Friday, April 5, 2019

I Don’t Want to Know What Time It Is

a short story by Bill Adler

It’s easy to decide what restaurant to go to or what book to read because if you make a mistake and the restaurant turns out to serve foods flavored with yesterday’s dinner or the book is as exciting as your seventh grade algebra textbook, you can easily fix that mistake. Just make yourself a BLT when you get home or start a book in which Philip Marlowe or Hermione Granger pops out of the pages.

Even a poor career choice—like being a lawyer when an astronaut’s life is your true calling—can be changed.

Most bad decisions are easily corrected.

Choosing a birthday present for a nine-year-old girl is not one of those.

Pre-teen is a difficult parenting era—though perhaps every kid’s age has its own special complexities and complications—and I wanted to get Leila something special. Something that would make her happy and be more meaningful than shoes, a gift card, or a bracelet. Something that wouldn’t vanish into a drawer the next day. I decided to give Leila my father’s watch.

Vintage Helbros
As with most kids her age, Leila had a cell phone, with an always accurate clock, so she didn’t need a watch. Like a loyal puppy, her phone was never far, the time of day readily summoned with a tap, usurping a watch’s one and only true function. And yet the divide between need and want is a fuzzy one, like our Boston weather, always changing, often surprising, and sometimes actually good. When I asked Leila what she wanted for her birthday this year, she shrugged and then shrugged again, which meant there was a chance—though a small one—that serendipity and surprise would be the magical ingredients that made the watch a keeper.

When I mentioned to her mom the idea of giving Leila my father’s watch, Julia nodded. “I like that idea,” she said.

That was positive insight. It also meant that Julia didn’t have a clue, either.“You think Leila will like wearing a watch?”

“I don’t know about that.”

Not as good as the first answer. “Thanks for the ambiguity.”

“If she doesn’t like it now,” Julia said, “she’ll look back on this birthday years from now and remember how special this gift was. She’ll love it and love you even more.”

I liked that sentiment. My father’s watch would be Leila’s birthday present. I wished myself luck.


Pools of warm sweat filled the space beneath my arms, and my heart doubled its pace during the seconds between when I handed Leila her birthday present and when she finished ripping off the wrapping paper. First, she looked intensely at the box, daring her X-ray vision to reveal what was inside. She weighed the box in her hands, inspected it for telltale air holes (sorry, no kitten this year!) and cautiously shook it. She then shredded the wrapping paper with thunderclap rips, as if she hadn’t eaten for a week and a thick, juicy hamburger waited inside.

A pile of red, Happy Birthday confetti fell to the floor.

“Oh, Mommy and Daddy! I love it!” Leila’s eyes opened wide, accompanied by a broad smile that I thought would become a permanent fixture on her face.

All my worries had been for nothing.

Leila rested the watch on her palm and ran her fingertips over the smooth crystal. “Ooo,” she said. Then she did it again, rubbing the watch crystal the way somebody might rub Aladdin's lamp.
“This is the best present ever,” Leila said as she strapped the watch around her wrist. Old Hamiltons, like many watches from the 1960s, were tiny by today’s standards and a man’s watch from that era comfortably fit my nine-year-old girl. Leila gently wound the stem like she was petting a baby bunny, and her eyes followed the small second hand at the watch's six o’clock position. She sat in wonder for the full minute that the watch’s second hand took to rotate from twelve, through six, and then back to twelve.

“Thank you!” Leila looked at us, then her watch, and then us again. “Can I wear it to school tomorrow?” She held her watch arm up high.

“Of course,” I said. “You can wear it every day.”

“I will.”

“But not in the shower or bath,” I added.

“Daddy! I’m smarter than that.” Leila stomped her foot once for punctuation.

“There’s birthday cake, too,” Julia reminded us. “Any particular birthday girl interested?”

“Cake! Can I have the piece with the one-to-grow-on candle?”

“I thought that was going to be my piece,” I said.

“No, Daddy. You’re already grown. It’s mine.”


