Nature is the fate of the world, but the world is the fate of nature
Winter Time
CHAPTER
1
The Guest
I’ll remember our seaside city as it was this day. Before the chimneys stopped smoking, when people still bothered to do laundry. When the grand hotel was always booked, so weary travelers had to rent out our spare room. And I’ll remember our last guest, the one who stopped the world.
I’ll remember it all: but most of all, I’ll keep inside me most the magnificent clock in the hotel lobby before it was gone, forever.
I also think sometimes that it could have gone better if it was summer, not winter: if a bit more time had passed before the accident happened. I wish, most of all, that the only person left with the power to fix the entire situation hadn’t been me.
The world had needed someone stronger, braver, in its hour of need— an hour frozen forever. Maybe the world might have survived if it had not been me who had remained standing.
Anyone but me.
I still think about the end of the world, how it happened, and what set it off, even though it’s painful for me. I believe the world’s number was up long before that guest arrived at the Dreaming Millennium Hotel.
I still close my eyes and see the snow fall on the ground, the very ground it had doomed centuries ago.
“Meredith, please come here and bring this tea to our guest. The one in room 14.” Mother handed me a tray holding some piping hot jasmine tea to bring to our newest guest, a mysterious, well-dressed gentleman who called himself “the Professor.”
He was the only guest that intrigued me: the rest all just made me yawn when I peeked around the edge of the door before Mother called me back to work and saw them eating dinner and making polite conversation. The Professor never talked; he seemed to carry a deep sadness along with him, but at the same time, he smiled politely all the time.
He seemed to have a history, unlike the others. The other guests were paper-thin, their travels meaningless. Everything went right through them. The Professor seemed to hold everything.
Mother was tilting the tray forward in impatience, which brought the tea to the rim of the cup. I quickly pushed it back up to level and took it. “Floor 2, right?”
Sighing, my mother nodded and gently pushed me forward. “Hurry. He expects it at exactly 4.”
I nodded in return and quickly dashed up the stairwell, lightly kicking the steps with my worn leather shoes. I had turned twelve, so I was finally allowed to help at the hotel, where Mother worked. We were poor, so we needed the money...
I shook my head to clear it and focused on holding the tea steadily. It was already sloshing around and some flecks had been tossed onto the crisp white flower-print tray.
This was my first errand, and my heart pounded as I reached the second floor and turned into the hallway of rooms 11 to 15. I muttered to myself, “Five floors. Two hallways per floor. Five rooms per floor.” over and over again.
I willed myself not to trip as I dashed towards room 14.
It was the last door to the left. I stood in front of it, hyperventilating, arranging my skirt into nice, neat folds. Mother had only sent me because there had been a shortage of workers today, probably because of the cold and the sickness it brought. They wouldn’t use me as a serving maid if they had someone else.
I stared self-consciously at my brown, worn, a little-too-tight clothes. It was too thin for the bitter cold that stalked around outside in the rowdy streets. I shivered at the memory of coming here this morning...
At that, I remembered. The Professor had told Mother that he was going outside for a short walk and wanted the tea for just after that. My heart slowed down slightly and I breathed in huge gulps of air as I contemplated the idea that I might have extra time to compose myself. He might not be here yet.
Just in case, though, I gave the door a slight rap. After I put my ear on the door and heard only silence, I knocked on the door a bit more boldly. Knock, knock, knock!
Nothing.
I took in a deep breath and leaned against the hallway wall as I settled in for what might be the long wait for the Professor to come back from his afternoon stroll. The pace of my heartbeats slowed.
I was standing there, waiting, for half-an-hour, though. I glanced at my watch to confirm the time. I stretched my neck, still keeping the tea tray balanced, and tried to see if there was anyone coming. No sign of the Professor, and I probably had to go back soon.
Mother would be waiting, and as I closed my eyes, I could see how she would scold me, how our pay would automatically be lowered for bad service...
That did it. I tried the door handle to see if it was unlocked. Maybe I could just drop it off and leave.
Thankfully, the round, ornately carved handle turned and I opened the door into the best room in the hotel.
I instinctively began to look for a safe place to put the tray, preferably somewhere slightly warm in a half-hazard attempt to keep the tea hot.
As my eyes drifted across the room, searching for a flat, sturdy surface, they fell on a beautifully decorated, Medieval-style book.
I just couldn’t resist. I glided towards the desk, carelessly put the tea tray down, and stared at the book, eyes wide.
It had the same design as the huge grandfather clock in the hotel lobby, the one I had always loved. I chose to work here with my mother because of our financial needs and for the clock.
I reached my hand out carefully, inch by inch, until they fell gently on the golden leaf cover. I rubbed my fingers gently over it, moaning with pleasure. The book had a beautiful binding, and my curiosity about the inside was immediately sparked.
I noticed then that there was an equally exquisite bookmark in the book. I decided then, bouncing on the balls of my feet, to see what page the bookmark was on. Just that, and I would go, I promised myself.
I carefully pushed the book open to the special page, and my eyes hungrily scanned the page on the left.
It was about the workings of a grandfather clock, with some brown-ink technical diagrams and Leonardo da Vinci-style descriptions. I brushed my fingers over it, but my attention quickly turned to the opposite page.
I gently pushed aside the bookmark and tried to capture as much of what I saw on this page as possible. It explained, with some lovely drawings, the aesthetic design of a grandfather clock.
I drew in a sharp breath when I took in the drawing in the middle.
