Discover more from Fiction by Bill Adler
A short story
For her eleventh birthday, I gave Leila my father’s watch.
What father gives their daughter a seventy-year-old mechanical watch for her birthday? A kitten, you can’t go wrong with that. My wife, Julia, suggested a nail art kit called Rainbow Jellies Surprise Creation Kit, or a unicorn bathrobe with a horn on the hood.
But I insisted on my grandfather’s Hamilton.
I held my breath while Leila raised and lowered the box, weighed it in her hands, inspected the shoebox-sized present for telltale air holes, and cautiously tilted it from side to side. She narrowed her eyes and then shredded the wrapping paper at supersonic speed.
The red and blue happy birthday paper, now confetti, floated to the living room floor like ticker tape in a parade.
Leila’s eyes opened wide. “I love it!”
Julia and I shared smiles.
Leila rested the patinaed watch on her palm and ran her fingertips over the smooth crystal. “Ooo,” she said. Then she did it again, stroking the watch crystal like somebody might rub Aladdin's lamp. “This is the best present ever.”
Leila strapped the watch around her wrist. Vintage Hamiltons, like many watches from the 1960s, were tiny by today’s standards, so it comfortably fit an eleven-year-old girl. Leila wound the crown, and when the watch came to life, her eyes tracked the small second hand at its six o’clock position as it made a complete revolution. “Thank you! Can I wear it to school tomorrow?” She held her watch arm up high.
“Of course,” I said. “You can wear it every day.”
“But not in the shower or bath,” I added.
“Daddy! I’m smarter than that.” Leila glared for punctuation.
“There’s birthday cake, too,” Julia reminded Leila. “Any particular birthday girl interested?”
“Yes!” She raised her arm again. “I am, I am! Can I have the piece with the one-to-grow-on candle?”
“I thought that was going to be my slice,” I said.
“No, Daddy. You’re already grown. It’s mine.”
Julia, our dog, Gaston, who carried a surprisingly good tune for a beagle, and I sang Happy Birthday. As we hit the last note, a silent zigzag bolt of dry lightning slapped the window, bathing the living room first in blazing white light, followed by a kaleidoscope rainbow, as if the window was a prism.
Though there was no thunder, the family photos on the wall vibrated.
Leila clapped, shouted, spun three-hundred-sixty degrees, and said, “Happy birthday to me!”
We devoured the entire cake.
At nine o’clock that evening, I knocked on Leila’s bedroom door. Despite being her birthday, it was a school night, and like it or not—mostly not—Leila had homework. There was no response to my knock, so I waited a moment and knocked again, then a third time.
Maybe she fell asleep.
“Leila? Are you there?
“What’s the matter?” Julia, who was now standing behind me, asked.
I opened the door. No Leila. “Maybe she’s in the bathroom?”
But the bathroom door was unlocked, and the room was empty.
We searched the house calling, “Leila, where are you?” as we opened doors and looked behind curtains, in closets, and under furniture.
I circled the house outside three times, ran down to the basement two steps at a time, and checked everywhere.
We couldn’t find her.
“This isn’t a fun hiding game, Leila,” I shouted, notes of irritation burbling in my throat. I searched upstairs again, peering under her bed, behind the curtains, and through every inch of her closet. While I disassembled the closet, Julia hunted in our bedroom once more.
“Daddy!” wafted a weak voice from downstairs.
Julia and I broke speed records running into the dining room. I jumped the last three steps, lost my balance, and wrenched my ankle, limping the rest of the way to Leila.
Julia hugged our daughter, and only when she let go did I ask, “Where were you?”
“I was here,” she said.
“What do you mean you were here? We looked all around the house. We didn’t see you anywhere. You scared us to death.”
“I was in the dining room with you and Mommy.” She waved her arm in a circle while her lower lip shook. “And with her.” Leila tapped her chest with her forefinger. “With me, I mean. That her.” Leila’s face paled as if drained of blood.
“I was with you and me as we ate my birthday cake. The mirror me. There were twelve candles on my cake. I watched you sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and I watched me eat my birthday cake. I smelled the candles, too, after the other me blew them out.”
Leila reached for my hand and then put her arms around me. Her tiny body trembled, and her tears soaked my shirt.
Gaston howled in unisonic sympathy.
When Leila’s eyes ran dry, she released me, stepped back, and asked, “Mommy and Daddy? Am I okay?”
