“The Heart-Beat Escapement” by Rachael Acks
Owen is in his lonely dormitory room when the assistant headmaster comes. The other boys claim they’re jealous that Owen gets the attic room all to himself, but none of them would trade places with him. Their complaints can never quite mask the tickticktick, the reminder of why he’s been exiled to the upper floor.
Owen has never understood how a little, repetitive sound can rob people of sleep and concentration so they can’t do their maths assignments. It’s been with him as long as he can remember. It’s his life. But he knows, always, he is alone in this. Just as he’s alone in having hands of filigree and gears that emit subtle scrapes like nails on piano wire when he moves his fingers. Just as he’s alone in having no father, but an embarrassment of riches when it comes to mothers.
And that is why the assistant headmaster opens the door, click and screech. Owen’s hands, delicate precision machinery that they are, can bowl perfectly for cricket and never lose their grip on the rugby ball. His hands, ringing their well-tuned metallic chords, are also very good for smashing noses and splitting lips that say ugly things about his mothers.
Owen stands, his stomach curdling with fear. “Sir?”
“Down to my office. There’s a matter to discuss.”
“Yes, sir.” He follows Assistant Headmaster Donovan down the hall, unconsciously matching the thud of his footsteps to the ever-present tickticktick, steady and even no matter how afraid he feels.
“Do you know what this is about?” The assistant headmaster glances at him, then down at his hands.
“Yes sir.” He bites back the urge to say he’s sorry, because he’s not. He’s not sorry he broke Richie Germane’s nose or Ephram Jennings’s front teeth. But he is sorry already about how upset Mother Fiona and Mother Komal will be if he gets thrown out of another school.
Someone waits in the assistant headmaster’s office, and Owen freezes in the doorway. Is he a policeman? But the man’s wearing a well-tailored gray suit and tie, not a uniform.
The man, perched like a vulture on the shabby brocade couch that serves all guests, rises to his feet. “Oh my. He has the look. The cheekbones. The jaw line. He’s the right age – ten years old you said, yes?” Assistant Headmaster Donovan murmurs agreement. The man walks a circle around Owen, like he’s a horse to be inspected. “Young man, do you have…I hate to ask such an indelicate question, but it’s important. Do you have a birth mark? On your lower back, shaped like a crescent moon?”
Owen goes even stiffer, more mechanical at the first words, but by the end he’s soft with confusion. “…how did you know that?”
The man breathes a shuddering sigh. “It is you.”
“I don’t understand.” Owen still feels sick, but he can no longer tell if that flutter is fear or excitement.
“Oh, my dear boy. We thought you were lost!” He reaches out to take Owen’s shoulders.
“Of course not. I’ve always known where I am. Who are you?” And why does this man act as if they should know each other?
“Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I just…I had to be certain, you see.”
Owen hazards a glance at the assistant headmaster, who has a decidedly smug tilt to his mustache. “Certain about what?”
Finally, the strange man backs away and sweeps into a bow. “My name is Christopher Greensmith. I’m the chief solicitor for the Earl of Andunder.”
“–all right?” The names don’t really mean anything to Owen, other than he knows that Earls are important. They’re the sort of people who order work from Mother Fiona. People might whisper behind her back, but she turns the prettiest gears in all of Europe and makes timepieces for the Royal Navy.
“Would you mind giving us a bit of privacy, Assistant Headmaster?”
Owen has never seen an adult drag his feet as the assistant headmaster does exiting the office. His stomach feels curdled. Not because he thinks Greensmith will hurt him, but because he can feel this is big and dangerous, a leviathan that will overturn his world.
“The Earl, you see, is an ailing man, and no longer young. For many reasons, he has no direct heirs.” Greensmith clears his throat, looking discomfited. “But there have been a few…indiscretions in his past. Men have hot blood, after all. I was set to the task of seeing if any of those indiscretions might have borne fruit. There was a chamber maid, eleven years ago…she was dismissed from service, of course, but I heard a rumor that she had been with child. She told me that the babe had been born very sickly and…well. You can’t expect much out of a frightened, fluff-headed girl, I suppose.”
