Seventy-eight years ago, something fantastically strange happened in the town of Tamber. The morning after it was left forever a tourist draw, the local newspaper headlined the event as “A Most Astonishing Catastrophe!” In the months following, the residents adopted a much gentler description: “The Petite Withdrawal;” then being referred to simply thereafter as “The Petite,” an endearing homage many sightseers still find too quaint for the circumstances, but the natives just shrug.
That only thirty-six people had been extracted was, after all, quite a strain to put it in the realm of catastrophe. Astonishing, yes, that only their husks were left remaining, those umber shells of a most calcified composition. But now, after decades of unsatisfied speculation, the marvel has become a mere sideshow of Pompeian similitude. An alphabetized listing in the glossaries of alluring attractions.
Still, to meander between those thirty-six gathered, frozen and eerily intractable figures
− their exoskeletons exquisitely tolerating time, all standing straight and staring up at the clock tower before them, faces utterly and forever horrified − left the day trippers with a profound and lingering sense of unease. Only the dumb walked away from Tamber Square unmolested.
Every effigy had defects (made during a cooling process, some opined, but this has never been proved); minute cracks running no longer than an inch or two, showing no particular preference for a body’s topography. It was through these tiny fissures where their absolute hollowness was discovered, the owners of those shells all gone to places unknown.
Equally amazing is their permanence, each one as immovable as any mountain, as if the world were holding to its bosom its most cherished heirlooms.
To hear those still alive to talk about it, there had been a ferocious crack of thunder, then a blinding strobe of pre-dawn light so brilliant that it was alleged to have penetrated walls. The meek inherited the day, congregations swelled, as did the collection plates, and everybody had been kinder to one another. Philanthropy flourished. Crime diminished. It had been a nice reprieve. While it lasted.
Tamber Square was the heart of the event. As is the prerogative of most town founders, Tamber’s community timepiece was built in the parish center atop an orthodox tower and customarily equipped with a tolling bell and four conveniently situated clock faces, this so its citizenry might know the hour from any direction. The motivation behind this was the enduring joke, being that no resident of Tamber then or now was ever that devoted to a schedule.
On a bitter cold night, Cecily Hook tended to her wares, a feather duster in one hand, a tumbler of fine scotch in the other — both to combat the belching town chimneys and coal stacks, generous this time of year with their soot. Mr. Hook, victim of an unfortunate railroad accident, left Cecily the sole proprietor of Hook’s Nook, a boutique primarily devoted to the Petite, selling embodied souvenirs and paraphernalia, the bulk of which has long been imported from other countries.
In its heyday, local craftsmen, sculptors, printers and painters provided the inventory: paperweights, candles, brochures, books, board games − all the trappings to successfully capitalize upon a provocative tragedy. Even back then in a poorer economy, the expensive bronze statuettes sold out quickly, the grim and final expressions of those taken impeccably rendered.
Usefully, Hook’s Nook also served as Cecily’s residence, the second floor a studio flat nearly as crammed with goods as was the lower level, a small but inviting showroom warmly merchandizing the cottage style. Quite often a patron would pause upon entering, wondering if they’d accidentally wandered into someone’s home.
It had been a lot tighter when Mr. Hook was around, being the corpulent man he was. The stairs, though… The stairs were becoming a problem. She wasn’t a spring chicken anymore but more a fall grouse, she would often lament.
Among Cecily’s bestsellers were the blinders, hat-like appliances that fit snuggly over the head, with a brow shield above and flaps on either side of the eyes to protect the wearer’s peripheral vision. Most available now were of the flimsy variety, but she insisted on selling the expensive leather ones, staying true to the originals. They were all for conversation’s sake, of course, and not necessity.
No one since the weeks following the tragedy truly believed the town clocks were responsible for stealing people and leaving in their stead an empty replica. But for a short time afterwards, it was greatly feared that to even glance in the tower’s direction − let alone stare at it straight on − would be to invite the same fate. Preying on the scared and gullible, some quick-witted designers made their rent selling those original blinders. But the mother of invention miscarried, with most folks soon regaining their wits and eschewing such nonsense.
