Joshua is a young man who wants to be wanted. The trouble is he wants Marylou to want him but she is his best friend's girlfriend. John gets his wish but not necessarily in the way he would have chosen.
It was a presidential election year and the first year of a new decade 1960. A veteran politician, Vice President Richard M. Nixon was running for the top office and a young senator, John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts, was hoping to forestall him. Some Americans were interested in the presidential race; others were indifferent. Many teenagers found Kennedy interesting and Nixon mundane.
Joshua Nelson, however, had no interest in politics. His chief interest had become Marylou Bassett, his best friend’s girl. It was an interest that often embarrassed him. Josh valued Darryl’s friendship highly but he could not deny his feelings. He strove mightily to hide them from everybody but feared that his secret would be discovered. Josh was so beset with guilt that even his dreams were affected. He woke, instinctively aware that he was alone in his home and grateful for the solitude. He’d had a strange dream the night before involving Marylou.
"Thank God, Julie’s not at home," he said aloud to the empty room. Josh’s mother often went out and did not return until late, sometimes not for days. This fact in and of itself did not disturb him. He was seventeen and used to being alone. In a way, he thought, I’ve been alone ever since Gran died. Julie is not company for me and I’m sure not company for her.
Josh’s mouth twitched in a wry smile as he remembered how his grandmother hated him calling his mother by her name. Julie, on the other hand, hated to be called "Mother" and even more "Mama". So Josh had always called his mother Julie instead. This created in her mind the comforting illusion that he was her younger brother and not her adolescent son. Josh still remembered the bitter arguments his mother and grandmother used to have about him and above all about how he was treated. They had gone on almost to the day of his grandmother’s death but nothing had been resolved. Julie had won the argument by default.
His grandmother breathed her last praying that Josh would somehow one day have a proper home. She had died when he was twelve. From that day on Josh and his mother had lived under the same roof like brother and sister. They were in essence two siblings who, at the best of times, tolerated each other and, at the worst, avoided each other like strangers living under the same roof. As a consequence, if they spoke to each other as parent and child, it was quite by accident. Josh had mourned his grandmother keenly though silently. Julie wanted no reminders of mortality so her son kept his grief to himself.
He now lay on his back staring up at the ceiling of his bedroom arguing with himself about getting up. Darryl and Marylou would be expecting him, so he’d best get started. It would be Halloween soon and the three of them were to participate in the high school’s costume competition.
Marylou had come up with the idea of them portraying the three bears of fairy tale fame. Josh was to play Baby Bear. He had reluctantly agreed after Marylou had pleaded with him to participate. She had argued that his participation would help Darryl’s spirits. Josh was grateful for Darryl’s friendship but he couldn’t help wondering if this Halloween contest wasn’t stretching the bonds of friendship to the breaking point. When Marylou had told him what character he was portraying he had wanted to refuse. After all, he wasn’t responsible for Darryl’s depression and he couldn’t see how wearing a silly costume would help him. But she had been standing close to him when she’d made her plea and all Josh could see or think about then were her ample breasts. Marylou’s perfume had clouded his brain and aroused his hormones to frantic activity. How could he, under such circumstances, make the right decision? The truth was, he felt he couldn’t, so he simply decided he would wear whatever costume Marylou provided. In the meantime he would try not to think about it too much.
If only, Josh thought, he had some idea what was wrong, maybe he could come up with an idea of his own to help Darryl. However, all Josh knew was that Darryl had gone to visit some cousins the previous summer and had been badly injured. Darryl had returned to his home in the fall, no longer the happy go lucky boy of old. He had been a star athlete at high school before his injury but afterward he abandoned all sports and had withdrawn from all other extracurricular activities. Josh had asked him why and Darryl had flatly told him that it was none of his business.
Josh had been hurt by such bluntness from his friend; seeing this, Darryl had apologized but offered no explanation. Josh had asked Darryl no further questions. But he could not help asking them of himself. For example, why had the school authorities accepted Darryl’s refusal to play any sports? Obviously his injury, whatever it was; was so severe that the rules about athletics had been put aside.
Darryl’s father, George Swenson was an important local businessman. He owned the Chrysler dealership in town. Therefore the needs of his son, whatever they were, would not be ignored by the school authorities.
Darryl’s behavior had not only changed at school. He had changed toward all his friends, avoiding their company and spending more and more time alone. All this was disturbing enough, but the most bizarre aspect of Darryl’s behavior was his treatment of Marylou. Darryl and Marylou had been planning to marry after graduation but now rumor had it their marriage was postponed. This was shocking because both the Swensons and the Bassetts had purchased a house and furnished it in accordance with the wishes of the prospective bride.
Josh had seen Marylou at school with red-rimmed eyes at the beginning of the year. She had been listless and, like Darryl, avoided her friends. Now, however, thanks apparently to the Halloween contest she had regained some of her high spirits.
Marylou had been busy for the past two weeks designing and sewing their costumes but Josh had, after being initially measured for his, avoided seeing them as much as possible until today. Josh had found the experience of being measured by Marylou far too upsetting. Her very touch had aroused him to a painful degree. What was worse, Josh felt sure she was aware of it and thought it funny! Her amusement at his expense hurt Josh in a way that was almost physical. He had wanted to abandon the contest altogether but could not bring himself to do it. He had hoped instead that when the costumes were near completion and Darryl had time to think about how silly he would look in a bear costume, he would intervene and demand they drop the whole idea. But so far Darryl had said and done nothing. Apparently whatever Marylou was doing about the costumes, it had not made Darryl mad yet. However, there was something that would certainly make him mad if he ever found out about it. And it was that his best friend Josh was having dreams about his beloved Marylou. He was sure that Darryl’s blood would boil if he knew how often Josh’s thoughts, if not his eyes, strayed to Marylou.
Josh sighed and flung off the old quilt that covered him. He was filled with relief that his pajamas and underpants were dry despite his strange infantile dream. His bedroom was cold. The only source of heat in the house was a gas heater located in the living room. He ran to the living room, the linoleum like ice beneath his bare feet. Josh squatted before the old gas heater, fumbling with a box of matches his fingers made clumsy with cold. He’d snatched the matches from the rickety coffee table which stood before the sagging sofa. He had always secretly feared and hated the heater. It loomed above him like a demon formed of steel and summoned straight from the eternal ice and fire of hell specifically to threaten the Nelson family. Josh felt certain that one day it would either leak gas and asphyxiate them or explode outright and consume them in a ball of fire.
Having lit the heater, he stood before it a few seconds making sure the gas was burning properly. Then he dashed for his bedroom. Josh stripped off his pajamas and made another dash for the bathroom. It felt even colder than his bedroom. He stepped quickly into the shower and turned the taps until the water was nearly scalding hot. Then he stood for a long moment, luxuriating in the heat. Since he was going to the Swenson home, Josh shampooed his hair, wondering if Darryl’s dad would pointedly suggest he needed a haircut again. Darryl always got angry at such moments but Josh didn’t. He told himself that he should but somehow he couldn’t summon the anger. Perhaps because it felt nice to have someone care about how he looked; especially now that his grandmother was gone.
Josh finished his shower and stepped out and stood before the bathroom mirror gazing earnestly at his reflection. He was grateful there was no acne marring his complexion. But Josh wished that he had a well-established beard which would require shaving on a regular basis. At present Josh had what Darryl’s maternal Uncle Charley Baker, a former marine and veteran of World War II, had once described as peach fuzz. Josh’s dad had been a marine too and had gone to war. But unlike Charley Baker, he had not returned.
When he’d been small Josh had often wondered about his dad. But there had been no one to tell him about Henry Nelson. Julie had kept no photographs and never spoke of her husband. Her silence suggested to Josh that they had not been happy together. All he’d ever known for certain was that his grandmother had liked his dad. Unfortunately, she had seen her son-in-law only a few times. Josh had gathered from his grandmother that not all those occasions had been pleasant. He sighed heavily, thinking that the past was best left alone. After all, nothing about it could be changed; only the present or the future could be changed. He sighed again, making a conscious effort to close the door on the past and to think of the present, reflecting not for the first time that he looked too much like a boy. A heavy beard would help the situation a lot.
Josh scowled at the reflection of his hair in the mirror. It suddenly occurred to him that Mr. Swenson might be thinking he looked too feminine. Worse, what if he thinks I’m queer? Josh’s hair was a bright red and fell about his face in soft ringlets which any girl might have envied. His eyes were a light blue and still possessed a look of boyish innocence. Curiously, despite his half-orphaned status and the maternal indifference of Julie, Josh had retained a childlike aura of which he was only dimly aware. Boy-like he was grinning at his reflection and thinking, Mr. Swenson wouldn’t think I was queer if he could see my dreams.
The trouble was, all his dreams were about Marylou, Darryl’s girl. Perhaps that was why his dreams about her had become so strange. Josh shook his head trying to shake off the memory of his latest one. It brought him no pleasure. In the dream, Josh had been in Mrs. Swenson’s sewing room clad only in his underpants. His costume was laid out on a chair and Marylou was insisting he put it on. Josh had stood rocking back and forth on his heels uncomfortably aware of his nudity and of his growing erection. Any second Marylou would see it! Frantically he clutched his penis in a vain hope of deflating it. But in the dream she had ignored it while holding out a white garment toward him saying, "See, Joshy, it has snaps so you don’t have to worry about pins." In the dream Josh had unaccountably grinned at sight of the garment. He should have been filled with horror because it was a diaper made of thick white cotton with snaps where pins would normally be fastened.
Marylou had smiled at Josh in a way she never did in the waking world. She had cooed, "Do you want me to help with your diaper, Joshy?"
Josh had heard himself say with a lisp, "Yeth, pwease!"