“Yes, you are, but you had too much cake. Too much excitement mixed with all that sugar made your imagination run wild.” My heart raced again, and I shivered from guilt for thinking Leila was playing hide-and-seek.
“You’re all right,” Julia said. She rubbed Leila’s back. “You’re fine. You just need a good night’s sleep.”
Color returned to Leila’s face like marigolds after a spring rain shower.
“Tell us what happened, sweetie,” Julia asked.
“I was in my room doing homework. I saw my alarm clock. It was stuck at six-thirty. I thought I would get a new battery from the kitchen drawer, and the next thing I knew, I was dreaming that I was back in the dining room.” She waved her arms again. “Here.”
I glanced at my watch and did some quick math. Dinner was at 6:30 p.m. About an hour later, we celebrated Leila’s birthday.
Julia said, “Six-thirty is when we had your cake. You must have fallen asleep and dreamed about your birthday.”
“Maybe you were half dreaming, half sleepwalking,” I suggested. “What subject were you doing homework in?”
“The Elizabethan Age.”
“That explains everything. The Elizabethan Age was England’s notoriously boring era. Anyone would prefer to dream about birthday cake and presents rather than read about Queen Elizabeth,” I said.
Leila laughed, but then her eyelids fluttered and slipped downward. “May I go to bed? I can’t keep my eyes open for another second.”
“That’s a good idea. A good night’s sleep will make you feel right as rain,” I said, “I’ll put a new battery in your clock and set the alarm for 7 a.m. while you brush your teeth.”
“It’s a school night, and your alarm will ring at seven, whether you like it or not.”
She pouted harder, her expression dour like a sculptor forged it from granite.
“I think your alarm clock actually likes waking you up at seven on school mornings. It’s evil.”
Another pout, but this one contained hints of a grin.
“I will change the day of the week for you and make tomorrow Saturday.” I winked and Leila winked back. “You’ll get ready for bed?”
I woke to the shrill beep of Leila’s alarm clock. Though the beeping was faint, having snaked its way through Leila’s bedroom door, the hallway, and into our bedroom, it grew loud in my brain, forcing my eyes open. I looked at my night table clock: 7:17 a.m. I jumped out of bed.
Leila slept through her alarm.
I knocked on Leila’s door, and when there was no answer, I opened the door. No Leila. I stepped swiftly to the bathroom and put my ear to that door. Silence. I knocked loudly, but there was no response.
I raced through the house, flipping on the lights, retracing my route from last night, a strong wind trailing behind me.
Leila’s disappeared again.
I shook Julia’s shoulder, who, even though she was the soundest sleeper in our family, and could slumber through a war, was already semiconscious from my commotion.
She opened her eyes. “What!? What happened? Is Leila gone again?” A mother’s instinct. Somehow she knew.
“I’m not sure. I think so. She’s not in the house. I looked everywhere.”
Julia kicked off the blanket, which flew halfway to the ceiling before parachuting back onto the bed. By the time the blanket had landed, Julia was fully awake and sitting upright.
I snatched my phone to call 911, but before I dialed, I noticed Leila standing between the open door and door frame, silhouetted by the hallway light, wearing her dog-print pajamas.
“Mommy and Daddy. I went somewhere again.” Leila climbed into our bed. She buried her head in the pillow and stayed that way for several minutes before she could talk again. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Tell me what happened, sweet pea,” I said.
“When my alarm went off, I looked at my watch. I slept with it, Daddy, because I love my watch. I guess the watch stopped in the middle of the night because maybe it wasn’t wound. When my alarm beeped at seven, the watch said two-twelve. It had been light, but suddenly it was dark again, like nighttime, like two in the morning.”
Julia and I lay like bookends beside her.
“I was in your room in the middle of the night right after I heard my alarm. Your bedroom clock,”—she pointed to the rectangular Seiko clock with the glowing green digital display next to me—“it said two-twelve in the morning. That’s what your clock showed, same as my watch. But not the same as my alarm clock.” Leila pulled herself close to Julia and cried. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Panting, Leila continued. “I thought there was something the matter with my eyes. I walked around our house—I don’t know for how long—and then suddenly, it became light. It became now.” Leila raised her head toward my night table clock. “It went from two-twelve and dark to a little after seven o’clock and light in a second the way it had been just after my alarm sounded.”
