@mind-wiper
Mind Wipe Time
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2021-04-23 06:04:49

    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.  

    The Faker

    Years ago scandal after scandal hit around the foster care system.  It became public that CYFs (Children, Youth and Families) had been allowing mass abuse to take place.  The system was overburdened, underfunded and constrained by stupid rules.  They placed kids saved from one abusive family into another one that was often even worse.  The discovery of this abuse led to a government inquiry and the replacement of CYFs with Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry of Children.  Finally they had the funding, the oversight, to get things right.  But then the virus hit and everything changed.  

    After the virus appeared it was clear the legal status of those affected had to change too. Clearly they were not adults anymore, not capable of looking after themselves.  Those affected became minors once again and so legally they were children.  Those who had no one to care for them, no partner or willing friends or parents couldn’t just be left on the street of course. So a new system of state care, of foster care, was set up.  But of course funding couldn’t keep pace with the exponential growth of the demand.  And so case workers found themselves drowning in clients, emergency facilities filled up and oversight dropped noticeably.  

    It was inevitable that abuse would take place again. Anyone could see that.  But the government would turn a blind eye as long as possible. Orphans don’t have families to complain on their behalf. Minors can’t vote.  So it’s only natural politicians tend to forget about them.  Unless someone makes their plight so public the government can’t ignore it.  That’s where we come in.  

    My name is David Wells and I’ve been an investigative journalist for nearly a decade now.  I’m thirty-three years old and I have a girlfriend named Sarah, an ICU nurse.  She’s a great woman, willing to put up with my long hours and occasional weeks long disappearances.  And she understands the importance of the problem with the foster system.  She understands why I need to do this.  

    “So you’re ready?” Mark asks me.  

    I take a breath, considering if I really am ready to do this.  It’s a simple plan really, go undercover into the foster system, witness the failings, report on them.  But it’s not really that simple of course. To go undercover I have to convincingly play the role of a virus victim.  I need to stay in character at all times.  There is a high risk that I’ll be abused myself and will have to endure it in order to save others who can’t fight back.  

    “As ready as I’m going to be mate,” I tell Mark.  

    He nods, knowing it’s time to begin.  He and my editor, Lauren, are the only two people who know that I’m doing this.  They’ve implanted a chip in my shoulder that will allow them to track where I am, but otherwise there will be no contact until I decide I’ve learned all I need.  

    But to start it all off we need to get me into the system. That’s why we’re at the Bellhaven Mall, sitting in Mark’s car.  He’s carefully parked it where there are no security cameras, just in case they check.  Once I give the go ahead, Mark gets out of the car and walks toward the mall entry.  I wait two minutes, then I get out and head the same way.  

    The purpose is so that Mark can “find” me, a lost virus victim, wandering the mall without his caregiver.  It’s not unusual for a reluctant carer to dump a kid at the mall. It shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.  

    I find Mark near the mall entrance.  I’ve already done my best to think about the saddest events of my life, to work up some fake tears. It’s tough but I think my eyes are red enough to be convincing.  

    Mark gives me a little nod, putting his hand on my shoulder and asking loudly for those around us to hear, “Are you lost buddy?”  

    And now it’s time to really get into character.  We decided that the younger I pretended to be, the more likely people would commit abuse around me.  But there was a limit to how young I felt I could convincingly act.  And I needed to be old enough that they wouldn’t just leave me in a crib in an institution. I needed to see the whole system, including foster families.  So we decided I would pretend to be about three years old, mentally.  

    I gave Mark an exaggerated nod.  “Uh-huh!” I answered, with a little sniffle.  

    “It’s okay buddy, let’s take you to security so they can find your Mummy,” Mark said, taking my hand and now leading me through the mall.  

    I’d been dressed to look like the right age of course.  A red and white striped t-shirt, baggy blue board shorts with no pockets, so no wallet or ID of course.  My shoes were velcro sneakers with Minions yellow and blue socks.  On my back was a minions backpack, a child leash dangling from it. Inside all they would find is empty juice boxes, cracker crumbs, a pack of crayons and a ratty old teddy bear.  

    Mark delivered me to mall security.  A ruddy faced middle aged man in a brown rent-a-cop uniform looked me over with disdain.  

    “I found him wandering around all by himself.  He clearly looked lost and pretty upset,” Mark told him.  

    The man nodded.  “Did you see anyone leave him?” he asked Mark.

    “No, sorry.”  

    “Not your fault,” the mall cop said.  Then he turned to me, looking at me like a moron, like I was clearly too thick to understand him as he asked, “Did your Mummy or Daddy bring you here?”  

    I did my best to look simply scared and confused, just as he would have expected. I nibbled on my thumb and twisted my body about, saying nothing.  

    The mall cop frowned but didn’t seem surprised by my silence.  

    “What’s your name?” he asked next.

    I decided to give him an answer this time, but a brief one.  

    “Dabey,” I told him.  We decided it would be safe to use my own name, since it was very common anyway.  

    “Davey, that’s good,” the mall cop told me. “What’s your last name Davey?”  

    I blinked like it was the toughest question he could have asked.  Then I said, “Me Dabey,” and gave him a little smile.

    He sighed.  “Okay buddy, that’s okay. Do you know what your Mummy’s name is?  Or your Daddy?”  

    “Mummy!” I replied quickly now, smiling innocently, like this was clearly the right answer.  

    The mall cop rolled his eyes and I had to fight the urge to chuckle at his suffering.  He turned to Mark and said, “Thanks for bringing him in. Looks like we’ll have to get the cops in on this one so if you wouldn’t mind sticking around…”

    Now it was Mark’s turn to look upset. “Hey sorry man but I actually have a date that I’m already going to be late for and I did my duty bringing the boy here. He’s safe now and I’m not gonna be able to tell the cops anything useful. So sorry mate, but he’s your responsibility now.”  

    And just like that Mark turned and left the security office without looking back at me.  I was on my own now.  

    The cops arrived half an hour later.  I was less than impressed by their response time, especially as I’d been given nothing but a piece of paper and the crayons they found in my bag to play with.  It was tough having no phone, no kindle, nothing to actually entertain myself with.  I drew my best scribbles nonetheless, focusing on making them believable.  

    The police officers were a male and female patrolmen, wearing full blue uniform and high-vis vests.  They took the mall cop’s statement, then the female officer, a pretty young blonde, knelt down to the table I was scribbling at and gave me a big smile.  

    “Well hello there Davey,” she said.  “My name is Shawna.”  

    I looked up at her and stopped scribbling for a second.  

    “What you drawing there honey?”  

    I looked back at the messy scribbles. They didn’t look like a single recognisable thing.  

    “Is a bunny,” I said, pointing to one red scribble. “Daz a monkey,” I explained, pointing to a green one.  

    Shawna responded very positively, telling me how good an artist I was. It was painfully condescending, but at least she seemed genuinely nice.  

    “Davey, that’s your name isn’t it?” she asked next.

    I nodded, acting shy still.  

    “Good boy.  Now, do you know what I am?” she asked.

    I shook my head.

    “Well I’m a police officer. It’s my job to keep little boys nice and safe and get them home with Mummy and Daddy,” she explained.

    “Po-eese offercer,” I repeated, like I was sounding it out, badly.  

    She nodded, ignoring my terrible diction.  “Exactly.  Now, Davey, if you can answer a few questions for me, it would really help. That sound okay to you?”

    I nodded, but of course I didn’t actually answer any of her questions. No, I don’t know Mummy and Daddy’s names, no I don’t know my street or phone number. No, I don’t remember what Mummy’s car looks like or what colour it is.  Finally Shawna gave up and told me we were going to take a little ride.  She acted like it should be very fun and exciting, riding in a police car, so I smiled and tried to look excited too.  

    Shawna sat in the back seat of the car with me, doing up my belt and everything. It was so weird being led by the hand, having someone do everything for me.  But I kept up the act.  We were almost there.  

    Sure enough the police didn’t drive me to a station. They drove to the nearest emergency juvenile facility, basically a modern orphanage.  These were places they put kids until they could place them in foster care. Sometimes that was overnight. Other times it was weeks or even months.  That wasn’t what they were meant to be for, but it happened far too often.  

    I had seen these places before, but never as a client of course.  The facility they took me too was standard design.  It was cold and sterile looking on the outside.  Inside there was a big front desk where they processed new arrivals.  The cops explained my situation to the woman on duty.  She was about forty years old, overweight with brown hair cut short.  

    “What’s his mental age?” the woman asked the cops.

    “We don’t know for sure. But he seems about two to me, maybe a young three,” Shawna answered.  

    The woman frowned. “Two and three are quite different,” she told the cop.  

    I felt like frowning too as I’d apparently been acting a bit too young damn it.

    “Is he in nappies, pull-ups or undies?” the woman followed up.

    Shawna shrugged. “Well, we haven’t really checked that.”

    The woman nodded in my direction. “Well, have a look then,” she said.

    Shawna and the male cop didn’t look comfortable, but she did as asked.  I did my best to look totally unconcerned as the woman pulled up my t-shirt, snaked a finger into my shorts’ elastic waist and pulled it out.  I shouldn’t care who saw my undies of course. Little boys had no sense of privacy. That was a big part of the problem of course.  

    I was wearing little boy underoos.  They were white with navy blue piping and dinosaur prints.  Shawna looked them over. It was so strange to have this woman gazing at my underwear while I just stood there. It wasn’t foreplay after all.  She wasn’t interested in what was inside of them, she was just checking to see if I was toilet trained.  

    “He’s in undies,” she called out, no need to be discrete for a little boy.  

    The woman nodded. “Right, probably three then, or at least close to it,” she declared.  “I’ll take him from here.”  

    Shawna let my shorts and shirt go, but before she went she did give me a little hug. It was nice, being held in her warm arms and I automatically let my arms close around her, returning the gesture.  

    “You’ll be safe now Davey. You’re going to stay here for now and we’ll look for your Mummy so you can go home really soon,” she told me as she hugged me.  

    I didn’t say anything back. It was kind of nice not to be expected to.  

    Just like that the police officers left me with the woman, Shawna giving me a little wave as she left.  I waved back, wiggling my fingers little kid style.  

    “So, Mummy left you then. Couldn’t have a little tyke cramping her lifestyle anymore?”

    The woman had come out from behind the desk and was addressing me coldly, not expecting any response of course.  

    “Well it’s not your fault of course, nothing you could have done. Some women just can’t deal with the responsibility.”  

    For a moment I had assumed she was angry at me, but now it was clear she was angry for me.  She’d seen too many boys abandoned this way.  

    “Okay Davey, my name is Miss Devine and I’m in charge here, do you understand?”  

    I nodded right away.  

    “Good. Now as long as you be a good boy, follow all the rules and do as you’re told, we’ll get along just fine. Can you do that? Are you a good boy Davey?”

    Another nod.  “I good boy.”  

    She smiled. “Excellent, now let’s get you up to your dormitory,” she said, taking my hand.

    Now the real test began for me. From now on I’d be around people who were used to dealing with virus victims all day long. They knew how a mental three year old behaved. They would be tougher to fool than a mall cop or even the actual police.  

    Miss Devine tugged me along by the hand with no real regard for my comfort.  I nearly tripped over twice and she just pulled me along harder.  We hurried upstairs and along a carpeted hallway.  I could hear people in the rooms to our left and right.  My guide took us to the third door on the right and I saw the sign on the door said Dormitory 5.  

    It was bigger than I had expected.  What I had thought was a bedroom turned out to be a sort of playroom and bedroom.  There were several beds along each of the walls, left and right, but the middle was a large carpeted area designed for play.  A table sat just to the left of the centre, a place for snacks and meals to be eaten.  And along the wall, five small red plastic potty chairs.  Well, small but not as small as they could have been. They were clearly meant to fit adults.  

    Miss Devine immediately made eye-contact with the only other independent adult in the room.  She was blonde like Shawna, her hair in braids.  She looked to be in her twenties, thin and pretty in fact.  It was obvious that she was in charge here as she was wearing normal looking clothing, a blue jumper and jeans with sneakers.  

    “Anne, this is Davey. The police have just dropped him off. He was abandoned at the mall this afternoon.  He appears to be toilet trained, at least during the day,” Miss Devine told the woman as she walked over to us.  

    Anne didn’t look pleased at all.  “Another one? Jesus, we don’t have any more space,” she argued.

    “You think I want this? What choice is there. Some b-i-t-c-h is out there living the dream again and we’re here to clean up the mess. That’s all there is to it,” Miss Devine replied.

    “I know that, I do.  It’s just… it’s too much for me to keep an eye on them all as it is.  And what about those new clothes?”  

    “I told you, we had to make cuts to the laundry budget.  They’re not going anywhere so it doesn’t really matter anyway does it?  Of course not. Now, I have to get back to the front. I have faith you’ll be able to handle things here Anne. Don’t underestimate yourself.”  

    Then she looked over and me and said, “Davey, this is Anne. She’s going to look after you. Remember what I said about being a good boy for her. I don’t want to hear anything bad about you from her. Is that clear?”  

    I nodded silently.  

    Miss Devine let my hand go, spun on her heels and was gone without another word.

    Anne gave me a sad smile and put her hand on my shoulder.  “Welcome to our little family Davey.  I’m sure we’ll get along really well,” she told me.  

    I did my best to look assured, nodding.  

    “Great! Now, let me show you where you’ll be sleeping,” she said.  

    As Anne led me to an empty bed I took in the other occupants of the room.  I counted nine other men and women, all looked after by this single young woman.  I made ten of course.  There appeared to be five other men and four women in this room.  What gave me pause was that most of the men were just wearing shorts, a couple in ratty, stained looking t-shirts, but the rest topless.  The women were no better, in simple skirts or shorts, two of them topless, their boobs jiggling free as they crept on the floor on their hands and knees.

    As we walked I pointed to them and asked, “Why they nakey?”

    Anne shrugged and said, “Well, we just want you boys and girls to be nice and comfy.”  It was clearly a lie. They were suffering a shortage of appropriate clothing, and the ability to keep them clean. It was like a third world orphanage here.

    We reached the bed and Anne gave it a pat, telling me to sit on the light blue duvet.  I did as directed and she looked down at me and said, “Well Davey the thing is right now we can’t actually clean your nice clothes if they get all dirty.  And we don’t want them getting all ruined do we?”  

    I had to shake my head.  

    “No, that would be very bad,” Anne agreed.  “We want those clothes nice and clean for when Mummy comes to get you. Won’t that be nice?”  

    “Uh-huh!” I agreed with a bright smile, though I was afraid I knew where this was going.

    “Yes, exactly.  So we better take them off now before you join the others playing. You know how messy we get when we play.”  

    Now I frowned and crossed my arms like an angry toddler.  “Wike my cwodes. Big boy cwodes,” I tell her.  

    Now Anne nodded seriously.  “Yes I can see that. You’re a very big boy aren’t you?”

    “Uh-huh.”

    “So you’ll be a good big boy and help me keep your clothes clean then, help me pack them away nice and safe.”  

    “What I gonna wear?” I asked, really nervous now.  

    “Well I have some nice shorts for you, just like the other boys.”

    I wondered what would really happen to my clothes. Probably they’d be passed on to some mentally older boy, or perhaps they would be saved for me, to be worn only when a social worker visited or I needed to be taken outside somewhere.

    Anne made quick work of ripping the velcro of my sneakers open and peeling them and my cartoon socks off.  I obediently raised my arms while she slipped my t-shirt over my head, then held my breath as she yanked my shorts, again exposing my silly little boy undies.  

    Just like that, in mere seconds really, I was rendered practically nude.  As part of the prep work for this I’d had the treatment that rendered virus victims childishly hairless for months at a time.  So my body was now just as smooth as the others.  I watched Anne pack my clothes and shoes into a plastic bag, then she smiled at me and said, “See, isn’t that better?”  

    I shrugged, feeling so, so embarrassed to be standing there in my underoos.  Here was this pretty young woman and she was seeing me nearly naked and I couldn’t even attempt to cover up. Even my blushing, and I had to be blushing, could be giving me away.  It was actually a relief when she helped me step into the new baggy board shorts that were to be my only uniform from now on.  

    Anne could see that I was uncomfortable and she put her hand back on my shoulder and said, “Oh Davey, it’s okay honey.  Tell me, how old are you sweetie? Do you know?”  

    I shook my head. “I ‘unno.”  

    “Well I think you’re probably three. Does that sound right to you honey?”  

    I nodded, glad she guessed right. Well, happy that I seemed to be acting three right.  

    “Well there’s no reason for a boy your age to be feeling so modest.  I think you’re as cute as a button,” she said with a warm smile.  “Now, why don’t we go say hello to your new playmates. Does that sound okay to you?”  

    I nodded. “Kay.”  

    She took my hand and led me over to where the other kids were playing.  “Everyone, I want you to look at me now please. Jenny, eyes on me please. Good girl.  Okay, I want you all to say hello to Davey.  He’s going to be staying here too.”  

    “Hi Dabey!” the whole group of mentally regressed men and women chorused.  

    “Jamie, can you show Davey your toy trucks,” Anne prompted a ginger haired boy in his twenties.  

    The young man nodded and began excitedly showing off his Tonka trucks to me.  I did my best to seem interested, dropping down onto the carpet next to him.  Anne left us to play and the others returned to their games. I was just another one of the kids now, just another little boy playing on the floor.  I’d pulled it off, they all thought I belonged here.  

