Vern read the article no less than three times, then set the paper down on the table next to his half-eaten breakfast. Why was this in the B-section? “I don’t know which is more incredible,” he spoke aloud to the empty chair across from him, “the fact that they can make you younger, or the fact that this is not on the front page!” The empty air seemed to nod in agreement with Vern.
He gazed out the kitchen window for several minutes in sun-dappled silence. There were no animals to feed. There was no work to do. His shoes were on. The mental checklist of self-discipline that had served him so well was falling into a state of disrepair. There were no letters to write. No car to wash. The garbage had been taken out by the little boy next door who came by every morning on his way to school – or was it work? Did Danny have a job now? Yes, that was it – on his way to work. But Vern did not have a job, and hadn’t for many years. The grandchildren were back to school now, and the house was once again silent – probably until Thanksgiving. Vern was bored. And there was no reason he could think of why he should not call that company right now. No reason at all, except that there was no contact information in the article…
* * *
It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that Vern got his first real lead into locating the Fountain of Youth. Knock, knock, knock, at the door. “Who’s there?”
“Come in, come in. Let me get you the money.” Vern left the young man in the foyer and stepped into the next room. “Are you on foot?” he asked.
“No, sir, I drove my car. We get paid mileage for doing deliveries. It works out pretty well.”
“You get around, then? I don’t suppose you ever deliver to Fountain of Youth, do you?”
“Umm, no.” The pizza guy was looking down, fingers pecking at his phone, when Vern reappeared. “You mean the massage place in Hollywood? That would be out of my territory – we only deliver as far inland as Beverly Hills.”
Vern was laughing, holding the cash out, “No! Although I may look them up, too! No, there’s an outfit called ‘Fountain of Youth, Inc.’ It’s a medical group.”
“Yeah,” fingers still flicking the face of the small device, “I see them in Torrance. Yelp has a phone number, but no street address…”
Vern’s hand dropped to his side. “Could you read that to me?” The kid looked so young, so casual, so unconcerned. The phone book had failed to turn up anything. So had calls to his doctor, and to Directory Assistance. Vern had even tried calling the paper, but that had gotten him nowhere. However, a pizza driver with a smartphone had found the company on the Internet in less than two minutes. The boy only shrugged and said “Sure. It’s 310-555-3468. But it’s only got 2 out of 5 stars and looks like the reviews kinda suck.”
* * *
“I’m profoundly glad to meet you!” accompanied the generous handshake in the office of one Rosner Jobe. “Most people just call me ‘Jobe,’ since they say my first and last names sound reversed. Please take a seat…take a seat my friend!”
The office was simple, but well appointed. Black velvet drapes were breaking over a fiery cherry wood floor, with white casings and cream walls lending a stately feel to the place. It reminded Vern of a law office, rather than a clinic. There was a pond visible through French doors, over a veranda…
“Was the ride to Torrance okay?” Jobe asked. “The driver took care of you?”
Vern’s attention was drawn back to the room. “Yes, yes, of course. I was a little surprised. I called to ask some questions, you see, but they asked so many of me over the phone that I never got anywhere with mine. Next thing I know, they made this appointment, for… what is this appointment for again?”
Rosner Jobe had the kind of smile that might bring an early spring, and he was quick to brighten. Although he must have been in his late fifties, he wore a mainstream hipster haircut that one might expect on a man half his age. “This appointment, Vern Wilson, is your evaluation. I’d like to stress the word ‘your.’ I will answer any questions you have to the very best of my ability. Where would you like to start?”
Vern considered this a moment. “Well, I suppose I have one big question, really. Can you actually make me young again?”
A reassuring grin this time. “Mr. Wilson – that is exactly what we will be discussing.” Jobe touched a panel on his desk, and fixed his gaze on Vern’s face. “The questions they asked during your phone interview are intended to screen out unqualified prospects. You have passed that gate. Now that you’re here with me, I will be asking questions designed to match you up with our services. There are many questions, my friend, but we can take a break any time you like. If you want to stand up, move around, use the restroom, get a drink… I want you to feel perfectly comfortable. Ready?”
