The Panda's Ashes (Finally, Chapter 40 up 1/13)

Someone alerted me recently to a post by Miss Mouse linking to this story on ADISC a few months back and, since it’s no longer there, I thought I’d go ahead and post it up here, since there have been numerous updates that she probably missed unless she knew where else to find it.

So yeah, it’s really fucking long. It’s going to be a full-length novel, already up around 60,000 words, probably going to break 100K before it’s done. Hopefully it doesn’t put you to sleep… :wink:


Prologue

It was, by all possible standards, a beautiful northern California summer day as my “adoptive” mother led me out the front door and down the broad stairs. I scarcely was aware of the pleasant weather outside, however, as I was entirely too busy fighting back a storm of anxiety that threatened to freeze my white-and-pink Keds in place each time they landed on the concrete. My hair was in pigtails, which only accentuated the preschooler look of my pink OshKosh denim skirt and white, ruffled Hello Kitty t-shirt. As we made our way down the stone walk, through the blooming hydrangeas, my hand firmly clamped onto hers, I watched the silver minivan come to a stop a few yards down the driveway. My trepidation reached a new height as a tall, bleached blonde surfaced from the passenger door, grinning so wide the sun seemed to cast a glare off her perfectly white teeth as she turned to face us, gasping out an incredibly exaggerated, multiple octave “Hello!” My grip tightened even harder on Mama’s hand, and I looked up at her desperately, seeking protection from this Malibu Barbie come to life as she approached us, arms spreading out and legs bending into a crouch, aimed straight toward me like a hawk preparing to snatch a helpless field mouse from the tall grass it foolishly believed a safe refuge.

I’d never been to preschool, though I certainly survived kindergarten the first time through. You’d think it’d be easier at twenty-two than it would have been at age four but, suffice to say, I wasn’t on my way to a teaching gig…

1

That particular summer was the shining pinnacle of the walking contradiction my life had become. It was late August in San Francisco, and though I was three months removed from the greatest accomplishment in my life, having graduated with honors from the Academy of Art University with a degree in graphic design, that victory seemed as distant as graduating kindergarten.

I had been through four jobs that summer, the latest working in a crappy coffee house, living in a crappy apartment at The Tenderloin, trying to just catch my breath a little before I took the plunge into the professional world. Of course, just surviving in this new adult world came with its own set of problems, tough enough for any twenty-two-year-old kid fresh out of college, but even worse for a girl of barely three feet, seven inches in height.

Yes, you heard that right. I was the shortest addition to a family of incredible shrinking women, my mother scarcely four feet tall, my grandmother a mere three inches taller than that. As if that weren’t bad enough, my prayers to dodge whatever genes gave them both what could best be described as “barrel with head” figures were answered all the way in the wrong direction; I was like a two-by-four with legs.

Not surprisingly, this made middle and high school a living nightmare. I was bullied, ostracized, belittled, and for the few that didn’t perceive me as the butt of a joke, pitied. The first three went away in college, thankfully, but the last part was far, far worse, and it never let up. Life is much easier when everyone just hates you and makes fun of you. You know where you stand. People feeling sorry for you because you look like you just graduated preschool instead of high school, that’s what makes you want to scream at the whole world.

The worst part was when I finally hit legal drinking age. I had to carry my birth certificate, social security card, driver’s license, college ID, everything I could scare up when the few people I hung out with went out to a bar, because no one believed I could possibly be twenty-one. I got turned away at the door at nightclubs. No matter what I showed them, it was always “Go home to your mommy, kid.” My B.S. was small consolation for the torment I experienced trying to prove to everyone I really had existed on this miserable hunk of rock for twenty-odd trips around its half-pint star.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, the coffee house, my latest summer job. Yeah, that interview was a real lark. I suspect Bill, the owner, threw me a bone half out of pity and half out of fear I’d be on the phone with the labor board if he didn’t. I was offered and accepted a position as a busgirl, which I discovered was about the only thing I could do in that place without a very high risk of things getting broken. It wasn’t a terrible job, except when I’d come through the dining room with my pushcart with the dish tub on top and someone would make a remark about child labor laws, or worse start giggling about how cute I was. You’d never know it to look at me now, but I had quite the temper back then, and it was a constant struggle not to blow up at some dizzy soccer mom who couldn’t demonstrate enough self-control to not reach out and try to pinch my cheek as I walked by. On the plus side, the tips were pretty good, at least when same ogling customers realized I was actually there to do a job and decided to give me “a little something extra”. The waitstaff were decent enough to me as well, even if they treated me more like a mascot than a teammate.

This particular Thursday had been exceptionally miserable, with far too much cutesy crap from the customers without nearly enough extra tips to make it worthwhile. It was six thirty, the tail end of the dinner rush, and about an hour before I was scheduled to get off. I’d been there since seven that morning, having picked up an extra shift because I was short on the electric bill that month, and I was just about on my last fraying nerve when three of the football jocks from one of the local high schools piled in and sat down a few tables away from where I was working. They’d been in the cafe before, rowdy, causing trouble, and definitely not tipping. I did my best to ignore them as I cleared the table, but I wasn’t so lucky as to have them ignore me…

“Check it out, it’s mini-Minami!” the blonde laughed loudly, pointing in my direction. I said nothing and avoided any chance at eye contact as they laughed.

Laura, one of the waitresses, overheard him and quickly ran over to distract them. “Yeah, what can I get for you guys?” she snapped. Out of the corner of my eye I could see she had positioned herself directly in their line of sight to me, and I picked up my pace, trying to get the tables cleared and wiped down and get the hell into the kitchen before…

“Oh hell no, we want Shorty to wait on us,” the bigger brunette argued. “Come on over here and take my order, Shorty!” he shouted at me. I could feel other eyes start to lock in on me as well, and the blood ran to my face as I continued to work.

“She’s not a waitress, I am, so if you want something, you’ll have to get it from me,” Laura retorted.

“Oh fine, three coffees,” the blonde snapped.

“That it?” she sighed, clearly annoyed.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

Laura walked toward the barista bar, shaking her head, and I started to push my cart toward another table, staring straight ahead and fuming. Unfortunately, my deliberate lack of attention toward that table was my undoing, as out of nowhere a huge jean-clad knee connected with the side of my cart and knocked it clean over, spilling my tub and an entire load of dishes, cups, flatware, and glasses all over the floor. I stood there in horror at the sight of so much broken glass and pottery, listening to the other two guffawing at their table, feeling my blood boil.

“Hey watch it, you little freak!” the kid boomed down at me. “You almost ran me over with that thing!”

I shook with rage as I squatted down and righted the cart, picking up what I could, biting my lip.

“I’m TALKING TO YOU, MIDGET!” he barked, stepping on one of the plates directly in front of me, crushing it under his Doc Marten.

I stood up and hissed, “You mind getting the hell out of my way so I can clean this up?” staring as well as I could up into his looming face, fists clenched.

His brows furrowed, but something seemed to momentarily distract him as he started to chuckle. He looked over at the table where the other two hyenas still watched intently and said, “Hey check this out! She’s perfect height for…” as he put his huge paw on top of my head and started to laugh.

His laugh was cut short, as were the others. As soon as I felt that hand touch me, I launched an uppercut square into his crotch. A chorus of gasps rang out as he lost his wind and dropped to his knees. “Minami that, bitch!” I spat, inches from his bulging eyes, which were now level with mine, then stormed back toward the kitchen, past a sea of nervous whispers and gaping mouths. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bill, the owner, follow in behind me.

“My office, Naomi,” he sighed as a ruckus broke out in the dining room, the three boys screaming threats and obscenities and several employees barking back at them. I did as I was told, while Bill walked back through the door and boomed, “You three got five seconds to hit the door before I call the cops! You assaulted one of my employees, and she defended herself, is what I saw! Anyone else see different?” I couldn’t help but smile as I sat down in the tiny room across from his desk.

My smile didn’t last long, unfortunately. Bill came back in, closed the door, and leaned up against the desk, arms folded, looking down at me with that “disappointed father” face he delivered so effectively when another boss might have started yelling. I would have preferred he do the latter, honestly. “Naomi, Naomi, Naomi…” he sighed. “I like you, really. You’re a hard worker, even if you are a grouch most of the time. But that… I can help keep you out of legal trouble, hell I’ll get statements from every customer out there, but…”

“Come on, Bill, you said it yourself!” I protested. “He put his hands on me, and I defended myself!”

“You know as well as I do this isn’t the first time you’ve had an altercation with the customers. It’s just the first time it got physical.” My head dropped. “You know I gotta let you go. I’m sorry, kiddo. I don’t have a choice.”

My lip trembled as I continued to stare at his shoes. “It’s not fucking fair, Bill,” I muttered.

“Look,” he said, reaching into his pocket and producing a wad of cash. “I know how tight you are, and how bad you need the money.” He peeled off a couple of bills and stuffed them into my hand. “Call it your tip-out for tonight. I’ll have your last check ready for you on Monday, okay?”

I nodded. “Thanks Bill.”

He squatted down and put a hand on my shoulder. “Do yourself a favor, kid. Go do something with that degree of yours, and quit foolin’ around in places like this, huh?”

I nodded again as I stood up. He opened the door and followed me back through the kitchen. “I’ll walk you to your car, just in case those pricks decided to hang around,” he said as we walked through the dining room.

True to his word, he escorted me the four blocks to the parking garage where my ratty old Crown Victoria sat, and wished me good luck as I got in. I managed to coax the old piece of junk to a start after several attempts, rolled it down to the gate, and paid my fee. Guess the party with the girls starts a little early, I thought to myself as I headed back toward my apartment to change out of the work uniform I’d no longer be needing.

2

After a fight with late-evening downtown traffic and a trip around the block to find a place to park the rolling wreck, I’d clamored up to my apartment and dumped the ugly tan chinos and heavily stained white button-up shirt on the floor in my room and changed into a pair of jeans and a black spaghetti-strap top. A shower probably would have been nice, but at that point I was dialed in on getting drunk, and in the likely futile pursuit of going home with something handsome, so getting on with the show took precedence. I dashed into the bathroom to apply some makeup and put a brush through my barely shoulder-length hair, then stopped at the full-length mirror in the hallway to assess my appearance. Much to my perpetual disappointment, I still looked like a little kid trying to play dress-up. In spite of this revelation, I stopped back into my bedroom to dab a bit of the dwindling bottle of Poison Sobo bought for me last year for my birthday, and off I went.

Back into the old Ford, and back over to the campus of the Academy of Art to pick up Jessica, a fifth-year senior likely headed for six and probably seven years before she left school, and even then a degree was pretty remote. In short, she was an airhead, far too wrapped up in social life and clothes and partying to be bothered with the actual work involved in passing her classes. On her best days, I found her mildly annoying, and on her worst, I questioned why I continued to put up with her, beyond the idea of beggars being choosy and all that. I pulled up into the student parking lot and fired her a quick text: “I’m out front. You ready to go?”

Two, three, five minutes passed, no answer. “Hello?” I texted again. Another five minutes ground away, and finally a response: “Sorry I ttly 4got u were coming Im at a party w Veronica.”

If I could have reached through that handset and choked that dizzy bitch I would have. Veronica was one of those high-society bitches from Corona Heights, for whom college was a social fling instead of a developmental pursuit. Jessica was always trying to suck up to that snotty bitch, as though she were going to wave a wand and turn Jessica into a spoiled princess just like her. It never ceased to amaze me the lengths to which she’d go to try and impress that snob.

“Thanks for making me waste my gas, bitch!” I texted back furiously as I cranked the car back up. Another text came back from her, but I didn’t bother to read it. “Find some other midget to play valet for you next time,” I grumbled to myself. She wasn’t getting any of Veronica’s money, but her attitude was certainly rubbing off.

All the way back across town I drove, to the townie bar where we had planned to meet. It was one of the few spots in town where the staff knew me well enough that they didn’t give me static about my ID, even if it wasn’t the liveliest after dark. As a matter of luck, I scored a parking space a few feet from the front door, a black Mercedes having just pulled out as I arrived. I walked in and discovered Amanda and Dez already sitting in a booth near the bar, and I made a beeline past the usual set of ogling eyes to pile in with them.

“Sorry I was late. Jessica blew us off,” I grumped as I sat down.

“I have no idea why you waste your time with that bitch,” Amanda groaned. “You know she only wants to hang out when she needs a ride.” Amanda, despite her excessive eye black and horror-film accessories, was the sensible one of the group, and she had an uncanny knack for reading people. Unfortunately, she also had an overly developed mothering instinct, particularly toward me, which could be downright obnoxious.

“She’s fine when she’s not following Veronica around like a puppy dog,” I grumbled.

“Puh-leeaze!” Dez piped up. “That bitch needs to spend a weekend across the bay without Daddy’s credit cards, for real!” Dez’s gay performance was about as cliché as his ghetto act, particularly when he shifted into bitch mode, with his bent wrist and neck shimmy and obviously forced near-lisp. He was nothing if not unintentionally entertaining. At this point Marcus, our waiter, came over, and I ordered my usual chili cheese fries and a Bacardi and Coke.

“Yeah, so I’m over talking about that scene, seriously,” I sighed. “Got fired today. That was fucking special.”

“Jesus, woman!” Amanda scolded. “What did you do this time?!”

I grinned evilly and said, “Punched one of those little punks from Stuart Hall right in the nuts. Dumb-ass knocked my cart over then had the nerve to put a hand on me and try to shove my face into his crotch!”

“Oh my god you did NOT!” Dez gasped. “And they fired you for it? Someone should’ve given you a medal, seriously! Every one of those little prep school boys need a good spanking on their tight little tushes!”

“Calm down there, horny toad,” I sighed. “But yeah, Bill was probably scared of getting sued. He gave me my tipout in the office before he walked me to my car…” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the wadded up bills I stuffed in there. “Oh shit… two hundred bucks!”

“Woooo baby, I guess we know who’s pickin’ up the tab tonight!” Dez squealed.

“What are you gonna do now, Naomi?!” Amanda prodded, spoiling the moment. “I mean, it’s not like there are a ton of places that’ll hire you as it is!”

I bristled at the admonishment. “I’ll find another job, and I’ll get my resume together and start getting out there. That’s what I always do!”

“Yeah, except for the resume part,” she fired back. “You’ve been ‘getting your resume together’ for three months!”

“Hey now, are we here to rag on Naomi, or are we here to get warmed up before the show?” Dez cut in. “I don’t know about you, but I got some drinkin’ to do.” As if to reinforce the point, he drained his tequila sunrise and waved the glass around behind him until the bartender caught sight of it.

“Show? What show?” I queried.

“Dez, you were supposed to call her!” Amanda chided, smacking him lightly on the arm. “Yeah, Obscura’s playing at the DNA tonight!” she redirected. “It’s gonna be a killer show!”

“The DNA?!” I groaned. “Come on, 'Manda! You KNOW I can’t go there!”

“Oh shit, I forgot about the…” she trailed off.

“Girl, you got to do something about that temper,” Dez started in, obviously happy to have the heat off him for a moment. “We are so running out of places to hang out!”

“Hey, it’s cool, we can catch them another time,” Amanda said, weakly hiding the disappointment in her voice.

“No, it’s fine. Go have fun. I hate that goth shit anyway,” I fumed. “Bunch of pretentious fucks.”

“Excuse me?” Amanda shot back. “So now I’m a pretentious fuck?”

“No… I mean… goddammit!” I stuttered.

“You better dig that sneaker out your mouth and come up with somethin’ better than that, girlfriend!” Dez added.

“What the fuck ever!” I snapped back. “Make plans to go to a club where I’m barred, spring it on me when I show up here, and now you’re gonna try and talk some shit to me about foot-in-mouth? Really?”

Marcus, as if on cue, returned with my order and Dez’s drink. Amanda turned around and said, “Yeah, I’ll have a check please, with a side of guilt.” She turned back to me and snapped, “Fine. I’ll go hang out with ‘pretentious fucks’ like me, and you can sit here and stew in your self-righteousness.”

I took a long pull off my drink, then slammed it down on the table. “Good. Take Fruit Loops with you. Maybe he can blow his way into getting you some backstage passes.”

Dez’s brows furrowed deeply, but he said nothing. Amanda was building steam now, though. “Goddammit Naomi, you’re so convinced the whole world hates you because you’re short. Did it ever occur to you that people don’t like bitches in any size?”

That stung, but I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of knowing it. “I’m pretty sure I don’t have the market cornered on BITCH at this table,” I spat. “I’m sorry, weren’t you two fucking leaving? I don’t need to hear this shit!”

“I am leaving!” she barked. She stood up just as Marcus got back to the table, and she grabbed the black billfold out of his hand. She opened it, stuffed in a couple bills from her pocket, and handed it back to him. “Don’t worry about hearing shit neither – and don’t hold your breath waiting for me to call!”

Dez stood up, drained his drink, and offered a “MmmmmMMM!” in my direction, to which I rolled my eyes. “You need to remember who your friends are, is all I’m sayin’!” he announced as he walked out behind Amanda.

“I guess I know who they aren’t!” I shouted behind them, trembling from the sudden adrenaline rush. “BITCHES!” I picked at my fries for a few minutes, flopping back and forth inside between rage and guilt. “Fuck them,” I finally announced to no one in particular. “Who needs that shit?!” I drained my glass and waved it in the air as Marcus walked by, and he nodded, with a knowing grin on his face.

I worked my way through about half my plate and another rum and coke before I noticed a blonde woman sitting at the bar, seemingly staring at me with a concerned look on her face. I dismissed it and resumed my dinner, catching Marcus’ attention once more, and he returned with a third round. “Better pace yourself, hotshot,” he said with a grin.

“Last I checked, I order the drinks, you bring the drinks, you get the tips. I already apparently have two mothers. I don’t need a third,” I grumped. I looked up at the bar, and the blonde was still sitting there, and still pointed my direction with that same look on her face.

“Who’s the creeper at the bar?” I asked.

Marcus laughed and said, “Yeah, that would be Elise, one of the regulars.”

“Yeah? So what’s her fascination with me?”

“Dunno. I bet she’d have a better answer for you than me, though,” he chuckled.

“Just get me another drink, will ya?” I groaned, taking another pull. I was just starting to feel a warm buzz at this point, which came as a welcome relief to my frayed nerves. Unfortunately, as the ball of rage in my gut began to dissipate with the aid of the alcohol, it was quickly replaced with regret as I reviewed the series of explosions that had punctuated the day. As much as I didn’t want to hear it, Amanda was right. I was drifting, and I needed to get my shit together and quit procrastinating about getting my career started. Of course, blowing up at her didn’t exactly help matters. It’s not like I had a parade of friends I could use to avoid her while she cooled off. “Her fucking fault,” I huffed at the empty seat across from me. “If she wasn’t so fucking condescending about it!” I finished off my drink just as Marcus arrived with the fresh one, struggling to maintain my composure as my head began to swim with booze and remorse.

“Sweetheart, you’d better slow down on that stuff,” he admonished. “They don’t pay me enough to be carrying you out of here.”

“I’m fine,” I snapped. “Just keep em coming.” I took a swallow, then got up to hit the bathroom. I tried not to make eye contact as I brushed by Elise, who was still sitting at the bar, and still very much fixated on me. I could feel her eyes burn through the back of my head as I entered the ladies’ room, and was grateful when the door broke the visual plane. The silence and sterility of the pristine stall amplified the emotional upheaval I was so desperately trying to quell, and I felt myself begin to tear up involuntarily as I sat there. Getting fired the day after my mother basically cut me off, then a fight with one of the only friends I had, right when I needed one the most, was all just too much.

“Get it together, you crybaby!” I finally snarled through my sniffling. I finished my business and went to the sink to wash my hands, feeling my gait starting to wobble as I went. I looked up in the mirror, and sure enough, the evidence of my emotional outburst was as plain as day in the swelling around my eyes and my mascara bleeding down my cheeks. I splashed water on my face and dried up with a handful of paper towels, grabbed my eye shadow out of my purse and did my best touch-up effort, then headed back out, head down, determined to keep the evidence of my increasing intoxication and fracturing emotional state as invisible as I could to the rest of the bar, focusing tightly on my feet and forcing myself to walk a straight path back to the booth.

Apparently, my efforts were a complete failure. No sooner had I sat down and took another swallow of my drink than I felt the presence standing next to me at the table and heard the soft voice. “You know that’s not going to fix anything.”

Without looking up, I tried to blow her off. “Who said anything was broken?” I remarked, smacking my glass down on the table to accentuate the point.

Unfortunately, this seemed to have the opposite effect. She sat down across from me in the booth and leaned in, maintaining that soft voice. “All the bluster in the world won’t hide those eyes, kiddo.”

I bristled at that last word. “I’m not your kiddo. I don’t know you, you definitely don’t know me, yet you’re over here pretending you give a shit about me. I got no money, lady, and I don’t know anyone worth knowing. What do you want with me?” I drained my drink and waved my glass to Marcus once more, and he waved his acknowledgment.

“I know who I am. I’m Elise Roberts, and I own the antique mall down the street. I also know who you are. You’re Naomi, and you’re here about two or three times a week with your college friends that just ditched you, usually with another girl I assume is in college right now as well.”

Even through the thickening haze of the rum, the rage came through focused and clear as my voice grew louder. “Yeah, you don’t know a damned thing. I graduated two months ago. And since I don’t own nor am I looking to buy any old junk, I don’t see why I should care who you are.”

Her tone remained unnervingly even. “You know, I came over to talk to you because you looked like you could use a friend. Funny thing is, every other time I’ve ever seen you in here, you looked the same, even when your table was full of people.” Marcus came back with another drink and looked at her quizzically.

“Well maybe that’s because you read me wrong. I got plenty of friends.” I realized my words were starting to run together and cursed myself for it.

“Is that why they walked out in a huff and you’re still here drinking yourself into a stupor?”

“Last I checked, it’s a free country, and I can get bombed if I want. Still don’t get why you care.” I was running out of defenses and wishing she’d just go away.

“It’s easier this way, isn’t it?” she pressed. “Much easier to be the porcupine than worry about getting the quills, right?”

That was a low blow by any standards, as far as I was concerned. I tilted the fresh glass back and took a long pull. By that point, I’d completely lost track of how much I had to drink, but I knew I was well beyond my limit as I smacked the glass back down on the table. “We’re playing pop psychology now?” I slurred into a sloppy laugh. “What’s next, I wanna kill my mother and fuck my father?” My eyes were starting to blur as I giggled, but I shook it off. “I got one for ya,” I chortled. “Lot easier to play doctor to an amputee than stitch up your own wounds, ain’t it?” I reached down to grab the drink again and knocked it right off the table. As an added bonus, I smacked my forehead on the edge of the table when I tried to catch the tumbling glass. “Fuck!” I shouted, as it shattered against the floor, covering my face as I reflexively bounced my head backward, cracking it hard into the bare wood behind, and saw stars.

“Oh my god, are you okay?!” Elise gasped.

The world began to spin harder, and I closed my eyes and said, “I’m fine… I just need to… pay my tab… and… get to my car…”

“The hell you do!” I heard her from a distance. “You’re not driving anywhere tonight, kiddo!” The voice drew closer, and I felt her shove into my side of the booth and pry my hands away from my face a lot easier than I expected. I felt a sudden shock of cold on my forehead, and managed to open my other eye enough to see a dishrag up against my face, presumably filled with ice.

“Dammit, I said I’m…” I began, right before everything went black.

3

I woke to a thundering pain in my skull, pulsing between the back of my head and what felt like an ostrich egg firmly attached to my forehead. I reluctantly opened my eyes to a squint, and was completely horrified at what I saw. I was lying in a very short single bed, covered with a white comforter with pale blue trim, emblazoned with cartoon butterflies and ladybugs. The walls were a soft pastel blue, with white trim on the door frames and the molding. “Where the fuck am I?!” I croaked, mouth dry as sand and throat so raw I wondered if I’d taken up smoking at some point the previous night.

I rolled over on my side, still struggling to focus, and was greeted by a rather creepy looking lamp, consisting of a cast depiction of Snow White surrounded by a menagerie of cartoon animals. Beside it sat a glass of water and two red pills, all sitting on a white nightstand accented with carvings of flowers and what I could only guess were trees of some sort. Just as I began a feeble attempt to sit up, two things happened in rapid succession. First, my bladder awakened with a vengeance, which sent enough of a panic signal to my still-foggy brain that there was no time at all to wait. Second, one of the doors opened and a head popped in, one I vaguely recognized, but couldn’t place immediately. She started to speak, but I cut her off with a single word: “Bathroom!” Her eyes indicated she was too surprised to respond verbally, and she pointed at the other door vigorously, then withdrew.

After throwing off the comforter, I half ran, half staggered through the door she pointed out, smacking my shoulder on the way through, which nearly knocked me to the floor, and found myself in a huge bathroom with a massive garden tub and luxuriously appointed fixtures, of which only one was of my immediate concern. It was only when I finally reached the toilet that I realized I was not wearing anything that remotely resembled my clothing. I hiked up the frilly pink nightgown and reached for my panties, which weren’t there. I plunked down clumsily, bewildered, and relieved myself, then sat in shock as I tried to piece together the events of the past however long it had been since Amanda and Desiree had walked out of the bar. Brief flashes returned to me, the woman at the bar… smacking my head on the table… being carried out the door… getting sick on the sidewalk… a sponge bath… the images were so vague, so distorted, nothing made sense. As confused and panicked about where I was and what I was wearing, in between the hammer strikes on my skull, I concluded I was only going to find out by interfacing with that crazy lady as calmly as I could, lest a worse fate than being the subject of a game of dress-up befall me.

After gingerly making my way back to the bedroom, with plenty of assistance from walls and door frames, I took a survey of the surroundings. This was every bit a room for a preschooler, and as girly as it could possibly get, short of neon pink walls. The furniture was all white, some sort of eggshell finish, no doubt for ease of cleanup, and appropriately sized for someone roughly my height. I vaguely recalled wisps of conversation with… Elise was her name?… something about how she had “seen” me many times before, which now seemed more like “stalked” as I considered the situation. My eyes scanned back over to the bed, and something peeking out from under the comforter caught my eye. I moved the blanket out of the way and was horrified to see what looked like a disposable pet training pad spread out exactly where I had slept.

“You okay in there?” the soft voice queried from behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin as I whipped around. “Hey, sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Where the… what is this place?” I asked nervously.

She stepped into the room with a sympathetic smile on her face. “Sorry about the décor. It’s the only spare room I had with a bed already made up.”

“So you, like, have a kid?”

“No,” she sighed deeply and looked down. “I was trying to adopt, but the little girl that was coming from Thailand died of some rare disease before the papers were all processed.”

I wasn’t sure whether to feel guilty or even more suspicious. The point that she was trying to get an Asian kid was certainly not lost on me as I continued to struggle at processing the scene. I caught a bit of a head rush, and sat back down on the bed. “Hey, are you okay? I left some Tylenol on the bedstand for you, I figured you’d need it,” she said, coming closer.

Ah, the red pills… I thought to myself. See, you’re just being paranoid… Then something else occurred to me. “Uh, what happened to my clothes?”

Elise sat on the floor next to the bed and chuckled again. “They’re in the dryer, hon. I didn’t think you’d be real happy waking up to the smell of your own sick. It took me twenty minutes with a bottle of leather conditioner to clean up my seats this morning.”

Okay, that’s reasonable… “Sorry about that,” I said, staring at the carpet. “I can’t say as I remember that happening.”

“I’m not surprised. I had to carry you out of there, and you lost it once on the sidewalk. I figured we were in the clear, until you started heaving again right as I pulled into the garage.”

“Did you… give me a bath?”

She sighed and looked down. “Yeah, I guess the mothering instinct took over once I realized you had wet yourself on top of everything else.”

Now it was my turn to be horrified. “I… I what?!” I stammered, my face flushing hot.

“Yeah, you were soaked. Do you have any idea how much you drank last night, you goof? I’ve seen full-grown men do worse with less.”

“Explains the puppy pad,” I muttered, completely humiliated.

“I happened to have a few of those from a pet-sitting adventure I had a few months back, and…” she trailed off, then visibly shifted gears. “Hey, why don’t you get that Tylenol down you and maybe take a shower, wake yourself up a bit. There’s hot coffee downstairs, and I’ll make you some breakfast if you like…”

“Yeah… I’ll probably pass on the food for now, but coffee sounds great.”

“Alright, then. I’ll go check the dryer and leave you a cup on your… I mean… the dresser.” She took on a blush of her own after the obvious slip. “Good hot shower will cure what ails ya,” she announced with a smile as she stood back up. She started to head back out the door, then stopped and said, “Oh, how do you take it?”

“Little cream, lot of sugar.”

“Okay, see you in a bit.” She smiled as she closed the door behind her.

Well, she doesn’t seem to want to kill me, I thought, but there’s still something weird going on in that head…

4

I went ahead and took the pills she left out for me, then took a long hot shower, which did a world of good for my hangover. When I got back into the bedroom, there was a steaming cup of coffee on a saucer sitting where the water glass had been. There was also a change of clothes laid out on the bed that were definitely not mine, and a note laid on top that read, Sorry, yours are still wet…

The top was every bit as girly as everything else in the room, lilac colored, high necked, with lace trim. The jeans, thankfully, were plain blue, and there were a pair of lace-trimmed ankle socks and a pair of pink cotton panties to complete the ensemble. Grumbling, I dressed, then stopped in front of the full-length mirror on the door. The disturbing part was, I didn’t look at all out of place. Shaking my head, I walked back over to the bed, plunked down, and began to sip on the coffee, brooding over the image I had just witnessed.

A knock on the door came a few minutes later. “Hey, are you decent?”

Not that it matters, you’ve seen me naked… I thought grimly. “Yeah, I’m dressed,” I called back.

She came in, looked me up and down, and chuckled a bit. “Sorry about the outfit. I kinda…”

“Yeah, I know. This stuff was supposed to be for that kid you were adopting,” I said glumly.

“Well, I’m not the one who drank herself stupid last night,” she chided as she leaned back against the desk on the opposite side of the room.

“You’re not the one who had the day from hell yesterday, either,” I shot back sarcastically.

“Sure,” she laughed. “And getting bombed fixed everything, didn’t it, kiddo?”

The “kiddo” comment suddenly jolted out memories of the argument from the previous night, and I reacted without considering the potential consequences. “Okay, so where exactly the fuck am I?” I snapped, scowling.

