On a Ring and a Prayer
By Ellie Dauber
Cathy Reinhart looked up from the letter. "Johnny! Johnny, you get out here at once."
When he didn't come out of his room, she went in after him. He was sprawled out on the bed reading some magazine. She didn't have to look past the naked woman on the cover to know what kind of magazine. He still wasn't paying attention, but between the pictures in that magazine and the earphones, she wasn't certain if he even knew she was there.
She decided to tell him as dramatically as possible and yanked the magazine from his hands.
"What the hell -- hey, Ma. Gimme that back." Johnny grabbed for the magazine, but Cathy was too fast, holding it behind her.
"Dammit, I said give it back." There was a threat in his voice, but he made no move to actually hit her.
"Take off those earphones, Johnny and show me some respect. I am your mother."
"So?" He relaxed a little, unclenching his fist and taking off the earphones. Something was up. She normally didn't have the guts to pull something like this. His curiosity won out over his anger, as he decided to listen -- at least for a while.
"So this." She still held the letter in her other hand. "It's a letter from your school. You've been absent so much lately that you've been put on suspension -- and I'm being fined for your absences. You know we can't afford any new expenses."
"Hey, I got bored. There's a lot more to do on the streets than in that stupid school."
"But you need to graduate to get a good job."
"Hell, Ma, there's more to life than a job. Besides, Doc Brokaw says he's got a job for me now, if I want it."
"Brokaw! But he's a --"
"You know what he is, Ma. He's a man with money and power in this town. That's what I want, and that's what Doc says I can get, if I work with him."
Brokaw. Cathy's anger collapsed into fear. They said the man controlled half of the crime in the city, and, from what Johnny said, the man was taking a special interest in her son.
As the anger left her, Cathy's body relaxed. Johnny's arm snaked out and grabbed the magazine. "Now that we've settled that, get the hell out of my room." He put earphones back on and settled back onto his bed.
Head bowed, Cathy left the room in defeat, tears beginning to slide down her cheeks.
Almost by instinct, she ran to her own bedroom and flung herself across the bed. When she finally looked up, she found herself looking at the picture of Mick. It was the special picture, the one taken a week before the accident that had -- after fifteen years, it still hurt to think about it -- had killed him. He was smiling, that big dumb grin of his that she loved, and looking down at her and their infant son.
"Oh, Mick," she said, lifting up the picture. "If only you hadn't died."
Then man in the picture moved. Mick looked up, looked straight at her. "But I did, Cathy. I'm sorry, but I did."
"You're dreaming, Cathy, but I'm using the dream to talk to you."
"It can't be. You're -- you're dead."
"You said that already. Please listen to me for a minute."
"Ah -- all right."
"First of all, I love you. I love you so much it still hurts to be away from you after all these years. I've tried to watch out for you and Johnny, but there's some things that -- well, -- that you can't do from this side."
"Oh, Mick, I still love you, too. I haven't even thought about anybody else since you died."
"Yes, you have, Cathy. And you should."
Cathy, love of my life, you're a healthy, passionate, giving woman. I know that better than anyone."
"Yes, but I love you, Mick." Cathy felt herself thinking about Mick and remembering their last night together. She blushed at the memory. And smiled.
"And I love you. Only, you're alive, and I'm not. Cathy, our bed was a place of love and joy once. I can't stand to see it be my second grave. I want you to promise that, once we've solved the problem with Johnny, you'll go on with your own life. Find another love and be happy with him."
"I -- I promise."
"Of course, it'll be hard to find anybody as good as me." He grinned, "but you will find him."
"Mick!" Cathy smiled. It seemed as if some weight she hadn't even known about had been lifted off her back.
But there was still another weight. "But Mick, what can I do about Johnny? It'll take a miracle"
"You have a miracle, Cathy, your wedding ring."
"What are you talking about?" She looked down at her ring, the ring Mick had put on her finger on their wedding day, and that she'd steadfastly refused to take off (except to protect it from water or rough work) to this day. It was silver, a small diamond surrounded by five emerald chips.
"Cathy, that ring's been in my family for I don't know how long. My great-grandmother brought it with her when she and my great-grampa came over from the old country."
"It's so beautiful. I always thought it must be an antique."
"It is, but it's more than that. According to family legend, once a generation, the wearer of the ring can make a wish to save the family line from danger."
"That's silly. There's no such thing as magic."
"Then how can you be talking to your dead husband?"
"Because I'm dreaming."
"Believe that if you want, but, please, remember what I'm telling you. Johnny, our Johnny, is in danger."
"I know. I know." In spite of herself, she began to cry.
"Don't cry, Cathy. The ring can save him. You can save him. You just have to believe."
"I don't know about the ring, but I believe in you, Mick."
"I love you, too, Kit-Cat." It was a pet name he'd given her on their honeymoon. It never failed to make her smile, even now. "Remember what I said about the ring -- and about yourself. Have a good life." He seemed to be fading as he spoke.
He grinned again. "Not goodbye, Cathy. See you later." He faded, the grin going last.
