Fiction: Time, of the Essence

The afternoon sun dappled the fields like droplets of honey, shining on the backs of the men as they gathered the remaining harvest in their blue-black hands. Far off, a brick structure stood like a paper cutout against the sky, its tall stacks producing a haze that hung over the landscape, the promise of a storm to come.

Emma pulled her head inside the carriage, sliding her fingers beneath the rug on her lap. “I’d no idea industry had come to the state.”

Allen Bell, her fiancé, scowled out at the passing scene, saying nothing.

Emma smiled at him. “It seems winter is fast on its way.” He’d been sullen since they’d started this trek; the nearer they came to Bounty Falls, the less he seemed to speak.

At last her attempts to draw him out were successful. “It always arrives before one is ready,” he said.

Emma’s gaze wandered to the window again, to miles of neat rows outside, now mostly stripped of their bounty. The silhouettes of the mountaintops were just visible on the horizon, closing in like stone gates. Emma had seen mountains before, but these seemed more imposing, participants in a conspiracy to oppress. To allay her unease, she refocused on the men in the fields. “Is it true what I read, that the freedmen have been given the vote?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Allen’s mouth twist. “It was true, for certain of them. Their suffrage was repealed at the last convention.”

Emma sat back against the wooden bench, slipping her hands from beneath the rug to tuck a stray curl under her hat. “Do you think their suffrage will be reinstated?”

“I’ve no gift for prognostication.”

Emma shrugged, accustomed to his faint churlishness. It was the only quality she disliked about him, although she would never have said so. “Surely progress will win out in the end.”

Allen stared hard at a spot just past her right shoulder. “Don’t say so in front of my father.” His tone signified the conversation was ended.

Emma shrugged again and closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, a half-hour later, the carriage was making its way down the main road of Bounty Falls. Even in the impending darkness, Emma saw neat little storefronts of whitewashed brick, square two-story forms bearing a pleasing sameness in their sensible arrangement of windows and doors. Emma turned to Allen as the carriage bumped along the dirt track. “You didn’t do it justice, Mr. Bell,” she said, coquettishly accusing. “It’s charming.”

Allen’s stony façade shifted. “It is.”

“I can’t imagine why you’d want to leave it.”

Allen’s features underwent a curious transformation, displaying first what appeared to be a deep and seething rage, which was then replaced by a foggy expression of loss and uncertainty. “I can’t remember exactly why I left.” His voice was like the wisp of a remembered nightmare. “Youthful impetuousness, perhaps.”

Emma, disturbed by Allen’s reaction, let the matter rest.

The carriage shuddered to a halt before another brick structure, this one larger and more elegant than the others, and set apart from the town proper. Fluted columns glowed white in the dusk, framing a glass door upon which was etched: Horace Bell, Clockmaker.

The carriage driver helped Emma to the ground. She stood on the dirt path and looked around, enchanted, but now bothered by something she’d just noticed. “Allen, where is everyone?” For the streets were deserted, and even the upper windows of the shops, where people presumably lived, bore no flickering lights.

Allen picked up a heavy trunk with ease, seemingly irritated by the question. “They’ve all turned in early to be ready for the festival, I suspect. You’ll see them tomorrow.”

Emma nodded, peering back over her shoulder, her fingers playing at the lace collar of her dress.

A bell jingled in the silence, and Emma looked up to see that Allen’s father, Horace Bell, had emerged from the glass door and was standing on the porch, his shadowed form barely visible. He stood there, apparently looking down at them, and for a spellbinding moment Emma had the impression he was not a man at all but some force of nature, a simulacrum of a human, but a spirit of far older and darker persuasion, a manifestation of the eternal, bound in a shell of skin and bone. Then he stepped down from the porch into the fading light, and he was just a man after all, though one that oddly resembled a sculpture in polished oak.
Emma, dazed by the force of her bizarre delusion, offered her hand as he approached.

“Lovely to meet you, Miss Sullivan.” His voice was a thick rumble. He took her hand briefly and squeezed it. “I’ve heard a great deal about your family.”

“Oh.” Emma couldn’t understand why she was becoming flustered, and with a studied act of will she managed to calm her pounding heart. “It’s beautiful here,” she said.

