Anna lay still, not daring to move an inch lest she give away her hiding place. She knew they were out there; she could hear them easily enough and even see them occasionally as they moved in and out of her vision, shadowy figures gliding past, their legs barely visible through the multicolored haze that surrounded her.
She was safe, she knew. If she didn’t move they would never know she was here, and if they didn’t know she was here then nothing could happen. Anna very much appreciated life when nothing happened, so she held her breath whenever they walked past, speaking in their low voices that occasionally sounded like laughter. Anna knew of nothing in particular worth laughing about, not that she would have joined in if she had: safety was everything, and in here she was safe.
The voices receded into the distance and she did not hear anything more for a long time. Were they really laughing? Sound played tricks on her in here; that she knew from past experience. Light and sound didn’t act normally. But laughter? Seriously? She wasn’t sure of the last time she—
Anna replayed her last thoughts. Serious laughter, she considered: what on earth would that even be?
There had been no sound at all anywhere near her for a long time, nor had there been any disturbance of the light that could indicate movement. She could not hide here all day; she had to move.
Slowly, gingerly, she allowed one hand to sift through the leaves next to her face, pulling back only as many as she needed in order to be sure. When she knew she was alone in the yard, she rose up, casting the huge pile off of her as easily as she might have thrown off a blanket. Her sister and her friend had not found her, but now leaves were scattered everywhere nearby, covering previously raked spaces. Gonna have to go over that again, she thought. But before she had the chance to reach for the tool, she heard the door opening up on the deck behind her.
“Anna,” her mother’s voice called. “Are you out here?”
Not wishing to give her hiding space away, she stepped from behind the apple tree into the light where her mother could see her.
“Oh, there you are,” her mother said with a sigh. “You’ve been jumping in the leaves again?”
Anna stopped in her tracks. How did she know? Her quizzical look must have alerted her mother. “It’s no mystery, Honey,” the woman at the door said. “The leaves in your hair are a dead giveaway every time.”
Anna’s hands automatically reached up and started plucking yellow and orange leaves from her hair. Damn this curly hair anyway, she thought. If it were straight, like Marcy’s, they wouldn’t stick.
“Marcy said she didn’t see you out there,” her mom said. “Did you go somewhere else?”
Anna forced a small smile. “No, Mom,” she said. “You know Marcy. She was with Allison; probably she wasn’t paying much attention.”
Her mom nodded. It was true: when her older sister was with her friends, her mind did tend to become preoccupied. “Well, come on in,” she said. “It’s just about dinner time and you probably need a change before we eat.”
“Sure, Mom,” Anna said as her mother moved back into the house. But she wished she hadn’t brought up the diapers. Of course she needed a change. She’d been outside for hours; when hadn’t she needed a change after such a time? But she was almost thirteen. Shouldn’t she be able to handle that stuff on her own? On the other hand…there was the secret upstairs in her room, on her computer, the one secret of hers that the family knew nothing about.
Maybe I’m just a walking contradiction, she thought as she opened the door and stepped into the house.
[CENTER]* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“All cleaned up?” her mom asked as she stepped into the dining room.
Anna rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mom. Fresh as a newborn babe.”
Her mother turned to her. “It bothers you when I ask that, doesn’t it?”
Anna shrugged. “A little, I guess. I mean I’m kind of old enough now to deal with it myself, don’t you think?”
Walking contradiction: Mom, I’m so mature that you should let me take care of my own diapers. Yeesh.
Her mom smiled. “I forget sometimes, Sweetie. And when I say something it’s only out of concern, not out of lack of trust. You know that, right?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, grabbing some silverware to help her mother finish setting the table. “Sometimes I just get frustrated is all.”
The late afternoon light filtered in through the open windows, giving the entire room a life it only had a couple of times each day. Right now it was bouncing off of a glass mobile in the corner, creating some interesting colored reflections on the wall that pulled Anna’s attention.
“Spoons on the other side, Hon.”
She looked down. She’d done it again. Why couldn’t she get that right? It wasn’t rocket science. But she swore that if getting into eighth grade depended upon knowing how to set a table properly, they’d bust her back to pre-school.
At least I’d be dressed for it, she thought, and a rare small grin crept onto her face.
“What’s that smile?” her mother asked.
Wow. She doesn’t miss a thing.
“I was…just enjoying the rainbow on the wall,” she said, noticing that the reflection had coalesced into a true rainbow as the sun passed through the glass. Her mother looked at it too.
“Beautiful,” she said, before going back to work in the kitchen.
Grownups never have time to appreciate anything, Anna thought, her mind once more slinking back to her computer upstairs. It’s no wonder…
“Anna?” her mother called.
“Go tell Sonia that we’re about to be eating. I think she’s in the playroom.”
