We were in a room with clocks and they were dripping. “Make a wish,” my guide said. His hands twisted around and around until his wrists dropped off the ends of his arms, and they scuttled off into separate corners.
I closed my eyes and I didn’t know what to wish for. This place wasn’t really for me. I only got here by accident – I was in an old abandoned bookstore and I asked the man behind the counter, on a whim, if he knew where there was a clock. I didn’t mean anything by it, but he said I wanted to see the man in the basement and pointed me towards a narrow staircase that smelled like my grandmother’s house, sharp cat piss and thick dust. And I went down because I had nothing else to do, because I’m between jobs and between homes and between girlfriends, and the man in the basement looked me up and down and asked if I knew what the three sweetest things were, and the three bitterest things, and I said no both times. And he asked me what I was doing, and I said looking for a clock. But when I said clock I meant “something that I don’t have, something reliable, something that isn’t going to change and has a reason for being where it is and what it is.”
And he shrugged, then put on his hat, which was a top hat with a half-melted candle stuck to the brim in front, and lit the candle and we walked back into the darkness. I don’t know how long we walked, but I got hungry and my feet hurt, and I had to take a piss so bad I hurt with every step. I stopped in the darkness and pissed. There was a gutter thing off to one side, just at the edge of my guide’s candle light, with a thin trickle of something foul-smelling threading its way through the channel. Something in the darkness skittered, and chuckled low and deep.
I stuck close to my guide after that.
And we came to the room with clocks. It was bright in the room, so bright that the candle looked small and pathetic. My guide didn’t extinguish it, though it was close to reaching the hat brim now. There were long dried trickles of wax hanging off into his face.
The clocks were what made the light. They glowed, and stretched and dripped, luminescent faces distorting. Some of them were going the right way – others were going backwards.
“Make a wish” my guide said. And I didn’t know what to wish for. I didn’t know what the rules were, and I didn’t know what would happen if I made the wrong wish. The wrong choice. I didn’t even know how I’d gotten here. That always happens – I never have any direction. People say this is the best part of my life, being able to go anywhere, do anything, get a job in any field I want. It’s not. It’s like playing with warm wax and even though it doesn’t matter now what ugly shape you push it into, it’s going to harden soon, before you know it, and then you’ll be stuck.
“What would you wish for?” I asked him.
“I would wish for three things,” my guide said. “I would wish for my wife to return from Poland and bring my daughter with her, because I never said goodbye to her. I would wish for a full night’s sleep. I would wish that the moon turned into a large copper disc and fell onto South America, shattering itself upon the Andes, creating craters, and sending the Earth into a new Ice Age.” Absentmindedly, he knocked off a few solid drips of the wax from his hat with the stumps of his wrists and they fell towards the clocks. The clocks stretched out until their luminous faces devoured the wax.
“Could that really happen? How can it?”
He stretched out his wrists until they were pointing to three forty five, or maybe it was nine fifteen. “How can you stand here and doubt anything I tell you?”
“Where did your hands go?”
“Schenectady. Timbuktu. The dumpster, to find more clocks. We’ll wake them up from their sleep and they’ll come into their true form.” He crouched down on the mucky ground and tilted his head to look up at me. The flame now lying in a pool of wax wobbled and flickered, but didn’t go out. “Wish,” he said. “The clocks go around and around, but you’ve only got so much time.”
“I wanted a clock,” I told him. “Do you think I should just wish for that? Would it be safe?”
He shook his head. “Clocks and people are the two most dangerous things in the world. You want something reliable, don’t you? Something that isn’t going to change? Something you don’t have?”
I nodded. I hoped he wouldn’t look inside my head like that anymore, or if he did that he’d pull out something more useful than the nebulous desires I already knew about – a solution, a new desire, a new problem.
“You could have my shoes,” he said. “They never change. Or my hat – it’s reliable. And my wife – she’s something you don’t have. She’s something nobody has.”
I wanted to say, I just wanted a clock, but I knew he wouldn’t give me one. The clocks were growing dimmer and sliding away, and I suspected that even if I wanted a clock – and I wasn’t sure I did – they didn’t want me. So finally I just shrugged yes. Or maybe it was defeat. Either way, he understood.
“You’ll have to take them yourself,” he said. “My hands haven’t come back yet.”
He stood up and I knelt down on the ground before him, loosening his shoelaces and tugging off one shoe, then the other. They were heavy brown wingtips encrusted in mud an inch thick, but when I took off my shoes and slid my feet inside they were warm and dry. Every step in those shoes felt like an avalanche.
My guide stood in his stocking feet on the damp grimy floor, and waited patiently for me to finish.
I pulled the hat off his head, the dried wax shattering and clattering with the rough motion, and placed it on mine. “There are candles and matches in my coat pocket,” my guide said. “You can have those too.”
I reached into his pockets and took the stubs and the matches. My hand brushed against a long cold chain, with a weight at the end of it. “That’s the third thing,” he said. “My wife. Our wedding ring.”
I put the chain around my neck and the ring swung over my heart. The matches went into my pocket – the candlestubs, all but one, into the other pocket. The last candlestub I put on the brim of my hat, settled it into the cooling wax, and lit it.
The clocks had slunk away, or maybe just gone out, and it was just me standing there with my guide as he shivered and stood in his stocking feet. “You can have my job, too,” he said. “I’m staying here. Until they grant my wishes, I’m staying here.”
“Should I bring you food?” I said. “Or blankets?” The thought of walking through the darkness didn’t scare me anymore. Maybe it was the hat.
He shook his head. “I’ll be rebuilt,” he whispered. “Out of the dumpsters. I’ll grant my own wishes.”
His hands came scuttling out of the darkness again. They’d latched themselves to a kid’s red wagon. It was filled with cogs and gears and numbers, clock faces and wooden frames.
I said goodbye to him and turned to go away as his hands began to clamber around him.
“There are flights from Poland every three or four days,” he called after me. “Go to the airport and look for them.”
At the edge of the tunnel that had brought us here, I looked over my shoulder at him. He stood outlined by the clocks’ luminescence, very still, oh so still, as his hands peeled the flesh from his calves and attached cogs and gears in its place. He didn’t seem to be in pain.
S.K. Gilman is a Clarion graduate, polyglot and travelling enthusiast. Her fiction has appeared in “Everyday Weirdness” and “Shock Totem” (under the pen names Sarah Miller and Sarah Dunn) and is forthcoming in “Arcane” and the Clockwork Chaos anthology. Currently, she lives in New England.