“Yes.” Mr. Bell’s chest swelled, as though he was solely responsible for the town’s aesthetic qualities. “The people are wonderful too, as you’ll discover. Come inside—I’m sure you’re both hungry and tired. Hannah has made coffee and spice cake. I’ll help you with these, Allen. Lovely to see you, my boy.”

Horace picked up Emma’s trunk and continued chatting to Allen as the two men mounted the porch steps. Emma followed a few paces behind, the darkened and empty windows of the town seeming to gaze at her from every direction, as if they had seen into her very soul and found it wanting.


The inside of the house was dim, lit only by two gas lamps. When the group entered, a young woman looked up from her sewing. Emma knew this must be Hannah, Allen’s twin sister, but she was immediately struck by how little they resembled one another. Whereas Allen was well built, with angular features and intense dark eyes, Hannah was a wan, fragile creature, with dull blonde hair pulled severely back from a homely, asymmetrical face. Her eyes were a watery blue, and ringed with red.

Hannah did not rise from her chair and did not smile as Emma approached; she simply offered a limp hand in greeting. Emma took it only to find the fingers hard and cold, like iron rods beneath a thin veneer of flesh. In the gaslight, the girl’s pale eyes seemed to contain something fierce. “Nice to meet you, Hannah. Allen has told me so much about you.” In fact Allen had only mentioned her once or twice, and then vaguely, like something nearly forgotten, but Emma thought the girl might like the thought of her brother speaking lovingly of her.

Hannah appeared to crave no such comfort. She nodded in acknowledgement of Emma’s statements, then very deliberately lowered her head and went back to her sewing. Emma opened her mouth, perhaps to chastise the girl, but at that moment Mr. Bell came up behind her and touched her arm, gently guiding her to the far end of the room, where Allen was fussing with the trunks.

“Don’t judge her too harshly, Miss,” Mr. Bell whispered, inclining his head in the direction of his daughter. “She’s never been right, if you catch my meaning. Besides, she’s been keeping late nights these past weeks, working on the children’s costumes for the festival.”

“Is that what she’s sewing?” Emma glanced back at the shimmering white fabric in Hannah’s lap with renewed interest.

Horace chuckled. “They get to be ghosts and goblins once a year, and they insist on new and better costumes for every festival. Poor Hannah works her fingers to the bone, but it’s all worth it when you see the finished products.” He encircled both Emma and Allen with his powerful arms. “Now I’ll take you to the shop and show you what I’ve been working on.”

He led them out through a door in the kitchen. Night had fallen, and except for the hard-shining stars spangling the sky, the town was in darkness. Mr. Bell seemed to have no trouble navigating; his boots crunched on the path leading to the long looming structure behind the house. Emma pulled her shawl closer across her shoulders.

The workshop was cavernous; even after Mr. Bell lit the lamps, inky puddles of shadow pooled in every corner, and the ceiling was completely invisible. But in the feeble glow, it was readily apparent the space held a profusion of wonders. Emma gasped as she took in the scene.

Everywhere was the gleam of exquisitely carved wood, a riot of shapes and movement—cherubs and stately angels; spiraling columns hugged by lifelike vines of ivy; foxes and rabbits and staring owls. The clock faces were works of art in their own right, smooth mother-of-pearl, glimmering with soft rainbow tones, bisected by iron hands, all of which stood dead still at 12.
“Why are they stopped?” Emma was not willing to admit that the sight of so many silenced clocks made a chill scurry up her spine.

“I don’t wind them until they’ve found a home,” Mr. Bell said, his eyes twinkling. “Here’s my latest masterpiece.”

Emma approached it, Allen close behind. It was only about two feet tall, but made up for small size in its intricacy of detail. The oval face, painted with tiny skirling leaves, was surrounded by a carved cascade of beautifully rendered apples, wheat stalks, grapes and gourds. The fruits gleamed with an almost supernatural fire, and Emma felt a sudden desire to reach out and pluck one of the apples from the carving, fully expecting it to turn lush and crimson in her hand. “It’s…” She struggled for a word, though every one fell short of the mark.

Mr. Bell seemed to understand. “Thank you, my dear,” he said. “It’s the culmination of the work I’ve done here. My tribute to Bounty Falls.”

