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  • Kirk Barbera

The Ebony Clock: A Quarantine Nightmare

Updated: Mar 30




A poorly handled wrench fell upon Tom’s cranium. Even before he could say “ouch!” he felt rather than heard his wife’s tittering little laugh. With the trepidation of an inept hunter who does not wish to startle prey, he put his hand to his forehead and rubbed as silently as he could manage. He listened, but heard no laughter. Removing his head from under the sink, he wiped at his dirty jeans and stood to his full five foot nine inches. His skin seemed to fall from his bones. He turned his head and looked for his wife. Yes, she was right where he left her, just reading that same inane magazine. She had so little respect for Tom, she didn’t even bother to laugh out loud. As he opened his mouth to spill forth the usual vibratory nonsense he sputtered, the clock of ebony struck the hour. Much akin to its ancient forebears, this clock’s pendulum swayed with weighty importance to and fro. The clang was a dull click keeping the tempo of the cosmos. The clock was perched near the front door in their foyer. Click. Click. Click. Its monotony burdened the consciousness of all who entered. When the hour struck, much as it currently was as Tom was preparing to speak his piece, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock the sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical. The notes emitted were such a peculiar resonance as not to be heard in these states for many generations. There it sat, in the home of Tom Downfellow. Were it noon, the clock would put forth a full throated orchestra. The first few days one heard this was marvelous. Tom’s voice caught in his mouth at the sound of the clock, he stared at his wife, and she continued to read her magazine. Not even an apocalypse could break her concentration. Turning to his small, pristine toolbox, Tom dropped the wrench inside and said “I’ll try again later.” Still nothing from his wife, as though she had expected the outcome. “I said I’ll try again soon. I’m not a damn plumber. What do you want? Renaird? Yes I’m sure that a fitness instructor can fix anything!” He realized he had put too much emphasis on anything, and could feel her lips creep into a smile. He spun around to catch her in the act of ridiculing him, but she just stared dumbly at her magazine and ignored him. They had been married five years, and with every new national quarantine, life got worse. I’ll come back soon,” Tom said with a hint of disgust. He was skinny. His hands were small and weak. But he came from a good family—or at least it had been a good family. The last had died away and he was all that remained. It was just him and this woman who would not look at him. Tom tried his utmost to walk with calm assurance from the room, the way his favorite action hero might walk. This he couldn’t manage. His shoulders slumped and his knees creaked. Through the house he sauntered like a feral dog. It was an old house, meant to be filled with yelling and laughter and screeching children. Yet it was merely the two of them. Down one long hallway he passed a bathroom, then he walked by a spare room with a four post bed. He stopped with his back to the doorway. The door remained open, and he was certain that he had closed it. Peering in, he saw the bed sheets were rumpled in a mound. He closed the door and shook his head. Next he went through the main entertainment center, down another hall was his study. Tom managed a retail store, but he could not shake the feeling he was meant for something more. His great-grandfather had started a company that his grandfather and father after him had taken over. The company collapsed in the second quarantine five years ago. Tom never had the chance to take the reins that were meant for him. Pacing his study, he moved back and forth before the three oil paintings of his father, grandfather and his sire. “What do I do?” He spoke in the manner of a man who asks and answers daily. “I just couldn’t fix it. Why didn’t you teach me about plumbing? How was I supposed to know our whole world would become… become this! These quarantines are getting worse. How long till we can call someone to help? It’s been fifteen days, but what if it is three months? It took that long during the third quarantine. Last one was only fourteen days. Why don’t they tell us? What am I supposed to do about him? The water heater is going out too. I can’t. Cannot lose this income. I’ll have to sell… But who's buying nowadays anyway? We won’t even be able to live” He stopped pacing and sat in the leather reading chair. “We… Damnit she’s my wife! We got married. She married me. I want a child and that is that.” He stormed out of the room and he knew the sound of his footsteps were being clocked by his wife. She was probably preparing for battle—but a battle of ignoring him. Upon seeing her face, he lost his fire. Her eyes had such long lashes. Her hair draped in long black sheets with little curls at the end. Despite fifteen days of quarantine she appeared as one dolled up to go outside and dance under the twinkling lights of an elegant hall. She was no great beauty, but attractive enough to demand attention. Most people said she only