A Double Present
A Sci-Fi short story by Svetoslav Peytchev
John woke up rather early. He walked into the bathroom and remembered that it was his birthday. He was turning sixty. Six decades on this earth… Almost one, since Veronica had passed away… He stripped his clothes off and looked into the mirror. The scant hairs on his scalp had grayed a long time ago and only his long beard still showed remnants of his once jet black hair. The slim and once fit body had lost its shape and become plump. Unhappy with the sight, he shook his head and walked into the shower.
An hour later he stopped his car outside the cemetery car park. He took the bouquet, bought only minutes ago, and began to walk along a familiar pathway. The thin layer of snow crunched under his weight and frightened a couple of squirrels. They took off high up into the trees and turned their curious eyes towards him, once he’d stopped at his wife’s grave. Taking off his gloves, he began caressing the grave stone.
“Hello, my girl… I brought you roses… white, like the snow around us… Today I turn sixty, but I am sad. I miss you a lot… This world is not the same without you…”
He knelt and laid the bouquet at the stone base. Wiping the snow that remained in the carved letters, he lowered his head…
Not feeling like returning to his empty home just yet, John stopped at a bar on the way back. He sat next to the window facing the street and ordered tea. A withered old man peeped through the window and moved on. Waiting for his tea, he was lost in thought when a rough voice behind him interrupted:
“Could I have a seat at your table sir?” It was the same old man who’d passed by outside a second ago.
“Yes, of course!” he replied, a little curious about the man’s choice among so many free tables.
The old man nodded in silent thanks and sat stiffly on the chair. He looked like a tramp. He was most likely in his eighties maybe even older. The worn-out, old and loosely fitted clothes sat strangely against his skinny build. His long hair and tangled beard had changed color to an ashy yellow, from the lack of hygiene no doubt.
The waitress brought the cup of tea with some sugar and a couple of biscuits and placed them in front of John, and then scolded the destitute man. “Are you here again? Go away!” Seeing the shock on her customer’s face she added: “This homeless man comes here all the time and sits at this table. He doesn’t have money and doesn’t order anything. He just sits in the warmth, but the way he looks is putting off my customers. That’s why we kick him out…”
“Wait! Let him be! Bring him a cup of tea and a hot ham sandwich. I’ll pay for them.”
She was about to say something, but thought it through and quietly went to get the order.
“Thank you sir…but I am not a beggar and I have not asked you to do this,” the old man began saying, but John interrupted:
“I don’t mean to insult you! It’s my birthday today. Please, accept this as my shout…”
“Is that right? How old are you sir?”
“And what do you do?” the old man kept up his curiosity.
“I am a writer,” John replied, but didn’t mention he had not written anything since his wife had passed away. He’d meant to start a new novel, but kept on putting it off. He lived off the royalties from the last couple of successful novels he’d written but didn’t know how long he could go on like this.
The waitress brought his tea and food and the homeless man got busy with the sandwich. He was toothless, and had to dip the bread in the tea before he could eat it. He stopped for a second and asked: “Do you live alone?”
“Yes, alone. My wife died ten years ago from cancer.” He took a picture from his wallet and showed it to the old man. “She was fifteen years younger and passed away at thirty five… My daughter and I were left alone. That’s her.” He showed another photo. “She’s an archaeologist and on an expedition in Peru at the moment.” The old man looked into his teary eyes.
“You must have loved her very much, and now life seems empty without her? Was she buried or cremated?”
“Yes. I still love her. She wasn’t cremated. I was with her a second ago at the cemetery,” he replied deep in thought, without paying attention to the strange question.
The old man finished his meal and began searching his bag. He finally took out a small object wrapped in dirty newspaper and gave it to him.
“That is a present for your birthday, but don’t open it just now. Wait till you get home.”
“Thank you! What a nice surprise.” Not wanting to insult the old man, John took the present and put it in his pocket, asking: “Are you going to tell me something about yourself?”
“Yes. But first, can you tell me what the time is?”
He looked at his wristwatch, but its face was blank. The battery had probably died. He took his mobile phone out and although it worked, the display did not show the time. He searched through the menu, but the clock option was gone. Strange, he thought, and didn’t notice the old man’s eccentric smile. At that moment the phone rang.
“Excuse me!” John said as he got up and walked away from the table. “Hello?”
“Happy birthday daddy! I wish you good health and success for your new novel! Have you started writing it?”
“I am so happy to hear your voice my darling! Thank you for the kind wishes! No. I haven’t started writing… maybe soon. How are you?”
“I am very busy, but we’ll probably see each other in a month. I’ll bring you something. Ciao papa! Special kisses for you!” The connection died.
“That was my daughter…” John turned around excitingly, but the old man had disappeared. The waitress went by and he asked her what had happened to the old man.
“He left, but will probably come back tomorrow.”
Too bad! John had thought about inviting him to his home, to have a shower and some clean clothes. They wouldn’t fit him well, but he needed new clothes. If he wanted, the old man could stay for dinner and why not the night? Who knows how long he has not slept in a bed?
