I’ve never belonged to a book club, but when a friend in town proposed a story club—perhaps because few of us were going anywhere that summer—I was hooked. For the wrong reason, it turned out. We were group texting, and the problem with that sometimes is my impulsive use of emojis, as if I’m letting my phone do the thinking. I assumed my friend was proposing a club where we would discuss a short story we had read in advance. Easier than a novel, for sure. But reading stories wasn’t what he had in mind, though I discovered that only after agreeing to join with enthusiastic thumbs-up and smile emojis.
The story club, my friend explained in a subsequent text, would involve sharing our original stories rather than discussing stories we had read. I was stumped. Suddenly, reading even a fat historical novel—as in a book club, I imagined—seemed more appealing; it would be less intimidating than telling an original story. Before I could express my reservations, a flurry of texts showed that the others were excited, truly excited by what they thought would be a novel club (no pun intended). When everyone quickly agreed, I decided to go along with it, because sounding doubtful now would be awkward—and besides, I was curious. What sort of stories would my friends come up with for the club?
After some more texting, the seven of us decided to meet once a week, preferably at the storyteller’s house, until everybody in the club got a chance to tell their story, whether it was fiction or memoir or something in-between. Nobody in the group was a writer—which I found reassuring—and we all agreed not to critique the stories, as creative folks often do in workshops or more informal settings. This wasn’t about the art and craft of writing or improving our chances of getting published. It was just a creative way to have fun.
To maintain a nonprofessional approach, none of us would read from a manuscript and there would be no questions afterwards. We could pick the theme—and though the length was also up to us, the entire story would have to be shared in one sitting.
Once I got drawn in by the idea, memories of my school dorm, where sharing ghost stories at night wasn’t uncommon, came back to me. Those tales often gave me nightmares, but they were so spookily thrilling that I never complained. Having outgrown silly pranks that involved a lot of shrieking, we had turned to storytelling as a way to scare each other.
In our story club that summer, rather than ghost stories, the narratives I heard were based on real incidents, with names disguised and details changed for greater dramatic effect. But when it was my turn and we gathered in the backyard of our house, I opted to tell a different kind of story. The untrimmed hedge, which acted as a fence, hid the overgrown grass that I hadn’t gotten around to mowing. My wife was visiting her sister, giving me an excuse to goof off, I’m sure. Just as I finished serving drinks and snacks, the sun departed in a glorious orange blaze—not unlike a distinguished guest—and the subdued light was accompanied by a welcome drop in the temperature. A cool breeze stirred the leaves of nearby trees. The birds fell silent, and there was an air of expectancy.
“So, what do you have for us in the gloaming?” said one guest, smiling, as she reached for her glass of white wine. “Does it have a title?”
“Yes,” I said, putting my bottle of pale lager down after a swig. “My story is called ‘The Exchange,’ though I’m not bound by it. ‘Om’ could be another title.”
There were curious looks, but nobody else spoke as they waited for me to begin.
An older man—or Om, as I’ll call him—nervously boards a regional train and, for his two-hour journey to the city centre, finds a window seat in the half-filled compartment. A long-time resident of this small town, which is beyond the exurbs, Om has little connection to the city—let alone the city centre, which sometimes seems like a different country. It wasn’t always that way. As a young man, after college and before he got married, he had briefly worked in the city, a very different city. He has also changed, of course. The years have gone by so quickly that sometimes it feels as if winter followed spring after skipping the other two seasons.
His wife’s dislike of big cities had prompted the move to this little town, where they lived in the same house for decades. He had never been bored, but now that she is dead, he suddenly feels unmoored, restless. He finds problems with the town—it’s constricting, a little smug, too homogeneous—that he hadn’t, surprisingly, noticed when she was alive.
And there’s something else. The passing of his wife, which came as a great shock because he had always expected her to outlive him, makes him uncomfortably conscious of his own mortality, filling him with unaccustomed dread and anxiety, especially at night. Maybe the loneliness is getting to him. His daughter, an only child, asked him to move closer to her, but he declined. The idea of moving so far, and to such a cold place, has no appeal for him—and he doesn’t want her to disrupt her career and life by moving closer to him.
Is relocating to the city a viable option? That’s what he wants to explore, though he has his doubts. More likely, like the discoloured snow on his property, he will continue living in the town through his wintry months—and then abruptly melt away, leaving no trace behind. It would be as if he had never lived. Nevertheless, Om sees this trip to the city as exploratory. Only a visit, even if it’s a day trip, would confirm his hunch that it’s too late to move there.
