Content warnings: Graphic murder, abuse

Few things terrified Alice. The gold pocket watch was one such thing though, and little Tommy was clutching it in his hand.

His toys were still on the floor, Tonka trucks, Jedi action figures, and Legos all getting together for a strange sort of block party on his brown rug. He was dressed in his T-Rex pajamas, the covers pulled up to his chin, and he was holding the pocket watch with one hand while he traced the engraved initials with the other.


Jack Parker.

The name was the stuff of nightmares. It conjured a beast worse than any creature, more terrifying than any shadow. She would rather face down a thousand blood-dripping, shark-toothed, gore-in-the-mandibles monsters before seeing Jack Parker again. The only saving grace was that Jack Parker had gone to a farm upstate, sent packing with buckshot in his chest, parting with his mouth opened in a gaping O of shock.

Alice’s Sunday dresses were gathering dust in her closet, and she didn’t own any crucifixes (or a Bible for that matter, though her mother had always tried to fix that), but something about that damned pocket watch sent a needle of freezing fear into her bones. Or maybe it was the way Tommy was looking at it, with adoration. With delight. He’d only been sixteen months old when his father had died. He didn’t remember anything. But the way he looked at the gold disk, at the engraved letters and his warped reflection, Alice wondered if she was wrong. If, maybe, he did remember some things, foggy as they may be.

“Time for bed,” Alice said, crossing the threshold and painting a wide, motherly smile on her face.

“Look what I found!” Tommy said, holding the pocket watch aloft.

Wow,” Alice said, elongating the vowel and drenching her tone with a healthy coating of awe. “Where’d you find that?”

“Up in the attic,” he said. “I was playing up there for a bit before bed and I saw all this cool stuff!”

Alice sat on the edge of the bed and reached her hand out with an expectant look. Tommy begrudgingly plopped the golden disk in her hand. She traced her fingers over its surface, too. It was warm. Too warm. Not from Tommy’s grip, but from deep inside. Her imagination went to work quickly, utilizing that simple sensation to conjure horrifying images.

A beating heart cranking the cogs and gears inside.

A small version of Jack running around in circles, forcing the hands into the correct spot, still bleeding profusely from the chest.

She opened the pocket watch. The white face contrasted heavily with the black numbers, all held beneath a shining dome of glass. The hands weren’t moving, though that didn’t surprise Alice much. It hadn’t been wound in years.

She snapped the pocket watch closed and handed it back to her son. She was reluctant to do so. Something about it still didn’t feel right. But a pocket watch was simply that: a pocket watch. It held no malice. No lust for revenge.

Tommy snapped it open, following his mother’s example. His eyes darkened as he saw the immobile hands.

“It’s broken,” he said.

“It’s not broken, you have to wind it, bud,” she said. She pointed to the gold tab at the side.

With relish, he started twisting the gold knob. It turned, making high-pitched cranking sounds. When he couldn’t twist it anymore, he looked back at the face and was delighted to see the second hand ticking away.

Alice showed him how to set it to the correct time. Once it was done, she harnessed his attention (a Herculean feat, especially before bedtime).

“Tommy, this is a Big Boy watch,” she said, making sure to put emphasis where it mattered. “That means you’re going to have to take care of it. You understand?”

He nodded emphatically, looking back down at that second hand.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Like the sound of the belt buckle as it clacked against their bedframe.

Alice shuddered. She pushed the rancid memory away and focused on her son. Her beautiful boy who, by sheer luck, had taken on none of his father’s complexion or features. Well, except for the Parker eyes, which were notoriously small and beady. But Tommy had blue eyes, like the ocean, and he looked through them with wonder and awe that had been anathema to Jack Parker.

She kissed Tommy on the forehead. “Don’t sleep with it,” she warned. “You don’t want to ruin it. Keep it here.” She pointed to his nightstand, which currently only held a small lamp and a chapter book (this week it was one of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events).

He placed the gold watch on the book smiled wide at her. Alice kissed him once more for good measure and then turned out the light.

As she exited the room, Tommy said, “Mom!”

“Yeah?” she asked, turning.

“Can you leave the door open? And the bathroom light on?”

