IMPRACTICAL LOVERS

© 2019 Bill Murphy

      Is love truly blind?  Or does love, with imperfect vision, barge full steam ahead, in spite of walls and barriers which would derail anything less than love? 

     If you knew before falling in love, that this love would have no chance of success, that it would not, could not, have a happy ending… would you still allow your heart to set out on that path to disappointment and heartache?  The answer is not as easy as you might think.

    This is the story of two individuals, both blessed, or cursed… call it what you wish, with the unique fore-knowledge that love for them would be hopeless.

                                            ____________________________

Cliff and Karen

     Grocery shopping was not one of Cliff Barnes favorite things, but he was out of milk, low on coffee, and Kroger was just ahead.  After a stressful week at work, it was finally Friday afternoon, and he was ready to be home.  No doubt the store would be crowded, but he pulled into the parking lot anyway.  He needed the coffee, both a cup of fresh brewed, as well as a can of ground. 

     The lot was not as filled as he’d expected.  Surprisingly, he found an empty space near the front door.  Inside, his first stop was the coffee bar.  Starbucks was not his favorite.  He considered it both over-priced and bitter, but it was coffee, so he stopped.   No one was in line before him.  Good!  He got his fresh brew quickly, and after doctoring it to his liking, looked for a seat.  They had but three small tables, and two were taken.  He took a seat at the empty table.  It felt good to relax.  The drive out of the city had been taxing, only adding to his beaten down mood.  Although making physical deliveries and having face to face meetings were not his cup of tea, it was also often part of a home-based research business. 

     The coffee now had his full attention, as he sipped at it slowly, relishing the comforting warmth of the bitter brew.  At first he didn’t notice the slender brunette who’d walked up to the coffee bar.  How could he not have notice?  Quickly, his attention turned from the cup in his hands to the woman.  She was striking.

     She appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties, close to his own age.  Although a bit on the thin side, she was not at all skinny.  She also appeared to have recently come from work.   

     She was stylishly dressed, very business/professional.  An expensive looking briefcase with a wide strap, hung from her shoulder.  He imagined her in a legal firm, or perhaps investments or banking.    

    But this women, or any woman for that matter, shouldn’t be a part his life.  He’d made that painful decision years ago.  Female companionship simply wasn’t in the cards for Clifton Barnes.  It would be easier that way.  It would be best for both parties involved.   So be it.

Yes, this female-free lifestyle had often drawn the obvious conclusion.  But it was an incorrect conclusion.  He was genetically male, but physically and mentally. 

     Now caught off guard, he felt himself being drawn to her. 

     Coffee in hand, she turned, looking for a place to sit.  He rose to his feet.  “Here, take this table,” he said.  “I was just leaving.”

     “Are you sure?” she asked, smiling, her voice sweet as a songbird.

     “Yes, I’m sure.  The cumquats are calling.”

     “Cumquats?” 

     “OK.  Cucumbers.  The truth is, I’m not real sure what a cumquat is.”

     She smiled at his sophomoric attempt to impress.  But the smile quickly faded.  “Thanks anyway,” she said almost curtly, then turned and walked away. 

     He stood beside the table, feeling a bit ashamed of his adolescent attempt at charm.  He had, it appeared, offended her.  Was she married?  Probably.  He sat back down.  So much for grocery shopping.  He didn’t want to run the risk of passing her in the aisles.  That would be embarrassing.   

                                             ___________________________ 

     Three Friday afternoons later he was grocery shopping in Walmart.  He’d decided to forgo Kroger, for fear he might meet her again.  That would be embarrassing. 

     He was focused upon getting his short list filled, anxious to get home.  He’d just turned onto the cereal aisle when he practically ran into her.

     “Oh good,” she exclaimed. “I’m glad I found into you again.  We need to talk, at least I do.” 

     Cliff was taken off guard.  

     He stood speechless as she continued. “I’m afraid I was a bit curt with you that afternoon in Kroger.  That’s not like me, at least I don’t think it is.  The truth is, I’m not sure what happened that afternoon.  I want to apologize for how I acted.”

     “No apology’s necessary.  Not from you.  I was the one, well, flirting.”   

      “I still chuckle when I think of that cumquat remark.  That was cute.  I never asked your name.  Mine’s Karen, Karen Olmsted.”

     “Clifton, Clifton Barnes,” he replied, extending his hand.  “Friends call me Cliff.”

     “Again, I apologize for my behavior that day Cliff.  I really needed to explain.”

     “No explanation necessary Karen.  Really.”

     “But there is.  There really is.  Please.  Look, Walmart’s not the best place for diplomatic negotiations.  And besides, I’m actually in a bit of a rush right now.  I’m trying to get to a club meeting on time.  Can we meet somewhere for dinner, perhaps even tomorrow night?”

     “Wow!  I didn’t see that coming,” he said.  “If you’re asking me out, the answer is yes, sure thing.  That would be great.”

     “There’s a new little mom and pop place about 2 blocks from here, over by Pier One.  It’s a new sandwich shop, called the Pig’s Tail,  if that’s OK with you?”

     “Perfect.  I’ve eaten there already, and it is absolutely fantastic.  Say about 7?”

     “7 it is.  And thanks Cliff.  I really do appreciate it.”

     This time after she’d turned to walk away, she looked back, and smiled.

                                             ___________________________

Their First Date

     She was already there when he arrived, and he thought he’d be the one jumping the gun. 

“I believe in being fashionably early,” she said, as he took his seat.

     “That’s a good habit,” he replied.

     “And a hard lesson for some to learn, just ask my sister.  There was a day in Denver when she arrived at the airport on her schedule and not the airline’s.  She missed the last flight out, just as a 3 day blizzard blanketed the area.”

