Can't Go Back

by: Romano | Complete Story | Last updated Feb 24, 2015

Chapter 3
Face Your Fears




The sound of his fear pulsates in his ears as Zach walks into the pale, contemporary building - the pummelling of his heart drowning out all other noise so that there is no escape from the crippling dread that flares up inside of him.

His legs are like lead, holding him in place, as he pulls together a flickering smile and says almost warmly, "Good afternoon. Zach Holden, I’m here to see Dr. Slater?"

Not bothering to glimpse his way, the receptionist listlessly replies, "To the right. Room B. He’s been waiting."

Zach doesn’t even try to conceal his disbelief at that.

He’d been all set to charm his way in. There’s no way he could have been expected.

The woman rolls her eyes at his confounded expression. "The right is that way," she drawls with a blatantly patronizing, disgruntled attitude, even going so far as to point with one long, manicured finger.

"Right," Zach nods jerkily. "Thank-you."

He then hurries off before security can arrive to haul him away.

The indicated room isn’t hard to find, but by this point, Zach is so worked up that he thoughtlessly barges right in. With a strident, boorish bang, the door slaps the wall, bringing him and all of his nervous energy to an abrupt standstill.

The air freezes in his lungs.

When the scientist catches sight of him, his face immediately falls into a frown.

"Mr. Holden," he greets in this strange, grave tone, and Zach is taken aback by the man actually remembering his name. He hadn’t thought he’d made much of an impression before. "I’d been afraid this might happen."

"Sorry?" He pulls a face. "Afraid what might happen? Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about?" Or why the hell you’re not surprised to see me?

"Come with me," Dr. Slater instructs, again startling Zach by the subtle bleakness that douses his voice. "It seems we have a lot to discuss."

"We…" Rocking back on his heels, Zach absently scratches his chest. "We do?"

"I’m assuming you’re here on personal business?"

"Well, yes-"

"Then trust me, you’ll appreciate the discretion." By this stage, the young associate is confused as hell, but when Dr. Slater turns down a narrow corridor off to one side, he doesn’t hesitate to follow.

He leads Zach to a small, stark laboratory that doesn’t appear to have been used in weeks. Sealed boxes line the work space, while the bulk of the equipment has been masked by thin, white sheets.

But it’s the air, cold and stale and thick with what could have been, that unnerves Zach the most.

"Here will do," Slater hums, flicking a switch and watching the room brighten. If anything, this only serves to depress the kid further, as it renders the lab all the more grey and dreary. In the dark, at least you can cling to an illusion. But now, bathed in murky light with nowhere to hide, Zach can’t ignore the lie he’s been living.

"It’s been tough for you, I’ll bet," the older man suddenly murmurs, startling him out of his thoughts. For the first time, Zach notices just how drawn and pallid the doctor’s face really is, and it hits him suddenly - the profound weariness that sinks into this man’s every step.

"You’re confused," he continues dully, a terribly far-away gaze clouding his expression. "Not to mention, scared. Angry. Completely and utterly alone. Of course, you are. I’ve seen it before."

"Seen… what before?" Zach asks uncertainly, wary and on edge as he probes for answers he’s not sure he wants anymore. "You’re being awfully cryptic."

That certainly rouses Dr. Slater.

He snaps around to face him and gestures impatiently. "This. You. Your case. This isn’t limited exclusively to yourself, I’m afraid. Not by a long shot."

Narrowing his eyes, Zach eyes him briefly, taking in the slovenlier stubble, eroded fingernails and grubby lab coat as though they alone are the key to everything, before biting his lip and prodding, "And what is ’this?’"

Not a game, obviously.

Christ, Zach, do you seriously think I’d do something like that?

Nor a nightmare.

He’s living a nightmare…

Nothing that is rooted in reality and yet this is real.

Slater gives a hard, mocking laugh.

Mouth bitterly coiled, he replies, "My greatest failure."

