Mary Christmas 2: Christmas in July – Chapter 9
Continued from Chapter 8.
In Department 8, Candice rode the elevator up to the fourth floor, flanked by the general and the nice woman who had greeted her and given her a photo ID badge to wear, which Candice had dutifully clipped to her sweater. It was still warm from being printed.
Candice looked up at her companions. She was doing her best to get used to the size of humans relative to her. All her life, she had been surrounded by elves, all with the same childlike appearance as her. In the North Pole, the only adult-sized people around were Santa and Mrs. Claus, which explained why most elves referred to him as “the big man.” It was literally true. He was the largest one around. Since Candice had left the North Pole, everyone was big, except for the occasional child she encountered. The unnerving sense of being the odd one out was starting to worry her in the back of her mind. She had committed to it, though. Her glasses were now stowed away in a pocket, leaving her elf ears visible to everyone.
The elevator reached the fourth floor, and the doors parted. Candice pulled her suitcase behind her as she followed the other two passengers across a hallway to a pair of doors guarded by two heavily armed men in uniform. The guards carefully checked all three ID cards, and gave Candice and her suitcase an extended skeptical look. Then, the doors were opened, and Candice followed her companions into an office space full of cubicles that stretched over her head. A quick peek into the cubicles they passed showed bare unoccupied desks. They headed further back into the office until they approached a conference room where the nearby desks started to show signs of use.
It was there that the smell hit Candice, a distinctive barnyard musk that anyone who had spent time around livestock knew all too well. Candice knew that pungent mix of manure and animal sweat from her time around the reindeer. The source of the odor was clear the moment Candice could see through the glass of the conference room. A large cow stood in there with a chicken next to it on the table, both surrounded by ordinary office furniture. The cow had its face stuffed into a plastic waste paper basket and appeared to be drinking water out of it.
Angela, the woman who had greeted Candice and given her an ID badge, called out to the room, “Everyone, your attention please.” Heads poked out of cubicles all around them to listen to Angela speak. “The agent from the North Pole is here. I want to give you all a chance to meet her, and then we will have a presentation to bring her up to speed on the investigation. I know it’s getting late, but her magical expertise could be a big help to us.”
“Um,” someone said from the back of the room. “I can’t really see her.” Candice could not see him either.
Angela found a nearby chair without wheels and positioned it next to Candice. “Excuse me, Candice. Would you mind standing up here so that we can all see each other?”
“Oh,” Candice said. “Sure.” Angela offered her a hand, and when Candice took it, she was practically lifted up into the air onto the chair. Now, she could see everyone. No one was smiling.
Angela continued her introduction, “This is Candice Cain from the North Pole. She was sent to help us track down Mary. And, yes, she is an elf. I expect everyone to treat her with the same respect that you would give to anyone else working here. She is a part of our team now. Any questions?”
No one said a word.
“Let’s go around and introduce ourselves. Just say your name and explain your job briefly.”
Candice was hit with dozens of names and job descriptions, but she gave up trying to remember them all after the 10th person.
Finally, Angela turned to Candice, “Would you care to tell us a little about yourself, Ms. Cain?”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, I am an expert in magical tracking spells. I’ve been developing some new equipment to detect magical energy. Also, I have some practice with enchanting, and I’ve been living in D.C. for the past couple of weeks.”
“How old are you?” a man asked from the back of the room. Candice thought she remembered his name was Steve.
Angela told him, “That’s not a nice question to ask a lady.”
“Well,” the man said. “She looks like she’s in grade school. I would hope she’s older than that.”
“Steve, drop it,” Angela said.
“I’m 25 years old,” Candice said. “I know I don’t look it, but that’s a part of our glamor, the spell that elves in the North Pole all share. ‘We look like children so that we might serve children best.’” The last sentence had bubbled up from memory. She had heard that explanation so many times in school, yet this was the first time that she had said it out loud. As soon as the words left her lips, she started to doubt them.
A few people muttered comments to each other quietly. Then, there was silence.
“Right, then,” Angela said. “We’ll start the presentation now. Join us if you’ve received an invite.”
Angela offered Candice her hand again, but Candice stepped down off the chair on her own, deciding it was best to demonstrate she could handle the situation without extra help. She had become aware of the need to make a good first impression.
At first, Candice headed for the conference room with the cow in it, but then she noticed that everyone was walking the other way. She followed the crowd.
“Ma’am,” the general said to Angela. “Do you have a stool and bucket I could use?” He looked back into the cow’s conference room uneasily.
Angela replied. “I think there are some little plastic garbage cans that might work. That’s probably the best we can offer.”
“Right,” the general said.
“Make sure you save the milk,” one of the analysts said. “We’ll want to test it.”
“Right,” the general said and headed back towards the cow as he searched for garbage cans.
“Also,” Angela called back to the general. “Don’t touch any of the boxes in there, and definitely don’t eat anything!”
People filed into another conference room, and Candice followed close behind Angela. After Candice set her suitcase in a corner of the room, she waited for Angela to sit down before taking a seat next to her. Then, Candice tried to sit up straight and keep her legs from swinging. She noticed a blonde woman sitting in a chair in the corner of the room with a girl sleeping on her lap, holding what looked like doll in her hands. She wondered what they were doing there.