“Excellent! According to the phone interview, you are eighty-seven years old. Health is good. No heart problems, no history of cancer, no major surgeries. Correct?”
“All of this is true for immediate family as well. No family history of long-term illnesses. Correct?”
“No hypertension or other blood pressure issues?”
“What the heck is that?”
Jobe grinned. “You’d know, if it was in your family. Have any of your relatives, as far as you are aware, ever been told that they have a genetic disorder of any kind?”
Vern contemplated a moment. “Not that I can think of.”
“Good! No brain issues – Alzheimer’s, dementia, or such?”
“Well, my memory is a bit slow to respond sometimes…”
Jobe let his hands rest on the desk for a moment, fingertips touching lightly in a steeple. “That’s different. When you’ve had a full life, sir, your brain gets very full, too. Ever try to get a can of soup out of a very full cupboard? Well, that took a little shuffling around, right? We won’t worry about that kind of thing.”
Vern smiled at the soup can metaphor.
“How many children do you have, Mr. Wilson?”
“Ray’s fifty-five, I think. Could be fifty-six…” Vern’s brows knit as he tried to recall his son’s birth year.
“Great. What does Ray do for a living?”
“He’s a veterinarian. He has his own shop now, in Pasadena.”
“I bet he’s like his father – responsible, thrifty, saving for retirement, that kind of thing…?”
“Yes, I taught my boy to live beneath his means. He even paid for most of his college with money he saved in high school.”
“That’s fantastic! You must be very proud of him. Did he inherit your good health, too?”
“I am, and I suppose he did. I have a question…”
The tiniest pause in Jobe’s smile this time. “Sure, Mr. Wilson. Ask away!”
“What kind of procedure are we looking at? Will I be taking medicine, or is there surgery? Is this some kind of therapy? Will it continue on and on?” Vern was clearly beginning to worry about the process itself.
Jobe seemed relieved. “Mr. Wilson.” A mock stern look, both hands flat on the table. “Let’s you and I get some fresh air.”
Once upon the veranda, Vern realized that the “pond” was more of a reflecting pool. Neat, marble-capped borders were planted with native reeds and marsh grasses, creating a semi-natural effect. Like a tamed version of nature, very organic, but orderly.
Jobe produced bottles of water from a refrigerated box near the rail. “Mr Wilson,” he began, “that was more than one question.” A chuckle seemed to dance in Jobe’s eyes, though his lips were pursed. “What if I told you that none of those things would happen to you? Would that ease your concern? I can assure you that you have nothing to worry about, for reasons which will become clear to you very soon.”
Vern sat down in a chair that seemed to appear behind him. It was like a weight suddenly had been lifted from his shoulders. Without realizing it, Vern had been brooding over this whole thing, slowly becoming more and more fearful in the four days since he had made that call. He had been concerned over the procedure. He had wondered what sort of poking and prodding he would be subjected too. But every year was getting shorter, while every hour got longer. Vern had clung to his resolve – determined that any price would be worth it, if he could just go back in time…
After a long moment of silence, “You can feel it, can’t you?” Jobe’s voice was ethereal, like an angel, while the sun behind him gave the appearance of a halo around his tousled locks. “We haven’t done anything to you – nothing at all – but you can feel the waves of youth coursing through your veins.” Vern was entranced. “Mr. Wilson, there is much more to age than time. Much, much more. Time is like a map. If you follow the map, you will go places, it’s true. The branches in the roads – eddies, currents, and tidal forces; choices, opportunities, regrets for the road not taken. One day, the map is fresh, clean, and new; another, the map is stained, wrinkled, and won’t fold up. Time has passed, and the map has been crisscrossed a thousand times. But going places is not what makes following the map interesting. It’s what you take. The thing that makes it interesting is what you have with you. It is not the car seat that wears the holes in your pants, my friend – look at the shapes of the holes! It’s the stuff in your pockets! You can travel all over the world, brother, but the thing that changes is not the world, or even the map – it’s you. In some cases,” Jobe was leaning forward now, still touching the rail, but bent at the middle to get closer to Vern’s chair, “this kind of change can happen without traversing the map at all.”
