They don’t make them like they used to, Kit’s right about that. If he keeps his eyes closed, the pocket watch’s lowly tick thrums to a heartbeat in his hand. The mechanical swing of time, gears and springs, at easy reach whenever he needs it.
“What are you doing?”
He cranes his head. His niece stands in the doorway. She’s just turned eleven and she holds out her hands with outstretched fingers, still too young to be conscious of where her limbs are.
“Hey,” he says, “just keeping the time.”
She’s tough for him to look at, scrawny, bright-eyed and too much like his sister. It reminds him of July, when he and Charlotte had nothing on the horizon but another hot northeastern summer. A forecast of sprinklers and ice cream trucks.
He looks at the walls of his office and the girl follows suit. The framed butterflies against white walls, deer antlers and books. So many old and dead things surrounding the placeless man at his desk.
His gaze falls back to his fingers. He dangles the watch by the chain and slips it into his pocket.
“Do you have any cereal?” his niece asks.
“You’re the worst uncle ever.”
He considers this for a moment, though she says it with a smirk.
“Come into the kitchen. I’ll make you French toast.”
“I take it back,” she says and jumps twice.
He trails behind her to the stove. The floorboards chill his bare feet, reminding him he needs to chop wood before it snows. She perches at the counter and swings long legs. She’ll mock him, but he throws on an apron and gets out the butter. Pretty soon the room starts to warm with the smell of cinnamon. He whistles and gives the pan a poke.
She looks at his profile as he cooks. He has the family nose that she does not, long and straight. Dark hair they do share, his creeping out untamed beneath a knit beanie.
“How come you never visit us?” she puts her palms flat on the counter.
“Principle. I’m…working on my carbon footprint,” he smiles.
He slides French toast onto a stark white plate and nudges it over with his spatula. He inclines his head toward the pitcher of warm syrup. There’s a moment of pulse climbing as he thinks of its heavy glass walls, but she handles it like a champ with both hands.
“Eat up, kid.” He scoots in next to her at the counter.
They eat in an ignitionless silence before she puts her glass out for more orange juice.
“Who’s the girl in your library?”
“What girl, kid?”
She slides a Polaroid across the table. He stops chewing and his expression flattens.
Within the white frame is a woman. She is young and laughing, moving to cover her face from the shock of camera flash. She’s half Japanese, green eyes fringed with wild bangs. A crooked canine tooth is all that keeps her from being what you could call stunning. The niece watches him devour the wash of heavy black hair, navy fabric and bare shoulders.
“Who is she?”
She’s tantalized by the possibility of peering into the cloister of her uncle’s past. Again, he disappoints.
“That’s a very old photo.”
The fork vibrates between his teeth as he bites down too hard. “Look, Macy, no one likes a busybody.”
She wilts, with drooping eyes and slouching shoulders. He catches his own face warped in the glossy black tile backsplash of the stove. Late to the airport, missing extra towels, speaking too harshly—all the evidences of a bachelor living too long alone in the middle of nowhere.
He treads to the stove and starts up another batch of toast. When she dares to look up, he grins painfully at her.
Kids are so easy. She’s back to smiles.
“Well, the point is,” he says, “your uncle has some things to forget.”
“And she’s one of them?”
“Did she break your heart?”
“Is she bad?”
“No,” he laughs, “she’s not bad.”
“Then what’s wrong with her?”
“Ah…long story. Kind of incredible actually. Not something you’d believe.”
Macy tilts her head. She flicks her eyes up from under her bangs.
“I know,” she says with a smile, “tell me like it’s someone else’s story. Like it’s make believe.”
Her shoulders fall. This is how she always looks these days, head bent and doe eyes curtained off by her hair.
He taps his foot on the ground.
“Oh, what the hell, let’s give it a shot.”
“You said the h-word!”
Mischief lights her face and she squirms.
He holds his breath and flips the toast in the skillet. It lands with a sizzle. A clatter as he returns the pan to heat and a hazy skyline forms in his mind, wrinkled with summer.
“Up north, there is—”
“I really like Hercules,” she says.
“Okay, non-sequitur, thanks.” He looks over his shoulder at her.
“They showed us a movie in school about Hercules. And the Olympics. Can it be a story about that?”
“I thought you wanted to hear about her,” he says.
“It can be about both!”
He sighs. “Are you ready now?”
“I was ready before.” She pushes out her plate for him to refill.
“Okay. Let’s set the scene a little.”
He slides bread onto her plate and puts the skillet down. Stove off, fan off—he walks through to the living room and shuffles through his bag. When he returns, he has an open laptop balanced on his arm. He types one-handed and sticks his tongue out the corner of his mouth. Careful not to fall off her chair, Macy stretches her neck. Her uncle has a colorful map up on his screen.
“Uh-huh. Okay. The Olympics. Hmmm. There is a thief who lives in the shadow of Mount Kronos. Unlike the men who have gone to war or sought glory on other shores, he’s grown tall on the steps of temples and bathhouses.”
“Why isn’t he a soldier, too?” Macy asks.
“He’s not from Olympia. Besides, he grew up in a sensitive household. One that prized philosophy and deep thought. So, he learned to write and read, and had ambitions to be a…scribe, or a potter.”
“What does his sister do?”
“Are you going to keep interrupting me through this whole story?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” she says.
“Well, I appreciate your honesty.”