The ground begins to shake beneath me. I stumble to the nearest park bench and sit down hard. The cobblestones in front of me crumble; the branches of the oak tree above me vibrate and tremble. My heart skips a beat as I look to my left and some guy with a grey beard three benches down is flattened by a large falling branch. Further down, tree limbs are being flung like pick-up-stix, and to my horror the largest one takes out a pair of joggers. The couple are crushed in an instant. I blink. To my right, a towering ash is uprooting as pedestrians and dog walkers scramble toward the street. The giant trunk teeters for a moment in slow motion, and then in a split second crashes to the pavement, squashing the horde like so many mutant cockroaches.
I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird – pure white with light grey tips on her wings. She was different. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.
I was always too afraid to marry. An inventor should have a wife, they told me, but they didn’t understand that I was already married to my work. I could never be worthy enough for a woman, who were superior to me in every single way. My heroes, Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant also never married and their genius was a testament to that. My chastity was the key to my own scientific abilities, but as I near the end of my life, I sometimes doubt if the sacrifice was worth it.
A tangle of black comms lines, like a clustered neuron, hung dead on a wooden telephone pole. It was a web ready to burst into flame at the first signal surge. This was the first image Zed saw as he exited the Vijayawada air terminal. Wired lines at the end of the 21st Century? I have to rely on these to carry my “all safe” message home.
Zed had come to give a lecture at a new university, an up-and-coming institution in this Indian Capital of Learning. Twenty-four hours of planes through Singapore and Chennai, a slight kerfuffle at customs (he’d misspelled the address of his destination), happily countered by a warm greeting by his host and friend, Prof. Srinu.
“You’re going to be a big hit,” Srinu said, taking Zed’s bags. “Our design students can’t wait to hear from a top typographer like you.”
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.
“Hey, hon, how did it go at the doctor?”
“I’m only five foot four and a half.”
My husband stood there, dropping his powerful shoulders while holding his hands like serving trays, and dropping his knees, quite the simian effect.
“Didn’t you tell them you were five foot six?”
“Yes, but the nurse helping me just gently shook her head.”
The coffee was as dismal as the doughnuts smelled, but Hope kept it, clutching the cup to her chest like a Styrofoam talisman. She’d never been inside St. Matthew’s before, much less its basement. With its frowzy walls and sepulchral lighting, though, it suited her mood. Western Romance had just rejected her again—this time for “Cowboy, Unfettered”—with the same stock response she could now quote by heart:
Thanks again for the opportunity to read your story. Unfortunately, after careful consideration, we’ve decided that it’s not a good fit for us at this time.
My stomach hurt for a week after my cat Boots died. She arrived as a gift on my first birthday, and ten years later, she was gone. A year after that, we had more death to cope with. But unlike with Boots’s death, we rarely talked about what happened next door at the Moores’. Whenever we spoke of that summer of 1979, what we discussed was the lemonade stand, not the murder-suicide that triggered the estate sale where my sister and I made a fortune.
Julie (my sister) and I sat at the kitchen table eating cereal while my mother whistled Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” as she unpacked her brown leather tote bag from the weekend retreat, from where she and my father had returned the night before. She has always been one of the best whistlers I know. She can draw her fingers to her lips and let out a whistle that can be heard blocks away. On this day, she was casually whistling with just her lips, not typical, but it sounded nice. She pulled a candle from her bag and placed it on the dining table next to a silver bowl I’d never seen her use. The candle was in a tall glass votive decorated with two overlapping yellow circles above which, inside a red heart, were the words “Marriage Encounter.” She lit the candle and walked back to her bag to finish emptying it. Julie and I slowly ate our cereal, weary from the long weekend with our “fun” babysitter. I couldn’t remember going anywhere, which meant we had been home the entire weekend.
“Oh my god,” said Sarah, staring at the mural. “That’s exactly what I’ve been talking about.”
It was a garish Lautrec-style painting on the side of a house. The woman’s face was devoid of features – a peachy splodge under a black, lacy hat. Her dress, draping the rest of the brickwork as though dressing the house, was the brightest red. It was pulled up around her hips, white bloomers and underskirts everyplace, frills in captured motion. Dodging around the dancer’s feet were spray-paint words in broken English – Live Hard. Sex Long. Dance the Night’s Away.