“Are you lost, young man?”
I sigh. I know what people think of me. I understand why they want to help. But they can’t possibly understand my struggle.
You see, I was once a real person. An adult, with dreams. A job. I was a wildlife biologist. That’s right! You wouldn’t ever guess it to look at me now, but I’m a trained scientist.
“Where’s your mother, little boy?”
I worked tirelessly throughout my career to preserve natural habitats, to track and catalogue endangered species. It was good work, and I loved it. There’s never enough time, though. For a scientist, you live gripped with the realization that your work can, by nature, never be truly done. It will outlive you. You will have to pass it on to others.
“Hey, look, it’s Ness from Super Smash Bros., the character who I could never remember what game he was originally from.”
I couldn’t bear that thought.
I’d spent my entire life on this work, and I didn’t think that anyone would be able to carry it on with the passion and dedication that I did.
It was around that time, while tracking a green sea turtle through a deep part of the Everglades, that I stumbled upon it. Shimmering light through a dense thicket of mangrove trees drew me closer. The air smelled sweet, cool, and fresh. Music from an unknown source lilted in the air. I waded out of my boat, brushing aside branches and weeds, into the source.
“Hey, get a load of this Dennis the Menace lookin’ kid over here!”
Legend holds that the explorer Ponce de Leon discovered present-day Florida while searching fruitlessly for the Fountain of Youth. As a scientist - and in a way, an explorer myself - I never believed in such a thing existing. I assumed that de Leon was, like most people who go to Florida, simply searching for new drugs.
I believed that until I found the Fountain of Youth. The water looked like liquid gold, yet was also crystal-clear. I dipped a single hand into it, felt its warmth. In moments, the rheumatism that had begun to snarl my hands disappeared. Drawing the hand back, my skin was fresh and soft, like a baby’s.
I cupped both hands and drank deeply of the water. I filled jugs and loaded them into my boat, lifting heavy loads with an ease I hadn’t felt in decades.
“What kind of parent dresses their kid in overalls like that these days?”
Upon my return to the field office, colleagues were amazed. “You look terrific!”, they beamed. “What’s your secret?”, they asked. “Did you get new glasses?” said Dan, who was kind of a dumbass like that.
At home, my family was even more stunned. My wife was too shocked to speak at first, seeing the man she’d married 40 years prior standing at the threshold. At first, she cried. Then she embraced me. We shared a night like we hadn’t had in ages.
The next morning, I developed concerns over what I had done. The roguish stubble I’d worn the night before was gone, and my face was bare - but not smooth, as fresh acne stippled across it. I called out to my wife, and my voice cracked.
Oh no. What have I done?
I went to my doctor. Calmly, coolly, she ran diagnostics. Bloodwork. EKG. EEG. MRI. When she came back into the exam room, her face bore the pall of someone about to deliver a terminal diagnosis.
“Irreversible Acute De-Aging”, she stated, like that was a thing. “You know, the Benjamin Button stuff.”
“I thought that was just a literary device,” I stammered.
“You also thought the Fountain of Youth was a myth,” she said, which was a good point, but still not terribly medically rigorous.
“What’s going to happen to me?”, I pleaded.
“You were a young man of 17 when you came in here today. Right now, you’re running backward through puberty. By tomorrow morning, you’ll be a child. In a week? Dead.”
“No! No, it can’t be. This was supposed to give me more time, not steal away what I had left! Is there anything I can do, doctor, anything at all?”
She crossed her arms, scowled. A person of science, like me. It’s hard to accept that you don’t have an answer.
“What if I found somewhere where time stands still? That might do it, right?”, I begged.
“Hmm. Perhaps. It wouldn't reverse the effects you’ve felt so far - I’m afraid those are quite permanent - but it might halt the progression. You’d be a young man forever, arrested in this state. You’d be safe there, but if you left that place, you’d die. Of course, this is all speculation on my part. A place where time stands still? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
I had, though. I passed through several times over the years. First, I was tracking a flock of meadowlarks across the prairies. I think it was 2003 - but there, it felt oddly like 1995. Then, a few years later, I passed through again - this time, studying the whooping crane - and it was still 1995.
I hadn’t thought much of the place at the time, let alone considered it since. Plenty of Midwestern towns feel timeless, but there was something different there. Something that might just save me.
It would be my own Brigadoon, but also my prison. If I left, I would vanish.
If I stay, I live forever, accursed by my perpetual youth.
To live in a place where it’s 1995 forever.
“Oh crap, that weird thing’s coming toward us.”