Walter, a wizard of the highest order, slowly opened his eyes.
Lying flat on his back, he stared up at the ceiling and thought, ‘Well… that was unexpected’. Taking a moment, he reflected on his past, and contemplated his latest explosive failure.
Walter was an exceptional wizard. The Wizards Guild identified Walter early in life as a child prodigy. His sense of curiosity, and thirst for knowledge, was boundless. As a toddler he felt compelled to explore his ever-expanding world. He quickly learnt that he could close his eyes, concentrate really hard, and float out of his cot.
As he grew, he became an accomplished escape artist. Many parents know the excitement, and terror, that comes with their child learning to walk, talk and run. Very few need to play tag with a net like Walter’s had.
The pressure to live up to the expectations of his parents and teachers was intense. After graduating as a Wizard of the highest order, Walter became a recluse. He shunned friendships. Choosing to focus his time on researching the mysteries of the universe. Living alone suited him. He was alone, but never felt lonely. He’d always found people very difficult to understand, and so preferred the company of his own thoughts.
His sole interaction with the wider world was his regular afternoon visit to the café, where he could watch the world go by. He could observe people and learn about their lives, without getting close to them. He could tell himself that he was part of the wider world, without actually being part of the world.
Everything was fine, until she came into his life. The first moment he saw her, was forever etched into his memory.
It had snowed heavily that afternoon, and she had come into the café across from the park to get warm. Watching her take off her, red coat and scarf had been a revelation for Walter. She was like a butterfly emerging out of a cocoon. She captivated his heart from that first moment.
Over the course of the next few months Walter saw her many times. He wanted desperately to introduce himself. Each time their eyes would meet across the busy café, his eyes would dart down to his unfinished coffee. His heart would start to beat faster, and he would feel a warmth at the core of his being.
Over time they started to share companionable nods and smiles with each other. Walter thought that she was the woman of his dreams. Little did he know that she, in turn, found him intriguing. She found the way he blushed when they smiled at each other cute. Walter felt paralysed by his shyness and fear of rejection.
Then came the day, that changed everything. Walter had stoked the fire of his courage, bought a bouquet of flowers, and was ready to formally introduce himself. His thoughts were a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. His mind buzzed with excitement, nervousness and terror all at the same time. He kept wiping his sweaty hands on his pants, as he waited as patiently as he could for her to arrive.
Hearing the screech of tires, Walter looked out the café window in time to see the accident that claimed her life.
A spike of ice cleaved his heart, and the pain was unbearable. His mind shattered into a million splinters as he tried to comprehend what had happened. The flowers, now forgotten, fell from his nerveless hand. He rushed out of the café, never to return.
Following that fateful day, all of the joy and colour in the world drained away. Everything he saw was in stark black and white. His thoughts were slow and muddied, cotton wool had replaced his brain. Sinking further and further into a deep dark depression, Walter felt a black suffocating blanket cover his soul.
Until, one day a small solitary spark brought light to the darkness of his mind. An idea so obvious that he didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before.
He needed a companion, he couldn’t live alone any more. He needed someone who could share his life, but not break his heart. He would build himself a companion, an automaton. The most advanced automaton the world had ever seen. His companion wouldn’t just be a mindless puppet, she would be alive.
Walter’s new project consumed his every waking hour. She would be the size of a garden gnome. After experimenting with various components he settled on parts salvaged from antique pocket watches. The small gears, linkages and components were just the right size.
The care and attention to detail of the master watch maker, combined with the care and attention of previous owners, imbued the components with a resonance that made it easier to weave his enchantments.
Walter had completed assembly of his companion weeks ago. Many antique pocket watches, clocks, precious and semi-precious stones, and various alloys went into its construction. It was the best automaton that the world had ever seen. As good as it was, Walter remained unsatisfied and frustrated.
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t give the automaton a soul and bring it to life.
His latest experimental enchantment, had consumed massive amounts of elemental energy. He had been working on it all week, skipping meals and sleep in his relentless pursuit of perfection. In his exhaustion, one small mistake caused a massive explosion of light and sound. The explosion had flung him across the room. Where he now lay.
Eventually, he checked himself over. He still had two arms, two legs, ten fingers, and ten toes. Sitting up, he felt a little light-headed and woozy. Looking across the room, he was reassured to see she was safe on the bench.
On the floor in front of the bench, lay his crumpled body.
It took Walter a moment for his brain to catch up and process what he was seeing. He thought to himself, ‘If my body is over there, how can I see it from over here?’.
Following this thought like a freight train was the thought, ‘Am I dead?’.
‘Yes’, said a cold dispassionate voice as dry as old paper, ‘You are indeed, dead’.
‘Oh’, replied Walter as he turned his head and saw a dark shadowy figure in a black robe with the hood pulled up. At this sight, the freight train in his mind went out of control and went completely off the rails. Walter lost control, and burst into hysterics.
‘That’s not going to do you any good, you know’, said the figure. ‘No one except me can hear you’.
The dark figure leaned up against the wall. ‘I have all the time I need. I’ll wait until you get this out of your system’.
The shadowy figure pointedly ignored Walter’s emotional outpouring. Leaning against the wall it reached into its voluminous robes and took out a big leather-bound book. The figure started humming tunelessly to itself, as it started leafing through the pages.
Eventually Walter ran out of energy, and just sat staring off into space.
‘All finished have we?’, asked the figure in his dry, cold and emotionless voice. ‘Can we get on with this now?’ he asked.
Walter nodded numbly, sniffled once and asked ‘You’re death aren’t you?’
‘My, you are perceptive aren’t you?’, replied the shadowy figure. You did not live a very fulfilling life did you?’, asked Death. The sarcasm dripping off his words like poisoned honey.
Walter was indignant at the suggestion, he was a once in a generation wizard! He’d explored mysteries that other wizards couldn’t even conceive of.
But then he thought of the café and all of the lost opportunities. Not just with the woman in the café, but all of the time he spent living as a recluse and a hermit. He’d never felt the need to share the results of his research, and now it would moulder away forgotten. Walter’s shoulders slumped.
Death closed the big leather-bound book with a bang like a cannon-shot. It disappeared back into his robes, and he strode over to Walter.
‘Don’t let it bother you’, said Death. ‘Maybe you’ll have better luck next time’.
Walter’s reply, and quizzical expression, was lost as he and Death slowly faded away.
Both of them missed the slow blink of the automaton, and the single oily tear that slid down its cheek