“Woah there,” she said, stiffening a bit. “First of all, you’re in my house, and that kind of language doesn’t fly around here.”

“Well, if you were my size at my age, you wouldn’t take too kindly to being called ‘kiddo’ all the time, either.”

“Okay, that’s fair, but it doesn’t entitle you to be rude.”

The small talk had gotten old by that point. “Look, lady, I appreciate the hospitality and all, but if it’s all the same to you I’d rather just get back to my car and go home.”

I couldn’t quite read her reaction to this. Her brows furrowed, then she stood up and calmly stated, “That’s fine. As soon as your clothes are dry, you can change and I’ll take you back to the restaurant.” Without another word, she walked out briskly. I heard her footsteps down what sounded like a flight of stairs, and across a hard floor, leaving me alone with my thoughts. A vague feeling of guilt washed over me as I considered my circumstances. I was so worried about her being some sort of creep, I hadn’t even given consideration to what she had done for me in the previous twelve hours. I finished the cup of coffee, then picked up the cup and saucer and cautiously walked out the door through which she had exited.

I found myself at an open railing, staring down into a huge foyer with wood floors. To one side, a wall picked up, and there were two more doors on the same side as the room I just left. To the other, a winding staircase led down into the foyer. I went ahead down the stairs gingerly, my bare feet padding softly on the carpeted steps. When I reached the bottom, I surveyed the scene briefly. Directly ahead of me was a doorway which led into a formal dining room, and a hallway led to my right. “Is that you, Naomi?” her voice called out from down the hall.

I followed the voice and found myself in a huge kitchen, Elise sitting at an island in the center on a bar stool, sipping coffee, dressed in a dark paisley button-down top, tied at the waist, and blue jeans. “Came down for another cup?” she asked, as though the previous altercation had never happened.

“Um… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get all hostile back there,” I stammered out sheepishly.

“Hey, I get it, you’re in a strange house, dressed in strange clothes, with a person you only ‘met’ for about ten minutes before you knocked yourself out in a bar. I’d probably be a bit sketchy myself,” she chuckled. “I’m not sure if I’d have the gall to start mouthing off like you did, but I’d definitely be worried about motives.”

“Um, okay…” I ventured. “So… what were your motives?”

“Direct. I like that,” she laughed. “Truthfully? If you hadn’t been nearly falling down drunk when I approached you, I probably would have taken your first couple of hints and left you there to do whatever you were going to do. But, then, that was pretty much the reason why I came over in the first place, because I could see you were in trouble and getting deeper.”

“But… why bother?” I still couldn’t shake the idea she had other reasons for doing this.

I watched her smile fade a bit as she shifted positions to look straight at me. “I know you’re not going to believe this, but I was taught from a very young age that you get exactly what you give in this world. I know if I were the one sitting in that booth, spiraling out of control like that, I’d want someone to step in before I did something I really regretted.”

I was dumbstruck. “I… don’t know what to say…” I stammered, feeling even more ashamed that I had been so nasty to this person, when all she was trying to do was help.

“Don’t worry about it. You want another cup of coffee?” her smile returned.

“No… I’m good. I gotta get home and get some sh… stuff sorted out,” I said quietly, putting my cup and saucer on the counter next to the sink.

“Alright, then let’s get going,” she said, setting her cup down and slinging her purse across her shoulder. “Your purse is still in the car, and your shoes are next to the front door.” I followed behind her as she walked briskly down the hallway and back out into the foyer, then located my shoes and slipped them on. I started to open the front door, but she stopped me. “This way.” She pointed toward a single door off to the side. She walked over and opened it, stepping aside as I passed through into a huge four-bay garage, in which sat a couple of unique-looking old cars I didn’t recognize and a pristine black Yukon hybrid. I giggled a bit at this last piece.

“What’s so funny?” she asked as she produced a key fob and unlocked the doors on the Yukon.

“Sorry, it just seems like such a contradiction, a massive SUV that’s all green and earth-conscious.”

“Oh, I didn’t buy it to be ‘all green and earth-conscious’,” she laughed. “I bought it because twenty-two miles per gallon is a lot better than fourteen when you’re trekking around all over the countryside buying ‘old junk’, as you called it last night, and it’s pretty tough to carry a six-foot-tall armoire in one of those little Prius numbers.”

I chuckled a bit as I climbed up into the passenger’s side with some difficulty. The intense smell of upholstery cleaner met my nose immediately, and another memory surfaced from the previous night as I sat down, one of me bent over retching in this seat. I blushed and mumbled “Sorry about the…”

“Shush. Truck was overdue for a cleaning anyway,” she said as she buckled up and turned the ignition switch. She pulled her cellphone out and began tapping away, and the garage door opened behind us. She backed the truck out and into a turnaround in the driveway, then tapped a few more buttons, at which point the garage door closed and the gate at the bottom of the drive slid open. She put her phone back in her pocket and off we went.

As we started to roll down the street, however, I felt a wave of dizziness wash over me. I kept silent, but as it intensified, Elise seemed to pick up on it. “Hey, are you okay over there? You’re looking a little green around the gills.”

“I… I’m fine… just need some air…” I stammered, rolling the window down. The salt breeze initially felt good on my face as we neared the Golden Gate, but then the world started to spin all over again.

“Naomi, you don’t look fine,” she argued. “Do you feel sick?”

“No… just dizzy,” I managed. “I’ll be fine, though.”

I closed my eyes for what seemed like only a few seconds. “Hey, you awake over there?” The soft voice pulled me back into consciousness. The truck was parked in front of the bar, my head was splitting and spinning again, and Elise’s hand was on my shoulder.

“Huh? Oh, I’m fine,” I mumbled, gathering my purse.

“Are you sure? I can probably get one of the guys to follow us to your place.” she persisted, a clearly concerned look on her face.

“Really, I’m okay.” Truthfully, I wasn’t, but I’d had quite enough of the “kindness of strangers” for one twenty-four-hour period, and wanted nothing more than to just get back to my crummy apartment and try to figure out how I was going to come up with enough money to pay the rent another month. I quickly exited the truck and said, “Thanks for the ride,” closing the door before she had a chance to lodge any further protests.

I made my way, with some difficulty, up to my Crown Vic and climbed into the elevated driver’s seat. Shaking my head in vain hopes to clear the buzzing noises, I fired up the tired old engine. I took a deep breath and threw it into drive, stopping to check traffic in my side view mirror before pulling out onto the street. After I made a couple of turns, I noticed Elise’s truck still behind me, and I thought, What the hell? Now she’s following me?

I had little time to consider this, as a powerful wave of nausea hit me, and I doubled over to the side and retched all over the center console. Before I could so much as right myself back into a sitting position, I heard horns blare and brakes screech, and then the lights went out.

5

Time may as well have stopped, for as much as I was aware of it. I felt like I was chained to the bottom of a shallow pool of water. Voices came and went, but they were muffled and distant. There was the sensation of motion, but I could not move, or at least I couldn’t tell if anything was moving, as my head was rigidly in place. I recall being asked my name a lot, and where I was, but when I tried to move my lips, there was no sound. Every time I tried to open my eyes, there was painfully intense light, and there were faces, but they were distorted and misshapen. Pain was a constant friend. My whole body ached, but my left side especially. From within the chaos, during moments of lucidity, I struggled vainly to piece together the images into some sense of what had transpired, only to lose touch as I sank back into the darkness, into fractured dreams of overdue bills and unfinished resumes and Bill and Amanda and Okaasan, seemingly everything in my life that had gone wrong or was going wrong all visiting me in that same window of time until…

My eye was pried open, and a penlight shone into it. “Pupils are… Hey! Welcome back to the land of the living!” a man’s voice chuckled. I tried to open my eyes on my own after he let loose, but the overhead light was blinding, and I squinted against its glare. “Hey, we can dim those for you a bit here,” he spoke again. “I’m Dr. Mattson. Can you tell me who you are?”

“Naomi…” I croaked, still disoriented. “Naomi Hashimura.”

“Good, good. Do you know where you are?”

“No… but I’m going to take a wild guess that this is a hospital. Any chance I could get a drink?”

“Sure, we can get that for you in just a minute. Yes, this is a hospital. Do you know why you’re here?”

I tried again to piece the images together, but I still couldn’t make any sense of them. “All I know is, some crazy person I met last night dropped me off where my car was, and now I’m here.”

“Well, you were in a pretty bad car accident in between those points,” he said, raising his eyebrow.

I looked down for the first time since I woke up. There was a huge blue wrapping covering most of my left leg, secured with velcro, with my bare knee poking out, and my left arm was in a sling. “What…” I started.

“Your left kneecap was dislocated completely. You’re not going to be putting any weight on that leg for the next week or so. Your shoulder is just bruised, and should be fine by the time you get out of here in a couple days. You also got yourself a nice concussion, and from what your friend told me, it was your second in 12 hours, which is probably why you were in and out for such a long time, in between being sedated.” he explained

“Wait… What do you mean, a long time…” I asked timidly, looking up at the clock on the wall, which read 7:30. “That’s pm, right?”

“Yes, it’s 7:30 pm Saturday evening,” he stated flatly.

“Shit!” I exclaimed. “My electric bill! They cut the power at my apartment! What the hell am I gonna do?!” I sat up, then quickly dropped back to the pillow as my left side protested the sudden movement. “Fuck!” I groaned.

“First of all, you need to calm down,” Dr. Mattson said sternly. “You’re gonna be sore for a while, and sudden movements will make it worse. You’ve got a pain pump right there; you might want to get familiar with it.” He pointed to what looked like a game-show buzzer attached to a cord dangling on the side of the bed. I snatched the device and began to hammer away at the button as my knee screamed its dissatisfaction with my previous hasty movement.

“Second, that’s only going to give you measured doses at specific intervals,” he laughed. “I doubt you’ll be still awake by the time you’re allowed another one, considering your size.”

Between the pain and the sudden shock of realizing the gap in time, I was hardly in the mood for humor. “Anything else I should be aware of?” I snapped.

“Well, your head CT was negative, which is a good thing.”

As he was talking, Elise came into the room. All at once, I flashed back to her truck in my rearview, and I bristled. “You!” I shouted. “What the hell were you doing following me around, you stalker?!”

Her face took on a look like I’d just shot her parents. “I… was trying to make sure you made it home alright… You didn’t look very well when you got out of my truck. I didn’t mean to…”

Dr. Mattson interrupted, “I wouldn’t be so quick to pop off at someone who has been here nearly nonstop the last day and a half waiting for me to wake up. We should all have such devoted friends.”

“I…” I was stunned. “You barely know me. Why are you doing this?”

Elise sat down on the bed and took my hand. “What was I supposed to do, just let the ambulance cart you off and forget you ever existed? Hell, it’s at least part my fault this happened, I should have been a lot more forceful with you when I realized you were half out of it in the truck. The least I could do was be here when you came to, so you weren’t completely among strangers.”

That last word triggered a few more synapses in my brain. “What about Okaasan? Has anyone contacted her?”

“I took the liberty of pulling numbers from your phone and trying to get in touch with your family. Suffice it to say, that didn’t go real well.” Elise sighed.

“What do you mean?” I asked suspiciously.

“Hey, listen, I gotta do the rest of my rounds. If you need anything, just hit the call button, okay?” Dr. Mattson said, smiling as he walked out of the room.

“Once I explained to her that you weren’t in critical condition, your mother coldly thanked me for the information and hung up. I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but I’ve not seen anyone of any sort of Asian descent show up here looking for you. I also called a number you have for ‘Sobo’, but…”

The name stung me immediately. “Yeah, that’s old. My grandmother lives with my mother now, ever since she had the stroke. My mother’s been mad at me for a while now, because I haven’t found a real job yet, and with her having to take care of Sobo, she’s even more intolerant than usual. We had a bad argument over the phone a couple days ago, and she told me if I could only be bothered to call when I needed something, don’t bother calling at all.” My head dropped, and I fiddled with my wristband as I talked.

“That’s terrible!” she gasped. “How could someone be like that to their only child?”

“You don’t understand. Okaasan’s still stuck in the old ways, just as she was raised,” I said as a gentle buzz began to fill my head, and my skin tingled ever so slightly. “She didn’t go to college, she got married to a Japanese man with a prestigious job, then had me, and her father was proud of her. After Touchan died, when I was very young, Okaasan was very angry. She always felt that she threw all her hopes and dreams away to be a good shufu and please her father, and then got stuck with a kid she didn’t want. She never remarried; she saw marriage as little more than being a baita, depending on a man for everything.” By the time I finished, my eyelids were getting very heavy.

“Sounds like your mother’s a pretty bitter woman. I admit, my Japanese is pretty terrible, but does baita mean what I think it does?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, my head nodding involuntarily. “Prostitute.”

“That’s what I thought.” I felt her hand brush the hair out of my eyes. “I see you found your morphine pump,” she chuckled as I continued to fade. “Why don’t you lie back for a bit, and I’ll see about getting some dinner in here for you?” Before I could muster a response, I felt her hand press my head back onto the mattress and hold steady on my forehead as a motor whirred and the bed began to recline, taking me with it. Her soft fingertips brushed my cheek, and I drifted off.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

6

“Naomi… Naomi…” the voice beckoned to me out of the foggy dreamscape. I felt a soft hand on mine, and the visions of kabuki robes and bamboo fans faded into the mist.

“Sobo?” I murmured as I began to open my eyes.

“Not quite,” Elise answered, chuckling. “Your dinner’s getting cold, sweetie. I thought you might want to eat sometime before midnight.”

I reflexively stretched, then quickly stopped as my shoulder cried out its protest. “Ouch! What time is it?” I yelped, wincing.
“You okay?” Elise replied worriedly. “It’s ten o’clock. We managed to get the kitchen to fix you a club with some fries before they closed. Think you might be up for it?”

The mere mention of food set off an intense growl in my stomach, a less-than-subtle reminder that I hadn’t eaten anything in more than two days, which diverted my attention at least somewhat from my throbbing shoulder. “Wow. I haven’t even thought about eating, but now that you mention it…” I said, the desire for sustenance at that moment overriding the temptation to hit the morphine button again.

Elise took the bed remote and raised the head of my bed up, then walked around to the other side and rolled the tray over in front of me, removing the lid and revealing a two-tiered wheat bread sandwich with layers of sliced turkey and ham on the bottom and bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo on the top. A second plate held a pitiful-looking serving of crinkle-cut fries, which I ignored completely. I gingerly reached out, snagged a piece of the sandwich, and took a bite. I never imagined something like hospital food could taste so good, after a day and a half of dry mouth preceded only by two cups of coffee yesterday morning, and my pace quickened.

“Hey, slow down there, no one’s going to steal it!” Elise laughed as she sat back down in her chair. “That’s apple juice in the cup, by the way. I didn’t know what your preference was, but they told me you couldn’t have anything fizzy.”

“It’s fine,” I said after finishing a mouthful. “Thank you for getting it for me.” I paused for a second and looked down. “And thanks for being here. I mean, I still barely know you, but you cared enough to look after me. You didn’t have to…”

“Don’t start feeling all guilty on my account,” Elise scolded gently. “I’m here because I want to be here, not because I thought I had to be here.”

“I guess I still don’t really understand why,” I said softly, staring at the tray in front of me. “I mean… I don’t know what I mean… I’m just…”

“Wondering why I would want to be a friend to you when it’s obvious you could really use one?” she replied as she shifted her chair closer to the bed. “You worried I have some kind of creepy ulterior motives going on under the surface? Or maybe you think you don’t deserve having friends that actually care?”

A previously buried memory fired into the back of my mind, and I grinned and said “Ah hell, there you go with the pop psychology again,” as I took another bite of my sandwich, chuckling.

Elise’s jaw dropped in mock indignation as she slapped me gently on the arm. “Pop psychology?! I’ll show you pop psychology!”

“Hey! Payfent abufe!” I yelled, laughing, mouth still full of cold cuts and bread, as a nurse appeared at the doorway.

“I see someone’s finally awake.” she chuckled as she walked in. “Ready for your meds?”

“Would it make a difference if I said ‘no’?” I snarked, sticking my tongue out defiantly, to which Elise laughed heartily.

“Well no, it probably wouldn’t, because I’d just get a syringe and put them in your IV instead,” she laughed as she began making notes on her clipboard, reading values from a monitor next to my bed, then hitting a button which set off the blood pressure cuff on my right arm. I sat as still as I could in between chuckling back and forth at Elise, until the thing finally stopped squeezing.

“So, how’s your pain level right now?” the nurse piped up as she handed me a tiny paper cup with three pills in it.

“Um… good as long as I don’t move around,” I said, downing the pills and taking a swallow of the apple juice, which triggered another response, one I hadn’t seen coming at all. I felt a sudden urge to pee, then realized I couldn’t stop it. I looked down in horror, then up at the nurse, who smiled broadly.

“I see you’ve discovered your catheter,” she laughed.

I reached my hand under the blanket and felt the plastic tubing resting on my leg, which was quite warm to the touch. “I’m… peeing in a bag?” I stammered.

“Well, yeah, you’ve been out most of the last two days. Lot easier than trying to wake you up and take you to the bathroom, don’t you think?”

I cringed. “So… how long does this stay in?”

“That hinges on how soon you’re able to get up and walk to and from the bathroom on your own,” she replied. “I wouldn’t worry about it tonight, though. Anything else I can do for you while I’m here?”

“Uh… tell me when they’re gonna let me out of here?” I asked hopefully.

She flipped through a folder on the clipboard. “Doctor Mattson’s notes say he wants to keep you here for observation until he’s sure you’re not having any after-effects from your head trauma. He’ll be back in the morning, though, so you can probably talk to him then about what that means. I know in most head injury cases, the doctors like to see the patient up and around and not having vertigo or other balance problems, especially if they live alone. I’d say that’s even more important in your case, being that your leg’s gonna be splinted up for the next couple weeks, and you won’t even be able to use a crutch for the next few days until the swelling goes down a bit on that shoulder, so you’re pretty well immobile right now without help.”

“But… I can’t stay here all week!” I protested.

“I didn’t say that,” she said softly, but with a distinctive motherly tone, “I said Doctor Mattson will be here in the morning, and he’ll be able to give you a clearer answer. So… do you need anything right now? Extra blanket or pillow? Something to read?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said glumly. As the nurse got up and left, my thoughts raced. How was I going to pay for this? How was I going to pay my rent in a few weeks, with no job and my leg in a splint? Hell, what about my car? I was sure it was totaled. It all crashed down on me like a truckload of gravel, each pebble a different problem, but all of them connected to the one thing I didn’t have and had no way of getting – money.

“Hey,” Elise’s voice cut through the chorus of worries, and I felt her hand on my forearm. “It won’t do any good to brood over it now, you know. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. Finish your dinner, you’ll feel better.”

“I kinda lost my appetite,” I said, staring at the remaining quarter or so of the sandwich sitting on my plate.

“Oh come on.” she chided. “For all the poking about pop psychology, I finally give it to you on purpose and can’t even get a laugh?”

Just then, the nurse poked her head back in. “Oh, one more thing. Family hours are over in forty minutes, but if you want to stay the night, just let someone at the front desk know, and we can get you a cot, okay?”

“Thanks,” Elise said, smiling. “I might stick around tonight, now that she’s awake on her own.”

“That’ll be fine, I’ll have them bring one down,” the nurse chirped back, then disappeared again.

Overwhelmed as I was, somewhere in the back of my head a connection was made, and I looked at Elise suspiciously. “Family hours?” I asked, my eyebrow raised.

She snickered a bit, then whispered “I told them I was your aunt, and none of your other relatives lived close enough to visit. Otherwise, they would have kicked me out an hour and a half ago.”

“Aunt Elise, huh?” I chuckled.

“Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?” she grinned.

A few minutes later, a tall, burly-looking guy came and set up a spartan-looking cot under the window, dropping the folded blanket and pillow on it nonchalantly, and leaving without a word.

“So, you done with that?” Elise nodded toward the tray as she stood.

I finished the cup of juice and set it back on the tray. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Good,” she replied, walking over and moving the tray table out of the way. “What say you find something incredibly boring on TV, maybe put us both to sleep?”

I located the TV remote on a tray to my right, shifting myself carefully to keep my sore shoulder still as I retrieved it, then turned the TV in the corner of the ceiling on, flipping through the channels for a bit, finally settling on an old Tom Hanks movie. Elise dimmed the lights in the room, then sat down and kicked up the footrest on the recliner, and we sat silently, her seemingly engrossed in the movie, and me brooding over the hopelessness of my situation.

Around one o’clock, a nurse poked her head in the door with a quick smile and a wave. I halfheartedly waved back with my good arm, then looked over at Elise, who was sound asleep in the chair. Figures, she’s out and I’m wide awake, I thought to myself. I switched the TV off and reclined the head of my bed back, staring at the ceiling and struggling to put the worry out of my mind about all that had happened and what was to come of it. So much had gone wrong so fast, it had to be some other poor sucker’s life, not mine, some character in a morbid slapstick comedy I watched late one night. Those couldn’t be my memories, could they? I struggled to piece it all back together, try and sort out the fragments to match what I’d been told of what happened, but the strain became too much, and memory soon dissipated into dream.

7

Morning came abruptly, as the sunrise illuminated my window. I looked at the wall clock: Six-fifteen. I couldn’t recall ever voluntarily waking up this early, but considering how much I’d been unconscious the last two days, it wasn’t really surprising. Elise had apparently moved over to the cot after I fell asleep, as evidenced by her form facing the wall, motionless save for her breathing. She was still such an enigma to me. What was motivating her to demonstrate this kind of dedication to what was essentially a complete stranger? Was she… a lesbian? Was this all an elaborate effort to be my girlfriend? I shuddered at the thought. I hadn’t exactly had a prolific sex life prior to that point; in fact the only sexual relationship I ever had was with a guy who turned out to be a closet pedophile. Suffice to say I hadn’t had the desire to date since.

That moment of recall did nothing to ease my anxiety about the motionless woman in the corner of my room, unfortunately, as I remembered where I had slept the night all this started, and the closet full of little girls’ clothes. That couldn’t be what she was about, could it? A lesbian and a pedo? No, that would be just too weird. Besides, if she was that kind of creeper, she could have easily taken advantage of me the first night. A lesbian pedo with a conscience? Or a sense of chivalry? Somehow I doubted it. So what the hell was her fascination? Why the sudden interest in me? The questions pounded away at me in the quiet of the dawn, as the absurdity of the whole situation came into razor focus.

“Oh hey, you’re awake. Good morning,” the soft voice cut through my brooding. The morning nurse was at the door. I waved, then nodded towards Elise.

“Got it,” she whispered with a chuckle as she approached my bed. “I’m just here to check your vitals.”

I sat silently as her head darted back and forth between the monitor next to my bed and my chart, scribbling as she went. “Breakfast will be here in about half an hour,” she whispered. “You want to take your meds now or wait?”

“Let’s get it over with,” I sighed. “What am I taking here, anyway?”

“Just pain medication.” she called back as she stepped out into the hall and returned with another condiment cup, similar to the one the nurse gave me last night. She continued, “Couple of ibuprofen and a Vicodin. The general idea is to get you to a point where you’re okay just taking that stuff and not using the pump.” She gave me the pills and a small cup of water.

“Uh, yeah, I don’t think I’ll be doing much more with the nap machine,” I said flatly.

“Morphine made you too sleepy?” she laughed.

“Sleepy isn’t the word for it; I was out for four hours!”

“Well, that’ll get you closer to discharge, anyway,” she smiled.

I paused for a moment on this revelation. “Closer? What else do I have to do to get out of here?”

“Well, first off, the doc’s gotta get your catheter out so you can use the toilet on your own – well, in your case, you’ll need help getting there. I’m sure he’s going to want to do some additional neurological tests to make sure you’re okay upstairs too, but he’ll tell you more about that after breakfast, when he does his rounds. Speaking of rounds, I do need to get the rest of the patients taken care of here, so…”

“I’m good,” I acknowledged.

“Okay then. Enjoy your breakfast!”

As I watched her stride briskly out of the room, Elise rolled over into a stretch and look around sleepily.

“Morning,” I offered.

She let loose a huge yawn before responding. “Hey. Wow, what time is it? I barely remember getting out of the chair last night.”

“Almost seven.”

“Wow. How long you been awake?”

“Not long. Nurse just dropped off my pills, and the breakfast cart is on its way, according to her.”

“Oh good. Maybe I can scare up a cup of coffee,” she said, sitting up and running her fingers through her hair sandy-brown hair, staring at the ground in front of her.

“Are you a lesbian?” I suddenly blurted out. Oh shit! Did I just say that?!

“Huh?!” came the stunned response.

“Nothing. Sorry,” I backpedaled.

“Wait, you just asked if I was a lesbian?” she asked, offering me a befuddled glance.

“I… uh… yeah, I guess I did,” I said sheepishly. My turn to stare at the floor.

“And… where did this come from?”

“I… I don’t know… I just… Forget I asked. It doesn’t matter,” I stammered.

“Well obviously it does, so I’ll go ahead and answer. No, I’m not a lesbian. I don’t date much, but when I do, it’s a guy, not a girl. Now you get to answer my question.”

At this point she was fully upright, eyes locked on me, but her face showed no aggression, no anger, not even annoyance. I couldn’t read her at all, which didn’t help my ability to formulate a thought. Finally, I took a deep breath.

“I was thinking this morning, about everything that’s happened, and why you’re here, and what you’re doing, and I guess I still don’t get why I’m such a big deal to you, and that was about the only explanation I could come up with,” I said meekly, still unable to look at her more than a second or two at a time.

“Okay, that makes a little more sense.” She paused for a moment, then began again. “Without going into a big song and dance, let’s just say there was a moment in my life where, had it not been for a stranger who cared enough to help out, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s the truth. I guess maybe that’s why the whole ‘get what you give’ thing my Dad always harped on stuck with me. It doesn’t ever quite feel real until you’re on the receiving end, you know what I mean?”

Honestly, I had no idea what she meant, but I agreed anyway.

“So yeah, I mean, the fact is, the more involved I’ve gotten here, the more help you seem like you’ve needed. I mean, your own mother didn’t even come down here to see you, she just took my word for it over the phone. And your friends that left you in the bar? Your phone has been sitting there the whole time, on silent, and I’ve checked it regularly. Not a single call. Trust me, hon, there’s nothing worse than waking up in a hospital bed, having little to no idea how you got there, and not seeing at least some kind of familiar face. I couldn’t stand the idea of putting you in that kind of spot, so I stuck around.”

Once again I was struck speechless, guilty at my cynical attitude. Elise apparently noticed the change in my demeanor.

“Do you want me to go?” she asked softly. “Is that it? Do I make you uncomfortable?”

“No!” I quickly replied. The last thing I wanted was to be alone, even if my company was a real-life Good Samaritan, or at least whatever ulterior motives she had were hidden so well I couldn’t figure them out. “It’s… I mean… You had to know…”

Before she could answer, there was a knock at the door, and Dr. Mattson appeared. “Good morning ladies!” he announced with a smile. “Rumor has it someone’s up and raring to get out of here.”

“Yeah, as much as I love the décor,” I shot back with a grin.

“I’m going to be straight with you,” he said, brows furrowing, as an orderly wheeled in what I presumed to be my breakfast. “You have several hurdles I’d like to see you clear before I feel good about discharging you. First and biggest one is, you need to be able to make it to and from the bathroom. Problem there is, your shoulder is still too bruised up to use a crutch on that side, and you’re not going to be bending that knee for at least a couple of weeks. With that in mind, knowing what you’ve already told me about your living situation, we need to get that arm working so you can ambulate on your own, since you really don’t have anyone to help you get around and get things done for yourself where you are now.”

“But… how long is that gonna take?” I was stunned.

“Well, best case probably two more days in the sling, until that bruise is healed up, then another day or so of physical therapy work to get it loosened back up enough for you to get around. Worst case, if you’re a slow healer, it could be a week.”

“I… I can’t stay here for a week!” Panic set in as the potential fallout from me being stuck here for all that extra time raced through my mind, not only the massive hospital bills, but all the bills coming due at home, the likelihood of losing my place.

“Look, Naomi, I can’t very well stop you from leaving if you’re determined to do so, but as your doctor, I’m telling you that it’s a really, really bad idea for you to be by yourself until you’re up, ambulating on your own, not having any post-concussive symptoms, and not needing pain medicine except maybe at night. You’re at a very high risk right now to hurt yourself even worse if you try to be stubborn about this.”

Then the cold realization hit me. Even if I went home, what good would it do? Forget being hobbled for however long it took for my knee to heal, my car was totaled, I had no money other than whatever was in my purse, and I had no place to get help. I was screwed, and I knew it, and it was the most horrible feeling I’d ever experienced.

“Naomi?” Elise asked after a prodigious silence. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “Hey Doc?”

“Yes, Naomi?”

“Can we at least do something about the peeing in the bag thing? Or do I have to wait for that too?”

He stifled a laugh. I couldn’t really blame him, though I was hardly in a humorous mood. “Yes, we can definitely get that taken care of this morning. Why don’t you go ahead and eat breakfast, and I’ll get a nurse and come back after rounds to take care of that for you, okay?”
I wasn’t hungry, but I agreed. If anything, I figured it might serve as something of a distraction from everything else swimming around in my head. Dr. Mattson took his leave and disappeared down the corridor. It was at that moment Elise took care of the distraction.

“You know… I wouldn’t be opposed to having a roommate for a while…”

8

It didn’t really sink in immediately what Elise was proposing, as lost as I was in the forest of my own worry. Heck, I almost didn’t hear her at all. It was only as I watched, gape-mouthed, while she rolled my breakfast tray over to my bed, that the connection finally happened. If I’d been in a chair, I certainly would have fallen out of it at that point.

“Huh?!” was the best I could manage. What else do you say to that, really?

“I said I wouldn’t be opposed to a roommate,” she said, chuckling, as she removed the cover from my tray and wrinkled her nose at the contents. “I mean, if you wanted to… you know, get the doc to let you out of here, you could stay at my place for a while until you were back up on your feet.”

“But… I don’t have a job… I can’t pay you rent…”

“Did I say anything about wanting money?” she cut me off, still smiling.

“I… I mean, I don’t even… I can’t…” Compelling arguments failed to come, probably because every part of my brain was agreeing with her, but this couldn’t be the right answer, could it?

