Heritage, North Dakota was clenched in the grip of mid-twentieth century sensibilities. The city center was a virtual black & white broadcast of wholesome Christian family values. Every vista was a postcard and every corner a Norman Rockwell painting. It was a frozen pillar of Americana.
There were ranches and farms on the outskirts, but they surrounded only this tiny patch of right angles. These ten or so one-way streets all led to the same place. The Clock Spire. Heritage was known for The Clock Spire.
It was ornate. Gold window frames scaled the brick structure from bottom to top, halting right before the gold ring of the clock face at the summit. It was mounted off-center, quite unflatteringly, atop a boxy and plain courthouse. As the sun set behind The Clock Spire, the sky was imbued with broad swaths of orange and pink and purple. The candied sunset cast a suggestive, if not comical, shadow at least a mile long. Within this shadow, near the base of the Spire, were Phillip and his dog Snaps.
“C’mon boy,” Phillip said. Snaps sniffed about lazily, giving no heed to his master’s call.
“Snaps…” he hissed. “I want to get home before dark.”
Snaps grew too lazy to sniff and gave up all together. He flopped haphazardly onto the courtyard and stared up at Phillip. Everything about this dog was lazy – even his left eye. His mother was a charming black poodle and his father a handsome beagle. Somehow snaps found a way to get the worst of both…
It’s sort of like mixing nacho cheese with chocolate ice cream. Some things are perfect on their own but can never go together, he thought as he looked at the dog.
Phillip stared back with a half-grimace, barely hiding his disappointment. He tucked a curtain of straight black hair behind his ear revealing smooth, brown, handsome Native American features. He eyes were bold and blue. He used them piercingly against Snap’s one good eye and gave a quarter-tug at his leash. It was effective and caused Snaps to unflop urgently. His collar was quite ragged and he wondered how many tugs it had left.
His mom was German and thus the source of his baby-blues. Even though he managed to genetically adopt the best from his parents, he felt a kinship to this miserable mutt.
“Aaarghh!” cried a voice from afar.
Snaps produced a pathetic bark. He was fully alert, though his unstable posture left a lot to be desired.
Phillip looked around, trying to determine the origin of the sound. It was getting darker outside and the ominous shadow that had been flipping the city off for 200 years was losing prominence. Whimpering and intermittent sobs came next. He stole a glance at Snaps who stood hilariously as an unwitting mascot to these sounds. Phillip took a second to proffer his pity before continuing.
Snaps was yapping with aimless determination. His little legs were like a wounded hummingbird as he tried to keep pace with his master. He repeatedly tagged the air with his maw, snapping and growling at the landscape.
The sobs continued. They weren’t loud or demanding of attention, but the silence did its best to amplify them. Snaps’ ears perked up. He hurried ahead and focused on the Clock Spire. Looking back, he caught a corroborative nod from Phillip. The pair sped into a jog toward the base of the structure.
“Let’s run around back boy,” he said, patting his thighs.
Snaps gave a bark of compliance. They turned a corner and ran along the north side of the building, negotiating a small maze of bushes. Phillip made several graceful maneuvers while Snaps knocked and tumbled like a can on a string. What an odd couple! Then, Snaps yelped as he became tangled in a rose bush. He tried frantically to free himself, taking receipt of every thorn! The yelps caused Phillip to recoil. He stopped and knelt and helped Snaps to freedom. He whined and sniveled as Phillip worked through the matted fur.
“How do you manage to get in so much trouble boy?” Phillip muttered.
Snaps cocked his head quizzically, causing one ear to flop over and rest on his head. This triggered more pity from Phillip who patted him on the head and gave him a comforting scratch on the belly. Snaps wagged his tail eagerly and broadcast a big, goofy smile. He gave Phillip a sloppy lick on the face, but like everything else, his aim was approximate at best.
“Let’s get going boy.”
As they made their way around the west side of the building, the last sliver of sun disappeared into the horizon. It was dark now, but there was a door ahead marked by a simple light.
“What do you think, boy?” he asked rhetorically. “Should we try it?”
Phillip reached for the banister and quickly hopped up the concrete steps. Snaps followed and then cut ahead to inspect the doorframe with his nose. Phillip grabbed the iron handle and pushed down on it.
It’s unlocked? That’s… unusual, he mused.
He quietly pressed the handle the rest of the way while stealthily pushing the door inward. Inside there was a stairwell, but not much else. The area was well lit, but the stairs wrapped so high that he couldn’t see the end of them. This must be the access passage for maintenance, he thought.
Snaps bounded over the threshold and relieved himself in the doorway.
They heard the soft sounds of sobbing again, but a little more clearly. Snaps reacted and bolted for the stairs, aggressively tugging against the leash. “Dammit Snaps!” Phillip exclaimed in a sharp whisper. “Cool it!” Snaps was incorrigible! He tugged incessantly against the unreliable, shabby collar. Phillip tried to reel him in, one hand after the other. He got closer and came within grabbing distance of Snaps, but the bi-directional force was too great for the collar. It tore, and Snaps stole up the stairs in a clumsy gallop, yelping and whining.
