Contest #208 shortlist ⭐️

Leaving the Almost Palindrome City: Notes from a Second-Rate Villain

Submitted into Contest #208 in response to: Write a story where the characters start to realize that they are, in fact, just characters.... view prompt


Romance Adventure

What do you do when you realize you're not the hero of your own story? I, for one, have fallen in love, and as this city squeezes itself ever tighter to fit some preordained golden proportion, I take solace in the chaos my love has caused me.

Picture a peacock clock stretching across a city block, all wrought in gold and fashioned after the automatons of old, a nest of gears and sprockets residing in a corner of Miami known as Coconut Grove, a place I've come to call the Almost Palindrome City.

My love sits on her courtyard bench, waiting for the clock to strike 11:00 while breaking the symmetry of citizenry with a multitude of subtle, unbalanced movements. If she were a clock, she'd run both fast and slow. Her yawns last eons as she scrapes graphite across paper as if trying to set it on fire.

I have spent most of the morning behind the clock's main wheel, pretending to polish parts, all while rehearsing my approach.

The clock strikes 11:00. A golden peacock the size of a small bear springs forth from the top half of the tower. Its metallic feathers rattle and shimmer, starting softly then reaching a blinding crescendo to signal the ringing of the first bell.

Sightseers take pictures in unison as I scurry unseen from station to station to make sure nothing falls behind. Bell ten sounds flat and one of the second hand dragonflies rotates slightly out of sync with the rest—I make a mental note to check hairspring E57 and escape wheel B8. The show only lasts two minutes, but I will spend the rest of the day making adjustments to ensure it happens in exactly the same way the next day.

The crowd disperses as the last bell's echo is replaced by businessman broadcasting self-important calls, but she remains on the bench as she has so many times before. The only difference being that today is the day I finally leave the confines of the clock tower to stand before her.

She wear light blue sunglasses, and, by what must be some optical trick, one of her eyes seems to stare over my shoulder. I don't like the way my shadow blots out the sun rounding its way to noon, so I bow while keeping the non-symmetric side of my face hidden.

"Good morning, may I ask your name?"

"Hmm. Yes, you may."

"Wonderful, I will ask you tomorrow."

A startled laugh. "Okay, I'll make sure to have a good name by then."

Without thinking, I turn my full face towards her to smile.

She sits up straighter to inspect me. "You know they would fix that for free."

"I… I prefer to keep it as is." How could I have been such a fool? I make for the safety of the clock tower.

"Hey, hey. Stop. Look."

I obey.

She removes her sunglasses with a flourish.

I see a lazy eye that drifts to the outside, something only a madwoman would keep in this day and age when they hand out corrective surgeries like candy.

My face droops. Her eye drifts. How my heart soars as I hurry away.

I will tune the peacock clock to atomic precision, all the better to count the hours, the minutes, the seconds until I will ask her name the next day.

And that is how I met my love… or in the crude words of Buckminster F.:

"The crooked clockmaker lured the buxom blonde with the wandering eye to his tower with golden-gadgeted promises… little did she know that his so-called mechanical marvels were modeled upon false geometric principles. Fortunately for her, a handsome hero hovered on the horizon."

The writer Buckminster F. doesn't bother to give me a name. He also doesn't bother to mention how she sits on the bench for almost another hour as I steal glances at her from behind the clock's primary pendulum. No details whatsoever about how my love scribbles ever so frantically in her sketchbook, or how she folds the finished product into a paper plane and sends it flying toward the clock tower.

But for all his omissions, Buckminster F. does speak awful truth. Take, for example, his mention of "false geometric principles": I must confess that I am not the most honest of clockmakers.

In my tool belt, I carry a small pen knife, and each and every day, I use it to shave away another little bit of gold from the peacock clock. I pick a different spot each time and deface it ever so precisely. I don't know why I do it. It's not for personal gain. Over the years, I have filled pillowcases with these gold flakes and forgotten about them.

That day, after I unfold my love's paper plane and see her sketch of a distorted clock tower, tilted just so to complement my face, my pen knife slips and peels away a thick slice, marring a golden garden gnome's left eyebrow. When no alarm bells blare, I shave the other eyebrow while imagining a drifting eye watching me with admiration.

