Twenty-Seven

by Shayne Woodsmith

CHAPTER 1

The long bleach-white corridor in the maternity ward had the faintest antiseptic smell, which the nurses and doctors didn’t seem to notice anymore. The doctors walked slowly, heads tilted down towards their electronic charts in their hands as they scribbled notes and read through patient histories. The nurses hustled past the doctors from one room to the next, their shoes squeaking against the sterile floor.

Inside one of the nurseries, while the parents watched from behind a gigantic glass wall that separated the nursery from the parent observation lounge, five nurses spread out amongst the twenty perfectly aligned incubators. Hyperventilated cries filled the room, and the newborns shook with the effort, their chubby arms and legs trembling as they wailed. On the right wrist of every baby, an obsidian-colored thanatometer was fastened—like thick wristwatches with dead batteries. The skin beside the straps was inflamed.

The nurses’ thanatometers displayed vital signs, age, and projected death age (PDA). Blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature were displayed at the bottom and fluctuated slightly depending on a nurse’s level of exertion, but her age and PDA, the two largest numbers at the top of the screens, remained fixed. The baby thanatometers would display the same data after calibration but first they needed to be synchronized with the hospital’s computer network.

The nurses went from incubator to incubator with styluses in hand, lifting wrists, examining thanatometers, and making the babies bawl louder. After a few strokes of the stylus on a baby thanatometer’s glass face, the instrument would connect and begin to glow neon blue.

The parents—some sitting on couches and others standing in the tiered observation lounge—anxiously sipped water from metal tumblers while watching baby names pop up on the glass screen in front of them, obscuring their view of the nursery. Each time a thanatometer began to glow on a baby’s wrist, its owner’s name would appear on the screen. The parents stared at each new name.

Breyton, Stephanie – PDA 00.00.

Lam, James – PDA 00.00.

Vargez, Carmen – PDA 00.00.

As the gigantic screen filled with baby names, some of the parents began shifting in their seats, others paced the floor, one couple gawked from their seats with their jaws hanging open. Mr. and Mrs. Vargez held their breath for a split second when their daughter’s name appeared, dreading the imminent calibration even though they knew there was nothing to worry about. But what if … what if …

Mr. Lam stood up. “All right. Here we go,” he said as his son’s name appeared in front of him. “Let’s see those high triple digits.” He finished his water with a gulp, put his glass in his chair’s cup holder, licked his lips, and began wringing his hands with his gaze fixed on the zeros beside his son’s name.

Mrs. Lam rose from her chair, wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist, and interlaced her fingers.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Like his dad.” Mr. Lam smirked but didn’t take his eyes off the screen. “One hundred and twenty-eight.”

“Hey Lam,” Mr. Breyton called out from the other side of the room, a cocky smile creeping across his face as he spoke. “Bet you a full day’s wage my daughter beats your son by at least five years.”

Lam faced him and said, “I’ll take that.”

“Easy money. Easy money,” Breyton said, his eyes shifting back and forth between the poised zeros of James Lam and his little Stephanie.

Mrs. Lam let go of her husband. “Oh dear, please don’t,” she said and began cracking her knuckles. “We have more important things to worry about.”

He turned towards his wife and covered her hands with his, the cracking stopped. “I hope James doesn’t fret like his mother,” he said. “He might only make it to eighty.”

Embarrassed, she dropped her hands to her sides. “Sorry dear, I just ...”

“Don’t worry about the bet,” he said, smirking at Breyton before turning back to the screen. “It’s a lock.”

Sean and Lizette Nolan sat directly in front of the large glass screen waiting for their daughter’s name to appear. They leaned back, holding hands and staring up. The previous night was the first time the couple had slept apart in years, and Sean had tossed worse than ever. Lying alone in their bed, all he could think of was Sophia’s PDA calibration. One second the numbers would soar in his imagination and the next they’d plummet. He had to get up and work out just to distract himself. The treadmill for an hour, weights for an hour and a half, and then thirty minutes of crunches. He’d punished himself like he used to in college the night before a basketball game, especially a playoff game. But it didn’t help. Unlike Lizette, he hadn’t slept at all. She spent the night in a recovery chamber at the hospital and had had the deepest sleep of her life. At first she didn’t think she’d be able to relax. She hated baths and couldn’t stand the feeling of shriveled fingers and toes afterwards. But the warm, regenerative plasma she soaked in gave her the wonderful sense of weightlessness. She didn’t dream or wake prematurely, and her digits didn’t even get pruney. Lizette had surrendered to relaxation completely and was sure it would add years to her life. She had awoken refreshed, her body showing no signs that she was ever pregnant.

