Tricked into becoming a six-month-old baby girl, Jack Barnes tries to adjust to his new life as Becca, along with his family. His first major hurdle -- surviving his first day as an infant in more than forty years.
Part 2 Daddy does Daycare, or "Sometimes you get the bear ..."
Carolyn drove well. As I sat there, strapped in my car seat facing backward, I watched her in the infant mirror attached to the corner of the rear window. It was there apparently so she could check on me (well, the baby I had become) while driving, but it worked pretty well in the other direction. too. I had always admired how well she watched the road. How carefully she approached stoplights and stop signs. How diligently she signaled her every turn and lane change. She was truly magnificent behind the wheel. Then again, it was no surprise that I was impressed. After all, I was the one who helped her learn.
Her parents had thrown up their hands and abandoned the project as hopeless. They kept trying to push her to do it their way, and I knew that would never work with her. After two years of dating, I had learned something her parents didn't seem to grasp. Carolyn was as stubborn as she was beautiful. Pushing didn't help. She had to want to do it your way, or it wouldn't happen.
Even though her parents refused to help, she still wanted to get her license. So I offered to teach her myself. Maybe "teach" isn't the right word. I just opened the driver's side door, handed her the keys, and gave her the opportunity to learn. She knew the rules of the road. The rest was just practice. I'd sat in the passenger seat and watched her get confident, answered questions when she asked, and gave her a smile when she looked over quickly to see how she was doing. Everybody drives in their own way. She just had to find hers.
Less than a month later, she walked into the DMV and walked out with her license and a big smile. I don't think her parents ever completely forgave me for showing them up. But Carolyn's smile was payment enough.
I sat in my car seat and watched her for a while, turning my head now and then to look out the window at what I could see of the passing scenery. Demoted to passenger for at least another fifteen years, I thought with a mental sigh. And I really did like driving. It was all about control - about making the right choices to get where you wanted to go. But as that ... demon thing pointed out, babies don't get to make choices. They ... we don't have control.
I'm pretty sure that, at that moment, I wasn't entirely sane -- and with good reason. In one short hour, my life as I knew it had been ripped away, twisted into something that still looked very much like my life but wasn't. I had been confronted with a bitter truth. Reality was not immutable, bound by space and time and circumstance. Instead, everything you knew ... everything you WERE ... could be gone in a heartbeat, stolen at a whim by creatures whose motives were cold, and as clear as a winter's night. We were cattle, to be played with, fed on, and discarded.
Everything was so big, and more than a little scary. I was tiny and weak, totally dependent for the first time in more than forty years. I couldn't be more than six months old, and probably younger. I didn't remember how old Emma or Jeremy was when they got their first teeth, but certainly younger than a year old. I was pretty sure I had none. My tongue moved around my mouth in a futile hunt before I stilled it with an angry thought.
I felt both very far away and fiercely connected to the here-and-now. The last time I had felt this way was a few years before, right after a major fender-bender. All during the time following the collision, the world appeared strangely sharp, in pinpoint focus, while sounds seemed to rise from the background noise of the highway traffic like bubbles rising in a bottle of molasses. I didn't seem to track well then, and an echo of that same feeling held me in its grip while I sat in that car seat, watching my reality reset.
Part of me was calm, rational, focused. I watched the world pass by the window, wearing my pretty dress with my hair held back with little butterfly barrettes, and I kept thinking, "Oh, there's the bookstore. New Sue Grafton novel coming out soon, better pick it up." Or "Home Depot. Got to remember to change the oil in the mower." Then it would hit me, and I'd remember. These hands couldn't change oil. They couldn't change anything. I couldn't even change myself anymore.
My stomach roiled, and I felt my body shudder. I suppressed my body's need to get rid of my "breakfast," and sighed. I still had control over that much, thank God. For all the good it would do me. Eventually, I'd have to give in to the diaper, at least until I was old enough to use a potty chair. I wasn't happy about it, but facing my new reality had to start somewhere. Apparently, today was the day I would have to get used to a lot of things. And my family was going to pay the price as well.
