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—
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…”
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”