By Chip Jett -
She came into possession of the pocket watch by way of a fortune-telling chicken on the boardwalk. It was the summer of ’94, Daytona Beach, and sixteen year old Alaina’s parents were, by then, long divorced. The only memory she had of her mother was her face.
The money Alaina used to feed the chicken was given to her by Dad’s new wife, Inga. With her came two children from her own previous marriage, both boys, both terribly difficult.
“Here’s a twenty for each of you,” Inga said, handing the three kids their cash. “Spend it however you want.
“But remember: when it’s gone, it’s gone. No more. We’ll be here all day, so choose wisely what you spend it on.”
This was in the parking lot at nine a.m. By noon, the boys’ money was gone. Alaina, however, had only changed her bill in for a sack of quarters and had yet to find anything worthy of even a quarter. She feared that wise choices might be few and far between.
The chicken caught Alaina’s eye for no reason other than its isolated location; its box, situated at the end of the boardwalk, was far from the games and crowds. The contraption stood about as tall as Alaina could reach on tip-toe, and it sprawled as wide as her arms could stretch out to the sides. It reminded her of the claw games populating the bowling alley and mall arcades back home. The see-through upper half was made of plexiglass, and the chicken sat in one corner, a water drip to its left, an empty food tray to its right. For a quarter, a small amount of chicken feed would release from somewhere in the back, travel down a short metal slide, and land behind a little door. To release the food, the chicken had to peck at an array of prizes placed before it: a stuffed mouse; a plastic car; a gold coin; a variety of small dolls; a frisbee that read I Heart Daytona Beach!
A timer ticked away the seconds during which the chicken must choose and peck out a prize. If the chicken won, you won. If it lost, you lost, and the food would drop back through a trap door to be recycled for the next player’s turn.
Either way, win or lose, a small scrap of cardboard would slide from a slot beneath the coin return. Scrawled on these little cards were fortunes. Your name will one day be famous, one might say, or Happiness comes to those who wait. But these fortunes were not what brought in the customers, and neither was the chicken. The cheap, throw-away prizes performed that trick.
At last, Alaina had found something worthy of her quarters.
“I’ll be over there,” Alaina pointed, promising to stay within sight. The empty corner of the boardwalk was visible from every direction, its view unobstructed by the revelers who were everywhere but there.
Discarded fortunes dotted the boardwalk leading to the machine like a trail of breadcrumbs to some witch’s hut. One of the little cards hung like a loose tooth from the slot where the last person attempted to win a prize. This fortune read, In Darkness, Happiness Arrives. Alaina tugged at it, but it refused to move. So many people had stopped taking their fortunes that several cards had stacked, one upon the other, and created a logjam in the fortune-dispensing slot.
Alaina took a quarter from her bag and put it into the machine. There was a metallic clink! as chicken feed dropped onto the little slide and a ping! when the food stopped against the metal door. The chicken, hearing Pavlov ring the diner bell, began pecking away at the prizes. The timer ticked above its head, but still nothing dropped. Even Alaina felt panic rise as seconds raced away.
A game show buzzer buzzed and it was over. The chicken turned once in a circle, stepped back onto its shelf, and sat down, defeated. Another fortune pushed its way into the slot.
Alaina fished out another quarter, and then another. The chicken tried frantically each time, but each time came up short. The bird, by then, understood that Alaina was in it for the long haul, her bag overflowing with quarters. She and the animal formed a partnership, both determined to get to the food. Instead of returning to its perch, the bird stayed put, head cocked and eyes watching.
When at last the bag clicked with the remaining three or four quarters, the magic finally happened. Alaina chose a quarter and dropped it into the machine. Food slid down the slide with its tinny clink and slammed to a stop at the metal door. Alaina would later relive the moment and recall, she was sure, that the chicken actually paused, gave her a slight nod, then hovered over the prizes, as if selecting one especially for her. It had given her one more look and then pecked, the choice made. It was silly, she knew, but she believed what she saw.
The one prize she had no use for in the world was the gold coin, and that is, of course, the very prize that dropped into the retrieval slot. She reached for the coin as yet another fortune card tried to force its way out but couldn’t.
The coin, it turned out, was no coin at all. Instead, it was a pocket watch, the kind she had seen in movies that train conductors wore. It had no chain, no glass front, and its hand were missing. The tarnished surface had once been ornate, but both beauty and usefulness were long gone.
“I love it,” she told the chicken. “I’ll always treasure it, and I’ll always remember you.”
The chicken was beak deep in its reward and likely wouldn’t have understood anyway.
The loose tooth fortune broke free from the logjam and fluttered to the ground, Alaina’s last quarter having been the straw that broke that camel’s back. She read it again.
In Darkness, Happiness Arrives.
She put the card in her back pocket.
