Jimmy Belcher held the rodent up and looked him in the beady eye. “Well, Homer, I reckon we’re going to make the cover of TIME magazine.” The creature blinked.
Is there, Jimmy pondered, a parallel universe in which rats use humans for experiments? He’d actually become quite fond of the little creatures. Some of them, anyway. Like this one; friendly, engaging and unquestionably intelligent. Was Homer destined to deliver the real version of the mythical Elixir of Life?
Jimmy opened the door of the wire cage, one of nearly fifty in the research laboratory and smiled as he gently placed the fat, healthy rat into it.
“There you go,” he said, “You’re doing OK; almost three grammes lighter this month.” The rodent rewarded him with a bleary look over its shoulder before scurrying off into a corner. Jimmy shut the cage door and pulled off his protective gauntlets.
Across the room, lab assistant Gloria Potts rolled her eyes. “Bad enough that you give them names, but you actually talk to them.”
“Only a few have names.” Jimmy unbuttoned his white overalls. “That one next to Homer,” he pointed, “is Zak. Not much change in him. But Homer’s getting friskier; the little bugger tried to bite me yesterday. I only give names to the ones that, er — are showing promise. I talk to them because I want them to know that I care.”
“Huh,” she snorted. “You’re crazy, they’re rats.”
“OK, but you know what? We’re close; sooner or later we’re going to hit the jackpot with one of these guys. We’re already slowing down their ageing, just a matter of time before we crack the formula for negative growth. Think about it; the mythical, magical elixir of youth. For rats, at least.”
Gloria’s eyes saucered. “You’re close? Really? You serious?”
Jimmy tapped the side of his nose. “Perfectly, but don’t tell anyone, especially not Boris.”
“What? The boss doesn’t know?”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, he knows we’re making progress but I don’t think he realizes just how far we’ve come.” He shook off his overalls and draped them over a chair. “Coffee break,” he declared, heading for the dispensing machine in the corridor.
Gloria, he mused, glorious Gloria. He had been attracted to her ever since she joined the team. Blonde, very pretty with a terrific figure,and single. She liked him, he felt sure, but come on, she was almost half his age. And he? A greying no-hoper who had been passed over for the boss’s job. Thecompany had parachuted Boris in from Germany when he, Jimmy, had been promised the position. Well, as good as. Worse, Boris was arrogant, always making things difficult. Anyway, Miriam would probably divorce him if he tried anything with Gloria. He and Miriam had been married seventeen years. Happily, at first, but now things were different; there was a Titanic-sized glacier between them. In fact they lived separate lives using different bedrooms in the house. A stalemate, literally, that both had come to accept over time.
Next morning Jimmy followed his daily routine. First, he cleaned out the cages. Me, he thought, a qualified biochemist sweeping up rat droppings. Unpleasant, but necessary. Next, he injected ten of the rodents with serum, giving each the dose specially formulated for it, after which he weighed them and recorded the results. Each syringe had been pre-loaded and marked for its recipient by Ritchie who worked in the next room. Injections were administered once a week on a rota, ensuring that every animal received its updated dose once a month.
As usual Homer was the last to be treated. His weight had been reducing and his energy levels had soared, albeit with occasional brief periods of negative results, a phenomenon that was as yet unexplained. Jimmy had watched the graph rocket up, then flatten and dip suddenly, inexplicably, before rising again, a cycle that had been repeated several times. He had come to believe that the serum was probably working on Homer, but he kept the findings to himself. For some time he had been altering the records to hide the truth. This could be a fantastic breakthrough; why the hell should he give it away? Not now, and if his suspicions about its efficacy were correct, not ever.
One morning while Jimmy was shaving, he did some serious thinking. Way out stuff, he admitted to himself as he stared into the mirror. He leant forward and touched his right temple. Yep, the grey hairs were winning. And ‘crow’s feet’ worry lines had appeared on his face. “Hmm, I’ll have to make a decision soon,” he muttered.
“JIMMY? How much longer are you going to be?” Miriam bellowed, hammering on the door.
He grunted. Well, this is my time, he thought, she can wait.
“Can you hear me?” She was screeching now.
Yes and so can the whole neighbourhood. Aloud he said, “I’m shaving, won’t be long.”
“I need the shower, I overslept.”
He paused to reply, raising his voice. “It’s past seven-thirty. You get the bathroom until then, after that it’s mine.”
“Aren’t you listening? I know what time it is. I have to get in now, or I’ll be late for work.”
“Nearly finished, won’t be a minute.”
“Well, get on with it.” She was still shouting.
After a last critical look in the mirror, Jimmy put down his razor and wiped his face with a towel. He moved to the door and opened it. “You can come in now but I’ll need to finish my…”
She bustled past, glaring daggers. “This is ridiculous. I’ve had enough and I want a divorce. We’ll sort it out tonight.” She shoved him onto the landing where he stood holding his damp towel, as she slammed the door behind him.
“Suits me,” he muttered. She’d used the threat quite often recently and it used to worry him. Not any more; things were different now. He chuckled as he made his way back to his bedroom.
