Carrot Ranch Literary Community

Home » Flash Fiction Challenge (Page 2)

Category Archives: Flash Fiction Challenge

April 29: Flash Fiction Challenge

Pavement calls like a slithering snake that can wind to anywhere. Windows rolled down, engine roaring, music blasting. I’m seventeen again, driving my truck across the Nevada valley I once knew so well I could drive the roads in my dreams for decades after moving on. I didn’t know what came next but I knew I was outta there. Never did I think I’d move 22 times between then and now.

I’m not moving but I am moving on.

School’s out next week, and my wheels are turning. It’s hard to think beyond that one last essay I have to write because it’s Friday, due Sunday, and I really wanted to cross the finish line by now. Regardless, when I wake up Monday Morning, May 3, it will be like looking down a long stretch of road.

Where to next? Do I follow my map? Take a pleasure cruise, a side trip, an adventure down a two-track? Maybe I park under the shade of a black oak, and watch clouds scud across blue skies. May is not the month for hard decisions, nor is it time to lose momentum.

I’ve landed a freelancing gig and have plans to collaborate with a local artist, a podcaster, and a new storytelling center. I have business plans and job applications to finish, each taking me down different roads, each a companion to writing novels. The Ranch needs some new paint. My manuscript needs final edits. June 23 is the Big Day — the date I send my book to the agents who are interested. The wheels keep turning.

It’s the song, Hit the Road Jack, that comes to mind, though.

It’s more than moving on. It’s about leaving what is no longer needed. It’s telling 2020 to get lost. It’s declaring a new era. Claiming the road trip for your own purposes. Whatever happens next, I get to decide. When I left Nevada all those years ago, I never expected to live in almost every western state. I certainly didn’t expect to settle along one of the Great Lakes. When I hit the road, I had dreams.

I still do. We never stop dreaming.

Next week, I’ll let you know dates for my party plans. I have a truckload of fun to work out. Without a formal graduation ceremony, I decided to create my own. A friend is a neo-Druidic ceremonialist is going to lead an online graduation cacao ceremony. Another friend is going to host an online Sound Bath. I’m going to camp for three days at McLain State Park after I pick up the most incredible bucket-list celebration cake ever made by three young Chippewa sisters in Minnesota. And I will set up several readings and times for Ranchers to meet up on Zoom for friendly socials. Finally, my son and daughter-in-law will visit for a family weekend with a vegan cake (yes, two cakes).

On Monday, I also tell Covid to hit the road. I’ll be fully vaccinated and out of quarantine. It’s strange to emerge from the pandemic cocoon. Strange to not have coursework next week. But that’s the nature of moving on.

April 29, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the phrase, “hit the road, Jack.” You can interpret the phrase any way you like — road trip, goodbye, or story. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 4, 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.

Jack’s Escape by Charli Mills

He waited for her the mouth of the mine. She visited late at night with stubs of carrots. She’d light a pipe and he’d sniff puffs of smoke while she spoke her troubles, wetting his neck with tears. Life in a mining camp caged a white mule and a soiled dove forced into service. One night, she arrived with a rope, blanket, and satchel. He had no regrets stepping outside his pen, letting her rig a makeshift bosal. She said, “Let’s hit the road, Jack,” and they left behind what they had known, never to speak of it again.

🥕🥕🥕

April 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

The sun slants differently in April, carrying warmth, bird melodies, and dust motes on rays of midday starlight. I’m lulled to go outside and feel the brisk air softening. Bulbs send shoots to greet the one who will melt the snow. If only Lady Lake Superior would stop playing with cold fronts, dumping more of her white rain. Crocus continue to bloom, tulips unfurl, and glories of the snow live up to their name.

Despite a determined sun, the weather remains fickle. On a sunny Sunday, Mause and I made our way to see my favorite beach at McLean State Park. The campground remains closed, but the shoreline was accessible. We hiked through the forest alongside the lake. I could hear the rush of small waves and turned the pup toward a tall hill. As she crested the outlook, Mause got her first look at the Lady.

And in true German Short-haired Pointer fashion, she pointed.

That night, the snow churned and icicles long as Jack Frost’s fingernails glazed the trees along the shore. In town, on Roberts Street, the robins, squirrels hunkered down and rode out the storm. By Earth Day, all was once again merry and bright. Snow remains in the shadows, but as a good friend who experienced a recent snow storm said, “It’s white mulch.”

Earth Day is a good time to talk about earthing. Also known as grounding, earthing describes interacting with the earth barefoot and bare handed. Like Mause did on the beach.

When the summer sun warms the sand, I love to dig my feet into its grainy depths. Not only does it feel good to my feet and soul, the contact improves my immune system. According to a fully researched article at the US National Library of Medicine, earthing has real health benefits:

“Multi-disciplinary research has revealed that electrically conductive contact of the human body with the surface of the Earth (grounding or earthing) produces intriguing effects on physiology and health. Such effects relate to inflammation, immune responses, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”

The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases by James L Oschman, Gaétan Chevalier, and Richard Brown, 2015

Going barefoot and digging in the garden without gloves is good for you. Earthing is akin to forest bathing. It gets me excited for camping because I also love the energy of sleeping on a pad on the ground. I can’t tolerate the cowboy method of sleeping on the ground, but I realize that as cowboys slept on the trail, they were recharging their batteries every night.

As I come to my final finals week for my MFA, I have one more week after to wrap up and submit my portfolio. Much is uncertain as conditions progress and I shift gears. A part of me wants to collapse, but I will do that on a sun-warmed Keweenaw beach. Like the tulip that breaks ground, we never really know what will greet us — sun, rain, snow, freeze, drought, or the nibbles of a winter-hungry deer. Still, we rise and grow to reveal our true colors. Until then, one day at a time.

Happy Earth Day, one and all.

Do not try to save the world or do anything grandiose.Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently,until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it. Only then, will you know how to give yourself to this world so worthy of rescue.

~Martha Postlewaite

Walking. I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.

~ Linda Hogan

Your sadness doesn’t make you less of a human being. In fact, it makes you more. More expansive. More connected. Painfully beautiful. Raw. Open. Completely alive.

~ Panache Desai

April 22, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about earthing. Put a character’s hands, feet or body and soul into the earth. Who needs recharging? What happens between the interaction? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 27, 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.

