Humans today, as a general rule, are an intelligent, complicated, wonderfully messy and diverse species with a sociological defect of thinking things should be simple. This can lead to them pushing themselves and the world around them into unhealthy extremes: Fire or Flood. Weal or Woe. Starvation or Gluttony. Chaste or Slutty. Is or Isn’t. Column A or Column B. The list goes on.
This also results in massive amounts of low key unhappiness. People who live otherwise pleasant lives often feel unfulfilled and unhappy and they have trouble articulating why. While not simple, the reason for this discontent can be put down to a feeling of something being “off” or “missing the mark”.
Things are never simple in real life, but to put it simply, the discontent in so many people’s experience comes from a place of expectation not lining up with experience. It’s the feeling of wanting barbecue sauce on your burger but only having ketchup or mustard. It’s the sensation of wanting to paint in vibrant colors but your palette seems limited to black and white. There’s nothing wrong with said condiments or colors, but when your palette isn’t completely satisfied, there’s a feeling of fullness but not satiety.
In other words, sometimes life feels like settling. A bit of settling every now and then is just good old fashioned compromise. But when you feel like your entire life is settling, it’s not really settling; just losing. And when you keep getting spares and the person to your right rolls a strike, it’s easy to get down in the dumps; even if the person to your left is getting gutter balls.
Speaking of settling, Sydney found herself on the boardwalk just after lunch that weekend. No particular reason that she could explain; she just didn’t have anything better to do and she preferred to be alone outside amongst strangers than alone at home.
There was nothing inherently bad about the boardwalk, but if “settling” was the sensation of not quite getting what you wanted without getting completely punched in the face, the boardwalk was “settling” incarnate. Where else could one get the experience of going to a traveling carnival that never left but still wasn’t as good as real theme parks? Where but the boardwalk could you go shopping and people watching but with non-brand name stores? Where else could you feel like you were doing something patently nostalgic and interacting with history while being so obviously stuck in the bleakest parts of the present? The boardwalk gave all of that and threw in the smell of low tide and seagull crap for free!
The boardwalk was great as long as you were under five or a tourist. Sydney was neither, but being out with the crisp and ever blowing ocean wind gave her an excuse to dress comfortably in clothes that would otherwise be called “dumpy” by folks like her parents. That reminded her; she’d probably have to put on that stupid dress when visiting her family, the one she only wore when visiting.
She could already hear her father’s voice. “Is that the only dress you own or something?”
It was, but she’d respond with “It’s my favorite”. ‘Only’ and ‘favorite’ meant the same thing. Then there’d be some comment- probably from her mother- about people mistaking her for a boy and how she didn’t want that, did she? And then the subject would get changed and Uncle Pete would ask somebody to pass the mashed potatoes.
Sydney didn’t want to be a boy, that was true, but she wasn’t exactly hung up about being ‘girly’ either. It was one of the things she really liked about her name. While there were many more girls these days with the name, there were many men throughout history with the name, too. In her mind at least, it prevented people from making too many snap judgements. It wasn’t quite a girl’s name, and it wasn’t quite a boy’s name, just a name. Sydney would then get to fill in the details and values herself.
The cotton candy vendor gave Sydney her change and pink sugar on a stick. “You go little lady.” Beneath her grey hoodie and jeans Sydney rolled her eyes and walked away, taking a bite and letting the cotton candy dissolve on her tongue. She found an empty bench right across from the (falsely advertised) Penny Arcade.
She suspected it had just had a makeover when she first went as a kid. All of the video games and pinball machines had been cutting edge at the time; the best entertainment technology the year 1992 had to offer. Besides the Dance Dance Revolution game and swapping out one generic racing title for another, not much had changed. Somehow, the place had stayed in business- Sydney suspected it was a front for something- and things were picking up due to nostalgia. Everything old was new again.