Cathy suddenly found herself sitting on the bed. 'He always did like Alice in Wonderland,' Cathy thought, and she suddenly giggled as if in relief. "What a dream."
Then she felt a warmth on her hand. When she looked down, her wedding ring was glowing slightly. There seemed to be a pattern, a pentagram of all things, forming between the emerald chip. Maybe it wasn't a dream.
"No time like the present to find out." She stood up and walked back to Johnny's bedroom. The door was half closed, but she could see him still lying on the bed. His music was turned up so loud that she could hear it leaking out from his headphones.
She pushed the door. It swung open, slamming into the wall.
Johnny looked up from the magazine, that same damned smutty magazine. "What the hell do you want, bitch!"
"Respect, Johnny. I'm your mother."
"Who cares? I'm sick of you. Sick of listening to you tell me what to do, how to behave."
"Oh, Johnny, I wish things could be different, that I could have been able to raise you right."
"Who cares what you -- hey, what the hell's happening to me?" He looked down at his body. It was tingling like crazy, and he seemed to be shrinking. The sleeves of his sweatshirt were moving down over his wrists, beginning to cover his hands.
Cathy stared as her son. He was getting smaller, somehow. No, not smaller, younger.
"Ma -- help me." Johnny was panicking now. His clothes were getting much too big on him, and he heard his voice crack as he slipped back through puberty. He tried to get up. It wasn't easy in his now very much oversized garments.
A ten year old boy jumped off the bed and ran towards his mother. He stepped out of his $150 dollar sneakers. Where had he gotten the money to pay for them? He had to hold his pants as he ran -- the belt was useless now. They would fall off in a moment. Even so, they were growing longer and longer on him. He slowed to a walk to keep from tripping.
He was six or seven by the time he reached her. A cute little boy with chubby cheeks and a head full of curls, not a slender, sullen teen with his hair in a short, "gang" cut. He put his arms around her, grabbing her around the legs since he could reach no higher. "Help me, Mommy. Please help me."
Cathy reached down and patted his head, trying to comfort him. She was beginning to get an idea of what was happening. The ring had been magic, and she was getting a chance to start over. "It's all right, Johnny. It's going to be all right."
A three year old looked up at her. His eyes were wide with fear. "I'm scared, Mommy. Please make it stop."
"I don't think I can, honey. But don't be afraid. Your Mommy's here."
"Ma-ma here." The baby smiled up at her. He had collapsed into the heap of clothes. It was funny, and he began to giggle. He was about eight months old, Cathy guessed. Somehow, she knew that he wouldn't get any younger.
Suddenly Cathy felt a tingling in her own body. Her breasts were tingling. She looked down. They seemed to be growing. She felt her bra growing tight. Then she felt a tenderness in her nipples and a wetness on her chest. Of all things, she was lactating.
She picked up the mass of clothes, baby and all, and walked back to her own room. The baby must have sensed the milk, smelled it maybe, because it began to make little sucking sounds.
She put the clothes and the baby on her bed. With all the clothes piled around it, there was little chance of it falling. She unbuttoned her blouse and took it off. Her bra was wet from the milk. She took it off, too, and looked at her breasts. They were bigger than before. Firmer, too. It was almost as if she had grown younger, as her son had.
She was curious to look at herself in the mirror, but first things first. She fished little Johnny out of the pile of clothes and drew him close. He squirmed in her arms trying to reach her breasts.
A moment later, he was close enough. Johnny put his lips around her left nipple and began to suck. It was a soft, almost sensual feeling. Cathy sat on the bed enjoying a pleasure that she hadn't known in far too many years.
As Johnny nursed, Cathy began to remember other feelings on her breasts. The sensation of a man touching her breasts; touching her in other places, too. Mick had been right. It had been too long; much too long. Whatever else happened, she resolved to do something about that as soon as she could.
But now, she noticed that the ring was still glowing. The spell was still working. What, she wondered, was it doing now?
Then she looked down at Johnny sucking so contentedly at her breast. Something was happening to him. His hair was getting longer, growing down over his ears. Something else was happening. His infant's penis, small as it was, was getting even smaller. As he drank, he seemed to be absorbing femininity from her. In a few moments, his penis had retracted into his body leaving behind only a familiar, utterly female slit between two pudgy, infantile lips.
The baby drank her left breast dry. It still seemed hungry, so she shifted it to the right. By now, Johnny's hair -- no, it wasn't Johnny any more. By now, Jenny's hair was down to her neck in beautiful ringlets. Somehow, there were even two small bows in her hair.
The baby finished. Cathy leaned her over her shoulder and patted her back. Jenny gave a loud, satisfied, "Burp!" and giggled. Cathy held her in her arms and smiled at her. "Oh, Jenny, what am I going to do with you?"
The baby smiled up at her and began to rub its eyes. "See-py," it said. Cathy put on another blouse. She didn't know why, but she gathered up Johnny's old clothes and walked with them and Jenny back to Johnny's old room.
