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The Tell-Tale Watch
D. A. Ratliff
The breeze from the ocean brushed Ree Cannon’s cheeks, its salty aroma lingering. The soft sand beneath her bare feet was warm, gritty, connecting her with nature in a way she hadn’t experienced in many years. Pink tinges of light peeked over a band of gray morning clouds on the horizon, and except for the soft waves butting against the beach and the breakers, it was quiet.
This—this was why she came here, for the peace. She had little of that in the last several months. After resisting her parents’ insistence that she come home for a bit, breathing in the fresh salty air told Ree that her parents were right once again. Too bad she hadn’t listened to them about her choice in men.
She stood quietly soaking in the peaceful sunrise until a raucous bark from her companion, a feisty Golden Retriever, roused her from her solitude.
“Dexter, shhh—you’ll wake the neighbors. Let’s go back in the house, boy. My coffee should be ready and time for your breakfast.”
She opened the gate in the fence surrounding her grandparents’ beach house, and Dexter ran past her and up to the deck to his water bowl. “Worked up a thirst, did you? I’m thirsty too.”
Pouring a mug of coffee, she grabbed her laptop and returned to the deck, settling into a comfortable cushioned lounge chair. The sun was above the horizon, and she stared at the ocean, sparkling gold in the early morning light. Maybe she should stay here. No reason she shouldn’t—her ties to Atlanta were long gone. A simple signature on a divorce decree and freedom was hers.
However, the freedom not to work was currently unavailable. Ree opened her laptop to check her emails. As a screenwriter, she was fortunate to write from anywhere. She supplemented her income by teaching an online course in screen and playwriting and offering freelance editing. New classes didn’t start for a month. She had just sold her latest screenplay and had a backlog of editing to do. Now she had time to do it.
The sun was high in a crystal blue sky, the deck bathed in sunlight, and the air heavy with humidity when she realized that she was getting hot. She gazed at the ocean, and although it had been a long time since she had spent many days at the beach, she recognized the signs of an impending storm. Dark clouds looming in the west were closing in on the fluffy white clouds dancing along the eastern horizon, which meant thunderstorms were on the way.
“Come on, Dex. Let’s go inside and fix something to eat.” She picked up her laptop and coffee mug and led the dog indoors. While she was rummaging for something to fix for lunch, the doorbell dinged. Peering through the peephole, she saw her mother’s sister Ester standing at the door, holding several bags. Ree flung open the door as Dexter barked, his tail wagging because of visitors.
“Aunt Ester, what brings you here?” She took some of the bags from her aunt. “Please come in. I’m so happy to see you.”
After placing the bags on the dining table, Ree hugged her aunt. “I can’t believe you would drive all this way to see me.”
“Lawd, child, it’s an hour’s drive, which I can make in fifty minutes if those pesky state police boys aren’t around.”
“Are you still driving that Mustang?”
“Not giving up my Shelby for anyone, Ree Cannon.” Her aunt paused. “It is Cannon again, right?”
“Yes, had the judge change my name back to Cannon as part of the decree.”
“Good, then we are done with that fool.”
“Why are you here?”
“Well, I didn’t make the trip just for you, I am still a member of the Edisto Island Art League, and we had our monthly meeting today.” Ester turned to the bags. “I brought you a few things. Help me unpack these.”
Twenty minutes later, with the food and books tucked away, they sat down with sweet tea and chicken salad sandwiches from the food Ester brought.
“Ummm… this chicken salad is heavenly. How did you make it?”
Ester laughed. “Me, cook? Oh no, darling, Jeffery does all the cooking now. He threw me out of the kitchen when he retired early. That came from the deli I love in Charleston. You need to shop there when you come to town.”
“I’m anxious to see Grandma and Gramps. Have you heard from them?”
“Yes, actually talked to them this a.m. Your parents were off on some tour, and Momma and Daddy were at the hotel enjoying breakfast. Said to tell you they love you and will see you in a week.”
“Why didn’t you and Uncle Jeff go with them?”
“With renovating the old house, we didn’t have time to be away. You have to come by and see the place as soon as possible. We couldn’t believe we could repurchase the family house after all these years. When it came on the market, we couldn’t turn it down, but it’s taken a lot of money to fix it up. Luckily we got a local builder who loves old houses. I think he’s having more fun than we are.
“I can’t wait to see it. I remember driving by the lane when I was a little girl and wished I could live there.”
“Well, maybe someday you will. As you are the only grandchild, I think you are going rake in the goods when we all croak. Until then, I think you will be staying right here. This is where you belong.”
“Aunt Ester, stop that nonsense.”
Ester took a sip of tea, then stared into Ree’s eyes. “Allison Marie, how are you?”
“I’m fine. Took a while, but I am fine. Learning that your husband is having an affair is never easy.”
“Bastard—didn’t like him from the start.”
“I know. I should have listened to you, and mom, and well, everyone.”
“Darling, I didn’t mean that. It’s just, well… he was sly and that always made me uncomfortable.”
Dexter, who was lying at Ester’s feet, stirred, and Ester leaned over, scratching the Golden Retriever behind the ears. “Now, if Martin had been as sweet as this darling dog, we might have kept him.”
