May 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

May 27, 2016

May 26Smile. It’s the message of the lady bug and I almost missed it for not reading the book. The Book, not just any book, is thick with cardboard pages, each one beautifully illustrated to capture the imagination of a child, ages 0 to 100. It’s by Nancy Tilllman, and called, “On the Night You Were Born.” It was a gift from Kate before she died.

While visiting Kate in the hospital last May, she wanted me to fetch several important items from her desk at home. She trusted the task to me, even promising me snacks she’d hid in the left-hand drawers. We both laughed when I reported back to her that the Grandchildren had already ransacked the snacks. Judging by the wrappers, I missed out on some good ones.

One item I returned to her is what I’d call a baby-book. It’s a toddler’s first reader, the kind they can teethe on and not shred pages (easily). She told me to make sure her three-year old Granddaughter didn’t see it or she might think it hers. She had one and now, I did, too. I was a bit puzzled at first until Kate read me the book. It begins:

On the night you were born,

the moon smiled with such wonder,

that the stars peeked in to see you

and the night wind whispered,

“Life will never be the same.”

I’m at one of those moments where I know life will never be the same. I’m packing, dealing with panic attacks and wavering between hope and hopelessness. Many possibilities are in the air like floating dandelion seeds and instead of my usual excitement for all that is possible, I feel like my compass point is spinning when I need a clear path. I want a single possibility to resolve it all.

Kate gave me this book because she understood that our friendship was one of sharing the bad times as well as the good. And she knew that when I faced a rough spot without her, I’d need the reminder that:

…whenever you doubt how special you are

and you wonder who loves you, how much and how far,

listen for geese honking high in the sky.

(They’re singing a song to remember you by.)

I almost didn’t read the book, and was about to pack it away. There’s a dark reality that anything I pack in storage I might lose. What if we can’t find a home? What if my client contract doesn’t come through? What if I fail to publish? What if the money owed to me by Go Idaho is truly unrecoverable? What if my check from Sandpoint Magazine doesn’t arrive in time to rent a temporary place on short notice? What if I succumb to my own dark thoughts?

Smile. Really? Smile at time like this! As I pull the book off my desk shelf, its clunky pages it opens naturally to a page with a single line: “And none of the ladybugs flew away.”

It might not read as profound to you as it does to me. You see, the day Kate died, I sat on a patio with her youngest daughter, M, and her best friend. When I formally met the best friend was when I returned to be at Kate’s side. I walked into the hospital room and a young woman grabbed M in a protective hug and boldly said, “This is my best friend!” I nodded, walked over to Kate’s side, put my hand on her shoulder and said, “This is mine.” That day, we best friends shared a bond of  being-there-no-matter-what. And the worst that could happen, did. Thus the three of us sat numb in the sunshine of a patio the day Kate died.

That’s when a lady bug began to harass me. No matter how many times, I placed it on a plant or blew at it, that lady bug would not fly away. With tears in her eyes, M said, “It’s Mom.” I’m not an insect kind of buckaroo and Kate knew this about me. So of course, if she came back to visit me she’d find it funny to do so as a bug. I accepted the lady bug and it stayed on me the entire time we sat outside.

Now, nearly a year later as I pack with a sore heart and mind full of doubt as to my worth, I sit on the floor among half-filled boxes and read, On the Night You Were Born. And I find the message of the lady bug, the message Kate wanted me to remember:

If the moon stays up until morning one day,

or a lady bug lands and decides to stay,

or a little bird sits at your window awhile,

it’s because they’re all hoping to see you smile

Last night I drove to town without a smile. I thought about canceling Wrangling Words at the library. What good am I to other writers? Oh, yes, lead the writing life just like me, go places, don’t get paid and get evicted for no solid reason other than you are the one renting because you don’t have the means to buy. Yes, I was in a full-blown pity-party, the kind to crush all smiles. While packing, I had come across my college work from the 1990s. I found my outlines and character development for two novels that withered and died in those boxes. I was considered adept enough to do two independent studies on those novels. My professors once called me Super Woman. Well, didn’t I go out in the world and crash my invisible plane.

