That afternoon, a man walked into the bar. Or rather, he pushed the ferns at the entrance cautiously aside and wound his way through the tables that lay scattered before the bar, behind which I stood, droplets of the Fountain occasionally landing with soothing coolness on the back of my neck. A small group of men and women—regulars and newcomers both—already sat and stood in the clearing and at the bar, sipping contentedly at their drinks.
The most important prerequisite for this job is a flawless memory for faces, names, and ages (it’s the only way to keep tabs on how old everyone is), and I knew this was the man’s first time at the Fountain.
He approached me uncertainly. “Are you the one I should ask if…you know…I want a drink?”
I smiled in as welcoming a way as I could manage without looking amused. “Welcome to the Fountain of Eternal Youth. I’m Eric.”
I held out my hand and he shook it hesitantly. “Simon. Can I have…a hundred years?”
“Let’s start you at Five. See how it goes and you can come back in four and a bit to get a refill.” He began to protest, but I interrupted firmly, “That’s how we do things here.”
Before he could respond, Charley, an enormous man in both height and breadth, the only one at the bar today having already taken Eternity, and the oldest man in existence, appeared at Simon’s side and slapped him good-naturedly on the shoulder. “Hey, it’s a new kid!”
“What’d you call me?” Simon asked, narrowing his eyes, his confidence obviously growing a little.
Charley’s perpetual easy-going manner remained unshaken and his ever-present, slightly-lopsided smile that made him look like he was on the verge of revealing a harmless prank or a good joke quirked a little higher to the left. “I’m the oldest guy on the planet, kid, so yeah, I can call you that.”
There were few arguments Charley couldn’t win with a combination of his age and—there was no other word for it—chill. Simon backed down within moments, and his scowl disappeared soon after. I got him his Five Years in a stone mug (it tastes of adventure) and he settled in quickly with the banter and bustle of the bar.
A boy (in looks, at least; I knew him to be well over a hundred) approached the counter, a Jack Russel Terrier scampering along at his feet.
Madeline, a multi-century regular, though not an Eternal, leapt up from her customary corner in the clearing to embrace her friend warmly, her frame twice as tall as his. “Henri! It’s been too long! And who’s this?” She reached down to scratch the dog’s ears, who yelped and crouched low behind her master’s legs.
Henri scooped the dog up and said apologetically. “Mnemosyne. She’s a bit skittish.” He turned to me. “I’ll just take Ten. Can she drink?” He nodded at the dog in his arms.
“Of course.” I said, taking a cedar cup (Henri’s favorite; it tastes of memory) and a small matching bowl from beneath the bar and dipping both in the Fountain. Henri slid a package over the counter, and I gave him the cup and bowl in exchange. He withdrew, balancing his dog, cup, and bowl. Madeline gazed after him sadly, but remained with the group at the bar.
Simon narrowed his eyes at the package. “Why’d he give you that?”
Simon frowned suspiciously. “Do I have to pay? I thought the trip here was the only fee.”
“I gave Henri Fifty Years of life the last time he visited. He didn’t know then what those fifty years would be worth—how could he have properly payed? But now, having lived out those fifty years, he knows what they have given him, what he has given the world, and what he owes the Fountain. When next he visits the Fountain, should he choose to do so, he must show the fruit of the ten years he received today.”
“So what’s in it?” Asked Simon, gesturing to the package as I slid it safely beneath the counter.
The Fountain sputtered disapprovingly, and I said firmly, “I would never reveal one person’s life worth to another.”
“So it’s kind of…first drink free?”
“Not at all. The Fountain demands that you know the value of your life: that each second is worth something, each breath you take contributes in some way to the perpetual series of exchanges, fair or not, occurring at any moment.
“Huh. So what makes different drinks…you know…different time spans?”
To my surprise, Madeline answered. “That’s Eric’s job.”
Simon looked at her blankly. I raised a hand to stop her, but she ignored me and launched into her story—or, rather, my story.
“Eric—so the story goes—was born with the ability to imbue water with life—years, decades, and, most famously…eternity.”
