Adjusting

Here’s another tale from the Mental AR Virus universe. This one isn’t as dark as some of the others. 

Ella frowned as she carefully undid the tangle of knots the laces of Eric’s sneaker had become.  Her husband stood there, waiting anxiously, fidgeting with his fingers, impatient.  He was always impatient now. That was another thing she just had to get used to.  

“Huwwy up!” came his plaintive voice, so high-pitched and whiny.  

“Hold your horses Eric, I’ll have it done in just a second,” she told him in the calmest voice she could muster.  It took a lot to maintain that tone, to be the grown-up when he was being so incredibly frustrating.  It wasn’t his fault, she had to remind herself, he couldn’t control himself anymore.  

Finally she straightened the laces, then tied a proper knot.  

“All done!” she happily announced. 

Eric took his foot off her knee, admiring her work.  Both his sneakers were tied now and he finally seemed satisfied.  He couldn’t tie them himself of course. His fingers were far too clumsy, too uncoordinated. His fine motor skills were nothing but a distant memory.  

“Got my soos on,” the thirty-four year old said with a hint of smile now.  

Ella was just glad he wasn’t crying anymore. His cheeks were still red, his eyes bloodshot from all the tears.  He’d thrown a full-blown tantrum, yelling his head off, risking damaging her hearing; he’d been down on the floor, pounding his fists and heels into the carpet, all because Ella had told him he didn’t need to wear shoes for Story Time at the bookstore in the mall.  You’d have thought it was the end of the world, the way he reacted.  

But Ella at least partly understood. It had to be frustrating, to be so helpless, to be at someone else’s mercy.  Ella had only suggested he simply go barefoot because his shoe-laces were such a mess and it would take so long to fix them.  She knew he wouldn’t like it. Eric was determined not to look like a little boy.  He wanted everyone to think he was still big.  Big boys didn’t go to the mall barefoot of course.  And it had to be awful not to be able to put on his own shoes, to simply ignore his wife’s suggestion. He couldn’t even put them on the right feet if left to his own devices, never mind tackling the laces.  

“Okay then, let’s get going,” Ella said, taking Eric’s hand, leading him out the door to the car, waiting for him to climb in the back seat before taking his seat belt and buckling him in. Just one more laughably simple thing he was incapable of doing for himself.  

“Ewic do dat,” he would complain, all the time, before making a mess of himself, or ending up in frustrated tears as he failed to buckle himself in, or to colour inside the lines, or to tell what time it was.  He’d insisted on wearing a watch for days in the beginning, even though he had no hope of reading it anymore.  

It was finally peaceful as she drove them to the mall.  Eric sucked on his thumb and gazed curiously out the window, probably trying to remember the names and uses of all the grown-up things he’d forgotten.  

Sometimes he gave a steady stream of questions.  “Was dat?” 

“A bicycle sweetie,” Ella would answer. 

“Why da man wide it?”  

“It’s good for exercise and it’s fun.” 

“Was ex-ser-size?”  

And on it went.  

But other days were like this one, a brief break from the chatter, from the simple questions.  That was a big part of why Ella brought him to Story Time and other similar shared activities for bigger little ones.  It was a chance for her to converse with fellow adults, to share stories and advice with caregivers like herself.  And of course Eric enjoyed it too, or at least he was willing to tolerate it.  

Eric wasn’t a happy boy.  How could he be?  He’d been a successful man in his prime, a salesman with a promising career and a new house.  And then it was all taken away in a matter of days.  He had MEV Type 3a, and that meant the full regression had taken just four days after the onset of symptoms. Some people called that a blessing, but Ella disagreed. It meant she was thrown into a new life with little time to prepare. She had to rapidly toddler-proof their beautiful new home.  She had to take time off work until she’d been able to enroll him in a proper daycare.  But toughest of all was the transition from wife to mummy.  She hadn’t signed up for that of course.  They’d never had kids, though it was something she’d always wanted.  And now, essentially, that’s what she had.  Except she didn’t, because Eric wasn’t really a little boy, not like some of the others anyway.  

