ORIGINAL FICTION: "When the World was Young and I was Old" by Republibot 3.0
I’d tell you my name, but it doesn’t matter.
I overslept. There was a polite knock at the door. A man kept saying my unimportant name, and asking if I was alright. I allowed as how I was, but the man had to physically see me to make sure. I answered the door in my underwear. I was old. He was thirty-one. He recoiled a bit in revulsion, then composed himself and said he was glad I was doing well, and breakfast would be ready any time I wanted it. I thanked him without meaning it, and he smiled without meaning it, and went away.
It’s winter. My joints ache. They sting when it gets really cold, but it’s not that bad today. I go in the bathroom and do all the normal bathroom stuff, then get in my walk-in tub and hit a buzzer. Presently a pretty nurse comes in. she’s thirty one. I can bathe myself, but they fear me putting my head under the water, probably with good reason. I don’t mind. The warm water feels good. Her fingers feel good in my thinning hair. Her blouse doesn’t quite contain her pulchritude as she leans over me, but below the waterline: Nothing.
I live in a small apartment building across the street from the Westfield Gateway Mall in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s been converted to an old folks home, with a ratio of five attendants to each resident. My every reasonable whim, and their salaries, are paid by the state. There are places like this in all the major cities and town in the state. In insignificant places - as insignificant as my own name - they simply load up the old folks and ship ‘em here. The number gets smaller every year. Only fifteen in my building, counting me. There were twenty last winter. Does the clock speeds up, or do I just notice it more? All the staff are thirty-one.
I have a breakfast large enough to choke a cowboy: Steak, Eggs, Ham, Bacon. I’ve taken to eating clam chowder, too. They just started making it again this last year. It’s expensive, but I figure ‘what the hell, let the taxpayers pick up the tab. Live a little. It’s not like I’m long to this earth.’ Whichever earth this may be, that is. I’m the only one in the room. I seldom see the other residents. They mostly stay in their rooms, watching old videos, listening to old records, basically sitting around and being silently old. I wonder if this is the way it’s always been in old folks’ homes, or if it’s unique to our predicament. In any event, the chowder isn’t as good as I remember from my youth. The clams come from the New Gulf Of Mexico, and not old New England. I wonder if that’s the reason. Or maybe it’s just that I’m old.
I don’t drink coffee in the meal room. For a long time this was because no one had any coffee to be drunk, but three years back some explorers in New South America found a whole lot of wild coffee plants, and the Midwest’s long love affair with oral stimulants was rejoined. It tastes like crap, of course. No one knows how to breed the plants, the quality control Starbucks used to use in preparation was more-or-less abandoned and only slightly-less-quickly forgotten. Still: I like coffee.
I hobble across the street with my walker. It’s been plowed, so I’m in no danger of slipping, though my knees and fingers hurt from the cold. There’s a few busses, and a newly-installed trolley, but few cars. We don’t have the ability to make cars yet, it might be decades before we recover it, and unquestionably the first generation of any cars we make will suck, so such cars as we have are hoarded for official purposes. My 2003 Ford Escape was commandeered by the state a year after we got here, wherever here is.
In the food court, everyone is thirty one. A few people stare, a few avert their eyes. A decade ago, I got sympathetic looks, now everyone takes my affliction - being old - as some kind of personal affront. I get my coffee from a handsome thirty-one year old man with hair like Simon LeBon circa 1984, then realize I forgot my wallet. There’s a line of thirty-one year olds behind me. Hair boy flashes me a fake smile across the counter. “It’s ok, old timer,” he says, “It’s on me. When the train comes in, everybody rides.” I nod, take my drink.
Everybody rides? Well, maybe not everyone.
My ex-wife works in the Radio Shack across the mall from the food court. I still wear my ring, though on my widower finger. I don’t know why. I can’t get rid of it. Sentimental, I guess. I see her helping a customer. She and I share the same birthday, the same year. I’m seventy-three. She’s thirty-one. I never talk to her, just look from far away, trying not to seem creepy. Life goes on, but it goes on without me. She’s pregnant. My God, she’s painfully beautiful, like when we had our second kid. I lose myself for a moment, and my eyes tear up. I have to stop writing for a moment.
