Charles blinked, groaned, and roused beneath the covers as the pitter-patter of rain against the window drew him from his slumber. After trying to return to sleep and finding that the noise made it impossible the young man drowsily sat up, rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, and looked down at himself.
His clothes were gone.
All the young man had on was the boxers he had been wearing the previous day, one thin piece of fabric standing between himself and complete nudity. Charles furrowed his brow and stared at his near-naked form in complete confusion. Even though he dedicated every bit of his focus to remembering how he had gotten in bed and how he had lost his clothes not even the barest fragment of memory would reveal itself. Frustrated, he decided to just put on some new clothes and find out what happened to his old ones later, a plan that fizzled out when he looked around and realized that his bag had gone missing. It was not something that he would merely misplace - that bag not only contained his clothes but all of his research materials. Somebody in the house had taken it. Driven by purpose, the young man rose to his feet and headed to the door, his heart pumping and his addled mind doing what it could to try and figure out why somebody would take his things. He stepped into the hall just as Joanne was emerging from the boys’ room, the young man becoming very self-conscious as her eyes fell on him, draping an arm across his groin as though it would make up for the fact that he didn’t have any pants on.
“Good morning, Charles.” The woman said with a sweet smile on her face. “Did you sleep well?”
The young man squirmed and looked at the ground.
“Where’s my clothes?” He muttered.
“Oh, that.” Joanne chuckled. “You looked so uncomfortable sleeping in your clothes the night before that we undressed you before putting you to bed. You were far too sleepy to do it yourself. I hope you don’t mind.”
“What about my other clothes?” He asked, his voice growing bolder. “Where’s my bag?”
The woman suddenly became somber.
“I’m terribly sorry.” She said in a low voice. “Ollie snuck into your room this morning and took your bag while you were asleep. Managed to dump everything out into the front yard before we caught him. He’s staying in his room until dinner for being so naughty.”
Charles’ mind reeled. What would he do without clothes? He couldn’t walk around in his boxers for the rest of the week…could he? No, he chided himself. Of course not. That would be a silly thing to do. Very silly. A silly, silly, silly -
The young man looked up at the woman with flush cheeks, ashamed that he had let his mind wander so. Joanne smiled in sympathy and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“You should head outside and get your things before they’re ruined by the rain.” She said. “If you bring your clothes in I’ll be happy to wash them for you.”
“Okay.” Charles said with an enthusiastic nod, happy to have something he could focus on. “Okay. I can do that.”
The woman’s smile widened.
“I’m sure you can. Go on now.”
Encouraged, Charles made a beeline for the front door and opened it wide. As he stood in the frame he could see his bag lying upside down in the grass a little ways away from the house. His clothes were strewn about around it, but thankfully, none had ended up in the mud puddles that had started to spring up in the yard - though everything was a little wet and a little dirty it wasn’t anything a run through the washing machine wouldn’t fix. Charles’ face flooded with relief. It was walking around in his underwear like some dumb little kid that had him so confused, he told himself. When he was back in his normal clothes everything would be all better. Everything would be -
“JJ, you get back here this instant!”
The young man turned at the sound of Joanne’s voice and in doing so was nearly knocked over by JJ, who blew by him in nothing but a t-shirt as he bolted out the door. The boy headed directly for the biggest mud puddle in the yard, splashing into it with a clumsy somersault, his laughter clear and bright even through the gray gloom of the mid-day drizzle. Charles watched with a furrowed brow as the boy wallowed gleefully in the mire, reveling in the feel of the mud against his bare skin, taking more delight than one would think possible in something as simple as wet dirt. So entranced was he by the boy’s ecstasy that Charles didn’t even notice when Joanne came up beside him and let out a wistful sigh.
“I should have kept the shades drawn.” She said with a laugh. “He looked out the window while I was dressing him and made a break for it when he saw that it was raining. There’s nothing JJ likes more than playing in the mud.”
