Vanderbilt Industries was a corporate octopus, with tentacles dipped into every facet of the city. Vanderbilt Construction had built half of the major downtown offices, Vanderbilt Pharmaceuticals kept everyone in good health, and Vanderbilt Bottling provided the entire city with clean, twice-filtered water. Anyone that wanted to have a career worth having turned in an application to one of Vanderbilt’s many divisions and kept their fingers crossed tightly.
Josh Fenton still found it hard to believe that he’d be joining Vanderbilt’s corporate headquarters as an advertising executive. It was a citadel of shiny blue glass, looming over the center of the city as its de facto master. In many ways, it was. And soon, he would be part of it. Josh combed his chestnut brown hair and tried to keep a serious face, though he couldn’t stop smiling. Today was a big day. Perhaps the biggest day of his life. Was that a bit much? He didn’t think so.
The lobby of Vanderbilt Tower felt almost like a town square. It was bustling with activity, people rushing to and from elevators and stairwells while other lounged on the smooth white leather couches in the center, waiting for a meeting or an interview. It was only a few weeks ago that Josh himself had been on one of those couches, afraid of staining it with sweat. Now, he was headed for one of twelve glass elevators, going up to the 26th floor. It was the start of a long climb for him.
Walking into the office, he was greeted by the chirpy young receptionist who introduced herself as Amelia, and whose smile won Josh’s heart in an instant. She showed him around the area, escorted him to the advertising director’s office (who was just the nicest and most positive guy Josh had ever met) and finally led him to his desk. The desk across from where Josh sat was occupied by Steve, who was apparently one of the best in the division. Josh knew they would be good friends the moment he met him, and he wasn’t wrong about that.
Targeted advertising campaigns for some of Vanderbilt’s newest products and renewed campaigns for their old ones occupied Josh’s time. He was never short of projects to work on, and found himself surrounded by teams of driven individuals who were hungry for success. His days were spent buried in work and his evenings spent planning the next day. The office wasn’t without its quirks, though. The advertising director was insistent that employees stayed hydrated at all times, and Vanderbilt water bottles were distributed around the office several times a day. Josh didn’t complain. He could use a drink now and again.
His personal life was good too, thought confined mostly to the office. He would joke around with Steve at their desks when not bouncing ideas around with him, and Amelia also became a constant presence in his life. He looked forward to her cheery greetings each morning, and tried to work up the courage to ask her out, but he never quite managed it. Still, he had hopes for the next day. On the whole, life was going quite well for Josh.
Until the day Steve got fired.
One morning, Josh came into work, got his usual perky greeting and sat down at hid desk. Steve wasn’t there, but that wasn’t so unusual; sometimes he had early morning meetings to work through. But none of Steve’s things were there either. The desk was completely empty. Josh asked Amelia about it, and was cheerily informed that Steve was no longer a part of the Vanderbilt family. That didn’t seem to make sense to him. Steve was a dedicated employee and good at what he did. Why would they fire him?
As Josh was trying to make sense of the situation, he saw Steve walking by holding a box. He was being escorted by building security. Josh rushed over to him right away to ask what happened, but was held back by one of the guards. He couldn’t understand it. Steve, who was always full of good humor, was walking with shoulders slumped. He looked like he had been crying. As he got into the elevator, Steve stared right at Josh and said only one thing: “Don’t drink the water.”
Josh was incredulous. “What?”
Steve repeated himself. “Don’t drink the water.”
The elevator doors closed before Josh could ask anything further, and a security guard very politely ask him to go back to his desk.
The rest of the day went as usual, but Steve’s absence gnawed away at Josh. Don’t drink the water. He accepted the water bottles that were passed around throughout the day and his them in his drawer. As the day progressed, Josh had the strangest feeling. It seemed to him like everyone in the office was just a bit older than he remembered. Fresh-faced colleagues looked a bit wrinkled, their flowing hair dotted with gray. Josh shook his head. He must have been working too hard.
There was a great sense of relief as Josh entered his apartment at the end of the day. He washed his face carefully, changed clothes and sat down to watch the finest programming Vanderbilt Entertainment had to offer. His cell phone rang. Josh was surprised. Nobody called him after work. He spoke to his parents on the weekends, thought truthfully, he’d been too busy to talk to them in a while. He made a mental note to call them that Saturday.
Josh looked at the number on the phone. It was Steve.
“Josh.” Steve sounded different. Tired. Older, it seemed.
“Hi Steve. What happened today? Why’d they let you go?”
“Josh, I need to talk to you. It’s really important. Meet me at the cafe across from your apartment in half an hour.”
“What? Steve, I don’t – ”
“Just meet me there, Josh.”
“Alright, I’ll be there.”
“Good. Oh, one more thing. Don’t drink the water. The bottles. Don’t touch them.”
Josh wanted to ask why, but Steve had already hung up. He turned off the TV, paced around his apartment until it was almost time, drank a glassful of plain tap water, and left to meet Steve.
The cafe was mostly empty. Josh had passed by it when going to and from work, but he’d never paid much attention to it before. He sat by a booth in the corner and waited. He was staring out the window, lost in thought, when an old man entered the cafe and sat down across from him at the booth.
