There are no clocks in my mother’s house. The blinds are always shuttered, the curtains drawn. There’s a black canvas sheet over the grandfather clock, fabric wound tightly around its pendulum. When I come by for a visit, my mother makes me store my mobile phone and wristwatch in a little strongbox in the living room. She never makes mention of time, except when she very politely wants to let me know I’ve overstayed my welcome.
“Gosh, look at the time,” she’ll say, when I start asking her questions that make her uncomfortable. When I suggest that she should get out more, that she can’t stay in the house forever. That dad is gone and it’s not her fault; it’s not my fault either. That I can’t work two jobs just to support her anymore, not with another kid on the way.
“How’s little Ellie?” she’ll ask. “Sweet little Ellie.” She’ll try to change the subject and I’ll tell her she’s fine. Ellie is six years old and already the smartest kid in her class. When she grows up, Ellie wants to be a theoretical physicist like her grandma and poke around with the building blocks of the world, see how everything works. My mother goes pale when I mention that, shrugs and crushes her cigarette. If she wants to do that, though, she’ll need a role model, I press on. Preferably someone who doesn’t froth at the mouth when Ellie wants to pull the blinds open just a little.
“I have books that you can show her. And we can talk on the computer.” My mother explains, even as she’s slowly inching her way to the door. I explain to her, very calmly, that that’s not the way it works. That I never had much of a head for math, let alone heavy physics, and that Ellie was so very scared when my mother glanced down at the ticking counter that showed the seconds passing by and hung up on her granddaughter in a fit. Ellie, I tell my mother, she has her whole life ahead of her and I don’t want her to think that her grandmother’s work made her crazy.
“I think it’s time you left.” My mother tells me and shows me out the door. I take the things from the strongbox, leave as fast as I can but always make sure to linger, see if she peeks out from behind the blinds; if she even cares that I’m leaving her alone in her dark little hidey-hole where there is no time or light or sound.
“Time,” my mother told me, as she bounced me on her lap, “is killing all of us.”
This is the earliest memory of my mother. I was four years old and very scared, because dad had gone out the door one day and never came back. She never said so, but I was always afraid it was because of something I did, that I was naughty or didn’t listen and that was what drove him away.
“The second law of thermodynamics is …” she said, her hand in mine, “… you cannot win.”
The blackboard was full of chalk scrawls, drawn-out designs and Greek letters and lines and signs that made my head spin just looking at them. My mother never took time off. On the occasions when the people in the research facilities forced her to go on a holiday she’d spend at it at home, scribbling nonsense on a chalkboard.
“All systems — that’s you and me and the house, the floorboards, the chalkboard, the chalk,” she would tell me in her playful voice, “fall apart. Molecule by molecule, atom by atom.”
She tried, my mother. She really wanted me to get this. People will say that this was too much for a child my age; too macabre, too cruel a lesson. These are probably the same people who think themselves impervious to tragedy and misfortune, who think that everything lasts forever. My mother made sure I was never that naïve.
“Little by little, things fall into disorder,” she’d tell me in her sing-song voice. “Piece by piece, it all goes to dust.”
It scared the bejeezus out of me, when I was little. I’d have nightmares that my bed fell to dust, that I plummeted down two hundred stories into the ground, sank all the way to the centre of the Earth but the world wouldn’t be made of iron and gases and stone, that instead it would be soft and yielding like a mouldy peach and the Earth’s core would be cold and crawling with ants and I’d want to scream except I couldn’t because I’d be an old man in a second flat and dead the next, nothing but bone and dust in the blink of an eye.
“And all it takes, is time,” she’d tell me and plant a kiss on my forehead.
I made sure she never saw me cry afterwards.
The next time I visit my mother, I bring Ellie along with me. She’s scared of her grandmother these days, what with her looking more and more like a fairy tale recluse than ever but if anyone could talk her out of her madness, it would have to be Ellie.
“They have a name for what grandma has,” she tells me from the backseat, hardcover physics book on her lap. “They call it chronophobia.” I tell her that her grandmother has no such thing. That this is an imaginary disorder that lazy fat people made up on the Internet. Ellie shrugs, but I can tell that she’s mad because she takes her sweet time to get out of the car.