     “Touché,” he remarked.

     “So far, Mr. Clinton Barnes, all I really know about you is your name, that you usually shop at Kroger, and you drink Starbucks coffee.”

     “You left out that I have no knowledge of cumquats.”

     “OK, you got me on that one,” she said.  “Now fill in on a few more blanks if you will.”

     “Let’s just say I’m in my early 30s.  Un-attached, and unencumbered.  I’m self-employed.  I have a comfortably successful web design / web hosting business.  I also do web research, which I like to refer to as ‘mining,’  for clients without the patience or time to dig for those elusive nuggets of knowledge themselves.  And, I enjoy my work immensely.”

     “On points 1, 2 and 3, we’re a match, as we also are with your last point.  Similarly, I also do research, but for a brokerage firm, basically playing with other people’s money.  But the pay’s good, and it’s quite gratifying.”

     “I don’t peg you for a bowler.  How about golf, or tennis?’

     “Tennis,” she replied.  And you?”

     “Equal parts of Chess and The History Channel.”

     “Both are good for the ole brain,” she said.  Very good.”

     Their conversation was briefly interrupted by the waitress. 

     After their beverages were ordered, Cliff asked if they could have a few more minutes to select their order.  “2 minutes, that’s all we ask,” he said.

     The place was not at all crowded, so the waitress was in no hurry.

     “My, everything looks so good,” she exclaimed.  “What do you suggest?”

     “I hear that their BLTs are to die for, as well as their Rubens.”

     “Now you’ve only complicated things.  I love them both.”

     “No problem,” he said, as he lifted a hand, signaling for the waitress.

     “Are you ready now?” She asked. 

     “Yes we are,” he replied.  “Both the lady and I want the BLT and the Ruben, but not a BLT and a Ruben each.  Please, have the BLT cut in half, as well as the Ruben, and serve a half of each on each plate.  However, should that cause any confusion in the kitchen, then bring us one Ruben and one BLT and one knife. 

     From the look in the young girl’s eyes, this must have been her first ‘off the menu’ order. 

     “Ok, he said, bring me the BLT and her the Ruben, and one knife.  Or, bring her the BLT and me the Ruben, and one knife.”

     “Oh,” the girl replied.  “Now I get it.  Gotcha,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.  She scurried away to place the order.

     “Cliff,” Karen began, “I’m still bewildered by why I wanted to have this meeting.  I’ve been almost as perplexed as our waitress.  Let’s just say, I felt compelled meet with you again.”

     She paused for a long moment, gathering her thoughts.

     “Over a year ago, I made up my mind to forgo… all… shall we say… personal relationships, with men that is.  That would be best for all involved.”

     “I hope you’ll explain that decision.”

     “My decision was not based on a relationship gone south.  Quite the contrary.  I was engaged to a wonderful man, a fellow of impeccable character, every father’s dream of the perfect son-in-law.  And yes, we were deeply in love.”

     Cliff leaned forward, hanging onto her every word.

     The problem was in me, within me, within my body that is.  You see, about two years ago, I had a standard, annual physical check-up.  But I was blind-sided by a devastating discovery.  I have, it was found, dozens of tiny ‘lesions’ on my brain.  They’re very slowly growing, but baring some unforeseeable miracle, they’re incurable.  I was told then that I had perhaps 4 years left, certainly no more. 

     Cliff instinctively reached and took her hand.

     “I loved Bradley, my fiancee, far too much to put him through what was ahead for me.  He deserves much better.  He deserves happiness, and a future.  I concocted a story about not being sure about my love for him, and broke off the engagement.  I wanted him to move on with his life, even if it meant that I couldn’t be a part of it.”

      Cliff stared at her, deep into her eyes.  Although he remained silent, Karen could see sincere compassion in his eyes. 

     “So you see, I broke my rule when I searched for you in Kroger, finally finding you in Walmart.  And that’s why I’m so bewildered about this meeting tonight.  Why did I feel so guilty about turning my back on you that day.  And why did I feel it was so necessary to find you again, and explain myself?”

     The waitress arrived with their order.  This broke the spell of the moment.

     “I’ll tell you what Karen.  Let’s enjoy our dinner now.  Let’s keep the issue at hand our Ruben and BLT, at least for the moment.  After dinner, let’s take a stroll through the park.  It’s well lit, and tonight’s a clear night.  Perhaps the stars can shed some light on this dilemma.  And perhaps they’ll give me the courage to open up to you with my story.  You see, you’re not the only one with a KEEP AWAY sign on their heart.”

     The sandwiches were delicious.  Karen couldn’t make up her mind which was better.  “When next time you accidentally run into me,” she said, “it will probably be here.”

     After the meal was finished, Cliff excused myself to go to the restroom.  Actually, he went to the front desk and paid the meal.  He was old-fashioned about things like that.  

                               ________________________________

Cliff Tells His Story

     Three weeks later, Cliff and Karen were in their favorite haunt, ‘The Pig’s Tail.’  This time Karen tried something new on the menu, Blackened Pork Loin with Shrimp.  

     “Are you sure you want to try that?” Cliff asked.

    “Sure.  What do I have too lose, and maybe only heartburn to gain!”    

     “You continue to amaze me,” he replied.

     “And you, me,” she added.

     “Perhaps then, it might amaze you to know that I want to tell you my story, my, shall we say, complete story, tonight,” he said.

     “I’m glad to hear that.  So far, in the three weeks since I’ve known you, you’ve carefully side-stepped that little issue.”

     Cliff sat back in his seat.  