Simon opened his mouth in awe as he regarded me. “So you’re like…God?”
A general tittering fluttered around the group. A smile twitched at my lips, but I’d heard it too many times to really laugh. “No. I’m a vessel for—servant of, really—the Fountain, nothing more.”
“How?” Asked Simon.
Madeline deferred the question to me with a glance, but I shook my head. That story had occurred before I was born and wasn’t mine to tell even if I really knew what happened. I had some inkling of an unsavory exchange between my mother and a witch, but by the time I knew my gift was unusual (or rather, unheard of), life had come between my mother and I and I never heard the full story. The story Madeline told, the founding of the Fountain, was common knowledge at the bar, though I only remembered having told it a few times over the centuries.
Madeline continued, politely ignoring my silence, “But anyway, Eric used to be a loner, wandering the world, distributing years to as many people as he could discreetly—Charley was one of the first, right?”
“Cheers,” said Charley, raising his glass to me and winking in the same casual, ever-friendly manner he’d had since that day I’d first extended his life, so many centuries ago.
Madeline continued. “But he never disclosed what he could really do for fear of someone exploiting it—I mean, how many times have you heard that story?”
I fetched a glass of Twenty Years for Georgiana, a regular, as I listened. It felt strange to hear someone else tell my own story in full before me.
“But years, people, incidents—they add up, and Eric began to see more unhappiness wrought of his work that fulfillment: some unsatisfied and restless with their time, others abusing it. He brought about much happiness too, of course, but mistakes tend to stick in your mind more than successes, don’t you find? So Eric withdrew from the world—keeping his secret was a good choice in the end—for three hundred years.”
I stayed quiet, but the Fountain splashed in a melancholy way as I remembered those years, spending my days solely for and on myself for the first time since my childhood, when I had thought nothing of my gift.
“Close to the end of those three centuries, a stranger told Eric of a fountain whose water brought joy, purpose, and fulfillment to any who drank it. Eric spent the next fifty years searching for it voraciously, not for himself, but for a way to share his gift in a safer way.”
“And he found it?” Asked Simon.
“Obviously,” said Madeline dryly, and the Fountain’s splashing sounded for a moment like a chuckle. “So Eric feels safe here, waiting for customers crazy enough to believe in this place and determined enough to make the journey, and relying on the Fountain to make the transfer of life safe. The payment that Henri made, that all customers make—it’s just proof that the system is working.”
Charley took a breath to speak, but Madeline had one more thing to say. “Oh, and Eric hasn’t taken Eternity. He keeps himself alive day by day, drinking Until Tomorrow every night.”
Simon seemed strangely disappointed. “So the Fountain doesn’t have any power?”
The Fountain let an aggressive cascade of water crash into its basin in answer, and a few droplets managed to hit Simon. I touched the edge gently, respectfully. “The Fountain’s gift is not life. Only that…lesser power…is mine to bestow. The Fountain helps the drinker to understand how precious it is.”
“And why haven’t you taken Eternity?”
I turned my back and pretended to be fixated with a spot of lichen on the Fountain’s base.
Charley slapped Simon on the shoulder with a little too much gusto. “Come on, kid; Eternity’s a private thing. We respect boundaries here.”
Simon sipped his drink with a furrowed brow, trying to wrap his head around Madeline’s explanation. After a few sips, he burst out, “You have all that power…and you don’t do anything with it?”
“Eric takes the longer view. And he’s got a few hundred years on you, so that’s fair.”
Simon was unconvinced and regarded me with obvious disapproval.
“Taking the long view is hard,” I said, more defensively than intended. “I guess it’s best that I have this job, and not you.”
A figure stepped through the ferns and approached the bar quietly, but any attempts to avoid notice failed, for her skin immediately drew stares. It was every shade of green but shifting constantly at a dizzying speed. That kind of skin came from one part of the world only.
“A Century, please.” Her voice was as gentle and menacing as the forests of her homeland. I almost hated to deny her request.
“I’m afraid not.”
