Splitting the Difference

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Science Fiction

Submitted: January 13, 2017

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Submitted: January 13, 2017

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The old man sat across the table desperately rubbing his palms together, trying to bring life back into his wrinkled hands. His hard years read like a book upon his leathery skin, a novel with many chapters. His age was taking a hold of him and gravity had begun pulling him closer to the dirt he would soon be buried beneath. He could feel his bones starting to soften, his joints no longer willing to hold his weight, and his muscles too weak to be pulling himself up.

“I don’t have long.” The old man said with all seriousness.

“I can help you, but I do need half of the money down before we start.” Ben reached out his hand and laid it on the table. Reacting to their breath, the flames from the half-burned candles sitting between them, moved back and forth. 

“I can make this happen for you. You must understand that I’m committed to you, and I expect the same from you. We have a long night ahead of us, I must know that you are ready to do this, and then, soon enough, you will have what you want. It will be up to you to make this significant decision that will not only change your life, but the life of another as well.”

The old man did not hesitate to reach into his back pocket and pull out cash. He unfolded the bills and placed a hundred and fifty dollars on the tapestry covered table. It was hard to tell if the old man’s hands shook with excitement or age.

“First, I must tell you a story of how I came across this ability of mine, and then it will be up to you to decide if it will be the right thing for you.”

“What if I decide I don’t want to do it, will I get my money back?”

“No.”

“Well then in that case let’s get on with it, like I said, I don’t have much time left. I didn’t intend on coming to a carnival and not get scammed by some gypsy. Let’s just hope that you are everything that you say you are.”

“I can give you your money back right now, and to your benefit kindly forget about all of my time you have wasted here today.”

The old man took a moment to think about his decision. He turned around to look at the line forming outside the tent. “I’m ready,” he said.

“Let me tell you a story…”

***
A family sat around the dinner table. The roasted chicken was no more than bones and the mashed potatoes just streaks across the empty plates. Their mother stood up and cleared the dishes from the table as grandfather, father, daughter, and son, held their stomachs so the food would not burst out

“Grandpa? You know what tonight is?” Emily asked.

“Of course, you think that I wouldn’t be able to see the lights rising like a birthing sun across the field? Let the food settle, then we can go.

Beth wished that she could go by herself, she thought that she was old enough to go alone, but her mother would not allow it. She was starting to mature in ways that were physically apparent, and assumed everything would change after her thirteenth birthday. But that wasn’t the case, through her mother and father’s eyes she was still considered and treated like a child. She looked over at Little Ben, who was now playing with the last of his food, and did not envy the years he had left of being under the guidance of her delusional non-responsive parents.

The carnival was something special that Beth waited for all year. Each October a spectacular view appeared from the porch, lights formed like an alien city in the distant field. All weekend the flashing of the rides would eliminate the darkness and hide the stars. The rides whipped through the newly chilled air, while the laughter and screeching of the metal could be heard for miles. Even though Beth pled for her freedom to be considered an adult, she always enjoyed the time with her grandfather, and deep down was saddened at the thought that Little Ben might not get to have these moments that she so cherished.

Beth still sat at the table, unable to leave until given permission. She observed how her parents reacted to one another, there was no longer the slightest bit of emotional connection between the two. No words were swapped as her mother brought out a steaming cup of coffee and set it in front of him, his eyes never left the pages of his newspaper. Beth could tell that most times he wasn’t even reading the black print—just staring blankly through the paper, down at the floor. Beth noticed with each year, her parents growing further apart. They no longer sat together watching the nightly news, just as they no longer went for spontaneous afternoon drives as they’d use too. He made sure to say hello when he got home from work, and her mother expected nothing more, and felt he deserved nothing but the same.

Little Ben lifted his plate above his head and tossed it to the floor. Everyone at the table jumped, as the silence in the room was broken.

“Ben! No! Don’t do that.” The mother went and picked up the plate on the floor as Ben just looked down at her from his highchair, with a strange smirk on his face. “AHHH!”, She groaned “Sometimes I want to just whoop you,” she said.

“Now wait a minute,” said Grandpa. “He’s too young for you to be doing that. You must have patience and not forget that these troubled years will pass, just as they did for Beth,” He looked across the table at her and winked.

“I don’t know how much more I can take.” Mother said, walking past everyone on her way into the kitchen. She slamming the plastic dish in the sink. The house became so quiet that they could all hear her tears fall into the metal sink.

Beth felt far more connected to her grandfather than she would ever have with her own father or mother. And this is why she looked forward to him taking her to the carnival each year, for just one night they got a chance to bond, in a far different light rather than the dim light of home. Her grandfather let loose on these nights, and Beth would have not thought him a day over twenty. Even though Beth waited for the day she could go alone, she’d always remember the times that they’d had together.

