The Clockmaker’s Tale

July’s theme was Technology Gone Awry.

Synopsis

George is a workaholic who is obsessed with making clocks. When a salesman approaches him with a device that could make him work harder and faster, he is intrigued. Although he is given a free trial period, he soon learns that the costs for increased output is unbearably high.

The Clockmaker’s Tale

by Ian Williams

The brass bell above the shop entrance rang out to announce the new arrival. George heard it from his workshop in the backroom, hidden from view behind a blue curtain hanging in the doorframe. The two distinct sides of his small business were separated by this thin material alone. At the front, he sold his wears to the general-public, whereas at the rear, he designed, made and perfected.

For a short while George ignored the new customer. He wanted to give them time to look upon his vast stock of old-fashioned clocks hanging from the walls first. Instead, he focused on his latest design, made from his favourite soft-wood and hand-carved to match an exact design.

He blew away the wooden debris from the clock casing and marvelled at his work. It was flawless, making him particularly proud of himself this time. Every movement he’d made with the chisel–matching the steady hand of a brain surgeon–had added something unexpected to the design. It was even better than he’d hoped.

The outside was nearly finished. Next, he would move onto the internal workings of brass and steel, to bring his latest creation to life. With no interruptions he would have stayed put, surrounded by wood shavings and the calming smell of drying lacquer, until he was done. Only, a potential customer had entered his world and it wasn’t polite to leave them for too long.

He covered up the clock–with the hand towel he kept over his shoulder while he worked–and placed his chisel on the table. It was always a disappointment for him to leave a project half-finished. Before leaving the workshop, he spared a thought for the many clocks he hadn’t yet found the time to make. They were like unwritten books left gestating at the back of his mind, never to see the light of day unless time could be extended.

For all his years of work, he was much further behind than he wanted, with no more than a decade until he expected to have to retire from his beloved job. He was reminded of this every time the building erupted with a joyous chorus of cuckoos and tiny bell chimes. At sixty-three, he was more aware of the passing of time than he had been in his youth. And in turn, he had become painfully aware of having fewer days ahead of him than behind.

Pulling the curtain aside, George entered the shopfront and paid all attention to cleaning his hands on the carpenter’s apron he wore. His wife’s voice echoed through his head, telling him to keep his hands ready to greet customers with. He often forgot about his secondary role of salesman over his real job.

Let’s make a good impression, shall we? he thought. No good being a clockmaker if you can’t sell them too.

The walls of the shop were covered, from floor to ceiling, with a hundred ticking boxes of various complexities. It all amounted to thousands of hours of work. They ranged from the basic design of clock face and painted wood, to the more extravagant, with multiple carvings and intricate internal movements.

These were an attraction many revelled in seeing, but more than not, they didn’t leave with a purchase. Such was the risk of making things the modern world no longer required. Only those with a penchant for the antiquated considered George’s work of any worth. He potentially had another such person perusing his stock. Although, for him, they generally represented the chance to free up wall space for his next piece.

Closely studying one of George’s favourite items was a man in a trench coat and hat. He was sopping-wet from yet another sudden downpour, the hems of his trousers darkened and dirtied. He studied a medium-sized pine clock in the shape of a wooden lodge, with carved snow and tiny skiers standing outside. It was a fun scene George had spent hours imagining as he’d carved, cut and then polished smooth.

“Anything of interest to you, sir?”

The man turned his head, smiled at George standing beside a flip-up counter hatch, then returned to inspecting his clock of choice. His brown leather briefcase sat by his feet, the same colour as many of the more old-fashioned items on display.

George liked quality, and he saw it there in the man’s briefcase.

“That piece is a particular favourite of mine,” he continued, approaching the man. “I often try to tell a story in my designs. Clocks should do more than tell the time, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Oh yes, I definitely agree.” The man straightened out and offered his hand as greeting. “You have an impressive little business here, Mr?”

“Phillips, George Sebastian Phillips.” He took the man’s hand and gave it a good shake.

“It’s great to meet someone with such a good eye for detail. My name is Alexander.”

George waited for the man to speak again, mindful of not pushing where it wasn’t needed. His wife was much better at making sales than him, but she was busy somewhere else. Today was his chance to shine.

“Tell me,” Alexander said, moving onto the next clock. “How long do these take to make?”

“Oh weeks, often more, if it’s a new piece.”

“And you make them all here, on the premises?”

“Yes,” he pointed to his workshop, through the door behind the counter, “just in there.”

Rather than ask another question, Alexander took a step toward the window at the front of the store. The wording at the top, now covered over by a layer of grease and dirt, read Phillips Antique Clockmakers. Through the modern world’s muck, the outside world looked like a movie playing out of focus, never revealing detail and faces, just movement and rough colours.

Alexander removed his hat, placed it on his briefcase. “It’s a wonderful thing, in our modern society, with all of its marvellous inventions and scientific breakthroughs, that there are still those who enjoy the old, as we do. In fact,” he said, sliding out of his trench coat, which he lay over his hat and briefcase, “I’d say more should remember the joy of owning something with real age.”

