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The Watchkeeper

By Becca Fontaine All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Scifi

Short Story

"Here is an authentic refurbished 19th century carriage. Step inside if you wish."
Robin watched as the excited tourists jabbered amongst themselves, taking turns at sitting in the carriage. He chuckled to himself in amusement. He had seen people of all shapes and sizes climb into that carriage, but watching them do it never got old.
As the curator of the Nobanian Museum of History and Science, Robin Park saw every person who came to the museum, day in and day out. He enjoyed taking the job of the tour guide as well, since he believed in interacting with the folks who came. He especially loved to show tourists around the section of the museum that was full of relics from the Victorian era, a time when Nobania was great. Headlady Victoria did much for her country, and Robin loved showing off what was accomplished under her leadership.
While most of the tourists enjoyed climbing into the carriage and taking snapshots of themselves, one boy stood off to the side, his eyes fixed on something in a glass display case. Robin approached him, smiling when he saw which relic the boy was looking at. "This watch is incredibly old," said the gentle curator. "Can you guess how old?"
The boy shrugged and crossed his arms. "I dunno. A hundred years, maybe?"
"Older," grinned Robin. "Closer to 200 years old, I'd bet."
"But you don't know?" asked the boy, looking up at Robin dubiously.
"Nope," said the curator. "Not an exact age, anyway. We can only speculate and make a very educated guess based on the style of the watch's architecture. But, even by just looking at the watch, you can tell that it's been through quite a lot."
The pocketwatch may have indeed been a thing of great beauty in its day, but nearly 200 years of wear and tear had stolen all of that beauty away. The chain was broken and the body of the watch was blackened and dented. A great crack split the foggy and battered glass face of the watch in two. The clock face was worn and the numerals were faded. Most peculiarly, the watch had no hands.
"It must have been beautiful," said Robin, mostly to himself.
"Must have," grunted the boy. "You wouldn't catch me carrying around something that looks like that."
"Come along, Benjamin!" called a woman who was currently leaving the carriage exhibit.
"Coming, mum," said the boy, trudging after her.
Robin only chuckled and continued on with his guided tour of the museum. He loved his job and he loved that watch. The curator denied no one an answer to his question, however silly or frequently asked the question may be.
Tourists came and went, and the hours passed by quickly. At the closing hour, only a few straggling tourists remained, and many of them were already making their way out of the museum. The curator told them good-bye and bid them come again. When no more tourists left the building, Robin set off into the museum to make sure everyone was truly gone before he locked up for the night.
He checked every room and smiled at each display he loved from each room, but found no people in any of them. Satisfied that the place was finally empty, Robin called it a day and headed back toward the lobby to lock up.
And that was when he caught a flash of red from the corner of his eye.
He turned and saw a skinny redheaded man standing in the Victorian room, poring over the relics as if it were midday instead of closing time. "You may want to get out of here now, sir," called Robin, approaching the man. "I'm about to lock up and I doubt you'd want to spend the night in the museum."
The man didn't seem to notice the curator's presence. He simply proceeded onto the next display, almost observing it with a sort of nostalgia. "Sir, I'm about to lock up," Robin reasserted, his voice raised a little louder than when he last spoke. The man scarcely paid the curator a glance, continuing his casual expedition through the exhibit.
He's probably a bit drunk, Robin decided with a sigh. He had had drunks in his museum before, and he had been quick to force them out at each instance. After all, he didn't want to risk any property damage from people who were barely in their right minds. He came closer to the man. "Sir..."
"Give me one minute," said the man suddenly. "I'm still assessing the accuracy of your exhibits here."
"You really need to go home," said the curator, softly but firmly. He set a hand on the redhead's shoulder and attempted to direct him out of the room.
"Oi!" grunted the man, jerking himself away from the curator's touch. "I asked you to give me a minute."
"I'm locking up now, man," said Robin, becoming increasingly irritated. "If you don't leave this museum now, I will lock you in."
Blatantly ignoring the halfhearted threat, the redheaded man casually turned and stalked off on his long legs, striding awkwardly toward the watch display. "Let me ask you a question, curator." He spun on his heel and faced Robin. "How old is this watch?" he asked, using two long fingers to gesture at the watch.
Robin didn't want to humor this strange, possibly drunk man, but he couldn't resist a question... especially one about that watch. "Around 200," he answered slowly. "It would be impossible to determine an exact year..."
"Exactly 184 years old, to the date," said the redhead, jerking his chin up with a soldierlike air.
Robin opened his mouth to respond, but the other man cut him off. "Haven't you ever wondered why it has no hands, curator?"
Robin shrugged. "If I haven't, I'd be a fool," he said.
"Where did you get it?" the redhead questioned, removing a short silvery cane from his long black coat. He extended the cane's length with a sharp shake and began to pace across the museum floor.
"A family donated it about five years ago," said the curator. "Look, if you want to ask questions, come back when the museum is open. I'd be more than happy to answer them then."
"No time like the present," said the other man. "The past is rubbish and the future is even worse because it's unpredictable." He returned to the watch display. "The watch has no hands because it's broken. A broken clock tells no time, therefore hands are useless. Would that not seem to be the answer?"
Thank you, Captain Obvious, Robin thought to himself. If the man wasn't drunk he was mentally unstable or severely detached from reality. In fact, he didn't seem to belong on the planet at all.
"You think I'm mad, curator," said the man, fixing Robin with a pair of ice-blue eyes.
"I think you're drunk," said the curator, folding his arms.
