a short story by Bill Adler
“Should we get an automatic or manual?” Daniel asked as he stared at the watch crescent under Dr. Branson’s sleeve in a failed attempt to discern its pedigree.
Daniel knew he should be focusing on Delilah, but he was holding her hand, and that helped. Her face and subdued groans revealed that her discomfort was still tolerable, so he didn’t need to give her his full attention. Not yet. Daniel had an urgent question he needed answered, and quickly. Besides, Delilah wasn’t going anywhere.
The small room whirred with gauges and dials. Periodically, a muffled announcement from the hallway speaker tried to barrel its way into the room but was masked by a cacophony of beeps and buzzes. The noises annoyed Daniel but seemed to have lulled Delilah into a light trance. Every now and then a new person popped into the room, but mostly it was just the five of them: Dr. Branson, Delilah, two nurses, and him.
Daniel waited a few seconds, but Dr. Branson didn’t answer. Maybe he didn't hear me over the machines and chit-chatting nurses. He’s distracted. California doctors are always distracted, thinking about their patients, their next patients, the last patients of the day, and how far along they are to a down payment on a yacht.
Daniel shifted his eyes from Dr. Branson’s wrist to his wife. Her cheeks puffed in and out, like some fancy bird performing a mating ritual. Though Daniel felt chilled under his flannel shirt and corduroy pants in the air-conditioned room, drops of sweat beaded Delilah’s forehead. She moaned, her sunrise blond hair darkening to coal as sweat traveled along the strands. Daniel knew he should offer a few comforting words, but he needed to have his question answered first, so he stabbed Dr. Branson again with the same sentence. “Should we get an automatic or manual?”
Dr. Branson met Daniel’s eyes but answered his question with another. “You haven’t selected one yet? You didn’t bring one to the hospital?”
A bolt of panic stiffened Daniel’s back. What does that mean? The hospital is supposed to have a supply parents can choose from. I read that! But what if they don’t? What am I going to do?
Daniel thrust his wrist forward, forcing his Breitling Navitimer out from under his sports jacket. It read 5:44 a.m. There weren’t any watch stores open at this hour, and he doubted any would be opening before 10:00 at the earliest. Do 7-11s sell watches? Daniel didn’t recall ever seeing a watch for sale there. What about pawn shops? No, no, that wouldn’t work. A pawned watch is only for poor people who can’t afford a new one. They’re dangerously unreliable. Yeah, a used watch like a Rolex Oysterdate might last a lifetime. But it also might conk out after just a week.
Daniel wiped away the nascent tears that thought brought to his eyes. He had read about second-rate watches the poor had to get for their babies. The newspapers thrived on daily sob stories about somebody who had put a used watch on their newborn only to have that watch stop running days, weeks, or months later. The baby passed away before they had a chance to blow out a solitary candle on a cake. So heartbreaking. Sure, a cheap watch is all some parents can afford, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness. Daniel sniffled and wiped his arm against his nose. One day America will provide a new watch to every newborn, but we’re not there yet. Until then, children will needlessly die.
Daniel gulped. “Doesn’t the hospital sell watches?”
Dr. Branson put his finger to his lips before squeezing the blood pressure cuff’s ball. The whoosh of air sounded like the wind preceding a storm. His eyes tracked his watch’s seconds hand. “One forty over eight-seven,” he told the nurse standing on the other side of Delilah’s bed, who noted that information on her clipboard. “She’s doing great.”
He turned back to Daniel, his heels clicking sharply against each other. “You mean you haven’t selected one yet?”
Daniel heard the unspoken “tsk” in Branson’s question. “No, no. Not yet. We thought we could do it here. Doesn’t the hospital sell watches? A choice, too? I’m sure I read that,” Daniel said, as if his assertion could bend reality to his need. He scanned his memory for the brochure in which he was sure he read that you can buy your newborn a watch while your wife is in labor. Daniel touched his left wrist with his fingertips. His pulse was racing like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit at a race track.
“Of course we do.” Dr. Branson smiled. “But you know they’re sold at a premium. You should have bought a watch before today. Why didn’t you?”
