A/N: I wrote this story at the request of a friend, who wanted me to take a subtle sound and magnify it into something horrifying and maddening beyond all reason. I was searching for the perfect sound when it suddenly hit me - I needed something that was so real it was unreal and so even that it felt uneven and very, very jarring when heard repeatedly, but most of all, it had to be easily recognized and very familiar. This story, which I purposefully structured to feel a bit basic and comfortable in its similarity to everyday life, becomes quite twisted the further the story goes, and the strange familiarity of the story, like the familiarity of the sound, becomes odd, surreal, and almost unfamiliar, hopefully leaving the reader feeling as if they've wandered out of reality and straight into madness, where one must wonder exactly why reality exists - or if it even exists at all. I hope you enjoy this short psychological tale that pulls a bit from Orwell, a bit from Hitchcock, and a bit from Poe to create a strange and horrifying experiment in the psychology of the human mind.
Addendum: This is the rewrite of The White Hour. I felt that the original version, with Wilhelm in a prominent position, just didn't work out as well as having him be some poor guy working a minimum-wage job. So, if you've previously read it and are wondering about the changes, that's why. Enjoy!
The White Hour
A Tale of Twisted Time
I looked up from the assembly line, fingers aching from placing the delicate gears into the watches I had been working on, trying to line them up perfectly so they wouldn't be out of synch. My hands were slick from the gears, wet with the oil that kept friction from making them stick. Then again, why was I complaining? My fellow factory workers weren't, even as they busily soldered, constructed, and tested the ticking timepieces that would eventually find their way to the wrists of those lucky enough to afford their ludicrously high prices these days. My cheap coffee, now very lukewarm, sat next to me, the Styrofoam cup inches from my hand so I could quickly sip it between unfinished watches.
My eyes weren't fixated on the coffee, however. They were currently fixated on a large, burly man, perhaps a foot taller than me. It was none other than Mr. Slate, my boss – and boy, did he ever look like he had a few things to say to me!
"Yes, sir?" I asked, not without apprehension.
"We need to talk, Wilhelm. Follow me."
I grabbed my coffee and followed him to his office, a clean, grey cubicle with room for little more than a desk and two chairs. I shut the door behind me, and he motioned for me to sit down, which I did. He took his own seat behind the desk, folded his hands, and sighed, brow furrowed in thought.
He stayed like this for some time, then looked up at me, his face full of reassuring.
"Wilhelm, the Everborne Watch Company isn't doing so well," he said. "I'm… I'm sure you know about the recent state of our stocks…"
Oh, I knew, alright. I knew all too well. Everborne, the company I worked at, had been slowly becoming less valuable as more advanced companies had come into play. With the economy how it was these days, it was beginning to sound the death knell for it and all its workers – first they had to cut the worker's pay down to just barely above minimum wage, and now they were beginning to lay people off. It was only the beginning of the company's downfall.
Slate continued to speak of this for quite some time, and with each word, my heart began to sink. I knew where this was going. Finally, he sighed again, looked me in the eyes, and said the words I had been dreading.
"I'm sorry, Wilhelm. I'm afraid we're going to have to put you and a few of your other fellows on layoff."
I sighed bitterly, willing myself not to freak out. Here I was, a single man living in an apartment in New York, trying to make ends meet as it was with the minimum wage I got, and now I didn't even have that. Yeah, I might be able to return eventually, but for the time I was out of work, I'd be up the creek without a paddle.
"Should… should I leave now?" I asked, already feeling myself beginning to slide off the slippery rock and into the river's frigid waters.
"… No," said Slate. "Finish the batch of watches you're working on, then dismiss yourself."
"… Alright, Mr. Slate…"
With that, I numbly stood up and walked back to my task, already feeling like I had begun my fall down the slippery slope.
I sighed as I trudged into the apartment complex, feeling as if I were carrying a tremendously heavy weight. What could I do now? Get a job at the local supermarket, bagging groceries? Work at a drive-thru?
