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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.

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.

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.

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.

🥕🥕🥕

July 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

I was not the local celebrity riding the circuit on a tour bus. The twenty Vietnam vets and four of their wives were. Of course, we all thought the big star of the day’s road trip was the 90-year-old Korean veteran with his son along for escort. Our trip leader and bus driver represented the post 9/11 era and I was odd duck in between the Gulf War and Vietnam. A wife, not a soldier.

If ever I think I can’t do this, I look at the women before me. I call the Vietnam-era wives the long-haulers. They’ve been through stuff that would make Rambo quake in his combat boots. Every last one of them deserves a medal of honor. Even the ones who tap out.

But I’m not writing woes today.

Our trip to White Pine was about healing and respect with dignity. We all boarded the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center tour bus in Houghton and drove to White Pine 90 minutes away. The Vet Center in Houghton is across the lift bridge from where I live in Hancock. A ten minute drive from my home on Roberts Street.

White Pine, like most towns on the map in “copper country,” is a former company town built around a mine, one of the last to operate in our area. The place looks like something out of a dystopian novel after post-industrial decline, and yet, it is where we went. In a former mine administrative building or warehouse or large equipment depot, is an unlikely operation. Three men create and maintain replicas of the Vietnam Memorial known as The Wall. In an obscure corner of Upper Michigan, a region often left off of contemporary maps or mislabeled as Canada, a small organization houses The Moving Wall and its collected memorabilia.

Considering that the half-sized replica has toured all fifty states since before I graduated high school, I was surprised to find out how close such a solemn piece of history and healing is to my home. When our Vet Center arranged the tour, I signed on to go. When I lost Vet Center services, I asked to be included nonetheless. Then my services were reinstated. Point is, bears couldn’t keep me away.

And we did see a huge black bear but that was at lunch after our tour.

Most of my favorite Vietnam vets came for the ride. They came to seek what only each of them sought privately. They came out of curiosity. They came to support one another. The wives came to understand. They have carried a massive burden for forty-something years or more and they wanted to glimpse who they were in all of this. Dignity. Yes, we could agree that no matter the pain and folly, we all wanted to feel a sense of human dignity faced with participation in a great indignity that still reverberates throughout the world.

Vietnam vets rebelled. Vilified, gaslighted, and discarded, these soldiers started motorcycle gangs, turned to addictions, and demanded recognition for PTSD and moral injury. It’s hard to reconcile the men with canes, limps, and walkers disembarking our bus to the bad boys of their younger years. Yet, inside the warehouse of The Moving Wall, posters, photos, and bumper stickers on the wall capture the essence of their experiences. I watched as our group sucked breath at the enlarged photos that took them back to the place they try to forget.

Home changed while you were away.

The industry of the place didn’t keep them in dark thoughts, though. They expressed curiosity for the home-grown process to recreate plates of names through screen-printing and endless rubbing with a wet chemical compound. I hung out with one of my Ojibwe writers, and our most recent widower. I listened. We swapped jokes. I chose to ignore the sexist pin-ups. They pointed to familiar objects, told me childhood stories, but none spoke of Vietnam. All watched as the process enfolded.

That’s when I spotted an old photo that looked familiar.

A group of soldiers in uniform posed for a photo. When you know combat soldiers, you understand the body language. This is not a before ‘Nam photo. It oozes attitude and hides pain. You can tell it’s post-service. Behind the men, peeking over a shoulder and resting her hand as if to comfort and protect, is a woman who could have been my best friend. Kate wore her hair like that in the mid-seventies. Not only was she support for her Vietnam veteran, but she supported his friends, too. It wasn’t her, but it could have been any of my Vietnam-era Warrior Sisters.

It’s a rare photo that catches an invisible role. I’m captivated. It could be me. It is every veteran spouse.

We are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

I move on and catch one of my Warrior Sisters drawn to the photo. She stands before it a long time. I watch the screen-printing and glance back to my friend. Finally, she raises her phone. She snaps a shot of the same photo I saved, too. I catch up with her in the “saloon” to sign the guest book. It’s set up like an in-country bar with posters, jukebox, and memorabilia. She startles and says, “This is back in time. I wonder if the jukebox works.”

Next, my writer friend walks in and startles. “They got the lights right,” he says. I look up and notice the lights are covered with a fabric I don’t recognize.

Another Warrior Sister walks in and says, “Oh, my.”

I sit with them. Then I startle. I spot a poster for a rodeo where four generations of my family rode, including me. Although I didn’t ride bulls like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did in Salinas. I also see a burlap sack with a bull head and the message, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” No kidding, that is the first piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me when I was but a teen, writing for the local newspaper. We left the time capsule, comforted to find the sun shining, the year 2021.

Goats might have been licked here.

We lingered only because it’s slow, boarding a bus with bad knees, back surgeries, and bullet holes. Our rucksacks shared. We share the pain. We share the jokes. We share touches and hugs from behind. We head to lunch and break bread while the biggest black bear we’ve ever seen munches outside (they feed bears at the Konteka). We ask the waitress if the bowling alley is open. She explains the difficulties of COVID rules, like having to wipe down the balls afterward. <Insert Warrior Sister dirty joke here.> We howl with laughter, making the men blush (that’s how we get back at ’em for the pin-ups).

The bus ride home feels too short. Our spirits are high, our bellies full, and we are all connected, everyone of us in this small group on a VA bus. I share my search for a Finnish Tree Wizard. I get ideas where to find one. The 90-year-old roles his eyes. He’s a Finn. We hug and laugh at the Vet Center parking lot. One of the vets shares eggs with us “gals.” They’re from his pet chickens. He won’t accept money for them. I make a mental note to send him some books I think he’d like to read.

We slip into obscurity, no longer on the celeb VA bus. Until we share the next bear sighting.

