Flash Fiction Challenge: Part Four

Back for the fourth and final week, I’m taking part in Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. (To recap, every person posts a 1,000 word story beginning. Each week, another writer builds on the story culminating in a four-part tale written by four different authors.) I’ve written Part Four of The Time Keeper.

The Time Keeper

pocket watch

Part One (The Time Keeper-Part One, Mark Gardner)

I sat in the booth pouring sugar into my coffee cup. The pawnshop across the street should’ve opened twenty minutes ago, but the open sign hung in the window dark. I reached into my pocket and felt it, knowing today could be the last time it touch the antique. I hated to part with such a treasure, but these were hard times.

A figure staggered down the sidewalk barely awake. The figure, not the sidewalk. A tendril of light smoke wafted from the cigarette pinched between his lips. Even from across the street, I could see the red cherry get brighter as he breathed. Orange-red brilliance, followed by a compounding of the tendril; twin exhausts rushed from his nostrils before lazily dying in the still morning. He staggered up to the door of the pawnshop, inserted a key and walked inside, the door hanging open at an unwelcome angle.

Although the neon sign welcoming patrons remained off, I signaled to my waiter, knowing what must be done.

“Anything else, miss?”

I cleared my throat, fearing he would charge me extra, but I suspect this part of my plan was integral. “Can I get a cup to go?” I asked sheepishly.

He smiled. “Sure thing,” he smiled, “let me get you one.” He paced the bill facedown on the table and walked away.

I placed the crumbled bank notes on the bill along with the rest of the change from my pocket. I knew the sad pile of currency covered my coffee and the hour I sat across the street from the pawn shop. I knew the tip wasn’t spectacular, but I now had no money to my name. This plan better work, I thought as I stood and met the cheery waiter with my steaming cup. I remember thinking how cheerful he was – I don’t trust people who’re that happy.

I murmured thanks for the cup and walked out the door. Perhaps if I’d known the magnitude of the events to follow, I’d’ve savored the moment. Perhaps said a few words to the universe to honor the occasion. I don’t know. Adventures such as this are rarely what they seem in the beginning.

* * *

“We’re not open yet.”

I removed my hand from the reinforced steel door. The bell that signaled my closing the door seemed comical – such a small sound, barely echoing in a cavernous room filled with trinkets and electronics.

I raised the still-steaming cup as a peace offering. “I’m in no hurry, but it looks as if you could use this.”

The aged man smiled and motioned me towards the counter with an excited wave. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he replied in a gravely voice. No doubt due to the cigarette habit.

I placed the cup on the glass counter as my brain processed what he said. “Waiting for me?” I stammered, fear rising.

He smiled, lines forming on his sun-damaged face. The greying whiskers seemed like a field of tree stumps after a recent logging expedition. “Not you, dear,” he said with desire, “but the coffee you bear.”

He seized the cup and drank greedily. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps his gravely voice isn’t from cigarettes. After a moment, his eyes rolled back into his head. I detected a slight shudder and the skin of of tree stumps transformed to a shade of red – making the grey contrast all the more against his skin. “That’s terrible,” he exhaled. “But, oh so welcome.” He set the cup on the counter. “What can I do for you this fine morning?”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my last remaining possession. I laid the hunk of silver on the counter, next to the coffee cup. The man nodded, and the silver was lost in his large hand. He ran his thumb along the edge of the watch. “Timekeeper one-seven-two,” he whispered.

I knew I had him where I wanted him. At the time I was only interested in a handful of banknotes to get me through the week. In retrospect, it was he who had me… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

He placed the silver down with a tenderness I mistook for a love of antiques. “I want to show you something,” he declared, and reached into his own pocket. He pulled out his own silver, dangling from a silver chain. He placed it next to mine and my eyes grew wide.

There sat an identical watch. His was shiny and well cared for. Mine was dented and tarnished. I could see his watch shiver slightly with the tick of the second hand, as mine lie there silent and sad. I began to think I had overvalued my piece, and my confidence wilt, but then my eyes were drawn to the final difference between our timekeepers: the number etched into the side.