They had an obligation to me, because they loved me, to see this thing through. To treat me as Rebecca Jane Barnes, daughter, baby sister. But it wasn't going to be easy for them. They just lost someone dear to them, even though I was still here. No more playing baseball in the yard with Jeremy, not for a long time. No more shuttling Emma to soccer or to the mall to meet with friends. No more Sunday mornings in bed, just Carolyn and I, making love and sharing breakfast over the Sunday paper. We'd still share breakfast ... sort of. But instead of a partner, I'd become another dependent. Someone else to take care of. Another mouth to feed, literally.
Through my own stupidity, I had just given the people I love the most in the world a big kick in the head, and they were shrugging it off as best they could, because they knew I had been kicked harder and lost more. They'd lost me, but I'd lost ... myself. I felt my tears start and didn't try to stop them. They were from a mix of sorrow and pride, and I didn't think that demon thing could stomach the combination. Frankly, I hoped she'd try. I hoped she choked. Bitch.
Jeremy reached over and took my hand. I looked at him, and he saw the tears. He squeezed just a little, and gave a small smile.
"It's hard, Dad," he said, then caught himself. "I mean, Becca."
I smiled softly, but there was little pleasure in it. "Yoo ment Dahd, spuht. S'okay." I looked down. "Luks liyk no bays bawl fur a whyul, Jehmmy. I emm soh sahwwy."
He looked down, too, and I caught a hint of a tear in his eye. The he spoke, in a low voice. "I liked playing ball with you, Dad. But the ball wasn't what I liked about it. It was being with you. If you ... you had disappeared forever, it would have hurt so much. The not knowing." He squeezed my hand harder, and I gave a little yelp. He looked up and let go of my hand. "Sorry. Did I hurt you?"
I nodded. "Ah wittle. Noh wurries." I wiggled my fingers at him. "See? Awl bettah."
He relaxed a little. "I'm glad you chose to stay, even if it means I've got another sister. Because you're still my Dad inside, and I still love you." The tears came faster. "Always, Dad."
I put my tiny hand on his. "I knoh, Jehmmy. Ah'll twy too bee a gud sis'er, an' ah Dahd too if I cun puhll i' off leyk dis."
We pulled up in front of Jeremy's school. The buses were still coming in, so he wasn't late yet.
"Come on, Jeremy," Carolyn said, popping the locks from the driver's seat. "Still need to get Emma to her school and Becca to daycare."
"Kay, Mom," Jeremy said, wiping the tears off his own cheeks with the back of his hand. He grabbed his back pack off the floor and opened his door. Then he paused for a minute, turned, and gave me a kiss on the forehead. "Bye, Becca. Love you." Then he slipped out without looking back.
"Luv yoo too, Jehmmy," I said to the closed door. Carolyn pulled away, and I saw him straighten his shoulders and keep walking, backpack on his shoulder.
It felt lonely in the back seat. I watched the back of Emma's head in the mirror, and Carolyn's hands on the wheel.
"Cawolyn?" I piped up in my little voice. No reply. "Cawolyn?" I said, louder. I saw her hands twitch on the wheel, and her head turned just a little. She heard me. Why wouldn't she --?
Suddenly I realized, and heaved a sigh. "Mawmy?" I asked softly.
Her shoulders relaxed. "Yes, sweetie?"
"Waht time iz it?"
"Seven twenty, Becca," she said with a glance at the clock. I shook my head and looked at my little white dress shoes, and my lacy socks.
"Ur yoo layt?"
"Not yet, honey," she replied. "But the time spent dropping off the kids will make me late, a little. You should have been at daycare by now, on a normal day."
I laughed out loud, a little bark that sounded almost like a squeal. She looked back at me, and I shrugged. "A norrml day? Nut shaw wut dat iz aneemur."
She just smiled and looked back at the road. "I guess we'll find out, princess."
When we reached Emma's school, she was almost late. Still, when she got out, she opened my door and gave me a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Bye, sis," she said with a little smile. "Love you. Good luck today, k?"
I nodded and touched her cheek with my hand. "Luv yoo, Emmah. Danks." She shut the door and hurried into the school with a wave. Carolyn pulled out of the parking lot and started driving.
