Stranger on the Train

The weatherman on Channel 7 had forecast snow for this evening— “4-6 inches falling from 7 PM until about 2 AM” in that absurdly cheery voice, as if everyone watching was just dying to get out there and do even more shoveling—but that wasn’t going to stop Stephanie from getting where she needed to go. Not tonight. Tonight was just too important to her. Oh, there had been other occasions she had blown off due to snow, to be sure; just last week, for example, she had decided not to go to Ali’s party when the storm hit just during rush hour. And last winter she had been practically a shut-in; aside from work, she didn’t venture into the winter weather at all. Thank goodness someone invented grocery deliveries. But tonight was the office Christmas party, and just about everyone believed that Justin was going to propose to Stacy, and she wasn’t going to be the one who missed it. Not after all of the office drama and gossip over the last six months. No way.

“Looks like Mommy’s going to be very cold tonight,” she said as she rubbed her little calico, Willow, behind the ears. The cat purred her appreciation. “No, I don’t want to leave you, but that’s how it goes.”

It was, actually, a huge concession for Stephanie Alder to be heading out into the snowfall and temperatures in the teens. Stephanie Alder hated winter with a passion so hot she was always amazed it wasn’t enough to warm her up all by itself. Once, when she was a child, she had contentedly built snow forts and skied and skated, but those days were so far behind her she could hardly remember them at all. Now her skis had been given to charity and her skates hadn’t been sharpened in years, and she didn’t even build snowmen in the park with her little niece and nephew when her sister visited. Chicago’s winter chill had defeated her, made her less adventurous.

Stephanie wasn’t one of those wishy-washy Chicagoans who complain about the weather in every season, either. She detested those people. It wasn’t reasonable, she thought, to live here and constantly complain about the weather. It’s OK to hate one season, but not all of them. She had long ago decided she was a warm weather girl: give her sunny and 80° and she was a happy camper, and if it happened to climb into the 90s, well, there was always air conditioning. But the winter? It was brutal and nasty and unforgiving. She dreamed of moving somewhere like southern California where it was warm all year long. Her friends always said she would miss the changing of the seasons, but she thought: if I want to see colored leaves, I know where the airports are.

Truth be told, though, it wasn’t just the bitter cold itself that Stephanie hated. She hated how her diapers always chilled so quickly and felt so awful. Stephanie had been bladder incontinent since birth and used diapers all the time to control the leakage. On a warm day, all she needed to do was switch to a cloth-backed brand to feel comfortable. In the cold, nothing worked. She’d be warm for a few minutes right after going, but the cold air would take over and soon she’d be walking or sitting in something that felt as if it had been in a refrigerator. And God help her if a diaper leaked in the winter. It had happened more than once, leaving her with a stream of iced urine running down her leg under her pants or, oh God!, leggings. She’d experienced that enough for one lifetime.

It had been a problem all of her life, but until she’d moved away from her mother’s Highland Park home into her own Evanston apartment, she didn’t really appreciate just how much her mother had helped her out with it. Of course she’d been changing her own diapers for a long time now, since middle school anyway, but the emotional weight of having to wear them sometimes got to her, and never more so than in the freezing chill of Chicago winter. On cold days as a child, she could count on her mother’s having made hot chocolate to warm her up and having a clean diaper ready. On cold days, even through eighth grade, she let her mother change her; it made her feel somehow warmer and definitely more loved.

Once she got to high school, though, by some unspoken agreement between them the diaperings stopped. It was as if both of them suddenly decided she was just too old for that kind of intimacy. Then cold days grew just a little colder to Stephanie; something warm in her life had vanished. The truth was, though, that there was one thing that warmed Stephanie Alder about cold weather, and that was Christmas time. She believed in Santa Claus long after the other kids her age had stopped believing; the magic of the season meant the world to her. But it wouldn’t last. Her ultimate disappointment came in seventh grade. She wrote a letter to Santa asking for only one single gift: freedom from diapers. When it didn’t happen—when she got more clothes and electronics, etc. instead—she finally understood: her friends were right. Santa didn’t really exist after all. She still loved the holiday, but she had to admit some of the magic was gone. And the diapers continued to be part of her daily existence.

More and more these days, Stephanie’s diapers of choice were the cute ones she could find on ABDL websites. She was not ABDL, not in the least, but of course she knew about them. It was pretty much impossible to be incontinent in the late 2010s without running into that particular subculture. At first, she felt a bit disgusted by the whole thing—How could anyone get off on this? I’d give anything to get rid of them!—but over time she’d grown more tolerant. She’d even tried sucking on a pacifier once, but it did nothing for her. The cute diapers, on the other hand: well, if she was stuck in these things anyway, she might as well have a little fun. So she owned, in addition to plain white and more hospital-style diapers, brands with pastel toys, dinosaurs, teddy bears, abc’s and other childish things decorating them, and some in pretty pink and purple colors. It livened up what would otherwise have been the worst part of her days.

