Friday, May 10, 2019

Nothing Is Forever

a short story by Bill Adler

“Excuse me, sir, you’re going to have to remove your watch, put it on the tray, and go through again.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Ian said. He shifted his gaze to the red light above him. He hadn’t missed the buzzing — it was audible over the cacophony of random noises and voices — but he figured he must have left some coins in his pocket. Or possibly had forgotten to take out his keys. Or... the metal Amex card in my wallet! he thought. It had triggered a metal detector once before.

“It’s my wallet. There’s a metal credit card inside. I’m sure it’s happened before with the new American Express cards. Whose brilliant idea was that, to make a metal credit card?”

“Your watch, sir,” the uniformed TSA agent repeated, pointing to Ian’s wrist. “You have to remove it. Your wallet, too, if it’s still in your pocket. Any and all metal goes into the tray.” She shot Ian a look as if to say, “You should know that, idiot.”

“I can’t take my watch off. It’s valuable, rare, and of great sentimental value. It belonged to my grandfather, and I would feel terrible if anything happened to it.” Ian nodded, half hoping the TSA agent would nod back.

“Please remove your watch, put it on a tray, and proceed through the metal detector again, sir.” The TSA agent tapped her foot with foreboding, like a rattlesnake shaking its tail.

“I can’t,” Ian said again. He had stepped back and to the side so he wasn’t holding up the security line — except for Lucy, who stood behind him with her arms folded across her chest. She also was tapping her foot.

The TSA agent narrowed her eyes, as if she were about to discharge a deadly laser beam. Ian turned around and glanced at Lucy, quickly deciding he preferred the TSA agent’s angry face to his girlfriend’s.

“Sir, I’ll ask you one more time. Please remove your wristwatch, put it in the tray, where it will be safe and secure, and proceed through the metal detector again.” The agent had stopped tapping her foot, as if ready to strike.

Ian shook his head for five seconds before his mouth joined in the answer. “No, sorry.”

“Then I’m sorry, sir. You can’t fly.” She beckoned with her arm, looking over Ian’s shoulder. “Next!”

“Okay,” Ian replied. “No problem.” He hoisted his backpack from the tray that had yet to be delivered by conveyor belt to the x-ray machine, pivoted around, and said to Lucy, “Let’s go, babe. We’re not traveling today.”

A World War I era J.W. Benson
The hubbub of a hundred voices silenced when Lucy shouted, “Are you fucking kidding me?” She stomped her foot, a thunder clap that echoed off the walls. “Just take off your watch, Ian, and let’s go to Greece.”

“I’m sorry.” Ian pressed his chin against his chest. His eyes were half closed and his arms hung limp at his side.

“You and your damn watch. You never take it off. Not for the shower. Not when we have sex.” Lucy shouted the last sentence at an even higher volume.

The TSA agent stepped between Ian and Lucy, her roundness obscuring their view of each other. “You two are going to have to leave now or I’m going to call the airport police.” She added in a hushed voice, “I’m in a good mood today because I won the instant lottery yesterday, which is the only reason I haven’t already called the police.” She flicked her hand. “Git. Scoot. Now.”

“We have to go, Lucy. I’m sorry.” Ian shuffled his feet. “I am really sorry.”

“You’re out of your mind. We’ll talk about this later.” Lucy pressed her lips together as if she were sealing them with superglue, as if contradicting her just spoken words, determined never to speak with him again. Ian reached for her hand, but Lucy swatted it away, making a smaller, but still audible thunderclap.

“I’m sorry we’re not going to Greece. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you. I promise.” With his backpack slung over his shoulder, Ian shuffled his feet along the floor.

Lucy wiped her eyes with the back of her palm. She rummaged through her bag, found a pack of tissues, and dabbed under her eyes. Wavy lines that looked like the beach after the tide had come in and out a hundred times over the same spot covered her forehead. Her chest heaved as she breathed.

“We have to talk about your problem,” Lucy said after she slammed the door to their Hartford apartment. “We’re going to talk about this, as much as I hate you now, as much as I don’t want to talk to you ever again, and as much as I don’t want to be in the apartment with you.” Lucy paused. “Or even in the same state.”

“I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“That’s barely a start.”

“I'm tired,” Ian said. “Maybe I should sleep on the couch now.” He slid his chair away from the dining room table, scraping the legs against the floor. Ordinarily, this screech would have made them shudder and grimace, but tonight was no ordinary night. Lucy reached for the leg of Ian’s chair and wrenched him back to the table.

“You’re not going anywhere,” she said. “Not until we talk.” She slammed her fist on the table. “We had a nice vacation on Lefkada ahead of us, and you ruined it. For what? Because of your stupid watch obsession? Because you can’t bear to ever take off that—”

“J.W. Benson trench watch.”

“—whatever. You can’t take off your Rolex wannabe. Who ever heard of J.W. Benson, anyway?”

