There is only a thin sunlight this morning, yet the pill glows with promise. It is blue and fat, the kind of gelatinous capsule we used to call a supplement. But those pills were never blue; they were oily colours, browns and yellows, they spoke of healthy colons and balanced chemistry. I used to work in marketing, I know about these things.
This pill is blue. And no mere blue, but the blue of a southern sea, the kind of blue that used to be as good as promising happiness. I know they have done this on purpose, the better to tug at some distant memory in younger people’s minds, their childhood impressions: the blue that my grandmother used to sigh over.
My grandmother, meaning myself.
I take the pill and roll it in my hand. Soft and oblong, like some alien roe. Perhaps I will have a muscle spasm right now, at this very instant, and crush it irrevocably. All that money, dribbling through my fingers. The waters of life. Would a lick be enough, then, or would it only give me a half-life, a few more uneasy years, shuffling my pains around my body with its chemical sleight-of-hand?
All my life I avoided these moments, preferring my choices to be made by circumstance, by the accidents that arise when billions of bodies careen pointlessly about. And of those billions, how many can remember what I remember? How many remember silence, wires, combustion engines, lives circumscribed by the most basic laws of physics?
We are a dying breed.
It was fated, the timing of it all: I had just been returned from burying my last living friend. Sent back from that small graveyard to my small room like an unwanted parcel, passed from hand to hand, from Sal’s relations to flight attendants, skycaps to shuttle operators, until finally I was deposited in the lobby of the facility I call home.
All those hands. I can still feel them, I keep expecting to see their imprints still, see their fingertips patterning my skin.
And two days later, they announced the pill. Aging Conquered: New Pill Halts Degeneration. As if we had been at war with time itself. The blue oblong made larger than a baby by the close-up, filling our screens: you could see its glow in every window, like some chemical visitation.
They announced it, and the world teetered as it always does when it is about to change, that wobble of impending transformation.
I went to bed early that night.
The pill came too late, is what I want to tell David. This earnest grandnephew of mine. Not even my blood; only a paper relation. Yet every time he comes, the words die on my lips.
I don’t know why he visits so often. He has that distracted air that everyone has these days: perpetually in the midst of several conversations. His lips are always moving, he’s always touching the frames of his glasses. A bitter pill to swallow, that the world has found new ways to talk, ways that do not include you. Now I watch these perpetually engaged people and I think, I am tired just looking at you, how can you not want to go to bed all the time? When do you get to shut the door?
David comes every week, sometimes twice in a week. He buys me old movies to watch, or asks me to give him something to read aloud—poetry mostly, he says they don’t teach it anymore. I hunt for the ones I have carried the longest, I draw out old favourites, poems so thick with memory their very sounds choke me. Here I am, he reads, an old man in a dry month, being read to by a boy, waiting for rain… He reads it like a headline; still I expect him to stop, to consider what he has just uttered. Doesn’t he see? Over a century gone, all these new ways of travelling and talking, the world supposedly as small as a postage-stamp now: yet still we fall into these patterns. Doesn’t he see how the words resonate, how they glow as brightly as the pill?
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds, David reads.
Does he even know what a postage-stamp looks like?
He just keeps reading, serious and intent, every now and then touching the frame of his glasses: I am an old man, a dull head among windy spaces. And I nearly laugh at him, even as I feel something is slipping away from us both. How can I make him understand, how can I teach him what I have taken for granted for so long?
When he brought me the pill I blurted out: Oh David, you shouldn’t have! As if he had brought me a box of candy.
There’s no reason not to, he said. Why wouldn’t you want to live as long as you can?
I had no answer.
The ones they interview, they say it is like being twenty again, inside; they appear on the screen dancing, running, taking up new sports in bodies as curved and as twisted as coastal pines.
There was a man here, in the facility, his daughter is someone important in government; his pill came a week after the announcement, in a blue box stamped Personal that he promptly took to his room, shutting the door though we never shut our doors. The click of the lock echoing in the hall.
Later he told me in a whisper that it just stopped him where he was, like a fly in amber, all his aches and pains intact but never worse. He said this shamefacedly, as if he had somehow failed the pill, not the other way around. When his daughter came to take him to his new apartment he acted spry and happy, and grimaced when she looked the other way.
No one admits to regretting it.