For tonight she had chosen a particularly thick diaper with teddy bears and other stuffed animals on it; her favorite was a little snow leopard blowing bubbles. She knew she’d be drinking at least a bit at the party and hoped she could get by without a change; in fact, as she had often done, she wasn’t even bringing a spare with her so she could go without a purse. No way was she bringing one tonight, not after the last big party she attended when she’d put it down somewhere and couldn’t find it to save her life at the end of the evening. It had taken over an hour and the help of half the party guests to locate it; she wasn’t going through that again. Besides, not having one forced her not to stay too late and helped make life easier as the party wore on: even if someone wanted to make it with a girl in diapers, he wasn’t going to when she was soaking wet, so she was safe from predators. For an emergency, she kept a Depends Silhouette in her coat pocket; it was the only thing she had that was small enough to fit. It would never last her very long, but it would do in a pinch.

Since it was a Christmas party, she had decided to get dolled up in red and green. On a whim, she had purchased a pair of Christmas-themed tights with snowflakes sparkling down her legs. Above them, she put on the outfit she had been given when she was only fifteen and now wore just for fun at least once during every Christmas season: a deep green velvet skirt with a velvet top that was red trimmed with gold. If she put a Christmas barrette in her hair, as she did tonight—a shiny one with green, red and gold foil strips layered and slightly fanned out—she thought she looked very cute. In point of fact, as petite as she was, Stephanie Alder dressed for this party was utterly adorable. It was another self-defense mechanism, like the single diaper: she wanted to have fun at this party, but not worry about any negative consequences. This outfit, which had made her look younger when she was a junior in high school, still had the same effect. Then, it was undesirable—what high school girl wants to look like a middle schooler?—but now, since she looked mostly the same as she did back then, it served a new purpose: fending off unwanted advances. It was odd. People knew she was an adult, but when she looked a bit younger, they left her alone. Something within Stephanie’s mind understood that simple algorithm; thus the choice of these clothes tonight.

Her girlfriends at work thought it was a cute outfit, though. They’d seen it at a little get-together last year, when she’d worn it (as usual) on a whim, and Gemma had even asked her earlier in the week whether she would be wearing it to the office party.

“Of course,” she’d told her. “If I want to enjoy myself without the guys all over me, it’s the best thing I’ve ever found.”

The tall brunette had smiled. “I know what you mean. Sometimes I wish I had a choice like that myself. Anything to make myself still look cute but less desirable, you know? I’m a bit jealous of you. I’d love to ask Santa to let me look younger when I wanted to.”

“I get that,” Stephanie had told her. “But it’s not always so great when you’re already small. It’s a real pain when they don’t believe me that I’m over 21 at restaurants—I’m almost thirty, for crying out loud—good thing I like Coke so much. Anyway I do hate the meat market thing, so I never even try going to bars.”

Gemma shook her head. “But how much of any of it do you really like, anyway?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, you know, the drinking, the showing off for the guys, all of it. You don’t like the meat market. You’ve told me how much you hate the feeling of being sick when you’re too drunk. So i’m just wondering: wouldn’t you just rather have a quieter time, talking maybe, hanging out without the social pressures?”

“That went out in seventh grade.”

Gemma rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” Stephanie said, “Until Santa decides to really make me young again, parties like this are all I have, and I feel I need the extra protection. Hence this outfit.”

“Don’t you already have, like, extra protection?”

“Very funny.”

Gemma was a good friend. She was the first person Stephanie had met when she started at Hemming & Klatch, and they’d hit it off immediately. It almost made the accounting job palatable. Almost. Every single day, though, Stephanie found herself wishing at some point she’d majored in something else. In school she’d liked math, and she’d had a nice business teacher in high school, which is why she’d chosen accounting in the first place, but good God the job was dull. And it didn’t help any that the entry level positions were mostly data-crunching. Sometimes, she wondered what her life would be like if she had made a different decision, chosen a different direction. Still, along with Mandy and Jess, she and Gemma always went to lunch together and almost always managed to have a blast. And the three of them were the only people in her life right now to whom she had ever confided about her incontinence. It was either that or try to explain why she never went to the ladies’ room with them. And besides, she felt she could use a bathroom buddy to watch out for others. So she’d told them one evening over drinks at Louie’s and all three of them told her it was no big deal: friends don’t care about silly things like that.

But they do care about the outfits you wear to the annual Christmas party, she thought, examining herself in the mirror after yet again transforming herself into the image of someone much younger.

“You like it too, don’t you?” she asked Willow, who was once again sidling up to her as she sat and rubbing against her thigh. “Does that velvet feel good to you?”

How many times now had she worn this outfit? She had no clue, but she knew one thing: this was going to be the first time she’d worn it to Hemming and Klatch. Last year, her first at the firm, she’d missed the party due to illness. Not tonight. She smiled at her image in the mirror. No way I’d even get into a bar tonight. Good thing the booze was going to be at the party and she didn’t need to pay.

Stephanie grabbed the outfit’s final touch, the shiny black flats with the bows at the toes that she’d found at DSW last year that were perfect, put them into a grocery bag, and slipped her feet into a pair of black boots for the journey. The shoes completed the outfit in an innocent, simple way instead of adding a touch of sexuality as heels would have. Then she put on her winter coat, grabbed her keys, her phone, and her Metra card and shoved them into a pocket, petted the cat once more, and headed out the door. She was bringing only what she absolutely needed. Easy peasy.

The weather was every bit as uncomfortable to her as she’d thought it would be, but at least she didn’t need to be out in it for long. The train stop was just down the street both from her apartment and from the office at the other end; if it hadn’t been such a lousy evening she might have braved lighter outer clothing. But the faux fur was her choice for tonight; she wanted to be as warm as she possibly could.