She and I had been married for forty-eight years when we woke up one morning, and I was sixty and she was eighteen. All our neighbors were eighteen. We called our kids, who were inexplicably eighteen as well. Our grandkids were also eighteen. Our great grandkids were still the same age they’d been the night before, but basically throughout Nebraska, everyone who’d been over eighteen was now eighteen. Except for me, of course.
And a few others. A handful. One or two for every thousand in a state of 1.8 million people. A dwindling handful, as it happens.
But that was thirteen years ago. Back in the present, I go to the trolley station in the mall for a pointless ride around Lincoln. I liked trains when I was little, I like ‘em when I’m old. I wonder if that means I’m getting simple headed, but decide probably not.
Rejuvinatory euphoria was offset somewhat by the almost-simultaneous realization that there was no longer anyone living outside of Nebraska. No ruins, no people, no roads, no nothing. To our north, south, east, and west, only thousands of miles of nature. Lucy - my wife, and yes, I always thought that was a silly name - said she’d stick with me, that she loved me ‘til death do us part, and all that. That didn’t last long. She was eighteen and hot and horny, and I was sixty and had already been impotent for quite a while. Ciallis wasn’t produced in Nebraska, so the local supply quickly would have run out, had anyone still needed it.
In fact, nobody really needed drugs: the blind could see, the deaf hear, the mute talk, the palsied walk, the insane cured of their madness, the AIDS patients clean of infection, the lice ridden free of even a single louse. Everyone was in perfect condition, excepting me. Sure, they got colds and flues occasionally, but no one’s seen a case of cancer or a heart attack in more than a decade.
The short answer is that nobody knows. Some people say it was God, some say it was Aliens, some say Time Travelers. Some say time traveling alien gods. To a man with only a mystery, any nonsense seems like an answer. You know how people are. Some felt the earth itself, or Gaia, or some such dipshit, had done it: Killed everyone and erased all the works of man, excepting our one state. To my shame, I admit I believed that for a time. Eventually, some folks at Concordia University discovered we weren’t on earth anymore, but rather an exact duplicate. The stars in the sky simply weren’t the same. The star we orbited wasn’t exactly the same spectrographic whatever as the sun.
By that point, most of my selfrighteous hippie gaia environmentalist 18-year-old baby-boomer friends were dead: killed by bears, bitten by snakes, stampeded by bison, picked up an infection from water full of animal feces, or simply from freezing to death on the plains in winter. Those that didn’t die abandoned the now-irrelevant movement. Conservation? In an empty world? What was the point? Humanity quickly went back to the longstanding belief that nature was to be conquered, tamed, and utilized. My theory is that the disconnect most people had from nature caused us to fetishize it, not view it realistically, but with suburban arrogance. There’s no one to tell my theory to, though.
So where were we? Truth is nobody knows if we’re even in the Milky Way Galaxy anymore. No one can identify any of the stars. Some people say we’re in heaven. I laugh at that: “Well, you might be in Heaven,” I say, “But I’m still in Nebraska.”
The governor -and leader of the world - held a raffle to figure out what we’d name this new world. A cleaning woman from Omaha won: “Newbraska” she named us.
I fell asleep on the trolley, and dreamed of my dad. He died just a week before everyone woke up a teenager again. If he’d held on for just a week, just seven lousy days, he’d still be here. God, how I miss him. God, I wish I could have him put his arm around me, and hug me, and tell me everything will be allright. I’d believe him. I’d know he was lying, but, God, I’d still believe him.
They wake me up when we get back to the mall, and I head back to the food court. Children are all still in school. It’s a little easier to be here when there are kids around. It offsets the oppressive uniformity somewhat. Not much, but it’s a nice dash of randomness, even if they‘re clearly shocked by my decrepitude. The first generation of kids born since we got here are just about hitting thirteen. That means the second generation will start showing up soon, and that will randomize things a bit more. In forty or fifty years, my wife and her equally-aged friends will start to pass away, and gradually the distribution of ages will go back to normal, though it’ll probably take generations.
