June 13: Story Challenge in 99-words

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.

June 13, 2022

A rabbit hobbles around a neighbor’s hedge, nibbling dandelions. A much smaller rabbit follows and when I coo out loud, thinking it’s a baby, an actual baby bunny zips from the hedge. The size differences have tricked my mind, and for a moment, I don’t know what I’m seeing. When the largest rabbit hops into the danger zone of the street, I see white paws and rusty coloring — this is a massive snowshoe hare in a summer coat. The other two bunnies are darker, smaller cottontails, one a mama, the other recently emerged from the den.

Another snapshot forms in my mind.

The Ocean Navigator docks across the road from the Copper Depot where I have lunch with my Warrior Sisters, a group of veteran spouses. There are only two of us and we are marveling over the crowd of locals gathered. We are curious and unembarrassed to be so. We talk with families gathered outside in the parking lot and a six-year-old boy hones in on the same feature that has caught my eyes — the fully enclosed lifeboats that look like mini orange submarines. Our minds meld, imagining the dangers. One is never too old or too young to make up wild stories.

As the image fades, I jump from snapshots to film.

My Warrior Sister and I head to the Houghton movie theater. This is the second time in one week, the second time in two years, I’ve been to a movie and it’s the same one: Top Gun Maverick. The original came out in 1986, the year I met my husband. Maverick is an appropriate bookend to our 35-year marriage. The story portrays the adrenaline, emotion, and complex relationships within the small percentage of people who serve their nation in the military. My friend, the widow of a Vietnam veteran, clutched her seat the whole time. We cried together, recognizing familiar pain.

This film gets all the beats of good screenwriting spot on. It makes me want to drive my car fast along the lakeshore listening to Kenny Logins (even though they clipped his song in Maverick).

If you know from experience or secondary exposure as a partner to someone who knows from experience, the movie is full of real-life tensions. The enlisted often mistrust superior officers. Cockiness can kill you or keep you alive. Friends are loyal to the death and even your nemesis becomes someone you’d risk your life for. Training for combat is grueling and combat depends on every single person, not just the elite. Cooks go to war, too. None of this is an exaggeration. Every point I’ve made (which the movie deftly portrays) fits countless stories of men like my spouse.

I know who he hates to this day. I know the deaths that keep him up at night. I know what wraps him around the axel. I know he can’t stand boredom and staying in one place. Shooting a half-inch group at 400 yards and punching the car to 100 miles per hour is necessary for him to feel alive. He’s told me enough times about seeing the bloodied arm of his close friend flop out of a medical helicopter as it flew over him while he was engaged in a firefight on Grenada that I have formed my own false memory of that scene.

So why watch such a film at such a time?

Because it is art that recreates a familiar experience. It is cathartic. It validates the snapshots, the real ones, and the ones our minds make to fill a void. The music takes me back to the high mountain desert of Nevada where I drove my Camino on straight flat highways, blasting my Top Gun cassette tape. The desert images and the sound of jets remind me of Fallon, where I met my husband. Fallon Naval Air Station is where the real “top gun” school resides. The tension, the action, the relationships. Movies, novels, videos, songs, and art — they form snapshots of validation of what we have experienced.

Writers, follow your gut. Write into those spaces that make your hands tremble. Sharpen your dialog until you feel you need to apologize for it but in no fucking way ever apologize. Tell the stories that you are afraid to tell. And while you are at it, write as beautifully as a film, layered, connected, and composed to a soundtrack inside your head. Make a promise to your reader in the beginning and deliver it by the end.

Write into the danger zone.

June 13, 2022, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a danger zone. It can be an exciting plot-driven story (think “story spine”) or a situation a character must confront. Play with different genres, and use craft elements like tension, tone, and pacing. Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by June 18, 2022. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. The Collection publishes on the Wednesday following the next Challenge. Rules & Guidelines.
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  1. Norah

    It’s interesting to me to know that the movie gets the story right.
    Maverick as bookends to a 35-year marriage. Bookended maybe, but I’m sure it’s not that simple. Some things don’t/can’t just end. Take care. Even warriors need to look after themselves.

    • Charli Mills

      Many critics are questioning the movie details, Norah, but from a veteran family perspective, we found comfort in familiar details. The heart of the movie felt right. And you are right — it’s a complicated array of books between simple bookends of a 35-year marriage. I used to think nothing could shake my loyalty but I want my life back. I’m doing the best I can until It is done and I am safe without elaborate plans to be so. Thank you.

      • Norah

        You deserve a life of your choosing, Charli. Reclaim it! It’s yours! With the support of my family, I reclaimed my birthday this year – complicated story that would be too hard to explain and too difficult for anyone to understand – and it feels real good. Go ahead, Charli, and feel good.

  2. Michael B. Fishman

    Lots of respect for your courage. From Charles Bukowski: “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

    This: “Writers, follow your gut. Write into those spaces that make your hands tremble. Sharpen your dialog until you feel you need to apologize for it but in no fucking way ever apologize. Tell the stories that you are afraid to tell.”

    I have no idea how to do that. How that level of honesty, confidence, fearlessness and indifference is obtained is a mystery. Maybe it’s something that only real writers (or artists) do and hobbyists only think about, but if there was a MasterClass on it I’d sign up.

    • Charli Mills

      The fire is disorienting, Michael, but I’m not running around like a squawking chicken so maybe I can walk well enough to be a phoenix.

    • mrmacrum

      That level of honesty indeed. It has been a very uncomfortable process for me to reach the level of honesty I have now.

  3. Liz H

    Stay safe as you rise above. May our stories help life you up and make you smile!

    • Charli Mills

      Liz, I almost feel guilty about how much I rely on the stories of others these days, but then I remember that is what community is. I want to be the one lifting up others, but I am so grateful for those who are lifting me up. Yes, your stories all give me joy, smiles, and even snort-laughs. I’m enjoying your mystery unfolding and the characters involved.

      • Liz H

        I aim to please
        And thank you for working my literary abs with the prompts and the Ranch!

  4. Jennie

    Thank you for this post, Charli. It takes one to know one. Yes, few understand the life of the military. Besides bravery and sacrifice, the bonding is tremendous. Hubby’s squadron (Vietnam days) still has a reunion every three years.

    The first thing I had to do when we got married in ’74 was fill out Navy paperwork, If/when your husband dies… I always looked upon those years as a close bond for these men, and a band of brothers. Yes, they all have their terrible Vietnam stories, but they still have each other. That seems to be their anchor.

    • suespitulnik

      You are so correct Jennie. All the vets I know say that staying in touch with other vets helps them cope and remain a part of the brotherhood.

      • Jennie

        Oh, yes! That connection is everything. 1) they have lived through trauma that others will never understand, and 2) keeping touch with your buddies is what keeps all of us going- especially vets. Thank you, Sue.

  5. suespitulnik

    I have not yet seen Top Gun Maverick but now know I must. One of my high school upperclassmen has joined my veterans’ writing group. He was a Marine on the front lines in Vietnam and with his truthfulness, the other guys are opening up about their experiences. I get the 100 MPH to feel alive. The movie will help me understand even better.
    Sometimes walking away is not escaping or giving up, it’s necessary for self-preservation.
    I’m glad to be a part of what makes you smile. Big Hugs.

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