The next day, she arrives just after 10:00, and I can't wait until after the show. At 27 minutes to 11:00, I leave my post. She is wearing the same blue sunglasses today, and a volcano erupts across her white t-shirt. A sticker, a name tag, resides within the volcano's plume, and the name tag reads… Eve.

Eve, a palindromic start to our fall from grace, but simply a name first and foremost.

I swallow my disappointment and ask her name anyway.

"Oh, you can call me Evangelina."

Evangelina! Angel, most of evangelize, a line ending not in "e" but "a" moving haphazardly skyward. My love never fails to break the symmetry.

I forget what I say. I must tell her my name, but again, Buckminster F. doesn't give me a real name: I am simply the crooked clockmaker, a second-rate villain, little more than a footnote in his Palindrome City series.

Evangelina frees her eyes from those blue-tinted lenses, and I nearly swoon before she pats a spot on the bench beside her. I sit and we talk of how no clock can keep true time and how no two lines are truly parallel, until she stops mid-sentence and puts her sunglasses back on. Both eyes are now staring over my shoulder.

"Evangelina?" I can't get enough of her name. "Is everything all right?"

"What did you call her?" A hand squeezes my shoulder, each perfectly proportioned finger applying a precise amount of pressure. "Her name is Eve, silly."

The man with his hand on my shoulder is his own mirror image. I didn't hear him approach, probably because he's always "hovering on the horizon" due to Buckminster F.'s impoverished vocabulary.

"You aren't going to introduce me to your…?" He pivots to stand before us, our throats within easy reach of his outspread hands.

"You should go," Evangelina says. I don't know if she's talking to me or the symmetric man.

"I have to ready the clock for the 11:00 show," I say, tasting bitter cowardice.

"Ah, you're the clockmaker. Go then, if your cuckoo clock is calling," says the symmetric man.

"Peacocks don't cuckoo," I say before I can help myself.

"Oh? And what sound do they make?"

"It's more of a may-awe, but there are kas and keows and eows, too."

Evangelina giggles, then gasps when the symmetric man smacks the empty section of bench between us. The wood splinters. My love flees.

"Where are you going, Eve? I thought I saw a mosquito. I said it was a mosquito, Eve!" The symmetric man rounds on me. "You scared her off."

"I must tend to the clock." I try to rise, but he pushes me back against the bench.

"Looks like you're out of time, clockmaker."

Those words. I know I've heard them before and I'll hear them again. They make me gag until I'm dry heaving at his feet.

"Freak," he says it softly, without inflection.

But I know that it marks me for death even as he steps away. He glides across the ground as if it's his personal conveyor belt, Buckminster F.'s handsome hero hovering over the horizon, then disappears from sight behind the clock tower.

The clock tower! I make it to my post with 30 seconds to spare, but as the seventh bell sounds, I suddenly realize the show could run without me. Yes, it would lack precision, but there would still be movement, sound, some semblance of symmetry to help people trick themselves into believing that everything's okay.

After the peacock returns to its perch inside the tower, I climb the winding staircase, snap off one of the bird's long tail feathers, then leave early for the day.

Renner… I know the symmetric man's name is Renner even before I arrive home and haul the box of old books from the crawlspace.

My mother, rest her soul, found the books for me at a garage sale. The Palindrome City series by Buckminster F.—even as a child I realized the writing was crummy, but there was little else to do during the Great Disconnection while a new kind of consciousness spread across cables and coaxed itself into being. If you had a book, any book at all, you read it.

I skim the first book. I wish it were satire, but from the breathless run-on sentences to the psychotic use of alliteration, I get the sense that Buckminster F. truly believes his Palindrome City represents some kind of utopia. The symmetric city is micromanaged by AI with Renner as its champion. He's on every other page, stamping out any disorder that threatens his fair metropolis.

But I don't care about Renner. I'm trying to find myself.

There I am, after a 3-page diatribe about how people who call Palindrome City "PC city" belong to the same group of subhumans who refer to ATMs as "ATM machines."

Buckminster F. mentions the "crooked clockmaker" and the "buxom blonde with the wandering eye." I read every part of the passage several times. It truncates today's confrontation: Renner merely tells me my cuckoo clock is calling and I "scurried off, like a beast of the night."

For the next two pages, Renner hovers outside the buxom blonde's apartment, his eyes "like twin beams of truth, shining supernovas scanning the night for intruders while never straying far from her doorstep."

The bastard… he's stalking Evangelina.

The chapter ends there on page 38.

