Writing Prompt

What came out of our writing prompt: “Your main character is sitting on a park bench, there’s a flash of light and suddenly someone says ‘this is where it started?'” Two brave writers answered the call! Read their stories below.

Where What Begins?

By Anne Reynolds

My fingernail had a chip and I was pissed.

I’d just painted them maybe two days ago, while doing my reading for history class. Fingernail painting is my favorite thing about history class. The reading takes so long that you can put on a coat and just sit there and let it dry while you read. And then repeat, and then repeat again with the topcoat but I must have missed a spot with the topcoat this time.

Because there was this chip, marring the beautiful Midnight Melée on my pointer finger. I had been enjoying a perfectly sunny spring day on a bench, tucked behind the visitors’ center at the Manassas Battlefield with an occasional subtle puff on my vape to add to my enjoyment, and there it was, a glare of white fingernail imperfection. 

I was on the bench because of what I dislike about history class, which is everything except polishing my nails. It was a field trip day. Our teacher had a serious Civil War fixation, down to an old-fashioned blue uniform and a horse with a saddle that was also authentic to the period. He had pictures in his classroom. 

The man had a costume for his horse. That was devotion.

He went events where they re-enacted battles, and I guess he came out here to Manassas to re-enact battles pretty frequently because all of the park rangers at the visitors’ center were super happy to see him.

I, on the other hand, did not see the point of history because you were just learning a bunch of facts (oh, so many dates and facts!) about things that already happened. To people who were now dead. If we’re being honest, it was a disinterest that I had in most of my schoolwork, but it was history that had brought me to the battlefield today.

So I had slipped away from the group and found this bench, thinking I could at least get a little peace and quiet in the sunshine. I was pretty good at making myself invisible and slipping away. I wasn’t one of the stars of our class, one of the glittery kids who got great grades, ran the cheer squad, or starred in school musicals. I didn’t do sports or the SGA. But on the other hand, I didn’t draw negative attention. Nope, I had found a safe niche of mediocrity and I inhabited it fully.

POP!

A sudden noise to my left interrupted my musings about history, Civil War uniforms, and Midnight Melée. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bright flash of light.

My very first thought was to duck under the bench. For one thing, in these crazy days, the sound of a pop makes you think that things are about to get dangerous. And also, I didn’t want to get caught by anyone who might come outside to find out about the noise. Safely sheltered, I took a look around to the spot where the noise had come from.

And I forgot about my fingernail for real.

Two guys were standing there. I swear they hadn’t been there before. They were regular-looking guys, from what I could tell from my vantage point, but both of them had on what looked like stretchy, silvery track suits. 

What the hell was in this vape? I wondered.

I considered sneaking back into the visitors’ center and slipping back into my group, pretending I’d seen nothing. Should I tell anyone about them? “Excuse me, Mr. Park Ranger, but a couple of guys in space suits just appeared out there by the woods. Why was I out there? Oh…” No, better to lay low here and take my chances. Besides, one of them was talking.

“This is it, Dave,” one guy said to the other. “This is where it all began.”

The other guy, Dave, nodded. “From such modest beginnings,” he said. 

And then they just stood there. Both of them nodding a little. Like bobble-heads.

It seemed to me to be an awful lot of trouble to POP into a place and just nod like a bobble-head. My curiosity outweighed my nerves and I did something very out of character for me: I crawled out from under the bench to find out more.

Stepping up next to the one named Dave, I followed their gaze out at the gentle hills of the battlefield. Aside from a couple of school groups and suburban ladies jogging, all you could see was green grass and an interstate in the distance.

“Are you talking about the Battle of Bull Run?” I asked them. They both jumped a little and  looked over at me. But neither of them replied.

“Or about the Civil War? Because it was kind of the same thing.” 

Two blank faces looking at me. 

“I mean, unless you count Fort Sumter, which I don’t, because that was just one side shelling the other side’s fort. This is where the two sides lined up…” I surprised myself. Maybe I knew more than I gave myself credit for. But I wasn’t here to teach history class.

“Listen, if you guys want to learn about it, you can just go right on in here to the visitors’ center – but I’m warning you, you might call attention to yourselves with those outfits.”

“Who are you?” asked the guy named Dave.

“Nunya,” I told him. It’s short for “nunya business” because I’m not one to share my info with spacemen. “Who are you guys? And how did you do that?”

“Do what?” asked the fella who was not Dave.

“That Harry Potter stuff, apparating here like that.”

Crickets.

“You know, Harry Potter. The wizard? They were always popping in and out of places in those movies. Do you not have Harry Potter where you’re from? Are you guys wizards?”

Both of the new guys shook their heads no.

“How about time travelers?” I asked them. “Bill and Ted? Dr. Who?”

“You know a lot about classic literature,” said Dave.

