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Tick, Tock

Posted by in Short Fiction


Metal and dust — bones, blood and the drip drop drip of antifreeze staining the dirt lime green.

Then a sound.

A voice.

A tinny whine the volume of a mouse and the tenor of a miracle.

“Kitty cat, kitty cat, let me in. Broken face and busted chin…”

“You’re an ass Marjorie.”

“I’m all you have kitty.”

“If that’s true, I really am lost.”

“We’re all lost. You and I just get to choose the maze.”

“You call this a choice?”

“As much as any. Speaking of which, it’s time for you to make yours kitty. Tick…”


My voice comes out in rasps. There is a moments pause, but only a moment.

“Don’t be stupid kitty, you’re running out of time.”

She is always so reasonable, and always so right. I hate her.

“I can’t…”

“You can.”

“I won’t.”

“You will.”

“You can’t make me!”

“You’re right, you always have a choice. Tick…”

The final word hangs, growing fetid in the sickening, sweet air. Finally, a voice not entirely my own groans a response,


I look out through eyes the orange-red of hellfire. Colored contacts grown cloudy by misuse.

I blink too often. I smile a smile that seems to have clawed it’s way out of a Stepford Homemaker catalog. There is a door in front of me. I open it because it’s the right thing to do, and as such will infuriate Marjorie.

Two men stand in the center of the room. Heavily muscled shoulders covered in thick leather, faces pocked and marked by a lifetime of choices. They look up, look right through me for an instant. Then they call out a name — Brittany or Tanya or Sara or Allison. It doesn’t much matter.

I walk over to them and exchange a handful of words for a package bound in crate paper. I can tell they aren’t happy to see me. I can tell they just barely see me. I no longer mind. It is, of course, just instinct. By the time I step back out into the warm, wet air of the mid-afternoon I’m forgotten.

Once outside, I follow some road and then some other, half a dozen disappear behind me in the span of an hour. Sweat beads at my brow.

There is a tension in my steps, a tension in the way my hands swing back and forth, a taut purpose I didn’t know I had left in me.

There is also anger there.

Anger and raw, bald contempt.

My footfalls contain worlds.

Soon enough I arrive at a low, dark building, pristine in its dilapidation. I stop at the entrance and exhale slowly, running through a checklist that is by now branded into my cells.

I check the doors, I check the windows, I make an obsessive, calculated search of the perimeter. I find nothing. No trip wires or pressure plates. No snipers nests or disturbed earth. No cars. No smell of ash or ichor, gunpowder or humanity.

You can never be too careful. Marjorie can be a real bitch.

I step towards a side entrance, hidden from the road and it’s streetlights. I pull at a heavily rusted lock and it comes apart in my hands. It’s not happy to see me.

Inside, the factory is an altar cast in browns and blacks, and has all the solemnity of an abandoned graveyard. Machinery lays crippled, broken by time and rust and decades of grinding work. Somewhere, somewhere nearby is my goal.

The package grows weighty with purpose. I wonder what’s inside, what could possibly be worth all this, I’m rewarded for my concern with a searing pain behind my eyes.

It’s not our place to wonder.

Instead, I close my hellfire orbs and sway, listening to sounds that have no interest in being heard, dull echoes etched in concrete and glass. Voices that may never exist, secrets and oaths unsaid. Somewhere in the cacophony is a single sentence that sets me moving.

I continue my search, opening doors and pushing aside rotting furniture. There is something ennobling about all this. Something about work, grime, exertion that always thrills me. I cut my hand on a jagged edge, and a thin line of red draws an uneven arc down the remains of a wooden desk. I watch it, glowing it’s soft, nearly imperceptible glow — like a precursor to a ritual, a beacon in the darkness. There is power here, I realize. I’m close.

“You never fail to disappoint kitty cat.” That voice, soft and cloying.

“How?” Mine, cold with contempt.

“The roof.” Her reply, disaffection trained to an art form.

She was right though. I had forgotten to check the roof. Stupid. Always so stupid.

Marjorie glides towards me and strokes my face, her hands are ice cold — even when everything else changes, that never does.