Anna smiled. She loved anything to do with her little sister. Truth be told she loved both of her sisters, but while being with Marcy always reminded her of the impending responsibilities of growing up, being with Sonia was the reverse: sometimes she spent hours just doing whatever Sony wanted to do, whether it was watch one of her shows or play with her dolls or whether. A barely-eight-year-old’s life was so much less complicated. More and more lately she’d found herself wishing she could simply trade places with Sony.
That had never been more true than in the weeks after the divorce. She’d been ten then, and Sonia only five, and the younger girl didn’t really comprehend the ramifications of their parents’ constant arguing, didn’t know where it was going to lead them. Most of all, though, Sony didn’t have to deal with the knowledge that the whole terrible thing was her fault.
Most kids think that and it’s an exaggeration of sorts. Not so for Anna. She’s overheard enough loud fights to know the truth: Dad left because of her. More precisely, he left because of her diapers. It was just too much, he had said. He thought she’d outgrow it, but she hadn’t, and now here she was, going into middle school in diapers. She heard her mom say once that it was not a judgement about his manhood that his daughter was incontinent, but from his response she knew that he thought it was.
“I can’t keep doing this,” he said. “It’s so…frustrating.”
“Imagine what it’s like for her!” her mother had cried.
“I do,” he had yelled. “All the freaking time. And it’s killing me. Like somehow I’ve failed.”
After that, she had known the divorce would come, and clung to Marcy for support, but secretly wished for the sweet oblivion of Sonia’s life, a life where pain and anger and yelling in the other rooms could be ignored as if it were no more real than a Pixar movie.
Perhaps it was then, she thought, that she started to wonder what it would be like. She knew it had taken a few years longer before she got curious enough to explore it, and when she did she was so grateful that her mother had not put parental guards on her internet. “Teen Babies?” Kids who liked to dress in diapers? Kids who liked to pretend they were little just because little meant fewer responsibilities? She read some letters and stories and found a Tumblr or two with pictures: it was a world she had not dreamed could exist, one where she actually fit. Except…did she want to live that way? She had to wear the diapers, but the rest? The clothing? The pacifiers? The other things associated with toddlerhood? Why would she want those?
She looked in on Sonia in the playroom, playing with some Legos in the corner where there was a huge Lego table for building things. She watched quietly for a bit and really wanted to join in, but she knew why she was there.
“Sony, Mom says it’s dinner time.”
The younger girl looked up and beamed. “Anna!” she said, dropping her Legos and racing across the room to embrace her sister. “Where were you today? I wanted to play with you but I couldn’t find you anywhere!”
Anna’s face turned pink as she recalled her fantasy adventures in the leaf pile alone. “Sorry, Punkin,” she said. “I’ll play with you after dinner, OK?”
“I absolutely promise.”
School was always the least favorite part of her day, which was, she knew, completely normal, but it was the reason that might be a bit unusual. Basically, she hated going to the nurse’s office for diaper changes. At home, she could change her own, but at school, “for insurance purposes,” the nurse had to do it. And then there had been the messy accidents—infrequent to be sure but enough that her face turned twelve shades of red simply seeing the nurse in the hall. No, Anna hated school and was always happy when she got off the bus at home.
Today, she’d had a fresh diaper right before last period, so she didn’t need to change when she got home. Instead of going inside, then, she went straight to her favorite place. God I’m going to miss this when Mom has the leaves cleared away. She’d raked it all back together last night, and it still looked OK, so she went up onto the deck, put her backpack on the chair in the corner, and climbed onto the bench that served as a wall. Positioning herself just right, she turned and faced the house, then let herself fall backwards like a trust fall, but it wasn’t a group of peers who’d catch her. It was the leaves.
After a momentary free fall, she felt them: the impact of a million tiny crinkly edges on her jacket and pants and head. With a whoosh! she sank deep into the pile, which closed in on top of her as she fell. She knew that some leaves had scattered as always; she also knew that, lying inside the leaf pile, she was utterly invisible. So she should have made herself known when the door opened and her mother came out, agitated, talking on the phone. She was going to, she told herself later, until she heard the word “diapers” and froze in her tracks. The conversation was about her; she needed to hear it.
“Yes, Roger, she still wears diapers,” her mother was saying, her voice angry. Dad? What is he calling for? She didn’t even know her parents still spoke. All she ever hears her mother do is complain to her stepfather Mark about what a horrible man she had married before him, how he never even paid the child support he was supposed to. “Why do you even care? You made it more than clear that you didn’t want to deal with it, and you haven’t.”
There was a pause. Anna breathed in the musky leafy air, waiting.
“Well I don’t really care what you think… No. If you want me to care, maybe send me some of your back child support. You’re lucky Mark makes what he makes or you’d be in jail.”
“No, the doctors say it is permanent, but they’ve never found a cause.” Me again. My damned problem. If only I could—”What? Of course she isn’t doing it on purpose! Don’t be ridiculous!”
What is he suggesting? How could he think that?
