314 Days

...the train companies invented the time zones...

Story by
Cole Webber

The glass door was cracked from an attack by vandals three years ago. (He never had the money, yet, to replace it). The cracks seemed like a spider-web nest, now, to hold the glass in. Still, every time — on those rare occasions — that the shop door was pushed in, he had a stabbing thought at the back of his skull that the whole thing would shatter. That he would, finally, have to deal with it.

The doors chimed. The sound echoed off of the metal railing.

A man in a grey flannel suit stepped in. His hat was black. He did not remove it. Even in the glaring sun, cast down in a long white fractured shadow from the fractured window, his face was blotted out by the hat. 

“M-Mr. I’m not sure quite why but we’re not open quite y-yet.”

Bernard had only just gotten in. He must have not locked the door behind him — even though he did, always, and he would have, always, to protect himself from the bad city downtown outside. 

He strode past the man and tapped on the paper sign, dangling on cheap twine from a hook in the cracked plaster ceiling. The sign faced them with ‘OPEN!’. 

“See?” Bernard said, twirling it with his fingers, expertly. The fingers were small and perfect for the work they did every day, for the last 40-odd years. He flickered the delicate paper like a gear. “See? Open on our side. We’re CLOSED, now.”

The man’s face remained dark, blotted-out like ink, either drawn in too much or not drawn in at all by whoever was silently designing the Universe. Even when Bernard passed him, a few centimetres away, he could not make it out. Not even now when the man turned to put his face in the sun. The white glare caught in Bernard’s glasses, in the tips of his whiskers on his upper lip, even on the top of his bald head — but they did not catch anywhere in the black velvet of the strange man’s face. His eyes shone out — but — they were a different color than the sky, the air, the sun outside. They seemed a touch… red? Impossible. 

“When… will you be open?” The words were slow to come from the man’s mouth, as if he was not only forming them but also rendering the face and mouth and lips he needed to say them at the same time. He reached into his lapel pocket, delicately pulling out a grey pocket silk. Bernard saw the man’s hand was devoid of color. It looked — not sickly, for even sickly had variation. It looked… unfinished. An etching. A residue of a black and white photograph left in a dark room. It was a grey white, and all even — like a cartoon color-book painted in. Shadow and light had all forgotten about this man’s existence. 

The hanky was embroidered on the edge with a chevron pattern. Keeping it folded, he tapped it on where his mouth must have been. It was as dark a hole as the rest of his face. His hand and the silk too were absorbed by the black velvet, even when facing the sun. Everything in the room was lit up but for him. Bernard backed against the thin glass pane just a little bit, without realizing. He broke his hand away and saw the sweat stains he left on the paper sign — ‘CLOSED’.

“My business won’t be open for much longer.” The man’s voice stabilized, loosing its croak. Yet it seemed to dart through different pitches, tones, accents, even. It was finding the right one.

“What business are you in?” Bernard said, “And what business do you have needing a clock-maker, so urgently, at 7 in the morning? Why, these days, half the town isn’t up until 11!” Bernard let a pang of the built up anger at the running-down world leave him; he couldn’t help it.

“I like the solitude. Much a morning person.” The man darted a card from out of his pointer and middle fingers — he flicked them, like a jazz snap, out of his sleeve. Where had the card come from? It too was grey. Bernard squinted his eyes down past his lenses. He read it without taking it.

INGANNO INC.

Mr. Belvedere

Regional Vice President of Franchisees

How odd for a business card not to have a first name. 

Sensing he would not take it, Mr. Belvedere aptly retracted the trick up his sleeve once more.

“Mr. Belvedere, I’m afraid this does not clarify my questions, precisely,”

The reddish spots of haze still glanced out from the velvet black mask. His body was easily still for all too long a moment. He began again, as did his body’s motion, all-synchronized and all on-queue. 

“Mr. Wheeler, we have a great many number of franchisees on this pl-place, and we find they are often unable to keep time. We want a uniform system.”

“The train companies already invented the time zones…”

“Not exactly what we mean, Mr. Wheeler. You see, we are in a very — temporary — business. We don’t need cycles. We need a countdown — to which everybody can keep pace. An hourglass, aside from a clock. A candle that, burns all the way down.”

