It was shaping up to be an awesome day at the park. Dee and Tacki were on a little playdate together there with their moms and were having a ball. The best part was the two managed to ingratiate themselves with a group of big kids (we’re talking like 4 or 5 year olds here). The other kids didn’t seem to mind, or notice that Dee and Tacki were still kinda little compared to them.
All together, the group played tag and swung on the swing sets, and went up and down on the teeter-totters. The funniest thing happened at the latter activity when all the cubs tried to cram as many bodies on either side of the see-saws to try and balance everything out. This experiment was cut short when one of the parents came over and informed the group that this wasn’t the right way to use the playground equipment.
All in all, Tacki and Dee both smiled and agreed to themselves that they had finally made it. They were finally moving slowly into the glorious days of big boy-ness. The fact that they were able to finally romp around and hold their own against kids twice their age and not get banished to the sandboxes was proof enough. The whole group agreed on playing some Hide and Seek now that some of the playground equipment was off limits. The little husky and dragon bounced in giggly excitement at the thought of playing another game with their new friends.
Suddenly, both their moms came calling for them. At first, the two thought they had to go home, but it was actually worse than that. Mrs. Dee and Mrs. Tacki both noticed the trademark walking gait and body movements their little ones were making as they were playing with their friends. This was a sure sign that the two were carrying a little extra weight on their bottoms and were also probably soggier than anything. “Come over here Dee and Tacki,” said Mrs. Dee. “I think we see two little boys who need their diapers changed!” teased Mrs. Tacki.
Dee and Tacki’s newfound friends looked at the two toddlers and burst into giggles. A few were holding their noses and one of the girls told their moms that they “prolly messed their diapers a little while ago.” Thanks Princess Obvious! Stunned by the loss of their newfound respect, the boys were picked up by their mommies and brought over to the car. As they laid there in the back seat of their car, the two boys were painfully aware of how little they still were. They had no idea that they needed a change and thus, were still a long time away from potty training.
By the time their public change was finished, the big kids were already off in the wooded area on the other side of the park, playing hide and seek. Tacki and Dee just stood there. Both their mommies thought that the day was getting hotter so they simply left the boys in their T-shirts and diapers. Not moving anywhere fast, Dee and Tacki’s moms hoisted them up on their shoulders. The ladies placed both of them down in a nearby sandbox while they sat on a bench close by, gossiping and completely unaware of how embarrassed their little ones were.
The sun burned high and hot over the cove, not as bad as it would get later in the year, but dangerously close to being uncomfortable if you weren’t dressed proper for it. It wasn’t a problem if you were rocking swim trunks or a slight bikini, but if you weren’t, well, the weather and the sparkling water definitely encouraged it.
Luckily for the Volunteer, the Aquarium kept things nice and brisk inside, the halls chilled by the giant exhibits of frigid water and copious amounts of AC. It was inviting, wafting from the automatic doors at the entrance as if to say, ‘The beach? Come now. It’s hot and the ocean water is ice cold. Plus, sand? Really? Why not come in here, enjoy the sights, and maybe perhaps would you like to make a donation? A sponsorship? We have shell necklaces in the gift shooooop’. The Volunteer was grateful for the windbreaker the Aquarium provided it’s employees, paid or otherwise. It was a nice teal color, with a little sea horse over the breast pocket. Best of all, it was just warm enough to stave off the frost, but not thick enough to roast in when tour guiding took her outside to the open air exhibits.
It was a hot day outside, but it was also a lively day at the Aquarium, as field trip season was in full swing. The Aquarium was well staffed and prepared, as it was a very popular destination for the local schools. Summer break loomed on the horizon, and this was often seen as the one last harrah before ushering the kids home for the ‘holidays’. Buses full of students, young and not so young, invested and not so invested, lined up outside, spilling their contents into the Aquarium as a colorful, caterwauling tidal wave. The set up had changed a lot since the Volunteer was in school; instead of matching shirts and connective leashes, many of the children wore stickers proclaiming their school, their group number, and the name of a group leader to page should the child be separated from the rest of the herd. That said, most also wore matching shirts and at least some of the smaller ones were leashed together. If they minded, the colors and sights of the Aquarium quickly dispelled any arguments.