Gaston padded into the room and lay on the floor in front of the bed. His tail thumped against the carpet.
Leila curled tightly with Julia. “What’s happening, Mommy? I’m scared.”
I didn’t understand, either. All I knew for sure was that Leila was vanishing and returning and could hide exceptionally well during the trance or sleepwalking. Until we knew more, I could only offer comfort, though worry seized my soul. “I’m sure it’s just a temporary thing. As I said last night—sugar and excitement. But we should take you to Dr. Sullivan today for a checkup. No school. How does that sound?”
“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.” Leila paused momentarily and added, “As long as I don’t have to get a shot.”
“I’ll call Dr. Sullivan’s office,” Julia said.
“Why don’t you get dressed while your mom calls? We’ll take a day off and go together.”
The pediatrician’s office was a hubbub of coughing, sneezing, and wheezing, but the well-waiting room where we sat had only three kids. We waited forty-five minutes before Dr. Sullivan could see us.
After we described Leila’s two disappearances, Dr. Sullivan put her hands on Leila’s neck. She took Leila’s temperature, listened to her heart and lungs, and looked into her ears and eyes. Leila provided a urine sample. The nurse took blood and swabbed her throat—all the standard pediatrician stuff.
Leila read Highlights magazine while we waited for her results.
About thirty minutes later, the nurse called us to talk with the doctor. “All of Leila’s tests are negative. There’s nothing wrong with her. I agree that Leila’s sleepwalking resulted from excitement, sugar, and insufficient sleep. It’s not uncommon for children her age to sleepwalk.” She looked at our daughter, her reassuring smile warming the room. “You’re as healthy as a horse. I pronounce you fit to go to school tomorrow.”
“What do you think it was?” I asked for peace of mind. “Where did she go?”
“As adults, we forget how easy it is for children to squish into small spaces. Leila wandered in her sleep to her favorite hiding place. Are you sure you checked everywhere?”
I shook my head. “I guess not.”
Sullivan turned to our daughter. “How do you feel?”
“Okay. If it happens again—and I doubt it will—come back here. Meanwhile, I imagine you’re taking the whole day off from school.”
“And you plan to do homework and study all day long.”
Sullivan winked. “A day doing nothing is good medicine.”
Disappointment filled my veins, but relief did, too. On the one hand, I was hoping there was a name and cure for what had happened to Leila—a shot or a pill—but on the other hand, I was glad Dr. Sullivan, whom we trusted more than any other person on Earth, found nothing wrong with her. There was nothing visibly the matter with Leila, nothing askance with her tests—and those two thoughts gave me solace.
And yet, I couldn’t shake the nagging thought: Where had Leila gone?
Leila rested, did a little homework, spent time on the computer, and watched a movie for the rest of the day. Gaston spent the afternoon with Leila on her lap or in bed. When seven o’clock the next morning rolled around, Leila’s alarm sounded for its usual five seconds, followed by the padding of feet and the door to the bathroom slamming shut. Everything was back to normal.
When Leila walked into the house after school, I could tell from her bloodshot eyes, salt-stained cheeks, and matted hair that it had happened again. She stood motionless in the foyer, tears spilling down her face, her hands, legs, and entire body quivering. “Daddy,” Leila said as she walked to me.
I knelt to be at eye level with Leila. “Tell me.”
“It happened in the locker room. We had gym this morning at ten because it was volleyball day. The clock on the locker room wall was broken.” Leila spoke rapidly, taking in shallow, insufficient breaths between sentences. “I was sitting on a bench and looked at the big wall clock above the water fountain—it said one-fifteen. Then everyone around me was gone like they’d never been there in the first place. I got up and walked around. I heard my footsteps echo in the hallway. Nobody was in the school, not even any of the teachers or janitor. It was dark outside. I was so scared, and I thought there would be ghosts and bats and I’d never see you and Mommy again. I kept listening for monsters. I don’t know how long I was in the dark, but I was in the hallway when everyone came back. All of a sudden, it was morning again, and school was back to regular, but it was like eleven-thirty. Not ten o’clock anymore. It was later.”
I sat on the floor, and Leila sat beside me.
“What’s happening, Daddy?”
“Come,” I said, taking Leila’s cold hand and standing. “Let’s sit on the couch and think.”
Gaston joined us on the empty cushion.
“Let’s go over what’s happened.”