The conversation was beginning to go the same way most others did, George noted. A sale was looking less likely now that they’d moved on from the wooden lodge clock. To say he was disappointed would be incorrect, he was quite relieved actually; he liked that clock a little too much to part with it.

“Can I ask?” Alexander went on. “Would you be able to make more, say if you had more time available to you?”

“I suspect I’d get a lot more done, yes. Why do you ask?”

Returning to his briefcase, Alexander produced a card from an outside pocket. “Here,” he said, holding it between two of his fingers.

George took it and looked it over, now realising there was a sales pitch to follow. He’s better at this than I am, he had to admit. At the top of the textured card was the name of a company he was certain he knew, but couldn’t quite place. “ACC?”

“Adaptive Cognition and Cybernetics. We specialise in cutting-edge, next generation, technology. Our latest product was made for people just like you, who need more hours in a day than the good Lord provides.”

I left my work for this? George was less than impressed. “Thank you, but I…”

“Before you say no, how about I show you what I’m talking about?” Alexander picked up his briefcase and walked to the counter, where he placed it down and clicked open the catches. He kept his back turned until he was ready to present his product.

When he turned, George was immediately drawn forward to inspect the object. He was fascinated by the curved design. It had a snowy-white casing, with delicately printed calligraphy underlined by a sweeping blue line, and a tiny built-in LED screen. It appeared as well-made as any of his clocks. Such a high degree of engineering, yet it remained a simple looking thing.

“This,” Alexander said, not quite ready to hand over the device, “is our latest model. It’s called a Work Buddy.”

“What is it?”

“It’s not what it is that’s important, but what it can do for you.” As Alexander spoke, he moved the curved device around in his hands as though he could mould it into something new. “It’s the biggest craze right now. People from all walks of life, in all professions, are using one of these. And as a result, productivity has increased 1000-fold. Would you care to try it on?”

George hesitated.

“Please, don’t be afraid. It’s completely safe, I assure you.”

“What will it do?”

“With this, you will be able to work for as long as you want. You won’t be wasting away the night time hours any longer; they will become your most productive time.” Alexander reached out, gesturing to the back of George’s head. “May I?”

“Okay, I guess it doesn’t hurt to try,” George replied, turning to face away. A feeling of suction at the base of his skull initially spooked him, causing him to jerk his head forward to escape the sensation. A moment later, it subsided. He assumed the device had failed to stick; he certainly couldn’t feel anything hanging from the back of his head.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

George looked down at Alexander’s empty hands and then put his own on the device. The Work Buddy had attached to his skin, now numbed enough not to feel it there. There was no extra weight to contend with either. The thing was as much a part of him as his very own hands.

He was surprised to find himself entirely comfortable with his new addition. “It fits well. So, how will this help me work during the night?”

“Actually, it won’t help you, it will do the work for you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You teach it to do the work, and when you fall asleep each night, it will repeat the process precisely as you have shown it. Only one demonstration is required for it to copy and repeat, over and over again, until you wake. Just think how much you could get done while you rest.” Alexander closed his briefcase–after removing a small booklet from it–and slid it off the counter. He checked his watch, before saying, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you try it out for a week? See for yourself before you make your mind up.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” George said, sliding his hand over the letters spelling out the word Work Buddy across it. I really want to try it, though.

“Please, I insist. I’m confident you will buy it once you’ve tried it out for yourself.” Next, Alexander picked up his coat and hat, and put them both on. “I’ve got another appointment, so I’ve got to dash. Keep it for a week, and if you don’t want it when I return, then just give it back.” He gave a look to the wooden lodge clock as he did up his coat. “I may even make a purchase of my own when I come back.”

George followed Alexander to the door, pulling it open for him. “Is there anything I need to do, you know, to make it work?”

“Not at all, it will do all the work for you, literally.” Stepping into the street, Alexander was instantly drenched by the heavy rain. It pooled in the rim of his hat before pouring off. “Noah would be building his ark all over again if he saw this much rain each day, wouldn’t you say?” He pulled his collar up to keep the rain off his neck. “I’ll see you soon, Mr Philips.”

Watching as the world passed him by, George was too distracted to wave or say goodbye. While the flying cars whizzed by above his head, he thought of all the many clocks he could finish during the night. And while the flooding streets threatened to dampen his feet, he contemplated finally scratching the itch he felt to hurry up and build every design swimming around inside his head.

He looked to the line of technology shops opposite his own store and considered how out of place he really was. The modern world had slowly crept in while he carved away. He hadn’t noticed as his competitors were replaced, one by one, by the onward march of progress. Somehow, he’d staved off being consumed by the new world himself.

Technology had finally gotten its foot in the door, leaving itself just enough room to worm its way in further. The device he now wore around his head would inevitably lead to another step later, if he let it.

Maybe this was a mistake? he thought, but only for a short while. Okay, just this once. I’ll let the modern world in just this once. I could use the extra help anyway.

Once Alexander had taken the corner, George stepped back into his store and went to the back workroom. He still had work to do today, work that needed finishing before he tried his brand-new device out for the very first time. For that he had something lined up, a job he enjoyed least of all.

***

That evening George waited until the shops opposite his had turned off their lights and packed up for the day. He also made a call to his wife, Susan, telling her not to wait up for him that night. It wasn’t an unusual call for him to make, because he often worked well into the early hours. Susan understood this of his nature. The need to finish, for closure, was hardwired into his personality.

