Keeping Time

by FH Batacan

The door of his hotel room is open; the porter has stowed his bags and is now hanging up the contents of his suit bag in the closet. Mike enters the room sideways, sucking in his gut. It is an old habit; even though he has shed more than a hundred and forty pounds, he still feels like a fat man. Sometimes he catches himself doing it; when he does, he backs out of the door and comes in again like a normal person.

The porter closes the closet door, stands aside with a deferential smile. Just like him, falling into old habits. Mike takes his wallet out of his pocket, fishes out a large bill, slides it into the other man's palm. The porter is briefly stunned, then flashes him a broad smile. "Thank you, sir."

Mike nods, says nothing. The door closes behind him and he is alone.

He is bone-tired - six countries in seventeen days -- but there's still work to be done. He unlaces his shoes, sets them aside in one corner of the closet and pads around the carpeted room in his socks. He finds his laptop bag, plugs the machine into an outlet, begins undressing as it boots up.

Having lost all that weight, Mike tends to take better care of his clothes -- mainly because he now has better clothes to take care of. Although his job has always paid well, he never bothered much about his clothing or appearance until the weight started coming off a little over three years ago. He had started losing it later than most, but then again he had so much more to lose. These days he always dresses well; even after long-haul flights, he arrives at meetings immaculately turned out, as though making up for decades of self-neglect. On site -- where weather, ground and even social conditions can be unpleasant at best and downright treacherous at worst -- he takes great pains to dress appropriately, to remain as clean as humanly possible.

He hangs up his jacket, shirt and trousers carefully; he'll have them dry-cleaned tomorrow morning. He strips off his socks, roots around in the closet for a laundry bag and puts the socks inside. He'll take a shower and brush his teeth before buckling down to business.

In his bare feet, the transition from carpet to the chilly marble tile of the bathroom is a bit jarring. He doesn't particularly care for the paper slippers that hotels provide -- there is something silly and ineffectual about them. So he takes the cold floor like a man, without complaint or fuss.

In the mirror above the capacious sink, he sees a stranger.

For the better part of nearly five decades, the man in the mirror was always overweight, ballooning to some 340 pounds around seven years ago. He was tall -- well over six feet -- and he had a nice enough face. But he soon grew used to the cutting refrain from even the most well-meaning relatives: "You'd be so handsome if only ...".

He used to be married, but she left him when his sperm count dwindled and he broke the 300-pound mark. This, too, he took like a man, shrugging off the sympathy of family, friends, colleagues, going about his work with the same implacable precision, the same clinical detachment. In private, he ate his way into numbness, a lumbering giant laced with deep and invisible scars.

Now, at the ripe old age of 47, he is the man he has always wanted to be: muscled and trim, save for some residual fat around the belly and love handles, and under the arms. With his looming physical presence, intelligent eyes and silver hair, he looks distinguished, attractive, if a bit icy. If his wife were here, he reflects, if they had just met, she would be all over him; he is now the exact physical type she would have found irresistible. She has been dead several years now: one of the first to go.

He studies his image for a long time, not out of vanity, but with mild amusement and a healthy sense of irony.

He might as well remember himself like this. It will not last long.

***

BACK in the room he checks his office email. There are fewer and fewer people left at work now, and his work load seems to have grown exponentially over the past four or five years. It's evident from the number of emails he has received in just the past seven hours -- the time it took to fly from one country to another, retrieve his baggage, clear immigration and customs, get to the hotel from the airport, check in, freshen up.

Inbox: 32 unread.

Most of the emails have to do with the same thing: the water problem. It's always the water problem now. Everywhere he goes, he always finds the same damn thing. It's in the water, in the rain, in the rivers and lakes; it cannot be dammed up, it cannot be stopped. The inhibitor only slows it down, but its spread and its effects are largely irreversible.

Always a different country, always the same story. Mike feels like the angel of death, arriving on the scene only to tell people what they already know, confirm what they already suspect.

He reads the emails but decides the replies can wait. A glance at the bedside clock: 01.51am.