     “You do intend to tell me, don’t you?” She asked.

     “Yes, yes I do.  But in some place a bit more, shall we say, private than this.  And, the story may take some time to tell, more time than these folks care to have us occupying their seats.

     Although the dinner was delicious and Cliff was entertaining, she still didn’t think the night would ever end.  She was eager to hear his story, whatever that was.  It had caused her far too many sleepless nights already.

     After the meal, and as they walked to his vehicle, he stopped under a street light.  “I don’t want this to make you unduly nervous, but, may I unload my story, my burden, at your place?” he asked.

     “Sure,” she replied.

     “That way, if you decide it’s best for you to run home screaming, you’ll already be there.”

     “You’re kidding me?  Right?”

     “Sorta-kinda,” he said.  “I really can’t expect you to believe it, not immediately anyway.”

     “Wow!” She replied.  “Now you really have me interested, as if I wasn’t already.”

    Cliff reached and took her hands in his.  “Karen, there’s only one other person who knows my story.  Only one.  And like you, my ‘issue’ is somewhat medical also.  My physician and close personal friend, Dr. Jeremy Wade is the only other person who knows.”

     “Now you’re kinda frightening me,” she said.

     “Not to worry.  I have nothing contagious, nor life threatening.  In fact, it’s actually quite the opposite.  You’ll have your questions answered soon, at least, those questions which I can answer.”

     The drive to her apartment seemed to take forever.  The short climb up the stairs to her door had never been longer.

     Finally, they were sitting in her living room.  He insisted that she sit on the sofa, while he took a chair across from her.  They were close, within touching distance.  But he wanted to be face to face with her, eye to eye, with this woman that he knew now that he loved.     

     “Let me preface this by telling you a story of my favorite aunt.  She was my mother’s older sister, who always lived near to us.  I simply adored that woman.  She lived to be 97.  She was bed-ridden the last 4 years of her life.  She’d fallen, and broken her hip, and it wouldn’t heal properly.  Although her body had failed, but her mind was still as sharp as a tack.”  He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts.  “I often heard her remark, lying in that bed day after endless day, ‘I’m so tired.’  That was her way of saying, ‘I’m ready to die.’  Karen, I too have sometimes felt that way.  But strangely, for a very different, even an opposite reason.”

     “I’m trying to follow you,” she said.

     “Karen, the truth about me is, as they say, stranger than fiction.  But my store is true, as incredible as it sounds.  I wish it was not, although many would no doubt choose to trade places with me.  I wish they could.  This supposed ‘gift’ that I have is as much a curse as a blessing.  And… it’s a very difficult and heavy burden to bare.”

     Karen had his undivided attention.

     “You see, you and I have somewhat similar issues, issues having to do with time itself, that is, a knowledge of the amount time that has been granted us.  With others, that question is answered by hope, by chance, as they step toward death one day at a time.  But with you and I, our time here on earth seems to have been assigned.  Unfortunately, yours is shorter, whereas mine is, much longer. 

     “Cliff, now you’re scaring me.”

     He reached for her hand.  “Have you ever seen the movie, or read the book, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons?

     He didn’t pause for her to answer.  “The original story was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1921.  It’s about a fellow who ages backwards, from elderly, to youthful.  It’s sort of science fiction without the flying saucers.  Karen, I’m a living, breathing, Benjamin Buttons.”

     She immediately released his hand, and sat back.  She didn’t know whether to laugh, scream, or cry.  A cold chill crept up her spine.

     “Yes, I’m different, very, very different from, well, from everyone,” he said.  “But, I’m not a freak.  I’m an accident, the product of an ill-conceived experiment by my nephew.  He’d been a research scientist for NASA.  He was trying to find a way to make long term space flight more bearable for humans.  But he had far different ideas of how to achieve this than did NASA, so they let him go.  But he continued his research.  I was his unwilling guinea pig.  But, something went horribly wrong.  That was in 1975.  I was 80 years old at the time.  Karen, that was over 40 years ago, making me 36 now,  or 124, depending on from where you count.”

     The truth was out.  Karen sat speechless, not knowing how to react.

                                      ___________________________

In The Beginning,

San Francisco, 1975

     Dr. Marshall Melton smelled a faint odor of ozone.  It wasn’t a strong smell, just a worrying sniff.  But even a slight sniff was not good in a lab filled with dozens of canisters of oxygen and flammable chemicals.  Ozone usually indicated an electrical problem.  This lab had hundreds of high voltage circuits.

     He walked around the lab, but couldn’t locate the source of the odor.  Perhaps his sense of smell had adjusted to this unwanted intrusion.  Looking closely for smoke, he found none, so returned to his work.

     His was a private lab, hidden away from prying eyes.  It was tucked away in the basement of an abandoned warehouse near the waterfront.  Although in an undesirable neighborhood, this decaying area was not as dangerous in 1975 as it would be today.  And, in that bygone era, it was much easier to hide such things as this.  Then, it would have been called clandestine.  Today, it would be referred to as off the grid.  

     Although not strictly ‘illegal,’ one could say that ‘unlawful’ things went on within these walls. Things also went on which would challenge a rational mind and conventional thinking.  Dr. Melton was attempting to practice a new form of alchemy, which some might label as down right sorcery.     

     “Trial A-238,” he spoke into the mike, “June 9th, 1975.  Serum number G18-3, dosage 50 milliliters.  Subject’s internal body temp,” he glanced at the reading on the display, “98.6 and holding steady.  Reaction time is estimated to be 15 minutes, give or take five.  The time now is… twenty three dash thirty seven hundred hours, Pacific Standard Time.  Injecting now.”