Surprisingly, only a few decided to uproot for good and never look back, the threats of fire and brimstone taken seriously.
Paragons of futility, the blinders remain a perennial favorite.
Cecily glanced at the wall clock. 11:00. It was getting late. The tower’s bell no longer tolled the hour; hadn’t since the morning of that distant event, when it was quickly agreed upon by council to leave it “as is.” Let its silence be forever a reminder, they’d said.
A reminder of what had yet to be settled.
As she went to pull the shade, Cecily thought she saw a quick flash of light, then movement. Her storefront faced the square, with just a cobblestone street separating them, and fourteen of the effigies could be seen from that vantage point. She squinted; stared. For the life of her she could not determine what was different, but knew that something was. The surrounding gaslights lit the arena well, but to her aging eyes they only illumed vague silhouettes. Nothing stirred.
She thought it highly unlikely that somebody at this hour, in this cold, would be moseying about the monument. It would have been a crime, in fact, as visiting hours ended every day at sundown, with the four ticket gates promptly secured at twilight. The guard shack stood empty; a relic, as security had long been deemed unnecessary. Theft was not a concern, of course, and acts of vandalism had grown rarer over time. Paint was easily washed away. Even the birds showed consideration by crapping elsewhere. Any disrespect that had ever been visited upon the effigies was purely cosmetic, as their exteriors were impenetrable and had proved resistant to the most formidable of attempts. Nary had a scratch ever been left.
She began to count the motionless figures beyond, finishing at fifteen. She counted again. Fifteen; one more than there should have been, as customarily seen from her window.
“Damned if somebody isn’t out there,” she whispered cautiously to the memory of her dead husband, now an ethereal companion.
“Too much drink, if you ask me.”
Cecily turned her head and stared accusingly at his favorite chair. “I didn’t, so bugger off.”
“Suit yourself, then.”
She turned back to the window and counted one last time, then shook her head. “I believe we have a trespasser in our midst.”
“Leave it alone. Besides, since when did you become constable?”
“When they entrusted me with the keys!” she snapped, snatching those very things, along with her heavy shawl, from the coat tree beside the door. She dashed down her remaining whiskey, wrapped herself up, then reached for the knob.
“Woman, you’ll catch your death.”
She stopped and considered this. “I just might,” she agreed, as if the prospect were no longer an unpleasant one. “I just might.”
As Cecily closed the door behind her, she was reminded how sterile and uninviting her porch was this time of year. Absent were the vibrant snapdragons, pansies and delphinium she grew in her four whiskey barrels, all now frothing over with their grey skeletal remains. Beside the entrance stood a tall cigar store Indian, his headdress needing some sandpaper and fresh paint. A totem himself, the chief appeared to be staring considerately at the others across the way. His frown said it all.
In just moments, Cecily was already at the north gate, fumbling with the lock. Under duress of the season, the iron postern’s hinges yelped as she pushed it forward. Once inside the perimeter, she paused and considered the figures.
It had begun to lightly snow.
As Cecily approached, it became easier to discern flesh from alloy. She spotted the trespasser, a naked woman, shapely, her cadenced breath pluming in the cold night air. Motionless, arms at her sides, the woman, whom Cecily guessed to be no older than thirty, was nose-to-nose and staring into the upturned eyes of one of the female effigies. Nearly upon the trespasser now, Cecily could see gooseflesh riddling her body, but given the look on the woman’s face she wasn’t ready to blame it on the cold just yet.
“Are you quite mad?” Cecily said to her, now at her side. She peeled off her shawl and wrapped the woman’s shoulders. “Have you lost your−?” Cecily stared at the effigy, then the woman. Their countenances were identical, as was everything else about them, absent the clothes.
Teeth chattering, the woman finally turned to Cecily, and said, “Am I…am I the first?”
