Another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge from 12 May 2014:
Three sentences, use one or all:
“The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.”
“A poetic pattern retains inertia.”
“The criminal disappears after the inventor.”
I ended up using all three sentences because, well, it’s a challenge, isn’t it? And here’s my effort. It’s a little over the 1,000 word limit Chuck set, though (1,220) …
The Second that Time forgot
The clock stops at 4pm every day. It’s an old Grandfather clock; wood the colour of stained tobacco fingers, and brass that lost its shine a long time ago. He has to be right in front of it, otherwise he will miss it. And if he misses it, then he
can’t travel the cogs, and if he can’t travel the cogs then he can’t get into the borderlands, and if he can’t get into the borderlands then Charlotte dies. Every day at 4pm.
Consequences are like seconds, he has learned: one follows the other in a sequence of relentless inevitability. Tick-tock.
So the criminal stands in front of the clock and waits. An invisible thread ties his eyes to the decrepit hands of the clock and, as 4pm arrives, his Self seeps from his eyes and travels along the thread like smoke escaping from beneath a locked door. He slides down the hour hand to the centre of the faceplate and slips through a crack onto the first of the cogs. He glides onto the meshing gears and rides them in bronco bucks, jumping deep into the workings of the clock, which has an inside deeper than any clock has a right to have, miles and miles of cogs and gears and mechanisms, their movements whirring in lightning flashes of pristine brass more brilliant than a noonday sun, until he arrives at the smallest cog of all, so far from the faceplate that the afternoon light from the window in the room where his body still stands is a distant memory of a different time.
He jumps from the last cog and emerges into the borderlands.
As always, he has to take a moment to allow his senses to adjust to the jangled terrain before him. Hills droop like mossy stalactites above him, rivers meander in their upside-down valleys, waterfalls tumble upwards. Parts of the sky lie beneath him, and clouds perform lazy somersaults into an abyss of stars and planets far below. Jumbled like a length of string in a small boy’s pocket, the roads spaghetti into careless twists and knots.
Bad things happen in the Knots.
The patch of ground the criminal stands on is littered with mounds of dried and fresh vomit and he bends to the inevitable with his hands on his knees and voids his stomach. It hardly even hurts now, he has done this so many times. He cocks his head to listen for the sound of a violin.
There. He turns his feet and steps onto a road that twists and curves up into the air like rollercoaster tracks. He walks until his feet and knees ache, the sky now above him as the road curls, now below him as it twists, but the music fades and so he stops. He turns in place until he hears it more clearly and the spider feet of fear skitter along his insides. The music comes from the other side of a Knot.
He is an old man now and his body is failing. He became a criminal long ago and not so long ago to protect the clock. He has slipped into the borderlands more than a hundred times; he has many more than a hundred wounds; and he knows that one or a hundred more will make no difference. As long as he saves Charlotte.
So he doesn’t hesitate, he simply jumps from the road he is on and up into the Knot above him. The jakalaki barrels into him as soon as his foot lands in the Knot, claws slashing, screaming its mad name until the air itself splits and clods of earth and road fall into a chasm of stars below.
The criminal reacts with a speed borne of more than a hundred visits’ experience: he screams into the thousand-spines maw of the hideous creature and lashes out with frenzied kicks and punches. He forces it to the tear in the cosmos it created with its own noise. At the last moment, amber eyes bigger than a world and smaller than a pinhead widen in fear and the jakalaki’s claws scrabble for purchase at the ruined precipice of the road. Its magenta-scaled hindquarters hang out into the nothingness and as it falls its barbed tail whips up and tears a jagged gash in the criminal’s cheek, a parting souvenir. The criminal listens to its fading crazy laugh as he tears off a piece of his shirt to wrap around his face and staunch the bleeding. The last time, the jakalaki’s tail caught his leg, and that was a bad wound, so all in all the criminal considers this is a light punishment.
He doesn’t fool himself. If it had been a Weasel Monster, he would have been the one to fall into the abyss. He has never defeated the Weasel Monster, in more than sixty encounters. He would have had to start again, from the beginning, at 4pm in front of the clock. The idea frightens him. Not because he is afraid of the borderlands – he is, terribly afraid, every time he comes here – but because he is afraid that one day, the clock will strike 4pm and he will see the second hand move past the hour hand and he will know that Time has found its lost second and Charlotte will be gone forever.
So he counts himself lucky, and jumps to another road, and then many more, for minutes or years or both, until his shoes are worn to paper-thin wafers of old leather. Until he finds Charlotte with her feet in a cloud and her head in a meadow, playing her violin.
Her eyes contain the grief of a thousand graveyards. ‘A poetic pattern retains inertia,’ she says. ‘I cannot stop or it will unravel around us.’
‘I know,’ he says, and his voice contains the weariness of a hundred lifetimes lost. Now that he has found her, the other ninety-nine Charlottes unfold from the meadow like poppies flowering in spring, red hair gleaming, grave eyes pleading. He leads this Charlotte slowly to her other Selves and when she joins them, the music stops and their bows bend and flail like a field of poppies in a storm. The sound is a screeching wail worse than the jakalaki.
‘Run, father!’ They scream as one above the disharmony they create together, and the criminal sprints and leaps and tumbles over roads and hills and clouds that crumble and collapse and disintegrate until he arrives at the spot where he began, and the sickness on the ground dissipates even as the sickness in his heart coagulates.
The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins. Thanks to the hundred Charlottes, playing their incoherent requiem so that Time can remember the second that Charlotte made it forget when she invented the Clock.
The criminal stands at the edge of the beginning of the end of all things and Charlotte’s hand slips into his.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘Was it worth all this?’
‘It was worth a hundred lifetimes,’ he says, ‘to bring you back.’
She turns and, as she turns, she wisps into smoke and drifts onto the smallest cog. With one last look at his hundred daughters, lost forever in the second that Time forgot, the criminal disappears after the inventor.