Owen’s head feels light, the floor far away. “You’re saying I’m the son of an Earl.” He has a father? Well, of course, he always knew that there’d been a father involved at some point in the process. But the thought of a father in reality instead of abstract leaves him dry-mouthed with fear and longing.
“Yes, just so. Your current ah…parents…have but adopted you.”
Something about the way Greensmith says but grates. “I already know that,” Owen snaps. The baby, abandoned in an alleyway and dying; the doctor and the engineer who found him and replaced his malformed heart with one crafted of delicate gears. It was his favorite fairy tale, growing up.
Komal has only just arrived home from the clinic where she volunteers when Owen steps through the front door. But he’s supposed to be at school and there’s a strange man with him. “Owen, what are you doing home?”
Owen looks pale, drawn and…elated. His brown eyes are terribly wide. “Mother Komal, this is Mister Greensmith. He works for my father.”
Komal catches herself against the wall. No, she wants to wail, no. Not her little boy. Not after ten years, for someone to just swoop down and carry him off like an eagle with a lamb. “I see. What does he want?”
“Young Master Owen,”–Komal looks into Greensmith’s eyes and reads the flattery therein–”is the Earl of Andunder’s son, and legally his heir.”
That is when Fiona arrives, her hands blackened with shop grease. Fiona’s eyebrows go up when Komal grabs her hand, Komal who is normally so obsessive about dirt. “And what do you think about this, Owen?” Komal asks, voice shaking in her throat.
Owen looks at her, eyes alive with excitement. “I want to meet him. I’ve never had a father. I want to know him. I want to know…everything.” He doesn’t understand, Komal realizes. That this is goodbye, for years if not forever. That there is law and tradition and class weighted in all of this.
Fiona squeezes her hand hard. “That sounds like a marvelous idea. But your studies mustn’t suffer.”
Komal closes her eyes and swallows. The joy she sees on her son’s face hurts, like someone has jammed one of her own scalpels into her heart. “Yes…come along, Owen. Let me help you pack.”
He practically skips up the stairs. Komal follows, feeling a thousand times her age. She always knew he would leave. That is the way of children, after all; she left home too, and with shouting and recrimination because her destination was medical school half a world away. She doesn’t want to do that to Owen. She wants his leaving to be happy.
But not so soon.
Owen hastens to pick through his closet. “I don’t think we have enough trunks for everything,” Komal says, smoothing one hand over the orange and gold fabric of her saree.
Owen pulls a suit from the wardrobe. “When you come visit, you can bring everything with you. Maybe you can even come live with us! Father’s wealthy, so I bet Mama Fiona could build a bigger workshop on his land.” Clothing tossed on the bed, he delves into the trunk next to his dresser, pulling out a clockwork horse, then a simple model of the action that runs his own heart. He has played in Fiona’s workshop for as long as he could walk, and she has overseen him making little projects since his little fingers could first pick up gears. “Father will like these. Mama Fiona says I’ll be a proper engineer yet.”
“Owen, I don’t…”
“It’ll be wonderful! I have so many questions for him. So many things I always wanted to know and understand about myself, and he can tell me!”
Oh Owen. Tears sting at her eyes. He still believes in the magic of parents, as if they possess a hidden book of answers.
“And just think, I get an even bigger family!” He smiles at her, stretching up – though not so far as once he did – to kiss her on the cheek. “Don’t worry. You always worry too much.”
Komal smiles, eyes gone misty, throat tight. She wants to scream that this is not how it will work, but she also can’t bring herself to be the one who destroys his happiness. She hugs Owen, head tilting down so her ear can catch the steady tickticktick.
Downstairs, Fiona and Greensmith regard each other in wary silence. Fiona draws out a rag and begins to wipe the grease from her hands. She’s the one who finally speaks, words precisely measured. “Owen’s certainly excited about meeting his father.”
There are much choicer, angrier words she’d like to say, about a baby freezing to death in an alley, abandoned because of his deformities. Though she knows it was luck for them all, because she and Komal saved his life as no one else could. And in return, Owen has made their own lives immeasurably larger.
“The Earl is of course grateful for the care you’ve shown his son. He would like to reward you.”
“If he lets Owen be the man he will be, that’s reward enough.”
