“Be afraid of the lame, they’ll inherit your legs. Be afraid of the old, they’ll inherit your soul.” - Regina Spektor, Apres Moi
Wilbur took the small package from the concierge and opened it immediately. A cellophane DVD case with a Spanish title fell out, along with a brief note from his grandson:
Grandpa, I hope you like this movie. It’s beautiful. Put on the subtitles, or you’ll have no idea what’s happening. Dr. Hurston says I can visit you for Christmas as long as you’re taking your meds. See you then. Eight p.m. sharp. Love, Chris
Chris studied film at the university in Boulder and he was always bringing or sending weird, sometimes foreign, movies that Wilbur didn’t understand. Most of the time they confused him, but he still loved each one. They dredged up forgotten desires, made him more human, kept him from the black void of nothingness. Sometimes Chris brought wonderfully bizarre documentaries that stirred up Wilbur’s imagination. There had been one about the Sailing Stones of Death Valley, for which there was no scientific explanation, and another about ancient Peruvian and Egyptian carvings of rocket ships and light bulbs.
He preferred watching the movies with Chris, but Wilbur’s stage-one zombosis was acting up. Two years into this strange epidemic, his grandson had finally wised up and decided not to take unnecessary risks. Following his twenty-first birthday last year, Chris found a few gray hairs and became paranoid about old age and zombosis.
At least this would save them both embarrassment. During flare-ups, Wilbur would sometimes lose the function of his tongue and vocal cords, and he would drool. Once, he had forgotten about his recent diagnosis and he had gone to plant a kiss on Chris’s cheek. Chris stepped away and Wilbur’s face burned.
So Wilbur went upstairs to watch the movie alone in his medium-sized apartment at St. Raphael the Archangel’s Assisted Living Home, while Franny napped across the room in her twin bed. Wilbur’s blurred vision could hardly make out the English subtitles, so he surrendered to the sibilant Spanish sounds, letting soft images melt and wrap him in gossamer cinemagic: beautiful bodies and moving limbs, a girl dancing ballet, a car accident, a hospital. Then, a black-and-white movie within the movie called The Incredible Shrinking Man. Only after the shrinking man disappeared inside his girlfriend’s vagina had Wilbur returned to his body, which felt young, hungry, and hard.
Wilbur turned off the movie and paced the room, thinking about that three letter word. Sex. He shook his head. He was not supposed to think about sex. How long had it been since he and Franny had even been naked together? Living together, sharing nothing, they were more siblings than lovers. How much of the reason was just old age? How much was her stage three zombosis infection? He leaned over her sleeping form to kiss her forehead, her eyes fluttered open and her dark brown eyes stared at him. She almost seemed herself. She smiled and kissed him: a chaste peck of the lips. Outside, the snow was swirling, but a faint smell of floral perfume washed over him, and—
It was the second night of their honeymoon in San Juan, which had seemed dangerous and exotic. There were red blooms everywhere, yawning hugely and reeking with scent. Wilbur took Franny to a club, where they salsaed all night with great gusto and no skill. It was hot and they soon sweated through their clothes, but he knew if he stopped, some debonair Puerto Rican might swoop in and really dance with her.
When they finally rested, they drank too much, sharing tequila shots and mojitos. Franny fell asleep at the bar and a dog-tired Wilbur carried her to their rented bungalow, stumbling up the steps. They slept all morning, then shared iced tea in the bathtub. He washed her silky brown hair with sweet hibiscus soap and she kissed his toes. He recalled her giggled discovery that her feet were just bigger than his. The water was cold when they emerged from the tub, but the smell of hibiscus lingered.
Wilbur felt a surge of excitement as he remembered how they used to surprise each other with kisses down the spine, a long track that led to beautiful places. Heedless of interceding years and fragile skin, he mounted her historic, timeless body. He kissed her and cradled her head, not noticing her faltering smile. Surely Franny’s mind was popping with spectacular memories too…
Their big-band wedding in Chicago, their fifth anniversary in the big white hotel with a clear blue pool and expensive swim-up bar; nights of fishing in the old rowboat on the lake in Michigan, drinking lemonade mixed with her father’s rough 100 proof moonshine.