At about eight o’clock I invited myself into Leila’s bedroom because I thought that she’d like a few minutes’ homework break. Leila wasn’t there. She must be in the bathroom. But I didn’t hear any noise. I waited. A minute. Then two. Then three. I knocked on the bathroom door. “Leila? Are you there?” I asked again, this time more loudly and with even more vigorous knocking. Julia heard the racket and came up from the living room, her feet flying up the stairs like she was escaping from a fire.

“What’s the matter?”

“I can’t find Leila. I think she went to the bathroom, but there’s no sound and she doesn’t answer.”
Julia pressed the handle down and pushed the door in. The door was unlocked and the bathroom was empty. The light was off and the window was closed. Immediately we separated and searched the house yelling “Leila, where are you?” as we opened doors, looked behind curtains, in closets, and under furniture.  I opened the refrigerator, too. And then back to the same places we had just looked, just in case somehow we hadn’t seen her on the first search. We searched fast, more frantically, driven by dread. I went outside and circled the house, even though the front and back doors were chain locked. I ran down to the basement two steps at a time. I checked everywhere, even the washer and dryer.

But she was nowhere.

“Leila! Where are you?” We searched the upstairs for the third time.

“What was that?” Julia shouted.

“That was me. Sorry. I slammed the door shut. I’m getting angry. What kind of game is Leila playing?” I shouted back.

I hoped it was a game.

Whether I’d wrap my arms around her in relief or scream at her for frightening me and her mom was something I’d decide later.

“Daddy!” came a weakened voice from downstairs. Leila.

Julia and I broke speed records running into the dining room. I jumped the last three steps, lost my balance and almost fell. I knelt down in front of Leila. Julia hugged her, and only when she let go did I ask, “Where have you been? Your mom and I were terrified.”
“I was here,” she said.

“What do you mean you were here?” I demanded. “We looked all around the house. We didn’t see you anywhere. You scared us to death.” I instantly regretted my harsh accusation.

“I was here. In the dining room. With you and Mommy.” She waved her arm in a one hundred eighty degree circle. Leila gulped air, as if she had been deprived of oxygen for many minutes. Her lower lip quivered as she continued, “And with her.” Leila tapped her chest with her forefinger. “With me.”


“I was with both of you and me as we ate my birthday cake. Ten candles were on my cake. I watched you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and I watched me eat my birthday cake. I smelled the candles after I blew them out. After she blew them out.”

Leila reached for my hand and then put her arms around me. She cried, her heavy tears soaking my shirt. Her body trembled as she sobbed. Our beagle, Gaston, howled in unisonic symphony, his nose pointed toward the ceiling. When Leila’s eyes ran dry, she released me, stepped back, and asked, “Mommy and Daddy? Am I okay?”

The ubiquitous school clock.
“Yes, you are,” I answered even before she’d finished the last syllable of her question. “You just had too much cake. And too much excitement mixed with all that sugar made your imagination run wild.” I bit my lip. I wanted to hit my head against a wall in penance for assuming that Leila was playing a hiding game.

“You’re alright” Julia said. She rubbed Leila’s back, and Leila pressed her back into Julia’s hand, like a cat that’s enjoying its owner’s attention and touch.

Pink returned to Leila’s face. Her breathing slowed to a more normal rhythm, and she stood taller. Kids have powerful nighttime and daytime dreams. I had forgotten how potent daydreaming is because at work my daydream about whirling through my office building’s revolving door into a world of brilliant blue sky and yellow sunshine and joining my family on the beach is just a pleasant, short, and unfulfilled interlude between reports and meetings. My daydream is written on fragile tissue paper, and dissolves in that Caribbean ocean the moment my phone rings or computer notifies me of a new email. But for child like Leila, daydreams are places, people and objects she can touch, smell, and hear. A child can feel the crunch of sprinkles and nuts on her ice cream, and will giggle as a cat’s tail tickles her neck — all in a daydream.

“Tell us what happened, sweetie,” Julia said. Her voice was calm and smooth, which surprised me.

“I was in my room doing homework. I saw my alarm clock. It had stopped at six thirty. I thought I would get a new battery from the kitchen drawer, and then the next thing I knew, I was dreaming that I was back in the dining room.”

