THE TIMEPIECE
By Jeff Robinson (4,677 words)
(unpublished)


Margaret White wasn’t handling her husband’s death very well. Her husband, Paul, had died two nights before from a massive stroke. He had passed gently in his sleep, and since that morning, when she found herself unable to wake him, everyone had gone out of their way to comfort her.

The paramedics, the medical examiner, and police had hovered over her. They sent a social worker to counsel her. Neighbors and relatives had flocked to her home, bearing sympathies and cards, flowers and food, leaving her with nary a minute alone.

Her problem was that she was taking Paul’s death far too well.

Oh, she was sad, but not nearly as much as she thought she should be. After thirty years of marriage, she figured she should be taking Paul’s death much harder.

Perhaps they had grown further apart in recent years than she had realized. She was disappointed and sorry, but she wasn’t grief stricken or suicidally depressed the way some of her friends had been when their spouses had passed away.

Even now, as another dear friend consoled her, Margaret had to feign greater distress than she actually felt.

“Oh, Marge,” said Janet, as she reached out and touched Margaret’s hand, “Are you sure you’re going to be all right? I know that sometimes it takes a day or two for the death of a loved one to sink in. What with all the mundane details to manage, the shock of such a loss is often delayed.”

“Thanks, Janet,” said Margaret, patting Janet’s hand in return. “Honestly, I’m okay. Maybe you’re right and it will hit me later, but for now I’m alright and appreciate your concern more than I can say.” She lowered her eyes, as if fighting back tears and felt guilty at the slight deceit. Since crying briefly that morning of Paul’s death, she had had experienced no inclination to weep.

After a few more expressions of sympathy, Margaret claimed weariness and escorted Janet to the door. Thanking Janet for the macaroni casserole she had brought, Margaret expressed gratitude for her concern and confirmed the funeral services, which would be held at the cemetery the following afternoon.

Closing the door behind Janet, Margaret sighed deeply and realized this was actually the first time she had been alone since Paul’s death. Her sister, Cindy, had stayed over the previous night, unwilling to leave Margaret unattended in her grief, leaving only this morning to return to her own family.

The saddest thing, Margaret mused, was that she wasn’t more grief-stricken. Oh, the first years of their marriage had been wonderful, but Paul had drifted away as he grew absorbed with his job. Margaret knew he worked in a physics lab for the Defense Department, but she didn’t understand what he did. The very words he used, like 'quantum chronodynamics" were Greek to her. Eventually he stopped trying to explain what he did at the lab and, as he grew more absorbed with his science, ended talking to Margaret less and less.

After more than twenty years working at the lab and deriding his colleagues for being idiots, he suddenly left and retired, taking with him nothing more than a plain gold watch.

Walking back toward her bedroom, she stopped in the pantry and took out a cardboard box to start “packing up Paul’s things”, an activity she had been assured by several people was both necessary and therapeutic. Supposedly it would help her to achieve “closure” after Paul’s death.

Pausing at the bedroom door, she wondered where to start. Moving to Paul’s dresser she began to box his personal items; assorted rings, reading glasses, tie clips.

At his bedside table she stopped and looked down at his gold watch… that damned gold watch. She picked it up, intending to shove it to the bottom of the box, burying it out of sight, but instead she paused and studied it.

She hated that watch. Paul had become obsessive compulsive in the years following his retirement and most of his obsessions revolved around that particular watch. He always had it in his hand, caressing it, playing with it. If it was out of sight or out of reach, he became crazed. Margaret had been forbidden to touch it or to move it if he set it anywhere. It was one of the many things that had come between them.

While it was not likely the cause of the distance that had grown between them over the years, Margaret decided that it represented everything that had slowly destroyed their relationship. The things that ate away at their intimacy involved many things. Paul had become an over-controller. He finished her sentences and constantly told her what to do and what not to do. When she cleaned the house, he would say things like, “Be careful or you’ll knock over that lamp”. When she drove the car, he would tell her to drive faster to slower to avoid a pedestrian or a car that would cross in front of her. It finally got to the point that she would not clean when he was around and would never drive if he was in the car.

The ornate gold watch seemed to represent all of those behaviors. God, she hated it.

