Writing Exercise: Time Shift (Part 2 of 2)

Photo by Kyle Loftus on Unsplash

Below is the second half of a short story, my writing exercise for the day. To read the first half, you can click here.

The man continued, still staring down at the half-empty glass in front of him.

“Three years ago, I spent the summer out in New Mexico, in Albuquerque, working on a farm in the South Valley. It was an internship for my senior year of college, and I was gathering information for a research paper. The paper was for my environmental studies class and detailed acequias and their irrigation benefits throughout the region. I was there from June through August, the hottest parts of the year, working on the farm every day that summer.

It was hard work, too, the hardest physical work I had encountered thus far. I didn’t know many people my age, and so I spent most of my free time exploring the landscape. In the late afternoons when the work was done for the day, I made the half-hour drive up to the eastern border of the city where the Sandia Mountains are. The foothills of these mountains hold countless trailheads, and I took to hiking along these trails each day to catch the sunset. I’d never seen sunsets like that, turning the mountains pink for a few minutes each evening, just like a sandia, a watermelon.”

Here, the man stopped to take a swig of his drink before continuing.

“One of these evenings, I was hiking on a trail that circled around a small mountain’s edge, offering breathtaking views of the city down below. Out there, the land stretches ahead of you for dozens of miles, and you can make out the buildings downtown, and even specific streets. During this hike, I stopped at a gathering of boulders and sat on one of them to wait for the sun to set. It was almost a meditative experience up there for me, with the clear skies and winds blowing down the mountainside, all around me.

I had been there maybe fifteen minutes or so when I heard footsteps behind me. A guy my age was coming up the mountain from the opposite direction from which I had come. He had dark brown hair that was parted neatly along one side and was dressed what I thought was a bit formal, a button up shirt and pants like my grandpa used to wear. The guy waved to me and asked to join me on the group of rocks.

“Of course,” I told him, glad to see someone my age after so many weeks on the farm with older workers.

As he sat down on a nearby boulder, I noticed his shoes – brown, flat, leather ones that looked like they had next to no traction. They must have been slicker than anything on that dusty, crumbly trail.

‘How can you wear those things?’ I asked him. ‘I’m hardly making it up the trail in these hiking shoes.’ I lifted my own foot to show him. He looked puzzled and mildly amused at my own shoes, a pair of sneakers I had used throughout college.

“I don’t have any trouble with these. Those shoes of yours though, I’ve never seen anything like them,” he told me. At the time, I thought that was a strange remark, but he seemed friendly, and I thought nothing more of it. We got to talking more, and I learned his name was Marco. He worked downtown at the drug store and was in medical school at a local university. I told him about my research paper on acequias, and he said he was familiar with them as many of his friends were farmers.

As the sun set, we saw that it was getting late and parted ways; I didn’t think anything more of Marco or our conversation. However, the next day, I ran into him again and so on for the next week or two. We hiked together several times, and one day I ran into him as I was walking up from my car which I always parked in the lot just outside the trailhead. Instead of offering to hike, he invited me to his home where his sister was making an enchilada dinner.

I had grown tired of the farm meals and accepted gladly. I learned that he walked from his house to the trailhead, so we turned away from the trail on foot. I followed him down the street, surprised that I had not noticed there was no sidewalk before; I supposed I was always too hurried to get on the trail to notice each evening.

It was after just a few minutes that I began to feel a little uneasy, kind of like that feeling when you know you’re getting the flu but you don’t have any real symptoms yet. My head had a slight ache and the sun seemed to be beaming down hotter than ever, but Marco didn’t notice. He just chattered on about his sister’s ability to cook anything you asked.

The sun was beginning to sink in the sky, and feeling the dryness in my throat, I thought I might ask him for a glass of water when we reached his house. I found myself wishing we’d taken my car, as we would already have been there by now.

At that moment, I abruptly realized what had unsettled me. Turning back at the trailhead with Marco, I had not seen my own car. Nor the lot that had been filled with so many other vehicles of people visiting the trail. My mind could not recall anything but the dead end of the street opening into grass and a post marking the trail’s entrance.

‘Marco,’ I asked him, ‘Are we nearly there? I’m not feeling well.’ The ground felt uneven below my feet although it looked perfectly flat.

