An eleventh grader was in school at the time. History. Some obscure Vietnam battle that involved choking on napalm and drowning in quicksand, and he was wondering whether you still call it drowning when someone sinks into mud because mud isn’t quite a liquid, and then that reminded him of Chemistry and he really needed to finish that titration lab. And then he remembered that Chemistry was next period, so he checked the clock, and it said that it was 10:09 and 34 seconds. Fine. He still had some time to go.
Meanwhile, a businesswoman was giving a presentation about budget cuts. The grey-walled room was too cold, but she’d look terribly unprofessional if she darted out to get her winter coat. She mused internally that an excellent way to save company money would be to refrain from turning on the air conditioner before April. The cold was tolerable, though, because otherwise, she might have perspired into the wrinkles that were quite obstinately forming around her eyes. Robotic words rushed out of her mouth. She was too well-rehearsed; she sounded stilted; they would never let another women lead an accounting team. No, that wasn’t true, and she knew it. It didn’t matter how she sounded; no one in that room cared about her presentation, not even the superiors who pretended to be taking notes but were more likely sketching small buffalo on their college-ruled paper. She glanced at the clock. It was 10:09 and 34 seconds. Only five more minutes before she could ask, “Any questions?”
A soldier crouched beneath a mud-smothered boulder, muscles tensed in a lunge, ears tilted into the wind, listening for a signal.
A dog waited for its stay-at-home-dad owner to clip on its leash for their midmorning walk.
A doctor watched a heart monitor tremble until it was almost flat.
None of them, except the dog, had gotten much sleep the night before. Five hours and twenty-seven minutes, or seven hours and fifty-two minutes, or three hours and twelve minutes, or something like that. They didn’t appreciate that luxury, then, the ability to snatch their alarm clocks off their bedside tables and fumble in the darkness of sleep until they’d smacked the snooze buttons and the beeping ceased. They didn’t appreciate the beeping, either. But once they lost it, it sounded like music in their memories.
But that’s what they thought it was. Lack of sleep. One extremely long second.
“So this is what it’s like for time to stop.”
They all said it -- except, once again, the dog. Not all at the same time. The student was first, a muttered wisecrack. It evoked a few whispered chuckles. “What’s so funny?” his teacher snapped, and he pointed to the clock. The teacher stared at the frozen second hand, and then at her watch, and then at the time in the corner of her computer screen. Her skin turned the color of the walls in the businesswoman’s conference room.
The soldier was the last to say it. By that point, it had become a swear. He wiped the grime off his stopwatch and slid it deep into his pocket, then tugged the zipper shut.
The dog pawed at its owner’s knee and released three high-pitched whines. Like the beep of an alarm.
One of the businesswoman’s superiors laid down his pad and pen. It wasn’t a buffalo. It was a flamingo. She’d been close enough, and she would have congratulated herself on her guess if it hadn’t meant that he’d been ignoring her presentation. “I don’t suppose your proposal accounts for time stopping. What do you suggest we do now?”
The doctor watched weak tremors shake the patient’s body. Only a few more seconds. A few more seconds and she would have died.
For the end of time, it was terribly uneventful. The principal came on over the loudspeaker in the student’s school. He expected some apocalyptic warning, something about North Korea figuring out how to bomb time itself -- you never know with their nuclear development program. They could’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in the Pacific in an attempt to surprise-annihilate California and ended up at the center of the earth, and discovered some Great Clock to End All Clocks, and planted some nukes right at 10:09 and 34 seconds just to see what would happen. He wouldn’t have put it past North Korea (and the soldier wouldn’t have, either; he was thinking something like this as well, but with more colorful language). But the principal didn’t mention North Korea. She said: “Good morning, Garfield High. Seniors, the deadline for prom dues is this Friday. Congratulations to the girls’ bowling team for their win against Hayes Tech, pushing our bowlers into the city finals. Also, there seems to have been a mishap with the clocks. All clocks. So today, I’ll come back on the loudspeaker every time you should switch classes.”
The soldier fumbled at the buttons on his radio, then pried a layer of mud off the antenna. He had to speak to his commanding officer. No answer.
The student went to Chemistry. His titration was mediocre.