On the train, she sat in her favorite place: the end facing seats. She always took them in the hope that no one would sit in the opposite seat, thus giving her the equivalent of two full seats to herself. She unfastened her coat buttons for comfort, plugged in her headphones, and sat back for the half-hour ride. On this night, luck wasn’t with her; the seat across from her was taken at the very next stop by a woman about her grandmother’s age.

“Excuse me, Dear,” the woman said, piling an oversized purse and a shopping bag onto the seat. “Just doing a bit of last minute shopping.”

Stephanie smiled, acknowledging her, and would have gone back to her music, annoyed by the fact that there were open seats elsewhere, if the woman hadn’t immediately continued, returning her smile and obviously admiring her Christmas outfit.

“That’s a beautiful outfit,” she said.

“Thank you,” answered Stephanie. “My mother gave it to me.”

The old woman seemed lost in thought for a moment. “My youngest lives in Wilmette, but I’ve always loved shopping in Evanston.”

Stephanie popped her earpieces out. “Yes,” she said, “I think it has a great downtown.”

The woman smiled. “Do you live there, Sweetheart? Do you go to Evanston Township High School?”

Although she knew she looked young, Stephanie was nonetheless unprepared for someone actually thinking she was still in high school. She wasn’t sure quite how to react, so for a moment she was just silent. Then she said, simply, “No. I mean I do live in Evanston. But I’m not in high school.”

The woman looked surprised. “Oh, my!” she said. “When you get to my age, sometimes it’s hard to tell ages correctly. I thought you looked high school age.”

Stephanie shook her head. “I’m not.”

“Well, don’t worry,” the woman said. “You’ll get there. It can’t possibly be more than a year or two away, right?”

Sitting across from the woman, Stephanie was astonished. She knew she looked younger, but high school age was incredible. And now, given the knowledge that she was not of high school age, this woman assumed she was younger still? Was she nuts? At this point, though, it was clear to her that the old woman was just being nice, even if she was sort of weird, and correcting her would embarrass her, so she decided to play along. What can it hurt?

“Um, no. I mean I’ll be there next year,” she said, feeling really foolish.

The woman nodded. “You’ll like it. I went to ETHS back in the day. It’s a really good school. I’m sure it’s only gotten better, at least from what I read.”

Stephanie could see the woman’s sincerity. “That’s what my, um, mom tells me,” she said.

“I really enjoyed the theatre department. Do you act?”

She shook her head. “Never tried it.”

“You really should. I’ll bet you’re really good at improvisation; you seem as if you could just roll with anything.”

Stephanie’s eyes went a bit wide. Was the woman toying with her? Did she know that Stephanie was no middle schooler? She tried to search for anything like sarcasm or meanness in the woman’s eyes but there was nothing there. The woman was innocent as the new day. So Stephanie keep “rolling” with what was happening.

“I suppose,” she said. “My friends tell me I’m pretty quick.”

“I’ll bet you are,” said the woman, now looking at her a bit more carefully. “Can you give me an example?”

It was such an odd conversation, Stephanie thought, and not only because she was pretending to be thirteen years old. This woman seemed weirdly interested in her. Ah well; it’s passing the time. So she considered what she could tell the woman that would be true to the middle schooler she thought she was. Realizing that the best lies are the closest to the truth, she decided to tell the story of how she got out of a jam with some random guy at a party last month.

“Well, there was this boy I met at a friend’s party, and at first he was really nice, but as the party wore on he got kind of grabby, like he wanted to get to second base and such, right there in the living room.”

“And you didn’t want that.”

“No! Not at all.”

“What did you do?”

“I have an alarm on my phone that sounds like it’s ringing, you know? And I can set it off with just one click, so I did, and I pretended to be talking to my mom and arguing with her about having to come home right away. Then when I got off the phone I told him I needed to leave and I did.”

The woman smiled. “Clever girl.”

Stephanie shrugged. “It worked.” She was beginning to enjoy this little game, silly as it was, so she was glad when the woman continued it.

“What’s your favorite class?”

“Well, I’ve always liked math,” she responded without thinking, but then she thought about how dull and repetitive her life was and amended her answer. “But I’m finding English really interesting too. All the character stuff and all. And reading out loud.”

The woman’s smile grew broader. “I knew you were a little actress at heart.”

“Well I’ve never tried it, as I said” Stephanie said, “but I always thought it looked like fun.”

“You should try it,” the woman said. “You’re a natural. Promise me you’ll at least take a theatre class once you get to high school.”

Stephanie hated making a promise that was an outright lie, but, hey, in for a penny “I promise!” she said with all the enthusiasm she could muster.

The old woman sat back and smiled to herself.

“Do you mind if I ask you a very personal question?” she asked.

Stephanie was a bit taken aback. Why should this woman, whom she’d just met ten minutes earlier, even want to ask personal questions. But she’d indulged her so far, and something nagging at her inside told her to continue to do so.

“Um…it’s weird, but I guess not.”

The woman leaned forward again. “Promise you won’t get upset.”

That was certainly unexpected. What the heck? But Stephanie stayed the course. After all, she was getting off the train in a couple of stops and she’d never see this woman again. “No, I won’t. Ask me anything.”