John got home around lunchtime. Remembering his conversation with his daughter, he went into the study. He turned on the computer determined to begin writing, but about what? His eyes danced aimlessly around the screen, but no ideas jumped out of it. He looked at the right corner, at the clock display, but it was gone. What the hell is going on with these clocks he pondered, and took his wristwatch off. It was a gift from his wife, which is why he did not replace it. He left it next to the computer and remembered the homeless man’s present. Reaching into his pocket with a little distaste he took out the dirty newspaper. He unwrapped it carefully expecting to see a piece of rubbish which the old man had acquired from a dumpster.
He was almost right. Inside the newspaper were two wristwatches, a man’s and a woman’s. They were some kind of archaic LCD models with yellowed screens and grimy lights, and each had a dirty metal strap and case. He was about to throw the double present in the bin, but he noticed that the larger watch was counting backwards! What kind of a watch was that? He studied the watch for a few minutes and discovered that it truly was counting backwards! When the seconds finished it took one minute off and again the seconds started counting down from fifty-nine. After the minutes there was most likely a reduction in the hours, days, months and years. There are sports events and races whose timekeeping is conducted with watches which count down to zero. They show not the passed time, but how much time there is left till the end. But why would he need such a watch, which counts back the time with days, months and years? John looked at the second watch – it was also working backwards. He became more curious and took the watches into the kitchen to clean them and have a better look. They did not have buttons and looked waterproof so he turned the tap and put them under. Using a brush and liquid soap to clean them, he left them to dry.
He returned to the computer and saw that its clock was displaying in its normal place on the screen. Looking at his own wristwatch next to the computer he was shocked to find that it was working normally. It turned out that his cell-phone was now also displaying the time. He checked the time against his bedroom clock and compared it to the other ones. Working fine! As if they had never stopped.
He could not find any explanation for all this and went into the kitchen. The strange watches there had now stopped working, most likely damaged by the water bath as they were cleaned. He decided not to bother any more and to throw them out but as soon as he got close to them they started working. Surprised, he studied them extensively, conducted a couple of experiments and at the end came to the following conclusion.
They were completely sealed, without any possibility of having the battery changed. They had no brand names, numbers or logos. Underneath, the man’s watch had a small writing inscription: “If you are without me, I am your master. If you are with me, I am your slave”. The other one had the inscription: “Without me you will go to the dead. With me, the dead will come to you”. The watches worked, counting the time accurately and backwards, only when he wore them or was nearby. When he left them and took some steps back, they stopped. Coming closer and touching them made them work again. When they were working, every other watch stopped displaying the time, but kept on working. When he took the watches off or distanced them from himself, the other clocks returned to normal. Without a doubt these strange anomalies were due to some sort of radiation coming from them, but John couldn’t see what use they would be to him. He decided not to throw them away, but return them to the old man.
The next day he went to the same bar, having put the present in his pocket, and waited for the tramp to show up. After a long wait there was no sign of him. He came the next day, and the day after. For the next couple for months John stubbornly spent whole days in the same bar but the old man never came. At the beginning he thought the old man might be sick. The weather warmed up but he still did not show. Perhaps he had died, John thought and lost hope of ever seeing him again.
He went home disturbed, feeling like he had lost an old friend. He decided to take a cold shower to calm down and went into the bathroom. It had been a while since he looked at his own reflection and he noticed that he had lost a little weight. Lately his clothes felt loose and the mirror clearly showed his smaller stomach. He stroked his beard with his hand and stepped forward into the shower, but then slowly turned around and looked at the reflection of his face. He thought it looked different. It seemed that the wrinkles on his face had been ironed out and the number of black hairs in his beard had increased.
Maybe I’m starting to go insane he thought, smiled to himself and went into the shower but the next second he turned off the water and jumped out. Looking at the reflection of his wet face, he ran into the bedroom. He reached into the pocket of his coat and took out the watches the old man had gifted him. He turned them over and began reading the writing on their backs: “If you are without me, I am your master. If you are with me, I am your slave,” and “Without me you will go to the dead. With me the dead will come to you.” John repeated them out loud a long time and when he finally stopped, two tears lit up his eyes and he whispered: “You, who gave me the biggest present that no man has ever had before, did you not need it? Who were you? God? An alien? A brilliant inventor? Who were you, who gave me the TIME…?”
John got up and placed the man’s watch on his wrist, and put the other in his pocket. He went into the garage and put a couple of shovels in the car, an empty bag and a powerful torch with a battery. He started the car and soon his headlights were lost in the night.
John returned in the morning. He took out the bag, in which something made a dull noise, and took it carefully to one of the rooms. He took the woman’s watch and placed it inside.
He washed, sat by the computer and wrote: “After twelve years I will be forty-eight and Veronica thirty-three, and she will not yet be diagnosed with cancer. So, if we wear the watches, we will become masters of time and will be able to go back in time and become ever younger. If we do not wear them, we will age and if we take them off forever, we will eventually die and join the dead.”
He stared at the text for a couple of minutes and then deleted it. He caressed the watch on his wrist, smiled and wrote: A DOUBLE PRESENT /Novel/ Backward Counting /Chapter 1/ Prologue…