49 - When All the Clocks Chime Midnight

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Nat jolted awake just as her hand slipped from beneath her chin, sending her forehead painfully into the wooden desk. The dull thud reverberated through her head, a small sear of pain cutting through the skin above her brow -- but the sensation was quickly overtaken by a sense of wrongness, of things out of place.

It took a moment to understand what it was.

A tremendous clanging came from the main part of the store -- a chorus of bells and chimes and gongs sounding out in a dull cacophony.

Nat struggled to her feet, stumbling sleepily out into the main part of the store. The clocks were chiming, every last one of them sounding out the alarm for midnight. Clocks that had not been wound; clocks that were broken, or faulty, or set to the wrong times; clocks that had not made a sound in decades.

All of them called out the hour with terrible, bone-chilling precision.

A strange light washed over the shop, casting long shadows at awkward angles. In the deep shadows, objects seemed to move. She thought, standing there, that she could see the twist of porcelain doll heads, the slow sideways shift of eyes in paintings. An expectant crowd, gathering in the hush that built in the absence of the bells.

And, behind her, just at her heels, she thought that she could hear the low, hot breathing of a dog.

She jerked her body sideways, suddenly terrified. Her shin banged against a display shelf, and she crumpled, sprawling against the shelf as her legs tangled with it. She scrambled for purchase, trying to hold herself upright; trying to keep from pulling the shelf down on top of her.

She did not see the dog pass her in the darkness, but she felt something like a brush of fur against her leg; something like the thin whipcord of a tail lashing against her thigh. She thought she could hear the click of nails on tile as something huge and furry trotted out of the store and into the night.

The store's front door did not open, but the bell rang, a lonely declaration that someone -- something -- had been here.

Then, it was gone.

The light dimmed, losing its unearthly quality. The room fell silent; the only sound was Nat's breath, shaky and uncertain, and the unsteady thumping of her heart in her chest, the pulse in her ears.

She needed to go home, she realized, with terrifying clarity.

Unless it was already too late.

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