Alma A. Hromic
John Darby winced and swore as the receptionist produced his bill with a too-bright "There we are, sir!" There they were, indeed. The only outward sign of his feelings was that wince and a relatively mild-mannered "Damn." But inside the privacy of his mind he cursed the unknown idiot who'd rear-ended him in the parking lot at the motel with a picturesque vehemence which would have stunned the saccharine-voiced receptionist. Speaking of whom, here she came again, driving the Sherman tank of professional charm.
"That'll be six hundred and ninety eight dollars and twenty cents, sir," she said, dimpling at him as though he was a little backward - had just, for example, complimented her on her blonde Marilyn Monroe curls instead of swearing at the account he held in his hand as though it would bite him any moment. They were all the rage again now, the curls, and John came to a sudden decision that he detested the fashion - the saccharine voice and the exorbitant bill notwithstanding. He sighed, patting his pockets for his wallet. He couldn't use his credit card again, not for this kind of amount, they'd lock him up for debt. On the whole, the overdraft was a better bet.
"You take cheques?"
He could see by her face that things were going to be difficult. If this had been his own garage, back home... well, they were used to his "tight spots". But they were hundreds of miles away. And he needed the car fixed. Pronto. There went Lisa's new dress for the dance. And he'd practically promised her the red number in the window, the one she'd been circling for weeks. Her mother thought it was too old for her, but what the heck, she was only young once, and her father loved seeing her dolled up. The real problem, as usual, was that it was guaranteed to blow his budget. Again. But he'd promised... and now most of that money was going into straightening the Chevy's back door. If there was one thing he couldn't stand it was Lisa's tears. They'd drive him demented. Not because she tried to - she wasn't spoiled, or anything like that, but she'd cry quietly in dark corners, when she thought he wasn't watching, and the thought of the grief that she didn't want to burden him with burned John like acid. He'd forgive his daughter much. He'd even forgive her a Marilyn Monroe hairdo, if ever the current fad suckered her into getting one, and that was saying a great deal.
He knew he was being silly, but his pocket actually felt lighter when he walked out of the garage reception area although no real money had changed hands. The Chevy was parked outside, and he slid behind the wheel, hot, irritable, upset. The accident had caught him halfway home, somewhere between Florida and New York. The prospect of the long drive still before him did nothing for the state of his nerves; on the whole, he thought spending a few more dollars right now might prove to be the best investment he could make for a while. When angry, he was always hungry, and right now he had an absolute craving for a fat, greasy burger and a plate of fries, and perhaps a cup of that poisonous brew they called coffee and served to unsuspecting travellers in roadside diners. He spied one coming up on the left, its great neon greaseburger bigger by half than the building behind it which housed the diner itself. It looked exactly the kind of thing he wanted. He gave a left indicator, cut across traffic directly in the path of a red pickup truck which swerved and hooted behind him, and came to a screeching stop in front of the diner.
The place was almost empty, with only two other customers inside. One was a trucker type, all bare, rippling muscles and red bandanna, and it was fairly obvious that he belonged to the refrigerated job that was taking up three parking spaces outside. The other was a bespectacled little man who resembled nothing so much as a bookish little schoolteacher from the rear end of some small town. He looked like an odd customer for this kind of place, and John gave him a longer, more apprising look, but he seemed to be harmless, intent on his meal. John's own, brought by a peroxided waitress ten years too old for her short checked skirt and bobby socks, soon claimed his undivided attention. The Chevy was parked directly outside the window in front of which John sat; he gave it a glowering look as he chewed on the rubbery hamburger, the car reminding him inexorably of Lisa's lost red dress.
There was a sudden chuckle from the other table, the one occupied by Four-Eyes, and John turned instinctively to see what the guy was laughing at. With a twinge of annoyance he discovered that he was himself the object of the other's amusement. Four-Eyes was sitting with his chin cupped primly in his hands, like a schoolgirl, watching him with a smile which revealed small, neat, almost kittenish teeth.
"What's so funny?" snapped John, in no mood to be polite.
"You," the other returned calmly, not put out at all by the peremptory tone. "You're watching that car as though you wished you could incinerate it. Giving you trouble?"
"Not that it's any of your business," said John rather nastily, "but yes, it was."
"Mind if I join you?" asked Four-Eyes, and did so before John had a chance to formulate a suitably scathing reply. "Expensive trouble?"
