Enoch awoke with a start. He was dreaming about reverse-engineering the email message controlling the energy converter, and had just tried sending his own. The converter nuked the whole county. He looked at the digital clock on the bedstand: 8:37. He turned off the alarm and stumbled into the bathroom. After a shave and a shower, he felt a lot better. He picked out a dark pair of slacks and conventional shirt with an unpretentious blue-and-gray plaid. Looks matter, and these people are impressed by conservative clothing. He regretted not bringing a blazer or sport jacket; he would have worn it.
He unplugged his cell from the wall, and went down to the office without turning his computer on. He might as well see what he could find in a malt at this hour of the morning.
"A chocolate malt? Did you try the drive-in across the street?"
Enoch felt a little foolish for not looking first. Traffic was light for rush hour -- maybe they don't have such a thing as rush hour here -- so he just jaywalked without bothering to go down to the light at the corner. They were open and serving mostly coffee, but yes, they could make a chocolate malt to go. He got a medium cola for himself. He never did like coffee.
Back in the room, Enoch set his drinks down on the desk and then powered up his laptop. Lazir was right there.
"Hey, I got a malt across the street," Enoch said. "What do I do, put the whole thing in your converter? I think it will fit. Or do you want just a small portion? They have clean plastic cups here in the room. How big a sample do you need?"
There was still a slight delay before Lazir's answers. "You can get another one if something goes wrong, right? Why don't you just put the whole thing in?"
"Lid off, right?" Enoch started to pop the plastic lid off the malt cup.
"Let's try it with the lid on and see what happens."
The door to the converter popped open before Enoch got there. He slid the cup into the chamber and started to close the door, but it snapped shut out of his hand. They were obviously in full control of it. Enoch stepped back and waited.
"Analysis is going well," Lazir said after a few seconds. "I think we can make the serum right here in your malt."
That seemed pretty impressive to Enoch, until he realized that the whole thing would melt on the way to the nursing home. "You realize that a malt should be drunk cold," he said. "Your conversion process isn't going to heat it up, is it?"
"We have that covered," Lazir replied. "We're drawing a vacuum in the chamber to keep things cold. When you take it out in the nursing home, it should be a little colder than when you put it in. We assume it warmed somewhat from delivery until you got it in here. We could tell from the differential melting approximately what the delivery temperature was. We are chilling it back down to that."
"You're awesome," Enoch meant that sincerely. "So I should just leave it there in the converter until we get there?"
"Yes, it won't spill."
Enoch wasn't sure he wanted to believe that, but Lazir seemed pretty confident. Ultimately it was his machine, not Enoch's, so if something spilled, they could be responsible. Then he remembered, this was a matter-energy converter: it would be like a self-cleaning oven, just convert the spills into something innocuous, like water -- or air. Or gold, he thought ironically. As if.
Enoch packed up his stuff, then asked Lazir, "How are you guys coming with the conversion? I need to shut things down when you finish."
"Done several minutes ago," he replied. "We're now setting the temperature control to last until you arrive. About how long would you guess?"
"Something between a half-hour and an hour to pack everything into the car and check out, then drive across town to the care facility, truck the converter in, and set up the computer there. Is that OK?"
"Fine. Ready to go, any time you are."
"See-- I mean, talk at you later." Enoch went over to the laptop and waited for the email traffic to subside and his recording to finish off the current voice log segment, then put the computer to sleep.
He laid his computer bag on top of the converter, and his valise on top of that, then walked the whole thing cautiously out the door and down the elevator, trying hard not to spill the malt inside. It was much harder to get the converter into the car without tipping it. He hoped it was cold enough not to run out. Then he remembered the lid was still on it, and wondered how they did their conversion through the lid. He closed and locked the car, then went back to the office to check out.
Compared to LA in California, this sleepy Arkansas town was dead. Slightly bigger and more bustling than the New Mexico town where Enoch bought groceries, but not by much. Enoch tried to drive like the locals.
The converter on the seat next to him was silent. No compressor hum, nothing. He reached over and felt it. Not warm, not cold, just room temperature. It was eerie, like it was just an inert block of plastic. Not even cool to the touch like a metal box.
