He pushed back the chair and it creaked into life, the footrest snapping up from underneath him quicker than he expected and throwing him flat on his back. He didn’t like needing to use the chair. It made him feel weak. If his body wasn’t even good enough to get from the lounge to the bed anymore he couldn’t see much use in it. He closed his eyes and let his head sink into the headrest. It was comfortable though, he couldn’t deny that.
Drifting into an uneasy drug-induced sleep he felt his mind wandering very far away. He liked this sensation, his consciousness drifting up and out of the body that was betraying him. In this state he finally felt that he might even be hungry, but he knew that as soon as he came back down to earth his rolling stomach would disagree. It was frustrating, but also kind of a relief. One less thing to worry about.
He heard a small pair of feet tiptoe into the room and a hushed voiced said “oh,” under its breath, very quietly. He was still in a state of disconnect and couldn’t quite open his eyes, but he felt a pressure as something small and soft and warm pressed up against his side. He felt a small hand gently, so gently, wrap itself through his own large, sweaty, one and he felt a tiny heartbeat flutter along with the heavy plod of his own. Her breathing, fast at first and then slowing to a sleepy pace to match his own, calmed him completely. He peeked open one eye and there she was, his daughter, fast asleep in the chair with him, her warm breath sighing into his arm. This was why he needed his body. He needed it for her.
He drew the apparatus from his pocket and bent to set it up straight. He clicked its brass legs in place and immediately a spark of red shot out from its core and up towards the sky, the electricity in the air buzzing. He ensured the claws of the machine dug into the earth to hold it still and drew a soft cloth over the ruby gem protruding from its centre.
It had taken the better part of the afternoon to climb the mountain and his head had grown light as he ascended until he had reached its sharp peak above the clouds. He knew his soft, laboratory weakened body couldn’t stay at this altitude much longer but he only needed one full blast of power to fill the contraption and then he could leave.
The air around him continued to rumble and it was nearly dark as night as he stood between the lighter, welcoming, layer of cloud below and the menacing storm clouds above. The rubber of his protective clothing squeaked as he moved and the humidity trapped between it and his skin was making him sweat alarmingly. He didn’t know how much longer his body could hold out, or if didn’t get what he had come for, how long until he would be strong enough to attempt it again.
He looked upwards imploringly and drew in a sharp breath as he watched the sky above him begin to light up. The lightning was gathering and he took a step backwards, teetering towards the edge of the peak, as it formed into a ball of electricity.
A sharp crack broke out, deafening him, and shaking the ground. He closed his eyes and when he looked back the ruby tip of the machine glowed a glistening, electric blood red.
“I’m cold.” Geri said for the third time in an hour, loudly, as if expecting someone to do something about it.
“We’re all cold.” Sam spat back, not looking at her. She was shivering herself but she didn’t want to give Geri the satisfaction of seeing it bother her.
They’d been forced to retreat into the cave when the sky had unexpectedly opened up and their picnic blanket, along with everything on it, had been washed away. The weather was supposed to be sunny all weekend, that was why the three of them had driven out to the lake in the first place to spend the day walking the trails leisurely and stopping for a meticulously packed lunch of food each woman had tried to one up the others in making unnecessarily complex. They’d barely gotten into the dips, and hadn’t even unwrapped the focaccias, when the downpour had started and quicker than they could imagine. It had all turned soggy and the basket had filled with water as a small river emerged from the trees behind them and ran down the open field straight towards their meal.
It had been lucky there was shelter nearby at all and the three of them all shrank backwards as loud crack of thunder echoed around them. Kim reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone. She turned on the flashlight and stood up to take a better look around the cave. It was shallow, thankfully, and had a musty earthy smell to it from an accumulation of moss at the back. The dripping of the water through the cracks was amplified in the small space and furthering the tension they could all feel developing.
“We’ll have to run for it if it keeps up much longer.” Sam mused unenthusiastically.
Their new rule was silence throughout the house until bedtime. She chopped up the vegetables and missed the sensation of headphones filling her ears, hearing other people’s voices and opinions fill her mind to drown out her own thoughts and worries. As the onions began to sizzle, so loud with no voices or music filling the air, he arrived home and the click of the key turning in the lock sounded too large for such a small action. She leant back from the kitchen to see him down the hall and without hellos they let their eye contact linger. An upward curve of the eyebrow asked about his day and the turning up of the side of his mouth answered. A broad smile told him she was happy he was home and the creases in the corner of his eyes said me too.
They danced around each other, nervous for some reason, the weight of their lack of speech adding an intensity to their every movement, and his hand brushed hers as he reached to take a sip from her wineglass, sending shivers up her spine. She burst out a small escape of laughter and trapped the remainder in her throat, letting it out only through bringing a hand to her mouth and feeling her cheeks flush red. He put the wineglass down and watched her for a moment before heading back down the hall to bathroom and disappearing with the sound of hot water. With her senses heightened she thought she could smell the shampoo even over the food she was cooking and she smiled giddily as she scraped the rest of the ingredients into the pan and watched them darken.
The steam from their opposing rooms mingled in the hall and frosted the windows, noiselessly filling the house.
The market was crowded and Henry had lost sight of Mona. She’d gone off to get a coffee from the stall by the door but he paced back and forth nearby craning his neck over the crowd, cursing the genetics that made him a head below them, and she was nowhere to be seen.
He waited another frustrating few minutes and shot her a text to meet him outside. His grilled cheese was getting cold and his iced tea was getting warm and he couldn’t wait any longer. The chill of the wind met him as he opened the heavy glass doors and he could feel his face flush pink instantly, but with another step outside he hit the sun and the elements cancelled each other out leaving him with a pleasant balanced feeling.
Flipping his sunglasses from atop his head to where they could actually do some good with the glare he staked out a spare table for them to enjoy their lunch and, finding none vacant, vulturishly watched a young trendy couple sipping green juices finishing up so he could take their place. When they left he rushed forward to claim the seats and shot the couple a disgusted look at realising they had left their dirty plates and cups behind when the bin was right next to them. He cleaned them up hurriedly and got himself a bit more worked up than necessary about how they could presume to move through the world that way, just assuming people would clean up after you. He had to hand it to them though, he’d done exactly what they wanted and they probably hadn’t even given it a second thought.
Finally, plate down on the table and tea leaving condensation rings on the wood, he bit into his lukewarm sandwich.
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.