Phillip trembled. He wasn’t prepared to chase his dog into unfamiliar territory. His face was peppered unevenly with annoyance and fear. Take a deep breath. Get it together, he thought. As he exhaled, his trembling began to quell and he took off up the stairs as fast as he could.
His instinct was to yell at Snaps, but he didn’t want to alarm anyone who might be in the spire. Either way, the sound of his footsteps was probably alarming enough!
So, this is what this dog is capable of! He thought. He spends his whole life lying around and finally he finds something interesting and runs away! Snaps thrashed upward. Despite his speed, he looked like an invincible moped smashing into every car on the interstate.
Snaps’ yapping was relentless, as was his reckless voyage upward. Phillip came into grabbing distance and dove hastily toward the dog. He missed, crashing his side awkwardly across a top step and smashing his head against the drywall under the banister. He made a hole and lost all the distance he earned. Out of breath and visibly struggling he grasped the banister and raised himself up. He held his side and wore a discomforted expression. He surrendered the race.
How tall is this place? he thought. The pain of Phillip’s fall subsided, and he resumed his quick and steady movements. He was close and could hear Snaps rapping at a door. Suddenly his yapping transformed back to whining. A landing came into view. Sure enough, there was Snaps attempting to borough through a vertical surface.
Phillip was exasperated. He whispered in a loud, compressed voice that sounded like a shovel against a mattress. “Snaps! Get your mangy butt over here, now!”
Snaps stopped for a moment. He looked back and his expression seemed to say ‘sorry, but this is the most important thing in the world right now’. Phillip could sense the meaning and decided to sneak toward the door. Snaps rapped and scraped until the door began to crack. He worked his dopey head into the opening and the door came wide open. He hurtled himself across the threshold. Phillip gave chase again, hoping to corner the mutt. He tumbled into the room and found what they were looking for.
Before them on the east wall was a massive gold ring, outlining a complicated arrangement of clockwork. The gears turned and clicked and snapped and ticked. It was a perfect machine. It was flanked on either side by two tall windows that bathed the room in moonlight. And there under the clockwork, tinted with the dark palette of night, was Snaps cuddled against a cross-legged silent man.
“Hello,” called Phillip. “Is everything OK?”
The man looked at Phillip. The light from the windows animated him and cast a citrus glow that outlined his bushy beard, prominent nose, and hard brow.
“I came here to be alone,” he grumbled.
Phillip shrank back but decided to try again. “But… are you OK? I heard a sound… Are you alone?”
“I said I came here to be alone. So yes… of course I’m alone.”
Of course, he thought. How stupid. Phillip recalculated his approach. “Have you been hurt? Can I hel..”
“Go away!” the man growled. He extended his right arm and pointed at the door. “…and take this mangy mutt with you!”
Offended, Snaps muttered a dog-word, but forgot almost immediately. He took his forepaws and rested them on the stranger’s knee, begging for a pat on the head. He looked down at the mutt with pity, unsurprisingly.
Phillip spied the arm. His hand came from the dingy hole of a well-worn leather jacket. There was a cloth wrapped tightly around his wrist, saturated by something dark and wet.
“Are you bleeding?” asked Phillip.
“You are! What happened here? Let me help you!”
Phillip rushed toward the man. He could tell he was weak. He had to act. Snaps let out a cheerful sound as Phillip knelt beside the man. He reached out to inspect the wound but the man withdrew. Phillip tried again.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” said the stranger. “Please don’t touch it.” He knew he was too weak to keep the boy at a distance. He was almost too weak to speak.
Phillip grabbed his forearm and drew it out. The moonlight was enough at this distance to clearly see the soaked… tourniquet? He looked around for more clues and saw a… sword? It looked clean for the most part.
“That one… didn’t work…” mumbled the stranger.
He inspected the ground some more and saw a bottle of booze, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a bath towel, and a clever. There was a first-aid kit and some other crude medical supplies. The blade was saturated with patches of wet and dried blood. Phillip was mortified.
Phillip grabbed the man’s lifeless hand. It was purple and cold. Instantly Phillip felt a great magnetic force. He tried withdrawing but was completely consumed. Is felt as if his mind was a vast universe that someone had crumpled and compacted like a sheet of tin foil. In this moment, he was a ghost – an expressionless vacuum. The exchange lasted for only a second, but in that second was a feeling of infiniteness. It had never begun, and it never ended. His hand had become an inexplicable conduit to something new. Then, his body renewed upward, starting with his legs. His brain felt like a leg that had fallen asleep. He felt a rush of blood tickle and prickle his entire body uncomfortably.
“What just happened?” Phillip whispered.
“Steven. He was your friend,” said the man.
“What are you talking about?”
“When your best friend died. Your fondest memory of him… it’s so simple – so true.”
Phillip saw the man’s expression. It was as if they were experiencing the same feeling through some kind of emotional mirror. “You knew Steven?”
“No… but I have him now. His essence… Your essence. I have your complete experience of him.”
Phillip gave a blank stare. He was critical, but he wanted to believe. “What are you doing with these blades?”
“I’ve seen… too much, Phillip.”
“How do you know my name?!”
