I was jostled awake as I felt the vehicle slow and the shift in velocity pressed me gently but firmly against the bolsters of the carseat. Groggily I began to look around, trying to orient myself as I looked at the outside world through the smoky tint of the window and through the much brighter and whiter light coming through the windshield. I smacked my lips a few times in hopes of ridding my mouth from the paste that forms when you sleep with your mouth agape and simultaneously used my forearm as a handkerchief to wipe my nose.
As Pete navigated through the medians and minivans I took the moment of near solitude that Pete and Karen had provided in the assumption that I was still sleeping, and it was the first time that I could start to process the days events. It’s very difficult to conceptualize the speed that overtook such a momentous story. I was truly awed at how in less than twenty four hours I went from cooking a bagged frozen dinner in my single apartment to having my entire body redefined, and place a newly fragile life into the hands of, though vouched through people I trust, were essentially strangers to me. However, I still had not freed myself from the guise of capitalism and looked genuinely at this opportunity as an advance in my business. I can’t explain why I was calmed at this considering it would be at least fifteen years until I would be competing for professional salaries, and such was something I had not planned on. Yet, I started to become aware that while this meant fifteen years of the same toil that had marked my previous existence, it also meant I had fifteen years to gain a head start on any competition, and truly distinguish myself. I vowed to pounce on every opportunity to correct the mistakes of yesterday to develop a better tomorrow. Though it certainly hadn’t entered my mind as an objective, I assumed this would also provide me with an opportunity, for however briefly, to enjoy a calmer side of things. There was no trainer to check-in with daily, my body no longer felt rusted and worn, and the pressure of constant performance had vanished instantly. I wasn’t sure how much I would incorporate the emotive side of this, but I was beginning to realize it would surely be present.
“I see someone wide awake back there!” Karen interrupted my thoughts with a reserved squeal, and through the rear view mirror I could see her lower eyelids begin to crest upwards.
“Yeth, I guess I was more tired den I fought. Is dis where we’re getting mowr cwothes and stuff?”
“Yes it is. Pete’s going to drop us off at the entrance here and we’ll meet again in about an hour. Now that we know more about you we can finish getting furniture for your room, which Pete will do after we get out. You and I, big man, are going to stop and get some food and then find you something better to wea-oh, sweetie!” She bemoaned suddenly as the vehicle came to a stop and she turned from the front seat. I sat bewildered for a second until I triangulated her gaze and followed it to what I thought was the buckling point of the harness. After checking to make sure nothing was visibly broken on it my eyes focused away from the near and met the gray sweats covering my legs. I noticed an obvious discoloring that started just behind the metal clasp that separated my legs, and as I followed the shading, I almost simultaneously began to feel a brisk moisture coating the seat of my pants and squishing up through the bottom of my thighs, and when I instinctively shifted my weight between one side and the other I could feel how far the wetness had soaked through, making my skin feel cold and irritated with every movement.
“Oh, honey, it’s OK, accidents happen,” Karen said, as her once delighted face scrunched into an exaggerated and forgiving frown. Her words did little to cool my face which began to get uncomfortably hot, and it seemed to warm the back of my eyes, and I could feel that any moment would be the one that a few puffs of tears shuffled down my cheek. I was very embarrassed but was quickly able to refocus myself.
“We’ll fix you up when we get inside,” she said as she stepped out of the passenger side. I sat cornered as she made her way to my door and opened it with a thud. She released the harness and freed me, but before helping me out, she lifted my right leg and patted my thigh and the seat, as if she needed some sort of confirmation of things. She supported my underarms and eased me from the seat, holding me with her arms outstretched as if to avoid any contact with my contaminated parts. A blustery fall day sent chilled breezes soaring over and through the damp fabric, making me feel every extent of cloth that my accident had reached. Karen shut the door and waved to Pete, grabbing my hand and leading me inside, her slowly leading and me walking like someone fresh from having a cast removed from both legs, and I tried to flex as little as possible to as not to force out any moisture that may be acting as a stowaway.