“We couldn’t decide.” Daniel nodded as if he was agreeing with some invisible stranger. “Some books said automatic. Some said manual is best. Lots of YouTube videos insisted the one and only choice for your baby is Rolex; others said a Panerai is the most reliable over the decades. How could we decide? It’s impossible. Omega? Breitling? Habring2? Patek—well, we could never afford one of those for Debra. Same for so many others, like Jaquet Droz and Breguet. Even though our choices are limited by budget, there still are dozens of brands and dozens of models in each of those brands to choose from. And we still haven’t even figured out the most basic question— manual or automatic.”
Dr. Branson put a hand on Daniel’s shoulder and gave him the deepest fatherly look that his forty-five years could muster. “Have you and Delilah ever actually discussed automatic versus manual?”
“A little. I’m inclined to get a manual; Delilah thinks Debra should have an automatic. But we could both be easily swayed.” Daniel cocked his head to the side and looked down at the doctor’s left wrist.
“It’s a Grand Seiko, if that’s what you’re wondering. A manual wind. SBGW031, pure watch. No date, no other complications. It just tells time, and most important of all, it ticks every day, all day.” Dr. Branson tapped above his heart before rubbing his fingertips over the watch’s crystal. “But don’t decide based on what I have. After all, this was my parents’ choice, not mine. Just as it will be your choice for Debra.”
“Grand Seiko. You don’t see many of those. Did your parents get it in Japan and bring the watch over?”
“Exactly that,” Dr. Branson replied. “They took a vacation in Japan while my mother was pregnant. Of course, they looked at watches; that’s just about all they did. I think that was their main mission, too, for going to Japan—get a newborn’s watch. My parents were overwhelmed with Grand Seiko’s reliability and durability. Sore wa issho tsudzukudeshou.”
Dr. Branson rubbed his watch’s crystal again, as if it were a genie’s bottle. “‘It will last a lifetime.’ That was Grand Seiko’s motto at the time. Probably still is.”
“My mom died of the flu during the severe outbreak in 2021, the Myanmar Plague. Her watch was still ticking, but a watch doesn’t confer immortality; it just buys time, just gives you a chance,” Daniel said, having found a subject he had in common with the doctor other than the fact that Dr. Branson was Delilah’s obstetrician and Delilah was there to have a baby. But watches were a subject that everyone on the planet had in common. “Dad died when his Blancpain stopped ticking. Just like that, it stopped. Mom said he had it serviced two years before, but I guess you never know.”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Branson said. “It’s hard when you lose your parents. Can I ask: a Blancpain? That’s not a watch you see often, especially among the eighty-five percent of Americans who choose Rolex, Omega, or Timex.”
“Dad’s father was in the navy. A diver actually. I guess my grandfather felt a close kinship with all things navy, so he gave Dad a Fifty Fathoms in 1953. Dad thought I should beat to a different drummer, so he got me a Breitling Navitimer, a pilot's watch, the navy’s arch rival.” Daniel could see the “lol” float out his mouth as if he were in a cartoon.
Dr. Branson whistled. “The first year for Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. Incredible. You’re lucky your parents were wearing watches when the Cataclysm struck.”
“Yeah. I am. You’re fortunate with your Grand Seiko, too. ‘May your timepiece forever beat,’” Daniel replied, offering the salutation of friendship and hope.
“Excuse me,” Dr. Branson said. He looked at Delilah and placed his hand on her belly, holding it there silently for thirty seconds. He moved his hand on the left side of Delilah’s neck, sliding it around the front and to Deliah’s right side. “How are you feeling?” the doctor asked her.
“Great and terrible.” Delilah forced a smile, rubbed her belly, and turned the forced smile into a real one.
“Welcome to labor. The good news is, you’ll have a great story to tell your baby, to tell Debra, about the day she was born. She’ll appreciate all your suffering, which we will do everything we can to make as brief and minimal as possible.”
“Today, definitely. And sooner rather than later.”
Dr. Branson pivoted back to Daniel, speaking swiftly, words tumbling out of his mouth like a broken bag of marbles. “I’m going to be busy soon. Grand Seiko is a great watch. That part about how our parents choose our watches—I probably would have picked a Grand Seiko had I been able, which, of course, I wasn’t. I like the watch’s simple elegance. You might as well enjoy your watch because you’re stuck with it for your entire life. ‘Enjoy your gift of time,’” Dr. Branson said, returning Daniel’s salutation with another.
“One last question,” Daniel said, pressing his hands together in a universal sign of thanks. “You’re happy with a manual wind?” He turned toward Delilah, whose forehead was being wiped with a damp cloth by the nurse.
