Fiction, illustration, discussion – interesting weirdness for all the senses. Well, almost.

The Anniversary Present

by D.C. Phillips

September twenty-fourth was a cool, breezy day. True Autumn was in bloom, armed with its fiery oranges and blazing reds; the leaves had just begun to flutter down from their lofty positions. Fall was decidedly Lewis Watkins’s favourite season.

Fifty years of marriage, he thought to himself. You finally made it. His wife, Mildred, looked up at him with gentle eyes. He smiled back. They had been through a lot together: three sons, five grandchildren, an early retirement, a mild heart attack, and interference from the in-laws, to name only a few of their milestones.

“Congratulations Mildred and Lew!” one of their elderly acquaintances offered with a gift.

“Lois, you shouldn’t have!” Mildred doted, accepting the token gratefully. She placed it on a card table behind them, which by now was piled high with presents. As soon as the woman turned her back, Lewis whispered, “How much you wanna bet it’s another dinky clock?”

“Lewis Watkins,” Mildred scolded, “you should be glad these people are even here.”

“I know, but come on, can’t they at least give us something practical, something we’re actually going to use?”

“You must not seem to recall our wedding reception, Lew. If I remember correctly, these were your exact words: ‘Another toaster? Why does everything have to be so practical? Why can’t they give us something fun, something exciting?’”

“Yeah Millie, a million anniversary clocks is just the excitement I need. And what’s more, it’s a golden anniversary. Not a gold-plated, plastic anniversary.”

Mildred rolled her eyes and moved to greet another guest. The warmth in her voice was quickly extinguished as a sleek vehicle arrived in their driveway, AARON COUNTY SHERIFF emblazoned on the side. A lanky man in a crisp uniform stepped out of the driver’s side. In his hands he held a package, neatly wrapped in shiny gold tinsel.

“Are you Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Watkins?” A pair of sunglasses blocked all communication of emotion.

“Yes, I’m Mr. Watkins,” Lewis answered, taking a step forward. “Is something the matter, Officer?”

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident. Some friends of yours, Mitch and Edna Price. Apparently, they were on their way over here when their vehicle ignited and spun out of control. We’re not sure yet what started the fire, but we are looking into it. This was the only item left untouched by the flames.” Here he paused to hand the pristine package to Mildred, who reached out to accept it with shaky hands. She held it tightly in her arms.

“I’m sorry. I know this must be painful for you.” There was nothing more to say. The officer climbed into his car and pulled away.

They waited in silence for several seconds.

“Open it, Mildred.”

“What?” The very idea of unwrapping the parcel seemed irreverent in a way.

“I said open it.”

Now everyone watched as Mildred untied the shimmery-yellow ribbon and removed an outer layer of wrapping paper, picking carefully at the creased edges. It unfolded and slipped away from the cardboard casing. Borrowing a pocket knife from a gentleman nearby, she made a long slit down the tape which joined the two lid flaps. Her fingers dug through a layer of Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap to reveal the gift inside. Slowly, she removed it from its package, holding it up for all to see. It was pure gold, with three thin hands and a large, round face marked by twelve Roman numerals.

“Hm,” Lewis mused, “another clock.”

***

“I’m sorry about Mitch and Edna,” Robert Watkins consoled his mother and father.

“Yeah,” his wife Dana chimed in. “It’s horrible the way they died. And they don’t even know what caused the accident?”

“No,” Lewis replied. “It’s awful.”

All of the visitors had left several hours ago except for Robert, Dana, and four-year-old Ben, their only son. Robert and Dana sat with Lewis and Mildred in the kitchen nook while Ben kept himself occupied in the living room.

“Why don’t we all have some coffee and move into the den where we’re more comfortable?” Lewis suggested. “We can talk in there.”

“I guess I’ll take this with me and set it on the mantle,” Mildred stated, hoisting the golden anniversary clock with both hands.

