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July 6: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s a muddle of music and smiling people in sunglasses beyond the orange fence of plastic netting. Entrance requires a red wristband and resolve. It’s Independence Day in the US and on the Keweenaw Peninsula, locals flock to Eagle River to celebrate. As crowds go it’s relatively small, but it’s still a crowd and I’m yet an introvert among so many unfamiliar things. What is it about unfamiliarity that seems unnerving?

Earlier at a beach on Lake Superior I heard the lament of a six-year-old boy, “I can’t overcome my fear!” I turned my gaze away from the rolling waves, to inspect a group of young boys splashing in the water. They were playing an imaginary game, a team of heroes on a mission. Except for the lone reluctant hero in a life vest and swim goggles who stood while his friends floated and swam. I can’t overcome my fear.

His tone was one any of us at any age could cry out. We fear new places and faces. We fear what we don’t know. We fear change. So we stay in the shallows, watching for danger.

I take a deep breath and extend my wrist to receive a band. I’m committing, going in, going deep. I’m shaky at first, not knowing anyone, but soon I follow the wafting aroma of smoked brisket, and loving arms reach for me with the familiar call of “Mama!” It’s my eldest and she’s with her husband in line for food. Fear melts away with a familiar anchor.

And maybe that’s what each of us needs — a guide to bring us in to a new harbor, a light to show us the rocky shoals. Once received we open up to the newness. Another boy at the beach stood up with his friend and together they went into the water. A few fearful cries soon diminished into laughter and together they splashed and played heroes. With my own lighthouse guiding me through the community event, I opened up to meeting new people and experiencing a Copper Country celebration.

A curious man approaches wearing pants of apricot and a silk neck scarf. My daughter mentions he’s filming a documentary and he invites us to a fundraiser with an invitation that is both artsy and strange. I wonder who he is and why he’s making a film. My daughter is part of a belly-dancing troupe and her husband drums. They know many people in the community who are living life to their own beat. I’ve yet to figure out the local beat, but feel more at home among the artistic and eccentric. I’m searching for the literary artistic and history eccentric.

So I ask the filmmaker if he’s from the area. He was born and raised on the Keweenaw, leaving in increments until he made it to NYC where he’s been making films for years. One of his films was received at the Sundance Festival in 2009. He tells me, “They’ve all been wondering what I’ve been doing since.”

“This documentary?” I ask.

He rolls his eyes with exaggerated drama. “It’s not a documentary. Well, I suppose some parts are. It’s creative. It’s different, no genre like it exists. It’s my creative expression.”

“I see.” Not really, but I see enough to hook my curiosity and decide I’ll go to the fundraiser and learn more. I might meet some writers, as I’ve heard there are a few about this area. One is even hosting a workshop on poetry and flash fiction. Ha! You bet I’m going to that one.

Then the filmmaker in the apricot pants explains what he’s been doing since his Sundance success: filmmaking. “It’s what I do. I make films.”

It’s what I do. I write. It seems such a simple statement on one hand and so bold on the other. And yet, in writing I do so much more than tap keys or splatter sentences in ink. I process. What I feared and faced, I write about at some point whether it’s something I acknowledge consciously or not. What I fear and think I’ve smothered also comes out. It’s not all about fear, but fear certainly has great sway over us.

I think about fear as fireworks flare in the sky. I watch the shadow of a person fogged in pyrotechnic smoke light the mortars on the beach. Is he not afraid of his task? I watch my husband who says he loves the fireworks display, and recall last year’s holiday when he charged across a Forest Service campground in the dark because someone was “shooting.” It was fireworks and he soon realized after a camping neighbor calmed him down.

The difference was not the fireworks but the unfamiliarity — he expects fireworks at this event.

Houses stretch three stories tall around this region. Most are old houses from the grand mining era pre-1900s. The bedrock is too close to the surface to dig basements so they are rocked as the ground level, then the main floor and a second. Some bigger houses have a fourth attic or maid’s quarters. They look scary to me, tall and speaking of deep snow and old ways. Yet I love the house my daughter owns. She and her husband have painted the walls vibrant colors, the hues of sunflowers and of sky and deep lake water.

