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July 12: Flash Fiction Challenge
He shuffles across the rubble that bridges the 2nd Street drainage system of Ripley Creek. Wisps of white locks curl from beneath a baseball cap, and his t-shirt glows as white as if he reserves a brand new one for rare occasions. Spotting this reclusive Vietnam veteran hovering in what used to be the front yard of one of his neighbors feels like a sighting an elusive Sasquatch.
He hesitates and reminds me of a moth that bobs back and forth on my back porch, seeking entrance through the glass and darting away just as quickly. Like the lapping waves of Lake Superior on a hot calm day. Shy, uncertain but reaching out. Cynthia rises from the silt-covered floor of her gutted house, speaking his name in reverent tones.
As much as I want to dash out the front door and greet this rare neighbor, I hold back, letting Cynthia guide him up the front steps. I’ve heard much about the man. Cynthia has a big heart for the elderly. He lives alone in his mother’s old house down the street. When she first moved to Ripley, a girl in the neighborhood told her that the man’s house was haunted. The lights came on after midnight.
Like many who live in seclusion, this neighbor keeps odd hours. He is the only specter in his domain. Cynthia befriended him not in person but on social media. Although only one house separates them, they chat late at night on Facebook. She’s told me how brilliant he is, knowing much about music and art. Vietnam secluded him, fenced him off from community.
It’s a kind gesture on his part that’s he’s ventured well beyond his comfort zone to see if Cynthia is okay. With last night’s rain, Ripley Creek overflowed, washing away the sandbags along Cynthia’s house. We’re filling out applications for funding and trying to find immediate resources so Cynthia can get temporarily housed. It worries me when my friend is unsure of where she is sleeping each night.
It’s also troubling to wait on the dictates of others — no one has a permanent solution for the Ripley drainage and the elephant hunkered on the hill above our community is the unstable sand escarpment that can trigger more landslides. Powers that be monitor the temporary silt mitigation, but no one knows how to work together or even if Federal funding is coming.
Another neighbor, HockyPuck because he has the personality of one, strode by earlier, bragging about how the flood got him started on his home improvement projects early. He can afford to put his family up in a hotel and start repairs without care to grants, funding or donations. I heard he was brave the night of the landslide, rescuing his wife and children. But he refuses to give me an interview because he’s too busy.
I want to say I’m not interested in his story anyway. It’s the broken fences I find more interesting. Who cares about a fence that never breaks because it has all the resources and support it needs. Capitalism forgets that while some earn a comfortable life surrounded by ornate fences, most struggle. My friend and this gentle neighbor buckle beneath worry and real-life fears.
But everyone’s story matters. When collecting the stories of an event — or even here at the Ranch, the way we collect multiple stories on a single theme — different perspectives contribute to the greater story of us all. No one is to be excluded. No perspective matters more than others. It’s not about the best but the invitation to have your story heard.
My friend is not without her support network. In fact, the fence of human hands that surround her is amazing. All these hands, reaching out, pulling up. Even the Hub showed up with his truck to build weirs and fill sandbags. A few friends did the best they could do. I returned home to finish some paperwork for Cynthia, and that’s when I opened a portal to a long-held dream.
It came via email like Elvis popping up in a chat box.
You see, the dream is old — I wanted to be Indiana Jones. Not just an archeologist, but one who traveled and adventured. Who learned in the field and archives. Who taught college and wrote books. Oh, that was the original Big Dream! I even left my hometown to study archeology for a semester. It didn’t work out.
In 1998, I graduated from college ten years after my first failed attempt. Back then, to be a career author, one had to get an MFA. I could have been a contender! Instead, I chose to be a wife and mother, and I veered from the dream and used my creative writing degree in a marketing career.
I never lost touch with my literary roots and as I gained life experience, I better understood what the Big Dream meant to me. To be Indiana Jones, I had to be open to adventure, travel, and discovery. I’m not an archeologist, but I certainly excavate stories from the layers of the past. I’m now writing, and I’ve taught workshops for years. Not exactly college, but satisfying enough.