Had this been any other set of circumstances, Zach would have accused the man of melodrama, but as it stands, he simply nods slowly in the face of such viciously destructive self-loathing. "Yeah..." His forehead crinkles. "You’re going to have explain that one."

Exhaling forcefully, Dr. Slater’s shoulders visibly sag as he kneads his left brow.

"It began with my former colleague, Dr. Pierce," he starts and the way his voice cynically envelops the words, immediately commands Zach’s attention. "He was what you’d call a bit of a radical scientist and had earned quite a reputation in our field for his unconventional methods and outrageous claims. I was one of the few to take him seriously."

And then there’s that outlying look again. As though he’s a million miles away.

"Pierce, he…he wasn’t like other people. The man was… he was a genius," Dr. Slater breathes in unmistakable awe. "The real thing, you know? For years, I’d been a fan of his work, so when I was offered a position on his research team - the chance to work alongside someone of such extraordinary brilliance - it didn’t even cross my mind to decline."

He smirks then - contemptuously.

"It was only after signing a confidentiality clause that the real nature of the experiment was disclosed," Dr. Slater declares with palpable disdain. "To say I was sceptical would be an immense understatement. But I had faith in Dr. Pierce’s abilities. I trusted him unreservedly. I had been so confident that Pierce knew what he was doing that I couldn’t possibly comprehend the underlying fact that he didn’t. It was foolish, I see that now. But you have to understand-"

"Understand what?" the tightly wound associate snaps. "What was it about this experiment? What did you do?"

"We-we-" he cuts off, overcome with sudden emotion.

Zach tenses.

Squeezing his eyes shut and fiercely compressing his lips in trepidation, Dr. Slater swallows hard.

"We ruined over twenty people’s lives."


Three Days Previously


* flashback *




Every beat is painful.

One thought reverberates inside, rising any doubt, deepening any fear.

You don’t care.

He really doesn’t. Eric doesn’t care and that was always the problem, wasn’t it? Every damn relationship was doomed to fail when all that really mattered, ever, was his career.

Most days, he revels in his bachelorism. Life is easy and free without the demands of a wife or kids and whatnot - that’s never really been his thing. Cory is the closest thing he has to family and Eric is happy with that, isn’t he?

It had always been enough before.

And yet now… Now…

"Come on, come on. Pick up. Pick up," he growls into his cell as he fists his hair, tousled from shoving his hands through it one too many times, and restlessly paces the length of his office.

You don’t care.

Then what in Christ’s name is this?

"Eric, you need to calm down. This isn’t helping."

"He’s out there all alone, Cory," Eric counters with clear panic, leg bouncing. "Zach doesn’t even have his crutches with him and God knows his ankle is not quite as peachy as he’d lead us to believe. Goddamn idiot probably hasn’t even taken painkillers either because, needless to say, he’ll only tolerate them when it’s undeniably necessary, but with him, it’s never undeniably necessary. So I know he’s hurting and here I am, with no idea where the hell he could have gone, and I’m-I can’t-"

I’m useless.


He doesn’t hear her.

"Eric!" Cory snaps with unexpected harshness, pleased when he flinches and his wild eyes latch onto her collected ones. God knows, she needs to be the rational one here.

She’s never seen her boss in such a panic-stricken state and it is a little unsettling to witness the classically level-headed lawyer seemingly come apart at the seams.

"Take a deep breath," she urges. "It’s okay. He’s fine. Zach just went for a walk to cool off-"

"He shouldn’t even be walking!"

She scarcely restrains herself from rolling her eyes. "Well, it won’t exactly help matters," she allows, "But for pity’s sake, Eric, it’s not going to kill him!"

"Oh, like you’re not freaking the shit out!" the lawyer scoffs, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes in frustration. "This is Zach, Cory. Trouble always finds him."

"Of course I’m worried, Eric! But there’s not much we can do about it, is there?"

That was obviously the wrong thing to say as Eric immediately recommences pacing.