“They call it a fear of time moving forward,” she explains and even though I know that this makes sense, that it somehow helps me understand one billionth of my mother’s broken, twisted mind, I still tell her that it’s nonsense. “I think it’s scary, when you think about it,” Ellie tells me, nonchalantly. “The world keeps moving, even if you can’t catch up with it.”
Ellie sounds so much like my mother when she talks like that. I knock on the door, tell her to make sure to take off her Hello Kitty wristwatch and to switch off her phone. Ellie’s already done all this, of course. She’s smart that way too. When my mother opens the door, she’s dressed in messy coveralls, coated in grease. The house smells like the inside of a cracked halogen light-bulb.
“Oh, sweetheart, come in! Come in!” My mother squeals in delight, giving Ellie a big hug. She seems unusually sociable today, but I make sure not to tell her. Instead, I choke back on the stench. Blue smoke lingers in the living room, pouring out from a crack in the basement door. Coiled across the floor, lengths of thick wire snake out from the kitchen, littering the landscape. Ellie dances around them.
“What are you making, grandma? Death ray?” Ellie asks and my mother bursts out laughing. She looks like a supervillain on bring-your-granddaughter-to-work day.
“Oh sweetie no, nothing that crude,” my mother says, in her most reassuring tone. “Besides, how could I make a death ray worth diddly-squat without a satellite to aim it?”
“You could always use subsonics,” Ellie says. “Nobody will know until it’s too late.”
That makes my mother laugh and ruffle Ellie’s hair. “My God, she’s so smart! I wonder whom she got all those brains from! It has to be her mom …” my mother says and then nudges me with her shoulder, lets me know she’s joking. She serves coffee for me and her, tea and scones for Ellie. I let them talk. Mom rambles on about CERN and MIT and all those hush-hush projects she was into.
“Like neutron bombs?” Ellie asks her.
“No, nothing like a silly old neutron bomb. What good are those?” my mother tells Ellie. They talk about school and college and physics. My mother tells that story about the time she went into the wrong washroom at a conference in Washington, DC and saw Stephen Hawking standing perfectly upright and using a urinal and how he looked her in the eye and whispered in her ear ‘no one will believe you.’ “He was right about that.”
“When will you get out of the house, grandma?” Ellie drops the bomb as soon as the laughter dies down. My mother goes white as a sheet, struggles to find the words. Her mouth twists and I know from the way she is shuffling that she’s curling her toes the same way I do, when I’m good and mad. It lasts only for a couple seconds. “Very soon, sweetheart,” my mother says. “Grandma just needs to sort a few things out first.”
It worries me, the way she smiles at the end. Big old rictus grin.
My mother was whisked away from home and became an insubstantial voice on the other end of a telephone line when I was sixteen. I didn’t see her in the flesh for four years. Big old hush-hush job, somewhere in Mongolia. Joint Indian-Chinese venture, deep theoretical physics hoo-ha. “Remember the LHC?” she told me once, when she called punch-drunk the middle of the night. “Our thing is kicking its ass.” Click.
Snippets of essays in the mail, with Post-It notes on them. WISH YOU WERE HERE XOXOXO notes in the front, thirty pages of gibberish in cheap print in the back. Something about tachyons and trans-luminal technology and non-Newtonian properties, long tirades about the irrelevance of the theory of relativity that turned into incomprehensible rants halfway through. I was just starting my bachelor’s degree in legal studies at the time. These things were like really poorly written science fiction to me. Doctor Who soliloquies without the technojabber. I made sure to keep those safe.
“If you could make something — anything — happen,” my mother asked me on the phone one day, static on the line, “what would that be?” I told her the proper, son thing: Have you back here. “Yeah, okay.” She scoffed from the other end of the line and then someone barked an order in Chinese and the line went dead. Mom came back, two months later. She had that same rictus grin on her face.
I left for college the next month. Mom stopped leaving the house two weeks later.
When I reach my mother’s house, the entire place is a mess. She’s moved the living room furniture out of the way, pried loose some of the floorboards. Something made out of cruel angles and blinking lights is sticking out of the hole in the floor. The cable lines are running out all over the house. Some of them are snaking out, latched onto a transformer. Everything smells like the inside of a car exhaust.
