Penn Grows Up
Janie didn’t know what to think when she saw Albertine’s text. She hoped it meant that Penn was better than when they broke up, when she broke up with him. But maybe she was being self-aggrandizing: who was she to have pushed someone over the edge merely by ending a relationship? That was giving herself way too much credit. Still, Penn had gone to pieces when she told him it was over; he’d always been high-strung but this was something else, a kind of collapse—and wasn’t that why she’d ended it in the first place, because it was too hard for her to cope with his way of being, his way of feeling? It had started to infect her, too, damaging her grades and her relationships with her friends and family. And since Penn was privileged enough to have been treated—genetically modified in vitro to age slower and not get diseases to which he was naturally prone—it was liable to go on so much longer. He would be an adolescent for so long, if she didn’t end it now, when would she? Would she ever?
Janie was a practical, working-class person, and she had had enough drama, that was the long and short of it. And now this text from Penn’s mother (from whom Janie secretly suspected Penn had inherited his instability) sent her back into the whole disaster.
If Penn was better, wouldn’t he have told her so himself? No, it wasn’t his way to apologize—not because he was insensitive, because he was always so far into his emotions that he didn’t have the distance to know what he was doing was wrong. Anyway, that’s why Janie thought it plausible that Albertine was doing it for him.
“Could you come see him?” the text had asked.
Guiltily, Janie answered, “Yes.”
When she came by the house, there was no one there—no one else, for Janie assumed that Penn was upstairs in his room. This was where behind closed doors they had first slept together—and done everything else before sleeping together—while his parents were out. Janie assumed that Albertine and Rudolph (which was what they always insisted she call them) knew what she and their son were doing in their home. It was another way to coddle and control him, she figured, since that’s what they always did. Wasn’t that why they’d paid to prolong his life in the first place?
Janie called upstairs meekly, because there was a horror movie aspect to this (empty house, staircase, etc.) that freaked her out. As she ascended, she thought of all the times she had made this climb with Penn and how excited she had been, anticipating what they would do once they reached his room and closed the door. Yet today, Janie felt not even nostalgia, nothing beyond obligation, and that meant that she was really and truly over him.
She stood before his door, which was half-closed, as if (she hoped) he was making progress, was halfway to entering the present and leaving the past. Maybe she could pull him all the way forward or just carefully and encouragingly follow behind him, as you would a child learning to walk. She pushed the door completely open. Either it was lighter than Janie had recalled or she’d pushed harder than she had to, for it went fast and hit the wall loudly enough to make her jump.
It awakened Penn. He reared up from the sheets that kind of covered him (he was only wearing shorts). In the dark room, he squinted as the light poured in, spotlighting Janie on the threshold. He’d been crying. In his sleep? With his face buried in the bed, while conscious? Janie couldn’t tell. There was a weird fissure in the wall at fist-level: Had he punched it?
Janie only knew from the expression on his face (shock, dismay, disappointment, rage) that Penn was not better but much worse and that Albertine had wanted Janie to take him back, and that showing up was the dumbest thing Janie could have done, for there was no way that she would do it. It wouldn’t have worked, anyway.
“It wouldn’t have worked, anyway,” she told Albertine and Rudolph later. Janie had waited downstairs for them to come home, had left poor Penn without saying a word. Maybe he’d believed he’d imagined her; she hoped so.
“You can’t know that,” Albertine said, agitated (as she was so often about so many things, Janie thought).
“Look,” said Rudolph, ever the appeaser (Janie thought), “he’ll just go away as he is, that’s all.”
“What do you mean, go away? Where?” Janie had no compunction about interrupting or even seeming rude, since they were no longer her boyfriend’s parents or—as she had post-first orgasm imagined them—her future in-laws. She had never respected them much in the first place.
Albertine turned away, obviously to avoid answering. Since he was both more stable and more repressed (Janie thought), Rudolph replied, “Never mind.”
Janie stared at the two older people. Penn had never said anything to her about going anywhere.
“This was your idea,” she said, rage building. “You two just want to get rid of him, since he can’t seem to…shape up! And you thought that I could maybe whip him into shape before he went, so you wouldn’t feel too bad, that I would do your dirty work, like, like…” Later, she thought it was like cleaning a car before you sent it off a cliff. But she couldn’t think of the comparison then, had been too wound-up.
“That’s enough,” Rudolph said, sounding a bit angry, which would have been like an explosion for anyone else and meant he was guilty. Good! Janie thought.