Until now. Until the pinch-me-Elvis-sighting moment.
I’ve written here before about my presentation to 1 Million Cups. Carrot Ranch Literary Community made the evening news, and many in the room warmed to the idea of storytelling and flash fiction as a tool. Already, I’m finishing up a small but mighty gig I landed from that presentation, coaching six entrepreneurs to craft their 10-minute pitches in a series of 99-word stories. Tomorrow they test-run their speeches.
Another organization met with me after the 1MC presentation to talk about workshops — Finlandia University. I toured their facility on campus where I can use conference rooms and the large hall for public workshops. It’s great space from intimate settings to large presentations. I shared my Curricula Vitae and received an unexpected response — had I ever considered teaching adjunct?
Short answer, yes! And quickly followed by the fact that I never went on to get my MFA, let alone my Ph.D. to complete the Big Dream. However, it was suggested that my CV was robust enough to waive the masters. I felt light like a butterfly flitting among honeyed flowers. So, I looked at their need for adjuncts, of course. One stood out as perfect — a marketing course intended for high school students through a partnership with the university. I thought, why not try!
Today, I received my appointment at Finlandia University for nine months to teach the CTE Marketing course. That’s about as close as I’ll ever get to sighting Elvis! Never did I think that part of the Big Dream would happen without a different journey. It’s only 10 hours a week, all hands-on (so no homework), includes 60 hours of prep time (I get to design the course!), a budget for materials, a van for field trips, and my very own college classroom.
I’ve become Indiana Jones, after all. Carrot Ranch is my beloved field work of discovery and treasure; I have a college appointment to teach; and I continue to write novels through the stories I catch 99 words at a time.
Broken fences can be mended. Everyone’s story matters.
July 12, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a broken fence. You can mend it, leave it, or explain its place in a story. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by July 17, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Horses Have Greater Value (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Blast it you duck-billed buffalo!” Cobb lunged at the stock handler.
Despite his injuries, Hickok dodged the charging man better than the bear that tore him up. “It weren’t me,” he said, confronting his angry boss.
“That busted fence didn’t happen on its own accord,” Cobb growled, pointing to the corral empty of horses.
“No Sir, pert sure it didn’t. Found it that way before you showed up. Recon’ Dock rode out after ‘em.”
“Then quit idling and get after that herd!”
Hickok sighed and set out on foot, his left arm hanging as useless at the fence post.
August 17: Flash Fiction Challenge
Mona slinks across the dining room table, wraps her body around the edge of my laptop and brushes long whiskers across my hand. It’s become a ritual of sorts. The cat begs permission to perch upon my chest every afternoon. I grumble. I’m on multiple deadlines and focused, not wanting the interruption of a pestering feline. She’s not even my cat. Mona insists; I resist. Push the cat away, push the cat away, push the…oh, all right already!
I’ve learned it’s easiest to coax her into the curve of my left arm, as if inviting Mona into a sling. She presses against my chest, settles squarely on the bosom she believes to be her personal cat shelf, tucks her splayed toes into the crook of my arm and purrs. Her warmth radiates and I rest my chin on her tiny head. I stop. I don’t write on deadline; worry about the interviews not yet arranged; fret about my lateness to my own ranch; I don’t think about anything but the purring, the warmth, the love I suddenly and inexplicably feel in this paused moment.
I want America to sit with a cat purring against its breast.
Mother of Exiles: Give me your tired, your poor… (Emma Lazarus)
…ask not what your country can do for you… (Robert F. Kennedy)
…we are united in common values… (President Barrack OBama)
If you get, give. If you learn, teach. (Maya Angelou)
If the great American people will only keep their temper… (President Abraham Lincoln)
I am the American Dream…It said you can come from anywhere and be anything you want… (Whoopie Goldberg)
Only Americans can hurt America. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
“A constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
One of the amazing features of Carrot Ranch is that it’s a literary community without borders. It invites diversity — different ages, gender identifications, experiences, genres. We marvel at the different ways each writer approaches a challenge and how each responds. Some write by the seat of pants; some polish and revise. Some base flash fiction on a true story; some grasp at neon threads of imagination. We find common ground in writing, pursuing what it is we do creatively with words. This is literary arts open to all writers.
