Contest #148 shortlist ⭐️

Like Clockwork

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write a story involving a noise complaint. ... view prompt

34 comments

Historical Fiction Speculative Christmas

If you would have told me a year ago that I’d fall in love with the noisy neighbor in Apt. 2704-110B after he had me poisoned, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the beginning. Me: Professor Clive Hargraves of Gaslight City’s School of Magic. A refined gent and one of the last remaining practicing magicians in London. In fact, magic had fallen so out of favor that the scholars of our time, the likes of Darwin and Huxley, suggested that humans were evolving past it! Poppycock, I say!

But enough about me. The story began when a clockwork tinkerer by the name of Baxter Kirk moved into the apartment next door…


⚙ ⚙ ⚙


The steady hum permeated through the thin wall between our apartments at exactly nine o’clock every evening. Though I’d moved the bed to the opposite end of the studio, it was a futile attempt whenever the staccato sounds of a drill bit chomped into tungsten. At least, that was what I assumed my noisy neighbor—

BZZZZZZZZZZZZkrrghhgrgggBZZZZZZZbrrrhhhggggbrrhrhhh

I rose from the mattress, my teeth grinding as the mechanical shriek pierced through the barrier. One would think, given the exorbitant monthly rent, that the walls of Skywork City Apartments wouldn’t be as thin as ice on a warm day of spring. 

Enough was enough. 

Nary a thought to my wardrobe, I rushed to the neighbor’s door and knocked. Several unsuccessful attempts led to pounding. Apparently, I’d be able to skip my arm exercises this week.

When the ruckus paused, footsteps sounded on the other side, coming closer. A thin man answered. He looked young, resembling a tall schoolboy more than an adult, betrayed only by the worry lines on his face. A pair of protective lenses dangled around his neck by a leather strap. Black ash, presumably from sparks, stained his leather gloves.

“Can I help you?” he asked, tilting his head with a raised eyebrow. “Your pajamas have birds on them.”

I inhaled a calming breath. “Have you any idea what time it is?”

The man fished a pocket watch out of his leather apron, squinting at the contraption. “Hmm. Needs a new battery. Sorry, I don’t know the time. Check back later.”

He slammed the door shut, breaking not only Rule #5 in the Gentleman’s Manual of Etiquette, but also shattering my faith in humanity.

Back at my apartment, I wrote a strongly worded letter to the building management. Aside from the noisy neighbor, they had yet to fix the broken gas lamps. How long would an esteemed member of society need to wait for heat during a London winter?


⚙ ⚙ ⚙


I waved the wand in circular motions, finally perfecting the spell. A translucent sound barrier enveloped the room, and for the first night in over a week, there was peace at last. I leaned back with an arm hooked over the back of my desk chair, enjoying the silence. No drilling sounds. No clinking or clanking of gears on metal.

About halfway through my stack of student papers, I sipped on brandy, choking on the chalky texture. Somehow, flecks of dust had gotten into my evening drink. But from where?

My body tensed when a jolt through the wall tipped the glass over. How would I maintain an air of pretentious sophistication by returning stained spell scrolls to aspiring wizards and witches?

I rapped on his door, thuds in rapid succession to ensure he would hear it. Once again, the man answered, this time maintaining the goggles over his face with the same leather apron and burnt gloves.

“Oh, hello again,” he said.

“You know why I’m here.”

“Right,” he said, scratching his chin. “Come in, then.”

“Uh, no actually…”

But before I could finish, he’d already disappeared back inside the apartment. Gaslight flickered over the narrow hall overlooking a mahogany side table with a shiny polish. To my right, an empty rosewood hat rack and umbrella stand greeted me as I closed the door.

The studio floor plan mirrored my own, but was decorated more like a workshop than actual living quarters. To my surprise, the room was immaculate, filled with a variety of metal and clockwork knickknacks. The apartment was well-composed: a workbench; many mechanical contraptions; and a pair of leather chairs. I took to the settee in a corner, stunned at how much open space he had compared to my room.

“Here you are, Mr…”

“Clive.”

“Right,” he said with an outstretched hand. “Mr. Clive.”

