It was one in the afternoon when Sumner, still half-asleep as usual, heard the doorbell ring. Normally the mailman didn’t make his rounds until two or so. Must be ahead of schedule today, the 24-year-old slacker thought as he picked himself up and plodded downstairs. Inspecting the doorway, he found nothing but an empty porch and an even emptier mailbox. Had his cat not rubbed up against his leg at that moment, he probably would have missed it.
”What the...“ he mumbled, crouching to pet Brooklyn and retrieve what appeared to be a small postcard someone had slid underneath the door. The plain-looking letter bore no return address and was marked simply “For Sumner.” The words got his pulse thumping a bit, considering he had never given out his address to anyone who would know him by his AR alias.
Flipping it over, he read:
As the new enforcer at the Age Regression Story Archive, I hereby proclaim that you are in violation of archive rule #114, which states that any author who persists in leaving his or her stories unfinished shall be subject to punishment as determined by the ARSA Board of Representatives. This letter is to inform you that you have twenty-four (24) hours to finish your previous stories or compose a new tale with a clear and definite ending. We thank you for your time.
The postcard was signed Department of Story Completion, ARSA.
Shocked and more than a little confused, Sumner rubbed his eyes and reread the notice. He wondered how the senders had even found his address. And since when did the archive have enforcers and a Board of Representatives? The whole thing seemed entirely implausible given the limited nature of the AR community, and yet the letter’s very existence was unsettling. Sumner had assumed the internet afforded him a comfortable anonymity, one that kept his real and online lives separate, but now it appeared that little enterprise had failed with flying colors. Somehow he knew the damn Patriot Act would cause him trouble one day.
”Fantastic,” he grumbled out loud. They had to be kidding. Enforcers? At a not-for-profit site dedicated to an obscure turn-on? What a joke.
About to wad up the postcard and toss it in garbage, Sumner hesitated. He tried to reason it away, but one fact kept eating away at him; whoever sent the letter had managed to locate his house, and that meant the people behind this were perhaps just tenacious enough to go through with something. But what exactly did this punishment entail? The notice was awfully vague on that point. He could think of a few penalties some at the archive might like to dole out, but thankfully those options were decidedly impossible - provided the laws of physics still applied. Finally regaining his grip on reality, Sumner elected to trash the letter and forget about it.
After a brisk afternoon shower, he jumped in his ultra-tiny car, cranked the new Modest Mouse, and headed off to his favorite local music shop downtown. He found that CD and DVD purchases often served as excellent distractions from any troubling issues of the day.
Thumbing through the Wilco bootlegs like he had countless times before, Sumner tried in vain to stop thinking about the letter. None of it made any sense: the unexpected arrival at the house, the legalistic language, the ambiguous threats. Then there was the charge itself.
It was true he rarely ever completed a series; in fact, from his output, one might imagine he suffered from a strange phobia that rendered him incapable of typing the words “the end.” No matter how much he enjoyed writing the opening chapters, the final installments became like torture, with each new page feeling like another notch on Torquemada’s rack. Perhaps it was all the obscurantist postmodern philosophy Sumner had dutifully devoured in college that had fostered his deep aversion to endings (especially sappy, predictable ones), or maybe simple laziness was to blame. Whatever the case, the fact remained: for Sumner, the last chapter would always be an object of dread. And that rule applied to AR fiction as well.
Arriving home with little to show for his attempt at consumer therapy, Sumner sat back down at his computer and sighed. Maybe an ending was what he needed after all. The note did seem rather urgent, he thought. Perhaps it was best to appease the new powers-that-be at the archive, if indeed they existed. Though the situation struck him as patently ridiculous, Sumner reluctantly began typing. He kicked around a number of titles, including several that referenced his favorite Fellini films, but quickly realized he was once again overcomplicating matters. As Sumner wrote, he had to continually remind himself that AR fiction was no place for lengthy pontifications on foreign film directors or Jacques Derrida and the deconstructionist movement. Just keep to the basics, he thought.
Still, only two pages in Sumner hit a snag. Leaning back in his chair, he contemplated what direction this new story should take. “What’s something no one has done before?” he asked himself for the millionth time. Cracking open a bag of Skittles, the out-of-practice author considered his options.
