He woke up with a start, to birds squalling outside his window and sunlight crashing through the blinds. His body tingled with energy, and he felt – God, what was that in his crotch? He looked down and realized what the throbbing was. He had almost forgotten that feeling. He threw the covers off and jumped out of bed, bounding over to the mirror across the room. Was there a trace of black at his temples? He ran his fingers over his skull, and there seemed to be the beginning of a stubble, a shadow of growth. And his face didn't look so gaunt -- his skin actually looked pink.
It was working.
Was it a dream? No, there was the blue ankh on the inside of his wrist. He remembered the pain when the old tattooist etched it there last night, in the back room of the dingy store in the shadow of the hospital. He remembered the lump in his throat when he'd agreed to the terms of the deal, and the gleam in the old man's eye, the way he rubbed his hands together and grinned. "You'll go home and sleep," he'd said. "Tomorrow, when you wake up, you'll have 48 hours before you have to come back. I want to see you Friday morning, no later than noon. Remember, you get a year younger every hour. If you wait too long, you'll forget how to get here – and I'm the only one who can reverse the process."
Byrne shuddered, remembering that part. But then he put it out of his mind. Whatever was in that foul-tasting tea the old man had given him, it was working. The pain in his hip was lessening, and the arthritis in his shoulder had faded. He raised his arm slowly above his head, feeling only minor twinges. He was wide awake, with no fuzziness in his mind, no dry mouth from a sleeping pill, no pain in his prostate – nothing.
There was so much to do. He put on his sweatpants, but found they were loose at his waist. He realized with joy that his paunch was smaller. He went in his closet and found a favorite pair of khaki pants he'd grown out of, and sure enough, they fit.
The diner was two blocks away, and he walked briskly, without once stopping to catch his breath. It was a glorious morning, with a light breeze wafting through the palms that lined the street, heavy with green coconuts high in their branches.
At the diner, the waitress, Sally, a gum-chewing 20 year old who usually ignored him, came over and said, "Hello Mr. Byrne. You're looking perky today."
His heart leaped. "Yes, I'm feeling pretty good. Got a great night's sleep."
He scanned the menu. "I'll take everything fried. Eggs, sausage, bacon, potatoes. And give me a great big cup of black coffee."
"Sure." She turned and went back to the kitchen with the order. Byrne watched the bounce of her hips under the shiny black skirt. That would be the good part; the women. He would know what to do with them, this time. He looked around and saw that the place was half empty, and there was nobody he knew. That was probably good. He wasn't sure how noticeable the changes would be, and he didn't want to call attention to himself.
There was a newspaper on the counter, and he picked it up. The front page had a story about a new cancer treatment that showed signs of promise. He felt the anger rising in him, flushing his cheeks. Hah. They promised you the world with these new treatments, but all you got was nausea and another round of bad news. It reminded him that he still had his medication in his pocket. He pulled out the little brown bottle, opened it, and looked at the hated white pills. I don't need you anymore, he thought, leaning over the counter and tossing the bottle in a wastebasket.
When the girl brought his breakfast back, he tore into it like a starving man. He finished every last morsel on the plate, then ordered a second breakfast, followed by a piece of apple pie. Ordinarily that would have brought on a case of heartburn, but his stomach felt fine. He paid the bill and left.
In the Local section of the next day's newspaper, there were two unusual items involving the town of Pascua, Florida. One incident involved a 50 year old man who caused a scene in a pharmacy, leaping over the counter and throwing pill bottles on the floor, overturning shelves and knocking down displays. "Frauds! Con artists!" he was heard to say, as he ran from the premises.
Late that night a 40ish man caused a fight in a bar when the boyfriend of the woman he was flirting with showed up and took offense. The boyfriend, a car salesman named Mel Johansson, received ten stitches at an emergency room, and was released. The man who beat him up ran away before police arrived. "The guy was laughing while he was beating on me," Johansson said. "He said he felt like a kid again. He had a scary look in his eyes."
Byrne woke up under a tree in the park, with his face in a pile of leaves. He was awake in a second, feeling the energy surging through him. He looked at his watch – it was seven in the morning, which meant he'd been asleep for two hours. He hated that he'd wasted the time, but the sleep had refreshed him – and he was two years younger. He looked on his hands, and saw no bruises from the bar fight. Everything had healed. He went over to the little pond nearby and looked at his face in the water – no wrinkles, no blotches, and a full head of black, wavy hair.
He was in the prime of his life, and he wasn't going to waste a minute.
He had a plan, and he started walking with a purpose. There was a girl. She was the granddaughter of a girl he'd once loved, long ago. It was the regret of his life that he'd let Fatima get away. He'd kept track of her over the years, and knew she had children and grandchildren. And he knew one of the grandchildren worked at a bank.
The same bank he was standing in front of now. He saw the girl, working at her desk by the big window, and marveled at how much she looked like Fatima. She had the same silky black hair and tawny skin, and eyes like burnt almonds. Her skin looked as soft as butter.
There was so much he wanted to tell her. How mysterious and wonderful the universe really is, and how she should take her chances, live out her dreams, while she was young. Time is precious, he wanted to say. To live your days quietly, safely, is like trying to hold onto snowflakes – they slip through your fingers in a heartbeat.
He had learned that the hard way. A life spent cautiously, 40 years in the insurance industry, never venturing beyond his self-imposed boundaries. Not a teaspoonful of sugar too much in his coffee; not a couple of bucks' worth of extra deductions on his tax return.
He spent years longing for grand adventures, with half-formed desires and dreams, postponing his pleasures for some misty future. When that future came it was full of sickness and the ache of age. When the cold realization came that he was too old, that he would never attain his dreams, he became bitter. He collapsed in on himself, his heart turning as wrinkled and hard as a dried up apple.
But that was all past. He had a second chance, and things would be different this time.
He strode into the bank, but in an instant his confidence flagged. She looked so young and fresh, and the big clock on the wall behind her was a reproach to him.
You haven't the time, it said. It's already too late.
There was no time for small talk, no time for flirtation. He had to act now. He had to get her alone and make his case.
"Can I help you?" she said.
"Yes," he said, sitting down next to her.
She smiled, and waited.
"This is a holdup," he said. He saw her jaw drop, and terror flash in her eyes. He wasn't sure what to say next. Then, "I want you to calmly go over to the teller area and tell them this is a holdup. I have a gun in my pocket, and I have friends outside who will start shooting if anything funny happens."
It was madness. He didn't want money, but now that the word "holdup" had come out, he felt that the thing had taken on a momentum, and he couldn't stop it.
She put her hand to her mouth. Her fingernails were like pink pearls, and he had an impulse to tell her this was all a joke. No, that wouldn't do; he had to get her alone.