Everyone's had days when nothing seems to go right. Mabel Hollings was having one of those lives.
It was raining as she made her way down the street, leaning on her cane. It seemed to rain less these days and it smelled funny, not like in the old days. She wasn't sure when it had happened, that they'd become "the old days" instead of "yesterday." One day there had been gray hair, arthritis had followed and now here she was, old.
She squinted at her Social Security check. $271, maybe. Hadn't they been bigger when she was a girl? Surely her grandmother had gotten twice that. Of course, the dollar went farther then, too.
Up ahead, an awning stretched out, offering relief from the rain. She stopped under it, patting her hair. A doorman, a real one, like they'd had when she was young, stepped forward. "Can I help you, Ma'am?"
The sign over the door read, in gilt-edged purple, "Youth, Inc."
Mabel had seen the ads, of course. "Who says Yesterday's Gone?.... The Good Old Days Are Back!" the television ads showing happy young couples slam-dancing blared. They couldn't really offer what they claimed, but it might be an interesting way to wait out the rain.
Mabel pushed at her teeth to be sure they were seated properly before smiling at him. "Yes, young man, I believe you may."
She followed him across the dark purple carpet to the high receptionist's desk. In here the city smells were muted, the air perfectly controlled to mimic the Maine springtimes Mabel had all but forgotten. There was even a gentle scent of pine, overlaid by a tang of salt. All that was missing was the buzz and bite of sandflies.
"Hello, Ma'am," the receptionist said brightly. "Welcome to Youth incorporated, where second chances are our business."
Mabel frowned slightly at the familiar tone in the woman's voice. But if the ads were true... if these people really did offer the second chance at life they claimed... well, then Mabel could afford to overlook the familiarity.
"I'm interested in your company's services," she said.
"Certainly, ma'am." The receptionist smiled brightly and took a WorldNet Uplink from her desk. "My name's Esther, by the way. And you would be...?" Her voice trailed of in an inviting interrogative, her fingers hovering over the Uplink.
"Mabel Hollings," Mabel said.
Esther tapped that into the Uplink. "Well, Mabel," Esther said. "I may call you Mabel, mayn't I?"
Mabel preferred to be addressed with more respect by young folks, but she wanted to see how Youth, Inc. proposed to give her this "second chance", so she just nodded.
"Here at Youth, Inc," Esther continued, "we believe in the You in youth" Esther flashed another toothpaste smile. "Would you like to see our facility?"
Probably nothing more than a health spa, but the bank was open until three, and she certainly didn't have anything else to do at the moment, what with the rain and all.
Esther led the way down a hallway, her high-heeled shoes barely whispering along the carpet. She knocked on one of the brass-fitted doors about halfway down. "Mabel's here for a tour. Doctor," she said.
"Come in," a rough male voice responded.
Esther opened the door for Mabel and ushered her in, setting the Uplink on a table. Then she left, presumably to return her desk.
The room was like every other medical office Mabel had ever been in. It was cooler than the hallway had been and the pine/sea smell was overpowered by those of steel, plastic and chemicals.
The doctor was young, but not overly so, with large hands and a ready smile, both of which he proffered.
Mabel shook his hand shyly. She'd never been comfortable with doctors.
"I'm Doctor Steve," he said. "I'm glad you could join us today, Mabel. I understand you're interested in a second chance."
"Me? I wouldn't have stopped at all if it hadn't been raining. And I don't usually take this route to the bank. I normally go by subway, particularly in the rain, but it's out with the strikes of course, so..."
"Of course, Mabel. That's why you're here. But as long as you are here, you might as well apply."
"Apply?" both Esther and Doctor Steve had mentioned "second chances". "For what? I'm not even sure what you're selling."
"Youth, of course," said Doctor Steve. "Why do you think we call ourselves Youth, Inc.? We've got the real thing."
Mabel felt faint. Ads were one thing, but this face-to-face claim... "You can't.." she trailed off. How could she be sure? Their ads claimed they did, and she certainly hadn't kept up with the medical journals; she didn't even follow the regular news.
"We can do it," Doctor Steve said. He picked up the Uplink and tapped a command into before handing it to her. "Just fill in the questions you can answer. The Uplink will ferret out the rest from the information you provide."
She spent the next half-hour on the questionnaire. Some of the questions were rather personal - quite a few of them, actually. She skipped over them.
