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September 16: Flash Fiction Challenge

September silence settles over the Keweenaw with misty rain. Pockets of tourists remain but the din of extra folks cruising the peninsula subsides. The woods exhale, the waves churn, and when the clouds part in the cool of night, the Milky Way burns bright.

With the equinox (fall in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern) lining up next week, I felt the call of the wild to bring balance to all my professional pursuits. A camping trip was in order, a return to the sandy side of the Keweenaw.

Packing my car required a choice — camp kitchen, tent and comforts or kayak? Alas I could not fit it all. Comforts, by the way, include an array of layers for fluctuating temperatures, pillows, camp chair and firewood. My kayak stayed behind this trip with a promise to glide the Bete Grise sloughs before autumn leaves fall from their trees.

My friend, C, joined me at the old mink farm in Schoolcraft Township where a rustic campground offers ten sites along Big Traverse Bay not far from the desolate black sands of Gay. On an arc of golden sand, we set up at campsite #1. A family occupied #4, and the memory of a summer visit still warm in my veins lingered at #5. It was a quiet campground weekend, perfect for rituals of release.

C is a grief counselor who sits with people’s deepest losses and excruciating emotional pain. She led community workshops at her Ripley Falls Home of Healing before the 2018 Father’s Day flood and landslide hit her house. It’s livable but far from restored. Her backyard is filled with rubble from the landslide. When she was ready to begin workshops, the Pandemic hit. We’ve experienced parallel disasters, hers natural and mine veteran caused.

Together, we’d form a weekend retreat for two to release the trauma of homelessness and open up to the hope for a better future. We both live with uncertainty instead of stability on the home-front and yet we both work to help others find purpose in healing and writing. We needed to find our own healing path.

On Friday, after my last class at Finlandia for the week, we arrived to sunshine, wind, and crashing waves. We set up camp and I got into a battle with the ants. That entire spit of sand must be an ant metropolis! I struggled to find a flat spot to perch my tent without getting swarmed. Finally, we found a truce and I pitched my tent in the trail to the beach. Once settled, I headed to the waves. The frothy rollers reared up and the sun shone through like a lens. I tried to wade but water pummeled my legs with sand and riptides rippled beneath my feet.

That night we ate kale salads and cauliflower soup next to a fire that danced in the wind. Our campsite had a deep metal fire ring on a sandy knoll out of the trees and we watched it closely. The brighter the stars got, the less the wind blew. Finally, we had nothing but embers and shooting stars. We expected rain the next day and we decided to read in our individual tents until it eased.

We woke up to sunshine, not a rain cloud in the sky. That’s Lady Lake Superior’s doing. Hard to predict her impact. She was calm and inviting that day, showing ripples in the sand beneath her water where she had danced forcibly the day before. Many ripples held small stones. I bobbed in the water and then floated above the curious little pieces of quartz and sandstone. Leg cramps drove me to seek the warm sand of shore and I reluctantly left my mindless float.

Sand flies found my ankles until I buried my feet in the sand. Ants ran every direction in a frenzy of gathering food. I began to wonder if their scurrying meant a rough winter ahead. But like most things in my life at this moment, I’m trying to stick to the here and now. What is coming will unfold with or without worry. It was sunny and ants were foraging. Nothing to be concerned about. With curiosity, I watched them.

Later that day we held our ritual of release, naming emotions and circumstances to let go. We chanted with a singing bowl, and C’s dachshund howled, the higher our pitch. We smudged with sage and built cairns of our tiny collected rocks. We journaled and fixed beans for dinner, burning birch bark letters of release. Then the rain came. We retreated to our tents. Despite the beauty of the day, I found it difficult to shake the sadness.

Raindrops.

Raindrops.

Raindrops.

Each a meditation. Each a prayer.

And then a cotton candy sunrise broke through the mist and clouds. The rain stopped. The Lake let out misty breath caught by a warming sun of pink and gold. The sadness lifted but I felt no joy. Just emptiness. Until the Big Black Horse arrived.

At a particular moment, I decided to walk not to the beach, but rather to the road. I had heard the gronking of sandhill cranes and followed their call, hoping for one last sighting before they left. C and her dog still slept. The other campers had left, maybe the night before when the rain came. No one was around. No one. Then the distant rumble of a truck. I could see a trailer hitched and surprised it was not an RV but a livestock hauler. When I woman stepped out of the truck, my heart soared.

To me, it was a Captain Marvel moment. The one where Carol Danvers decides to rise…again. I took it as a sign to rise and claim my joy. I had released and now I was about to receive. A new door opened. In fact, I asked if I could help open that door. To the trailer, that is. She said yes and I helped her with a new horse and an enthusiastic golden retriever pup. She was experienced and courageous, taking the horse to the lake for introductions. I followed with the pup.

Meanwhile, C woke up and ventured to the beach. She told me later she saw a most beautiful sight — two women, a Big Black Horse and a dog. She wanted to wake me up, thinking I needed to see this vision. She had her phone so she filmed it for me before realizing I was one of the women.

Charli Finds a Woman with a Big Black Horse

There’s a reason the Indigenous call horses “big medicine.” You have to build trust with a horse. The woman I met was dedicated to that, leading her horse to water, walking her in the sand, familiarizing her with new territory. Eventually, she mounted the Big Black Horse and and walked the campground. I secured her dog in her truck, told her to honk when she got back if she needed a hand loading her horse. And off they rode.

I was beaming. Horse medicine is a always a good sign to me.

It’s been a good week at school. I danced for one of my classes. They laughed. I promised them a “sun” day on Monday. Weather Predictors are predicting sunny and 81 degrees F. I’m scheduling class outside on the green to read or work on research on their laptops. I will give them yoga and poetry (Joy Harjo) breaks! My other class shared their 99 word stories. It was interesting to note that the number one fear students expressed was that they “did it wrong.” I’m teaching them that recognizing their differences from the norms is the beginning of realizing their unique voice.

Tomorrow, I’m wearing a dress (again) and starting to get used to it. We get stiff when stuck in patterns. We need stability and framework but we also need flexibility and freedom to grow. I might dance again. Twirl my skirt. If I do, this is the song, I’ll be stepping out to:

September 16, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a Big Black Horse. It can be a horse, a metaphor or an interpretation of KT Tunstall’s “Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree.” Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 21, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Wild Ride by Charli Mills

Clods of dirt flew. A big black horse thundered through the apricot orchard, a small child perched bareback, her knees drawn up to his withers, tiny hands grasping long mane.  A woman in a kerchief ran, bellowing like a calf separated from its mother. Saucy, the Australian Shepherd with one blue eye, zipped past the woman and caught up to the horse, nipping at his hind hooves. The dog turned the horse around at the one lone cherry tree planted at the orchard’s edge. He trotted smooth as butter back to the barn. The woman wheezed. The child grinned.

🥕🥕🥕

September 9: Flash Fiction Challenge

My class discussion flopped today. Despite preparation in class and posting discussion questions in advanced, none of my ENG I students prepared. It was a stark contrast to ENG II where the discussions have been thoughtful, deep and my students brave in offering up stories of their own to share. I think if I had showed up with pliers to pull teeth, the class would have been easier.

