Category Archives: Short Fiction

Smoke

Smoke

11/24/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

“Thanks for trucking over the gas.” Dan took one of the canisters and set it on the wing. “A few gallons should be all we need.”

“You’re not flying on this stuff, are you?”

“No. Just want to make sure the engine’s in working order.”
The polish on the Cessna belied its two decades of service. The racing stripes on the side looked like they had been painted yesterday; the tires on the undercarriage showed no sign of wear.

“Well, it’ is a beautiful plane. Did you fly much in it?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Dan stared at the cockpit. “My dad would take me up every other weekend. He was instrument rated, so we had no trouble flying through the clouds to regional strips. I worked the VOR from time to time.”

The orange “remove before flight” tags on the wings whipped around in the wind. The breeze was strong enough to move the propeller.

“We even flew into Canada.” He took the second canister and placed it under the tail. The only fuel inlets were on the wings.

“But you were never certified.”

“Never had the time. Farming’s a full-time occupation. Not a second to waste on ground school.”

“Your dad managed to find the time, no?”

Dan turned, leaned his shoulder against the plane and smiled.

“Oh, sure. He had plenty of time in his schedule. When I needed help with my math homework, he’d be out tuning the avionics. When his wife broke her arm and went to the emergency room, he was having too much fun up there to get her to the hospital. He didn’t let my graduation get in the way of his flight slot.” He patted the plane. “And where was she during our wedding reception? Polishing those racing stripes in his hangar, stroke after stroke after stroke.”

He reached over, took the last canister and set it on top of the plane.

“So I got the plane in his will. Fancy that. They sent it over a few weeks ago.”

“Did you have a chance to go to the funeral?”

“Funeral?” Dan stroked the aileron and smiled. “I don’t have time for a funeral. I’m busy testing the engine with you. You see, I’m like my father: I have priorities in life.”

A gust of wind sent the propeller whistling around. The orange flight tags held onto the wings with all their strength. Dan flexed the aileron up and down with his hand.

“I’m getting a craving. Do you have a lighter?”

His friend hesitated, then handed him a thin metal case. He turned it over in his hand, smiling, then knocked over the avgas tank on the wing. Straw-colored liquid spilled onto the tarmac.

His friend took two steps back. Dan picked up the tank on the ground, uncapped it and threw it at the tail. He then poured the last canister onto the fuselage.

For a second, Dan watched the gasoline pool onto the ground.

He then flicked the lighter and threw it at the Cessna. A jet of flame erupted out of the top and spread to the back of the plane. The racing stripes turned from red to brown to ash-black.

“I never knew my father,” Dan said with an empty canister at his side. “I only knew this plane.”

The fire melted a hole in the fuselage. Smoke hissed out of the cowl flaps.

Dan stood and watched the plume. His knees then began to bend, and he sunk to the ground.

For a while, there was silence. Dan held his head in his arms.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I’m telling you, it wasn’t my fault.”

His friend took a few steps forward and sat alongside him.

“He said once— he said that I’d make a good pilot. He was going to pay for my certification once I got out of college”

The sky cast shadows of smoke on their bodies. He watched the charred aileron drift up and down in the wind. Most of the smoke had receded.

Dan stood up and opened his mouth. He whispered something in the direction of the plane, then turned back to his friend.

“Thanks for coming by.”


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Rejected

Rejected

11/6/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

    She traced her hands across the page, feeling for the metallic seal at the bottom. It was no use reading beyond the “Congratulations!” at the top; that was the only word she needed.

    Miranda folded the letter in half, walked over to a wooden bin and dropped it in. There was a checklist on the side of the box; she dug a pencil out of her pocket and made a check. Seven out of seven. Every single one a stretch—to the rest of the country, at least.

    The sun drew a square of light on the faux granite counter. It looked like one of her letters, only brighter. She placed her hand on it, feeling the same warmth that crawled up her skin when those seven envelopes arrived in the mail.

    So this was her celebration. She had the house to herself, at the least.

    Miranda looked out the window. A few kids were out by the basketball hoop; she knew them only by their SAT scores. The one on the left: 1570. A pushover. The other two came closer, but she still outpaced them.

    She reached for the telephone and punched in ten digits. Always awkward, making these sorts of calls to those outside her quartile, but they were her friends.

