There was a clock in the hallway. He couldn’t see it, but it spoke the seconds like a visitor that never tired of talking to him.
His cell was two meters long by three meters wide. At its narrowest point, he could take two forward steps. Concrete thwarted even the beginning of a third. He had slab of hard ticking to sleep on. There was a combined toilet/sink in the corner.
The door was a sheet of steel with a rectangular slot. From outside the door came noises – footsteps, voices, and jangling keys. All of it happening a few meters away, and all of it as distant as interstellar radio. The ticking clock was the only thing that intruded into his world.
There were a few books, a stack of blank pages and a pencil. Some of them had been written on.
Once, he’d tried keeping a prison diary.
He’d given up on that partly because he had nothing to write about, and only the barest scaffolding of reality to attach that nothing to. Was it normal to be in prison – in solitary confinement – and not remember why? Was it worth writing anything when nothing ever happened? Was it enough to just be ? He didn’t think it was. His life felt blanker than the pages he was writing on.
But mostly, he’d stopped writing because the things he wrote were wrong.
He would write something innocuous and self-evident. Then he’d masturbate, eat his dinner, sleep, wake up, read the words again, and they’d make sense. Then he’d count to a thousand, eat his lunch, trace out a crack in the wall with his finger, thumb uselessly through a read-to-rags paperback, walk from one end of his cell to the other a hundred times, whistle, recite the prime numbers from one to a hundred, nap, read his words again, and they’d still make sense.
But eventually, they wouldn’t.
Sooner or later, they stopped being right. They became the words of a different person, dwelling in a different place.
He’d read a sentence like my mattress is made of vinyl , and touch his fabric mattress in a state of wonder.
I have sixteen pages of paper … Disorientation, when a recount proved the number to be fifteen.
On the final page, written in pencil, were the words My name is Kruger .
He’d re-read that days later, and a memory from years earlier surfaced. The girl from the motor registry handed over his driver’s license. “Hey, just to check…that’s kay-ar-yoo-ee-gee-ee-ar, right? Oh, good. I thought I’d made a mistake and I’d need to start the machine up again.” … No, he could not keep a diary after that.
Sometimes he lay on his mattress, wondering how long it would be before he started the slow descent into madness.
Reading his writing made him think the descent was already happening…and it was anything but slow.
The days oozed and leaked into each other like suppurating wounds.
A double-knock on the door announced his supper. He rolled off the hard bed, feeling his joints crack and pop, as a tray of prison slop slid through the gap. The light was back on. He hated the entire place, but especially the light. It made his cell look like an alien world. A thousand years would not make it home.
He was in a cell the size of a closet. He’d been in here for days or weeks, he didn’t know why, and he might never know why.
The prison ran with the unvarying rhythm of a punch press machine. Lights on, then lights off. In the interval with lights on, three meals. And yet time was melting, dissolving, becoming a nonsense. The tedium was married to an odd and contradictory sense of impermanence – boredom in the middle of a landslide, ennui in a shockfront of crashing shale.
His memory felt like a looted and burned library. Yes, he could dredge up shit from twenty years ago…friends, odd jobs, long car drives. He had lived a life, but there was no umbilical cord from there to now. Why am I here? Once, he had asked that question to the guard who fed him. He did not expect an answer, and his expectations were met.
He finished his food, jerked off, and then stared at a crack in the wall for the next two hours while the clock intoned the seconds.
He stirred, and began to drift off to sleep.
When he woke up, the lights were still on.
He masturbated again, choking his prick in time with the clock.
He felt the surge building, and coronas of light burst over his eyes as his orgasm bloomed like a worthless flower. He lay back in bed, gasping, when he heard it.
Yes, he was sure of it this time. The clock had counted a second too fast.
Semen dried on his stomach as he listened to the rhythm of the ticks, hoping to hear further anomalies. The machine taunted him with relentless perfect staccato for five minutes before he gave up.
Maybe he’d imagined it. Maybe he was imagining everything.
Another double knock, but this time there was no food.
“Look alive, Krueger. Mail from your barrister.”
