The Tolling of the Bell
By Zachary Torres
A banana peel struck the man’s forehead as the children jeered and taunted, but he did not react. He did not flinch when the slice of mayonnaise-coated bread socked his face; he did not jump when the orange bounced off his ear; and he did not wince when the juice box exploded upon his soiled trousers. Like the dozens of others shackled wrist and ankle to the penitentiary courtyard, he only stared. Stared with frigid, empty eyes; stared with spiritless, senseless vacancy; stared at the petrified eight-year-old girl in the ruffled blouse and starched skirt beyond the chain-link fence separating the prison from the school. Stared, stared, stared, poor Mr. Bridges.
But no! This man, Hortensia reminded herself, was notMr. Bridges. Though he had the same lapis eyes and droopy face and forlorn frown, he could not have been Mr. Bridges. Mr. Bridges had been productive. He had been punctual. He had owned stocks and worked hard and followed his schedule to a tee! This man was useless. He was a Sluggard.
And he was where a Sluggard should be, caged up like a zoo animal for the students of Marcellus Merryheart Elementary School to gawk and squeal at. Though their schedules called it “recreation,” the hour between two and three was practically another lesson for the uproarious schoolchildren: “this is what becomes of workless derelicts; the unemployed, unproductive cockroaches gnawing away at your future!” So the attentive, diligent pupils did what they ought, and lanced their detested lunch meats over the fence to remind those unproductive cockroaches of their place.
All except little Hortensia. She knew it was wrong (knew it was suspicious) yet she couldn’t help but feel sorry for the wallowing husk she’d once called “neighbor.” He had seen her come home in the baby basket, had watched her take her first steps, had taught her to tie her shoes with compassionate, caring instruction… But none of that had made a difference when justice came a-knocking, and here he was: a wretched, piteous exhibit.
She was so absorbed in his eyes that she did not hear the sudden strike of the bell—the threatening toll that echoes every hour throughout the city of Banebury, Illinois—nor the retreat of her squalling classmates towards the school building on the opposite end of the courtyard. He said nothing, but there was no misunderstanding the message hidden inside his supplicant stare. “Please stay. Don’t leave me alone.”
The bell struck again. Hortensia stepped forward, hands gripping the cool chain-link.
“Mr. Bridges?” she whispered. “Mr. Bridges? It’s me. Hortensia.”
But Mr. Bridges said nothing. With wide eyes, Hortensia pressed her face against the fence. Had the gaps been large enough, she would have held out a hand.
“You can try again Mr. Bridges, I know you can.” She dared a glance at his left arm, and her skin came alive with goosebumps. The limb had been severed below the elbow, and a hardened stump poked out of his shirtsleeve. “Just talk to them. Tell them you can go back to the cannery. Ask to see the Timekeeper if you must! I know you’re better than—”
“Hortensia!” She whipped around, the bellsong dissolving into echoes. Ms. Fields, the second grade teacher, beckoned impatiently from the school building. “Hortensia Weatherby! What’s keeping you?”
“Nothing!” She hurried across the schoolyard, Mr. Bridges’ glum glare singeing her back.
“Your schedule, Hortensia!” Ms. Fields took the girl’s wrist as she arrived at the back entrance and tapped the wrinkled ticket pinned to her sleeve. “The hour’s just begun, which means it’s nearly over.”
“I know, I just—”
“Was that Sluggard talking to you?”
“No, I was only looking.”
“Good. Let’s hope it stays that way. Now, hurry along and get your things; your mother’s waiting for you.”
Hortensia did as she was told, but glanced back as Ms. Fields pulled the metal door shut. Mr. Bridges was still staring at her, eyes empyreal beneath the overcast sky.
Bedazzled by a collar of jewels, pearls, and stones, the regality of Agrippa Weatherby’s dress was surpassed only by the volume of her voice. And as Hortensia approached through the maze of women waiting to collect their children in the school entrance hall, she found her mother speaking on her favorite subject: her husband’s work.
“Magnus is working extra hours,” she was telling Mrs. Dighton, the mother of an apple-faced boy named Timotheus. “Ever since Mr. Br—oh, you know who I mean—ever since that man left the cannery, Mr. Wallslough needed someone to take up overtime and Magnus was delighted to offer his services! I don’t know about you, but I’d say our chances tomorrow are enviable.”
“His work ethic is remarkable, Aggie,” replied Mrs. Dighton. “My Felix could never—”
“Well, it’s a matter of interest, you know. Why, if I were holed up with a typewriter all day, I’d lose my mind!”