It was always a spectacle, loud and noisy and vibrant, easily matching the animals and exhibits for pure busy energy. The Volunteer loved every moment of this; despite being only a few years into what some might call middle adulthood, she still felt a connection to the hum and pulse of the little ones and she drank it in, enjoying every minute. An outside observer (or her mother) might say something inappropriate, such as ‘oh, that’s just your momma clock ticking,’ or ‘well, why haven’t you settled down with someone yet, start a family?” But the Volunteer didn’t see it that way. She just loved doing what she did on her weekends, which is why she did it for free as a Volunteer.
An IT specialist by trade (spreadsheets were her jam) the Volunteer’s mundane profession was very different from what she did on her days off. She hadn’t gone to school to study marine wildlife (though it HAD been a dream of hers for like a week back in middle school) nor was she a big fan of aquariums before she had moved to the area. Initially joining a meet up group online, the Aquarium had been one of those destinations for a “Hey! New to the Area? Come meet people your age!” gathering that had sounded nice. Somewhat of an extroverted introvert, the Volunteer had looked forward to a look key meeting with nice people. Sadly, the day of the meet up, there was some…drama…in the group that eventually led to the cancellation of the get together completely. The Volunteer, diligent and punctual, received this information late, and was left milling around by herself in the grand hall of the Aquarium. A huge model of a blue whale hung over head, immense and intimidating, and the employees were boisterous and warm. Coming from a small town in the middle of the country, the spectacle that was the Aquarium was appealing, and then enthralling. She had loved seeing the otters, the sun fish, the mantis shrimp. She laughed harder then she had in a while at the antics of the sea lions, dancing for their trainers. She spent many minutes in front of the moon jellyfish enclosure, and was stunned to find that they had a jellyfish petting zoo in the back. The shark exhibit was well done and threatening, inviting guests to enter an ‘under water’ enclosure via a giant, toothy maw, and despite the collapse of the planned gathering, the Volunteer knew that she had found an anchor to help stabilize herself after her move. A few weeks and several more visits later, she found herself the owner of one of those teal windbreakers they gave volunteers, and two years later, we find ourselves looking in on the present day.
That’s not to say being a volunteer docent at an aquarium wasn’t without it’s warts from time to time. For every pleasant interaction with a young couple trying to get the names of the fish right for an overly, but appropriately inquisitive child, there was an adult making a child of themselves at the Cantina Del Mar, or an older brother deciding that pushing his little sibling into the star fish exhibit was an appropriate display of filial affection. Sometimes, it was hard to remain professional while narrating the latest leg of the tour, or trying to drum up sponsorships and financial contributions, especially when there was a not so subtle tug at her to simply abandon responsibility and see the aquarium and the sights as the guests did, wide eyed and full of wonder.
Putting that thought aside, she wandered the halls as usual, peering into the watery enclosures like any other tourist. She played a game with herself, trying to see how many of the animal names she had memorized, and any she missed were quickly studied up on. Stepping outside into the sun, she grinned, noticing two little kids near the edge of the previously mentioned star fish pool. Apparently siblings, the bigger of the two was trying unsuccessfully to pick his little sister up so she could touch the slimy echinoderms with her cubby fingers. They couldn’t have been older then maybe six and three, though the Volunteer never was and never would be a great judge of a child’s age, even after…after. She laughed out loud, unable to keep it in as the boy finally figured out a good grip on the little girl, hoisting her up by the seat of her overalls, and allowing her to finally dip her hand in the cool water. The child squealed in joy then made a face as she touched one of the stars, pulling her hand back and shaking it violently, getting both of them doused in salt water. The boy, startled, made a sound of his own and dropped the girl. She landed on her feet, no worse for wear, and proceeded to wipe her hands on her colorful clothing, giggling.
As the Volunteer watched, the boy led the girl to a handwashing station and dutifully helped her scrub up and get clean. It was as they began walking hand in hand to the shark exhibit that the Volunteer noticed that they were alone, and that no parent, older sibling, or school attendant followed them on their way. She had assumed that whoever was watching them was letting them a bit of independence, but after a while, she could see that wasn’t the case. From the distance, the Volunteer could see that both wore a colorful name badge of sorts on a lanyard, but aside from that, they were unattended. Normally the Volunteer would alert a security officer or a senior docent, but she was feeling curious and wanted to see how the kids would react once they realized that they had perhaps taken a wrong turn at the eel tank. Surely tears and panic, and that would let the Volunteer swoop in and play ‘hero’, which was always enjoyable. There hadn’t been any announcements over the intercom regarding a pair of lost children, so maybe she’d let them have a bit of fun before ‘tattling’.
