Enjoy an excerpt from Allison Rott’s “Pocket Watch Problems” featured in our newest anthology ON TIME.
Late. Late Late.
The bus was pulling away, shouting didn’t change the course of the bus. Heels clacked on the sidewalk, cold hands pulled the patched coat tighter, chilled fingertips brushed against the rough papers, payment, a future meal or two.
Reflection in a puddle, unfamiliar eyes stared back. A hurried glance over the shoulder, heart beginning to race, legs pumping. Snap. Broken heel, stumbling forward, scraped knees, scraped palms, then rough hands ripping, pulling, tugging, hitting. Fighting, slipping, screaming, gagging. Sharp, burning pain. Rush of warm, wet blood. Muscles going limp. Eyesight going black.
Breath hitching, heart still racing, aching, Jane sat up. She pulled the blanket tighter, her husband rolled over, gripping her hand.
“Breathe,” he said. His quiet voice was accompanied by his hand squeezing hers. “Breathe, Jane.”
Jane didn’t dare close her eyes, but she focused on her breathing. Deep inhales and slow exhales calmed her heart, muscles began to relax, and she squeezed Mark’s hand back.
“What happened this time?”
“I was killed.” Though Jane wasn’t sure how to articulate it wasn’t her, not her body, just her pain, burning and ripping through her, waking her in a state of panic. “Stabbing I think.”
“You’re okay.” Mark reached out with his other hand, running his fingers through her long hair. “Do you need anything, a glass of water, a hot pad, a massage?”
“I’m okay.” Jane curled against Mark; his warmth was better than a pad, his calm heart more comforting than a massage. Her heart slowed to match his rhythm. She slowly closed her eyes.
“Just me, huh?” Mark wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close and kissing her forehead as they snuggled deeper under the warm blankets. “Love you.”
“Love you, too.” Jane kissed his chin, his beard tickling her.
Such was their ritual for her anxiety-attack-inducing nightmares for almost ten years.
Jane’s coworker had told her where to go. His cousin’s sister’s, friend’s, coach’s, niece knew about a guy. A guy who sold the kinds of odds and ends anyone was looking for.
Jane was following the tip, even if it went through a game of telephone to get to her. Though that idea nearly made her heart start racing, the thought of misinformation by word of mouth wasn’t as panic inducing as where she headed.
It was a sketchy neighborhood, always a little too dark, always sorta creepy, the kind of neighborhood Jane would never have dreamed of stepping into, that Jane only saw with her bottom firmly planted on her couch, the screen outlined in black.
Deep in her pockets, her hands clenched two small wads of cash. She bit her lip, eyes darting back and forth, fearing the worst, expecting the worst, almost crying in relief to finally find the white windowless van parked on the corner, the back doors open just like she’d been told.
The Dealer, as he was refereed to, sat on the back bumper, black sunglasses sitting on his wide nose, and she wasn’t sure if the man had noticed her or not. So she paused. The Dealer’s dreadlocks bopped along with his lazy head bobs. Jane had been instructed to wait until he acknowledged her before approaching with her query.
Jane’s legs trembled, anticipation giving way to anxiety. Finally, the Dealer pulled his sunglasses down his nose, black eyes staring right at her, his fingers curling, beckoning her closer, and her feet moved forward, dragging against the concrete until she stood next to him. White earbuds popped out of his ears.
“What are you looking for?” Jane had expected a Jamaican accent, probably due to her father’s obsession with Bob Marley. As his Alzheimer’s progressed, he would call anyone with dreadlocks ‘that there Marley impersonator’. But Dealer didn’t have a Jamaican accent, he didn’t really have an accent she could place, his voice was just deep, a rumbling urgency bringing the words out of Jane’s mouth.
“A pocket watch.” Her voice was quiet, but it got a little louder, a little faster since she wanted to buy a watch and leave as soon as possible. “Preferably one made before 1850, but my tenth anniversary is in a week, and I need something special for my husband, Mark.”
Dealer grinned, pulling a silver chain from his trench coat and out came a silver pocket watch.
It was beautiful, tiny engravings on the edges, and in the middle, in swirling, calligraphic script, were the letters L.B.L. Thick fingers flipped the watch, showing the details etched into the back and the keyhole. The watch flicked open, the face perfect, the numbers in matching silver, the background that of aged parchment. The hands shaped like the muzzles of guns, were still.