“That’s much easier than a clock. There’s no need for my services.” Bernard took the step back to the window — he had unconsciously moved a touch closer to the man — and flipped the sign back. ‘OPEN’ was reading to them once more.

“No, no, Mr. Wheeler — much harder than a normal clock. We want all of them, across the planet, wherever they are, to be synced. If a grain falls here, a grain falls there. All on the same time. No one to flip them back up unless everyone does, at the same time.”

“Talk to a telegraph company, Mr. Belvedere. I don’t have ten thousand pounds of copper, and I don’t plan to start laying wires.”

“Yes Mr. Wheeler, but we do — in a way. Our bread and butter,” he reached once more into his lapel, and pulled out two small tin boxes. He held one in each hand, “Research and Development.” He raised the left, “One for you.”

Bernard sensed, awkwardly, that the man would not leave — would, quite literally, not move — until he took it. He took the small thing. It was clearly a recycled material. A small cartoon of MICKEY MOUSE danced to visible notes on the cover. ‘Silly Symphony’ was scratched out with small nicks and dents. It was, maybe, a make-up tin? Too small for snacks or cigarettes. He began to cup his nail underneath the lip.

“Ah, not yet Mr. Wheeler. Very powerful.” Bernard looked down at the thing. It was no bigger than the compact mirror his wife used to carry. Powerful?

“Mine first,” his was printed with the Green Giant on its cover, as if recycled from a can of green beans. He opened his lid. Underneath it was a switch.

Above it, two lights, red and green. It was now to the left, and lit up above it its red light.

“Open yours now,” he commanded Bernard.

He did as he was told. His switch lingered in the same position.

“This is nothing. You set them the same in your pocket.”

“Switch yours, Mr. Wheeler,” the man stared without eyes. He froze again, as if transfixed into a mannequin whenever he was not required to speak.

Bernard switched his to green, carefully and deliberately. The switch across from him moved — at the exact same rate as he moved his. The green lights both illuminated in the same instant. Bernard watched for a moment. He rapidly flicked the thing back and forth, changing its pace. He held it half engaged — the other always matched.

“I’ve never seen a radio this small, or — this accurate. There’s no delay.” But still, Bernard thought to himself, it must simply be a tweaked version of the technology running the neighbourhood kids’ RC cars.

“No radio, Mr. Wheeler. The especially unique thing about this is the same effect will be found, in the same instant, anywhere we are. If I were to stand at the Great Wall, and you remain here, your switch would move with mine. If I were to stand even on the dark side of the moon, Mr. Wheeler, mine would move as yours — no delay. The greater delay would be the message sent between us to confirm. But date-synced cameras would prove us wrong — and have proved us. They would show the changing of the switch instantly —  truly instant. Faster than any speed, faster than any radio frequency — faster even than light.”

“Impossible.” Bernard began moving behind the counter, once more. If this kook wasn’t going to leave him alone, he would simply ignore him.

“Not impossible, only unknown — now. In about 30 years, your scientists will call it Entanglement; once we’ve told them to.”

The man’s shoulders hung in the air, still.

“So congratulations,” Bernard said, wandering into the back room. Gears and grains of sand and wiring glittered and chirped and chimed around him, “You’ve got it solved. You don’t need me for anything.”

“Setting the time,” the strange man called after him — though it rang as if inside his own head. “We want you to set the time they’re all synced too. When should the countdown start? How long should the franchisees have?”

“I don’t know the slightest thing about your business,” Bernard turned around.

The man was gone. 

The sign was turned once more — now in its correct position.

“Research and Development,” the croaky voice of Belvedere seemed to come from behind him. He looked around, then down at the roughened wooden table behind him. One of the gears seemed to glint especially bright. The card remained. The reflection was off the dot denoting ‘INC.’.

INGANNO INC.

Mr. Belvedere

Regional Vice President of Franchisees

He now realized there was no address or phone number on the card.

The streetlamp shone in, reflecting on the cracked spider web of the front door. Bernard was still at the shop, though he had no work. He had no customers anymore. But he owed no lease payments on the place, and, now — it was something to do.

