Eliza Edwards was eighty-three years old and in constant pain. She lay in a hospital bed trying to ignore her misery and the mocking beauty of a spring day. Her whole body hurt, she could barely see, and her only joy and relief came from thinking—when she could think at all—of her grandson Donald, a sophomore delegate in the House of Representatives. She loved him dearly, and she knew he still loved her. She remembered playing with him as a child and his adoring kisses. Only now that she was sick and he’d entered politics, he’d become almost inaccessible, walled off by his flattering family and friends. Eliza knew her grandson was becoming corrupt and feared he was already lost.
She struggled against the pain. Donny had such promise. Yet he’d shamefully confessed he had skimmed thousands of dollars off a political fund to finance his run for office, money he’d promised her he would repay. If only he would grow up, stop chasing floozies, and come to visit her more often.
A stab in her stomach made her groan in agony. Pancreatic cancer. Oh Jesus!
Though her malignancy was her worst enemy, it had plenty of competition from other afflictions, including her fading eyesight. She tried to remember the complicated medical term the doctor used for her condition, but it eluded her as always. Anterior isch . . . Oh, hell, some long-winded Latin phrase with a thousand syllables, all of them unpronounceable. What it boiled down to, though, was clear enough.
In a few weeks, if she lived that long, she’d be completely blind.
There was a knock on the door, and her doctor entered, followed by a stranger. Both of them were tall, slender men in their forties. She felt a commanding quality in the stranger, even though she could barely see him.
“Mrs. Edwards,” her doctor said. “How are we feeling today?”
It was the usual stupid question asked by doctors. How do you think “we” feel? she wanted to scream. I’m rotting inside, and I don’t have a moment without pain. She opened her mouth to respond, but the stranger stepped toward her.
“Thank you, Dr. Jacobs. I’d like to speak with Mrs. Edwards alone now, if you don’t mind.”
“Please leave. Now.”
Dr. Jacobs obeyed. Without another word, he turned and left.
The door slid shut behind him.
The stranger reached Eliza’s bed and ran his eyes over the equipment that monitored her needs and kept her alive. In turn, Eliza studied her visitor. He was totally nondescript with an ordinary face and an equally ordinary suit and tie. Yet there was something about him that stirred her from her lethargy.
The stranger smiled down at her, revealing white, perfect teeth. “The morphine isn’t helping much, is it?”
Another stupid question, but this time she didn’t even think of issuing a rebuke. “Who the devil are you?” she asked.
“Think of me as a friend.” He bent down so his face was inches from hers.
“Are you from the hospital?” she asked.
“Not exactly.” He raised his hand and stroked her hair.
Eliza’s husband, Daniel, had died twenty-six years before, and since then, she hadn’t permitted a man who was not her doctor even to hold her hand. But the stranger’s touch made her want to sigh in gratitude.
She resisted the urge and pushed at his hand. “Stop it!”
He seemed unfazed. His hand continued stroking her hair, then caressed her cheek and floated down to her breast, where it rested lightly.
Feeling pain surge throughout her body, she slapped his face. How dare this stranger take such liberties when they hadn’t even been introduced. A friend. What did that mean? Moaning and outraged, Eliza struggled with all her strength to rise from the bed. Only she couldn’t. Exhausted, she sank back upon her pillow.
The stranger now took her hand in his and brought it down to her stomach. “This is where it hurts most?” he asked.
Yes, the cancer. She nodded.
“Well, let’s see if we can do something about it.”
Do something about it? They had run every test and tried every treatment they could. The cancer, though, had spread too fast, devouring her like a ravenous, invincible beast. She knew it was incurable.
Dimly, through the thickening shadows of her failing sight, Eliza saw the stranger sit down on the bed beside her and raise his hand again. For the first time, she noticed how long and supple his fingers were.
Lifting her gown, the stranger lowered his hand to her naked, withered stomach. To her horror, his fingers disappeared beneath her skin.
“What are you doing? Stop! Help!” With all her suffering, she didn’t need this.
“Shhhh. This won’t hurt a bit.”
Strangely, his voice became a soft breeze passing through a lush, fragrant meadow. Though it was madness, she suddenly felt calm, relaxed.
The fingers didn’t hurt at all as they moved inside her. In fact . . .
With each second, the pain lessened. Now it was only moderate, and now almost slight. And now . . .
Gone. No pain.
Her visitor’s fingers remained inside her, gently healing. She lay there, breathing freely without pain for the first time in . . . years. Yet such bliss could not be. She turned her attention from her sick belly and sounded the rest of her body. Her back, her arms, her legs. Her arthritic joints.
