I am not writing this as a warning, although the Lord knows how many of them are still out there.
I am not writing this as a confession, although I know my soul lies beyond the grasp of the righteous and damned alike.
I simply wish to extend an opportunity to everyone now in possession of an item originating from my Uncle’s collection: you may either return what you have taken, or you will die. Or worse still, you may remain alive throughout the curse, and to those I offer my deepest sympathies. There is no tragedy above or below the Earth as dire as when our spirits wither while the blood continues pounding in our veins.
My Uncle Veran has recently died, although if you’d asked anyone in my family, they might have guessed he’d already been dead for years. I vaguely remember him from when I was in middle school and he underwent a business venture with my father. It was short lived though, and they had a violent falling out after an implacable disagreement. My father never spoke on the specifics, and Uncle’s name was never mentioned again except for the occasional disparaging grunt uttered in the same tone reserved for profanity.
From what I do remember, I can’t imagine Uncle even having the capacity to fight. He was an intensely drab man, and thinking of him only conjures an irregular beige blob with a mustache. Hands in his pockets, eyes on the ground – I remember him rambling in a voice which never rose above a throaty whisper. He hardly seemed to notice being alive, so I don’t see why the rest of us should care now that he was dead. My older brother and I reacted in a much more pragmatic way.
“Dibs on his house,” my brother Wally said as soon father told us the news.
“28 is too old to call dibs on anything,” my father said. “When adults do it, they call it making a reservation. And no, you can’t reserve his house.”
“You’re right, let Lewis have it,” Wally said. “He’s the one still living in a studio apartment.”
Wally would turn anything into an excuse to mention how he was more successful than me. Doesn’t matter though – the point is, we were all going to spend the weekend packing up Veran’s place, selling what we could, and just dumping the rest. It’s not like Uncle could have found a wife or anything. If he brought a girl over, how could she even distinguish him from the wallpaper?
I was hoping for a treasure hunt, but what we found was more like a landfill. Piles of decaying newspapers, cupboards overflowing with cracked dishes, and literal heaps of the most random junk piled precariously on every flat surface. My father didn’t stick around after he realized there was nothing valuable enough for auction, so Wally and I decided to just lay it all on the front lawn and have an estate sale.
“It’s only fair if we split it 70/30 my way,” Wally told me.
“We’re both doing the same work. In what world is that fair?”
“It’s all about the opportunity cost,” he said. “What do you get paid down at the warehouse? Like 10 bucks an hour? Well since I get paid more, I’m missing out on more income by being here. So since my time is more valuable, it’s only fair I get more.”
I think I understand why Dad and Uncle couldn’t work together, if this is what a partnership between brothers looks like. Sure Wally said he was just kidding and ruffled my hair like he did when I was six, but I know there is part of him that really felt that way. That he was worth more than me. Well screw him, and screw his cushy office job. It was going to be satisfying watching him struggle to do some actual manual labor for once.
A grandfather clock without a pendulum, a lamp shaped like a cat, a pair of blunt Samurai swords, a permanently sealed vase – absolute random junk. It took all day just getting it out of the house, and it felt even longer with the constant quips from Wally.
“Want this suit?” he asked. “Dress for the job you want, right?”
“How about the watering can? You can grow your own vegetables when money is tight.”
That’s why I don’t even feel bad about slipping the diamond crusted watch into my pocket. It was mesmerizing to see it glinting amidst a pile of old journals. The intricate gold clockwork whirred with hypnotic precision, and it was hard to imagine this masterpiece being worn by dumpy old Uncle Veran. It wasn’t stealing really. I thought of it more like a tax for having to put up with Wally’s obnoxious attitude.
Why should I feel guilty after-all? He was taking a break every ten minutes to chat with his wife on the phone, and I was the one doing all the real work. Besides that, he had a better house than me. A better car. He didn’t need to sell the watch, and wearing it would just make him into a bigger asshole than he already was. If anything, I was sparing him from indulging his materialistic greed. This watch would do absolutely nothing to improve his life, but to me, it could mean the difference between having a place to sleep or not. Besides, am I supposed to believe he isn’t pocketing some stuff too? Hell, I had to keep this just to make things fair.
