July 20: Flash Fiction Challenge

Written by Charli Mills

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

July 21, 2016

DesertFlat and prickly, comes to mind. In the distance on a clear day, you can see the glacier cap of Mt. Rainier and a shadow of the Cascades on the western horizon, but in Moses Lake, there are no mountains. Trees are better described as shrubs and any ground cover growing out of the black sand has thorns. Of course, there’s sagebrush with soft leaves of silvery blue and twisting trunks of brittle gray bark. This is the desert of eastern Washington.

Geologists note that the uplift of Cascades is what robbed this plateau of moisture, turning the forest to an arid zone. What land-rifting tectonic plates took away to build the mountain range, left a bleeding wound. Lava oozed and cooled in layered columns of black basalt to form gristly black scars that marble the desert. Flat and prickly rocks.

My new terrain fits me. I feel ripped from my home and planted in an arid place to heal wounds that promise scars. Anger, like lava, has oozed. I’m a slave of Egypt promised miracles and wonders only to find my bus broken down in the desert. 40 days, 40 nights or 40 years. I do not yet know my fate, but circumstances have lead me to dry ground far from my beautiful mountain views and cozy nightly bed. Circumstance; it is not my choice to be in Moses Lake. I resist liking anything about it.

My husband points to paper-thin flowers that bloom white like desert moons. “Go take a picture,” he encourages. He stops the car. I grumble as black basalt gravel migrates between my right foot and sandal. Can there be anything uglier than sand that looks like ground road tar? Yet I see the delicacy of the flowers he’s spotted. Next I look up to see the rising moon, waxing near full. It casts a back-light to the sun dipping behind the smudge of Cascades in the distance. Clouds blaze like pink neon, brighter than the cotton candy hues of home. A home I no longer have. And lava oozes again.

The next day I hold to a choice. I can still make choices even though experiencing homelessness was not one of them. After acknowledging my anger I choose to let go of it for a weekend. The first day, I escape into a movie theater and watch The Legend of Tarzan. Buttered popcorn only masks my mood. I recognize the effort as a cheat; an avoidance of anger at best. I ask my husband if we can take the truck and drive out to the dunes behind our RV park where our trailer sits in a pool of condensing moisture. Like my attempt to not be angry, stopping the trailer’s leaks has been futile. And all around me I see flat and prickly land. Desert.

If we had toys — dune buggies, ATVs, motorcycles — the black swells of gritty sand might have appealed to me. Many of our transient neighbors have “toy-haulers” which are massive trailers big enough for house-like beds, sofas, home entertainment systems and space for riding-toys. We are surrounded by luxury and recreation in our homelessness. Many RVers have saved their retirement for this lifestyle, trading homes for RV coaches, costing between $50,000 and $800,000. The sleek Class A motor-homes that tower over our $3,700 dribbling camper makes me feel like a squat mutt among pedigreed wolfhounds. The dunes offer no relief. We have no toys.

Yet, I’m not without. I have my camera, a truck, dogs, husband and freedom of mobility. We head northwest and encounter the biggest coulee I’ve ever seen in my life. Why didn’t I know the mini Grand Canyon lurked but miles away from what I thought was flat and prickly. As I let go of anger, I grab the camera with frequency. As I snap shots, my curiosity blossoms like a paper-moon desert flower. We spent all of Sunday exploring the Grand Coulee from a lake of healing soap suds to three-mile wide dry falls to basalt cliffs to gorges to the Grand Coulee Dam built by order of President Roosevelt.

A growth mindset apparently expands the heart, as well.

Sunday was truly the first day I felt like me again — a curious writer with an eye for natural beauty and human connection. Anger slid off my shoulders instead of hardening upon that perch. We stopped at every historical sign, and I was excited to discover the Cariboo Cattle Trail. In 1858, the same year Cobb McCanles and his brother explored Nebraska and Colorado Territories, Oregon Territory ranchers were driving cattle to miners during the Cariboo gold rush in British Columbia. I thought I knew all the western cattle trails and here was a new one — right through the desert coulees.