"But what if he’s injured, Cory?" he chucks out at her. "What if he’s out there and something terrible happens and no-one’s there to help? The kid’s angry. Fuming, in fact. People make stupid decisions when they’re angry all the time and this is Zach," Eric stresses, begging her with those damn angst-ridden eyes to understand.

Cory doubts the insult even registers.

"You know what else causes people to make horrible decisions?" Cory asks, quirking a brow. She doesn’t wait for an answer - instead continuing pointedly, "Panic and hysteria."

"I’m not hysterical!" he cries… kind of hysterically. "As his superior, I have a duty-"

"To what?" Cory smirks. "Get your panties in a twist?"

He glares. "What am I supposed to do?" he questions, and the desperate distress widening his eyes yanks on Cory’s heart strings. He just looks so… lost. "Wait around on the off-chance that he shows up? Nothing?!"

Whipping out his cell again, Eric dials Zach’s number for the hundredth time and stands waiting with baited breath. The action pains Cory to see and she wishes she could turn away, grab her things from her desk and go home, but for heaven’s sake, she loves these two asshats and it’s like she’s frozen - watching this God-forsaken train wreck.

No-one is more surprised than Cory when the dork actually picks up.

"Zach?" Eric breathes in disbelief. "Zach, where the hell are you?" All of a sudden, his expression darkens and the troubled secretary hates that he tries so hard to cloak his concern. "I’ve been calling you for hours! You are in so much trouble, young man."

There’s a pause while Zach responds.

"Tell me where you are," Eric promptly demands. "I’m coming to pick you up."

"Zach," Eric says tightly in that ’you’re seriously trying my patience, shut-the-hell-up,’ voice. "It is in your best interests not to argue with me. Cory has been going out of her mind with worry-" She laughs outright at that "-and to tell the truth, I haven’t been particularly impressed by your disappearing act, either."

"Understatement of the century," Cory mutters, earning an annoyed glower and a nudge in the side.

His jaw then clenches and he grits, "Tell. Me. Where. You. Are."

If she’s honest with herself, Cory is a little impressed by the take-no-shit attitude, but on the other hand.. she can’t help but feel concerned. This is not an exchange between employer and employee. This is like the show-down before some defiant brat gets grounded for two weeks, but it’s alright because they totally deserved it.

It’s then that Eric dangerously murmurs, " a bar?" And that’s what really drives it home for Cory.

This isn’t right.

"I’ll be there in five." And for a second after he ends the call, there’s a genuine possibility that that cell is going to get hurled across the office.

Pacing all over again, Eric vents, "I can’t believe it. I can’t believe he’d go to a bar. How could he be so irresponsible? Zach knows he’s not allowed-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Cory intercepts. "Wait a minute. He’s not allowed? Why?"

Suddenly, the steadfast lawyer looks unsure. Angry, but unsure.

"Because-because he has work tomorrow-"

"That’s never bothered you before," she points out.

"A lot of things never bothered me before!" Eric snaps. And there it is. The real issue here.

"Eric," his friend murmurs in an overly gentle voice. Suddenly, she has to be careful in a way that’s never been necessary before. "You’re forgetting… Zach is a grown man. He can take care of himself."

Oh, boy. That sure gets a rise out of him.

"Grown man?" Eric repeats incredulously, giving a frenzied huff of a laugh. "This is Zach. Zach, who is scared of the dark and chews his fingers when he’s anxious or bored or unsure of himself and sucks his thumb when he’s tired. This is the same man who still believes - and don’t even try to deny it - that ’special’ cuts are capable of turning his hands green."

"Eric.." She winces. When did everything become so bloody complicated? "I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what any of this means, but Zach was right when he said that this… it’s fucked up as hell."

"Don’t you think I know that?"

"Do you, though?" Cory retorts mercilessly. "Because I’m seriously starting to wonder."

The sudden hurt in his stunned face almost makes her want to take the words back. But how can it be betrayal when it’s the truth?

"I’m sorry, Eric," she goes on, voice grim. "But what you’re doing? It’s only going to push him away in the long run-"


She doesn’t give him a chance to defend himself, knowing this needs to be said. "And I’m worried, Eric," she softly confides. "Because from where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like you know what you’re doing."

