Twenty, Twenty

by Jordan Marie McCaw

 

Parker was a minute late getting into the car. He knew this because the watch on his mother’s wrist lit up pink, relaying their tardiness. She didn’t say anything about it, which was unusual, especially under the circumstances. However, Parker noticed a gentleness in her this morning he hadn’t seen before. Perhaps she understood the anxiety he was feeling, causing him to perspire profusely.

It was just them two who got in the car. His sister and father were staying at home. This was a venture the child usually only experienced with the accompaniment of his mother, or whoever was the primary maternal figure in the family.

He fastened his seatbelt around his narrow waist and sighed, flexing his clammy hands on his thighs. His mother watched him out of the corner of her eye as she pulled out of their driveway.

“I was nervous,” she told him, turning right at the end of their street. “Terrified, actually. But it will be the most surreal experience in your entire life. A lot of questions you have will be answered.”

He cleared his throat, wiped his hands on his pants. “I’m not afraid,” he said

Earlier that morning his father told him that today he became a man. Today, on his twentieth birthday. Parker still felt like a boy, even more like an infant when he couldn’t button his own shirt because his fingers trembled too violently. 

“Did you enjoy your waffles?” his mother asked.

He nodded. “Yes, thank you for them.”

“Sorry there were no strawberries. I forgot to pick them up on my way home last night.”

“That’s okay. I like blueberries.”

“Yeah, but strawberries are your favorite.”

Parker forgot each word both of them said after they uttered them. Twenty was too young to embark on a journey like this, he thought. This was something for someone in their mid-twenties, or even thirties, when one had a firm grasp on who he was. 

The car ride lasted twenty-five minutes, and because his mother speeded on the freeway, they were two minutes early. The light on her watch glowed blue now, calming Parker somewhat.

They sat in the car for a few moments after she parked it. Both stared at the square grey building before them. A couple other cars were in the parking lot as well, a girl and her mother walking into the building. The girl looked as nervous as Parker. It didn’t make him feel better.

His mother touched his arm and he looked at her. “It’s going to be okay,” she said. “I’m excited for you. I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since I was here when I turned twenty. Ever since you were born I looked forward to this day.”

He felt tears forming behind his eyes. He blinked rapidly to avoid them falling down his face.  If only he could refuse, throw a fit and demand to be taken home and spend the day how he wanted: with friends and family and cake. There would be no cake for him today, however. Cake would come tomorrow, when he was done with today.

“You’re going to walk out of that building with more confidence than you ever thought you could have,” his mother said. “I love you, honey, and I’m excited for you. Are you ready?”

He cleared his throat again. He answered her by unbuckling his seatbelt and opening the passenger side door. Before getting out, he asked, “You’re coming inside with me, right?”

“Of course, honey.” 

He knew she was, but he needed reassurance. He needed his mother with him every step of the way, for every second of today. But her seconds with him were waning as they walked into the building.

The foyer was white from floor to ceiling, with porcelain pottery of sleeping infants decorating a small glass coffee table and two stands in opposite corners. The receptionist’s desk was also white, with no name or any images depicting where they were. Words or images weren’t necessary to remind someone what this was place was.

Parker wanted to hold his mother’s hand as she checked him in. Tears still blurred his vision, though mostly due to all the white. The receptionist typed in Parker’s name, birthdate, and the identification number of the hospital where he was born into the computer on her desk. After hitting the enter key and waiting a few seconds, she beamed up at him and said, “Welcome, Parker, and happy birthday.”

He couldn’t say thank you or even grunt in reply. His mouth had gone completely dry, his tongue numb. 

Turning to his mother, he silently pleaded with her not to leave him, to let him go back home with her. She only smiled warmly, reveling in her pride for him. “Remember,” she said, “most people don’t get a gift like this in their lifetime.”

She hugged him. He didn’t hold her too tight in fear of not being able to let go. When they parted, a man held a white door open for him. He walked through it, turning back once to see his mother still smiling.

The hall he walked down with the man was as white as the foyer. The man wore white slacks and a white button-down shirt. His black hair was peppered with silver. Parker noticed the man walking with a slight limp.

They stopped at the third door on the left. Before opening it, the man said, “It’s going to be very dark when you enter. Lights will come on after a minute.” His tone was calm, yet pragmatic. A robot engineered to emulate human emotion, but only to the degree robots were able to go. Parker stared at the door.

“It’s going to be very strange at first,” the man said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I promise that’s the scariest part. You’ll understand.”

Parker’s eyes were now two dry orbs in his skull. His entire body rocked back and forward from heel to toe. 

“Are you ready?”

