A stopper, Hank told him. A congenital disorder that simply puts an end to further brain development. It had made itself known in each of their children at different points of their childhood, but because of the stealthy nature of the disorder it was nigh impossible to determine exactly when it started to take effect. By their best guess Ollie’s mental age was a little under four years old, while JJ was about two and a half and Christie was somewhere around eighteen months.
“As I said, Charles, at one point I was a psychologist of some merit.” Hank recounted with a wistful sigh. “But even with it working right under my nose I couldn’t see the effect the ailment was having on Ollie. All children progress at different speeds, of course - so when he started falling behind his peers in pre-school I naturally figured that he was just a bit of a late bloomer. But by the time he turned seven he still couldn’t spell his name or ride a bicycle without falling over. At that point there was no denying that something was wrong.”
“I had already given birth to JJ and Christie before we even suspected.” Joanne added. “And even if we had known of Ollie’s condition sooner it would have been impossible to tell if our future children would be similarly affected. As it turned out the disorder took effect on them even sooner than it did Ollie - JJ’s going to be sucking his thumb for the rest of his life and Christie’s always going to be in diapers.”
“Horrifying.” Charles whispered as he scribbled furiously in his notepad. The couple glanced at one another and then cast their eyes on Charles.
“You think so?” Hank asked.
Charles looked up at his host and frowned.
“Well…of course.” He said, with a vague flip of the hand. “With all due respect, what do your children have to look forward to? Not only will they never see their goals realized but they don’t even have the cognitive capacity to set any. For the rest of their lives they’ll suffer in perpetual immaturity. It’s a chilling thought.”
Hank tilted his head and gave Charles a small smile.
“Do they really look like they’re suffering?”
The young man furrowed his brow and turned to the yard. Ollie and JJ shouted and giggled as they kicked and chased after a bright rubber ball, while Christie played out some sort of silent pantomime with a stuffed rabbit and dog, smiling behind her pacifier as she drummed her heels against the grass. Certainly, it appeared as though they were having fun, but the enjoyment they took from their activities was entirely puerile. They simply didn’t know any better - and they never would.
Charles didn’t vocalize any of this to Hank or Joanne, instead opting to just put his head back down and return to his note taking. He was trying his best to be sensitive, but that was only part of the equation. Frankly, he had a hard time believing their story. While Hank and Joanne were certainly old enough to have kids of this age and the gaps in physical maturity between them matched up with their tale, anyone with even the barest knowledge of genetics would question whether or not the overgrown rugrats could actually be their biological children. Both JJ and Christie had blonde hair and dark eyes, features neither of their parents possessed, and while Ollie may have shared his father’s black mane his bright shamrock eyes were nowhere to be seen elsewhere in the family. And even if one were to look past those obvious genetic watermarks there just didn’t seem to be much family resemblance going around. Charles resolved to bring the matter up when he called the professor that evening - though he didn’t really care how Hank and Joanne came into possession of their children, if the ailment was in fact genetic in nature it would be of the utmost importance to find their true mother and father.
Charles’ contemplation of the issue was interrupted when Ollie came ambling up to the porch, his little brother in tow. Joanne leaned forward in her chair and gave her boys a honeysuckle smile.
“What is it, sweetie?”
“Wanna be nakie!” The boy declared.
“Wan’ nakie!” JJ parroted from behind his thumb. Joanne raised a finger and put on an expression of mock austerity.
“What do you say?”
“Pweeeeease!” The boys begged in unison. The woman chuckled and rose from her chair.
“All right then. Arms up!”