Wilbur had climaxed more quickly than expected. Coming back to the present, Franny’s terrified face, framed in lank gray curls, confronted him. The spark of tenderness had left her face. Instead, she looked like a strained fishing net that kept coming up empty. Her tense body was trying to throw him off. She clawed weakly at his arms and mouthed a silent protest. Concerned, he gently lifted himself off her, and there was a sucking sound as her desperate lungs filled with air. She gasped a few times and then let out a piercing scream that rent the air. Wilbur jumped back nervously, straightened his pajamas and flattened his hair.
“Shh, shh,” he said, anything to make her stop screaming. He covered her legs with her blanket, then sat anxiously in his comforter, knowing someone would be there soon to investigate the noise.
“Him! Him! Him!” Franny shrieked, sitting up and punctuating each accusation by stabbing her forefinger toward Wilbur. Her thin voice was edged with fright. Feeling sick, he realized the slight oxygen deprivation followed by a sudden increase in oxygen supply must have shocked her system and pushed her over the edge. Now she was having a zombotic episode.
“What happened, Wilbur?” It was Azeb, the strange, turban-clad African lady.
Wilbur felt like a schoolboy, his face red and hot. He loved Franny very much and he hadn’t meant to scare her. Now he knew she would have to be strapped down for days, potentially contagious as her eyes ran with blood, her eyesight and vocal ability disabled. All her senses, even tactile and olfactory, would be dulled. Nothing would function, and she would be overcome by an enormous appetite.
He had to lie.
“Well, I don’t know, do I? I was just sitting here watching a movie, and she sits up and starts screaming. She probably had a nightmare again.” He was surprised at how clearly he could speak. The zombosis must have released its hold on him as it clutched onto Franny.
“I didn’t know Francis had nightmares,” was all Azeb said.
Wilbur watched out of the corner of his eye as Azeb laid a still-shaking Franny down and straightened her rumpled clothes. She lifted the quilts, smoothing the nightgown, then flicked on the light and leaned down for a moment. As she went rigid, Wilbur realized the bed must still be wet with tell-tale signs of their love-making. Azeb glanced at him, then started to clean the sheets and change Franny’s nightgown, before strapping her in securely with Velcro straps.
“Francis seems scared. We should let her sleep,” Azeb said. “Come down to the kitchen and I’ll make you some hot cocoa.”
Squirming and sad, Wilbur followed her downstairs. The next day, someone moved Franny to the high-security section of St. Raphael’s. Nobody could tell him the entry code, so he spent empty hours in his room. The caregivers wheeled Franny to his table for meals, but she was unresponsive, raving and foaming at the mouth. They claimed she didn’t need food, because they gave her all her food through an IV.
There were plenty of rumors about those IVs. Some said the caregivers were feeding the zombosi a mixture of fresh cat meat and human blood, feeding the strange symptoms and desire to consume live flesh. Others said that the caregivers were part of a secret government or pharmaceutical company plot to research unsuspecting elderly, with no regard to their survival.
Maybe the IV put nutrients in, they said, but it took blood samples for a biological weapon that could be launched at the New Soviet Union or Iran. Wilbur thought it was more likely that the caregivers were not actually treating or feeding the zombosi, but secretly hoping they would starve. He supposed the drug companies might have caused the zombosis health crisis, but he didn’t think they could cure the new-age pandemic that was spreading throughout the globe—everywhere but Africa, the rumors said.
Franny’s hands were tied securely to her chair. Wilbur, moved to pity by her immobility, occasionally put bacon or red grapes or spoonfuls of chocolate ice cream—her favorite—in her mouth. The creature inside her that was zombosis wouldn’t accept or digest the ice cream, and it dribbled down her aproned front. The grapes, too, popped out, partly chewed. She ate the bacon, mechanically, with no pleasure, and he felt tears drip down his face.
As the holidays approached, Wilbur tried to ignore his loneliness, looking forward solely to Chris’s visit, the only one he expected this Christmas. The rest of the family disapproved of Chris’s constant contact with his grandparents. Though the method of transmission had not be clearly identified—nor even a pathogen or virus, it was commonly assumed that the old were contagious. Everyone feared old age and zombosis.