The dog finally gave up and shat in the pot of an ornamental tree.
“Your mother is still alive. But she shouldn’t be.” The doctor turned to her patient’s children. Nineteen and twenty-four years old. “Her suffering would have ended if it had ever been 10:10.”
“I suppose that we proceed as normal.” The businesswoman finally sat down. Her heels ached from the stress of standing in pumps for who-even-knows-how-long (certainly not her, seeing as the clocks had stopped). “We pretend that time is still alive.”
So they pretended.
They trickled out of work at different points; rush hour was in a constant, murky limbo. The student got home half a day earlier than his father, who had been at a doctor’s appointment. Unmoving and alone on the living room couch, the student spent the afternoon dialing the first nine digits of his father’s cell phone number and then cancelling the call. His father was fine. He must have been fine. It was just this stupid thing with the clocks. It didn’t mean that the doctors were sending him from testing room to testing room, compressing his flesh and extracting his blood and analyzing his tissue. It didn’t mean that he had leukemia. He’d just lost track of time. It was still light out when he dragged himself through the door, bags pronounced under his eyes, but muttering, “The tests were negative.”
The soldier’s radio buzzed with static. Still no connection. Fucking North Koreans. He pressed himself to the floor of the forest, wondering if there was quicksand in Hawaii, or more specifically, whether there was quicksand in this particular half-jungle-half-plain. Back to base. He took a gulp of air and plunged his face into the mud, reaching forward to clasp a nearby rock, and pulled himself through the thick sludge. His muscles trembled. Back to base. Back to base.
The businesswoman found her roommate in bed clutching a Trader Joe’s bag, in which there lay a stack of seven trays of microwavable macaroni. “Some manager flipped out while I was getting tomorrow’s carrots. Something about North Korea. Anyway, he figured we should all prepare for the apocalypse, and started chucking premade food at everyone. It was free.”
The doctor didn’t come home from work that night. She wasn’t tired, but even if she were, it wouldn’t matter. She sat with the patient’s children as they stared at their convulsing mother. It was quiet except for the patient’s sporadic gasps. But eventually, the children started to talk. To tell stories. The doctor listened as they muttered memories about riding motorcycles across the Dominican Republic campo, dirt and dust spraying behind them, their mother at the front of the pack. Soil from beneath her wheels splashed upward and coated her children, said the nineteen-year-old. They blinked dirt out of stinging eyes and kept riding. The clocks stayed silent.
“You had to pick the honey locust?” The dog’s owner pulled a pair of disposable gloves over his hands, the minty rubber snapping as it coated his fingers, and scooped the dog shit out of the pot. “I’m sorry, bud. Let’s go pick up the kids. They should be out of school by now.”
Back to base. Back to base. The soldier was almost there, goddamnit. The mud had seeped into his clothes, clammy and leaden against his skin, and bugs swam through the sludge to chew on his hands and face. Back to base.
The student’s mother eventually dragged herself through the door. Wordlessly, she held up three packs of Trader Joe’s frozen dumplings and staggered toward the microwave. The student eased the dumplings out of his mother’s arms. “I’ll get them ready,” he told her. “You should take a shower.”
The sun didn’t go down that night.
For the first time in months, the businesswoman awoke feeling like she’d slept enough. But then bleary contentment gave way to panic. Surely they’d never promote her now -- she must have been hours and hours late -- She snatched her sheet off her legs and hurled it onto the floor. Her roommate was still curled inside a blanket, the sunlight swirling patterns on her skin. “Wake the hell up, Cynthia,” growled the businesswoman.
“North Korea claims no responsibility for the disaster,” said George Stephanopoulos, staring straight into the camera with his signature serious smile. The doctor clicked off the hospital television and exchanged a glance with the patient’s children. Their eyes were puffy and half-closed. Did North Korea really matter? The patient grunted softly, and her limbs tightened again. Leukemia was a bitch every time. All the time. Too much time. No time at all.
It didn’t matter how much the businesswoman slept, because when she checked her email, work was cancelled.
School too. Still in bed, clutching his blanket to his chest, the student scrolled through his Twitter feed. “NORTH KOREA has stopped time! Or was it MEXICO? Bad hombres! SAD!” said the president.