     At that instant there was a sudden flash of blinding light.

     Dr. Melton’s next grasp on reality was the blurred vision of a smoke-filled world turned sideways.  He lay on the floor, his ears ringing, his eyes burning, and his body bleeding from numerous wounds.  “Uncle!” He screamed. “Oh uncle!”

     He staggered to his feet.  The gurney on which his elderly uncle lay was still erect.  The sheet which had covered that frail body was nowhere to be seen.  The screens on the monitors were blank, so he pressed his ear to his uncle’s chest.  His heart was still beating, his breathing shallow but regular.  It was then that the doctor began to feel the heat, and see the fire which surrounded them, and was growing.

     There were but two ways out of the lab, the left led deeper into the building, to the opposite side.  That was the long way out.   The doorway to the right led into a narrow, inclined hallway, leading a short distance to the outside.  He quickly unlocked the wheels of the gurney, and snatched away the monitoring lines attached to his uncle’s thin body, and began pushing the gurney to the right, toward the door leading to safety.  It was slow going.  Burning debris littered the floor and dangled from the ceiling.  The wheels kept jamming against rubble.  The smoke was thickening.  

     Miraculously, there was no fire in the hallway.  It led up and out of the building, to the loading dock at ground level.  The lab was located in a half basement, so pushing the gurney uphill was difficult.  Dr. Melton had lost more blood than he’d first realized.  At last, they were outside, in the cool, smoke free air.

     He pushed the gurney thirty or more yards from the building.  His strength was almost spent. Then, in horror, remembered his notes and journals, his precious, irreplaceable records.  With a quick pat on his uncle’s foot, he turned and dashed back into the building.  The smoke in the hallway was much thicker now.  He had to feel his away along the walls.  He’d gotten only three feet into the burning lab when a massive blast rocked the building, killing the doctor instantly.  

     First responders discovered a most unusual sight, something they’d never expected to find.  Safely away from the burning building lay an old man on a gurney.  It was as if he’d been dropped off by an ambulance on the way to a hospital.  Tape and red whelps on his arms and legs showed where he’d been connected to numerous monitoring lines.  There were also dozens of small wounds on his body,  slightly bleeding.  None proved to be life-threatening.  The old fellow appeared to be heavily sedated.  He was taken immediately to University Hospital.

     The old warehouse had been derelict for years.  But, the blazing hulk of a late model Ford sedan sat in the area of what had once been the loading dock.  Firefighters battled the blaze for the remainder of the night, but nothing could be saved.  Within minutes of their arrival, the roof collapsed, and by dawn, the walls had fallen.  What was left was not much more than mounds of charred brick, twisted, steel, and a ton of questions.  Everyone thought that the building had been empty.  Who was the old man on the gurney?  What was he doing there?  And what about the burned out Ford?  Had another individual been inside the building?

                                      ___________________________

The Old Man On The Gurney

     The question of the old man was the first to be answered.  After an extensive check of surrounding hospitals, clinics, rehab centers, and nursing homes, it was learned that his name was Clifton K. Barnes, age eighty, and that he suffered from Alzheimer’s.  His dementia was in a very advanced state.  He had only one know relative, a nephew by the name of Dr. Marshall Melton, Ph.D., who of late had been his uncle’s caregiver.  The good doctor had assumed care for his uncle less than six months previously.  The nephew’s last known address was an upstate rural route.  The charred license plate on the Ford proved that it was registered to Dr. Melton, although, at a previous address. 

      A quick check discovered that the doctor’s upstate address was not much more than a corn field.  None in the area had either known, or seen him.  No trace of the doctor was ever found.  It was correctly assumed that he’d been incinerated in the fire, his ashes commingled with that of the building.

     The one interesting nugget of information they discovered, although only a partial nugget, was that at one point, the professor had worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  ‘Primate Research’ was attached to his name.  His official work there was still ‘classified.’  The mystery only deepened.

     Clifton Barnes was returned to the nursing home, seemingly none the worse for wear.  There he was seen on regular visits by a very conscientious medical intern from University Hospital, Dr. Jeremy Wade, who was specializing in geriatrics.  

                                      ___________________________

     At first, Clifton Barnes was ‘just another patient’ to the young Dr. Wade.  But that was slowly to change.  At first, his patient needed to be ‘stabilized,’ and his wounds dressed.   How he had survived the warehouse fire was a nagging mystery.  Plus, the question begging to be answered, was what was Mr. Barnes doing there, and on a hospital gurney!  Dr. Wade was soon conducting his own investigation, parallel to that of the authorities, although from a more ‘medical’ viewpoint.  

     Finding any thread of information was a slow going, hit and miss process.  The young doctor was soon leaning toward what he called his NASA Theory, which was based on the nephew’s previous research, whatever that had been.  Even after all these years, the government was still tight-lipped about it.   And, what could his uncle have to do with it?    

     After many months of hit and miss research, one day, amide all the dead-end trees he’d poked, he suddenly caught a glimpse of the forest, and he simply could not accept what he was seeing.    

     Science, it is said, is based upon provable facts.  Some call it, ‘seeing is believing.’  And that pivotal spring day in 1977, Dr. Jeremy Wade found it difficult to believe his eyes.  The fact that it was impossible, however, did not diminish the parallel fact that it was true.  Clifton J. Barnes was assuredly slowly growing younger!  

                                      ___________________________

Early Research

     Think about it for a moment.  Living one’s life ‘backwards’ is not as desirable as you might think.  Oh, perhaps in times past it may have been.  But in our modern technological age of instant communication, it can be a very taxing, especially if one chooses to live their own life, on their own terms, and not under the microscope of public scrutiny.  Such a life would be more of a curse than a blessing.