John Darby was most emphatically not in the habit of having heart-to-heart talks with strangers in joints like this, but some part of him watched in blank amazement as he poured out the story of the Chevy, the money, Lisa, the red dress, the promise soon to be broken. Four-Eyes was a very good listener, sitting there as calm as a cat, watching him out of large pale eyes swimming behind thick lenses and nodding sympathetically at John's tale of woe.
"All is not lost yet, you know," he said at last, when John had finished and stopped to catch his breath. "Ever heard of Second Hand, Inc.?"
"Second hand what?" said John. "You mean second hand clothes? A second hand dress? I couldn't do that to Lisa. Not for this, her first big dance. Damn, damn, I promised..."
"Not second hand as in used," said the other, fishing out a business card and flipping it over the desk.
John studied it. "Dr. Dominic Wilde, Second Hand, Incorporated. Just what are you selling here, Doc?"
"In this instance, not selling," said Dominic Wilde with a beatific smile. "Buying. Time."
"Buying time?" echoed John, not knowing whether to start laughing uncontrollably or roar in anger. "Listen, you crazy loon, you leave me alone. Go on, get the Hell out of here. And take this with you." He threw the card back. It did a backflip and landed on its face, revealing the slogan on its back, printed in fine-drawn blue letters which curled into one another with dainty flourishes: WE PUT MORE SECONDS INTO THE ELEVENTH HOUR.
Dominic Wilde got up, deliberate, delicate, every movement fastidious and precise. "No, you keep it," he said, still with that same sweet smile. "Any time you want to know more, phone our New York office. The number's there on the card. Nice meeting you, John Darby."
It was only after he had gone, vanishing into the glare outside, that John remembered that at no time during their short conversation did he give his name.
Perhaps it was this little snippet of inexplicable fact that made him hesitate as he got up to go, torn between running as far and fast as he could from the small white square of card and keeping it almost as a talisman against future brushes with "magic". In the end he took it, slipping it into his shirt pocket, but resolutely shied away from thinking about it - and within a couple of hours of mindless driving, accompanied by monotonous country music from his car radio, he had managed to forget all about it.
Until, that is, he came close enough to New York to start looking forward to coming home. Then it all broke out again, the dance, the promise, the red dress, the cold sweat. Second Hand Incorporated. For the first time he allowed himself to wonder. Perhaps... perhaps he didn't have to tell Lisa about the dress, not yet, and tomorrow he would go and talk to these Second Hand people. No harm in it. Perhaps he could buy time... sell time?... get enough money somehow, so that he could keep his word. He patted his shirt pocket. The square of card he could feel beneath his fingers suddenly gave him a queer sense of security.
Lisa was fooled by his broad grin and bear hug, gambolling about him like a puppy when he got home, accepting his presence without questioning his trip. His wife, however, was less easily taken in, not after almost thirty years of marriage.
"What is it, John?" she asked in bed later that night, with Lisa safely out of earshot. "You're strung tighter than a guitar string. This trip's different, isn't it? Different from all the others? What happened?"
He'd wanted to make love to her, but that question deflated desire with appalling speed. He managed to kiss her perfunctorily, and then turned away, presenting her with the broad expanse of his back. "Nothing. Go to sleep, Linda."
"Go to sleep!" he hissed, annoyed at himself for being such a coward, and focusing the anger at the closest outside object he had. He felt her questing hand jerk back as though he had struck her, and the mattress creak as she withdrew to the far edge of the bed. He thought he could hear her crying softly, and was already sorry he had snapped, but he had no words to offer in an apology. She must have thought that it had been a woman; she was wrong, of course, would always be wrong on that count, there had never been anyone else for him but Linda. But he was too tired to explain. After a while he slept, exhausted from the long journey, the endless driving, and the lies.
He wasted no time in putting his plan into operation. The next morning, after a silent breakfast shared with Linda, he presented himself at the offices of Second Hand, Inc. They were unobtrusive, furnished with quiet class - plenty of wood, leather, and lush pot plants. The receptionist - dark, elegant, definitely no Marilyn Monroe anywhere about her - looked up as he pushed open the door.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"Yes. How can we help you?"
John hauled out Dr Dominic Wilde's card. "I wanted to speak to..."
She glimpsed the name on the card, smiled. "Ah, one of Dr Wilde's. Would you take a seat, sir, someone will be with you directly."
He did as he was bid while she spoke softly into a telephone, then nodded and smiled at him as she put down the receiver. Less then five minutes later a well-groomed young man popped his head into the reception area from the corridor which led into the office fastnesses.
"Sir? Dr Johnson will see you now."
