This week's story, Back in My Day, follows four friends as they solve their way through an escape room of clichés.
Suggestions for writing prompts are always welcome! Today's prompt came from one of my sons. And, no, it wasn't because I used that classic phrase on him.
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
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Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 34 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Back in My Day
For our first-time listeners, here’s how this podcast works: I use a word or phrase as a prompt to write a story—with no planning and very little editing—and then share that story with you.
Today’s prompt came up during a chat with one of my sons. And, no, I was not the one to say this classic phrase to him. He had rattled off several phrases when I said I needed a prompt and this one caught my attention. Some of the others may have been noted for future weeks, as well.
For now, let’s see what I came up with this week:
Back in My Day
The escape room was not what Sylvie had expected. She’d been to escape rooms before and was used to their typical themes. Science labs, crime scenes, jailbreaks, zombie cabins, and so on.
This time, she and her friends walked into a room that was mostly empty. The walls, floor, and ceiling were white. Large whiteboards hung on each of the four walls, and each had ledge that held one marker and one eraser. Each whiteboard also had one object hanging on the wall beside it: a clock, a calendar, a mirror, and a wall sconce. Above each whiteboard, someone had hand-painted the phrase “Back in my day….”
Sylvie exchanged puzzled looks with her friends. They’d each been given a lanyard attached to a small display screen and were now wearing them around their necks. Otherwise, they’d only been told that the theme of this escape room was Clichés.
“Okay…?” Sylvie’s girlfriend, Janella, said slowly and to no one in particular.
Their friend Tonya paced the room, assessing its objects and general layout. Tonya’s boyfriend, Daniel, looked at himself in the mirror and lightly tapped its smooth surface.
“Now what?” Tonya asked, after making a quick circle of the room.
“I don’t know,” Sylvie shrugged. She felt responsible for the evening since the escape room had been her choice.
“Daniel!” Tonya’s shout startled Sylvie and Janella. “Your screen says something!”
“Huh?” Daniel looked down at the small screen hanging from his lanyard and saw that it now displayed a short line of glowing text. He read it to the group. “Look on the bright side.”
Sylvie immediately focused on the lit wall sconce. It had a gold base and an opaque shade that protected a bright bulb. She crossed over to it, saying, “It must mean this sconce.”
“Well, it’s bright…” Janella agreed skeptically. “Does it do anything?”
Sylvie examined the sconce closely. She ran her hand over it, pressed and tugged at it, but it didn’t budge and didn’t appear to have any hidden message etched into it.
“Nothing,” she confirmed, glancing at the clock, and seeing that nearly five minutes of their 45-minute time limit had passed.
“Well, it’s the only bright object,” Tonya said, before decisively picking up the marker on the whiteboard beside the sconce and writing out the phrase “Look on the bright side” in large, blue letters.
“Too easy,” Janella told her dismissively.
Tonya scowled, shooting back, “I don’t see you doing anything.”
Just then, Janella’s screen lit up. She quickly read out its text: “Laughter is the best medicine.”
“Laughter?” Tonya echoed, while Sylvie and Daniel looked gamely around the room. “There’s nothing funny in here.”
“Maybe those shoes,” Janella quipped, eyeing Tonya’s vintage platform flip-flops.
“Oh, ha, ha,” Tonya responded flatly.
“You’re wasting time!” Sylvie told them. “We need to search the room. There have to be more clues.”
“The door has four locks,” Janella pointed out with a shrug. “In case no one noticed.”
Sylvie spun toward the door, mentally kicking herself for not noticing the four deadbolts that were each mounted beside a glowing red light.
“Okay, four locks and four of us…” Sylvie began, still looking for more clues.
“Four whiteboards and four markers,” Tonya added.
And four of these screens,” Daniel reminded, lifting up his own by its lanyard.
“And two clichés so far,” Janella listed. “Look on the bright side, and laughter is the best medicine.”
“Right. Medicine…” Sylvie pondered. “But no one’s sick.”
“I’m getting a headache thinking about all this,” Tonya muttered. She had wanted to go to a concert instead of the escape room.