Her husband patted her shoulder reassuringly. “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

Once situated in the den, Lewis decided to build a fire. Its dim glow glinted eerily across the face of the dome-encased clock on the mantlepiece above.

“Do you have any idea when funeral arrangements for Mitch and Edna will be made?” Dana questioned.

“Not really,” Mildred replied. “I should call their daughter later, though, and see how she’s taking all this. Maybe the police gave her more details.”

“Maybe so,” Robert agreed.

The clock began to chime and the rotary pendulum inside began to swirl.

“That’s odd,” Mildred commented, standing. “I haven’t even set the thing yet.”

“OUCH!” Dana shouted in pain at the sound of a small burst.

“What is it?” Robert demanded, examining his wife’s trembling hands. Her coffee cup had practically exploded, slicing her right palm with a sharp porcelain edge and splashing scalding coffee all over her body. The clock continued to chime on. Was it just Dana’s imagination, or was it louder now than before?

“Oh, dear,” Mildred gasped.

“I’ll go get some bandages and a towel,” Lewis volunteered, rising and rushing from the room. By the time he returned, the clock had stopped, along with the bleeding. “Thank goodness the cut didn’t go any deeper,” Mildred said, “and that no bits of the mug got lodged! We’ll fix you right up and make sure you don’t get any kind of infection.”

“Mom, what happened to your hand?” Ben inquired minutes later as the adults exited the den and entered the living room down the hall.

“I don’t really know. Somehow my coffee cup broke and it cut me.”

“Are you okay?” the child asked.

“I’m fine.” But everyone could tell that she had been deeply shaken. As soon as her heart rate settled, Dana, Robert, and their son made their way to the front door. Just as they were saying their good-byes in the foyer, the doorbell rang. It was Misty Gerald.

Misty Gerald had a certain reputation around the neighbourhood, and the outfit she wore as she stood on the Watkins’ doorstep did nothing to dispel it. A pair of barely-there jeans clung to her thighs and a bubblegum-pink tube top hugged her chest in a manner that would make a crow blush.

“My word, I just could not believe what happened to the Prices today!” the girl outside gushed. Everyone who knew Misty knew she was prone to dramatics. “Are you all alright?”

“We’re fine, Misty. It is awful. Thank you for stopping by and asking,” Mildred replied in a voice that remained polite yet curt.

Not taking the hint, Misty turned her attention to Robert. “Why, hello Robbie Watkins! Goodness, a jacket and tie certainly do suit you. You’ve been holding out on us, sporting those coveralls down at the factory every day. I had no idea you clean up so nice.” She blinked her eyes coyly, hands on her hips.

Dana cleared her throat and rolled her eyes simultaneously to make her presence known. While she was used to this kind of alcohol-fueled attention from Misty toward her husband, she still didn’t appreciate it.

“Oh hi there, Dana!” Misty cooed, feigning surprise.

“Listen, Misty, we were just on our way out,” Robert intervened. “Thanks for checking in on my parents, but they’re okay. Really.”

“Okay, well if you need anything, Mildred, you know exactly who to call!”

“Yes, we know who to call.” Mildred smiled and nodded.

“Buh-bye!” Misty took her leave, waving cartoonishly as she strutted off down the street. The Watkins family watched while she teetered away in her platform sandals.

“Why can’t she stay on her street corner?” Dana muttered.

“Come on, honey,” Robert chastised, stifling a chuckle.

Before they stepped out the door, Dana turned back to her in-laws. “Mildred, do you happen to know where Mitch and Edna bought that clock?”

Mildred thought for a moment. “There was a slip of paper inside the box. I think it said ‘Peters and Sons,’ but I’m not sure. I can check if you’d like.”

“No, that’s alright. I was just wondering.”