“My mom and dad are old school. And I’m not into Marvel, so I watch old moves. Is that it, then —  you’re time travelers?”

“Ms. Nunya, thank you for your interest…” started Dave.

“My name really isn’t Nunya,” I told them. This lame field trip was turning out much more interesting than I’d ever imagined. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to talk to real time travelers. “It’s Sarah.”

“You’re Sarah?” asked not-Dave, sounding very serious.

“But not Sarah Connor,” I assured him, considering for a moment that maybe they had been sent back from the future to snuff out the future parent of their nemesis. I didn’t want any part of that. 

“Sarah Connor?” asked not-Dave.

“Terminator?” I asked. “Guys, you need to get up to speed on the time travel canon. Where are you from, anyway?”

“That is not your concern,” said Dave, who was starting to sound a little impatient.

“Hey, can I go back with you?” These guys must be from the future, and all of a sudden a trip there seemed quite appealing to me. From their reactions, though, I could tell that this idea was a non-starter.

“Certainly not,” said Dave, snappier now. “In fact, we have probably said enough to you as it is.”

“Because it could change history, right? Is that what you’re here for? To change history? Whoa, am I famous in the future? Did you come here to talk to me?”

Dave frowned, and looked right at me. “Sarah Snell,” he said.

“That’s me! You did come here to talk to me! Do you have a warning? What’s up, guys?”

Not-Dave sighed. “Sarah, we need to tell you that, well, that you’re not living anywhere near your potential.”

These guys were, admittedly, not wrong. But this was a really weak message from the future. “Did my parents send you?” I asked. “Because you sound just like them.”

“Sarah, I hope you can take this seriously,” said Dave. “I can tell you this: someone – a lot of people – are going to need you someday. But not this version of you. You’ve got a lot to offer but you need to start figuring it out. Start paying attention. You’ve got curiosity; use it.”

“Are you sure I can’t go back with you, just for a minute? You could always drop me off just a little bit before you showed up just now. Let me get a peek at future me.” Both guys shook their heads.

“You have work to do here,” Dave said. “Get your act together. There’s nothing holding you back but yourself.”

This was disappointing. “That’s deep, Dave,” I sulked. “Anything else?”

“Yeah,” responded not-Dave. “You should break it off with that boyfriend of yours. He’s going to two-time you with Beth Crosson.”

“What!?” I asked, but there was another POP and my two new friends were gone.

Shaking my head, I started back to my bench, to pull out the vape and think it over. But then I changed my mind and slipped back into the field trip group as easily as I had slipped out. Okay Dave and not-Dave, I thought, I’ll give it a try. Maybe this is where it all begins.

Vanished

by Emma Horn

Those few moments before she had to clock into work when she took a little time to decompress from the traffic that she hit everyday driving into work were always her favorite. Now that it had started to get warm, her routine was to leave a little early everyday and stop at the bagel shop on campus and get a coffee and a bagel and sit on a bench and do a little people watching.  There were students rushing to class, people chatting or texting on cell phones, narrowly missing walking into each other, and people who must be professors walking with armfuls of books or papers, generally with students trailing behind them anxiously asking them questions.    As much as she loved the bustle of people, it was those two or three minutes, right before the clock struck nine am when the crowds suddenly seemed to almost completely vanish that seemed almost magical to her.  Her boss didn’t seem to mind her clocking in a little after nine, so she would especially relish these calm moments.  

It was right at 8:58am when it all happened, she knew because she had just looked at her watch, carefully calculating that she could take five more minutes before she had to go to her office and clock in. She set an alarm on her phone, just in case she got too caught up in her daydreaming and gazed at the now empty quad.  Instead of silence, all of the sudden there was a bright flash of light, brighter than anything she had seen before.  For a few moments, she was completely blinded. As her vision slowly started to clear saw that instead of the grassy quad, there were two people in front of her.  Before she could tell exactly who they were, they said in perfect unison “So this is where it all started” She blinked a few times, trying to clear her vision enough so that she could actually see. Those voices, there was something so incredibly familiar about them.  Finally, her vision cleared enough to see two familiar faces in front of her.  One of them was a face she saw in the mirror everyday and the other, a face that she knew almost as well as her own, the face of her own twin brother.  They looked a little worn down, dirty, and tired but were so clearly recognizable. Just as she opened her mouth to ask a question, they spoke again, this time saying, “Pay attention.  It is all real” As soon as they finished speaking they disappeared, and suddenly she was staring at the grassy quad again, a lone student clearly running late scurrying across the quad.  

