Ben Franklin was right, thought Joe. Fish, visitors, and overpriced spas stink after three days.
Joe and Vera were only there at the recommendation of a friend. The spa had been called “a fountain of youth”, guaranteed to bring new life to any relationship. Not that Joe and Vera needed it. After twenty years, Joe had eyes only for his wife, and she for him. Still, in her early forties Vera had begun to feel time passing. Joe remembered her staring at herself in the mirror and complaining about “crows feet” around her eyes. He tried to tease her about it, but after a sour look and a long pout from Vera, Joe acquiesced. When his friend mentioned “Club Med USA”, Joe immediately bought two reservations.
Looking around now, he wondered what all the fuss was about. True, the spa was set in a beautiful landscape, an island off the Oregon coast. The owner, a Greek expat with the unlikely name of Percy, greeted all his guests himself when they stepped off the ferry. Joe and Vera were shown to a cabin, one of many circling the owner’s office. Joe noted that the nameplate above the office door read simply “The Club”. He recalled the same friend who had suggested this place mentioning a lawsuit by the original Club Med being quickly and quietly dismissed (money talks, thought Joe). He supposed that the owner didn’t want to chance any further publicity along those lines.
At any rate, the spa didn’t seem so different from any other. Despite the discreet advertisements (“we promise to stop time”), most of the guests Joe saw looked old and tired. There were a few young women (“attendants”) whose function was to see to the guests’ needs. Without exception, the attendants were pretty, efficient, and completely off-limits. Not that it mattered to Joe. He had eyes only for the woman in the lounge chair next to his. If she had a few gray hairs, he never saw them, and wouldn’t have pointed them out anyway.
Well, thought Joe, maybe it’s not the most exciting spa in the world. We can always go someplace else; it’s not as if our vacation plans are set in stone.
Vera sighed. “Joe, hon--can we go for a walk?”
“Sure.” Joe got up and offered his wife a hand. “How about down by the beach?”
Vera nodded in agreement. They went, hand in hand, around the pool and past the farthest cabin, where the pines started. The “beach”, as Joe so optimistically called it, was a point of sand and rocks littered with shells. Other guests had mentioned jellyfish. Joe stepped carefully and wondered again why they hadn’t decided on Tahiti or Aruba or even Florida. The spa itself was fine, but it puzzled him that the island’s owner hadn’t cleaned up the rest of the island.
“So when do you want to go home?”
Vera squeezed Joe’s hand with a smile. “You read my mind, darling. They’ve stopped time, all right. It’s gone so slowly I can barely stand it.”
Joe laughed. “I know what you mean.”
They stood gazing out at the waves. Seagulls whirled across the sky, dancing on the rising wind.
Vera sighed. “I think you’re wasting your money, Joe. If anything, staying here has made me feel older. Besides--” She broke off.
“Oh...it’s nothing. That Percy--”
“I knew it!” Joe’s hand tightened reflexively. “Has he hurt you?”
“Oh, no! He hasn’t touched me, Joe, honest. He just, well, he makes me nervous, that’s all.” Vera drew her hand away and wrapped both arms around herself. “He’s sneaky. Yesterday, I went for a walk while you were sleeping. I was up on the bluff, just past the cabins, enjoying the quiet. Then I turned around...and he was right there, behind me.”
Vera shuddered. “He acted like nothing was wrong. He said he’d seen me up here, and wanted to make sure I was okay and didn’t need anything. But Joe, it was as if he appeared out of nowhere. He was just--there. He hadn’t even made a sound!”
Joe took Vera’s hand back. He rubbed it gently, and said, “We’ll leave first thing in the morning. It’s already getting late...and at least the food here is worth the price.”
“Okay.” Vera managed a smile. “Oh, but--”
“It’s something I just remembered. Percy said that if I was interested, he had just perfected a youth cream.”
Joe sighed. “Vera...how many ‘youth creams’ have you gone through lately? Oh, never mind, sweetheart,” he went on, when Vera started to protest. “If you want it, you must have it. Although you just keep getting more beautiful every day.”
“You Casanova, you.” She smiled. “If you don’t mind. I’d like to at least be able to say I tried it.”
“I’ll talk to Percy after dinner.”
Later that evening, after a meal of lemon chicken, baklava for dessert, and a wine that they agreed was the best they’d ever tasted, Joe and Vera sat contentedly under the stars. Vera leaned back in her chair and yawned.
“Go to bed, love.” Joe smiled at her.
Vera arched an eyebrow in his direction. “Coming with?”
Joe laughed. “You’re insatiable. Just give me a few minutes. I promised to ask about that cream, remember?”
“Okay.” Vera yawned again. “But don’t be angry if I’m fast asleep.”
Joe kissed her on the cheek. He watched as Vera walked away, waiting until she had closed the cabin door behind her. With a sigh, Joe got up from his chair and headed to the office.
Percy looked up from his desk as Joe came in. He jumped up to shake Joe’s hand vigorously. Joe still couldn’t figure out Percy’s own age, even under the bright light of the cabin; he could have been anywhere from twenty to sixty. His face was smooth and unlined, his head shaved, and there was something ageless about his bearing. Percy’s eyebrows were very dark and thin, and Joe wondered if he plucked them.