He replied that his house was just around the next street corner, and I could rest there. As we rounded the corner, we came into a neighborhood filled with quaint houses. We were met with what seemed to be an old-fashioned car show, with the vehicles parked along the street and strangely, in people’s driveways.

I remarked on the amount of antique cars in the neighborhood, but Marco didn’t seem to notice and just shrugged my comment off. He led me into the yard of one of the old style houses and opened the front door. The house was immaculate inside, but again, all the furniture seemed to be of a style even my grandmother would have thought out-dated. I followed Marco further into the house and into the kitchen, with the impression that I was on the set of a historical movie.

A woman who I presumed to be his sister was stirring a pot of something on the stove. She wiped her hands on the apron around her waist and turned to greet me. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Although she seemed nice, something about her made me feel ill-at-ease. Her clothes were all wrong, too bulky, too grandmotherly. Her makeup was too dark, eyebrows too thin, like she was dressed in a turn of the century costume.

She extended her hand in greeting, but I found myself only staring, alternately at her and then Marco, the ache in my head getting more intense. My gaze landed on the wall behind the sister’s shoulder. On the wall hung a calendar, and as I read its marking, the floor seemed to fall out from under me. My head was swimming and I lost consciousness, but not before I distinguished the number “1926.”

When I came to, I was lying in the parking lot at the trailhead, beside my car. Neither Marco nor his sister were anywhere in sight. I drove to the farm as fast as I could. That night, I told only a few of the farmers there what had happened, but of course they didn’t believe the story, and they were worried I’d come down with sunstroke.

I went back to the trailhead every day until my internship was over, but I never saw Marco again. When I tried to retrace the path to his house, it was just as I thought. No neighborhood existed near that particular trail.”


Writing Exercise: Time Shift (Part 1 of 2)

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

The passage below is the first half of a short story that came to mind a few days ago. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s stories of their own experiences with the supernatural and the reactions others have upon hearing these tales that seem to defy rational explanation.

I’m not usually one who enjoys talking to strangers. No, twenty-odd years of working in my line of business – accounting – have instilled within me an appreciation for the quiet comfort of numbers and order over the convoluted speech patterns enjoyed by so many others in our society. I’ve never been particularly interested in overhearing the droll gossip of strangers in the supermarket check-out lines or the impassioned stories guests on local radio stations so vehemently recount.

However, despite this somewhat reclusive personality trait, there are times during the winter season that I do recall a story relayed to me (and several others) by a young gentleman years ago. The tale was of the type so unique and without comparison that my mind only drifts to it on nights like these, when the snow and wind are fierce allies, and the air has that peculiar crispness which only winter nights offer.

Forgive me for my long-winded manner, but the sequence of strange events seems even more disordered with the passing of time (if time truly does pass one by), and I will do my best to communicate it all as it happened.

I believe the year I heard the story was 1984, as I was in Aspen for a skiing tournament that winter. That was the last year that I skied, due to my knee injury slipping on the porch stairs the following spring, but until that complication, I was still agile enough to compete. I wasn’t very skilled and certainly didn’t place high in the rankings that year (nor the year prior), but I held my own on the slopes that afternoon. My competing was more for a chance to breathe fresh air after a year of working behind the bank’s austere walls.

After the competition that day, all the participants went to the nearest bar in hopes of having a few beers to diminish the chill of the snow and to numb our overexerted muscles. I noticed that most of the skiers in the group sat with competitors who had placed similarly in ranking. I suppose to them, it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do, but in my typical fashion, I took a lone seat at the end of the bar.

I was soon accompanied by a young, sandy-haired man, his hair being of that in-between color that is often mistaken for red in certain angles of sunlight. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties and had ruddy cheeks, brightened with the burnt look most of us skiers got that day from exposure to the sun and wind high on the mountain. The skin around his eyes was pale and undamaged from where his ski goggles had protected it. I recognized him as having scored close to my own level.

He struck up a conversation, and I learned he was from Los Angeles and came up for the tournament each year to escape California and clear his mind. He had a quiet demeanor, and I imagined his personality wasn’t suited for such a large city, much as my own is not.