“No,” her mother continued, “I haven’t ever heard of that… But how does Brenda know Jenny is doing it intentionally… No, I haven’t… They like what? Well I assure you that’s not our Anna: she simply has no control. She never has and you damn well know it. Now stay out of my life unless you want to send some money.”
There was no more talking, but it was clear that her mother had sat down at the table from the creak of the plastic.
“Anna?” she asked.
Maybe if I’m completely still…
“Anna, I know you’re in the leaves. I see your backpack here.”
Anna sighed. Nothing for it but to come out. She shrugged off the leaves as she stood and wandered back onto the deck to sit with her mom.
“I guess you heard all of that?” her mother asked.
Please don’t ask. PLEASE don’t ask.
“Your father told me something odd about the daughter of one of his oldest friends. Do you remember Jenny Harbaugh?”
Maybe if I just stay mute this won’t go where it seems to be going. She nodded again briefly. Her mother looked at her quizzically.
“Are you all right, Honey?”
Another nod wasn’t going to work, so Anna said a simple, “Yes.” Her mother’s expression didn’t change.
“Well,” she said, “it seems that she has developed a problem much like yours over the past couple of years.”
Again calculating that she needed to speak, Anna said, “that sucks for her.”
“Watch your language, Anna.”
“Anyway, her mother made a bizarre discovery this week on Jenny’s computer. Apparently Jenny has been doing all of this on purpose in order to get put back in diapers. She is something called a Teen Baby.”
This time there was absolutely nothing Anna could say, so she just kept quiet, her mother studying her face.
“You’ve heard of this, haven’t you, Honey?”
Anna closed her eyes. Why did you have to ask? Anna did not lie to her mother; her father had done that enough for a lifetime. Right now, she sighed. And she nodded.
Her mother’s head returned the nod ever so gently.
“If I went onto your computer right now, would I find Teen Baby stuff?”
This time, Anna looked at her mother directly. “It’s not like what you’re thinking,” she said.
“Why don’t you tell me what I’m thinking?” her mother asked.
“You’re thinking I’m a liar like Jenny, that I’m just pretending to, I don’t know, get attention.”
Her mother smiled gently. “I wasn’t thinking that.”
“I was wondering if I had somehow missed the fact that my little girl wanted to stay little and not have to act so grown up.”
They sat in silence for a few moments. Anna picked the few remaining leaves out of her hair and her mother waited for her to make the next move. Whatever that was, the child would need to write the script.
She sighed again. “I found the TB stuff—”
“Teen Baby. I found it a little more than a year and a half ago at a really low point, Mom. I mean I was in diapers and I was in Middle School. You can’t even imagine how that made me feel. And it isn’t as if I can keep it a complete secret; these things are thick. Other kids know.”
Her mother reached across the small table to take her hand. “You’ve never told me this, Anna. Do they tease you? Bully you?”
Anna shook her head. “Nothing like that, at least not yet. But I worry about it all the time, you know? It’s hard to keep it secret. I’m always going to the Nurse’s Office, and I don’t take gym. Kids talk. If the wrong kids found out… Anyway, I was feeling sorry for myself and I never want to bother you because…because of Dad.”
“Oh my God, Honey,” said her mother. “It isn’t your job to protect me. Besides, you know Mark more than makes up for your father.”
Anna smiled. “I know. But he’s really only been here these last couple of years. And I really like him, I do. It’s just…I sort of owe you because of Dad.”
“Don’t even think that!” her mother said more sharply than she probably wanted to. “You are one of the three most precious things in my life, Honey. The fact that your father could not see that makes him a jerk. It does not make you responsible in any conceivable way.”
They were both crying now, and Anna crawled across into her mother’s lap. After a few more moments of her mother stroking her hair, she looked up into her mother’s face.
“I kind of liked the TB stuff, Mom…my. I liked it because in my mind it made it seem OK to need the diapers.”
Her mother, who had clearly noticed the “Mommy,” stayed quiet for a while. Then she said, “It’s Thanksgiving weekend. Do you want to try it and see how it feels for real?”
“Anna, how come you’re wearing my clothes?” Sonia asked her sister as Anna wandered down into the playroom to join her in whatever activity the younger (Is she still younger?) sister determined. The frizzy-haired 7th-grader was wearing a pair of her sister’s Osh Kosh B’Gosh pink overalls and a t-shirt with Ninja Turtles on its long sleeves. Fortunately for her, she was the smallest girl in her class by far, so they fit fine. To complete the picture she had two bows in her hair.
Their mother, following Anna into the room, answered for her. “Sony, Anna’s feeling kind of little this week so she wanted to wear clothes more suitable for how she feels. In fact, because she still wears diapers, she’s actually littler than you today, so I need you to be a big girl and tell Mommy when she needs a change.”
Sonia looked very confused. Anna’s diapers were a simple fact around the house, but no one actually talked about them, and now her mommy wanted her to, what exactly?
“Do you understand, Sweetheart?”
Sonia shook her head slowly.