Then the scene had changed and Josh had been lying on the floor of the sewing room with Marylou squatting beside him. She tugged his underpants off over his erection and as she did, it deflated. Then Josh had an overwhelming need to urinate and had been unable to hold it. The urine had splashed on his stomach and run down between his legs to puddle around him soaking into the carpet. Marylou had begun to laugh. Her laughter had reminded Josh that he was not a toddler but was, in fact, a high school senior. The sound of Marylou’s laughter was made worse by the fact that it did not possess the ghoulish quality of an ordinary nightmare but that of an adult amused by the antics of a small child.
Josh had moaned with shame and Marylou, with laughter in her voice, had said, "Well, Joshy baby, it looks like you’ll need a real diaper after all!" Josh had wakened with Marylou’s laughter still echoing in his mind and wondering what he would do if her costume was too babyish for him to wear. Would he have the nerve to refuse?
A vision of Marylou filled Josh’s mind. She was a tall, slender redhead, whose ample breasts were like magnets which always drew the steel of his soul, despite all his resolutions not to stare at them. She had always felt his stare and glared back with smoldering green eyes that silently assured him he would never have the right to touch her. But now, after his strange dream, Josh was no longer sure what her true feelings were. And what of Darryl? Did he know or suspect Josh’s feelings for Marylou? If so, Darryl had given no sign so far.
Josh shook his head again, hoping to forget the strange dream, and hurried from the bathroom. He quickly dressed noting that it was nearly nine o’clock. He was supposed to be at the Swensons’ by ten. Josh gobbled down some cereal and a glass of orange juice. It was the last of the cornflakes and he hoped Julie would do some grocery shopping before she came home. His last thought before leaving the house was a wish that Julie would buy Frosted Flakes by mistake as she sometimes did. They were a particular favorite of Josh’s, though Julie considered them too expensive. The picture of Tony Tiger on the box always cheered him up. The taste of the Frosted Flakes also reminded him of happier days, when his grandmother had been alive and she had cared about his happiness in ways that no one else did.
Josh collected his bicycle from beside the garage and wheeled it to the street, seeing that his front tire was low; he debated briefly about pumping it up, but that would take time and might make him late getting to the Swensons’. So in the end he mounted his bike and started across town. He was well into the business district when the tire went completely flat. He dismounted, cursing under his breath. A quick look showed that it needed a patch. Josh sighed and turned from his bicycle; his attention was caught by the store window in front of which he’d stopped. He was surprised to see that it was a toy shop.
He looked through the shop window wondering why anybody would go into such a business in a small town. Sure, his hometown had its share of kids of all ages but surely not enough to keep a toy shop solvent for long? When last he’d been in this part of town this building had been boarded up, having housed a hardware business that had failed. Josh reminded himself that 1960 was a prosperous year for nearly everybody he knew but himself. The collection of toys he could see through the window proved this supposition to Josh.
His eye was caught and held by an electric train on display in the window. He felt a pang of longing at sight of the train which, for a moment, took him back to his early childhood. He had always loved trains and everything to do with them. This was because he had loved the power trains had exhibited whenever they passed through town causing everything to stop to acknowledge their passing in one way or another. However, the only toy train he’d ever possessed had not been electric. It had not even possessed a railroad track on which to run. This was because Josh’s train had been designed for a toddler, its few cars being painted in bright nursery colors and made of wood. Julie had never been able to afford an electric train for her son even if she’d wanted to buy it. There had been too many other things she had wanted for herself. Josh grimaced at thought of Julie and shook his head, telling himself to forget the past and concentrate on the present.
He started to push his bike toward a gas station that he knew of a couple of blocks away when someone called to him. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. He saw a man standing in the doorway of the shop. The sight of him brought to mind all the pictures of Santa Claus Josh had ever seen. Although the man was not dressed in a bright red coat with matching trousers trimmed in white or in high-topped black boots and his hands were not encased in green mittens, his hair and beard were white and they gleamed like snow in the morning sun. He also had the "bowl of jelly" figure of Santa Claus and he was smoking a long-stemmed black pipe. The clothes he was actually wearing, however, gave no hint of Christmas. He wore a well-cut gray suit and tan patent leather shoes. Smiling at Josh he asked, "Have you come about the job?"
Josh stared at the man in embarrassed confusion saying nothing. The man waited patiently at the door of the shop. Feeling he was making a mistake, Josh walked over to him. Then flushing with embarrassment, he asked, "I’m sorry. What did you say?" The man repeated his question. Josh’s flush of embarrassment increased and he said quickly, "No sir, I’m not here about the job."
"Ah, it would seem I’ve misunderstood what I saw. You stood so long at my window that I thought you were reading my advertisement for a shop assistant." As he said this, the man pointed helpfully to a small card stuck in the corner of the display window. Written in large red type against a white background were the words, "Help wanted." As though to emphasize the advertisement’s message Josh heard Brenda Lee singing "I want to be wanted" on a car radio which was passing in the street. The lyric "I want to be wanted", which also served as the song’s title, affected Josh strangely. For a moment as he stood there, Josh realized that only one person had ever really wanted him and that was his grandmother. But she was gone now and he was alone. The lyric "I want to be wanted" tore at Josh’s heart with melodious claws that threatened to destroy his self-control.
The man asked, "Would you consider taking the job?"
Thinking of the song, Josh laughed and replied with a bitterness born of deep loneliness, "You don’t want me, mister. Nobody does."
"On the contrary! You’re just the young man I’ve been looking for."
"But how can you be looking for me when we’ve never met? I didn’t even see your advertisement when I was looking at the electric train."
"No, you had eyes only for the train; that’s the point. You already have an appreciation of my products, as it were, and that is the important thing. So come inside and let’s talk."
Josh walked past the man and entered the shop. He heard the door of the shop close with a jingle of bells. Then for a moment he saw in his mind’s eye a bright red sleigh pulled by eight reindeer through a night sky lit by a full moon. Josh had the feeling that no matter when he left now, it would be too late. He shook his head to clear it of the vision and walked to the center of the shop and stood looking around. It was a place to delight the heart of any child! There were shelves running along the walls packed with every toy imaginable. Brightly-colored toy cars and trucks filled one shelf while another was filled with dolls of all types, from a baby doll which looked so real that Josh wondered for an instant if it wasn’t, to a bridal doll dressed in a gown made of real white satin.
Yet another shelf was filled with cap pistols and holster sets, one of which Josh immediately recognized. This pistol and holster set was a toy copy of that worn by the character Paladin in the "Have Gun, Will Travel" television series. The set also included plastic bullets which could be loaded in the pistols and the holsters were ornamented with plastic images of the knight chess piece. Josh smiled and shook his head like a person who has just seen through a magic trick. The "Have Gun, Will Travel" cap pistol and holster set was not an exact copy since it had two holsters instead of the requisite one. Each one of the toys seemed to cast a spell of its own saying through its presence in the shop, "Come and play with me."
Josh stood gazing around, not knowing what to say or do. He felt a desire to go and play with the toys despite his maturity. The desire was so strong for a moment that it caused him to feel something akin to physical pain. Josh deliberately closed his eyes and the sensation passed.
"Do you like my shop?"
"Oh, yeah, it’s great!" Josh said hastily.
"Ah, that’s good, because it means I am right; you are the one I’m looking for! It would not do for me to have an assistant who was not attracted to my toys."
"Oh, don’t worry sir, I wouldn’t play with them. I mean...uh...I’m too old."
"Oh, but you must play with them! How else will you learn their value and be able to sell them?" This sounded crazy to Josh since he was seventeen, not seven. Josh looked warily at the man trying to decide how he was to escape without causing a scene.
The man seemed to guess what he was thinking because he smiled and said, "Don’t be afraid, Joshy. I’m not crazy, merely knowledgeable."
Josh gaped like a fish out of water stunned by the use of his name by a man whom he’d never met. "How do you know who I am?"
Still smiling, the man replied, "My routes of knowledge are too intricate to explain even if I were allowed to do so, which I am not. But there are some things I can tell you such as my name is Nicholas Myria. Furthermore, when you’re ready to work or play just come and see me. If I’m not here, just come inside and wait for what must be. I promise you, in the end you will not regret it. I’ll leave a key under the back doormat."
Josh nodded mutely in agreement in order to avoid a scene. Nicholas laughed and patted Josh’s shoulder, making him feel very young and foolish. His laughter was reminiscent of the "ho, ho, ho" of Santa Claus. Josh swallowed convulsively and said, "I gotta’ be goin’. Gotta’ finish fixin’ that tire."
"Oh, don’t worry about that. Mr. Graham is a friend of mine and I called him and he’s fixing it now."
"You called Mr. Graham even before...?"
"Yes, but don’t worry about it. As I say, what is meant to be will be."
Josh decided despite his natural curiosity not to ask what this meant. The thing to do he decided was to get away from here as soon as possible. "I just hope I’ve got enough money to pay Mr. Graham," Josh murmured to himself.
Nicholas replied beaming, "He won’t charge you anything because he wants to help you!" Josh flushed with remembered embarrassment because at mention of Sam Graham’s wanting to help him, he was thrust back in memory to a day in his past that he’d tried hard to forget.
As it happened, Mr. Graham owned the gas station at which Josh had intended to have his tire repaired. But if he’d remembered the past at the moment his tire had gone flat Josh would have walked to the Swensons’ rather than meet Mr. Graham. His gas station was the most popular one in town.
One day when Josh had been seven years old, Julie had stopped there for gas. Texaco, which was the oil company that supplied gas to Sam, had been offering a toy fuel truck for sale. Josh had asked Julie to buy it for him. She had angrily refused, adding that she paid too much money to Sam Graham for gas now without buying kids’ junk too. Julie’s outburst had made Sam look hard at her but he said nothing. Instead, he had thrust the toy truck into Josh’s arms saying, "Joshy, you buy your gas from me when you grow up and we’ll consider it paid for!"
Josh had been so surprised by such generosity that he’d nearly dropped it. But it didn’t matter anyway because the truck had not been his for long. Julie had snatched it out of his arms and flung it at Sam, barely missing his head, saying in the voice of a hissing snake, "My son ain’t taken’ nothing from you, Sam Graham! And don’t you try nothing like that again cause I know ”bout you!" Josh and Sam had stared at each other for an instant stunned into silence by Julie’s violence. Then she had grabbed Josh’s arm and dragged him away.
