The ray of sunshine through the slit in the curtains moved up Harold Temple's face until it came to rest across his closed eyelids before he made the mistake of opening his eyes. "Fuck!" he screamed, rolling off the bed to the realization that vampires had it right, sunlight can kill. Giving up on the idea of more sleep, he made it to his feet and padded naked to his bathroom to relive his morning urge. Through crusted eyes, he snaked his way around the obstacles that left his bedroom looking like the a scene from the movie, "The Hangover." He peed, burped, and farted, glad he would turn thirty only once.
Heading towards the kitchen, he dodged the remains of his post-party apartment, piecing together what he could remember. He remembered the lamp being knocked off the end table nearest the couch when Tiffany jumped naked into Brad's arms. The overturned coffee table didn't make sense, nor did he recognize the panties that hooked his toe as he walked around it. If his head didn't hurt so much, he would have laughed at the devastation. He moved beer cans and plastic cups from the counter and started coffee. As it brewed, he tried to remember when Stephanie had left. His answer came when he glanced at the clock on the microwave. It was nearly 10 a.m. and she would be at work.
Harold pulled the trash can out from beneath the sink, tossing beer cans and empty cups into it while the coffeemaker burped and spat. How did seven people make this big of a mess? He shrugged away the question. It didn't matter. His friends were there for him, that's what mattered most. Seeing enough coffee for his first cup, he poured it into a mug and kept picking up shit as he walked around the two bedroom apartment Stephanie refused to share with him. Her refusal to live with him still bothered him. Tiffany lived with Brad and he still hadn't proposed. Why was Stephanie holding out? Could a ring really mean that much to her?
Two cups of coffee later, he had the apartment looking closer to normal. He did it naked, just to piss off Stephanie. God, she could be such a prude! Even after a night of outrageous sex, she wouldn't leave the bed without pulling on a t-shirt. "What if someone sees me?" she'd say when he asked.
"Fuck'em," he'd tell her. "Let'em see them and wish they could do the things to you I get to do."
His sugar coating didn't work with her. In Stephanie's world, naked was for the bedroom or bathroom and not the half dozen steps between the two rooms. She didn't like it when he stayed naked either. "Why can't you wear a towel when you get out of the shower?" she'd ask, as if he was in danger of flashing a bus full of senior citizens on his way from the bathroom to this dresser. After six months of her prudishness, cleaning his apartment naked felt like a sexual experience.
He was pouring his third cup of coffee when his phone rang. He darted across the small living room, snatching up his phone from the nightstand before it switched to voicemail. "Hey baby," he cooed, sure it was Stephanie calling during her lunch break.
"Sorry, but my name isn't Stephanie," replied the man's voice on the other end of his cell phone. "I'm George Hampton, the lawyer in charge of Preston Temple's estate. Is this Harold Preston Temple?"
"Oh shit. Yeah. Sorry," Harold stumbled. Spying his boxer shorts next to the bed, he pulled them on, finding it weird to be talking to a lawyer in the nude. "George Hampton you said?"
"Yes, Mr. Temple. If my notes are correct, you just turned thirty yesterday, correct?"
"Yeah," Harold said, wondering why it mattered to the lawyer. The last time he had spoken with the man was the week after they burnt his dad's remains and planted the ashes at Holy Cross. That was just under ten years ago.
Harold was twenty, dreaming of being completely legal in a few more months, and still in college. His dad had made it to fifty-two years old, though he looked older. Preston Temple always looked older than his years. "A bright flame burns fastest," his mother told him. He never thought much about it until his dad passed.
"Let me start by wishing you happy birthday," Hampton said.
"Yeah, you're a day late for that."
"Yes, I realize that, but it's how your father wanted it. You see, there's one final piece of his estate that I was forbidden from mentioning to you until the day after your thirtieth birthday. Your father made it very clear to me. 'Let him live a little first.'"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Harold asked, wondering why his mom never said anything about a final piece of inheritance.
"I have no idea, Mr. Temple. I'm simply following his instructions. Your father was a very generous man and very explicit with his instructions. Would it be possible for us to meet today?"
Harold shrugged, though he knew the lawyer couldn't see it happening. "Sure. When and where?"
