Mary Christmas 2: Christmas in July – Chapter 31 – by lostandwhatever
Continued from Chapter 30.
Candice gripped the steering wheel tightly and said, “I was wrong. This is nothing like an elf car.”
“You’re doing fine,” Carol said from the back seat. “Just try to relax and take it slow.”
“This was a mistake,” Candice said, while carefully turning at an intersection. “My limbs all feel like they’re the wrong length, I don’t have any shoes on, and these clothes don’t fit.”
They had left their bathrobes behind after they had managed to find some street clothes at department 8 that they could wear.
Candice was now dressed in a tight T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. She had been wearing a dangerously loose pair of flip-flop sandals, but she had taken them off. Now barefoot, she had better control of the pedals but only slightly better.
“Well, be happy you have pants at least,” Carol said. She was wearing only an adult T-shirt that draped over her like a dress. It was so large that she had to be careful to keep her shoulder from slipping out of the neck hole.
“Are we almost there?” Candice asked.
Carol peeked out a window. “Just a left turn up ahead. It will be the only blue house on the right side of the street.”
Candice took the turn and found the blue house. She pulled Carol’s car into the driveway and put it in park. Then, she let out a big sigh of relief. “We made it,” Candice said, looking up at Carol’s home and around at the neighborhood. It was a perfectly ordinary suburban home in an ordinary suburban subdivision. She felt distinctly out of place at that moment.
“Well done,” Carol said as she unbuckled her seat belt. She tried to open her door, but it would not budge. “Oh,” she said. “Of course, the child safety lock. Can you please let me out, Candice?”
“Just give me a second,” Candice said as she took a deep breath to calm down. “Right,” she said as she unbuckled herself. “Let’s get you out.”
Candice put her sandals on again and stepped out of the car. She opened the door for Carol and Carol carefully set her bare feet onto her driveway. They stood there next to the car for a moment, both of them feeling a bit nervous about proceeding.
“After you,” Candice said gesturing towards the door.
“Right,” Carol said and nodded. “Let’s do this.” She carefully walked up to her door while Candice followed her.
Carol had to reach up to press the doorbell. Then, she stepped back to wait.
When the door opened, they saw a dark-haired man standing there, looking about the same age that Carol had been. He looked down at Carol with a mixture of worry and wonder on his face.
“Carol?” he asked.
Carol nodded. “Hi, Chris,” she said.
“Wow,” he said. “I mean, you texted me about what happened, but… I don’t know what I was expecting.”
“Who is it?” a boy called from behind Carol’s husband. The eight year old stepped into the doorway and stood next to his dad. First, he looked at Carol quizzically. Then, he looked up at Candice and said, “Whoa.”
“Why don’t you two come inside?” Chris said and stepped out of their way.
Candice followed Carol into the house. She looked around and found a nicely furnished home with random toys littered around. It felt lived-in and inviting. Candice let herself relax a bit.
A girl, who looked to be about six years old, approached them while hugging a doll to her chest protectively. “Who are they?” she asked.
Her father called up the stairs, “Cindy! Come down here. We have a visitor, and… well, just come on down.”
Footsteps approached the staircase, and then a girl of about eleven walked downstairs to join them. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Who’s the girl?” the boy asked.
“Well, Charlie, she’s… um…” Chris said. “Do you want to explain?” he asked Carol.
Carol said, “I know this is going to be a bit surprising to you, but I’m…”
“Whoa!” Charlie said, rudely interrupting his young mother. “You’ve got pointy ears!” he declared, pointing at Candice.
“Um, yeah,” Candice said, rubbing an ear.
“Are you an elf?” the little girl asked. “My name is Chloe,” she added. “Are you from the North Pole?”
“Actually, yes,” Candice said. “I am. But-”
“Wait,” Cindy said, skeptically. “I thought elves looked like children. Why are you all grown up?”
“There’s a bit of a story to that,” Candice said. “But, first I think you should listen-”
“Do you know Santa?” Charlie asked, excitedly. “Like, the real one? Can you take us to meet him?”
“Yeah,” Chloe said. “Pretty please. We’ve been real good.”
Candice noticed Carol making a sound. At first she thought Carol was crying. Then, she realized Carol was actually laughing.
“Of course,” Carol said, between chuckles. “Of course, I show up looking like a kid, and I get upstaged by an elf.”
“Sorry,” Candice said.
“No, it’s fine,” Carol said. “Actually, it’s kind of a relief. I was worried I was going to make them worry. Now, I’m probably the coolest mom ever. I brought an elf home for dinner. They’ll be talking about this for weeks.”
“Wait,” Cindy said. “Did you say, ‘mom?’”
“Mommy?” Chloe asked, gazing wide eyed at the girl in front of her.
“What?” Charlie asked. He had not caught on, apparently.
Chris explained, “The little girl here is your mother.”
His eyes went wide. “Oh, wow,” he said. “I’m as tall as my mom!”