He turns the lights off in the bedroom. Clad only in his pajama bottoms, he steps out onto the balcony to smoke. He has only recently taken up this vice; there's poison enough in his system not to have to worry about adding a little bit more.

He leans against a wall, lights up, takes a long, slow drag, blows out the smoke in tiny, successive puffs. He hasn't yet learned the slight contortions of lip, tongue and mouth needed to blow smoke rings; this is as close as he's ever come.

Beneath an inky sky, the city is quiet, its stillness punctuated only by the occasional bleat of a car horn or rumble of a train. The cities of his youth -- Manila, where he was born, New York, Tokyo -- were bustling, noisy, claustrophobic with their masses of people. Even Boston, where he stayed while in graduate school, teemed in the daytime. That's all just a memory now. The world's biggest cities, and its smallest, its poorest and wealthiest, all are in the same boat: half their populations decimated, the other half just waiting. If not for the computers running farms, manufacturing, logistics, transport and communications, power grids, things would have ground to a complete halt years ago. That'll happen soon enough.

The sliding door to the adjacent balcony opens, and a woman steps out. She has left a light on in her bedroom, unlike Mike, whose balcony is shrouded in darkness. He is happy to observe her, unobserved. With the hotel virtually empty, she has not bothered to put much on before venturing outside: she is wearing only a pair of black satin panties. Her back is turned to him as she talks softly into a mobile phone.

Mike catches fragments of her end of the conversation -- something about a funeral, about not being able to go, how sorry she is. Her voice is low and raspy, as though she hasn't spoken to anyone in days. Even from behind, Mike notes that her body, bathed in the dim amber light from the bedroom, is in very good shape. It does not have the usual sag and droop that afflict fat people who lose vast amounts of weight. He decides she must be relatively young, her skin still elastic. He focuses too long on her backside and does not realize that her telephone call has ended.

When she turns around, the first thing she sees is the tiny pinpoint of fire at the end of his cigarette.

Mike starts, his breath rattling out of him. He is unprepared for the way she looks: darkly beautiful, with a haunted face, her long hair only partly covering her breasts.

A natural courtliness finally kicks in and he steps out from the shadows; it would be better, he thinks, not to be perceived as a peeping tom. He prepares to introduce himself, to be polite, to shake hands, but his throat locks just as he is about to say hello. He fails to reckon that his imposing stature might spark some alarm.

She steps back, crossing her arms over her chest, her mobile phone resting on her right breast. In an instant she turns and disappears into her bedroom, the sliding doors clicking shut, the light going off.

Mike feels an odd sense of disappointment and something else -- a sensation of disequilibrium, like stepping off after a harrowing roller coaster ride. He retreats into his unlit room, closing the doors to the balcony. He is not breathing right, and his head feels suddenly too large, too heavy for his body.

He finds the bed in the dark, lies down, breathes slowly and deeply; but the feeling will not go away.

He recognizes it finally as something he has tried not to think about in years, buried far below the surface of his hectic yet well-ordered life.

He has to touch himself before he can get any sleep.

***

MIKE is suited up for the morning's ministerial conference at the WHO. He has all the briefing material ready: photographs and footage, statistics, firsthand accounts, lab results. Some of it is extremely technical; all of it is horrifying.

As he is about to step into the hotel taxi, he catches sight of the woman in the room next to his. In the daylight, she looks to be in her mid-30s, although there is something about her manner -- gravity, watchfulness -- that suggests to Mike that she could be older. She is wearing dark slacks, a matching jacket, waiting for a car just like his. When it pulls up in front of her, she sees Mike, recognizes him from the night before. A blush suffuses her face, but she holds his gaze steadily for a moment before she disappears into the vehicle.

At the conference, all the faces Mike sees are grim. About a third of the people in the room are in the final stages: emaciated, eyes bulging out of sunken sockets, bellies distended, clothes hanging off their bodies. They move slowly and with great difficulty, some hooked up to parenteral nutrition drips. When this conference reconvenes in three months as scheduled, many of them will not be in attendance. The world's best minds in public health, their ranks thinning inexorably.