Meanwhile, the crumpled postcard stared back at him from the wastebasket. Needing all the motivation he could get, Sumner fished the letter out of the overflowing trash can and unfolded it. This time a bit of small print jumped out at him almost immediately:
Failure to comply with this notice will result in the withdrawal of 1 year(s) from your current age every hour. Thank you for your cooperation.
”This can’t be serious,” Sumner said, nearly choking on a red skittle. Surely Ouroboros or Maniac must be playing a practical joke on him. This was undoubtedly some kind of game conjured up by the RP folks. Who else would take the time to pull such an elaborate prank? Perhaps it might have even succeeded, if such a thing as AR even existed. But Sumner harbored no such illusions.
He glanced up at the clock: 3:36 p.m.
”Hmm,” he mumbled, finding it impossible not to do the math in his head. It had been two and a half hours since the note arrived. I don’t feel 22, he thought, casually checking his reflection in the window next to his desk.
”Wait, what the hell am I doing?!” he said suddenly, realizing the letter had affected him more than he cared to admit. “This is insane.”
Swearing off the mind games Sumner returned to eyes to the screen and began dispassionately typing away. Wanting to pay the archive back for the favor, he decided his story would include characters from the AR community itself. In it, he would systematically regress the regulars one by one - maybe turning Oni into an eight-year-old in front of some giggling high school cheerleaders, reducing Louder to a preschooler who loves causing childish "chaos," or zapping Heid into a pimply preteen webmaster.
The method? A Regresso-Ray gun that runs on arousal. The more attracted to regression one is the more years it would zap. And, needless to say, the power supply would hardly be in danger of running out.
The idea seemed amusing enough. So Sumner kept at it, punching out line after line of chaotic silliness. In a couple of hours the story started taking shape with shades of a plot emerging. In fact, the tale became so involving he lost track of the time and neglected his usual errands. Better write while I’m in the mood, he figured, taking another generous swig of his trusty writing companion, Bacardi Silver.
Eventually the soreness crept in and he realized his muscles might atrophy if he didn’t get up and stretch. Barely able to pull himself away from the lure of Microsoft Word, Sumner stood up and yawned. Something felt odd around his waist. Were his pants hanging a little lower than usual? A check of the belt showed his khakis were just as tight as ever, only now the material seemed to crumple and sag more toward the bottom.
Sumner’s eyes widened. “No, this can’t...“
He shuffled into the bathroom and flipped on the light. Nothing looked conspicuously out of place - his hair was messy (but that’s to be expected when one is constantly running his hands through it), his face seemed no different (with the exception of the mildly panicked expression), and his patchy stubble seemed, well, patchy as always (give or take a hair). Surely the pants were only a coincidence, a figment of his heightened imagination. There was no truth to the letter, he reassured himself. Growing younger was a nonsensical idea, a meaningless fantasy. All the same he wished this wild suggestion hadn’t been planted in his head.
Relieved for the moment, Sumner sat down and continued plotting out his story...
Chapter 3: Dark Side of the Toon
In this chapter, the war over cartoon AR versus realistic AR comes to a head, pitting Douglas Greene against the entire pro-cartoon faction.
Armed with the Regresso-Ray, Greene sends Maniac, Hobbitmon, and a slew of anonymous posters back to Teletubby age. Grennd and Natasha struggle to pry the device away from him but soon find themselves toddlers tugging at his leg. Ouroboros, however, runs directly into the line of fire (seemingly on purpose) and de-ages right before everyone’s eyes. CrystalBrightSea darts toward the infant, who is struggling to crawl out from under his mammoth shirt.
”Not so fast!” Douglas laughs, aiming the device at CrystalBrightSea, who is babyfied instantaneously. The two pudgy youngsters begin uncontrollably sucking their thumbs.
“Now you all can enjoy your precious cartoons, kiddies!” Greene bellows.
Sensing a lull in the action, Ferver and Entropic seize the opportunity to sneak up on Greene from behind and relieve him of the device. In seconds, Douglas is reduced to a wobbling four-year-old with tears gushing down his chubby, crimson cheeks.
”Tough break,” Ferver says with a grin. “Guess it’s back to cartoons for Doug. Maybe he’ll learn to like them this time around.”
”Hey guys?” says a stranger walking out from the shadows.
”Who are you?” Entropic asks.
”Oh, I’m the real Douglas Greene. That guy was an imposter.” ...