Not a place to eat outside. You’d lose a hamburger.

July 1, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about “the old photograph.” What is captivating about it? Where did it come from? How does it incite a story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by July 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.

The Old Photograph by Charli Mills

She found him in the 1979 yearbook. The bottom row. The old photo wasn’t vintage. Some would argue it was modern. He played football. Four years. He sat shirtless, his blonde hair long, wavy. The football team had fathers who’d served in Korea, grandfathers in WWII. A few had older brothers, younger uncles, or cousins who’d served in ‘Nam. The ones no one spoke of, or to. The dispersed ones. She thought the photograph ancient because he looked so young. So guiltless. So pre-Grenada. Head hits, concussive blasts, and one knee-shattering jump. He never wore his hair long again.

🥕🥕🥕

October 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

An early memory is getting a pair of little white kid gloves to wear at San Benito County Rodeo. Maybe they were cotton. But in my memory, they linger as fine kid leather. Not from the hide of Kid or a young person, but from the hide of a young goat. Why were goats involved in buckaroo culture? I have no idea. I tackled them, hog-tied them, licked them (unintentionally, I swear), and apparently, I wore their hide on my hands. Well, we could pick that apart as perhaps an unusual childhood. But authentically buckaroo.

California is a region of assimilation. I can only imagine what a place it must have been under the stewardship of the many and varied tribes that lived there for thousands of years before the rest of the world finding out about gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Did you know that Indigenous people practiced fire management in California? I like to think of buckaroo traditions stemming from the rancho culture that arrived with the missionaries and their Spanish horses and cattle. People whose ancestors managed mountains and forests and coasts took to horses with a special kind of wisdom.

They say buckaroos evolved out of the vaquero culture, but they fail to say how much earlier influence came from the original Native Californians. With the Gold Rush, people from around the world flooded into California. Among them, two sets of Basque 3rd-great grandparents. They ranched a small place near Paicines and later ran the hotel in Tres Pinos. Through marriages and descendants, I can claim Basque, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Brazilian, Flemish, and Dane. Talk about the Californian melting pot. Each one of those heritages came under the direct influence of the vaqueros.

And I had the kid gloves to prove it. Well, maybe not the gloves, but the early gear we used spoke of our heritage. My grandfather was a rawhider, and I learned the basics. I know how to make rawhide, string it, and braid it. We carried riatas (braided ropes) and rode with bosals to keep a horse from tossing its head. We had hefty horns on our beautifully tooled saddles because we roped cattle in a certain style. My grandfather was a figure-eight roping champion at this same rodeo grounds where I once won my own championship (okay, it was just a goat, but I won a trophy). This video gives you a glimpse of the style of roping and the land where I was born as a fifth-generation Californian

If you want to read an insightful essay about the buckaroo culture I come from, the Library of Congress recorded a bit of it here.

Our own Flash Fiction Rodeo is unfolding with a new event every Tuesday. Kerry E.B. Black is currently hosting Fables and Tall Tales. Colleen Chesebro is up next, and her contest is the equivalent of the figure-eight loop to syllabic poets. Kid and Pal hit the Dusty Trail last week, and I took over the Saddle Up Saloon to host TUFF, a progressive flash fiction contest. Part Two posts early Monday morning and offers the first twist to the sequence of word count reductions.

I’m going to do my best to keep up with all of you taking the weekly challenges, but I may be eyebrows deep in my thesis. The complete first draft is due by the end of the month, and then I’ll be using NaNoWriMo to revise it. That might sound like crazy-talk, but I do have a strategy in mind! My first draft is a mess. I want to use November to make it more cohesive and streamlined so that when I go into thesis revisions with my professor and peers, I have a better working manuscript. On a side note — Danni is the daughter of a Basque buckaroo from Nevada. Her life was much different from my own, but I wanted to use a culture I’m familiar with, and when writing about the West, I reached into my own back pocket. With kid gloves, of course.

October 8, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes kid gloves. A prop in the hands of a character should further the story. Why the gloves? Who is that in the photo, and did he steal Kids’ gloves (of the Kid and Pal duo)? Consider different uses of the phrase, too. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by October 6, 2020. 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 are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Dressed and Ready by Charli Mills

Annabelle’s mother braided her hair so tight her eyes tugged at the corners. “Ma,” she wailed, “I won’t be able to see.”

“Get hair in your eyes, young lady, and you won’t see to throw your loop.” Ma was all business about rodeo events.

Already Annabelle had on her boots, jeans, frilled shirt, turquoise vest, and a hot-pink scarf with a concho slide. Ma zipped up the back leg on each side of her navy blue shotgun chaps and tightened the belt. Her brand-new kid gloves would protect her hands.

All this for a chance to rope a calf.

September 24: Flash Fiction Challenge

I’m in need of a munchy snack, so I stop at the Keweenaw Co-op. The drill is familiar — mask up in the car, cross the street, enter with an eye for proximity to others, wash hands, and shop the one-way aisles. I notice a woman fussing with her mask and she breezes past the sink without stopping. I stop and wash. She blows past me again, searching for some elusive item. An employee calls her attention and reminds her to wash her hands. A year ago, I would not have guessed that businesses would be policing hand-washing as if society had reverted back to kindergarten. But here we are and I want chips.

To access the chip aisle I have to go down one of two other aisles and back up the middle to find the Kettles. The Ranch-style stands out. Not only is it “ranch” but the bag is also turquoise. I accept the signs that this is my bag of chips. Next, I grab a fresh pear and cheese curds imported from Wisconsin. These days, that state is the wild west, complete with shootings in the street. My son and DIL live there and they assure me it’s tame where they are at.

Winter is coming and I’m about to be cloistered again.

