Pain: Excruciating; unrelenting. It is now the sum total of the old man’s life as the disease consumes his body. Dreamless, drug-induced sleep gives some relief, but it leaves him exhausted. When he does manage to dream–he dreams of pain. His waking dreams are of death.
The representative from the Kevorkian Society listened sympathetically. But instead of agreeing to provide their normal service, he was given a referral to the doctor–the one person in the world, he was told, who could both relieve his pain and renew his life.
The procedure was new and largely untested on humans, consisting of a “personality transplant” into what the doctor had termed a “cultivated biologic.” He jumped at the chance without concern for the details. He had nothing to lose except the pain–and more than enough money to pay for it. So much money in fact, that he had the doctor’s medical team set up shop in his palisades mansion overlooking the ocean.
Swollen, red, and watering eyes open. The withered head lolls to one side, and gazes through the sheer curtains covering French doors. Beyond, the large, well tended garden is bathed in the brilliance of a midday summer sun. Further on, along the cliffs, the sun joins a gentle breeze to turn tall, twisted cypress trees into dark, rustling sentinels silhouetted against a vibrant-blue ocean.
He sighs a puff of feeble breath, momentarily clouding the oxygen mask. Pain rides his psyche. They said they were ready to start–why hadn’t they?
The bedroom door opens, but he doesn’t have the strength of body or will to turn his head. Footsteps come around the bed and the young nurse smiles sweetly, but with a sadness in her eyes. It won’t be much longer now. All that remains is to give you this injection and the process will be completed. The needle is pressed against a shadowy vein inside his bony, fleshly, elbow. The sting–that anyone else would feel–becomes lost in the torrent of pain coursing through him. She withdraws the needle, and leaves.
His gaze moves to the picture on the nightstand. The face is young with chiseled features; closed eyes give it a look of serenity. This is the twenty-year-old that he will be in a matter of hours. Pain recedes into a heavy warmth; a euphoric glow caresses his mind. Staring at the picture, his eyelids droop. A silhouette appears at the garden door. The old man’s eyes close and–for the first time in years–he manages a weak smile.
Wakefulness comes grudgingly. Fighting to open heavy eyelids, he barely manages to keep them wavering slits. He rolls his head towards the French doors through which comes midmorning’s muted light. This is not his bedroom; it is a guest room down the hall. Momentarily vanquished, his eyes close and consciously he takes a breath. Braced for the knives that will stab into his chest, he sucks tentatively with his mouth. His chest swells slowly and smoothly–without spasm or cough–as he anticipates the pain. Finally he draws the deepest breath he can ever remember taking. He holds it–marveling how painless it is–until his chest and throat slowly tighten. In a long rush of air, his lungs deflate effortlessly.
The deep breathing is repeated several times; the taste of the air is savored; he tingles as the air is purged. The grogginess is overcome. He opens his eyes, yawns, and stretches luxuriously; rubs his eyes with the knuckle of each forefinger; lowers his hands–and freezes.
Amazement glazes his eyes as he stares at his hands. Large, muscular, unblemished by calluses, moles, or liver-spots, he flexes them several times, alternating between clenched fists and wide-spread fingers. Fine blonde hair covers his hands and arms. With an adrenaline rush, he bolts upright, throws off the blanket, and jumps out of the bed; but his legs buckle and he crashes to the floor. Slowly pulling himself up onto stiff legs, he tentatively walks towards the full-length mirror.
A lean and handsome youth–wearing only a pair of loose-fitting shorts–stares back at him from the mirror. He runs a smooth hand down each arm; feels the firm chest and the flesh of his face and neck–no longer gray and flaccid, drooping on brittle bones–now it is smooth, drawn taught over toned muscle.
They have done it. He is reborn!
Throwing on a robe and sandals from the closet, he makes to leave, but finds the hallway door locked from outside. Strange. But the French doors are open, and he would much prefer a stroll through his garden, anyway.
Glowing warmth pours down from overhead. A cool ocean breeze tempers the sun and tugs at the rows of sunflowers and cosmos, tall and brilliant in their summer bloom. When was the last time he walked unaided through his garden and across the lawn? The floral fragrances have blended into a heady incense. His new body is stiff and a bit awkward, but this is probably its first walk ever. Pain is but a memory. Vivid–but still a memory. He strolls out along the cliffs, looking at the ocean’s white-capped waves stretching to the horizon. Finally, he stops to rest in the shadow of a tall cypress. Here beneath the tree, he realizes that this is much more than a reprieve from death: It is a gift of a second chance at life that no man has ever before been blessed with. Who has not wished to return to a younger form with all the wisdom and experience of age at their disposal? Short of a Pharaoh, he will be the wisest and wealthiest twenty-year-old that ever lived. Every misstep and misdeed of his life will be buried along with his old mindless husk. It is a time for redress. This time he will not be so miserly. He will marry; raise children. This time he will not grow old and die alone–almost.
It occurs to him: The procedure could be performed again and again. He and his family would never need die. They could become immortal. Better still, he could finance the brilliant doctor and develop the procedure into the next boom industry. He could amass further wealth and sire an eternal empire!
Turning away from the ocean, his thoughts are flooded with opportunities; he moves back through the garden towards his own room and a decent set of clothes. The French doors–which he never locks–swing quietly inward. Crossing the threshold, he freezes, as an icy hand touches his heart.
There on the bed he lies–old and withered and dead. He abruptly turns away to avoid the sight; his heart in his throat; his body petrified. He concentrates on a far point on the wall as the shock settles through him. Swallowing hard, he musters the courage to turn back. Another first, he muses–the first corporal man to see himself dead. Repugnance yields to morbid curiosity; he moves slowly towards the bed.
A sadness, and a repulsion, overcomes him at seeing what he had become. If there is a God, he will make sure to give a prayer of thanks–just in case. This is too much of a miracle to risk any potential slight to a possible benefactor.
Bending close to the face with the translucent-green mask, he gives the gray, wrinkled, forehead a gentle kiss farewell. He pulls away and–
He recoils in shock. Terror explodes in his mind and its icy tsunami engulfs him. From deep within, a horrified cry escapes his lips like a demon from purgatory.
His swollen, red, and watering eyes follow him as fear leads him by the nape of the neck back to his bedside. They stare at each other. And in those moments, the sympathetic resonance of two identical minds allows–in a lightning strike–for revelations that neither alone could have readily conceived. He sees his new body through a gathering fog; together, they know. He looks down at the wizened form staring back at him in pained disbelief; together, they cannot escape the truth.
Shouts and sounds of running come from somewhere down the hall. The lock clicks and the door flies open. The doctor, the young nurse, and several other white-clad figures flow into the bedroom.
Around the bed they gather, staring with a mixture of apprehension and shame. He cradles the withered and lifeless form in his arms, rocking it slowly, stroking the sparse, white hair. With a face twisted in grief, he looks up at them; tears flood his blue eyes and spill down his cheeks across compressed, trembling lips. The voice comes in the breathless, halting, weep of a frightened child.