“Ah,” he breathed coffee breath across the counter, “you see it.”

Where mine features a fading one-seven-two, his shiny etching proclaimed his to be more than a hundred newer. I reached out to feel the etching of his watch against my fingers, but a static discharge repelled my reach.

“Be careful there,” he whispered, “time is a fickle thing.”

I felt compelled to respond. The words didn’t seem to be my own. When I tried to hold them back, my head began to ache. “But,” I blurted, “it forever heeds its will to the timekeeper.”

The man nodded and withdrew a steel box. He unlocked it with a key and withdrew several banknotes. He laid five of them on the counter. “You have a decision to make,” he declared.

I reached towards the counter, confident of the payday the currency represented, but my hand seemed drawn towards my timekeeper of its own volition.

“Be certain,” he said, “adventure awaits with either decision.”

I closed my eyes and made my decision. A decision I know now was predestined. A decision at some times I regret, but mostly, I cherish. A decision that resulted in sudden life.

Part Two (The Time Keeper-Part Two, Mozette)

I sat in the booth pouring sugar into my coffee cup. The pawnshop across the street should’ve opened twenty minutes ago, but the open sign hung in the window dark. I reached into my pocket and felt it, knowing today could be the last time it touch the antique. I hated to part with such a treasure, but these were hard times.

A figure staggered down the sidewalk barely awake. The figure, not the sidewalk. A tendril of light smoke wafted from the cigarette pinched between his lips. Even from across the street, I could see the red cherry get brighter as he breathed. Orange-red brilliance, followed by a compounding of the tendril; twin exhausts rushed from his nostrils before lazily dying in the still morning. He staggered up to the door of the pawnshop, inserted a key and walked inside, the door hanging open at an unwelcome angle.

Although the neon sign welcoming patrons remained off, I signaled to my waiter, knowing what must be done.

“Anything else, miss?”

I cleared my throat, fearing he would charge me extra, but I suspect this part of my plan was integral. “Can I get a cup to go?” I asked sheepishly.

He smiled. “Sure thing,” he smiled, “let me get you one.” He paced the bill facedown on the table and walked away.

I placed the crumbled bank notes on the bill along with the rest of the change from my pocket. I knew the sad pile of currency covered my coffee and the hour I sat across the street from the pawnshop. I knew the tip wasn’t spectacular, but I now had no money to my name. This plan better work, I thought as I stood and met the cheery waiter with my steaming cup. I remember thinking how cheerful he was – I don’t trust people who’re that happy.

I murmured thanks for the cup and walked out the door. Perhaps if I’d known the magnitude of the events to follow, I’d’ve savored the moment. Perhaps said a few words to the universe to honor the occasion. I don’t know. Adventures such as this are rarely what they seem in the beginning.

* * *

“We’re not open yet.”

I removed my hand from the reinforced steel door. The bell that signaled my closing the door seemed comical – such a small sound, barely echoing in a cavernous room filled with trinkets and electronics.

I raised the still-steaming cup as a peace offering. “I’m in no hurry, but it looks as if you could use this.”

The aged man smiled and motioned me towards the counter with an excited wave. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he replied in a gravely voice. No doubt due to the cigarette habit.

I placed the cup on the glass counter as my brain processed what he said. “Waiting for me?” I stammered, fear rising.

He smiled, lines forming on his sun-damaged face. The greying whiskers seemed like a field of tree stumps after a recent logging expedition. “Not you, dear,” he said with desire, “but the coffee you bear.”

He seized the cup and drank greedily. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps his gravely voice isn’t from cigarettes. After a moment, his eyes rolled back into his head. I detected a slight shudder and the skin of of tree stumps transformed to a shade of red – making the grey contrast all the more against his skin. “That’s terrible,” he exhaled. “But, oh so welcome.” He set the cup on the counter. “What can I do for you this fine morning?”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my last remaining possession. I laid the hunk of silver on the counter, next to the coffee cup. The man nodded, and the silver was lost in his large hand. He ran his thumb along the edge of the watch. “Timekeeper one-seven-two,” he whispered.