The sun had by then dipped below the horizon. Game stands and rides cast shadows all around, their silhouettes carving an uneven cityscape across a sky of orange and deepening purple. Over the wooden creak of an aging rollercoaster, Alaina could hear her father’s voice. She took a last look at the chicken. It had resumed its perch on the shelf, awaiting its next meal.
In Darkness, Happiness Arrives, the stubborn fortune in her pocket insisted.
“I guess that one is for you,” she said aloud, though she believed the chicken couldn’t understand her anyway.
Alaina left the chicken in its fortune-telling box and never saw either again.
The pocket watch, however, had another story to tell. Some weeks after returning home from vacation, the watch showed Alaina the future.
What happened was this. Alaina had come inside from doing homework in the yard, as she often did on early fall afternoons. She didn’t know exactly what time it was; the pocket watch did her no good, of course, as it still had no hands and no mechanism to make it work. Though it served no purpose, she kept it with her at all times, believing (foolishly, she knew) that it somehow brought her luck. She set it beside the books on the table.
It was then that something caught her eye.
The watch was still there, beside the books, but its composition had changed, or maybe it hadn’t changed at all. Whatever the case, what Alaina saw on her kitchen table was no longer an ordinary pocket watch. It now looked like an expanding porthole on a ship, only it was lying flat on the table. Alaina put her hands on either side of it and leaned in for a better look. The more intently she stared, the larger the view became.
A mist swirled inside the watch (or window; she was no longer sure). As if looking through a sunny morning fog, she saw her classroom at school, specifically Mrs. Wilkins’ fifth period Biology. Inside the watch, class was starting. Mrs. Wilkins cleared her throat.
“Okay, people, listen up. I have your tests graded.”
Here Mrs. Wilkins held up a substantial stack of papers, bound at the top with a large black binder clip.
“I want these tests signed by your parents and returned tomorrow.”
Mrs. Wilkins’ voice sounded far away and hollow, as if she spoke from inside a barrel. Or a pocket watch.
Someone – Matt Williams, perhaps – said, “Get them signed? What are we, in third grade?”
Mrs. Wilkins kept moving around the room, passing out papers.
“Oh no, not at all,” she said. “But I do want your parents to know who our cheaters are.”
Alaina watched herself tense as Mrs. Wilkins paused beside her desk.
“Alaina, Andrew, and Rachel. You three received a zero on the test for cheating. You will also serve a week’s worth of detention.” Mrs. Wilkins smiled. “And yes, everybody gets their test signed.”
The fog in the window swirled, and the view faded to nothing. Alaina blinked to find herself staring at the pocket watch on her kitchen table.
“Oh my, Chicken,” she whispered, “what have you done?”
Later that night, in bed and drifting in and out of sleep, Alaina dreamed, but the dreams were nothing specific. There was mist, and darkness, and light. And there was worry; always worry. In the morning Alaina couldn’t recall whether what happened at the kitchen table with the watch and its vision of the future had been part of those dreams or not.
The morning got busy; she burnt the toast and was late for school. For a while, she forgot the watch.
Until fifth period, Mrs. Wilkins’ Biology class.
As Alaina slid into her seat between Rachel and Andrew, the watch in her pocket bumped the desk and reminded her of everything.
“Hey,” she said to Rachel. “I had a dream yesterday.”
Rachel turned her head, chin in hand, and looked over white-rimmed sunglasses at Alaina.
“We got busted for cheating,” Alaina continued. “On the test. You know. In here.”
Rachel lowered the glasses and said, “Shhh! What are you trying to do?”
At the front of the room, Mrs. Wilkins cleared her throat.
“Okay, people, listen up. I have your tests graded.” She held them up, black binder clip and all. “And I want them signed by your parents and returned tomorrow.”
The rest of the scene played out just as it had in the pocket watch.
It was years before she confided in Rachel what had happened. She went through it, step-by-step, starting with the chicken on the boardwalk.
“I mean, maybe it was all a hallucination,” she said, her story finished. She and Rachel were in their third year of college, hammering away at teaching degrees, studying between classes in the Education Center on campus. “It seemed so real, though.”
“Well, you only need to worry if the view in that watch goes dark,” Rachel said. “That’ll mean…”
Here, Rachel slashed her hand across her neck like a knife.
“You don’t know that,” Alaina whispered.
Then one day it happened again.
Alaina was in the phone store upgrading her cell. In one hand was her old phone, in the other, the pocket watch, somersaulting through Alaina’s fingers like the gold coin she had first thought it was.
“Take your phone out of the old case, and I’ll go get your new one.”
The clerk retreated to the stock room, and Alaina set the watch on the counter to free her hands.
The small gold circle immediately began to expand, the view inside it swirling with fog. Alaina steeled her nerves and leaned in to look.