He ushered her out of the house, while Albertine walked from the room, never looking back, done with Janie, accepting that she’d erred in asking her to come or expecting her to help. Janie stewed about it, stuffed in the communal car that Rudolph had somehow called (probably with a gadget he’d installed in his head; he was such a control freak, he surveilled people for a living, she thought, stewing). Still, before she was dropped off, Janie cried, hiding her face from the other passengers. She remembered Penn’s tormented expression, suspected that she might never see him again or at least not for ages. He would have so much time to suffer. It wasn’t his fault: he had too many years to be this age.
Janie was wrong: Albertine and Rudolph hadn’t been sending Penn away to silence him or to make things easier for themselves. They were sending Penn away to make him better, because they couldn’t bear his being so unhappy (Albertine couldn’t, anyway). Because they knew there were risks in their plan, they’d hoped Janie might prevent them from doing it, make it unnecessary, or allow them to amend the plan and make it less extreme. But Janie had failed (this was how Albertine saw it), so they had no choice but go ahead.
Penn was not going away on a study program or what used to be called “Spring Break.” He was going to have an internship on the Floater-X Space Station owned by the billionaire Seth Lupus, to whom Rudolph had sold a security system, discounted enough to secure a free room for his son. Penn was supposedly there to help researchers do space-centric drug research, but really he would be given an unapproved experimental drug Lupus Labs was developing. Tranquelle would allow Penn to age forward and back at will in order to stop his persistent adolescence. It would be an automatic way to end or reduce the pain of his feeling so much.
“We have no idea what side effects the drug’s going to have,” a worried Albertine had told Rudolph when they first discussed it. “Because no one does.”
“They’ve assured me it won’t be so bad,” Rudolph said.
“Of course they’re going to say that!” Albertine nearly yelled. “Because they’re paying for it. And I assume we have to sign a pledge not to sue?”
Rudolph shot his wife a look which said she was right. Albertine slammed the bedroom door on him.
The Floater-X was a Transit Habitat, an inflatable research and living area connected to a Space Station. It hovered in a libration or La Grangian Point, halfway between the Earth and the Sun or the Moon, where the gravity of the two bodies neutralized each other and allowed for a stable parking space for spacecraft. In space, crystals of proteins used in medical research could be grown bigger and better, and that’s why they studied up there.
Penn had always felt suspended between his parents: the force of their fields had created a weird stability for him, dependable and precarious at the same time. (Was his current crushingly emotional condition a way to favor his mother’s side? Or was it a desperate attempt to pull away from her—even if it meant bashing himself against a wall, as it were? Or was it just adolescence over and over? It was unclear.) Once he was on the ship, above Albertine and Rudolph, above everyone, Penn felt more secure. If nothing else, he was too self-conscious before strangers to sob and scream as he had been doing all day on Earth. Penn was supposed to help the researchers, do their errands and anything else they asked.
“Here,” one of them said on the first day, casually handing him a specimen to bring somewhere.
Penn suspected they thought him a dilettante, the rich son of their billionaire boss’s friend, which he was. In any case, he did as he was told, took the beaker of slightly warm, vaguely bubbled liquid. Was it someone’s piss? Were they laughing at him? He moved down the winding corridors of the floating lab, the gravity artificial, as he feared was his own new sense of being stable.
His sleeping area had a bunk bed but elite guest that he was, no roommate. So that night, Penn alternated restlessly between the top and bottom beds, again feeling that he was halfway between mother and father or domination and submission or some other pairing outside and inside himself. He wept only late at night and then into his pillow, where his saltwater was absorbed by organic and hypoallergenic cotton, the way the sea is absorbed by the sand. He had no idea how long he was meant to be there, hovering above; he hadn’t thought to ask. Then he heard a soft thump at the door.
It sounded like someone had tossed something. And, in fact, when Penn rose to open up, he found a palm-sized package wrapped in white linen with a red bow curled cruelly by a scissors. As he opened it, he tried not to disturb the fragile covering, but his shaking fingers shredded it, and the bow crumpled to dust like an old pressed rose. Inside he found a little box which held a bottle of pills marked Tranquelle.
Penn assumed they were to help him sleep, but there was no one in the vicinity to ask. He faintly heard the fading motor of a scooter (the halls were wide enough to accommodate one), but maybe he had imagined it. It couldn’t have been from the scientists, could it, for they had seemed to hate and resent him? Unless it was a peace offering?
There was a small round blue pill and a larger, oblong purple pill. Directions folded into nearly nothing instructed him to take one at a time. Penn took the blue.
