by Claudine Wrignt
What if there were a machine that could magically wipe away the ravages of time, and return you to the best year of your life? Would you take advantage of it? Three people in the mythical town of Normal decide to take up a mysterious stranger on this intriguing offer and are left to deal with the consequences.
His name, he said, was Monsieur Suleiman, and although he was vague about precisely where, that he was from the East. None of the people in the small town was surprised when the mysterious stranger arrived. They woke up one morning to find that M. Suleiman had settled into the old shop on the corner where Main Street, running north to south,
intersected with From Street. It was a strange intersection, From and Main, or Main and From, depending on your starting point. Stores sprang up and closed with such regularity that the townspeople would glance twice when a new sign appeared, and would remark: that used to be the hardware store, or the bakery, or whatever store happened to be there two or three stores ago. The new occupants were invariably out-of-towners or foreigners with hope in their hearts and desperate dreams of bright futures. And one by one, they fell to the same fate.
The rumor was that there was a vortex at From and Main, a sort of energy vacuum, a place where ley lines radiated outward, leaving a perfect circle of nothingness. The spot looked normal enough, if a little bare. There was a lone tree on the sidewalk, its branches cut out in the middle to allow the crisscross of wires that brought in electricity from the pole on the opposite side of the street. No-one was ever quite sure who owned the place or who rented it to the stream of hopefuls who came and went. Some of the old-timers remembered that an old man had lived there once. Without family and with few friends, he moved away one day without notice or fanfare, and shortly after, within weeks actually, the parade of renters began to show up.
So, for the people of Normal, it was rather routine when they woke up on a Monday morning in late August to find out that a new tenant arrived. There was a huge truck parked in front—it must have slipped in the night before—although how such a huge truck could have sneaked in without making a ruckus remained a mystery. The sun had not yet risen,
yet a man, presumably the new tenant, was already at work, taking large pieces of what looked like sheets of metal into the small, slightly shabby wooden building. Silvery, with a dull patina like the wrong side of aluminum foil, each sheet of metal, or whatever it was, was sturdy, yet pliable, and didn’t seem at all heavy despite its massive size. M. Suleiman moved them around with ease, bending and measuring and sliding them through the door of the small shop.
As people went about their business from the safe distance of the opposite side of the street, they wondered at the new tenant and what sort of enterprise the short, intense man could be setting up with all those huge sheets of metal.
Whatever the contraption was, it was being assembled inside the building with much flourish and a good deal of noise. It also seemed to require a lot of dismantling of the old shop. The man, single-handedly, had removed the weather-beaten shingles from the roof and replaced them with seven narrow panels of glass arranged in heptagon around a
center panel made of solid brass. After a week or so, the assemblage seemed to have been completed as the man erected a huge sign in front of the shop that read, M. Suleiman’s Amazing Metausine, and began sitting on a straight-backed chair by his puzzling sign.
The people of Normal were curious but wary. No-one had any idea what a metausine was, and although they whispered amongst themselves, everyone was afraid to ask the man directly. There was something different, something slightly scary about M. Suleiman. For one thing, unlike the others who had come before him, he seemed unconcerned with trying
to ingratiate himself with the locals in an effort to make them into customers. And those who glanced in his direction long enough to catch his gaze came away feeling vaguely displaced, as if they had slipped sideways out of themselves. He was, at the very least, they thought, slightly mad, but whatever his form of madness, M. Suleiman’s manner did not invite questioning.
So they were left to puzzle amongst themselves. What is a metausine? After much consultations with dictionaries and language mavens, someone said that usine was a French word for machine or factory, and meta was Greek for beyond, so perhaps the metausine was something beyond a machine? But even so, what did it do? Or look like? If M. Suleiman had expected the name to explain his machine, he didn’t succeed. No-one had the courage to ask M. Suleiman about his metausine directly, but they were intrigued.
Much to the puzzlement of the townspeople, M. Suleiman seemed unconcerned that nobody visited his store within the first few days after he put up his sign. For seven days, he opened the store promptly at 7:00 am, sitting near the entrance on his stiff-backed chair until noon, when he would disappear inside, eat lunch by the open window on the right side of the building, and come back to sit until 7:00 pm in the evening. On the eighth day, curiosity got the better of Sam Sullivan. One of the town’s most adventurous residents—some would say reckless—Sam Sullivan decided to strike up a conversation with M. Suleiman.