Still leaning in, the woman lowered her voice. “Have you always needed diapers?”

Stephanie’s face went pale. How can she—? She looked down at herself, at the way she was sitting. There was the faintest mound where there shouldn’t be one in her crotch, but nothing noticeable under dark green velvet.

“No, don’t worry,” said the woman as if reading her mind. “It’s not something obvious. It’s just…when you’re old and you’ve changed a ton of diapers and you find you need them again yourself, you notice. You know how they say gay people have gaydar? I have diaperdar.”

It would have made Stephanie laugh, but she was still too freaked out to do so.

“So, have you?” the woman asked? “Always needed them?”

Stephanie nodded. “Y-yes. I’ve been…” she whispered the next word “…incontinent all of my life, and medication doesn’t work.”

The woman’s eyes looked sympathetic. “Must have been hard.”

Stephanie startled herself by laughing. “That is the understatement of all time. I even wrote to Santa once asking to get rid of them, but of course no go.”

The woman looked confused. “Why ‘of course’?”

“Well, you know, Santa.”

“Ahh…and you’re too old for all of that, right?”

Stephanie shrugged. “Let’s just say he didn’t deliver.”

The woman smiled. “Did you ever stop to consider that maybe he had reasons?”

Indulging this woman was interesting, but it sure wasn’t easy. “What possible reasons?”

“Well,” she said, “maybe it’s just beyond his skillset. I mean he is a toymaker, after all, and you asked for a miracle. Wrong Christmas icon to pray to, I’d say. But beyond that, maybe he just thought there were life lessons you still needed to learn.”

Stephanie thought back to when she was really twelve or thirteen years old, back to when she’d sent that letter. “Like what?”

The woman’s smile was gentle. “Perhaps, in high school, you might come to understand that there are many, many people in the world who would trade their positions for yours. Perhaps you might even discover that under certain circumstances being diapered can be a positive thing. And maybe, in college, you might learn little tricks that allow you to actually enjoy being diapered.”

Stephanie was stunned into silence listening to this woman summarize exactly what had happened to her in her life. She thought back to high school, the first time she started becoming comfortable with herself. Oh, she was jealous of the girls who could complete the wonderful, sexy images the media threw at them with the taut, flat crotches and round, sensuous behinds, but she had never thought of herself as much of a sexual girl, so the images were more academic than anything else. In her diapers she could be cute; that was always good enough for her even if no one else got to see it. And she had learned about so many other people around the world who spent their lives suffering, so many to whom her small issue would seem a picnic.

Of course it was in high school too that she had first discovered that diapers could be a protection against unwanted advances. It wasn’t that she let the boys see them; it was that she knew they were there and thus was way more cautious than she otherwise might have been. Oh, she did drink, but she learned her limits and stayed strictly within them. She decided that she’d know the boy who was right for her because he’d be the one she felt comfortable telling her secret to; no such boy ever emerged, not even in college, where she had indeed discovered the ABDL diapers that made her needs less painful and a little more fun.

How could this woman know all of this?

“You’re a really good girl, Stephanie,” the woman said.

Did I tell her my name? I don’t remem—

“You wanted nothing more than a quiet train ride to your party, but you indulged an old woman for no reason other than the kindness in your heart, even when I asked ridiculously personal questions.”

“Well, I—”

“Well, nothing, Sweetie. You’re a good person. You’ve spent your whole life being a good person. Your friends know it, and I think you know it too.”

Stephanie was stunned. “My…whole…life?”

The woman tilted her head to one side and winked. “Oh come, now, Stephanie. I know you’re not in middle school.”

“You…do?”

“Of course. Though I wasn’t kidding that you are adorable enough to pass as someone much younger than you are, seventh grade was sort of pushing it a bit.”

“OK, now, what’s going on here? Are you just messing with me?”

“No, not at all, Dear. That is not in my job description. No, I was sent to find out if you are indeed the person we thought you are. And—good news!—you are.”

Stephanie was utterly lost. This conversation, in which she felt relatively comfortable, had just taken a turn for the weird that she simply couldn’t fathom.

“You were sent— Who…who are you?” she asked.

The woman smiled broadly. “Ah, you’ve asked the six million dollar question, the answer to which will make everything make sense. Well, maybe not sense exactly, but at least there will be some sort of logic involved. Have you no guesses?”

By this point, Stephanie had come to the conclusion that she was most definitely in the Twilight Zone. Or dreaming. This could easily all be a dream. She reached down and pinched her arm.

“Not a dream, Sweetie.”

“But you’re…you’re not normal, are you?” Stephanie asked.

The old woman laughed. “If by that you mean, am I just an old woman who was out Christmas shopping? Then the answer is no, I’m not.”

Stephanie tried to understand. Suddenly It’s a Wonderful Life popped into her mind. “Are you my guardian angel?” she asked.

Another laugh. “Wrong Christmas movie. No, think of me as a kind of emissary.”

“Emissary?”

“We know you’re Nice. Sometimes it’s just necessary to send someone to find out just how nice you are.”

Stephanie shook her head. “Emissary from whom?”

The old woman just smiled. “You know, Stephanie.”

“But that’s impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Haven’t you noticed that we’ve been traveling for nearly half an hour from Main and haven’t even reached Ravenswood? If anything is impossible, that should be. But time isn’t really important to us. If it were, he couldn’t get around to everyone in one evening, could he?”

