The End Came With a Kiss(9)

By: John Michael Hileman

"I’m not."

I feel my face scrunch. "You’re not?"

"I’ve been thinking. Maybe they’re not dead. Maybe they're turning into something else."

Her words startle me, and a memory rises to the surface:

He came with the promise of eternal life.

If he hadn’t entered the boardroom with Devon Prescott, the CEO of the company, we would have had security see him to the door. After a more-than-awkward transition, a thirty-year-old slide projector was put in place at the end of the conference table, and a black and white photo appeared on the screen at the other end. It depicted two men with shovels standing in front of a gold mine.

Our presenter, Jeremiah Cartwright, walked along the row of shaded windows on the other side of the table in his odd trousers, vintage vest and curly moustache. His chin lifted proud. His posture refined. "Ladies and gentlemen," I remember him saying, in his thick drawl, "the man on the left side of this here photo is me."

This caused every eye to snap back to the screen. There was a strong resemblance, but the man in this picture was a decade older and more haggard. Jeremiah Cartwright was a lean athletic man in his late twenties. There was no way these two were the same person. Besides the fact that the photo looked like it had been taken in the 1800s, Cartwright would have had to drop more than ten years off his life to be the same man.

A few of the board members were unable to contain their amusement, but for Mr. Prescott’s sake, the majority of us remained respectful.

Then he said something like, "I know what you're thinking. You’re thinking this guy’s crazier than a sack of weasels." That was how he spoke, like he was an old miner forty niner trapped in the body of a young man.

The screen flickered and another black and white photo appeared. It looked like it came from some political archive. In the background was a group of gruff and hairy diplomats. In the foreground were two men standing as though they were statues. One of them was, unmistakably, Jeremiah Cartwright.

He explained that this was him in 1898 with President William McKinley, then quickly flipped to the next photo. There he was again. This time holding the evening edition of the Boston Globe. It said, "Sox Win Championship," and in small letters at the top, "SEPTEMBER 11, 1918."

One by one the photos flicked by. There were two constants. In each there was undeniable proof that the photo was taken in the past, and there was Jeremiah Cartwright. Same goofy smile. Same goofy mustache. When he finished, there wasn’t a person in the room who could hide their skepticism.

"Obviously the photos are doctored," said one of my colleagues, mirroring my thoughts.

"Any kid with a desktop and Photoshop could do this," was another prevailing thought.

Cartwright stood at the end of the table as the lights were brought back up. His face was stalwart. His posture confident. None of us could have ever been prepared for what came next. He drew a knife from his pocket, opened it, and ran the blade down his right cheek. Silence engulfed the room like a suffocating cloud.

He placed the bloody knife onto the conference table, but that wasn’t enough for him, and it wouldn’t have been enough for us. He had to peel the wound apart to demonstrate how deep the cut actually was. I imagined I could see clear into his mouth, and turned away with a gag.

Prescott handed him a wet cloth, and as he tended the wound on his cheek, he proceeded to explain that he and his partner had found something in the mine that day, something extraordinary that he had kept a secret for almost two centuries. He claimed that it didn’t just stop aging, but reversed it. It changed you. If you put it on your skin, it changed your skin. If you put it in your belly, it worked its way into every part. Within a few short minutes, he removed the cloth and displayed his cheek. We sat in stunned silence. There was no trace of the wound.

Not everyone was convinced, however. There was one skeptic left. But Jeremiah Cartwright made short work of her. He picked up the pocket knife and rounded the table to where she sat, looking prune like. That was a normal state for Helen. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like, "Lass. How ‘bout you take this here pocket knife and you cut a hole anywhere in my body. I’ll let you put your finger in it for good measure."