As she followed them, she began noticing something very unusual about the pair. They held hands and chatted amicably amongst themselves, although they were too far away for the Volunteer to make out anything they were saying clearly. The way they carried themselves was a bit odd too, the little girl would plod along and then lean into the boy as though they were teens on a first date as opposed to two grade school kiddos taking in the sights. They bobbed and weaved around the various adults and other kids purposefully, not sharing the myopia that seemed a hallmark of the age. The illusion of maturity was shattered however, as the Volunteer finally got close enough to hear the girl cry out, “I gotta potty!” Teens on a date, indeed.
“Right now?” the little boy asked, apparently looking around for a bathroom and not the adults or the rest of the class they had assuredly come with. If they had asked the Volunteer, she could have easily told them it was back around the hand washing stations close to the horse shoe crab exhibit. They were a little tricky to find.
“Uh huh!” The girl yelped, starting to sway in an all too familiar dance, looking around worriedly.
It took a moment to realize that in the midst of her bemusement, the boy had turned and come up to her, asking exactly the question she had imaged him asking. Unprepared to be addressed thusly, she could only muster a weak acknowledgement.
“…Yes?” She managed.
“Could you tell us where the nearest bathroom is?”
A few years of answering this exact question quickly put the Volunteer on auto pilot. Dutifully reciting the directions, she was about to follow up with her own inquiries, but when she turned back from pointing the restroom out, the children were, gone, having already dashed past. The were impressively fast, the little girl slightly ahead of the boy. Not wanting to lose them (even though if she thought about it for even a second, she would have realized she new EXACTLY where they were going) the Volunteer yelped and gave chase. To any onlooker, the scene looked very akin to an exasperated young mother attempting to chase down an escaping pair of precocious tykes. Such things happen, that’s of course why leashes were invented. So the commotion didn’t really draw any further attention then passing bemusement.
Finally closing the gap with her longer legs, the Volunteer shouted out, “Hey! Wait a minute! You can’t go running around by yourselves!”
The boy turned slightly as he ran, shaking his head in annoyance as he slowed down in front of the bathrooms. “We’re not…we’re…just a minute, ok, miss?” As the little girl all but dove into the women’s bathroom he groaned, “No wait, not the girl’s…ugggh.” The boy started in after her, then abruptly spun on his heel and walked up to the Volunteer. “Here, please read this, and if you haven’t done so yet, Please don’t call the police, ma’am.” A wail went up from the bathroom before the Volunteer could form a response.
“I can’t undo my buckles!” came the shout from the bathroom, causing several passersby to smirk and continue walking. The little girl no doubt referred to the clasps on her pretty green overalls. Very fetching, but perhaps an irresponsible choice of attire for a child that looked to be just past potty training age. The boy sighed, yanked his badge off his neck, and thrust it into the Volunteer’s hands. Without another word, he spun and dashed into the bathroom. His colorful backpack, adorned in stickers and dinosaurs, was the last the Volunteer saw of him.
Looking down, the Volunteer was surprised to realize that the info badge was unlike any of the others she had seen the kids and students usually wear. It was on colorful, printed laminate, designed to be sturdy and durable. Good traits for a child’s badge for sure, but this one felt…expensive. It certainly wasn’t a sticker with some hastily scribbled contact information on it. In lieu of a school name or organization, instead of group leader phone numbers, it read –
My name is (and this part was very neatly printed ) REVA L’STREGA and I am on a REJUVACATION! Despite how small and cute I may look, I am a grown adult! If found, please do not call CPS or the POLICE. If you have any questions, concerns, or if you’d like to schedule your own adventure, please call us at (888) 745-PLAY. Thank you!
What in the world? Grown adult? Certainly not, unless something had happened to the global standard of what constituted being adult in this day in age. The Volunteer didn’t watch much TV, so much like she had missed the fact that Pluto was no longer a planet, this could also be something that had occurred. Not likely, but possible.
Another wail from the bathroom broke her from her reverie. Unintelligible, muted babble, followed up by the boy’s louder and reassuring shushes painted enough of a picture for the Volunteer. She probably hadn’t made it in time. The Volunteer was already reaching for her radio, preparing to call for janitorial assistance on ‘aisle three’.