Finally Sophia’s numbers popped up on the screen.

Nolan, Sophia – PDA 00.00.

The Nolans’ eyes widen when they saw their daughter’s name and, seemingly pulled towards the screen, they leaned forward and then stood up. Midway through their first date ten years ago, they knew they’d have healthy babies with long lives. They were both extremely fit. He ran marathons and had played competitive basketball since middle school, and she’d been swimming one hundred laps everyday since her sixteenth birthday. Good genes too—no history of any abnormalities on either side. It was a logical certainty that their children would be healthier or at least just as healthy. That thought carried them from their first date to their vows a year later. But now, waiting to confirm what they had always presumed, part of them didn’t want to know.

Sean couldn’t stop thinking about the saying, “A child’s PDA is a parent’s life,” and Lizette kept hearing her mother’s voice saying, “A healthy child is a healthy marriage,” over and over. As they waited for Sophia’s numbers to move, they both felt as if the memory of their first date wasn’t real and that the people they were ten years ago didn’t exist, which made them question if they existed at all. They stood still, shoulders close but not touching, holding hands, the feeling of the other’s palm completely void of the spark that was there the first time they had touched. Having a child was supposed to bring them closer together, but instead they were each standing beside and holding hands with a stranger.

The nurses filed out of the nursery when all twenty thanatometers glowed and all twenty baby names, ten boys and ten girls, were displayed in rows across the screen in front of the twenty couples. The calibration was about to begin. The parents became very still, their own thanatometers monitoring their elevated heart rates and blood pressures; numbers fluctuated in time with heartbeats, moving up and up as the moment dragged on. And then, the numbers sprang to life.

The PDAs began to increase, soaring through the lower digits, racing upwards like stopwatches in fast forward.

“Come on baby. Come on baby,” Mr. Breyton said, his hands clenched into tight fists.

“Oh Stephie. Come on Steph,” Mrs. Breyton said through hands cupped over her nose and mouth.

Mr. Lam clapped and said, “Let’s go James. Don’t let me down.”

The numbers began to slow after reaching eighty but continued to move up steadily.

90 … 93 … 96 … 97 … 100 …

The pace of each readout steadily slowed down until, nearing one hundred and twenty, the numbers crawled, reaching for the higher digits, exhausted but resolute. Some readings were higher than others now, and the parents of the more ambitious PDAs cheered their children on.

“You can do it. Come on. You can do it.”

At one hundred and twenty-two point one five, Stephanie Breyton’s digital readout turned black and started pulsating like a steady heartbeat. The Breytons hugged each other and looked down at the digital displays on their own wrists: hers, 121.43, his, 124.91. Steph was, as they had feared, between them but closer to her mother.

“Not bad. Not bad,” he said.

“At least she’s over one twenty,” she said. “That’s all I wanted.”

One by one the numbers beside the names stopped, turned black, and began flashing on the screen in front of the parents.

127.26.

130.92.

124.48.

129.51.

The room grew evermore boisterous with the pulsating of each PDA. Couples hugged and kissed and high-fived.

“You owe me some money Breyton,” Lam said, holding up his glass of water and chuckling.

Breyton nodded, and raised his glass. He was among the minority of more subdued parents who tried to remain phlegmatic while digesting the weaker longevities of their children.

“It’s okay. Steph’s still above average.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll help her bring that up a bit.”

Amidst the celebrations and hard swallows, one PDA hadn’t calibrated at all and one couple hadn’t moved. The zeros beside Sophia Nolan’s name stared back at her parents like gigantic tombstones.

“What happened? What’s the matter with it?” Lizette asked.

“I don’t know,” Sean replied. “It must be a … a glitch or something.” He turned to the Lams who were embracing each other beside them. “Hey. Hey!”

They turned, their huge smiles fading when they saw Sean and Lizette’s stricken faces.

