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Author’s Note: Though first drafted sometime between 2006 and 2009, this piece has not appeared anywhere in print before this posting.

Somewhere, a clock chimes twelve-times-midnight.

Wake up.

My eyes open to a world of sand and shadows. I stand in the middle of a clearing, with foreign woods at my back and nothing but black space before me. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. I’ve never seen this place, though it feels familiar.

I look up; there is a cloudless, starry sky hanging heavy above. I wait for it to fly apart, fall to pieces, shatter and rain down around me. I imagine the stars as shards of glass, glinting sharp in their own light, leaving crimson trails on my skin as they streak across my cheeks, my neck, my arms, burying themselves in my eyes to help me see.

The clock-faced moon beams with a white-gold light much softer than the razor-edged pinpricks of silver surrounding it. I discern no numbers on it, but a symbol sits at its heart: a rising (or setting?) sun engraved in red. Two crooked black hands are pointing straight up at where the twelve should be, and the peal of the chimes that woke me echo in my mind.

This is inevitable. A voice like the whine of the wind through a crack in the wall whispers in my ear. This is what you’ve been waiting for.

The moonclock’s minute hand ticks one space forward.

I shiver, noticing the chill in the air for the first time. Dressed in only jeans and a t-shirt, I wrap my arms around myself, struggling to ignore the bitter breeze. I chance a look around, searching for the source of the voice in vain.

Isn’t this what you wanted?

I look down; the fingers of my right hand curl around a small, sharp knife. The silver of the blade reflects the luminous moon, glinting painfully bright. It sheds light on my left wrist, where thin, jagged white lines run across my veins, reminding me of why I would rather be lost than found.

The knife is hot in my hand, a searing contrast to the cold of the night swathed around me. This, too, is familiar – I walked this edge more than once in the past. Was I holding the knife when I came here? I can’t recall.

Am I dead?

Not yet, the voice whispers. Not yet.

Another minute passes by with a sharp tock.

Deep within my chest, I feel something similar tick in time.

I attempt to open my hand, to flex my fist and release the knife. The experiment fails, my fingers remain stubbornly closed around the handle. It is as if my muscles are frozen – or perhaps they are no longer mine to control. The voice laughs softly as the thought crosses my mind, but says nothing.

Blood boils hot as my temper rises. Who are you? I try to turn once more, to look again for the speaker, but now I cannot move at all. My eyes stay fixed on the knife; I am powerless now even to choose what I see. I am paralyzed – by what?

Tell me your name!

Names are nothing more than meaningless sounds. All that matters is that I am – and so are you.

I pause and let the words sink in, wondering how much truth they possess. Am I here? Am I anything at all? It’s still difficult to believe in this strange reality, harder still to convince myself that I am not dead after all, not yet. What is this place, and why have I come here?

This place is fate – all that was and all that will be ends with this. That is what lies in the forest behind you: everything. The past, the present, the future. Time is everywhere – and nowhere.

How cryptic. I long to steal a look back over my shoulder at the dark wood, into the trees I only managed a glimpse of earlier. If everything is behind me, what is this emptiness before me?

It is what comes after every ending, and before every beginning.

My right foot slides forward, taking a step toward the edge of the cliff. It feels weighted down, as if someone is pulling it from below, drawing me forward – and down. The knife pulses like something alive, and I clutch it tighter. The movement is small, but it is my own, and that is something.

I move forward again, and I cannot tell if I move of my own volition. Despite myself, there is an eagerness within me to see what lies beyond the edge of the cliff. I want to know what lies in store for me, should I choose to jump.

I reach the edge, the rubber toes of my old sneakers peeking out over the end of the earth. Bits of dirt and rocks crumble away beneath my weight, but I refuse to step back.

Is this what you wanted?

I crane my neck, peering down as far as I can, but my eyes find nothing there. Across the void, however, I can just make out the sound of crashing waves, and above me (and inside of me), a single, distinct tock announces yet another moment lost. It occurs to me that perhaps it is not counting up the minutes; perhaps it is counting down.

The knife burns my palm. This is the only sensation of which I remain sensible now; the icy wind has numbed all else. Something like a hot breath brushes the back of my neck. I cannot turn, and I know even if I did I would still see no one there. But that does not mean I am alone.

What are you waiting for?

I work to swallow the lump in my throat. I am not afraid, but I am getting there. It dawns on me that I know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the oblivion before me – or the world behind me. There is so much I have never seen, and only one direction offers the chance to come back again. I stand at the point of no return, and I know if I take one more step, I will disappear.

But to where?

And more importantly, why?  My scars tell a story, but I wonder now if that story is meant to end here. I felt so certain when I arrived here, at the end of all things, but doubt creeps into my mind like a shadow, dark and hazy. If there is another way, I want to explore it, if for no other reason than to prove I am myself again, that my will is my own. I feel as though I have been dragged here, to this edge, without consent. At least, I don’t remember being given a choice.

But I have one now. Control over my body has begun to return to me, and with no little effort I raise the knife, its brilliant shine a beacon against the darkness.

Again, the moonclock and the thing inside me tick-tock in perfect unison.

You can do anything you want, the voice murmurs. You have always had that choice.

The voice is right. Maybe there is something beyond the darkness, something to look forward to, but perhaps I don’t need to find out just yet. Perhaps there’s time to explore the woods for just a little while before I go.