     This was one of the first painful lessons that Clifton Barnes had to learn.  Fortunately, he learned this lesson early, no small part of that process due to Dr. Jeremy Wade.

     Fortunately for Cliff Barnes, Dr. Wade was first a man of character and compassion.  He was a man who’s second nature was to think first, and act later, with copious amounts of thought and reasoning in between.  He realized that to reveal this impossible knowledge to the world would open Clifton Barnes to a media circus.  And he had no right to do that.  That decision, should belong to Clinton Barnes, and to him alone!  

     On the other hand, what had obviously happened to his patient, had earth-shattering implications.  This thing was far, far larger than just the two of them.  So, what were they to do with this knowledge?

     As soon a Cliff had ‘progressed’ to the point where he could make sane and rational decisions concerning his own unique life, the two men began their impossible quest toward equally impossible answers.  

     Science requires proof.  In the case of Cliff Barnes, this proof would take time.  That proof would be irrefutable to be sure, but the key ingredient was still time.  And time was definitely in their favor.  They had a LOT of work to do.  Clifton Barnes had a LOT of decisions to make.  And both men had monumental problems to solve.  Their first success would prove to be their crowning achievement… that they were in this thing together… as if they were one entity.    

     Dr. Wade, of course, wanted to know ‘how,’ what valuable lessons for humanity could be learned from this.  Cliff wanted to know ‘why.’     

     They had little to go on.  And, they were limited to the amount and depth of legal search that was available to them.  Neither man wanted to bring in outside assistance, for fear of publicly exposing Clinton’s unique status.  In the late 70s and early 80s, even basic research was sadly limited, not at your finger-tips as it is today.  They began with old newspaper clippings.  That was the easy part.   A curious reporter, following the case at the time of the fire had written about the burned of Ford, and even did a search himself, parallel to that of the police.  He too searched the tag number, leading back to Cliff’s uncle, Dr. Marshall  Melton.  But how was he involved?

     In the mean time, Cliff grew younger and stronger, Dr. Wade grew older and wiser, and technology grew by leaps and bounds.  Slowly the information super-highway began to open up to ‘the common man.’

     A big break in the case came with the public release of formerly secret information.  They learned about government research during the pre-moon landing space race.  They discovered that in the late 60s, a young Dr. Marshall Melton had worked in an Air Force lab in the desert of New Mexico.  His was a small part of a large team doing animal research on the long-term effects of space on primates.  Primates included monkeys, chimps… and humans.  Dr. Melton, the reports revealed, had a few ‘bizarre’ ideas which ventured beyond the realm that the United States Air Force cared to trod.  Whereas the USAF was interested in altering EQUIPMENT to make space travel safer and easier, the doctor was looking for ways to altar the physical make-up of the space TRAVELERS.  He was soon terminated.  Obviously, he must have continued his research privately.  Was his nephew, Clifton Barnes, the result of one of these clandestine experiments?  Probably.  The obvious result of such a scenario was that the ‘rebirth’ of Clifton Barnes also spelled the death of Dr. Melton, and the incineration of all knowledge on how this was accomplished.  As far as Clifton Barnes was concerned, the loss of this knowledge was a GOOD thing. 

                                      ___________________________

Cliff Continues His Story to Karen    

     To say that she was blind-sided was an understatement.  She’d expected anthing but this.     

     Cliff spent the next few hours detailing the story of his uncle, and those space-medicine experiments, and what he and Dr. Wade had learned about the fire and his uncle’s probable death.  He tried to fill in all of the blanks.  Then he explained to her why it was so important for him to keep this unbelievable story a secret from the world.  That was the only way he could ever hope to live even a semblance of a ‘normal’ life, a life that was actually the farthest thing from normal.

    “You have no idea how difficult it is to live ‘off the grid’ in modern America,” he explained.  “And that’s the way I must live it, in order to keep my secret and my sanity.  Big Brother has eyes and ears are everywhere.  And, I’m just too much of a social animal to even attempt trying to hide in the wilderness of Alaska.  Oh yes, I have a Social Security number.  And yes, it’s an early issue number.  But the Social Security Administration would get a bit suspicious of a worker still socking credits onto an account as old as mine!  And then there’s the driver’s license problem.  It has your age, and photo, and mine would assuredly raise eyebrows.  Besides, which age should I use, my ‘legal’ one?  And, what would be my ‘legal age,’ the one assigned to me on the day my mother birthed me, or my ‘special’ one, somehow bequeathed me by my mad-scientist uncle?  Oh, and there’s the small matter of having long time associates.  They don’t tend to grow old gracefully around a friend who’s growing young instead.  The FBI’s witness protection program would be a piece of cake compared to the life I’m forced to live!”

     “Yes, we do have a problem,” she said.

     He reached for her hands again.  “I really appreciate that you used the plural, we.  Because, if you really do want to share your life with my life, it will never be simple and never be easy.”

     “But, in my case, it won’t be long either!  She replied.”

     He reached for her, drawing her close, as if their combined selves could wash away the problems they faced.  “I love you, you know,” he said.  “More than I’ve ever loved anyone before.  More than I ever thought that I might could love anyone.  I only wish that love was enough to make all of our issues and problems go away.”

     They embraced for long moments as their hearts and spirits melded together.   

     Between sections of his fantastic story, Karen had a million questions.  She’d listened intently, not knowing what… or how… to believe.  They continued to talk.  They cried and the even laughed together until well past dawn.  Now Karen knew.  Now she was part and parcel of his life, whatever that might be.  