I knew I had him where I wanted him. At the time I was only interested in a handful of banknotes to get me through the week. In retrospect, it was he who had me… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

He placed the silver down with a tenderness I mistook for a love of antiques. “I want to show you something,” he declared, and reached into his own pocket. He pulled out his own silver, dangling from a silver chain. He placed it next to mine and my eyes grew wide.

There sat an identical watch. His was shiny and well cared for. Mine was dented and tarnished. I could see his watch shiver slightly with the tick of the second hand, as mine lie there silent and sad. I began to think I had overvalued my piece, and my confidence wilt, but then my eyes were drawn to the final difference between our timekeepers: the number etched into the side.

“Ah,” he breathed coffee breath across the counter, “you see it.”

Where mine features a fading one-seven-two, his shiny etching proclaimed his to be more than a hundred newer. I reached out to feel the etching of his watch against my fingers, but a static discharge repelled my reach.

“Be careful there,” he whispered, “time is a fickle thing.”

I felt compelled to respond. The words didn’t seem to be my own. When I tried to hold them back, my head began to ache. “But,” I blurted, “it forever heeds its will to the timekeeper.”

The man nodded and withdrew a steel box. He unlocked it with a key and withdrew several banknotes. He laid five of them on the counter. “You have a decision to make,” he declared.

I reached towards the counter, confident of the payday the currency represented, but my hand seemed drawn towards my timekeeper of its own volition.

“Be certain,” he said, “adventure awaits with either decision.”

I closed my eyes and made my decision. A decision I know now was predestined. A decision at sometimes I regret, but mostly, I cherish. A decision that resulted in sudden life.

Before I opened my eyes, I caught a whiff of flowers, of the sharp sea air… of… home.  They snapped open and I found myself standing outside my father’s bakery in the seaside town I had been born in.

Exactly how did I come to be here?

The place looked as though it had come from a dream I had just after my father died.  It had that hazy appearance of ghosts gone in another life, in another time where I couldn’t possible have … then I saw him, my father, serving Mrs. Wilson from down the road.  She was a lovely old dear who died just weeks before my father did.  So, this must have been a dream!

The wind died down for a moment and I could hear a ticking sound.  It was gentle and I almost missed it, until I looked down and found that my left hand was closed over something and I was holding it against my stomach.  On opening it, I found the time piece all fixed up, prettily ticking away and looking as though it was brand new.  I gawped at it for a good minute as the second hand went around and made the hour hand moved very slowly towards the twelve.

It was almost 4pm.

I smiled.  Then, I refocused my eyes on the tiny face of the time piece and realised I may have moved back in time, but physically, I had stayed exactly the same.

Looking up, I stared back at the bakery again.  If I were to go inside there, I’d be a stranger to the man serving at the counter.  Just as I was beginning to wonder what I was doing here in the time of my teenaged years, my stomached grumbled loudly that it was time for food.  Looking both ways, I crossed the empty street, ducking under the awning just as the first drops of rain began to fall and thunder drummed around the surrounding mountains.

Pushing the door open of the store, I heard the bell ring to announce me.  The man looked up and smiled as I approached the counter.  I never saw this side of my father – ever. This was the side everyone else saw.  I saw the strict, disciplinarian who would make me eat all my vegetables, forced me to study over my weekends while it was sunny outside and kept me from the best parties over the bay in Bestian’s Bay County.  Kids at my high school thought I was either stupid or very boring; but it was my father who kept me from having a cool social life.  I wondered just how he kept these two personalities in check the whole time… I mean, was this man really my father?  Or was all the controlling just for show?

Then, a woman walked in from out the back with a long apron on, a woman I knew well.  She worked here and I knew she did wonders for this bakery because she had come from France.  It was Celine… a brilliant pastry chef who could turn any bag of flour into the most delicious-tasting bread, lightest sponge cakes, sweetest cookies… yes, it was her.  She had her dark curls up in a hair net, but it was her.  She walked in humming a tune as she carried a tray of freshly baked, sliced and wrapped bread out and shimmied them into the trays behind the counter.