After reading through the ten-page instruction manual, and checking for any mention of problems he might encounter, he felt ready to proceed. The shop was empty and whisper quiet, and he had the whole night ahead of him. Now, finally, the time had come for him to try out the Work Buddy.

Reaching around the back of his head, he activated the device. There was a beep in reply and then the sound of tiny fans starting to spin–they became silent once at full speed. His next movement was to pick up his screw-driver and hold it up to his eyeline, checking for its straightness. It never occurred to him that this would now be a part of the routine from then on. He’d recorded his first process, albeit a rather unnecessary one.

Next, he placed the eight-day movement, made of gleaming brass and containing an intricate arrangement of gears, inside his latest case, making sure to line it up with the screw holes he’d already made. He followed up by dropping in the screws and tightening with his screw-driver. After that came time to install the chime mechanism, attach his delicately crafted cuckoo to its perch wire, then finish up with the cast-iron weights and the pendulum.

Once done, and satisfied with his work, he deactivated the Work Buddy and sighed. It felt strange to be doing this work with the intention of never having to do it again. He was training something else to do it while he slept, something that was, and yet wasn’t, him.

Stop being so silly, George, it’s still you doing it. These are your hands, your fingers; it’s your brain telling your body what to do. But you’ll be unconscious, that’s all.

The instructions had told him as much. It had also gone on to explain how the first time would feel odd. Although, giving up control like this was proven to be safe, the statistics ACC had listed proved it. In fact, as the introduction had stated, 99% of ACC’s customers had recommended the Work Buddy to their friends and family. So, it had to be fine.

Sitting back into the soft cushion behind him, he tried his best to relax. A few minutes later he switched on the device and again heard it starting up. He looked to the clock beside him–one he’d made specifically for him–and watched as it ticked past 2am. Normally, he would be packing up ready to head home. Not tonight.

The day had ended for him, but there was still work to be done. He closed his eyes, excited by the prospect of waking to a workshop filled with finished clocks, and slowly dozed off.

***

Through a thick fog of sleepiness came an angelic voice, calling to him and beckoning him forward, toward the light of the waking world. The voice was soft, yet forceful, and with enough urgency to rouse him awake finally.

“George, can you hear me? George, it’s me, it’s Susan.”

He stirred violently, almost leaping out of the chair in response. His eyes refused to open at first, as though cemented shut. It took him a few minutes to compose himself enough to reply. Looking up into his wife’s gentle face, into her hazel-coloured eyes, he replied.

“What … what time is it?”

Susan gave him a concerned look, her thin lips pursed. “It’s ten-fifteen. I’ve been trying to wake you up for almost ten minutes. You had me worried.”

The slightest touch of the Work Buddy made George wince now. When Susan investigated the device, it sent a surge of heat across his head. He swatted her hands away to protect himself from more.

“What is that thing on your head?” she asked.

He wanted to explain with all the excitement he’d felt the night before, but that was gone, fizzled away to nothing more than a fond memory. Instead, he felt tired, far more tired than he’d expected, and the fog of a heavy sleep still clouded his mind. He rubbed his temples with his eyes closed and his head lowered. The headache was easing a little, though not enough to get into a big debate with Susan.

“Are you all right, George? You’re starting to worry me.”

Handing over the instruction manual for the Work Buddy was all he could do to answer the question. Words were struggling to form in his head with the swiftness they usually did.

Susan took the booklet and flicked through its pages. She tutted after reading barely a paragraph. “You foolish, foolish old man. Aren’t we a little old to be messing around with gadgets like this? The people I see using them on TV are all young people anyway.”

“It’s okay, I’ll be fine in a minute or two,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. Knowing she was right only made him feel worse. He’d taxed himself a bit too much during the night. Before he could tell his wife as much, she spoke, now over by the table at the end of the workshop.

“My goodness,” she said. “Did you do all this by yourself?”

He turned his head to the side and looked to the table, where he found not one, but four finished clocks sat waiting there for him. All the pain and discomfort washed away in the time it took him to accept what he saw. During the night he’d worked harder and faster than he thought possible.

Laughing, he replied, “It worked, it actually worked. I was hoping to finish one, maybe two at most. This is incredible.”

“Are you telling me you let that thing do the work for you?”

He rushed over to his wife and took her hands in his. “Oh, Susan, this Work Buddy gadget is amazing. I could get so much more done with it helping out. Look what it did in just one night. Now, imagine what it could do in a week, or a month. We could even expand the shop.”

“Slow down, George. I couldn’t wake you up just then, now you want to use it every night?”

“It’s the first time I’ve used it. I’m sure it will get easier the more I use it.”

The doubts had no chance to form in his mind now, he was far too impressed. He could see his business’ future opening up into even more markets around the world. Until then, he had never considered such a move would be possible. To do that he needed more staff, and that was exactly what the Work Buddy gave him. Two of him working away meant the extra output would always meet his high standards too.

But before any of that could happen, he needed to get over the awful headache the device had left him with. If more use remedied that, then he was more than willing to continue.