Cecily grabbed her arm. “Come, dear,” she said. “Our first order will be some warm clothes, and a hot cup of tea.”
“Avert your eyes, Mr. Hook!” Cecily said as they entered the store. She shuffled out of sight, then quickly returned with a heavy plaid robe, the price tag still dangling from its sleeve. She helped the woman into it, saying, “It’s cotton, sold out the fleece, but it should do the trick nicely. Name’s Cecily. You drink? I’ve got scotch, and scotch.”
Still nurturing an amazed if not thoroughly confused expression, the woman said, “Scotch.”
“Don’t know what I was thinking offering you tea,” Cecily said. “Don’t touch the stuff anymore.” She navigated to a tall oak hutch, retrieving a bottle of whiskey and an extra glass tumbler.
Still shivering, pulling her robe tight, the woman glanced expectedly around. “Mr. Hook. Is he your husband?”
Cecily laughed. “Yes, but he’s dead, dear.”
Not having to replace her expression, the woman said, “But…I thought I heard you tell him−”
“Dead or alive, he’s still a man, isn’t he?”
A knowing smile crept upon the woman’s lips. “They are rather prone to a singular urge.”
Pouring two drinks, Cecily agreed with a snort. “S’pose I’m crazy for talking to him, but not so crazy as to believe he’s really here. I’m afraid his attendance is mostly for my convenience. A bit of the ol’ nostalgia, you know.” She cackled. “He was decent company. Besides, it beats having a messy parrot. Here you go.”
Sniffling, the woman took the tumbler. “Your accent is British.”
“Came over with the Pilgrims,” Cecily admitted. “I miss the pork pie, but I’ll get over it.”
The woman’s smile widened. “You’re not that old.” She looked toward the window then, as if to recapture a memory that had gone fleeting past. The falling snow had thickened. “I’m wondering, though…”
“How long it’s been?” Cecily said. “First things first. You’ve not introduced yourself.”
“Oh, my name is…” Startled, she said, “Isn’t that the funniest thing. I seem to have forgot.”
Cecily made her way to the book section and plucked a pamphlet from a carousel display. She opened it and began reading from the nomenclature. “‘Emily Baxter? Jennifer Connolly? Susan Forrester’? Stop me if something rings a bell. ‘Heidi Headstrom? Jackie Jacobsen? Beatrice−'”
“Murphy, yes! Beatrice Murphy.”
“Says here you taught high school English. Bea for short, then?”
She scrunched her brow, things being stubborn to recall. “Tricia, actually.” She pointed to the pamphlet in Cecily’s hand, not having to ask the question.
“Victims of the Petite. I was reading off only the female names, of course. Most were identified immediately, having been residents of Tamber, but I understand that there were a few who weren’t as easily recognized. Turned out not to be locals. They eventually got around to it, though. Figuring out who they were, that is. Same number of women as men, curiously no children, but it appears to have been random.” She shrugged. “But then, no one’s returned to really say.” She gave her scotch a spin, then tipped the rim toward her guest. “Until now.”
“‘The Petite’, you said. I…I’m trying to understand the reasoning behind that name.”
Cecily chuckled. “So do the tourists. But for some damned reason, it stuck. ‘The Petite Withdrawal’ they called it at first. I suppose if ten thousand had instead been taken then they wouldn’t have been so endearingly absurd in their naming of it.”
She stared intently at Tricia’s pretty face, still mindful to keep the obvious, at least for the moment, impersonal. “They now stand as memorials, dear. Tamber’s lost − but certainly not forgotten − children. Are you hungry? I’m thinking it’s probably been awhile.”
“No, nothing, thank you.” Tricia finally moved, aiming for the stuffed vacant chair near the center of the room. An old crystal humidor, full of tobacco, stood atop an adjacent stand. A twin ashtray sparkled invitingly in the light, host to an empty pipe.
Seeing her intentions, Cecily turned to the chair and said, “Stop staring and get up, for Christ’s sake!”