"Anytime this afternoon and at my offices would probably be best. It's just a small package I have to give to you. I'm afraid I have no idea what's inside of it. I was simply instructed to hold it until the day after your thirtieth birthday and to caution you, tell no one about this phone call."
Harold made sure one o'clock would be fine, got an address from Hampton, and jumped into the shower with a head more full of questions than cobwebs from a night of drinking and partying. Naked, but dry after his shower, he shaved before staying naked to stand in front of his closet to pick out khakis and a Polo shirt for his trip downtown. He was cutting it close for making it downtown by one o'clock, but the mystery was too big for him to keep it on the back burner. What could his dad have left over? A private man, he remembered his dad as happy, wealthy, and distracted. He had an odd sense of humor, as if he was in on a joke that no one else knew. Harold never complained that he left everything to his wife, Harold's mom. It was a decision he felt better about when she developed a rare form or cancer. After two years of hospice care, there was little left remaining from the comfortable, upper middle class raising he had enjoyed as a youth. He buried her remains next to his father's and faced the world as an adult orphan.
It was in those last weeks of her life that he had met Stephanie. the veterinarian assistant whom his mother employed to watch over her two dogs as she was passing. She bequeathed the dogs to Stephanie upon her passing and Harold used visiting Maggie and Willie as an excuse to get to know Stephanie. The week after those dumb dogs had passed, Harold bedded Stephanie for the first time. It was sleazy, but easy and he was willing to let believe the ends justified the means.
George Hampton's offices looked unchanged from when Harold last saw them with his mom nearly nine and half years ago. Hampton, however, looked older than Harold remembered. He greet Harold with a warm smile, a firm handshake, and an offer to sit across from him. Sitting on his desk was a small, square package wrapped in brown paper. The corners of the brown paper were folded upwards and held together with a wax seal. Hampton pushed the box towards Harold. "This is the last of things," he said. "As I said on the phone, I don't know what's inside or why it was important to your father, but my instructions are very clear." He picked up a piece of paper that had been beneath the wrapped box and read from it. "On the day after Harry's thirtieth birthday, he is to be given this box. The seal should not be broken. There are instructions inside and I'm sorry, George, but those instructions are for Harry only."
Harold picked up the box. "So, I'm not supposed to open it here?"
Hampton nodded. "It would appear that way. I am curious about what is inside, but..." He shrugged, nodding at the paper. "I guess it will remain a mystery."
Harold broke the wax seal. "C'mon, you and my dad were close, weren't you? What harm could it do for you to know?"
"Please," Hampton said, adverting his eyes. "Your father was a very generous man. For him, let's honor his request, okay?"
"Yeah, okay," Harold said, folding the stiff brown paper back in place. "If it's something cool, can I call and tell you about it?"
Hampton nodded. "That would be fine, Mr. Temple. Otherwise, I've lived long enough to know some mysteries are better left kept."
Harold clutched the box in his hand until he got back inside his car. Unwilling to wait, he opened the wrapper, finding a wooden box beneath the wrapper and a piece of paper carefully folded on top of it. Too curious to wait, he flipped open the lid of the box, finding a golden toned pocket watch nestled by dark green felt. A slid clasp held the cover closed. He pressed it open to see a plain watch face with a minute hand, an hour hand, and a smaller dial for the seconds. All three of the hands were frozen. He twisted the knob on top, trying to wind-up the late gift to see if would work, but the knob spun loosely beneath his fingers. He smirked.
It was just like his old man to give him a watch that broken. What was it his dad always said? "Which would you rather have, a watch that was never right or a watch that was exactly right twice every day?" It was a brain teaser he grew up hearing. Only a broken watch was exactly right twice every day. He was sure there was more of a lesson to that brain teaser, but he never figured it out. Did it mean not be lazy? To keep moving? Or even the laziest person was sometimes right? His dad passed before he ever figured it out. He was sure it had something to do with the gift of time and how he shouldn't waste it. Whatever, by the time he turned sixteen, it was as meaningless to him as "be home by midnight."