Sam Sullivan, depending on how you felt about him, was either the town eccentric, or the town crackpot. He was the man who, before he retired ten years earlier, had attempted to train his dogs to pull him on a sled so he wouldn’t have to drive himself to work. This escapade lasted only for a few hours before the mayor cited him for animal cruelty. Sam
Sullivan was also the man who dissipated his pension, much to the consternation of his children, trying develop a machine that could translate thoughts onto a typewriter. It’s all energy, he would explain, if sound could be encoded and transmitted on radio waves, why not the same for thoughts? So it was no surprise that Sam Sullivan stopped by M.
Suleiman to find out what this metausine could do.
M. Suleiman was thrilled to explain his machine to one so earnest. As he walked Sam Sullivan around the machine, M. Suleiman explained his machine, lovingly stroking the sides of the cool silvery metal.
There were seven sides, he said, to form a heptagon to mirror the seven panels of glass in the roof. The marble slab in the center of the table beneath, coincided with the solid brass panel in the ceiling. Each of the seven glass panels was ground and tempered in such a way to filter just one just one of the seven colors of the spectrum. The separated colors,
diffused so their individual properties could be bestowed on the person lying on the marble-topped table below, became intensified as the silvery metal sides of the metausine concentrated their effects. Once bathed in this refracted light, the person’s chromosomes would realign, and instead of losing information, would regain all the information they had lost. Skin would become taut again, muscles would thicken, and mental sharpness would return. Moreover the machine was keen to the emotive state. Anyone who entered the metausine, would be restored to the age and time they felt and looked their best. The cost for this privilege, he said, was nine hundred dollars. Something to do with the sum of the
metausine’s internal angles.
So preposterous was this notion, that when Sam Sullivan explained it to the others, no-one was interested in trying M. Suleiman’s “amazing” machine. It was all too convoluted, and for many, this explanation confirmed what they had suspected all along--M. Suleiman, like Sam Sullivan, was a madman.
But Sam Sullivan was fascinated. Not having much more than nine hundred dollars remaining to his name, he bartered his thought machine, still in development after twenty years, with M. Suleiman for a spell in the metausine.
Perhaps it was because he was already crazy or perhaps because his mind was open to the possibility, but Sam Sullivan felt the impact of the metasuine the instant he lay down in it. In a flash he saw the story of his life played out as if in an old black and white movie fast-forwarded without sound. He saw his parents, laughing and tossing his infant self in the
air, he saw scenes from his childhood, and the first time he attempted to fly in the machine he had invented and had strapped to his back. He saw Sally, with whom he first fell in love. And he saw all these images with the original emotions that had attended them. When he got to age twenty-two, he felt a surge of energy charging through his
body. He felt his body vibrating, so much so that his teeth began clattering against each other, and his arms and legs began jerking and flailing as if he had fallen into an epileptic fit.
M. Suleiman ran into the room as he heard the clattering.
"Only one in a million, one in a million", he kept repeating, barely able to contain his excitement. The vibrations had stopped, and Sam Sullivan was sitting upright, breathing heavily.
"My friend, you understand, don’t you, you understand the power of the metausine?" His eyes were intense, blazing, as they searched Sam Sullivan’s for an answer, an acknowledgement.
"Yes, I understand", he said quietly. "I understand". Sam Sullivan brushed at the lint the intense light revealed on his khaki-colored slacks.
"You understand that this is forever, the choice you have made?"
"Yes. Yes, forever, Sam Sullivan replied somewhat impatiently. "So much to do! So much to do!"
"You understand the metausine?"
"Yes. Yes. It is amazing. I am humbled."
Sam touched the machine reverently with his fingertips as he got up from the marble slab.
"This does not compare," he said, thinking of the barter he had just made. "My machine is a toy compared to yours."
M. Suleiman dismissed this notion with a wave of his hand.
"Seven weeks," he said. "When you believe, the time is shorter. In seven weeks you will see the difference."
M. Suleiman kept his shop open for three more weeks without another customer despite Sam Sullivan’s enthusiastic endorsement. At the beginning of the fourth week however, rumors began circulating that Sam Sullivan was beginning to look younger. The changes were not dramatic, but soon, more and more people began to notice. Sam Sullivan's face
was beginning to smoothen, and if they weren’t crazy, he seemed to be getting taller.
John and Jane Russell were the first to entertain the idea of following Sam Sullivan into the metausine. Plain and ordinary as their names, they were tired and worn out after thirty years of teaching, he, as principal, and she as biology teacher. Each succeeding generation of children had become much more badly behaved than the last, and by the end of
thirty years, teaching had become more of a combat sport, than the imparting of knowledge their idealistic hearts had hoped so many years before.
Jane had long lamented the loss of her firm, taut body, her beautiful hair, her unlined face. John longed for his virility, his stamina, not so much minding his greying locks, as his hair remained full and thick, unlike his wife’s whose curls had dwindled into a few wispy strands. So, over their grown sons’ objections, they withdrew money from their savings and paid a visit to M. Suleiman.
