The Locksmith’s Clock
by W. M. Pienton
All buildings have character, while some acquire it with age others have it from the start. In the small town of Ruthford stands a two story red brick building. It is the only two story building downtown, making it the shortest and standing out, somewhat unique. On the first floor is a permanently closed locksmith shop; on the second floor is an apartment where the retired owner, Eugene Hath, lives alone.
Long ago when he was young, and had just married the love of his life, Ellen, spring had been his favorite season. That was when the couple would take walks, watching the world come back to life. Eugene missed those walks.
Back then, Eugene earned and saved his money doing odd jobs. Buying the building right after completion, he and his new bride Ellen, moved into the only apartment on the second floor. He was the first, and only, owner of the building he called home and business.
That was sixty-nine years ago. They opened up the town’s only locksmith shop. The shop always earned enough money to live on, and when business was good it made enough to put away. The couple learned early in their marriage they could not have children. So now in his old age, his wife thirty years departed, Eugene was alone.
He was now an elderly gentleman of ninety-eight. He retired at sixty-five, closing the shop. However, being the town’s only locksmith kept him from truly retiring. Only charging a small fee for his services, Ruthford’s residents still relied on him day and night.
Solitary by nature, he never had company. Older Ruthford residents who knew Eugene before his wife died said that he changed after her passing. He did not become bitter or angry, just different somehow.
Tall, lean, gray, and balding, he was always warm and pleasant. He had two faces, one displayed for the world the other was kept hidden. When walking along the street he was likely to greet even complete strangers. In reality he was reserved and introspective, keeping his thoughts to himself.
Keeping his apartment windows open all summer, it was impossible not to hear the constant ticking of Eugene’s clocks. Never allowing anyone inside, no one knew the extent of his collection. The fact that he still worked gave him the financial means to completely indulge his hobby.
Having a good eye for clocks, he started purchasing them at yard sales and flea markets to sate his appetite. His hobby became an obsession after getting on-line access. Now, he buys as many of them as his bank account allows. Accumulating hundreds of clocks over the years, only a few are electric, most need to be hand wound.
His collection cluttered his home but that did not stop him from keeping his place dust and cobweb free. The apartment floors were vacuumed and swept; the windows were always clean and spotless, as if he expected guests and had tidied up. Everything in its proper place and a proper place for everything.
An idea came to him when his hobby and trade merged within his mind. The concept seemed so obvious it amazed Eugene that it had not occurred to him sooner. Armed with his clocks, extensive lock-pick sets, and considerable experience, the old man would manipulate time, would ‘pick’ time. At first, it was all blind experimentation.
His idea was to control time by picking the gears of a clock with his lock-picks. He got very skilled in a short time. For Eugene picking time was like picking a lock, just on another level.
When his first attempt failed, unfazed, he simply tried a different approach. Knowing the concept was sound and would eventually work, the idea impelled him forward like a runner closing in on the finish line. He had only been experimenting for a little while before his initial success, the strangeness of it all made his head swim. Eugene only traveled back in time about a minute, but everything starts small.
Having entered uncharted territory he experimented cautiously from that day forward. Decades of picking locks prepared him for the intricacies of picking time, and as his skills grew, so did a plan. Eugene understood the nature of time, understood that it does not tick like the second hand of a clock, understood that it flows smoothly like a river from one moment to the next. All he did was shift its current to achieve the desired effect.
The type of time-piece used in his operations only had a small bearing on Eugene’s ability. Using more complex time-pieces lent only slightly better control, while shoddier ones made it more difficult. To execute his plan he would use his best pocket-watch.
After his first success, Eugene only practiced a few months before pronouncing himself ready. His skills were now extraordinary. Sitting at a downstairs table with his tools, a set of lock-picks and a clock, he set his plan into motion.
* * *
Seventy-eight years ago the old man appeared from thin air in a vacant lot, where Ruthford’s only locksmith shop would one day be. Had there been witnesses, they would have seen only an empty field of tall grass and weeds one moment, and an instant later, an old man would be standing in the middle of it. Accidentally letting go of the lock-picks and clock during time-travel, he possessed only what he was wearing—nothing more.
For his plan to work Eugene needed tools, and for that he needed money. The cash in his wallet was all wrong for the time. Taking in his surroundings, he concluded that at least he had arrived in the right year. Forced to figure out a way to get some money, he began pacing around head down in thought.
After mulling it over, he decided the only thing he could do was sell his wedding band at the local pawn shop. It should provide him with money for a basic set of lock-picks and a time-piece of some kind. After that, the next step will be finding a place to work in peace. No distractions, picking time was delicate work.