As he waited for Chris, Wilbur tried to not watch the visits between the old and the few family members who came covered in veils and medical masks. To Wilbur and the other old ones, the space between them and the young ones seemed empty and insurmountable. To the guilt-ridden, fearful young, an hour-long pity visit probably felt endless. Instead, Wilbur began checking his watch: 7:55…7:56…7:56…7:57…
Promptly at eight, Chris appeared, carrying a six pack of Coronas and a DVD case.
“Hi, Grandpa.” Chris hugged him and, for the first time in a very long time, kissed Wilbur’s weathered cheek. “I brought a movie my film class watched last week. It’s on the strange side, but I know you’ll love it.”
Wilbur took the beer and proudly guided his grandson to the elevator, grateful that Chris was not like others, that he still had packages and movie nights to look forward to.
“I’ll watch this right now. Will you stay and watch with me?” he asked Chris as they went to his room.
“Of course, Grandpa. Someone’s got to help you polish off these beers,” he said.
“When did you get to be old enough to start drinking?” Wilbur asked.
“Last year, Grandpa,” Chris smiled.
They opened a couple of cheerful-looking bottles while they waited for a caregiver to bring Franny. Azeb brought her in and parked her in front of the TV, beside Chris’s chair. Chris thanked her, then turned to Franny. He boldly kissed her forehead and talked quietly to her. She recognized Chris when she recognized nobody else. Wilbur looked on wistfully as she smiled into their grandson’s eyes.
Chris put in Cocoon, easily navigating the DVD player that often defeated Wilbur. The movie, about shriveled old people who find the fountain of youth, sucked Wilbur in. Intoxicated by this idea, he barely noticed when Chris bid him a merry Christmas and Azeb came took Franny away.
That night Wilbur dreamed of bathing with Franny in a Puerto Rican mountain spring as they grew younger and younger, unaging as they splashed water at each other. The zombosis, black as tar, drained away, leaving her as lithe as when they first met. This time she didn’t shrink from his embrace. He woke too early, feeling pent-up and lonely, and grasping at the previous night’s chance for salvation. Why shouldn’t it be real? This is St. Raphael’s, the saint of healing. All things shall be made new again, he recited, not sure where that particular phrase came from.
He trotted down to breakfast and thought about the fountain of youth over burnt bacon and soupy oatmeal. He had heard about health-nuts in Portland and Sedona who floated in sensory deprivation tanks to heal chronic illnesses. There were many hot springs here in Colorado; maybe he should visit all of them. His spirits deflated when he realized his zombosis symptoms would bar him from these public places. But still, they were real and that was what mattered. Now that he thought of it, he had seen documentaries about natural wellsprings of health…places where the earth’s mystical ley lines and magnetic fields aligned to heal the body and spirit.
By the time he left the dining room, he had convinced himself the movie about the fountain of youth was a documentary and that he should find it. When the medic brought his usual fistful of rainbow-colored pills, he made his first move. He had long suspected the drugs contributed to his vision loss and confusion, possibly even the Z symptoms. He would need all his wits to find the fountain of youth, and Franny was depending on him, even if she didn’t know it. He surreptitiously stashed the pills in the pocket of his trousers.
“Wilbur,” the medic said, making him jump. “The doctor needs to see you upstairs.”
With a pounding heart, Wilbur went upstairs and sat outside the health office. As he waited, he heard snippets of the doctor’s whispered conversation with the nurses.
“—they’re the only way to control the burgeoning elderly population—”
“—contagious. They’re a hazard to us. How do you think we feel, working here without even hazard pay?”
“That’s why we have to control the antibiotics. For you all. You must keep the source hidden… guard it.”
“We don’t have enough workers to guard it. Besides, you really think anyone would believe they’d find a cure? Around here? It’s safe enough where it is.”
After more hushed arguing, a nurse came for him.
“The doctor will see you now.”
The doctor didn’t say anything until after she’d checked Wilbur’s heat beat and blood pressure.
