Sally Simpkins’ hobby is tinkering. She got that particular bug from watching her father. Her Dad was a ham radio operator and amateur tinkerer. He could build any electronic gadget needed for his ham radio obsession. When asked about his hobby, Sally said. "With a vacuum tube, a few wires, some capacitors and batteries my Dad could construct remote controls, oscillators, rotating antennas, and CB radio amplifiers, to name a few. He was always looking for the right combination of electronic odds and ends. I have been through Army-Navy surplus stores in almost every city on the east coast. I learned from him."
After her father’s death, Sally inherited all his tools and accumulated bits and pieces of electronics odds and ends plus his amateur radio magazines. She loved spending hours seeing what electronic marvel she could put together. Most of her creations were duds. But one time she got it right. Boy, did she get it right.
Sally liked coffee but making coffee was another story, it was a bother. She wanted to have the ability to turn on her Dad’s old coffeemaker without having to stand over the counter and fiddle with all the buttons. She set out to make a remote control.
Sally’s tinkering produced a device she hoped would solve the problem. Her efforts resulted in a small metal box made out of an Altoids mints tin. It was a mass of crossing wires, capacitors, and a small circuit board with a transmitter powered by an AA battery. A button that she fit through a hole in the side of the metal casing activated the device. The coffeemaker was modified using old receiver parts. She then matched the transmitter’s frequency to that of the receiver. When finished working in her shop she was eager to test her creation. Sally headed upstairs to the kitchen with the coffee maker and the modified Altoids mints tin.
When she got there, Sally looked at the clock above the stove. It read four p.m. Her husband Loren would be home for dinner soon. She thought. “Damn, I’m late.” Loren, a department store manager, worked “retail hours”. He had to work until closing that night and a short break for dinner was all he was going to get. He was due to arrive at four thirty.
Figuring she had already blown getting dinner ready on time, she sat down in front of her creation. With nothing to lose, she pointed it at the coffeemaker and hit the button. Nothing happened. "Back to the drawing board", she thought, as she slipped the device into her pocket. As she scrambled to resurrect dinner for her husband, she noticed the clock in the kitchen read a few minutes after three p.m.
“That clock must be wrong. I started in the shop at three o’clock. It can’t be a little after three.” She thought. But it was. Sally checked the time on the TV. It was a little after three. She checked every clock on the first floor of the house; each showed a few minutes after three. A check of the clock in the car showed a few minutes after three.
Spying her next door neighbor, Beatrice Howell, gardening in her front yard, Sally yelled, “Beatrice, what time is it? My clocks have stopped at three.”
Beatrice, looking up, checked her watch. “Yeah, it’s a little after three. What time does Loren get home for dinner? She asked.
“Four thirty. I thought I was late. Thanks.” Sally said. She turned and went into the house. Still confused, she prepared dinner, figuring the time mix up was her misunderstanding. While dinner was on the stove, she forgot about the device in her pocket.
As Loren pulled into the driveway she noticed her kitchen clock read three thirty. She thought, “What’s he doing home this early? No matter, everything is ready.” Since they always had coffee with dinner, she thought she would give her device another try. Reaching into her pocket, she pushed the button on the little metal box. The coffeemaker did not turn on but as Loren entered the door, the clock over the stove read four thirty. Dinner was ready and they ate. Sally said nothing about her device or what had occurred with the time.
Over the course of the next few days, Sally tested the device. Each time, a push of the button moved the clock back one hour. Then, by another push of the button, it returned the clock
to local time. She repeated the test with clocks in the upstairs of the house. Each time she got the same result. She had in her possession a temporal displacement device. Yes, a time machine. Somehow, through blind luck, she hit a tinkering bullseye. She felt it needed a name so she called it ‘The Displacer".
Try as she might Sally was not able to figure out the “how” or “why” of its workings. There was no schematic because she adlibbed most of the assembly process. She had no clear recollection of the steps she took to accomplish this feat. ‘The Displacer’ was a perfect, albeit accidental, combination of electrical design and physics. What she was able to understand was that she had built a thing that would give her an extra hour whenever she wanted or needed it. For years Sally devoted time working at the local food bank kitchen. Yet, it never once occurred to her to use ‘The Displacer’ to increase her volunteer time. Instead, if she needed more time to shop, she hit the button. When she wanted to sit in the tub longer, she activated her device. Then she got an idea. “Why not add an hour to my social events?”