“Can I have a glass of water?” Delilah interrupted, her voice, moments ago soft and sweet, now sounding as if it were under the spell of an annoyed spirit. “Water.”
“Ice chips only,” the nurse replied. “You’re in the last few hours, so we can’t give you water.”
“Few hours!” Delilah screamed. Daniel imagined he saw Cthulhu superimposed over her face. “I can’t even do this for a few more minutes!”
The nurse grimaced but stayed silent as Delilah grabbed her wrist and squeezed hard. She’d been on the receiving end of a patient in pain before, an unavoidable side effect of being an OB nurse, and barely winced.
“Can I have something for the pain, then?” asked Delilah. “Wait. Ooooo! Owwww! For the fucking pain!” she screamed. “I want anesthesia now!”
“Delilah just reminded us why we’re here,” Dr. Branson said. He glanced at nurse Amy Wu, and gave her a knowing curl of his lip. She knew the drill. When the time was right, and it almost was, she could summon the anesthesiologist. His team worked together as if they shared the same ESP channel.
Dr. Branson spoke more quickly, his consonants and vowels merging into single sounds. He’d given this speech before. He’d educated himself about watches and watch technology because parents expected their obstetrician to know as much about horology as childbirth. He learned that the hard way: Years ago, a mother- and father-to-be—just hours from becoming first-time parents—had flung a chorus of insults Dr. Branson’s way when he replied with a shrug to their sea of questions about watches. He’d felt buried alive by their heaps of insolence and vowed never to let that happen to him again.
“Look,” he said now. “You’re not alone in waiting until the last minute. A lot of parents do. But your baby could come at any time—and there’s always the possibility of an emergency C-section—so you’d better decide now, or the hospital will slap whatever it has on hand on your baby’s wrist.” The doctor drummed his fingers along the metal railing of Delilah's bed as if to emphasize that time was running out. “Automatic means that the child never has to risk the watch stopping and... dying. Some watchmakers say manual watches are a touch 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 a minimum of seventy-two hours, as required by law, so as long as you remember to wind the watch every three days, your child will be fine. Of course, parents have to wind or check their children’s watches for the first ten years or so, more if the kid’s got ADD or some other developmental disability. Anyway, even with an automatic, you have to wind a newborn’s watch regularly because they don’t move enough to put the watch’s rotor in motion. So both are fine decisions. What do you say? Can you decide now?”
“What happens if the watch breaks?” Daniel should have known the answer, and certainly did, but he just wanted to hear it from a doctor's mouth.
Dr. Branson released an irritated sigh. “That’s not anything you need to think about.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose before meeting Daniel’s eyes. “Open watch surgery is getting better all the time. Many watch problems can be fixed while the person is wearing the watch. Amazing magic by watchmakers.” He paused and puffed out his chest before adding, “Some watch doctors even make house calls.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Now decide, please.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll confer with Delilah.”
The men turned their gaze to Delilah, who appeared to be mouthing swear words.
“I don’t think Delilah’s in a frame of mind to decide anything, so it’s going to be your choice,” Dr. Branson said.
“Does the hospital sell Grand Seiko?”
“No, sorry. We have Rolex, Omega, Weiss, Oris, IWC, Breitling, like your watch, Time, and regular Seiko. Several models of each brand.”
“Rolex then. Manual wind.” Daniel thought for a second before continuing. “Submariner, without a date display, if that’s possible. Black dial, gold bezel. It’s also going to last a lifetime, right?”
“We certainly hope so. Rolex is a good choice. A safe choice. Debra will have many years of life wearing one. Plus, you get five years of free strap changes. As Debra grows, we’ll put on a bigger band every six months.” Dr. Branson observed the concern in Daniel’s eyes and added, “We have the latest quick-strap change machine. The watch never stops touching her skin while we change straps.”
“How did this happen?”
“How did what happen?” Dr. Branson shot back.
Daniel’s creased forehead revealed his annoyance with being answered with a question.
Dr. Branson slid closer to Delilah, looked at his watch, and said, “You’re coming along great.” He lifted the clipboard hanging from the wall behind Delilah’s bed, flipped to the second page, and said, “Your pregnancy has been textbook-perfect, Delilah.” He placed his hand on Delilah’s belly and said, “Sonograms looking like art. Blood levels right in the middle of normal.”
“Tell that to my sofa, the one I threw up on.”