He wondered if the door would pop open in his hand, if he tried it. It couldn't hurt, he could always close it again. He slid his hand down the front, over the door. Nothing happened. He pressed on it. Still nothing. Enoch decided the door was remotely controlled, like everything else. Or maybe programmed to be locked until they arrived. After all, it was supposed to be keeping the malt cold. That gave him an idea.
Enoch had wondered how to explain the converter when he wheeled it into the nursing home, but now he had an answer: this was a small refrigerator to keep the malt cold. It was the truth, sort of. A lot more than a fridge, but right now it was serving as an icebox.
He pulled into the parking lot and found a place close to the wheelchair ramp. Unloading the converter without tipping it was even harder than putting it in. He didn't succeed. Fortunately, they had paper towels and wipes and stuff in every room, so he could wipe up any spills. He laid his computer on top of the converted and started for the front entrance.
When Grandpa moved into the home three years ago, all the staff wore white. Sometime since then they decided that pastels were more homey. They really tried hard to be friendly and nice in this place. Not like those awful places you read about. Well, maybe it was when outsiders weren't looking, but it seemed like there were visitors (besides himself) every day Enoch had come, so there wasn't much opportunity -- except maybe in the middle of the night -- for them to be cruel to the inmates. Make that residents.
Enoch checked in at the nurse's station. It probably would have been OK to just go directly to Grandpa's room, but this time he wanted explicit permission to give Grandpa the chocolate malt. There would be Hell to pay if something went wrong.
"Hi. You probably don't remember me, I'm Enoch Maxwell. My grandfather, Bill Simpson is one of your patients here..."
"Oh hi, Enoch!" the charge nurse gushed. "I remember you. You always bring him a chocolate malt. He dearly loves those. Gosh, it's been six months since you were last here. You were moving to, um, New Mexico or some place like that, wasn't it?"
Enoch was astounded. He couldn't remember people like that. "I have a malt here with me today. How is Grandpa doing?"
"He's a little confused today. He probably won't recognize you, but he sure will enjoy the malt." She pointed down the hall. "You know where he is, fourth door on the left. Go right on in, I think they have finished with getting him dressed for the day."
Enoch looked around. One old woman looked like she was reading email on a laptop computer in the lounge area. "Do I recall correctly you have WiFi here? I thought if he was up to it, I could send some email greetings from him to his friends."
"I don't think he is that alert today, but yes, we do have an open hotspot here. Go ahead and use it."
Enoch turned and wheeled his load down the hall. The door was open and the nurse -- Enoch guessed she was probably only an aide -- was picking up the clothes and things around Grandpa's bed area. She saw him in the doorway. "Come on in. Are you here to see Bill? He's a sweetie."
Enoch pulled the converter into the room and stood it up next to the empty visitor chair. "Hi, Grandpa, how are you doing? I brought you a chocolate malt."
The old man looked uncomprehendingly toward him. "Jack?"
He must think I'm his son, Uncle Jack, Enoch thought. "No, I'm your grandson, Enoch. Do you remember me?"
"Jack? Where's Annie?" Enoch's mother is Anne.
This was going to be difficult. He opened his computer and woke it up, then conected to the local WiFi. Within a minute Lazir's scratchy voice greeted him from the converter.
"Not so loud, I'm in the nursing home. How do I open the converter door? Is it ready?"
"It's open and ready now," Lazir said, in a subdued volume. The door popped open as he spoke.
Enoch reached down and took the cup from the chamber. It was icy in his hand. He looked around. There was not a drop spilt anywhere. He remembered the straw in his pocket, removed the wrapper and poked it into the little X-shaped perforation in the lid. The malt was stiff from the cold, probably too stiff for a frail old man to suck up through the straw. "Hang on a minute," he said, "I need a spoon. I'll be right back."
He had to go to the dining room, but they were very helpful and gave him a long-handled iced-tea spoon. Returning to the room, Enoch popped the lid off the malt and pushed the straw the rest of the way through the perforation, so it was standing free in the malt. Then he carried it and the spoon to the bedside and offered them to his grandfather. "Do you feel like a chocolate malt today?" he asked.