By now, the story began showing promise; it boasted balls-to-the-wall regression and a cast of ready-made characters. All Sumner had to do was keep up the momentum and see the clunking piece of fiction through to a harmonious close. How hard could that be? He had finished stories before, though none really felt satisfactory. There seemed to be only two types of AR endings, generally speaking: happy (protagonist returns to original age) or tragic (protagonist remains regressed). Even the best writers at the archive rarely escaped the confines of the three-act structure. But maybe it was better that way; after all, AR had never pretended to be an avant-garde genre.
As the story plowed ahead so did the time. By Sumner’s watch it was approaching seven o’clock. Once again his concentration had overwhelmed him. It was dinner time and all he had eaten was a bag of Doritos, some Skittles, and an Instant Breakfast. Not exactly the diet of champions.
Oddly enough, the earlier soreness seemed to have passed. Standing up, Sumner almost felt invigorated. Even his joints had ceased their usual popping noises.
After a hardy dinner of Ramen noodles, he again took a seat at the computer. Sumner was determined to drive straight through this plot and construct a solid ending, one that had no chance of being reborn in some future chapter. No, the ending had to be real this time. No half-assing it.
Sumner resumed typing, soldiering on toward what he did not know...
Chapter 6: AR Wars
It is the final showdown between the self-described “old guard” and “new guard.” The fate of the discussion board and, indeed, the entire archive hangs in the balance.
Equipped with the Regresso-Ray, Nomdreserv, along with a band of loyal followers and fellow old guardsmen, launch a surprise attack on an Adult Baby convoy. The company is flanked by die-hard anime fans led by RedChocobo. A number of Sailor Moon fans are the first to come under fire; within minutes, the troops are transformed into bawling kindergarteners. With ABs regressing all around him (much to their delight and his dismay), RedChocobo radios a request for backup. Tazz responds, promising more troops are en route and should arrive at any moment.
Meanwhile, Nom and his team, Jeff, Piper, and Máire, succeed in cutting the size of Red’s forces by half. The sound grows quite irritating as dozens of former soldiers sit in the rumpled piles of their one-time uniforms and proceed to cry. From the ultra-high pitch of the screams, Piper surmises that Nom has even managed to shrink a few of the whimpering new guardsmen into miniature toddlers.
With the ABs taken care of and most of Red’s infantry barely middle-school age, Nom retreats into the woods alongside the road. Piper, Jeff, and Máire follow close behind. They begin formulating a new plan for the next ambush in a bid to catch the enemy off guard a second time. But as they discuss their strategy for immobilizing the opposition, Tazz and a band of renegade lurkers approach quietly from behind.
”Like taking candy from a baby,” Jeff quips.
”Of course it was a cakewalk,” Máire replies. “Did you expect the ABs to put up a fight? They’re ABs, for godsakes!”
”Here, take the Regresso-Ray,” Nom says, handing the device to Jeff. “We need to keep them guessing and right now they are assuming I’ll be the one with the device. Remember to...“
Before Nom even finishes his instructions, the lurkers descend upon their position and quickly regain control of the weapon. Wasting no time, one of the sporadic discussion board posters pulls the trigger and sends Jeff hurtling through reverse puberty. The beam grazes both Nom and Uniclock as well, erasing ten years from each of them.
”Quick!” Nom motions to Máire and Piper, stationed just to the right of the lurkers. “Now!”
Piper and Máire dart toward the invading soldiers with furious abandon, but the pair is suddenly spotted just before they reach the lurker holding the device. Soon they find themselves slowly backing up with their hands in the air.
”Learn anything in basic training that can get us out of this?” Piper asks, sweat soaking his brow.
”I’m afraid not.”
With that Tazz signals the go-ahead and a blue beam engulfs the trapped twosome. Growing shorter and shorter, Piper and Máire discover they are regressing at roughly the same rate: 14, 13, 12, 11... Finally, the lurker releases the trigger and lowers the gun. Fatigues now draped on them like ponchos, the two seven-year-olds exchange perplexed looks.
"Aww, look at the two little writers," the lurker snickers, approaching the diminished old guard officers. "So sweet."
With Tazz and the lurker towering over them, Máire and Piper feel a wave of embarassment wash over them. Suddenly the world seems a lot bigger.