Ben cried and reached for Beth as she walked out the door, Grandpa followed patting the baby on the head. Together Beth and her grandfather walked down the road and towards the lights.

 

They got back late that night.  Before going inside, they sat side by side in rocking chairs on the porch, looking out at the dimming distant lights. There was no hope for sleep at this time, still too much excitement, and like her grandfather would always say, “One must rock, to calm the nerves”.

“Here you go.” Her grandfather handed Beth a stone that he’d picked up on their walk home. “It caught my eye just off the trail, you were still too blinded by the big lights to notice me pick it up. I think you might like it.” Beth held it in her hand.

The stone was warm as she closed her hand around it. She could tell by the way he was rubbing the tops of his legs and how his knees shook that the long walk was nothing more than a race against age, and he was losing. Together they looked out as the field once again took its usual darkness. Beth closed her eyes and could still see the lights spinning and flickering. She pretended to snap pictures from behind her eyelids so that the memories would last forever.

That night Beth slept with the stone, tight in her hand.

The next morning Beth woke to find the rock still in her grip. There was something different—she felt different, strange. It felt like the sheets were wrapped tightly around her. She pulled them off and noticed it wasn’t the sheets that were constricting her movement, it was her gown, almost suffocating her because she had grown and filled the white cotton. She raced across the room and stood in front of the mirror. Only the sight of her own reflection was she able to believe what she saw, no longer a girl, but now stood a woman, and it was clear that it was her own body. Shocked, she stared into the mirror, running her hands down her new curves.  The new transformation was not half as shocking to her as was the fact that she looked just like her mother. Far more than she’d ever expected.

She opened her door and looked down the hallway, not ready to see anyone quite yet. She could hear her someone in the kitchen. She moved across the hall and into the master bedroom straight into her mother’s closet. She put on an old dress that she hadn’t seen her mother wear in years, it fit perfectly.

Beth crept into the kitchen and stood behind her mother as she cleaned the morning dishes. Tears filled Beth’s eyes as she stood there, not out of sadness, just an overwhelming sense of change—possibly new hormones that were unfamiliar. Beth did not know how to go about presenting this new change that happened overnight. Before she grasped the courage to tap her mother’s shoulder, her father walked in. He stared at her. Her mother turned around and was shocked, and for a moment though that she was looking at herself as if she’d went back in time. She glanced over at her husband confused by the look on her husband’s face—an expression many years gone. She looked back and forth at the two, without saying a word.

Then, to add to the confusion of the morning Grandfather walked in and a relief came over Beth, she was not the only one in the family who’d changed, he was much younger and filled his suit with long lost muscle. His skin had tightened and his curled hands had straightened. He was younger, just as she’d seen in the family photo album.

And last, Ben waddled into the kitchen and looked up at them all, seemingly indifferent to the changes, possibly too young to notice, or just didn’t care, “Food?” He said.

That night dinner could not have been more uncomfortable. Beth caught her father staring at her, but quickly looked away only to catch a deadly stare from his wife.

As the family ate dinner, her mother kept noticing the stone that Beth held tight in her hand.

It was late that night when her mother decided to do the unthinkable. She slowly moved through Beth's dark room, and with cold hands removed the stone from her grip, unable to look at her sleeping face. Beth did not wake up as her mother closed her fingers.

Her mother crept out of the room and went down the hall, not to her bedroom, but straight down to Little Ben’s. She approached his crib. One finger at a time she opened his little hand and placed the rock in his palm. She stroked his hair and a wave of excitement washed over her. That night she fell asleep closer to her son than she’d ever done before.


***

“So after telling you this story, are you ready to steal youth?  Just so that you might have another chance at life. What age to you wish to become again? Show me the picture of your grandchild.”

The old man pulled the picture from his pocket and held it out. “He’s six years old.”

“And he is the one that you would like to split your time with? Well, how old are you?

”78.”

“And the child is six? If we do this, you will go back to the age of 42… as will your grandchild. He will become a man overnight, unfortunately his mind will not grow the same.” The fortune teller pulled a stone out of his pocket and sat it down in front of them. “I’ve never let it go.”

The old man looked at it and it did have the soft glow from the story, far more luring than he’d imagined.

The old man quickly put the picture back into his pocket and looked at the opening in the tent as if he wanted to run out and forget that he’d never come here. Like a tidal wave, shame swelled inside him, and a tear fell.

The look on the old man’s face was something Ben was used to after telling the story. The old man got up and walked out of the tent. Ben smiled as he patted the hundred and fifty dollars in his pocket.


© Copyright 2017 Benjamin Maybe. All rights reserved.

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