“Glen, is that you?” The frail-looking woman lying in the hospital bed beside a dim light said to the man at her bedside. He had been hoping she would wake up and talk to him; it had been a few days since she seemed strong enough.
“No, honey, I’m Ellis. Glen’s father. Don’t you remember me?”
“I don’t remember you, but I sure like you.”
“Thanks, honey, I like you too.” Ellis stood up and brushed the hair from his wife’s eyes and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead. It pained him so much to see his beautiful, strong, and loving wife like this.
Ellis, now retired, had worked most of his life onboard nuclear submarines as an engineer for the U.S. Navy. “Six months of bliss every year,” a recruit had said when he enlisted. If he didn’t get along with his family, the months at sea would be a welcome relief, and the months at home would be hell. Conversely, if he had a wonderful home life, the months at sea would be agony. But Ellis never saw things that way. He loved his work and his family, Glen and Cathy, equally.
There was a lot of spare time to be had at sea. Some sailors took up board games and eventually memorized all the answers to Trivial Pursuit, then when new sailors boarded, they would play them for money and clean house. Ellis took on the hobby of watchmaking. He loved to restore old pocket watches, to open them up and find out which gears and components needed to be replaced or, as often happened, needed to be rebuilt for a watch to ever work again. It took patience to fix them, but he found it greatly rewarding.
Ellis and Cathy had just one child, who would also become a naval engineer, working on nuclear-powered ships. At Glen’s graduation, his proudest day as a parent, Ellis had given his son a restored 150-year-old pocket watch, with a design of an American Eagle painted on it, and engraved on the inside: To my greatest pride and joy, love, Dad.
The sad thing was that not much more than five years after he graduated from the Ivy League school, Ellis and Cathy lost him to cancer. Pain, grief, and even anger followed. The idea that his high-stress job with the Navy had put him at risk for the devastating illness that claimed his life at such a young age was never far from their minds. A few weeks after he passed, the Navy sent them Glen’s belongings. The box still sat in their basement, unopened.
The next morning, Ellis woke up and leaned over to give his wife a good-morning kiss.
“Honey?” he said, loud enough so she could hear him if she were in the bathroom.
No response. It took a few moments for him to realize that Cathy wasn’t home. She had been in the hospital for four weeks, hanging onto life by a thread. He gathered himself, got dressed, made a simple meal of tea and toast with marmalade, and then closed his eyes. How could he face the world all by himself? He had always had his Navy shipmates or his dear wife with him. His mind flashed back to yesterday’s meeting with Cathy’s oncologist:
“Doctor, you asked me to stop in and see you today?”
“Yes, Ellis, please have a seat.”
“If you’re going to tell me my wife is going to die and that you can’t do anything about it, then say it to me while I’m standing.”
“Ellis, what I have to say is never an easy thing to say. Do sit down, though, not everything is hopeless right now.”
“Are you saying you can help Cathy?”
“Ellis, five years ago I wouldn’t have been able to help your wife. The tumor she has on her kidney is stage 2. It used to be that kidney cancer was almost always fatal, but there have been some significant advances in Germany with a doctor by the name of Heinlen. The trouble is that he is so effective that right now he is limited by the number of patients he can help, unless …”
“Unless I can afford to pay huge fees?”
“Yes, he charges about $200,000 U.S. to perform the surgery in Germany. Sadly, the surgery might not be covered under your military insurance plan. Do you have the means to raise that much money?”
“I don’t. I don’t know … we put everything into Glen’s education — we wanted the best for our son. I never made much in the Navy and never thought anything like this could happen again. Can I have some time?”
“There isn’t a lot of time. Do your best and come back to me in a week. I don’t know what we can do, but if I come up with any ideas, I will phone you.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
“Please, call me Warren. And feel free to phone me any time you need to.”
“Thank you, Warren, that means a lot.”
How was he going to come up with $200,000? Ellis opened his eyes. He recalled that there might be some papers about their insurance in the basement and went downstairs to see if he could dig them up. After looking through a few boxes, he spotted the box that came when Glen passed away. He decided that now would be the best time to open it.
Inside were a few things: an extra uniform, a Zippo cigarette lighter from the crew he oversaw one year. Then he saw it. The watch that he had given his boy. It was beautiful, gold-plated, and the repainted eagle on it had turned it from a relic into a keepsake. But there was something odd about the timepiece. He held the watch up to his ear. By some crazy coincidence, it was still ticking. It wasn’t keeping time, though. The secondhand seemed to be the only thing moving, as though it had missed a gear and was trying to tick a second forward, then ticked one back. Ellis held the winding crown on the side of the watch and gave it a few turns, but the secondhand kept doing the same thing. Ellis made a mental note to look at it later, maybe if he went to his watchmaking room it would help him think. He slipped the watch into his shirt pocket and went upstairs to fix lunch.
While eating his sandwich, he could feel the watch ticking inside his shirt. It seemed so strong — it wasn’t like the ticking of any watch he had known. It was almost like a heart beating next to his own. He thought of Glen, of Cathy, and took out the watch and pulled the crown to stop it from moving, then walked to the front door to check the mail.
He was surprised to see the mail carrier on his front porch with just three letters in hand. When he was gone at sea, Cathy would write to him almost every day, and when they got mail on board, there was always a stack waiting for him and he would pore over every word.
“Hi, Jack,” Ellis said. The mail carrier didn’t move. “What kind of a game is this?” When Jack didn’t respond, Ellis didn’t think much of it, assuming his old friend, a well-known prankster, was playing a joke. He closed the door and went back inside to read his mail.
