Chapter 30 - The Trail of Tears
The tiny woman in the birdcage stared up at Alisa with a look of confusion. "Do I know you?"
"Yes!" Alisa anxiously squeaked, suddenly afraid. For a moment, she'd thought that she finally had the ultimate leverage, that, as long as she managed to get her and this woman out of the house, she could force Dr. Bremer to let her go home at last. If the doctor didn't recognize her, however, who knew how much she remembered about her inventions? Would she even be able to open the door? "I came here for you!" she tried to jog the woman's memory desperately.
"Oh!" the woman's eyes lit up. "My sister must have sent you! I knew she wouldn't just abandon me here!"
Alisa nodded, though she had no idea what the other woman meant. Dr. Bremer had never mentioned a sister, much less a twin, as she must have been. She had mentioned that she'd tried to get Bianca's technology - obviously, she meant the shrink ray, or whatever it was - before. Had she sent her own sister to do it, then left her there when she hadn't returned? Alisa hadn't even been told to look for her sister, much less try to rescue her, though she wasn't about to tell her that after getting her hopes up like that.
"Yeah, she was worried about you," Alisa lied. "Does Ms. Caldwell keep the key to the cage with these?" She held up the huge keyring she'd stolen, dreading the thought of having to rifle through it again when all she wanted to do was get it back into Bianca's apron. Freeing the little woman probably wouldn't do her any good anyway, she realized uneasily, since it wasn't her twin that Dr. Bremer had ordered her to bring back, so Alisa would have to stick around anyway.
"Let me go, too!" another tiny woman begged from her cage on the floor. The others were stirring, too, getting out of their beds and staring up at her. The ones not in cages mostly stayed under their covers, but she could see that a good many of them were awake as well, and watching to see what she would do.
For her part, however, Dr. Bremer's twin seemed to realize the truth of the situation as she watched Alisa's face, sitting back down on her bed with a sigh. "You're not here for me, are you?" she asked quietly.
"I am!" Alisa insisted, not quite sure why she was being so adamant about it. Perhaps she just didn't want the woman to feel like she was going to abandon her. She'd spent a lot of time here trapped in hopeless situation not entirely unlike the people here, and she'd have given anything for somebody to help her out. "I'll let you out, I just... I can't really go back there with you yet."
"She wants the shrink ray," the woman shook her head. "Why would that have changed? Did she even tell you about me?"
"Yes," Alisa fibbed, deciding to go out on a limb to try to prove it. "You're Astra, right?" The woman seemed impressed, which made Alisa give out an inward sigh of relief. She'd had a hunch that this Bremer might have the same name as the one from her world, since her sister hadn't, but there had, of course, been no way to be sure. "It's just that she wants the ray, too. But maybe you can show me where she keeps it! Then we can get out of here! We can all get out of here!" She tilted her head down to adress the other shrunken women as they started to grumble about the unfairness of her plan.
"I don't know exactly where she keeps it," Astra sighed. "But it's somewhere in her room."
Alisa's stomach fell at the news. All this time wasted searching other rooms, and it was in the first place she'd looked?! Of course, that was also the place she least wanted to spend time, considering there was a giant there who could make her the size of a doll at her whim. "I guess it would make sense she'd keep it close," she shrugged, wondering why she hadn't thought of it herself. "Maybe I can sneak in while she's cooking or something tomorrow, and..."
"She always keeps her door locked," Astra told her. "You'd have to steal her keys first, then get in and find it before she noticed they - or you - were missing."
"Great," Alisa groaned. Now what was she going to do? She thought back to her instructions, trying to find some loophole that would keep her from having to dive into the lion's den. Actually stealing the device had been a last resort to begin with, but that was only because Dr. Bremer thought she was Emily, who could build a copy of the shrink ray herself. Alisa wouldn't even know where to begin, but she somehow doubted Dr. Bremer would like that excuse. Of course, Dr. Bremer ought to be able to build her own machine with the plans, yet that hadn't even sounded like an option - she seemed to think that Alisa ought to do it herself if she really wanted to earn her continued existence as an adult.
Maybe there was another solution. Alisa looked down at Astra, such a perfect duplicate of the woman from her own universe in miniature, at least on the outside. Did it go deeper? "Are you a scientist, too?" she asked.
"Yes," Astra nodded.
"Do you think you could build a copy of the shrink ray if I found the plans? Or walk me through it, I guess... You probably can't really build much yourself right now." She wasn't sure if this would be an acceptable solution for Vera or not, but it seemed like the only real way out of this mess.
"I can try," Astra offered. "I don't know for sure, though, since I haven't seen them. I don't even know where her lab is."