    Three rings, then four, then a beep.

    “Jennifer, hello. It’s Miranda. Just calling to let you know I got into—”

    She heard a loud noise, then a dial tone. Miranda looked at the receiver before putting it back into place.

Miranda was the only animated thing in the house, Friday night or not. She and her friends used to spend these afternoons making smoothies or gossiping about the hunk of the week. She had gone off to better pursuits. Applications, for instance.

    She leaned against the counter. Seven for seven. She had won in the Northeast, the Northwest, the Midwest—well, not in the Midwest. Those schools weren’t quite her league. But the Northeast had gone her way. What state had crisper weather in the fall? Massachusetts? Maine?

    Her hands found their way back to the receiver. She played it safer, this time, dialing a number she had known since the age of three.

    “What is it, Miranda?”

    “I got into the last two. You know, the—”

    “That’s great, honey. Look. I’m busy with this proposition. We can talk about this during dinner.”

    “But I—”

    “How does chicken sound? We haven’t gotten chicken in a long time. I’ll swing by on the way home. Don’t forget to feed the fish.”
    Don’t forget to feed the fish. Most parents just said “bye” before they hung up. Or “love you.”

    The house did get quiet without the mailman. She swiped at the floor with her shoe, releasing a few stray grains of dirt that had escaped the vacuum.

    But she still had to spread the news. The phone book lay open on the table, with envelope 4 lodged in as a bookmark. Miranda flipped through, looking for names underlined in green ink, but most had been crossed out. She had been too upfront in her earlier calls.

    The names and numbers did not matter. After all, she still had sweatshirts to buy—dorm accessories to personalize. The entries in this phone book would be stale within a year; she would be at one of seven dream institutions, living it up with a crowd meant for her.

    As she returned the directory to its resting place, Miranda noticed a few photographs above the bin. That one—yes, they had gone skiing together. She had almost forgotten. They rarely saw each other in high school; only one of them had the initiative to take honors classes.

    And what was this picture of? A church retreat? Yes, back when she did not have scholarship forms to fill out and essays to edit. Serious applicants had their priorities.

    So this was her party; her celebration. Not a single rejection.

    From the colleges, at least.

    Miranda stared across the room to the wall, trying to envision what her dorm would look like. There would be a roommate in it, for once: someone whom she could converse with on a higher level. They would put up a periodic table, and a list of calculator shortcuts, and even a few articles on Bohr. Their room would never be quiet; there would always be some sort of joke, some conversation going on. Never silence. They would ban that. They would ban indifference.

    She looked out the window once more. The basketball bounced aimlessly from player to player, never going anywhere, never doing anything worthwhile. Yet it received all the attention…

    Miranda threw the bin of letters to the ground, breaking the wood in half. She took the letter with the seal and crumpled it into a ball. Her legs smashed the box against the cabinets until the wood splintered. A letter balanced on the counter; she ripped it in half and flung the pieces at the floor.

    In time, she caught herself. Her right foot had a cut running up the ankle.

    The house regained its silence. Breathless, Miranda held herself against the counter and stared at the pieces of the bin. The phone vibrated on the table.

    

    


 

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Rushing Valley: A Viewbook Guide

Rushing Valley: A Viewbook Guide

11/1/08

Kenneth Burchfiel, ftHG

From the moment they arrive on campus, students realize that Rushing Valley is a college.

“There’s a sign that says ‘University’ right near the entrance,” one student said, “so you know they’re not trying to fool you..”

But Rushing Valley offers far more than a sign. Its staff includes more than three dozen teachers, giving students the chance to take classes and study for a major.

“It’s great to have teachers, because otherwise, you wouldn’t have much to do during class,” sophomore Bryan Wills said. “I mean, would you even have class?”

The Michigan campus takes great care to keep its students happy. It offers “dormitories,” or large buildings in which students can place books, talk with friends and even sleep. Says one student, “I just love my dorm. There’s a bed in it, and if I have to use the bathroom, I just have to walk down the hall.”

But what truly sets Rushing Valley apart, students say, are the “grades” the college offers. In an innovative move, Rushing Valley’s first dean decided that students who performed well in class would receive an “A,” and those who did poorly would get a “D” or an “F.” Not satisfied there, the dean decided to assign each student a “Grade Point Average,” which compiles said letters into a numerical score.