The coffee pot was cracked as well. It was not cast in light, so only the edges caught some of the residual glow from the table, across the cramped space in the back of the shop. Cracks stretched on the bottom, very slender tree twig fingers gripping the bulb in a shadow grey. There was still spots of mouldy coffee — now only mould — speckling the bottom rim. It was remarkable it held together. He had never cleaned it, nor thrown it away, after dropping it. The real maker didn’t work anymore. The top steel panel bore a red rust scar.

He sat slumped over the rough wooden table. He was sitting on a school chair his neighbour had given him. His dangling rim of hair around the balding head scratched at his ears, as his brow, tensing with his intending and wriggled them around. His head was shiny but his forehead was creased. He stared down at the card still. It was spotlit by a solo bulb, hanging above him on a chain. He reached for his mug. He choked down the sting of brown liquid. He had never liked whiskey, but compared to everything else, it did the trick.

He clutched his pencil. The corners of the hexagonal rod were scratched, splintered, just like everything else in the office — past its use. He stared at the card. The black letters grew blacker, started dancing. Had the man really been there this morning? He had dropped the coffee pot, however many days ago, with a bad hangover. It was too often like that in these mornings.

The graphite was chipped away by the stalagmites of splinters the table let shoot up from its jaw. It let out a fine star-dust on everything. Even a grain could run-down a clock in the long-run, but — he didn’t really care now, anymore.

Shrick Shrick Shrick, ker-ker, urch, ker-shick.

Shrick Shrick Shrick, ker-ker, urch, ker-shick.

Shrick Shrick Shrick, ker-ker, urch, ker-shick.

His eyes were pulled from the spotlit card to the edge of the halo. He was writing it again, without thinking it: 

CCCXIV. 

CCCXIV. 

CCCXIV.

All of his clocks had Roman numerals. He had loved them, for some reason — just a simple quirk, he supposed — since he was a boy. Let him count a bit different, away from anyone else. Nobody knew what he was talking about, but for him. 

CCCXIV. 

CCCXIV. 

CCCXIV.

What did the Romans know, though? They had never even figured out ‘zero’.

He looked at the Calendar. September 14. He began to count backwards in his head (he was quite good with his numbers), but, it simply came to him. 314 days. 314 days since she had died. He had been counting up, subconsciously, all this time. The neurons updated every stroke of midnight.

CCXIV — his hand wrote it again for him, without him thinking about it.

Roman numerals were stunning in that you counted up, then down. V, but, before IV. It was a countdown; the number was what you were waiting for. CCXIV was only 1 away — waiting — from its neighbour. 314 for want of 315.

He stared at the card again. The letters had seemed to grow blacker. They were carving night into the wood underneath. He picked it up in his hands — it was the first time he had touched it. It felt thicker than he expected. He could feel the fibre of the parchment on his calloused thumbprints, the little canyons red and aggravated by years of stabbing them with small metal implements, jerry-rigging the things, slowly, to work — different every time.

314 days. He held the card up to the light. Even with his thumb and forefinger on the far side, he could feel the heat lapping at him from the incandescent wick. He pressed the corner against the glass. It was caught up in its yellow halo, and burned brown. The parchment burned quickly, back to his thumb. He felt a sear of pain. He pulled his hand away. The card dropped onto the table. He turned his thumb up from his hand, clenched in instinct. He could see a blister glowing. The yellow light lapped at the table. Small, short flames started to flutter outwards from the card, which shrivelled to an impossible black.

He grabbed the coffeepot, turning it over frantically across the table. Nothing came out. It had been empty far longer than he had forgotten about it.

He had no phone in the backroom, and no longer had one even at the front counter. He did not want any new customers, and he did not want to pay a phone bill.

He rushed past the counter and into the street. Liquid orange leapt behind the windows, getting closer and closer to their boundaries. He rushed to a payphone, across the street, by a fire hydrant. He picked up the receiver — nothing. Not even a dead tone. He dropped it in frustration. It clanked to the floor — the phone line itself had been cut. Vandals. Damn vandals everywhere. They were probably just the same neighbourhood kids who smiled at him. With baseball bats. Nobody did anything as innocuous as play baseball anymore. 

The burning storefront cast long orange shadows down the silent street. Rats huddled away in unseen corners. There was a homeless man who had finally succumbed to too long a time of malnourishment, though he was indistinguishable — turned over next to the dumpster — from the piles of unattended garbage bags. There was no one.

