The Tick-Tock Man: A Weird Tale

“Only a cynic can create horror — for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a driving demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.”

-Letter from H.P. Lovecraft to Edwin Baird

Maybe I should’ve realized then that my life was going nowhere fast, but as in everything I did I tried to hide that fact from myself. I’d get up, shower, shave, put on a decent gray suit and black tie – the usual invisibility shell I’d been using for years. I’d enter work and smile my masked smile, joke with the guy in the cubicle next to me – Frank was him name, I believe? – for a few minutes; and, then I’d go into my own cube as if it were a monastic cell and shut the rest of the world out of my mind for the rest of the day.

I’m not sure when I noticed things were beginning to change. It wasn’t like I could see a physical difference in the objects around me. I didn’t. It was more a feeling – a vague one, at that. It’s like those strange moments when you catch a glimmer of something out of the corner of your eye, but it is moving so fast that by the time you turn to see what it is – it’s gone, poof. Then you have to ask whether it was just your overactive imagination; believe me, you don’t want to go there, but we’ve all been there – haven’t we?

Then there was the clock on my desk. After all these years – I noticed it. Not that I hadn’t noticed it before. No. I looked at it all time, looked at the one on my computer, looked at the one up on the office wall above Judy’s cube. Time was a preoccupation with me. No. This was different – it wasn’t so much about looking as hearing. Suddenly I kept hearing the tick-tock of the clock over and over and over again to the point I had to stop it or else. I picked it up and slammed it down as hard as I could on the desk. It seemed to stop, or at least it wasn’t as noisy. Then I thought to myself: “What am I doing, this is sheer lunacy?” So I picked the clock up examined it carefully to see if the crystal was cracked or the facing scratched, wound it back up and locked it away in my drawer and left it there.

I remember going to the lavatory for a few minutes. I wasn’t gone that long at all. When I returned there it was – the clock. Sitting there on the desk as if I’d never put it away. A friend had given it to me years ago as a gift. She said it was a rare item. A one of a kind. She’d found it in one of her travels to some country of the Far East. She didn’t remember where. Said it came with a curse; or, at least that is what the shop owner had told her. They’d both laughed at such antics. He told her the clock once belonged to a Princess of ancient China. That a famous toy and clock maker had made it especially for her, and that it was built to keep her alive as long as she took care of it – and, didn’t anger it. It was said that the Princess kept the clock safe for years and years, that she’d put it in an alcove just above her bed where it kept time to the Dragon never yielding to its flames. That is until she fell in love with a young Prince.

The Prince had moved her to his palace and she’d brought her dowry and her clock with her. Everything had gone on fine for many cycles of the turning wheel of time, but then a day came when the Princess had accidentally discovered her lover, the Prince, in the arms of another woman. She’d been so enraged she’d come back to her quarters and begun shredding everything, her clothing, her art, her furniture, her bed, until she came to the object she valued most in her life: the clock. She knew of the curse, and she knew she wanted to get back at the Prince. She picked up the device and without thinking she threw it from the balcony of her room onto the rocks and sea far below.

From that day forward the Princess became ill and a few days and weeks later, even after the Prince had called in the best and brightest doctors, sorcerers, witches, and ancient necromantic seers: she died of unknown causes in an excruciating form – she turned to jade, to stone. The Prince so distraught over the death of his beautiful lover felt there was some ancient curse upon his House. He summoned all his soothsayers and wise men to discover the problem; and they told him of the old toymaker’s clock, and of this man who had loved the young Princess from afar, but due to his age and station in life could only offer the one thing he had to give – the promise of immortality. The clock held the ancient powers of chaos and creation within its mechanical works, a magickal device of cunning and sorcery that bestowed the semblance of life for a price; that price being the dark and terrible secret of death itself which would extol a malignancy upon those who betrayed its confidence. For those who betrayed the device it meant becoming a living death in stone; an immortal statue of jade within which one would be aware for all eternity.