Disappointment bloomed in her chest, but she nodded. “Sure,” she said.

Apparently, a fear of the dark did not abate by the age of seven.





The belt buckle, slapping against the bed frame. Jack’s taut expression; his pinched eyes; his looming shadow standing over the side of the bed. The leather wrapped around his palm, that metal buckle glittering in the faint, blue moonlight that shifted as the curtains billowed.

When Alice opened her eyes and saw the shadow next to her bed, her heart shot into her throat. She tasted sour vomit, and she uttered a guttural yelp. For the briefest of moments, she was sure the shadow was Jack, back from the dead. Holes in his chest still oozing crimson blood, spilling to the floor like cold molasses. But when she blinked, and she pushed through the gray haze of restless sleep, she realized the shadow was small in stature.

“Mom,” Tommy said. “I had a nightmare.”

All her muscles were still clenched. She released them all slowly, including her jaw, which had been clenched tighter, and her hands, which had curled into fists. She exhaled, took in another breath, and then pushed it out again.

“Sorry, honey,” she said. “I just got startled.”

She scooted over to the other side of the bed and gestured for Tommy to join her. He did, immediately slipping under the covers and wrapping his small body in them.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Honey, do you have that watch with you?” Alice asked, her throat tight.

“Yeah,” he said. He produced his clenched hand, which was wrapped around it. Under his thin fingers, she could hear the second hand rounding the circular face, ticking away.

“Don’t you think you should leave it in your room? You don’t want to accidentally break it in the middle of the night.”

A protective glimmer shone in his eyes, and she watched his hand move closer to his chest. But then, his childlike demeanor broke through and he nodded.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he said dejectedly. “Can I keep it here? On your nightstand? I don’t wanna walk through the dark again.”

“Sure, bud.” She kissed him gently on the temple. “Right to sleep though, okay? Mommy’s got an early morning.”

Tommy assented and rolled over. Alice smiled and rubbed his back gently. A few minutes passed, and soft snores ascended, filling the room like white noise. Only then did she turn and slip her arm under the pillow, diving her cheek into its cool fabric.

Her sleep was light and jagged, but it was still sleep, nonetheless.


Don was being an asshole, as he usually was. Alice understood the importance of being an even-keeled manager, of placating the customer for the sake of business, but it took every ounce of her being not to scream at him. He’d written her up for the crime of pushing back on a false claim from Wanda Macintyre – the closest thing there was to a serial complainer. This time, she had argued that she shouldn’t have to pay the twenty-one-cent sales tax that remained after she used a coupon. Not only did she hold up a line of eight people, but she also demanded a manager rectify her issue.

“I know people can be frustrating sometimes, but you need to rise above it and understand your goal here. And what’s your goal?”

“To serve our customers,” Alice had spat out, even though the words tasted like burnt pennies and old dirt.

“That’s right,” Don had said. And then he had shuffled her out onto the floor.

Less than ten minutes later, she was back at his office door, knocking to be let in.

“What is it?” Don asked.

She held up her cellphone apologetically. “My son’s school – they called and said he had an issue. I know it’s an imposition, but I need to go get him and bring him home.”

Don let out one of those loud man sighs, the kind which seem to always be pushed from the pit of their stomach and encapsulated an air of entitled tiredness. He looked down at his swollen gut. His complexion was ruddy, and his pale lips were turned down in a sour frown, but when he looked back up at her, he offered one of those sullen shrugs she’d gotten used to over the last few years.

“Fine,” he said. “But this is the only time I allow this. Next time, you figure something else out. Call a neighbor. Call your Mom. I don’t care. But if you leave before the end of your shift again, you’re done. Hear me?”

She did. It was about as empty a threat as there was. Don spent a third of his time putting up ads online, all with the same header: NOW HIRING – EARN UP TO $12/HR TO START.

In the car, she dialed the school’s principal. The message she’d left had been terse and incomplete, but her tone had said everything. Short, sharp, and a bit frightened.

“Yes, this is Nancy,” the principal said after a brief conversation with the school’s secretary.

“Hi, this is Alice Parker. I’m calling about my son, Tommy. I got a call that he’d gotten into some trouble?”

