Several years ago, just for fun, I audited a Creative Writing class at the university associated with the hospital where I am an RN. Probably the best assignment throughout the semester was to write something that would be appropriate for an episode of "The Twilight Zone". In other words, if we wanted to bend the rules of reality a bit here and there, go right ahead. After all, if Rod Serling could do it, why not we?
A few weeks ago as I was hauling Christmas decorations out of the attic, what should I happen to come across but a copy of the story I wrote for that assignment. Even though it is not at all erotic and a little odd (maybe more than a little), I thought I would retype it and post it here in Literotica's Non-erotic section just to get your thoughts on the piece. Enjoy!
(By the way: readers of my previous works may know that my husband's name is Brian, the same as the protagonist in this story. Although I did indeed borrow Brian's first name for my protagonist, our last name is not Cox, we are not from Chicago, and there are no other real-life parallels.)
Brian Cox would retire soon. Today or tomorrow, he was sure. Perhaps even day after tomorrow, but he doubted it.
He would not be retiring from his career, at least not as most people would use the term. He had retired from that sixteen, almost seventeen years ago, on his seventieth birthday. He had been a machinist for better than fifty years, first for the U.S. Navy, when he had served on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean, then later with various automakers, and at the end with little machine shops, where the pay wasn't nearly as good but the work was much easier.
The retirement he was quickly approaching was from what he thought of as his "other" career, one much simpler and yet far, far more important than anything he had ever dreamt of doing as a machinist. But there would be no party at this retirement, no gifts, or teary-eyed speeches. Just a death that he hoped would be painless and quick, and then the job he had done for sixty years would pass to another, just as it had, he supposed, for thousands of years.
He was a Keeper. No one had ever given him that title, and as far as he knew, no one had ever spoken that word in relation to him. He just knew that was what one in his position was called, the same way he knew the importance of the thing that looked, for all intents and purposes, like a pocket watch, and the same way he knew the importance of keeping it wound every day. Had the watch told him? Maybe. He was a simple man, but he was smart enough to know that the watch was unimaginably old – maybe as old as the universe itself – and possessed of an intelligence far beyond what Man's human brain could begin to comprehend.
It hadn't always appeared as a watch, of course. Originally it was probably a rock, a speck of dust, or maybe something that so predated mankind that there wasn't a word for it. Soon it would change form again, since a pocket watch was now a quaint anachronism instead of a commonplace item. Perhaps it would become a computer, or a mobile phone, or even an MP3 player, something so ubiquitous that no one so much as batted an eye at the sight of. Whatever it took to blend in and become invisible, for to hide in plain sight is what it had always done and would forever continue to do.
For reasons he didn't understand – he had long ago given up trying to understand anything about the thing – it needed a caretaker, one called a Keeper. That must have been a fairly recent development, because since it predated Man – that much he knew – who or what could have been its caretaker before Man came along? Or was he so arrogant, like most occupants of this little blue marble, that he assumed that Man was such the pinnacle of Creation that no one and no thing had the intelligence to care for it?
He didn't realize it, but tomorrow would mark sixty years to the day since he had been appointed. Even if he didn't remember the exact date, he remembered the event vividly. It was 1952. He was walking behind an older gentleman when they came to an intersection. The man was apparently in a hurry, and stepped into the street just as the light turned red, never noticing the bright yellow taxi that was rushing to beat the light. The accident was horrific as the gentleman was thrown thirty yards or more. Any time a car hits a pedestrian hard enough to leave a dent in a steel bumper, you know it's bad.
Since Brian was walking only yards behind, he was the first to reach the man's side. His body was terribly injured, blood was everywhere, but mercifully he appeared to be in no pain. If anything, the expression on his face was ecstatic, like one who had served long and well and was now looking forward to a well-earned reward. He had to have known he was dying, but he used the last of his strength to remove an old pocket watch from the vest pocket of his suit. He pressed it into Brian's palm with both hands, and in a surprisingly clear voice – especially considering his age and the circumstances – said, "Take care of it and keep it wound. Never let it run down." Then he lay back like one relaxing on his bed after a long day, and died in the street. For almost exactly sixty years, Brian had done exactly that: caring for it, protecting it, and maintaining it every single day.