Stephanie found herself staring at the old woman. “You’re really from…Santa Claus?” This was getting more and more absurd by the second. “I thought all of his helpers were like, elves?”

The old woman laughed yet again. “What do you think Santa himself is? Human? Living for hundreds of years? Some elves are just bigger than others is all. And when he needs to send emissaries into the world, he sends the ones who will blend better.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes while Stephanie processed everything she had just heard and the old woman waited patiently.

“Suppose I believe all of this—” Stephanie began, but the old woman interrupted her.

“You do,” she said simply.

Stephanie sighed. “OK. Say I do. What now? I mean, I still don’t understand why you’re here.”

The old woman smiled. “To answer that letter from so long ago,” she said.

Stephanie’s eyes went wide. “You mean you can take my incontinence away?”

“If you still desire it.”

Of course I do!”

“Not so fast,” said the old woman. “You’re old enough to know that everything has a cost and there are always choices to be made. I’ve listened carefully to you and I’m going to offer you three choices. Don’t decide on a whim. Think it through. Tonight, before you go to sleep, make your decision; it will be so when you awaken.”

Heart pounding, Stephanie asked, “What are the choices?”

“First choice: Santa will indeed remove your incontinence. But the price you pay for that is that every other aspect of your life remains unchanged. You will still be 27 and stuck in a job you hate, staring at decades of pushing numbers in an accounting firm.”

“And the other choices?”

“Second choice is a return to college, where you can change your major to something that might get you into a career that is more to your liking, though you’ll be limited by the background you’ve created for yourself. You will still need diapers, but you’ll enjoy your life more.”

“And my third option?”

“That is a major reset. You slipped so easily into seventh grade tonight that it got me thinking I should offer that to you. So your third option is a return to seventh grade, with all of high school ahead of you to try out anything you’d like, including acting, building a different kind of resumé to send to colleges than the one you had before. Again, you’d still be incontinent, but your life will be very, very different by the time you reach this age again.”

Stephanie looked intently at the old woman. “Can you tell which is better?”

She shook her head. “That is not for me to say. It’s for you to make happen as life happens to you. Anyway, this is my stop.”

Stephanie found that the train was slowing down. The old woman gathered her things and stood up as Stephanie considered everything she had just been told. As she was getting ready to head through the exit doors, Stephanie spoke. “Why me?”

“Oh, you’re not the only one,” the old woman said with a smile. “But sometimes it does take us awhile to get to all of the Christmas wishes we receive. Yours took fifteen years because Santa wanted to know who you’d become first. He likes what he sees.”

With that, the old woman pushed the button on the double doors, which parted with a whoosh, and she vanished between them as they closed. As the train left the station, Stephanie watched her walking away with her parcels.


Gemma sipped a cocktail. Stephanie wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but it was red and there was a cherry in it. She herself was nursing some eggnog; there was brandy in it, but not too much. It was her second glass though. Mandy and Jess each had a glass of red wine. Pentatonix’ Christmas CD was playing, the newly engaged Justin and Stacy and some other couples were dancing, and the four women had commandeered a table in a corner to talk.

“She said she was from Santa Claus?” Mandy asked. “Like North Pole Santa Claus?”

Stephanie shrugged. “Is there one at the South Pole I haven’t heard of?”

“No, it’s just that—”

“She knew stuff,” Stephanie argued. “I mean she knew intimate stuff. About me. About my life. Things she couldn’t possibly have known.”

Jess shook her head. “And she just came and sat down with you?”

“Like I was her destination. Which I guess I was.”

Gemma finished a sip from her drink and put it down. “So it seems to me that you have two questions to deal with.”

“Which are?”

“First, do you believe she was something supernatural? And second, if so, which of her options do you take?”

Stephanie slowly drank from her glass. She didn’t honestly know if the old woman had been supernatural. In the moment it sure seemed so, but as she recounted it to her friends it had all just seemed so…silly. And yet…

Jess spoke up. “Shouldn’t she just assume the old woman was Santa’s emissary? I mean if she wasn’t, then no harm no foul, but if she was, then…”

“Then you have a major life decision to make tonight,” Mandy said.

“Oh God.” Stephanie drained her eggnog and got up to get a third glass. “I just wanted a nice evening with you guys and now it’s my whole future.”

She walked over to the eggnog table, smiling as her co-workers commented on how “cute” her outfit was. That’s what I wanted. Looking back across the room at her friends, it suddenly struck her that most young women her age would have gone for sexy but she went for cute. What does that say about me? She wandered back to her friends with her refilled beverage.

“Steph,” Gemma said, “We’ve been talking.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, what are you leaning toward?”

“You mean which option?”

“Yeah,” Gemma said.

Stephanie smiled. “That’s easy. The first one. I get to keep all of you as friends and lose the diapers. Easy peasy.

She raised her glass as for a toast, but no one followed. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Gemma’s serious expression was echoed on the faces of the others. She continued. “It’s just that…we’re not sure it should be that easy.”

“What do you mean?” Stephanie asked.

Mandy answered. “You’re not really, like, happy.”

Jess added, “You never have been, as long as we’ve known you.”

Finally, Gemma picked up the refrain as “The Little Drummer Boy” came on. “I mean we can deal with the mindless drone work, Steph. You just don’t seem to be able to. I think you need something more.”

