Prompt Challenge: A Gift of Time

Happy Thursday, everybody – hope the week’s been treating you right.

We’ll just get right to it and not waste your time today, mostly because I don’t have anything funny to say- eh, that’s not true, actually. Recently, I watched a kid pee all over the front of his mom’s car just outside a busy cafe window, and besides the little dude’s equally little brother, I was the only witness. So…that was…it was pretty funny (I just… it feels weird mentioning that I watched a kid pee).

MOVING ON NOW.

The prompt for today is another one from the splendiferous Mr. Bacchus again and is (more or less verbatim) as follows: “You’re approached by a stranger on the street. He walks up to you briskly, hands you a package, and departs just as quickly. You open it to see an old fashioned pocket watch. The moment you touch it… [Must include magic.]”

You want magical shit? Let’s get to some magical shit.

You know how these go, but if you’re just joining us, the gist is I have thirty minutes to scrap together something we can all look at and say, “Huh, funny.” I set a timer and it goes off when it goes off. If I finish in time, great; if not, I either eat some pumpkins and add time or it ends abruptly and hilariously unsatisfying. So let’s get to it.

Starting time in 3…

2…

[Note: Hey everybody, Future Evan here. Post is all done and I just did a brief re-read before publishing it and want to say, to add to the experience, try reading the following story in your grandfather’s voice. Okay, peace out. Enjoy.]

1…

Old and Gray

I don’t know that why, of all the details, the thing I remember first about the day after I met you were the clouds. They were those ones, big and fluffy, but look almost like water stains on a backdrop. The edges are just a little too hard, and the light hits them like…well, just differently than you’d expect them to look. The best part also was that they weren’t dark. There wasn’t the threat of rain. They just felt there to be pleasant.

I was walking down Phelps road, on my way to Central Park Library. I think I was going to return a cookbook I’d checked out, something with old, Polish recipes – not important. But do you remember the side of town the library was on? It was a block over from the tracks and the train station. I always liked that because while most people complained about the train, I liked hearing it. It made the town’s usual quiet feel a bit busier, a bit more lively.

Anyway, I was just watching the clouds and listening to the train when that guy bumped into me, remember? He was dressed in an old-timey trench coat and hat, like he’d just stepped out of a 1920’s noir film. It was doubly weird, because we were the only two people on that sidewalk, so it wasn’t like it was a bustling crowd. We could have both been distracted, but something about the shove felt deliberate, I mean, other than the parcel he put in my hand.

It was like something out of those old C.I.A.-era spy movies where two agents make a pass, except I didn’t know I was one of the agents. I turned around to explain to the guy that I didn’t want to be involved in any of his shenanigans, but when I turned around he was gone. Just about immediately, I forgot all about returning that Polish cookbook.

I took a left on Lewis and went to the park, sat on a bench, and stared at the box in front of me. It wasn’t ticking. When I shook it, I could feel the packing fluff inside, and whatever it was wasn’t very heavy. All I knew is that I didn’t want to end up on a news story. Ultimately, curiosity (same stuff that killed The Cat, I know) got the better of me and I opened the box. Inside was a silver pocket watch on a thin chain.

Not what I expected, and still no ticking.

I clicked the little latch and opened it to the face of the watch. The hands weren’t moving and it looked like it was set to about two forty-five. I checked my own watch just to be sure and saw the time was about six o’clock. I looked for a little dial or key hole to wind it, but it was solid all around, save for the lid’s clasp. That’s when I noticed the engraving on the inside of the cover:

“Guide thine path hence forth,
so hands are held in the north.”

At first, I was cripplingly confused. “Hands held in the north?” Was I supposed to go somewhere, or was this a code of some kind? Was I supposed to wait six hours until the watch counted midday or midnight? Or wind it to be that way? But it wasn’t working and there was no way to wind it. And the time was off anyway. I had a ton of questions and no answers…

Until I started walking.

I started walking just to mull over this mysterious puzzle. I had nothing better to do that day – and come to think of it, I think I forgot the cookbook on the park bench. Oops. I started walking north on Copper just to amuse myself and looked at the watch.

Nothing.

After a few minutes of this, I knew the only thing further in that direction before the highway out to Coalton was a farm supply store. So I looped back down Main, and after a few minutes, I noticed something: the hands on the watch had moved. Both had moved up a little closer.

I really can’t say what the heck it was, but I started walking faster. I followed Main until the hands stopped, and soon they started getting farther apart. I turned down Spruce and they began closing in again. It was acting like a compass, or a metal detector, except I had no idea what I was supposed to be detecting. All I knew was that I wanted to know where this led.

