My favorite writing-practice prompt is Page 88. Simply enough, one opens the nearest book to hand to the eighty-eighth page and uses the fifth complete sentence as the first sentence of the new story. One never knows quite what will come out of it.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Page 88, Sentence 5:
If clouds appeared, the clock hid behind them.
THE CLOCK AND THE CLOUDS
If clouds appeared, the clock hid behind them. It was never tested, merely assumed, that without the clock, the clouds would never appear. They seemed to chase each other, and neither could be convinced to slow down to be caught nor speed up to end the game. The clock would never want to be seen, and the clouds, always wanting to be seen, were unable to understand.
Jimmy enjoyed watching each cloud flit in and out of his room, trading places again and again and again. It had been three days since he had first noticed their antics, and since then, he could not stop asking himself why the clock would want to hide its face from such silly things. He tried to ask, to coax it out of hiding. But if the clouds were near, the clock would not budge from the shadows, and if the clouds were gone, it would speak to no one but itself. Jimmy would listen attentively even though he knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop, longing to befriend the timepiece to whom he had never before taken a moment to introduce himself. After years of being the recipient of such behavior from its sole companion, the clock gave no impression that it was interested in pursuing a relationship at present.
So Jimmy asked the clouds instead why they could never leave the clock alone or if they knew why it would not speak to him. But the clouds barely seemed to notice. They continued to laugh and laugh and each new day would come to back to laugh some more.
That was the way it had been for the last three days, in any event, while Jimmy lay in bed, snuggled in his pajamas, under the covers. He had noticed both parties on Monday morning, the insecure clock and the mirthful clouds who never seemed to change their habits. But now, on Thursday, the fourth day, the clock’s strength seemed to match the small gain in his own. Jimmy could finally sit up with his back propped by a pillow, and even while it continued to talk to no one but itself, the clock’s discourse had increased ever so slightly in tenacity. Jimmy gave it a weak grin of encouragement that was neither acknowledged nor repaid. He hoped that perhaps, supported by his own rebound to health and being the recipient of an unfaltering show of tenderness from Jimmy, the clock might one day feel confident enough to show its face to the clouds and drive their laughter away.
For a portion of that, at least, he did not need to wait. The returning clouds that afternoon were not their cheerful selves. They seemed anxious, were not eager to laugh, and would not venture near the clock. The raced into and out of Jimmy’s room without a single giggle, only a stray, quiet, and nervous whimper that seemed to shush itself before the clouds were already half way gone again. The clock’s face was inscrutable, still hidden in the murky corner of the room, and Jimmy wondered if it had noticed the variation in routine. Surely, it must have. It always knew when to hide; it had to have felt the rush of thin air and heard the solitary apprehensive whisper that had made the only sound in the room besides its own incessant monologue. The clock, however, would betray no sign of cognizance of the clouds’ demeanor, causing Jimmy to dismiss the event as part of his own imagination.
The evening dimmed the memory of any such occurrence when he hereafter was capable of leaving his bed. A spell of ten minutes in the ancient rocking chair by his darkening window, sipping a small amount of broth, did not afford him much of a view of the same disquieted skies that had visited earlier in the day. The pane was closed to prevent a draft chilling him unnecessarily, and he found he missed the fresh air that kept him company throughout the long and quiet week. When he felt the clock’s muttering in the corner to be louder and more pronounced than before, he was eager to let it have time to ponder privately the chronic meekness that seemed to nag it so. He eased the window open ever so slightly and let the sound escape to any place other than into his aching head. The peculiar chatter was diminished to an undertone at the same time that a small exhale of the night sky loosed itself into the closed quarters. Jimmy took a fortifying breath along with the dimly dappled room, but there was a persistent and serious timbre to the air as it swirled inside him. The tone induced a feeling of unease in his body and added a touch of discord to his mind.
The soup was more than he could eat, and the time out of bed proved to be exhausting. Jimmy dragged himself away from the window, abandoning the bowl on the window ledge, to settle himself once more in the middle of his bed. The clock resumed its hushed tone, but the clouds still would not laugh. If anything, Jimmy thought, their low voices became more plaintive. It was worrying, but the little exertion after so many days of rest wore on him. Soon, he drifted into a heavy sleep that could not be disturbed by the rising lament pressing against the window glass, inching the leaded frame further open into the room.
