The headphones were old. They came with the cassette player his father had traded his credit card points for. Tim couldn't sleep without them, even though it confined him to sleeping flat on his back or face down, carefully positioned in order to keep him from suffocating to the sounds of silence. Despite the music, however, the ticking bled through. Ticking that could be muffled but not silenced. The clock was a century old after all, what could one expect?

Tim sat up in the bed that transformed into a couch during waking hours. Fine for when he was a college student, embarrassing for a man his age. He rubbed his face, clawing at two weeks worth of facial hair that he couldn't part with. The clock stared, smiling, ticking away, its cogs and mechanics doing what they'd always done - always with the exception of that period of three months in 1988 when a young boy hid his ill-gotten chocolate inside its works during the height of the humid Chicago summer. He could still see his hand dropping the candy inside, the first hidden place he had thought of, but the story had soon taken on a life of its own, been told so many times that his actions in the tale had as factual a relation as his current reflection did to that of the boy. The truth was there somewhere; hiding, hazy, rearranged.

Much like his mind this time of morning.

4AM. Again.

Part of time but existing outside of time. The hour the 9-5 crowd find themselves in only when something has threatened their wide green lawns and won't let go – the time the rest of us can't escape from. This is the familiar territory where Tim finds himself, wracked with thoughts of Dea. Dea, whom he met at work, whose eyes launched a million road trips in the hearts of dreamers. They laughed and joked and she was it. She was the dream. Then she left and became a real dream. His attempts to spend time with her were fruitless – “Yes,” she always said with a genuine smile and kitten glance, “I'd love to,” but last minutes always came, bringing something more important with them. Promises and apologies were made. “Soon,” she said, always soon, but soon never came to pass.

He tried to eternal sunshine her but failed. Everything, with the exception of that first grasp of the intangible about her, told him to let go, leave her be, she wasn't interested at best. And yet, he saw attractive women and knew they were attractive but his body remained unmoved, they weren't her. That had never happened before.

Forget it, forget her.

Yanking off the headphones, he rubbed his face again, swung his legs out from under the blue ocean of a sheet, attempted to stand, made it half-way, adjusted his glow-in-the-dark novelty ghost-themed boxer shorts that his ex had thought so funny and collapsed back on the thin mattress.

***

He wasn't told he had to move to Palm Springs but it was layered in his father's subtle lack of subtlety.

“Grandma June is on her last legs. She needs someone to stay with her. I'll try to get out there in the next couple months but you know how things are.”

“Sure, I know,” Tim said, but he never did know.

Tim's four siblings, all female, older and married, and busy being fully realized tax-deferring adults, left him no option. He'd followed their footprints, getting a degree in a professional in-demand profession that paid well. When it came time to commit to 45 years of three-color carbon-copy weekdays, he did the math - two weeks out of the year his own for 45 years gave him a total of 90 weeks, or less than two complete years, under his control – and he couldn't do it. One sunny April afternoon he played hooky to go to opening day at Wrigley Field, where he watched the Cubs lose. Afterwards he walked to the lake, found a spot without ice, threw his law books in and ran to fill the help-wanted position at Dexter Haven's, a dusty memorabilia shop, surrounding himself with trinkets of a bygone era he felt more a part of than his own.

And it was there that he stayed for years, inciting the ire of his father. Beginning as a torrent of cuss words, it soon settled into a continuous burn, staying just below the muck like Bubbly Creek, feeding off the chemical porridge of years of slaughtered animals.

It wasn't that Tim didn't want to take care of his grandma but he wanted a choice. He loved her. She was his confidant growing up and he, once she figured out what to do to entertain a boy, became her favorite. After she moved to California with Jo, she wrote every Monday, always enclosing a recipe clipped from the Sunday paper. After Jo died she began to slip – letters, words, notions of the real. Her last letter included a recipe for stuffed cabbage leaves. Tucked in Tim's lock box, safe from fire or any other worries, it remained unmade, always a possibility.

***

Wrenched from the couch-bed, Tim felt the rough carpet on his bare feet turn into to the cold, cracked linoleum of the kitchen. He pulled a mug from the drainer that read, “I Love You Beary Much” beside a picture of a teddy bear wearing a bow-tie, filled it with water from the tap and sat at his pressed-wood desk. His fingers ran over the uneven screws he'd added last week to re-affix the amputee's legs. He glanced at the clock. 4:07 AM. He wondered if he'd sleep better with no artificial light – no light from the L platform showing through the cheap blinds, no illumination from the street light on the other side, no light from the clock on the microwave, no light from the alarm clock, no light from the clock on the stove, no standby light on the TV, no ready light on the smoke alarm. Darkness. The thought shrank his heart and he pushed it away.

Once again stuck in this in-between hour, Tim goes to his computer to look for distraction, for conversation, connection. He stares at the gas-lamp-blue glow as it starts up. He signs in, lets the programs load and looks for Julie, his friend two time zones away who also suffers from insomnia, but she's not online.

But Dea is.

***

It was after 42 applications, six weeks and a great deal of desperation that Tim accepted a job at PS Pro Golf. He hadn't planned on staying in California after his grandma's inevitable death, but what was there to go back to? Dexter Haven's was gone, turned into a gourmet popcorn store with lines around the block. Besides which, he could get passive-aggressively bawled out over the phone just as easily as in person, and over long-distance he could at least get the dishes done.

With her insurance, plus Jo's pension, paying for everything, no one in the family had known how little money Grandma June had survived on. The will left unmarketable trinkets, those closest to her heart, to specific grandchildren. They and the other relatives who had flown out for the funeral left as soon as it was over, rushing back to their busy lives of rushing to keep their lives busy.