“Letting go is just…very hard sometimes.” Greensmith reaches for his pocket, smiling politely.
Fiona holds up one finger. “You’d best be reaching for a handkerchief, Mr. Greensmith. I’ve a violent allergy to bribes.”
His hand shifts its course slightly and he does come up with a handkerchief to pat nonexistent sweat from his brow. “You misunderstand. We just thought we ought to ease the pain of this separation.”
Fiona smiles, and it’s a thin, sardonic expression. “Spoken like a man who has never known real pain.”
Owen comes barreling down the stairs with a bag stuffed full to bursting. He flies into Fiona’s arms. “What’s all that, then?” she asks.
Owen brandishes the bag. “I packed up my school awards. And that clock I made. I thought Father would like to see them.”
Fiona nods gravely. “Put your best foot forward, Owen. Show us proud.”
Hugs and kisses are exchanged, clearly less decorous than Mr. Greensmith likes. Fiona and Komal stand in the doorway and wave until the steam carriage has vanished down the street. Then Fiona catches Komal as her knees give out. Komal’s shoulders shake with silent sobs, her hands twisting up fistfuls of Fiona’s shirt. “Shh,” Fiona murmurs. “We will find a way. He’s ours more than that man’s.”
The Earl’s estate is bigger than Owen’s known world. The fields are verdant, the wide driveway lined with ancient trees and stone urns filled with bright sprays of flowers.
And servants! Owen can’t quite wrap his mind around people wanting – no, insisting – on opening doors for him. They sweep him along to a sitting room, filled with rich wooden furniture and oil paintings of stern-looking people.
Time pauses, the stolid tickticktick sounding through the silent room.
The Earl is older than Owen expected, tall and elegantly dressed in a brown brocade frock coat, his face lined and his brown eyes sharp with intelligence. His hair is gray and thin. Owen resists the urge to touch his own hair, wondering if that will happen to his wild brown curls someday.
“My lord,” Greensmith says, bowing, “it is my honor and pleasure to present to you your son.”
“What is your name, young man?” the Earl asks.
“Owen, sir.” Owen smiles broadly.
The Earl nods, then limps forward with the aid of a cane and offers him a hand to be shaken. “Ah, so you do indeed have mechanical hands.”
“Mother Fiona made them. They’re her second best piece of work.”
“Then what is her best piece?”
He feels almost disappointed that Father follows the obvious track, as if he should somehow be beyond that. “My heart, sir.”
“Ah, and that is the sound. A machine for a heart. It will shock my peers! A mechanical heir for the old Earl of Andunder. But you’re not a full clockwork boy.” He smiles, the expression kind.
It doesn’t feel all that kind. Owen wants his father to see how they’re the same, not how they’re different. “I brought my school prizes with me, sir. If you’d like to see them.”
The corners of the Earl’s eyes crinkle. “All right, let’s have a look.”
That goes better. The Earl makes vaguely appreciative noises about the prizes for maths, engineering, and astronomy. “Oh! I have a telescope. In the west tower.”
“Not so often, any more. The stairs are difficult for these old legs.”
Owen smiles, relief flooding him. His father is a stranger, but if he’s touched one commonality, there must be more. They talk of astronomy all through dinner, and until it’s time for Owen to go to bed.
As they are about to go to their separate rooms, Owen grows nervous again and blurts, “Did you love my mother?”
The Earl laughs. “I barely remember her name, though I would have seen her cared for, had she told me of you. That I promise.”
“I understand.” Only he doesn’t, not in the slightest, and it makes him feel queasy. “Good night, sir.”
His room is on the second floor. A valet walks in and sees him winding his heart, then turns white as a sheet before stammering his way out the door. Owen sits on his bed a long time before sleep, turning the key over and over in his hand and wishing he could use it to unlock the tangle of his feelings.
It’s great fun at first. Father isn’t so strict as his mothers and there are tutors in place of school. Owen is presented with a horse, new clothes, and as much dessert as he cares to eat, a not inconsiderable amount. The only shadow in this sunny world is that Father is not so talkative as he was the first night. He responds to Owen’s questions about his life, his adventures, but is only interested in what Owen did today, as if Owen only came alive upon crossing the threshold of Father’s estate.