All Keepers serve for sixty years after assuming their duties, and always the position is vacated with the death of the Keeper. In that, it is a gift. The watch forms a symbiotic relationship of sorts with its caretaker, ensuring that he or she will complete their term of service, effectively rendering them invulnerable until the sixty years is up. Aside from the usual childhood diseases, Brian had never been sick a day in his life, a fact he variously credited to his diet, exercise, or a dozen other things, never realizing that it was the watch that had kept him healthy. It had shielded him as well, allowing him to walk away without a scratch from that crash eight years ago that had killed his beloved wife instantly and left the car mangled beyond recognition.
But there would be no speeding taxi cab for him. He knew that. He may not have been sick a day in his life but he certainly was now. Two days ago, he had been holding his first and only great-grandson, barely a week old, feeling a health and energy that belied his years. Then suddenly he handed the boy back to his mother, and just as suddenly pitched forward out of his chair and onto the floor. That was his last memory before waking up yesterday, here in the ICU. When he asked what was wrong with him, the answer was a vague, "We're still running tests."
He nodded. "Which means you don't have the foggiest idea," he thought but didn't say.
He knew what was wrong, even if the doctors didn't: his time was simply up, both as a man and as a Keeper. They could run their tests if they liked, perhaps they could even identify what, exactly, had happened, but the answer was academic. What it came down to was that his time was up. It was okay, though – he had lived a good life with few regrets, been married to a beautiful, sweet woman for more than fifty years, fathered and raised three sons and a daughter, seen seven grandchildren be born and most of them grow up – a few were still teens, God help their parents – and had lived long enough to see his daughter become a grandmother in her own right. He didn't know if there was anything on the other side of death, but if there was, he believed his wife Marie was there, waiting for him. There was no pain, and he had the warm and calm self-satisfaction of a man who had done a job faithfully and well for many years. For the first time, he understood the peace that man had felt while lying in the street.
But not everything was okay. Far from it, in fact, and he was seized by a sudden panic. There was a nurse standing beside his bed, and his sudden reaction startled her.
"Wh-where's my clothes? I've got to find my clothes!"
"Calm down, Mr. Cox," the nurse said soothingly. "Everything's alright." Confusion, possible dementia, she thought sadly. Fortunately, there were already signed physician orders in his chart for sedation, pain medication, or whatever he might need. "I'm going to get you something to help you calm down."
"No, please," he said. "I know you think this old man's lost his marbles or never had them in the first place, but I haven't. Please listen to me. Please." His voice was clear and lucid and his words carefully articulated – enough that she decided to forego sedation, at least for the moment.
"Okay, what's wrong?" she asked. "Do you feel like you're breathing okay, moving enough oxygen?"
"No, no," he said dismissively. "I feel fine. Or at least as fine as I can under the circumstances. My pants...there would have been a pocket watch in one of the front pockets, probably the left one, but maybe the right. It's a precious family heirloom," he lied. "It's also very old, dating back to before the 1800's, even." That much was true, at least as far as it went.
She looked around the room for the plastic bag that usually held the patient's clothes. "I don't see it. Let me check your chart. Ah, here it is. After you were admitted, one of your sons, Leonard, took your clothes home with him."
He breathed a sigh of relief. Leonard. All of his children were responsible and dependable. But of the four of them, Leonard would have been his first choice to take on the awesome responsibility.
Not Leonard, a voice within him seemed to say. It was as clear as if the speaker were in the room with him. "The next Keeper has been chosen. It is not your children or grandchildren. Have them bring the watch to you quickly. It must not stop."