Did technology bring about too many changes, or ones that left people without a lighthouse to guide them? I always thought the globalization of the internet would bring us all closer together. In many ways it has. Perhaps blogging, writing, are mediums of light that shine a path to bridge cultural differences. The fear expressed by many in the US reminds me of the child’s admission, “I can’t get over my fear.” Instead of looking for a way, some people have backed out of the water and barricaded themselves on the beach.

It’s not that there’s nothing to fear. Terrorism itself is the invoking of fear; it’s meant to terrorize. Water can be dangerous; children do drown. But we have choices. We have offers of hands to join together. It reminds me of the Great American Desert beyond the Missouri River, which terrified Americans yet beckoned them to cross for riches or land. Many did overcome their fear and a few even settled, including the McCanles family.

In my research, I’ve come across a written oral history of a family contemporary to the McCanleses — the Helvey family. Frank Helvey was 19 when his family decided to run a road station the same year as Cobb bought Rock Creek. The Helvey’s bought the Big Sandy Station 15 miles up trail from Rock Creek. Frank writes, “With McCanles and his men I was very well acquainted, and can say that a wrongful impression was given of him, and of the affair between him and Wild Bill, who I also believe was much maligned.”

Why do we run around in the dark with an inferior torch claiming the world is scary and preferring to only see in front of our face what we think we know? The settlers “knew” the Pawnees and Otoes were dangerous. The historians “knew” Cobb was a bad hombre. Many waited until people like the Helvey’s and Mary McCanles carved homes and ranches and communities on the prairie before they decided it was safe to wrest away from the remaining reservations. Indeed, there were a few raids on settlers in 1864 and 67, but in comparison to the massacres by US Cavalry, it was the Natives who should have had the greater fear.

It’s not that fear itself is so bad. Fear is a warning — proceed with caution; be safe. Entrepreneurs and artists take calculated risks — they strategize to overcome doubt and fear to do or create something new. Fear is best acknowledged, not justified. It’s fear justified that skews thinking and actions. In this recent body of research, I read about the Pawnee and Otoe and how fearful they made the settlers in their war to save their hunting grounds. That fear became an entrenched justification for robbing them of their lands. The extreme prejudice I’m reading in this history echoes today.

Like the boy on the beach, we need to overcome our fears to participate fully in a modern and connected world of many cultures. Like his friends, maybe we can offer to light the way for others.

July 6, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a beacon. It can be from a lighthouse or other source. Use the word literally or figuratively and go where the prompt leads you.

Respond by July 11, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 12). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

Night Riders (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

 “Nancy Jane, it’s dark. I can’t see!” Sarah reached for her friend.

“Beyond the ravine we’ll have light. Come on!”

When they emerged from the creek oaks and cottonwoods, the plains remained cloaked. Stars cast no light on this moonless night, but lone campfires topped the hills. Sarah asked, “Why are people in small camps? I thought they were afraid to sleep outside groups.”

“Nah, those are the fires warning where the ridges are.” Nancy Jane whistled and her horse nickered in return. “Ready, Sarah? Let’s ride the plains and let the Otoe night signals light our way.”

February 3: Flash Fiction Challenge

Photo by Jenna Johnson

Photo by Jenna Johnson

What good is power?

A plane lands on the tarmac stretching across fields of corn. A man steps out from the plane bold as the name emblazoned like train graffitie. Sponsors can go jump in a lake. Newscasters can stick it. Don’t like him? Tough! And the crowd erupts. Cheers for the man of power.

Before you think my nation has gone completely bonkers, consider the underlying fear most Americans harbor without really processing what it means to live fear-burdened — iconic city skyscrapers  went down one day on every morning news station; children bring guns to school to battle teen angst; veterans are homeless; home-owners foreclosed; job markets changed and nobody bothered to re-train employees; healthcare sucks and is the law; our own government spies on us. The NSA is reading this post (thanks for the traffic boost, guys).

How did we go from a founding father with wooden teeth and a powdered wig to this man in the plane? How did we collect so many fears like Beanie Babies?

History reveals, should you peak through the dust motes of time, that fear drives people to want a powerful leader. Consider the Israelites of Old Testament. They had God. God led them out of Egypt, fed them mana and quail in the desert, poured water from rock. But after a while they pestered for a leader. You know, a guy with a wig or crown or whatever the other people had. They were scared. They wanted to see a powerful person to feel safe.