“More?”

“I don’t know,” Gemma said. “Maybe like she said: maybe you made the wrong choices.”

“But I always liked math!” Stephanie protested.

“Maybe that’s not enough?” Mandy asked.

Stephanie pictured the countless hours she had already spent poring over sheets of numbers, entering them into computers, crunching the results, analyzing what came out, printing it all as reports and shipping it off upstairs so she could start again with new numbers. Then she pictured years and years more of the same drudgery. They were right. It wasn’t enough.

“But I’d have to keep the diapers,” she complained. “And I’d never see you guys again.”

“You’ve always had them anyway,” Gemma said. “And if you’re living a different life none of us would even know what we are missing. Heck, you might not even know.”

“Yeah,” Jess said. “We’ve had this much fun together. Time for you to get some more enjoyment out of your life. And tomorrow we won’t even realize that you’re gone.”

“God that’s weird,” Gemma and Stephanie said simultaneously and then burst out laughing.

Gemma raised the wine glass she’d procured while Stephanie was refilling her eggnog. “To Stephanie!” she said. “To friendship and silliness and the single most bizarre way to end a relationship that anyone has ever heard of.”

Everyone raised their glasses. “Hear, hear!”

“Well,” said Stephanie, “let’s stay as long as my diaper holds out and enjoy ourselves, OK? If this is the end of my time with you and the end of my 20s, at least for now, I might as well have a good time.”

“I’ll drink to that too!” said Jess, and they all raised their glasses once again.


She had taken care of everything that needed doing. Clothing and dishes were put away, the living room had been straightened out, the books replaced on the bookshelf. She was completely ready to awaken to the same life she was living now; she wouldn’t miss a beat. But as she lay in her bed petting Willow, she wondered if that would ever happen.

“Maybe I won’t ever meet you, Willow,” she said to the cat. “Maybe you’ll be adopted by someone else and live with them and give all of your purring and love to them.”

The cat rubbed her face against Stephanie’s arm. “Yeah, you’re sweet, that’s for sure. No question if I’m somewhere else tomorrow morning you’ll be fine. I’d say I’ll miss you, but I’m not sure I’ll remember. I don’t know; maybe I will.”

For the first time, she realized she didn’t know if she’d be heading back into her life or just becoming younger today. Assuming it was true, She decided it had to be her own life. Santa must realize the other way would create enormous complications. A child alone? And she really didn’t know if she’d remember things. Guess I’ll find out, she chuckled. Or not.

It was a bit ironic, she thought. The last time she was thirteen years old, she’d lost her faith in Santa Claus. Now she might relive that age because of him. Did my thirteen-year-old self even know what irony is? Ultimately the final decision had been simple to make. In for a pennyEasy peasy.

Stephanie Alder reached over and turned off her reading light. She looked out the window and watched as the snow gently fell, wondering if it would even be winter when she awoke, hoping it wouldn’t be. For the first time in longer than she could remember, she had no clue what tomorrow would bring, and it excited her. She smiled, petted her cat, and closed her eyes.

Re: Stranger on the Train

I really enjoyed this. It was my vote. :slight_smile:

There’s an elegance to how the story gradually introduces Stephanie, her views on friends, work, wishes, and her incontinence. The story runs through a complete arc. To repeat my analogy from Cute-Kitten’s submission, I don’t hear any bolts rattling in the engine. If Stephanie didn’t wear diapers, there would need to be some other story element to serve the same function. And it would be a different story. Despite the Christmas themes and the non-AB character, this story is AB to the bone. I think almost anyone here could relate to the themes.

I have to note — again — that I don’t think much of your openings. In fact, I think this style stands like a brick wall around your stories, stopping readers from entering. That first paragraph could be prepended to any story that involves a Christmas party, and it hints at no tensions, doesn’t make any promises to the reader. I just had to bull through, trusting that I’d find something interesting later. It would help so much if you’d put anything there to raise my eyebrow, make me wonder. Some kind of tiny mystery or foreshadowing. Anything.

Anyway, merry three-weeks-belated Christmas. :wink:

Re: Stranger on the Train

Hmmm…

Glad you like the story, but I’m not sure I really understand what you mean about the openings. Here, for instance, you compliment me on “how the story gradually introduces Stephanie, her views on friends, work, wishes and her incontinence.” But you also want tension in the opening ¶? I’m setting a scene there, beginning the introduction of a character. In that ¶ we learn that she hates the cold but that she will not miss the party b/c of office fun. We then immediately learn she’s the kind of woman who talks to her cat. Since the whole point of her character here is to be “very nice,” I think these small characteristics begin to paint a pretty nice picture.

How about this, the opening of “Leaving Her Troubles”?

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.

Here we are introduced by diction and tone to Anna’s active imagination, as she plays at hiding in the leaves (as yet unidentified as such) as if she were a spy or hiding from one. Again: the intro of a character-driven story focuses on the character.

How about “Eternal Kiss”?

New Year’s Eve was, truth be told, one of Kendra’s favorite nights of the year. She loved the crowds, the loopy, crazed excitement, the feeling of hopefulness—even though it so often turned into disappointment too quickly thereafter—the drinking, and most of all, the fireworks. There was something pure about thousands of people standing together watching sparkling multi-colored lights and explosions over the lake, something visceral about them counting those last ten seconds in anticipatory unison. She loved it all.