***

That evening, around eight-fifteen, he set about retraining the Work Buddy to try out some carving on a new design. The real value of his business came from his ability to make almost perfect copies to sell multiple times. Having this side of his work assigned to his new piece of tech was an obvious choice.

Susan came into the workshop, a steaming mug of tea in one hand and a book tucked under her other arm. She watched as George prepared his workspace for the next training session.

“It’s okay, Susan, you don’t have to watch me do this if you don’t want,” he said, rubbing his hands together to warm them up. Everything needed to be just right, including the temperature. He needed to feel his tools as they worked away at the wood, to discover the order hidden within and draw it out.

“As long as you’re sure.” Susan took a sip of her tea, then bent down and kissed her husband on his semi-bald head. “I’ll come wake you up first thing in the morning. Just promise me you’ll not push yourself too much. Okay?”

He nodded as he switched the Work Buddy on and waited as the welcoming whirl of fans met his ears. It was time to test out the device again.

It took him almost five hours to finish the training session, ready for the process to be repeated in his sleep. He went over his work one last time, making absolutely sure it had gone to plan.

Some of my best work, he thought, with a broad smile across his face. If you can do that again, then you’re more amazing than I realised. He tapped the Work Buddy as though thanking it, like a small pet attached to the back of his head.

As with the night before, he made himself as comfortable as possible in his seat. Getting to sleep still occurred the same way as before. He’d had a warm cup of milk to help this time though, to make drifting off that little bit easier. It was then only a matter of time until the Work Buddy took over.

***

The first time George had used the device, he’d seen nothing during his sleep, only a dreamless landscape of black. Then in the blink of an eye, he had awoken again. So, it was with some surprise that he found himself experiencing something new this second time.

He felt sand crunching beneath his feet at first, and a strong wind pushing against his body. It wasn’t like any dream he’d ever had before. This was more real, like any memory recalled upon his command.

Everywhere he looked–and he had enough control to be able to look wherever he wanted too–he was surrounded by rolling clouds of beige. The sand flowed around him, over him, beneath him, so that barely a few feet ahead of him was visible. He was trapped within a sandstorm.

What on Earth is going on here?

A crack of thunder made him flinch. It hurt his ears too. In fear, he stumbled backward. But as he moved, so too did the swirling cloud of sharp sand. It followed his every move, as though it knew what he was going to do before he did it. He could feel it watching him, working him out. There was a knowing to each particle that passed him by.

“Hello? Is anyone here?” he asked, feeling the sand drying out his mouth as he spoke. He dared not speak again, for fear of losing every drop of moisture from his tongue.

There were no answers waiting to find him amid the sandstorm, he knew somehow. So, he began walking, in any direction that felt right. As he did, he marvelled at how realistic the ground felt against the soles of his feet. Everything seemed real, much more so than he thought it should do for a dream.

This can’t be right. I must be dreaming, I must be. My body is still in the workshop, working away by itself.

What had been a curiosity at first, now quickly became a worry to him. If he was truly in the workshop, then why did this world feel so genuine. It wasn’t a dream if he could touch, and feel, and smell, even breath.

Where am I? And why am I seeing this?

He walked for hours, through a worsening sandstorm. With each mile he covered he could sense himself becoming lost. It was a strange sensation. He’d been lost since he’d arrived, yet he knew that wasn’t really the case. He knew he had become lost along the way somehow.

What am I looking for? He found himself asking this more and more, the further he walked. It wasn’t just a random place for his mind to explore, there was something here, something he was beginning to realise he needed to find. But what was it?

The sound of a solid surface slapping against his feet made him pause and look down. There, the sand had given way to a concrete floor, one cracked from years of neglect. He followed the narrow path between the sand, which piled up on either side now.

The further along the path he walked the more he worried he was being led into danger. There was no explanation that he could find for feeling this way. It was a sense buried deep within him, one he couldn’t get a solid grip upon. If he could put his worry into words, then he could deal with it. Sadly, that wasn’t happening.

At the narrowest part of the concrete path he was met with a problem. In the middle of a sandstorm, one that followed his movements with an awareness he couldn’t explain, stood a single wooden door with a worn brass handle. He ran his hand over the detailed carvings adorning its frame. They were familiar, like he’d made them with his very own hands. He could see and judge every cut as he could his own work. It matched his style exactly.

The obvious answer was to open the door and see what hid behind it. Only that was the last thing he wanted to do. That unknown thing he worried about, that feeling of dread he felt bubbling up inside himself, had arrived. Something terrible stood just behind the door, waiting to reveal itself to him.

He backed away cautiously, taking one small step at a time toward the howling winds of the sandstorm. His judgement of the thing hiding from view, despite not knowing what it could be, was that finding out would be a bad idea.

The dream was soon turning against him in an unexpected way. However hard he tried, he found he couldn’t escape the door, that wooden portal to another world. He’d made it back to the swirling tornados of sand, back to the lost feeling that had plagued his time there. It didn’t matter how far he travelled, though, he always ran into that door. The world had become one endless loop, leading always to the same place.

I won’t go through the door … I won’t … you can’t make me! I want to wake up, I want out of this nightmare.