It’s important to acknowledge our diversity and common ground because this is an American ranch. And our nation is struggling with its history and healing. While the world is being battered by terrorism, America is becoming its own worst terrorist. Two cars-as-deadly-weapons within a week — one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cringe to even compare the two but it is necessary to understand the difference. In Spain an extremist group has claimed responsibility and world leaders denounce the violence. In America an extremist group had gathered to express white supremacy and those opposed to fascism staged a counter protest. A reported neo-Nazi plowed his car into the protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The POTUS blamed both sides.
Stay with me. This is not meant to be a political rant of runaway horses. Hug a cat. Feel the heartbeat, the warmth, the love, and let’s move on to statues.
As a historian of the American West, I’m sensitive to the complex influences and impact of the Civil War upon westward expansion. It’s not as simple as pro- and anti-slavery divisions. Kansas Territory with the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” became embattled before the war between those who wanted to make it a slave state and those wanting to abolish slavery. Yet, even abolitionists were racists. Some of Wild Bill Hickok’s early letters home from Kansas espoused prejudice views and language. He was the son of an abolitionist and as a boy partook in getting slaves to freedom in Canada.
The south often refers to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. From this perspective, the issue emerges as one of states rights versus perceived federal tyranny. The idea is that America fought for its freedom, therefore states held that they shouldn’t be controlled by the interests of other regions. Of course, no one can miss the ultimate irony of a nation proclaiming its freedom on the backs of slaves, indentured servants, and cheap industrial labor. Free for whom? Which leads us to the greater underlying cause of the Civil War beyond its issues, institutions and ideals — power and control.
There are those who want power, and there are those who don’t want to be controlled. This human dynamic is probably as old as sex. Slavery: power over another population; control of land and property wealth. Abolition: power over the moral attitudes of others; control of social behavior. Industry: power to take at will; control over workers and wealth. These power struggles play out in politics, place and among people at odds. One solution might cause a ripple elsewhere. But the bottom line of ending the ugliness of power and control is captured in the vision for “equal rights.” This is where Americans divide. Whose rights infringe upon whom?
Don’t kill babies. That’s clear as a cliched bell to everyone. Who’d kill a baby? Well, now we tussle over the definition of when life begins and who controls that life in a woman’s uterus. No, we aren’t discussing that here. The point I want to make is, hug a cat. Not a real cat this time, but think of what it means to hold a cat, feel the purring, the warmth, the love. Now give someone else that cat. What would it look like? To me, I see men and women of faith who love life from its earliest conception, loving the women who approach an abortion clinic. I see them offering blankets, hot cocoa with marshmallows and inviting them to talk, asking them what’s going on, how can they be of service, of help. Listening.
Did you hear that word? Listening. Listen to the story of another. We all have our narratives. We are all vulnerable and feel scrutinized. Actively listen. What if we thought up ways to offer an outreach of cat hugs and listening?
Statues. I didn’t forget. We need to listen to the stories behind these Confederate statues. I don’t want to see civil war over the Civil War. Twice now death has come to Virginia behind secessionist symbols. First it was the Confederate Flag, waved by convicted killer, Dylan Roof who tried to start a “race war” by barging into a black church in Charleston, shooting nine members of its congregation. That’s when the Confederate Flag as an American symbol came under fire, and rightly so. Once a symbol of states rebellion, the General Lee has evolved into one of white supremacy and hate. That’s when calls went out to dismantle or add to Confederate statues in the US, most located in the South.
