Clockthumb

The room is brightly-lit and smells of warm air, lavender and tea tree. As I wait I stare at my left hand, opening my fingers as I have done so many times before and turning my palm awkwardly so that I can see the stretch of skin that runs from the tip of my thumb down to my palm.

There, marked in brown-black, are the numbers. They’re familiar, in a way. And yet, in another, not. Because they change every day. Today they say 257. At one second past midnight, the last digit will change, and the number will become 256.

They call it clockthumb.

I’ve always been this way, although the number was bigger once, of course. Others have it, too. No one knows why, or exactly what it means.

For many, the numbers end when they do.

#

I am ten years old, and it’s the middle of summer. I’m excited and curious. My thumb reads 10,000. Will there be a zero at the front tomorrow? Will the first digit just fade away, forever? I’m desperate to stay up to see it change. Mum says no. We argue about it, but she’s Mum – she wins.

I stay awake anyway, pinching the skin inside my elbow to stop myself falling asleep. I’ve hidden a torch under my pillow and I use its light to stare at my thumb until my eyes water.

At midnight the number 10,000 completely disappears. My skin is unmarked. For a moment I hold my breath, wondering if it will stay that way. And what it will mean if it does. But then dark dots reappear. Like ink spreading on blotting paper, lines grow and curl until the same area of skin is marked as before, each new digit just a little wider and fatter than the old ones.

I’m so excited that I roll out of bed and run out of the room. The light is still on downstairs and I head for the landing, the carpet bristly beneath my bare feet.

I stop at the top of the stairs, though, because I can hear my mum, and she’s crying.

“Janie,” says Granny’s muffled voice, surprising me. I hadn’t known she was in the house. “It’s still twenty-seven years. That’s a long time. And it may not mean what you’re worried it means.”

“It’s hardly any time,” said Mum, her voice cracking and gasping, like there isn’t enough air for the words. “What if it is that, and I outlive my own daughter?”

#

The numbers switch from 1000 to 999 a few weeks after my thirty-fifth birthday. Now we have the internet, and I spend ages trawling forums, reading posts. Some people do die when their clockthumb runs down, I learn. But for others it seems to mark some other significant event.

One woman, I discover, arranged her wedding for day 1. Everyone else was terribly paranoid, wondering if the brakes might fail on the bridal car, or if she might choke on a canape. But I’m still here, she writes, posting a picture of her unblemished thumb. The numbers ticked down, and disappeared, and never came back.

I wonder if it’s true, or if she’s made the whole thing up for likes. How would you ever know?

Either way, not all the stories are so happy. One man decided to amputate his own thumb at the age of twenty-seven with a 6 on his clock. The numbers on the amputated thumb did stop changing, but he died of sepsis five days later.

#

It’s my wedding day and my thumb says 481. Not a big number, anymore. In the bridal suite that evening Ethan touches my thumb and says it doesn’t matter.

“We’ll face whatever it is together,” he whispers.

He’s said it many times. I think he’s trying to convince himself more than me.

#

The numbers swim in front of my eyes and I blink. The extractor fan is whirring loudly above my head. The toilet seat is hard, and my buttocks are starting to go numb. I take a deep breath.

I have never been able to believe that it means what I know Mum and Ethan fear it means. Perhaps I’m in denial.

257.

I pick up the long rectangle of white plastic I left on the sink and stare at it. Not that I need to, really. I knew what it was going to show me.

Eight months, twelve days.

It can’t be a coincidence.

Of course, things could go wrong. But I have a feeling that they won’t.

I’m going to plan for day zero.


Author’s notes
This story was written in response to a prompt which involved a random combination of two nouns. Something about the word “clockthumb” just appealed to me.


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© Kat Day 2018

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Nothing Left But Crumbs

At the edge of time, in a small corner of the universe, a woman is baking.

It’s a simple kitchen of wood and stone and metal. There are bowls, of course. Many of them, in all different shapes and sizes. Some have the orangey-pink hue of copper, others shine silvery bright, distorted reflections twisting on their curved sides. There are spoons, spatulas, knives and cups. A rolling pin that is a cylinder of heavy, glossy rock. Boards made from well-scrubbed wood. The room is quiet, filled only with the small sounds of someone working. It smells of fresh bread and warm sugar, sea-salt and hot iron.

There is an oven, too. Huge and black, and glowing inside: red and yellow and even, sometimes, white.

The woman might be old, but what does that mean? Old compared to the stars outside her window? Old compared to others like her?

If there are others like her.

Either way, her skin is lined and creased with the marks of life. Deep grooves curve from her nose to her mouth, creases stand to attention where her forehead meets her nose, and the skin around her eyes is slashed with lines. Her head is covered with firmly-tied scarf covered in geometric designs, but the rest of her clothes are undecorated. Brown fabric, roughly woven. A white apron, brilliant in its blankness.