“Jokes make people laugh,” Janella offered, ignoring Tonya’s complaint. “I could write a joke on a whiteboard?”
“Which whiteboard?” Sylvie asked.
“We’re missing what they have in common,” Daniel interjected. “Back in my day… it’s written above every whiteboard.”
“Yeah, but…” Sylvie hesitated, reading the words again. “What does that mean? Something about the calendar?”
They all moved toward the calendar, but Daniel was closest. He ran his hands over the smooth paper, then back along the wall.
“It feels different here,” he announced uncertainly. “I don’t think it’s a regular wall.”
“There’s some kind of seam at the edges,” Tonya pointed out with excitement. “Here, feel it?”
They took turns feeling the calendar more carefully, each noting the line where the wall changed to some other, hidden surface. After studying the calendar from a distance, Tonya ran a fingernail under the edge of the paper and peeled a strip free. They could see an identical calendar below, but this calendar was displayed on a digital screen.
With eager fingers, they pulled the rest of the paper calendar free, then stepped back to examine its digital replacement.
Daniel reached forward and tapped the right side of the screen, then smiled as the calendar advanced by one month. His smile grew as he tapped the left side of the screen and the calendar moved back one month.
“Now, we’re getting somewhere!” he laughed.
“Okay, it says back in my day,” Sylvie reminded quickly. “So, keep going back.”
He flipped back through two months, and they saw green writing on one of the days. He read, “Make me laugh.”
“That’s Janella’s birthday!” Sylvie announced and they all exchanged excited grins. “This is coming together!”
“But how did they know my birthday?” Janella asked pointedly.
“Oh, uh, they asked for all our names and birthdays,” Sylvie admitted sheepishly. “When I signed us up. It’s for discounts during our birthday months.”
“Did you tell them anything else?” Daniel demanded. “Anything they could use for clues?”
“No…” Sylvie stammered, thinking rapidly. “Not that I can think of. Though the woman I talked to was kind of chatty… asked if we were friends or relatives, stuff like that.”
Daniel threw his hands in the air. “Okay, so these clues could be more personal than we thought.”
“Wait,” Tonya broke in, “let’s get back to Janella’s clue!”
“Right, we’re running out of—” Sylvie stopped talking when she noticed the screen around her neck had lit up with a line of text, too. “In the nick of time,” she read carefully.
Tonya looked down at her own screen, checking that it was still blank, and frowned. “It’s been about 20 minutes and we haven’t opened a single lock.”
“Right!” Daniel shook his head and turned to Janella. “Try writing a joke on one of the whiteboards.”
“Which one?” Janella asked again.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter?” Sylvie guessed.
“Just pick one!” Tonya demanded, louder than was necessary.
“All right, all right,” Janella murmured. She moved to one of the empty whiteboards and, after a long pause, wrote, “Two fish were in a tank. One asked the other, ‘How do we drive this thing?’”
Daniel laughed and Sylvie groaned. Tonya looked sharply at the door and pointed out that nothing had happened.
“Okay, uh…” Daniel ran his hands through his hair, while Sylvie hurried back to the calendar.
“Let’s check all our birthdays.” She flipped back month by month. Daniel’s was the next to come up. “Where we all met.”
“Sylvie!” Daniel groaned loudly. “You told them we met in college? And what college?”
“Well, yes…” Sylvie bit her lip and tried for an apologetic tone. “It was just small talk.”
“Babe,” Janella stepped closer and put an arm around Sylvie. “We’re talked about this. It’s not safe to tell your whole life to virtual strangers.”
“It’s just where we went to college,” Sylvie defended. “You wear a Duke sweatshirt out jogging!”
“Enough,” Tonya cut in. “Write in on the whiteboard!” She gestured toward the whiteboard next to the wall sconce.
Daniel wrote out his answer, “Duke University.” Nothing happened.
“Wait, that’s a blue marker,” Sylvie pointed out. “And the board Janella wrote on has a red marker.” She moved to the other two whiteboards, confirming that one had a green marker and the last had an orange marker.