“Look, you want to know what my ulterior motive is? Companionship. I don’t have any close friends, just business associates. In the antiques business, no one is your friend, because either you’re trying to beat them to the next big score or one of you is trying to convince the other that they need to pay the price you’re asking for something you’re also trying to convince them they need to have.” She leaned in a bit. “So yeah, this isn’t strictly altruism on my part. You need someplace to stay, I’ve got a big empty house and no one in it but me. You need someone to help you out for a while, I’d like to have a friend to hang out with and keep me company, someone who isn’t trying to get over on me or con me into something. Does that put you a little more at ease?”

“So…” I was dumbstruck. “I don’t get it. You hang out at the bar all the time, don’t you have friends there?”

She rolled her eyes. “I have bar buddies. That’s a completely different animal. People you hang around with in a bar don’t give a rat’s ass about you or your life except when you’re drinking with them. Once you leave the bar, you cease to exist.”

“Wow.” I thought about Desiree and Amanda. My bar buddies. I hadn’t heard shit from them since they left the bar the other night, and here I’d been in the hospital for what was now three days. You need to remember who your friends are. Dez’s words rang through my head. “I guess you have a point there.”

“Hey, I’ll tell you one thing,” her mood shifted as she leaned back, smiling, “I guarantee the food’s a hell of a lot better.”

I looked ruefully at the dry scrambled eggs and sad-looking half-cooked bacon on the plate in front of me. “Couldn’t be worse, I suppose,” I chuckled.

“Is that a yes?” she asked, the slightest hint of excitement in her voice.

I grabbed a piece of the rubbery bacon and took a bite, well, more of a rip, then grimaced my displeasure. “Okay, you win. Maybe I can finally get focused on getting my resume out there and getting a real job.”

“Great. Let me go hunt down your doctor and let him know, so we can get him working on getting you out of here!” she said, bright-eyed and grinning, as she made for the door.

What did I just get myself into? I wondered, but soon found myself shouted down. Doesn’t matter, you idiot. Playing house with her has to better than playing house over at Glade Memorial in a cardboard box…

Still, the comfort level I had achieved with her through this morning’s conversation receded pretty quickly as her schoolgirl giddiness spilled over in that last moment. I did my best to push the trepidation to the back of my mind as I picked through the sad-looking breakfast plate, finally spreading some jam on the toasted cardboard and choking down bites between sips of the lukewarm brown-colored liquid masquerading as coffee, reassuring myself that this really was a good idea.

Fortunately, I didn’t have long to stew over the matter, as Dr. Mattson reappeared, Elise and a nurse in tow, shortly after I had given up on breakfast.

“So your ‘aunt’ tells me you’ve agreed to stay with her at least until we get your shoulder straightened out?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied flatly, which elicited an immediate reaction from Elise, confusion dampening her cheery demeanor.

“Well that was convincing,” she quipped.

Dr. Mattson laughed. “I think someone’s a bit anxious about something she knows I need to do here in a minute, is all.”

My eyes widened a bit. I had all but forgotten about the plastic bag attached to my leg, once I got accustomed to the involuntary component of the process. I had no idea what I was about to experience, but my gut told me it wasn’t going to be very fun. The nurse drew the privacy curtain around my bed, leaving Elise on the other side, looking concerned.

“Relax.” Dr. Mattson said softly, placing his hand on top of mine. “It’ll be over before you realize it.”

Much to my surprise, it was. The doctor popped a syringe into the tube, let it fill up with water, slid the tube out gently, which felt really weird, but only mildly painful, cleaned the area with what looked like iodine, and it was done. It took him longer to explain some of the potential problems I might experience from the catheter being there as long as it had than it did to actually get it out of there, and the nurse pulling my IV out afterward was more painful.

“Now, the good news for you is, many people experience hesitancy for a few days after having a catheter, which means you’ll have more time between having the urge to go and actually needing to,” he said, smiling. “With your shoulder problem keeping you off crutches and your splint keeping you off that leg, you’ll be glad to have the extra time for someone to help get you there. Of course, there are some folks who have the opposite problem…”

I blushed at the thought of needing to ask Elise for “help” getting to the bathroom, but felt an even more intense embarrassment when I considered the problem of negotiating my clothes with one arm. If it weren’t for the forewarning by the nurse last night about “another enema”, along with the idea of being poked and prodded in much less affectionate fashion by complete strangers and being billed vast sums of money for my trouble, I’d have been ready to ask the doc to put the tube back in. As it was, I merely resigned myself to the reality that I was all but helpless no matter which path I took. “So can I get dressed and get out of here now?” I piped up.

“First we need to make sure that your plumbing is working and whether or not you’re going to get dizzy and lose your balance the first time you get up,” he chuckled.

“Which means…” I offered apprehensively.

“Which means you need to go to the bathroom before we can discharge you.”

“That all?” I quipped. “You tell me this after you drain me out?” I let off an exasperated sigh to drive home the point.

“Come now, it’s not as though I could have…”

“Hey, relax!” Elise cut in. “Unless you’d like to go home in that gown, I need to go pick up some clothes for you anyway!”

I grumbled my frustration, but I had to concede her yet another point. “Don’t you ever get sick of being right all the time?” I snarked.

She gave me a look of feigned indignation, which elicited chuckles from the doctor and the nurse. “Alright then, just sit tight while I go fetch you a change. Hopefully between now and then you’ll… well…”

“No need for gory details,” I grumped as I swilled what was left of my coffee cup, “just keep the coffee coming!” Elise laughed as she turned and left the room.

“Sorry, sweetie, but we don’t keep coffee up here on the floor. I can get you some water or some ginger ale now that your catheter is out,” the nurse suggested as she rolled the privacy curtains back into the corner of the room.

“Soda. By the six pack if you must.”

“Be back in a minute.” she sang as she turned and left as well.

While the nurse was off fetching my drinks, Dr. Mattson gave me a complete lecture on taking care of my leg, including the rather uncomfortable requirement that someone assist me getting in and out of the bath in order to keep the leg straight in this singular moment when I was allowed to take the splint off. I reluctantly agreed to his terms, then spent the next hour and a half forcing ginger ale down as fast as my stomach would stand. By the time Elise returned with my clothes, I was bloated and burping constantly, but still waiting for cooperation from my bladder.

“So are we ready to get dressed and get out of here?” she chirped as she walked in.

“Still waiting,” I groaned. Were I in anything tighter than the hospital gown, the distention in my belly would be obvious.

She walked over to my tray table and began to fill my cup with more soda. “Here, why don’t you have another…”

“Dear god, no!” I cut her off. “I’ll explode!”

“Oh you poor thing!” she cooed. “How much did you drink?”

“Five cans of ginger ale and a bottle of water. I feel like I’m about to give birth to a CO2 canister.”

More pity, small talk, and other distractions ensued as I waited out the inevitable. Thirty minutes later, it finally happened.

“Get the nurse! I gotta pee!” I perked up. Elise dashed out into the hall and brought back one of the nurses.

“How do we do this?” Elise asked, an edge of panic in her voice. “What do I need to do here?”

The nurse chuckled. “Well, pick her up and carry her!”

Elise and I looked at each other with the same mortified stare. “Um… okay… uh… which side?” she stammered.

“Come on over here.” the nurse continued as she pulled the blanket away from my legs and guided Elise’s arms, one behind my back and the other under my knees. “That’s it, let the splint do the work for you there, and just…”

I was entirely too stunned to speak as I felt myself hoisted up and cradled like an infant in Elise’s arms. Half of me was indignant over being treated like a child, the other half suddenly warming to a level of contact, timid though it may have been, that I hadn’t experienced in innumerable years. Unfortunately, this sensation didn’t last long, as I was somewhat clumsily deposited on the toilet, my left leg propped up on a stool, and both the nurse and Elise stood there expectantly.

“Um… a little privacy, maybe?” I ventured.

The two of them fumbled through apologies as the nurse closed the bathroom door and I was left to mull this newest wave of conflicting feelings rushing through my head while nature took its course beneath me. It stung like hell, but I gritted my teeth and pushed through. I finished my business, cleaned up, then called out weakly, “I’m done,” feeling much like a toddler just learning how to use the “potty” as the door flew open.

The nurse only managed to reinforce that feeling when she cooed, “All done? Cleaned up good too?”

I blushed bright, but before I had a chance to offer a witty retort, I was suddenly scooped back up into Elise’s arms, then carried back over to the bed.

“Alright, are we all set then?” the nurse chirped.

“Hey, that was supposed to be my cue to get out of here!” I protested.

“Oh, right. I’m sorry. Go ahead and get dressed, then, and I’ll go get your paperwork ready.” She grabbed my chart and scooted out the door.

Elise produced some still-folded clothes from a plastic shopping bag she had brought along. “I went ahead and picked some things out, hopefully they’re not too, uh, childish. I figured you’d be more comfortable in a skirt than pants with that big awkward brace on your leg.”

I grimaced as I examined a mid-thigh denim skirt with pink and white floral piping up either side and in a wide swath across the top. Sure enough, she’d coordinated it with a simple pink tee with a pop-art daisy emblazoned on the front.

“So… picking up some clothes from my apartment was out of the question?” I asked gingerly.

“Oh my gosh, I didn’t even think of that. Wow, that would have been a much shorter trip, too. I’m sorry,” she said, putting her arm around me. “Well let’s get out of here first. If you don’t mind waiting in the truck, I’ll stop by your place and grab your clothes before we head back up to the house, okay?”

“It’s no big deal,” I said, not really meaning it. “I mean, it’s not like I’m going out clubbing or something.” In the back of my mind, the experience with the pedophile gnawed at me as I did my best to get dressed or, more accurately, try to “help” her dress me. Unfortunately, my poker face betrayed me once more.

“Hey, I said I was sorry about the clothes.” she piped up. My shoulder protested the movement as she guided my arm out of the gown, and I grimaced.

“It’s not… they’re fine… don’t worry about it.” Dammit!

“So it’s about needing all the extra help, huh?” she persisted. I winced again as she slipped my arm gingerly through the sleeve, then replaced the sling.

“No, it’s not that either. Like I said, don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine as soon as we get the hell out of here.” I blushed even deeper as she helped me with the underpants and then the skirt. I snagged my phone out of the drawer, a welcome evidence of my status as an adult.

“Okay, then,” she grinned as she straightened up, “Let’s get the hell out of here, then!”

9

I’d love to say that the humiliation ended once the nurse got me into a wheelchair and navigating toward the exits, but it got worse. Every stranger in the hall looked at me with the most ridiculously exaggerated sympathetic faces and requisite cooing, and I wanted to vomit every time. I finally caught a look at myself in a mirror at the end of one hall, and I realized why; I looked exactly like a kindergartner, one who had likely fallen out of a tree she shouldn’t have been climbing and busted herself up. All I needed was pigtails and a rag doll, and I’d fit perfectly onto the set of that goofy kid show with the purple dinosaur. I’d be the star, no doubt, and the show would be all about helping handicapped people, with a non-stop barrage of stupid songs about all the ways the kids could annoy me by trying to involve me in their stupid little activities while I was in a wheelchair.

I was jolted rather suddenly out of this train of thought with an “Uuuup we go!” from Elise as she hoisted me out of the chair and into the back of her Yukon, where she rested my leg up on the rear-facing seat in front of me, moved my seat up tight to it, and buckled me in.

I involuntarily let out a grunt at this last move, to which she asked, “Are you okay? I didn’t bump anything, did I?”

“No, you’re fine. Let’s just get out of here before someone else gives me a big ‘awwww’ and tries to pinch my cheek.”

Her eyes lit up and she started to grin. “Don’t even think it.” I growled. She laughed heartily as she closed the back door, then reappeared up front, still chuckling.

“Yeah, funny for you, you’re not the one who looks like a cast member from Romper Room.” I grumped.

She giggled louder as she started the truck. “Come on now, for someone who was supposed to happy to be getting out of the hospital, you were practically pouting the whole way out. It was adorable!”

Adorable…. The word stung, and I bit my lip hard, trying to keep my cool. “Can we please not dwell on this?” I snapped.

“Oh, hey, I was just teasing. I’m sorry.” her voice softened, and she put the truck back into park and turned around. “I didn’t think…”

“Just… let’s just change the subject, okay?” I did my best to pretend I wasn’t ready for a fight.

The truck was silent for a while, which gave me ample opportunity to cool off. Elise finally spoke as she pulled up in front of my apartment building. “You okay back there?”

“Yeah.” I still wasn’t much in the mood for talking, though the fangs and claws had certainly retracted.

Unfortunately for me, Elise seemed to be. She deftly slid out of her seat and into the seat directly in front of me, leaning in toward me with a somber face. “Look, I get you’re still a little raw about the whole kid thing, although I can’t imagine how you’ve gotten this far along in your life and not built up some sort of tolerance to what has to be a pretty regular part of interacting with people you don’t know.”

Her voice was so soft and even, her eyes so compassionate, the indignation inside me just dissolved, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable, which was not particularly comfortable for me at that moment. I fidgeted under her gaze as she continued.

“I’m pretty sure there’s more to this than a lifetime of short jokes, but if you don’t want to talk about it right now, that’s okay too. We are still getting to know each other here, and, well, now I know you’ve got a sore spot I should try to avoid. It’d be nice to know if there are any other ones I should know about ahead of time, though.”

I shook my head quietly, staring at her hands in her lap. She let out a sigh, then brought herself to a crouch. “Okay, I’ll be right back. If you’ve got a suitcase in there somewhere, I’ll fill it, but otherwise it’ll be mostly underwear and a couple of outfits. We can come back for the rest of the stuff later. I’m not real thrilled with leaving the truck out on the street in this area anyway, never mind with you in it and immobile the way you are. Anything else you need while I’m there?”

“If you could get my laptop from the end table in my bedroom, that’d be great.” I offered meekly. “…please?”

“Sure, sweetie.” she smiled and let herself out the back door.

A few seconds later, the auto-locks engaged, leaving me by myself once again to brood. What was it about this woman that made me buckle so easily? This was so far beyond just behaving because I need the help. It was like she had a remote kill switch on my temper; all she had to do was look at me that way and speak in that tone and I turned to jelly at her feet.

All of a sudden, another thought crossed my mind. She had already assured me she wasn’t into women; but was I? Was this some kind of attraction thing? Yikes! I dismissed that immediately; what a horrible thought! But there had to be some kind of…

The click of a door latch and the distinct whine of hydraulics broke my concentration. “Miss me?” Elise called from behind me. I turned my head as best as possible and saw her tossing my wheeled tote into the back of the truck. “I managed to get it all in there,” she huffed, “or at least everything that wasn’t falling apart! Good grief, woman, when was the last time you updated your wardrobe?”

“Hey, it’s not like I’m made of money here!” I protested. “When you’re budgeting your bills out of erratic tip money, there usually isn’t much left for clothes, other than replacing work uniforms that get wrecked.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” she agreed with an unexpected grin. “Anyway, we’ve got a couple more stops to make before we head home.”

Indeed, the medical supply was the first of the two. As she got ready to pick me up, she asked “I know it’s not much fun having to be carried around, but the least I can do is give you a choice; would you rather I cradle you two-handed like at the hospital, or put you up on my hip?”

“Well, if I had to pick, I’d take ‘B’ – at least I’ll just feel childish instead of infantile.”

“This is one of the things we’re here to take care of,” she reassured as she hoisted me out of the seat, her left arm neatly positioned across the backs of my thighs as she situated me straddling her left hip. “We comfy?” she grinned.

“Sure, let me just get my thumb in my mouth here and…” I sniped, rolling my eyes.

“Now that would be beyond cute,” she laughed, then quieted down a bit. “Hey, sorry…”

“No, that was my joke. Can’t blame you for laughing.”

The place was pretty quiet, not surprising for mid-morning on a Sunday. A rather chubby young guy in a tragic ensemble of a denim shirt and navy blue dress tie fetched us a wheelchair, into which Elise settled me immediately, and he then proceed to guide us through the place unbidden, gathering up the supplies she requested (portable commode, cast cover) and making some embarrassing suggestions (protective underwear, bed rails) that she thankfully dismissed, though not before the requisite ribbing sent my direction. She paid at the register, and the fat guy helped load the back of the truck while Elise buckled me back in, folding the wheelchair up and loading it in between the seats. They exchanged pleasantries, and we were off.

“Okay, so tell me wherever we’re going next isn’t going to involve someone suggesting I need to wear pull-ups to bed,” I groaned.

“You know, the whole ordeal here would probably be a lot less stressful on you if you just accepted the fact that people who don’t know you are assuming you’re a lot younger than you are.”

“Just because I’ve accepted it, doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Wow, is that really the best comeback I’ve got left? I shook my head in disbelief.

“Missing the point here,” she sang. “What’s stopping you from enjoying it for what it is?”

“Enjoying it?! What the hell am I supposed to be enjoying about people cooing at me like a kindergartner?!”

“You can’t tell me there isn’t a part of you that loves the attention,” she said softly.

I bit my lip. I knew I was right on the edge of saying the wrong thing and really putting myself in a bucket of shit.

“And besides, if everyone assumes you’re…”

“FUCKING STOP, PLEASE!” I cut her off. I was trembling, but inside I kept repeating, She doesn’t know, she doesn’t understand, she’s not why you’re mad… “I mean… I’m sorry, I just…”

Silence from the front. I tried to catch a look at her eyes in the rearview, to get some feeling for how she was reacting. No such luck. She quietly pulled the truck into the parking lot of a strip mall and guided it to a stop. She unbuckled her seatbelt as I watched nervously, then climbed back into the back to sit in front of me once again.

“Look, Naomi,” she said softly, putting a hand gently on my ankle, “I’m sorry for teasing you, though I wasn’t kidding about needing to let it go. That said, there’s obviously more bothering you than just being teased about your height, and I think we need to talk about it, because this probably won’t be the last time we run into it in the next week or so.”

I stared at her hand, wrestling with words. “I don’t want to talk about it,” was all I could manage.

“I know you don’t, but you need to, not for me, for you.”

That was the last straw, and I snapped. “Don’t fucking sit there and act like you have any fucking idea what I need. Spoiled little fucking rich girl running around playing super-hero like you’re gonna save the whole world? Think I didn’t notice you dolled up that bedroom for an Asian kid? I think you need to do something about your fucking Mommy complex before you start talking shit about what I fucking need!”

As soon as I said it, I could see I hit a nerve. Her face became an emotionless wall, and all at once she got back up into the crouch and moved silently back to the front seat. She grabbed her purse and calmly said, “I’m going to go grab your prescriptions. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I could hear a subtle tremor in her voice, as though she were fighting back tears, and I immediately regretted my outburst.

I sat quietly, trying to figure what her next move would be. She obviously wasn’t going to ditch me somewhere, else she wouldn’t have bothered with the prescriptions. All sorts of scenarios ran through my head, along with exit strategies. My concentration was suddenly disrupted by the click of the auto-lock and her door opening.

Without a word she started the truck back up and pulled it back out onto the road. Once more I tried to get a look at her eyes through the rearview, but the glimpses I caught gave me nothing as I sat in that silence, save the faint road noises outside. As we drove on, and the foreboding wore on me, I silently wished she had just tossed me out of the truck in the parking lot rather than leave me dangling over this cliff, staring into the abyss of my own anxiety over what immediate future awaited me.

10

She still hadn’t spoken a word when the Yukon rolled quietly into the garage. By this point, I couldn’t stand the silence anymore.

“So… what happens now?” I asked timidly.

She turned the ignition switch, released her seatbelt, and turned around. “Now I do what I promised you I’d do, which is take care of you as best as I can for however long you need me to. After that, well, that’s up to you.”

With that, she wordlessly exited the truck, walked around to the passenger’s side, opened the door, and negotiated the wheelchair out from between the seats, setting it up next to her on the concrete. “It’s going to be tricky, at least for the next day or so, getting you in and out of the garage, but hopefully…”

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out.

She looked up at me for a moment, then continued, “…hopefully my contractor will be able to get the ramp put in pretty quickly tomorrow so we’ll…”

“I’m sorry, Elise. What I said was nasty, and I didn’t mean it.”

She paused again and said, “Okay,” then climbed in and unbuckled my seatbelt. She picked me up gently and deposited me into the wheelchair, then closed the door.

“So hopefully I won’t have to wrestle this step…” she grunted as she coaxed the chair up over the door jam and into the foyer, “…more than once or twice more for however long you’re off your feet.”

My anxiety level was reaching a fever pitch as she seemingly ignored my apology. “Will you talk to me, please?” I begged.

She took her shoes off and set them next to the door, then turned back and looked at me. “I am talking to you,” she said flatly, “but I thought you made it pretty clear on the way home you didn’t want to talk about anything sensitive, so I’m trying to respect that.”

Yeah, I deserve this, don’t I? “That’s… not really what I meant.”

“No?” she replied, obviously feigning surprise as she wheeled me through the hallway, past the kitchen and into a sun room off the back of the house. “Well, maybe we can talk about what you meant after I get your stuff unloaded from the truck and get you settled in down here.”

“Wait… I thought you only had…”

“This place has four bedrooms and two baths upstairs and one of each downstairs, though I use the bedroom down here as my office. You obviously weren’t comfortable in the other bedroom last time you were here, so I figured I’d set you up in here to make it easier on everyone, since you’re probably only staying here for a short time, okay?”

“Um… well… I guess…”

“Good. I’ll be back in a minute then with your stuff, and then we’ll get the convertible bed set up for you.” She nodded toward the loveseat in the corner of the room, presumably a fold-out couch. I thought it odd that someone with such demonstrated taste in furnishings would have something so quaintly tacky, but I dismissed it.

With that, she strode back down the hall, leaving me alone to my thoughts. As wound up as I was about what sort of punitive actions she intended to take for my outburst on the way back to her house, I never saw this coming. Worse, I never anticipated how much more this would hurt. I’d barely known her a few days, but when I felt her withdraw the affection I had found so intrusive prior to this point, it was as though the temperature in the room dropped thirty degrees.

I sat silently and watched her bring in the remaining supplies and the stuff she picked up from my apartment, struggling to maintain a calm face in spite of the emotional storm raging inside of me. When she finally sat down, I didn’t hesitate.

“Look, it’s not just the teasing and the bullying I endured in school. Yeah, that’s a big part of it, but…” I stopped to gather myself, then continued.

"My second semester of college, I met this guy, Jason. He was 28; said he was a grad student, which seemed plausible. He was so sweet to me, which took me completely by surprise, since the few guys that willingly interacted with me treated me like a little sister, not the woman I was trying so desperately to be. He just showered me with attention and affection, and I got swept up in it. I fell for him, hard. Okaasan disapproved completely, of course, but I already told you how she felt about men, and I pretty much ignored everything she had to say about the matter.

"I remember he always referred to himself as ‘Daddy’ and me as ‘his girl’. It was cute back then, and I never gave it much thought. We got hot and heavy pretty fast, too. He was my first, and it happened a lot sooner than I ever imagined it would. It wasn’t long before I moved in with him, partly I think just to spite Okaasan, but mostly because I really believed I was in love.

"After I moved into his apartment, that’s when he started to change, or maybe he just let his guard down, I’m not sure. He got more protective of me, always doting on me, wanting to be with me everywhere I went. The fact that he didn’t act all jealous was disarming, really. I just wrote it off as him genuinely caring about me.

"Something else that was a bit strange early on was he was just so fascinated with young girls, toddlers, preschoolers, early school age. Everywhere we went, if a little girl was in the room, he’d make chit-chat with Mommy and pay special attention to the little one. I pretty much assumed he wanted to be a daddy too, and I imagined us having a little family with little girls of our own.

“It wasn’t long, maybe a month or so after I moved in, that he started buying me weird clothes. At first it was just really girly stuff, frilly blouses in baby blues and pinks and yellows, stuff I’d never wear, but it still made me feel good when he’d come home with his little surprises. Inevitably, a fashion show would be followed by mad, passionate sex. He was a wild man in bed when I dressed up for him, not that he wasn’t any good the rest of the time, but…”

Elise’s brows furrowed ever so slightly as I continued. "It started getting weird when the clothes started getting more childish. He bought me little frilly nightgowns and drop-seat pajamas, and shortalls, god did he love shortalls. I kept rolling with it, because I still craved the attention. You can’t imagine; it was like a giant hole in the center of me that I’d been carrying around for years, and this wonderful man fit perfectly into it, filling it up with this strange combination of lover and father. I was lost in it, to the point where I would have strutted around in a white robe and buns over my ears like Princess fucking Leia if I thought it’d make him happy, because he made me so happy. I mean, he was such a perfect gentleman, well, except when he was drinking, but I learned quick to stay out of his way then…

"He didn’t stop in the bedroom, either; shortly after school let out, he took me to a street fair up in Haight. He begged me to wear this Shirley Temple dress he had bought me; told me how beautiful I looked in it and how much he loved seeing me in it and how no one would think anything of it at a place like that. I went along with it, nervously, but he was so extra-attentive and sweet that day, we had such a wonderful time, I never even thought about how childish or girly I looked, and definitely not when we got home. I could barely move enough to take it off afterward to struggle my way into one of the chiffon nighties in my growing collection.

“That’s when the floodgates opened. Everywhere we went together, he insisted I dress up for him, always pleading with me about how happy it made him when I wore those clothes for him and how much he loved me. After a while, it got to a point where I was pretty much dressing like a toddler all the time, and the scariest part was it didn’t even bother me anymore. It became part of the routine – instead of the jeans and spaghetti-strap tanks I used to wear, it was butterfly print dresses and leggings, or pink corduroy shortalls and matching high-neck tops. I had a closet full of the stuff, with shoes to match every outfit, and I felt like such a princess because ‘Daddy’ cared enough to buy me pretty things all the time.”

“Oh god,” Elise said. “I see where this is going…”

"Yeah. It went exactly there. ‘My girl’ became ‘my baby’, and it made me positively giddy, though I had no idea why. He took more and more control over my life, and I willingly gave it to him. Friends faded. My phone stopped ringing, mostly because I stopped answering it when it did. I didn’t care; I had my Prince Charming and my castle. I almost didn’t sign up for classes that fall, I was so sure that this was my happily ever after.

“The weird part was, the more I let him treat me like a preschooler, the less interested he was in interacting with me as an adult. First he encouraged, then insisted I talk baby talk to him. He got to the point where he’d completely ignore me if I wasn’t dressed in the kid clothes and speaking like a toddler, although he still expected the house clean and dinner on the table when he came home. He even started spanking me when I didn’t do things exactly the way he expected them. I was so wrapped up in it, I figured it was my fault, that I just wasn’t being a good enough baby for him. When we had sex, it was totally on his terms; I was never allowed to even ask, never mind come on to him. He used to lay me on the bed and make me stay in the exact position he placed my body, and I was to be silent other than whimpering ‘Daddy’ in that babyish voice.”

I could feel myself starting to choke up, but I took a breath and kept going. “The big wake-up call happened one day when he had to work late and I was just kicking around the house. He called that afternoon to tell me, and he was clearly pissed about it, so I went extra-girly for him to try and cheer him up when he got home, and working extra hard on my cleaning duties. I was wearing this white dress with huge red polka-dots on it, with ankle socks and red Mary Janes and my hair done up in pigtails. I was straightening up in our bedroom when I found a box in the closet. It was filled with… oh god, I’m trying not to throw up here… naked girls – like toddlers and shit. The one on top, I immediately recognized as… his favorite pose… sprawled out helplessly on the bed, terrified look on her face, and a huge dick in the foreground. There were hundreds upon hundreds of them, and even some videotapes with pictures of the same kind of shit on the front with fucked up tag lines like ‘baby loves Daddy’s swizzle stick’ and shit, all neatly organized, like he’d been collecting them for years. All at once I looked up into the mirror on the closet door and saw what I’d become…”

The horror was clear on her face now; she was right in there reliving my nightmare with me. For my part, tears had begun trickling down my face, despite my best efforts to the contrary, but I was still keeping it together. "My first reaction was to curl up into a ball against the door frame and cry my fucking eyes out. It couldn’t be. It was impossible. This was my knight in shining armor. There had to be some other explanation for what I had just seen. I was overreacting. It was my fault. It had to be my fault. I wasn’t a good enough homemaker, or lover, or… baby…

"After I finally managed to pull myself together, I shoved everything back into the box and moved it back into the closet, trying to make it look like it hadn’t been disturbed. Then I flew through the house like a madwoman, cleaning everything, tidying the place up like a maid on steroids, choking back the tears the whole time. I summoned all the meager cooking skills I had and prepared a feast for him, and I waited patiently for him to get home. And waited. And waited…

"By the time he finally showed up, at nearly midnight, I was a nervous wreck. I practically threw myself at him when he walked through the door, but he was drunk, and in the foulest mood I’d ever witnessed from him. He showed no interest in dinner, only the fact that there wasn’t any more beer in the fridge, which he blamed on me. I was in tears as I protested that I wasn’t even old enough to buy beer. He told me to quit crying or he’d give me something to cry about. I couldn’t believe it. It was almost like he knew about the box… and then he did, as in my hysterics I begged his forgiveness.

“He completely flipped out. He screamed at me, told me I was a worthless little brat that didn’t deserve a daddy like him. I cowered, blubbering on my knees, groveling in front of him that I’d be a good girl. He backhanded me so hard my head bounced off the coffee table, and I dropped to the ground. He grabbed me up by my hair and dragged me to the door muttering something about how I should go back to my Mommy, shoving me out into the hall and slamming the door on my face. I was a disaster, bawling like a three-year-old and dressing the part. The door opened and my purse flew out, catching me square in the face. I didn’t so much as get it together as just plain dragged myself to my car.”

I stopped and tried to steady my now-trembling, balled-up fists. Elise was gape-mouthed, and I could tell she was trying to find something to say.

“The worst part was when I went back to Okaasan’s house, being that I couldn’t move into the dorms, what with the semester already having started. I was still in tears when I arrived, eye blackened, lip cut, and instead of an embrace or even a kind word, she just said that she told me what was going to happen, and I was a fool for not listening. She also informed me about Sobo’s stroke, and that she was getting out of the hospital and moving into my old room in less than a week, so I should find myself an apartment quickly. That’s pretty much how I wound up living in that dump down in the Tenderloin – it was the only place I could find on the cheap and on short notice.”

