The hour struck midnight. Everyone in the sleepy town of Everstead could hear the chimes and gongs and bells of clocks. They all resonated from the same gloomy, eldritch manor at the west outskirts of the borough. The residents had heard stories about its solitary inhabitant. The legend went that Horatio Ward had one day awoke to the deafening toll of an enigmatic, hidden clock that only he could hear. It never ceased and pushed him to the brink of madness. His manor was now full of an omnium gatherum of clocks as he searched far and wide for the one that incessantly drove him out of his mind.
None of the townsfolk wanted anything to do with Horatio Ward or his clocks. The haunting sounds of time that drifted over their homes at each hour were enough of a reminder. However, there was one man daring enough to venture to the timekeeper’s manor.
The wrought-iron gate swung open with a creak. The manor was tucked deep within dark, dense woods, forcing Maxwell to park his car along the road and trudge up the narrow, rocky path leading up to the house. His long, olive-green trench coat swayed behind him, and his shiny new bowler hat nearly tumbled off his head in the zephyr. He reached the front door, lugging with him yesterday’s investment—an antique pendulum wall clock. The delicate carving of a horse on top was missing a leg, but that wouldn’t matter to Horatio. The clock ticked under Maxwell’s arm as he knocked.
Horatio opened the door to a view of the top of Maxwell’s head. It wasn’t that Horatio was unnaturally tall; Maxwell was just lacking in stature.
“Mr. Page, please, come in.”
Inside the manor, a cacophony of ticks and tocks drowned out all other sounds. The harsh discord was a myriad of deep, piercing, loud, and soft. Maxwell couldn’t turn his head in a different direction without seeing at least a dozen clocks in his field of vision. There was barely an inch of the tacky, damask wallpaper visible between the clocks that were hanging on the walls. There were vintage clocks, cuckoo clocks, and modern analog clocks. Grandfather clocks took up every corner. There were clocks on tables and more scattered all over the floors. Drawers were overflowing with pocket watches and wristwatches. And still, not one of them was the clock that Horatio was searching for.
Horatio led Maxwell down a long hallway to the one room where they would not have to strain their voices to speak above the sounds of time. Once the door was closed, they were left with only the faint ticking of the few clocks that existed within that room.
“It sounds quieter in here today, Mr. Ward,” said Maxwell as he laid the pendulum clock on the table at the edge of the room.
“Yes, well,” Horatio started, rubbing his rather long chin, “something strange has been happening to many of my clocks these last few days.”
Removing his hat, Maxwell wiped at the sweat that had formed on his brow. “Oh? What sort of strange something?”
“I’ll show you. First, how much would you like for this clock?”
After they struck a deal, Horatio led Maxwell back through the manor, the ticking following them along the way. Upon entering the kitchen, Maxwell’s jaw fell slack and his brows raised into his forehead. The scene was like something out of a Salvador Dalí painting—a very specific one. Clocks and watches were discarded on the counters and floors, and it appeared as though they had been melted. Some were draped over the backs of chairs or were hanging out of drawers. Ants roamed around on top of one of the drooping clocks. Maxwell was sure Dalí’s painting had come to life.
“Time itself appears to be wilting around me.” Horatio let out a disconcerting chuckle.
“How did this happen?” Maxwell asked, turning his hat over and over in his hands.
“Time is without a protector. I cannot be its true keeper until I find the clock that woke me.” He turned to Maxwell, a redness in his wide, wild eyes. There were dark circles beneath them, and the hair on top of his head and on his face was shabby and unkempt. “Mr. Page, it is more important than ever that I find that clock.”
All Maxwell could see was an unwell and unstable man. All this time, he had only been feeding Horatio’s delusions. “Uh, of course!” He stuttered as he began backing away toward the exit. “I’ll make some calls to my connections in the neighboring towns. I’ll get on it right away.”
As Maxwell made the trek back to his car, he decided he wouldn’t stop. Horatio Ward had made him a wealthy man. It wasn’t his problem that the guy was a madman who melted clocks in his spare time.
Two days later, Maxwell showed back up at Horatio’s manor—this time with two mantel clocks and a brass pocket watch that was engraved with the words, “Peter, my forever. Love, your always, Abby.” If he could convince Horatio that he took his plight seriously, perhaps he could squeeze a little extra cash out of him.
