Semper letteris mandate
“Technically, I should call the police coroner and report you,” said the doctor looking hopelessly bewildered.
“I’m sorry!?” said Timmy’s mother.
“Well … your boy is dead,” he replied, and instantly cringed. Definitely not the approved method of breaking such news to a mother, he lectured himself. On the other hand, this wasn’t a normal situation.
“Dead?” She looked at him like he was talking a foreign language. He said nothing. Neither did she.
Finally … “Um, well yes,” the doctor sighed. He took off his glasses and cleaned them absently with his sleeve. “I can understand how a…layman, such as yourself, may have missed the, uh…the symptoms.” He finished cleaning his glasses and stuck them in his shirt pocket.
“What symptoms?” she asked. (“What monsters?” she might have been saying to her son back when he’d been six, after hearing him explain how his homework had been eaten.) The doctor met her stare for a couple of seconds, then, much like her son might have done, looked down at the floor.
“Well, there’s the lack of pulse, of course. And the only time he breathes is to talk. His pupils don’t dilate and his body temperature is exactly room temperature.”
She grasped desperately at this last item of information.
“That’s why I brought him to you! Because he was always cold! I want to know why my ten-year-old boy is always cold!”
“That, I suppose, ” he said taking his glasses from his shirt pocket and putting them on, “is a side-effect of being dead.”
“He can’t be dead! That’s just preposterous!”
“How long has he been cold?”
“Since yesterday. I figured if he were still cold today I’d bring him in. He was. I did.”
“Has he eaten?”
“No. That is … no.” For the first time doubt flickered. But only momentarily, and then it was gone.
“I’m not joking, Betty. Your son, Timmy, is dead. By every definition in the book, he’s dead. Judging by body temperature he’s been dead for a minimum of 24 hours, yet you failed to notify the authorities, and that makes it a police matter.” He’d spoken firmly and forcibly, looking straight at her. Making the patient, or the patient’s family, face situational realities was an important part of his job, and he fell into this role with authority.
Then he remembered what the situational reality was, and looked down at the floor again.
“But … He … Are you going to? Call the police?”
“Why? I mean, thank God, but why?”
“Well, I’m afraid they’ll bury him,” he said still looking at the ground. He took off his glasses and polished them on his sleeve. “And…I don’t think such a course of action would…be in his best interests.”
In the end he left a strong tranquilizer for the mother; but since there were no medications clinically-proven to help in the treatment of death, he prescribed nothing for the patient.
* * *
Timmy’s father, Brian, was a kind and rational man. He looked over the notes left by the doctor, listened to his wife’s observations, and conducted his own investigations: taking the boy’s temperature, listening for a heart-beat, and holding a mirror to his mouth (although during this last experiment he was forced, on several occasions, to sternly request that the corpse refrain from talking).
“So, Timmy,” he said finally, “Have any of your playmates bitten you lately?”
“What?” asked Timothy looking small and pale. He wasn’t sure if he was more scared or excited at being the center of so much unexpected — and delightfully weird — attention.
“Bitten him!” exclaimed Betty, who had been hovering, watching Brian’s actions closely. “Don’t be an idiot. What are you saying, our son’s a vampire?!”
“I’m not being an idiot,” he said patiently, for he was also a patient man. “I simply refuse to be the guy in the story who, despite living in a society with hundreds of movies, books and TV shows about vampires, still can’t recognize one when it’s staring him in the face.”
“There are no such things as vampires,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Normally I would agree. But neither are there such things as dead boys who come home from school with Cs on their latest math test.”
“I can explain that,” Timmy muttered, but neither parent heard him.
“Yes, but … vampires?”
“I don’t know that he’s a vampire, and if he is, we’re going to think seriously before deciding to drive a stake through his heart …”
“Well I should hope so!”
“I’ll do better on my next test!” said Timmy earnestly, deciding that he was more scared than excited.
“… but we’d be fools if we didn’t explore uncommon explanations for an uncommon phenomenon,” finished Brian.
That said, he turned to the boy, and after staring at her husband for a moment longer, Betty gave a little shrug and turned too.
For a few seconds they remained like that, two adults looking at a little boy who appeared to have no idea what was expected of him.
“What!” he finally exclaimed in exasperation.
“Oh!” said Brian with a sudden start, “Has anyone bitten you lately?”
“I want you to think, sweety,” said Betty gently.
The boy thought — at first by expression alone (frowning in concentration), then, as his natural interest was piqued, with an honest intensity. In the end, however, he just shook his head. “No. Nobody’s bitten me.” He thought for another few seconds, and added, “Not even close.”
His father sighed. “Can you think of anything else?” He asked his wife.
She shook her head.
“Me neither,” said the father. “The only undead I know from folktales are vampires, werewolves and zombies. Werewolves,” he ticked off one finger, “aren’t really known for being ‘dead’ so much as for being ‘wolves’ which, if you think about it, probably means they’re not really “undead” in the first place. Vampires,” another finger, “can only be formed by biting, and I think it’s obvious that Timmy hasn’t been bitten. As for zombies,” third finger ticked, “they don’t generally have much in the way of motivation.”