Yeah. That's a good idea. Let's work at a drive-thru. Welcome to Speedy's Chicken, may I take your order? Would you like to try our number one value combo? You want fries with that?
My eyes settled wearily on my mailbox, really only part of a large assortment of metal boxes on the wall. Might as well check my mail – not like I can really do anything else…
I open the shiny metal flap to discover a lone letter in a large white envelope. Hmm. Usually, it's full of junk mail. I pick up the envelope and see my address printed on a label, affixed to the paper at an awkward, skewed angle. In the upper left-hand corner, printed in a clear, legible font, were the words Clearwater Institute of Albany situated next to a logo of a stream pouring out of a beaker.
I was confused as I continued my way up the stairs to my apartment. What was this place, and why did they want me? Some sort of scientific survey? Gingerly, I opened the envelope and removed the letter, then unfolded it and began to read.
Dear Mr. Wilhelm, it began. Congratulations! You have been selected to represent the workers of the Everborne Watch Company in a survey we are conducting on the safety of factory workers. We at the Clearwater Institute are dedicated to providing the safest working environments for all workers through innovative science and technology, and you and your fellow workers are no exception. There will be a meeting on Monday, April 30th at 3:00 PM at the Institute to give you and your fellow participants more information on the survey. The meeting and survey is not mandatory, but you will be paid a minimum of 200 dollars for your participation and help in our cause. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. We hope to see you at the meeting!
The letter had been signed by someone named Clair Brougham, apparently the C.E.O. of the Institute. It wasn't her graceful, looping handwriting that caught my eye, however. Two hundred dollars? Just for attending a meeting on factory safety? Unbelievable! And yet, it was all there on the paper, written in plain black and white.
My heart leapt, and I felt my once tenuous grip on the rock of security start its climb onto the top once more. This could be my big break, however short of a time the money would last, what with rent and food and other expenses. I needed that money, and I needed it now.
I can't let this opportunity slip by. I just can't. Not when I'm still surrounded by troubled waters.
I looked up at the large, grey building before me. It was a fairly unassuming office complex with sparse landscaping and very little activity in sight. The siding of the building was plain cement and stone composite, and the doors were the familiar plain black metal and glass doors to which the world had now grown accustomed. It was, in fact, so perfectly ordinary that I had to stop and get out of the car to check that this was indeed the right place. It certainly had the same address that the letter had printed. It had to be the building I was looking for.
I got back into my car, parked, and started towards the door.
Once inside, I could see that it was every bit as plain as the outside, save for a large logo on the wall of a stream pouring out of a beaker and the words Clearwater Institute of Albany plastered to the side of it. There were several plain, grey-upholstered chairs in the waiting room, but curiously, there was no one else waiting except for me. Indeed, it was so quiet that it seemed like the only people in the room were the receptionist and me.
"Hello," I said, walking calmly up to her desk. "I have a meeting with a Miss Brougham at 3:00 today."
The dowdy middle-aged woman looked up at me with half-lidded eyes, then turned to look down a list of names near her dinosaur of a computer. She seemed to find mine and turned back to me.
"Wilhelm?" she drawled.
"Yes, I'm Mr. Wilhelm," I answered.
She motioned for me to take a seat and pushed a small candy dish filled with peppermints at me.
"Have a mint," she said.
I had never been very fond of peppermint, but I graciously took one, thanked her, and sat down.
I opened my hand and stared at the mint. It was a perfectly ordinary bulk buy peppermint wrapped in cellophane, the kind with a red-and-white swirl pattern. The design was almost hypnotic, meant to draw the eye and entice the viewer to eat it.
I unwrapped the mint and sniffed it. It didn't smell very strong, but smell could be deceiving. So, carefully, I licked it, only to find that it really wasn't as bad as I thought. In fact, it was very good! I promptly put the mint in my mouth.
The minutes ticked by as I waited. I checked my old, battered watch – 2:33. My mint diminished to nothing. I yawned, tilted my head back, and waited for Brougham and the rest of the people to arrive.