Statue toppling is something associated in countries of extreme unrest or violent rebellion. It also gives me pause as a historian — are we rewriting history as some claim?
In my research of Rock Creek, I recall a story about a statue placed in Tennessee or Kentucky 20 years after the end of the Civil War. It wasn’t one of the big-name military leaders, but a man who was a Confederate, captured by southern neighbors and repaid for the earlier killings of eastern Tennessee’s Unionists (those opposed to secession, like Cobb McCanles and his family). By rights of capture, the man should have been imprisoned, but instead he was quickly hung. I can’t recall the controversy exactly, but I remember the intent of the statue — to heal the rift between neighbors living with the aftermath of the Civil War.
However, the majority of the Confederate statues in question were raised during Jim Crow laws when black men and boys hung from southern trees like Strange Fruit. Or during the 1950s as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. Most of the decisions to fly the Confederate flags in southern states also came after states were mandated to eliminate segregation. Symbols of power and control. Symbols to intimidate. The statues do hold history, however, but the memory of historical events. Decision to erect them and take them down are commentary on the history, not about erasing it.
Out West one lone Confederate statue is on the map of those proposed to come down — Helena, Montana where I went to school and researched the state’s colorful mining history with deep struggles of power and control rooted in divisions that came west with Civil War soldiers. Ultimately, the statue will come down. It was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and although I’m not an expert on the subject, I understand they are connected to or support the Klu Klux Klan (have you ever heard of a stupider name? Oh, yes — Nazis). Let me take a deep breath and hug the cat…Better.
If you are not American and do not know about the KKK, they are a domestic terrorist group started after the Civil War with the single purpose of harassing and eradicating the freed slaves and their descendants. They march alongside the neo-Nazis. They used to where white robes and elaborate pointy hoods and masks. They seriously look like sheets or bags with eyeholes. But they kept their identities hidden and often intimidated other townspeople to participate. I heard many KKK stories in Kansas from only a few generations back when I was researching. Power and control. That’s why these statues are coming down. We aren’t calling to rewrite history, but to amend our understanding of it.
It’s scary for many Americans who have not had to confront the violence behind these symbols. I know that Confederate statue in Pioneer Park in Helena. I’ve seen it so many times at gathering and events. It’s a large urn with a dedication plaque. POTUS tweet-stormed about how “sad” it is that these “beautiful” statues are coming down. I look at old photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and listen to old reels of his eloquent speeches and feel sad this beautiful man was cut down. I’m okay removing stones. We can build something different in our public squares and parks.
It’s like writing. We don’t throw away the first draft because we revise. We come back to important elements, eliminate what’s unnecessary and build up what is stronger. Today I tweeted, too. I wrote, “America needs a revision. When we draft we make mistakes. We go back and revise and revise until we improve what we started.” When I was looking for American quotes that inspired me, I found this one by Winston Churchill, who noted that we tend to write bad drafts but do well to revise:
“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”
Another quote, and one that led to this week’s prompt in addition to Mona, comes from a woman I admire greatly, Michelle Obama:
“The fact is, with every friendship you make, and every bond of trust you establish, you are shaping the image of America projected to the rest of the world. That is so important. So when you study abroad, you’re actually helping to make America stronger.”
Michelle encourages us Americans to make our nation stronger through friendships and bonds of trust abroad. That’s what the Ranch is here for — to create a place where we can come from anywhere, create bonds of trust and friendships, and create art with words. Literary art has a place in this mixed-up world. It can be for escape, exploring, learning, teaching, delighting and agitating. Now grab a cat and a pen…
August 17, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that heals America. Difficult and idealistic, I know. Think about building bonds of trust or stories of friendship. It could be a positive story about America. Bonus points for hugging a cat.
Respond by August 22, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 23). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Community Mutterings by Charli Mills
“Move your car!” Stan yells from his porch. Viola ignores him, dropping off kale for her friend.
“It’s a fire lane!”
Viola mutters, “There’s no fire, old codger.”
