The gear turns one notch; metal slides against metal. The pendulum makes one swing, left to right, tracing half a cycle exactly. An electric impulse counts the beats.
Each motion causes the second hand to click once, a phenomenon that occurs 86,400 times a day. Yet only one out of the 86,400 will prompt this message.
“It’s 12:34. Make a wish.”
And so they all do. Pencils drop mid-test. Commuters freeze mid-stride. Tennis players pause mid-swing. Words hang, half-spoken. The silence interrupts, tearing through the land at once. The piano’s note lingers, but its resonance is cut short, the music sliced into pieces. The water stops flowing and the refrigerator stops whirring and the birds seem to stop mid-air but don’t fall out of the sky.
All eyes close.
It seems like forever until the second hand’s next tick.
Margot sits in a silent high school classroom of fifteen with yellow walls and big windows covered by even bigger curtains next to an analog clock on the shelf. Her wavy hair is in a high ponytail, and her bright, baby blue sweater contrasts with the dull, faded brown of her wooden desk. Before the announcement came on, before she forced her almond, hazel-colored eyes shut, the last glimpse of the world she saw consisted of the bottom-right frame on page 58 of a new graphic novel her friend, Sonya, had lent her. Wishful Thinking: The Final Battle Between Opti-Missy and Depper’s Son was the title. The comic book leaned on a mega textbook of all-things-brainy standing open on her desk, perfectly shielding her idea of fun from the educator at the front of the room. In Margot’s peripheral, Sonya sat at the desk in front of her with her hand stretched back as far as she subtly could, a pink folded paper crane between her fingers. Margot’s hand reached forward under her desk, ready to receive it.
Now all she sees are the ecstatic swirling outlines of the world a second before against the backdrop of her closed eyelids—eigengrau is the name of that color. She tries her hardest not to count the ticks; instead she wishes, like everyone else: good grades on the next test, enough to eat for dinner tonight, good clothes to wear, solid friendships, good colleges that will take her. Hopefully Depper’s Son will put up a decent fight before Opti-Missy defeats him for good. A good future doing something she loves, perhaps some wealth and property to pass on to her children when she passes…
NO. Forget that thought—can’t think of death during wish time. That rabbit hole would send her in a descending spiral in no time: her pet fish, her grandmother, her friend who disappeared ten years ago during this minute. It’s not like she remembers her thoughts after wish time anyways or that they will result in dangerous consequences, but she forces herself back on track: her mom’s health, her dad’s health, her sister’s health, her grandpa’s health, her dog’s health…
The edge of her desk cuts into her outstretched arm and she can feel the lactic acid building up in her tensed fingers. No shaky arm, she wishes. Please no shaky arm. She hears the ticking: 49, 48, 47…
BAM! Margot jumps, retracting her arm and bumping into her desk. The sound was so loud it must have come from her proximity. Oh no. She simply cannot be responsible for another disruption during wish time. This time it really was an honest mistake though. With her eyes closed, she cannot see what she could’ve–
“Psssst. Hey, Margot.”
Margot’s eyebrows shoot up. Not even she has had the courage to speak during this sacred minute.
“Open your eyes,” the voice demands with a certain urgency.
Margot raises her chin at the authoritative tone; she has always been antagonistic towards obeying orders. Yet, the corners of her mouth lift into a mischievous smirk at the invitation to what would most certainly be a loud, trouble-making adventure. So she compromises. She lets her left eyelid fold open. It’s funny she can’t see eigengrau anymore, despite her right eye still staring into the inside of her skin.
First thing she notices: her graphic novel sprawled on her desk, exposed, and the textbook on the ground. So that’s what that sound was. Everyone is silent, eyes closed, still. She glances slowly to the left, fearing the movement of her eyeballs will somehow break the spell of frozen time. 43, 42, 41…
“It’s me,” says the voice. Margot whirls around and finds herself looking into a familiar face–one she hasn’t seen since childhood. It’s been ten years.
For the first time, Margot dares disturb the silence. “T- T- Toby?”
Her eyes water, but she doesn’t dare allow them to close. He is older now; his eyes and nose seem to fit his face better now. Yet his black hair is still as messy as it used to be. It’s a good look for him.
“Come on!” His inflection is still the same, just like it was ten years ago.
Margot’s giggle echoes throughout the silent room, as she rises from the seat. It stops her. She looks around at her educator, her class, Sonya sitting in front of her, the pink crane still in her hand. They are still and unmoving. They can’t see but they can hear. She has left them battling with their own instincts and curiosity. She’s been reckless. 38, 37, 36… There’s no saying what consequences she could face when the minute is over.