At first, I thought I might respond with a pop quiz to see if they are even reading the book. A few students displayed knowledge of the story. But pop quizzes feel punitive. I realized, I’m the teacher and I need a different tool. Maybe they aren’t engaged, or maybe they don’t know what is expected of them in a discussion group. That job falls to me.

This is the same class who groans over flash fiction. On Tuesday, none groaned. A few even appeared eager. And I can already see the difference between

Next week we are going to watch Brené Brown’s classic TedTalk on vulnerability and I plan to use it as a practice discussion. Plus, the message might help some get over their reluctance to speak up. For the next book discussion, I’m going to require each student to read one passage (of their choosing) and say why they selected it. We’ll see how it goes. I’m still learning, too! And I understand feeling vulnerable as a new college prof.

Since we can all use a little Brené Brown inspiration in our lives, here’s a refresher on vulnerability.

After class today, I drove to a friend’s house who is also a writing client whom I coach. She’s an authorpreneur working on several creative projects at once and wants to have accountability for her progress. She also knows that she doesn’t know everything she needs to be successful. I thrive on coaching people with a vision. Many people find vision work too vulnerable and prefer stumbling around in the dark. If you don’t know what success and the work is to get there, then you don’t have to be accountable for a lack of success. I get it. It scares me to share my vision work because if I don’t do it, everyone knows I failed. But I believe less and less in failure. (Thank you, Norah Colvin, for introducing me to the growth mindset that says, “not yet.”)

Everything becomes possible when you can say, “not yet,” until you can declare “done it!”

When I was in school, learning effective ways to teach creative writing, I didn’t think I’d make it to a university campus. Maybe, I thought, after I published a few books. Even though many colleges are hiring adjuncts (a fancy academic way of saying faculty hired on contract), they still want to see university classroom experience. I get that, too! My learning curve as a newbie is huge and some days I get butterflies in my stomach riding that arc.

I’m learning technology, systems, access, resources, and responsibilities. I’m finding out that I’m responsible to track academic success and alert the college about struggling students, yet, intuitively, I was already doing that. Now I know there is a formal process. I had already set up a meeting with a struggling student and planned to coach him to get back on track. It is not failure to delay or get lost. Yet, it takes courage to get back into the game.

By January, I plan to embark on a journey with a motivated cohort of writers I’m calling The Thirty. Thirty writers will participate in a group coaching experience for a year to practice craft, strategy, critique and platform construction in real time with real submissions and real feedback. This will be the foundation of an education platform I want to build with writers from our community. Carrot Ranch will remain a place of mentoring and fellowship but also give me a launching pad for my next career move.

But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I’m working on small steps and incremental development. I’ve always believed that we should love what we do and do what we love. I also find it exciting that when we follow our vision, we evolve and what we love becomes more accessible. I don’t believe we ever change dreams; I believe we refine dreams as we grow.

My ENG I class is reading The Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley. The author has a fantastic story of perseverance as a writer. You can listen to her here:

Coming off my learning curve this week, I’m going to make a left turn with the prompt. I had been thinking about an event I loved when I worked in the natural food industry in the Twin Cities. The Mall of America, known regionally as the MOA, hosted a live cooking show where local celebrity chefs competed to prepare a series of dishes using a fully stocked pantry and unexpected food ingredients, like beef tongue or purple cauliflower or quinoa. It was always great fun (accept for that one year the MOA received a bomb threat and the chefs and hosts were whisked away to a safe room while the rest of us contemplated our lack of social standing, left to be potentially blown to bits, though nothing came of the threat and the show resumed).

Anyhow, after a week of prompting my students, I’m feeling inspired!

September 9, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about the cooking show. It can be any cooking show, real or imagined. Who is there? What happens? Make it fun or follow a disaster. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 14, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

The Cooking Show Bombs by Charli Mills

Carl chewed on his bottom lip. The basket revealed to him contained squid, maple syrup, goat cream, and volcanic black rice. The crowded rotunda erupted as the host of the MOA Cooking Challenge explained the secret ingredients. Sharon, fellow chef-restauranteur in downtown Minneapolis, gave Carl the side-eye. The squid. How in the world…? Ink. Black. Rice. Cream. But goat? He released his lip and ran to the pantry nearly colliding with Li Sun of the Golden Dragon Sushi Bar. She’d be his competition this round. Sharon froze on stage, flummoxed. Then, security rushed the stage. Saved by a bomb.

🥕🥕🥕

September 2: Flash Fiction Challenge

Honey bees work the pollen from the nodding heads of the sole Lemon Queen in my garden. Only one grew — a volunteer — but the sunflower has over twenty heads. Soon, the petals will shrivel, drop to Roberts Street, and seeds will form to feed the winter birds. So many gifts grew from a determined single seed that fell to a mosaic of garnets. Rocks, flowers, and veg frame hope and potential.

Growth is good.

In the hallways of Finlandia University, I passed a corkboard display to explain the difference between a fixed and growth mindset. I smiled, passing the colorful artwork and encouraging message, aware that I’m walking the right halls. I lugged an armload of binders and notebooks having learned something new — I can better use technology for homework assignments.

Bees must strategize to collect pollen from different flowers. Sunflowers must be easy pollen picking. Hummingbirds are buzzing, too. Soon they will make a long migration to winter grounds. They flit among my petunias and one even poked at lobelia. I can’t imagine much nectar in such a tiny flower, but I admire the tenacity to try. Just as I respect my students who are beginning their own journeys to collect pollen and discover who they are in the world.

I don’t think they like flash fiction. And I say this with a chuckle because I know that a few might be converts by the end of the course, many will be relieved to have survived it, and others will carry forward all the writing lessons they need in building blocks they can re-use. I’m beginning to enjoy the sounds of groans, opening notebooks, and the silence of pens across paper. I can’t make them listen to me. I can’t make them engage with all the resources I provide. But I can make them write in class.

Despite the unpopularity of my favorite form of literary art, I do think they are opening up to the novel I selected for them to read (Fire Keeper‘s Daughter by Angeline Boulley) and they are all deeply thoughtful when they reflect in their journals. They have much writing to do in English I and I hope to show them the connections between craft and writing elements and the connection of academic writing to the world they navigate and the similarities of voice between essay and fiction writing.

As an instructor, I look to impart the material through different modalities. It was something I did as a trainer, too. Basically, we all learn through our senses, primarily visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. In education, we refer to these as the VARK learning styles, but in the workplace, many experts argue that people have more than a single preference. When I was learning to teach, my profs emphasized that we all learn better if given multimodal learning opportunities. It’s my belief that writers need to write to learn. Thus, my passion for the 99-word format.

However, many experts also point out that writing can’t be learned from writing alone. There must be engagement and a feedback loop. My students receive classroom lectures with my colorful and connected drawings of graphs on the board to “see” how craft elements and story structure works. Then, they “hear” the stories and craft elements in works I read aloud and then go back to point out the structure and elements at work. I give them written, digital, and auditory resources. Picking up a pencil and making them draft three flash fiction in 15 minutes is a kinesthetic act.

