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by Andrew Johnston

The clocks in the office all stopped working at precisely 2:41 and, by the reaction of the peons, you’d think that time had abandoned its endless march and lain down to rest for good and all. But then there always was a chance this might happen, at least in the shadowy recesses of minds less lit by reason’s illumination. There was always this agonizing space between ticks of the clock, when it felt like the hands might just stop moving forever, and at last the scenario had come to fruition.

“Why won’t those cheap bastards just replace the damn batteries?”

“They did; it’s not that. They’re broken.”

“They all broke at once? What are the odds?”

They were an anachronism anyway; institutional and mechanical pieces from some dimly recalled high-school nightmare, an obsolete reminder of a time when the office was a place and not a state of existence. The clocks were not meant to serve primarily as timepieces but as a form of encouragement, giving the drones some hope that they’d soon be able to leave. In that rare quiet moment, one could hear each steady tick, the pulse of the building, the rhythm of the business cycle.

“They’re still broken? No one fixed them?”

“You won’t believe it. They found new ones.”

“New clocks like that?”

“Yeah, and they’re all broken already.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Well, it’s not like we need them. Who needs a clock anymore? Time’s on everything now.”

Modernity has its own sound, often a subtle one that’s not missed except in its total absence. The tremulous hum of electrical power, the rush of water through pipes; the sound of the clocks was no different. People had long since taught themselves to ignore it, and its absence had become a louder sound than they’d ever encountered. They would compensate by increasing the volume of those sounds of civilization that remained, but even music could not mask the sense of absence.

“Why did they stop at the same time, though? It’s a little spooky, if you ask me.”

“Please. It’s just a dumb joke. You know, someone screwing with the little guys.”

“Then why can’t they fix them?”

“Knock it off.”

“Really, what happened at 2:41?”

By all rights, the people who oversaw the office should have simply removed the clocks. They no longer served a practical end nor a symbolic one and had turned into a presence. Or was this the purpose? A terrified mind will always find an answer, and the most paranoid dreamed up some novel theories. It was a psychological experiment; it was a test; it was a haunting; it was the system breaking down; it was the system as it had always been meant to function.

“That’s the wrong question. You should ask, ‘What’s going to happen at 2:41?’”

“What do you mean?”

“We were all here at 2:41, and they were still working, right?”

“So? They stopped overnight.”

“And the new ones they brought in? Were they all at 2:41 when they stopped?”

Yet everyone stayed, though the building’s heart had stilled days ago. They all stayed, some for fear of losing their livelihoods, others for fear that they would never learn what fate would present to them at 2:41. They stayed, and the doors stayed open, and they greeted clients and regulators, but business had stopped. The company was a dead thing, but the soul was yet trapped inside.

“I’m not sure that I want to know what 2:41 means.”

“Then leave.”

“I’m not sure I can.”

In time, they grew accustomed to their twilight existence, trapped in the longest moment that had ever been felt. Time meant nothing, and neither did life. Death had no purchase, for it would never come, and yet it had come already. There was only eternity, and to wait through eternity was futile. There was just that one solitary moment, nothing before, nothing after, just a moment dragging on into the infinite horizon.

Eventually, the end of the world came. Nobody had to check the time.

Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Johnston

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