Earthing on a Working Ranch by Charli Mills

Jerilyn’s house smelled like a barn. The danger of spring calving is weather that plummets into freezing blizzards after the bulbs rise. The night seven cows dropped calves she provided shelter in her newly remodeled kitchen. So much for pristine linoleum. Today, calves and mamas would reunite. Sam saddled their horses while Jeri mopped and dried breakfast dishes. Glancing at her Zen calendar, she realized it was Earth Day. A quote encouraged her to seek earthing, connect with the ground. She wondered if a mouthful of fresh clods counted? She didn’t relish getting thrown from that flighty mare again.

🥕🥕🥕

April 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

Just when I was feeling despondent over how far my front potager garden has to grow to live up to its name, someone planted bunnies along its border. It’s spring-ish in the Keweenaw of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, give or take a few more spits of white rain. The snow smartens the landscape of leftover street grit, dead plant stalks, and mats of maple leaves that resemble road-flattened toads. As much as I want to have a garden that emerges from winter like the ones I see on Monty Don’s “Gardening World,” the truth is I don’t live in the UK.

The bunnies brought me cheer and a mystery.

Who planted the family of wooden bunnies, each painted gray or brown and detailed with artistic designs? Each bunny is a different size and mounted on a dowel to press it into the ground. I simply walked outside one day, and there they were. I posted the discovery on Facebook, certain the artist would claim their handiwork, but so far, no one has.

Some people sow seeds of generosity without an audience. I like the idea that it could be anyone on Roberts Street or beyond. Some artist is chuckling over their drive-by bunnying. It seems that would narrow the list of suspects but almost everyone I know on the Keweenaw Peninsula is artistic. As I clean up my potager, I look forward to creating bunnyscapes. As hard as it is to resist, I’m late with a rake in the spring. I want my bunnies in a pristine setting, but the garden wildlife need warmer weather to emerge from the leaves and winter stalks. Patience is my act of generosity.

Not that I have time to dig the dirt. Two and a half more weeks and I’m done with school. I’ve had classmates tell me that I’m in one of the most dreaded classes of the course. At least I know I’m not the only one struggling to understand it. The other course is a content and copy class and we are studying SEO. Shoot me in the foot. I get what Search Engine Optimization is. I don’t buy into its value or all they hype that it’s something worth mastering. Not to say it isn’t a worthwhile strategy for marketing content. I adhere to other strategies. SEO will never be WOM (Word of Mouth). The latter includes people, the human factor in marketing.

Regardless, one of my favorite professors leads the course. I wish it were a prof I didn’t like and I could feel more justified in my moaning and groaning. I also can tell a difference in my classmates. Many from the earlier part of the program have taken a break or left. It seems COVID has exacted a toll. People are tired, unhappy. More disconnected. One peer has been a shining light, though, and I’ve gravitated toward her generous feedback that has helped me get through these last two classes.

I’m learning to be generous with myself, too. I had wanted to forge ahead with plans after graduation. I tried my best to keep up with business development, coursework, and thesis writing. In the end, my focus narrowed to a laser beam on my novel. After all, it was the primary purpose of my MFA journey. I’ve received a generous amount of feedback from my advisor and began yet another round of revisions last week. To me, it’s exciting. I know to dig into the comments, read the resources she recommends, and roll up my sleeves and do the work. Like my garden emerging ugly, I’ve decided to find the beauty in the mud.

And to wait. I don’t have a deadline on what I plan to do. True, I have a tiny bit of savings, enough to see me through six months after graduation plus a small investment in my business. I want to shout it to the world because I am excited for my vision. But I’m practicing mindfulness and recognizing that my neighbors can’t possibly see the potager as it will be in years to come. All I have is shaping clay and I need to trust the process to make it into the artistic vision I see. I need to be generous and offer myself the gift of time.

According to a newsletter I subscribe to:

“One way to practice generosity is to give energy where it is needed, whether that is in the form of time, money or love.”

Daily Om, Planting the Seeds of Generosity

The gift of time spoke to me. Giving without thought of return is an act of generosity. Someone gave me bunnies, a work of their artistic hands, and my neighborhood is enriched. Every week, writers give me stories, and like a community table, I prepare a spread we can all taste and enjoy. How remarkable generosity is.

There is yet another way to consider generosity. Brené Brown counts it as part of the Braving Inventory from her book and process, Dare to Lead. I post a copy next to my desk, alongside my vision for my writer’s life. You can print off one of your own, scroll down this Workbook page to Downloads where you will find Generosity listed in the Braving Inventory.

“What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”

Brené Brown

Do you feel what she is saying? That we can be generous in our thinking towards others. Instead of generalizing the worst about someone, we can extend them the best intentions. The grace we can give one another to co-exist with diversity of views, expressions, and lived experiences. The love and compassion we can all feel when the table is set generously for everyone, especially those who have experienced oppression and marginalization. The empathy we can extend recognizing individual traumas, healing, and scars. To sit and listen, to hold space for others, to witness — these are acts of generosity.

And they are as uplifting as shared art. In fact, the art you share, the stories you tell, they do make a difference in the world.

April 15, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that seeds generosity. Who is generous and why? Think of generosity as planting a future outcome. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 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.

Shared Between Neighbors by Charli Mills

Mara’s untamed yard tumbled toward Randal’s. He kept his edges squared, lawn clipped, and garden fenced. Dandelion seeds drifted and yellow globes emerged next door in spring. Mara offered to uproot the plants when Randal returned with herbicide. He scoffed. She persisted. He wavered. She mentioned cancer. Mara dug on hands and knees for three days, preserving roots and flowers. Order reigned over Randal’s lawn once again. She bottled the root tincture to control her menopause. In the fall, she gifted her neighbor a jug of sweet dandelion wine with a vintage label that read, From Seeds of Generosity.

🥕🥕🥕

April 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

Undaunted by 131 inches of snow — a light winter — some of the Roberts Street royal family has survived. One towering seven foot stalk of Lemon Queen sunflowers bob their dry crowns in the wind. All winter the nuthatches and chickadees have feed at their multiple heads. Winds and snow drifts snapped all but this remaining royal.