Angela started off the presentation with a quick summary of the events of the day. Candice listened attentively. Although she had heard much of this information from news reports, there were some new details, like how they suspected that the food was responsible for the transformations. Additionally, she learned about how Mary had attacked Department 8 and about the different magical tools Mary had used. Now, Candice looked sympathetically at the blonde woman and the sleeping girl in the corner. The doll-sized woman stretched her arms and tried to get comfortable in the girl’s hands.
“And, that’s about all we know so far,” Angela said as she wrapped up her presentation. “We are analyzing the food we collected, and we should be investigating the source of the food. Have we started that yet, Carol?”
Carol Marx, the head field agent, said, “We have narrowed the source of all the food down to a local distributor named Foodways. They have shut down distribution and will let us in for a search first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Any suspicious activity reported by them?” Angela asked.
“Nothing so far,” Carol said. “No signs of a break in or tampering of any kind were found… yet.”
“Keep on them,” Angela said. “Have we been able to figure out anything new about the ring Mary took?”
Steve said, “Dr. Schultz might need a day or two to clear his… or her… head before we can do more research on the ring. Some of the writing we have on it is written in dead languages, and Dr. Schultz is the one who’s most fluent in them.”
The blonde woman in the corner remained silent, but she turned her head away from the conversation.
“Candice,” Angela said. “Do you think your tracking equipment can find the ring?”
“Maybe,” Candice said. “It didn’t show up on my equipment before I came here, but I might be able to adjust some settings to track it down if I can get more specific information about it.”
“You’ll have to wait until Dr. Schultz is ready to help you. We’ll let her rest for now,” Angela said. “Do we have anything new from the schools?” she asked the room.
“We have some surveillance camera footage from a couple of buildings,” said one analyst. “And, there’s a trending video on Yootoob that seems pertinent.”
“Can we put those on the screen?” Angela asked.
A few people went about setting up speakers and a projector, the blinds were closed, and the lights were shut off.
“This first one is from a daycare,” the woman operating the projector said. Then, a video started to play on the screen across the room.
The image was unclear and heavily pixelated, but it became immediately obvious that it was security camera footage of a daycare center playroom. Preschool kids sat on kid-sized chairs around low tables as a few women handed out plates with some indiscernible breakfast food on them. These were followed by cups of fruit and, lastly, a small carton of milk for each child. The kids began to eat, while their caretakers watched them and tried to minimize the mess they made, all of it happening in eerie silence as the video had no recorded sound.
The first sign of trouble came from the end of one table by girl in a bright yellow shirt and denim skirt. The table she was sitting at jumped up in front of her. It appeared that her knee had hit the bottom of the table, knocking around everything on it. Soon, it became clear that the little girl was rapidly growing larger. Her shirt became skin tight as she grew a head taller than the kids around her. The caretakers approached her, but froze when they saw her growing older. Already, her age had reached double digits.
Then, the change spread around the room. The boy next to the first girl began to grow as well, followed by other kids at their table, then the next table, and then the whole room exploded into chaos as tables and chairs were overturned by bodies that had quickly outgrown them. All manner of clothing began to tear and split apart as it became too small to contain the aging children.
Candice focused her attention back on the original girl, as her yellow shirt split apart like a popping balloon, revealing a pair of growing breasts on her maturing chest. Her skirt tore away, revealing her stretched underwear that finally snapped off under the tension created by her spreading hips and ballooning backside. In only a few minutes, the preschool girl had aged into a full-grown woman.
And, so had all the rest of the children in the room. Some appeared to have stopped growing at some point in their teens. Others were mature-looking adults.
The room went wild. A few of the former kids began to cry, looking like adults play acting as sad children. There were some that jumped for joy and ran around, letting newly grown parts of their naked bodies flop and swing around wildly. Still, others stood in amazement and examined their mature bodies, innocently touching themselves somewhat inappropriately. Meanwhile, the overwhelmed caretakers tried in vein to regain control of the chaos.
That first girl, now a woman, stretched her arms towards the ceiling and stood on the balls of her feet, apparently relishing her new height. Then, her heels touched the ground, and her hands slowly ran down the sides of her body, caressing her unfamiliar new curves. She smiled contentedly.
The video ended there.
“Well,” Angela said, breaking the silence. “That was something. Thoughts?”
“It has to be the food,” said one unseen analyst in the darkened room. “But, it’s strange that it started on only one side of the room? I wonder why.”
“Oh!” said another analyst in a burst of insight. “Those were the first kids to get their food. They started eating first, and they changed only a few minutes later.”
“Right,” the other analyst said. “Then, the change followed the path the caretakers took around the room. Good eye. There must be, like, a set time for the spell to activate after they eat.”
Candice was impressed by how observant the analysts were. She had been so focused on the first girl that she had missed that pattern. She mentally told herself to watch the next video more closely.
“Yeah, nice catch you two,” Angela said. She addressed Carol again, “Do we know what they were eating there?”
Carol flipped through a notepad, squinted at it in the dimly lit room, and replied, “The menu posted on their website says it was French toast, grapes, and milk.”
“And, that all came from Foodways, right?”
Angela said, “Lets see the next video. Where is this one from?”
“This one is from a junior high,” the woman operating the projector said. “And, these kids are in a summer school enrichment program.” She started the next video.