He dropped to his knees, called out in frustration and proceeded to punch at the ground with his fists, until his knuckles bled.

Oh, please, Susan, wake me up, please wake me up.

Then, as if upon his command, he got his wish.

***

“George … George … wake up, it’s me,” Susan said, shaking him awake.

He flashed his eyes open, startled and on edge after his awful night. Coming back to the real world was a relief, although he still carried all the emotional baggage that came with his disturbing nightmare. The lost feeling remained, making him at first believe he was still asleep.

Drawing his wife close, George hugged her and breathed in her scent. Only that had the power to confirm he was really awake.

“George? What’s the matter?”

He looked into her face and saw a tremendous amount of concern, almost as much as he felt inside. But little by little he began to return to himself, to reset to his default setting. The dream had left a mark on his mind, one that he didn’t want her to share too. So, he put on his very best calm-face and reassured her. It was only a bad dream after all.

“It’s nothing,” he said, moving away a little. “Just a strange night, that’s all.”

“Right, that’s it, we’re taking this thing off you.”

George recoiled as his wife tried to touch the Work Buddy. “Please don’t. It’s not that, it’s just me. I feel fine.”

Oddly, he did feel fine too. The headache he’d suffered the first night hadn’t reappeared this time. He felt awake, refreshed even.

Maybe the dreams will stop too?

To distract his wife’s worried mind, he turned back to his desk and looked upon his work from the night. He wanted to show off the Work Buddy’s progress to her, to prove it was still a good idea. Except, his work surface was empty, and not a single tool had been left out. The work area was spotless, more so than he usually left it.

“Did you move them?” he asked.

“Move what?”

“My tools, did you tidy them up before waking me?”

Susan looked at him with sharp eyes. “I haven’t touched anything, George. I came down here and found you asleep in your chair, so I woke you up. That’s all I did.”

It didn’t make sense; where was the clock case he should have made during the night?

Slowly getting up from his seat, George searched around the room only to come up empty. The table at the end of the room was empty too. He then checked the draws, checking for the tools he had left out the night before. They were all there, all accounted for. They’d been put away. But by who? He’d never shown the Work Buddy that.

There had to be some sign of the device’s activities during the night, and he was determined to find it. He studied every part of the workshop, from floor to ceiling, and in every corner. There was nothing, not even the usual debris left over from a night of carving.

“Susan,” he said. “Did you sweep up this morning?”

“No. I told you, I woke you up first.”

He was certain he’d left the broom by the far wall the last time he’d used it. Now it was leaning against his table. To find out what else had been moved, he ventured into the front room. Pulling the curtain open, he was at first overwhelmed by a strong ray of sunshine burning its way through the grime covering the shop window. With his hand up to protect his eyes, he marched across the room and yanked the blind down. Only then could he see what awaited him.

Three identical clock casings, carved to perfection, sat on the counter. He rushed over to them, relieved to see the Work Buddy had done its job, and excited by their incredible similarity. Rarely had he made a copy that so precisely matched the original, let alone three. Upon closer inspection, he saw the copies were, in places, even better than the first.

“Susan, come out here a minute, would you.”

She joined him and was also surprised by the cases there. “Oh, my goodness,” she said, covering her mouth in shock. “They’re amazing.”

They studied the incredible workmanship, each so close their noses almost touched the wood. At the front it was as though looking at a photo of the original. George could remember every cut he’d made, followed by the hour of sanding to smooth it down in preparation for the protective lacquer.

Then he moved around the back, swapping places with Susan. The rear of the original had been left flat and bare, to keep the clock flush against the wall. So, it was with some surprise that he found himself looking upon something new. In the centre of each clock he found a rectangular shape, carved lightly into their reverse. If not for his dream the night before, he would have dismissed it as a glitch in his Work Buddy’s programming. Except he knew what it was. It was that blasted door again. It had to be.

What the… I didn’t do that. Why the hell would I put that there?

“Are you all right, George? You’ve gone white as a sheet.” Susan wrapped her arm around him, only to be pushed away in surprise. “George!”

He couldn’t look at her, only the door. It was taunting him once more, making him face it in the real world now too. Whatever force or entity had shown it to him was determined to see him walk through that door, to see what lay beyond its patterned surface.

No! I won’t do what you say. I won’t give you what you want.

In anger, he took hold of the nearest clock casing and shoved it off the counter. It bumped across the floor, coming to rest by the wall. But he wasn’t done with it yet. He grabbed a hammer from the workshop and set about destroying the case.

“George, please stop.”

He didn’t, or couldn’t stop—he struggled to decide which as he landed one heavy strike after another upon his latest design. To maximise the damage, he turned the hammer round and continued with the sharp edges of the tool’s claw. He pulled chunks of wood away with each attempt until he’d reduced the thing to nothing more than trash.

Susan was silent, standing behind the counter with a look of abject horror on her face.

“I’m sorry, Susan. I … I don’t know what came over me. I just…”

She ran out the room, her eyes streaming.

Now look what you’ve gone and done, he thought, directing his disappointment at the curved piece of technology hanging from the back of his head. It was easier to blame it than admit he’d lost his temper in the most unusual way.