"I’m-I’m-" He collapses onto his chair. "He’s my…my-"

Eric can’t seem to gather his thoughts, vocalise this… these damn feelings…

Her voice is oh-so-delicate to ask, "Your what, Eric?"

"Zach is like my-my-" he suddenly breaks off. Abruptly standing, he declares with uncharacteristic roughness, "I’ve got to go."

But from the staggered look his face, Cory thinks she already knows the answer.

* End of flashback *


Shock settles like dust over Zach’s bones and he openly baulks.

"They shut us down and they were right to," the gaunt man whispers distraughtly, words quickening. "Dr. Pierce was promptly fired, what remained of his credibility was instantly demolished, and I was left hanging onto my own post by a thread. Hence, the legal problems Mr. West has failed to dredge up any details of," he adds as a second thought.

"So the experiment was ultimately pulled," Zach succinctly surmises. "Why?"

"The research was ethically questionable at best," Slater elucidates, fine tremors coursing through his hands. "Nine times out of ten, it’s impossible to conduct any sort of psychosomatic study without some form of moral conflict arising. But this…" He shakes his head, pained. "What we did…It was deplorable."

"Deplorable how?"

Zach’s curiosity has undoubtedly peaked.

As has his fear.

Grimacing, the doctor’s eyes bounce around the room - anywhere but near Zach - as he confides, "We were dealing with detrimental issues spanning over months of deception and manipulation. The psychological damage alone was unspeakable. In order to avoid jeopardizing the validity of the results, Pierce refused to inform the participants of the true purpose of the study. We didn’t want to plant any ideas in their head of how they should be feeling or the effects this should have on them physically, so… the only alternative was to say nothing at all."

Zach feels a momentary stab of pity for those poor individuals, but hastily pushes the thought aside. He doesn’t want to-he just can’t-

"The consent, therefore, was naturally dubious," Dr. Slater is explaining. "These people had no clue what they were getting themselves into. Several of them explicitly stated that they were only there to earn an easy buck."

He breaks off, running a hand through his receding hair.

"I should have reported Pierce," he fervently reproaches. "It was so wrong - so very, very wrong - but he was my idol and I couldn’t bear the thought that he would take a risk of this magnitude without caring. You know what he’d tell me?" Dr. Slater throws the question out rhetorically. "He’d tell me, ’Slater, think about what we could achieve if we’re successful. Just imagine. We could change the face of science forever, don’t you see? In cases like these, the ends always justify the means.’ And I…" He gives an acrimonious chuckle. "I believed him. I couldn’t stand to let him down."

Still in the dark and growing more and more frustrated by the minute, Zach gripes, "I don’t understand. What were you hoping to accomplish? What was so awful about your research that it cost Dr. Pierce his job?"

Dr. Slater glances over at him sharply.

The silence between them is long and jaded, heavy with regret.

"We thought we’d discovered a cure for aging, Mr. Holden," he solemnly intones, unflinching. "But it was so much more than that."


* flashback *

Zach wishes that Eric were still an ass.

It seems to him that if only his boss would stop all of this caring nonsense, everything could go back to normal.

He wouldn’t be sitting here in this dull, drab shithole feeling sorry for himself, because Eric’s coming to ream him out and he doesn’t look fucking old enough to nurse a damn beer. And that’s not even the worst part.

The worst part is he feels guilty. He feels bad for worrying Eric and that only cements the fact that he’s living in goddamn cuckoo land.

"Cheer up, sweetie," the bartender clucks, "Your Dad’ll be here any second."

"That’s not exactly reassuring," Zach mutters, not even bothering to correct her, because what can he say? What can he say about any of this that’ll make one lick of sense to anyone, ever? Nothing, that’s what. Absolutely nothing.

"He can’t be that bad a guy, I reckon," she murmurs, almost wistful. "No deadbeat dad’s gonna care if you’re out to all hours. Least this one gives a damn."

