Twice upon a time there was a boy who died - and lived happily ever after. But that's another chapter. Based on an idea by Bfboy.
Charles stared through the dusty, bug-smeared windshield at what appeared to be the town’s only traffic light, a barely functioning apparatus with faded paint and dim bulbs that could barely be seen in the mid-day light. He rolled his neck and cracked his knuckles, drained by his journey but at the same time utterly thankful that it was near its end. The drive from the university had been nothing short of torturous, an odyssey of twisting, treacherous, unkempt back roads that had finally taken him to what may very well have been the smallest town in the state. Charles leaned back and took in his surroundings. At the intersection stood the four necessary components of any Podunk - grocery store, church, gas station, and bar. From where he sat he could hear the incessant buzzing of the neon sign in the bar’s only window, promising cold MILLR LITE N TAP to thirsty patrons. Across the street sat a squat brick building identifiable as a grocery store only from the disorganized, wilting produce stacked in front of its entrance. On the corner the church stood stoic and silent, its modest stained glass façade illuminated by the golden slanted sunlight of the warm spring afternoon. A man sitting on the porch that jutted out from the gas station looked up from his paper, stared at Charles for a moment, then went back to reading.
The young man sighed and rubbed his eyes. He was starting to think that he had made a mistake. This was not the kind of place he would ever willingly choose to visit - but there were greater motivations that personal preference at work here. For nearly four years Charles had applied saintly devotion to his studies with the intention of pursuing the university’s most prestigious doctorate once he had attained his bachelor’s. When Professor Vanderhoff - the man in charge of the program - called him to his office a few weeks ago Charles naturally assumed that he would be told that he was a shoe-in for acceptance. After all, the young man had aced every course he had taken up to that point - so it was nothing less than a slap in the face when the professor told him that his acceptance was anything less than a sure thing. The courses required to attain the doctorate required students to work together on a variety of projects, the professor said, and while Charles’ academic record was undeniably impressive his lack of extracurricular activities led one to believe that the young man had spent the past three and a half years doing nothing but studying and had not even managed to make so much as a single friend in the process. The fact that the professor’s assumption was correct did nothing to lessen Charles’ indignation. Frankly, he was proud of the fact that he had avoided becoming entangled with other members of the student body, who he felt were, as a whole, nothing more than overgrown children who took advantage of their parents’ generosity and treated college like a four year vacation.
Not that Charles said any of this out loud. He knew that while sour grapes would do nothing to improve his chances there was something to be said for buttering up the professor. Even now Charles could clearly see the smile that came across his face when the young man asked him if there was anything he could do to elevate his standing. Without missing a beat - as though he had anticipated the question - the professor told Charles about a research project he’d been looking to assign to a particularly ambitious student. Apparently he had been in contact with a family in the rural part of the state, a middle-aged couple whose children suffered from a curious kind of mental condition. He wasn’t able to get many details from them - they seemed very protective of their children and as such were hesitant to expand further over the phone, he explained - but after months of gentle prodding the professor had convinced them to take on a student for a week so that he could observe the kids first hand. Since the doctorate program dealt with the issues of brain cognition and development the project would be a wonderful experience for Charles and would give him a significant leg up on his competition. The young man was all too happy to accept the challenge and didn’t even mind having to sacrifice his spring break to do so - he had planned on using the time to get a head start on his senior thesis anyway. It didn’t even faze him when the professor made him promise not to tell anybody of his excursion. It wasn’t exactly ethical for him to give Charles this opportunity, after all - and what’s more, there existed the slight possibility that the children suffered from an as yet undocumented mental illness, and if that was the case, they couldn’t risk word getting out to other schools who might seek to scoop them on the discovery.
All this ran through Charles’ mind as he waited beneath the longest red light he had ever experienced. The complete lack of activity at the intersection forced him to consider the possibility that the man on the porch was the town’s lone resident until his eye was caught by movement at the grocery store. An overweight woman toting her groceries with one hand and propping up a baby with the other struggled through the door, followed by two small boys wearing nothing but patched-up jeans whose tattered cuffs trailed in the wind. The children laughed and yelled as they blew past her and ran down the street, flashing bare, dirt copper soles at Charles with every stride. The young man grimaced. He knew that he’d be spending the week in something of a hick town but if he’d been aware that it was the sort of place where children were allowed to run around barefooted and half-naked he may very well have turned the professor down flat. Charles pulled his car through the intersection, rolled past the woman and baby, and caught up with the boys, who had fallen into an impromptu wrestling match on the side of the road. Even through the window he could hear them clearly as they grappled for dominance, shouting and giggling as they rolled about in the wild, windswept grass. The young man watched them for a moment, shook his head, and returned his attention to the road.