She quickly got up and tossed the remains of her now cold coffee and did a couple of stretches, shaking her head to clear it. She went to work as usual, thinking that maybe it was all just a dream.  It wouldn’t have been the first time she had dozed off on that bench in the sunshine and she hadn’t been sleeping well.  She went about her business of data entry, meticulously typing in the information.  It wasn’t the most interesting job but it did allow her to listen to music or podcasts while she worked.  Today, she decided to try out a new podcast, one about the founding of civilizations that her twin brother had been telling her to try out for a while.  At her lunch break, she pulled out her phone to call him and saw at that very moment he was calling her.  Answering, she said, “What a coincidence, I was about to call you. Have you listened to the most recent podcast about the civilizations?”  He said yes, that he was just listening to it. A little strange, she thought but nothing out of the ordinary. It was one of his favorite podcasts and the newest episode was just released today.  They talked for a few more moments and she got back to work.  A little later in the afternoon, she found that she humming a song from one of her brother’s favorite rock bands, one that spoke to a call for revolution.  Still not super weird, she thought, since it was their chosen soundtrack to many of their road trips and errand running in their teenage years. Those strange little coincidences continued that day, but each time she explained it away, chalking it up to what their mom called their “twin sense.”  Each one began to be harder and harder to ignore and started getting stranger and stranger.

Later that night she got home and decided to put in her favorite super hero movie, the one with all the 1990’s music and the cat that wasn’t really a cat, one of her favorites.  Curled up under a cozy blanket, she did what she always did when watching a movie and fell asleep long before the movie was over.   Before she fell asleep this time, she saw the main character be exposed to the power source and be transformed, a scene played over and over again in her head as she slept.  During that night, she had a series of dreams about that scene, each one becoming more and more realistic and each one seemed to be more about her and less about her favorite super hero. During her final dream, it seemed so incredibly realistic.  She woke up with a start, sweating, having to reassure herself that it was only a dream.  Yet something about it seemed hauntingly familiar and so realistic. 

The next day was a Saturday and a day she didn’t have to go to work, so she decided to have a coffee and breakfast at home and relax a little.  She closed her eyes on the couch for a few more minutes, and found herself dreaming again, this time standing beside her brother as he sat on his porch and drank a cup of coffee, It felt so real, the smell of the cigarette he was smoking and the smell of the coffee, the cool cement floor of the porch under her feet and the tweet of the birds not far off. She’d never had such vivid dreams and never had smelled things so clearly in her dreams. The loud beep of her coffee maker brought her out of the experience and again she made sense of it all, thinking that surely it was her own coffee and birds outside her window that were in her dreams. Settling in with her cup of coffee, she texted her brother, saying that something weird had just happened.  He immediately texted back, saying that he had just had the most vivid dream about her being there beside him on the porch, talking to him as he smoked and drank his morning coffee.  So very strange she thought but once again explained it away to herself, thinking that she knew he often smoked a cigarette and had coffee on the porch first thing in the morning and that it must have felt so realistic because she had been thinking about him a lot lately because of those “twin sense” experiences.

Those strange experiences of “twin sense” and vivid dreams and daydreams continued in the following days. As the days progressed, and her visions and dreams became more and more frequent, the environment in them became more dystopian. After each one, she would text or call her twin and each time he would recount the experience exactly.  In some dreams she and her twin were fighting something, some unknown creature, almost always losing but fighting as hard as they can. Each time, she felt a little different, a little stronger.  Every time she woke up she felt sore and it seemed so real. She would also wake up mysterious bruises each morning, which were becoming more and more difficult to explain by her clumsiness. It’s like the dreams were so real.  But, it couldn’t be. Could they? It was so strange, and neither she, nor her twin who was experiencing the same thing could make sense of it all.

A week or so later, she laid down for bed one night.  These dreams and visions had made it hard for her to sleep, and she woke up feeling more and more exhausted each day. This time, her head had barely hit the pillow when she was beside her twin brother again, this time in a much different setting.  It looked like what she always imagined the end of the world would look like. They were on what looked like it used to be his porch but this time there was rubble and fire around them and it was barely recognizable as his porch.  Screams and gunfire and unidentifiable animal noises filled her ears. Her body felt heavy and she looked down and saw she was clad in homemade armor, and was holding what looked like a large sword.  “Duck!” he said, as he swung his machete, making contact with the monstrous creature in front of them.  He then began running; ducking under and behind everything he could, her following close behind, staying crouched close to the ground.  Finally he reached the storm door and flinging it open, he led her thru it, down the creaking ladder to a large room with many others in it.  There were women and children cowering in the corner and guns and weapons everywhere.  It smelled of fear and desperation.  Something deep inside of her knew that this was their last stand, the last holdout they had against the creatures, the last chance to save the world. Something deep inside of her also knew that they would never win, that it was completely hopeless.  It’s time, he said, looking at her.  Maybe this time if we just warn you early enough then all of this can be avoided.  Maybe this time you will know who and what we are early enough and be able to stop all of this. Maybe this time you will heed our warning and fight harder.  Maybe….and then the two of them vanished. 

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