She nommed down on the cloud on a cone, listening to the sounds of skee balls rolling and Homer Simpson fighting nameless goons mingling with the waves crashing and seagulls squawking behind her. About halfway through, something conked her in the head.
“Ow!” Her candy went to the ground and she rubbed at her temple. It didn’t hurt, really, it was more of the unexpected jolt of it all. Rattling a few feet away from her, the bright orange frisby that had ricocheted off jiggled on the planks before finally settling.
A kid, about eight, trotted up sheepishly. “Sorry, Mister!” they said. “I wasn’t trying to hit you. I was trying to pass it but the wind took it away and…and…and…”
“Yeah,” Sydney huffed. “That’s fine. Accidents happen.”
The kid gasped when he heard Sydney’s voice. “Oh! You’re a girl! I’m sorry ma’am! I didn’t mean to call you wrong or anything. It’s just with the baggy clothes and your hoodie pulled up I didn’t…” It was an honest mistake, Sydney knew. No one would have called her ‘Mister’ if her hair and hoodie had been let down, or if her jeans hadn’t been so baggie.
Being seen as conventionally feminine came second to comfort with the biting winds coming off the ocean. More vexingly, Sydney felt herself annoyed, not because she’d been misgendered, but because she’d been gendered at all. Why did anything that wasn’t froo-froo and girly or show off her cleavage and curves automatically become masculine? Why did she have to be ‘sir’, or ‘ma’am’ when she just wanted to be Sydney?
“I don’t care,” Sydney sighed. “I really don’t. Just go.” She added, “And if you’re gonna throw things, do it on the beach. Less chance you’ll hit somebody.”
“Yes sir! Ma’am! Uh…bye!”
Sydney bent over and picked up her ruined junk food. “Just as well,” she supposed. If she ate too much her one dress might not fit, and then what would she do? She looked at the retreating form of the kid, their boney legs stretching and carrying them farther into the distance, their encounter already forgotten. She couldn’t quite articulate why- like so many things in life, something just wasn’t quite hitting the mark- but for some reason Sydney felt a twinge of jealousy at the child. Oh to be that carefree and awkward and just have to worry about being yourself.
The garbage can next to the bench was overfull to the point that any bit of trash thrown in might cause an avalanche, so Sydney forced herself to cross over and toss her ruined cotton candy into the garbage next to the Arcade. With a sigh she lobbed it in. That was good money wasted and plenty of time left to spend. ‘Now what?”
“Fortunes told! Wishes granted!” Sydney heard the recording coming from the outside of the Arcade’s corner. “Step right up and know your future! Have your wildest dreams come true! Madam Xanatos knows allllll! Only one dollaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”
Parked outside the arcade, next to the change dispenser, a big metal box with a glass case was positioned, calling out like an old timey carnival barker. The cabinet had been painted to look like old wood, and a mannequin’s form slouched over like a puppet with its strings cut. “Bend the cosmos to your will. Get your fortune told and your fate sealed!”
Sydney stepped closer, arching her eyebrow. “This is new.” Actually, it wasn’t. The hokey machine was anything but new, but Sydney had never seen it here before; another not quite accurate statement that her brain had tricked itself into making.
It was in good enough condition; but fortune telling machines were out of style back when Mario was 8-bit and more of a scam than claw machines. There was still the slightest chance that Sydney might get the coveted stuffed animal out of a claw machine. The fortune teller dummy hovered over the crystal ball was equally problematic these days; a nasty caricature of a Roma lady with a scarf on her head and too much makeup to “hide” a hooked nose while poised over a crystal ball. It was a small and terrible wonder that these depictions hadn’t gone out of style with minstrel shows.
On closer inspection, the fortune teller dummy wasn’t that bad. She’d been made up with long silvery hair and a purple cowl instead of puffy sleeves and beads. A rather petite nose, too. It might have been a store display model before some engineer retrofitted it. It was still hokey and dimestore fake, but ‘generic magic woman’ was a better look than ‘gypsy’.
