The (Water) Fountain of Youth

In the end the bolt cutters proved unnecessary, as did the lock pick, the night-vision goggles, the heat-suppressant clothing (one could never be too careful of hidden infrared scanners) and the climbing equipment – complete with grappling hook. All his investment in the accouterments of espionage – utterly wasted. He knew he should have saved those receipts. Still, the accessories might make for a good conversation starter. Or at the very least a killer costume at the antiquity department’s annual Halloween potluck. But he digressed…

You’d think they’d have tighter security on this place, George thought. Or any security, for that matter.

But no. The circular driveway and the large parking lot that flanked it on both sides went un-fenced. The cameras tucked underneath the second-story eaves lacked the telltale red light to indicate active recording, put in place for show rather than actual security measures. But the kicker was the front door: it wasn’t even locked. And not only was it not locked, it was flung wide open! Swaying slightly as it caught the midnight breeze! Tempting any common hooligan (or the errant professor of archaeology) to waltz over the threshold!

For the hiding place of the famed Fountain of Youth, sought for generations by the world’s most intrepid explorers, Public School 916 really needed to improve upon its custodial staff if they couldn’t do so much as to lock the front door on their way out.

George stepped through the open doorway (it really was just gaping open…gaping!) and into the school’s main hallway. Colorful hand-painted posters bedecked the walls, illuminated by low-level lights of the kind seen along the floors of airplane cabins. To his left, on bright yellow poster board, he saw the collected handprints of Mrs. Jones’ second-grade class slapped onto the paper, each one decorated with the child’s name and drawings of some of their favorite things. Farther down, to his right, Mr. David’s sixth-grade class kept a running tally (via hand-drawn thermometer) of how close they were to a fundraising goal for a class field trip (funds currently sat at $647.29).

George tread lightly, cursing the clattering of his heavy, spiked boots that were meant for scaling walls (they’d come half-off with the grappling hook!) as he navigated his way through the school’s maze of hallways, the floor plan clear in his mind. He’d borrowed a blueprint of the building out of city hall, thanks in part to a connection of his with the city planner. Well, “borrowed” might be a generous term. As would “connection.” He’d stolen the plans from the archives on the premise of rekindling the flame with his ex, aka the city planner. She hadn’t taken kindly to the deception, and had had him thrown from the building.

Little did she know he’d have the last laugh when he discovered the blessed waters of immortality, when he proved once and for all that his life’s ambition was not, in fact, “a bunch of malarkey” (her words). She’d be begging him to take her back, then!

But first things first: find the fountain.

How brilliant a plan, to hide the Fountain of Youth in an elementary school, its waters springing forth through an unassuming drinking fountain! Only children would drink from it, and therefore mask the waters’ powers! None would be any the wiser! Unless, of course, you were clever like George. Then you followed the clues, the whispered rumors, all the hidden symbols in the earliest texts regarding the possible location of the Fountain of Youth. And at the end of all of your sleuthing, success! But once again, he was getting ahead of himself. There was still much to be done.

The blueprint, burned into his memory after so much study, told him that if he followed the main hall into the east wing, and down a flight of stairs to where the ground floor met the subterranean level gymnasium, there he would find the Fountain.

At long last George found himself at the top of that self-same stair, a cold draft wafting up from the depths below. The light was dimmer here, the lights only running along the main thoroughfares of the school, but even in the darkness he saw it: the Fountain of Youth, and only a single flight of stairs away.

Throwing caution to the wind, George clambered down the steps, ignoring the ruckus his scaling shoes and the squeaky floorboards made as he descended. It was all he could do to stop himself throwing his arms around the unobtrusive little drinking fountain, tucked into an out of the way corner just outside the gymnasium doors. Finally! The goal of his life-long quest, the hypothesis on which his entire professional reputation hinged – here within his reach! Those who had scoffed at his work would soon eat their words…would soon rue the day that they had ever doubted his genius!

He caressed its façade, feeling every scrape and dent across its surface. What a marvel it was! Even the wads of chewing gum calcified to its underbelly were miraculous to him – how many of those gum-chewers had tasted its waters, been blessed with its power and been none the wiser?

Finally, his hands moved to the spout itself, the button well-worn with age. What must it taste like? He couldn’t imagine. How could any mortal being imagine the taste of immortality? The notion was so far removed from the capacity of human understanding that it defied comprehension. Until now that is.

He pressed the button down, a small trickle of water barely escaping the tap. More brilliance! Only the most desperately thirsty would try to steal a drink from this. One would have to put one’s mouth directly on the spout to get any water at all. But George was willing risk a long-dormant strain of the common cold to get just a taste of his life’s passion.

He lowered his head toward the gurgling font.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

George spun on his heel, heart jackhammering against his ribcage. He had been so sure the school was deserted apart from himself…had he been so caught up in his discovery that he hadn’t heard the approach of another set of footsteps? His eyes, still not fully adjusted to the darkness at the base of the stairs, scanned up and down the steps. He didn’t have to search for long to see who had spoken.

Silhouetted at the top of the stairs, a young boy stared down at him, twiggy arms crossed across his chest. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old.

“I beg your pardon?” asked George, lingering shock and surprise making his voice shake more than he liked.

“You really shouldn’t drink from that,” the boy continued as he started down the steps. His frame was so small and light that the old wooden boards barely squeaked a protest under his weight. “Whatever you think you’re going to get from that fountain, it won’t be what you imagined. Trust me.”

The boy’s voice was so bold, his words so pointed and direct – it didn’t match at all with his youthful countenance. Nor did his confident stride down the staircase match with the gangly, unwieldy look of a young boy on the cusp of a growth spurt. George couldn’t explain exactly why he found the child so disconcerting. He just knew that something was…off…about the boy.