The differences were obvious as soon as they walked into the bookstore.  Eric wore a simple blue striped t-shirt and khakis shorts.  He refused to have anything with cartoons on it, or even with words. He couldn’t read of course, couldn’t even sing his alphabet, but he understood the slogans on many kids clothes were jokes, were childish or cute.  He didn’t want that.  He let Ella hold his hand, he was very afraid of losing her, but he didn’t want anyone thinking he was being led by her, that he was little.  

The other boys and girls there for Story Time weren’t nearly so concerned with appearances. A majority were barefoot, the dirt on the soles of their feet noticeable as they crouched on the carpeted floor or crept around it whilst playing with their toys.  Several boys and girls, in their twenties and thirties and even older, wore bib overalls or shortalls in a variety of colours.  One young man was in a Spiderman costume, a thirtyish woman in a Snow White outfit. One man about Eric’s age was shirtless as well, wearing just his baggy red board shorts.  

And it wasn’t just their clothing, it was also their behaviour which was different.  They were mostly giggling, smiling, creeping around happily in their own little worlds, playing their simple games, enjoying their toys.  They didn’t seem at all aware of their regressions.  They seemed like real little kids, just in bigger bodies.  

But there were always a few others like Eric. Some clung to their caregivers, soothing themselves by sucking their thumbs, biting their fingernails. They dressed like adults or at least older kids, cried often, buried their heads in mummies’ laps, whined about not wanting to be there, or just threw full tantrums and needed to be led away to the toilets, blubbering.  

“Here we are sweetie, why don’t you sit right there, in the middle,” Ella suggested to her husband.  

Eric shook his head. “Wanna sit wid you,” he insisted. 

“Honey, the boys and girls all need to sit on the floor,” she told him. 

“Notta boy,” Eric whispered back angrily. 

“Honey we’ve been over this. You need to sit with the boys, even if you are bigger than them. That’s just the rules.”  

Eric frowned but accepted this.  He was always a big rule follower and that impulse had stuck with him.  He sat down cross-legged in the middle of the crowd of grown-downs, sulking and hugging his knees while he waited for the story to begin, for the storyteller to come sit in the big easy chair at the centre of the clearing and read a children’s story to them all.  He ignored the other children around him and they paid the quiet boy no attention either.  

Ella wished he would join in, would ask to play with another boy. It would be so good for him to have a playmate. She got the regular reports home from the playcentre he went to while she worked. They were concerned too. Eric didn’t mix with the other kids. He wouldn’t take part in any activity which would get him dirty or would require him to take off his shirt or shoes. He wouldn’t do anything he considered “silly” or “for babies.”  That meant no fingerpainting, no painting at all, no sandpit, no trampoline or paddle pool for him.  

He’d been utterly scandalised by what happened when paddle pool time had come.  

“Deys all nakey!” he told Ella in horror when she came to collect him that afternoon.  

“What?” she’d asked him in confusion. 

“Da boys ‘nd giwls got all nakey fow da pool.  Some nakey after too!”  

Ella had found it funny, especially they way he was so horrified that a bunch of toddlers were stripped naked to play in a paddle pool, and even worse that some had apparently stayed naked afterwards, perhaps for the rest of the afternoon even.  Sure they had grown-up bodies, the playcentre was of course specifically for grown-downs, but they were really just toddlers.  And Ella saw nothing wrong with what happened.  

When it came right down to it, she just wanted Eric to be happy, to have fun with the others. But he just couldn’t do it.  He was wound up so tight, she was afraid he might become truly depressed if this continued.  

