Clock Watchers, by Lachlan David

Lewis stood at the open window of his father’s tiny bedroom and filled his lungs with the cool night air. The air in the room had been thick with the scent of his father’s sickly breath for weeks, but recently, it had taken on a new quality. It was death. Lewis didn’t know how he knew it. Maybe it was some lingering primal instinct that caused him to recognize the aroma. But whatever the reason, he had no doubt what it was. He had avoided the room almost completely since he first noticed it, knowing the morphine would prevent his father from ever knowing the difference. It was his wife, Marie, who tended to him when the nurse went home for the evening. On this particular evening, she noticed his father’s breath was more labored and irregular than usual, even with his oxygen. They called his doctor to see if anything could be done for him, but after a brief exam and checking to see whether the medical equipment was still working as it should, he told them sadly that Anson Straub’s time had come. It would only be a matter of hours, maybe minutes, before his body gave up.

Marie called Lewis’s family immediately to give them the news and an opportunity to pay their last respects. They each offered their condolences, but they were either too far away or too inconvenienced to come at a moment’s notice and spend the evening with a dying man. Meanwhile, Lewis wanted to wake up their 11-year-old son, Michael, so he could say good-bye to his grandfather. But when he opened his bedroom door and saw the boy’s peaceful face lying on the pillow, he decided to let him sleep. Lewis could tell him in the morning and save him the trauma of seeing his grandfather die. That left only Lewis and Marie to sit in the oppressive room and wait for Anson’s final breath. They barely spoke a word to each other during those last hours. The only sounds were the beeps and whirs of medical machines and the raised floor creaking beneath Lewis’s feet as he slowly paced between his chair and the window.

As Lewis stared into the darkness of night and contemplated returning to his seat, the clock on the wall struck 1 AM. A jovial, unidentifiable tune broke through the monotonous noise of the medical equipment and flooded the room. It was the cuckoo clock Lewis’s grandfather Günter Straub had built soon after his escape from Nazi Germany. The clock was the first of three he made for each of the firstborn sons in his family, and Marie had recently hung Anson’s next to his bed at his request. Every hour on the hour, little hand-carved woodland creatures danced and twirled in front of it as the tune played in the background. But this time, Marie and Lewis were both startled by its intrusion on their somber moment.

Lewis turned away from the window and watched the macabre irony play out in front of him. “Why is that thing still going?” he asked. “Who wound it up?”

“Your father told us to keep it running. He loves that clock,” Marie said.

“But he can’t even hear the damn thing!”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m telling you, the first thing I’m going to do…” He stopped when Marie’s words sank in, but it was too late by then. Marie knew exactly what he meant to do, and if Anson had been able to hear and comprehend, he would have figured it out too.

“You’re not doing anything,” Marie told him. “That clock is an heirloom, just like the ones your grandfather made for you and Michael. They’re the only things we have left from his days as a clockmaker in Germany, and I think we should keep them. They might even be worth something by now.”

“All the more reason to get rid of it. God knows, we need the money.” He walked up to the clock to take a better look at it.

“That’s enough.” Marie jerked her head toward his father. “Don’t you think we should talk about this later?”

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m just not in the mood for dancing animals right now, that’s all.”

The song and dance had ended by now, and Lewis reached up to touch one of the little wooden rabbits. The details that were carved into his grandfather’s clocks were amazing. Even the fur was given texture, and he could almost single out the individual needles on the evergreen trees and garlands. But there was something else unusual about Grandpa Günter’s clocks besides their superb craftsmanship. They had a fourth weight. Not only did his clocks keep track of the hours of the day with a charming little animal show, they also kept track of the days of the year. Birthdays. His grandfather’s cuckoo clocks were the only ones he knew of that were set to go off once a year on the hour in which his son and grandsons were born and put on a special presentation just for that occasion.

