After removing my laptop, gels and liquids, and setting them in dirty gray bins, I placed my backpack on the conveyor belt and stepped onto the yellow footprints, assuming that unbecoming straddle.
“Anything in your pockets?”
“Just my boarding pass.”
“Nothing can be in your pockets.”
I took out the thermal-printed piece of probably-not-paper and held it as my body got scanned, then watched as my backpack got diverted into the chute of rejected parcels. Barefoot, balancing my laptop and liquids and shoes and jacket, I found myself surrounded by four TSA officials.
“What’s going on?” asked Logan, fumbling to put his belt back on. I pumped my hand, gesturing: stay calm.
The female officer had pulled my backpack onto a metal table and was unloading everything, haphazardly. When she pulled out my jar of psyllium fiber her face brightened, as if this is what they were looking for all along. Putting on blue rubber gloves, she swabbed it, then opened it, examining the whitish powder.
The drug enforcement team gathered. “What is this?”
“I use it to lower my cholesterol.”
The team captain spun it in his hand. “It looks like a laxative.”
“It has that effect too.”
He handed it off to the female officer who patted me down again, this time over my entire body—she warned that she needed to touch some private parts, and offered to take me to a secluded area, but added that could add an hour to the process and she couldn’t guarantee I would make my flight.
When they concluded I was not smuggling narcotics they allowed me to repack my belongings.
We were off – vacation!
We boarded the flight to Arizona. The Grand Canyon had not been on my bucket list, but Logan had reached the point in life where he was feeling he wouldn’t be complete without such a trip.
After getting our rental car, driving to our hotel, and changing into more weather-appropriate clothing, I observed the Grand Canyon was exactly what I had expected: busloads of tourists with selfie sticks. We went to the Watch Tower, and I was impressed that the architect incorporated the designs of indigenous Americans and employed them to work on it. She also designed the Bright Angel and Hermit lodges in the park.
We managed to find a few off-the-beaten-path trails, but after two days I’d seen enough. Logan had us booked for four. Fortunately, the El Tovar Lodge had porches with rocking chairs. Tourists vied for the chairs midday, but in the morning and late afternoon we could read and nap in their comfort. When the porch became too crowded, we settled into the leather sofas inside, sketching the moose heads hanging from the log-covered walls.
One afternoon the only seating available was a bench overlooking the rim. We settled in, and I was perusing a book I’d found at the ranger station about edible and medicinal plants of the Southwest. A couple asked if they could join us on the bench. “Of course,” I said without looking up.
Soon the man was asking about the book. “I work for a company that sells a medicinal edible plant,” he said. I looked up, and he spread out the front of his bright yellow T-shirt so I could read the letters: FOREVER, in bold caps on the top line; the aloe vera company in smaller letters below.
Without any indication of interest on my part he began telling me about the benefits of aloe vera: everything from reducing dental plaque and lowering blood sugar to improving skin and reducing constipation.
I’d seen aloe vera juice on the shelf at Trader Joe’s, but noticed it contains a lot of sugar to make it palatable.
“At Forever Aloe Vera, we sell only one-hundred percent pure aloe vera juice,” the bench sitter said as if reading my mind.
“But how does it taste?”
“I like the taste,” said the man, and his wife added that she sometimes added tulsi. “We drink it every day.”
“It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals, and it helps control weight gain,” added the wife, herself on the chunky side. “It flushes toxins from the body.”
I was getting the nudge from Logan that usually came when he thought I was about to buy something. “It was nice meeting you,” he said, standing up.
The man handed me his business card. They had just come from a Forever conference and were now touring the Grand Canyon with their group.
“Do you work for the company as well?” I asked the wife.
“I’m helping him,” she said.
I looked at the card. “You’re from Mauritius?”
The man nodded. “If you’re ever in Mauritius, please look us up. We’d love to take you around.”
“Bye now,” said Logan, taking me by the hand, pulling me into the El Tovar. “Can’t you see, it’s a pyramid scheme,” he said in a whisper I felt was a bit loud.
“So what? I’m not getting involved. I was just curious. Isn’t it interesting to meet people from exotic places? You need to be less stodgy and taste the flavor of things. How often do you meet people from Mauritius?”
“They’re just trying to hook you into buying a business from them.”
“But I’m not buying anything, what are you so freaked out about?”
I was trying to remember who it was who told me they’d met a couple from Mauritius who’d invited them to come and visit, and then provided them with their own house in which to stay for an unrestricted time period. It sounded like a tropical paradise.
The Forever couple appeared again in the lobby. “Would you like to visit our room?” he offered. “We can give you samples.”
“Sure!” I said, Logan scowling. At first he said he’d wait for me in the lobby but then decided to join me, I guess to made sure I didn’t get hooked into their scheme.