Ree sighed. She hadn’t admitted what she was about to say to anyone. “I had a revelation after the shock wore off. I hadn’t been in love with him for a long time.”
“I look at it this way. You are older and wiser, so next time you will really know what love truly is, and you will be ready for it.” Ester glanced at her watch. “Darling, I have to go. Need to stop by the house and take pictures of some molding we need to match. With storms predicted this afternoon and tonight, I need to get going. I’ll be back on the island in two days. We’ll do lunch and then go to the house.”
Ree walked her aunt to her black Shelby Mustang and smiled as she watched her drive away. Everyone should have an Ester in their life for the wisdom she offers and the joy she spreads.
She tidied up and then worked for three more hours before deciding she needed to do a couple of things before the storm hit. She checked the weather, and since high winds were in the forecast, she took the chairs and the table umbrella and stored them in the utility closet off the deck. She dragged the garbage cans into the garage next to her car and then lowered the garage door.
The sky had turned dark by then, so Ree took Dexter out for a quick run, and as they returned, thunder had begun rolling across the sky with streaks of lightning illuminating the dark clouds. She took a quick shower, dried her hair, and by then, hard rain was beginning to fall. Snuggling on the couch with Dexter next to her, she watched the thunderheads roll in, the heavy wind pushing waves onto the shore.
Dexter whimpered at a loud clap of thunder that rattled the windows. “It’s okay, boy. We’re fine. Mother Nature’s throwing a party to welcome us home.”
The sunrise brought orangey-red skies and the threat of more rain. Dexter scratched at the deck door to go out and fled into the yard to do his business. She walked out onto the deck, watching as the big dog ran along the fence line. Her grandparents had put up the fence when she was only three to keep her and their Boston terriers from running onto the beach alone. She was glad the fenced area was big enough to hold Dexter in because there was nothing the ten-month-old pup loved more than to run. She laughed—other than eating, that was.
Ree was about to turn to go inside when Dexter barked and began to paw at the sand. He backed away and barked again and then started digging in the wet sand. She went down the stairs and joined him. “What is it? What did you find?”
As he continued to dig, she saw a gold chain dulled with age. She moved Dexter out of the way and tugged on the chain. Light from the rising sun glinted on the face of a pocket watch. Dexter whimpered and jumped toward her hand, which she pulled out of the way.
“No, sorry, not a bone for you, but you certainly found something.” Raindrops struck her face. ”Come on. It’s starting to rain.”
Inside, Ree made coffee, fed Dexter, and sat at the kitchen table to examine the watch. It appeared to be an antique, but she was no expert. She wiped off the sand-encrusted case, surprised to find the watch face pristine with no evidence of wear or mildew. She suspected that the chain and case, though dulled, would gleam again after a good cleaning and polish.
Turning the case over, she read the inscription on the back of the watch. Gerald, you will always be my love. Fiona with the date, March 4, 1943, engraved underneath the words. So many years ago, but she didn’t think that the watch could have possibly been in the ground for that long.
The lights flickered as lightning flashed, and an enormous thunderclap sent Dexter diving under the table. Ree reached underneath the tabletop and scratched his ears. “You big baby, come on. Let’s go into the living room. You’ll be safe there.” She put the watch in the kitchen catch-all drawer, refilled her coffee cup, and she and Dexter headed for the couch.
At three in the morning, Ree woke abruptly in a cold sweat. She struggled for a deep breath and willed her heart rate to slow. Dexter, who woke as well, whimpered, and threw his head across her thigh. She sat up and rubbed his neck.
“Goodness, Dex, I had a bad dream, I guess.”
She got up, padded to the bathroom, and splashed water on her face. Moonlight glinted off the mirror. Thirsty, she headed to the kitchen for tea but diverted to the patio doors, drawn by the moonglow. The storm clouds had dissipated, and a nearly full moon hung over the ocean, casting its spell. For a moment, she allowed the calmness to wash over her. This. This was where she was supposed to be.
She yawned, and after getting a quick drink, she retraced her steps toward the bedroom. As she exited the kitchen area, she stopped. She could hear ticking, like a clock. She looked around, thinking there must be a wall clock that she hadn’t noticed, but she didn’t see one in the dim light. Another yawn, and she decided that she needed sleep rather than exploring for a clock.
The day passed quickly. She had spent the morning in calls with her agent, discussing a studio’s request to do a screenplay adaptation of a book, followed by more editing. She stopped at noon, took Dexter for a long walk on the beach, and ate the rest of Ester’s chicken salad for lunch. Deciding she needed a few things from the store, she changed clothes and grabbed her keys when the ticking started again.
“What the heck, Dexter? What is ticking?” She searched, and the only clock she found was the broken one on the ancient stove. Her grandmother told her the timer and clock on the stove only worked when it wanted to and that when she returned from Europe, she planned on buying a new stove.
“Well, must be from that old clock, although it doesn’t look like it’s working at all. Okay, boy, off I go. Promise to bring back treats.”