When my eyes open to what surrounds me, I see more birds. It’s surprising how avian rich the desert is.

At one stop, four mother hens manage a collective brood of 27 turkey chicks. Perhaps more acclimated to people than the wild turkeys along Elmira Pond, I’m able to snap several photos up close. A killdeer hops across the lawn and poses in front of the turkeys. Imposter. Another traveler stops to shown her son the flock and we laugh about the idea of mothering so many chicks. She claims her one turkey is enough, and her son groans, “Aw, Mom!”

We end up at Grand Coulee Dam, one of the largest concrete structures in the world. After experiencing the Grand Coulee itself, the dam is not as impressive. The Visitor’s Center is, however, and we immerse ourselves in construction and hydrology history. We learn that the Grand Coulee is the result of ice dam flooding 13,000 years ago. To see the scouring of basalt scabs and the remaining walls of Dry Falls, to think this happened during an age when humans lived in this area is stunning. What a science fiction plot. We finish our trip at Dry Falls and take dinner at Soap Lake where eastern Europeans flock for healing in the summer. Eyes open, and story plots are as prevalent as birds in a desert oasis.

Shedding my anger allowed me to make another choice…focus.

Ever since knowing I had to leave my home-office, I’ve had trouble focusing. Once homeless, I despaired of ever finding focus again. Wisely, one of the items I packed for my traveling home was a printout of the Pomodoro Technique. I had tried it before when I was writing up to ten articles a week for a web content client. I even purchased the red tomato timer, but it’s noisy clacking and startling ding turned me off to the whole process. For some reason, I thought I might try it again, using my quieter smartphone timer with a ringer that employs classical music.

Upon reading the pages, I also discovered the added method of tracking distractions — both remembered tasks and true distractions. Here’s how it works:

  1. Create an activity sheet. Mine includes entries like weekly prompt, client projects, check emails, support Todd’s VA progress.
  2. Set a time for work. In an atmosphere of zero routine, I’m working to create one. I do not consider my early morning routine work (walk dogs, tidy camper, find breakfast, read scripture). I clearly define my work separate from my leisure or routine.
  3. Break activities down into daily to-do tasks. Here’s where the timer comes into play. You focus on each task for 25 minutes, so think of your tasks in such increments. The first day I had check email and social media. That was a task that exceeded four increments; a sign to break it down into smaller tasks. Now I list each email address seperately and have a separate task for social media.
  4. Take breaks. Every 25 minutes, stretch, go drink water, deep breathe, walk in place, move for 2-3 minutes then get back to the task or next one. Every four to eight pomodoros, take a longer break like walking the dogs or doing dishes or riding a bike or eat.
  5. Pay attention to time suckers. When the timer goes off, either you have finished or not. If not, mark an X next to the task. Those Xs will signal tasks that are taking much of your time.
  6. Do important tasks first. This comes from time management I used to teach my staff and something I learned in college: work your As off. Prioritize the most vital tasks to accomplish as As. Important but not vital, Bs. Necessary, but not today, Cs. Studies show we have a tendency to work on C level tasks. Instead, work your A level tasks first.
  7. Be mindful of intrusions. Each time (in the middle of a task) you think of another, write it down on the back of your activity sheet with an apostrophe before it. That way you note it, but don’t go chasing after it. If a task is an interruption (like a fly buzzing or a smart phone notification) note it with an exclamation point. Use an X each time it comes up again. If you have a repeating distraction, come up with a solution like buy a fly-swatter or turn off phone notifications.

This has really helped me! I have trouble focusing when my routine is off or I’m uncomfortable or my setting is new. When I can’t focus, I begin to develop achievement anxiety. It’s been a month since I’ve been homeless and office-less. At last I feel that I’m making a turn-around and can do work that fulfills me. It’s had a settling impact on the dogs, too. Between discovering desert coulees and timing my tasks, I’m feeling productive. And less flat and prickly. Less angry; less despairing.