Suddenly, before her fingers reached the device pinned at her belt, she noticed a young man, perhaps early twenties, striding down the hall, nose buried in an electronic tablet as he ran. Was this the absentee Chaperone? He wasn’t wearing any identifying outerwear, aside from a purple and white polo shirt with some kind of logo on the breast pocket. If he was responsible for the kids, the Volunteer had a few pointed words geared up for him, allowing his wards to wander around with nonsense printed on their badges, making it difficult to reunite them to their responsible parties should this very thing occur. The man stopped near her, looking right and left before returning his attention to the tablet.
“Says they should be right here…” he muttered to no one in particular.
“I’m sorry,” the Volunteer interjected. “You wouldn’t happen to be looking for two little kids, would you? Green overalls and a black and orange shirt with a dinosaur on it?”
The man turned towards her and brightened visibly. “Ah yes! I am, actually. Got called for a pants emergency.” He looked around again. “Is there a bathroom around here or…”
“You’re standing right in front of it,” the Volunteer said, gesturing. “But before that, can you tell me why they were allowed to wander around without supervision? I don’t know what school you’re from, but the fact that they spent a good deal alone and separated from the rest of the class without anyone noticing doesn’t really speak well of the organization of this field trip. You’re lucky I happned to see them over by the starfish before their left the Aquarium or worse, someone ran off with them. It’s a very dangerous world, Mr…”
The man blinked, surprised. “Class? No no no, Mr. and Mrs. L’Strega asked me to let them have some alone time. Perfectly reasonable request, coming from two adults of sound mind and body. I’m just the Chaperone, the ride here and the ride home. They’re the bosses.”
“That seems…horribly backwards. They don’t seem older then what, 6? 4?”
The Chaperone was about to answer, when high pitched voices intruded, lightly arguing. From the bathroom emerged the children, but the little girl was now only wearing a shell pink shirt and a brightly colored pull up or swim diaper, the Volunteer couldn’t tell. Her face, bright red and streaked with recently wiped away tears, contorted in anger as she tromped ahead of the boy, who wore his own expression of distaste as he carried a heap of green clothing wrapped lightly in paper towels.
“Why can’t they get that dose right,” she asked, somewhat rhetorically, because she didn’t give her companion time to answer. “And why is it always ME that bounces? When am I gonna get to be the older one?”
“I’m sorry, Zel, but they told us your thyroid issues could spaz out the results. I tried to warn you, but nooo Mrs. I-Don’t-need-protection-I’m-a-big-girl. Just be happy I had the spare in my backpack…I already called the Chaperone though, he should be…oh! There he is.”
The man knelt by the two children. The little girl huffed. “So sorry for the delay, Mr. L’Strega, is Mrs. L’Strega…?”
“I’m fine,” the little girl sulked, holding out her hands. “Do you have pants?”
“Right here,” the Chaperone said chipperly, handing her a bundle. “Do you need my help, or…”
“I think I can manage pants, thank you.”
It took her a few tries, (and the little boy ended up having to help her thread her left leg through the pant hole) but soon enough, the little girl was re-dressed and looking just as adorable as she had been before. So long as they didn’t say anything, the pair was indistinguishable from any of the other dozens of children still milling around.
“Well, we only have an hour or two before things start wearing off, did you two want to get something to eat, or continue looking around on your own?”
“I think we might have a few more things to check out by ourselves, thank you. I saw a flat penny machine on the second floor I wanna check out again, and according to this map, we missed the sting rays completely.” He looked down as his watch, which appeared to be of one of the characters of the latest rage in kid’s animation. “We’ll give you a call when we’re ready, thank you.”
“No problem! Just let me know, I’ll be around, of course.”
“Wait wait wait!” The Volunteer cried out, finally getting a word in on this strange scene. “You can’t just let toddlers run around the Aquarium by themselves! That’s it! I’m calling security. You’re obviously unfit to be watching these…two…?”
As she turned to sweep the area with her eyes, she realized that the kids were gone again, most likely having dove into a group of students while she had been fussing. The Chaperone however, was still there where she had left him. He looked at her with slightly amused, slightly pensive expression.