Anna smiled as she plopped her padded rear next to her sister. “Just ask me once in awhile if I’m wet. I might be playing so hard I forget to think about it. And if I’m very wet, get Mommy so she can change me.”
“But you change yourself.”
“Not this week, Punkin. Like Mommy said, I’m feeling little.”
“Oh,” said Sonia, and turned her attention back to her coloring. Then, suddenly, she looked back at her sister. “You’re not too wet now, are you?”
Anna’s smile was enormous. “No, Punkin. Thanks for checking.”
“Da nada.” Sonia had been learning Spanish in 3rd grade and liked throwing in random phrases when she thought of it. Sometimes, like now, she even got one right.
“Can I color too?” Anna asked her.
Sonia looked at her sister. “Usually you read while I color.”
Anna smiled widely. “I wanna color today.”
Sonia handed her a book and moved the crayons between them, and the two girls sat peacefully coloring for the longest time. Once in awhile, one would finished a picture she was particularly proud of and show it off to an enthusiastic review by the other. After Sonia had completed her third page, though, she stopped coloring and just watched her sister, who was happily busy at the moment with a series of light purples coloring a unicorn’s tail. As she looked, she thought she could see something odd.
Without looking up or stopping, Anna answered, “Yeah?”
“How wet are you?”
They’d been there way too long for Sonia to presume that Anna could be dry, and Anna understood immediately. She reached her hand down to the side of her overalls, and there was definitely moisture there.
“Oh dear,” she said.
Sonia nodded and scrambled to her feet, heading for the stairway to the kitchen. “Mommy!” she yelled up the stairs. “Anna’s really wet.”
A moment later their mother appeared. The dark stain on the overalls was visible from the stairway. “Oh my. You really are being little, aren’t you?”
Her middle daughter smiled at her. “You said I could.”
“And I meant it. But now let’s get you upstairs to change that overflowing diaper and get you into some dry clothes. And then maybe you need a nap”
As they started up the stairs, Sonia asked, “Can I watch? I never had a little sister before.”
Their mother looked at Anna. “Well?”
Anna smiled. “It’s up to you, Mommy. I’m just little.”
Her stepfather was sitting beside her on her bed when she woke up.
“Hi, Princess,” he said.
She smiled. She loved the nickname, which he had given her on the very first day he had met her, that day two years ago then her mom had brought him home and she had been wearing her Princess Leia pajamas. Ever since, she’d been “Princess,” and it made her feel both happy and cared for.
“Hi, Mark,” she said.
He made an exaggerated expression that looked like it could be a wince. “Mark? I thought that was what BIG Anna called me. Aren’t you LITTLE Anna?”
She smiled, considering. “Hi, Daddy Mark,” she said.
Her stepfather joined her smile. “That’s better,” he said. “Maybe we can work on making it just ‘Daddy’ one of these days, but that will certainly do for now. Tell me, Princess, do you need a change?”
She felt a momentary panic; she hadn’t counted on Mark changing her. It must have been clear on her face because he spoke quickly.
“Hey, I’m just the one asking,” he reassured her. “If you do, your mom will handle things.”
She smiled, relieved. “Oh. Right. Sorry, I just…”
He stroked her hair. “No apologies needed, Princess. So, do you?”
“Uh huh,” she said quietly.
“OK,” he said. “I’ll get her in a minute. But I wanted to talk to you about something first.”
This was new. He sounded as if he was going to say something serious, which was so rare as to be…almost unheard of. Anna felt queasy. He had seemed so comfortable with her Little thing a moment ago; now he was going to “talk” to her about it? This can only mean something bad. She braced herself.
He continued the light stroking. “Honey, your mom and I have been talking.”
Of course. Too good to be true. She’s letting Mark do the dirty work. Well it was fun for a day anyway.
“We’re wondering if all of this…the Little thing…"
[I]Here it comes.
[/I]"…might be the result of your not having a father for so long.”
“And we’ve been talking about it anyway, and I…we…ah heck: I want to adopt all of you officially, Anna. I want you to be my actual children.”
Anna was stunned. That was not at all where she thought that was going. She really liked Mark, but she had not ever thought about adoption. Yet now she found herself smiling.
“You like the idea?”
Her smile growing, Anna turned toward her stepfather and threw herself at him.
“I guess I can take that as a ‘yes’?”
“Yes! Definitely yes, Daddy Mark,” she said into his shoulder. This just felt right. A family. A real family. Wow. Her arms were wrapped so tightly around him that he had to peel her off.
“I’m glad you think it’s good, Princess. Your mother—um, mommy—and I have been talking about it, and we thought that today’s revelations might make this a perfect time. And for the record: I have no problem at all with your needing to be little. I think we all should stop and be little once in awhile. The world would probably be a better place.”
Anna didn’t think her face had any more room to smile.
“Thank you,” she said. She found there were tears in her eyes. “I love you…Daddy.”