So let’s continue to explore how weekly flash fiction prompts can blossom in your writing life! Flash fiction can spark creativity; give you a playful break from serious work; allow for discovery; develop setting, plot or characters in a WIP; express an idea; showcase a WIP scene; experiment with new forms (dialog, poetry, punctuation); connect with other writers and readers. All are welcome here, and for whatever benefit or pleasure or tool you use.

July 20, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a surprise from a desert. You can interpret desert in any way — an arid body of land, an icy wasteland, a relationship void of humanity; shelves with no books. Once you have that spark, write a surprise twist — an un-burned book in the back of seized shelves or a disco in the arctic.

Respond by July 26, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Painted Existence by Charli Mills (from Miracle of Ducks)

The painted rocks annoyed Danni. Why would someone go camping and bring paint to deface natural geology? She recalled her childhood in the southern Idaho desert. Her dad moved from ranch to ranch and she hardly had time to make friends in each new school. No one would ever paint her name on rock.

Yet name painting was not new. Pioneers scrawled their names in lye upon trail bluffs, as if to let the world know they came this way; they existed despite vast unknowns ahead.

If she painted “Ike” on a river rock would she feel more secure?


Prairie Welcoming Committing by Charli Mills (from Rock Creek)

Desert extended as far as Mary could see. “My God, Leroy, it’s barren.”

Leroy, twisted in his saddle, obvious joy on his face as he looked up to where Mary sat on the wagon bench. The cattle from Tennessee milled past, reddish blots cutting through blonde grass the height of a bull’s back.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Mary could hear stifled sobs from his wife in the canvassed section behind her. Sally stopped looking days ago, pleading to go home. Just when Mary thought she’d join her sister-in-law, a burst of cranes took to the sky. The desert held magic.


If you want to see some coulee wonders, enjoy the slide presentation.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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  1. Etol Bagam

    Nice. I’ll add the Coulee to my list of places to visit.
    As for the writing, I wrote a story for a different challenge a few months ago that could perfectly fit this one in theme, but it was longer (143 words):

    I’ll try again though with the 99 word limit.;)

    • Charli Mills

      If you ever get the opportunity, the Coulee is incredible see in person! Thanks for sharing your story. I encourage you to reduce it to 99 words. It’s actually an amazing process to do and you might be surprised by the results.

      • Etol Bagam

        Hum… I was actually trying to think of a different story. But maybe the exercise of reducing it would be even more interesting. I’ll see what I can do. “Worst” case scenario i post 2 stories… 😉 Thanks

      • Charli Mills

        Ha, ha…your worst case scenario might be a good one!

      • Charli Mills

        Excellent! It’s amazing how the constraint can create something unconsidered. Thanks for doing this!

  2. denmaniacs4

    The Horsemen

    Dobbs was itching to find Brace Caldwell. His belly full; his mission clear; his chances passable; his hopes, irrelevant, the hunt began.

    As he left the home of the Stableman, making his way out into the Union City dawn, his senses were scorpion sharp.

    He wondered if he had waited too long.

    Caldwell had a long reach.

    Morning sun fired bright, almost rendering him blind.

    To the east, beyond the town, he could see an ominous maelstrom of dry desert dust.

    He thought it was too early for the Stagecoach from the east.

    Horsemen, perhaps. Riding like the devil.


    • Charli Mills

      Seems that Dobbs is about to get his itch scratched. Great foreshadowing and I particularly like the cadence of this sentence: “His belly full; his mission clear; his chances passable; his hopes, irrelevant, the hunt began.”

    • Charli Mills

      It’s good to pass along the thinking from one writer to the next and to the reader. Thanks for adding to the thoughtful collection!