“You know, six thirty is when we had your cake. That’s why you imagined you were back in the dining room—your battery ran out at the same time. And like Daddy said, all that sugar and excitement, and maybe you were just about to fall asleep.”

“Maybe you were half dreaming, half sleepwalking. What subject were you studying?”


“What period?”

“The Elizabethan Age in England.”

“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 the truth of my guess was in Leila’s eyelids, which were beginning to succumb to gravity. “I think I’ll go to sleep. I’m tired.”

“That’s a good idea. A good night’s sleep will make you feel right as rain,” I said, using Leila’s favourite expression—every time she asked me where it came from, I offered a different theory. My most recent explanation was “The rain falls on the right side of the street first, cleaning that side.” We didn’t care about the actual origin of this idiom; we enjoyed our right as rain tradition, our special ritual, just the way it was.

“I’ll put a new battery in your clock and set the alarm for seven AM while you brush your teeth,” I told Leila. She pouted. “It’s a school night and your alarm’s going to ring at seven whether you like it or not.” She pouted harder. “Sorry,” I said. “I think your alarm clock likes waking you up at seven on school mornings. It’s evil.” Another pout, this one even more severe. “I will change the day of the week for you and make tomorrow Saturday.” Now Leila smiled.

Leila understood the rule of mornings in our house: first person in the bathroom has control of that room for as long as they want, and no knocking allowed. A simple rule, yet with consequential implications. On school days, at precisely 7:00:05, I hear the patter of Leila’s feet, followed by the bathroom door sealing shut. For the next twenty minutes, the bathroom was a high-security, off-limits area—entry or even approach were prohibited. Sometimes, Gaston enforced that rule by patrolling in front of the bathroom, prepared to snarl for the first time in his life if anyone appeared to be reaching for the door handle.

But this morning, I didn’t hear anything. I mean, I didn’t hear Leila’s dash for the bathroom or the door shutting. All I heard was her alarm, which continued its daybreak siren unabated. Leila always swiftly slapped the off button, like she was swatting a mosquito, but this morning the ringing went on and on and on. I got out of bed and opened the door to Leah’s bedroom, but she wasn’t there. And she wasn’t in the bathroom either.

Leila had disappeared again.

I woke Julia, who in an unconscious reaction to the unrelenting buzz of Leila’s alarm had slithered down under the blanket. I put my hand on the lump I thought was Julia’s shoulder and shook that body part. “Julia. Wake up! Leila’s gone.”

“What!? What happened? Where is she?”

“I don’t know. She’s not in the house.”

Julia leapt out from under the blanket, which nearly flew to the ceiling before fluttering back onto the bed. By the time the blanket had landed, Julia was fully awake and sitting upright. She looked around the room as if she could summon Leila with her searching eyes. She seemed to have succeeded. Our bedroom door opened. There was Leila, silhouetted by the hallway light, standing in her sheep pajamas. “Mommy and Daddy. I went somewhere again,” she said.

Leila walked into the room and climbed into our bed. She buried her head in the pillow and stayed that way for several minutes before she was able to talk again. “What’s happening to me?”

“What did you see, sweetie?” I asked. “Where did you go?”

“When my alarm went off, I looked at my watch. I slept with it. The watch stopped in the middle of the night. I guess I hadn’t wound it. It read 2:12. And then it was dark again. It was night.”

Leila was trembling as she talked. Julia and I laid beside and held her, transformed into a human sandwich. “It was here, the middle of the night, when I thought it was seven. It was 2:12 in the morning. I saw your bed clock. I got up and walked into your bedroom. You were both fast asleep.

Your room was dark, too. I walked around for a little while—I don’t know for how long—and then it became light again. It became now. Just past seven o’clock.”

Gaston padded into the room and laid on the floor in front of the bed. His always wagging tail thumped against the carpet.

Leila curled up closer to her mother. “What’s happening, Mommy? I don’t understand.”

