This story is by Jennifer Metcalf and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Maude gapes at the ultra-modern luxury estate, where she will become a new person. A younger person. Her baggy eyes shimmer with tears even though she’s promised herself she wouldn’t cry—those darn menopausal mood swings. She reads the sign’s elegant cursive, “The Fountain of Youth Spa and Wellness Center” and recalls the legend of a magical spring that restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. The spa’s ad had claimed she could shed twenty years from her aging body with their state-of-the-art, albeit slightly unorthodox, treatments. She knows it is probably too good to be true. But this is her last hope.
She dabs at the sweat seeping from her thinning gray hairline. Although the muggy Florida heat isn’t as bad as her intense hot flashes, she longs to dive into the spa’s elaborate fountain. Could this be the source of mythical water? She doubts it. Otherwise, they would have no reason to charge such exorbitant prices. But still. Maybe if she just dips her toes in? A statue of Ponce de León glares down at her from under his feathered cap with stony judgment. You’re right, Ponce, she thinks. There are probably cameras watching me. And nobody wants to see my ugly hammertoes.
Maude hikes her oversized purse onto her shoulder and heads toward the front entrance. The lobby is just as opulent as the exterior, showcasing marble floors, high ceilings, and a crystal chandelier. The twiggy woman behind the front desk chirps, “You must be Maude. Welcome to The Fountain of Youth. Let’s get you started on your journey to age reversal.”
If Maude can get her hands on whatever drug fuels this woman’s cheerfulness, she’s all in. “Sounds great,” she says. “What’s first?”
“First, you’ll have to surrender your bag. No cell phones, cameras, food, or toiletries are allowed on the premises. We will keep it secure and return it to you at the end of your stay. We will provide everything else you need.”
“Can’t I keep my own underwear?” Although they had instructed her not to bring luggage, she had stuffed a few pairs in her purse. She couldn’t imagine anything they gave her would stretch comfortably around her rapidly growing ass.
“You won’t need them. Your body needs to be accessible for treatments.”
Maude laughs nervously. “What will I wear then?” She pictures her flabby flesh on display and cringes.
She follows Miss Twiggy down the hall to a small candle-lit treatment room. “You can put this on,” she says, handing Maude a white plush robe. Olga will be right with you.”
Maude thinks of her husband Harold as she removes her clothes, carefully folding them and placing them on a chair. He had left early this morning, saying that he would be gone for a week and would be unreachable. Maude was sure his so-called business trip involved another woman. All the signs were there. He had been working out, eating healthy, and devoting extra care to his grooming. He barely noticed Maude. Or that she had gone on her own trip.
Her first order of business is a snail slime facial. “You’re going to let live snails crawl on my face?” she squeals. “They’re revolting.”
“Nonsense,” says Olga in a thick Russian accent. “The mucus they excrete is rich in antioxidants, proteins, and hyaluronic acid. The winning trifecta of anti-aging.”
“Can’t you extract it first and then spread it on my face?”
“No,” Olga replies. “This is the most natural and beneficial method.” The skin on her face is as taut and sleek as the pristine blond bun atop her head.
Maude catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Olga has scrubbed her face clean. God, she looks hideous without makeup. She’s never let Harold see her without it. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
The creepy-crawly sensation of the snails makes her mouth dry out and her pits sweat. Shouldn’t a facial feel calming? She squirms, struggling not to swat them off. It seems to last hours. “Why is this taking so long?”
“You can’t rush the excretion process,” Olga says. It sounds like the worn-out excuse Harold uses to justify his lengthy bathroom visits. But what can she do? After all, snails do move slowly.
Maude breathes easier once the snails are removed. She guzzles a bottle of water to replenish the fluid she’s lost.
“Now,” Olga announces, “it’s time for a luxurious bull semen hair treatment.”
She chokes, spraying water on herself. “Please don’t tell me the bull has to deposit it directly on my scalp.”
“Of course not,” Olga scoffs. “It comes out of a bottle and will provide you with excellent body and volume.”
As she sits under the heat lamp to allow the bull sperm to work its magic, Maude wonders what type of woman Harold has convinced of the benefits of his semen.
Despite the lavender-scented pillow, soothing ocean sounds, and total darkness, she cannot sleep that night. Her mind is racing. What is in store for her tomorrow? Will these treatments really make her young again? Would Harold go through all this crap for her?
In the morning, she aches for some coffee and a dozen glazed donuts. Instead, Olga offers her a brownish-green smoothie. Maude gives it a sniff and wrinkles her nose in disgust. “What’s this?”
“This is your only meal of the day. It is made with bone broth, dandelion greens, and a shot of highly concentrated bovine colostrum.”
“Another liquid from a cow? I shudder to think what’s next.” She takes a tentative sip and suppresses a gag. It tastes like congealed gravy with a hint of rotten melon. Her stomach rumbles, so she closes her eyes and gulps.
Today’s first treatment is a fish pedicure. She must soak her feet in a pool with over one hundred tiny fish, which will nibble away the dead skin. “You’re going to let fish eat my flesh?” she yelps. “It’s not those sharp-toothed piranha, is it?”
“They are not piranha. They have no teeth,” Olga says. “It may tingle a little, but it is painless. It will increase blood circulation and exfoliate better than any pumice stone.”
Maude relents. She twitches and thrashes from the tickle torture. Olga scolds her to sit still. Afterward, her feet are as soft and smooth as a baby’s. Although, definitely not as cute. It did nothing for her hammertoes.
Her day is full of even more bizarre and increasingly painful treatments, which leave her muscles aching and sore. Her mood brightens when she learns she will be rewarded with a full body massage.
“The snake massage is highly therapeutic. The rhythmic movements will improve your metabolism and release lactic acid in the muscles.”
“Did you say snake massage?” Maude cries. “You’re not going to use a live snake, are you?”
“No, not a snake,” Olga says. “About a dozen snakes.”
“But I’m terrified of snakes! I have a real disorder. I don’t even keep rope in the house after that unfortunate incident of mistaken identity.”
“There is nothing to be afraid of. The snakes aren’t poisonous. And they have just been fed.”
“No way. I can’t do it.”
“You have to do it. It’s part of the protocol.”
“Can’t I just skip this one? I just want to get to the magical water part.”
“Magical water?” Olga laughs. “There is no magic here. The fountain of youth is just a symbol. You must do the work.” She lifts a sheet off a glass tank revealing a writhing mass of slithering reptiles. “Now lie back on the table and relax.”
Maude trembles. Her heart is racing and she can’t breathe. She’s going to die. She has to get out of here. She doesn’t care if she looks old. She doesn’t care if Harold is cheating on her. It’s not worth it. She bolts out of the room.
Olga shouts, “Stop!”
She doesn’t. She runs past rooms of other patients getting poked and prodded. She pauses, glancing around desperately for the exit. Through a window, she catches a glimpse of a familiar white hairy body.
Harold? What is he doing here? Of course. He wants to get younger for his mistress.
She won’t put up with it anymore. She puts her hand on the doorknob but stops when she spots something else. He’s holding a picture. A picture of her.
Her breathing slows as a realization hits her. Harold is not cheating on her. He is just as insecure about getting older as she is. She should go to him. They should leave together and take a real vacation—one without biting fish or slimy snails or slithering snakes.
She smiles and moves on. She will let him suffer a little longer.