“Have you ever seen that before?” Sean pointed to his daughter’s motionless digits.

The Lams turned to face the screen again. “That’s weird,” Mr. Lam said. “Hey everybody. Everybody. Excuse me!” The commotion settled as all eyes turned towards Mr. Lam. “Keep it down for a second. One PDA still needs to be calibrated.”

Everyone stared at the frozen zeros beside Sophia’s name. Did she have a heartbeat? Was she dead?

Then her numbers lurched upward and a communal sigh filled the room.

“There we go.”

“That’s more like it.”

Sean and Lizette sighed as they wrapped their arms around each other and collapsed into the chairs behind them.

“Oh thank God,” Lizette said.

Mr. Lam leaned in. “It probably stalled ‘cause it’s going to be so high.” He patted Sean on the shoulder. “Huh.”

The thought infected the Nolans. Suddenly, the numbers had paused because they were going to be the exclamation point for the entire calibration procedure. As Sophia’s numbers increased in a blur, her parents’ eyes grew wide at the thought of their daughter breaking the record, about the interviews and the exposés and the magazine cover stories; Lizette imagined herself holding little Sophia while her husband embraced her from behind on the covers; Sean imagined a picture with his daughter in one arm and his wife in the other for their autobiography.

But then both Sophia’s counter and time stopped.

Nolan, Sophia – PDA 27.00.

The observation lounge became cold and silent. Sean stared at the number. His mouth fell open and he let out an awkward laugh, causing his wife to jerk as if waking from a nightmare and forcing everybody in the room to momentarily turn their eyes from the dead digits to his red face and forced half smile. Sean stood up and stepped forward towards the glass. But just as he got close enough to touch it, just as he extended his arm and reached for the stalled digits, the numbers turned black and began pulsating in sync with all the others on the huge screen. Sean stumbled backwards and crashed down onto the steps.

“We need a doctor in here,” Lizette called out, running forward and grabbing hold of Sean beneath his armpits. She tried to lift him but he was dead weight. “Somebody’s got to fix that display. There’s a loose connection or something … a … a malfunction.” Her eyes darted around the room. Everybody, inching closer to their partner, shrank away from the Nolans. Lizette let go of her husband and ran up the stairs towards the back of the room. When she reached the back, she thrust her hand in front of the intercom and waved violently into the motion censor.

“Hello?” she said, her voice raspy. She cleared her throat. “Hello? Hello?”

“Mrs. Nolan?” a crisp voice responded.

“Yes. Yes.”

“We’re just looking into the problem Mrs. Nolan. We’ll run the calibration again when we’ve finalized all the other PDAs.”

Mrs. Nolan edged closer to the intercom, nodded, and said, “Okay.”

Mr. Nolan appeared beside her. “No, it’s not okay,” he said. “Your faulty computer has taken years off our lives, so the next time you run it, you better get it right.”

“There’s nothing to worry about Mr. Nolan. Occasionally these things happen. Just be patient. We will recalibrate Sophia’s PDA soon. It shouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes.”

“Well, all right,” Sean said, running his sweaty palm down the length of his shirt, trying to smooth the wrinkles.

“I will also ask,” the voice continued, “that everyone, excluding Mr. and Mrs. Nolan, leave the observing room in an orderly and calm fashion. There has been a slight malfunction with their daughter’s thanatometer. All the other calibrations, however, were completed without complications. There is no reason for concern, so kindly make your way towards the exit please.”

As soon as the door slid shut behind the last person and the Nolans were alone in the room, the intercom clicked on again. “We are going to restart the calibration. Sophia’s numbers will go back down to zero in order for us to do this, so don’t be alarmed. It’s all part of the procedure.”

Sean and Lizette stared at the giant glass wall in front of them—twenty names all paired with numbers were listed in three columns across the screen, every number, except Sophia’s, was over one hundred and twenty.

When her readout fell to zero, reset like a primitive watch, both of her parents felt their stomachs drop. They had to sit.

“We’re going to restart the calibration. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

The digits beside Sophia’s name began to roll again. To Lizette, her daughter’s name looked out of place on the screen, which made Sophia herself look out of place in the nursery even though she was identical to all the other babies around her.

The numbers increased rapidly but again stopped dead at exactly twenty-seven without any fluctuation.