While the education coordinator finished setting up refreshments for Wrangling Words, I sat in silence. I hoped no one would show. I sat for 20 minutes and realized I could leave in three when a man walked through the door. Maybe he had the wrong room. “Is this where the writers meet,” he asked. I confirmed it and asked him what he wrote. Ah, I recognized that pure enthusiasm for one’s work as he explained his novel in progress. Despite my gloom, I began to smile. Then a woman walked in and I resigned myself to a the truth of that moment — I need to feel needed.

It’s not my ability to write that I doubt. It’s that I know how hard this journey is and sometimes I doubt I can take another step. It keeps me going when I can help someone else along the path. In a way, I feel like a trail guide. Sooner or later, every serious writer (and even the light-hearted ones) discover how rocky the writing path can be. At times like this, I pull out of my own funk, shaking off the dust of the trail, to talk two other writers through the dust. Giving someone else clarity, re-orientates my own compass. And I remember to smile.

I also remember to plant columbines for strangers, leave dandelions for the bees and invest in my writing that risks no payback.

Wendell Barry once wrote a poem about doing things that are contrary to circumstances, defy politics and profit, and call us to do things we will never see come to fruition. Mad Farmer Liberation. Part of his manifesto from 1974 reads:

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

Laughter can’t tumble from a clenched frown. To be joyful requires a smile. I look for these messages in baby-books and poems. Call me crazy. Call me a writer.

So damn all you property managers to the place Trump will end up one day (may you rot in in the waste heaps of Washington DC for all I care). I cry out the psalms of disorientation, the ones where David asks God to bash in the teeth of his enemies. I shout this to the wind, I show the lavender-gray clouds of dusk my fists. I kick at the pavement of the driveway for no matter how angry I am at common injustice I can’t kick the land.

No, I revere the peat, honor the budding sweetness of clover and I gift my columbine to the next landowner on Elmira Pond. I never planted bee-bombs last summer, thinking they were for me to see. I planted bee-bombs as an investment in the future of pollinators. I planted columbine in the belief that beauty is perennial not annual; it’s for all of us or else we become Trump, blinded by a bad comb-over and lack of human dignity.

I write. For I am human despite my housing failings. I write. For I am always a student and no novel is ever truly finished even when published. I write. For I have so many stories in my imagination that if you were to peer through the window you’d think it was infinity. I write. For I feel deeply beyond the pit of my despair and I dig into pit-roots and use what I find like Indian Jones barely surviving another adventure. I write. For I fear not the darkness and dare to illuminate with words. I write. For sometimes I am scared but it’s my prerogative to contradict myself, to re-invent myself, to tell you who I am and not the other way around.

Sarah Shull rode horses the way I write. She had no where to go, but she went. No one would hire a female accountant except for her one-time lover who jilted her to return to his wife. She didn’t own her own place and was at the mercy of many before she succumbed to cold alone in a desolate cabin among the stumps of trees she once knew as a forest. She rode because she kept a secret. She rode because others judged her without knowing her. When arthritis and age crippled her frail body, damn them all, she rode in her dreams until the day she died.

To you Sarah Shull, I recite these words from my baby-book:

For never before in story or rhyme

(not even once upon a time)

has the world ever known a you, my friend,

and it never will, not ever again…

The world will not know the likes of her, and I write because I have seen her in my storehouse of an imagination. I write because I want to see Sarah Shull smile despite 98 years of hardship and holding a secret to protect her friend who…well, I know her secret and I write so one day you might realize it, too.

May 24, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that changes with a smile. It can be a character, tone, setting or any creative use of smile. You can go deep and consider motive and influence, or you can light up the world with a brilliant flash (of teeth as well as fiction). And smile, because your writing matters and is not hostage to your level, experience or circumstances.