“Astonishing,” said Emma finally, still finding the word inadequate but glad to say something.

“Indeed, Father. You’ve outdone yourself.” Allen took a step forward, his rugged features strangely shadowed in the gaslight. “Emma and I passed the new factory on our way into town,” he said, peering around the workshop. “Emma feels that progress is coming for us all.”

Emma was about to protest, but when she saw the transformation in Horace Bell’s face, she decided to keep silent. The old man’s mouth pressed flat, and a vein throbbed in his high forehead. “Progress!” he said. “Clocks and costumes! Machines making the two things that have always kept Hannah and I afloat. And making every clock, every garment, just like every other one! Soon everyone in town will have the same clock on his mantelpiece as everyone else has, and all the children will go to the festival with not even their parents being able to tell them apart. I ask you, Miss, is that progress?”

Emma felt her cheeks growing hot. “Mr. Bell, I surely didn’t mean that the factory was a positive development. Merely that it might be inevitable.”

Mr. Bell glared at her so fiercely that for a moment Emma feared her heart might freeze in her chest. Then the old man’s expression softened. “Inevitable,” he repeated, his voice weary. “On that you may be correct, Miss. The individual who owns the factory is a scoundrel of my long acquaintance, and I know for certain it was built there specifically to destroy me. But perhaps, as you say, the days of craftsmanship are over.”

“That would be a great shame,” Emma said, partly to placate him, but partly because she meant it.


Later that evening, Emma lay beneath the quilts in a narrow bed in an upstairs room. Since meeting Allen, she had usually spent her nights imagining what it would be like when they were married, when Allen would lie next to her, his warm breath tickling the back of her neck. It had always been a pleasant fantasy to fall asleep to, but tonight she was far too distracted; her brain was a hive of questions and disturbing images of fire and dancing phantoms and shining clock faces. She thought these notions would keep her awake for hours to come, but before she was aware of it, exhaustion took over, and she slept.

Moonlight was streaming into the room when she woke again, bolting upright, clutching one of the quilts to her breast.
That sound. For a moment her racing mind couldn’t place it, but then her knuckles tightened so hard on the fabric that the bones seemed poised to poke through the skin.

Clocks. A monstrous symphony of ticking clocks, each keeping to its own pace in apparent indifference to the pace of the others, so the ticking was overlapping, disjointed, horrible. Emma looked wildly around the room. Though she had no lamp, the pale white moon cast enough illumination to show that the small room lacked a single clock. Even if there had been, could a single clock make such a cacophony, like the clacking of a thousand devils’ hooves?

Emma crawled from the bed, pulling the quilt up around her ears to muffle the sound, which seemed to be behind the walls, everywhere. She pushed aside the curtains and peered out the window.

The workshop hunched there in the moonlight, still and silent. Emma had a vision of the clocks coming to life at once, through some demonic agency, ticking away the moments until doomsday. She tried to chide herself for her folly, but found she could not. For surely midnight had passed, and wasn’t it now the eve of All Saints Day, when the vale between the living and the dead was at its most porous? Emma had never placed much stock in superstitions, but now, with the clocks’ hellish voices assaulting her from all directions, she found herself clapping her hands together and murmuring fervent prayers like a frightened child.

The sound seemed to grow louder, and Emma tore from the window and dived for the bed, burying herself under the quilts, clamping her hands over her ears, curling herself into a tight ball, squeezing her eyes closed. In this way she lay, battered by the clamor, waiting and wishing for the swift onset of dawn.


Another sound, a soft rapping, woke her again, though now the room was bright with autumn sunshine, and the alluring smells of coffee and griddle cakes permeated the air. The knocking was repeated, and Emma sat up. “Are you up yet, darling?” said Allen. “I’m going down to breakfast.”

Emma, confused by her surroundings, unsure of the reality of the events in the night, managed to stammer, “Go on ahead, I’ll be a few minutes.”

She heard his heavy tread descending the stairs. Had it all been a vivid dream? She tilted her head, listening, and thought she could hear, very faintly, a furtive ripple of ticking sounds. She strained to hear more, but the sound eluded her. Crossly, she threw aside the quilts, only to notice that the pattern decorating the fabric bore a disturbing resemblance to interlocking gears or clockworks.

