Discover more from Gary Paul Varner
THE TEMPLE OF MAGGIE STONE
Chapter 1: Immortality
Maggie Stone opened her eyes and quickly closed them. The white light was still too bright. She laid still in the darkness, trying to recall some distant dream about a younger woman with her whole life ahead of her instead of behind. Before the fatal words cancer were uttered by her doctor, her daughter had asked what it was like to be ninety. Maggie didn’t have answer for her then. Beyond a few aches and the old hag that stared back at her whenever she looked in the mirror, Maggie had felt the same. Well, she had an answer now.
For Maggie Stone being ninety meant hospital beds and medication. It meant sterile sheets and stale rooms. It meant sympathetic stares and awkward conversations about the end, an end that should’ve been welcome. She thought she’d be ready. She wasn’t.
A person was supposed to be tired of it all by now. Ninety was a respectable age. No one could say she’d lived an unfulfilled life. But she was scared, terrified, and each time she went to sleep, it was harder to wake up. Today, the world had come back by slow degrees. She’d first heard the steady beeping of the machine which measured her vitals. It had grown louder until her eyes sprang open to see the same white, crumbling ceiling tiles she’d stared at for the last several months, only to be reminded of the ever-blinding fluorescent light which forced her eyes shut once more.
Slowly, she opened her eyes again. It took a moment, but they adjusted, and she looked over at the black screen with the ticking green line and listened to the familiar electric beeping of her heartbeat. It sounded like a countdown. She felt sore and dirty despite the clean sheets and the sterile, lifeless smell of the room, a combination of lemon and urine. Some distant part of her mind noted that she was shivering in her bed. She was always cold, and not just because of the cancer; the doctors seemed to believe all their patients should be freezing. It was good practice for death.
She wished she’d agreed to a live-in nurse. If she were going to die, she would rather have done so in her own home, surrounded by things which were familiar. There was nothing familiar here, nothing homey, just a clean, white march toward oblivion…or hell, since she had never accepted a religion. Neither prospect sounded appealing. She supposed she could make a deathbed confession, just to be safe, but she didn’t believe in anything, so what good would it really do? If there were a God, surely, He’d be smarter than that.
Her eyes were no longer burning, but she felt the first throbs of a headache, so she closed them again. An image of Ray floated past her vision in the void. She wondered if she’d see him in the beyond. She wondered if there was a beyond. She wondered if she’d be thinking of him as she descended into death. She wondered if she’d be able to think at all.
Ray never wondered. He believed. It was his crowning achievement. He’d accepted the Lord Jesus Christ at 78 years old, a thing unheard of to hear the Christians tell it. He’d spent the last nineteen years trying to convince her to believe, but she couldn’t. What would death be like if there was a hell? Would she imagine Ray and weep because she’d realize they would be separated forever by a vengeful God. Maggie opened her eyes and kept them focused on the white ceiling. That last thought had been too much. She’d just woken up, and already, her mood was more cryptic than usual. Wishing to get her mind on something more pleasant, she turned to look at Ray. Sure enough, her husband was still sitting beside her bed like he did every day.
Ray was praying. Surely, praying for her damned soul would grow boring at some point, but he kept going. It was his way, his dogged persistence which had gotten them out of so many jams over the years. Too bad prayer was going to fail him, but she wasn’t going to pretend to believe just because she was afraid. She wouldn’t. If Ray was persistent, she was stubborn, but she loved him and was just as worried about him as she was her own demise. Once she was gone, would he give up his faith? As much as she refused to believe, the last thing in the world she wanted was to take his belief from him. She didn’t wish to leave a legacy of shattered hope. What kind of gift would that be?
If belief would make his own transition to the grave easier, then who was she to refuse to give it to him? But she couldn’t bare the idea of ending their marriage on a lie. They’d always been honest with each other, and it was this honesty which had saved them during the darkest periods of their marriage.
Her red eyes scanned her muttering husband who looked up and smiled. Those wrinkled, tired eyes shone with wet tears and light. He was handsome. Dear Lord in heaven…if there was one…he was so handsome. It was the ultimate punishment of old age. A woman’s beauty vanished entirely while old men became refined like wine. Had they been billionaires, he could have a woman thirty-years younger and manage to keep the silly thing. Maggie smiled back. It hurt. She felt her dry lips crack and was pretty sure she tasted blood, but she couldn’t help but smile.
“Good morning, Love,” he said.
“Morning, Dear,” she said.
“How did you sleep?”
“Poorly, but knowing you’re here, I’ll sleep easier this afternoon.”
He took her hand and squeezed it. Maggie looked down at her hand wrapped in his and cringed at the IVs growing out of her arm and the liver spots which speckled her wrinkled limb; some of them had even grown nasty brown hairs. The chemo had killed every hair on her body except those. Those nasty mole hairs had lived on and would grow on her corpse, just like her yellow nails. She hated being old.
Ray brushed her cheek with the back of his wrinkled hand. Her skin was spongy, cold and moist, but his was just soft and warm. She nuzzled his hand, then the tears started.
“Hey,” Ray said. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’m going to be here.”
“I know,” she said. Then she wept.