It makes his chest feel strange around his heart, though the tickticktick doesn’t vary. He wants Father to hug him, to catch him up in his arms and spin him around (but he’s too big for that now, Father too frail, that’s a good enough excuse) to show him that he’s proud. He likes the treats and attention, but it all starts to feel like when the school term grows long and he can’t help but think how quiet everything is, without the sound of Mother Fiona’s workshop next door.
He wants to go home.
The next morning at breakfast, he asks, “Sir? Can I go home? For a while at least?”
Father blinks at him owlishly over the slice of toast he’s buttering. “You are home, Owen.”
He tries again. “I’d like to see my mothers.”
The Earl sets the toast down. “That’s hardly suitable, Owen, for someone of your station to be seen with them. Whatever will people say?”
Owen frowns. “The same things they said before, I guess. I don’t care about words, sir. Words don’t hurt anything.” That’s a line he’s stolen directly from Mother Komal, and a lie. He does care about words, and he hears those words in the Earl’s tone.
“Of course, we owe them gratitude for having saved your life, and I intend to shower them with gifts if their pride allows. But neither of them is actually your mother, and this is your home.”
“But–” But they gave him life, even more than this man in front of him did. He only provided Owen with a seed. They gave him a heart.
“Owen.” The sharpness of his tone is worse than a slap. “I am your father and you will obey me in this. Cease these childish requests.”
Owen nibbles on his toast for the sake of form, but can barely swallow. The tickticktick is suddenly very loud in the dining room.
He’s not even certain what hurts more: the reproach, or the fear that he’ll never see his mothers again. He has wanted a father as long as he can remember, but he has had his mothers even longer than that. Sadness and anger choke him. Why can’t they all exist in the same space and just be happy?
That night, when Owen has finished brushing his teeth and reaches for the key to wind his heart, his fingers find only the smooth wooden counter top.
Fear shoots down his spine. Everything on the counter is perfect and aligned. The space the key should occupy is like a missing tooth. He drops to his knees and peers under the furniture. Perhaps one of the maids knocked it onto the floor. The steady tickticktick of his heart continues on despite his fear, slowing perceptibly as it waits to be wound.
Someone knocks at his door.
Owen bangs his head on the underside of the counter. Still rubbing the back of his head with one hand, he hurries to answer the door. It’s Greensmith and one of the servants, the biggest of the footmen.
“Owen, is something amiss?” Greensmith asks.
“I just…my key’s gone, Mr. Greensmith. I don’t know where it could have gotten to!”
“Ah. Calm down, Owen. I have it right here.” Greensmith hooks a red ribbon out from under his shirt; the key dangles from it, framed by the thin line of his fingers.
Owen feels sick. “Why?”
Greensmith smiles with nauseating kindness. “The Earl your father thought it was too much responsibility for a boy. He wants to see you well cared for, you know. So let’s have a look.”
He’s had that key as long as he could remember; Mother Fiona used to help him wind his heart, but she always said it was his life, his to hold and give as he chose. That Greensmith, and Father had simply taken something so precious is a fact he can barely comprehend. And they have sent the biggest man they have along to make sure he can’t try to take it back. Even the strength of his hands won’t make up for the difference in weight and height.
By ‘cared for,’ he realizes numbly, they mean caged and unable to leave. He feels sluggish and ill, the ticking of his heart slowing further and giving him no choice. He unbuttons his night shirt and shows Greensmith the circular metal plate covering his heart, the keyhole in it.
This is the most shame he has ever felt, this sensation of not only being somehow naked but forced into that position, made helpless by someone stronger than him.
Owen curls up in his bed after Greensmith and the servant leave, wide awake and shaken. He can’t stay here, he realizes. Not now, not when Father has shown he thinks it’s all right to steal, to bully. His heart has just been wound; he has twenty-four hours before he needs the key again. First he thinks to steal the key back when Greensmith is asleep. But when he creeps into the hall and tries the door to the solicitor’s room, he finds it locked. He could break the lock, his hands are strong enough, but the snap of the metal would be like a gunshot in the silent house.