My father walked up to her grinning, “How many more to go?”

“This is it for today, then, I have the cake for Mr. Jones to finish icing.” She replied, sounding like a backwards playing record to my ears, but perfectly fine to him.

“Good, good.” He patted her well-curved behind, kissed her on the back of the neck, and moved past her a little too close to get to the counter I was standing in front of.  It took all of my strength not to say anything to him as he turned and smiled, “Yes?  How can I help you today?”

“Um… do you have more pies left please?” I looked over at the warmer and found it was half-full.

“We have chicken, steak and kidney, steak and mushroom and vegetarian.” He said, “The last are new for the weird people who don’t like meat.” Yep, it was my father alright.

Walking to the warmer, I looked in on the pies.  They were fresh, delicious and wonderful, and I knew it, “The steak and mushroom, please.”

“Want peas with that?” he asked grabbing a plate off the shelf, “And you better eat here, just look at that rain out there.”

I turned and looked as the rain overflowed the gutters and swelled in the streets, “Wow… it’s really coming down.”

“Here ya go.” He smiled, “That’ll be $3.50.”

I pulled out my purse and pulled out a $5.00 and handed it over, got my change and walked to a nearby table.  As I sat down, with my meal, I noticed he went out the back of the bakery, where the sounds of work suddenly turned very quiet.   I tried to ignore the fact I was the only person sitting in the place eating and watched the time tick slowly by, wishing I knew what was going on, but the more I wanted to spy on the two out the back, less I wanted to know… was he kissing her?  Was he having sex with her?  Was he…? I dug my fork into the steaming hot pie.

It wasn’t my business.

The door opened quickly and a woman walked in, slamming it against the wind.  Shaking her umbrella, she dumped it in the holder, didn’t remove her jacket and let herself behind the counter.  Allowing herself out the back, I then heard what I suspected:

“How dare you!  With that French slut!  How could you?” she raced back out again.

I tried to look anywhere but where the noise came from, but failed.  Instead, I stood, leaving my meal behind and went outside and wished I had never come here.  The dampness of the wind refreshed me and chilled me at the same time as I pulled the pocket watch out of my pocket, held it close and closed my eyes, wishing I was anywhere else but here…

Part Three (The Time Keeper Part Three, Angela Cavanaugh)

I ran out into the rain, desperately trying to escape to the image of my father’s affair, and the hurt in my mother’s voice as she found them.

I’d rather be anywhere but here! I screamed inside my head.  I squeezed my eyes tight.

The sound of the rain stopped.  I opened my eyes and found that I was back in the pawn shop.  The lights were off, and the place appeared closed.

I heard the door jingle as a key slid into the lock.  Confused by all that had happened, I decided it was best to hid.  I ducked behind a shelf of old books.

The shop owner staggered in with his cigarette on his lips.  He shuffled to the glass counter in the center. I was about to leap at him, yell, and ask what had just happened to me and why. But the echoing sound of the bell at the door stopped me. I could just see the counter from the space between the books.

My heart nearly stopped as I saw myself standing at the counter, offering the owner coffee. I could barely hear their words, but then, I didn’t need to. I had just had this conversation. I, she, pulled out her watch and showed it to him. He pulled out his own. The strange words were spoken. She was standing there, faced with the choice of money or adventure. I wanted to shove over the bookshelf and tell her to take the money and leave that cursed watch behind. But I couldn’t. I opened my mouth to yell, but no sound came out. She reached for the watch, and disappeared.

The shop owner laughed and put the money back into the register.

“It’s always strange the first time,” he said out loud.

I stayed put, unsure of who he was talking to.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I know you’re there. You can move now one-seven-two.”

He was right. I found that my body was no longer stuck in place. I marched over to the counter. He hardly paid me attention and continued his morning prep to open the store.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I should think it have been quiet obvious. You traveled through time.”

