Being chased down the hallway he could hear a screeching in his ears, beeping almost, like some kind of maniacal mechanical clock counting down to his doom. He kept running as fast as he was able, his mouth held wide open in terror and his skin sallowing as his energy began to deplete.
So fast he was nearly stumbling he rounded a corner and while he could still feel a dark presence behind him he dared not look back. Each step he took felt like he was slowing but he focused on the pulses of light illuminating from the spotty bulbs overhead casting pools along the forever stretching hall. Each dot of light drew him closer to yet another corner, away from the apparition pursuing him, and when forced to choose between bends he relied on his instincts alone to determine the correct path away from his ominous pursuer, and the others he knew were lurking.
Growing tired he felt a stitch in his side but couldn’t stop to regain his breath, focusing once more on the never ending trail of light ahead. Would he ever escape this god-forsaken maze? He couldn’t remember why he had entered in the first place.
Suddenly, it was over. The incessant ticking in his aching head faded and he took a brief respite to regain his energy. A pink and green object sat on a table at the end of a hall, before yet another turn, and it looked familiar yet completely out of place. Oddly, all his instincts told him to consume it. It must have been the lack of blood sugar, but despite reason he closed his eyes and bit in.
Immediately the world around him changed. The lights grew vivid. He could feel it. Now, the hunted had become the hunter.
A bird called loudly into the night, disturbing the stopped time and calling the world back into action. The suspended clocks ticked over and began to chime, and the flow of running water through pipes and drains started back up again with a groan, waking the inhabitants of houses from their slumber before they rolled over again, uneasy and unaware.
He placed his robe and hat away and sank back into his chair exhausted. Creaking his chair towards the fire he threw his great grey beard over one shoulder and allowed the warmth to soak into his bones, closing his weary eyes in satisfaction. Many a year had he been keeping everything moving in the middle of the night when fewer people noticed the passage, or stillness as it were in this case, of time.
He had been trained by a master, long dead, and where once there had been a timekeeper in every town they were now few and far between and taking on larger expanses of land, watching over more people than ever. He had been putting it off, content with his little tower room full of books and the fragrance of spell-herbs and potion-oils and the company of his trusty crow Ruin, but he returned to the thought he had often had lately which was that it was time to take on an apprentice.
It wouldn’t be easy, it never was. That’s why their kind was dying out, with so few young ones to take on the cause, or possibly too many wizened old men too reluctant to give up their power. He would search out candidates at a local orphanage, as his master found him, and find a child worthy and willing for the calling. The thought grew inside his mind and began to excite him.
She was dancing to a beat she couldn’t recognise and her body had taken over. It was late, much too late, and her friends danced around her in a circle. Their eyes were all glazed and the thump of the music, at this point interchangeable, felt like it had replaced her heartbeat and drew them all towards each other. Their coats, so quickly shed in the warm, dark room, lay atop their bags containing their money, their numbers, their lifelines. They hadn’t been a single entity like this in so long that just each other’s company was intoxicating before they’d even consumed any actual intoxicants.
They swayed heavily back and forth, their knees and elbows touching each other and their hair and shoulders touching the crowd. The lights strobed in quick reds and greens leaving them feeling like cats chasing an unknown presence around the room when they opened their eyes.Can’t
She took a break and pulsed through the crowd to the door. The only way to exit was to dance her way through the throng and her body felt heavy and stuck to the ground as she worked her way out, like trying to escape from quicksand. As she pushed forward through the thick glass doors she felt the chill of the cold air brushing her cheeks, reddening them, working their way into her bones through her thin undershirt and stiffening her sweat soaked hair. The street smelled of tobacco and petrol and she looked around dumbly for a moment, forgetting why she had left the safe comfort of the room behind her swelling with sound and bodies. She fumbled in her bag and pulled out a crumpled packet of cigarettes she’d bought on holidays last year and sworn not to smoke. She lit up and inhaled sharply, smiling.
I really wasn’t sure what to do with myself. When the day started it had seemed wrong somehow. I put on an extra sweater because it was a little colder than usual, and that kind of made me feel like a lumpy round ball of wool but I tried to stop thinking about it because I needed to be warm, and left the house for my usual walk. The park was quiet I suppose and I still had that weird feeling of something unplaceable being off, but I figured all I needed was to quicken my pace and get my heart rate up and the world would seem normal again, or at least I would.