    **

    So was there abuse in the orphanage? Well, that was actually harder to say than I might have expected. On the one hand any outside observer surely would have been horrified by the conditions we were living in. If I had burst in here with a camera crew we’d have got exactly what we were looking for, scenes that would shock our viewers, drive the ratings up and embarrass the employees.  

    Here nearly a dozen young men and women were being kept nearly naked on a perpetual basis.  We were expected to toilet together all at the same time, sat on the five potty seats in two groups, forced to pee or poop while the other five watched, waiting their turns.  What little dignity we had disappeared during these episodes, as our shorts and undies were stripped away en masse and we were left to play completely nude while awaiting the potty seat and then afterwards until everyone was done.  With only a single proper adult in the room it was the most efficient thing to do, and of course toddlers didn’t have the awareness to be embarrassed by such treatment.  I’d heard of things like this about orphanages in third world countries before, but not here.  

    But Anne was doing her best to keep us clean and entertained.  We got walked through a shower once a day for a cursory scrubbing.  It didn’t do much for the hair though and so I, like the other boys, was given a very short hair cut that first day.  The girls hair just got matted and dirty though.  Anne did her best to keep the peace, fix the boo-boos and make us feel cared for.  She had a guitar and she would sit there playing it and singing to us while we all gathered around her on the floor.  I could see she really cared about us.  

    The food wasn’t great, but it was sufficient, though only just. No one would be getting fat here, that was for sure.  Milk and juice were served in small boxes with straws, provided by charities mostly.  The food itself was probably not that great for nutrition and there was nowhere near enough in my opinion. But no one was going to starve here either.

    I had been there for three days and I was beginning to think we should just abort this mission and try again in a different location. The story here wasn’t really scandalous enough to stand by itself.  But then our dormitory got a new addition.  

    Another young man had been abandoned by his carer, but he was different from the others and that obvious as soon as he arrived, led by Miss Devine.  For starters he was dressed, well, like any normal adult man.  He was wearing a t-shirt and sweat pants with sneakers. But nothing about the clothing was very childish. The t-shirt was plain light blue, the sweats were navy and his sneakers had laces.  

    I guessed him to be around thirty, a bit overweight, short black hair.  He wasn’t happy to be here at all.  

    “You’ve got to be kidding!” he snapped upon seeing the rest of us.  

    It was potty time and it hadn’t even occurred to me that we were all naked of course, myself included.  I suddenly felt a wave of shame. After the first twenty-four hours I’d largely adjusted to the lack of clothing, to the shameful potty times. We were inside after all, the others were all morons with the exception of Anne, and she was used to it. But having a stranger, a competent one, see me like this, woke up my modesty.  

    “Anne, this is Tommy…”

    “It’s Thomas,” he corrected.

    Miss Devine ignored him.  “And he’s three years old.”  

    “No, I’m clearly not!” he argued. “I have the virus, but I’m not three yet. They say it could be six months before I get back to that level.”

    “Legally he is three years old,” Miss Devine continued, ignoring his protests.  

    “Only because my bitch girlfriend insisted on getting my legal status changed right after I was diagnosed. And then she went and backed out on the whole thing and ran off.  But I’m still perfectly capable of looking after myself. I don’t need to be here with… them,” he spat with utter disgust.  

    “Honey you’re here because you are legally a minor and can’t be living on your own. If you petition the court they’ll tell you the same thing. The virus is unstable, it may be six months, it may be much less. It’s too dangerous for you to be out there all on your own while you lose your mental faculties.  Let us take care of you,” Anne explained to him in her kind, even tone.  

    Thomas calmed down a bit, but he didn’t look happy.  “I get that, I do. But why can’t I be put with older kids? What on Earth am I going to do with them? I’ll go nuts with boredom.”

    “Sounds like someone needs a booster,” Miss Devine said.

    Thomas’ face utterly blanched. “Don’t you fucking dare!”

    “Language Tommy,” she snapped back.

    “Hey, hey, hey, don’t worry mate,” Anne intervened. “We don’t have the funding for that kind of thing anyway.”

    Thomas calmed down again but said, “So, why not an older room then?”

    “The other rooms are already too full,” Miss Devine answered.  “You’ll just have to make do here for now.”

    “If something opens up I’m sure we will try to move you,” Anne added.  “And this will only be temporary anyway, until a foster home becomes available or a guardian volunteers to take you.”

    “One of my friends will agree. You just need to let me contact them,” Thomas urged.

    “Of course. I’m sure we can help you with that,” Anne agreed.

    Miss Devine rolled her eyes but Thomas couldn’t see that.  And with that she left the room.  

    “Well, let’s get you a bed,” Anne told him.

    Thomas nodded, then asked, “Why are they all bare bottomed like that?”  

    “It’s potty time. It helps a lot of them to avoid accidents and saves on messy clothes.”  

    “I’m not taking my clothes off, understand?” Thomas insisted.

    “Of course not,” Anne said with a chuckle. “I trust you’ll be able to keep yourself clean.”  

    Thomas nodded gratefully.  

    “So what can I do then? I don’t see anything but baby toys.”

    “Well I have some games on my phone. You’re welcome to play them until dinner time.”  

    Thomas shrugged. “I guess that’s a start.  But that’s probably going to get boring pretty fast.”  

    “Well, we’ll deal with that when we come to it,” Anne said, taking out her phone and unlocking it.  “Here, try this one,” she said, handing it to him.  

    Thomas sat down on his bed and started playing the game.  Anne returned to potty duty, checking to see if the current set had done their business yet, cleaning them up if they had, encouraging them to make pee-pees or poopies if they hadn’t yet.   Meanwhile I kept glancing over at Thomas.  He really was engrossed in that game, whatever it was.  For a solid half an hour he didn’t move from that spot. His fingers just kept working the screen, his eyes locked on it.  

    As time wore on though I noticed that Thomas was looking sleepier and sleepier. His eyelids were drifting slowly shut, even as he played the game.  Finally Anne seemed to notice this as well. She walked over and sat down next to him. But Thomas didn’t seem to even notice her arrival. He just kept playing the game while she brushed a finger through his hair. Still no reaction from him at all.  

    Anne put her hand on his shoulder and leaned right up against him, whispering something into his ear.  And just like that his whole body seemed to go limp.  The phone dropped to the carpeted floor as his arms fell into his lap like wet rags.  His eyes closed and his chin dropped to his chest, his shoulders slumping, mouth hanging wide open.  

    None of the other kids seemed to notice anything. I had to pretend to be oblivious as well, playing with a toy school bus, driving it around in circles. But really I was watching what was happening to Thomas with awe.  

    Anne put her arm right around his shoulders and was speaking to him too softly to hear anything she said.  Thomas remained totally limp, eyes closed, drool hanging from his gaping mouth now.  Ten minutes passed, maybe fifteen then Thomas opened his eyes again, his head jerking upwards, righting itself.  He blinked the sleep away as Anne rubbed his arm.  

    “Feeling better honey?” she asked him.

    To my surprise Thomas nodded.  

    “Okay, let’s get you more comfy then,” she directed, standing him up.  

    And then the really stunning part came. Anne began to strip him of his adult clothing, same as she’d done to me.  But with all his complaints earlier I was sure Thomas would resist.  He didn’t though. He just stood them, totally compliant as she slipped off his shoes and socks, his t-shirt and even as she pulled down not just his pants but his boxer shorts as well.  And just like that he was as nude as the rest of us, and when he turned around to face us there was another surprise. Thomas was fully erect.  His penis wasn’t shaved bare like the rest of us either.  But I wondered how much longer that would last.  

    “Okay Tommy, are you ready to potty like a big boy?” she asked him a condescending sing-song voice.  

    And the newly naked man grinned like an idiot, nodding and declaring, “Tommy big boy!”   

    Anne took his hand and led the newly naked man right over to an empty potty, helping him sit on it.  He sat there, gaping at us, drool still running down his chin, hanging from it in a single shining bead.  But he couldn’t tinkle in the potty of course, not with that stiffy.  Instead he poked at it, toyed with it innocently, his erection bobbing about, smacking against his lower stomach, leaving a little precum there.  

    “My doodle big!” Tommy suddenly announced.  “Doodle bounthy!”  

    I blinked in shock. The other boys laughed and clapped their hands.  The girls just giggled and poked out their tongues at our silly new playmate.  

    Anne chuckled and had to cover her mouth.  “Well, maybe you should play with the others for a bit. You can use the potty when your doodle gets soft.”   

    And now Tommy actually smiled. He grinned and nodded.  Then he joined us one the floor and just like that he was one of the boys. Anne packed his clothes into the same kind of bag mine were in, leaving him with the rest of us.  He was just another naked toddler man now, left to play with the simplest of toys.  

    Astonished by this sudden transformation I crept over to Tommy, watching as he pushed a toy police car around the carpet, down on his hands and knees, his penis still hard, still swinging free between his thighs, the head bobbing against his tummy.  

    “Tommy, what happened? I thought you were a big grown-up?” I whispered to him once I was right alongside.  

    The man looked at me with a slack expression, then he turned and dropped onto his bare bottom, sitting with his feet pressed together.  He still held the toy car in one hand, and pulled curiously at his own bare toes with the other while he answered me.  

    “I wad big. But I gotta boo-boo. I wad gettin widdle,” he explained.  

    “Yeah, I know, you have the virus…”

    “Da baby viwus. Makes widdle,” he agreed, wiggling his toes against each other.

    “Right, but you said that was six months away, remember?”  

    Tommy looked at me with utter confusion on his slack face.  “Waz six monts?”  

    I couldn’t believe how complete his dumbing down seemed to be.  He’d lost his numbers, he’d lost his understanding of time.  

    “It means a really long time,” I explained.

    Now Tommy understood me.  He nodded and said, “Uh-huh! But Anne hewped it be faster. Got awll widdle. Big boy stuff gone bye-bye.”  

    “But I thought you didn’t want it to be faster. Didn’t you want to stay big, wear your big boy clothes?”  

    Tommy shook his head. “Nuh-uh. Widdle’s funner. Imma nakey boy now!” he said with clear pleasure, pulling his whole foot back and forth.  

    And that was all there was to it.  Tommy wouldn’t be contacting any friends to be his guardian after all.  He wouldn’t have known how to use the phone to call them.  He was no different to the other kids now.  Soon he’d be sent off to a foster family and he’d be just as helpless as the others.  They’d never know he hadn’t even had a booster.  

    There was a story here, that was clear.  But was it enough? No, probably not. After all Tommy did have the virus, he was regressing to toddlerhood anyway. All they did was speed it up without his consent.  And since he was a minor and in their care perhaps they didn’t even need his consent.  Legally they probably could have compelled him to have a booster if they had the funding. Was the hypnotic treatment any different?  

    No, I couldn’t call it off yet. I needed to see where this led.  

    **

    I had been in the dormitory for a week when Miss Devine came back for me.  I was being moved to a foster home.  Well actually three of us were, including Tommy.  He was taken first in fact.  They brought him a new outfit to wear. Of course he couldn’t be dressed in his old adult clothes. No, he was given a faded old Wonder Pets t-shirt and some jean shorts.  No shoes though, not even a pair of sandals or jandals.  

    I waited to see if they would give him a reversal trigger, wake him up from the toddler mentality they’d put him in.  After all that had probably been a mercy, stuck in this place for days on end, nothing but toddler toys for entertainment.  But now he was leaving, heading out into the world. There’d be no more chances to wake up from this. And he might still have half a year, maybe more, with a functioning mind.  

    Anne gave him a cuddle and a kiss on his forehead.  

    “Okay Tommy, say bye-bye to your friends,” Miss Devine cooed to him.

    “Bye-bye!” Tommy chirped with a silly smile, waving his arm up and down in an exaggerated wave.  

    They didn’t give him any reversal trigger. He padded out of the room on his bare feet, happily babbling to himself as Miss Devine led him along by the hand.  

    Two hours later it was my turn to have a cuddle and kiss from Anne, to give my best fake bye-bye wave to the others and be led away.  At least I was given new clothes to wear.  The dormitory was like a cacoon, a safe place. It would have felt very wrong to be shirtless outside of it.  But the clothes they gave me weren’t the ones I came in with.  In my case it was a red t-shirt with an anthropomorphic puppy playing basketball on the front.  That and a pair of cut-off jean shorts that clearly had several previous owners.  

    At least the puppy on my shirt had basketball sneakers.  I wasn’t given any shoes to wear this time.  

    “Weh my sneaks?” I asked, when Miss Devine pronounced me ready to go, once my t-shirt was on.  

    “Oh you won’t be needing those honey. You look plenty comfy in your bare feeties,” Miss Devine brushed off my question.  

    And just like that we were off.  Miss Devine handed me off to a woman in business attire, a name badge on her lapel identifying her as an Oranga Tamariki case worker named Melanie Esdale.  She looked me over and seemed satisfied with my attire. No comment was made about my lack of footwear.  I had the feeling no child left this centre with a pair of shoes.  She simply took my hand and led me out of the building, buckling me into the back seat of her car.

    Melanie was pleasant to me, but not really warm.  This was her job, she was professional, but probably far too overworked to really take an interest in her clients anymore.  

    “You’re going to like your new home Davey,” she told me.  “You’ll have brothers and sisters now and a Mummy and Daddy to look after you.”  

    “Weh my Mummy?” I asked her.  

    I could see her frowning in the rear view mirror.  “Oh, we’re still looking for her baby. But your new family will look after you until we find her.”  

    “Who my new famiwy?”  

    “Well you’re getting a nice, big new family honey. You’ll have a big brother and there’s two boys about your age.  And a little sister as well.  I’m sure you’ll all be best friends in no time,” she assured.  

    It was a good hour drive from the orphanage to my new home. And as we went I noted that we were headed to the south of the city. That was to be expected. Most of the foster families were relatively poor and the south was the lower class area of the city.  Sure enough she took an exit that led us into one of the poorest suburbs in the city.  We passed through the rusting industrial areas and then into the sprawling rows of state houses built in the 50s and 60s to house the workers.  They had mostly been sold off to private owners now, but they didn’t live in these dumps. No they rented them out to people who got government accommodation supplements.  They were home to minimum wage slaves, unskilled labourers, single mums on the benefit and gangsters.  

    It was on one of these streets that Melanie pulled over and parked the car.  It was exactly as I feared.  The houses here had peeling paint, rusted metal roofs, front yards overgrown with weeds, fences broken and falling over.  A gaggle of three small children, probably four or five years old, were running wild along the footpath. Two of them were shirtless, wearing only shorts while the third wore a t-shirt and undies.  They ran right out into the road a moment later, not even thinking to look for traffic.  

    But the most ominous sign about what I was in for was the man on the footpath right in front of us.  He was squatting in the middle of the pavement, wearing a blue t-shirt that appeared to be two sizes too small for him.  He was wearing that and a pair of childish underoos, dirty ones with a hole visible on the bottom.  The fellow was thin and young, probably not over twenty-five.  His hair had been cut so short it was practically shaved.  His body was hairless too of course, smooth all over.  He was staring at us, at the parking car, with a slack, vacant expression. Was that drool shining on his chin?

    Melanie got out of the car and looked right at the half-naked young man.  Was she upset? Was she going to write up a report about this clear neglect?  There was no sign of any supervision, the man-boy was alone out here, on the street.  

    She smiled and walked right over to him.  “Well hello there Evan, what are you doing out here sweetie?” she asked him in a bright tone.  

    Evan giggled and smiled.  It was a big, dumb grin.  “Eban makin’ pit-chures,” he answered, showing her the red chalk in his hand.  

    Melanie nodded and made a show of looking over the scribbled chalk drawings he had made on the pavement.  “Oh, yes I see, that’s very good,” she enthused.  

    Evan continued drawing for her, and it was clear that Melanie wasn’t concerned by his lack of pants, his lack of supervision at all.  She didn’t comment on it, didn’t look worried and made no attempt to take him back into the yard.  And of course she wasn’t.  Those three kids were on their own playing in the street.  It wasn’t like a lack of supervision was unusual here.  And Evan’s lack of pants was no different to that of any toddler.  No one was giving him a second glance.  

    Melanie came around to my side and opened my door.  “Here we are sweetie. Let’s say hello to your new brother Evan,” she said, undoing my belt and taking my hand.  

    I stepped onto the warm pavement, feeling it gritty and rough under the bare soles of my feet.  Yes I’d been barefoot a solid week now, but that was inside, on a soft carpet.  This was very different. This was not something I was used to at all.  I didn’t like it, not one bit.  It felt dirty and uncomfortable and was an instant sign to anyone looking that I was a child and not worth paying attention to.  

    Evan meanwhile had dropped onto his knees, scribbling hard with his red chalk. His t-shirt only came halfway down his back, it was so small for him.  I could see the bumps of his spine halfway up.  And the soles of his feet were on display now and it was impossible to miss how black they were, how callused the heels and the toes looked. That didn’t bode well at all.  This boy was filthy.

    “Evan, say hello to your new brother, Davey,” Melanie told him.  

    Evan spun around, sitting on his bottom on the pavement, legs crossed in front of him, gaping up at me.  He blinked and began to chew on the chalk, right on the side he’d been rubbing all over the dirty footpath.  

    “Don’t be shy honey, say hello,” Melanie prompted again.

    “Hi,” he said from around the chalk.  

    “Good boy,” she praised.  “Well, Davey, can you say hello too?”  

    “Hewwo,” I said.  

    “Lovely. Now, let’s see where Mummy and Daddy are.”  

    Melanie led me inside, leaving Evan to continue his drawing on the footpath.  The yard was overgrown, a rusting trampoline taking up half of it, a swing-set with not a single intact swing sat opposite. The front door was blue with mostly glazed glass.  There was no bell, so Melanie knocked.  