Lewis looked at the fourth weight on his father’s clock and saw that it nearly reached the floor. The other end of the chain had almost run out of length, so he grabbed onto the ring and pulled it down, just like he would do to wind up the other weights, but it didn’t stay. The weight fell right back to its previous position until the ring stopped just short of hitting the base of the clock. Lewis expected that. The fourth weight had always behaved that way, same as the ones on the other clocks. Once a week, they pulled the weights to wind up their clocks. Each time, three weights stayed at the top and restarted their invisibly slow decent, but the fourth weight always fell. It was dedicated to counting down the years and never turning back. It was an unsettling thought, even when there was plenty length left on the chain. Now, seeing the ring so close to the top at the same time its owner was ready to pass away gave Lewis an eerie feeling.

“I wonder what Grandpa Günter was thinking when he made these for us,” he said while tossing the weight in his hand.

His words woke Marie out of a daydream and she looked up at him. “What?”

“What was he thinking? Why did he make a clock that counts down birthdays?”

She still didn’t completely understand the question, but she took a shot at answering it. “I don’t know. He probably just wanted to make it special. I know Michael goes in at six o’clock in the morning to watch his clock on his birthday. It’s kind of cute.”

Lewis picked at the edge of a little door in the front of the clock to try to open it, but the door fit too tightly for him to wedge a nail under it. “It’s a fun idea, I guess, but think about that. You got a wolf that comes out of this door, and some guy with a horse and spear who comes out of that other one,” he pointed to another door on the other side of the clock, “and it looks like the damn wolf is attacking the him. What the hell kind of a birthday show is that?”

“I never thought about it.”

“Well, think about it the next time you see it.

“Then there’s this middle one here, too, that never opens.” He tapped on a third door in the middle of the clock. “Who knows what’s behind there? I mean, really. What was he thinking?”

Marie rubbed her face in her hands. “I have no idea what Grandpa Günter was thinking, Lewis, but maybe you should sit down now and worry about that later. You’re all upset about a clock, and you should be thinking about your father.”

“That’s right, I’m upset. I’m upset about this clock going off every hour and dancing around like it’s Christmas. I just want to turn the damn thing off!” He yanked the chain on the fourth weight, violently this time, and nearly pulled the clock off the wall. The other three weights swung around, bounce against each other, and tangled their chains, but the fourth one dropped toward the floor again and swung hypnotically all on its own. The jolt caused the pendulum to stop, and once all the weights had stabilized, the clock was still. “There you go,” Lewis said. “It’s stopped.”

“Okay, whatever. Just sit down.” Marie was tired by now, and as much as she wanted to be supportive of Lewis during this difficult time, she didn’t have the patience to deal with his temper tantrum over a cuckoo clock.

Lewis returned to his chair, and they sat quietly at Anson’s bedside for a long time without saying another word to each other. Every now and then, the dying man would let out a groan, move slightly, or stop breathing for an extended period of time. Lewis and Marie watched him closely each time to see if the end had finally come, but Anson always resumed his breathing.

After a while, Lewis got up to pace again, taking the opportunity to get more fresh air at the window. Marie left to use the bathroom, then she came back with a book and read quietly. A little while later, Lewis came back to his chair and picked at his fingernails until his head jerked forward suddenly, and he realized he had nearly fallen asleep. As he stretched and shifted in his chair to keep himself awake, he looked up at the cuckoo clock to see what time it was. The clock hadn’t moved since 1:04. He glanced over at the watch on Marie’s wrist and saw that the time was 2:12. The clock had ceased to strike the hour, and it made Lewis smile. He leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands over his chest and listened to his father’s irregular breathing, barely audible over the sound of the medical equipment in the room. The man looked peaceful, there was no doubt about it. There was no expression on his face to indicate that he felt any pain. He was already out of touch with the world around him and for all practical purposes, already gone. It was just a matter of waiting for his body to accept the fact and wind down.

A few minutes later, his body did just that. The heart monitor, which had been beeping slowly but steadily, suddenly became as irregular as Anson’s breathing, and he began a series of weak coughs. Lewis and Marie knew this was it, and they rose from their chairs to be at his side. Lewis took one hand, Marie took the other, and they held onto him while he struggled to take short, shallow breaths, then one final gasp.