“Make all your dreams come truuuuuue!” Wherever this thing had come from, the speakers sounded a few hours away from total breakdown. Sydney had heard less garbled speech coming from the drive-thru window. “Fulfill your deepest desires and fantazzzzzzz!”
Who knows exactly what was going through Sydney’s head? Time, boredom and a general malaise can make people do pointless silly things; like throwing pennies into a fountain. The boardwalk didn’t have a fountain, however, and she still had a dollar left over from buying the candy. Digging into her pocket, she shrugged to herself. “Might as well.”
She flattened out the remaining dollar and fed it into the machine. Haunting faux organ music played as the dummy lurched to life. The dummy held its hands over the crystal ball, now lighting up with all the power of five watts could manage.
“Choose,” A lady’s voice, faded with time and neglect played on the speaker. “Fortune? Or wish?” Two buttons lit up on the cabinet’s panel. Sydney chose the one she figured would be the least waste of her time. “What do you wish for?”
Above the fortune teller a countdown clock started ticking down from ten. What was she supposed to do?
Say it out loud? Press another button?
What should she wish for? She wasn’t getting it either way, but if she wished too big she’d ruin the fantasy of it, but if she wished too small what would the point be?
The clock was really adding to the anxiety. What if she was vague? Too vague? Too specific?
Her voice was a whisper, so that even passerby couldn’t hear her over the muzak coming out of the machine. From her lips came something oddly revealing and perhaps profound. “I wish I could just be myself.” It was stupid too, but it was the perfect wish; one that she might someday be able to control. Better than wishing for gold bullion or world peace. That might happen someday, even if it wasn’t through magical intervention. The placebo effect was better than nothing.
There was a pause and the music stopped. Then… “Granted!” The doll powered down. The ball stopped glowing, and a tiny card flitted out the side.
Not unlike that old Tom Hanks Movie, Sydney expected to flip it over and read something about how her wish had been granted.That would have made her even more annoyed; a dollar for a cheap piece of thin cardboard.
“Huh,” she mused reading it over. “One free ride at Comey Island.” Comey Island (not to be confused with the much more famous amusement park) was the local carnival ride section of the boardwalk. Merry Go Rounds. Ferris Wheels. A roller coaster that only went in a circle. Real kids’ stuff; at least half of the rides catered to kids too young to worry about bathroom breaks, but a free ride was still something of a prize.
She gave a passing look to the fortune telling machine. “So it’s a coupon dispenser,” she said out loud. Odds are it was randomized, too. Some cards might be duds, others might be good for a free soda at one of the stands; the boardwalk equivalent of the McDonald’s Monopoly game. “Neat.”
Coupon in hand, Sydney wasted little time in stolling over to the kids’ section. “Might as well not make it a total waste,” she said to herself. “It’s not like I’ve got anything better going on.”
Walking up to the ticket booth, Sydney flashed the card that Madam Xanatos had just dropped out. “Excuse me, is this legit? I got this from a machine next to the arcade” She slid it under the glass.
The old wrinkled woman on the other side adjusted her spectacles and squinted? “Yup. Sure looks that way. Didn’t know we were doing this promotion yet, but it checks out.” She slid the card back. “Do you want any more tickets, honey?”
Sydney fought back a blush. “No thank you. I’m just going to try the one,” then out of politeness she threw in the little white lie of, “I’ll come back to get more later.”
“Sure sure, go ahead.”
Sydney walked past the booth, past the kiddie rides where infants rode in their parents laps as train cars decorated to honor Barney and Clifford and the Berenstain Bears gently chugged along oval tracks. She felt that same buzzing jealousy as she had with the kid who’d hit her with a frisbee, but like a swarm of bees Sydney couldn’t single out any one reason why she felt that way.
Further down, the rides got a little more complicated. Kids screamed and squealed in what were effectively giant car seats being jerkily picked up and dropped again and again. It was hardly extreme. Chances are any of the watching parents could have gone right up and still grabbed onto a child’s dangling ankle even at the ride’s apex, but it worked on the same principle as bigger thrill rides.