Story Time was about to begin when Natalie arrived with her hubby, Jerry.  Ella had begun to worry they wouldn’t make it. She especially liked chatting with Natalie because their husbands were so similar. They’d had the same strain of virus for one thing, but much more importantly, Jerry insisted on being a grown-up, being mature too.  He would point to himself and declare, “I match-ew-er! I gwown-up!” in the most serious tone.  It was all she could do not to laugh at the poor man.  He would have made a perfect playmate for Eric, except that neither of them had any interest in “playing” with other boys.  

Except that today Jerry wasn’t looking too mature at all.  He was wearing a Batman costume, minus the mask and cape.  It was nothing like what he normally wore, bland polo shirts and khakis being his standard outfit.  Not only that, but the thirty-year old former physio was also barefoot.  Ella had never once seen him out in public that way.  Natalie had at least convinced him to wear sandals or crocs most days, to save the need to tie laces. But this was a first.  

Natalie smiled broadly at her as they approached. “Can you say hello to Ella, Jerry?” she prompted her husband.  

The six foot tall man in the Batman costume grinned like the very silliest of little boys and chirped, “Hi! Wookit, I Batman!”  

The ear to ear grin on his face as he pointed at the symbol on the chest of his costume really took Ella by surprise. For a moment she just sat there with her mouth hanging open.  

“Um, Ella…” Natalie prompted. 

“Oh! Ummm, yes, that’s so cool Jerry,” she finally spat out.  

“Not Jewwy. Batman!” he insisted, throwing his hands out and swooping around, like a bat apparently.  

“Right, of course. Well, good to see you Batman,” Ella agreed. 

“Okay honey, go swoop over to the other boys and girls and sit on your bum like a good Batman,” Natalie told him. 

Jerry did as he was told, scurrying over to the assembled crowd of grown-downs and dropping to his knees, revealing bare soles as black as the pavement outside.  It didn’t look like they’d just forgotten his crocs in the car or something.  

“He seems happy,” Ella commented as Natalie took a seat beside her. 

“He’s more than happy, he’s finally at peace with who he is now,” she told her. 

Ella nodded, shocked to hear this but also knowing it matched what she’d just witnessed.  “Yeah, he’s acting more like the other boys now,” she agreed.  

Natalie nodded.  “He’s been in that Batman costume for the last two days solid. He’s totally obsessed with it, just like a little boy.”

“It’s awfully cute.”

Natalie shrugged. “Well I never really wanted by husband to look cute, y’know.”

“Yeah, of course not.” 

“But it’s a real relief. He’s got playmates now, kids his own mental age to play with.”

Ella felt happy for Natalie.  She understood how important that was. But she also felt a bit sad, a bit jealous. She wanted those things for Eric too. He didn’t really feel like her husband anymore, as much as he insisted he was. No, he felt like her little boy, like a small child who needed her protection. 

“That’s so great!” she told Natalie. “He looks like he’s really comfortable being little now. I see he’s even running around barefoot today.”  

Natalie chuckled. “That’s not just today. The sandals, the crocs, they’re all in a box, packed away the basement. Look at those filthy little tootsies. He hasn’t had anything on them in a week.”

Now Ella was really blown away.  “But he made such a big deal out of that! I mean, you know Eric’s the same way. He threw a massive tantrum just before we came over because I wanted him to try going barefoot, just for this little trip.  It was quite the meltdown. I wasn’t sure we’d be coming at all and as you can see I had to give in.  How on Earth could you convince Jerry to actually pack the shoes away for good?”

“Oh Ella that’s awful about the tantrum. But don’t get too jealous, we still have plenty of those in our house too. Believe me, that’s just part of having a toddler.  Now we just get to have meltdowns for different reasons. Instead of fighting over not wearing shoes, Jerry flips out at having to wear anything other than his costume. And you can see that I have been giving in as well.”  

Ella did feel a little better.  “Still, it’s an amazing change. What do you think prompted it? Was it sudden?”  

Natalie gave her a knowing smile. “Oh honey, I know exactly what prompted it.  Jerry’s attitude change was no mistake. I took him to one of those therapists, the ones who help with adjustment.”  