The train, now under the ground, pulls into his station. Emerging from what seems like the mouth of a noisy cave, Om is confounded by the crush of people. It’s been so long that he has forgotten what it’s like to be in the city—but also, the population must be larger now. Walking down an avenue lined with shops, other businesses, and cafés with outdoor seating, he notices people as they emerge from the buildings carrying bags or walk past him with phones in their hands. Some are scrolling or talking, while they wait for their buses, and the folks sitting in the cafés are eating, drinking—and conversing, with or without phones.
Nobody pays attention to him. He is struck by the ethnic diversity, showing how the city has changed, and most of the people he sees are younger than him, often much younger.
After some window shopping, Om slips into a café and, over a cup of hot tea, people-watches through the window and listens to the banter of customers as they wait for their beverages and pastries. The nutty, smoky aroma from the hissing coffee machine is pleasing, like the chatter and laughter, but then he realises that he should get going to avoid the rush hour. Already, the crowd on the sidewalk is getting thicker.
Stepping out, he walks towards the station where he got off, avoiding the pedestrians hurrying in the other direction. The train will be more crowded, but the clickety-clack will be soothing. Somehow, Om makes a turn at the wrong intersection and, to his astonishment, finds himself in a section of the city that looks quite different, as if he has ended up in another city. It’s grittier, with fewer people on the street and graffiti on grey buildings that had been built decades ago and then, seemingly, neglected. Some windows have portable air-conditioning units, jutting out like status symbols, and there are clothes drying on some balconies, displaying another kind of status.
The fire escapes on the outside of buildings, with ladders linking the balconies, harken back to an earlier era, making him feel as if he is on a movie set. The pedestrians here seem to be newer migrants. They walk briskly, scarcely glancing at him or the other people on the street, as if they’re on urgent errands and have little time to waste.
He’s lost, though the panic he feels is fleeting—after all, his smartphone is in his pocket. But before he can pull it out and check the GPS, Om feels a rush of relief. He spots a sign pointing to another metro station, which is not far away. It will be a short ride from there to Central Station, where he can catch the regional train to his town. The metro station, with just two platforms, is easily accessible via a quick descent on grimy stairs. Discarded candy wrappers and cigarette stubs lie on the floor near the closed ticket booth and the vending machine, which is working. A look at the metro map on the wall tells him that though only one line passes through here, he won’t have to change anywhere to reach Central Station.
Buying his ticket, he enters through the turnstile just as a train is leaving. He’ll have to wait for the next one. Several passengers, having disembarked, walk past him towards the exit. But one traveller, a jeans-clad young man carrying a green backpack, stops unexpectedly on the platform, turns around, and walks back toward Om. Wordlessly, he hands him a sheet of paper. And then, before Om can react or even get a good look at his face, he is gone.
It’s a simple flyer, with typed words in caps and a phone number listed at the bottom.
DO YOU FEEL THAT LIFE IS TOO SHORT?
IT NEEDN’T BE. YOU DON’T HAVE TO GIVE UP ON YOUR DREAMS.
SECOND CHANCES ARE POSSIBLE IF YOU KNOW WHERE TO LOOK.
THE EXCHANGE CAN HELP YOU FULFIL YOUR FONDEST WISHES.
CALL OUR NUMBER ANYTIME IF YOU WANT MORE INFORMATION.
NOTHING IS POSSIBLE IF YOU ARE AFRAID OR UNWILLING TO TRY.
Baffled, Om reads it a few times. Only the phone number, with a city area code, seems to make sense. He searches for more clues, but there’s no website address or other information even on the back of the sheet. Is this a cult—or is it a more mundane, if still incomprehensible, scam to defraud people? About to walk over to the trash bin, he is distracted by the rumble of an incoming train. He folds the sheet quickly and stuffs it in his pocket before the train screeches to a halt. Boarding, Om is glad to depart from the dingy station.
Less than three hours later, as the dying daylight gives way to creeping shadows, he is back in the mostly empty parking lot of his town’s small train station. The swaying trees looming over the road seem like mournful, watching phantoms—and by the time he reaches his house in a quiet cul-de-sac, the neighbourhood is blanketed in darkness.
