Day 153 of 365 Days of Writing Prompts: Write the story of these pictures.
Erin: I pulled the hood to cover my face and strain to see the center of the water. For a second I thought the flicker of the moon on the water was the sparkler. I checked my pocket watch. The time should have reassured me that I could relax, but it didn’t.
As I sat waiting for my cue I noticed a family going to the hotdog stand that had the bomb planted. The mom squatted down to ask the little boy what he wanted on his. His little face scrunched up and I could see the struggle in his eyes. He didn’t know and his sister started shouting out suggestions. He shook her away with his hand.
She giggled and went up to make her own order. When his mother made a soft suggestion, he listened to her. He went up to tell the worker his choice. The young kid behind the stand listened and after a few attempts at translating, realized he just wanted a naked dog.
I could feel the magic sparkler raising from under the water, but I chose not to turn around. I would take my own death over strangers any day.
Shannon: With what looked to be a full body skin suit under his clothes, it was clear I wasn’t allowed to know any distinguishing details about my new partner’s appearance. He got up from the building’s ledge only to dangle a pocket watch in front of me without making a single sound. Was he really a partner, or just here to make sure I was staying on task?
He curled his fabric-covered finger to direct me to follow him. He was starting to give off a grim reaper vibe, and I was hesitant to continue for the first time since starting the competition. He turned around to stare, or at least that’s what I could only assume he was doing. He tilted his head. Then he backed up to lean on the ledge and crossed his arms, waiting.
“I’m not a quitter, but I’m not stupid. Is the next challenge dangerous?”
He shrugged and lifted his arms.
“Could one of us die?”
He slowly shook his head from side to side. Then he placed his hands on his chest and soon pointed at me.
For some reason I was confident I understood him. “Are you my protector?”
He nodded once. “Fine, let’s go,” I agreed, now that I understood someone was looking out for me.
I followed him to the next arena and he lead me to the challenge envelope: Hold your breath under water longer than it takes one of enclosed sparklers to burn out in your hand and you can advance to the next round.
Use the pictures and write about the fire, shadows, and times.
The city stood behind me, dull and silent, like a busted pocket watch; waiting for someone to bring forth some of the old spark and give life back to the rusted gears. But, as I breathed in the dusty salt scent of too much brine and not enough cleaning, a thought hit me like one of those bricks we used to throw from the fifty-sixth storey. Buried somewhere under all that disused rubble and grey patina that was stuck to every surface was a chest that held exactly what we’d been looking for since we left. When we’d sunk the already-ancient container, complete with a locking mechanism that would be damn-near impossible to crack without every member of the old crew, there had been eleven stubborn souls to care for it until the end of time. Now, these few years of carnage later, there were five others I knew of, and two I hadn’t yet made contact with.
After watching the dull flicker of shredded sunlight catching the corroded spears of what used to be grand condo buildings for a few, lonely and nostalgic minutes, I hopped down from the eroded brick wall and started on the long journey back to our camp. On the sides of the path were ghosts of the past calling out to me through the faded lenses of time; the place I’d first shot someone, where we used encrypted tagging to alert other friends of the chaos that had descended, the tiny wooden cross that marked my little brother’s grave. Everywhere I looked, my own past was playing tag and attempting to let the powerful emotions I’d felt back then take permanent hold of me.
When I could make out the docks, under which we made a secluded and water-logged hide-out that no one would discover, I latched my vision firmly to the sanctuary to avoid thinking about my tragedies any more. Walking across the soft, fishy sand, I thought about where we’d hidden the keys to that chest and how we’d get them back without all our numbers. But if this city could go from a bustling neutral place to one of wreckage and raging hatred in a few years, we could break into our own safe.
I stooped behind one of the corroded stilts, leaning to knock on a false wall with our secret code as though we were kids gaining access to a treehouse. But, glancing around as a heavy deadbolt fell away and the stone slid to the side, I let my mind wander back to when the beach was full of sunbathing kids on vacation and relaxing parents taking a few breaths with their eyes closed. As I stepped down and replaced the door, my nomadic mind let fires burn through the peace of the sand and the good times were replaced with the horrors of war and loss of life. It was a moment before I realized tears were sliding down my cheek, but I hurriedly brushed them away and addressed the small congregation before me.
Flower, Bolt, River, Nox and Blaze were pretending to have not noticed my entrance, though most were failing spectacularly with cheeks of brilliant pink. Obviously those weren’t their real names, but we’d been using codenames for so long, it didn’t make sense to stop now. “Alright, I have an idea of where one of the keys is, but it’s going to be pretty difficult,” my plain, steady statement was greeted with bored expressions so I cleared my throat nervously and continued in as tough a tone as I could must with all the memories this place held. “It’s a combination between the fire element and the water one. We hid the key at the end of this dock at the very bottom of the ocean under a pile of rocks you’ll need to move and behind three sheets of metal which were melted together around the key.” Silence followed as River and Blaze exchanged a concerned look; none of my cohorts recalled anything about what we’d done directly following the outbreaks, which meant they would just have to trust me.
