Sloe panted while staring at the purple sky, his eyes wild and searching. His hands and shoulders hadn’t stopped trembling. He’d been caught and somehow managed to escape. Had he been able to keep his teeth from chattering long enough, he would have smiled. He was going to be able to explore more of Edgar, this time with a pending invitation.
After descending and grounding, he opened the door to the interior of the Clock Tower. With light steps, he ascended the stairs to the upper rooms and cracked the door open. The room was so dark he wouldn’t have known anyone was there had there not been a whisper of snores sounding through his parents’ room.
Grateful he didn’t have to explain the night’s absence, he slipped the door closed and made his way back downstairs.
When he reached his bedroom, his gaze passed between his bed and writing desk. He was too tired to study, but also certain it wouldn’t be a night of restful sleep. He changed anyway, grabbing a set of nightclothes from one of the black and white trunks.
After peeling back the corners of crisply folded bedding, he settled into bed and stared up at the ceiling, his mind still pacing from one set of worries to another. He closed his eyes, his thoughts still full of the cloaked men, of Raven, and now of Silvie, as he tried to fall asleep.
Sloe woke up, sweaty but cold. He’d bolted upright during the middle of the night. He squeezed his forehead in his hands and rubbed his temples. An unsettling feeling washed over him. Prior concerns had been replaced by images of lost memories and connections made while unconscious. He’d seen the man, Valcas Hall, before. Silvie’s father. Prior to having seen him with Silvie at Basileios Plaka’s funeral, and before the glimpses of visits and stories told by his parents.
An image of dark glasses—sunglasses—stretched and grew as they traveled to the forefront of Sloe’s mind. Blotting out everything else. He’d seen them as a young child on a day teeming with so many memories he’d nearly forgotten the man in the dark shades. However bold they once had been, those memories, having been experienced through a child’s mind, they’d begun to fade.
Sloe swallowed, remembering.
He was a toddler, near in age to Silvie when he first discovered his travel talent—that he was a Time Keeper. The Clock Tower, the world he called home felt cozy and small. It was a single tower with cramped rooms on the inside. There were no houses or buildings on the outside of the tower. No neighbors with children to visit and play. But his home was like no other. The tower itself was filled with timepieces, representations of all the worlds in existence—worlds with people besides him, his mother, and his father. Worlds with children, and skies that were different, with grass and trees and creatures that crawled, swam, and flew.
His father could take him to the other worlds, but the visits were short and he was selective about where to go.
Sloe, the child, sat on the dusty ground that spread out on all sides at the base of the Clock Tower. He gazed up at the purple sky. He laughed and clapped as his father swiped his hands and feet along the timepieces on the tower, when they glowed and brightened. He sucked in a disappointed breath each time a timepiece faded, when his father moved on to other objects.
His mother sat beside him, smiling and smoothing down the spikes of dark hair he’d inherited from his paternal grandfather, Coal of Aboreal. His feet itched to sit up and climb the tower, to make the timepieces glow like they did for his father.
“Can you do it?” he whispered, looking up, his lavender eyes shining.
“Me?” Ivory laughed. “Not a chance.”
“Sorry, but I don’t have that talent, kid.” Her gaze shifted to a blue-raspberry jet parked in the distance along the line where the gray ground met the purple sky. She sighed and pulled the boy closer to her side.
“Why not?” he said, squirming.
“That’s your father’s talent. He’s the Time Keeper, not me.”
Sloe’s eyes opened wide. Everything about those words—Time Keeper—were pleasing to him. He had to be that, to be just like his father.
He broke free from his mother’s grasp and padded toward the base of the tower. He reached up to climb, but his fingers were so small that they slid from the cool metals of the clock hands and gears. He tried to pull himself up. Unable to secure a grip, his hands slipped and he landed on his bottom.
The jolt sent tears to his eyes and left him stunned.
Until he spied a round, silver object, so large, it dipped toward the ground. Not wanting anything more than the shine and glimmer before him, he reached for it with both hands. Though it was many times his size, and without knowing what it was or where it went, he frowned with concentration and willed for it to glow.
“Son, what are you doing?” Nick looked down at him from above. The timepiece nearest his open hand glowed bright white.
Sloe squinted and blinked at the distraction. “I want to be a Time Keeper,” he said, pouting.
Nick chuckled, eying the large pocket watch. “Is that so? Then you might want to attempt a smaller object…a starter, of sorts.”
“Nick! He’s too young,” called out Ivory. She twisted her fingers roughly through her hair, and tugged. “I’m not sure I can handle this.”
“Don’t worry, love. I’ll be right here with him.”
Ivory rose from the ground, glaring and crossing her arms as she approached the tower. She frowned daggers at Nick before gently pulling Sloe’s fingers from the silver timepiece.