Some of the rides looked fun and/or relaxing, but she passed on them on the basis that they were mostly for little kids and she wasn’t anybody’s parent. The last thing she needed was a bunch of parents staring at her like she’d grown a second head just because she’d gotten on a rinky-dink carousel.
Sydney finally stopped when the sweet music of rubber slamming into rubber at moderate speeds alerted her senses. “Bumper cars!” She jogged over to the rink. One was never too old to simulate a demolition derby!
“Last call!” the man at the ride’s entrance barked. “Going once! Going twice!”
Sydney’s walk broke out into a jog. Bumper cars were one of those things where it was better with more people and she didn’t want to wait for another group to build up.
“Ticket please.” The man said. He looked at Sydney suspiciously when she offered up the card. He twisted his mouth a little, but pocketed it anyway. “Okay. Good enough for me. Go on in.”
Sydney trotted out into the rink amongst a sea of impatient elementary schoolers and climbed into a mint green model. As comically low to the ground as the cars were, her head still poked up higher than most.
“Hey!” A recently familiar voice called out. “It’s that girl I hit with my frisbee!” Sydney finished buckling herself in (which was really more of a formality than a safety measure) and followed the voice. Not twenty feet away there was a yellow pod with a certain eight year old in it. “Sorry about that, miss!”
A mischievous smile overtook Sydney’s face. “Don’t worry about it. I’m about to get you back kid!”
The kid returned Sydney’s smirk. “Who are you calling kid, kid? I’m way better at this than you.”
“You don’t even have a driver’s license!” Sydney called back.
“Don’t need one here! I’m still better than you!”
A buzzing clapped out and the power was switched on sending the bumper cars to life. Sydney floored it, twisting and turning the unwieldy wheel. The kid in the other cab reciprocated.
The two collided hard enough to bounce back a foot. Their second collision ground them to a halt with each car pushing equally against the other.
“Hahahaha!” They both laughed, throwing their heads back. It came to the point that the struggle became tiresome.
“You go this way,” Sydney called out and jerked her head to the left. “I’ll go that way!”
“Sure! See ya!”
They split and Sydney started puttering around looking for the next victim.
The kid had other ideas, it seemed, and circled back so that they could rear end the mint green car. Much to Sydney’s disappointment, bumper cars didn’t have a reverse gear. “Oh you little!”
The play continued for what felt like a long time, and demolition derby mutated into a kind of demolition tag. The shrieks of delight and laughter didn’t stop the whole time. Come to think of it, the time might have been longer. It wasn’t like it was particularly busy and the cars probably didn’t run on a timer.
Still, it wasn’t long enough for Sydney’s tastes. She easily could have spent a whole half hour playing stupid kid games. But the man threw the switch and there was a collective whining “Awwwww!” as the cars powered down.
Sydney’s newfound rival came up and offered their hand. “Good game, kid. That was fun.”
Kid? Funnily, Sydney liked the moniker despite the fact that she was at least three times older than her competitor. “Same,” she said. “Same.”
“Morgan!” A woman called. “Time to go!”
“Oh,” the kid said. “That’s my mom. Nice meeting you!” That was all the pretense needed for them to run back off. Morgan. Oddly enough, Sydney really liked that name too. Morgan seemed like a good kid.
“Hey kiddo,” the man running the bumper cars tapped Sydney on the shoulder. “Here’s your pass back. He handed Sydney the bit of cardboard “Don’t forget it, or get your Mom or Dad to hold it for you.”
Something rang off to Sydney and it didn’t have anything to do with being called ‘kiddo’ or talks of her Mom and Dad. “I thought that was only good for one ride…?” Her voice trailed off in a question.