Perhaps she was dying. If this was what death felt like, she welcomed it.
She rejected the notion and squinted up at the stranger, whose bland features wore a slight smile. What was behind that smile? Why had he come? Who was he?
Forget all that, Eliza. HOW can he do this?
He removed his fingers from her stomach. They emerged dry and unstained, leaving not a mark on her skin. Smiling again, he asked, “Is the pain gone, Eliza? Do you feel better now?”
“Oh, yes,” she half-sobbed in gratitude. Even the foul taste in her mouth was gone. “I can’t believe it. I feel wonderful. I haven’t felt this good in thirty years.”
“I’m so happy for you,” the stranger said, though his voice had a detached quality. “Eliza, is there anything else you want?”
Feeling blessed beyond belief, she remembered there had been one thing she’d meant to do before she died, a crucial goal she must achieve. But to achieve it, she must be able to see.
Eliza raised a hand (how easily, as if she were a young woman again!), and touched her eyes. “My eyes,” she said. “I have anterior . . .” She stopped, unable as usual to remember the term.
She didn’t have to. The man smiled again. “I understand, Eliza. You are going blind.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” Once again he raised his hand.
Her heart clenched in terror. Would he impale her eyes with his fingers? She imagined her eyes slipping down her face like globs of jelly.
At the last moment, she caught his hand, amazed at her strength and freedom of movement. “Wait. You didn’t answer my questions before. Who are you? Is this a government test of some kind?”
She debated, the scales of decision tipping first one way, then another. In the end, the choice seemed clear.
After all, what did she have to lose? Besides, this stranger had helped her so much already. She felt virtually cured!
She dropped her hand.
“Very good, Eliza. Now just close your eyes.”
The man cradled the back of her head and moved closer on the bed, his position strangely intimate. Eliza saw him lower his long fingers toward her eyes and closed them. Ever so gently, he pressed against her eyelids and stroked them.
Something stirred in her eyes, a soft awakening. Or perhaps it was only her imagination.
His fingertips left.
“You may open them now.”
Her eyelids fluttered open. She gazed up at the stranger.
Gradually, her sight cleared until it was sharper than ever before. The man was still ordinary looking, but now she saw every blemish on his face.
His teeth, however, remained just as white and perfect.
Her chest swelled with wonder. She breathed out and in. Not only did she feel no pain, she could see like a teenager. No, sharper than that.
“Your vision should be about 20/10,” the stranger said. “The maximum for human sight.”
I must be dreaming! She rubbed her eyes as if to clear them of illusions, but when she removed her hands, she saw even better than before. Whatever it was, the process was still continuing.
“How can you do this?”
“My clients seek the future welfare of this world,” the stranger said. “You’re Donald Masterson’s grandmother, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Donny has so much potential,” she said. “How do you know Donny’s my grandson?”
“Perhaps if I disconnect you from these machines, you’d like to get up and walk around a little?” the stranger said.
Elisa forgot her question. To get up and walk, clear-sighted and without pain! Eagerly, she glanced at the monitors flanking her bed, at the tubes which ran into her arm.
“Oh, that would be wonderful,” she breathed. “But how can I? If you disconnect me, they’ll know. Nurses will rush right in here.”
“There’s no need to worry, Eliza.” The man quickly freed her and raised his hand grandly toward the ceiling. “Rise,” he declaimed, “and be born again.”
Despite her eagerness, she hesitated. Why did she feel this was not only a momentous step, but a dangerous one, as if some dreadful cost would be incurred if she took it? Come to think of it, didn’t this mysterious stranger remind her a bit of a salesman? And if so, shouldn’t she read the fine print?
She shook off the notion. After all this stranger had done for her, such skepticism would be foolish and ungrateful.
He waited—seemingly harmless and ordinary. Yet he’d given her back her life. She found his smile utterly disarming.
“Let me help you up,” he said.
She chuckled. “Shoo! Sonny, I can rise all by myself.”
To demonstrate, she raised her knees, turned, and perched like a diver on the edge of the unknown. Again she hesitated. What if she tried to walk and her legs wouldn’t support her? What if she collapsed like a broken doll on the floor? This stranger might have got rid of her pain and blindness, but she was still an old, old woman who had been a vegetable for weeks, unable even to go to the bathroom by herself.
The stranger waited patiently, not saying a word.
At last, she lowered her feet to the floor and tried to stand, only to fall back on the bed. Swallowing her terror, she gathered her strength and tried again.
This time she was successful, though it was a struggle. She swayed and took a step, then another and another.