The burden of fear leads to suspicion. Fear makes citizens claim Mexican immigrants are taking jobs and adding words like taco to our pure English language. Speak English like the rest of us! Which ones of us? Um, who has the purist accent? Who hasn’t add colloquialisms to the lexicon? Fear makes us think that helping humanity in crisis will topple more skyscrapers. You look different from me! Don’t look at me! Fear makes us take privileges like hunting and target sports for granted. I have the right to arm bears! I mean bear an arm in my purse, a firearm. I’m armed! I’m scared!

Fear makes us think in unhealthy ways. God provided leaders for the Israelites, but the people still went astray. Powerful leaders, you see, don’t often ease the fear. They fan the fear-fire. Why? Because they are powerful and they know your fear already controls you so they use it to control you more. The more they control you, the more powerful they are. Do you understand why a man landed in a cornfield with his plane and people cheered?

North Carolina in the 1850s had fears remarkably similar to ones today in America. Cobb McCanles switch political party alignments like shampoo. One party was built upon the fear that immigrants were going to hurt the economy. Another party was in protest to the party it sprang from. Yet another feared freeing slaves. As the state took more and more control on its own it became powerful. By the fourth time Cobb was elected as Sheriff, North Carolina was powerful enough to dictate that academies be armed; that special taxes be paid to fund potential war; and every man of age was conscripted to muster in the militia.

I wonder what Cobb would make of that man in the plane?

Yet history claims Cobb was a bully. He left North Carolina when the state powers began to grow too large and controlling. Obviously he was not attracted to being a part of a powerful paradigm. But as a man he was confident, perhaps overbearing at times. He loved his family, although he had a mistress, too. He made right by that mistake, though, took accountability. He built, expanded, gathered and led. Why did the people of the prairie resent him after he was gone?

Maybe Cobb had power, but not the kind that the people wanted.

Was he empowered? Did he empower his children? Or did his personal power dim their abilities and opportunities? Such are the deep thoughts a writer has delving into character and motives. Writers push into fear, poke it like scientists looking for truth about matter. Writers create powerful villains, powerful heroes, clashes of power and the good ones make us think about the forces.

February 3, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that explores the question, “What good is power?” Is it a story of empowerment, or a story of a dictator? Poke around power and go where the force takes you this week.

Respond by February 9, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

Temper and Threats by Charli MIlls

Cobb slammed his fist on the table. Dishes vibrated and the children grew silent. Mary narrowed her eyes. “Temper, Cobb, does not make the man.”

He rose and nodded, jaw locked, eyes smoldering. He stalked out of the house. Minutes later Mary heard the pounding of horse hooves. He’d go to her. Well, let her endure his black mood.

***
Sarah watched Cobb race toward her cabin. Twilight made his form shadowy as a night bandit on the prowl. He reined in his sweaty horse and began the tirade he’d been brewing.

“Tomorrow I’ll clean up on Rock Creek!”

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Hang tight on this prompt! It’s an important issue to explore. I promise something cute an furry next week. Also, please spread the news of our expanded contest and prizes:

CR extended deadline

Facing Fear

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionWe look to the past. We glance over the precipice. We avoid the mirror. This week, writers poked a pencil at fear, something worse than death and the stories that emerged hold clarity, tragedy, triumph and numbness. Fear is the gateway to human emotion and motive; a driving force for a writer to explore and master.

The following stories are based on the October 1, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) show a character confronting something worse than death.

The Fear of Fear Itself by Geoff Le Pard

 ‘What is it?’ Paul carried two wine glasses onto the terrace.

Mary pushed the papers across the table. A birth certificate.

Paul scanned it. ‘How long have you had this?’

‘I found it when I cleaned out Dad’s desk.’

‘It doesn’t mean anything.’

Mary’s hand shook.

‘Peter loved you…’

‘Don’t.’ Mary slapped a midge harder than strictly necessary. ‘Why did he never say? He knew I’d find it.’

‘He didn’t expect to die. Maybe he planned…’

Mary stood, taking her glass. ‘Planned? He schemed.’

Paul, alone, re-read the paper. Mary was adopted. So only Rupert was Peter’s real child.