married Tom because of his family. He had known better. She could not have been so warm if it were all fake. “I know we’ve been fighting. Claire, love, we talked about having a child before. I think it’s time.” He said it all in a vomit of words. He thought he could see her hold in a chuckle. “I’m serious. You’re my wife and we are ready. I know things aren’t perfect. They never will be. Isn’t that why we got married though? I love you and you love me.” He paused to watch her. “Now we need to grow our family. Put some kids in this big old house. I know I know. The world is garbage. Who knows if there even really is a virus anymore? It’s all an excuse. So what? We need a baby to make our lives more fulfilled. They even recommend it online if a marriage is having difficulties. Something about bringing meaning and purpose to our lives. Yes our jobs are at risk, but I feel confident as the manager that they will still need me once they allow us to return to work.” The scoff was so loud the inside of his eyeballs felt like they were being pulled inward to the back of his skull. “I will! Dammit. You’re still mad about the supplies. That lumbering buffoon Larry pushed me down and grabbed the last of it. What do you want me to do, shoot the guy? We had to turn in our guns after the second quarantine. Give me a break. That guy is a monster. All he does is lift weights. You want me to fight him? Oh don’t look at me like that. What, like Renaird, would fight that guy? Renaird can’t do a damn thing. Oh and you’re so infatuated with him but so are a hundred other women. What makes you think he’d even want you?” There it was again! That damn smile. He kept thinking what does it mean? Tom glanced toward the ebony clock. The clicking was swift and muffled by the distance. He could not see it from the dining room. He was standing opposite Claire. Was she even reading? He thought. He sat down at the table across from her. He was clumsy and his knee hit the table causing the magazine to fall from her hands. He jumped up and ran to her. “I’m so sorry dear.” His attempt to placate her fell on deaf ears. Her head was turned down and away from him as though completely ashamed to look on his face. Was she crying? He could not tell. Wrapping his arms around her from behind, he said, “Dear, I know I’m not perfect. But I promise to do better. I won’t be pushed around! I’ll fix the damn house if I have to rebuild it stone by stone. We won’t let the quarantines destroy our lives. There’s so much life left. Let’s live it. Dear? Oh don’t cry dear. I love you. We’ll get through this. They will allow us out soon. Here.” He picked up her magazine and put it back in her hands. “I’ll make you a cup of coffee.” Moving to the faucet in one swift motion, he could feel the whole house brighten along with his happy thoughts. The clock ticked with the heart of life he felt within. He danced across the tile and into the kitchen. It was an enormous kitchen, meant to be handled by professionals. He turned the hot water on and heard a creaking sound as only coldness came out. He shivered. “It… It’ll be fine, I can fix the water heater. Let me just boil you some water for your coffee.” Coffee poured, he placed it in front of his wife. “All right! I said I’ll go fix it,” he shouted. “A thank you would be nice. Don’t. I know what you’re thinking. Don’t say it. Oh why couldn't I be tough with Larry? Is that it? My god! I’m not being tough with you. I just want some courtesy. Don’t look away from me!” He could sense her damn little smile. He ran from the room. Down in the basement were a row of lights made to look like torches. As a child he loved playing archeologist with his brother. Dead now. They said it was the virus, but no one believed that anymore. “Nag nag nag! Why do I put up with it? I said I’d fix it didn’t I?” He pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. It said along the top in printed lettering: “COMMON WATER HEATER FIXES.” First he turned off the circuit breaker. Everything went pitch black. At the moment he was preparing to utter a curse, the whole house was filled with the sound of the ebony clock. The melody danced down the stairs and paused a moment in the dark. The sound put his entire existence on pause. He had a moment’s deep reflection. In the enlightenment brought by the clock, he fell to his knees and sobbed. “What have I done?” Then the music stopped. He shook his head and stood back up. He stood up and turned the circuit breaker back on and went to grab a flashlight. Returning to the water heater, he gripped the pilot control valve, when a spider landed on his knuckle. Carefully, he brought the spider up to his face. They stared at each other for several lazy moments, the beam of light emitted from his other hand bathed the long legged hairy creature. It was entranced by Tom. In the manner of a dancer flourishing through the air, he brought his hand to his mouth and swallowed the spider whole. With a smile, he went back to work on the heater. “Oh honey!” He yelled up the stairs. “Turns out it was just theeee…” He paused to look at the sheet of paper… “Thermocouple. Give it a try will you?” He waited and there was no response. “I have to do everything,” he muttered into the darkness. Stomping