    “Hello, hello!” she called out.

    “Just a sec,” came a reply from within.  And soon enough we were greeted by a middle aged woman in a hoodie, some track pants and fluffy slippers.  

    “Hello Mrs Williams.  This is Davey, your new foster child,” Melanie announced.  

    The woman gave a small smile, but I didn’t think it looked genuine.  She smelled of cigarette smoke and wasn’t wearing any make-up. Her hair was dark blonde but I suspected it was coloured and the roots appeared to be darker.  

    “Thank you for bringing him,” my new mum told Melanie.  “I’m sure I can handle things from here.”  

    “You don’t have any other questions?”

    “I read all the info Matthew e-mailed through to me. I should be fine. If I have any issues, I’ll be in touch.”  

    Melanie nodded.  “Well then, Davey, you behave for your Mummy okay. I’ll be checking up on you really soon.”  

    I was honestly shocked by how quickly this whole transaction went down. It was like she was dropping off a washing machine, not a child.  And she didn’t even mention the half-naked man-boy playing unwatched on the footpath!  Just like that she spun on her heels and walked back to her car, giving me one last wave before she disappeared.  

    “Okay Davey, come with me and we’ll see where you’ll be sleeping from now on,” Mummy directed, taking my hand.  

    “Lady go away,” I said, pointing to the departing social worker’s car.  

    “That’s right honey, you won’t be seeing her again for awhile. She only comes by to drop off more kids.  Not that I mind, more kids is a bigger cheque for me and Daddy.  Not that you understand that anymore.  Money don’t mean a thing to you, does it silly boy?” she mocked.  

    I stayed silent, not wanting to retort and give anything away.  

    “I wonder what you were before the virus. Hmm? You remember what you used to do for a living when you were all grown up? Something smart?”  

    “Worked at da bank,” I lied.  

    She snorted. “Ha! Well, isn’t this quite a long fall for you.  Don’t imagine you ever would have expected to end up living out here in Clendon Park.  Well, you’re in good company. Evan out there, he was a lawyer before. Can you imagine that silly little boy all dressed up in suits and everything?”  

    I already hated this woman, lording it over these poor children, laughing at their plight.  But I could see why she was bitter. The house was worse on the inside than it appeared from the outside. There was mould on the walls making the paint peel.  The carpet was dirty and toys were abandoned all over.  Piles of laundry sat unwashed and the rubbish bin was overflowing.  An ashtray on the table next to the couch in the living room was utterly filled with cigarette butts.  

    And there in the living room I met two more of my new siblings. There was a man and a woman playing on the floor.  The woman was sat on her bottom, cradling a baby doll in her arms and pretending to feed it a bottle.  She was wearing nothing but a big crinkly white diaper herself, so it was funny that the baby doll was actually better dressed than her.  She was a pretty woman, probably late twenties, her light brown hair tied into pigtails.  She was thin, her breasts not exactly small, but not what I’d call too big either.  

    The man was older than her, probably a bit older than me actually.  He was wearing a yellow t-shirt and a thick pull-up.  His hair had been cut very short, though a bit longer than Evan’s at least.  

    “Say hello to your brother Paul and sister Hannah,” Mummy told me.  

    I didn’t actually say hello, and it didn’t seem like she really expected me to.  The pair did look up at me though and I saw the curiosity in their eyes.

    “Who dat?” Paul asked, pointing at me.  

    “This is Davey. He’s your newest brother,” Mummy told them.

    Paul smiled. “Him pway?”

    “I’m sure he’ll be happy to join you once I have him settled,” she answered.  

    The girl said nothing, choosing to chew at her dolly’s hair instead, blinking up at me with wide, empty eyes.

    “Hannah don’t speak much yet,” Mummy explained as she led me out of the living room.  “But I see you still have some words, don’t cha?”

    “I gots words,” I answered.

    She chuckled. “Well that’s something then. Can’t stand it when we get the non-verbal ones. They tend to cry all the time.”  

    The bedroom turned out to be even worse than I thought.  They put all five of us in one room with just three beds. That meant I would likely have to share with a kid who wasn’t toilet trained, on a bed likely not properly washed after each accident.  

    “It ain’t much, but you’ll get used to it,” Mummy told me when I frowned.  “Like I said, Evan used to be a lawyer. He was used to real fancy stuff.  Now he shares a bed with his brother, runs around naked or half-naked most of the day and y’know what? He’s happy as a clam. Paul used to be some sort of engineer. He still loves building towers with his blocks, but that’s about it. And he’s a smiley little guy too.  And Hannah was studying to be a teacher. Now she just seems to want to be a mummy to her dollies.  Simple minds, simple needs.”  

    “Weh Daddy?” I asked.

    “He’s workin’ buddy. Rent don’t pay itself. You’ll meet him later tonight.”  Mummy seemed to think a moment.  “And now that you’re here we need to go buy some food so Mummy can have dinner ready when Daddy gets home.”  

    I watched as she got the other kids ready for a trip to the supermarket.  Evan was finally called inside.  He continued sucking on his chalk while she slipped a pair athletic shorts up his legs.  She put Hannah in a simple short-sleeved purple dress, no bra or anything.  Paul got a pair of cut-off jean shorts quite similar to mine, though longer, falling to his calves.  Neither his t-shirt nor Evan’s were long enough to cover their tummies though.  

    “Okay, now you all stay close to Mummy, remember. No running ahead or you’ll get a smack,” she warned.  

    We headed out of the house, I assumed to get in her car.  But instead we turned down the footpath and started walking right past the cars parked nearest on the street.  

    “Weh da car?” I asked.  

    “Daddy’s got the car honey,” Mummy answered. “We get to walk. It’s good for you.”  

    I hadn’t expected that. I looked at the others, who despite her warning were already starting to skip ahead of her, giggling and playing.  As they surged ahead I was able to see that Paul and Hannah had black, tough soles on their bare feet, same as Evan. They probably made this walk to the supermarket every day, making their feet tough as shoe leather. No wonder they were so dirty.  But my feet were tender and after only twenty feet or so I already could feel that the hot pavement, the loose pebbles, the even sharper and hotter roads we’d need to cross, would be a nightmare for me.  

    “Mummy, my feets is soft,” I complained. “Gwound too hot ‘nd ouchy. I need sneaks.”  

    Mummy frowned and for once she actually seemed sympathetic. She stopped walking and put her hand on my arm.  “Let me have a look,” she said, nodding to my feet.

    I lifted my right foot up, so she could see.  She looked closely at my sole, then ran a finger along it, making me giggle involuntarily.  

    “My goodness, those are soft. You must have just had the virus I guess.  I’m sorry sweetie, but this is something you’ll need to get used to. Shoes just aren’t in our budget. Sure we could get real cheap ones but they’d fall apart in no time and need replacing. And good ones are just too expensive when you kids just don’t really need them,” she explained.

    “But I need ‘em,” I told her, pleading.

    She rubbed my shoulder kindly.  “No sweetie, you don’t.  I know it’s hard giving up all that grown-up stuff. But that’s the way things are. You’re little now and you need to get used to that. Little boys have no more use for shoes than they do a phone or a wallet.  Your feet will toughen up soon enough and then you’ll be able to run ahead just like your brothers and sister and you won’t even notice the ground anymore.”  

    And with that she took my hand and started walking again.  I had no choice but to go along with it. I did my best to stick to the grass alongside the footpath, but when we crossed the streets it was terrible. They paved the roads here with the cheapest tarseal and it was gritty and sharp to walk on, not to mention pitch black and thus scorching hot in the sun.  

    It was a real relief to be in the actual supermarket on their cool, smooth floors after a twenty minute walk.  Evan sat in the trolley Mummy got, his feet pressed tightly against the wire mesh.  The rest of us just kept a hand on the trolley and walked along with it.  Touching things we weren’t meant to earned a quick smack on the back of the hand or the top of the head.  Obviously I avoided that, but Hannah and Paul each got a few whacks.  

    We all had to help carry the shopping home.  But we took a different route, much to my chagrin as my soles had only just begun to fully recover when we had to go all the way back.  Our new route took us an extra ten minutes out of the way.  

    “Why we goin’ dis way?” I finally asked.

    “We need to pick up your big brother Harry at school,” Mummy answered.

    **

    The school was a hive of activity.  We arrived just at 3PM, as the hundreds of primary schoolers were being dismissed for the day.  All along the gates mums were waiting to collect their kids and many had also brought along little siblings.  Some were sitting in prams, others ran around playing games while they waited for big brothers and sisters.  

    The children leaving the school were all wearing the same uniforms. It was a sea of teal polo shirts or navy jumpers and black shorts or skorts.  A little under half the kids also wore black sneakers or Roman sandals, but the majority were barefoot. Some carried the shoes they’d been sent to school with, others either had them in their bags or hadn’t bothered with them at all.  

    Despite the uniform clothing there were big differences between the children. It wasn’t just the mix of ethnicities, of short and tall, thin and fat either. No, it was a huge mix of ages as probably a quarter of the kids were physically adults.  These bigger kids were mixed in with all the others though. Groups of friends walking and playing together would have three or four little kids and two six foot tall adults all acting like equals.  

    Indeed that was the case as two kids made their way straight towards us. One was a small ginger boy with a freckled face.  His jumper stuck out the top of his oversized school bag and the six year old was riding a little razor scooter in bare feet.  Riding right along next to him was a much bigger boy. He looked to be thirty or so with short brown hair.  He was tanned with broad shoulders and a solid build.  But in a matching teal polo shirt and baggy black school shorts he looked utterly boyish.  He was also riding a beaten-up looking razor scooter in bare feet.  

    “Who’s that?” the older boy asked Mummy, stopping his scooter right before us.  

    “This is your new brother, Davey,” Mummy told him.  

    “Wow, you get another new brother?” his little friend asked.  

    Harry nodded. “Yeah I get heaps of ‘em,” he answered, sounding oddly happy about that situation.  

    “Cool,” his buddy agreed.

    “How old is he?” Harry asked.  

    “About the same age as Evan honey. He’s a little brother,” Mummy told him.

    I expected he’d be disappointed with that.  He was probably hoping for a new playmate, a partner in crime.  The last thing he would be wanting is another toddler around the house.

    But to my surprise he actually seemed pleased with this. There was no sigh, no frowning.  He looked utterly delighted to be honest.  

    “I gotta go,” his friend told him.  

    “Okay Brad, see you tomorrow,” Harry replied.  

    “So, you ready to go too?” Mummy asked him.

    “Uh-huh! I’ll lead the way!” he answered, pushing off and racing ahead on his scooter.  

    He spent much of the walk home doing tricks on his scooter, zipping well ahead, then turning back.  It was on the final block that he looked at me funny, riding all the way back to where I was dawdling along after the others.  I wasn’t hurrying ahead the way the other boys and Hannah were as they tried to keep up with their big brother.  

    “You okay?” he asked me.  

    I understood what he meant. I was walking strangely now, my soles raw and feeling burnt.  I shook my head. “Feets hurt. They ouchy,” I told him.  

    Harry stepped off his scooter and walked along next to me.  “You musta just got little huh?”

    I nodded silently.

    “It’s okay, you’ll get used to it. My feets got all ouchy like that when I first got little too.  But now look how tough they are!” he said, breaking into a sprint, glancing back at me to be sure I was watching.  

    I appreciated that he was at least trying to comfort to me. I was worried he would be nothing but a bully, obsessed with being bigger than the little kids.  So far he seemed kind.  

    I was so relieved when we got back home.  It was a dump but it was a relief to be standing on grass, even if it was overgrown.  Mummy went inside but told us to stay out there.  

    “Why?” I asked, tired of being in the hot sun.

    “Cuz kids need to be outside as much as possible, get that good air and everything,” she answered, before going in and closing the door behind her.  

    It seemed obvious to me that she just wanted us out of her hair. She was leaving four helpless kids basically unsupervised in the front yard.  Meanwhile she would be watching TV or on her phone, or perhaps just taking a nap.  

    With the only adult gone the kids set to playing with the toys abandoned in the yard.  Hannah crawled around the grass on her hands and knees, babbling nonsense to herself, her nappy visible to everyone.  Paul and Evan kicked a little red soccer ball around.  Then Harry walked over to them and said, “C’mon boys, don’t you want to be more comfy now we’re home?”  

    The two young men stopped kicking the ball around and nodded.  Evan didn’t need any further instructions.  He grabbed the waist of his shorts and yanked them and his underoos down in one motion, stepping out of them and leaving them in a pile in the grass.  Paul watched this, nibbling on his thumb.  

    “Want brother’s help?” Harry asked the other boy.  

    Paul blinked innocently, then nodded.  Harry slipped his thumbs into the boy’s waist and yanked his shorts and his pull-up down too.  

    And just like that both of the young men were naked from the belly-button down.  That didn’t last long though. Harry wasn’t satisfied with taking their shorts. He guided Paul’s arms into the air and slipped his t-shirt off as well. Then he turned to Evan and said, “C’mon buddy, jaybirds don’t have t-shirts do they?”  

    Evan stopped poking at the ball with his toe and looked back up at Harry.

    “No-oh, jaybiwds all nakey,” he answered.  

    “That’s right,” Harry cooed, stepping over and basically directing Evan’s arms into the air before yanking his light-blue t-shirt off as well.  

    “There, doesn’t that feel so much better?” he asked.  

    Evan smiled and nodded right away. And I was even more surprised to see that Harry then put his arms around the now nude man-boy and cuddled him very tight, rubbing his back and even pecking a little kiss on his cheek.  

    With that the two nudists went back to playing with their ball, kicking it and running around the yard oblivious to their nudity now, even as their flaccid penises swung and jiggled about as they played.  

    Harry watched them with real intensity, smiling to himself, looking very satisfied.  What was going on here?  

    Then Harry turned to me and asked, “Would you like to play ball with the others Davey?”  

    His voice was very kind, like an adult would talk to a small child.  

    “I dunno,” I answered, acting shy.  

    Harry stood right in front of me and put his hand on my arm.  “It’s a lot of fun. I promise you’ll like it. I know Evan and Paul would like it if you played too.”  

    The two boys stopped long enough for Evan to call, “Uh-huh! Dabey come pway wid us!”  

    I shrugged and said, “I guess.”  

    Harry nodded, pleased I was looking less reluctant.  

    “Good. But before you play we should get you out of these clothes, so you don’t get them all dirty,” Harry told me.  

    He wanted me naked too, I could see the eagerness in his eyes, the anticipation. Something was wrong with this. Why would a six year old be so keen to have his toddler brothers running around nude? And why didn’t his mannerisms fit his age now? Six-year old boys didn’t talk that way.  

    I shook my head and scowled. “Dun wanna,” I told him, acting shy.

    Harry wasn’t giving up though.  

    “Oh come on now, you can’t be crawling around in the grass with your nice clothes on. And you’ll be so much more comfy without them.  Look at Paul and Evan.  Don’t they look happy with their doodles all nice and free?” he urged.  

    I made a show of looking at them, but there was no way I was stripping down out here, in full view of the street. And especially not with this creepy man urging me to. I decided to compromise instead.  

    “I take off my shirt,” I offered.

    Harry frowned a moment but then seemed to accept this as a first step.  “Yeah, okay, let me help you,” he said, pulling my t-shirt up over my head and throwing it in the grass.  

    “There now, doesn’t that feel much better?” he asked.

    I shrugged. “Is okay.”  

    “You’ll see soon buddy. It’s much better to have no clothes on at all,” he told me.

    “You takin’ your clothes off too?” I asked him.

    But Harry shook his head. “Nah, I’m too big buddy. I go to big boy school now. I can’t be running around nakey-bummed like a little boy.  But you’re little now, so you can do it and no one will mind.  You’re the lucky one,” he assured me.  

    I decided not to argue the point. Instead I joined Evan and Paul in kicking their ball around.  Harry just sat down on the front steps and watched us. He watched our every move.  As the two nudists’ penises knocked back and forth between their thighs Harry was clearly enjoying the show. I wondered if he knew why he was excited by this. Little boys were often confused by such sexual desires, but Harry seemed to know exactly what he liked. It just didn’t feel right.

    **

    Mummy didn’t make dinner that night, she got takeaways instead. I got the feeling that was the normal situation for this family.  We all ended up sitting around a table covered in fish and chips laid out over the now unwrapped brown paper they came in.  It was finger food, so perfect for the poorly coordinated young men now filling up on the greasy, salty food.  They ate as much as they could, chewing with mouths wide open, lips and fingers dirty from the cheap tomato sauce provided.  

    Paul and Evan were still naked of course, their doodles brushing against the table as they leaned over it to grab more food.  It was so unhygenic, so disgusting, but I couldn’t say a thing of course.  Mummy didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned when they came back in from the yard that way. Instead she had simply stripped Hannah out of her dress before dinner, leaving the young woman in just a nappy once again.  And Daddy, when he arrived home from work just before dinner, didn’t give their state of undress a second glance.  

    No Daddy didn’t seem interested in kids at all, not even me, not even the new addition to the family.  He just asked Mummy, “How old’s this one?” upon seeing me playing with the toys on the living room floor in just my shorts.  

    “He’s three, like the other two,” Mummy told him simply.  “Name’s Davey.”

    He just nodded and then went to the fridge for a beer, plopping down on the couch and casting Netflix from his phone onto the TV.  It never ceases to amaze me that people living in such trashy accomodation still made sure to afford beer, a smartphone and a big TV.  