Tossing my snacks into my backpack, I head to McLains. It’s McLain State Park, but locals call it McLains. I’m local, not sure I’m a local of anywhere, but like COVID, here I am. As a student, I have 2,666 words to write today so I take a seat on a metal picnic table at the edge of Lake Superior. It’s colder than in town 10 miles away on the Portage Canal that opens up past the breaker walls to my left. Birch, maple, and pines surround me, randomly dumping needles or leaves, reminding me why we call this season fall. I like to think that every time a maple drops a red leaf, somewhere in the southern hemisphere a blossom opens.

Chips are a snack for the anxious. Or so I read. Snacks that crunch are associated with stress-eating. I don’t feel stressed. Quite the opposite. My reward was to finish what needed doing with the wi-fi access so I could go out to the lake and write, away from digital and home distractions. I’m surrounded by trees and water. Fog is rolling in like mystical mists, and plovers are circling inches above the sloshing waves, piping as they fly. I think they could be snacking, too. Chips sounded good for the crunch but I think its excitement more than stress. I love the chance to office outside, to entwine nature’s outward beauty to my inner imaginings.

Turns out my pear is crunchy, too. Sweet as late summer, though. Pear and apple season is here. The fruit trees come to life on the Keweenaw with more varieties than a single store sells. My eldest and her husband have apple trees all over their 19-acre homestead, left-over from mining families. They harvested their squash — butternut and pumpkins. Mine is yet on the vine — two white mashed potato squash and a single butternut sheltered beneath a show of flashy cosmos. Further up the ridge, they’ve had numerous hard frosts. The temperature warmed but the fog I see indicates a clash with cold air.

Soon I’m past the chips and into the curds. My story is unfolding, solving a riddle of its own making. Despite the plotting and mapping, drafting still reveals surprises. I’m pulled into the flow and aware that it’s getting colder, windier, and that the waves are slapping instead of sloshing. The plovers are gone. It’s just me and the story. I’m cold, but keep writing until I get to the end. I’ve written over 3,000 words and now I realize it’s dark and I’m startled. The waves are crashing. Hastily, I gather my snacking remnants and computer, sling the bag on my back, and follow the path.

Though it’s dark, I can tell path from woods. My eyes adjust and I find my way. At the parking lot, I see only my car and it’s an eerie feeling to think I was so far into my story that the park closed without my knowing. I’m surprised a state park ranger didn’t boot me out of the day-use area. I’m glad for it, too or else I might not have made my discovery. Maybe it was the chips.

Before I go, I want to tell you that the Rodeo is coming. It’s a grouping of writing contests held throughout October with each one created and led by a different writer at the ranch. Our Rodeo Leaders this year are Colleen Chesebro, Sam “Goldie” Kirk, Kerry E.B. Black, and Marsha Ingrao. They have exciting plans to challenge writers. The Rodeo is a chance to do something different with the 99-word format and to stretch craft skills. I’ll also be hosting a four-part contest at the Saddle Up Saloon throughout October called TUFF. Next Thursday, we’ll release more details and kick off the season.

Kid and Pal plan to interview me at the Saddle Up Saloon next Monday (I hope they have hard cider on tap). Bill Engleson will post a Film Noir column on Tuesday, and after that our Carrot Ranch Columnists will take a rodeo break through November. Contests will launch every Tuesday in October, and we’ll announce winners week by week every Tuesday in November. TUFF will take place on Mondays in October and the winner announced November 30. I’d like to thank our columnists for the excellent posts they have shared here every Tuesday, offering a variety of topics. We will resume columns in December. Kid and Pal will be back to entertain and gather us in November. D. Avery has created a fun outlet for characters and writers alike. There’s nothing quite like her Ranch Yarns. I’m grateful to D., Bill, Anne, H., Ann, Sue, Norah, Sherri, and Ruchira for sharing their fine writing with all of us.

The Ranch is meant to be a community. A place where writers can gather and throw loops without any judgment on what kind of horse you ride. All genres, styles, experiences, and writers are welcome to craft a 99-word story each week. For me, its become literary anthropology. Our collections arrange different perspectives on a single topic to gather different voices for a collaborative expression. Every week, the collection surprises me and I realize creativity has no limits. That encourages me and I hope it encourages you, too. I want literary art to be something accessible so that we can read and write and discuss creative expression outside of formal settings and closed circles.

Writers who join in at Carrot Ranch are not under any obligations. You don’t have to show up weekly, although I enjoy the return visits and the consistency of a core group. If you blog, you can share links or pingbacks. If you just want to write for the collection you need only to submit through the form. You are welcome to read at your pleasure. We delight when you read and comment on the collection. But I am going to ask a favor of all of you in the community.

I’d like to create more inter-community engagement this Rodeo season. I’ve decided to keep the challenges and collections going weekly as I’ve noticed that many who enjoy the weekly challenges do not participate in the Rodeo. I will try both simultaneously. October is also going to be a tough month for me, keeping up with my thesis requirements. I will read everyone’s submission as I collect and arrange them, but I may fall behind on keeping up with comments. Would each of you who submit a story be willing to engage three other writers? Mostly, I don’t want anyone overlooked in the challenges, especially new writers. If some of our leaders — or lariats — would be willing to scan the comments for any missed writers, that would ease my mind, too. Thank you for being in community with me and making literary art a part of your life!

September 24, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about snacking. It can feature crunchy snacks or creamy one. Who is snacking on what and why? How can you make this a story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 29, 2020. 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 are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Busted at Midnight by Charli mills

The crumple of a candy-bar wrapper woke the house. The cat stretched and hopped over to the couch. The dog laid her head on the armrest, silently begging. Martha heard Steve plod down the hall. She quickly shoved the wrapper with the rest down the side of the couch cushions, picking up her geology textbook and hot pink highlighter.

“Still up?” he asked, stifling a yawn.