Some trouble? I’d say. We need to talk once you get here. Come right into the main office. Barbara will show you where I am. Okay?”

“Sure,” Alice said. “I hope it’s nothing too serious. He’s a good kid, you know. Just had it rough since his Dad left. I can’t always give him all the attention he needs.”

“Sure,” Nancy said after a brief pause. “Just get here and we’ll chat.” Then, she hung up.


Alice felt like she wanted to vomit the entire ride home. Now and then, she would glance into the rearview mirror at her son. He was looking out the window, his expression as normal as ever, his eyes bright and full of youth. It was in stark contrast to the bloody student that had been sent up to the hospital, blood gushing from his nose, his pupil misshapen and bleeding into the iris. Worst of all was what he’d screamed at the kid, who was two years Tommy’s senior. The words rang in her head, all while she got him out of the car, entered their house, and ordered him to their room. All while she shuffled into the living room and cried while trying to ignore bitter nausea and her shaking hands.

“He hit the student with that watch of his,” Nancy had said, “while screaming, where is she?”

While Tommy sulked in his bed, she poured a steep glass of wine and sucked it down. Then, she poured another. Her hands were shaking; her arms were trembling; her teeth were chattering. She knew she was on the verge of a panic attack, and – as they usually were – it could not have been at a worse time.

She guzzled the wine, listened to it slosh into her glass as she poured a third, and ignored the bleary tears that stung her eyes.

A deep part of her, maybe even a part of her soul, knew it had not been her son that uttered those words.

It had been him.

She glanced toward the living room wall, which separated her from her son. She considered going in there and talking calmly with him, explaining what it meant to be expelled, explaining that she loved him, but he needed to know what he did was wrong.

But a horrible part of her knew, if she did that, he would agree to it. Because it hadn’t been him. It couldn’t have been him?

Or, even worse than her delirious, supernatural explanation, what if it was? What if some tortured remnant of Jack Parker’s DNA had slipped into little Tommy’s genetic code? What if there was some predisposition for violence and hatred?

What if Tommy turned out exactly like his father?

What if some woman, twenty years from the day, would have to blow his chest wide open with both barrels of a shotgun, crafting some story about his sudden departure while burying his body in the frigid Vermont mountains.

What if? What if? What if?


“Found you.”

The voice pulled her immediately from sleep. Her heart went soaring again. She turned, expecting to see Jack Parker at the side of her bed. Standing, with his belt and the buckle and his towering frame.

But there was nothing.

She turned to her door, which was half-open. Standing outside it, with gleaming eyes and a crooked smile, was her son. His hand was wrapped around the door handle. His teeth were shining in the darkness, gleaming white pearls. It was his pudgy face, his eyes, his hair, his ears.

But it wasn’t his smile.

Found you,” he said again in an eerily deep voice.

And then he slammed the door closed. His bare feet slapped against the hardwood floor, and then his bedroom door crashed shut.

Alice wrapped herself in the robe hanging off the back of her door. With her arms tucked under her armpits, she inched down the hallway. Tommy’s bedroom light was on. The yellow light spilled out onto the dark hardwood. From behind the door, she could hear his voice.

“Scared her good, didn’t I?”

No response.

She opened the door with a jerking motion.

Tommy was sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to her. When he turned, she saw the white face of the gold pocket watch in his hand. He snapped it shut. His lips curled into a snarl.

“Get out!” he yelled.

“What’s going on?” Alice demanded, not giving ground. “You think it’s funny to sneak into my room in the middle of the night?”

“I said get out!” Tommy bellowed.

“Thomas Anthony Parker!” she spat. “The last time I checked I pay the rent around here, not you. So, I will be the one making the rules. And as of tonight, we have a new rule: you are to give me your pocket watch right this instant. I’m going to hold onto it until you learn some manners.”

Fear plumed in his eyes, red-hot and roiling, like flames. The snarl turned nastier, sharper.

“Why don’t you tell him about Middlebury, Alice?”

She marched across the room. He clutched the watch with all his might, but the might of a seven-year-old was nothing compared to the rage of an overtired mother.