George recovered his composure as best he could. “What…what may I ask are you doing here, young man? Surely you should be home at this hour?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” the boy countered. He had reached the bottom steps and strode toward the fountain, stopping right beside George. The top of the child’s head barely reached his belly button. “But then again, I already know why you’re here. It’s the same reason everyone breaks into this god-forsaken place. Is it too much to ask for a little variety in the burglaries here? But no, always the exact same thing. There is just no originality in the world anymore. Alas.”

Of the many odd words to come from the strange boy’s mouth, George’s mind latched onto one sentiment more than the others and his heart rate quickened, panicking. “Everyone who breaks in…? How many…how many more before me have snuck in here before?” And here he was, thinking he’d been so clever in finding this place!

The boy shot him a pitying look. “You think you’re the first person to seek out the Fountain of Youth within these halls? To be tempted by its promise of life eternal? I’ve lost count after so many years. Why do you think we started leaving the front door unlocked? The number of broken latches and busted hinges we’ve had to replace over the years would make your head swim. No, best to let people let themselves in and be done with it.”

“But…but…” George spluttered, “…how could you possibly know this? You’re just a kid!”

The boy lifted one arched eyebrow, and suddenly George understood.

“Wait, you…you’ve drunk from the fountain, haven’t you? You have!” he exclaimed, his excitement growing. Not only had he found the Fountain of Youth, but he had living proof before him that it worked! That its waters truly could turn back the clock! Everything about the child’s demeanor suddenly made perfect sense. Talk about mature beyond his years! His youthful body belied the magical secret of his true age!

The boy – no, the man! – studied George with something like pity in his eyes. “Yes, I have drunk from the immortal waters. I, like you, sought to fight against Time’s intractable march forward into the abyss. And I have regretted my choice ever since.”

“Regretted your choice?! My dear man, how could you possibly regret a second chance at life?” True, turning the clock back to his adolescence wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind, which seemed to be the case if the boy before him was any indication. There were parts of George’s youth and his growing up that he’d rather not revisit, but he determined it was a small price to pay for an additional forty…fifty…sixty years to his life!

“Have you ever heard of the phrase, ‘Be careful what you wish for?’”

George scoffed. “I’ve studied the lore surrounding the Fountain of Youth for my entire professional life. I think I know what I’m doing!” He turned toward the fountain, his hand reaching for the button, itching to push it.

“I too devoted my life to the study and discovery of the Fountain. I too thought I knew more than those who had experienced the waters’ powers first hand. I was a fool. Before you make your choice, let me ask you one question: how old do you think I am?”

George ignored him as he pressed the button and lowered his mouth the font’s spout. He would not be intimidated. He would not be talked out of his life’s passion and goal, not when it was literally at his fingertips. The person before him might regret having to go through the pangs of youth a second time, but those years would pass soon enough. And then he’d have a second shot at the prime of his life! Oh, he would do things so much differently this time around.

The water gurgled out from the spout in erratic bursts. George wrapped his mouth around it and drank deep.

In the coming years he could never quite explain what happened next. All he could ever remember was a rush of a million different sensations, some pleasurable and some painful, and the feeling that he was falling…falling…falling…

The first concrete memory he had after taking that fateful sip from the Fountain of Youth was the boy looking down at him, for he now towered above George and looked upon him with pity in his eyes. “I told you that you’d regret it. I’ve told them all. But no one ever listens.”

George opened his mouth to reply, to contradict the boy looming over him. But all that came out was a high-pitched gurgle. He tried again, but the only noises he could produce were nonsensical babbling, almost musical in their sound. It was almost as if he had forgotten how to form words.

Or at least, his body had forgotten it had ever known how to form words.

“To answer my question,” the boy said in response to George’s baby talk, looking down upon his newly infantile form that now swum in what had once been a well-fitting suit of clothes, “I am two-hundred and eighty-seven. And it has taken exactly that long to regain the appearance of an eight-year-old child.” He sighed as he picked up George, using the old, fallen clothes as swaddling for the old-turned-new infant. “I did try to warn you. I just hope you remember that in the coming years.”

George heard soft footfalls along the upper hallway. His range of motion diminished in his new body, he could not look to see the newcomer, though the boy who carried him turned his head to look up the steps.

“Another one?” a high-pitched voice asked. George thought it sounded female, though the voice was so young that he couldn’t be certain.

“Yes. Unfortunately. Why do they never listen?”

“We try our best. That’s all we can do in the end.”

“I suppose,” said the boy as he climbed the stairs. When he reached the top he handed George over to a girl who appeared even younger than the boy. “Susan, could you take him and put him with the others? I should keep doing rounds. Make sure no one else tries the same thing tonight.”

“Of course,” said Susan.

With that the boy stalked off down another hall, and Susan carried George back the way he’d come it – back towards the front of the school. Or so George guessed. From his position in Susan’s arms his only real view was of the dappled ceiling tiles above him. Eventually her gait slowed as she halted before a door, above which a sign hung labeled “Nurse’s Office”. Susan carried George through that door, then another, then another, then finally down a flight of stairs into a pleasantly warm, cloistered room.

George could hear the soft cooing and babble of dozens of other infants, drifting to his ears from rows and rows of bassinets. Susan found an empty one and gently laid him into it.

“Don’t worry, we’ll look after you,” she whispered. “I have to go see where John has got to, but we’ll be back shortly.”

And so she left George in his bassinet.

And there he stayed for years and years and years, tended to by John and Susan and eventually others, as they aged out of their cribs and into the more functional bodies of toddlers. Until eventually he too escaped the prison of his infant’s body and took on his own responsibility in caring for the newcomers too rash and foolish, as he had been, to listen to their warning against the shining fever dream of eternal youth.

Be careful what you wish for, indeed.

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