We walked through a maze of hallways and stairs, a route I wasn’t paying attention to because I was listening to the wife. “If you come to Mauritius you will want to visit the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden,” she said. “I know you like plants. You will want to see the giant water lilies, and of course the section on edible and medicinal plants. We don’t live far from there, and we can put you up in our guest house.”
I looked again at the business card. His name was Satish. “What is your name?” I asked her.
“You can call me Marie.”
Their room smelled like incense, and there were little statues of Shiva and Ganesh on the dresser. There were boxes labeled “Forever.” The closet door was slightly ajar, and Satish nervously slammed it shut.
“Don’t suffocate her,” Marie said, opening it a crack.
Satish took some white washcloths from the bathroom and spread them on the table, then unwrapped the plastic cups from the ice bucket and lined up four.
“Who’s suffocating in the closet?’’ we wanted to know.
“It’s Ponzie, our intern,” said Marie.
“Your intern is actually named Ponzie,” Logan blurted.
“Well, we didn’t name her. Would you like to meet her?” Marie opened the closet door. There was a sheet of Plexiglas enclosing the space. Inside was a young woman of indeterminate age, sitting on the luggage rack. There were breathing holes punched at the top of the Plexiglas. She had a few warts and moles on her face, and seemed to have a nervous tic.
“Why is she in there?” I asked. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Logan headed for the door.
“You know interns,” said Marie. “After a while they get a little power hungry.” When I stared at her she continued: “First they ask to be paid. Isn’t the training they’re getting enough? Then they want their name on the newsletter. Grant them that, and they want a bolder font. Garamond, for example.”
“Garamond isn’t even that bold,” said Logan, ever the copyeditor he’d been before retirement. “I’m surprised she didn’t request something like Braggadocio.”
“What gives an intern the right to have an opinion on a font for the newsletter?”
Logan was trying to open the door, but it appeared it was locked from outside.
“Don’t be in such a rush,” said Satish, pouring a clear liquid into the plastic cups. When all four cups were filled he handed one to his wife, then took another for himself. “No pressure,” he said, leaving the other two on the washcloth. I watched our new friends lift their cups and empty them ravenously, licking their lips. I lifted the other two cups, handing one to Logan.
“This is so bogus,” Logan said, embarrassing me with his rude behavior—I gave him a look that said so. Our hosts were being gracious to us, if not Ponzie. I lifted the plastic cup to my lips, then sipped knowing it was going to be a taste I would need to acquire.
“Citrus-y,” I said. It was bitter, too. “Is Forever based in Mauritius?”
“It’s an American company, based in Scottsdale,” said Satish.
I like to hydrate with 64 ounces a day, so I continued sipping until my cup was empty. I’m often having to remind Logan to hydrate. “Drink up,” I said to him. He held the cup in one hand, and his other still attached to the doorknob.
Through the Plexiglas the intern began naming all the benefits of aloe vera, citing references to medical literature.
“Bogus bogus,” said Logan. “You can’t prove any of this stuff. There’s no scientific evidence for any of this.”
“You have to learn to harness the power of the placebo effect,” were the last words I recall hearing, as if an announcement at an airport.
I’m not sure what happened after that, but the next thing I knew, Logan and I were sleeping in the hotel room bed. The lights were out, Satish and Marie were gone. I looked at the clock; it was 3 a.m. Logan was on his back, snoring. I shook his arm. “What are we doing here?” I asked.
He startled awake, looked around, then hopped out of bed, turning on the light. “What’s going on? This is not our room.” He was as confused as I was. Then he remembered. “You drank that drink,” he said. “Why didn’t you listen to me. I knew those people were a bunch of crooks.”
“Crooks? Check your wallet.”
He did, and nothing was taken. “Do you have your phone?”
I checked my backpack; I seemed to have everything I came with. “OK,” I said. “They weren’t crooks.”
Remembering Ponzie, Logan opened the closet door. It was just an ordinary closet, no Plexiglas barrier. The luggage rack on which she sat was empty.
In fact there was nothing in the room—no boxes emblazoned “Forever,” no luggage, not even the empty cups.
“Did you drink the juice?” I asked Logan.
“I had to,” he said, then went to the door. Thankfully, the knob turned. “Let’s get out of here.”
We were still fully clothed, and our shoes were neatly lined up in the hall. We tied our laces and made our way back to our own room.
We still had one more day before our flight, so we headed out of the park to visit Indian ruins. “If we see that couple,” said my husband, “we’re heading the other way. Non negotiable!”
At the ruins, I enjoyed seeing the re-created garden and reading about the various medicinal plants. Then I remembered that, in all the commotion of waking up in someone else’s hotel room, I’d forgotten to take my psyllium fiber. I felt my phone buzzing; I was getting a text: “Forgot to tell you: At Forever, we offer a premium strain of psyllium.”
So they had taken something from us—our phone numbers!
