Justice Ambrose Erkens, lying in his bed in the George Washington Memorial Hospital, struggled to keep his eyes open. The doctor was in the hallway, talking to Ambrose’s daughter Julia and her husband Lucas. Ambrose wished he could hear them. Their soft voices were barely audible over the beeps and hums of the various monitors in the room. Something the doctor said caused Julia to cover her mouth with her hand, eyes widening in—shock? Fear? Lucas took her in for a comforting embrace just as tears started to form in her eyes.
Ambrose always knew this day would come. He felt no fear, no regret. Already, he was older than most people ever lived to be. He had served his country well for these last many decades, first as a federal judge in the lower courts, then as a Supreme Court justice for a whopping 28 years. If anything, he was grateful it was only his body that was failing him—his wits were keen as ever.
The doctor stepped back into the room, trailed by Julia and Lucas. Julia had dried her eyes, but her red cheeks betrayed the sadness she was trying to hide. Ambrose smiled at her in that way he always had when she was a child, when he was proud of her for being strong. Her mouth quivered.
“Tell me the truth,” Ambrose said to the doctor. “How long do I have?”
The doctor sighed. “Typically, for someone whose condition is as advanced as yours, we could expect anywhere on a scale from days to weeks. But factoring in age, general health, and so forth… I think one week might be too generous an estimate.” Julia stifled a sob at the doctor’s blunt words. Lucas squeezed her hand in his. Well, Ambrose did ask for the truth.
“It’s alright, Julia,” Ambrose said. “We both knew this would happen sooner or later. Be happy, as I am, that the disease didn’t take me from you sooner. Please, I don’t want to spend my final days watching the sorrow of my only daughter.”
With some effort, Julia nodded. She really was a strong girl, when she needed to be. And right now, Ambrose needed her to be as strong as she ever was.
“At this facility you’ll have some of the best medical care in the world, Mr. Erkens,” the doctor said. “One of our nurses is going to be assigned to you at all times. If you need anything—water, food, more painkillers—just press the button to your right.” He scribbled something onto his clipboard. “Your comfort will be our top priority. I’ve already informed the staff to only allow visits from your friends and family. If—”
“Cancel that order,” Ambrose broke in. “I won’t be able to do my job if I can’t speak to my aides. And Julia, could you bring me my legal books from the house? I’m going to need those too.”
The doctor shared an uneasy glance with Julia, then with Lucas, then back to Ambrose. “Sir, excuse me if this is going too far, but… You’re bedridden and you have days left to live. Do you really want to keep working?”
Ambrose chuckled. “The Supreme Court justice is a lifetime appointment. I’m going to work until the day I die!”
Three days later
Sterile light from the hallway flooded into the room as Ellen opened the door, diluting the window’s sunlight from gleeful golds to sickly sallows. The rush of color out of Ambrose’s room did nothing to remind him that he was stuck in this hospital’s death row. For that, he had his heart monitor’s incessant beeping to thank—not to mention the half-numbed pain he felt throughout his body. “Ah, Ellen, I’m glad you came. Here, come in. Have a seat.”
Justice Ellen Fore was a woman whose stark looks only complimented her stark personality. She didn’t just have a commanding presence; her authority was palpable even when she was nowhere in sight. At times, Ambrose wondered if he would still feel her grim gaze beyond the grave. Eyes like a hawk, short hair a silver gray, Ellen wasn’t a force to be trifled with.
She took a seat beside Ambrose’s bed. “How do you feel?”
“Like I only have a week to live,” Ambrose said dryly. “I can handle the pain, though. These docs and nurses are good at what they do. Did you read through my essay yet?”
“Why do you think I’m here?” Ellen rolled her eyes as she spoke. Even before a terminally ill man, Ellen refused to restrain her bluntness. Ambrose admired that about her. It made her good at what she did, acting as the Court’s liberal-leaning strict Constitutionalist. Not that they ever intentionally let their political affiliations interfere with their cases. But an even split between liberal and conservative justices did make for a healthy balance, Ambrose found.