I followed the signals from the hands of the watch, having them frustratingly grow near and then part several times. But eventually…ah well, you know this part.

I was standing at the fountain in Juliard and so were you. I’d spent all afternoon walking, so the sun was setting against the day’s strange clouds and I’m sure I looked a mess, but you were beautiful. You were in that red and white sundress, had that ribbon you always liked to wear, and you were just finished making a wish off a penny you flipped in the water. When you saw me, you smiled and said, “Hey, stranger,” since we’d met the day before at your shop.

You’ve called me crazy a thousand times for this, but I really did have that pocket watch. I put it in my pocket for just a second to shake your hand, and when I reached for it again, it was gone.

But I don’t care if you ever believed me, about the watch, about the mysterious man in the coat, or my goose chase all over town. Because whether you believed in the watch or not, we still had a lifetime together. We didn’t just hold hands in the north, because we went to so many places, but what really mattered was who I was with – even when we were old and gray.

I never got to give you flowers, because of course my wife had to be a florist and you don’t approach Midas with a gift of gold. But now, here on the family plot, I finally can.

I love you, honey, and I miss you already.

END

The Take: Well…you know what? Yeah, we went over time, but I don’t really care this time. Official time came in at 46 minutes, 16 over challenge-time, so I nommed down on some pumpkins (“Cheater-cheater, pumpkin-” you get it) and kept going. I would have called it out mid-post like that one time, but while that had been funny, it didn’t feel as right to interrupt this one. It wasn’t planned to take such a sentimental turn, but, well, that’s how these things go. Originally, when the stuff with the train started, I figured I might make the magical element have something to do with making it explode or fly, but ultimately – as you can tell – took it in a more subtle direction.

Anyway, hope you liked it and enjoyed the journey. If you thought this was cool, check out some of the others here, here, or here, and I’ll catch you guys again Tuesday.

Ciao.

Speed Prompt Challenge #3 – “Atomic Bacon”

Happy Thursday, y’all.

For full disclosure, this was going to be the intended post for Tuesday, but…well, stuff came up and kind of stole the show. But today’s a new day and truth be told I needed a little bit of time to outline today’s challenge.

“But Evan!” I hear you shout, “That’s cheeeeating! You’re only supposed to have thirty minutes!”
“Ah, gentle reader,” I would respond. “you’re absolutely right. So it’s a good thing all that time I could have spent really building it into a fully-formed thing only amounted to about five minutes of spit-balling onto some paper before starting this.”

All good? Cool.

We know how this goes. We have a prompt, thirty desperate minutes, the Law of the Honor System, and some kind of product at the end (featured below). This time, however, we’re going to do it a touch out of order. The prompt this time was a little unusual, and as such, I think it’s better to share what it was afterward.

You’ll see what I mean.

Starting timer in 3…

2…

1…

Atomic Bacon

Las Vegas, 1982

“I do not like these costumes.” Bucky scratched at his armpit. He was dressed in the uniform of a hotel bellhop and pushing a cart covered in trays and glasses.

“They are not costumes,” replied his partner, Foxhole. He was dressed in a tuxedo that was a size and half too small for him. “They are uniforms.”

“Yes, but they are not our uniforms. And so they are costumes.”

“It doesn’t matter if you like them or not, we have them to help do our job. Besides, they were someone’s uniform. So fuck you.”

Bucky spared a hand from his cart-pushing to give his partner the finger. Agent Foxhole was ready to protest, but the two were forced to calm as a group of large, sunburned, American tourists came bumbling down the hallway in their pool attire.

The two Russians adopted the friendly smiles of normal, American hotel staff as the gaggle passed them by, smelling of sun screen and tequila burps. When they were once again alone, scowls retook their faces. “You know what?” Agent Bucky asked.

“What?”

“American hot dogs. They are not all that bad.”

“But they make you shit like crazy.”

“You would know,” Bucky muttered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Well, game face. And shut up, we are here.”

The two approached the door at the end of the long, long hallway. In front of it, was a behemoth of a man in a suit, with hair slicked back and sunglasses on indoors. As the two got close, his upper lip curled into a lopsided sneer.

“Hello,” Foxhole greeted. “We are here to deliver room service.” He smiled, showing all of his teeth.

“Ain’t nobody order room service. Get goin’.”

