Sometimes a second chance is a bad thing.
Freddie drove past the cemetery every day on his way to work. Most days he was too busy trying to induce hearing loss through loud music to give it a second glance.
One day he noticed a freshly dug grave. He quickly pushed this to the back of his mind where the weather forecast, political nonsense, and the joke of the day resided, then continued about his day.
Two weeks later the grave still sat empty. It had become more than a curiosity for him, it was bordering on obsession. Every day as soon as the cemetery came in sight his eyes shot to the open grave. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore. He pulled in, parked his car, and walked up to the rectangular hole in the ground.
A strange mist appeared, becoming stronger the closer he came to the grave. He stopped a few steps from the open hole. The mist seemed to emanate from it. Freddie glanced over at the headstone and his blood froze as he read,
‘Frederick Joseph Scalis, born 9-7-81 died – ‘
He couldn’t read the number, but the stone wasn’t blank either. It looked like someone had written something to be chiseled in later. Freddie leaned over the open pit, trying to see more clearly. He stumbled, lost his balance, and nearly fell in. His arms pinwheeled madly, helping him to recover just in time.
At first, a chill ran down Freddie’s spine, then he reared back and roared laughing.
“What’s so funny?” an older man asked him.
“Jeeze…!” Freddie squealed, doing a comical little dance, “You nearly scared the life outta me.”
“Interesting choice of words, given the situation.”
Freddie looked him up and down. He was tall but robust, weighing easily two hundred and fifty pounds, with a bit of a pot belly. He looked like a soldier that had gone to seed.
“Who the hell are you?”
The old man smiled. “Again, an interesting choice of words. Let’s just say I’m the caretaker around here. I make sure the graves get filled.”
“Okay…” Freddie said, taking a step backwards.
The old man made no attempt to follow him, he just leaned on his shovel, staring at Freddie.
“Why did you laugh when you saw the name on the stone?”
“As if you didn’t know..”
“Why would I ask if I knew?”
“Okay, I’ll play along. My friends and I like to play pranks on each other.”
The old man looked at the grave. “That’s quite elaborate for a prank, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I wonder how much they paid you.”
“For this fake tombstone.”
“Who said it’s fake?” the caretaker rapped the head of the shovel against it and was rewarded with a loud ‘clang’.
Freddie’s smile faltered. “Are you saying it’s real?”
The caretaker’s eyes bored into Freddie’s.
“I’m saying maybe it’s time you took yourself more seriously. The world doesn’t need another thirty-four year old infant.”
Freddie eyed him suspiciously. A chill crept up his spine.
“How did you know I’m thirty-four?”
The old man rolled his eyes and pointed toward the birth date on the stone.
“Because I can add.”
Freddie’s face turned beet red.
“Oh, wow, look at the time. I’m late for work.”
He turned and quickly trotted back to his car.
“Stop by anytime,” the old man said. “I’ll be here.”
Freddie sped away from the cemetery a bit too fast. Distracted and quite rattled from his encounter, he didn’t see the deer in the middle of the road until it was too late. He wrenched the steering wheel hard, causing the car to slide into the path of an oncoming truck.
An hour later, the old caretaker stood among the group of onlookers as Freddie was loaded into an ambulance.
The old man smiled, then went back to his cemetery.
Over the next several years the old man read newspaper and magazine articles about a brilliant young biologist who had turned tragedy into triumph.
“Frederick Scalis was mere inches from death’s door after surviving a brutal accident which severed his legs just below the knee. But he didn’t succumb to hopelessness. He looked inward and found new determination. He worked hard to get out of the hospital and redoubled his research efforts. In the end his dedication brought forth one of the most astonishing discoveries of our time. Dr. Scalis invented a substance that allowed doctors to clone healthy body parts out of an unhealthy body. He started with himself, cloning new legs. His substance allowed the grafted body part to be accepted by the body.”
“I was able to sit down with Dr. Scalis in a recent exclusive interview,” the magazine article read.
“So, tell me Dr. Scalis, how is your technique making artificial limbs obsolete?”
“What it does is make a clone for a specific body part. Then it fuses the cloned part with the body over a period of time, and becomes part of the body.”
“And how is this possible?”
“For obvious reasons, I don’t want to reveal the exact chemical process, just suffice it to say that a rapid growth gene, mixed in with a few other things, is what provides the magic.”
“I hear you’re also trying your technique to clone hearts, kidneys, and other organs.”
“We’re in the trial stages, but it’s looking very promising.”
The caretaker chuckled as he finished the article.
Three years later, a familiar face returned to the graveyard. The caretaker laid down the magazine that announced, ‘Dr. Frederick Scalis wins Nobel prize!’
Freddie parked his car and slowly walked up to his still open grave. He stared down into the hole with none of the hesitation or hilarity of the previous visit. This time, resignation weighed heavily in his eyes.
“Congratulations,” the caretaker said, walking up behind him.
“For what?” Freddie said without turning.
“Winning the Nobel prize.”
“You don’t seem happy.”
“And what should I be happy about?”
“Being the savior of the injured.”
Freddie whipped around and glared at him.
“Of course. How many people’s lives have you changed? Millions? Tens of Millions?”
“Maybe more,” Freddie said absently.
“So why wouldn’t that make you happy?”
Freddie eyes lit up with indignation.
“You know, don’t you?”
“How would I know something like that?”
Freddie collapsed to the ground, sobbing.
“They found it last year. They tried to treat it but it didn’t respond.”
The word hung in the air like the mist that had crawled out of the grave just a few short years ago.
“They ran tests on me,” Freddie said. “They found it started in my new legs. Apparently the rapid growth gene matures into some new kind of cancer.”
“So that means…”
“Every one of my limb and organ recipients have it too. They’ve named it ‘Scalis cancer’.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the caretaker said with his head bowed.
“No you’re not! You knew exactly what you were doing. Challenging me to work harder, distracting me so that I wouldn’t pay attention. You knew I would create the black plague of the twenty-first century, that tens of millions of people would die because of me, all I needed was a little motivation.”
“Did I somehow magically save your life too? If you feel like blaming someone for your problems tell the man in the mirror.”
“I do, every day.”
“Young man, I’m sorry about your problems but I’m very busy.”
The caretaker walked away and Freddie turned to see over a dozen freshly dug graves.
“Are these for…?”
“…your patients? Possibly…”
Freddie bowed his head.
“By the way,” the caretaker said. “They finished the inscription on your headstone.”
Shock ran through Freddie’s mind with the realization of the implication. He turned as if drawn by an invisible force, toward the stone that already bore his name and his birth date. The only thing left was the harsh revelation...
“But, that’s tomorrow’s date.”
Word count: 1332