“You’re too late.” I hiss, stepping away, nearly tripping over the pile of debris behind me.

“That’s where you’re wrong, kitty cat.”

She places one hand in front of her, palm up. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to what I’m seeing, and my brain longer to translate it. How do you describe an absence? How do you make meaning of void? Still it was there, we both knew it, and both knew what that meant.

“You already found it.” My words tinged with more resignation than intended.

“I always do.” Hers with precisely as much mirth as she had.

“No…” I make up my mind.

“And what are you going to…”

Before she has a chance to finish, I drop the package. As I do, the air around her bursts into flames. The heat is unbearable, a thick cloud of jet black smoke rises from every scrap of wood that gets in it’s way. The metal scars and buckles. The building shutters. Small explosions can be heard where long idle machinery comes in contact with the inferno. Nothing is left unmarked except the package, and the two of us.

“A little much, kitty cat?” She stares at me, one eyebrow perfectly arched.

“I learned from the best.” I stare back, a trace of a sneer forming on my lips.

“Isn’t this where you start running? I’m a sport, I’ll give you half a days head start.”

“Not this time Marjorie.”

“Oh, I see.” She pauses, then starts laughing, “That’s adorable kitty cat! But of all things, fire? Shouldn’t you have tried something a bit less…useless?”

I hate her laugh, I always have. Fortunately she won’t be holding on to it for long. The concrete was buckling, the air was boiling. I savor the moment, swirl it around my tongue before swallowing hard,

“How long do you think it will be before this building falls on top of us?”

Realization draws over her face like a death veil.

“You wouldn’t…”

“You might be surprised.”

“If we both die…”

“I know Marjorie.”

“Then what in the hell are you thinking?”

It was a good question. I consider, watching rafters tear away from their moorings.

“I’m thinking that I’m tired. I’m thinking that it’s exhausting fighting for a world that doesn’t know I exist. Most of all I’m thinking that if you’re the only person in the universe who will ever understand me, I’d rather be buried under a thousand tons of concrete.”

Marjorie is many things, but she is no idiot. She knows me, better than any one person has the right to. She knows when I’m bluffing. She also knows when I’m willing to give up everything for the opportunity to spite her.

And today…

“You’re insane.” Her laugh is a memory, and her smile has dissolved as completely as the void she holds in her hand.

“Don’t look so glum, if we die, you win…it’s on a technicality, but we take what we can get, right?”

I can barely see Marjorie through the haze, there is no going back now, this building is coming down. Whether we are standing here when it does is all down to what Marjorie says next.

“OK, OK kitty cat, no need to do anything crazy. What do you want?”

“You know what I want.”

“Of course I know what you want…Learn to take a joke.”

“Shut up Marj.”

“Whatever you say kitty. Get the package.”

The flames slide harmlessly over my skin as I reach into their core to draw out the package. Funny, not even the crate paper is scorched.

“Would you hurry up, we don’t have all day here.”

I hated Marjorie’s smile, but her scowl, I could see that every day of my life and be happy, no matter whose face she was wearing.

I stepped towards her and that shard of nothingness she held in her opened palm. I whispered words that slid out of my mind as completely as the fire did off of my skin. I realized then that the package gave off a soft, silvery glow. Had it always? It’s impossible to know, and the more I thought about it the more I regretted thinking. Instead, I dropped the package into Marjorie’s hand.

We stood and listened. There it was. Somewhere, in the boundless infinite, was a new voice — one that may never have existed until now, tiny yet achingly meaningful, drowning out the cacophony. Soon enough it would soften, another thread in the tapestry holding everything together.

“Great, good. You win this time. I’m so happy for you.”

“Is losing that hard for you Marj?”

“You don’t want me to answer that. Can we go now?”

Wooden rafters are falling in great piles. Even standing less than a yard away from Marjorie, I can barely make out her features, still I know what I would find there if I looked and it thrills me.

“I’d be happy to.” And for the first time in a very long time it was true.

I reach out to her, wrapping her hand in my own. She squeezes it before intoning.


And using a voice that is already not my own, I reply,