by R.G. Chilton
Sharon Williams took another sip of her drink and sighed. The old crew was together, but it was depressing. Last year they had gotten together for lunch and all of them had possessed rosy futures. They were all working, and most were making plans with someone. Then came the crash, and now there wasn't a steady paycheque between the eight of them. Besides Sharon, there was Joanne Drover, Jayne Drake, Nicole Stewart, Deborah Madison, April Scott, Margo Reinhart, and Lois Saxon - and of the group only Lois Saxon hadn't moved 'back home' to help save cash.
Sharon found her reduced circumstances humiliating; a lawyer who had been downsized by an investment firm, she had gone from being on the fast track to partnership to living in her childhood bedroom, just to save a bit of cash. She was sending her résumé out there, but no one was hiring. At least no one was hiring anyone in her price range.
Still... Sharon mused. It could be worse. Far worse.
With the large numbers of people, especially young women, returning home, a movement had arisen to help these 'returnees' reshape their lives. Well, movement might be too strong of a word - it had been some crackpot idea, then Ophira Withney had done a show on it and endorsed the concept. That made it a movement, one embraced by housewives everywhere. Sharon could tell that five of her friends had been caught up in the movement; it was plain from the clothes they were wearing, their hairstyles, and makeup-free faces.
Take Nicole for example: last year Nicole had been wearing a power suit, stiletto heels, diamond earrings, and a hairstyle that was cutting edge. This year? Sharon could hardly believe the woman sitting there was the same person. Nicole was wearing a modest blouse and schoolgirl style skirt, knee high socks, sneakers (and not even brand name ones - just generic running shoes!), her ears were empty, and she had her hair in pigtails. Pigtails! Pigtails on a woman in her 20s! Nicole looked almost like a teenager dressing young; if you didn't look at her face you'd think she was an early bloomer who still dressed like a child.
And Nicole wasn't the only one who had switched to this new style. Jayne, Deborah, Joanne, and April were all wearing variations on the teen theme. From afar, the table looked like three adults (Margo, Lois, and of course Sharon) were treating some young friends (or maybe aunts taking out their nieces) to lunch. Sharon couldn't see why anyone would dress like that, and neither did Margo who, unlike the tactful Sharon and Lois, demanded answers.
"It's called the 'returning child contract', but since Ophira did that show on it a lot of people are calling them 'returning childhood contracts'," Deborah explained. "The idea is that obviously you didn't learn enough in your teens to be able to manage your finances yourself."
"True," Lois nodded. "Why, when I was sixteen I consciously decided I didn't want to learn how to ignore the global financial situation and keep my job no matter how badly the world economy tanked. How irresponsible of me, not to learn the secret of keeping my job when my company went belly up."
"Anyway," Deborah continued, blushing at the irony. "The idea is you return to a time when you didn't have to make decisions and start fresh. Then you learn how to make responsible decisions."
"Like not to invest when there are companies giving mortgages to people on welfare?" Margo asked. "Or how to keep your job when it's last in first out, and you were among the last bunch of hires? Great! Tell me, oh wise one, the secrets I've foolishly avoided learning."
"It's not decisions like those," April said, going a bit red at the sarcasm. "But other ones. Ones you can control. And once you have those tools then you can take back control of your own life."
"By giving up control you learn how to take control?" Sharon asked. "I'm sorry, I don't see it. And what does that have to do with how you're dressed?"
"It's like this," Jayne said, trying to explain. "You give up control and let someone else make the decisions, including what you wear, and that frees you to think."
"So someone dressed you that way?" Lois asked. "And five different someones just happened to agree that you should all be dressed that way?"
"The idea is once you look more like a child you're more likely to begin learning again," Nicole answered. "Ophira said it made perfect sense to her."
"If it was me I'd never leave the house looking like that," Margo commented. "Or if I did I'd do something that I actually learned to do as a teen - take other clothes with me and change in the washroom to what I want to wear."
"It's not that simple," Nicole said defensively.
"Besides, where would I get the other clothes?" Joanne asked bitterly.
"You mean you don't have your old wardrobe?" Sharon asked.
"No, it's locked in storage," Joanne stated.
"So buy some more clothes," Margo advised.
"With what? No job, no money," Joanne pouted.
"Well you must have gotten a severance package, and then there's unemployment benefits," Lois pointed out.
"My parents invested my severance package so I 'wouldn't waste it', and they make me sign over all my benefit cheques," Joanne explained. "And they give me an allowance that's less than I had when I really was a teenager. Anything more and I have to explain why I need it and plead for my own money."
"They take your cheque? That can't be legal," Margo commented. "Sharon, it that legal?"
"Oh it's legal," Joanne said bitterly. "Before I moved back home they made me sign a legally binding agreement. I get free room and board, and in exchange I live by their rules. But I should have read the agreement more closely before I signed it."