Still, it fascinated her, because he’d never allowed her to touch it. Setting the box down, she opened the lid of the timepiece and examined it. It didn’t seem unusual, but it had an old fashioned faceplate and a plain gold case. There was no manufacturer’s mark, however, so she couldn’t tell the brand, but it seemed quite ordinary.

The large clock in the living room chimed the top of the noon hour and startled her momentarily. As the last of the noise faded, she played with the watch, repeatedly opening and closing lid. Realizing there was a second hand, she clicked the stem of the watch to see if it was a stopwatch, as well.

When she clicked the stem, her vision blurred for a moment. Gathering her senses, she was annoyed at the loud gonging of the grandfather clock in the front room. Then she paused. Wait a minute, she thought. The clock in the other room had just chimed noon a moment ago. Counting the chimes, she listened to the clock finish striking twelve times.

Margaret walked into the living room and looked at the clock. Everything seemed normal. The pendulum swung freely. Nothing seemed amiss. Turning her attention back to the ornate pocket watch, she clicked the stem again and her vision blurred once more. Steadying herself against the dresser, she heard the living room grandfather clock chime twelve again. It was then she noticed she wasn’t in the living room. She was once again standing in front of Paul’s bedside table where she had been collecting Paul’s personal effects.

Hearing the clock chime the noon hour twice in a row was bad enough. Hearing it chime three twelve times in succession horrified her. Was she losing her mind?

Breathing slowly to avoid panic, she carefully clicked the stem of the gold watch once more, and after a few seconds she heard the living room clock sound twelve a fourth time in a row. It was then she realized that every time, she clicked Paul’s watch time somehow repeated itself. Walking away from the dresser, she clicked the watch hesitantly and discovered that time didn’t simply replay itself. When she activated the timepiece, she moved backwards in time, to wherever she had been a few moments before.

So that was how she spent the entire afternoon. She tested the effect over and over again, finally determining that each jump in time took her back about thirty seconds. Experimenting in different ways, she could replay the programs and commercials on the TV, reversing what it displayed, a bit at a time, up to the point she had walked over and turned it on. Looking out the window, she observed a passerby turn round the adjacent street corner and walk down the block. With a few clicks of the watch, there the stroller was again, just coming around the corner.

Further experimentation revealed that she really did not move back in time. If she held an object or changed her shoes, the use of the watch returned her to where she had been and what she was holding thirty seconds before. It was as if, she did not move backwards in time, but rather her awareness and consciousness did.

Examining the mysterious timepiece more carefully, she found a small mark on the stem of the watch. It was a mark of the lab where Paul had worked. She decided that either the lab had made this watch or Paul had made it from materials acquired there. After some thought, she decided it was probably the latter. Paul had always been secretive and he had likely made the watch and taken it with him when he left. In fact, she thought, if he had discovered or invented this, it was probably the reason he left. The lab might not even know about it. Paul so loved secrets.

Once more, uninvited passions about the watch rose up and washed over her like a wave. One of the things that had caused her and Paul to grow apart was his secrets and this watch, it seemed was the foremost secret of them all.

It explained so much, she thought. His early, unexplained retirement, his obsession with the watch, this explained it all.

She set the watch down on a nearby table and hurried to bed. She was exhausted and felt like she had been up for days. As she climbed into bed, she realized that with so much of her day rewound and replayed over and over the entire afternoon, she might well have been up for days. It was hard to tell.

Struggling to sleep, she wondered how the watch worked and how Paul had discovered the secret behind it. The watch was probably unique and priceless. She didn’t dare try to pry it open or take it apart. If she tried, she’d probably break it.

Nervous, she scrambled out of bed and hurried back to the other room where she had set the watch down. It was simply too valuable to leave lying around. Deciding to keep it close, she tucked it under her pillow and tried to sleep.



*****



Despite her weariness, she slept fitfully the entire night, dreaming, of course, of Paul and the watch, and wondering about how their life might have been different, if he’d never brought it home.

As dawn peeked through the curtains, Margaret couldn’t rest anymore and rose, showering and doing her hair. When she was done, she returned to her bed and slid the watch out from under the pillow.