Soon it forced him into sleep, placed unconsciousness over him like an extra blanket he didn’t want. He was being suffocated, that’s what it felt like, the way spies in old movies were by handkerchiefs soaked in “choloroform.” Fighting, he shook his hands, which looked suddenly smaller, but he was no match for this power, whatever it was.
Penn couldn’t move, was paralyzed like a newborn baby who can barely lift his head and must sleep on his stomach, so as not to choke. He found he was crying—not because he was still at the mercy of his emotions, as he had been when he’d arrived, as he’d been after breaking up with Janie, because he was doomed to adolescence—because, yes, like a baby, he’d messed himself and shit the bed. Luckily, Penn was on the bottom bunk, so his waste couldn’t seep beneath him, soiling two mattresses. Could no one hear him crying out to be changed? Would no one come and clean him?
Penn discovered that he was not completely incapacitated, not yet absolutely the infant he feared he’d been turned into by the pill. He could still flip himself over enough times to leave the bed and land upon the floor.
There, on his stomach, he struggled as if strait-jacketed across the tiles. He aimed for the pill package which he had left upon the room’s only table. Panting, propping himself up on his elbows, Penn was able to nuzzle the bottle off the surface with his nose. At last, he sent it pinging and then rolling upon a rug, where he stopped it with an extended right foot. He managed to kick the bottle close to his mouth where he fumbled with his hands—which felt tied together as if with rope—to open it. The purple pill popped out like a tiny, tortured turd. Penn licked it ever closer until it came between his lips and he chewed it into non-existence. It tasted like licorice, toothpaste, and dirt.
Lying there, Penn felt his stomach disturbance subside. Power began to return to his limbs. He stretched on the floor like a breaststroke swimmer. Then he found himself shuttle past normalcy into something more negative.
If the first pill had induced infancy, this one caused rapid aging: His heart pumped past adolescence to adulthood and then, terrifyingly, beyond that, like a subway shooting by stations with a psycho at the wheel. Eventually, at high speed, Penn’s heart approached old age and the end of the line. It started to slow and slow until he could barely feel an occasional beat. At last, he waited for any beat at all.
Only a persistent banging on the door kept him conscious. As he slipped into insensibility, Penn felt a mask placed over his mouth and his body being lifted. Was he ascending even farther into space? Was he on his way to heaven? No, because he still smelled his own feces, which meant he was human and alive.
“Can you save him?” a young woman asked.
“We’re going to try.” This was a man.
“My father will know if you don’t.” It was an unpleasant promise, and so (Penn thought later) the perfect way to propel him into darkness.
Penn awoke looking into Blamey’s face. Of course, he didn’t know it was her, didn’t know yet who this young woman was.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You lived,” she said.
Only now did Penn remember the events of the night before: how he had gone from infant to old man to almost-corpse in the space of several minutes and two different kinds of pills. When he turned his head, Penn saw he was in a hospital bay, a makeshift convalescent area on the Floater-X, hooked up to fluids pumped into the veins of his hand.
The young woman hovered above him as they both did above the Earth. She had a stark, seemingly self-administered crew cut that clashed appealingly with the blemishes covering her face like constellations. They suggested she lived in a universe of her own, and that’s how she acted, too.
“Was I operated on?” he asked.
“Nah.” She sat on the edge of his bed, not caring that she bumped him. “They just waited for it to wear off.”
“For what to wear off?”
“Tranquelle, that stuff you took. That my father sells. Or will sell, if he ever gets it approved. You were given samples. You’re not the best commercial for it, almost dying and all. I’m Blamey.” She mimed shaking the hand paralyzed by tubes.
“Janie?” Not the same name as his ex-girlfriend!
“Blamey. My parents have such a hostile relationship, they named me after it. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one on Earth named that. The only one in the universe now.”
Penn noticed that she wore the same kind of wrist tag as him. Her last name was Lupus. That meant her father had employed his father. It also meant something else.
“What are you in the hospital for?” Penn’s energy was starting to fade.
“Same as you,” she shrugged. “Still being seventeen.”
So she’d been treated, too, Penn thought, given this “gift” of longevity by her parents. Blamey began receding then, shrinking in size, as if his ship was blasting off from her planet. The last thing he felt before becoming unconscious was Blamey’s warm and callused palm laid upon his brow, as if checking his temperature or blessing him or both. Soon he was in the dark again, and not surrounded by stars.
