The watch stopped at sunset. I could say that with certainty because we were all sitting outside with an unobstructed view of the western horizon. I looked down at the watch the instant before the sun dipped out of view. I saw the second hand move once, and then no more. I looked up again and the sun had vanished. In the time between heartbeats, the longest day of the year had ended and the shortest night began.
“The watch stopped.” I say.
Owen leaned forward in his camp chair. “What, really? Can I see?”
I passed the watch back to him. He is the one who found it, after all.
I saw the curiosity in his eyes, so I warned him. “You don’t want to keep it.”
“Why not? It’s a beautiful watch.” He examined it more closely.
“World War I era, I would say.”
“Owen, you can’t keep it. It’s infested.”
“Like infested infested?” He set the watch down on the little tray that was part of his chair. He knows what that word means to people like me. To people like us.
“Weakly, though, like someone tried to clean it, but didn’t quite finish the job. We need to put it back where you found it.”
Michelle took a sip of her wine. “What are you guys talking about? Are there bugs or something? Or mold?”
“No,” Owen said. “What Philomena is saying is that the watch is, well, for lack of a better word- haunted.”
I looked around the fire pit at my friends. Owen knew, of course. Michelle did not. Joan knew, but her new husband Glenn didn’t. I had only just started to know Jason, who was Glenn’s friend from college, so he had no idea what I did in my spare time.
Jason giggled a little. “Haunted? What does that mean? Is there a ghost in the watch?”
I had the advantage that all five people, six if I included myself, were slightly to moderately inebriated. Myself, Michelle, Joan, and Owen on wine. Glenn and Jason on beer and marijuana. I could be perfectly honest about everything, and not worry, at least not too much, about freaking out my friends. Tomorrow, in the light of day, my words could be blamed on the alcohol and the weed.
I cleared my throat. “There was something, or someone, that cursed this object. Whatever they did, it’s been weakened, but not eliminated. Wherever Owen found the watch, we should bring it back and bury it.”
There was silence for a few moments. I looked around, taking in the scene. Sunset had turned to the gloaming. Festive white lights were strung from tree to tree over the picnic tables behind the farmhouse where the rest of the party guests had settled, preferring indoor board games to the outdoor chill. It was strangely cold, for a late June evening, even with the fire. I looked up. Arcturus and Vega twinkled above. Soon more stars would make themselves known.
“Are you messing with us?” It was Jason again, trying to wrap his mind around what Owen had said.
I was about to speak, but as it often happens, Owen spoke for me. “No, no one is messing with you. I would listen to her. You know what she does, right?"
"Like for a living? Phil's a botanist, and landscape artist." Michelle looked around the group. "Right?"
"Architect," Owen said, "landscape architect. But that's just her day job. Right, Philomena?"
I smiled, "Well, I rather like the term landscape artist."
Michelle furrowed her brow. "But what is Owen referring to?"
Owen raised his glass towards me. "Phil's a medium. The kind that communicates with the dead."
Michelle took another swig of wine. "Is there another kind?"
"Well, I'm just saying, that if Phil says the watch has some bad vibes, we should listen."
“So the watch has a dead person in it?” Jason looked at me, with a genuine expression of confusion.
“No, not really.”
“Then what is it?”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure. Can I see the watch again?” Owen passed me the watch. I held it close to my face, trying to examine it in the firelight.
While I did that, Owen shared his thoughts on its origins.
“If I had to guess,” he said, “I would say it’s from the 1920s. Likely purchased just after the first World War.” He paused, gearing up to enlighten us on the minutia of that era’s timepieces.
He pointed towards the watch in my hands. “You know, it’s interesting, prior to the war wristwatches were considered jewelry and marketed primarily to women. Men at the time favored pocket watches. More manly, apparently. But after soldiers started using wristwatches, they became viewed as masculine enough for the gentlemen.”
I smiled to myself. Owen’s grasp of history never ceased to amaze me. He could give you the big picture forwards and backwards and then zoom into tiny details like this. I looked back to the watch. It reminded me a little bit of one that had belonged to a client’s dead grandfather. She had a question for him, and hoped his cherished timepiece would provide some sort of conduit to help me get the answer.
I had barely called up the memory of that client, her grandfather, and his watch, when I saw it, or rather him. It was definitely a person, male, just off in the distance like a three-dimensional movie. This watch, the one in my hand, was begging for my attention. It practically screamed “look at this!”. Another man came into view, prone and still on the ground. Both figures wore military uniforms, but from different armies. One looked American, but I couldn’t be certain. Based on what Owen had said about the watch, it was probably World War I. I had no clues to the specific date or location, but the anguish, I absolutely felt that. Clear as the night sky. It permeated through my skin and settled in my bones.
I watched as the one I thought was American took the watch off the man on the ground. He was German, I think- the man on the ground. I can’t say for sure how I figured that out, but the original owner seemed to be a German solider, about the same age as the American one taking his watch. Both of them young- far too young to be so bloodied and broken. I watched as a dark cloud settled around them. I wanted to yell to them to get away from it, but I couldn’t form the words.