No, he wasn’t. Was anyone ever ready for this…for this “gift”? Parker didn’t understand how this was a gift. He didn’t want this. Who wanted this?

You’ll understand. The man’s mechanical voice echoed in his head.

The man opened the door, but he didn’t enter. Parker felt himself moving forward into the darkness before him. He was too afraid at this point to feel anything but the numbness that emanated from his core to his fingertips. 

The man didn’t follow him inside, instead closing the door as soon as Parker went in. He heard a click behind him as the door locked. Not even a small window let in a stream of light. The only thing Parker heard was his own shallow breathing. 

The room smelled like his home: fresh linens, lavender, and notes of pine. Fresh. It smelled so much like home, Parker didn’t notice. However, the scents subconsciously relaxed him more than anything else, allowing him to take a step forward in the darkness.

He heard rustling, but he wasn’t sure from where. Fists clenched at his sides, he searched for reasons to be afraid, but the longer he stood in the dark he felt safe. 

Suddenly lamps turned on––a fading of yellow illuminating the white walls, a small couch, the crib in the middle of the room. The rustling came from the crib, eventually turning into soft whimpers. 

Parker didn’t move, didn’t blink, barely breathed.

Once the lights remained at a dim, soft brightness, he moved toward the crib. The whimpering didn’t escalate but it also didn’t abate. It was the sound of a child wanting to be held.

Swallowing hard, Parker approached the crib. The baby stared up at him. With trembling hands, he lifted the baby into his arms. His whimpering ceased as his tiny body loosened.

Parker held in his arms his own self as an infant. First a present to his parents at his birth, and now a present for Parker on his twentieth birthday. In the surrounding rooms other twenty-year-olds held, played with, and stared at themselves.

At the sight of his infant self, Parker’s fear turned into wonder. The baby never cried or fidgeted more than finding a more comfortable position. This was who he was, being held by who he was now. 

“Hi,” he said to himself. The baby stared up at him with that same wonder.

Parker wanted to tell the baby what he should expect in his coming years. He wanted to warn the infant about spending too much time playing baseball instead of focusing on art, or to not drink too much at prom. He wanted to encourage himself to stand up to his parents about his aspirations to be a painter and move to France. He wanted himself to grow up without the same mistakes or regrets he had now. 

“What’s going to happen to you?” he asked himself. If he looked in a mirror, he’d know the answer. He thought twenty was too young to know the answers. 

The infant fidgeted on his lap. Parker looked around the dimly lit room, wondering how the baby got here, how it was created. No one told him how this was possible, no one told him who was God in this scenario. The baby wasn’t a projection or an artificial being––at least Parker thought. 

“What’s going to happen?” he thought again.

Would the baby grow up like him, and come back to this establishment to find another infant version of himself? Was the baby morphed and turned into another being through the unfathomable science that brought the baby here in the first place? Would the baby be discarded, neutralized…killed?

Parker brought the baby into his chest, breathing heavily. He saw no other door in the room than the one he entered. Only one exit. He swaddled his baby-self with the blanket in the crib and held him to his chest. The baby didn’t do more than murmur softly at the comforting warmth exuding from Parker’s pounding heart. 

The door was unlocked. Apparently no one needed to be locked in after discovering oneself as an infant. Apparently this all was much more widely accepted than Parker realized. With the baby in his arms, he couldn’t except the one possibility for his infant self, whatever that one possibility was after he left. He deserved more possibilities, more opportunities he himself never had the privilege to choose from. 

The white corridor was still, except for the soft sounds coming from other rooms. Somewhere a baby cried. Somewhere else a twenty-year-old girl cried hysterically, though not painfully. Above all the crying, however, Parker heard laughter. 

Instead of walking to the foyer where he entered, he traversed in the other direction. Those in the surrounding rooms paid no mind to the sound of footsteps outside that quickened once Parker found a door leading outside. As soon as he pushed against it the fire alarm sounded. His infant self screamed in his arms at the disorienting sirens blaring throughout the building. Parker ran outside in the blustery, warm afternoon that kissed his face. His feet slapped against the concrete sidewalk and shook his knees. Two tears streaked across his face and into his hair. He ran as far as he could before the weight of the baby in his arm’s wore him down. He made it to the bus station and bought a ticket to where ever the next bus was going with the birthday money his grandparents’ sent him. 

Before it was time to board the bus, he bought a chocolate chip cookie. Only one or two strangers studied the young boy craddling a baby with furrowed brows, but no one said a word. Parker chose a seat near the back of the bus, by a window on the left side. He broke the cookie into tiny pieces and shared it with the baby, who ate greedily. 

“Happy birthday,” he said to himself.