“Do you have the key?”
“No, but it is in such marvelous condition, I do not doubt it works.”
Jane nodded, a keyless watch was easier to deal with, a skilled locksmith could do something about it, but a watchless key was just pretty.
“How much?” It was perfect. Mark would be astounded that she found such a watch, if only she could afford the beauty.
“Four hundred, cash.” That was the least she expected an antique pocket watch to be. Sweaty crumpled bills changed hands, then the pocket watch was Jane’s.
She stashed it in a pair of rolled up socks, safe and sound, to wait until her tenth wedding anniversary.
Crack. Whoosh. Whistle. Boom.
Not fireworks, too violent, too much fear and not enough anticipation. Wet boots, wet socks, wet feet, itchy damp wetness everywhere.
Crack. Whoosh. Whistle. Boom.
Dirt flying everywhere, screams, commands, salutes, nods, white knuckles holding guns, clutching photographs, mementos of safety and love.
Late, like usual, but for once, his lateness left him exactly where he needed to be.
Pain. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Smile. Thanks. Life. Bonded for life.
Jane reached out, wrapping her arms around Mark. This was a first, a war lifetime, too real, too heart pounding. She squeaked into his back, and he carefully turned in her arms, pulling her head against his chest.
“Again. Poor Jane.” His voice rumbled in his chest. He kissed her forehead. “Two nights in a row.”
Jane shook her head against his chest.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“War. Bad. Though not death, but almost.”
Mark’s hands rubbed gentle circles on her back.
“You’re okay, sweetie. You’re okay.” Jane pulled herself closer, her ear pressed over his heart, listening to heartbeats, calming her down, soothed into sleep.
Mark’s office, where he kept his collection of pocket watches was small, but it was cozy on a cold day, with a thermos of hot chocolate, and the warmth from Mark. He had one arm around Jane, pointing to each watch in his cases and telling the stories he knew.
The watches held many tales, of people, of love, of heartbreak, of sorrow, of joy. To Mark, they seemed to hold snippets of the world, bits of history otherwise lost.
“You always loved stories.” This was the first thing Jane knew about Mark. “So, why did you start collecting watches?”
She learned about this hobby when they moved in together, a few months before their marriage. She enjoyed sitting with him and watching him clean and study his watches, the way he would smile at her and grab her hand between them.
“Well.” Mark reached for his desk, pulling open a drawer she hadn’t seen him open before. It was a photo album, slightly worn at the edges. Mark opened the book, flipping through pages, finding a black and white of a soldier that looked to have the same chin as Mark, down to the beard. “My great-great-great grandfather, Henry, soldier in WWI.”
Crack. Woosh. Whistle. Boom.
“He saved another soldier, Edward.” Mark flipped a few more pages, stopping at one with a group of soldiers. He pointed out Edward. “And then, Edward bought Henry a pocket watch, even engraved it with an inside joke, L.B.L., late but lucky, since Henry was almost always late. Even the day he saved Edward.”
Jane quietly gasped, but Mark’s warm breath on her ear brought her respiration back to normal.
“And it was passed through the family until.” Mark flipped through the photo album, pointing to a short, stout woman with a thin nose and eyes that were no longer unfamiliar. “Mary, being a widow during the Great Depression, had to be creative to put food on the table. So, she sold the pocket watch to a pawn shop. She planned to buy it back.”
Mark dropped a silver key onto the photo album. Jane hadn’t even noticed he had pulled it out of the drawer.
“The key stayed in the family, but before my grandfather could buy the pocket watch back, it was sold, and it is out there, somewhere.”
“Mugged and killed.”
Rush of warm, wet blood.
Jane sunk back into Mark’s arms, and he held her weight as she turned her head into his shoulder. “So, it’s yours.”
“If only I could find it.”
Allison Rott lives in Illinois, a train ride away from the Windy City. It is the perfect length ride to catch up on her reading or let her daydreams work on stories. She enjoys working with children which keeps the imagination muscle working. A voracious reader from her own childhood she has never lost her love of stories or the many many ways of telling them. She has stories in two other anthologies, “The Lingering Rift” in Foxtales 4 and “Feeding the Universe” in 72 Hours of Insanity: Anthology of the Games, vol. 7.