Wondering how far the capabilities of the watch could take her, she clicked the watch intending to return to the previous day. However, upon that single click, she found herself back in the bathroom separated from the watch. She walked over to the bed and retrieved the timepiece.

So, she thought. You can only go back as far as you actually have been holding the device. She began to understand Paul’s obsession with always having the watch in his hand.

The funeral services were scheduled for later that afternoon, so Margaret selected a plain black dress that she had only worn once before, sadly to another funeral when a family friend had died less than a year before.

She sat for a long time on the edge of the bed, wondering whether to put the dress on now or wait till later. The drab attire seemed to radiate an aura of depression and dread. Finally, as if mustering up sufficient courage, she donned the garment and found herself with nothing to do but wait until the funeral.

Her mind, however, returned to matters associated with the watch. The dreams she had the previous night and the many speculations about the device came back to her and she wondered why, with all its abilities, Paul had not used it more profitably. He could have made a fortune with this thing, she thought.

When they first married, Paul had no interest in gambling. He wouldn’t even buy lottery tickets. He used to brag that he knew far too much about math and statistics to enjoy gambling. After his retirement from the lab, however, he had become a regular at the local casinos. He would spend at least two hours a week playing roulette. He never won a lot, but he did come home regularly with modest winnings, sometimes a thousand dollars, sometimes a more, never anything very spectacular. The largest she could remember was him returning with five thousand dollars. When she asked why he had decided to gamble, he was evasive and said he had a new system.

Margaret never made an issue out of it. She did not question him about his new obsession; she was having enough problems with his many eccentricities. She assumed his fascination was a “guy thing”, like going to a sports bar or something and she actually enjoyed his absence when he went. Perhaps she would have had more interest, if he consistently lost money or won larger amounts.

An idea occurred to her. She had a theory and decided that she had sufficient time before the afternoon services to test it out. After a moment of silent debate with herself, she grabbed the watch and went to her car.

Locking the house, she headed across town to the casino that Paul had frequented most often. Holding the watch in her hand as she drove, she reviewed different scenarios in her head about how she might win big using it.

Suddenly the car in front of her braked, its tires screeching loudly. In horror, she realized that she was driving too fast and too close. The car in front of her had almost come to a complete stop and she was still driving at full speed. She was going to hit and hard. She barely had time to brace herself when…

… she found herself driving along the street with the car in front of her a comfortable distance away. She guesssed then, that in tensing up for the impact of an accident, she must have tightened her hand and clicked the stem of the watch. The resultant rewind of her personal reality had returned her to a moment a half minute prior to when the accident would have occurred.

Taking her foot off the accelerator, she slowed and braked gently, just as a child in the street ahead dashed out from between two cars. The car in front of her locked its brakes and screeched to a halt, but Margaret avoided the accident easily, seemingly anticipating the incident.

Margaret sat behind the wheel, her car at a full stop, as the little boy dashed back to the nearest sidewalk, running from the blaring horn of the driver who had almost hit him. Her heart still raced from the stress of nearly experiencing the same accident twice and she marveled that the watch in her hand had saved her.

As the flow of traffic resumed, Margaret made sure to keep more distance between her and any vehicle in front of her. Belatedly however, she recognized that it was her fixation with the watch that had distracted her enough for the accident to have occurred in the first place.

After driving for nearly twenty minutes, Margaret turned into the large parking lot of the local casino. Parking, she hurried in the entrance and was surprised at the number of people already there. For some reason she had assumed the place would be nearly empty so early in the morning. To her, the flashy ostentation of the casino was associated with evenings; dinners, shows, entertainment.

It was clear, however, that the place was open twenty-fours hours a day for very practical reasons; gambling addicts didn’t satisfy their cravings only at night.

The greater than expected number of people made her suddenly self conscious about her mourning attire. Ignoring imagined stares, she asked a casino employee a question and was directed where she could go buy chips. She had never actually gambled herself before and had only visited here once with her husband.

Purchasing a single, one-hundred dollar chip, she located the roulette tables and approached one. She silently observed the process of players for several rounds, holding her single chip in one hand and her gold watch in the other, carefully rehearsing her plans on how to use it to “win big”.

Finally mustering up her courage, she approached the roulette table and placed her single chip on the number “one”.

