By Kim Burnham
The doctors call me Big Ben. I am not a large man. But I am larger than most clocks. I know the hour, the minute and the second as well as any other timepiece ever made. And I always will. I also have a built in hourly chime. It cannot be shut off or I will die.
I was picked up by three KGB pretenders in a Warsaw suburb November sixth, nineteen eighty nine. I can't tell you the time exactly. I didn't have the gift yet. They knew I was CIA. They cornered me in a small cafe late at night.
They took me to a place outside the city. They began the interrogation soon after my arrival. I took a little grilling and then told them what they wanted to hear. It's okay. They didn't want to hear the truth. But for some reason I will never know, I was transferred to Bucharest, Romania about a week later.
They took me to a large gray building in the country outside of Bucharest. Within an hour of my arrival, the questions started all over from the beginning. But these people weren't idiots like the ones in Poland. They didn't believe any of my lies, even the really good ones.
It was on the morning of the third day in Romania that they brought in the machine. They rolled it in horizontal on a gurney. As soon as they got it upright I could see that it was a grandfather clock. I laughed. I couldn't help myself. But it wasn't just a clock. It was hooked to something else with wires, a gray metal box with two dials and a knob.
"Does the clock chime?" I asked in Russian like an idiot. Trying to show them I was not afraid.
All three of them laughed.
"No," answered the one in the white jacket. "You do."
They laughed again, long and hard.
The one in the white jacket stopped laughing long enough to give me an injection.
I awoke some time later. It was dark. As I opened my eyes, I jerked in surprise but found I could not move. I was strapped to the gurney they had brought the clock in on. I thought there was someone standing at the foot of it. But it was the clock. It looked different in the dark from when they had first brought it in. It had been a piece of furniture like I might have found in Grandmas' living room, next to the love-seat where I kissed my cousin on the mouth. Now in the dim light, it was an armless demon with an eyeless, glass-plated face, it's steel heart ticking loudly, with each stroke of the pendulum. I could feel something attached at the base of my neck. But I could not reach up to investigate. I listened for a while to the ticking of that mechanical heart. After a while I must have fallen asleep.
The fact that words cannot induce physical pain frustrates me now. But it is perhaps a blessing for you. A bolt of lightning formed suddenly within my spine and began to hack its way out through every nerve, even the little ones. I never knew there were so many of them, in so many places. As I screamed, the pain was over, as quickly as it had come. The guards had set a digital clock with a lit dial on an overturned crate next to the gurney. The pain had come precisely at one A.M..
I laid awake for awhile, struggling for a way to get loose. I was awake for what must have been thirty or forty minutes. I did not have the gift yet. But it wouldn't be long. Finally, I was asleep again.
The burning holocaust came again as suddenly as before. I cried out. Then it was over. But no sooner than I sighed with relief, there came another blast from the furnace within. And I screamed again. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a muffled sound. It sounded like laughter.
It was on the third horror when the torture came as a set of three and the digital clock displayed the same number, that I began to suspect what the man in the white coat had meant. Every hour, on the hour, Hell's clock would reach out to me and make me scream one scream for every hour. I was the chime. I was the one to call out the hours. By the time four o'clock came, I was sure of it.
An hour is a strange thing. It comes in many sizes. During the next hour, the words to a song came to me. His life seconds numbering, tick tock, tick tock. But how did the song end? I couldn't remember. That one line just kept repeating over and over in my head. His life seconds numbering, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
How I wished to be tortured by someone with eyes! With eyes there was always hope, no matter how small, that they might see me in them. Those eyes might belong to someone's father. Those eyes might become moist with tears. But the clock had none, only the glass plate and the indiscernible hands behind it.
An hour is a strange thing. A minute is stranger still. It is more constant in length than an hour, but no one can find the point at which one minute passes into another. As one minute passes, it becomes later, second by second, split second by split second, nanosecond by nanosecond. Then suddenly, it is very early in the next minute. It is 4:59 AM and something and then it is 5:00 AM and something. The point between cannot be measured. Therefore, it must be infinite.