***

Things settled down after his odd outburst. That night followed a similar pattern as the last, with his dreams revolving around the door, but it seemed somehow less important. George was beginning to dislike that side of the Work Buddy. The nightmare had to be related, the timing of them was too much of a coincidence.

In three days he expected Alexander to return, to find out if the sale was final or not. George had thought the decision would be an easy one until the dreams started. Now he considered them almost a deal breaker. They were already putting a strain on his relationship. Because of the Work Buddy he hadn’t slept in his own bed, with Susan beside him, for days. He missed her being close to him.

The fourth morning he’d awoken by himself and felt awful because of it, not physically, but emotionally. It was a lonely feeling, a feeling of abandonment and of a deep loss. Susan had become distant to him after his unexpected outburst.

Maybe I should tell her about the dream?

Once again, he decided against that idea. No, the pain was his to bear alone. It wasn’t fair to tell her, it would worry her unnecessarily. So, he kept it quiet. It would be over soon anyway. There was only one night left until he had to hand it back. Before then he wanted to get as much use out of it as possible.

But before he could begin training the Work Buddy to do even more, he heard the front door of the shop slam shut. He leapt out of his seat and raced through to the shop front. The curtain was already swinging as he pushed it out the way.

Susan walked passed the outside of the shop, a bag under her arm and her favourite yellow umbrella protecting her from the harsh rain. She didn’t slow her pace to look back through the window at him, she just walked away, disappearing from view a moment later. Ignoring the downpour, George exited the shop and watched as his wife turned the corner at the end of the street. He stood in his shirt and trousers as the water soaked him through.

It was only when he saw others staring at him that he realised how strange he looked. He escaped their judgmental gazes, stepping back inside and shutting the front door, locking it tight. Any customers interested in visiting that day would be disappointed to find the store closed.

There was a note left for him on the counter, weighed down by the pen it had been written with. It was from Susan. He felt relieved, until he read it.

My Dearest George,
I can’t do this any longer. I can’t pretend things haven’t gotten bad between us. You’ve not been yourself recently. After your terrible anger of late, and even though I really don’t want to, I’ve decided to leave. I’ll be staying at my sister’s until you’ve come to your senses.
Susan.
PS. I don’t blame you for hitting me, I blame your beloved Work Buddy device. It’s made you act strangely.

He was stunned by the letter, because of its shortness as much as its content. Susan had left and barely given him a paragraph on the reason why. Although, one part of it just couldn’t be true. He’d never hit her during their thirty-three-year marriage.

She must be talking about me smashing the clock the other day. It’s just a misunderstanding, that’s all. Once I hand the Work Buddy back to Alexander tomorrow, she’ll come back to me.

For the rest of the day, George brooded in the workshop and paid no attention to those who knocked at his door. Nothing interested him but working on another clock. It was all he could do to calm his troubled mind. Being distracted kept him from dwelling on the great list of things now out of his control. Of which his wife’s departure had rocketed to the very top of.

Instead, he prepared for one last night of automated work. Even though his intention was to return the Work Buddy the very next day, he wanted to maximise its productivity for this one last use. He’d even come to accept that his nightmare would return. It hadn’t let up for days, only reduced in intensity. The door still haunted him more than he could explain.

His last night with the Work Buddy started better than he thought it would. He’d finished training the device to complete an entire clock now. During the week he had done a different part while the Work Buddy recorded his movements, and finally he was confident it could do it as well as him. Although, never did he intend on letting it; he wanted something left for him at least.

After switching off the device one last time, he took a long breath and considered his next decision carefully. This would be his final chance to make use of this technological marvel; did he really want to give it up?

I have to stop using it, Susan would never forgive me if I went against her on this. No, I’m done with the Work Buddy. After tonight, that is.

He closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep as the handoff between his consciousness and the Work Buddy occurred. The usual whirl of the device’s fans diminished the further from the waking world he travelled.
Until…

***

The storm whipped the sand up into a frenzy in front of George. He could feel it surrounding him and scratching at his skin. If given long enough, he suspected it would wear his body down to the bone before it let up. His huddled form, left in an unknown, unreachable desert, would be all that remained.

As with each time he’d seen this place, he began walking in a seemingly random direction. He’d done this since the very first time, and yet he still expected to meet the door sooner rather than later.

I’ll run from it all bloody night, until morning again, just like before.

He told himself this with as much surety as he could muster, which wasn’t a lot, unfortunately. There was something there that wanted him to enter the door, and with each time he’d refused he had felt that presence become angry with him, like he’d failed in his task. He swore the previous night, before he’d woken up, that the sand had attacked him with more ferocity after that.

If he could avoid losing himself within this place one last time, then he would be fine.

This is silly, he thought. Here I am all worried about nothing. No nightmare has ever hurt me in the past, so why let this one?

Once again, and after a long, solitary hike across the sand, with dunes either side and a sky almost entirely blocked out by the sandstorm, he eventually met the broken concrete path. There was no surprise this time, no confusion over how it got there, just the odd sensation of time repeating itself.

It was time to deviate from the given path again, just like the nights before. He made a 90 degree turn and wandered toward the dunes that lined his route. They were moving away from him as before, getting further away with each step he took. Eventually they were created beside him along this new route until it looked the same as before.