Setting the watch on his dashboard, he unfolded the letter carefully, unsure how fragile the paper would be after ten years. When he opened it fully, he saw it address to him. "Hi Harry," it read. "If you already opened the gift, do yourself a favor and close the face of the watch before you read the rest of this. You're not going to believe it." Harold ignored the instructions, continuing to read. "There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just say it. When the watch face is open, time stops. Not everywhere. It's more like a time stopping bubble that moves with you. But here's the important part, while it stops for everyone else, it never stops for you."
Harold laughed. "Really dad?" he said, glancing up from the paper to look at the watch. That's when he noticed the man walking in front of his car was standing still. Not just still, but frozen in mid-step. He stared, waiting for the man to move, but it didn't happen. "Whoa," Harold murmured to himself. "Really?"
Leaving the watch behind, but clutching the beyond the grave note from his father, he opened his car door. "Hey!" he called to the frozen businessman in the dark blue suit. "Hey buddy!" he called louder. "What's your deal?"
The man stayed frozen in mid-stride, looking forward with his laptop case over his shoulder. Harold stared at him, focusing on the man's eyes. He was going to blink, sooner or later he had to blink. Everyone blinked. But Harold didn't see it happen. Looking around the parking lot, he saw a woman bent over, leaning inside the open door of her car. He moved close enough to see she was reaching for the crying baby in the backseat. The kid's arms were raised, his mouth wide open in mid-scream, but there was silence.
Harold spent a moment of his time frozen, too. He felt a breeze on his face. It was light, but enough to move his hair. Glancing again at the businessman, he saw his hair moving in the breeze. Somewhere in the distance, he heard the sounds of the city. Muted, distant sounds of traffic and car horns, but it all sounded remote. He walked towards the street, seeing car stopped in place without the sound of engines running. He saw a stray piece of paper hanging in the air, blown by one of the passing cars but as frozen as the businessman or the woman or her baby. He ran towards the street, turning and running halfway up the block before he saw movement. At a traffic light a block and half away, he saw cars crossing as if nothing was happening. Then he saw a car turning towards him. He watched as the car slowed and then stopped. Drawn to it, he saw it moving. Still closer to it, he saw how it moved was an optical illusion. Instead of getting closer to him, it was getting shorter.
Harold stopped, confused. What was going on? He turned to the only thing that made any sense to him, the letter from his father, typed on a high quality piece of paper in elite type. "Don't ask me how it works," he read. "It's like a bubble in time of some sort, but I'm no Einstein. Here's what I know. It works. It stops time around you. It doesn't seem to stop everything, just most things and the closer it is to the watch, the more it's stopped. Physics was never my strong suit, but there's something called a Doppler effect. You might want to read up on it. I know things on the edges move slower and get skinnier. It's sort of weird, but you'll find that out soon enough. Here's the thing you HAVE TO UNDERSTAND: TIME STOPS FOR EVERYONE EXCEPT YOU! You're still moving and aging.
"I'm sorry to hold this back from you for so long. No, your mother doesn't know about it. No one does. Think about it, son. Is this something you really want people to know about? Anyway, it works and if you haven't tried it yet, go ahead a give it a whirl. It's the only thing this watch does, but it's one hell of a thing, isn't it?
"Just remember, the more you use it, the farther out of synch you're going to move with everyone around you. You're going to be the first to go gray among your friends, so make it worth it! And, if I didn't say it enough to you when I was still kicking, I love you, son!"
Harold turned back towards his car and the watch. If the things closest to him had moved, he couldn't notice the difference. The woman in the parking lot was still bent over and her kid was still frozen in mid-scream. The businessman in front of his car was still in mid-step. He flopped back behind the wheel. Holding the watch, he snapped it shut and watched as Joe Businessman immediately became animated again. It was as if nothing had happened. He finished his step, took another, and moved towards the squat office building Harold had left fifteen minutes earlier.
Except it wasn't fifteen minutes ago that he left the building. It was four or five minutes to the world around him. He looked at the clock on his dashboard, but it was no help. It was running late, frozen by the power of the watch. Curious, he pulled out his cell phone and compared the time on it with the clock on his dash. There was an eight minute difference. Through his open car door, he heard the sounds of the world continuing. In the distance, he heard a kid crying. Turning his head, he saw the woman holding her baby, cradling him against her shoulder as she swung closed the back door of her car. Only two words could describe how Harold felt and he announced them out loud before he flicked the switch to reopen the cover of the cheap looking watch. "No shit!" he said to a world suddenly frozen around him.