"What is this?"
"It's a chocolate malt. You like malts. I bring you one every time I come."
The old man took it warily. "It's cold, like ice cream. Is this a malt? I like malts."
"Yes, it is. I hope you like this one, it's extra cold today. You may need the spoon to eat it." Enoch held the spoon out.
Grandpa aimed the straw at his mouth -- and missed. A few more tries and he got it in. Enoch was right about not being able to suck the stiff malt up through the straw. "Something is wrong with the straw," Grandpa announced. "Do you have a spoon?"
"Right here." Enoch held it closer, handle toward the old man's outstretched hand. What a difference from when Grandpa had been younger and fun-loving. It was all Enoch could do to keep from breaking up. "Would you like me to help you with it?"
"I'm not helpless," the old man snapped.
Enoch pulled back and waited.
Grandpa grasped the spoon firmly, wrapping his whole fist all the way around it like a child, then carefully dug a spoonful of the icy malt out of the cup and slowly guided it to his open mouth. He sat there sucking on the spoon for what seemed like a long time. He then slowly pulled the spoon cleanly out of his mouth and went, somewhat more firmly, for a second bite.
Enoch went back to the chair and sat down. "Grandpa is eating the malt," he said in a low voice to the converter next to him.
Rafile responded, also quietly, "Do you see any effect yet?"
"How soon should it start to act?"
"I don't know. We'll have to wait and see."
Enoch turned to watch his grandfather again. He was definitely more vigorous in his determination to enjoy the malt. After a half-dozen more spoonfuls, he set the spoon down on the nightstand next to him and tried the straw again. With a determined look on his face -- Enoch could see his cheeks suck in -- he pulled on the straw.
After what seemed like a couple minutes, but was probably only twenty seconds, he stopped for breath, then attacked the straw again with a vengeance, pumping it up and down in the malt, like as if that would help the flow. Maybe it did. He stopped for breath again. "The straw is definitely better," he said. "This is one cold malt."
Grandpa took the straw in his hand and pumped it up and down some more, then tried to stir it -- largely without success. Then he pulled it all the way out and sucked the malt off the other end of the straw. "Much better," he said. He poked the straw back in and pumped it up and down again. Back out for another mouthful from the business end.
The next time he carefully poked the straw down the side of the cup. "It's more fluid in the outer, warmer part of the malt," he said to nobody in particular, then resumed sucking from the straw and pumping it up and down the side of the cup with the straw still in his mouth.
Enoch was amazed that an Alzheimers patient should be so aware of the physics of a warming milkshake.
Grandpa just kept drinking. He stopped to swish the straw around the perimeter of the cup, then looked around. "Enoch!" he cried out, "When did you come in? Did you bring me this malt? It's got to be the best I've had in years. Where did you get it?" He tipped it to read the logo off the cup. "Isn't this the same kind you always get? Are they under new management?"
"I ... I got this one from the drive-in over by the highway exit," Enoch stammered.
"Well, next time bring it from there again, by gum!"
"How are you feeling?" Enoch wasn't sure what to ask.
"Like I just woke up from a bad dream. What day is this?"
"Thursday. September 24."
"Wow, I was really out of it, wasn't I? I remember coming in here. They said I had Old Timer's. There were visits from your folks -- they live near here, don't they? Myrtle is no longer driving, so they had to bring her. Every day for a while, then a couple times a week... Then I don't remember much, it's all a blur. You came a few times, always brought a chocolate malt. But never so good as today." He went back to sucking on the straw.
Enoch didn't say anything. He was dumbfounded at the recovery. Finally he leaned over toward the converter and said in a low voice, "Did you hear that? I think it worked."
Lazir responded. "You probably want some time with your grandfather. We'll talk some more after you leave." There was an audible click.
"Who are you talking to, Enoch?"
"Nobody. No, I need to tell you. I got this cure from these guys who came to visit me in New Mexico, so I brought it here to see if it would work on you. They called it 'Living Tree'. I have no idea what it is, but it seems to have done something for you."
"Hell's Bells, something happened. Did you put it in this malt? Is that why it tastes so good?"
