The Timekeeper's Tap
Back cover description:
"Here, we serve time, the most potent vice of all."
Trapped in a time-loop of her own making, a soldier is stuck reliving her husband's death over and over, only to discover the cure isn't in changing the past, but facing the present.
Pop open five minutes of your time for The Timekeeper's Tap.
Original Reedsy prompt:
Set your story in a bar that doesn't serve alcohol.
THE TIMEKEEPER'S TAP
I was fifteen hundred miles away when they told me Nate was in the hospital.
He was hit by a drunk driver, my commander said. He’s in emergency surgery now, but it’s pretty severe. I think we need to send you home right now. The words didn’t even seem real, like he was telling someone else all of this instead of me. Because abnormal stuff doesn’t happen to normal people. And I’m a normal person. Right?
I packed up all my stuff right away, got my buddy in command staff to give me a ride to the airport next door to base, then found myself waving goodbye to Soto Cano Air Base not more than three hours later.
If all goes well, we’ll see you back as soon as you’ve got everything stabilized at home, the colonel said. If, he had said. Despite all his assurances that things were fine, that things like this happen all the time, and surely the doctors have everything under control, he said if. Like a neon sign advertising the truth that he wasn’t telling me.
First stop was Miami, then Houston, then Oklahoma City, followed by an hour and a half drive to Enid where I live. My driver got in an accident a mile from the hospital. I ran the rest of the way. Seventeen hours in total. I was notified at 0230 in the morning, and I got to the hospital at 1941 that evening.
They told me he died at 1936.
It felt like the gods somewhere were laughing at me. Laughing that I had gone through seventeen hours of panic, dread, hand-wringing, snapping at flight attendants and Uber drivers, just to miss him by five minutes.
Five. Damn. Minutes.
It still felt like a joke. It wasn’t real. They were just making all of this up. After I was done here, I would just drive home and find Nate sitting there on the couch, with him wondering why I was back from deployment four months early. We would chat and laugh and have dinner, and I would quickly forget about the whole thing.
But they showed me his body.
They said I had to witness it. Or that someone did, to claim him. Like he was a piece of lost luggage.
I threw up.
They covered all the bad parts of him, the areas where he had been crushed, impaled, lacerated. But they showed me his face. He was all bruised on the left side of his head, but other than that it seemed like he was sleeping.
The nurses said there was something I had to do, but I couldn’t hear anything else. Everything was numb all over. I ran out the doors, gasping as cold air hit my lungs, like a freediver coming up to breathe. I ran across the street and found myself in front of a bar.
The Timekeeper’s Tap.
That’s what it was called. I had heard of bars like this in the big cities, but I never knew we had one in Enid. I entered, not really knowing what I was doing, or what I planned on doing. There was a man behind the bar, about fifty or sixty, long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, a chest-length salt-and-pepper beard. He had ice blue eyes, yet they were soothing somehow, like a glacial lake on a hot day.
I washed up on one of the barstools, dropped there like sediment carried by a wave of grief. The man was polishing a glass with a rag, giving me a sideways grin that seemed to suggest he knew me. I didn’t know what to say.
“What’ll it be?” he asked, his voice low and grainy, imbued with veiled power, like a river flowing steadily, undeterred towards the ocean.
I cleared my throat and took a look at the back shelves, which were filled with rows and rows of clocks. Some were large, some were small, pocket watches, wrist watches, grandfather clocks, hotel clocks.
“I uh…I’m not sure,” I replied, overwhelmed and at a loss.
The tender smiled, setting his glass down, then he moved over to me and reached beneath the counter. “First time?” he asked.
“Yes,” I admitted.
He nodded and put a bottle in front of me labeled Triginta. “I recommend you begin with this then,” he said, leaving a bottle opener in front of me.
I still had no idea what this place was, but something drew me to that bottle, something tugged at my heart, filling me with some odd mixture of hope and dread. I knew that opening this bottle would unleash something terrible and grand, and for a moment I considered walking right back out the door, finding somewhere else, somewhere reverent and reflective to silently grieve.
But I didn’t.
I took the bottle opener in my hand and removed the top with a loud hiss.