If I had a big van, I’d take them to Lady Superior with me and let them roam, explore and write descriptions or dialogs with the rushing water. I’d take them hiking and have them find a tree to interview. Most definitely, I’d load them up and take them to the Red Jacket Jamboree to experience a live radio show. On Sunday, I got to go listen to Ellis Delaney perform live.

What a delightful singer-songwriter and beacon of joy! During the show, I found out that Ellis participates in a weekly songwriting challenge among a group of music artists. I was wiggling in my chair with excitement to listen to her speak about the impact of inspiring and supporting one another through their art. Her song, “Not Everyone Fits” was written to the prompt, “prom dress.” As a non-binary person, the prompt was far from her life values, but she turned it into a powerful song. After the show we briefly connected and I asked if she had a link to the song. She expressed excitement over what we do here at Carrot Ranch.

The artists will save the world.

If ever we need art — and the thoughtful interaction and inspiration it creates — it is now. Gather up all the pollen you can, and write, write, write!

September 2, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to the theme, “not everyone fits a prom dress.” You can take inspiration from Ellis Delaney’s song, the photo, or any spark of imagination. Who doesn’t fit and why? What is the tone? You can set the genre. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 7, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

The Inevitable by Charli Mills

A deputy pounded on Faith’s door. Time to flee. When evacuation orders came, Faith rushed.

Living in the Tahoe basin, she memorized a fire-safety plan she never believed she’d use. Nervous remote workers had fled earlier. For weeks, impenetrable smoke curdled blue sky. Her weather app displayed a gas-mask for air quality. Neighbors passed a rumor that the Nation would deploy the Army. Who would let Tahoe burn?

Climate reality answered with unstoppable flames jumping HWY 50 and the Pacific Crest. Faith double-checked her mental list shoved into a car.

The prom dress from 1985 she hung to burn.

🥕🥕🥕

August 26: Flash Fiction Challenge

The carnies have come to town. At any moment, I’m anticipating a flight of pigs to buzz Roberts Street. I’d wave, and think nothing of it. Stranger things have happened, and I never expected to be standing in my own classroom this week. Pigs must be flying.

My daughter and SIL have pigs. They think of their homestead herds as animals on the payroll. The chickens (okay, flock) provide their market garden with nitrogen. The goats clear brush and brambles. And the pigs root. After the rooting, the chickens on nitrogen duty perform a secondary function — they follow where the pigs rooted and pooped to eat the parasites. Yup. Pigs have parasites. Everybody has to eat in this environment.

Lately, I’ve been spending more time learning about soil and the health of the environment. My dad is working on a document to inform BLM in Nevada how trees communicate underground. Recently, he sent me a book called, Finding the Mother Tree. It gave me an idea for why my fictional tree wizard showed up in my writing as a lumberjack wearing a skirt. Neither my dad nor the Finnish shaman I’ve met would fit the description of cross-dressers. But through them, I’ve learned more about the varied ways we humans connect to the forests. Clear-cut tree stands are missing their mother. It’s plausible that my character embraces the feminine sacred to embody what the trees are lacking — a mother.

Such is the rambling of my imagination, my creative brain. I’m teaching my students about different ways to think. Our brains can be both analytical and creative. Our hearts think with emotion and out guts think through intuition. Writing is thinking and we use the full-bodied expression. I’m delighting to create weekly modules to support my syllabi and learning outcomes. My students make me think, especially about the future because what they do daily at college is all about their future.

This is the part where I expect to hear squeals overhead. I though pigs would fly before someone ever called me prof. On Monday, one of my students thanked me for the class and said, “See ya later, Prof.” Everything stilled as if I were in a movie and the director was ready to say, “Cut!” But this is real. As real as the memory that implanted itself on my new office door. I recalled the door to my attic hideaway in the Markleeville General Store and the life-sized monochromatic poster of Indiana Jones.

I wanted to be Indiana Jones. It was a deep dream, the kind you don’t tell other people. It’s the kind of dream I tell writers to explore when they craft their vision of success as authors. It’s the impossible dream that contains possibility. What about Indiana Jones captivated my young mind in 1981. I had wanted to be an archaeologist before the movie came out. I kept my own notes. I also wanted to write historical novels, and I crafted elaborate stories and genealogies for characters with names like Nicodemus and Silver. I sought travel and adventure. And deep down, I want all that Indy had — the exploration of people and cultures, the world travel, the knowledge and storytelling, and the college classroom.

When I was in my MFA program, I also worked toward a masters certification to teach writing online. It aligned with my plans to develop writers workshops, and I learned how to coach and teach. My peers dreamed of college teaching, too and I never shared my deep-down dream except when prompted to write reflective essays. It’s a muddy career because most college professors hold PhD’s. Such instructors have served as lecturers and teacher’s assistants in large universities. However, MFA’s are terminal degrees and count toward teaching in college. Typically, MFA holders are expected to have had at least one, sometimes as many as five books published.

I’m unpublished (yet) although I have an extensive writing portfolio of magazine articles, profiles, essays, and short stories. I have an MFA but no classroom experience. Yeah, I figured I’d get hired in marketing before I’d get hired at a university. But the stars aligned like magic as they often do when you commit to your North Star and express the deep core of your dreams. I sat at my office desk Wednesday and could see my old movie poster materialize on the door across the room. Indy winked. “You got this, Kid,” he said.

Then a flock of pigs flew past my window.

Okay, I’m daydreaming out loud now. But you know the feeling — when only fiction can describe the depth of a moment so profound. I’m not daydreaming in the classroom. I’ve arrived. And I love every aspect of it.

I love having my office mate text to set up another “Ladies Coffee” where she and I sit over a press pot and shared lunch to discuss what we hope is the launch of our college teaching careers. I love having my friend who also teaches at FinnU loan me a plant for our office. I love that one of the full-time English professors who is impassioned about literature and students reach out to ask how my first week is going. I love that the bookstore manager expressed excitement for my choices of reading material. I love that I’m already using the 99-word format as a teaching tool. Micro-essays are a thing now.

There have been hiccups and technical glitches. My contract never arrived and I began to panic that the school found out about that time I was in a gang except that I never was in a gang but fiction writers can easily slip into guilty minds. I did imagine it. But it was a name issue, namely the Annette/Charli thing that I’m going to make my dad write me a note to explain it to employers. And the insane number of programs I have to log into just for a single class to happen. But, as my office mate said, it’s refreshing to be at a university focused on the student learning and not the prestige image.

Yes, I like where I have landed.

The wonderful thing about a work schedule is that suddenly I feel less scattered. It’s hard for me to compartmentalize when my chair remains the same. When I go on campus, I know what I’m doing. When I go to my office, I’m productive in less time. I feel like I have more time and focus. Thinking has cleared, writing has flowed, and I get errands done quickly when before it would take weeks and weeks. I’ve even gone to the lake four days in a row! My new schedule outside the home made me realize the toll personal life chaos has taken on me.

I might go live among the pigs and build a she-shed on the back property with a three season writing nook. Who knows? I’m open to change and a future that doesn’t feel stark and stressful. My future is looking bright as the shine of deep dreams emerge.