Emma’s skin went cold, and she leaped from the bed, pushing the covers violently away as though they were diseased. As she stood there, rubbing her arms to rid them of the quilts’ tainted warmth, she knew she was being ridiculous; Hannah had likely made the quilts, after all, and as her father was a clockmaker, why wouldn’t she use a clock motif in her handiwork? This explanation was perfectly reasonable, but Emma could not shake the visceral aversion she felt when she looked at the patterns.

Nerves thrumming, she quickly dressed and made her way downstairs for breakfast.


The sun was bright when Emma left the house. Breakfast had been an uncomfortable affair, with slope-faced Hannah peering suspiciously at her across the table, and Allen barely saying a word, and fidgeting in his seat, periodically glancing out the windows with a crinkled brow. Only Horace seemed cheerful, eating his griddlecakes with great relish, talking endlessly about his clocks and the festival taking place that evening. Emma was only half-listening; she thought she could still hear a distant ticking.

Outside now, with Allen silently smoking a cigar in the straight-backed chair next to her, Emma watched the townsfolk preparing for the festivities. It seemed surreal to see such a bustle after the desolation of the day before, and for a moment Emma got the feeling the people were not real at all, but simply painted cutouts being manipulated by some unseen force, strictly for her benefit.

Emma shook herself; she usually took pride in the fact that she was a sensible woman and not prone to flights of fancy. But ever since arriving in Bounty Falls she’d been entertaining ideas that distressed her by their proximity to lunacy. Even now she was still hearing maddening hints of clocks ticking, coming from seemingly everywhere at once. Her head began to pound.

Horace had retreated to his workshop to finish his latest clock, which he planned to present to the town at the culmination of the festival. Hannah had vanished among the crowds, bearing armloads of multicolored fabrics, the last of the costumes she had made for the children. Everyone else in town seemed to be occupied in some way—arranging bundles of sticks in the square for the bonfire, hanging bunting, scrubbing windows and porch steps. The smells of roasting meat and baking pies saturated the crisp autumn air. Emma experienced these things distantly, as though she was reading about them rather than seeing them occurring in front of her. She had the persistent feeling the gaiety and industry on display was a veneer, a thin covering over something much darker seething beneath. To Emma the odor of collective anxiety emanating from the busy townsfolk overrode the aromas of the feast being prepared.

Suddenly cold, Emma snatched her gaze away from the scene. Allen, she noticed, was pointedly avoiding looking at it also; cigar in mouth, he was staring fixedly down at his hands as though he had never seen them before. Thinking it an unwise question, but nevertheless curious, Emma asked, “Why aren’t you helping them?”

She expected him to snap at her, but for a long moment he acted as though he hadn’t heard. Emma was going to say something else, but then Allen turned his head and looked at her. His eyes were hollow, frightened. “I don’t want any part of it,” he said, and briefly it seemed to Emma that the faint ticking she’d been hearing grew perceptibly louder. It seemed he wanted to say more, but then his expression caved in further, as if he was struggling to remember something.

Emma glanced out toward the town square again, and swore she saw Hannah, still holding the now diminished pile of fabrics, staring hard at her from several hundred yards away. She tried to shake off the assertion. “What happens at the festival?” she asked, feeling the need to whisper even though the townspeople were too far away to hear.

Allen looked away. “Nothing really. A feast, a bonfire. The children dance in their costumes. That’s all.”

The sun went behind a cloud, and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees. Emma pulled her shawl across her shoulders. “Why don’t you want any part of it, Allen?” She genuinely wanted to know, but when he opened his mouth to answer, she found herself wishing he would say nothing, or announce they were leaving Bounty Falls immediately.

“I’ve forgotten,” he said, scrubbing at his face with his hands. He looked pale and haggard. “I always forget.”

With this mystifying reply, Allen seemed to have said everything he wished to say on the subject; he turned away from her, lit another cigar and went back to scrutinizing his hands.

Emma, seeing that the now empty-handed Hannah was heading purposefully back toward the house, excused herself and hurried back inside. Her headache was worsening, and her disturbed sleep of the night before was now catching up to her. She climbed the stairs to her room and locked the door behind her.


