Monday, June 13, 2011

The Elgin Curse

 By Kevin Rodgers

As he approached the help desk of his favorite bookstore, Trey Barnard noticed a coffee shop near the nonfiction section.  Three girls sat at a table and sipped their cappuccinos.  They paused when they noticed him.  Trey grinned when he realized they were smiling at him and whispering to each other.  One of the girls, a redhead who wore a pink dress and matching high heels, motioned for him to approach the table.  Her friends, two anorexic blondes who looked like twin sisters, talked about him behind their hands.  Trey waved at them before he approached the help desk.

Trey frowned when he realized that no one was working at the desk.  A sign, attached to the steel façade by magnets, informed:  Sorry We Missed You!  We'll Be Back in Ten Minutes!  Trey exhaled a sigh of disgust and glanced at a black, solar-powered Casio G-Shock on his wrist.  It was ten 'til noon.  He imagined that the bookstore employee was sitting at a table in the food court, stuffing his or her face with fast food.  Instead of waiting at the help desk for the clerk to return, Trey decided to kill some time in the coffee shop and talk to the girls.

He felt dampness form in the underarms of his beige, Ralph Lauren dress shirt as beads of sweat formed on his forehead.  As he approached the table, he felt his throat go dry while he grinded his teeth.  He'd always been shy when approaching girls for the first time, but he'd never felt this nervous.  As he crossed the threshold between the bookstore and the coffee shop, he smiled and tried to relax.

"I knew you'd come over to say hello," the red-headed girl said.

The blonde twins whispered to each other and giggled.
"I'm Trey Barnard.  It's nice to meet you."

"Likewise," purred the blonde to his immediate left.

"Nice haircut," her twin complimented.

Trey was an Army veteran who'd experienced multiple deployments to Iraq during the Bush presidency.  He sported a high-and-tight cut ever since then, mostly due to the fact that longer hair irritated him when it touched his ears.  He also walked with a noticeable limp, because he'd been shot in the right thigh during combat with insurgents.  He lapsed into a daydream while he remembered the scorching sand, the hot wind, and the excruciating pain he experienced when the bullet lodged into his flesh.

"My name is Blythe Parsons.  This is my friend Phoebe…" The redhead pointed to the blonde to his immediate left.  "…and this is her sister, Candice."

"Hi, guys.  Maybe I'll get a latte and chat for a moment," Trey said.

"So what brings you to the bookstore?"  Blythe asked.

"I wanted to pre-order the new book by Stephen King, but the desk is closed until noon.  I guess the clerk stepped out for lunch."  His voice expressed disappointment.

Blythe's hand reached for something that should've been hanging around her neck.  When she realized it wasn't there, her eyes widened and she gasped.  Her tan face became pale and she chewed her polished fingernails.  When Blythe leaned over and scanned the coffee shop's floor, Trey knew she'd lost something important.  He bent at the waist, looked under the table, and checked the area also, even though he didn't know what he was looking for.  He assumed it was a necklace or a pendant.

"Phoebe!  Candice!  Have you seen my watch?"  Blythe's voice reflected panic.

The blonde twins gasped.  Phoebe rose from her chair and dropped to her hands and knees.  Candice pushed her chair away from the table and examined the floor near her feet.  After searching for the missing watch for fifteen minutes, they relaxed and sipped their cappuccinos again.  Blythe lost her temper, balled her left hand into a fist, and hit the top of the table.  Candice and Phoebe whispered "she's pissed" and "we'll never find it" while they shielded their lips with their hands.

"I can't believe this happened!  It's a family heirloom!"  Blythe said.

"You're so dead.  Your mom is going to kill you," Phoebe chided.

"What's the big deal?  It doesn't even keep time," Candice said.