“Well, you’re looking really good, Wilbur. Your vitals are good, but your heart rate’s a little high. You’ve been taking your meds regularly?”
“Like clockwork,” Wilbur lied.
“Good. Make sure you keep taking them.”
Then he went for a walk around the building to think. The movie featured extraterrestrials, but Wilbur had never believed in them. Now he was more certain the fountain of youth was what the pharmaceutical companies or government was hiding. He would find it, and he would start by looking around St. Raphael’s. Then he would take Franny there and cure them both of this horrible disease that had apparently been unleashed to warehouse the old.
As he walked around the back of the kitchen toward the industrial dumpster, he noticed a green tree top reaching toward the blue sky. Peering in, he saw what looked like a miniature forest of trees sticking out of dark soil. Was this secret place, hidden from the world and disguised as a smelly trash dumpster, an asset of the drug companies?
Smelling hibiscus, he climbed in cautiously to explore. He felt wet soil as he dug toward the bottom with his bare hands. Instead of hitting the flat metal bottom of the garbage bin, though, he found the soil extended deeper and deeper. The further he dug, the wetter the earth became. After a few hours, he found what must be the fountain. Cool and clear, it was not much more than a small pool of water, not even enough to bathe in. He noted with surprise that while snow lay heavy on the ground, the pool inside the dumpster was not even close to freezing. He dribbled the liquid over his head as a priest would with holy water, then headed inside for a hot shower.
Wilbur spent the next week thinking hard about how to enact his plan. After the week was up, he began requesting his breakfast and pills in his room. One day when Azeb brought them, he insisted she take out his bathroom trash. While she tied up the bag, Wilbur swiped her radio and hid it under his pillow with his untaken pills. Everyone knew those caregivers were always losing their radios. Sure enough, she didn’t notice it was missing.
All morning Wilbur listened to the radio, noting how casually the caregivers shared information across radio waves. As he listened, he counted his untaken pills and vitamins—92 so far.
He waited until the busy lunch hour just to be safe, then disguised his voice hoped nobody would question him. “Can someone remind me the outdoor password, please?” he asked.
“One-four-three-four,” came someone’s hurried response.
He waited until the night shift to ask, “What’s the pass code to the contained room?”
Almost immediately the answer came: “Four-three-seven-seven-nine.”
Armed with the codes, Wilbur felt clear and strong. This knowledge would free Franny. Once he took her to the spring of youthfulness, she would be young and she would remember him. With clean blood, they could go home to their three-level townhouse in San Francisco. Before enacting the next stage of his plan, though, he had to wait for Salvador to fall asleep, like he always did. As he waited, he memorized the codes, etching them into his brain.
Around 3 a.m., Wilbur laid the radio he’d swiped from Azeb on Salvador’s desk. He slid past Salvador’s dozing form on the way to the kitchen, taking care not to shuffle his feet.
Downstairs, he filled a coffee mug with hot water—and plink!—listened to two weeks’ worth of pills dissolve in it. He poured it into the caregivers’ water cooler, adding orange Gatorade powder to mask the chalky, chemical taste. The caregivers were always complaining about the water tasting like minerals and putting flavoring in the water cooler. He mixed it up with a giant spoon lying nearby and replaced the top on the cooler.
As he retreated to his room to wait, he heard loud bangs coming from the high-security ward.
Hold on. I’m coming for you soon, he thought.
* * *
Thirty-two hours later, around 8 a.m. on a Sunday, Azeb told the boss Rochelle that all the caregivers had headaches and were seeing a blinding light. Rochelle was irritated, and she called a sudden meeting with them all.
“We just talked about the importance of hydration at the last staff meeting. Have you all been drinking water?” She made then all drink a few glasses of water from the caregivers’ water cooler before returning to work. Their morning dragged by in a haze.
During the lull between breakfast and lunch, when most caregivers were zonked out or walking around like zombies, Wilbur used the second code to creep into the high-security ward. Several people in the throes of zombosis tried to latch onto him, but he easily dodged them and found Franny’s room.
“Francis, my love,” he said. “Come with me. I’m going to make you feel better.”