Once at home, Julie had beaten Josh with a belt until she had drawn blood. Josh’s grandmother had been down the street visiting a neighbor. She had returned home to find Josh alone clumsily trying to treat his bruises. The quarrel between mother and daughter after this incident had been monumental but futile.
Josh shook his head to cast off the memory of the long ago bad day. Nicholas said, "I promise you, Joshy, Sam meant you no harm in the past anymore than he does in the present. He is simply a kind man who for a moment forgot that women sometimes know more about men than they want."
"Yeah, well, I gotta’ be goin’."
"Yes, but don’t forget what I said, Joshy."
"No, I won’t." Josh left the shop resigned to the idea of walking to the Swensons’. He was astonished therefore to find his bicycle propped against the wall to one side of the shop door. As promised, the front tire was fixed. Sam Graham was nowhere to be seen. Josh sighed, deciding he would pay him later. For now he must get to the Swensons’ before Darryl or Marylou sent out a search party.
Josh had just reached an intersection when a battered pick-up pulled up beside him. The driver stuck his head out and said, "Been lookin’ for ya’."
Josh recognized the driver with an inward groan. It was Tom Swenson, an older cousin of Darryl’s. Tom cast a scornful look at Josh’s bike. "Toss that thing in the back and get in."
"Thanks, but I...."
"Do like I say. Marylou’s waitin’." Tom was in his early twenties but Josh found him so intimidating that he might as well have been in his sixties. Tom had been brought up on a farm deep in the hills. Josh always found it hard to think of him as Darryl’s cousin. Darryl, after all, had lived the whole of his life in the city. Although George Swenson had been born and raised on a farm he had done his utmost to leave his past behind. But some of his immediate family still lived in the country. And it was from them Tom had come. The question was, why?
Tom did not fit in with George Swenson and his family. Among them he stood out like an ugly duckling in the midst of swans. Yet the swans had welcomed the duckling. He lived and worked in the Swenson home as a member of the family. Josh thought this strange but always told himself that it was none of his business. What, for instance, did he do at work? Josh had heard that Tom was a good auto mechanic. But he had an uncomfortable feeling mechanics weren’t all Tom was good at and some of those things might not be so beneficial.
Tom’s facial expressions could usually be described as hard and even sneering on occasion. But they did not disturb Josh nearly as much as the expression of Tom’s face whenever he looked at Marylou. Then his face became almost soft, even gentle. Josh thought it ironic that he and Tom should share a secret passion for Marylou.
Still thinking of Marylou, Josh did as he was told. After laying his bike in the truck bed, he climbed reluctantly into the cab. It was filled with cigarette smoke. Without asking permission, Josh rolled down the side window. Tom glanced at him and snickered but otherwise made no comment. Josh watched him out of the corner of his eye, filled with dislike.
Tom Swenson was fully six feet tall, muscular in build and dressed in jeans and a Western style shirt open at the neck. His feet were encased in stylish high heel cowboy boots. His bright red hair was slicked down with Brill hair tonic. Josh thought Tom’s eyes resembled those of the actor Lee Marvin in one of his more sinister roles. His manner was so arrogant overall that it made Josh want to hit him. He was grateful when they arrived at the Swenson house because the silence in the cab had become painful. Josh thought as he got out of the truck, That guy makes me feel stupid even when he doesn’t say anything.
Josh offered no thanks for the ride and Tom waited for none. Instead, he backed out of the driveway as soon as Josh had unloaded his bicycle. Feeling uneasy, he watched Tom roar off down the street. There was something about him that struck Josh as evil but he could not say exactly what.
After Tom had gone Josh rang the doorbell thinking not for the first time of how beautiful the Swenson home was. It was an elegant two-storied structure set in the midst of wide green lawns. The grass looked as if it had been shaved rather than mowed. There were also ornamental plants scattered about in attractively-shaped beds. A tall hedge grew on both sides of the driveway. It was a place of serenity and Josh could not help feeling a little envious each time he saw it.
The door was opened by Mr. Swenson himself. He greeted Josh in his usual way. "Hello, Joshy, you need a haircut!"
Josh responded, "Yeah, I know but I can’t afford it."
"Sure, I’ll bet. They’re upstairs in the sewing room. You’d better run; women don’t like to be kept waiting." As he said this last, Mr. Swenson winked at Josh in a manner universal among males of all ages but Josh didn’t notice. His mind and the five senses which governed it were already racing up the stairs.
As he approached the sewing room he heard voices raised in argument. It was Darryl and Marylou. Darryl was saying, "I don’t care what he told you, I won’t have anything to do with it!"
Marylou replied sharply, "Then I’ll tell Tom to throw the stuff out and forget all about it!"
"Fine! I hope you’ll do the same because...." Josh knocked on the door and Darryl broke off. The door was jerked open and Darryl stood for an instant glaring at Josh without saying anything. Then he barked, "Get in here, you’re late!"
At any other time Josh would have laughed at Darryl’s appearance. Darryl, like Josh, usually dressed casually in jeans and tee-shirt but at the moment he was clad in fake brown fur and looked very hot. A pair of fake bear ears sat atop his head made of the same brown fur and they clashed horribly with his red hair.
Seeing Darryl’s anger, Josh did not feel inclined to laugh. Instead, he was disconcerted to realize that in his anger Darryl resembled his cousin, a resemblance disturbed Josh profoundly. Suppose, Josh thought, Darryl resembles Tom in more than looks? Darryl was six feet tall and muscular in build. The only real difference between them Josh thought was their accents. How come I didn’t see that before? I guess because I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Darryl was obviously from the city and Tom from the country. Otherwise, the relationship between them was unmistakable. For an instant this fact made Josh feel the anguish of loneliness keenly.
In the past Josh had taken a secret pride in the similarities between himself and Darryl, such as their red hair and blue eyes. However, now in light of his thoughts about Tom, these similarities no longer seemed quite so pleasing. Instead, they seemed to emphasize the differences between Josh and his friend, such as that Darryl’s eyes were a metallic blue and his hair was straight, not curly like Josh’s. Also, Josh was a little below average in height and slight in build and his eyes were a softer, more innocent seeming blue. This Josh dimly perceived as he looked at his friend and for an instant saw a stranger wearing a ridiculous costume.
Darryl jerked his head impatiently and the fake ears flapped. Seeing them, Josh forgot his impression of an instant before and suppressed a grin with difficulty. Darryl, guessing Josh’s reaction, said, "You won’t feel like laughing when you see what she’s got in mind for you."
Josh stepped into the sewing room and Darryl slammed the door behind him. Marylou was sitting at a sewing machine measuring material. She looked up at the sound of the door, saying sharply, "Don’t slam that door!" He could see that she was angry but trying to hide it. Josh and Darryl looked at each other, saying with their eyes what they would not speak aloud, which was this whole thing is ridiculous.
Their silence irritated Marylou even more. She snapped, "Well, don’t just stand there, get out of those clothes!"
Josh blushed and Darryl laughed. Josh gritted his teeth. Darryl, seeing this, explained, "Marylou means only down to your underwear." The explanation did not help.
"Darryl, I can’t do that!"
"Yes, you can," Marylou asserted with finality. "I’ve got a little brother at home; so I’ve seen everything. And besides, Mrs. Swenson will be up here in a minute. So stop worrying about what the neighbors will say."
"I don’t care about...."
"Oh, sure you do. You always have."
Josh started to argue some more but Mrs. Swenson came in at that point and Josh dropped the subject. Ethel Swenson was a statuesque woman who looked younger than her forty-five years. She bustled into the room and took charge. She began by shooing Marylou to the bedroom across the hall to try on her own costume. Then before he knew quite what was happening, Josh found himself clad in brown fur from the waist up while his loins were concealed in the cloth diaper of his dream. His costume was finished off with a pair of brown fur leggings reminiscent of sleepers with feet. However, the diaper was the most disturbing part of his costume to Josh, not only because of its infantile nature but also because it resembled the garment of his dream in every detail, including the snaps.
After putting it on under the direction of Mrs. Swenson, Josh stood staring down at himself while a chill of apprehension ran down his spine. The brown fur made the diaper stand out even more sharply than it otherwise might have done. How could it be so exactly like the one in his dream? Surely that wasn’t possible?
Darryl stood by in his own costume watching Josh but frowningly silent. He looked, Josh thought, as if he were in pain and trying to conceal it.
Mrs. Swenson smiled at Darryl and Josh, saying, "I think you both look very nice."
Josh heard footsteps in the hall and steeled himself to have Marylou see him wearing his costume. The door burst open and Darryl’s father entered the room. "Ethel, have you seen my diamond cufflinks? I can’t...." He broke off and started to laugh. "Ethel, you didn’t tell me you were going to do that to the boy! Say, Joshy, you look cute enough in that diaper to do one of those detergent commercials! You know, where they brag about how their soap gets your diapers so clean they look snow white?"
"Oh, stop it George, it’s not a real one."
"Well, you sure could have fooled me! Hell, I think he’ll win hands down!"
Ethel replied in a repressive voice, "Your cufflinks are in my jewelry box."
"Oh, yeah, seeing Joshy like that, I completely forgot why I came up here."
"Big surprise, Dad," Darryl murmured sarcastically.
George pretended not to hear his son and left the room, stopping at the door long enough to add, "Be sure and get a picture of Joshy, Ethel. I think he’s adorable!" Then George roared with laughter as he went in search of his wife’s jewelry box.
By the end of that day Josh was sure he’d made a mistake. How could he have agreed to wear a diaper in public? The answer came to him as he listened to Darryl and Marylou arguing about the costumes. Josh realized that he’d hoped by cooperating with Marylou she might come to appreciate him, but as he rode his bicycle toward home Josh recognized unwillingly that Marylou still had eyes only for Darryl. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for him. Conversely, there was nothing Josh could do to impress her. And he was sure, despite his anger over the costumes, that in the end Darryl would do whatever Marylou wanted.
