“The fire popped and crackled as it burned lower. Arkwright deposited the brass scrap absentmindedly on the floor, picking up a coiled spring. ‘So. Come to kill me again?’ he inquired politely.”
When silence fills a room, the tick of one clock can be louder than a heartbeat. The steady sound of the seconds passing fills empty air with a melancholy cloud of missing time.
But then, if one clock is a heartbeat, fifty is a thunderclap.
The largest clock was set above the fireplace, its large face counting over the proceedings of the room like some sort of eternal judge, heavy hands rusted and numbers chipped and faded. Its edges were yellowed like paper, and justice squeaked in its spinning gears, friendly and stern.
Below it on the mantle, a much newer clock stood stiffly: white and pristine with dashes circling its face instead of numbers. Its hands were long and narrow, ticking with noisy efficiency, primly aware that it was wound just a bit too tight.
The grandfather clock stood in the corner, solemnly counting the seconds, dust gathering at its feet.
Shining mahogany faces gleamed from the ceiling, twins, ticking faster and faster, competing with each other’s balance of numbers.
Dozens of other clocks lined the walls, varying in shape, size, and color. The ticking rang out from every corner, some quick and desperate, others seeming almost despondent, but all somehow exactly on time, up to the very second.
The man who sat in the center of the room muttered to himself as he dug through a small pile of tools. Secrets whirled about him, brushing against him, begging for his attention, but he waved them away.
His hands never stopped moving, searching through the pile while dragging his fingers agitatedly through his hair. He tapped along to the ticking, still muttering under his breath. He gave a frustrated sigh, and the largest clock whirred questioningly.
“When I was young,” Arkwright informed the clocks, his eyes heavy with the weight of thousands of years, “I wondered why people grew old. Silly thing to do, I thought. Why let time control you?”
It was strange, really, how someone could look so young and so old all at once. Eternity blossomed before his face, dancing before his eyes.
“Old is one thing. Ancient is quite another.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut and dissolving the illusion.
The twin clocks on the ceiling exchanged worried ticks as he continued, motioning grandly with one arm. “You grow old from too much living. You become ancient from too much time; that’s the secret. Too much time and not enough life to fill it.”
“Timekeeper. You’re rambling again.” He turned to see Eldon standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the light pouring out behind him.
Arkwright arranged his face into an innocent expression. “Am I? I suppose so. Can’t be helped.” He looked ruefully around him at the spare bits and broken bobs scattered on the floor. “Life is relative, my friend. Time plays with fools by being generous.” The prim little clock on the mantle hummed in annoyance. “You would know that, of course.” He fiddled idly with a scrap of metal, turning it over in his long fingers so it shone in the firelight.
Eldon smiled sadly. “Of course.”
“Of course,” Arkwright muttered under his breath, studying the brass scrap, “of course. Nothing is ‘of course.’ Some things are ‘possibly.’ Some things are ‘maybe.’ Nothing is ‘of course.’ Nothing can be that certain, can it? You blink and it’s gone. It never lasts.”
“It just disappears.” Eldon’s voice was sympathetic, almost pitying.
“Disappears? No. Flickers.” The Timekeeper drew out a pair of spectacles, balancing them precariously on his nose. He rubbed the brass with his thumb. “Like a candle.”
Eldon closed the door gently and approached the man sitting on the floor. “A candle?” he asked.
Arkwright resolutely turned his back on Eldon. “A candle,” he agreed, waving a hand vaguely behind him. “You know. Burning down the wick, dripping wax, dancing on the edge of oblivion.” He looked up from the scrap for a second, peering deep into space. “Surviving merely to be extinguished.” The grandfather clock creaked in agreement, its peeling, painted numbers looking sad and lonely.
Eldon picked up a shard of twisted glass which lay on the table and held it up to his eye. “Well,” he said, “if you see it that way.”
Arkwright hesitated, still studying the opposite wall over the top of his spectacles, before adjusting them and returning to the scrap. “Yes, well. There’s no other way for me to see it. I live from my point of view.”
Eldon grinned openly at this response. “As do we all.”
The fire popped and crackled as it burned lower. Arkwright deposited the brass scrap absentmindedly on the floor, picking up a coiled spring. “So. Come to kill me again?” he inquired politely. He asked the question in such a matter-of-fact tone he might have been discussing the weather, but the ticking around them gained a more ominous note, speeding up an infinitesimal amount.
The grin fell from Eldon’s face, and he seemed to age ten years as looked down at his hands, replying finally, “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Oh no, not like that!” Eldon looked up in time to see the Timekeeper climb to his feet. “Chin up! If you’re going to kill me, at least be confident about it! You haven’t lost faith in this old game of ours, have you? No.”
Eldon sighed. “If you would stop being so bloody cheerful about it, it might make a difference.” A squat, grey clock near the floor groaned in agreement, and Eldon half-glanced at it.
“Oh! Sorry.” Arkwright tried to arrange his face into something more suited to the situation. “Better?”
“Mm.” Arkwright bobbed his head distractedly, before straightening up, folding his spectacles and slipping them back into a pocket. “Right. Better get it over with, then. Do you have a plan this time, or are you merely going to ‘wing it,’ as they say?”
“Listen, could you not do that?”
“You know. That.”
The Timekeeper raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a bit more specific.”
“Your whole crazy, cheerful babbling act. What part of ‘kill you’ did you not understand?”
Arkwright, however, was now ignoring him. He had directed his attention instead to a particularly small clock, whose hands looked limp and feeble. Its ticking had slowed, and the seconds were out of step with the others. The noise in the room grew quieter as the Timekeeper put a hand on its face, fingers tracing the tiny numbers gently as he muttered words of encouragement. The clock was small, with a shell-colored rim and innocent numerals circling the edges.
Eldon watched curiously. He had done this time and time again (Ha. he thought weakly, Time and time again. How accurate.) but this was new. New was rare for him these days, but, he justified, that’s the price I pay.
The clock squeaked mournfully, and Eldon noticed that Arkwright’s hands were shaking slightly and he stroked the clock face. Now that’s definitely new.
This was the first time Eldon had seen anything but a smile on the Timekeeper’s face. Worry creased Arkwright’s brow, and every miniscule line on his face grew more pronounced. The firelight played on the bags under his eyes, casting dark shadows over his face.
The ticking of the other clocks was barely more than a whisper as time slowed down. The tiny clock shivered violently, nearly falling out of the wall altogether, but Arkwright held it in place, still muttering under his breath.
As Eldon watched, the Timekeeper pressed a gentle finger against the second hand, stopping it completely. The room was silent in shock, as even the other clocks forgot what they were supposed to be doing.
Arkwright stood slowly, turning to face his other clocks, who hastily resumed ticking. As he returned his gaze to Eldon, his true age seemed to be written all over his young face. His pale eyes were filled with a determined fire: ancient, grief-stricken, and ever so slightly furious. He turned his gaze on Eldon, who took a step back involuntarily, filled with the unmistakable feeling of witnessing the calm before a storm. The Timekeeper spread his arms wide, and said quietly to his killer, “Get it over with. We have work to do.”
Eldon glanced nervously at the other clocks, but they ignored him, concentrating only on counting the silent seconds as they passed. A gunshot echoed through the room, and as the Timekeeper fell, the clocks stopped for the second time that day.