Tricia halted, as if she’d made an unwise decision.
Cecily waved her on. “All clear. Have a sit.”
As she did, Cecily said, “You asked me a very tantalizing thing. Do you remember?”
“If I was the first?” Tricia nodded, then stared again toward the square. “Am I?”
“It appears so,” Cecily said. “Will the others be following?”
Tricia finally brought the scotch to her lips and, upon a stark expression, pulled down a healthy dose. “Oh yes. But…not for the reasons you might think.”
Tricia remained prim in the chair, hesitant, as if surrendering to its comfort would render her forever a slouch. Cecily detected in her guest a bygone air, a pattern of old lace; the subtle intonations of her speech, her demure manner, reminiscent of a time Cecily herself could remember. One when cordiality and graciousness were still adulate traits. Oh, how we’ve thoroughly dulled, Cecily thought, in the last seventy-eight years.
“It’s coming back to me,” Tricia said, “but please be patient. Things are still…slow to gather.”
Cecily found a folding chair and promptly occupied it in front of her guest. “Then let’s start at the beginning, shall we?”
“The dogs,” Tricia began, distant now; remembering. “The dogs woke me, barking. I got up, got dressed… To think that I put on my prettiest blouse… Pearls. I kissed my sleeping husband lightly on the cheek. Said goodbye.” She stared into her lap.
“I’m trying to remember his name…”
Cecily leaned forward. “Something was drawing you? Compelling you?”
She shrugged. “More like…I had remembered something that had been…so long forgotten.”
“Something more important than having left a pie on the sill, obviously−”
“William!” Tricia blurted. “My husband’s name was William.” Beseechingly, she said to Cecily, “He is dead now, isn’t he?”
Cecily nodded. “I’m sorry, dear. Husbands, wives, siblings, children… As far as they could determine, all of the immediate relatives of those taken died well within a year following the event. Natural or unnatural causes, take your pick. A situation nearly as baffling as the Petite itself, and still shrouded in conspiracy theories. Many believed they were silenced by the government, or by those who’d done the taking. Some still maintain the government had done the taking. Secret experiments, and such.” She clucked. “I can tell you, when left suspended our minds run off with the craziest notions. The government indeed! It couldn’t find its ass with two hands and a compass. Did you have children?”
“No, thankfully,” Tricia said, sounding more relieved for them than herself. She was now staring at a gilded mirror hanging on the opposite wall. “You’ve got some things here that are unfamiliar, to be sure − but I do recognize that,” she said, now pointing at the looking glass. She stood, drank the last of her whiskey, and said, “You’d do well to cover them. Cover them all.”
“Oh? Tell me why, dear,” Cecily said, calmly intrigued.
She stared into Cecily’s eyes with a betraying malevolence. “Because they lie.”
As Tricia remained standing, Cecily got up and took her glass; refilled it, then her own. “Is that just a personal prejudice, or are you implying something more philosophical?”
Her decorum recaptured, Tricia said, “Just that…that we aren’t what we think we see.”
“As ourselves, you mean?”
Tricia only shrugged.
“Well, imitators we most certainly are,” Cecily agreed, thinking she understood. “We’re sure not the same inside our own walls as we are outside of them. Ha! You think I take Mr. Hook to market? To the show? They’d have me bound and committed! S’pose I’m crazy for talking to him, but not so crazy as to drag him out in public.” She nodded to herself, her eyes settling on a far-off place. “He was decent company, though.” She recovered then. “Where have you been, dear? What happened to the victims of the Petite?”
“Oh, we weren’t the victims,” Tricia said, now sounding more confident. “We were the only survivors. Your fate just hasn’t caught up to you yet. But it’s fast approaching.”
“Here we go. She’s finally in the drink.”
“No one asked you,” Cecily chided the empty chair.
Now inured to Cecily’s quirk, Tricia walked to the window; stared out at the falling whiteness. “The snow… I remember how I used to love the snow. When I was small, my father would take me to Conlon Hill. My old sled, its red runners… He would wax them. Do the children still toboggan there?”