Ella’s eyes widened right away. She knew exactly what Natalie meant. She’d seen the ads, promising happier grown-down children, promising to help them behave like real kids.  They always started with some sad, depressed looking grown-down.  The man or woman would be throwing a tantrum, fighting with their carer, or just sitting in a corner and refusing to play with others.  Then, wave of the magic wand, and they were happy, giggling, playful kids.  It always seemed too good to be true.  And besides, it seemed wrong to try to cause such a drastic change. Weren’t they just taking away the last bits of adulthood the poor man or woman was trying to hold onto?  

“So the therapist did this?” 

Natalie nodded. “It was amazing, like night and day and all in a single session.”  

“One session?!”  

Her friend laughed again. “Yep, I know, I was just as amazed.”

“So, did you talk about what you wanted done before it started?”

“Yes, I had a long interview with the therapist first, explained all the issues we were having; the modesty, the insistence on adult clothing, the obsession with appearing mature.  We made a list of what needed to change, then he designed a programme and voila, Jerry was a new boy after just one session.  

“I mean the other day I went to pick him up at playcentre and the carer told me they’d had an issue with him taking off his shorts AND his undies earlier on and refusing to put them back on.  He was running around with his doodle out for all to see!  Can you imagine my Jerry like that?”  

Ella could only shake her head, struck dumb by the revelation.  

“Exactly! But it was true. He’d turned into a total little exhibitionist.  He was still wearing just a t-shirt and undies when we found him in the sand pit and we had to have a talk with him about keeping his undies on.  They actually made a deal with him that he could go shirtless as much as he wanted as long as his undies stayed on, except for pool days.  And he jumped at that deal! My Jerry, the little nudist.” 

Ella tried to imagine that happening with Eric, but it was just too outrageous to be possible.  He was far too modest for that. Wasn’t he?  She wondered.  But of course that didn’t matter. She couldn’t take him to a therapist. He would never agree. And how could she do that to him?  

“I can give you his card,” Natalie told her, looking in her handbag.  

“Oh, no, that’s okay…” 

“He’s really good Ella, you have to see him,” she urged, finding the business card and pressing it into Ella’s hand. 

“I just don’t think I could do that to Eric. He’d hate to be like that. I mean, he’d hate to be acting like a real little boy, everyone seeing him that way.”  

“Ella, he’s not happy the way he is either.  I’m not telling you to hurt him, or even to be selfish. I told you, the tantrums still happen. It’s no easier on me. Do it for him, so he can relax, so he can be happy and have fun the way a little boy should.  He needs to feel comfortable running around barefoot in public, getting messy, dressing up like his favourite superhero, blowing bubbles in his milk, all that stuff,” Natalie told her.  

Ella put the card into her own handbag and she thought long and hard about what Natalie said.  She looked down at the floor before them. Thirty men and women sat on their bottoms on the carpet, listening to the woman in the easy chair reading from Beatrix Potter.  Some weren’t paying attention, girls playing with their pigtails, boys picking their noses and studying their fingers.  But most were totally enthralled, bouncing on their bottoms, giggling with their hands clasped tight over their mouths.  There was Jerry, up on his knees, clapping his hands and beaming.  And in the middle of it all was Eric, nibbling on his fingernails, looking totally disinterested.  It made her really wonder if Natalie was right.  

**

Two days later Ella went to see the therapist Natalie recommended, a Dr Mitchell Davis.  Sitting in his office she felt very uncomfortable but he seemed to understand that.  

“It’s not an easy choice to come here,” Dr Davis told her.  His voice was warm and calming. She could see how it would be easy to open up to him.  

“I don’t want to change my husband. I mean, I love him, you understand,” she told him. 

“Of course you do. But that love, it’s different now, isn’t it?” 

It was like he could read her mind. He probably could have gotten away with being a fake fortune teller.  