He can’t imagine staying here, not now. The very thought feels like a stone in the pit of his stomach. Escape, then, seems his best chance. He looked at maps when he first arrived, excited to find out about his father’s lands; he knows the estate isn’t that far from Hanwell. If he can make it there, he can send a telegram to Mama Fiona and she’ll come to his rescue on the train.
He pulls on his clothes, leaving off his boots so he can tiptoe along the old wooden floors. He rolls up an extra shirt and holds it tightly over his chest to muffle the ticking as he sneaks to the stable.
Owen saddles his horse from the memory of watching the grooms. It takes far longer than he likes, though his mechanical hands are steady, unaffected by his nerves. Then he mounts clumsily and urges the horse down the drive. No alarm sounds behind him; the house is silent and dark at his back.
He can do this. It’s a fiercely joyful thought. He can get home on his own, whether Father likes it or no.
The moon is only a thin sliver in the sky, the roads but shadows among dark fields. There is no knowing how many crossroads Owen misses in the night, how many turns and road signs. By the time dawn is a gray promise on the horizon, he has arrived in a place beyond lost and into desperation.
It’s nearly lunch time and Komal is dusted with flour to the elbows when someone knocks on the door. Thinking that perhaps it’s the solicitor they’ve hired on Owen’s behalf, she shouts for him to come in and continues rolling out chapati.
She spies Greensmith’s reflection in a copper pot hanging over her head. Frowning, she turns to see an old man follow behind him. The man’s eyes, somehow familiar, are cold with anger. Before Greensmith even has a chance to speak, the man demands, “Where is he?”
Komal stares. “What? Who?”
“Don’t play coy with me, woman! Where is my son? Where is Owen?”
Komal presses her hands against her lips, unaware of the ghostly white prints she leaves behind. Her limbs feel light and cold. This must be Owen’s father. They have the same eyes, though Owen would never look at her like this. But that means Owen is missing. Her son is missing.
She lifts her hands away to scream for Fiona. Her wife is there moments later, a heavy wrench dangling from her hand, her shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal arms laced with old burn scars. Fiona puts herself between Komal and the men. “What do you want?”
“I want my son back!” the Earl shouts.
Fiona hefts the wrench, eyebrows going up. “If you’ve lost him this quickly, maybe he wasn’t yours to begin with.”
“If you are hiding him, I will have the law down on you–”
“He isn’t here,” Fiona interrupts firmly. “And even if he was, you couldn’t drag him away if he didn’t want to go. Owen can be a stubborn boy when the mood takes him.”
Komal snorts. “He takes after his mother that way.”
“Now,” Fiona continues, “Why don’t you tell us how you drove him to run away?”
There is a long, awkward pause. Then Greensmith draws a red ribbon from under his shirt and shows them Owen’s key. “He didn’t seem all that upset…”
“Oh.” Fiona breathes the syllable out like she’s pronouncing damnation on him.
Komal feels ill. “You took what was his alone to give, and you didn’t think he’d be upset?”
“What sort of idiot gives such a thing to a mere boy?” The Earl only looks more furious.
“Now is not the time to argue!” Greensmith lays a hand on his master’s arm. “Owen is lost, and without this key. He is in very real danger if we don’t find him, isn’t he? You must help us.”
Fiona glances at Komal, her eyes dark with anger and worry. “Swear you’ll give that back to him. He’s supposed to be your son, not your puppet.”
“I’ll not be spoken to like this!” The Earl shouts.
“Then get out of our house,” Fiona says, gesturing with the wrench.
“But surely this is too much responsibility to give a boy. If you cared about–” Greensmith begins.
“Don’t you dare,” Komal hisses from around her wife’s shoulder. “If you truly cared about Owen, we wouldn’t be having this argument to begin with.” She draws herself up to her full height, which isn’t much, but she has a regal tilt to her chin. “Now stop wasting his time.”
Because she can feel it, the relentless tickticktick measuring out fine slices of Owen’s life. The Earl’s lips curl in a silent snarl, and for a moment Komal wonders if the man is truly that selfish, that grasping, that he would rather see Owen lost to them all.
But at long last, he grinds out, “You have my word.” Then turns and stalks from the room.