    “Mummy, Davey’s gonna get his shorts all messy with sauce. Shouldn’t he take ‘em off like the other little kids,” Harry suddenly pointed out.  

    What was going on here? He really seemed to want to get me out of my clothes like the other boys.  Was it because it made him feel like a big boy to be all dressed while the rest were naked? Maybe this was about asserting his dominance as the oldest boy.  

    Mummy looked over at me and just shrugged. “He’s keeping himself clean so far,” she said, not even bothering to actually ask my opinion on the matter.  

    Harry didn’t look happy but he kept eating.  I was glad that Mummy reacted that way but I needed to be careful not to stain my clothes with the tomato sauce. It was clear that getting messy would lead to Mummy stripping me to my undies before any meal, as with Hannah.  And sure enough there was a big splash of the red sauce running down her left breast now.  But the bare-boobed young woman didn’t seem to notice or care.  

    After dinner we were ordered into the back-yard, a small area with some grass but a lot of bare dirt, surrounded by rotten, falling down fencing.  There was the frame of what was once a swing set, but all that remained of the swings were rusted chains.  Now the kids simply used it for climbing around on.  Hannah was quite a sight as she wrapped her legs around one of the poles, pressing up against the metal with her bare chest and her nappy.  

    For a bit Paul and Evan played another impromptu and poorly organised game of tag.  But they stopped when Harry called out, “Uh-oh, looks like Evan’s feeling a bit happy!”  

    I looked up from where I was sitting in the small patch of grass.  At first I was just glancing out of curiosity, but then I saw what Harry meant.  Evan was fully erect, his bare penis standing straight up, bouncing against his tummy as he ran around.  He wasn’t embarrassed at having his arousal pointed out though. No, he was still smiling as he stopped running and looked down at his stiffy.  He gazed at it thoughtfully for a moment, then actually poked it, letting out a little giggle.

    Harry went over to his side and, to my utter shock, he wrapped his fingers right around the shaft of Evan’s erection.  The toddler-brained man just grinned at this massive invasion of his privacy, totally oblivious to how wrong this was.  All he seemed to know was it felt good and that must mean it was a good thing.  

    Harry actually looked right up at me then and said, “Look how big Evan’s pee-pee is, Davey. Does your doodle get all big sometimes, just like his?”  

    I nodded silently, too shocked to speak even if I wanted to.  

    “That’s right,” Harry told me with a smile. “Doodles get all big when you’re feeling good, when you’re extra happy.  And when that happens you know what you should do?”  

    I shook my head.

    Harry giggled. “You come show it to me silly!  I know just how to make it feel extra nice, make it feel so, so good.  If you’re a good boy I’ll help you make squirt-squirts like this,” he explained, beginning to stroke Evan’s penis up and down.  

    I was frozen in place, too awestruck to do anything.  And I didn’t even know what I should or could do anyway. Was I meant to intervene? Was this abuse or just a big brother helping his toddler brother feel good? Was this just what naturally happened between loving brothers when they had little boys’ minds but fully adult, sexually mature bodies?

    Certainly Evan didn’t seem to mind his brother’s manipulations. His eyes were glassy, his breathing heavy, a smile playing at his lips.  He nibbled on his fingers with one hand and rested the other on Harry’s shoulder, letting out little grunts as he neared climax.  

    Paul didn’t look disturbed either. He’d stopped playing and sat bare bottomed in the dirt, watching the show.  Even Hannah seemed entranced by it, playing with her feet idly while watching.  

    But it was the  way Harry helped his brother that made me more concerned.  This wasn’t juvenile exploration of each other’s bodies. He didn’t look clumsy or curious at all. He was expert, he was gentle and comforting as he manipulated the man’s stiffy.  And that was when I became certain Harry was a malingerer, a faker.  

    Of course I’d heard of such things before. They’d caught a handful of fakers, but it was rare. Some experts believed it was much more common than we’d like to think.  Of course I was a malingerer too, but I was doing this for good reasons, in order to protect the vulnerable mentally regressed boys and girls.  This young man was obviously malingering for his own purposes.  

    On the one hand this was terrible, but on the other it finally justified my investigation. Here I finally had a real story. No, it wasn’t exactly the one I had come for, but it was juicy and it was important. This would get good coverage and it might well lead to more safeguards, more systems to stop such exploitation.  

    Evan grunted louder than before, his eyes rolling upwards as spurts of white goo shot from his doodle, landing in the dirt and on his own toes.

    “That’s it Evan! Good boy, get it all out for me!” Harry urged him, still stroking away as the naked man’s body spasmed and he came.  

    Paul giggled at the show and Hannah actually clapped her hands.  I had no doubt they’d seen this before, probably many times.  

    Harry cleaned his hands crudely in the grass afterwards, smiling at me and saying, “You see how good squirt-squirts feel Davey.  So you let me know when that doodle gets all big, all happy, okay?”  

    I didn’t answer, not even a nod. But he didn’t seem to care, he went back to playing with his toys, pretending to have the mind of a six year old.  I crept over to where Evan was now playing with some colourful rings, sliding them up his arms and legs.  

    “Does Harry give you squirts a lot Evan?” I asked him quietly.  

    The man gave me a dumb smile and said, “Uh-huh! Hawwy makes my doodle skiwt.  I’m a siwwy boy ‘nd I make lotsa messes.”  

    I just nodded and gently patted his back.  Poor boy was too far gone to understand any of this.  It was up to me to do something about it.  But should I act now, or wait to see how far it goes? Was Harry doing other things? What about his friend? What if his playmates were like him and there was a whole network of malingerers? I needed to stay quiet and wait to see how deep this went.

    **

    There were no stories to be read to us at bed time, no tucking in and kisses on the foreheads.  Mummy and Daddy simply announced it was time to get our butts in bed.  No one changed into pyjamas or anything, no one brushed their teeth.  Evan and Paul climbed into bed together, still nude, cuddling up under the covers. Hannah got her own bed and that just left one bed, which of course meant I was sharing with Harry.  Ugh, this was the last thing I wanted.  

    But it got worse.  Harry smiled at me as I walked into the room.  He was already stripped down to his underoos.  They were Spiderman themed, made for grown men with little boy interests.  But then, to my surprise, he yanked them down and kicked them away.  Frankly I was even more surprised to see he was completely smooth down there too, all his hair removed just like the toddlers.  I wondered if he had done that to fit in, or if it had been done to him and he’d simply had to keep his mouth shut to keep his cover.  

    It was also impossible to miss how aroused he was. Obviously getting to sleep in the same bed with me had him very excited.  

    “Ready for beddy-byes?” he asked me.  

    I frowned. “You said big boys dun go nakey,” I reminded him. “You all nakey,” I pointed out, the way little kids often feel the need to state the obvious.  

    “Haha, yeah I sure am.  Big boys can’t run around outside nakey.  That’s a no-no. But in the house, especially for beddy-byes, it’s fine.  I’m not that big yet, I’m only six,” he explained. “C’mon, it’s okay to get nakey for sleeping, you’ll feel much more comfy,” he urged me.  

    But I shook my head. I took off my shorts but left my underwear on, climbing into the bed.

    Harry shrugged and climbed into the bed next to me, pulling the sheets over us.  

    “Let’s be cuddle-buddies,” he urged, wrapping his arms around me and pulling me close to his naked body so that our skin was pressed together.  

    I felt so awkward, so uncomfortable, but what could I say? I felt his penis brush against my bare thigh.  He pecked a kiss on my cheek too.  

    “Aren’t you my cuddle-buddy?” he whispered to me.

    I said nothing, just laid there uncomfortably stiff, sweating with worry.  

    But Harry wasn’t deterred.  A second later I felt it, his hand slipping into my undies, this fingers brushing my soft penis, tickling it.  

    “Come on Davey, let big brother help you feel good,” he cooed.

    I shoved him roughly. “No! Dazza bad touch. I tell Mummy!” I snapped.  

    The hand withdrew instantly, like he was burnt.  Harry looked scared now, for the first time since I’d met him.  “No, no Davey, you can’t say things like that,” he warned me.  

    I just frowned at him. “No touchin,” I repeated.

    He nodded now, showing me his hands. “Okay, no touching. I’ll share with the other boys okay? You get your own bed, but we keep this our secret, okay?” he bargained.

    I nodded. “Kay.”  

    Satisfied, he climbed out of the bed, padded across the carpet and climbed in with the other boys. They were happy to be cuddle buddies, they weren’t going to complain. They just didn’t know any better.  

    Harry didn’t say anything to me the next morning. He just got dressed in his school uniform, got handed his bag with a basic packed lunch from Mummy and headed out the door. It seemed like he was doing his best not to look at me even.  He was clearly worried about what I would say to Mummy. Would I just let it slip out, what he’d done the night before? Would he be found out as a malingerer? He must be terrified.  

    Once he was gone the rest of us “kids” were basically left to our own devices, left to play with the simple toys available or to wander around the house, yard and even out onto the street with barely any supervision. Mummy at least put t-shirt and undies on the other three and provided me with shorts as well as a t-shirt when I asked.  

    “You’re a shy boy,” she chuckled as I put on the clothes. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”  

    Of course she thought it was only natural I’d soon be stripping down. That’s what her other boys were like.  Evan’s undies only stayed on for about an hour, then he yanked them off and tossed them into the grass as we played in the front yard. Mummy saw that when she came out to smoke another cigarette but she just gathered up the discarded underwear and took it back inside with her.  It was like she figured she’d tried to clothe the man-boy, she’d done her part and if he didn’t want the clothes, so be it.

    It was a very, very boring day. How many times can you play the same insipid games and still keep your sanity? I was in desperate need of a bit of actual mental stimulation when I noticed Mummy had left her phone on the couch when she went to get something in the kitchen.  There was no lock, so I just swiped the screen and found myself looking through her apps, for something that might have news.  Amazingly she did have a news app. Probably came pre-installed.  I tapped it and scanned through the day’s top stories.  

    There wasn’t really much happening, but I was just so happy to be reading anything.  It was a lot tougher being surrounded by toddler-brain idiots all day than I had expected.  I could hear them screeching and giggling as they played in the other room right now.  So there was no real peace and quiet but that was fine. I usually read the news on my phone while sitting in cafes or crowded buses.   

    “What you doing there?”  

    The voice jolted me out of my reverie and I looked up to see Harry standing right over me, back from school.  

    My heart leapt into my throat. I was in the middle of scrolling through a piece of dense text. What on Earth would a toddler care about the latest Brexit news?  Why would a toddler be trying to read anything, at all?  I had to think fast.

    “Wan’ pway games!” I sulked, poking at the screen without coordination now.  

    Harry smiled and I couldn’t tell if it was because I sounded so dumb or because he’d caught me.  

    “Well that’s not the right app, silly!” he told me, leaning down and taking the phone. He tapped at it a few times, then handed it back to me, a bright child’s game now lighting the screen. “There you go Davey, much better,” he said before leaving me alone again.  

    I let out a big sigh of relief once he was gone. That was much too close. Perhaps I should call Mark right now, bring him in to end this charade.  Did I really need more dirt? I probably had most of what I needed for a story and I wasn’t sure I could take this life for much longer. My feet were now totally raw and sore from running around barefoot, I was bored silly and being talked down to like a moron was really starting to get to me.  

    Yeah, I had what I needed. Tomorrow I would get a message out to Mark, give him my address and tell him when to make the pick-up. I thought about sending him a message right now on this phone, but that would have been risky. If Mummy found the message before the pick-up I’d be in hot water.  

    **

    It was still a warm and sunny evening when Daddy got home from work.  Mummy sent the other kids, except for Harry, out to play. I started to get up to follow them but Mummy said, “No, you wait here Davey.”  

    I wondered what was going on. Mummy was looking at me oddly, like I was dangerous, like I might bite.  

    “Wanna go pway,” I told her, pointing at the others who were now happily skipping outside, Paul and Evan’s bare bottoms disappearing out the door.  

    She shook her head. “You can play soon Davey, but first we need to talk about something.”  

    Daddy came into the room and he had another man with him.  This fellow looked more professional than the people normally seen in this area. He was thirty-something, skinny and dressed in a smart casual shirt and chinos.  Daddy didn’t look happy either.  The man nodded at me and said, “This is him then?”

    Daddy nodded. “Yeah, he just arrived yesterday.”

    The man nodded. “Anything unusual?” he asked.

    It was Mummy who answered now.  “He’s real shy.”

    “He’s quiet? That’s often the case with new children,” the man noted.

    But she shook her head. “No, I mean shy about his body. The other boys all run round bare bottomed most of the time, but he keeps his undies on. I mean, I didn’t really think much of it before. It just, it seems… different.”  

    Now I was getting worried again. What was this about? Who was this dude? And why were they talking about me like I wasn’t even there?

    “Anything else?” he asked.

    Mummy seemed to think a moment.  “Well he has really soft feet. He kept asking for shoes for a little walk to the supermarket and Harry’s school. But I just figured that’s because he got little very recently.  Now though… I don’t know.”

    The man nodded and then gave me this odd smile.  “Hi there Davey,” he greeted, finally actually speaking to me.  “Can you tell me how old you are?”  

    I chewed on my lip, trying to look innocent and confused.  

    “I don’ memba,” I mumbled.  

    He nodded, walking closer to me now.  “Can I have a look at the bottoms of your feet buddy?” he asked.

    I shrugged, and sat down on the floor, feet in front of me, nibbling on my fingers.  The stranger knelt down and took my right foot in his hands. He ran his finger along the sole and I couldn’t help but giggle at how that tickled.  

    “Very soft,” he noted to Mummy and Daddy.  

    “Who you?” I asked him.

    “I’m Kevin. I’m just here to make sure you and your new family are all happy,” he assured me.  Then he stood up and said, “Well the best thing in these situations is simply to make certain the process is complete. Sometimes, it’s quite rare, but they can have these flashes of adult thoughts, usually only in the days after the virus but this will stop those.”  

    The man pulled a syringe out of his pocket and said, “This is MEV Type 3A, so it shouldn’t make too much of a difference.  It will probably pull him down a little bit though. I find it generally leaves the patients just under average three year old level, more like two and a half.  But it should completely remove those body shyness issues, so that will help him feel more comfortable with his brothers.”  

    I couldn’t stop my eyes from going wide at the sight of the booster. It didn’t matter that I had never shown virus symptoms, that thing would have the same effect on me regardless.  Instantly I shook my head and said, “No! Dun wan’ it!”  

    Kevin frowned and said, “It’s okay buddy, it isn’t a jab, it just goes in your nose and you sniff. No ouchies, no boo-boos at all.”  

    Fuck, this was not good. If I had that booster my career as a journalist would be over. There would be no reporting my story, I wouldn’t be able to write it, to even explain it to anyone.  I’d be stuck here with this foster family for real.  I had no choice but to blow my cover.

    “Stop! I don’t need a booster, I don’t have the virus at all,” I told them.  “I’m a reporter, covering abuses in the state care system, I’ve been undercover.”  

    For a second there was a look of surprise on the gathered adults’ faces. But it was nowhere near as shocked a look as I expected.  

    “He was telling the truth,” Daddy said.

    “What?” I asked.

    “Harry told us you were faking. I didn’t want to believe it, that someone would fake this to get close to vulnerable children but he was right,” Daddy said angrily.

    “Get close to… what?!  I’m a reporter!” I insisted.

    It was Mummy who snapped, “A reporter who likes touching boys pee-pees?”  

    “What?! No!”

    “Harry told us about what you did to him, what he saw you do to the others,” she spat at me.

    “He’s lying! He’s the one who’s been touching the other boys, masturbating them right in the yard! I watched him do it to Evan yesterday. He tried to touch me in bed last night!” I yelled.

    But Mummy was shaking her head. “Harry’s just a little boy himself, but with adult urges and needs. We can’t blame him for experimenting with his brothers, they don’t know any better. But you… you are sick!”  

    “He’s not a little boy! He’s the faker, that’s my story! Harry has been faking from the start. Give him the booster, see how he reacts!” I insisted.

    Mummy looked even more furious.  “Just get it over with,” she urged.  

    Kevin nodded at her and said to Daddy, “Hold him please.”

    Before I could do anything Daddy had me in his arms, my own arms pinned behind me.  I struggled mightily against him, but he was much bigger and stronger than I was.  As I struggled I could see Harry standing there, looking fascinated rather than horrified.  

    “Fuck you!” I yelled at him.  “Fuck all of you! This isn’t right, just make a phone call and check who I am! I can fucking prove it all!”  

    Kevin took the protective tip off the syringe, ignoring my pleas.  

    “Stop thrashing so much, you’re going to get your wish,” Mummy said.

    “What!”

    “When it’s done you’ll be able to play with your brothers pee-pees to your hearts delight. No more sneaking around, no more lying. You won’t even know how to lie anyway.  No one will mind your explorations because you’ll just be another one of my bare-bottomed baby boys.”

    I kicked my bare heels against Daddy’s legs, but he wasn’t letting go.  I moved my head left and right but then Daddy and Kevin put their hands on it, holding it still.  

    “No! No!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.

    But he forced the syringe up my nostril and I felt the spray blast into my sinus.  He held it there a moment, preventing me trying to blow it out, then he slipped it into the other nostril and repeated the process, depressing the plunger all the way. I felt the second, final spray shoot into my sinuses and then it was over.  

    “All done,” Kevin told Daddy.  

    “How much longer do I have to hold him?” Daddy asked, and I could hear the strain in his voice.

    “You can let him go now, he can run but he won’t get very far now,” Kevin answered.