“Uhh, sir. I’m actually waiting for someone. I’m sorry for – ”
Josh froze. “How do you know my name?”
The old man smiled, despite looking very depressed. It was a very familiar smile. Josh looked at the face carefully, past the lines and wrinkles that creased it, and came to the horrifying realization that he was looking at Steve. Steve, who was only two years older than him, who still believed that 30 was over the hill, Steve who had been a smiling young man just yesterday. It didn’t make any sense.
“Steve?” he said, finding his voice again. “What the hell happened? What – Is this some sort of prank? What’s going on?”
Steve nodded slowly. “It’s crazy, isn’t it, Josh? I thought so too when I first found out. It’s a crazy world we’re living in, my friend.”
“Steve, I don’t understand…”
“How long have you been working at Vanderbilt, Josh?”
Josh was confused. “I – it’s been about 8 months. Why?”
Steve smiled sadly. “39 years, buddy. You’ve been here 39 years.”
It took a moment for Josh to process what he’d just heard.
“What?! Seriously, Steve, this isn’t a very good prank.”
“It’s no prank, Josh. Vanderbilt controls everything.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Vanderbilt isn’t just a company, Josh. It’s basically running this entire city. This is some sort of, self-sustaining facility. People are paired together, have children, those children are educated and trained to work at Vanderbilt, and that’s where they work until they die.”
“Steve, come on – ”
“The water, Josh. That’s how they control us. Vanderbilt water is contaminated with some sort of powerful hallucinogen. It alters your perception, molds it to what Vanderbilt wants you to see. A happy, thriving city populated by the young and the hopeful.”
Josh rubbed his temples. “That’s insane.”
“Tell me, Josh, when was the last time you saw anyone over about 30? Are there any old people in our office? Any retirees?”
“No, but – ”
“When was the last time you spoke to your parents?”
“It’s been a couple of weeks…just a couple of weeks.”
Steve wasn’t smiling any longer. “None of this is real, Josh. Look around you. I mean, really look. We’ve all been living a lie. The lie Vanderbilt wants us to live. I discovered the truth, so they let me go.”
He laughed, bitterly. “Of course, that’s not true. I wasn’t ‘fired’. They were going to kill me. I managed to escape. But I’m not a young man anymore, Josh. I haven’t been for a long time, it seems. They’ll catch up to me. You need to find a way out of here, Josh.”
“No, no, no. This doesn’t make any sense. There’s something wrong with you, Steve. You’re sick or something. You need help.”
“I needed help a long time ago, Josh. I should have got it then. But it’s too late now. Nobody is what they seem, Josh. Not me, not you, not Amelia.”
“Yes. Your wife.”
“You and Amelia were married 25 years ago. Vanderbilt put you together so you could help create a new generation. Once she gave birth, they separated you and wiped your memory. To keep the illusion alive. I imagine your kids are being groomed to join the company as we speak.”
“No, this can’t be real. This can’t be real!” Josh was panicking, the veneer being stripped off his life.
“Go home, Josh. Don’t drink the water. And look. Really look.”
Steve got up slowly and hobbled away. Josh was left alone with his thoughts. He looked at the waitresses of the cafe, serving other tables. They had been bubbly young blondes when he walked in. They were considerably older now. His head in a fog, Josh went back to his apartment.
It looked different. The sleek, minimalist furniture was gone, replaced by old, weathered couches. The bare walls were decorated with pictures. Pictures of his life. His and Amelia’s wedding. The birth of their son. There were pictures of her as an older woman, gray haired but still with the twinkle in her eyes. But it was fading. Josh reached out to touch the picture and noticed the wrinkles on his hands.
Panicked, he ran to look in the mirror. He couldn’t believe the face that stared back at him. Josh’s face was lined with deep wrinkles, his cheeks sagging. His hair was a pale gray, and clung in thin wisps to the side of his head. He was stooping, staring at himself with tired old eyes. Josh backed away. It was impossible. It was true. Vanderbilt had built a lie. A beautiful lie.
Josh sank to the floor, crying into his hands. This wasn’t the life he wanted. He was a young graduate with stars in his eyes, hoping to start a dream job and live a charmed life. Not this.
A charmed life.
Josh stood up and looked into the mirror again. The old man staring back was not who he was. He went into the kitchen and took a bottle of water out. He held it with shaking hands. Josh took a deep breath, then emptied the bottle in one long gulp.
Josh woke up to the rays of the morning sun creeping through his window. It was time to go to work. He got ready and had breakfast, brimming with excitement. Before leaving, he stopped to look in the mirror. Josh smiled, running a hand through his thick chestnut hair.
He went to the office and too the elevator to the 26th floor. He was greeted by Amelia, as cheerful and chirpy as ever, and he greeted her back with a big grin. Josh went and sat down at his desk. Shortly afterward, Amelia introduced him to his new neighbor, Mark. Josh knew he and Mark would be friends right away.
He smiled at Amelia as she walked away, and she smiled back. One day, he would ask her out. But he had his whole life ahead of him to worry about that. For now, there was work to be done. Josh couldn’t wait to begin.