“Mmm,” she replied, reading tectonics.

The twins and their older sister ran past Steve. Clara, hands on her hips, asked, “Mama, did you get into our Halloween buckets again?”

Martha sighed and swallowed.

September 17: Flash Fiction Challenge

Ranch radio interrupted its regular programming schedule to deal with mice. First, it was the stripey mouse (aka The Camp Chipmunk), and then the mice squatting in my tea cupboard. Please accept my squealing apology for the lateness of the collection. I’ll offer you a story of mice.

Really, I should have gone camping over break, not the first two days of school. I even had two weeks, which I can hardly believe was that long. How did those days get compressed and shifted so quickly? My calendar bears the marks of numerous scribbles where camping had to be delayed for weather or other pressing issues. I covered my squash and tomatoes, winning an extension for my garden. At last clear blue skies, extra courgettes, and a date emerged.

I reasoned that I could “catch up” at school, and earnestly completed all my tasks from the last term and worked on my thesis plot, planning when I’d schedule my next submissions with my prof. Typically the first week back is a light load. I researched the properties belonging to Northwoods Nature Conservancy and made a date with my COVID buddy (we do outdoor activities together). Sunday night, I even set up my weekly schedule and planned my posts, of which this is not the one I planned. That’s when I realized I double-booked camping with 5 at the Mic.

As I stared at my calendar, I couldn’t understand how this was already the third Tuesday in September. Next, I realized I had a Zoom meeting with my spectacular Rodeo Leaders and that I was the one who asked to move it from Thursday to Tuesday! Groaning, I decided to delay 5 at the Mic and cancel Tuesday night by the Lake but stay as long as I could. Which I did, arriving home seven minutes late only to realize one leader forgot, two thought it was Wednesday, and the fourth had waited 15 minutes for me to show up, leaving as I got on. (I still think they are spectacular and patient with my scattered brain). We all connected off-Zoom and agreed to meet next week. Wait until they reveal their contests! You are all in for a wild ride in October with five contests.

And the mice? Well, first, it was the Northwoods mouse. He was stripey and adorable. As I set up my kitchen camp, he grew excited and galloped over everything I set out from tablecloth to bottle of garden flowers, hopping into my washtubs. I’m careful not to leave out food, so he was soon disappointed. He tried to get into our tents, urging me to be diligent about zipping. Later he ran over my camp buddy’s foot. This was a mouse underfoot! Ah…but we built a rock campfire ring and lit a beach fire right on Lake Superior. It was glorious. The stars hid behind high clouds, and the sun dipped into the smoky haze of the west, turning red. That night I slept with the mouse nearby as waves lulled us all to sleep.

The next day I had coffee, sitting at the shore in agate cobbles. I found ten while tending to my caffeine. The wind shifted, and soon, the waves rose, eventually cresting the high watermark on the beach. I watched rock pickers comb, and soon my camp mouse returned, this time begging. He’d stand on his hind legs, clasp his tiny front paws, and quiver. I told him it was not good that he knew to beg. I didn’t think pistachios, tangerines, or chocolate courgette cake were part of a natural way of eating for woodland critters so wee. It didn’t stop him from bravely checking out my empty bowl. What a sight — a mouse in a bowl!

That should have prepared me for later events in the week.

Back home, I washed, laundered, and repacked my camp gear. I was so tired from my refreshment, I went to bed early, thinking I was ready to hit the books Wednesday morning. Instead, I took care of other business with the Hub. Then I called the Northwoods Nature Conservancy to clarify which sites were “designated” where we camped. The No Camping signs confused us. The mouse didn’t explain. We scanned the website, and under rules for this property, it said camping only in designated sites. We did our best to comply. Again, no complaint from Stripey. A county worker pulled in early, and I was in my jammies and slippers, all bed-headed and sleepy-eyed, smiling and drinking coffee. I said, “Hi,” and he said, “Hi,” and I figured we were in the right spot.

Turns out, No Camping means No Camping. I’m a recent member of the Conservancy and called tp clarify for next time and was embarrassed to admit I camped with the Northwoods mouse (no wonder he was excited — finally — people food). Turns out, they have not been the Northwoods Nature Conservancy for two years. I had carried their brochure for three years until I finally joined, paying monthly to help with their mortgages on these natural places meant for the public and protection from development. We sleuthed the situation and discovered that their old website was still live. They have changed their name to Keweenaw Natural Areas. And there’s no camping at Gratiot River Beach.

But it was one of those serendipitous moments. I have found a place for a rustic Writer in Residence and with my monthly donation, I can reserve the Conglomerate Falls Cabin for a week. I will certainly make this an annual retreat and open it to others once we get to do such things again. It’s a way-off thing, but it is what I’ve wanted to find in our area! Does it have mice? Likely. Mice are natural. This would be in addition to Vermont. And an exchange of residencies with the Vermont Folks. Kid and Pal, Frankie, Stinky, and all.

Once my excited brain subsided, I focused on downloading my coursework. To my horror, I realized this was no typical MOD One. Instead of the light week I anticipated, I had three assignments due Thursday. Here’s the thing with the first week. If a student is late the first week, they are administratively dropped from the course. That’s why instructors go easy and send lots of reminders. With my heart pounding, I raced over to my Thesis II cohort, knowing I had to submit my schedule, and I didn’t want to forget while panicking over three assignments due in 24 hours. To my dismay, I was one of only two grad students who hadn’t yet submitted, and both my preferred slots were taken. I had to choose one of the two left, and both will make my next two weeks nearly impossible. I’m going to have my own two-week mini-NaNoWriMo.

