By Katherine Wasche
“Now if I carry out this oath, and break it not, may I gain for ever reputation among all men for my life and for my art; but if I break it and forswear myself, may the opposite befall me.” – Translation by W.H.S. Jones.
I can tell when you’re going to die.
Everyone has a finite amount of time on this planet and I can see when that time runs out, not unlike a timer. Or more specifically, a clock. I can see your clock. I can see everyone’s clock… aside from my own, that is. The small hands tick away every second, every minute, and every hour of the day. The bigger hands count the months and the years. Everyone’s clock looks different.
And the largest, most ornate hand turns slowly in the background, silently slipping along the oiled gears in its tedious rotation. When all of them meet at the apex, the final hour, well… it’s best to have your affairs in order.
Day after day, I walk through a sea of grinding gears and false faces, all the while the thriving populace marches on to their internal metronome. I watch the clocks slowly ticking away, a continual chorus of mortality. Time is a predestined thing. You may not realize, but anyone can rapidly progress their clocks’ race to the apex—once progressed, reversing it is next to impossible.
In my office, this typical scene repeats day after day. A patient sits across from me, the oncologist’s reports stark white against mahogany, stalwart gatekeepers of fate. Her clothes drape like an empty flour sack on her withered frame. Pale hands curl tightly around her sunflower-speckled skirt, blue river veins running between snow-capped knuckles, and in the valley of exhausted flesh, the clock-hands counting the months and years have ground to a halt.
“How long?” She asks, and in her voice, a specter of hope.
“Weeks, at most.” Even that was too generous. Afterall, I am supposed to be a merchant of hope.
The patient folds in on herself, a collapsing card house. “There’s nothing you can do?”
“It has reached the metastatic stage and spread to your spinal column, liver, and kidneys. Without an immediate highly invasive and frankly… expensive surgery, I’m afraid we don’t have any other viable options. Your insurance will only cover forty percent of the bill. Even then, the recovery process would be long and painful.”
The patient sighs heavily, her shoulders slumped as though she were being weighed down by a heavy blanket. She looks up at me with a wane smile, years of heavy smoking worn into her skin like an old sunken leather football. “Thank you for your time and patience, Doctor.”
My first kiss was Sue Weiss in fourth grade. Her lips tasted like salty bubblegum. Sue was the only girl who was not afraid to talk to me. A few months before, I told Cindy Mells that her father’s clock was about to run out. He died of alcohol poisoning two weeks later. Years later, and well into High School, kids would still refuse to talk to me, afraid of what I would tell them.
During the summer, the old quarry outside of town filled with murky water. Everyone swam here. Sue and a few of her girlfriends decided to visit as the boys splashed and carried on. The girls did not want to get wet even though I could clearly see their sweat-stains dark in the armpits of their shirts. They decided to sit on a craggy overhang to dangle their feet in the water. Just enough. The girls were wary of me—all but Sue, that is. I couldn’t blame them. Who wanted to know when they were going to die? Even though I had stopped “guessing” people’s death after the Mells incident, that stigma still followed.
Boys are rambunctious, impulsive. One clambered on to the rock and shoved a girl off. She tumbled off and bounced off a rock like a bouncy ball, missing the water completely. The sound of her head hitting the stone reminded me of when Mr. Roberts dropped the watermelon from the Science building. Panic set in and burned through the group like a fever. Someone had to go for help, and I was the fastest runner—had to be when being chased by bullies. I could make it back to town in almost under three minutes. Sue ran with me. We darted through the wheat field between the quarry and town like frantic deer.
I burst through the dry grass first with Sue a few steps behind. I saw the bus. She did not. Seconds flashed on her hand.
Her heels were flying at the force of my shove as the bus blared its horn. Wind yanked at my clothes as the vehicle careened down the avenue. Panting, Sue looked up, eyes wide. The clock painstakingly adjusted, not smoothly as when you rewind the time, but staggering, as though it were fighting some opposing force.
Ten minutes later, a sheriff and an ambulance rushed to the quarry. We could hear the baleful moan of sirens in the distance.
Sue’s friend was pronounced dead at the scene.
(Would five minutes have honestly made a difference?)
Years later, in a drunken fit, I told Sue that I did not regret my choice to pull her out of the path of the bus, that I was glad that her friend was the one to die, that she had more time on this earth because of me.
Sue Weiss and her husband Brady did not survive the collision. The other driver had, but you, Lacy Weiss… you were fighting for your life, just barely at budding adulthood. I stood at your bed and stared at your hand, polka-dot bruises, soft white skin marred by the creaking arms of your mortal timer. Hours. That’s all you had left. The car crash had already taken your parents, salty bubblegum kisses, and now, it threatened to take you.
The other driver was just down the hall, screaming obscenities. He spat in the eye of one of my nurses. He wasn’t drunk, just loud. Irate. Annoying. He had a femoral fracture. You had a fatal cardiac injury. Your time was up. He had a lifetime still.
“Are you a registered organ donor?” I asked him. It didn’t matter.
“Fuck you. No.”
I checked the box. “Hmm, that’s a shame. Can you tell me more about your accident?”
“That asshole in the van swerved into my lane. I’m going to sue the shit out of him.”
“The police report says you’re at fault here. Trying to pass a big rig, didn’t have enough time to make it, and the van swerved to avoid you, hitting the truck head-on.”
“It’s not my fault the other driver wasn’t paying attention.”
“Hmm.” I stood and pushed the curtain aside.
“Hey doc, can you give me some of that good shit? You know the kind.”
The surgery was a success, could you believe it? What were the chances that his blood type was a match for you? Life will be hard, but each successful beat of your new heart is a minute gained on your clock. Minutes turned to hours, hours turned into months, months into years. I would have liked to tell you about your mother’s bubblegum kisses, how she saved me the ridicule of loneliness, how I wanted to apologize to her for that stupid, fateful fight.
I had gone against my medical oath. My license would be revoked. Crazy doctor steals a patient’s heart. He would have squandered his time. I knew this to be true. Would you? Who knows. At least you’ve got the time to find out.
That night after I had pulled Sue from the path of the bus, I lay in bed, my body frigid and stiff. Something was slipping. Leaving. I was being emptied from the inside out. The clock hands slid forward. In the dark of the night, I knew that I had cheated death by giving her more time. More of my time. I could not see my own clock but knew then that time given to another is irrevocable. I had sped up my own demise.
How much time are we given? What is the worth of a lifetime? Ten, twenty, thirty, forty years?
The rain pelted the window as I stumbled into my office. My joints filled with grating stones, each step agony. I collapsed in my chair. Warm stickiness dripped from my nose. Plip plip plip.
The clock on my desk tick tock tick.
The clock on the wall click click click.
The taste of salty bubblegum on my lips.
Broken codes. Time replaced. Heart for a heart. The nurses will be in soon. They will have questions. I will be gone. I cannot help you. Time of death. For you see, I have always known… known that time will catch me first.
Katherine Wasche is an emerging fiction writer and current graduate student at CSU, Chico, where she studies creative writing and is pursuing a certificate in Literary Editing and Publishing. Her work typically features the weird, creepy, and unusual torments of the family and the psyche. When not writing, she can be found teaching, presiding over the English Student Graduate Committee, and hanging out with her family. She currently lives in Gridley, California.