“No, my name is Clive Hargraves. Just call me Clive.”

“Okay. I’m Baxter Kirk.” No intonation in his voice, very matter-of-fact.

In his hand rested a stunning half hunter pocket watch, complete with a delicately engraved satin scroll and roman numerals. It ticked and tocked between us with a see-through cover, showing the inner workings of the cogs and gears.

I tilted my head to one side with pursed lips. “Why are you holding a watch?”

He removed his goggles, exposing thin and pale skin contrasted by sharp, yet appealing, features. “Yesterday. You asked me for the time. Now, you don’t have to ask.”

He took my hand in his, setting the watch in my palm, our gaze meeting in the middle for a moment before he turned back to his workbench.

“Uh, thanks.”

He ignored me, taking a hammer to a sheet of metal instead.

“Where is your bed?” I asked.

“You’re sitting on it.”

“This is merely a sofa, Baxter.”

He shrugged as he took sandpaper to a sheet of tungsten. “It suits me well enough.”

“And your dining table?”

Another shrug. “Eating cooked meals is inefficient. But! I’ve found a way to process food into a liquid form for consumption.” 

He rushed into the kitchen, removing various fruits and vegetables from his fridge and throwing them into a cylinder made of glass. He pressed a button, and gears turned underneath as blades whacked inside the contraption. 

I covered my ears as the kitchen wailed like a siren song in the sea. It was no wonder the apartment was noisy; there were machines everywhere. He returned, this time his tawny eyes lit by animation, his countenance suddenly striking. Whether it was passion or madness, I could not tell, but it definitely made him unexpectedly handsome.

“Here.” He shoved a straw into my mouth, holding a glass filled with green liquid. “I don’t have a name for it yet, but it will be the fancy of every noble person’s eye. Drink.”

The bitter taste activated my gag reflex, and I spit the liquid into a handkerchief. “It’s no wonder you’re so thin. This is awful.”

He frowned, taking the straw into his mouth and sipping. “I think it tastes fine.”

Baxter returned to his workstation, heating a brass oval with a blowtorch. Combined with the gas lamps scattered throughout the apartment, although odd, his place radiated warmth. Quite different from the chilly prison of my room.

He turned to look at me, wide eyes magnified through the protective lenses of his brass goggles. “Was there something else?” He blinked rapidly as he stared, reminding me of a frog.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Uh, no. It’s just warmer here than in my apartment. More comfortable.”

He switched off the blowtorch, then pressed several buttons on the console beside the workbench. “Oh, that’s because I rerouted the gas in our shared pipes to power my torch.” He held it up in the air, as if taunting me.

“What?” My voice was sharper than the blades in his food processing contraption.

“I rerouted the gas—”

“I heard you the first time!”

“Oh, sorry, you said ‘what’, so I thought you didn’t hear me.”

“Unbelievable!”

I stormed out of his apartment, slamming the door behind me.

As I flipped the pocket watch over and over between my fingers, there were three things I tried to shove away: the anger raging inside me, the excitement in his eyes when he played with his mechanical inventions, and the taste of bitter vegetables still lingering on the roof of my mouth.


⚙ ⚙ ⚙


A kaleidoscope of colors bubbled in the pot. Vegetable soup comforted me, providing a much needed source of warmth in the harsh winter, in more ways than one. Prince Albert was dead; he’d passed away late Saturday evening, reportedly from typhoid fever. The bells of St. Paul’s had rung out at midnight, the chimes reaching even the Skywork City floating above London. He’d always been regarded as a noble figure, a man who represented the very best of English dignity and good sense. Not so different from myself, and it was a chilling reminder of our mortality as humans.

Like clockwork, the tumultuous serenade of sounds filled my apartment at nine o’clock. I ladled the soup into a container suited for traveling, along with a pair of bowls, napkins, and spoons. After the incident with pulped vegetables, I resolved to bring the poor chap actual food tonight.

When he opened the door, the smell of steel and sulfur greeted me, along with the whir of tiny mechanical bugs flitting about. At first, I thought they may have been large dragonflies or fairies. One of them hovered in the air in front of me, a flutter of metallic skin, wings shaped from glass, and delicate gears that spun from its back, glittering like tinsel. Another quirky invention.