“Jesus,” she said softly. “I can’t imagine…”

“He called me constantly for weeks. One call would be all weepy, apologizing and begging me to come back, the next he’d be crazy, threatening to kill my family. After a while I stopped picking up the phone, but the messages he left were the same. I don’t know how he found me, but he’d sit outside my apartment in his car, waiting for me to come out. The super, bless him, would walk me to my car if he was around. I finally had to get a restraining order against the bastard. Last I heard, he started trolling fetish sites and harassing the members, then got busted in some sort of internet kiddie porn sting. After all that, I swore I’d never let myself be that vulnerable again.”

I stopped for a moment, reflecting on that thought. “Yet here I am…” I said.

Silence…

“I’ve never told anyone about that pig,” I finally mustered. “I guess… thank you for listening.”

“That’s… just horrifying, Naomi,” she said, “but at least… at least I understand why…”

“Yeah.” I looked up at her, trying my best to regain my composure. The look in her eyes was one of pure compassion, a far cry from the revulsion I expected to see, and fresh tears streamed down my face as I turned toward the huge bay windows.

All at once I felt her arms around me, and I gratefully accepted the embrace. “Talking about it doesn’t make you vulnerable, you know,” she offered.

“No, all the rest of the stupid shit that happened did…”

"You’ve been carrying that around a long time. It’s no surprise that ‘stupid shit’ followed you the whole

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

Damn max character cutoff…

Continuing from that last spot…


“You’ve been carrying that around a long time. It’s no surprise that ‘stupid shit’ followed you the whole way. Maybe now you can start letting it go?”

More silence.

“Elise?”

“Yes?”

“I… I don’t mind staying in that other bedroom, I guess.”

“Are you sure?”

“Um… yeah… I… if something happened, I guess… it’d probably be easier if you were just a couple doors away, right?”

“Yes, it would,” she smiled. “Maybe we can do something about the decorating in there, once you’re on your feet?”

“Yeah… that would be good.”

Silence. Except this time, there was warmth in it, a sense of connecting. Maybe you can trust this one, I thought to myself. Maybe you just found a real friend. We exchanged smiles, briefly, and she began carrying my things upstairs.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

11

After she had unpacked, Elise wheeled me into the kitchen and we chatted over a late lunch of what she referred to as “whatever salad” - a stunning plate consisting of random meats, cheeses, garden veggies, and some sort of vinaigrette concoction she whipped up over a bed of mixed greens. Admittedly, I was intimidated by it at first; I had never experienced much in the way of “upscale” cuisine, having grown up in a traditional Japanese household, then being entirely too broke in college to feed myself anything other than cheap junk. It was every bit as good as it looked, though, and I ate with gusto.

After the meal, the matter of logistics arose, as Elise began, “I’m going to need to go into the shop tomorrow. I already owe Karen an extra day off for covering yesterday.”

“Okay, and?” I said, not quite connecting with her point.

“Well I can’t leave you here by yourself.”

“Sure you can. I’ll be fine. I’ll just…” I was met with the sudden reminder of exactly how helpless I really was. “Or maybe not,” I said, deflated.

“Well, I do have wi-fi up there, so you can maybe bring your laptop along to keep yourself occupied,” she offered.

Boredom was hardly on my radar at this point. “Is there an office or something where I can hang out?”

“No, unfortunately, you’ll have to just relax behind the counter while I do my thing.”

“So… what if someone asks about me?” I ventured nervously.

“Good question. I suppose we can offer something that resembles the truth; you’re a friend visiting from out of town, and you got dinged up in an accident. It’s vague enough for people to fill in their own blanks.”

“Of course, there’s going to be the constant barrage of age confusion,” I groaned.

“Well, there’s that. I understand your trepidation about this, Naomi, but now’s as good a time as any for you to start getting past those issues and start accepting it for what it is; that people are just being friendly, and they genuinely don’t know or understand.”

“Yeah, I guess…” The idea was hardly thrilling, but I couldn’t argue the point.

“By the way, I’ve met my share of dwarfs, but they all had the signature facial features of dwarfism that made it clear they weren’t children. What makes you different?”

“They told me it’s something called pseudoachondroplasia. It’s sort of like dwarfism, only I don’t get the misshapen head, just really short arms and legs.”

Elise looked on thoughtfully as I continued. “Somehow I managed to dodge the other signature features in women, like being fat and having scoliosis, though my legs are bowed just enough to look, well, like a kid instead of an adult dwarf. It’s really weird, because Sobo and Okaasan got the really bad physical stuff like horrible arthritis and back problems, but they wound up being a lot taller than me. Sobo is four-foot-three and Okaasan is four feet. I don’t know whether I’d trade looking like a kindergartner for all the issues they have, but sometimes I wonder…”

“You’re young and healthy, Naomi,” she interrupted. “Trust me, my aunt had scoliosis, and she was in pain constantly. That’s no way to live.”

“I know, I know, but you can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to never be taken seriously, to be doted on and cooed at like a toddler by every stranger that crosses your path. It’s a nightmare!”

There was a pause, and I watched a smile creep across her face.

“What?” I asked suspiciously.

“Nothing.”

“No seriously, what?”

She chuckled. “Just a random thought. Nothing important.”

“Come on, now!” I huffed. “You can’t just hold…” My protest was disrupted by a sudden and powerful urge to pee. “Oh shit! I gotta go!”

Elise sprung out of her chair and wheeled me to the bathroom. “You need to do something about that potty mouth!” she scolded as she hoisted me onto the seat and moved a small stool under my leg.

“Fine, fine, just let me do my business!” I grumped. Needing help with basic functions like this was definitely not agreeing with me at all. I stewed as I sat there, waiting for nature to take its course, which took a heck of a lot longer than I expected considering how urgently the need was announced.

After I’d cleaned up and Elise carried me back to the chair and began wheeling me back down the hall, I started to get dizzy again. Thankfully, it was mild enough to where I wasn’t feeling nauseous as well, but it didn’t escape Elise’s watchful eye.

“Hey, you okay down there?” she asked.

“I’m… fine. Just a little lightheaded, I think,” I fumbled.

“You’re not sick to your stomach, are you?”

“No, no, just woozy. I think I just need to lie down for a bit.”

“Sure, we can do that.” Without hesitation, she took me to the base of the stairs and carried me delicately up to my bedroom. Those feelings came rushing back once again, the sense of affection and comfort, as my head lay on her shoulder, her free hand resting on my back. She pulled back the blanket and gently laid me on the bed.

“Covers?” she asked. I shook my head slowly.

“Alright then. Your chair is right here next to the bed if it’s an emergency, but I’m going to leave the door open, so if you need anything, just yell, okay?” I nodded, and she gently stroked my cheek. “Hope you feel better, sweetie.”

I watched, eyes half-open, as she turned and left the room, and I listened to the rhythmic clicking of her heels on the hardwood as she walked back down the stairs. It was strange, the feeling of euphoria, even more so now, without my usual indignation over the childish treatment. I closed my eyes and began to drift on a serenity I hadn’t felt in years.

12

“Hey… Naomi… Dinner’s almost ready… Wake up.”

“Huh?” My eyes flashed open, and Elise was leaned over me, hand on my shoulder.

“Good morning!” she chuckled.

“Wait… morning?!”

“No, no. It’s five thirty. I wouldn’t have let you sleep that long. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, though.”

I couldn’t believe I’d slept for four solid hours. Then again, considering how fully disrupted my sleep schedule had become over the last couple days, maybe it wasn’t such a stretch. Regardless, I sat up as best as I could, and Elise once more slid her arms across my back and under my knees and hoisted me up, renewing those strange feelings once more as she pulled me close to her and started toward the hallway. Almost reflexively, I nuzzled her chest for an instant. She was certainly as surprised as I was at this involuntary reaction; she paused and looked quizzically down at my now reddening face, which I quickly turned outward to avoid her eyes. I felt her shrug, then we continued down the stairs.

What the hell am I doing? I thought. What is happening to me? The intense smells emanating from the kitchen quickly brushed my confusion aside and awoke my appetite in one fell swoop. “What are we having?” I asked.

“Well, in about eight minutes, we’ll be having spaghetti carbonara,” she replied authoritatively. “Need to use the ‘facilities’ before dinner?”

I nodded softly. I didn’t have an urge, but I didn’t want mayhem to ensue in the middle of dinner if I suddenly found one. We reached the bottom of the stairs, and after a several-minute concentration session, I managed to get some business done and get cleaned up. Elise retrieved me afterward and settled me into my wheelchair. Ugh. “My” wheelchair. I hated the idea that I was even viewing it as such. I dismissed the thought and asked, “Smells awesome. What is it?”

“Spaghetti with bacon, eggs, Parmesan, onions, garlic, parsley, and black pepper. It’s a nice little dish to throw together on short notice.”

“Nice little dish” - That was an understatement. The woman was a certified foodie, and she had the cooking skills to execute. Dinner was outstanding, especially the wine she served with the meal, even as she admonished me to slow down on it.

“Seriously, I shouldn’t even give you any,” she scolded, “fresh off a pair of concussions like that! Don’t go getting drunk on me again!”

“I’ll be fine, it’s not like I’m pounding down liquor like I was at the bar.”

“No, you’re not, and you won’t be any time soon if I can help it!”

I bristled. “So you’re like my mom now, is that it?”

Her tone never wavered. “No, I’m not at all like your mother. I promised to take care of you the best I can, which includes trying to keep you out of harm’s way whenever possible. I’m not here to run your life, I’m here to help. That’s nothing at all like your mother, from what you told me.”

That took the wind out of my sail quickly. “Sorry, that’s not what I meant.”

“It’s okay,” she replied softly, “like I said, I’m just trying to help. Now, being that showers are out of the question, would you like a bath this evening?”

I cringed at the thought of being bathed, though a tiny voice inside, deep down, was begging me to say yes. “Uh… no, I’m good, I think.”

“Okay, up for a movie, then?”

“Sure.” I was definitely game for a good distraction at that moment. Elise hoisted me up onto her hip and carried me into the great room. She settled me onto the couch, propping me up with pillows behind my back and under my good leg, then reached into a drawer and produced what looked like a miniature keyboard with a joystick attached, which she then used to open a panel on the wall, revealing a large flat-panel TV. She fiddled with the controls a bit and I watched, fascinated, as the screen showed a Windows desktop. A few keystrokes later and she was on the Netflix website and sifting through their catalog. We batted a few back and forth and finally settled on a Swedish film about a reporter and a teenage hacker with a bad attitude. It was racy, no doubt, but the effort of reading the subtitles coupled with the stress of the day made my eyes get heavy rather quickly.

At some point in the night I was aware of arms under my legs and back, and I was being carried up the stairs again. In my semi-awake state, those familiar feelings came roaring back with a new level of intensity. I became fixated on the warmth of Elise’s arms, the softness of the cashmere sweater she wore, the faint scent of toothpaste on her breath, and the dominant thought in my mind was… don’t let go… don’t let go… all the way up the stairs. She reached my bedroom and flipped the light on with her elbow, and I hid my face in her chest. When she walked over to the bed and began to bend over, I wrapped my arms around her neck as tightly as I could, and the words came out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying, “Don’t let go, please,” in a tiny voice that completely took me by surprise.

Apparently Elise was just as surprised. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” she asked as she turned around and sat down on the bed, still cradling me.

The shock woke me completely up and out of whatever trance I was in. “I… I don’t know?” I managed. “It was like… like someone else was in my head…”

She looked at me quizzically. “Are you okay now?”

“I’m fine… I was okay then too though. It was strange… but peaceful… like for a minute there was nothing else in the world but you and me, and all I cared about was…” I hesitated at the gravity of what I was saying.

“Was?”

“Was… being warm and safe and loved.”

She smiled broadly as she stood up, still cradling me, then began to position me into bed. “Sounds like an absolutely wonderful place to be. As uptight as you are most of the time, you’d probably do well to find that place more often.”

“I’ve had little bits of feelings like that at other times today when you were carrying me around, but nothing that intense. It’s a little scary, actually.”

“I’m sure it would be, for someone who has a constant need to be in control. Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend fixating on it, or you’ll get no sleep tonight. Goodnight, Naomi.”
With that, she stood up and turned out the light, and I was left to the swirl of thoughts in the darkness.

13

I had no idea what time it was when I drifted off finally, nor what time it was when I was shocked out of sleep by an urge. My first instinct was to call Elise for help, but then I spotted the chair next to my bed. You can do this. Let her sleep. I sat up and examined the situation. Another urge hit, stronger this time. Alright, enough thinking, let’s do this. I started to pull myself to the edge of the bed with my one good arm, but every time I bent my knee to assist, I felt a spurt into my panties. Panicking, I grabbed hold of the chair and tried to shift my body. Just that quick, it all let go, and no amount of squeezing or straining could stop it. The warm puddle spread under my bottom, and a flood of absolute humiliation rushed through my brain.

I struggled to fight back tears as I sat there trying to figure out what to do. Wake Elise up? No, I can’t do that! God, what is she going to think?! The puddle was on the edge of the bed; maybe I could just move away from it and go back to sleep? There was still the issue of wet panties, but…

Finally, in a fit of frustration, I shoved and grunted my way to the opposite side of the bed and collapsed. My panties and the back of my nightie were more than damp, but I was determined to soldier through this and at least let one person get some sleep. I lay there in the dark, eyes wide open, still in shock at what had just happened. I hadn’t wet the bed since… Oh hell, four nights ago. Remember that, you drunken idiot? I shuddered, both at the thought and the increasingly uncomfortable clammy feeling underneath me.

Sleep did not return to me, but a short time later the sun broke outside my window, and I heard Elise’s alarm clock go off. I was still damp, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that the wet spot on my bed was still very present. The need to get out of the wet clothes overrode my humiliation, and as soon as I heard her door open, I called out to her, “Elise! I… need help!”

She rushed in with a look of concern on her face. “What’s wrong, Noami?”

The heat rushed to my face as I struggled through the words, “I… wet… the bed…”

She rushed over and gently pulled the covers back. “Oh, sweetie, let’s get you out of that wet stuff…” I watched her movements as she carefully removed my nightgown and carried me into the bathroom, but her voice dropped away behind a distant memory…

Tears filled my eyes as I realized what I’d done, and the panic welled inside me as her footsteps approached. The door opened, and her usual morning flat stare was almost immediately replaced by a scowl as she laid eyes on me. She walked quickly to my bedside and ripped the blankets away as I cowered, hugging my knees. Her eyes fixed on the wet patch on the bed, and she uttered a single word - “Buta!” - as she pointed toward the open doorway. I broke into an open sob as I stumbled into the hall and toward the bathroom…

“…me what went wrong?”

I snapped back into reality. Elise had repositioned me in the tub and was gently washing my legs with a washcloth. I could feel the tears streaking down my face as I looked up at her.

“Sweetie, I’m not upset, I just want to know what happened so we can figure out how to fix it.” Her voice was soft, comforting, like a warm blanket on a cold evening.

“I’m sorry, Elise! I tried to pull myself to the chair, but every time I moved, I started leaking, and then… then it all came out!” I sobbed. “I didn’t want to wake you up, so I moved over to the other side of the bed and tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t! It was…”

The stream of words was cut off by her embrace. “Naomi, it’s alright, it was an accident! I’m not mad, sweetie! But I need you to call me if you need help; that’s what I’m here for!”

She held my head to her chest for a few moments, and I began to feel that serenity again, filling up inside me. I felt my breath even out, and my sobs became sniffles as she gently stroked my hair. “Okay, would you like to finish cleaning yourself up?” she asked. I shook my head against her chest. “Then are you okay with me doing it?” I nodded softly.

She released her embrace, to which I whimpered, then picked the washcloth back up and gently cleaned my koya, to which I blushed fiercely. She hoisted me up across the back of my thighs and leaned me up against her as she washed my bottom thoroughly. As she wrapped a towel around me and carried me back to the bedroom, I caught a glimpse in the mirror on the way by, then I recalled that moment in the hospital when I saw myself in those clothes, and I felt even more infantile now than I did at that moment. This time, however, as much as I wanted to hate what I saw, to rage against it, the tenderness I felt from this woman who carried me ever so gently rushed in, and I was left overwhelmed by the ensuing conflict, unable to voice feelings I couldn’t even understand.

Elise laid me out onto the bed and removed my leg splint. “Much easier to get your panties on without that thing. You should see the rips in the seams on that other pair,” she whispered. She hummed softly as she delicately slipped a pair of lavender panties up my legs, replaced the splint, then quietly and efficiently dressed me in a lavender tee shirt with a violet emblazoned on the front and a purple corduroy skirt.

That sore spot rose up inside of me finally, and I snapped, “Really? Toddler outfit anyone?! What’s next, braided pigtails and Mary Janes?!”

Elise stopped in the middle of pulling a lacy ankle sock onto my foot. I could see a subtle look of hurt in her eyes as she responded, “Sweetie, I’m sorry, the stuff I was able to salvage from your apartment needed washing, and I haven’t had a chance to do laundry yet.”

One more time the indignation wilted before her soft words. Ugh… why can’t I stand up to that voice? I thought bitterly. Lacking conviction, I tried to offer a defense, “I just…” I trailed off. Don’t want to look like a toddler?! Who am I kidding? My wardrobe looks like a little girl pretending to be grown up any fucking way! It’s not like I’m fooling anyone… I stared down at the bedspread between my legs, resigned to this reality.

In an instant, her soothing arms wrapped around me once more, and my eyes reflexively shut tight as I fought back tears again. She was silent, save her breathing in my ear, for what seemed like hours. Finally she whispered, “Let’s get some breakfast before we go, okay?”

I nodded, still unable to speak. An arm found its way under my knees, and I was again being cradled and carried down the stairs.

14

Breakfast and the drive to the antique store were somewhat of a blur as I continued to wrestle with the array of emotions the last few hours had stirred up inside me all throughout the morning. Elise questioned my demeanor several times, but “I’m okay” seemed sufficient enough for her to not pursue the matter further. When she wheeled me into the shop, however, I was snapped completely out of my brooding as my eyes positively bulged at all the pottery, artwork, furniture, and other items that met my gaze. Everywhere I looked, there was something to which I’d never seen anything even remotely similar before. I gasped, apparently audibly enough for Elise to notice.

“Well this is my shop. See anything interesting?” she chuckled.

“Uh… wow?” was all I could manage.

“Well let me get everything set up here, then maybe we can take a closer look at whatever strikes your fancy, okay? Maybe some things we can use to redecorate your room?”

I was completely dumbstruck. “Uh yeah… that’d be… wow…”

She chuckled as she wheeled me behind the counter at the back of the store, pulling a tablet out of her purse and handing it to me. “Something to keep you from getting too bored today, anyway.”

Yeah, like that was going to happen. My eyes slowly worked their way around the room. Even at my constricted eye level, there were so many beautiful things to see; mostly chandeliers, various oil paintings, and other wall decorations, but each one had its own delicate intricacy that hinted at its time in another place, another era, another world. On the top shelf of a bookcase in one corner, I spotted a large vase with beautiful calligraphy on it. I squinted, trying to figure out all the different scenes it portrayed. All of a sudden, there were hands taking it down off the shelf and bringing it toward me.

“Closer look?” Elise offered as she placed it gently in my lap. The scene painted on the vase was that of pandas on a mountainside, playing in and among a bamboo forest. I had no idea what story the Kanji lettering told, but that scene struck a chord within me.

“It’s… beautiful…” I gasped.

“Early 20th century Satsuma. Japanese hand-painted pottery. It’s a bit of an enigma to me, what with the hostilities between Japan and China back then, but it’s really a gorgeous piece.”

“Yeah…” My eyes drifted down to the price tag dangling off the rim, and nearly bulged out of their sockets. “Holy shit!” I exclaimed, recoiling from it.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, taking it from me.

“I… wow… didn’t want to damage it or something. That’s a lot of money!”

She set the vase down on the counter and chuckled. “Sweetie, what say you just look at stuff you like and don’t worry about how much it costs, okay?”

“Hey, that’s cool. I’d just feel safer looking at it from a few feet away, that’s all.”

“Okay, we can quiet the paranoia bug for you,” she laughed. With that, we had a “tour” of the shop, stopping and looking at interesting tidbits here and there. I spotted a pale ivory tube with tiny metal attachments, intricately engraved Chinese lettering, and nearly cartoonish figures carved into it. Elise explained (to my shock) that it was an old opium pipe, probably brought over by a Chinese immigrant laborer during the late 1800’s. We stopped at a stunning old music box, gilded all over with black and white lithographs adorning the inside. It used these tin plates that almost looked like mini CD’s with little holes punched in them, and Elise showed me a little compartment in the bottom where a half dozen more of the plates were stored, each triggering the box to play a different song.

I was getting completely into the entire experience, so much so that by the time we got to a beautiful grandfather clock in one corner, I was stunned when it reported the time to be half past eleven. The trance was broken a few short minutes later, when the front door chime announced the entry of a visitor. Elise called out, “Good morning, Marianne! I’ll be right with you!” as she wheeled me back behind the counter.

“Oh, take your time, darlin’,” came a distinctively Deep South drawl in reply. Marianne was clearly fixated on a chest of drawers in the window.

Once she had me settled in, Elise walked purposefully over to where the thirty-something was standing. “Like it?” she asked. “It’ll go beautifully with the four-poster bed you requested!”

Marianne turned with a gasp and a huge grin. “Oh my god, did you get it? Where is it? Don’t hold out on me like that now!”

“Not here yet,” Elise responded, “but it will be here the beginning of next week! Came from an estate auction over in Lake Tahoe. Certified John Belter piece, finest piece of Rococo Revival furniture I’ve ever laid eyes on this side of the Atlantic.”

I thought the woman was going to faint. “Oh, Elise, you’re like my fairy godmother, I swear! How much?”

“Thirty-four,” she said with a grin. “Stole it for you!”

Marianne erupted with a squeal, and the two continued their banter back and forth about the bed, several items in the shop that would enhance the planned bedroom remodeling, and other much less interesting chatter. It was at that moment that my focus shifted suddenly; I was having another urge. Oh god, not now! I thought morosely. I wanted to say something, but asking to go to the bathroom in front of this complete stranger was more humiliation than I was prepared to take. I shifted a little in my chair and fought it back. The chatter went on and on as Marianne wandered about pointing and Elise taking notes, and I struggled through another urge, much stronger. Please, just pay for your shit and get out of here! I muttered softly under my breath.

One more time it hit me, and this time I knew I was losing the fight. “Elise!” I finally spoke up. The two women turned and faced me.

“What is it, sweetie?”

“I have to…” Oh no… The battle was over. I felt the warm wetness saturate my panties. I looked down, horrified, as it kept coming, puddling ever so slightly in my chair. I heard a tell-tale drop hit the floor, the tiny splash ringing like thunder in my ears. My face got hot, and my eyes welled up.

“Oh, Naomi!”

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

15

Elise ran into the back of the store, calling behind her, “Hold on, sweetie, we’ll get some paper towels and get you cleaned up!”

Unfortunately, this left me in the company of the one person from whom I’d been trying to avoid attention in the first place. “Oh, you poor thing. Why didn’t you tell your Mama you had to go pee-pee?” Marianne cooed.

That broke the floodgates open once more. As much as I wanted to scream at this woman that I wasn’t a child, I couldn’t, not after what had just happened. Instead, I sat there and bawled. I didn’t think it was possible to be more humiliated than I was last night, but here I was, at rock bottom in the blink of an eye.

Elise resurfaced with a huge roll of paper towels and sprung into action. “It’ll be okay.” I could hear the lack of conviction in her words, as though she really had no idea what to say. She bent down next to me and dabbed away at the chair and my skirt.

Marianne spoke up again, “They get so broke up about it, don’t they? My Anna Beth, I swear, I never know when that child is going to spring a leak. I have to keep a diaper in my purse at all times! Come to think of it…”

She opened her purse and fished around for a second. “Here we go; I’ve got a pull-up here if you want it!” She held the little garment out triumphantly. My eyes, puffy already from crying, felt like they were bulging out of their sockets, and I managed a dry swallow against the lump still in my throat.

I felt Elise’s hand close on my trembling fist, and she whispered softly into my ear, “I know how embarrassing this is for you, but it’d be better than wet panties, wouldn’t it?”

She was right, and I knew it, but vocalizing my agreement was just too much to ask. Instead I softly nodded through a sniffle.

“Thanks, Marianne,” Elise announced as she stood and took the pull-up from her, then wheeled me out from behind the counter and toward the bathroom, “Give us a minute to get this sorted out, and you and I can wrap up today’s tab, okay?”

“Sure, take your time.” Marianne replied.

With that, Elise hoisted me out of the chair, carried me into the bathroom, and closed the door behind us. She leaned me up against her body while she pulled my panties down. I heard her utter a “dammit!” as she fought with the cast, followed by a distinct rip. The panties fell away from the one leg, and she pulled them off the other with a sigh. “So much for those…” she grumbled. “No way I’m going to get this on you without taking that cast off. Should’ve done that in the first place.”

I shut my eyes tight; I couldn’t stand to watch what was about to happen. She quickly sat me on the floor, removed the leg brace, then pulled my legs together and slipped the little garment up my ankles. The subtle rustling blew through my mind like a hurricane. This is it. Twenty-two years old about to be diapered like a toddler. Can you go any lower than this? As much as I wanted to cry, I steeled myself against the tears, to the point where my hands were once again trembling. She guided it up to my upper thighs very gently, then replaced the brace. She pulled me back up to a stand and pulled it the rest of the way on.

“Better?” she asked.

“No,” I whispered.

“Sweetie, it’s just underwear.”

“Underwear for a fucking three-year-old.”

“Either way you’re dealing with what happened, Naomi. At least now you won’t be sitting in your own pee for the next four hours.”

She had me there. No matter what I was wearing, I’d be brooding over it the rest of the day. I felt her hand softly rubbing my back during that moment of awkward silence, until she finally asked, “Ready?”

“Um, skirt?!” I responded incredulously.

“Sweetie…” she held up the back of the skirt, showing the huge wet spot. “You really want to wear that?”

“Please,” I begged, my voice trembling, “don’t make me go out there with just a baby diaper on. Please?!” I felt myself start to choke up again, and I fought it off with everything I had left.

“Naomi, you’re going to wind up with a rash!” she admonished.

“I can’t, Elise! I can’t go out there like this! Please?!”

She sighed deeply and said, “Alright, sweetie.” She sat me back down on the floor and gingerly pulled the skirt up my legs. She stood me back up and pulled it to my waist and asked, “Okay now? Ready to do this?”

“Yes,” I lied. I was quite certain I’d never be “ready” to be seen by complete strangers wearing a diaper made for a toddler, but there wasn’t exactly much of a choice at this point. Up into her arms I went, and in a blur I was back behind the counter in my chair, staring at the floor, completely fixated on my new underwear and the now cold, clammy wet spot under my rear end.

“I can’t believe you put that wet skirt back on her,” Marianne declared.

“She wasn’t coming out of that bathroom without it,” Elise responded.

“Sweetie, how old is this little girl?”

Silence. Elise and I locked eyes; I could see the confusion and panic I was feeling reflected on her face. “Uh… I’m… six.” My head dropped again. Jesus, what the hell just happened?!

“Okay, I get that you’re her brand new Mama and she’s still adjusting here, but if that were Anna Beth, there’s no way I’d put a skirt back on her that she peed all over, no matter what she said she was or wasn’t doing. Of course, if she’d done what this little girl just did, I’d have a diaper on her anyway, not a pull-up, but that’s just me.”

I could practically hear Elise flinch as she hit buttons on the cash register. “Well, that’s you and Anna Beth,” she replied, “but Naomi’s been humiliated enough already today, and I don’t see the need to make it worse.” She poked what I assumed was the “total” button emphatically. “Seventeen ninety-five forty, hun. You need help loading, or you want me to get my delivery guy to bring it over later?”

“Oh, just have him drop it off this afternoon. I’ve got a showing in Presidio, and I don’t really want that stuff rattling around in the Mercedes.”

“Alright then. I’ll call you as soon as the bed comes in.”

“Sounds great. Talk to you later. Bye cutie! Try to stay dry for your mama today, okay?”

I kept my head down and said nothing as I listened to her footfalls and finally heard the bell on the door signaling the end of at least part of my torment.

16

No sooner had the door closed behind Marianne that I felt Elise’s arms around me, and I reached up with my one good arm and grabbed hold. “Oh, Naomi, I’m so sorry you had to experience all that, but I’m so proud of you for keeping it together through that nightmare. What possessed you to tell her you were six?”

“What else could I do?” I muttered. “Tell her the truth? That I’m 22 and just pissed my pants like a toddler? Flip out on her and have her think I’m throwing a tantrum? God, I just want to go crawl in a hole somewhere and die right now.”

“Look, we’ll figure this out. Just hang on with me for a few more hours until Karen gets here, and please, don’t hesitate to interrupt me if you have to go. Keep the tablet in your lap if you’re worried about someone seeing… that.”

I winced. “That” indeed. The touchscreen, however, was a much-needed diversion. Surfing and playing stupid Facebook games at least helped to take my mind off everything that had just happened and, more importantly, ignore the door dings, the people walking in to peruse, and their inevitable noticing of and cooing over me. Unfortunately, it did nothing to quell the ever-increasing clammy, sticky feeling on my bottom around the edges of the pullup from the wet spot on my skirt.

It was around two-thirty, shortly before Karen was supposed to arrive. I had several urges over the last hour, but each time Elise had taken me to the bathroom, nothing happened, and I was beyond frustrated by this point. I was sitting there fiddling around with a puzzle game and Elise was in the front of the store discussing an antique chocolate set with a middle-aged woman when it hit me again, hard enough to take me a bit by surprise. “Elise?” I called out, a bit nervously.

“Oh, I’ll be right there Naomi!” she responded instantly. “I’ll be right back,” she said to the lady before dashing over to the counter. Another cramp hit my bladder just as she got behind my chair. Please, God, not again! I knew what was about to happen, and worse, I knew I was helpless to stop it. Sure enough, as soon as Elise began to push the chair, it let loose, and a squeal escaped my lips. My face flushed hot, and I began to tremble. Elise stopped and looked down. “Oh no, not again, sweetie!”

The nightmare didn’t stop there. As she rushed me toward the bathroom, I became aware of wetness on the inside of my thighs. “It’s… Oh god… It’s leaking!” I whined. It was too much at that point, and I broke into heaving sobs. Elise rushed me into the bathroom, stripped the sodden garment off me, and held me tight to her chest as she wiped me down as best as she could with wads of toilet paper.

