a lot to think about.”
With that Carlton turned to dust, dissipating into a pile in the place where he stood.
“Oh my god this is going to be amazing!” Emma squealed.
“You almost got groped by a cement monster, what the hell is wrong with you?!” The stranger looked from Emma to Lena as if to find some sort of explanation in the connection between them. “Did you block out what has been happening for...” he trailed off. “Does either of you know how long we have been here?”
“Why does time matter?” If Lena knew Emma she needed to stop her before she started floating off like a balloon.
“Why does…? Are you kidding me?” He turned to Lena. “Is she actually insane?”
Ignoring his question she walked away from both of them, this was going to get a lot worse before it got better. If Emma wanted to figure that because her Aunt didn't remember her she had all the time in the world, Lena would let her, at least for now. Emma knew this book inside and out; whatever was happening, whether the book was somehow real, or she was in some crazy dream, Emma was their way out. Functional and crazy, weirdly happy about being hugged by a psycho child or not; it was better than hyperventilating silent Emma.
“I am not insane I just know when to make the best of an opportunity.”
“No, stop worrying, when Roderick got out his family remembered him fine and it was like no time passed by. So what's the harm?”
“And how long was Roderick in here for?”
“A couple weeks I think.”
“A couple weeks, that tells us so much about what is going to happen to us. Were the people in his life just put on pause? Did he age at all? What?”
“You need to calm down, no wonder he got all annoyed with your mojo floating around here.”
“My what? No, don't answer that, the boy trapped us in a glass box and then destroyed anything we could use to smash out.”
“Assuming we could have.” Emma sounded like she was trying to teach a five year old how to read. Lena couldn't see behind her while she was trying to read the contract but she could pretty much assume if she tried to butt in at any point they would just move on. “This is his domain, we won't smash out unless he wants us to. The quickest way out of here is to sign that.”
“Right, because signing the creepy child’s contract that succumbs me to his rules and these,” she assumed at that point the man was pointing at the tick marks on his wrist, “is the best judgement decision I could ever make.”
A brief intermission was all they had. What was brief for an ancient child anyways? She turned to the contract, sure, she was stuck with nothing to stare at but it for a while before her best friend erupted through the glass box; but Carlton had only covered half the contract.
She looked to the bottom of the contract, she hadn't been imagining anything, and there were only two dotted lines there. A splitting buzz sound rang through her head, making her slump against the wall for a few seconds, squeezing her eyes shut as her face scrunched in pain.
“Ahem,” she heard his sing song voice in her head, opening her eyes she breathed heavily, “If you haven't figured it out yet, you are sadly dafter than I first thought.” His tone took on a poisonous edge. “You are not supposed to be here.”