The Price of Youth
By Royce Sears
Driving home from her second job, Sheila Lockner blinked her eyes and fought to stay awake. With the window down, the crisp bite of winter, combined with the loud music blaring from her car stereo, was usually enough to keep her awake. She yawned, and rubbed her eyes. Two jobs, a four year old to raise by herself, rent and bills to pay, it was enough to exhaust anyone, she thought.
The Christmas party at the Vanderbilt Society should have been over at 11:00 PM, but the cleanup had taken longer than expected. She, and the other servers, had catered enough food, wine, and other refreshments, to feed a small army over the course of the evening. And all for less than one-hundred people, she thought. They had thrown away enough food to feed her and Aiden for more than a month.
Slammed hard, the sounds of shrieking, twisting metal fill the air. I didn’t do anything wrong. Headlights up ahead, rushing at me? My head hurts, not sure what happened? Where am I? I remember a Christmas tree. I was at a party, I think. It’s all fuzzy now.
Bright lights and white walls? I must be in a hospital. Things rushing by, out of the corners of my eyes, like scenes of a bad movie. What’s happening? What about Aiden? I’m not thinking clear, and it’s hard to breathe. What’s going on? Why can’t I talk?
Ouch! What’s with all this bouncing and jerking?
The sounds of rubber wheels, wobbling on hard tiled floors, sharp voices, orders barked.
“Patient is a twenty-five year old female, head-on collision with a drunk driver. Blood pressure falling rapidly, pulse is rapid and thready. Severe head trauma, signs of increased intracranial pressure. Partial amputation of left upper extremity, complete amputation of left lower extremity. Patient is completely unresponsive. Pupils are unreactive.”
They’re talking about me? Hit by a drunk driver? What does the rest of it mean? Am I going to die? I’m scared.
“Get her down to OR stat!” the doctor ordered, “Get the crash cart! I want an amp of epi stat! And get a type and cross for blood!”
The world fades into hazy yellow flashes, pulsating amber sparkles, glints and glimmers of garish golden glares. Erratic wavy lines and rapid high-pitched beeps erupting from the overhead monitor warn of impending doom.
“She’s in V-Fib, standby. Charging!”
Stabs, spikes of scintillating shiny streaks, transform within the mind, becoming sparkling shimmers of iridescent splendor. Muscle spasms, as her body jerks erratically. The ECG becomes a flat line, motionless and dead. The monotonic beep, just as flat and lifeless as the line, hums its not-so-gentle farewell tune.
I can see myself? What are they doing to me? Oh my God! Am I dead? What’s going to happen to Aiden? Who’s going to take care of him now? How? Why? Why did this have to happen? I don’t understand!
A sudden whirlwind springs from nowhere, tidal forces ripping, pulling, whirling, in a frenzied maelstrom, invisible to those still living. A vortex forms within the maelstrom, funneling outward from a tiny silver box. One of many, affixed to the ceiling tiles, hanging innocently throughout the hospital. She fought the pull, to no avail, the vortex gathering the substance of her essence, drawing her into its unknown depths.
No, I don’t want to go! It feels like I’m being pulled apart!
Attached to the silver box are wave guides and wires, leading to the basement. Plummeting down, around sharp corners, then falling faster into the larger conduit. The wires provide a terrifying roller coaster ride, a ride expressly for the soul. Fighting, screaming, no arms or legs, ethereal bodies swim against the current in futile efforts to avoid the inevitable. Silent screams into the astral, pleas for help that no one hears.
Slips and slides, turns and tumbles, faster and further down the maze of conduits, into the strange unknown. Peculiar lights wink far away, a flashing myriad rainbow of colors. Echoing in the distance, further down the rabbit hole, is a crisp, crackling sound, like paper being shredded in long thin strips, piece by piece.