Emma had not intended to sleep the entire day away, but when she woke the light outside her window was low and orange, casting long shadows across the timepiece quilt that covered her. She could hear children laughing somewhere below, and the smells of food cooking and wood burning assaulted her nostrils. Her headache had subsided to a dull thud, but the phantom ticking seemed more prominent. Emma sat up, feeling sluggish and out of sorts. Rising from the bed, she smoothed her dress and hair and made her way downstairs.

Allen was nowhere to be seen, but Horace was in the kitchen, transferring pies from cooling racks to trays, while Hannah knelt by the fire, making adjustments to a hooded cape worn by an angel-faced blonde child. “Be still, Miles,” she said, and Emma was shocked into stillness by the sound of her voice, which had a deep droning resonance like the peal of a gong. It wasn’t at all what Emma imagined a girl like Hannah would sound like.

The child in the robe, whose face was painted green to match the fabric, beamed at Hannah. “My mama was going to get our costumes from that factory store this year,” Miles said. “But I told her I wouldn’t have one unless Miss Hannah made it. My brothers said as much too.”

Horace turned from his task, his oaken face a wreath of smiles. “That’s a good boy, Miles. I’ll save you an extra piece of Miss Hannah’s apple pie, how’s that?”

Miles smacked his lips in a charmingly unselfconscious fashion, and Emma fancied she almost saw Hannah’s mouth curling upwards, though it may have been just a trick of the light. Up until now, no one had seemed to notice Emma’s presence on the stairs, but then Horace glanced up, his eyes sparkling with the knowledge that she’d been there all along. “I hope you had a nice rest, miss,” he said. “I know how exhausting all this can be. If you’re looking for Allen, I think he’s in the workshop.”

It occurred to Emma that she might have offered to help the Bells with their festival preparations, but Horace’s last pronouncement had the distinct flavor of a dismissal, so Emma nodded to him and Hannah in turn, then went through the back door out into the dusk.

Light from the high windows of the workshop sliced down into the vast space, catching the curves of wooden angels’ wings and rabbit haunches. When Emma entered, she couldn’t see Allen at all, but after a moment her eyes adjusted and she could just make out his rigid silhouette, his broad back facing her. He looked like one of his father’s carvings, well formed and motionless. Emma was transfixed by the sight of him.

“My father wanted me to go into the trade, you know,” Allen said suddenly, startling Emma as much as if one of the clocks had spoken. He turned his head, so that the shafts of the setting sun fell upon his chiseled profile. “I always hated them, though. The clocks. Before I left Bounty Falls I used to stand in here and wonder what it would be like to turn over a lamp and watch them burn to ashes.”

“Allen!” she sputtered, wanting to move closer to him, to reassure herself of his reality, but not daring. “How can you say such a thing? Your father’s work is…so beautiful.”

Allen turned fully toward her then, a thin smile ratcheting across the lower half of his face. “Yes,” he said. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
He began moving toward her as though he was in a trance, a marionette pulled by strings. Emma’s first instinct was to turn and run, but surely she was being ridiculous again. This was still Allen Bell, who she’d known for two years, who would soon be her wedded husband. She would not run from him no matter how peculiar he seemed. “Allen…” she began.

Just then there was a shout from outside, and a ragged cheer, followed by scattered laughter. Something flickered across Allen’s shadowed face, then it passed, and he seemed quite himself again. His gaze focused past Emma, as if he could see through the workshop wall to the town square beyond. “The festival is starting,” he said.


Emma walked into the square with her hand gripping Allen’s arm. The population of Bounty Falls had seemingly multiplied, for every porch and patch of grass and dusty roadway seethed with people. The sun had just slipped below the horizon, and torches had been lit around the perimeter of the square, sending waves of heat and warped yellow light into the encroaching darkness.

Long tables, laden with food, formed a U around the man-high bundle of sticks that would serve as the bonfire. Most of the townsfolk had already begun celebrating, piling their plates with meat and steaming mounds of vegetables, drinking heavily from tankards of ale. Costumed children flitted through the crowds, trailing silk and ribbon like the fingers of phantoms, their faces tiny replicas of skulls, demons, and goblins. Everywhere was the sound of laughing and raucous conversation, broken up by the occasional mock-shriek as one of the children sprang from beneath a table. The scene was utterly delightful, the aromas enticing, the sounds of gaiety inviting. Yet Emma’s hold on Allen’s arm tightened further as they approached.

