297 years. When Carmilla wasn’t actively ignoring it, every light tap of the pocketwatch bouncing in the chest pocket of her jacket was a reminder that it hadn’t ticked in 297 years. Exactly 108,477 days. That was somewhere around 9,300,000,000 seconds since the smallest hand moved for the last time.
It was hard to forget on a day like today, which was exactly why Carmilla was there. She didn’t figure that she was allowed to forget. Grabbing her coffee and a cupcake, Carmilla settled onto the shop’s patio and took a sip as the cars rolled in. The first day of kindergarten was always a show. After all, it’s the first chance kids really have to meet people.
A surprisingly high percentage of watches started ticking on the first day of school and no-one wanted to accidentally miss their chance or their kids chance at true love by losing a face in a crowd.
The first to unload was a mom with a death grip on a curly haired ginger’s wrist. The mother charged across the school playground, tugging her daughter behind her, and deposited the girl atop a raised concrete block. Prime viewing position.
Carmilla shook her head, chuckling at the woman trying to simultaneously scan the playground and keep an eye on her daughter’s wrist watch. Someone was a just a tad too neurotic and too worried about starting a countdown. Carmilla had to wonder if she was an empty. In her opinion there were certainly advantages, never loved, never lost.
A few more children piled out and she entertained herself with the chaos, absently pulling an individual silver sprinkle off the cupcake.
It was the parents more than the children. Parents knew the value of true love. Kids just wanted to make friends. The tall skinny redhead was a great example. Bursting from her parent’s hands, the bean pole sprinted across the playground, jumping over the swings and disappearing inside the playcenter. She reappeared at the top of the castle, waving down at her scowling mom and dad.
An SUV pulled up and parked directly in front of the coffee shop, Carmilla scowled, shifting in her seat and leaning forward to try and regain her view. She blinked as a young boy went whizzing through the air, his head visible only momentarily above the car’s roof. Involuntarily standing at the sight, she found the boy safely encased in his father’s hands as the incredibly buff man spun his son in 360s, giving him a solid view of the whole playground. Dropping, they formed a huddle with a second man who immediately reached for a bulky gold watch on the boy’s wrist. Carmilla’s hand grazed absently across her own silent pocketwatch as a smile burst across the faces of the two men. Then the parents grabbed their son, literally jogging into the school and safely away from the crowd.
Carmilla sank back into her seat, shaking her head with a smirk. Faters. People who believed that knowing who you were supposed to fall in love with defeated the entire purpose of love. Their goal was to get their son’s watch ticking in a way that he’d have no idea who in the crowd had set off his watch. The first tick represented the beginning of a long countdown to the moment when the wearer would fall in love and the watch stuck 0. Then it counted back up until the day your true love died.
Or the harsher alternative that people swore was a myth. Carmilla knew it wasn’t.
Most people were desperate to know exactly who they’d been looking at when the countdown started. To ensure that you spent as much time together as possible. After all, there were cases of people with jumping countdowns. One life choice and suddenly another 10 years were tacked onto the day you actually fell in love with your true love. Sometimes watches ticked on long after the wearer had passed, clicking between the same two seconds for eternity. A poignant reminder that losing your true love could mean never finding them again. And of course, there were the watches that stopped cold because there was no longer a true love around to meet.
Faters prefered to keep it simple. Set off the watch. Have no idea who the true love is. Fall in love ‘naturally’. The boy would still have a countdown to The Day but he’d have no idea with who. It was supposed to be freeing or something.
With another shift in her seat, Carmilla absently noticed a cheerful woman slide out of the passenger door of the annoying SUV before making her way to the passenger door on the far side. Even over the din, Carmilla could hear her softly singing to someone. Probably another scared kid and eager parent.
Shaking her head, Carmilla returned her attention to the original eager parent - curly ginger’s mom. She arched an eyebrow, while the curly ginger mother was practically beaming down at her daughter and the little girl who had shuffled up beside her, the new girls’ parents looked far from pleased at the situation. A little pair of redheads. Running a hand through her hair, Carmilla wished the little girls luck, hoping that these parents wouldn’t stand in the way of a good thing. In her experience it was disapproving parents, disapproving mothers more specifically, who did more to ruin true love then any other.
Mother. Carmilla stared at the stained edge of her coffee cup before smacking it clean across the patio and skidding down the sidewalk.
She stared at it. Being evil vampire bait was enough. She didn’t feel the need to let thoughts of Mother add littering to her long list of infractions. Sighing, she grabbed her yet un-touched cupcake, got up, and trudged over the cup. It was wedged between the edge of the curb and the tire of the SUV.
She leaned forward to grab the it when there was a thwap next to her. Carmilla turned her head to peer under the car and saw a tiny body sprawled out on the other side. The little girl looked frozen, her giant backpack nearly dwarfing her and ultimately causing her resemble a tiny, trapped turtle.
Finally, the little girl moved only to push brown hair out of her face. The eyes behind it were big, brown, and brimming with tears. Carmilla cursed internally, wondering if parents shouldn’t be showing up right about now. The girl still hadn’t noticed the stranger crouching on the other side of the car, she was staring at the bits of blood welling up from her palms from the fall. A fat tear popped from her eyes at the sight.