The croupier noted her bet with a nod and, after waiting on other patrons, finally spun the roulette wheel. Holding her breath, Margaret waited for the ball to settle itself in one of the wheel’s slots. It landed on number fourteen and Margaret lost her chip.

Calmly clicking the stopwatch, Margaret found herself standing as she had been a moment before, holding her watch in one hand and her single chip in the other. However, this time, she leaned over and placed her chip on number fourteen.

Once again, events unfolded as she had witnessed before. The casino employee spun the wheel and despite Margaret’s expectations, she found herself surprised that the ball settled again on the number fourteen. Blinking in amazement, she watched at the roulette attendant placed a stack of chips next to her initial bet. She now had $3,600.

Smiling demurely, she repeated her actions with the next spin of the wheel. She let her chips stay where they were and the next number was different. Upon discovering what the next lucky number would be, she used the watch to rewind time and changed her bet so she would win. When the number came up again, everyone around the table cheered and the croupier pushed many more chips over to her.

Her winnings now totaled nearly $130,000.

Everyone watched her to see what she would do. Fighting back the feelings of self consciousness, she repeated her trick. Finding the next winning number and unwinding time, she placed her bet on the number she knew would multiply her winnings one more time.

As the bouncing ball dropped in the predestined slot, cheers went up around the table and the roulette attendant stepped back from the table.

Asking how much she now had, the employee did a quick calculation and told her she now had more than four and a half million dollars... $4,665,600 to be precise.

Grinning uncontrollably, Margaret didn’t notice the casino officials who had gathered around her.

“Excuse me, mam,” said a man in a crisp business suit who walked up beside her. “My name is O’Donnell and I’m the floor manager here at the casino. Could I speak to you a moment in private?” He gestured to the croupier who nodded and gathered up Margaret’s winnings, pulling the chips off to one side for safekeeping.

Gently, but forcibly, the man took Margaret’s arm and guided her toward offices near the edge of the main floor of the casino. Suddenly afraid, she pulled back and started to ask what was going on.

However a security guard came up and interrupted saying, “What’s up Bob? Trouble?”

The man in the suit replied, “Got a possible fixer. I think roulette table three’s been rigged. Better shut it down until we can have it checked out. This lady won three times in a row on impossible bets. Bankrolled more than four mill in just three spins.”

Margaret struggled and started to protest, but the harder she fought the tighter the grip on her arm became.

“Better grab that watch,” said the floor manager, “That’s probably what she’s using to control the wheel.”

Horrified, she barely had time to press the stem of the watch, as the guard next to her reached for the timepiece in her hand.

Suddenly she found herself back at the roulette table as people around her cheered. She clicked the watch again and time retreated once more. Another click returned her to a moment just after her second win, as the attendant pushed $130,000 in chips toward her.

Shocked and stunned at recent… no future… events, she looked around and noticed casino officials slowly gathering. At this point, she had won twice in a row, if she won a third time, she knew what would happen.

The table attendant noted her uncertainty and asked, “Mam?”

“Uh, yes?” she replied. “”I… ah… I’m not sure what I should do?”

“Well,” the man answered. “You can cash in your chips, or bet some or all of your chips. It’s really up to you.”

Margaret hesitated as everyone waited on her.

“Uh… I’ve never won so much before,” she said. “That $3600 bet was the most I’ve ever gambled before. Uh… maybe I should try that again.”

The casino employee separated $3600 in chips from her stack and pushed the rest back toward her. Everyone around her nodded in approval.

Margaret really didn’t care about the bet. She pushed the small stack of chips toward a random number on the table in front of her and watched the casino officials out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t even notice the number that came up. She lost the $3600 she had bet and her chips were removed.

Feigning interest, she bet and lost another $3000. Then she lost an equal quantity on yet another bet. After losing more than ten thousand dollars, she looked down at her remaining chips and said loudly, “I think I used up all my luck and better quit while I still have some chips left. Can you tell me how I turn this in or change these chips back into money? I’ve never done this before.”

People around the table had mixed responses. One man booed and called her a quitter. Another congratulated her and said, “Atta way girl. Take it while you got it.”

The croupier placed her chips in a tray and motioned to someone behind her.

The man in a suit came and took the tray, gesturing toward the cashier’s window at the far end of the casino floor.