Mause joined me today as we worked on a new command, “Off the garden.” We examined the rise of tulips, hyacinth, iris and glories of the snow. Grit and matted maple leaves cover the ground now that most of the snow has gone. Crocus of purple, yellow, white and lavender began to bloom a week ago. They color a dun landscape. Nothing is yet green

Winter bleached the Lemon Queens the color of pale straw. Yet still they give.

A friendly male chickadee sang what birders call the fee-bee song and I responded, “Here, kitty.” Some say the call sounds like “Hey, sweetie.” I like my version because I find it humorous that a bird would call a cat. Mause stood at attention. After all, she is a bird dog. I was gathering dropped Lemon Queen stalks to check for remaining seed. The chickadee tried to land on my outstretched hand and I felt like a Disney Princess. Mause vibrated in excitement and the bird flew off to Mrs. Hitch’s tree.

What seemed a lovely overcast day on the peninsula was not so on Lake Superior. She fussed enough to froth waves that sent the recently returned lake freighters to seek safe harbor. Cedar Bay, one of my favorite swaths of pebble beach that I can access through friends who own lakefront property, churned sand, and broken ice. Someone filmed the action. You can view a nice spring day on the Keweenaw and imagine the Lemon Queens, chickadees, and a young pup ten miles away.

Further North and across the North Pole from me, my youngest daughter is welcoming spring on Svalbard. March and September are the only two months out of the year that the sun both sets and rises. Otherwise it does one or the other. They are now in the days of sunshine. It’s cold on the island, never rising much above freezing. It doesn’t snow much but the ice and permafrost are thick. Caves of blue ice form tunnels through glaciers. My daughter and a group of friends are snow machining and camping, avoiding avalanches and polar bears. It’s stunning country.

Caves remind me of the hero’s journey. An important stop along the way is the symbolic cave — call it a bad day or the point of no hope. It’s necessary for the hero to fall before the rise with an elixir in hand. As an epic moment, the cave represents a near-death experience. And it is a confrontation of death. Consider the class Star Wars story when Luke Skywalker’s training calls for him to enter the cave and confront the dark side of the force.

He enters the cave and battles his arch enemy, Darth Vader only to discover the his own face within the mask. This scene is not the actual cave moment in the story, though, but a premonition of what will follow. In order to confront his enemy he must confront the darkness within himself. Ultimately, this leads Luke to believe that if there is darkness within him, there must be goodness within Darth Vader. The actual full hero’s journey in the Star Wars sagas belong to Anakin Skywalker. His hero’s wound is that Anakin never had a father. He dies when he turns against the dark side to save Luke — to be the father he never had.

What makes Star Wars so crazy-good to study for the hero’s journey is the fact that as a writer, George Lucas befriended Joseph Campbell who defined the epic structure based on worldwide studies of mythology. Lucas and all the writers and filmmakers he has influenced since the 1970s have followed this pattern. Like the 99-word story format, the hero’s journey is a pattern. At the Star Wars epic level, heroes look like the Skywalker men. At its most simplistic form, the hero’s journey is about transformation and not gender specific.

Many people have dismissed the hero’s journey as a white male construct. While that might be so to a certain point, what excites me about the hero’s journey is how its pattern feels like the struggle to overcome and self-actualize. In fact, people relate to this pattern and flock to stories in the Star Wars universe because it stirs up emotion and inspiration. They want to experience the journey. Many fans have, becoming part of the technology, art, and storytelling of LucasFilms.

The latest is a Disney series called The Mandalorian. Many people involved in the project were kids, just like me, when Star Wars rocked our world in 1977. I was ten and started to write stories. My writer-self has evolved with Star Wars. I still get chills hearing the opening music of what has been renamed A New Hope. Now, I have a new theme that fires my synapses, perfectly pitched between light and darkness with a western influence. The Mandalorian is based on western tropes.

The Hub has watched The Mandalorian with me. It’s hard to find shows that hold his attention. Mostly he watches YouTube interviews of soldiers, which I find interesting to listen to as I write but don’t care to watch for entertainment. He began researching George Lucas and the development of Stars Wars and I followed him down every rabbit hole that had to do with storytelling. To bring it back full circle to my ultimate writing mentor, Wallace Stegner, he said:

“An emotional response in the reader, corresponding to an emotional charge in the writer –some passion or vision of belief–is essential, and it is very difficult to achieve. It is also the thing that, once achieved, unmistakably distinguishes the artist in words from the everyday user of words.”

Wallace Stegner. On Teaching and Writing Fiction. Penguin Books. 2002.

That’s why I love the hero’s journey. As a pattern, it provides a foundation to build upon such an achievement in writing.

Yet, many dismiss or dislike the hero’s journey. First, the word “hero” is problematic. Anne Goodwin and I have had numerous debates over the years which has helped evolve my thinking about the hero’s journey. We both decided we like the term protagonist’s journey better. Anne also brought up that not all protagonists complete the journey. I think it’s still a journey, but one that refused to answer the call, and then became an anti-hero’s journey, resisting the cave. Some dark stories enter the cave and never leave it. I see these as variations. You have to know the structure to build it differently.

Today, we have an opportunity to broaden who we define as a hero. Women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and different ages, sizes, neurodiversity and abilities can be the person on the journey. Anyone can be the hero. I believe in the pattern of the transformative journey, not who the face of the hero is. Yes! Magazine published an article that challenges us to reframe who the heroes are: “The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet.” As writers we are heroes of another sort. Rena Priest, the author of the article, reminds us that:

“The word “author” is from the Latin word auctus, which translates literally to “one who causes to grow.” As storytellers, we plant beliefs that blossom into the structure of the world.”

Rena Priest, The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet. Yes Magazine. 5 November, 2020.

April 8, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that “rethinks the hero.” Define the hero, comparing or contrasting to the classic definition. Break the mold. What happens to the hero in the cave? Is it epic or everyday? Is there resistance or acceptance? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 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.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

A Different Way to Serve by Charli Mills

Her bootlace caught the gunrack no soldier ever used. The force of the blast lifted her body as easily as a child’s balloon rises. Weightlessness defined the pause between rise and fall. When her body crashed, her bootlace held. It ripped every tendon, wringing her ankle. Two years later the VA removed the foot Hunter wanted gone. It flopped and failed, unlike the metal shank they pounded into her bone. Strong. Time to return. She wore no cape, no uniform, but stood to defend an Inuit village. She became the climatologist who sounded the alarm. The ice was melting.