He glanced at the screen. "You're eighty-five? By 'unmarried' do you mean never married, or widowed?"
WorldNet would provide that information anyway. "Never married," she said. She remembered that day so clearly; the heat, the wailing nephew, her drunken father. Most of all, she remembered the waiting. It had taken her ten hours to admit that Tony wasn't coming. After all the plans, all the money, her wedding had fallen apart for lack of a bridegroom.
Leaning over the screen, Dr. Steve read on. "Had a kitten run over by a car at three; broke both legs learning to ride a bicycle at five, failed to learn; got into a fight on the first day of school, lost three teeth..."
"Stop it!" Mabel pulled the Uplink away, eyes running down the screen. It was all there now: the locker fire in third grade that destroyed her books but not her seatmate's; failing sixth grade; having an accident on her driver's test; being the only girl in the class without a date to the senior prom: how had even WorldNet gotten all this?
Dr. Steve was regarding her calmly. "I told you the Uplink would fill in the gaps," he said. "We'd like to help, Mabel."
"How?" Mabel asked. "it's too late, far too late." She'd been a fool to put up with this so long.
"It's never too late, Mabel. Second chances are our business."
That motto again. Was it real? Another try... a chance to do it right this time... "But I don't have any money," Mabel said. Her mother had had Medicare, before it had been stripped to pay for some new medical project, Mabel couldn't remember the name of it, only that it had involved $2000 chair tips. No one but the big corporations could afford insurance anymore.
"You could make a down payment," Dr. Steve said. "you have $271."
Mabel pulled out her check again. "How did you..."
"You told me you were on the way to the bank. Your check amount's right here." He tapped the Uplink's screen.
"You said a 'down payment'. What about the rest of it?"
"Once we knock a few decades off you, you'll be back in the workforce." Dr. Steve's smile was as bright as Esther's had been earlier.
Work. It had been over twenty years since she'd had a job, felt even remotely useful. But hadn't she heard jobs were scarce? If she mentioned that, Dr. Steve might rescind his offer.
"All right," Mabel said. "Make me young again."
He handed her a pen, and she signed her check over to Youth, Inc.
Dr. Steve pocketed her check and said, "Let's get started." He helped her up onto the examining table. Paper crinkled as she sat.
"Lie down, Mabel." He helped swing her legs up and placed a rough felt pillow under her head.
"What are you doing?" Rather than the blood pressure and temperature checks she'd been expecting, he seemed to be readying a shot. In the old days, doctors had known what order things went in.
"This won't hurt a bit," he said, rubbing alcohol on her arm. Surprisingly, it didn't, much.
Mabel drifted in a pleasant dream, one full of flowers and bunny rabbits. She was a bunny, too, and ran with her bunny brothers and sisters eating flowers and enjoying the sunshine.
She awoke refreshed. If only for the first good night's sleep she could remember, it was worth it. She sat up, pushing at the curtain that surrounded her bed. Bright sunlight streamed in. How easily one moved, after enough sleep!
She slid out of bed, padding over to the sink in the corner. Splashing water on her face, she looked up and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She stared. It had to be some kind of trick.
The woman in the mirror had hair like thick, black wool with no hint of grayness or thinning. Her eyes were clear and dark, surely had never been rheumed by cataracts. And the skin - her skin was velvety-brown, with neither wrinkles or age spots. She laughed suddenly to think that she had once looked like that - and all she had done was worry that her nose was too flat. As if that mattered, compared with everything else she'd seen go wrong since!
"Mabel?" She turned. Esther was standing in the doorway. "What do you think?" She asked.
Mabel glanced back at her image. "Is it real?"
"Oh, Yes," Esther nodded. "And it can be done over and over again."
Mabel might be unlucky, but she wasn't stupid. "What's the catch?"
"Catch?" Esther looked a little uncomfortable. "It's expensive, for one. And... well, we like our clients to volunteer for sterilization. Population control, you know. We can't force you to because of the Reproductive Rights Act of 2017." Esther seemed to find this annoying.
Mabel shrugged. She didn't really care one way or the other. "Anything else?"
"Well, yes, actually, there is," said Esther. "You don't realize this, but you've been out for nearly a month."
"A...!" Mabel shook her head. "Why?"