  3. Norah

    Hi Charli, I feel for your sense of despair and desolation out in the wilderness. I’m pleased Hub was able to point you to the flowers blooming despite their hardship, as do you.
    It’s interesting to read of the Pomodoro technique and how it is helping your focus, despite all the distractions. I like the sound of using your phone and classical music instead of a harsh timer.
    The landscape surrounding you sounds fascinating. It reminds me of some of our Australian arid areas. The presence of others with their expensive RVs and toys is just another kick in the guts, but unintentional on their part. We often are unaware of the effect our situation has on others.
    I like that you are now sharing two flash fiction episodes, one from Miracle of Ducks and another from Rock Creek. It is interesting how your used the desert to paint the desolation of the characters in each story. I like the way the cranes provided a symbol of hope for Mary.
    I really enjoyed the slide show. Thank you for sharing the images.
    Take care. Look for hope in the flowers and (I’d like to say “cranes”) turkeys! 🙂

    • explorereikiworld

      Norah has said it beautifully what I was thinking to express to you in times of despair.
      Charli you are a brave soul and my favorite mantra is that, “there is light always at the end of the tunnel”
      Hang in there and “look for hope in the flowers”

      Also loved your take and shall post mine below.

      • Charli Mills

        Thank you, Ruchira! I’m seeking that light and flowers. Perspective does help and having an open mind to new things, even new scenery also helps. I’m hanging in there.

    • Charli Mills

      The desert here is revealing new treasures each day. I’m now watching a covey of quail that meander through the park or dodge out from beneath sagebrush. And the regulars here at the RV park are becoming like neighbors. They don’t seem to mind our shabby little trailer. One woman even told me, “You gotta start somewhere.” I’m so glad you looked through the photos and find some similarity with Australia’s arid places. Is there a lot of red sand in your deserts? I’ve not seen so much black sand as I have here. Thank you!

      • Norah

        I’m pleased you are finding some birdlife to take an interest in, and some friendly neighbours to buoy your spirits. Sadly you didn’t really want to start where you are. It’s like being kicked out of a game and told to go back to the start!
        The centre of Australia, where most deserts are, is known as the Red Centre. I think the red soil extends further than that though. I guess it is black where you are as a result of the lava flows.
        PS Could you please tell me how you made your beautiful slide show. What program did you use?

  4. A. E. Robson

    By Ann Edall-Robson

    Life is twisted. Dying and dried up. Fertile soil to dust. Green to brown. 

    But wait! There is life in the aged. The dead. The brown. The life comes form the eyes of the beholder. What you see is what you get. You will see no future; or, you will give the vision, life once more. 

    Death or beauty. You choose the outcome. You make the decision. You are the keeper. It is up to you to see the path differently. You are in charge of your destiny.

    Life is twisted? Maybe.

    Let its road be your journey home.


    • Charli Mills

      “What you see is what you get.” It can’t be any plainer than that! A journey home through the twists of life.

  5. Annecdotist

    We don’t have deserts in the UK but, as in the US, the political landscape is pretty arid, so I’ve taken my cue from that:
    Hard times for you right now, but great when you can find the spark in the world around you. I like Danni’s story, and could easily imagine being annoyed alongside her. It takes a lot of mental energy to be able to reframe that experience and see it in a more positive light.
    And thanks for flagging my blog tour in the sidebar – I really appreciate your generosity and ability to think of others while struggling yourself.

    • Charli Mills

      The political landscape is arid and I hope we can look beyond that desolation and find an oasis of sanity in the US. And likewise, I appreciate your support of small presses that are doing a fine job of giving voice to up and coming authors. I hope your blog tour is going well!

  6. julespaige

    Some places in the states are true deserts. Others just seem that way when there is a drought – I lived in Indiana for a while and it was pretty dry. I’m glad to be back sort of near a coast…and with a creek bordering my back yard. This is a BoTS, and we got to see a Bald Eagle too!

    True Grit in the Desert

    Death is one way family gets together. We had to go to
    Arizona for a funeral a few years ago. After everyone else
    Went home, we took a winding road through the desert
    seeing cacti that were hundreds of years old. The first arm
    develops after fifty years… some cacti had fifteen to nineteen
    arms. Our destination was at the end of several single lanes
    that we had to negotiate; and over an open steel bridge.

    Finally we arrived at a manmade lake that was perhaps
    some volcanic depression. For of all things, a tour on the
    Dolly Steamboat.


    see post with a link to the Dolly Steamboat here:
    True Grit in the Desert

    • Charli Mills

      Can you imagine what the dust bowl must have been like? Yes, droughts are often season deserts! I do miss the clear streams of Idaho. I had no idea about the arms of cacti developing over 50 years. Wow! Sounds like quite a trip. And yes, sadly, oddly, some families only gather for funerals, perhaps a parched tradition.

