The dim gray light of the breaking dawn crept into the room, casting great black shadows that stretched ominously over the walls and floor. Anyone would have felt ill at ease to wake up in such a foreboding environment - so one can certainly forgive Charles for cowering beneath his covers as soon as he opened his eyes, whimpering and clutching at his blanket as his imagination dreamed up the horrible beasts and monsters that surely lurked in the haze. With every second he sat in the gloom his fear grew more and more powerful, spiraling out of control, driving the young man to the verge of tears - so when he heard the sounds of activity float up from downstairs Charles practically leapt out of bed and rushed for the door, so desperate for company that he didn’t even notice the awkward, bow-legged way in which he ran. He galloped through the hall and rumbled down the stairs, following the noise to the kitchen, where Joanne was mixing a fresh bowl of pancake batter. The woman - mixing all the time - looked up at Charles and smiled.
“And here I thought it was a herd of elephants coming down the stairs.” She chuckled. “What are you doing up so early, sleepyhead?”
Charles frowned and tugged at his pajamas. He didn’t want to tell her that the reason he had practically sprinted downstairs is because he didn’t want to be alone - didn’t want to let her know that he had been scared of the dark like some dumb little baby. The last thing he wanted was for her to think that he wasn’t a big boy - no, Charles chided himself, that’s not right! He wasn’t a big boy - he was a grown-up! The young man chewed on his thumb as he looked down at his colorful cotton pajamas, unable to remember how he had gotten into them in the first place, confused as to why a grown-up like him would be wearing something so childish. He turned to Joanne and opened his mouth to ask that very question but was interrupted by the rumbling of his empty tummy.
“Ah, I see.” The woman smiled. “Didn’t want to wait for breakfast, hmm? Go ahead and have a seat, dear - I’ll have some pancakes ready for you in just a minute.”
The young man made to call after her but she had already disappeared into the kitchen. He stood and pouted for a moment - though he wanted very much to find out what was going on there was no denying that he was, in fact, incredibly hungry. The young man wrestled with the issue until the smell of sizzling pancakes filled the air, convinced by the golden aroma that the matter could wait until after breakfast. He grabbed a chair - having to use two hands to clumsily pull it out - sat down, and scooted himself up to the table. When Joanne emerged from the kitchen it was with a plastic cup filled with milk in one hand and the young man’s breakfast in the other, a stack of fluffy, golden-brown pancakes glistening with syrup and topped with a generous pat of melting butter. Charles’ eyes widened and his stomach rumbled anew as the woman set the plate and cup down in front of him and reached into her apron.
“Here you go, sweetie.” She said as she pulled out a plastic knife and fork - purple with little multi-colored stars on the handles - and offered them to Charles. “Dig in.”
Such was the young man’s hunger that he didn’t think twice about accepting the childish utensils from Joanne - he would have eaten with chopsticks at that moment if it were the only way for him to get the tantalizing meal into his tummy. Chopsticks, it turned out, may not have been much more difficult. Charles set the fork and knife to work in an attempt to craft bite-size pieces for himself but every time he did so all he did was tear the poor pancake to shreds. The young scowled at his instruments as though they were to blame. It had to be their fault - he was a grown-up! He used a fork and knife all the time! All you had to do was take the fork in your right hand…
He blinked and furrowed his brow, his face twisting in confusion.
Which one was his right again?
“Having some trouble, sweetie?”
Charles looked up to see Joanne watching him with a sympathetic smile on her face.
“Here.” She said, reaching for the utensils. “Let me help you.”
“No!” He cried out, yanking them away. “I can do it!”
The woman sighed and crossed her arms.
“Charles, if you don’t let me help, then you won’t get any breakfast. Is that what you want?”
The young man whined and squirmed in his seat. She was being so unfair! He could eat like a grown-up - he knew he could! But as much as he wanted to prove his abilities to her that desire seemed very small indeed compared to how frightened he was of losing his big delicious breakfast. With a pronounced pout and his eyes cast towards the ground Charles held the utensils out, letting Joanne take them from his hands. The woman smiled and deftly dissected his breakfast into perfect little triangles, a task that Charles watched out of the corner of his with a mixture of awe and apprehension, anxious over the fact that she not only maneuvered the utensils so easily but that - no matter how hard he studied her - he couldn’t determine what exactly it was she was doing differently. When she finished Joanne smiled at Charles and offered him the fork, which the young man reluctantly took from her hand. With the concentration normally reserved for guiding a thread through a needle Charles speared a fluffy triangle and carefully guided it to his mouth, his focus rewarded by a heavenly wave of flavor that set his taste buds ablaze. The young man was off and running then, gobbling down his breakfast as fast as he could, unconcerned with the fact that his lips and cheeks and chin were becoming smeared with syrup along the way. When he took a break for a drink he grabbed the cup with both hands and gulped at the milk within, much of the liquid dripping down his chin and onto his pajamas.