Now they were both crying, but neither seemed to care. He picked her up and carried her out of the room, calling for his wife to attend to the little one’s diapers. It was the start, she could sense it, of something wonderful.
After Thanksgiving dinner, a dinner in which Anna happily played the part of youngest child, even going so far as to eat her pumpkin pie with her fingers and get it all over her face—of course, Sonia saw this and needed to copy it, and they both ended up making huge messes that made everyone else laugh—the two youngest children ended up in the family room watching cartoons while the adults and Marcy cleaned up.
Marcy had been taken aback at first when she learned about Anna’s regression, but after consideration it sort of made sense to her. Her sister had always acted so much younger than her age, and was having so much trouble socializing in school—maybe due to her size but more likely to the bladder issues—that revisiting toddlerhood didn’t seem so far-fetched. Besides, she had just read something about it in her Introduction to Psychology class. Regression was not even all that uncommon.
Anna caught bits and pieces of the kitchen conversation during the cartoon, which she’d seen before, so she understood that her sister supported her too, and she could not believe her luck: a whole family willing to allow her to act little again at home. Maybe she could get through Middle School after all.
After a while, Marcy came into the family room.
“Do you need a change, Anna?” she asked.
Anna knew she hadn’t been changed for several hours, so the answer had to be yes, but she suddenly had the devil in her.
“Dunno,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“Dunno. I’m just little.”
Marcy rolled her eyes. “Really? That far, eh? OK, then, Little Anna, get your tiny buns over here so I can check your diaper.”
Anna smiled and got to her feet, then ambled over to the couch where her sister was seated and stood before her, presenting herself. Marcy reached out and grabbed the elastic waistband of her (actually Sonia’s) pants, pulled it out, and reached in to feel the diaper. It was soaked.
“Better get Mommy to change me then.”
Marcy sighed, but rose and went upstairs. Moments later, she returned with diapering supplies. “Mom says I should do it; she’s getting ready to go to a movie.”
Marcy changing her diaper? That was not something Anna had considered. Well why not? She’s like a babysitter. I can do this.
Marcy spread out her sister’s changing pad on the floor and told her to lie down; Anna obeyed. Reaching out, Marcy grabbed Anna’s legs and slid the pants off of them, exposing the wet diaper.
“Now can you raise your legs for me or do I need to hold them up?”
Anna smiled. “I can raise them. I’m little, not a baby.”
“OK then. Raise them.”
As Anna raised her legs she became aware that Sonia was watching. This was the second time her little sister had witnessed a diaper change, but the first time it had been on the floor. Upstairs, she always changed on her bed. Apparently Marcy had noticed as well, because once she had the soggy diaper off she turned to the youngest sister and asked, “Would you hand me a couple of those wipes, Sony?”
Sonia beamed. She loved being included, and being included in this clearly made her somehow above Anna in the pecking order. It was fun. She gave Marcy the wipes.
“Thanks. Now the powder.”
Marcy spread out a fresh diaper and let Anna lower herself onto it part way. When Sonia tried to hand her the powder, though, she smiled.
“You do it,” she said.
Anna blushed deeply. She was being changed not only by Marcy, but by Sonia.
“Really?” asked the youngest girl. As her big sister nodded, she slid open the powder and started shaking it over the diaper and Anna’s bottom, giving it a generous amount as she had seen her mother do yesterday before she stopped.
“Nicely done!” said Marcy. “You’re a pro. You’ll be a fine babysitter when you grow up.”
Sonia giggled and pointed to Anna. “I’m a fine babysitter already.”
Marcy laughed and Anna blushed again. “Now, now. You heard her: not a baby. Little.”
Marcy finished taping up the diaper as she spoke and told the others to go back to their cartoons while she put the supplies away.
The cartoons were engrossing, but turkey dinners make you tired. Before too long, both younger girls were passed out on the carpet in front of the TV.
When she awoke, the first thing Anna noticed were the bars. Her head was right up against them, and she was sure that she had never seen them before now. Trying to focus after her nap, she followed them: white bars that radiated away from her, moved in a hexagonal shape, then came back to where she was. She’d dreamed something like this; was she still dreaming?
There were a few toys and coloring things with her inside of the bars. This isn’t a dream. It’s too clear, too specific. She raised her head a little. She was still on the floor of the family room, and the bars surrounding her were from Sonia’s old playpen, a folding contraption you could set up anywhere to keep the toddler contained.
I’m in a playpen? How? Why?
“Mark thought you might like this,” Marcy’s voice said from behind her. She whipped around to see her sister sitting on the couch with a book in her hand: her Psychology textbook. “He set it up before they went to the movies, but if you don’t like it I can take it down.”
My daddy put me in a playpen, Anna thought. I’m just little, and my Daddy put me in a playpen.
“Oh,” she said, realizing she needed to respond. “No, it’s fine. It’s…nice.”
Marcy shook her head, smiling. “You’re weird.”
“I know,” Anna said and moved toward the coloring books. “Where’s Sony?”