Her monitors continued to hum and beep as the two held each other. It was a long time before Maggie noticed the two men standing in the doorway. They weren’t doctors. They wore black suits and had shaved faces. When the two men saw her looking at them, they walked into the room without being asked and pulled up two empty guest chairs which were pushed against the wall. The two men sat at the foot of her bed, wearing the largest of smiles. Maggie and Ray stared at these strangers who were dressed like twins but couldn’t have been more different in stature. One was pale skinned, large, heavy in the chest and almost as heavy in the belly, like his stomach and pecks were in a race to see who could stick out the furthest. When he sat down, the belly won the race, sagging over his waist. He had curly red hair and his eyes were brown and sunken. Perhaps, he had cancer himself. The other man was a thin, delicate creature with a shaved head and pale skin. His ears looked like deformed wings. His teeth were dis-proportioned as well, large and white and protruding over his bottom lip. He looked like a rodent while the other looked like misshapen cheese.
Maggie and Ray stared at the two men indignantly as they wiped the tears from their eyes. “What are you doing here?” Ray asked.
“You’re going to die,” the vermin told Maggie.
“Yes,” Maggie said. “That’s obvious.”
“What if you didn’t have to?” the cheese asked.
The machines hummed and beeped. No one spoke. Maggie counted the beeps, ten twenty, thirty. After forty heartbeats, Ray Stone broke the tension. “We’ve decided not to chase alternative methods of treatment. Please leave.”
The vermin shook his head. “You don’t understand. What if you didn’t have to die ever?”
Maggie watched her husband shake. She thought he might rush toward them. Instead, he stood up and pointed toward the door. “Get out.”
The tiny rat-man stood and walked to the door. Instead of leaving, he closed the door and locked it. Maggie began looking for the nurse’s button, but the red-headed cheese glared at her, and it was enough to make her freeze in place.
“You’re right to assume this is a kind of experiment,” the vermin said. “But this isn’t your typical holistic solution. This is a more of a final solution.”
“There’s only one final solution,” Maggie said. “Don’t you two have anything better to do than harass a dying woman?”
The vermin smiled and leaned against the door. He crossed his arms and stared at the elderly couple without blinking.
“We could take you,” the cheese said plainly. “We could take any person here if we wanted. We have that kind of power, but the doctor says the experiment will go better if the person is willing. I don’t know why, and it’s not my job to ask questions. What I do know is that of all the people in this hospital, you are the closest to death. Congratulations. And being the one closest to death, we figured you might be willing to try anything. After all, what do you have to lose?”
“Time, you stupid brute,” Maggie snapped. “I’ll lose time, time with my husband, time with my kids, time for my own reflections, time you’re wasting right now.”
The vermin stepped away from the door and approached her bedside. He stared into her eyes, putting his hand on Ray’s shoulder and forcing him into his chair. Maggie watched the man squeeze her husband’s shoulder. His knuckles turned white, and Ray groaned, but he kept his eyes focused on the brute as if he were waiting for the right moment to remove the hand. It struck Maggie that these two had been looking for a willing subject for some time, and they were out of patience. This intimidation wasn’t calculated. It was desperate. She and Ray were in trouble, real trouble. The vermin didn’t blink. He was trying to appear affectionate, but his smile was more a grimace of grinding teeth. Maggie imagined steam pouring from the man’s oversized ears, only the steam was reaching that certain, high pitch which meant the whole kettle was about to explode. But when the Vermin reached his breaking point, there weren’t going to be bits of broken porcelain flying in all directions. He’d attack Ray, or he would grab and shake her, begging her to go along with whatever scheme they had planned, and while begging, he’d end up breaking her instead.
“I use the word experiment,” Mr. Vermin said, accentuating every syllable. “But let me be clear. This will work. There is no doubt. There is no debate. We know it will work because we have done it before. But now, we need someone who is on record, someone we can monitor as a formality and send out into the world to declare our achievement. This is not a gamble. This is not a risk. This is nothing short of pure immortality. After you, only the richest in the world will be able to afford this treatment, but you will not have to pay anything. All we ask for is a day, one single day, and in return, you will have another lifetime. If you won’t agree to come with us, well…” He stopped mid-sentence and pulled out a syringe. He twisted off the plastic cap and squeezed the needle slightly. Clear fluid spurted from the tip. He cocked his head like a dog inspecting a new sight. “Cooperate with us. We don’t want to kill your husband. And in return, when your husband’s time comes, we’ll give him the same gift. And you two can live together forever…and ma’am, that’s not hyperbole.”
“You can’t be serious,” Ray said. “What…what’s going on?”
“The evolution of humanity,” the cheese said.
Maggie knew one thing. They were in danger. She still had another few weeks of hell to go before shuffling off her mortal coil, but Ray was still very much alive. She needed to get him out of the room, but there was no way he would go. She was certain the ninety-one-year-old man was going to throw a punch at any second. The fool might be able to take the delicate one, but the moment the fat cheese tackled Ray, every bone in his body would turn to powder.
As she was thinking this, she saw Ray tense and knew he was about to make his move. “I’ll go,” she whispered. “Just promise my family will get my body when you’re done.”
“As I said…”
“I know. I know. It’ll work. Just promise to let my husband go and promise to let them find my body when you’re done. It’s all I ask.”
“When we’re done with your body, you’re not going to want it,” the Vermin said.
This statement confused Maggie, but before she could say anything, the Vermin plunged the needle into her arm. She wasn’t entirely surprised by this. She squeezed Ray’s hand as he looked at her with wide, tear-filled eyes. The world began to blur…she was sure she was dying. It was just like she’d imagined. As the colors of the world began to bleed into each other, she saw the Vermin pull out a second needle. She knew it was for Ray, and for the first time, real terror struck her. She tried to scream, but whatever was in the syringe did its work before she could.