I was staring out the window into the rain. It has been raining for over two hundred days now except for a little bit at night. I knew it was going to be a serious discussion when I saw Joe there. He almost never came out, living his routine carefully. In a room of mad people, he was the least mad. We met at Egan’s. Egan had a spacious apartment and his wife was having an affair so it was available. The last time I’d seen him he had been really upset. Seeing her every morning didn’t help. Egan had gotten so mad that in the early days of his discovery he had killed them both a few times. He knew better now, he wasn’t a newbie like poor Keri. She had fallen through during a particularly short repetition and hadn’t had the chance to go through that bacchanal phase most of us do without repercussions.
Joe didn’t do any of that though. Every repetition he simply refined his daily life more, making each day as idyllic as he could. I can’t imagine how long he had lived. He said that he used to track the length of the repetitions but he stopped when he realized that he was approaching 100 years old. He stopped then and didn’t count anymore. He was the first among us. I had dinner at his house once, a day that has now never happened so his family never met me. They were sweet and he listened to each story and replied in kind as if he had never heard it before. It was perfect. I wish I had the fortitude to do that. It’s hard when they repeat and you don’t. I forgot to meet my fiancé for dinner the last day that stuck. I’ve managed to forget his name a few times.
Sometimes when we get a new day it also gives a new chance for someone to slip through. I slipped through 17 real days ago. I haven’t tracked the repetitions but in that time I’ve watched everything Netflix and Hulu have of any interest to me and I’m learning Korean. I’m well-read now. I’m only 17 days further into my nursing degree but I could pass exams for a medical doctorate, at least the stuff on paper. I learned how to rebuild a motorcycle engine out of curiosity. I went through my bacchanal phase of course. I fucked over fifty men and thirty women. That was mostly on a single Saturday, last week. It was so long ago I can’t remember most of them.
My name is Erin. There were nine in the room total. This wasn’t all of us of course. Keri was in a jail cell. Tara proved that death could be permanent if you were dead when things skipped forward. There were four that refused to socialize with us, one on philosophical grounds, three from grudges from long ago. We have rules now to prevent those kinds of things. Our own little tiny society has its own social taboos. There are so few of us that we couldn’t afford to not get along.
We were a room of philosopher-kings, masters of esoteric knowledge. Joe, the Syrian American accountant family man, had become an expert in Hellenistic and Egyptian art. He wanted to write papers but couldn’t save his notes unless he remade them every day. Haji knows nearly everything there is to know about electronics and particle physics. Every rare now and then a repetition doesn’t reset perfectly. He discovered this when his cell phone kept a few pictures once. They seem to happen more often with delicate electronics and that probably means something. Maria had developed more of a bacchanal life than a phase. I didn’t object and had slept with her several times myself but there was something dark in it for her. Most of us were exploring this place between the walls of time, trapped and learning every inch of it. For her, it was a space between someone else’s legs. She had lost something in her searching and it made me sad to watch her.
We were munching on snacks Egan had laid out. I was sipping tea and nibbling at cheeses. Egan always did like to prepare food and had explored every restaurant and culinary experience possible, at least within one day’s travel. We tended to take our time and get to things indirectly but there was an edge to everyone’s nerves. We were in a brand new repetition. There wasn’t much danger of something moving forward with us but most of us were eager to explore, not put up with each other. Still, when one of us called the others tended to answer. Eventually, though it was Crystal, a pink-haired housewife, who I didn’t know what she did with her time, said: “Why are we here and not at the diner?”
The diner was our usual haunt. We said outrageous things, we shocked people but they mostly ignored us. We always told them, in case the day moved forward, that we were an amateur improv group. To gather in a home, a private space, meant something else. The implication was clear. It was a few minutes before someone cleared their throat to get everyone’s attention. It was Joe who spoke up. “We’re here to talk about a murder. One that would keep.”