Vern made a conscious decision to close his mouth.
“You know what I mean, don’t you, Mr. Wilson? You can be young again, without any help from us. Young inside.”
“Then, is this a trick? You don’t really have the technology…?”
“I didn’t say that.” Jobe straightened up, and half turned to gaze at the wall beyond the reflecting pool, where the purple trumpet vines were just beginning to lose their flowers. “We have the technology, alright. We can do exactly what that article said.” He turned back to face Vern. “In fact, I think we can help you, but it will not be what you came here hoping to find.”
Vern was feeling somewhat confused, but the smiling face, and uber-friendly demeanor of his host had put him at ease. He waited.
“Mr. Wilson, the miracles we perform take time. They take eleven years, to be exact, plus another seven years of adjustment. While it’s true that your health is very good, I cannot say with any certainty that it is sufficient to hold out long enough to take advantage of our service. That is only part of the bad news. The other part is that you cannot afford it. While you have retired well, you possess less than one quarter of the required capital.”
This was spoken with such a matter-of-fact tone that Vern almost missed the indication that he would not be able to get what he came for – what he had so fervently hoped for. Then Jobe continued.
“But there is good news. You are the kind of man we are looking for. We will work with you, and you will find that everything we’ve told you is true. The Fountain of Youth will be given to you, and you will feel it quicken your pulse. It will breathe new life into you, and quiet the creak of your aging bones. But you will not drink from the Fountain yourself – you will pass it on to your son.”
* * *
Ray Wilson was slightly taller than his father, although this had only been apparent in recent years. He stood up and began pacing the short length of his living room. He turned to face the other three. “Why haven’t I heard of this? This sounds like a scam. Why isn’t everyone doing it?”
The brief pause that followed was intentional. Everything had been discussed in advance, and this question had been anticipated. It was Joshua Rentin, founder and advocate, who defended Fountain of Youth, Inc.
“Mr. Wilson,” he began with a carefully calculated sigh, “please believe me when I say that I know how this sounds. People have been searching for a magical fountain of youth for centuries, with no luck. Now that we have the technology, why isn’t it mainstream? Why is it not advertised on every channel? How come the major news outlets are not flinging feature stories in every direction? I truly wish it could be so, but it is not.” Joshua paused to look around the room. Rosner Jobe sat placidly, his beaming smile on idle for the moment. Vern Wilson was enthralled, anxious to jump in and market this opportunity to Ray, but restrained by his promise to withhold evangelizing until the end of the presentation.
Joshua continued. “The best way to help you understand is to explain the process, and how we got to where we are now. What we will do, Mr. Wilson, is to clone you a new body. When the body is ready, we perform a brain transplant, putting your current brain in your new body. Everything that makes you ‘you,’ gets trans –“
“Isn’t this illegal?” Ray interrupted. He looked quickly back and forth at Jobe and Joshua. “I mean, cloning humans was outlawed before it was even possible. There’s no way you could be doing it in this country. Are we going overseas to do this, or…?”
“You are, in part, correct.” Joshua Rentin conveyed sympathy with his voice, but his face remained stern. “There are ethical concerns, which is one reason for our lack of advertising. Our only ‘marketing’ is the occasional press release, and that – well, we intentionally spin that to sound like a scam. To be blunt, it keeps the protesters off our backs. As long as they think we’re fakes, they aren’t concerned.”