“Hold on a second, sweetie.” Joanne chuckled as she gently pulled the cup away and dabbed at Charles’ chin. “You’re getting milk everywhere. Put the cup down for a moment.”
The young man frowned but did as he was told - and that frown only deepened when Joanne produced a bright plastic top from her apron and screwed it on, revealing that Charles had been drinking from a sippy cup and that she now expected him to make use of the sippy part.
“Dat’s for babies.” Charles grumbled. “Wanna grown-up cup.”
“Well, we just saw what happened when you tried to use a grown-up cup.” Joanne countered. “Don’t you like your milk?”
“And if you spill it, that means you won’t get as much, right?”
Charles chewed on a knuckle as the cogs turned in his head. Joanne smiled, squeezed his shoulder, and placed the cup in front of him.
“Just give it a try. It’s not that bad, I promise.”
The young man regarded the cup warily for a moment before picking it up and turning it over in his hands, his eyes squinting in suspicion as he brought the spout to his lips. Though the flow of milk was frustratingly slow there was something about using the sippy cup - something about the instinctive sucking motion that took over the moment his lips curled around the spout - that put him at ease. Without any reservations left to slow him down Charles practically inhaled his breakfast, letting loose with a reverberating burp just as he was putting down his fork. The young man blushed and giggled as Joanne grinned and dabbed at his sticky cheeks with a wet napkin.
“Did you enjoy your breakfast?”
Charles nodded as he squirmed beneath her fussing. Once he was reasonably clean she stepped back and looked the young man up and down.
“Well, you didn’t make too big of a mess. All you got on your pajamas was a little bit of milk.”
The young man blinked and looked down at himself. There was something about what he was wearing that bothered him a second ago, something he had meant to ask Joanne about - but grasping the idea was like trying to capture smoke in his palms. The words were there for a moment and then it was though they had never even existed in the first place.
“Something the matter, dear?”
Charles looked up to see the woman regarding him with a curious expression on her face. He pouted and shifted in his seat. He knew that the thing he was supposed to ask her was really, really important - whatever it was - and as he struggled to remember he could feel the unbearable tightness of frustration building within him. The young man was close to boiling over when Joanne put a hand on his neck and leaned in close.
“I think I know what it is.” She whispered. “You’re having a hard time concentrating, aren’t you? Feeling a little airy between the ears?”
Charles gaped as he looked her right in the eyes and vigorously nodded his head, in awe of her intelligence, unspeakably relieved that she knew what he was going through.
“You know what helps when you’re feeling that way?”
The woman grinned, straightened up, and gestured to the window.
“Fresh air and sunshine!” She declared. “It’s a beautiful day out today - why don’t you come with me to the grocery store? You’ll feel better, I promise.”
Charles frowned and looked out onto the budding spring morning. It really was very pretty out there - and he knew that it was nice to be outside - but how would that help him think better? Though the young man had his doubts he didn’t question Joanne’s conclusion - after all, if she was smart enough to know what the problem was, it stood to reason that she was smart enough to know the solution - and silently padded behind her as she took him by the hand and led him up to his bedroom.
“You just hold tight for a minute.” She said as she sat Charles on his bed, “I’ll be right back with some nice new clothes for you to wear so you can look smart while we’re out and about.”
Charles grinned from ear to ear, feeling silly for having doubted her. She was going to get grown-up clothes for him! She knew exactly what to do, he thought to himself as he bounced on the bed and played with his fingers. He was so happy to have found someone that would help make things better, that would bring everything back to normal, that would -
Charles looked up. The color drained from his cheeks. Joanne hadn’t returned with grown-up clothes at all. What she had in her hands - what she expected him to wear - was an adult-sized corduroy shortall, pure white save for the sky blue buttons on the shoulders and hips and the little red sailboat stitched square on the chest.
“What do you think?” She said as she looked the garment up and down. “You would be just darling in this.”
Without waiting for a response the woman advanced on Charles and as she did so the young man shouted and crab-scurried up against the headboard, cowering with his knees pulled to his chest, reacting to the garment the way the sane would a straightjacket. Joanne frowned and tilted her head.