Following Horatio through the manor that day, the strange phenomenon that had befallen many of the clocks in the kitchen had spread to others throughout the house. As though they were made of jelly, some appeared to be slithering off the walls and tabletops. What was even more disturbing was the notable difference in the interval between many of the ticks and tocks that carried through the rooms and halls. Instead of coming every second like they should, they now came once every two or three seconds. It was as if time itself had slowed.
There was hardly any negotiating. Horatio placed a thick wad of cash on the table, his movements sluggish like a sloth’s. Maxwell said nothing.
On Maxwell’s next visit, the sky was so dark that it nearly beclouded the mansion as though it were night. The overcast gray pressed in on him as he tramped down the path to the house. It obscured anything that might have been lurking within the woods. Even from outside, Maxwell could hear the ticking from within the mansion. But something was wrong. The ticking was wrong. It was coming much too slow—more like every minute than every second. Maxwell reached out and grabbed onto the ornate door knocker before striking the door with it three times. The soundwaves it produced were too far apart and moved behindhand, causing the noise to sound unnaturally deep as it rang through the trees.
Horatio never came to the door. Maxwell wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand while cradling a clock in his other arm. He shifted his weight between his feet and bit the inside of his cheek. He had never considered Horatio a friend, and yet he was filled with concern.
With his free hand, Maxwell reached for the doorknob and twisted. It wasn’t locked. Pushing open the door, he stood at the boundary between inside and outside. “Hello?” His voice echoed back to him, deeper and more drawn out. “Horatio?”
There was no answer. Maxwell placed one foot on the drab crimson carpet and then another. Turning a corner out of the foyer, he froze at the edge of the main corridor. The mantle clock that he held in one arm fell to the floor, smashed as splinters were embedded into the fibers of the carpet. He stumbled to the side so that he could grip onto the corner of the wall. What he saw was something he could never explain for as long as he lived.
All of the clocks in the manor were melted now. Some of them were near liquid, pooled on the floor in swirls of black and white, the numbers or Roman numerals unidentifiable within the puddles. Some of them were closer to sludge. Their hands still moved one tick every minute, hindered by the muck. But the clocks weren’t the most eerie sight of all. Maxwell could see Horatio. He stood at the end of the long hallway. He was still. His body was suspended in mid-stride with one foot in the air. The longer Maxwell stared at him, the lower Horatio’s foot descended until it finally hit the carpet. Horatio was moving, only slower than if he had been made of molasses.
It was clear by the sounds of time floating sluggishly throughout the manor that time no longer worked the same within its confines. The chime of a grandfather clock reverberated from another room, the first single note sustained much too long—so long that Maxwell feared it would never cease.
“I’m so sorry, Horatio.”
Maxwell tipped his hat at the nearly immobilized man. He could feel his own movements growing laggard. Turning almost as slow as the second hand of a clock, Maxwell made it back to the front door and outside.
Standing at the bottom of the steps, he caught sight of the tailend of his trench coat out of the corner of his eye. It billowed like a flag in the wind around him in slow motion. Raising his gaze, he stared above with his mouth agape. The boughs of the oaks that hung over the path swayed in the breeze at a crawling pace. Moving his eyes, he noticed the gradual change in the undulating of the trees. They were slower directly above him, as though they were moving in time with a metronome set to larghissimo tempo. The farther away they were from the manor, the faster they lurched and rolled, like they could sense time creeping to a halt. There was a black hole inside that manor, and everything was getting sucked into its gravitational time dilation.
Maxwell ran. It felt as though he was attempting to run through water, but it wasn’t the weight of water that slowed him down. It was the weight of time. Time had grown heavy, and now it trapped him like quicksand.
Peering over his shoulder, Maxwell lay witness to his own grim fate. Horatio stood in the open doorway, unmoving. Time was imprisoning him with its keeper.
All sounds of time ceased. Horatio no longer moved, and neither did Maxwell. The trees stopped their sway. The last breeze blew, and Maxwell’s coat was suspended in a permanent tousled wave.
It was the last sound of time heard throughout all of Everstead. Every hand of every clock froze. A cat was stuck in mid-yawn. A bus will never make its stop. A couple that was dancing in their kitchen was now turned to stone. Time had gripped the entire town in its clutches, and it became lost to legend just like Horatio Ward.
Time never again moved in Everstead.
Chelsea Thornton is a neurodivergent writer from Texas. She is also a BA student in English literature, an editor for The Aurora Journal, and a reader for The Forge Literary Magazine. Her short fiction has been published in Maudlin House, Bewildering Stories, Emerge Literary Journal, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @chelseactually or online at chelseathornton.com.