Greensmith sags. “I never thought,” he whispers. “He’s just a boy.”
“He isn’t just anything,” Komal snaps, yanking a towel from the range to wipe her hands, mentally cataloging what she should bring along to prepare for the worst.
Greensmith scrubs his face with one hand. “I fear it may already be too late.”
The words feel like a gut blow to Komal, but Fiona takes them almost serenely. “Nonsense, Mister Greensmith. Owen is our son. He’ll find a way.”
Owen wanders along deserted roads as morning turns to afternoon. His horse, increasingly displeased by the situation, detours into a field and refuses to move. Owen dismounts and swallows thick frustration, but refuses to cry.
He tries to think how Mother Komal and Mother Fiona would deal with this problem. They’ve both always wanted him to think his way out of things. Maybe that’s what went wrong. He’s been running on betrayal and hurt, not thought.
It would be a beautiful day if he weren’t so scared. The fields are green, the air presses in warm and damp, the songs of birds and insects louder than he ever could have imagined as a city boy. None of that helps him. His skills of navigation are useless when there are no streets.
The hollow, metallic whistle from a steam train pierces the languid afternoon.
A train will inevitably go to a city, whether for passengers or freight. And once he’s in a city, all he needs is the telegraph office.
He climbs a nearby wall to search for the tracks, then sprints in a straight line for them, abandoning the horse. The rumble of the train fills the air and rises from the ground, through his boot soles and into his bones. The engine roars past, shining steel and brass grillwork blinding in the bright sunlight, and his guts go watery with the fear he won’t reach it in time. But it’s a long train, an endless string of freight cars.
Owen hesitates as he reaches the tracks, feels the train’s true speed, but out of the corner of his eye he sees the end and there’s no more time. He turns on his heel and runs parallel to the track, then lunges at a passing ladder.
If he had ordinary hands, he would not have been able to grip so fast and tight, or hang on as the train whips him up off the ground. But Mother Fiona’s engineering is precise and strong. Panting with terror, he climbs up the ladder and onto the roof, then from there into the car through a hatch.
The car is filled with crates. Owen leans against one until the steady tickticktick of his heart calms him. Then there is nothing to do but wait for the train to stop. It’s warm in the freight car, warmer than outside because the air doesn’t move.
Despite his best efforts, a night of waking terror catches him in the back. His eyelids go heavy and he sleeps.
Owen wakes to loud clanking, the shrilling of the doors opening. He rolls off the crates and scrambles away, crouching in the corner. He can’t think of a story that won’t land him in the police station, and he knows the law says he belongs to the Earl. The law is not his friend.
Stevedores begin to pile crates onto a steam-powered loader. The smell of sulfurous smoke wafts into the car. The light outside is flat yellow, not natural – how is it night already? Owen waits for them to take the load away, then slips out. He runs through the chaos of the freight yard and into the much quieter station, searching for a sign, something to tell him where he is.
He stares at the sign as if it has betrayed him. He knows where Birmingham is relative to London. There is no way for his mothers to reach him in time. It will take too many hours, even if he sends them a telegram. But…he isn’t so far from the Earl’s estate.
The idea fills him with thick, strangling frustration and bitter humiliation, the same helplessness he felt when he let Greensmith wind his heart. But he can also hear Mother Komal’s voice in his ear, telling him that pride is a very silly hill for a man to die on. Life means hope. Life, hope, life-hope, like tick-tock, one of Mother Fiona’s fine Navy clocks.
He wants to live. He wants to live. But he wants it to be his life. The enormity of the thought, a life barely begun stretching out before him and simultaneously about to be cut off, makes him shake.
Owen looks down at his hands and touches filigree fingers together, still steady no matter how the rest of him trembles – Mother Fiona’s finest work. He has held the key, every night of his life. He knows how every inch of it feels, every curve and angle. It is part of him. He can make it anew.
And then no one can ever take it from him again.
A workshop is what he needs, like Mother Fiona’s. Somewhere there is clockwork and clamps and a gas forge. He knows how to do this.
