By Russell Holbrook
Robbie flung open the door to Warrington’s Curiosity Shop and ducked in to escape the gray, weeping sky. His eyes roved across the store. He was amazed: It was just as he remembered it. The ceilings were high, the lighting was dim, and the wooden floors wore a well-traveled sheen. The shop was crammed full of every odd and end imaginable, and the air was thick with the scent of age. Robbie reached the counter and rang the silver bell that sat next to the antique register. The bright chime reverberated through the shadowy haze.
“Hey,” a voice said from behind. Robbie started and spun around. “Can I help you?” The clerk asked.
This wasn’t who Robbie was expecting to see. This man was young and pale and, according to the tag on his shirt, was named Kirk. Robbie’s brow bunched up. “Where’s the old man?”
The clerk fixed Robbie with a blank stare and said flatly, “He died.” Then he sighed and said, “I guess you haven’t been in lately?”
Robbie replied, “No, not since I was a kid really. Who are you?”
“I’m the grandson, Neal.”
“But your name tag says Kirk.”
The clerk chuckled. “Oh yeah, I found this in the back and thought it’d be funny to wear it.” He grinned and exposed a rotted row of teeth. Robbie’s skin crawled. A dark chill swept over him, and it wasn’t due to the cold rainwater that clung to his clothes.
Robbie paused. A silence fell between them, then Robbie said, “I need a watch; one that will make sure I’m always on time.”
“You have a problem with tardiness?” Neal said with a chuckle.
Robbie nodded. “Yes, a big one. No matter how hard I try, I’m always late. It’s like I’m… cursed.”
Neal’s left eyebrow rose to a peak. For a brief moment he stared at Robbie, then abruptly said, “Okay, man, c’mon,” and slouched over to a short glass case that sat along the left wall of the long, narrow building.
Robbie followed the clerk to the case, where three shelves full of antique pocket watches rested on burgundy, crushed velvet. Robbie hunched over and peered into the case. Rain beat down on the roof, cold wind whipped around the building, and behind the case, Neal waited. After several minutes, Robbie pointed to a burnished silver watch in the left hand corner of the bottom shelf and said, “That one.”
Neal bent low, slid the case’s door open, and brought out the watch. He smiled. “Oh yeah, this one’s a beauty. You’ll never be late with this one, no way. With this watch, man, you’ll always be right on schedule.”
Robbie returned the clerk’s smile. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Robbie sat at the bus stop, gazing into the face of the timepiece, watching the second hand make slow loops. His eyes felt dry and he noticed that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d blinked. He heard a shuffle next to him. A woman was shaking water off an umbrella beneath the covered bus stop. She looked at Robbie.
“Hey, neat, a pocket watch,” she said. “I haven’t seen one of those in ages.”
Robbie smiled at the woman and said, “It’s almost your time.”
The woman’s mouth twisted down on one corner. “Pardon me?”
With a dazed look on his face, Robbie repeated himself and then added, “I’m sorry.”
The woman’s eyebrows knitted. She backed away from Robbie, out into the rain, into the path of a cyclist barreling down the sidewalk.
“On your left!” The cyclist yelled.
Alarmed, the woman spun to the right. Her foot snagged on a piece of uneven concrete and she twirled out into the busy street. A car blared its horn and swerved around her. She gained her balance and rushed back toward the sidewalk. Raindrops stung her eyes. She tripped over the edge of the sidewalk and stumbled to a stop a few feet in front of Robbie. The woman heaved, desperately trying to catch her breath, her eyes wide with terror.
“Oh my God!” She screamed. “I almost–”
The speeding truck seemed to come out of nowhere. It hopped the curb and plowed into the woman. Her body bounced into the street and rolled under the wheels of the oncoming traffic.
Tires squealed and slid across the wet, slick pavement. The hurtling mass of machines pulled left and right to avoid hitting the woman. Several vehicles slid into the opposite lanes, colliding head-on with the rushing automobiles. A cacophony of bending metal and shattering glass roared into the sky. Screams echoed from cars and trucks and vans.
And Robbie stared at the watch, his eyes fixed on the languid movement of the spinning second hand.
A massive city bus, its horn screaming, slammed into the pile-up. The enormous crunch of the impact snapped Robbie out of his trance. He jumped up. A man in a business suit was staggering out of the wreckage, holding his side, with blood pouring from a wide gash on his forehead.
“Help me!” The man shouted to Robbie.
Robbie froze, clutching the watch. The second, minute, and hour hands spun at a frantic pace.
A lone garbage truck swerved away from the growing crash, spilled over sideways, and fell on top of the shuffling businessman. Blood flowed out from under the truck and mixed with the rain.