through the house, he made as much noise as possible, like a petulant child. He stopped near the foyer, caught by the clicking of the clock. It spoke to him with the voices of all his ancestors who had heard the same clicking. Clicking. His body swayed to and fro in a trance. It was a tapestry of ancient thoughts. Nothing could take this house and his wife from him. No Renaird. No quarantine. He would take charge of his life. The clock stared into his soul. Tom could picture his great grandfather standing before this clock buying it despite having almost no money. It would be a reminder that to achieve greatness required risk and temerity. Click. Click,. Click. Tom stood at attention. He put his hands by his side. He stretched his neck up as far as he could. Then the laughter returned. He could hear it deep in his skull. The image of his wife burst into his mind. His whole body slumped over. While he was walking to her, he said, “Why can’t you just be on my side one time? Just help me a little bit? What couldn't I do in this world with the support of a good woman?“ Tom turned on the faucet. “See! It’s fixed.” Right then, a stream of water leaked from beneath the sink and onto his shoes. The chuckle was in his head now. It resounded like the chiming of the clock. Slowly, his body moved toward the table where his wife sat. She concentrated hard on ignoring him. “I’ll burn this house to the ground with you and Renaird in it, if I ever discover you’ve slept with him.” There it was again. The smile. She didn’t have the respect to fear him. “There is a black beast in my stomach, dear. I feel it. There it rumbles like the kraken down under miles of thick sheets of waves. All I desire is for your help to rid me of it. Look at me!” Her head seemed to slam back as though pulled by a string and she looked directly at him. Her face cracked in a deadly smile. “Laugh at me. We will be stuck here in quarantine forever. I was trying to make the best of it. But laugh! Laugh. Think of me and laugh.” In an instant, he sprung forward and grabbed her hands in his. His fingernails dug into her hands. He stopped. Something startled him. Was that a knock at the door? He thought. Couldn’t be, no one was allowed out. Police roamed the streets carrying their mace and gun, and wearing bright red sashes to indicate special quarantine powers. No one dared leave their house. The knocking must have been the clock. Tom returned to his now terrified wife. Her chin was down on her chest as she sobbed. The sound seemed to come in at the back of his head. It slumped around like an intruder and made him aware of his actions. Then the knocking came back, even louder this time. It was the pounding of a very large fist on the oversized wooden door. “Police! Open up!” Police? Tom thought. What could they want? He helped dry his wife's tears and returned her magazine. “I’m sorry dear. We can talk more later.” He went through the foyer past the ebony clock and opened the door. There stood two police officers with their blood red sashes. The red was to remind citizens that the police now had full authority to use any means necessary to keep people in their houses, for the protection of society. “Yes officer?” Tom said pleasantly. Click. Click. Click. The clock sounded off the seconds while the big police officer scanned Tom’s person. “We are here searching for a man named Renaird Zebanowski.” “My wife’s fitness instructor.” “Yes. Neighbors have said he came here often before the quarantine.” “Is that right?” “May we come in?” “If you please. Though, to be honest, my wife and I were having a very important conversation about family. Oh, When do you think this quarantine will be over, sir?” “Can we see your wife?” The officer was young. He was in his twenties. His eyes were beady and suspicious. They were the eyes of a predator cat. Or a spider. “She won’t get up for anyone. Not even you I’m afraid. Reading her magazine. She loves that magazine.” Tom rolled his eyes. “Officer Gonzales. Go check on his wife. “You can’t do that. This is still my house.” The officer simply pointed to his red sash, and put his hand on his pistol. “Oh if you must. She’ll give you an earful no doubt” Tom said with a smile. Officer Gonzales walked away from the foyer and through the kitchen and disappeared. From the other room, came a shout “Sir…” He was cut off by the sound of the clock striking noon. The orchestra played at full volume right near Tom and the young officer. Tom’s eyes flashed. The trumpets of triumph blared like the brazen horn. Nothing could be heard from the other room. The two men stared at one another. Tom smiled and the officer moved toward the hallway to better hear his fellow. Gonzales was screaming something that was drowned out by the clashing symbols of a victorious battle song. The officer moved closer. Gonzales’ voice was muffled but through the sounds of violins and the crescendo of clarinets the young officer heard “wife!” At that he put his hand on his gun and twirled around to Tom. The club bashed in his face, pushing his nose and teeth and lips up into his brain. He dropped to the tile with a thud, just as the last note died out through the house. From the other room. Gonzales screamed again. “Sir! The wife. She’s dead!”