Just like the first time, there was no gust of wind, or footsteps behind them or vacuum or rushing of air. Just like the first time, the heavy door slammed shut all the same.
“EEEEEEEEP!” It was Laura, not Lynn who cried out this time. Lynn was smiling. To her this meant that there was still magic in this old tomb for poorly thought out businesses.
The lights came on. Right where he had been before was the old shopkeeper, as hard and shriveled as ever. “I really do need to get something done about those lights,” he said. “I don’t suppose either one of you would happen to know the number of a good electrician, would you? I’ve reported the issue to my landlord, but they’re quite useless it seems.”
Mom regained her composure fairly quickly. “Oh dear, I did jump.” She looked around at the display cases. “This isn’t a toy shop, isn’t it?”
The old fellow gave a dry laugh that sounded like dead leaves crackling. “Not as such, but there are many amusements here.” Then, he looked at the diapered girl, still wobbling and trying to stay standing no matter what her legs were telling her to do. “Hello, Lynnie! Enjoying your last purchase? Here to do business?”
Lynnie was pulled off balance while her mother drew her in for a protective hug. “How do you know my daughter’s name?”
A jowly smile was offered in return. “Her name’s on the bag.” He pointed to the aquamarine baby bag that had been here two days ago. “Sorry. Just a little joke. I love talking to babies and children like they’re adults. It’s so funny to see how they react; like they’re not used to it.”
Mom’s laughter was polite enough. “Oh, that is very funny.” She was already,
“Please, take a look around!” he gestured towards the back. “I can show you my Happy Homemaker’s Section! I’m positive you’ll find something there that you’d love to take home with you. Everybody does!”
Mom looked like she was about to politely excuse both of them and walk out, when she tilted her head to the side “What is that noise?”
Behind thick glasses the old man blinked slowly, rather like a cat. “It’s a pink rubber ball that never stops bouncing, completely defying the laws of physics.” He paused. “Just got it a few days ago. Would you like to see it?”
Mom looked to Lynn. “Is this why you thought this place was a toy store? Did one of your little friends tell you about the ball?”
Lynn looked to her mother and then to the ancient shopkeep. “Yes.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “Let’s go see this ball.” And so they did.
“Wow.” Mom said after it became clear that the little rubber ball wasn’t going to stop. “How does it do it?”
“I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I told you it was magic.”
Mom shook her head, chuckling knowingly like a grown-up who was in on a joke. “Still,” Mom conceded. “It is pretty neat.”
“Well, it’s not much of a curio shop if there’s nothing to be curious about,” the old man said with a sly grin. “ Are you sure I can’t show you some other items from my collection?”
Mom looked at the ball, still hopping up and down with the same speed and steadiness of a metronome. It was hypnotizing; mesmerizing in a way. “Y’know what? Sure.” She turned to her daughter. “Lynnie? Do you want to watch the ball bounce while Mommy looks around.”
Lynn’s head was moving double time of the ball she’d wished into existence. “Uh-huh!”
“Don’t worry madam,” the old fellow said. “I’ll be happy to look after your little one while you window shop. Let me know if you have any questions.”
Mom walked away, peering at the different bizarre displays as if she were at a museum instead of a magical house of chaos. Left standing on her own, Lynn felt her legs begin to tire; so much so that she had to sit down on the floor. At the very least it was a slow, controlled fall.
Once Mom was far enough away, the shopkeep leaned over and said. “Thank you for keeping your part of the bargain. I always appreciate family referrals.”
Lynn felt like she’d just heard another language. “Family...referrals…?
“Yes,” the coot said. “Remember, part of our haggling was you referring more customers to me. You came back with your mother.” Then he said, “So I take it you’re satisfied with your purchase?”
The young woman’s jaw dropped open. “Satisfied?! Satisfied?!”
He held up a finger. “I’m sorry, but before we continue I should be very clear that I have a no return policy. You either like it or you don’t.”