Franny stared at him wordlessly. Her sweet brown eyes looked at him trustfully, that traitorous night forgotten. He felt like Hercules as he scooped her up in his arms. Suddenly he had the urge to run, something he hadn’t felt in dozens of years.
He sprinted down the hall and yelled, “Come with me! Escape! Follow me to the fountain of youth!”
Jimmy, wheeling himself slowly down the hall, hadn’t walked in 10 years nor been fed anything but the IV in one year. Sarah Jane could hardly see, but she followed the sound of Wilbur’s commotion. With one hand Wilbur punched in the code again. The old and lame hurried, as well as they could, to the parlor of St. Raphael the Archangel’s Assisted Living, in front of the wraith-like caregivers, who were weak and disoriented from Wilbur’s pills. The caregivers and the old seemed to shrink from each other, but Wilbur wasn’t afraid. The old would be infected for just a few minutes more.
Outside, Wilbur awkwardly climbed the metal rungs of the dumpster with one arm, using his other arm to pull up Franny, who clung to him. Hooking his free elbow over the side of the dumpster, he brought her up over the side of the dumpster. Then he gently dropped her atop shiny black trash mounds, the secret source of the fountain of youth. She sank down toward the pool of water, then looked up at him with bright eyes that had been dull moments before. She climbed out on her own. Coffee grounds and dirt were plastered to her now-vibrant brown hair, but when he kissed her, he smelled hibiscus.
“Let’s go home, Wil,” she said. He looked at her and saw the same beautiful young woman he had married long ago. He felt his eagle eye-sight and mental clarity, which had slowly been returning, fully return. Together, he and Franny helped the others climb one-by-one inside the holy fountain. Each one emerged from this baptism fresh and rejuvenated. Like a parade of Greek heroes looting Troy, they traipsed inside St. Raphael’s one last time to collect belongings and call loved ones. They paused for a moment at the terrible sight that met their eyes: their paralyzed caregivers stood agape, white-haired and rooted to the carpeted floor. Some moaned, complaining about leg pain and blurred vision.
Jimmy, his white hair turned jet-black, bestowed his wheelchair upon Rochelle. Sarah Jane exclaimed over the colors she could see, and Salvador asked Wilbur for his cane. In the mirror, Wilbur and Franny, hand-in-hand and in the full bloom of health, were almost unrecognizable.
Then in the reflective glass, he saw someone who looked like him—as he would look in sixty more years and as he had looked only this morning. If he had not already looked seen his newly-young self and felt his renewed strength, he would have thought this old man was a reflection of him. Now, he didn’t know what to think, but he turned to greet his aged doppelganger.
“Grandpa,” Chris said in garbled words. “What’s happened? I’ve brought you a movie…”
Wilbur stared at his old grandson, who drooled disgustingly.
“Come with me,” he said. He and Franny led Chris to the dumpster. When Wilbur dropped him in, though, Chris just groaned. No change came over him.
Wilbur and Franny exchanged a worried glance and Wilbur wondered if the fountain’s magic has been used up by healing so many old. He jumped to examine the fountain and noticed that the pool had dried up and the soil was not as wet. He frowned regretfully and helped Chris out.
Had the old peoples’ miraculously renewed acuity, sprightliness, and energy been stolen from the young? Had years of caring for the old, lame, and senile been enough to atrophy the youthfulness of the young in a single morning? Wilbur didn’t know what he to do. Except for Chris, the senile and zombified young people were surely as cunning and cruel as ever. They might use their new afflictions to manipulate, gain pity, and steal back what youth they could. Wilbur knew better than to be swayed to help, lest their miracle be undone. As for Chris, he was a good boy, a good person, but now he and Franny had to live their life again.
“Franny, darling, call us a cab,” Wilbur said, taking Chris by the hand and leading him toward their comfortable medium-sized upstairs room with the two twin beds. “I’ll show Chris to his room.”
Lara Herrington Watson has worked as an archaeologist, caregiver, swim lesson instructor, and English teachers. She is currently revising her first novel and exploring the wilds of Southern Arizona with her husband and two cats. You can follow her travels at www.tempetraveler.com.