The more they argue, Josh thought, the more you can see they love each other. He shook his head, disgusted with himself for ever believing otherwise. I should refuse to wear that damn costume! But if I do, Darryl will hold it against me. If he does, it’s no more than I deserve seeing how I feel about his girl. No, I can’t refuse because Darryl will know something is wrong. Josh shook his head in disgust again. Thanks to that diaper, I’ll be the laughing stock at school.
Josh had been willing to endure whatever form of harassment came his way for Marylou’s sake. He had done so in hopes of receiving her gratitude and one day perhaps something more. And he was still sure that she would show gratitude but the rest of what he wanted was far from certain. Even so, Josh decided with a heavy sigh he would go on participating in the contest. After all, nobody really knew what the future held. The contest might be the final straw to break the camel’s back bearing the wedding gifts of Darryl and Marylou Swenson. Josh felt a twinge of guilt at this thought but ruthlessly suppressed it. In the final analysis he decided that all was fair in love and war.
On Halloween night the three of them rode together to the high school gymnasium. Once there, however, they were soon separated. Josh shifted uncomfortably on the bleacher despite the thickness of the diaper he wore. The gymnasium was warm because it was October and a cold drizzle was falling outside. But since Josh’s costume was made of fur with a flannel lining, he was sweating freely. The original plan had been for the contestants to go trick or treating, thus enabling the judges to base their decision as to the winner in part on neighborhood reaction to the costumes but the bad weather had made the idea impractical. So now the flannel lining meant to keep out the winter chill was making him sweat gallons. He was sitting alone watching his classmates dancing with each other.
His eyes strayed time and again to Darryl and Marylou. They were dancing cheek to cheek or as close as possible given the nature of their costumes. The three bears had won by universal acclaim. Marylou was happier than Josh had seen her in a long time. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure her happiness had anything to do with the contest. Something else might have given Marylou’s eyes that bright glow of victory. The question was, what could have?
For the last few days Josh had the feeling Marylou had been trying to persuade Darryl of something. What exactly it was he’d been unable to discover. All he knew for certain was that Darryl did not like it. Even so, Josh suspected after winning the contest, Darryl, blinded by the glow of victory, had finally agreed to do whatever Marylou wanted.
Josh stirred restlessly, feeling sweat run down his back to be soaked up by his diaper. "God, if I don’t get out of this damn costume soon, I’ll sweat so much everybody will think I’ve wet myself!" This thought reminded him of the baby bottle. It stood on the bleacher beside him still half full of milk. It was the baby bottle Josh decided which had tipped the scales in their favor. Plus the fact he had sat on Darryl’s lap, awkwardly drinking from the bottle while the judges had surveyed them. His awkwardness was caused by the mittens he was wearing, painted to simulate paws. In some ways, Josh thought, he hated the mittens worse than he did the diaper. They were laced to the sleeves of his costume, making it impossible for him to get undressed without help. He swallowed convulsively wishing he could get help to remove his costume.
Josh looked around the gymnasium but saw no one he wanted to ask for such a favor. Darryl and Marylou were oblivious to his plight. They were so wrapped up in each other Josh doubted if they would see him if he stood in front of them. Brenda Lee’s "Wanted" echoed through the gymnasium and its lyrics tore his heart as they had only a few days before. He hung his head and tried to shut out the sound.
Josh ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth wishing he could get some water to rid himself of the taste of the milk. As a rule he liked milk but this stuff had tasted as if it were on the verge of going sour. Thinking of water reminded Josh of the fountain outside the locker room. Josh decided to get some water to clean his mouth and maybe there he would not hear the music. Then he would go into the locker room and wait for Darryl to come and help him undress. Josh scowled, remembering that Darryl and Marylou had already removed their mittens and neither of them had thought to help him do the same. His street clothes were in his locker and they drew Josh like a moth to a flame.
His white tennis shoes squeaked on the gymnasium floor as Josh walked. They were new and stiff but that fact did not bother him. Nor the fact that they belonged to Darryl and under normal circumstances would have been too big for him. Fortunately, Marylou had said, "Your costume feet will fill them up." And so it had been. He had even swallowed his resentment of the fact they were meant to represent baby shoes. It was the bells which Marylou had strung on the laces of his tennis shoes that made them as bad as the mittens or the diaper. Thanks to them, every step he took was announced with a tinkling sound. The bells reduced him to the status of an inquisitive toddler whose parents kept track of him with the perpetual sound of Christmas.
Josh slipped in to the stairwell which led down to the locker room. As he descended, the bells echoed eerily and Josh realized he was alone. No one else was in this part of the building. Then he saw Tom standing in the doorway of the locker room watching him. Tom had a smirk on his face that filled Josh with rage. Josh was no fighter and knew it but Tom’s expression made him throw discretion to the winds. He forgot all about his silly costume and the sour taste of milk in his mouth and strode up to Tom as if he had an army at his back.
"What are you doing’ here, you’re not a student of our school!"
"Why, I was just lookin’ for ya’."
"Come on in here before anybody else sees ya’ in that diaper. Ya’ must really like Marylou to let her do this to ya’."
"That’s none of your business!"
"Maybe not," Tom replied in a tone which denied what he said.
"I mean it, it’s none of you’re...."
"Okay, Baby Bear don’t get ya’ didee in a bind."
"Or you’ll do what? Beat me up with your ba-ba?"
Until that moment Josh had not realized that he had brought the baby bottle with him. He stared down at it clutched in his right hand in utter astonishment. In that instant it came to symbolize all the humiliation which he’d endured for the last few days. In utter rejection, he flung the bottle down. It bounced once or twice then rolled past Tom into the locker room.
"Baby don’t like his milk, huh?"
"Never mind the bullshit! You said you were looking for me. What do you want?"
"Nothin’. She asked me to wait down here for ya and help ya’ take that stuff off," Tom replied in a tone of innocence which should have warned Josh but didn’t because he was tired and angry.
Heedlessly, Josh walked past Tom. He moved to his locker and turned to face him. "All I need is some help with these damn mittens. I can do the rest myself."
"Well, what ya’ know, Mr. Big Britches can do it all himself!" Tom’s tone was both condescending and derisive. "I tell ya’, Peewee, iffin’ ya’ keep on this way next year maybe Marylou’ll let ya’ be the daddy bear! "
The derision in Tom’s voice flashed a warning to Josh’s brain but wasn’t fast enough. He had barely raised his hands in defense when Tom’s right fist hit the point of his chin with the force equivalent to a sledgehammer and Josh fell into a black hole.
He returned to consciousness feeling sick. He opened his eyes to find Tom looking down at him while idly tossing the baby bottle from one hand to the other. Josh’s lower jaw throbbed, and after explorations with his tongue he discovered that several of his teeth were loose. Josh tried to sit up but discovered his hands were bound behind his back and his legs were also bound. The ropes cut cruelly into the flesh of his wrists and ankles. The floor on which he lay felt cold. This told him that he was naked except for the diaper.
Josh turned his head quickly to right and left trying to discover where he was. His frantic gaze revealed that he was in the Tom’s small apartment located above the Swenson family garage. Josh had been in the apartment once before when it had been occupied by an elderly man who had acted as gardener and general factotum for the family. The man had died the year before and the place had been empty until Tom had come.
Josh saw that he was lying on the kitchen floor. He demanded, "What the hell do you think you’re doing?"
"What’s needful," Tom replied calmly.
Josh groaned and tried to shift his body into a more comfortable position but there was none. He glared up at Tom and asked, "Why did you hit me? And where are my clothes?"
Tom grinned and said softly, "Ya’ got all the clothes you’ll be needin’."
Josh raised his head and stared, searching for some further explanation of his predicament. He looked back at Tom, all too aware of his helplessness. Trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey he could do nothing. But even if he had been free, Josh reflected, he was too sick for a fight. Thanks to the sour milk in his stomach and his bruised jaw Josh felt incapable of real resistance. "If you kill me, they’ll hunt you down."
Tom through back his head and laughed, "I ain’t plannin’ to kill ya’, piss-ant! Lessen ya’ make me, but ya’ ain’t got the guts for that."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Cause ya’ ain’t a man."
"Seventeen? Ya’ couldn’t prove it by me. Me, I don’t know any seventeen-year-old who’s still wearin’ diapers!"
"Knock it off; you know this isn’t a real diaper!"
"Well, maybe not, but I ain’t got time to argue. I was just waitin’ for ya’ to come ”round so ya’ wouldn’t drown."
"Drown? What are you talking about? What’s this all about?"
"Hell, ya’ just like every brat I ever knowed’. Ya’ full of questions, just can’t wait till ya’ told."
"Told why ya’ trussed up like a turkey for sale."
"All right, so tell me!"
"I reckon ya’ know bout cousin Darryl’s accident."
"Yeah, but what’s that got to do with...?"
"Shut up and listen."
Josh shut his mouth on a hot retort, deciding to keep Tom talking for as long as possible, in hopes somebody would discover what he was doing and put a stop to him. Tom squatted on his heels beside Josh and patted his stomach, saying, "That’s a good little boy! Ya’ just lie quiet and Cousin Tommy will tell ya’ a story."
Josh longed to spit in Tom’s face but his mouth was dry. So he contented himself with glaring at his tormentor. As it happened, Tom’s story was simple but tragic. He and Darryl had gone out riding on Tom’s new motorcycle on a dirt road. They had struck a pothole at a high rate of speed. Darryl had been hurled from the motorbike, landing more than a hundred yards away. His fall had caused critical injuries. He had nearly died of shock before Tom could get him to a hospital but Darryl had survived. However, he did so with some loss. As Tom expressed it, "Cousin Darryl won’t never be a man to a woman again."
"My God, is that why?"