“At a time, kid, at a time.” He showed her the card with one hand and took a drag off of a cigarette with another. “See?” Sydney stared in disbelief. She was certain it hadn’t had that clause before. “It’s so you can’t get all of your little friends from Kindy-garten in or whatever; they have to pay for tickets.
Sydney scoffed. “I’m not a Kindergarten-”
“First grade, whatever.” He shoved the card back into the palm of her hand. “You hit the jackpot, kid. Live with it.” He turned his back and waved in some more kids straggling in (some of them had literally just circled back from their last ride), and considered the matter settled.
Sydney glared at the card as if a fast one had been pulled; even if it didn’t make any sense. Head bent over, a new wrinkle entered Sydney’s day. “Huh?” She pulled the front of her hoodie straight down to get a better look at it. She was wearing a completely different shirt than the one she remembered putting on that morning.
It had gone from a dull grey to a bright white. More than a trick of the light, Sydney knew something was off. Her shirt was supposed to be plain gray. Besides being cotton ball cloud white, this one had Dragon Talescharacters on it. Maybe that’s why people had been calling her a kid. Who else but a kindergartener, a first grader at best, would be wearing a sweatshirt with flying cartoon lizards emblazoned on it?
For just a second, Sydney snapped her head up. She had the distinct feeling that someone was watching her. No one amongst the scattered amusement seekers moved or reacted in any suspicious way, but Sydney could have sworn she’d seen a familiar flash of silvery hair.
Against all the better judgment in the world, Sydney looked down at her hoodie and allowed herself a shrug. At least it wasn’t overly girly. Nothing light pink or flowery. It had Ord and Cassie on it, too, so no one would be calling her ‘Mister’.
By Sydney’s possibly impaired logic it was something of a win-win: She had a cute shirt that could oddly mesh with her preferred aesthetic, and a card allowing her access to the eighth best amusement rides in the state. It was a good way to kill time so might as well murder some minutes.
A series of squeals brought her attention back to the lift and drop ride she’d seen before. “Why not?” she said to herself. “Might as well get the bad rides out of the way before the good rides.” The lines for dark ride through the year long haunted house and the two story roller looked a little long anyways.
It was awkward standing in line, though, even if it was ironically. The only people whose height didn’t stop at Sydney’s belly button were the ones who were holding their hands. Sydney’s hands twitched feeling nervous, and wanting someone to hold onto, but all they had was the stupid free ride card.
While the load before Sydney’s jerked up and down, Sydney jutted slightly from side to side, feeling antsy all of a sudden, but they couldn’t articulate why. Sydney stopped and looked down at their velcro fastened shoes. Something was off. Bunched up.
Experimentally, Sydney hopped from the left food to the right. Their underwear -Sydney hated calling them ‘panties’- felt thicker; bunched up even.
“Excuse me,” a woman’s voice brought Sydney out of their head. “Do you need to go potty?” Sydney wasn’t a big fan of the color pink, but you would have been hard pressed to guess that based on the flushing of their cheeks. The lady, holding a toddler’s hand, smiled kindly at Sydney. “Maybe you should go find your Mommy or Daddy and ask them to take you before you hop on just in case.” She slightly turned her head and looked to Sydney’s left. “Where are your parents?”
Completely irrational nearly drunken panic overtook Sydney in a flash. This lady thought Sydney was a child? Oh gods, why? It was the hoodie, it had to be the hoodie! In normal circumstances, Sydney might have come up with two options: Explain that they were an adult who was just slumming it for poops and giggles and that the lady should mind her own business, or quietly back out of the line in shame. Sydney found a third way.
Among the casual boardwalkers, some walking and others just loafing around was a woman in a dark purple coat, her hair an almost eerie silver color that contrasted with an otherwise grown-up but not elderly appearance. “That’s her over there,” Sydney pointed. “That’s my mommy. She’s letting me be a big kid and seeing if I can stand in line all by myself.”
