This is a new version of the story I submitted for the Winter Stories Contest. It’s twice as long and very different, though it begins the same way.
The weatherman on Channel 7 had forecast snow for this evening— “4-6 inches falling from 7PM until about 2AM” in that absurdly cheery voice, as if everyone watching was just dying to get out there and do even more shoveling—but that wasn’t going to stop Stephanie from getting where she needed to go. Not tonight. Tonight was just too important to her. Oh, there had been other occasions she had blown off due to snow, to be sure; just last week, for example, she had decided not to go to Ali’s party when the storm hit just during rush hour. And last winter she had been practically a shut-in; aside from work, she didn’t venture into the winter weather at all. Thank goodness someone invented grocery deliveries. But tonight was the office Christmas party, and just about everyone believed that Justin was going to propose to Stacy, and she wasn’t going to be the one who missed it. Not after all of the office drama and gossip over the last six months. No way.
“Looks like Mommy’s going to be very cold tonight,” she said as she rubbed her little calico, Willow, behind the ears. The cat purred her appreciation. “No, I don’t want to leave you, but that’s how it goes.”
It was, actually, a huge concession for Stephanie Alder to be heading out into the snowfall and temperatures in the teens. Stephanie Alder hated winter with a passion so hot she was always amazed it wasn’t enough to warm her up all by itself. Once, when she was a child, she had contentedly built snow forts and skied and skated, but those days were so far behind her she could hardly remember them at all. Now her skis had been given to charity and her skates hadn’t been sharpened in years, and she didn’t even build snowmen in the park with her little niece and nephew when her sister visited. Chicago’s winter chill had defeated her, made her less adventurous.
Stephanie wasn’t one of those wishy-washy Chicagoans who complain about the weather in every season, either. She detested those people. It wasn’t reasonable, she thought, to live here and constantly complain about the weather. It’s OK to hate one season, but not all of them. She had long ago decided she was a warm weather girl: give her sunny and 80° and she was a happy camper, and if it happened to climb into the 90s, well, there was always air conditioning. But the winter? It was brutal and nasty and unforgiving. She dreamed of moving somewhere like southern California where it was warm all year long. Her friends always said she would miss the changing of the seasons, but she thought: if I want to see colored leaves, I know where the airports are.
Truth be told, though, it wasn’t just the bitter cold itself that Stephanie hated. She hated how her diapers always chilled so quickly and felt so awful. Stephanie had been bladder incontinent since birth and used diapers all the time to control the leakage. On a warm day, all she needed to do was switch to a cloth-backed brand to feel comfortable. In the cold, nothing worked. She’d be warm for a few minutes right after going, but the cold air would take over and soon she’d be walking or sitting in something that felt as if it had been in a refrigerator. And God help her if a diaper leaked in the winter. It had happened more than once, leaving her with a stream of iced urine running down her leg under her pants or, oh God!, leggings. She’d experienced that enough for one lifetime.
It had been a problem all of her life, but until she’d moved away from her mother’s Highland Park home into her own Evanston apartment, she didn’t really appreciate just how much her mother had helped her out with it. Of course she’d been changing her own diapers for a long time now, since middle school anyway, but the emotional weight of having to wear them sometimes got to her, and never more so than in the freezing chill of Chicago winter. On cold days as a child, she could count on her mother’s having made hot chocolate to warm her up and having a clean diaper ready. On cold days, even through sixth grade, she let her mother change her; it made her feel somehow warmer and definitely more loved.
Once she got to middle school, though, by some unspoken agreement between them the diaperings stopped. It was as if both of them suddenly decided she was just too old for that kind of intimacy. Then cold days grew just a little colder to Stephanie; something warm in her life had vanished. The truth was, however, that there was one thing that warmed Stephanie Alder about cold weather, and that was Christmas time. She believed in Santa Claus long after the other kids her age had stopped believing; the magic of the season meant the world to her. But it wouldn’t last. Her ultimate disappointment came in seventh grade. She wrote a letter to Santa asking for only one single gift: freedom from diapers. When it didn’t happen—when she got more clothes and electronics, etc. instead—she finally understood: her friends were right. Santa didn’t really exist after all. She still loved the holiday, but she had to admit some of the magic was gone. And the diapers continued to be part of her daily existence.