I gasped, and then I spoke in a voice not my own, “He spins and burns and loves the air, and splits a skull to win my praise.”
And then, oh God, the noise, and the smell. I see you, I thought, yes, I see you both, and I’m so sorry. The dark evil reached for them, and then for me. I threw the watch onto the ground. For a few terrifying seconds, I could not breathe.
“Philomena, are you okay?” Owen’s voice took me out of the trance.
I sucked in a couple of deep breaths. “Yes, I’m okay. I saw him.”
Michelle looked at me with wide eyes. “Who?”
Before I could answer, Joan stood up and retrieved the watch from where I had thrown it. I raised my hand, “You might not want to-“
I was still catching my breath as she picked the watch up from the ground. Then she appeared to freeze and a peculiar expression came across her face. Her gaze extended outward, like she was seeing something in the darkness.
“Joan, you okay?” Glenn asked.
I stood up to go to her and in an instant her trance was broken and she dropped the watch to the ground.
Glenn helped her back to her chair. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I saw something.”
Joan shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t think I want to talk about it.”
Glenn moved his chair closer to hers and rubbed her arm. “Joanie, it’s okay.”
Joan took in a deep breath and then finished what was left in her wine glass. “God, what an awful memory.”
I turned to look at her. “Is that what you saw? A memory?”
Before she could respond, Jason moved to pick up the watch. Like Joan, he froze and stared off into the distance. After a few seconds, he threw the watch on the ground.
“Christ,” he said, “That thing is like a bad memory machine.”
Joan’s eyes widened. “You too?”
“Yep. From when I was a teenager. It showed me something I had done. I wasn’t that great of a person back then.”
Joan nodded. “Yeah, I got an effective reminder of what a jerk I was as a seventh-grader.”
Glenn asked, “What did you see?”
Joan sighed. “This is embarrassing, but I saw myself in the past, like a movie. There was this time when I made fun of another girl in our class. I was terrible to her. I knew it was wrong, but I was showing off to my friends. I feel awful about it now.”
Jason rubbed his eyes. “Wait, you’re telling me this watch shows us instant replays of our worst moments? That is some messed up shit.”
“Philomena, did you see a memory too?” Owen asked.
“Yes, but it wasn’t my own. It had to do with the original owner of the watch. And the second owner.” I told them the scene I had witnessed with the two soldiers.
The group went quiet for a bit after that, and then Joan went inside and came back out with blankets and a fresh bottle of red wine. I took a blanket and wrapped it around my shoulders. Glenn set to opening the wine, and poured for the rest of us. “Owen, you want to see what the watch shows you?”
“No need. My most shameful moments are at the ready in high-resolution living color right here.” He smiled and poked at his head.
Glenn nodded. “Well, I’m curious, but not that curious. I think I’ll pass too. Michelle?”
“I’m game. Give it here.”
Michelle took the watch in her hands and then leaned back in her chair. After a few seconds, she tilted her head, like she was listening for something. Then we watched as she presumably was being treated to some replay from her own past. I knew the memory had left when she set the watch down and reached for her wine glass.
“Well?” Joan asked.
Michelle dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. “Nothing I want to talk about. Philomena, what’s the deal with this thing?”
“I think the circumstances of the war triggered the watch to become infested. Battlefields have always been fertile ground for the unholy- lots of pain and anger to feed off of. I think the infestation began when it was taken off the soldier’s body. I can’t say what else it’s been through.”
“Can you talk to the soldier, I mean, with your medium skills?”
I shook my head. “He’s long gone. Both of them are. All I can conjure are some bad memories.”
Joan looked at the watch. “I wish we knew more about them.”
We spent the remaining hours of darkness talking quietly about the soldiers and how we imagined what their lives were like. We shared what we knew about the war, which unfortunately was precious little, save for Owen. Then we talked about regret, each one of us in turn. Slowly the sky took on a slate blue glow and the stars began to fade.
“Owen,” I said, “I think it’s time we put the watch back where you found it.”
He nodded, stood and stretched. I did the same, shivering a bit at the cool morning air. I picked up the watch and saw Owen searching for something on his phone.
“It’s called ‘The Kiss’.”
I turn to him, confused. “What?”
He looked up from his phone. “It’s a poem. The words you spoke when you first held the watch, they were from a poem written by a British soldier- a Siegfried Sassoon.”
“’The Kiss’,” I repeated, “Oh.”
I didn’t know what else to say. We walked in silence towards the eastern horizon. Owen led the way to the spot where he found the watch, not long before sunset on the shortest night of the year. I held it firmly as we walked, fearing I would drop it and lose it in the tall dewy grass. I felt the urge to put my hand to my heart, and so I did. I walked and I whispered, “My heart to you, dear soldiers. May you rest in peace.”
And then, as the first rays of sunlight reached to the sky, I felt a tick tick tick perfectly matching the beat of my heart.
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I love the opening line and sequence and how it nicely mirrors the last line. Great job! :>