When the show was over and the programs, folded and wrung by sweaty hands, were tossed, Tim sat alone in the condo, surrounded by everything that had been hers. He was hungry. It was dinnertime. Her favorite program, Wheel of Fortune, was on. The answer to the puzzle was obvious - “Adam, Hoss and Little Joe,” but none of the contestants could see it. Everything was here, everything she owned. Everything he grew up loving, everything that she loved enough to pay great sums to lug 1,968 miles across the country but without her what the hell did any of it matter? He kept the photo albums, letters and hand-written recipes and sold the rest – except for the grandfather clock. The one that currently reads 4:17 AM.

Now, 4AM is also funny because it's a time where it becomes harder to lie – to yourself and to others.

“Aww, what the hell,” he says as he types out “Hey,” hesitates for a moment, then hits send. It would be the last time he would try. Just like the dozen last times, and the dozen more he knew would follow. The screen tells him she was last active five minutes ago. And so he waits, weary from chasing and with little expectation anything would change.

But he's forgotten one thing – it's 4AM.

“Hey,” comes the reply. “I was just thinking about you. I was listening to this song -.”

He clicks on the link. It's an artist he hasn't heard of. Mellow indie pop – not the sort of thing he listens to often but it was from her and anything from her took on magical qualities. He had once told her she was magical, which she deflected with a simple, “I know.”

Acoustic guitar over layered strings, the chorus repeated the intent not to fall in love with a particular person, chastising them for making her feel these things, making her care, making her fall in love.

He'd drempt about her often – mundane dreams, just walking and talking together. He loved talking with her, that feeling of intimacy, of shared space and time, of no time at all. A dream, a test, something had to be wrong, anything that could explain away the song ran through his thoughts.

The cursor blinks and seems to speed up. He writes out, and erases, several responses. Fearing misinterpreting things and making a fool of himself – well, a bigger fool of himself – he settles on a smiley face.

***

In the aftermath of the chocolate incident his grandmother began hiding things, little gifts, in the clock whenever he came to visit and he was glad because he liked surprises and because it meant that she wasn't angry and nothing could have been worse than that. It began simply enough with the appearance of the Easter basket the bunny always delivered to her house for some reason, but soon the clock turned into a magical cupboard, offering up something new every time, a tradition she continued as he wandered into adulthood – a new shirt, a toy from the dollar store, homemade cookies. He never looked until she suggested it, a game within a game that delighted both players.

Not once, however, did it contain chocolate.

In the early days the clock also served as his go-to for hide and seek. The wood, the ticking, the glass came together to render him invisible. It was one of those times he couldn't shake from his mind the day he arrived at her place in California. There was a Christmas present inside the clock. His eyes welled up - from the sweetness of the thought, yes, but also because it was the first of June and she had no clue.

The money Tim got from selling the rest of the furniture and the condo covered her funeral costs, his moving debts and a studio apartment for a month. The only surprises the clock holds anymore are treats for his cat, but the black-and-white fluffball still hasn't picked up on the trend and has to be led there every time.

***

4:22 AM.

Tim waited but Dea didn't respond. What was there to say to a stupid smiley face anyway? She must have hundreds of men pursuing her. That charm, that infectious charm - once caught what could one hope for but to see her again? And so he knew he'd keep throwing paper airplanes her way. He began typing, feeling the cat's judgmental stare.

“You want to go down to the water tonight and see the sand castles, or there's that new coffee place Susan mentioned the other day.”

“I'd love to but I already have plans. We should go to the coffee place sometime though – you mean Vermilion, right?”

“Yeah, that's the one. Okay cool, well, I guess I should try to get back to sleep. Have a good day.”

Another smiley face.

She didn't reply but remained online and active. “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” he said to the heavens as he headed to the kitchen, threw some oatmeal in the microwave and shook his head for once again getting his hopes up. Three minutes later he pulled the bowl out and sprinkled in some cinnamon for variety. That's what being an adult had become. He walked around stirring the oatmeal, waiting for it to cool. Less than three hours until work. She had made his day every day they worked together, just by being her. Then she moved on. She would've been right at home in Dexter Haven's – her and Tim and Audrey and Humphrey and Dick and Laura and George and Mary.

Tim placed the bowl on the desk and sat down to find a message sent at 4:37 AM.

“Hey, you busy now? You want to watch the sunrise?”

Twelve minutes ago.

“I'd love to. Where?”

“How about at the top of Adams Hill? That way my dogs can run around.”

“Sure. I'll head there now.”

“Okay, see you soon.”

She signed off and he laughed, lost in the glare of the screen. Rushing about he stopped to flick the light-switch on and off, then checked the numbers on the digital clock – two lucid dreaming methods to discern reality he'd learned long ago. Establishing the real as best he could he tried to finish the oatmeal but his shaking hand spilled a not inconsiderable bit of the congealing mass onto the glow-in-the-dark ghosts, alerting him to the fact he had forgotten they were all he wore. Throwing on clothes that would pass for work he opened the door and felt the damp morning on his face, followed by an almost inaudible meow - the fluffball's breakfast. Tim rushed in, grabbed a can from the cupboard, popped off the lid and dumped the entire contents into the bowl on the floor.

“Hey,” he shouted, “let's have a feast!”

Waving goodbye, Tim locked the door as the clock chimed five.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gregory T. Janetka is a writer from Chicago who currently lives in San Diego. His work has been featured in The Birch Gang Review, Flyover County Review, Gambling the Aisle and other publications. He is terribly good at jigsaw puzzles and drinks a great deal of tea. More of his writings can be found at .gregorytjanetka.com