The Prince had the old toymaker and all of his clocks summoned before him. The old man was forced to share the story of his corruption and of the device. The Prince entreated him to break the spell upon the Princess, to release her from her living abomination. But, sadly, the toymaker said this was beyond his power; that the daemon of the clock held the power, and that only it could release her. The Prince angered beyond his young years had without warning slid his katana out and swiftly sliced the head off of the toymaker. He’d wrapped the clock up – which had reappeared after his lover’s mutation in her jade hands – and wrapped it in the old man’s shawl and floated both down the Yellow Yangtze River. That was the last anyone had heard of the clock and its tale till the shop keeper’s great uncle who’d been a traveling merchant had found it and the slain toymaker in the river. The clock seemed such a wonderful object that the old merchant had scooped it from the dead man and hidden it among his things. The merchant had a dream that night and the old toymaker had come to him and told him the tale of the clock and of its curse, that anyone who angered it would surely die as it would die at the appointed hour of the tiger: absolute zero. There and only there did time stop, and freeze into nothing; to remain there throughout all eternity along with its victim alone with the daemon of the clock.

The shop owner Pooh-poohed such old wives tales, said it was just one of those tales to tell your children on a late night when the moon was dark, and the owls and mice in the rafters were hooting and pattering. And, yet, she’d felt a little uneasy about it later, even made sure she wrapped the clock up safely and stowed it away in her traveling chest nice and tight. By the time she’d arrived back home after her journey she’d forgotten all about it. Until she’d given it to me, along with the unnerving tale of Princesses and demons and owls and mice and dark moons and curses.

The clock was still sounding off, slow and methodical. Ticking. Tocking. Tick-tock, tick-tock… Repeating itself over and over and over. This time I’d had enough for the day, it was already late and I decided to leave the office a little early. I told Frank in the cube next to me I had an appointment with the doctor. He wished me well. I didn’t have an appointment. But before I left I decided to try unwinding the clock, closing it up in my safe below the floor of my cube along with my other confidential papers. Felt that that should take care of that. Curse… bunk on curses, I thought to myself.

I started the engine to my car and the music from some obnoxiously loud and noisy rock station blared out at me at the top of the sound barrier piercing my brain like a needle. I fumbled with the knobs trying to turn it down. It wouldn’t. For some reason the knobs just turned and turned but nothing happened. Now I was pissed. I had some Kleenex in the glove compartment. I wadded up a pad and stuck a little in each ear whetted just enough to sink down in and shut off the noise. As I drove out of the lower garage people were staring at me, pointing to the car – shouting at me. I couldn’t hear a thing they were saying so I just smiled and drove on.

As I was driving the light turned green and I put my foot down on the peddle, but when I looked up it was red again. Cars from the crossway were already in motion and I had to swerve to miss a collision. Same thing happened over and over and over… green light to red, or red to green with people yelling and screaming at me to move it or stop. I was lost and dumbfounded.

By the time I took the turn-off from the freeway to my home I was utterly exhausted. With all the stop-n-go traffic and all the people yelling at me to turn off my radio and the wrecks and cops looking at me suspiciously and the signs blinking and the car windshield wipers coming on and the water spray and the antennae going up and down… I was utterly crunched and only wanted to get home and sit down in my comfortable old leather chair with a hot-totty and newspaper and watch the TV and chill till I fell asleep.

But as I reached what I thought was my street I discovered it wasn’t. I was perplexed. I drove on for almost a mile and realized I must’ve gone too far, must’ve been distracted. So I backtracked my way and found Maple St. sitting there just as pretty as you’d please. That was the street just before the one I lived on. So I turned around and sure enough Lovecraft Blvd. was gone, poof.

Now I was afraid. Panicky, to say the least. I rambled around in circles, going up one street and down another looking for Lovecraft Blvd.. It was plain not there. I remember thinking, “Is this what happens when you lose your mind?” I was sure now I was going crazy. Then I remembered the clock, remembered what I’d done. Was that it? Had I angered the clock? This was crazy, such things could not be. Or could they? I just didn’t know: I was half-insane, tired, uncertain; and, I had a terrible headache. I decided to go to the nearest neighborhood pharmacy and get something for my splitting headache. I found one open a mile away. I went in and the clerk looked at me suspiciously.

