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by D.F. Mitten

I must have been a rotten soul in a previous life, because this one is not much better. It's not to say that it started out that way, but recently, events have worn away at my psyche and drained my soul. All I can say is that, if suffering were a precursor to a blissful afterlife, then I've got bliss coming out of my ears.

My current state is a result of seemingly random and benign occurrences that, at first, didn't warrant much attention from me. Had they done so, I'm not certain that I would have figured it out anyway. I can't recall the date it started, but I know the action. It was my birthday. I don't know exactly which one, but I think I was in my thirties. None of the presents stand out in my mind save one. The one from my beloved. Her face beamed with excitement as I tore the paper and fiddled with the edges of the box.

"Careful. Try to be gentle," she said in nervous excitement.

My fingers pried open the small square box and snapped open the cover.

"Oh my God! It's beautiful," I recall saying.

"You like it? Really?"

"I love it! Where'd you find it?" I reply as I pull it from the box by the fob and hold it gently. In my hands lay a 1924 silver backed pocket watch methodically ticking away time without hesitation, without fail. The engraved backing, so elegant, accentuates the small crest that rests dead center.

"I found it in an antique store and thought you would like it. Happy birthday, sweetheart," she shined and leaned in to kiss me.

The memory fades from there. I recall nothing else of that day. I loved that thing. It was so very precious to me, much like she was. That was the last gift I received from her. The following summer I lost her. The pain never subsided. It seemed to grow with every passing moment that she was not by my side. It seemed to resonate throughout my being with every breath, with every second, every tick of the watch. The pain is since gone, but so is everything else.

Much of my memory is patchy. It resides in my mind as hurried photos that skip moments either cherished or anguished. Since her funeral, I only recall existing. I had no other family, no one to turn to, and nowhere to go. I recall the watch once again. Wound it every morning, checked to see if it kept good time. Of course it did. She picked out the perfect timepiece. The crystal face had a small scratch on it. Happened before my time, in some other's life. I always wondered how it got there. Who's pocket had this piece been in?

I would spend hours staring at it, wondering the hours it ticked away. The world turned with despair and wars, it kept ticking. Through lives and births. It kept ticking. A father may have checked it to see what time his son was born. A man checked it to see if his father's funeral will start on time. It ticked. Relentless in its pursuit of passing the time.

I knew every engraved portion and every scratch on that watch. The face of it was beautiful and the color of antique white, faded with time and light. The numbers still proudly displayed elegantly. The watchmakers name printed between the 12 and the center of the watch. Elgin. I never knew who or what an Elgin was. I never thought about it. Yet, it was during one of those staring sessions, that it caught my attention. Odd name. I looked it up. Elgin, Illinois. They make watches there. There's also a pretty famous insane asylum there as well. For some odd reason, it intrigued me. The name, not the asylum. Maybe it was because it was in Illinois. She was from there. Memories flooded through my mind like a tidal wave. The emotions built up and destroyed any sense of peace that laid within me. She always loved it in Illinois and wanted to go back for a visit. We never got to. That's when I decided to do it. That's when I committed myself to it. I was going to Illinois. I was going to go see what she loved so dearly about it. I had to do it. It was calling me. I had to do it for her. With that decision, so came the rest of my story.

It wasn't much effort to get time off of work. I asked for the time off. I was turned down, so I quit. Right there on the spot. It didn't matter much. Nothing really did. Quitting my job wasn't the end of the world. That happened the day she died. Everything else was just background noise. The following day, I packed all my belongings and decided to make the trip a more permanent one. Everything that I could fit into my Honda Civic became my only possessions. Everything else, I just left. Background noise. My journey began in Yuma, Arizona. That is where we lived. Not much there, but military and sand dunes. I wasn't missing much as I left. The drive was especially miserable on that hot summer day. Temperatures in the desert reached 130 degrees easily.

My destination was Illinois. Maybe I would have stopped off in Elgin to see what everyone else in Illinois knows about it, it's an armpit. But hey, it couldn't be much worse than Yuma, Arizona. So I thought. My tank was full and my watch was ticking.

Several hours of dusty nothingness passed me by as I rolled into Tucson. It was hotter than hell and I needed some relief. An incredible sadness overcame me in an instant. My mental faculties weren't what they used to be. I recall paying for my soda and sitting out in the hot night air looking up at the stars. I knew she was up there watching me. I knew she was disappointed in me. I let my life go since she died. I can see her shaking her head in sadness watching me waste away.

"I miss you so much," I said to the sky through my tears. A single star twinkled as though she were reciprocating the words.

"Why'd you have to go? I need you so badly. I just want to be with you," I said again to the mystic sky.

