In today's story, The Lost Hour, reality bends for an ER nurse working through the start of Daylight Saving Time
Today's prompt was inspired by the beginning of Daylight Saving Time, an insanely annoying period when some of us are forced to cope with "springing ahead," losing an hour, and feeling out of sync with a suddenly shifted schedule. (Can you tell I'm not a fan?)
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
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Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 54 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is The Lost Hour.
If you’re new to Freely Written, here’s how my process works: I write a bit of fiction from a simple prompt, with no planning and very little editing, and then I share the story with you.
Today’s prompt was inspired by our recent change to Daylight Saving Time, which is also known as “springing forward” or “losing an hour.” While that doesn’t bother everyone, some of us are sensitive to the time shift. My schedule is suddenly off by an hour and my body knows the difference.
Instead of my usual grumbling about this over the next several days of adjustment, I decided to use it as a writing prompt. Or, I should say, in addition to my usual grumbling…
Anyway, here’s how that turned out:
The Lost Hour
Catherine leaned against the glossy wall and let out a slow exhale. Her body trembled. Not visibly, but with a subtle vibration that kept every cell of her being on high alert. Her eyes ached with the gritty sensation of lost sleep, and her stomach tightened against the empty gnawing of a lost appetite.
Yet Catherine felt slightly out of her body as her mind fixated on the door to her right. The room she’d just left. Her thoughts were stuck in that room. Glued to that bed.
As she consciously took another breath, Catherine closed her eyes and listened to the familiar sounds of the hospital. The beeping of distant machines. The chatter from the nurses’ station. An announcement called a rapid response team to radiology, and she automatically ran through a mental list of her ER patients, noting that none were in radiology at the moment.
The reminder of her other patients snapped Catherine to attention. Whatever was happening behind this door, she had other patients who needed her, too.
After a quick pump of hand sanitizer from the wall dispenser, Catherine briskly rubbed her hands together and studied the men in black suits as the cool gel evaporated from her skin.
They’d shown up with the patient and hadn’t moved from their spot across from his door. Two of them were in the room as well. Catherine didn’t see weapons but knew they had to be armed. It wasn’t the first time she’d come across private security in the ER, but the similarity to past experiences seemed somehow wrong, given the patient in that room…
Catherine made herself shake the image away. She had other patients to check on. She padded toward the nurses’ station on her soft-soled shoes, hoping for a moment of levity to make the night feel more normal, but the other nurses tensed when they saw her approach.
“Is it…?” Devon started a question but ran out of words.
Is it what? Catherine thought angrily. There were too many places that question could lead.
“We shouldn’t talk about it,” Norma rushed in. “They told us not to.”
Catherine nodded. She knew which they she meant. The men in black suits. Like the movies. She put a hand to her forehead and felt the room shift around her.
“Have some water,” Devon offered. “Have you eaten?”
“How’s the woman in bed three?” Catherine returned tensely. “Did her x-rays come back yet?”
“She’s been discharged. Nothing broken,” Norma reassured. “You were in there a long time.”
Catherine nodded. Had she been in there long? she wondered. Time had lost meaning.
“Ma’am,” a voice interrupted firmly. “We’d like you to come with us.”
“I have other patients,” Catherine snapped, turning to face one of the black suits.
“We can cover them,” Devon volunteered, sending a spark of anger through Catherine’s chest.
A moment later, she was whisked to a room that was empty except for an older man sitting in a visitor’s chair. He wore a black suit, like the others, but there was something different about him. Something too angular, too lanky, yet imposing, even from his vinyl seat. He had pure white hair and skin that was almost blue.
The patient bed had been rolled against one wall and an additional chair stood in its place. Catherine was gestured into the chair, then left alone with the white-haired man.
“You’ve been chosen, Ms. Miller,” the man stated precisely.
“No, I…” Catherine sputtered. “I just want to do my job.”
“You have been chosen,” he began again, but Catherine quickly stood up.
The man remained seated.
“Please sit,” he requested plainly.
Catherine glanced toward the door, seeing two men standing guard, and she remained standing.
“You’ve been chosen to learn the truth,” the man continued.
Catherine blinked at him. That wasn’t news to her. She sat in the chair, clasping her hands.
“I’ve seen the… patient,” Catherine agreed. “I know the truth.”
“Not that truth,” the man dismissed lightly. “A truth that only a select few will be told tonight.”
Catherine shook her head emphatically.
“I don’t want to know anything more.”
“Because it is too much?” The man asked carefully. “Are you feeling overwhelmed, Ms. Miller?”