We entered through two automatic glass doors that seemed to be summoned open by our entry, and, like most everything else, they did so with some kind of authority that I had never notice before, granted, I generally never chose to view the world through this vantage point. Immediately we turned into a pharmacy and convenience store that rented space in the mall, and now I was forced to view myself in the bright fluorescence that did poorly to hide me, and I followed Karen not thinking of what exactly we were picking up.
“Here we go,” she remarked, her hand grasping a plastic container, squeezing the pliable sides with a soft crinkle. She picked up a few other things in the similar isle, but I was too focused on what my “grown-up” perspective might view such a progression as, and moments later we had checked out and were leaving, me still in my little world. We walked through the mall for a few minutes, one of Karen’s hand occupied by my own and the other hoisting two plastic bags as they brushed against each other with each step. Eventually we began down a corridor that anyone who had been to a mall before would recognize as the way to the restrooms. I found it odd that the first thing to pop into my mind was which choice Karen would make, to accompany into the men’s room or not. Yet, when we approached, she continued unchanging towards the sign of a circular person under an ambiguous triangle, only slowing as she felt my apprehensive tug as I began to withdraw. Our eyes met and without the necessity of speech, she knelt close, reassuring me that none would be the wiser on this off-peak shopping time. Just in and out.
Yet as we went in we began a very labored path to the “out” portion of this side trip. Karen ignored the lines of open stalls and we continued to the back, her walking briskly and me shuffling, trying to anticipate a sudden stop and stall entry. But we did not slow until we reached the tiled rear wall. Part of it was constructed into a long marble countertop, but only a small trashcan at the far end instead of a sink that would normally have been customary.
She hoisted me aloft and sat me on the edge of the countertop and a few more drops remoistened my pants, and she pulled the straps of my shoes and set them on the counter beside me. I was then stood up, still acting as though I were a mystified bystander, but for all intents, I was. She grabbed my pants at the waistband and lowered them evenly, my legs trading a damp but localized coldness for a more overall but dry alternative. I looked down and could see the thick issued underwear had been turned gray and I was certainly embarrassed to say the least.
Karen then pinched the waists of the briefs and followed suit, and I could see her hands spread away from me unconsciously so as to avoid contact with any of my “yucky” accident, and after slipping each of my feet through a hole in the briefs, I stood awkwardly on the counter while Karen ripped the perforated tear-strip inside the store’s plastic bag, subsequently pulling out what I would come to know as a disposable training pant. It had been less than twelve hours since I had underwent this transformation, so I was really not focused on nitpicking at anything, and because of my ignorance towards the symbols of youth, this really didn’t strike me as an identification of inability or anything esoteric, just something that was taking part in the course of the day.
But I knew something was different as Karen guided each of my feet through the leg holes of the training pant, and as she slid the pair up my legs I could feel the papery rigidness of everything, and though my chubby toddler body filled out the brief fully, it was still determined to maintain it’s original shape, and though in order for comfort it needed to conform itself completely, out of spite it retained the unforgiving sides that refused to move and bend with me and they bunched thickly between my thighs. As I moved around I could feel the disconnect between the pant and myself, and instead of having underwear that would act almost as an extension of my body and move even at the slightest shift of weight, these briefs did not care if I decided to bend or step, and I felt my body catering to their shape as opposed to the inverse relationship.
I stood while Karen began organizing purchases into bags and I noticed her take my sweat pants and fold them, depositing them into a plastic bag of their own.
“What am I going to wear?” I asked.
“You’ll just have to hang tight in your pull-ups and shirt until we get you some new clothes.”
“Is dat OK? I mean, I’m pwacticawy naked!”
She laughed at my seriousness and I wondered why she would find humor in such a valid argument.
“Sweetie, I’m pretty sure you’ll be fine. Just trust me on this.” She said as she began shifting me from the standing position to sitting with my feet dangling over the counter’s edge. “We’re going to go get some lunch soon and we’ll be able to sit and have a discussion about everything.”