"There ya’ go again, Peewee, askin’ questions when Cousin Tommy ain’t through with his story yet." Josh fell silent but his thoughts were racing. He guessed that Darryl had refused to marry Marylou after his accident; a detail which Tom soon confirmed. "Cousin Darryl told any and everybody he weren’t gonna’ ever get married. Well, Marylou came hot-footin’ it into the hills sayin’ she’d marry him anyway. Darryl told her a flat no cause he knowed she’d always wanted kids and he couldn’t give her any. Well, that was the first time I seen her. She was mighty pretty. So I figured me a plan. First off, I figured when Cousin Darryl turned her down, she’d turn to me but Marylou’s a one-man woman. Well, that didn’t change how I felt ”bout her so I figure to give her what she wants." As he said this last, Tom unscrewed the top of the baby bottle and tossed it away.
Josh watched him in growing agitation. He said, ashamed of the fear in his voice, "But that doesn’t make sense. How can you do...?" Josh broke off in mid-sentence because Tom had reached out with the speed of a striking snake and pinched his nose. Josh’s mouth flew open in surprise and Tom poured the remaining milk from the baby bottle in to it. The milk tasted even worse than Josh remembered and he swallowed convulsively to get rid of it.
Tom stood up and tossed the bottle in the same direction as its cap. Then he said in a satisfied tone, "Well, I done what I come here for so it’s time for Cousin Tommy to be movin’ on."
"Wait a minute, you haven’t...."
"Ya’ the worst chatter box of a kid I ever seen! Ya’ just lie still and Cousin Tommy will be on his way."
"Wait a minute; you can’t leave me here like this! It might be days before anybody comes along."
Tom smiled coldly. "Iffin’ ya’ want, I can cut your throat for ya’. But iffin’ ya’ smart you’ll stay put till Cousin Darryl comes along to look after ya’."
"To hell with that I want...."
"Listen here. What ya’ want and what you’ll be gettin’ is likely to be two very different things. Me, I got to be goin’ before Cousin Darryl gets here. He can be pretty bad for a city boy when he gets riled up. And I reckon he’ll be riled when he knows what I’ve done."
"But that’s what I want to know. What have you done? What was in that milk? I... never tasted...."
Tom reached out and patted Josh condescendingly on the shoulder, saying, "Never you mind ”bout the milk. There weren’t nothin’ in it but what was needful. Like I said, keep still and Darryl will be along soon!"
"Are you telling me that Darryl knew what...?"
"I’m tellin’ ya’ to shut up, ”cause what’s done is done!" Then Tom turned on his heel and left the room. A couple of minutes later Josh heard the front door slam. He was left alone to ponder his next move.
Nearly an hour passed, while Josh struggled, trying to loosen the ropes which bound his hands and feet. At first they seemed cruelly tight but gradually the ropes became loose. Throughout his struggle, Josh shivered, his body dripping with cold sweat. Finally he freed one hand and the rest was easier. After freeing himself, Josh lay letting the circulation return to his hands and feet. He didn’t have long for this process because both his bladder and bowels were demanding his full attention.
After some difficulty he found the bathroom and relieved himself. Since he had nothing else to wear, Josh put the diaper back on. As he did so, he noticed that it did not fit so well. This puzzled him because it had fit perfectly before the contest. He could not think of an explanation for the diaper’s change in size so he dismissed the mystery from his mind. Then he searched the apartment for a trace of his clothes but found none.
Feeling ridiculous, Josh sat down on the couch in the living room to think. Tom had behaved as if at one moment Darryl knew what he was doing and the next as if he did not. Did he dare wait, Josh wondered, to see Darryl in hopes of an explanation? What had Tom meant when he had said, ”What’s done is done’? And what did that foul milk have to do with it all? Josh shook his head in frustration and jumped to his feet. He decided to go home and let Darryl come to him with whatever explanation he chose to give.
Josh went down the outside staircase cursing under his breath because the concrete hurt his bare feet. That was not the only discomfort, there was the cold too. Though Josh was grateful that it had stopped drizzling, he hoped the cloud cover would remain solid. He wanted no moonlight to reveal his humiliation. If he was lucky, he would get home without anyone seeing him wearing a damn diaper. This thought reminded Josh that he did not know why Tom had stripped him of his costume except for the diaper. It was, Josh supposed, Tom’s idea of humor.
By now he had reached the business district of town. He was thankful that it was not very large. Josh knew by midnight all the stores were closed. It must be he thought nearly two o’clock. He was just passing the Myria toy shop when Josh saw the police car. The sight of it filled him with horror. Darryl’s Uncle Charley must never learn of his predicament. Josh was sure he would never let him live it down. So he ducked in to the alley which ran between the toy shop and the building next door. The narrow alley created an icy draft. Josh stood leaning against the wall of the toy shop shivering uncontrollably until he remembered the key hidden under the back door mat.
The police car pulled over to the curb on the opposite side of the street and stopped. Josh’s heart sank as he saw Darryl’s Uncle Charley climb out. Officer Swenson paused only long enough to lock his car then he moved off down the street, rattling doorknobs as he went.
Now was the time to go, Josh decided, but at that moment his kidneys sent an urgent signal for relief. He turned and ran down the alley to the back of the shop. As promised, Josh found the key under the doormat. After fumbling with it for a few seconds, he got it in the lock and opened the door. He stepped quickly inside and the door closed with a soft click behind him. The shop’s darkness, for a few seconds, seemed greater than the night outside. Then Josh’s eyes adjusted to it and he saw that he was standing in a storage area. There were boxes of all shapes and sizes stacked everywhere. The demand of his kidneys was becoming imperious so Josh hurried in to the shop, searching for the bathroom.
Just after entering the main shopping area, Josh saw the electric train set. This electric train, unlike the one in the display window, was fully set up. It stood on a silver track in the midst of what was obviously a train station, ready to move at the touch of a control lever. The train set also consisted of more than a station and a circular track. There was an entire town surrounding it. Josh stared at the set, thinking the town looked vaguely familiar. Then he realized with a shock that it was an exact copy of his hometown. Almost before he knew what he was doing, Josh found himself kneeling beside the train set, examining it closely. Timidly at first, his left hand reached out and touched the control lever on the train’s power supply and it began to move. Josh laughed aloud when he saw tiny puffs of smoke issue from the engine’s stack, accompanied by the shrill sound of a steam whistle. Josh practiced speeding up and slowing down the train by means of the lever and he soon forgot all about his need for a bathroom.
He only remembered when he felt something warm and wet running down his legs. Josh leapt up but it was too late. "Oh, God, I’m pissing myself!" Josh cried. But that was only the beginning. He felt his sphincter let go at the same time and as the diaper filled with ordure, Josh felt an urge to cry. He sank to the floor in shame and lay curled in a fetal position, letting the tears come.
After how long Josh did not know he thought he heard footsteps. The sound suggested a big man. Josh closed his eyes expecting Charley Swenson. The footsteps entered the main room of the shop and stopped beside him. A deep voice said gently, "Don’t be afraid Joshy, I won’t hurt you!" Josh opened his eyes and stared up at Nicholas Myria. But it was not the man he’d seen a few days before. Now Nicholas wore the traditional red and white garb of Santa Claus. What was more, he seemed to tower over Josh in a way he had not done at their first meeting.
"I’m dirty," Josh said in the voice of a small boy.
"It does not matter because the dirt is not yours," Nicholas replied sternly. Then he stooped swiftly and with hands which now seemed huge to Josh, he lifted him to his feet. Josh stood for an instant swaying like a toddler taking his first step. Then, regaining his sense of balance, he looked up at Nicholas. He had an uncontrollable urge to reach up and run his fingers through Nicholas’s beard.
"Go ahead," Nicholas said, chuckling. "You won’t hurt me. I suffered all that a long time ago and the past does not always rule the present."
"I shouldn’t cause I’m dirty!" Josh replied, still speaking in a small voice.
"Not to worry Joshy, that’s easily remedied. But first you must decide where you want to go."
"I wanna’ go home, but I...."
"But you don’t know where that is because you’ve never been there," Nicholas interrupted, smiling. "Then it is more than time for you to go and I will take you home. Just close your eyes and think of clean, soft things."
Josh did as he had been bidden. His mind filled with images of fluffy white cotton and of snow falling. But the snowflakes did not feel cold. Instead, they felt like feathers caressing his skin; their touch cleansed him not only of bodily waste but also of the unhappy memories of the day. Nicholas would, Josh knew, as had been promised, take him home. He felt himself lifted and Josh fell asleep with his head pillowed on Nicholas’s shoulder.
He woke sometime later, confused and a little frightened. Nicholas beamed down at Josh, saying, "Don’t be afraid, Joshy, we’ll have you home very soon and in bed where all little boys belong at this time of night." Then he shouted, "Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!"
Josh tilted his head back and looked up at Nicholas. The man seemed more gigantic than ever. Josh sat on his lap wrapped in a fold of his coat. He felt very small and dependent. He was completely in Nicholas’s power but what was the nature of that power? Josh peered out from the circle of Nicholas’s arms and saw that it was still night, but now it was lit by a full moon and he and Nicholas were riding in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Josh was beginning to understand who Nicholas was. "But why should he be interested in me?" Josh asked himself. Nicholas’s voice echoing through the sky and through Josh’s head urging his reindeer to greater speed puzzled Josh even more. Was Nicholas in a hurry because it would be dawn soon and his power, whatever it was, would end at daylight? In an effort to see more of what was happening to him, Josh turned his head so that one of his ears was inadvertently pressed against Nicholas’s chest. Josh clearly heard the steady beats of Nicholas’s heart and they seemed more like the heartbeats of time itself rather than those of a man, even an extraordinary one. The sound filled Josh’s ears and mind confusing his sense of the present and blurring his memory of the past. He felt himself growing smaller with every beat of time’s heart, or was it Nicholas’s? He wasn’t sure anymore.