“He’s still my husband, but he isn’t.  I don’t want to go against his wishes.  I don’t want to trick him.” 

“No one wants to trick the people they love. I’m certainly not going to ask you to do anything you feel uncomfortable with.” 

Ella felt more at ease now.  He wasn’t what she had expected at all.  

“You have to understand, the last thing he’d want is to be seen as an incompetent little boy, a toddler, by people he knows, by basically anyone in public.  It’s very important to him that he maintain that dignity.”  

“But he isn’t an adult anymore. You understand that?”  

“Well of course,” she assured. “I mean, I clean his sheets after he has accidents at night, I do his shoe-laces up for him, cut up his food so he can manage the rest with just his fork or spoon. I’m well aware of that.”  

He nodded. “But does he understand that?” 

Ella hesitated. “I… I think he does. Deep down.  But he can’t admit it to himself.”  

“And trying to act like he’s an adult, pretending to be something he’s not, it’s hurting him, isn’t it? It’s making him deeply unhappy,” Dr Davis suggested. 

A tear dripped down her cheek as she nodded.  It was true, it was hurting him.  

“It’s okay, none of this is your fault,” Davis assured her, handing her a box of tissues.  

Sniffling, she nodded and dabbed at her eyes. “I know, I know, it’s just hard.”  

“Yes, it is.  And your husband’s had it especially hard.  It isn’t that rare you know, for virus sufferers to be like him, regressed intellectually, emotionally but retaining their old sense of self, holding on to many adult behaviours and beliefs.”  

“Really?”  

“Oh yes, it happens more than people think.  But you don’t see it that often, because we have very effective treatments now.  Obviously we can’t return your husband’s intellectual and emotional maturity, so I’m afraid the best treatment is to go the other way, regress the behaviours, the sense of self, back to a level to match their intellectual age”  

“So you’ve done this many times then? And it’s painless?”  

Davis nodded confidently.  “It’s totally effective and I’ve done it many, many times. You probably have no idea how many of the happy, giggly grown-downs you see running around have actually been to see me, or someone like me.  There isn’t proper research on it yet, but from my own experience I’d say 5% to 10% of virus sufferers are like your husband.”  

Ella was happy to feel less alone.  But she still had reservations.  “I just… I don’t want him to be angry at me.  He goes berserk at even the suggestion of behaving or dressing in a toddler fashion like the others.”  

Davis chuckled. “I’m sure he does. But after my treatment I assure you there will be no more of that. You just tell me his hang-ups and we’ll deal with each and every one of them.”  

Ella explained the main issues they had, the fear of being alone, the lack of interest in normal toddler games and TV shows, the refusal to play with other grown toddlers and insistence on dressing like an adult.  Dr Davis listened carefully and took many notes.  

Ella paused as she considered whether to tell him the next thing.  She was thinking about the tantrums he threw if she wanted him to try going barefoot, just on the rare occasion.  But then she remembered Jerry’s bare feet, how the soles were totally black.  If she told Dr Davis, would he make Eric like that? Was that even possible? Could Eric really end up wanting his shoes packed away, demanding to be barefoot all the time? She tried to picture her husband, her super formal, mature husband walking around with feet looking like Jerry’s.  It seemed absurd. But then a new thought struck her.  Is that what she wanted?  It would instantly mark him out as a grown-down, as a little boy. Other mums would spot her and her little one right away.  Maybe it would help get playmates for Eric and friends for her.  

“He’s absolutely obsessed with keeping his shoes on.  He knows being barefoot in public is an instant sign of being little.  My friend Natalie, she told me she packed her husband… her boy’s shoes away after his treatment. But… I mean, I can’t imagine Eric being like that…”  

Davis just smiled and said, “Well you might be surprised then.”  

“Oh and…” she trailed off. She’d thought of one other thing, but there was no real need to say it. She didn’t want to push too far.

“Yes?” Davis pushed. 