The kids surrounded her and started inspecting her little body.
“What happened to you?” Cindy asked.
“Well,” Carol said. “You know how I got a new job recently?”
“Yeah?” Cindy replied.
“I’ve been tracking down magical criminals.”
“Oh,” Cindy said. “I see.”
“What?” Charlie asked.
“She got hit by a spell,” Cindy explained.
“Oh,” Charlie said. “Well, I guess that’s better than getting shot with a gun.”
“I agree,” Carol said. “Now, if you’re done looking me over like a new toy, would you mind if I introduced my friend?”
“Oh, sorry,” Chloe said, she held out her hand to Candice and said, “I’m Chloe.”
Candice shook the girl’s hand and said, “And, I’m Candice. Nice to meet you.”
Carol pointed at her kids and husband in turn. “And, this is Charlie, Cindy, and Chris.”
After hearing all their names again in order, Candice smiled. “So,” she said. “You really like the letter C, huh?”
Carol blushed. “Well,” she said. “We wanted monograms on things, and Chris and I decided it would be easier if everyone had the same initials. I hope you don’t think we’re being inconsiderate to the kids.”
“No,” Candice said. “I think it’s great. You did it right.”
“Surprise hug!” Charlie cried and wrapped his little mother in a tight embrace. The girls followed his lead and soon they all tumbled to the floor in a giggling pile of kids.
“All right!” Carol cried from under her children. “I love you all. Now, would somebody please find me some pants to wear.”
Dinner was delicious.
Chris made barbeque burgers and sausages and everyone ate happily around the dining room table. Carol was now wearing some of her oldest daughter’s hand-me-down clothes, and Candice had swapped her small shirt for a larger one lent by Chris.
Dinner conversation was similar to the meal Candice had with the people from Department 8, minus the questions about elf sex, of course. Candice was happy to satisfy the kids’ curiosity, and Carol seemed happy to let Candice take some of the attention away from her situation.
Still, there was no escaping some inevitable questions.
“So,” Cindy asked Candice after finishing her hamburger. “Is Mom going to have to grow up again, or can you turn her back to normal?”
“Well,” Candice said. “At the moment, there is still some leftover magic in her. Once that spell fades, we should be able to make a new spell that will bring her back to her normal age.”
“Good,” Cindy said.
“Aw,” Charlie whined. “I thought I’d get to have a twin sister.”
“I’m your mother,” Carol said. “Even if I was in diapers, I would still be your mother. You hear me?”
“Yes, Mom,” Charlie said.
“Are you the same age as Charlie?” Chloe asked.
“I think I might still be a little older,” Carol said.
“Nuh uh,” Charlie said. “I bet I’m even taller than you.”
Carol smiled. “Oh, do you? Want to go to the wall?”
“Yeah!” Charlie said, smiling.
All the kids politely excused themselves, slipped off their chairs, and ran out of the room. Carol hung back a moment when she saw her husband starting to clean up the table.
“You want some help with the dishes?” she asked Chris.
“I’ve got it,” he said. “You go take care of the kids.”
Carol nodded. “Thank you,” she said and left the room.
Candice stood up and took her empty dish to the dishwasher. “Want some help with the dishes?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said as he filled up the machine. Then, he started the water running in the sink. As he began to clean his grilling tools, Candice could tell Chris was distracted by something.
“How are you holding up?” she asked.
“Well,” he said. “I’m happy she’s alive. I know that’s pretty silly to say, but with a spouse in law enforcement there’s always that chance that the person you love won’t come home one day. I’m happy she came home. But-”
“You’re worried about her?” Candice said.
He sighed. “I’m worried that she’s gotten herself in over her head with all this magic stuff.”
Candice felt a tinge of guilt as she thought back to Carol shielding her against the youth ray. Candice wondered what would have happened if she had done something different. Maybe Carol would be her normal age right now. “She knows what she’s doing,” Candice said. “I believe in her.”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “She’s something special. Of course, she’d never admit it, but she’s the best around at tracking someone down.” He paused. “I don’t know how I’d handle things if she didn’t come home.”
“She will,” Candice said. “I’ll make sure she does.”
He nodded. “Thank you,” he said as he finished scrubbing. “Now, maybe you should rescue her from our kids. They’re treating her like a new puppy, and I bet she just wants some space.”
Candice wiped her hands and left Chris to finish cleaning up. Then, she followed the sounds of kid voices to a wall in the laundry room. Carol had a pencil and a yard stick and was measuring her kids one by one using marks already penciled on the wall as a guide. The many overlapping marks on the wall made it clear that Carol and her husband had been charting their kids’ growth here since their kids had been old enough to stand.
Once she had finished measuring Chloe, Charlie said, “Now, it’s your turn.”
“You go first,” Carol told her son.
The boy stood up with his back against the wall, and Carol checked his height. “51 and a half inches,” she said and marked his height, the date, and his name on the wall with a pencil.
“Now, you,” he said.