“I trust everything is in order then?” Ambrose asked. “I had my office give it the usual run through before publishing it to the rest of the Court. My aides told me it was a clean argument, no lapses in judgment. If you think—”
Ellen stopped him right there, putting a hand on his arm. “I’m not here to say you’re losing your edge. Your legal mind is still as well-honed as I’ve ever seen it. Lord knows your skull’s too thick for that noggin of yours to ever get out of shape.”
“Then what?” Ambrose tried turning onto his side to get a better look at her, but was unable to get very far. He’d need another dose of painkillers soon.
“Well, not to be blunt, but… Why are you still doing work? You’re quite literally on your deathbed. You should be spending this time with your family. Enjoying your final days. Write memoirs if you have to write, not court cases.”
That’s what this was about? “It doesn’t matter where I am. The Supreme Court justice is—”
“I know, I know, a lifetime appointment. Julia told me what you said. That’s why I’m really here.” Ellen shifted uneasily in her chair. “She’s worried about you, Ambrose. She thinks you’re in denial. After seeing how much effort you put into the Wilhelm v. Louisiana case, I’m starting to think it too.”
Ah. So that’s what this was about. “I don’t know what to say, Ellen. I don’t know if I can say anything to convince you. I’m not in denial though. I know I don’t have much longer on this Earth.” His side hurt from his attempt at turning over. He really should have called in a nurse by now. “Julia can’t be here at all hours of the day. What would you have me do when I’m alone? Nothing? That would probably just kill me faster. No, I’m going to keep doing what I do best, what I’ve made a career out of. Whether it’s a coping mechanism or out of duty to my country, I need to do this. I need to do this. Do you understand?”
Ellen studied him intently for a long while, saying nothing. Ambrose could see her mind churning, the twinkle in her eyes that always meant she was thinking hard. Finally, she closed her eyes and sighed. “I understand.”
“Thank you,” Ambrose said. “Now, I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave. I might have pushed myself too hard in talking so much.” He finally pushed the call button for the nurse. He was a little lightheaded, his throat was hoarse, and his diaphragm ached like it was being crushed from all sides.
Ellen assented to his request and got up to leave. When she was at the door, Ambrose weakly shouted to stop her. “One more thing before you go,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see it through, but, could you send someone from my office here to give me the details of our next case?”
Two weeks later
Ambrose sat up on his bed, propped up by an extra pillow on his back, courtesy of the ever sympathetic Dr. Madison. He rifled through papers on his lap, hundreds of pages split between four binders, each binder detailing another case the Supreme Court was currently hearing. It was a busy time of year for the Court, but that could be said of any other time of year as well. The wandering hands of blindfolded Justice had good aim often enough, but inevitably the Court would need to be called in to lend guidance.
“And that’s why the rights afforded by marriage must be protected,” Ambrose said to his current guest. “In every state. For every marriage.” He wasn’t sure if his headache was the result of the intense monologue he just gave, or if the blood clot was finally making its way to his brain. Either way, Ambrose was glad he was able to live long enough to see this particular case through. Well, long enough to give his official final word on it, at least.
“You don’t have to convince me,” James said. “It’s the other justices we have to sway.”
Justice James Armstrong was a heavyset man, never to be seen without his round-framed glasses. He hid his balding head with his far-above-average height, a tactic that only failed him when he was sitting or talking to basketball players. Right now, he was sitting at the foot of Ambrose’s bed, using the space beyond Ambrose’s legs to lay out his own paperwork on the Court’s current caseload.
“There’s not much chance I can do that from in here,” Ambrose said. “If they weren’t interested in following the spirit of the Constitution before, I doubt I could convince them to now.”
“Fair enough,” James said. “This will probably be a 4-5 split, then, if everyone holds their ground. Angela is the tiebreaker yet again, but we know where she leans.” He grimaced, shaking his head as he peered down at his disorganized stacks of paper. “All this for nothing.”