"Could you do me a favor?" Brian asked. "Would you call Leonard and ask him to bring the watch to the hospital? I'm dying, I know that, and I think you know it, too. I think that chart you're holding says so. I think it says it in a way that only a trained medical person would understand, but you can read it, and I think you know. It's okay. I'm not afraid to die. But if I'm right, please tell my son I'm going to die and tell him it's an old man's last request to hold that watch one more time before I go."
She stood quietly for a long time, looking at the closed cover of the chart in her hand. He was exactly right: the chart showed a man who had, at most, twenty-four hours to live, and there wasn't a thing they could do about it. His blood chemistry levels were a mess. In some cases they were off the charts, and each test they did was worse than the one before. Nothing they were doing was having the slightest effect. She even knew how he was going to die: in a few hours, his kidneys would shut down, followed not long after by his liver. With his body's two main filters gone, it would start a cascade effect as his blood soon became toxic. Damn. He seemed like such a nice old man. At least it would be peaceful. She had been a nurse long enough to have seen far more people die than anyone has a right to, and if she could choose the manner of her own death, renal and liver toxicity would probably be her choice. You just slowly fade away.
The doctor knew it, too. The most recent order in Mr. Cox's chart was "palliative care". That's as close to a white flag as you're going to find in medicine. Basically it meant "make sure he's comfortable and not in any pain, and give him whatever he wants." If he wanted to spend his last hours in a narcotic fog so thick he barely knew he was in the world, that's what they would do. Some nurses and doctors were even willing to take palliative care one step further and "accidentally" give a lethal dose of narcotics if the patient specifically asked for it. She would not do that. It was not in her to kill, even if it was a mercy killing. But she knew nurses who would, and if Mr. Cox asked, she would simply take her lunch break and ask one of them to cover him for an hour.
Goodbye, Mr. Cox. I'm sorry we couldn't save you.
"I will," she said grimly, hanging the chart back on the foot of the bed. "And I'll make sure he understands that he needs to come as soon as possible.
"But there's something you should know: if Leonard lives very far from the hospital, I'm not sure he'll be able to make it. Something is happening outside. The whole hospital is on a Code Black alert. It's our highest alert level, highest state of readiness. Last time we had a Code Black was on 9/11, and that one was precautionary only, because we didn't know what was happening, so we wanted to be ready for anything. This one's the real deal."
"Why?" Brian frowned. "What's happening out there?"
"What isn't happening!" she laughed humorlessly. "Nationwide, there's earthquakes in places that shouldn't have earthquakes, fires of every sort, tornadoes, hail storms, you name it. Last time I looked out a window, it was snowing out there. In the middle of May!
"And that's not the worst of it: even weirder things are happening. News-wise, it's a confused mess, making it hard to know what's true and what's just rumor. But if even half the stories are true, it's crazy. The latest is that there was a 747 cargo freighter on approach to Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. and it just disappeared."
"You mean it crashed?" Brian asked, his eyes wide with horror.
"No, I mean it disappeared, as if it had never existed. There was another plane a few miles back, following it on approach. The pilot of that one said the 747 descended through a cloud and never came out the other side. Air Traffic Control said it was like it just blinked out of existence: one second it was on radar, plain as day, the next second it was gone. It could have exploded, but if so, where's the wreckage? They didn't find so much as a rivet or a bolt," she said. Brian looked as shocked as if he'd been slapped.
It's the watch, he realized. He had never figured out what it was or what it was for. He had simply kept it wound because he somehow knew that's what he was supposed to do. He still didn't know what it was or what it was for, but what he did know is that it hadn't been wound in over a day. It was running down, and that was a very bad thing.
"I think I'll make that phone call now."
Leonard and his family lived less than seven miles from the hospital, but still it took more than an hour to make the trip. Electricity was off here and there all over the place and the police simply didn't have the manpower to spare officers to direct traffic. Even after calling in every available officer, they had more reports of looting and people panicking in the streets than they could deal with. The looters were the worst: convinced that the end of the world was here, people looted grocery and convenience stores for food, in many cases sweeping the shelves bare. The food looters were also the most frightened, and frightened, hungry people are desperate.