When it's his turn at the podium, Mike spends a few moments booting up his laptop, flipping through his documents. The eyes that look upon him take in how normal -- how good -- he looks. There is envy, and there is also a certain mild derision: you must have been so fat. He has learned not to let this get to him.

Always a slight flutter of nervousness before he speaks at these events. Once he begins, it will go away. He clears his throat, adjusts the microphone to suit his height, introduces himself.

"Good morning. I'm Michael Tejada and I'm a field investigator for the World Health Organization." He switches on the projector, skims the audience with his eyes before proceeding. "I'll be taking you through the major findings of our surveys in the Asia Pacific region for the last three months."

His words are thoughtful, measured; unnecessary, really, to dramatize the awfulness of things. He paints a sobering picture of the places he's been to, what he's seen, tests he's run. The photographs, charts and tables on the screen behind him cause the audience to lapse into a stunned and dismayed silence.

It had all started in North America, and it should have stayed there. But there was money to be made, and Europe soon followed suit. It was a simple process, the drug companies said, just like fluoridation.

Conventional wisdom held that Asia should only have started feeling the effects of the problem much later. But Mike's research shows otherwise. Many in the region had clamored to have their water treated, citing rising rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes. Truthfully, vanity was just as great a motivator. Given the demand, some governments had secretly tested the enzyme on domestic water supplies, only to find they could not contain it. The problem spread, tainting supplies like a ferocious algal bloom.

Children and the elderly are always the first to go. Pregnant women pass the enzyme on to their unborn babies, and they begin starving in the womb. If by some miracle a child is born alive, its DNA is already hardwired for starvation.

By the time the first wave of deaths hit the Western hemisphere, much of Asia's water was already irrevocably fouled. Soon, Mike tells the group, the entire region will be grappling with the problem -- even countries whose backward water systems had somehow insulated them from the contamination so far.

After Mike speaks, other experts step up. One talks about the legal ramifications of the crisis. Class action suits continue to pop up all over the world, but the company that synthesized the enzyme and licensed the technology to the pharmaceutical giants has long been bankrupted. And the governments that agreed to the treatment have resorted to legislation to protect themselves from claims, on the premise that financial resources should be allocated to seeking a solution.

Mike is supposed to be part of the solution. But as one of the lead investigators, and the one with the most comprehensive knowledge of the situation on the ground -- four continents, 63 countries and counting -- he knows there is none. All that can be done is for the drug companies to manufacture as much of the inhibitor as possible, dump it into water supplies and hope it can delay the inevitable. The scientists can find ways to boost its efficacy, but not by much. At most, the planet has seven years before all its water supplies are wholly contaminated, either by the enzyme itself or by the inhibitor.

Even in this, Big Pharma continues to make Big Money: money no one will ever get to spend.

The ultimate joke, perhaps. But no one is laughing.

***

MIKE eats a solitary dinner at the hotel's Italian restaurant. Loading up on carbs and protein helps to slow down the decline, and he finds himself in the ridiculous position of having to eat to keep his weight up. The restaurant is nearly empty except for him and a couple at the other end of the room, their plates also piled high. He had hoped that his boss Peter could join him; but he too is in the final stages and can hardly get out of bed. Coming to the conference today was pure agony for him. Mike had told him to go home.

The woman walks into the room: blue skirt, white blouse, arms bare, hair loose. When she sees him, she stops in her tracks. Mike senses she is trying to decide whether to stay or leave. When she turns and goes back the way she came, Mike wipes his mouth, throws his napkin on the table and follows her. In several long, quick strides he is close at her heels.

"Wait," he says.

She walks faster, turns a corner to get to the elevators.

"Wait," he repeats, louder this time.

She breaks into a run.

"Jesus," he mutters, "what the -- "

He's brought up short by a trolley half-laden with baggage, being pushed along by his porter from the previous day. The woman runs into one of the lifts. She looks at Mike; considering that she has just fled from him, she appears surprisingly unruffled. The lift doors close before Mike can get to them.

"What's the point of running," he snarls. "I know where to find you."

***

He does not see her anywhere in the hotel the next morning, before he heads to Peter's home. He had considered knocking on her door the night before, but decided against it.