The first thing I noticed was my driver yelling at someone outside the car. I was in the back seat, watching the bumper fall off the other vehicle. I was by the city park, about a mile from the hospital. I knew precisely where I was. More importantly, I knew precisely when I was.
I looked at my watch. 1925. I was in the past. I had gone back in time, about thirty minutes to be exact.
The thrill of possibilities filled my heart, pounding my mind with ways to somehow return things to the way they were. But then, just as quickly as it came, my elation fled, replaced by the cold reality that at this point in time Nate was still mortally wounded.
Crushing sorrow now threatened to cripple me, to shut down every motor function, but then a flicker of hope melted just enough of my despair to remind me that he was still breathing, heart beating, right now. He was alive, for now at least.
I had waited for my driver after the crash, the first time at least, thinking that somehow he would resolve the accident quickly. I had burned precious minutes simply sitting in place. But I had the gift of foresight now. I could leave, without wasting those minutes.
I had exactly ten minutes before Nate died. Without another thought, I jumped from the car and took off down the street, leaving everything behind and ignoring the confused shouts from my driver.
I had taken my last fitness test about a month ago. My strength scores were average at best, but I maxed out the two mile run time at fourteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds. That meant I would burn a little over seven minutes getting to the hospital, leaving me with no more than three minutes to make my way to Nate’s room in the intensive care unit.
Chest heaving, pits and back sweaty despite the lightly falling snow outside, I burst through the doors of the ER, past the irate heavy-set security guard and up the stairs to the ICU. A shocked-looking nurse greeted me on the second floor, but I flew right by her down the hallway, the security guard shouts following me up the stairwell. None of these rooms looked familiar, but there were three other parallel hallways to check.
“Ma’am! I need you to please stop! You have to check in with the front desk before entering the facility!”
I ignored the security guard and continued down the next hallway. This wasn’t it either, but something familiar tickled the back of my mind. I was close.
“Code blue. ICU level two. Room nineteen.”
The alarm nearly stopped my heart. Blue lights flashed from a ceiling down the hallway, and I sprinted towards the mass of nurses and doctors gathering outside a room marked number nineteen. Overwhelming familiarity filled my agonizing heart as I recognized Nate’s messy brown hair.
“Let me through” I shouted, throwing my full weight against the wall of healthcare workers to no avail.
“Get her out of here!”
“Ma’am! Please step back!”
I felt someone grab me from behind and drag me away, fueling rebellion in every cell in my body. I thrashed to break free, but my captor’s arms remained firm. I shouted, pleaded, my eyes cloudy with tears. I kicked and attempted to drop myself to the ground, but it was like being held by a gorilla.
So, helplessly, I watched as the doctors performed chest compressions. And despite my helpless pleas to be released, I had no choice but to witness the end, the long tone of the heart monitor, the slow stream of nurses leaving the room with strained expressions of familiar defeat carved into their faces.
I was too late.
It wasn’t enough time.
“What else you got?”
The tender was still smiling, though a hint of something else tainted his expression. Pity? Regret?
He reached behind him and grabbed a bottle labeled Hora. “Try this,” he said, placing it and an opener on the bar in front of me.
I grabbed the opener, somehow feeling more empty than before. But a flame of stubbornness still burned inside me, and I was determined to see Nate at least once before he…Well, before it was too late.
With one hand grasping the cold glass bottle, I brought the opener to the cap and pulled.
This time, I directed the driver down a different street. Now that I had made it back earlier in time, I felt the adrenaline rush to my head once again. Not hope. I wasn’t ready to allow that back into my soul, only to have it ripped out like a fishhook. But resolve. And resolve would have to do for now.
We came from the north this time. It took a few extra minutes, but it was a sacrifice worth making. Or at least I thought it was. About a mile from the hospital, the driver somehow still managed to get in an accident. This time with a garbage truck pulling out backwards from an alleyway.
The story was the same. Sprinting down the main street. Invading the ER. Slipping past security, only to be captured at the very moment of Nate’s death.
I tried about five more times, taking different routes each time, only to find that my driver is the most accident-prone individual on Earth, at least within one mile of hospitals.