The tears came and went as they had so many times. I pulled the watch out of my pocket.

"Seven-oh-three," I whispered sadly. Oddly enough, that was the date that she died, July 3rd.

"Goodnight sweetheart," I blew a kiss to Heaven and got back in the car.

The road out of Tucson wasn't too eventful. A turn here and then nothingness along the straight and deserted highway. Deserted, except for an instant. I pulled the watch out and before I could check the time, I thought I saw a truck coming straight at me. I straightened up in the seat, but there was nothing there. My heart raced for a moment, the adrenaline pumped. Nothing there.

It felt like I was driving forever when that sign caught my attention. It seemed like an ordinary sign. I suppose it was for anyone else, but not for me. I pulled over as I got closer. It read: Elgin, 73 miles.

Could it be? Elgin? Elgin, Arizona? I never had heard of it. Although it didn't register with me at first, it now makes perfect sense to me. At least to the point where I am now, which I do not know.

I continued driving. I never got off the freeway. I never turned and yet it continued into the darkness. No other cars have been seen since I left Tucson. Except maybe that truck, but I'm not sure it was ever really there. No other sign of life except for the outstretched finger of the black pavement ahead of me. How long had it been? I looked at the watch. Seven-oh-three. It stopped. For the first time since she gave it to me, it stopped. I slammed on the brakes and pulled off the road. I turned off the car and the headlights. I kept my foot off of the brakes in case someone came along and slammed into the back of the car following the taillights. I fiddled with the watch. I wound it. Finally my heart started beating again as the watch did as well. "Thank God," I muttered.

I turned the car back on. The radio had lost its signal. Nothing but static in the vast desert. I slipped in a CD and turned on the headlights. For a moment it scared the hell out of me. The headlights reflected off of the sign just feet in front of my car. I never noticed it in the panic to fix the watch. Good thing I didn't drive straight into it.

It read: Elgin, 73 miles.

Impossible! I must have been more tired than I thought. I pulled out onto the highway and began on my way once again. I was quite certain to hit New Mexico at any time since I had been driving for what seemed like forever.

The CD was our favorite. Our music lulled me into memories and days gone by that filled my soul with life. Time seemed to stand still. I checked the time. Seven-forty-five. Seemed to be later than that. Miles later, more highway and no sign of life. Not a car, trucker, or even a coyote crossing the road. The pitch darkness on the sides of the road leave little to no room to even see bushes or trees in the desert. No sign of anything. Except for the one coming up. Again. No other words. Elgin, 73 miles.

I pulled over in front of it. I stared at it in disbelief. I checked my watch again. Seven-twenty. I stood there outside my car in the middle of nowhere staring at the watch. It was running backwards! The second hand rotated coolly and calmly counterclockwise. My eyes couldn't comprehend the impossible. I glanced up at the sign again. 73 miles. 73. Seven-three. I looked at the watch again near panic stricken. Seven-seventeen.

I couldn't get into the car quick enough. I threw it into gear and floored it. The rear of the car slid a little and nearly missed the eerie sign. I must have been going at least a hundred miles per hour. The sign had come and passed three times, each time reading the same. Elgin, 73 miles. The watch read seven-oh-five. The sign appeared again in the headlights. I slammed on the brakes and ran over to it. Elgin, 73 miles.

I felt strange. Very strange. My heart raced and things began to spin. Then it hit me. 73, seven-three. I looked at the watch. Ten seconds to go until it came back to seven-oh-three. My beloved! Four! Three! Two! One! Then a flash of light pierced the darkness. An explosion of light so brilliant and devastating I fell on my knees and tried to suck in air. Nothing. I couldn't breath. It seemed to last forever. Then the light faded as quickly as it came. I could breath again. And there I am.

* * * * * * * *

That is how I came to be here. Where? I still don't know. I feel like I have been sitting here forever. The watch stopped. It reads: seven-oh-three. I sit on a small ridge off to the side of the road by the highway sign that reads: Elgin, 73 miles.

Here I am. I sit on the side of the road, but I also see myself laying in the front seat of the car. The blood, dried by now, emitted from my ears, mouth and nose indicate a massive head trauma. I feel no pain. I feel nothing. Oddly enough, I sit and look at myself. I sit and stare at myself staring into eternity. I know I am dead. At least the part of me still in the car is dead. Some portion of life, maybe not life as I always knew it, breathes as I sit and wait for eternity to begin. What is to come, I do not know. I am a newcomer to this afterlife. The watch lay by my side in the car. It has stopped as well. A small droplet of blood stains the crystal face just out of reach of my cold dead fingers.