She put a hand on Charles’ shoulder. The young man jumped slightly as he was broken from his trance, blushing slightly at her brilliant smile.
“Aren’t you going to go and get your things?” She asked. “You’d better hurry before JJ notices your clothes and gets them all muddy.”
“Um, yeah.” Charles said with a blink and a frown. “Right. My clothes.”
He hesitated for a moment before stepping out onto the porch and then into the yard. The rain had slowed to the point where it was nothing but a wet tickle, almost refreshing against his skin. Beneath his feet the grass squelched and sloshed and the young man found himself marveling at how different it felt from before, how yesterday the grass had been so warm and bouncy, how it had felt so nice beneath his bare feet -
Charles shook the thoughts away. Focus, he commanded himself. His eyes honed in on his bag and he didn’t allow himself to so much as blink as he bore down on it. With every step he took towards his possessions the fog dissipated a little more. Confidence returned to his thoughts. He knew that putting an end to this nonsense was a matter as simple as getting his hands on that bag, on simply -
The young man froze and looked down.
He had stepped in mud.
It oozed between his toes, slurped and sploshed with the slightest movement of his foot. Charles blinked and looked down. He knew that it was a repulsive thing that he had just done. Disgusting. Gross. Icky. He knew that the right thing to do - the mature thing to do - would be to simply wipe his foot off on the grass, get his stuff, and get inside before he got any dirtier. He knew he needed to take his foot out of the mud that very instant.
But it felt so good.
A tiny giggle eeked through his grinning lips as he dug his heel deeper into the ground, fascinated by the way the muck crept up over the sides of his foot like some sort of sentient ooze, his toes nearly overtaken when the young man was distracted by the sound of JJ squealing in joy. Charles looked up to see the boy take great big heaping handfuls of mud and smash them together, repeating the process over and over, consistently entertained by the sight of the muck exploding between his palms. As the young man watched the boy play a sort of itching developed within him, a persistent prickly heat that started in his gut and spread through his body, all the way down to his tippy toes. He squirmed. He bit his lip. He whimpered in confusion.
He took off running.
JJ had been so distracted by mudpie creation that he didn’t notice Charles coming until the young man was practically on top of him, charging at the boy in a headlong sprint. At the last minute the young man leapt from his feet - hanging in the air for a one perfect, pristine moment - and landed face-first in the puddle, sending muddy water splashing in every direction. Charles looked up at the boy with a mud-streaked grin, and JJ stared back at him with blank eyes and a hanging jaw - before howling with laughter, drumming his heels and slapping his palms against the muck, utterly delighted at the young man’s silliness. Charles giggled and splashed his companion, an opening shot that started an all-out mud war between the two. Though the two of them were already plenty dirty the flinging and wrestling that resulted rendered them completely filthy, every inch of their bodies covered with the mud, the mire getting in their hair and between their toes and soaking what little clothes they wore. Charles was lost. At that moment his entire consciousness revolved around how wonderful the cool muck felt against his skin, how amazing it was that it changed and took shape under his touch, how there seemed to be nothing in the world more entertaining than taking a fat handful of the stuff and squeezing it until it squished between his fingers and fell to the ground in great plopping clumps.
It was bliss.
Time floated by without measure. The two of them wallowed uninterrupted until a cool breeze blew through the plain, chilling the mud that had caked on their bodies and sending shivers over their skin. JJ stood up and looked at Charles.
Without another word he turned away and started towards the house, mud dripping from his bobbing genitalia, shaking dirty water from his limbs like a freshly bathed puppy as he walked. Charles frowned and tried to play by himself for a moment but it just wasn’t the same. When another gust of cold air came rushing through the yard it was enough motivation for the young man to call it a day.
“Wait up!” Charles called out as he jumped to his feet and raced after JJ. He caught up to the boy and the two of them reached the porch at the same time. Joanne emerged from the house just as they were stepping onto the wooden structure, a warm smile on her face and two big fluffy towels in her arms.
“Momma!” JJ shouted. “Chawie pway in mud!”