“Can I help you?” he said.

“Yes, I’m looking for some pain killers.”

He looked me up and down, then said: “I think I have just what you need. Follow me.”

I followed him to what I thought would be a medicine shelf, but instead he was entering what looked like a back room in the pharmacy. As we entered it I noticed it was dark, with only one light that lead to a stairwell going down. He seemed to be going down. So I followed him. I wanted to ask him where he was taking me, but he said “shush… be very quiet!” just as I was about too.

Downstairs I noticed there was a long hall with several doors. I figured this must be a storage area. He kept moving ahead of me faster and faster. As I went by the first door I could hear moaning, and that incessant tick-tock sound. I was tempted to open the door, but the clerk said: “Don’t, that one is not for you.” So I kept moving.

Each of the doors presented a stranger and stranger set of noises, animal noises or grunts and chaffing sounds, voices that sounded alien and full of pain and suffering, but with each step I heard the distinct sound of the tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock – the incessant and maddening tick-tock resounded and multiplied itself over and over and over… I clasped my ears, and yelled… I felt my body crumble…

I must’ve feinted. I woke up in the dark. I seemed to be laying down in a bed or cot. In the distance I heard the feint sound of the clock, nothing but the clock; nothing… tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock… then I tried to get up. That’s when I realized I was chained down.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

The clock seemed to be perceptibly slowing down and my heart with it. With each tick of the tock it got slower and slower and slower and my heart slower and slower and slower till I knew the moment would come at last – till the clock and the darkness and I would reach that moment of moment’s…

till time and the tick and tock and tock and tic and tick-tock, tick-tock… tick-tock…. tick

***

They showed the detective to the cubicle. He’d asked if anyone else had visited him, or if he’d been sick or had the flu or some other ailment, lately.

“I don’t know, sir.” Frank said. “He seemed fine this morning. He never left the cube all day.”

They found him staring at the clock in his outstretched hands, his eyes blank and lifeless as if he were a thousand miles away. There were small red marks, indentations that appeared to be from something tightly wrapped around his neck, wrists, and legs as if he’d been tied up or chained to something. The detective asked if he’d been into strange forms of dark eroticism or other abnormal behavior.

The boss laughed, uneasily. Said he wouldn’t know about that; that work was work, but whatever his employees did on their own nickel was their responsibility not his; he wouldn’t know of such things. In fact, the boss added “I don’t give a dam one way or the other as long as it didn’t affect his work. He was one of the best of our coders. A bright man who was worth every dime, nickel, and cent we paid him.”

The detective turned his attention back to the clock… it was encased in mother-of-pearl with a jade facing, and several small and singular oriental figures carved on its smooth surface of rats, dragons, tigers, rabbits, goats, monkeys and other various animals and insects… in fact, it must’ve been, he assumed part of the Chinese astrological calendar. The hands were made of inlaid obsidian with some precious stones grafted to the edges, and the whole of it seemed to exude an aura of power; something ancient seemed to pervade its semblance…

Frank noticing the detective staring at it spoke up softly, saying: “The strange thing is this clock, sir…”

“What?” said the detective, looking up.

Even the boss puffed up: “What about clocks? Was there something special about this one?”

“I mean it stopped three hours ago at the tiger and the dragon: the time of Zero as he used to tell me. Strange, I’ve never seen a clock with Zero, before. Have you, sir?” The detective nodded, no. “It appears to be in its declension cycle as if the clock was set to the time of some sidereal world rather than our own. Do you think that’s significant?”

The detective put the clock back down carefully, and to everyone’s surprise it once again began ticking and ticking and ticking… tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

The detective heard a gasp behind him from one of the men, and turned back to see the man who had once been human turning to stone before his very eyes: his hands and face, his legs, his hair, all turning to green jade; smooth and cold and translucent as the surface of a glass moon under an autumn sky. His sparkling eyes, alive in the stone, a monstrosity of vital corruption: each eye turning black as night, and roiling in their sockets like a volcanic river of lava that seemed to rotate in suffering and madness to the rhythmic beat of the tick-tock clock.


©2016 S.C. Hickman Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

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