Penn was awakened by an elbow being jammed into his ribs. When he opened his eyes, he saw Blamey again, this time up so close she was a blur. She was not sitting but lying by his side.
“Here,” she said. “Have some.”
She displayed a plastic bag, the kind that held food or beverage condensed or frozen for the trip. She raised it as you would a canteen, and he opened his mouth to receive what was offered. The liquid came out in beige bubbles, and Penn had to chase them with his tongue like a dog to swallow. He tasted what he thought was liquor, possibly Scotch, he was no expert. Then Blamey grabbed the bag back and chug-a-lugged more confidently, the solid droplets rolling one after another as if on an invisible chute down her throat.
With her head tilted back, Penn could see long strips of scarred tissue there, like highways of unhappiness (he was already drunk and so grandiloquent). No simple suicidal wrist slashes for Blamey, he thought: with her, everything was big time.
Penn saw her scars pulse and subside, yet Blamey had stopped drinking. Small balls of tears were escaping her eyes and floating into the air or whatever was the atmosphere. They marched past Penn’s face and drifted around the room (he was the only other patient). Soon there were too many to count.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Blamey looked at him, her eyes expelling more clear bobbing balls. She couldn’t say and only mouthed the answer: “Seventeen.”
Penn understood and his tears joined hers. All of them hung in the air like a bouquet of bad feelings before popping one by one. Penn realized that the artificial gravity had been eliminated or repealed or whatever you did with artificial gravity. Or was it just the liquor that made him see things this way?
Like him, Blamey was the embodiment of what used to be called adolescent angst. Both he and she would be trapped in this condition for who knew how long?—it would seem like forever—and they had recognized each other after barely being introduced. Both were now suspended above everything, sensing and suffering.
Yet unlike other people—Janie, Albertine and Rudolph, even Penn himself before he came aboard—Blamey celebrated this state. She apparently believed that her excess of anxiety, anguish and excitement was a form of euphoria, something that placed her above other people, even if she was in agony. So it felt when she reached over and kissed him, pressed her tongue into his mouth as if to deposit herself in him. Soon he did the same to her, Blamey holding and stroking his face as he penetrated her mouth and drew back. They became each other’s time capsule.
Suddenly, they were bubbles, too, floating in the air, levitated by emotions so many and so uncontrollable they gave Penn and Blamey buoyancy. Their clothes were floating, too, as they removed them, sailing above the hospital beds like birds—no, as if they were underwater, Blamey’s large breasts, Penn’s long, swollen penis suspended, moving in slow motion as their parts brushed against and by each other. Blamey pulled his erection as if it was a lever that opened her and everything else, directing him inside her, completing their sense of being the same. Then their tears were joined by the white balls of his semen as they disengaged, both spinning like the zits on her face, the stars in the sky, the air or whatever was this atmosphere filled with extended adolescence.
Blamey let Penn sleep it off. Then she badgered him awake again. It was night by now, and everyone else was asleep—though it didn’t matter, the boss’s daughter could do as she pleased. They flew nude from the hospital to a lab where Blamey kept the lights off and mounted Penn on a swivel chair, after tying his hands down with gravity straps. Gripping the chair’s arms as she fucked him, Penn screamed something incoherent when he came, too excited for words. Afterwards, she wound herself around him, hugging him to stay grounded. Penn’s hair, which was long, slithered as if at the bottom of the sea but Blamey’s hair was too short to move at all.
“I’m so happy we met,” she said.
“You’re the only one who wants this like I do. My father tried to give me Tranquelle, that willful aging junk your parents gave you. But I said, get lost.”
Penn heard this with unease. He hadn’t known that Albertine and Rudolph were behind his drugging. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it, so he stayed silent. Also, he wasn’t sure if he wanted what Blamey wanted. Yet he wanted Blamey. So he continued not to speak.
“There’s a different drug onboard that’s also not approved,” she said. “Minora. This one works. And the approval is just a matter of time.”
Blamey nodded. She scrambled for the drawer of the desk by their side, pressing in a security code. Penn realized she had not chosen this lab by accident. Had she even come onboard for this very reason, to get this pill?
“Here,” she said, and now there were two pink tablets in her palm.
“What does it do?”
“It will officially keep us this age forever.”
Blamey hadn’t hesitated with the answer, hadn’t hedged or pretended otherwise. Before he could respond, she’d passed him a pill.
“Can you take it without water?” she asked. “Or should we go get some from the kitchen?”
Now that his sexual fever had subsided and morning was on its way, Penn felt weird flying around the ship naked. Yet that wasn’t the reason he paused.
