The Tick and the Tocking
by Chelsea Sutton
Uncle Poke dies face down in his beef stew.
There are eight of us at the dinner table when this happens. Well, seven if you don't count Uncle Poke, who by definition, is no longer anywhere in particular. Seven bodies with spoons raised or mouths frozen in mid-chew, and one body slumped over with bits of beef stew stuck to its bald head.
Which is funny. Because Uncle Poke had a full, though thinning, head of hair moments before he died.
I was wrong to mention moments. There may have been seconds or days or months or decades between Uncle Poke's hair and his death.
I shouldn't speak in terms of Time.
Our plates and bowls are suddenly empty. No one could continue to eat, even if they wanted to.
There is much discussion of the body. My Aunt Miranda lets out a delayed scream of despair. My cousins Bill and Jules, twin boys with freckled faces, hold their mother's arms as she prepares to faint.
My own mother, who has been pursing her lips in thought since Poke keeled over, towers darkly over the body and feels for a pulse. It looks to me like she's feeling for it in the wrong place on his neck, but I don't correct her. It doesn't seem to matter.
Aunt Miranda never faints.
Through this activity, I've been mostly watching my father. He is leaning on his elbows, face in his hands. As I watch him I see wrinkles carve themselves in his skin. He loses ten pounds. His hair turns gray and thins around the back. When he lifts his face, he has bags under his eyes and his cheeks are drooping.
My heart crawls into my throat, and I make a pathetic chirping sound.
As I make my way to the bathroom, my little sister Sophie grabs my arm.
"I think I'm taller. My legs hurt. I feel taller. Do I look taller to you?"
She is. And so are the twins.
She will need to change clothes to make room for her height and freshly grown breasts. The twins will have stubble on their chins.
In the bathroom, I avoid the mirror.
I breathe. It takes me a while to remember how to cry. A while? No, that's probably not right. It could take no while at all. But I remember. And I do. For a while. Or not.
A period of Time goes by, but I cannot tell how long it is. I should not try to even guess.
A crackling and fizzling sound comes out of the radio. Then an announcer with a deep voice says "Attention. Time is officially moving forward. Repeat. Time is officially moving forward. Please take the usual precautions."
Aunt Miranda tries to faint again. She is unsuccessful.
The sun sets.
I spend the night wandering the house. I listen to my parents breathing. I watch Sophie mumbling in her sleep in a bed too small for her.
For once, I wish Time would stop at night, when everyone else is asleep, when I wander alone, watching over them, keeping them safe and tucked away.
I stare out my bedroom window at the empty sidewalk. I remember a face.
The sun rises again. This is Time progressing. Or so I'm told.
Across town, the elementary school is flooded with teenagers in ill-fitting clothes. Newly minted adults are roaming the halls of the high schools. It takes a great amount of Time to sort out who belongs where.
This is a usual problem. The problem of where one belongs.
Several women go into labor only to have the baby grow into a walking, talking child in a matter of minutes. They never even have Time to hold the baby in their arms.
Some women who didn't know they were pregnant suddenly grow large bellies and give birth in their kitchens, in the backs of cars, at the grocery store, at the office, while making love to their husbands. The babies grow quickly and move into the guest rooms. Some of these women have miscarriages. This requires a great deal of cleaning up.
In a matter of minutes. Minutes. I don't feel I'm using the word correctly.
There are many like Uncle Poke who die from heart attacks, sudden onsets of cancer, or old age. They die at their dinner tables, in their beds, at work. Some fall off ladders, are hit with poorly aimed bowling balls at the local alley, slip and hit their heads by the swimming pool — so their deaths are doubly assured.
A few accidents are had by young people — brand new teenagers not quite used to that strange way their chemicals are balanced, the way their bodies move. Some are in the road when someone dies while driving a car.
In some places, the youth that die are called tragedies. Here, it all looks the same. At least to me.
All these things happen as I leave my parents' house. My mother — wrinkles, gray hair, thin arms — begs me to stay.
"We don't know how long this Tocking will last," she says. "You need to stay close by. The family needs to be together." Her lightly withered hand is holding on to mine.
"I won't go far," I say. It is not a lie.
The Tocking. That's what they like to call this period — when Time catches up with itself. There's the Tick and then the Tocking. Time stands still. And then it runs like hell.
Everyone hopes to be stuck in some lovely moment during the Tick. You never know how long you'll be stuck there, after all. And you never know what will happen once it's over.
Uncle Poke's death, as an example. Where will Aunt Miranda go? Bill and Jules are now grown men with libidos and hungers. Last time, we were able to get the whole family together. Eating a meal we could all agree on. That won't happen again.
I am not planning to return home.
There are always a few who race to the outskirts of town, once Time starts up again. They think if they run far enough and fast enough that they will escape it. That Time will move forward at a steady pace, that there will be no stopping or starting or speeding up or slowing down. Just a steady march of Time. But they are fooling themselves. There is no such place.
Some give up and head back. Others get stuck out there. Running and running and running and going nowhere for who knows how long.
When the Tocking happens, most end up dying from a burst heart.
I walk to my single apartment near the center of town. There is a funeral procession marching in the middle of the road toward the cemetery. At least fifteen coffins are in hearses, truck beds, horse drawn carts, or being carried by pallbearers. There is no Time for single funerals anymore. No Time. There will be another procession later in the day that will carry Uncle Poke's body. I won't be there.
I whisper a goodbye under my breath.