I looked up at the receptionist in boredom. This was taking far too long for my liking, and the receptionist looked just as apathetic as I was.
"So," I said, hoping to get a response, "How long have you worked here?"
The receptionist gave no indication of having heard me.
I cleared my throat and tried again. "Miss –"
"It's Oppenheimer," she interrupted in a waspish tone. "Mrs. Oppenheimer."
"… Very well, Mrs. Oppenheimer."
I lazily checked my watch a few minutes later. 2:56, and still no sign of this Brougham woman, or anyone else, for that matter. I was getting irate – where was she? Still with another client, even though there was nobody here but me? Or was she off on break, eating in the lobby and slacking off?
I began to feel drowsy. A quick nap wouldn't hurt, and besides, she probably wouldn't be out for a good five minutes, anyway. I could always have the receptionist wake me up if she came sooner…
I tilted my head to my chest and promptly fell into a deep slumber.
I opened my eyes suddenly, feeling as if I had awoken from a very strange dream. Somehow, I was lying on the gray cement floor, my cheek pressed against it like a hard pillow. I felt groggy, as if I had one too many and was now recovering, and everything before me seemed to swim slightly. Had I fallen in my sleep?
It couldn't be, for as best as my foggy vision could tell, I was staring at what appeared to be the legs of a chair, which appeared to be bolted to the floor. I vaguely wondered why as I attempted to stand and clear my mind of the near-drunken haze that surrounded it.
I carefully turned to get a good look at my surroundings. I appeared to be in a small room no bigger than an average office, and the walls were the same familiar shade of gray as the floor and the ceiling. There were no windows in this room, and indeed no exits at all, save for a plain metal door on one wall. No furnishings existed in this room except the chair and a small metronome in one corner.
Strange as the room seemed, this had to be the room that we were supposed to meet in, although I didn't recall exactly how I had come to be in the room. I calmly walked over to the chair and sat down to wait.
Suddenly, I heard a noise, a soft, repeating noise. It was faint, but seemed to be everywhere, filling the room like a rhythmic cloud; a hollow, steady, percussive sound that echoed off the plain concrete walls despite its low volume. And somehow, it seemed oddly familiar…
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
At first, I thought the sound was coming from the metronome in the corner, but a metronome does not tick that softly, and when I walked over to check, I found that it wasn't even on. Confused, I set it down. What else could be making that noise?
Suddenly, it hit me: My watch. Watches tick, right? How could I, a worker at a watch company, have forgotten that? I mentally slapped myself for not thinking of this sooner and looked down to my wrist.
My watch was gone.
Now I was irritated. That was my favorite watch, damn it, and I had to go and lose it. I mean, seriously! How could I lose the watch I wore day in and day out, the single thing that I wore so often that the leather strap was beginning to wear thin from overuse?
I sighed and sat back down in the chair. It must have fallen off somewhere in the hallway or the waiting room. Maybe when the others get here, they can help me figure out where it went. Not having much else to do, I calmly listened to the constant ticking. Hmm… kind of… soothing…
I watched the door patiently, feeling the minutes creep by slowly. If it weren't for the ticking, I probably would have no estimation of the time I was spending waiting for the others' arrival… was it just me, or had it gotten a bit louder?
I looked down as I asked myself this and noticed that I had been absentmindedly tapping my foot to the beat for the past several minutes, subconsciously keeping time. Speaking of which, exactly how long had I been waiting? It seemed like I had been here for hours, and God knows how much of that time was spent sleeping…
I reflexively looked up to the wall, thinking that I would find the time there, but saw nothing but blank, gray wall. And yet… that sound…
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
It seemed even louder now; like a relentless set of footsteps it seemed now; a set of footsteps outside the door that slowly, evenly paced back and forth… back and forth…
I glanced at the door. Was it my imagination, or had I really heard someone moving out there?