The siblings squealed with joy as Charles’ pen froze on the paper, the young man watching with a furrowed brow as Joanne moved towards her sons. Both Ollie and JJ had raised their palms as high as they would go, each of them squirming and giggling as their mother stepped behind them and tickled the backs of their necks. With one deft, practiced movement, the woman grabbed the collar of Ollie’s shirt and whisked it off his body, the boy overcome with joy as he playfully patted his chest and stomach. He seemed satisfied - until he suddenly took hold of his shorts and yanked them off his waist. Despite the horror of the sight Charles was unable to take his eyes away, treated to a front row view of Ollie’s naked form as he gleefully kicked the garment out onto the yard. Meanwhile, Joanne had undone the buttons on JJ’s shortall and helped the boy free himself of the childish outfit, pulling it down his legs as he took big, exaggerated steps out of the pant legs and into the simple joy of shameless nudity. If the boys had been happy before they were downright rapturous now, their mindless glee having been taken to another level by their newfound freedom.
“Nakie time, nakie time, nakie nakie nakie time!” Ollie sang as he hopped around on the porch, JJ cheerfully copying his big brother’s awkward little song and dance, the two of them completely lost in their own little world.
“Ah, I probably should have warned you.” Hank grinned as he took notice of Charles’ dismay. “Ollie and JJ just love to play ‘nakie’. It’s been a long time since we even bothered to make them wear underwear - it’s just one more thing to take off.”
At this point Charles was just barely watching the display out of the corner of his eye, wanting very badly to turn away but forced to look on out of respect to his research.
“They’re…hairless.” He muttered.
“Our best guess it that it’s a side effect of their condition.” Hank said, grinning as he leaned in to give Charles a little nudge. “We should all be so lucky, eh?”
“Hank, that’s terrible.” Joanne laughed as she playfully slapped her husband’s shoulder. The woman turned to Charles and smiled. “Aren’t they precious?”
The young man gave the brothers a sidelong stare.
Bob. Bounce. Dangle.
“Yeah.” He mumbled. “Adorable.”
The boys’ revelry continued until Ollie suddenly froze in mid-hop, locking his eyes on Charles, staring at the young man with the glassy-eyed gaze of a contemplative toddler. Charles felt himself shiver beneath the boy’s slack-jawed, unblinking stare, and those shivers only intensified as his lips slowly curled into a devilish grin.
“Charwie!” He shouted, as though the young man were across the yard and not right in front of him. “You be nakie too!”
Ollie lunged at the young man, as though intending to disrobe him himself.
Charles recoiled in disgust.
He cried out much louder than he intended to, gripped by an instant of panic that sent his voice reverberating out onto the plain. Ollie backed off at once and buried his hands in his chest, his lower lip trembling in the classic expression of a child who knows they’ve done something wrong but at the same time stands completely mystified as to what it could have been. Behind him JJ stared at Charles with wide, frightened eyes, sucking his thumb more intensely than ever while his free hand took hold of his penis as though he were arming himself against the bad shouting man. In an instant Joanne was out of her chair and at their sides, gently stroking the boys’ hair to calm them down.
“It’s okay, guys, it’s okay.” She murmured as Ollie and JJ rested their heads on Joanne’s shoulders and allowed her soft, gentle words to wash away their fears. “Charlie doesn’t play nakie because he’s a big boy. Do you understand?”
The boys sniffled and nodded their heads.
“Good.” Joanne smiled and rubbed their shoulders. “The two of you go on now, okay? Charlie will play with you when he’s ready.”
“That’s my boys.” Joanne beamed and kissed their foreheads.
Ollie and JJ romped back out into the yard, the incident seemingly forgotten as they went back to play. Charles took a deep breath and did his best to compose himself before going into damage control.
“I’m very sorry.” The young man apologized with as much sincerity as he could muster. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Hank said as he gave Charles a reassuring smile. “It’s our fault for not warning you. Given their appearance it can be hard to remember that they’re basically babies and as such have a fascination with nudity. I’m sure you were the same way when you were young.”
Charles straightened up and cleared his throat.
“Actually, my mother has told me that I was a very modest child.”
Hank and Joanne looked at one another, bemused expressions on their faces.
“Yes, well, I suppose that fits.” Hank chuckled.
