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Low Limb High

by Tom Underhill

part 1 of 2

The footprints from her last attic visit were still discernible, still recording the past passage despite the dust’s best efforts to erase it. What remained was just detailed enough to see the difference in treads; Uncle Cliff had bought her new shoes in July, which meant it’d been close to a full month. She was finally getting better about not using this as a crutch, not running up here after every bad grade or burst of tears.

Renewing the blurred tracks by fitting her feet to their outlines, Caroline traced her way to Sire’s Seat (her brother Ethan’s name for it). Her mother had always hated the tattered, many-stained easy chair, but her grumblings had never amounted to much while Caroline’s dad was still around. Within days of his walking out, though, the Seat disappeared, along with pretty much everything else identifiable with him. Caroline and Ethan had stumbled on the chair a year later while hiding from a babysitter.

Collapsing into the leathery familiarity, she closed her eyes to savor the lingering scent of cigarettes and Old Spice. Caroline let herself sink into the frayed cushioning, folding her arms across her chest and squeezing hard to complete the illusion of an embrace. It was still nice to have this as a fallback, though, even if she was growing more self-reliant... Especially after confrontations like the one she’d just had with her mother-

Skittering fur brushed over her ankle. Caroline screamed, opening her eyes just in time to see a terrified rodent scurrying from view. Angry with herself for reacting like a girl, she ripped off her left shoe and hurled it at the vanishing tail. The sneaker missed by a foot, and struck an old bookcase with enough force to send a box teetering back and forth on the highest shelf.

Caroline stifled a second cry and tried to cover the distance in time, but came up just short as the box and its contents burst at her feet. Skidding to a stop, she schooled herself to take a deep, slow breath, which, once gathered, was immediately expelled as she noticed her dad’s watch slowly spinning in one of her twice-trod footprints.

* * *

“Say hi to your mom for me?” Danny Hammond leered at her idiotically.

Turning her head in what she hoped was a pointed fashion, Caroline kept walking towards the school’s main entrance. She tried not to cringe when she heard “Ms. Thornburn’s a fox but her daughter’s not!” shouted across the blacktop.

After winding her way through the halls to the cafeteria, Caroline bought a chocolate milk to justify her presence. She’d already eaten breakfast at home — two slices of cinnamon sugar toast and a glass of Pepsi — but purchasing something now allowed her to sit in peace for a few minutes at her own table. So she could think. About a family heirloom that should’ve been long gone.

The pocket watch had been in her family for generations. Caroline knew because her dad had made sure she knew, drumming it into her every time he was flailing for something to say and his hand wandered nervously into his pocket. “Ahh, Cary, now this, this is truly a treasure. The only link we have with the first Thornburns to come to this country...”

Caroline’s eyes almost started glazing over reflexively before she shook herself back to focus (Ethan had dubbed the watch the Family Snore, one of his few nicknames Caroline disliked yet secretly agreed with). She’d paid enough attention, though, to know that her dad prized the item currently hidden under her pillow more than anything else he’d owned. It’d been a fixture of his apparel; Caroline had trouble ever remembering him without it.

The day’s first bell shrieked overhead. Caroline rose to throw away the half-empty milk carton and head to English, pleading with herself to ignore the question gnawing at her consciousness at least until school was over.

* * *

The key under the mat was missing; her mother had probably lost her own set again and borrowed this one to lock up the house. Being shut out every other afternoon had only been a problem until Caroline worked up the courage to climb the old oak in back, Son’s Stump (Ethan’s favorite reading log) serving as a stepladder to the first branch.

It galled her to have to use the Stump for a leg up: her brother had joked once that you had to be “low limb high” to leave home, meaning tall enough to grab the first branch flatfooted (so you could climb back in unnoticed upon your return). The day after Ethan stole away in the night for good — two months to the day after their father disappeared — Caroline had measured the tree and then her doorframe, marking it at five feet eight inches; she was still four inches shy.

But as much as it burned, jumping seemed too desperate, and getting the extra key from the neighbors over and over again was embarrassing. Besides, it was a lot more rewarding to enter like a cat burglar than a latchkey kid.

After washing the sap and bits of bark off her hands, Caroline returned to her room and immediately rescued the watch from under her pillow. Cradling the silver timepiece, she pored over its surface, noting how well preserved it was aside from the small dent on the back bottom edge.