More silent screams stretch forever into the ethereal world of the soul, a formless void, nothing but an empty hollow. Shredding, tearing, splitting, cleaving, a quantum energy release- a burst of radiance, captured and contained. What once was whole is torn asunder, eternity no more. The silent screams continue onward, onward toward oblivion.
“Quantum capacitor is at 100%,” the technician said, as he turned to the doctor.
“Please send Mrs. Vanderbilt into the chamber, nurse.”
At ninety-three, she walks well, with her walker. Arthritic joints make her progress slow, but this is the end of those painful jaunts. Entering the chamber, the nurse whisks the spindly aluminum frame of the walker away, and smiles sweetly at the frail old woman.
“In just a few minutes, you won’t need this old walker anymore.”
The doctor enters the chamber, as the nurse exits. “Any questions Mrs. Vanderbilt,” he asks, as he shines a small light into her eyes, listens to hear heart, and then her lungs.
“How does this work again?” she asks softly.
“This machine collects the quantum energy released by the souls of all who die within this facility. That energy is harvested, stored, and then passed on to you, through these electrodes. Results tend to vary, but based on my calculations, you should be, physically at least, approximately twenty-five years old” he explained casually. She nodded her understanding, “So, I get to keep all that I am, and all that I know, and it’s still me, just younger, right?”
“Yes, you’re still you, just younger,” he clarified.
“What about the souls that are used for this process?”
“Well, we honestly don’t know the answer to that ma’am. If there’s an afterlife, it’s no concern of yours now. You have the key to eternal youth, to eternal life even. Who cares what happens to those souls?”
“I don’t REALLY care. They’re the poor, insignificant little people of the world, but I thought I should ask. In the grand scheme of things, they’ll never be missed in this life, or the next. They have nothing to lose but their life. I have an empire, a legacy, to continue building. I thought I should ask, in case it ever becomes known that I did this. And you’re sure it’s safe?”
“Mrs. Vanderbilt, how old do you think I am?”
“Well, Doctor, I would guess no more than thirty.”
“Physiologically, I’m approximately thirty. In reality, I celebrated my 109th birthday just a few weeks ago.”
“Very well then, please continue,” she said haughtily.
The electrodes were connected carefully, the doctor smiling happily as he connected each one with practiced ease. He lowered cold steel plates, placing them on her chin and cheeks, followed by a pair of mirrored goggles, connected by long, thin wires to the machine. “We’ll be done in just a few minutes,” he said as he closed the door and nodded to the technician. A flash and a sizzle, some pain, but not much, and suddenly the pain is gone.
She steps from the chamber, her clothes hang loosely now, rather than her skin. She walks awkwardly still, then suddenly realizes the pain of movement is gone. Stepping before the mirror, she sees what she has always seen within her mind. The thin and withered gray hair was gone. Her luxurious, thick, red locks had been restored. The dry and wrinkled skin, aged and thin, was lush, sleek, and silky again. The old woman had hobbled in, her younger self walked out.
“Your new ID, Passport and clothing are waiting in the next room ‘Ms. Hunt’. Your receipt is with them.”
She saunters into the adjoining room, no attention paid to the clothing falling from her body. She wants her clothes to fall, these remnants of her old self. She laughs aloud at the thought, her ‘Old’ self.
Glancing at the documents, she studies the receipt closely for a moment. Youth returned to her, to start again with all she has, and all she knows, at the bargain price of 500 million dollars. Well worth it, she thinks.
The telephone rings, and is answered by the nurse. She speaks softly for a moment before scribbling a note. “Yes, thank you. I will let her know as gently as possible.”
“Mrs. Vanderbilt, um, I mean, ‘Ms. Hunt,’ I just received a call about your son, Robert. He was killed in an automobile accident, earlier this evening.”
“That’s the quantum equation balancing itself, an unfortunate side effect,” the doctor explained casually.
She slumps to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. “If I had known this was the price, I would never have agreed to it.”
Silent screams into the astral, silent pleas, now trapped beneath her skin. The cries continue onward, onward toward oblivion.