                                      ___________________________

     The sun was coming up as Cliff was leaving.  It was difficult to part.  Lovers with know time-restraints are reluctant to waste a precious second.  At her doorway, he held her for long moments, not speaking but simply relishing this moment in time.  

     Time.  Yes, time was the issue.  Time was their enemy.  Time was against them. 

     “I’ve often wondered ‘Why me?’ He asked.  “And now I’m wondering ‘Why you?’  And the bigger question is ‘Why us?’  Think about it Karen, both of us had made up our minds, we had resolved the question.  It was firmly settled and established that there’d be no relationships.  And yet, we both succumbed to that timeless of needs and desires, at the same time, and with someone with like-minded resolutions, and somewhat similar, constraints.  Why?”

     “I suppose the answer is as timeless a love itself, she replied.”

     “Yes.  I agree.  But I also wonder if there is also a deeper reason.  We’re not two of your average/normal types to have been bitten by the oldest bug of all.  No.  We’re both unique.  And yet, has some force outside of ourselves, larger than ourselves, wiser that ourselves, and even more timeless than ourselves… led us to met… and wooed us into a joining of our hearts?

     “Are you attempting to find a rational for love?”

     “Not for everyone.  No.  But in our situation, in our special case, YES!”

                               ________________________________

Doing Something About It

      Dr. Jeremy Wade made a flight half way across the country to confer with his former roommate from medical school.     

     The Ames Center looked similar to other corporate headquarters in this sprawling business complex.  But there was no cast aluminum caduceus out front to tip off passers by that it was one of the leading cancer research laboratories in the nation.  By appearance, it could be just another web hoster, stock broker, or law office.  It was a cold call.  Dr. Charles Benson had no idea he was coming.  Dr. Wade could only hope that his old friend was in today, and that, on the spur of the moment, he would meet with his old friend.

     The building was massive, twenty or more stories and perhaps even more below ground.   The limit to which an unescorted visitor could venture was maybe thirty feet, to where not one, but three well-groomed receptionists sat.  Dr. Wade walked up to the first young lady.  Immediately, she moved a small tablet in front of her.  

     “And your name sir?” She asked, not looking up at him, but rather down onto the tablet screen.  Obviously, one must have a pre-arranged appointment to see anyone beyond the front desk.

     “I don’t have an appointment.  You see, I’m from out of town.  And on a lark, I decided to stop by and as hello to my old roommate from school… Dr. Charles Lenard Greene.  I hoped to surprise him.”

     “But sir,” she said politely, “the staff here rarely sees anyone without an appointment.

     “Look, I know this is highly irregular, and I really don’t want any special treatment, but it’s been twenty-plus years since I’ve seen Len… er, Dr. Greene, and I promise I’ll only take a few minutes of his time.  Maybe if you gave him a call, tell him I’m here, we could just meet a minute of two, here in the lobby.  Please.”

     He must have reached a tender spot.  She made a call.  

     “Have a seat over there.  He’ll be right down.”

     Dr. Wade took a seat, of which there were precious few in the rotunda.  He also noted that everyone who came and went was either dressed to the nine’s, or in lab coats.  He was glad now that he wore a suit.

     Shortly, one of the four elevators opened, and his ole pal, ‘Cha-lee,’ as he was called in school, stepped through the doors.  It was never Charles, nor Charlie, only Chalee.    

     Arms wide opened, and a huge grin on his face, Chalee marched straight toward Jeremy.

     “Jeremiah ole buddy… ole Bulldog… it’s been far, far too long… what, ten, fifteen years?  It’s so good to see you!”

     “Same here, and double that!” said Jeremy.”

     “What brings you to my neck of the woods?  Taking in the big city?”

     “No, actually, this is a special trip to see you.”

     “I’m honored.  But I must say, you were taking a huge chance on seeing me, the boss, or should I say bosses, keep rather tight reins on us here.”

     “I suppose it was my winning way with the cute redhead at the desk.  I always had a way with the ladies, you remember.”

     “Come on,” said Charles, “I’ll call this my lunch break.  They have a really good food kiosk on the patio, we can talk there.  That’ll give us more time.  Something tells me you didn’t drop by just to say hello.”

     “That’s very perceptive of you.  But you always were the sharpest tack in the box.  And that, my friend, is one of the reason’s I’m here.”

     The kiosk was only a few steps from the front entrance, off to the left.  It was before the Noon hour, and few people were around.  “Everything’s good.  I usually get the fish sandwich… it’s Cod, really good.  Oh, and it’s my treat.”

     “Thanks, just get me what you get.  You sold me with your enthusiasm, for a fish sandwich even.”

     Their order was filled quickly, and the two men took a seat at one of the shaded tables, near the fountain which took up a large portion of the well manicured lawn.

     “Dig in.  And talk,” said Dr. Greene,  “I want to hear all about that fulfilling family practice of yours.  That’s all you ever talked about in school.”

     “Well, fate intervened.  And it’s not family practice.  During internship at Memorial, I did a stint in the geriatrics department, and simply fell in love with those delightful old folks.  Well, delightful for the most part.  There are a few sour apples in the bunch.  But sweet or sour, they all have such interesting stories.  And they all need someone to listen.  And I like that.”

     “You always enjoyed history, and wanted to change the world.”

     “I may not be changing the world, but I like to think that I’m making what time my patients have left in this world, a bit better.  Which brings me to the real reason I came here today.  I need some assistance, some help… or rather, one of my patients does… a patient who has a bizarre connection to you, Chalee.”

     “Shoot.  I’m all ears.”