August 26, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a flight of pigs. It can be farm or fantasy-related. The idea can be a tale, poem or memory. You can use the phrase as an expression. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by August 31, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

The Fair Opens Early by Charli Mills

For three days, diesel engines have geared low to turn at Satori’s Corner halfway up Quincy Hill. Carnies arrive, hauling chunks of amusement rides and galley games. Trucks towing hot dog shacks, popcorn houses, and ramshackle campers follow. Carnie food and homes. Perpetual travelers from across the nation bring fun and excitement to rural counties on a continuous loop. The Houghton County Fair opens on Thursday. When a trailer full of 4H pigs escape and the Ferris Wheel operator leaves popcorn in a seat before the test ride, a flight of pigs launches the first attraction a day early.

🥕🥕🥕

August 19: Flash Fiction Challenge

How does a little dog eat a big lake? One bite at a time.

Lake Superior has locked Mause into an eternal game of chase-my-waves. At nine-months-old, this petite GSP is smart. She calculates the roll and trajectory of beach waves and begins her chase at the crest. The waves slant, hitting one part of the beach first and splashing further down. Mause devours water.

It’s been a hot week full of intense work after two weeks of meetings, training and deadlines. I made a water promise — to be in or on it regularly. I load Mause or the kayak into my car and we head out to escape the unseasonable warmth for a brief break.

Despite the high temperatures (today it was 90 degrees F), chasing waves and biting water chills the pup. When we get back to the car, her towel is warm. Mause shivers until I wrap her up and rub vigorously. She has gained an appreciation for a thorough toweling.

Today Mause learned to appreciate a sandy beach. It was hot enough that I wanted a dip, too.

We drove out past the blueberry farm. I saw the ghost of campfires past and imagined I smelled Dutch oven beans. I laughed, seeing that the campers in #5 set up next to my favorite pine to leave a leak. I let the good memories walk with me on the beach, my bare feet scrubbed by the quartz grains. I told Mause, “There are stars in the sand.” She tried to find them and dug.

The water created a new game — fill-in-the-holes. Waves elongated and smoothed over Mause’s star mines. This only made her dig faster. Rooster tails of golden sand shot backward three feet. Water filled the hole. Mause pawed the momentary sludge, digging water, then sand again. In the end, the beach kept its treasure. Except for the grains that ended up on Mause’s towel.

The trouble with trying to eat a big lake is that it overfills a small puppy bladder. We stopped three times on the way home so she could leave her leak outside the car. She’s so tired she didn’t whine when I watered the potager garden without her. I had herbs to cut, banana peppers to pick, and a bunny to greet. She shelters in my lavender bush. I watered beneath the watchful gaze of the elegant Lemon Queens and thought about next week.

Next week, I’ll be in my office on campus. Next week, I will meet my students and discuss success with them. Next week, I have a coffee date with my office mate, a soprano who teaches music appreciation. Next week, I get to Zoom with Sue Spitulnik’s writing group. Next week, I’m going to my first Rosza concert (outdoors) since the pandemic began — Beethoven and Banjos, a celebration of water through classical, folk and indigenous music and dance.

Next week feels like I found a star upon the beach.

Both my classes will learn about clarity in writing, after all, whether a written piece is informative or artistic, the goal is communication. In English 103, we will focus on clarity in what we read and how we form critical thought. In English 104, we will focus on forming critical thought to write clearly.

As literary artists, clarity might vary in degrees. We are practicing what to include in 99-words, and what to leave out. Did you know that the clearest sentence in the English language is the SVO construction? Subject-verb-object. As literary artists, we can vary our sentence lengths. Long sentences slow down the pace. Short ones speed it up. The SVO sentence can be punchy and well-placed after a long, ambling sentence. Or three in a row can build tension. Syntax is a writing element that impacts both clarity and style.

However, in fiction, syntax must also advance the plot and character arc. Marylee McDonald explains how to observe syntax in fiction and create your own cheat sheet of author’s sentences that you admire. Deconstruct the sentences to see the mechanics underneath. She refers to Hemingway’s SVO sentence structures as SV, but otherwise, its an excellent primer and tool on syntax.

To clarify, since we are talking clarity, syntax is a writing element. It has to do with language construction. Craft elements, on the other hand, are the mechanics of fiction. Dialog and world-building are craft elements. Syntax plays a vital role in clarifying who said what, as well as defining a new world experience. As a writer, it is your word choice and sentence construction. As a fiction writer, both craft and writing elements carry the action and emotion from a starting point to a conclusion.

Never doubt there is always something to learn, practice or master in our craft!

For now, let’s chase stories and stars.

August 19, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the phrase, “stars in the sand.” Your story can be any genre (or poem) and can use realism or fantasy. It’s a dreamy prompt. Go where the it leads!

Respond by August 24, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

White City Sand by Charli Mills

Copper miners’ families crowded the double-decker steamer. Wives and children sported tiny brass stars on collars and lapels. Solidarity for fair treatment twinkled across the open decks. An anonymous patron had provided the striking miners with an exclusive excursion to White City. Thirty-minutes east of closed mines, the summer-weary strikers and families anticipated their lucky day. Respite. The promised carousel, dance pavilion, and ham picnic came into view. Mine enforcers emerged. Hundreds. Clubs in fists. The boat docked. They say you can find stars in the sand where the working class were tricked and beaten into submission in 1909.

🥕🥕🥕

August 12: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s five minutes before bedtime. I’m trying. Getting up in the morning is a struggle for me. I do my best work at the midnight hour and it’s difficult to go to bed when I’m most relaxed and focused. A friend and fellow night owl once explained, “we stay up late because the world has gone silent.”

Perhaps not the world, but my corner of it quiets considerably.

The pup is asleep on the couch. The house breathes the fresh night air. Roberts Street is asleep, houselights snuffed for the night. I feel refreshed.

Earlier in the day when I was trying to get out emails to clients, prepare for faculty work, set aside books I need to read, and catch up at the Ranch, a cacophony of sound had me out of sorts.

The chipping sparrows surround my house. Chipping. Chipping loud as electronic equipment gone haywire. I’m a bird lover and not accustomed to wanting to tell off any bird, but these guys, they are discordant and constant. I’m ready to remove their bird feeder. Shh…!

Mause was wound up. She had the evening poop zoomies. Finally, third time out, she did her duty but not before pointing a rabbit. The small brown bunny held still, eyes locked on Mause. Her instinct is spot on for a GSP. She pointed. That means, she locked eyes and held still. A pointer will hold the gaze of a game bird (well, okay, a flightless bunny in this case). The point allows a hunter to get ready to command the dog to flush the bird, once in position. I prepared to have my arm yanked.

When the bunny dashed, so did Mause. I was ready and sat against her dive to chase. Bunny lived another day to eat my dandelions. After the encounter, Mause barked her head off at anything she could see out the window. The neighbor’s beach shoes drying on his sidewalk. Someone walking a poodle. A bush that wiggled in the wind.

And still the sparrows chipped. ZZZT! ZZZT! ZZZT!

Finlandia is back to regular morning and evening football practice. The field is near my house so I could hear the team. Why do football players grunt so much? And how can they grunt so loudly?

That diesel truck from down the street with loud pipes blasted by the house.

Mause barked another frenzy.