“Alright, honey, as soon as Karen gets here, we’ll get moving, and we’ll call Dr. Mattson on the way home to find out what’s going on. Something’s obviously wrong, and I’m sure he’ll know how to fix it, okay?”

I nodded, sniffling into her chest. Her voice, her touch, everything about the way she interacted with me was so calming. The merry door chime disrupted the moment, and a voice called out, “Elise?”

“That’s Karen. Thank God,” Elise declared with a sigh. “I’ve got nothing left to put on you, honey, but I can drape a towel over your lap so no one will see anything.” She did exactly that, then carried me out and settled me back into the chair. “We’re here, Karen!” she called back.

Karen caught sight of us and asked, “Oh, is this your friend from the hospital?”

“Yeah, she’s been having a tough day. We’re gonna get her out of here and call the doctor on the way home.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” Karen replied. “I hope we feel better tomorrow! Go ahead and get her taken care of, Elise, I’ll handle things here.”

“Thanks. You’re a life saver.” With that, Elise wheeled me out the door and to the Yukon. As she settled me onto the towel on the back seat, she said, “I’m going to need you on the phone with me, honey. Do you think you’re up for it?”

I nodded quietly, nervous to hear what Mattson was going to say about my “condition”…

She got into the front seat and hit a few buttons on her phone, then one on the steering column. I heard a phone ringing over the speaker system, then a woman’s voice. “Doctor Mattson’s office, how may I help you?”

Elise spoke up, “This is Elise Roberts. I’m here with one of his patients, Naomi Hashimura. Can we speak to him? It’s a rather urgent matter.”

“Doctor Mattson is in with a patient right now, but we can get a nurse on the phone if you’d like.”

“Sure, that’d be fine.”

“Okay, I’m going to put you on hold for a few minutes here while we pull her chart.”

The sound of elevator music filled the truck, followed by another woman’s voice.

“This is Katy Terpin. Is Naomi here on the line with you?”

“Yes, I’m here.” I called out weakly.

“Okay, could you tell me your full name and the last four of your social?”

“Naomi Hashimura. Seven seven eight five.”

“Thanks. What seems to be the trouble today?”

“Well,” Elise picked up, “we’re a little concerned here, as Naomi’s been having some bladder control issues. She had an accident last night in bed, trying to maneuver herself into her portable chair, and there were two more today, both of which caused her a great deal of embarrassment.”

Katy’s voice softened as she replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. According to her chart, she spent most of the weekend with a catheter in place. The good news is this isn’t an uncommon issue post-catheterization. The bad news is, it can take two to three weeks for these side effects to go away.”

“Three weeks?!” I gasped. “What the hell am I supposed to do in the meantime?!”

“Okay, sweetie, I know you’re frustrated,” Elise interrupted, “but getting angry won’t fix anything.”

I fell silent as she redirected, “Alright, Katy, what do you suggest we do about it for now?”

“Most of the time we recommend some sort of guard or pad. In Naomi’s case, anything that would fit her isn’t going to hold enough, so your best bet would be briefs of some sort.”

I bit my lip hard as I trembled. I knew exactly what “briefs” meant. Elise spoke again, “She actually leaked through a pull-up today, though.”

“A toddler pull-up? I’m not surprised. Despite her size, Naomi does have a fully developed adult bladder. Infant-sized garments just aren’t designed to handle that kind of volume.”

“So what do you recommend?”

“Well, Doctor Mattson definitely isn’t going to want Naomi to be in and out of her brace on a constant basis, and youth sized pull-ups wouldn’t fit her particularly well anyway, so I suggest something like a Tena Youth Brief. That way you can get a good fit and change her as necessary without taking her brace off. They also have velcro fasteners, so she can use the toilet as she’s able to.”

“And where would I get those?”

“I know ITC Medical carries them. They’re over on 20th and Noriega.”

“Thank you for that, Katy. You’ve been a big help.”

“Sure. Anything else I can do?”

“No, I guess we’ll just be seeing you on Wednesday at her next appointment.”

“Alright then, have a good afternoon. Naomi, I know this is frustrating for you, but trust me, a lot of people go through this after extended catheterization, and they recover from it just fine after a short time.”

“Thanks,” I grumped. Small consolation that was.

“You have a good day too,” Elise chirped. “Bye now!”

As soon as I heard the beep that signaled the call being disconnected, I let loose. “Fucking diapers?! Really?! I’m supposed to wear fucking diapers for the next three weeks?!”

“Naomi, I wish there was another way, but…”

“Jesus, Elise! I don’t look enough like a preschooler as it is, now I have to wear a fucking diaper?!”

She climbed into the back and sat down next to me, grasping my trembling fists into her soft hands. “Naomi, I know how you must be feeling right now, but won’t it be better than sitting there in soaking wet clothes like you are right now?”

“But… it’s a fucking diaper!” My voice wavered, as did the conviction in it. My throat began to close once more, and my eyes welled up again.

“I know, honey. I know.” She pulled my head back into her chest again as she spoke. “No one will know, I promise. We’ll do long skirts and dresses when we’re out in public, and if you have an accident, you won’t need to say anything, just call me, and we’ll take care of it.”

“But I’ll know,” I whimpered. “Every time I need a ‘diaper change’, I’ll know.” I spat those two words out like a mouthful of sand.

“I get it. Honestly, Naomi, I get it. But you have two paths in front of you here; you can accept that your body isn’t cooperating right now and try to let go of it, or you can reject that reality and be miserable. Either way, the reality doesn’t change, just your perception of it.”

“Can we just get this over with?” I whispered. All the platitudes in the world weren’t going to change how I was feeling at that moment. “Just let me brood for a while.”

“Alright.” Her face belied a frustration over not being able to “cheer me up” or whatever, but she climbed back into the front seat with a sigh and started the truck.

17

It was quiet once Elise got us back out on the road. I didn’t feel much like talking at that point, and she didn’t seem inclined to press the issue. She pulled up at the medical supply and turned the truck off. “I’m going to assume you’d rather stay here for this one.” I nodded silently. “Okay, I’ll just be a few minutes.”

I spent that eternity straining to create a scenario where I could avoid what was about to happen, but the sheer physical impossibility of the situation thwarted my every effort. I couldn’t diaper myself with one arm, and Elise couldn’t diaper me standing up because I couldn’t stand up on my own anyway. There was no way out; in a few short minutes I’d find myself lying on my back with my legs in the air like an infant.

The back gate popping open disrupted my train of thought. “Thanks a lot!” Elise said cheerily. I flinched at the thud of a large box being deposited in the back of the truck, followed by a husky voice declaring, “No problem, ma’am. Have a good one.” The gate slammed back shut and Elise entered the front door with a shopping bag in hand, which she dropped into the passenger’s seat.

“You okay back there?” she asked.

“How long do you plan on keeping me in those things?” I snapped.

“Only as long as you need, sweetie, why?”

“That was a hell of a big box!”

“Honey, the nurse said it could take up to three weeks for this to clear up. I figured I’d just go ahead and get a case instead of buying just a bag and taking the chance of running out at an awkward moment.”

“Fine,” I sighed. “Let’s get out of here.”

She fired the truck back up and pulled back into traffic. “I’ll tell you what, Naomi. We’ll get you home and get those wet clothes off you, then you can take a nice, hot, relaxing bath. I know a good soak does me a world of good when I’m stressed out. I’ll order us a pizza, and we can kick back in the lounge and pig out in front of a good movie. How does that sound?”

“Sure. That works.” Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t muster any sort of energy behind my response. Elise fell silent once more, and I returned to arguing with myself.

There’s no fucking way. A diaper is not going to fucking happen.
Who do you think you’re kidding? You think this is worse than pissing all over yourself like you did THREE TIMES in the last 18 hours?
It wasn’t three, it was two!
Oh sure, the last time you were wearing a damned diaper and you STILL pissed all over yourself!
I’m not a fucking toddler, dammit! The clothes were bad enough, but this?! And that weirdo redneck chick thinks I’m six fucking years old!
Yeah, whose fault was that?
Shut up.
Come to think of it, whose fault was it that you’re in this situation in the first place?!
Hey, come on, I was bent over puking when that truck hit me!
And why were you puking?
Shut up.

THUMP! Elise’s door closed and broke my concentration. The back door opened, and she climbed in. “I said we’re here! I’d think you’d at least be glad to be getting out of those wet clothes.”

“Yeah, it’s what comes after that kinda kills the party mood,” I deadpanned as she hoisted me up out of the seat, bag in hand.

“Try to focus on the positive, Naomi. At least there won’t be a repeat of this morning, right?” She negotiated the garage door as she spoke, and into the foyer we went.

“No, I just get to hope I don’t have to see that crazy redneck lady again tomorrow and listen to her tell you what a great idea it was to put me in diapers,” I huffed as she removed my shoes then her own and headed up the stairs.

“Naomi, we’re going to talk to the doctor on Wednesday and see if we can figure out a different plan. In the meantime, fixating on it isn’t going to do anything but stress you out!”

“Am I not allowed to vent? I mean, the platitudes are great and all, but you’re not the pint-sized adult woman who is about to be diapered like a fucking toddler!”

“You’re right. I’m just worried about you. You were in pretty rough shape today, especially after the second one.” We reached the bathroom and she gently removed the skirt and my top, then fished into the bag.

My eyes bulged at what she produced. “Oh, come on, Elise! Really?! My last bit of proof that I’ve actually reached puberty?!”

“I’m sorry, Naomi, but the pharmacist told me that pubic hair is a big contributor to urinary tract infections in these kinds of situations. You think you’re miserable now, just imagine having it burn every time and still not be able to do anything about it!”

“Fine. Whatever. Not like I have any dignity left as it is.”

She sighed in obvious exasperation as she produced a cordless trimmer from the closet. “You want me to take care of it?”

“At least let me do THAT,” I groused.

She set them and the tube down next to me and said, "Alright, let me know when you’re done. With that, she stepped out of the bathroom and closed the door.

I set the clippers to the lowest setting and sat there, staring at them for a few minutes. I finally mustered up the courage and did the deed, watching forlornly as the hair cascaded into the bottom of the tub. I stared miserably at the stubble, and picked up the tube. “15 minutes? Really?” I said as I removed the top.

The stuff smelled terrible. I squirted some into my hand and smeared it around. I felt a slight tingle almost immediately, which developed into a very uncomfortable burning sensation. I waited an eternity for the clock to move, but it finally did, and I scraped the stuff off. I ran my fingers across the baby-smooth surface of my skin, and found myself wandering into another place in my memory, one I had no intention of ever visiting again.

[i]As I rinsed off in the shower, I felt his presence behind me. He squatted down and whispered, “Good baby. You’ve made Daddy very, very happy.”

I felt his finger touch my koya and I shivered under the hot water. He stroked me gently, working his way up and down, each time touching the freshly bared skin where my patch had once lived. I moaned, “Daddy that feels so goooood.” He pulled me toward him, and I felt his raging hard member make contact…[/i]

I cringed at the recollection, despising myself for what I’d let him do to me, the idea that I even enjoyed it. “I’m NOT your fucking BABY you FREAK!” I screeched, bursting into tears.

“Naomi, it’s alright, no one’s trying to make you into a baby!” Elise rushed over and embraced me once more as I sobbed. “He’s not here, sweetie. He can’t hurt you now. He’s not here.” She rocked me back and forth on the edge of the tub, whispering those words over and over again, and I calmed back down.

The next few minutes were a blur as she settled me into the tub and removed the brace and my shoulder sling. She rinsed me off down there with a shower wand, then began to fill the tub. As the steaming hot water rose around my legs, I watched her drizzle something into the tub, and at once I was aware of the scents of lavender and chamomile filling the air around me. I leaned my head back against the edge and closed my eyes as the water reached my chest and soap bubbles tickled my shoulders.

“That’s it, sweetie. Just let it go.” I heard her voice, but it seemed like an echo from someplace much farther away. It was happening again, and I knew it, but the combination of intense relaxation and sheer fatigue made it impossible for me to fight. Whatever had risen inside me last night had returned at this moment, and I found myself retreating as she emerged. Wait… she?

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

18

The water felt so nice and warm, and Elise was so gentle as she washed me. “Well your shoulder looks a lot better today. Maybe Doctor Mattson will let you take your sling off on Wednesday,” she said as she glided the soapy sponge down my arm.

“It’s okay, I think,” I chirped. She looked at me, surprised. I grinned back at her and said, “See, I can move it pretty good!” I reached toward the ceiling and then splashed back down into the water, giggling. It hurt to do that, but only a little.

“Hey, watch the water! You feeling alright?” she asked.

“Uh-huh!” I nodded my head as big as I could. I sighed deeply and scooped up a handful of the soap bubbles. I blew them up into the air and giggled as they floated around. They looked so pretty in the light. I squeaked a little when she washed under my arms, then laughed. It tickled!

“Well this is about as happy as I’ve seen you since you got here. Maybe I should give you a bath more often!”

“I’d like that a lot! Can I have some toys to play with in the bath too?” I thought some floaty toys would be a lot of fun. Bath crayons would be awesome too!

“Well I guess we…” I looked at her eyes; she seemed confused. I thought maybe I’d said something wrong.

“It’s okay; I can just play with the bubbles!”

She looked back at me, then smiled. “No, it’s alright honey. I guess we’ll need to make a stop at the toy store tomorrow after work, huh?” she asked.

Okay, I’m completely confused. What’s with the voice? And bath toys? Crayons? Why am I even thinking like this? And why do I feel better when I do?

“Oh, can we?” I was so happy! “Can I get a stuffy to sleep with too? I’d really like a big stuffy to cuddle up with in bed!”

“Of course you can, sweetie. I’m just thrilled to see you so relaxed and happy!”

“I like baths a lot! Especially when there’s toys and stuff!” I gathered some of the bubbles up and covered my chest and shoulders. “Look! I made a bubble dress!”

“Why yes you did!” she said. “A very pretty bubble dress, too!” It felt good when her voice stopped sounding scared.

Stuffy? Bubble dress? Am I like four years old now? If I weren’t so relaxed right now, I’d be wondering if I’d lost my mind!

She had just finished rinsing all the bubbles off me, and the water was starting to get cool, which made me shiver. “Can we be done now? I’m cold.”

“Sure, sweetie,” she said. She flipped the drain and the water went down. Then she helped me onto the side of the tub and wrapped a big soft towel around me. That felt really good. “Mm, warm!” I said as she picked me up, along with my sling and brace, and carried me into the bedroom.

Okay, I don’t get this at all. Why am I talking like that? Where did this all come from? I mean, it feels wonderful, all this simple joy; I don’t want it to stop, but it’s so strange… so alien…

I watched her dry my leg slowly, then put the brace back on it. “When can I take that off?” I asked. “I don’t like it. It makes my leg hurt.”

She dried off my other leg and said, “Well, that depends on what the doctor says tomorrow. We’ll ask him, okay?”

Once she was done drying my belly, she spread the towel open, picked up the bottle of baby powder, and rubbed it into my thighs and belly. I closed my eyes and just enjoyed how good it felt, her warm hand and the nice-smelling powder, and how dry and comfy I felt after. She picked me up very gently by the legs and rubbed some onto my bottom as well, and that felt really good too.

She started to look a little sad again when she asked, “Honey, are you ready for this?”

“Are you gonna put my diaper on now?” I asked softly.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I need to,” she said, like she was apologizing for something.

I didn’t know why she was so sad about putting my diaper on. I laid flat on the bed and grinned up at her. “I’m ready!”

Ugh… I don’t even want to be here for this… Why are you so happy about it? Oh my god… “You”… This really is someone else inside me… and it’s a little girl… and… she sees Elise as…

She looked really surprised as she unfolded the diaper she had on the bed and gently lifted me up again, then settled me down on it. I closed my eyes, still smiling. “Soft,” I said quietly.

“Do you like how it feels?” she asked. Her voice was so soothing, and I opened my eyes and nodded. She had a tiny smile on her face as she looked down at me, and it made me feel peaceful. She pulled the diaper up between my legs, and it made a lot of crinkling noises. It felt so comfy, like a big pillow wrapped around me, and I couldn’t help but wiggle my bottom a little.

“Crinkly!” I giggled.

“Why yes, it is crinkly, isn’t it?” she said, laughing. “Is that a silly noise?”

“Uh huh!” I wiggled my bottom again and giggled some more.

She shook her head, laughing as she pulled each of the four tapes snug, one at a time. By the time she got to the last one I felt so warm and cozy and safe. “Thank you, Mama,” I said. “It feels really good.”

She really does… she thinks this is her Mama… Elise probably thinks I’ve gone completely nuts… Look at her face, she does – she thinks I’ve lost it…

She stopped, and I could see this time she looked a little scared. “I’m sorry,” I said quietly, “You don’t want me to call you that?”

She pulled me up into a big hug and said, “Sweetie, I’d love for you to call me ‘Mama’ if you want to. I didn’t expect you’d be so happy about this, is all.”

“I’d like it a lot, but I don’t think big girl would. And I like my diapers. They’re comfy and warm on my bottom!” I said, nuzzling her chest. She felt so warm and cozy, I didn’t want her to let go.

“Big girl, huh?” She stopped for a minute. “I’m going to guess Naomi is ‘big girl’.”

“Uh huh!” I said, nodding.

“So what is your name?”

“Um…” I didn’t know what my name was. “You haven’t given me a name yet, Mama.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie. I didn’t know I was supposed to do that. But you can call me Mama, or Elise, or anything else you’d like, sweetie, and we’ll figure out what to call you very soon, I promise.”

“Okay. I love you, Mama!”

She squeezed me even tighter and said, “Oh, I love you too, sweetie.”

This feels incredible… I’ve never felt this close to another human being other than Sobo… I barely know this woman, yet this little girl in me sees her as the center of her world…

We spent a while just snuggling together, until she said, “Hey cutie, let’s get some clothes on you so we can go relax and watch some TV, okay?”

“Okay. What are we gonna watch?” I hoped we could watch some cartoons.

“I guess we’ll see what’s on, sweetie,” she said. With that, she picked up a very pretty pink nightie with ruffles on the sleeves and hem, bunched it up, and guided it over my head. She helped me put my arms through the sleeves, then put the sling back onto my shoulder. Finally, she scooped me back up into her arms, and I nestled my head into her chest. I was surprised when my thumb found its way into my mouth as she carried me out the door and down the stairs, but when it got there, I let out a happy sigh.

Uh… thumb?

19

As we walked down the stairs, Elise whispered, “Sweetie, you’ll ruin your pretty teeth with that.” She tapped my hand gently, and I let it drop back into the sling, tucking my now wet thumb into my still-clenched fist. When we got to the TV room, she started to put me down on the couch. I shook my head and whimpered.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Lap, Mama?” I peeped, looking up hopefully.

“Sure, sweetie,” she said, smiling. “You’re awfully cuddly, aren’t you?”

“Uh huh. I like to snuggle.” With that, she picked up the little remote, sat down with me at the end of the couch, and rested my legs on the cushion next to us, still cradling my head in her chest.

“That better?” she asked. I nodded quietly. She turned on the TV and pulled up the Netflix screen. She began to flip through the movies and asked, “What would we like to watch before dinner?”

I watched as the pages of movies went by, then my eyes got big when I spotted one of my favorites. “Ooh! Can we watch Totoro, Mama?” I asked, looking up at her excitedly.

“We sure can, honey,” she said, giving me a squeeze. “I didn’t know you liked cartoons.”

I nuzzled her chest and sighed contentedly. “I like this one a lot.”

My Neighbor Totoro… I haven’t seen this film in years… Sobo and I used to watch this together, and she’d help me practice my Japanese with it… We used to cuddle together just like this… I never realized how much I missed that until… now…

I whispered along in Japanese with the movie, even as the English words came up on the bottom of the screen. “Wow, you really do like this movie!” Elise chuckled.

I smiled and nodded, my eyes locked on the screen. “Big girl watched this with her Sobo a lot when she was little like me.”

“Little like you? How old are you?” Elise asked.

“Um, I don’t really know. I think I’m this many.” I held up three fingers on each hand.

“Six years old, huh? So you were born when big girl was in high school?” I looked up at her and she looked very nervous.

“No, I’ve been here much longer than that. When big girl grew up, I stayed little.”

“So where did you come from?”

“I was always here. Big girl hated when people looked at her like she was little, so she locked me away deep inside her, and no one ever found me until now.”

After that, she looked right at me, and asked very slowly and quietly, “Is that what makes me your Mama?”

“Uh-huh!” I said, nodding my head. “You take care of me and love me and make me feel safe and warm. You must be my Mama.”

She hugged me very tight when I said that, and I let out a little sigh and went back to watching the movie.

Oh wow… Is that what this is? Have I spent my entire life so obsessed with people seeing me as a little girl that I shut down this part of me? … hell, even if I’d wanted to have a happy childhood, there was no fucking way Okaasan would let that happen. She expected me to act like a fucking grownup in kindergarten. Damn you, Okaasan! Couldn’t you have just let me dream a little? Did it really have to be all about my fucking future? Would it have killed you to let me be a kid once in a while? God, why did you… Oh shit…

All of a sudden it felt like I had to pee. Then I remembered I had a diaper on…

Oh hell no! Tell her we have to go! Hurry up! Don’t just sit here and…

I felt big girl getting really upset, so I looked up and said, “Mama, I have to go tinkle.”

Thank god for that! Come on, Elise, get us there quick!

“Oh, of course, sweetie.” she said, putting her arm under my legs. As soon as she stood up, though, it started coming out on its own. “Uh-oh.” I said quietly.

Not again! Fuck! This is just…. EWWWW!

She looked down and asked, “I’m guessing we need a change instead?”

I nodded and said, “I’m sorry Mama.” I could tell big girl was mad, so maybe Mama would be mad too. “I didn’t mean it, it just came out by itself…”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m not upset,” she said, hugging me tight and carrying me toward the stairs. “Aren’t you glad you had that on, instead of having wet panties?”

Oh, god, Elise! Don’t fucking encourage her!

I smiled and nodded. “I wasn’t even gonna say anything, but big girl got really mad…”

“She did?”

“Yeah, she’s pretty mad right now too.”

“Why do you suppose that is?” We reached my bedroom and she laid me gently down on the bed.

“I don’t think she likes it when her diaper is wet.”

“Well I can’t imagine it’s very comfortable,” she said as she pulled the tapes loose.

“It’s okay. I don’t really even feel wet right now.”

“You don’t? I guess they’re pretty good diapers, then.” She wiped me with a baby wipe and wrapped it up into the wet diaper, which she tossed into the trash can.

“I like them. They’re soft, and I like the funny noise they make.”

“Well I’m glad someone’s happy about it, anyway. Goodness knows Naomi was miserable all the way home.” She put more powder on my legs and bottom and tummy, then taped on the new diaper.

“Thank you, Mama. That feels much better.” She pulled the nightie back down, and I wiggled my bottom again and giggled softly.

“You’re very welcome, little one,” she said, smiling big and bright. She picked me back up and hugged me. As we walked back down the stairs, she said, “I need to order our pizza, and I need to make a couple of other calls too. Can you sit and watch the movie by yourself for a few minutes?”

I really wanted her to stay and cuddle with me, but I liked the idea of pizza for dinner, so I smiled and nodded my head. She settled me down onto the couch with a pillow behind my head, and I said, “Hurry back Mama!”

She kissed my forehead and said, “I’ll be back before you know it, sweetie.”

I watched as she turned the movie back on then walked out of the room punching buttons on her phone. I could hear her voice, but I couldn’t tell what she was saying, so I went back to watching the movie. Before long, my thumb found its way back into my mouth, and I sighed happily.

Really, with the thumb again? And Elise, what the hell? Was I supposed to be jumping for joy or something? What I really don’t get is, why do I still feel so relaxed? Am I losing my mind? Does Elise think I’m losing my mind?

A few minutes later, Mama came back into the room. I looked up at her, and she smiled as she walked over to the couch. She tapped my hand again and said, “I’m definitely going to get something to fix that tomorrow.” I didn’t know what she meant by that, but she laughed when she said it, so I just grinned back at her, then went back to the movie. “Pizza will be here in about 45 minutes, cutie,” she said. “I got pepperoni and mushrooms; is that okay?” She picked me up a little and sat back down, nestling me back into her lap.

“I like pepperoni!” I said, nuzzling her, but with my eyes still fixed on the screen.

“Well good! I do too, once in a while.”

Wait, what did she mean by “get something to fix that”? Well, at least this kid still likes junk food…

The pizza came shortly after Totoro ended, and me and Mama ate until it felt like I was going to explode. We settled back in on the couch and she put on another movie. This one was really grown-up, and I didn’t like it very much. Before long, my eyes got very heavy, and next thing I knew Mama was carrying me up the stairs, changing me again, and tucking me in. “Good night, sweetie,” she said, brushing the hair from out of my eyes and giving me a big hug.

“Night-night Mama,” I mumbled. Then she was gone, and the light was off, and I drifted off to sleep, warm and cozy and happy.

20

Where am I? It’s totally dark… What happened? Did I die? Am I in hell? Why is my thumb in my mouth?!

I sat up in a slight panic and withdrew my now-wrinkled digit from my mouth, wiping it on the bedsheet in disgust. My leg angrily informed me that I was still very much in the land of the living. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light offered by stars outside the window, I recognized the silhouette of Snow White and her menagerie, and I relaxed a bit. Then another feeling completely snapped me out of the haze – a pressure against my crotch, and a vague feeling of warmth. My hand dropped down between my legs, and I cringed.

Oh fuck no… Gross!

“ELISE!!” I yelled. “ELISE!!”

The padding of bare feet down the hall seemed almost slow-motion, though I knew she was running. I squirmed and tried to rip at the tapes, but the nightie foiled my efforts, and the rustling of the plastic mocked me. The door burst open and the light flipped on.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” she asked, a clear look of fear on her face.

“Get it OFF! Eww! Get it OFF ME!”

She visibly relaxed as she rushed over, and it was obvious she was struggling not to laugh. “You poor thing. What a way to wake up!” She pulled back the covers and lifted up my nightie, revealing the thoroughly soaked garment.

“Just get it off, please?!” I begged.

“Alright, I’m getting there, sweetie.” She pulled the tapes loose and let the front down. As much of a relief as that was, the sudden chill was a bit of a shock. She rushed over to the dresser and brought back powder, wipes, and a fresh diaper. A minute later, the job was done, and I was at least physically comfortable, though still disgusted by the idea that this was a necessary part of my wardrobe.

“We okay now?” she asked, sitting heavily onto the edge of the bed with a sigh. It dawned on me that she was completely on autopilot and half-awake through this entire ordeal, all because I was in a panic.

“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “I’m sorry I woke you up like that.”

“It’s okay, Naomi. I’d probably be in a panic too.”

“Still, I didn’t have to scare you half to death just because I was freaked out.”

She shifted positions to the head of the bed and put her arm around me. “It’s okay, really. I’d rather get up and get you changed than have you sitting in a puddle like last night.”

“What time is it, anyway?” I yawned.

“Actually, it’s not that late, only half past eleven.”

“Wait, what time did I… we… she… go to sleep?”

“Very early. You were out cold on my lap about an hour after we ate dinner, probably around eight o’clock.”

I pondered this for a minute. I could feel that little girl inside me bouncing around like a rubber ball, and it made me nervous. “Yeah, that whole scene this evening… I’m still wondering if I’ve lost my mind here. I mean, multiple personalities much?”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that a little bit,” she said softly. “I called a therapist friend of mine earlier, while you were watching that movie. Suffice to say I was a bit worried about you too, but he told me that, while what you experienced is rare, it’s nothing to be concerned about.”

“Uh… what if I’m still experiencing it? I mean, I can feel her inside me right now. She’s been buzzing ever since you changed me, and it got even louder when you put your arm around me.”

“He called it ‘regressive infantilism’. He said that a lot of people who experience it have had it most of their lives, but that a small segment only discover it when something intensely emotional or traumatic happens. He said with the amount of stress you’ve been under the last few days, he’s not surprised at all that it manifested tonight, once you finally got into a spot where you could really relax.”

“You keep saying ‘it’. It feels like I have a whole other being inside of me. I don’t understand.”

“He told me some people who tend to compartmentalize their emotions usually wind up feeling that way. It’s still very much a part of your personality, Naomi, but in your mind it’s being expressed as a different person. He said it’s probably a function of you having repressed your ‘inner child’ so strongly and for such a long time. From what you told me, neither you nor your mother really ever let you be a kid, so your mind, when presented with these feelings, created a whole separate space for them, manifest as the ‘little girl’ inside you right now.”

“So this isn’t multiple personalities?”

“Not at all. He told me people with that kind of disorder typically don’t even remember anything that happens when their ‘alternate’ personalities are in control of their conscious mind.”

“Okay, so let me understand here,” I said. My head was spinning at this point, and this little being squeaking around inside me wasn’t helping. “You’re saying that what I’m feeling right now is desires I’ve always had but stuffed them so hard that they’re popping out now in the form of a little girl who calls you Mama, sucks her thumb, talks like a preschooler, and is perfectly comfortable wearing and wetting diapers?”

“Well… that’s one way of putting it, I guess…”

“Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel any less crazy than I did when I was watching it happen last night. I guess it’s good news that he wasn’t telling you to check me into the psycho ward…”

She squeezed me gently and chuckled a bit. “Maybe you can look at this another way. Maybe this is your brain finally telling you that it’s time to lighten up a bit and let go of all that angst over how people see you. I mean, how did you feel this evening when all this was going on?”

Oh hell. Do I really have to admit this? “Ugh…” I sighed. “Even though I was completely weirded out, it was so quiet, so peaceful. Like… like all the noise had stopped; everything I’d been worrying about just disappeared, and nothing mattered except what was going on right at the moment. Well, except for when she started talking about me ‘repressing’ her or whatever. I got pretty uptight for a minute thinking about my mother and all the pressure she put on me to grow up.”

“There you go,” she said, rubbing my back a bit. “Everything got a little simpler, a little less stressful. For once in your life, you weren’t worrying about anything, well, other than the immediate present… So maybe if it happens again, you can try just going with the flow?”

“Jesus, how am I going to even know it’s coming? I mean, last time it just happened all at once; one minute I was flipping out about losing my patch and having to wear diapers, the next I was relaxing in the tub, and the next she just showed up, and it was like I was watching it all on TV or something…”

She looked at me thoughtfully. “Maybe it was the combination of the two. I mean, I could tell you were totally drained emotionally by the time we got home, and having a bath put you in such a relaxed state that, without realizing it, you were able to find that place.”