Tiny, blue specks burn in the centre of each of her eyes.

She is stirring a mixture, one strong arm cradling the heavy bowl almost as if it is a child. Her other arm moves the spoon round and round and across and round. The batter is thick and dark, and slightly oily. She examines it critically and adds other ingredients. Half a cup of this. A spoon of that. She stirs again and the mixture begins to shimmer.

Eventually she pours it half of it into a silvery pan, a perfect hemisphere balanced on a torus. There, she pauses, and takes something glossy and dark red from the pocket of her apron. She lifts it and turns it this way and that in front of her eyes, frowning a little. With the faintest of nods, she presses it into the centre.

She uses what’s left in her bowl to pile up and up. The mixture is firm; it holds its shape. She leaves the top slightly flat. Space for it to expand. Exactly how much space to leave is a judgement she makes from old experience.

She places a second, shiny hemisphere over the piled-up mixture and fixes it with wire. A perfect silver ball, ready for the warm depths of her oven.

While it bakes she mixes other things. One bowl contains something blue. Mostly blue. It also swirls with green and grey, and tiny peaks of white. Another is a darker green, rich and glossy, a third is ochre and rust, and a fourth is fluffy, barely there at all.

The woman pauses, places her hands into the small of her back and leans back, looking out of her kitchen window, at an indigo sky broken only by pinpricks of light. She wipes her hand across her head, leaving a pale smear across her skin.

The baking takes time. But she cannot rush this; the centre must be hot. Eventually the thin metal skewer she carefully slides between the two half-domes makes her wince when she pulls it out and presses it against her cheek.

Carefully, she removes the tins. The cake is not quite perfect. Despite her efforts, and all her experience, the shape is slightly distorted. She tilts her head to one side and examines it. It doesn’t matter, she decides. In fact, perhaps it’s even more beautiful for being less than perfect. Most things are.

She decorates her work with the cool blue-green and warm ochres, some of the darker green, and finally dabs of white. She breathes in the buttery-salty scent and turns her creation on its stand, checking each tiny section of its surface.

Finally, she reaches again into her white apron pocket and takes out a crystal vial. It sparkles in the light as she holds it firmly between finger and thumb. She removes the cork, takes a pinch of the contents and blows gently. Glimmering flecks of silver and gold, a little black and a few, sparse, touches of red settle on the surface she has made.

Finally, she is satisfied. She opens the door to her kitchen and carries her work outside. She is a master of her craft, and this is her masterpiece.

It sits, against the dark, star-pricked backdrop, turning slowly. It will stay there, for a little while, in this place where neither ‘little’ nor ‘while’ mean very much at all. It will stay until someone comes for it.

“It almost seems a shame to destroy it,” they will say.

But, they will.

And, in time, there will be nothing but crumbs.


Author’s notes
This story was written in response to a prompt about cooking. I started thinking about heat, and this year’s heatwave, and this is what came out of the oven…


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© Kat Day 2018

A Change of Space

“Welcome!” said Captain Shepherd, as the door to the quarterdeck of the ship Starry McStarface slid aside. “Your grandfather’s told me all about you!”

Freddie Feghoot shook her outstretched hand. “It’s an honour to be invited, Captain.”

She waved her other hand dismissively. Her eyes sparkled. “Would you like to sit in the Captain’s chair?”

Who could say no? Freddie sat in the seat she indicated. It was smaller than he’d imagined. Glowing controls covered the arms. A screen floated in front of him, displaying a complicated pattern of intertwined, silvery strands.

“Strings,” said the Captain looking at the screen. “We use them to bend space, allowing FTL travel, you see. Neat tech. Only trouble is–”

“Captain! Anomaly on Zed!” called a middle-aged woman who’d been studying a display to the Captain’s right. “It’s a way off, but I think we’ll need to alter the knots.”

“Drat! Good spot, Lieutenant Motte. Out you get, Freddie.”

Freddie moved, and she slid into place. He stared at the screen. A red dot appeared, growing into something that looked like a child’s scribble. Captain Shepherd tapped furiously at her controls. Silver writhed around the red.

“Captain,” said Motte, “we need to change–”

“I know! Dammit!”

The floor shuddered. Freddie reached out to steady himself. The red scribble swelled. “What happens if we hit it?”

“Don’t ask,” said Motte, staring fixedly at the screen. “Captain, shall I…?”

Captain Shepherd cursed and pushed herself out of her chair. Motte took her place and reached for the controls. Freddie watched as the silver threads began to tie themselves into new knots which appeared, to him at least, to be pushing the red scribble off the top of the screen. He felt his heartrate slow down.

Then the floor lurched again. He looked and saw that the strands had twisted and slipped. “Are… they back to where they were?” he asked.