For her, being with people was as much fun as tinkering, maybe more. At heart, Sally was a "runner". Every night, after dinner, she felt the need to go visit someone or someplace. It didn’t matter if it was a clerk at a local radio shop, a couple of acquaintances having coffee at a café or someone she recognized walking down the street. If there was a social gathering, she was there, in the middle of everything and everyone. She loved the interaction, it was invigorating.
Yet, she had two problems, getting enough time to be social and Loren Simpkins. His idea of a good time was being home since he rarely got to spend any time there. Loren did not
share her love of social gatherings. The way he saw it, when it came to parties, Sally had the annoying habit of over promising and under delivering on her predicted time at the gatherings. The conversation was almost always the same.
“We'll only go for an hour. Just one hour, that’s all. What's the big deal?" Sally said.
"Under normal circumstances, none, but, with you, one hour equals two. I would prefer that you go, by yourself, for whatever time it takes. When we get there, I’m always left by myself anyway. I have enough of people all week. I’d like to stay home. Being at a party, having to make small talk, is exhausting.” He said. With her back turned but smiling, she said, “OK, I’ll go to these things alone.”
With Loren out of the way, Sally had the perfect solution to her time problems, ‘The Displacer’. Gently, holding her creation, she thought, “If I press the button on my device, I gain an hour like I'm in an earlier time zone. I can leave for a party in local time, add an hour when I get to the party and stay two hours. Then I can return home in local time having been gone one clock hour. Loren won’t notice any change and I still get the time I want.”
“The Displacer” was the achievement of a lifetime. Yet, no one knew she created it, possessed it or that it worked. Her dilemma was clear, if she revealed its existence; the publicity would draw scrutiny. The government would probably claim ‘national security’ and take it away to study it. They might whisk her off to some remote location and forced her to make other devices. Since she had no idea how to repeat the process, making knowledge of ‘The Displacer’ public was, no doubt, a bad idea. Unsure of how to proceed, she decided to get some advice from her good friend, Tommy Albert.
Tommy loved tinkering with electronics as much as Sally. Like her, he got the tinkering bug from his father, a friend of Sally’s dad. She loved talking and, sometimes bragging, about what she was working on. When Sally called him and said she could shift time, he didn’t believe it. Tommy wanted a demonstration. Sally, quick to oblige, told him to meet her at Edna’s Café on Center Street the next day a little after noon.
When he arrived the next day, Sally greeted him with, “Tommy look at the clock above the door.”
“I’m game. What am I looking for?” He said.
“I want you to read the time on the clock then, look away. When I tell you to, look back at the clock.” She said. Tommy, after seeing the clock read twelve-eighteen, complied. After reaching in her purse and hitting the button on ‘The Displacer’, Sally instructed him to look at the clock again. Tommy looked up.
“Why it now reads eleven-eighteen. How is that possible? How did you do that? He asked.
“I did it with this.” Sally showed him ‘The Displacer’ but she wouldn’t let him hold it. He could only look at it.
“Does it work like that every time? Tommy said.
“It sure does, every time, without fail.” She said. “I don’t know why, it just does.” She replied.
“And you made this?” She nodded in the affirmative. Then he said, “How much time do you get?”
“It only gains one hour. But, the great thing is, so does anybody I’m with. I can spend more time with fun people doing the things I like.” She said.
“Funny, I recently I read an article about this in Amateur Radio Magazine.” Tommy said. He had every issue of the magazine published since World War II. “In an old article appearing in that magazine, there was a discussion of time displacement, its benefits and dangers. I thought the article was a ‘science fiction’ piece and couldn’t understand why Amateur Radio Magazine would publish it but clearly, it wasn’t.” Before saying anything else, it occurred to him the article discussed something about time displacement having a “rebound effect”. It said displacing time was not “extra time” but instead was “borrowed from the present”. The hypothesis was that “time borrowed” had to be repaid. The article gave no consideration whether the time was put to good use or wasted.