Zach shrugs. "Guess so."

And that’s all the information he volunteers on the matter.

But when the time comes to face the music, it’s strangely anti-climatic.

Eric sweeps in, murmurs a quick thanks to the bartender who is so obviously keeping an eye on his rebellious ’son’, and that’s... it.

Taking Zach by the elbow, he says neutrally, "Let’s go," before guiding him to the waiting cab by the kerb.

Zach knows it’s crazy, but there’s a piece of him that’s kind of, well, disappointed, in a respect. Especially when he climbs in and for the first time in weeks, Eric doesn’t tell him to buckle his seatbelt.

The longer the silence stretches between them, the more apparent it becomes that Eric’s got something else on his mind.

Surprising himself, Zach finds he doesn’t exactly like that.

Soft and uncertain, the boy eventually pipes, "Aren’t you gonna, um, say anything?"

Eric stares straight ahead.

"Given that you don’t appear intoxicated, I’m inclined to be more lenient," the older man casually remarks. "You get whatever briefs I’ve been neglecting, plus any extra paperwork and no breaks." He shifts and straightens his tie then; Zach hadn’t even noticed it was loose. "You know the drill."

Zach stumbles, "I-I do?"

"Sure, you do." Eric rolls his eyes. "It’s not like you haven’t screwed up enough in the past. You tell me: how does this usually go?"

Is he... is he for real?

"I get a lecture," Zach recalls, frowning, "Along with The Face Of Disapproval, and then you banish me to my desk for the next few days to either rectify my mistake or because I’m drowning in so much work, I may as well be chained to it anyway."

"Exactly," Eric grins, but there’s something… off about his expression, though Zach can’t detect what.

"Except that this time, you already know what I’m thinking, so a lecture isn’t necessary-"

"It never is," Zach says sullenly.

Glaring, he continues, "And that Face Of Disapproval? Try ’Face of You Goddamn Idiot.’"

"Not sure that was necessary," Zach mutters, but inside he is feeling bewildered beyond repair. So far, there have been no hair ruffles or ’kiddos’ or ’buddy’s.’ His boss hasn’t said a single thing about putting himself in danger or wandering off into a dodgy neighbourhood. Not once, has Eric professed any kind of concern whatsoever.

It’s almost like… like normal. Like the old Eric. Only this doesn’t feel normal at all.

Zach’s relieved - of course, he is. Why wouldn’t he be?

It’s just... His heart just aches a little.

It’s at that exact moment that he notices the cab is pulling up beside his own apartment block and his stomach drops.

"I expect to see you bright and early tomorrow morning, kidd-" Eric cuts off, frowning. Recovering quickly, he inserts, "I don’t care if it’s a Saturday; we have an early meeting with a client over at Ferguson’s. Don’t be late."

Dazed, Zach stumbles out of the cab and is almost to the entrance when he hears a voice ring out, "I mean it, Zach! I won’t accept any excuses!"

And as he turns his key in the lock and his door swings open to reveal his cold, barren home, Zach is still stuck wondering why in the world it hurts so damn much.

* End of flashback *


Zach has heard more than enough.

"Oh, sure. A cure for aging. Right. Of course," he sarcastically bites, forcing a nasty sneer, "Like that’s feasible. You know, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but since you are clearly out of your goddamn mind and still haven’t explained what any of this has got to do with me-"

"Those chemicals never should have been mixed, Mr. Holden," Slater interpolates squarely. "Those beakers were comprised of the key components for a de-aging formula." He halts briefly, trying to gauge the kid’s reaction, before concluding, "And you accidentally inhaled it."

Zach laughs. But the sound is strained and false even to his own ears. "You’re crazy-"

"Am I?" he swiftly returns, raising a brow. "At the time, I couldn’t be sure that it was those exact chemicals that had been combined. It seemed a much too unfortunate calamity and I had sincerely prayed otherwise. Until my fears could be confirmed or you initiated contact, I was unable to divulge any details of our previous catastrophe. My confidentiality agreement proved to be a regrettable impediment."