That’s how I rationalized it anyway. Everything else we spread out on the front lawn, and I was surprised how good business was. I guess Veran was somewhat famous as being an eccentric collector, and people came from all around to pick through his garbage. I overheard a few wild speculations during the sale – that Veran was secretly a renowned art thief, or a drug dealer, or even a magician. Whatever the case, the rumors helped move his stuff along, and Wally and I were amazed every time an obscure medallion or whimsical trinket exchanged hands.
By the end of Saturday, we’d already cleared out almost everything that wasn’t broken, and even a fair share of things that were. We agreed to meet-up Sunday to finish the job, and he left to join his wife for dinner. It was just me in the house, finally alone to inspect my prize from the day.
I held the watch in my hands, admiring the subtle dance of light across its surface and the perfect band of unstained leather. The soft click was almost hypnotic, each note sounding the same when I focused on it, but somehow blurring into an elaborate musical score whenever I let my attention wander. This was probably the most valuable thing I’d ever own in my life.
Sure I told myself that it was never about the money. I liked the place I worked. I liked the people I worked with. I’d never been one of those who wanted to collect things just to show off, and I never took more than I needed. I planned to just pawn it now, but it would be nice to try it on first, just for a moment. Just long enough to take it down to the pub and see if anyone treated me different because of it. I chuckled to myself while clasping it around my wrist. Imagine a girl seeing it across the room and coming over to sit beside me, or the server getting my drink first in the hope of a bigger tip.
That’s how the world works though, isn’t it? Sometimes it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are. When you’ve gone your whole life being yourself and watching those around you not give a shit, it can be pretty tempting to try and pretend to be somebody new. Well I had a wallet full of bills and a watch that would turn heads on the red carpet, so maybe just for tonight, I could play pretend. Just for tonight, I could be better than my brother.
I didn’t go to the pub – Hell I could do that any damn night. For the first time in my life, I pulled my car right up to one of those topless places and walked in the front door like I was king of the world.
“Sure, let me just get my ID.” I made a show of flashing the watch while I got my wallet. Again inside, stretching luxuriously to let the diamonds capture the neon lights. I saw the reflecting sparkles in the dancer’s eyes, drawing them toward me like a beacon. I still didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but it was fun to leave the notion hanging in the air that I might really be somebody.
“Nah baby, just the warehouse business. Yeah we’ve got locations all over the country.”
“Oh this old thing? It caught my eye and I fancied it would look good on me. You know, I bet you’d look good on me too.”
After I’d had some fun, I went over to hang out with the girl behind the bar. She was fully clothed, which somehow made her stand out even more than the lovely things strutting along the stage. I waited until she was facing my way before making a show of rolling up my sleeves. That’s right. Not your everyday country slob in attendance today. I watched her face when she noticed, her eyes stretching with disbelief.
“What do you got going on there?” she asked.
“It’s nothing, baby. I’ve had it for years,” I replied.
“Hey I don’t care if you got a name for it, you keep it off my bar.” Her pretty face was twisting into revulsion.
“Don’t be jealous now.” I couldn’t understand how anyone could look at this watch with anything but reverence. “If you want one for yourself, maybe I can show you my collection at home.”
“It’s disgusting. Hey Ike! Get over here and help this man find the door.”
The bouncer pushed away from the wall and headed my way. I looked between him and the girl in confusion. Was this a joke? Or a ploy? Was he going to try and rob me?
“This man giving you problems?” Ike asked.
“Yeah get him out of here. But don’t touch him. It might be contagious or something.”
Big hands grabbed me by the back of my shirt and hauled me out of the seat. Before I knew what was happening, I was hurled out the door to crumple on the asphalt outside. Rich people don’t get treated like this! What the Hell was she on about? I was convinced by now someone was going to attack me and steal the watch. I ran for my car, leaping in and locking the door. I pounded the gas and ripped out of there, not slowing until I was all the way back at Veran’s house.
It wasn’t until I was sitting in the parked car, trying to catch my breath, when I noticed the itching on my wrist. Contagious? Was what contagious? I absently scratched at my hand, but my fingers recoiled like I’d stuck them into a ball of spiders. Long stringy slick – I turned on the overhead light. Looking down at my hand, I’m not ashamed to say I actually screamed.
