Time is for giving and taking— but never for turnimg back
Once When
There had been a time when he could see, no, feel time interchanging hands, gradually filtering into another account before leaving it just as quickly, just as softly.
But no, that wasn’t completely accurate. He was a Time Keeper, had always been one, will always be one, but...
There had been a time when he had willingly presided over the exchange, trying his best to control the tide of hours, minutes, and seconds that had been trapped for too long.
But things had been different then.
They would never again be the same.
Running his hand through his graying hair, he fingered the gears from the newly disassembled pocket watch that he had spread across the counter. The glass clicked faintly as the hairsprings squirmed across the surface, and he had to squint to pick out the tiny escape device.
He closed his eyes, two fingers pressed against his raging temple with the miniature clip tightly squeezed in his other fist. Without this one simple piece, the pocket watch would be nothing more than a gearbox packaged in fancy metal.
It would have been better that way. Time would have made more sense that way. If only the ticking of the piece in his hands had followed a more regular heartbeat.
He had watched, so many times, as one turn on his part sent several dozen gears skittering to the bounds of his tenuous control, ready to burst free at the slightest sign of weakness. He could feel the enmeshing pieces rebelling in his fingers as he tried to get one more turn out of the mainspring.
And he was sick of it.
He was sick of the effort, the wrongness of trying to glean several more minutes from a clock winding down to its end.
He was sick of the knowledge that the watch so often clasped in his fingers walked the line between life and death.
But most of all, he was sick of being the very last of the Time Keepers. Of having to live with the knowledge that the one time he couldn’t manipulate time had been when it had truly mattered.
And maybe that was what had lead to him taking apart his own pocket watch.
His groping fingers instantly found the worn leather rag, crumpled in the corner of the counter. Holding a slightly larger gear up to the bare overhead lamp, he polished it with all of the care he had shown the previous watches.
“It won’t be long now...” His soft whisper permeated the empty shop, tucking into the musty corners and the worn shelves.
And then.
The brass bell on the door frame rattled around its rusted nail, piercing through the dust and old mildewed smell of the shop. The door opened to at first impossibly bright sunlight from a fading winter sun, then a brown canvas apron.
He squinted at the girl, no, the young woman now standing in the doorway, hands pressed tightly to her chest. A tarnished chain peeked out from between her firmly pressed fingers.
They looked at each other for a still, silent moment before the woman stepped into the shop and let the door swing shut behind her, sending the bell into another ringing frenzy.
He sighed, immediately returning to polishing the gears. “Well, I can take a look at that for you and maybe replace that chain, but otherwise I don’t think I’ll be able to do any good,” he murmured, casually tapping his fingers on the counter.
He only stopped when the woman’s gaze dropped to his drumming hands and then passed over to the watch parts, still strewn across the worktable and twitching faintly.
“No,” she whispered in an equally soft but determined voice, her gaze still on the gears and springs and weights. “On the contrary, I think you can help me a great deal.”
With that, she turned on one booted toe to meet his eyes once again, and slowly revealed the dented brass pocket watch sitting in her palm.
“I don’t need another spin. I’ll let you wind it back. I only ask that you, yourself, give me my compensation for it. I... don’t have the time to find another willing purchaser.” Her voice wavering only once, she tipped the watch onto the counter, in front of the place where he had set down the leather rag.
Maybe it was the faltering tone of her voice when she said it, maybe it was the unsteady look in her eyes that hinted at something more than fear. Or maybe it was just that his head had started to spin and he staggered to brace himself against the counter.
But he decided to attribute it to the way her fists were clenched in her apron, fingers twisting into the fabric.
She had something to do. She still had some unsettled issue to deal with. And although she might say otherwise, he knew what she needed was not what she had asked for.
“Is it yours?”, he asked, fingers already digging into his apron pockets for some tools in preparation.
“Of course,” she breathed.
Without a word he reached for the pocket watch and turned it over and over in his hands, gauging its weight, age, and functionality. A newer model, but not in as good condition as it should have been in. But it would do. All of the pocket watches were the same thing, in the end.
Fingering the roughened grip of the winder, he twisted the face of the watch toward the light and his disemboweled pocket watch that lay beyond.