Music stopped and started upstairs. The only thing more distracting than a veteran with no attention span starting and stopping songs on a computer is if he was downstairs starting and stopping military history videos on YouTube. Granted, I get good ideas from what I overhear, but tonight I can’t take the sounds because I have work to do and I can’t give up, go water or fix dinner. Bedtime is now as discordant as all the noise.

Twitching, I make it through to the delicious time of quiet and solitude. Ahh…! The sparrows quieted. Mause makes soft nose wheezes as she sleeps. The music upstairs has stopped. I turn to Calm and play Sweet Dreams, soft piano mix for recalibrating the mind.

Tomorrow morning is my first day of Finlandia University faculty training. The jitters are receding as my passion to teach writing rises. I’m 54-years-old and starting a new career. Feels bold. It was always a sweet dream to think I’d expand my writing career in this direction. Even in school to get my MFA, I didn’t think I’d get this opportunity. Stars aligned and I’m grateful. I paused in the silence to let a wave of anticipation vibrate through me.

Mause slept.

Birds slept.

Neighbors cruised their dreams.

This is why I write late into the night. Silence refreshes me. I was made for stillness. The mind expands, the imagination opens up. The stars keep me company without saying, ZZZT! ZZZT! ZZZT!

Alas, I’m willing to nod off to a sleep story (Calm app is amazing) and set an alarm. Because I will have young minds to engage. I hope to learn and grow as they do. It’s a big deal to me to pick novels to assign, find handouts, and create meaningful assignments. Will they write 99-word stories? Oh, yes. They will even learn TUFF to draft ideas for research papers. They will explore their personal values, find their strengths as writers, and craft a vision for their overall college success.

After the cacophony, I find the answers in silence.

Sweet Dreams!

August 13, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story, using cacophony. You can use the word or show discordant sound inaction. How can you create literary cacophony with your words? This one might be of interest to poets as a literary device. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by August 17, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Batter-born Biscuits by Charli Mills

Batter-born biscuits dropped to a sizzling cast-iron griddle. Max held her lips in formation. The day before, her mother complained Max was too pretty to withhold her smile. Max adjusted her prosthetic foot to stand near the outdoor flames. The arrival of a squawking blue jay, twittering squirrels, and her father in a silk robe announced morning with forest cacophony. Weird as her dad might be, she’d take him at her campfire wearing what suited him best over the silent pretense of her mother’s morning prayers, rules, and cold cereal. Funny how grim her mother looked, reading her devotions.

🥕🥕🥕

August 5: Flash Fiction Challenge

When I was a kid, staying home sick from school meant watching morning game shows like The Price is Right. The host gathered audience members selected to be game participants who often had to pick a door to reveal their prize. Behind one open door, a new car. Behind another, a pack of gum.

When doors first open to us, we feel the excitement of a potential grand prize. A new car, a new opportunity, a new chance to shine. We can also feel the shadow of doubt. What if it’s a pack of stale gum, a scam, something we will fail? Doors that open challenge our expectations and hopes, our fears and doubts.

Like the contestant who freezes on stage, the worse we can do is not pick a door. Go for it. A pack of gum is still a prize and we can snap bubbles as we search for the next opening. If what we wanted is not in hand, then it is still out there. The search is not over.

I feel like doors are cracked all around me. I have the heady excitement of going back to school coupled with the reality that this time I’m the teacher. I feel a strong sense of responsibility and expectation. What I want to feel is confident, flexible, and open to the growth of the entire class, including what I will learn from my students and the experience. This is a new door and I don’t yet know what to expect. And that is okay.

While I was away, exploring the Keweenaw with my good friend, I learned about a different kind of door, the one that slides open beyond the curve of a waterway. If the pool beneath a bridge where we put in our kayaks was any indication, like a ramshackle front porch to a house, I didn’t expect much. Around the corner we went, meandering a watery path until the front door slid open and we entered a beautiful slough surrounded in sedge, marsh plants, and framed by evergreens in the distance. Sheer magic appeared behind the open door and we explored.

Doors open up to writers every time curiosity, imagination and story form a key. Do you like to follow one lead or blend multiple inputs? Do you write from your mind or your heart (or both)? Do you keep stories in your head or jot notes on paper? I like to be a mixologist and blend birds, sand, cedar with hardrock mining, stories of people from the fringes of what we think we know, and a twist of what-if. Stories that make me think and feel inspire me to write.

Once my curiosity for slipping through the front doors of sloughs ignited, we ventured to a beaver pond on the west branch of the Eagle River at the base of Cliff where miners angled shafts 900 feet deep from 1852 to 1881. They came to chase flows of native copper and we descended with kayaks to circumnavigate the pond and reach the abandoned cemetery. We put in and slid up pond to watch Blue Heron spear minnows. A kingfisher zipped across the open water and two pileated woodpeckers dove from tree to tree. Larch hung feather boughs over the pond’s mine-side edge, the woods obscuring mine ruins and the old wagon road.

We left our kayaks on the far side of the pond from where we put in. I remembered the cemetery to be within view of the water and near the town garden plot. Naturally, I took us the wrong direction, following a rocky two-track that was once the road to the upper mines. The further we got from the water, the less certain I was that gravestones would emerge from the shadows of moss-grown boulders, brush and trees. We swatted flies and gnats and nibbled thimbleberries until we spotted a pile of berry-seed laden bear excrement. That was not a door I wanted to walk through and we turned back.

Above the pond, we found an overgrown trail off the two-track. A massive apple tree reminded me that the cemetery was near the town garden. We were near. Sure enough, an old wire mesh fence, rusted and dilapidated, announced the perimeter. Within, body-sized depressions hinted at unmarked graves. We walked gingerly past arranged stones, hallows, and chipmunk holes until we came upon a smattering of toppled graves with one stately obelisk standing tall. Below the crest of the cemetery hillside, the beaver pond glimmered a deep blue. A peaceful resting place.

Later, I returned to earlier notes I made on the site of Cliff, the half-opened door to a memory of a Black undertaker. A woman who lived among the miners, having escaped slavery. Her name, as I jotted in my earlier notes, was Fannie Harriet Wells. According to the Keweenaw National Historical Park, she served as the undertaker for these graves at Cliff. This is a story from the fringe. I didn’t expect to find much in the online historical records, but I did find her in an 1860 Federal Census record. She was living at Eagle Harbor ten miles up peninsula from Cliff, working at a hotel. The census record reveled she was 39 years old, born in Kentucky and living with two other Black women, 22-year-old Francis Wells, and 33-year-old Jane Courton.

Think about the open door to freedom.

Three enslaved women made their way to the copper mines of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Francis must have been Harriet’s daughter. The only other census record I can find listing any of the women is 1880. Harriet Wells is living next door to a doctor in Houghton with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Mary Wells. Both are listed as Mulatto. There’s no mention of Francis, but Mary’s granddaughter is noted as mother born in Kentucky and father born in Connecticut. Harriet is listed as widowed. When did that happen? In Kentucky? What happened to Francis? I can’t stop thinking about the journey these three women made to the Copper Country. Did Harriet watch Blue Heron spear minnows in his long beak?

A story behind each door. You, the writers, get to pick. Even if it’s gum, you can make a winner out of your story. Let’s get to it!