On a whim, he tried starting his car, finding the ignition key turned easily beneath his fingers, but the car didn't start. It didn't even try to start. There was no grinding of the starter motor or whine of car parts trying to move. The world closest to him went quiet again with the watch face exposed. This time, he carried the watch with him as he walked towards the street. Nothing seemed to change until he started to walk up the block. As he drew nearer to the intersection where he saw cars moving earlier, he saw the cars using the intersection slowing. He kept walking, holding the watch in front of him. The change was slow and subtle, but he watched it happen. The closer he got, the slower the cars moved. He broke into a run, rushing towards the intersection and seeing the cars slowing to a stop. He snapped the clock face closed and immediately the cars jumped forward, making up for lost time. A short man with a shaved head stepped into him.
"Hey!" the man cried out, bouncing off Harold's chest. "Watch where the fuck you're going!"
"Sorry, dude," Harold said, clutching the watch in his hands as he stepped aside for man to pass. He would have to be more careful next time. Standing in front of someone moving could be dangerous. He was glad it was just a person and not a car. He snapped open the watch again, drawing it all to a halt, including the short guy with the bald head who was now three steps past him. Moving back in front of the man, Harold pushed him. "Watch where the fuck you're going!" he said. The man rocked backwards. He didn't fall over, he just moved, as if pushed. Stepping to the side, Harold closed the watch face again. He saw the man stagger, as if pushed. He stopped, looked confused, and went back about his day. Harold smiled as the possibilities of his inheritance made him feel as drunk as he had been hours before climbing into bed with Stephanie for his birthday fuck.
Standing as still as a lamppost, Harold considered the world around him. Directly across from him was a cafe where a few downtown urbanites were finishing a late lunch. He flicked open the watch face, pleased with how time stopped instantly. He approached the door of the cafe, unsure what to expect when he pulled on it As had happened when he tried starting his car, the door opened for him without protest, but he noticed the bell hanging from it never rung.
Fascinated, walked up to the attractive office worker frozen in mid-step as she headed to the door. For the moment, he simply admired her. She was blonde, a few years younger than him, and had found a way to dress demurely enough for the office while still showing off her attributes. He could see her staffing the front desk of a nearby office, prim and proper hotness melting men with a disapproving frown. She was the type of woman that made him glad he had fallen in love with a veterinarian assistant. Standing a couple feet behind her, he took the time to admire how her tight skirt clung to the curves of perky ass. Moving back in front of her, he stared again at her breasts, discreetly hidden beneath the jacket top of her smart business suit. But beneath that jacket, her silky top clung as tightly to her breasts as her skirt did to her ass. He wondered if he could slide his hand inside her jacket and feel her breasts. How perfectly did this stop time. Did time stop or merely slow? He needed to test it, but how much was he willing to risk?
Deciding it was better to take it slow, he moved behind her again. Nervous, knowing he was wrong to do it, he reached out for her ass. His hand hesitated before he touched her bottom, but then he did it. He caressed her backside, watching for the slightest sign of movement. Her ass felt firm and round beneath his hand. Emboldened, he caressed it more completely, giving himself as perfect of a grab as he could muster. Walking back outside the door, he tried to stand about where he had been standing when time stopped. He could see her through the glass doorway as he snapped closed the cover on the watch.
Time jumped back into motion as instantaneously as it had stopped. The woman he had just caressed finished her step forward, jumped as if goosed, and spun on her heels. He heard the jangle of the bell above the door, though the door hadn't moved. She looked startled, but didn't see anyone behind her. With a confused look on her face, she pushed her way out of the cafe, striding past Harold without a glance in his direction. Harold stared laughing as he connected the dots. She had felt his caress, but not until time restarted. He guessed the same thing would happen if he walked away with the watch. As he moved farther away, time would resume its march and whatever mayhem he had left behind would catch up with the world.