There must be a workshop near the station, one with a cellar that requires daily deliveries of coal. And there must be trains waiting to be unloaded, ones from the north. Jittering with terrified impatience, he finds one of the coal trains, then waits for the next delivery cart to be filled with faintly shining black rock. He throttles the urge to scream every time the cart driver pauses to chat with one of the lamp lighters or roll a filthy black cigarette between his fingers.
Three streets from the station Owen catches the familiar smell of singed metal and grease as the driver shovels coal into a chute. He hides behind a post box until the cart rumbles away, then scurries to the blessedly dark and empty workshop. The small window in the back door is easy to punch out with one fist. Guiltily promising himself he’ll clear up the mess, pay for the glass somehow, he lets himself in.
Owen scatters tools in his wake, searches out the bits of metal, the gears that feel right to his hands. His flesh trembles, his teeth chattering as he tries to piece a key together, using a torch to do the delicate work, welding wires and cogs. Sweat rolls from the end of his nose and stings his eyes as he finishes the key. He rips open his shirt, buttons scattering across the floor.
It doesn’t fit. Something is misshapen, metal grinding on metal, and sharp pain lances through his chest.
He throws it on the floor, tears of frustration and fear welling up in his eyes. He could find a telegraph office; there’s still time if Father pushes the boiler on his little steam carriage to the red. But, I know you will always fight harder than that, Mother Komal whispers in his ear.
He scrambles for the key, picks it up, dusts it off.
Owen thinks of Mother Komal, eyes closed as she feels delicately around a bone or joint. He thinks of Mother Fiona, face a mask of calm as she bends and simply listens to a clockwork mechanism. He takes deep breaths, tries to force panic aside, closes his eyes, and simply lets his fingers observe.
He uses the torch and a vise to make tiny adjustments, grinding powder to smooth out imperfections.
His breath is a whimper, his heart ticking more and more slowly in opposition to his growing terror.
Dizziness pulls him down to the floor as he finishes another round of adjustments.
Owen drags himself up on the table and fumbles at the key. He wonders sickly if the poor engineer who owns this workshop is going to have an unpleasant surprise tomorrow in the form of a dead boy on the floor.
One last try.
The key slides home. He sobs, body convulsing, curling up and rolling onto his side.
He winds the spring.
The engineer does get an unpleasant surprise in the morning in the form of a live boy, a broken window, and a mess in his workshop. Owen goes to the police station without a fuss.
He tells them to send for Mother Fiona and Mother Komal. The police, he realizes in the calm of day, have no way of knowing who his father is if he doesn’t tell them.
Instead of putting him in a cell, the police give him hot, weak tea and toast. One of them tries to take the key, but backs quickly away when Owen, pushed past endurance and pride, starts crying.
An eternity later, his mothers arrive. They surround him and embrace him, and he cries again, but that’s all right because they cry too. Over and over he says, “Look, I did it. I made it just like you showed me.” He offers his new key, battered and ugly and so beautiful, to Mother Fiona. She smiles, tears rolling down her red cheeks, and curls his fingers around it with her hand.
The Earl’s familiar steam carriage waits outside the police station, Mr. Greensmith and Father visible in the window. Owen sets his heels and refuses to go any further when he spots them.
“They’re only here to give us a lift back home,” Mother Komal says.
“I’d rather take the train.” Owen thinks of red ribbon around Greensmith’s neck; he’ll never trust the man again.
The Earl emerges from the carriage and limps toward them. His face is pale, expression wooden. He holds out a hand and offers him the original key. “That was ill advised, Owen. Come home.”
There is no sorry there, no admission of having made a mistake, no acknowledging that Owen has a choice. But he knows now, even if he’s a little scared of Father, of the police station behind him, he will survive and triumph. He’s done it once already. He will make it home.
Owen shakes his head. “I don’t need that anymore.” He holds up the new, ugly key, already thinking how he will make a better and finer one in Mother Fiona’s shop.
About the Author
Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. In addition to her steampunk novella series from Musa Publishing, she’s had short stories in Strange Horizons, Waylines, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra, and more. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bicycles, drinks tea, and twirls her ever so dapper mustache) with her two furry little bastards. For more information, see her website (http://www.rachaelacks.com) or watch her tweet way too often (@katsudonburi).