Working into the night, I went to bed before 4 a.m. with two assignments completed and edited. The third, I saved to finish in the morning. I had also promised the Hub that I’d help him move our RV and get it clean to show a potential buyer on Saturday. We have tried to give our rig to one of several veteran organizations, and none were interested. We tried to set it up for a couple who lost their home in a house fire, but COVID broke out, and we never heard back after that. The people who have stored it on their property needed us to move it. We have nowhere to move it to. Land and storage in winter on the Keweenaw are difficult to come by. I’ve tried to sell it, but it’s too big for this area. We can’t move it to a different market because our truck has an engine problem. It’s become an albatross and holds no good memories for me other than the kindness of those who helped us get through difficult times.

Now it’s a hot commodity. But no one can move it. I field at least ten inquiries a day, and that drives me crazy. Hopefully, the couple driving all the way from downstate will haul it home. We attempted to move it, renting an RV spot at the Baraga Casino ten miles from where we had it. I laughed as the veteran who owns the property told my husband we could bring it back if it doesn’t sell. I laughed because I know his wife. I’ve assured my friend we will not bring it back. These vets can’t say no to each other, so we spouses have to mark the boundaries. We both expelled our breath when we safely arrived at the casino without losing it or blowing an engine.

Then we found the mouse nest in my tea cupboard.

It could have been worse. We went through the whole trailer, and it was only one nest but a rank one. Field mice must have thought they found Valhalla. Masses of flies emerged on the outside of the slides. It disturbed me. At least it was outside, not inside. But it is so dirty and so disheartening. We cleared out most of the random remaining items, and the Hub took care of the mice palace. Still, I came home and showered and smudged with sage. We have to return tomorrow with Clorox and the shop vac. Many minor repairs like missing screws and a cabinet door we broke, forgetting how to open the slides properly. I feel like our fate hangs in the balance on Saturday, which is entirely untrue. It just feels ominous. Of mice.

Saturday is also our 33rd anniversary, and iron is the traditional gift. Cast iron? Certainly not an iron for the ironing board or a branding iron. I’ll go with a Dutch Ove made of ceramic sealing iron. I’ll go for selling the trailer to get enough money to one day retrieve our belongings from Idaho. The Hub is now convinced I’ve changed, and he’s always been wonky. Well… The way my brain is lately, maybe it’s me with the CTE and not him. We’ll make a great dementia couple — him with no filters, and me with no recollection between fact and fiction. Anyways, I told him he was right, I’m certain I’ve changed. That’s part of growth. But there’s still that old me who doesn’t really like mice.

September 17, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story of mice. It can feature any variety of the little critters in any situation. Are the character or the inciting incident? Use any genre, including BOTS (based on a true story). Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 22, 2020. 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 are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Of Mice, No Men by Charli Mills

In the end, the packrat was her only companion. Clara rode into Vaquero Camp after her diagnosis. What do big city bone-setters know of a woman’s breasts, anyhow? She was born with ‘em and would die with ‘em. Jake said she was foolish. After all, girl babies aren’t actually born with breasts. He’d heard that Flatfoot Bob’s wife had hers reconstructed into perky 20-year-old versions. Clara wanted no men with her. Not the son who left for Portland. Not the dead-beat cowboy who fathered him. Not even Jake, her best friend. Solitude with a packrat set her soul free.

September 10: Flash Fiction Challenge

The radio plays back-up to my primary sources of music. Wherever I have lived, the radio not only has provided background noise, but it has also connected me to place. If you’ve ever taken a long road trip,, you know how stations can fade in and out, imparting a distinct sound to towns, cities, and regions. Like Donny and Marie Osmond, some stations are a little bit country, and some are a little bit rock and roll. Born in 1967, I’ve known the radio as a life-long companion. A constant I rarely think about but would miss like a left kidney.

Cruising up the Keweenaw Peninsula, something I rarely do these days of COVID, I turned on the radio instead of listening to my digital playlists. Ads annoy me, and I flip to another station. We have five, including NPR and a station Michigan Tech University broadcasts. Actually, I think we have six, but I can’t listen to modern country. Ironic, given that I grew up on Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Eddie Arnold, Charlie Pride, Hank Williams, and Loretta Lynn. My parents had a massive 8-track collection. The country classics came from my father’s family influence, but my mom’s family meant I also listened to Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra, some weird precursor to elevator music. My dad found more country music, collecting gunslinger ballads. My DNA carries the imprint of the entire Ennio Morricone soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. My mom collected the Beatles and the Fifth Dimension.

Once, when I was 12, I requested the Greatest Hits from the 1700s from the Columbia House 8-track catalog that would arrive by post. I also wanted the latest Kiss 8-track. I can’t even begin to unpack my tastes in music. But the radio had its influence, too.

Occasionally I’d sneak the dial to KKBC, a rock station broadcasting seventy miles away from Reno, Nevada. That where I heard songs like Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult. Columbia House didn’t carry such 8-tracks, or I didn’t know what they were. It was a new sound, but one my parents did not appreciate. Some nights, I leave the radio playing on low. One morning I woke up to, “KKBC’s gone country!” My parents delighted in that switch, and as a family, it introduced us to modern country that would dominate the ’80s  — Hank Williams, Jr., Roseanne Cash, Mickey Gilley, Charlie Daniels, Alabama, and Reba McEntire. I missed Godzilla but fell into a pre-teen crush with Bosephius.

One hundred miles northwest of where I grew up on the eastern slope of the Sierras, a teenaged boy, milking the family herd before he drove to high school, also caught the same radio broadcast I did. Five a.m. and he flipped on the radio and dialed in the rock music he loved, practicing his “Dead Fred” DJ voice, talking to the cows as he set up the morning milking. At six a,.m., we both heard, “KKBC’s gone country!” He flipped out, yelling obscenities at the radio. He’s never forgiven the station, and to this ,day can recite some of the best DJ moments and recalls more songs than my remembered Godzilla. Years before we’d ever meet, the Hub and I shared a moment on the radio.