There was a letter from Cathy’s sister, an electricity bill, and a check from a friend who was returning part of the money Ellis had lent him. He decided to take the electric bill and check to the bank to cash one to pay the other. When he pulled out of the driveway, Jack was still poised motionless at the front door and Ellis chuckled.
But when he turned the corner, he noticed something incredibly strange. There were people as he went, as always, but none of them were moving. Still as stone, just as Jack had been. Cars were stopped in the middle of the street. And then, as he went farther down the road — having to do some drastic obstacle avoidance — he noticed that the watch in his pocket was heating up. Ellis pulled his car over and took out the watch. He pushed in the crown, and the watch began to tick again. All at once, cars moved, people were people again, not statues, and everything seemed to carry on just as normal. It had to be the watch!
When Ellis got to the mall, he tried a few experiments. He went into the food court, stopped the pocket watch, and watched all the people freeze. He checked to see if any of them could see him, waving his hand in front of their eyes, taking their French fries. Nothing. No reaction.
He started the watch again and went to the bank to pay his bill and deposit his check. While he was there, he watched two armed guards go into the safe and come out with heavy bags. $200,000 to save my wife’s life, he thought. He took out the watch, walked outside, and waited for the guards.
When Ellis got home, he yelled for joy and threw the money up in the air. Then he carefully put all the bills together again and counted them: $34,000. He could do this a few more times and everything would be okay again. He fixed himself a celebratory drink and, after a few hours, ordered a pizza and sat down to watch TV.
“Breaking news today,” the teaser said. “Two armed guards are being charged with the theft of over $30,000 stolen from their own truck.” Suddenly, Ellis felt horrible, sick to his stomach. He knew after seeing this that he couldn’t keep the money. He couldn’t use this method to save Cathy. There had to be another way. He stopped the watch, put the money back in the bag, and dropped it off at the police station with an anonymous note. He worried they would somehow figure him out, but he knew that if he were careful, he could stop time and make an escape.
Ellis sat wracking his brain. There must be something he could do for Cathy. Though he was only in his late 50s, he felt old and powerless. He had hoped Cathy and he would have been able to travel, to see inland America like they had dreamed of for so long. All the run-down, makeshift roadside museums and curiosities from coast to coast. This would have been a perfect year to do it, too. While he sat, he thought for a moment about something and picked up the phone.
“Yes. Is this Ellis?”
“Yes, it is. I wanted to ask you something about Cathy.”
“Sure, anything. Go ahead.”
“If her cancer had been caught in time, what would her prognosis be?
“Well, it’s hard to say. I would say if we had tested her six months ago, we might have been able to use alternative therapies that would have given her a much better chance.”
“Thanks, Warren, you may not ever find out how, but that helps a lot.”
“Ellis, think nothing of it. And call me any time.”
“I will, goodnight.”
Ellis took the eagle watch into his hobby room where he kept his tools and spare gears and such. Cautiously, he opened the back of the watch and took out his magnifying glass to get a good look at the clockwork. Everything looked normal, but one small gear. It was a jeweled gear, and it had an important role in the watch mechanism. It adjusted the date indicator and only worked in one direction. If he wanted to change the date back a day, he would have to turn the crown forward 30 days. Time consuming, but normal for watches this old. Carefully, meticulously, he removed the gears that blocked access to the jeweled one. He took out the gear, studied it closely, and then put it in backward and carefully reassembled the watch.
He had no clue as to whether or not this would work, but Ellis went into the kitchen where the wall calendar was. He pulled the crown of the watch and began to roll it forward. The date moved back just as he had hoped. He turned and turned the mechanism and then looked up at the calendar. The past weeks’ appointments disappeared. He turned the crown again with renewed vigor. The sun went down, the sun went up, and time slipped away. A great feeling of excitement rose in his heart when the appointment with Cathy’s oncologist, Warren, disappeared and another person was suddenly buzzing around the house at high speed. When he was sure six months had been erased, he pushed the crown back in.
“Good heavens! Where did you come from?” Cathy, who was now standing in the kitchen making supper, said with a start.
“The stork brought me. What are you making?”
“Steak and baked potatoes. With sour cream and onions.”
“Cathy, I wish I could explain how much I love you.”
“Wow, I should make you steak more often!” Cathy said with a laugh.
“You don’t have to do anything; just be the sweet and wonderful person you are. Oh, and one more thing …”
“I’m taking you to the doctor tomorrow for a full check-up, like it or not.”
“Okay dear, anything you say.”
Ellis ate his meal mostly in silence, with a sense of joy and accomplishment. This must have been the best meal he had tasted since Cathy went in the hospital. He had stopped caring about food, he had just seen his meals as a reason to stave off hunger. Cathy had always been such an incredible cook.
The next day, Ellis drove Cathy to her appointment and they got a referral to have a cancer screening done. At first, the doctor said it wasn’t necessary, but after Ellis insisted, he complied. On their way home, they looked at motorhomes, bought some road maps, and considered buying a tent and a decent-sized car to take on the highway. All options were open — they could afford either mode of transportation. They just knew they wanted to start their dream trip as soon as possible.
At Cathy’s screening, they found the early signs of kidney cancer. She went into treatment, and Ellis visited her every day. When she started getting better, and it seemed everything was going to work out, Ellis squeezed her hand and told her that Glen would be there for her release. She looked puzzled, but she wouldn’t be for long. As he left the hospital, he patted his pocket. Today he was going back to get their son.