I waited… waited… waited…
Nothing. Not a soul entered the room or even so much as opened the door. I had been waiting for perhaps an hour, and still there was nothing but the sound of even footsteps pacing just outside of my sight…
God, how annoying it was to hear – and keep hearing – someone… someone… pacing, waiting just outside of the room! Why didn't they just enter? Surely there was someone else out there, walking back and forth past the room I was in, thinking I was somewhere else…
"Come in," I called, not really wanting to get up.
"Hello! I'm in here!"
No response. I felt myself clench my teeth on the beat.
"Hey! I'm in here! I'm ready for the meeting, now!"
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
I was getting antsy. Where was everyone? If it wasn't Brougham or one of the other representatives in the hallway, then who? Why was I sent to wait in an empty room? What the Hell was ticking so loudly… so steadily…?
I stood up and walked over to the metal door.
"Hello?!" I all but shouted, banging my fists against the door.
No response. No sound save for tick… tick… tick… tick…
I pounded on the door harder, hoping to get someone's attention; hoping to drown out the noise that was everywhere in the room, the noise that was slowly grating on my nerves…
Bang… bang… bang… bang…
For every blow I gave the door, the ticking became louder and louder, slowly drowning out my frustrated attempt to call attention to myself. It now seemed as if I were standing inside of a giant clock, listening to the slow, heavy passage of time. Every second seemed burdened with a grating weight, a hollow, soulless sound that surrounded me like a cocoon.
Where are they? I thought angrily. Why won't this infernal ticking STOP?!
I glanced over at the metronome in the corner out of the corner of my eye, and what I saw made me turn around to look again. The slim, black needle of the metronome was slowly moving back and forth, keeping perfect time with the constant, deafening ticking…
I stared at the device in complete shock. Hadn't it just been off a moment before? Was I imagining it?
The room seemed very cold all of the sudden, and I shuddered as I watched the needle move. The metronome continued its careful measurement, slowly marking time to a tuneless, hollow melody that echoed through the room…
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
I shakily started towards it, my footsteps deliberate and even… just as even as the noise that rang in my ears.
Step… step… step… step…
I calmly picked up the metronome, staring, fascinated, at the slowly moving needle, then flipped it over to reveal the power switch. Such a beautiful thing! Such a blessed, beautiful thing that small switch was, a beautiful thing that could cease the endless ticking that now seemed to have wormed its way into my mind! I attempted to move the switch, feeling triumphant at being so close to ending the sound that filled every second of silence that this room could hold.
The switch did not budge.
I stared at it, bewildered and frightened. Why did it have to be stuck? Why?
Frustrated, I uneasily set the machine on the floor and set to pacing, waiting for the woman who was supposed to be here at least three hours ago. Five minutes. I would give her five minutes more, and if she didn't show up by then, I was leaving.
I paced, fidgeted, counted every slow, even step I took…
Step… step… step… step…
Everything was in perfect rhythm. Everything seemed to follow one set pattern; everything followed that same, hollow sound. The ticking marked time so perfectly, so evenly that it even matched the beating of my heart.
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
How long? How long have I paced like this? It was so easy to get lost in that sound; so easy to let it take control and move you to its slow, steady beat…
Five minutes. Surely, it has been five. It must have been. I feel as if I have been waiting for an eternity – an eternity of pacing, fidgeting, and waiting.
But that couldn't be. I haven't been pacing forever.
It doesn't matter. I've given everyone plenty of time, and nobody has shown up!
I strode over to the door, my footsteps still mirroring the constant ticking; reflecting the footsteps outside in the hall. It was obvious that Brougham and the others were not coming and that I had missed my appointment. There was no more reason for me to stay here.
I placed my hand on the doorknob. It felt cool and smooth, a round, familiar sphere resting in my palm like a miniature world. I turned the knob to leave.
It caught. Halfway through the turn, it caught.
Half-hoping that I had imagined it, that it was some trick, I tried it again. And again. And again. The lock caught each time, an audible click just as hollow and final as the sound I had now grown to loathe.
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
I stared at the door, horrified. I was locked in the room, trapped inside a giant clock where everything was slow… and even… and perfect.