By the time I was approaching the shops I’d honestly forgotten about the weird feeling completely. I was focused on my feet, placing one in front of the other while keeping my weight balanced any my posture reasonable, and I nearly hit my head when I slammed into the closed glass door of the café. I was bewildered and frankly a little embarrassed so I looked around me, seeing no one, thankfully, before I looked up and realised the café was still closed. All the lights were out. Super weird. I looked at my watch again and it was half past nine, no reason they shouldn’t all be here like usual. It wasn’t even a weekend, and there was no sign indicating all the staff had a day off or anything like that.
It was about then that I noticed there weren’t any cars on the road. It should have been peak hour, how I hadn’t noticed that the usual horns weren’t blaring and crossing light ticking wasn’t going I have no idea. Once I thought about it, I hadn’t actually seen anyone all morning.
The sun bleached yellow plastic swingset had started to crack from the heat and it was sharp and hot to touch. Dill drew his hand away and pushed his burned finger into his mouth to absentmindedly sooth his mild pain. He trotted away and went to stand in the shade of a tall flowering tree. He looked up at the old man’s whiskers that hung from it as they swayed ever so gently in the warm, still air and he moved closer to a small black spider swaying with them. Its translucent, almost invisible, web was attached to a strand of the whiskers and the force with which it was whipped back and forth didn’t match the lack of breeze yet its bodyweight swung heavily Dill pulled his finger from his mouth and touched the string wetly causing the spider to drop suddenly in response and reach itself further towards the ground and its escape.
Dill grew tired of the spider and the tangled plant and continued to wander the yard in search of something to watch or do. He kept towards the edges of the trees and the fence where there was the most shade and the ground was cooler and found himself beneath the empty clothesline where the stubbly grass gave way to scorched smooth sand. He stood on his tiptoes and hopped back and forth until his feet adjusted to the temperature and crouched to observe the lair of an antlion he had spotted. The coned divot in the sand seemed so obvious to him and yet he watched with eager fascination as a small black ant wandered straight towards it. The ant headed into the dip and with a lashing quick motion the small beast at home under the sand flew up and dragged it under.
Running as fast as he was able, Caleb felt the twigs of the trees whipping at his ankles and causing shallow but stinging gashes. His lungs felt hot and full as if they were about the burst and he didn’t dare look behind him to see if he was still being chased.
He tripped over a root hidden in the undergrowth before him and felt the last gasps of air leave his body as he landed forcefully on his chest. His eyes closed and he blacked out, the last thing his eyes registered was a glimpse of something strange and unfamiliar, or of sky between the branches, his overstretched mind couldn’t be sure…
When Caleb awoke he was still on the ground, his head facing sideways and his body sprawled flat on his front, his chest more even having finally stopped heaving. He wasn’t sure whether he had been out seconds, minutes, or even hours as he struggled to regain his vision and collect his surroundings. A dull ringing was pounding through the back of his brain and as he pushed his hands out in front of him to struggle to regain his feet the world looped and spun around him, forcing him to land in a sitting position and close his eyes with his arms clasped around his head to try and steady his throbbing brain.
After another few moments Caleb regained his composure and stood up unsteadily to look around him. He couldn’t hear anything so he thought he must have lost his pursuers, thankfully, but he realised that in all the commotion of running for his life he also didn’t know where he was anymore. He was so deep into the forest that barely any light was escaping the canopies above; his whole world was eerily darkened.
Through the thicket Madeline could see the women meeting. For years she had been curious where her mother, grandmother, and aunts went every Wednesday evening and every time she had been told that she was too young and would find out one day. Well one day was too far away for Madeline, and she had hatched a cunning plan she though much superior to her age, which was six. She had taken her largest doll and smallest pillow and formed a tousled figure asleep in her bed while she herself had hidden, fully awake, behind her dollhouse. She had watched her mother poke her head into the bedroom to check on her as usual, and waited with breath held in fear to see whether she would enter the room to check on her in which case she would be in awful trouble. Madeline had been lucky and her mother had simply smiled and left, leaving the door still open a crack the way Madeline liked, to let the light in lest she become afraid in the middle of the night.
Madeline had held back a few moments listening to her mother’s footsteps fade down the hall before sneaking after her, telling Miss Sally, her ragdoll, to be quiet as they crept down the stairs and waited in the shadows as her mother pulled on her coat and left the house. Following behind as lightly as her little feet would carry her Madeline had watched her mother meet up with her sisters and their own mother at the end of the street where all of their houses met, and dashed out every so often after them to follow. So swept up in conversation were they that they didn’t notice the tiny girl and her ragdoll, both in nightgowns, following along behind.