🥕🥕🥕

April 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

And so it has come to pass.

Dry leaves from October broke free of their icy moorings following the equinox. Spring in the northern hemisphere, and autumn in the southern. A point of perfect balance between night and day shared by the world over in successive time. Momentous and yet unique to each one of us. The day Sue Vincent died, I was watching dry leaves twirl in the wind with a puppy named Mause.

We didn’t yet know. Gusts hit our old copper miner’s house and leaves circled upward. Mause propped her small body against the top of the couch with lanky growing legs. She’s still floppy at four months old, yet attentive. She never barked but followed each leaf with wonder and intensity. We went for a walk in the wind and Mause bounded, leaping into the air, catching leaves in her mouth.

Seeing the world through Mause’s eyes can shift me in profound ways. Instead of leaf litter or the dun of winter grit, I see whirling wings and hillocks to climb. Every sight and sound is worth a pause and cock of the head. The world is new and enchanting to a puppy. Dogs mature but stay in that center of mindful wonder. I borrow Mause’s perspective — the path is never the same though we walk it every day.

It’s like the weekly collection. I feel like a pup snapping at leaves. Look at that one — the twist at the end. And this one — rich detail. Stories, characters, settings, tones, humor, darkness, hope. Leaves tumbling in a vortex, the 99-word stories delight each and every outing. We are all human. Yet we each have different lived experiences and rich details to draw from, and imagination to express. Our writing prompts brings us to a shared mindful moment where each voice speaks.

Sue Vincent led an extraordinary life. You can read between the lines and see that she paid attention to people, history, mystery, and literary art. Sue had a rich inner life that could express and draw others in to play with words to share moments and tell stories. Sue had a tenacious sense of humor. Even toward the end of her life she found reason to laugh. It reminded me of the time I shared in my best friend’s passing from this world to the next. We laughed.

It’s human to laugh, to cry, to feel, to think, to imagine what if and why.

As writers, we are the containers of human experience. Like ink pads we soak up stories and control the spill of details from our quills. We think deeply and mine the thoughts for expression. Sometimes we barely think at all and respond like wildfire across the pages. No matter what languages we speak, our mother tongue is storytelling. Our beauty and hope and art form words. So do our shadows.

The craft of writing is one of life-long mastery. Writing forces us to heal and grow. Water can’t remain stagnant when it flows. Rivers well up in us and the process shapes the outpouring. We tumble from dark places, artisan wells and cracks in bedrock, to journey to the sea where other waterways spill. From drops of water comes an ocean.

Writing communities meet and mingle in the great bodies of water. We all flow from source to a common place. Each of us with different perspectives, joining our voices through stories. Sue was the captain across such seas. She knew Albion best and drew writers to her source. She gifted many through the life she led and the stories she wrote. We will miss her and yet her presence is palpable among us, such are the echoes of her writing legacy.

What a gift she gave us all, sharing the intimacy of her end days with us. What a gift the community gave to her, surrounding Sue with stories she inspired. She impacted us. Shared her soul’s song. Like a pup chasing winter-weary debris, she made the best of her life and left a legacy of words.

Though gone from us here and now, she left a guided meditation that feels like the peace, calling us to shed our stress and pain. I hope you find the gift she intended for us all with Swift Passage. Sue Vincent went into spirit on March 29, 2021 while old leaves danced to spring winds.

April 1 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a swift passage. You can take inspiration from any source. Who is going where and why. What makes it swift? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 6, 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.

You Were on My Mind Again by Charli Mills

From Ireland to your deathbed was a span of 150 years. Your culture, after five generations in America, remained Catholic. You didn’t call it your religion or heritage. You spoke of your faith as elemental as DNA, your smile brightening a room with the luminaries of sainthood.

You married him anyway. He was Scots to your Irish, a wounded Vietnam vet. A smile that lit yours. Two daughters later, he left to comfort his National Guard Unit as a lay minister on the battlefield. You lost him. But you never lost heart. Swift passage, my dear friend. Home again.

🥕🥕🥕

March 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

Like a dusting of powdered sugar, the snow returned. It covered the humps of gritty snow and carpeted Roberts Street in white. For hours last night not a single car tread marred the glistening cover. Until midnight, rain and wind lashed the windows. I thought spring had finally arrived. The waterfalls broke through their icy cages along the ridge we call the Keweenaw Peninsula. So ravenous is the water, the falls gobbled the snow and continued to blast toward Lake Superior.

My streets reveal pavement. The sky remains hidden. Whites, blues, morph into grays. I want to burst out of this fog, heavy as any steel bars. Where would I go? How would I go? Ducks never fret. They simply fly.

I saw ducks on my way to get jabbed with the Moderna magic potion. Mallards. They were all drakes with bright green heads to attract female counterparts. By the time snow and ice recede from the marshes and smaller lakes, it’ll be mating season. More ducks will arrive. Canada geese, too. Loons. I won’t expect to see loons until after empty nests. Swimming with loons is kinda my thing.

They swim better. I tumble and bob in the waves, flounder and flit for rocks. My motions don’t add up to swimming. I flail. But I love to flail. Especially when I can watch loons bobbing and ducking across the crests of water. On a flat-water day, they glide powerfully across Lake Superior, staying parallel to the shore. When there’s surf, they often hunt the prisms of waves for churning trout or whitefish. Loons pass and then fly low to repeat the path.

Spring snow makes me long to pick rocks on the beaches. Instead, I clean and sort my house rocks, and remember why each was such a treasured find. I have large hunks of weathered basalt with agates embedded like marbles in cement. I have granite, quartz sandstone, jasper, epidote, pink feldspar, prehnite shaped like a flying fish, and crystalized fossils of coral. Stories frozen and tumbled in time.

Stuck in my spring cage, I write. I’m the time traveler’s wife. My husband recedes back into time. The past has become his here and now. It’s not my present and I yank the bars of this duality. He leaves me for journeys to the past. It’s like he’s examining his life and working backward against the tide of progression. I progress and feel guilty, like I’m directing my boat away from his. We drift. He doesn’t seem to notice. We watch Netflix at night trying to connect. I fix dinner and he chops salads.