The following morning, when he is getting ready to do his laundry, he remembers the flyer. After removing it from the pocket, he adds his pants to the pile of clothes in the washer and presses the start button. Then, unfolding the flyer, he reads it again and, impulsively, picks up the phone. He calls the number, but it keeps ringing and nobody picks up. Heading to the kitchen for his second cup of coffee, Om is about to hang up, when somebody answers.
“Hello . . . can I help you?” The voice is unexpectedly soft.
“Ah . . . yes. I saw your flyer—”
“The one about the Exchange, you mean? Are you curious?”
“Yes, indeed,” Om says, struck by the refined accent, which he can’t link to any accent he is familiar with. “Are you trying to sell something?”
The man laughs, though gently. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess it depends on how you see it.”
“So, if I may ask, what is the Exchange?”
“Well, the question really is, what does it do? The Exchange is a process and it lets you relive—or rather, it lets you lead a new life. It gives you a second chance.”
“Second chance?” Om says, wondering if he is talking to a wacko, albeit a wacko who is pleasant and friendly on the phone. “Sounds like reincarnation. Could you elaborate, please?”
“I’d be happy to—if we can meet in person. Reincarnation is one way to see it, I suppose, though I don’t call it that. It’s a sensitive topic, as you can imagine.”
“I see,” Om says, his suspicion rising. “I’m not close to the city, so that will be a challenge. Besides—”
“I understand your apprehension. But you don’t have to worry. I was going to suggest a public place—like a park. As for more information, let me add that there will be a transference, making you a young man. And the young man who agrees to undergo the transference with you will become . . . become old. That’s the Exchange. Sounds strange, I’m sure.”
“Yes, I was going to say bizarre.”
“I understand,” the man says, laughing again. “That’s why we’re very selective. You have to be absolutely sure about undergoing the transference. It’s not reversible, you see.”
“Sounds outlandish, to be blunt. But since you seem so serious about it, may I ask how this transference occurs? What do I have to do?”
“Ah, that’s the tricky, sensitive part . . . I can’t discuss it over the phone. Let me assure you that it’s a painless process, although it involves an overnight stay at an undisclosed location, where you’ll be sedated and hooked up with tubes to the young man. Think of it as a transplant operation. But you won’t feel a thing, and when you wake up, you’ll be ready to begin your new life as a young man.”
Om, who has never been interested in science fiction, is curiously hypnotised. It’s the elegant man’s way of speaking, he realises, that has kept him on the phone for this long, even if it’s a cockamamie story. But though it sounds crazy, who would give up the chance to become young again? How would this fantasy play out, anyway? What was this man really up to? Maybe because of boredom or loneliness, if not the fear of death, Om feels an irresistible urge to meet him and hear more. It will be entertaining, at least. And if the man turns out to be a lunatic or a crook, he will make an excuse and walk away.
Om is about to ask which public park he has in mind, and when they could meet, but the man speaks again: “There’s some risk involved, I should add. But it’s low.”
“What’s the risk—and can you tell me how many people have gone through this . . . this transference?” Om says.
“Very few people have done it so far,” the man says, a little evasively. “The risk is that you may not wake up. It’s not a deal breaker for those who sign up, because . . . how should I put it? . . . because they’re old and have nothing to lose even if the Exchange fails. They’re willing to take the risk because they’ve already lived a full life. Besides, many surgeries come with an element of risk, but that doesn’t mean people avoid them. They weigh their options.”
“I see. Why would a young man choose to become old? And who bears the cost of—?”
“Good questions. The young man who has agreed to do the Exchange is a migrant, a migrant from a distant land and a different ethnicity. A healthy young man in his early twenties. Why is he doing it? He’s seeking a secure life . . . that’s all I can say. For his protection, I can’t mention his legal status or even his name. So, for you, it’s a trade-off, as it is for him. There’s reward and risk. Yes, it’ll be great to be young again, but you won’t have the same advantages, at least for a while. Are you willing to face that? There’s no cost. Well, I should say the cost is not knowing how things will go for you in your new life.”
There’s an awkward pause. Finding his voice, Om thanks the man for his time and says he will think about it and call again if he is still interested in meeting him.
“Yes, please do,” the man says. “Thinking about it is important. It’s not an easy decision. As I said, I’ll be glad to meet you in a public place.”
Putting the phone down, Om stares blankly at the counter, wondering why he is in the kitchen. Oh, yes, he is there to make more coffee. But before he picks up his cup, he crumples the flyer—a little guiltily—and tosses it into the trash bin like a ball.