John got up with the unpleasant feeling of being about to step into the dentist's surgery, but the office into which he was shown was a far cry from that. Even as he was ushered into the room, a man was rising from behind a blond wood desk of a prodigious size, inlaid with dark green leather and quite empty except for a cream-coloured telephone.
"Do come in, sir. Please take a seat. We're very pleased to see you. How may we be of service to you?"
John was a little out of his depth. He took refuge in bluntness. "I spoke to your man on the road," he said.
"Dr Wilde," the other nodded.
"He... seemed to think you could help me out of a financial predicament."
"Ah," said Dr Johnson, steepling his fingers. "You wish to sell some time?"
"I don't understand," began John, a little desperately, but Dr Johnson nodded sagely, wearing exactly the same saintly smile as Dominic Wilde.
"I see. Allow me to explain." He leaned forward, placing both his elbows just so on the table, on the precise edge of the green leather inlay. "There are two ways we can do this," he said. "You can sell us your time, outright, and that we can then take and re-sell elsewhere - you would be surprised how much an athlete, for example, would pay for that extra tenth of a second added to every competitor's time but his own, the extra edge that will give him the gold, and it's untraceable, unlike steroids. However, that is still the cheaper option, for you. The other thing we can do is buy the use of your time - that is to say, we will buy, say, an hour, and we can then choose to claim that hour whenever it is convenient for us. During that time, then, you act as our agent, according to our instructions."
Dr Johnson's smile widened imperceptibly. "Oh, nothing illegal, most of the time, and there are bonuses if there is real danger involved. In any case, you can't be charged or tried; you would not have been responsible for anything that you'd done, and that would be legally specified in the contract. And suing us would prove to be an expensive exercise for anyone who might want to take you to court for something we have done."
"But how can you take..."
Dr Johnson held up an admonitory hand. "That is already technical, and far too involved for our clients to understand. All you need to know is that you have ceded us a given number of seconds - we work in seconds as a preferred unit - and that this time is irrevocably taken from you. Unless, of course, you buy restoration time. But buying," he smiled, "is so much more expensive than selling. That's where our profits are, you see."
"And how much is a second?" asked John through stiff lips.
"Straight time, we buy at $10.00 per second. Use of time, it climbs to $100.00. Cash in advance."
John calculated rapidly. The red dress was just under seven hundred dollars. For that, he would have to sell only... what? Seventy seconds? Just over one minute of his life?
He looked up. "I am interested," he said, "in selling seventy seconds... no, eighty. Eighty seconds. I get the money now?"
"Splendid," said Dr Johnson. He spoke briefly into his telephone, and then, replacing the receiver, turned back to John again. "If you would just pop up to the lab with Dr Watanabe, it should take only a few minutes to conclude the matter. And I will have your cheque waiting for you when you return."
While he was wired up to a computer of some description into which Dr Watanabe, a smiling Japanese woman, had tapped some instructions, she removed his watch and vanished with it somewhere out of his line of sight. She returned a few minutes later, unplugged him, and handed him his watch with a little bow. "The second hand does not work any more," she said, speaking in soft, accented English. "When next you see it move, that means you are living the eighty seconds that you sold. They usually just take them off the end of your life. That means that, when this second hand starts moving again, you have just over one minute left to live."
John received the watch back, numbed. Just what was it that he had done? He felt no different, but the second hand on the old Omega he had inherited from his father was quite still, and he felt a strange pang of... fear? But downstairs, back in Dr Johnson's office, there was a plain brown envelope with his name neatly typed on it. The cheque for eight hundred dollars was inside. He began to feel a bit better. Who cared if he lived a minute more or less? When he died, he died. And for eighty seconds of his life he could give his daughter a treasured gift, and a precious memory. When he looked up, he was beginning to smile.
Dr Johnson had never stopped. "Thank you so much," he said courteously, coming round his desk to shake hands. "Perhaps we'll see you again."
John took the red dress home that evening, and if still had any misgivings they vanished like smoke before Lisa's unqualified joy. His wife didn't ask where the money had come from. He didn't offer any explanations. They were still in the tailspin of the silence of the night before.
John went back just over a month later. He'd lent the old Chevy to his brother-in-law, and the idiot had landed in hospital with two broken legs, a broken arm, and a few cracked ribs. The car was a write-off. John sold just over a quarter of an hour, and received $10 000. This time Linda did ask where he had got the money; a new car was not something that John Darby, under normal circumstances, could have afforded as easily as this - and he'd paid cash. But John spun a tale of gambling wins, horses, cards; he looked contrite, promised never to do it again. Linda had wept, distraught at having known nothing at all about her husband's gambling vice before - where there were wins, there had to have been losses, and she had known nothing of those, either. But he seemed to have come well enough out of it, and she calmed down. After all, he'd promised.