The salad thing is a weird neutrality. It takes him thirty minutes to chop and layer two bowls of lettuce, spinach, olives, pickled beets, carrots, fake crab and shredded Parmesan. For a person with zero focus and the impatience of a two-year-old, it fascinates me that he can chop and layer with precision. I understand he can do that with reloading because its muscle memory. But when has he ever built green masterpieces? There are no clues in his past. I enjoy his salad skills, however they came to be.

Mause needs a cage. She’s begun to dismantle my radiator hardware. I think they are flanges that fit around the pipes to block the holes through each floor. She’s figured out how to open the metal pieces and get them away from the pipes. Like the Hub’s salads, I have no idea how it occurred to this puppy to endeavor to release the radiators from their captive cuffs. They clunk as she bats them across the hardwood floors. Steampunk dog toys.

Waiting for the weather to lighten is my least favorite time of year. I’m a grumpy bear coming out of hibernation. When I found out that a clinic two hours away was offering to give Covid vaccines to veterans and their spouses, I was over the moon. But when I realized the press propaganda failed to list the correct phone number, I tore through the Michigan Department of Veteran Affairs like a raging, spring-hungry grizzly.

The first time I called, pressed the listed extension, the person on the other line knew nothing of such a clinic. I read her the post from our local VSO, instructing veterans and caregivers to register. I wanted to sign up. Nope, she said. Wrong number. I tried to contact our VSO. Since Covid, getting a live person over the phone is like trying to call hell. I did an internet search and found countless news releases, congratulating MI for taking care of its vets. They all listed the same number and extension. I called the city where the clinic was to be held and they knew nothing and told me to contact my county. I called the Michigan governmental offices who gave me another number to call who directed me to the Michigan Department of Veteran Affairs. Finally a live person claimed to know about the clinic and happily connected me to registration.

The original wrong-number operator answered. I told her how dehumanizing the whole system is. I have fallen through ever crack to qualify for a jab. Our local CBOC (rural VA clinic) will only jab veterans. I’m the wrong age, unessential, and without healthcare. She tells me her dad was a vet and the place she most hated to go with him was to the VA. She got it. But she didn’t know about the clinic I sought. But she researched and found the registration portal. She said none at her call center had been advised of it and she’d make sure her supervisor knew. That’s what it took to get registered.

To get jabbed required a car rental, puppy sitter and a four-hour drive. Not only was the phone number wrong, so was the address. We spent an hour walking the Northern Michigan University campus, asking at various buildings. No one knew. Finally, a student said the Army was in a building across the street. We found the building, and by the time we were both ready to give up, I spotted desert camo fatigues. Relief rushed through me. I could see the cogs in the wheel.

The Army needs to be in charge of vaccinations. Once we reached the soldiers everything was efficient. Everyone had a role. If someone didn’t have an answer, they directed us to the right person. Everyone was calm. Some were even funny. The Hub slipped back in time, talking about former duties, recalling patches, making the right jokes to the right people. Maybe he’s just a lost cog, my time traveler. He had refused to get jabbed until he saw the sea of uniforms. Then it became his mission. I was twice relieved — we both got our first Moderna shot and go back for our second on April 19.

Some days we want to escape. Be a mallard in a pond, free to fly away. But here we are. This is life and beauty is waiting to be revealed. Don’t give up hope.

The truest, most beautiful life never promises to be an easy one. We need to let go of the lie that it’s supposed to be.

Glennon Doyle

March 25 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write an escape. It can be daring or subtle. Who is escaping from what and why? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by March 30, 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.

Wish to Escape by Charli Mills

Soothing and stirring, a rush of water tumbles over Hungarian Falls, carrying Beryl’s life. Not her body or soul, which remained firmly planted in her boots at the water’s edge. She didn’t scream, gasp or lunge for her cell phone when it slipped from her fingers. My life, she thought. The roar covered the sound of cracking. She imagined the screen with her fingerprints smashed to bits on rocks. Who was she without a phone? The water churned. Her thoughts lifted. Her soul escaped the hold of technology. Had she really tossed it to make a wish? She had.

🥕🥕🥕

March 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

A year later, and I have enough toilet paper. I remember my last night of normal, edgy about an encroaching virus and yet disbelieving a global pandemic would reach the outer rims of civilization. We have the opposite of population density. That didn’t prevent our stores from going dry with the dry goods, namely toilet paper. Who knew around the world we’d sail into the unknown, clinging to hoards of TP?

A year later and my social skills are rusty. The social refrain I don’t want to adult today has morphed into I don’t know how to people anymore. It unsettles me to think that I’ve not had anyone in my house besides my daughter and son-in-law. Except for the two weeks I broke protocol and took in two veterans who would have been homeless. Stranger yet is how quickly they disappeared from my life after they found a place to live.

In 2020, I made two trips both to Wisconsin. My son’s wedding and to pick up a puppy.

There’s something about a one-year mile-marker. You can’t help but stop, turn around, and consider the journey from then until now. A year ago I needed toilet paper. It was a legit item on my grocery list. I’m not one for stocking or buying goods in bulk and often I wait until the last roll until I feel compelled to buy more. We had two partial rolls of TP and laughed at the news reporting a shortage. Not in the UP. We don’t have population density. Yet, here we were in the rural sticks with shelves as empty as an urban center. Eventually, I bought a case of toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap.

That last night of Normal, we celebrated a friend’s birthday. We watched the waves crest over the ice heaves, assured spring would follow the melt. We drank beer in the kitchen past midnight. To be in the house of another! We ate dinner out in a full restaurant. Last night I dreamt I was in a city and I walked from restaurant to restaurant trying to define that sound. What was that sound? Glasses clinked. Forks tapped plates. Chairs scooted across floors. Heels of shoes clacked. Waitstaff asked for orders. Doors opened and shut. That sound murmured beneath it all from place to place.

The sound of voices in crowded places.

Did you ever think you wouldn’t hear that? I’m someone who appreciates the song of a bird, the buzz of a bee. I’m not a crowd-loving person but there it was in my dream — a longing for murmurs.

Spring murmurs differently. Starlings return to the neighborhood. Woodpeckers hit the trees. Snow turns to grit. Dead Lemon Queens crisp from winter hold seeds the nuthatches left. Mause discovers the stalks as the snow piles recede. She prances atop three feet of snow with a foot-long stalk and dried head. She doesn’t miss a stray stick on our evening walks and the snow banks shrink, more sticks emerge. I’m waiting for the crocus and glories of the snow. Some things have not changed.

