Remedial Alchemistry

Professor Anwir tossed the plastic kiddie pools from the top of the stairwell, and as they bounced and rolled along on their sides, Gilbert scrambled after them. The bottom of his loose checkered shirt flapped like a cape behind him and the heavy leather shoulder bag slapped at his side with every step. His skater shoes kicked up dust bunnies and left a trail of dirt clouds in his wake.

“We don’t have all day.” Professor Anwir’s words echoed down the stairwell. He spoke with an Indian accent—not heavy, but just thick enough that Gilbert needed to concentrate to follow along. Anwir moved slowly, placing both feet on each stair before planting his luggage bag down beside him. The hard plastic wheels made clunks every time they landed.

Gilbert managed to catch the pool closest to him—the pink one—but the blue made it down the hall. It slowed until it spun in circles on its lower rim like a top. The fishes and turtles that decorated the sides of the pool stared at Gilbert with oversized eyes. They were the kind that seemed to be looking at him no matter where he stood. He shivered and avoided their lifeless gazes as he stacked the pools like giant plastic cups and propped them under his arm. They were just wide enough that their rims still touched the ground.

Everything in the corridor—Anwir included—looked ancient. The white paint on the doors had long ago turned gray and was chipped off in large chunks. Of the doors that were still intact, the metal hinges and doorknobs were stained reddish-brown with rust. Anwir’s tweed jacket, green corduroys that weren’t quite long enough for his legs, and oversized red stocking cap betrayed his age.

“Uh, professor, why are we here?”

Anwir dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a large keyring. “To perform an experiment. Don’t tell me your memory is worse than mine.”

“What? No. No, I know that. I meant why are we here? In the basement.” Gilbert kept looking left to right as if expecting someone to pop out at any moment. He tugged his beanie down until it almost covered his light blue eyes. “I mean, it’s not that I don’t believe you and I’m not scared, like, I’m totally not scared at all,” he laughed nervously, “but I thought the basement would just have a bunch of maintenance junk and it’s kinda creepy.” The solitary bulb overhead flickered. “Okay, so it’s super creepy.”

Anwir moved to the door farthest from the stairs. It was in the same state as the rest of the corridor, although it had a shiny new hasp and padlock keeping it secure. He unlocked it.

“These were the old chemistry labs,” he gestured for Gilbert to enter, “used before the university upgraded and moved them upstairs.” Gilbert entered slowly, slapping his free hand along the wall in search of a light switch. Anwir flicked it for him and moved inside. “Put the pools anywhere. Put the bag on the desk.”

It was clear which table he meant. There were a total of nine—one teacher’s desk in the back and eight others arranged in a grid, and only the one closest to the door seemed like it had been used in the last century. Its matte black surface was polished and smooth. The others were missing legs and covered in dirt and dust. Rusted sinks were attached to every desk, their basins coated in grime.

Gilbert dropped the pools where he stood and heaved the satchel onto the table. Anwir did the same with his suitcase. He unzipped it and flipped open the hard-plastic top to reveal a series of corked flasks and vials secured in black foam.

“Professor, I’m really glad you gave me a chance to not fail your class and everything, but you’ve gotta level with me,” Gilbert looked around the room and noted a large spot where the grey tile was white. Like the table, it seemed to have been cleaned recently. “Exactly what kind of experiment are we doing?”

“A very important one. Now grab the manual out of my satchel. It should be on top.” There was a cabinet along the wall closest to the table. Anwir walked over and pulled out a ring stand, a coil of rubber tubing, and a Bunsen burner. Gilbert flipped open the flap of Anwir’s bag; it was packed with books and magazines. The first he pulled out was a thick yellow and black paperback, the size of a phone book, titled Demonology for Dummies. A cartoon devil was hopping out of a cauldron as a stick figure jumped for joy.

“Uh, this one?” Gilbert held it up and gave Anwir a confused look. Anwir shook his head. He was pulling the flasks from his bag and arranging them on the table from smallest to largest.

“No. Maybe it was second from the top.”

Gilbert pulled out a magazine titled The Alchemist’s Almanac. The cover was worn and ragged and the issue was dated April of 1958. A neon green post-it note stuck out from between the pages.

“That’s the one. I marked the page.”

Gilbert flipped to the post-it note. “The Elixir of”—he paused—“something Youth?” Part of the page, right along the top, had been burned away. The hole cut through the title. He glanced at Anwir.

“Eternal,” Anwir said without looking up.