Even though she had eaten nothing since breakfast, Emma found she had no appetite, and refused Allen’s offer of a plate. Allen, for his part, appeared just as reluctant to partake, and only nibbled at a piece of bread he plucked from one of the tables. He was still acting oddly, his face set like marble, but now it seemed he had resigned himself to whatever was going to occur.

Emma’s gaze darted through the crowd, settling on laughing faces, on the grotesque countenances of the disguised children. She thought that in the end there was no difference, that the children were simply manifesting the aspects of the adults that were usually kept well hidden. She shuddered and turned her head away from the spectacle, but there her eyes met those of Hannah, who was standing alone beneath a porch awning, arms folded across her chest. Emma quickly looked away and pressed farther into the crowd to escape the unsettling scrutiny.

When she found herself at the edge of the bonfire site, a hush fell over the crowd, and for a moment all Emma could hear was the sharp crackle of the torches and that insistent, elusive ticking which had been dancing around the boundaries of her consciousness all day.

Then the door to Horace Bell’s shop opened, and the man himself emerged, clad in a smart black suit and bearing his marvelous harvest clock, its polished wood seeming to glow in the firelight. The townspeople gasped at the sight of it, and at an unseen signal, two men separated themselves from the assemblage and retrieved a large wooden pedestal that they placed in the center of the gap made by the arrayed tables. Horace placed the clock reverently on the pedestal and then raised his eyes to the crowd.

“This clock is dedicated to the essence of Bounty Falls,” he said, a god’s proclamation spiraling into the night. “I present it tonight, at harvest’s end, on the night when time becomes mutable, when all falsehood is stripped away to reveal the truth at the very core of ourselves. May it bring you continued comfort and prosperity, as long as Bounty Falls endures.” He gave a small bow, and then, amid the suspended silence, he produced a tiny silver key from the pocket of his coat, and proceeded to wind the beautiful clock.
The ticking, when it began, seemed as loud as the heavens.

“Light the bonfire!” Horace Bell shouted.

Emma watched as though in a dream, the ticking penetrating to her very bones. The men in the crowd cleared away the banquet tables, leaving the enormous pile of sticks alone in the center of the square. Four children, resplendent in ghoulish finery, came forward, small torches clutched in their hands. They simultaneously thrust their torches into the pile, and then backed away to watch as the flames caught and spread, ejecting sparks that flew like meteors across the purple sky.

The bonfire was still low, waiting for that critical moment when it would burst upward from its prison of sticks, tasting the air with its feelers of flame, but even in its modest glow, Emma began to see a change overtaking the townspeople. She still felt detached and unreal, and so was not particularly alarmed when she saw that the children nearest the fire no longer appeared to be children; neither did they appear to be the goblins they masqueraded as. To Emma their outer shells seemed to be dissipating, revealing what lay beneath: the gleaming springs and interlocking gears of elaborate clockworks, ticking in a maddening, inevitable way, just below the veneer of flesh and bone.

Emma’s gaze swept the crowd, and yes, she thought she could see everyone’s true selves now, as the bonfire gained strength and brightness. Motors and springs and gears, marking the minutes inside each body, counting the time, controlling the motion. Emma’s vision swam, and she could feel the heat of the rising fire tightening the skin of her face. They’re nothing but puppets, tin soldiers, she thought, and almost laughed. And then she glanced at Allen, and she did laugh, because behind his handsome and familiar face he was ticking too, moving and thinking in time with the clicking gears. Perhaps I am nothing but clockwork myself, Emma thought, and considered looking down at her hands to check, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Instead she fixed her attention on the wonderful clock, apt symbol of Bounty Falls. The light from the flames blazed around it, tracing a bright corona around the carved bounty on its living surface. Behind its mother-of-pearl face, Emma found herself peering into the vastness of space, moons and stars and planets ticking along their crystalline orbits, marking the passing of infinity.