“Oh, but Aggie! Didn’t I tell you? Felix was promoted four months ago! He’s in meetings with Mr. Cassidy now.”
Mrs. Weatherby’s smile faltered, but only for a moment.
“Meetings? With Mr. Cassidy? Isn’t he—”
“Timeless? Well, naturally. He founded the company, after all. Felix was at his house in the Gardens last week. Very important business. Ah! Tessa, darling, we hadn’t noticed you!”
Hortensia installed herself next to her mother, answering Mrs. Dighton with a timid wave.
“You must be very proud of your father, dear. Even simple work needs doing, and apparently he’s making a mighty job of it. And with all that extra income, I’m sure he’ll buy you plenty of pretty dresses and toys.”
“Actually, Olive, Magnus has invested that money into stocks,” Mrs. Weatherby puffed out her chest, displaying the sparkling necklaces that stained her neck with green rings. “He cares deeply for his work, as we all do, and decided to put his earnings back into the company. Now, I don’t mean to be rude” —she indicated the schedule pinned to her cuff— “but Hortensia and I must be going.”
And before Hortensia could say anything, her mother had yanked her outside, a scowl discoloring her rouged face. Neither spoke until they had reached the car, a grey Cassidy Automobile.
“Meetings with Mr. Cassidy…” huffed Mrs. Weatherby, jamming the key into the ignition. “Meetings in the Gardens with Mr. Cassidy!”
“How can Mr. Dighton go to the Gardens, momma?” Hortensia asked from the backseat. “He isn’t Timeless, is he?”
“No, dear, he isn’t.” She checked the rear-view mirror, from which hung a magazine clipping of a large, colorful house. “Only visiting, is all. Your papa went to the Gardens, once, to ask Mr. Wallslough about a promotion, and… well… you remember what happened. But that won’t matter tomorrow.”
She checked her schedule and smiled, putting the car into drive.
“One hour for shopping,” she said. “We’ll show ‘em, Tessie. We’ll show ‘em.”
And they drove away, a light drizzle falling from the sky. The other mothers (those whose husbands couldn’t afford cars) hurried down the sidewalks, covering themselves and their children with their coattails. Some were tall, some were short; some were lean, some were stout; some were dark-haired and others fair and still they had one thing in common. Repeatedly, as though it might change, they glanced at the schedules affixed to their wrists, hurrying to outrun time.
“Steak is expensive… perhaps we should have pork chops instead… and then, how many do we need?” Some time later, mother and daughter stood before the deli in an air-conditioned supermarket, Mrs. Weatherby bending over the selection of red and white meats and stroking her necklaces anxiously. The air was alive with the shuffle of passersby, timorous men and women hurrying from one aisle to the next. Mrs. Weatherby had been given one hour; others were not as fortunate.
“You could have a chicken,” offered the butcher behind the counter. “Or a turkey.”
“Mabel’s Magazine called steak ‘the meat of class and couture’ in their latest issue, though I suppose that explains the cost…” She scanned over the prices again, right foot tapping against the linoleum. “But if all goes well we can have as much steak as we want. I’ll take your largest chicken.”
“Right away ma’am.” He got to work on Mrs. Weatherby’s order, taking the time to mark a little sheet of paper that was taped up to the wall.
“What’s that for?” Hortensia asked. She had seen similar papers strung up by businesses around town, but had always been too shy to ask after their purpose.
“It’s my yields quotient. Lets the Timekeeper know how many sales I make in a day. You just happen to be speaking to the top-selling butcher in all of Banebury, little lady.”
He handed Mrs. Weatherby her meat, who paid him with a few coins.
“You must be very proud,” she said, placing the poultry in her cart. “And hopeful… for tomorrow, I mean.”
“Fingers crossed!” He immediately began attending another impatient customer, slicing up a rosy ham with masterful dexterity. “And work be done!”
Hortensia followed her mother up and down the aisles as the latter threw one thing or another into the cart. There were strawberries and apples from Hoffman Farms (“Eat Green, Eat Timeless!”), milk from Boyler Dairy Co. (“Healthy Bones Grow Healthy Workers!”), and a jar of funny green pills (“Stay Fit and Slim with Abbermann’s Magic Weight-Loss Formula!”). Then, after paying the bone-weary cashier at the register, they proceeded to the sliding glass doors where, with a straight back and fustian uniform, a plump-faced guard asked to see Mrs. Weatherby’s schedule.