On she went across the sterile hospital room. She turned to look at the stranger, who smiled at her. “I’m so proud of you,” he said. “Do you feel better?” he asked. “Stronger?”
As a matter of fact, she did. Praise be to Jesus. Her prayers had been answered. With each step she took, her movements were smoother, and she felt more confident.
She threw caution to the winds and spun on her heels in a complete revolution, holding her hands out as if she could fly. Around and around she spun, her modesty thrown to the winds as her gown billowed out around her. Lord, she was almost naked, but who cared? Certainly not her dear departed husband Daniel who had been gone so many years.
She spun and glided about the room, feeling like a ballerina, liberated from the jaws of pain and old age. Born again, indeed!
Elisa came to a halt, seeing the mirror for the first time. It was a tall elegant cheval glass. She moved to it and studied her reflection.
She looked transformed. Though she was eighty-three, she appeared younger. Seventy at the most. Her hair was mostly black and her skin younger, almost unwrinkled.
Plus, she had breasts again!
She raised her hands and cupped them. They felt so much firmer.
Frowning, she lowered her hands. What was this vanity mirror doing in this room anyway? Hospitals didn’t permit such things. But then, this stranger had displayed power here from the beginning, as when he’d ordered her doctor to leave.
In the mirror, she saw the stranger approach from behind. He placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Listen,” he said. “With a single touch, I can create one more miracle.” He leaned closer. “Would you like to know what it is?”
She trembled. Don’t ask. Walk away. Then she remembered her grandson who had such potential to do good. She’d always prayed he would grow up to be a great man. Now, with her health and vitality restored, perhaps she could still guide him.
“Would you like to know what it is?” the stranger repeated.
Torn by desire, Eliza leaned back against him. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Very well.” Smoothly, he turned her and placed his finger on her chin. “I can make you young again.”
“Yes. Any age you want. Thirty or twenty-one, if you prefer. Or seventeen.”
She tried to take it in. Younger? Seventeen?
His eyes gazed into her, seeming to study her soul. “You can have it all again, Elisa, only better than before. Physically, you’ll be perfect, without any flaws. And you’ll age more slowly, too.”
Her repeated prayers for good health, even for a slight diminution of pain seemed trivial compared to this. What was an hour of relief compared to regaining her youth? Could anything else matter?
Despite her joy, she soon felt shame and disappointment in herself. How quickly she’d succumbed to temptation and been seduced by selfish pleasure, forgetting all about her grandson. How, indeed, was she any better than Donald, a playboy politician who engaged in graft and neglected his constituents? If anything, she was worse. She’d never suspected she harbored such vanity and weakness. Hadn’t she already been blessed enough?
“Think, Elisa,” he said, his voice hissing and snakelike. “You can be young and beautiful all over again, and so much better than before. Everything you try, you will succeed at. Sports, acting, academics, anything. Your heart’s desire.” He leaned down till his lips almost touched hers. “And men, Elisa. All the men you could want. Tall ones, short ones, handsome and sexy ones. If you just look in the mirror, you will see you can have whatever you desire. I can give you all these things.”
She turned to the mirror and sucked in her breath. As if by magic, she saw herself as a young, beautiful girl—dancing, laughing, and loving each second of her existence in different lands and exotic realms with each wonder more exciting and breathtaking than the last. It was an endless fantasy, a romantic fairy tale that drew her in and swept her helplessly along. Dear God, how wonderful it would be to wake up each morning with the whole world before her, and the day a giant page waiting to be written on.
And the men who now appeared before her new eyes in the shining glass. Each one was even more handsome and irresistible than the one before!
Yes, they were tempting, but after a moment, Eliza realized this was where the stranger had made his mistake. For she’d already been married to Daniel and given her heart to him forever.
She turned back and gazed at the stranger, whose deadly, seductive, snakelike voice reminded her of another tempter. She thought of Eve in the Garden and of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness.
“Get behind me, Satan,” she cried.
He looked disappointed.
“You want me to sin, don’t you?” she said. “So you can claim my soul.”
His disappointment changed. He laughed. “Not exactly.”
She scrutinized his face, which she saw with extreme clarity. 20/10 vision, he had said, yet she couldn’t read his intentions. Could she have been wrong about him?
Seizing a plastic glass from the bed table, she threw it at the mirror and all its vanities. The mirror shattered. Pieces fell to the floor in bright shards.
“That’s what I think of your offer,” Eliza said.
Her visitor actually looked a bit stunned. “Eliza,” he said, “I am truly proud of you for being strong and resisting temptation. It confirms that despite your age, our choice was correct. Starting today, I want you to consider yourself a cultivator of the future. The corn is green and must be cared for, its growth guided by someone far wiser.”