Will we remember how to people in person? Maybe we will care less about the superficial and more about hugs and deep conversations. Will we get to smile or remained masked? I don’t know the new rules moving forward. I hope we get to keep curbside service. I also long for the time we can crowd a place and share a show or meal.

And so it passes. A year. We did not lose the things we feared. TP remains accessible. But I fear we have lost less tangible things. We have gained, too. We’ve connected more broadly, reached out in unexpected ways. Humanity and toilet paper have survived.

March 18, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that takes place a year later. It can be any year. Explore the past year or another significant passing of time to a character. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by March 23, 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 Year Later by Charli Mills

Hazelnut creamer, your favorite, expired months ago but I couldn’t throw it out. We bought groceries like it was end times. Panicked when the shelves remained bare of pasta and dried beans. Flour disappeared and pictures of “first time” bread-bakers emerged online. We bought sliced rye. At first, I enjoyed the solitude. You loathed it, seeking excuses to venture out. Creamer. Always short on hazelnut creamer, willing to search for it. That’s how you found the last ten-pound bag of Montana Flour. I wept. Not as hard as the day you died. Did Covid take the extroverts like you?

🥕🥕🥕

March 11 Flash Fiction Challenge

Since Mause came to live with us, I keep the Unicorn Room closed. She likes to beleaguer the unicorns. When I open the door, the smell of smoked herbs releases endorphins; my mind readies to meditate. I’ve learned to establish daily rituals around my creativity, writing, and self-care. Ritual can be anything from sitting with a devotional and mug of hot coffee to smudging the four directions to walking with the rising sun. It’s simply any process you repeat to connect inward before going outward into your day. The seasons change our rituals, as do the days of the week.

We writers are multidimensional beings.

The Unicorn Room is sacred space. The kind any seven-year-old girl would love and feel safe. When I was a child and didn’t feel safe, I often hid in closets. Even today, I love to hunker into a down sleeping bag and tuck my head inside. As an adult, I’ve craved my own space which I carved out in strange ways, sharing space with family and critters — my end of the couch next to a bookshelf where I could set a cup of tea and store my writing journals; my side of the bedroom kept neat and tidy with inspirational art; the kitchen where food becomes art and love.

My home on Roberts Street has a room for me. The walls are shell-pink, a lavender shag rug covers the hardwood floor, purple script encourages me to “Read, Dream, Write, Breathe, and Play,” and a bookshelf holds my collection of rocks. One wall is dedicated to planning novels, and tapestries and a unicorn quilt decorate the remainder. I like to smudge, play meditative music, and sit on my purple meditation pillow. I use the Calm app to meditate. From where I sit and breathe, I can contemplate my W-story board with goals and progress and my giant vision board that shows character arc and plot. A single tall window with a gauze turquoise curtain allows light and air. Best of all, I can close the door.

Mause joins me in meditating. Every morning, when I rise I set the kettle to boil. I prepare a cup of hot lemon water with a pinch of chipotle, a dab of honey, and a teaspoon of dried elderberry. It’s my morning anti-Covid cocktail based on an anti-viral health tonic. I have no proof it works, but it cleans my kidneys and offers a dose of immunity support. Not to mention, it’s tasty. At the same time, I brew a press pot of coffee and let it steep while I go to the Unicorn Room with a puppy fast on my heels.

Usually, said puppy barks at me when I smudge. When I last walked with the People of the Heart Water Walkers, we took turns smudging each other. If someone felt frustrated, another would say, “Burn the sage!” The smell reminds me of the West where I rode my horse as a kid. Sagebrush is a part of me. But I’m also aware that the popularity of sage smudging raises ethical issues of use. I only burn that which is gifted to me from those who grow it or traditionally harvest it as medicine. This year I will grow my own smudge sticks from garden herbs. No matter the smoke, Mause barks. She’d be a pain if I chain-smoked!

My latest meditation essentials include a jar of chewy puppy treats, a clicker, a small puppy chew, and a rope carrot. If you want to test your ability to relax under any conditions, meditate with a puppy. With the treats and clicker, I’ve taught Mause, “Downward Dog.” She collapses across my legs or lap. I make her “Wait… wait… wait…,” taking deep breaths each command. Eventually, she settles down and by the time I get to my Daily Calm, she’s either out like a light or out the door.

My writing rituals include clearing my desk, filling my water bottle with cold tap, and looking at my weekly calendar with tasks, goals, and small steps. By the time I turn on my computer, I’m sucked into a vortex like a portal to another world. Mause is my anchor to the real world. Puppies don’t let you venture far without them. But she does like to curl up on my chest — a difficult feat as she now weighs 25 pounds and stretches out three feet — and listen to my heart. In a Covid world, I’m grateful for the warm snuggle.

A friend of mine makes ritual of coffee every morning. Another sits with her prayer list. My next door neighbor used to be a postal carrier, and he follows the ritual of a morning walk. Rituals can form habits. And writers need habits to create, process, draft and revise. It’s too easy to put off writing when our brains feel like pea soup. We cultivate small increments and squirrel away safe spaces so that we can come to it every day. We make it a ritual so we easily fall into the pattern of use.

On my way out of the Unicorn Room this morning, I tinkered with my poetry board, words on magnets. One phrase caught me — “deep wishes.” I an instant I followed a storm of dandelion seeds and swooshed below the earth’s crust in an ore cart to a crystalline cave. I thought I’d see where writers would dive with the phrase.

March 11, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about deep wishes. Where is the deep — in the sky, the ground, or outer space? What kind of wishes reside there for whom and why? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by March 16, 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.

Waiting to Rise by Charli Mills

Lake Superior doesn’t freeze flat like a pond. She’s a non-conformist to the ways of domesticated bodies of water. Into the night, she goes screaming, waves punching with each yell. She thrashes, her hips undulating with deep wishes unfulfilled. When they force her into cold compliance, she fights back. The shock of winter marriage doesn’t smooth her wild edges. Ice grabs hold, insistent, freezing her shoreline, paralyzing her economy. She plunges deep and draws her strength, cracking the façade they give her. Ice fractures over and over. Wishes caught and released, shared among women waiting their turn to rise.