A few weeks later the atmosphere in the house had improved. The divorce petition was going through and both Jimmy and Miriam were more relaxed. Jimmy seemed invested with a new joie de vivre and his improved demeanour had not gone unnoticed at the lab. One Monday morning he breezed in and slipped off his jacket before reaching for his overalls. Gloria was already at her desk.
“Morning, Gloria,” he chirruped, “You’re looking gorgeous, good weekend?”
She treated him to an old-fashioned look. “It was OK. And what makes you so cheerful today? A magic new breakfast cereal?”
Jimmy grinned and rubbed his palms together. “More like a new me. Isn’t it obvious?”
It was a few moments before she responded, tilting her head. “Hmm, come to think of it, you do look a bit different, somehow.”
His grin broadened. He spun around on his heel and spread his hands. “Ta dah!”
Gloria frowned. “You’re slimmer. You look …” She raised her head and looked him up and down, narrowing her eyes. “You been working out?”
He moved to her desk, bent over and drummed his palms on it in a cheery rat-a-tat manner. “Better than that, much, much better.”
Suddenly her expression changed to one of querulous disbelief. She gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “You haven’t been; you can’t have…?” As the truth dawned, her eyes widened and she shook her head. “You have.”
“Yes,” he admitted, grinning broadly. “Homer’s medicine.”
Gloria leant back with a look of stark horror on her face. “You’ve been taking that stuff? You — you’re mad, crazy, insane!”
“No, no Gloria.” Jimmy could not contain his delight. He drew his hands in, pointing towards himself. “Look at me, go on, take a good look.”
She sat down heavily. “Good God, Jimmy, what have you done?”
“What have I done? What have I done?” He moved forward to take her hands in his. “Gloria, lovely Gloria, I’ve finally made it.” She stared at him, wide-eyed, as he went on, brimming with enthusiasm. “Do you realise what this means?” He let her take it in before adding, “It’s true, it really is. I’m ten, maybe fifteen years younger than I was a few weeks ago. Younger, fitter, stronger and more – more alert, with more energy than I’ve had in years.” He let go her hands and stepped back, immensely pleased with himself.
Gloria, on the other hand, appeared to be in a state of shock. Her face paled, wearing a grim expression. “You’ve been taking an untried drug, with God knows what possible side effects. Is that really true? Tell me I’m wrong, Jimmy.”
He held up his hands and shrugged. “All right, I admit I’ve taken a chance. It was a risk, but worth it. Well worth it. Don’t you see? Being able to reverse ageing? It’s the Holy Grail of science, Gloria, and I’ve cracked it. Me, Jimmy Belcher.”
She appeared unimpressed, replying in a flat monotone. “So what are you going to do?”
He tilted his head back, briefly glancing at the ceiling. Then he lowered his gaze and looked into her eyes. “First, I’m going to quit this job, but I’ll give them a month’s notice. We don’t want them getting any ideas, do we? Then – OK, let me ask you,” he spread his hands. “If you had all the money in the world, what would you buy? A mansion? A Ferrari? Clothes, jewellery? Maybe a Caribbean island?” He watched her closely. “Even your own private jet?” At last he seemed to be getting through. “Think about it. There are companies that would give a king’s ransom for what I have. Then you, my lovely,” he grinned, “can have ab-so-lute-ly anything you have ever wanted.”
For the rest of the day Jimmy went about his business with a spring in his step. He had agreed to wait a week while she thought about his proposal and in return Gloria had promised to give him her answer then.
On the following Monday morning exactly a week later, Jimmy was early, eagerly anticipating Gloria’s arrival. He donned his overall, scarcely noticing that it seemed looser than usual, because his head was buzzing with ideas about how his life was about to change forever. He knew that he was now a young man, shortly to be united with the woman of his dreams and he was not at all bothered by the fact that he was still losing weight. He’d researched companies that he was certain would willingly pay out millions for his secret. With an eye on the door he hummed in contentment. Any minute now she’d walk in and he could then take his letter of resignation and tell Boris where to shove his job. Life was great.
Gloria entered looking apprehensive, not at all what Jimmy had been expecting. He went over to her immediately. “What’s the matter? You should be happy; this is going to be the best day of our lives.”
“Uh, hello, Jimmy.” She seemed to be forcing a smile whilst removing her coat without looking at him.
He felt deflated; what was going on? Surely she wasn’t going to turn him down?
He asked, “Is something wrong?”
Still avoiding eye contact, Gloria moved to her desk and sat down. “I’m really sorry, Jimmy, but it won’t work. You’d be stealing the formula and I can’t go along with that.” She did not look at him. “And who knows what’s going on inside your body? I couldn’t live with the worry.”
There was no reply, just the sound of quiet sobbing. Gloria raised here head and looked across at Jimmy. Instantly the blood drained from her face. She collapsed, her knees buckled and she sank to the floor.
What she had seen was a wretchedly distressed boy, the white lab coat hanging on him like an over-sized shroud.