Timmy, who had been calmly watching his father speak, without actually understanding anything he was saying except “vampires,” “werewolves” and “zombies,” flinched at the word “motivation.”
“I said I’ll do better on my next test,” he complained.
“Oh, Brian!” said Betty suddenly, almost in a sob, “How long does he have, do you think?”
Brian looked startled, then nodded. “Yes, that’s right isn’t it? We have no idea what’s going on here, nor what to expect in the course of things.” He fell silent.
After a moment Betty said, “I suppose … it’s really no different than before is it?’
“What do you mean?”
“Well, nobody really knows what’s going on. Nobody really knows what to expect of things. Nobody really knows how long they have together. This has just … made us more aware of it than most people.”
Brian nodded. Timmy looked serious. And for the rest of the evening they were all especially kind to each other.
* * *
The years passed. Timmy’s doctor devised a series of tests aimed at detecting any signs of decomposition. For a while each visit was fraught with tension as they waited for the results, but after a while they grew accustomed to the idea that, whatever the actual state of his health, their son was not going to putrefy any time in the near future.
At first his parents attempted to keep his “condition” quiet, but it was a small town, there were too many school nurses, too many injuries (always completely healed after he’d slept), and in general too many outside authorities for it to work. In the end, his “condition” became the worst-kept secret in town. It didn’t matter though, he ended up being viewed as something between a local hero and a local mascot. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Timmy graduated highschool, and at the graduation ceremony, when he went on stage to receive his diploma, most of the students and teachers gave him a standing ovation.
He waved at his crowd of admirers, looking both proud and embarrassed, shook the Dean’s hand and walked off stage. After the ceremony was over, Timmy, who now went by “Timothy,” ran off to a post-graduation party with Karen, his girlfriend since the tenth grade, and a small group of close friends while his parents drove to their favourite restaurant.
“It was a grand day, wasn’t it?” said Brian by way of a toast when they’d been served their wine.
“Yes, it was,” said Betty, smiling, but with small tears forming. They clinked glasses and drank, neither speaking for a while.
“It’s good he grew.”
“Yes,” said Betty with a bit of a laugh, “It would have been terrible if he’d stayed looking like a ten year old.”
They both smiled at the ghosts of old worries.
Just then their meal arrived. While cutting his steak, Brian suddenly laughed out loud.
“I was just remembering when we were deciding we wouldn’t drive a stake through his heart.”
Betty laughed too. “Yes, but that was a different kind of stake.”
They finished off the evening in a warm glow.
Later that night, or more accurately, early the next morning, three of Timmy’s friends arrived looking unhappy and carrying a large bundle wrapped in a sheet.
“We got a bit drunk,” said the dark-haired boy whose name neither Betty nor Brian had ever been able to remember.
“Timothy doesn’t drink,” said Betty.
“Or eat,” murmured Brian.
“No, but…well, I guess he got silly from being around us.”
“What happened?” asked Brian.
“He tried dodging the train.”
Timmy’s parents looked at the bundle.
“I take it he didn’t jump fast enough,” said Betty.
“my foot got stuck,” said the bundle in a muffled voice.
“Can you take him up to his bedroom?” asked Betty, and the boys were more than happy to oblige. Afterwards she made them some coffee and everyone sat around in the kitchen, Brian and Betty listening with amusement as their son’s friends relived events of the party.
“Oh!” said Betty suddenly. “How’s Karen?”
“Tim’s girlfriend? She’s fine. She was kind of grossed out when the train hit …”
The dark-haired boy chortled, which brought coffee up into his nose making him snort. “She completely refused to help pick up any pieces.”
“Yea!” laughed the fair-haired boy whom Betty remembered was named Danny, but whose name Brian couldn’t recall. “She was all like, ‘Im not touching you in that state,’ and ‘What were you thinking?’”
“Yea,” said the first boy smiling, “but the whole time we were searching around for parts Tim kept apologizing to her for being a jerk and … well, you know how he is.”
Both his parents nodded and smiled for they did know. When Timothy was sorry for something it was impossible to stay mad at him.
A couple of hours later the boys went home, Brian and Betty put the cups in the sink, turned off the downstairs lights and went up to bed.
“You asleep yet?” called out Brian as they passed Timothy’s door.
“Well see that you get to sleep,” admonished his mother, “because we’re going to Nanny’s tomorrow and you certainly can’t go in that condition!”
“i will. sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she replied, “just go to sleep.”
* * *
After college, which was a journalism school of some high regard, he spent the next couple of years moving from one freelance writing job to the next. He had a natural wit, and a keen eye for details, which boosted his reputation in circles where it counted. Then, when he was 24, Timothy got a job as a regular staffer on a national paper. There was some problem at first with insurance, since he refused to go for a medical exam, but when he promised to take care of his own insurance, and signed a legal form absolving them of all responsibility, they gladly took him on. When the chance came for him to become their foreign correspondent in a war-torn region of the world, he took it without qualms.