Many states and radio stations later, we have a set of six stations tuned to our car radio. I can’t even tell you their call numbers. I’ve lost interest. It seems that part of moving on meant leaving behind favorite radio stations, and after Idaho, it became too hard. I carried my CD collection with me and had invested a fair amount in iTunes to play on a tiny shuffle smaller than a pack of gum. My CD player remains beyond my reach, and my computer upgrades don’t play CDs. I relied heavily on my iTunes but went I went Apple all the way, I messed up my music access.

Cue the orchestra to play something woeful. Sometimes, the hoops we jump through for technology sucks. Sometimes, our human brains glitch. When we got our other iProducts I forgot that I already had an iAccount for my shuffle, and I registered New iStuff with a different Apple ID. I kid you not, the magnificent empire of Apple with all its capabilities, and all the engineers who make the things work can’t connect my iTunes music to my iPhone or iMac because the IDs differ. But I have resiliency, so I found a way. I bought a Google Play membership and rebuilt my iTunes collection. Then I began to rebuild the CDs I missed the most. Then I built lists with Hank Williams, Jr and Blue Oyster Cult just because I could!

Do you remember cassette tapes? I thought they were THE THING! I had a player with a recorder and would sit in front of the radio to catch some of my favorite songs. You didn’t live the ’80s unless you had big bangs and cassette mixes with chopped off songs or a chatty DJ you wished would shut up and let the song fade. But you made do because you caught the song. These were my walking mixes, and you better believe — I had a walkman! Then came CDs. We bought a CD player in Montana that you could load six at a time. Magic! I had Yanni, Enya, Enigma, and Windam Hill New Age collections that I’d load to play in the evenings to cook, settle the kids, light candles, and read or write late at night. The memory brings such peace.

Digital playlists are a miracle to me. When I’d work out in the gym pre-back surgeries, I had my fem singers to fire me up — Tori Amos, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Dido, and Paula Cole. I had all the CDs and carried a case to switch out CDs, longing for a way to play three songs of one, two of another, and so on. I yearned for the mixing ability of cassettes with the quality of the CD sound (and not having to use a pencil). Yes, I waited a long time for playlists and was satisfied with iTunes. But Google Play leveled up. Then came the email last month — they closed up shop. With so many other options, they decided not to offer such services. They offered to transfer all my albums from Journey and Bruce Springsteen to Chakra Dance and Guided Meditations and all the rest in between to YouTube Music.

YouTube. That’s the Hub’s music miracle. He loves to research the musicians and listen to interviews and variations of songs. He’s found new music like Mean Mary and can tell you who does the best covers of Stevie Ray Vaughn. I consented and agreed to transfer my music, feeling that desolation of a move again. Then came the glitches. On Google Play, I had order. I intentionally named my playlists in such a way that I categorized them by type but also alphabetically. YTM squished the lists together out of sequence and added the Hub’s listening playlists from when he’s on my computer. Then, the playlists cut out on shuffle, so my background music shuts down randomly. I spent too much time trying to figure out a fix and drew the line at having to download an app.

That’s how I came to Amazon Music. It’s half the price of Google Play. The Hub can still do his thing on YouTube. I can, too, and no need to pay for YouTube Music. But I’m not advertising. Actually, I’m a bit disgruntled with all this wasted effort when I had the solution three technology advances ago. But what eased my troubles was finding a CD replacement that Google Play and YouTube did not have. Clannad. It was always first in my CD player. It heralded the moment I took a deep breath and felt the peace of home no matter where I was. Tonight, I set up a playlist of albums as if I were back in Montana…or Minnesota…or Idaho. I heard home play in my home…in Michigan for the first time. And I settled inside.

There is a radio station I still listen to regularly, though, and it’s not in my vehicle, but on my computer. WUMB. It has the kind of music the Current played in Minneapolis, and another station in Idaho. Out of Boston, I think of it as the music of the Northeast. I think of Vermont, the most rooted place and people I’ve experienced. Rooted music. And that is still the magic of radio. Despite all these technologies and arrangements, radio still connects people and place.

With great anticipation, I introduce ya’ll to the 2020 Flash Fiction Rodeo Playlist (on YouTube). I had lots of music memories and creative ideas swirling as I built this list. The first song is a masterpiece written for a Clint Eastwood movie by an Italian composer and artfully played by the Danish National Symphony. It vibrates with global imagination. The list includes classics, a few KKBC tunes, western movie songs, and some interesting modern manifestations in western music. Cowboy music has roots in many other nations and has a vibe shared by those venturing to frontiers. Maybe one day, someone will yodel a cattle call on Mars. Much of the music tells a story; other songs inspire stories. It’s the essence of our Rodeo contest season quickly approaching.

We have a great line up of Rodeo Leaders to host contests this year — Colleen Chesebro, Marsha Ingrao, Kerry E.B. Black, and the one and only Goldie. We all decided to stay with a western theme this year, yet you will be surprised, delighted, and challenged by what these Leaders have to offer in their contests. TUFF (The Ultimate Flash Fiction) returns this year, too, and will take over the stage at Saddle Up Saloon on Mondays. Contests will start every Tuesday in October, each ending before the next one launches. These contests allow writers to apply their skills and stretch their writing. The weekly challenges will continue on Thursday, with collections published on Wednesdays. Winners will be revealed on consecutive Tuesdays in November. One winner in each contest will win $25 and a digital trophy.

September 10, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes something heard on the radio. It can be from any station or era. What is heard? A song, announcement, ad? Think of how radion connects people and places. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 15, 2020. 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 are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Lost Daughter by Charli Mills

Clementine heard her mother over the Stockton radio. She’d entered the small house at the edge of farm fields, picking up fallen produce in the road. Harvest trucks left a trail, speeding to city markets. Her landlady called the rental the Road Garden. Clem thought she meant “rose” and was disappointed to find weeds and a weeping willow. Her mother played Rambler on the banjo and Clem recognized the Tennessee picking popular among California cowboys. She recognized her mother’s name but not her voice. One day, maybe she’d meet the woman who abandoned her for a life of music.