“But, the law…”
“Yes, you are correct when you say that ‘cloning humans is illegal.’ We have a loophole. As currently defined, a ‘human’ is not only the physical body, but must include a mind. If there is no mind, and no potential for one to develop, then the body cannot – for legal purposes – be considered human. Your cloned body will not actually have any higher brain functions, we’ll see to that. The first ‘mind’ to occupy your new body will be the one that you carry with you right now, or rather, just over eleven years from now.”
There was a pause, designed to allow the new information to sink in. Ray sat down, his thoughts settling, but with new questions beginning to form. Jobe was watching Ray’s face, observing this marker. He glanced quickly at Joshua, and stepped in with the next phase of discussion.
Now it was Jobe’s turn to play his hand. “Imagine,” Jobe’s face conveyed awe, his quiet tone sifted by the evening air, “just imagine standing at the beginning of your life, and looking forward – not with the undisciplined, meaningless mind of a child – but with your adult mind.” He stood, and moved slowly about the room. “You will be eleven years old. For all intents and purposes, it will be for the first time – all debts, regrets, and everything you own will be gone. It will be like a tornado came and wiped your life off the face of the planet. But you – the person who sits in that chair – will have been blown to Oz. You will begin the trip down that Yellow Brick Road, but this time, you will already know the way.”
Another pause. Ray looked as though he would speak, but seemed to think better of it. He took a sip of tea, his brows furrowing.
Jobe continued. “I know this is quite a bit to digest.” Nodding thoughtfully. “It feels like you would be giving up your life. But you are not – you are transforming into a new being. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, you become an entirely new creature. People often assume that you would simply continue your current life, but doing so in a new body. My friend, this is not the case at all. You will remember your previous life; that’s part of the fun. But once you leave it and start anew, you will find that you don’t actually think about it. Human nature is such that once we shed the old life, we no longer care about it. Yes, you will give up all attachments: all friends, all property, even your name. It’s a Buddhist’s dream, I suppose, but it’s just a side effect of the process. There are no regrets. You really, really feel like you are at the beginning, but this second time through you have all of your previous knowledge to draw on. It’s a bit like having a superpower; because of your lifetime of experience, you will have a huge advantage over your peers.”
“Peers?” Ray was suddenly electric. “Like, kids? You don’t mean I’ll be back in middle-school….?”
One of Jobe’s winning smiles rewarded Ray’s panicky tone. But at this juncture it was Joshua who stepped in. “You can attend school, if you like, but I suspect you will not. After the surgical portion, the brain transplant, there will be a period of adjustment. This takes years, and you will be placed in a foster home. It’s all included, and part of the process. Your foster family will know what you have been through, but they will treat you as a child. This is actually very, very important. You see, Mr. Wilson, for this procedure to work, the brain must experience puberty in the new body. Post-puberty transplants always fail. Our procedure involves administering drugs which enhance the body’s natural brain development capacity during puberty. By roughly age eighteen, you will be completely adjusted.”
“You never answered my first question: Why isn’t everyone doing this? There are plenty of people with cash. I know they would pay.”
“You are quite right.” Joshua now chose to address the question directly. “Our predecessors once had the same thought: wealthy people would certainly pay a fair price for the opportunity to be young again. The scientists who developed the technology were prepared to go down that path. Unfortunately, this thing we have here, it’s not like other medical procedures. This is much more complex than simply resetting the dial on your life’s timer.
“There are other issues. For starters, there would be public outcry. Imagine if the Fountain of Youth were simply the providence of the very rich.” There were a few nods around the little table. “Once the FDA was involved, they would put a moratorium on the procedure, pending ‘research.’ Pretty soon, the original team would have the IRS at the door, asking questions about inheritance, property ownership, various portions of the tax code that would be – or could be – affected. Then there would be altogether new ideas to explore. Like adoption – could a son adopt his now teenaged father, and put him as a dependent on his health insurance? Too many questions. By the time I came along and formed Fountain of Youth, Inc, the outlook was fairly dim. Jobe here is the one who struck a deal with the government, and that’s why we operate the way we do today – select cases, chosen from the middle class only. We have a deal with the Feds. They let us perform the procedure, but only under strict conditions.”
