Just as good things can come in small packages, so too, can evil ones. That’s what people never see coming. Evil is not a monster raging at your door. Nor is it a rising blackness, the storm that you can see for miles, spilling across the horizon like ink. It is not the devil on your doorstep, with a contract for you to sign in blood. It was not a beast, sharpening its claws, waiting for you to step outside.
No. Most frequently, it is none of those things. It is the tiny snake, winding its way beneath your door. The sting of a sharp, bright blade, so slim as to be nearly invisible – merely a flash of silver, before it slits your throat. It’s the drop of poison in a glass of sweet wine.
It’s in the pocket of a small, orange-hued man who sits on top of a hill. One so buffoonish, no one saw past his simpering smile and his shouted insults. After all, who would choose such a clown?
You don’t always see the end coming. It is not the green, grassy knoll waiting for you at the end of a long, sunny day. Sometimes, it’s the chasm that yawns broadly beneath your feet, swallowing you in a darkness so complete that you forget the feeling of the sun on your skin.
It is an end that you can never see from the beginning. Before the road bends. Before the skies open. Before your heart breaks.
You think your heart is breaking when your youngest child wants to leave you. You understand that it is not you that she is leaving behind – or at least that she does not mean to leave you behind.
But she will. She is leaving home. And so she is leaving you, forever.
You don’t believe her when she tells you that she wants to go far across the sea. Not at first. You don’t want to believe her when she tells you that she will never come back. Your little Mary would never leave you, would she? Not the little girl that you rocked in your arms, smiling down at that sweet face.
Not the little girl you gave your name to. The one you gave your time to, and your patience. And ultimately, all of your heart.
Not your little Mary, Mary quite contrary, whose joyful voice rang out through the garden as she ran back to you with dirt under her fingernails and mud smeared across her face.
She wouldn’t leave you, would she?
But you see the look on her face now. The look you’ve never seen before. And you hear the edge of iron in her voice. And you know her words are true. She is leaving.
And that is when the tears come. You do not beg her to stay, because you know that she will not. Could not. Not even to make you happy.
But she is happy. It is the same smile. The one that spread across her face when she ran to you as a child. That smile makes her cheeks glow now, as she stands on the docks with the salt wind blowing in her long dark hair.
Just a day shy of eighteen. You won’t celebrate her birthday with her. You’ll never celebrate her birthday with her again. Because in the minutes that are coming – many fewer minutes than you wish you had – she is going to climb the gangway onto the ship behind her.
And you’ll watch the wind tossing her long brown curls about like a tiny storm cloud, as she stands on the deck and waves goodbye to you.
But not now. Now, in these precious few minutes, which you which you could stretch into years, like pulling taffy – now, you say goodbye.
You’re trying to hold back the tears in your eyes, repressing them with a force of will. You don’t want to cry in front of her. You don’t want her last memory of you to be the image of you crying. But a few tears slide down your cheeks before you can stop them.
You tell her you love her. You tell her you’ll miss her. You tell her to take care of herself. You tell her to write. All of these words are true. None of them are enough.
And finally, you pull it out of your pocket.
Your Grandmother gave it to you when you were a child, so long ago it doesn’t bear thinking about now. You remember how big it looked against your tiny palm. A silver circle. Like the moon, you thought.
It is tiny now, as you pull it out of your pocket. It, too, is not enough. But it is all you have.
It’s silver. The engraving, once boldly etched, has worn down, smoothed by many fingers, as it has been passed from grandmother to granddaughter, aunt to niece, sister to sister and mother to child. So many hands have held it for comfort in so many pockets over so many years.
The silver still shines bright, but the engraving is nearly smoothed over, almost unreadable, even if you could read the language it was etched in, which you can’t.
Neither could your grandmother. But she gave it to you, anyway, the same way her mother had given it to her.
So you press into Mary’s hand, telling her to keep it safe. Telling her to wind it every evening.
You hope it will bring her luck. You hope its quiet ticking will bring her comfort. And you hope that when she looks at it, when she feels that small silver circle in her pocket, that she thinks of you, and your love for her, so far away.
You tell her you love her again. And then you release her hand. You watch as she climbs aboard the ship, no longer trying to hold back the tears in your eyes.
As you watch her ship pull away from the dock, you tell yourself that this must be what it feels like when your heart breaks. You feel that this will be the end. That this is your end. You cannot think of a life without her, because you never thought you would have to.