Before I had a chance to process her speculation, I got hit with another urge. “Shit! Gotta pee again!” I said.

Surprisingly, she didn’t scoop me up and run like the last few attempts. “Alright, relax, we’ll get you there,” she said softly, her arms gently slipping under my back and knees.

I couldn’t fathom why she was being so slow about it. “Come on! You know how fast this…”

“Shhhhh, just relax,” she repeated as she lifted me up very slowly and deliberately and began walking toward the bathroom. “Trust me, I did some studying tonight about stress incontinence. Sudden movements, rushing around, that’s what makes you leak.”

We reached the bathroom. I had another cramp, but I managed to hold it back while she hiked up my nightie and removed the diaper. She gently sat me down on the toilet, and for the first time that day I managed to pee like the twenty-two-year-old I was instead of the two-year-old I’d felt like since late last night. I still wound up blushing when I realized she’d been there the whole time, and I don’t think it even dawned on her how much the whole scene looked like a mother taking her not-quite-trained toddler to the potty…

After I cleaned up, she carried me back to the bedroom and laid me back down on the bed, slipping the changing pad into position ahead of time. “Okay, Naomi,” she nearly whispered. “Close your eyes and just try to relax here while I get you fixed back up, okay?”

I nodded. I saw what she was trying to do, and frankly, it wasn’t entirely unwelcome at that point. I closed my eyes and concentrated on her gentle hands as she slowly applied a bit of rash cream and what seemed a very generous amount of powder. I could feel the surge within me, but this time I let it come, and by the time she had secured the last tape, I was in a state of total bliss. As I felt the little one emerge, the confusion I’d experienced before was gone, but a singular thought surfaced at the front of my mind:

I wonder how long it’ll take Elise to get her settled down and back to sleep…

21

I was so happy when I saw Mama again, but my leg hurt a lot. “Mama, it hurts.” I whimpered.

“What hurts, sweetie?” she asked.

“My leg hurts. Make it stop, Mama!”

“Oh, I’m sorry sweetie. You fell asleep so quickly, I forgot to give you your pill before bedtime. Mama will go get that for you, okay?”

“Hurry back, Mama…” I didn’t want Mama to go, but I didn’t want my leg to hurt anymore.

She dashed out the door and called back, “I’m hurrying, sweetie.” I heard the sounds of doors opening and closing, and water running, and then she was back. She sat a glass of water down on the nightstand and helped me sit up. “Here you go, sweetie. Open up.”

I opened my mouth and she popped a pill in. It tasted yucky. She gave me the glass of water and I drank it as quickly as I could. A little bit spilled out the corners of my mouth and onto my shirt, but at least I didn’t taste that yucky pill anymore. “Thank you Mama,” I said. “Sorry I spilled.”

She smiled back and said, “You’re welcome, little one. Don’t worry about the water, it’ll dry.” She wiped the corners of my mouth and my neck with her sleeve and said, “Now it’s time to get you tucked back in and back to sleep.”

“But Mama, I don’t want to sleep right now! Can’t we watch another movie?”

She laughed. “Sweetie, it’s nearly midnight. We have a busy day at the store tomorrow; we both need our rest.”

“But… I don’t want you to go,” I pouted. “That’s why big girl came out when we woke up, because it was dark and scary and you weren’t here.”

She pulled me onto her lap and gave me a big squeeze. “Awww, Mama’s right down the hall. There’s nothing to be afraid of. All you have to do is call me and I’ll be right here.”

“Can I come sleep in your bed, Mama?” I asked quietly.

She was quiet for a minute, then asked, “Don’t you think big girl will be a little scared herself if she wakes up next to Mama, especially if she’s wet?”

“I won’t be scared if I sleep in your bed, because you’ll be right next to me and I’ll feel safe!” I said. “So I’ll be here in the morning, not big girl!”

Okay, this is getting weird… Now she wants to sleep in ‘Mama’s’ bed? Is this some kind of suppressed lesbian thing too? Alright, I said I’d roll with it, so I will. Just relax, Naomi, relax and ignore, ignore, ignore…

Mama sighed and gave me a squeeze. “I’ll tell you what, little one. How about Mama stay with you for a little while and sing you to sleep? I’ll even leave the closet light on for you so if you do wake up again, it won’t be all dark and scary, okay?”

“Okay, Mama,” I said with a sigh. Staying with me until I went to sleep was better than leaving me alone in the dark, but I wished she would have just taken me to bed with her. She laid me back into bed and pulled the covers up, then began to hum a very pretty song I’d never heard before. As she petted my hair like a kitten, she began to add words to the tune…

“Blow the wind, blow,
swift and low.
Blow the wind o’er the ocean.
Breakers rolling to the coastline,
bringing ships to harbor.
Gulls against the morning sunlight,
flying off to freedom.”

My eyelids started to get heavy, and the light from the lamp next to my bed seemed to get fuzzier each time she sang the words. I felt her soft lips on my forehead and her whispering, “Good night, little one,” and then came dreams of seagulls and ocean waves.

What seemed like only a few minutes later, the sun peeked through my window and tickled my face until I opened my eyes. I yawned a big yawn and stretched a big stretch, and I was surprised that my shoulder didn’t hurt at all when I moved it. I sat up in the bed and noticed that my diaper was big and puffy against my legs, but it didn’t feel wet at all. I wriggled my bottom a little and smiled at the crinkly noises. Just then Mama came into the room. “Good morning!” she said.

“Good morning Mama! The sun woke me up! I think my diaper needs changing. Can we watch another movie this morning? My shoulder doesn’t hurt at all when I move it, see?” I waved my arm around in the sling and grinned at her.

She laughed as she walked over to the dresser and said, “Oh, my. I’m glad your shoulder doesn’t hurt, little one. I’m sure Doctor Mattson will be happy to hear that tomorrow too!”

She took a diaper and the bottle of powder out of the top drawer and brought it over to the bed. Then she took my hands in hers and asked, “Before I get your diaper changed, can I talk to you for a minute?”

She sounded very serious, so I was a little scared at what she was going to ask, but I nodded my head slowly.

“I’m concerned about Naomi,” she said. “My doctor friend told me that this is all okay, but I still don’t really understand it. Does she hear me when I talk to you? How does she feel about you? Can she come back out whenever she wants, or only when you let her?”

Wow, she still thinks I’m a nutjob. Of course, I’m not entirely convinced she’s wrong. Hell, if she hadn’t told me what the therapist said, I’d be expecting the men in white coats to be arriving any minute now. One part of me hates being so dependent, needy, especially the whole diaper thing, but then it’s so peaceful when I allow her to ‘be’, like the whole world just stops existing and there’s such a serenity…

“Big girl is wondering if she still might be crazy too.” I announced. “She can hear you right now. She only misses stuff when she’s not paying attention. She doesn’t like being treated like a baby, but then she kinda does, because it helps her relax. And she could make me go away if she wanted to. I hope she doesn’t, though. I like it when I’m here with my Mama.”

Mama smiled a little but didn’t say anything right away, so I asked her quietly, “Would you like it better if I wasn’t here, Mama?”

Her face changed quickly to surprise. “Oh no, sweetie. That’s not what I meant at all. I’m just saying…” she paused for a second, then continued, “I’m not trying to make a baby out of you, Naomi. Yes, I was trying to adopt a little girl, and yes, I was so heartbroken when she died that I couldn’t stand to get rid of everything and redecorate this room, but that’s not why I invited you into my home.” She looked very sad as she talked about that stuff.

Okay, then…. why did you?

“Then why, Mama?”

“Because…” she sighed a big sigh, "I guess now is as good a time as any to tell the whole story. When I was in college, I wanted so badly to be accepted that I turned into a big-time party girl. There was never a weekend and rarely a night during the week that I wasn’t drinking and raising hell in the dorms, at the local bars, wherever. I went through boyfriends pretty rapidly during that time; they all bored me after a while, probably because they never saw me as anything more than what I was acting.

"Anyway, first semester of my sophomore year I was seeing this guy Stan. He was on the lacrosse team, a real intense kind of person. He was just as aggressive in bed as he was on the field, and it was fun for a while. Shortly after Thanksgiving weekend, it started to get old, and just like always, I drank harder and partied harder when the shine of a relationship wore down. I figured I’d probably dump him on the phone over winter break and go find another toy when school started back up again. Except Stan got jealous, especially when I was off partying with other guys while he was at games or practice or whatever.

"So this one night in late November, I was hanging out at one of the local dives, slam drunk and dancing with whoever would get on the floor with me. Stan showed up right as I was grinding with some guy at the front of the stage, right in front of the band. He went ballistic, grabbing my hand and practically dragging me out the door. He shoved me into the passenger seat, jumped in, and peeled out of the parking lot like a ball of fury. He yelled at me the whole time, driving like an idiot, talking about how he needed to put a leash on me to keep me out of trouble. I screamed a whole bunch of nasty words at him and told him I was done with his stupid ass anyway. He told me to get the fuck out of the car. I told him to pull it over and I would. He stopped and just about shoved me out into a snow drift. I staggered to my feet and screamed back at him as he pulled away. I started to walk toward the dorms, which were probably three miles away, but it was freezing cold, and I was wearing 6-inch stilettos, and one of the heels broke on me. I lost my balance and twisted the hell out of my ankle as I fell over into another drift. I tried to stand back up but fell right back down as soon as I put weight on it. Drunk as I was, I knew I was probably gonna die that night, because there was no way I could drag myself home before the cold got me. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, you deserve this end, you idiot,’ right before I passed out in the snow.

"Next thing I knew, I woke up in the emergency room, wrapped in heat blankets and attached to an IV. I asked the nurse how the hell I got there, and she told me some woman dropped me off along with a wad of cash to cover the emergency room bill. She said my pulse was down in the teens when the lady brought me in, and I was damned lucky, because any longer and I’d have been dead. I asked her where the lady is, and she said she was gone. I asked the woman’s name, and she said she didn’t give one. I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to say. Some complete stranger finds me on the side of the road, drags me to the emergency room, pays my tab, and leaves without a word?

“That moment changed my life, Naomi. All the stuff my dad told me about getting what you give; I realized someone gave me another chance when I really didn’t deserve one. When I saw you in the bar, spinning out of control, I saw that as my opportunity to give it forward. The only reason I knew your name and how often you came in is because you were pretty much the loudest voice in the bar every time. Every time you were there, I heard you grousing about something that was going wrong in your life, not saying there weren’t valid reasons to be mad, but I couldn’t help but notice. And when your friends ditched you, I knew you were headed straight for trouble if someone didn’t step in. So I stepped in. And I intend to do whatever I can to help you get back on your feet so you can maybe have a chance to step in for someone else. Does it make a little more sense now?”

Tears flowed freely down my cheeks by the time she finished, and I realized the “little one” had retreated. Jesus Christ, I thought, she really is a real-life Good Samaritan.

“I’m sorry, Elise,” I sniffled. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you.”

She pulled me into a huge hug and said, “It’s okay, Naomi. You were just trying to protect yourself the only way you knew how. Now what say we get you changed and dressed and go have breakfast?”

I nodded silently, and she went about the ritual. This time, however, I never felt the revulsion or the self-loathing, just a calm whisper deep in my mind that told me this day was going to turn out okay. Scariest part was, I think I actually believed it…

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

22

So there I was being carried by Elise down the stairs, all decked out in a purple jumper, lace-trimmed lavender t-shirt, and matching ankle socks, looking for all the world like I was on my way to my first day of kindergarten, were it not for the thick diaper underneath. Funny thing was I didn’t feel shame or resentment, nor even slightly embarrassed! I was actually comfortable. It was almost as though that little being inside of me had left behind some kind of emotional bubble that cut me off from the wellspring of indignation that fed my frustration and anger over my new station in life.

Elise seemed much more relaxed too, humming little scraps of tunes while she settled me into a chair at the counter and fixed a couple of bowls of what appeared to be either rabbit food or granola on steroids. We ate quickly, silently, her sipping on coffee, me grudgingly drinking orange juice after she convinced me that the caffeine would likely increase the chances of me having an accident at the shop. After we finished, Elise grabbed her purse and what looked a small gym bag, sitting by the door, tossed them both over her shoulder and off we went.

The ride to the shop was relatively quiet as well, so I found myself staring out the side window, watching the landscape change until it all became a colorful blur, interspersed with an occasional snapshot when the truck slowed down, from the trees and expensive houses of Sausalito to the staggering hi-rises and low storefronts of the city where I’d spent my entire life. I recognized all the scenery, but it was as though I’d seen it all in a tourist guide somewhere, and now it was coming to life for the very first time.

“Oh my goodness!” Elise’s voice disrupted whatever thought pattern I’d been following. “Well, at least we can get that taken care of right away!” she declared as she removed my seatbelt and hoisted me onto her hip.

As she picked me up, I felt the warmth and the pressure, then realized what she was talking about. I was soaked, and I’d been so lost in thought I hadn’t even noticed. “I… uh…” I stammered, completely embarrassed.

“Don’t worry about it, sweetie,” she said with a smile. She carried me into the shop, dragging my chair behind, and headed straight for the bathroom. From the gym bag she produced a large towel, wipes, powder, and another of the briefs. She spread the towel onto the floor and laid me on it, then flipped my skirt up. The sound of the tapes being ripped from the body of the garment awoke something deep within, and brought another distant memory to the front of my mind…

[i]“Owari.” Sobo’s voice was sweet and soft as I watched her tape my diaper up snugly. “Omorshiroi na fuku ga kigaitai desu ka?” Dress-up! I could feel my face fill with excitement, and I nodded fiercely.

“Hai, Sobo!” I squeaked. She smiled as she took both my hands and pulled me up off the floor. I watched on wobbly legs as she walked over to the closet, my fists clenched tightly as I shifted from one foot to the other excitedly. She produced two beautiful purple robes with gold flowers all over them.

“Ka WAAA II!” I was buzzing all over as she brought one over and slipped it over my head, then gently guided my arms into the sleeves. As she slipped the other one over her own head, I looked down and lifted my arms. My hands were well covered by the length of the sleeves, with a good bit of fabric hanging down in front.

“Sou da ne! Naomi-chan ha hontou ni kawaii!” she declared, pinching my cheeks.

I beamed up at her smiling face and said, “Arigatou, Sobo!”

She smiled and said, “Kanshin, Naomi,” bowing deeply. Her encouragement filled me with pride, and I bowed to her as far as I could before losing my balance and tumbling forward into a pile of fabric, giggling as I tried to uncover myself. All at once I felt her hands under my arms, and she hoisted me up onto her hip, laughing right along with me.

“A-chan! B-chan! Koko ni mitte!” came a gravelly voice from behind us. I turned and grinned at Sofu, who was standing in the doorway with a camera. Ca-click went the shutter, and I blinked at the bright light of the flash…[/i]

A streak of sunlight through the window caught me straight in the eyes and I squinted against it. Elise was wheeling me back out toward the counter, talking the whole time about how Tuesday was “picker day” - apparently she never allowed the small-timers she bought from to come in on Monday because it “helped them find some urgency”. I winced at the idea of a parade of strangers ogling me in my current state, and almost involuntarily I tugged downward at the hem of my skirt.

She seemed to notice this move immediately as she spun my chair around, and she dropped to my eye level to address it. “Sweetie, don’t worry. The only way someone could see it is if they squatted down next to you and looked up your skirt, and if that happens, I’ll swat them myself.”

As much as I wanted to believe that, I would have given anything to be able to cross my legs and pull that skirt right down over my knees. Of course, not only did the brace make that a painful prospect, but the bulk of the diaper itself pushed my thighs apart enough to make bringing them together completely impossible. I sighed my resignation as she wheeled me around behind the counter, and I attempted to distract myself with a silly gem-matching game on the tablet. I felt her eyes on me, that concerned look she always wore when it was clear her efforts at cheering me up had failed, but I purposefully kept my own gaze locked on the screen in my lap. Eventually she went about the business of counting out the register and doing paperwork and left me to brood.

Who were you kidding anyway? Sure, you were going to have a fabulous day today, Miss Big Shot college graduate dressed like a kindergartener and peeing in your diapers like a two-year-old. All you need now is your thumb in your mouth and a blankie and you’ll just be the picture of adulthood. If Okaasan could see you now, she’d probably say you finally look the age you’ve been acting the last half a dozen years…

The door chime rang out its cheery note, snapping me out of my darkening train of thought. In walked a scruffy-looking guy with a knapsack over his shoulder and a shit-eating grin on his face. “Elise, my dear, good morning to you!” he declared with a tone that matched his wry demeanor.

“Good morning Jake,” Elise replied with an edge of sarcasm. “How did I know you’d be first through the door today?”

Undeterred by her response, he marched straight back toward the counter as Elise closed the register drawer. “Come now,” he retorted, “you haven’t even seen the treasures I’ve dug up for you yet today!”

“Go ahead, Jake,” she said flatly. She rolled her eyes as he excitedly removed bundles of tissue paper from the bag. Thankfully, he seemed so fixated on trying to sell her the contents that I don’t think he even noticed me in the corner. As I listened to them haggling, a side of her I’d never seen began to emerge, and I found it very disconcerting. The “Good” Samaritan that had taken care of me like a family member disappeared, replaced by an ice queen, cold, calculating, and manipulative. Her tone never changed as she wrestled his asking prices down, down, down, while his demeanor steadily declined from smugly confident to hesitant to completely defeated by the time she handed him a far lesser sum than he’d been expecting and sent him toward the door with an empty bag and a dejected face behind his week-old stubble.

As he left, she turned toward me with an intense stare and a tight-lipped smile and stated, “I still pay better than anyone else in town, and they all know it, which is why they come to me today instead of going somewhere else yesterday.”

I was still so stunned by her seeming metamorphosis that I couldn’t muster a response, offering only a nod before my eyes dropped back to the tablet in my lap. Elise returned to her newly acquired trinkets, and I stole periodic glances at her as she fixated between her laptop and handwriting tags and stickers. What unnerved me more than anything else was realizing that the little one within had quieted as well; I could almost feel her recoil from that frigid glare.

Is this even the same fucking person?! Has the whole ‘Good Samaritan’ thing been a big fucking act too? There’s a part of me that sees this woman as the sun, moon, and fucking stars, and now I’m not even sure I ever want to let her make me that vulnerable again! How do I know she’s not going to one day just turn on me and fuck my head over like she did that guy?!

Those ugly thoughts grew louder as I watched her through the morning, as each picker tried their little angle on her. She morphed effortlessly into a mirror image of each one, then attacked their weaknesses, never once giving any indication that what they’d brought her was anything but junk, or that what she was doing was anything less than a magnanimous favor disposing of them, never mind actually paying to take them.

Then, late in the morning, the inevitable happened: I had my first serious urge since we arrived at the shop. Elise was embroiled in an intense haggling session with an over-dressed, haughty, middle-aged woman over a collection of ceramic flowers, and the conversation had gotten quite heated. I swallowed my trepidation, not to mention the humiliation of having to “ask” to go to the bathroom, and spoke up. “Elise?” I practically squeaked.

“In a minute.” She didn’t even look my direction as she said it, but her tone told me I shouldn’t make myself a target at that point.

Stunned, my mouth fell open, but no words came out. I clenched and focused on the tablet in my lap. Minutes ticked away. The fat woman spouted auction prices. Elise countered with auction house consignment fees. Back and forth they went. Another cramp hit, this time much stronger. I summoned the courage once more. “Elise?”

“Not right now, Naomi,” came the impatient reply, the sing-song delivery clearly indicating that another interruption would be dealt with severely.

I swallowed my frustration, squirming slightly in my seat. My seat responded with a rustle, and I blushed, looking up to see if either woman had heard it. If they had, there was no indication given. The discussion continued. My head stayed down, and I steeled myself against more cramps. A few minutes later, the door chime rang, but I dared not look up. Just as the lady grudgingly accepted Elise’s final offer, one more cramp hit me, and it was all over. Hot humiliation filled my face as hot plastic pressed against my inner thighs and swelled under my rear. My hand instinctively dropped to my crotch, and then I heard that unforgettable Louisiana drawl ring out:

“My goodness, Elise! Looks like someone needs a diaper change!”

23

Marianne’s words rang in my ears like a gunshot, and I buried my face in my hands, fighting the urge to explode. The thoughts screamed through my head as I wrestled with a medicine ball of rage in my gut and a millstone of humiliation around my neck.

No one was supposed to know! How the fuck did she know?! God damn you Elise! You said you’d take care of it! You said you’d take me to the bathroom! Instead you fucking blow me off and let me sit here and piss myself while you argue over fucking pennies?!

Suddenly Marianne’s voice was directly over me, dripping with condescension. “Now don’t you cry baby girl. I know your mama’s busy, but Auntie Marianne will get you out of that wet old diaper in a jiffy!”

Before I had a chance to even get my bearings, I was being hoisted up into a very unfamiliar set of arms. Marianne had me out of the chair and onto her hip in an instant, and as I started to squirm, she turned to Elise and asked, “Where’s her diaper bag at, honey? I’ll go fix her up while you finish your business!”

Terror gripped me as I looked desperately at Elise. That question definitely appeared to get her attention, as she looked up with wide eyes at the two of us next to her.

“I… left her bag in the truck,” she lied. “It’s fine, Marianne, I’ll take care of her.” She hurriedly counted off a stack of bills to the picker and said, “That ought to do it. Sorry to cut it short, but I have a crisis to attend to here.”

“I completely understand,” the woman said tersely. “Little girls can be so very fragile about such things.”

Elise turned and took me from Marianne. “I’ll be back with you in a few minutes, Marianne,” she said, rushing toward the front door.

“You’re fine, darlin’. I’m in no hurry,” came the fading reply.

“She’s awfully big to still be in diapers though, isn’t she?” The other woman spoke up again, and the snide comment stung me one more time. My fists clenched and I dropped my head as the door chime rang again.

“Oh hey, uh…” Karen’s uncertain voice mingled with the street noises as we hit the sidewalk.

“I’ll be right back. We just have an issue to deal with,” Elise explained.

“Why not change her in the bathroom?” Karen called back as we moved down the street.

The words sunk in, and I reached tentatively behind me. My worst fears were realized; my hand met bunched up fabric above Elise’s forearm, and smooth plastic underneath. The wet diaper was on full display for the world to see. Something vile and black rose up inside me as the door to the truck opened. Elise laid me down on the seat and closed the door. I sat back up immediately, wet crotch or not, as the handful of threads hanging on to the control of my temper snapped nearly audibly, like strings on a guitar popping, one by one.

“Thanks a fucking lot, bitch!” I shrieked, trembling with rage. Her mouth dropped open, and she visibly recoiled, her eyes a spectacle of bewilderment.

“Did you get what you fucking wanted out of that scene in there? Fucking mommy complex finally wins? You fucking HAPPY now?!”

“I… That wasn’t…” She was groping for words, but I was on a roll and had no intentions of stopping.

“Don’t EVEN!” I screamed. “Oh, I’m just a fucking Kumbaya-singing hippie chick trying to help people in need!” The sarcasm dripped from my voice. “I’m not trying to turn you into a fucking toddler so I can play house! I’m just here to take care of you out of the goodness of my fucking heart. FUCK you! Make me fucking degrade myself while you argue over fucking pennies, then show it all off to half the fucking CITY! I should’ve stayed at the fucking HOSPITAL! Instead now I’m fucking stuck with Mommy Fucking Dearest doing her best to convince everyone she knows that I’m her new Baby Alive doll! Watch her piss herself so I can change her diaper! You fucking PSYCHO!”

“Now just a damned minute, you ungrateful little animal!” Elise snarled. The vicious tone in her voice stunned me into silence as she launched into her own tirade. “Last I checked, I’m not the out-of-control alcoholic who ran a red light and nearly got herself killed, YOU are! I’m not the reason you can’t walk, YOU are! I’m not the reason you have a bladder problem right now, YOU are! All I’ve done for the past week is HELP you take care of yourself because you’re INCAPABLE of doing it on your own!”

“I’m perfectly fucking…” I started to shout back, but she cut me right off.

“You had your speech, now it’s MY turn! You think I don’t have better things to do with my life than wash mountains of clothes and bedsheets that YOU leaked all over? You talk about ME making you look like a baby when YOU’RE the one throwing temper-tantrums and pouting and having crying fits when things don’t go exactly as you expect? You’re doing a FINE job of showing the world what an immature little brat you are without ANY help from me! Hell, right now I think you look EXACTLY how old you’ve been acting since LONG before I met you!”

“Fuck you, bitch! You don’t fucking know me! I fought my way through school while you got coddled and tutored at home! I was working three jobs and taking out loans to pay for college while your fucking MOMMY paid your fucking way! I didn’t get ANY fucking breaks, and you got ALL of them! Don’t you DARE talk to me like you know where I live!”

“Don’t give me that wannabe thug crap, Naomi! Your mom lives in the suburbs in Marin, not the Richmond ghetto! And I went to public school and paid my own way through college, because my dad insisted on it! Sure, I inherited that house from my great-grandparents, but I’m the one who has to pay the taxes and insurance on that monstrosity, and I guarantee you it’s ten times what you pay in rent down in the Tenderloin!”

“There you go again, poor little fucking rich girl, feel sorry for her because she has to pay taxes on her fucking mansion that she got for FREE!”

“No, that’s where you’re wrong, Naomi!” Her voice got quiet, but took on a much more sinister tone, and her eyes glinted like steel sabers. “Unlike you, I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me because of my lot in life. I fight and scratch and claw and do what I have to do to make a living so no one can ever look at me and tell me it was my family’s money that made me what I am. Talk all the shit you want about me and my motives, but don’t you DARE suggest that I didn’t earn every bit of what I have.” She took a long breath, then continued. “Now, are you going to sit there in a wet diaper and screech at me the rest of the afternoon, or are you going to lay down and let me change it for you?”

My mouth opened, but despite my anger at that last comment I couldn’t find a retort that would sound like anything but a petulant child, so I dropped back onto the seat with a growl.

“Finally using your head for once!” Elise snapped as reached over the back of the seat, and I heard the sound of bags rustling.

“Well how the fuck would you feel?” I finally regained my voice as I lay there. “Do you have any fucking idea how humiliating that was for me?”

Elise turned back toward me, diaper in hand. “Come on, Naomi. Don’t be so goddamned dramatic!” She pulled the tapes loose on the diaper, and my rage resurfaced, though I managed to keep still despite my urge to sit back up.

“Dramatic?! Dramatic?!” I yelled. “How would you like it if you were the one sitting there in a fucking diaper, needing to go to the bathroom, can’t do it without my help, and I told you I was too goddamned busy?! How would you like it if you had no choice but to sit there and piss yourself in front of two complete fucking strangers?! How would you like it if one of them apparently had psychic powers and could TELL you were pissing yourself, then felt the need to announce it to the whole fucking world?! How would you like it if one of them asked why you weren’t potty trained yet?! How about… OW!!!”

My tirade was cut short by a painful jolt from my knee as Elise roughly picked my legs up and pulled the wet diaper from underneath.

“Oh shit, I’m sorry…” She let me down much more gently onto the fresh diaper and began to wipe me down. My indignation started to wane as her movements became more gentle and deliberate. She let out a sigh and then spoke quietly as she continued to work, “Look, Naomi, you’ve got a right to be upset about what happened in there. I’d be pretty angry too if it happened to me.” She sighed again, more deeply this time. “The problem is, I have to run my business. I promised I’d take care of you the best I could, but when I’m in that shop, I have to deal with people as they show up.”

“I know, I know,” I grumped. “This has just sucked from one end to the other the last two days.”

“Yes, it has. I can’t imagine how you must have felt, between yesterday’s leaking problems and that barrage in there just now. I swear, I’m going to have a talk with Marianne. Even if you were six years old, how could she think it was a good idea to just embarrass the hell out of you like that?” She finished taping me up, then pulled my skirt back down. I had to admit, even though I hated what I was wearing, being dry was a hell of an improvement.

“What I don’t get is how the hell she figured it out!”

“I hate to tell you this,” Elise replied, looking like she was stifling a grin, “but you made it pretty obvious.”

“Obvious?! How the hell did I make it obvious?!”

“Come on, Naomi. You blushed three shades of red and grabbed your skirt. You even had the dreaded ‘potty face’! I’m not even a mother, and even I saw that when I glanced over.”

I covered my face with my hands. “Oh… my… god…” I stammered. “Do you mean to tell me…”

“Yeah, she would have been none the wiser if you hadn’t broadcast it yourself.” Her attention suddenly snapped to her wrist. “Okay, hun, we gotta go back in there so I can take care of Marianne, then we can get out of here. I want to talk about this more after we leave, okay?”

“Yeah, I guess so…” I had no desire to go back into that shop ever again, never mind right at that moment, but I knew it was futile to argue.

With that, she pulled me back up to a sitting posture, then gathered me back up onto her hip. This time, I felt her pull the skirt down carefully to cover up the diaper, and it was a bit of a relief, even though I was still certain everyone on the sidewalk could hear me rustling as she carried me back into the store. Strangely enough, inside I felt serene at that rustling noise, the thick padding against my bottom, pressed there tightly by Elise’s arm, the feeling of being dry after having soaked myself. It was so bizarre, this childlike appreciation for such a simple comfort. The door chime rang when Elise swung it open, and a small sigh escaped my lips as we walked inside.

24

When we got in, I noticed the other lady had left, leaving only Karen and Marianne, who were casually chatting at the counter. Elise sat me back down in my chair and turned to Marianne. “Marianne, I know you were just trying to help,” she said gently, “but Naomi has a medical problem right now, and she’s already self-conscious about what she has to wear to deal with it. Can we be a bit more… tactful?”

Marianne seemed surprised. “Oh my, I just assumed she wasn’t trained all the way yet after yesterday.” She looked over at me, and I blushed in spite of myself. “Sweetie, Auntie Marianne wasn’t trying to make you feel bad. I just figured your mama was busy, and you’d be more comfy if I got you changed. I didn’t mean for you to get all bent out of shape over it!”

Geez, even her apologies are backhanded and condescending… I thought grimly. “It’s… okay, I guess.”

Satisfied, she looked back over at Elise. “So what’s the medical problem?”

“She had to be catheterized in the hospital after her accident,” Elise stated. “Doctor said she’s probably going to be struggling with bladder control for a few more days.”