“Yes, dammit!” said the Captain. “Keep your eyes fixed on Motte while she tries again, will you? There’s a good chap.”

“Why?”

“Just do it!”

Motte jabbed at the controls again, gazing forward as both Freddie and the Captain stared at her. Freddie thought he could make out a flicker of reflected red in her eyes. Then it was gone. Her face relaxed.

“Thank goodness!” she said. “I thought we were going to collide with the wretched thing.”

Freddie looked cautiously away from the Lieutenant. The strings had adopted an entirely new pattern. There was no sign of any red.

“Well done, Motte,” said Captain Shepherd. “The pattern is dammed hard to alter once we’re underway.”

“Well, you know what they say,” said Motte with a wink, “a Shepherd can’t change her knots!”

“Haha, indeed!” said the Captain, slapping Motte on the shoulder rather harder than was necessary.

“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Freddie. “Why did we have to stare at the Lieutenant?”

Now it was the Captain’s turn to grin. “As everyone knows, Mr Feghoot, a watched Motte is never foiled!”


Author’s notes
I’ve always loved a shaggy-dog story. One the first I ever heard involved a chef called Gervais, a kitchen assistant called Hans and a small, green squid. If you don’t know it, I invite you to have a read. There’s a history of science fiction stories with these sorts of punchline endings, the most famous of which were written by Reginald Bretnor under the pseudonym Grendel Briarton and regularly featured a character called Ferdinand Feghoot. As you might have guessed, this is my little homage to those. I wrote it for the Escape Pod flash fiction competition. It got a smattering of votes but not enough to get through to the next round. Ho hum. But anyway, at the time of posting, you can still vote in the final of that contest – it closes on 27th June 2018. Go and check out the fabulous final stories!


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Please support my work by buying me a coffee at ko-fi.com.
© Kat Day 2018

Key In

I wedge my palms over my eyes, trying to block out the glare. The room has no comforting shadows, no dark corners. Nothing but coruscating white. Makes me think of that nightmare where I’m in a spotlight, but I don’t know my lines and can’t see the audience.

How in hell did I get here? More to the point, how do I get out?

I move my hands and look at them. My skin looks almost dusty in this light, like chocolate that’s been left in the fridge too long. Not that I see that often.

I don’t know my name, but I know I eat too much chocolate?

There’s nothing on my hands or – I touch my face – my head. But I have a feeling that there should be. Or… there was.

I try to think, but the music makes it difficult.

It’s the one feature in this blank space, and it’s a jarring one. Synthetic and repetitive. And there’s something wrong with the tune. Every so often there’s a gap. My irritated brain desperately tries fill the space. Two beats, I think. I’ve never had an ear for music – I literally don’t know ti from tea.

~~~

“Everyone knows girls are useless at games, anyway.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I need the computer. Go and do some cooking or something.”

“Shut up, I’m finishing this level.”

“You’ll never beat my score.”

“Already did. Why don’t you do your piano practice? Mum’ll only nag you.”

~~~

Da-ding, da-ding …………………………..  ding, da-ding da-da-ding

I recognise the tune, now. It’s from an old computer game.