"That's how long it takes to repair the hormonal damage," Esther explained. "We've filed your 'death' with the appropriate authorities, and have a new identity set up for you."
"You couldn't have managed to tell me about this before?"
Esther shrugged. "We have to protect our patients. Be reasonable, Mabel. No one's going to believe you."
There were the ads Mabel had seen, but she didn't want to stand around all day arguing with Esther when she had a life to get back to. "Where are my clothes?"
"Oh they would never fit you now. Or be particularly fitting, for that matter. Try this." Esther held up a low-cut pink thing with a gathered waist and one o those air-hoop skirts the kids were wearing now.
"Oh, I could never get away with that." Mabel's face was hot.
"Sure you can. Try it on."
It not only fit, it was flattering, if Mabel did say so herself.
"Lovely," Esther said. "You'll turn heads now, my girl."
Mabel didn't rally want to bring this up, but she'd been raised to be honest. "Dr. Steve said that was a down payment."
"Yes," Esther nodded. "Once you start working, you can start paying back the rest of it. Everything should be fine. If there are any problems, we'll be waiting for you."
A short time later, outfitted in her new dress and a pair of shoes Esther had dug up from somewhere, Mabel left the Youth, Inc. building.
Her feet seemed to know what they were doing, guiding her into the park that she'd always loved to sit in.
The first thing she noticed was how easy it was to move, how clear everything looked. Next was that she really did turn heads. She even hear a few wolf-whistles. She was whistling herself as she left the park. She could get used to this.
Halfway up Elk Street, she saw one of her neighbors, Barney Tostig. Esther hadn't told her she couldn't contact anyone, and surely Barney was a potential customer.
"Hey, Barney!" she called.
He peered at her. "Do I know you, miss?"
"It's me, Mabel! I got one of those treatments at that new clinic."
"New what?" He cupped a hand to his ear. "Who?"
Leaning forward, she said louder, "Mabel. I've been to that clinic. The one on Seventh?"
"Heavens? What?" Something seemed to sink in. "Mabel. No you're not. See here, young lady, I don't appreciate being made fun of. Just wait 'til you're my age, you'll see. It's not all fun and games, life isn't. I was young once too, you know." He set off resolutely down the street.
"Hypocrite," Mabel said to his back. "I'm seven years older than you."
Spirits slightly dampened, she continued on her way. It was hard to stay sad with so much to live for, and by the time she reached "The Open Host", she was ready to try a new experience. Besides, the day was hot, and a beer, which she hadn't been able to drink in several years. would go down just right now.
At the door to the bar, she was stopped by a young man. "Miss, I'll need to see your I.D."
"Thank you," she said. "I haven't been carded in years." She started to step around him.
He reached out to stop her. "Sorry miss. House rules."
She fumbled in the pockets of the pink dress. She found the I.D. they'd given her at Youth, Inc. and started to hand it over when she realized she didn't have any money. "Never mind," she said, giving the bouncer a big smile. "Forgot my wallet, anyway."
She left the bar and turned down Treeline, heading towards the Treeline Home For Adults. Even with the housing crunch, there was a remote chance that they hadn't gotten rid of all her things yet, that she could claim to be her own granddaughter and pick up some of it - particularly the porcelain box where she always kept $50.
She was stopped by Harry at the desk. "Guests have to sign in, miss."
Stupid. She'd actually started walking back to her room. "I'm here to see Mabel Hollings."
"Uh," Harry said. "I guess you hadn't heard. She's dead."
Even expecting it, it came hard, having someone you know pronounce you dead. And so tactfully, too. She reached behind her for a chair. Not finding one, she settled for the floor. "No..."
"I'm sorry," Harry said belatedly. "How well did you know her?"
"I'm her..." she remembered on time that Harry knew she didn't have any children. "Her great-niece. I've been looking for her for years."
Harry pressed a veg-plas cup of soyacafe into her hands. She sipped from it too quickly, burning her tongue. As she sucked in air, trying to cool her blistering mouth, Harry went on.
"Mabel was a good old lady. Never could do anything right, though. She made quite a mess of life, no children, no friends, so she never had any visitors. Anyway, she went out for a walk and failed to come back and that was that. I'm very sorry."
Mabel swallowed another sip of soyacafe. When had real coffee disappeared? Something to do with rain forests, she was sure.