    And with that Daddy’s arms released me.  

    I sprung free, gasping for air.  “You stupid bastards!” I shouted. “It was him! It was always him!” I told them, pointing to Harry.

    “Enough of your stories Davey,” Mummy said.  “Harry has been with us for months.  He’s a good boy and soon he’ll be a good big brother to you.”  

    They were idiots. I couldn’t look at any of them a moment longer. I turned and stormed out of the house, into the front yard where Hannah was pretending to breastfeed a dolly.  It was easy as she was topless now, sitting in the grass in just a pair of pink pull-ups.  Evan and Paul were in the driveway rolling Matchbox cars along the pavement. Both were completely naked now, their bare bottoms wagging about as the crept along.  

    I didn’t want to be here with them. I didn’t want that to be me. Two joggers passed by, glancing over the fence and getting a clear view of the two naked men, but not showing anything more than a bit of pity or perhaps amusement at their silliness, at how dumb and innocent they were now.  I didn’t want people looking at me like that.  But where could I even go? How long did I have before my mind dimmed to the same very simple level as theirs.  I’d been given such a strong strain of the virus. I was going to be just as dumb as those two.  It was impossible to actually imagine. How could I really be reduced to that?

    I felt a sort of fuzzy tickle in my head. It was a real physical sensation, like a headache beginning, but not painful.  It was starting.  God that was fast.  And it was spreading so quickly, this fuzzy sensation, this buzzing, tingling feeling.  It seemed to begin at the front of my head, just behind my forehead, and to spread backwards and then up and down.  It didn’t hurt at all, but it was scary of course.  

    Evan and Paul stood up, with Evan grinning ear to ear and blowing a raspberry as he began to run barefoot along the driveway with Paul quickly giving chase.  Their soft penises jiggled wildly about, bobbing against their smooth legs as they giggled and ran about.  They were oblivious to their reduction.  How could they be so happy this way? And worst of all they were at Harry’s mercy. And now I would be too.

    The fuzzy sensation that had filled my head suddenly exploded into shooting tingles of pleasure. My eyes went wide and I actually moaned out loud. It was like having an orgasm, only just in the head. I felt so, so good even as I could feel my thoughts getting scattered, my knowledge and intelligence being so completely reduced.  It was actually happening, I could feel it. And it was going so quickly, being taken away forever and ever. I’d never be smart and independent again. I’d never write another article.  I’d never even be able to live independently, to make my own meals.  I would need someone to look after me.  It was so humiliating.  And worst of all I would be stuck here, with this white trash family, total bogans. Stuck with people who thought it was okay for their kids to run around naked, who thought they didn’t even need to own a pair of shoes. How long until my feet were hard and permanently dirty like theirs?

    A warm hand closed on my shoulder as I stood at the front fence.  

    “There we go, no more need to pretend,” came Harry’s voice, speaking softly, comforting me.  

    I shook my head. I hated him. I was angry at him. The emotions were raw, but the words were leaving me. Every second it got harder to put thoughts together, to remember how to speak clearly.  

    “I so angry,” I managed to say to him.

    He shushed me.  “No more of that now.  Just a few more moments and it will all be done. I’m going to take such good care of you. I love all my little boys. I’m not upset you tried to ruin everything. Well, I am, but that was the old you, grown-up David. He’s going to sleep now. I won’t be upset at little Davey at all.  

    “So no more pretending to be little. You really weren’t that good at it anyway. Acting all shy, all nervous. You won’t be shy in a moment. You’ll be just like the others, a lovely little nudist.”

    I shook my head. I wanted to explain to him why I needed to keep my clothes on. But the words weren’t there, the ideas weren’t there. It was important for some reason, but I couldn’t recall why.  And the pleasurable tingles made it so hard to focus.  

    Harry looked in my eyes and smiled.  “Yes, I can see you’re almost there now. It’s all in the eyes you see. That’s why you failed before. The eyes of a little boy, they’re just different. They’re sort of empty. You can just see the simple little mind behind them.”  

    I was very confused. The words were too big, too fast.  

    “I think you’d like to play now, wouldn’t you?” Harry asked me brightly.  

    When he said play my head lit up even more. There was so much pleasure. I definitely wanted to play.  I found myself nodding.

    He smiled again. I liked seeing his smile. For a second I felt a weird, confusing feeling of anger, but it passed just as quickly as it came on.  Smiles were nice.  

    “But we can’t have you getting your clothes all messy when you play,” Harry told me.  

    It made sense. Harry seemed so smart, so certain. It made me feel safe.  I shook my head because he was shaking his.

    He giggled. “That’s right, so we should take this shirt off,” he directed, guiding my arms up and then slipping the shirt off over my head.  

    “That’s much better!” he said.

    “Beddah!” I echoed, hopping on my toes. His happiness made me feel happy.  

    “And we should take these shorts and undies off too,” he added, touching the waist gently.  

    Another wave of anger hit me and I frowned. It was so strong. But where was the feeling from? I didn’t know. I squirmed, feeling funny, feeling confused.

    “Look at Evan and Paul. They’re all nakey. Shouldn’t you be nakey for playing too?” Harry pointed out.  

    I looked over at my brothers. They were naked.  A strong, warm wave of pleasure swept through my head. The anger vanished.  

    “Uh-huh. Dabey nakey,” I agreed.  Brothers were naked. Harry was smart and nice and he said I should be naked too.  

    He slipped my shorts and undies down.  

    “Feet,” he said, and I stepped out of them one at a time.  

    “There, isn’t that so much comfier?” he asked me, patting my bare bottom.  

    It did feel good. I felt so free.  

    “Yeth,” I answered.  My tongue was so heavy and slow now.

    “Good boy!” he praised. I felt all nice and warm inside. I was a good boy.  

    “I think you’d like to be a jaybird, wouldn’t you?” he asked.

    “Wazza jay-bud?” I asked.

    “It means you’re nakey whenever you’re home. Just take everything off as soon as you can!” he told me brightly.

    I liked how he said it, the happy tone. And I liked how I felt right now, all free with the warm sun on my skin.  Yes, this was definitely how I wanted to be from now on. I didn’t need clothes at all.  

    “Dabey jay-bud!” I agreed, nodding, clapping my hands.  

    “Okay, go play with your brothers then jaybird,” Harry told me, giving me a gentle push towards the driveway.  

    Play! Yes, I was going to play. I felt the warm, gritty pavement under my soles. I liked the sensations. I joined Evan and Paul. They let me have a toy car too.  We played with the cars. Then Evan poked me in the bum and ran away. I chased after him. I like chasing!  I’m a silly boy.  

    **

    At bed time Harry climbs into my bed. I’m tired from playing and ready for night-nights.  It was a busy day. I got little today.  I remember that I was big, but not what that was like. All the big boy things went away. But playing was fun, so I’m sure it’s okay to be little too. I think little is better than big.  

    “Are you my cuddle buddy?” Harry asks me.

    Of course I am! I love getting cuddles. I put my arms around him and pull in real tight. He’s nakey now too, just for beddy-byes though. He’s too big to be nakey outside. That’s for little boys. That’s one of the nice things about being little. It feels so nice when our skin touches, so warm and close.  

    I feel Harry’s hand touch my pee-pee.  

    “Is that a big happy pee-pee I feel?” Harry asks me.

    It feel wonderful when he touches it.  

    “Uh-huh. Happy pee-pee,” I agree.

    “Can big brother help that pee-pee feel extra good?” he asks sweetly.  

    “Yef!” I urge. I want to feel gooder.  

    Harry’s fingers close around my pee-pee and he rubs it, up and down. Ohhh, it feels so, sooo good.  I cuddle even tighter next to him, breath into his shoulder, moan as he makes me feel so good. I love big brother so much. It gets better and better, my toes clench and then, ooooh, I making sticky squirts, all over our tummies, all over the bed. And Harry holds me close, cuddles me so perfectly and rubs the back of my head.  

    “That’s a good boy, getting all those stickies out. I promise I’ll take care of you just like that every single night.”  

    I have the bestest big brother in the world.

    Support Group

    The support group was recommended by my doctor after I was diagnosed with MEV Type 3c. It was a group for people suffering from the virus, but also had a sister group for caretakers.  The idea was that we could all get support at once, tailored to our particular needs. The two groups met at the local community centre on Thursday nights.  We were in different rooms so that we could all share openly. It was only natural that a lot of what we talked about was issues with our caregivers and no doubt they would be sharing about us.  

    My caregiver was my long-time girlfriend Emma.  She had been a really career focussed thirty-year old at an insurance company.  She worked in underwriting and had been on a track to become an executive before she stepped back her hours and gave up some of her positions of responsibility to look after me when I was diagnosed.  I felt eternally grateful to her for the sacrifices she made.  It couldn’t have been easy.  Plenty of victims’ partners and even spouses couldn’t deal with it and just walked out, leaving parents to care for their adult children or for the foster care system to pick up the slack.  

    My career as a software designer was over too of course. At thirty-one I was facing the loss of everything I’d been working towards.  That was something we all faced when diagnosed. That’s one reason a support group was so very important.  

    The type of virus we were all diagnosed with caused a particularly long regression process. That was what the ‘c’ meant. From diagnosis to complete mental regression was expected to take 10 to 12 months.  It was a very short period of time in my opinion, but by the standards of the virus it was long. Type A strains caused total regression in a matter of days after all.  But the troubling part was our type caused regression to the mental age of 3 to 4 years old.  It could have been worse, but it was far from ideal. Some milder forms of the virus only took people back to age 8 to 10, which meant full recovery was possible in under 10 years.  It would be much longer for us. We would need to grow up all over again.  

    Our group had eight members at the moment. That did change regularly though. As the members regressed they eventually reached the point where they could no longer contribute to the group and their awareness diminished enough that they no longer really needed support.  They became happy little children, oblivious to their severe losses of independence and control.  The decision on when they had reached that point was left to Brian, the group’s leader.  

    Brian didn’t have the virus, he was a normal adult trained to lead support groups like this.  He guided our discussions, kept us to the rules, suggested ways we could better cope.  When he decided a member had reached the point of blissful ignorance he moved them out of group and into a much larger group that met in a playroom next to our meeting room.  The caregivers still often needed support of course, so they kept coming and their charges went to the playroom for the duration of the meeting.  There were probably fifteen to twenty fully regressed boys and girls in that room during the meetings.  

    Tonight though there were only seven of us at the group.  I was disappointed because one who was missing was Tony, one of the more mature of the group.  I was only diagnosed two months ago, following a high fever and then a seizure at the dinner table. I was still early in the process.  Tony was three months post-diagnosis and still had better control on his faculties than most of the others in our group.  We shared similar experiences and I liked talking with him.  

    But it was still interesting to hear from the rest of the group. They gave me a look at what was in front of me and advice on how to cope with it, though much of the useful advice came from Brian.  

    A woman named Becky was speaking at the moment.  She was in her late twenties and had been in real estate before her diagnosis seven months ago.  Now she was sitting cross legged in her chair, cuddling a well worn teddy bear in her arms and intermittently chewing on its ears or fur.  She was wearing a simple yellow t-shirt and short jean shorts, though noticeably lacking any shoes.  I hadn’t seen her wear any since I joined the group.  

    “Mummy said I couldn’ hab my phone ‘nd that made me real angry. Is my phone!” she was complaining.  

    Other members of the group nodded, sharing her upset.  But Brian pressed her with a question.  “And why did Mummy say you couldn’t have your phone Becky?”  

    The young woman scowled and said, “Cuz it was nearly bedtime and she said it’d keep me awake.”  

    “Well it’s true that the blue light from screens can keep you awake,” Brian noted.

    “But it was onwy eight o’clock. Bed time’s too earwy!” Becky responded.

    “I getta stay up till ten,” Billy chimed in, wearing a proud smile.  He was a thirty-five year old man, now sitting in his seat wearing a pair of bright orange board shorts but nothing else. Billy was shirtless as well as being barefoot.

    The shirtlessness and the bare feet had begun suddenly a couple meetings ago and I now assumed it was simply his normal state of being.  The first time he’d been noticeably pale with something of a farmer’s tan. Now he was golden skinned all over and the soles of his feet were visibly callused and dirty.  

    “That’s very nice for you Billy,” Brian told him. “But remember we’re listening to Becky right now. It will be your turn soon.”

    Billy nodded seriously and put his fingers to his lips and mimed zipping them shut and throwing away the key.  

    “Good boy,” Brian praised him.  Brian would never say that to me. He knew I would hate being called a boy, same as Tony.  But Billy was six months post diagnosis and since last week he’d been calling his wife ‘Mummy’ instead of Jen.  He’d reached the point where he clearly thought of himself as a boy, not a grown man.  

    “Not fair he c’n stay up late!” Becky declared, crossing her arms in a huff.

    “Well Billy’s a bit bigger than you isn’t he Becky. Perhaps your Mummy knows you need more sleep so you can be happy and healthy,” Brian suggested.

    Becky looked over at Billy and though she didn’t look happy, she did seem to accept Brian’s suggestion as true.  

    “Do you think Mummy wants to hurt you, or help you?” Brian followed up.

    Becky seemed to think it over a bit before agreeing, “Help me.”

    Brian nodded. “Exactly. So next time why don’t you hand Mummy your phone at eight and show her you’re a big girl.”  

    Becky cheered up a bit at this.  “Yeah, I do it. I do it by myself,” she said proudly.  

    “I dun gotta phone no more,” Sarah announced at that moment. “Mummy gib me hers to pway with when I wanna.”  

    Sarah was nine months post-diagnosis now and the twenty-six year old was getting close to moving to the playroom, I thought.  Tonight she was wearing blue jean bib shortalls over a white t-shirt. Her blonde hair was done up in pigtails with bright pink bows and she was regularly playing with them and chewing on her hair.  

    “That’s nice of her, isn’t it Sarah?” Brian followed up in a gentle sing-song tone.  

    Sarah nodded, not chewing her hair but instead sucking on two of her fingers now.  “Mummy ids nithe,” she declared.  

    The only other girl in the group was an older woman, probably mid-thirties. She was only recently diagnosed and still in the shock stage as far as I could tell.  She was still dressed completely in adult clothing, same as me and Tony always were.  I thought her name was Melissa but I couldn’t be sure. As far as I knew, she’d never spoken at group.  

    Then there were two other men.  One of them was Timmy and he was the furthest gone in the group. I expected he would be moved to the playroom next time.  When I first came to group he had things to add, but the last couple times he said nothing. He would squirm in his chair, turn around and kneel on it with his back to us, then climb down to the floor and sit on his bottom playing with his toes or rolling a toy car or truck he always seemed to keep in his pocket to play with.  

    Today Timmy was wearing a t-shirt with a big cartoon dinosaur design under pin-striped engineer style overalls, cuffed at the ankles for his bare feet.  He even had a fake policeman’s hat on today, perhaps from playing dress-up before group.  The funny thing was Timmy, back when he was a thirty-year old named Tim, had been a lawyer. Now he was clearly obsessed with simple blue-collar professions like the police and train engineers.  

    It was obvious Timmy wasn’t going to contribute anything today. He was already down on the floor, pulling at his toes, inspecting them with actual curiosity.  So Brian instead turned to the final man, Andrew, who was sitting across from me.  

    “So Andrew, we haven’t heard from you yet today. Is there anything you wanted to tell us. Anything happen in the last week at home?” Brian asked him.  

    Andrew was five months post-diagnosis.  The twenty-nine year old had left his work as a university lecturer in biology and now spent his days at home playing with Lego blocks and a junior scientist kit his caregiver, his older sister, had given him.  I felt particularly bad for Andrew because he’d been so clever before, an actual genius and he’d reached the point where that intellect was really being dimmed.  

    Andrew had been dressed normally since I’d been attending the meetings. If you didn’t know what was wrong with him you wouldn’t have guessed he was a virus victim.  I was impressed by how well he’d been holding it together given that he was two months down the line from Tony.  He usually spoke about how boring his days were now, about his fears of eventually being sent to a daycare or play centre for the days since that was his alternative to sitting at home alone.  

    “Eventually I know the day will come where I can’t be trusted to be home alone anymore,” he told the group a couple weeks ago.  “It’s so frightening to even think about.  That I’ll be a danger to myself just from being alone. Not being able to make my own lunch, not being able to tie my shoes even.”  

    That was why it was surprising how he was dressed for the meeting today.  His polo shirt and khakis pants were normal enough.  They were the kind of thing he generally wore. But today he was sitting there barefoot and his pants had elastic ankles, not like the normal dress casual style he generally wore.  It had made me wonder when he walked in that way.  

    Andrew shuffled his feet back and forth on the carpeted floor and said, “Kate wants me to go barefoot now.”  

    Ah, now it made sense. It was his caregiver who dressed him like that.  

    “Barefoot to the group you mean?” Brian followed up.

    “Nah. She says I don’t need shoes no more cuz little kids at daycare don’ have ‘em and my feet need to be tougher for that.  She says they go on walks to the park ‘n stuff ‘nd they don’t bother puttin’ shoes on da kids.  She says it’ll hurt too much if my feet are soft.”  

    “I got bare feet too!” Billy interrupted again, now lifting and extending his feet to show them off to everyone.  “Mummy says they help people know I liddle.”  

    “Bawe feeties!” Timmy agreed, holding one of his feet up in the air as well and looking very happy to join in the conversation for once.

    “And do you like having bare feet now Billy?” Brian asked, nodding to Timmy as well.

    He gave a quick nod. “They much betterer den shoes.”

    “What do you think Andrew?”