Eventually all four of his children made it in, along with their families and many of the adult grandchildren. Hospital rules about maximum number of visitors at a time in the ICU were either bent or outright ignored. They usually were for hopeless cases. Besides, most of the staff also believed the end was upon them, and many hospital rules were broken. Throughout the hospital, as throughout the city, final, teary phone calls to friends and loved ones were made, grudges released, forgiveness asked and usually given, long-held secrets shared, and loves confessed. Non-essential personnel in offices, cafeterias, kitchens, and other places were sent home, but surprisingly few of the medical staff panicked and bolted. There were a few, of course, but the vast majority determined that if they were going to go down, they were going to go down fighting. They chose to heroically remain at their posts, still caring for and treating patients as best they could in the face of dwindling supplies.
Down in the ICU, amidst all the confusion, the pocket watch – the very item that had started all this – remained in Leonard's pocket, forgotten. There it may have remained, but for Leonard looking for an ink pen. When he discovered it, he rushed back to his father's room with the watch in hand. Brian was overjoyed to see it.
Inside the cover, it was barely ticking, the second hand moving about one second in three. It had already lost more than an hour, and would soon stop altogether. Brian pinched the winding knob between his gnarled thumb and forefinger and wound it tightly, then set it to the correct time.
Outside the hospital, the effect was almost instantaneous. The weird weather phenomena that had suddenly appeared vanished just as quickly. Snow remained on the ground where it had fallen and since it was now night, much of it would remain until morning. The residents of Chicago heaved a collective sigh of relief as the hurricane that had inexplicably formed in the middle of Lake Michigan melted away in seconds. As life began getting back to normal, many of the food looters had an attack of conscience, and shamed by what they had briefly become, went back and paid for the food they had taken and for the damage, and in not a few cases, picked up a broom and helped store owners clean up. Elsewhere, damage from earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and looters still remained, but with the danger now past, cleanup could begin, leaving scientists the world over with an unsolvable mystery they would study for decades to come.
And in room ICU-4 of Mercy Hospital, Mr. Brian Edward Cox clasped an ancient pocket watch to his chest, smiled, and fell asleep.
He awoke several hours later. The watch said it was a few minutes past 3:00, and judging by the fact that several of the overhead fluorescents were turned off, he guessed it was 3:00 a.m. Beside the bed, in a semi-comfortable chair, sat his nurse from earlier in the day, lightly dozing. Her name was Heather, he learned by looking at her name tag, with a last name he couldn't spell, let alone pronounce. Why had he waited so long to learn her name? "You're forgetting your manners in your old age, buddy," he told himself quietly, and chuckled.
She stirred, sitting up and smoothing some of the wrinkles in her scrubs with her hands. "Ah, you're awake," she smiled. Her eyes went automatically from his face to the monitor hanging above and slightly behind the bed, and her smile slowly disappeared. Pulse oximetry was down to 90%, pulse rate high, blood pressure falling. Heart rhythm looked bad. She looked at him again with a more clinical eye and saw that his skin was starting to take on a yellow pallor. Either his liver had already shut down or it soon would. It wouldn't be long now.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"I wasn't asleep," she yawned. He accepted the lie and simply smiled. Sure you weren't.
"So I take it your relief didn't make it in."
Heather shook her head. "Foot of snow, couldn't get out of her driveway, so I'm afraid you're stuck with me."
That wasn't entirely true: while her relief really was stuck at home, several of the nurses summoned by the Code Black chose to stay even after it was finally cancelled at midnight. There were at least three or four perfectly qualified nurses who could have taken her place, and truth be told, one of them had. She was there at that moment simply because she wanted to be there. Heather had broken one of the cardinal rules of nursing: "care for your patients, but didn't get attached to them. It hurts too much when they die." That was doubly true for Intensive Care. If any department in the hospital had a mortality rate anywhere near the ICU's, there would probably be a federal investigation. Yeah, she had broken that rule, and she knew that soon she was going to have to pay for it: this one was going to hurt a lot.