Laughter boomed in Robbie’s head. He looked around to see where it was coming from and then realized that it was his own voice he heard ringing in his head. He lurched out into the rain, howling like a maniac, and ran into the deepening evening as emergency response vehicles appeared on the horizon.
Robbie woke up in his bed. He was soaking wet and his head was throbbing. He squinted and glanced around the darkroom. The cell phone on the bedside table let out a shrill ring. Robbie rolled over and answered.
“Hello,” he mumbled.
“You bastard!” A woman’s voice screamed from the other end, sharpening and focusing the agony in his head. “You couldn’t even make it to your own son’s birthday party! Where were you, huh? Where the hell were you?!”
“I, uh, what?” Robbie sputtered.
“You were drunk again, weren’t you?!”
Robbie’s heart raced. He tried to swallow although his mouth and throat were a desert. He sat up. The room spun. He gripped the mattress with one hand and held on. “But I,” he began. “I got a watch so I could be on time.”
“Your cell phone tells time, you moron!”
“But, Sheila, this is a special watch, one that tells the real time, the true time. The man said I’d never be late again. And I thought that once I had it, I wouldn’t miss anything ever again. I’d always be there, on time, always.”
The woman on the other end sobbed and her sobbing became weeping. “Well, it doesn’t matter now, it’s too late!” She shouted. “The party was the day before yesterday, and you missed it. And then–” Sheila’s voice broke off. She drew in a long breath. “—and then, yesterday, when Nana was driving him home from pre-school, they were in a sixteen car pile-up and—and–”
Robbie gasped. Shelia wailed into the phone and hung up. Robbie’s stomach turned. He fell to his knees and threw up on the floor. He shuddered. I need a drink, he thought. He wondered what time it was. He’d need to get to the liquor store before it closed.
That was when he realized he was gripping a cold, metal object in his right hand. Robbie opened his hand and clicked open the pocket watch. In the gloom, he watched the second hand make its slow rotation and it all came back to him.
He’d been hammered drunk, staggering back to his efficiency apartment in the late afternoon when the sky turned angry and a storm erupted. He’d taken refuge in the old curiosity shop that he’d loved as a child. He hadn’t been there in decades and he couldn’t believe it was still in operation. After relating his woes of tardiness and missed appointments at length to the patient employee, he’d bought a watch. Yes, this watch, he thought. And then what had happened? Had he blacked out again? He needed to know.
Robbie struggled to his feet. He felt like he was wading through molasses as he stumbled through his studio apartment and out into the dim evening. A light mist fell lazily from the slate-gray sky. The streetlights blinked on. Robbie hugged his jacket tight around his body and hurried to the antique district, his favorite cut through to avoid the beat cops that liked to arrest the drunks and vagrants that crowded Main Street. The mist turned to a full-on rain when Robbie came out of an alley, turned the corner, and stopped in front of the tattered awning emblazoned with the name, Warrington’s Curiosity Shop, across the front. Robbie’s eyes bulged.
The front display windows were filthy, covered in spider webs and years of accumulated dust and grime. The rubber Halloween masks still sat on their displays, their colors cracked and faded. The dust jackets of the books on magic and decorating were yellowed with age and eaten away at the edges. The eyes of the spooky dolls and stuffed monkeys with their brass cymbals had all been gouged out. A gust of stale air, reeking of age and neglect, rushed over Robbie. He looked for its source and saw that the tall glass panes in the front door had been kicked in. Shattered glass littered the doorway.
An old man sat in the shadows near the entrance, dressed in rags and clutching a liquor bottle in a brown paper bag. He looked up at Robbie. “Hey man, how’s the watch workin’ for ya?” He said.
Robbie shifted, as if noticing the old man for the first time.
The old man arched his left eyebrow. “Well?”
Robbie looked intently at the old man and noticed he wore a name tag on his jacket that read “Kirk” in faded blue letters.
Robbie’s heart raced. He felt his eyes water and his bottom lip quiver. “Where’s Neal?” He asked.
The old man grinned wide, revealing a mouth full of rotted teeth. “He’s dead.”
Robbie’s mouth fell open. The old man cackled. Robbie stumbled back, away from the old man. “He’s dead!” The old man shouted as his cackling turned into roaring laughter.
Robbie ran into the street. A moving truck plowed into him, crushing him beneath its monstrous tires.
The driver slammed on the brakes and slid to a stop. He cursed to himself. He knew he shouldn’t have been speeding, especially not in the rain, especially not after those six whiskeys he’d had with lunch. But he was running behind. And his boss had said that if he was late one more time he’d lose his job. He just wanted to be on time. He couldn’t understand why he was always late. He tried so hard. It wasn’t fair; it made him feel like he was cursed.