Let me use an example. The passing from one moment to another is like two perfectly shaped needles, pointed end to pointed end. The two ends appear to touch. But we cannot define the point at which they touch. As we get closer and closer to the point of contact, the diameter of each of the needles decreases but never becomes zero. So we cannot say at which point one needle leaves off and the other begins. Somewhere between the past minute and the future minute lies eternity. As I lay on that gurney, looking at the clock that would not look back, I ached for what lies between. I prayed for that eternity. I cried out for that forever moment. But I could not find it. If I could have, surely I would have stayed the five burnings from the eyeless face. But I could not.
I told the agents everything three hours later. This time it was all true, as much as I could remember. But they did not disconnect me.
It wasn't as bad in the daytime. Then, the clock was just a clock, electrocution only electrocution. And, at any time, my story might check out. Someone might come through the door and disconnect me from the awful machine. I dreaded the coming of each hour of course. But not like in the night, when the clock was an eyeless demon of Hell. I dreaded the coming of darkness much more than the coming of any single hour. Then I would be truly alone, just me, the thing, the minutes and the hours.
That night, the song came to me again It was eleven forty four P.M.. His life seconds numbering, tick tock, tick tock. We were part of each other now, the clock and I. We had grown together. The neurons of my spine had shot out long bifurcated axons that had reached for and grasped the willing dendrites of the awful electrical cord. The clock was no longer eyeless. I was it's eyes. And it was my shadow, it's glass plate, the catch basin of all my evil. Each swing of the pendulum was a sin. Tick, I hit my little brother until he cried. Tock, I lied to Mom. Tick, I lied to Mary. Tock, I left my lover without a word. Tick, I lied to myself.
The words of the song came once more. His life seconds numbering, tick tock, tick tock. But this time, I remembered the end. And the clock stopped, never to go again when the old man died. Then I knew what I had to do. Here was my chance to pay for every sin. The demon and I were one. If I died, it would die with me.
It is not easy to kill yourself when your hands and legs are bound. Even if I had been brave enough to hold my breath long enough, I would have passed out. I see that now. But I tried. I held my breath for one minute and thirty two seconds. The awful desperate gnawing for air, as bad as it was, was nothing compared to the demon's pain. But I weakened and gasped for breath. I cursed myself in vacuumed gasps and tried again. I tried a third time and failed. Then it was midnight. Twelve blasts of agony lashed out.
When the pain subsided, and the spasms stopped, I worked my tongue out of my throat and smiled. I abandoned the idea of killing myself. I made the clock show feelings! The pain had been worse. It was angry. It knew that I was trying to kill it. I felt it. It was not without passions. If it was angry, then it might have also been afraid. It was weak like me. The moist pliability of my organs had infected the clock. I was its Ebola, the virus of my own weakness softening the steel heart within, spreading from gear to gear, lever to lever. That was it! Before one, I hurriedly told the clock a story, a sad story. Now was my chance to catch the demon in its weakened state and drive a stake of sadness through it's stainless heart..
This is the story that I told. It was not a great story. It was simple and predictable, a paperback romance. But it was true.
The bedroom was dimly lit with the gray shadows of a muffled dawn. The bed contained a young man and a young woman, each lying on their back, examining a ceiling which, in the dim light, had no features to examine.
"The roads are bound to be slick," said Mary. "It hasn't stopped snowing since midnight."
"I need to get back," Ben replied. "They are expecting me at the agency."
"Expecting you. Have you ever done anything they didn't expect you to do? It might help if I knew any of them. It always sounds like the title of some science fiction movie the way you say they.
"They're just people like anybody else."
"Then why haven't you introduced me to any of them? Don't they have birthdays, or die or play poker? Are you ashamed of me? Is that why I haven't met a single soul you work with?"
"It's not you. It's just that these people like to keep to themselves. We have to do things, things we don't want to be reminded of at birthday parties."
"What kinds of things?
"Things that will protect our country."
"I can't tell you."
The snowflakes were large now and drifted down slowly, gently. But the room had become so quiet that Ben could hear the flakes brush the pane of the bedroom window like rose thorns on the polished lid of a coffin.
