Distributed by Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Samuel Clift
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At 12:29 Jen struck the grandfather clock with her father’s axe. For the briefest of moments, that’s simply all there was. Nothing beyond her victim, her instrument, and herself existed within the sphere of her worldview. Then, in the moment that followed, Jen exhaled; the rest of the world regained substance and time resumed once more. Throughout the entrance hall the accumulative sound of glass shards falling upon the tiled floor, Jen’s heaving breaths, and the persistent swaying of the clock’s pendulum belonged to her alone. It was a sequence, a fragment of time that she’d held as tightly as the axe’s handle. But then Jen heard footsteps, swift and clumsy, and knew it was no longer hers.
‘What the hell?’ gasped her sister.
Jen’s head was bowed, dishevelled hair obscuring her face as she stared into the pendulum. The others—her mother and brother—quickly gathered, each adding their own clutter of half-spoken outrages. Nick was there too, of course, but he said nothing.
Jen slumped forward, pressing her forehead into the clock’s wooden casing. The pendulum continued to swing. She had failed.
The sun was in the mid stages of setting by the time Jen nestled into her favourite spot in the tree. It was a eucalyptus, decades old, with a nook roughly three metres high where a large portion of the trunk had branched off on its own. Jen had claimed this spot without discussion the day her family moved in and adored it so for no one else could climb it: her father was too large, her brother too young, her sister too dainty, and her mother too busy. This was Jen’s place. It was here where she frowned at the world.
And it was here where she met Nick.
As much as Jen cherished the tree, tall and imposing over the acres of flat terrain, it never took long before she grew sore from the gnarled harshness of the wood. And so, whenever this occurred she would either return to the ground or move to an outer branch, depending on her mood. On just such an occasion, as Jen swung forward, she noticed that someone else was not only leaning against the trunk, but also sharing her view, albeit merely from ground level.
This was unprecedented—not even Jen’s wisplike mother could manage to sneak up on her. Had she fallen asleep? It happened sometimes, but always resulted in her waking to a terrible body-wide ache that she, thankfully, was not experiencing at this moment. Regardless, Jen took this opportunity to observe the intruder, feeling more than justified as he had almost certainly done the same of her.
He was unlike the other men she’d seen: her neighbours, father and various doctors. This one was smaller, quieter. His presence not a thunderous force commanding the attention of his surroundings, but a thing of stillness and subtlety. And his clothing, Jen considered; far too orderly to hold much worth outside the city.
When she leaned closer to inspect the collar of his shirt, her foot lost purchase, resulting in a loud swoosh as the rubber of her sole slid against the tree bark. The man looked up and offered a friendly smile. Jen, in return, averted her gaze to the pink-stained clouds on the horizon.
‘So you’re the student then,’ she said.
‘I am. My name is Nick.’
‘What’s your actual name?’
He blinked at her, then turned to the horizon in time to watch the last slivers of sunlight retreat beneath the earth.
At 12:30 Nick stood in the doorway to the entrance hall and Jen felt the weight of his eyes surveying her work. With a single swing, she had plunged the axe-head through the clock’s upper cabinet, cleaving apart the face and destroying its housing. The clock stood taller than her, and as she remained in place, firmly clasping the axe above her head, with her shoulders tense and her legs spaced, Nick recognised the scene for what it truly was.
Nick was silent as Jen released the match. She didn’t drop to a crouch as he thought she would, to peer and inspect her subject as she tended to do. Instead, she watched the rising embers from a standing position which, given the potential for harming herself, was probably for the best. As the flames took hold, devouring their kindling with ravenous haste, Nick felt heat wash over him, even from the distance at which he stood.
He turned to Jen, her attention fixed upon the fire, and realised she had begun to cry. To any passer-by, this would have gone unnoticed for she did not tremble or sob, and Nick would have missed it himself if not for the glint of moisture collecting against the rim of her eye. Jen’s tears spilled an instant later, leaving clear trails down the length of her cheek. But she did not wipe them. She didn’t move at all. She just stared into the burning wastebasket and the remains of the items therein: a loose collection of journal pages, eucalyptus leaves, handmade charms and bangles, and a broken hourglass.
A long while passed between them, with Jen’s stifled tears drying on her face, Nick standing by her side, and the gentle crackling of the fire at their feet. Eventually, Jen spoke.
‘How long have you been with us, Nick?’
‘In a few hours it’ll be one hundred and forty-three days.’
