The old man leans back in his chair and peeks through the window. He lifts a hand to catch the waitress’s attention but she is busy serving a young couple at the far end of the café. No matter, he can wait, there is still time. There’s always plenty of time. No more time for you though. He coughs, a dry hack which rips through his lungs setting his chest on fire. It doesn’t last too long and he is relieved when nothing comes up. He grabs a bunch of napkins anyway. Lucky this time; maybe not so much the next.
He takes out his pocket watch and squints at the lid. ‘To the end…’ he mumbles. His eyes are too weak these days to read the engraving but he knows it’s there. He put it there after all. Or did he? He stares off into the distance trying to recall but if the memory was ever there, it is now gone, lost to the sands of time. There are things he does know though. He knows that the watch used to belong to his father… no, wait, that’s not true either. He tries to recall his face but that too is gone. All memories now are mixed, faces merged, words fumbled. He closes his eyes. There was something he used to say. Something important. Think dammit! A voice comes rumbling out of the void: as long as you wear this watch, you will never run out of time. The old man smiles to himself as he places the watch on the table. He had always found that an unusual thing to say. Until, that is, he found out what it meant.
He stretches his legs under the table and hears the familiar popping of old joints. You’re old, his body tells him. C’mon, let’s just go, we’re tired. The man rubs his knees. Just a little longer, just a little longer. He catches his reflection in the dusty window, and for a moment, he thinks that it’s somebody else staring back. In his mind, he is still the strapping young fellow that used to party till four and still get up at 8am to work ten hours at the institute. Now all he sees are watery eyes, gnarled hands, and speckled skin. He is a spectre of everything that once was and all that will be.
He looks at his watch again. This time he doesn’t try to catch the waitress’s attention. Something else is about to happen.
A car pulls up and two masked men with rifles emerge. The old man tilts his hat forward and focuses on his watch. He keeps his eyes on the second hand as it ticks away, each passing moment forever changing the lives of those around him. He knows what’s going to happen of course. Gunshots, followed by pitiful screams, give way to slamming doors and the sound of tires digging into the earth. It’s all over as quickly as it began.
The old man pushes a button in the side of the watch and enters the restaurant. He walks slowly, taking care to step over the broken glass and lives that lay scattered across the floor. He stops beside a table and bends down. Cowering underneath is a young boy. The man smiles and takes out the watch. He presses it into the boy’s hands.
As long as you wear this, you will never run out of time.
Story by Shane O’Halloran. Originally published by AntipodeanSF, March 2019. This story has been selected for preservation by the National Library of Australia – view archived version here. This story was also read live on the AntiSF radio show. Check it out here.3