Blythe spilled her cappuccino when she reached for her Liz Claiborne purse.  She unzipped it and peered inside.  As the rest of her cappuccino dripped from the edge of the table to the floor, she rifled through her belongings.  She tossed her car keys, her billfold, a tube of lipstick, a hairbrush, and her cell phone on the table.  After she picked through old receipts and loose change, she bit her lip and stifled a scream in the back of her throat.  Then she snared her cell phone, scrolled through her list of friends and family, highlighted her mother's phone number, and placed her call.  She stared at Trey, Candice, and Phoebe while she listened to the cordless phone at home ring over and over again.

Finally, a feminine, static voice said, "Hello?"

"Mom!  I have a big, big problem!  I lost Grandma's watch!"

Her mother, hysterical:  "Find it right now!  Don't leave until you do!"

"I'll trace my steps and check all the stores," Blythe promised.

Loud, yet distant:  "I'm on my way to the mall to help you look for it!"

"Okay!  Call me when you get here!"

Blythe tossed her belongings, cell phone included, back into the pit of her purse.  She glanced at Trey and realized that she wanted to see him again.  She thought he was handsome, of course, but his cordial and shy personality intrigued her also.  She glanced into her purse again and found an ink pen and a torn piece of notebook paper.  When Trey realized that she was writing down her phone number, he grinned.  His heart thudded under his sternum when she reached across the table and offered the piece of paper to him.

"I hate to cut this short, but I really need to find my watch," she said.

"It's completely understandable.  It must mean a lot to you," Trey said.  He took the piece of paper, folded it neatly, and tucked it into his wallet.

"It's an antique Elgin watch.  It's circular and is worn on a chain around the neck.  I could care less about the chain, but the watch once belonged to my grandmother.  It's something I treasure very much," Blythe said.

"It's more than a hundred years old," Candice added.

"Call me later tonight, Trey.  We're going to backtrack and see if we can find it.  And if you find it first, please call me!" she said.

"Sure thing," he promised.

"While you backtrack, I'll check the lost and found desk.  Maybe someone already found it and turned it in," Phoebe said.

Blythe felt optimistic for the first time.  "That's a great idea!  Let me know if it's there!"

After he watched the girls depart, Trey glanced at his watch and realized that fifteen minutes had elapsed since he introduced himself to them.  Eager to preorder the new Stephen King book, he strolled through the coffee shop and walked into the bookstore.  As he approached the help desk, he realized that the clerk hadn't returned from lunch yet.  The magnetic sign remained attached to the steel façade.  When he glanced at his watch again, he realized that the clerk was ten minutes late.  On a display case next to the help desk, Trey spied the latest offering by John Grisham.  He picked up one of the hardcover books, admired the front cover, and read the synopsis.

From the corner of his left eye, something metallic glimmered next to a computer on the desk.  Trey placed the novel on the countertop and focused his attention on the object.  A gold, circular watch glowed in the light of the overhead, fluorescent bulbs.  A matching, gold chain coiled around it like a protective snake.

"It's Blythe's watch," he said.

Trey leaned over the counter.  He realized how easy it would be to snatch the watch and chain without anyone seeing him.  He succumbed to temptation and snatched it off of the desk.  Before he shoved it into the pocket of his blue jeans, he paused and stared at it.  He felt himself becoming hypnotized by its gold shell and glass window.  The clock's hands weren't whirling as they should.  The minute and hour hands were both frozen at the twelve o'clock position.  An idea popped into his mind and he grinned.

Candice's statement rattled in his skull:  What's the big deal?  It doesn't even keep time.

"I bet Blythe would be happy if I fixed the watch for her," he said.

It wouldn't take much effort to get the watch repaired.  It'd only take him five minutes to stroll from the bookstore to the nearest watch vendor.  He'd been to the store on several occasions in the past.  His dog, a Silky Terrier named Taz, liked to gnaw on the Casio's leather band while Trey was asleep.  Trey had become good friends with the owner of the watch shop, a gray-haired, dark-skinned Italian named Giuseppe Cardellini.  Giuseppe always smiled and laughed when Trey placed the mangled wristband on the display case next to the cash register.  Giuseppe thought it was funny that Trey forgot to take off his watch before he fell asleep.  He often asked why Trey didn't wake up while Taz chewed the wristband, and Trey told him he couldn't even hear the alarm clock go off while he was asleep. 

