‘Einstein didn’t predict this, did he?’ was the dominant experimental thought in his brain, reprising with every observation that registered there. Relativity was definitely out, not that he fully understood the theory, generally or especially, or at all.
He was not aging; in fact, the reverse was happening. His daily run had effortlessly increased almost by a mile in a matter of weeks. Grey hair was no longer in evidence, sometimes overnight. Having ruled out any arrangements with anyone claiming to be Mephistopheles or possessing his powers, Ben Yonge was concerned, no matter how beneficial these changes might be.
His physicians were no help, brushing him off as experiencing some sort of male hysteria, a kind of late adolescent blooming. ‘Adolescent!’ was his exclamatory response, having long since passed the age of 21……but, in which direction?
His internist was adamantine: ‘Ben, be reasonable, your tests are all normal, nothing outside normal limits; just be happy about your collateral benefits and put it down to right living. Look, we know so little about the aging process that you may be truly the norm, the rest of us just genetic mutants!’
He didn’t feel normal, more like a freak. His wife had no complaints, the sex was better than ever, though his taste in music was strangely retrograde, tending toward, well, adolescent.
‘First my doctor, now you? I don’t know what’s happening to me, it’s like I’m stuck, not growing, you know?’
‘Ben, darling, sleep on it and we’ll talk about it later’ she advised; he wasn’t tired, not at all, even after his increasingly rigorous workouts.
The next morning, when he rose from what he thought was a brief period of dosing, he found his wife gone, as though she had not slept there at all. Looking round the apartment, he saw none of her possessions, not even a photo; worse, he couldn’t remember what she looked like. He was, he concluded, losing his mind.
‘Strangest case I’ve seen in years; this guy insists he’s 35, married with kids’ confided Dr. Stanislaus, the psychiatric resident at the teaching hospital where Ben had, somehow, found himself, dazed and highly stressed.
‘One other thing’ he paused to complete his dictation; ‘Mr. Yonge insists that it is 2006, and that an older female patient…..is his wife; tentative diagnosis: extreme dementia, with ideation of time travel hallucinations; as he appears underage, must seek family consent to therapies, including possible shock treatment; he displayed ID on admittance, bearing the same name, but clearly belonging to a much older male bearing some resemblance; will medicate pending location of next of kin’.
Ben awoke, groggily, to find the TV set on; the language was one he did not understand, sounding more like pig Latin. Worse, the action was backwards, as if being rewound on a videotape. A brief glance in the direction of his toes was far more disconcerting: he was several inches shorter.
A nurse entered the room, seemingly surprised to see anyone there.
Her puzzled face----- now turning away as she abruptly left the room to investigate---- told the tale, one whose scenario called for Ben to hurriedly sit erect, don his extra large shirt and trousers, and easily shod his somehow smaller feet with familiar but oversized loafers.
Ben thought he knew the date, yet it was, according to the television….three days prior.
‘This cannot be happening’ Ben’s brain feebly offered, only to have any such denial tactic shunted aside by the obvious data flowing in through his ever newer senses. He was not staying; and his disguise was the twisted version of nature which had now transformed his patient (adult) status into that of impatient---and puerile, at least in stature. ‘At least I’m not responsible for the hospital bills’ he thought and, with only a fraction of the relief he would have, as his former adult-sized self, would have expected.
Clothes: they were too big, but, thanks to grunge and other unfashionable fashions, he could pull it off---a suitable if not fitting description of his slovenly appearance as he slackered his way down the hallway.
‘MATERNITY’ the sign urged and he succumbed.
‘Plenty a kids’, on that floor his still somewhat mature brain advised.
He spied a throng at the viewing window of the ward, a tradition preserved more for its qualities than clinical need, he thought; but, I need it, if only to feel…..large again!
“Clink”----the sound of metal on a hard surface; heads turned, ears tuned.
A man’s watch, gold-plated, expensive, had slipped off a gawker’s wrist: his wrist, or what he used to know as his----alien, spindly, small, but still part of ‘him’, whatever that meant. A security type entered his shrunken peripheral vision; he knew, therefore, that the guard was closer than he appeared, enough warning if you’re behind the wheel of a car, he screamed inside his, still, adult ironic head.
A stainless steel cart would have to do---noisy, its crashing bottles and metallic tinkling caused him to abandon any hope of further stealth; he just needed to move and his oversized shoes were not cooperating. Jumping atop the cart’s second shelf he dropped off the now clown shoe from his left foot and impersonated a junior skateboarder breaking new ground by taking it to the most unlikely and unwelcome indoor venue. Hopping off near the hall’s end, he made his way into the welcoming emptiness of a stairwell and was gone. He had taken his first steps on the lane to a doomed escape, he remembered concluding, realizing only then that he had drawn all the undesirable attention possible, wearing an improvised gauzy kerchief across his younger-by-the moment face like some kid playing outlaw, running for his half-life, after a rather small holdup of a lemonade stand.
What was left of his adult consciousness said one thing: ‘stupid’, followed by, ‘small is good’, especially right now: into the linen shoot, thud. The odors kept him alert, and that was good as he felt like he needed a nap. The nap was closing in, urine stench and all notwithstanding.
“I can’t understand it; a baby, days old, in the laundry bin! The lawyers are frantic over this one: I want to know how this happened, that clear!” screamed the hospital administrator. The staff shrunk out of his office, his phone voice now returning to some local reporter who had gotten tipped off to the story with a $20 bill to an orderly source. “Now be reasonable, this is a major institution, and we are fully accred…….” And the phone was violently returned to its cradle; not so with baby X, who was getting VIP treatment in the same maternity ward he had zipped past as a stainless steel skateboarder in his older form only hours before.