“She’s in bed for real. It’s 8:30.”
“Wow, I napped for a long time.”
“I know. Do you need a change?”
Anna knew she could play Little and have Marcy check her, but she decided just to tell her. “No, I’m OK. Damp but it can wait.”
“OK, then. Since you just woke up, Little One, you don’t need to go to bed yet. So just color for awhile, OK? Then maybe we can watch a Disney movie.”
Anna smiled and started to work on that unicorn some more. It was a very complicated unicorn. And just at that point, the doorbell rang. She looked up.
“Who the heck could that be at this hour?” Marcy asked, rising. “Just play, Honey. I’ll get it.”
She walked out of the room and toward the front door. Anna heard it open.
“What are you doing here?” she heard her sister say.
A deep voice, one she had almost forgotten, one that was slurred with drink, responded. “I came to shee for myshelf. I don’ trus’ your mother.”
Dad! Why on earth was he here after all of this time?
“You can’t come in,” Marcy said. “You gave up your rights here years ago.”
Anna’s flesh was crawling. She looked around for a place to hide, but the reality was that she didn’t know how to unlatch the playpen and she didn’t think her legs were long enough to step over it without tripping. There were blankets someone had placed over her while she was sleeping; maybe she could hide under those. She made herself as small as possible and pulled them over her.
“You can’ shtop me, Marshy. You’re shtill my kid. And so is she.”
Anna heard something fall, heard Marcy scream. And then the footsteps were right in the room with her.
“I knew’t! I knew’t!” he cried. “She’s one of ‘em. Ish all a game. Izhn’t it, Anna? A game?”
She felt the blanket being torn away from her, looked up at her father’s reddened face holding it. She saw Marcy come from behind him and start hitting him.
“Go away!” she was saying. “Leave her alone!”
With a quick whip of his arm, he tossed his eldest daughter hard into the base of the couch. She crumpled and whimpered. He glanced, apparently decided she wasn’t going to die, and turned his attention back to Anna.
“Ish a pretend, right? Teen baby? Probly shtopped really needing those things a long time ago.”
“No, no,” she protested, but he wasn’t hearing it.
“I’ll show you what it ish to be a baby. And you won’t want to be one anymore!”
He grabbed her above her crying protests and dragged her to the door. Marcy was still collapsed on the floor near the couch, struggling to find her bearings. He turned to Anna. “You make one shound right now or act in any way like you don’ wanna be wit me, you’ll regret it, Missy. Unnerstan’?”
She nodded, terrified, and they walked out the door to his car.
The only thing Anna could do was pray that a cop would notice him driving drunk, but none did. Of course, they’d come for her right away; they knew where he lived. That did provide a bit of comfort. But she could never remember seeing him like this: so drunk, so angry, so violent.
They drove for a long time, and even though she was frightened her body took over and Anna fell asleep. When she awoke, she knew four things right away: she was very wet, she was now sitting in what seemed to be a somewhat large toddler’s car seat instead of on the car‘s seat itself, the car had stopped, and this was a motel, not his house. Her rising panic told her that none of these things, at this moment, was good.
Her door opened. “Le’s go,” he said, his voice less slurry now but no less harsh. He reached in and unbuckled the belts holding her in, and she climbed out of the seat and went with him into Room 2.
“Room 2,” he said as they went through the door. “Easy for you to remember, Anna, because that is precisely how old you are going to be as long as you are here.”
“What?” she asked, trembling.
“You heard me,” he said. “I know all about you Teen Babies.”
“But I’m not a—”
“Save it,” he said. “I know what I saw. But iss OK, Little Girl: you won’t want to be a Teen Baby when I’m done with you.”
She shuddered. What did he mean? And then she saw it. Room 2 was actually a suite, and in the small second room he had set up a crib. A real crib. And there was also a real changing table stacked with diapers—not the plain white ones she’d been wearing for awhile but ones that had babyish pictures on them. There was also a small playpen and, weirdest of all, there was a high chair in the room.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
“If you knew me you’d know I don’t kid.”
“And whose fault is it that I don’t know you?”
He slapped her across the face. “I don’t want any sass. Right now I can see that you’re very wet, so get up on that table.”
Stinging from both the shock and the pain of the slap, she did as she was told. He took off her pants and diaper surprisingly gingerly and cleaned her well with wipes before powdering her and putting a new diaper—with toy blocks on it—on her.
“OK, get down.”
She was puzzled. “What about clothes?”
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“No,” she answered honestly.
“Well, then,” he said. “You’re two. Two year olds can wear just diapers on their bottoms in the house.”
Hopping down, she pointed to the room. “This isn’t a house.”
“It’s what you have, so don’t be a smart-ass. And while I’m at it: two year olds don’t actually talk much either. A few nonsense words, that’s all. So that’s what you’re limited to from now on.”
“That’s ridic—” She stopped at a vicious look from her father.