“What’s the matter, sweetie?”
“No!” Charles shouted. “Don’ wan’ it!”
“Well, why on earth not?” The woman chuckled, as though the young man were being very silly. “This is one of JJ’s outfits, and you’re the same size he is. Why wouldn’t you wear the same clothes as him?”
The young man whimpered and curled tighter into his protective little ball. He didn’t wear stuff like that - he didn’t wear dumb baby clothes - because he was different from JJ! Even though he was wearing pajamas and needed help eating and drank from a sippy cup that didn’t change the fact that he was a grown-up and JJ was little! Charles knew now that Joanne didn’t want to help him at all. She just wanted him to be a dumb little baby and there was no way he was going to let that happen. Joanne sighed and put a hand on her hip.
“That’s too bad.” She said. “There’s lots of nice people at the grocery store. You could have made some new friends.”
“But you can’t go outside in your pajamas. You need outside clothes if you’re going to come with me.”
Charles’ features twisted in concentration as he turned over what she had just said. If there were nice people at the grocery store maybe one of them would be able to help! Joanne didn’t want to help him but if the people at the grocery store were nice surely they would…and if he had to dress like a baby to have a chance at salvation it was a sacrifice he would have to make. He swallowed his fear, uncurled and scooted towards her as the woman smiled and laid the outfit over the back of the chair.
“That’s more like it.” She said. “Arms up!”
Charles did as he was told even though he wasn’t sure why he was doing it - and as such received quite the surprise when she grabbed his collar and whisked the pajama top off his body. Such was his shock at the sudden undressing that he didn’t even put up a fight when she grabbed the cuffs of the bottoms and yanked them off his legs, leaving the young man completely naked. Charles cried out and clamped his hands over his groin, his cheeks burning crimson and his lips curled into a pout as the woman chuckled at his humility.
“Oh, no need to be so modest.” She laughed. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. C’mon now, stand up.”
The young man reluctantly did so - hands maintaining their strategic position at all times - while Joanne picked up the shortall, unbuttoned the shoulder straps, and held it low for him to step into. Charles shuddered as he threaded his legs through the bands and felt little shivers run up and down his spine as Joanne pulled the top up and snapped it into place. Though he could at least take a little solace in the fact that he wasn’t naked anymore it wasn’t like his current predicament was much better. The hem of the garment only came halfway down his thighs like a little boy’s school shorts and the fact that he wore nothing underneath made him feel horribly vulnerable and exposed. Every time his penis brushed against the coarse fabric the young man winced and wriggled, reminding himself that this was a necessary trial, that it’d all be over soon.
“Don’t you look handsome!” Joanne smiled. “I just know that everyone at the grocery store is going to love your little outfit.”
Joanne took his hand before he could say anything - as was becoming the norm - and led him out of his room, the young man squirming and blushing every step of the way, willing himself to hold out just a little bit longer.
Joanne stepped out of the car and opened the back door, undoing Charles’ seat belt before taking him by the hand and guiding him towards the entrance. Charles’ heart quickened and his mouth went dry as they entered the store, his bare feet moving from the earthen warmth of dirt and grass to the cool tickle of worn linoleum. His eyes furiously scanned his surroundings, searching for someone, anyone who would recognize his plight and help him escape. But - to his growing horror - not only was the grocery store scantly populated but those within didn’t seem to think that there was anything wrong with him. The handful of people that populated the aisles looked up from their shopping as they passed but didn’t give Charles so much as a second glance, as though it were perfectly normal for a man of twenty-one years to be led by the hand while wearing nothing but an oversized shortall. With each passing second the cold numb anguish grew stronger and stronger within him, giving birth to great fat tears that shimmered in his eyes and threatened to burst free at any moment.
“Joanne! How are you!”
The young man was distracted from his breakdown by the cheerful cry of the curvy effervescent woman who was shimmying down the aisle towards them, her face alight with joy.
“Margaret, how lovely to see you!” Joanne beamed as she let go of Charles’ hand just long enough to give the mystery woman a brief hug. “Everything set for the party?”
“Just about, dear - I had to come by to grab a few last minute supplies.”
The woman’s gaze fell on Charles. Her lips curled into a brilliant toothy smile.
“And who is this charming young man?”
Charles’ eyes widened as he trembled in excitement. She called him a man! She knew he wasn’t little! She could help him!