I walk around, trailing my fingers along the walls. The room isn’t square. It’s sort of oblong, with a narrower section at one end – a corridor that doesn’t go anywhere.

~~~

“You need the key to get past this level.”

“Stop distracting me! What key?”

“THE key.”

“Very helpful. Go away, Aaron.”

​~~~

My idiot brother. I drop to the floor, cross-legged. Key. It has lots of meanings. Keyboard keys, door keys, piano keys, answer keys, even – if you’re not bothered about spelling – dockside quays.

My shoulders shake as I start to laugh.

“Aaron, you asshole!” I say out loud. “Piano key? You know I never got past two-finger chopsticks.”

There’s no response that I can hear, but deep in my belly I can feel him laughing.

I stand and walk back to the widest part of the room. Then I wait.

Da-da-ding, da-ding, da-ding… goes the music and right there, I jump, landing feet flat on the floor, as hard as I can. The floor lurches and I’m rewarded with a dooong. Without pausing I do it again. There’s another sound and then the tinny music continues.

Did I fit the two notes into the gap?

The answer comes as the wall at the end of the narrowest part of the room slowly disintegrates until there’s nothing but blackness. It’s inviting after all this glaring white.

“Press any key to continue,” I chuckle, as I walk onto the next level.


Author’s notes

This story was written in response to a challenge to write a story in which the main character wakes up in a featureless, white room (in 500 words). Writers are often advised to avoid the cliché of starting a story with a character waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, so this was always going to be tricky to pull off with any finesse. Does it make any sense? I’m not entirely sure! This story definitely has its issues, not helped by the short word count, but I’ve left it in its original form.

© Kat Day 2018

The In Between Place

My story, The In Between Place, is now live on Daily Science Fiction – hurrah! Do go and have a read! Here’s the first paragraph…

John and I bought Katie a domino run for her eighth birthday. She and I spent all morning setting it up, lines of colored tiles all around the house. When it was done we held hands and tapped the first one, and watched as they began to topple. [read the rest]

Thank you again, lovely followers, for all your support!

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Your BioSynthon fabric will breathe. Literally. It is made of living cells which respire. BioSynthon makes use of sweat, carbon dioxide from your skin and dead skin cells to maintain itself (if irritation occurs, discontinue use immediately). Like all living things it also excretes, however do not worry – it simply produces small amounts of a non-toxic, odourless gas. Although this gas is harmless, it is flammable. We recommend that you keep your wardrobe well-ventilated and avoid naked flames (your garment will not burn, but nearby objects might).

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DO NOT WASH BioSynthon. It is self-cleaning.

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Author’s notes
This piece came out of a challenge to write something inspired by the photo at the top of the page. I thought it looked like it could be fabric, but on its own that would’ve been too obvious. So I took a slightly sideways approach – this obviously isn’t a story as such, but it is (I hope!) a bit of fun.


© Kat Day 2016

The Little Shop of Hairs

Phoenix_Old_Spaghetti_Factory_restaurant_barber_chairs“You definitely put the sign out?” asked Bob, peering out of the plate-glass window at the pavement.

“I’ve told you, yes. Calm down. Someone will be along soon.” A faint, disinfectant smell drifted across the salon as Sal wiped a shelf next to one of the large mirrors.

Beep-beep! The door opened and a young woman walked in, flat shoes slapping on the tiled floor. Bob’s green-gold eyes lit up.

“Hello! How can I help you?”

She pushed dark hair out of her eyes with nail-bitten fingers, stared at Bob and shot a glance back at the door. “Um. I just need a trim. Just my fringe, really.”

#

Bob tweaked his bow-tie, tugged on his waistcoat and adjusted the position of his comb and scissors as the girl settled herself into one of the high-backed, black chairs. He fixed his eyes on her reflection in the glass.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Audrey.”

“Nice to meet you Audrey! Right, the fringe? And an inch off the ends, too?” He let the fine strands slide through his long fingers. “Shall I wash it?”

“Er, no, thanks. Just… a dry cut.” Wide, blue eyes stared back at him. “Are those heavy?”

Bob touched his thick, blonde dreadlocks, his smile displaying slightly too many teeth. “These? I barely notice them! Don’t worry, your hair won’t end up looking like mine!”

Audrey gave a tiny laugh.

He picked up his scissors. The metal flashed and danced, the blades snicking around her head.

Right hand busy cutting, left hand picking up something else…

Transfixed by the motion of the scissors, she didn’t notice as Bob wiped her left ear with a square of fabric and made a tiny cut. A drop of ruby blood welled up and he sucked it into the plastic barrel of a small, cylindrical device. A tendril of his hair whipped it away and twisted in on itself, hiding it from sight.

He stood back.

“There, what do you think?”

“Wow! It looks amazing! How did you do that? It’s so much thicker!”

Bob blew across the top of his scissors. “Years of experience! Ah, let me just…”

“Ouch!”

“Sorry! That loose hair wasn’t quite as loose as I thought!” he said, squirreling away the long strand with its intact root.

#

“Did you get everything?” asked Sal, watching through the window as Audrey walked away.

“Yep!”

“Good. I was worried we wouldn’t get the last sample.”

“You weren’t sure? You were the one telling me someone would be along.”

“I’m a pilot, I’m not telepathic. Never mind, we’re done and,” she looked at a grey band on her wrist, “just in time.”

#

Audrey stood staring at a patch of uneven red brick, spotted with fragments of old posters.

“It was here three weeks ago, I swear!”

“It’s a wall,” said her friend, Seymour.

“But there was a hairdresser. He did an amazing job of my hair.” Audrey looked around, forehead creasing.

“You must have the wrong place. Come on, time for food!” said Seymour.


Author’s notes:
This was written for a flash fiction competition, in which ‘showing not telling‘ (the bugbear of any fiction writer) was the key theme. There was meant to be absolutely no telling whatsoever. I almost succeeded, but in the original submission I wrote: “Three weeks later, Audrey….”

This is, of course, blatant telling. And right at the end, too. Curses!

I still got runner up though, so it wasn’t all bad.

The trouble with a story without any telling is that it can be difficult to work out what’s going on. Which is, I fear, the case here. But, regardless, I’m rather fond of this little tale, so I’ve left it alone.

Barring, of course, moving the “three weeks” slip into a piece of dialogue. I’m fairly confident that there really is no telling now. If you disagree, do let me know…


© Kat Day 2016