"So move out," Lois suggested. "I'm living on my own while I look for a new job."
"Move out with what?" Joanne asked. "I don't have access to my savings, and my benefits are legally signed over, so how I could make rent? Or get a security deposit? And since the money I can't touch is legally in my name I couldn't even qualify for welfare if I wanted it."
"Welfare?" Sharon asked in alarm. Joanne had always had such pride, almost arrogance. "You've seriously looked at welfare? Just over that wardrobe?"
"Oh it's more than that," Joanne said with a bitter laugh.
The other four who had returned to girlhood suddenly found other places to look: at the centrepiece, at a wall, at their food, anywhere except at the three friends who were still dressed as grown women should be. Sharon had never seen the inside of a courtroom, but she didn't have to be Perry Mason to know that all five of them were embarrassed about something. Embarrassed, and didn't want to talk about it which, given their new clothes and how they had explained that they were now on allowances, had to be something major. Some deep, dark secret. Sharon was debating whether or not to gently probe when Margo spoke up.
"There's no way you can just leave that hanging. Give," Margo demanded.
"Well, ever since Ophira did her thing, they've come out with a deluxe gift package for the contract," Joanne admitted. "It has barrettes and rings for pigtails, and your choice of strap or hairbrush."
Sharon could see why they would include a hairbrush with the other hair care items, but was wondering what was the strap could be for when Lois beat her to the punch.
"Oh my god. Oh my god. You don't mean..." Lois said.
Nicole sighed and confirmed that it wasn't only Joanne's parents who had gotten the deluxe package.
"There's something in the fine print that talks about enforcing discipline, and it gives non-revocable permission for them to use corporal punishment on you," Nicole revealed. "It's supposed to help you get back in touch with your childhood."
"But your parents never... I mean with all the times I spent at your house I would have known if they'd ever smacked your bottom," Sharon blurted out.
"Well, let's just say they're making up for lost time," Nicole said with a grimace.
"It's kind of officially optional," Deborah pointed out. "Only if you aren't careful it's kind of the default option."
"You mean..." Margo gasped.
"I mean that my mother, who wants me to call her mommy, sometimes takes down my little girl panties and spanks my bare bum," Joanne blurted out, going beet red. "There! I've said it. Are you happy?"
Three of the people sitting at the table were stunned by her news, but the other four clearly weren't. Seeing the expressions on her friends' faces told Sharon more than their words had.
"Well, um, Sharon, is that legal?" Margo demanded.
"Um, well, I'd have to see the contract and..."
"Oh, it's legal," Joanne assured them. "The first time it happened I saw a lawyer at some charity legal clinic. I had to wait for more than five hours, only to be told that it was legal because I'd signed the right kind of power of attorney. I'd need to get in front of a judge and prove that I had what it takes to live on my own to get it revoked, and that was when I looked at welfare. That, or have my parents agree that I can live on my own, and they won't do that if I don't have a job and I can't get a fucking job because no one is hiring!"
Joanne's voice had a bit of a hysterical twinge by the time she'd finished, and that turned the conversation to calming her down and assuring her that everything would be okay.
"Thanks," Joanne gulped, fighting off tears. "I mean I had to practically beg for my own money to come here today. What's left of my allowance would barely cover cab fare, so I had to plead for permission to go out to lunch today and beg for some of my own money so I could afford to eat."
"That's the hard part," Nicole admitted. "Not having control of any money. But it's supposed to teach you financial discipline."
"No, the hard part is knowing that all the clothes they make you wear are being bought with your money," April countered. "Take this skirt set - my mom picked it out but my money paid for it."
"Wait, that's the hard part?" Lois demanded. "Not the hairbrush, the money?"
April blushed, but said, "Look, you can get used to the fact that sometimes you'll have a problem sitting, but without money you have no real freedom."
"So how does it happen?" Margo demanded. "Who does it? Your mom or..."
"Legally, either of them can do it," Joanne answered. "But my dad doesn't even like being in the room when it happens. I could be wrong, but mostly it's moms handing it out."
The other four women in pigtails nodded at this, agreeing that it was mostly (or only) their moms who were taking them in hand.
"Ophira called it 'female empowerment as you regain your role as a mother'," Deborah commented.
"So just how often does something like that happen?" Sharon demanded.
Five shy faces looked away. Finally, April said, "Only when I deserve it."
"You're lucky," Jayne commented. "I get a little refresher every night at bed time, just in case my mom missed anything."
"What?" Lois gasped. "Every night?"
"It's just her hand and it's usually only about ten or so, but yeah, every night. Unless I've done something major already, then it's skipped because my tail is already sore."
"You're lucky," Nicole pointed out. "If I'm scheduled for a maintenance whacking then nothing cancels it."
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