For tonight she had chosen a particularly thick diaper with teddy bears and other stuffed animals on it; her favorite was a little snow leopard blowing bubbles. She’d found them online back in college and bought them ever since because they were adorable and because they made her smile. Something about this needs to. She knew she’d be drinking at least a bit at the party and hoped she could get by without a change; in fact, as she had often done, she wasn’t even bringing a spare with her so she could go without a purse. No way was she bringing one tonight, not after the last big party she attended when she’d put it down somewhere and couldn’t find it to save her life at the end of the evening. It had taken over an hour and the help of half the party guests to locate it; she wasn’t going through that again. Besides, not having one forced her not to stay too late and helped make life easier as the party wore on: even if someone wanted to make it with a girl in diapers, he wasn’t going to when she was soaking wet, so she was safe from predators. For an emergency, she kept a Depends Silhouette in her coat pocket; it was the only thing she had that was small enough to fit. It would never last her very long, but it would do in a pinch.
Since it was a Christmas party, she had decided to get dolled up in red and green. On a whim, she had purchased a pair of Christmas-themed tights with snowflakes sparkling down her legs. Above them, she put on the outfit she had been given when she was only fifteen and now wore just for fun at least once during every Christmas season: a deep green velvet skirt with a velvet top that was red trimmed with gold. If she put a Christmas barrette in her hair, as she did tonight—a shiny one with green, red and gold foil strips layered and slightly fanned out—she thought she looked very cute. In point of fact, as petite as she was, Stephanie Alder dressed for this party was utterly adorable. It was another self-defense mechanism, like the single diaper: she wanted to have fun at this party, but not worry about any negative consequences. This outfit, which had made her look younger when she was a junior in high school, still had the same effect. Then, it was undesirable—what high school girl wants to look like a middle schooler?—but now, since she looked mostly the same as she did back then, it served a new purpose: fending off unwanted advances. It was odd. People knew she was an adult, but when she looked a bit younger, they left her alone. Something within Stephanie’s mind understood that simple algorithm; thus the choice of these clothes tonight.
Her girlfriends at work thought it was a cute outfit, though. They’d seen it at a little get-together last year, when she’d worn it (as usual) on a whim, and Gemma had even asked her earlier in the week whether she would be wearing it to the office party.
“Of course,” she’d told her. “If I want to enjoy myself without the guys all over me, it’s the best thing I’ve ever found.”
The tall brunette had smiled. “I know what you mean. Sometimes I wish I had a choice like that myself. Anything to make myself still look cute but less desirable, you know? I’m a bit jealous of you. I’d love to ask Santa to let me look younger when I wanted to.”
“I get that,” Stephanie had told her. “But it’s not always so great when you’re already small. It’s a real pain when they don’t believe me that I’m over 21 at restaurants—I’m almost thirty, for crying out loud—good thing I like Coke so much. Anyway I do hate the meat market thing, so I never even try going to bars.”
Gemma shook her head. “But how much of any of it do you really like, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know, the drinking, the showing off for the guys, all of it. You don’t like the meat market. You’ve told me how much you hate the feeling of being sick when you’re too drunk. So i’m just wondering: wouldn’t you just rather have a quieter time, talking maybe, hanging out without the social pressures?”
“That went out in seventh grade.”
Gemma rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” Stephanie said, “Until Santa decides to really make me young again, parties like this are all I have, and I feel I need the extra protection. Hence this outfit.”
“Don’t you already have, like, extra protection?”
Gemma was a good friend. She was the first person Stephanie had met when she started at Hemming & Klatch, and they’d hit it off immediately. It almost made the accounting job palatable. Almost. Every single day, though, Stephanie found herself wishing at some point she’d majored in something else. In school she’d liked math, loved working with numbers, manipulating them, seeing the secrets they could conceal. Geometry mesmerized her—all of those shapes governed by predictable fundamental laws! She almost lost her way during a trig class taught by a very poor teacher (if she closed her eyes she could still hear him droning on about sines and secants), but her love was renewed by the joys of calculus, where Mr. McGregor had taught her theoretical math and she’d been in seventh heaven, spinning two-dimensional shapes around on an axis to see what kind of volume they would occupy if they were three-dimensional: God it was fun back when she was first learning that stuff.