The record in Lynn’s brain skipped a beat. “Satisfied?!!!” She lifted up the hem of her polka-dot dress and pointed to the adult Huggies beneath. “Does this look like satisfaction to you?!”
Lynn was completely gobsmacked. She had expected one of two things: Either a surprised and confused old man who was just as shocked as she was, or a mustache twirling maniacal villain. This was neither.
“Everybody thinks I’m a baby!”
He scratched the top of his head. “Aren’t you?”
Oh no. The bag was affecting him too! “No! I’m nineteen!” she pleaded. Please see reason! Please see reason!
“I’m not supposed to be like this! I’m supposed to be babysitting, not needing to be babysat!”
“That’s true for most nineteen year olds, yes,” he conceded. “But some people grow up faster than others.”
A low growl got stuck in her throat. This wasn’t working! “ You sold me that bag! Made the sales pitch! We shook hands! Would you have done that with an unaccompanied baby?! I wasn’t like this two days ago!”
Then the old shopkeep said something that shook Lynn Gilligan to her core. “Not on the outside, at least.”
“What are you talking about?!” Lynn wanted to shriek, but her question came out instead as a hoarse whisper. “I never wanted to be a baby…”
The old man teased his own wild hair a bit. “Didn’t you? If not, then why aren’t you the one toting the bag around? Why are you being cared for instead of caring for someone else?”
“I...I...I…” She had nothing.
He smiled, not unkindly, like an indulgent grandfather; and that might have been the unkindest part of all. “Lynnie, you’re very much a child, but you’re not a stupid one.”
That’s when everything clicked into place for her: She really was a baby. Or rather, she’d never really been ready to be a big girl. That was probably true before she’d wandered into this place. It was definitely true now. Why else would a nineteen year old girl with no romantic interest or any kind of sex life tote around a diaper bag everywhere? It wasn’t professionalism as much as an excuse to have so much baby stuff around her at all times while still giving her a sense of semi-plausible deniability. She’d been sewing this her entire life on some level. Only now was it bearing fruit.
But just as she’d missed her all too short childhood when she was an adult, now that she was a baby, being an adult seemed so much more preferable; especially if she was going to be sleeping in cribs and eating in highchairs for the rest of her life...
“So I’m stuck like this?”
“Only if you consider it being stuck…”
As an adult she could go anywhere she wanted and do whatever she had time for. What could she do like this? Get stripped and changed and dressed? Get taken where other people wanted her to go and play if and only when they let her? To always be someone else’s responsibility instead of her own agent?
The only thing Lynn could do “by herself” was something that no self-respecting woman would WANT to do to themselves. Though considering that she had lost the ability to undress herself, she likely wouldn’t have a choice.
Like Icarus, she’d flown too close to the sun and was going to drown in a sea of infancy.
“You’re not going to fix me?”
He patted her on the head. “Why would I do that? What’s there to fix?”
That’s when Mom came trotting back up, holding a tiny pair of shoes. “How much for the cute pair of baby doll shoes?” They were dark green with little bells on the toes.
The shopkeep took a gander at them. “Oh those? Those are elf shoes. You put them in your house and they attract little elves to clean for you. It was a cobbler who first figured that trick out.”
Mom chuckled, more sincerely than before. “Awww, how cute! That’s a neat little story. Will sure save me a ton of housework. No more dishes or having to put Lynnie’s toys away.” She tried (and failed) to hide a wink from Lynn.
“Indeed,” the old shop keep said. “But they only work if everyone stays asleep the entire night. If anyone gets out of bed, the elves will race around and put everything back the way they found it, including dish stains.” He turned around and gave Lynn a wink. “Does your daughter sleep through the night yet?”
A spot of recognition on Mom’s face. “Yes, mostly.” She bent over. “Though you hear that, Lynnie? If you don’t sleep through the night and wake Mommy up, the elves will go away.” She stood up and mouthed the words “Thank you.”