“Protocol, Aggie, nothing personal; especially not with your record.” He ran a finger down the list of numbers and letters, nodding his head approvingly. “No infringements today, and with exactly” —he checked his Avarisyus & Sons wristwatch— “thirty minutes to spare. Good for you, we’ve made three arrests already!”
“Nobody I know, I hope?”
“Don’t think so. This one guy was a real problem—never listened to his warnings and put up a nasty fight after that last strike. But I handled him accordingly.” He patted the sheathed taser on his hip. “He won’t hold up the line again, that’s certain.”
Hortensia held out her arm for the guard to check, but he waved her away.
“Don’t worry, missy. Under-13’s can’t make infringements, not unless their parents do. You two have a productive day, now.”
They thanked the guard and stepped outside. The rain had worsened, and Mrs. Weatherby rushed her daughter to the car, covering her jewelry from the downpour. Hortensia looked longingly at the puddles forming in the pot-holed concrete, remembering the mud-caked rubber boots sitting neglected in her bedroom closet. But the hour for recreation had ended, as all things did, with the tolling of the bell.
They arrived home twenty minutes before four, Mrs. Weatherby’s groceries swinging in their paper bags. The apartment building’s guardsman, sitting disinterestedly behind his desk, nodded as they showed him their schedules (one of their neighbors had been arrested for coming home late thrice in one month), and slid Hortensia’s mother a handful of thin packages.
“Mailman came while you were out.”
“Oh, those must be my magazines! Why, I’ve been so busy today I forgot they were coming!”
“And I’ve been here.” He checked his watch with a sigh. “No rest for the wicked.”
As the elevator was still broken (it had been for the past six months, but their landlord was too busy in the Gardens to fix it) Hortensia and her mother labored up the narrow, winding staircase to the fifth floor. Stepping onto the landing, Mrs. Weatherby struggled to dig her key out of her purse as Hortensia’s gaze drifted to the apartment opposite their own, toes curling in her shoes. The image of those prismarine eyes resurfaced in her mind, and she could not help but shudder.
Papa said Mr. Bridges’ arm had come off easily. “One slice too deep into the fish cutter, poor guy. And what a drag! He could’ve been employee of the month, at the rate he went.” The salty air of the cannery mixed with the rusty stench of blood as the old man fell to his knees, too shocked to scream. Nobody dared move from his post, observing the gorey spectacle only through their peripheries.
There was little for the doctors to do. The arm was gone—had been ground up into mushy fish-feed for the cannery’s fishermen—with no hope of consolidation but to clean and bandage the budding mess of muscle and skin that protruded from a now pointless appendage. Mr. Bridges remained in the hospital for quite a while, each treatment more expensive than the last.
Until, just when Hortensia had begun to worry that the Earth itself had swallowed him up for eternity, a haggard Mr. Bridges returned, looking much older than he had only a few weeks prior. The men at Mr. Wallslough’s cannery watched as he came into work day after day, languishing long hours at his station to make up for days lost and medications necessary. Alas, it was only a matter of time, and as the machinery roared a deadly tune a fortnight later, the old fogey fainted, exhaustion leaking from his pores like sweat. “Irremediably unfit for work,” read the incident report. And consequently unfit for life.
Now, months later, the apartment door remained where it fell, a deep crack running through its center where the guardsmen kicked it down. The Weatherbies had been home, then, cooped around the dining table like a nest of ignorant hens as the wolves ravaged the feeble sheep outside. And oh, how that sheep bleated! Oh, how that sheep begged! He had been such a good sheep, hadn’t he? Had followed his shepherd through every gate, gaily trotting at the head of the flock. But with no wool left to shear, the poor beast’s fate was inexorable.
“They’ll want to let out that space,” said Mrs. Weatherby, finally finding the key. “It’ll bring more money in—could help fix that damn elevator! Anyway, it won’t be any use to you-know-who!”
Hortensia nodded, following her mother inside while keeping her eyes trained on the empty doorframe. She had been inside Mr. Bridges’ flat, once, after he’d made too many brownies for his birthday. It was warm, she recalled, and cozy like the winter châlets in Mrs. Weatherby’s magazines. The windows were curtained with a floral fabric, and the couches bedecked with embroidered doilies. Now, of course, everything would be different. The tabletops, she imagined, were dust-coated, and the pillowcases moth-eaten. There was no one to bake brownies. No one to fix your broken toys. No one to remind you of your forgotten purse. “It was the old bastard’s time,” papa had reflected. “A bit sooner than he’d anticipated.”