Joanne turned to the young man, who smiled sheepishly and cast his eyes towards the ground, using one hand to keep his soaked, sagging boxers from slipping off his body.
“I can see that.” The woman chuckled as she stripped JJ of his shirt and patted him dry. “Did the two of you have fun?”
“Good.” She said, finishing the job by ruffling the boy’s hair with the towel. “Go on into the bathroom. I’ve got a nice warm bath drawn for you.”
JJ squealed and romped into the house, leaving Joanne and Charles alone on the porch. The young man stole a glance at the woman and turned crimson when he saw her regarding him with her hands on her hips and a look of mock exasperation on her face.
“You sure did get messy.” She laughed. “Here, let me clean you up a little bit.”
Without waiting for a response Joanne started patting Charles dry. The young man was more than a little embarrassed that this woman he barely knew was cleaning him as though she were his mother but he kept his concerns silent. He was very dirty, after all, and each touch of the heated towel felt like a warm little kiss against his chilled skin.
“It was very nice of you to play with JJ like that.” Joanne said as she worked on his legs. “You made him very happy.”
Charles smiled and nodded. Of course, he thought to himself. That’s what he was doing. He was just making a little boy happy, that’s all.
“Well, that’s most of it.” The woman sighed as she looked Charles up and down. “But you’re going to need a bath too. Come on.”
Once again Charles was denied the opportunity for rebuttal, Joanne grabbing the young man’s hand and leading him into the house as he trotted obediently behind. He figured the woman was leading him to a tub other than the one JJ would be bathed in so it was no small shock when he entered the bathroom and saw the boy already in the water, making crude motor noises as he guided a plastic boat over the bubbly surface. Charles’ eyes widened and his body went stiff. She couldn’t possibly be suggesting…
“What are you waiting for?” Joanne smiled. “Take off your undies and hop in.”
Charles frowned and squirmed.
“Um, I don’t need a bath.” He mumbled. “It’s okay.”
The woman laughed.
“You most certainly do. There’s no way I’m letting a mud monster walk around my home.”
“I’m not a mud monster.”
“No, of course not.” Joanne chuckled as she put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You just look like one because you’ve got that icky mud all over you. Let me wash it off so everybody can see that you’re really a grown-up. Isn’t that what you want?”
The young man’s brow furrowed as he turned her words over in his head. That sounded right. He certainly wanted Joanne and everyone else to know that he was a grown-up, but there was something about what she said that stuck with him, that gave him pause, that posed problems his mind just couldn’t seem to work out. The young man turned to the tub and watched as JJ took a pile of bubbles from the surface and plopped them on his head, delighted with the soapy hat he had crafted for himself. Though the boy certainly looked as though he were having fun - and though he was practically chilled to the bone - there was still one very pressing issue that kept Charles from entering the tub.
“I don’t…” He mumbled, glancing at Joanne. “I don’t wanna be naked.”
The woman squeezed his shoulder.
“I understand, sweetie. Tell you what - I’ll close my eyes while you take off your undies and hop in the tub. That way nobody will see you naked. How does that sound?”
Charles ruminated on the idea for a moment. It didn’t count as being naked if no one saw it, right? It’s not as though he were running around in the buff like Ollie and JJ. This was a matter of necessity. Nothing more. The young man turned to Joanne and gave her a nod, and the woman responded by smiling, closing her eyes, and turning around. Charles immediately stripped off his soaked boxers, climbed in the tub, and sank into the water. In an instant the chill disappeared and all he felt was a lovely radiating warmth that saturated his body and made all his worries disappear. Though he and JJ barely fit in the tub together the boy didn’t seem to mind - all he did was giggle at the young man’s appearance and then offer him a handful of bubbles, which Charles graciously accepted. The young man stared at the froth in his hand for a moment before he applied it to his chin and made a silly face at JJ, who squealed with laughter at Charles and his goofy bubble beard. Encouraged by the boy’s laughter, Charles went about seeing what else he could construct with the bubbles, barely even noticing when Joanne kneeled down next to him and began scrubbing away at his muddy skin with a washcloth. He was too busy constructing great soapy castles to care about anything else. He didn’t even notice that Joanne had left until she re-entered the room with something tucked under her arm.