“Cupcake?,” the word left Carmilla’s mouth without a conscious decision.
The little head whipped up, looking around frantically before catching Carmilla’s eye underneath the car.The girl bunched her nose her nose in confusion, creating an adorable little wrinkle between her eyebrows before she said, “I’m not a cupcake.”
Carmilla smirked, “Cupcake?” she repeated, this time holding out the baked good underneath the body of the car. She’d been feeling whimsical that morning, choosing a cupcake with deep blue frosting and tiny silver sparkles that reminded her of the night sky.
For moment the little girl stared at the offering, then a grin lit up her face, and a giggle burst out as she reached for the treat. Carmilla couldn’t help but smile at the sound. Wiggling farther under the car, the girl had just snagged the treat with chubby fingers when she was snatched away. The cupcake fell between them and spalted onto the pavement, leaving Carmilla with only the bright blue paper and a handful of mush.
“Pumpkin,” a male voice said, “what are you doing down there?”
“I fell” Carmilla could hear the serious tone in the little girl’s words, “and I was sad because I hurt my hands and they got all bloody. See my hand, Daddy? And I was trying not to cry because I want to be a big girl but it hurt a lot and then there was a lady under the car and she was going to give me a cupcake and then you came.”
“Sweetie,” a female voice this time, “there’s no cupcake lady under the car and even if there was, what do we say about taking things from strangers?”
“But there was a lady there!” the girl insisted.
“What do we say?” the mom repeated.
She could hear the pout, “Thank you but no. But she was there Mom, she was.”
The dad’s voice again, “Do you need me to check under the car?”
Carmilla sprang back, hustling back towards her chair at the cafe. She wiped her hand on a napkin, shoved the cupcake paper in her pocket, and tried really hard not to look like the kind of creepy teenager who hands off cupcakes to children under cars.
Just the kind of teenager who enjoys watching small children meet their true loves on a playground. Curly hair ginger and the other red head were sitting on the ground building what appeared to be a sandcastle out of mud while their parents had a heated argument above their heads. The little boy was no-where to be seen. The bean pole red head was still at the top of the play center, screaming down at her parents and pointing to her watch which, if the extreme hand gestures were any measure, had recently started.
There were plenty of other kids. A white haired girl crying on the swings. A boy on his father’s shoulders. A little girl and boy cautiously holding hands by the monkey bars before the girl shouted cooties and ran away to the laughter of her parents. A brunette stomping through the crowd like she owned the place and shouting at someone to keep up.
So this will be love. Life went on even when you were a stopped, archaic pocketwatch in a world of shiny wristwatches.
Carmilla sat at the coffee shop until the chaos died out, the kids finally went to class, and the parents dispersed. Statistics say that 27% would have started watches this morning - including older kids who saw the new students for the first time. 93% of those would know who their true love was going to be.
Tossing her second coffee in the trash, she headed to the library for a new stack of books. It was hours before she finally made it home. Tossing her jacket on the pile of clothes in her bedroom, she grabbed a bottle of blood from the fridge and settled into the ugly but absurdly comfortable orange couch with a book.
The book was a good one. She’d read it before but, as that was over 50 years ago, it was easy to get caught up in the story. The best books proved themselves applicable to every generation. When evening fell, Carmilla put the book aside and stretched, bobbing her foot to the comforting tick. She yawned, considering how to get her sleep schedule back on-
Her thoughts froze. Eyes slamming straight to her bouncing foot. The foot bobbing in time with the ticking.
There shouldn’t be ticking.
She sat for a moment, staring at the room like an idiot as though someone might have moved a clock into her apartment without her knowledge. Then, she jolted her bouncing foot to the ground and grabbed at the back pocket of her jeans. The pocketwatch had been in her jacket but her bedroom was far enough away that it should have - yes. Her fingers enclosed the silver metal and yanked the watch and chain from where they were clipped onto her belt. It wasn’t possible. Hands shaking, Carmilla pounded the release button the top of the watch and the antique clicked open the way it had a thousand times before. As though nothing had changed.
But everything had. The second hand was moving. Each whirl of the gears producing a small tick. Even worse, the small dials that had read nothing but 0-00-00-00-00-00 for centuries had moved. They were still moving. She starred as the last digit counted down with every tick of the second hand. 13. 12. 11. The last two dials had to thunk into place for 10. Then 9. 126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52. A big one this time. Three dials turned as a minute sped by and the seconds counter flicked back up to 60
She knew it was impossible. She’d had and lost her shot. She hadn’t even deserved the first. There was nothing it could be counting down to. There was no-one waiting for her at the end of 14-02-12-22-47-35. Still she fixated on the countdown.
Then she laughed. It was wry and sharp and cruel and she slammed the pocketwatch closed and threw it across the room, watching as it reappeared in her hand. She’d tried for years to get rid of the thing. She’d tried to bury it, drown it, smash it, give it away, and literally blown it up.
Finally, it would seem, she’d actually broken it.