Green corn? Cultivator of the future? Our choice was correct? What in the world was he talking about?
Before she could move, the man raised his hand and pressed his long fingers to her forehead. “Prepare to discover your new life,” he said. “And remember: the choice will still be up to you.”
# # #
Eliza was not so much discharged from the hospital as whisked away in a car with the stranger at the wheel. She sat in the back seat, watching him drive. She overflowed with emotions, her heart piled to the rafters as her mother used to say. There was so much she wanted to tell him about her grandson and what she wanted to accomplish with her life. Yet when she spoke, all she could do was ask his name.
“I have many,” he replied.
Another murky, mystifying statement. They were all she could get from him. The whole thing was a mystery, and she was no mystery reader.
If only she were more intelligent. Perhaps then she would be able to connect the dots.
She stretched out her legs, delighting in her new body. No pain anywhere, and the eyes of an eagle. Why question anything? Just be grateful for this miracle and the chance to help Donald.
Nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy.
The name of her former eye condition, which she could never remember, burst upon her. Not only that, she recalled and understood a complex article she had tried to read concerning it.
She gasped, remembering the stranger touching her forehead. In the rearview mirror, he smiled at her. “It’s beginning to take effect, isn’t it, Eliza. Good. In the next few minutes, the world should become quite interesting to you.”
The green corn whose growth must be guided by someone wiser. She understood now. The green corn was Donald, and she was the wise guide.
“My grandson,” she said, “could be president one day. He has charm, political and leadership skills, but he’s immature and self-centered. He could do much good if he received the right direction.”
The stranger didn’t answer.
“You knew, didn’t you?” she burst out. “You knew all along what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world.”
“But why me?” she asked. “Even with good health and enhanced intelligence, I’m old. Why not Donald’s mother or brother, or one of his friends?”
“All were found wanting,” the man said. “Their hearts are selfish. You proved to be different.”
“I see. You tested me, didn’t you?” she said. “I had to resist temptation.” She swallowed. “It was difficult.”
“That’s true. Still, do you seriously expect me to devote the rest of my life to guiding an adult child? I have my selfish streak, too.”
“You also have your virtues and common sense,” the stranger said, his eyes finding hers in the rearview mirror. “Most of all, you care about others, a trait few of your politicians share.” He tapped the steering wheel. “And you’re strong, spunky enough to rise from a death bed, dance around, and then stand up to me. All things considered, you should do well.”
The car slowed. Looking out, she saw they’d stopped before Donald’s house. She was not surprised.
She opened the door. “You said you represent clients who seek the future welfare of the world. Are they uh, from around here?”
“I see. Can you at least tell me why they seek this world’s welfare? Why is it important to them?”
The stranger hesitated. “Future factors jeopardize Earth’s joining the Union.”
Another murky statement, though this one hinted at meaning. What factors? Jeopardize how? What was the Union—some kind of an organization? She wanted to ask but sensed he wouldn’t tell her more. Eliza said, “You know, you’re not exactly eloquent when it comes to explaining things.”
He actually looked hurt. “I was chosen for my strength in that area.”
“Is that so? And you think seven whole words are sufficient? Well, let me tell you something, Sonny, I don’t know what species you are or what star system you hail from, but you’ve got a lot to learn. As a matter of fact, you could use a cultivator of your own.”
Grudging respect. “The corn is green. Tend your grandson well, Eliza Edwards.”
She left the car, which immediately drove away. Standing before Donald’s two-story house on a quiet suburban street, Eliza felt weakness stir within her again. Perhaps, she thought, it wasn’t too late to call the stranger back so she could be young again and live only for herself.
Eliza resisted the temptation as before, but it grew, stronger than ever, until it was a hunger in the blood. She turned, looking for the stranger’s car and was not surprised to find it already gone. Gazing down the street, she was even more ashamed than in the hospital at the frailty she’d discovered in herself. How could she let her resolve to help Donny fade again?
Feeling the tug of freedom, Eliza sighed and started to walk. Despite her guilt, she thought excitedly of the new life she could create for herself without help from anyone.
Soon, though, an ominous feeling stole through her. She stopped and looked around, seeing beds of flowers and neatly groomed lawns. It was a beautiful sunlit day with a pure blue sky, and she had just been miraculously cured of all her ills and released from the hospital. She had been given back her life and could live again—sharp-eyed and pain-free!
And yet . . .
Eliza took a deep breath of sweet spring air and inhaled a foreboding odor. Instead of renewal, the air smelled like . . . death. She trembled, feeling a chill. What was wrong with her?