“Oh, it’s probably not worth mentioning. I mean, I don’t know if this is something that needs specific treatment…”

“There’s no harm in mentioning it,” he assured.  

“Well, it’s just that the playcentre he goes to, they have this paddling pool. Sometimes they remind us to send them in togs, but other times they just fill it up and don’t bother.  Of course Eric doesn’t go in, he’s much, much too modest for that.  But of course, I can just make sure he always has togs…”

Davis waved a dismissive hand.  “That shouldn’t be a necessity.  I imagine even when they are told, some of the carers don’t bother sending their little ones with swim togs, do they?” 

“Well, no, I guess not. Umm,” she chuckled, “Eric actually commented on that fact. He was quite horrified by all the nudity and that, well, some little ones don’t even always get dressed afterwards.”  

Davis nodded and asked, “So, would you like him comfortable without the togs.”  

Ella blinked, uncertain whether to agree.  “I mean, Natalie said Jerry has actually turned into a little jaybird since his treatment.”  She imagined Eric, her handsome husband, strutting around the house in the buff.  Aside from cleaning up his accidents, wiping him clean while he cried, she’d not really seen him that way for months.  

Davis was still waiting.  

“I think it would be nice if he was comfortable without togs, so he could play in the paddle pool,” she agreed. 

“Just for the pool?”

“I mean, I don’t know,” she admitted, feeling very conflicting feelings for her husband and her little boy at the same time.  

“I just mean, there are many times when modesty can make it tricky dealing with a big toddler.  It could simply be easier for him to remove it altogether.  Of course that would make it a bit tougher for you because your new struggle would be to keep him clothed.”  

“Do you do that part of the treatment often?”  

He nodded. “Quite a few feel it’s for the best. Not all, but plenty.”  

“Okay, do it,” she agreed, feeling a little guilty even as she said it.  

When they were done Davis emailed her a file.  “This is a special musical piece, suggestions masked by sea sounds. Play it all night for your husband but make sure you can’t hear it.  He should listen to it every night for the next week, leading up to his appointment.”  

**

For a week Ella played the special music for Eric every night.  It seemed to even help him to get to sleep faster.  They slept in different rooms now, since he had accidents so often and would rip up the thick pull-ups protection she got him, insisting on wearing his “big boy pants” to bed.  That made playing the file easier and Eric never questioned what it was or why it needed to play all night. 

For a week she watched him navigate life as a sad, confused man with an intellectually impaired mind.  The more she watched him, the more sure she became that she was doing the right thing in helping him to be happier.  The only thing was she grew more and more worried that the treatment wouldn’t work.  It seemed to unlikely, that Eric could really become like the other grown-downs and start acting like an actual toddler.  

Finally the day came for their appointment.  Ella drove him there, careful to pretend it was a normal doctor’s check-up.  She was extra careful with him, getting him dressed up especially nice in his best polo shirt and khakis shorts and of course his sneakers and socks.  

“Da doctor gonna see how big I is,” Eric told her brightly as she buckled him in.  “Notta dumb baby.”  

“Of course not honey,” she told him, kissing his forehead.  

But he squirmed and shoved her roughly away.   “Dun do dat! Kiffes fow dumb widdle babies!”  

“Sorry Eric,” she said, getting in the driver seat.  

At the office Dr Davis did a good show of greeting Eric like an adult, walking right out of his office straight to Eric and extending his hand to shake.  Eric actually grinned for once as he shook the man’s hand like an equal.  

“Well hello there Eric, so nice to meet you,” Davis said to him. 

“Hi,” Eric replied simply, clearly trying to hide his juvenile diction from the doctor.  

“Why don’t you come into my office and Ella will wait right out here for you.”  

Eric’s smile vanished instantly.  “Dun wanna go awone,” he said.  

“Ella will be right here and besides, she told me that you’re a really brave big grown-up man. So you must be able to do things all by yourself, right?”  