“Good. Now let me make things completely clear. I know you can’t pass as two, but you can pass as seven or eight. I’ve told the hotel that I have a seven year old with brain damage who’s exactly like a two year old in every way except height. So when the cleaning people come in, if we’re here, you’ll act as they expect you to. Clear?”
“I promise you will be sorry if you don’t. Shouldn’t be too hard anyway, since this is kind of a dream come true for you.”
He swatted her hard twice through her diaper, and to her surprise it hurt. “If you wanna get spanked without the diaper, just keep it up.”
“Good again. Right now it’s time for little one’s din-din. So climb up into your high chair like a good girl.”
The whole thing was ludicrous, but she had no choice. As she got into the chair, he opened a cabinet and took out a couple of jars of baby food along with a bib and a rubber-coated spoon. Turning back, he buckled her in and clicked the tray in place. Then he set the jars down on it and tied the bib around his daughter’s neck. Sitting down next to her on the edge of a couch, he started spooning the food into her mouth. He had bought pleasant-tasting food, at least. One jar tasted like bananas and the other like some kind of meat, bland but fine; she had no trouble getting them down, though he insisted on feeding her so quickly that food inevitably dribbled down her chin.
There was a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” he called over his shoulder.
“Gino’s,” came the muffled voice from outside.
He rolled his eyes. “Bad timing,” he said. “Don’t you touch this spoon.” He made his way to the door, paid for the medium pizza, and returned. Her eyes went large when she saw the pizza box.
“Oh no,” he said. “That’s for me. Babies get what their daddies feed them, and tonight it’s turkey and bananas.” He shoveled another spoonful into her mouth before she could protest.
When both jars were finished, he tossed them into the garbage can and opened the small fridge that came with the room to remove a baby bottle filled with milk.
“Do you think you can handle this yourself? Or do I need to feed it to you?”
She took it from him, stared at it for a minute, and then, because she was very thirsty, put it to her lips and started to suck.
He sat back and watched. “You think you want this right now, and I get that. It makes me basically a kind of wish fulfillment. But after a few weeks, or more, of doing nothing but eating baby food, drinking from bottles, playing with toddler toys, and pissing and shitting in diapers, what will you think? And this isn’t just going to be here, either. I’m not shutting myself up for weeks with you. We’ll be going on outings. Or didn’t you notice the stroller when you came in?”
She noticed it now as he pointed: a slightly larger than average stroller, but one that looked exactly like every other she’d ever seen. He was going to take her out in public. But…then she’d be saved. Someone would be looking for her. They always were. She smiled around the bottle’s nipple.
“Yeah,” he said, completely misinterpreting her reaction, “you get to be a baby all the way. Your TB dream come true. And you’re going to hate it.”
“This is Maria Espinoza with Channel 2 Breaking News. The four-month saga of kidnapped 13-year-old Anna Martino has come to a happy end this afternoon, as the missing child was discovered alive in a hotel room three states away. The kidnapper, Anna’s father Roger Martino, has not been located. Anna was very dehydrated and emaciated, but doctors at the local Immaculate Conception Hospital list her in guarded but fair condition. They expect a full recovery.”
They were sitting on the deck overlooking the spacious back yard, where piles of leaves squatted in several colorful mounds. It was an unusually warm October day, and Marcy was out in the yard with the rake while her mother and the reporter chatted and sipped coffee.
“It’s all so hard to comprehend,” the reporter said.
“I get that,” came the reply. “What can I do to help?”
“Well, OK. I know we’ve been over this piecemeal, but maybe walk me through it again slowly?”
Anna’s mother shrugged. It wouldn’t be the first, fiftieth, or last time she’d tell the story. “Sure,” she said, and the reporter switched her recorder on. “You know that Marcy—that’s her with the rake—called me as soon as she was recovered enough.”
“From Roger hitting her.”
“Right. He knocked her hard against a couch. She still gets headaches. Anyway she didn’t know what to do, so she called me and left a message because my phone was silent in the movie. When we got it—”
“As soon as your movie ended.”
“Yes. When we got it, I called her immediately, and when I understood what had happened, I called the police. They put an Amber Alert out right away, but as you know it was too late. No one knew he was in a rental car. No one knew he’d change it half way through his drive. No one knew he had already arranged that suite in the motel in Nebraska. No one knew he had changed his appearance, or hers. Everyone was concentrating on him, his car, his house.”
The reporter slowly sipped her coffee, a trick to calm her subject down: do something utterly normal. It worked. The somewhat frenetic pace and undertones faded away and the narrative returned to normal.
“After that?” she asked.
The woman shrugged. “After that, it was as if they had driven right off the face of the earth. No one had seen them. No one saw them. It was only much later that we understood how that could be.”
“After Anna was found.”
“Tell me about that.”
“It was the hotel housekeeper. Roger had told them he only needed them once a week and gave them large tips not to disturb him, so they did as they were told. But it had been a week, and no one answered when she knocked, so she went in.”