It wasn't Johnny's room anymore. The brown walls were now painted pink and gold, and his posters of rock musicians and half-naked women were gone. His bed was gone, too. A baby's crib stood in its place with a Sesame Street mobile hanging down from the ceiling. Her old rocker was next to the crib. Next to his dresser, now painted a cheery pink, was a baby's changing table. There was a stack of disposable diapers, wipes, baby oil, and talc on the top of the dresser.
She put the clothes in the bottom of the crib and gently set Jenny on the changing table. A little oil and some talc, and in a few moments, Jenny was wearing a clean diaper. Cathy knew which drawer of the dresser to open. She pulled out a pale blue baby's nightie and dressed the sleepy baby. She placed Jenny on her back in the crib and covered her with a blanket.
She recognized the blanket. The pattern of embroidered ducks that her mother had sewn in it meant that it couldn't be anything but Johnny's old "Blankie", lost years before. It was back now, in perfect condition, except that now it was pink, rather than blue. This was just too much, and she sank down into the rocker.
At least it was over. Johnny was safe now, even if he was Jenny. She smiled and looked over at her baby; her much bigger baby. Jenny was growing. She looked to be about two, now.
The changing table vanished to be replaced with a large toy chest. It was open, and Cathy could see a number of toys inside. The puzzles were Jenny's favorites. She could spend -- Cathy started. How did she know that? She still remembered Johnny, but now she had memories of shopping with Jenny, picking out the rubberized puzzles. Cathy remembered other things, too. The day care center she left Jenny with, the names of some of her friends there; and the name "Ranny" that Jenny had given the "Raggedy Ann" doll she was now clutching as she slept.
Cathy stood in amazement as the room continued to change. The crib became a bed. Jenny was four or five now. There were a row of stuffed animals on the top of the dresser. The Sesame Street mobile still hung down over the bed, and there were pictures of Big Bird and The Count on the walls. Cathy remembered buying them for Jenny when they had gone to see some sort of live show with the Sesame Street characters at the local arena.
Jenny was still sleeping. She looked to be about seven now. A small adjustable desk appeared in the corner. Two papers, written in a child's hand and each with a gold star, were pinned to a cork board on the wall above the desk.
A number of dolls were suddenly in bed with the nine year old girl. The Sesame Street toys were gone, but there was a furnished doll house in their place. A brownie uniform hung from the closet door. Cathy suddenly knew that she was a troop leader, and her mind was flooded with new memories of activities and cookie sales. There was a picture of a girl on a pony on the wall next to the cork board. Jenny had learned to ride "Star" at Camp that summer. She'd gushed about the horse to Cathy for weeks afterward.
Camp? Nine-year olds didn't go to Girl Scout Camp. Twelve-year olds did, though. There was now a small bookshelf on the top of the much larger desk: Sonnets of Emily Dickinson, a couple Nancy Drew mysteries, and Anne McCafferey's Dragon Singer series were in among the junior high text books. A poster of a horse very much like "Star" hung on the wall across from the bed.
Jenny stirred a little beneath the covers, rolling over to face Cathy. Her hair was short, now. 'Just a tomboy phase,' Cathy caught herself thinking. Jenny was lanky. Her baby fat was gone, but her woman's glands hadn't quite kicked in yet. Cathy remembered a minor argument a few days before. A girl didn't need a training bra when she still hadn't begun to grow breasts yet; even if, as she had told her mother, "all my friends are wearing them already."
Jenny rolled over onto her back. Cathy watched her growing taller under the covers, her feet reaching down to the pile of Johnny's clothes that were still at the foot of the bed. Something else was growing, too. 'Too late for a training bra now,' Cathy thought as the blankets over her chest rose several inches.
She looked at the pile of clothes. They changed as she watched. The sweatshirt became a girl's blouse and the jeans rewove to a more feminine cut. Johnny's shorts and undershirt shrank down to become a silky matching bra and panty set, turning color from cotton white to a satiny yellow.
The dolls vanished from the bed, re-appearing in a neat row on a shelf over the dresser. The toy box was replaced by a make-up table with various cosmetics. A PC appeared on the desk. Cathy remembered how Jenny had run errands and saved money for several months for that PC. Cathy was able to match the savings with part of her Christmas bonus.
Jenny was a pretty good student, she remembered now. If there wasn't much money for college, her grades were good enough to justify at least some financial aid.
Jenny stirred a bit, pushing the blankets down. She was somehow wearing a blue flannel nightgown. Her figure had developed a bit more. The nightgown covered her, but nothing could deny those C-cup breasts pushing out the fabric. Cathy stood over her daughter and pulled the blankets back up. She hadn't meant to, but the movement woke the sleeping girl.
"Oh, Mama, I -- what happened?"
Cathy noticed that her voice had none of Johnny's male arrogance. 'No,' she suddenly thought. 'Johnny's gone. This is Jenny.' "I don't know, dear. How do you feel?"
The girl stretched. "I had the strangest dream, Mama. I was a boy, a terrible boy. He was in all kinds of trouble."
"It was just a dream, Jenny." Cathy smiled at her lovely young daughter.
"Oh, I know that. I'd never do anything bad like that." She looked up at Cathy and smiled back shyly. "You raised me right, Mama."
‘This time I did,’ Cathy thought.
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