***

Peters and Sons turned out to be a hole-in-the-wall pawn shop on the corner of Willow and Brown Street. The dim lighting combined with the musty odour gave Dana a bad feeling about the place. On the way over, the closer she got to the grey building with its neon sign and its barred windows, the sillier she felt. While she knew the clock was nothing more than a token of congratulations, she couldn’t help but wonder how it had gone untouched through that accident. After all, the car had basically exploded, for God’s sakes. And nothing could explain the way she felt when it began to chime yesterday afternoon, almost as if hypnotising her. She couldn’t even put into words…

“Can I help you with something?” a heavyset clerk asked from behind his counter.

“I hope so. It’s about an item that my in-laws received yesterday.”

“Lady,” the man started warily, “if you’re looking for a refund you come to the wrong place.”

“No, it’s not that. I was going to see if you remember anything about an anniversary clock you sold a few days ago, possibly even a few weeks ago. It’s gold, with a revolving pendulum, and it has a glass dome that goes over the top.”

A sudden nervousness disturbed the man’s round features. “I think my father might’ve sold one like that. Like I said, though, no returns.”

“I understand that, but do you think I could have a word with him?”

“That’s not possible.” His voice sank to a whisper.

“Why not?”

“Because, my father – he died one week ago today.” A tear rolled down his plump cheek. “Could you please leave?” 

“I-I’m so sorry.” Dana stepped back from the counter, hesitating as she processed the man’s revelation. “I know this is hard for you, but do you think you could at least tell me who brought it in?”

“Nathaniel Benson, Benson and Benson Antiquities. You got a problem, go talk to him.”

If he’s still alive, Dana thought to herself.

***

“Okay Jenny, I left a slip of paper on the table with our cell phone numbers on it. We’ll have to turn them off inside the church, though, so if there’s an emergency go next door and get Mrs. Flannigan. She’ll know what to do.”

“Great! I think we’re all set.”

“We’ll pay you when we get back,” Robert added. “And please don’t forget about the dusting and laundry. I want to surprise Mom and Dad when they get back. I know it’s different babysitting in their house, but Ben’s got a lot of toys and things here to keep him busy.” 

“No problem,” Jenny responded. “Tell your mom and dad bye, Ben.”

“Bye-bye!” the little boy called to his parents from behind a fort of blocks in the living-room floor.

“Be good for Jen,” Dana instructed, trailing her husband out the door.

After about an hour of hide-and-seek and a grilled cheese sandwich, Ben was ready for a nap. Jen walked him into the den where there would be no distractions, and laid him down on the high-backed sofa. She had already started a load of laundry and decided to get on with the dusting.

“How filthy,” she muttered as the feathers gently swept away bits of dirt and grime which had collected on the mantle since its last brushing. In fact, the only object uncoated by dust was the clock which sat patiently still, keeping track of the days, the hours, the minutes, the seconds. The long hand struck two.

DING DING it sang. It should have stopped there. It was only two o’clock. But it didn’t.

DING DING DING DING.

“Shut up!” Jenny seethed. She glanced over her shoulder at Ben, who lay as if lifeless on the couch. Wasn’t he hearing this? It was so loud! It rang infectiously in her ears, over and over, until she could feel the very vibrations of the sound pound against her eardrums.

“Ben!” she called, but he couldn’t hear her. The cacophony had risen now to an unbearable level. How could anyone sleep through this awful racket?

DING DING DING DING.

Jenny raised both hands to cover the sides of her head and drew them back almost immediately, shocked by the wet warmth that she felt against her palms. Blood had begun to seep from either ear and now dribbled down her cheeks. She had to make it stop.

Glancing down, she found ample material for kindling: wood, a lighter…and lighter fluid.

DING DING DING DING.

She had to destroy that clock.

***

“Where in the world are we going, honey?” Robert questioned, sounding exasperated. “We’ve been driving forever and -”

“It hasn’t been forever and the GPS says we’re almost there,” Dana dismissed. As soon as Mitch and Edna’s funeral had let out, she knew she would have to leave out a few details here and there in order to convince Robert to go along with her investigation. Ever the sceptic, had Robert been made aware of their true destination, he would have been less likely to tag along and more likely to question his wife’s sanity. “And remember,” she cautioned, “you promised you won’t think I’m crazy, right?”