Respond by May 31, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Heaven Smells Like Nebraska Territory by Charli Mills

The girls clung to each other and crept to Sarah’s bed. The one-room cabin was dim and drafty. Sarah’s form was still as death in the sag of a discarded mattress.

Even Sarah thought she was finally, blissfully, dead; drifting away from the squalor of stumps, escaping the putrid pollution of wood mills, leaving behind decades of condemnation as a fallen woman.  Shulls Mill receded and Sarah could feel the tug of a galloping steed. She smelled morning dew on prairie grass. Was heaven carpeted like Nebraska Territory?

She smiled. The girls squealed and Sarah woke up, yet alive.


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  1. Norah

    Oh Charli, it is difficult to find those smiles when everything seems dark and it feels like you are being sucked into a black hole from which there is no return. I’m pleased you are revisiting Kate and benefiting from her strength and the warmth of her memories. That is a gorgeous picture book and it is timely that it found you, again. How apt is the passage about the ladybug. Seems Kate will find many ways to keep the communication with you open.
    I love your beebombs and the selflessness of your planting. Your generous spirit lifts you away from revengeful thoughts.
    I’m looking forward to your surprise about Sarah, and love this flash piece telling of her dreams of riding across the prairie. I love the question, “Was heaven carpeted like Nebraska Territory?” Hopefully, if that’s what she wanted so it is.
    I hope things work the way you want them to, very soon, Charli, and that soon you will be smiling for you, and not just for others. Your words smile for all of us. Let the world smile for you too.
    Sending hugs and best wishes. Wish I could send more.

    • Charli Mills

      It was good to revisit Kate and acknowledge that she still impacts my life. Thank you for validating this. Planting always feels like an act of faith and despite the good or bad I feel, I always have a choice in how I act, and I’m going with bee bombs. Thanks for your smiles, hugs and wishes. It’s comforting.

      • Norah

        We do have choices to make. They are not always easy though. Choosing bee bombs shows strength of character and invests in our future. 🙂

  2. Kerry E.B. Black

    You are in my prayers. Your words are your compass, I’m pretty sure, and I’m so sorry. I wish I could help.

    This is my attempt at a smile through fear.

    Written by Kerry E.B. Black

    Helen’s gown fell from her shoulder without a pretense at the provocative. Nobody looked “hot” in a hospital gown. Her bare feet padded behind the attendant, obedient little slaps against linoleum. She pushed aside words like cancer and focused on complying with tests. She held uncomfortable positions, battled fatigue, and ignored a mounting terror that threatened to ambush her optimism. When she closed her eyes to a painful injection, her children’s smiles greeted her. She recalled their soft skin and their silky hair as she sung them to sleep. For them, she would fight and win. She smiled, renewed.

    • Charli Mills

      Oh, wow, Kerry, what a powerful flash. Thank you for saying my words are my compass. I think I find my way through them and I appreciate you reading and responding. Truly a magnificent flash you wrote!

    • Sherri

      As Charli says Kerry, magnificent flash…

    • Annecdotist

      I agree, fab flash and congratulations on getting yours in there first!

    • Mardra

      Yes to this . Lovely.

    • Norah

      Love the thought of her thinking of her children as she goes under, and of finding strength, and hope, in them. Smiles indeed.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      You captured that fear perfectly and beautiful that the recollection of her children was going to give her the renewed courage to fight on. Powerful flash.

  3. Annecdotist

    This is so moving, Charli, (pun definitely unintended) as your posts often are. What I particularly like is your tone of defiance, and I’m so glad they can’t take your identity as a writer from you. I’m not surprised your tutors called you superwoman, both for the quality of your writing and your ability to juggle multiple projects, but it’s not an easy moniker to live up to, and probably unrealistic to try. I also identify with that sense of, when you’re feeling crushed, it feels that it’s no longer worth trying and there’s nothing left inside you to try with. It can be hard to find your smile and, for me, going looking for it doesn’t help but being out in the world eventually does – something will happen to help me reconnect, as you found at the library (for me, it’s usually something quirky).
    Anyway, I hope you can feel, if only intermittently, the support of those writing with you. My flash is called You won’t define me and it comes with a review of a novel about a teenager who is also losing her home:

    • Charli Mills

      Ha! Moving! You made me smile, Anne! Oh, there’s a dark side to over-achieving. One professor forewarned me of feeling fraudulent because I’d feel as if I didn’t do or know enough. When I felt that way, I remembered her saying so and it gave me perspective. Then, I learned the hard way, the more you do for an employer, the more they expect from you. That burnt me out more than anything. What I did wasn’t appreciated. Life lessons! I’m curious to know one of your quirky was of re-connecting. 🙂 I also went to Open Mic Night on Thursday and read the baby book, Wendell’s Manifesto and a portion of my post (about “I write”). It felt good to say all these words out loud, too. Interesting, but the poets and wordsmiths in town all say May has been a tough month and many readings were to express frustration. My favorite was a poem that began, “Don’t talk to me today/I am a dragon…” No smile there! I enjoyed what you added to the smile idea on your post and in your flash. Thanks!

      • Norah

        I wonder why the spring month has you all low over there, It is cooling down for us here, a welcome respite, but still we complain. What a magnificent sharing at Open Mic night. I like the opening words of the other’s poem: Don’t talk to me today/ I am a dragon…” How useful it would sometimes be to be that honest! And be forgiven for it. 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        That opening line might just be my public response during this time!

    • Norah

      I second Charli – would love to know some of that quirkiness too! 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Oh, I love Nat King Cole’s singing! He does make smiling sound smooth and worthwhile Thank you for this gift, Anne.

  4. Sherri

    And oh Charli, how you write! I use the word magnificently as you used it to describe Kerry’s flash. Through tears and smiles you have not given up. Your light shines on, proven by your own words: ‘It keeps me going when I can help someone else along the path. In a way, I feel like a trail guide.’ You are a trail guide, I know I am not the only one here – or at Wrangling Words – who thanks you from the bottom of my heart for the way you’ve helped me explore a writing genre that once terrified me! I can’t imagine not writing flash fiction now. And that’s because of you my friend! Your story about the ladybug book (ladybird as we call them 🙂 and the story behind the story, which is so very sweet, moved me to tears. Kate knew that we all want to see your smile, and what a beaut it is 🙂 Your flash…that last line…beautiful…hope resides deep within the human spirit and even when all seems lost, there it is – ‘yet alive’…that smile 🙂 <3

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for validating my trail guide-ness, Sherri. And thank you for walking the trail with me! You are a terrific fiction writer in addition to writing compelling memoir. The ranch is meant to be a safe place to explore, discover and actualize. But the Writer has to participate, be willing to explore, open to discover in order to actualize potential and you’ve certainly done all that and more. So, thank you! And, ladybirds…I’ve loved learning that term. I first heard it from Norah. 🙂 You’ve helped me so much after I lost Kate. <3 I hadn't realized it (and this is what I love about discovering something in each others writing) about life yet alive in a smile!

      • Sherri

        Thank you Charli…I’m so grateful for your trail guide-ness! I hope that in the days ahead, as you battle on, you are blessed with many reasons to smile… 🙂 <3

  5. TanGental

    I love reading you Charli. There’s a timelessness and a rhythym to both the segues and sequiturs that embody and embolden your words. Bugs and buddies, carrying hopes and supporting the crushed. Resilience is probably what defines true courage, that willingness to absorb what comes next. A soccer manager was asked what he wanted most in his players – talent, athleticism, luck. None of these, or rather yes but something more too. He coined the expression bouncebackability. That’s you in spades.