“The Grade Point Average was really what made me decide to attend Rushing Valley,” senior Patricia Silver said. “One semester, I didn’t know if I was doing well enough in class. I talked to one of my teachers, and she said that I had a “B” in that class. Boy, was I relieved!”

On weekends, the campus is one of only 3,500 in the nation to offer sporting events. Rushing Valley does not just let students take classes and sleep in dorms, but gives them the chance to participate in football, basketball and even soccer. When students lobbied for a means to watch school games, the campus even built a set of stands so that they could watch events from nearby.

Resources are where the school shines most, sophomore Devon Clay explained. When she needed a way to learn more about a subject, she was impressed to see a library on campus that housed books on subjects as diverse as Geography and Biology.

“I mean, where else could you find an entire shelf dedicated to European History?” she asked in a rhetorical manner. “They even had computers, meaning I could type my research paper right there and print it out.”

After four years of learning, students here attend a time-honored event: graduation. Departing seniors wear black capes and caps—a Rushing Valley tradition—and walk up on a stage to receive their diploma from the dean himself.

“I was so elated when I threw my cap into the air,” a graduate student reported. “And as the hat came back down, I thought to myself: boy, is this a unique institution.”

By all accounts, the graduate student is right. After all, Rushing Valley is not just any institution: it is a college.


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49 04’ 55” N, 106 21’ 46” W

49 04′ 55″ N, 106 21′ 46″ W

10/28/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

Hello. Is this the support line?

Good. I’m sorry. For a second there, I thought the number would bounce back. Different country and all, you know.

Bryson, Dale.

See, that’s the thing. I’m not sure. I just thought… well, I had the customer support number on my phone. But I didn’t think you operated over here.

Well, the car’s another story, and I know your company is going to charge me by the minute. And that’s not good, because my wallet’s in the car, and—

Of course. I understand. But there’s not much information I can give you.

    Not even that. Let’s see. Is there a sign? No, not from where I’m standing. But I can say that I’m on Route 2, and it curves a little bit in front of me. There’s some grass to my left, and a field to my right. Already harvested.

    Of course. First name Dale, last name B-R-Y-S-O-N. I rented a little coupe.

    Tulsa? So you can pull up my account information. No, Tulsa was five days ago. That was when we left the airport.

    Well, that’s something of a private question.

    Don’t be concerned about the car. She—I mean, it’s in safe hands. It should be back in Tulsa by the 16th, unless she changed her plans.

    Can’t you guess who I’m talking about?

    Right.

    You could try her cell, but she told me that she would have her number switched by 4. And I would trust her; she’s very resourceful. You wouldn’t believe how she got me into this.

    Look—I would give you the story, but I really am worried about the charge. They pay you folks fortunes for calls like these; I know it.

    Yes, we did sign up for the Premium Service. 10th anniversary, after all.

    Thank goodness. Fine. Well, the car’s somewhere north of me. I’m not sure just where, but she’s still on Route 2, for all I know.

    It terminates in Prince Albert? That’s—what, 200, 300 miles north of here? Well, we refilled it in Bismarck, so that’s probably where she’d end up, anyway .

    Yes, I realize the contract limited us to the Midwest. But she was the one driving, not me.

    So we were at our anniversary dinner the night before St. Paul, and one of us said something about the other’s clothing.

    Yes, it was me.

    Well, it comes back to the car. Trust me. So she says this will be the second anniversary I’ve ruined in a row, and starts shouting about one thing or another. So I shout back. It’s in my blood. The next thing you know, both of our drinks are staining the table and the waiter’s rushing to get my attention.

    Of course I was drunk. What do they teach you at the call center?

    No, really. It’s nice to have someone to talk to. At any rate, I slumped into the back seat and she rammed the car into gear. That was the last thing I remembered: the transmission shifting to “Reverse.” And you really do sell nice cars on the Premium Service.

    Not at all.

Eleven glasses of wine.

    St. Paul? No, we never made it there. When I woke up, there wasn’t a building to see. We had crossed into Montana.

    Well, I’m a heavy sleeper, and she’s a fast driver.

    Yes, pleaded with her. If it weren’t for the seatbelt, I would’ve been on my knees.