Charles managed a feeble smile and returned to his observation, relieved that the episode was behind them. He noticed, that while Ollie had gone back to play - having hopped onto a classic Radio Flyer tricycle, forced by his size to propel it by pushing off against the grass with his bare feet - JJ had simply plopped onto his bottom and sat off by himself. Though he appeared to be doing something with his hands Charles couldn’t quite make it out as the boy’s back was to the porch, shielding his actions from the young man’s view. Curious, Charles rose from his seat and moved so as to get a better look - and instantly wished he hadn’t when he saw what the boy was up to. JJ had moved from merely holding his penis to outright playing with it, giggling and rocking on his bottom as he slapped it against the grass and wiggled it back and forth. When Ollie saw what his little brother was up to he immediately hopped off his tricycle and joined JJ in his fun, the two boys sitting side to side as they gleefully operated their favorite toys. Charles shuddered in revulsion but stood his ground, able to stomach the unsettling sight so long as reminded himself that their behavior was perfectly normal considering their mindset. But gradually their manipulations shifted from innocent exploration to something more pressing, more urgent, simple wiggles and shakes giving way to clumsy fondling and awkward, two-handed strokes. Charles put a hand over his mouth as he felt his knees buckle beneath him.
“Is there something wrong, Charles?” Joanne asked. The young man whirled on her.
“Of course there is!” He cried. “Look at what your sons are doing!”
The woman glanced at her boys, smiled, and turned back to Charles.
“And what’s that, exactly?”
“They’re…masturbating.” He hissed the word, feeling dirty for so much as saying it. “How can you allow this? Haven’t you made them aware of the implications?”
Joanne’s smile broadened as her husband chuckled beside her.
“No, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten around to it.” She said in mock thoughtfulness. “Perhaps you’d like to be the one to explain those implications to them.”
Charles’ mouth gaped as his mind scrambled for something he could say to extend his argument. Before anything could come the young man was distracted by a series of short, ragged gasps coming from the front yard, turning around just in time to see Ollie and JJ reach climax. For an instant the brothers seemed sapped of their energy, panting in half-lidded ecstasy as they rode out their orgasms…and then the high wore off and they returned to being silly little boys again, dipping their fingers in the warm sticky byproduct of their release as though it were fingerpaint, laughing and wriggling as they smeared it all over each other’s bodies.
“If you’ll excuse me.” Joanne laughed as she rose from her chair and pulled a towel from her belt. “It gets to be an awful mess if I don’t step in.”
Ollie looked up at his mother as she stepped off the porch and proudly held up his glistening fingers.
“Look, momma!” He cried. “Made sticky!”
“Sticky!” JJ shouted.
“You sure did.” The woman grinned as she patted her boys clean. “It was a big one this time, wasn’t it?”
As she lovingly wiped away the remnants of their exploration all Charles could do was look on in horror, unable to turn away even as the vomit burned as the back of his throat. Dimly he heard Hank speak.
“It’s a little shocking to see at first, I admit.” He said. “But they are young men in body if nothing else. You can’t imagine how grumpy they get when they go a few days without relieving themselves.”
Charles said nothing. All the young man did was turn away from the porch and gather his things together.
“Where will I be staying?” He asked.
“Second floor, first door on the left. Right next to the boys. Let me show you.”
“No.” Charles said, raising a hand. “That’s…that’s quite all right.”
With that he disappeared into the house. Hank looked after him for a moment before shaking his head and letting out a small sigh, turning to watch his wife and children frolic in the golden sunshine of the spring afternoon.
Charles spent the next few hours sitting on edge of the bed staring at the floor, deliberating whether or not he had the intestinal fortitude to stick this out. More than once the young man teetered on the verge of making a break for it, a second away from simply grabbing his stuff and driving straight back to the university and telling Professor Vanderhoff that he’d take his chances. But at the same time Charles had to consider the possibility that this whole experience was a test of sorts the professor had set up to determine whether or not the young man had the mettle necessary for his chosen career path, to see if he would stand strong in the face of mental illness or wither beneath its dead-eyed grin. The young man wrestled with his situation until a knock came at his door, jarring him from his solitary debate.