He woke to sunshine, the orange of his eyelids easing him into consciousness, telling him even before looking about that the clouds were gone. Spirits lifted by their absence and an energy he hadn’t felt in days, Jimmy slid himself out of his blankets and to his feet. The rug beneath felt damp, and the air poured heavily into his lungs. The warm and inviting light nudged his consideration away from such things and toward the aging morning view. The day was almost half gone, indeed, without a cloud in the sky. The window was still ajar, and the recollection of the unnerving sound of the previous evening’s visitors had him reaching to shut the casement. But with the sun’s glow gently warming the room, he could not stand the thought of closing it.
As he let go of the latch, there was a soft and airy tsk-tsk-tsk at his back. Peeking over a shoulder proved himself to be alone, but still the consistent tsk-tsk-tsk brushed against his neck, as regular as a pendulum. Jimmy’s skin prickled and cooled. His hand returned to the latch and fastened the pane tightly into the frame. The temperature of the room began to recover, and the only noise was the gentle ticking of the clock in the corner.
Throughout the day, the room looked as if it were sweating. The rug was, indeed, damp, and he labored to breathe. Precious little amounts of oxygen squeezed through an invisible wet cloth pressed snugly to his nose and mouth. Jimmy longed to open the window again, to allow fresh air to whisk away the heat and humidity. A step in that direction, however, sent another and more insistent tsk past his ear, halting any further motion forward immediately. The window remained locked.
Jimmy wilted quickly under the worsening conditions. By that evening, his shirt and pants were soggy and his mind felt swollen inside his pulsating head. The clock’s chattering had never been stronger nor more contented. Every self-satisfied click, every complacent clack sent another throb through his temples and ate at his nerves. They reverberated behind his eyes and echoed in his ears. The sound followed him throughout the room. The more miserable he became, the more cheerful the clock’s voice seemed to be. Food was tasteless. Words swam in his vision when he tried to read. The cloth of any garment scraped his skin until he could only change back into his sodden nightclothes.
The room choked him. The space grew smaller, and the clock continued to clack louder and louder. Jimmy’s mind exploded in desperation, and he flung himself towards the door. But the pain behind his eyes burst with the unrelenting blather of the clock. The floor came up to meet his hands and knees while his stomach raged against itself. Crawling back to his bed was the only option left, and there he lay in a salty puddle listening to the clock merrily and tirelessly tick out the affected beat of his own heart. Soon he could do nothing more than stare at it in the corner and bear with the rapid loss of his senses.
Jimmy did not know if it had been minutes or hours since he had clambered roughly into bed. The sun had finished its descent some time ago, and the troubled and drifting sleep that had taken him gave him back to the darkness of his room. His vision would not focus when he lifted his head from the pillow or craned his neck to change the view. All that he could see in the gloom was the clock in the corner, staring down at him. With the whole room blackened, the clock seemed brighter by comparison. For the first time Jimmy could remember, its face wore no shadows.
The ticking rang off the walls. It had grown deeper, more commanding until Jimmy’s blood pulsed in its rhythm and his mind clicked in unison. The health that had been previously gained was depleted, and his body hung as limp as the bedsheets around him. There he stayed for minutes or hours more, the clock an extension of himself, but minutes or hours after that, the roles had been reversed.
The moist air that moved in and out of his chest rose and fell with the tick of the clock.
The hairs on his arms tingled at the tick of the clock.
The flicker of his eyelids, the skin of his exposed throat, the muscles of his legs, all regulated by the tick of the clock.
Jimmy ticked on through the night, unaware of the world around him, only conscious of the clockwork inside. He did not feel the room cool nor did he see the mist rise from every damp surface. On and on and on he ticked, while the air began to swirl and whisper and moan over the floor. It rose to lie on his chest and listened to his life clicking and clacking itself away, second by second. It smoothed his brow and stirred his hair. With a soft sigh, the mist pushed its way past his parted lips and filled his body. Jimmy’s mind was heedful of none of this, but the clockwork inside him felt the fog and gave a shudder. Jimmy spluttered and blinked. He coughed and gagged, the breath escaping him in small white wisps. The vapor left inside him gave an almost imperceptible chuckle. His windpipe still pulsed with the clock as the forming clouds whirled past. The laugh was not Jimmy’s, but he had felt it. More so, he knew the clockwork within him had felt it. It struggled to tick above the laughter, but, even silent, the laughter would not be kept by anything so steady and mechanical. It danced and bounced and leapt through Jimmy’s veins, behind his eyes, and through his skin. As the haze put forth the last of its energy, the clock within him rocked his chest and mind with increasing force.
The room was filled with a murky film; the clouds, having been trapped inside for so long without the wind and sun to sustain them, could form themselves into nothing more. They glazed Jimmy with their weakening merriment, and when Jimmy’s head finally creaked to face the window, the joyful crow they gave couldn’t be heard above the menacing clatter that fought it from the corner of the room.