This time she saw her dog, Rosebud, running across the front yard, not leashed and not about to stop for Alaina’s cries to come back. She saw herself calling for Rosebud, but knew that even this version of herself couldn’t expect the dog to listen. As Rosebud neared the busy road, a car topped the hill going too fast to take the slight bend in the road with care. Just as her dog reached the top of the driveway, the car skidded across it and careened down the steep embankment that bordered the yard. In the vision, Alaina didn’t see Rosebud get hit, but she could see where the car had left a trail of chewed up grass, rocks, and shrubs before it came to a stop in the yard. Alaina in the vision and Alaina in the store both scanned the destruction for Rosebud. And there, beside a busted bumper and a large piece of concrete, lay the little dog’s lifeless body.
Both Alainas screamed.
The clerk returned with the new phone. Alaina went through the motions of the purchase, but her mind worked to process this latest vision.
A month passed, then two, but no accident. Still, she kept her dog leashed.
When at last the car came crashing into her family’s front yard, Alaina was indeed outside with Rosebud. This time, however, the dog was on its leash, watching by Alaina’s side as the accident unfolded.
Reaching for the cellphone in her pocket, she grabbed the pocket watch instead.
“Alright, Chicken,” she said to it. “I got that one. Now we’re even.”
Alaina hoped for a glimpse of her mother, or maybe a future with her father, minus Inga. She found, though, she had no control over the visions the watch chose to reveal.
Though sporadic, the little peeks into the future continued. Each time, Alaina took whatever vision she received as an opportunity to make a change. Some visions were trivial: she chose one packet of pens over another at the store, certain the blue one would leak.
Other glimpses into the world of the watch, however, proved more serious.
Once, Alaina watched herself change a flat tire in a storm. In the real world, rain, forecast for the end of the week, prompted her to buy a new set of tires the day before the storm hit.
“Lucky thing you changed those tires, ma’am,” the mechanic said. “That one up front wouldn’t have made it another day.”
An unexpected side-effect of the visions began to take shape: Alaina found her worry and anxiety pushed to the background, negative voices of which she had grown weary. The watch had shown her, in its way, that many of the things she spent time worrying over were indeed trivial. The bigger worries – her mother’s memory and now her father’s distance – lost some of their power as well.
You only need to worry if the view in that watch goes dark, Rachel had said.
The friends graduated, with honors. They found jobs in the same school system; Alaina taught eleventh grade English and Rachel became a counselor. Alaina quickly became a respected leader and decision-maker, and her confidence soared.
Whether these events caused the pocket watch to lose its power, she could not be certain, but for a while, the visions stopped.
Alaina framed the pocket watch and hung it in her classroom by the Smartboard, often calling it what it was: a magic window into the future. Her students, of course, had no idea she was serious.
“Use that as your inspiration,” she would say. “Write your papers accordingly!”
And then one day, alone after school, the watch caught her eye. She couldn’t have said why. It was there, as always, locked behind its glass frame on the wall, lifeless and still. Something made her look into its face.
The familiar fog swirled, and the gold grew from watch to window.
But this time, there was nothing there.
Rachel’s words had come true: there was nothing inside the pocket watch’s face but darkness.
Her heart skipped a beat.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there watching the emptiness. When the mists retreated, only the watch remained, alone in its frame on the wall. Alaina took it down, frame and all, and put it in her bag to take home.
And Alaina lived her life.
For a few days, Alaina thought about that last vision and what it could mean. Weeks passed. By summer vacation, she had all but forgotten.
Alaina and Rachel rolled the windows down and drove to Daytona. They turned the radio up, and the wind blew through their hair and they laughed. They spent the first night at their beach house. The next morning, before Rachel woke, Alaina drove to the boardwalk.
All but the pier was gone now, the rides and attractions having long since been dismantled in favor of high-rise condominiums. Alaina walked onto the pier. It stretched over the water, and she believed the end of it had once been the very corner where the chicken and its fortune-telling machine had sat. In her mind’s eye, she saw it still.
Her father was dead now two years. She never heard from Inga or her two sons, and that was fine. She took the watch from her pocket and flipped it like a coin through her fingers.
Also gone was who she used to be. The anxious girl had been replaced by a confident, brave woman. She was sometimes afraid, and she sometimes cried. She sometimes worried, but never for long.
In Darkness, Happiness Arrives.
“I guess that one was for me after all,” she said.
Later, at breakfast, Rachel asked about the pocket watch.
“I thought you were going to throw it into the ocean.”
Alaina looked at the watch where it lay, lifeless and flat on the table.
“There’s nothing wrong with holding onto a memory, is there? As long as I don’t think I need it anymore, I think it’s alright to keep.”
And so she did.
Chip Jett is a teacher at a small school in Georgia. His stories have been in several literary magazines, including The First Line, The Raw Art Review, Mystery Tribune, and Crow and Cross Keys. Find him on Facebook @Jettstories, on Instagram @chipjettthewriter, and on Twitter @chipjett_writer.