The stranger in front of Sydney hemmed and hawed for half a second before finally backing off. “Okay,” she said. “I was just worried, sweetie.” She pivoted and waved towards Sydney’s ‘Mom’. Luckily enough, the random stranger smiled awkwardly and waved back. Sydney just hoped that the lady stuck around long until the next ride loaded up.
“Mommy! I want to be a big kid!” The child in front of Sydney said.
“Awww,” the nosey mother said, patting her child on the head. “You are a big girl, but Mommy likes holding hands with you.” Sydney saw her nose twitch right before she revealed herself to be a hypocrite. Big kids didn’t get the waistband of their sweatpants pulled back in public. “Just checking.” She pulled the pants back up over the girl’s pink Pull-Up.
Blue for boys and pink for girls. Color coding started young, right down to the underwear. Even younger. Diapers were unisex, but anything older than six months was all but guaranteed to be frilly and lacy or blue and rough depending on what equipment was hidden under the Huggies.
The ride stopped and unloaded quickly, with the parents who opted not to ride being allowed to walk up and help the kids out of the giant safety harnesses. Sydney showed the attendant at the platform their wish card, waddled up and took the farthest seat so that all the other little kids could sit with their parents if needed. They reached up and tried to yank down the lap bar and the safety harness, but the damnable thing wouldn’t move.
“Here you go, little one,” an attendant working the ride helped secure everything. Sydney flashed a sheepish smile; slightly embarrassed.
“Dumb old ride,” they said to themself. “Stupid things getting stuck.” They put the thought out of their head and leaned back in the seat while the ride cranked up.
Up, up, up, up to the top; a not so dizzying seven or eight feet in the air; but seven or eight feet seems like a long way when you’re sitting down. Sydney’s breath paused, waiting for the inevitable.
The entire ride squeaked and shrieked with the first drop, even though it was only a few feet. Sydney joined the little kids letting out a delightful squeal with that first drop, and then shut their mouth while opening their eyes in surprise. More than a shriek of delight had come out of their body.
It had been a long time since Sydney had an accident in their pants, but some things were instantly recognizable: The warm wetness spreading down there, and the sudden feeling of bladder muscles relaxing and releasing. They really had been doing a potty dance and had just been distracted by that busybody’s prodding.
The sensation was oddly localized. Sydney had expected to feel the damp puddle spread to underneath their thighs but the puddle stayed confined to the very middle of their underwear, pooling for a second and then…vanishing? What was up with that?
Unable to enjoy the rest of the ride due to sheer humiliation, Sydney did their best to examine themself as the kiddie ride continued to jerk up and down, half expecting bits of urine to be dripping off their sneakers. Something was dripping, but it wasn’t pee-pee. The bright happy whiteness from the hoodie was spreading like an oil slick across the rest of their clothes.
Sydney felt another jet of pee spurt into their pants just by watching the canvas of their clothes change from a muted denim to the same bright white material as the Dragon Tales hoodie. If anyone noticed the shocking transformation, nobody gave any indication; no one pointed or gasped along. If Sydney screamed they wrote it off as the happy excited shouts of a child on a ride.
They practically leaped out of the seat when the ride came to a stop and frantically looked around; first to the ride, then to themself. Nothing remained on the seat. No puddle. No paint. Nothing but the standard hard and smooth reinforced plastic of a carnival ride built by the lowest bidder.
Sydney’s clothes were another matter. Feeling themself up and down it quickly became evident that they were no longer wearing pants. The seam between pants and hoodie had miraculously melded together making it a kind of brisk weather romper. Beneath the romper, was a noticeable lump around Sydney’s waist and between their legs. Sight unseen but very much feeling felt, their underwear had transformed to contain the weight of their little accident and sagged ever so slightly. Strictly speaking, their underwear wasn’t exactly underwear. “A diaper?” they whispered to themself.
A hand gently grabbed Sydney’s wrist and pulled them away from the ride platform. “You were such a brave baby,” the woman with the silver hair and purple coat said. “Mommy’s so proud of you.”