I won’t live to see it, of course. I don’t have a lot of time left. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.
After it first happened, there was a lot of speculation as to why some of us didn’t rejuvenate as well. The state vowed to look into it, and find a cure. Can you imagine that? A cure for age? As opposed to a temporary retreat like everyone else had? Crazy. They quickly realized it was crazy, and quietly shut down the program.
A thirty-two-year-old school teacher brought a class to talk to me about Vietnam. I was a sergeant. I killed five men and two women with my own bare hands in my hitch. I might as well have been talking about the battle of Agincourt. I go to the VFW, but nobody wants to hang out with me, not even the youngsters from my old-timey unit. Nothing from our old lives has much relevance here. Everyone else my age has given up. I force myself to go out, get coffee, do stuff. Every day the temptation gets greater to take all my meals in my room and simply sit around listening to my Johnny Cash CDs all day until I run out the clock.
In addition to those of us who didn’t de-age, there were several thousands of people who simply weren’t here when we woke up that day. Murderers, liars, cheats, sons of bitches all. There was no logic to it, though. No one could figure out exactly what species of bastardry got them cut. Some liars made it, some murders made it, but maybe no lying murders made it? It was a hard theory to test. There are so many sins a man can commit, so many overlap, so many variations on that Venn diagram.
My own theory was that those of us who didn’t de-age had been excluded by our mysterious benefactors for some specific reason. What was it? My stance on Abortion? What I did in the war? The dirty magazine I kept under my mattress when I was thirteen? The way I voted in the ‘00 elections? My sexual preferences? What? I spent years comparing notes to other left-behind oldsters, but I could never find any overlap. Some say it’s just random chance. I prefer to think there’s some design to it. If I’m being punished for some nebulous and forgotten evil, I can accept that. If I’m in this state because of some random programming error in some alien’s machinery, that would shatter my stoicism.
And in fact there’s so much we don’t know. Why were we taken? Were other states taken? Other countries, or did the US wake up one morning to find a Nebraska-shaped hole in the ground? Is there an earth anymore, or was the whole thing sliced and diced and divided up on worlds just like this one among the stars? If so, why? Who or what did this to us?
Alone in the dining room, I learn that Mrs. Stevens has died. A skinny woman in room five listening to Verdi all by herself all day. I won’t miss her, I doubt I said ten words to her in as many years, but just the same, the walls of the huge empty room seem suddenly to close in around my table. I finish my chowder, and head to my room.
I won’t tell you my name because whomever it was that put us here really didn’t want me here, and it seems wrong of me to try to circumvent a force that has done so much good for so many others. It’s hubris to bemoan my fate, which, if I’m honest, is really no different it would have been even if everyone around me hadn’t suddenly de-aged, even if we hadn’t ended up on a fake reproduction of our own planet. I’m old, I’m dying. It’s what old people do. But I am so goddamn lonely. So goddamn lonely. My tears well up as I look at a picture of my aged ex-wife, and I realize why I keep the ring, why I wear it on my right hand, but then, because I’m old, I forget the reason almost instantly. I miss my dad. If the things they taught me in Sunday school are true, I may see him again soon. I pray to the God I never really believed in that I will. Great wracking sobs claim me for a while. My dad, my mom, my now-meaningless memories. I wonder if this is any different from any other old man, or if it’s unique to my predicament. Then I calm down and write for a while.
Our benefactors were merciful. They gave everyone else a second chance. They didn’t give me a second chance, but they didn’t kill me either. I’m not valuable enough to save, dangerous enough to get rid of. It’s a hard thing to know for a fact that your life is a testament only to the fact that you were fundamentally, basically, horribly wrong about something that everyone else got right.
So is this heaven? I don’t think so. Nor hell.
I think of something my wife said to me the day we woke up here, when she and the world were young, and I was old. I feared that she wouldn’t love me anymore. She said, “There’s a place for me in her heart, and in this world.”
And she was right. There is.
But not for much longer.
Copyright 2012, Republibot 3.0