I didn’t understand, either. The only thing I knew for sure was that Leila was vanishing and then returning. All I could do was offer words of comfort, a father’s most important job: “I’m sure it’s just a temporary thing. As I said last night—sugar and excitement.”

I looked at Julia and continued, “But I think 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.”

“I’ll call Dr. Sullivan’s office,” Julia said.

“Why don’t you get dressed while your mom calls?” I suggested to Leila. “We’ll all take a day off and go together.”

The pediatrician’s office was a hubbub of coughing, sneezing, and wheezing. The well-waiting room where we sat had only three kids in it; the more isolated room—what we called the sickies’ room—was packed, and it was from that room the cacophony of illness sounds emerged. 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. She listened to her heart and lungs. She looked into her ears and eyes. All the standard pediatrician stuff. But no blood taking, which I’m sure Leila was fine with.

“I think it’s nothing. I can’t see anything the matter with Leila.” She looked at our daughter. “You’re as healthy as a horse. I pronounce you fit to go to school tomorrow.”

“What do you think it was?” I asked one last time.

“Sugar and excitement, just as you said. Sometimes parents are their kids’ best diagnosticians because they see their children all the time, and we generally see them only when they’re sick. What’s important is how Leila feels.”

Sullivan turned to our daughter. “How do you feel?”


“Okay, then. If it happens again—and I doubt that it will—come back here. Meanwhile, I imagine that you’re taking the day off from school.”

1930s Rolex Prince
“I am.”

“And you plan to do homework and study all day long.”


Sullivan winked. “A day doing nothing is good, too.”

I was disappointed, but also relieved. 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 human being on the planet, found nothing wrong with her. And Leila was energetic, alert, happy.

Nerves. Sugar. Stress. Human bodies and minds are as complicated as they are inexplicable. Whatever had happened was probably inconsequential, or if it had been something, it had passed.
And yet...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. When seven o’clock on Friday morning rolled around, Leila’s alarm sounded for its usual five seconds, followed by the door to the bathroom slamming shut. Everything was back to normal.

When Leila walked in the house after school I could see in her face that it had happened again. She stood in the foyer, sadness dripping down her cheeks, her hands, legs, entire body shaking. “Daddy,” Leila said as she walked to me.

“Tell me what happened.” I knelt to be closer to eye level with her.

“It was in the gym locker room. I had gym this morning at ten o’clock. It was volleyball day. The clock on the wall was broken.” Leila talked rapidly, taking in only shallow breaths between sentences. “I looked at it and it said 1:15. It’s a big wall clock. Then everyone around me was gone. I got up and walked around. It was dark outside. Nobody was in the school. I heard my footsteps echoing in the shadows. I was so scared. I don’t know how long it was dark, but I was in the hallway when everyone came back. All of a sudden it was morning again and the school was back to normal, but it was like 11:30. Not ten o’clock anymore. It was later.”

I sat on the floor and Leila sat beside me. “What’s happening, Daddy? I don’t understand.”

“Come,” I said, taking Leila’s cold hand and standing. “Let’s sit on the couch and think.”

“Let’s go over what’s happened.”


The first time this happened—you disappeared—was the night before last, right?”


“It had never happened before?”


“And it happened when?”

Leila thought for a few moments before replying, “Right when I went to my room.”

“What did you do there?”

Leila thought again and said, “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 had 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?”

“I remember looking at my watch.” Leila beamed at the mention of her watch. “It had stopped.”

“And the third time, you looked at a stopped clock in the locker room?”


No. Not possible. The thought going through my head was impossible. This was not in the realm of what the laws of physics allowed. No way. I tried to push the thought out of my head, but it was the only one that made sense, and like a cat intent on waking you in the morning, it kept returning no matter how hard I tried to ignore it. Leila was traveling back to whatever time was displayed on a stopped clock.

I heard Sherlock Holmes’ words inside my brain: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” There was no other explanation besides time travel.

“Your mom will be home in a few minutes. Let’s talk more when she’s back.”

Leila didn’t seem satisfied by my terseness, but she didn’t seem upset, either. She may be a tween, but at this moment, her mom and I were her anchors. Everything would be better with both of us near.