"How's it feel to be on the received end, short stuff?" Tazz says, lifting little Piper into the air.
"Hey, stop it!" Máire protests.
"Oh, the little lady has something to say!" one of the lurkers sneers. "Not quite so dark and mysterious now, are we?"
Lost in the enjoyment of wreaking havoc in the AR community, Sumner ignored the clock just above his head. That is until eleven o’clock rolled around and his stomach began growling like a bobcat. Clicking “Save,” he slunk back in his chair and reread the last paragraph. Itching at his sides, Sumner couldn’t help but notice something felt wrong, not with the story but with him! Everything seemed a hair larger than usual - the chair, the keyboard, even his usually snug-fitting Eraserhead shirt. Come to think of it, his feet seemed awfully small inside his shoes too.
Gradually, the reality dawned on him.
”Oh, shit!” Sumner exclaimed as he stood up and learned that his waist wasn't all that had shrunk. As his pants slid into a crumpled heap, Sumner got a look at his new boyish legs, now only pale, hairless imitations of what they once were. Tripping toward the bathroom, he grew dizzy. Grasping the towel rack with one hand, Sumner hauled himself in front of the mirror. In it he saw the reflection of a boy no older than fourteen. Even his usual scattered facial hair was gone, leaving him a high school freshman in appearance. Pulling up the sagging shirt, Sumner saw his worries confirmed. Not even a wisp remained of the small patch of chest hair he once sported. He checked under his arms. No luck there either.
”I’ve got to be dreaming,” he said, panting with excitement. “Wake up, Sumner. Wake up.”
Though he wanted to believe it was all a hallucination (like the one ill-advised psilocybin mushroom trip he took in college), evidence was mounting too fast ignore. He refused to acknowledge it at first, but somehow something was causing him to regress ... and this time it was no harmless online fantasy.
Well-acquainted with the clichés and formulas of the typical AR story, Sumner knew there had to be a way out. After all, that’s what authors do; manipulate situations for their own ends. But this time it was different. The tables were turned and he had no control over the course of events.
This must be how my characters feel, he imagined.
Now it was time, ironically, that determined Sumner’s fate. In a matter of hours he would enter prepubescence and lose any chance of salvaging his current life. Already his voice had risen considerably, wiping out any possibility of holding on to his job as a radio announcer.
Still he could hardly peel himself away from the mirror and the dreamlike image of his younger self. The picture was familiar, of course, but downright surreal at the same time. Never in a million years would he have guessed his habit of abandoning stories would land him here, faced with a choice between finishing what he had started and losing his place in the age line. Every hour he delayed another 365 days would pass in reverse, bringing him that much closer to the fate he so often assigned to his ill-fated protagonists.
But alas, his story was only half finished. The Regresso-Ray had yet to exhaust its potential and Sumner was bound and determined to maintain the integrity of the narrative, no matter how many pages it took. He knew the ARSA Board of Representatives would see through any clever attempts to end the story prematurely. Anyone could tack on some poorly-conceived climax and call it an ending. This finale had to truly complete the story, neatly tie together the various plots and subplots, and leave no lingering confusion regarding the author’s intent.
So it was with renewed vigor that the young teen set about continuing his tale...
Chapter 7: The Old Guard Strikes Back
A special ops squad composed of Shortysboy, Tojg, Areg5, and Tainted Sins prepares to forcefully enter the new guard’s main compound and free Nom’s team. The task appears difficult, considering the compound is heavily fortified with sentries posted at every corner. An elite guard comprised of hard-core male AR fans stands watch around the perimeter. Any approach will have to be stealthy and well-timed. One false move and a flame war could erupt without warning.
”I have an idea, but I don’t think you’re going to like it,” Areg5 says.
”What is that?”
”Well,” he explains, “I have one temporary AR grenade left. It’s a seven.”
”You’re not suggesting we...“ Tojg interrupts.
”If we use it on ourselves, maybe we can manage to crawl through that underbrush on the west side of the compound.”
”How long do the effects last?” Tainted Sins asks, setting his watch.
”I don’t know. Fifteen minutes or thereabouts. It’s not a huge window I know, but it might buy us enough time to get inside.”