“Overwhelmed?” Catherine laughed drily. “Three days ago, spaceships appeared in the sky. Tonight your… team… came here with a… little gray… alien. I don’t know if overwhelmed is even the word…”
“You won’t remember this.”
“What?” Catherine frowned at his interruption.
“I’m a Time Manager,” the man explained, pulling an official looking badge from his breast pocket. Catherine blinked at the strange design, then threw up her hands and laughed.
“Okay, great… so there are aliens and time travel and… what else? Unicorns? Leprechauns? Is someone getting me a straight jacket now or do I have to request one?”
“It is currently 1:47 am on March 13, 2022,” the man continued resolutely. “We are close to the start of Daylight Saving Time. After we reach 1:59 am, the time will advance to 3 am, and everything you’ve learned in the last three days will disappear into the lost hour.”
“But… I…” Catherine’s mouth fell open as a white buzzing shot through her brain.
“You, Ms. Miller, have been chosen to be told and to fill out this questionnaire for us.”
He lifted a plastic clipboard from a leather bag by his side and handed it across the space between them. A pen was thoughtfully clipped at the top of the board.
Catherine accepted it, letting her eyes drift over the letterhead, which read International Time Management Agency beside a logo that matched the badge she’d been shown. Below that she saw a line that said “Subject: Catherine Miller Case Number: 457-632B-47A6”.
The rest of the sheet was filled with questions beside answer bubbles ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree” with a few options in-between.
“The lost hour,” Catherine echoed the phrase he’d used before handing her the clipboard. “The hour we lose to springing ahead?”
“Yes,” he agreed, somewhat pleased that she’d made the connection.
“But… this has… the spaceships… they arrived three days ago,” Catherine insisted. “I was on a blind date at a coffee shop, and they just appeared… and since then…”
“Yes,” the man agreed, waving away the rest of her words. “As you have been chosen, I will explain further. Twice each year, certain truths are revealed… experimentally… to gauge a public reaction… and then our agency removes the memories of those events and adjusts the time.”
“But… three days…?” Catherine insisted, temporarily forgetting the insanity of what he was suggesting to focus on the logical discrepancy of three days’ worth of memories disappearing into a single hour.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” the man sighed. “We can make up to a week disappear without much bother. Any discomforting side effects are explained by our taking away an hour at the same time. People who feel disturbed can blame it on their circadian rhythms.”
He said circadian rhythms with a glint in his eye, as if sharing an inside joke.
“But you… you erase days of our lives? Every year?”
“Twice a year,” he corrected patiently.
“But we only lose an hour once a year,” Catherine frowned. “We gain an hour in the fall…”
“Yes, yes. That doesn’t matter,” the man assured her. “We adjust the time one way or the other and both cover for any discomfort caused by the memory erasure.”
Catherine felt her mouth hanging open and purposefully closed her jaw. Skimming over the questionnaire, she felt a queasy dread of unreality wash over her. This isn’t happening, she thought blankly.
“Now, Ms. Miller, please,” the man persisted. “Time is running short, and we really would like you to answer these questions before your memory resets. It will be very helpful in our studies.”
Standing abruptly, Catherine stumbled backward, knocking into her chair and dropping her clipboard on the polished floor.
“I… You… But…” Words fell out of her mouth and the room began to swim. Flashes of the thin gray alien in his hospital bed swirled behind her eyes, mixed with nausea, alongside the disconcerting images of coffee, sushi, and spaceships in the sky.
The door to the room opened and two suited men rushed in, grabbing Catherine by either arm just before she slumped to the floor.
“One truth too many,” the white-haired man shrugged. “I thought the questionnaires might be too much.”
Catherine slumped in her chair behind the nurses’ station. She held a strong cup of coffee in one hand as she stared unseeingly into the mid-distance.
“There it went,” Norma said, taking a seat by her side.
“What?” Catherine snapped to attention, seeing her coworkers bustling around the ER.
“It’s 3:01,” Norma answered airily. “We just lost an hour to the time change.”
“Oh,” Catherine shook her head. “It’s been a long night,” she added, running through a mental list of her patients and realizing it was time to bring medicine to the man in room five.
“I hate the time change,” Devon told them, as she swooped through to pick up a chart. “I always feel awful for about a week.”
“It’s just your circadian rhythms,” Catherine told her, ignoring a strange twinge of déjà vu as she hurried off to her patient.
Thanks for joining me today. Between stories you can connect with me on social media, learn about my novels and other projects on my website, SusanQuilty.com or support my writing through Patreon.com/SusanQuilty.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]