“Anna. In that crib, wearing nothing but an overflowing diaper, caked with shit and piss. There were several empty bottles strewn about; he had not left her to die. But she was so weak all she could do was whine softly and suck on a pacifier.”
The reporter was nonplussed. “That’s the part I can’t understand. I mean I get that the motel’s housekeeping believed she was a mentally ill seven-year-old, and that’s why no one ever put her together with the missing thirteen-year-old of the Alert, especially since her father had cut her hair so short. I get all of that. But how on earth could he just leave her like that? After he knew what his treatment had done to her?”
Anna’s mom shook her head. “You know he was angry because he thought she was faking her incontinence. He thought she was a Teen Baby. From what he said when he took her, his goal seems to have been to break her of those desires by immersing her in forced babyhood. I have no clue whether that’s sound psychological reasoning or not, but it obviously backfired.”
The reporter looked across the lawn, where Anna had just rolled out from inside one of the leaf piles, laughing loudly.
“Instead he broke her.” It wasn’t a question.
“Have you ever confirmed the rumors that he took her to malls and parks and places dressed like that, treating her that way?”
Anna’s mom shook her head. “We’ve never found anyone who was sure, and the local mall records over their surveillance video every two weeks. But evidence suggests he did.”
“The stroller. And the fact that there was often no one in the room when housekeeping came.”
More laughter from the yard. Anna was running around. She might have been chasing a butterfly, but it was so late in the season…
“But somewhere along the line,” he mother continued, “something snapped. Maybe it was in that last several days when he left her all alone. Who knows?”
“You never answered why he would do that. Any idea?”
She nodded. “Actually, yes. We divorced after years of fighting about Anna’s incontinence. He couldn’t take it. I think that, when he discovered that she really, truly was incontinent, and that he may well have made it worse, since she had never been bowel incontinent before, well…I think he broke.”
“That’s being generous,” said the reporter.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s way more than he deserves, but it is what I think.”
Anna was running over to Marcy, who was still raking. From behind another pile, Sonia ran right up to her and intercepted her, calling “Te amo!” as she twirled Anna and they both fell into a giggly heap.
“What does he deserve, do you think, when they catch him?” the reporter asked.
“That’s not for me to decide,” she replied.
The door opened behind them and Mark walked out. A big man, he totally dwarfed the women as they sat at the table. “Well, if I got to decide, I’d put him in a room with me for half an hour. And if there was anything left of him when time was up, I’d throw him in jail.”
The reporter looked at him. “Is that on the record?”
“Why not? That was my little princess he messed up.”
Mark’s eyes shifted up to the yard, where Anna was now in Marcy’s arms, laughing hysterically, with Sonia looking on.
“Hey, Marcy,” he called, “you be careful with her.”
The older girl looked up at the deck and smiled. “Oh you know she loves this.” And with that she launched Anna into the air, careful that it would be her diapered rear that came down first into the huge pile of leaves. As Anna sank down, they could all hear her laughter continuing.
“It always was her favorite thing to do,” her mother said. Then she called to the yard. “Does she need a change?”
Marcy nodded. “I thought I smelled something stinky that time. I’ll bring her in.”
As they bounded up the deck stairs, Mark reached down and Anna leapt into his arms. “Daddy!” she said with clear delight, handing him a pile of red and orange and yellow. “I got leaves!”
“I know, Princess,” he said, taking the offered gift. “I saw you fly right into them. Now let’s go change that stinky diaper.”
“K, Daddy. I fly more?”
“We’ll see, Princess. We’ll see.”
“Could I get a turn too?” Sonia asked.
Mark smiled. “Of course you can, Sweetheart.”
They disappeared into the house, along with Marcy, who had some schoolwork to do. The reporter turned to her subject.
“There are gradations of ‘complete recovery,’ aren’t there?”
Anna’s mom snorted. “I guess you could say that. But we love our little Anna, and even though they don’t think she’ll ever be the same as she once was, I don’t think we could love her more if she were. There’s something about a baby’s pure innocence, you know?”
The reporter turned off her machine and finished her coffee.
As they walked back through the house to the front door, she turned to Anna’s mom. “Off the record: if you had known all of this would happen, would you have indulged Anna in her need to be ‘Little’?”
There was a pause. “Off the record or on: no, I wouldn’t have. She was having issues, leading a hard life before, that’s true, and yes she’s perfectly happy now and may always be, but that’s only because she no longer knows any better. And besides, she she had to suffer so much to get here. I can’t imagine making such a decision knowing the consequences. Anyway, it will be a lot harder to be a thirty or forty year old baby than a fourteen year old one and I won’t always be here to keep her safe. No. I’d have told her to suck it up and we’d have argued and Mark would have taken her side and called her his Princess and…you know what? We’d probably end up in the same place.”
“Fate,” said the reporter, stepping out onto the stoop.
Anna came running into the room at that moment and put her arms around her mother.
“Love,” said her mother, and shut the door.