“Ah, you must be from Texas. Happy American ‘Lone Star State.’ Ha-ha! You are not one who ordered big steak here, under tray? We know you like things big in big Texas.” Foxhole nudged the giant’s tummy with a friendly elbow.

“Take your cart, take your trays, and take your steak, and get the fuck out of here before I shove it all up your ass. Boss didn’t call for no food.”

Agent Foxhole looked back to Agent Bucky and shrugged his shoulders, to which Bucky replied in the same. “We tried,” they said together.

Lightning fast, Foxhole kicked the big man’s knee to the sound of a loud crack, parried away the hand that reached for a stowed pistol, and pulled a blackjack out from between the tray’s napkins, whapping the juggernaut soundly over the head into the soft, sweet arms of unconsciousness.

“Oh, shit,” complained Foxhole.

“What is the matter?” Bucky inquired.

“I tore my pants.” The Russian agent indicated a long tear along the rear-end of his tuxedo’s slacks.

“Well, I mean, y’know,” Bucky stammered.

“What?”

“You know how you got your codename, do you not?”

“How did you get yours?”

“Oh, they just put me into a name generator. ‘Bucky’ was good, bland American name. I think like big stag, with horns and mean antlers, but that’s just for me.”

“Why did I get ‘Foxhole’ then, according to you?”

“It was from time you cracked porcelain in toilets at The Farm. You leave big old crater.”

Agent Bucky began to snicker and laugh, but Foxhole slapped him upside the head. “You ready to be serious?”

Bucky nodded, only smiling.

Foxhole nodded and knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again to the same response. He looked at his partner and again the two shared a moment of shoulder-shrugging. He replaced the blackjack on the tray and retrieved two silenced pistols, giving one to Bucky. They nodded together, and Foxhole slammed a heavy Russian foot against the door.

Back-to-back, the two whirled into the room and sprayed bullets at their targets, each firing quiet, whispered shots until their pistols were empty.

Then they noticed the people they were- um, the targets they were neutralizing were…

They were already dead.

The two stopped and looked at one another in confusion. They walked about the decadent Las Vegas penthouse that was, currently, littered with corpses. The followed the trail of bodies through the luxuriant space around to the master bedroom, which itself sported a bloodied doorknob. They opened the door and saw an man in a bathrobe, spread-eagle’d on the bed.

With a knife in his throat.

“Shit!” the two shouted. Foxhole threw down his bow-tie. “Second place is the worst.”

“Wait,” said Bucky. “Maybe…maybe they got kill, but did they get prize?”

Foxhole’s eyes lit up. “Maybe you are right. What was your half of code?”

Bucky cleared his throat. “‘Pull me to pieces, hear me crackle. Hungry for mushrooms, you’ll need my name.’ What was yours?”

“‘Not very tall, better avoid my tackle, but while I don’t play, without me there’s no game.’ What do you think it means?”

The Russians walked about the room, looking for clues as to what their riddle might reference. They searched between crystal decanters, liquor bottles, under the fabric of the card tables, inside the cushions of the furniture, everywhere.

“Oo!” exclaimed Bucky. “What about that?” He pointed a hairy finger between two lamps and underneath two hung portraits of the penthouse’s owner. Agent Foxhole followed the line of sight and saw a gleaming, golden statue of a hog.

They approached it together. Crackling bacon, mushroom-hunting pigs, the charge of a boar – everything checked out.

“What about needing for game?” Foxhole asked.

“Ah, dirty American passtime. Football. They refer to ball as ‘pig-skin’. Very silly.”

“Makes sense.”

“What do you think is inside? CIA agent names? Launch codes?” Bucky heard two hissed stings and felt a shock in his back. He fell to the ground and saw Foxhole standing over him with a pistol.

“Sorry comrade. Extra-curricular assignments, and everything. You know how it goes.”

“Da.”

END

The Take: Hmm…well, that was…weird. Okay, so the prompt here was this: “A story out of the three words ‘Boar,’ ‘Penthouse,’ and ‘Blackjack.'” The very first thing to come to mind was a Vegas story, obviously, wherein it culminates in some sort of high-stakes hand of blackjack at a card table, right? The thing that really throws a super wrench into that, though, is the addition of ‘Boar.’ The thought process went, “What the shit would a pig be doing at a casino gaming table?” soon met “Well maybe there’s just a pig playing cards, shut up” soon became “Yeah, like Animal Farm meets Ocean’s Eleven.” Like, that’s kind of awesome, but too much for what we’re doing here.
So that got dialed back to some kind of 1980’s spy-thriller but it got goofy really quick. That was in part because I wrote the title on the fly in a panicked moment, but still felt a sort of loyalty to it. It wasn’t until the end that I suddenly realized how weird and contrived it sounded to actually have nuclear launch codes stashed that way, so that’s why it ended abruptly. But hey! We were within time (sort of, I had to pause once or twice because of distractions outside of my control – but that’s not what we’re focusing on here), so yay!