The young man’s destination was not the town itself but rather a home just a couple miles up the road. He had already been leery about what kind of family would choose to live this far away from civilization and the display in front of the grocery store did nothing to raise his spirits. By now he had resigned himself to shacking up in some sort of rundown shanty with outhouse adjacent - so when he pulled up to the address on his directions he had to check the mailbox twice to make sure he was at the right place. At the back of a dirt road lined with blooming poplar trees stood a two story cream colored colonial, a house that Charles reasoned must be of some age due to its outdated style but had been maintained so meticulously as to appear brand new. Its stature was such that it made toys strewn across the front lawn look completely out of place, brightly-colored bits of sturdy plastic in all shapes and sizes designed to appeal to toddler sensibilities. As the young man turned onto the extended driveway he could see a man and a woman emerge from within the house, smiling and waving at Charles as he parked his car next to their wood-paneled station wagon. The young man tentatively waved back as he stepped out of the car and saw them walk towards him - he had been preparing himself for rednecks and as such was a little caught off guard to see such a normal looking couple emerge from the home.
“Welcome!” The man boomed as he took the Charles’ hand in a vice-like grip. “Charlie, isn’t it?”
“Charles. It’s very nice to meet you.”
“Charles, yes, of course.” The man grinned. “The pleasure is all ours. I’m Hank Marsland, and this is my wife, Joanne.”
“Lovely to meet you.” Joanne beamed. “We don’t have visitors very often so this is a special treat.”
The man finally - mercifully - let go of Charles’ hand, giving him a moment to gather his thoughts and size up his hosts. Hank appeared to be in his late forties, a barrel-chested fellow with salt and pepper hair and blue eyes that twinkled with boyish mischief. Charles was of average height and something of a slender fellow - his body kept healthy by a meticulous diet but untoned due to a complete disinterest in working out - while Hank was all but a bastion of masculinity, a tall, strapping gentleman who took clear pride in his form. He wore a flannel shirt, neatly-pressed khakis and a pair of brown loafers, every item immaculate if a little worn from age. His wife, on the other hand, appeared to be a few years younger and slim to the point that no one would ever suspect her of having borne several children. She wore a faded viridian house dress that nicely complemented her bright hazel eyes and had her shining chestnut hair done up like Mother Maybelle Carter. Both of them spoke with just the barest hint of a southern accent - Joanne’s maybe a touch thicker than Hank’s - a charming affectation that lent a homespun warmth to even the dullest of words.
“Well!” Hank smiled as he put his hands on his hips. “No sense in wasting time. I suppose you’ll want to meet the little ones.”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Not at all. They should just be getting up from their nap now.” The man turned to his wife. “Joanne, would you be a dear and fetch the kids while I have a word with Charles?”
“Of course.” She turned to Charles and flashed him a brilliant smile. “If you gentlemen will excuse me.”
As she strode back towards the house Hank threw an arm around Charles’ shoulder and turned him towards the road, leading his guest up the dirt driveway. The young man flinched at the sudden contact but made no effort to pull away, trying his best not to offend his new host. A few moments passed before Charles spoke up, desperate to break the silence.
“This is a lovely hone, Mr. Marsland.”
“Please - call me Hank.”
“Of course. If you don’t mind my saying so, you and your wife seem a little out of place out here.”
The man chuckled and nodded his head.
“Well, Joanne and I have always loved this part of the country, and decided many years ago that we would retire out here. Matter of fact, there are several other families like ours in the area. Perhaps you’ll have the chance to meet some of them before you go.”
He grinned and looked Charles over.
“Speaking of out of place, you’re a little overdressed for the region.” The man mused. “Do you just wear a shirt and tie wherever you go?”
Charles cleared his throat and managed a smile.
“Well, I like to put forward a professional appearance.”
“Good for you.” Hank declared as he slapped Charles on the shoulder. “That’s a trait far too uncommon among young people these days. And I imagine it feels all the better when you cut loose and shed all that professional garb.”
“I don’t really…cut loose, per se.”
“No?” Hank seemed troubled for a moment before his lips curled into a knowing smirk. “I see. You’re a career man, eh? Got your whole future planned out and won’t let anything get in your way.”
Charles bit his tongue at the condescension.
“Something along those lines, yes.”
“Very admirable, Charles. You know, I was like you once.” The man said as he looked off into the distance. “Even pursued the same field. For years and years I researched the human mind, obsessed with unearthing its deepest secrets. I knew beyond any doubt that I would one day be the world’s greatest psychologist, respected by colleagues the world over, the man who would decipher the mystery of thought itself.”
