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The Gift of Time
A short story
“Should we get an automatic or manual?” Daniel asked. He squinted at the watch peeking out from under Dr. Branson’s sleeve, attempting to discern what brand the doctor wore.
The question knotted Daniel’s belly. What watch should we get?
A dozen gauges, dials, and meters whirred discordant rhythms in the small maternity room. Beeps and buzzes muffled the announcements from the hallway speaker. Dr. Somebody you’re something in someplace. Every now and then, a new person dashed into the room, but mostly it was just the five of them: Sam Branson, MD, nurses Simi Wu and Lyn Cole, and Yvonne and Daniel Augustin, the parents-to-be.
Yvonne propped herself up in the hospital bed on a pillow. Drops of sweat beaded her brow, which Daniel blotted with a cotton cloth as he repeated the question. “Should we get an automatic or manual?”
Branson narrowed his eyes, answering Daniel’s question with another. “You haven’t selected one yet? You didn’t bring a watch for the baby with you?” Incredulity and irritation etched his voice.
What does that mean? Can’t I get one at the hospital?
Acid burned Daniel’s belly.
Daniel looked at his Breitling Navitimer. 5:44 a.m. There weren’t any watch stores open in Los Angeles at this hour, and he doubted any would be opening before ten o’clock at the earliest. Do 7-Elevens sell watches? Daniel didn’t recall ever seeing a watch for sale there. What about pawn shops—some are open twenty-four-seven. Daniel started to search “pawn shops” on his phone but quit after a moment. No, no, that wouldn’t work. Used watches are unreliable. A used watch might stop working after a week or a month. Too dangerous, too dangerous.
What have I done?
Daniel had read that poor people could only afford second-hand watches for their babies. Social media and television reported daily sob stories about somebody who strapped a used watch on their newborn, only to have that watch stop running days or weeks later. They never even got to celebrate their first birthday. Daniel sniffled and wiped his arm against his nose.
“Doesn’t the hospital sell watches?” Panic punctuated Daniel’s words.
Branson shushed Daniel and turned toward Yvonne. “BP one-forty over eighty-seven.” You’re doing great.”
“Of course it does,” Branson said. “But the hospital sells them at a premium. You should have bought a watch before today. Why didn’t you?”
“We couldn’t decide. Some websites advised an automatic. Some suggested a manual winding watch is best. Some YouTube videos insisted the one and only choice for your newborn is Rolex, while others said a Panerai is the most reliable over the decades. How could we decide? Omega? Breitling? Tag Heuer? Patek Philippe?”
Daniel nodded at Branson’s watch.
“It’s a Grand Seiko.” Branson rubbed his fingertips over the watch’s crystal. “But don’t choose based on what I have. After all, this was my parents’ choice, not mine. Just as it will be your choice for your baby.”
“Grand Seiko. You don’t see many of those.”
“My parents took a sabbatical in Japan while my mother was pregnant. Their main mission was to buy my birth watch. They considered Grand Seiko’s reliability and durability to be the best. Sore wa isshō tsudzukudeshou. It will last a lifetime. At the time, Grand Seikos were impossible to get in the States.
“My father died when his Blancpain stopped ticking,” Daniel said. “Just like that, the watch stopped, and so did he. Mom said he had it serviced six months before, but you never know what fate has in store for you. At least they both wore watches when the Cataclysm struck, so they survived it, unlike six billion other human beings.”
“I’m sorry about your father. Can I ask why Blancpain? That’s also not a watch you often see, either.”
“My grandfather was a navy diver and felt a close kinship with all things navy, so he gave my father a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms dive watch, pre-Cataclysm. My dad loved his and bought one for my mom, too. They rarely took their watches off, which was fortuitous.”
Yvonne moaned. Branson turned back toward his patient. “How are you feeling?”
“Great and terrible.” Yvonne grimaced. “It’s coming today, right?”
“Today, and sooner rather than later.”
“May I ask one last question?” Daniel said. Without waiting for Branson to respond, he continued, “You’re happy with a manual wind watch?”
“I’m going to give you my abbreviated speech on selecting a watch for your newborn because I need to focus on your wife and because you need to get to the hospital shop and pick one, which you should have done months ago. What if you never reached the hospital, and your baby was born in a taxi? Too many parents wait until the last minute because they can’t choose, which is a needless risk. Here’s what I know: Automatic means that your daughter’s watch will never wind down. Some watchmakers say manual watches are more reliable because there are fewer moving parts, but I’m not convinced the evidence bears that out. These days both have power reserves of at least seven days, as required by law, so even with a manual winding watch, as long as you wind it once a week, your daughter will live. Both are fine decisions.”
“What happens if the watch breaks?” Daniel knew the answer but wanted to hear it from the doctor.
“That’s not anything you need to worry about. Watch repair has advanced orders of magnitude since the Cataclysm. Most watch problems can be fixed while the person is wearing the watch, and there’s a watch repair shop on nearly every street corner in every country of the world. Every highway rest stop has a watchmaker on duty. Even aircraft are required to have a watchmaker on every flight.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Now, decide and get yourself to the gift shop to buy a watch for your daughter.”
The nurses’ sneakers squeaked against the linoleum floor as they orbited inside the room, monitoring Yvonne and the baby’s vital signs, refilling her ice chip cup, fluffing Yvonne’s pillow, and checking and rechecking the room’s equipment. Daniel peeked behind the closed curtain for the first hints of dawn, but the sky was still lit by Los Angeles’ soulless streetlights.