Without looking back, she walked out of the room and slammed the bedroom door behind her. As she stood in the hallway and looked down at the ticking machinery, she had half-a-mind to throw it outside, to let some animal get at it, or to let some morning bird grasp it in its talons, taking it miles and miles away from their home. It had a heaviness to it, and the more she held it the more she felt like she was being drained. That something was sucking at her palm: a fat slug, or a leech that needed to be salted.

Sanity returned to her, flooding back in an instant. She couldn’t throw it away. Irrationality was potent, but not truthful. She looked down at the gold watch once more before walking into the living room and storing it in the black box that sat under the computer. She took the silver key from the lock after turning it in the correct position. With it in tow, she returned to her bedroom and slipped into bed.

When she closed her eyes, she saw Jack’s face. The curve of his smile.

The way her son had worn it like a mask.


“This isn’t a goddamn playground,” Don snapped when he saw Alice walk in, holding her son’s hand.

“He’s just going to hang out in the break room, okay? I brought him books, a snack, he’ll have my phone to play games. He won’t bother anyone. I just…” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “He got expelled. I’m just in a bind.”

He glowered and he chewed on his bottom lip with startling ferocity, but in the end, he nodded. Alice thanked him profusely, but he turned without saying another word and marched back into his office.

“You heard me out there?” she said as soon as they were in the break room. “Read your books, watch Netflix, do whatever you need to do. But I have to work, and you need to be a good boy and stay in here.”

He crossed his arms and pouted. It had been three days since she’d taken the watch. Every day had been the same, with the same expression, the same silence, and the same petulance.

There was no response, but she didn’t need one. He sat with his bottom lip jutting out and his jaw flexing. Another similarity that scared and enraged her.

Four hours passed. She was at the register again, trying her best to placate old women and teenage boys with the same pasted-on customer service smile. It was the smile she was wearing when she looked down, her mouth opening to say those eight words that had been imprinted in her mind – did you find everything you were looking for – when she realized it was Tommy standing in front of her. In his hand was a bottle of Cabernet.

Tommy placed it on the counter. He was wearing that crooked smile again, his eyes gleaming with…

She didn’t even want to acknowledge what she saw in his pupils.

“Tommy,” she scolded, glancing over at the customers browsing nearby aisles. “I told you to stay in the break room.”

“Whatever you say,” he murmured. He walked away with his hands in his pockets and his head held high.

Alice shook it off. The nerves were returning, but she still had another three hours and change left in her shift. But when she glanced down at the bottle and took in the brand, her heart did another one of its jolting exercises.

It was the brand she’d bought for the weekend.

What they’d drank the night he’d pulled out the belt buckle.

The night she’d found the shotgun in the back of an old armoire.

She shoved the bottle back onto the shelf and returned to the register. She wanted to vomit; she wanted to scream; she wanted to cry. But she had customers to serve.

And sure enough, moments later, a woman waltzed up to the register with a shopping cart full of odds and ends.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” Alice asked as she bit back a furious tone.


“Mommy, can I have my watch back?” Tommy asked.

Alice finished tucking him in. Rage still bubbled in her gut, but she’d tamped it for the moment. She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear and let out a heavy sigh.

“No,” she said.

His face pinched with sadness, and he remained quiet. Probably waiting for an explanation. A faint memory slithered into her mind: her mother, wearing a similarly tired expression, saying when you get older, you’ll understand.

How was she supposed to explain her denial, anyway? Oh, Tommy, I don’t like how you’re acting like your father when you hold that watch. How I almost collapse in fright when I see your shadow because I think it’s him, returning to get some sort of revenge for what I did.

So, she said nothing. She kissed Tommy on the forehead and stood. She was reaching for the doorknob when he said, “It’s his, you fucking bitch.”

Alice turned sharply. Her son’s countenance had changed. His eyes no longer held the hopeful flame of a child. Rather, they burned with the rage of an abusive man.

She marched forward, her right hand curled into a fist, her pointer finger jabbing in her son’s direction. “Listen to me right now,” she barked. “I don’t want to hear you use that language. Ever. And if I catch you saying anything like that again, I’ll burn that watch.”

She glared at Tommy, who was shrinking back into his pillow. A brief pang of pity flashed in her heart, but she suffocated the feeling.