His eyes darted across the dancing shadows; dancing, cast from the single, changing, enveloping light source. It was getting brighter. The orange yellow licked at the wood timbers on the stores adjacent. His eyes screamed; his voice was too old to make any real sounds, any sounds that would be noticed by anybody. There was no one. No one moved, nothing stirred in any of the tangle of black shadows of beams and girders and rusty fire escapes, unattended — that would break under a toddler’s foot step if they ever needed to be used. He ran. Nobody stayed out this late. This early? Everyone had retreated from the world. He ran.

In the morning, he sat, the vertebrae of his back grinding against the nobs of the fire hydrant. The top was knocked off, but even they had found that, when it was broke open, something was wrong and it was nothing more than a trickle. It still trickled, running down his back and making the metal cold. It was a welcome relief from the heat that had singed him, chasing at his feet that night. He hadn’t slept. He took a sip of the coffee they had gotten for him, to balance it all out.

A man in a heavy and ash-stained jacket retreated towards him. The structure was gone except for a few columns, their steel twisted off and exposing branches of bolts, looking like mustard-shelled toothpicks from the World War One trenches. “The next thing really is only to talk to the insurance company, if you have it.”

Bernard smiled sheepishly from his seat on the curb. He didn’t have the heart to say, “No.”

“We have to go elsewhere, but… if you have valuables that you stored that were metal or ceramic, they might be simply buried. It might be worth digging around a bit.”

Bernard stood up, his knees shaking from even the few hours of exertion. His face was hollow. His eyes were gone. “I can’t even get any help?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” (they hadn’t even asked his name) “we have to go.”

“What do I even pay taxes for?” It was not said angrily, but with defeat. The man gave a glimmer and a smile of acknowledgment, of ‘oh, what can you do?’ — as if that made it any better — before walking off, and leaving Bernard to hang his head down to the Earth. After a long while of just standing like this, he walked into the ash pile. There wasn’t anything he was looking for in particular, not anything he wanted to keep, or anything even worth saving. It was only something to do.

In the pile of rubble and charcoal that was once the bricks and the paperwork at the back of the store, a gleaming ivory white flash caught his eye. It was oddly, perfectly, straight, and untarnished by any dust. He bent down to pick it up. The first thing he noticed about it, next, was the harsh jolt of yellow underneath it (though this was dusty). His pencil. He read the card.

INGANNO INC.

Mr. Belvedere

Regional Vice President of Franchisees

He scribbled on the back his last stab back, his triumphant answer. 314 days. That was his answer. Whatever they did, whatever it was; the same time he had had to suffer through yet. 314 days.

In a cold concrete room, with ceilings with such depth they could not be seen, the man with the shadowy face looked down at his lit table. He saw his gleaming copy of the card — 

INGANNO INC.

Mr. Belvedere

Regional Vice President of Franchisees

— begin to be tarnished. A graphite string traced itself across, appearing on its own. 314 days. 

The man, or cold creature, whatever he was — was infinitely good with numbers. He called to another man, in a grey suit, with a hat covering his face impossibly well, standing still behind him at a simple dial. 

“27 million 129 thousand 600 seconds.”

The second man rolled the figures across each dial, like a combination lock. Afterwards, he contracted the dials back into the surface, and the whole thing locked in its place.

27-129-600

A clicking began, and the dials flickered with each second. 

27-129-599

In a thousand bunkers around the world, the machines clicked onto the same number, instantaneously. And a thousand hammers moved one twenty-seven-millionth of a rotation closer to closing their circuits to their own bombs.

In a boardroom somewhere, someone looking relatively normal, but with a black soul just the same, questioned one of the men with obtuse faces.

“But, why are we doing this?”

“The old ways cannot be celebrated any longer. This are much truer decisions than democracy. Democracy is just mob rule, letting 51 take over the other 49 and feeling justified about it. The only real representation is instantaneous, pure, and random. Humans should decide for humanity. All of them, all a little, or a lot, all the time. A human. Not a President, or a King. A simple human on the street to have the power to win or wage a war. Anyone at anytime. That is the only way to really make humanity care about every human. The fear that any one of them could have the button next.”

“And if they press it, where will we go?”

“Where you’re meant to.”

“And you?”

“Somewhere else.”

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