Writing Exercise: A Pocket Watch, a Flea Market, and a Bit of Time Travel

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Can objects haunt us? I considered this question today when responding to a writing prompt. The answer I came up with turned into the beginning of a science fiction story, which you will find a little further below.

The prompt comes from the Shut Up and Write group, an international writing community that is (despite the harsh name) a friendly group that gets together to write for an hour or two. I joined a local chapter and have received e-mail prompts every day in January, including this one:

“You’ve heard rumors that a flea market in a nearby town is selling something that sounds suspiciously like a family heirloom that went missing years ago. As you carry the story forward, ask yourself:

  • What is this object? Why was it important to your family?
  • Do you (your character) find it?
  • Does the vendor explain how they got it?
  • Is it your family’s long lost heirloom? And do you get it back?”

The passage I wrote in response to this prompt is below.

It wasn’t a matter of luck or common coincidence that I saw the lost pocket watch in the newspaper advertisement for your Flea Market this morning, Sir. You might be inclined to think of it as such before knowing the family history, but as you are not a member of the family, I wouldn’t expect you to understand outright.

It’s like this. Of course a person hears tell of lost hounds finding their way home halfway across the country, their owners having lost sight of them while vacationing hundreds of miles from home. Or those birds that, in winter, leave their nests in the north to fly south on a month-long flight to Mexico. They return north the following spring, where they find their way back to those same exact nests that they left months prior.

I suppose our family pocket watch might equate to one of those lost hounds or migrating birds, despite the fact it has no wings to carry it home nor nose to sniff out a trail. Yes, come to think of it, that’s exactly how you might begin to understand the whole issue, it being such a curious matter and all.

You see, I was not in the least surprised to find the pocket watch in your advertisement because it wasn’t I who found it. Rather, it was the other way around: the pocket watch found me.

The pocket watch always finds us – my family, that is. We have tried to lose it countless times over the years. Generation after generation of Templetons has dropped it in rivers, hoping it will float far away downstream. My great-grandfather left it on a railroad track all the way out in Amarillo when he was there on business, praying a passing train would crush the watch into smithereens, and that would be the end of all the trouble.

But, as it happens, just before the 6:05 morning train passed through Amarillo that day, a train-hopper looking to sneak a lift East was walking along those very tracks and picked the watch up. He put it in his pocket and carried it all the way back on the train ride to Charleston. He accidentally left the watch in the pocket of a coat he traded for a cigarette packet, offered by a fellow coming off the train as it stopped in South Carolina.

That cigarette trader happened to be my Uncle Clarence, who returned home that evening and pulled the watch from his new coat’s pocket as he was sitting at the dinner table. My great-grandfather, who had been home just two weeks by this point, was said to have shouted so loudly upon seeing the watch that the neighbors rushed over to see what the fuss was about.

Why go through all this trouble to rid ourselves of a pocket watch, you may ask, Sir? You won’t believe me when I tell you, but still, if I expect your assistance, I must try to explain.

This pocket watch is an instrument surely designed by the Devil himself. How else could it let my family members turn back the events of time and return to prior weeks, prior years even, allowing us to try to correct our past mistakes? You must be laughing now at such nonsense, but do try to understand.

Surely such power would be great; after all, how often does one wish for the chance to revisit the past? you might ask me if you were here before me, attempting to humor my perceived madness. Would this not be a delight for mankind, to amend the wrongs of history? you would ask me.

But you would be naive to think this. Our family has been driven to insanity with this temptation, incessantly using the pocket watch to return to the past and achieve different outcomes. We hope for different outcomes for our individual histories and even the world’s history, but never, never I stress, are we happy with the results. And yet, we are but human and still we continue to try.

And this is why, Sir, I beg you, please take this watch under your own supervision and guard it. Do not sell it to anyone at the Flea Market, as it will invariably return to our family’s hands. It seems to affect no one else, only us Templetons, and I implore you to let it not affect us any longer.


Writing Prompt: Poets and Writers Magazine

Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash


“In her New York Times essay “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?,” Parul Sehgal writes about how ghost stories throughout American literature have functioned as social critique, manifestations of protest and redress that reveal “cultural fears and fantasies,” and which understand “how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us.” Write a story that uses a dark or troubling part of history as the impetus for an appearance of a ghostly presence. How does the ghost serve “as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable” in your story?”

My passage below is based on the Poets & Writers prompt (above). I found this prompt on their weekly “The Time is Now” section. It was apparently posted on Halloween, but I happen to love ghosts any time of the year and decided to try out the prompt today. I am hoping to turn this passage into a short story. Feel free to leave any feedback or suggestions in the comments section!

She was tired that morning. God, was she tired. She felt it in her back and left shoulder as she sprayed the cleaning solution in the bathtub. The start of the new year last week weighed on her. This year marked nearly fifteen years which she’d spent cleaning houses from top to bottom: sweeping, mopping, dusting, vacuuming, sanitizing, scrubbing, all of it for clients with their endless trinkets and other testimonies of wealth, materialized in rolls of white carpet spread out in spare rooms never even used by their owners.

Early in her cleaning days, Iris had suspected many of the rooms were just for show for most of her clients (how could one childless couple possibly put six bedrooms to use?), and this suspicion was confirmed each week when she saw her own vacuum marks on the rug undisturbed, not a single footprint having tread over them since her last cleaning.

This morning the temptation to take the day off and rest had hit her harder than normal, but she was glad she had gone in after all, as she’d forgotten Mrs. Kerry was going out of town for a church trip for the next four weeks. She felt obligated to look after the house in her absence, as Mrs. Kerry was one of the few clients she really cared for. Mrs. Kerry was an elderly woman, one who had never once accused Iris of stealing a misplaced ring, nor demanded she clean the baseboards a second time, or readjust a slightly crooked painting on the wall.