“Gong! Gong! Gong!”

Marie let out a small scream.

“That fucking clock!” Lewis yelled, but his voice was overcome by the dreadful music that filled the room. It was a tune the clock had never played before. The melody was chaotic and rife with minor chords, and the animals danced and twirled in celebration as two doors on the clock opened, the one with the wolf and the mysterious middle door. The stunned couple watched to see what would come out of it. It was a man in a large pair of boots wielding a sword. He glided out and met the wolf in the middle of a platform where they performed a choreographed battle. They circled around each other, dipped and twirled until finally, the man tipped forward and the wolf tipped backward in a pose that made it clear who the victor was. The wolf stayed in place while the man returned to his place behind the door.

The clock went silent. The only sound left in the room was the heart monitor alerting them to Anson’s flatline condition. Even it had not been able to compete with the commotion of the clock. Marie rushed over to turn it off, but Lewis stood still, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

When the monitor was finally silenced, Marie returned to Lewis and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Are you going to be okay?” she asked and gently guided him back to his father’s side.

Lewis followed, but reluctantly. He definitely wanted to say good-bye to his father before they called the coroner to take him away, but he was still stunned by the clock. “How did it know?” he asked her.

“Lewis, I don’t think it knew anything. It’s just a clock. Come here and say a prayer for your father.”

He wanted to argue with her, but now wasn’t the time. He lowered his head and said a prayer.

It had been just over a week since his father’s death, and Lewis sat at the kitchen table with a set of screwdrivers and his father’s cuckoo clock sitting in front of him. Even though Marie insisted that the timing of the clock’s presentation was no more than an unfortunate coincidence, he knew there had to be more to it than that. The clock had stopped running. He was sure of it. How could the weight continue dropping when the gears were no longer turning? Marie reminded him how roughly he had handled the clock earlier that evening and suggested the chain might have just slipped. But to Lewis, that only confirmed his suspicion. If the chain was going to slip due to rough handling, it would have happened right away, not more than an hour later. No, it was something more deliberate, and he was going to find out what it was.

He started by just opening the back of the clock housing to look inside. He traced the path of the gears, and with a little bit of patience, he was able to see which gears caused which movements, and which weight was responsible for what functions. There didn’t appear to be anything unusual about the fourth weight. It was controlled by a set of gears just like the others, which meant it moved at a set pace dependent upon the spacing of the teeth. When Grandpa Günter built the clock, he would have to already know when his son was going to die and cut the gears accordingly. That was impossible, unless the man was some kind of a psychic or magician. Lewis wasn’t the type to readily believe in that sort of thing, but there was really no other explanation. It was either that, or it was a coincidence just like Marie had said.

“No, there’s no way. It was too perfect,” he muttered to himself. He turned the clock around and looked at the woodland scene that framed the front of it. His attention was immediately drawn to the wolf that still sat on the platform after its final battle. Its back was arched, its fur was bristled, and its snarling face revealed long, sharp fangs. It was definitely something to be feared and probably not intended to entertain a child. Then he pried at the small doors with one of his screwdrivers, this time chipping away at the wood until he could work the tool’s edge underneath. They popped open to reveal two little men, one on a horse with a spear and the other with a sword and oversized boots. He removed them from the clock by force and looked at them. It was clear by the fierce looks on their faces that they intended to kill the savage animal, but only the man in boots had prevailed. Why would his grandfather would create such a sinister piece of machinery, Lewis wondered.

Marie and Michael came home from baseball practice while Lewis was examining the wooden figures. “What are you doing?” she asked when they entered the kitchen and found him there. Before Lewis could answer her, she was already heading toward the table to see for herself. Michael followed close behind. “No, you didn’t!” she said when her suspicion was confirmed.

“I had to figure it out,” Lewis confessed.

“Your grandfather made that. You’ll never get it back together again. It’s ruined!”

“We’ll take it to another clockmaker.”