A letter slid through the gap. He picked it up, turning it over and over in his hands. The return address was for the office of James Mochizuke, JD.
He opened the envelope and pulled out its contents. A twice-folded piece of paper zig-zagged in his hands, the harsh light chasing shadows into every small crease in the stationery.
He put the letter back down, puzzled .
Rising in him, like a ghastly bird of prey, was the impulse to scream.
Hours, or days, or seconds, or years later, he was lying on his mattress, staring at the ceiling.
Sometimes, when coming out of sleep, the concrete roof of his cell seemed not an enclosure but a window, a view up into the nave of a cathedral where things lived and thrived to the pulses of blood over his eyes. In these times, he tried not to wake. Watching the many-coloured menagerie dance to the rhythm of his heartbeat was a dear pleasure. But wakefulness always claimed him, and then he was staring only at concrete.
The clock ticked on. He now listened to it with great interest.
It kept time irregularly, he was sure of it now. Once every thousand or ten thousand seconds it would double-tick. There was no pattern he could observe. He would listen, and listen, and listen, and his focus would wander…then a ticktick would lash it back to full attention.
He wracked his brain for things he knew about gears and pivots and actuators. He knew nothing that could account for the clock’s odd ticking pattern. Some of the lights-on periods (only when he felt sarcastic did he think of them as days) were marked by only two or three double ticks. Other periods had fifteen or twenty.
It was getting worse.
The guard outside pounded on the door. “Krueger, come here.”
Krueger rolled off the bed and put his head to the other side of the door. “What’s going on?”
“There’s a man here to see you…”
“Why the fuck am I here?”
“…He’s a psychiatrist.”
“Won’t you tell me anything?”
“He wants to talk to you. He wants to assess your mental health. Clean up your pad, he’ll be here in three mintues.”
The receding footsteps were swallowed by the ticking of the clock. Assess my mental health? Suddenly he felt uneasy.
One hundred and ninety-eight ticks later, there was the shikk of a key stabbed into the lock.
The door had been a fixture of the cell all the time Krueger had been there.
He might forget what his bed was made of, or how many pieces of paper he had, or even how to spell his name, but the door always stayed. He had internalised it as an impassable barrier, and it shocked him to see it swing open.
A man entered the cell, half-closing the door behind him. Krueger shrank back, unconditioned and frightened by human contact.
The psychiatrist’s coat was carelessly creased. His chin had the uneven stubble of a razor not doing its job, and the scabbed cut of a razor doing its job too well. He did not look old, or young. He looked like a person for whom age is not a property. His face held no emotion Krueger had ever seen or heard about or felt. He seemed like benevolent man made cruel by some immense gulf of time or nature.
A scientist about to chop a paramecium apart.
Krueger felt frightened. Questions and accusations and complaints duelled for space on his tongue. What came out was inane. “The clock’s broken. Can you get someone to fix it?”
“I think…” the man said, his voice unaccented and serene.
Krueger counted thirty ticks waiting for the thought to be spoken,
“…I can tell you why you are here.” The man said at last.
“Oh? Why am I here?”
Another twenty ticks. “Because they’re plastic.”
“The food trays here are plastic. You broke one over your knee, and slashed a sharp edge through another prisoner’s throat. That’s why you are here.”
Krueger felt a foreign emotion sweep over him…relief. At last, knowledge. Something real, something firm, something other than the useless runaround of his mind.
Then came doubt. The relief curdled in his stomach like sour milk.
“That’s a lie.”
The psychiatrist looked interested. “What?”
“That’s a lie. Do you want it again in Pig Latin? From now on, I’m going to assume everything I’m told by anyone here is a lie unless I have compelling reasons to the contrary.”
The psychiatrist said nothing.
“The whole thing is a game from beginning to end. You’ve locked me in here, and you’ve drugged me until I’ve forgotten how to spell my own name. You’ve fucked with the clock in the hall so that it doesn’t keep time.” He sounded ridiculous, felt ridiculous, but his rage smashed all bulwarks. “Now you’re saying I’ve killed someone. Maybe I should contact my lawyer – yeah, you know, the same one you’re forging stupid-ass letters from. Don’t pretend you’re here to help me. I know , and I’m not playing this game. Get fucked, cocksucker.”
