i can hear them ticking. all of them. at first i thought it was just mr green next door, but then i heard it in the milkman and the man who came to read the meter. i left the house to get away from them, but everyone is ticking just under the surface. what worries me more is the slight echo i hear under the skin. it doesn’t sound soft and pliant like skin should. no. it’s bright and hard like metal and i don’t know what to think, because i don’t know what it says about what’s behind their faces. i thought i could get away, but now i’ve wandered around so much that i don’t know how to get home. i’ve been standing at this bus stop for a while now, but whenever a bus comes, the numbers change and i can’t keep track of them any more. still, i think the bus stop is a good place to be. even though there are only two walls, it’s safer than being in the middle of the street and as long as i keep touching the advertising hoarding, i will be safe.
a fat woman with shopping bags comes and sits on the little red bench in the bus stop. i push back against the adverting hoarding to give her as much room as possible. she pretends not to notice and makes out like she’s looking out into the road. i keep my back pressed against the shelter. i watch her with my peripheral vision and i listen to her tick.
eventually, she takes a packet of biscuits out of her shopping bag, opens it and eats the biscuits one-by-one. she’s as regular as a metronome and the crunching of the biscuits is in sync with the clicking behind her face. the tick-tick-tick-munch is only broken when my stomach growls with hunger. i haven’t eaten in a long time. the woman stops offers me the packet and i almost take one because i’m so hungry, but then i look at her face and i see that the right side has swung outwards from the hinge running down her face. there’s a catch just below her ear and it must have opened by accident. from where i’m sitting i can’t see what’s inside her head, but i reach out to push her face back into its proper position. the fat woman flinches and draws away from me, taking her biscuits with her. i try to tell her that i was only trying to help, but her clicking gets faster and more angry, drowning out my attempts to explain. in the confusion my hand gets separated from the advertising hoarding and my curtain of safety disappears. i run away. i don’t know what else to do.
coloured fog has descended from the sky, making it impossible to see specific details in the things around me. i have to navigate by tones, avoiding the dark purple and red areas and heading towards the blue and yellow safe places. i never seem to get there, even after hours of walking, so i have to rest in a neutral grey zone. the clicking here isn’t too bad. it’s not as intense or frightening as mr green or the fat woman.
i don’t know this place. there are shops and people, but the fog makes it difficult to tell exactly where i am. it could be the high street near my house or it could be another place entirely. it all looks so familiar and so different, i don’t know what to do. i’m drawn to the light of a shop that sells televisions. the little people in the screens are much clearer than those walking around me and the fact that they’re behyind glass means i can’t hear them clicking. the man on the television reads the news and i’m happy just to watch for a while, but then he stops and looks straight at me. i9 freeze in place and realise i have to count to see how long this last for.
sixsixsixsixsixix-ix-ix-ix-ix-ix-ix-ix turns to clicks and i realise that he’s trying to wind me up, trying to start a mechanism inside of me. i turn away from the screen and when i do, i see the blank man standing next to me. he doesn’t have a face - just a blank sheet of flesh where his features would be. he seems to be trying to say something, but i don’t know what it is because he doesn’t have a mouth. he cocks his head to one side like a dog trying to understand and when he does, the hinge in the middle of his face creaks open and i can finally see the mechanism underneath - a clockwork instrument of flesh and bone. i see the white ivory cogs turning in tiny increments, connected by bands of cartilage and sinuous pulleys that push and pull the machinery inside his skull. small puffs of steam rise as the mechanism starts to work faster and faster and i can tell that something inside the blank man’s head is going seriously wrong. i can see the wheels starting to spin and the rotors sparking as they are pushed to capacity and beyond. the tiny bellows fuelling the furnace wheeze and cough and the cogs begin to fracture. the ticking gets faster and faster and i realise there’s only one thing that i can do to stop everything from going out of control. it’s up to me to fix it. that’s why i brought the screwdriver out with me.
i take the tool from my pocket and jam it into the blank man’s head. there’s resistance as i force the crosshead into the machinery behind his blank face, but i can’t stop now. i continue digging through the machinery, prying away stanchions and crossbeams in order to get to the key components within. for the first time in a long time, the clicking stops. but as the clock winds down, a new sound replaces it - a shrill ultrasonic scream that hurts my ears. i don’t know if it’s better or worse, but it’s something new after the endless days of tick-tick-tick.
arms come out of the fog and wrestle me away from the blank man, pulling the wet screwdriver from my hand and forcing me to the ground. the shrill sound stops and there’s a low chatter of static that may or may not be words. even though i can’t see the television man, i feel certain that he’s smiling at me. it doesn’t matter. i think i’ve finally fixed it. tears of gratitude start flowing down my cheeks as the fog around me starts to flash blue. tall figures put me in handcuffs and say things i don’t understand. beneath their words, i hear their real language and i start to cry anew, because i realise that this is how it’s always going to be.
second by second.
moment by moment.