I turn the page.

Renner and I are on the clock tower. Halfway through the next page, I die.

Did I miss something? I check the page numbers. They skip from 38 to page 49.

I don't sleep that night. How could I when the remaining bulk of my life has been obscured by a misprint?

Evangelina doesn't come to her courtyard bench the next day.

I don't pay attention to the 11:00 show. Instead, I hack chunks of gold from the unprotesting peacock clock, so much so that I have to tighten my belt to keep my pants from dropping. I leave my post early for the second time in a row, dump the gold in my bathtub along with the rest I've accumulated over the years, then venture out into the Almost Palindrome City

By reading and re-reading Buckminster F.'s hackneyed passage, I find enough visual clues to lead me to the street where Evangelina lives.

Renner's there, quick as a flash, before I can even ring her bell.

"Clockmaker, you truly have gone cuckoo if you think—"

"Shut up, Renner. You are symmetry without substance. She doesn't love you."

Renner's right eye twitches, then his left eye joins in to keep the balance.

I know this won't be how I die, but Palindrome City's champion is still terrifying. His attack is merciless but methodical: Left, right, up, down, mirror images converging.

I hang onto Renner for as long as I can. Then, I curl in a ball, doing my best to protect my crooked face.

Someone, probably Evangelina, eventually calls the police. Renner doesn't struggle when the officers lead him away. He shrugs, as if it's a simple misunderstanding. I'm sure in his mind they all serve the same city.

In its infinite wisdom, a judicial AI that serves in place of a human judge, will decide to give Renner three months of house arrest. Evangelina will be terrified, but I'll scan and re-scan every lousy line of the Palindrome City series. There will be no further mention of the "buxom blonde with the wandering eye," and I'll make sure that means she has escaped Buckminster F. and Renner's grasp.

But I'm skipping ahead.

I wake up in a hospital bed with a robot standing over me.

They always send a robot when it's bad news.

"Good day, sir, you are on the mend from your recent injuries. As for the other matter, we are working on a cure. In the meantime, we are pleased to offer a complimentary corrective—"

"Tell me about the other matter in ten words or fewer."

The robot falls silent for a moment. Whether it's meant to be a dramatic pause or it's simply computing my request, I don't know.

"Glioblastoma. You are terminal. We are working on a cure."

They are always working on a cure. Glioblastoma. Brain cancer. That won't be how I die.

When checking myself out of the hospital, I see Evangelina in the waiting room, sleeping in a chair and still wearing her blue sunglasses.

"I didn't let them change your face" is the first thing she says when I wake her.

When I can talk again, I ask her where she would go if she could go anywhere in the world.

"Iceland," she says without hesitation.

The next few months are private in case anyone is foolish enough to republish Buckminster F.'s Palindrome City series with these missing pages 39–48 included.

Just know that I neglect my clockmaker duties. Sometimes, Evangelina and I will go sit on her favorite bench and laugh maniacally when the 11:00 show starts at 11:17 instead.

My face droops, her eye drifts… chaotic heaven.

I return to the clock tower on my own at the appointed hour.

There's a lot that Buckminster F. leaves out.

He leaves out the part about how I melted down all those gold shavings from the peacock clock, and how to fence the gold, I contacted another second-rate villain from the series, a man with the awful name of Ratface Squibbs (who actually turned out to be a decent fellow).

And not all of that gold went into my and Evangelina's joint bank account. Some of it found its way around my finger, and there's a matching ring crossing the Atlantic.

Also, Buckminster F., in his insane quest for perfection, can't handle irrational emotions.

He wouldn't know how to mention the fact that the clockmaker is thinking about when he'll next see Evangelina even as he hears Renner's measured tread coming up the tower's winding staircase.

And where is the symmetry in a crooked clockmaker imagining Evangelina seeing Iceland for the first time while hoping she'll forgive him for lying about how he'd catch the very next flight after doing one last thing at the clock tower?

For all his talk of order, Buckminster F. is sloppy. He left his perfect city unguarded for ten pages, and in those ten pages, a second-rate villain found his salvation.

Right before the clockmaker's final moment, Buckminster F. says, "A squawk sounded in the night." But I can assure you it will not be the clockmaker who squawks.

"You robbed this city of the perfect woman," Renner finally says to announce his presence.

"I regret nothing." I stand tilted and tall, trying to block out the moon with the enormity of my existence.