"Doo yoo knoh weer yoo gohin?" I asked, splaying my fingers on the safety bar that held me in the seat.
"Yes, I think I do," she said softly. "If we had managed to have another child, we would have taken her to Harmony House for daycare, just like we did Emma and Jeremy. It ... feels right, somehow, Becca."
"'kay, Mawmy," I said, looking out the window again. "Seeeemz liyk nuttin feelz wite too day."
"And it won't, hon." Her voice had become a little sharp, then she was quiet for a moment and her tone softened. "Not for a long time, and especially not for you."
We both went silent for a few minutes, until Carolyn pulled the car up to the curb in front of Harmony House. She shut off the engine and turned around to face me.
"This is where it gets harder, hon," she said. "You need to be a baby for everyone here, all day long. Can you do that?"
I looked back at her seriously. "Haff too, Mawmy. Can' be anyting elz."
Carolyn nodded. "That's my girl. OK, then. First things first. That's a pretty dress, but it's not for everyday. We need to get you into something else."
She opened her door and grabbed what I knew to be a diaper bag from the floor of the passenger side. Then she slid out and got in the back seat with me.
"I know you think you sound like a baby, but the truth is you seem to be around six months old, and even one-year-olds don't speak as well as you do now," she said, unbuckling my seat. She reached down, took the clips out of my hair, and pulled the dress over my head. I shivered in just my baby tee. Out of the diaper bag, she took a pale yellow one-piece cotton play dress, with short sleeves, a round collar, and a little ruffle of a skirt. On its chest were the words, "Mommy's Princess" in flowing lavender script, with little purple butterflies flittering around the words. She pulled it down over my head and helped me put my arms through the sleeves.
"It's important that you not try to make sentences, Becca," Carolyn continued smartly as she picked me up and laid me down on the seat. "Words here and there are all right, but you need to do baby babble most of the time." She pulled off the rhumba panties, exposing my disposable diaper, and replaced them with an unruffled pair that matched the yellow of the dress.
"Ah'm nut suhr Ah cahn doo baybee babul, Cah -" she shot a look at me, and I stopped. "Mawmy."
"Don't forget that, either, Becca," she said sharply, untying my little white shoes and replacing them with baby sneakers. "Calling me 'Mommy' is just barely your speed at this age, or should be. Slip up in front of others and they'll wonder where 'Cawolyn' came from. As for babbling, let me think on it for a moment. It seems difficult for you to form words now. Is it?"
I nodded. She sighed. "Try something for me, princess. Say something, anything you like, but don't even try to make it intelligible. Let your mouth go, and raise and lower your pitch once in a while."
I thought for a second, got very quiet, then spoke in a singsong voice. "Maaah gah gibbeee otts oiiizzzes." She smiled down at me, and I gave her a small smile back.
"See? Told you you could do it. Your mouth doesn't really have the control for speaking at this point, so it should be easy to babble. What did you try to say?" she asked, scooping me up in her arms with the diaper bag on her shoulder.
"My gurl gibs mee 'otz ob 'isses," I replied, blushing. Carolyn smiled, lifted me up to her face, and kissed me over and over again as she walked up to the door until I was giggling uncontrollably.
Being carried into Harmony House sobered me up quickly, and the giggles trailed off before Carolyn and I were two steps past the threshold. The low murmur of caregivers and children interacting mixed with a CD of children's favorites was my first impression, since Carolyn was carrying me in such a way that I faced the door. She held me up in front of her halfway to the check-in desk and looked deep into my eyes.
"Be strong, baby," she whispered, and kissed the tip of my nose. "This is where your new life really starts." I nodded, and she turned me around so I could see my future.
The whole layout was wide open, with only low walls separating each different area. It hadn't changed a bit from when Jeremy went here as a toddler. Straight ahead was the check-in counter, with its sign-in book and bulletin board of notices. To the right of the check-in, the counter dipped down, so a parent could deposit a little one still strapped into his or her infant seat. The small gate next to that was closed with a simple bolt on the side facing the door, so no child could even attempt to open it.