“That’ll be fifty dollars.”
“FIFTY DOLL-?” Lynn’s mom cut herself short. “These are worth maybe ten...for the story.”
The proprietor’s eyes literally twinkled. “Twenty.”
“Fifteen.” At least Mom knew how to haggle.
An old wrinkled hand shot out for a handshake. “Add in a referral and you have a deal.”
The adults froze and turned to look at the nineteen year old toddler. They waited patiently, bemusedly, as Lynn stood up, first sticking her butt into the air and then pushing off the ground, followed by waving her arms in the air to get her balance. “That’s not gonna like...turn her into an elf or something, is it?”
Both grown-ups, for Lynnie was having a harder and harder time thinking of herself among them given the circumstances- laughed lightly. “Oh Lynnie,” Mommy said, “don’t worry this is all just for fu-”
“I never sell what people deserve,” the old man interrupted. “Only what people need. You have my most solemn assurance that nothing untoward will happen. These shoes help with cleaning. Nothing more. Nothing less.” He gave her a boop on the nose. “As long as a certain someone stays in her crib all night.”
That boop on the nose was enough to send Lynnie off balance. She teetered backwards, her arms flailing to grab onto something that wasn’t there.
“Gotcha!” Mom was quick. Super quick. Just before Lynnie’s feet gave out, she was caught and pulled into her mother’s arms. “Don’t worry baby. Mommy’s gotcha. She won’t let you fall. Never ever.”
A second epiphany. The last few days she’d had more time and privilege (if not freedom) than she could remember. Her mother had shown more concern and care for her over the last few days than she could remember. Before this would her mom have bathed her? Tucked her in? Taken time away from the T.V. to really pay attention to her?
No. Of course not.
Marie had been fun to hang out with, too. The time at the duck pond and the playground and this morning had been the most time she’d spent with a friend and NOT worrying about cramming for some exam.
Stuck as she was, that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. Marie was very likely her weekend babysitter, meaning playing every weekend with her best friend.
Was it really so bad that the price for all this was getting too much of it? Was too much of a good thing really that bad? Was it even too much?
She could still talk, even if everyone who heard her thought of her as just a precocious child. Did anyone really listen to her or take her seriously as a nineteen year old (the crazy nineteen year old with the diaper bag no less)? It surely wouldn’t matter if she was hurt or sick. Most people would believe that.
She could still walk...kind of.... Playground time might be trickier, but that just meant she’d get more help and attention from the grown-ups in her life. More attention. More love. More of everything she gave and so desperately craved for herself. And if the diaper bag retained its magic, it’s not like she’d be a financial burden on anyone. All of her food and clothing could be magicked into existence.
“Are you okay, baby?”
Lynnie relaxed her bladder and her mind. This would be far from the last time she’d be in a wet diaper….but she was done counting. “Yes Mommy,” Lynnie said. “Ready to go?”
Howdy howdy! Welcome back! Couldn’t stay away from Bastion, huh? Back for a little more people watching before you go back home?
Hmm? Who’s that coming out of that new store? The one with the baby giggling in her arms?
That’s just Laura Gilligan. She’s a nurse, works over at the hospital. Her daughter’s a cutie though. I remember when my own little girl was that age. Well...not quite, I suppose, but you know what I mean.
Every parent says their kiddos grow up too fast, but not her Lynnie.
Yup, not much else to say about them. Normal stuff, pretty boring actually. Wish she didn’t leave the girl’s stroller there like she owned the sidewalk, though.
Now over there, coming out of the dress shop that’s Nora and Robert Simmons. They’re well off, but that’s because Robert is an accountant; one of them financial advisors. Take care of rich people’s money long enough and you get rich yourself. Nora’s got expensive taste, though, so some people wonder how much of that income is legitimate and how much is money gettin’ “lost”, and I hope you hear the quotation marks when I say that.
Over there coming up the street is…