“Don’t worry. They won’t hurt,” Baxter said as he led me into his apartment.

“What are they, exactly?”

“Clockwork hummingbirds. I got the idea from your pajamas.”

Heat flushed up my neck. “What do they do?”

Baxter shrugged. “They’re programmed to sting intruders with an alchemical concoction of bloodthistle.”

“What?!” 

“Don’t worry. They don’t attack friends.”

I swatted at one hovering too close to my nose, and a stinging sensation pricked the end of my finger.

“Uh oh,” he said.

“Baxter! What in the—”

The room tilted and spun around me. I opened my mouth, but before I could get a single word out, darkness tugged at the corners of my vision, and the apartment faded to black as I crumpled into the floor.


⚙ ⚙ ⚙


The sharp smell of bleach burned my nostrils as I woke up. At some point, Baxter had moved me from the kitchen onto his settee. I rubbed at my head as I propped myself up on my elbows, dizziness replaced with throbbing.

“You poisoned me!”

“Technically, you activated their defense mechanism when you attacked.”

“It wasn’t as if I was wielding a weapon, now was it?”

Baxter shrugged. “They’ve never seen soup before. Perhaps they thought it was gasoline.”

“I beg your pardon? My vegetable soup is most certainly not gasoline!”

“Have you tasted it?” The tinkerer grinned, his tawny eyes fixed on me with a single-mindedness that made my pulse tremble. 

I cleared my throat. “Speaking of…”

“Oh, yes. One moment.”

He flashed a broad grin, rushing to his workbench and returning with a cast iron pan in one hand and a blowtorch in the other. After a few minutes of heating, he sat beside me, holding a spoonful of soup to my mouth.

“Open,” he said.

A flush crept across my cheeks as I obeyed. “What happened to the ceramic bowls I brought?”

“Shattered,” he said, very matter-of-fact as he tasted the soup.

“Shame. I’d purchased those at a quaint shop in South Kensington.”

He shrugged. “My calculations deemed you more valuable than the bowls. Besides, I’d always wanted to test the antidote.”

“You mean to tell me you weren’t sure if the antidote would work?”

“My inventions always work.”

“Right. Like the food you manufacture in that glass machine?”

“Oh! I am thinking of calling it a blender.” He flashed a broad grin, rushing to his workbench to pull paper designs as I curled into the fleece blanket he had wrapped around me while I was unconscious. Though I wouldn’t describe him as “normal,” he had a natural way about him when he was excited about something. Sitting this close, he smelled of incense mixed with evening fog, a mesmerizing concoction.

I held another spoonful for him, which he gulped while he reviewed the blueprints of his mechanical vegetable hacker.

“So? How is it?” I asked. “The soup, I mean.”

His mouth curved upward into a smile after he swallowed. “Tastes like magic.”


⚙ ⚙ ⚙


After the poisoning encounter, we repeated the ritual every night. Well, not the near-death part. But I’d come home from the university, listening to the cacophony of sounds breaching the shared wall of our apartments as I cooked. Nights turned into weeks, and I found myself at his place on Christmas Eve. 

“For a tinkerer, you have a lot of books about people,” I said. 

I ran my fingers along the spines of texts on his shelf, stopping when I arrived on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. When I pulled it from its place, wrinkled pieces of paper fell to the ground by my feet. 

You know when you do something and it comes back to haunt you later? My mother had always told me to leave well enough alone, but of course, as a refined gent, I believed that in a perfect world, justice must be upheld. So imagine my horror when I recognized the handwriting on those crumpled papers on the floor: the complaint letters I’d sent to the apartment manager. 

And tucked inside the book’s inner cover: an eviction notice.

“I’ve always preferred machines.” His voice was dry like winter air.

My chest tightened as I turned to face him. When did he have such… intensity in the way he looked at me? Had it always been there, hidden underneath the guise of goggles? Or had I just overlooked it amidst all the noise?

“Have you read it?”

The eviction notice, or the book? 