“This is Charles.” Joanne said as she smiled at the young man and gave his arm a little wiggle. “Charles, Margaret is having a party today! There’s going to be food and music and even a Slip n’ Slide! Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
The young man hadn’t heard a word she’d said. His mind was working overtime to figure out what he could say to this woman that would get him out of this situation, that would get her to take him away from here, that would get him on his way to being a proper grown-up again. Frustration burned within him when the words wouldn’t come and that frustration became panic when Margaret’s attention turned to Joanne. The opportunity was slipping away from him! He had to say something right now!
“I go to school!”
Joanne and Margaret turned back to Charles as he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. After a moment’s surprise the latter leaned close to Charles and offered him an indulgent grin.
“Oh? What kind of school?”
Charles frowned and stared blankly into her smiling eyes. Even in his deepest concentration only the faintest images would come to him, his mind struggling to access memories from as recently as a few days ago.
“’S a grown-up school…” Charles mumbled. “Dere’s buildings…and trees…and, um…”
The words just wouldn’t come - and the young man was starting to become furious at his inability to help himself. He whined and stomped his foot and may very well have launched into a full-on tantrum had Margaret not taken him by the shoulder and looked him dead in the eyes, stopping the young man where he stood.
“If you go to a grown-up school, that must mean you’re a grown-up, right?” She smiled. “And grown-ups don’t throw tantrums, do they?”
Charles’ anger vanished in an instant, washed away by the relief that flooded his veins. He shook his head vigorously and grinned from ear-to-ear, elated that he had made her understand - but his hopes were dashed as quickly as they were raised, as all Margaret did was wink at the young man, give his shoulder a little squeeze, and return to her conversation with Joanne. Charles stood shock still for a moment, brow furrowed, lip dangling, utterly crushed by the realization that Margaret had never intended to help him in the first place. Despair threatened to swallow him whole but the young man fought it back, knowing that he needed to be brave now, knowing that he would have to take matters into his own hands. With Joanne distracted he thought it would be easy to break away from her - but the woman had an alligator grip on his palm and no amount of tugging garnered him even the slightest bit of freedom. Joanne didn’t even turn his way until Charles started pulling at her arm with both hands, whining and shouting as his bare feet slipped and slid on the slick tile.
“Let me go!” He cried. Joanne raised her eyebrows and lowered her voice.
“Charles, you need to be quiet while I’m talking to my friend.”
The statement only sent Charles spiraling deeper into his tantrum, the young man wailing as fat tears rolled down fiery cheeks. His world blurred. Everyone was mean. Everyone was stupid. Everyone was being unfair and dumb and -
In an instant his rage disappeared. His despair was gone. Everything was fine - everything was blueberry. For that was the flavor of lollipop that Joanne had popped into his gaping mouth and in the instant that his tongue first touched the sticky little orb it was the only thing in the entire world that mattered. The young man shivered and his eyelids fluttered as his lips curled around the lovely little ball of molded sugar, holding it in place so that his tongue could have unfettered access to the otherworldly flavor that made him tingle from head to toe.
“There, that’s better.” Joanne chuckled. “I hate to use candy to get them to behave but sometimes that’s the only thing that works.”
“I know exactly what you mean, dear. With a bit of chocolate my little ones become sweet as sugar.” She smiled, turned to Charles, and patted him on the head. “You be good, now. I’ll see you at the party.”
If Charles felt her touch he made no indication of it - the young man just stood staring blankly ahead, eyes glazed over in detached rapture as his cheeks pumped away like fleshy twin bellows. In that state he was extremely easy for Joanne to handle, silently padding behind the woman through the rest of the shopping trip and allowing her to strap him into the backseat without the slightest bit of fuss. It wasn’t until they were nearly home that Charles regained some measure of control over himself, when the flow of sugar had slowed to a trickle and pulling the stick from his mouth revealed that all that remained of the lollipop was a few scant craggy crystals that clung tenaciously to the saturated paper cylinder. He scraped them off with his teeth and crunched them between his molars, which afforded him one final, shuddering moment of bliss…and then it was all gone. And with his mind no longer numbed by sugar it wasn’t long at all before reality came crashing back in on him, a slow-motion train wreck of realization that made him feel as though someone were ripping his soul from his body with bare bent hands. He had blown his best chance at help for a few moments of pleasure, for a dime store lollipop that was now nothing more than a soggy stick and a memory of blueberries - and if that wasn’t bad enough, there was another issue that was suddenly making itself known, one that was becoming more and more pressing with each passing moment.