"Can I see m-my ... great-aunt's things?" Mabel asked. If he wouldn't let her take any of it, maybe she could just palm the box. It wasn't stealing, after all. It was her stuff.
"I'm afraid we've given all her personal effects to the Red Crescent for their latest efforts in Yemen. With the housing crunch, we just don't have the storage space," he said apologetically.
Out on the street again, Mabel was beginning to realize that there was more to starting life over than she'd thought. She'd need new clothes, a new place to live and most of all, a job. There hadn't been many jobs available for single young people in so many years that Mabel doubted they'd ever been as common as the press would have people believe. There were the camps, of course. They provided food and housing in return for work. She'd never really thought much about them; they kept the indigent out of the cities and provided much-needed labor. The problem, she understood now, was that without actual money, it was very difficult to get out of the camps.
She could go back to Youth, Inc. but she was damned if she was going to admit defeat so quickly. Two hours was hardly long enough to give her new life before calling it a bust. She began wandering the streets, hoping inspiration would strike. Feet sore and legs aching, she finally saw a sign that promised help.
The Good Neighbor Shelter was housed in an abandoned school. Most of the windows had been boarded up, the mortar was crumbling and the smell of mildew was all-pervasive.
But they did have a cot for her and she was served bread and vegetable soup in the cafeteria by a smiling teenager with a scraggly beard.
The seats were too low for comfort and her elbows intruded embarrassingly into her neighbors' space as she wolfed down the watery soup. There was plenty of salt available and the shelter guests used it liberally. Salt, Mabel realized, was cheaper than soup makings, and it took a lot of water to stretch the available food to feed this many people.
On her second day at the shelter, one of the young people presented her with a list of addresses. "These are the businesses that are looking for people right now," she said. "Try to find something, even if it's only the promise of a second interview. I wrote the shelter's address on there too. They can contact you through us."
Mabel studied the list. "These people all want to hire me?"
The young woman laughed. "Wouldn't that be nice? No, but they're willing to talk to you. You can take a shower first. I'll find something for you to wear while we're laundering your dress."
Later, clean and determined, Mabel set out for the first address on her list, Huron, Huron and Huron, Attorneys-at-Law.
The office was huge, dark and cold. It rather reminded her of a cave she'd visited in Virginia once. "Hello?" her voice was lost in the plush carpeting.
Mabel sought out the source of the response and finally made out a shadowy form at a desk on the far side of the room She went toward it. "I'm here about the job?"
The form revealed itself to be a woman in her mid-fifties. "Can you type?" she said.
"Yes," Mabel said.
"Good. Most people these days only know how to use voice input, but the oldest Mr. Huron is most insistent that everything be typed and double-spaced." She handed Mabel an application. "You can fill this out over there." She pointed at a small table in the corner. One of the room's few lights was over it.
Mabel read each question carefully, making sure to answer everything. It wouldn't do to have them not take her just because she'd left something blank.
The woman read it over while Mabel stood there. "I'm sorry, dear. You've made a mistake." She handed it back.
"What?" Mabel looked at it. Everything looked fine to her.
The woman tapped the box marked "education". "You have here that you graduated from the University of Maine in '97, as in '1997'? Don't you mean, '57?"
"Silly me," Mabel said, doing her best to make the "9" look like a "5". "2057, of course." She'd have to be more careful; all her dates would be off by sixty years.
"We'll call you, dear," the woman said.
Somehow, Mabel doubted it.
At the next place, a pet store called Awful Creatures, the manager was apologetic. "I simply don't have time to train anyone. If you'd ever even had a gengineered pet..."
"I had a cat once," Mabel said.
He looked interested. "Gengineered?"
"No, that was before they started with all that."
"What happened?" Mabel repeated.
"To the cat."
"She got run over by a driver education car."
He shook his head. "Student drivers."
"The instructor was driving."
So it went. Store after store, office after office. the story was always the same. They wanted someone with a driver's license. They wanted experience. They wanted - oh, irony! - someone older. What they didn't want was Mabel.
Hungry and tired, she headed back to the shelter. It had to be three or four miles, but she'd walk it. She didn't have money for the bus, and besides, public transportation was limited to children, the handicapped and the elderly. She'd forgotten that when she was elderly.
