“Achilles’ Heel”

They tested it on flowers first. Petunias, to be exact. A few sprinkles of the formula and researchers watched in awe as cold temperatures and water suppression did nothing to kill them. The magenta petals stayed open and vibrant, the stems strong and upright. The mice came next, and they survived too. Researchers stayed mum for years, waiting to see if the magic potion had any long-term adverse effect on the little critters. When it didn’t, when their aging slowed and their health flourished, the concoction became a secret no longer.

The clear liquid formula, with a taste akin to carbonated maple syrup, was marketed immediately upon approval by the FDA; a great invention made greater by mass distribution and profit. It flew off drugstore shelves at a rate no pharmacist could have anticipated. Living forever appealed to the masses, so production increased at the same rate as humanity’s life expectancy. Illnesses were cured, deaths were halted, and for a long time, with the exception of doctors and morticians, people were happy.

Of course, the drug wasn’t entirely infallible. It couldn’t prevent or stop traumatic death. No medicine had the power to reverse, for instance, the damage from a gunshot wound to the heart, no matter how fantastic it was. Even humans, with their advanced cognition and powerful reasoning skills, couldn’t survive decapitation. Still, it stopped aging and destroyed disease, and that was something. That was enough.

The first time I heard my father voice his disapproval of the drug was at the dinner table on a Tuesday night. “Overpopulation,” he muttered disgustedly, mouth full of leftover pot roast. “Too many people, not enough resources.”

My mother took a sip of her wine, nodded in agreement.

“Government should’ve thought about that,” he added, as if he’d been thinking about it for years. Six years prior, he had brought home a bottle of the sweet liquid to share with his family. As we each took the appropriate five-milliliter dose, giddiness had oozed from our pores and permeated the air. Had he been thinking about it then?

If so, he hadn’t mentioned it, and he never showed his discontent again until my grandfather’s funeral nine years later. By then I was twenty-two and, although I looked much younger, I was an intelligent young adult, inquisitive and analytical, craving wisdom that I now know only experience can provide.

“Gregory Peters was a devoted family member and loving friend…”

The preacher, who had known my grandfather for forty-eight hours, spoke in a low, quiet voice. My father, irritated, leaned forward to listen, jawline clenched in livid annoyance. Poor Father Hexley was the target of my father’s misdirected anger. Who he really wanted to lay into was my grandfather, who had refused to take the only medicine that could kill the cancer and save his life for good. Forever, in fact.

When it was time to view the body, my family and I went first. Next to the casket was a small wooden table scattered with framed photos of my grandfather’s life. As I studied them closely, the black and white still shots of birthdays, weddings, and holidays provoked a surge of foreign emotion in me. I had long forgotten what it felt like to cry, for once the threat of death is erased, so too is the incentive to weep. Unfamiliar with such intense sadness, I swallowed the knot in my throat and stepped forward.

Grandpa’s face was ghastly white. The corners of his lips sank back into his hollow cheeks and his cobalt eyes hid behind thin, papery lids. I shivered, not having seen a dead person since the invention. How empty he looked, how cold. The evidence of the cancer’s persistence was everywhere, including his calloused hands, which clung delicately to a mahogany rosary. Why had he refused immortality, especially in the midst of so much pain?

If I had noticed that I was crying, I may have also noticed how cleansing the tears felt, how strangely visceral and fleetingly perfect. I stood, however, entranced and oblivious until I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder. It was not a gesture of comfort, but rather, of stern warning. No need for emotion in a world of guarantees, it said, and ashamed, I stopped immediately.

My grandmother was a petite woman, strong though, with an unparalleled assuredness in her step. I had not seen her come up behind me, and apparently nor had my father, for the brief, yet poignant, exchange that ensued between them caught him visibly off guard. Her deep brown eyes, sad and resolute, settled on my father’s threatening grip for no less than a second before grabbing his hand and throwing it forcefully off my shoulder.

“David, that’s enough!” she hissed under her breath, stepping beside me and wrapping her frail arm protectively around my waist.

I watched Dad carefully, waiting embarrassingly for him to get angry in front of the congregation. He’d been excessively irritated lately, more unhappy than usual; surely he would detonate. Flustered, he glanced down at Grandpa, straightened his suit jacket, and to my disbelief, returned silently to the pew.

“Disregard him,” Grandma whispered shakily, her eyes brimming with tears. She offered a feeble, sympathetic smile, and turned back towards her deceased husband. “Isn’t he beautiful?”

But I didn’t watch him; I watched her. The way she gazed at Grandpa sent my heart into a panic. Something I’d never before seen or experienced radiated from her eyes, and I shuddered in terror. I was afraid of its newness, of its power. My first instinct was to look away, yet I found myself irrevocably absorbed in the undefined emotion. So I continued to stare, awestruck, into Grandma’s vulnerable eyes, and noticing my curiosity, she began to speak.

“It’s love, Charles,” she said, still looking down. “What you’re witnessing is the kind of love that comes without a lifetime warranty. No promise of forever, just a few short years filled with a few wonderful memories. It’s mortal love, dear, and that’s why it’s meaningful. That’s why it’s beautiful.”

I felt my knees buckle beneath me as reality shattered. She hadn’t meant to shake my perception of the world so viciously, yet there I stood, everything I thought I knew about immortality in pieces at my feet. How could something so wonderful do something so terrible? Causing overpopulation was one thing; poisoning the human experience was quite another. I took in a shaky breath. What did this mean for everyone who had taken the drug? What did this mean for me, for my mother, for my sister? What did this mean for my father?

Grandma, sensing my discomfort, tightened her grip around my waist. “It’s what makes everything matter,” she muttered softly in my ear.

I looked down at Grandpa’s lifeless body once more, at his pale face and weathered hands. The knot returned to my throat, and as I walked back to my seat, I cried without apology.

My father studied me closely as I moved down the aisle. I slid into the pew next to him and eyed him bitterly, indignantly, daring him to make me stop. He opened his mouth to speak, but I shook my head in protest. I would never experience the beauty of brevity, not without doing the unthinkable, and now, in light of this new revelation, I blamed him.

He sighed a heavy sigh, dropped his head, defeated, and rubbed his eyes. An exquisitely lonesome and transient tear trickled down his youthful cheek. I stifled my resentment long enough to pity the slight whimper that escaped his mouth, long enough to recognize that he wasn’t crying because he was angry with Grandpa or with Grandma or with me.

Long enough to realize that he was crying because he was angry with himself.

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