“I can do it without water,” he said, answering just the practical part of her question. And now that he’d said he could take it, Blamey assumed that he would. She had been waiting to share this way of life, this intensity for eternity or at least until the day way in the future when she died. Did Penn want it for that long, too, want it never to end?
As he was considering it, Blamey placed a Minora on her tongue. It stuck on the end, which she wiggled at him. Then she pulled it in, shut her mouth and swallowed. She made an “it’s nasty” face before she shrugged the taste away, accepting it as a rite of passage she was tough enough to endure.
“Okay, big boy,” she said. “Your turn.”
Penn couldn’t act, stunned by his own fear. He was reminded of that play he had been assigned in school about teenage lovers where the girl thought the boy was dead and killed herself but the boy was still alive, or something. The expression on his face—which he realized later was begging her forgiveness—told Blamey all she needed to know.
Blamey’s own expression wasn’t angry or sad. She simply pulled the pill from Penn’s fingers, and squeezed his hand once before turning. He realized: she would do this without him; with him it would have just been less lonely. Leaving balls of tears behind, Blamey flew away, as the naked, crying and coming teenager she wished always to remain.
Penn sat there for a while, also naked yet still tied down. He was surprised that he wasn’t made broken-hearted by this, as he was by everything that didn’t make him aroused. He sensed that this new equanimity signaled the start of a new phase, the advent at last of growing older. He managed to free himself.
That day, Blamey had the ship turn around and make the months-long trip back to Earth. She had given the captain a new order, or at least Penn assumed she had, for nothing else made sense. They dropped him off alone when they arrived.
As he disembarked, Penn caught a glimpse of her mingling with the others. Blamey glanced at him once, with fondness and regret. It was as if she were helping someone older cross a street, performing an act of mercy for an elder.
Six months later, Albertine died. She suffered a heart attack, which had not been prevented by the pills she took to avert such an event. It was as if her anxiety was so great there was only so much a medicine could do. Or maybe everything—no matter how prolonged or forestalled by surgery and drugs—always came to an end, anyway.
Not long after, Penn was invited to lunch at a local diner. Having heard about Albertine, Blamey had come looking for him, using directions from her father.
Penn noticed that the restaurant’s lights had bleached out and made her blemishes imperceptible. Or was she wearing makeup? Or had they disappeared on their own? Blamey’s hair was growing out, too: Penn secretly felt she’d been more striking with the buzzcut that made her resemble that movie character who got burned at the stake, he couldn’t remember her name.
Of course, being burned alive by their ages had been what linked them aboard the Floater-X. Now Penn had begun to cool, as it were. To his surprise, so had Blamey.
To begin with, she’d changed her name. “Why, she wondered, “should I represent my parents’ recriminations?” She’d become B., because the letter was almost but not quite at the beginning of things, just like her.
“Not bad,” Penn said and kept his doubts to himself. Knowing Blamey—B.—involved not saying everything he thought.
Her behavior, too, had begun to calm. She was no longer flailing and flying around, not just because she was back on the Earth.
“What happened to that other drug?” Penn asked. “Minora? I thought you were going to be…” He meant to say, seventeen forever, but she cut him off.
“Snake oil,” B. said, using an archaic expression that had survived. “But that won’t keep my Dad from marketing it.”
Penn nodded, surprised—not that the drug hadn’t worked—that she accepted its failure and what it meant for her future. Their timing for moving on had turned out to be the same. Yet what would they make of each other when they weren’t both on fire?
“Look,” B. said, “I’d like to keep knowing you.”
“Me, too,” Penn said, quickly. Before this moment, he hadn’t been able to admit his loneliness, even to himself. Was it losing his mother, whom he so resembled? He wasn’t sure. Impatient tears fell from his eyes like dogs released from cages in a race. B. reached out and held his hand—hers was still callused and still warm—until he stopped. Penn blinked out what he felt would be his last tears for awhile, then dried his cheeks with the back of his hands.
“Good,” she said. “Now let’s wolf this down. I really want to sleep with you again. Let’s get started.”
Penn nodded. Feeling human, alive, and no longer so very young, he signaled the robot server for their check.
Laurence Klavan wrote the novels The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script, both published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels City of Spies and Brain Camp, co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan, and their YA fiction series, Wasteland, was published by Harper Collins. His story collection, ’The Family Unit’ and Other Fantasies, was published by Chizine. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics to Bed and Sofa, the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London. laurenceklavan.com