“Hello, mam,” he said. “My name is O’Donnell. I’m the floor manager. Can I be of assistance?”

Fighting down fright, she said, “Yes. I’ve never won anything like this before and don’t know what to do.”

“Well,” said the manager. “You could try your luck at one of our other games. We have high stake slot machines and some other tables. There’s blackjack and craps and even poker, if you’re interested.”

Margaret shook her head. “Oh, I don’t know anything about how to play those. I guess I was just lucky,” she said, nervously.

She didn’t have to fake being nervous. She knew that if she made him suspicious, he would call over guards and have her escorted away.

“I tried a few times more after I won this, but I think my luck has run out. Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead.”

The managers looked at her seriously. Margaret could imagine what was going through his head. She kept her finger poised on the gold watch in her hand and even raised it up proudly.

“My husband just died and I brought his lucky watch in to see if it could help me win.” He looked at it and his eyes narrowed.

Lowering the watch she said, “I guess I used up all its luck. Maybe I should just go home.”

The manager hesitated and finally smiled and said, “Of course. Let me show you how to cash these out. Please come this way.”

Nothing eventful happened, as she collected her winnings and left. She had to sign forms and they actually took some of her money for taxes. Still, she left with more than eighty five thousand dollars. She even elected to have them cut a cashiers check rather than return with all that cash.

When she finally got to the car, she sat for more than five minutes, trembling as she recalled how close she had come to losing it all. Gripping the steering wheel tightly to steady her shaking hands, she realized why Paul had never used the watch to “win big”. Such a thing would attract too much attention and he had to play it safe.

In fact, Margaret wondered if Paul had shared similar experiences. Maybe he had also won too much and had to go back and undo those events.

Margaret started the car and carefully drove to her bank to deposit her winnings. Then she stopped at a restaurant and had a light meal before heading to the cemetery where the funeral services were to be held. Arriving early, she spoke, almost absent mindedly, with the mortuary personnel, approving final arrangements and details that seemed unimportant now.

She greeted mourners, as they gradually arrived, and was surprised at how many people showed up. As more people arrived, she noticed that most of them were her friends, not Paul’s. These people had come to comfort her, not to mourn him. In fact, she thought, Paul really had no friends. He’d lost them slowly over the years, the way he’d almost lost her.

Tears finally came, as she spoke to all these people who came to express their love and sympathy. She cried, not in grief, but in gratitude for still having cherished relationships that Paul had long since lost.

A funeral parlor employee escorted her to a seat in the front row of the chapel. Margaret barely noticed the services after they began. People spoke about Paul, but they were talking to her. She continued to cry, grieving now for what Paul had lost in his life and how isolated and insular he had become because of his obsession with his magical toy, his prized gold watch.

When everyone was done, the funeral director came and whispered to her. She rose and walked over to the open casket, looking down on Paul’s still, pale face one last time.

Then, as she bent over to kiss his cheek on last time, she slipped the watch that she held in her hand into his suit coat, where it slid out of sight. No one saw her slight of hand.

Straightening up, attendants closed the coffin and she led the procession as it was wheeled out to the open grave where the final pronouncements would occur.

The final ceremonies were beautiful and Margaret stopped crying and began to smile. The day was beautiful, the flowers were lovely, and she was surrounded by friends she valued and cherished.

She had decided during the services that, if she kept the watch, it would to do her what it had done to Paul. It would take over her life and offer temptations she would not be able to resist. He had spent so much of his time worrying above the “what-ifs” of the future and fixing all the minor mistakes in his life that it consumed all of his attention. He had become so obsessed with having a perfect life that he ended up with no life at all. No, she had decided, she wanted to part of that. A full life, even with mistakes was better than the one Paul created for himself. She didn’t want the same fate to befall her.

With their savings, and Paul’s retirement checks, her recent winnings, and Paul’s life insurance, she could live quite comfortably for the rest of her life. She didn’t need the watch and wasn’t sure she could enjoy life if she owned it.

As the coffin was slowly lowered into the freshly dug grave, she thought to herself, Paul had always kept the abilities of the watch a secret, even from her. Maybe that old saying was true, after all… some secrets were best left buried.

 

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