    I’m telling you, it used to be a happy marriage.

    She finally did open her mouth. But that was only to say, “No Items to Declare.” And that was to someone wearing the Red Serge.

    Right. We’re driving up Route 2, and all of a sudden, the car stops. She unlocks the side door and throws it open with her hand.

    Used to play basketball. I think that’s what gave her the flexibility.

    How could I have? She didn’t unlock the trunk.

    My arms are a little numb, but other than that, I’m hanging in.

    No, no. The sun set some time ago.

    That was my hope, at least. I’d be happy to pay the fee.

    You could get someone here from Lewistown? How far is that?

    3 hours? That’s fine. Might be a little chilly, but I’ll manage.

    Just past the Canadian border. I’ll be on the left side of Route ;2 if you see me laying down, just honk. I’ve been up for quite a while.

    Thank you so much.

    Goodbye.

 

    

    


 

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War Stories

War Stories

10/13/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

 

The sun had gotten itself stuck on top of Old Rag. It shone an amber light onto the field before him and coated the river gold.

They had just held the 50th anniversary at Sperryville High. It was a short drive in the Mercedes for him, but others flew in from Munich, South Korea—even the Philippines. Much of the senior class had lived on military bases.

He had tried to tell them about his summer homes and his banking company, but nobody listened. Needless to say, the vets were the center of attention. Ryan Seawolf got a whole crowd to listen to his parachute descent into Cambodia. The Bryan brothers repeated their old story about landing in Korea during a rainstorm. All the men wanted to see were one another’s’ badges—which, of course, they had bought along on the ride. Nobody cared about his stock portfolio.

    He grew more jealous by the minute as they laughed about SOP manuals and boot camp. If only he had a war story of his own.

    “Grandpop?”

A wild-haired boy—Jason, he believed—sat down on the whitewashed stair next to him.

“Dinner’s ready. That’s what dad says.”

Dinner in Sperryville was a special occasion. His son had decided to start a farm—said banking was a greedy, wasteful way to spend a life—and now cooked the best chicken this side of the Shenandoah mountains.

“Jason,” the grandfather said, “did you know I fought in the Cold War?”

The boy blinked. “Dad never told me about that.”

“Well, it’s a long story. Do you want to hear a story?”

The child looked back inside and nodded.

“Good, because I want to tell it.” He pointed with a ringed finger to the field in front of him. “See this farm, uh,”

“Jason,” he said.

“I’m sorry. Well, Jason, it was the Bloc War of 1963, fought right when Moscow was ready to shell the United States. Our squadron saw a farm just like this as we headed into Vilnius. Our goal was to meet up with the Lithuanian Resistance, a group of rebels hoping to free their country from the hands of communism. The sun had already set, and we were hoping the Sov-yets wouldn’t see it.”

“Were you scared?”

He remembered descending into Vilnius for an international banking conference. The first class seat had almost put him to sleep, but he kept himself awake to watch the Neris snake under their plane. A flight attendant pointed out the National Library to him.

“Only a little. See, the Sov-yets had these big, powerful tanks that could reach every corner of Lithuania. If they came on us, the Americans wouldn’t have been able to advance into Belarus, which was the whole point of the Bloc Assault. We had to crouch real low—” he demonstrated on the steps “—so that we wouldn’t be picked up on radar.”

“Jason! Dinner!”

“One second! Grandpop’s telling a war story!”

No response came from inside. He could hear footsteps coming their way from the kitchen.

“So we advanced, step by step, up the Neris River. The Lithuanian Resistance was to our north. We had almost made it to the National Library when a barrage of shots came out from our left. So we ran up a road—Vytauto, they called it—with our packs shielding us from their guns.”
    He would never see his high school class again. But if he could get his son to believe this—even for a few years—it would make the difference. They would call him a hero here; they would make him the pride of Sperryville.

“Now, the Sov-Yet Union knows how to move around their troops. They had guns coming out from the south, the west, the east—even from above. Our cover was blown to nothing. So you know what I did?”

The footsteps stopped at the front porch. His son was watching them from behind—he knew it.

“I went out on my own. Stopped at a little place called Žvėrynas and ducked inside a cathedral. That was when I decided to go solo.”