You think you must die of this broken heart. Nothing has ever hurt so much.
But it is not the end.
You will return home, and it will feel emptier without her.
But you will live. You will wake up in the morning and spend another day. And then another. There will be life without her. And there will be light.
There will even be joy. You will smile again. You will laugh again.
And when you do, you will hope that she is happy, with her new life across the sea.
It was the hardest thing you’d ever done. You weren’t sure you could do it. On the road to Glasgow, there was a part of you that couldn’t believe it was happening.
It wouldn’t happen, would it?
Surely, it would just turn out to be some cosmic joke? And the joke would be on you, when Mama and Papa turned around and took you right back home.
But they didn’t turn around.
And as you stand on the docks, watching Mama try her hardest not to cry, you feel the lump in your throat. You feel your resolve start to crumble. You lock your knees to hold yourself in place, so that you won’t tumble forward and wrap your arms around her, the way you did when you were little.
You try to look into her eyes, to memorize her face, knowing that you will never see it again. You try to listen to her words, but most of them are taken by the roar of the ocean, so close and so noisy it feels like a lion at your back, just waiting to swallow you up.
You cannot hear most of her words, but they do not matter. You know she loves you. You know she will miss you. You know you are breaking her heart.
You remind yourself that you wanted this. You wanted a new life. You wanted adventure. You wanted to live somewhere …. Somewhere each face wouldn’t be as familiar as an old fairy tale. You wanted away from the little village. Away from Scotland. Away from home.
You didn’t want away from her, but there’s no way you can explain that to her now. At least, no way you can explain it to her without bursting into tears. And you don’t want to cry in front of her. Not now. You don’t want her last image of you to be your blubbering face, red and splotchy with tears.
You strengthen your resolve and you stand up straight, clenching your hands into fists at your side, until she takes your hand and presses the small silver pocket watch into your palm.
You don’t look at it. You’ll have plenty of time to look at it later, to examine its delicate whorls and intricate engraving. To wonder what it means as the ship is tossed around on a stormy sea. As your stomach churns and you wonder why you ever wanted this in the first place.
There will be plenty of time later.
You thank her. You tell her you love her. You kiss her cheek before you leave. You do not throw your arms around her, the way you want to do, because you know you might not let go.
You give her a final smile, hoping it looks more convincing than it feels. And you walk away, keeping your back straight and tall. You don’t look back as you climb aboard the ship. You keep your eyes forward, because you know you can’t stand to watch her face as you walk away from her.
She blurs into the crowd as the ship pulls away from the dock. Or maybe it’s your tears that blur the view. You’re never sure which, but you’re grateful anyway.
America is what you hoped it would be. Or some of it, anyway. Most of the time, it’s good enough.
The streets aren’t paved with gold. There are no shining marble towers. You shrug it off, supposing it was only childish imagination that made you fancy there might be.
There are sky scrapers, though. Tall buildings that rise to stab the sky. Higher than you ever imagined. Home is not home anymore. Home is a tiny apartment that you come back to, after hours of work. A shoe box of a place where you go only to rest.
Work is hard. Harder than you thought it would be. Cleaning other people’s houses is a special sort of suffering, one you never thought you’d go through.
But, of course, life is always harder than you thought it would be.
And there is music. And dancing. There are parties and dresses and staying out until dizzying hours of the evening, until you can see the golden halo of the next day framed against the sky.
And every evening, no matter how late you come home, no matter what happened that day, or how tired you are, you pull that tiny silver circle out of your pocket. You wind your mother’s pocket watch. You remember her. And you think of a home that isn’t home anymore.
Time slips by so much more quickly than we mean it to. And soon, that boy you danced with at a party one night becomes the man you love. And when that man asks you to marry him, you say yes.
A few more years go by and suddenly the boy you married has a lot more money than you ever thought possible, and so do you. Suddenly, you’re richer than you ever imagined.
Work is a memory. Now there are people who clean your home, as you used to clean other people’s. There are people to make your food and scrub your toilets and do your laundry. Anything is possible.
You could pave the streets in gold, if you wanted, to match your childhood dreams of America. You could raise huge golden towers – enormous monuments to yourself. To your husband. To your family. Buildings emblazoned with your name. Your new name. You could do that, if you wanted to. But you don’t want to. None of that matters anymore.
Now there are more important things. You have children. First a little girl. Then, a couple of years after, a baby boy. And another girl. And two more boys.