She slammed the door behind her and rushed into her bedroom. Her eyes were growing hot and damp. She grabbed one of the pillows on her bed, wrapped it around her face, and screamed into it.

When she pulled her face from the pillow, she caught a glimpse of the gold watch on her nightstand. The key was gone.

Tommy? Or Jack? Who was taunting her?

A snarl curled her lips. She wanted to smash the damn thing. To find the deepest pit in the world and send it spiraling into endless blackness. She never wanted to see those initials ever again, never to hear the constant tick tick ticking under the gold surface.


The bite of cold metal pulled her from her sleep. The shadow was beside her bed again, the thing that was her son and was her late husband. And it, he, they had a belt wrapped around his hand. The buckle was on her cheek, the thin prong scraping her skin.

Her son’s eyes were filled with lust. “Found you,” he whispered.

Alice’s mouth unhinged and she let loose a horrified scream. With a slashing movement, she slapped the belt buckle away. Instinct took hold, and before she could stop herself, her hand went slicing through the air. Her palm connected with her son’s face. He jerked backward, releasing the belt. It clattered to the floor, laying there like a dead snake.

Scrambling out of her bed, she snatched Tommy by the arm and dragged him out of her room. He was yelling something at her, but the words were garbled as they entered her ears. She didn’t care. Alice was tired of it all – the fear, the differences in her son’s behavior, everything.

With a sharp push, she shoved her son into his bedroom and slammed the door shut. Then, she strode back down the hallway.

She was going to finish the job, once and for all.

With the pocket watch in one hand, she rummaged through her closet for the black toolbox. Upon finding it, she snapped the tabs open and pulled out a hammer from its spot.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

Tom had opened his door. The light from his bedside lamp spilled into the hallway, a yellow wave glittering on the tile.

She didn’t respond. Alice pushed the black box away and stood. Gripping the hammer tightly, she moved into the living room, where she put the gold disc down on the coffee table. Her heart was pounding in her chest; her cheeks were flushed; her palms were slickening with sweat. As she stared down at the watch, at the engraved letters, a rush of fury poured through her. She raised the hammer in the air.

“Mom, no!” Tommy yelled.

He barreled in from the hallway and knocked her over. She was more surprised than hurt, though her elbow smacked against the floor, sending a ripple of sparking shocks up her bones. When she looked up at her son, a bloom of panic swelled in her chest. Like ink spreading through a glass of water, tarnishing it.

“Tommy,” she said, her voice low. “This watch isn’t good for you. You’re not acting like yourself.”

His eyes switched between the watch and the hammer. A smile curled his upper lip.

“Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it, baby?” he asked.

Alice wasn’t sure how to react when her son launched at her, his teeth bared and a growl escaping his throat. All she knew was that her arm was swinging, those cavewoman instincts overriding the logical screams emanating from the base of her skull. The metal head of the hammer glinted in the faint light. Her arm shuddered, followed by a sickening crack that bounced off the walls of the living room walls. A spray of blood dotted the walls.

Tommy’s face spun, his features slackening while his eyes widened with terror and confusion. Then, he was falling, falling, falling. His head hit the edge of the coffee table, which produced another blood-curdling cracking sound.

Alice didn’t move. Her hand remained raised, though her entire body was shaking. The living room was silent, broken only by the watch ticking faintly.

“Tommy,” she whispered, choking back a sob. “Baby, please get up.”

Tommy didn’t move. Blood was pooling around his head and running down his cheek, where the hammer’s head had struck him.

And then, all in an instant, she was scrambling forward to Tommy. Alice took him in her arms. His face was swelling and turning purple. Blood was pooling into one of his eyes.

“Oh, God,” she said under her breath.

What could she do? Bring him to the hospital, saying I accidentally hit him in the face with a hammer?

As paralysis froze her mind, Tommy slackened in her arms. A whooshing breath escaped his mouth.

And on the table, the watch stopped ticking.

Keith LaFountaine is a writer from Vermont. He has had short fiction published in a variety of literary magazines, including Red Fez Literary Journal, Page & Spine Literary Magazine, and Dark Dossier Magazine. In his free time, he likes to curl up with a stiff drink, a good (preferably scary) book, and his cats.