Renner's mouth moves but no sound comes out. Does he know how many more like me Buckminster F. has lined up for him?

Two identical tears run down his chiseled cheekbones at the exact same speed, but there's nothing I can do except mouth his next line to him.

"Looks like you're out of time, clockmaker."

Renner sobs, and it sounds like…

"A squawk sounded in the night as the crooked clockmaker plummeted headfirst to the pavement below, became just another blemish on the sidewalk to be wiped clean from Palindrome City as it marched ever closer to pristine perfection."

July 29, 2023 03:57

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Hannah Abrams
18:18 May 27, 2024

Very interesting. Good job.


Robert Egan
19:43 May 27, 2024

Thanks Hannah!


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Amanda Lieser
16:10 Sep 12, 2023

Hi Robert! Oh my goodness the incredible pros for this piece was beautiful. I noticed that some of the other writers were pointing out other pieces of writing that they thought of when reading this story so I thought I would add my own. As a child, my sister was obsessed with the book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret.” It included, stunning illustrations of clocks, and my mind immediately went back to that place while reading this piece. Your exceptional imagery truly jumped off the page. Congratulations on the short list!!


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03:03 Aug 05, 2023

Congrats on your story! The dialogue reminds me of the Phantom Tollbooth. You walk the line between prose and poetry. Very creative. -H.M.Pierce


Robert Egan
21:39 Aug 05, 2023

Thank you, H.M. Pierce! I love the Phantom Tollbooth and re-read it recently.


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21:05 Sep 05, 2023


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Story Time
16:33 Aug 08, 2023

I love how specific the world you created is. This is the kind of offbeat writing I enjoy in my spare time and I'm thrilled to see it on here. Well done.


Robert Egan
20:00 Aug 08, 2023

Thanks Kevin, and I'm glad you enjoyed the story!


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Philip Ebuluofor
06:42 Aug 07, 2023

Congrats. Your description ability is worth learning from. Fine work.


Robert Egan
19:57 Aug 08, 2023

Thank you, Philip!


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Mary Bendickson
03:59 Aug 06, 2023

Such an art. Congrats on shortlist. Must read your previous one. For some reason don't recall it though it was recent. Must have missed it that week.


Robert Egan
20:09 Aug 08, 2023

Thanks Mary!


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17:39 Aug 05, 2023

Congratulations! This is such a bizarre world and story with so much going on it's breathtaking. This had to have taken ages to put together! Master craftsmanship I am in awe. Beautiful!


Robert Egan
21:33 Aug 05, 2023

Thank you, Derrick! Your comment means a lot to me because I really want to be able to build worlds. I wrote this one specifically for what I thought was an awesome prompt, but the "Great Disconnection" detail mentioned in passing here actually comes from an earlier Quantum Banana story for another prompt. So, they're probably part of the same world with this one coming 20 to 30 years later!


08:20 Aug 06, 2023

Interesting! Ill check that out 🤘


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J. D. Lair
15:20 Aug 04, 2023

Congrats on another shortlist! :)


Robert Egan
15:46 Aug 04, 2023

Thank you sir! I'm really happy about this one.


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Jeanne Egan
20:49 Aug 03, 2023

Well written. Love the imaginary


Robert Egan
15:47 Aug 04, 2023

Glad you liked it! Thanks for reading it.


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17:01 Jul 29, 2023

Brilliant. Possibly the best story I’ve ever read on Reedsy. It’s very James Thurber, so quirky and playful and also really serious about the business of narrative. I started to flag lines like this: « If she were a clock, she'd run both fast and slow. Her yawns last eons as she scrapes graphite across paper as if trying to set it on fire » to compliment you on, but then I realized it’s all I’d do today. Love it!


Robert Egan
17:06 Aug 03, 2023

Wow, thank you for the high praise, Anne! I have to confess I'm not familiar with James Thurber, but your comment has convinced me to check out The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Your kind words made my day, and I'm looking forward to reading more of your stories as well.


19:10 Aug 03, 2023

I don’t know that one. I was thinking of his children’s books The Wonderful O and The Thirteen Clocks. Yours isn’t for kids, but it has the same mad quality and live of words


15:15 Aug 04, 2023

Congratulations. I'm happier that this got shortlisted than if mine own had!


Robert Egan
15:48 Aug 04, 2023

Thanks Anne!


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