###

Flash Scene From Habeas Corpus  by Anne Goodwin

He lay prone on the ground, blinded by the canvas hood, immobilised by the rope. As the engine revved, he knew that nothing in his life could compensate for how it would end, dragged behind that car at forty miles an hour, skin flayed and bones splintered. Thirty-seven years of connections and commitments whittled down to a trail of scrappy body parts on a dirt road in a land deprived of care.

He had no thoughts. No memories. No pictures of better times to steer him through his final moments.
A bullet to the head would’ve been so sweet.

******
You can find out what had gone before and what happens next here at the Baltimore Review.

###

Golf Ball Nightmare by Larry LaForge

Until recently my life as a golf ball was pretty sweet.

Sure, I got smacked around a bunch, but that’s what it’s all about. We love to be struck hard and launched high into the sky, soaring gloriously above the trees and landing softly on the green. Sheer ecstasy!

But then it happened — every golf ball’s worst fear. Abandonment.

Some of us are found and get to live the dream again. Others aren’t so lucky.

The dude who did me in was a duffer. I had no chance. Someone please find me.

Here’s the last thing I remember:

Splash.

******
The 100-word version of this story is posted at larrylaforge100words on Flash Fiction Magazine.

###

The Nightmare of Merlin by Tally Pendragon

No one can make that journey on foot in one day, so here I am sitting under a large and, gods be praised, leafy tree which affords me shelter and hiding without having to resort to magic. Tonight the moon is full, a Harvest Moon, for September. I’m only too glad of her light as I shall not sleep. I fear the nightmare will be upon me this night, that the witch whom I shall teach so attentively will lock me within this tree that has my back. But even dreams have the power to make manifest a reality.

###

The Defeat by Ruchira Khanna

Pedro is moving his feet briskly in the ground trying to level off the mud.

His mind is moving aimlessly that he did not notice his coach come near him and direct him to start the game.

Looks up towards the voice, frowns for a microsecond, then brings his attention to the surroundings by a quick nod, and a silent, “I can do it.”

He propels his first ball after a deep inhalation, which helped pacify his mind that was drifting flash forward to a scenario where he gave away runs that led to the defeat of his team.

###

Flash Fiction by Anne Goodwin

The other children called me Ghost Girl, but Mama said I was special. When the burning sun had gone to bed, we played with sticks and stones in the dirt outside our hut.

Mama warned me not to walk in the forest. The medicine man would catch me, she said. But, with Mama dead, how else could I get the wood to cook my food?

Now the doctor says I’m special, so special the people travel miles to swap a goat for a lock of my pure-white hair. An ox for a finger. A bicycle for my beating heart.

###

Hole in the Self  by Paula Moyer

Looking back to the winter of 1973, Jean saw that she was a baby then. Not even 21. Her marriage had evaporated. It was as if someone else were talking into the phone, reserving a spot in the dormitory. Wooden hands packed her bags, loaded them into the 1964 Falcon.

She drove the commute to her college town, but this time to move back. Those same wooden hands clutched the wheel. She rounded a curve. A guard rail beckoned, “just end it here.” But she drove on.

Death seemed easier. Instead, she dodged the guard rail and kept going.

###

Fear Itself by Sarah Brentyn

Scott never looked in the mirror.

As he aged, grey hairs appeared among the sandy brown strands. Lines and creases formed around his eyes and mouth. These things didn’t bother Scott. He had never been afraid of growing old. The mirror showed him something else. Something he couldn’t face.

Years ago, Scott noticed that each day he looked a little bit more like his father. It nearly killed him to see that reflection. So he didn’t look. He was terrified of becoming like him. It was a horrifying thought. But the truth was that Scott was afraid of himself.

###

Normandy by Pete

My room was busy today.

My son came with his family.

The waves of names crashed down on me, only I was back on that beach, where I’d held my best friend in his final moments as a hail of mortar and gunfire rained down on us, the taste of salt water and iron on my lips.

But I’m a stranger to them.

Ellie would have handled this better, she’d always been able to smooth the edges. Oh my sweet Ellie! Her face had faded in the prison that was my own mind.

I was alone on that beach.

###

Flash Fiction by Irene Waters

The world tumbled as the glass broke and metal twisted. Over and over it turned. My body thrown forwards then backwards. Finally the sound of the ginding metal stopped. Silence. Silence as total as the pain was immense. I tried to move. I had to get out. I had to get out but I couldn’t move.