Charles couldn’t help but be somewhat stirred by Hank’s words. Even his professors didn’t “get it” the way he seemed to. A beat of silence passed between them before the young man spoke up.
“If you don’t mind my asking…what happened?”
Hank turned to his young companion. His eyes sparkled.
Charles furrowed his brow and was about to ask his host to expand on his puzzling response when his thoughts were broken by Joanne’s voice ringing out from behind him.
“Ollie! Get back here!”
The young man turned around and saw nothing but a blur of movement before he was grabbed around the waist and pulled into a crushing bear hug, his feet lifted from the ground as his assailant hoisted him into the air. Charles was startled by the shock of the attack and as such didn’t quite believe what his ears told him he was hearing. It sounded as though the person that had him in their grasp was giggling like an overexcited toddler - but the depth of the voice was very much that of a grown man’s.
“Put him down, Ollie.” Charles heard Joanne say in a kind but firm tone. “You’re not being very nice to our guest.”
As soon as the words came out of her mouth Charles was released from the hold, falling to one knee and gasping from having the air squeezed out of him.
“Sorry about that.” Hank chuckled. “Ollie just loves meeting new people.”
“That’s…that’s quite all right.” Charles gasped as he raised his head. “I was just a little surprised, that’s - ”
The words died on Charles’ lips as his mind went blank, the only reasonable way it could deal with what he was looking at. At face value, there was nothing unusual about the children. The girl had her blonde hair done up in perfectly symmetrical pigtails and wore a frilly pink dress that matched the pacifier bobbing between her lips. She had one hand clasped with her mother’s while using the other to play with the hem of her skirt and reveal the thick diaper that lay underneath. Peeking out from behind Joanne was a boy wearing a pair of baby blue shortalls with a smiling bear cub on the chest, sucking his thumb as he gripped the woman’s dress tightly with his free hand and regarded Charles with a combination of suspicion and wonder. And standing out in front was Charles’ ostensible assailant, a beaming boy that squirmed and bounced with irresistible energy, flapping his striped t-shirt up and down to reveal that the khaki shorts he wore were kept on by an elastic waistband. All three stood in bare feet, toes wiggling against the grass, the small glimpses he got of their earth-stained soles telling Charles that they likely went shoeless more often than not. In nearly every sense they seemed as very young kids, babies even, and they would have been downright adorable were it not for the fact that they possessed the bodies of full grown adults.
“I’m Ollie!” The boy in front suddenly cried out, shattering the silence. “Dat’s my daddy, and dat’s my momma, and dat’s Christie, and dat’s JJ! What’s your name?”
Charles felt his cheeks grow flush as he rose to his feet and looked around, flustered not only because everyone’s eyes were on him but because neither Hank nor Joanne gave any indication that there was anything abnormal about the situation. The girl appeared to be in her late teens while the boys were just north of twenty - the one in the striped shirt perhaps a year older than the one that was sucking his thumb - and yet none of them displayed the mental capacity to so much as tie their shoes by themselves.
“Charles.” He finally managed. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you.”
Ollie giggled madly as he bounced up and down. Behind him, JJ squirmed and smiled around his thumb.
“Charwie Charwie, Charwie Charwie Charwie.” Ollie repeated the name over and over in a sing-song voice before suddenly grabbing at his new friend with both hands. “Come pway with us!”
Charles’ mind raced and his heart pounded in his chest as Ollie tugged at his arm, completely baffled as to how he should handle the situation. He couldn’t stand his ground forever - the boy possessed surprising strength and already Charles could feel his shoes slipping beneath him.
“Now, now.” Hank intervened, gently taking away Ollie’s hands. “It took Charles a very long time to get here and I’m sure he wants to rest.”
“But daddy!” Ollie whined as he stamped his foot, “Wanna pway with Charwie!”
“You can play with him later, tiger.” Hank promised as he ruffled the boy’s hair. “For right now you just have fun with your brother and sister, okay? Go on now.”
Ollie was clearly disappointed but did as he was told, giggling anew as Hank gave him a pat on the bottom to send him on his way. As he scampered over to the part of the yard where the toys lay Joanne sent JJ and Christie after him, the thumb-sucking boy moving at something of a waddling gallop while the girl trailed behind on wobbly, unsteady legs. Charles stood stock still and stared after them, not daring to as much as blink as Hank came up from behind his young visitor and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Come and sit with us on the porch.” He said. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”