🥕🥕🥕

March 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

Sweet potatoes arrived in the mail this morning. Two packages of dehydrated fries for Mause, my three-month-old German Short-haired Pointer. It takes her ten minutes to eat one and she gets two a day. This buys me twenty minutes of time. Such is life with an energetic puppy.

The Hub fancies he’ll train her for quail hunting and who am I — an artist of stories who fancies she’ll publish novels — to say how unlikely that is. It’s not because we have no quail in Upper Michigan. He can travel to his family’s ranches in Nevada. He struggles to train her at all. His brain trauma has robbed him of patience and reasoning. Not that a former Airborne Ranger was ever the patient sort, but it’s become comical how I have to clicker train him to clicker train his dog. Of the three of us, the GSP remains the most competent.

We are all allowed our dreams. I’ll kick anyone in the shins who dampens the dreams of another, especially the dreams of the vulnerable. I’m not a violent person but I feel locked in a strange battle where I have to fight the VA system to get the healthcare my warrior needs and I have to fight my warrior to get the healthcare he needs and I have to fight myself to carry on because none of this is normal. But maybe the concept of normal is derived from the same fluff of dreams and cotton candy. Sweet on the tongue but ephemeral. Not real.

I write fiction. I craft stories that are not real. It’s called verisimilitude — the appearance of being real or true.

My life feels not real at times. Like when he badgers me to go outside in the snow at 11 pm because Mars is visible in the sky. He’s obsessed with Mars and can point out all the planetary alignments. That part feels authentic. But when I try to capture a real moment, try to connect, try to remember who he used to be, a car turns down Roberts Street and I remind him to step out of the road with the puppy and he rages at the car for driving fast and reckless. They are not. But I can’t say so.

He continues like nothing abnormal happened and points to Taurus’s eye — “That’s your sign,” he tells me. It is not. A knee-jerk reflex and I protest, forgetting my place of accepting what is not real. “I’m a Gemini,” I say. “No you’re not,” and he continues telling me about the night sky. Sometimes I laugh. But sometimes I cry. He’s my husband and does not know me.

I’ve become the villain in his mind, the person who has trapped him in this God-awful snowy prison. He slips on the ice, walking the dog and it’s as if I’ve deliberately swung a sledgehammer to bash both knees. It takes a week before his counselor can convince him to go see his primary care physician, and it’ll take me days to help him remember he agreed to do it. I’m not too concerned. He’s not limping. Just grumbling. He needs a bad story to chew on and anything that makes me the bad guy is his favorite fairytale.

Remember, it not real, it’s the verisimilitude of an altered mind.

So, here I am, writing fiction about a veteran spouse. She is not me. I couldn’t bear to give her my burden. Instead, I wanted to explore how long-haul veteran spouses come to carry the weight of wounded warriors. I wanted to give a definition of the invisibility of veteran spouses. We are real and so are our loyalty and our brokenness. We get crushed beneath the packs of what they bring home from combat training and war zones.

Forget eggshells. Some of us walk on broken glass.

I wanted to write a beautiful novel. An uplifting story. One that faces death, dismemberment, and dementia. One that shows the struggle to understand what PTSD is and how many soldiers overcome it.

My husband did. He used his combat dive training to manage night terrors. He remained, and remains, fearless. He knew something was wrong with his thinking years ago and back then, he trusted me to find out why. We were still a team. I have much admiration and respect for him in confronting the debilitation of multiple conditions. At what point do I say enough? He doesn’t get to. Why should I?

And so I stand before you a Taurus prison guard (aka a Gemini veteran spouse) and I think of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes fries (not the dehydrated ones for puppies to gnaw). Twice-baked sweet potatoes. Roasted sweet potatoes. Sweet potato pie. From savory to sweet, these tubers can become many things. Sort of like veteran spouses.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Myrtle’s Basket by Charli Mills

Myrtle dug the tubers. Her spade cut the loam, missing the sweet potatoes with garnet skins. She shook them free of California soil, cut their vines, and placed each in a basket her mother wove of old clothes. Myrtle fingered a faded blue cloth, remembering the dress her sister used to wear when she gardened. Before the Spanish Flu robbed them of Althea and Papa. Dirt was harder back then. The graves difficult to hack into the drought-toughen soil. That was the only year they didn’t grow sweet potatoes. Myrtle carried fresh tubers and old memories to her kitchen.

🥕🥕🥕

February 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

I feel like I’ve belly-crawled out of the frozen tundra, my jeans and flannel shirt shredded, my fingers stiff and calloused. Grilled cheese sandwiches and Girl Scout Cookies have sustained me. I left for the wilderness beyond the lights of friendly campfires and the warmth of humanity. I’ve been away on a long journey, herding 71,625 words into a publishable novel. I’ve had to ride alone.

Todavía estoy aquí. I am still here.

It began in seventh grade when Mr. Price encouraged me to write longer spelling stories, inviting me to read them weekly to my classmates. He gave me a purpose, a way to process the wealth of stories that filtered through my soul. He gave me connection, the opportunity to step out of my shyness. He gave me a glimpse of what it means to write for an audience.

Fast-forward through a life dancing with a love of writing. An undergrad degree in 1998. A dream to finish a novel started as an independent project. Twenty years waiting, waffling, denying until the decision to pursue an MFA. A career behind me. A career before me. Sinking into the minutiae of writing a novel that’s been a haggard WIP since conception in 2008 when I grieved a dog, before I lost my home, before his dementia, when I could still connect the dots to retirement when I would write novels.

Displacement. Homelessness. Cognitive malfunction. It may as well be mine the way it colors everything in my life. Even in the wilderness I have to answer its call, be the reminder, be the constant. I wanted a full hermitage but it’s not possible. I weep for what I have and I weep for what I’ve lost, and still I plow through, refusing to let circumstances freeze my dreams to ice.

I could have chosen an easier task. But Mr. Price lit the fires I had built. How can I be anybody else but me?

That’s the thing about writing. It is a Process. Capital P. No skimming the surface. And when you think you’ve plunged the depths of humanity, you have to go deeper within yourself. The minutiae. Always the details. In the details we are unique. We all have mothers and fathers. We all breathe. We all drink water and sleep. We have interests and dislikes. Oh, but the details, the perspectives, the actions, the words and the stories. So much color and diversity.

