When he was little, Anton Thresher used to dream about flying. With arms outstretched, he would make loops in the backyard, grit his teeth, and make a v-r-r-r sound. He would ascend into the clouds and swoop out again with perfect grace and control, running at top speed. Sometimes he would close his eyes and turn his face toward the sun to see its bright-orange imprint on his closed lids. “V-r-r-r-!” He would block out all other sounds as the sun would blot out all other visions, and the sweet aroma of spring lilacs would completely fill his nose. As he would just about leave the ground, his mother would call to him.
Maybe that’s why now, as a medical student, he liked to ride his bike so much, especially along Old Pool Road on a cool summer morning. Who knows how fast he would pedal—forty easily, maybe fifty, probably more. Now, with hands clenched on the handlebars and head bent low to decrease the wind resistance, he churned his legs in a fury. Most people would probably glide down this road, using it to catch a rest while admiring the striking panoramas of the Atlantic coast. But Anton sprinted. His legs began to burn.
This was when he liked it the most. He would imagine other riders trying to stay with him and one by one dropping off the pace until only his best friend, Scott Antonelli, was left. Then, with one final surge, he would leave Scott behind as well.
He had only eight more miles to Professor V. T. Roberti’s house. The old professor would be expecting him for breakfast, and Mrs. Roberti was probably just finishing the frosting on the breakfast pastries. Anton sometimes thought the only reason that V. T. had invited him to collaborate in his research was so the two of them could enjoy breakfast together. The breakfast would often linger almost until lunch as the two would sit on the front porch drinking hazelnut coffee and discussing religion, philosophy, politics, and occasionally even medicine. But then, as V. T. was wont to say, medicine was simply an amalgam of the former three, so their conversations always had medical applicability.
Old Pool Road leveled out into a flat stretch that paralleled the beach. At the base of the hill was a dip in the road that always collected a veneer of sand, making it particularly dangerous at high speed. From there, Anton could see the small cluster of buildings that marked the university. About the only thing open this early would be Mary’s Country Store and Deli. He glanced at his watch, checked the road, and then bowed his head and focused on the white lines as he shifted gears to begin the final sprint to V. T.’s house.
V. T. came out on his porch and greeted Anton. “Well, boy, did you break a record?” He was wearing his tattered, blue, terry cloth bathrobe; sweatpants splotched with gray paint; and worn slippers that exposed most of the toes on his right foot and the heel on his left foot. He sauntered down the crushed-shell driveway, with one hand holding a cup of coffee and the other buried in his robe pocket. The newspaper was tucked under his left arm. Atop his head was a fur hat of the style sported by Muscovites in the winter.
Anton looked up from his stopwatch and smiled at the sight of his old friend. “Yeah, I chopped a full thirty-one seconds off it. Old man, we better get you inside before someone sees you and has you carted away. Dean Handley would love that. It would give him the excuse he needs to bounce you out of the department.”
“That’s OK. Gives me more time to work on my garden.”
Anton put his arm around V. T.’s shoulder. “Tell me, my little friend. Did you shrink anymore since I last saw you?”
“Boy, anyone over five foot seven is a freak. All those extra inches just divert energy from more important functions.”
Anton sensed something different in his friend. He looked into his soft, gray eyes for a moment. Was there a hint of sadness there? Did his skin seem somehow less glowing? No, if there were something, it would stand in contrast to his relentlessly positive nature, like tar on snow, not to be missed.
“Well, V. T., what’s this breakthrough all about?”
“Boy, don’t you know that I can’t discuss breakthroughs on an empty stomach? Let’s have some breakfast.”
The ranch-style house was a modest affair with weather-beaten shingles and jammed full of eccentricities, quite the reflection of its occupants. It was set on a small hill overlooking several acres of land covered with various fruit trees that V. T. tended to as if they were his children. In one corner was his garden, covering a full four hundred square feet. In the other corner was a bocce court, and surrounding the perimeter were sundry varieties of ornamental trees, all professionally pruned and richly mulched. Along the back property line were towering sugar maples. In the fall, their brilliant colors were mesmerizing. Anton remembered more than one occasion when he would arrive unannounced to find V. T. staring at that line of trees, lost in thought.
They entered through the front room. A map of the world was plastered on one wall, covering the entire area like wallpaper.
Marked in red were all the places where V. T. had traveled. The map was nearly covered with red pins, mostly in Africa. V. T. liked to joke that when he was a kid, his dad had a map of Maine on the wall, with one red mark on it. Maybe that’s why V. T. had left home when he was sixteen.
Pictures of children covered the other wall. In one picture was a group of smiling, black faces, with V. T. in the center and holding a child in his arms. Another picture was a candid shot of an African child, legs folded, staring at nothing, with a fly sitting on his eyebrow.
Under a wall of pictures was an old, overstuffed couch that always beckoned Anton to sit in it and disappear into its cushions. In front of it was a wooden coffee table covered with medical journals and magazines. In one corner was a well-worn reclining chair with a floor lamp next to it. Anton suspected that the Robertis may not have bought a new piece of furniture in the past twenty years at least.
Anton and V. T. took their familiar seats in the sunroom while Mrs. Roberti, Pat, served a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns.
“Ah yes,” said Anton. “Another Roberti artery-clogger special. I think we should be doing research on heart disease instead of cancer.”
“Heart attacks are a gift to the old,” said V. T. “Now there is a great organ. It works at full speed for your whole life until one day, boom! And you’re gone in a few seconds. None of this fading-away nonsense.”
“I don’t know. The idea of having a little time to prepare and get things in order kind of appeals to me.”