The young mechanic next door nearly swipes Viola’s Honda, racing his Dodge truck again. “Idiot!”
Finished with her garden deliveries, Viola drives to the vigil. She’s expecting the liberal-minded to light candles for Charlottesville. Solidarity. As the wife of an Iranian grad-student in a small American college town, she misses urban diversity.
Viola’s eyes sting when she sees Stan hobble from his neighbor’s Dodge, both lighting candles. “Glad you both came.”
May 25: Flash Fiction Challenge
White clouds scud across the blue skies of Kansas. An ocean of green grass spreads out below and I can imagine how the pioneer wagons with white tarps once mirrored the procession of cumulus clouds. In a modern car the going is smooth, but in a wagon the path was not easy. Wagons wore ruts and packed the earth so hard, grass doesn’t grow in some places even today. Ravines and creeks were dangerous, and pioneers often drowned crossing rivers. My idyllic vision of Conestogas crossing the prairie is far from reality.
Yet there’s a reality often overlooked in the western expansion of the US — the perspective from women who came west. Just as I’m driving the car in our mini RV train of sorts, women often managed the reins of the wagons. At the end of the day after traveling, I can still feel the movement of the road. I’m sure the wagon drivers laid down at night feeling the sway and jostle of their conveyances, too. But what’s significant is what’s omitted from the pioneer diaries and accounts. According to one historian, as many as 90 percent of the women who came west were in one phase of pregnancy or another. There were plains so flat and wagons so many, I wonder how women found privacy for the most personal of functions?
A community of women would have been important. They could look after one another and best understand feminine needs. But what about those on the fringes? I often think of Nancy Jane Holmes as a feminine rebellious spirit. But how rebellious could her gender be? Evidence indicates she had a child out of wedlock and later lived with a man as a common-law wife. She grew up on the prairie and I imagine she learned to hunt and fix game for meals. She was more hunter than farmer. Did she ever ride with the buffalo hunters? What did she think of the groups of women who passed through in the wagon trains? What did they think of her, or say to her?
For men, the westward expansion was more adventurous. In their prime, they were not burdened by bodies meant for fertility. They didn’t experience monthly fluxes, pregnancy or nursing an infant. They were free to roam, explore and be independent even with families in tow. If men were single and in a group, often they were pushing longhorns to Kansas from Texas or serving as soldiers in the US Cavalry or frontiersmen who scouted for wagon trains and hunted buffalo.
Driving across the lone prairie, I wonder at how to breakthrough the stereotypes of these past experiences, to acknowledge what was common and likely, yet imagine the unrecorded exceptions. History has documented James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, to the minute detail. There’s no new evidence of his experiences, yet I think there’s much left to say about them by looking at the other people he interacted with at Rock Creek. Especially the women. Historians have turned wild imaginations toward Sarah Shull, and yet have virtually ignored Nancy Jane Holmes (or Jane Wellman). She was on the fringe of what was typical of pioneer women. She was more of a frontierswoman. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Kansas provides rich history, and tomorrow my research here begins.
For the challenge, I’m thinking about the longhorns who also once spread across the plains. The word longhorns evokes notions of cowboys and cattle, which featured later in Wild Bill Hickok’s life. It’s also the name of western steakhouses, bars, football teams and a type of cheddar cheese. Dig deep enough and you’ll find some obscure term for computer technology. It’s the same idea with history, and I look forward to digging.
May 25, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a that includes the word longhorn. You can go with any of its meanings or make it a name of a person or organization. Cheese or cattle, technology or place, what can you create from the western icon? Go traditional or new; go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 30, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 31). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Myths of Longhorns (from Rock Creek) by Charli MIlls
“Ever see cowboys riding the trail with their longhorns?” Jesse asked.
Sarah was tucked in a blanket, sitting on Jesse’s porch. Shulls Mill squatted dingy with lumbering dust and brick buildings. Not the crisp colors of the prairie. “No,” she replied.