We hadn’t been seated long before we were joined by two boisterous and somewhat intoxicated skiers, one with a military haircut and one with a wispy moustache that seemed to have given up on growing itself out. In their drunken state, they generously bought a round of beers for both myself, the Californian, and several other skiers scattered around the bar. The two had done very well in the tournament and seemed eager to share their good humor. It wasn’t long before a circle of skiers had formed around us, everybody comparing that year’s trails to those of previous competitions.

As often happens with inebriated and adventurous groups like that which we had created, the conversation turned to sharing tales of evading danger and acts of bravado. One skier, an older man with thinning hair, talked about scaring off a mother grizzly and her cub while on a solo camping trip in Washington. Another man, only college-aged or so, recounted his experience nearly drowning during a poorly planned rafting trip down the Rio Grande.

The stories grew more outrageous as more drinks were consumed. I remained silent, as my vault of stories from working at the bank were limited to balancing books and skimming financial records, hardly death-defying.

During a lull in the conversation, the man with the military cut suggested the Californian share a story, as surely he had encountered some wild creatures in that state.

With the group’s attention on him, the Californian slowly set down his glass in a way that silenced the room. It had grown late, and we skiers were the only ones left in the bar. He wiped a bit of the beer’s foam from his lip and seemed to collect himself before beginning.

“I have a story, but it’s not from California. It’s not about bears, or rivers, or anything like that. There aren’t many people who believe me and that is fine. I don’t know that I would, in their position. But I guess there might be some people who don’t believe that man here wrestled that cougar.” The skier in the crowd who’d shared a dubious account of an encounter with a cougar didn’t protest, only laughing good-naturedly.

The Californian remained serious, and kept his eyes lowered as he began.

This is the end of the first half. I will post the second half tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by! Happy reading and writing!

Writing Exercise: The Last Plant in the Neighborhood

Photo by Christian Widell on Unsplash

This snippet was written from another prompt I gleaned off the Poets and Writers:The Time is Now” list. The prompt I used was:

“The Humboldt Glacier, located high in the Andes mountain range in Venezuela, is the country’s last glacier. Glaciers are disappearing around the world due to climate change, which has also been a factor in declines and extinctions of animal species elsewhere. This month saw the death of George, the last snail of the Hawaiian species Achatinella apexfulva, named after Lonesome George who died in 2012, the last of the Galápagos tortoises. Write a poem about an object that is the last of its kind to ever exist, either in reality or hypothetically. How is the disappearance of your chosen subject significant in its own way?”

As you will see, I bent the prompt slightly and did not go for a poem but instead wrote a short scene. I often do this with writing prompts. I try not to worry about following the guidelines too strictly (unless it is a submission of course) as my goal with exercise prompts is really just to get the ideas churning.

My passage below is a science fiction piece about an adult reflecting on a memory from her childhood when she saw the last plant growing in her neighborhood.

A crowd was slowly growing around the square of earth, and it was impossible for me to see what everyone was looking at.

The people – neighbors, a teacher from my prior grade, my father’s boss, everyone it seemed – were all murmuring to one another, consoling each other, but I didn’t understand what was going on. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve, hoping she would translate the scene in front of me.

“What is it? What is everyone looking at?”

She pulled her arm away, and I saw that she was crying, holding one hand over her mouth. At that age, I always felt cross when I didn’t understand what was happening, and I took it to mean I was purposefully being left out of things. Older now and looking back at the memory, I am ashamed by my selfishness in that moment.

I grew impatient trying to see past the thick cloud of skirts and jeans that obstructed my view of the object, and I left my mother’s side before she could protest. Ducking through the small gaps in the crowd, I made my way to the front of the sea of people. I pushed past dozens of onlookers until the tips of my shoes bumped against something hard. Nearly tripping, I looked down and saw I was standing with my feet against a beam of wood that, with three other beams, formed a square. The wooden square bordered a small plot of earth, and this few feet of dirt seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention.

In the middle of the box was one tiny yellow flower, its head bent over. Frail petals radiated from its center, but I noticed each petal was tinged with spots of brown that gave the flower the appearance of leopard skin. What should have been a green stem was covered with the same fuzzy gray mold that our neighborhood had seen take over the forest down the road, dozens of trees at a time. That same disease which had destroyed the grassy field in the school grounds, turning the whole thing into a rancid swamp, and eradicating, too, the dandelions on the hill that Ben and I climbed during vacation days. I knew this yellow flower before us would soon become the same moldy, sludgy mess that all those other plants had deteriorated into, eventually sinking back into the earth in a rotten heap.