“You’re drifting off course, dear,” Cecily said. “Survivors of what?”
“Time,” Tricia said, still enraptured with the weather. “We survived the wrath of time.”
“Well, that’s rather obvious. I’ve grown ancient and you haven’t. In fact, you look like you’ve just stepped from the bath, hair brushed and teeth cleaned. Can’t say that I’m not a bit envious.” She recalled a quote. “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” She twirled her glass, as if to prevent any further sediment.
With a conciliatory smile, Tricia finally turned to her. “Some poets were right to personify it, and give it optimism.”
“I disagree. There isn’t anything romantic about it,” Cecily said, finding herself falling behind Tricia’s returning lucidness. “At least not when it finally pigeonholes us. Were you always here, just misplaced?” she persisted. “Alone? Or did you find yourselves elsewhere together? Meaning, somewhere other than this earth?”
“I was always…living a moment. But you want to know if it was heaven. Or heaven-like. Heaven is…heaven is having the notion of time. Hell is being relieved of the guarantee that we eventually reach an end. Even during our most painful days we rely on the belief that time will deliver us from our ills. Smooth things over. If it’s feeling kind, it does. But when it’s angry…”
“You talk as if time is reactionary, has an agenda. It’s devoid of passion, dear. It has no favorites. After all, it wrinkles us up and spares no one in the end. We supply the awareness, the whys and wherefores.”
“No, it is very much a prisoner to itself. It hurts, it hungers, has ambitions, jealousies, whims. You need to start thinking of it as a living, breathing thing. Literally. It’s not intangible.” She turned again to Cecily, that aspersion back. “To be free of time is not to be free at all, but set adrift upon a stagnant sea, one that indefinitely reflects upon its surface our most profound miseries, never to submerge. The good moments are there too, each maintaining the other’s perspective.”
“So that we might not forget one’s poignancy over the other?”
Tricia nodded. “We’ve always regarded time as our enemy, and it is. Death is our refuge, but only time allows it. To finally make acquaintance with the nothingness is our reward. To finally be relieved of…of the perpetual cycles that play us to exhaustion. To be spared that finale, well…” She looked down at her toes. “Death has always been our sanctuary.”
“I take it back. She’s not drunk, she’s just daft.”
Cecily shook her finger. “I’ll remind you to be quiet.”
Pensive, Tricia said, “‘Time’s glory is to calm contending kings…'”
“We’ve always squandered the throne.” Hands clasped respectfully behind her back, Tricia left the window and began a careful perusal of the boutique’s oddments.
“Human nature. Power corrupts, and all that,” Cecily said. “I suppose that time has to take a good chunk of the blame for that, don’t you think?”
Tricia raised her eyebrows. “Time would vehemently disagree.”
“Oh? Isn’t it our finite schedule that compels us to achieve?”
“Don’t mistake greed for achievement.”
“Can’t have a little of one without a little of the other.”
“It’s a fact.”
Tricia was smiling. “Your Mr. Hook. He was a decent man?”
“As good as any man can be, I suppose,” Cecily said, feeling suddenly protective. “A good provider. Never struck me. Bought me flowers on occasion, whether I deserved them or not.”
Tricia pulled the robe’s sash tighter around her waist. “Be thankful that you’ve been able to chaperone his memory with compassion. Sympathies especially do not fare well in infinite scenarios.”
“You mean our memories?” She laughed knowingly. “They can’t be trusted, really. Old and new, they eventually become works of fiction, written upon fancy and half-truths. We fudge them, after all, to our own benefit. So then, why should my seventy-one years write them any differently than eternity?”
She found Cecily’s eyes. “You’ll soon have all the time to figure that out. It will be the names you’ll find yourself forgetting, of people, places… They become inconsequential to the deeper lessons.”