Now the concrete path appeared before him, in a place that looked identical to the first in every way. He’d somehow walked in a complete circle and returned to the same path. The presence there, which wanted him for one single purpose, had power over every part of this world, every particle of sand too.

Even so, George refused to follow its commands. He turned around 180 degrees this time and trudged back along the path. The night was young yet and there were too many directions left for him to try. In the process, he would forge an endless maze of sand, then concrete, then the door; until this world was full. He would do that before heading through to the other side.

Nothing there had the power to change his mind. Or so he thought.

“George, are you here? George, I’m scared, can you hear me?”

No, she can’t be here, she can’t.

“Please, George, help me, please.”

Stopping in the middle of the path, George listened for his wife’s voice again. The first time he’d heard it, it had seemed far away. The second time had been much closer, even though he knew she couldn’t possibly be there. It was his dream, not hers. It was his mind creating and then repeating the same door and pathway, again and again, not hers.

“Susan?” he whispered into the swirling sand cloud, as though she was caught in its updraft somehow and flowing around him.

“Oh, George, thank the lord, you’re here with me.”

He took a step toward the voice. “Is it really you?”

“Yes, it’s me, George, it’s your wife.”

“But how?”

Her voice became distant again. She was moving away from him. “Help me, please.”

Quickening his pace, George tried his best to keep up with sound of his wife, now crying. He began to fear for her safety, without knowing why, or how she had arrived there. The other presence, the one he had spent his nights running from, it had her, it had his wife trapped there somewhere.

“Susan, just hang on. I’m coming for you, I’m coming,” he said, speeding across the sand-filled landscape. He gave no thought for where he was going, only finding his wife mattered now. The dunes remained either side of him while he continued.

Whatever you are, you’d better not hurt my Susan. I swear to God Almighty, I’ll kill you if you do.

It didn’t matter to him that he was heading exactly in the direction his unseen foe wanted. He gave it no thought. When the concrete path appeared before him, out of nowhere as before, he paid it no mind. Then, when the door finally came to be, like a strange mirage made true, he stopped and studied it.

The carvings upon the wooden surface had changed since he’d last seen it. There was far more detail to it now, with the same familiar characteristics to the work. It had been made with his own hands, it had his blood and sweat within it. But that didn’t seem right.

Seems I’m creating and designing in my dreams too.

“George, is that you?”

Susan’s voice was quiet behind the door, like she was in distress. She was there, waiting for him on the other side, and he had to get to her.

No, I can’t go through the door.

He reached for the worn brass handle.

I shouldn’t go through, I should turn around and run as fast as I can.

He twisted the handle and felt as the lock opened for him.

It can’t really be Susan. Leave, now, while you still have time.

Pushing the door open, he watched as it swung in the rest of the way.

You fool! You’ve done it now.

***

George blinked rapidly, bringing himself back to the world with a dangerous urgency. He’d escaped the nightmare once again. It would be the last time he would have to do so as well. The time had come to give the Work Buddy up once and for all.

He returned to consciousness standing behind the counter in the shop. The device had walked him out of the workshop and placed him there. Ahead of him was the fruits of his automated labour; another collection of clocks there for him on the counter, all finished and ready to be sold on. The device had done its very best to impress, and done the work as well as possible. He could see it there, with his well-trained eyes. The work was immaculate.

He tried to reach out and touch the case with his left hand. But it didn’t move. His hand refused to do as he demanded. And so did the other. He realised soon after that he couldn’t move an inch, he was stuck in place, without the ability to even twitch his eyes to the side. Something had gone very wrong during the night.

Why did I have to open that damn door?

There wasn’t a thing he could do. He could only stand there and stare ahead, to the grimy window and the faded letters spelling out his name, and to the blurred movements of people walking by or flying cars coming in to land. The world was out of his reach, both physically and mentally.

Don’t panic, just stay calm. I’m in trouble, but its only temporary. The Work Buddy has malfunctioned, that’s all. Someone will find me soon and set me free. Susan will come home and help. She’ll forgive me and come back.

The problem was, he knew it could be days before that happened. Did he have the strength to remain standing for days, without a break? And what if Susan stayed away until he contacted her? That would mean a week, at least, before she began to worry.

That left only one other person.

Alexander! Yes, he’s due to visit today. I only need to wait until he arrives. What time did he say?

When a shape moved past his window, with the clear outline of a hat and trench coat, he was elated. His saviour had arrived just in time to save him. He even tried to speak, to call for help, only to be met with silence. His thoughts were the loudest thing he could hear, and they were a mess of excitement, relief and terror that he could be stuck like this forever.

The bell above the door rang out, announcing Alexander’s arrival. He entered and closed the door quickly behind himself, to escape the torrential rain and flooded street. Then, he removed his hat and shook off the loose droplets. As he did the same with his coat, he spotted George behind the counter and smiled.

“Ah, there you are, Mr. Phillips.” His gaze moved on almost immediately after his eyes met George’s.

No, you idiot, look at me again, see how stuck in place I am.