“J.W. Benson was a British jeweler and watchmaker who made beautiful and popular watches in the early part of the 19th century, as advanced as any watch of that era. The watches were instrumental in World War I because they allowed for coordinated and precise maneuvers and artillery attacks. Especially among officers, because—”

“Shut up, Ian. I’m talking and you’re going to listen.”

“Okay. Sorry.’ Ian rubbed his fingers over the Benson’s crystal as if it were a genie's lamp. His trench watch, an officer’s watch, had been an impulsive purchase from a pawn shop the day before he had gone to war. He hadn’t seen that Brompton Road shop before that day and had slipped inside on a whim. His eyes and nose instantly watered as they were assaulted by layers of dust and mold. Even over his sneezing, Ian heard the watch’s tick-tick, a crisp sound that pierced the powdery air around him. It had cost a month’s salary, but it would be his off-to-war present to himself, maybe his last purchase on this Earth.

The bold Arabic numerals, the cathedral hands whose design was inspired by the churches from half a millennium ago, the enamel dial as white as a post-storm thundercloud, and the bulbous, silver case had all calmed and reassured him on that day in that store, and every time since. But these were the superficial exterior elements of his constant companion. Though things of beauty, the dial, hands, numerals, case, crystal, and crown were just window dressing on top of the watch’s insides. There, the mainspring, gears, levers  — all the parts that remained invisible to him and that he would never understand no matter how long he lived — were the watch’s essence. He would never see his watch’s mechanism because he was never going to take his watch off. It was enough that it worked. It was sufficient that there was a power beyond his comprehension ticking inside. Ian didn’t need to know how it worked. All that mattered was that it did.

Ian swallowed stale-tasting air. One day, his J.W. Benson would stop. It was a miracle it had continued functioning uninterrupted for over a century. The oils should have congealed, the gears and spring should have worn down, the crown ought to have snapped off, and the mainspring certainly should have broken by now. But they hadn’t. Its endurance was part of the watch’s sorcery, part of what existed in a realm where even imagination did not go.

“This is stupid and pointless. Your OCD kept us from a vacation we’ve been planning and looking forward to for six months. How could you? You need help, Ian. Serious, immediate help. You wear your watch all the time. As far as I can recall, you’ve never removed it. I used to think you looked cute wearing a watch naked, but I don’t anymore. You wrap it in Saran Wrap whenever you’re in the shower. I have never thought that was cute. It’s just plain abnormal. You’ve got to see a doctor before you get worse.”

It was Lucy’s turn to swallow a full bottle of air. She expelled that air in a sigh and intertwined her fingers with Ian’s. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m madder at you than I’ve ever been. But you must see a doctor. Promise me you’ll call one tomorrow and deal with this? Even you know it’s bizarre to cancel a trip because you won’t take off a watch. You see that, don’t you, Ian? Even through the fog of your obsessive compulsive disorder, you see that.” Lucy didn’t inflect her sentence as a question.

“Yeah,” was all Ian could say. “I will.”

A tentative calm replaced the living room's explosive atmosphere, as if the air had once been filled with nitroglycerin.

“Promise?” Lucy willed her lips to curl upward but was able to muster only enough emotion to raise them halfway. “You promise me that you’ll devote tomorrow to finding a good doctor who can cure you?”

“Yeah,” Ian lied again.

He stepped on the instep of his left foot with the heel of his right shoe. Something is the matter with me, he thought, but it’s not what Lucy thinks. I’m not OCD. I’m just chicken to tell her. I’m a wimp. He winced at the pain and wished his foot hurt more. Tell her! he commanded himself. Just tell her. You love her, she loves you. This is as good a time as any to tell her the story, the truth. If you don’t do it now, you never will.



“I — I’ll call a doctor tomorrow.”

Ian recalled the day in 1916, June 28, exactly two years after the Great War had begun, with perfect clarity. He had been British then, with a thick English accent and thick, red mustache, just one of nearly four million British men in service of queen and country. A captain in the British Expeditionary Force, Ian had been leading his troops through an alien landscape in Germany that looked as if it had been lifted from the bottom of the ocean. Thick and wet, the muddy ground tried to suck his boots off with every step. The ground had reeked of decay, and Ian was certain that the layers below were filled with the corpses of soldiers who had preceded him in these battlefields of death.

He wasn’t surprised when the bullet entered his chest. For two months, he had been expecting a lead projectile to end his life at any moment, as it had ended the lives of so many of his friends. He was prepared to join them.

But he didn’t. The pain seared his chest, his heart, and most other organs as it ricocheted in his body. The burning and sharpness were more excruciating than any pain he had ever experienced, as if he had swallowed a fiery coal. He screamed.

But he didn’t die. Ian didn’t even stumble. He unbuttoned his uniform’s top three buttons, slipped his hand under the thick wool coat and pressed his fingertips to the bullet hole. There was no mistaking what had happened — Ian had touched the same hole in a dozen other soldiers in the moments before they had died. Pressing above his heart, he felt the hole close, like rubber healing itself. Ian unbuttoned the rest of his jacket, grabbed the metal mirror out of his field kit, held it above his wound, and watched as the hole finished closing, as if an invisible surgeon were at work. The red circle that marked where the bullet had entered his body disappeared. His flesh was whole again.