“Yeah, I get that. But why did I travel through time? And why did I have to go there?”

He stopped messing with his register and looked at me.

“The first journey is a very personal, and typically, very powerful one. I’m not sure where the watch took you. But whatever it showed you was something that you needed to see.”

“Why would I have needed to discover that my dead father was cheating on my mother?”

“That answer lies in you. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s because the watch likes to remind us that all people are people. No matter how infallible or one-dimensional they seem to us. They have lives outside of our perception. It’s important to keep that in mind when taking an assignment.”

“Assignment? If you think I’m going to-” he cut me off.

“I know that you are going to. Soon you will understand that time is not linear. You have no idea how many times we’ve met. We may even be friends.”

Somehow, I doubted that.

“Also,” he continued, “I happen to know that you’re strapped for cash. It’s why you came in here to sell the watch in the first place. Am I right?”

I looked down, confirming with my silence.

“I thought so,” he said. “Having a destiny can actually be quite profitable.”

“Destiny?”

“Of course. How do you think you came to possess that watch? Where do you think those numbers inscribed on it came from? How did you know what to speak in response to me?”

I didn’t know the answers to any of it. I thought that I had happened upon the watch. But the memory was fuzzy. In retrospect, it seemed like something that had always been with me. I had never thought to question its origins.

“So you’re telling me that someone is going to pay me, to what, time travel?”

“It’s more that they provide for you. And while time traveling will be involved, there is far more to it than just that. On this first trip, you were merely meant to observe. But what happened when you came back?”

I recalled the motionless sensation of seeing myself.

“I could move or talk.”

“Paradoxes have their place. But you can break through that. You can alter things. And believe me, there are many things that need to be altered. Another challenge you’ll face is keeping your grip on reality. You see, a traveler’s mind is uniquely gifted. You will recall the way things were, and the way they are now. Both sets of memories will exist in your mind and seem equally valid. At first, it isn’t difficult. But in time, there are a lot of realities to shift through.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“But,” he said, “it isn’t all bad. You’ll go places you never dreamed. See things that you’ve never imagined. And best of all, you’ll save lives. You will have purpose. No more pawning your possessions just to get through another week.”

Lately my life had been lacking in purpose. Since I lost my mother, my last bit of family, I’d lost my place in the world. I’d been drifting from temp job to temp job, about to lose the apartment I hated. Worse, I had begun to hate myself. Maybe I needed a little adventure.

“And you’re going to train me?” I asked.

“I will offer you some techniques. But most of the training is done on the job. What do you say? Are you ready for your first assignment?”

I swallowed hard, summoned my courage, and nodded.

“Take out your watch,” he said.

I dug in my pocket and removed the silver time peace. The hands began to spin, and suddenly, I wasn’t in the shop any longer.

Part Four

Sirens wailed, a car horn blared, and I stumbled backwards. My backside hit the curb and dirty water soaked through my linen slacks. My wrist ached. I had twisted it  as I tried to break my fall. I shook it out and clambered to me feet.

A supportive hand came up under my arm. “Oh, my gosh. Are you okay?” A red-haired young woman in her late teens helped me regain my balance. She had fair skin and a smattering of freckles on either side of her nose. Her green eyes widened as she took in my mud-splattered clothes.

I would know that face anywhere. Only last time I’d seen it, she’d appeared ten years older.

“Tricia. Is it really you?”

She dropped her arm and stared, searching my face as if trying to place me. We had been best friends for twenty years, yet she didn’t seem to recognize me. “I go by Patty. No one but my family calls me Tricia. . . Have we met?”

Another siren wailed, and a fire truck raced by.

I turned in the direction it sped. Flashing lights reflected off glass storefronts two blocks away. A handful of emergency vehicles blocked the street and the entrance to the city science center. Black smoke billowed from the building, its acrid odor stinging my nostrils. A stream of soot-covered people tumbled out of the double doors while emergency medical personnel rushed in.

This was that day?

I scoured the sidewalk behind Tricia.