I explained to Julia what I thought was happening to Leila. She didn’t believe me at first. She didn’t believe me after I repeated Leila’s story. She didn’t believe me after a glass of wine, either. We talked in the kitchen, out of Leila’s hearing range, until finally Julia acquiesced: It was possible that Leila was traveling back in time. Possible, but just barely.

I had to know for sure. Ninety-nine point nine percent certainty isn’t the same as one hundred percent certainty. I proposed a test in a controlled and safe place—our living room.

I explained to Leila what I thought was going on. I don’t know how easily the mind of a nine-year-old accepts weirdness—perhaps better than an adult does—but Leila seemed to believe us when I told her I thought she was traveling back through time to the moment the clock or watch she was looking at had stopped. Kids live in the magic age of instant communications, virtual reality, self-driving cars, 3-D printers, and delivery drones. Stir advanced technology into a soup of science fiction books and movies—the stuff that Leila had grown up with—and nothing surprises you anymore. What’s time travel but another technology come to pass?

Leila agreed that it would be a good idea to test this theory in the safety of our living room. I adjusted the time on my own watch back fifteen minutes to 6:10 PM.

“I’m going to pull out the crown and stop the watch now,” I said. Leila nodded. Her mom held Leila’s hand. “After that 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.”

Leila nodded.


She nodded again.

“Okay. It’s done. Look at my watch and tell me what time you see.”

I watched as Leila turned her gaze to my wrist, but she never had a chance to say anything. Leila vanished from the couch. There was no flash of light. No popping or other sound. No twinkling or fading. No sparking or electrical smells. She was just gone.

Julia and I didn’t move. We were afraid to move, afraid we might occupy the same space in which Leila would re-emerge. Our muscles were shocked into paralysis. We waited. I didn’t know how long it was, but five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes later, Leila came back. It’s impossible to keep track of time when your heart is beating at the speed of light. Leah was standing in the vestibule between the front door and living room, the late afternoon light tinting her brown hair with a yellow brush.

“OMG.” Julia said.

“I was gone again.”

“Did you see the microwave clock?”

“Yes. It said 6:10.”

Vintage Gruen Jump Hour
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: 6:25. Leila had traveled fifteen minutes back in time.

Nobody spoke for several minutes. Finally, Julia asked, “What do we do now?”

I looked at Julia. Julia looked at me. Leila looked at both of us. We held hands as if we were in a circle around a campfire—or a ouija board—and sat in silence again until Leila said, “Let’s see Mr. Hammond, my science teacher.”

I gave a thumbs up. “Great idea.” A science teacher wasn’t only as good a place to start as any, it was probably the best place to start. “Meanwhile, I think it’s a good idea if we hide or cover all clocks and watches.”

“Don’t forget the microwave clock,” Leila added. “And the DVD player. 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. 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 put a pillowcase over the living room clock and black tape over the car’s clock,” I said. “I’ll do that now before I forget.” Our car, an eleven-year-old Volvo station wagon, ran fine, but the clock was a little temperamental, sometimes stopping when it got too hot or too cold. It could be dangerous if Leila disappeared while we were driving. I didn’t know what would happen if she traveled back in time while at fifty miles per hour. That worry inspired another: “Julia, do you have those eye shades we got on our flight to California?”


“I think Leila should wear them tomorrow when we drive back to school to talk with her science teacher. If she should happen to see a stopped clock on a building…” I didn’t need to finish my sentence.

“Yes. 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 laid on the couch, pulled one of the cushions out, and turned it into a pillow. She looked at us briefly before closing her eyes. A second later, she was fast asleep.