While some of Iris’s clients left the house while she worked, Mrs. Kerry, being somewhat frail, typically stayed politely upstairs and out of the way, even going so far as to suggest Iris have free reign of the tea cupboard and pantry while she worked.

For clients like Mrs. Kerry, the ones who reminded her of her own grandmother, Iris didn’t mind the work so much. As nice as the old woman was though, she was somewhat glad she would be gone all the next month, as Iris preferred working alone in the quiet solitude of the house, undisturbed.

The bathtub she was working on had accumulated a surprisingly thick layer of dust since the week prior, and she had to take more time than normal to clean it. She sprayed the cleanser a few times before realizing the bottle was empty.

“Of course,” she muttered and slowly stood up to refill the bottle with the gallon jug stored under the sink, her knees cracking painfully as she rose. She bent under the sink, rummaging around until she found the bottle of bleach. Raising her head, she caught her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the bathroom door.

Something was not right, and she felt her breath catch in her chest as she realized what it was. It took her a few seconds to place the source of the strangeness: she was looking at two separate reflections of herself. Her normal reflection appeared before her, holding the bleach bottle just as she expected, but a second reflection stared back at her, from behind where she stood.

It was her: her image, her form, but yet it was not her entirely. “It” – that was all she could think to call the creature in the mirror – had her same tired face with the matching undereye circles of exhaustion. The same wispy brown ponytail, flecked with gray and falling over one shoulder, and dressed in the same faded blue cleaning uniform. Yet “it” stood, empty-handed, straight and tall, in the center of the bathtub behind her, wearing a small and unwavering smile, pleased with itself.

Her lungs, frozen with fear, demanded oxygen and she now breathed in a huge gulp of air, blinking involuntarily as she did so. The apparition vanished with the blink, and only Iris’s usual reflection remained in front of her, staring in disbelief. She sat on the bathtub’s porcelain edge, trying to collect her bearings.

Writing Prompt Exercise

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Today’s blog post is my response to a writing prompt from the site Reedsy. In the past, I have entered their weekly contest and while I’ve never won that $50 cash prize, I have produced a few short stories based on the prompts. This afternoon, I decided to give one a try not as a contest entry but as a blog post. My passage is based on a real-life incident in which a friend and I found a young woman’s diary which had been left behind in a park.

Definitely not my usual writing style/subject matter, but it was still a fun experiment.

Prompt: Tell a story through a shopping list.

I hadn’t noticed the notebook at first. It had slipped into a crack in the park bench and was nearly invisible between two slats of wood that formed the bench’s seat. Only when I inadvertently sat down on the notebook’s spine, ready to eat lunch on my break from the office, did it catch my attention.

Sliding the notebook out from the bench, I saw that it was small, more compact than the ones we had used for taking notes in school, maybe seven by ten inches. It was solid black with a cheap, faux leather cover and a length of ribbon poking out – a bookmark.

I glanced around for the owner, but the park was nearly empty, save a mother and father walking their golden retriever near the fountain at the park’s entrance. They were trying to keep up with their energetic toddler who was splashing water from the fountain onto a flock of unsuspecting pigeons. The weather was colder than the forecasters had predicted, and the park was much more vacant than usual.

I took a sip from my coffee cup and flipped through the book. It seemed to be a diary of some kind. A date was neatly printed in pencil in the corner of every page, and below each date was a bulleted list of items and goals. I could see that nearly three-quarters of the notebook were filled, containing what must have been seventy pages of lists.

Scanning through the book, I tried to find the author’s name or phone number scrawled somewhere within its contents so that I could return it. The first page was dated for September 17 and contained a short shopping list but no identifying information.

  • 8 ounces of heavy cream
  • Pound of sugar (granulated)
  • Milk
  • Cake pan
  • Gift for Justin (baseball tickets? vinyl? ???!)

On the next page was another list, a to-do list, dated for September 20.

To Do:

  • 9:00 AM – Gym
  • 11:00 AM – Drop off Justin at airport
  • 12:00 PM – Pick up prescription on way home from airport
  • 6:00 PM – Dinner with Janie
  • 7:30 PM – MOVIE!!! Finally!

The pages went on as such. I gathered from the handwriting and information in the lists that the writer was female, and Justin was apparently her significant other. As I continued reading through the pages, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t really snooping, but only trying to find some sort of contact information.

October 10

To Do:

  • Stop thinking about Justin
  • Don’t call Justin
  • Don’t text Justin
  • Go to the gym tonight
  • Eat a salad! Jesus!
  • Call Janie

The mention of a salad reminded me I hadn’t yet eaten my lunch. I dug around in my purse and found the wrapped BLT I’d thrown in there that morning before I left the house. I continued reading as I ate, trying to piece together what Justin might have done to bring about a breakup. The girl had baked him a cake for God’s sake.

October 24

Three good things that have happened:

  • Lost 5 pounds
  • Submitted the anthropology paper
  • Still working on figuring out a third good thing…

One not-so-good thing that has happened:

  • Janie saw Justin with a new girl at the bar, already

Already! I thought. I compared the dates – Two weeks and the guy had moved on to dating some other woman at a bar. The thought of the scorned writer dieting feverishly in an attempt to deal with the breakup made me feel a pang of sympathy. At thirty-three, I had too many memories of my own that were filled with calorie counting and cardio exercises.

This entry was the last in the book, and the rest of the pages were blank. I continued eating my sandwich, the notebook still open in my lap. With no way to return the book, I wondered what I should do with it. After a moment, I had an idea.