“Okay, guys.” She said. “Time to get out. JJ, you need to take a nap before dinner. ”
JJ whined but Joanne cut him off, helping the boy out of the tub and drying him off as he squirmed on the bathmat. Charles looked up and realized that what Joanne had brought in were two sets of colorful cotton pajamas, one red and covered in tiny racecars while the other was a simple baby blue. Joanne helped the boy into the blue set and sent him into his room with a pat on the bottom. She turned to Charles and smiled.
“Are you coming out? Or do you want to turn into a big prune?”
Charles looked at her and frowned. The woman paused for a moment before chuckling and nodding her head in understanding. She turned away and it was only then that the young man emerged from the tub. He grabbed the towel and dried himself best he could, manipulating the fabric with clumsy, two-handed motions - and when he tried to tie it around his waist his fingers refused to cooperate, whining in frustration as he fumbled with the terrycloth. After a few moments he gave up and simply held the towel against his groin as Joanne turned back around.
“What do you think?” She said with a little grin on her face. “Would you like to take a nap too? You must be awful tired after rolling around in the mud all afternoon.”
Charles opened his mouth to protest the idea but when he did all that came out was a big, exaggerated yawn.
“Maybe…” He said as he rubbed his sagging eyelids, “Maybe a little one.”
“I think that’d be for the best.” Joanne smiled as she reached for the remaining set of pajamas. “Lift your feet so I can help you into these.”
Charles took a step back and eyed the garment suspiciously. Joanne tilted her head and frowned.
“What’s the matter?”
“Those are for babies.” He declared. “You said I was grown-up. I want grown-up clothes.”
The woman chuckled.
“Well, Hank’s clothes are too big for you, and you certainly can’t wear yours. You left them out in the rain, remember?”
Charles gaped. By choosing to play in the mud with JJ he had let his grown-up clothes get all dirty - had ruined the evidence of his maturity. Despair welled within his chest and for a brief instant he felt like crying, but he managed to fight it back. Even if he didn’t have his grown-up clothes he wasn’t going to act like a little boy - and he certainly wasn’t going to dress like one.
“Don’t want ‘em.” The young man insisted. Joanne raised her eyebrows.
“Oh, I see.” She said as she put her hands on her hips. “I guess that means you want to be nakie, hmm? Is that right? Do you want to run around without any clothes on like some silly little baby?”
Charles’ eyes widened and he rapidly shook his head.
“Grown-ups wear clothes. Are you a grown-up?”
Without another word Joanne moved to help Charles into the pajamas, but was cut off when the young man let go of the towel and snatched them out of her hands. A moment’s nudity was utterly unimportant in comparison to how essential it was for him to prove to the woman that he not only got dressed like a grown-up but that he could do so all by himself. His features twisted in determination as he wrestled with the two-piece garment, forced to use every ounce of his concentration to have any hope at completing a task as simple as putting his hands and feet and head through all the necessary holes. When he finally finished the young man put his hands on his hips and puffed his chest at Joanne, who was just barely able to manage back the laughter that danced on her lips - for Charles undoubtedly would not have been as proud of his accomplishment had he known that he put both pieces on backwards.
“I guess you showed me.” She smiled. “You’re a grown-up, all right.”
Charles swelled with pride, but only got to enjoy it for a moment as another yawn escaped his lips and reminded the young man just how tired he was. As such, he put up no fight when Joanne took him by the hand, led him into his room, and helped him under the covers. The young man wriggled beneath the bed and dug his head into the pillow as the woman tucked him in and whispered into his ear.
“Sweet dreams, my big grown-up boy.”
Charles gave her a sleepy smile, closed his eyes, and drifted away.