The watch was barely visible under a network of veins which burst free from my skin. Even as I watched, more perforations were forming as wiry tubes crawled out of my arm like worms. They were wrapping around the watch band, holding it firmly in place. The itching turned into stinging as the veins burrowed back into the skin on the other side of the watch, although the sensation was swiftly mounting into an agonizing burn. I couldn’t even take the watch off without cutting through the veins now, and I wasn’t about to do that.
The clicking from the timepiece was getting louder too: one moment it was tapping, the next it was a thundering hammer. It took me a moment to realize it was the pounding blood in my veins which seemed to be shaking the whole car. The burning intensified, and before my eyes I could see the protruding veins swelling grotesquely before emptying their contents into the watch itself. My head swam. I don’t know how much blood I was losing, but I knew I wouldn’t last long at this rate.
Hospital? I couldn’t even see straight enough to drive. Ambulance? What were they supposed to do, cut my hand off? It didn’t take a gypsy lady to tell me something unnatural was going on here, and the only thought which promised any salvation was from the stack of journals inside the house.
Veran had to know what it was, right? He wouldn’t have something like this lying around by accident. I stumbled through the hallways, getting weaker by the second. My whole body pulsed in time with the ticking watch. Newspapers – magazines – journals. Stacks and stacks of yellow legal pads piled by the backdoor for recycling.
I tore through them looking for clues. One of the papers bit into an exposed vein, already so full they were ready to pop. Everything was slick and sticky after that. I desperately scanned each page, looking for clues before they became too soaked with blood to read. There – something that looked like a list. I think I saw the word “watch” on there, but my eyes couldn’t focus right. I kept blinking, but every time they opened it was a little bit fuzzier.
The next time my eyes closed, I thought it would be for the last time. The ache in my arm faded to a gentle pressure. The pulse in my veins slowed. I became aware of voices, but I couldn’t force myself to stand.
Then a scream. My eyes fluttered open for a second, but I shut them again against the harsh light. More voices – and the words were finally starting to become coherent.
“You still think you’re better than me?”
It took a moment before I realized it was my own voice. I tried to force my eyes open, but the pounding in my arm redoubled and I only saw flashes of white. I felt my body moving, but I was so disoriented that I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t just spinning on the ground.
Another flash . Wally was lying on the ground, covered in blood. My head was clearing, and even though I still felt the blood flowing out of my arm, I seemed to be growing stronger. I was aware what I was doing the next time I dug my hands into my brother’s side. I knew what I was doing when my veins detached from my wrist to slither into his body, siphoning off his blood to replenish my loss.
This was fair, wasn’t it? Now we were both being drained. For every back-handed insult and condescending glance he’s ever given me, I was just evening the playing field. He thought he was worth more because his bank wrote a bigger number next to his name? He didn’t know what his life was worth until I took it from him, and even then I bet he didn’t understand. How could he, when all he was able to spit at me was:
“It was never me versus you. It was always you versus yourself.”
But I understand. By every drop of blood still coursing out of my body and into the watch, I know how to measure a life. Killing him bought me time, but I never appreciated how valuable time is until I could feel each second drain it from me. Still, I had given myself a chance to read the notebooks, and that’s how I learned the truth of Uncle Veran’s collection.
He calls them a curse, but I see it as a blessing. Veran spent the solitary years of his life searching for and hiding these items. Failing to explain his findings and unwilling to demonstrate their power, he drew further into himself until he barely bothered to speak. The notebooks contained sporadic mentions of the Demons or spirits bound within some, although the watch was only trivially mentioned as ‘that which joins two worlds.’
As for the rest of the collection, I do not know the names of the people who have taken it, or how many times it has been resold or repaired; traded or lost. You might not recognize them at first, but you will have a feeling as I did with the watch. Something isn’t right with the clock down the hall, or the vase that withers all flowers. The ceramic statue which you swore was facing the other direction last time you saw it.
They are mine, and I want them back. And don’t bother being afraid of me, because there’s nothing I can do to you which will make you suffer more than the curse you inflict upon yourselves.