The ticking grew louder and he was struck with a familiar longing for disbelief. The knowledge was his chaotic lover and he shied away from her bruising touch. His body was a mosaic of her kisses, scars, each larger than life.
He wondered how it would happen this time. Fire, skin sliding off his coworker’s protruding frame like rib meat does a bone? Sleep, the consumption of an eternal dream? The way it happened was the only thing left to chance. His mind was at the mercy of this indecisive Nature.
His coworker had begun to tick six days ago in the conference room. They had been the only two inside, both plagued with morbid punctuality. She had been writing something, black hair falling in her eyes. The room was silent, save for the sound of the pencil violating her notepaper.
The man’s head started to ache. A sour bile penetrated his taste. And then it began, quiet as first, as it always was. The clock. The tick tick that made him crave death, crave the blessed ending to the noise.
He called in sick the next three days, the separation dulling the chimes, though the sound never truly stopped.
But it was Monday now. He was back in the office and the ticking began to swell. Death was near. He could always sense it.
With the coworker it was an unbearable tragedy. She was pregnant, the ticking twice as loud. The man felt terrible for her husband. He had met the soft-spoken man at the baby shower, and he had seemed like a decent fellow. The two had been so happy that day, and in the last six months, despite the pain, the aches, there had always been a smile on his coworker’s face.
She would die before morning.
He had first discovered his talent in third grade. Before then, he thought everybody heard the clock. Whenever he complained about the ticking to his mother, she would shrug it off, chalking it up to childhood imagination.
The ticks were fluctuating storms, thundering and lulling. He had never assigned them any meaning until the day of his classmate’s death.
They had been schoolmates, circumstantial friends that never saw each other outside the elementary walls. Usually they played together at lunch, in the sandbox, or by the woods. However, in those last days, the boy hadn’t liked playing with his classmate. The ticking had begun to hurt; it was so loud that he had cried for his mother, fearful that he was going deaf.
Four days after the ticking began, his classmate died in the cafeteria. He had choked on a slice of pizza, and that had been that.
The ticking had gone quiet.
As he grew, the boy learned to manage the ticks. He avoided clocks, as they became synonymous with precognition. A young man now, he followed a strict set of rules that gave his life the illusion of normalcy. Avoid crowds at all costs. Don’t tell anyone that they are going to die. Don’t treat them any differently. Feign surprise when your pregnant co-worker falls off a ladder and splits her head in two. Don’t tell anybody about your gift. Don’t get attached to people. And under no circumstances may you ever fall in love. Love is nothing more than the quantification of chaos.
He broke that last rule on the day he met the woman.
Time skipped after the death of his coworker, the days feeling empty like a slice of Swiss cheese. Their department had been given a week off. The man now wandered in the rain, staring up at the morose sky. His hair began to dampen with the water, and he grew worried that his face would soon follow. He stopped in front of a crowded coffee shop, chilled to his bones and shivering like a mad man. He opened the door tentatively, wincing as the ticking began to puncture his bruised mind. Voices swelled, pregnant with jubilant laughter and contented life.
As he closed the door behind him, his overcoat was caught and the man stumbled to the floor. He heard laughter, and looked up from the coffee-stained carpet.
There was a woman there, on her way out of the shop. Her hair had been in long red braids then, when she still had hair to style. Her eyes were gray and full of mischief, and the man couldn’t help but smile, despite the rugburn that scarred his palms.
She helped him up, extending a long hand, thin and pale as a crescent moon. There was a book under her arm, one he had read many times over.
“That’s a good book,” he said, regaining his footing. He pulled his coat out from the door, dismayed by the slight snag in the black fabric.
“It’s rather boring so far,” the woman said, her voice like cream. “I’m partial to something with a little more action.”
“You should try his other book then. The pacing is better.”
“The one about the spy?”
“Which other would it be?”
She laughed again and that had been the start. They exchanged numbers and names, promising to do a book swap in the following week. And miraculously, they did.
The first book she gave him had been terrible, the second wonderful. Sometimes they would meet up at the coffee shop, other times the park. She would always drink coffee, he a chai.
He resisted it at first, the feeling in his chest like buzzing bugs zipping about. The butterflies bursting through his heart. The warm, fuzzy feelings like the fur of a caterpillar. But the worm of love ate into his skull and there was nothing he could do. He hated himself for it, for breaking the rule. But he loved her more.
The ticking had become quieter as he spent more time with the woman, and for this, with a regard for their mutual attraction, their interactions began to increase exponentially. After their sixth meeting he asked her on a proper date, and she said yes. Three months later, they moved in together.
They had seven good months before things started to go wrong. Seven months of watching films, going on bike rides through the town. Seven months of literature and laughter. Seven months of dancing in the rain. Seven months of intimate whispers. Seven months of happiness. Seven months going on eternity.
Then the ticking began.
It started slow, quiet. He first thought it was another coworker, the sound so faint it could have been wind. But as the days passed, and later months, he knew what the ticking foreshadowed. It was louder at home, as it had been when his mother passed. A different tale with the same ending.
Then she began to cough.
The cancer had been slow. It took her as a sloth grabs a leaf.
He wanted to be with her when it finally happened. He tried to walk through the hospital doors. But in that place, the place of death, the collective noise had been louder than bombs.
A week later he was alone in their bedroom. The walls had grown barren, stained only by the torn-off tape of her photos and pictures. As he sat on their bed the ticking started again, this time louder than anything he had ever heard before. His teeth ached in their sockets and his marrow seemed to bubble. Tears sprung to his eyes with reflex, and he groaned and screamed into their useless sheets.
The pounding never stopped. The ticking never ceased, it never had. His bones felt like they were twisting, gnarled branches of a dying tree. Somehow he stood up, stumbled to the bathroom.
On the top shelf of the cabinet there was a bottle of pills. He had long since forgotten what they did, what they cured. It no longer mattered. He took the jar and unscrewed the child’s cap, placed there for the child they never had.
And finally, the ticking stopped.
Liza is a sixteen-year-old student from California who loves reading horror novels and writing existential stories in her spare time. The Tick Tock Man follows a tortured man and his struggles with a unique ability, the burden of hearing how close someone is to death.