Joanne gave her the address, printed on a transparent business card engraved with Roman numerals on the border. In fact, Beatrice could only read the address when she held it up to the light of the sun, and the street number and name appeared between the symbols.
“You have to check this place out,” Joanne said. They were out at lunch celebrating the pickup of her long-languishing indie film by a major distributor. Six months prior, Joanne had visited this shop, and as a result her life was transformed.
“I never would have finished that film without this place,” she said, stirring her mimosa. “You don’t know how much of a difference an extra hour a day makes!” She spoke with the enthusiasm of an actor in a TV ad. “I can get a full night’s sleep and still get things done.”
Joanne certainly didn’t look tired. Her eyes, though, glazed over when she spoke, as if a cloud had passed over them. “I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere in my life.” She handed the card to Beatrice. “Take a good look at this,” she said. “You’ll only be able to see the place if you know the name and address.”
Beatrice examined the card, holding it up to the light again. “Are you sure this is…legit?”
“It’s totally worth it. And you won’t even notice after a while.” Again, a cloud fell over her gaze.
Beatrice spent the week thinking it over. She had been struggling with her writing lately, a draft half done and a self-imposed deadline for her first meeting with an agent fast approaching. An hour a day would make such a difference.
She found herself wandering old town, venturing quickly away from the touristy district with all the overpriced restaurants and clean shop windows laden with knickknacks. These streets were quiet and narrow, the otherwise familiar city sounds faint and far-off. On this particular side street, Beatrice only saw run-down residences and shops with dusty windows and sun-faded merchandise. The street was so narrow that not even a horse and buggy could have squeezed through.
Then she saw the sign: an old-timey wooden banner swinging above the entrance, in the shape of a clock, with the words “Moore’s Thyme Shoppe” engraved in gold. In the newly materialized window, she saw antique clocks displaying various times, from one o’clock to midnight. Isn’t this just a clock shop? She thought, before entering the front door.
A bell clanged as the door opened and closed, and Beatrice sensed that she’d stepped backward in time. The shop was musty and dim, as if lit only by kerosene lamps. Antique clocks cluttered everywhere: grandfathers, automatons, hourglasses, and astronomicals. The store clerk was even dressed like someone from 1910, with a collared shirt, tie, burgundy-colored vest, and a mustache to match. If she had to guess his age, though, Beatrice would say between 30 and 60 – while he appeared to be rather old, his skin appeared smooth and undamaged by age or the sun. Behind the counter was what looked like a library and catalogue – an immense wooden shelf with labeled drawers.
“May I help you?” Even the clerk’s accent had a tinge of mustiness to it.
“I was told I could buy some time here?” Beatrice could feel dust getting caught in her throat.
“You’ve come to the right place. What kind of time do you want? More hours, minutes, years?”
“I…didn’t know there were options.”
The clerk ducked under the desk, pulling up a leather binder. Beatrice noticed there was no cash register. “An extra hour is our most popular plan,” he explained, flipping through the binder. “Provides just enough time, and perfectly affordable. But some people like more. Three to five more hours in a day is optimal for many people, and still quite affordable.”
“How does it work?” Beatrice started examining the binder – though the pages didn’t disclose much other than “price level” and the benefits of more hours. (Sleep 10 hours a day and still get everything done! Work 80 hours a week and have time to take your kids to the park!)
“Well, it’s not so much adding an hour, for example, as slowing the pace of time down for you. Not at once, or you’d fall out of sync with everyone else. Just incremental, for up to twelve extra hours. But that much more time is expensive, mind.”
Beatrice thought of working on her novel. She used to completely lose herself in it, only to look up and see that only five minutes passed instead of fifteen. “How much does all this cost anyway?”
The clerk gave a small smile. “You may have noticed that we don’t take cash. Only credit. Not the monetary kind.” He held up a hand to stop her as she reached for her wallet. “I’ll show you.” The clerk pulled up a clipboard and took the pen from behind his ear. “But first, we must go through a credit questionnaire. What is your desired occupation?”
“Do you have pets, or do you plan to have them in the future?”
“Yes, a cat.”
“Do you have children, or plans to have any in the future? How many?”
Beatrice hesitated, a blip appearing in her mind like a scratched record. “I don’t know.”
The clerk frowned but marked her answer. “Are you currently in a relationship?”
“This is an open-ended one. How badly do you want to achieve your goals, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being extremely badly?”
The clerk took a moment to make some more scribbles on the clipboard, and set it down with a satisfied sigh. “I think the best plan for you would be between five to seven hours. A writer with your ambition will need lots of time for editing and networking, and if you still want to maintain relationships – there might even be room for some kids too, when you decide. And it’s perfectly affordable.”
“That seems like a lot.”
“Oh, it won’t be when you actually do it.”
Beatrice gazed at the wall behind him. Names were on the labels – last names, in alphabetical order. She wondered if these were customers. “So how much is it?”
“All right.” He flipped to the last page in the binder, with two columns – one side had numbers and the other a description. “Since we give out time, an incredibly finite resource, we must allocate it to you from somewhere else.
“The five to seven hour price range takes the time from a certain race – usually less valuable ones – and cause their extinction a little earlier. You’ve heard of the Tasmanian tiger? No? You may have heard of our client, though – very influential during the turn of the 20th century. But I can’t give any names away: customer confidentiality.
“Our most popular price range, on the other hand, takes time away from a life connected to the purchaser, an hour less for an hour extra. The most expensive, of course, takes time away from humanity entirely – twelve extra hours is too much to take away from just a few people. After three to five days’ processing time, you’ll learn from whom you’ll be taking time – we want you to know exactly how much you’re paying.”
The stone in Beatrice’s stomach turned to ice as he spoke. Whose life did Joanne sacrifice? Did she really need that much more time?
Still, an image surfaced in Beatrice’s mind of a printed galley, not even a year from now, falling into an influential reviewer’s hands. She could read the review in the Times – raves! And rather than going on a book tour sleep deprived and stressed, she was finally calm, the puffiness beneath her eyes vanishing, her skin glowing from a restful state. She would never look better.
The clocks started ticking – or had they been ticking before? They weren’t synchronized, a dozen going tick while the other dozen went tock. The noise filled in the room, clouding Beatrice’s thoughts.
“I’m sorry,” said the clerk, “But I can only give you five minutes to decide. Someone else wants to come in.”
Beatrice swallowed. What about the person she would take time away from? What would happen to them? She could imagine, also, while on this book tour, seeing a shadow lurking just behind the audience, or in the corner of her eye as she drove from one city to another. The ghost of the time she had stolen.
She couldn’t guess how hard a time Joanne had to answer, but she trusted her gut. “No thanks. I think I’ll just make more time for myself.”
“Okay, then,” said the clerk. “But you are welcome here again if you change your mind.”
Beatrice left, thinking that she should warn people about this place. But as the bell jingled, a blank fogginess drifted over her mind, and she steadied herself on the sidewalk as her head swam with pain. It passed after a minute, and she glanced back at the building behind her. The interior was empty and dark, with paint chipping off the door. A “for rent” sign with no contact number hung in the window. Was I just in there? She thought. What am I even doing here?
She wandered home through the cobbled streets of the old town, wondering where the time went.