“How did the Cataclysm happen? How did it come to be that the only way to stay alive is to wear a watch?” Daniel wasn’t ready to decide and needed more time to think. Talking about the Cataclysm might help him decide. Maybe he knows.
“Damned if I know. You’ve read the books. You’ve gone to birthing class, where I’m sure they reminded you a hundred times that it’s vital to strap a watch onto your child the moment it’s born, and that watch is the watch they must wear for their entire lives or die. It’s been that way since December 11, 1969. If you’re not wearing a watch, you die. If your watch stops, you die. The universe is under no obligation to explain itself to us.”
“That’s a quotation from Neil deGrasse Tyson.” Branson shrugged. “The universe changed the rules without consulting us. Something to do with unseen energy? Quantum mechanics? Aliens? God? As long as your watch keeps ticking, your heart keeps beating. The why isn’t important. Like every parent for the past sixty-five years, just make sure your daughter’s wearing her watch until she’s old enough to understand that for herself.”
Daniel knew all this, of course. He’d worn a watch his entire life, never taking it off for a second. Not for sports. Not for showers. Not for lovemaking. Same as everyone else in the world. “Does the hospital sell Grand Seiko?”
“No, sorry. We have Rolex, Omega, Weiss, Oris, IWC, Breitling, Timex, and regular Seiko. All marked up fifty percent.”
Daniel let loose a long, slow breath. “Rolex, then. Manual wind.” He paused for a beat. “It’s going to last a lifetime, right?”
“We certainly hope so.”
Branson turned to Yvonne, laid his hand on her belly, and said, “You’re coming along great. Everything is normal.”
“Tell that to the sofa I puked on every morning.”
Branson chuckled. “Nobody ever said pregnancy is without its trials.” The doctor warmed his stethoscope against his hands, placed it against Yvonne’s belly, and smiled.
Daniel interrupted his way back into conversation with Branson.
“I’ll get a watch at the gift shop and be right back,” Daniel said, breathless, as if he’d sprinted one hundred meters.
Without warning, an earthquake upended gravity, transforming the floor into a turbulent sea. Instinctively, Daniel reached for the railing on Yvonne’s bed. So did Branson and the two nurses. For a moment, the only sound was the walls scraping against each other, followed by a roar like an avalanche. The clock above the door leaped off its hook and crashed onto the ground, the plastic shattering into hundreds of shards. Everything that wasn’t tied down, including medical equipment, scattered across the floor, coating the linoleum with glass and metal fragments. Yvonne’s cup of ice chips spilled onto her bed. Struggling against the undulating floor, one of the nurses, Simi Wu, lifted the railing on the open side of Yvonne’s bed as far as it would go to keep her from falling out.
“Hold on, everyone. The quake will pass,” Branson said.
“It’s the big one!” Daniel shouted. He tried to hold Yvonne’s hand, but the moment he released his grip on the bed railing, he nearly tumbled onto the floor.
“She’s fine,” Wu instructed Daniel. “The railings will keep her in bed. Don’t move, or you’ll injure yourself.”
“They never last long,” Branson added. “Wait. It’s just a regular—” Branson stopped himself when the lights went out. “Everyone stay calm. Emergency lighting will come on in a second. The critical equipment has battery backup. We’ll all be fine.”
Thirty seconds and multiple crashes and loud noises later, amber-tinged emergency lights interrupted the darkness.
Nurse Cole gasped. “Not fine.” She knelt on the floor beside Wu, who was on her back, eyes glassy and lips blue.
Branson swept away broken glass and debris with his foot and lowered himself to the floor.
Cole pointed to Wu’s Timex. Spider web cracks covered the watch’s crystal. The watch’s hour hand was bent in the middle, and the hand was loose inside the case. The second hand had stopped moving, and Wu’s heart had stopped beating.
Branson knelt alongside her. “Oh no. Simi. Poor, sweet Simi.” He closed her eyelids and looked at his watch. “Time of death, 6:17 a.m.”
Cole nodded. She pointed to the oxygen tank on the floor near Wu. “The tank must have come loose from the wall and smashed her watch.” She took a deep breath. “At least it was quick.”
“Death is instantaneous when a watch stops,” Branson said.
“Owwwww! Owwwww!” Yvonne screamed. “The baby’s coming!”
Branson said, “I see the head. You’re crowning.”
“Wait!” Daniel said.
“There is no waiting,” Branson replied. “The baby’s coming now.” And to Yvonne, he instructed, “Push.”
“I am pushing!”
“I’m going to catch the head,” he told Cole.
“Stop. You have to wait.” He grabbed Branson’s arm. “We don’t have a watch for the baby!”
“No, no, no!” Yvonne screamed.
“No time. The baby’s coming now.”
Daniel looked toward the hospital room door. The main lights hadn’t switched back on. The hospital was an unnavigable minefield of overturned carts, broken glass, syringes, tubes, oxygen tanks, and other equipment. “I won’t make it to the shop in time,” Daniel said. “There’s no time to get a watch for our baby.” His eyes welled with tears.
“What do we do?” Yvonne asked, her voice hoarse and weak.
He kissed Yvonne. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” He spoke quickly because they had only a few seconds left. “I always dreamed about passing my watch down to my child.”
“We’ll name her Leah like you wanted.”
“Remember me, Leah.” Daniel unbuckled his watch, placed it in Yvonne’s hand, and died.
If you enjoyed this story, I think you’ll also like my story, The Last Sleep.
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