Time has no meaning. There is no breeze, no warmth nor cold air surrounding my body of sorts. I am intact, young and as I was. My sight is perfect, yet nothing to see. Everything just outside my view of the wreck and the sign is without form and without light. I must be forbidden to go there, for I cannot. I must be waiting for something or someone for I cannot leave. My will doesn't allow it.

A single light appears off in the distance. It is brilliant and white. All intuition and instinct tell me that it is who I believe it to be. I am not afraid. I knew He would come and I wait patiently for Him. Within an instant, within a fraction of a heartbeat, the light transcends time and space and is upon me in all its glory.

* * * * * * * *

He has come. He is here. He stands before me in all His glory. I cannot speak, I cannot move. Not from fear, but in awe and respect. The only motion I can make is to honor Him as I rise and fall to my knees. My face is planted firmly in the dirt below as I cannot bring myself to lift it. I surrender myself to Him.

"Peace be with you. Rise," He says gently.

Effortlessly and without hesitation I rise and stand before the King of Glory. Jesus Himself. He is beautiful beyond words, beyond earthly description. "My Lord," I utter as I bow my head. "You are with Me now, and will be forever. Your days are over, your journey complete. Rejoice and feel My love for you," He said without ever moving His mouth. I hear Him perfectly. I too have no need to move my mouth. He sees my heart, knows my thoughts and all else is meaningless. "Thank you, my Lord. Forgive me," I ask. "Be still. All has been forgiven and remembered no more. Enter My kingdom and receive your reward," He stretches His hands out. The marks are still there.

"You will enter the Kingdom. You will enter two by two. One escorts the other. Another will come and take you there. For there I will be as well. She will come and you will enter together."

My senses return. I feel everything, everything good. I feel so alive. More so than when I was. Pure joy and peace fill my heart. My body strong and limber. My soul sings songs of laughter and love. And He has departed. Still there, but departed. I know I am not alone though. I feel another. I feel her. She is here and my heart leaps as a child in the womb.

* * * * * * * *

"Hello handsome," a familiar voice calls out.

I turn and look. It is her, coming from behind the Elgin sign, smiling. She is beautiful. Far beyond what my memory allowed.

I am speechless. She comes to me, glowing and majestic, like an angel. It is my wife.

"I'm here to escort you. We go together. In life we were unified as one and will be eternally. My darling, I was never disappointed in you. If you only knew what I thought, you would never have been in despair. It was only moments ago that I made the journey to His kingdom. Time has no meaning here. I did not wait long. Though I died a while ago on earth, it was only a moment ago here. A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day," she beams and reaches her hand for mine. "Oh my love," I think I am going to cry, but cannot. There are no more tears. There is no sorrow, no regret, and no pain. I feel joy.

"Come. Let us go together," she touches my hand. The sensation is heavenly. To hold her again. To feel her touch and her presence is pure bliss.

As we begin to leave, I begin to wonder. She already knows and answers before I can form the question into words.

"It was my idea," she says.

"What was?"

"The watch. Elgin. Seven-oh-three," she smiles.

"How, why?" I ask.

"He told me your time was coming. He knew it was I to escort you. The manner of your death was not of my doing. It was to happen that way. The signs and the watch were my way of telling you that it was all going to be okay. You actually died outside of Tucson. Nowhere near Elgin, Arizona. A trucker fell asleep and veered over to your side of the road. You never saw him. You were looking at the watch. You died instantly."

"The signs were from you? Elgin, 73 miles? The watch running backwards?"

Instantly I understood. 73, seven-oh-three, Elgin. She died on July 3rd. It all makes sense to me now. She was protecting me from the pain of death, hinting to me that she was there and that He was there first and foremost. The watch ran backwards telling me the time left before I got to see her again. As we walk hand in hand, two by two, all the mysteries of the world came to light. Every question, every answer, no knowledge is too vast or too complex. He stands at the gates to receive us forever.

The accident scene has been cleared. My body in a body bag. The car has been turned over and the blood hosed from the road. All my possessions were bagged, all but the watch. Somehow it eluded anyone's eyes. It sits there on the roadside. It's still there to this day. It lay in perfect condition, inexplicably still ticking. Waiting, with all the time in the world.

Next time you are on a trip, look for it. Wherever you are going, it makes no difference. The signs are not relevant, because each of us has our own road to travel. My journey ended that night and gave birth to another, an eternal one. Each journey is different, yet the same. Mine just happened to end and begin again on the road to Elgin.

D.F. Mitten is a freelance writer and editor of "Round-up" magazine. He is currently working on his third novel, "Midgely Bridge" and is seeking representation for his first two, "The Wonder of It All" and "The Playhouse". This is D.F. Mitten's fourth short story.

Contact Mr. Mitten at: mitteda@yahoo.com

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