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Larry! Welcome to the desert this week. I have been to the one Ed speaks of…the ominous desert of deadline induced blankness.

    • Charli Mills

      Glad you found inspiration in this dry prompt. 😉

      • Al Lane


    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for contributing your words, Ruchira!

  7. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Your slides make me want to visit although I doubt I ever will so glad to have seen the Grande Coulee. Despite the despair I can hear the call of nature reaching you and brightening you. Even if only for a day it lets you know that joy is still possible. Hope to get a flash done but my creativity seems to have gone out the window at the moment.

    • Charli Mills

      The power of nature to pull us out of our selves when feeling small and connecting us instead to the great unlimited expanse of sand grains and stars. I’m happy to share the Grand Coulee! Sometimes I think there’s so much to explore in my own vicinity, how could I ever take in the whole world?

    • Charli Mills

      For a desert, I do believe we are yielding a bumper crop! Must be the water you writers are all applying to the parched prompt. Thanks for your contribution!

  8. Norah

    Hi Charli, I haven’t deserted you in the desert this time. I’m back with just desserts. http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-Km
    I hope the last few days have seen improvements in your situation. Take care lovely. You make the world a better place with your presence. xx

    • Charli Mills

      Glad to have you back, and with word play nonetheless! I could always remember the difference between the two words by thinking how full desserts are with an extra s and how deserts are lacking. The desert has surprises for me and I’m experiencing some improvements. Thank you! I’m in good company with all of you here at Carrot Ranch!

      • Norah

        That’s a good mnemonic for desert and dessert. I think I’d go for that extra s too!
        Talking about s and dessert, I meant to tell you that I saw a bag of s’mores in a store in NY. I thought of you, but I didn’t purchase them as I knew they wouldn’t be the same as the toasted ones you told me about! 🙂

  9. elliotttlyngreen

    I could explore endlessly… unless it was all a desert.

    These projects are ramping up, but i enjoy drawing the details; so little time is available to continue writing the…wait i can just change the names. Yes!

    Dream dream dreaming of vacations, traveling, my focus is the horizon myself Charli. Wonderful read. The pictures make this yet trapped being feel the scenes smearing the concrete medians to their locations.

    I quickly share an excerpt from a story i submitted for a flash fiction contest. Condensed, of course, to 99 words.

    It is quite thee escape relieving the mundane everything. Thanks!!

    99excerpt by Elliott Lyngreen

    [from my flash – Based on A true story]

    .. finally awakes from dream.. Constant wrist-worn beeeeeee..s. Facing slivering chunks of mask-face busted open, froth-covered rubble, fuzz wrath unrecognizable…rocks and stones.. –Maroon sand pours stretched over marred mountainous neat corners, reflects fired electricity. Watering electrically. Covered Chance… –immensely sand/fine-mold-covered spills….– spits quick tubular spat froze before reaching ground. Ahold of shoulder straps, malfunctions seine wrist computers amped, pressed ineffable, charges simulating high resistance to visible heat streams bending grains, dust surged soft, stems and branches//petrified lightning//multitude of fulgurite blooms of infinite coin-flicker crests coaxing rubble down the arroyos, marshalling a fine fine moss trickled through Chance’s grip….

    • Charli Mills

      Wanderlust is a powerful feeling that can make us feel confined, yet wandering can make us feel rootless. Ah, if only we could have it in balance! I do hope vacation materializes for you. In the future, once I get attached to a home again, I’ll have a trailer for writers to use! Hey, great to hear you entered a contest! Thanks for sharing the condensed version here. It sizzles!

    • Charli Mills

      Ah, if I were to name paint in that particular desert, I’d find a box canyon where they once captured horses. Have you seen any of those natural traps with rocks and pinion gates? I have a handmade spike from one near Eureka where the post poles still stood for a holding pen. I’m so glad you get to visit next month! Say you were there, that you are, with paint! Thanks for your contribution!


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