The fact that he was now an apparent infant had no influence on his thoughts: ‘nice tits’ he observed in relation to the nurse now attending to his embarrassingly soiled diaper. He began to wail, still realizing that, while he could not verbalize them, his thoughts were strictly of the adult variety: ‘I am definitely dreaming this………no, too pat; what the Hell is happening!? Maybe if I hold my breath…….yes, that’s it…’ And, as he began to turn blue, the monitor sent out an alert which brought the nurse running, yelling ‘Stat!’
An ER physician rushed to his incubator-style house, probing, lifting his eyelids.
“Jesus, this is the kid they found…………quick, get him oxygen, now!”
An EEG machine was brought over, and electrodes were capped over his hairless head. ‘Beep, beep, beep……….’
The nurse shrieked: “Look at this readout, the brain is overheated, what the……….” And she was pushed aside. “This looks like thinking, big time; we’ve got a freak here, get the chief of neurology, pronto” the attending doctor shouted.
“Breathing’s back” the nurse advised.
“No shit, I guess I don’t want to die, or wake up or………..” Ben thought; just then he remembered his name, all of it. Someone else in attendance noticed his diaper was way too big for his body. “This baby’s losing weight……………and………..inches!”
As things stabilized, a collective sigh of relief was evident, even to the point of a joke from an anonymous source: “We just did the ‘time warp’ dance, folks; I just hope the media don’t……..” was the unintended prophecy heard.
A TV playing in the next ward dashed that hope: “This just in, we have learned that a mystery baby was found in the laundry chute bins at Metropolitan Hospital; no other details are available, and we do have reporters en route to the hospital; as soon as…..” and then a door shut, cutting off the loud broadcast.
Ben had heard it; for some reason, he smiled, as this might enhance his prospects of escape, at least from the hospital. He had to get out, but how, and to where?
Then it hit him: he needed to get hold of a speech synthesizer, the kind he had seen Hawking and others use, those suffering cruelly debilitating diseases which had trapped them in THEIR bodies! And he knew just where to find one: down the hall in the trauma ward. The nurse, the one who had made the cryptic reference about time warping, she had been staring at him, somehow sensing what may have been happening; she was the one who must have called the media, using the clumsy misdirection both as an immediate way of deflecting suspicion and signaling him that she……….knew. Yes, that was it, and, now she was hovering, close by; in the relative chaos, she leaned over, and whispered: “I know….and I can help.”
Obviously a staff member of the neurologist, she wasn’t, perhaps, working alone, maybe looking out for the prospects for huge advancement for her boss, maybe paramour, who could know; but she was his best shot.
She cleared the ward in the name of Dr. Junger, going so far as to have security escort them out, exploiting, for good measure, the shroud of secrecy legal and administration now were frantically trying to cloak these goings-on with; at this point, she wheeled the pediatric unit out and into his laboratory, after security had dutifully cleared the corridor of all personnel.
One hour later, Dr. Junger was ready with the device.
“Can you hear me…..uh,….” And she handed him the admission chart; “…Ben? If so, blink your eyes.” He did.
What followed would make medical if not human history unlike anything before. On tape, Ben recorded, albeit with a synthetic voice, the tiniest details of his horrifying ordeal, from the very beginning, including his distinct recollection of having seen a bright flash of light, a nanosecond in duration, the morning it had begun; its source, he was now certain, had been indeterminate, as it had happened between the ordinary act of just blinking his eyes that day, that was all! Maybe that meant it had just happened to him, whatever ‘it’ was, how could he or anyone know. That sort of thing happened routinely, even when you were just rubbing your eyes from fatigue or a recent awakening. He left that to the doctors and research scientists……..he just wanted to get….out, to grow again, to return, somehow, to normal size, to match his mind. But, then, after an hour or so, the messages became more incoherent, almost like gibberish, baby talk, and, then, nothing.
Ben was returned to the ward, under tight security, while Dr. Junger huddled with his team and the administrators. It was now two hours later.
“I don’t know yet, I need time to study this; it’s not in any textbooks, I can tell you that!” Dr. Junger uncharacteristically boomed.
“At least we have it on tape” offered his nurse aide.
A buzzer sounded, it was the administrator’s phone intercom.
“Yes, I told you…………..what?” He dropped the phone. “The baby’s………gone!”
They all raced to the maternity ward, where the guard was visibly shaken.
“I just looked away for an instant, then………nothing, no noise, nothing; I tell you nobody could have gotten in there!”
The nurse’s adrenaline was charged and she telephoned Dr. Junger’s office. What she heard was, at any other time, clear insubordination.
She called Dr. Junger aside. “Your office doesn’t know what we’re talking about, or about any machine………..uh!” and she began to show fear, of what she didn’t know, only that she was, in her gut, now panicked.
“It’s happening…….to us, spreading…….” As she fell into Dr. Junger’s arms.
“What’s happening………..maybe just fatigue, we’re overwrought” he tried calming her.
“No, I wish it was…………….the tape!” she bleated.
“What about it?” he replied.
“I had it, in my pocket, the small cassette, look……..” as she pulled out her pocket, empty as it was.
She then glanced in the mirror, and saw herself, noticeably younger. As she fainted, a shriek of pure terror was her last breath.