“Oh my God. What’s wrong with her?” Lizette said. “What’s wrong with our baby?”

“Nothing’s wrong with her,” Sean said. “It’s just a malfunction. That’s all.” Sean held his wife tight, trying to push doubt out of his mind.

“There must be something wrong with the wireless connection,” the voice said from the intercom. “A nurse will check Sophia’s thanatometer momentarily. But until we have confirmation of a proper connection, we will run a full diagnostic of our equipment and then a diagnostic of the connection between Sophia’s thanatometer and our system.”

“What’s the holdup?” Sean called back over his shoulder. “What’s wrong with your system?”

“Does this sort of thing happen a lot?” Lizette asked, her head pressed against Sean’s chest.

“No.” The voice responded. “This sort of thing rarely happens. But rest assured that we will correct the problem.”

A nurse entered the nursery on the other side of the screen and quickly made her way to Sophia. After a few strokes of her stylus across Sophia’s little thanatometer display, the phosphorescence was extinguished and Sophia’s name disappeared from the screen. Then the entire screen went blank. The nurse pulled up a cable from the floor next to the incubator and clicked it into Sophia’s thanatometer. When Sophia’s thanatometer began to glow once again, her name reappeared on the glass wall, all alone and in the centre. PDA zeroed.

“This time we are using a direct connection to ensure that there is no interference to Sophia’s calibration. You will be seeing the most accurate readout possible, down to a thousandth of a year. It’ll begin shortly.”

Sophia slept. Many of the other babies were fussing and wailing, but Sophia didn’t seem to hear them.

The nurse examined Sophia, the incubator, and the connection between Sophia’s thanatometer and the cable before leaving the nursery and entering the observation lounge.

“Hello,” she said, approaching the Nolans. “Is there anything I can get for either of you?”

“You could get these damned machines to do their jobs and you could do yours too while you’re at it.”

“Sean,” Lizette said, glaring at her husband.

The nurse cleared her throat. “Can I get you anything ma’am?”

“Ice water please,” she said.

“Of course. I’ll be right back with it.”

After the nurse left, the room was silent. Lizette’s ears were ringing.

“What does this mean, Sean?”

He turned to her. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

“But what if …” She swallowed and tried to moisten her dry throat. “What if that’s her PDA? What if …”

“It’s not.” He turned to look at Sophia’s name on of the screen. “It can’t be. It’s just a ridiculous malfunction.”

Lizette gazed through the glass at the cable connecting her daughter to the floor. She reached towards Sophia, her baby who suddenly seemed small and sickly. Her reddened skin and rapid breaths couldn’t be healthy. Lizette stretched out her hand but let it fall to her side when the nurse stepped through the door with two glasses of ice water.

“Thanks,” Lizette said.

After handing over the glasses, the nurse moved to the back of the room and stood by the intercom. The intercom broke the silence.

“We’re going to recalibrate now.”

“It’s about time!” said Sean.

“Once again, I apologize for the long wait and the technical problems. Your daughter’s PDA will, normal and ample, appear momentarily … here we go.”

The Nolans and the nurse fixed their eyes on the numbers poised to increase in the centre of the glass wall. Once Sophia’s PDA began to increase for the third time, it was a slow methodical climb, digit by digit and tenth of a year by tenth of a year until the counter, again, stopped at twenty-seven.

The nurse’s entire body went limp. She shook her head thinking that somehow a one would appear in front of the poor child’s feeble projected death age.

“What does that mean?” Lizette asked. She turned back to the nurse, her voice shaky, her hand gripping the back of her seat. “What do we do now?”

“We don’t do anything now,” Sean said. “They’ve got to fix the computers or else we’ll never know Sophia’s real PDA.”

“What does that mean?” Lizette cried out, forcing the nurse to look at her.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Sean said.

Lizette jumped to her feet, marched up to the nurse, and grabbed both her hands. “Tell me. Please.” She squeezed harder. “What does it mean?”

“It … it means what it always means,” the nurse said.

“But. It can’t. Twenty-seven.” Her eyes welled up and her lower lip quivered. “It’s … it’s so young.” Lizette’s face fell into her hands and her sobs began to echo throughout the large, empty room.

The nurse wrapped her arm around Lizette’s trembling back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”