“Please don’t call anyone, miss. I see Mr. L’Strega left his badge with you, did you have a chance to read it? I feel like that usually explains things pretty well. I’m also going to need that back for him, he REALLY shouldn’t be walking around without it.”
The badge? “This? This is nonsense. RejuVacations? What is that, some kind of charter school? Is ‘fully grown adult’ some kind of sick euphemism?”
The Chaperone laughed a single noted chuckle, reaching for the badge. “No, no, I’m sorry to laugh, but this is my first time encountering this. We train extensively with roleplaying and mock scenarios, but they are way different experiencing them in person, of course. Let me start from the beginning. I am a Outside Recreation Experiences Organizer with RejuVacations, a vacation resort and summer camp located about thirty five miles from here. We specialize in ‘bringing out the kid in you!’ through our patent-pending JANUS system. More simply put, we can make our guests any age they care to be, though only temporarily. Then, armed with the vigor and wonder of youth, we allow visitors to experience happy memories that may have begun to fade, or to make brand new memories of things they might have taken for granted. We have five start of the art re-creations of youth to experience and enjoy, including a daycare, forest camp, and state of the art arcade. RejuVacations! Where looking back is the first step forward.” he intoned, reciting a well memorized spiel. It was obvious that he had practiced this before.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Oh very! I understand, I really do. Even though we were on all the Sunday shows when we opened, most people think we’re some kind of hoax, or just don’t imagine what we do is could be possible. But it is very possible. Mr and Mrs. L’Strega there are in their mid 30s, celebrating their anniversary. Obviously, we’re a bit far away from the resort, but they’ve come enough times to take the next step in RejuVacation; guided field trips. Unfortunately, science is never really exact when it comes to the things we do, and the little missus ended up a bit younger then our projections. These things happen all the time, though, nothing to worry about!”
The Volunteer, now realizing with a sinking feeling that she was talking to a crazy person, began to turn away to go hunt for the nearest security guard. The two kids were obviously in some sort of danger being around this individual.
“Ahh, I know that look. We got a lot of practice on that one. You think I’m crazy, well, I thought the same thing when I first heard about RejuVacations. A place that can make you younger? A summer camp built into a forest, surrounded by a giant building? How cool is that? But if you still don’t believe me, open that badge.”
The volunteer checked her turn and looked down again at the thick plastic info badge. Open it? Her fingers flew unbidden around the edges, looking for some kind of clasp…and with a click, she found it. Folding it open, she looked inside, surprised to find a driver’s license, a key, and two small photographs. One of the pictures was of the little boy, smiling a gap toothed smile as though he were getting his school photo done. The second one was of an older man, mid thirties, with thinning hair, and crow’s feet making smile lines around his eyes. The two looked very much alike, but maybe the boy’s father? No…the resemblance was TOO close, down to the mole under their eyes and a slight, quirking turn to their smiles. If this was a hoax it was very elaborately done.
Could it be possible? Could this be place be true? As previously stated, the Volunteer didn’t really stay ‘in the loop’ with what was new and trendy. She remembered her earlier longing to be a part of the milling crowds, to be colorful and lighthearted, and swiftly, the prospect both thrilled her and depressed her. There was no way this was real. Someone probably had a camera up, and she was about to be the next internet sensation, ‘local twenty something gets punked! She actually thinks we can turn people into preschoolers!’ Nine thousands likes. Please subscribe.
“Tell you what. I’ll take that,” the Chaperone said, gently retrieving the badge and closing it up, “And in return, let me give you my card. Give that number a call when you have a day off and come check us out. I promise I’ll stick closer to my…little ones, haha, so they won’t be completely unshadowed. They did pay a little bit more for their privacy, but they are good clients and we can definitely negotiate some recompense. Does that sound like something that might be amenable?”
The Volunteer looked down at the card. As one might expect, it was colorful and bright, giving an address and that same tag line.
“Where looking back is the first step forward!”
What could it hurt to check it out?
Without really realizing it, she nodded at the Chaperone, who let out a breath she didn’t notice he had been holding in.
“Great! Hope to see you there! Just give that number a call and follow any instructions they provide. Ohh! And if you have anyone else you think would be interested, please, send them our way! We’re always looking for more friends to step back with. It’s a great bonding experience!”
And with that, the young man was gone, hurriedly diving into the throng of colorful students himself, and without seconds he was out of sight. The Volunteer looked back down at the card.