“Who are you looking for?”

“Jordan. Where is he? Weren’t we taking him down there?” Panic edged my voice as I pointed to the smoky cloud that now obscured my view of the science center.

“We? I don’t even know you. And how do you know Jordan?”

A dark-haired boy with green eyes to match his sister’s exited the fast food restaurant behind her and jogged toward us. He wrapped his arms around his sister’s midsection and yelled, “Gotcha!”

She stiffened and shoved his arms from her sides. Her voice rose as she scolded him, but he gave back as good as he got.

I couldn’t follow the conversation. I used all my energy to resist throwing my arms around the boy and squeezing the life out of him. Well, not the life, actually. I wanted to save his life. That was why I was here, wasn’t it? There was still a chance this wouldn’t end well.

Ten years ago, Tricia and I had planned an afternoon shopping trip to town. That’s what we called it, anyway. Neither of us had cash to spend, but window shopping and checking out cute guys in the downtown food court were on the agenda.

And then Tricia’s mom had thrown an eleven-year-old monkey wrench named Jordan into the mix.

“You girls don’t mind him tagging along, do you?” her mom had asked. She smiled and turned back to her sink of dirty dishes.

Of course we didn’t want the little midget tagging along. But she wanted him out of her hair for an afternoon and wanted to ensure we girls didn’t do anything too stupid. Magic solution: the pint-sized chaperone.

Tricia had balked at the request, but ultimately we’d accepted our charge for the afternoon. Given the alternative of spending the afternoon in front of the TV, it was a sound decision.

“Uh, I know you were going to head that way, to the frozen yogurt place, but you should just head home.” I stared, hoping she’d somehow recognize me. That somehow my genuine concern would be enough, and she’d accept my direction.

Tricia’s eyes widened again, and though I could tell she was trying to act natural, I heard her sharp intake of breath. “Who are you? How could you know that?”

What could I say? Obviously this was some kind of alternate timeline, and Tricia and I had never met when Mrs. Fisher put our desks together in the corner of the fourth grade classroom. We’d never spent summers swimming in Wilkins Public Pool or hiked the nature trails of Jenkins Park. We hadn’t sewn more than a hundred ugly potholders that we to tried to sell at a roadside stand.

And Jordan hadn’t died after being hit by falling debris less than a block from the science center after a tragic natural gas explosion.

I guessed this is what the pawn shop owner meant by “on-the-job training.” I preferred a manual and some one-on-one instruction, thank you very much. Would I mess with the pocket watch prime directive by explaining who I really was and why I was here?

“Who are you?” Tricia reiterated, pulling Jordan close, as if I were a threat to his safety.

“I’m . . .” I glanced about trying to come up with a believable answer. “I’m the babysitter your mom hired for the afternoon.”

Tricia cocked her head. “You are?”

“Yeah. She, uh, she felt bad about making you take your little brother shopping, so, she said I should try to catch you.” I pointed in the direction of the yogurt shop, which sat around the corner from the science center. “She said you’d promised to take Jordan there.”

She was struggling to comprehend and accept this story, but I could tell she wanted to.

“If Mom sent you, then tell me her first name.”

“Janet.” Whew. Luckily, my memory was good.

“And our address.”

“743 Poplar Avenue.”

She smiled. “Okay.” She pushed Jordan toward me. “Thank you SO much. I’m meeting Brad at the sandwich shop in Strawberry Square in . . .” She glanced at her watch. “Five minutes.”

Brad? Brad Felter? The guy on the wrestling team who Tricia had the hots for all through high school? If things had turned out so well for her, I wondered what I was doing in this timeline.

“Thanks again.” She blew Jordan a kiss and skittered down the street, away from the disaster.

“C’mon, Jordan. I know an ice cream place way better than that yogurt shop.” I urged him forward with a hand to his back. I slipped my other hand in my pocket and fingered the silver time piece. Mission accomplished.

3 thoughts on “Flash Fiction Challenge: Part Four

  1. Pingback: The Timekeeper, Part 5 | Article 94

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