Suddenly, Cecily felt a queer urgency that she explain. “I was a little girl of seven in London when the news reached us about the Petite. Most balked at first, blaming the Yanks for inventing fables. But soon the reality couldn’t be denied, and from that point on I never outgrew my ambition to move to Tamber. Finally got here eighteen years later, husband in-tow. Mr. Hook fought the move tooth-and-nail, but finally gave in. That poor, darling man, succumbing to my dreams. He got a job with the railroad, which he never stopped hating, and we eventually saved enough money to buy this place.”
“I see where the apostrophe in the store name implies only one owner. Odd, but something tells me that was more intentional than not.”
Whispering now, her husband’s memory in earshot, Cecily said, “You might be the first to have ever noticed that subtlety. But yes, I made sure that the licensing insinuate a single owner. Mr. Hook never questioned it, being the uneducated man he was. It was my own little private dig. A misplaced piece of punctuation to counter a misplaced heart. Mr. Hook’s, that is. He hated this place and my dream to achieve it almost as much as he hated the railroad.” She was lost again in that far-off place. “Not a very happy man was ever my Mr. Hook.”
“Was it faith that coerced you here, or just the novelty?”
“The latter more so than the former, I should think, but both have worn badly over the years. I was entranced, as most children are with certain marvels, but it wasn’t until I was older when I wanted to exploit it.” She winked. “Saw the potential to make a profit.”
Tricia was smiling. “An entrepreneur. Nothing to be ashamed about there. You’ve obviously done well.”
“Nothing grand, but it’s paying the bills. Trust me, dear, so many have tried and failed.”
“So what is your secret to success?”
“To remain neutral and leave religion out of it,” Cecily said. “Shoppers don’t so much like their goods to be impartial as they do the pretenses they’re sold upon. Plenty of pulpits for that. Ha! We’ve still got as many steeples as chimneys. Most of them have long gone vacant, though. The gold’s all gone, you might say.”
“That’s a fact.”
Still meandering, Tricia paused before the offerings of a small oval table. “These are rather curious things.”
“Those are blinders. A most popular item.” Cecily briefly explained their history.
With an accusatory stare, Tricia said, “Rather redundant, don’t you think, given that we’re already born with a pair?”
“What was it like,” Cecily asked. “When you were taken, that is.”
Tricia thought for a moment. “A suffocation, then a …a re-experiencing of my existence. Or, more pointedly, a re-examining.”
“Saw your life flash before your eyes?”
“The proverbial reliving, yes − but it was no flash. As a bystander, I saw my entire life played over and over, from every conceivable position, dimensionally and emotionally. It’s funny, but when given a bird’s-eye view, among others, of something that was originally experienced from a more level perspective, you find that the emotions connected to that moment change with the angle.”
Eyes stark and wide, Cecily said, “Quite exhausting, I imagine. It’s a wonder you’ve not been turned into a blubbering idiot.”
“Just as it always has, time allowed us intervals to recapture our sanity.” Then: “To fill with wormholes stately monuments,
To feed oblivion with decay of things…” Tricia quoted, as softly as the falling snow.
Cecily sighed. “We’re doing the poets proud, dear, but have we really tread new ground?”
“The poets only had the lonely nights for inspiration,” Tricia assured. “They never had forever.”
There was a flash of light from the square, quickly followed by another.
“A few more returning, then?” Cecily said. “Shall we make room−”
“No. The town’s already stirring. Let your neighbors shelter the rest.”
Cecily sat her finished drink aside; shook her head. “Cheap scotch, or the circumstances have secured my sobriety.” She shuffled closer to the window. “Lights are on in the mercantile. That’ll mean ol’ Mr. Connery’s ringing everyone on his directory.” Turning now to Tricia, she said, “What’s to happen, dear? To us, I mean. The ones who didn’t survive.”
“To become your own monuments.” She nodded toward the square. “To serve as everlasting reminders of time wasted, and be cast forever into a reliving of memories.”