“Too late,” he murmured, giving her a pat on the knee.

Nathaniel Benson had spoken with Dana earlier in the week, although Dana hadn’t gone into much detail over the phone, agreeing instead to meet as soon as possible. He lived in a ranch-style home on the outskirts of town, which also housed his livelihood, Benson and Benson Antiquities. A bright white sign stood on the well-manicured front lawn, calling their attention from the road.

Mr. Benson’s back faced Dana and Robert as an assistant led them beyond the foyer and into a large showroom full of curios from all over the wold. His fingertips grazed the cool glass of the nearest of the temperature-resistant cabinets that lined the walls.

“I have some idea as to why you’ve come,” he announced.

Dana and Robert stood expectantly.

“It’s the clock, isn’t it?” Here, Mr. Benson turned, but refused to maintain eye contact with the couple.

Dana could feel her husband’s gaze narrowing in on her. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so sketchy on details. She had known he would be blindsided, but had also known he wouldn’t have come along if she had been completely honest.

Robert stepped forward. “Now wait a minute,” he spoke up, eyes still set firmly on Dana. “What is this all about?”

“How shall I put this?” Mr. Benson replied. “We’ve had…problems with that item.”

“What are you talking about?” Robert prodded.  “I mean, it’s just a clock, isn’t it?” Dana’s hand reached for his shoulder, which he shrugged away.

“If you’re so convinced it’s only a time-telling device, then why are you here?” Mr. Benson offered a drink, which the Watkins couple declined. “Suffice it to say that the piece you own has a colourful history; I’m referring to its origins. You see, my father, Reginald Benson, was a traveller. He scoured the continents, always on the hunt for the next big find.”  Mr. Benson paused in front of a bookshelf, reaching to pull down a particularly thick volume. He flipped to a previously marked page and held the tome open for the Watkinses to view. His index finger rested on a series of black-and-white sketches.

Dana studied the drawings as her husband scoffed silently by her side. One column of the page contained drawings: simple stick figures, depictions of the elements, and symmetrical shapes within shapes. A corresponding column contained a list of short translations: “Death,” “Daughter of the King,” “May she be given life.”

“As I was saying,” Mr. Benson began again as he closed the book and returned it to its shelf, “my father was a collector. On one of his more recent journeys, he travelled to Egypt.”

“I’m sorry, but what has this got to do with a clock?” Robert interjected. Dana chastised him with a glance.

“Lamentably, my father made some risky investments during his time abroad, particularly in Cairo. He wasn’t aware that some of his local contractors were part of a smuggling ring. They would sneak into restricted areas of the ruins there and remove some artefacts.”

“So you’re saying the clock came from a tomb or something?” Dana inquired.

“Not exactly. The gold itself came from a temple the smugglers had pillaged. They would take the bars, which were covered in the hieroglyphics I’ve shown you, and they would melt them down to mold and craft. No one, least of all my father, had any idea as to the extent of the force that would be unleashed…”

Dana looked to her husband. He still seemed unconvinced, but she couldn’t help but wonder. “Mr. Benson, what do you mean? What force?”

“Strange, horrific events. Surely you have some idea. Isn’t that why you’ve come?”

Even Robert had to admit that the man had a point. “Okay, let’s say we believe this story,” he proposed. “What now? What could we possibly do?”

Mr. Benson offered a somber chuckle. “Well, as you know, my father made the only choice he knew, as unfortunate as the consequence may have been.”

***

As they pulled up in the driveway of their home, Dana and Robert continued to argue. As a matter of fact, they hadn’t taken a break from bickering from the time they left Benson and Benson until now.

“Robert, all I’m saying is, is the risk really worth the consequence? Let’s get rid of the thing. No harm; no foul.”

“Dana, it is a clock for crying out loud! There is no consequence. It belonged to my parents and it’s an inanimate object. I’ll admit, the past couple of weeks have been hell – a real shitstorm of one awful thing after another. But come on, blaming it on a clock? Really?”

