The Twenty-fifth Hour

Written by Atticus Payne
Art by Dom Lay

“With the rough rope against your neck, you’ll feel the floor give way, and you will be hanged.

“Fear it, of course. Fear’s what’ll keep you alive, just barely, as your heart races, as your back breaks. Let it pound through your chest, follow your instincts and fight it. Fight it until you catch your breath. Count on it. 

“Then push your feet into the ground. Suck freezing air into your lungs. Fear’ll only keep you alive as long as you remember to count the minutes. Of all things in your life you forgot—your lady’s birthday, your mother’s errand—don’t forget this. Else you’ll be just like every other idiot hurtling through death. You’ll speed right through.

“Remember to stop at the twenty-fifth hour.”

Falling. The feeling of almost-suspended animation, the kind that happens when you jump and the elevator goes down and you find there is no difference between falling and flying. That, but overblown by about a thousand degrees.

He did not remember. Not quickly enough, anyway. When hours go by in split seconds, one becomes incredibly aware of how, even in experiences of fastest panic, the human’s reflexes crawl. 

His birth. His father, storming out and never coming back. A shivering woman holds him close as he suckles, then teeths, then he’s asking so many questions. Faster and faster, years slip through. Now there’s a large hall. Academy. 

‘You react even slower when you’re trying out something you’ve never considered before,’ a slow voice shoots through his head, in one ear and out the other, scraping some dying brain tissue on the way, remember, remember, the shaking timbre of his master, hells, why hadn’t he listened better? Tried harder? Focused more. 

Focus. There’s the crunch, he realises, barely in tune with the real world. One crack, the second, third, and now he’s halfway there. Three more bones to break before his chance of stopping is up, before the car collides, the blade falls, the rope snaps, and he becomes nothing but a majority, an average, an oh-poor-him, an example for little kids being trained in the ways of life after death to shudder at and shun. God help him. Is there a god? Is anyone watching at all?

The answer is no, and he shakes it away as the fourth bone shatters, and the roughness of corduroy pants disappears; there’s a sudden warmness near his crotch that he notices just before it, too, vanishes. Ah. Paying too much attention in one place, too little in another. Where is it, where? 

Running, the near-dead grass springing up between his toes. Laughing. Stolen rays of moonlight clutched in his hands, the jailers surrounding him and the boy he was with. The greatest treasure in the world, taken simply because he’d felt like it. Yes. Here. The chill of being pushed towards the uniformed men, the sight of the boy walking free. The moment he’d known he was a dead man. That’s when a person really dies. Not at the gallows, but in the betrayal itself. Right?

Fifth bone cracked. No. Not right. Not when you could’ve been stabbed right through, or marked with a traitor’s kiss from him, and felt just the same, so filled with nothing that everything rushed in and out in a mad dash to fill the vacuum. Strange, how that never resolved. Nothing stuck to the walls. Nothing crumbled either. A dead man walking, not yet a corpse.  

Find it. The voice. The last thing that flashed before his eyes, choked by the noose. Last regret. Only regret. 

Running through a field at harvest-time, trampling stalk after stalk to find her. Calling out her name. 

Oh, Claudette. 

He’d felt like it since the day they’d been parted, him to the fields and her to the mines. Romance, he’d had plenty—he wasn’t picky, and none of the boys cared in the fields. It’d all been physical. No scent to inhale before sighing in relief. No fingers to kiss. Nothing gentle, and nothing that brought pain. That was all everyone longed for.

Kiss me and call me teacher. Stab me, but in the chest, so I die quick. Run my hair into tangles with your fingers so I know you forgot the world around us. 

Sensation pooled back into his toes, touching down on cold stone. The mines, the very ones he’d tried everything to visit. He’d almost missed it: the twenty-fifth hour, for him, was to be but ten minutes. And that was enough.

She felt it the moment he’d been dropped at the entrance of her section. Her legs had turned weak, something that hadn’t happened since she was a girl. How old she was, now. Surely she was just dreaming. But if this was a dream, there would be no problem in indulging. Dreams meant nothing.

Tearing down the winding pathways, she found her strength again. Like it had been before—before the mines. She knew, then, that this was not a dream. There was no sleep here, she remembered. There was no change. 

The fool, she muttered to herself. Yet she still dropped to her knees at the sight of him. 

This was the farewell. 

She picked herself up, pulling his form with it. “How?” Because she was dead, she had been dead for ages, and now he’d followed her into it. And for what? He couldn’t stay here. That wasn’t how things worked. 

“You had a life,” she whispered, touching her forehead to his. “You promised not to throw it away.”

“I didn’t,” he begged. “I swear I didn’t. I died there and you know it. Please. I had to live again.”