I sneezed – hard – for the fifth time right as the clock ticked over to midnight. Sneezes come in threes, they say, and that’s almost always true, so when you sneeze a different number it’s time to pay attention. Two times, you’re left hanging; there’s unfinished business and it’s going to come back to you some day. Four is a warning — remember what you were looking at on your fourth sneeze. Five is like two, there’s something coming, but there’s a power to five that is separate from sneezes. The fifth sneeze at the stroke of midnight, you better keep your eyes open. You’re going to be receiving a message, and you better listen. More than just your life depends on it.
I sat motionless, listening to the clock gently striking twelve times behind me. That clock loses almost a second every month, so I don’t use it for important things. I have another clock connected by radio to the atomic clock. There’s a radio station that just plunks out the seconds. If you listen real close you can hear that every plunk is different. You can know just by hearing exactly what time it is, because when the radio says the time that is the real time.
They have leap seconds, did you know that? I’ll be listening to the time march by as I lay sweating in the darkness and then whammo! an extra tick. I sit upright in bed, wondering what angel or demon put an extra second into the day, and for what purpose, and whether my tide charts will all be off now or did the tides already know about the extra second somehow?
I waited, controlling my breathing and my heartbeat as best I could, afraid even to blink lest I miss the sign. The clock on the wall chimed the quarter hour in soft musical tones, then the half hour, three quarters, and finally, just as my radio clock ticked over to 1 a.m. the wall clock chimed the hour and struck a single time. Nothing moved; the whole world was waiting. The chime of the clock faded gracefully, to be replaced by the ticking of the swaying pendulum. I turned up the time radio louder to make sure I would hear if there was any change.
Five, five, five, five…. I thought to myself as the seconds plunked past. I turned up the radio louder, listening to the gaps between the tones, thinking the message might be there, like the messages they put between the frames in a television show, but there was nothing there. Five, five, five, five… I felt myself slipping into some sort of trance, which happens sometimes when I concentrate. Some part of me heard the clock strike two, then three. I relaxed at three. It’s a powerful numer, but this wasn’t about threes. five, five, five, five…
When I heard the clock strike four from far away my heartbeat began to accelerate again. The sound of time passing was louder and louder in my ears until there was nothing else; no thought could survive that pounding. In the gaps between each tone my heart was a second clock, and as the seconds passed the clock was louder and faster until it was slamming in my chest and sweat was a river and I couldn’t breathe fast enough and the clock’s numerals glowed red and burned straight through my retinas and into my brain where they were echoed in a thousand colors and a million languages: 4:59:56, 4:59:57, 4:59:58, 4:59:59…
5:00:00 and I snapped alive, the noise quiet and my heart still as the doorbell rang.