M. Suleiman was excited, but not surprised that he finally had another customer. He knew human beings can wonder about something only for so long before trying it out.
John was the one who insisted on a full explanation. How does this machine work, he wanted to know. Jane knew that no matter what M. Suleiman’s explanations were, they would be bizarre. Biology was fact. This was fiction. Nothing, not vitamins, not exercise, and certainly not a machine, could reverse aging. But then, there was Sam Sullivan. He was
"How can we be sure of the results?" John asked, his skepticism at M. Suleiman's discourse on the metausine audible in his tone.
"How can you be sure?" M. Suleiman repeated, raising his eyebrows and peering upwards at him, "Why I’ve used it myself!”
Jane studied M. Suleiman more closely, and she had to admit, he was impressive. Strong-jawed and muscular, he had only enough lines in his face to make him look interesting. His teeth were even and white, and he had a full head of glossy black hair. If the metausine worked half as well on her husband as it had on M. Suleiman, she would be very, very happy.
"When will we see the results?" she piped in, her mind darting to the possibilities.
"It’s very gradual," M. Suleiman said, "it’s like carrying a grain of sand at a time to fill a bucket. At first it seems impossible, but one day you realize that the bucket is full."
"What if it doesn’t work?"
"It always works."
"What is our guarantee?" John asked in a tone that suggested a full refund would be expected were this to fail.
"For that." Mr. Suleiman said, looking at them directly, "you’re going to have to trust me."
Jane wondered at the wisdom of subjecting herself to this strange machine, and felt queasy about handing over eighteen hundred dollars to the creepy stranger with the intense eyes. But she quickly dismissed any doubts or thoughts of delay, reached into her purse and handed M. Suleiman a sealed white envelope, thick with bills. Regret could come later. Right now, youth was waiting.
Lying in the metausine was anti-climactic. She saw nothing. The colors of the spectrum did seem to filter through the glass panels as M. Suleiman had said, but she couldn’t tell whether this actually so or whether it was just her imagination acting upon the tortured explanation she had just heard. She thought she felt a slight warmth, but then again she couldn’t be sure. There was no fan to move the heavy air about, and lying in sunlight under glass was enough to make anyone warm. Her toes and fingertips seemed to tingle, and she thought she felt a slight buzzing in her ears, the left one more so than the right, but she had recently felt this buzzing and had made a mental note to see a doctor.
After ninety minutes or so, her thoughts racing from 'what have I done' to 'what if this works', M. Suleiman came back into the room, flipped a switch, and told her time was up. Her husband took her place on the marble slab, and promptly fell asleep. All Jane’s attempts to elicit his experience for comparison in the metausine, were met with his sullen
"I don’t know, I was sleeping."
Their neighbors were curious to hear from John and Jane about what happened while they were in the metausine. But not wanting to say too much just in case it didn't work, they remained mum, only allowing that they felt "energized."
After four weeks not much seemed to have changed for John and Jane. They felt embarrassed. Taken for ride. Their sons berated them for wasting eighteen hundred dollars. They knew their neighbors were whispering about them, calling them gullible, even foolish. They took to staying indoors, grateful that they embarked on this grand experiment in the summer, when they only had to leave the safety of their house for trips to the grocery store.
M. Suleiman sat by the entrance of his shop every day for two more weeks with no other customers coming take up the offer of the metausine. Sam Sullivan did indeed look younger, but given who he was, that could have been due to anything. For all they knew, he could have taken to wearing makeup. The people who mattered, those who were
normal like them, had not yet changed. Behind their backs, the neighbors snickered at John and Jane.
But, one morning, as she raised her arms to fix her hair for one of the infrequent visits to the store, Jane noticed that her arms, reflected in the mirror, were not quite so flabby as they were before. Dropping her brush, she pushed her hair into a part with her fingers to look at the roots. They were darker, thicker, not the dull grey that had grown in twenty
She called excitedly to her husband who came rushing in, wondering what all her shrieking was about. It was then that she noticed. He had run, run, into the room. She suddenly saw that his face was younger, his arms bulky and bulging once again.
“Look!” she cried, gawking at their reflections in the mirror, “it’s working!”
John looked closely at his image. He had felt more active, but he was still smarting from being called an idiot, and he dreaded to compound that notion by actually saying that the metausine was affecting a change, but it was undeniable. There were changes. The metausine worked! He was getting younger!