“Right…” Gilbert examined the strange assortment of materials Anwir had laid out. In total, there were thirteen vials and flasks. One was filled with a fine gold powder. Another held a thick, silver liquid. Two more tubes were labeled “sulfur” and “salts of arsenic.” The last item in the line was a bottle of cheap vodka. Gilbert was quick to pick it up.

“Professor Anwir, my man! So much for a dry campus, am I right?” He winked and unscrewed the cap.

“Put that back!” Anwir snatched it from Gilbert’s grip and placed it back in the row. “It’s a vital ingredient, just like all the rest.”

Gilbert held his hands up in defense. “All right, all right! Geez. So…” He tossed his hat onto the table; his shoulder-length black hair fell across his face. “What are we really doing?” He leaned up against a tall stool and it wobbled under his weight. “Is it something legal? It’s illegal, isn’t it?” He leaned in close to the professor. “Is it poison? I knew it! It’s poison!” Gilbert’s eyes lit up. “You’re going to poison the dean!”

The professor’s face scrunched up like he had eaten something sour.

“No! It’s not poison and I’m not trying to kill the dean! Why do you even think these things?”

Gilbert shrugged. Anwir shook his head and held out a spark lighter. He squeezed the metal prongs. The small spark ignited into a yellow-orange flame over the Bunsen burner’s barrel. “Like it says in the manual, we’re brewing the elixir of”—he paused for a moment—“eternal youth. It’s perfectly safe.”

“Yeah, but how do you know that?”

Anwir let out a long sigh. “I know because I’ve done this before. No one’s getting poisoned.”

Gilbert narrowed his eyes. “Hold up, if you made it before, why aren’t you, you know, young?”

Anwir closed his eyes as if in deep thought. He stepped away from the flame and pulled off his stocking cap. Gilbert had been taking Professor Anwir’s class for months and had grown used to Anwir’s non-existent frontal hair line and the lovely bald spot on the crown of his head. When the stocking cap came off, it revealed a full head of thick, brown hair.

“So… you discovered Rogaine?”

Anwir tilted his head. “Rogaine?”

“You know, the hair growing stuff.” Gilbert patted his head. “The ads are on T.V. all the time. Or is T.V. too “hip” for you?”

“No! I just—I didn’t have a whole lot.” Gilbert stared. “When I did this the first time, I did it with Professor Thorne—he teaches Physics.”

“Yeah, I know. A buddy of mine is in his Thursday morning class.”

“Well, when we finished, he…relieved me of my share.”

Gilbert barely contained a laugh. “He stole it? Ha! Old dudes ripping off old dudes!”

“I suppose it’s what I get for trusting someone in the Physics Department.” He shook his head. “Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, can we finally start?” Anwir pointed at the manual.

Gilbert studied Anwir though narrow eyes. “All right. I’ll play ball. For now.”

“Good. Just read the instructions. You’re going to want to mix the ingredients on line one in a volumetric flask.” Gilbert walked around to the other side of the table where the empty flasks were arranged. He picked one at random.

“No. That’s a conical flask. I said the volumetric. This is why you’re failing my class.”

Was failing,” Gilbert grinned. “After tonight I’m an ‘A’ student.”

“‘C’ student,” Anwir corrected. “We can’t draw any unnecessary attention to it.”

Gilbert ran his fingers over the flasks and grabbed one with a rounded bottom. “Oh, you mean like the you-becoming-a-young-guy-again sort of attention? I think an A is only fair.”

“C.” Anwir’s voice was firm. Gilbert dropped the flask and it shattered. Shards of glass shot out like shrapnel. Anwir jumped back. “What are you doing?”

“Oopsies! I guess an ‘A’ student would have been more careful. Us ‘C’ students are accident-prone.” He reached over and ran a finger along the side of another flask.

“A ‘B’. Final offer.”

Final final offer: make it a B plus and we have a deal.”

Anwir grimaced. “Fine. B plus.”

“Sweet.” Gilbert nodded his head.

“Fantastic.” Anwir’s voice sounded anything but enthusiastic. “Now sweep this up,” he kicked a shard of glass under the table. “We’ve got work to do.”


The liquid was a mix of gold and silver, constantly swirling. Like oil and water, the two colors refused to mix. A cloud of steam rose from its surface. Anwir gripped the beaker with metal tongs and placed it on the table.

“Question: If an old dude like you drinks the elixir, it makes you young. What happens if someone young drinks it?”

“I supposed it would extend that person’s youth. Keep him young.”

Gilbert nodded his head. “All right. Cool. Gotcha. So, funny story, I just had a little thought. More of an idea…”

Anwir closed his eyes and exhaled. “You want some.”