“Ha!” Dr. Branson chuckled. “Nobody ever said pregnancy was fun every day.”
Like a cat tired of being ignored, Daniel interrupted. “The Cataclysm, I mean. How did it come to be that the only way to stay alive is to wear a watch?”
“Damned if I know. You’ve read the books. You’ve gone to the birthing classes. We know that people who wear a watch, the same watch from the moment of birth, live, but we don’t know why. All we know is that human hearts need to be in sync with a watch’s ticking. It’s been that way since December 25, 1960. If you’re not wearing a watch, you die. If your watch stops, you die. If your watch runs too fast or too slow, you die.” Dr. Branson shifted his weight from one leg to another. “It’s probably more than just the heart. There’s likely some neural connection that watches regulate. It’s hard to study this because it’s unethical to remove somebody’s watch.”
“Yeah, that would be murder.”
“Yep. But you’re about to have a baby, so you should be talking about happy thoughts, about bringing a new life into the world, about all the joy you’ll experience. The why isn’t important. You just do what you need to do, like every parent for the past sixty-five years: wind Debra’s watch daily. It will become routine before you know it. And daily watch winding is more fun than changing diapers. Trust me on that.” Dr. Branson warmed the business end of his stethoscope against his hands, lifted Delilah’s pink and white striped hospital gown, shushed Daniel again, and listened. “Great. Everything’s great. Two strong heartbeats,” he said to Delilah, giving her a thumbs-up.
“December 25,” Daniel repeated.
“Yes, the day Seiko introduced the first quartz watch, the Astron, to the world is the day humankind became dependent on watches. Something went wrong with the universe. Billions of people who weren’t wearing watches perished on that day, but it didn’t take long to figure out the cause, because those left alive were the ones wearing mechanical watches.
“Quartz watches themselves were neither here nor there. It was the fact that they existed that created this dependency on mechanical watches.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Daniel said. “Don’t you find it odd that this all started on Christmas? Doesn’t it seem to you that the grand Watchmaker was angry about this technology and wanted to send a message?”
“Killing billions is a rather extreme message.” Dr. Branson shook his head. “It’s just one of those historical coincidences. It’s more likely that a yet-undiscovered retrovirus afflicted the world’s DNA than that a divinity sent a Christmas message.”
“But the entire world, all at once?”
“A quantum event could affect the entire world, even the entire galaxy, instantly. ‘Spooky action at a distance’—isn’t that how Einstein described quantum effects? And when you think about it—and we really, really should be thinking about your baby, Mr. Dunn, and not the world of watches in which we now live and which scientists have examined endlessly—there’s bound to be some kind of inexplicable interaction between quantum events, time, and timepieces. That makes the most sense for something that can’t be made sense of.
“Much of this is beyond our understanding. Nobody’s been able to explain the fact that the first watch you put on is the watch you have to wear your entire life. The one and only watch.” Dr. Branson tugged at his hospital coat and shrugged his shoulders. “Go figure, right?
“As for the whole supernatural thing, I doubt a single quartz watch would make a supreme being angry enough to alter humanity in such a dramatic and malevolent way. Seiko’s quartz watch had a brief existence. I think it was in stores for barely a week, because quartz didn’t do it. Quartz watches didn’t keep people alive. The miracle of quartz was a big, fat zero. Mechanical watches were the answer, the cure. There’s something about the tick, tick, tick of a mechanical watch.”
“But you know what? I’m just an obstetrician. I deliver babies. You need to talk with a cosmohorologist or a horobiologist if you want to delve into the science.”
A loud roar filled the room as if a thousand construction cranes had collapsed at the same time. Instinctively, Daniel gripped the railing on Delilah’s bed. So did Dr. Branson and the two nurses. Daniel’s grip increased in intensity as the shaking grew stronger and louder. The analog clock above the door jumped off its hook and crashed onto the ground, the plastic shattering into hundreds of shards. Random objects and medical equipment scattered across the floor, turning the white linoleum into a carpet of shattered glass and metal fragments. Delilah’s glass of ice chips spilled onto her bed. Fighting against unwavering gravity and motion, nurse Wu lifted up the railing on the open side of Delilah’s bed as far as it would go.
Harsh alarms rang in the hallway. Machines in Delilah’s room loudly objected to having their wires and tubes ripped from them.