“Joe, isn’t it? What can I do for you? Oh, forgive my manners. Please, have a seat.”
All this came out in a single sentence. Joe, bemused, took the offered seat and crossed his legs.
“I hope the spa is to your liking,” said Percy.
“Oh, it’s fine. The food is especially fine. No complaints.”
Percy beamed. “I’m so glad! My grandparents thank you. They handed down original recipes from the old country.” He paused. “But I sense you have a question?”
“Not me...my wife. Vera said you told her about a youth cream.”
“Ah, I see. It’s true, Joe. A few months ago, I traveled to Greece to visit relatives...and to search for the missing ingredient.” Percy rose and paced the room. “The cream I’ve worked on for the past few years was always not quite right. Oh, it worked well enough, but there was always something...lacking.”
“And I suppose you found it?”
“I did! Would you like to see?” Without waiting for a response, Percy went behind the desk and into a back room. Joe heard the turning of a combination lock. A moment later, Percy emerged holding a white ceramic canister about seven inches high. The lid and base were ringed with metal filigree. Otherwise, it was a very ordinary looking piece, thought Joe.
“Let me,” said Percy, opening the lid. Joe peered in, to see a creamy substance filled nearly to the top. He leaned forward, then quickly withdrew as a pungent odor met his nose.
Percy laughed at his reaction. “I’m working on the smell,” he said.
“What is that?” asked Joe.
“Well, of course I can’t give away my secret recipe, can I?” Percy chuckled. “But I can say it involves mature jellyfish with a seaweed binding...and the final ingredient, which I obtained in Greece.” He paused dramatically. “The venom of the whistling viper.”
“Whistling--you mean a snake?” Joe couldn’t suppress a shudder. “Ugh!”
“The snake is a symbol of immortality and healing. Why do you suppose physicians use it?” Percy paused. “There’s just one other thing I haven’t worked out yet. Your wife mustn’t apply the cream in front of a mirror. There’s something about the silver nitrate that damages the cream’s effect. Very strange.”
Strange indeed, thought Joe. Determined to please Vera, he said, “Okay, all that aside. Can I ask the price of a jar?”
Percy named it; a ridiculously high amount that made Joe blanch. He tried to bargain it down, without success. Percy held firm.
Joe sighed. “Okay, I’m sorry to have wasted your time. Thanks for sharing the story with me. Vera and I have enjoyed our vacation...even without youth cream.”
He got up to go. Percy shook his hand and saw him to the door.
“I’ll open up the office at 8:00, if you change your mind.”
Back in the cabin, Joe found Vera stretched out on the bed in her nightgown. She mumbled something at his entrance, then rolled over and began to snore gently. Joe watched her a moment before heading to the small closet near the door. He rummaged through their things, and emerged holding a suitcase. From the case, Joe pulled out a stethoscope and a set of lock picks.
Even Vera (thought Joe wryly) didn’t know everything about his old “hobby”. And that’s all it was, he justified. Meeting Vera had kept Joe on the straight and narrow since.
But if ever a skill came in handy--?
Patience was everything. Joe waited until the cabin lights went out, one by one, with the office lights last. Then he waited another half hour. When all was quiet, he rose and left the cabin.
He was back in less than thirty minutes. Joe strolled easily up to the cabin door, as if just coming back from an evening walk. Once inside, he hid the lock picks and the rest before pulling a small jar from his pocket. In it, carefully scooped out with a pair of latex gloves, was a layer of cream. Joe had been careful to smooth the surface of the cream from the original filigreed jar, and to wipe away any traces from the rim before resealing the lid.
Vera was still asleep. Joe set the jar on the table next to her head. He leaned over and kissed her before sliding under the covers himself. Vera’s pleasure at the gift would be enough to make up for an otherwise unremarkable vacation, thought Joe, as he drifted off next to his wife.
Birdsong woke Joe in the early morning. He yawned and rolled over, reaching for Vera. His hands met empty sheets. Joe blinked and peered across the room. There she was, sitting at the dressing table and putting on her makeup. Joe smiled. He got up and walked over to the table, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
No response. Joe looked closer. Vera stared straight ahead at her reflection in the mirror. She had her right hand next to her nose. As Joe watched, a blob of cream dripped from Vera’s fingers before landing on the floor with a hiss.
What had Percy said about mirrors? Joe’s chest tightened. In a rising panic, he looked around the room for anything to explain his wife’s unresponsiveness. All he saw was a brochure for the spa and the half used jar of cream...a band of light from the rising sun came through the blinds, hitting the brochure and outlining the company name...club med usa, in small letters...there was a drawing in the corner of a jellyfish...no, thought Joe inanely...a mature jellyfish…tentacles waving like snakes...
But it wasn’t until he reached out a hand and touched the hard surface of Vera’s face that Joe began to scream.
Author Notes: Please feel free to criticize (constructively, I hope!). This is the first story I've written in several years, but hopefully not the last.