The first time you disappeared was the night before last, your birthday, right?”
“And never before?”
“And it happened when?”
Leila thought briefly before replying, “Right when I went to my room.”
“What did you do there?”
“I didn’t do anything. I just wanted to replace the battery in my alarm clock, but I never got to do that.”
“Your alarm clock stopped?” I asked.
“And the second time you vanished?”
“It was the morning. My alarm went off, and then it was night.”
“What happened right before everything changed?”
“Moomin and Bear were sitting on my desk, like always. My math book was on the floor by the side of my bed. It was morning, and there was lots of light coming through the window. I looked at my birthday watch, but it had stopped.”
“And the third time you were...” I searched for the right word, descriptive but not alarming—“you were lost, you had looked at a stopped clock in the locker room?”
I whistled, an involuntary reaction to an incredible thought. Gaston barked in reply.
No. Not possible. An extraordinary hypothesis ping-ponged around my head. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. But that’s just a line in a novel. What I was thinking could not be the truth.
I tried to shove the explanation through my mind's exit door but could not. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that when Leila disappeared twice in our home, she hadn’t been hiding. She was elsewhere.
The stopped clock at home and school and the stopped watch were the triggers. Not for an episode of sleepwalking. Not for a fugue state nor anything inside a medical textbook.
Neurons screamed in protest, but my brain whispered the answer in a ghostly voice.
Leila traveled in time.
How could that be? Why Leila? Nothing about her time traveling made sense, yet it was the only thing that made sense.
I’m wrong. Leila is not bending the laws of physics. I’m missing something.
I held my breath for several beats.
Gaston looked at me with quizzical eyes.
“Did you figure it out, Daddy?”
“Mommy will be home from work in a few minutes. Let’s talk more when she’s back. Okay?”
Leila pressed her lips together and frowned, but she didn't object.
When Julia returned, I explained what I thought was happening to Leila, only to be met by absolute disbelief. I couldn’t blame her because I didn’t believe it myself. We gave Leila an early dinner, letting her eat in front of the television, a rare treat, so Julia and I could dissect my theory in privacy.
We had to know for sure. I proposed a test in a controlled and safe place—our living room; Julia objected, but what choice did we have?
We explained to Leila what we thought might be happening. I didn’t expect her to accept the possibility she had traveled in time, but she did, and in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Every year—sometimes it felt like every month—an explosive technological advance entered and often changed our lives. Self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, three-dimensional printers, flying a helicopter on Mars, virtual reality, gene splicing, telescopes that can visualize planets orbiting distant stars, and more. Leila was also a devotee of science fiction movies, making her receptive to the wildest ideas.
Leila agreed it would be good to test this theory in the safety of our living room.
I adjusted the time on my watch back fifteen minutes, from 9:25 p.m. to 9:10 p.m.
“I’m going to pull out the crown and stop the watch now,” I said as I covered my watch with my hand.
Julia held Leila’s hand. “After you look at my stopped watch, I want you to go to the kitchen and tell me what time the microwave clock says.”
“Don’t do anything else,” Julia added. “Just go to the kitchen and come back here.”
“Gotcha.” Leila gave a thumbs up.
She nodded again.
I uncovered my Omega. “Look at my watch and tell me what time you see.”
Leila turned to my wrist but vanished before she could utter a word. There was no light flash, popping, twinkling, fading, sparking, or electrical smells. She was simply gone. One moment she was sitting between Julia and me on the couch, and the next, she wasn’t.
Gaston looked to the ceiling and barked twice.
Julia and I sat like statues. We were afraid to move, afraid we might occupy the same space into which Leila would re-emerge. Barely breathing, we waited.
I carefully pressed the crown back into my watch and restarted it.
After what felt like hours but was only minutes, Leila walked into the living room from the kitchen.
“Oh my god,” Julia said.
“I was gone again.”
“Did you see the kitchen microwave clock?”
“Yes, it said nine-ten.”
I looked at the living room clock, took my phone out of my pocket, and leaned over to see Julia’s watch. They all agreed: nine-twenty-five. Leila had traveled fifteen minutes back in time.
Our daughter is a time traveler.
Nobody spoke for several seconds. Finally, Julia asked, “What do we do now?”
I looked at Julia.
Julia looked at me.
Leila looked at both of us and said, “Let’s see Mr. Hammond, my science teacher.”