“I’m a university professor,” I said in a tone more arrogant than I’d planned. “Of course I’ve read Darwin.”

“What do you suppose Mr. Darwin is saying?”

“Adapting oneself to changing circumstances to ensure survival. But he spoke in terms of evolutionary theory. What of machines?”

“None of us can avoid progress. We must change ourselves to grow with the times. It’s that or risk being left behind.”

He had a point. As a child, I’d never dreamed of floating cities powered by steam, nor fluttering mechanical hummingbirds of death. Yet, here I stood, in front of the clockwork tinkerer, proven wrong on both accounts. Even university admissions were dropping at the school of magic. Were machines the future?

“Besides,” he said as he pulled the goggles over his face. “Machines won’t break your heart.”

My mouth fell open. The silence hung between us like a pesky aunt after a dinner party.

He pointed to a box resting beside me on the workbench.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s Christmas Eve. Human tradition typically expects an exchange of items as a form of endearment. Open it.”

My lips pressed together as I pulled tape from the cardboard, the ripping sound like a dagger into my heart. I’d return to peaceful nights, free from hammers striking steel and the hum of torches. To a time before a noisy neighbor forced me outside of my protective magical bubble.

I lifted the contraption inside: a curved band of hardened rubber, firm, yet elastic, fitted with what appeared to be cushioned cups. My eyebrows furrowed as I studied the gadget.

His hand took mine, guiding a key into the keyhole on one of the cups. My skin tingled underneath his callused fingers, his touch almost reverent as we moved in unison to wind up the device.

“I don’t have a name for it yet,” he said. “But if you place it over your ears, it will cancel out all sound for up to one hour when fully wound up.” 

The clockwork gears clicked in a steady rhythm, and my lips pursed with skepticism as he secured the cups over both ears. Alas, the world was suddenly silent, devoid of the flutter of mechanical hummingbirds. Absent of the ticks and tocks from the grandfather clock in the room's corner. Even the sound of my own heartbeat had been erased.

But a world without Baxter… felt wrong.

I threw the muting machine off my head. Baxter’s mouth gaped as gears crashed onto the floor beside us, his eyes rapidly blinking as they flickered from the floor back to me.

“That took me two days to make. You don’t like it?”

“Stay with me, Baxter. In my apartment.”

His head flinched back slightly. “I don’t understand. Isn’t this what you wanted?”

“Yes,” I said, a knot in my stomach. “I mean, no. Not anymore.”

“I’m a tinkerer, Clive. What can I do without a workshop?”

“I’ll find you a place at the university. Perhaps the age of magic is over, and we need to teach the children about machines. You know, like Darwin said.”

I placed both hands on his goggles, pulling them back down so he couldn’t hide. Not from the world, and certainly not from me. I’d learned that even if his actions seemed strange, his eyes were always true. 

And there they were. Tawny eyes lit by animation, speaking the words he himself could not say just yet. 

“What about you?” he asked. “I’m noisy, like clockwork.”

My gaze shifted to the muting device on the ground, and my breath hitched as mechanical hummingbirds danced around us, the outward expression of a feeling I’d kept hidden away, suddenly unlocked. Perhaps the future was not to replace magic with machinery, but for both to evolve together and coexist.

I took his hands into mine, a smile tugging at my lips. “I’ll adapt to the noise.”

June 01, 2022 03:16

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34 comments

Riel Rosehill
07:17 Jun 01, 2022

Hermit hut visit, woohoo! So, I'm screaming - this story omg, this is my new favourite thing ever! Just how is it so good? How?! "Shippable" sounds like a massive understatement. We need a stronger word. Damn... I can't even articulate how much I loved this. Both characters were so quirky and fun, you just nailed those personalities and I was hooked and rooting for them. My tinkerer guy, he's such a sweet chaotic guy. Here's the notes I made: That opening sentence... It's so good!! Instant capital HOOK. I loved that scene when they f...