They say that cellular regeneration is inevitable now: since they’ve halted time, its reversal is a foregone conclusion. Sharper memories, years wiped off bodies, everyone prescribed to a pleasant twenty-something stasis.
It’s just a matter of time.
I keep the pill on my bedside table, and I wait for a sign.
It is my birthday and I tell David: The beach, please. It has been so long. The facility has excursions for us, trips to the park or a shop, but the beach is far and the staff, may they forgive me, is quite lazy. Even if there was such a trip, I’m not sure I would be allowed; I am the oldest here by more than a decade, I am treated like a prize antique now, to be admired and displayed but in no way handled. Going to Sal’s funeral used up all my credit.
David lies to them with ease, he says he is taking me for a walk nearby, and then we are away. The roads are canyons now, computer-driven cars smoothly funnelled between blank soundwalls. Once he’s finalized our route and speeds David dozes, and like a child I play with the controls until I figure out how to make the window open. The roads may be different but oh! that lovely air, salty with promise: it is clean and brisk and it is the same, every breath tastes exactly as I remember and I gulp it down, nearly heaving, my lungs more full than they have been in years.
My husband loved the beach and I loved it through him; I was never that keen on the grittiness that lingered even after a shower, or how brittle your hair became. But put him on a beach and he was transformed, the engineer turned boy again: building sandcastle after sandcastle, fortresses and moats, ramparts and trenches. Watching with a strange earnestness as the ocean slid into his carefully designed canals and splashed up against his dams. All of it slowly eroding; it was for those fleeting first moments that he worked so hard, those few seconds when the water simply sat in the sand, giving life to what he had imagined.
David has bought me a pail and a shovel; he says he had trouble finding one, he found mine at a street vendor. I suppose not many people do this anymore. Certainly the beach is nearly empty, despite the lovely heat of the day, the cool grey-blue water beckoning. A few old people like myself, a family on a blanket with seemingly all their earthly possessions in bags. In my time, even on a workday—and do they think in such terms anymore? Workdays and weekends?—even on a workday there would be mothers and children here, lounging teenagers eyeing each other or making out. Tinny radios vying for your attention, the chatter of dozens of voices, all mingling with the surf in a rumbling cacophony. There was so much noise. Where have all those sounds gone, the teenagers and the mothers, the boys throwing Frisbees and balls and each other about in the water, the happy dogs barking and panting?
Now there are only the lonely gulls, careening overhead, their cries echoing.
When I ask David he just shrugs and says something about pollution worries, from the generators off the coastline. Besides, people don’t really take vacations anymore, he says. You travel so much for other reasons, it all kind of blends together.
He himself keeps well away from the water, sitting beneath an enormous umbrella that he bought from that same vendor. They can remove skin cancer now, but the experience is painful; like seemingly everyone these days, David studiously avoids pain. He cannot understand why I do not take advantage of joint replacements, swapping the sore bits for frictionless plastic. They make pills for nearly everything now; surgery is almost all lasers, a few minutes on a table. Even childbirth has become a quick removal, the scar tiny and discrete.
Only once, when David was very young, did he ask me, Tatie, why didn’t you ever have children?
And I could have told him about the years of trying and failing, my desires and my fears roiling about in myself. How I loved my husband yet would sometimes want to scream at him, Is it you? Did you just not tell me? How I saw the price of the fertility treatments—no guarantees, of course!—and I just knew. How sometimes circumstances decide these things for you, blocking you at every turn until finances and fear and the ticking clock all conspire to reduce you to an animal, trying to generate a spark from two wet sticks of wood.
Instead I tell him the line I remember a comedian saying, about what childbirth felt like: It’s like taking your lower lip and forcing it over your head.
Later, his mother took me aside and asked me to not tell him such frightening things, that no one does it that way anymore. Like I was some Victorian madwoman, showing off my trepanned skull. And then I understood why I had never been able to conceive: I had been born too old; I was elderly before I even turned grey.
I leave David to his glasses and his umbrella and walk towards the water, the bright red pail swinging from my hand. I’m always a little unsteady now, but here on the sand the unsteadiness feels natural. My body seems to dissolve in the heat, my feet are puffy and burning and I cannot tell if they are my feet now or my feet before, perhaps years before, perhaps when I was very small.
