When the Children Return by J.L. Royce


Monday morning. One reason I moved here was the view of the little park and playground at the center of our neighborhood. Just a couple trees, benches for the adults, some playground equipment for the children. I’m not some kind of deviant; I just enjoy the liveliness.

Now, the remaining children are all indoors.

A dog trots across that rubber turf beneath the monkey bars and into the street, heading towards me. I don’t recognize the animal, but he has a collar and tags. He’s pausing at yards that once had dogs, saying hello with a lifted leg.

My rifle’s just there, in the hall closet. It would be an easy shot— But then gave a quick yelp and crumpled.

Damn! Someone else got him. I think I’ll get that rifle, just in case. Someone’s bound to come out.

Well—that didn’t take long. Samuels is jogging down the hill in her camo pants and black sleeveless tee. She cradles the scoped rifle in her arm like a baby, a pistol holstered on her hip. I think she’s a bit too comfortable with life as we know it now. It’s like a fashion statement with her. Not that I’m complaining.

"Hey, Bill."

"Hi, Sammy."

She holds her rifle casually. But she could bring it up in a moment.

"Want some?" She means the dog. She lifts the corpse by its hind legs.

"No, I’m good, babe."

"Suit yourself." She wraps the dog in a bit of old tablecloth and tosses it over her shoulder. Not like she needs the meat; she just likes playing the game to win.

She nods at the mailbox: the yellow ribbon. "Good luck."

She starts back up the hill, hips swaying with that off-balance weight. She’s in good shape, Sammy. I used to watch her jogging, I’m not ashamed to say. Before, that is.

I know better than to step outside. Now that I have a yellow ribbon on the mailbox, she’d as soon shoot me as chat me up. Still, if I ever get out of this, I’m definitely going to get reacquainted. She’d be a handful.

I have to say it’s been nice having someone to talk to these past days—though it hasn’t exactly been pleasant for you. Try to understand my position. Well, at least I can loosen the ropes, make you more comfortable.

Monday afternoon. I’m checking my bald spot. Reversion. There are rumors that it causes hair growth, change in libido, increased aggression, depression…who knows? It all sounds like normal life, before the Cure.

But I keep thinking about the rifle: There’s something I’m missing. It shoots bullets. The bullets hit things. Can hit dogs; can hit people. What am I not seeing?

When did I catch you? Let’s see; it was the day after the REC team tagged me. So the yellow ribbon was out—suspected revertant—and yet you came by, anyway. I’m really sorry about what I did. I sort of lost it after they left.

And there you were.

So the REC team will be back tomorrow. If they hang a black ribbon, it means they’ve decided I’m reverting. But can’t you detect if it’s happening to me? You would tell me, wouldn’t you? It would help: We might even escape together. You can go your own way after we’re out. I’ll even give you some food for the road.

Look, I’ll take off your gag—if you promise not to scream. Nobody’ll come even if you do—they’ll call the Reversion Evaluation Centre and that would it for both of us. So just nod. And please be quiet when they’re here, tomorrow. Okay? Good.

Better? No, I can’t untie you. If anybody saw you leave—

Of course I wouldn’t mind having sex with you! You’re very attractive. This threat, this reversion—or should I say, thinking about it—has made me realize how pale my life has been. Still… If the neighbors see you, they’ll rat me out. No. We’re in this together.

Monday evening.

What were they curing with the Cure, anyway? That last respiratory virus? Oh please, not your conspiracy theory, about how the Cure isn’t a disease cure. What? A cure for humanity? What does that even mean?

I’m glad you promised not to make trouble if I let you loose. I felt silly, spoon-feeding you, taking you to the bathroom… It’s much nicer having dinner with you when I only have to worry about spilling on myself.

Do you like the soup? Good. I had a few cans saved.

And I’m glad we can talk about these…impressions I’m getting. Half-remembered truths. No, it’s not like déjà vu. I guess it really is the reversion. If what you told me is true.

Sorry. Why would you lie?

Inviolate: It sounds pretentious, like you should have a halo. You’ve never experienced reversion, since the Cure never did…whatever it’s supposed to do to you. Because you’re Inviolate. What do you think?

Why won’t you tell me? Is it a surprise? A pleasant surprise? Or your conspiracy theory again? Just easier to control the serfs if they’re locked down: Why not keep them that way? Have the drones drop food, keep the net running...What more do we need?

I’m missing something. Take this rifle—no, not literally. Yes, it’s loaded. I can point the rifle at anything I want, so, and put a hole in it.

Well, within reason. I can’t put a hole in a rainbow.

You’re smiling; I like it when you smile. It would have been nice to meet you, without all this…epidemic, or lockdown, or reversion.

So when REC comes tomorrow, if they confirm reversion, then they’ll try to take me. I’ve seen it: You either leave quietly, or you leave in restraints. Or feet first.

Good question. I’ve no idea where they take revertants, or what they do with them. Why?

That’s pretty ambitious. You want to free them—from what? So freedom is important to you. I kind of get it, or I have a glimmering—

What’s wrong with the way I’m holding the gun? Butt on the floor, between my legs, pointing up … Yes, it could be under my chin, but it isn’t. So?

Tomorrow morning…what would you do, if you were me? Fight? Go quietly? I doubt it will help you, either way, so just answer honestly: What would you do? If they take me, they’ll search the house and sterilize it. And you? Well, wouldn’t survive whether or not they found you.

Monday night.

This is nice, lying here with you. It takes my mind off of tomorrow. When I think about it, I feel uneasy. I have no idea what I’ll do. Tomorrow. Should I run away tonight? The funny thing is, I could have said that on any given day, but I’ve never felt this way before.

I’d like to be here to see the children return to play again, but when will that be?

When you said the Cure was intended to relieve suffering, you didn’t mean pain, did you? So you’re saying… pain is in the now, suffering is—

Ah! This anguish without pain is suffering, feelings about something that hasn’t happened yet. Animals don’t suffer. But humans can. And this is how you feel, all the time. (Almost all the time. Glad you weren’t suffering earlier! I enjoyed it too.)

It’s coming back to me like a bad dream: Before the Cure, I was depressed because I worried about the future. How would I live with the world in this state? When would I die? The Cure suppressed all that. I could be like that dog and just trot along until…

So Samuels, up the hill, is living in blithe ignorance. She just eats and fucks and shoots for sport. The Cure tore a page out of her book: the ending.

Now I remember those months after I got the Cure: getting food drops, watching vids, even having sex. I was living, but none of it mattered. Not like tonight. Knowing that tomorrow…

Thank you for coming to me when you saw the yellow ribbon. And I understand what I was missing with the rifle. I have another choice I could make: It didn’t even occur to me yesterday.

But if I’d made that choice, I might not be here with you.


J. L. ROYCE is a published author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. His work appears in Allegory, Ghostlight, Love Letters to Poe, parABnormal, Sci Phi, Stupefying Stories, Utopia, etc. Some of his anthologized stories may be found on Amazon: amazon.com/author/jlroyce.