I went outside to the Volvo. Twice a year when we spring forward or fall back, I forget to adjust the car’s clock. Not so much forget as procrastinate about it. It takes about a week before I get around to changing that clock, because of all our clocks, our faded, brown Volvo’s is the most annoying to change. You have to press and hold the button for three seconds to get the hour hand to blink so that the hours can be changed. While ripping the roll of black electrical tape, I heard a car with a broken muffler approach, sounding like it was carrying a container of loose marbles. And then, a single, loud thump. The car sped away, the marbles turning into stones, rubbing against the inside of the car’s engine. A second later, as the car’s rumble grew faint, another thump—the sound of something hitting the pavement. A flat, hard sound. I bolted out of my car as a cruel uneasiness filled my lungs.
Our beautiful, gentle Gaston lay on the street, blood seeping over his white and brown body and his sweet face. His lungs weren’t moving; his tail wasn’t wagging.

I had left the front door open when I went to the car. It was my fault. Gaston had just wanted to come out and play. He was just being a dog.

“What the matter?” Julia asked, as I walked into the living room. Leila was sitting up on the sofa.

“Gaston’s dead,” I said. The world was a blurry mist. “He was hit by a car. I’m sorry.”

Julia was on the verge of tears, but not Leila. I guess the shock of everything that’s happened to her over the past two days has immunized her from sadness. That’s good, at least. She’ll cry another day; just not today. “I’ll get a blanket and bring Gaston in from the street,” I said, walking past them on my way to the stairs.

Leila sat up straight on the couch, her back flat against the curved cushions. She clapped her hands together 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 a car.”

“No, Leila,” Julia said, gripping Leila’s wrist. “You can’t. It’s dangerous.”

“I have to. I want to.” Leila wrested her arm free from Julia’s grip and grabbed the watch from the coffee table. “I just traveled back in time for no good reason. For a stupid test. Now I can go back to save Gaston.”

“Leila, don’t.” But she wasn’t going to listen to me, either.

A 1950s Seiko Super...beautiful, as long as it's running.
Neither Julia nor I physically restrained her. We could have, but we didn’t. Leila was right—she had just traveled back in time in front of our eyes without incident. But Julia was right, too, for reasons that I couldn’t articulate in the few seconds before Leila left. Now Leila was going back in time to change history. She was going to interact with the past. Even just saving a dog—our dog—was changing history. Was that permitted by whatever power or laws or nature allowed Leila to travel back in time? Or was it the reason that Leila could travel back in time? Did she have a purpose we didn’t yet understand? In the absence of evidence or information, I feared that there would there consequences for transgressing the laws of physics. Changing one little thing in the past might start a cascading, unstoppable calamity, like a pebble rolling down a mountainside that turns becomes an avalanche. The universe might be strong and able to absorb changes—or it might not and we might be at the epicenter of an earthquake. We might be the cause of that earthquake.

A nine year-old-girl might destroy history.

And even if these next minutes didn’t end the world, I worried about nature’s habit of restoring balance quickly and destructively, the way a hurricane restores the atmosphere back to calm.

Leila turned her grandfather’s watch hands backwards. She held her breath as if she was about to cannonball off the side of a swimming pool into the water, popped out the crown, and stopped the watch.

And then she was gone.

There was no indentation on the couch where she had been sitting moments ago.

Once again, Julia and I didn’t move. I wanted to put my arms around her, hold her close, but I was afraid to change the space we were occupying. We waited. Minutes morphed into what felt like hours. Acid filled my belly and pushed its way up to my throat.

A spot of blood on Julia’s palm rose on her clenched fist where her fingernail had pierced her skin. She didn’t notice.

I’d never calculated 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 how long she stayed was some complex interval that only a physicist could divine.

I was lulled into a near trance by the tick tock of Leila’s watch, the sound filling my brain to the exclusion of all else. But I dared not count the seconds or even look the watch. Knowing how long Leila was gone might drive that acid right through my stomach.

“Mommy, Daddy!” Leila’s voice came from the kitchen. I turned. Although I couldn’t see my own face, I was sure that the giant smile on Leila’s face was the mirror image of mine. I’ve never seen a happier child. Or a happier mom. Gaston was in her arms, wagging his tail and licking Leila’s cheek. “Look! It’s Gaston! He’s fine.”

Our little girl had changed history. The end of the world had not come.

Now what?