Supper was prepared by seven o’clock, but Hortensia and her mother could not eat. Mr. Weatherby wouldn’t return until eight-thirty, and it was not in their schedules to dine in couplets. Still, they weren’t completely alone; the Timekeeper was there to keep them company.
Or rather, his picture was, staring down from the wall above the dining table. Timekeeper Domitian Avarisyus was like a mayor of the old days (except he was an honest businessman, the heir to the Avarisyus & Sons Clock Company, and not a dirty snake of a politician) and like all good families, the Weatherbies kept a portrait of him in their home. Though Timekeeper Domitian rarely left his mansion in the Gardens, Hortensia had memorized the features of his face, from the piercing, penetrative eyes to the authoritative, aquiline nose. He was pale, like a ghost, with a square face and commanding shoulders.
“Momma?” she asked over the table. “Do you think the Timekeeper will be there tomorrow?”
“Of course, Tessie, why wouldn’t he?” Mrs. Weatherby did not look up from her magazine. The period between making dinner and eating it was her time for recreation. “And you’re going to shake his hand with papa and me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. It’s my American Dream.”
By the time Mr. Weatherby returned, the roast chicken was cold. He walked with a limp, reeked of fish intestines and sweat, and bent beneath the weight of a hunchback. Nevertheless, he carried the air of a man satisfied with a day’s work, and kissed his wife and daughter hello before taking a seat at the head of the table. They began to eat, the Timekeeper’s visage scowling down at them.
“You’ll never guess what I saw today,” he began through a full mouth. “An encampment of Sluggards under the bridge. I couldn’t believe my eyes, seeing them out in public like that.”
“And they haven’t been caught yet?” Mrs. Weatherby asked nervously.
“Morgan said he’d call the guards when he got home. Probably overslept or skived off work, the lazy brutes…”
“Ms. Fields said some cities don’t put their Sluggards in penitentiaries,” Hortensia said. “She said it used to be like that here, in the old days.”
“Well then, it’s a good thing we don’t live in another city and the old days are long gone, isn’t it? Don’t worry about things like that, sweetheart. By the time you’re a grown-up, the Timekeeper will have done away with all that filth.”
“Deplorable, the lot of them,” said Mrs. Weatherby. “I don’t know how they can bear to live with themselves. I certainly wouldn’t… but let’s talk about something more pleasant. Tell me about work, darling. Did you maximize your yields quotient again?”
“Ah!” Mr. Weatherby’s ashen face brightened as he straightened his back, toothy grin like a teenage boy’s. “Thirteen hours today, Aggie, thirteen! From sunrise to sunset and not a break in between! More than Keatley and Johnson combined. And Mr. Wallslough was there too!”
“Mr. Wallslough was there?! Were you working hard? Did he see you?”
“Of course I was and… well, I’m not sure. But you know what they say! ‘The first to come and the last to go tells the boss what he ought to know.’”
“What he ought to know is that you’re the best. But your numbers should speak for themselves, shouldn’t they? Now, eat your food. Dinner will be over soon and you’ll need a full stomach for tomorrow.”
“Not to worry, Aggie.” He stabbed an entire boiled potato with his fork, shoving as much of it as he could into his mouth. There were no lunch breaks at the cannery—Mr. Wallslough considered them a waste of time. “You’re married to Racehorse Magnus, remember?”
“Racehorse Magnus?” Hortensia giggled. “That sounds silly.”
“My nickname in high school,” he replied with a wink. “Your papa was Banebury’s fastest sprinter two years in a row.”
“Not that there’s a market for fast sprinters,” said his wife. “Fast workers, on the other hand, are always in demand. Speaking of which…”
She set the magazine she had been reading before her husband. Hortensia read the title, Timeless Gardens Real Estate.
“I called the agent and he said it was available,” she continued, flipping to the same picture that hung from her rear-view mirror. “It’s smaller than the others, but that hardly makes a difference. Why, we could sleep ten feet apart and still be in the same room!”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Aggie, not yet. Anything could happen tomorrow.”
“Don’t be humble, Magnus. Golly, I bet half of Mr. Wallslough’s profits are because of you alone! The Timekeeper would be a…” She looked at the portrait hesitantly, cautiously whispering her next words. “The Timekeeper would be a halfwit not to choose you.”