September 3: Flash Fiction Challenge

Seed pods of Queen Ann’s Lace form fists and pummel the sides of the paved road in high winds. Summer tourists have finally ebbed, leaving our region to witness fall’s rampant approach in peace. It’s hard not to face the winds without seeing a promise of snow flurries. But first, the leaves will deepen and reveal true colors — orange, burgundy, and gold. This is a time to still the mind. It is a process, not a completion.

We drive past the sparring roadside flowers of late summer on the Keweenaw. Ever since we took a boat ride up and down the Portage Canal and experienced the magnitude of the deep waters, the Hub has called our peninsula an island. From the water, it is so completely surrounded by the depths of Lake Superior with only one bridge on and off. Today he’s asking me if I think the winds will blow our island away. I tell him I don’t think so. Then we crest the ridge and see the waves of Lady Lake marching in full force to shore three miles ahead. He says the Lake will take this island. I say nothing, silently agreeing. She will cleave this peninsula one day, the way a miner’s pickax slices ore along the grain.

Today we watch homebound tourists.

Birch trees scream in leafy breaths at Calumet Waterworks beach, treetops bent and pointing north with all branches in unison. The surf and winds are so loud I can’t hear anything else. Freight trains roar quieter than Lady Lake in a gale. Below, she’s strewn trees and limbs and driftwood like a child throwing a temper tantrum. This is no day to cross her, not to step a toe in her waters. She’s buried her own beach cobbles beneath sand and wood rubble. I feel this is unfair because I clearly marked Friday as “Lake Day!” on my calendar with the intention of rock picking. I have no idea what beaches will have rocks after this mess.

The Hub bought me a coffee at Cafe Rosetta, wearing his Vikings mask. Coffee used to be a treat, and now, after COVID, it feels decadent; a guilty pleasure. We hold our cups and gawk. The Hub talks to everyone he meets, and we bottleneck on the stairs going to the beach. Not the best pandemic protocol, and I wonder if the high winds will kill the virus or carry it to the arctic. A local at the viewing deck explains to us that the unusually hot summer has warmed the lake, and with cold fronts, she blows up. Ah. I understand. Menopause. Lake Superior is having a hot flash. I tried to film the experience but don’t plan to pick up filmmaking anytime soon. I did start a Carrot Ranch YouTube Channel, and you can listen to the audio howl of wind and surf at Calumet.

We decide to drive over to the breakers at McLain State Park. When the wind howls from the west, the waves crest the breaker walls at the mouth of Portage Canal, where a lighthouse still stands as a beacon of safety. When we went on our boat ride, I discovered how unstable the water feels at the opening of the canal as if it constantly struggles against its constraints, writhing. From the beach, I think the water has escaped. Families line the beach, and locals sit on sand dunes above the flow of water. There is no beach as I know it — water and sand flow over all that was familiar. Long-haired athletes in wetsuits battle the wind and surge to walk the treacherous breaker far out enough that they jump into the rolling waves with surfboards leashed to their ankles. we watch them bob like seals in the swells.

One by one, each surfer rises to stand on their boards to surf Lake Superior. It’s mutual entertainment, those of us in the audience enjoying the ride as much as those taking the risk. We all feel the sand pelting us, the water spray, and adrenaline. It’s a glorious way to spend an afternoon. Invigorating. The tourists who left with the summer heat are missing out on the best season when the Lake shows us all who is boss. She rules the surf, sand, and sky. No doubt it is Lady Lake who rises on mists to freeze the air and gather her moisture in clouds to bury us in snow. More on that later in the year.

We wind our way back home, following the bends and bays in the canal. The water is not choppy but looks as though it has a river current from the wind pushing hard in one direction. No one is at Hancock City Beach. That’s right, everyone was out wave-watching. We top the hill to Roberts Street and spot a city truck, one used in snow removal. This time a crew is clearing the roads of fallen trees and broken branches. We wave. They wave. And then I see my Lemon Queens. Three have snapped in the wind, and I mourn. Gently, I cradle a sapling with a dozen wilting sunny heads, feeling the heft of life yet present. I’ve never understood vegetarians who can’t eat meat. Don’t they know plants die, too?

Death is inevitable. Our island will be no more one day. Today, Lemon Queens died. I realize, what matters most is dignity. It’s not that we avoid death; we die with dignity and grant it to others who are passing. I hold my queens, snip a vase full of flowers to take inside, remove each toppled stalk, and lay them to rest. I speak a few words, giving praise and thanks. Stretched out along the creeping butternut squash, I leave them to dry. Seeds will feed birds and squirrels. Some seeds will grow to be next year’s Lemon Queens. They dim beneath a full moon. So I weed and harvest more seeds from marigolds and monarda. I pick yet more courgettes.

And the wind continues to blow.

Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

September 3, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about high winds. It can be on land, sea or in outer space. Who is facing the wind or protected from it? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 8, 2020. 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.

Last Pass by Charli Mills

In the Sierras, high winds herald snow. A wagon train of weary souls had hoisted beasts and conveyances to the top of Kit Carson’s pass to reach California’s goldfields below. They looped their way around bulging batholiths and high-altitude lakes glimmering like cut emeralds. The air thinned and the wind rose. The wagon master bellowed, and oxen trundled faster, sensing danger. They didn’t stop at night to rest. By the light of lanterns, they battled banshee winds, tarps snapping like sails. Sunrise opened with peaceful silence followed by splats of rain. Behind them, snow closed the pass until spring.