Your children will never want for anything. You give them anything they ask for – they never have to feel hunger, or cold, or sadness, or pain. Not if you can help it.
And now you know what it must have felt like for your mother to let you go – to release you into the world, knowing she would never see you again. You can imagine the pain she must have felt. And every night, you wind the pocket watch and think of the woman you left behind so many years ago.
Your children want for nothing. They are cared for. And they are loved. You love them all. They know it. But, if pressed, in your heart of hearts, you know you love one little boy just a little more than the others.
He’s your sunshine. He’s your golden-haired little angel. And you know he always will be, no matter how much he grows up, or how far he grows away from you.
He has everything. Everything that money could buy and a great many things that it couldn’t.
There is nothing that you can give him that he doesn’t already have. He’s grown now. He’s an adult. He can buy anything he wants. And he seems to want so much. There’s nothing more you can give him…
But there is, perhaps, one thing.
You call him one day and ask him to come see you. He’s very busy, of course. But he has to make time to see his mother, doesn’t he? You suppose he does, and you try not to act disappointed when he reschedules again and again.
But finally, he comes. You sit on the sofa and you smile at him. Your golden boy. He is child as foolish as he is loved, although you love him too much to see it.
You pour the tea. And you pull the little silver watch out of your pocket. You press it into his palm, much the way your mother did for you, so long ago.
You tell him that you love him. You tell him that your mother gave it to you. And that her grandmother gave it to her. You tell him that you want him to have it. That you hope it brings him the joy and luck it has brought you. You tell him to keep it safe. You tell him to wind it every day.
And you hope that when he winds it, he will think of you.
The boy, who is much too old to be a boy, takes it, covering it with his small hands and shoving it into a suit jacket pocket. Some boys never become men. They merely grow older in a childish selfishness, believing only in the importance of their own whims and wants. They are never men. They are merely boys in aging shells, with a rottenness of spirit that only grows more unbecoming as it ages.
Your boy is one of these, although you will never know it.
But he takes the watch, not because it means something to him, but because it means something to you.
And in his pocket it has stayed, ticking quietly along, measuring out the moments of his life with each soft tick of its tiny gears.
The Oval Office is quiet for once. He should appreciate it – for one blessed moment, no one yelling at him about something he’s said or done.
“PR nightmare” – how much he’d give to never hear those damn words again.
He sighs, running his fingers through his carrot-colored hair, before remembering why he doesn’t do that anymore – the stuff feels like stiff cotton candy. He supposes he’s lucky it hasn’t all fallen out, with all of the stress he’s been under.
For another moment, he enjoys the silence, and then he realizes that it isn’t silence. That quiet, nearly imperceptible tick-tick-tick follows him wherever he goes, like a heartbeat.
He pulls the watch out of his pocket, running short, stubby fingers across its smooth surface. There’s something comforting about holding it. He remembers the day his mother gave it to him. She hoped it would bring him luck. He supposes that it has, given where he is now.
A fleeting cloud of guilt crosses his face and then its gone – absolved by his own vain pomposity. She told him to wind it every day, he remembers. He hasn’t. He can’t honestly remember the last time he wound the thing.
Oh, well. No harm done. It doesn’t look any the worse for wear, anyhow. And it is still ticking, so what was the point in winding the thing? Now that he thinks of it, the ticking is a good deal slower than he remembered.
He shrugs, sliding the thing back into his pocket. He supposes he’ll have someone wind it for him at some point…. He’s much too important now to worry about mundane things like winding silly old pocket watches.
He is the most important man in the country. He puffs up his chest and repeats the thought in his head. He is the most important man in the country. No. On the planet. That sounds fantastic. Why should the most important man on the planet worry about a stupid old watch?
He allows the ticking to fade into the background, as he has allowed so many things to fade – honesty and loyalty and kindness. None of them matter.
He doesn’t bother to listen as the ticking grows slower and fainter. Doesn’t know why he should wind it. Doesn’t know why his mother bothered doing such a silly thing every night of her life. He never bothered asking her.
Although if he had, she wouldn’t have known the answer. Neither would her mother have known. The story, unlike the watch, has been lost through the generations.
But as the watch winds down, so too does this fragile world.
This is the beginning of the end. Or perhaps it is the end of the beginning.
He wiggles his stubby fingers and begins to type out another tweet.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Writing Prompt Courtesy of:
This story was, in (small) part, inspired by a quite fantastic story by Roald Dahl. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend doing so now. You can find a pdf version of it here: