They Gathered

pocket watch

They Gathered

S.E. Eaton

 

A wave of cold coffee bathed Sam’s tongue as he looked through the kitchen window.   He frowned.  The well-dressed man was still standing on the sidewalk.   Sam rubbed his chin stubble and averted his eyes as the man lifted his arm, checked his watch again and returned his gaze to Sam’s house.  Ignoring the twisting sensation in his gut, Sam backed away from the window and put his empty mug on the counter.   The bite of January air compelled him to cup his elbows as he walked across his yard towards the man.

“Hello,” Sam said.  The man didn’t look at Sam, nor did he answer.  Sam arched his brow.  “Can I help you?”  The man lifted his arm and checked his watch again.  Sam allowed himself a glimpse of the watch.  It was a tarnished silver piece and had a fat face with a crack in the middle.  “Waiting for something?” Sam asked.  The man didn’t respond.  Sam shifted his gaze to down the street.  There was a darkened figure, blocks away, but Sam couldn’t tell if he was walking away from or towards the house.  “…Didn’t think any buses came this way,” Sam said.    He scratched his head and took a few steps back away from the stranger.  “Well if you don’t mind, Sir,” he said, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”  The man didn’t respond, but remained staring at Sam’s house.  Sam aligned his gaze to that of the man.  “What are you staring at?”  The man checked his watch again.

A low hum sounded in Sam’s throat as he shook his head.  “Alright…alright, Buddy, but I’m calling the cops.  If you’re not gone by the time I return to my house…I…will.  I’ll call the cops.  Okay…? It’s time to move along.”   Sam looked at his eyes for any sign that he had heard him.  The man’s eyelids fell in random blinks, but he kept his eyes glued to Sam’s house.

Sam sighed and hastened back to his kitchen.  “Fucking crack-head….”   He knew it was a misnomer; the man held none of the typical characteristics of a textbook druggie, but calling him such at least offered a sound explanation.    Sam locked the door behind him and scowled through the window.  The man hadn’t left.  He shut the blinds and fished his phone out of the pocket of his sweatpants.

A pretentious, laid-back female tone whined through the receiver. “Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

Sam kept his eyes on the stranger as he spoke. “Yeah, uh, there’s a…man…?  …Standing outside my house…just…standing there, watching me, watching my house, I don’t know….I asked him to leave, but he won’t.  …Doesn’t say a word.  Keeps checking his watch, doesn’t move otherwise.”

“How long as the man been there, Sir?”

“Ten, fifteen minutes, maybe,” Sam said.  “…Thought he might be waiting for a ride, or something? …There aren’t any bus stops on my street.  And like I said, he’s…staring at my house, facing my direction.  Won’t talk, won’t move.  Doesn’t really look like he’s waiting for a ride, I guess.  Just looks like I’ve got myself a stalker.”

“Does he have a weapon, Sir?”

Sam bent down the plastic band on the shades, just enough to look at the stranger.  “I don’t see a gun or anything, no.”

“I’ll send a car your way, Sir.  He’s probably just a homeless man looking for a meal.”  Sam peered through the blinds, taking in the fine details of the stranger’s three-piece suit, his clean-shaven face, his erect stance.  “I don’t think he’s homeless.    Doesn’t look the part…looks more like a catalogue model.”

“Mhmm, I’m sure he’ll move along soon enough, Sir,” she said.  Sam curled his lip, envisioning the dispatcher patting him on his head, as though he were a child reporting monsters under his bed.  “Is there anyone else in your house with you?” she asked.

“No,” Sam said.  He swallowed hard.  “My, uh, my sister is coming over, later.  I’ll text her, tell her to stay home.”

“Exactly what I was thinking, Sir,” the dispatcher said.  “Just stay calm…deep breaths, okay?  An officer will be there before too long.  In the meantime, lock your doors and windows and don’t attempt any further interaction with the man, okay?  That’s important.  You don’t know what he wants or what he might be capable of.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. He looked outside as the man again checked his watch.

“Do you want me to stay on the line with you, Sir?”  Sam wondered if she might suggest he acquire a teddy bear and take a nap.

“No,” Sam said.  “I’ll be okay.  Thanks.”  He pressed end, pulled up his phone contacts and peered through the blinds again.  The phone started to slip from his hands.  “Shit…”  A second man had joined the first.    Taking large strides, Sam locked the back door and all six lockable windows.   He thumbed his sister’s name, and started to type into his phone, but paused.  No need to make her worry.  Worry would bring out the hero streak in his well-meaning little sister, and it could mean her life.

Can we reschedule?  Callie’s here.   Five thuds from his heart and two stomach twists later, Sam’s phone buzzed.   He rolled his eyes.    Ashley always did have quick fingers to match her quick mind.

Blow me off for your stalker ex-girlfriend? What is it this time?  Another make-believe pregnancy?  DON’T give her any money, Sam.  I’m serious.  I will kick your ass so hard.

Nothing like that, Sam replied.  She just wants to hang out.

Whatever.  You’re an ass.  Just… be careful, Sammy-Wammy. ❤

Sam sent a wary glance to the blinded window before typing his response.  Yup.  His jaw clenched.  He was pretty sure he was the only grown-ass man alive whose little sister saw it fit to protect him.

 He dropped his phone back inside his pocket and looked through the window again.  Now there were five, all in suits.  Two were brunette, the rest were various hues of blond and from the delicate cut of some of their jaw lines, Sam assumed some of them to be women.   They all had the same crew-cut; all had the same stoic gaze, directed at the house.  At various intervals, they checked their watches.  A car drove by, and Sam watched, but the driver didn’t take any notice of the men gathered on the sidewalk.    The sound of children’s laughter sounded from down the street.  A dog barked and a woman laughed.   Hours ticked by, and though Sam kept checking through the window, the police did not show.  “Fucking typical,” he muttered.  He took out his phone again, and dialed 9-1-1, but hesitated, his thumb hovering over the SEND CALL button.   He clicked the red button instead, several times, and unlocked the back door.  With quick strides, he marched towards the men.  A sixth had joined them as Sam rounded on the first one in line.  “HEY!” he said, shoving his hands against the man’s chest.  The man teetered, but regained his stance.  He didn’t look at Sam but checked his watch again.  Sam pushed the man again. “…WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”  He did a sweeping view of each of them, but none acknowledged his presence.   “What…what do you all want?  What are you waiting for…? Why do you keep checking your watches? What are you doing here?”  No one answered him.  Sam threw up his hands and let them fall, clapping against his sides.   He lined his stance up with the man he had shoved.  The man’s brown eyes lacked any sign of acknowledgement as Sam gazed into them.  Sam curled his fists and snarled. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”   The man checked his watch again.

The cops are on their way!” Sam said, backing up towards the house.  He slammed his back door shut and locked it again.

A knock on the front door lodged a lump in Sam’s throat.  His stomach clenched, he shuffled towards the door and pressed his eye up to the peep hole.  His shoulders fell at the sight of a familiar face.

“I know you’re in there, ass!” Ashley said.  “Open the door.” Sam pushed out a wavering breath.  He clamped his eyes shut and rolled his head up against the crack where the door met the wall.  Sam opened the door.

“…Wow, liar, much?” Ashley said as she barged into the living room.  “I didn’t see Callie’s car and I figured that fat bitch wasn’t capable of walking here.  If you wanted to be alone you should have just told me.  But you lied to your baby sister, so now you get to deal with me pestering you for the rest of the night.  I’m ordering pizza and you don’t get any.”

“Ash…you shouldn’t be here,” Sam said, clutching onto her arm.  He gave her a gentle tug towards the door, but Ashley glared at his hand.

“What the hell, Sam?” Ashley said.

“Just…leave, please!” Sam said.

Any sign of anger in his sister’s eyes melted and was replaced with the tender light of genuine concern. “Okay…this isn’t like you, Sammy.  You’re actually freaking me out…what’s going on?”

“I…” Sam started.  “You’re right.  I’m an ass.  I wanted to be alone tonight.  Can you leave…now, please?”  He sent a furtive glance down the hall, towards the kitchen.   “I have…uh, manly things to do.”

Ashley followed his line of vision.  She smirked.  “You little whore,” she said.  “You’re hiding someone here.  Someone you don’t want me to know about.  I know it’s not Callie…”  She took a few steps down the hall, backwards, in a teasing manner.

“Ash…” Sam said.  He rubbed his face and sighed.  “Alright, fine…I’ll show you.  But you have to promise to leave them alone.  I don’t know what they want and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Ashley arched a pencil-thin brow.  “Them…?”

Sam clasped his hands with his sister, something they hadn’t done since they were both in diapers.  Her hand felt cold in his sweaty palm as he brought her to the kitchen.  “Look through the window,” he said, nodding to it.

Ashley gave a wrinkled glance to her brother.  Sam’s eyes widened as he nodded to the window again.  Ashley lifted up the plastic band and looked outside.  “Whoa.”

“Yeah,” Sam said.  “…But whoa doesn’t fucking cover it, Ash.”

Ashley lifted the blind band higher. “How long they been there?”

“Five hours,” Sam said.  “I called the cops, no one showed.  I shoved them, demanded to know what the fuck they want…nothing.  They won’t move, won’t say anything.”

“That one just checked his watch,” Ashley said.

Sam nodded.  “That’s the only thing they do. Check those damn fucking watches ever so often…no rhyme or reason behind it, far as I can tell.”

Ashley narrowed her eyes.  “Get me a pencil and paper.”

“For what?” Sam asked in a frown.  He heaved a sigh and got into a drawer behind him, pulling out a dull pencil and a depleted memo pad.

“You said they’ve been at it for five hours?” Ashley asked, taking the pencil and paper from him.

Sam nodded. “Give or take a few minutes.”

“How often do they check their watches?” Ashley asked.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know….a lot.”

Ashley sat down at the table and checked her phone.  “So…three, about…is when you first noticed them?”

Sam nodded.  Ashley scribbled on the notepad and got to her feet.  “Here,” Ashley said, thrusting the paper and pencil into Sam’s hands.   “Watch them.  Every time they check their watch, write down the time they checked, and which one of them did the checking.  Use your phone.”

“What are you doing?” Sam asked, dumping the materials back onto the table.

Ashley’s hand was on the door knob.  She gave a small smile.  “I’m going to talk to them.”

Sam’s stomach tightened.  “Be careful, Ash.”   She shut the door behind her.  Sam grabbed the pencil and notepad and hoisted himself up onto the brim of the kitchen sink, his rear-end dipping a bit into the basin as he watched the men outside.  There were thirteen of them now.  The third from the right checked his watch as Ashley appeared in Sam’s periphery.  Sam checked his phone.  8:23. He jotted down the time and identity.    Ashley put her hand on her hips and faced the man in the middle.    The man second from the left checked his watch.  8:24.   Sam made the note.

Ashley didn’t speak a word, or if she did, it was a whisper, too quiet for Sam to hear from the kitchen.  She continued staring at the man in the middle.  She took two paces to the left, and stared at one of the blondes.    Movement caught Sam’s eye.  The one next in line to the blond in front of Ashley checked his watch.  8:26. Fear seized Sam’s gut as Ashley cocked her head, reached out and patted the man’s sleeve.   She nodded, and with a curious sort of horror, Sam realized she was looking at the man’s watch.   His arm was angled towards her, though his gaze was still fixed on the house.  Ashley returned.  Her eyes were glistening and her smile, placid.  She sat down at the table.

“Well…?” Sam said.

Ashley shrugged.   “I think they’re just waiting.”

For what…?” Sam asked, a crease in his brow as he slid into the seat next to his sister.

Ashley sighed and pointed at the notepad.  “Keep recording the times, Sam, okay?”  She sent a cautious glance towards the window.

“Okay…what happened out there?” Sam asked, looking over his shoulder to the window.  “Did they say anything to you?  Why did look at his watch like that?  Was he…showing it to you?”

