He had thought a watch couldn't be complicated, but that was before he opened it and peered into the heart of time. Each gear glinted in the shine of the artificial light bearing down upon them all-all but one small rusted gear just out of the reach of his tweezers. It started to come loose many years ago after his mother had passed, a mournful event full of black dresses and tears, yet all he could recall was the rhythmic, comforting tick, tick, tick of the watch on his wrist. The elegant strokes of the nearby antique grandfather clock's second hand swept around the perfectly circular face, hauntingly reminding him of every second lost. Tick, tick, tick. Onward it marched. Days moved on and the hand kept moving on his small wristwatch, until today when he awoke to find its hands had stopped.
He sat down at the bench and removed the casing of the watch, the mass of gold, bronze and aluminum parts startled him. He gazed at the masterwork nervously as a small bead of sweat broke just above his brow. He began the tedious work of slowly manipulating his tweezers and screw drivers with surgical precision, working to extract the tumor from deep inside the casing. Gently, as if each rotor, spring, and wheel existed as living pieces of a sentient being, he began his grueling work with the tenderness of a midwife. Each piece was meticulously removed and lain out on the jeweler's cloth in descending order. A pragmatist at heart, he extruded one piece, then the next logical piece below it with the purpose of a watchmaker.
After removing several pieces, he rested and raised his hand to wipe another bead of sweat off of his forehead. Then he saw the pallid skin where for so many years his watch had rested. He was struck by the ghostly pangs of rhythmic tick, tick, ticking that surged through his body. With every consecutive phantom pain, his sadness over his lost companion intensified. He yearned to hear its voice again, to feel its beat below his fingers, yet all that remained was the specter of time lost and the blanched skin untouched by the sun.
He continued, his longing urging him on. The next piece he held between his tweezers was a tiny wheel with a hole bore through it. He didn't know the name of the wheel, nor its purpose in the mess of gears it stood upon, but the exact way the light danced across it was eerily familiar. He was transported to his youth, back to the countless summer days which that exact light would reflect off the face of Big Ben and warm him in the chilly London morning. He and the watch had spent many hours, all perfectly counted by its hands, gazing at the wonder of such masterful timekeeping. Everyday the young boy would look down at his watch, then back at the majesty of Big Ben, wishing to have the larger than life clock in his pocket, if only to carry the tick, tick, ticking of time itself that rang in its heart. Naively, he thought, for in his youth he had yet to discover that time's perfection was unattainable and universal. He would look up one second to see Big Ben's minute hand swing one-sixtieth of its motion and quickly try to match his watch to it. Yet, every attempt failed and every attempt spoke of time's immortality. To the child, he only understood that time, it seemed, was running fast.
He laid the piece down on the cloth and continued, a large circular gear covered most of the inner workings of the watch. After removing the first, there lie another, slightly smaller, then another of even smaller size. With every piece extracted the rusted gear he sought fell further within the frame until it disappeared beneath a piece out of his reach. Frustrated, he stopped and peered at his handiwork thus far. Fanned out on the jeweler's cloth the newest pieces appeared to him as a progression, from one to another just as knowledge flows from old to young.
"Never waste a second," his father said when he gave his son the watch that now lay open on the bench. "Never waste a second because you never know when your time will be up," he explained to the small child. The wondrous eyes, untainted by hard years of life to follow, would gaze on, unable to extrapolate the abstract thoughts of his father. The child innocently asked, "How do you waste seconds?"
Slowly the boy grew into a man, never once wasting a second of his life, learning the lessons of his father. From time to time, the man, with his loyal timekeeper on his wrist always, even saved seconds of his life. He would work efficiently, eat dinner quickly, sleep only five hours a night, in essence: saving seconds all the while living a life devoid of social interaction and amusement. Many friends lay along the wayside of his pursuit to save every second he could, some not understanding, others not caring to try. There came a time when suddenly the only friend that remained was the always present tick, tick, tick.