On the drive to Makati, where Peter lives, Mike sees all the signs of contamination: the abandoned buildings, the half-empty streets, their sidewalks populated by shuffling skeletons that make any city look like Biafra in the 70s.

Peter Darrow has never been fat, but he has always been tenacious. Even now he clings to life the way he has always clung to his convictions; he has a job to do, and he'll die doing it. With little energy to climb the stairs, he has taken to sleeping in a room on the ground floor of his two-story house. Only a nurse and a cook attend to his needs now -- his wife and two grown children are dead. He is sitting on the edge of his bed and just about to have breakfast when Mike arrives.

"I'm sorry, would you like me to wait outside?" Mike asks.

"Sit, sit," Peter insists, waving him toward a nearby chair. There is a plate stacked with pancakes on a folding table in front of him, another plate of sausages on the side. "The dietician keeps telling me to pack it all away. You want some?"

Mike shakes his head, drags the chair over the floor and sits across from Peter. "No, thank you. I did my own packing away this morning." Even from this relative distance, Mike can smell his boss's breath, rank from catabolysis. A plastic tube snakes out from under his T-shirt, attached to a bag filled with intravenous fat emulsion. He's not yet at the point where the body begins to reject any amount and type of nutrition, but he'll get there within weeks.

The older man begins to eat: stabbing at the pancakes, chewing with neither hunger nor pleasure. "Always thought eating was a waste of time. Sleeping, too. Now I hardly do anything but."

"You're joking, right? You still email me a dozen times a day, riding my ass."

Peter flashes a puckish smile, and for a moment he looks as he did seventeen years ago, when Mike first came to work for him. "You're a good kid, Mikey. I had a great team, and you were the best one in it. You were smarter, worked harder than anyone else. And everybody on that team worked damned hard."

He's already thinking in the past tense. A sound escapes Mike's throat, unintelligible but unmistakable: a welter of emotion trapped there. Peter recognizes what it is, wisely decides to ignore it. Between the two of them, words aren't necessary.

"So where are you off to next? Polynesia?"

Back on safe ground, Mike quickly regains his composure. "Kiribati, Samoa, Tuvalu. The reports aren't good."

"There haven't been any good reports since this whole business started." Peter sighs. "The Age of the Enzyme. Bigger than AIDS. Badder than bird flu."

Mike sits quietly for a moment. "Peter, I have to ask. Who takes over when you -- I mean ..." It is difficult to continue. The crusty old Brit is more than just his boss; he is mentor, friend, surrogate father. He is also one of the last surviving of the world's leading epidemiologists.

"When I croak?" Peter pushes the sausages around on the plate; their oily sheen only sickens him. "Khairy from the Eastern Mediterranean. Theophile Allegre -- he has little enough to do in Europe, it's too late for them. Tan Siew Kune from Hong Kong -- he still has a good two or three years left in him. You, I have to keep on the ground. You're not an administrator." This is typical Peter, tough, blunt, unsentimental. "I need your sharp instincts out in the field. While you're alive and able to function, my friend, you're the timekeeper of the world."

Mike mulls this over for a while. The three men are nowhere near as experienced or single-minded as Peter, but they will have to do.

"The turnover's likely to happen before the next conference. I'm sorry I won't be around to help you, old boy. You'll do well, I know it."

Mike does not know what to say, so he says nothing.

Peter pushes the plate of pancakes away; he's barely made it through a fifth of them. "Listen, Mikey. Can I give you some advice?"

"Always."

"Don't be alone when the end comes. That's key. Everything else is just noise."

***

RESTLESS in bed, Mike stares into the dark.

In the Bible, the Angel of Death is a messenger; the Talmud says he appears when there is no further remedy to be found, no other appeal to be made.

Timekeeper of the world.

Mike closes his eyes, tries to will himself to drift away. Let this cup pass from me.

For years now, he has denied his loneliness, has refused to even think about it. When his wife left him, it was easy to blame the weight and move on. Certainly, the last few years, with the demands of work and a global crisis, have made it very easy to forget.

Tonight is different. Something, despair perhaps or hope -- they can seem so alike -- awoke in him on the balcony the other night. It has gnawed at him these last two days, and it refuses to be stilled.

