Time is the perfect element for torture. It's silent, stealthy, and leaves no marks of its own accord, although those suffering from a bout of torturous time may show signs of wear. It's an arbitrary beast. Have you noticed? And if you're in the market for a way to torture your characters, time can play a role, becoming a character in and of itself.
Just so we're clear, I'm not talking about the science fiction working your way through a worm hole type of arbitrary. I'm talking about your everyday garden variety type of arbitrary. Take, for example, time spent waiting for a subway train. Like those that run on the London Underground, where most of my subway experience has occurred.
There are electronic signs that tell you which train is coming next and how long you'll have to wait until that train makes it to the station. But if you pay attention, you might notice that the number of minutes you actually wait bears no resemblance to the number on the sign. You might also notice that the numbers count down the minutes until the train is due to arrive, but the numbers don't always move in 60 second increments.
A three minute wait for a train might actually take thirty seconds, or could stretch into twenty-two minutes. All the while, the sign reassures you that it'll only be three Underground minutes until the train arrives. This lack of reliability used to drive me crazy when I lived in London and I can imagine a similar wait causing untold damage to the psyche of a character who's in a hurry.
Hospitals and doctor's offices are places where time warps, usually expanded into a mind-numbing slowness. Could an illness lurk in the wings for one of my Forney County characters, forcing them to twiddle their thumbs or watch inane daytime television in a doctor's office or medical waiting room, testing their powers of perseverance?
I've noticed another truism about time. The older I get, the faster time passes. When I was a kid, summers lasted f o r e v e r. Remember that? When I once moaned about time passing quickly, my 96 year old grandmother told me to wait until I reached her age. The years literally whipped past. It's as if we're born into the outer edges of a whirlpool, making wide, lazy circles around a massive drain. As we age, we draw nearer to the drain plug, spinning faster and faster toward our final destination.
(Sorry. Didn't mean to get morbid. But this aspect of time might be relevant to one of my characters as they age, driving them to behaviors and decisions they might otherwise not have made.)
To add a more unique twist to this whole discussion about time, let me tell you about a friend. She was the pedestrian victim of a hit and run accident several years ago, and nearly died. Although she's lost the use of her right arm, she's able to walk short distances using a walker and she has regained her ability to paint. Her mental capacity, however, has changed significantly. Her doctors estimate that her short term memory lasts about 45 seconds. Think about that. In about the same amount of time it takes to sing 'Happy Birthday' three times, her most recent memories are gone. When we see each other, we have the same conversation over and over and over and over. "Your sweater is so pretty. I love that shade of brown. And it looks warm." Pause for about 20 seconds. "I love that sweater. That shade of brown is gorgeous, so earthy, and it looks really nice on you." (Is it troublesome, having basically the same conversation again and again? Given her sweet, funny, resilient personality, absolutely not. In some ways, it makes me love her more.)
Maybe it's time that one of my characters experience an event that impacts their memory, altering their sense of time. That could wreak some havoc for a detective, a criminal, or a witness to a crime.
What do you think about the 'reality' of time? Do you use it and its many deviations from our 'real' reality to torture your characters? To increase the tension in your stories?
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