Later that day, while eating rations under a soggy cotton tarp, Lieutenant Balm asked Ian about the hole in his uniform, a hole that could have been caused by only one thing.

“Must have been a hungry moth,” Ian replied. Balm accepted Ian’s explanation. Ian had wanted to believe it himself.

Except for what happened when he removed his watch a few hours later, Ian might have convinced himself that there had been a ravenous moth hovering over their encampment. He was resting on a thin padded roll that magnified the size and sharpness of every pebble and rock underneath. A layer of white mold covered the tent’s fabric, which only pretended to protect him from the rain. His body ached and longed for sleep that wouldn’t come until the war ended or he was dead. His feet were damp, cold, and sore, as if instead of being born with them, they were add-ons, made by a drunk carpenter working in haste. His wrists hurt from firing his rifle all day. Ian couldn’t remove his shoes or clothes because he might need to fight at any moment, but he could take off his watch and massage his weary wrist. Any relief was better than none.

The second after he unfastened the leather strap and slipped his watch off, pain exactly as he’d felt when the bullet had penetrated his chest consumed him. Blood oozed, then gushed from his chest. His heart fluttered and weakened. The lantern in his tent dimmed, a blanket of darkness covered him, and he was filled with cold, as if he had fallen into a frozen lake, suffocating as he drifted to the bottom.

J.W. Benson's watches were a
marvel of early 20th century
To this day, Ian wasn’t sure what had caused him to put his J.W. Benson back on, but as soon as he did, he felt fine and healthy. His agony was replaced by the normal woes and aches of the battlefield. His heart beat strongly again, and he saw the dozen or so tents around his glowing with dim but visible yellow lantern light. He touched the spot where the bullet had entered his chest. His body was whole — again.

A month later, the remaining seven souls in Ian’s regimen were killed in a German gas attack. Except for a single cough, Ian was unaffected.

Through the years, Ian never got sick. Disease outbreaks came and went, friends died from cancer, and sicknesses of all manner struck everyone he knew, except for himself. And he never aged. After the war had ended in November 1918, Ian had removed his watch. In less than a second, his chest roared in pain and his lungs burned as if they were being scraped with a metal file. He urgently slapped his watch back onto his wrist and felt fine. He knew. There was no doubt. Ian Wilson was thirty-one years old and immortal. His J.W. Benson had powers beyond reason, and as long as he wore his watch, he would live forever.

Maybe I’ll tell her tomorrow. Ian rubbed his forehead. Who wants to be with a man who’s never going to age? What type of purgatory is that? He hadn’t stuck around in any of his previous relationships or marriages long enough to find out. Usually, his girlfriend or wife wondered aloud how Ian managed to remain youthful while she sprouted crow’s feet and gray grew in her hair. When the suspicions started, Ian left, without a single word or goodbye note. In 1952, he departed England for good for America because rumors about his youthfulness had circled back to his own ears. America was a bigger country, where more people were strangers to each other. America sounded like a good place for an immortal to live.

But perhaps this was the time. Maybe Lucy would stay with him even after he told her. His story was an impossible one to believe, but easy to prove. All he had to do was remove his watch for a split second. Lucy would see the hole above his heart pop into existence from nothingness. She’d see blood pour from his open wound; she might even see his torn heart inside. The agony of that second would be worth it if Lucy stayed. And even if Lucy didn’t stay, at least she’d know the truth and make her own decision. He owed her that.

Ian sighed again. “Maybe we should both sleep now?” He smiled. “Tomorrow will be different, better, a new us. We can even plan another trip to Greece.” Tomorrow I will tell Lucy. I will show her who I am. Yes, I will. Ian had decided. He was delirious with anticipation, a boy the day before his first date. Now he couldn’t wait to tell her. But in the morning. It would be better in the morning because now they were both wrung out and desperate for sleep.

“Okay. Let’s go to bed.” Lucy completed a smile for the first time since the airport. She let her hand bump against his.

A red glow from the alarm clock fell on Ian’s face as the grenade exploded in his chest. The tall digits read 5:14 AM. His cough expelled something — tissue, fluid, he was in too much agony to tell. Whatever it was, this hurt more than any pain he had ever experienced.

Ian’s heart beat wildly trying to reclaim its rhythm, like a derailed train frantically trying to return to the tracks. Through the agony, he noticed how much lighter his wrist was, how empty it felt, as if the blood had been drained out of his arm.

Lucy held Ian’s J.W. Benson in her palm.

Ian’s eyes went wide, his pupils and irises disappearing into the whites. He opened his mouth and his lips quivered, but no sound came out.

“Cold turkey, babe.” Lucy said. “This is going to be good for you. You just need a kick in the pants. Go back to sleep, and when you wake, you’ll be a new you.”

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