A smile appeared on the psychiatrist’s face. Krueger stepped back into the wall, little teeth of cement pricking the skin on his arms. It was a vile, sickly smile, like a rotten fruit splitting. “Do you want to know what will happen to you next, Krueger?”
“You won’t rejoin general. You’re going to a new place.”
“Get out of my cell.”
“You can hurt, Krueger. You knew that already. But I don’t think you understand how much.”
Anger built up inside like an overpressure wave. “Get out of my cell.”
“You’ll do anything to make it stop.”
“Get out of here or I’ll rip your head off, you fucking freak,” Krueger said with feeling. “That’ll be my therapy . ”
His smile gone, the man turned around and left the cell, shutting the door behind him.
The clock issued a marching beat to chaos. The end was coming. Krueger no longer wanted it.
Shell. A blank shell.
The ticking clock consumed all of him now, every thought in his head, every corpuscle of his being, every atom of his universe. Double-ticks and triple-ticks and quadruple-ticks ratcheted and rebounded through his mind.
He blinked in time with the clock. He tapped the cement with hands bloodied from pounding the walls.
Why does nobody hear it? Why does nobody do something?
The terrifying staccato rhythms intensified and waned and then intensified to a new level, like lapping waves with the force of an incoming tide behind them. Was time speeding up? Or was he now unable to process time? Was his brain now as broken as the clock?
Sanity occasionally asserted itself. He’d remember his name, or he’d remember the car he’d driven when he was eighteen, and he’d cling to that precious knowledge. He’d have a few moments to think, to be himself, before the lunatic clock blasted his thoughts away.
Shredded paper littered the cell. In a sane period he’d picked up a few pages, seen unintelligible columns of ÀÁÄÄÄÀÁÄÄÄÀÁÄÄÄÀÁÄÄÄÀÁÄÄÄÀÁÄÄÄ’s crowding the sheets, and then he’d ripped every one of his diary entries to pieces as the clock pounded out its drunk, senseless rhythms.
He had no idea who he was. Not even the shadow of an idea. A clockwork daemon sat enthroned in his head. No room now for names.
He sat there for who knew how long until the door opened.
“Get up, Krueger.”
“Come on, Krueger, your time’s up. Let’s get you out of here.”
Uniformed men flanked him. A hand under the crook of his arm pulled him to his feet.
The rush of blood to his leg muscles roused his brain. He had forgotten he had leg muscles. His body felt like a hollow soundspace where small noises became earthquakes.
Was he leaving his cell, then?
One of the guards took him by the arm and escorted him through the door. The second followed behind, truncheon in hand, ready to break his head.
He took his first steps through the threshold.
They felt wonderful.
He was going to the clock.
He knew what to do. He would break the clock. He would rip it down from the wall, and smash it to pieces under his boot. Even if the guards allowed him only a second, he would use that second to end the clock’s existence. What would happen then? He didn’t know. He might go straight back into solitary. But the clock would die, and nothing else mattered, or would ever matter, or could ever matter…
He took wobbly steps out into the landing beyond his cell. His legs hadn’t completely forgotten how to walk, but they had trouble chaining together step after step. He slowed down, and the guard behind him pushed him forward with a curse.
Concrete walls on both sides, with a turn to the right. He could hear the ticking coming from just around the corner, and a grin split his face. His vengeance was at hand.
He rounded the corner…
There was no clock in the hallway. He looked at the blank the cement walls, not believing his eyes. Ticks scourged his mind, tormenting him, and there was nothing making him.
He closed his eyes, and abandoned hope.
“Come on, get moving” snarled the guard.
The men – if that’s what they were – forced him down the hallway to an unknown destination. His eyes were fixed on the metal door ahead of him, but he did not see it. The slap of the guards’ shoes was counterpointed by the jangling of their keys and the glottal noises of their breathing, but he did not hear it.
What he did hear – and louder and louder – was the ticking of a clock, a nightmare syllabary echoing forever in his mind without remission.
– Ben Sheffield, September 2013