“To see the errors of our ways? Is that the intention? To see how we’ve wasted our lives? What happened to our benevolent God?”
“Time is God.”
Cecily had begun to tremble. “Is this to be a plagiarism, of sorts? Are we to be the tenants of our own Victorian novels, cast opposite our own indicting ghosts, to be spitefully kicked about the streets of our past?”
“Yes, and those especially pockmarked with the most grievous pride and self-indulgences.”
Upon a sudden realization, Cecily said, “All the immediate relatives of the Petite! Time extended you a courtesy by seeing them dead?”
“By setting them free, yes. It gave us, the survivors…peace of mind.” She smiled. “It does have its benevolent side.”
“Then, then what is to become of you and the rest of the Petite?”
“We’ve been tasked to start over, Cecily. Although absent, we were allowed to see the promise. Do you remember how kinder people were to one another after we were taken? Not just here, but all over the world, once the news spread? It wasn’t Nirvana, by any means, but there was a perceptible…reconciliation. There was hope anew. But as it has historically done, the world let the opportunity slip away. Time offered one last chance, and it was yet again misspent.”
Tricia strode to the gilded mirror and stood before it. Cecily followed, and as she looked on she saw not Tricia’s reflection, but her own. That contemporary likeness then dissolved into a swirling grey confusion of loneliness, despair, bitterness… Scraps of vibrant color, like parade confetti, struggled briefly, desperately, within the squall.
In that accursed and accusing montage she heard what sounded like whale song, a sorrowful orchestration set to the tempest of her life. Then an obliterating white storm wiped clean the glass, only to settle and reveal a more desolate landscape. And upon that arid and sutured ground a dark shape swirled up into being, lurching forward. Toward her. It was her, the likeness now honoring decay; a withered, time-worn corpse comprised solely in shape by a maelstrom of memories, her seventy-one years compacted and assembled as a besieged, cadaverous tumult of what was, and what could have been.
It reached out an arm in a supplicating way.
Cecily turned away, for once terrified.
“Easy, my love. Easy.”
“It’s tragic,” Tricia said, “how the darkest parts of our lives dominate our memories.”
Another flash of light from the square, then four more in telling succession.
Cecily made her way back to the window; stared out. Residents bundled in house robes and mackinaws, mittens and mufflers, were leaving their shelters, some running into the square as if there were people to be saved from a fire. Others remained reticent, steady and alert on their porches, with some lingering at the safer edges of the gas-lit street, curious if they should venture into the commotion.
Rescuers began calling out frantically for extra blankets, shoes, warm clothing…
Cecily put a hand to her mouth. “Oh my, I left open the gate.”
The flashes were coming so fast now that it was hard to count them. The snow was already ankle deep, and still falling heavily. Cecily wondered if it had been strategically summoned to help console a world on the verge of eternal grief, to help cushion it against its impending fall.
Then the tower bell tolled once, twice… Someone in the square screamed.
When the tolling finally stopped, Cecily had counted thirty-six heralds.
“I suspect that’s that, then,” Cecily said, tears wetting her eyes. “Do I have time to say goodbye to my neighbors?”
Tricia looked out the window one last time; distantly, as if to gauge upon a horizon the advancement of a storm as yet unseen. “Yes, Cecily. There’s still time.”
“C’mon, then, Mr. Hook,” Cecily said, replacing her stern familiar tone with something warmer. “Time to take you out in public.” She turned to Tricia. “I can bring him along, can’t I? Where I’m going?”
Feebly, Tricia smiled. “He’s already there.”
Jon Michael Kelley’s stories have recently appeared in Qualia Nous (2014 Bram Stoker Award Finalist for Best Anthology) and the multiple award-winning anthologies Chiral Mad and Chiral Mad 2 by Written Backwards Press; Firbolg Publishing’s ambitious literary series Enter at Your Own Risk: Dark Muses, Spoken Silences; Sensorama by the UK’s Eibonvale Press; and Triangulation: Lost Voices by Parsec Ink.