"Yes. Probably. Look, the medical staff here are going to give me what-for if they find out I gave you some unauthorized medication. Do me a favor, and don't tell them, will you?"
"Hey, kid, you're all right. Mum's the word. I'll even finish it up so they can't analyze the malt for ingredients. Boy I feel great!" He stretched his arms, jumped to a standing position and did a rapid trot in place, then went back to sucking on the straw. He walked over to where Enoch was still sitting. "Hey, what's the box?"
"Think of it as a sort of ice chest. It kept your malt cold while I drove across town."
"Smooth move. Do you know how long this stuff lasts? Will I be a vegetable again tomorrow?"
"I don't know. They didn't make any provision for repeated doses, so I don't think they expect it to wear off soon. First I think you need to go through whatever tests they have here to know if you are really cured. Then maybe you can call me, and we can talk about the future. Is that OK? If you don't call me, I'll try to call and see what the situation is. If you need repeated medications, I'll see what I can do to make it happen. But the doctors here won't know anything about it, so your best bet is to just not say anything to them. You know what I mean?"
"Yes, I do. Professionals don't like people going behind their back. Let's hope we don't get a Cuckoo's Nest problem here, you know, where the docs medicate people into oblivion?"
"OK, you need a witness. Here," Enoch handed him his cell phone. "Call Mom or Grandma -- or both -- and talk to them, so they know you are well. Mom and Dad are on speed dial, 8-send. But don't mention me until after you are out of here. If you get a lot of static, I'll know when I call in a few days, say on the weekend. They probably want to keep you in for observation, probably at least a week, I don't know. Don't fight the medical people, you will lose."
"Yeah, I know." He took the phone and dialed. "Hi, Annie? Guess who this is." Enoch could hear her scream from several feet away. "No, I'm feeling fine, never felt better." Enoch could hear his mother's scratchy voice but couldn't make out any words. "Annie, I can't talk about it just now. Let's just say it's a miracle. God did it."
Enoch cringed at the reference, but decided it was probably the best thing he could have said. He suspected Lazir would attribute it to his god, "Ancient One" or whoever he was, anyway, so maybe it wasn't that far off.
Grandpa continued talking, "Can I speak to Myrtle, I mean your mom? Is she there? I think she would want to know. ... OK, I'll wait. While I have you, can we talk about getting me out of this place. I mean it's nice and all, but I'd like to go home. ... Yes, I know, the doctors have to run their tests. But I think you need to get the ball rolling. They don't let the inmates run the asylum. ... No, silly, I'm just fine. Come see me. ... OK. Hi Shug, what's up? I'm thinking we need to go on a date, just you and me. Dinner and dancing, say tomorrow night? Do you think they'll let me out of this cage for that? ... No, no, stop crying. I told Annie she should bring you here today for a visit, can you do that? You can cry when you get here. My shoulder is real dry, it needs some tears to get the humidity up. ... Myrt, I gotta hang up, and give this guy's phone back. Come visit, will you? We need to talk in person, not on the phone. ... Great, I'll look for you. ... Love you too. Bye."
Enoch reached for a tissue from the box on the nightstand, wiped his eyes, then blew his nose. He didn't need this kind of schmalz right now. He took back the phone and stuck it in his pocket. "Call me and tell me how your date went," he said. "Do you need my number?"
"Your mom has it, doesn't she? I could write it down here, but things get lost."
"Yes, get it from mom. Look, I hate to rush off, but I really don't want to be here in the middle of things when the nurses figure out you have your marbles back."
"Yes, I understand. We'll talk. You coming for Thanksgiving?"
"Plan on it." Enoch shut the computer down and entended the handle on the converter, then headed out the door. "See ya, it's been great!"
The charge nurse at the counter looked up. "Done so soon? I told you he was pretty confused today."
"No, it was great. You guys have done an awesome job getting him back to health. He loved the malt. See you around." That should deflect attention, Enoch thought, and headed out the door.
He looked in his mirror as he drove out the parking lot exit, in time
to see a nurse come running out the front door waving her arms. Just made
it, he thought, and turned into the street.
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