Past the gate was a long aisle that connected several areas, each with a specific function. The first area on the left was administration, right behind the check-in counter. Tucked in past the check-in counter was a small kitchen area for food prep, and a little bathroom with the door open. Inside I could see a small sink at child height, and a tiny toilet. Further down the central aisle, still on the left, was the entrance to the eating and several small play areas with a door to the outside playground. The left side ended with a row of diaper-changing stations and a wall of cubbies that held changing supplies. I could see one labeled "Becca" in flowing script on a yellow card, surrounded with stickers of daisies and happy cartoon honeybees. I shuddered again, still keeping hold of my breakfast.
On the right side of the aisle were only two areas, both for sleeping. One area held several rows of cribs, one with my new name on it near the front. The other area had nap mats for the older children, with heavy curtains on the windows that could be drawn to make it dark.
"Hi, Ms. Barnes," said the girl behind the desk. Girl, I chided myself silently. She was at least fifteen years older than me. Her nametag said "Gina."
"Hi, Gina," my wife replied, lifting me up and over the check-in counter. Gina took me easily and tickled my nose with hers.
"Hey, Becca becca," she said in a singsong voice. 'How's my favorite little girl today?" I caught Carolyn's eye over Gina's shoulder, and she looked back and nodded. "Babble," she mouthed. I gave Gina a big smile and said, "Giga berri pweddigubble donuutin'?"
Gina smiled. "Awwwww, I just love the way she talks," she said, and hugged me to her. I looked at Carolyn again and rolled my eyes. She smiled. "Get used to it, Becca," she said aloud. "You're too cute not to hug."
"That's the truth," Gina said, and hugged me again. I nodded at Carolyn and hugged Gina back.
Carolyn took three bottles out of the diaper bag and placed them on the counter. They were transparent, topped with nipples protected by transparent caps. From the yellowish color of the liquid inside, I realized they were filled with breast milk. I sighed inside.
"How is Becca on supplies?" Carolyn asked in a matter-of-fact tone. I thought I heard a little quivering in her voice.
"Just fine, Ma'am," Gina said, bouncing me in her arms. "A little low on wipes, but we can borrow from a neighbor if we have to, until you bring in some more."
"I'll try and bring some in tonight when I pick her up." Carolyn came over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Be a good girl for Gina, baby. I love you."
I nodded and mouthed "wuv yoo" back at her, then she turned and left quickly. Gina walked me over to the window by the cribs and pulled the curtain back. I watched as Carolyn got into the car.
'Wave bye-bye, Becca," Gina said happily. "Wave bye-bye!" She took my hand and moved it up and down. She was too busy playing with me to notice Carolyn slump behind the wheel, and I could clearly see her shoulders shaking. She was crying. Oh, God, she was crying, and it was all my fault. She had been strong all morning, trying to keep everyone's spirits up in the face of the disaster I made. But once she was alone, she couldn't hold it in.
When I realized what I'd done, I started crying, too, silently. Gina saw my eyes filling and my lip quivering.
"Oh, sweetie, don't cry, Mommy will be back," she said, holding me tight, patting me on the back. And I thought, "yeah, Mommy will, but my wife is gone. My life is gone." And I started crying in earnest, my whole body shaking in Gina's arms. I tried not to be loud, because I didn't want to wake the babies in the cribs, the ones who had come in sleeping. But I still cried and sniffled and mourned for the life I had lost.
Gina took me over to a rocking chair and sat down with me in her lap. She started rocking, and singing a soft song - nothing I recognized, but sweet and lilting. She was just hoping her voice would make me feel better, and it did, a little. But what stopped my tears turned out to be a vestige of pure male stubbornness. I suddenly remembered who did this to me. And I realized that every time I cried, I was actually giving that bitch exactly what she wanted. I was feeding the one who left me like this.
Well, I wouldn't give her the meal she craved, I thought savagely. She wouldn't get the satisfaction of drinking my tears again. I would get past this. WE would all get past this. I would hold it together, no matter what happened to me.
SHE wouldn't win. I wouldn't LET her win.
After I had calmed myself down, Gina picked me up and carried me over to the play area. Other parents were bringing in their babies and toddlers, and several other women were checking them in as they arrived. She took me through a small gate (that also bolted on the outside) into the infant area and sat me down in front of a bunch of stuffed animals and a small stack of building blocks. Then she ran her fingers through my hair, gave me a little smile, and went across to check on a toddler on the other side of the room.