I felt terror pour into me like sand into an hourglass, slowly filling me with one terrible, blood-curdling thought: I was trapped. I was completely and utterly paralyzed with fear, shaking and sweating and so afraid of everything, of nothing, of that damned noise! I willed my legs to move, and they refused. I tried – oh, how I tried! – to block out the ticking, but every beat seemed louder than the last; every tick was pounding in my ears, my head, my mind! Nothing existed in that room, nothing but that terrible, dreadful noise!
Oh, God… what if I die here?
No! No! I can't die, not here! Not yet! Please, God, I'm not ready for it; it isn't my time!
Horror piled onto me, burying me in its oppressive, heavy weight, pushing me to my knees and flowing in my veins like thick mud. I felt salty tears stream down my face; felt them trace the crease of my nose and drip onto the hard, gray floor; one, two, three dark, wet stains. And still the ticking continued. That damned ticking. That awful ticking…
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
Compose yourself. There's a reason for everything. Remember the metronome?
I glared at it out of the corner of my eye.
I slowly stood, the ticking echoing in my ears. Calmly, no faster than the rhythm would allow, I walked towards the metronome once more. Rage built inside me with every slow, deliberate step. Each tick sent a shudder through my very bones, all at once both pleasurable and painful. I picked up the metronome and glared at it darkly.
"This is all your fault, damn you!" I shrieked at it. "This noise is all your fault! I have nothing to fear – nothing save for you! You and your terrible noise! You and that noise!"
I threw it forcefully to the ground. The metronome hit the cement with a satisfying crunch, but still it ticked. I kicked it and sent it skittering into the wall, and shards of the plastic cover went flying, but still it ticked. I kept kicking and throwing, never resting until the metronome was little more than a pitiful pile of plastic and metal. But still it ticked… still it ticked…
I stared at the wreckage mutely. If the metronome was not ticking… then what was?
I shuddered, eyes wide with wild horror, listening to the sound that now seemed like the tolling of an iron bell, sealing my fate and taunting me – yes, taunting my misfortune!
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
Something flickered at the edge of my vision, an unidentifiable shadow that seemed just behind me…
"… Hello?" I croaked, and the voice sounded like that of an old man's.
I slowly turned to find…
No one. No one was there. Yet something was still behind me, a shadowy something that flickered in perfect time to the ticking… first left… then right… left… right… so close it was that I heard it whisper; so close it was that I felt its breath upon my neck…
Oh, God. Was I being watched?
Yet each time I spun around to look, I saw nothing. Each time I turned, the shadow turned, and always, constantly, I heard it singing. High, cold, and cruel that voice was, an eerie, maddening melody as slow and deliberate as the hollow ticking that wrapped about my mind like a smothering blanket.
I couldn't think. I couldn't move. I was almost spell-bound by the siren song of the shadow, so chilling and ominous, and the worst part was that I felt it getting closer… ever closer…
I suppressed a dead-even shudder as I felt the shadow lean close to whisper in my ear.
… scream… no refuge… mine… trapped… forever… escape… never…
I trembled at that voice. Surely it was the sound of Death's voice; of fear and darkness incarnate! Surely this dark being would drag me down with it into madness! Surely I was doomed!
… scream… no refuge… scream… die…
My hands seemed to have a life of their own as they clamped tightly against my ears. Anything, anything to escape that horrible voice!
Yet still it rang in my ears; still it echoed, as even and slow and terrible as the now unbearable ticking…
how much left…
No! Go away, you thing, you demon! You do not own me; I am not yours to take!
And the shadow laughed, cruel and cold and shrieking.
And all around me, the screaming of the damned echoed.
And I fell to my knees, and I opened my mouth, and I let out such a howl as only wounded animals make.
Yet even in this mad flurry of sound, even in this whirlwind that twisted my mind, body, and soul every possible and impossible way, I heard it: that same hollow sound, always slow, always even, always so very perfect…
Tick… tick… tick… tick…
I laughed, and my laughter was lost to the winds of my storm, the storm that showed no signs of ever dying.