But John was addicted to worse than gambling. He could not seem to stay away from Second Hand Incorporated. He was too cautious to offer the use of his time for sale - it sounded a little risky even to him; what if they used him to commit murder, or plant a bomb? - but by selling little bits of time, a few minutes here, a few there, he could glean substantial sums of money for the here and now against some arbitrary moment of dying long years in the future. He covered his tracks this time; Linda was rocked back by a sudden legacy from a distant relative who'd just died out in California, but she didn't balk at it when the money went into buying a new house and furniture to replace the moth-eaten old lounge suite which they'd had since they were married and which Linda's parents had had for about five or ten years before that. And then there was the second car, and the kitchen of which Linda, if she were to speak her honest mind, was a little bit scared because it reminded her more of a pilot's cockpit than a place to prepare a family meal. Before John knew it, he'd sold off a month of his life, then six. He was rich; he was happy; he had simply ceased to think about the hour of his dying.
His daughter became a bit of a catch - young, rich and pretty. There were young men in and out of the new house constantly, all asking the same question, and it wasn't long before she'd said yes to one of them. The wedding date was set, with John merely selling off another few minutes to pay for it all. He walked away from the Second Hand offices with the cheque in his pocket and a smile on his face. Waiting to cross the road, he glanced down at his watch - no longer the old Omega, but a new, modern, more showy timepiece - and felt his heart stop as his eyes fastened on the inexorable circles being described by the second hand. It was moving. The long-stilled second hand was moving. John tried to reckon up just how much time exactly he had ceded to the company, but his mind was in such chaos that the seconds kept on slipping from his grasp and he couldn't come to the same total twice. And, anyway, just exactly when had the second hand started moving? For all he knew it might have been ticking over for hours, days, even weeks. He might very well not have noticed. It had leapt into his attention now only because he carried a brand new cheque from Second Hand Inc. in his pocket. He stood there, frozen into stillness, long enough for the traffic light signals to change twice, missing his own green light completely. He didn't even notice. When he did move it was to turn on his heel and race back the way he had come, back to the Second Hand offices.
For the first time that he could remember, they were closed. He looked at his watch again, trying to see past the ominous second hand, and discovered it was lunchtime. Perhaps they were just closed for lunch. Perhaps he could wait, and... But then he remembered that he had another appointment coming up, one he couldn't afford to miss, and a lot to do before he was to keep it. He hovered on Second Hand's doorstep for another few agonising moments, and then turned away again and almost ran down the street, distracted. He'd phone them later. Yes. That's what he would do. He'd phone them just before he left for his three o'clock.
The second hand haunted him. He would spend a whole minute at a time staring at his watch, terrified, just watching as another one of his final minutes ticked away. Surely there was something to be done, something... He couldn't remember the phone number of the company, they weren't in the phone book when he looked (now why, he wondered bleakly, would that surprise him?), and he seemed to have completely lost Dominic Wilde's original card. He was beginning to panic when he eventually turned it up at the bottom of a desk drawer.
The soignee receptionist's mellifluous voice answered him when he dialled.
"Second Hand, Inc., how can I help you?"
"Hello... hello, I'd like to speak with Dr Johnson."
"Who may I say is calling?"
"This is Darby, John Darby, I'm one of your...clients."
"May I ask in connection with what you wish to speak to Dr Johnson about?"
"I'd like some information, it's something... technical."
"Ah. Well, in that case, please allow me to put you through to Dr Lunghi. He is Dr Watanabe's assistant; I am sure he would be able to answer all your queries. One moment, please."
"No, wait, I..."
Too late; he was already on hold, tinny telephone music pouring into his ear. It was an instrumental version of Jim Croce's "If I Had Time in a Bottle". John grimaced a little at the choice, but had to admit it was appropriate. A click heralded the end of the tune, and a warm male voice said, "Dr Lunghi speaking."
John, who had been expecting the usual lengthy wait in telephone limbo land and was caught by surprise, could only blurt out bluntly, "My second hand is moving."
He could almost see the other man stifle an involuntary smile. "I see," Dr Lunghi said, serious once again. "Is there something specific you wish to ask me?"
His voice had simply died. He couldn't bring himself to ask for his own death sentence.