Anyway, y’all are great. This one was weird. See ya Tuesday.

Ciao!

Prompt Challenge #2 – Lost in the Woods

Okay, and we’re back.

Sup everybody. Happy Tuesday to you. It’s been a busy-ass week.

But let’s skip the formalities. The last time we did this it went over pretty well, so we might as well get up to it again.

This time, the prompt (graciously given by the noble Mr. Bacchus) is as follows:

“An investigative journalist goes to a forest where people have been disappearing, and one night they’re awoken by someone breaking into their tent.”

Pfft, spoilers, right? (#kidding)

But just like last time, we’re going to set a timer for thirty minutes and just start pounding keys until it’s either done or those precious little seconds have all dripped away.

“Yaaaaas! But Evan,” I hear you cry, “how will we know you’re actually timed??”

Easy, I’m a believer in the Honor System (and you…well…you just can’t).

Anyway!

3…

2…

1…

Lost in Hoia-Baciu

Justin adjusted his camera strap. He held the straps on his backpack as he took a deep breath and filled his lungs with the fresh, mountain air. It had taken him three flights, a bus, a boat, and a rented car, but he’d finally made it.

Hoia-Baciu, nestled in the arms of Transylvania, Romania, it was known as the world’s most haunted forest was the common villain pointed to for missing persons, alien sightings, paranormal experiences, and supernatural occurrences. There was no shortage of stories ranging from the bizarre and eerie, to the ookie and strange. Urban legends even told of one where a young girl went missing and reappeared seven years later without having aged and with no recollection of her absence.

Justin hiked down the hill to the treeline. He’d been warned by his editor, the locals, and even his parents to get a story some other way, but he was set on this one. He wanted to get a lens on what all the hubbub was about. Though, for his money, he expected to spend the night, find a few tire tracks, some tags, or some other evidence of government presence, then bounce with a catchy headline. All that crap about aliens and ghosts was just…well, too easy. He stood at the edge of the dense forest and checked the time: 11:23 am.

Plenty of daylight to march to the center, set up camp, and get a good boundary before dark. So he did, and on the way saw the sights that made the woods so famous. There was a portion where the trees were strangely curved, like upside-down question marks, and arranged in neat rows. Justin always figured they might have been planted like that by someone who died a long time ago, and when the next people came around and couldn’t meet him, people cried “Aliens!”

He found a spot to set up camp and began unrolling his tent. The stories about strange lights, feelings of unease, and illusory people would probably be easier to judge once it got dark. As it was, he felt great. No lights weirder than the sun poking through the trees, no uneasiness besides a bit of an irritated colon (but that was probably the stew from earlier), and the only imaginary people were just the figments of his boss and Hot Susan from the office he normally kept around. He spent the rest of the day’s light checking his equipment and playing his harmonica.

Once dark had fallen, he ranged a bit with his flashlight. About two hours of looking for Slender Man and an alien light show, he was met with nothing, not even the quiet fart of a white-tail deer. He made his way back to his tent with a strange mix of deep-seated relief and the confidence of a debunker. He crawled into his tent, zipped up his sleeping bag, and prepared for sleep. Then he noticed something. He sat up in his sleeping bag and strained his ears.

He couldn’t hear anything.

Nothing at all, save for his own quiet breathing and small movements. There was no wind through the trees, no small brushing of leaves, or distant animal calls. The close walls of his tent suddenly felt incredibly claustrophobic.

It’s okay, he told himself. You’re out here by yourself and you’re jet-lagged. Bound to feel a little weird, but you’re by yourself – no one’s out here with you.

As he breathed a small sigh of relief, his heart leapt out of his chest.

A sound. He heard a sound.

It was distant, tough to make out. It sounded like leaves crunching. Then the sound drew closer, and Justin realized there was a rhythm to it. It sounded like footsteps- no, it sounded like someone was running.

Someone was running towards him. In that moment, the anxiety returned to the thought that was once so calming, but with a chilling new addition: No one can help you either.

He reached for his flashlight with one hand and the tent door with the other. He fumbled with the zipper as the footsteps approached faster and faster. As he hissed the zipper open, there was a splay of leaves that covered him. A figure, a person, tackled him back into his tent.