“Hold on, everyone. The quake will pass,” Dr. Branson shouted over an unintelligible automated announcement and the endless crashing of equipment. The walls scraped against each other, sounding like boulders being dragged across a gravel pit.
“It’s a big one!” Daniel said. He tried to grasp Delilah’s hand, but the moment he released his grip on the bed railing, he nearly toppled onto the floor. Wu saw Daniel trying to get a hold of Delilah and instructed, “She’s fine. She’s not going to fall out of bed. The railings will hold her in place. Don’t try to move or you’ll injure yourself.”
“Okay, okay,” Daniel replied over the rumble of falling objects and moving walls. He locked his gaze with Delilah, whose eyes were wide with fear and pain. “I hope it’s over soon!” he said to nobody in particular, words he had last uttered on a fearful rollercoaster ride.
“They never last long, ” Dr. Branson said.
Then why is this earthquake going on forever? Daniel thought.
“It’s the big one that they’ve been saying will come,” the other nurse, Lyn Cole, said. “What else could it be?”
“Hold on. It’s just a regular— ” Dr. Branson stopped when the lights went out.
The shaking stopped and the world around them went silent, as if all sound had been sucked into outer space.
“The lights are out,” Cole said.
“I can see that,” Dr. Branson replied. “Everyone stay calm. Emergency lighting will come on in a second. The critical equipment has battery backup. We’ll all be fine.”
“Not fine,” Cole said. She was kneeling on the floor in front of a fallen Nurse Wu.
“Step aside,” the doctor commanded. “Let me examine her.” He brushed away broken glass and debris with his foot and started to lower himself to the floor.
“No need,” Cole said. She pointed to Wu’s Timex. The watch crystal looked like a shattered snowflake. The watch’s copper-colored hour hand had broken off, and the watch case was marred and bent. The second hand was motionless.
The doctor knelt beside her. “Oh no. Amy. Poor, sweet Amy.” He put his hand on her forehead, moving it down, closing her eyelids. He looked at his watch. “Time of death, 6:17 a.m.”
Cole nodded. She pointed to the oxygen tank on the floor next to Wu. “The tank must have come loose from the wall and smashed her watch.” She took a deep breath. “At least it was quick.”
“It always is,” Dr. Branson said.
“Owwwww! Owwwww!” IDelilah breathed deeply. “I think the baby’s coming. I think the baby’s coming!”
Dr. Branson sprang up, pushed aside more debris, and rushed to Delilah’s bed. He lifted her gown and said, “I see the head. You’re crowning. That’s good. Debra’s a couple of hours early. Stress can do that. But she’s coming out all right.” The doctor aimed his words at Cole. “I need you.”
Cole shot up. “I’m ready. Let’s make a baby,” she said.
“Wait!” Daniel said.
“There is no waiting,” Dr. Branson replied. “The baby’s coming now. There’s no force on earth that can stop her. ETA five minutes.” And to Delilah he said, “Push.”
“I am pushing!”
“I’m going to catch the head,” he told Cole.
“No, no, you have to wait,” Daniel said again. He grabbed Dr. Branson’s arm.
“What do you mean?” Anger flushed the pink out of the doctor’s face, turning it crimson. “She’s going to be okay. There are no complications. Now release me and let me deliver your baby.”
Daniel gripped the doctor’s arm even harder. “Debra doesn’t have a watch. We don’t have a watch for the baby!”
“No, no, no!” Delilah screamed.
Dr. Branson looked at Delilah again, then snapped his head back toward Daniel. He blinked twice, perhaps to give himself pause to think.
“No time. The baby’s coming now.” The doctor glanced around the room and outside the open hospital door. The lights were out except for harsh but tepid emergency lights. Rubble was everywhere. Fallen carts, broken glass, syringes, tubes, more oxygen tanks… The hospital had transformed into an unnavigable obstacle course. He shook his head slowly and gestured to the hallway with his open palm. “I’m sorry, there’s no way to get a watch. There’s no time.”
Daniel’s eyes welled with tears. He lifted his hand to his face but changed course because he needed to feel those tears falling down his cheeks and taste the salt on his tongue.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” He tried to swallow, but there was nothing. Daniel leaned over the bed, kissed Delilah’s lips, and spoke quickly. “I always dreamed about passing my watch down to my child.” He unbuckled his Breitling, removed it from his wrist, placed it in Delilah’s hand, and guided her warm fingers around the ticking watch.
(c) Bill Adler, all rights reserved