The idea elicits a round of moans from the group. Temporarily regressing to seven might help the squad sneak past the elite guards, but it could also put the team at a severe disadvantage should they end up being caught. A veteran of such situations, Tainted Sins is reticent to sign on to the idea. He reminds the men that ARing that young could put the team at greater risk and jeopardize the entire mission. And, were they to be spotted and hauled into the compound as elementary school kids, he would never hear the end of it back at headquarters.
”Still, it’s the only chance we’ve got,” Shortysboy says. “Anyone have any better ideas?”
”Well,” Tainted Sins sighs, “I guess its back to the first grade. Is everyone wearing their shrinkable gear?”
”Yes,” the team answers in unison.
”Then I guess it’s time to pull the pin.”
The squad forms a circle, Areg5 yanks the metal pin out with his teeth, and places it on the ground. “5... 4... 3... 2... 1...” A small blast of intense light swallows up the soldiers. The explosion lasts only a split second, but the team members are momentarily disoriented. After the fog clears the group of seven-year-olds looks at each other with bewildered expressions.
”Aww, look at little TS,” Tojg says, pointing at the shrunken soldier. “How cute.”
”Cuter than you,” Tainted Sins fires back in a girly soprano...
At half past midnight Sumner’s story still had yet to approach any meaningful climax. In fact, the story had taken a turn in the opposite direction, instead becoming an episodic and fragmented mess. As the loose ends accumulated, the prospect of a satisfying conclusion seemed less and less likely. Sumner found himself adding more characters and multiplying the layers of backstory as the narrative naturally progressed. Juggling dialogue and action the best he knew how, Sumner realized he couldn’t afford to get bogged down in minutia, and yet it seemed the allure of a long, detailed regression description always overpowered his better judgment.
By this time, the spell or curse - whatever it was - had downgraded the desperate writer to a mere twelve and a half years of age. The accomplishments of puberty were rapidly vanishing. His arms looked whitish and smooth without the hair that once covered them, and the soft pink hue of youth was slowly returning to his face. Fearing the worst, Sumner didn’t dare inquire any further. He could make an educated guess as to how well the rest of his body had faired.
Middle school. He trembled at the thought.
Sumner tried to imagine how his coworkers and friends might react to his sudden loss of maturity. He tried to picture himself, now a child, walking back into work on Monday and addressing his boss from his new low-angle perspective. And how would his family take the news? He couldn’t think of anything more humiliating than standing boob-high to his sister, the same one he used to babysit years ago. Could he handle being the “little brother”? The implications were too numerous to contemplate.
Though these questions threatened to sidetrack Sumner, he managed to refocus his energies on the story. As a kid he had always finished his homework on time. This situation was no different, he told himself, if only he could distract himself from what was happening. Rather than dwell on his new twelve-year-old physique Sumner had to concentrate on the story.
Just keep writing, he repeated.
Tired but determined, Sumner continued typing... as he did, he discovered he needed to stop every few sentences and spell the words out in his head...
... Inside the walls of the new guard’s compound, code named “Youngstown,” the youthened special ops squad anxiously await their transformations back to adulthood. The effects of the AR grenade are expected to wear off at any moment. In the meantime, the team hides behind a massive wall of Pampers boxes and regroups.
”OK, what do we do now?” Tojg says.
”Well, the new guard are notorious for regressing their captives down to infancy,” Shortysboy explains. “So it’s likely they have already turned Nom’s unit into babies. They often AR one of the group members first and force the other captives to powder and diaper their partner. It’s their preferred method of interrogation.”
”What is it with the new guard and babies? I mean, what’s wrong with a good mid-range regression, like nine or ten?”
”I second that! Give me good ol’ fashioned female AR any day.”
”Guys, could we?” Tainted Sins interrupts, noticing his fellow soldiers are starting to age. “We can schedule a round table discussion for later.”
”Whew,” Areg5 notes. “I was getting worried there for a second.”
With deepening voices and slowly expanding limbs the special ops squad moves silently into position...
Sumner took another breather. Man, it’s getting late, he thought. The hours seemed to be passing faster than before. And as the sand slipped from the hourglass the bodily changes began exacting a much greater toll. Unable to conjure up words and phrases that once came easily to him, Sumner found himself consulting the computer’s dictionary and thesaurus features more frequently. It appeared his vocabulary was shrinking right along with his body.