There was a moment where I was checking my lists, consulting a small codex I had tattooed on my arm and everyone else muttered under their breath. I peered over my work at Flower’s arms, which were entangled with shivering tattoos of flowers and other plants, writhing against the two-dimensional format they were trapped in. With a mass of long, blond hair that she wove the remnants of flowers through, Flower appeared as little more than a child caught up in something she didn’t have the stomache for. Across from her, lounging across an uncomfortable bench was Bolt, flicking lightning and raindrops onto the low ceiling and giggling like an idiot as the stone burned and dripped. Though he wasn’t the genius in the group, or the best dressed with his tattered hand-me-downs, Bolt had a way with the clouds I’d never seen before; they listened to his every whim, no matter how ridiculous. Nox was seething away in the corner, his jet hair on end and shadows creeping around him like demon puppies.
Sitting at the table, where our plans and late lunch were scattered like sea glass, were River and Blaze, deep in a feverish argument, presumably about my merits as secret keeper. If they’d been able to remember our adventures from years gone by, though, they would understand that it was I who’d taken their memories in the first place; and they’d know it was only to keep our secrets hidden, but I couldn’t bear to tell them about the other things they forgot.
“Okay, so, let’s go and find the first key; that’ll be one out of eleven,” I piped in as cheerful a voice as the heavy feeling in the room would allow. Without waiting to see if anyone followed me out, I moved the door, ducked out and took in a rancid breath of rotting fish, choking in the dim evening light. I took the steep path around the hideout and scrambled onto the questionable planks of the once-popular walkway alone, stepping over the obviously-cracked parts. After reaching the halfway mark, hollow thuds began to follow me on the journey and I let them, not giving a hint that I noticed them. Personally, if I could have retrieved all the keys myself, I would have done this whole adventure without a single soul.
When I was standing at the precipice staring down into the watery depths so deep I couldn’t make out anything but the murkiness, the other two caught up and stood with their ripped sneakers and army boots leaning over the edge like they were daring each other to jump. “You might want to take off your shoes, at least,” I suggested monotonously, letting the chilly breeze from the ocean cut right through me like a knife. Beside me, River already had a neat pile with her jacket, sweater, pants and shoes going, but Blaze had only stripped off his heavy leather jacket and boots off; they lay sprawled across the dock as though he didn’t expect to see them again.
“Good luck,” I whispered as their bodies hit the water, breaking the perfect calm and sending ripples through the grey substance. Holding my breath with anticipation, I glanced nervously about, shifted Blaze’s belongings so they were neatly awaiting his triumphant return and sat down on the deathly-cold wooden boards.
It was a long eight minutes, checking my dad’s old pocket watch at odd moments, before bubbles began to rise up around the end of the dock. Cautiously leaning forward, I watched something small and brilliantly shimmering swim up to the surface and break through the shell. As I watched, it spat sparks of fire like a sparkler before Blaze’s head popped up, followed immediately by River’s algae-coloured locks. Smiling up at me, in a better mood than I’d seen her since the good old days, River giggled, “Alright boss, one down!”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell them we’d hidden more than just keys; a part of them, their happiness, had been twisted into the very metal of those keys. As we found more, the joy we’d all felt before the war would return and I would have to reveal everything.
After school, Heather noticed that Steve was sitting, reading as he always does. She knows suggesting won’t get him up, so she goes to his room. He notices quickly that she didn’t go left. “Heather, what are you doing in-”
She comes back with the swim shorts he packed. He catches them. “We’re going to the beach. Get changed.” Heather goes to her room and finds her swimsuit.
“Because it is a beautiful day, and it shouldn’t be spent inside.”
“Don’t you have-”
“No Steve, I don’t have homework. It’s Friday!” Heather finishes, putting a sweatshirt and capris on over her two piece tankini. She walks out, seeing Steve is ready, putting a shirt on over his chest. Heather heads out. She grabs the keys and tosses them to him as she backs out of the door.
She’s already in the truck when he’s out of the building. She grins as Steve starts the car with a sigh. “Which beach?”
Heather runs for the water, shrugging off her sweatshirt. Steve had found a beach that has very few people. It’s small, a little secluded. But they can still see the city behind them. Heather had a basket packed already, with towels, flashlights, and some snacks. She was just waiting for the right time.
Heather splashes, going farther until she dives. Steve watches, shielding his eyes from the sun. He waits for Heather to resurface.
She sticks a hand out of the water, giving him a thumbs up. Steve rolls his eyes. He spreads out a towel and sits down, waiting for her to be done. Heather then pokes her head out, taking a deep breath.
“How long was it!?”
“You didn’t tell me to count!” Steve calls back. Heather comes back, only standing once she’s in knee deep water. She walks over wringing out her hair a little. “We didn’t come out here to time how long you can hold your breath, did we?”
“No,” Heather says. She turns and lays down on the sand. Some puffs up around her. She stares up at the sky. “Like I said, it was a beautiful day. Why waste it?”
“You miss the country?”
“And you miss action.”
Steve looks at her. Heather has a smile on her face. “…Maybe a little.”
Heather stands up, walking backwards to the water. “Well then, fight me.” She turns to the water a split second after she sees Steve standing. “I dare you!”
Once Steve’s knees touch the water, he strikes his hand through the water, splashing Heather’s back. She squeals, then turns to reciprocate. She sees a bright smile on Steve’s face as he wades closer.
Her plan worked.