Jen pressed a few buttons on her watch’s calculator before unfastening it from her wrist and dropping it into the wastebasket. A sharp pop sounded as the plastic warped and cracked.
‘Today marks four thousand, four hundred and forty-four days since I was born.’
Nick glanced around the yard in hopes of finding one of Jen’s relatives, but there was no one in sight.
‘What does that mean?’ he asked.
Jen faced him then, and Nick flinched as though in pain.
‘It means I’ve only known you for three percent of my life.’
At 12:31 glass crunched beneath Nick’s shoe as he stepped forward.
Chop. Jen watched from a second storey window as her father brought his axe down upon the next log of firewood, splitting it into two with practiced ease. Jen hated being inside but she was not yet confident in her ability to withstand the vacancy where her tree once stood.
Chin in hand, she followed the arc of the axe-head as it sailed through the air, gathered momentum and crashed down upon the log her brother had gleefully set in its path. The wood shrieked every time, echoing off the walls of the shed, fence and house, but Jen seemed to be the only one who noticed. Eventually, the axe lost its allure and she focused on the logs instead, closing herself off to everything beyond their cylindrical outline to allow herself to fully experience the suddenness, the violence, of each blow.
But she could only endure that for so long before looking elsewhere, to her brother this time. Jen could forgive her father, and the axe too. But as she regarded her brother, the delight in his eyes, the grin twisting across his face and the gasps of awe that escaped him every other moment she felt her stomach churn.
Knuckles tightening, Jen turned from the window, deciding she’d prefer to resume her wanderings through the house. The walls confined her, perhaps they could shelter her too.
Reaching the staircase, she noticed that the sound of the butchery outside had synchronised with the ticking of the grandfather clock—as everything always did. Curious, she listened closer, and in so doing overheard a conversation taking place in the living room.
‘—just that if I could wish for anything, it would be that next year would never come,’ said Nick.
‘I know the feeling,’ replied Jen’s mother. ‘Well, to a point, I suppose. But, at least—’
‘I finished my study? Yes, some friends of mine were not so lucky. Their tours will last until—Ah, but I just feel so guilty.’
‘You feel you’re abandoning her?’
At 12:23 Jen opened the shed door and crept inside. The shed was windowless and, as a result, very dark, lending an unwelcoming air to the already dank atmosphere. It took Jen’s eyes precious seconds to adjust, but as they did they happened to fall upon her weapon of choice, hanging from her father’s rack of outdoor tools.
Such a simple, ugly object, she thought.
At 12:21 Nick placed his luggage, a backpack and duffel bag, in the entrance hall and returned to the kitchen for the cup of coffee awaiting him there.
He kept few possessions, as he had little space for them. And so, beyond books, documents, a few sets of clothes and his laptop, the only item Nick owned was a thumb-sized piece of the eucalyptus that Jen had given him one month prior. It was near identical to the piece she had kept for herself, and before long the two meagre woodchips would be all that remained of her once great tree.
Taking a sip of coffee, Nick retrieved the woodchip from his trouser pocket and looked it over. Jen had disappeared after breakfast that morning and her father had already ventured off in search of her. Every other time he’d seen this happen, Nick had joined the search too. But not today.
There was no time left.
He had only read the summons once, on the occasion he first opened the envelope, yet he could still visualise every detail. The crest of an organisation he did not believe in, the signature of an official he had never met, the contract drawn years before his birth, and his name—his actual name, as Jen called it—all adorning the stark whiteness of the page. He had known for years that he would receive this letter, but that did nothing to reduce the impact of its arrival.
Nick took another sip and closed his eyes.
An instant later he heard a tremendous crash from the entrance hall.
At 12:32 Nick placed a hand on Jen’s shoulder. She trembled at the contact, but did not reject it. They could hear Jen’s mother speaking into the phone across the room, her voice controlled yet urgent, and Jen’s siblings still gawking in the doorway. But neither Jen nor Nick paid them any mind; this was a moment belonging to Jen and Nick alone.
‘It’s hard, Nick.’
‘No one understands.’
‘I couldn’t stop it.’
Nick looked to the pendulum. Its swaying relentless, impassive, and eternal.
‘We aren’t meant to.’
Samuel Clift was born in a mid-sized Queensland town in 1991 and spent his childhood in multiple locations across Australia. After high school he decided to pursue his interest in storytelling at Edith Cowan University, where he is currently studying writing and children’s literature. His topics of interest include absurdity, and the connections between time, space and people. The Empathy Circuit is his first published work.