“Fine,” Carol said, standing up straight to be measured again as she had done earlier in the day. This time, it was Cindy who measured her. “51 inches, exactly,” the girl said.
“Ha!” Charlie said. “See, I am older!”
“What?” Carol asked. “Are you sure?”
“Let me see that ruler,” Candice said. She double-checked Carol’s height and frowned. “It looks like it’s 51 inches.”
“But, earlier…” Carol started to say, but stopped when she saw the worried looks on the faces of her kids. “Nevermind, why don’t you three go tell Daddy to give you some dessert? Okay?”
The two youngest kids cheered and ran off, but Cindy hesitated a moment and then looked a bit worried when she walked away.
“There’s a tape measure in the tool box on the shelf there,” Carol said when they were alone.
Candice found it and measured Carol again. She shook her head. “It still looks like you’re 51 inches now.”
“What does that mean?” Carol asked. “Am I still getting smaller? Because it was definitely 52 inches earlier today.”
“Let me get my tools out of the car,” Candice said. “I’ll have to do a more thorough examination.”
After all of the kids were tucked in bed, Candice joined Carol and Chris in their bedroom. Chris sat on the bed silently watching, while Carol stood in the center of a chalk circle, which Candice had drawn on their wooden floor. Around the circle, Candice had carefully inscribed runes and arcane text and arranged a collection of faintly glowing crystals of various sizes and colors. Candice walked around the circle, reading the light signals coming from the crystals and trying to interpret their meaning. It was a mixture of translation and intuition. To most people, it would have seemed like a confusing mess of lights, but Candice had practiced with magic detection for years now. She could unravel the construction of a spell in this way and discover how it worked.
What she saw now made her worry.
“So?” Carol asked. “What’s the prognosis?” There was a resigned tone to her voice. She sounded ready to face up to her fate.
“Do you want the bad news or the good news first?” Candice asked.
“Let’s start with the good news,” Carol said.
“It looks as though the spell is stable,” Candice said. “It’s not chaotic or random. I think I can accurately predict its effects, which is helpful.”
“Okay,” Carol said. “So, what’s the bad news?”
“I think you know what the bad news is.”
Carol sighed. “I’m still getting younger.”
“Can you tell how much younger?”
Candice checked the crystals again and said, “It appears that you are losing about one month every hour, and that rate seems to be pretty stable.”
“So,” Carol said and paused as she did the math in her head. “I’m losing two years a day, and I’m about 7 now. Right? That leaves me about three and half days. What happens then?”
Candice did not know how to answer.
“Oh,” Carol said in response to Candice’s silence.
Candice said, “Most age-related magic has a fail safe included when it comes to how young a person can get. I can’t tell for sure if the spell Mary put on your has that fail safe. It might stop then, or…”
“It might not,” Carol said, realizing that she might be facing a death sentence.
There was a sound of a sniffle from the bed, and the women turned to see Chris crying as he listened to their conversation.
Carol left the circle, and the crystals went dark. She sat on the bed next to her husband, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m fine,” he said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “I think I’m just worried about the kids.”
Carol asked Candice, “Can you stop it?”
“Maybe,” Candice said. “But, I need more information about the spell than what I can find with a circle. If I tried to stop it without knowing exactly how it was constructed, then I might not make any difference to it. I could even make it worse. It would be too risky.”
“So,” Carol said. “You need to know more about the spell before you can do anything to stop it? What if we got the weapon that Mary used on me?”
“Yeah,” Candice said. “That would be enough. I could reverse it, then. I’m sure I could.”
Carol nodded. “Chris,” she said to her husband. “I’m going to leave now.”
“What?” he said. “No. You can’t. You can’t go back out there again, not like this.”
“I have to,” she said. “I can catch her. I know I can do it. You know I can do it, even like this.”
“Yeah,” he said, fighting back tears again. “I know you can.”
“I don’t want to worry the kids any more than they have to,” she said. “It’s better if they don’t know what’s happening to me now. I’ll stay in Candice’s hotel room until we catch Mary. Though, if it looks like we’re not going to catch Mary in time, then I’ll come back and… we’ll face what happens next together.”
She knelt on the bed and kissed his cheek. “They need you to be strong now,” she said. “I need to know you’ll be strong for them.”
He looked at her and gave her a slight smile. “You know you can count on me,” he said. “Always. Just promise me one thing.”
“Yes?” she asked.
“Come home, even if only to say goodbye to us.”
Carol nodded. “I promise. I’ll come home.”
Carol gave her husband one final kiss on the cheek, and Candice and Carol left the room quietly, hoping they would not wake up the kids. Then, they headed out the front door, shut it behind them gently, and walked to the car. At first, Carol was so distracted that she went to open the driver’s door, but she realized her mistake and headed for the back seat.
Once inside the car, they drove off and did not speak at all to each other. Candice noticed Carol watching her house disappear behind them, and then Candice thought she heard something like the sound of a girl softly crying from the backseat.