August 5, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about an open door. It can be literal or metaphorical. What is behind the door? Who is seeking and why? As the writer, how will you manage the discovery? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by August 10, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

A New Door Opens by Charli Mills

At fourteen, Francis hid behind doors, gripping Mama’s hand, her breath hard as ore in her chest. One door led to another until they boarded a creaking vessel, shut below decks. Water lashed. The ship rose and fell and swayed from side to side. Wind howled. Finally, the hatch opened to sunlight and seagulls. They merged with a sea of humanity, walking to a mining camp called Cliff. When the mine captain’s wife died, Mama was the only one willing to wash and prep the body for burial. A new door opened – a job, income, a life beyond slavery.

🥕🥕🥕

July 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

Troubled times have come to my hometown.

The prompt photo shows an undated modern main street of Markleeville, California where I lived from 1974 to 1985. In 1988, I returned to marry my Ranger in cowboy boots in a meadow where I rode my horse and pushed cattle during the summers of my teen years. Markleeville has been described as picturesque, tiny, historic, and beautiful.

The town sits in a bowl, flanked by irrigated ranch pastures, surrounded by forest and beneath the peaks I know so well I can trace their outlines with my finger pointed to the sky. Raymond looms tallest over 10,000 feet in elevation. Markleeville is nearly 5,500 feet. It’s a mountain town.

Like most boom and bust towns out West, white settlers built where they could take resources. Lumber, grazing, minerals. Jacob Marklee built a toll-bridge in 1861, anticipating a mining boom. Already, the Comstock Lode of 1859 at Virginia City, Nevada sparked interest in the eastern side of the Sierra. Jacob filed his property claim in Douglas County, Nevada. Having grown up in Markleeville, it’s logical to think of it as Nevada. But it isn’t. Jacob filed in the wrong state. He ran cattle where I gathered cattle for the Ted Bacon Ranch. He built a house next to the one where I grew up. Jacob lost a gunfight in 1864 and the county courthouse and sheriff’s department now reside on his mis-filed ranch along Markleeville Creek.

Makes me wonder what Jacob called the creek. Or what the Washoe place names are? Funny thing about “discovery” in America is that the land came with its Indigenous. In 1970, a newspaper report quoted ol’ Weesie (you might spot her here in the Ranch Yarns as “Frankie”). It was one of many articles California cities over the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains wrote about the quaint town with its famous trout fishing and fresh air. Notably, the Washoe are left out of that article and many others. They weren’t even roadside attractions. Invisible.

I write stories to make visible those who live unseen. Weesie/Frankie is one of my childhood heroes. I saw and heard my elders and my Native neighbors. To me they weren’t invisible. They gave me a deep appreciation for my home, rooting me in its history and culture. Alpine County is an ancient place older than the 1864 house I grew up in next to the Markleeville General Store. I knew all its nooks and crannies. I was the weird kid who rollerskated to get her horse from his pasture. I rode and knew the secrets of the land.

Isn’t that the way of hometowns? As Bruce Springsteen sings in his classic My Hometown, an elder — an uncle, parent, neighbor, mentor — takes us for a ride and says, “Take a good look around. This is your hometown.”

This song has always cradled my heart. Time stops and I’m transported to my hometown. I used to run “with a dime in my hand” to the school bus stop across from that brown building in the prompt photo. It’s the infamous biker bar called the Cutthroat Saloon. It once graced Silver Mountain City until the English money ran out and Lord Chalmers deserted his wife Nettie. My first foray into historical fiction was about Silver Chalmers, the daughter who disappeared. The Cutthroat (named after a species of trout native to Alpine County, not pirates or bikers) was the Alpine Hotel and after 3,000 miners, merchants, loggers and families left the mining town, residents of Markleeville moved the structure. No a small feat.

Why did I have dimes in my hand? Because the bartender would toss the coins from his tip jar into the road every night after 2 am. Eight years old, and I ran to the stop in the morning to pick up dimes and sometimes a quarter or two. I think he only lasted that school year and no other bar tender shared his tips (or lured children into the highway, not that there was any traffic).

Memories go up in flames. Markleeville and every stop along the bus route is evacuated. The Tamarack Fire rages zero percent contained. Fire has confronted the town since 1866 when the first Markleeville General Store burned to the ground. I counted over a dozen fires in my newspaper research from 1885, 1939, 1947, 1948, 1954, 1955, 1984, 1887, 2008, 2015 and many smaller burns in between. What struck me as I read is that the fires used to be much smaller, even ones that blazed through second growth timber (meaning what forest grew back after the heavy logging for all the area mines during the Comstock days).

I smell trees. Jeffrery pines. The trees of my childhood. They might look similar to the Ponderosa pines, but they smell distinctly sweet. Like vanilla. I’ve never lived anywhere else out west that carried the scent of Jeffreys. It’s arid on the eastern slopes of the Sierras thus thick with sagebrush. I can smell sage, too. I can’t find any evidence that the seeds of the Jeffreys are edible, but likely I learned on the school playground from my Washoe friends that they taste as sweet as the trees smell. I can remember squatting on the ground beneath a particularly large pine, cracking open pine seeds and eating them at recess.

It all smolders now.

The Tamarack fire has burned so hot that the teams can’t fight it with air retardant. In my memory, air power was vital to fighting forest fires in Alpine County. It’s unfathomable to me that these latter fires out West are so much hotter that they create their own storm systems and blacken the sky. My dad was a firefighter. Like many, he was a volunteer, and at one time a crew chief for the local engine. I remember him telling about the firestorm that overtook him and his crew. They were on the line, protecting structures on Mesa Vista, when the storm blew up. He said it sounded like a freight train. The air crisped so hot his contact lenses shriveled and fell out like grit. They sought shelter under the fire engine and a borate bomber dumped its load on the truck, saving their lives.

The following year, in July of 1987, another firestorm blew up and burned Woodfords, Alpine Village and Mesa Vista where my parents lived. When I couldn’t reach them, Todd and I drove from Fallon, Nevada, and took dirt roads I knew so well to get around the road blocks. We got as far as the Walker Camp (a Washoe village) and Jeffrey pines blazed like torches. We watched flames shoot impossibly high into the sky and churning smoke. We could go no farther. A July 30, 1987 newspaper reported eye witnesses, one saying:

“It looks like a nuclear war,” says Lt. Stan Pope of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.

30 Jul 1987, Page 3, Reno Gazette, “Alpine County Fire”

I remember the bombed out look. I remember the grief and determination to rebuild. I remember the relief that my parents’ home had survived a second fire in two years. Another home they lived in, the one where the bear got into their kitchen garbage can one night, sitting on the floor like an overgrown toddler, that house sits at the edge of the burn. The horse pasture on fire. I wish I had my favorite photo of them dressed up in their finest turquoise western outfits ready for a wedding. The photo below is in the background of that shot. This is where they lived. Markleeville is just down the road.

Noah Berger, AP SF Gate 2021

As I’ve been following the #TamarackFire, memories burn. I can’t help but recall what it felt like to ride Captain up this trail or that. I remember where the old barbed wire wrapped around a stand of trees, surrounding the sunken graves of unnamed Washoe. It’s not how they buried their dead. They built platforms. I know where that sacred burial place is, too. I can tell you all the places I used to swim, along creeks, streams, and ditches. I search for names among residents and those commenting on the social media channels to find the familiar people from my hometown. It’s a different generation. A turnover of names.