"I wonder if Giuseppe could fix it," he said.

Trey glanced over his shoulder.  He expected to see a security officer or a bookstore employee standing behind him, ready for an explanation as to why he'd stolen the watch from the help desk.  When he realized he was still alone, he shoved the watch and chain into the front, left pocket of his blue jeans.  Adrenaline surged through his veins and his heart raced.  He'd just committed his first crime.  He felt dirty and exhilarated at the same time.  Unknown to him, the theft was captured on a security camera, which was embedded in the ceiling high above the help desk.

Trey stepped away from the bookstore and inched toward the coffee shop.  Beads of sweat dripped from his brow as he stepped out of the coffee shop and walked through the mall.  Advertisements in the window of a video game store tried to lure him inside, but he resisted the temptation to purchase games for his Xbox 360.  He quickened his stride toward the watch vendor, which was sandwiched between Sears and a sports memorabilia store.  The Elgin watch felt heavy in his pocket when he spotted Candice and Blythe.

He watched them explain their dilemma to a mall security guard.  His skin, ripe with acne, glistened with sweat.  His curly hair was greasy and uncombed.  A beer belly bulged under his white uniform shirt.  A black, leather rig sagged around his waistline, and his firearm looked like it was about to fall out of its holster.  A shiny badge, slightly askew just above his heart, glinted in the mall's dim light.  When Candice and Blythe caught a glimpse of Trey, they paused and waved at him.  He smiled, waved at them, and walked faster toward Sears.  He didn't want them to know he'd found the watch until after Giuseppe repaired it.

As Trey approached the sports memorabilia store, he paused to admire a Boston Red Sox jersey in the front window.  On the back, the name ORTIZ and the number 34 loomed.  David Ortiz was one of Trey's favorite players.  He felt tempted to purchase the jersey, but decided to make a decision after Giuseppe tried to fix Blythe's watch. 

A teen-aged boy told Trey to get out of his way and stamped on his toes.  Pain radiated across the top of his left foot.  Before Trey could scold him, the boy's mother apologized and yanked him away from the sports shop.  Trey cursed under his breath and limped toward Giuseppe's shop.

As he crossed the threshold of the watch shop, bells chimed overhead.  Trey approached the cash register and reached into the pocket of his jeans.  His fingers found the gold chain and tugged on it.  It slid into view with the Elgin watch.  He placed the watch and chain on the glass countertop.  While he waited for Giuseppe to emerge from the back of the store, he admired a grandfather clock next to the cash register.

"Hello, my friend!"  Giuseppe greeted.

Giuseppe strolled toward the cash register, smiled at Trey, and extended a frail hand with longer fingers.  He wore khaki dress slacks, a white button-down shirt, and a gray Bill Blass tie.  The potent aroma of cologne throbbed from his skin.  Trey's left hand shook Giuseppe's right one firmly.  For his age, Giuseppe's grip was still very strong.

"What's this?  No demolished wrist band?"  Giuseppe exhaled a deep laugh.

"Not this time!  Now I take the watch off before I sleep.  But what do you make of this?"

Trey lifted the gold chain with the fingers of his left hand.  After the chain rose above the glass countertop, the Elgin watch swung back and forth in the air like a pendulum.  Giuseppe ogled the antique watch and became hypnotized by it.  He reached out and plucked the watch from Trey's fingers.  While Giuseppe examined the watch, Trey noticed a cordless Sony telephone next to the cash register.  He opened his wallet and found the piece of paper that Blythe had scribbled her cell phone number on.

"Where did you find this, my friend?  It's an antique!"  Giuseppe praised.