As I stared at the flower, I felt a sharp nudge in my ribs. I glanced up to see a gray-haired woman much older than my mother looking at me. Her hair was long and wiry, held in place by a floppy hat made of straw.

“Look at that,” the woman said, pointing a bony finger at the plant. “You will not see the likes of that flower again. It’s the last of its kind. You remember how beautiful it is, so you can tell the others. They will want to know.”

At the time, I didn’t understand her words. I didn’t know the woman and what she meant by the “others” that she referred to. Frightened, I ran back through the crowd, back to my mother who I saw talking to one of the guards standing near the gate. When he pointed to me, she looked over and I saw her face overcome with relief. I told her about the old woman and asked her what she had meant about the plant being the last of its kind.

As my mother talked to me, I saw the way she looked down and fidgeted with her rings, which was her habit when she was worried. She explained how the guards had let us see the plant today because they knew it was dying too, like every other plant had in the neighborhood. It had been the last one for miles and miles and they thought maybe it would survive, but it wasn’t going to, and so we all go to see it at last.

We can’t live here with no plants. No plants means no food, no true food at least, she said.

“Why don’t we move?” I asked, envisioning a trip to Guatemala where Ana’s family had lived when she was little or maybe England, where my father had taken his business trip last summer.

“All the neighborhoods are like this,” my mother answered, turning her face away again so I couldn’t see the tears forming in her eyes. “All of them.”

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

Photo on Visual Hunt

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.

Short Story Review: “The Red Room” by H.G. Wells

Isn’t the book jacket just awesome? The hardcover underneath has planets etched into the spine and front cover

Last night, I opened my copy of The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, also Selected Short Stories, a collection of works by H.G. Wells. I bought this delightfully vintage, 1963 edition hardback copy from a fun downtown bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina.

The bookstore itself is a two-story building with a coffee shop and champagne bar located within it, so if you’re ever visiting the area, I highly recommend stopping in. There are tons of good literary finds around the place, and when I saw this particular edition of my favorite science fiction author’s works, I had to buy it.

I’ve read both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine in the past, and have them in mind for another reading in the near future (and hopefully, accompanying reviews!). Last night I was in the mood for a quick science fiction story before sleeping, so instead of going for the novels, I chose an unfamiliar work from the collection, the very short story The Red Room.

The Red Room turned out to be less of a science fiction story than a supernatural one, which is just fine by me. I hadn’t considered the idea before, but really, the genres are very closely related. Many of the typical science fiction tropes actually run parallel with horror themes. Unchecked technological “advances” turning society into hordes of misanthropic robots? Aliens from another planet destroying the earth with no regard for life? Science fiction yes, but still all fairly horrifying, in my humble opinion.

The Red Room opens with the narrator deflecting any idea that he is afraid of ghosts. At 28 years old, he makes it very clear this isn’t the sort of thing he believes in (unlike your faint-hearted blogger here). He is very adamant about spending the night in a room of Lorraine Castle, a place that three “old pensioners” (as he so kindly describes them) who live in the place believe to be haunted.

Against their judgment, the narrator decides to spend the night in the room to disprove the stories of it being haunted. I won’t reveal the ending, but the narrator’s final conclusion of the events that take place leave for some interesting interpretation into the beliefs of humans.

I suggest this story if paranormal events are your thing. If you’re a fan of H.G. Wells, you’ll recognize his style of not naming the narrator and offering little backstory to the characters. This habit is actually one that I like about his writing. I don’t get bogged down by all the past baggage in his characters’ lives. He typically takes us straight into the story, immediately putting us in the character’s current frame of mind. The Red Room is a great option if you want a short, gothic read just before bedtime, but its theme will definitely have you questioning your own beliefs about the supernatural long after that.

Do you have any thoughts on the blending of science fiction and the supernatural? Or are you also a fan of H.G. Wells? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks for visiting Paper Crow Blog!