The years of his previous life seemed to fade or dwindle like shadows with the coming of moonlight. All the years now hovered at the edge of his mind like darkness on the edge of light, still there, but soon to be blotted out. Josh told himself that he should resist what was happening to him but at the moment he couldn’t think how to do it. The mere effort exhausted him. His eyes closed.
Josh slept, only to awaken when he felt himself settle on a firm, but yielding surface. His eyes flew open and he tried to sit up but it wasn’t easy. His body felt awkward and unfamiliar. With some effort he sat up and realized that he had been lying in a bed surrounded with white bars. He thrust back the blanket that was covering him. It seemed remarkably heavy, though Josh thought it shouldn’t be. He looked down at himself after he’d managed to sit up and was surprised. Josh was no longer wearing the costume diaper. In its place he wore a pair of blue sleepers covered with multi-colored teddy bears. The sleepers had feet and were obviously meant for a very young child. Josh stared wildly around, looking for Nicholas Myria but he was nowhere to be seen. He felt an unreasoning panic at the thought that Santa had left him alone in a strange place. He reached out and seized the white bars with both hands and pulled himself to his feet. Josh then stood tottering on very unsteady legs looking around the room and wondering what he should do next.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light of the room, Josh grew increasingly uneasy. What time was it? There was no clock in the room. But a small light lit the room suggesting by its minuscule glow that it was still dark. He wondered in growing alarm, where’s the clock? There should be one, every bedroom has a clock! He had no memories of his infancy and no experience with baby-sitting so he did not immediately recognize the room for what it was: a fully-equipped nursery. There was the crib in which Josh stood, plus a rocking chair in one corner and a chest of drawers on which the nightlight had been placed standing in the opposite corner with what he thought of as an odd-looking dresser next to it. On the top of the dresser were several bottles and jars filled with sweet-smelling substances Josh did not recognize. His gaze remained longest on this piece of furniture because he had never seen a dresser top with a small wooden rail around its edge before. Also, there was a playpen folded up and leaning against one wall.
Josh frowned, trying to think and finding it more difficult to do than he had when he’d got up that morning. Had there been some kind of drug in the milk Tom had forced him to drink? But no, it was the same milk he’d drunk during the contest. Unless Tom had added the drug afterward? Josh did not know and in his heart he did not want to know. He thrust the thought of drugs from his mind and focused his attention back on the room. He stared at the playpen for a long moment, trying to decide what it was.
His mind was filling with unanswered questions. What was this place and why had Santa brought him here? Josh shook his head angrily, trying to remember that Santa hadn’t brought him here. It had been Nicholas Myria who had done so. There was no such person as Santa Claus; he’d given up such ideas long ago, or had he? After his experiences with Nicholas, Josh was no longer sure what he believed. His mother had, early on in Josh’s life, destroyed his belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because believing in them cost money. All this the seventeen-year-old Joshua Nelson had understood. But now as he stood clutching the bars of the crib, Josh was no longer sure of his age or of his name. The memories of Joshua Nelson, though they occupied his mind, did not seem to belong to him anymore. But surely they must, otherwise who was he?
He tried to speak and say his name and it was then Josh became aware that practically all his teeth were gone. This discovery so shocked him that Josh let go of the bars of the crib and sat down abruptly. He felt a sudden urge to cry which he suppressed with difficulty by telling himself he was seventeen years old and not a kid afraid of being alone who needed his bumps kissed whenever he fell to make them better.
Josh clutched the bars, intending to get to his feet again but it was then he noticed the rustle and crackle of plastic as he moved. The question flashed in to his mind, what am I wearing besides sleepers? But they can’t really be sleepers, because if they were I couldn’t wear them. What are they then, some kind of joke? Yeah, that’s got to be it! It’s one of Darryl’s off-beat jokes! But he can’t sew a stitch, so who did it for him? Josh remembered with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach how much Marylou loved to sew. Witness her creation of the bear costumes for the Halloween contest. The thought that Marylou might have made the sleepers he was wearing was particularly humiliating. It meant that Marylou had never once thought of him as a man and probably never would.
Josh was surprised to taste salt on his lips and knew that he was crying, though as yet he’d made no sound. This was a strange house, he thought frantically, I must be quiet! Who knew what was here besides himself? Josh stuffed his fist into his open mouth in order to stifle any sound he might make and made a further discovery. It felt good to suck his fingers! It was soothing and he no longer wanted to cry. Josh sank onto his back and lay happily sucking his fist until he saw the man leaning over the crib. For an instant an unreasoning terror filled Josh’s mind and he wanted to cry again, but then he recognized the man. It was Darryl Swenson.
Darryl looked down at Josh for an instant, utterly taken aback by what he saw. Then he said, "It’s a real baby!"
Josh stared back at his best friend, feeling his face growing hot with embarrassment. He opened his mouth and tried to say Darryl’s name only to find once again he couldn’t articulate. Instead of saying his friend’s name, Josh said, "Da-da." He broke off abruptly at this inarticulate sound and stuffed his fist back into his mouth in order to resume the comfort of sucking his fingers. Within the privacy of his mind Josh screamed at himself to stop such infantile behavior but he couldn’t, the impulse was too strong.
Darryl sighed heavily. "You’re wrong, little buddy! I ain’t nobody’s daddy!"
Josh’s embarrassment was swept away in a feeling of compassion for Darryl when he remembered what Tom had told him about his accident. Darryl straightened up and turned from the crib, his face darkening with an expression of mingled anger and hurt so that Josh felt afraid again. Darryl walked swiftly to the door of the room and called peremptorily, "Hey, Marylou, come here!"
A few seconds later Marylou appeared in the doorway looking puzzled and a little afraid herself. "What’s the matter? Great scot, where did all this stuff come from? You didn’t buy it, Darryl? No, of course you didn’t. But then who...?"
"Never mind about the furniture. I wanna’ know where...."
"So do I, honey, but I didn’t see Josh anywhere inside the house or outside. I can’t imagine why he’d come here anyway. But the man on the phone definitely said he’d be here."
Darryl changed the subject abruptly, "You told me that Tom had promised not to do it!"
"He did, Darryl, I swear! And besides, the voice I heard on the phone was not your cousin. The man sounded too well educated to be Tom."
Darryl swung around on his heel and marched back to the crib. He pointed angrily down at Josh, asking hotly, "Well, if you told Tom not to do it, where did he come from?"
Marylou walked slowly from the door to the crib, looking around the room as she came. Josh watched her come, feeling his whole body growing hot with embarrassment at the thought of his present situation. Here he was lying in a crib dressed in the clothes of a toddler which undoubtedly included a diaper. A real one this time. Worse, there was no Halloween contest to hide behind. He was not playing Baby Bear now but a real toddler. And the girl he was secretly in love with was to witness his performance. Marylou reached the crib and stared down at Josh in horror. After a long moment she looked at Darryl and asked, "Where did this baby come from?"
"I figured you could tell me!" Darryl replied dryly.
"Me? What makes you think...that I...?"
"Come off it, Marylou! You told me that Tom showed you a way we could have a baby without having to pay for an adoption, and here is this baby and Josh has disappeared."
Marylou glared at Darryl and shot back, "I admit that I’ve always thought Josh Nelson pretty helpless but I didn’t believe Tom’s wild story about some kind of youth potion an old woman in the hills is supposed to have, and I told him so!"
"What did he say?"
"He just smiled in that nasty, secretive way of his and didn’t say anything. I swear, Darryl, if you hadn’t told me he was your cousin I wouldn’t believe it."
"I didn’t choose him; you don’t choose your family!"
"Okay, but you don’t really believe Tom’s story about a youth potion, do you?"
"The truth is, Marylou, there’s more in this life than we’ll ever know or understand. Don’t forget, I could have died but I didn’t."
"I know, honey. But surely you don’t really believe that Tom...?"
"After my accident, Marylou, I’ve got an open mind about a lot of things. So yeah, I think it’s possible."
"Darryl, honey, I just don’t think..." Marylou broke off abruptly, afraid of angering Darryl with her doubts.
A silence fell in the room after this inconclusive conversation which grew painfully long. Darryl broke it by saying, "Look, there’s only one way to settle this business and that’s to find Josh."
"Agreed. But where do we look?"
"We’ll start where we should have in the first place."
"You mean at his house?"
"Right you are, babe."
Marylou turned to go and Josh gave an inarticulate cry. She turned hastily back to the crib. "Oh, Darryl, what do we do with the baby? We can’t just leave him here."
"Yeah, you’re right; I guess we take him with us. We’ll drop him off at the police station and they can find out who he belongs to."
These words filled Josh with terror. He thought frantically, I’ve got to tell them who I am. I can’t let them take me to the police. A vision of himself clad only in a diaper standing before Officer Swenson filled Josh’s mind. He shivered at the thought. Then became aware he was wetting himself. Josh tried to stop the flow of urine but couldn’t. Oh, God, I’ve pissed myself! What do I do now? He tried not to think of what Darryl would say when or if he ever found out his best friend had, in fact, become a baby again.
Marylou broke in on Josh’s thoughts saying, "Well, if we’re taking a baby along I’d better see if there’s a diaper bag around here somewhere." While she bustled around the room in search of it, Darryl came to stand beside the crib. He stood looking down at Josh once more his expression unreadable. Josh met his gaze praying that Darryl would never know what had happened to him. But even if he finds out, Josh thought, Darryl’s always been a friend. Maybe he’ll help me. He did once before.
Darryl suddenly smiled at Josh, almost as if he’d read his mind, and held out a finger. "Let’s see what kind of grip you’ve got, Sport!" Josh wrapped his pudgy fingers around Darryl’s finger. It seemed huge but its size was comforting, not frightening to Josh because Darryl’s finger reminded him of a day in the past when his friend’s strength had saved him. At this moment he felt as he had then, fearful yet hopeful.