“Oh you poor thing!” Marianne gasped, looking back over at me. “You mean she was already potty trained before all this happened?”

“Yes, for quite some time,” Elise replied, “and she’s not particularly happy about the situation.”

“Well,” Marianne announced, “if it makes you feel any better, my little girl is about your age and I swear she spends more time in diapers than panties, as much as she forgets to go potty when she gets busy.”

My age… Hoo boy did I put my foot in my mouth with that one…

Finally Elise managed to get Marianne’s attention over to the new trinkets she had acquired, and as they began to banter back and forth, I turned on the tablet and did my best to ignore them. Unfortunately, another voice disrupted my attention.

“Hey there, buddy,” Karen spoke up. “Whatcha playin’?” Her voice was soft and non-threatening, but I really wasn’t in a mood to talk.

“Sugar Crush,” I muttered.

“Oh, you mean that game on FB? Oh yeah, I play that one all the time, or at least when I’m not working here…”

I didn’t respond, hoping she’d get the hint. She didn’t, of course.

“You know, having to wear that doesn’t make you a baby.”

“I know.” Will you just go away?!

“I still think you’re a big girl, even if you’re having trouble going potty.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Dammit, I could have done better than that…

“Sometimes talking about it can make you feel better.” She was practically cooing now.

I studied the screen intensely, trying not to get angry again.

“Okay, it’s been a tough day, I understand.” She put a hand on my shoulder, to which I involuntarily flinched. That reaction seemed to be enough to get her to divert her attention to the conversation between Elise and Marianne. Finally, I was alone to brood, which is exactly what I wanted most at that point.

An hour or so later, Marianne left the shop, Elise went over the following day’s itinerary with Karen, who insisted she was capable of doing the double shift from 8 to 8, while Elise was determined to come back in that afternoon and cover Karen’s normal shift. Karen won that battle; Elise agreed to take the day off, but not without coercing her into an agreement that she would call if she got tired or overwhelmed with customers. With that, she wheeled me out of the shop.

The truck was quiet while Elise settled me into the back seat and loaded up the chair and the… bag. After she buckled herself up and started the truck, she finally spoke.

“Look, I’m sorry I went off on you like that. I said some pretty nasty things earlier.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said quietly, “I’m the one who started it.” Guilt began to creep back over me as I revisited our little screaming match. “I can’t expect you to stay calm all the time.”

“Well, there is another issue we need to deal with here.” Her voice carried a hint of apprehension.

“And that would be…?”

She sighed deeply. “Naomi, I know I promised to take care of you while you were recovering, but I can’t guarantee that today won’t ever happen again.”

“What do you mean?” Now I was on edge again.

“Well, first of all, I can’t schedule my customers around your urges. This probably won’t be the last time I can’t stop to take you to the bathroom before you have an accident. And there’s only so much I can do to prevent them from viewing you and talking to you like a little girl, especially Marianne.”

“So what are you suggesting?”

“I don’t know, Naomi. I was thinking maybe your doctor would have some insights on how we can work around this so you don’t have to suffer that kind of humiliation again.”

“Yeah, he could get me out of this shoulder sling so I can take myself to the bathroom instead of wearing these stupid diapers. Then I could stay at the house.”

“Naomi, I can’t just leave you at the house. What if you fall and hurt yourself?”

“I’d call you, obviously!” I was getting frustrated now.

“What if your phone is at the top of the stairs and you’re at the bottom?”

“I’d stay on the ground floor anyway! Come on, Elise!”

“Have you ever been on crutches before?”

“No, but it can’t be…”

“Yeah, it is. Just getting yourself on and off a toilet is an ordeal. I know, I’ve had a broken leg more than once in my life.”

I was being cornered again, and I didn’t like it at all. “So what do you think the doctor will say?”

“I don’t know. I know your shoulder was a heck of a lot better this morning than it was on Sunday. So maybe he’ll let you do the crutches. At least you’ll be able to get around on your own a little bit. That doesn’t solve the bladder problem, though.”

“What do you mean? If I can get around, I can go to the bathroom!” I snapped.

“Sudden movements make you leak, remember?”

Dammit! Checkmate again! I flashed back to my disastrous effort to just move over onto the portable toilet Sunday night. There was no way I’d make it all the way to the bathroom fast enough during an urge to avoid pissing all over myself. “Okay, okay, so I’ll keep wearing the fucking things. I can at least change myself if he takes my arm out of the sling.”

“Yes, you can certainly do that.”

“So I have to stay with you at the store when you’re working, then?” More doting by Marianne was not my idea of a good time, but it was looking more and more like I was trapped in it.

“That’s why I want to ask your doctor tomorrow. I figured I’d give you fair warning here before your appointment tomorrow.”

“Fine. At this point, I just want to get something to eat and take a nap.”

The conversation petered out after that. When we got home, Elise fixed us a snack. After we ate, she took me upstairs and changed me, then covered me up with a throw and left me to my thoughts. Exhausted from yet another emotionally overcharged morning, I fell asleep almost immediately.

25

Elise woke me up a couple hours later with another change after I apparently wet myself in my sleep, much to my chagrin. She made a wonderfully spicy Pad Thai for dinner, which I relished thoroughly, along with a cloudy white sake she poured very liberally that night. Elise offered another bath, but I declined, as I was enjoying the warm buzz too much to be bothered.

We spent the evening sitting out on the patio, just off the sun room, sipping sake and enjoying the cool air. At some point long after dark, my eyelids grew heavy, and Elise carried me back inside, changed me into a nightgown, and tucked me into bed. I slept soundly that night, so much so that Elise had to wake me in the morning. The realization that I was thoroughly soaked was again very disconcerting, and I resolved to ask the doctor about that when we went in that morning. The idea of becoming a bedwetter on a longer-term basis was downright terrifying.

We ate a hurried breakfast of cereal and coffee, then made the drive down to Presidio Heights to Dr. Mattson’s office. After 45 grueling minutes in the waiting room, quite convinced that everyone there could hear and see what I was wearing under the knee-length skirt, they finally called us in. They took the splint off to get my knee x-rayed, then I was deposited back into the exam room, where we sat for another 20 minutes before the doctor finally entered.

“Hey Naomi, how are we holding up?” he asked with a forced smile.

“Well, let’s see. I’m 22 years old and wearing diapers, because just having the body and facial features of a six-year-old isn’t enough, I just NEEDED a bladder control problem as well.”

Elise looked like she was about to say something, but she kept silent as Dr. Mattson spoke up. “Okay, okay, I get it,” he sighed. “I know it’s frustrating, but that part will solve itself soon enough. How’s the shoulder?”

“Shoulder is fine; I’d really love to take the sling off so I can at least start getting around on crutches or something.”

“Well, let’s take a look.” He hoisted me up onto the exam table and gently removed the sling, then my shirt. “Bruising is almost gone, that’s good. Does it hurt at all when I move it this way?” He raised my elbow above the shoulder, and I shook my head. “How about this? This?” He moved it around in a variety of positions, and with the exception of some light burning sensations in a couple of extreme spots, none of it bothered me.

“I have no problem with leaving your sling off, Naomi,” he said as he put my shirt back on gently. “Looking at your x-rays, though, I don’t want you putting any weight on that knee for at least a few more days, so no crutches.”

“Aw, come on, Doc!” I grumped. “Do you have any idea how humiliating this is?!”

“Naomi, I’m telling you, you’re not ready to start walking on that leg, crutches or not. If you push it, you’re going to dislocate the knee again or possibly do ligament damage, and then you’ll be off your feet for a month or more! Is that what you want?”

“No,” his scolding took the fire right out of me. “How long, then?”

“I’d prefer you wait until I see you again next Friday, to be honest, but if you want, I can issue a fixed brace and crutches, as long as you promise you’re not going to try to start using them until at least Sunday.”

“Ugh…” I moaned. Four more days of this?!

“I’ll make sure she doesn’t try anything before Sunday,” Elise finally spoke up. “Come on, Naomi, it’s better than waiting another nine days.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll wait until Sunday.”

“Good,” Mattson spoke up again. “No more than ten minutes at a time, and stop immediately if you feel pain, understood?”

“I get it,” I said flatly.

“Great, I’ll get that written up. Anything else?”

“Yes,” Elise and I both said at the same time. She motioned for me to go ahead, and I took a deep breath.

“About the bladder thing. The last few times I’ve slept, I woke up wet. What the hell is the deal? I haven’t wet the bed since I was like, five or six years old!”

“Well, have you been under a lot of stress lately?”

“Other than the two accidents I had at Elise’s shop on Monday and another on Tuesday and subsequently being treated like a toddler by practically everyone who walks in, no.” I laid the sarcasm on thick.

“There was also our little argument,” Elise added.

“Yeah, that too.”

“Sounds like a hell of a lot of anxiety to me,” he offered. “I wouldn’t worry about it, really. You’re already having urge issues, and you’ve been in some pretty emotionally exhausting situations. Your brain is probably just ignoring those signals in order to get rest. Once your bladder starts to function normally again, that should fix itself too.”

“Speaking of the shop,” Elise interjected, “I was wondering if you might have any thoughts for how to handle her care during the day. I figured keeping her with me when I went to work would be okay, but obviously we’ve had some pretty big bumps there. There was at least one situation yesterday where I couldn’t get free from the counter to take her to the bathroom, which led to a pretty tough spot for her. Any ideas?”

“Well,” he replied, “I could give you a referral for a home healthcare provider. Naomi wouldn’t need a full-time nurse, just someone to help her get around, change when needed, things like that. Probably a CNA would be sufficient.”

Elise looked at me, eyebrows raised, and said, “That sounds like a viable option,” almost questioningly.

“Well, at least I could stay at the house, make life easier on both of us,” I replied.

She turned back to Dr. Mattson. “Let’s do that, then.”

“Fine, I’ll get the referral in today. Anything else we need to cover?”

Again Elise looked at me and shrugged. “No, I think that’s it,” I said quietly.

“Alright then, let’s get a brace and some crutches for you and get that referral done. Remember, I want you in the splint until Sunday at least, and if you have pain with weight bearing, get back off your feet.”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I huffed.

“Good. You ladies enjoy the rest of your day.”

With that, he was gone. A few minutes later, a nurse brought in the brace, some paperwork which she handed to Elise, and a little booklet. “Lucky you! Because of your size, you get to pick the color of your crutches,” she said with a laugh, and opened up the booklet in front of me to reveal a variety of colors. “Now, we’re out of the basic wood tone and the black, but we’ve got everything else in stock.”

“Everything else” turned out to be everything I wouldn’t have chosen – pink, blue, neon green, red, purple, even camo… I reluctantly settled on the purple, and she left and brought them back in a few minutes later. Much to my dismay, they were much paler in person than the tone in the book, almost a lavender color. I groaned as Elise, chuckling, loaded me back into the wheelchair and gathered up our stuff.

“Do you need a change before we go?” she asked after the nurse left the room.

“No, I’m good.” I could tell I was dry, though I was definitely going to need the bathroom when we got back home for… other issues.

Elise wrote them a check at the front counter and we headed out. She suggested going out for lunch, but I told her of the pressing need and she agreed that stopping at home first would be the best option. We got home in time, thankfully, and as she was finishing getting me put back together, the phone rang. It was the home healthcare company. From what I could tell, they weren’t particularly excited about next-day service, particularly when Elise informed them that I was “self-pay”. Her frustration was visible as she argued back and forth. Apparently they relented, as she told me that there would be someone here at seven in the morning, before she had to leave for work.

It was around one when we headed out to lunch at a cafe on Caledonia Street. We sat out on the patio and enjoyed the warm sunshine as we ate and talked about what to expect the next day, how things would go, Elise’s insistence that I call if anything went wrong, and then she called the shop to check on Karen. Satisfied that everything was under control, she packed us up and headed back to the house, where she set me up with the TV remote in the den while she went to her office to do paperwork.

That night she gave me a quick bath after dinner, and we ended up on the couch again for a movie. Of course, I fell asleep again, and found myself being carried to bed, changed, and tucked in gently. As I dozed back off, I began to realize that the little one inside me wasn’t the only one that enjoyed Elise’s motherly attention.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

26

I awoke that morning to the sound of voices approaching my room. One was clearly Elise, the other completely unfamiliar, female. My door opened, and the two of them entered. She looked to be fresh out of high school and very casually dressed, to which I was taken somewhat aback; I suppose I was expecting scrubs, not jeans and a t-shirt. Still, “Shayna” seemed pleasant enough, as Elise introduced us and went over contact numbers and the like, not to mention my toileting habits. Elise changed me, and for the first time in nearly a week I actually was able to at least put my own shirt on. Shayna followed Elise back down the stairs, chatting back and forth the whole way, and they returned with breakfast and my tablet. Finally, Elise excused herself at that point and headed downstairs and out the door.

After silently watching me eat, Shayna took the tray and said, “If you need somethin’, holla, okay?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned and left the room, leaving the door open on her way out. I listened to her footsteps on the staircase, then shrugged and turned to my tablet. Somewhere in the back of my mind, it dawned on me that I was going to have to practically scream to get her attention if she intended to stay down there.

Sure enough, an hour or so later the coffee made its way through my system, and I had my first urge of the day. “Shayna?!” I yelled. No answer. Shit! I bet she can’t even hear me! “Shayna!” Nothing. Fuck. This is going to be a long day…

A few minutes passed. Another urge. “Shayna!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. Still no response. Are you kidding? How could she not hear that?! “I have to go to…” I trailed off as I began to leak. Perfect. Now I need a fucking change instead. “Shayna!!!”

It was about nine thirty when I furiously drafted an e-mail and sent it to Elise: “I thought this woman was supposed to be taking care of me! I yelled and yelled for her to take me to the bathroom, until I finally pissed myself, and I’ve been yelling for the last hour trying to get her up here to change me. It’s like I’m not even here!”

Resigned to this entrapment, I did my best to try and distract myself on the internet, periodically yelling for the idiot downstairs, not getting a response. The frustration built as the time ticked by, until around noon, when she showed up at my door, looking largely disinterested, with a tray containing a bowl of tomato soup and a glass of iced tea. “Hope you like…” she started.

“What in the fuck?!” I yelled. “I’ve been sitting here in a wet diaper screaming for the last three hours for you to come up here and you’ve completely fucking ignored me!”

“Hey listen up girlfriend,” she shot back, a scowl crossing her face. “You keep cussin’ at me like that and you can sit in that wet diaper until your momma comes back here to change you herself!”

I started to fire back again, until I realized that she held all the cards in this situation. I couldn’t even get off the bed to get to my supplies if I wanted to change myself, never mind get to the bathroom, and the portable toilet had been put in a closet somewhere days ago, once we realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make any use of it for sudden urges. I scowled at her and said, “Fine. Sorry I ‘cussed’ at you.”

“Yeah, I thought so,” she snapped. She set the tray down, grabbed a diaper out of my drawer, slipped some latex gloves on, and roughly changed me, in stark contrast to the very tender touch to which I’d become accustomed from Elise. I bit my lip as the pain shot through my knee, resisting the impulse to shout at her again. Bitch, you are so fucking fired when this day is over, I thought angrily to myself.

“Now, take your damn pills. I’m ain’t tryin’ to miss Teen Mom.”

Whatever the fuck Teen Mom is, you miserable cunt, I thought. I complied, still wincing in pain from the jolt to my knee, choking down the pain medication along with my anger.

“Now eat. Or don’t. I don’t give a damn,” she huffed as she deposited the tray on my bed and walked out, leaving me to stew. “Goddamn spoilt little rich girl think she gonna boss ME around,” I heard her mutter as she walked down the stairs.

I wanted to throw that bowl at her in the worst way, but instead I put it and the glass gently on the nightstand and pushed the tray to the end of the bed. Bitch. I fucking hate tomato soup. I checked my tablet; still no reply back from Elise. This was going to be a long afternoon. I laid back and closed my eyes and tried my best to go to sleep.

I woke with a start to a series of cramps, only not in my bladder this time, though I could tell I was already wet. Oh my god no fucking WAY! It dawned on me that Shayna was probably still in the den. I could picture her sitting there eating popcorn, TV blaring, talking on her cellphone or something.

“Shayna!!!” I screamed, clenching against the increasing pressure. “Shayna!!!” Panic gripped me as I waited vainly for a response. Each time I yelled, my stomach muscles tightened, making it worse, but I was desperate. I screamed her name over and over as the cramps worsened, but there was no reply, no footfalls, nothing. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen, then twenty. Thirty minutes and I could no longer hold it back, my now-hoarse screaming turning into sobs as I sat there, uncontrollably shitting myself. I found a new level of humiliation in the smell, the burning sensation against my skin, the utter helplessness of my situation.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as I sat there in my filth, my throat so raw it hurt to breathe, never mind try to yell for the oblivious little wench downstairs. I was numb at that point, in a daze as I waited for someone, anyone to come and clean me up. I probably would have even been thrilled to see Marianne appear in that doorway, drawling her little “isms”. She’d probably say something like, “Poor baby girl had a poopy accident, huh? I guess we need Auntie Marianne to change our britches, don’t we?” At least she’d do it… The entire scenario began to unfold in my head like a dream as I sat there, that crazy southern lady cleaning me up and changing me. She pulled me into her lap and tucked a baby bottle into my mouth in spite of my protests, rocking me gently. "Now, now, baby girl, Auntie Marianne will take good care of you, just like she does her little Annabelle. Warm milk filled my mouth, and I couldn’t do anything but swallow it as she chatted right on…

“Oh hell no!” Shayna’s voice cut through the haze. “Didn’t nobody tell me you shit yourself too! Fuck that! They don’t pay me enough for this shit! Your momma just got here, she can change your nasty diaper!”

She started to turn around and I croaked, “God, no, don’t leave me in this…”

“Nah, I ain’t cleaning that shit up,” she said as she walked through the doorway.

“Get the FUCK out of my house,” Elise’s voice rang through clearly from the hallway as Shayna stopped in her tracks just outside the door, “and PRAY I don’t press charges for neglect.”

Shayna stiffened up and turned around. “Neglect? You talkin’ crazy shit now, girlfriend! I did my damned job!”

“I have security cameras, ‘girlfriend’. You sat in front of my TV damned near the entire time you were here, while she screamed for you to come take her to the bathroom. Why the hell do you think I’m here at two o’clock instead of three-thirty?”

“Yeah well fuck that, and fuck you. I’m outta here,” Shayna barked as she pushed past Elise and started downstairs.

“You’ll never work in medical care again, little girl!” Elise shouted as she watched the young woman storm out the door.

“I ain’t TRYING to neither!” Shayna yelled back, slamming the door behind her. She turned to face me, and her face took on a pained look. “Oh my god, you poor thing,” she said as she grabbed the wipes and rushed over to the bed.

“Please, just get me out of this thing,” I whispered.

“I’m all over it, sweetie.” Her soft voice wafted over me, and I started to calm down.

The cleanup process took a long time, mostly because of my splinted leg, but when Elise finally seemed satisfied with the results, she slipped a dry diaper under me, but didn’t tape it up. “This is just in case, sweetie. I’m going to draw you a nice hot bath, okay?”

I nodded quietly. In fact, those words were the most welcome sound to my ears since this entire ordeal started. She returned a few minutes later and quickly undressed me and carried me to the bathroom. As soon as I hit that hot water, a thousand pounds of stress just fell off me, and my mind all but went blank.

27

I was as limp as a rag in that bath water while Elise delicately washed me from head to toe, paying special attention to the areas that were exposed to all that filth. My rear was stinging something fierce, but she was very, very gentle. She spoke, though I was scarcely aware of it.

“Sweetie, I am so sorry. The shop was slammed all morning long. I called Karen to come in early as soon as I got your e-mail. I would have come sooner if I weren’t so swamped.”

“I figured as much.” My voice was still very thin and very hoarse, though my throat didn’t hurt as bad as earlier. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m calling my lawyer as soon as we get you fixed back up, and we’re going to sue that home-care company into the goddamned ground. That was ridiculous, the way she treated you. What the hell kind of company would hire that?!”

“Why do you think Okaasan took Sobo into her house? She saw what the nursing homes did to people. She knew she would be able to better care for her than some stranger.”

“I can’t imagine what some of these people do when that’s their only option.”

I didn’t reply, and she began washing my hair. Elise’s fingers on my scalp felt incredible, and I moaned a bit in response to it. If she heard it, she didn’t acknowledge.

The bath was over faster than I wanted it to be, but Elise, after replacing the splint, swaddled me in a huge, warm towel and carried me into the bedroom. I felt so small, so infantile, but it was a soothing feeling. She started to lay me on the bed, and I whimpered a bit.

“I’m sorry, did I hurt your leg?” she asked.

“No, I just wasn’t ready for you to let go.” I could scarcely believe I was saying such a thing, and this time it wasn’t the little one talking.

She pulled me in tight and whispered, “Then you just let me know when you’re ready, okay sweetie?” She began to rock me very gently, and I nuzzled her chest in response.

I could have stayed there all day, were it not for the nagging thought in the back of my head that an urge would ruin this and probably any other such moment. “I guess we’d better… get dressed,” I whispered. “Wouldn’t want to have an accident on your lap.”

She gave me a squeeze, then slowly laid me out on the bed, smiling. “They’re only clothes, Naomi. They can be washed.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

There was an extended quiet after that moment, save the sounds of shuffling plastic as Elise put a fresh diaper on me, then the rustling as she pulled me to a sitting position and helped me pull a long pink sundress over my head. In retrospect, I probably could have done it myself, but the thought never really crossed my mind, I was so absorbed in the moment. Deep down, I had a feeling she was too.

“It’s such a pretty day, I thought we’d get take-out and go enjoy a sunset out on the beach.”

Talk about shattering the mood. “Um… no?”

“What?” She seemed genuinely surprised by my response.

“Well, let’s see. There’s strangers seeing and commenting on the way I’m dressed, then there’s the inevitable need for a change, then there’s strangers seeing and commenting on my underwear, then there’s anyone you or I happen to KNOW…”

“Okay, okay, I get it. I was thinking in terms of relaxation, you were thinking more pragmatically. Well how about you give me a hand with the cooking and we’ll whip something up and enjoy another evening on the deck?”

The tension subsided on that suggestion. “Yeah, I can do that.” I was actually glad she invited me to help, though I wasn’t sure what good I’d be, considering I had no cooking skills and was largely immobile. Elise shocked me once again when we got downstairs; before long she had me with a knife slicing up ginger and green onions while she deboned a bunch of chicken parts. A few minutes later there was an incredible-smelling stew on the stove, and I felt useful again for the first time in a week.

“What in the world are we cooking?” I finally asked.

“It’s an old Taiwanese street vendor dish called sanbeiji, three cups chicken in English,” she said with a grin. “I picked it up from a roommate in college.”

“You seem to have ‘picked up’ a hell of a lot of cooking skills for someone that didn’t go to culinary school,” I replied.

“Oh hell, I’ve been cooking since I was a tweenie. I loved food, loved cooking shows, and I pretty much learned whatever techniques were necessary to make the recipes I found. It was actually pretty awful for a while; Sobo spread the word around that I was really into cooking, and for a few years I got nothing but cooking-related gifts from virtually all my relatives – recipe books, aprons, mitts, gear – I was drowning in the stuff.”

“So why didn’t you become a chef?” I was intrigued by this point.

“Yeah, that. I was all set to go to culinary school, but then I got my first job as a pantry cook in high school. That sucked. I found out the line cooks, who only made a buck or so more an hour than me, had both graduated from the school I planned to attend. Then my uncle tried to get me into the kitchen at the country club where he golfed all the time. The head chef told me I’d have to spend two years as the dishwasher, doing prep work, before I got a sniff of working on his line, whether I went to school for it or not.”

“Oh wow, that sucks!”

“Yeah, I figured out pretty quick that not only did I hate production cooking, but there just wasn’t any money in it for a good ten years or so unless you opened your own place with your own money.”

“Wow. I just assumed that culinary schools turned out graduates who went immediately into head chef jobs!”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Plus working in restaurants just plain sucks. You come home late, smelling like fry grease, exhausted from rushing around all night, too tired to party with your friends, and aching all over. I’d much rather have fun with it, you know, entertain friends, show off a bit, be creative, cook when I feel like it.”

“I hear ya,” I said. “I guess it isn’t as glamorous as they make it out to be on TV.”

“Oh hell no. There’s a whole lot more to it than BAM!” she shouted as she threw some cloves of garlic into the clay pot on the stove, and we both laughed heartily.

“So what was your vision?” she asked. “What did you go to college for?”

“Graphic design, but it wasn’t really my vision,” I replied.

“No? Why did you do that major, then?”

“Okaasan. She insisted that I should go to school for a career path.”

“What was your vision, then?”

“I wanted to paint, you know, on canvas, but not like Monet with all his flowers and fields and all that. I wanted to be like Antoine Blanchard, and paint the hustle and bustle of the city. I dreamed of sitting on the corner of Haight and Masonic and painting all the crazy night people walking by in front of all the neon and goofy out-of place architecture, or Market Street on Monday morning, with the ants in suits marching among the towers, you know, capture urban life.”

“I can see why that didn’t go over well with Mom,” Elise said thoughtfully.

“Yeah, she insisted I do something more practical, so I gave up the brush and canvas for a mouse and a monitor.”

“So what other dreams did you dream?” she prodded as she gave the chicken a stir and recovered the pot.

“Well,” I chuckled, “when I was little I was interested in theater, but that was mostly from Sobo and I playing with her robes and doing the traditional dances. When I found out that very few people here in the states really do the traditional Japanese theater or appreciate it, I lost interest. Oh, and when I was a ‘tweener’, I got really into girl-punk from the early 90’s, and I wanted to play drums for an all-girl grunge band. That got nixed pretty fast when my mother would only offer the violin as an alternative.”

Elise laughed. “Yeah, I think we all went through that rock-star thing for a while, didn’t we? I grew up listening to Joan Jett and played the guitar for a while, but I guess it just didn’t take. Back then, the guys didn’t want girls in the band except to sing and shake their asses, so…”

“Not like you couldn’t have pulled that off!” I laughed back.

Elise’s jaw dropped in mock indignation, and she slapped my arm playfully. “So what, I was supposed to just be the eye candy on the mic? Yeah, like that would ever happen!”

“Okay, so quid pro quo, then,” I said slyly. “What did you go to college for?”

“I figured that was obvious,” she replied.

“Psych major?”

She nodded. “I thought I wanted to be a counselor. Then I got into junk hunting in my junior year to make extra cash. By the time I graduated, I had gotten so much into antiques and developed such a huge client list that I decided to scrape some money together and open a shop. I started out renting a booth at that antique mall on Bayshore, still primarily just picking and selling cheap enough to where the other dealers would buy from me as much as anyone else. Three years ago, I bought that place I’m in now. I didn’t wind up doing anything professionally with my degree, but I suppose it helped in the career I chose – I am a pretty wicked negotiator.”

“Yeah, no kidding. You actually freaked me out on Tuesday, when your fangs and claws dropped on those hapless goofballs that came in to sell to you.”

“Oh that… yeah, I guess I can be a bit ruthless when it comes to buying, but that’s a survival thing, really. They’ll run you over if you let them. Gotta keep control of the table in order to win the bargaining game. Sure, I need fresh stock as much as they need to sell it to me, but a lot of those folks will come in thinking that something books for a hundred bucks and therefore I should give them ninety. I’d go out of business in a hell of a hurry if I didn’t know how to play the game.”

“So you don’t go out picking anymore?” I asked.

“Well, I do, but I play for much bigger stakes these days. I did my time junk-picking, now I’m usually at auctions and estate sales every chance I get. I’m actually looking to hire another full-timer at the shop so I can get more into buying entire estates and running the auctions myself. That’s where the big money is.”

“Wow,” was all I could manage. I had no idea there was so much to the antiques business. It was dizzying, but I was fascinated, and she was more than happy to keep talking shop. The perfume coming from that little clay pot on the stove got more and more intense as we chatted, and before long my stomach was growling.

“Man, that smells ridiculously good!” I finally spoke up. “When’s it going to be ready?!”

“Actually, the rice is done and…” she said as she picked up the lid on the pot, “this is ready to go!”

The conversation died down as we ate. The dish tasted every bit as glorious as it smelled, the pungent flavors of ginger and garlic and basil mingling together beautifully on my tongue. After dinner, we sat out on the porch again with a bottle of wine, chatting and enjoying the sunset.

“So I guess I’m taking you with me tomorrow and Saturday, sweetie,” she said at one point. “Should I be trying to call another home care agency for next week?”

I shuddered at the thought. “No way. I feel much safer with you, even if I do have to take a back seat to your customers. What I dealt with at the shop was chicken feed compared to that nightmare!”

“Are you sure? I’m pretty well certain we can find a nurse that isn’t a complete bitch like that. Speaking of which, dammit, I forgot to call my lawyer this afternoon. I’ll have to do that tomorrow at the shop as well.”

“No, it’s fine, I’d rather listen to Marianne’s cooing than risk another round of shitting myself. Besides, Doc said I could start walking on Sunday, so I can take care of myself more when you get busy.”

“Okay then, we’ll play it that way and see how it goes. I’ll do my best to keep Marianne off your back when she comes in. Of course, she pretty much comes in every day anymore. I swear, I don’t know how she manages to sell real estate, as much time as she spends at the shop.”

“Yeah, what’s the deal with that?”

"She was actually pregnant when I met her – she became one of my first regular clients. Typical gossipy Southern housewife. She had just moved here from Mississippi after her husband ran off with the babysitter, and she really didn’t know anyone. I ran into her at a yard sale, and we ended up spending that afternoon chatting over coffee. I was a lot more interested in her love for Americana artifacts and the fact that she was flush with cash after cleaning that rotten bastard out in the divorce battle, but I listened to her as she told her sad tale of woe as the scorned trophy wife. She wound up pulling a few strings to get me into the shop straight out of a bank repo on a closed bid before anyone else knew it was going up for sale. I paid about thirty cents on the dollar versus appraisal on that building.

“So yeah, we go pretty far back. Every so often we’ll hang out. After she had Annabelle, she’d have me come over and sit for her oldest daughter, Louisa Mae. She was a little tyke then, about six years old, precocious as all hell. Now, Louisa Mae does the babysitting when Marianne wants to go out. I swear, she’s determined to keep Annabelle a baby for as long as she can get away with it. That child will probably still be in and out of diapers when she’s a teenager.”