Hortensia gasped, the sentence sending a jolt through her body. Her father coughed, choking on a piece of slimy chicken breast, and her mother froze up like a frightened doe, the severity of what she said a shock even unto herself.
“I-I shouldn’t have said that. It… it was disrespectful.”
“We owe everything to the Timekeeper, Agrippa, everything,” Mr. Weatherby exclaimed defensively. “His family is the reason we have this apartment, and this food, and the clothes on our backs, and we should be grateful! I know he’ll make the right decision tomorrow. He always does. Rewards aren’t to be given lightly, they have to be earned; and it’s nobody’s fault but our own if we don’t succeed.”
The table was silent for a moment, and a chill ran down Hortensia’s spine. She had never heard anyone speak badly of the Timekeeper—not without the appropriate consequences—and felt the need to wash her ears of the insult. Her mother stared at her meal with a frown while her father chewed his food, chapped lips cracking with each bite.
“But…” Mr. Weatherby’s physiognomy suddenly changed, a meek smile appearing above his chin. “I s’pose I am the hardest worker at the cannery now that you-know-who’s gone, aren’t I?”
“More like the hardest worker in the city,” his wife reassured him, “even Olive Dighton and her tip-typer husband with his stupid promotion! Just wait ‘til tomorrow, dear, and you’ll never smell like rotting salmon again.”
Magnus took his wife’s manicured hands into his dirty ones and pecked her on the cheek, leaving behind a grimey stain that she promptly rubbed away. He then diverted his attention to the magazine, running a finger over the page.
“So, what’ve you got to tell me about this house?”
“That’s the spirit. Now, we’ll be living next to Titus Sutherland—he was selected last year, remember? —on Magnolia Street. It’s not the grandest house, but it’s close to everything important: there’s the knitting society, and the rowing club, and—”
Dong! The bell sounded over the quiet city; the hour had ended sooner than expected. Mrs. Weatherby stopped mid-sentence, promptly rolling up her magazine and slipping it into her apron pocket. Her husband sighed disappointedly, gulping down a mouthful of chicken before pushing away his plate, Hortensia following suit. Then, in unison, the family turned to the small sill before the dining room window, whereupon the Tempotyper whirred into action.
Similar in appearance to a keyless typewriter, the Avarisyus & Sons Tempotyper was the only object everyone was required to own. The device rattled and shuttered as the cogs and strikers within it clicked and clacked until—as it happened every evening at nine o’clock—three freshly-inked schedules shot out from the narrow slit in the machine’s front.
Leaning over to collect them (the window was not so far from the table) Mr. Weatherby handed them to their owners. A familiar excitement fluttered in Hortensia’s chest as she found this schedule different from the 364 others she received in a year. This one had no instructions of what to do or how to do it; there was no inspirational quote like “carpe diem!” or “don’t think, do!” It bore only a simple message: “OCTOBER 7th, 11:00 A.M. TIMEKEEPER’S DAY.”
Timekeeper’s Square was a ginormous plaza located at the base of Timekeeper’s Tower (the sky-scraping clocktower that announced the coming and going of every hour) in the city’s center. It had once been a flowering park of oaks and lindens, but the trees had all been felled and their stumps paved over with slippery cobbles. It was better this way: the wood had been turned into useful things like sideboards and nightstands, and the remaining space left ample room for the proceedings of Timekeeper’s Day.
The Weatherbies parked their car along the crowded street at ten-thirty and immediately fell in line with the river of men, women, and children rushing towards the square, schedules affixed to their sleeves like always. Hortensia kept close to her parents, squeezing their hands so as not to lose herself within the parade. She wished to say something—exactly what, she had no idea—but decided against it, biting her lips into submission. Everyone was silent. Not even the birds perched on the rooftops or the babies in strollers dared disturb the uneasy quietude in the air.
They found the square outfitted with a makeshift stage and a pasture of wooden chairs, and while the weather was still morose and melancholy (it usually was, for the city’s factories rarely ceased to spew noxious clouds into the air) the rain had fortunately subsided. Near the stage, photographers pushed each other for prime positions while spectators hurried to the best spots, forcing the Weatherbies near the back. The Dightons, Mrs. Weatherby was perturbed to discover, had snagged front-row seats.
“Don’t worry about them, Aggie,” Mr. Weatherby whispered, patting a stray lock of wet hair into place (he had taken his first shower in four days). “Worry about us. Do I look good? Cameras scare me, you know…”
“You look great, papa,” Hortensia said.