“I see only good in you Phillip. You’re not… like the others…”
The stranger was getting weaker, but he tried to carry on. “They attacked you. They attacked both of you.” He grabbed his wound and groaned. “They made fun of you. Little racists… Steven stood up for you and…” he trailed. “…you both paid the price.”
“I don’t understand. How do you know all this?!” he demanded.
The stranger gurgled and breathed unevenly. “The two of you fought them off. They ran like cowards…” he said. “But like true cowards, they came back for revenge. They killed Steven and made you watch.”
Phillip’s eyes welled with tears. He stared at the stranger in disbelief. “What is your name? How do you know all this?”
“T-Tobias… I took it from you.”
“What do you mean you took it from me?”
“I h-have a gift. …and a curse. Every time I sh…” he trailed. “Every time I shake someone’s hand, I take something from them. A feeling, a memory. A snapshot of who they are in that… moment.”
He paused for a moment. Phillip saw something sincere in Tobias. He believed him, but he could not understand the scene before him.
“Did you try to kill yourself?” asked Phillip.
Tobias laughed as hard as his body would let him. “It must look that way…” He scanned the strange scene he created, shook his head shamefully, and then looked back at Phillip. He collected himself and tried to explain. “I once shook hands with a priest. I saw him… I see him manipulating children. Touching them…”
Phillip looked down, trying not to make eye contact.
“I shook hands with a police officer. He had a relationship with a woman, and when he feared people would learn, he had her killed. He paid someone to set her house on fire in the middle of the night.” Phillip tried to steal a glance but kept his head down as best he could. “He didn’t just kill her, Phillip. Her husband and her son died in that fire, too.”
Tobias was starting to understand.
“I’ve shaken a lot of hands.”
Tobias went silent for a moment. He’d spent most of his energy on these few remarks, but he wasn’t done. “These memories… these experiences… they are mine now. All the good memories I’ve taken… All the bad ones… I experience them as if they are my own… And let me tell you something… trying to cut your hand off with a sword is probably the stupidest thing you could every try. You really need two hands…”
Phillip laughed and was immediately ashamed. Snaps just looked confused.
“I need your help Phillip. Help me.”
Next to Tobias’ foot was a gnarled, knotty wooden bench. He balled his left hand into a fist and pushed it into the ground, using it to scoot himself. As he drew near he folded his right leg and worked himself into a kneel. Then, he took his arm and lay it across the bench. He looked Phillip pleadingly.
“Please.” he said.
Phillip knew what was expected of him. He stepped toward the motley array of tools and eyed the clever. Just moments ago, he was having a peaceful walk with Snaps, and now he’s picking a bloody clever up from the floor! He walked around the bench and found the perfect angle. Then, he looked at Tobias who gave a nod of approval.
Tobias was ready. Phillip raised the blade and counted.
He slammed it down onto Tobias’ wrist. Tobias cried out.
It was clean. It was done.
Tobias’ wrist was already mangled from his own two attempts. It was a disgusting scene. He watched the blood issue forth and then smiled at Phillip who charged into action. He fashioned a new tourniquet and tied it in less than a minute. Then, he cleaned the wound and bandaged it. Tobias smiled at Phillip again.
Tobias sat there, fading in and out of consciousness. “I need to call an ambulance,” said Phillip. He grabbed his phone from his pocket and unlocked it.
Tobias was practically a ghost. His face lost all expression. “Phillip… wait. First I need you to… help me up.”
Phillip already cut off his hand, so he might as well honor the rest of his requests. He sat his phone on the bench and grabbed Tobias’ left arm. Dead weight. He got lower, grabbed him by the waist, and propped him up. He grabbed his left arm again and threw it over his shoulder.
“I want to see the stars.”
Tobias tried his best to support his own weight as Phillip took him toward the window. Tobias was a slug, but they made it.
They stood before the window. “Let me stand, Phillip.” He slowly loosened his grasp on Tobias, and somehow managed to stand. His smile was gone. He thought about the priest. He thought about the policeman. He thought about the teacher. He thought about the judge. He thought about his father. He tried to see God. He couldn’t.
He looked out at the stars and decided to smile anyway. One last time. He started to cry and let the heavy tears fall and soak into the floor. One last time
“Thank you, Phillip.”
Tobias dove for the window and smashed through it spectacularly. Phillip rushed toward the opening and peered out. He started to cry, while Snaps whimpered and ran off. He sat there, evaluating the last 10 minutes. He thought about his best friend. Then, Snaps came running back, whimpering with a severed hand in his mouth. He started to bawl.
“Give me that hand Snaps.”
He started to grab for the hand, but recoiled, remembering what had happened the last time he touched it.
“Snaps, let go of that hand!”
He decided he would have to risk it and grabbed the hand. There was no magnetism. It was just cold. Lifeless. He pulled it gently and Snaps let go of it. He sat it on the bench and thought about Tobias. He thought about how he was going to get Snaps home without a collar. This made him laugh. Then he thought about how he was going to explain this to the police! That made him laugh harder.
He took one last look at the hand, and another look out the window.
“Goodbye Tobias… C’mon boy! Let’s go home.”