Their belief accelerated the process. Although the changes continued to be gradual, each day brought a new revelation. After several more weeks, Jane’s belly, stretched and sagging after having given birth to four sons, became smooth and firm once again. Gone were the aching joints, the tiredness, the fuzzy memory. As for John, his muscles began to come alive. His hair was growing in dark again, and best of all he could perform like an eighteen-year old again—at everything.
John and Jane felt vindicated. They began to proudly parade around town, happily telling anyone who cared to ask about the wonders of the metausine. But the people didn’t really need to ask anymore. They could see for themselves what had happened to John and Jane and especially Sam Sullivan. And for only nine hundred dollars!
Where once, everyone avoided M. Suleiman, now everyone flocked to his little store. There was even an occasional line of people extending down the block, each waiting to spend their ninety minutes in the metausine. For the next six weeks they happily paid their money, each person describing in colorful detail all the sensations they felt, or all the
visions they saw while lying in the wondrous machine. Oh it was a glorious time!
Then one morning, after most had taken advantage of the metausine, he was gone just as suddenly as he had arrived. M. Suleiman, his truck and all remnants of the "amazing metausine" were gone. The only thing left was a gaping hole in the roof where the seven glass panels had been, and a pile of shingles in the corner that were the roof before he
arrived. The vortex, they murmured. Must be the vortex. But no matter, M. Suleiman had brought them joy. Each day was a new change, a new revelation:
"I can run as fast as I used to."
"Look at how my hair is growing in!"
"All my wrinkles are gone!" And on and on.
The first hint that something was amiss was when seven months after M. Suleiman had left, Jane and John had their first argument in a long time. They had just come back in from one of their now frequent trips to the store and about to enjoy their Friday night pastime--curling up together on the old sofa eating bowl after bowl of ice-cream. As she tossed her newly-grown locks, trying not to scrunch her face too much lest the wrinkles come creasing in again, she reached to scoop a spoonful of ice-cream from her husband’s bowl when he suddenly pulled away and screamed:
Stunned, Jane dropped her spoon to the floor and looked at her husband in disbelief. He was standing in the kitchen by the sink balancing his bowl in the crook of his arm and holding two cartons of ice-cream, one in each hand, his face resolute in its stubbornness.
"Mine!" he repeated.
"Why can’t I get some?" Jane asked, puzzled by his sudden outburst.
"One’s vanilla, and one’s strawberry and they’re my favorite!"
"They can’t both be your favorite,”"she said confused. "Why can’t we share like we like we always do?"'
"I don’t want to!" he screamed, stamping his foot.
Jane, now angry herself, grabbed one of the cartons from him, "You have to share!"
John began screaming, and in an action that surprised them both, threw himself on the floor, flailing and kicking in the throes of a childish tantrum. Jane, shocked, tried to reconcile herself to what she had just seen. Her husband of almost thirty-five years, a man in his seventies—albeit his altered seventies—was throwing a tantrum about ice cream!
As they looked at each other perplexed, Jane dimly remembered something that M. Suleiman had said: the metausine returns you to the time and age that you felt your best. What they did not realize then was that the time one felt best, did not necessarily coincide with the time one looked best. Jane felt best when she was thirty, but looked best at
twenty, and this was just what the metausine bestowed on her. Her husband looked best at eighteen, before the accident that left the thick scar at the side of his face that took away his confidence and led him to marry Jane in the first place, but he felt best when he was two, basking in the unconditional love of his mother.
Sam Sullivan was the only one who had understood the metausine. He knew he looked best at twenty-two, but he knew that he felt best at sixty. His bargain with the metausine was to retain the wisdom of his years, and the strength and good looks he had in his twenties: the best of both worlds, the vigor of youth and the wisdom of age. And to have that forever! In exchange for a “thought machine” that might never work! It was the best barter he ever made.
Jane’s frustration’s grew daily. She was often brought to tears when her beloved husband, unable to help himself, dissolved into a tyrannical two-year old at the slightest hint of disagreement.
The rest of the populace began in short order to realize the Faustian bargain they had made. In their zeal, their eagerness to hold on to their youth, none had thought to ask M. Suleiman if the changes were reversible, or how long they would last, and no-one had thought to ask him where he would go next.
The town of Normal became anything but. It became a strange place where the children got older, but the parents remained trapped in a weird sort of limbo, with age and emotions irritatingly out of sync. All attempts to locate M. Suleiman came to no avail, and no-one knew how to get things back to the way they were.
Then, one morning, just like many mornings before, another store opened up. The new sign said the owner was Rose, and that she was a teller of fortunes and a caster of spells. She had been drawn to that spot, she said, because she had heard there was there was a great need. But one had to be sure, before consulting her, she said, very sure.