The woman in this video talks about the stress her parents are going through. They lost everything in the Acorn Fire (the one in 1987). She wasn’t born yet. Her parents were at my wedding that year, months after losing everything. I used to babysit her older brother.

I haven’t mustered the courage to call my parents. I don’t want to stress my dad. He remains a staunch conservationist, an old school mountain man semi hermit who has old ways to maintain the health of the forests. He fought for years to get officials to listen to him. He always said this would happen. Our hometown is forever changed. All his hard work to log in a conservative way, up in smoke so thick satellites can’t register the hot spots.

Here’s a comparison of where I got married.

Todd and I rode in the surry pulled by Jet from Markleeville to Turtle Rock Park where we had our reception.

Hometowns change. As Bruce Springsteen sings, jobs leave, people leave. Natural disasters, wars, sickness. Every generation confronts changes from aging to obliteration. I’m reminded that it’s not the hometown that matters as much as it is the community. This is no longer my community, I haven’t been back since the late 1980s. I feel confident that the existing community will rebuild and hold each other up. I wish them the best. I’m grateful that the Hung A Lel Ti residents can go back, although they may have to evacuate again. I hope they can be part of the greater rebuilding, no longer invisible to the community but part of its healing.

I’ve been fascinated and horrified by the power of forest fires all my life. I’ve been as close as one can get to witnessing fire’s destructive beauty. It is burning and yet it is renewal. There are pine trees that only open their cones to propagate seeds through fire. Indigenous people lived for thousands of years in Alpine County. They lived with fire. Our century of fire suppression was misguided. We need better, wiser solutions to live in harmony with the awe-inspiring environments that surround our hometowns. I wrote a forest fire in my novel Miracle of Ducks and how it brought out the best in the community. How it forced Danni to confront death and life.

This next week, I’m taking a vacation with my good friend. You might know her. She hangs out with Kid and Pal. Some say she writes them. Maybe they write her. Know that I’ll be in good company, sitting along the lake shore, camping and savoring campfire stories. She’ll get an earful of all the stories this fire has brought to light for me. I even have an Alpine County Bigfoot story for her. I will not post a collection or challenge next week, so you have two weeks to ponder your own hometowns. Or hometown for the characters who have a story to give you.

July 22, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a hometown. It can be your hometown or a fictional one. Who is there? When is it set? What is happening? Go where the prompt leads!

**NOTE: TWO WEEK DEADLINE** Respond by August 3, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Markleeville by Charli Mills

I’m eight years old running after the bus, crying. A car stops. “Don’t cry honey. We’ll catch the bus.” I don’t know who she is, but I get in her car. She speeds, making good on her promise. She’s the mom of a girl in my class. I don’t make friends easily. I prefer adults, especially the old-timers no one visits. They tell me stories, like what Monitor looked like when it wasn’t a vacant flat of sagebrush. Hometown will always be the people who saw me. I carry stories of Markleevile in my heart long after they’ve gone.

🥕🥕🥕

July 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

I’m having a serious meltdown.

Mause ate my turquoise Keens. She chewed through the straps by the start of warm weather. Keens are my power center. Keens have seen me through adventures, interviews of farmers, and recovery from back surgeries. Keens give me stable footing. They are my travel companions, my outdoor gear. This particular pair went to LA when I won a scholarship to a writers conference. The color symbolized my dream to teach writing and welcome writers to retreat space.

It’s not the first time I’ve lost a pair of Keens to a wild animal (puppies are feral beasts). You can read my 2012 lament to Keens lost and then found destroyed along the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior in A Tale of Two Keens. But something has changed.

They don’t make Keens like they used to. It’s more than fashion travesty when a brand you love changes. It feels like betrayal. I was loyal, why couldn’t you be loyal too, Keen? It’s not just me. Other jilted shoe-lovers mourn the loss of a dependable brand. So far, since the beginning of May, I’ve ordered and returned four pairs of Keens. None of them fit. I tried different sizes, styles and genders. The fit was the whole reason for our foot affair. The shape is gone, the love with it.

I tried Merrels and kept a pair. But they are not Keens. If I walk to long in them, the front straps rub my pinky toes.

Today, a pair of coral Chacos arrived in a box. The river rafters and hiking enthusiasts out West swear by this brand. I’ve snubbed my nose, content with Keens. Now, I rip my package in desperation for a new shoe mate. Immediately, I swing a foot sideways to place a sandal. I can’t get my toe under the right strap. Why are there so many straps? A folded card has a series of instructions numbered at each strap and shoe placement. Easy as 1-2-3.

Uh, no. I have to sit down because I’m not understanding the entanglement. It’s a sandal. My foot should slide in place. This is when dyslexia pops up to help my brain with a problem. I can’t figure out anything left/right oriented. Like the one way streets in Minneapolis because they use the circle with a line to say don’t turn the direction of the lined arrow except my brain can’t interpret which direction I’m not supposed to go and every time, I’d turn down the wrong way. In Zoom meetings I point the wrong direction to things behind me. I struggle with math, maps, phonemes, pronunciation, and time.

Cue the meltdown because I don’t have time for this strap nonsense.

There I was, sitting on the couch, attempting to put my foot through a puzzle of straps when I pulled the toe straps wide open. You see, if the directions had been written out instead of a numbered visual, I could have comprehended how the Chaco straps pull through the bed of the sandal. I managed to get one on my foot. Then the next foot. Mause ate the instructions while I fussed.

I stood up and one foot said, “Okay,” and the other said, “wtf…” I started to spin. I didn’t intend to spin but that directional disorientation couldn’t figure out which way my foot was supposed to go. I rotated in a circle and still couldn’t get my foot straight on the sandal bed. The straps held. At times like these, I usually laugh. Because, what else can I do? Well, I did the other thing. I burst into tears.

It’s been a week in two days, and not just because I can’t find a pair of sporting sandals. I’m overwrought by unscheduled time and competing tasks and wondering who in my house is crazier? (I’m pointing at Mause, who’s looking at me.) Am I too busy to call the numbers I researched to search for answers to where does the mind of an aging veteran go? Or am I really as tired as my bones feel? Despite it all, good news rises in the midst of chaos.

Finlandia University offered me the Adjunct Instructor position. I have two classes to teach this fall semester! Adjunct means contract. They’ll hire me as long as there are classes available. It’s great because I’ll have a base income to cover me while I build my education platform here. It gives me flexibility without having to force my feral writing brain back into a 9-to-5. It’s also a foot in the door to the Academic World. It’s beyond what my turquoise Keens had hoped for!

The transition is only a season. I hope for days that fit better into my weeks. I hope for less confusing straps and triggering moments. Truly, I am grateful to have such trivial complaints as, “My dog ate my shoes.” But sometimes, we need to embrace the time of the dark moon and have a proper meltdown. Now, I can stop actively searching for work, which is a huge weight off my shoulders. Time to prepare for teaching!

As long as I don’t have to distinguish my left from my right.