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J.C. Lovero
22:44 Jun 01, 2022

Hello there Ri Ri~ Woohoo, hermit hut party! So glad you enjoyed Baxter and Clive. Admittedly, they are such a cute couple and a joy to write! Glad you enjoyed the humor. I was going for a hoity-toity type with Clive, so I'm happy that the quirky, chaotic tinkerer came through. You can thank Shea for the idea to have the hummingbirds poison Clive. Her idea! So honored you've dubbed this a fave story of yours! PS: Well, I did say Christmas came early last week 😅 😂 🤣 Looking forward to reading what you come up with! xoxo

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Shea West
06:16 Jun 01, 2022

🙌🙌🙌 You already know how I feel about this❤️❤️

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J.C. Lovero
22:47 Jun 01, 2022

Couldn't have done it without you! Thanks for chopping it up and spitting it back out. I owe ya girl! 🤝 🙏 💪

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Shea West
22:48 Jun 01, 2022

Nothing a little chiffonade action with the knife couldn't do!

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Zack Powell
05:50 Jun 01, 2022

I'm, like, 99.9% confident that you're the first and only person on Reedsy who has this specific genre tag configuration. "Historical Fiction," "Speculative," AND "Christmas"? Ok, kween! I see you! First things first: That HOOK! (Capital H, capital Os, capital K.) You know how much I love first sentences. This opening is everything - and you followed through on the poisoning bit instead of just having it for show. Easily my favorite first sentence of yours: immediate establishment of character, conflict (neighbor is noisy and will poison th...

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J.C. Lovero
22:51 Jun 01, 2022

Pen Pal Zaddy! Isn't that a fun combination tag? Reedsy doesn't have steampunk, so I had to go with speculative instead. AND I was limited to three, or else I would've thrown gay and romance on there for good measure. Ah well, can't have everything, right? I know how much you enjoy first + last sentences. Happy to please! Appreciate the notes about dialogue. I admit that I prefer dialogue to heavy description and tend to lean on that more in my writing. If I ever co-write a book with someone, they'll need to be good at description because...

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Zack Powell
14:17 Jun 10, 2022

OMG, OMG, OMG! Another shortlist! It's about time, Reedsy!

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J.C. Lovero
00:17 Jun 11, 2022

Congrats to you as well, co-shortlist buddy!

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Michał Przywara
02:58 Jun 02, 2022

Killer opening line! The characters are fun, and very distinct. Both came through strong, both had their own voices, their respective troubles -- coming to terms with a world that was leaving magic behind; struggling in a world that didn't yet understand machines -- and both developed throughout. It wasn't a funny story per se, but it was a fun story with very funny moments. "Have you any idea what time it is?" ... "Sorry, I don’t know the time. Check back later." Lol! But there's lots of them, like the poison hummingbird, etc. I am gl...

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J.C. Lovero
09:34 Jun 02, 2022

Hello there! Thanks for the compliment about the opening. I'm shocked more people don't fall in love with people who poison them 😜 🤪 🤨 I had a lot of fun with both of these characters and the topic of magic vs machine. Like you, fantasy and sci-fi are my preferred default genres (second and third to romance, of course) so it was fun to mash these all together under a Christmas backdrop!

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Michał Przywara
20:58 Jun 10, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!

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J.C. Lovero
00:13 Jun 11, 2022

Thanks friend!

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Suma Jayachandar
05:49 Jun 01, 2022

J.C This is simply brilliant on so many counts! You have totally nailed the period, tone of the POV character suited to the geography you have placed him in and the overall theme of evolution. The details, pacing and the reveals- all worked to perfection. It was a very creative take on the prompt. P.S. - my fave line, 'The silence hung between us like a pesky aunt after a dinner party.' Best of luck!

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J.C. Lovero
22:54 Jun 01, 2022

Hi Suma! So glad you stopped by for a read and a comment! I had fun with this narrator's tone. Quite different from my own and it was a blast to explore. Good luck to you as well!

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Alex Sultan
07:29 Jul 10, 2022

Hi, friend - I really liked this story. I thought it was so impressive! You've nailed the Romance genre, definitely your calling, and I enjoyed every second of it. The imagery and setting was unique and clever. To point stuff out in specifics, I liked the humour a lot, especially with the “I rerouted the gas—” line. Baxter was so well written! It was nice how you have him be passionate about his work, with his eyes lighting up and his excitement as he talks about his craft. I'm not saying Clive was not well written, but Baxter stole the sho...