The man snorted. "I'm not drunk," he said. "And I'm not mad either, for future reference. And don't even think about chasing me off to some mental institution, because I'm not leaving until you've answered all my questions." He pointed at Robin, raising an eyebrow.
"Who are you, anyhow?" asked Robin, attempting to ignore the cold phantom fingers which now traced their way down his spine.
"You can call me Henry," said the redhead.
"Henry who?" asked the curator. Could this man be any more cryptic?
"The answer's all around you," said Henry.
Yes. Yes he could get that much more cryptic.
"Especially... especially in this watch," he continued. "It's everything you need to know about me, curator."
Robin raised an eyebrow, not entirely sure of what the man was trying to imply. "Are you telling me you're a time traveler?" he asked.
Henry ignored the question and went on with his speech. "A watch with no hands tells no time regardless of if it's broken or not, and a broken watch tells no time whether it has hands or not. So tell me this..." He spun his cane around once. "How can you tell if this watch is broken?"
"Whether or not it ticks," said the curator. "That watch doesn't tick."
"Doesn't it?" asked Henry, spinning his cane once more. "Are you certain that this watch doesn't tick?"
"Most certain," said Robin, once more pushing down the chilled feeling inside of him. The look on Henry's face was akin to excitement, but it glowed with a dimmer light, or perhaps didn't glow at all. If not for this dark appearance on the man's face, happiness would have been a good word to describe how he looked at that moment. Henry's blue eyes sparkled with an unnatural light. A small smile graced his lips.
"Have you the key to this box?" he asked. "Open it up and I'll be the judge of whether or not the thing ticks."
"The watch hasn't ticked for years," said Robin. "In fact, the family who donated it confirmed that it hasn't ticked for decades."
"Perhaps they simply weren't listening," whispered the redheaded man, gently stroking the glass case which contained the watch. He bent down and peered into the case, wistfully at first, but the unnatural glow soon returned to his features. "Open the case and I'll show you something that will make your inner historian jump for joy."
Hesitantly and from something similar to fear, Robin unlocked and opened the display case. Henry carefully lifted the old watch from the case, smiling gently. He rubbed his thumb over the broken glass face, softly so as not to cut himself on it. Then, he closed the lid over on top of it. "Blackened from almost two centuries of human contact, but the details are still visible," he said quietly. "Visible in golden engraving is the symbol of an axe. Did you know that was an axe?"
Robin leaned in closer, squinting at the engraving. "Well, now that I look at it..."
"It's the last surviving Axeda Industries watch," said Henry, glaring down at Robin incredulously. "The ax incorporated into a circle is their trademark symbol. How did you not see that, mate?"
Robin scratched his head. "I... don't know," he said. "It seems so obvious now... This watch is very valuable indeed."
"What's more," continued the redhead, "is that there's an engraving on the back. The initials are W.S. and the last name is Cooper." He hadn't even looked at the back of the watch.
The curator sighed. "Obviously, it belonged to a man named W.S. Cooper," he said.
"At one point in time," said Henry. "But he wasn't the only owner of the watch. Say, Mr. Cooper gave his watch to his son, who then passed the watch down to his son, and so on. The family who donated the watch may very well have been W.S. Cooper's relatives or direct descendents."
He fondled the pocketwatch in his large, somewhat blocky hands. "Captain William Stanley Cooper, an officer in the first of the three Great Wars, was killed in action on July 20, 1837. He left his watch in the possession of his wife, who was caring for their baby son at the time. It was the only thing the others found left of him, so they sent it back with the letter announcing his decease."
"You made that up," said Robin, whose eyes were as wide as saucers. He had backed away by quite some steps already, but did not hesitate to back up one more step.
Henry sniffed. "I most certainly did not," he stated. "I've spoken the truth and nothing but the truth the entire time I've been speaking to you."
"Look... Henry, or whatever it is you call yourself... I need you to leave the museum so I can lock up," said the curator, calmly as he could.
Henry rolled his eyes. "Again with the locking up! So impatient," he grumbled, reopening the watch. "I thought you liked history. If it's in the way I'm delivering the history of the watch, I'd be glad to change the way I'm coming off."
Robin sighed in exasperation. "To be honest, it's... you're... well, you just seem..." The curator couldn't find the right word to use, no matter how hard he thought about it. "Strange" seemed too insensitive a word to use, and, though fitting, it didn't quite explain how Robin saw this man. "Well, you're... sort of... off."
Now that the words were out, the curator realized just what he found to be so strange about Henry. It wasn't just the behavior or the hauntingly in-depth knowledge of the 184-year-old pocketwatch that was odd. Something about Henry made him seem to be, more or less, a piece of history himself. "Who are you?" the curator asked again, this time more out of fear than anything.
"I told you. I'm Henry," said Henry, smiling sadly as he tinkered with the watch. "But if I'm ever legend... if you ever forget meeting me, and I hope you will..." He tossed the watch to Robin, who caught it frantically. "Remember me not by Henry." He started to leave the room, but stopped by the doorway to turn and look back at the curator once more. "Remember me as the Watchkeeper." Then the scarecrow-like man strode away, the sound of his cane's clicking growing more distant with each step.
Robin watched him go, staring as if in a trance. Finally, the curator shook his head and started to return the watch to its original place in the display case. But when he saw the watch, he gasped. The watch had turned golden. The chain was restored to its full length, the glass was clear and no longer cracked, and the clock face was white, clean, and good as new. The most startling thing of all about the transfigured watch was that it had its hands back and was emitting a steady tick, tick.
Robin's face turned pale at this. Hand shaking, the man slowly set the watch back down into the case. He quickly closed the case and locked it. Then, without a second glance at the watch, he turned and swiftly left to lock up the museum, praying he would never see the likes of Henry the Watchkeeper again.

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