It almost made her feel bad to defile it.

In this one, the focus is on the scene from the character’s POV: a quick overview of the Grant Park fireworks scene followed immediately by Pow! a line that subverts the entire thing.

Can you stand one more? “It Takes a Village”:

With the hand of a god, Robert lifted Brian Sandberg off of the track just before the train would have run him down. He knew that Brian and his friends Pete and Hassan were playing near the embankment, but Robert had no idea how one of them had gotten onto the tracks themselves. Perhaps he slipped in the snow. But if Robert hadn’t noticed…

Doesn’t “with the hands of a god” create some mystery?

I guess what I’m saying here is that I don’t see my openings as all that structurally similar. Maybe you disagree. Please help me to see what you are seeing and why this metaphorical “brick wall” is causing troubles. I’m being sincere here. Do others share donbiki’s feelings? Please let me know.

Stop me before I erect brick walls again!

:slight_smile:

Re: Stranger on the Train

I didn’t see anything wrong with the opening.

My only gripe was that the idea of completely starting over didn’t seem to be a huge thing… for anyone. It’s odd that her friends almost encouraged her to leave. Unless I read wrong, there’s no guarantee they won’t remember she’s gone, which would mean that not one of them voices that they’d miss her much.

In short, it felt a bit rushed. I just don’t think it found the right balance. To me, it didn’t emphasize that her life was bad enough–minus the diapers–to warrant a total reset. I think her initial choice to be free from diapers made sense, but again, it was odd that her friends would even suggest otherwise. For example, to her diapers limit her, without them there’s less reason she can’t just move south. She could keep her friends to an extent, and she already has employment, which could make her more desirable to another company.

My gripe is mostly opinion. As much as I like the idea of a reset, to me it carries significant weight, a weight that I just don’t uh feel in this story.

Sadly, I don’t have much to say that’s constructive. I think that’s mostly because this story just doesn’t register with me personally. Basically, I don’t like it. But you know what they say, some assholes have shitty opinions… or something like that. :stuck_out_tongue:

Re: Stranger on the Train

Do try it again in its new version when I post that. It’s so different as to be a new story.

Re: Stranger on the Train

Glad you like the story, but I’m not sure I really understand what you mean about the openings.

To get axiomatic on you, all opening paragraphs must have some kind of hook, some kind of thematic promise, and they should begin developing character OR the plot — but ideally both. These three basic things (hook, promise, and character) pull the reader into the story. To save myself typing, I gave my opinion on hooks (The Mystery Breadcrumb Trail) before. Let me use your examples…

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.

I didn’t read Leaving Her Troubles, but I would say this is a successful opener. It uses the Mystery Breadcrumb Trail as a hook. The first breadcrumb is “Why is Anna hiding?” and the second is “What does Ana mean by ‘safety is everything’?” These curiosities pull the reader’s eyes down the page. In between the breadcrumbs, you begin developing Anna’s character. The opening promises the development of certain themes.

So those are the three big checkmarks. A hook of mystery/tension (however small), character, and a promise to the reader.

New Year’s Eve was, truth be told, one of Kendra’s favorite nights of the year. She loved the crowds, the loopy, crazed excitement, the feeling of hopefulness—even though it so often turned into disappointment too quickly thereafter—the drinking, and most of all, the fireworks. There was something pure about thousands of people standing together watching sparkling multi-colored lights and explosions over the lake, something visceral about them counting those last ten seconds in anticipatory unison. She loved it all.

It almost made her feel bad to defile it.

The first paragraph says to me ‘Kendra loves New Year’s Eve, because it’s a party’. No dice there. I can’t find any small mystery or tension to keep me going, no strikingly unique character, no promise to the reader. (Except, obviously, This story takes place during New Years Eve.) So she likes New Years… okay? And when writers string sensory detail after sensory detail like that, it actually becomes distracting, like they’re trying to show off. This is a trap I also fall into myself. :frowning:

You obviously introduce a hook and unique character in paragraph two, but — however ADHD this sounds — that’s too late.

I see an incredibly simple fix here, actually. Replace the words “truth be told” with “unfortunately”, and this opening instantly becomes compelling. (Minus the sensory overclocking). Even a curious word choice can be enough to set the reader down the breadcrumb trail. Why would Kendra think it’s unfortunate to like New Years Eve?

With the hand of a god, Robert lifted Brian Sandberg off of the track just before the train would have run him down. He knew that Brian and his friends Pete and Hassan were playing near the embankment, but Robert had no idea how one of them had gotten onto the tracks themselves. Perhaps he slipped in the snow. But if Robert hadn’t noticed…

This one is another success. I think I complimented you on it when you posted v2.0. The hook is obviously the small mystery of WTF is going on. That’s the first breadcrumb. If I recall the subsequent paragraphs characterized Roberts while laying mystery breadcrumbs for what happened to his wife and family. The thematic promise is obviously about grief and disillusionment.

It was a big improvement over the original, where the protag was kicking back by the lakeside, in a dream. (I had problems with the original opening being schmaltzy too, but that was another issue)

Re: Stranger on the Train

Personally, I like the opening of Eternal Kiss. While the real catch is technically in the second paragraph, it stands on its own, and comes so quickly that it’s hard not to read it. I can see that it might be nice to include it in the opening, I don’t see how to work it into the first paragraph without losing the power it gains by being on its own.