“Charles?” Joanne called back, having taken notice of the young man’s fidgeting and squirming. “Is something the matter?”
Charles hung his head and tugged at the bottom of his shortalls.
The woman chuckled and returned her attention to the road.
“Well, we’re almost home.” She said. “Do you think you can hold it for just a little while longer?”
The young man didn’t answer because he honestly wasn’t sure if he could - the numb knot of pressure was growing larger and more insistent by the second and there was no telling when it might unravel. He whimpered and wriggled in his seat, his palms pressed against his groin in a desperate attempt to hold back the inevitable, whining and drumming his heels against the floor as Joanne pulled up the driveway and parked next to the house. The woman disregarded the groceries for the moment and instead headed straight to Charles, unbuckling his seat belt, taking him by the hand and helping him out of the car, the young man maintaining a one-handed clamp as they scurried across the yard. Ollie and JJ were already outside in all their naked glory, pausing their play to gawk and then giggle at the young man’s predicament, one the two of them knew all too well. Meanwhile Hank and Christie were sitting together on the porch, the girl’s eyes widening as the Joanne and Charles passed, tugging at her grinning father’s sleeve to point out the silliness that had just occurred. The humiliation was of no consequence to Charles at that point. All he was concerned about was getting to the bathroom as soon as he could…and so it was to his great dismay when Joanne let go of his hand in the middle of the living room and started undoing his shortall.
“Bafroom!” Charles shouted, baffled as to what she was doing. “Gotta go to da bafroom!”
Joanne smiled and cast her eyes towards the ground. Charles followed her gaze… and he cried out when he saw what she was looking at, tearing away from the woman and staring at her as though she held a hissing cobra in her hands. For what her eyes had fallen on - what she expected Charles to use - was the bright red plastic potty chair, waiting patiently in the middle of the living room for its next occupant.
“No!” The young man wailed. “No potty! Use toy-let!”
“Oh, I don’t know, dear.” Joanne said as she took on a deathly serious expression. “The bathroom is all the way upstairs. Do you think you can make it that far?”
Charles whined and looked over his shoulder. At that moment the stairs might as well have been Kilimanjaro for how close he was to bursting.
“It’s an awful long way.” Joanne said. “What if you don’t make it?”
She released a theatric gasp.
“Why, you’d wet yourself, wouldn’t you? You’d wet yourself just like a little baby! And I’m sure you don’t want that to happen, do you?”
Charles bit his lip and crossed his legs, feeling as though he might explode from the exertion it required to keep it in. He didn’t want to wet himself. He didn’t want to be a baby. He looked at the chair, sniffled back a tear…and then stepped towards Joanne, letting her undo the buttons on his shortall, letting her pull the infantile garment off his body. The young man immediately plopped onto the chair, put everything in place, took a deep breath…and released an utterly contented sigh as the pressure simply flowed out of him. It was a moment of supreme relief - one that he was forcibly dragged from when he heard giggling from somewhere, when he looked up and saw Ollie and JJ peeking in from the doorway, infinitely amused at the sight of the young man using the potty just like them.
“Charwie use da potty!” Ollie shouted.
“That’s right, Ollie.” Joanne chuckled as she kneeled next to the young man and put a hand on his back. “Charles uses the potty because he’s a big boy. Aren’t you, Charles?”
The young man shut his eyes and squeezed the sides of the potty as though he could simply will himself out of the situation. Every one of the boys’ giggles was like a bullet aimed at his chest and he felt himself on the verge of bawling like any other child would when laughed at by their peers. The only thing that kept him together was that he knew it would be over soon - and when the flow finally, mercifully came to an end, he could take the tiniest glimmer of solace in knowing that the worst was over.
Charles went cold - went absolutely, completely frigid - as what was left of his heart withered and died.
“Poopy!” JJ cried as he bent and pointed at Charles. “Chawie make poopy!”
“What a good boy you are, Charles!” Joanne gushed as she rubbed Charles’ back. “Making poopy in the potty on your very first try. I’m so proud of you, sweetie.”
The young man turned to the woman and blinked heavily for a moment…before his lips curled into an idiot’s grin. He giggled and squirmed as Joanne tickled his tummy and showered him with praise, utterly compliant as she got him to his feet and cleaned him up.
“Well, I’d say you’re feeling better.” She chuckled. “What say we get you ready for the party, big guy?”
Charles beamed and nodded like a bobblehead.
“Yeah!” He cried. “Pah-tee!”