He hauls himself out of bed and ponders his situation for a moment. It is possible she might call security; it would be embarrassing, but he is unlikely to be thrown into jail for simply knocking on a door. She could answer and then merely close it again. That's all right, he decides; he's used to doors closing on him. Would she open it, let him in? Strangely enough, this seems the most disquieting prospect.

Well, then. Here we go.

He glances up and down the hall to see if there is anyone coming. He feels a bit foolish for doing so; he is a grown man, after all, and the hotel is virtually deserted. He pauses to collect himself, and then rings the bell. It is nearly 2am, and she is likely to be asleep. He fights the urge to scuttle back to his room and rings the bell again.

He hears shuffling on the other side. A sound he thinks is the hum of the hotel's air conditioning turns out to be the rush of blood to his head.

She does not seem surprised to see him.

"Hello," he says. She says nothing, waits. "I'm in the room next to yours. My name's Mike."

The question, when it comes, is polite but somber. "What can I do for you?"

He hadn't thought of an answer for that one.

"I'd like to talk."

"Because?"

"Because." He pauses. "Because I can't sleep. And obviously, neither can you."

The door closes; for a moment Mike thinks it has closed for good, but he hears the clink of the chain being undone. When she opens it again, she is alert but not wary; she steps aside to let him pass. There's only one lamp lit in the room, framing her in its warm orange glow. She is wearing a white tank top and jeans, her feet bare on the carpet. When he brushes past her, he catches a whiff of citrus, her perfume or shampoo. Her laptop, blinking on the dressing table, is playing music: a woman singing Ne me quitte pas.

"I don't know what to call you."

"Marisol."

"Hello, Marisol." He realizes that she is not so much beautiful as alive, intensely alive behind the politeness and reserve. He gains the sense that she really sees him when she looks at him. It is unnerving, and he is momentarily stumped. Say something, anything.

"Why did you run away from me last night?'

"You want the truth?"

"Truth's always nice."

"Not always." She looks away. "I suppose the same reason you were running after me."

"Ah." Mike feels a rare stab of pleasure, but suppresses a smile.

"I saw you yesterday morning," she volunteers.

"Outside the lobby, yes. I saw you, too."

She shakes her head. "No, at the conference."

"The WHO conference?" He is taken aback. "What were you doing there?"

"I'm covering it for my agency. I caught your report. You've been busy."

"Ah." Mike tilts his head slightly. "I didn't see you."

"I tried to stay out of your way."

"Because of the other night?" She says nothing. Mike looks down at his feet. "I scared you that much?"

A beat. "You scare me now."

He clears his throat, suddenly dry. "That wasn't my intention. Isn't."

"What is your intention, then?"

The laptop is now playing an Aznavour song. When he recognizes it, he can't help smiling; it seems appropriate for the occasion. "Par la contradiction de ma tete et mon coeur," he echoes softly. "J'en deduis que je t'aime." Surprise, delight flicker across her face, then are quickly gone.

He walks toward the balcony, pausing a short distance away from the glass doors. They're open a few inches, and a mild breeze is stirring the curtains. He is aware that she is still watching him closely; he hopes she is not repelled by what she sees.

"My wife is dead," he says quietly. "Well, she left me first. Then she died."

Without seeing her, he can tell she's moved a bit closer to him. "In the first wave?"

"Yes." He chuckles. "The one that killed all the supermodels."

A moment's silence. "Did she see you before she died?"

"No. I wanted her to. In the end, there didn't seem to be any point." He is surprised to hear her laughing softly. He turns to look at her. "Share?"

"There was a man once. I suppose you could call it a mercy fuck. He whipped out a calculator after sex, tried to figure out my BMI. Said I would be so pretty if ..."

"If only you lost weight," he joins her in finishing the sentence. She blushes, somewhat embarrassed but not displeased by this. Strange, how such a little thing can seem so intimate.

"Well. I was doing a story on the water problem last year -- about hospitals here not being able to cope. He was a patient at one hospital. He was in the last stages. He saw me."