And I felt myself shudder on the beat of the ticking, and I felt so very alone…
… And slowly, slowly, I set my eyes on the grey wall, its cool cement wall beckoning to me.
I will help you, it cooed. I will stop this storm… trust me… use the rhythm against itself…
I felt the rhythm begin to take control of me again and flow through my veins, felt it slowly raise me to its beat and set me marching towards the wall. Never-ending, it was, so certain and timeless; a sure leader that I was powerless to resist… Never stalling, never ceasing… never.
I collapsed in front of the wall and splayed my hands against it. So smooth… so solid… so even…
Slowly, surely, no faster than the beat allowed, I rested my head against the wall. And softly, no faster than the rhythm let me go, I began to tap my head against it. Again. And again. And again. Every impact was a little harder than the last, yet every shuddering wave of pain only made me hit harder… just a little bit harder…
Blood began to run down the side of my face, sticky-hot, staining the floor with little red drops and the wall with long red smears. It ran into my eyes, stinging, and clung to my hair, and still I did not stop! I couldn't! The rhythm never stopped. It was perfect! It was always right, and I must yield to it!
Black flashes peppered my vision. I felt very faint. I could no longer keep up with the beat's slow, steady perfection. How could I? After all, I was only a mere mortal. How could I ever hold a candle to its flawlessness?
I collapsed onto the floor and knew nothing, nothing save for the endless, timeless ticking.
Somewhere in the building, a man watched patiently as the medical team slowly cleaned up the man in the grey room. The widescreen monitor flickered and glowed with the image, showing a grisly scene of attempted suicide.
Static buzzed in the man's ear, and he hit a small switch on his wireless headpiece.
"This is Engelberg, what's the situation?"
A voice buzzed back at him through the static, cool and calm.
"This is Mosely," it buzzed. "We've got a false alarm, sir. The patient seems to have a pulse, but man, did he bean himself good! He hasn't got much more than some minor scrapes from the cement and perhaps minor brain damage from thwacking his head against the wall. It's lucky that he passed out before he could kill himself. We're cleaning him up now; he should be up in a few minutes."
"A job well done, then. Get out of there before he wakes up and we'll decide what to do with him in a bit."
Engelberg switched off the headset and leaned back in his chair, watching patiently as the medical crew filed out of the room. The patient was silent, splayed out upon the floor like a ragdoll.
Soft footsteps behind him caught his attention, and he turned to see none other than Agent Brougham walking towards him.
"Was the experiment a success, sir?" she asked, brushing her auburn hair out of her face.
"Oh, the earbuds?" asked Engelberg. "Yes… and surprisingly well, too. The body heat battery you proposed for them worked very well, too, which is interesting."
Brougham smirked. "Guaranteed to last a lifetime," she said.
Engelberg cocked an eyebrow. "Intriguing," he murmured, turning back to the monitor, "And very useful. Just think – if a perfectly innocent, sane man cracked after only an hour, how long will it take for a suspect terrorist to confess? Of course, if the ticking doesn't work, we can make… different sounds, correct?"
"That's right, sir. I could perhaps create a computer-generated whine, like a dentist's drill. The great thing about this project is that it's easily modified. I'd have to find more subjects, however. Perhaps test effects on younger, teenaged subjects, perhaps pull some inmates off death row…"
Engelberg looked back up to the monitor, watching as the man on screen stirred from his painful sleep. He slowly, evenly raised himself, staring at the wall as if horrified.
Agent Brougham watched over Engelberg's shoulder as the man sank to his knees, howling.
"We'll have to… monitor the long-term effects on Mr. Wilhelm, of course," she said, watching the man curl into a little ball. "And we can't very well have our subject attempt another suicide, can we?"
"So," said Engelberg, tilting forward in his chair, "You definitely think that we should keep an eye on him?"
"Yes. A constant watch. After all, he's only one factory worker, and I'm curious as to how my invention has changed him. You know how much the CIA loves data…"