     “I won’t start in the beginning, but at a point only a few months ago.  OK?  I may be just a small town senior citizen doctor, but I still like to keep up with what’s going on in the medical world.  Who knows when some fountain of youth might be discovered.  Anyway, one night, I was reading an article about cancer research.  I see a lot of that, the cancer, not the research.  Anyway, the first thing that caught my eye was a photo of this building behind us, and I remembered that’s where you work.  Secondly, I noticed a quote in the article by a Dr. Charles.  And I remembered back in school, when we needed to sign something, but didn’t want to use our own names, we’d flip positions with our first and last names.  I wondered if that quote might be by you.  But then, what really caught my eye, was the use of the words ‘age regression’ in a paragraph describing tiny jelly fish, one nicknamed the Benjamin Button Jelly Fish.  I remember that the article said that all research was focused on this jelly’s possible contribution to cancer research, and not on aging.”

     “You’re right.  I was one of the co-authors.  And yes, I can see why a geriatric specialist might be interested in this little bugger.” 

     “Chalee, I’m more than just interested.”

     “Jeremy,  you have a strange look in your eyes, a seriousness that I’ve never seen before.  Let’s have it.”

     “First, because this involves a very dear patient of mine, this must be, I repeat, must be kept in confidence.  Otherwise, it could have life changing consequences for him.”

     “I understand.  I agree.”

     “OK.  Now listen to his story, and attempt to believe that what I tell you is true, as unbelievable as it sounds.  It is true, I promise.  And I can prove it.”

     As quickly as he could in their short time remaining, Jeremy told the story, beginning with the day he first met a slightly singed and battered Clifton Barnes in the nursing home.  He continued through the remarkable discovery that Cliff was somehow aging backwards, and how he had miraculously ‘recovered’ from Alzheimer’s.  Then he told of their research into the warehouse fire, the discovery that Cliff’s own uncle, Dr. Marshall Melton, was most probably involved, and all the dead-ends they’d encountered in their attempt to learn the truth of how this had happened.

     As he was telling this seemingly tall tale, Dr. Greene sat quietly.  It was difficult to tell just how he was accepting all this.  However, when Dr. Wade got to the part about their research into the NASA history of Cliff’s uncle, he detected a slight peak in interest.  He thought he saw his friend’s head tilt slightly.  At first, he wondered if this reaction was just his imagination, until he’d finished his story.  Then, Dr. Greene settled that question with a question of his own.

     “What did you say that uncle’s name was?” 

     “Melton.  Dr. Marshall Melton, Ph.D.”

     Dr. Greene was already removing his cell phone from his pocket.  “Just a moment, Cliff – excuse me.”  He pressed a few numbers.  “Polly.  Lenny here,” he said into the phone.  “Can you stop what you’re doing and look up something for me real quickly.  Yes, it’s important.  Yes, it’s that important.  In that background file on Turritopsis Dohrnii – yes, the jellyfish – in the section on historical info, there’s a reference, no more than a few lines – about some NASA researcher doing primate research – and there’s a mention of Turritopsis Dohrnii associated with him.  I need that fellow’s name.  Yes, as quickly as you can.  And thanks Polly.  I’m at the food wagon.  Yes.  Diet or regular?  I know.  I know… lots of ice.  See ya.”

     “Come on Jeremy my friend.” he said as he stood.   “I have quite a few questions more.  He led the way inside to the reception desk, walking straight up to the redhead.

     “Loraine,” he said, “My dear friend Dr. Jeremy Wade needs a blue pass.  Make it, say for, let’s see, four hours, beginning now.  I’ll vouch for him, just as he’s vouched for me many times in the past.”

     The woman passed a short form across to Dr. Wade, which he quickly completed, just your basic registration info.  He may well have been registering to win a toaster.  That done, the two men walked to the nearest elevator, and went up three floors.

     Dr. Wade was sadly disappointed by what greeted him as they emerged from the elevator.  He’d expected an expansive laboratory, marble slabs covered with test tubes, microscopes, and maybe bubbling pipettes.  They might well have just entered the corporate offices of Costco.

To the left and right, long door-lined hallways led to unseen depths into the building.  Across from the elevator was the ever present glass enclosed reception desk, manned by yet another recent beauty pageant winner.  The V-P of Hiring must really love his job.

     Dr. Greene led Jeremy to the left, into a large meeting room, one that could easily seat two dozen or more.  Today, it was just the two of them, until Loraine entered.  Dr. Greene thanked her for the folder, and she thanked him for the large cherry Coke.

     Dr. Greene opened the file, quickly scanning the first few pages.  He handed the folder to his med school buddy,  and said,  “I thought I recognized that name, Dr. Marshall Melton.  I can’t give you this folder, but here, read it.  It’s all that we could learn about Dr. Melton ourselves, and believe me, we have folks who have connections, if you know what I mean.  But you, my dear friend, know far more about the mysterious Dr. Melton than even we, or our researches could uncover.”  He reached and took took Dr. Wade’s hand, as if in a congratulatory gesture.  “We were only able to learn what he wanted to do.  And you my friend, discovered what he accomplished!” 

                                               ___________________________  

     Dr.  Wade took a seat and read.  This was a very thin folder, containing less than half a dozen pages.

     It gave a brief educational history of Dr. Melton, his early employment.  The section of his stint with NASA was short.  It seems he was with then for less than a year.  No reason was given for his termination.  

     There was a short paragraph outlining the writer’s speculation on how the young doctor became interested in the jellies.  He had met and married a young French woman while stationed in Marsielle with the Air Force.  Her father, as well as her father’s father, were commercial fishermen, which included squid.  It was assumed that somehow, these fishermen acquired a knowledge of the unique jelly, and passed this info onto the young American doctor.