Josh remembered well the day on which he’d been trapped in a far corner of the school courtyard surrounded by a gang of older boys who were intent on bullying the new kid at school. Josh had been sure that he was about to be pounded in to the ground. Then Darryl Swenson had appeared at his side as though by magic. Josh had been fourteen then and Darryl the same age. He had grinned at Josh and said, "Let’s go down fightin’!"
Their opponents had not only outnumbered them but they had overmatched them in weight and height. The fight had been short and brutal, Darryl emerging from it with a broken nose and Josh with a broken hand. A teacher had soon ended it; otherwise their injuries might have been far worse. But the pain of Josh’s broken hand was nothing to him when compared with the humiliation caused by his realization that he’d wet himself during the fight. His bladder had always been weak and it had a tendency to give way in moments of excitement. This fact had been pointed out to Josh by the teacher who’d ended the fight. Mr. Leonard Brown was known as a hard teacher in more ways than one. He had said with unconcealed scorn, "Nelson, you’d better stay out of fights if you can’t keep from wetting yourself or go back to diapers!" This was the last straw for the new kid.
Josh had started to leap toward Brown but Darryl held him back. "Hey, don’t be a fool! You’d be expelled if you...."
Brown smiled thinly and added, "He’s quite right. Our principal abhors violence, especially when it’s directed against members of his staff." Josh had gritted his teeth and done his best to relax. Mr. Brown had said no more to Josh, simply directing Darryl to bring his little wet friend up to the school nurse’s office. As he stalked away Brown had added over his shoulder, "I think you should consider carefully the level of your potty training, Nelson, before you tackle fist fighting again! Some remedial work is indicated."
After Brown had gone Josh had sunk onto the ground and buried his head in his arms. Tears had coursed silently down his cheeks; never since his grandmother had died had he felt so alone. How long Josh had lain on the ground that day he could not remember. What he did remember was the fact Darryl had stayed at his side until he’d regained some self-control. Then they had walked up to the nurse’s office together. From there they had been driven to the hospital emergency room by Darryl’s father. Josh’s grandmother didn’t know how to drive and Julie, Josh had told the nurse, was out of town visiting a friend. The truth was Julie had refused to come, telling Josh he had made his mess and he could lie in it. Only Darryl had been present during Josh’s telephone conversation with his mother. Josh had made the call from a payphone outside the nurse’s office. He had supposed himself to be alone until Josh had turned from the phone to find Darryl waiting to use it. Even though he had not been privy to both sides of the conversation, Darryl had read accurately between the lines. He told Josh to wait for him while he called his father. Darryl’s mother had in fact been out of town visiting her sister. So Darryl had called his father and George had come at once. They went straight to the emergency room and Josh was amazed that Mr. Swenson had not complained about his presence. The nurse had pointed out Josh’s wet pants but Mr. Swenson had pretended not to hear her after a warning look from his son.
Later, at Darryl’s insistence, Josh had gone home with him. It was his first visit to the Swenson home. Josh had learned that Darryl was an only child, his twin brother David having drowned at the age of ten. So Darryl knew what it was to be lonely and had reached out to one who seemed like him. In fact, anyone seeing them together might have mistaken the two for brothers. Darryl had loaned Josh some pants and shorts while his were being washed. The Swensons’ maid had taken Josh’s pants in silent disapproval. Darryl took no notice of her reaction. He merely instructed her in a tone that brooked no argument to wash Josh’s pants. He then insisted on helping Josh to dress because of his broken hand. Thus their friendship had begun but how would it go on?
Now Darryl laughed at Josh’s efforts to hold his finger. Looking at Marylou he said, "This kid’s a real tiger! I’ll bet he’ll make a great football player someday."
Marylou held up the diaper bag she’d found in the closet, and laughed saying, "Well, in the meantime let me check his diaper before we go. I’d prefer to deliver him to the police in a dry diaper." As she spoke, Marylou lifted Josh out of the crib and laid him on the dresser. With practiced efficiency she unzipped the sleepers he wore and removed them. Josh now lay atop the dresser clad only in a diaper and plastic pants.
Darryl was saying, "Hey, Marylou knock, off the talk about the cops. You’re scaring the kid!"
"Don’t be silly, Darryl! He doesn’t know...." Marylou broke off, struck by a sudden thought.
She stood frowning as Darryl said, "You’d be surprised what kids know, even babies."
"I’m sure I would," Marylou said, in a musing tone. Then she resumed undressing Josh. Darryl came to her side and stood watching.
Josh writhed inwardly when Marylou unpinned his diaper and Darryl said, "Wet as a dish rag."
Marylou smiled her agreement. "Thank goodness whoever or whatever brought this baby here thought to bring supplies too."
"Yeah, that’s something that won’t be easy to explain to the cops."
"Darryl, you don’t suppose they’ll think we kidnapped him, do you?"
"No, Uncle Charley knows me better than that. The worst possibility is that people will think he’s ours."
Marylou looked up sharply from spreading baby oil over Josh’s diaper area and asked, "So what’s wrong with that?"
Darryl sighed. "The people who don’t know us will probably think we’ve been making out in the backseat of my parents’ car."
Marylou blushed to the roots of her hair. "Oh, God, Darryl! Do you really think so? My mother would be furious!"
"I know," Darryl replied dryly.
Throughout this conversation Josh lay motionless staring at Marylou and trying not to think of what her reaction would be if she knew he was the baby she was changing. Her touch was arousing him; his penis, despite its diminutive size, was as stiff as that of a bridegroom on his wedding night. But Marylou and Darryl were so intent on their conversation that they took no notice of its condition.
Marylou finished diapering Josh, sprinkling baby powder so thickly over his diaper area that she sneezed. Only after pinning his diaper firmly in place did she pause to look closely at Josh again, saying, "Look at him, Darryl. This baby looks like you! He has red hair and blue eyes."
"I noticed, babe. If your momma sees him, she’ll probably shoot me like a dog."
"Don’t joke, Darryl, this is serious. My parents don’t even own a gun!"
"Yeah, but wanna’ bet your momma doesn’t buy one the minute after she sees Sport here?"
"That’s not funny," Marylou said, as she slipped a clean pair of plastic pants over Josh’s diaper. "Look in the chest of drawers and see if there are any shorts. I don’t wanna’ take the baby out in only a diaper."
Josh was soon dressed in a pair of blue shorts and a matching tee-shirt with a white teddy bear on the front. Darryl also found a pair of blue sneakers with bells on the toes. He insisted on putting them on the baby himself, along with a matching pair of socks. "There ya’ go, Sport! Now we’ll know where you are all the time!" Darryl settled Josh on his hip and walked to the nursery door.
Josh wrapped his legs around Darryl’s waist and felt the diaper enfold his genitals in a soft cocoon. The sensation was so pleasurable that he suppressed a groan of ecstasy with difficulty. Josh clutched Darryl’s shirt front and buried his face in his shoulder. Am I enjoying all this? Josh wondered in panic. Or am I losing my mind? Will I become a baby in mind as well as body?
Meanwhile, Darryl paused at the door, saying over his shoulder, "We’ll go out the back way. Then Mrs. Brinkley won’t notice."
Marylou laughed, "Don’t be silly, Darryl, she saw us come in!"
"I know, but we didn’t have a baby with us then. And I don’t want to try and explain this one."
"Give the baby to me and I’ll hide him under my car coat. Let’s go out the front since that’s the way we came in." So Josh left the house hidden under Marylou’s coat unable to see where he was or where he was going. His predicament made him want to cry though he controlled himself with a supreme effort.
Marylou smiled at him as she settled Josh on her lap. Darryl climbed in the car and Marylou asked, "Did you see her?"
"No, but you never know with hags like that Brinkley woman."
"Oh, she isn’t so bad, she’s just lonely."
"If you say so, honey," Darryl replied absently as he cranked his 1952 Chrysler convertible, racing the engine as usual. Darryl left the driveway of his future home in a spray of gravel.
Josh looked out the side window at the house as it slipped behind them wondering what, if anything, Mrs. Brinkley might have seen. He shook his head slightly. She saw nothing, Josh told himself. If she had seen anything, Mrs. Brinkley would have broadcast the fact to the world.
Josh had seen Mrs. Brinkley a few weeks before when he and Darryl had been visiting the house. She had looked down her nose at him. "You’re Julie Nelson’s boy, ain’t ya’!" Josh had nodded affirmatively and she had ignored him thereafter. Evidently she knew of Julie’s reputation and assumed Josh’s was no better.
Darryl drove as if he were competing in a race. He whipped the Chrysler around corners so fast Josh felt his stomach swoop as if he were riding a roller coaster. Marylou complained.
"Darryl, don’t drive so fast! You’ll get a ticket and everybody...." She broke off as Darryl laughed sourly. He finished her thought. "And everybody will know about the baby." An uncomfortable silence followed these words and Josh was relieved when they turned on to his street but his relief was short lived.
Darryl parked the Chrysler in the driveway with a squeal of brakes. They got out, Josh feeling as if he were approaching the house of a stranger rather than his home. This was because it had obviously changed in some ways and less in others, all in a matter of hours. He stared at the house almost as if he’d never seen it before. In a sense he had not. It was the same house but it looked far different than when he’d left it that morning.
To begin with the house looked as if it had been freshly painted. Furthermore, the grass was being mowed by a teenager whom Josh had never seen. The boy was dressed in a pair of cutoff jeans and nothing else. His skin was deeply tanned and his hair was bleached nearly white by the sun. He stopped the mower as they reached the front door. Darryl started to ring the doorbell when the boy called out, "There ain’t nobody home but me, Mr. Swenson! What ya’ want?" The boy padded up to them as he spoke, his bare feet covered in grass clippings.
Darryl turned from the door and stared at him in astonishment. The boy didn’t seem to notice. Instead he said grinning, "The old clunker is runnin’ fine, Mr. Swenson. Dad says it’s the best used car he’s ever seen."
"How do you...that is...who are you? I don’t...uh...recognize you."