Eric still didn’t look happy, but how could he refuse such praise?  He nodded jerkily and let the doctor lead him away, stealing nervous looks back at Ella until the door shut.  

And that left her to an uncomfortably long wait.  What was going on back there? She had no idea.  She hoped it would help things, but could it possibly make things worse? What if it didn’t work, but Eric knew what they’d tried to do with him? He’d be so furious.  The last thing she wanted was to upset him more.  But the walls were thin. If he was angry she’d have heard the tantrum, the crying and screaming if not kicking and punching the floor.  There were no such sounds.  It was silent.  

Two hours passed before the door opened.  Davis appeared in the doorframe and gave her a smile.  “Someone needs a cuddle from mummy,” he announced. 

Ella’s heart fluttered as Davis stepped fully into the waiting room, leading Eric by the hand.  Her jaw dropped open at the sight.  Eric was completely naked, not even undies on to give him a shred of privacy. And he was making no attempt to cover up either.  He let the doctor lead him into the waiting room buck naked, no concern about who might be there to see him.  

“Oh sweetie,” Ella cooed in awe.  

Eric looked different, and not just in the way he was dressed, or rather not dressed.  His face just looked totally relaxed and he had this big dumb grin.  

“Wanna cuddle wid mummy!” he announced brightly.  

“Come on then Eric, give mummy a big snuggle!” she urged him.  

And he let go of Davis’ hand, rushing over to her and enveloping her in a huge, tight cuddle.  Ella was so happy to see her baby boy happy.  She’d never felt more maternal, more protective of her boy. He’d been the one getting treatment, but she felt changed too. This wasn’t her husband anymore, this was her little baby.  

“Who’s my snuggle bug? Who’s my little cuddle buggy?” she cooed to him, the way she’d always imagines cuddling her first baby.  He was much bigger, and yet, all naked like this he looked just as vulnerable, just as innocent and cute.  

Eric just giggled and snuggled tighter.  

After what felt like a full minute of cuddling Ella let go and looked into Eric’s eyes, looking for any remaining reluctance, any flicker of modesty or sadness.  He just gazed back with wide, glassy eyes, totally innocent.  

“What happened to all your clothes, silly boy?” she asked him. 

Eric looked down at his nude body, his soft hairless penis resting between his legs.  There was no hesitation, no blush in his cheeks as he said, “Ewic got nakey!”  

“Haha, I can see that,” she agreed, and he smiled and laughed happily too, totally unconcerned with his exposure. 

Dr Davis stepped closer, placing a hand on the middle of Eric’s bare back.  “We decided he’d be more comfy in some more appropriate clothes and I started to get him changed. But once he was all nakey-bummed he decided he didn’t want any clothes on at all and became quite insistent about that. So I thought maybe he’d be better if mummy helped get him dressed.”  

Ella couldn’t help but smile.  “Is that so?  Are you turning into a little jaybird nudist? Is that what you are now Eric?”  

The thirty-something man giggled brightly and gave her a big, emphatic nod. 

“Well, we’ll see what we can do about that.  But right now, we need to get you dressed to go home. You can’t walk out into the car park with a bare bum-bum, silly boy.”  

Eric nodded. “Can’t go bawe-bum,” he agreed.  

“That’s right, so let’s get you dressed, okay?” 

Another nod.  “Kay.”  

Eric was perfectly compliant as Ella dressed him in the clothes Dr Davis had asked her to bring.  There was a pair of aqua board shorts with black pockets and Sesame Street themed blue t-shirt.  But first came a pair of thick, white underoos with royal blue piping and choo-choo train prints.  Eric was nice and still while Ella slipped those and his shorts up his legs. But he pouted and fussed when she asked him to put his arms up for the t-shirt.  

“Eric, be a good boy for Mummy now,” she urged him.  

“Dun wan’ it,” he complained.  

“Why not honey? Don’t you like Elmo?” she asked, pointing to the smiling red character.  