    The former uni lecturer shrugged.  “I dunno. Makes me feel kinda silly when we go out and Kate’s gots shoes on ‘nd the other grown-ups do. But I’m barefoot.”  

    “But are you a grown-up Andrew?” Brian followed up.

    Slowly, unhappily with his eyes on the floor, Andrew shook his head.  

    “That’s right. And look at the rest of the group. Most of the others don’t have shoes on either. Isn’t it a good thing if people who see you outside, people who don’t know you, understand right away that you need some extra care and attention?”

    Andrew scowled but nodded his head.  “I s’pose.”

    “And didn’t you tell us last time that you kind of like playing on the playground at the park and you wanted to play in the play place at McDonald’s when you went there?”  

    Andrew brightened up a bit at this memory and he agreed, “Uh-huh.”

    “Well parents generally don’t like grown-ups playing with their little kids on the playground do they? So isn’t it good if they see you’re bare feet and know right away you’re a kid too and it’s okay for you to be playing?” Brian pointed out.  

    Andrew looked awed by this logic and after a moment he smiled and nodded. “Yeah, that’s true,” he agreed.

    “Exactly. You see your sister understands that. She probably saw that you’ve reached the stage where you want to join in with the other boys and girls and if you’re going to do that the time has come to make sure everyone can see you’re a boy too.”  

    Andrew was smiling and wiggling his bare toes against the carpet by now, clearly no longer nearly as embarrassed about being barefoot.  I was pretty impressed with how Brian handled that, though I certainly wasn’t keen to be joining Andrew in bare feet. I wasn’t interested in playing in parks or going on the slide and swings while my caregiver pushed me.

    Just then the door to the room opened and I recognised Melanie, Tony’s wife, as our newest arrival. She must have just arrived to drop him off before heading to her own caregiver support group.  I was glad they were here as I had to catch up with Tony about a few things.  

    “Sorry we’re late,” Melanie said. “I hate to interrupt your group but we were at the park and just totally lost track of time.”

    “No worries,” Brian assured. “Come right in.”

    She did come into the room, but something was wrong. First of all she was leading Tony by his hand. That was not normal at all, it was how Timmy and Sarah usually arrived but not the rest of us. The next thing that was blatantly obvious was that Tony was not dressed in his normal adult clothes. He wasn’t even in a slightly juvenile outfit like Andrew.  No he was wearing a blue t-shirt featuring Cookie Monster and a pair of white underoos with fire engine designs and bright red piping.  He wasn’t wearing any pants or shorts at all and was barefoot like the other boys.  

    “Oh and I’m afraid Tony won’t be joining your group anymore,” Melanie told Brian. “He’ll need to be going to the playroom.”  

    My eyes widened.  Tony was my closest mate here. Hell, he was the only mate I really had anymore.  My other friends stopped coming by after I was diagnosed.  And now he was standing there in his undies in front of us all and he didn’t seem bothered at all.  No, his free hand held a fidget spinner and he was engrossed in playing with it, totally oblivious to us.  

    “That’s too bad,” Brian replied. “We’ll miss his inputs, but I can see he’s no longer in need of support.”

    Melanie smiled. “No, he’s perfectly content now. We really should have done this right off the bat.  He’d been so afraid at first but I finally convinced him this was for the best. A quick booster and it’s all over with in minutes. You just have to do it fast, like pulling off a plaster.”  

    A booster. So that was what happened. It wasn’t a quirk of the virus, a misdiagnosis of the type. He’d chosen to have the booster, to have his mind turned to mush in minutes.  And now he would be at the young end of the mental range, a very slow three year old.  No wonder he was happy to be paraded before us in his underoos.  

    “I’ll show you where to take him,” Brian volunteered. And with that Tony was led away, never even really looking up at us.  

    I couldn’t let it end that way. So when our session finished I did something I never had before. I headed for the playroom.  The caregiver session always ran long so the place was still packed.  Three adults did their best to supervise the giant little toddlers in here.  I couldn’t help but notice one pretty young woman was playing topless, wearing just get frilly purple skirt as her free breasts bounced about.  Many of the boys were either shirtless or missing their pants, their underoos on display.  

    I found Tony creeping along the carpet pushing a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train.  His shirt had gone missing now too and he was playing before everyone in just his firetruck underoos.  I knelt next to him on the carpet and he looked over at me without any recognition.  

    “Tony, it’s me, Jeremy. Remember me buddy? We went to the group together.”  

    Tony rested back on his haunches in front of me and then held out the toy train.  “You pway,” he said.  

    I shook my head. “No, Tony, I don’t want to play.”

    He shoved it at me harder. “Pway!” he insisted. “Twain!”  

    I took the toy and put it on the carpet.  Pushing it along I began making the noises for it, going “Chugga-chugga-chugga-choo-choo!” as I drove it gently over Tony’s feet.  

    My friend grinned ear to ear in utter delight at this very simple game.

    “Choo-choo!” he echoed loudly, clapping his hands.  

    Then he roughly grabbed the toy back from me and announced, “Mine!” before twisting around and presenting his bottom to me as he resumed his play without me.     

    My friend was completely gone. There was no doubt about it left.  All around me young men and women were playing just as simple games.  And while I was upset about it I also couldn’t help but notice how happy they all seemed.  All around the room there were cheerful smiles, big happy grins and giggles.  The topless woman was drooling onto her bare boobs with a huge open-mouthed smile as one of the carers wiggled her piggy toes.  Another young woman was spinning in circles in a Snow White princess costume dress until she fell over from dizziness and giggled her head off.  They were all so happy, so easily amused. Compared to the anger and sadness and confusion seen in my support group I had to wonder whether it was the right choice to refuse the booster.  

    **

    As we rode home that evening I turned to Emma and asked, “How was your group?”  

    She smiled. “It was good. We had some really nice chats. How was yours?”

    I shrugged. “It was okay. Becky was upset about her early bedtime and that her carer takes her phone away before bed.”

    “From what I hear that Becky is a real handful.  I don’t envy her carer at all,” Emma told me.

    “Oh yeah?”

    She nodded. “Yeah, she throws a total tantrum every time she has to eat veggies or take a bath or go to sleep on time.  It sounds like she’s a real terror. If I was her carer I wouldn’t be putting up with that at all.”  

    “I hope I’m not like that,” I whispered.

    “Oh, no honey, you’ve never thrown a tantrum…”  

    “No, no, I meant, when I get little, like Becky. I hope I’m not a pain,” I clarified.

    Emma shook her head. “I can’t imagine you would be. You’re far too sweet. That Becky was probably a spoiled adult too.”

    “I hope you’re right.”

    She patted my knee. “I know I am. But just to be safe I’ll be careful who you play with when you become more impressionable.  No playdates with that Becky.”  

    “No definitely not.”

    “Maybe with that Andrew boy. He seems like a nice fellow.”

    “Yeah, he’s nice.  His sister is making him go barefoot now. She took his shoes away actually.”

    Emma raised her eyebrows. “She trying to make him like that other boy in your group. What’s his name? The one who doesn’t seem to have a shirt?”

    “That’s Billy. But actually none of the further along ones seem to wear shoes. Brian thought it was a good thing for Andrew, that it would make sure people could tell he was little and not grown-up,” I explained.

    “Oh, yes, I can understand that. When I see a grown man or woman without any shoes on in public I usually do assume they’re actually little.”  Emma looked over at me and said, “Are you thinking we should pack your shoes away too Jeremy?”

    I blinked in surprise. “What?”

    “Well if all the other boys in your group are coming in bare feet you probably should be too. If you’re saying Brian thinks that’s a good idea, I’m happy to give it a try. I knew it was likely to happen down the line at some point honey. Little kids hate wearing shoes for some reason. If you’re ready to take that step, that’s fine…”

    “No, no, Emma that isn’t what I meant,” I corrected.

    “Oh, sorry…”

    “No, it’s just I had other things on my mind.”

    “Such as?”

    “Tony… my friend, he…”

    “Ohhh, yes his wife was in my group so I heard. She gave him the booster. I’m sorry honey, I knew you were really bonding with him.”  

    “Yeah, it’s okay. He was just so gone. He showed up holding her hand. He was wearing undies, Emma, just these little kid underoos with cartoons all over them and he didn’t even mind us seeing him like that.”  

    “Well, you knew it was going to happen eventually.”

    “Yeah, it’s just that it was so fast,” I told her. “And I went to see him in the playroom after and he was… well, he seemed so happy.  He was smiling and playing.  In fact they all just looked so… content in there.”  

    Emma took this in and seemed to be thinking for a moment. Then she pulled the car over to the side of the road and stopped before looking right at me.  

    “Jeremy, are you asking to have the booster?” she asked, looking dead serious.

    My stomach was all butterflies and I sort of shrugged it off. “I dunno. I just thought… well everyone in my group is so confused and they’re angry a lot and the people in the playroom seemed… much happier. But they’re also all dumbed down. They don’t know any better now. I mean one girl was practically naked.”  

    “Practically naked but happier though, because she’s lost all her modesty you mean?”  

    Slowly I nodded.  

    “It would be easier if you didn’t have any modesty, wouldn’t it.  It would be a real relief, for both of us I think…”

    “What does that mean?” I asked, confused and feeling a bit weird about it all.

    Emma looked embarrassed too. But then she explained, “One of the other women was talking in our group about it, about her boyfriend, her little one, losing all his modesty.  He didn’t have a booster, but it just happened one day about seven months after his diagnosis, she said. He was just playing in their front yard as usual when she looked up and he’d taken all his clothes off, even his undies and was just playing as usual that way, like it was perfectly normal.  She decided not to say anything, to see if he later got embarrassed about it. But he didn’t.  He never even noticed the change and since then he’s buck naked most of the time he’s at home.  

    “She said it’s a relief because he was getting all his clothes messy from eating, from playing, from everything little boys get into. And now he just plays in his undies in public and naked at home and it’s just much easier for her. He takes a bath every night anyway.”  

    Emma stopped a moment and then gave me a funny smile. “And she also said that when he gets excited she can see it right away and help him with it.  So, y’know it might not be that bad to have your modesty gone. I wouldn’t really mind and once you lost it, neither would you.”  

    I had to admit the very thought of that, of Emma giving me a handy whenever I got aroused, was pretty exciting.  

    “So, honey, if you were thinking about a booster…”

    I shook my head. “I don’t want to do that to you Emma. You have a hard enough time now…”

    She stopped me with a finger on my lips.  “I’ve heard enough from that support group to know that the hardest parts of this are the transition. We haven’t reached those tough parts yet and I’m happy to go through them for you. I don’t want to push you into something you aren’t ready for. But if you want to just have it over with, that would actually be the easiest thing for me.”  

    I was really taken aback by this. I hadn’t thought of it that way at all. Maybe a booster really would be for the best. Maybe I should just be joining Tony next week.  

    “I… I think maybe we should do it,” I told her.  

    Emma pulled me into a big hug. “Only if you’re ready for it Jeremy.”  

    I nodded. “Yeah, I think I am.”  

    **

    A week later we were sitting in the doctor’s office waiting room. Emma sat next to me, holding my hand.  She knew that I was feeling nervous of course. How could I not be?  This was really it. It was one thing to decide this was for the best, it was another to actually go through with it.  

    “You doing okay?” she asked me quietly.

    I gave her a nervous smile and nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”  

    “We don’t have to go back there if you aren’t feeling up to it,” she offered.

    I shook my head. “No, I… I wouldn’t be able to get the nerve up for it again. Let’s just do it.”

    We weren’t alone in the room. Across from us another woman was looking at her phone. Down on the floor at her feet was a twenty-something young woman, dressed in a short purple t-shirt and a thick nappy.  The woman was playing with the simple blocks and rings left on the floor, currently jamming a bright red plastic ring in her mouth and chewing on it while drool dribbled from her chin.  

    “Oh Susie, that’s dirty, don’t put that in your mouth sweetie,” the woman chided her.  

    The grown woman on the floor let the ring drop back to the carpet and reached towards her carer with her open arms. “Baba! Baba mama!” she called out.  

    “Oh honey, you already had your juice-juice,” the carer replied.

    The adult baby on the floor scowled and shook her head so her pigtails jiggled about.  “Baba!” she insisted.  

    “I’m sorry honey. But we’ll get you more juice after we see the nice doctor.”  

    The baby woman wasn’t placated. She scrunched up her face and slapped the floor with her open palms before letting out a wail.  

    “Okay, okay, that’s enough of that. Someone needs their binkie,” the carer said, rummaging in her bag a moment and then producing a bright pink dummy which she popped into the woman’s open mouth.  

    The big baby blinked with surprise and stopped her crying instantly. A moment passed and she visibly relaxed as she suckled on the binkie.  

    “There we go. Sorry about that,” the woman told them.

    “Oh, it’s no problem,” Emma assured.

    “She’s actually much easier to calm down now.  Before her booster she’d get so frustrated at not being able to do things and giving her a baby toy to calm her down only made her angrier of course. Now all it takes is her binkie, or a raspberry on her bare tummy or a tickle on the soles of her feet and she forgets all about whatever made her upset,” the woman explained.

    “Really?” Emma said, intrigued. “And when did she have the booster?”  

    “It’s been a month now,” the carer answered. “That’s why we’re in for a check-up.”  

    “And you don’t have any regrets about it?”

    “None at all,” she assured.  

    While they talked my focus was on the baby woman. She was on the floor now because seats were for grown-ups, not babies.  She didn’t have a phone to distract her.  She was in public with no pants on, her nappy on full display.  She didn’t have any say in that. No one would ask her what she wanted to wear anymore. But it clearly didn’t bother her either.  

    The door to the back room opened and a man in t-shirt, shorts and sandals emerged, leading another young man about the same age as him out into the waiting area.  

    “There we go, that wasn’t so bad after all, was it Liam?” he said in a sing-song tone to the other man.  

    The second fellow was clearly the dependent.  He was a couple inches taller than his carer, skinny as a rail, pale skinned with messy brown hair.  He wore nothing but a pair of simple underoos, white with green piping.  And one thing that no one could miss was the absolutely huge erection the young man was currently sporting. His soft undies were stretched right out, tented in an unmistakable manner.   

    “Wiam wiked dat!” the young man agreed very happily.  

    He certainly seemed happy with whatever treatment he’d had. Aside from being very aroused he was also sporting a big goofy grin and squirming like a hyperactive tot while his carer went to the counter and signed forms.  

    “Lookit da toyth!” he urged his carer, yanking his hand and pointing to the pile of bright toys the big baby girl was sat in the midst of.  

    “I just need to sign these papers buddy. Just wait a moment,” the carer told him.

    Emma leaned over and whispered to me, “He looks like he’s going to cream his undies any second if his daddy isn’t careful.”

    I giggled and nodded.

    A nurse came through the door with a bag, handing it to the carer.  “Here’s the rest of his grown-up clothes in case you need them,” she said.  

    “Thanks. I guess maybe goodwill will take them. It doesn’t look like he’ll be needing much in the way of clothing beyond underoos and a few t-shirts from now on,” the carer replied.  

    “Probably not. A lot of boys are like this after their boosters,” the nurse explained. “It’s all very exciting for them, losing their grown-up worries, their modesty all at once.”  

    The carer nodded and led the nearly naked and aroused man across the waiting room to the entry.  The smiling fellow looked at me with big innocent eyes and waved hello as they passed.

    “Emma, did you bring me any change of clothes?” I asked her, suddenly wondering what I would be leaving here with. Were they going to take my grown-up clothes away? Was that a requirement?

    Emma shrugged. “I hadn’t thought to bring anything else,” she told me.

    “Jeremy!” the nurse called out.  

    “Yeah, that’s me,” I said, heading into the back along with Emma.  

    The doctor was a middle aged woman in scrubs.  She smile kindly and had me sit on the examination table while Emma took a chair.  

    “So, Jeremy, I see you have MEV Type 3c and you’re in for your booster today. Is that all correct?” she asked me.

    “Um, yes, that’s right,” I managed to say even as my whole body had begun to shiver.

    “I hope you aren’t too cold,” the doctor said.

    “Oh...No, no, just nervous I guess.”

    “I understand, that’s quite normal.  We will try to make this as quick and painless as possible,” she told me before turning to Emma. “Do you have arrangements in place for care?” she asked her.

    “I’m sorry?”

    “The booster works in a manner of minutes. After that Jeremy will need constant care.  My understanding is he is only two months post-diagnosis so this will be a very significant change to his behaviour and needs.  He will have the mentality of a three year old at best.  Is your home properly toddler-proofed so that Jeremy won’t be able to get into cabinets and drink cleaning supplies or pull down heavy glasses onto himself. Have you covered the electrical outlets so he won’t be hurt if he licks them?” the doctor asked.

    “Oh, yes, I read all the instructions and guidelines your office sent. The house is ready,” Emma assured.

    “Good. And you have daycare lined up for him?”  

    Another nod. “Yes, the Big Smiles House, it’s quite near to our house.”  

    “Did you bring a change of clothes?”  

    Now Emma frowned. “I… I didn’t… Is that really necessary? Why can’t he just wear what he has on?”  

    “Well it isn’t a rule or anything but we find it best that dependent adults are immediately recognisable as such. If Jeremy was going back to primary school level we’d just suggest you take his shoes and socks off. That would be a simple way to identify him as a child and not an adult.  But since he’s going back to toddler mentality we suggest you buy him more appropriate outfits.  Until then it may be simplest to have him just wear his undies.”