     So, there was a link.  The butterfly had flown from two heady college boys with big dreams of bright medical futures – across the sea to the coast of France – back to the States – visited a spell with NASA – went with an old man and a driven researcher to a clandestine laboratory – lead one of the college boys to the old man, and the other to a world-class research lab – and now, the circle was complete.  All hands were linked.  Some call this ‘The Butterfly Effect.’

      Cliff sat the folder on the desk.

     “Now what?” asked Dr. Greene.”

     “You must be asking why I really came here.  Obviously, this wasn’t just a ‘drop in’ visit.”

     “So?  What’s the real reason?”

     “I need, rather, my dear friend Clifton Barnes needs, some assistance.  And you, my dear friend, are in not only the right position to assist him, but I really do believe that helping him will be of great benefit to you, and to your research here.

     “Let’s hear it.”

     “My focus is on his aging issue.  Your focus is on cancer research.  His focus is on Karen Olmsted, the woman he loves, who has cancer.”

     “Go on.”

     “In addition to his unique physical existence, Clifton Barnes is perhaps the most perceptive man I’ve ever know.  Before he finally dies, he’ll have racked up double the life-experiences than the rest of us could ever hope for.  So, when he speaks, I find it beneficial to listen.  He has a golden track record.”  

     “How does this effect me?”

     “He believes that whatever has made him regress in age, must surely be continuing to work within his body.  In over forty years, it hasn’t worn off.  Is this ‘alteration’ on a cellular level?  If so, I’ve not been able to prove it.  Cliff believes, and I’m beginning to concur with him, that somehow, this ‘thing’ which makes him so different, is in his blood.”

     “Continue.”

     “Your article says that your focus on the jelly fish is on cancer research, not anti-aging.  OK.

Karen has cancer.  Without some ‘miracle cure’ she’ll soon die.  Cliff suggest a simple procedure which he firmly believes, will at the very least, give her a chance.  He suggests giving them a complete blood mixing and transfer – half of his blood into her, half of hers into him.  He begs to give this a try.  They’re only asking for one attempt.  But this proceedure would be exceedingly difficult for me to arrange in a hospital or lab back home.  But, this ‘fortress’ is the perfect place. Not only total privacy assured, but you no doubt have every piece of medical equiptment know to mankind.”    

     Cliff pause for a moment, then continued, “I’m sure you’re wondering, ‘What’s in it for me’ which is a perfectly reasonable question.”

     “Go on.”

     “As for myself, I’m willing to turn over to you all of my records on Clifton Barnes.  And he’s in agreement with that.  Also, he and Karen are both in agreement to avail themselves to frequent study by your lab.  Their only codicil is that they prefer to remain anonymous, that is, as anonymous as is possible.  If the procedure works, it could give Karen a bit more time.  How knows, it could even cure her!  And you will have have gained valuable human-effects information for your cancer/jellyfish research.  If it doesn’t, we’re back to where we all started.  The only real losers will be Karen, and Clifton.  As for myself, I want nothing but a future for those two!”

     “Sounds like I have nothing to lose.”

     “And everything to gain, huh?  Will you do it?”

     “I’ll have to make a few inquiries.  I don’t own the place, you know!  Give me a day or two.  It will take at least that long, to start putting this thing together.”

                                               ___________________________  

Several Years Later,  After The Birthday Party

     Cliff and Karen cuddled in their usual nest on the sofa.  There was a slight nip in the air, but not quite cold enough for a fire.  She pulled a well-worn plaid comforter over their legs.

     “The boys sure enjoyed the party, didn’t they?” She said, looking up to him.

     “No thanks to you!” he replied.  “Look at all this mess.  Honestly, you’re spoiling those kids rotten!”

     “Don’t start that again,” she said, snuggling ever closer to him.

     “Sorry.  I guess I was just thinking.  And not just about the boys.  About us, and how, how very blessed we are.  We’re spoiled too!  Look around you.  It’s really not a mess.  It’s… it’s… a statement!  Yes, it’s a statement to our happiness, and to our blessed life.”

     Clift sprang to his feet, then bent and scooped up a hand full of shredded gift wrap and ribbons, and tossed them into the air.  Then another hand full, and another.

     “Have you gone mad?” she asked, grinning.

     “Perhaps I have.  Madly in love with you.  Madly in love with the boys.  Madly in love with this house, this mess, this wonderfully life we have together.  Yes, I’m madly in love with life itself – our life!

     She pulled him back onto the sofa, snuggling even closer to him.  “You know, you’re a lot of fun for an older man!”

     “That’s the nicest thing you said to me in years!”

     “What a wonderful word… YEARS,” she said.  Time was when that was such a frightful word for us.”

     “TIME is a wonderful word also,” he said.  “The problem is, most folks don’t know that.  They don’t appreciate time, nor value it, as we do.  Perhaps that’s why I see what other’s would call a trashed den, as a beautiful sight!  Time was – there’s that word again – when we were not dealt the time to possess such a glorious scene, but now we do, and I plan to embrace it, and treasure and enjoy it, to the maximum!  Thanks to Doctors Wade and Greene, we now both have the blessed opportunity of growing old together.”

     Their kiss was long and passionate.

     They stayed in the trashed den for hours, talking little, simply treasuring the moment and one another.  Finally she stood, wrapping the comforter around her shoulders.  “It’s late.  We need to get the kids in bed.  The school bus comes early you know.”

     He reached down and picked up a small radio controlled toy car.  Looking at the toy he asked, “The red one is Jeremy’s, isn’t it, or is this Chalee’s? 

                                               ___________________________

     Would it be corny to say that they lived happily ever after?