“There it is,” Alexander said, leaning in to take a closer look at the wooden lodge clock he’d been interested in before. “I think I’ll buy this one today. I know I’m really here to complete our transaction, but I do so like this clock.” He gently removed it from the wall and held it, enjoying every part as his eyes moved over it. “So, Mr. Phillips, what do you say, care to sell me this item?”

Oh, thank goodness, he’s looking my way again. Now, finally he’ll help me end this terrible nightmare, once and for all.

“Mr. Phillips, are you okay? You look a little pale.” Alexander slid off his coat and rested it over his briefcase, as he had the first time. He then put his hat on top, again in the exact same fashion as before.

George did his best to unfreeze his body, first with a flick of his head to the side then a clenching of his fist. Despite his best efforts, his body remained completely still. He had no control over it anymore. Alexander was thankfully beginning to understand something was wrong.

“Can you speak?”

Of course I can’t bloody speak, I’m trapped in place!

Alexander stepped closer and peered into George’s eyes. “Mr. Phillips, are you okay?”

Finally, he’s realised.

“Oh, hello Alexander. How are you?” George felt his lips moving and his tongue shaping the words, but it wasn’t upon his command. He was speaking without knowing how, as though someone else was using his mouth for him.

Who the hell said that?

“Well then,” Alexander began, “that’s better. I was beginning to worry something was amiss.”

Okay, I just need to tell him what happened, and that I want to get rid of the Work Buddy.

But he said no such thing out loud. Even with the words swimming around in his head, awaiting their chance to leave his body, he couldn’t say what he wanted. Instead, his mouth allowed an entirely different sentence to form.

“No, I’m fine, thank you. How about we get that clock wrapped up for you, before we continue?”

Why am I saying these things? I don’t understand. Who is in control here?

It was getting worse, now he could feel his body moving against his will. Something else had taken over his actions and was acting as an exact copy of him…

Jesus Christ! It’s not me, it’s the Work Buddy. It’s taken control.

As his arms reached out and took the clock from Alexander, he could feel everything as normal; his fingers touching the wood, his palms becoming sweaty, his breathing pushing his chest out and in again. It disturbed him to be only a passenger in his own body, to watch as the Work Buddy proved it had copied more than just his actions. It had copied his entire personality too. It was now living his life as though him, and no one would ever know.

No, this can’t be happening, he thought while the Work Buddy imitation of him pulled brown paper from out behind the counter–precisely as George always did–and carefully tucked it around the wooden lodge clock.

To add more to George’s fear that he was being replaced, it then said, “This was my favourite clock to make.”

“Yes, I remember you said that before,” Alexander replied.

It’s not me talking right now! You’re talking to the Work Buddy’s copy of me. Don’t you see? Oh, please, for God’s sake, don’t let this be happening.

“So,” Alexander said, taking the wrapped clock from George. “What do you think about the Work Buddy? Would you be interested in keeping it?”

No, never! Take this thing off me, now!

But again, George’s spoken answer was different to what he intended.

“Oh, absolutely.” The words came smoothly, with no effort at all. George knew he was losing the battle. The copy of him was so close, that he began to fear for the worse. “I would like to keep the Work Buddy forever. In fact, can I place an order for another?”

Alexander raised an eyebrow. “Really? Well, that’s grand.” He returned to his briefcase and searched inside for his tablet device. “So, who will the second Work Buddy be for?”

You’d better close that briefcase up, buddy.

Leaving Alexander to rummage around in his briefcase, George’s body turned to the side and looked directly into the mirror hanging from the wall. The Work Buddy imitation then locked eyes with itself–or George, trapped inside–and smiled.

What are you doing?

Still staring in the mirror, to the real owner of the body, it then answered Alexander’s question. Although, the answer was meant for George too. “My wife, Susan, just loves the idea of trying out a Work Buddy for herself. She’ll be home soon. I think she’ll be very happy with one of her own.”

George didn’t get a chance to hear Alexander’s reply before he was violently ripped out of his body. An ethereal projection of his consciousness had been exorcized and was sent back through the wooden door, into the sandstorm of his nightmares. It raged stronger than ever now, as he watched the real world becoming distant, his view through the door becoming smaller the further away he was dragged.

When the door slammed shut, he felt his body disappearing. It wasn’t his to own any longer, something else had claimed it from him. And the more he fought against it the quicker his body was turning to nothing, like grains of sand blowing away in the wind. As he was caught inside the updraft of the storm, taken closer and closer to the top, where the sky became a hazy, blazing blood red, he finally understood it all.

The door was locked for a reason. I’d locked it, to keep myself safe from this terrible outcome. And the presence I felt—the one that wanted me to open the door—was the Work Buddy trying to replace me. It’s copied more than my movements, it’s copied everything that makes me, me.

At the top of the sandstorm, the great tornado of sand, he finally succumbed to the wind and was reduced to nothing but a fine powder. His essence had disintegrated, ground to nothing but dirt and grit, and erased from every corner of his mind.

The Work Buddy was all that remained, as one consciousness copied from another. It didn’t think, it didn’t feel, it didn’t even understand; it just was. And for as long as the body existed, or the Work Buddy device remained attached to the body, it would go on as though it was George. It would continue to live in exactly the same way he did.

No one would know the difference, not even Susan.

THE END