“They won’t know how to fix something like this. Do you know how much it will cost to find someone who can fix it right?” She started picking up some of the pieces and looking at them as though she might be able to repair it herself.

“What’s inside the clock?” Michael asked as he looked at the back of it to see.

“Pretty interesting piece of work, ain’t it?” Lewis held up the man on the horse so Michael could see it.

Michael took it from him. “Can I keep this one?”

“No, you can’t keep it,” Marie said. “You’re going to put it down and leave it alone so it doesn’t get lost.”

Michael set the piece down on the table.

“Now, go to your room so me and your dad can have a talk.”

Michael looked at his dad, hoping he would say he didn’t have to leave, but Lewis pointed toward his room.

When Michael was gone, Marie turned to Lewis. “I can’t believe you destroyed this clock. It was a beautiful clock.”

“Yeah, but there was something strange about it. Always has been.”

“Why? Because it counts down birthdays?”

“No, because it counts down doomsday. I’m telling you, Marie, it was no coincidence. Do you know what happened when I tried to wind it back up today?

Marie rolled her eyes. “No. What?”

“Nothing. Nothing happened. I pulled the chains, and they fell right back down again, just like that other weight used to do. Then I tried to get this pendulum swinging again, and it won’t go. Sure, it’ll swing back and forth a few times, but then it stops. This clock was broken way before I got hold of it. It broke when Dad died.”

“That’s probably because you yanked on it. You know better than to treat a clock like that.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, I do!”

“Here, let me show you something.” Lewis stood up from the table. “Come on, let’s take a look at the other two. I didn’t yank on those clocks, so you tell me what’s going on with them, okay?” He motioned for her to follow him into the living room where Michael’s clock hung next to the television. “You don’t know this,” he said as he led her in there, “but the day after Dad died, I marked on the wall how far down the weights had gone.” He stood under Michael’s clock and pointed to a fine pencil mark just next to the bottom of the fourth weight.

Marie had to squint to see it. “Okay, so?”

“I put that there a little over a week ago, and look. I don’t think it’s moved since. Now, look at mine.”

Marie followed Lewis into the den where his clock hung next to the fireplace, and he pointed to the mark he made on the wall. “I marked this one at the same time, and it’s gone down a full quarter inch since then.”

Lewis’s weight was lower than Michael’s, and Marie had to stoop down a bit to see the mark. “I don’t get it,” she said when she stood up again.

“Think about it, Marie. The clocks are identical, but mine’s moving faster than Michael’s. Why would that be unless they were set to go off at different times?”

“Maybe because they’re all handmade, one of a kind clocks, and they’re not as identical as you think,” she suggested.

“That could be. Or maybe it’s because I’m not going to live as long as Michael, so mine’s moving faster.”

Marie looked at the length of chain that hung from the back and saw there was only about a foot left before the ring reached the top. She shook her head and laughed a little. “Well, at this rate, you’ll be dead in about a year.”

Lewis’s face went pale at the thought, and she suddenly realized just how seriously he was taking all of this. At that moment, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye and thought it might have been the weight dropping just a little more. Lewis hadn’t noticed, so she hoped it was only her imagination.

“This is too much,” she said. “Maybe you’re taking your father’s death a little harder we thought.”

“You’re right.” Lewis ran his fingers through his hair nervously.

“Okay. Good. So, if you like, we can find someone to talk to about it. Do you think that would help?” She tried to place her hand on him, but he broke away from her.

“No, I mean about the clock,” he said. “It’s moving too fast.”

“Lewis, no! Stop it, now!”

Lewis bent over to look at the mark and gasped. “Look at it! It moved again.”

“It did not!”

“It did. Look!”

Just as Marie turned to see what he was talking about, she saw it move again. She was sure of it this time. The weight was nearly two inches further down the wall than it had been only minutes before.

“It’s still moving!” he shouted. He reached up to grab the clock from the wall and managed to get his hands on it, but Marie jumped in front of him and pushed him away before he could get a good hold of it. The clock swayed back and forth then hung crooked on the wall as the weights danced around beneath it. He couldn’t say for sure while it was still moving, but Lewis thought the fourth weight had dropped again.