“Wait no. How, why?” Margot slumps back into her seat, avoiding Toby’s face.
“What do you mean?” Toby asks, his face full of concern. “Let’s go on an adventure, just like how we used to.”
“I- I just. You disappeared for years. Just vanished out of thin air. And now you’re back?”
Toby’s smile hardens. His face is still, but something seeps into his expression, drowning his youthful joy. It’s pain, disappointment, hopelessness.
“I can’t afford to get into trouble again,” Margot explains. “Last time, Sonya and I weren’t allowed to see each other for an entire month.”
Toby takes the paper crane from Sonya and holds it gingerly, “Of course. You’ve made new friends.”
“And I can’t afford to lose them.”
“But how about me Margot? You lost me, and this is your one opportunity to get me back. I just want to show you my world, the life I’ve been living.” He swings around to stand in front of Margot’s desk. “I promise you, they won’t know about it. I’ll keep it a secret. It’s not like you to turn down an adventure.”
“Wow,” Margot smiles. “I’ve just been successfully guilt-tripped.”
“Just doing what I’m best at.”
Weaving through desks and chairs and students, Toby leads Margot out of the classroom, out of the school, and under the unfiltered midday sun. Margot looks around, marveling at an opportunity to be omnipresent, to move through frozen time. She stares up into the sun for as long as she can, knowing that this is the first time she’s seen the sun at this exact moment. There are just three of them in the world now: Margot, Toby, and the sun that shifts ever so slightly in the sky with each passing second.
They walk across the lawn, the soft, blue grass under their feet. Ten years have passed, yet they have so little to say to each other. But in a silent world, their movement speaks volumes, and there’s no need for words as well.
Suddenly, Toby giggles.
“What?” Margot smiles.
“I’ve been trying to find you for so long. And now I can’t believe I finally have. It seems so surreal.”
“Just one stolen minute, eh?”
A soft rustling sounds to their left behind a silver bush, barely louder than the ambient noise that usually permeates the land. Margot jumps and grabs onto Toby’s arm, hiding behind him.
“Someone’s there. You told me I wouldn’t get into trouble well now someone’s there I’m gonna get caught what are we going to do?” she whispers frantically. Toby turns towards her. His face is full of ominous mischief. Margot stares, confused before realization dawns. She takes a step back, guarded.
“Can I still trust you?” The rustling abrupt stops, evidently having realized Margot’s presence. “You aren’t going to betray me, are you? Don’t get me in trouble.”
“Oh, shh, nonooonoooooooo shhh.” His mischief gives away as he tries to hold in his laughter but fails miserably. Standing up, he cautiously puts a hand on Margot’s shoulder and turns her around to face the direction of the previous rustling. “I just want you to meet someone.”
Margot’s jaw falls to the ground as Toby watches with a proud smile. “Opti-Missy???”
Toby’s smile fades. “Who?”
“The red hair and pair skin and blue, almond eyes and black boots and most importantly, the silver suit. She’s straight out of my comic book!”
“Um. She’s actually my boss, but sure.”
Opti-Missy approaches Toby, eyeing Margot and raising an eyebrow.
“I’ll explain later,” Toby says.
“You’re breaking protocol,” Opti-Missy states bluntly.
“But it’s for good reason!” Toby complains.
Opti-Missy grunts and walks back to the bush.
Slowly, Margot leans towards Toby and whispers, “She doesn’t look very optimistic.”
“Why would she be? We’re all pretty depressed. They pick the people with no friends, no family, and nothing to lose to do the job.” Margot throws him a questioning look. “I’m the exception. I stumbled upon one ten years ago, because I wasn’t obeying wish time rules, so they had to keep me.”
Margot is silent. She finally speaks: “So that’s why. I thought you were dead. But you were just on a crazy, long adventure all along.”
A beat. “Let me show you what we usually do,” Toby suggests. Always avoiding the hard conversations, he is. He pulls her towards Opti-Missy’s bush. To Margot’s surprise, Opti-Missy is not alone. A troubled teenager dressed in all black is crouched inside the bush, hiding from some unknown danger. He’s still, like everyone else at this moment, a snarky smile frozen above rugged stubbles on his chin.
Margot’s eyes widen and she hears herself gasp. This feels like a fever dream. “Depper’s Son???”