Looking around, Ruthford was both familiar and foreign at the same time. On one hand the town was just as he remembered, on the other there was so much he had forgotten. A tidal-wave of nostalgia flooded him as he began walking.
Eugene was capable of more than just time-travel, he could manipulate time in almost any way he chose. Slowing down or speeding it up was just for starters, before traveling back in time he halted his aging process. Later he was going to reverse it, the next step in his plan required being young. The problem was he had never attempted most of what he knew, it was all just theory.
Eugene prayed he would not run into his past self—that would be disastrous. Other than his obsession with clocks, Eugene consumed a steady diet of science fiction novels. Whenever these books dealt with time-travel, meeting your past self always created a time paradox. It was something to avoid.
He came to this year because this was the year he met the woman who would become his wife, Ellen. Eugene’s plan was to re-live life with her and he would have to meet her as a young man. Another problem was going to be revealing the truth to her, he had no idea how she was going to react.
Twenty minutes later he arrived in front of Ruthford’s pawn shop. It was an old shop, nearly as old as the town itself and still existed in modern times. Since opening, it had been owned and operated by the same family.
Before he entered he took off his gold band and turned it around in his hand, looking at it as if for the first time. Before now he had never taken it off. Sighing, he entered the cramped little shop.
The money he got from pawning his wedding ring he used purchasing a pocket-watch and a set of lock-picks, both of which he found in the pawn-shop. Eugene used his remaining funds to rent a room at a low budget motel. Once in the room, he wasted no time getting to work on the watch.
Reversing his age was much harder than anything he tried so far. Breaking out in a nervous sweat, Eugene had difficulty stifling fears of unintentionally anti-aging himself out of existence. Something clicked and he felt himself growing younger. Shedding years in minutes, he had to stop it just right.
Like picking a lock, picking time is a tactile thing and Eugene could feel it with almost supernatural accuracy. The trick is reversing the physical body’s age while keeping the mind intact. Losing the memories of all the years he lived would be disastrous. Experience however, gave Eugene the skills to avoid such a fate.
Sensing it close, he slowed the reversal process. And, like a master artist knowing when to cease work on a piece, he halted it—he was now twenty years old. Closing the back of the watch and pocketing it, he gathered his tools and left the room. Chuckling, Eugene thought how confused any witnesses might be at seeing an old man enter the room and a young man leave.
At this point his plan got hazy, he just wanted to see Ellen before deciding what to do next. The problem was he had no idea where she was. Figuring that she always loved reading, he decided to start with the library. His mind raced with scenarios as he began walking.
He took this time to figure out exactly what he was going to say to Ellen once he found her. He rehearsed it over and over until he had it memorized. Romance had never come naturally to him.
Angry clouds had been threatening rain since his arrival, Eugene was only a few blocks from the library when they made good on their threat and started drenching the small town. Sprinting the rest of the way, he dashed into the library and stood in the entry-way. Wringing out his soaked jacket, he got as dry as he could before entering the main area.
The library was as he remembered it when he was young, before all the additions and renovations, it was a small Victorian building. A fire greedily lapped at the sides of the wood in a fireplace while an old man puffed his pipe and read the newspaper in a nearby armchair. Eugene received only a few uninterested glances before they resumed reading. Wrestling with doubts she was even here, he quietly began looking for Ellen.
Doubt morphed into disappointment when he did not find her in the main area. Moving on to a back reading room he spotted her. With her shoulder length dark brown hair, she was as he remembered her at nineteen. She was slender, wearing a yellow button up blouse and a white summer dress, her hair tied back in a ponytail with a black ribbon.
Upon seeing her he was stunned stupid, everything he had mentally rehearsed was gone. His mind was blank. She was reading at one of the tables with a few other books piled in front of her. He did not want to screw this up, using time-travel to try again felt like cheating somehow.
Eugene began browsing nearby bookshelves not really paying attention to the titles. “To Hell with it.” he mumbled, and made his way over to her. With nothing else coming to mind he decided on telling her everything, to put all his cards on the table. Wiping his sweaty palms on his pants, he nervously stood on the other side of the table opposite Ellen.
“Nice weather we’re having.” Eugene said, immediately cringing inside at the stupid remark.
“But it’s raining out,” she replied, looking up from her book.
“It’s nice weather if you like rain, is what I meant.”
“Really? Because you don’t look like you enjoyed it, you’re a mess.”
“Mind if I sit?”
Putting down the book she said, “Go ahead, this book was boring anyway.”
Eugene sat down opposite her. “Look,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts, “my name’s Eugene and we’ve met before.”