“Yes, great idea.” I liked Edger Hammond. Once a year, he invited the parents to observe a science class in progress. I was impressed by how clearly he explained complicated subjects and how much patience he showed when one of his kids asked a question. Hammond may not be the last stop on our quest to discover why Leila was time traveling and how to stop it, but he was the best first step. He knew more about physics, astronomy, cosmology, and everything else involved than we did. “We’ll make an appointment to see him tomorrow right after school. Meanwhile, we should hide or cover all our clocks and watches.”
“Don’t forget the microwave clock. And the TiVo. And the stove—that’s separate from the microwave. And that one,” Leila said, pointing to the tall, walnut pendulum clock on the other side of the living room. “And the lawn watering timer, in case I look out the window. And the little clock that lives in the first-floor bathroom. There’s one on the alarm panel, too. Wow, we have a lot of clocks.”
“We’ll get them all,” Julia added.
“I’ll also cover the car’s clock with black tape,” I said. “I’ll do that now before I forget.” Our eleven-year-old Volvo station wagon ran fine, but the clock was temperamental, sometimes stopping when it got too hot or cold. I didn’t want to think about what might happen if she traveled back in time while at fifty-five miles per hour.
“Julia, do you have those eye shades we got on our flight to California?”
“I think Leila should wear them tomorrow when we drive to school to talk with Mr. Hammond. If she should happen to see a stopped clock on a building….” I didn’t need to finish my sentence.
“I’ll get them.”
“Okay, let's get to work. Leila, you stay here. We’ll tell you when it’s safe to move around the house. And I’m sorry. For now, you can’t wear your grandfather’s watch.”
“I know,” Leila said. She carefully took the watch off her wrist and placed it upside down on the coffee table. She then lay on the couch, pulled out one of the cushions, and turned it into a pillow. She looked at us briefly before closing her eyes. An instant later, Leila was asleep.
I went outside to the Volvo. While ripping the roll of black electrical tape to cover the clock, a car with a broken muffler barreled down the street like it was dragging a container of loose marbles. There was a single, loud thump. The vehicle sped away, sparks flying where the muffler scraped along the pavement. A second later, as the car’s rumble grew faint, there was another thump, something hitting the road.
A brown and white object flashed past the corner of my eye.
Gaston lay on the street, blood seeping over his sweet face. He was dead.
I left the front door open!
Julia’s face turned ashen as I walked into our house, cradling Gaston in my arms.
Leila was sitting up on the sofa. The noise must have woken her.
“Gaston’s dead,” I sputtered. My eyes misted and then unleashed a torrent of tears. “A car hit him.” My voice cracked.
Julia sobbed, too, but not Leila. The shocks of the past two days must have immunized her from sadness.
Leila sat up on the couch. She clapped her hands and said, “I can save him.”
“What?” Julia asked.
“I can save Gaston from dying. I can go back in time and keep him from being hit by that car.”
“No, Leila,” Julia said, gripping Leila’s arm. “You can’t. It’s dangerous.”
I put Gaston on the rug in front of the couch and wiped my eyes with my shirt sleeve.
“I have to. I want to.” Leila wrestled her arm from her mother’s grip and grabbed her birthday watch from the coffee table. She stomped. “I just traveled back in time for no good reason. For a stupid test. Now I can go back to save Gaston.”
But she would. I knew that.
Julia released Leila’s arm.
Leila was right: She traveled without incident only minutes ago and could save Gaston.
But Julia was right, too. We didn’t know enough about Leila’s time traveling to be sure any given trip would be safe. How could this be safe? Leila might materialize in front of a moving car, inside a wall, a thousand feet in the sky, underwater, or in the middle of a war. There’s no way to know; the uncertainties were as numerous as the number of seconds that have existed since the universe’s birth.
And this trip to save Gaston wasn’t a test or unexpected journey through time because Leila wanted to change history. She was going to undo something that had already happened. Would whatever power or laws that gave Leila the ability to time travel permit altering history? Would redoing one admittedly small event—as much as I loved Gaston, his life was an almost invisible blip in history’s eye—be like dropping an atomic bomb on the future, our present? Would Leila be the same if and when she returned? Would we?
Does time abhor trespassers?
But if Leila didn’t try, Gaston would be gone forever.