    Emma nodded but I wasn’t too happy to hear that. I mean I knew it was going to happen eventually, but not so quickly. I didn’t want to know about it while I could still feel ashamed.  

    “Okay, so let’s proceed then,” the doctor said, going into her cabinets and taking out a syringe.  

    “Is it a jab then?” I asked, feeling nervous.  

    “No, no, nothing to be afraid of,” she explained, taking the plastic tip off and revealing it was an inhalant.  “We just slip this up your nostril, that’s all.”  

    Emma stood next to me and held my hand as the doctor slipped it up my left nostril and said, “Okay, nice deep breath for me,” as she depressed the plunger half way.  

    I felt the blast of spray up my nose and did as I was told, breathing in deeply with my mouth closed.  

    “Very good. One down, one to go,” she said, putting the syringe in my other nostril.  

    “And deep breath again,” she told me.  Another spray went up my nose, deep into my sinuses as I inhaled for her.  

    “Excellent job Jeremy. All done!” she announced, disposing of the syringe.  

    It was over. I’d actually done it. My heart was absolutely pounding, I suddenly realised.  Now there was no going back.  I was going to be like the other young man in the waiting room, walking around with a big dumb smile, babbling toddler gibberish, no sense of privacy.  

    “How long until he feels it?” Emma asked.  

    “A minute or two probably,” the doctor answered. “You can get him undressed now if you want. There’s a bag you can put his clothes in right there.”  

    She was already talking to Emma about me like I wasn’t there. She didn’t ask if I wanted to get undressed, if I was ready. My opinion already didn’t count.  

    “I’m not ready for that,” I told them both.  

    “Of course not honey, I wasn’t going to,” Emma assured me.  

    I nodded. Emma was so good to me.  I was so lucky to have her to take care of me.  I hoped I could still be well behaved after this was done. That’s when the fuzzy feelings began.  It started small, a sort of light-headed sensation.  But it grew rapidly, spreading all around my head.  

    “Oh… I feel it,” I told Emma.

    She pulled me into a hug.  “That’s okay Jeremy, just let it happen honey. Let it all those grown-up thoughts go for me. I’m going to take care of all the worrying from now on sweetie,” she assured, rubbing my back.  

    I cuddled her back. Emma was so warm, so loving.  I felt my brain dimming, memories of university, of high school slipping away.  All the knowledge I’d gained was leaking from my brain and it all felt so… so peaceful.  It was like parts of brain were just going to sleep, taking a nice long rest in a comfy bed.  It didn’t hurt and it wasn’t as scary as I feared.  

    As it accelerated it wasn’t just big grown-up memories and abilities going away, it was very simple things like reading and writing.  I was losing words, even small ones. I felt like the world was shrinking around me. There were things I knew before that I didn’t anymore. I knew I was losing stuff, but not really what.  Even numbers and letter were going away.  But I didn’t miss the stuff because it was for big boys and I felt more certain with every passing second that I wasn’t a big boy at all.  I knew I was little.  I was getting little and Emma was going to look after me.  

    The doctor lady tapped Emma’s shoulder. “It’s been ten minutes. I think he’ll be ready to get changed now. Then you can take him home.”  

    Emma nodded and pulled back from our cuddle, looking me in the eye, looking at me like she was looking for something inside of me.  

    “Jeremy, we need to get you changed to go home,” she told me.

    I nodded. Emma was so smart. Emma knew what was good for me. But I wanted to know why. I wanted to know so much and it was all gone. It went bye-byes and I needed to ask Emma.  

    “Why change?” I asked her.  I didn’t think that came out right. So many words were gone. And how to put them together, it was tricky now. My head just felt so empty, so slow.  

    “You’re still wearing grown-up clothes honey. They aren’t right for a little boy. So we’re going to take them off, okay?” Emma explained.

    It was hard to follow Emma’s words because I didn’t know all of them. But I understood what she was saying.  I was little now and I needed little boy clothes.  That made perfect sense.  

    “Kay,” I told her.

    Emma helped me get undressed. She did the buttons on my shirt. I wanted to help her but my fingers weren’t working right. I couldn’t get the buttons undone. There was a belt on my pants too. I recognised it as a belt. But I couldn’t recall how it worked. I wasn’t sure what it did.  Emma undid it for me anyway.  

    She pulled my pants down and said, “Jeremy, lift your right foot for me honey.”

    Lift my right foot.  I know what a foot is. I have two feet. They have toes on them and I can wiggle them and touch them and they’re mine. But right and left?  I don’t know those. I knew them before. But they’ve gone away now.  I just look down at Emma, confused about what to do.  

    “Oh, honey, lift this foot,” she clarified, tapping one of them.  That was better, now I could be a good boy and do as I was told.  I lifted it and she slipped my pants off that foot, then the other.  I sat on the table after that, so she could take off my socks too.  

    “There we go,” Emma declared. “All the grown-up clothes are gone.”  

    “Awll gone!” I agreed. I felt so excited about making the big boy things go away.

    “Now we can go home,” Emma told me, taking my hand while I stood up.

    We were going home! That made me feel good.  I liked how the carpet felt under my feet too. It was nice having bare feet.  I remembered the little boys and girls in my group. They had bare feet too because they were little.  I looked down at my feet, wiggled my toes that I controlled.  Silly toes.  And my undies were all stretchy too.  I grabbed the bulge in my undies. That felt really nice. I rubbed and it felt even better.

    “Honey, I know your doodle is all happy, but please don’t touch it. Mummy will help you with that when we get home,” Emma told me, pulling my hand away from my undies.

    Mummy would help me with my happy doodle. I don’t know what that means but it sounds fun! I let Emma, no not Emma, Mummy.  I let Mummy take my hand and lead me back to the waiting room.  I can hardly wait to get home and play with my happy doodle! I tell the nurse while Mummy filling out grown-up forms.  

    “Gonna pway wid my doodle when we home!”  

    The nurse smiled and giggles. “Well that does sound nice,” she tells me.  

    Mummy says, “Sorry about that,” to the nurse. I don’t know why she’s sorry, the nurse is happy for me.  

    “No worries at all. It’s a perfectly normal reaction to the booster,” she assured.  

    I’m not listening to the grown-ups. I want to play with the toys the baby girl has, on the floor. But Mummy takes my hand and says we need to go home now. I hope I have toys to play with there.  I’m sure I will. And that makes me happy again. And it’s so nice walking down the footpath to the car. The pavement is so nice and warm under my feeties and the sun feels so nice on my skin. I’m such a lucky boy, out for a walk in my undies.  

    “Mummy, wanna do walks in undies!” I tell her.

    Mummy giggles and stops by the car. She looks me in the eye and asks, “Are you really that comfy in your undies Jeremy? You want to walk around this way more?” she asks.  

    I nod right away. Who wouldn’t want to be in their undies? It’s so comfy!  “Uh-huh, juft undies Mummy!” I tell her.

    She nods. “Okay, if that’s how you’re comfy, it’s fine by me,” she agreed. And with that Mummy helped me into the back seat of the car and fastened my belt. Then she leant in close and slipped her hand down into my undies and I felt her warm fingers close around my doodle.

    “I think my good little boy needs to make some creamies,” she cooed into my ear.  

    I don’t know what those are, but I want to do them. It feels so, sooo good as Mummy starts stroking my doodle up and down.  I cuddle my arms around Mummy and moan as she strokes faster and faster.  It feels so good. I don’t care that the door is open and anyone could walk past and see what’s happening. I wouldn’t mind if Mummy pulled my undies down and stroked my pee-pee right in the middle of the street. I just know it feels so good and I love Mummy for giving me these happy feelings.  

    It gets better and better until, ohhh, my toes clench and my body spasms and I cream my undies right there in the back seat.  

    “That’s it Jeremy, get all those creamies out for Mummy,” she urges me, still stroking, helping me get them all out.  “You’ve been such a good boy for me and I love you so much,” she tells me. “I know it wasn’t easy getting all little for Mummy, getting it over with now. But I promise to make you as happy as I can from now on. Okay?”  

    Coming down from the orgasmic high I cuddled Mummy tight and gave her a big kiss on her cheek.  “Yeth Mummy. Je-mee wove you,” I told her.  And it was true.  I’d never felt more pure love for someone in my life.  I didn’t need those big boy smarts. Mummy was everything I needed.

    Back to School

    The first of a series of stories set in a world where a mental regression virus pandemic has hit.  Some of these are lighter tales, some very dark.  Each has its own tone and twists, with different characters.  

    Story 1: Back to School

    They said the whole world was infected now, that there was no point in trying to make a vaccine anymore.  We were all carriers at this point.  We had brought about our own downfall, just as so many had predicted.  The Marton-Epley Virus, also known as Acute Cognitive Decline Disease, had been created in a laboratory.  It was no freak of nature, it was man-made.  Of course they hadn’t meant for it to be like that, the virus was created to boost brain-power, to fix neurodevelopmental disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD.  Instead the virus mutated and the rest was history.  

    Of course not everyone infected with the virus actually suffered the terrible fate it now promised. If that had happened we would be living in a dystopian post-apocalyptic nightmare by now.  That would have spelled extinction for the human race.  But 90% of the infected population simply didn’t show any symptoms. The virus just sat dormant inside them.  That isn’t to say they weren’t in danger. It seemed the virus simply turned itself on at random. Perhaps it hit when the immune system was low, or maybe stress was a trigger.  Maybe some people were just genetically vulnerable to it.  

    Whatever the reason, there was nothing that could be done once the virus activated itself.  All they could do was test to see which of the many strains of virus you had.  That would tell them how much of your brain would be turned to mush, how quickly it would happen, how long-term the effects would be.  

    My life had changed forever the day it went active in me.  Here I was, thirty-two years old, having spent a decade building my career in civil engineering, just having joined a new project as a team leader, and in one moment it all came crashing down.  I was at work when I had the seizure, a clear sign of the virus activating.  Naturally I was rushed to A&E, put on medication to prevent more seizures.  Luckily the seizures caused by the virus responded very well to these meds. The seizures could be totally prevented. Everything else was unstoppable.  

    I spent the night in hospital, on the Virus Ward, being poked and prodded and hooked up to an EEG.  The next day the doctor came to by bedside to give me the results.  My partner, Anna, was already there.  I dreaded hearing what the doctor had to say. I wasn’t just angry for myself, but for Anna too. She didn’t sign up for taking care of a giant snot-nosed little kid, a drooling, tantrum-throwing thirty-something man.  How could I put her through that?  But it wasn’t going to be up to me of course. Nothing would be.  

    “It’s MEV type 5b,” the doctor told us.  “It’s not the worst strain by any means,” he told us, trying to be reassuring.

    It wasn’t the worst, but it was bad enough. My type of the virus meant I would end up with the intellect, emotional maturity and behaviour of a five to seven year old.  It also meant the decline would be slow, painfully slow. It would take three to six months for my mental regression to be complete. Over that time I would slowly lose my abilities to do adult things, to take care of myself.  

    The doctor gave us some pamphlets, to educate us on what was coming. One was about school enrollment, primary school.  The thought of going back to school horrified me of course.  My memories of primary school, two and a half decades ago, were mostly of mean kids bullying me, scary teachers and being totally at the mercy of adults and bigger kids.  

    “You might consider a booster,” the doctor had suggested. “Many patients find it makes the transition easier.”  

    I ripped than pamphlet up right away. The idea of a booster was sickening. Some people chose them because they just wanted it over with, since it was inevitable anyway.  Boosters were meds that turbo charged the virus, made the transition go from a period of days, weeks or months down to a few minutes.  They also usually meant the virus would run it’s most severe course though, meaning I’d end up very much at the lower end of the projected mental age range, perhaps even a little below it.  No way was I taking that risk.  

    After the diagnosis I tried to return to normal life as much as possible, do all I could before it was too late. I lost my driving license instantly because of the seizure, so Anna had to drive me everywhere.  But I went back to work, spent extra hours at the office, knowing I was working against a clock.  

    I kept up the facade of normalcy for a month.  Then I was called into my boss’ office.  It was an awkward conversation. He knew I was a good employee, that I’d had a promising future. But he had been carefully checking all my work since the seizure. Even without informing him of my diagnosis everyone knew what a seizure like that signaled.  He told me about the increasing number of errors in my work, that they were getting worse and he didn’t have the time to check and fix them all anymore.  He was very sorry and all that, hoped I would be getting good treatment, blah, blah, blah. The bottom line was I was fired.  

    After that things escalated quickly. Anna started the legal process to make me a minor again. I told her it was too early, she disagreed.  It pissed me off of course, but I couldn’t walk out on her. I was going to need her for everything.  A couple weeks after my firing we went to court.  The place was packed with cases like mine. We waited an hour for our case to be called and after barely looking at the paperwork a judge declared me incompetent and appointed Anna as my legal guardian.  

    Just like that I was legally, officially, a child.  I had to surrender my driver’s licence and instead had my photo taken to be issued with an ID card which clearly identified me as a minor.  The line under my birth date stated “Mental Age: 5-7 Years.”  

    “That’s not right,” I told the bureaucrat issuing the ID.  “It will be months before I’m actually at that level. Do I look like I think I’m a primary school kid?”  

    But the paper-pusher wasn’t interested. “We can’t issue a new card every two weeks as you regress sir. This ID is for the next two years.”  

    There was no process for appeal. Just like that I couldn’t buy alcohol, cigarettes or lotto tickets. I couldn’t sign a contract, have a credit card or live on my own.  I couldn’t even enter an R13 movie. Now that physical age meant nothing IDs had to be checked for everything.  As far as the world was concerned, I was a small child now.  

    After that I spent most of my time sitting on the couch at home, watching TV.  Anna went to work of course, but I had nowhere to go.  I couldn’t go anywhere on my own because of how young me ID card stated I was. Minors under ten couldn’t be trusted be outside of their schools or homes unsupervised. Playing with other kids around the neighbourhood would be fine, but not walking around town by yourself.  If someone asked to see my ID it would get Anna in big trouble and jeopordise her status as my guardian. The last thing I wanted was to end up in a foster home.  

    As I spent my time bored silly, watching TV, I began to understand why some people chose the booster, decided to just be done with it.  All my old buddies were working during the day and they didn’t want to be around me anyway.  They didn’t want to see my decline.  Although I didn’t feel that different yet really.  The complicated maths I needed for work had been the first thing to go, and I definitely felt moodier, angrier than usual so I guessed I was maybe back to my late teens mentally.

    Finally six weeks after I lost my job, two and a half months after being diagnosed, Anna told me over dinner, “David, I’ve made an appointment for us at Hampton Park for tomorrow at ten in the morning.”  

    I blinked, taking in what she was saying.  “Hampton Park? You mean, that school down on Exeter Street?”  

    She nodded, eating her dinner like this was all normal.  

    I dropped my fork.  “Anna, that’s a primary school.”

    Another nod. She stopped eating and looked me in the eye. “David, we both know it’s where you’re headed. We’ve known that for months.”  

    I felt rage boil up from within me.  “Yeah, eventually, we’ve known that eventually I’ll need to go there. But Jesus Christ Anna, we’re not there yet!”  

    But Anna didn’t seem to agree.  “David, it isn’t healthy for you to just be sitting here all day either.  You can’t tell me you’re happy with this, with the way things are.”

    “Of course I’m fucking not!”

    “Language please,” Anna rebuked me.  

    “I’ll fucking swear if I want to. I’m not a little kid, not yet!”

    Anna shook her head. “You’re well on your way David. You never spoke like that before. You sound like an angsty little teenager to me.”  

    That insult made me literally shake with rage, but I didn’t want to completely flip out and prove her right, so I restrained myself, keeping my voice calm.  “Maybe you’re right, but teens don’t go to primary schools. You think I’d be happy having some teacher tell me what to do all day, threaten me with losing recess, with time outs?”

    “You need to get used to it at some point David. And more importantly you wouldn’t be so socially isolated. You sit here all alone…”

    “You think I should make friends with a bunch of little kids, little boys who think girls have cooties, who pick their noses and talk about the latest episode of… of… I don’t even know what little kids watch today! I was going to say SpongeBob but I don’t even know it that’s still on TV!”  

    Anna didn’t answer me. She picked up her fork and kept her eyes on the plate as she said, “The appointment is made. I’ve made my decision, we’re going to the school tomorrow morning and that’s all there is to it.”  

    She was right of course. She was my guardian. She had the right to enrol me in a school. And once enrolled the truancy laws applied and I would have to go every day or she could be in legal trouble and I would be facing a foster home.  As angry as I was with her, I knew a foster home would be much, much worse.  

    **

    So in the morning I found myself sitting in the principal’s office at Hampton Park Primary.  The principal was a plump middle aged woman with short brown hair and black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose.  She smiled at me in a way that made my skin crawl. It was a look that said she saw me as a child, not an adult.  

    “Lovely to meet you David,” she said to me, but not extending her hand to shake mine the way she had with Anna.  She didn’t regard me as an equal, but as a dependent little boy.  

    “Yes, nice to meet you Mrs Baker,” I replied, forcefully reaching out to shake her hand, giving her a firm handshake to prove my competency.  

    She smiled and laughed lightly as we shook though, like it was cute, like I was a little boy pretending to be grown-up.  

    “So, you’d like to enrol David here,” she said to Anna, ignoring me now.  

    “Yes, I’d like to start him as soon as possible, if you have room.”

    “Oh we have plenty of room. But can I ask what level is he at?”

    “I’m still an adult in mentality,” I answered for Anna.  “I’m legally a minor but that was all done prematurely.  And I think this is all premature as well.”  