“Look, I’m…” Ashley said, scratching her head.  “I’m gonna take off, Sam.”  The look on her face scared Sam, almost more than the men outside did.

“What do you mean?” Sam asked.  The chair scraped on the floor as Ashley got to her feet.  “Ash, you can’t leave…you have to help me figure this out…please, don’t leave. You can’t…!”  Ashley sighed and marched back down the hall towards the front door.   Sam followed her.

Ashley put her hand on the knob, but paused.  Turning, she smiled up at Sam.  She pressed her cold palm against his cheek and rubbed the pad of her palm against his stubble in small, slow circles.  Sam’s eyes pleaded with her.  “Ash…come on….”   She cocked her head at him, withdrew her hand and left.  “Ash…? Ashley!”  She got into her car and sped away from the house.  Sam hammered his fist against the door.   “Shit…shit, shit, shit!”

He returned to the kitchen and looked through the blinds.  There were at least fifty now, the cue layered three or four lines thick, with each man checking his watch at such a pace that Sam couldn’t keep up on the recordings.   “Fuck,” he said, pitching the pad and paper to the floor.   He sighed and stared at his hands.   Flashes of blue and red from outside lifted his head.  He took in a shaky breath and licked his lips.  The men gathered on the sidewalk remained unperturbed, even as two officers emerged from a squad car, one male and one female.  They approached the man at the end of the cue.  The male officer removed his gun from its holster.  Sam jutted his head forward, his eyes wide as the officer held out his hand, his gun resting on his open palm.   A hoarse whisper escaped Sam’s lips.  “No…”  The stranger took the gun and slid it inside his coat.  Sam’s eyes swiveled to the other officer.  She tipped her hat to the intruder and surrendered her gun to the next man in line. As he pocketed it, the officer turned her upper body towards the window.  Sam’s muscles stiffened as the officer locked eyes with him.  Like a intrigued cocker spaniel, she tipped her head towards her shoulder.  A slow smile formed on her lips and wrapped itself like tentacles around Sam’s mind, sucking the moisture from his mouth.    His pulse thrummed as he stared while the officers fell in line with the strangers.  His phone buzzed with life on the counter, making him jump and suck in a sharp breath.  With a shaking hand, he checked the message, sender Unknown.

Have another cup of coffee, Sam.  It’ll be a while. 

Sam gave a sidelong glance to the strangers outside, stormed out of the kitchen and into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.  Hiding under his covers, he groped around in the dark until he felt the bottle of cough syrup on his nightstand.  He ingested several mouthfuls and fell asleep.

It was still dark when Sam woke.  Groggy from the cough syrup, he stumbled into the kitchen.  He grabbed a hold of the blind cord and gave it a fierce tug.    Sam’s gut flew up into his throat and his eyes danced back and forth.  He blinked several times and craned his neck to get a closer view.  The men were gone.

He jumped when his phone buzzed against his thigh.  Sam retrieved it and with a frown, clicked VIEW NOW on a picture message from Ashley.   In his weary state, Sam assumed the picture was just blurry at first.   He stared, but the distortion wouldn’t fade.  After gazing at it off and on for several minutes, brewing and downing several cups of coffee, Sam decided the photo could only be one thing.  He could just make out the crack and the raised ticks on the watch’s face.

Very funny Ash, he typed.    He sent the message and waited, smirking and shaking his head.  The phone rang. Sam’s brow shot upwards.  Unknown number, it read.   He felt a prickle on the back of his neck as he cleared his throat.  “…Hello?”

Heavy breathing ebbed and flowed on the other end and mingled with the crackle of static.  Sam scowled and looked out the window again.  The street was still void of the strangers.  “Who is this?” Sam asked.

More static sounded.  “It’s time, Sam,” a man’s voice said.   It was impossible for Sam to tell whether or not the sharp, pain-ridden inhale that he heard next belonged to the man.  His mind racing, Sam listened and waited, but there was no exhale to follow.

 

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