In his grasp he held one of the smallest wheels, dainty in his hold and hollowed out in the center, like a tiny circlet of gold. He remembered the day all too clearly, the moment he found the woman he would have given every second but one to spend it with her in his arms. Her beautiful round face, circled with luscious golden hair, held a timeless countenance and a smile that transcended centuries. Her smooth sun-brushed skin wrapped around his arms like the smoothest leather. Never once was he late for her, never once did he fail to love her as he cherished every second that passed. He remembered the countless moments when she would curl her arm around his to wipe away flecks of forgotten sand from his hand. He felt her hands caressing the smudged glass of the watch crystal, the pressure of her fingers sending surges of pleasure through him as the pulsing tick, tick, tick of the watch pressed into his veins.
The tick, tick, tick and its leathery embrace was the only hug left to him the day she left. Its touch was the only one that wiped tear after tear away. Their home was stripped bare; life’s vital cogs lay dispersed in a cluttered mess of fury and confusion. Every second of the two days, six hours, seventeen minutes and thirty-two seconds he spent awake begging and crying for her to return though he knew she wouldn't; for every second the watch held firmly to his wrist, each tick, tick, tick tenderly stroking his arm, letting him cry the tears he was unable to shed otherwise. It was during this time of despair that he truly began to see into the heart of time. He saw the timelessness of love and the errors of humankind. He was able to explore every second he had spent, every second he had wasted and he finally came to realize that the seconds that had ticked away on his watch were not seconds wasted. Through his sadness he was able to lift himself up and realize the only thing that had every been there for him, the only thing that he could trust, the only thing he could truly love and find solace in was the tick, tick, ticking of his best friend. His friend held him tight in his nights of fear, it rocked him to sleep with its ticking lullaby, and every day he awoke to a smile on its face and warmth in its grasp.
He paused after lifting a few large abnormal looking pieces from the frame. Beneath the puzzle pieces, was a large cylindrical piece a few millimeters thick and black as night. The piece was large enough to block his sight, an unfathomable abyss lying beneath. Though he could not see what lay beneath it he knew that this is where the rusted cog had gone, he knew that finally this was where his toil had led him. With far more caution than before, he slowly extracted the thick black wheel, lifting it one millimeter at a time. He paused to steal a glance, but its shadow hid everything from sight. With one more attempt he gingerly lifted one side of it, angling his light to throw it where he could not see. He peered beneath it for only a moment. He saw golden wheel upon golden wheel stacked in perfection, each tooth of the gears held fast in their positions, their sense of belonging earned through decades of service.
Then, the moment passed. The clarity he had seen, the clarity he had felt disappeared the next instant. The hope of restoring his friend, the hope of living to hear the tick, tick, tick again, the hope of living his life as he had before: all dashed. In that instant he was able to raise the veil, lifting the shade from the mystery. His punishment for knowledge cost him much more. The moment he lifted the wheel the coiled tension of several springs burst outward across the room. The six golden wheels that had lain below now exploded to all ends of the room, the perfection of their order broken forever. Springs and wheels shot off in every direction, shrapnel pierced every inch of his happiness.
His hands didn't move, his mouth sat agape. For a moment he allowed himself nothing but a look, to look at his handiwork, at what he had done to his best friend. He allowed himself only to think of how he would never hear the tick, tick, tick of his friends voice, how the leather band would no longer bring the happiness it once had. Like a corpse, the warmth of the watch was gone now. It was empty and dead, never to rise again. In those microseconds of pity he allowed himself, he brought down the harshest punishments on his soul he could imagine. Every second afterward was a continuation of that punishment as he tried to remember what its tick had sounded like, but it was lost. He could not remember its most tender whispers or its most gentle hums. Overcome, he stood from the chair for a brief pause, allowing the opened case to lay gently on the soft jeweler's cloth. He paced in a circle, intuitively counting his steps. 1…2…3…Tick…5…Tick…6…Tick…Tick… At sixty he halted unsure of where to begin. Does a clock recognize one from sixty-one? Is each minute, hour, day a new life? Or is it a continuation of the last? Did it matter now that it would never tick again? He began to pace again, his mind willing for the watch to start again, for it to mend itself to regulate his life, to give him purpose and to show him when his steps should fall.
