Fiction: The Brightmore Problem

Read More: A brief interview with Bruce Johnson

Jim McFiddle, the mailman, was the first to voice concern. It was six o’clock on a Friday evening, and like usual he was in Jen’s Tavern, the only bar in Brightmore. He had his blue mailbag sitting next to him, filled with letters he hadn’t had time to deliver that day. So far Jim had drunk three beers. He ordered a fourth and while Jen the barkeep refilled his glass he sprinkled salt on his coaster. He didn’t like it to stick to the bottom of the glass.

“Lately I feel like my days go by faster and faster,” he said to Jen. He took a big gulp of beer. Out loud it sounded like a small admission, but he felt a great load lift as he said it, a heaviness he hadn’t even noticed before. His days had indeed been slipping by at far greater speed than ever before. He was able to deliver less and less mail each day before dark, and each morning he felt like he’d barely had time to shut his eyes before the clock started to buzz. At night when he came home and made love to his wife, he could only make her come once before they had to get to sleep, if even that. But it didn’t seem like he was doing any of these things slower or less efficiently than usual. He would just glance up at the clock and suddenly realize what had felt like a half hour was a full hour, what had felt like only a decent start was by now surely making his wife sore.

Of course, he didn’t say all this to Jen. He just said his days were going faster. To his shock her eyes got real wide. She took the bar rag off her shoulder and started wringing it excitedly in her hands. “You know, I feel the same way?” Jen said. “Like all of a sudden time is evaporating on me.”

There were murmurs of assent along the bar. Sam Kingsley, sitting beside Jim, said he was able to fix fewer television sets every day. Eleanor Bunker said she practically had to sprint from gas meter to gas meter to get the right readings. Todd Moss, the kindergarten teacher, told them all reluctantly he was teaching their children a little less each day. Last year by this time the young crop could all spell simple words; this year they barely knew their ABCs.

Jim’s mouth hung open a little. He looked from bar patron to bar patron. He hadn’t meant to stir up anything, and frankly if it wasn’t for all their faces looking so sincerely astonished he would have thought they were pulling his leg. “Well, it’s just a feeling I got is all,” Jim said. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” He was a practical man. If nothing could be done about a thing, he thought it best not to pay that thing any mind. He shouldn’t have opened his mouth in the first place.

Jen looked from Jim to the other customers. She started to fan herself with a drink menu. “Nuh uh,” she said. “That’s no good for me. I’m positively freaked out.” She poured herself a shot of whiskey with a Coke back, though normally she waited until at least eight before she started drinking at work.

Sally Huntsberger, the woman that ran Brightmore Shop & Pawn, had hitherto been quiet. She, like Jim, was a practical person, and had thought at first that all the others were just pulling each other’s legs. But now she felt like she ought to speak up, even if it made her look the fool. “I don’t know how to tell you all this,” she said, “but it gets worse.”

Here she pulled an old clock out of her purse and set it on the bar. She knew her eyes were shot through with red lines, and she hoped she didn’t look too crazy. What little sleep she’d gotten lately counted for less and less. She’d taken to carrying this analog clock, a small black boxy thing someone had pawned, around with her and taking it out whenever she had a moment alone. She figured she was the first to make the discovery. Nobody carried watches anymore, they just used their phones.

She asked Jen to turn down the radio. Jen did. Sally let the clock sit there and said she didn’t notice anything at first. And then when she did, she thought the problem was just this particular clock. “But it’s not the clock,” Sally said. “It’s every clock, every watch. It’s happening everywhere. Listen.”

The bar became very still as they all listened. It let out a rough, metallic click with each second. It seemed strange that anyone would want a clock so loud, Jim thought. It was bound to drive one crazy after a while.

“My god,” Jen said.

Todd Moss popped his knuckles nervously.

“What?” Jim asked. “I don’t hear anything.”

“At first I thought it was just this clock,” Sally repeated. “But it’s every clock. They’re all like this.” She started to count along with the beat of the second hand. “One missus, two missus, three missus, four…”

“It’s so fast,” Jen said.

Sally nodded. “And it’s getting worse. It was so slight at first I thought it was my imagination. I could get through a solid ‘One mississip’ before we were on to the next second.” She pulled out her phone and went to time.gov for the official U.S. time. “Look,” she said. “It’s the same. One missus, two missus, three missus….”

They were all spooked by the revelation. Even Jim, who was still trying to convince himself that there was some reasonable explanation, that they were making a big deal out of what had been only an innocent comment. Someone turned on the news and they watched the clock at the bottom. It lined up perfectly with what Sally’s phone said, and very nearly with what the pawned clock said. After that there seemed a general consensus that all that could be done was to tie one on. There were a couple rounds of top shelf whiskey on the house. They all speculated forlornly what “aged ten years” could really mean to anyone now.

“It means we’ve all got less time left than ever before,” Todd said sadly. Jim replied that that had always been true for everybody anyway, at each given moment, and finished his whiskey in one great gulp.