It was Joanne. Charles sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
The woman opened the door and paused in the frame with a plate of food in one hand and a glass of milk in the other.
“I brought you some dinner.” She said. “It seemed like you wanted to be alone so we went ahead and ate without you. I hope you don’t mind.”
Charles nodded and managed a smile.
“Thank you, that’s very kind.”
“Oh, not at all.” The woman chuckled as she placed his dinner on a dresser. She wiped her hands on her apron and smiled at the young man. “Hank and I will be in the living room with the boys if you need anything.”
Joanne left without waiting for a response, offering Charles a final encouraging smile as she closed the door behind her. Though the young man was hesitant to accept any further generosity from these people - since he was still on the fence about whether or not he’d even be staying the night - there was no denying how hungry he was and how good the meal looked. He ate tentatively before giving in to his hunger, all but inhaling his dinner and washing it down with greedy gulps of the sweetest, creamiest milk he had ever tasted. Charles exhaled and felt a smile creep across his lips, amazed at how much his mood had been elevated by something as simple as a home cooked meal. He looked around his room for a moment, thinking about how late it was getting and how treacherous the winding country roads would be in the dark. Staying for one night wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, he reasoned. But if he was going to do so it was of the utmost importance that he call the professor and let him know the true nature of the children’s condition. A cursory glance at his phone unsurprisingly revealed that he had no coverage in the area - he would have to ask Hank and Joanne if he could use theirs. With a sigh he grabbed his glass and plate and rose to his feet.
It was no small relief to Charles for him to enter the living room and see that Ollie and JJ were no longer prancing around in the buff. Both boys were now decked out in two-piece fleece pajamas, Ollie’s bright green and covered in tiny dinosaurs while JJ sported a simple baby blue. The young man was surprised at how quietly they were playing, both boys dedicating impressive amounts of concentration to their Duplo projects, seemingly determined to give form to the fantastic objects their overactive imaginations had dreamed up. So enveloped were they in their play that neither boy so much as looked up when Charles entered the room, completely oblivious to the young man’s presence even when Hank called to him from the couch.
“Evenin’. How was dinner?”
“Very good, thank you. I was wondering - ”
“Oh, here…” Joanne said as she rose to her feet. “Let me get that.”
She took the plate and glass from Charles’ hand and disappeared into the kitchen. The young man cleared his throat and turned back to Hank.
“I was wondering if I could use your phone. I’d like to give Professor Vanderhoff a call.”
“Well, sure.” Hank said. “But why don’t you sit with us for a minute? Christie’s already down for the night and we’ll be putting the boys to bed soon. You can call the professor once they’re asleep.”
Charles raised a hand and put on as diplomatic a smile as he could muster.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to call him before it gets too late. I’m not sure how much longer he’s going to be awake.”
Hank tilted his head and frowned.
“Are you sure? You’re looking awfully tired. Maybe you should sit down for a moment.”
“That’s quite all right. I just - ”
Before the young man could get through his thought a wave of exhaustion rolled over him, sweeping the words from his mouth and the energy from his body. He wobbled and put a hand to his head, trying to shake the heaviness from his mind, his arms and legs suddenly feeling as though they were cast in lead.
“Maybe…maybe that’s for the best.” Charles muttered as he staggered over to the couch. He lay back against the plush leather and rubbed his eyes. “I’ll be fine in a moment.”
“I’m sure you will.” Hank smiled. “Oh, Charles, I almost forgot - we don’t allow shoes in the house. Let me get those for you.”
Charles tried to voice his opposition but couldn’t make the words come. His tongue felt thick and clumsy and the few coherent thoughts he could put together seemed to get lost before they could even get there.
“Don’t…” Charles managed in a sleepy mumble. “Wanna…I want to keep them on.”
“Sorry pal, them’s the rules.” Hank grinned as he plucked the shoes off and set them aside. “There. Isn’t that better?”