I looked around, then down at my tiny hands, framed by the yellow ruffled skirt behind them. I could just see the little Velcro-sealed sneakers on my feet with their lace-trimmed white socks. I sighed, this time out loud. After all, no one was paying attention to little Becca, not in the bustle of getting the kids checked in so parents could get off to work. I looked up at the clock on the wall. Only ten minutes since Carolyn had gone? I felt like this day was going to go on forever.
I spent a while just thinking, mulling over this morning's trip to the supermarket and everything that had gone wrong. Just how many cautionary tales had I read or heard in my lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands? And yet there I stood, haggling with a supernatural creature instead of running as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I should have ignored her, I thought. I could have just walked away. I had plenty of time for Monday morning quarterbacking now, and with little else to do, I kept beating myself up over and over for thinking I could outsmart a creature who might have been thousands of years old, with extensive experience in tricking humans for its own gain.
I shook my head. Stop being negative, I scolded myself inside. This is who you are, now. You may not look like it now, but you're old enough to take responsibility for your own stupidity. My family needed me and still had me, this way. I had to play the part, because at this point, the part was all I had. I didn't want to be this way, but I was, and would be until I grew out of it. In an odd way, it was like I was before. Once again, I was stuck in the wrong body. And once again, all I could do was hunker down and get used to it.
After spending almost forty years wanting my body and my mind to be as one, I had eventually managed to put together a philosophy that helped me get along day to day: "Play the hand you're dealt. You may not like the cards, but they're all you've got, so make the most of them."
Yes, it was simplistic, but worked pretty well in getting me past the dark times when I thought my need to be a woman would eat me alive. It went hand in hand with a bit of wisdom delivered by Robert Heinlein's Lazarus Long: "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you. If you don't bet, you can't win."
Yes, I've read Heinlein. And as I thought of it that morning, I vowed I would read him again - as soon as I could pull the hardcover editions off the shelves at home without anyone thinking I planned to teethe on them.
So, this game was rigged, but that didn't matter. I still had to keep betting. For Carolyn and the children, I had to stay in the game. That meant I needed to learn how to be a baby girl. I had to at least try to blend in, be inconspicuous. I couldn't just sit here. Or could I? I looked around. No one seemed to care what I did. I guess everyone was happy when a baby was quiet. Theoretically, I could sit here and stare into space as long as I cared to. Something else would happen eventually. That's how the universe worked. Maybe the key to babyhood is learning how to do nothing and do it well.
But even as an adult, I'd never been very successful at doing nothing. Vacationing at the beach bored me silly. An empty afternoon with no plans or chores drove me crazy. Oh, God, what a nightmare. An overachiever like me in a body that couldn't do anything.
Maybe I'm going about this the wrong way, I thought. I'm not totally helpless. Maybe I just needed to find things I could work on - actions I could take to make me feel better about being stuck this way. I started thinking furiously. I need to learn to talk more clearly, I thought. That's true enough. Unfortunately, I couldn't practice there - it would call too much attention to me, and Carolyn said no.
I looked around and saw a boy standing near a corner, steadying himself against the low wall around the play area with one hand and struggling to keep his balance. I smiled. There it is, I thought. I'd work on walking! Walking would make me feel less helpless, less dependent. And judging from my friend against the wall, it wasn't out of the ordinary for a baby to get the urge to strut their stuff.
Then I tried to get to my feet.
The key word there was "tried." Getting my body to listen to me was a major undertaking. I could just about handle keeping my body in a sitting position, as long as I didn't move. When I leaned forward to try and get my legs under me, I wound up with my forehead touching the play mat. Pulling back from that to an upright position was pretty much impossible. I had to roll to one side and wound up on my tummy.
So much for walking.
I lay there, tears in my eyes, and fumed. DAMN it! This stupid body isn't ready yet. I'm not ready yet. I felt the tears leaving tracks down my cheeks, and pushed the sadness away. No food for the bitch thing, I thought savagely. Not on my watch. If she's still around, that is. Can she still prey on me, I wondered, even when our business is concluded?