It was an exact replica of the clock in the lobby, lovely and elegant. Six feet tall, the wood case inlaid with gold, silver fibers woven into the glass that showed the swinging pendulum. And of course, the clock face: a flower-wreath with jewels set into the places meant for the berries and the centers of the flowers, the clock face background a perfect creamy white, the handles curving gently into wave patterns and a slightly translucent aquamarine. I never knew anyone could capture such a marvelous thing so perfectly.
I quickly read the description that was written next to it in a jumping, twirling, dancing script.
“The Clock of Swirling Time is known worldwide for being the most steadiest and oldest clock (that has lasted to the present moment) ever made. All of the seconds this clock ticks are perfectly spaced out, and the system has never deteriorated over the 500 years of its existence. Some believe it has magical qualities and is the home of the magic that made the world, therefore giving it the ability to change the world and decide the world’s fate.”
The Clock of Swirling Time... What a beautiful name, I thought. And magical qualities...
As I stood dreaming about the clock I loved, one hand on the page, marking the name of the clock, my eyes suddenly jolted to a new text.
Next to the picture of the clock was a white Post-It, the new kinds that were meant to simulate parchment. It had blended in perfectly with the yellowing pages of the book.
I leaned in slightly and squinted, trying to read the thin, loopy handwriting. I could make out only “The clock is in...”, “At 12:00, December 31st, complete the task by going to lobby and taking...”, “Use to go to...”, “This will do the job but it might...”.
I froze slightly. Take the clock, maybe? Tonight at midnight? And of course: “This will do the job but it might...”. It might do what?
Mother would have said this was me believing and making a big deal out of fairy tales. She was a down-to-earth woman, hardened against the world.
She was right; I was still one of the dreamy kinds. But still, if it concerned the clock...
I made up my mind then and there to be at the lobby at midnight and see what the Professor would do.
For clues, I began to look around the room. My eyes were caught and let go by a bunch of old books, leather-bound notepads, a filing cabinet, and some miniature alarm clocks because there was something wrong about them, like they had been chewed and spit out by some being.
Most of all, though, I noticed that there was a fancy, heavy-duty tool kit. Why would a rich man like the Professor want to do some dirty work? I didn’t know, and as I contemplated it, I numbly looked around the room, my eyes taking in nothing this time.
Lost in my thoughts, I forgot all about the time this was taking and was jolted back to reality too late: I was woken up by a knock at the door.
I froze and immediately, instinctively, clasped my hands and lowered my head slightly to match the stereotypical image of a serving maid: polite, submissive, always following orders, always retreating into the background after the job was done.
The door creaked open. I reminded myself to tell my masters that the door had to be oiled and possibly replaced. I stayed still and waited for the Professor.
I soon saw his clean-shaven face stick through the door and peer inside. I closed my eyes slightly and braced myself.
Amazingly, though, he smiled. “Hello. I see you’ve brought my tea.”
“Y-yes, I d-did,” I stuttered. I forced myself to look up at him and put on the crisp, professional May-I-help-you smile. It would give me strength to speak clearly.
“The tea might be cold, though. I waited outside, but you didn’t come, so I went inside and left it here. I was just about to go.” It was all true, except for the last line.
“Hmm...” The Professor smiled good-naturedly as he spoke. “Be on your way then. Thank you for the tea.”
I nodded, curtsied, and carefully walked out, trying to shush my clumsy footsteps that roared in the silence that ensued as the Professor waited for me to leave.
I tried to walk at a brisk but normal pace, but I ended up running the last few feet. I quickly opened the door and dashed out. As the door shut behind me with a soft CLICK that was accompanied by faint squeaks, I stood outside room 14, breathing rapidly.
It took a while for me to calm down, but I was grateful for having stayed still, as my head, cluttered with emotions and thoughts, wouldn’t have been able to handle any actions and I would have fell.
When I was ready, I started down the steps to the employee area, the restricted section behind the public lobby. The entrance door was directly next to the coveted clock.
As I passed it, I noticed that across the clock face were some snowflakes, sprinkled across, tossed, like they were magic dust flakes. I reached my hand up and touched the glistening granules. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? I spend so much time observing it, taking it in...
I stepped inside the employee area, deep in thought. I didn’t have time to brace myself.
“Meredith Amber Falloway! What took you so long?” My mother was indignant, and her face was becoming red and puffy, like her red locks.
I flinched, and stared up at her with wide eyes. I didn’t know what to say.
“You know we have many more guests to serve, and if we don’t do this properly, we could get fired!” The last word rang in the deep, very still silence.
I finally spoke. “I... It took a while because... The Professor wasn’t there.” I spat the end out very quickly.
I chuckled slightly to myself. Two opposite lies to hide the truth...
Thankfully, my mother was too angry to hear it. “And why didn’t you go in and drop it off?” Her tone was becoming dangerous, like a kitchen carving knife with the edge facing me, so it looked like nothing was there, but if I reached out...
“Well...” I avoided her eyes and stared at a kitchen girl who was kneading some dough. Squeeze, pull, fold. Squeeze, pull, fold. I got caught in the mesmerizing rhythm and just stared.
“Meredith, why didn’t you drop the tea off and come right back?”
A lie. Today was a day for lies.
I looked towards her, meeting her eyes with a confident glare. “The door was locked.” I believed it... almost. She should too.
“Hmmph...” She seemed mollified. My mother must have realized that in the situation I described, I couldn’t help but be late and take so much time.
In an attempt to hide her slight chagrin, she thrust me another tray. “Room 3. At 5:00. Tell her it’s the pastries she ordered earlier.”
Now that I had survived the ordeal of my first serve, I took the tray and delivered it with no thought at all.
I thought about what I would do tonight. My mind was on the clock and the Professor, even though I was talking about pastries.

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