July 15, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the word meltdown. You can use it to describe an event or emotional reaction. You can create a new meaning or explore the word origin. You can Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 20, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Years After the Meltdown by Charli Mills

His meltdown 25 years ago had terrified her.

Max refused to stroke the cat rubbing its head against her folded arms. She leaned against one of two posts holding up the front porch. The exterior needed sanding. Through the open door to the three-room cabin – kitchen, sitting room, bedroom – Max noted cooling cherry pies, lace curtains, jelly jars of garden flowers. What some would call “a woman’s touch.” Her dad lived alone.

She’d been seven when the church elders drove him from their South Range home, beating him with fists and folded newspapers. Mascara and tears streaking his face.

🥕🥕🥕

July 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

Mause proves me slow. She bounces and flies, covering ten times the territory of my pace. For each one foot in front of the other I step, she is rompy-bompy to the end of her leash and back asking, “Are you there yet?” I’m a slow-plodding T-Rex, so slow my bones are fossilizing.

The clear evidence of our different speeds of life emerged like a cliched smoking gun. I observed Mause watching me water flowers from the top of the deck. When I turned off the water, and closed the mudroom, I opened the basement door and screamed. The creature that leapt at me was not a massive Wolfrick spider or racoon. It was Mause.

The only explanation for her traveling the greater distance to beat me to the back door is that I’m slow. She is quicksilver.

Do you ever feel that way as a writer?

We seem to fall into two categories. The rompy-bompy book authors and the dinosaurs that follow. I’ve had other writers confess to me their concern. They worry that they are too slow when they learn their peers have published yet again and they are still hand-painting illuminations on a manuscript. To this I say, know and appreciate who you are as a writer. We can share paths as peers but we can not compare our strides. Long or short, our pace belongs to each of us.

We are free to change. Frankly, I have no desire to bounce like Mause. When I considered what took me so long, I realized I had paused. I noticed how the mudroom smelled like cedar because it’s where the sauna is. I scanned the garden shelves for any overlooked items that might want to go outside. I noted with satisfaction that I had enough tomato cages if my plants grow. A misplaced frying pan from our wandering days reminded me to add it to my camping gear. I felt the tickle of a cobweb and brushed it away from my face. I wondered, where did my jawline go and will I get it back or am I destined to become a fabulous crone? The idea scared and intrigued me. Only then did I reach for the basement door.

Surprise! Eight-month-old puppy paws reached up to punch my belly.

At first I wanted to believe in Mause’s magic (because she is). But I rationalized that she was smart enough to have seen me disappear into the mudroom from the deck and she flew through the porch door, across the sun room, through the kitchen, to the upstairs basement door, pushed it open, flew down the stairs across the painted cement floor to greet me. She was probably wiggling in anticipation as I meandered in my head.

I’m a processor who lives a rich life in my imagination. You can’t believe the universe inside. No wonder I slow down. I’m time traveling. While Mause zips from a leaf to a June bug, I’ve visited stars and written manifestos and Russian epics. I can be still in my body the way she can spring from paw to paw, spinning to catch her bobbed tail. In the end, we are all protons, energy that can’t be created or destroyed. Yet we can arrange ourselves infinitely. Believe what we want about what it all means.

Some of us write and publish quickly. Some of us compose in our heads and drag the suitcases around the world until we decide to drop a manuscript. It’s okay. Be you. I’m being me. Mause is Mause. “Unabashedly,” as a friend said to me earlier this week during a three-way conversation about societal pressures. I belong to a small group of Women Doing It Their Way. Each of us is on a different career path or entrepreneurialism. We were talking about how the fast pace of modern culture pressures us to be something we aren’t.

Who pressures us as writers? The quick answer might be ourselves. But where and when and from whom did we internalize the voices that tell us we are not enough? Not fast enough. Not smart enough. It warps our expectations. Soon we believe there is something wrong because even a dog moves quicker. But I reject that because I know the Writer that I am. I know that this…this moment…this right here, right now is my Writing Life.

I am the writer who spots a downy white feather against a blue sky and can watch it float on unseen drafts of air and by the time it lands on the head of a budding milkweed, I’ve constructed a thousand lives for the winged unicorn who dropped it. I am the writer with blood memory in a foreign land who sings to the bones of my ancestors mineralized on the shore of an inland sea none of them ever experienced. But there they are. I remember stones. I can’t remember home. I am the writer who believes in unicorns and have witnessed my dog become one. More on that in a bit because I’m a writer who likes to weave unlikely silken thought threads into a story that looks like a Bohemian sundress on a lumberjack. I’m a writer who sits a lot and needs a dog to take her for walks only to get lost in the green of summer trees, forgetting that time exists.

You don’t need to understand me. I don’t. I am many things I haven’t even begun to explore. But I am a writer and that’s what I do. I go deep. And I’m slow, observing the senses, emotions and mysteries beyond the single note of a robin happy for the sunset and smorgasbord of dusk-flying insects. Where was I? Oh, yes, Mause the Unicorn.

If you have children (grandchildren, or were a child) of a certain age of videos, you might be familiar with the classic, The Last Unicorn. An evil old man used a flaming bull to round up all the unicorns and drive them into the sea. If you look into the crest of white foaming waves, you can see them.

When the heat of what will probably be our hottest summer day drove me away from my desk, including the outside office, I sought relief at Lake Superior. Mause is young and still uncertain about water. But she’s determined to chase down waves. Lake Superior had little rollers on that hot day. I was waist deep, standing on tumbles stones, coaxing Mause to swim to me. A wave would rise and distract her. She crashed to shore in a cresting wave, and momentarily, white foam blended with white fur and the brown speckling morphed into rocks.

Mause disappeared in the spray like a unicorn. It was a moment of magic. She crested with several more waves and I laughed with delight at my captured puppy unicorn. Some of you might be afraid I’m going to make you write about unicorns…again. Do not fear. I have feathers on the brain. And communism.

I’m editing a fascinating historical novella about how easy it was for communists to dupe Americans during the Great Depression. I’ve been immersed in researching 1930s newspaper accounts regarding a spectacular international incident that links the Michigan Upper Peninsula to a spy trial in Finland. It has made me rethink how people reacted to the loss of jobs and lack of food. I tried my hand at exploring that time in my 99-word story.

Go be you and write to find who you are, knowing you can revise at any time. And remember, it doesn’t matter if you are fast or slow as long as you are living your Writer’s Life.

“To me success and fulfillment lead in two different directions: one outwardly to the hope of glory, the other inwardly to the guarantee of peace.”

Rasheed Ogunlaru

July 8, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features feathers. It can be a single feather or more. Where did the feather come from? Does it hold meaning to the character or story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 13, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

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Red Feathers of 1932 by Charli Mills

She plucked the chicken, swiping a feather from her forehead. Now what, thought Nella. Dumplings tonight wouldn’t stop the hunger pains to come. No more eggs. No more breakfasts for loggers. Loggers turned to the rails. Hoboes for hire. She brushed off her mother’s borrowed apron. When she left the northern peninsula to teach in Detroit, she never imagined she’d return broke. But the economy crashed, no one could pay taxes and schools closed. Capitalism. She growled the word. It had robbed all workers down to the last chicken. Tonight, she’d join Frank at the meeting with the communists.

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