“Honorable discharge.” The soldier froze, mud dripping from his outstretched arm, and stared at his commander. “No fucking way. The North Koreans are going to pay for this.”
A new Tweet. The businesswoman refreshed her home page. She hadn’t even bothered to peel off her pajamas. “Change of PLANS. NORTH KOREA is innocent!! Kim Jong-un is with me at Mar-a-Lago to draft a cease-fire. Tremendous! Still might be MEXICO though.”
“Like I said. Honorable discharge. We all got them. Orders came in a few hours -- never mind. I’m going home too. The whole battalion.”
Eventually, the doctor slept. She’d fought it and lost. The patient’s children succumbed too. Four twitching bodies, three draped over chairs, one flat on the bed.
The president announced a tentative peace with North Korea.
The businesswoman got an email telling her that the employees were all instructed to work from home. A temporary change. They advised her to make a Skype account.
The student trickled in and out of school. His Chemistry teacher never asked him to turn in his lab report, which was great, because he’d never gotten around to it. He didn’t have enough time.
The soldier visited his parents’ graves first, then searched for his kid brother. Should have been with an aunt. But instead, he was in the hospital, and the aunt was off at fucking bingo night. Apparently, there'd been complications after getting his wisdom teeth out. “Goddamnit, Matt. This is just like you. Had to go and screw up your mouth right when it'll never heal.”
The dog’s owner started taking the dog for walks whenever he remembered, which was often but not aggravatingly so. On the walks, the dog’s collar jingled gleefully as it trotted past mailboxes and street lamps, taking care not to impale its paw pads on stray heroin needles. The dog didn't mind, even though it noticed with a kind of fuzzy understanding that the number of needles had increased recently -- from raindrops scattering the ground to a flood. Whatever. As long as the dog could shit, he was happy.
“Adios, Mamí.” His face numbing into a rubber mask, the twenty-four-year old eased the life support plug out of the outlet.
The businesswoman stopped watching television news. It only repeated the same thing: all wars had been put on pause, not by the stopping of time itself, but in reaction to it. The governments had agreed that there were more important priorities than blowing each other up.
“I guess I'm unemployed now,” the soldier told his brother. “I'll stay with you for a few more days, but I have to start looking for a new job. Okay, man?”
The heart monitor continued to shiver. “I don't understand it,” muttered the doctor. “Time shouldn't do this.”
An undertaker sold his shop to an art gallery. No customers of late.
The businesswoman hadn't worn her pumps in a week, nor did she intend to allow them to pinch her feet for at least another. Her permanent uniform of pajamas was, though it featured the lumps of macaroni weight sliding in the flesh of her stomach, comfortable enough to lull her into the pleasant wooziness that made her suspect that perhaps this was a lovely dream. The superiors sent her emails every half hour now. She did the calculations in a daze. My goodness, she thought. I sure hope this is more than temporary.
Fairly arbitrarily, the student graduated. His father didn't have to use his old wheelchair. His mother wasn't too strangled by work to attend. They gave him flowers when he stepped down from the stage, and he said, “For what?”
The hospital staff informally renamed the ICU “The Crypt.”
The soldier plucked dust off his old suit, which was now a size or two too tight for him, the bulk of his muscles straining through cheap wool. He stared at the Wendy’s sign. Hospital bills were adding the hell up. Pride be damned, the soldier opened the ketchup-splattered glass door.
The dog’s owner wasn't as eager to go on walks anymore. There was an undefinable heaviness about him. The dog wished that its owner would get over himself and buy some tennis balls that weren't damp and scraggly.
The president held a press conference to say that the 2020 election would be held soon, although of course he couldn't say when. The Democrats squeezed a scarecrow into a suit and shoved it behind a podium.
Apple announced that the iPhone 8 wouldn’t have a clock function.
The scarecrow won the election. The president -- now the ex-president -- privately bemoaned his inability to die. One of his aides leaked the quote to the New York Times: “In a big bomb. That's how I'd do it. I'd get the biggest bomb, and I'd take it to North Korea myself, so I could kill Kim Jong-un in the process. And then -- boom!”
North Korea was too busy fighting a famine to care. The eggshells of peace stayed uncracked.
And time went on.
Except it didn’t.