“Mommy?” Sydney echoed. “You’re not my…” But Sydney remembered what they’d said in the line. One part of Sydney didn’t want to be a fibber. Another part wanted the fib to be true. Taller than Sydney, mysterious, and pretty to boot, the little one felt drawn in and safe. “Thank you.”
“Now that you proved how big you can be, do you want to go on the train ride with Mommy?”
Sydney turned their head and saw the hokey kiddie ride, so simple and unexciting. No dips or twists of even one of the kiddie coasters; just a toy train that went around in an oval. Yet the cars looked pretty and Sydney recognized most of the cartoon characters. “Can I ride in the Daniel Tiger car?”
The Mommy with the pretty silver hair playfully pinched Sydney’s cheeks. “If baby wants to ride in the Daniel train I’ll be happy to grant that wish.” Hand in hand, they walked to the baby ride. Sydney’s walk was less refined, rather like a penguin’s but it got the job done.
The Daniel Tiger painted train- red with hints of yellow and an artist’s rendering of the cartoon feline- was only third from the front, but it remained unclaimed until the silver haired stranger flashed Sydney’s ride card and together they took their seats.
The train cars weren’t meant for two adults. Thankfully Mommy pulled Sydney into her lap without hesitation. Sydney fell onto the mysterious lady’s knee, and felt the pulpy padding under their pants squish in reply.
Oh no! They hadn’t forgotten the accident, but had disregarded it completely when something else more interesting had come up. It felt completely babyish, oddly comfortable, and totally right somehow. Just like the comfortable, neutral, non-revealing outfit. Just like the wet diaper itself. Just like going with this compelling and somehow familiar stranger.
“Do you want your pacifier?” Mommy asked. She offered a yellow binky up to Sydney’s mouth. They opened up and accepted it. “Awww, baby needs to self-soothe.”
Sydney suckled on the pacifier thoughtfully as the train went into motion. They leaned into Mommy’s shoulder as Mommy stroked their hoodies head.
What was so gosh darn familiar about this woman, Sydney wondered. They didn’t know, but there was something comforting about it all. It was only then that Sydney realized they’d stopped thinking of themself as ‘her’.
As if looking into the crystal ball of their mind, Mommy said. “That’s right. You’re just a baby. A cute, cuddly baby sitting in their Mommy’s lap, just like all the other babies. Wish granted and fortune favored.”
That’s when a light clicked on through the fog of Sydney’s regressing mind. Fortune? Wish? Silver hair? Purple? This was the lady mannequin from the fortune telling machine. The coupon dispenser that Sydney had idly wished to. Only she wasn’t a mannequin anymore, and the magic was more than just a card that said they could ride dinky carnival rides for free.
The rational part of Sydney’s mind urged them to scream out, to call for help. A quick but gentle hug from their silver haired Mommy corrected that: It wasn’t their rational mind urging them to get loose, but their ‘conventional’ mind. The mind that cared what everyone else thought; the mind that never felt quite right with the world and Sydney’s place in it. The mind that carried around the nagging voice and expectations of Mother and Father.
“Shhhhh,” Mommy said in Sydney’s ear. “Let the magic happen, baby. Let it all go. Let the wish come true.”
For three arduous loops, Sydney looked around the boardwalk, their pulse pounding in their chest. For three laps, Sydney felt like a deer in a clearing, just waiting for a wolf to pounce out or a hunter’s gun to report.
Then on the fourth lap, they felt safe, and they sank down a little bit in this magical Mommy’s arms. “That’s right. Enjoy it. Let it happen.” She gave the baby a kiss, and Sydney began to have something of a sinking sensation. By the end of the loop, Sydney only came up to the mannequin lady’s chest.
Lap five made Sydney suck on their pacifier even harder as their tied up hair started to itch and recede into soft, fine, baby locks. “Just say stop,” Mommy whispered sweetly. “If you’re having second thoughts, we can pretend this whole thing never happened and you can go back to riding by yourself.”