When I look around I am startled not to find my husband by my side, and for a second that grief rushes through me again, so strong I nearly stumble.
What used to be a single taut line of sea and sky is now punctuated by the generators, rolling and rocking, their lines somewhere beneath the surface. There is no more swimming here, only wading. And perhaps the sand beneath me is contaminated, perhaps the water is leaching poisons into my skin, my bloodstream; but it feels the same, it looks and smells the same. The wet sand as muddy as the day a little boy threw a glob into my face, terrifying my child-self: was I blinded? Even now the fear is white-bright in my mind, the first time I had tasted something irreversible. When my mother flushed the sand from my eyes I cried not from fright or pain but from gratitude. And gratitude is what I feel now, watching the waves roll and break, the foamy water sluicing around my ankles. The sight is as majestic as when my father and I used to ride the swells, letting the water push us high above the beach, ducking beneath the sharper crests. The two of us emerging hours later, our fingers and toes wrinkled, our shoulders bright red; I wasn’t sure if I would ever see this again. I am grateful.
Would he have taken the pill, alone, without my mother, without siblings or friends, without me?
At this moment, every inch of my body tingling alight with salt and sand and the sun’s deep heat—
—oh, I am so alive—
—at this moment, I look in my heart and I cannot say.
I walk a little further until I find a good flat stretch, untouched by anything save the feathery footprints of plovers. Their makers gone now but I can imagine how they looked this morning, rushing to follow the outgoing water and nip at the worms, racing back to dry land at the next incoming crash. We never tired of watching them, my husband and I, marvelling at such singularity of purpose. Marvelling, and never seeing that same intent in ourselves, even as we arrived weekend after weekend, me with my camera and books, him digging and building, packing and smoothing, releasing the week’s stresses. Feeding the gulls our crusts, walking the long flat expanses after the last of his works had washed away. Holding hands, our shoes left forgotten. Always exclaiming over the horizon, the clouds, the familiar changeable beauty. There were no blue pills and no other conversations, no voices in our ears or screens before our eyes. There was noise and there was silence, the rush to the water and the long drive home again, idling in traffic, spinning through the radio stations or just sitting.
All the stuff of fiction now, or poetry—
not a map of choices but a map of variations
on the one great choice.
I dig and I dig, heaping handfuls of wet sand one atop another, pushing up towers with my thumbs, cupping my hands to form high ramparts, gouging out moats grooved by my fingertips. Dragging my heel out and down and for a moment I am my husband, I am looking at myself and I am my husband, carefully hopping backwards trailing a single wavering trench. I am sweating and dizzy and I have not felt these things in so long. Every muscle in my body aches, every joint throbs. In the sand my hands now, spotted and wrinkled and nested with veins; in the sand my hands as they were, before, small and plump, smooth and thin. The sand always the same in its infinite difference, only myself changing, changing.
Somewhere in my belly there is a knot, and in that knot is a sound, only I do not know whether it would be a scream or a cry, a song or a single word, and in the end does it matter? There is no one to hear, no one I want to hear, not anymore.
On my bedside table is a pill in a shade of blue that has never existed. Sky-blue, ocean-blue, these things have always been not one but a thousand colours, a conversation in reflections. My blues are my own, not that flattened glow that can speak only of in or out, life or death.
At last I sit back on my heels and watch the water slide in, not enough and then with the second wave it pours in, following my canals and hollows. And there is a second, just a second, when it all works as it should, my castle and its moat and the great network of tributaries and dams, and it is so deeply satisfying I start to cry—
—and then the water overruns the walls and starts smoothing it all away, and I can feel the slow rubbing of my mother’s hand on my back, and it is the realest thing I have ever known.
Tatie, Tatie, David says gently, what’s wrong?
I did not hear him, did not see the shadow that fell over me; I take a deep breath, letting the pain ebb. What do they call this? I ask. This, this erosion. Is there a name for it?
He sits down beside me and touches his glasses; his eyes become unfocused as he murmurs words. Waves. Beach. Berm. Swash. Transport. And I see then that this new world is in many ways very old, it is still all circles, all of it: my sweet, lonely grandnephew is nothing more than an oracle.
At last he blinks, focuses on me once more. Littoral drift?