Gilbert feigned surprise. His voice was an octave too high. “Whaaaat?” His eyes were wide and he held a hand over his heart. “I never said that. But now that you bring it up…”

Anwir rolled his eyes and held up his hand to silence Gilbert. “After my experience with Professor Thorne, I figured it would be best to over-prepare.” He grabbed two of the larger flasks from their orderly line and placed them in front of him. Using the tongs, Anwir grabbed the beaker, contents still steaming, and divided it equally between the flasks. The liquid fizzed and popped. He pushed one flask to Gilbert’s side of the table.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” he held up a finger. He handed Gilbert one of the kiddie pools and dropped the other one at his feet. He stepped into it.

Gilbert stared at Anwir’s pool and then his own. “Do I even want to know?”

“If you want details on how it affected Thorne’s bodily functions.”

Gilbert shook his head and stepped into his pool. “Nah, I’m good.”

“Then…cheers.” Anwir grabbed his beaker by the neck. Heat radiated from it.

Gilbert looked down at his drink. “What does it taste like?”

“Cream soda,” Anwir said. He swirled the liquid and Gilbert watched as the gold and silver spiraled. “Cheers,” Anwir repeated. He held the rim to his lips and tipped the bottom up. Gilbert was quick to follow suit. As soon as Gilbert finished, he slapped the flask on the table. It clanked and the glass cracked.

“Whoo!” Gilbert winced like he had just downed a glass of hard liquor. “That stuff kinda burns on the way down. I don’t taste cream soda but it would make a great party drink.” He wiped his lips with his left sleeve. Anwir stared at Gilbert for a moment, walked over to the sink, and spit the drink down the drain.

“Dude, what the fuck?”

Anwir dug into the pocket of his tweed jacket and pulled out a travel-sized bottle of mouthwash. He emptied the bottle into his mouth and swished it around.

“Professor, what’s going on?”

Gilbert’s face turned deep red. Goosebumps rolled down his arms and a sheet of sweat formed along his brow. He pulled at the collar of his shirt and fanned himself.

“Dude, why’s it getting so hot in here? What did you do to me?!” He slapped his hand on the table but it burst like a water balloon. A semi-transparent, off-white gelatinous goop splashed in all directions. A few drops landed on Anwir’s face and he wiped them away and licked his fingers clean. Slack-jawed, Gilbert stared at the stump on the end of his arm. It sealed up as though his hand had never been there at all, although the skin undulated and rolled like water.

“Calm down, it’s okay.” Anwir reached into his luggage case and pulled out a wine glass wrapped in a white cloth.

Goo was pouring off Gilbert in streams. It didn’t take long for it to line the bottom of the pool. Gilbert started to cry but the tears melded with the strange liquid and rolled down his body. His cheeks drooped and his chin sagged. The skin on his arms formed flabs, dangling low. Gilbert sank as his legs liquefied and filled up the pool. His skater shoes floated on the surface.

“I may have fibbed a bit,” Anwir said. “It wasn’t really an Elixir of Eternal Youth. It was an Elixir of Borrowed Youth.” Gilbert tried to speak but could only produce wet gargles. “I found out the hard way that it can only take as much youth as someone has to give. Professor Thorne was older than I am, so it didn’t do much.” He pointed to his hair. “Plus, I hadn’t entirely known what to expect, so I ended up mopping him up off the floor.” He nodded his head at the white spot in the center of the room. “This time, with you, everything should be perfect.” Anwir crouched down and scooped some of Gilbert into his wine glass.

“Don’t worry. You’re getting a C plus in my class.” Anwir drank from the glass, careful not to spill a single drop. His eyes rolled back into this head and he moaned. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes retracted. The saggy flesh of his face pulled back into place. A long series of wet sobs came from Gilbert; he was only solid from the neck up. His shirt and jeans had joined his shoes on the surface. His eyeballs melted to something like milk and poured from their sockets.

Anwir scooped himself a second serving, swirling the rim where Gilbert’s cheeks had just dissolved, and brought it to his lips. He savored the slight burn and the gentle fizz as it washed down his throat. His eyes regained their youthful brightness. His vision blurred—removing his glasses fixed that. His gut sucked itself in, leaving a flat stomach.

“Thanks, Gilbert.” He raised the wine glass and sipped. “Yep. Just like cream soda.”

David Olszowy is a Chicago native and a junior in Columbia College Chicago’s creative writing program. Although most of his time is spent in retail drudgery, he’s prone to flights of fancy and can often be found daydreaming in the produce section.

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