She could have easily become lost in the steady enormity of the clockwork universe, but she was torn from her trance by the sudden frenzy of the crowd, bodies jostling against her, and the sound of rapidly approaching carriage wheels.

She struggled to see through the mob. The carriage was tall and black under the moonlight, pulled by two massive white horses. It clattered to a halt at the edge of the square, and then the driver leapt down and pulled open the door.

Emma fought her way to a small gap in the crowd. She wasn’t sure who she was expecting to emerge from the carriage, but the person who did stunned her.

It was a woman, very tall and well muscled. She was dressed in a peculiar garment that reminded Emma of the robes worn by ancient Romans, draped and marble-white, accented with gold threads. The woman’s hair was coppery red, and fell loose around her proud face.

The crowd, still tensely murmuring, backed away in one body as the extraordinary woman stepped forward into the firelight. Like the others, the bonfire seemed to have an effect on her, peeling away the outer layers of her being, but beneath her transparent shell there lay no clockwork; there was only a sense of unbelievable antiquity, of mountains rising and crumbling, seas filling and receding, rocks forming in the crust of the earth. The fire suited her features, bringing her nature to the surface.

Before she could speak, Horace Bell appeared at the front of the crowd. Emma realized she had yet to see him in the transforming glow of the bonfire; when she did she was little surprised to see no clockwork behind his skin. For he was the clockmaker, was he not? His essence, Emma could see now, was one of unchanging time, a universe fixed upon its regular cycles, just as she had seen behind the face of the harvest clock that he had made.

Emma’s gaze found Allen, standing not far from the edge of the bonfire. She made her way back to him, still feeling dreamlike but grasping for something familiar. “Who is that woman?”

Allen looked at her as if he’d never seen her before, the gears clicking behind his eyes. “The factory.” His voice was a monotone.

Emma was going to ask what he meant, but then Horace’s shrill voice pierced the air. “Get away!” He was standing so close to the woman that his breath fluttered her hair. “I don’t want you here!”

The woman smiled, and behind her eyes comets fell and seeded the oceans with organisms that began splitting, multiplying. “You can’t keep me out forever, old man,” she said, and then her gaze fixed, quite suddenly, on Emma, picking her out from the crowd with eerie precision. “Progress will win out in the end, will it not, my dear?”

Emma’s blood froze in her veins, and time itself seemed to pause. Then, in slow motion, dozens of clockwork faces turned toward her, the firelight casting devilish shadows. She shrank from them, knowing they perceived her as a colluder, a henchman of progress when all they wanted was stability, order, and sameness. She tried to protest, but the fervid ticking of the town’s infernal mechanics swallowed her voice. Even Allen seemed to have turned on her—Allen, who had forgotten why he left this town, forgotten what it was like to see what he really was. When she looked into his eyes, pleading silently for help, she saw nothing there but programmed rage, empty of reason.

They pushed her until she could see only their transparent faces, blotting out the blackening sky. The fire was hot at her back, and she turned this way and that, fighting them with her hands. They pressed in, and she saw that the hem of her dress had caught, the flames dancing merrily around her feet, and then she screamed, but heard no sound.

Desperately she swung and clawed at the faces nearest her. By virtue of sheer hysteria she broke and ran, tearing through the crowd like a flaming arrow, running as fast as her burning legs would carry her, running to no particular end, but just to get away, to escape from the clutching talons of the clockwork city.

She thought she saw Hannah before her as she ran, and in Hannah’s hard face she saw plainly the story of Bounty Falls, a spooling vision of a godlike old man and an experiment for a perfect, unchanging world. Emma had only a second to feel sorry for Hannah, for dear Allen, for all of them, living their regulated lives at the whim of their maker. Then the black shape of the workshop loomed, and she forced Hannah aside and fell, plunging forward, her legs finally giving out.

In the moments before the flames consumed her, Emma saw her own hand in the truth-bearing light, and it comforted her to see the tiny atoms, splitting, changing, moving in unexpected ways. I am not like them, she thought, and she raised her eyes to take in the stately, dying universe shining behind every clock face in Mr. Bell’s workshop. Then she lay back upon the shop’s floorboards as the unpredictable flames swallowed her up and reached out for more.


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