I was at the hospital to see it for myself. I corrected myself, not it, him. My fiancée works here, his name is Saul. Yeah, it took me a minute to remember. That was my excuse for coming by, to apologize to him for missing dinner. It hurts him that I forgot but for me, it was a long time ago when I said I’d go. I’ve been on today enough that I can’t recall yesterday well. I did feel bad about it. For nearly twenty days I would sneak over to his house early for apology sex. For a while, I took other girls but eventually it seemed like a chore so I guess it was wasted. None of those days were final days so he never remembered all the times I tried to make up for it. It just didn’t happen for him. That’s why we drift apart and they don’t seem real to us after a while. Until a new day happens, then it’s like reality crashing all down on us again. We can’t help but have a tiny bit of hope that it’s over. But it never is. So, if there is one thing I am good at it is living for today. Egan once told me he missed video games. Not being able to save progress killed the experience. I try to not look back.
He was in a room by himself. I walked around pretending to wait for Saul if anyone asked and used the whole nursing student thing as an excuse to just be curious. The cardiac wing was huge, essentially a whole tower. Saul was in pediatrics so no one here had even heard of him. But I wasn’t here for Saul of course. No, I was here because I’d never murdered anyone before, even when I thought it wouldn’t stick much less a forever murder.
I found him in Room 17D. The hallway was long and curved around the edge of the circular tower. He was pale. They don’t have names on the doors or charts to easily pickup like in the movies but I knew a name, Arnold Dylan. When I stopped by he was asleep. I’m told he did that a lot.
“What the actual fuck?”
That was Anjali. Her parents were from India, she spoke like an upper crust English lady when in public and in private sounded like a valley girl who watched too many Bollywood movies. She also was very politically motivated, another passion hard to keep up in this place. Last time I saw her she was learning Japanese and getting obsessed with anime. It was a valid question or declaration or whatever it was. Joe had let the silence sit for what seemed like a long time before Anjali said something. Then all Joe did was a motion to Shannon. She kind of grimaced and picked her head up from where it had been staring at her cup.
Shannon was blonde, worked in HR at the hospital, and had the kind of implants and wore the kind of sweaters that caused HR issues. Like most of us, she had made an art out of doing very little during her day while getting everything done and filled in most of her spare time trying out various doctors and nurses. She was new enough that she had only been stuck with us for a few days. She talked around things but the short of it was that she was walking into the cardiac ward to get to know someone a bit better when she heard someone complaining about Mr. Dylan screaming the night before at midnight. Apparently he woke up every night, no matter what they did with his medication to help him sleep. And it was bad. They were all frazzled.
“The thing is,” Sharon said, “I’d been there last night, a repeat night, and a few before and he’d slept through it just fine. Hell, I’d been in the room next door with ... well,” She actually blushed while grinning, “Getting my blood pressure checked out. I’m laying down for my post-fun nap and ... I’m wide awake. It’s like ... late and that’s weird. Then the screaming starts.”
That brought silence. Everyone knew what she meant. Not her getting drilled, no one was surprised by that. But that something had varied. She had been there before and he hadn’t screamed. He had been sleeping, then not when the day moved forward.
“So ... is he one of us?” I heard it before I realized I was the one that asked it.
Shannon laid some papers on the table, logs from nurse workstations. I reached forward and took them. Every single night this guy woke up at or very near midnight screaming and had to be sedated. What he was screaming made no sense. Something about “they’re gone” and “I have to keep them.”
“What’s this about.”
“Not sure,” Shannon said, “apparently he is fairly on in years but his wife and kids are already gone. One daughter in law but she doesn’t come by, probably since the husband is gone she doesn’t feel connected.” She raised her head to look at every one of us. No giggle in her eyes. “I’ve been by a lot now. He’s always sleeping peacefully at midnight except...”. She tapped the papers.
“What?” Evan wasn’t the brightest bulb. It was Joe that answered him. “Except when the day moves forward.”
That’s why I had come to see him for myself. Pale, thin, old man ragged, the kind of waste you become when your body is mostly given up but modern medicine keeps you here. Still, his eyes had some sparkle. It wasn’t all gone yet. I steeled myself and walked into the abyss.
He turned. His eyes focused instantly on me and he turned his head. Most of his hair was gone and liver spots were numerous. He was hooked into oxygen lines, two drips, and enough monitoring equipment to keep track of every vital and a dozen additional data points. He opened his mouth slowly.