"Are you fucking with me?" Zach blurts. "Like, seriously? Is this some kind of sick joke?"

Dr. Slater bristles.

"I assure you, Mr. Holden, it was no joke when all of our participants regressed back to their adolescent selves."


* flashback *

The following day, things don’t get much better.

Zach is tired and grumpy throughout the meeting, having not slept all night because - get this - his apartment felt too strange, his bed lacked his furry friend, and there was no Eric to ruffle his hair and wish him goodnight, soaked by the glow of his nightlight.

It’s left him feeling oddly out of sorts.

Eric, himself, has been distant all day, to say the least. Zach just wants him to say something - anything - and is rapidly becoming annoyed with being ignored.

Slowly, - as his mentor neglects to chide him for obviously skipping lunch and later fails to confiscate the energy drinks which are frankly the only thing keeping the associate going - that annoyance turns to something much more unfavourable. Something sore and itchy that Zach absolutely refuses to acknowledge is anxiety.

He can’t understand why he’s being so needy. It’s like, all of a sudden, Eric’s opinion of him is of vital importance and Zach’s saddened by the fact that his boss is seemingly disappointed in him. Not only that, but he... he-

Oh, God, he’s really going to admit it, isn’t he?

Zach misses Eric. And in essence, he is simply upset he’s not around.

There. He said it.

He misses his boss and he has no freakin’ notion why.

It doesn’t help that as the day wears on, Zach becomes more and more exhausted, unaccustomed to missing his usual nap. The lines on his page begin to blur, only about half of the files completed, and his eyelids are constantly drooping, forcing the kid to tug on them just to keep himself alert. Zach’s even beginning to wonder if he’s broken some sort of record or something, after his unbroken chain of yawning that lasted a solid fifteen minutes.

His resolve is wavering and Zach doesn’t know what to do.


Eric loves coming to the firm on Saturdays.

He’s a self-professed workaholic and it’s the one day of the week where he can get the most done without the hustle and bustle of every damn employee in the building.

But for the first time that he can remember, Eric spends the majority of the day just staring out the window, a brooding hollowness shrouding his body.

He can’t concentrate. He can’t think. He can hardly bear to sit here knowing Zach’s down the hall in his damp, wrinkled suit from the day before, with purple bags under his eyes and a huge bundle of files he’ll have to stay overnight to finish.

Truth be told, Eric wants nothing more than to send the obviously sleep-deprived boy home, after giving him a thorough telling off for walking in the rain after he’d specifically prohibited him from doing so.

Yet he does none of that.

Eric is trying so hard to respect Zach’s wishes and leave him alone to look after himself like the-the adult he is, but he never could have anticipated just how excruciatingly difficult it would be to keep his distance.

Turns out, the decision is taken out of his hands when the door creaks open and a thin, dark-haired figure slinks into his office, immediately curling up on his couch.

He doesn’t even pause to consider it.

Right away, Eric makes his way over, settling down beside by the pitiful lump. Big, watery blue eyes peek up at him as he retrieves the kid’s blanket and drapes it over the pale, sleepy form.

Heart aching, Eric watches Zach nibble on his curled thumb, obviously upset, and instinctively reaches out to silently smooth his hair. The soothing action relaxes both Zach and Eric, who each feel at ease for the first time that day.

With his spare hand, the older man snatches the associate’s stuffed toy from where it had fallen the day before and smiles as Zach’s arm instantly weaves around it, while he nuzzles his nose into the velvety fur.

Neither utter a single thing. Everything and nothing has already been said.

Eric begins to hum under his breath as Zach’s breaths even into sleep.

* End of flashback *


Adolescent selves?

Throat closing over, Zach just about chokes, "Wh-what?" as an icy horror robs him of feeling.