Mike can't help staring at her. If she had looked anything like this last year, Calculator Man would have been beside himself.

"What did he say?"

She has a habit of glancing away before saying something uncomfortable. "He said: 'The fat shall inherit the earth'." Her tone is dispassionate, her voice steady. Something tears inside him.

"He was an idiot."

She touches him first, unsure, her fingers lightly brushing the hair on his arm. She does not meet his gaze, concentrating instead on a point somewhere behind him. When she withdraws, he quickly moves in: locking his massive, powerful arms around her, pressing his body hard against hers. He feels resistance ripple through her, but he refuses to let go, brushing his lips against her hair, breathing her in. He spreads one large hand over the small of her back, lets the other drift to her waist, under her top. His heartbeat quickening now; her skin is smooth, smooth. He lays her on the bed, holds her firmly in place beneath him.

"Listen to me," he demands, forcing her to look at him. "There are no calculators here. Listen. He was an idiot, okay?"

When she finally looks at him, she does not break eye contact. "A dead idiot now," she says, and then neither of them says anything for a while.

***

LATER, she sits away from him on the edge of the bed: a little island, her back to him. She does not seem interested in the customary post-coital cuddle. Perhaps that will change someday; he would like very much to find out. Right now, he feels the need for a cigarette. He has a few sticks and a matchbook in the pockets of his sweats. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he says, reaching for them where they lie on the floor. She shakes her head.

He lights up, takes a drag, does the choo-choo train thing with the tiny puffs of smoke. She watches his reflection in the mirror on the dressing table, in that same soft, unblinking, mildly unsettling way, and he feels compelled to explain himself. "I'm trying to blow smoke rings. Right now they just come out like this."

"You don't like it when people look too closely at you." It's a statement of fact, not a question.

"It's a fat person thing. You would know."

She laughs gently. "Yes, I suppose I would." He is relieved that she does not find him offensive. She shifts position on the bed. "At the conference you said the clock is winding down."

Mike walks over to the sliding doors, opens them wider to let the cigarette smoke out. "Seven years, give or take."

"So we're all screwed."

"Are you going to quote me?"

"Speaking to this reporter after a round of bone-rattling sex," she intones solemnly, "WHO public health expert Michael Tejada said the entire human race is basically fucked."

"Bone-rattling. I like that." A pause. "You wouldn't be misquoting me. Total contamination of water supplies will take about seven years, but most of us would have starved to death by then."

Even as the words come out of his mouth, he wishes he could take them back. But she's tough; she chews on it for a while, then shrugs. She beckons him back with the merest tilt of the head. He grinds the cigarette into an ashtray on a nearby table and climbs into bed beside her. She touches his face with both hands, learning every line and feature by heart.

"You're beautiful, for a dying man."

The kiss is deep: hunger drawn from bottomless wells.

***

HE IS roused from sleep by the sound of her moving around in the room. She is dressed and done packing. He speaks slowly, not fully awake. "What time is it?"

"8 o'clock." She is tying her hair back into a ponytail.

"You're going somewhere."

"Water riots in Istanbul. Flight leaves in an hour. I'm late."

He lets this sink in a moment, watching as she wheels her luggage to the door for the porter. "I'm flying to Kiribati tomorrow. And after that -- well, I'll be moving around a lot." He hopes he doesn't sound desperate. Not too desperate, anyway.

"Same here." She approaches him, strokes his cheek with the back of her hand. "Are you trying to tell me something?"

He takes a deep breath, bows his head and closes his eyes. In his mind he runs through half a dozen responses. He thinks about Peter's advice, about what's key, about how everything else is just noise.

In the end, he settles on the simplest, the most truthful answer. "There's little time left."

She bends, pressing her cheek to his, her fingers brushing his silver hair. They hold each other a long moment.

"There's time enough to teach you how to blow smoke rings," she whispers.

end

"Keeping Time" was first published in the Free Press in July 2007. It won first prize in the short story category of the Free Press Literary Awards in August 2008.

FH Batacan is an editor for an all-news radio station in Singapore. She has previously published stories in the Philippines Free Press and other local magazines. Her first novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, was published by the UP Press in 2002.