I looked around for something, anything, to do. To help me keep my mind off all of this. Hell, they had a lot of things to play with here. Maybe I could actually ...well ... play!
I looked over at the toys in front of me. Some blocks, and a few stuffed animals. Hmmm. Beyond that there were other things to play with - some big plastic cars, a doll house. I could hear the same music from when Carolyn and I arrived start playing again. The CD seemed to be on some kind of endless repeat. Terrific. If this kept up, I knew I was going to get mighty sick of "The Wheels on the Bus" around lunchtime.
I looked back at the toys again. That big teddy bear looked inviting, kind of soft and cuddly. Good for a couple of minutes, sure. But I bet the long-term entertainment value would be small. A few hugs, and I'd have to move on. Blocks? Maybe. I could build something. I used to do a pretty good job on birdhouses, and I built Jeremy a terrific bed to fit in an awkward place in his old room. Different order of magnitude, though. And anything I built here would be transitory at best.
Suddenly I realized what I was doing, and I laughed out loud. It came out a giggle, which was kind of embarrassing because up until that point, I didn't think I could giggle. But I supposed it was standard issue for the little girl I had become, so I was stuck with it.
I laughed because I realized I was still thinking like a grown-up. I was sitting in a daycare center in a play dress and a diaper, worrying about wasting time -- when all I had was time, and nothing else to do with it but waste it. I had no job, no money, and no way to experience any kind of adult forms of entertainment. I wasn't going skiing any time soon. No pick-up basketball games in the park. No William Gibson, David Weber, or Neal Stephenson novels in the immediate future - unless they were printed on thick cardboard pages with rounded edges. And I wouldn't be taking a day off work to go see Joss Whedon's Serenity movie on opening day. Hell, I thought, I'd be lucky to convince Carolyn to buy me a copy on DVD when it came out.
I had just come to the realization that I had time to kill, and lots of it. Years, maybe. So what if the big teddy bear's charms were limited? I was pretty sure he was soft, and cuddly, and I KNEW I was bored and needed a hug. So what if I couldn't walk? Maybe I could crawl. And why not crawl over and hug him? What was I losing in the attempt? Dignity? Self-respect? I had neither. I was a baby girl now. I had absolutely nothing to prove.
Maybe it was time for me to let go of Jack a little, and embrace my inner Becca -- for now, anyway. At the very least it was something to do.
Focusing all my energy, I pushed myself up on all fours with my legs half-tucked under me. A good start. I sort of rested for a second, getting my bearings. It had been a long time since the last time I had crawled, and I needed to think about how to go about it, at least in this body. I twisted my head and looked behind me. My little ruffled skirt had raised up, exposing the plain yellow panty that hid my diaper. I smiled, just a little. Modesty was not really an issue for a baby girl. Hell with it. Let 'em look.
I moved one hand forward, placed it on the soft floor, and stopped. Opposite knee, I figured. I pulled it forward, out from under me, and placed the knee firmly. I moved the other hand, then the other knee, and just kept going forward. Left, right, hand, knee. Head back, mouth open, eyes wide on the prize. Teddy bear at twelve o'clock. I felt my butt wiggling back and forth, heard the diaper crinkling, but the bear kept getting closer ... closer ...
Then my head bumped it, knocking it onto its back, and I crawled on top of it and collapsed on its tummy. I laughed again, this time with pride, and wrapped my arms around it tight and squeezed.
It was just as soft as I had expected. Cuddly, too. I couldn't stop smiling as I wallowed in the feel of it, the touch of its fur against my skin, and the fact that I had charted a course, mustered the will, and captured it. "Sometimes you get the bear ..." the old saying went. Well, I got him, I thought proudly.
Unfortunately, my joy at the accomplishment lasted for all of five seconds, before the bear spoke in a deep voice that rumbled up from inside its chest.
"You forgot the rest, Jack," it said, and I could hear the smile in its tone without actually seeing one on its face. "Sometimes, the bear gets you." His furry arms closed around me, and his whole body rippled with silent laughter. "Good work, by the way. Glad to see you're keeping busy."