Dana shook her head as she slammed the passenger side door shut. “Robert, you and I both know something’s not right. You’re nervous; I can tell. You’re doing the thing where you talk and talk to overcompensate. I mean, there are all kinds of unexplained things that happen every day, but this really takes the cake. I just don’t – ”

“Do you smell that?” He held up a hand for silence.

“Smoke.”

They both made a bee-line for the house. Robert flung open the front door and smoke poured out, onto the lawn and into the clear noon sky. Inside the house, a fire raged within the fireplace and threatened to spill out into the room. The brick of the hearth and the sharp edges of the mantle were already charred, having been assaulted by the wayward flames.

DING DING the clock chimed as if commanding the flames from above.

“Call 9-1-1!” Scott ordered, scooping up Ben from the sofa. Robert gave the boy a shake and breathed a sigh of relief, however momentary, as Ben batted his sleepy eyes in response.

Within minutes, firefighters arrived to battle. As the crew went to work, Dana cradled Ben in her arms on the front lawn. She listened intently while Robert answered questions for a detective within earshot.

“Now you said no one in the house left a fire burning this morning? There’s no chance it just hadn’t been extinguished properly?”

“Absolutely not. Jenny, the babysitter, must have lit it after we left. She’s always so careful, I just can’t believe – ” Here, Robert’s train of thought jumped track and his words came frantically. “Have they found her yet? Is she out? Is she alright?”

The detective glanced uncomfortably at the house, then back at Robert just as a stretcher emerged from the front door. A badly charred hand dangled to one side from under a plain white sheet. Robert’s stomach turned and he felt bile begin to rise in his throat.

“I’m afraid not,” the detective answered. “They found her in a bathtub upstairs. It looks like she got herself caught up in the backdraft of the flames and rushed to put them out. I guess that was the best way she could think of.”

Robert stood, speechless.

“These things happen,” the detective offered in condolence, then took his leave.

When the initial excitement died down and neighbors slipped back into their own homes, Dana folded her arms and looked into Robert’s somber eyes. “Now do you want to talk about consequences?”

***

Over the next couple of days, Dana and Robert worked to repair Lewis and Mildred’s beloved den. Jenny’s death had been ruled accidental and, although moving back in had been tough, neither Lewis nor Mildred could imagine leaving the house they had built so many years ago. Guests came from around the neighborhood to offer assistance and, in return, the Watkins family decided to host a simple get-together to show their gratitude in the newly remodeled space.

“You guys, I just want you to know I love what you’ve done with the place! It is absolutely gorgeous.” Misty Gerald was decked out in gaudy costume rhinestones, from her pleather headband to the skimpy skirt that barely stretched to mid thigh. To say she stood out in the crowded room of chatting friends and neighbors would be an understatement. “With a big, strong man like Robbie, it’s no wonder it didn’t take long!” She winked.

Robert squeezed Dana’s shoulder as she produced an awkward laugh in reply and her amber eyes darkened. “Well, Misty, actually Robert and I wanted to thank you for all your help and we have a little something for you.”

Robert gave his wife a look, wary of the surprise that would follow.

“Oh, my goodness, you didn’t have to do that!” Misty swooned with a facade of obviously false modesty.

“Nonsense!” Dana said. She moved over to a nearby cabinet and removed a box. When she turned back to Misty, she held in her hands a package, neatly wrapped in shiny gold tinsel.

“Here,” she said as she offered the parcel that sparkled in her hands.“It’s all yours!”

D.C. Phillips is the author of Frightful Fables, the tales that leave you screaming for more. He has received praise for his dynamic and darkly ironic style. As a native of Atlanta, Georgia, D.C. cites Southern culture and classic horror as two of his major influences. He is currently hard at work on several projects, and he welcomes communication via Twitter (@FrightfulFables) and email (FrightfulFables@gmail.com).

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