Thunder rumbled in the distance. It stopped, then was followed by closer and louder rumbling. Yet the sky remained blue without a single cloud. What was it? A sonic boom? A jet plane?
A louder boom.
Only a few miles away, perhaps an explosion. It sounded like . . . a bomb.
Moments later she saw black specks in the blue, specks that grew in size. With sudden horror she realized they were indeed bombs and looked around for cover. The bombs rained down through the air and exploded. The earth shook, and she saw cars and houses shoot up and come apart in all directions, accompanied by billowing clouds of black smoke that spread across the sky. Soon more bombs struck, filling the air with an acrid stench.
Stricken with fear about her grandson, she ran back toward Donny’s house, only to see a bomb strike the street before her like a giant’s fist, blasting a deep hole and flinging up shards of concrete. One piece as large as her body narrowly missed her, smashing a car parked at the curb behind her. Stunned, she saw a broken underground pipe spew water high overhead and drench her entire body in a deluge. It drove her to her knees where she gasped for breath. She struggled up and limped across the street, finding refuge in the open doorway of a nearly demolished house.
She watched in horror as the sky turned a deep blood-red, spreading from pole to pole. More bombs fell, gouging the earth and scattering houses, cars, and streetlamps like toys. The air darkened with death and filled with screams.
Eventually the bombing passed her and moved north. Whatever the attacker’s strategy, it seemed safer to move about now. Stepping out of the doorway, she saw a glorious sight: though surrounded by ruins, Donny’s two-story house was completely untouched!
Heart pounding with hope, she crossed the street and moved up Donny’s walk. Thank God, her eyes hadn’t deceived her. His house looked as if it had just been built. If Donny was home, she must see if he was all right and protect him.
What had caused this sudden madness—some kind of war? It was the worst thing she’d ever seen, an apocalyptic horror. Yet it seemed calculated not to destroy the city outright but to terrify and gradually crush the spirit.
Another explosion came, and a house down the street was aflame. The enemy’s attack had returned to this area! People screamed and ran for shelter, only to be ripped to pieces by more bombs. A severed hand struck Donny’s white fence and held on as if for dear life. Then Donny’s house erupted in flames before her eyes. The blast blew right through her. She didn’t feel a thing.
Was Donny dead? Tears poured down her face, but she clutched desperately at a frail hope. Could all this chaos come from her and be a vision? A glimpse of what would happen to the world if she failed? She remembered the stranger’s words. Future factors jeopardize Earth’s joining the Union.
With the thought the images of violence and destruction wavered and disappeared, leaving behind a pristine street scene and Donald’s house. Eliza herself was dry and unscathed, her hair not even mussed. She blinked up at a calm, beautiful sun in a clear blue sky, feeling blessed and reborn.
Donald’s front door opened and he appeared at the top of the steps, looking safe and sound.
Praise be to Jesus. “H-Hello, Donny,” she called, using their traditional greeting. “Do you remember your old Gran?”
He stood there in amazement. “Grandma, is that you? How did you get out of the hospital? Are you well? You . . . do look better.”
She walked up the steps painlessly, gazing at her grandson with new eyes and seeing her mission as never before. “I am better, Donny,” she said. “I’ve come to help you.”
She hugged him. “Exactly,” she said.
BIO: John, a retired English professor from Norfolk State University, has published 300+ stories in The Speed of Dark, Weird Tales, Whitley Strieber’s Aliens, Galaxy, The Age of Wonders, and elsewhere. He’s also published twenty books, including SF novels such as Speaker of the Shakk and Beyond Those Distant Stars, winner of AllBooks Review Editor’s Choice Award (Mundania Press), and Alien Dreams, A Senseless Act of Beauty, and (in June) The Merry-Go-Round Man (Crossroad Press). MuseItUp Publishing has published four SF novels. They are Dark Wizard, Dax Rigby, War Correspondent, and two in the Inspector of the Cross series: Inspector of the Cross and Kingdom of the Jax, a sequel which appeared last year. MuseItUp also published The Blue of Her Hair, the Gold of Her Eyes (winner of Preditor’s and Editor’s 2011 Annual Readers Poll), More Stately Mansions, and the dark erotic thrillers Steam Heat and Wet Dreams. Some of John’s books are available as audio books from Audible.com. Two of John’s major themes are the endless, mind-stretching wonders of the universe and the limitless possibilities of transformation—sexual, cosmic, and otherwise. He is the former Chairman of the Board of the Horror Writers Association and the previous editor of Horror Magazine.