"Oh." Alisa stared down at the keys in her hand, starting to chew on her bottom lip. "I guess I can't let you out yet, then. It's getting late, and I need to get the keys back before she wakes up."
"Yes, you do," Astra agreed. "If she figures out you took them, you'll be in here with us before you have another chance to look around. From what these guys have told me, she usually likes to take her time, but she caught me sneaking around and did this straight away." She gestured down at herself. "You won't do us any good if you're trapped here, too."
"All right." That only made Alisa more anxious, especially knowing that she still had to get back downstairs and return the keys to the woman's apron, right by her bed. "I'll be back, though, I promise." She crept back out of the room, making sure to switch off the light before closing the door, trying to ignore all the tiny, pleading eyes staring at her. She hated the idea of leaving them there, helpless, for Bianca to do whatever she wanted with for at least another day, but Astra had been right - she could only help them as long as she was full-sized, or at least somewhat close.
She crept back down the hall to the staircase, dreading the descent. Even without knowing that Ms. Caldwell kept her shrink ray close at hand in her room, so she could almost instantly use it on Alisa if she caught her in there, the thought of getting so close to her again was scary after seeing all those women she'd already targeted. What made her think that she would be able to escape when none of them had? Of course, she had no way of knowing if anybody ever actually had, but it seemed unlikely. And she was trapped out here in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of the person who had done that to them. The thought made her stomach ache with worry, and it only got worse once she was on the ground floor and sneaking toward the woman's room.
Bianca was in a different position than she had been when Alisa had come into the room the last time, but a few moments of observation seemed to reveal that she was, in fact, still sleeping. It was only a small comfort, though it was better than nothing as she moved slowly and silently across the room, right up to the side of the bed. Bianca was closer to the bed's edge now, close enough that Alisa tried to stand a few feet away and reach for the apron's pocket, only to find her arms weren't long enough. She could have grabbed the apron itself and yanked it down, but she'd still need to put it back up if she didn't want to raise suspicions, and it would be more difficult to do that without the keys jingling than just to put them in the pocket while it was hanging up.
She moved in toward the wall, keeping herself as far from Ms. Caldwell's body as she could manage, gripping the key ring ever tighter in her fist as she inched her way forward. Finally, she was close enough, and she reached her hand up, wriggling it into the pocket and then pushing down deeper, making sure the keys were in the very bottom, so there was nowhere for them to fall once she let go of them. She gradually let out her breath as she uncurled her fingers, sure that she had managed to pull this off after all, and dreading the thought that she was going to have to do it at least one more time. If she got lucky and actually found the plans the next night, she wouldn't need to worry about putting them back, but the house was huge, and she'd only checked a handful of rooms. It could take her a long time to go through them all, especially since her destination was bound to be one of the last places she looked.
Alisa let out a gasp, fingers opening early so she could jump away from the apron as, beside her, Bianca tossed in her sleep. The keys gave a bit of a rattle, and Alisa, startled, darted for the door, no longer worried about being quiet. At least now that the keys were back in place, she could pretend she'd come down here to ask for Bianca's help with something - what exactly, she had no idea - though that didn't keep her from hurrying out of the room once she saw that the woman was apparently still asleep. Her heart was thrumming wildly in her chest like a hummingbird as she traipsed back through the house and up the staircase. Each step calmed her a little, but it was only once she had made it about halfway to the second floor that she was thinking clearly enough to realize that she was feeling something wet dripping down the inside of her thighs.
Her cheeks turned bright red in the darkness, and for a minute or two, she just stood there, unsure of what to do. She must have had an accident when Bianca startled her, but when had the leak started? How bad was it? In her mind's eye, she could imagine a wet trail, leading straight from Bianca's room to her, and the idea was mortifying enough to leave her petrified for much longer than she would have liked before she realized that she would have to do something if she didn't want Bianca to wake up and find her there.
She started back down the stairs, only to think about how she was still feeling that wetness, meaning she was probably still dripping. She turned around and hurried to the bathroom, where she stripped off her shorts and training pants, throwing the latter away and, unsure of what to do with the former, hanging them over the shower rod. The shorts were even wetter than she'd feared, leaving her pretty sure that they had been leaking since Bianca's room. Maybe even before... Had she had a wet spot on her pants while she'd been talking to the captive women?
She shook off those humiliating thoughts and grabbed a washcloth, cleaning herself up before taking a large towel and drying to floor where she'd come in. She pushed the bathroom door open enough to let some light out, showing her the path she'd taken, or at least the last few steps, and got down on her hands and knees, crawling along the floor half naked to clean up her mess. When she reached her room, she took a detour inside to quickly put on another pair of pull-ups and shorts, and then went back to it.