December 31, 1842, 10: 57 A.M.
He halted once, hesitating, but didn’t let himself linger on the moment. It was all going to be over soon anyway. A day, a week, a month, what did it all mean to someone who had dealt in the currency of time for several centuries? How much was it supposed to be worth to someone who was completely alone?
He fished out a tiny pick from his apron and pried the two halves of the pocket watch apart. Locating the mainspring immediately, he eased the tip into the center and began to turn with the swiftness and agility of an artisan.
This will be the last. I won’t. Not anymore. No more...
A rush of nausea and dizziness suddenly came over him, and he had to pause and blink the green spots from his eyes before continuing. His vision started fraying at the edges as the mainspring stubbornly loosened.
He jabbed the pick deeper into the center of the spring and forced it to turn with vengeance, ignoring the gears within the watch that had started squirming in protest.
The woman was frowning at him, head cocked to the side, as she took a step back and watched from afar.
He ignored both her and the sweat trickling behind his ears. He didn’t care about anything now, only making sure that the mainspring wound in tighter and tighter circles, converging into a single mass of barely tempered power.
Snapping the pocket watch shut again, he pressed both palms to the counter and looked up at the woman. Maybe she could tell how exhausted he was, maybe she could detect the rivulets of sweat running down his brow.
But that, too, could just be wishful thinking.
Maybe she was too frantic to care, eyes darting from the door to the swinging lamp to the bookcase then back again. Her fingers had never stopped tearing at the apron since she came in.
She tentatively stepped back toward the counter, palms already out for the watch.
“Thank you. I—”
He cut her off. “You won’t need anything in return,” he whispered, voice raspy.
He looked down at his shaking palms again, panting slightly as the glare of the lamp light reflecting off the glass counter pierced his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he spoke in the strongest and surest voice he could muster.
“You won’t need anything other than that.” He tilted his chin toward the watch he had tossed across the counter.
Brow furrowing, she picked it up and smoothed the glass surface with her thumb. “What—”
Her mouth snapped shut with an audible click as she stared down at the watch face. It quickly fell open again.
January 1, 1841, 6: 23 P.M. blinked up at her, unmistakable.
She shook the watch once. She closed her mouth and then opened it to try again, but no sound came out. Looking towards the abandoned watch parts tossed on the other side of the counter, where a spring was giving one last half-hearted twang, her eyes grew wide as she realized what it meant.
Her fingers started shaking, the watch chain shivering in her palm, even more vigorously than before. “But I can’t—”
He frowned at the woman until she became silent, yellow surges crowding into his vision as he blinked up at her. “You’ll need the time itself more than what it’s worth in coins,” he muttered, voice grating against itself.
The woman took a step back and then rushed forward, fingers squeezing the pocket watch so hard that her knuckles were bone white with the effort. “It’s your time, I can’t—”
He could no longer feel the edges of his fingers and the tips of his toes, and he knew he didn’t have much time left. “You can and you will. It’s—”
He suddenly doubled over with a cough, his lungs rebelling against the dust, the shop, the effort... Panting, he pressed one palm into his thigh and forced his gaze up to meet the woman’s.
She was frozen in place, eyes wide as she stared at his trembling limbs.
“I...” His legs gave way, his boots sliding aside, and he collapsed onto the wooden floor.
When he forced himself to look up, the overhead lamp was swinging, swimming to and fro in his vision, and it was bright, so very bright...
He scrambled up and threw himself across the counter, clasping the alarmed woman’s hands around the pocket watch. His eyes found hers, boring into them with insistent pleading.
“Do it all over again for me, will you? Make it be worth something more than its weight in gold.”
“I—” The woman shied away from his touch, but he held on firm, clutching her hand like it was his last lifeline.
“Please. Do it all over... While you can...”
He leaned back and closed his eyes, ignoring the woman’s incoherent blubbering, his vision and his thoughts completely blinded by the lamp that swung to and fro like an old pendulum clock.
Tick. tick. tick.
His time. Her time. The time of all of the rest of the Time Keepers.
Time to leave. Time to make it all right. Time to do it over.
Tick. tick. tick.
What was so special about this time?
When the world fell away from beneath him, he let it all go.
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