“More like ‘when’. Let me tell you the entire story. Then tell me what you think.” he said, beginning his strange time-traveling tale. Saying everything out loud for the first time made him realize just how ridiculous his story sounded, even to his own ears. While he talked, the hope he felt flickered and faded like a dying candle. He would have disbelieved the story had he not experienced it for himself, so Eugene naturally assumed Ellen did not believe it.
After he finished she was quiet for a long time, choosing her words carefully and slowly, she said, “I don’t believe you, but I don’t disbelieve you either. You seem sincere and don’t appear to be crazy, so I’m not sure what to believe.” Frustration and heartbreak warred for supremacy in Eugene’s soul, he knew this was the most likely reaction. As much as he loathed to do it, the only thing now was to go back in time and try again. He got up to leave.
“Wait,” said Ellen, quickly reaching out to stop him, “don’t leave, I said I don’t disbelieve you either. I’ll give you a chance to make me believe, you’ll have the rest of the day to try.” A ray of sunshine broke through Eugene’s emotional storm. “Nothing in the world would give me more pleasure. When the rain passes I’ll prove everything to you at the vacant lot.” he said, still worried. While being with Ellen again was all that mattered, he knew while waiting for the rain to pass he could still screw things up.
It turned out he fretted over nothing, she seemed to already like him. The more they talked the more it became apparent to Ellen this man knew things about her only friends knew—like her love for green tea. By the time it stopped raining Ellen sorely wanted to believe him. “Well,” said Eugene, “shall we go?”
“Yes.” she said giving him her arm.
There was no rush, they walked like they were the only two people in the world. Enjoying each other’s company they walked slowly, talking. While their pace was slow, Eugene talked fast as if trying to make up for the lost years.
Arriving at the empty lot, it almost did not matter to Ellen if this man was from the future. Already smitten, she hoped this was just some odd way to win her over. She realized it would break her heart if he turned out to be crazy. “All right. Get comfortable and sit down somewhere. This’ll take me a little while. You’ll have to be quiet too, I need to concentrate.” he said, surveying the area for a spot to set up.
After spreading his jacket on the ground and laying his tools out on it, he began tinkering inside the watch with his lock-picks. At first, nothing happened. Then something in the watch ‘clicked’ and time accelerated around them, years raced by in just minutes. After a few minutes Eugene determined they had gone far enough and adroitly slowed time down to normal, all the while Ellen sat in silence mouth agape.
They found themselves sitting on the floor of the closed locksmith shop. “We used to run this place together. You did the day to day paper-work while I did the jobs,” he said, helping her up. Not responding to what he said she started looking around the darkened shop, running her fingers over dust laden equipment. “Ellen,” he said slightly louder, her head jerked in his direction as if waking from a dream. “Ellen, we’ve arrived in the year I live. I want to pass ownership of the building to you, then we can live our lives over again, together. To do that I’m gonna have to do a little more time manipulation.”
“Oh,” was all she could think to say. Ellen was stunned, everything he had told her was true.
“Anyway, let’s get cleaned up and I’ll show you around, then I’ve got legal stuff to take care of.”
All she did was nod.
“Later on, I’ve got to age myself back to an old man so I can give you the property. After that, I’ll make myself young and we can go through life again, hand in hand. I don’t want to shock you any more than I already have, you don’t have to watch.”
“I think I need to sit down,” she said, messaging her temples.
“Of course, let’s go upstairs to the apartment. We’ll take it slow, we’ve got all the time in the world.”
* * *
The wheels of bureaucracy move maddeningly slow when one is trying to do something good. It took weeks for old man Eugene to get all the paperwork together just to give his own property to Ellen. Shortly after receiving it, the old man disappeared. No one knows where he went, or where Ellen’s new young husband—also named Eugene—came from.
After getting the store ready, they held a grand re-opening celebration for shop. Of the people that came, half showed up just to meet the new owners. Like masterful politicians, when asked about old man Eugene the couple always managed to avoid telling the truth without actually lying.
The saying, ‘Only time will tell’ does not apply to Eugene Hath. When it comes to Eugene, time will never tell—time is always on his side. Eventually the young couple grew old, passing on the building and business to a younger couple also named Ellen and Eugene. The small locksmith shop is still in business, if you find yourself in Ruthford and need a good locksmith you can call them day or night, just ask for Eugene.
◊ ◊ ◊
W. M. Pienton
Walter Pienton, whose last name is pronounced Pen-tin, has a short novel being sold on Amazon called Swampscott Fitzgerald. He always had an active imagination and seems to see things in a different sort of light. Storytelling comes naturally, so writing them down was the next logical step. One of the hardest parts of writing is finding time as he currently holds down a third shift factory job (which he absolutely loathes).