Imagine a world much like our own but just a step out of time. You can't put your finger on it, yet neither can you shake the feeling of unease. That something is amiss. Off-kilter.
That's where I'm trapped. I don't know how or when I fell into this disparate world reminiscent of Wonderland but I can't seem to find the way out. What I do know is that on a typical Thursday morning, I woke to a wrongness in the air. Despite my misgivings, I dressed myself and headed out the door with a piece of toast half-way down my oesophagus, car keys jangling in my free hand as I pulled on my tweed jacket at a quarter to eight. I hopped into my car and drove to work, believing that things would even out at work.
Within twenty minutes I pulled up outside the bookshop. By the time the clock chimed nine, the sign had been flipped and the cash register was ready and waiting for the first purchase. Five minutes past the hour, in popped 'little' Timmy Carter with his silly little grin, although truth be told, he stood about a head taller than me. I had hired him to work part-time during the breaks between semesters. I had known him since he was about knee-high, a friend of the family, and he was always running a little late.
We worked together until five, as we did most afternoons, before I locked the door and drew the blinds down. By half-past, both of us were raring to head out the gate. Proving the more chivalrous, I dropped Timmy and his bike at the local bus stop and waved goodbye.
The next day was the same.
And the day after that.
I cottoned onto the pattern by Monday week. Like clockwork, I would arrive at just the right time to prepare for the day ahead and Timmy would always be five minutes late. The shoppers were all different, of course, but I started to notice the frequencies of their visit.
Mister Todd Burrows in the butcher shop would always enter on every fifth day. He would browse through the stacks, humming under his breath. On every second visit, he would stop at the counter and purchase a steamy but slim novella that he would pay with cash. Mrs Eleanor Jones, on the other hand, would often pop in several times each day. She would peruse the latest releases but her heart was set on the domestic side of things.
It was unnerving how the bell twinkled at exactly such-and-such an hour. At first, I chalked it up to nerves. With a grin on my face, I told Timmy on Tuesday, "Well, wasn't that quite a surprise. Half-past three and in she comes."
He happily nodded to my statement but showed no special introspection as he licked the ice cream he had bought at the local gelato shop on the corner of Batty Street and Innsmouth Road. I realised a day later that he too was a slave to the tick-tock rigidity of the world. As were so many others: from the high school aged girl waiting at the bus stop to the elderly man who worked on crosswords even as he fed the flying rats.
I was caught in a loop. An Orwellian nightmare, so to speak. Every moment I was expecting the Government to descend and change the rules. Perhaps two plus two was really five. Or, they would double down on our manner of speech, limiting our vocabulary to better control us.
Knowing now the truth of my reality I tried to rebel against it. Small at first but one day I simply thought to myself that work could wait. It was to be a rest day from all the madness of a rigorous routine.
That simple decision caused several ramifications. It was the world's way of punishing me for my disobedience.
The next day, I drove to work a few minutes late. To my surprise, I found a note taped to the door and four messages waiting on voicemail. Timmy had been involved in a cycling accident. He had broken his left leg and suffered from a severe concussion. The frantic voice of his mother shrilled through the tiny machine and I knew I had committed a grave sin.
In the ensuing weeks, Timmy missed out on his team's football match. As the rising star, his absence only made him a social pariah. Another repercussion I had not foreseen when I chose to be selfish, the world seemed to point out.
The clockwork people, operating on their fine-tuned schedules did not like it when I stepped out of my bounds and I knew then that rebellion would only hurt the people I cared about. It would hurt me. So I played along. I pretended to be a sheep in order to throw off suspicion though I knew the truth.
One of the only wrinkles to my mundane schedule the world allowed me were visits Timmy on his sick bed. Perhaps it knew I hated the pristine white walls and the scent of the dying. But it gave me a break from the insanity that came from the ordinary day-to-day. The hospital wasn't far and after work I'd head through town to see him.
"You didn't have to come see me," he would say whenever I presented myself with flowers and chocolate. "I'm doing all right. Mam likes to bellyache but it could have been worse, if you ask me."