"It belongs to a girl I met earlier today.  It's broken and I was wondering if you could fix it.  I'll pay whatever it costs to repair it."

"Give me a few minutes.  It won't take long," Giuseppe promised.

After Giuseppe took the watch into the back of the store, Trey unfolded the torn piece of notebook paper.  Blythe had written her cell phone number in huge, feminine script.  Beneath the number, she'd drawn a big heart with "Call me!" next to it.  Trey reached for the cordless phone, punched the TALK button, and dialed Blythe's number.  Her voice, high-pitched and on the verge of panic, greeted him moments later. 

"Mom?  Is that you?" she asked.

"No, it's Trey.  I found your watch!"

"Awesome!  Where are you?"

"There's a watch store over here next to Sears.  My friend, Giuseppe, is trying to fix it for you right now."

"Stop him!  Don't let him fix it!"  Blythe yelled at him through the phone.

"What?  Why?"  Trey was stunned.

"Tell him to stop right now!  Tell him not to fix it!"

"Giuseppe!  Giuseppe, can you hear me?" 

There was no response.  An uncomfortable silence lingered in the store.  Trey listened to the gentle tick, tock of the watches and clocks.  When Trey yelled Giuseppe's name and there still was no response, he felt compelled to leap over the counter and search the back of the store.  A lump formed in the back of his throat and a tear slipped from the corner of his eye when he realized something must've happened to his friend.  He'd caused his best friend to die in Iraq and would never forgive himself if his actions hurt someone else.

The clocks and watches whispered to him:  tick, tock.

The rhythm was shattered by approaching footfalls.  Bells chimed overhead when Blythe and Candice sprinted across the threshold of Giuseppe's store.  When Blythe's fingernails dug into the flesh of Trey's left forearm, he turned around to face her.  All of the color was gone from her face.  Her lips trembled while she grinded her teeth.

"What've you done?" she gasped.

"I wanted to surprise you.  I thought you'd be happy," he said.

"It's probably too late!  You should've called me right when you found it!"

Candice was alarmed.  She said:  "What's wrong?  What's happening?"

Something shuffled in the back of the store.  A low, painful moan interrupted the tick, tock of the watches and clocks.  Giuseppe appeared in the doorway and approached the cash register.  The gold chain and Elgin watch dangled from the hooked fingers of his aged, left hand.  Long, gray hair dangled from his liver-spotted scalp.  Sagging jowls hung from his jaws.  When Giuseppe tried to smile, layers of wrinkles shifted on his skin.  Days and years flashed across his face.

When Giuseppe collapsed against the countertop, Blythe leaned forward and analyzed the Elgin watch.  She gasped when she realized he'd somehow managed to repair it.  The watch's hands moved for the first time in one-hundred years.

Blythe slapped Trey across the face.  As a red handprint formed on his skin, he stared at Giuseppe and watched his friend age rapidly.  Giuseppe's hair and fingernails grew quickly while Trey dialed 911 on the cordless phone.  While Trey described the situation to a dispatcher, Giuseppe's teeth dropped out of his mouth and his legs buckled.

"Everything was fine until you repaired the watch!  You should've left it alone!"  Blythe scolded.

Candice became hypnotized by the watch.  She reached for it and tried to take it away from Giuseppe.  Her eyes ogled the cursed timepiece with fascination.  Before she could touch it, Blythe grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her away.  Candice screamed, writhed, and turned feral as Blythe guided her toward the door.

"No one can touch it now!  If you do, you'll be cursed!"  Blythe warned.

Tick, tock, the watches and clocks whispered.  As the seconds and minutes elapsed, Giuseppe wailed in agony.  He continued to wither away while he clutched the Elgin watch and gold chain in his hand.  Trey realized that he'd caused another friend to suffer.  He burst into tears and sobbed like a baby.  And then he fainted when his friend's corpse, plagued by a century of lost time, collapsed to the cold, tile floor.

Copyright 2011 by Kevin Rodgers

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