August 27: Flash Fiction Challenge

So it has begun. Neighbors slink in the shadows of my house, transgressing both front and back doors with summer bounty. The forager has left puff balls and cut petunias on my back deck. The gardener’s wife next door tried sneaking a bowlful of tomatoes on my front steps. A friend offered to share beans and another found me camping and brought lavender. Even my daughter is peddling chard and arugula, offering trades of patty-pans for courgettes. This season of shifting excess from the garden makes me grin. I feel whole and home, surrounded by community and yard-grown food.

The biggest surprise in my potager towers over all the neighbors leaving offerings. My gentle giants with prolific and cheerful heads will make migrating birds a feast. I stand outside looking upward of eight feet to bask in the presence of the Lemon Queens. A single staff holds as many as twenty sunflower heads and I planted five. They hold court, these reigning sisters of Roberts Street. Each petal is slender, forming a pale yellow fringe around each dark center rich with pollen. The honey bees buzz from high above, dropping closer to earth with legs fully loaded for feeding the hive.

When my heart feels as heavy as a ladened bee, I stand beneath the Lemon Queens and look up. White clouds pull across the blue sky like spun sugar, the kind county fairs would be serving if it not for a pandemic. I watch as the oldest sunflowers begin to brown and form seeds. For such hardy stalks and large heads, the petals flutter ephemeral. They don’t last long enough for the seeds to mature. Such could be said about many life events — life itself — passes so quickly. The beauty and joy we once celebrated have left a legacy of seeds for more, and yet a darkness stretches between memory and hope. The royals pass too soon.

And so it came to be that I needed to check out of my home, neighbors and shared abundance. I needed to abandon the studies, thesis, and literary community. I needed to step back from all that is good and appreciated to just simply be. The emotions of travel, wedding, funeral, and school needed a reset. My inner introvert demanded a fresh air cacoon. When a friend who also needed downtime suggested a camping trip to Big Traverse Bay on the sandy side of the Keweenaw, I was all for it. We each had our own small tents and we physically distanced around a campfire beneath the stars.

I met the Lemon Queens of the universe, standing on the beach of Lake Superior at 3 am. Already the coyotes had yipped and howled three times from the direction we heard the late-summer gathering of sandhill cranes in the wild blueberry marshes. An American toad hunkered by my tent, his shape evident in the light from the campfire. The fish flies, midges, and mosquitos had finally tired of blood draws. The lake spread flat and silent like ice, yet the air remained warm enough to feel comfortable in a flannel shirt. I had kicked off my Keens and walked over the small sand bluff to see the stars over the lake. I looked up.

Regal and twinkling, the brightest stars hung like Lemon Queens, reflecting light on the water. The lake ran an occasional wave across the sand to let me know she was awake and star-gazing, too. Mars, a bright orange bulb had risen earlier from the horizon and I swore it must be the lamp of a ghost ship. By 3 am, the planet had risen in an arc. The Milky Way frothed with light and the Perseids shot meteorites across the black sky. When I stood, bare feet in the cool, wet sand, I felt the universe so close it tickled my nose. The soft silence wrapped me up in the night’s blanket. Lemon Queens live.

The next morning I rose early — for me — to see a long-legged spider hanging out on the mesh screen overhead. I supposed she was eating the last of the waiting mosquitos. The air felt thick and warm and the lake barely lapped. I brewed coffee in my French press and drug my chair into the shade of a pine, savoring the first cup of the day. By the time I lit my single-burner butane stove, a stiff wind challenged my efforts. Blue flames fluttered and the bacon fried in the cast iron pan. I poured seeds and nuts and blueberries over Brown Cow maple yogurt and topped both bowls with fresh nasturtium from my garden. We dined at a distance in our camp chairs, adding a second pot of coffee and chocolate zucchini cake to the meal. The wind increased.

We didn’t have much time before checking out but the camp hostess offered that we could day use any of the open campsites (Schoolcraft only has eight sites and the hostess A-frame, a familiar feel). Ours was reserved for new campers that day. We packed up the kitchen and most of our stuff and carried our tents to a new spot to rest or read later. Waves began to roar, the sound I love best from Lady Lake. We walked the beach and with no rocks to pick I collected anything plastic and unnatural. Mostly the beach was clean but the debris of humanity nests everywhere like an invasive species. We scoped out other campsites and watched a young couple take over ours from the night before. A young Finnish mother with six blond children all under the age of ten showed up and I delighted in watching the three eldest ride the waves like fearless pros.

An immature eagle flew overhead as if to say he had this flight thing down. I sat in the sand, feet buried, hair blowing away from my face, head nodding in droopy peace. I felt refreshed and ready to return to garden exchanges and revitalize the rhythm of life. Time to catch up with ripe tomatoes, the last of my term coursework, and comments and stories from the community. The Lemon Queens have come and will go. The stars will continue to dance barely out of reach. We will remember those who have gone on to those who remain. And we will be witness to milestones and castles in the sky until we forget and someone else remembers.

August 27, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features Lemon Queens. Maybe it’s an ancient fairy tale or a modern brand name. What ideas seep into your imagination? Is there a character or place involved? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 1, 2020. 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 are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Lemon Queens of Nevada by Charli Mills

Lara, Eugenie, and Jess scrambled up the wooden slats of the corral to watch Big Bones Janey sort the dinks from the keepers. Roundup always smelled of warm sage and fresh horse apples. Wispy sun-bleached hair escaped the matching braids on the young cousins and in the afternoon breeze, their fringe formed halos. Janey trotted past the wide-eyed girls, winking. She called them Lemon Queens and taught them how to settle a stallion without breaking his spirit. Fifteen years later, riding stunt horses for Hollywood westerns, the Lemon Queens owed their skills to the maverick horse trainer of Winnemucca.