Jason gave him the kind of stare that he had been looking for at the reunion.

“I crept around the western side of the city. A breathless hour later, I had made it to the White Bridge. They had it blockaded, but I shot down the defenses and moved my way across. You would have loved the sound my gun made.”

“Jason, remind your grandfather—”

“And once I made it to the other side of the Neris, I walked over to Lukiski Square. To my relief, there were about a thousand people standing there with guns. The Lithuanian Resistance had arrived.”

They had ended the banking exposition at Lukiski. But his grandson wouldn’t be impressed by currency discussions and stock trades; he wanted to hear about assaults and medals.

“And wouldn’t you know: we had a straight shot to Cathedral Square. I found myself at the front of the pack, shooting at all the soldiers that came our way, until—”

“There was no Bloc War of 1963.”

 

He turned around to see his son in the doorway.

“Excuse me?”

“There was no Bloc War. There was no Lithuanian Resistance.”

Jason looked confused. He turned to his father, then to his grandfather.

“What are you talking about?” The eldest of them laughed. “Why, I was right in the middle of the Neris river, looking out—”

“You were a banker. Your only goal was to grab up more money for your retirement fund.”

His grandson had lost his awestruck face.

“Didn’t you hear my story, Jason? I had almost made it to the Square, when…”

His voice trailed off. A bird called from a lone apple tree in the field.

“Come on, Jason. Your dinner’s getting cold.”

Jason looked at his grandparent, then stood up and walked through the door. The rest of the family had already begun eating.

The grandfather stayed outside until Old Rag mountain swallowed up the sun, and until the field and river had all but disappeared.

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Just a little funeral

(Fiction): Just a little funeral

10/4/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

When I was younger, my dad and I would go upstate and hunt owls. It was a riot. We’d get packed in the afternoon, drive up 93 and arrive at the forest late at night.

It was important that we got there after sunset, you see, because we hunted by sound. When I heard a hoot, my dad would point the shotgun in that direction and fire away. You’d hear a rush of wings and paws, and then he reloaded. “We’re getting closer,” my father would say. “There’s a big colony up there, I know it.”

The joke was that we never hit anything. The owls were high up in the trees, and my dad was a bad enough shooter in the daytime. But it turned into a tradition, and whenever my father wanted to get away for a little, he’d throw some ammunition in the pickup and call me over from the television.

We don’t go owl hunting now. One evening—it was dark but you could see the clouds, I remember that—we heard an especially loud hoot. I pointed up and to our left, and my dad got into position and fired. Four or five seconds later, we heard a thump 20 feet in front of us. My dad’s shoulders dropped a little, and I took a few steps backward. Almost tripped on a root.

Neither of us was sure what to do, to be honest. All we knew was that owls were probably an endangered species, and my dad had watched enough detective television to know what a bullet mark—he called it a “signature”—could reveal in the crime lab. So he picked it up by the wings and stepped back over to the pickup, telling me it was nothing to cry over.

Our house is close enough to Albeit that it doesn’t have much of a lawn. Judging from the moon phase, we got back at one or two in the morning. My dad cut the engine and walked out back to get the shovel. I just sat there, wondering if I should look at the owl or not. It wasn’t very large—a foot tall, maybe, with a few feathers out of place in the chest.

My dad and I were already wearing black, so we didn’t need to change for the funeral. He said that God probably loved this little owl, and I asked if that meant we were sinful—but he told me not to interrupt the preacher. It was a beautiful little speech, really, and by the end I think we were both in tears. We both agreed that it was a beautiful owl.

Our shovel was too blunt to cut through the grass, so we decided to dig up the radish side of the vegetable garden—both of us got pretty sick of them once fall came around.

Just as my father picked up the owl, a beam of light poked us in the eye. There was a blue-and-white car crawling up the street with a badge on the side.

My dad stopped in place, as did the car. The man driving took out a flashlight and pointed it straight at the owl.

“Just a little funeral, sir,” my father said.

The cop looked at our beet red pickup, then at the lawn ornaments, then at the bird. I wondered what handcuffs felt like. I wondered what I would say in court. They didn’t feature many owl murders on the shows I watched.

“You two keep safe tonight, all right?”

My dad nodded. The cop turned off his flashlight, rolled up the window and took a right on Ptarmigan.