For a long moment he looked at Sally, then, offered this warning, “You better be careful with this. Displacing time is not “extra time” but instead you’re “borrowed from the present”. You might have to pay it back. You should consider the many wonderful things you could be doing like helping a lot of people. You volunteer at one of those food bank kitchens. The extra time you could devote would make a big difference for people.”
Sally was cold to that idea. “Tommy, I want to have fun. You know my husband, Loren, all he does is work at that two bit department store. He never wants to do anything or go anywhere. I shouldn’t have to sit home the best years of my life just because of him. I’m getting out and spending more time having fun. ‘The Displacer’ gives me that chance. I don’t want people to know I have this just yet. Could you keep this under your hat?” She said.
Tommy said, “Sure. It’s your device; you made it, do what you want. I like parties and people too but there is more to life than laughs. Just be careful.” He got up, took a quick peak at the clock over the door as he was leaving. It read eleven thirty on the nose. Once outside and a couple of blocks away from the cafe, he looked at his watch, it read twelve-thirty.
As one month followed the other, Tommy would see Sally around town always right in the middle of a crowd of people. They were laughing, dancing, drinking and having the “fun” Sally so desperately sought. Despite the warnings her had given her, Tommy often took advantage of Sally’s device, but at the same time, he could not help thinking that ‘The Displacer’ could be put to better use. The warnings of the article in Amateur Radio Magazine kept flooding back to throw cold water on his partying.
Tommy tried again to warn Sally. “This ‘extra time’ might not be free, but instead, ‘borrowed’. It probably comes with a cost. Be careful how you use it.” She dismissed the notion there was a limit or a price to amount of time she could “borrow”. A whole new world of people, conversations, dancing, hugging and flesh pressing was now available because of her creation. Since 'The Displacer' allowed everyone near Sally to gain time, she wouldn’t be alone in her merriment. She plunged ahead, her life now full.
Sally had created a personal “sidereal effect”. For her, linear time represented by the "solar day" was irrelevant. She was not bound by the strictures of her location in her existing time zone. Instead, she measured time from other earlier time zones so as not to have to worry about her local time limits. If she needed more, she simply grabbed it from other times zones. Getting time was easy and satisfied her partying habits.
The months blended together. At one party, after a few drinks, Sally felt like it was time to explain 'The Displacer' to her friend Beatrice. “What good is an achievement like this if you can’t let people know about it?” She thought. With the intent of demonstrating it, she took ‘The Displacer’ from her purse. "Beatrice, you know I like to build electronic devices." She said. "I used an Altoids mints box to make this. It lets me extend time so that I can stay at events like these longer and since you’re with me, you can too. I am not sure how or why it works the way it does but it has been a godsend."
Beatrice laughed as she looked at ‘The Displacer’. “This mints box does what?”
“I can get more time so I can stay at parties longer.” Sally said.
Beatrice asked, “That’s great. Do you also use this to get more volunteer time at the Food Bank Kitchen?”
“Oh, there’s that question again. Why is everyone so opposed to having fun? I wouldn’t use ‘The Displacer’ on that stuff. I want to have fun.” Sally said. Tommy Albert was standing close by watching the two women talking. He had spent the evening polishing off a bottle of ‘Monkey Shoulder’ and sullenly staring at the clock on the wall.
“She doesn’t deserve that thing. I could make better use of it. Time shouldn’t be wasted.” He said out loud to himself; seemingly unaware how much time he had wasted at parties with Sally since that day at Edna’s Café. As Sally was showing Beatrice the device, Tommy stumbled over to the two women, catching his foot on a chair leg causing him to trip forward. As he was falling, he grabbed at ‘The Displacer’ and said, “Let me show you how this works, Beatrice.” He knocked it from Sally’s hands. It fell to the floor, breaking it open.