"It was slow, I suppose. The process," he adds at the kid’s puzzled expression. "And we’ve never discovered a cure. That’s why I still have the formula, you know. In my free time, I’ve been working on a reversal. But I’ll admit, it’s looking highly unlikely that I’ll ever be able to undo the damage I’ve caused."

All of a sudden, Zach is angrier than he’s ever been before, head throbbing as he clenches his fists and spits, "You know what? I’m not just going to stand here and listen to you feed me this bullshit-"

"For the last time, young man," Dr. Slater explodes in exasperation, "I’m being one-hundred percent serious! I will never forgive myself for inflicting such a fate upon the others." Breathing heavily, he pauses. "And now that same fate is yours."

"What fate?!" Zach cries, throwing his hands into the air. "Stop being so goddamn cagey and come out with it already!"

"They weren’t just acting like college or high school students," Dr. Slater informs him with genuine earnestness. "They were emotional, irrational, physically younger than before. Performance at work suffered, sleep patterns were disrupted - you name it. On the outside, they looked like normal, healthy young adults. Yet they were anything but."

"What were they then?" he challenges. "If not teenagers like all outward appearances would suggest?"

Slater heaves a dejected sigh.

"There was one man," he says after a moment. "Late forties. Married with a steady income and two sons. I don’t know why he volunteered; some people are more inclined to help than others. It’s a personality thing, you see. Really screws with your supposedly random sample of the population-"

"The point?" Man, this guy’s thought process is scattered.

"The point is that he was happy. Before. His life was simple, I guess, but he liked it that way," the older man passionately tells him. "By the time we were finished toying with his life, his wife was his mother and he was the youngest in the family at thirteen, with two brothers."

When Zach literally reels back in surprise, Dr. Slater gives a satisfied nod, scornfully adding, "Now, does that sound simple to you?"

No, it sounds… unbelievably dysfunctional. Not least, entirely implausible.

"Let’s say for one moment that I believe you," Zach says, humouring either himself or the deranged scientist - he’s not sure. "Explain to me: how would any of that be possible?"

"This is science we’re talking about, Mr. Holden," he replies in exasperation. "Your very cells are changing and the toll that this takes on your body is quite substantial, as you can imagine."

What if he doesn’t want to imagine?

"A few of our participants found that although they appeared no younger than a teenager, they experienced drastic moods swings and seemed to have the emotional maturity equivalent to that of a toddler-"

No, please. Stop - it’s not true - it’s not true -

"-When upset or ill, this phenomenon became much more prominent and so far, it has yet to fade completely. Not only that, but they were prone to bouts of extreme tiredness, having to take a break to recharge during the day, and formed attachments to teddy bears, dolls, blankets, and other childish items-"

No, no, no - shut up, shut up, shut up-

"They were also enthralled by basic kid’s TV shows and in extreme cases, even re-established old habits such as thumb sucking or bedwetting."

"That’s… that’s…" Bizarre. Horrifying. Unbelievable.

Just like me.

"What was most interesting, however, were the strange changes that participants noted in their personal relationships. You see, what was absolutely ground-breaking wasn’t just the fact that we’d stumbled upon a means of literally erasing decades, but the effect that this has on those around you."

Zach’s frown deepens. "What do you mean? What effect?"

"It was like watching Mother Nature in action," Slater answers and that really doesn’t shed any light on anything.

"Meaning?" he condescendingly prompts.

The doctor rolls his eyes. "Okay, let me put it this way. If a species is to survive, then a mother must never leave her young unprotected, right?"

"Right…" he replies doubtfully. He still doesn’t see what that has to do with anything.

"It would be precarious and well, stupid to leave a young child to fend for itself. Unlike many mammals, human infants are basically defenceless. A human mother would have to carry her child for up to twenty-one months in order for it to have the same neurological and cognitive development of a newborn chimpanzee." So not point, Zach inwardly groans. "Commonly, we attribute this to either a mother’s metabolism or natural selection, which favoured childbirth at an earlier stage of development to accommodate for both a larger brain size and an upright locomotion. Nevertheless, this means that human children are forced to rely heavily on a caregiver that can cater to their wide range of needs for many years."