"I’m Joshy Nelson." Josh felt his stomach swoop again and his vision blurred as if he were going to faint. Simultaneously he felt the front of his diaper grow warm and knew he was wetting himself again. How could this boy have the same name as himself? Josh clutched one of Marylou’s breasts with both hands merely for support.
She said, "Hi, I’m Marylou. Darryl and I are...."
"Yeah, I know who ya’ are I’ve seen you and your baby ”round town though we’ve never talked before." Marylou had been about to explain, "Darryl and I are engaged," but the boy’s mention of the baby silenced her.
Darryl spoke up quickly. "We were looking for an address in this neighborhood and we thought this might be it. But I think we got it wrong."
"Who ya’ lookin’ for?" Darryl gave the address of one of his classmates and the boy chuckled. "The Fosters left town for the weekend. They’re supposed to be back on Sunday night."
Darryl sighed in pretended exasperation. "I told ya’, Marylou, they’d be gone."
Marylou, playing along, said, "Well, come on, honey, I’ll get up with Susan next week."
"If I see Miss Foster, I’ll tell her you were lookin’ for her."
"Thank you, Joshy, but don’t bother. Like I said, I’ll catch up with Susan next week."
Darryl added, "Tell your dad thanks for the vote of confidence. Swenson Chrysler always aims to please."
When they were back in the car, Marylou asked, "What do we do now?"
"Let’s go back to our house. I wanna’ check on an idea of mine." Darryl replied, briskly as he drove away from the Nelson house.
Josh meanwhile stared out the side window, trying to catch a last glimpse of his old home. What was happening to him? And what was going to happen to him in the future? An overwhelming tide of panic threatened to swamp his mind. Without conscious thought of what he was doing, Josh began to suck his thumb. The tide of panic receded from his mind as his sucking became more rhythmic.
Darryl drove even faster than he had before. It was as though he were being pursued. The race however, did not last for long. "Damn, a cop!" Darryl growled, and pulled over to the side of the road.
Marylou gasped "Darryl, it’s your Uncle Charley! What...?"
She got no further because Darryl’s uncle stuck his head through the window and said, grinning broadly, "Mornin’, kids! I just stopped you three so I could give you an invite to our house tonight for supper. Your folks are comin’ over too, Darryl. They say they ain’t hardly seen Sport here since ya’ brought him home."
Josh stared at Charley, painfully conscious of his wet diaper and that he’d been sucking his thumb a few seconds before. Charley reached out and tousled Josh’s hair, saying in a condescending tone, "Howdy, Sport," making him feel even worse.
How would he ever get out of this situation? And if he did, Josh wondered, what his life would be like afterward? Could he ever face Charley Swenson later knowing he had once been seventeen years old and sitting in his presence while wearing a wet diaper? And what of Darryl and Marylou? Could he ever face them once they knew what had happened to him? No, he couldn’t; he would just have to leave town. This thought filled Josh with despair and a big tear rolled unexpectedly down his cheek.
Charley seeing it misunderstood, "Hey, Sport, don’t cry! Uncle Charley didn’t mean to scare ya’."
"That’s right, baby, don’t cry! Mommy’s here," Marylou said soothingly.
Josh fought for self-control as Darryl asked, "What time should we come?"
"Oh, anytime, you know your Aunt Millie and me don’t stand on ceremony."
"We’ll be there at six," Marylou said, beaming at Uncle Charley.
"Good, we’ll see ya’ then. But drive slower, Darryl, ya’ were pretty close to breaking the sound barrier just now!"
They drove back to the house in silence. All three had much to think about. Marylou carried Josh straight in to the house this time, giving no thought to Mrs. Brinkley. She went straight to the bathroom next door to the nursery.
On the drive back Josh tried to think what to do but his thoughts were confused. Before Josh knew quite what was happening, he found himself sitting in a tub of warm water being washed by Marylou. By now he was almost used to being naked in her presence.
Darryl came as Marylou was finishing up and stood watching in the doorway, his lips curved in amusement. He’d been elsewhere in the house during most of Josh’s bath. When she had finished bathing Josh, including shampooing his hair, Marylou lifted him out of the tub and stood him on the bathmat. Darryl said, grinning, "When you’ve finished playin’ Mommy, Marylou, you should take a look around our house."
Marylou asked, as she wrapped a towel around Josh, "Why? What’s wrong?"
"I’m not sure there’s anything wrong, babe, I think that’s something we’ll have to decide later."
"All right, Darryl, but let me finish dressing the baby."
Josh, now clad in a fresh diaper and plastic pants and a bright yellow tee-shirt with another teddy bear on it, trotted after Marylou as she toured the house. She had become for him a sheet anchor in the strange situation in which he found himself. His best friend Darryl had, on the other hand, become a stranger who was sometimes frightening. To Josh he had become gigantic, his size and build thoroughly intimidating, while Marylou’s was somehow reassuring. In her presence Josh felt safe and his sense of humiliation because of his predicament was noticeably diminished.
As she walked through the house with Josh tagging along behind, Marylou would occasionally look over her shoulder and smile at him with maternal pride. Josh was not surprised by this, but instead felt a warm glow of happiness each time it happened. Marylou’s smile told Josh that he was doing just what he should and his sense of security grew with each step he took. Their tour of the house began in earnest in the master bedroom. Marylou found all her clothes hanging in its spacious closet and those of Darryl too. On the dresser she discovered a photograph obviously made at a wedding. It showed her and Darryl standing in front of a small church smiling in to a camera, while they were being pelted with rice by unseen people.
The tour concluded in the living room. The room was fully furnished in a style which current advertising described as Colonial. There was even a fireplace with logs laid ready for a fire. It was a charming, comfortable place in which to find one’s self even if you were trapped in a toddler’s body. The thought flashed through Josh’s mind as he looked around the room, this looks like the kind of home I always wanted. It was a house in which he felt that if things had been different, he’d have become a real man like his father or at least more like his friend Darryl.
Marylou settled herself in an armchair and Darryl sprawled on the couch. Josh stood in the middle of the room caught between them as it were, once again feeling the full gravity of his situation. Here he was wearing a diaper, trapped in a toddler’s body, with almost no way to communicate. But Darryl was his friend; he’d always helped Josh in times of trouble. Marylou was Darryl’s girl with whom he’d been secretly in love and always afraid of giving himself away, though now he could say nothing to either of them. Therefore, the secret of his love for Marylou was now safe, or was it?
Darryl broke in on Josh’s thoughts, "So, babe, what do you think?"
Before answering Marylou reached out and drew Josh onto her lap. He settled himself uneasily there, conscious of Darryl watching him. "This house looks as if it’s been lived in for some time."
"Yeah, that’s what I thought too."
"Darryl, could it be some kind of practical joke?"
"No, this ain’t no joke. It’s something else."
"You mean like Tom...?"
"Yeah, like Tom."
"Do you think Tom had something to do with...?"
"With the baby? Yeah, I do."
"But Darryl, where would a guy like him get a baby?"
"I’m not sure, but I think he made one."
"Made one? Oh, come on, Darryl, that’s impossible!"
"Not where Tom comes from. While I was there last summer I met some strange people who could do things nobody else could."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I should have died and I didn’t; they are the ones who saved me."
"What did they do?"
"I can’t tell ya’ that, but take my word for it, they can do everything I said."
"But that doesn’t make sense! There is no such thing as magic, except in children’s stories and this is not...." Marylou was interrupted by a rumbling sound that came from the fireplace.
They all three looked toward it and saw a brightly wrapped package land with an audible bump on the stack of logs. Darryl was closest to the fireplace, so he rose and collected it. The colorful wrapping paper seemed to conceal an oblong box. Darryl held the package in his hands for a couple of seconds reading a message written on it. Marylou asked with a note of anxiety in her voice, "What is it, Darryl?"
"It’s a present for Joshy."
"Yep, for our friend Joshy."
"But Joshy isn’t here. He’s...."
"Oh, yeah, he is," Darryl said firmly, "He’s right here." He walked over to Marylou as he spoke and laid the package on the floor at her feet. Then he lifted Josh off her lap and set him on the floor in front of it. "Go ahead, Joshy, it’s for you! I’ll bet it’s somethin’ you’ve always wanted!" Darryl said, grinning. It was a wolfish grin, Josh thought, as he looked up at Darryl towering over him. Josh wanted to argue but Darryl had always gotten Josh to do whatever he wanted. Josh suddenly realized that it had been as much for Darryl as for Marylou that he’d worn the baby bear costume.
Josh looked back at the package and read the message on it himself. It read, "For Joshy, from Nicholas." The sight of Nicholas’s name gave Josh a hint of the package’s contents and filled him with excitement. He began to awkwardly tear the paper off.
Marylou leaped up and ran to the master bedroom, saying over her shoulder, "I’m going to get our camera!"
Darryl, getting into the spirit of the moment, knelt beside Josh and asked gently, "You want Daddy to help with the paper?" Joshy nodded. Soon the two of them were busy unwrapping Joshy’s present while Marylou took pictures.
When they opened the box, Joshy saw a bright red engine big enough for him to ride on. He shouted excitedly, "Twain, twain!"
Darryl laughed and said, "Yeah, that’s right Joshy, it’s a train!"
Soon Joshy was riding all around the room, excitedly ringing the engine’s bell while Darryl pushed him. Later, at Marylou’s request, Darryl lit the fire and the three of them sat around it enjoying its warmth. As Joshy sat in Marylou’s lap, he saw images of his past life flickering in the flames. But the life they represented was no longer his. Josh Nelson was rapidly becoming a stranger to him. The last image was of Josh Nelson standing before Nicholas Myria asking to be taken home. Then the images flickered and were gone.
Joshy scrambled down from his mommy’s lap and resumed playing with his train. Darryl and Marylou watched him, smiling. They looked occasionally into each other’s eyes, simply happy to be a family. Nicholas Myria had given Joshy Swenson a greater gift than a toy train. He had given him a happy home in which he would always be wanted.