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The Watch

      The Doctor Alex Jefferies Memorial Hospital was an immaculate white building in the heart of the province's biggest city. Its interior hallways and rooms were painted in pastel shades of blue, green and pink, and the air carried the constant aroma of medicine and disease, of health and sickness. One of the dozens of rooms in the hospital's Chronic Care ward was the permanent home of an old man named Benjamin, or Bennie to his friends.

      Bennie was seventy-five, with a full head of silver hair and a short mustache to match. His face, once flushed with the redness of youth, was now as pale as the sheets draped over his legs. His lungs, once healthy and strong, had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer breathe by himself, and a tube in his throat carried the air from his respirator to his chest and back. His left hand was withered and useless, pockmarked with splotches of brown and purple, and his right arm wasn't much healthier.

      Bennie had been many things over the course of his life. He'd been a father, then a grandfather; a student and a mentor; a soldier and a peacekeeper. He'd gone to boot camp and to university, had made dozens of friends in the legal community and, in general, had lived a fulfilling life. His sergeant's stripes and his Bachelor of Laws degree would not help him now, though, since his battle was neither on the field nor behind the bench. His battle was within, and his time was running out.

      His failing mind couldn't come up with the name of the disease that took hold two years ago, but he could tell that his condition was not getting any better. The eternal reminder of that fact sat at his bedside, just behind his left shoulder, constantly pumping air into him. Its gentle hum filled the room, accompanied every two seconds by a mechanical intake of air. The rhythm of the respirator was so accurate that Bennie could have set his watch by it.

      Slowly and not without pain, the old man looked down at his right arm. There, past the intravenous lines cutting into his skin and the bracelet bearing his name, was his gold watch. 24 karat gold, actually, with a ring of tiny diamonds around the face. It had been a gift from his colleagues when he retired ten years ago, and the scales of Justice were engraved into the reverse. There were no numbers on the face, just the little golden hands sweeping out the seconds, counting down the minutes and plodding through the hours.

      On the far side of the room was a large black clock hanging on the wall, its subtle ticking adding to the quiet noise echoing off the walls of the room. It was the kind of clock schoolchildren hated, since the second hand would take a little step backwards before advancing, terrifying the children into thinking that the day would never end, but would instead drag on forever.

      How wonderful it would be if time didn't go forward, Bennie told himself. Or if you could just reach up, grab the hands of the clock and turn them back as far as you wanted. There was never enough time these days to get anything done; the pace of life had overshot the pace of living.

      Bennie reached out with his right hand and found the small pile of books on his night table, beside the little cup that held his medication. The first thing he brought back was a dog-eared copy of Time magazine, just about two years old. Joe, one of his old army buddies, had dropped it off a few days after Bennie was admitted to chronic care, and he hadn't returned since. Bennie never read the newspaper - he found the news depressing - but he kept the magazine by his side. Somehow, he felt that it was all he had left of his best friend, who was probably long dead by now.

      They hadn't even had the chance to say good-bye, Bennie realized. They'd talked for a while on a sunny Friday morning, Joe had left the magazine and promised to return the next weekend. He never came. Maybe he had simply forgotten, or moved away, or maybe he decided not to see the withered old man that used to be so full of life and of energy. Seeing his friend hooked up to machines and tubes probably would have broken poor old Joe's heart.

      Bennie set the magazine aside, checking the time as his watch passed by his eye, and picked up the second book. It was a small photo album his sister had made a few months ago, and she added to it every time she came to visit. Its cover was blue and gold, and the flowing word, "Memories", rolled across the page like a wave onto a sandy beach.

      The first few pages were pictures of Bennie as a kid, and then as a soldier. In one of the photos, he stood beside his father, a rifle in his hand. The photo had been taken just before he left for France in '42, and the young man captured on film was beaming with pride. If Bennie had known how the next three years of his life would unfold, he wouldn't have been so happy. He'd watched dozens of good men die, and he'd come very close to joining them on more than one occasion.

      Checking his watch again, he flipped past a few pages to the photos of his graduation from law school. Those had been some of his better days, but even the sunniest of mornings had clouds in the sky. He'd made some pretty stupid mistakes back then, and he wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to change the past if such a thing were possible. There were so many regrets, so much wasted time, so many things that he would never be able to do, so many places that he could never visit.

      Even if they did find a cure for his disease, time was still his enemy, always lurking just around the bend and waiting for the right moment to end it all. The worst thing about having time as an enemy was that it gave no warning. Bennie might live another ten years in this hospital, or he might close his eyes at sunset and never open them again. He would never know.

      He slowly closed the album and placed it back on the night table, laying his right hand down onto his lap. The golden band of his watch jumped out against the soft blue of his hospital shirt, reflecting the room's bright light in a thousand directions. He checked the time again, and only after this third verification did he realize that it was almost the same time now that it was when he had looked before. He had always felt as if life was shooting by him, but it was really crawling along with him.

      For as long as he could remember, Bennie had always worn a watch. It wasn't always gold, and it didn't always keep time correctly, but he always wore one. It was the last thing he took off at night and the first thing he picked up in the morning. He would have worn it in the shower if it were waterproof. What was this strange fascination, this connection with time? Could it be that he was irrevocably tied to the eternal predator that he was running away from?

      Acting on a momentary impulse, Bennie brought his wrist up to his face and, using his few remaining teeth, managed to pull the watch off his wrist, chipping a tooth on the diamond settings as he did so. The timepiece fell onto his bedsheet, and his hand transported it from there to the night table. He picked up the magazine and covered the watch, obscuring it completely from his view.

      Closing his eyes, he sighed contentedly. When he did finally pass on to the next world, whatever that turned out to be, he would not be burdened down by the shackles of time that imprison the rest of us. In body and in mind, Bennie was free. Free to live, and free to die. Not out of time, but free of time.

Copyright 1998 James Rioux.