“Just don’t respond,” Logan advised. “Don’t play into their game.” He was getting their texts too. They seemed to know that he was taking meds for high blood pressure, and Forever had a plethora of products to treat it.
We took our flight back to Philadelphia, and once in the car I set the GPS to get us on the turnpike home. The bitter taste of aloe juice remained in my mouth.
Logan tuned the radio to an oldies station. They were playing Beatles music. He sang along: “Aloe aloe, I don’t know why you say good-bye I say aloe.”
Our phones were buzzing with new texts. “By now I’m sure you are craving Forever. We ship anywhere.”
When I woke the next morning, everything seemed smaller. Our bed, for example, was a double. “Didn’t we used to have a queen-sized bed?” I asked Logan.
“I thought we did.”
“Maybe we got spoiled by the king-sized bed in the Forever room.”
I went to the hall closet and checked our sheets. Sure enough, they were double sized. I could have sworn we had a queen-sized bed.
Logan was in the bathroom. As I stood outside the door I heard the toilet flush, the water run, the doorknob turn. When he emerged and saw me standing there, he asked, “Why didn’t you use the hall bath?”
“Because we no longer have one.”
He went to check. “Are we in the right house?”
Both of us recalled having a five-bedroom colonial before the trip; now we were in a two-bedroom cape. We made coffee and took our mugs to sip on the front porch, but there was no porch. The street looked shabbier than I’d remembered.
Back inside, the kitchen seemed smaller than the kitchen I remembered. There were our appliances—well, at least some of them. I opened the cupboards. The dishes were a chipped set we’d replaced years ago. And what happened to the granite counters?
I looked out the window at our small lot. I couldn’t see the trees, the garden beds, the woods.
“Didn’t we used to be richer than this?” Logan asked.
I remembered all the non-profit boards Logan and I used to serve on.
That’s when we started hearing noises in the basement. Knocking noises. Our bodies tensed—was there an intruder?
“Let me out of here,” came a muffled cry.
Logan opened the basement door. There was Plexiglas covering the opening, just like in the Forever room. Appearing on the other side of the Plexiglas, like an apparition, was Ponzie. “Help me,” she implored.
Logan went to the garage, then came back. “My tool shed is gone!”
He was carrying a dirty spade. “Stand back,” he instructed Ponzie, who obliged. Logan hoisted the rusty implement and began banging, futilely, on the Plexiglas.
“You need to use a hacksaw,” Ponzie said calmly, as if she’d been through this before.
“Poor sweetie, you must be starving.” I was getting a text: “She needs to drink aloe juice, she’s addicted to it.”
Logan went back out in search of some tools, and then to the next door neighbor to borrow a hacksaw. At least our neighbor was still the same man, although he, too, seemed sartorially downgraded from his former self. He graciously came with the hacksaw.
I was a little nervous about him seeing Ponzie locked up down there—I didn’t want him to think we were her captors. But Ponzie had wisely retreated down the steps and wasn’t visible.
“Why’d you close it up?” asked our neighbor.
“You don’t want to know,” said Logan, trying to figure out how to make his first cut.
“Let me go back for a drill,” said our neighbor.
While he was gone, Ponzie re-appeared, crying. “Even if you get me out of here,” she said, “they’ll still find ways to mess with our lives.”
“Where are they?”
She looked up. “Everywhere.”
I asked Ponzie point blank: “Did the aloe juice change our house, or just our perception of our former lives?”
“A little of both,” she answered, then quickly disappeared when our neighbor returned with his drill. Plugging it in—the better outlets we’d recently had an electrician install were, of course, gone, so he had to use that old outlet down the hall—our neighbor inserted the drill into one of the little breathing holes. He turned on his drill, but the Plexiglas was too tough to drill. He was making no progress.
There was a knock at the door, and I went to answer it. No one was there, but on the front stoop, where there’d once been a porch, was a Fed Ex envelope. It was from the El Tovar. I opened it and saw a bill for the Forever room. I felt my phone buzz: “If you order 36 crates of psyllium today, we will waive the shipping.”
Back at the basement door, my husband was banging on the Plexiglas. Our kindly neighbor was now trapped inside with Ponzie. “Free me,” she said, “and I’ll grant three wishes.”
“She’s a bottle imp, don’t believe her,” said our neighbor.
“We have to get out of this place,” I said to Logan.
We took one last look at our neighbor. “We’re going for help,” Logan told him.
We piled into our Volkswagen Beetle—we’d had a Tesla before all this—and stepped on the gas. “Where are we going?” I asked Logan.
“Our dream vacation destination.”
I looked at him.
“From your bucket list or mine?”
I tried to think.
He ended the suspense. “Mauritius.”
Excited by the prospect of the Pamplemousses Garden, I opened Google maps to enter the coordinates, but it was already programmed.
About the author
Ilene Dube is a writer, producer, curator, and artist. Her short fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary journals and anthologies. Kelsey Review has published eight.