With that thought, the world falls out from under me.

I cry out – vaguely, I realize this is the first sound I’ve made in this alien world – and push my legs to propel me backward, kicking at the invisible hands that cling to my ankles and try to tow me down. Their grips are like steel, and I gasp with the pain of matching my strength with theirs, but I cannot let them win. My left foot slips, and I sense nothing but air beneath it. I realize with a sickening feeling that I am going to fall.

My arms pinwheel out, the knife still clutched in my right hand, and I tumble backwards, screaming, thinking that this is The End, that it is over, that I am done for. For the space of eternity, I plummet, down, down, down—

Then something hard and flat collides with my back, and my head bounces jarringly against the sand. Somehow, I’ve landed safe and sound on the ground this side of the chasm. I breathe a sigh of relief; the world has not ended yet. The sensation of the hands clasping my feet is gone. I am free.

No you’re not, says the voice again. Not yet.

The knife throbs – I nearly forgot about it – and I hear another familiar tock. This time, I stand, curiously pressing my left hand to my chest. A shock of horror floods through me. I cannot feel a pulse. Instead, my breast vibrates with a steady tick tick tick, like the seconds-hand of a clock.

What are you waiting for?

The knife’s pulse grows ever stronger. I turn my eyes to it again; I think I know what to do, though the idea terrifies me. I become aware of a warm hand on my shoulder. I cannot see it, cannot touch it, but I feel it. I know it. It led me here; it will lead me home again when I am done. For the first time tonight, I am grateful for its presence.

I take a deep breath, close my eyes. No – I must not hide from this. This is my choice; mine, and mine alone. At least, I think it is. I force my eyes open again, with great effort. Before I can second-guess myself, before I can even blink or draw one more one-last-breath, I raise the knife high, and plunge it straight into my chest.

I gasp, prepared for utter agony, but nothing happens. The cold, it seems, numbed me to the marrow. At most, I think I might have detected a slight shudder, as if the knife collided with bone – but the noise it made on impact sounded metallic, more of a clang than a thunk.

I quiver, wondering if I should go on. But I came this far, didn’t I? Suppressing a faint sense of nausea rising at the back of my throat, I drag the knife down, slicing through my shirt and skin as though cutting through butter. I watch the blood dye my white shirt a deep red, and pray the lack of sensation will last.

Once the incision is about half a foot long, I withdraw the knife and let it drop to the sand, having no further use for it. Now comes the hard part. Setting my jaw, I press my right hand to the incision. My fingers plunge into it, blood cascading now from the wound, drenching my shirt, my fingers, my arm. I yearn to close my eyes, but I focus with narrow determination on the faint sensations in my fingertips, probing for the source of the internal ticking.

Tock. There – something cold and hard just twitched beneath my touch. This must be my quarry. Taking a deep breath, I grip the thing tight in my hand and heave with all my might, tearing it out of my chest with a stomach-churning rrrippp. My eyes instinctively shut and I bend over double, dry-heaving, the object I have yet to lay eyes on ticking away in the palm of my hand.

When the nausea subsides, I look down, and raise the object up to catch the celestial light from above us, practically hyperventilating at the prospect of finally discovering what was inside of me all this time.

It is not a heart. Not that I really expected it to be, after everything.

It is a clock.

Dizzily (blood is coursing down my chest in rivers now), I inspect the small, round-faced contraption with a sort of morbid curiosity, at once fascinated and horrified by the idea that this machine has been responsible for my continued existence. The ragged remains of veins and arteries still cling to it, giving it the illusion of a true organ. But the hands tick-tock in perfect time, and I can just discern the numbers on the bloodstained face. It is not alive.

I wonder once again: am I dead?

Not yet, the voice whispers. Not yet.

But I am – I am. I existed, but never lived. And I see no reason why I shouldn’t smash this thing, this poor excuse for a source of being, right here, right now, on this cliff. I would not, could not be any deader than I already am. But I might feel just a little bit more alive, if only for an instant.

Isn’t this what you wanted?

I tire of this, of disembodied voices and mystic moons and riddles without answers. I have been deprived of life and choice time and again – but no longer. I lift my arm, my thoughts filled with visions of destruction. Against expectation, nothing rises up to stop me, and without resistance I bring my arm back down swiftly, casting the clock against a stone with all the force I can muster.

It hits the rock with a terrible crunching noise, and the world seems to stop. In slow-motion, I watch the face fracture as it bounces up again and away from me – towards the cliff. Crossing the border between here and there, the clock splinters, cogs and gears and severed hands flying apart as it all disappears into the vast, black oblivion beyond the edge.

The world around me shatters with it. The moonclock explodes in a shower of white-gold light, and the ground bucks like a wild horse, enormous chunks of it falling away over the edge, into the void. The stars burst, their silver light etching into my eyes, my flesh, through the pulsating void where my heart should have been. Dizziness overcomes me, and my knees buckle.

As I fall, I become aware of a drum pounding in my ears, beating out a rhythm not quite as regular as that of a clock – the tempo is a little faster, a little less mechanical. A little more human.

This is what you’ve been waiting for.

Beyond the drumming, I hear a clamor of clock-chimes, and joyous, hysterical laughter in a voice that reminds me of my own.