As a clock, it was still a failure (it had never worked, even after her dad’s countless hours of tinkering), but it was redeemed by an understated elegance, a simple beauty that kept luring her eye back. Small, plain, as stripped down as such a mechanism could be... and yet more breathtaking than anything else she possessed...

The phone rang, shattering her reverie. Caroline let the answering machine stand in, her breath catching — as it always did — when the male voices sounded on the all family greeting that’d never been changed. The message was predictably anticlimactic, however: “Hey Sharon, this is Cliff again. Just calling to check up on the Toyota and see how it’s running now...” Her Uncle would be lucky to get a call back within a week.

Returning her attention to the watch, Caroline let its roundness refill her hand, its weight exerting a gentle pressure on her palm. Even the two protruding knobs felt good, the hollows they created in her skin feeling like the first forces of a deep massage. She closed her eyes... and saw her next project. A scene she’d learned to start rendering immediately, before the image began to fade and the details diminished.

Caroline moved to set the watch back under her pillow, reconsidered, and slipped the timepiece in her pocket before hurrying to her sketchbook.

* * *

The standard twenty minutes elapsed before her mother came upstairs to check in; shedding all the trappings of work, glancing at the New York Times, and making a Martini (or two, or three) took priority. With glass in one hand and paper in the other, her mother eventually made the obligatory 6:15 pm appearance, humming a show tune as she entered her daughter’s bedroom. “Hi Sweetie, how was school?”

“Fine.” Caroline’s gaze stayed fixed on her painting as she wondered if her mother would look closely enough to recognize and question.

“Creating your own little world again, I see. Is it a lost cause to try and tempt you with a movie tonight?”

“It’s okay.” Keeping her head down, Caroline suppressed a smile at her parent’s seeming obliviousness.

“So I suspected, but don’t say I never tried. And still scribbling on the wall...” Based on the slurp of her Martini, it sounded like her mother was standing by the doorframe now, where Caroline had made a new measurement the night before. “Dinner at least?”

“Don’s Wok?”

“Again? Well, why not. I’ll call you when it comes.”

“Okay.” Her mother was already halfway down the stairs and humming again before Caroline remembered. “Oh, Mom?”

“Yes, Honey?”

“Whatever happened to Dad’s watch?”

Her mother’s footsteps, which had been making their way back up the steps, stopped abruptly. “Dad’s watch?” she eventually asked from somewhere in the hallway.

“Did he take it with him?” Her mother’s change in tone had been striking; for the first time in ages, Caroline wished they were talking face to face.

“I’m sure he must have, Dear... Whatever made you think about that gaudy relic?”

“Kid at school had one kind of like it. Just made me think.” Reversing her wish, she prayed that her mother stayed on the stairs; Caroline’s easy flushes made her a transparent liar.

“Alright then. I’m calling dinner now.”

Caroline waited until she heard her mother trudge into the kitchen before allowing herself to reach down and squeeze the watch. After a moment of forced relaxation, she turned back to the painting, her third of the afternoon, and resolved to finish the diorama that night.

* * *

The attic was always a good bet for finding a finishing touch; Ethan had been a modeling fanatic since he was twelve, and the amount of material he’d accumulated over the years was staggering. She still felt a little sacrilegious rummaging through it. But taking up his hobby had given her an outlet this last year, and kept her from clashing too much with her remaining parent.

Initially, her mother had made some sharp, predictable comments about Caroline’s new interest. But just as with Ethan, she’d never actually stepped in the way. Caroline suspected that some small part of her mother enjoyed the déjà vu; for all that she’d repeatedly reminded her firstborn of how many of his friends had cars by age sixteen instead of little metal universes, everything he’d left behind was now carefully catalogued and packed away against... the day Ethan returned, Caroline supposed. For now, though, it was a treasure trove, a gold mine of resources she tapped whenever she could overcome the guilt of rifling through his legacy.

Like tonight: surely Ethan wouldn’t mind contributing something to a project that revolved around family history? Of course, not... But Caroline still wasn’t sure what she wanted that contribution to be.

Slumping into Sire’s Seat, she set the diorama on her lap and studied it in an attempt to figure out what was missing: the three walls were painted as accurately as she could manage, the furniture looked reasonably familiar, even the figurine was a passable rendition. It was her living room, her living room of five years ago, with her dad slouched in a miniature Seat, reading a book. Close to her best work... And yet it felt incomplete.