The sixth go about, and Sydney could feel their breasts melting back into their chest and their hips reshaping. Their romper became less and less baggy as a layer of baby fat filled itself in over the course of a few seconds. It wasn’t painful.
“Last chance, little one,” Mommy cooed.
Sydney couldn’t say stop; or rather wouldn’t. They had all of the ability, but none of the desire. The taste and the texture of the rubber bulb in the baby’s lips became all the richer and more vibrant as teeth painlessly slid into gums on the seventh and final lap.
“Gah-gah-gah!” Sydney squealed and babbled in delight.
“That doesn’t sound like a ‘stop’ to me” Sydney’s new Mommy chuckled. “I’m glad.”
When the train came to a stop, Mommy stood up, a chubby, and perfectly happy baby in her lap. Indistinguishable from all the other six-month olds only in that no trace of clothing or accessory gave away what gender had been assigned to the child; (and anyone who got hung up one what gender a stranger’s baby was likely had much much bigger problems going on upstairs).
“Someone needs a change,” Mommy said, pushing her hair off to the side so that Sydney could lay their head. “Don’t think I didn’t feel that little squish. Mommy knows these things.”
The baby just sighed, but not out of frustration, while Mommy did the walking for both of them. “You wished to just be yourself,” Mommy said on the way to the family bathroom. “But so few people are just themself. They all start as themself but along the way they become what the world around them molds them to become. Sometimes that works out. Other times it’s….” the magic woman paused.
“Maw?” Sydney ventured.
Mommy opened the bathroom door and laid the tiny tot on the changing table. The boardwalk had a full - though unstocked- changing table instead of a wall mounted unit. Quaint.
“Yes,” Mommy said. “Quite off. More off than a simple snap of the fingers can undo.” Her giant hands popped open the snaps along the romper’s inseams and tore open the wet Pampers beneath. “This was the closest I could manage. This is the oldest you were yourself before something else started to mold and shape you into someone other than you were. I suspect it had something to do with a pair of tights and a festive baby dress as the cold creeped in.”
Sydney smiled and babbled. They didn’t ask where Mommy got the wipes or the fresh diaper being slid under them. Far more miraculous things had already happened than a lack of a proper diaper bag.
“In lieu of an undo,” Mommy said, taping the diaper up and refastening the snaps, “I’m giving you a redo. How does that sound?”
“Than it’s settled then. I’ll be Mommy, you’ll be baby, and we won’t need any more labels than that.”
The cold air smacked in the face, but it no longer carried the bitter ocean wind, but sweet sweet relief and the promise of a kind of freedom Sydney had long craved but never felt. Diapers and baby clothes were an easy price to pay.
“Excuse me,” a pimply pizza faced boy said on their way out of the boardwalk. “Do you know what happened to this thing?” He pointed to a metal cabinet painted to look like it was wood positioned just outside the Penny Arcade. “I could have sworn there was a mannequin in here earlier.”
“Someone must have just made a wish that was too good not to grant,” Mommy told him.
“I said it was out of order.”
The boy noticed the baby in the woman’s arms. “Awwww,” he said. “What a cute baby! What’s their name?”
Their. Not ‘her’, or ‘his’, but ‘their’. How oddly fulfilling! Talk about something Sydney never knew they needed to hear until they did.
“Sydney,” Mommy answered truthfully. “My baby’s name is Sydney.”
The boy frowned, puzzled. “Um…is that a boy’s name or a girl’s name?” The stranger winced at his own impoliteness. So many people got hung up on that sort of thing.
“It’s a baby’s name,” Mommy said simply enough. “Baby girl? Baby boy? What’s the difference at this age? They’re just a baby. My baby. That’s all that matters.”
“Huh,” Pizza Face rubbed his chin. “Good point. My bad.”
And that was how Sydney got their wish.