“So?” Daniel asked, glancing between the boards.
“The clue on Janella’s birthday was written in green ink and the clue on your birthday is written in orange.”
“Orange clue, orange marker,” Tonya groaned, pressing her palms against the sides of her head in annoyance.
Daniel grabbed the orange marker and wrote “Duke University” in large letters. There was a buzz as one of the deadbolts unlocked and its light turned off.
“Yes!” They hugged and slapped hands until Janella broke free and wrote her joke on the board with the green marker. Nothing happened.
“Um, so… it’s not about the green ink? Or it’s not a joke?”
They stood in a crestfallen circle until Tonya rushed over to the digital calendar.
“We’ll come back to that one,” she decided, flipping back to stop on her birthday month. “Next clue is on my birthday. In purple ink, it says, ‘Or is it?’”
“Or is it?” Sylvie repeated questioningly. “What does your screen say?”
“Nothing.” Tonya looked at the screen around her neck, but it was stubbornly blank. “I guess we need to solve the others first?”
“Right,” Daniel nodded grimly. “Let’s see Sylvie’s birthday clue.”
Tonya flipped back one more month and found Sylvie’s clue.
“In blue ink,” she read dramatically, “Say your name.”
“Say your name?” Sylvie screeched. “That’s all it says?”
“In blue ink,” Tonya confirmed.
With all eyes on her, Sylvie picked up the blue marker and wrote Sylvia Marshall in clear letters. Nothing happened.
“Say your name,” Daniel told her. “Not write your name.”
“Oh, uh…” Sylvie felt her throat go dry. They had ten minutes to escape the room. She cleared her throat and said, “Sylvia Marshall.”
“In the nick of time,” Janella reminded her. “Maybe your cliché has to be last.”
“And we don’t have Tonya’s cliché yet,” Daniel reminded. “We have to solve yours.”
“Laughter is the best medicine,” Janella responded. Then added her birthday clue, “Make me laugh.”
Tonya was holding the purple marker in one hand and her blank screen in the other, waiting for her cliché to appear.
“If Sylvie is supposed to say her name instead of writing it, maybe Janella isn’t supposed to write her answer either.”
“So, say a joke out loud?” Janella asked. “Okay. Two fish are in a tank. One says, ‘How do we drive this thing?’”
“The mirror!” Sylvie shouted, scaring them all. “It’s not a joke. Make a funny face in the mirror!”
“What?” Janella shook her head, but they all pushed her toward the mirror clamoring that they were almost out of time.
“Fine!” Janella looked at herself in the mirror, took a deep breath and screwed her features into a silly expression. Her tongue stuck out, one eyebrow lifted, and she crossed her eyes. A buzz sounded as another deadbolt unlocked.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
They jumped up and down, until Tonya yelled out, “My screen has words!”
Everyone turned to her as she read, “The writing is on the wall.”
“Or is it?” The others shouted back excitedly, repeating her birthday clue.
“Erase it!” Daniel yelled, seeing that they were almost out of time. “All of it!”
Tonya grabbed an eraser and began wiping off each board.
“Can we help?” Sylvie asked in a panic.
“I guess?” Janella gasped.
They each grabbed an eraser and wiped away every bit of writing. There was a buzz as the third lock sounded, and there was one minute left on the clock.
“Say your name! Say your name!” Tonya jumped up and down, shaking her hands.
“Sylvia Marshall!” Sylvie yelled, triggering the final buzz as the last deadbolt unlocked and the door swung open.
They hugged and laughed, as Tonya called out, “Best night ever!”
Sylvie took a deep breath, feeling the grin stretch across her face. “We did it.”
“Yep,” Janella agreed, as they settled down and looked at the open door.
“Now what?” Daniel asked.
“Ice cream?” Sylvie suggested.
“Yes! Ice cream!” And they left to celebrate their win.
Thanks for joining me for today’s story break. You can learn more about me and my books on my website, SusanQuilty.com. You can also connect with me on social media or offer support through Patreon.com/SusanQuilty.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]