“Interpretation of the law isn’t a competition, my friend.” Ambrose was disappointed by the verdict, to be sure, but there was no use in fighting it. There would be other battles, other victories, and other losses. He hoped the ethically successful Wilhelm v. Louisiana would be recorded as his swan song by the history books, rather than Clifton v. Church of Saints.
“Then why do I feel like this case has definite winners and losers?” James’s frustrated smirk slid sideways, a clear sign that he was a lot more agitated than he was letting on.
Ambrose shrugged. He was getting tired. He yawned into the inside of his elbow. His jaw hurt to be forced open so wide. “Because you got too invested in the moral debate when you should have been focusing on the legal one.” Ambrose was guilty of that as well, but his style was to let the morality of a case inform the legal basis of his opinions, rather than frame the law around his own biased perspectives.
Before James had a chance to respond, someone opened the door. “Oh,” Julia said, “I didn’t realize you were still… I can come back later, if you’re busy.”
“I was just leaving,” James said, quickly gathering all his documents into a pile. “Hang in there, Ambrose.” He gave Ambrose a gentle pat on the leg. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He gave Julia a courteous nod on his way out, and he shut the door behind him.
Julia’s distraught face seemed just as red today as it had two weeks ago and every day in between. Ambrose wondered how she still had room for more tears. But then, he could still remember his long period of grief when his own parents lay dying before him, Ambrose unable to do anything other than learn how to say goodbye. His aching heart went out to his daughter—aching both metaphorically and physically.
“I’m sorry it’s been so long,” Julia said, pulling James’s chair to the side of the bed. “I had to go into work, and then the kids—”
“It’s been two days,” Ambrose interrupted.
“I know. I’m sorry.” Julia took a tissue out of her purse and dabbed her eyes.
Goodness, she really wasn’t taking this well. But what was Ambrose to do? Chide his own daughter for caring? No, he’d let her have this visit and as many more as she needed. “How are the kids?” he asked, quickly changing the subject.
Julia feigned a smile. “They’re doing fine. Sam really wants to see you, but with midterms this week she doesn’t have time to fly out.” Her eyes briefly flashed sideways to Ambrose’s heart monitor before settling back on him. The smile faded.
“I don’t suppose the university could postpone her exams for a few days?” Ambrose said. Julia shook her head. “Ah, I thought not. Well, at least there’s always video conferencing.”
“Yeah… Video…” Julia’s voice trailed off. Her fingers fidgeted, half hidden inside her purse. Her eyes unfocused, staring at some distant point far beyond Ambrose. “The doctors said it’s probably only a matter of days…”
“I know.” Ambrose didn’t mean for it to come out so terse, but he couldn’t take the words back.
Julia’s bottom lip curled. “If there’s anything I can do for you, anything at all…”
“Right now,” Ambrose said with a comforting smile, “all I want is for you to tell me more about how Sam and Jacob are doing.”
Four months later
Even with his reading glasses on, the text on the documents Ambrose was holding was barely legible to him. His eyes strained to make out the fine print on the bottom of the page. For someone in the legal profession, failing eyesight could be a subtle harbinger of the end of one’s career. Not Ambrose, though. He’d just have to have an aide read him all the documents he needed to read. That, or convince the hospital staff to finally allow him a small computer in his room. He wasn’t sure which would be easier.
At least he managed to persuade them to open the window occasionally. With the room all to himself (one of the benefits of his courtly status), no one had to worry about spreading allergens and infectors from the outside world to other patients. These doctors ran a tight ship. No doubt that was one of the reasons their facility was one of the best.
Ambrose liked the fresh air. One of the worst things about his permanent hospitalization was that he would no longer be able to take an evening stroll through the park, breathing in the fresh scents of the lilacs entwining the legs of his favorite bench, watching the orangey pinks and pinky blues of the sun setting over the mountain peaks that hid the bulk of the American continent. Maybe, if they ever knew the end was near, they’d let him out one last time. One last time to see the sunset he never saw from this northward-facing window.