"Yes, alright. I get it. Very cool. But what about the study?"

A faint smile hovering above his lips, Dr. Slater murmurs, "It was… fascinating to behold. The participants were absolutely baffled by the drastic alterations in the behaviour of their loved ones-"

Zach’s heart skips a beat.

Swallowing past the sudden lump in his throat, he attempts to ask casually, "Change in behaviour, you say?" - all the while, failing miserably.

"Mother Nature, remember?" The douche-bag actually smirks. "As a means of security, everyone who cared for the participant felt inscrutably more protective, especially during periods where the young person themselves felt particularly vulnerable. We never could figure out the cause, but it was easy to see that the bonds of whomever they were closest to - be it a friend, partner, parent or sibling - only strengthened, while any nurturing instincts that they harboured went haywire."

"Okay…" That’s… normal.

"You’ve yet to fully grasp the significance, haven’t you?" Slater questions sadly, mouth down-turned once more. "Mr. Holden," he relates with subtle delicacy, "These… feelings - protective compulsions, even - would subsequently lead certain individuals to assume the role of the caregiver when the regression reached its… inevitable conclusion."

For a moment, Zach can’t breathe.

Oh, no, He gasps. Oh, God, no. Shit. Fuck. Crap.

His mind is a stream of swear words. A barrier to stop this - any of this - from penetrating his consciousness.

This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening…

But he can’t ignore that it makes sense.

The protectiveness… the worry… the consideration…

Worst of all, his reactions.

"Son of a bitch!" he suddenly exclaims, causing Dr. Slater to jump back in surprise. "That goddamn asshole has been trying to-" Words failing him, he puffs up his chest in repressed aggravation. "Trying to, to father me!" he bursts. "Damn idiot!"

The elder man appears to be at odds between concern and amusement. "Excuse me?"

"Eric," Zach explains shortly. Dr. Slater’s face remains blank. "Eric West?"

There’s a sick kind of satisfaction in watching the other man’s eyes bug out of their sockets.

"No wonder he’s been so freakin’ caring and affectionate all of sudden!" the kid carries on raging. "What the hell am I supposed to do now? My boss is going all paternal on my ass!"

"Mr. Holden…" Slater hesitantly interrupts while scratching his bald spot. "If what you are saying is true, then your boss can’t help what he is doing any more than you can. His…" He clears his throat, clearly uncomfortable, before restarting, "His own parental instincts would be tremendously difficult to ignore and it is natural, I expect, for Mr. West to feel you are his responsibility."

"I don’t care! This is unacceptable-"

"I must stress, these feelings did not simply materialize inexplicably," Slater remarks seriously, meeting his frenzied gaze in a manner he thinks is intended to reassure. "They would have existed beforehand, but have been merely amplified by the belief that you are, in a sense… helpless and in need of care."

"Oh, great. That’s fantastic. So, what you’re saying is, I’m supposed to be dependant on a emotionally stunted jerk who, up until very recently, could not express any sort of sentiment beyond, you’re an idiot?"

The entire concept is absurd.

In a way, yes, it is a relief to know that he’s not in fact losing his mind - that everything that has transpired in the past two and a half weeks may have been outlandish and utterly illogical, but there is a reason his suits no longer complement his lean body or snugly fit around his shoulders.

He is, however, essentially terrified of the truth now that it has emerged.

Zach is a teenager, for God’s sake. Or, almost. Maybe. He’s not sure - which, by the way, what even is that? How on earth can he not tell?

Yet underneath all of the denial and fear and goddamn grief, thoughts scattered and fragmented, there is a tiny, little part of Zach that is pleased.

Ten years may have been just shaved off his age and his heart seems to be running towards something vast and irrevocable, propelled by joy or panic or both.

Yet his foremost thought begins and ends with-

I can’t believe it. Eric actually cares about me.



End Chapter 3

Can't Go Back

by: Romano | Complete Story | Last updated Feb 24, 2015


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