Charles awoke with the fading light of the early evening flooding his room, casting everything within in hazy shadow. He blinked and rubbed his eyes and it was only then that he noticed Hank sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, irises glinting in the darkness. The man smiled and leaned into the light.
“Sounds like you had a big day.”
The young man blinked and then felt the warmth drain from his body as the day’s events came back to him, each memory striking him like a slap across the face. Abandoning his clothes in the yard. Spending all afternoon wallowing in the mud in nothing but his boxers. Taking - he groaned in utter mortification - taking a bath with JJ. With shaking hands he pulled back the blanket and choked out a low sob at the childish pajamas he found himself clad in, at the tag that poked out from the front of his collar as a reminder that he couldn’t even dress himself properly anymore.
“You seem upset.” Hank said as he left the chair and knelt at Charles’ side. “Something the matter?”
The young man turned to Hank and gazed into his twinkling blue eyes.
“Please…” He sniffled as his eyes shimmered with tears. “Please stop this.”
Hank tilted his head and smiled.
“What exactly am I doing?” He asked. “Everything you did today was your choice. If you ask me, I think it’s pretty obvious that you don’t want to be a grown up at all.”
He leaned forward and lowered his voice.
“You just want to be an itty bitty little boy, don’t you? You just want to play in the mud all day and make bubble castles and take naps in your cute little pajamas.”
“No!” Charles shouted as he wiped his eyes. “You’re wrong!”
Hank raised his eyebrows and leaned away from the young man. He watched him silently for a moment before grabbing the covers and throwing them back - revealing that Charles’ erect penis was tenting the fly of his racecar pajamas. The young man stared at the traitorous bulge in utter disbelief - eyes moon wide as his throat choked on his horror - while Hank tossed the blanket aside and stared down at Charles with his hands on his hips.
“Your body doesn’t lie.” He grinned. “Just thinking about being little again has you so excited that you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
The young man’s brain pulsed inside his skull as he released a low moan and grabbed at his hair, shivering and shaking as he tried to pull himself back from the edge. He was losing control by the second, trapped out in the middle of nowhere, slowly being stripped of the intelligence and maturity that he held so dear - and it made him more aroused than he had ever been in his entire life. The young man groaned and whimpered as his penis twitched and struggled against the torturously soft fabric of his cozy toddler pajamas. The urge to masturbate roared within him, even stronger and more insistent that it had been during his adolescence - and Charles was only able to beat it back by focusing on the memory of Ollie and JJ and the utter disgust he felt at watching their mindless self-pleasure. He felt himself regaining control - but then the image warped, twisted, blotted...and when it became clear again Ollie and JJ were gone. Suddenly he was the one naked in the front yard, bottom plopped on the soft, warm grass, his eyes glassy and his lips curled in an idiot’s grin as he gleefully played with his bare bobbing pee-pee.
It was too much to bear. Charles broke down and bawled like an infant, great gasping sobs that made his whole body shudder in grief.
“Shh. It’s okay.” Hank whispered as he pulled the young man close, letting him cry into his shoulder. “I’ve got you. Everything’s okay.”
The man stroked Charles’ hair until his crying quieted to sniffles and soft little hiccups. He smiled and patted the young man’s belly.
“I know what’ll make you feel better.”
Still cradling Charles’ shoulders with his arm, Hank leaned towards the young man’s foot and took his pinky toe in his hand. He looked at Charles and grinned.
“This little piggy went to market…this little piggy stayed home…this little piggy had roast beef…”
The man recited the rhyme in a soothing sing-song voice, giving each of Charles’ toes a tweak at the appropriate time, the young man watching his actions with dead eyes as a fat drop of drool dangled from the corner of his mouth.
“…and this little piggy had none. And this little piggy…”
He took hold of Charles’ big toe and wiggled it back and forth. A guttural whine pushed its way past the young man’s lips.
“…went wiggle wiggle wiggle wiggle wiggle…”
Charles’ body went limp against Hank’s arm. The man chuckled.
“…all the way home.”