“Sweetheart! I’m so glad you’re here!” my mother calls out, a little bit too loud. “Could you please get me that Buchholtz relay? It’s that blue box, over by the corner!” I ask her just what the hell is going on, why did she tear apart the hardwood floor. What the hell is she making? How did she even make this, I mean what even is this? My mother waits until I am done and then tells me, very politely: “It’s a time machine.”
A time machine? A time machine? I yell and I can pick out the hysteric tinge in my own voice, the sheer frustration at my mother’s casual lunacy. Where does she think she’s going to go? Back to the Jurassic era to play with the velociraptors? Off to the future, to chuck down brewskies with xenologists on First Contact Day? “Oh sweetie, don’t be silly. It’s not that kind of time machine. Think of it more like … a stop watch.”
“You’re dying, aren’t you?” I blurt it out before I can stop myself.
“Honey, we’re all dying. That’s what time does to us.”
Doctor Hernandez called, I tell her. She said my mother missed her last two treatments and wasn’t answering her calls. When I asked her what treatment, she just got very quiet and said I should talk to my mother.
She’s not even listening, instead hooking up cables and wires and welding something to a cancerous bundle of wiring that that makes all sorts of lights flash so quickly it makes me dizzy and I know that my mother is insane and I can’t help but feel so downright goddamn mad so I scream at her from the top of my lungs if she could just listen to me and give up on her bullshit for one goddamn second? That gets her attention. I tell her about Doctor Hernandez once again. Her eyebrow furrows for a moment.
“I’m going to need some help. This stopwatch … it’s so much more work than I thought. Why don’t you stay a while? I can set you up in the guest room?” she offers but I am not having any of that. I tell her that she can make her own crazy stopwatch, if she wants. That she can go ahead and blow herself the hell up, but I am not putting up with her crap another second and if she wants me to help her, she’ll do it on my own terms. I leave the doctor’s number on the coffee table, where I know she can see it. “When I make this work, none of this will matter,” she tells me and slams her toolbox on top of the paper good and hard. I leave without a word.
“Everything falls apart.” My mother had told me on the phone, her voice trembling. It had been the fourth anniversary of her voluntary isolation. “Time tears everything down.” It was three in the morning. I was drunk and tired and the girl that was to be my wife was sleeping beside me. “I can hear it all fraying at the seams,” she whispers hoarsely. I ask her if she is okay, if she needs me to come over. “Remember when I asked you, what would you do … if you could do anything?” I mumble yes and I’m scared sick for her; she sounds so small and frail. “I want to make the world stop turning.”
Dial tone. Call terminated.
I burst through her door on the day my mother throws the switch. She hasn’t been answering my calls and I am a wreck, thinking the entire time how she is killing herself. I love her for her mind and for who she was and I hate her for those same reasons in the very same breath. All I want to do is grab her by the ankles, drag her all the way to the doctor. Make her well.
She is the textbook definition of a mad scientist but she’s my mother, dammit.
She doesn’t fight back when I grab her by the shoulder. Her eyes are fixed on the dials on the machine’s crown. A gauge flashes blue then green, then red and then green again. Something hisses deep in the bowels of the machine. Hidden servos whirr somewhere inside it. There’s a terrible noise, like nails scratching a chalkboard as big as the world. “Is it working? Is it working?” she howls. The world slows down all around us. It’s as if we are wading through a nightmare, seconds trickling down like honey, sticky and viscous. My mother moves slowly, sluggishly for a while. The machine lets out a deep, guttural roar.
I look out the door. Noon time. All over the street, grandfather clocks begin to chime. Dun, dun, dun … twelve times. Except it goes on for longer than it should; it stretches out forever, echoes down a long corridor, alarm clocks ringing as they fall down a wormhole. The world lurches, comes to a stop. “It works!” my mother howls.
And all the clocks chime noontime, forever.
Konstantine Paradias is a jeweller by profession and a writer by choice. His short stories have been published in Third FlatIron’s Lost Worlds anthology, Unidentified Funny Objects! 2 and the BATTLE ROYALE Slambook by Haikasoru. His short story, “How You Ruined Everything” has been included in Tangent Online‘s 2013 recommended SF reading list and his short story “The Grim” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.