The young man stared at his socked feet. He didn’t want to say anything but it really did feel very nice - when the shoes came off it was like his feet had escaped the exhaustion that weighed down the rest of his body. Charles yawned heavily as Hank chuckled and put an arm around his shoulder.
“I don’t blame you for being tired.” He said in a soft voice that seemed to echo within Charles’ mind. The young man shivered and squirmed in his seat. “You’ve had a big day. Just lay back and relax.”
Charles groaned and shook his head as though in doing so he could loose the cobwebs from his mind.
“I’ve gotta…I’ve got to call the professor.”
“Ah, of course.” Hank chuckled. “You need to tell him your observations. Well, why don’t you watch the boys for a little while longer before calling him? I’m sure you want to be able to give him as much information as possible.”
Charles wearily set his gaze on Ollie and JJ, feeling as though his eyes were moving through molasses. Though Ollie was still concentrating on creating a building that defied every rule of architecture JJ now seemed content to simply gnaw on a block and watch his brother. As he stared at Ollie with empty eyes the boy spit the toy out, grabbed his foot and guided its toes to his lips, chewing on them with the casual air with which an adult would bite their nails or smoke a cigarette. When Ollie looked up and saw what his little brother was up to he immediately abandoned his project, crawling over to JJ with a mischievous grin on his face.
“Gonna eat you!” He declared as he took JJ’s free foot in his hand. “Gonna munch you all up!”
With that Ollie began chomping on his little brother’s toes as though he were a ravenous monster, slobbering and growling and generally making a big production out of it. JJ, for his part, seemed absolutely delighted by his brother’s antics, squealing with laughter as he wriggled and squirmed in mock resistance. Charles blinked heavily and shuddered as he watched the scene unfold, knowing that what he was watching was wrong, wanting desperately to get away from there but unable despite his best efforts to make his body follow his brain’s commands. The young man felt a hand beneath his shoulders and realized that Joanne had returned and taken the seat next to him. While she gently rubbed his back Hank’s hand crept up his neck and softly stroked the young man’s hair.
“Why is it that you’re so serious all the time?” The man asked in a murmur. “You seem so unhappy. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just let it all go?”
Charles groaned and rocked his head. Hank’s words came to him as though he were speaking through glass.
“I know what we should do.” Hank said with a smile. “Let’s get rid of those socks so you can be just like Ollie and JJ.”
The young man whimpered and weakly grabbed at Hank’s leg. He felt like he was drowning, like every time he fought to the surface great black waves of exhaustion kept pushing him back under, muddling his thoughts and draining him of his resistance.
“No…” He whined like a little boy fighting his bedtime. “Don’t wanna.”
“C’mon now.” Hank said as he reached for the young man’s feet. “You’ll feel a lot better. I promise.”
Charles stretched out with trembling hands, mustering up every bit of his resolve in a last ditch effort to try and stop Hank before he could take off his socks, before he could be rendered barefoot just like the silly little boys playing on the floor in front of them. His fingertips could almost reach the man’s face. He was so close to putting an end to this nonsense, to regaining control over himself, to -
Hank looked up, smiled at Charles, and pulled the socks from his feet.
In an instant all the fight was sapped from his body, the young man slumping against the couch as he stared blankly at his bare feet, his jaw going slack and a thin rivulet of drool running from the corner of his mouth as he dumbly watched his toes wriggle in celebration of their newfound freedom. Hank chuckled and started stroking his hair anew.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it? Doesn’t it feel nice to be able to wiggle your little toes without those dumb ol’ socks in the way?”
Hank moved in closer and lowered his voice to a whisper.
“Watch them wiggle.”
Darkness crept in at the corners of Charles’ vision.
“Wiggle. Wiggle. Wiggle.”
The young man’s mind shrieked in horror - its final moment of lucidity - before he slipped into unconsciousness, his head slumping against Hank’s shoulder as his body went limp.
Hank smiled and rubbed the nape of Charles’ neck.