It came out with a bit of wheeze but stronger than I suspected. The accent was ... Texan? It reminded me of a cowboy. “Hey yourself.” He smiled but it was more charming than lecherous. Shannon had violated a host of privacy rules and Egan, a detective for Seattle PD quite a few more. As a result, I knew that Mr. Dylan had been in Vietnam, lost his driving license for poor eyesight had unpaid parking tickets, and had lost everyone he had been related to in a span of just five years due to cancer, bad drivers and suicide.
“My name is Janice. I’m a volunteer with Veterans of Foreign Wars. I’m doing a survey of who in the hospital has served and if there is anything we can do for them.”
“Yeah, I was cargo crew, Laos, Cambodia, ‘66 to ‘72. I got shot at a lot with a plane wrapped around me but I never shot a gun at anyone myself. Always figured...” a dry cough interrupted him “I got lucky that way. I did a third term but was a mechanic in Germany that whole time.”
We talked. I took a seat, I asked more and at 2:16 his lunch came in carried by orderly Merris, as indicated by his name tag. I promised to return the next day with some magazines because he liked flipping through them. He was a little embarrassed but asked about men’s magazines, maybe Esquire. Maybe, Playboy I teased, it does have excellent articles. He blushed and said that would be great. I put my hand on his and smiled and said I’d see what I could do. Then I left.
The next day, or the next repetition of the same day at least, I returned. The conversation repeated itself. He told me about training to be a pilot but failed a test and became a mechanic instead. He spent a lot of time just moving stuff on and off planes. At 2:16 the nurse came in on schedule. The meal repeated itself. I left promising to bring him an Esquire and maybe a Playboy.
Repetition three. “I should leave soon. You’ll have lunch soon right, I saw the trolley as I came in.”
“Yeah, quarter after every day. I think I’m at the end of the route.”
“Who brings the meals? A nurse?”
“Nah, I don’t know what they’re called but lunch guys, usually Phil.” 2:16. “Hey, Phil.” Merris walked in. “Hey, D-Man!” He was jovial. “I see you have a new girlfriend.” He winked at me to let me know I was meant to be in on the joke.
“Beating them off with a stick.” He gestured to all the tubes. They fist-bumped in a gesture of mock brotherly solidarity like they had done it a hundred times. They probably had. I excused myself and left. Outside it was raining.
We meet at Egan’s again and I tell them I need more time. Everyone is okay with it. Taking our time is our default mode. I spend most of the night eating duck sandwiches with some kind of cream sauce. It’s delicious. I think about Dylan’s bald head and how Egan has always had his awkward ear-length hair, how Shannon is always about 10 lbs heavy, according to her. She can eat as little or much as she wishes and it won’t change, except by one day’s worth. What would it be like to grow old like this, to be strapped into that bed, repeating like this?
I wait for a few repeats, maybe a dozen before I go back but stop at a newsstand on the way. His reaction is the same. We do our ritual ... my ritual anyway. I feign shock. I’m good at it. Hell, we all are. We could win fucking Academy Awards since we act out scripts every day.
“Magazines, oh, yes, I have some! I always pick some up just in case someone wants something to read.” I pull out Popular Mechanics, Men’s Health, and The Outdoorsman. He looked at each thoughtfully but easily settled on Popular Mechanics. As I was about to leave he said, “Ah if you come back...”
“Probably next week but I will, yeah.”
“I always liked lifestyle magazines, you know like maybe Esquire.”
“Hmmm ... I do have ... I think it got mixed in and I ... well, I wasn’t going to give it to anyone but... “ I grinned and handed him a Playboy. The cover had a blonde and declared that it had the girls of the PAC 10. His eyes light up with total surprise. Being a good actor is one thing but I know what to look for and he’s legitimately in bad health. I’ve seen the meds they administer to him. He couldn’t drive a car in a parking lot much less put on such a good act. So, it’s true. For him, this is the first time we have met.
It’s 2:15. I smile and say “Let’s just keep it between us. I probably shouldn’t.” And I slide it under a newspaper as the food comes in. I started, underneath the newspaper was a leather journal. “What’s this? Someone’s little black book?” I smile.