Eric gazed at it with the innocent eyes of a toddler, nodding.  

“Don’t you want Elmo on your tummy?”  

Another slow nod.  

“Okay then,” she cooed, getting him to raise his hands and putting on the cartoon print shirt.  

“All done!” she announced and Eric clapped his hands. “You got all dressed for Mummy! Aren’t you a good boy!”  Yes, Eric was clearly happy to hear that.  

There weren’t any shoes as part of the outfit, but Eric didn’t say a word about that, not a peep as Ella took his hand and led him out of the office, thanking Dr Davis, heading out into the car park.  Eric just sucked on his thumb and let Mummy lead him across the pavement that way.  

“Your feeties aren’t too hot on that pavement, are they Eric?” she asked.  

He wiggled his toes gently against the ground, then shook his head.  No, he didn’t seem to mind one little bit.  

**

Two weeks later Ella pulled up to the playcentre to pick Eric up.  The head teacher, Greta, met her when she walked in, needing to buzz her through the door as always. With such big toddlers it was necessary to have a system to keep them getting out and wandering out into the street of course.  

“Good to see you Ella,” she greeted.  

“Hi Greta, how’s he been today?” 

“Oh just lovely as usual. It’s been wonderful having him so much more social and playful.  He and Brady have been really becoming fast friends.  They build quite the block fort together this morning.”  

“Yes, I talked to his carer the other day and we’re going to have him over for an actual playdate this weekend,” Ella couldn’t help but gush.  “It’s just, such a relief to have him playing with boys his own age.”  

“I know, it’s a real blessing.  Well, let’s go get the big little guy.”  

The playroom was a hive of activity as usual. She was early today so most of the kids were still there, playing with lots of balls and blocks and Duplo blocks.  She spotted Eric easily. There were only two young men walking around naked.  One had ginger hair, the other dark haired fellow was Eric of course.  He was playing with a blonde man, Brady, holding hands and sort of half dancing, half play-fighting.  There was a lot of giggling involved, so it was clearly fun.  

“Oh, we had the paddle pool out after lunch. As you can see Eric didn’t want to get his clothes back on afterwards, as usual,” Greta noted without any real concern.  

Ella wasn’t surprised or worried either. She understood this was the result of what she’d asked for and if it didn’t bother the teachers, it didn’t bother her either.  

“Okay Eric, time to get dressed and head home baby,” she said, putting her hand on his bare bottom to gently get his attention.  

Eric gave her a gaping smile. “C’n Bwady come home wid us?” he asked. “We pwayin’ mummy. Bwady my betht fwiend!”  

Ella’s heart absolutely melted.  “Oh honey, that’s so nice. Brady needs to eat at his house tonight, but I promise he can come over to play Saturday. Do you know how many days that is sweetie?”  

Eric shook his head, totally mystified.  

“Well today is Thursday, so that’s…” 

Eric blinked his eyes, but couldn’t answer the question.  

“Two days baby.”  

He grinned, untroubled by his lack of knowledge now. Two weeks ago not knowing the answer would have had him in tears. Now he totally accepted his lack of comprehension.  It was normal. Grown-ups were smart, grown-ups did the thinking. Toddlers just had to play and have fun. It was so much better to be a toddler.  

Back wearing his thick undies and his shorts, Eric left the playcentre with Mummy. There was no need for a shirt or shoes. Ella carried his shirt with his little bag, and there weren’t any shoes for him to wear.  His feet were just as dirty and tough as Jerry’s now.  And while Ella had been uncertain at first, now she was sure that was the right choice.  Eric didn’t know there had been a choice to make. He just enjoyed the freedom of the sun on his back, the warm interesting textures of the ground changing under his soles as he skipped and walked along the footpath to their car.  He was just overjoyed to have Mummy taking care of him.  It was obvious that Mummy knew best and that made both Eric and Ella as happy as they’d ever been.