Human mind clashed with the control of the clock, and Jimmy was still uncertain of where he ended and the machine began. His thoughts were pulled toward the reliable and uniform, but a small flutter of feeling would break ranks and prance over top of the pattern, causing ripples and hums to echo down his spine. With the clock in the corner no longer holding his sight, Jimmy watched the mist throw itself at the sealed inner glass of the window. Again and again it was scattered into a drizzle. Again and again it reformed thinner and more watery than before. The faint din that sang in his ears was pleading. Understanding was long in coming, and when it did settle upon him, the will to act was squashed by the daunting nature of simply removing himself from his position on the bed. The singing faded. When it had disappeared, Jimmy heard another sound, a rushing and crashing from the outer side of the window that reflected and multiplied the sad melody of the fading fog covering his room. Squinting, he strained to lift his head an inch away from the pillow and saw the night air alive, thick with clouds and spattering the casement with its muffled roar. It beckoned, cajoling him away from the ticking of his own brain. It demanded his assistance, called for the trapped mist that was raining onto the opposing glass.
Moving a finger sent a burn up his entire arm. When he twitched his foot to the edge of the mattress, his leg felt numb for a grueling minute. His muscles were on fire as he raised first his head and then his torso. His legs wouldn’t hold his weight, and he slipped to the floor in a heap. The clouds pooled around him, nothing more than small rivers cutting across the expanse of his room. Jimmy dragged himself by his arms alone through one and then another, feeling them soak into his clothes and slow his progress. Minute after minute he pushed and pulled. Minute after minute he lay panting on his stomach with his face pressed into the hard wood beneath him. And minute after minute the clock beat inside him.
By the time his nose had reached the baseboards under the window, the sky was tinged with gray, and he ached from a thousand bruises and stung from a hundred scrapes and splinters. He was sure he had left half of his skin burnt into the rug or scaled onto the boards behind him. The chair beside the window was the nearest thing to aid his climb, but when he yanked himself up to sit it tipped and clattered to lie next to him. Jimmy draped himself over the arm rests and pushed off of the runners, bracing his feet against the wall. Hurling himself up and away from the chair, he slammed into the window and flung a hand at the latch, but the metal was slick with the dew of the dissolved clouds and his weak grip was not enough to release it from the catch. Again he strained to reach it, but the exertion of standing proved too much. He began to slide back towards the floor, making a grab at anything to save himself. His hand landed on the dish of unfinished broth that sat forgotten on the ledge. It tipped over to splatter the contents in his eyes and landed with a crack to his right. His balance followed it, and he caught himself before his head imitated the bowl and split in two. The force of the fall winded him, and he lay there for some time before both breathing and thinking were possible again.
Seeing Jimmy tumble to the floor had made the wild clouds cry out and thrash against the window pane. But it had sent the clock into a whole new register. It drummed through the room, and kicked at Jimmy’s prone form, beating him with its victory as the first streaks of dawn peeked over the trees on the horizon.
Jimmy felt the blows from each senseless word the clock threw at him, and his body tightened in anticipation of defeat. His hand curled to form a fist, but the shattered fragment of bowl nearest him sliced deeply into the fleshy pad of his little finger. The resulting spasm that jumped up through his wrist slapped him with realization. Fingers creeping along the floor found the bigger scrap of china. Rolling his right arm free from where it was crushed under his body would be impossible. The aim would be questionable with his left, but it was the only alternative. Pushing himself up onto the opposing shoulder caused the remnant of the bowl to cut into his palm and pain to sear into the trapped arm below him. He teetered as he leaned fully on his right side and felt himself tip backwards. He pitched the bowl as hard as he could just before his body slammed into the floor again.
The air rushing from his lungs was accompanied by a terrific smash above him. The tinkle of glass was joined with a great rush of wind. The room had gone suddenly opaque, and Jimmy did not dare attempt to move again. He listened to the piercing cackle of the clouds and heard the alarmed scream of metal and wood from somewhere in the overcast distance. There was a shriek and a wail, a clang and an ear-splitting crash, followed by an equally deafening silence; still Jimmy did not shift.
The clouds, so thick they could not be distinguished from each other, enveloped him until Jimmy wondered if he had become one of them. A faint whisper brushed against his ear, almost a kiss.
He knew no more.
The clock lay in pieces in the corner of the room, no longer able to hide, and the clouds disappeared through the shattered window to laugh and dance and play in the wind and sun.