Leila handed me her grandfather’s Hamilton. “Here, Daddy. You have to do it. I can’t adjust the time because the moment I stop the watch, I’ll travel. Set the watch back ten minutes. I’ll close my eyes, and you tell me when to open them.”Leila exuded confidence for a newly-minted time traveler.
I did as she asked, and then she was gone.
Once again, Julia and I didn’t move. Acid filled my stomach and pushed its way up my throat.
I’d never timed how long Leila spent in the past when she jumped. I didn’t know if the length of her journey depended on how far back she went or if there was some complex equation that determined when she’d return to the present. Would she return in seconds, hours, or days?
There are so many unknowns.
All we could do was wait.
“Mommy, Daddy!” Leila’s voice bounced from the kitchen into the living room a moment before she walked in the threshold. She held an exuberant tail-wagging, face-licking Gaston in her arms. “Look! It’s Gaston! He’s alive!”
Our little girl had changed history. Leila was okay, Gaston was alive, and the world had not ended.
Now it was time to think. Leila rescued Gaston but also opened a door into a realm of unknowable potential and dangers.
I promise you, Leila, wherever you go, I will protect you from those dangers.
“Maybe we shouldn’t take Leila to see her science teacher tomorrow,” I said.
“Why not?” Julia asked.
“Leila can change the past, making her the most powerful person on the planet. Governments, businesses, crime organizations—they’ll all want her. The moment the word gets out about what our daughter can do, she’ll be snatched.” Something stuck in my throat, and I swallowed several times before continuing. “We’d never see Leila again.”
Whoever controls the past controls the present and future.
Julia nodded. “We can’t meet with your teacher, Leila.” She spoke with her mother- voice—lower in tone, slower in cadence, definitive and final, the ender of all arguments. “And you can’t tell anyone about your time traveling. This must be a secret. The biggest secret in the world.” Julia wrapped her arms around Leila and pulled her in. When she released Leila, she asked, “Do you understand, sweetie?”
“Kind of.” Leila’s eyes told me that she understood more than she was admitting.
Julia stroked the back of Leila’s hand. She kissed her on the forehead, but that didn’t erase the lines in Leila’s furrowed brow. “You can’t tell Alice or anyone else.”
Alice was Leila’s best friend, and there was hardly a day that Leila and Alice weren’t together after school, studying, doing homework, playing, and especially giggling.
“Why can’t I tell Alice? We tell each other everything. She can keep a secret.”
Gaston jumped onto the sofa beside Leila. As she petted him, his tail wagged like a metronome in a windstorm.
“Because it’s not a secret if you tell somebody else. Some secrets have to be kept within your family,” Julia said. “This is one of those.”
“We have another problem,” I said.
“What’s that?” Julia asked.
“What about all the clocks in school? Leila’s bound to see a clock or watch that’s stopped like she did in the locker room. She could jump into the past at any moment. Not only is that risky but her disappearances will be noticed. This won’t be a secret for long.”
Julia folded her hands together. “Homeschooling? Tutors?”
“I want to go back to school! I want to see Alice!”
Gaston jumped off the couch.
Leila turned her back to us and chased him.
“What do we do now?”
“I really don’t know. I think that for the next few days at least, Leila can’t go to school. She’ll be upset, but we need time to think and plan.”
“I’m upset,” Julia said.
“Can Leila ever go outside again? Is our daughter fated to stay in this house forever?
“Maybe she’ll lose this ability, the way it suddenly arrived. Maybe she’ll be able to control it.” I snapped my fingers. “That’s it! We’ll work on training her. We’ll teach Leila to mentally ignore clocks. She’ll be able to lead a normal life because watches and clocks will be invisible to her.”
“Do you really think you can do that?”
“Absolutely. Mindfulness training. The mental power of not seeing. Meditation, therapy, yoga, hypnosis—whatever it takes. We’ll first teach ourselves how to discipline our minds and then teach Leila, but I’m confident we can. We’ll have to work at home as much as possible, and, of course, one of us will need to be here all the time, but this is doable.”
I wasn’t sure how good an idea this was, but it was all I had for now. There must be a way to keep Leila from traveling in time.
Leila returned to the living room with Gaston following. She sat on the couch. “Can I watch TV?”
“Of course,” Julia said. “We can take a night off from homework, office work, cleaning, and everything else that doesn’t involve being a couch potato and have a family television night. How does that sound?”
“What’s television night without popcorn?” Julia said.