I would flash a knowing smile and nod, infusing my eyes with just the right amount of concern as I gently fluffed the pillows. "Your mum is just worried," I would say. "Give it a little time and I'm sure you'll be out of here and whining about all the readings you'll need done."
He would make a face but I knew that deep down, Timmy was constantly worried about his issues at home. Though he liked to joke in the shop, I could sense the underlying fears he harboured as he struggled with school and family. My heart went out to him but I also knew to keep my distance. Though he was a slave to the nature of the world, it didn't stop me from feeling sympathy.
Over the intervening months, Timmy slowly recovered and the heavy weight on my conscious eased. As time went on, I kept my observations written in a small black book that I hid underneath the till. It was where I could scribble away on a slow day.
For ten years, I kept up the charade. You might have thought that in a well-oiled machine of a world, time would stand still but cogs wear and rust. My hair had greyed and my eyesight struggled to read smaller print. Yet, I was not the only one to age. So did those around me. Timmy finally graduated and moved on from the lowly book shop where I had him running stock to a large corporate business in the city. I hired others to serve as shop assistants but most were short-lived.
Often, I would posit my theory to others. When they laughed, I chalked it up to a joke of poor taste before adding their name to the ever-growing list of robots. There was no-one I could trust. No-one I could turn to in regards to my overwhelming thoughts.
I knew then, what it meant to be alone.
Still, as the days went by, there was one constant in my life. An old lady lived in the apartment next to mine and every morning, I would see her knitting a cap, scarf or a sock. Yet as I observed and watched, I noticed that she was not beholden to the laws of the world. In my deepest of bones, I knew that she too knew the reality that we were trapped in and I could not shake the feeling that I had to speak with her.
Early one Sunday, I spied her at the balcony, knitting needles in hand. This was my chance, I thought.
Before too long, I was standing outside of her door, expectant and nervous. I fussed outside, wondering if it might be considered rude as I glanced at the old battered watch on my wrist. Finally, I raised a fist and knocked politely on the frame.
For two minutes I waited for the door to open. When it did, I was greeted by the myopic stare of an elderly woman clearly in her eighties. Her hair was a shock of white and she wore a frock that I had seen my mother wear before she passed.
Arching an eyebrow, she looked up at me confused. "Yes?"
I pushed my way in and studied the interior of her home. A small kitchenette sat beside her dining table, pictures framed the walls and a cosy living room were enough to tell me that she would understand. I had found the one person that might be able to comprehend my reasoning.
She bumped into my chest when I turned around, excitement lighting up my eyes. There was a cordless phone in her hand as she screeched at me to leave. I ignored it. Perhaps it had been a little rude to barge in without a word of explanation but I had to ascertain that she was a living breathing human. There were so little of us left.
Eventually, I managed to calm the poor woman and made her a spot of tea before I settled into my story. Once I had finished, only leaving dregs in my cup, I waited for the confirmation I had been seeking for several years. Yet when she settled the fine china on the plate, she looked at me as if I were a monster and reached for the phone that had been set aside on the coffee table.
That was when I knew true despair even as I lunged forward, knife in my hand. I had taken it from her kitchen. Insurance in case I was met with the ridicule of another mechanical sheep.
It fought back with the strength that belied its simple form, proving itself as a machine rather than human. As I tried to stab down, it clawed at me with its long manicured nails. Batting aside its flailing limbs, I thrust my blade once, twice where its stomach should have been, only for it to scream for help. A perfect imitation though I knew it could feel no pain.
But it would still be a problem if it alerted any others of its kind. I clamped my hand over the mouth but it bit down, hoping I would pull away. That only renewed my vigour in finally silencing it.
At last I subdued it. Knife in hand, I peeled back the human face, sure that I would uncover wires and clockwork hidden within. Black oil would coat its joints. I was sure of it. The mask had been ripped aside.
Yet as the blade bit deep, I recoiled in horror to find red beneath.