Who knew that a career in a math-related field would mean a job as dull as dirt? She’d had a nice business teacher in high school, which is why she’d chosen accounting in the first place, but good God she wanted to kill herself every time she walked into the office. And it didn’t help any that the entry level positions were mostly data-crunching. Maybe someday things would change, but she couldn’t see how. Sometimes, she wondered what her life would be like if she had made a different decision, chosen a different direction. At least she had her friends though. Along with Mandy and Jess, she and Gemma always went to lunch together and almost always managed to have a blast. And the three of them were the only people in her life right now to whom she had ever confided about her incontinence. It was either that or try to explain why she never went to the ladies’ room with them. And besides, she felt she could use a bathroom buddy to watch out for others. So she’d told them one evening over drinks at Louie’s and all three of them told her it was no big deal: friends don’t care about silly things like that.
But they do care about the outfits you wear to the annual Christmas party, she thought, examining herself in the mirror after yet again transforming herself into the image of someone much younger.
“You like it too, don’t you?” she asked Willow, who was once again sidling up to her as she stood and rubbing against her thigh. “Does that velvet feel good to you?”
How many times now had she worn this outfit? She had no clue, but she knew one thing: this was going to be the first time she’d worn it to Hemming and Klatch. Last year, her first at the firm, she’d missed the party due to illness. Not tonight. She smiled at her image in the mirror. No way I’d even get into a bar tonight. Good thing the booze was going to be at the party and she didn’t need to pay.
Stephanie grabbed the outfit’s final touch, the shiny black flats with the bows at the toes that she’d found at DSW last year that were perfect, put them into a grocery bag, and slipped her feet into a pair of black boots for the journey. The shoes completed the outfit in an innocent, simple way instead of adding a touch of sexuality as heels would have. Then she put on her winter coat, grabbed her keys, her phone, a twenty dollar bill, and her Metra card and shoved them into a pocket, petted the cat once more, and headed out the door. She was bringing only what she absolutely needed. Easy peasy.
The weather was every bit as uncomfortable to her as she’d thought it would be, but at least she didn’t need to be out in it for long. The train stop was just down the street both from her apartment and from the office at the other end; if it hadn’t been such a lousy evening she might have braved lighter outer clothing. But the faux fur was her choice for tonight; she wanted to be as warm as she possibly could.
A homeless woman stood, shivering, near the train station, a hand extended toward her. She’d seen this woman before; she was often here: she stood hunched over as if from years, but she wasn’t that old. Her tangled, unkempt brown hair hung everywhere all over her face, sticking out from the filthy blue knit cap atop her head. She’d found a winter coat somewhere—Stephanie was sure she didn’t have it last time she was here—but it fit so poorly that she couldn’t zip it up. At least her thick boots looked as if they’d keep her feet warm. They were an odd green color, but they looked nicely lined.
“Something to help me eat, Sweetheart?” she said as Stephanie approached. It was clear from the intonation that she didn’t expect anything.
Stephanie didn’t answer at first, but she didn’t move on either. She’d found herself entranced by the woman’s eyes, reflected in the light from the train station. One of them was green and the other was very nearly amber, a color she’d never seen on a person before. Willow’s eyes were that color.
“Well?” the woman asked.
Stephanie realized she’d probably been staring. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s just—it’s a terrible night to have to be outside. Isn’t there a shelter or something?”
The woman smiled. Several of her teeth were brown. “Going there,” she said. “I need to eat first.”
Her friends, Stephanie knew, never gave money to the homeless people.
“They just waste it,” Jess had said. “Better to buy them food, or donate to shelters.” It was an easy stance to justify except when the weather was this shitty and this broken woman was standing in front of you.
She reached into pocket before she remembered what was in there. After a moment’s hesitation, though, she pulled out the twenty. When the woman saw what it was, her eyes grew wide.
“Promise me that you’ll get yourself some food and head for the shelter so you can get out of this weather,” she said as she held it out.
Taking the money, the woman looked at Stephanie. “You’re an angel, Sweetheart. An absolute angel. God bless you.”
As Stephanie entered the station, she turned a backward glance toward the woman. She was still standing where she had been, staring at the departing girl as if she were some kind of miracle.