Nick stretched out an arm. “Come here, son.”
Smiling, Sloe reached up and allowed himself to be folded inside his father’s arm.
Nick carried the boy up to a point higher on the tower. “Let’s try this one,” he instructed. He held Sloe up to a bell-shaped object no larger than his thumb. “This is a tiny new world just starting out.”
Sloe grinned widely as he and his father gazed upon the object with matching purple eyes. The boy pressed a finger to the bell. His face scrunched and lower lip jutted forward.
“That won’t work,” whispered Nick. “A Time Keeper’s got to want the timepiece to do more than glow.”
Ivory rolled her eyes. “We don’t know he’s a Time Keeper. All you’re doing is getting his hopes up.”
“You’re right,” said Nick. “But if he does have the talent, I want to find out with him, before he slips through a portal on his own. This is not something I wish for him to explore alone.”
Ivory’s lips puckered.
“All right, then,” said Nick, “do you remember traveling through portals with me and your mother, son?”
“What did you see?”
“Glowing, and purple, and blue. They tingled and hummed. Then we were somewhere else, and the new door felt shiny before it went away.”
Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.
Nick dropped his head, holding Sloe more tightly. “You sensed the portal on the other side?”
“Uh huh. And the other door—the one we went through to come back home.”
“You saw it?”
Sloe creased his brow. “Yes, but not with my eyes,” he whispered. “My ears and hands saw it.”
“You felt the portal?”
Sloe bobbed his head up and down.
“Brilliant, son. I’m going to teach you a special trick.” Nick exhaled slowly and pointed to a timepiece. “Don’t think about making it light up. Think about—”
He paused. His eyes searched the sky as he thought about how to explain such a concept to his young child.
“Think about feeling the world on the other side.”
The boy’s nose scrunched up. “Huh?”
Nick touched a finger to his lips. “Shh. Quietly, without saying anything, ask the timepiece to tell you about its world. Ask with your heart and mind. And then listen.”
With a serious frown, Sloe reached for the timepiece with his fingertips. His brow furrowed, the way it did when he thought his parents weren’t taking him seriously or understanding what he wanted.
He focused longer than an average child of his age would.
His parents kept still and silent as they exchanged glances of wonder and surprise. The child hadn’t given up yet.
Sloe’s brow relaxed. His shoulders melted forward at the same time the bell-shaped object took on a lighter shade, lightening and brightening until it glowed.
Nick swallowed and began to breathe audibly once more. He pulled the boy out of reach of the timepiece. “Excellent work, son.”
Ivory stood still, staring at her son. Her bronze skin was three shades paler than before. Stiffened shoulders drooped forward as she glanced at her jet and looked away. “A Time Keeper,” she said. “Not a Chauffeur.”
“I would have been happy whether he had a travel talent or not,” said Nick. “I can’t say I’m not happy about this—having someone to take over my responsibilities as a Time Keeper some day.” He grinned. “I may get to retire earlier than—”
Ivory sucked in a breath.
“What is it, love?”
“Nick, look!” She pointed to Sloe whose tiny hands were stretched toward another timepiece, this one twice as large as the bell-shaped object. It was already beginning to glow.
Nick twisted his arms and legs in a new position to pull Sloe out of harm’s way. “Perhaps we’ve read enough portals for now. Let’s take a break, shall we?”
He attempted to descend the Clock Tower while keeping the portals out of Sloe’s reach, but the tower was so densely covered in objects, his maneuvering got more awkward and cumbersome with each downward step.
After losing his balance more than once, Sloe squirmed from his grasp.
Nick fell, his hands and feet clawing at watch hands, gears, anything protruding from the tower.
Ivory’s screams chilled the air as Sloe slipped and slid from one portal to another. He flopped forward, toward another object, an hourglass, that branched from the tower at a peculiar angle. It was larger than he was and helped to break his fall.
Sloe circled his arms around the center point where the object narrowed, and closed his eyes.
He smiled and murmured something about music as the glass began to glow.
“No!” Nick sputtered as he climbed and reached for the child.
A crackling and buzzing covered Sloe as he pushed forward with his body and stepped toward the world with his mind, and then with his hands and body, before his father could catch up to him.
Sloe opened his eyes to a tunnel of blue and purple sparks, and then a sky similar to his own.
He stumbled forward.
A boy with a ball blinked from his seat on the grass. Green grass. Something Sloe had seen and touched while visiting worlds outside the Clock Tower.
“Hello,” he said, waving.
The boy squeezed the toy to his chest, his eyes fixed on Sloe as he neared. “How’d you get here?”
“From the tower.”
The boy frowned.
“It’s my home,” explained Sloe. “I traveled here through that door.” He pointed to the empty space where he’d passed through.