Drift. Your body seeping away from you, one soft wave after another, until at last you are nothing more than sand, everywhere and nowhere. For a moment I feel it happening to me, a wonderful ebbing, being carried away into cool dark depths—
That’s what I want, I tell David, and what if there is such a thing? All that they can do, now. I can even see it, in my mind’s eye: a pill not blue but clear, clear as pure water, filled with the promise of absence.
That’s what I want, David. To drift. The words almost spilling out of me, the relief of it, he may not understand but perhaps I can explain it still, perhaps I can use the poetry, teach him to feel how the words can reverberate, leave him that one bright piece of myself—
But David is looking at me strangely, as if from a great distance, and then I hear what I just said. Not the words as I saw them in my mind, but the sounds that came out of my mouth.
David? I ask, and what I say is not his name at all.
Tatie, just sit, he says then, and there is fear in his voice, a panicky warble. I’ll call for help. Just sit.
The water rushes over me again, and again, sweet cool-warm waves that swirl around my knees, puddle over the backs of my feet. I want to know who David is calling, but I can no longer hear him for all the noise, there is suddenly so much noise. Voices shouting and laughing and whispering, they’re whispering right in my ear, what are they saying? I cannot hear for the radios, for the pop songs and rock songs and rap songs, songs I’ve heard at all different times, what time is this? David’s shadow still over me but I am surrounded by a throng of ghosts, all my years falling in upon me at once.
Oh where is my pill, my clear pill, to let it all ebb away?
David leans over me, saying Tatie you should lie down. They’re on their way. But it is not David’s face that looms before me but my husband’s. Nice job with the moat, he adds with a smile. I was watching, it held on for ages. And you used to laugh at me!
Not at you, I say earnestly, with you. Always with you.
Tatie, just lie down, he says in David’s voice, but the hand that guides my head onto the sand—oh, I know that touch, and I want to seize it to myself, I want to hold it so tight.
Now the voices are louder. Now I feel shadows flitting over me, people passing. I can smell suntan lotion. The sun hotter now, though it should be cooler, isn’t it past noon? The water flows around me again and I think, Is it happening? And then I know it’s happening: tiny particles of myself are breaking off, sliding out to the sea with each retreating wave.
Beach. Berm. Swash. Transport.
Hands touch me, they’re opening my eyelids, my mouth. Dark shirts press in, blocking out the sun. I am lying in my bed, in the facility, watching the dark shirts in the next room, taking someone away, away forever, and I am afraid for them. For myself. I am in my room and they are moving over me and I am afraid—
The water slides around my feet. David reads aloud: Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
Can you hear me? someone says.
I start to say yes but just then two boys in bathing trunks rush past, kicking up so much sand it casts a haze across the very sky. I watch them run and they are running towards other shapes, I know they are people, they are the people who should be here. Eating ice creams and watching birds, holding hands and building castles, where have they all been?
Why aren’t I with them?
A needle held up to the sky. Blue inside, that blue.
David! I cry. David not that pill, that’s the wrong pill.
They are saying things, soothing things, but I am terrified. The clear one, I say. The clear one, I want the clear one.
A swab and a poke and they start to press—
—and I am jerked upwards with a stomach-wrenching lurch, I am flying upwards, straight into the blue sky. The rush of air in my face, the glorious blinding sun. Gulls, so many gulls crying, the meaty rustle of their wings. Suntan lotion, car exhaust, my husband’s warm skin. My hands before me, small and plump, smooth and thin.
I close my eyes and hold on. For dear life.
We gratefully acknowledge the citation of poetic work by Adrienne Rich (“Dreamwood,” W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.) in this story, reproduced with permission.
Story copyright © 2015 by L.S. Johnson
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Gregory St. John
L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Long Hidden, Fae, Strange Tales V, and other venues. Currently she is working on a fantasy trilogy set in 18th-century Europe.
Gregory St. John is an artist and fiction writer living in Gainesville, Florida. If he is not painting or sculpting, tending to his gardens and chickens, studying history and science, reading while walking his four dogs, cooking, or building something, he is hard at work at the family perfume business, Solstice Scents. He is currently drafting his first novel and editing a collection of his short stories titled The Short and Curlies, featuring “The Presence of Hell,” “Servant of Stone,” “A Helping Hand,” and “The Dare.”