I could hear sounds now. Voices. Rescuing sounds. Sounds of sirens. Chopper blades. They bundled me, protected me, collared me, carried me, whispered reassurances to me. I didn’t care. I wished that I was dead. Alive from the head up was something worse than death.

###

Flash Fiction by Krysti Shallenberger

Miles and miles of gravel road, one turnoff, a rutted driveway. An airplane ticket cost, oh, $800 and one day of my time. Driving across America cost 3 days, 2,345 miles and $1,000 in food, hotel and gas costs. Reunions aren’t cheap.

Rolling hills covered in silvery sage-brush alight under the sun surrounded most of the dirty white trailer.

I took a deep breath and a whiff of cut hay filled my nostrils. Underneath I could smell the chalky, irony taste of blood. Mom’s blood as she carried my four-year-old body.

The door opened slowly. I blinked.

“Hi Dad.”

###

Widows by Charli Mills

“You were fixing to leave again, weren’t you?” Mary climbed the buckboard to sit next to Sarah. “With Cob?”

Sarah stared at buffalo grass on the prairie horizon, waiting for Leroy. He was taking her to his ranch north, but wanted to see his nephew before they left Rock Creek. “Maybe.”

“Why keep running? You afraid I’ll follow?”

“Wasn’t me running this time. I don’t want to be mocked. And I don’t want to be alone.”

“I’ll not go back to Carolina a widow. They shunned me, too, Sarah.”

Sarah shuddered despite the summer sun. Not that. Never again.

###

Fire by Susan Zutautas

Beth was sunbathing the by the pool. A whiff of smoke engulfed her nose, and her eyes shot open as she looked up at her apartment. Oh no the candles! She went to run and a man stopped her. She could hear the sirens getting closer and closer. Panic stricken all Beth could think was that her mother was going to kill her.

Terror overtook all of Beth’s emotions. Anna, a friend and neighbor, forced Beth into a cold shower trying to bring Beth to her senses. A slap to the face stung.

So much was lost that day.

###

Sapphire by Sarah Unsicker

The October air was warm and humid, a storm was brewing in the atmosphere. I eagerly took my seat, ready to relax with two thousand of my closest friends.

An auburn-haired policeman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to leave. My cheeks flared. I had been looking forward to this concert for weeks. “You are a security threat, and I cannot allow you to remain at the concert,” she said in a low voice. “The singer has brown eyes, as does most of the audience.”

Once again, my sapphire eyes kept me from a great life experience.

###

No Way Out by Sherri Matthews

Bill leapt out of his seat like an escaped animal as the letter landed on the front door mat. Hands shaking, he ripped open the envelope.

In large, red letters the repossession order stared back at him like a snake about to go for his throat. Rooted to the spot, he fumbled for his mobile as it vibrated into life.

“Bill? Did the letter come…? Bill? Are you there…?”

Bill stared into silence and hit ‘End’ on his phone as he tossed it into the bin. There’s no going back now he thought, as he headed for the garage.

###

The Fear by Rachel E. Bledsoe

Jebediah felt the color drain as two words spilled into the room.

“All in,” said Mark as he shoved bills and gold directly center. Next came three “folds” and it was Jebediah’s decision.

“Whatcha’ gonna do, Jeb?”

Looking at the board, he only had two pairs, jacks and nines. The damn board vibrated a possibility to the straight or even a flush.

Mark taunted “C’mon and play.”

Jebediah had gambled away most of his life. Mark owned half this one horse town already.

“I fold, Mark, only got two pair.”

“Ah shit, Jeb. I was bluffin’.” The fear won.

###

Out of My Cage by Amber Prince

Strangers came and led me away from my home. They smelled like grass, something we weren’t used to smelling often. I bowed my head hoping that the bumpy ride would end soon. My stomach quivered, my last meal threatening to resurface.

The stillness hurt my ears. I missed my home with its comforting noises and the cold concrete floor.

It was an accident, hands pawing at me, calling my name; I hadn’t meant to wet myself. Hiding behind the door, my tail between my legs, I awaited the outburst.

Instead they laughed. What kind of hell was this place?

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New prompt on Wednesday. All writers welcome to respond.