The child gaped at him. “There’s no door there.”
“Yes there is. I can feel it because I’m a Time Keeper.”
“It’s my travel talent.”
The boy grinned, seemingly impressed. “My sister has a travel talent. So does my father.”
“But my mother and I don’t have travel talents. We stay here in Aboreal.”
“Really?” Sloe’s eyes grew wide. “Then how do you find people—to play?”
“They’re all here,” said the boy, laughing. “Animals, too.”
Sloe followed the boy’s gaze across the grass to where two creatures with short legs and pointed ears chased each other. Both had fur as bright and white as when the Clock Tower’s timepiece portals glowed.
A comfortable feeling washed over him, as if he belonged here in this world, in Aboreal. The boy in front of him seemed familiar, too. Like Sloe’s parents, the boy had snowy white hair, so evenly colored it had a certain flatness to it.
“What’s your name?” said Sloe.
“Winter. What’s yours?”
“Well, you sound Aborealian. Look like it too. Are you sure you’re not from here?”
Sloe scrunched his nose. Doubt crept into his eyes. His lips pouted as he concentrated on the differences between this world, Aboreal, and the Clock Tower, and how similar his parents were to this little boy.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said.
Winter’s eyes went wide, the soft, white brows raising above them. “Then where are you from?”
Sloe opened his mouth to answer, when his breath hitched. His feet felt as if someone were trying to move them around on the ground. He raised his arms to his sides to maintain balance as the ground beneath him began to rumble and shake.
Winter squealed. “Someone’s here,” he said. “A traveler.”
Both boys pressed their knees and hands to the ground. The boy without a travel talent slipped one hand behind his neck.
Sloe squinted at the dust raised and at the tears in the grass. Something felt wrong. There hadn’t been shaking when he’d entered Aboreal. And there was no one near the portal he’d come through. He had a vague understanding that his mother had stopped flying and that his father traveled using the Clock Tower. But this was new, and he had no idea who to expect: who the traveler might be, where he’d entered, and where was he from.
When the world stilled, Sloe sat back on his feet and palms. His breath came in rapid gasps. His attention darted back and forth between the boy, the portal, and a figure in the distance—past the streets and the houses. A dark figure, walking toward him.
Sloe sat straighter. The figure approached, taking the form of a man with olive skin and hair that shined of the black of Aboreal. He wore dark clothes, and a pair of sunglasses sat pressed against the bridge of his nose.
“Who’s that?” whispered Winter.
He and Sloe frowned at one another.
The man stopped before the boys. His head turned to the boy with the white hair for a brief moment before shifting to the right. The dark glasses made it difficult for Sloe to read his expression, but he felt the man staring deeply into his own lavender eyes.
“Your parents will be glad to know you’re safe,” the man said. His voice was flat and even, but his lips twisted at the corners. “You must tell your friend goodbye, and that you must go home.”
“I—I can’t,” said Sloe. His chest sank with guilt for having left home, for leaving his mother and father behind. “I want to, but I can’t see the other door.” Even as he said these words, he felt a pull toward something. A calling, an energy pulling him back to the Clock Tower, to home.
“The exit portal?” The man crossed his arms and smiled, seemingly impressed with the boy.
Sloe stood up from where he sat on the ground. “Can you help me find it?”
The man opened and closed his lips twice before setting his jaw. “No. I can’t see or feel or read them.”
Sloe’s shoulders rounded forward.
“Maybe your parents will come here to get you,” offered Winter.
The man shook his head. “They no longer travel here. I’ve been asked to bring you home, Sloe.”
His head snapped up at the mentioning of his name. “You know how to get to my home? To the—”
“Yes. Take my hand,” said the man with an urgent tone. “They’re expecting us soon.”
Sloe looked back and forth between Winter and the man. Tentatively, he placed his small hand within the man’s larger one.
“Can Winter come with us?”
“No. Now, run,” said the man.
“Goodbye, Winter,” called Sloe over his shoulder. Both he and the man stepped forward. As they picked up speed, the vivid colors of Aboreal were bleached by light, one so bright that Sloe was forced to close his eyes against its painful sting.
When he opened them again, he was standing at the base of the Clock Tower, beneath the purple sky. He let go of the man’s hand. Smiling, the man knelt with one knee and a hand pressed to the ground. Behind him, Sloe’s mother and father were doing the same.
Rumblings similar to those experienced in Aboreal shook the tower and everything below it. When all stilled, Sloe’s parents rushed to him, their words of disapproval softened by their embrace.
The breathing of Sloe’s adolescent-self slowed; his eyes grew heavy and closed with the memory.
Back in his room, safe and warm, he fell asleep again, this time to images of his parents’ hugs and kisses, and tears.