No, Ambrose wouldn’t think like that. Accepting as he was of his impending fate, morbidity would just sour his mood. Although, poring over these Supreme Court case files for the current slew of cases, Ambrose wasn’t sure how sweet his mood was to begin with. These were some difficult cases, with no obvious way to settle the disputes between the parties involved. At least he knew it wasn’t his own mind failing him—the other justices were having just as many difficulties as Ambrose was in discerning the proper way forward.
His liver may be shot, his lungs at half capacity, his heartbeat a paltry adagio compared to the lively allegro it had been just months before, but at least Ambrose still had his mind. As long as he had that, he knew he’d be able to weather any tempest his terminal status had in store for him. According to the doctors, Ambrose had maybe a week left. He was determined to see that week through to its bitter end.
Three years later
“Come in,” Ambrose said, responding to three faint knocks on the door. He wasn’t sure if the knocks really were faint, or if his hearing was just getting worse as the disease progressed in his final days. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer. The door opened to reveal Ellen Fore, dressed in black, her rigid face more grim than usual. “Ah…” Ambrose said. “So it was today.”
“I’m sorry you weren’t able to attend the services,” Ellen said as she walked up to Ambrose’s bed. “James was a good man. He would have wanted you there.”
I wanted to be there, Ambrose thought, but he didn’t say anything. There was enough sadness in the Judicial Branch today without Ambrose adding his own frustration to the mix. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he last left his bed. Not just since he was last allowed to leave his bed, but since he was last able to leave it. To feel the weight of his body on his legs, to be able to run, to be able to walk… He was too frail for any of that now. Even getting into a wheelchair and pushing himself down the hallway was a lofty proposition. It made his everyday life very dull. But more importantly, it made his work very difficult.
“These are very unfortunate times,” Ambrose said instead. “Losing one Supreme Court justice is a tragedy on its own, but we’re going to be losing two in the span of weeks.”
“Don’t be so morbid,” Ellen said. Then, after a pause, she asked, “Weeks?”
Ambrose nodded. “That’s the latest estimate from Dr. Madison. They think I’ll be gone within six days.” He suppressed an involuntary shiver. It was strange, thinking about how close the end was, after such a long life. He was one of the oldest justices to ever serve the Supreme Court. He had a place in the history books. When he accepted the appointment all those years ago, he didn’t even consider the legacy his position would give him. All he wanted to do was serve his country, to ensure it was truly the great nation the Founding Fathers gave it the potential to be. It seemed like it was just yesterday that he first welcomed the newly appointed Justice Armstrong to their bench, eager to join him in his patriotic mission.
Yesterday was so far away, now.
“My heart goes out to you and your family,” Ellen said, snapping Ambrose back to the present.
“Thank you for the warm words,” Ambrose said. “But, if you don’t mind, I need to get some rest before my next visitors come later today.”
“Some aides from my office. They’ll be briefing me on the details of Jordan v. Sony. I hope to get my word in on that case before… well, you know.”
“…Of course.” Ellen went to the door. “It was nice seeing you today. I’ll give the Armstrongs your condolences.”
“Please do,” Ambrose said as Ellen left. He closed his eyes, but sleep didn’t come. Too much was on his mind. Life, death, James, Julia, work, duty, patriotism—back and forth like waves on the beach of restless dreams. He let them wash over him, drag him from one fleeting thought to the next before cycling back to where he began. What else could he do? With what strength could he fight it? Muscles withered, tempest weathered, he knew the end was near.
Fourteen years later
Ambrose stared at the ceiling. To his left, the heart monitor beeped. A harsh wind blew against the window, but whether it was cold or warm, Ambrose could not say. The window hadn’t been opened for months.