“You smell better, anyway,” replied his wife. “I just hope it’ll start soon”
“But not everyone’s here yet, momma.”
“We are. Isn’t that enough?”
But Mrs. Weatherby did not have to wait long. As eleven o’clock arrived with a clamorous clang, the doors to Timekeeper’s Tower burst open and the Timekeeper (accompanied by a gang of expressionless bodyguards) emerged onto the stage.
Immediately, the audience erupted into an explosion of applause. The ground shook, the air trembled, and Hortensia covered her ears. Timekeeper Domitian (followed by his troupe of associates, among whom Hortensia recognized Mr. Wallslough) smiled and waved at his subordinates. He sported a sanguine suit, indefectibly tailored to his fit form, and kept his wrist bare of any schedule, as all Timeless Men did. The ovation continued for several minutes until the Timekeeper beckoned silence with a raised finger. He proceeded to clear his throat and, approaching a silver microphone erected downstage, began to speak in a deep, masculine voice.
“Thank you! Oh, thank you all! You cannot comprehend the pleasure I feel before your unquestioning admiration, your limitless spirit! ‘Tis the very same spirit our country was built upon, long ago when the world was savage and uncivilized; the spirit of our fathers who imagined a union perfect and free, unsoiled by the theft of taxation and submissive to the individual in his pursuits of greatness; the spirit of opportunity that plundered this foreign continent of her natural merchandise and built this country into the epicenter of enterprise!
“Of course, things were not always this way. Under the guise of social justice and progressivism, the governments of the past stifled the growth of business and obstructed the flow of economic advancement. They interrupted the ways of the humble marketeer, and as a result, his employees grew lazy. America became despondent; she lost all notion of hard work; and our grand nation risked collapsing into a welfare state. The streets ran amuck with Sluggards, unemployment soared, and for many years, it seemed like all was lost. However, like the flower that blooms in the snow, one man saw the errors of the present and the possibilities of the future—a visionary by the name of Caracallus Avarisyus or, as you may know him, my great-great-great-grandfather.
“Grandad Caracallus, a dutiful clockmaker and no-nonsense businessman, had a magnificent idea: what if every moment was profitable? So he created the world’s first Tempotyper and, with the help of fellow revolutionaries, overtook Banebury’s mayoral council. ‘There shall be no place for presidents,’ he proclaimed. ‘No governors or senators or representatives. No restrictions or tariffs or unions. Society rests in the free market; in the hands of capable men who, through the powers of commerce and ruthless rapacity, conquer the world.’
“People called him a madman; an insurrectionist; a terrorist! But the results spoke for themselves: Banebury had never been so successful, and what was once a nowhere-town in whatsit-Illinois grew into a commercial metropolis. In the years since, our example has expanded across America’s heartland. Timekeepers from Chicago to New York to Nashville have cleansed their communities of lassitude. We’re providing a solution that not even the most backwards in Washington can ignore, and our most conservative estimates project that the Avarisyus Model will benefit the entire continent within the following generation! Ultimately, we are profitable because we cannot be unprofitable; because unproductivity is antithetical to humankind’s proclivity to competition; and because, like all that is antithetical to mankind, we punish it. With an iron fist!”
He raised his own fist as he said this and the audience cheered with veneration, Mr. and Mrs. Weatherby louder than most. Hortensia recalled the ferocity with which Mr. Bridges had once acclaimed the Timekeeper, but quickly shook the thought from her head. He didn’t matter. Not anymore.
“Now,” continued the Timekeeper, shushing the crowd, “you may look on this stage and find only chiefs and heirs, executives and directors, landlords and proprietors. You may feel yourselves insignificant or immaterial by comparison. But that could not be further from the truth. Because none of us would be here without your efforts. What would Avarisyus & Sons be without the watchmakers; or Cassidy Automobiles without the assembly-liners; or Wallslough Fisheries without the fishermen? You, my lovely compatriots, are our assets. You are our resources. You are our capital.
“And we haven’t forgotten you. When my father, Nero Avarisyus, inherited this position, he vowed to benefit the laborers, not through handouts or charity, but through contest. There is no room for pity in this world, and reward befits him who, sacrificing morals and comfort, is prepared to do whatever it takes to be the best. So, he established October seventh as Timekeeper’s Day, promising to promote Banebury’s most productive employee and his family to the status of Timelessness; to acclimate him to his superiors and accept him into the most prestigious circle of elites—that is to say, our circle.”
