“You want me to do what?” Eighteen-year-old Jack Ponsi Dileónardo Thomas stared at his gray-haired boss, and a memory he’d buried five centuries earlier lurched to life. He clutched the cold metal arms of his chair, fighting off the shock that threatened to topple him to the floor.
Colby Newman, editor-in-chief and person-in-charge-of-handing-out-assignments at the World Pryer, crunched a peppermint candy and stared back at him without answering.
During the six weeks Jack had spent as a summer intern for the Pryer, he’d learned Mr. Newman always lapsed into silence after dropping a bomb on one of his reporters. Mr. Newman was a great editor, but he had an odd sense of humor.
Right now, he didn’t look like he thought he’d cracked a joke.
Jack took a deep breath and unclenched his hands. The shock died away. The undead memory lived on. He said, “Did you ask me to find the Fountain of Youth?”
“Yes.” Mr. Newman twisted his thick lips into a smile that made him resemble the water-skiing gorilla on last week’s front page. “Go prove the Fountain exists, Jack. And I don’t mean another tired story on that moldy tourist attraction in St. Augustine. I’m talking about the real thing.”
“The real thing?”
Mr. Newman said, “You probably learned about the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León in school, Jack. It’s textbook history. He explored many parts of Florida during his search for the Fountain of Youth.”
“I know.” Jack knew all about the de León name and its place in La Florida’s past, though not from any school lessons. He said, “Juan led an expedition through the area around Everyoung, too.”
Mr. Newman nodded. “That means the Fountain of Youth could be right here, in our town. In fact, a reliable source called in that very tip to the hot line yesterday morning. The message was a bit garbled, but I have reason to believe he’s onto something.”
“You do?” For one shining moment, a beam of hope seared through Jack. He used all his willpower to shove it aside. Over the years, the flame of false expectation had burned him badly. “Why do you think so?”
“Call it an old newsman’s hunch.” Mr. Newman shrugged. “Even if the tipster is wrong, the Fountain of Youth makes good copy. I’m excited about this story. I’m assigning you to follow up.”
The still-swirling memories burst through the dam of Jack’s willpower and threatened to swamp him. He didn’t have to follow up, because Mr. Newman’s source was right about the location of the Fountain. It was here on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Jack knew that for certain.
He couldn’t say so, though. As much as Mr. Newman liked weird stories, he’d never believe that five centuries earlier, in the year 1513, Jack had accompanied Ponce de León’s expedition to La Florida, and discovered the magical spring.
Mr. Newman wouldn’t believe the rest of the story, either. Jack hadn’t understood what he’d stumbled across until years later—specifically, on the day he’d looked at his twin sister Maria and realized she had become a fifty-year-old woman.
And he was still eighteen.
On that day in 1553, four decades after his discovery, Maria had gotten sick. To give her doctors the opportunity to find a cure that would save her life, Jack had launched a frantic effort to find the Fountain a second time. He’d had no success, and in the centuries since, he’d given up the quest. He’d convinced himself he’d never be lucky enough to locate the Fountain of Youth again and reverse the spell cast so long ago.
If he could—NO! He’d rather drink spit-warm swamp water than stir up old dreams about finding the Fountain. He wanted more than anything to refuse this assignment—and then he remembered his promise to Tia Bella, the last remaining member of his family. His shoulders slumped. He had to accept this assignment and pursue the tip.
Hoping the memories wouldn’t drown him, he tugged a dog-eared notebook from the back pocket of his jeans. He ignored Mr. Newman’s scowl. He was supposed to use his technologically-up-to-the-minute tablet for note taking, but a guy five centuries old had his limits when it came to moving with the times.
Jack flipped the notebook open, and pulled a short yellow pencil from behind his ear. “Anything else I should know, Mr. Newman? What’s the name of the informant?”
Mr. Newman unwrapped another candy and popped it into his mouth. The aroma of peppermint filled the office. “His name’s Moran Tennies. He says the Fountain of Youth is on a farm owned by Mrs. Corinda Owens Tagg.”
Poor Mrs. Tagg.
Jack didn’t know her, but he already felt sorry for her. If anyone found out the Pryer had sent a reporter to look for the Fountain of Youth on her property, she’d have more visitors than she’d ever expected, and not all of them would be nice.
The Pryer made a lot of money publishing peculiar tales and outlandish cover photos, both online and in print. To keep the stories—and the advertising dollars—coming, the paper offered a big cash reward for information leading to a front-page, just-this-side-of-believable exposé. Some of the people trying to collect the fee didn’t care who got hurt in the process.