We process all those details when we write. We are filters as writers. Miners.

Let me explain Process as I’ve come to know it. It comes under different headings. There is Creative Process — the way we catch and express literary art (for words are our medium). There are Mental and Emotional Processes — how we use thoughts and feelings in our art. There’s Structural Process — the forms we give our writing (99-words stories or 28 chapter novels). There’s Craft Process — the elements we use to express literary art. There’s a Drafting Process (pants or no pants), a Revision Process, an Editing Process and each can be separated into layers that must come before others (you don’t proof words you will cut in revision, therefore you revise before you proof). There’s Personal Process — how we discover ourselves in the world through writing.

It’s no joke that writing a novel can be compared to brain surgery or rocket science. You can draft a novel-length work in a relatively short time. How long it takes you is relative to how much Processing you are willing to do. The more Processing, the deeper the work. Notice I did not say “better.” That’s a false comparison. Writing is not a competition, unless, well, you enter one. Then you must heed the Processes asked of you as an entrant.

My MFA Program at SNHU began Process on day one. It will continue until May 1. At least for me. It has challenged me to dig deep into all the Processes. I discovered weakness in my strengths, strengths in my weaknesses. I formalized Processes to be able to repeat them and write more novels. I blew my own mind with discoveries. For example — writing elements. Did you know you can apply them differently in different processes? “Show Don’t Tell” needs to be “Show or Tell But Know The Difference.” You can apply the Show/Tell element differently at the Structural Process, differently at Drafting Process, differently at the syntax level of the Revision Process.

I went into the frozen wilderness to sort it out into what they call our thesis — a publishable novel. That means we have to tick the boxes for industry standards. As of 5 am this morning (or “last night” to my perspective) I completed my novel according to industry standards. I fell behind my schedule. I worked earnestly at my thesis, not even taking a break. In September, I knew I would not make the deadline AND tick all the boxes. I chose to write to standards.

Early in January, I freaked out because I couldn’t execute the revision process to standard. It wasn’t until I realized the separation and integration of the Processes that I began to make sense of it all. I have, since seventh-grade, struggled most with the syntax level of literary art. I broke free. Free at last! When I saw how elements work different at each Process level, I began to understand how to use them

As of this afternoon, 18 days late, I officially had my thesis approved. My knees are wiggly, my head dizzy, and I’m tired of grilled cheese sandwiches. I looked yo from my crawling out of the wilderness to see an oasis. All of you at Carrot Ranch.

D. Avery, Kid, Pal, and Friends have managed the reins in my absence. H.R.R. Gorman has united us all in surrounding and celebrating a fellow among us. Hugh Roberts plunged into his column, as did Colleen Chesebro with a new poetry feature at the Saddle Up Saloon. This is an amazing community of people who happen to read, write and make literary art. You are water to my parched throat.

It is good to be back!

NOTE: This weeks photo is courtesy of 47th North Belly Dance on a frozen Lake Superior off the Keweenaw Peninsula 2021.

February 25 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the word frozen. It can be descriptive, character focused, action driven. Go out onto the ice and find a frozen story. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by March 2, 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.

I’m going to do something different just for this week. I’m going to share a 500-word excerpt from Miracle of Ducks. It’s a nod to what I’ve been working on in my absence and I wanted to share a small bite:

SNEAK PEAK: MOD by Charli Mills

Campbell left after he instructed Danni to retrieve their archaeological field camp beyond the safe zone the next morning. They expected the fire to move west. Despite borate bombers, the Cary Canyon Fire mushroomed.
Her cell phone buzzed, and she recognized the earlier unknown caller. “Hello, this is Dr. Danni Gordon.”
“Dr. Gordon, this is Sheila McLeod, public liaison for SandStorm Security.”
“Yes? Is this about my husband, Ike? He’s coming home.”
“There was an incident. In Iraq.”
Danni’s body tingled. The radio report. “I heard three servicemen were killed.”
“Yes, Ma’am. US Army. A joint operation with SandStorm. Your husband remains unaccountable. We’ve monitored communications. No ransoms, no forced statements, no recent… beheadings. His body has not turned up. We’ve listed him presumed dead.”
Danni sank to her knees. “Presumed?”
“We’ll follow protocol. If we have news, we’ll call.”
How long she sat on her knees, she didn’t know. Her deadened legs stumbled to rise. She staggered to the arena and horse stalls. Several Apache Hot Shots leaned on the fence. Their yellow fire retardant shirts clean. They hadn’t gone to the line. Everyone waited for the fire to explode.
“Yá’át’ééh,” one woman said.
Robotic, Danni returned the familiar greeting from undergrad summers among the Dine. Not Apache, she thought. “Yá’át’ééh.”
The group laughed. “So. The bilagaana speaks Navajo.”
Danni needed Blackjack. She ignored the women idled at his stall and climbed the fence.
Another said, “Hey. That horse is blind.”
Blackjack nickered and Danni opened his stall to the arena. Without tack, she guided him to the fence with sounds and firm touches. Using the wooden slats, she mounted her horse. He pranced.
Soft clods cushioned his steps. Freshly turned earth smelled like a womb. No gopher holes, rocks or blow downs impeded his stride. She wrapped her hands in his mane, guided his direction with her knees, and let Blackjack fly. The black and white pinto swooped, a magpie on hooves. Winter races with Ginnie and Cricket had restored his confidence. Throughout summer, Danni coached Ginnie to maneuver a cutting horse, and Ginnie taught Danni to barrel race a blind gelding. Two women waiting for husbands to return from a war zone. Blackjack knew the drill. Danni galloped and released her soul from the confines of panic. She fled beyond thoughts and emotions. Only her and a horse and the thunder of earth beneath them. They rode as one in figure eights. They spun. He reared, and they danced. Numb, she loped to the stall, startled to see a crowd of fire fighters gathered. She heard someone ask, “Who is that?”
The District Supervisor said, “She’s our archaeologist.”
“Dang,” one of the Apache Hotshots said, “That bone digger can ride.”
People chattered about the horse, the moves, the rider. A distraction from the grueling battle against flames. Danni rubbed Blackjack, checked his hooves.
Freya pushed through the gathering and scrambled over the fence. She said, “Rangers’ wives never quit.” Freya had heard the news.