He gestured to those behind him, and Hortensia sensed her father straightening his back beside her.
“A life without schedule. A life for those who, like us, have worked to achieve it. Obviously, it’d be impossible to give this to everyone, but don’t let that discourage you. Let that lust for luxury guide you in work; let it push you further than you believed possible! Any man might achieve greatness, if he only, as the saying goes, ‘raises himself by the bootstraps.’”
Hortensia looked at her father’s boots (the only shoes he owned) which were so frayed and torn it was a miracle they held together. She contemplated his dirt-coated nails; his long, crooked fingers; his bulging, slouching shoulders; his thin, osseous face; and (to her surprise) she smiled. “Hold on, papa,” she thought. “Just a few moments more.”
“This year, I have selected a man who’s sacrificed health and family for the good of his company. A man well-known and appreciated, not only by his director, but by myself as well…”
As the Timekeeper spoke, Hortensia found herself imagining what a life in the Gardens might be like. She’d have more time to jump in rain puddles, and probably more time to do plenty of other things. The house would have a radio (or even better, a television), and a fireplace, and a rack to hang up your coat. School would be different, and she’d make new friends with lives wildly different from her own, but, with any luck, they’d be nice. Her heart raced and her lips quivered and her toes curled in her shoes, but not from fear or anxiety; from excitement.
“A man who single-handedly raised more money for his enterprise than nearly the sum of his colleagues. A man of inordinate loyalty and even greater devotion…”
Mr. Weatherby took his daughter’s hand into his own. Mrs. Weatherby bit her lip, high-heeled foot tapping. With every word, the gargantuan clock behind Timekeeper Domitian—around the face of which was moulded his last name—ticked closer to the moment of judgment. Blue-collar and white leaned forward on bated breath. Some, like Mrs. Weatherby, tapped their feet—others twiddled their fingers or ground their teeth—but no one said a word. The Timekeeper was too valuable a man to interrupt.
“But enough waiting,” continued the Timekeeper. “I expect you’re impatient to enjoy your yearly vacation day—”
Hortensia’s father squeezed her hand. She squeezed his back.
“—the man I’ve selected—”
Mrs. Weatherby gripped the leather purse in her lap, leaving nail marks in the soft material.
“—with a yields quotient of 237%—”
A bead of sweat rolled down Mr. Weatherby’s temple, his protruding Adam’s apple wobbling in his veiny throat.
“—and without a single infringement on record—”
Mrs. Weatherby’s eyes ran wild in their sockets, falling now on the Timekeeper, then on the photographers, and finally on Mrs. Dighton. She sneered proudly, anticipating the moment when, amplified by the microphone, Mr. Weatherby’s name would ring out amongst the—
“—is Felix Dighton, of Cassidy Automobiles.”
Disappointment is a sad feeling. Devastation is worse. But there is nothing more earth-shattering than deception, which ails the mind like the heart and soul.
And at school the following day, everyone appeared deceived. Even Ms. Fields, whose composure was normally steadfast, struggled to deliver her lessons. “It should have been us,” they thought. “Not them.”
But nobody’s deception could equal Mrs. Weatherby’s. Returning home on Timekeeper’s Day, the anguished woman locked herself in her bedroom and spiralled into a whirlwind of despair. Her grievous, heaving sobs threatened to shatter the windows; her furniture-throwing tantrum rattled the walls; and her ferocious, frenzied protestations pierced Hortensia’s harrowed heart.
As for Mr. Weatherby, quite the opposite was true. He sat with his crying daughter at the dinner table, staring into the Timekeeper’s painted eyes with an idle, gaping expression. He said nothing (a drop of saliva dribbling from his open mouth) until he suddenly leapt from his seat, eyes illuminated by some profound revelation.
“Tessie, dear” —he hurried to throw on his tattered coat and shoes, nearly tripping face-first into the carpet— “tell momma I’ll be back after nightfall.”
“Where are you going? Everything’s closed today.”
“Not the cannery. Mr. Wallslough keeps it open all the time—even on Timekeeper’s Day—to boost productivity. I haven’t worked hard enough, not nearly enough.”
“But you have, papa!” She rose to meet him, stopping him from tying the threadbare laces and gazing imploringly into his prostrate eyes. “We only see you at dinnertime and then you go straight to bed. It’s like I don’t even have a papa! Please don’t go, please.”