It was ten p.m., and tired from staring at her laptop for hours, Ree turned on the TV to watch a movie and promptly fell asleep. An hour later, she woke to the ticking noise. She rose from the couch and realized the ticking was coming from the kitchen, but not from the stove, from the drawer where she had put the pocket watch Dexter had found. With more trepidation than she was willing to admit, she opened the drawer.
The watch lay where she had placed it—the second hand not moving. Ree picked it up and shook it, then laughed. Well, that was foolish. Could the watch be intermittently ticking? Who knew? Next week, she was going to Charleston when her parents and grandparents returned, so she thought the smart thing to do was take the watch to a jeweler and get it cleaned and appraised. She dropped the watch back in the drawer and went to bed.
The ticking started at midnight. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Incessant. Ree lay in the dark, trying not to breathe as the steady sound rose louder and louder. She gripped the sheets, terrified, but she knew she couldn’t remain in bed. She had to rise. The watch was calling to her.
She flipped the covers back, the chilled air replacing the warmth of her bed. She forced her body to move, her heart beating in time with the tick-tock echoing in her head. Each step she took toward the kitchen drawer took more strength until she had to support herself on the kitchen counter until she could open the drawer. Her hand trembled as she grasped the handle and tugged with all her might to open the drawer. The pocket watch was glowing, the ticking becoming louder and louder until she ran screaming outside, wanting to run to the sea.
In a blink of an eye, she was standing in the sand, inside the fenced area. The sea roiled, waves crashing as streaks of lightning stabbed the inky sky. Her need to flee was strong, but she was rooted to the spot, her eyes drawn to the corner of the yard, petrified at what she saw.
Bony fingers, glowing iridescent in the lightning, pushed through the sand. As she stood transfixed, the fingers became a forearm, then a shoulder, and then a skull pushed through the sand. She screamed, but no sound escaped her. Within seconds, a skeleton stood before her.
“Finally, I made a connection. You have to tell them. He killed me. He killed me and buried me here above the tide line, thinking no one would find me. But you, you found the watch I had given him. The watch he buried with me. He wanted no reminder of me as he had a new lover. Tell them, tell them I am here. My soul has been imprisoned long enough.”
Ree’s vision blurred as the skeleton sank into the sand once more. The scream she couldn’t utter before shattered the night.
Her scream woke up Dexter, who began barking furiously. Ree nearly fell out of bed as she hurried to get up. As she left the bedroom, the agitated dog raced past her to the deck doors and began pawing at the glass. Ree, nerves shattered, checked the locks, and sank to the floor, arms around the big Golden Retriever. She glanced toward the kitchen drawer, but there was no ticking.
Burying her head in Dexter’s back, she willed her breathing to slow. “You sensed it too, didn’t you?” The dog growled, and that was enough of an answer for her. She rose and closed the drapes over the door and led Dexter back to the bedroom. Aunt Ester was coming tomorrow. She had to tell her.
“Gracious, child, what a nightmare.” Ester set her sweet tea glass down.
“Do you know anything about this history of the beach house?’
“No, but Daddy might. Let me call him, he might be eighty-four, but his mind is sharp as ever.
Nervous, Ree waited as Ester called her grandfather. From hearing only one side of the conversation, it appeared Ester had some news.
“Well, it seems that when Momma and Daddy bought the house from the old owners in the late seventies, the seller told them there was a scandal. The wife of the previous owner had disappeared sometime after WWII ended. The police suspected foul play, but they never found a body. As you know, your grandparents tore the old house down and rebuilt this one in the late nineties.”
“But no sign of a body?”
“No, but here is a funny thing. The family’s name was Baxter, Gerald and Fiona Baxter.”
Ree gasped. “The names on the watch.”
“An old family here, and my builder’s name? Gerry Baxter. Time we went to the house.”
Two days later, the Colleton County coroner’s office dug up the corner of Ree’s yard and discovered a female skeleton, presumed to be Fiona Baxter. Ree, Ester, and Gerry Baxter stood outside the fence watching as the coroner’s techs loaded the remains into a county van. Gerry spoke with an Edisto Island police officer, then returned to them.
“They are going to do DNA testing to make sure this was my great-aunt. Officer said it appeared cause of death was a blow to the head.” He smiled at Ree. “If your dog hadn’t found that watch, we might never have known what happened. The family loved Fiona, but my great-uncle Gerald was a scoundrel. He disappeared not long after Fiona went missing.”
“This has been the most bizarre thing that has ever happened to me.”
“From what Ester told me, you had quite the nightmare.”
“Yes, it was, and I still don’t understand.” She reached in her purse and held out the pocket watch. “This belongs to you, I believe.”
“Thank you. Never believed in ghosts until now, but hard to deny what happened. My mother was intrigued by this story. She will love to have the watch.” He paused. “You’re going to stay here?”
“Yes, my grandparents said I could live here as long as I want.”
“Good. Then let’s have dinner soon, and I’ll tell you all I know about Fiona.”
“I’d like that.”
As Gerry drove away, Ester elbowed her in the ribs. “Told you you’d be staying here. And I’m thinking that handsome young builder is remodeling a house he just might live in one day.”
Ree gave her aunt an amused side-eye, but she was thinking the same thing.
Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/