He realized not only how much the watch meant to him but how much the watch had changed him. The watch had taken a naïve, happy young child and warped him into a miser of time. Only now did he realize the true extent of how the watch had ruined him. The moments he had wasted staring at Big Ben weren't in awe of its beauty or its mastery of time, but of reaffirming his own worthlessness in Time's scheme. He stared at its face, ritually adjusting the perfection of his watch only to be foiled endlessly. Like clockwork he would place himself under the servitude of time. Every day he would adjust his watch to save every second he could. Only now did he truly understand: his goal of never letting a second go to waste had fundamentally wasted them all. Every meal he devoured instead of enjoying, every restless night of sleep, every conversation he avoided at work in the name of efficiency only to go home alone, every moment of spontaneity he dissuaded his wife from enjoying: gone, gone forever. He finally discovered that every second he tried to save he would never see again. Each was a waste.
He grappled with the knowledge of what he had just learned. Each memory he could remember was tainted by that stain of a watch on his arm. Each memory concluded with shooing away for time’s sake. Minuscule amounts of time were allotted to stare at nature's beauty, to enjoy simple pleasures. Time had to be gained, he once thought, each second was to be added to the already massing amount of seconds saved. Yet now he realized that each second saved wasn't time lost, but a moment lost, a tender realization of humanity. Each moment lost was a moment of rebellion from the caustic bondage of time, the caustic bondage that drag one down to the deepest abyss, into the darkened shade of death. All he had done was hurry about his own demise to the tick, tick, ticking of his self-imposed shackles.
He picked up the watch from the cloth and rolled it over in his hand, the dial, face up, lying in his palm, the band draped limply over his hand. Its hands taunted him. The final time it read: 8:10; the uneven scale of the hands illustrated the scale of his life. His eyes did not cry at the knowledge he had gained, his body did not shudder. His mind resigned to the disappointment it knew it deserved. The only response allowed was the clenching of his hand with such immense force he wished to crush the watch. He squeezed and squeezed, furiously fighting through the pain as the crown dug into his thumb, through the aching in his joints with the pressure he was exerting. He only released when he felt a ring of pinpricks in his palm beneath the watch, pain he had overlooked until now.
His palm ached, not with the woefulness of pain but with a sensation of calm serenity. He discarded the watch facedown onto the tabletop, a small drop of his blood recessed into its back. Nested in his hand was the small tarnished gear, a few tiny spots of blood resting around it. His muscles tightened into a semblance of a strange smile. It was a smile of bittersweet happiness. In his palm he held the one gear that caused his watch's end, the gear that had urged him to fix the watch, and the gear that ultimately saved him. This small gear, no larger than his thumbnail, had done the impossible: it had stopped the tick, tick, ticking away of every second he had left.
A strange thought crossed his mind as he examined the piece: now that the tick, tick, tick was gone, the uniform constant knowledge of the future stopped. Time itself had stopped. He realized that without a watch time cannot be counted, thus, if it cannot be counted then it cannot possibly exist. An epiphany gradually slipped into his consciousness, a feeling of liberation from the abstract shackles of time. This new found idea made the man begin his pacing anew. However, his pacing began to stretch out, one step was followed with another, but in the time of two. Confusion slowly ebbed into his mind as a child learning to walk. The confusion led to confidence as each step was a step forward at his own pace, not a measured tick, tick, tick. The tightly wound clock of his life, for the first time, began to unwind.
He knew then that time was not to be counted. He felt the warmth of the liberated, rusted gear in his hand, its edges warped from use and its finish long gone. Reaching up and extinguishing the bench light, darkness enshrouding the flipped over timepiece on the desk. Climbing out of the dank basement one step at a time, he slipped the gear into his pocket, the only reminder of his past self jangled with a few spare coins. He walked past the clock on the kitchen wall, past the one mounted in his parlor, past the grandfather clock passed down to him from his father, and past the novelty cuckoo clock near the front door. He opened the door without haste and without purpose, he only opened it with the aim of doing so. He strolled along his sidewalk, the cool air blew through his hair, the crisp smell of conifers and vibrant flowers he had never bothered to discover danced in his mind. He strolled for seconds, for minutes, possibly even hours. He didn't care how long, or for how long he would continue. He didn't care what time it was, or what time dinner would be. He knew that it wasn't time for a new watch, nor did he feel it was time to stop walking. The tick, tick, ticking away of seconds, the chasing of hours already lost: these feelings were gone, replaced with the freedom of the moment. The only time that mattered to him now was his own. This, he thought, is my time.