“But that’s just the problem! Don’t you remember what the Timekeeper said, Tessie? ‘Sacrifice health and family.’ Mr. Dighton’s a much better man than I am, and he’s done more for Mr. Cassidy’s company than I ever have for Mr. Wallslough’s. It’s embarrassing, sweetie. It’s shameful. But imagine what the Timekeeper will think when he sees I went into work when no one else did! This is the only way, Tessie. If we didn’t win this year, we will the next.”
And by the thirteenth hour, he was gone, leaving Hortensia alone in the company of the Timekeeper’s portrait, her mother’s wailing cries, and a tear-stained face.
She would’ve liked to pretend it was all a nightmare. But Timotheus Dighton’s empty desk in the corner of the classroom made this quite impossible. His rosy face was already in the papers, standing hand-in-hand on the stage with his parents, hugging Mr. Cassidy like a grandfather and shaking the Timekeeper’s hand like a friend’s. They were so clean, the Dightons—not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle in their shirts, not a speck on their shoes—and moved with such grace you’d think they’d lived in the Gardens for decades.
Two o’clock came, and the children stepped outside for recreation, the most devious preparing their salami catapults and provolone trebuchets. Hortensia sat at the back of the courtyard, tears streaking down her cheeks. It wasn’tfair. Nothing about it was fair. And yet, it was just. The Dightons had worked harder than the Weatherbies, just as they’d worked harder than everyone else in Banebury. Harder than the butcher at the deli, harder than Ms. Fields, and harder than Mr. Bridges and his useless, armless person. “Rewards aren’t to be given lightly, they have to be earned; and it’s nobody’s fault but our own if we don’t succeed.”
Hortensia wiped her face, and accidentally scratched her cheek with her schedule. She glared at it, and it glared back, her entire existence transcribed on a piece of paper. Her heart raced, her lips quivered, her toes curled—but not from fear or anxiety or even excitement. She had begun to shake with anger; with venomously rancorous rage.
She could have torn it off. Could have thrown it to the wind like the Dightons had onstage the previous morning. But then, could she live with herself? That would be an act of defiance, an error in the calculation, a kink in the machine. They would steal her away like a lowly invalid or debtor or vagrant and chain her up with Mr. Brid—no, not Mr. Bridges—with that Sluggard.
Because if she had control over one thing, it was her standing as a free, desirable individual. Perhaps she wasn’t Timeless—perhaps her parents weren’t as good as Timotheus Dighton’s—but she was surely better than the vulgar vermin fettered across the yard. The loathly scum who (whether from age, handicap, or sheer laziness) couldn’t supply the demands of the world. That was the most valuable lesson of all. The kind you can’t learn in a classroom.
Brows furrowed, Hortensia rose to her feet and approached the other children by the fence, her steps undaunted and purposive. The blue-eyed Sluggard gawped witlessly at her, and she cringed at the memory of ever having spoken to him. She would not be a hen any longer, she resolved, repugnance rising in her throat like bile. She would be a wolf, fur bristled and teeth bared before her mouton-faced prey.
With shaking fingers, she slid an uneaten bologna sandwich from her lunch bag, the howls and yawps of her classmates thunderous in her ears. Things had not been fair, but nothing in life was unless you fought for it. Her father was fighting for it—was fighting for it from the break of dawn to the fall of dusk with sweat and blood and tears—and she was determined to fight for it too. Or die trying.
Removing the meat from her sandwich, Hortensia met the gaze of the Sluggard once more. She studied his sagging cheeks and bulbous nose and protruding, horse-like chin and wondered what he was thinking about, if he thought at all. Then, without hesitation, she flung the deli slice over the fence, watching as it struck him squarely on the brow. A rush of pleasure surged through her veins at the sight, and with machine-like deftness, she hurled the cheese, and the lettuce, and the tomatoes, and the bread at his meek, cowering figure, a torrent of curses spewing from her lips like magma. She whipped the paltry, dejected sheep further into docility; branded its hide with words of worthlessness; squeezed its throat and tore its skin and burned its spirit until the assault came to a close, as all things did, with the tolling of the bell.
About the Author:
Zachary Torres is a 19-year-old author from Miami, Florida. A lover of all things weird, strange, and unconventional, he has been writing stories and poems since he first learned to wield a pen.
He is currently a student at the University of Central Florida where he is pursuing an undergraduate degree in history.
His passion for the past has shaped many of his tales, which often deal with current social injustices, as have his experiences in the LGBTQ+ and Latino communities.