The worst part about it was that she had no idea exactly how good she was doing at erasing the evidence. Even once her eyes had adjusted back to the darkness, she knew that it was possible she was missing a spot or two, or even more, or that the towel wasn't doing a good enough job. The steps were especially hard, since there were so many and she couldn't be sure where she'd been on each one - she would have assumed that would be the trickiest part of the clean-up until she made it back to Bianca's room. She knew for a fact that she had been standing right beside the woman's bed, which meant she had to crawl there now, praying that she was rubbing the towel over the right area, and doing so quietly enough not to wake the still slumbering giant.
Bianca was moving around a little more, though she still didn't seem to be awake just yet, only getting close to it. Frustratingly, after such a short time dry, Alisa could feel her trainers grow damp as she knelt there by the bed, her nerves frayed almost to the breaking point. She knew the bedroom was the first place Bianca would see when she woke up, and thus the place with the least time to dry on its own, so she forced herself to turn around and crawl back out, going back over the same area she'd just cleaned to try to be extra sure that she hadn't missed anything, at least as much as she could.
She crawled back through the door at last, pulling herself to her feet, to the protest of her aching back, before shutting it and making her way back up the stairs. She was going to be miserable that day, she had no doubt. After wasting all that time cleaning up after herself, she wasn't even sure if she'd have time for a nap if she didn't want to risk being late for breakfast. As if to confirm that, and to make her just a little more frantic, she was met with another surprise halfway up the staircase - this time, the sound of an alarm going off below her.
She scrambled up the last steps, caring more about getting to the top than making a little noise at that moment, since she could still hear the alarm, which she hoped meant Bianca wasn't fully awake yet. As soon as she reached the top, she slowed back to a tip-toe to make the long trek to the bathroom, during which the clock was silenced. The towel joined the shorts on the shower rod, and she sat herself on the toilet, though, of course, after all that excitement there wasn't anything left in her bladder. She washed her hands anyway, then trudged back to her room.
She sat down heavily on her bed, trying to decide what to do next. She really should get changed for breakfast, and maybe go down to see if Bianca needed any help - that seemed like a proper, appropriate sort of thing to do - but she really didn't feel like facing the woman just yet, especially knowing that nothing she had to wear would be acceptable. Offering her assistance might assuage Ms. Caldwell somewhat, but she had no doubt there would be a lecture in her future anyway, and she didn't want to have to deal with that.
She flopped back on the bed with a weary sigh, wondering if Bianca would insist on her taking a nap. She'd grown pretty used to them as a toddler, and today, especially, she wouldn't mind being told to take one even as an adult. That meant she would still have to make it through part of the day, however, and the longer she stayed there in the dark, the less likely that seemed. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a minute, she'd wake up and feel refreshed and ready to start her day. It couldn't hurt, right? It was just for a minute...
When she opened her eyes, Ms. Caldwell was standing in front of her, hands on her hips. "It's about time, young lady," she shook her head. "Breakfast was two hours ago!"
That wasn't Alisa's only problem. The huge glass of fiber she'd drank for dinner the night before had caught up with her, leaving her tummy feeling very full, and quite urgently so. "I'm sorry," she squeaked, starting to get up to rush to the bathroom. "I just..."
"No," Bianca stopped her, the force of her words making the girl say back down on the edge of the bed. "This is unacceptable, little missy. I know for a fact you were up in time to be ready for breakfast, as I heard you in the bathroom, and yet you still went back to bed! That is unacceptable. And even if it wasn't, I wouldn't let you go traipsing around my house dressed like that. If you must wear that to bed, I suppose I can't stop you, but you aren't setting a foot outside this room in that get-up!"
"But I hafta..." Alisa protested, squirming desperately, every moment she was awake and not on the toilet bringing her closer to disaster.
"You can do whatever you need to do once you are dressed like a proper young woman," Ms. Caldwell informed her. "So you had better hope that you have something a little more appropriate than what you wore yesterday, or you'll be sitting there for a long time while I look through all of your clothes."
"I can dress myself," Alisa whimpered weakly.
"Evidently not," the other woman shot back. "Just sit there quietly, or you'll make me even more cross, and I don't think you'd like that. Now, let's see what you have." Alisa watched in silent horror as the woman pulled open her underwear drawer and began to sift through them. Each pair that was rejected would bring Bianca slightly closer to finding the training pants - which Alisa was growing closer and closer to proving she needed as she fidgeted desperately on the bed - at the bottom of the drawer.