Jobe slid in from the side. “Yes, there are rules, but I think we can all see the benefits: society wins, the child wins, and the parent wins. It’s like a baseball game in which certain, select players are allowed to run the bases twice. The scores go up, hot dog sales go up, the fans are happy, the coaches shake each other’s hands with well-earned congratulations. But in this case the other players don’t know the difference. No one will be able to tell that you are rejuvenated. Your father, Vern, has brought us here today to offer you this gift, including his own nest egg as a substantial portion of the payment.”
Vern saw his cue coming just in time to gather his words, yet – in spite of the coaching he had received – he found that he need only say what he really felt. “Ray, you are my legacy to the world. Like every parent, I want the best for you. I want you to have the things I never could. My time is over – or will be, before long. Just knowing that I could help give you… this chance, well, it would…” Vern ended his plea with a small sob, which drifted across the coffee table to his son, who picked it up and held it close to his chest.
The deal was closed. There were no questions left. Ray signed the preliminary proposal, and was promised a detailed contract within the week.
* * *
They sat on the veranda, having drinks in the artificially cool afternoon. Joshua looked at Jobe over the tops of his glasses, eyebrows raised. “So how did Wilson pencil out?”
“Quite well.” Jobe touched a panel on the bar. “In fact, you are going to love this. Between the portfolios of Mr. senior and Mr. junior, our fixed costs for the procedure itself are covered, with a bit of cushion. My ongoing negotiations with the IRS finally paid off, and they are dropping the disbursement tax. For legal purposes, Fountain of Youth is now essentially a retirement plan – 401(k) funds and such can be transferred to us with no penalty.” A round of grins. “Junior agreed to continue working in his current life to age sixty-seven, and the Feds gave us full credit for all of his anticipated Medicare, VA and Social Security benefits, which he will no longer need. They’re writing us a check for three million, seven hundred ninety-eight thousand, three hundred ten… and… sixteen cents. This will more than cover the foster home for junior, until he grows up and gets back in the game. In fact, we should be at least a million in the black on that part, probably much more. But our real profit comes from junior himself: He agreed to give us a little note, for nine hundred thousand dollars. Once we factor in the interest accrued during his new childhood and the contractual adjustments tied to inflation, and because this is amortized over the expected period to his earliest retirement at fifty-five, he will have actually paid out about four million bucks. Of course I’ve already sold the loan, so we’ll have that cash about thirty days from now.” He looked up from the screen, touched it dark.
Joshua turned in his barstool and leaned back against the counter. A waning crescent was rippling in the blue sky of the reflecting pool. “Dad really sold it, you know. We may have had Ray Wilson on the merits of our pitch, but Mr. senior put him solidly in the game.”
“Yes, I’d say several million solid,” said Jobe. “This is the biggest haul yet, you know. With our cost going down on each new contract, we’ve done pretty well on this one.”
Joshua was mildly indignant. “‘Biggest haul’? You make it sound like a swindle.”
Jobe looked at his business partner, paused briefly and then said, “Just because a story is true, my friend, does not make it real.”
Joshua shot back, “He will live a new life. Just like we told him.”
“He will be a slave,” Jobe replied, raising his glass in mock toast.
“Of whom? No one will own this man.”
“You know as well as I do – if our projections are correct, he will forget the pain of losing his well-earned retirement, and do this again in fifty-four years. Only next time he will go deeper into debt to do it.”
“Yes, and again, and again after that. But every time, his reward will be youth – he will not have to endure the wasting away in retirement that others do.”
Jobe’s face held no trace of a smile. “Then why don’t you do it, Josh?”
On the far edge of the reflecting pool, the silvery moon was setting behind the inverted wall, while purple trumpets heralded its retreat.