Dr Lunghi's voice remained brisk, warm but somehow clinical at the same time. "I see," he said again. "One moment, please. I just need to access your file." There was a distant sound of computer keys being tapped, then a brief silence. "According to our records," said Dr Lunghi, "you are down for 19896610 seconds, that is to say 7 months, 20 days, 6 hours, 50 minutes and 10 seconds in common parlance. When did your second hand start moving?"
John wiped cold sweat from his forehead. "I don't know."
"I see. Well, it should only take a little longer. Just a moment."
"You knew... when I was going to die?"
"Of course. Does that surprise you?" More computer sounds. "Ah. Mr Darby, your second hand started moving precisely 840039 seconds ago. That would be 9 days, 17 hours, 20 minutes and 39 seconds. You have over seven months left."
"My daughter... my daughter is getting married... towards the end of the year..."
"I am sorry, sir. That would seem to be outside your allowance."
"Can I..." John could hear the desperate quality creeping into his voice, "can I buy back..."
"I'm sorry, sir. You can never buy back your own time. It's against company policy. You can negotiate to buy what you need out of our stockpiles - you'd need, what, a few weeks? A month? But I have to warn you, sir, buying time is not cheap."
"How much?" whispered John, a vision of the red dress he had bought for Lisa with his first Second Hand cheque dancing before his eyes. The dress for which he'd sold his soul.
"I believe the current price is around $10 000."
"For what?" said John after a second of shocked silence.
"Per second, sir. We always work with seconds. That is our basic unit."
"I thought your motto was that you put more seconds into the eleventh hour," said John weakly, reading it off the back of Dominic Wilde's card.
"We do, sir," said Dr Lunghi, unperturbed. "We do, however, charge for the service. What we do does not come cheaply."
John had already wanted to ask if he could come in and sell the second kind of time, the use of his time, the more expensive seconds, but even those were a hundred times cheaper than what it would cost him to buy a single second back. He could mortgage the rest of his life, living and breathing at someone else's bidding, and it still wouldn't buy him enough time to live until Lisa's wedding. Even if it had sufficed, he would have no guarantee that whoever bought his time would not choose to pull his strings in the precise hour when Lisa was due to walk up the aisle. His stomach knotted.
"I see," John said, echoing Dr Lunghi in unconscious irony. "Thank you."
"I hope I was able to be of some assistance, sir," said Dr Lunghi courteously.
"Thank you," John repeated. "Good bye."
He put the receiver back, glancing once again at his watch. The second hand was racing away, its every circle adding a little more lead into the pit of John's stomach. He ached all over, as though he'd just been thrown under the wheels of a bus. He forced himself to look past the circles and realised that time was running away with him. There was no way he would make his three o'clock appointment on time. Not that it mattered; he had yet to keep an appointment with Charlie at exactly the time for which it had been set.
Despite his misgivings, he was only a few minutes late - and, as he'd known would happen, was told to take a seat and wait. He flipped listlessly through a copy of the New Yorker, not seeming to be able to find anything of enough interest to hold his attention for more than a few seconds. And always, still, there was that stalking second hand to watch, sometimes overtly, sometimes surreptitiously. Once he raised his head to meet the fascinated glance of a woman seated a little further away from him. She must have thought he was a very important man, to whom time was of the essence, time was the enemy to be constantly beaten - and here he was, its captive, forced to sit and wait...
When the summons finally came, they had to call him twice before he reacted. Charlie was waiting for him, standing by his overflowing desk, his face grave. John walked up, threw his overcoat over the back of one of the upholstered armchairs in front of Charlie's desk, and mustered a smile.
"Well, what news?"
Charlie reached out an arm and laid a heavy hand on John's shoulder. "John... I don't know how to tell you this..."
John gave him no help, looking steadily into his eyes. Charlie drew a deep breath. "I've had the tests back. It's everywhere. You've got perhaps six months, John, maybe less. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"Seven," said John, his face cracking open into a stiff mask of a smile. "Seven months, ten days, thirteen hours, twenty nine minutes and thirty seconds." He'd been working it out in the taxi, figuring out exactly how Charlie was going to tell him the 'bad news' - the news that, in a crowning irony, would come to John Darby very much second hand. "That's exactly how long I have got, Charlie."
Dr Charles Kincaid stood and stared as the patient whose terminal cancer had just been diagnosed cast a long glance at his watch, as though he'd been able to read off his astonishing forecast of life expectancy from its face, and then fall into one of the doctor's armchairs, beginning to laugh, laughing until the tears came.