I ran into The Timekeeper’s Tap once again, a thought having struck me while fighting the security guard for the seventh time.
“Everyone’s always in a rush when they come in,” the tender said playfully, giving me his trademark grin as I rushed to the bar, not even bothering to sit down.
“What’s the hardest stuff you have?” I demanded, looking him straight in the eyes.
He huffed, a quiet chuckle through his nose, and looked down at his glass.
“I see,” he answered solemnly. “I’ve got something on the top shelf, but I would recommend taking it slow. It can be a lot for some people.”
He shuffled a few things around on the shelf and brought me down a bottle marked Diem. Without hesitation, I grabbed the opener from his hand and thrashed the cap off the top.
As you can imagine, it never changed a single thing. A car accident one time, a delayed flight another time, an urgent call home that was never answered. I spent close to a year agonizing over that single day. Living through it time and time again, only to be brought to Nate’s bedside the moment his heart stopped beating, wishing mine would stop too.
And then one day I wandered back into the Tap, my whole being conquered by the sadism of fate. I took a seat at the bar, watching the familiar tender wipe his glass for the thousandth time.
“I’ve seen that face before,” he said to me. “You don’t look well. How many have you had?”
I don’t know if it was the exhaustion or apathy, the driver who just couldn’t seem to keep his car in one piece, or that same smile I saw every time I came in here, mocking my distress with its ignorance, but something inside me snapped.
“None of your damn business,” I growled, slapping an empty bottle off the bar. It struck the wall by the door and burst into pieces. “This is all because of you! I’ve watched my husband die five hundred times because of you!”
The room went silent, and for the first time in a year, I realized I wasn’t the only one here. There were dozens of others chatting amongst themselves, at least they were until my outburst, all with drinks of their own, enjoying the company of others in the pale lit room.
I turned back to the bar, humbled, and bowed my head. Tears fell freely from my eyes, running down my cheeks and dripping onto my folded hands. There was no point opening another bottle; I learned that months ago. But I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t let myself let go, not when there was even an illusory hope of a cure to my pain.
And then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see the tender smiling warmly through his beard. For all my rashness, for all my disrespect, he still seemed to see through it all. He still seemed to find the broken heart beneath the calcified exterior.
“I’m cutting you off,” he said gently, almost lovingly. “It’s time to move on.”
I nodded, understanding. And then my whole frame began to shake with sobs. At this point he came out from behind the bar and sat beside me, holding me tight with one arm around my shoulder. We remained like this for a while, me releasing a year’s worth of anger and anguish, him patiently waiting until I finished. I don’t know how long this continued, though I do know it was longer than any normal person would tolerate a stranger. There must have been something special about that tender.
Then, when my sobs began to die down, he released me and returned to his post behind the bar.
“You know,” he said, grabbing another glass, “I’ve been in this business for quite a while. Everyone always seems to think that a little more time is all they need. A few minutes, an hour, a day. If they could just change one thing, one moment, their whole life would head down a better path, their hardships simply something to be endured, or changed, if possible.”
I listened to him as he grabbed another bottle and placed it in front of me. It was a Coke this time. There was a small pop as he removed the cap and caught it with his hand.
“But think about the time they’re discarding. Those hours and minutes that they’ve already been given for free. Think about the richness of pain that builds strength, the sorrow that leads to character, the heroes that rise from the very ashes that define who they are.”
He opened his hand, the one he used to catch the bottle cap, but it was no longer there. In its place, there was a tiny pocket watch about the same size, quietly ticking as its miniature hands made their way around its face.
I took it from him, admiring the craftsmanship with wonder.
“The thing is, though,” he added, “we were never meant to endure it all alone. Our moments are best shared with those around us.”
He nodded his head, gesturing behind me, and I turned around to find a woman seated in a booth by herself, holding a worn baseball cap in her hands, tears streaming down her face. She had a Triginta on the table in front of her, but it wasn’t open yet.
Something tugged at my heart, pulling me the same way the bottle had that first time a year ago, but it was different this time. Deeper. Richer.
I heard a soft clunk on the bar, and I turned around to find the tender had placed another Coke beside me. His beard turned upwards as he gave me an encouraging smile, and this time, I returned it.