“With lots of salt and butter?”
“Lots of salt, butter...and napkins. Because you know who’s the messiest popcorn eater in the family.”
I mock-wiped my hands on my pants.
“No, Daddy! Use a napkin.”
We all laughed, and that felt great.
Leila flipped channels to the rhythm of popping popcorn. She occasionally paused on a show before moving on to the next. She had landed on a history program when her remote-control thumb finally tired.
The Wells Cathedral Clock was built between 1386 and 1392 and may be the world’s oldest clock with a clock face. Most clocks of that era—and there weren’t many—only rang bells at specific intervals to let people hear what time it was.
“Do you like this show?” I asked Leila.
“I like the pictures of the church.”
“Of the cathedral,” I corrected Leila.
She growled at me. “It’s television night. This isn’t school. I don’t need a lesson.”
“The church is pretty. I especially like the stained glass and gargoyles,” I said.
Leila settled back on the couch.
The popping pace quickened, and popcorn aroma, a sweet and saltiness like no other, enveloped us.
“Mmm. Smell that? Your mom’s the world’s best popcorn chef.”
Like many old clocks, the Wells Cathedral Clock isn’t accurate compared to today’s timepieces, gaining or losing twenty minutes a day. The television camera zoomed in on the clock’s giant gears.
Like a sorcerer, this program seduced me.
The popping slowed, a welcome signal that we wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
The Wells Cathedral Clock has two dials. Facing inside the cathedral is an astronomical clock, showing the sun and moon against a background of stars.
I glanced at relaxed Leila, who seemed hypnotized by the television, calm and content. I felt warming rays of relief.
On the outside is an unadorned, traditional face. Arrow-shaped hands pointing to Roman numerals let medieval passersby quickly see what time it was.
The popping stopped. Leila smacked her lips.
It takes eight hundred turns to wind the Wells Cathedral Clock, an arduous, time-consuming, sweat-inducing task because the clock’s mechanism weighs five-hundred-fifty pounds. But that’s about to change. The last member of the family who maintained and wound the clock is retiring this month.
“Wow,” Leila said.
The clock’s mechanism will be replaced with an electrical motor next week. The clock will be more accurate, and it won’t be somebody’s nearly full-time job just to wind it. To prepare, the Wells Cathedral Clock is currently not working. The camera zoomed in on the clock’s face, with its Roman numerals, arrow hands, and starburst lines.
Mark Fisher’s grandfather, Leo Fisher, started caring for the clock in 1919 after returning from military duty in World War I. Ken and Toni Fisher took over the clock between 1935 and the Second World War, after which Leo Fisher’s daughters, Ruth and Mary, took charge. The Wells Cathedral Clock will start ticking again as an electrical clock on Monday...
Leila’s eyes melted into the television screen. Her pupils opened wide, and her irises turned deep blue. The clock reflected crisply in her eyes.
“No!” I screamed and reached for Leila’s hand.
I looked out the living room window. Though it was currently night, I witnessed day. The Wells Cathedral Clock sat high atop the cathedral, the sun burning into the gray stone. Gold hands and numerals shimmered against the clock’s blue dial. The cobble of horses filled my ears; I smelled dirt as those horses kicked up the earth. Stale, acrid odors overpowered the popcorn aroma wafting in from the kitchen. Bells rang.
Julia returned to the living room with a giant bowl of popcorn in her hands and her pockets stuffed with napkins.
I mouthed, “Again.”
Once more, we froze in place. Julia, a statue with popcorn, and me anchored on the couch.
No moving until Leila returns.
A second before the doorbell rang, Gaston dashed to the door, his tail like a propeller thrusting him forward.
I cautiously walked to the door with Julia following.
A woman in her mid-forties, a couple of inches shorter than me, with shoulder-length brown hair and a deep tan, stood outside. “Hello. I’m Livi. The great-great-great-many-times-beyond granddaughter of Leila.” She spoke with an accent I couldn’t identify.
Julia squeezed my hand.
“Leila died in 1450 in her bed at home, surrounded by her two sons and seven grandchildren. She wanted you to know she lived a happy life and missed you every day.”
I braced myself against the doorframe so I wouldn’t collapse.
“May I come in? We have a lot to talk about.”
If you enjoyed Leila’s Secret, I think you’ll also like my time travel adventure, Hopscotching.
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