When she finally arrived at the shelter, she was too tired to even add salt to her water soup. She barely kicked off her shoes before falling onto her cot. Something crinkled beneath her. She pushed herself up to look. Someone had left a note there.
Esther called. She's waiting. You're running out of time?
The question mark had been underlined several times and circled, presumably to indicate that the message taker hadn't been sure they'd gotten it right. Mabel suddenly found it was much more difficult to sleep than she'd thought. What was Youth, Inc. going to do? Repossess?
The next day was a repeat of the last, so was the next and the next. The whole day spent tramping around hungry and tired, being told that this position was filled or that one required heavy lifting or that she needed to come back later when the manager was in. Each day when she got back to The Good Neighbor, she ate her watery soup and lay in her narrow cot and read the day's message from Esther. The words changed slightly, but the gist was always the same: We're waiting.
On her fifth day in the shelter, the scraggly young man shook her awake. The manager of Awful Creatures had changed his mind. She was to go there at once.
When she arrived, he gave her a hearty handshake and a broom. "Two hundred a week before taxes and use of a room behind the shop."
She shook his hand. After what she'd lived on before, two hundred a week seemed an embarrassment of riches. Of course, it was taxable, and she was no longer eligible for a food allowance. But it came with her own room, it would keep her out of the camps and best of all, it might keep Youth, Inc. happy.
She set cheerfully to work. At the end of a week, the manager typed his code into his Uplink and got a check printed out for her. She looked at it. "This is only twenty dollars," she said.
He took it from her. "Maybe I mistyped it." He tapped into WorldNet again. "No, my account is down two hundred. Let's see... taxes take out sixty... that should still leave you with... oh, here we go. The rest was taken out for outstanding medical bills." He shrugged and handed back the check.
Mabel sighed and accepted it. At least she didn't have to pay rent. And she knew she could eat cheaply. But what would Youth, Inc. have done if her job hadn't included a room?
Over the next few weeks, she learned a lot about animals, particularly gengineered ones. She enjoyed the work, cuddling cats who would always be awkward, fuzzy kittens, grooming dogs who couldn't open their mouths wide enough to deliver a serious bite.
But every week at pay time, the same thing happened: Youth, Inc. had left her with just barely enough to eat. She began to make a pot of soup or stew at the beginning of the week and stretch it out until her next check. She tried to save a little each week anyway. Some weeks it was two dollars, others closer to ten. Her fund started to grow, slowly but surely. She didn't know what she was saving for, but she'd find out.
One day on the way back from buying the week's soup makings, she saw a young man furtively pedaling I.D. cards. Their main use, she knew was to keep people out of the camps, one step ahead of the government. It might also help her stay one step ahead of Youth, Inc. On the other hand, it would make it difficult to get paid.
On the sixth week, she asked the manager if he could pay her in cash. "I'm paying Y- that medical company six times what I'm getting myself. Just one week. For one thing, I'd like to buy a new dress."
"All right, Mabel. You've been a good employee so far." He opened his wallet and paused. "This isn't going to cause any trouble, is it?"
"No," Mabel said. At least it wouldn't once her identity was erased from WorldNet. As she walked toward the grocery store, she began to feel nervous. Someone was following her. She started walking faster. Stopping for a light, she took the time to glance behind her. No one around was even looking her way, much less walking toward her. She crossed the street, feeling a little foolish.
It took her a while to find the young man with the I.D.s. She wasted more time convincing him that she really wanted what he was selling, and wouldn't turn him in to the authorities. His price was higher than she'd hoped - eighty-five dollars, but she didn't dicker with him. She had no idea how long it would take Esther and Dr. Steve to realize they hadn't been paid, but she intended to use that time to get thoroughly lost.
After receiving his assurances that her current I.D. would be wiped from WorldNet and the new one installed by the end of the hour, Mabel left the I.D. seller to pursue his minor crime.
She turned her steps toward the bus station. The feeling that she was being followed increased. A rapid glance behind her showed a pair of men in dark suits pacing her. Then one of them turned to enter Goldstein's Department Store, and she felt foolish again.
Ahead, at the bus station, she saw a single bus idling. She broke into a run. Whether or not she was being paranoid, she didn't want to sit around waiting for the next one. As she rounded it, she heard the driver shift gears. She pounded on the doors, and he opened them.
She scrambled aboard. "I didn't have time to get one. Can I just pay you? Please?"