Now it was time to think. While Leila had changed only a small part of history—for which our family would be forever grateful—she had opened a door into a realm of unknown and unknowable possibilities. She had opened a door to profound risk and the potential for extraordinary good. What gods or monsters hid on the other side of the door that only Leila could open?
I promise you, Leila, wherever you go, I will protect you from those unseen monsters. Somehow.
I offered my first thought, a practical one. “Maybe we shouldn’t take Leila to see her science teacher tomorrow.”

“Why not?” Julia asked.

“Think about it. If Leila can change the past…” I didn’t know how to say what had unexpectedly become my greatest fear—the greatest fear any parent could ever have—but I needed to say it. “If Leila has this ability, this power, others might want her. They would take her. They would use her and…” Something stuck in my throat. “We’d never see Leila again.”
Who controls the past controls the future.

Julia nodded. “We can’t go to your teacher, Leila.” She spoke with her “mom” voice—lower in tone, slower in cadence, definitive and final, the ender of all arguments.

“And you can’t tell anyone what you can do. From now on, this has to be a secret. The biggest secret in the world.” Julia wrapped her arms around Leila and pulled her in, the way Gaston sometimes holds his favorite toy. When she released Leila she asked, “Do you understand, sweetie?”

“Kind of.” Leila’s frown 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. Telling Leila she had to keep a secret from Alice was like telling her that she was being sentenced to prison for ten years.

“Why can’t I tell Alice? We tell each other everything. She can keep a secret.” Gaston jumped onto the sofa beside Leila. She petted him and he wagged his tail even more energetically than before.

“Because it’s not a secret if you tell somebody else. Some secrets have to be kept just to yourself,” Julia said. “This 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 earlier in the locker room. If it happens often, her disappearances will be noticed. This won’t be a secret for more than a day or two. And despite our luck so far, one day a trip to the past could be dangerous, even if those trips are limited to twelve hours.”

Julia put her hand to her mouth before responding. “Homeschooling? Tutors?”

“I want to go back to school! I want to see Alice!”

Gaston barked and jumped off the couch. Leila ran after him. There was comfort to be taken from a dog that didn’t argue or tell you what you could or could not do.

“What do we do now?” Julia wanted to know.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think that for the next few days at least, Leila can’t go to school. We have to keep her safe. She’s going to very upset.”

“I’m upset.”

“Yes” was all I could offer. “Me, too.”

Ice seemed to encase Julia as she spoke her next words, “Can Leila ever go outside again?”

“We don’t know enough about what’s happening. Maybe she’ll just suddenly lose this ability, the way it suddenly arrived. Maybe she’ll be able to control it.” I stood. “That’s it! We’ll work at training her. We’ll work at finding ways for Leila to mentally ignore clocks. She’ll be able to lead a normal life because watches and clocks will be invisible to her. As far as they’re concerned, it will be like she’s wearing a sleep mask. We’ll find somebody to teach her these skills.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Yeah, sure. It’s like Zen or something. The mental power of not seeing. Meditation, therapy, yoga, hypnosis—whatever it takes.” Then I shrugged. “I hope so. More than anything, I hope so.” But I was far from certain. “I’ll take my vacation days now and stay home with Leila.”

“I will, too.”

Leila returned to the living room, Gaston walking and wagging behind her. She sat on the couch. “Can I watch TV?”

“Of course,” Julia said. Anything to return normalcy to Leila’s life. “We can take a night off from homework, office work, cleaning, everything else that doesn’t involve being a couch potato, and have a family television night. How does that sound?”

“Sounds good.” Gaston barked in agreement.

“What’s television night without popcorn?” Julia said. “I’ll be back in four minutes and thirty seconds with a bowl of mouth-watering popcorn.”

“With lots of salt and butter?” Leila asked, though this was more of a non-optional request than a question.

“Lots of salt, butter...and napkins. Because you know who’s the messiest popcorn eater in the family.”

“Daddy is!”

I wiped my hands on my pants. “No, Daddy! Use a napkin.” We all laughed and Gaston barked again.