I still don’t know if I’ll take my kid owl hunting. If so, I’d better find a place where there aren’t any owls.

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The Clockmaker

The Clockmaker

9/7/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

If it were not for my various inhibitions, I might be better known around the area. It does not bother me. My work alone is enough to sustain me from one night until the next.

The town does know me, mind you. They swing open my wooden door to find dozens of wooden faces, hundreds of metal hands and thousands of iron screws. Rare is the customer who exits without a timepiece in their arms. Word of mouth has spread my business far beyond my storefront, but it is the townspeople whom I am most familiar with.

And such townspeople! This is a village that wakes up at 6:03 and returns to bed at 9:07, plus or minus a few ticks of the second hand. My dials govern the community; the mayor is but a figurehead.

This is not a tale of how, through the years, I have come to master the art of clockwork. Let the other manufacturers rehash such stories. No; I bring you here to whisper a secret that my customers have not yet come to realize.

About a decade ago, I realized something that hit me rather hard: I had a monopoly on time. We are a small village, you see; there is little contact with outside timepieces, especially the government models and other accurate brands. And so the people of this town had to trust that my craftwork points in the right position; that the arms will be allies at midnight and against one another at six.

I do not mean to say that my clocks were inaccurate. Every night, I would check the pendulums and springs against the sunset. (My father was in the army; he provided me with the charts.) But what I came to realize was that, no matter where the hands pointed, the townspeople assumed they were in the right place. What reference did they have? Two days on the Trans-Siberian could not take them to a craftsman better than I.

Over the years, as I watched those faces shift in harmony, the feeling came to me that my clocks carried a power untapped. The dials and faces were timekeeping instruments as they stood, but could they not become far more?

What you must realize is that clocks here do not just regulate time; they regulate life. The townspeople here eat by the hour hand, talk by the minute hand and breathe—yes, they are this punctual—by the second hand. That is why my store retains its business.

This is not to say that I had jurisdiction over them, at that point. Time had jurisdiction over them. But with a few tweaks, a few adjustments, I could warp time to the point where it was my own creation. My own choosing.

The plan began one wintry night. I do not know the date. The “Closed” sign had not yet finished swinging on the doorknob when I sidestepped behind a shelf, threaded my fingers along the woodworking and came to a stop at a bronze-plated model. Nobody saw me push the minute hand forward with my finger. The sound unnerved me. To think I was ripping into the very seams of this village.

The eventual buyers of that device were a family of three who live in a one-chimney house. Did they have any idea that time now moved faster for them? That they would start the morning fires earlier than everyone else? I had pushed them into the foreground, but they merely smiled and complimented me on the design.

Some townspeople came by that afternoon to get their pendulums rewound. I consented, but added a few grams of weight to the elderly couple’s. The days would now move faster for them—nothing drastic, but enough to hasten the deathbed’s approach. As for the other family that came in? I shaved some brass off of their weights. They would now be last, perhaps least.

You figure that I would have been satisfied by then. No; these were but the early steps.

My next target was the mayor. A good man, but quick to remind me that the power rested with him. Did it? When he came in for a replacement watch spring, I wound the metal a bit too loose. The next week, he was shouted at by the regional board for being eight minutes late to a meeting. If we had not been friends in the past, I might have made it ten.

Difficult work, making sure that every household’s clocks were maladjusted just the same. I kept copious records—disguised, of course, as business earnings. Such efforts were fruitful. Nobody dared believe that the clockmaker would send them home with an errant timepiece.

My biggest prize came just hours ago. There is a town to our south that holds time in the same light. They had recently erected a clock tower, four-faced, and asked me to make the final calibrations.

What a pleasure it was to twist the hand back a full minute and warp the gears! The villagers there will set their own clocks to my standard, then slow down their timepieces further and further until the pendulums come to a stop. A hundred hands synchronized to my authority.

Nobody is equipped to challenge my work. For I alone have the government timepieces; I alone possess the sunrise and sunset tables. They would not dare to reset their clocks, mind you. It is a sin here to infringe against time—and now, a sin to infringe against me.

The next time around, I will consider launching that clock-tower town into the future. They are mine to push and pull, after all. The best marionette artists make their strings difficult to see; well mine, mine are invisible!

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