Josephine Dennis poured the contents of an Erlenmeyer flask on the ground by an old tree. The Jacobs Poplar had been the center of campus for centuries. She watched the thick fluid seep deep down into the roots.
She placed her hand on the tree’s wide trunk and smiled. The hurricane in her heart began to slow. A swarm of expectant students buzzed across the quad, stomping this way and that. She stood motionless.
No one believed me, she thought. No one ever believed me.
Twenty years ago, right here, in front of the Jacobs Poplar, Josephine had a revelation. Mrs. Throckmorton, the Directrix of the West Dakota Orphanage, had taken Josephine and the other orphans to see the big campus.
“Boys and girls, this is the Jacobs Poplar. It’s 375 years old today,” Mrs. Throckmorton said.
The orphans let out a collective, “Whoa.”
It was the first Tuesday in October. From as high as the eye could see, a single orange leaf fell from the poplar, spiraled down, and landed on Josephine’s seven-year-old nose. Josephine smiled and removed the fragile leaf from where it had landed. She held it up to the light.
“Mrs. Throckmorton?” Josephine said.
“I know how to stop people from dying.”
“Oh, Josephine. So precocious. Come children, the librarian is expecting us.”
Josephine stared at the leaf some more. She saw the intricate network of veins, its dying flesh, its angular shape. A vision of a new world burned in her mind. Time stood still. She knew, all at once, her purpose in life.
She looked up from the leaf and realized that Mrs. Throckmorton and the group had left her.
A man in a three-piece suit sat on a stone bench next to the Jacobs Poplar. Josephine approached him. “Excuse me, mister, but have you seen my group? They left me and I don’t know where I am.”
The man didn’t say anything because he was crying. Josephine noticed his tears. “What’s the matter, sir?”
“What? Oh, excuse me, little girl. I . . . I just learned that my mother passed away,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Josephine said. “I know how to stop people from dying.”
The man sat up, raised an eyebrow, and considered what Josephine had said. Then, he snorted. Then he giggled. Then he laughed. Then, he doubled over in a loud guffaw, his tears flinging out in an even arc.
“What’s so funny, mister?”
“You can’t stop people from dying! If I could have stopped my mother from dying, don’t you think I would have! She’s dead, kid! Dead!” His body shook as he laughed.
“Sorry, mister, I—”
“You. You’re one of those orphans from the home. Well, I have news for you, kid. Orphans don’t make it. You won’t amount to a God damn thing in this world!” The man stormed off toward the administration building at the end of the quad.
One single tear rolled down Josephine’s face. She crushed the dead leaf in her hand.
Most of what Dr. Cole T. Hardy, III said to Josephine that morning was true. Orphans usually don’t make it. The eight other children in Josephine’s group that day never even started high school. All of them, one by one, succumbed to the vice grip of life, tightened ever harder from being unwanted, twisted faster by alcohol, methamphetamine, and unprotected sex.
But five years later, at the age of twelve, Josephine began pursuing a Bachelors of Science in bio-engineering at West Dakota University. She was the youngest student in the school’s history. She not only entered with a year and a half of advanced placement credit, she also turned in a perfect score on the SAT. She received the Noble Scholarship, a full ride with a living stipend, but she still lived at the orphanage under the guardianship of Mrs. Throckmorton.
That first semester, every morning on the way to class, she stood by the Jacobs Poplar for a while. Bundled tight in her West Dakota University sweatshirt and West Dakota University ball cap, she waited for the leaves to fall. Wearing West Dakota swag made her feel apart of something true for the first time in her life.
As the fall progressed, she gathered leaves every day and stored them in her laboratory locker. She completed her assigned labs and required readings during the day. But at night, she worked on her passion—she wanted to create the utopia she saw in her mind as a young child. She filled spiral bound notebooks with charts, experimental data, and practical findings. When she began to run out of space in her lab locker, she scanned her notes and stored them on a thumb drive.
One evening while she worked in the lab, Dr. Oliver, the head of the bio-engineering department, stopped in to see what Josephine doing.
“What’s with all the leaves, Ms. Dennis?”
“Oh, those.” She held one of the leaves in front of her. “I know how to stop people from dying.”
“What? With leaves?” Dr. Oliver said. He snorted and laughed a little.
“No, not with leaves. Look here.” She showed him a notebook full of her most recent diagrams and scribbles. Dr. Oliver’s eyes grew as big as dinner plates as he sampled her genius.
“This is remarkable. Remarkable,” he said. “Thank you, Ms. Dennis. Let’s talk soon about . . . this.”
The evening grew late. Josephine went home to the orphanage.
The next morning, as Josephine walked to the lab, she heard sirens and saw an ambulance by the bio-engineering offices. She didn’t care to be a bystander, so she went to her lab station. When she arrived at her locker, she saw that all of her notebooks were gone.
She heard commotion in the courtyard and looked out the window. Orderlies escorted Dr. Oliver out of the bio-building. He wore a straight jacket. He shouted over and over, “Artificial Chlorophyll! Artificial Chlorophyll!” They drove him away in a padded car.
Josephine saw her pages flittering out of Dr. Oliver’s office window. She ran outside. One of the papers flew at her and clung to her lower leg. Her notes covered the yard. Cole T. Hardy, IV, an onlooker who was also the Chancellor’s son, caught a page. He perused it and said, “It’s nonsense. It’s all nonsense. Garbage.” He released the page to the wind.
Josephine hung her head down and wrapped her arms around herself. No one understands, she thought. Her mouth trembled. She would never share her secret pursuit with anyone every again.
Josephine earned a masters degree at the age of 18 and a doctorate at the age of 21. The university offered her a tenured bio-engineering research position upon graduation.
The light never shined well inside her apartment at the orphanage. There, in that basement, she lived alone. She had access to a state of the art lab at West Dakota University, but she built a home lab deep down in the shadows. Every night, for the next six years, she perfected her life serum. All those years ago, what she saw in that leaf was the progression of light through chlorophyll. When trees make less chlorophyll in the shorter daylight hours of the fall, the leaves change color and die. In theory, if one were to replace chlorophyll with an artificial compound that could metabolize light independently of the length of the day, the leaves would never change color and would never die. Furthermore, if this life serum became self-replicating, like a virus, and adapted to the specific degeneration of the living being it inhabited, life wouldn’t have to end, at least not from degeneration. All living things would become amortal. In her left hand, she held this white serum, the elixir of life, the panacea, the cure for all ills.
But Josephine also brooded. Even if she stopped aging, and, by extension, dying, people would still be people. Women like Mrs. Throckmorton would continue to live in a cozy, ignorant bubble. Cruel men like Dr. Hardy would never be able to see beyond their noses. Selfish men like Dr. Oliver would always be tempted by forbidden fruit. Ne’er-do-wells, like Cole T. Hardy, IV, would perpetuate stupidity and entitlement. And, the Earth would become so crowded. In her right hand, she held the black serum, the destroyer of worlds, the astonishing panorama of the end times.
And so, as she poured the contents of that Erlenmeyer flask on the roots of the Jacobs Poplar and watched the thick fluid seep deep down into the roots, she trembled. Then, she sat on the nearby bench.
“Excuse me, miss, but have you seen my group? They left me and I don’t know where I am,” a little boy asked Josephine.
Josephine paused and then smiled. She said, “This is the day of the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.”