“If you were to ask me, this guy was probably on his way to rob the school.” Opti-Missy continues nonchalantly. “He’s carrying plenty of illegal goodies: a knife, a butane lighter, a fork, a whisk…”
Margot stares at the unfamiliar items Opti-Missy is placing on the grass. Toby’s watch rings: 20 seconds, it warns.
“We should’ve caught you much earlier, but now’s not too late either. We’ll fix you up,” Opti-Missy whispers to herself. She daintily steps around Depper’s Son and crouches down again on the other side of him. Margot can’t help but think of all the stories of exhilarating battles she’s ravenously consumed over the years — the tension, the high stakes, the fancy technology, the ostentatious costume changes, the gaudy martial arts, the destruction. The truth is starkly anticlimactic. Depper’s Son is still immobile.
Suddenly, Opti-Missy digs her nails into the person’s flesh. It goes in so deep that she must have come in contact with the bone. Margot gasps and looks away, anticipating the smell of fresh blood and the man’s screams. Neither occurred. Instead she hears the sound of a velcro tear. She turns back to see a built-in compartment deep within Depper’s Son’s arm that Opti-Missy is accessing. There are an array of buttons, most of which are flashing red. It’s all metal and plastic and multicolored wires.
Margot swallows the rising nausea and tries to open her mouth to speak. Instead, she clutches her own arm and takes two steps back.
Toby looks at her, concerned. “You okay?”
Margot raises a shaky finger. “How?… Am I?”
“It’s really not that bad,” Toby rushes to explain. “We make sure that everything is functioning properly within you. We stop you from getting sick or harming yourself and others, usually before you even realize there’s anything wrong with yourself. Simply one minute each day for reconditioning.”
A sudden revulsion arises within Margot. “You do this too?”
“I understand, it’s a hard pill to swallow at first — the truth.” Opti-Missy’s tone is the opposite of her sympathetic words. She tinkers with whatever is inside Depper’s Son’s arm. “But you’ll get used to doing this. It gets less disgusting after the first week or so. You’re just ripping apart velcro after you get under the skin and muscle.”
Margot turns to Toby. Her whisper is almost silent; her eyes do most of the talking, “Have you done this to me before, too?”
Toby looks away, ashamed. “Yeah, I had to. Last week. I was supposed to today as well, actually.” Margot is speechless. “Hey, hey. It’s always been just one button for obsession over death though, nothing serious.”
Opti-Missy shoves the thief’s flesh back into his arm and stands, wiping her hands on her suit. She addresses Margot, “I assume I’ll be seeing you tomorrow then?”
Margot backs away. “What? I can’t do this.” She looks to Toby, the reality of his offer for adventure dawning on her. He wouldn’t get her into trouble because he always intended for her to join him, to become invisible yet omnipotent. She would become the guardian of peace, of happiness, of safety. She would deliberately and superficially manipulate others to feign normalcy.
Opti-Missy makes a clicking noise in her mouth while sighing, paired with another eyeroll. “You have no choice, now that you know everything.”
“Margot,” Toby steps forward and tries to set his hand on her arm. “You’ll enjoy this, I promise. We can do this together.”
“You did betray me,” Margot sneers.
“Margot, come to your senses. Please! Better be the one doing it than the one it’s being done to!”
“I cannot possibly do that to Sonya! Just rip her arm open like you did to me! Control her!” Margot shrieks. “I’m not like you!”
Toby’s watch beeps again. 10 seconds, it says.
Without hesitation, Margot takes off sprinting back towards the school. The other two try to pursue her, but Margot knows that they cannot possibly risk causing more chaos once the minute is over.
5, 4, 3…
She pumps her legs, urging the building to get larger and larger, closer and closer. Faster, faster.
“Margot! Margoooot! Are you really going to leave me alone? I need you here! Please!” Toby’s voice is pain and desperation, just like it was less than a minute ago, just like it was ten years ago.
3, 2, 1…
This time Margot doesn’t fall for it. She doesn’t look back.
0. Everyone comes back to life. Pencils scribble and commuters bustle and tennis players finish their swing. The piano’s music continues right where it left off sixty seconds ago, a note spliced together. Water flows and the refrigerator whirs and the birds flap their wings on their journey East, once again.
Margot is back in her seat, arm outstretched, behind two layered books standing on her desk. She stares at the eigengrau of her eyelids one second more than she needs to, before opening them. This time, she remembers the past minute. Every second of it. Sonya’s pink paper crane is gone–Toby had taken it.
“Toby?” Margot whispers.
Back in her world, everyone has come back alive, but not him.