  6. julespaige

    I hope to actually write to this prompt…
    But until then I found this (it was part of a prompt on another site:

    The Latifa Prayer

    I exist
    I desire
    I hope
    I believe and I trust
    I let go
    I love
    I am prepared

    This is for Charli and everyone. 🙂

    The piece I wrote for that prompt is more than 99 words. Maybe I’ll include the link on the post I write for this prompt…

  7. Kay

    You inspire me, Charli. Even amidst your chaos, your raw and heartfelt sharing inspires. I needed to read them. I thank you, with my whole heart, and wish you strength to keep on going. ????

  8. denmaniacs4

    It continues to be a great pleasure, Charli, to submit my petite work to your exquisite site. Take care.


    Hank Taylor entered the livery.

    A glorious blast of morning sun burst through the open door.

    Light streaked to the back. Dobbs soaked up its warmth.

    “Morning Dobbs, Hope my stable mice showed the proper respect.”

    Dobbs smiled. “Never met more civilized rodents.”

    “We train ‘em well. That aside, I s’pect you’re hungry.”

    “That I am, Mr. Taylor. That I am.”

    “Mrs. Taylor thought you might like to join her and Miss Runacre for breakfast.”

    “A good meal in a respectable home would be most welcome.”

    ”Good. You can freshen up out back and then make your way over.”

  9. Sarah Brentyn

    Yes. I know the “pity-party to crush all smiles”. Sending love and light your way, as always. ??
    I don’t now how we manage to keep going, let alone smile, but we try. I love that book and your story about it and the ladybug. ???? I adore this right here, Charli: “She had no where to go, but she went.” Yes. That. Excellent flash and I’ll be back with a smile.

  10. cheryloreglia

    Me: I’m having coffee.
    Larry: Grunt
    Me: I can’t hear you?
    Larry: Scratches his head
    Me: You think you have lice?
    Larry: The look
    Me: I’m sooooo bored!
    Larry: Eyes remained glued to the computer screen
    Me: I need a refill.
    Larry: Grunt, while scratching head
    Me: (I try a new tactic –deep sexy voice – like a smoker) Honey, I need something hot!
    Larry: Eyes bulge, knocks over his chair, leaps over the couch, cheshire smile.
    Me: Really?

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      A little longer and it could be entered in the 10 min shorts (short play comp our theatre runs). Well done.

      • cheryloreglia

        Thank you Irene! What is the ten minute shorts all about? Love to know more.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        They are 10 minute long plays – a bit like flash fiction only a theatre version. We went to our local theatre the other night for the shorts and then at the end of the night we voted on which we liked the best. There was one which in some ways was similar to your piece. My husband and I both voted for it. It was both funny and very telling.

  11. Pat Cummings

    Better than a course of Prozac or Wellbutrin: “Rescued” comes with a rhyme and a smile from me at

  12. Pete

    Miss Jones

    Then men asked the governor to move. President Kennedy’s orders.

    She walked swiftly, head down with her purse. Waiting to be struck by a fist, a rock, a bottle or stick.

    They shouted. Buzz cut men and well-dressed women hurling hatred from behind the National Guard, their faces scrunched and angry, some even smiling. But she saw fear in those smiles.

    Chin up. Confident. One step at a time. The same steps that had taken her to the backside of restaurants, the COLORED bathrooms and water fountains. But now, the president…

    These steps were different. These steps were historical.

    • Pete

      Should start “The” not “Then”

    • Mardra

      Pete – that’s really great!

    • Norah


    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Powerful flash Pete. I’m presuming this is based on history. Is the Miss Jones Elaine Jones?

      • Pete

        It was based on Vivian Malone Jones, It wasn’t until after I posted that I realized I never mentioned Alabama, or school even. Oh well.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        It was a good story without knowing but now knowing it has more depth. It would have been daunting being one of only two non-white students amongst a sea of probably very prejudiced and racially oriented students.

  13. elliotttlyngreen

    Charli i truly admire the paragraph that reads “I write, for……” could not agree more and the infinity inside our minds; a tremendous prompt and prelude. Hopefully this brings you a smile.