Things were going to change when—if—he and Tia Bella bought the paper. Making an informed decision about whether they would or not was the only reason he’d signed up as an intern this summer, and the only reason he couldn’t tell Mr. Newman to take a long hike off Everyoung’s short pier. He had no intention of dredging up the heartbreak of the past, no intention of getting even the tiniest bit excited about finding the Fountain again, no intention of ever, and he meant ever—
“Earth to Jack. Earth to Jack.”
He jerked upright in his chair, and jotted the names in his pad with his chewed pencil stub. “Moran Tennies. Corinda Owens Tagg. Is that all?”
“Two more things.” Mr. Newman narrowed his eyes and jutted his chin in another gorilla imitation. “First, the Luminary will probably send Sylvester Liaberco to sniff out what you’re up to. If you recall, Sly scooped you with his digital shot of Bigfoot a couple of weeks ago.”
Jack didn’t need the reminder. He vividly remembered Mr. Liaberco and the Bigfoot fiasco. He’d have finished his work at the Pryer already if it hadn’t happened.
“The Pryer better not lose out again, Jack. That’s a warning. And second...” Mr. Newman rummaged through the mess in his desk drawer. He pulled out an envelope and handed it to Jack. “Corinda Owens Tagg has a sister. Her name is Nessa Owens. She won our Best Herb Tip Contest. You can deliver the check. That will give you a way to introduce yourself.”
Jack took the envelope and tucked it into the pages of his notebook. He put the notebook back in his pocket and shoved the pencil behind his ear. All the while, he kept his mind off the Fountain of Youth. He was not thinking about the Fountain. He was not.
When he looked up, Mr. Newman was staring at him again. Jack said, “Any final instructions, Mr. Newman?”
“Since Everyoung is still a mess from the flood damage Tropical Storm Kyle caused, and since another big storm is on the horizon, I’m giving you extra time. You have two full days to meet this week’s publication deadline.” Mr. Newman glanced at his watch as if making sure it was still eight o’clock Monday morning. “I want you back here in my office on Wednesday at eight a.m., with the scoop. Don’t mess up. This could be the story of the century.”
Apparently the centuries were flying past faster than Jack had realized. The Pryer had made the same claim last month in a story about aliens from a distant galaxy who spent summers in a secret room under the White House. On the other hand, locating the Fountain of Youth would be the news flash of the century. And no one knew better than he did that the Fountain was real. Even though he was not thinking about the Fountain.
Jack stood up. “I’ll do my best.”
Mr. Newman crunched a third peppermint and dismissed him with a wave. “I hope your best is good enough.”
Jack hoped so, too.
Hard as he tried to crush the thought, a very small part of him insisted on wishing the tip about the fabled fuente was authentic. What would he learn when he talked to Corinda Owens Tagg and her sister Nessa Owens? Could the Fountain really be where the source said? Was there the slightest possibility the tip was solid?
Of course not.
He walked out of Mr. Newman’s office telling himself to quit being stupid. The tipster, Moran Tennies, had to be a few ships shy of an armada. The chances of ever finding the Fountain again were smaller than nada. After all, hadn’t he spent decades looking?
So why did he continue to want to believe? It wasn’t as if he didn’t have other things to think about. Even if this tip was false—which it was—innocent people were involved.
As he left the building and unlocked his mountain bike from the rack in the parking lot, he considered the havoc the story would wreak on the lives of Corinda Owens Tagg and her sister Nessa. How could he minimize the impact on them?
Twenty-five minutes later, he arrived on the outskirts of Everyoung, still trying to figure out the best way to complete the assignment without harming anyone, including himself. He rode his bike into a parking lot in front of a pair of sun-bleached cypress wood buildings, and stopped to reconnoiter. According to his GPS, he was only a few blocks from his destination. He was also still planless.
He looked at the buildings. The sign on the one on the right announced the world headquarters of STERLING’S MUSEUM, A COMPENDIUM OF CULTURE. The sign on the front of the left building read IDA’S EMPORIUM. A weathered old man and a stick-thin woman dressed in period costume sat in bent cane rocking chairs on the front porch. They smiled and waved.
Jack didn’t feel like smiling, but he waved back. Buying a cold soda from IDA’S EMPORIUM would let him put off the interview with Nessa Owens for a couple more minutes, and give him that much longer to come up with a plan, if it was even possible. At the very least, maybe he could learn more about Moran Tennies or Corinda Owens Tagg or Nessa Owens from the people on the porch.
He leaned his bike against a utility pole, pulled his notebook from his back pocket and started across the parking lot.
He whirled at the warning shout. A girl on a runaway bike careened toward him, out of control and picking up speed.
She yelled again, “Look out!”
Before Jack could do more than drop the notebook and brace himself to catch the girl, the bike slammed into him.
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