Early morning approached and there was little he could do but trudge onward, though every minute that passed seemed to suck the information and experience right out of him. Suddenly the elementary task of punctuating a sentence no longer seemed quite so simple. All of this combined with the lack of sleep was catching up with him, and it was all he could do to stay awake and alert.
Occasionally he stopped to marvel at how little his fingers and arms had become, how his breathing became shorter as his lungs grew smaller, how the room seemed to swell as his point of view dipped lower and lower.
”Oh, no! No, no!” the eight-year-old author yelped, glimpsing the clock on the wall.
He hurriedly typed a string of incoherent characters, only to back and up delete them immediately.
Why is this so hard all of the sudden? he wondered. Writing couldn’t be this difficult, could it? It was impossible. He had written stories since early grade school. He had awards, plaques, and certificates packed away in boxes somewhere. He could prove it.
But time proved a relentless enemy. No matter what tricks he tried, Sumner could feel his perception gradually escaping him. The longer he typed the more childish his sentences became. The more time he spent thinking the more immature his thoughts seemed...
Chapter 10: The last part of the story
”You broken the Ray Gun!” Tojg says madly.
”NO, I did not” said Red “You are the one whose broke it! “
”Did NOT!” ...
And so Sumner's dialogue degenerated into pointless juvenile squabbles. Grammar took a backseat. The original plot had all but disappeared. He tried to remember what he had planned for the final chapter but could only recall minor details, something about an AR war crimes tribunal with Donny G and Bojay acting as court sketch artists and Judge Heidegger presiding. Or was that right? He couldn't remember.
As the minutes ticked by, his memory grew hazier. And hazier.
Just before Sumner’s sleepiness overcame him, he typed the words - almost as if they were a mere afterthought - “The End.”
Later, that afternoon, a knock came at Sumner’s door. When no one answered, the knocking persisted. That was followed by the doorbell. Still, all was quiet. Soon the visitor could be heard entering through the sliding glass door at the side of the house.
”Hello?” the woman called. “Anyone home?”
She was a petite lady in her late forties wearing a plain white shirt and jeans. She carried a purse on her shoulder and cake pan in her left hand. While she didn’t seem overly worried her tone was one of mild concern.
”Hello?” she repeated. “I baked something for you.”
Not satisfied that no one was home, she climbed the steps leading to the upstairs bedroom. Reaching the top, she thought she heard a sound and called out again. “Is anybody up here?” Rounding the corner she saw Sumner’s computer chair and what looked to be sleeves hanging from the sides and a pair of pants and underwear sitting in a messy heap below.
It’s not like him to just leave his clothes scattered on the floor, she thought as she approaching his computer desk. Peering over the chair, the woman gasped.
A baby boy, probably no more than a year old, lay fast asleep in the seat.
”How did you get here?” the woman asked as she knelt down to pick the child up. “Where is your mommy and daddy?”
Sumner awoke to the sight of two large hands headed toward him. He soon found himself being hoisted into the air and staring into the face of... Mom?
The woman studied Sumner for a moment, then grew a puzzled expression. “Honey? Is that...“
He tried to answer but only succeeded in producing a garbled mess of sounds.
”No, it’s impossible,” she said, examining the naked boy nestled in her arms. Sure enough, the baby wore a small birthmark on his right leg. “Oh my God, it is you! How did you end up like this?!”
Desperate to explain what had happened, Sumner frantically pointed his chubby finger toward the computer. In the commotion, his mother had jarred the desk just enough to activate the mouse and restart the monitor. Eyeing the screen, Sumner saw a familiar webpage - the AR Story Archive. If he could just reach the mouse long enough to press “Submit,” maybe there was still a chance.
”Honey, stop squirming, I can’t hold on to you,” his mom said.
Just a little closer...
”Baby, please stop that,” she implored. “You’re going to make Mommy drop you.”
”You can’t work at your computer anymore, honey,” she said consolingly. “You’re too young to reach the keys.”
Robbed of all other forms of communication, Sumner started to cry.
”No, no, shhhhhh, it’s all right,” his mother whispered as she turned off the bothersome computer monitor. “You don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore, OK?”
”There, there,” she said. “I’m here. You’re safe. Mommy is going to take good care of you, all right? But Mommy doesn’t quite know how to explain this yet and you’ve got to give her time.”
She smiled a motherly smile.
”Because I doubt anyone is going to believe this story.”