A few teenagers push past me on the sidewalk as I search for my keys. The teenagers have it best right about now. They have new bodies, new minds, new desires and strengths: more than they know what to do with.
During the Tocking, they are always running circles in the streets, eating stacks of hamburgers at the diners and fast food joints, playing music loud and thumping, writing terrible poetry, getting into fights.
Many make love in the backs of cars or quietly in their rooms while their parents are out.
I was a teenager during a Tocking. I fell in love with a boy named Charlie. With green eyes and brown silky hair.
We made clumsy, sloppy love in my bedroom. The bedroom at my parents' house. The bedroom that has not changed, except for a new layer of dust. There is always a layer of dust that settles on things during a Tocking.
We lay awake all night, whispering, laughing, arms around each other, never parting until it was necessary. We made a list of moments we'd like to be stuck in, moments for the Ticking. We came up with twenty-five.
From my bedroom window, I watched him hurry away from my house as the end was coming close. He stopped at the end of the sidewalk, looked up at me, whistled a goodbye. As I watched, I almost felt Time stop, like the Ticking had come early this time. But I think it was just for me.
Occasionally Time will do that. It will stop just for you.
I can't find my keys, so I think about breaking in. I had hoped to spend the next However Long reading in the dim light of my one-room apartment, reading the same few beautiful sentences over and over and drinking a cup of hot coffee, coffee that would never be cold and never be finished. Until it suddenly was.
We came up with a list of twenty-five. This is the only one I can remember.
I don't know how to break into a fourth story apartment. So I head toward the town square. Toward the library.
In the square, there is the usual scene. Protesters outside the government building, rallying for banishment of the Time-tables, a return to steady rhythms. No more waiting and panic, waiting and panic.
The crowd waves sloppy hand painted signs, signs painted in haste several Tockings ago, they chant and strum guitars and march and dance. Some have been at this rally since forever. Whatever forever means.
I see my sister Sophie near the back of the crowd leaning against a wall with a young man. She has a woman's curves, a woman's face, a woman's smile. I barely recognize her. She doesn't see me.
The library is closed. No one bothered to open it up this Tocking. Or perhaps the librarian died inside, and someone will be in for a big mess the next time around.
There are several cases of new books sitting on the steps. A delivery. There is always a delivery of new books to the stores and libraries. Always a run of new television show episodes and a string of newspapers.
Books and scripts written in years that had been churning in the minds of writers for seconds.
Wait. Years. Seconds. Reverse that.
I flip through a few titles. I find random pages and read words until I find a string of them I like. That's the book I take. It's hard covered, heavy and weathered looking even though it is brand new.
A vote is being taken in the square. It's always the same vote. A vote for something the government has no control over anyway.
I hear my sister scream, even over the din of the protesters and yells of voting. The young man she was with has her pinned to the wall and she's pushing hard against him.
I rush to her side and pull him off of her. I slam the book in my hand across his face. He bleeds and whimpers and runs away. He'll now spend the next However Long with a bleeding and broken nose.
Sophia looks at me. She squints. She doesn't recognize me at first. I realize I haven't looked in the mirror yet. I have no idea what I look like now. How old I am. If she's, what, sixteen or eighteen, then I must be at least thirty. Can't be so bad.
She hugs me, kisses me on the cheek, whispers in my ear. "See you at home." And she runs off.
I love her. Especially in this moment. But I'll never have enough Time to know her. Time enough.
There is a spatter of the boy's blood on the cover of the book. I am sure, without a doubt, that I will enjoy reading it now, no matter how long that will be.
I do not want to wake into the next Tocking to watch my parents keel over like Uncle Poke. I am embarrassed to be leaving that burden on Sophie. But I like goodbyes to be on my own terms. I want to want something else besides the next moment. Moment.
I always feel I'm using that word wrong.
A few painters and repairmen are working on the storefronts and government buildings, making them clean and sleek again. Even the buildings show their age once Time moves forward.
These men use their Time out of the Tick to beautify. They take their jobs seriously. Most get stuck up there on those ladders, hammering one last nail, painting one last stroke.
These are the men who die from the fall.
I settle in a pub further off the square, the only place as dim and depressing as my one room apartment.
I find a place at the bar, order a Jack and Ginger, and settle in for a good drunken read for However Long.
When someone whistles behind me.
It's Charlie. Older, but the same green eyes that stared up at me from the sidewalk However Long ago.
"It's good to see you," he says. "It's been...you know."
"I know," I say.
"May I join you?" he says. He sits on the stool next to me without waiting for an answer.
"I don't think this Tocking will last much longer. Don't you have a better moment to hurry off to?" I smooth my hands over the cover of the book, over the dried blood from the teenage boy with the perpetual broken nose.
"Not this time," says Charlie. He toasts the book in front of me with his whiskey sour. "Which one was this? Twenty-five?"
"I don't remember exactly," I say. I feel my face flush.
"Then I suppose we have a lot of catching up to do," Charlie says.
I feel it happening. Time is slowing down. But when I look at the others in the bar, they move normally, they don't seem stuck at all. It's for me. The slowing down.
I enjoy it for as long as it lasts. And then I answer.
"And I guess we have all the Time in the world to do that. To catch up or read or talk or drink or… what else was on our list?"
Charlie leans in and kisses me. We kiss. For several moments.
Moment. That's right this time.
"What would you rather do first?" I open the book to the page with the beautiful sentences. And I take a sip from my glass.
And I feel it happening. Time slowing. Again. But I don't know if it is real or only mine. And it doesn't much matter.
Copyright © 2014 by Chelsea Sutton