Shifting carefully so as not to upset the shoebox, Caroline reached into her pocket and pulled out the watch. Staring at it proved unproductive: the original inspiration inspired no further.

Stymied, she began absently twiddling its two knobs, winding them sporadically while her eyes roved over Ethan’s shelf again. Maybe she just needed to sleep on it, rest the five hours until school and reevaluate tomorrow. Her scholastic concentration was beginning to...

The watch squirted out of her grasp and tumbled into the diorama. Caroline swore, started to reach down to remove the tiny clock, and froze. All she could do was blink, in a vain attempt to wipe away the impossible with her eyelids.

* * *

The attempt failed: the tiny figurine was still STARING back at her when she reopened her eyes. Not sure whether she was stifling a scream or a laugh or both, Caroline locked her jaw shut.

But the figurine opened his. “Hey.”

Even Caroline’s eyes felt paralyzed now.

“I’m alright... You?” The miniature body was beginning to move now, slowly but surely, as if it were thawing out from the neck down...

The crack of a pointer smacking her desk jerked Caroline back to attention, shattering her reminiscence of the scene in the attic three nights ago and replacing it with Mrs. Pearson’s disapproving mask of wrinkles. After quashing the few stray snickers from the back of the class with a look, the math teacher resumed the lesson as if it’d never been interrupted.

Shivering slightly, Caroline started copying the outline on the blackboard. She’d already been reprimanded for day dreaming three times by two different teachers, and both counts had just increased. Taking the entire week off from school probably would’ve been the best option, but her mother had put a rare foot down after successive sick days with no symptoms. It was nearly impossible to concentrate, though, to focus on anything but reliving the images that’d thrown her into such a confused turmoil...

Caroline finally managed to slam her eyelids down and back up again, but with no more luck than her first attempt. The box felt like nothing in her lap: its weight had vanished.

The tiny man now seemed to be looking just to her left, near or at her limp forearm. His features had sharpened enough to make a wary expression distinguishable. “Why are you here?” he asked suddenly, as one little arm began to bend at the elbow, haltingly at first and then more smoothly. The other followed, and eventually the two limbs crossed over his miniscule chest, which was beginning to rise and fall in tiny, breath-like motions...

A foot nudged the back of her calf, and Caroline looked over at Janice. Her friend of five years smiled and motioned with her eyes back to the blackboard.

Caroline nodded numbly, noted how far behind she was, and began copying again. Her hand formed the equations robotically, slowing with every character...

The urge to knock the box off her lap was overwhelming, but her body wouldn’t comply, her nerves wouldn’t fire.

His little brow furrowed, and the figurine cocked his head and stared, still in the vicinity of her forearm. After a long moment of silence, he extended one arm, opening a hand so vividly detailed that the lines of his palm were visible. The pocket watch appeared in his grasp, sized to his scale, and his arm dipped to accommodate its weight. “Wow...”

Caroline gasped, finally capable of motion and sound. His voice had risen in volume, coming into being at the same gradual rate as the rest of him; the one-sided conversation was now reverberating around the diorama with a bass that made Caroline’s nose hairs tingle. It felt... familiar. “Dad?”

His gaze stayed fixed on the watch as his fingers caressed it slowly. “You know this doesn’t change things.” The voice was weary now, sapped of the earlier hostility.

Caroline’s lips twitched with indecision, unsure what words to form, what questions to ask.

“But... Thank you...” He sighed, and raised his eyes back to their former level. “I think it’d be best if you left now...”

“Ms. Thornburn!” Her name and the crack came simultaneously. “See me after class so we can discuss methods for improving your concentration.”

Caroline murmured an apology and began scribbling down the latest slew of bullet points. As soon as Mrs. Pearson’s back was turned, Janice flashed a sympathetic and slightly guilty look that Caroline managed to answer with a weak smile, before turning back to her notes... And the memory she couldn’t shake, no matter what she tried...

She blinked again, and the third attempt did the trick; when she reopened her eyes, everything was as it had been before. The figurine was motionless, in its original, static position, the furniture rearranged back to her design... and the watch was life size again, resting in the corner where it’d first fallen, its hands advanced exactly five minutes.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill

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