When Jim got home that night, he was so drunk he could barely stand. He finally slumped into bed at two in the morning, and his wife Hannah was already asleep. She’d declined his invitation to join him at the tavern, said she was tired and had a headache. He started to press himself up against her clumsily and kissed her ear and the side of her neck. She woke up just enough to elbow him away. “In the morning,” she said. “I’m trying to sleep.”

He lay there a long while staring at the digital clock on his nightstand as his wife snored beside him. He watched the minutes fall away. He told himself it was all some trick of the clock in the bar, maybe something Sally had played. Or a bad cell phone connection, bad TV reception. Something was off in the technology somewhere, that was all. And even if there really was something off with the time (which there wasn’t) it’s not like anyone could do anything about it anyway. He tried to count to sixty Mississippi to see if it lined up with a minute on his bedside clock but he kept losing count. He knew if he and Hannah could just get it on, he could have her quivering with pleasure in no time, faster than ever. That would prove Sally wrong, he thought to himself. He shut his eyes and went to sleep.

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The next day Jim woke with a hangover that felt like holy judgment on all his misdeeds. His head hurt something terrible, and his guts were knotted up inside his stomach. He spent his morning on the toilet, doing all he could not to doze off. Thankfully it was Sunday, so there was no mail to deliver. He felt as if he’d gotten almost no sleep at all. That afternoon, when he was finally feeling right in the head again and had chalked up the revelations of the night before to alcohol-inspired paranoia, he got a call from Sally Huntsberger.

He was lying on his couch watching reruns of Cheers when his phone started to buzz. It wriggled its way toward him on the coffee table.  He didn’t recognize the number but the area code was Brightmore so he picked it up and said hello.

“Jim,” she said. “It’s Sally Huntsberger.”

Jim sat up on the couch and looked around. His house was rather large, and it seemed Hannah was at the other end of it. He thought he remembered her saying something about going to lie down awhile. That was good. He wanted to put the nonsense of the night before behind him, and if he could avoid having to explain it to his wife then that was all the better.

“What do you want, Sally?” he said quietly into the phone. It came out harsher than he’d meant it.

On the other end, Sally laughed. “It’s good to talk to you, too,” she said. Then she explained excitedly that she’d woken up that morning with, as she put it, “a wild hair up her ass,” and decided to do a little bit of digging on what she kept calling the “Brightmore Problem.”

He wanted to interrupt her, to tell her there was no reason to let their drunken musings from the night before get them all bent out of shape, but there didn’t seem to be a suitable pause in her ravings. And besides, he wanted to be careful not to say anything too specific his wife might hear. Sally explained that there seemed to be no temporal deviation from the night before as of yet, things were holding steady around “one missus,” both on the pawnshop clock (exhibit one) and on time.gov (exhibit two). Then she’d found what she called a “control group” (here Jim was fairly sure she was not using this term correctly) in little Billy Baptist, who was riding his bike on the street. She’d had him count along with the pawnshop clock and he’d also gotten through “n missus” with each tick of the second hand. This showed the problem was not isolated to “us older folks.” Like Jim, Sally was in her early forties.

But this is when things got real strange, Sally said. Because this all had her so freaked out she’d decided to go see her sister Sam, who lived on a farm outside Yawpton, maybe fifty miles away. She’d arrived nearly incoherent, bursting into tears as she drove up the long dirt drive to the farmhouse. Her sister’s husband was sure it was something some man had done, and kindly offered to kick the crap out of whoever that was. And when she’d gotten inside, blubbering incoherently and unable to speak, she’d pulled the clock out of her purse and tried to demonstrate her findings to her sister and her sister’s husband. And then, to both her horror and also her great relief, the clock ticked off the seconds at a reasonable speed, there in her sister’s house: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four.

Now Sally hadn’t known what to think. She’d accepted some tea from her sister and said it was nothing, the problem was nothing, just man troubles she’d rather not talk about, she just needed to get away for an afternoon. On her way back to Brightmore, though, Sally had set the pawnshop clock on the seat beside her. Every so often, she’d count along. Sure enough, the seconds got quicker as she neared Brightmore. Twenty miles out it was n mississip. Ten miles out n mississi. Then, as you crossed the town limits, it was back down to n missus.

“It’s Brightmore,” Sally whispered into the phone, her voice betraying fear and wonder. “The problem is Brightmore.” […]


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Bruce Johnson is a PhD candidate in the University of Southern California Creative Writing & Literature program, and holds an MFA in Fiction from University of Nevada-Las Vegas. His work has appeared in Joyland, Cutthroat, The Adroit Journal, The Los Angeles Review, and The Able Muse, among other journals. He lives with his wife and two cats in Quito, Ecuador, where he is working on his dissertation.

Bruce Johnson was a runner-up in the 2017 New Writer Awards (fiction).

Read More: A brief interview with Bruce Johnson