"All right," the driver sighed. "Where are you headed?"
Where? She hadn't bothered to look up and read the bus' destination sign. She racked her brains. What bus left at this time? "Cleveland?" She hazarded.
"Ninety-three seventy-five, miss." The driver said.
Relieved, she peeled the bills off her rapidly-shrinking store and went to find a seat. As the bus pulled out, she saw two men in dark suits running toward the station. She resisted the urge to stick her tongue out.
On the long, flat trip through Ohio, she had time to think. If she'd caught the name on the bus, she realized, there was a good chance the men in suits might've, too. When the driver announced a rest stop, she piled off with the other passengers. While they headed for the fast food restaurant they'd parked by, she crossed the busy street to a chain drug store. She waited, watching while the others filed back into the bus and the driver stood scratching his head, looking around as he counted again. At last, he got in and drove off. She was sorry to cause him any worry, but she couldn't risk Youth, Inc. catching up with her. After a decent interval, she started walking to the downtown area.
Downtown South Muriel, Ohio, didn't have much to boast about. A game parlor, a florist, two small grocery stores and a gas station made up the entire main street. One of the grocery stores had a "Help Wanted" sign. She went in.
No, they hadn't found anyone. Did she have any references? Well, maybe they'd try her for a week anyway.
Gratefully, she took the broom the woman pushed into her hands. The work was at once more boring and less demanding than the petshop had been. At the end of the day, the woman directed her to someone who "sometimes rented rooms" with an admonishment to show up at eight the next morning.
Using almost her entire left over stock to pay for the room, Mabel realized she'd have to come up with some kind of long term plan by the time she got paid.
She went through the days eating little and sleeping less. She thought of heading for Canada, but rejected the idea almost immediately. She'd most likely be stopped at the border.
As time went on without any sign of her pursuers, she began to think maybe she needn't worry at all. perhaps she'd lost them.
On the fifth day, as she was leaving the store, a man in a dark suit came around a corner. Walking at a leisurely pace, he turned when she did, stopped when she did.
Instead of heading back to her room, she walked out to the highway and stuck out her thumb. It took her three rides and almost seven hours to cover the forty miles to Cleveland.
The last person, a neatly groomed young man, seemed concerned when she insisted on being left off at the park. "Sister, it's dark out there. You just don't know what sort of people might be hanging around."
"Don't worry," she said. "I've been taking care of myself for longer than you could possible imagine."
After he drove off, she began looking for a tree to sleep under. She was tired, she was hungry and she was cold. She didn't know how much of this she could take. Just who did Youth, Inc. think they were, anyway? Playing God, making people young, taking everything they had in return, chasing them down like murderers - just who did they think they were?
It rained all night.
When she woke up after a fitful sleep, it was still raining, a steady, monotonous rain like the kind she hadn't seen for decades. A crowd of the men in dark suits surrounded her. This close, she could see that each wore a badge emblazoned with "Youth, Inc." in gilt-edged purple.
Pulling herself to her feet, Mabel backed against her tree. If only she'd listened to the man who'd given her the ride! Obviously the park was one of the first places they'd look.
One of the men grabbed for her and she dodged, directly into another's arms. Kicking and punching with all her might, she dragged her captor to the ground and managed to wriggle from his grasp.
She staggered to her feet and began running, twisting down alleys and by-streets until she had no idea how to find her way back to the park. At last, the sounds of pursuit died behind her.
She pulled herself together and forced herself to start walking. As she turned out onto a major street, she saw an awning ahead. The rain was picking up and she started running again.
Then she saw them. The men in suits waited at the end of the block. Footsteps behind her told her enough. She didn't need to look over her shoulder to know she was being followed by more of them.
She ducked under the awning. Two signs hung over the door. One was the now familiar gilt-edged purple. The other, green with gold edging, read, Age, Inc. Below that, on the door itself, a third sign said, "Help Wanted."
Mabel glanced at the men in suits. Both groups had stopped a few feet away from the awning, heedless of the rain.
Giving a smile to the doorman, she pushed open the door. She had a feeling they'd be waiting for her.
Jennifer Schwabach is the author of nearly three dozen short stories and poems. Her first and second novels are due out in e-book form on 2006. She lives in Upstate New York and is the age she appears to be. Really.
Published by permission of the author.