“Ah!” Justin screamed. “Get the fuck off me!”

His assailant just screamed in response, but not normally. It sounded like a loud moan, like they were screaming without parting their lips. In the fumbled light of the tent, with the flashlight flailing about in the melee, Justin scrambled and wound up on top of them. He beat his fists against the intruder until, in the chaos, the flashlight illuminated their face.

He would never forget the feeling of that moment, the regret of seeing what he saw.

The intruder was a young man with fair skin and brown hair, though it was matted with dirt and…was that blood? This observation paled in notice that they had only one eye. The rest of the man’s face was fused together, like a wax statue that had been melted and blended. The single eye was panicked and frightened, but upon being seen, seemed suddenly to turn angry and hostile.

[TIMER BUZZES]

(…nope. No, we’re gonna keep going. Adding ten minutes and restarting in 3…2…1..)

The intruder’s hands gripped Justin by the wrists. Whoever they were…whatever it was, was inhumanly strong. They wrestled Justin over and began to hit him again and again alongside his head. Justin kicked frantically and finally freed himself. He burst from the tent and ran blindly out into the dark.

He ran, breathless and without a guide of any sort. Twice he was knocked over by the trunk of a tree in the invisibly dark wood. Each time, he clawed his way to his feet. The forest that had once been so silent was now alive with sounds of all kinds: clicks, burbles, distant caws, but above all of them, the pursuing moan of the one-eyed intruder.

Then, he began to see lights. A twinkling procession of pale green lights revealed themselves between the dark forms of tree trunks. He used this as a heading as he ran with all his breath, all the time hearing the pained moans behind him. A wayward root sticking up from the ground caught his foot and Justin flew forward, landing on his face and chest. Sharp stones in the dirt lacerated his cheek and got in his eyes. He rubbed his eyes fiercely to clear them and got his left open.

With his depth-perception compromised and breathing made difficult from his bloody nose

[TIMER BUZZES]
(No! Fuck, spent some of that editing. We’re close. Five more minutes! Starting…now!)

With his depth-perception compromised and breathing made difficult from his bloody nose, he felt like a wounded deer being stalked by a wolf. Nonetheless, he made his way to the floating green lights. Behind him, he heard the furious moans of the monster in pursuit.

He burst from the trees onto a small, dirt path. The green lights lit the way like road flares. He followed these, sprinting with all his remaining strength.

The path curved, and near the end he saw something. Was that…a tent?

There were other campers here! He’d have help! Maybe they had a phone since he’d left his behind. Maybe they had weapons.

He gritted his teeth and ran. Just as he got to the tent, its door flew open and he slipped. Justin fell headlong into the stranger’s tent and the two scrambled into a twisting mess. They were hitting him and he tried to scream, but he found he couldn’t open his mouth.

Finally, a flashlight was rolled over and clicked on. He froze by what he saw.

[TIMER]
(No! Two minutes!)

Justin looked up with his one good eye and found he was looking at himself from earlier that night. He screamed, but all that sounded was a moan. This wasn’t happening. His doppleganger screamed back. There was a fight. Justin was kicked, and his doppleganger ran off into the woods. Stunned, the disfigured journalist sat there, but soon heard the rhythmic running footsteps come up from behind him and primal fear pulled him to his feet.

He ran back out into the dark of Hoia-Baciu.

END

The Take: Okay, technically the timer rang halfway into the word “dark” of that last line, but c’mon. Anyway, hey! We did it (mostly)! Even though we cheated just a little bit, this one was cool. I liked the prompt and as soon as I read it from him, I knew I was going to base it in Hoia-Baciu. Speaking of, if you’ve never read it before, it’s pronounced like ‘Hoya-Botchu,’ and least, I’m pretty sure. If you prove me wrong somehow, that’s okay. But yeah, I put you through a lot of set-up to get there, but that was mostly just me ‘blurrrrb’ing until I pieced together what was going to happen. I knew early on I wanted the twist to be “He runs into himself out there” but what to do with it once we’d gotten there was the trick.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed it this time around, catch you guys n’ gals Thursday!

Ciao!

Almost- WAIT!! If this little appetizer whet your palate for something creepy, pop on over to the NIGHTLIGHT podcast and check out my episode with them, “The Scars of Eliza Gray” because I think that would be pretty cool. If that works, then consider also sticking around the catch and interview between me and the podcast’s creator, Tonia Thompson (and tell ‘er Evan sent ya!).

‘Kay, bye!