Re: Stranger on the Train

See, this is where we immediately fall into disagreement. I think that the notion of having this in the first ¶ is nice, but there are as many exceptions to this “axiom” as grains of sand on the beach…which is, of course, the problem with blindly following any axiom: creative writing isn’t math. You can do your very best to create rules and principles to govern it, but when it comes right down to it, every single time someone starts something new there is a new opportunity to break those rules. It’s the same with writing in general: you can follow the rules of grammar to the letter, but you don’t have to. Style counts for something, and there are such things as stylistic fragments and run-ons because writers have been using them time writing began.

Of course, you can’t break the rules unless you first know them, and this is true in both areas. Of course I know about hooks and promises. But I would argue that there are various kinds of promises, and a story that deeply delves into a person’s character makes a different kind of promise to the reader in its opening ¶ than one that relies on plot twists and turns. “Strangers” is actually both, to some extent, but the essence is about who she is (and the plot twist is a surprise that shouldn’t be telegraphed). “Eternal Kiss” relies on plot more—she’s a vampire, after all, searching for a person to turn—and that is why the opening ¶ is so brief and pops right into the one-line second ¶ that contains everything the axiom wants. (I’d argue that a one-line second ¶ is an even better place to put something than somewhere in the 1st ¶; it is certainly more noticeable.)

[QUOTE=donbiki;71672]I didn’t read Leaving Her Troubles, but I would say this is a successful opener. It uses the Mystery Breadcrumb Trail as a hook. The first breadcrumb is “Why is Anna hiding?” and the second is “What does Ana mean by ‘safety is everything’?” These curiosities pull the reader’s eyes down the page. In between the breadcrumbs, you begin developing Anna’s character. The opening promises the development of certain themes.

So those are the three big checkmarks. A hook of mystery/tension (however small), character, and a promise to the reader.[/quote]

Because this was the kind of story (as was the revised “It Takes a Village”) where that sort of tension was precisely what was needed narratively.

This is what I’m saying. Sometimes bending the “rules” can be more powerful than adhering to them. Consider this:

New Year’s Eve was, truth be told, one of Kendra’s favorite nights of the year. She loved the crowds, the loopy, crazed excitement, the feeling of hopefulness—even though it so often turned into disappointment too quickly thereafter—the drinking, and most of all, the fireworks. There was something pure about thousands of people standing together watching sparkling multi-colored lights and explosions over the lake, something visceral about them counting those last ten seconds in anticipatory unison. She loved it all. It almost made her feel bad to defile it.

There you have your rules adhered to, but because of the nature of the way the Grant Park scene is being described (a quick overview of sensory detail), the last line almost gets lost. Standing alone it has much more power to negate what came before it.

Anyway, that’s how I feel. :slight_smile:

I like this conversation. It’s great to talk about stuff like this. :slight_smile:

Re: Stranger on the Train

An exception proves a rule to be an approximation. There’s a word for what you’re talking about: shu-ha-ri. In writing there are countless examples: broad, wrong guidelines that give an approximation of the trickier, nuanced truths. For example, the passive voice. Inverting the subject and object is actually very useful, but beginners are told to steer clear. It’s much harder to explain the nuances of passive verbs than to prohibit them.

This opening is, to me, not an exception to any rule; it’s just not interesting. The opening paragraphs read bland, and I would not have continued were it not for the contest, and my wanting to give all entries a fair shake. That’s a shame. I did not read with a rubric in hand, looking to find fault. I found it boring, and, reflecting on why, came back to the rules. Process that how you will.

Whenever I intentionally break a rule, I know why I’m doing it. If you simply break one, throw up your hands, and plead to the gods of subjectivity, you will usually be wrong. :slight_smile:

Re: Stranger on the Train

I think I’ve managed to shake the slush around my head enough that something new has surfaced.

The opening did establish that Stephanie hates winter. It established that not only is it already snowy and cold, but that it will only become more so. Lastly, it also establishes that despite the fact that she’s abandoned past events due to weather, this party is important enough that she’s going out anyway.

I must also add my appreciation for punctuating her refusal to be confined by the weather; “No way” adds a great punch to the end. If I had to say anything about the opening paragraph, perhaps trim it down a tad; maybe say less about what’s so important about the party.

But anyway, as it is, there’s enough interesting for me. Although, that could just be my weather fetish talking. :stuck_out_tongue:
Honestly, I was a little disappointed to see a lack of howling blizzards and a struggle against the elements. (again, that’s probably just me)

But now that I look through it again, the following paragraphs–right up until the mention of diapers–are all about weather. I think a return to that at the end, possibly revisiting her dream to move to California, would have helped tie everything together.

Re: Stranger on the Train

Funny you should mention that. See “Stranger v2” when I release it soon. The beginning is mostly unchanged for a few pages—sorry, donbiki—but there is a ton of new stuff in there and other things I’ve cut. It’s a very different story.

Re: Stranger on the Train

kerry, when I move this to Completed Stories here in a few days do you want me to close it as you’ve already posted the new version?

Re: Stranger on the Train

Please do.

Re: Stranger on the Train

A revised version of this story is available here.