“Wow. Sounds like Okaasan’s evil twin. Or maybe the other way around…”

“Yeah, she’s definitely the opposite end of the nurturing spectrum from your mom. Annabelle is an adorable little thing, even if she is a bit emotionally immature for her age. I can’t see that little girl being ready for school next month; she acts more like a young toddler than a five-year-old.”

We chatted on into the night, interrupted once by a bathroom break turned into a change. Though I was still frustrated by my bladder’s lack of cooperation, I had to admit I was becoming rather fond of that little ritual, especially in contrast to the nightmare experience I had earlier in the day.

Later, after Elise tucked me in, I found myself dwelling on that little moment after the bath. There was no avoiding it; that wasn’t the little girl in my head, it was me. I had to own it. I remembered Elise talking about infantilism and repression and all that other psycho-babble, and as I drifted off to sleep, I began to wonder if I was actually becoming that little girl.

28

Morning came abruptly, and with it Elise changing and dressing me yet again, though I was so sleepy I scarcely recall it happening. Breakfast was a blur, as was her pouring me into the truck and driving to the shop once again. Only when we finally arrived did I start to really wake up. I considered myself fortunate; nearly the entire morning went by without a customer. Elise busied herself with some cleaning and re-organizing of her displays, and I passed the time learning how to move myself around in the wheelchair.

It was just a bit before noon when the door chime rang for the first time. Sure enough, it was Marianne, though I was surprised to see a little blonde girl in a frilly pink smock top and pink corduroy pants in tow.

“Mornin’ Elise!” came her sing-song drawl. She spotted me and gave a look of surprise. “Well my goodness, I wasn’t expecting to see you here! What happened?”

“Let’s just say the person I hired didn’t work out,” Elise replied.

Marianne bent down and pinched the little girl’s cheek. “Isn’t that lucky, Annabelle? Now you have someone to play with while Mama spends some time with her friend!”

The little girl looked up at me and smiled, but still held on to her mother’s hand. “Don’t be shy now, sweetie,” Marianne cooed, “Go say hello to Naomi!”

I felt as nervous as she looked as she came over to my chair. “Hi Nawmi,” she said quietly.

“Hi,” I offered.

“What’s that on your leg?” she asked.

“It’s a splint. I have to wear it because I hurt my leg.”

“How did you hurt your leg?”

“I was in a car accident.”

“I have accidents in the car lots of times, but it doesn’t hurt.” She seemed baffled by this concept.

“Um, it wasn’t that kind of accident. Another car hit…” I paused for a second, carefully choosing my words, “Another car hit the one I was in.”

Her eyes grew wide. “Wow! Did your mama get hurt too?”

I had no answer for that one. “Um… I don’t really want to talk about that.”

She seemed satisfied by that answer. “How come your eyes are shaped like that?”

I should have seen that coming. I was about to answer, but Marianne spoke up from across the room, “Annabelle! It’s very rude to ask such a thing! Now what do you say to your new friend?”

“Sorry, Nawmi,” came her sheepish reply.

I actually felt bad for her at that point. “It’s okay. My family comes from Japan, that’s why my eyes look different than yours.”

“What’s Japan?”

Realizing this poor kid probably had no concept of geography, I scanned the store quickly and spotted an old globe. I slowly wheeled myself toward it and said, “Come on, I’ll show you!”

I reached the enclave where it sat and pulled it down off its perch on an ornately carved end table. I spun it around to where she could see the US. I pointed to the western coast and said, “This is where we live, in America.” I turned it again and pointed. “This is Japan, where my grandparents came from. Everyone in this whole area…” I circled Southeast Asia with my finger, “…has eyes shaped something like mine. I’m Oriental.”

I looked up and saw her eyes locked behind me. Apparently my explanation was entirely too long-winded. I turned my chair around and saw what captured her attention; it was a delicate-looking porcelain doll in an ornate kabuki robe with a parasol over her shoulder.

“Pretty,” she gasped. “She has eyes like yours too!”

I looked over at Elise and Marianne, who were both watching intently, Elise with a huge grin on her face. She nodded knowingly. I replaced the globe and pushed myself over to the doll, very carefully taking it off the vanity where it sat, in and among some old perfume bottles and various other fascinating objects.

“My grandmother has clothes like this,” I said. “It’s called a kabuki robe. People dress up in them and sing and dance.”

“I wish I had a koopie… kookie…”

“Kah-boo-kee,” I said very slowly, smiling as she struggled with the word.

“Kah-boo-kee?” she offered.

“Very good!” I praised.

“I’ve never met my nana. She lives far away from here. She sends me presents on my birfday and Christmas, though, and she calls and tells me she loves me sometimes.”

“Well that’s good.” I thought of Sobo, and the last time I saw her, lying in what used to be my bed, one side of her face drooping. She had such a sad expression on her face, like just being awake was painful for her. Okaasan herded me out of the room rapidly after that, insisting that Sobo needed her rest.

I gently put the doll back on the vanity with a sigh. Annabelle, without hesitation, pointed somewhere else. “Whassat?” she squeaked.

“Um… I don’t know…” I had no idea what exactly she was pointing at, never mind the fact that I knew nothing about antiques.

She giggled a bit and scampered down the row a bit, then pointed again. “Whassat?”

Ah, so we’re playing this game! “Idunno!” I said back in the silliest voice I could muster.

Laughing, she kept moving, and I struggled to keep up with her. “Dat?!”

“Dunno!”

Back and forth we went all throughout the shop, shrieking and giggling as we went. Pretty soon it became more of a pure chase, her running and me wheeling behind her in a circle around the building. As my arms began to wear out, I fell back. All of a sudden, I felt my chair being pushed, and her giggles were behind me instead of out front, and we began to pick up speed.

“WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!” I shrieked as her little feet stomped the floor. I heard a huge thump. I turned my head; Annabelle had tripped but she was still laughing as I coasted along. Then I heard, “Uh-oh!” It sounded like Mama. I turned my head back just in time to see Mama jumping in front of my chair and stopping me right before I crashed into a huge dresser.

“Okay, ladies,” she said with a grin. “This is not the place to be racing.”

“Sorry Mama,” I said. “We were just playin’!”

She stopped and raised her eyebrow when I said that. “It’s alright sweetie, just be careful,” she said.

Annabelle’s mama didn’t seem so happy when she got there. “Oh Annabelle!” she said. “Again?!”

I turned around and saw what had happened “again”; Annabelle had a big wet spot on the front of her pants. She started whimpering as her mama picked her up and carried her out the door. “We’ll be right back,” she called as the door chime rang.

“Why was Annabelle crying, Mama?” I asked.

“Well,” she sighed, “her mother makes a big deal out of it when she has an accident, so it makes her feel bad.”

“I’m glad you don’t make a big deal when I have accidents.”

“Of course not, sweetie. It’s not your fault! Getting all upset wouldn’t make it any better, would it?”

I shook my head. The door chime rang again, and there was Annabelle in her mama’s arms, sniffling, and without any pants on. “I don’t want to hear it, Annabelle. When you decide to take care of going potty, Mama won’t have to take care of it for you!” Marianne said. Annabelle just whimpered in response and hid her face in her mama’s shoulder.

“Hush, now, go play with your friend for a little while longer before we go,” Marianne said as she put the girl down on the floor and gave her a gentle swat on the bottom. Annabelle staggered a little bit, rustling as she went. She slowly waddled toward me with her head down, a diaper clearly visible below her shirt.

Seeing her diaper reminded me of my own, and I realized I was wet. “Mama?” I asked.

She and Marianne both looked over. “Oh, do you need to go?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said, looking down. I was a little scared that Marianne would get mad at me too.

“Okay, let’s get that taken care of, then!” Annabelle looked at me with big eyes as Mama came over and picked me up and carried me back to the bathroom.

“Now Annabelle, don’t you get to thinkin’ it’s okay to be peein’ your pants all the time just 'cause she does it!” I heard Marianne say as Mama closed the bathroom door.

Mama and I talked while she changed me. “Mama, is Marianne mad at me now too?”

“If she is, sweetie, she has no right to be, because she knows it’s not your fault.”

“Why does she get so mad at Annabelle?” I asked.

“Honestly, I think Marianne is conflicted, because part of her says she needs to help Annabelle grow up, but part of her wants to keep her a baby, too. As much as she gets frustrated when Annabelle has accidents, deep inside she loves that special mommy time, cleaning her up and diapering her.”

“Do you think Annabelle likes it too?”

“Yes, I do. I think Annabelle is happy to get whatever attention she can get, what with Marianne working a lot and Annabelle being in daycare, so even while Marianne is fussing at her and making her feel bad for having accidents, she’s still getting one-on-one time with her mama.”

“Do you think Annabelle would have less accidents if Marianne didn’t make such a big deal about it?”

“No, but I think she would stop entirely if Marianne stopped putting her in diapers every time she did.”

I thought about it for a minute, then said, “I think Marianne should just let Annabelle wear diapers all the time for a while and be nice to her, and let her figure out when she’s ready to stop.”

“That probably wouldn’t hurt, though it might take her a while to decide she’s ready. Okay, up we come!” Mama pulled my skirt back down and picked me up off the floor.

“Thank you Mama,” I said quietly as she carried me back out.

“You’re welcome, little one.”

She settled me back into my chair, where Annabelle was still standing there, looking shocked. There were some other people in the store now, and Mama went over and started talking to them.

“Your mama doesn’t get mad when you have an accident?” she asked quietly.

“No, because she knows it’s not my fault,” I answered. “It happened from when I was in the hospital.”

“Mama thinks I do it on purpose, but it’s not true. I just forget that I have to go sometimes.”

It looked like Annabelle was getting sad again, so I decided to talk about something different. “Hey, look at this!” I said, grabbing my tablet. I started up the candy game, and her eyes got big as she watched me play. I played it a few times and let her try some too.

A little while later, Marianne called out, “Alright, Annabelle, it’s time to go pick up your sister from school.”

Annabelle sighed and looked up as Marianne walked over. “Hey, don’t be sad, I’m sure you two will get to play again soon. Maybe when Naomi’s leg feels better, she can come over for a play date!” She looked up at Mama.

“Uh… we…” Mama looked at me, confused. I smiled big and nodded my head. “I guess we’ll see when she’s back up and walking again.”

Marianne and Annabelle left the shop, and soon after that the couple that came in left too, with some packages. Now that it was quiet again, Mama came over and said, “I think I need to talk with Naomi about that first, don’t you?”

“I think it’d be good. Big girl just kinda let me pop out when we started playing, and it’s all okay…”

Karen came in a few minutes later, and we said our goodbyes and left. As we drove away, I looked up at Mama and asked, “Can we go to the toy store now?”

She looked back at me, surprised. “Oh… I completely forgot about that…”

“But you promised we were gonna get some bath toys and stuff!”

She straightened up and smiled. “Okay, then, we’ll go have lunch, then off to the toy store!”

“YAY!” I shouted. “Ooh… I think we’re both excited right now!”

Looking back, Elise really had no idea just how blissful I had been up to that moment, or how positively giddy I felt, how in tune I was with that little girl inside me.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

Great Story. Can’t wait for more. ;D 8) :stuck_out_tongue: :smiley:

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

More is coming. I’m in the midst of another extremely difficult (read: I’ve started, restarted, and re-restarted a dozen times or more so far) chapter right now, and I’m hoping it doesn’t take the several weeks between breakthroughs that it has been in the past, but it is what it is. I’ll be damned if I’ll push out a sub-par chapter just to post something…

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

We all understand you can’t rush good writing. Best of luck figuring out your next chapter and thank you for writing this story. It’s fast becoming one of my favorites.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

Sure am glad I stumbled across this site. That is a wonderful story. Looking forward to reading more of it.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

I don’t want to appear rude but any chance of an update? :frowning:

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

Not rude at all. I’m not sure when I’ll have another update. This one chapter is kicking my ass pretty bad, to the point where I’m seriously considering just putting a placeholder in the manuscript and writing on ahead of it with the idea that I’ll come back to it when I’m sufficiently inspired.

In the meantime, I am also working on “The Pariah”, which may or may not be a useful distraction for you as well… :slight_smile:

Re: The Panda’s Ashes

For those who’ve been waiting, I apologize. But the break I took to write “The Pariah” was a needed break, and I’m coming back focused and with a clear direction.

Here we go!


29

I was tired but happy on the ride home from the toy store. Mama got me some bath crayons and bubble wands for the bath and even let me pick out my very own stuffie! I chose a little panda bear that was just the right size to carry under my arm. I cuddled her on my lap as we drove, and by the time we got back to the house, my thumb had found its way back into my mouth and I was getting very sleepy.

“Oh, goodness,” Mama said when she looked in the back seat. “I knew I forgot something!” She gently tapped my hand, and I wrapped it around Emiko and grinned. Mama carried me into the house, and I rested my head on her shoulder and yawned.

“Someone had a busy day, didn’t she?” she asked as she took me up the stairs.

“Uh huh,” I replied.

“Well why don’t you take a little nap while I figure out what to make for dinner, okay?” she said as she laid me down on the bed and changed my diaper.

I didn’t really want to take a nap, but my eyes wouldn’t stay open anymore. “Okay, Mama. Thank you for Emiko and all the toys and things.”

“You’re quite welcome, honey,” she replied as she covered me with a blanket. “Sweet dreams.”

I woke to a start with my thumb in my mouth again. I pulled it out and examined it; wrinkled as a prune. “Again, really?” I muttered. I stretched out in the bed and wiggled my hips a bit. Felt dry down there. I picked up the little stuffed panda and looked it over. “Okay, she’s cute. I could probably get used to her.”

The door opened and Elise’s face popped in. “Oh hey there cutie! You’re awake!”

I raised an eyebrow, then remembered why she was probably talking like that. “Yes, Elise, I’m awake.”

“Oh, sorry. I wasn’t… I mean…” she stammered.

“It’s fine. Not like I grow muscles and turn pink or something…” I grinned.

She laughed. “The adorable hulk? Sure, why not?”

As seriously as I could manage, I replied, “Please don’t make me cute. You wouldn’t like me when I’m cute!” then burst into giggles.

Elise checked my diaper, then hoisted me up onto her hip and carried me down the stairs. “So what did you feel like doing this evening?” she asked as we reached the kitchen.

“No idea. I know I’m hungry now,” I replied. My stomach had rumbled more than once on the trip. “I thought we had lunch today! What happened?”

“You hardly ate, you were so excited about the toy store. Wait, I thought you said you were aware of everything when the little one came out…” She sat me down in a chair with my leg propped up on the one adjacent, and I watched her flour out the counter and dump a large ball of dough out of a plastic bowl onto the flour.

“I am,” I explained, “but… I guess since I started just relaxing when I felt it happen, I kinda don’t really pay close attention anymore. It’s kinda like… well, like I trust that you’re not going to let anything happen to her, so I just kinda let go and enjoy the feelings.”

“Certainly better than being all wound up all the time, I guess.” She returned to the dough and began to press and stretch it.

“What are you making?” I wondered aloud.

“I’m still having nightmares of that wretched thing we ate the other night, so I decided to make us a proper pizza. I put this dough together while you were napping,” She laid the dough out onto a flat stone, she retrieved some ingredients from the cabinets and the refrigerator, then turned the oven on. She drizzled it with olive oil, shaved on some paper-thin slices of Parmesan, then added chunks of buffalo mozzarella, slices of tomato, shreds of prosciutto, and kalamata olives. Finally, she rolled up a few leaves of fresh basil, chopped them into tiny ribbons, and spread them out on top. The aroma of the fresh basil hit my nose immediately, and my mouth watered. The oven dinged out its preparedness for this beautiful concoction, and she slipped the cookie sheet under the heat. “Now, my dear, we can have something a bit closer to REAL pizza.” she said with a wink as she cleaned up the counter-top.

Fifteen minutes later, out it came, cheeses melted and just slightly browned, crust bubbly, and smelling like Little Italy on a hot summer day. She slid the pie off the stone and onto a cutting board and carved it up, then just stood there, grinning as I watched hungrily. I finally couldn’t stand it. “Are you going to bring it over or just stare at it?” I begged.

“Well, unless you’d like to melt the skin off the roof of your mouth, I suggest you wait a few minutes, smart aleck!” she scolded playfully. She gathered a bottle of white wine from the fridge and a couple of stems from the china hutch and poured us each one. I sipped my wine slowly, practically drooling from the scent that wafted over from the counter. After what seemed like ages, she doled out slices and we dove into the pizza. It tasted every bit as glorious as it looked and smelled, the intense flavors marrying into a rich, spicy, salty slice of heaven.

“Hell of an improvement over that chain-store junk, don’t you think?” she asked as I ripped into my second piece.

“Are you kidding? This is frickin’ amazing!” I gushed. My pace did eventually slow, to where I was just nibbling on my fourth slice and sipping wine when Elise decided to speak.

“So I’m curious,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “You picked out a panda bear at the toy store, earlier you were particularly fascinated with that piece of pottery with the pandas all over it, and I noticed the panda bear on your car keychain. Did you used to collect them at some point? What’s the fascination?”

I blushed a little as I considered it. “Collect? No. It’s just a fond memory of when I was very young.”

“And that would be…” she pressed.

“It’s a bedtime story my grandmother used to tell, about how the pandas went from being pure white to all mottled black like they are now. It’s kind of a dark story, really. As I remember it, this shepherd girl got herself killed trying to protect a panda cub, the cub’s father avenged her death, but all the pandas attended her funeral with their heads covered in ashes, which was like the custom back then. They were crying and wiping their eyes with their paws and hugging each other, and the ashes got all over them, and the stains on their fur stayed with them or something. It was kinda twisted, because the girl’s sisters all jumped into her grave because they were all depressed, and then the earth shook and four mountains grew right up out of the ground. It’s a little cluster of mountains in eastern China called the “four sisters mountains” or something, and they say that the mountains shielded the pandas from civilization for centuries, protecting them as the girl had done in life.”

“Wow, and you didn’t have nightmares or something?!” Elise marveled.

“Go figure, right? What a way to get your granddaughter to sleep! I dunno, though, the way she told it, it was much more romantic, and I think her ending was a little happier.”

“Okay, so now I have a few more questions,” she said, “but first what say we take this conversation out on the deck? I just can’t get enough of this stretch of clear weather we’ve been having this month.”

“Sure, that’s cool.” It was becoming something of a ritual, one that I rather enjoyed. She relocated me to a lawn chair on the deck and, after retrieving our wine, she sat down and began where she left off.

“So I thought your family was Japanese. Why would your grandmother be telling you Chinese legends?”

“Well,” I began. “Sobo’s family was only a couple generations in Okinawa. Her great-grandparents were from Manchuria, and fled the mainland during the Boxer Rebellion.”

“Well that brings things into focus, for sure.” Elise agreed. “How did she end up married to your grandfather? Don’t the Japanese and Chinese hate each other or something?”

“Well, he moved to Okinawa on a work assignment, and they just kinda met and fell in love. Let’s just say that was one of the big reasons they got out of there after the war. Sofu’s family was NOT happy about it at all. Personally, I think knowing she was a half-breed probably didn’t do much for my mother’s general demeanor either.”

“Wow, so you even got the forbidden love thing thrown in there. Any sordid tales of bloody revenge in the family tree to go with it?”

“Oh yeah, totally,” I snarked, “My 10th-great grandmother killed the entire Japanese army once during a really bad bout of PMS.” I rolled my eyes and chuckled.

“Well okay then, note to self, stay far away from Naomi during her period!” Elise laughed.

The conversation petered out a bit as we watched the sun set slowly behind the trees, and my thoughts wandered back to the little girl inside. Elise had said something about it being some kind of compartmentalization of my feelings, and it made sense, really. Regardless of her age, she knew what I knew, and she liked what I liked, except for…

“Wow.” I said out of the blue.

“Wow what?” Elise asked.

“I just realized something. About that little girl personality.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s hard to explain… Like, she’s all the parts of me that I’m not allowed to be, you know?”

“Not really. What do you mean?”

“Well, like, she picked out that stuffed panda, you know? I haven’t had a teddy bear since I was like seven or eight. It just wasn’t right, it was a baby thing.”

“What do you mean? I had stuffed animals as a teenager. Hell, I don’t think I knew a girl in high school who didn’t have stuffed animals in her bedroom. I think I still have a couple in my closet somewhere.” Elise said.

“Sure, but you were a normal-sized kid. I had enough trouble being taken seriously because of my size. A normal teenage girl occasionally cuddling a teddy bear is cute, but normal. If I had one, it’d make me look even more like a damned toddler.”

“But isn’t she like six years old anyway?”

“Well yeah, but even then, she does things that I wouldn’t allow myself to do when I was that age either. Thumb-sucking? I haven’t sucked my thumb since I was a toddler! Hell, my mother broke me of that before she got me toilet trained!”

“So she’s like an immature version of you.” Elise said.

“No, see, that’s not how it feels. It’s more like… like she’s me without the filters, without the social pressure, you know? Like, haven’t you ever really wanted to just do something weird, but didn’t because you were afraid you’d be treated like a social pariah?”

“You mean like jump into the middle of a great big puddle after a rainstorm, just to make a splash?”

“Yeah, like that!”

“Okay, I think I get it,” Elise said thoughtfully. “She’s not necessarily babyish in nature, she just does whatever is comfortable, without worrying about how it looks.” She paused for a moment. “So how does that all make you feel?”

“Ever the psychologist, aren’t we?” I chuckled. “Okay, so it actually felt pretty good today, the trip to the toy store. I was totally in tune with her there. But then at the same time, there’s no way I’d ever have the nerve to just go crazy like that.”

“Well I guess that puts you in a special category!” she laughed. “Some people try to live vicariously through their kids. You get to live vicariously through yourself!”

“Yeah, I guess I kinda do, don’t I?” I thought for a second, then laughed.

“What?” she grinned.

I mustered my best Spanish accent and growled, “Stay thirsty, my friends!” We both fell out laughing at that one.

We chatted long into the evening again, but that thought was present in the back of my mind the whole time. Live vicariously through yourself. I began to wonder if I could summon the courage to just skip the vicarious part entirely. Late that night, as she changed me into my night clothes, it occurred to me that I’d probably never have another chance like this one to try it.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes (Finally, Chapter 29 up 3/11!)

Simply wonderful WB Daddy you have done it again. Please continue to share your remarkable gift of the written language with us here.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes (Finally, Chapter 29 up 3/11!)

blushes

Thank you. You are too kind.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes (Finally, Chapter 29 up 3/11!)

30

Morning came a little quicker than I wanted it to, what with the fuzz from last night’s wine still clouding my head. I was wet when I woke up, but I did manage to get to the toilet in time after breakfast, which was a minor victory. We had a bit of a spat over Elise’s choice of clothing for me, which was an excessively cheery yellow sleeveless empire-waist dress emblazoned with violets. I was just about to pitch a fit until she showed me why; the hem hung well below my knees, meaning there was absolutely no chance of anyone at the shop seeing what I was wearing underneath. That settled, we had a quick breakfast and headed off to the shop.

Elise informed me on the way that this was going to be a short day, being that she opened at nine and only stayed open until three on Saturdays, and Karen had volunteered to take a half shift, meaning we would be done by noon. Elise bemoaned the overtime she was going to wind up paying her long-time helper, but considering the week we’d both had, she was grateful for the time off. We batted around some ideas for the afternoon, but those discussions were quickly shelved when she opened the doors. There was a steady flow of customers starting almost immediately, and I was astounded as I watched Elise work. Every item someone touched seemed to have a story to tell, and she told them all effortlessly. Even more surprising was her willingness to come down off the marked prices. I’d never been in a store where the price tag was subject to negotiation!

The time flew by until around eleven, when there was a brief lull. I couldn’t help but ask, “I don’t get it; why put a tag on something if you’re not going to sell it for that price?”

Elise smiled as she counted out the handful of large bills in the drawer and tucked them into a lockbox under the counter. “First rule of dealing in antiques, Naomi; Good is gone. The tags? That’s book value, and everyone in this business knows that book value is only what an insurance company will pay you if your place burns down.”

“So you basically set your prices expecting to negotiate?” I asked.

“Yep. I know what I paid for everything in this shop. As long as I’m making a decent profit on something, I’m happy. The longer it’s been here, the bigger the discount I’m willing to give.”

I recalled our discussion on Tuesday, and it begged another question. “I don’t get it; how do you afford to pay more than everyone else and still sell cheaper?”

“Greed, Naomi. Antique stores go out of business all the time because the owner is greedy. They want to give you five bucks for something that books for two hundred, and then they want two hundred for it from the person looking to buy it, so they can go back and brag to their friends about what a score they got. Eventually no one wants to sell to them, and no one wants to buy from them, so they’re stuck with inventory that doesn’t change. Other than the occasional tourist, they get no sales, and they eventually run out of operating capital.” She grinned widely. “Oh, and then someone like me comes along and buys their entire inventory for pennies on the dollar when they can’t pay their inventory taxes anymore.”

I wasn’t sure what was more mind-boggling; the fact that she was able to keep track of all that stuff in her head, or how intimately she knew what seemed to be such a complex business at such a young age. Either way, my thought pattern was disrupted by a very familiar voice walking through the door.

“Oh my god, Elise! You really are my fairy godmother, I swear!” Marianne gushed as she stepped toward the counter. “Sweetheart, you just have to come over today and see how perfect that bed looks in my master!”

“Well, I don’t know that I have time today, Marianne,” Elise started to protest. “I mean, I have Naomi, and…” I grimaced at her drawing attention to me.

“Oh, nonsense. Bring her with you! Annabelle has been begging me non-stop to invite Naomi to come over and play! Louisa Mae won’t mind keeping an eye on Naomi too, as quiet as she is.”

“So why didn’t you bring her along, if she wanted to see Naomi again?” Elise asked.

“I told her she could either stay at the house with Louisa Mae and practice wearing big-girl panties, or she could wear diapers and come with me. I wasn’t about to have another big crying scene out in public because she didn’t go potty like she’s supposed to!”

Elise sighed. “Far be it for me to tell you how to raise your kid, Marianne, but…”

“Oh, I don’t even want to hear about damaging her little psyche and all that other nonsense,” Marianne interrupted. “Let me tell you, when I was four years old, my oldest sister, Audrey, used to keep herself a whole wardrobe hidden in her room so she could change when she went to school, stuff like denim miniskirts and tube tops and all kinds of things Mama would never approve of, certainly not for a twelve-year-old girl! Well wouldn’t you know, one day Audrey gets herself in trouble for scrapping with another girl and gets herself suspended for three days, and Mama shows up to school before Audrey gets a chance to change.”

“Oh, no, don’t tell me she…” Elise gasped.

“Oh yes. So here’s Audrey sitting next to Mama in the front seat of our old Buick with a wicked scowl on her face, and me in the back, and Mama’s talkin’ about what proper little girls should be wearing. Audrey starts back-talking about Mama bein’ old-fashioned and making her dress like she was my age, and Mama just about lost it. She pulled that car right into the K-Mart parking lot and just about dragged us both in there. She made a beeline for the baby section and grabbed a great big box of extra large diapers and told Audrey that if she wanted new-fangled modern clothes, then she could start with some new-fangled underwear suited for how she was acting, and that we’d just see if she still wanted to wear those slutty little clothes that showed everything but her pee-hole. And sure enough, Audrey spent the rest of the week hangin’ 'round the house in her little slut outfits with her great big Pampers sticking out the bottom and the waist. And I’ll tell you what, not one of the four of us ever challenged Mama on what kind of clothes we wore ever again!”

“While I hardly think that was appropriate, it’s certainly a different matter altogether than what you’re doing with Annabelle,” Elise countered.

“All I’m saying is, Audrey turned out just fine, and Annabelle will be just fine too. Eventually she’ll figure out she doesn’t want to wear diapers anymore, and she’ll start payin’ attention to when she has to go potty. She should be glad I don’t have time to do all the extra laundry, or I’d make her wear the great big cloth diapers Mama used to put on us when we were little! That’s half the problem with these modern diapers, they’re made to keep the kid nice and comfy even when they’re wet, so the kid doesn’t care!”

Jesus Christ, I thought, am I glad I ran into Elise at the bar and not this nutcase!

“Anyway,” she continued, “I got a couple more errands to run. Y’all comin’ over this afternoon?”

Elise looked at me, and I shrugged. “Let me figure out our itinerary and call you, okay?” she offered weakly.

“Alright, but little Annabelle’s gonna be awful sad if she doesn’t get to see her new friend today! Bye cutie!” Marianne cooed as she started toward the door.

After Marianne left, Elise looked down at me. “Makes a little more sense now, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, crazy runs in the family, apparently!” I agreed.

“I’m guessing you don’t want any part of a ‘play date’, then?”

I thought for a moment. “I dunno. I feel bad for that poor kid. I’m betting there aren’t a whole lot of parents at that daycare who’d let their kids near that looney tune. I mean, as long her big sister isn’t a nutjob too…”

“Actually, I think you’d like Louisa Mae. She’s pretty a pretty normal, well-adjusted kid, considering her mom…” she replied.

“Alright, I’ll go along with it. But if I need a change, I don’t care what you tell them, no one else touches me down there!” There was no damned way I was letting that happen.

“Fair enough. Karen should be here any minute now, and we do have to stop at the bank to deposit this morning’s take.”

She called Marianne, and we ended up staying at the shop a little longer than expected to help out with a sudden rush. Elise wrote some numbers down and tucked them into the drawer, and we were off. We grabbed lunch at a drive-through, made the deposit at the bank, and then headed back up to Sausalito. It wasn’t until we turned into the cobblestone driveway that it began to dawn on me what I’d gotten myself into…

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Re: The Panda’s Ashes (Chapter 30 up 3/13)

I seriously can’t get enough of this story, I absolutely love the way you captured what it’s like to deal with DID (and yes, that’s coming from me who deals with it and two other alters herself). I say this with no uncertainty, this is easily my favorite story of all time (and I don’t just mean ABDL story, I mean -any- story) and if it ever becomes a novel that I can physically buy, I totally would without hesitation.

Re: The Panda’s Ashes (Chapter 30 up 3/13)

“Twenty-two years old about to be diapered like a toddler.”

“I’m 26 years old and wearing diapers”

Also, sorry to point out the continuity error but yeah, she’s 22 in one scene and 26 a few chapters later.