Ben threw back the covers and bounded out of bed.
"Are you mad?" asked Mary. "I didn't mean to make you angry. Come back to bed."
Ben was silent. He was getting dressed. He went to the bathroom and then downstairs. He was drinking a cup of coffee as Mary came up behind him and began to massage his shoulders.
"I'm sorry," Ben said, turning towards her. "Would you like a cup?"
He stood up. They kissed. He took Mary's hand and they climbed the stairs back to the bedroom.
Ben awoke an hour later. He sat up and looked at Mary. She was sound asleep, her blonde hair gilding the pillow, her lips turned outward in a pout. Ben had seen the same pout in an old picture of her. She had been six or seven, sitting on her Daddy's fifty something Ford, squinting in the sunlight. Ben wondered who she was pouting at. She wore a checkered dress with a sash tied in front in a large bow. Ben didn't know the color of the dress. The picture had been black and white.
Ben got out of bed and dressed again. This time he was very quiet. He stopped in the doorway and took one more look at Mary. It was the last time he saw her.
I told you it was a simple story. Sometimes the truth is like that. But the clock liked it. The pain was just a little less at one o'clock.
It was two and a half weeks later that they came for me. I was tortured right up until that time, when the liberators came and disconnected me. There was a new government in Romania. I was allowed to go.
Members of the agency found me in a stupor in a tavern in a Bucharest suburb two days later. They thought I was drunk. But soon they realized there was something very wrong. They flew me to Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. My heart was barely beating by the time I arrived. Three hours later, the alarm on my heart monitor sounded. They wheeled me into ICU and gave me a bolt of electricity. My heart started right back up and beat with a strong and regular rhythm as if it had never stopped. But an hour later, it stopped again. Again, I responded to an electrical jolt. This happened five more times that night. A specialist was flown in and the best medical minds in the military were consulted. They had never seen a case like this before.
The doctors finally managed to attach an old machine for electrical stimulation of the heart to a timing device. The thing gave me a dose of juice every thirty minutes. The doctors were having a great time. I was a new set of Legos and this was Christmas morning. The next day, they talked with the agency and found out what had happened. The new Romanian government had picked up one of my tormentors. That's when the doctors switched me to hourly juice jolts. That was when I regained consciousness. I didn't look at the clock. But I knew it was eleven A.M.
The doctors kept me for three months altogether. They installed in me something like a pacemaker, except this one fed into my spinal cord, rather than to the heart muscle. It hurts each time, each hour. But that's okay. The doctors made up a new name for my problem. They called it autonomic threshold perturbation. The article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
At first the agency kept track of me. But they eased up after a while. I obtained a passport and visa under the name of Benjamin Bigg. It was easy. I still had the connections.
Two years, three months, four days, two hours and thirty two minutes after returning to America, I boarded a plane. The doctors told me I was cured but I knew that only part of me was healed. I was on my way to Bucharest to find the rest of me. The next morning after my arrival, I took a taxi out to the big gray building. It was locked but I walked around it. I peered into the smoky windows. I found the room that I had been tortured in. But I was not there. I looked through the window of the next room but I was not there either. I looked in all the windows and I was not there. I searched the dusty furniture stores, antique shops and surplus stores. I put an ad in the newspaper.
Finally, the day before I was to leave or kill myself. (I am not sure which.) I found myself at three thirty five, March the thirty first, nineteen ninety two in a small pawn shop in the city.
I am fine now. The other part of my body was dead when I found it, but I restored it once I got it back to the states. Since I am living on a pension, I have plenty of time to keep my spring wound, my gears oiled and my wooden case polished. I keep that part of me at the foot of the bed so I can do my work at night. I am doing a scientific study. I am uncovering the forever that lies between the moments. I am the one to do it. I am both observer and object. Soon I will find the eternity that lies between the pain. Then I will live forever in comfort.
Story copyright ©1999 by Kim Burnham <email@example.com>
Artwork "Big Ben" copyright © 1999 by Thomas Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>