With that she finished tying my shoes and hoisted me to the floor, collecting her bags from the counter and walking me out just a few moments later. We stopped in a children’s clothing store for just a moment to purchase another pair of sweatpants, her putting them on me right in front of the counter after paying for them. I’ll admit that I was starting to become slightly curious at why she was toting me around like an accessory and not even stopping to question her actions. It was like it was second nature for her, some genetic trait that could not be controlled, to manipulate every aspect of my physical and mental direction out of the assumption that, out of ignorance, I could not be trusted to choose correctly on my own accord. At this point in time I attributed it to the dynamic I was in, still adjusting to the nuances of, well, everything.
Our lunch continued in much the same manner, starting with Karen carrying me from the clothing store to the restaurant, to setting me atop a booster seat between her and the booth wall, and then to articulating my apparent all-encompassing nutrition tastes to the waitress, who, as well, had no qualms in smiling politely. Honestly, the two of them thought as though they were speaking in some foreign tongue and I just smiled and nodded at the whimsy of the juice they brought!
“Karen?” I asked, allowing all of these thoughts a moment to ruminate so I could formulate a good question. “Is dis how it’s awways going to be?”
“What do you mean, Todd?”
“Well, I dunno, and it’s possible dat I’m just not used to everyfing, but it seems like you’re doing a lot more den you need to. I mean, I’m perfectly able to wawk wherever we need to go or to owrdewr a dwink if I need it. It’s like you’re fowgetting dat we awe awmost de same age. I’m just a wittlwe diffewent on de outside, but dat’s it.”
I can’t articulate how contradictory it sounds to have this conversation unable to pronounce a few staple consonants.
“Todd, I can’t imagine what a culture shock this is for you, and I know we’ve still got a lot of time before all of the wrinkles get ironed out. But you really need to buy into the whole ?clandestine’ part of this. I know that when you look in the mirror you see a small kid but on the inside you feel different, but it’s so important for you to act like the one in the mirror and not the one in the head. If anyone - I mean anyone - gets wind of this experiment... gosh... half of the staff will be tried for malpractice, the whole lab will be disbanded, there would be families without jobs. It would be terrible. I know it’s hard and you’ve been put in this situation so quickly and with so little time to train for it, but when you’re in public, you can’t think that you’re Todd the hockey player anymore.”
These were the words that went down my throat with a lump.
“But, I dunno how to be anyone else.”
“I know sweetie, I know. Nobody’s saying you have to be perfect at it or that you’ll get it right away, either. Just go with the flow for a while. It will all work out. Just give it some time. We’ll go out tomorrow morning and meet a few friends that might give you a little insight on what to do.”
“Yeah, I guess.” My eyes were starting to calm and the sting behind them was pulsating away. “I guess I can pway de game when I’m outside and stuff and wait to get home to wet myself come out.”
“Todd, I really want to reiterate what I just said. Secrecy about this is imperative. We haven’t told our kids about this whole thing - they think you’re my sister’s orphan coming to live with us. Do you think we could trust a seven year old to keep a secret like this? The only two people in this town that know the real you are Peter and myself, and it needs to stay this way - period.”
Karen wasn’t trying to be mean or condescending, but she certainly impressed her point upon me, though I was still apprehensive about how possible it would be to keep such a secret to everyone. Nonetheless, I agreed, and she gave me a quick, one-armed hug and we ate our small meal, my filling stomach putting me a little bit more at ease. The rest of the meal went uneventfully and we re-met Peter waiting for use outside the mall entrance. Like before I was fastened into the carseat, luckily dry from the previous events, though it still had a faint smell of ammonia that I hoped would eventually go away. The SUV rumbled succinctly and started and Pete mentioned casually that we’d be “home” in just over ten minutes.
I wouldn’t sleep on this ride. I was very nervous but excited. In just a few minutes I would meet two siblings. A new house. A new room. Even a new dog. It would be a very momentous occasion, for sure.