    Everywhere and Everything by Elliott Lyngreen

    Paradise sneaks serious looks. Saint senses keen blues. For two young adults unable to conversate without genuine smiles, they freeze at each other.
    Saint tests science, the other end of the lens, stealing Paradise quickly looking away. He continues gazing until she returns. Several times longing connections bravely enters views.

    Loneliness, desperation for someone, yet Saint’s nerves never introduce himself; though Paradise, slowly getting comfortable, widen eyes deeper. Attaching flushed glances, gaurds let down, they delight longer eventually forcing an unnatural turn of cheeks to each other as if they had forgotten how to, but smiling that lasts everywhere.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Glad they finally let their guard down. Smiling is understood everywhere and definitely lasts.

    • elliotttlyngreen

      Took 5 years to get my youngest to consistently go on the toilet. Now, to teach him to clean himself up and be onto the next challenge. This made me smile.

    • Mardra

      Ha! Loved this!

  14. Deborah Lee

    This post made me cry.

    I have spent this holiday weekend gathering proof of income and copies of identification and filling out forms for a rental we hope to get. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for both of us.

    Life is scary. Life is grand. Life is joyous. Life is heartbreaking. Life is…so many things. And so we write.

    • Norah

      Good luck with the house, Deborah. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.

  15. A. E. Robson

    In the first days of May 2016 over 80,000 people were in some state of evacuation from the city of Fort McMurray because of wildfires. Complete neighbourhoods were lost along with businesses. The evacuation was a success, but people left with the clothes they were wearing and what possessions they were able to take. . .

    A Smile
    By Ann Edall-Robson

    In a time of horrific devastation, one lady had a vision. Through word of mouth and social media, 33 artist came together under one roof. Each donating their work. The public began bidding for paintings, pottery, woodwork, books, note cards, gift baskets, certificates and more. The time frame was 25 days. The goal? To raise as much money as possible via internet and in store visits. The cause? The people of Fort McMurray. On the last day, Artisans came out in support. Bidding continued right down to the wire. $3145.00 was raised. Smiles filled the room. Thank you everyone.

    This is only a snippet of what I have written about an effort to lend support to this tragic, world news event. Charli, I take liberties here, without apologies, to share more than these 99 Words. Thank you for your indulgence.

  16. Norah

    Hi Charli,
    I think I’ve done the twist and come in at another angle – all ends in smiles though! I hope you enjoy. Thanks for the challenge. Gotcha!

    • Pat Cummings

      Thanks for the TED talk, too, Norah. I’ll come back to read it when I’m not writing, because what is fiction-writing but extended lying?

      • Norah

        Exactly! And it definitely means to convince. 🙂

  17. julespaige

    Facial Curvature

    We are not always in top form. Some seem to be better about
    hiding what bothers them. Attempting to keep a positive outlook
    in theory is all well and good. All those books on simplicity, even
    minimalism. I’m not sure I could be happy without all the little trinkets
    that remind me of just how lucky I am. The collections, the photos,
    that bottle of wine that we gave out as party favors that I had quite
    forgotten to open on our latest anniversary… all those things make
    me smile.

    I’m more than rock, or island, I just am.


    Link to post (which has link to The Latifa Prayer prompt piece) here:
    Facial Curvature

  18. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    How beautiful that Kate is still offering you support and what a lovely gift she gave you to help you through these tough times. And you will get through them. As Geoff said resilience is a feature of true courage and I do think that you are resilient although at the moment I know you don’t feel there is a lot of hope but you will come through it. And we are all here to offer what support we can across the cyber waves to carry you to the end of the ride. And what rejoicing there will be when that moment is reached and you are ensconsed in a new abode and your writing hits a new high.
    I think you are a real role model. I doubt many of us would be out planting for the next season when they have been treated as you have but your love of nature shines through and the importance of cycles is not lost to you. So you make me smile at your generosity of spirit and your love and passion for writing and aiding other writers. Thank you Charli for being you and I hope that this rough patch is gone in a blink or two.
    Loved your flash. What was a joyous smile for Sarah gave the girls a fright thinking she’d gone.


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