“I want you to stop it!” Marie shouted at him. “You’re going to drive yourself crazy with this and take me with you. That weight doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a clock!”

Michael came and stood in the doorway. “Is Dad all right?” he asked.

“Your dad’s fine. Now, go back to your room!” Marie shouted over her shoulder.

Lewis took advantage of the distraction to reach around Marie and grab the clock again. She tried blocking him, but this time, he was able to knock it to the floor. He attempted to stomp on it, but Marie kicked it out of the way before he could. They both dropped to the floor and scuffled for it.

“Dad, what are you doing?” Michael said and ran to join his mother in keeping him from destroying the clock, but the boy wasn’t large enough to be any help. In the struggle, Lewis pushed Michael away and sent him tumbling across the floor, knocking over the fireplace equipment and causing him to hit his head on a nearby table. The move surprised even Lewis and made him stop.

“See there?” Marie said. “Look what you did.”

She turned to Michael, who was nursing the back of his head. “Are you okay?” she asked. Michael nodded, but his eyes were red and watering.

Marie picked up the clock and hung it back on the wall. “I’m definitely calling a doctor. I’m not sure how you got so caught up in this thing, but we need to…”

“My God!” Lewis shouted and pointed to the fourth weight. It was hanging about six inches below the mark on the wall.

Marie grabbed the ring on the other end of the chain and gave it a tug, but the weight fell right back to where it was.

“That doesn’t work. It never works. You know that!” Lewis reached over and pulled the ring. Once again, the weight fell. He pulled it again with more force. It fell again. He tugged the chain back and forth several times before letting it loose. It fell further down the wall, leaving only about two inches of chain before the ring hit the base of the clock. “Why is it doing that?” Desperation was thick in his voice and his eyes were becoming moist.

Marie tried to calm him down. “I think you’re breaking it. If you’ll just leave it alone, it’ll be fine.”

“It won’t be fine,” he insisted.

“Why don’t you lie down for a little bit, okay?”

“It won’t be fine! That damn clock is still counting down!” He reached out and yanked the chain so hard this time, it pulled the base of the clock from the housing and several gears fell out. The momentum of the pull sent Lewis stumbling backward where he tripped over a piece of scattered fireplace equipment and fell on top of it. He lay on his back, and his eyes rolled back into his head. His body began jerking violently.

“Lewis!” Marie and Michael both ran to him and Marie sat him up. The handle of the fire poker bobbed up and down from where it was lodged in the base of his skull, then it fell to the floor. Blood spilled out onto the carpet, and Lewis’s body went limp.

“Gong! Gong! Gong!” The chaotic music played again, and even though several gears were laying on the floor, the wolf and the man in boots came out from behind their doors and engaged in battle.

“No!” Marie screamed as tears streamed down her face. She ran to the clock and began pounding on it frantically. Several pieces broke off and the wood became smeared with red as splinters jabbed into the sides of her fists. After several blows, the clock fell from the wall, and Marie slid down with it, sobbing and crying out, “You killed him! Damn you! You killed him!”

Michael ran to his mother’s arms, and they cried together until the tears ran out and they had no more strength. Then Marie let go of Michael and picked up the phone to call the emergency line.

“What’s your emergency?” the operator said.

“My husband was killed.” Her voice choked up as she spoke.

“Is there someone in the house with you? Are you in danger?”

“No.”

“We’re sending someone down there. Tell me what happened, Hon.”

Marie paused for a moment. What did happen? “He fell.”

“Is he breathing?”

“He’s dead.”

“Do you know how to perform CPR?”

At that moment, Michael’s clock struck two, and music poured in from the living room as the little woodland creatures performed their hourly dance. Marie didn’t hear the operator anymore after that. She took the phone into the living room with her, set it on the television, and watched the animals twirl. When the music ended, she picked up the chain on the fourth weight and tied it in a knot just beneath the base. Then she sat down and waited for the paramedics to arrive.

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