The woman narrowed her eyes. “Some called you cruel—how strictly you adhere to your rules. Others called you good, kind, generous. Which should I believe?”
I ignored her comment. The Fountain clinked sadly in the background.
The woman scowled and left without another word, not bothering to try again. Sudenlanders knew to retreat.
Simon stared after her cloaked figure as she brushed angrily past the ferns at the entrance. “Can’t she drink? She made the trip and all.”
Charley answered for me. “She’s from Sudenland.” He grimaced with distaste. “The oldest person there holds the throne until they die—then the next oldest person takes it. They’ve outlawed drinking at the Fountain, to ensure some transfer of power, but all it does is make a perfect setup for murder and chaos. We don’t like it, but at the Fountain we’re not in the habit of undermining national sovereignty and regulations. They can do what they want.”
“She didn’t try very hard,” Simon remarked.
“They give it a go every few decades. I’d have given her a drink if it were up to me, but Eric’s a stickler for rules.” Charley chuckled. “Probably why he’s behind the bar and I’m not.”
A companionable silence fell over the grove. The light began to fade, and soon customers began to disperse, a quiet contentment in the eyes of some, a fierce excitement in others. They thanked me, nodded to the other patrons, and left to enjoy the new life they had acquired.
Soon only Charley, Madeline, Simon, and I were left.
“Madeline, have you made up your mind?” I posed the question as casually as I could, but her hands knotted at my words, and her gaze jerked anxiously to the Fountain.
“On what?” Asked Simon.
“Eternity,” answered Madeline softly. Even Simon fell silent by some unspoken command. I filled two glasses: her regular of Fifty Years, and a small cup of Eternity.
“Something tells me…if I put it off this time…I won’t come back. This is it.” Both the bar and Fountain remained respectfully quiet as Madeline mulled over her words and stared intensely at the cups before her.
“I don’t know which frightens me more—death or life.”
“Maybe go off what makes you excited.” I said gently. “It’ll make you feel better about your decision, either way.”
She reached out her hand, a hand that had lived through four thousand years, and took a Hundred Years.
The Fountain sang comfortingly as she drank.
As she put the cup down, I met her eyes. She smiled, stood briskly, and nodded to me. “I have a deadline,” she said with frank purpose.
She strode from the clearing with a spring I hadn’t seen from her in two hundred years.
Charley was the last to leave the bar that night. He always helped me clean up, though there wasn’t much to do. As he had more and more trouble filling his days, it was more of a favor to him, but we both pretended it was for my sake.
Before he pushed the last stool into place, he turned and said hesitantly to me, “We’re buddies, Eric, right?”
“So…just…mate-to-mate, can you tell me honestly; do you ever think about taking Eternity?”
I wiped the same glass down seven times before I responded as nonchalantly as I could. “I think about it.”
Charley nodded, then glanced at the Fountain, asking Simon’s other question, the one that neither of us could broach before the Fountain. I could not betray its trust, not when it had rescued me from myself all those years ago.
But the question hung in the air: would I ever leave?
We finished cleaning up. Charley bade me goodnight and retreated down the moonlit path lined with ferns and flowers, just as picturesque as any of the stories said. I gazed into the Fountain, thinking over his words. The possibility lay so close…it would take a simple command…a single sip…
I took my cup, dipped it into the Fountain, and brought it to my lips.
My mind wavered. Eternity was such a heavy word, one I’d come to fear.
But Until Tomorrow for as many years as I’d said it was just as frightening.
I thought of Madeline’s sudden purpose as she declared: I have a deadline.
I thought of Charley’s perpetual calm as he strolled through all the eons of the world.
Which am I?
The cold, familiar tinkle of the Fountain’s water lingered warningly in my ears as I made my choice.
About the Author: Megan Meyerson is from New Canaan, Connecticut and is a freshman at Columbia University intending to major in History and Math. She has been published in Blue Marble Review’s first print anthology, has won 1 National and 27 Regional awards from the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, and was the winner of NEATE’s 2019 Fiction Contest. She enjoys playing squash, baking, and playing with her two dogs.