The bed was stiff, like Ambrose’s legs, like every other part of Ambrose’s body. Life outside this room was a distant memory now. Movement itself was a distant memory. Ambrose stared at the white tiled ceiling, and the ceiling stared back. It had no eyes, but it stared all the same. The ceiling stared, and Ambrose lived.
“—re you still listening, Ambrose?” Dr. Maier’s voice pulled Ambrose from his waking coma. It was a tether he did not need. It was a tether he did not want.
“Yes, doc.” Ambrose barely recognized his own voice anymore. It had grown so ancient and worn in this hospital bed. How old was he now? How many years, how many days? He wished he could forget what his voice used to sound like, the way he forgot so many other voices from his youth. He didn’t want to know anymore what he used to be.
“Right,” Dr. Maier continued. “As I was saying, from your latest readings, we think you only have five to seven days left to live. We’re still waiting for a more comprehensive analysis, but it might be best if you… well, started planning your goodbyes.”
Ambrose let the corner of his mouth twitch briefly into a smile. It wasn’t out of happiness, but neither was he sad. He was in on the joke now, and if anything, he didn’t want the universe to be laughing at him alone. The prognosis itself didn’t matter. The doctors and their readings didn’t matter. All that mattered was that after all this time, after all this pain, Ambrose still beat fiercely on into the night. And into the next day, and the next day, and the next.
“I understand, doctor,” Ambrose said. “Is there anything else?”
“That’s it for now. If you need me, have a nurse send for me. I’ll be just down the hall.”
“Alright. Thank you for your time, doctor.”
Before leaving the room, the doctor turned back to Ambrose. “It appears you have a visitor waiting outside. Justice Brigham, if I’m not mistaken. Should I let her in?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The unexpected appearance of a colleague was enough to perk Ambrose’s spirits, a little bit. Not many came to see him anymore. Half of the justices he had known before his time in the hospital were long gone by now, either retired or dead. He didn’t know most of the new ones very well, and they made few attempts to get to know him. And why would they? In a little under a week, Ambrose might be dead.
It would be nice to be able to see Julia and James again. But until then, his work was what kept him alive.
Seventy-nine years later
Silence. The hospital room was completely devoid of sound. How long had Ambrose been sitting here, in the dark? How long had the heart monitor been quiet? A chilling, thrilling thought crept up his aged spine. Was this it? Was it finally over? He smiled in sadistic glee at the morbid possibility.
Just then, the lights came back on, dim for the night. A voice came from the speakers embedded in the ceiling. “We apologize for the power outage. Normal operations have resumed.”
Ambrose could have laughed as easily as he could have cried. There was nothing normal about this.
Six hundred forty-two years later
Dr. Elrix looked at Ambrose’s chart. “By our estimations, you have—”
“Don’t say it,” Ambrose begged.
“—about a week left to live.” The doctor put the clipboard back on the table. “Would you like me to contact your next of kin?”
“If you can find any, be my guest.” Ambrose didn’t bother explaining. He never bothered explaining anymore. By the time the next week rolled around, they forgot anyway. It was always the same story. Ambrose was done trying to make sense of his life, done begging higher powers for answers they would never give. Ambrose had a week to live, and that was that. He would always have a week to live.
Dr. Elrix didn’t seem to be put off by Ambrose’s attitude. He just nodded at Ambrose’s comment and left him in peace. He was a good doctor. He always had his patients’ best interests in mind. The world needed fewer doctors like that. Maybe then, Ambrose would have a chance.
Ambrose was over eight hundred years old now. He had seen nations rise and fall. He had seen world wars, nuclear wars, nuclear winters, and the triumph of mankind over crises that would have left the world of his youth in tatters. He had seen enough to know that he could never see it all.
But still, he served. Ambrose Erkens, the longest-serving justice of the Supreme Court, the chronicler of ages, the sage from antiquity, would do his patriotic duty until the very last moment of his life. Seven days. Seven more days, and he’d be free from this unending nightmare. Seven more days, and then he’d finally be able to close his eyes. And at the end of the seventh day, he would rest.