“Boy, that’s what life is for. If you’re not ready after sixty years, what good is a few months? I believe the world would be a better place if people got up each morning and thought about their own death for a few minutes.”
“Aren’t you men in a cheerful mood this morning?” said Pat. “Would you like some OJ with your breakfast, or should I just skip to the arsenic?”
V. T. smiled. “Cheerfulness is a frivolous trait that men cannot indulge themselves with. We are too busy running the world.” He waited for his wife’s return volley. She only smiled and shook her head, so he continued. “As a matter of fact, I think women are genetically programmed to be cheerful so that they can better entertain men and help take our minds off running the world for a few minutes so we can be sure to propagate the species.”
Pat huffed. “If we are born with a natural excess of cheerfulness, it is to withstand the erosion that occurs when we come into contact with the men of the world. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll retire to my art studio and let you two men resume running the world. Perhaps you can start a war by lunch.”
V. T. turned to Anton. “You know, boy, she may have a point there.”
Anton admired the youthful energy that the Robertis displayed around each other. They seemed to enjoy being together. Didn’t married couples sort of run out of things to say to each other? Didn’t the marriage, regardless of how passionate at the start, ultimately devolve into a business partnership, with each half silently accepting the burden of his or her role? He thought the Robertis were a bit unusual. Maybe it was because they had no children. Maybe it was because they were Italian. He would have to ask Scott about this when he got back.
“Now my stomach is full,” Anton said. “Tell me about the breakthrough.”
“Anton, how long has cancer been on the planet?”
“What?” Conversations with V. T. were sometimes akin to being in a boxing match with a wild southpaw. Punches would come from all angles, and Anton was unsure of where the next opening would be.
V. T. continued. “The way I figure it, it’s likely to have been here about as long as the planet’s been around. I’ll bet the dinosaurs had cancer. It probably helped wipe them out. So, I don’t guess we need to be in a breathtaking rush to find a cure.”
At times, Anton found V. T.’s irreverence annoying. This was one of those times. “People are dying, V. T. We have a responsibility to work in some earnest fashion if we think we are on the right trail.”
“And if we are on the wrong trail, then we can dog it?”
“No, then we must work harder so we don’t waste so much time.” “Don’t worry, Anton. We are on the right trail. I believe we are getting very close now.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“First, I have a physiologic tendency toward overwhelming confidence in anything I undertake. Second is the empirical fact that if everyone else is on the wrong path, as proven by the establishment’s current cancer-fighting ineptitude, and if our path is in no way related to theirs, then we must be closer to the truth. And third, I believe it was divine intervention that sent you here to figure out what I don’t have the ability to decipher. You are the final ingredient in this journey. I’m crazy enough to conceive the concept, but you, Anton, you have the gift to put it all together.”
Anton looked into his friend’s soft, gray eyes. He had never spoken to Anton in this manner. It all sounded correct. Anton had always felt his life was somehow destined to have a larger impact on the world, that he could not be bound by the normal constraints of humanity, for that might betray his higher calling. Maybe that was why whenever he ran into the guardians of convention, he seemed to instigate conflict in them.
“And I suppose it’s my job to create world peace as well?” Anton asked with a joking false modesty.
“Does this role intimidate you? If it does, that would not surprise me. I know you are gifted, and I believe that you have some sense of that gift. Did you ever wonder why you were born with the brilliance that you possess? Was it to become a physician to help people? That is a worthy goal, but there are many less talented people totally capable.”
Anton thought of Scott.
V. T. smiled. “I don’t believe that God imparts gifts on us so that we can glorify ourselves. I believe he imparts gifts on us so that we can do his work for him on Earth. But, you see, we are given free will so that once the gift has been imparted, we can do with it what we wish. Most people use their gifts to achieve selfish gains. I don’t believe you’re one of those, Anton.”
“I have no interest in making lots of money.”
“You can’t say that until you’re in the position to make lots of money. There are other ambitions that can cloud the divine plan.” Anton grinned. “Are you an angel sent here to outline my divine plan, V. T.? Did God send me here to rid the world of pestilence?”
“Boy, I may be nothing more than a diversion in your life plan.
I may be one of those obstacles you have to overcome to get at the truth. That is something you’ll have to figure out. I know I am sin- cere, but I also know that the real threats come at you with heartfelt sincerity. If they were overly malicious, you would ferret them out. Of course, some people can develop sincerity for any interest that advances their aim. They are the kind of folks who can fool a lie detector test.”
“Don’t worry, V. T. I’ll figure it out. Remember, I’m gifted.”
“Good. You’re going to need your gifts to figure this all out. I’ve been researching the incidence of cancer throughout the region. I’ve identified several areas that have a strikingly low incidence of cancer within them. One that stands out is in the foothills of the Longfellow Mountains in a town called Hopedale. I want you to go there and determine if there are any elements in the environment that could explain the absence of cancer.”
For the past three years, V. T. and Anton had been doing academic research looking at the origins of cancer, including current theories and treatments. Their focus was on why current treatments were so ineffective and what alternative approaches should be taken. They were both convinced that the answer was hidden somewhere in nature. Their philosophy was that for every problem afflicting people’s health was a remedy to be found in nature. The challenge was solving the riddle.
“I know we’ve looked at leads in the past,” said V. T. “But this is the most promising cancer-free zone that we have yet discovered.”
Anton studied the map, looking at the surrounding areas and taking note of the topography and the rivers. “Judging from the maps, I suspect it must be a locally grown plant substance. Looking at how the watersheds appear to run, it would be hard to have a water source that would be so isolated. Of course, an airborne agent would likewise be less likely to be so concentrated. This looks promising. I will head up there next weekend.”