Horrified, Sally did her best to reassemble ‘The Displacer’. Once back together, she pressed the button. Instead of shifting time, she found herself in a fetid, dirty industrial sized kitchen. As she looked around for Beatrice and Tommy she surveyed her new surroundings. A moment before, decorated party tables with finger foods and bottles of liquor were laid out for the taking. Now steaming cauldrons, frying pans splashing hot grease, a rundown freezer and rattling refrigerator, cutting boards with stacks of meat and vegetables, carving knives, potato peelers and bags of potatoes were piled next to two old metal preparation tables. On one of the tables was a manual, two gallon coffee maker. The heat in the kitchen was oppressive.
Looking out over a greasy half wall behind the stoves, Sally could see a large hall filled with tables at which were seated hungry, disheveled people, like the ones she could have helped with the ‘extra time’ had she volunteered at one of the food bank kitchens. The space in the kitchen was cramped but she had room enough to work at the various food stations. To allowed her to place bowls and plates of food on the counter facing the dining hall she had to reach over hot stoves. An exit door was located at the far end of the kitchen. Its sign read “No Exit Unless Authorized”.
Despondent, Sally reached into her pocket and found ‘The Displacer’. Hoping it could get her out of this hellish place, she furiously pressed and re-pressed the button, to no affect. Confused, Sally cried out, "Where am I? How did I get here?"
From a loud speaker mounted above the stoves came a disembodied voice. "Hello, Ms. Simpkins. The time you borrowed must be paid back, commencing now.”
Looking around Sally said, “Who said that? What are you talking about? What time borrowed?”
The voice continued, “We are your Time Bankers. This is the date due to begin collection on your debt and you are here to pay it back. Our records show the amount of time you borrowed from us is quite substantial. Now, you will repay your debt, with interest. On these types of loans, we can assure you, the interest rate is high, very high”
Still not sure where to direct her comments, Sally said, "This is insane. Interest! I never borrowed anything let alone agreed to interest. This is a mistake!"
Unmoved by Sally’s pleading, the voice continued, "I’m afraid when you used what you called ‘The Displacer’ to get time for your parties the “interest clock” began to run. We will determine when your debt is satisfied but interest is running as we speak. We compound it hourly because that is how you borrowed the time and used it.” The voice continued.
“You see Ms. Simpkins, time, like money, is a thing; a tool which can be used for productive or wasteful purposes. While we all do not have the same allotment of time, it’s not the amount, but what we do with it that counts. You were warned, remember. Your friend, Tommy Albert, told you about time displacement having a “rebound effect”. Displacing time was not ‘extra time’ but instead was ‘borrowed from the present’. Technically, it was ‘extra time’ to you but it was not a gift, it was a loan. Your clever device allowed you to manipulate time and you have wasted it. You took our time. Now you must pay it back. Our records show not one minute of the borrowed time has been put to a good purpose and we can assure you, our records are very accurate.
"Surely, there is some arrangement we can make." Sally said.
The voice from the speaker replied, "Why Ms. Simpkins, this is the arrangement you made to pay it back. We have just taken the liberty to choose this particular soup kitchen for you to do so. You’ll find you have everything you need.”
Sally replied, “Oh, this is ridiculous. What’s stopping me from walking out that Exit door?”
The voice said, “For you, that door will only open upon full repayment of your debt. For everyone else, they can come and go as they please but not you, not until we are paid back.”
The voice on the loud speaker then said, “Now, your specific duties. You will be instructed on all menu requirements and serving portions. You are the cook and cleaning staff for this kitchen. Between meals you will need to wash, dry and stack the dishes, bowls and utensils for the next meal. The food lines will form at the counter upon the sound of a buzzer. Now, get to work.” Sally looked at her surroundings in despair and reached for a soup pot.
Sally Simpkins had a “called loan”, which she could neither ignore nor negotiate an extension to stave off a temporal debtor’s prison. She was now discovering that borrowed time, like all debts, must be repaid and, not necessarily, on your terms.
Edward McConnell is a retired American lawyer who writes flash fiction and short stories. He started reading O. Henry as a child and continued to be inspired by Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard and Ambrose Bearse. He enjoys a good story with a twist and tries to write one every once in a while He lives in West Des Moines, Iowa.