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J.C. Lovero
13:52 Jul 10, 2022

Alex, my favorite historical/fantasy fiction writerly friend 😍 🥰 😘 Glad you stopped by to read this story. I had a blast writing this couple. AND like you, a lot of people really enjoyed Baxter. He definitely stole the show with his quirky personality. Poison scene was a fun little twist - gotta put some conflict in there, right?! And of course, this installment came with a happy ending! Ah yes, "PPS. Remember that I love you" - not quite done with that one yet. I'm hoping to submit it somewhere else and see how it performs!

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Kevin Broccoli
17:32 Jun 11, 2022

Yes!!! Congratulations, my friend. "The silence hung between us like a pesky aunt after a dinner party." You're so good at coming up with those lines you take away with you after the story. I think this was such a knockout. Well done.

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J.C. Lovero
19:34 Jun 11, 2022

Thanks Kevin! Appreciate the kind words. Looking forward to reading your next masterpiece!

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Deidra Lovegren
17:57 Jun 10, 2022

Oh please tell me there will be a sequel... Best name: Clive Best line: BZZZZZZZZZZZZkrrghhgrgggBZZZZZZZbrrrhhhggggbrrhrhhh Just kidding. This is my favorite line: "Perhaps the future was not to replace magic with machinery, but for both to evolve together and coexist." And you can replace the word "magic" with religion, politics, generational tyranny, etc.

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J.C. Lovero
00:15 Jun 11, 2022

Hi Deidra! Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment. Yes, Baxter and Clive have become a fan favorite. I anticipate more from them in the future 😍 🥰 Glad you picked up on the subtext 🧐

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15:51 Jun 10, 2022

Congrats, J.C.! Love the style and voiciness of this piece. Well deserved shortlist. :)

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J.C. Lovero
00:16 Jun 11, 2022

Thanks so much Shuvayon!

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14:32 Jun 10, 2022

Congratulations, JC!!! 🎖🏅🎖🏅🎖🏅 Well deserved. ✍️📓💻⌨️💼🎒👨‍💻

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J.C. Lovero
00:16 Jun 11, 2022

Thanks Gabriela!

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Dj Playz
20:32 Jun 06, 2022

Reading this for the 3rd time :)

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J.C. Lovero
22:24 Jun 06, 2022

So glad you enjoy it! I do like Baxter and Clive as a chaotic steampunk couple 😍 🥰

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Rebecca Miles
07:02 Jun 06, 2022

You did your research but dropped it in ever so lightly to develop the historical context. I loved the narrator's nerdiness as it set off perfectly his bumbling through the blossoming relationship. It made it funny AND plausible. Enjoyed this one on a German Monday morning!

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J.C. Lovero
22:43 Jun 06, 2022

Hi Rebecca! Appreciate the compliment. Historical fiction is definitely not a genre I am comfortable with, so I'm glad it didn't come across as heavy-handed. Admittedly, this couple became one of my favorites as I wrote them. Nerds unite!

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Jared Lenover
13:07 Jun 05, 2022

Delightful! 😀

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J.C. Lovero
13:22 Jun 05, 2022

Hi Jared, Thanks for the read and comment! Glad you liked it. Your story from this week was enjoyable 😄 😁 Good luck on the contest this week!

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Jared Lenover
13:31 Jun 05, 2022

Thanks! You too! 🙂

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Zelda C. Thorne
06:36 Jun 01, 2022

Wonderful! Agree with everything Zack said. Great opener, and I was already intrigued by the genre tags. Smart dialogue and worldbuilding. Very Christmassy vibe at the end there, leaving me feeling warm and fuzzy 😍

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J.C. Lovero
22:46 Jun 01, 2022

Hi there Rachel! Glad you enjoyed the genre tag combo. Too bad Reedsy doesn't have steampunk, but according to Wikipedia, that's speculative fiction, hence the tag. And who doesn't love Christmas in June?! PS - loved your story, but I think you knew that already 😅 😂 🤣

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