Leila flipped channels to the rhythm of popping popcorn. I challenged her to race through them all before the popcorn was done. She started at a fast pace, but then slowed as her clicker thumb tired. She paused every now and then on various shows before moving onto the next, in the hope that something brilliant and captivating would appear around the next television channel corner.

“The Wells Cathedral Clock was built sometime 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 very many—just 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, as if to say, “It’s television night. This isn’t school.”

“The church is pretty. I especially like the stained glass and the gargoyles,” I said.

Leila settled back in the couch.

The pace of popping popcorn quickened, the high-pitched popcorn notes telling a tale of kernels desperate to escape the confines of the pot, working as team to push the lid up and off. Popcorn aroma, a scent like no other, encircled us, trying to steal our attention from the television.

“Mmm. Smell that? Your mom’s the world’s best popcorn chef.”

“She is.”

The complex and ornate interior of the
Wells Cathedral Clock.
Source: Wikipedia
“Like many old clocks, the Wells Cathedral Clock wasn’t very accurate. It gained or lost twenty minutes a day.” The television camera zoomed in on the clock’s giant gears.
The popping slowed, a welcome signal that we wouldn’t have to wait much longer. The popcorn and television were in a race to see which would come first: our snack or a commercial.

“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. Angels with puffy cheeks sit in the corners where the winds blow from, watching time and the universe pass, and perhaps helping time flow by pushing the wind.”

I looked over at Leila, whose eyes were glued to the TV.  Good, she’s relaxed.

“On the outside is a simpler, more traditional face. Arrow-shaped hands pointing to Roman numerals let medieval passersby quickly see what time it was.”

The popping sound stopped. Leila licked her lips.

“To wind the Wells Cathedral Clock requires 800 turns. It’s not an easy task because the clock’s mechanism weighs 550 pounds. It takes one very strong man an hour three times a week to pull up the weights that power the Wells Cathedral Clock.  But that’s about to change. The last member of the family who maintained and wound the clock for the past century is retiring this month.”

“Wow,” Leila said.

“Wow, indeed.”

I heard the sizzle of butter liquefying in a pot.

Well Cathedral Clock, exterior. Photo
from Wikipedia
“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 the clock. 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.

Leila’s eyes melted into the television screen. Her pupils opened wide and her irises turned deep blue, like the sky just before the last drop of sunlight disappears and the stars take command of the night. The clock reflected crisply in her eyes. She pressed her palms flat on the sofa; she pressed her feet hard into the floor, as if she were getting ready to spring to the ceiling.

“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 again as an electrical clock on Monday…”

I knew what was about to happen. I reached for Leila’s hand. If I hold your hand, I can keep you from traveling.

The tips of my fingers had barely touched Leila’s cottony fingertips when she vanished. I saw Wells Cathedral Clock high atop the cathedral, the sun burning down on the gray stone. The clock’s face was the blue of fresh paint; the hand and numerals were gold that shimmered in the yellow sunlight. The cobble of horses filled my ears; I smelled dirt as those horses kicked up the earth. Acrid smells of staleness overpowered the perfume of fresh popcorn wafting in from the kitchen. Bells rang and children’s voices sang an octave above those bells.

Julia returned to the living room with a giant bowl of popcorn in her hands and her pockets overstuffed with napkins. I didn’t say anything. We both mouthed, “again.”

Once more, we froze in place. Julia, a statue holding a popcorn bowl and me sitting on the couch, like a museum exhibit about Twenty First Century American life.

A second before the doorbell rang, Gaston ran to the door, his tail a propeller thrusting him forward. I cautiously walked to the door while Julia remained standing in place. A woman in her mid-forties, a couple of inches shorter than me, with shoulder-length brown hair and an olive complexion stood outside. She was wearing a khaki raincoat; a small wheeled suitcase was to her side. She spoke with an East European accent I couldn’t identify. “Hello. I’m Livi. The great-great-great-many-times-beyond granddaughter of Leila.”

She stood with her feet together, chin lifted, staring into my eyes.

“Leila died in 1450 in her bed at home, surrounded by her two sons and seven grandchildren. She wanted you to know she had 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.”

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