    Mrs Baker nodded but then turned back to Anna. “What I meant is, what age will he be levelling out at?”  

    I was shocked by this affront. She was deliberately ignoring me.  “Excuse me,” I interjected. “I’m sitting right here and perfectly capable of having this conversation with you…”

    “David, please don’t interrupt when grown-ups are talking,” Mrs Baker cut me off.  “I’m happy for you to sit here while your guardian and I talk, but you need to wait your turn. I’ll have questions for you in a minute but until then you can show me that you’re a big boy by letting us talk.”  

    I was absolutely flabbergasted. No one had spoken to me like that since I was actually a little boy.  It enraged me, but also shocked me so much I lost my voice for a moment.  And Anna took that chance to explain, “He has Type 5b. They say he will be leveling out at a five to seven year old level.”  

    Mrs Baker made a note on the paper in front of her. “Good, good,” she said. “Well, we don’t like to have children changing classes multiple times, it can be very hard on them, making and then being separated from friends.  So I suggest we put David into a combined Year 1 and 2 class. The children are five and six years old there. If he is a bit advanced for it after he’s all settled down we can talk about moving him up to Year 3 then.”  

    “Yes, that sounds fine to me,” Anna agreed.  

    “Well it doesn’t sound fine to me,” I jumped in again, the old bitch’s warning be damned.  “I’m not going to making friends with a bunch of little kids anyway.  If I have to go here at least put me with the Year 7 and 8s so I can have some kind of conversation with them.”  

    “David, I’ve warned you about waiting your turn. Now I don’t want us to start out on the wrong foot so you need to learn to ask permission when you want to speak. You do that by raising your hand and waiting for a teacher to call on you.”  

    “This is ridiculous! Anna, let’s go. I’m not going here,” I told her, getting up from my chair.  

    But Anna stayed seated. “I’m really sorry about his attitude,” she told the principal.  

    “No, it’s fine. He’s still adjusting to being a child and not a man. He has to learn his manners, but he’ll come right in the end. They all do,” Mrs Baker assured her.  

    “Anna, come on!” I urged.

    She ignored me completely.  “So when could he start?” she asked instead.

    “Monday would be fine. I’ll inform his teacher, Miss Dauber. You’ll just need to get him a uniform. They’re available at Henning’s, they’re our supplier.  The guidelines are all here,” she said, handing Anna a paper.  

    “Thank you so much.”

    “No worries. I’ll be looking forward to seeing David next week,” Mrs Baker said with a smile.  

    ** I was furious with Anna but she was unrepentant.  She made it clear, I was going to the school on Monday, or I was going to a foster home.  I handled it by keeping my mouth shut, completely. I couldn’t look at Anna without wanting to scream at her, so I just stayed silent pretty much totally for the next couple days.  

    Then came the big day, Monday morning and I woke up to find Anna already up and preparing my breakfast.  Normally I got up and made my own meal, but apparently she was taking her whole Mummy thing to a new level.  Not only that, she’d laid out my clothes for me.  Well, not really my clothes, my new uniform.  I hadn’t even realised she’d actually gone out and bought it.  But there it was, a light blue polo shirt with a navy blue collar and a golden school crest.  A pair of baggy navy cargo shorts went along with it.

    Reluctantly I put on the uniform, looking myself in the mirror and feeling like an absolute moron. Clean-shaven and in this uniform I really looked like a giant little kid.  The shorts fell below my knees too. That hadn’t been in style since I was a teenager myself.  It was something only little boys would do, oblivious to styles as they were.

    “Don’t you look smart,” Anna remarked as I walked into the kitchen.  

    “Don’t even joke about this. I’m already pissed off enough,” I told her.

    “I wasn’t joking. You look really nice in that uniform. It’s a big improvement on the trackies and dirty t-shirts you’ve been slumming it in for the last few weeks.”  

    “You mean I look cute, I look adorable, like a little kid.  I don’t think that’s actually an improvement,” I told her.

    “Well I’ve made your lunch anyway. It’s in your bag,” she said, picking up a brand new backpack, a little kid’s school bag, and handing it to me.

    I peeked inside, seeing the lunchbox and also a pencil case, a notebook, a pack of crayons, vivids and a glue stick.

    “I think I got everything on your stationary list in there. But if not have your teacher write a note,” she told me.

    “You know I’m still capable of writing a note myself,” I spat.  

    “Fine, write me a note then. Just don’t forget.”  

    “Let’s just get going,” I said.

    “You’ll be going in a couple minutes. I’ve arranged for you to join the walking school bus.”

    My stomach flip-flopped. “What?! Anna the last thing I need is for our neighbours to see me in this get-up. Just drive me to the school.”  

    She shook her head and crossed her arms, looking ready for a fight.  “I’m leaving late today to make sure you’re ready for school but in the future I won’t have time to drive you to school. That’s why I arranged for you to join the walking school bus.  This isn’t up for discussion.”  

    “Everyone will see me in this stupid uniform!” I whined.

    “They’ll be seeing you in it a lot from now on, so you need to accept that. Now, they’ll be here very soon, so we need to get you out the door.”  

    With great reluctance I made my way to the door. My legs were actually shaking. Everyone was about to see that I was a virus victim now.  There would be no more hiding it. And even worse, they’d assume from this outfit that my mind was already gone. They’d all start treating me like Mrs Baker, that nasty woman, did already.  

    As I stopped to pull on my sneakers Anna put her hand on my arm, stopping me.  “No David, leave those here.”  

    I was confused. “What do you mean? What shoes am I supposed to wear?”  

    “The uniform is pretty clear on that David,” she said, pulling out a folded up paper which I recognised as the uniform list from Mrs Baker’s office.  

    Under the boys’ summer uniform header there was a section marked “Footwear” and gave the options of lace-up leather black shoes with grey wool socks OR brown or black Roman sandals worn without socks OR bare feet. A note below then said: Parents are encouraged to send their children barefoot in the summer.  

    I read the section twice then looked up at Anna with confusion.  

    “You’re going to be running around, playing games much of the day David. Remember you’ll be in a Year 1 and 2 class. You won’t be spending much time sitting at desks. You can’t be running around kicking balls and climbing playground equipment in dress shoes.  And you must recall from high school how uncomfortable Roman sandals are.  You’ll be much more comfortable just going barefoot,” Anna explained.

    The revelation hit me like a ton of bricks. She couldn’t really expect me to do that? Could she?  

    “Anna, I can’t go barefoot! I mean, think of what I’ll look like!”

    “Oh David, don’t be so dramatic. Plenty of kids run around barefoot.”

    “Yeah, they do, but not all of them. I didn’t when I was a kid, a real kid.”  

    Anna shrugged. “Really? I guess your family was a bit more formal than mine. I don’t think I had a pair of shoes until I was about ten and they were just for formal things until I got to high school.”  

    “Yeah, well that’s fine for you but I’m not like that.”  

    “Honey I haven’t bought you the Roman sandals or the formal shoes so I’m afraid this is your only option. If you wear your own sneakers you’ll be in trouble right from the start. Do you want to be made to stand in a time-out corner in front of all the other kids on day one?”

    “No,” I admitted. “So, I stay home sick today, you buy me the shoes, not the sandals, this afternoon and tomorrow…”

    “No David. That’s not happening. I need you to understand this.  I get why you’re upset. Walking to school barefoot is something only very little boys do.  It’s a childish habit that most kids grow out of by Year 7 and 8.  But you are a little boy. You’re in the youngest class in the primary school. Most of your classmates will be barefoot because they’re little boys and girls.  You’ll fit right in with the rest of them. You need to accept that, you need to get used to it, because it’s either that, or you do the rest of this on your own.”  

    I had to really fight not to cry in front of Anna.  As it was I sniffled twice. Quietly I said, “The ground gets hot. It’ll hurt my feet.”

    Anna looked more sympathetic now as she opened her arms and pulled me into a hug.  “I know, but that will pass. I think it’s best we just pack your shoes away for now, all of them. That way your feet will get tougher faster and in no time at all you’ll be running over gravel in the afternoon sun without a flinch.”  

    “But… but… then everyone…”

    She patted my back. “Yep, everyone who sees you walking barefoot in the mall or onto the bus or wherever will see your bare feet and know you’re a little boy. That’s exactly right and y’know what? It’s the truth David.

    “I want to love you and take care of you.  This isn’t easy for me either. I’ve had to give up a lot. But I’m willing to do that for you.  But only if you can accept that I’m in charge now, that I make the rules and I know what’s best for you. Now, can you do that?”  

    I wiped the tears from my eyes, tears for the final loss of my adult status.  Then I nodded and mumbled, “Uh-huh.”  

    “Good, now let’s get you to school,” Anna said, letting me out of the hug and securing my backpack over my arms.  She glanced down and said, “No socks either honey.”  

    With a final nod I leant over and pulled my socks off.  And then we were out the door.  The walking school bus was arriving already, a line of fifteen students headed to the primary school. Five of them were grown-up sized like me, the rest were tiny little kids. Ten of them, including four of the five bigger kids, were barefoot like me.  I really did fit right in as I took my place at the back of the line.  

    “Hi, I’m Stevie, what’s your name?” the boy in front of me asked.  He was a real little kid, probably eight or nine years old, wearing an identical uniform to mine, with the exception of the Roman sandals on his feet.

    “Um, I’m David,” I told him.  

    “Cool, what year you in?” he followed up.

    “Year 2,” I answered sadly.  

    “Oh, that’s cool. My little brother Jamie is in your year,” he told me, grabbing the arm of the smaller boy next to him, a tiny little blonde kid who I couldn’t help but notice was barefoot like me. He wasn’t as mature as his big eight year old brother, he didn’t need sandals yet, and he was my new classmate.  

    “This boy is in your class Jamie,” he told the little boy.

    The little kid grinned ear to ear up at me.  “You like dinosaurs?” he asked. “I got dinosaur stickers! Wanna see ‘em?”  

    I wanted to groan, but what choice did I have. It might not be that long before I legitimately loved dinosaur stickers. I’d need friends then.  So I nodded and said, “Um, yeah, dinosaurs are really cool. Show them to me.”  

    And as we walked along the warm pavement of the footpath I tried to ignore how rough it was under my feet and focus on the stickers my new little friend was clearly obsessed with.  There was no choice but to get used to it. This was my future now.

    mind-wiper

    Many boys feared that exposure to ACDV (Acute Cognitive Decline Virus) better known as the Big Baby Virus, meant the end of all freedom, including sexually. They saw the victims toddling around led by their hands or wearing humiliating toddler leashes, babbling and prattling on about the nonsense two-year olds found interesting, sucking their thumbs and making a mess of their food and assumed it was a fate worse than death.

    When Tim began having double vision and memory problems, two clear symptoms, he feared the worst. Sure enough the next day he was diagnosed with ACDV and he seriously considered ending it all while he was still able. But his mum saw his depression and rushed him to a special therapist. The man explained that it wasn't the end of all freedom at all, that in fact there would be more freedoms he'd enjoy in some ways.

    Initially Tim had scoffed at the idea, but the doctor had insisted his therapy would help increase his satisfaction and his freedom.  The idea was to get him used to being a toddler, to accept it and embrace it. Tim had to take pills before bed and listen to some special music over the next few days. The idea was to help adapt his thought patterns and behaviour to his reduced mindset. His bed was replaced by a crib and his clothes were packed away, replaced by the most juvenile of offerings. He refused to put any of it on, simply lazing about in his boxers. 

    But something odd happened. Tim's vision improved and the memory issues cleared up but weren't followed by the normal progression mental decline. A week later he still tested as intellectually an adult.  Finally a call from the doctor's office confirmed it, Tim had only been infected with the Type B-2 strain of the virus, which had only mild, temporary effects.  It was excellent news!

    Tom was so excited he wanted to go out and celebrate, but first he needed some real clothes. His parents went down to the basement to find the boxes while he headed to his room to have a last look at that awful crib before they got rid of it. He climbed into the awful thing, imagining how stupid he'd have had to become to really be trapped in it overnight.  He kicked a few of the stupid baby toys they'd dropped in to help him supposedly adjust. Idly he picked up the bib he'd never worn and slipped it over his head. Now that he'd never have to actually wear it the thing just seemed silly.

    Tim's phone, carefully stowed under his pillow, began to ring. He retrieved wondering which friend he could share his good news with. Unfortunately it was just his stupid therapist.  He thought about just letting it go, but decided he wanted to rub his good news in the smug bastard's face. All that crap about accepting the inevitable had really annoyed him. So he hit answer.

    "Hey there doc, have I got some news for you," he began.

    "Hi there Timmy," the doctor replied not really listening, as usual. Man he was an awful therapist. "I can't say I'm happy to hear you still answering your phone, I was hoping your Mummy might be picking it up by now."

    Tim groaned. "Look doc, that just isn't gonna happen. Not today, not ever..."

    "Phones are for big people Timmy, you need to accept that you are not big anymore. Only that acceptance will bring true happiness."

    Ugh, he'd heard that mantra enough times to be sick. "Doc, you aren't listening to me! I'm no getting little at all," Tim explained.

    "This denial is very troubling to me Timmy. We need to deal with it now I'm afraid."

    Tim was really losing it now. He almost threw the phone across the room. "Doc, I am not in denial. If you could listen for one damn minute..."

    "Are your Mummy and Daddy home?" he cut him off.

    Tim's blood boiled. "Are you fucking kidding me? Yeah, they're home, but you can talk to me. I obviously speak perfect English." 

    The therapist ignored the protests and simply asked, "And where are you now?"

    "In that stupid crib you had my parents put in. The one I can easily get in and out of by the way."

    "That's good, it will keep you safe for the moment, until Mummy and Daddy come. You won't be able to escape it so easily with a little toddler's mind."

    Now Tim really didn't know what the guy was on about. "Doc I don't have a toddler mind..." he began.

    "Toddler time Timmy," the therapist said, cutting him off.

    Tim stopped talking, he felt light-headed. "What?" he said, feeling quite confused suddenly.

    "I'm sorry sweetie but we needed to bring your therapy forward. I usually don't like to trigger the programming until the mind has already regressed on its own, but you're in such an agitated state, we need to help it along baby. You've been listening to it for a week now, that should be more than enough."

    Tim reeled back in horror. "No! You can't..." he shouted.

    "Toddler time Timmy," the man repeated calmly but firmly.

    The words seemed to echo in his head. He should have never answered the phone, should have hung up earlier. But it was too late. He remembered what the therapist had said at the beginning, to assure his mum of the efficacy. The therapy was as irreversible as the virus.

    Tim felt more confused by the second. It was frightening, it made him sniffle, made him want to cry. Even though he hadn't actually had the virus he could feel his mind simplifying. He wanted to stop it, but he couldn't see how. Objects around him lost their names, then their purposes in his mind. Some of them were so simple, but they were gone. Then the colours went too. He was trying so hard to hold it in, but it was leaking away.

    "Can you feel it happening Timmy?" asked the voice in his ear.

    Timmy was so lost now. What was he holding? Who was the voice? He was no longer sure.

    "Yeff," he replied, his tongue not cooperating any more either. "Gettin' dumb," he whined.

    "Shhh, it's okay sweetie, you'll feel so much better in a second I promise you," the voice assured. An it was a pleasant tone, so he felt like it was a grown-up who knew better. It wasn't just intellect being changed, it was his behaviour as well. He wasn't just getting dumber, he was becoming a playful, silly toddler boy.

    "Can you tell me are you wearing a diaper Timmy?" the voice asked.

    Timmy looked down and shook his head. "Nuh-uh. Juft shorts," he answered.

    "Okay, we don't want to get those messy for Mummy so why don't you take them off and just be nakey for now."

    Timmy liked the sound of that. Nakey was comfy, something instantly told him that. Little boys loved being all nakey, it was an instinct, written into his mind. Timmy hooked his thumb into the elastic waist of his boxers and yanked them down, revealing his bobbing, soft pee-pee. Timmy giggled at how nice that felt. The confusion was finally passing now, replaced with certainty, the absolute conviction that he was a silly little two-year old boy. 

    "That was quite a happy giggle. Are you feeling better now Timmy?" the voiced asked.

    Timmy had forgotten the voice for a second. He understood the question though and replied at full volume. "Yeff! Timmy gots nakey!"

    The voice chuckled softly. "Yes, you're definitely feeling much more free now, much sillier."

    Timmy hopped up and down, energy just flowing through him now, his pee-pee bobbing up and down, flapping against his tummy. "Timmy siwwy!" he yelled in agreement, then dropped the phone, watching it land on the floor outside the crib, well beyond his reach.

    "Go boom!" he yelled, gripping the side and hopping more. He wanted the phone, it had so many buttons. But it was outside his crib and the idea of climbing out never even crossed his mind. He'd need Mummy or Daddy to come let him out.

    But there was a more urgent need to take his attention then. He needed to make wees and soon. He didn't have a diapee but that was okay. He was free now, he was a just a silly little boy, that certainty was so strong in his mind now. He could just go, just make his tinkles. He grabbed his pee-pee and let go. A nice long arc of pee squirted from his doodle, spraying the side  his crib and all over the floor. If felt great, making a mess, getting all his tinkles out. It was so nice to be a little boy.

    It was just then that Mummy rushed into his room and found him standing there naked in his crib, tinkling all over the room, happy as a clam.  In the aftermath she tried bringing Timmy back to the therapist but it was no use. The programming was a one-way trip. Virus or not Timmy could soon be seen toddling around the local park in his birthday suit, giggling and creeping in the grass right alongside the other grown-downs. But at least he was a happy boy.