His long stints overseas brought his relationship with Karen to an end; but both of them were more relieved than crushed. Any sadness they did feel was really a kind of nostalgia. For the last few years they’d been dating as much out of habit as for any other reason.
“You come back in one piece, you hear?” said Karen just before he left for his assignment after their breakup.
“That’s how it always ends up, isn’t it?” he laughed, and they parted best of friends.
Later that year, at a posting in Bosnia, Timothy met Sam, a pretty, spikey brunette, quick with words, and fast with comebacks. She was with the Post and they hit it off immediately in a friendly rivalry. After a while he realized that they were now what would be considered romantically linked, and began wondering when he should tell her about his lack of a beating heart.
“It’s not the sort of thing you can look up in Miss Manners,” he wrote in one of his frequent letters home.
Brian chuckled when Betty read it to him that evening. “Maybe we could publish a book on etiquette tips for the undead.”
“I think it would appeal to a very small niche market,” Betty commented archly, but for the next few months they made notes and wrote rough drafts. They called it Social Tips for the Life-Challenged Person.
Eventually they showed the growing manuscript to a friend in the publishing industry who felt it would make an excellent post-modern entry in the literary field, and arranged a publishing contract on the spot.
The timing was such that, when it came out in the autumn releases a year and a half later, they were able to present the first copy to their son, Timothy, and his bride, Sam, at their wedding reception.
“By the way,” said Timothy’s parents, when they had a few moments with him alone during the night, “how did you end up telling Sam?”
Timothy glanced with open affection across the room at his wife of several hours. He laughed, and Sam, who happened to look over at just that moment, smiled at him in pleasure.
“Fact is, it kind of got taken out of my hands when a suicide bomber blew me into three pieces while I was waiting for her at a sidewalk café.”
They laughed easily, then Brian frowned in thought.
“Any problem with the morgue attendants?”
Timothy winced slightly. “Some,” he admitted. “I was dead tired when I got to the café in the first place, then with the explosion and getting trundled to the morgue — you wouldn’t believe the way they toss you around when you’re not in one piece! — it all kind of wore me right out, so I fell asleep really quickly. The next morning I woke up early and suddenly panicked because Sam would be worried. I was going to make up some story about being detained the day before and wow-did-you-hear-about-the-explosion-that-happened-at-the-cafe kind of thing. I sat up without thinking and scared the socks off the graveyard shift guy just as he was getting ready to go home.”
“What happened?” asked Brian.
“Well, a lot of stuff, nothing too awfully traumatic, but he did quit his job.”
They tsked in sympathy for the man.
“I saw her on the street a couple of hours later, called out to her to tell my carefully rehearsed story, and she fainted.
“I didn’t faint!” said a throaty female voice behind him. Tim moved and his wife stepped into the little group, putting her arm around his waist. “I screamed and I screamed and I screamed, and then, and only then, did I faint.”
“Turns out she’d been coming around the corner and had seen me get disassembled.”
Tim reached down to the hall table beside him and picked up his parents’ new book. “Did you see this?” he asked. Sam took it and read the title. Tim showed her the chapter called “Dating Tips For the Undead.”
“You certainly could have done with this when we got together. When were you going to tell me, you jerk?”
Tim smiled in an “aw shucks” way and all four laughed.
* * *
Of course, Tim and Sam had no children, but they were completely happy with themselves, and besides, their careers called for a lot of travel. Tim was always the more widely known as a correspondent, but that was only because he could risk more to get a good story.
As they approached their mid-thirties, they realized that danger was rapidly losing its thrill for them, and so began casting around for more sedentary positions, preferably on the same paper, definitely in the same city. As it turned out, the newspaper in Tim’s hometown happened to be for sale. Tim and Sam went to check over the operation, but it was well beyond their budget. The town, however, was so happy with the prospect of its newspaper being run not only by their favourite son and his wife, but by two internationally renowned newspaper people, that a special assembly was held between town council and the newspaper’s board, and a deal was put together which proved virtually impossible to resist.
And so Tim and Sam ended up back in Tim’s old hometown, happily building up their own paper. As the years rolled by, two of Tim’s and three of Sam’s stories were nominated for, but failed to win, Pulitzers.
His father died at the age of eighty-nine, his mother a year later at the age of ninety.
Timothy always looked young for his age, but he did age, and his wife looked even younger than he did, so they moved gracefully into their senior years.
Four days after her ninety-first birthday, Sam complained of chest pains and died the next day.
For a year or two after that, Timothy wrapped up his affairs and, ninety-five years, three months, and four days after he’d been born — or eighty-five years, six months and twenty days after he’d first died — he died again.
He was attending a retirement party for one of the paper’s old-timers (although not as old as Timothy) when he suddenly went still. Those near him noticed first, and after a time a doctor was called and pronounced the death. He was taken away, but the party went on because although they all felt the loss, it had come as no surprise, and they knew he would want them to carry on. His body was put into one of the drawers in the morgue under the town hall.
“That ends the strangest story this town’s ever seen,” said one of the attendants as he flicked off the lights.
In the darkness Timothy smiled and, this time, waited until he was sure the place was deserted.