“But I thought Hickok was Marshall of the biggest cowtown.”
“That was later. I saw plenty of oxen and some had long horns.”
“I pictured longhorns on the prairies.”
“Buffaloes. I once saw a herd so large the ground shook.”
“Weren’t you afraid of Indians?”
“Jesse, there’s much about the west not in those dime novels you read.”
February 23: Flash Fiction Challenge
In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”
January 5: Flash Fiction Challenge
Balls of ice the size of frozen peas pelt my RV, and I know what it is to live inside a rattle.Winter on Mars is not what I expected. The red desert of southern Utah, dominated by the sandstone pillars of Zion and mesas of clay is a region carved by water and baked hard in the hot sun. Winter as I know it something white and gray. Winter in Virgin, Utah is colorful — vegetation turns green, white snow caps and stripes the mesas, skies display different shades of blue, and the clay darkens when wet. It’s wet more than I expected. And the rattling hail is the noisemaker of January.
These days, in the US, conversations between divided political alignments clamor over one another to be heard, but it only sounds like discordant hail on a fiberglass roof. We prepare for the transfer of leadership this month, and so much doubt has been cast upon what is true that everyone thinks their neighbor is a liar. Journalists scramble to uphold their profession in a hostile climate. No one trusts the media. Fake news has become a buzzword. Critical thinking and courtesy ran away with the dish and the spoon. And everyone tweets, including our incoming president.
Like my character Danni in Miracle of Ducks, I want to hide out in the basement of a research library as if it were a bunker and society has become dangerously zombie-like. I don’t want my brains eaten. I still use them. History, my haven of sorts, only mocks my desire to retreat by reflecting back to me the same noisy division happening right here, right now. My other WIP, Rock Creek, takes place at the cusp of the US Civil War (or War of Norther Aggression, depending upon which side you read, and read both). North Carolina featured then, and now.
David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles was a real person in history, and he was born in North Carolina. It’s a state marked by distinct boundary lines of class division. Plantations fueled by the institution of slavery stretched across the rich coastal plains. In the Appalachian mountains to the west, descendants of the Scots-Irish carved out a tough living growing grain and hogs, proud of their subsistence-living. Another class was emerging, educated and of minor means, seeking to participate in an economy that was heavily divided between ballrooms and backwoods. Cobb was from that emerging class.
History has not been kind to Cobb. Historians from North Carolina to Kansas have vilified his name, intentions and memory. James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, was similarly muddied in history, but he had a champion who took to research as diligently as my character Danni. Biographer, Joseph Rosa, sifted through the opinions, examined as many facts as he could find, and applied careful consideration to his interpretations. When it came to Cobb, Rosa accepted the very opinions he dismissed for Hickok. Not exactly an even playing field. But Rosa taught me the value of diligent research.
While combing through North Carolina newspapers to find any mention of Cobb to corroborate or refute claims regarding crimes and career, I noticed a huge introduction of laws in January 1859, a month before Cobb left North Carolina. Other than finding it mildly interesting that the new state governance passed more laws than previous election years, I pushed past to find mention of sheriff activities. I thought back to this outline of law changes recently when I read the modern headline: “North Carolina is no Longer a Democracy.” I thought, North Carolina is experienced at this. It is almost as if the pre-Civil War politics is repeating.
As a fiction writer, I can imagine how Cobb must have felt after the November 1858 election. I believe he did not intend to get elected, but elected (for a fourth term) he was. By this time, he had moved his parents to Tennessee across the mountain pass where two of his sisters lived with their husbands who were twin brothers to Cobb’s wife Mary. He and his brother Leroy had already scouted the Colorado gold fields which were not producing much, and that’s most likely when Cobb first eyed the potential of the road ranch at Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory. Cobb wanted economic opportunity and the elected North Carolina body supported the slave industry and sought succession.
Reading over those law changes in North Carolina in January 1859, many required sheriff’s to take action Cobb must have felt was wrong. What do you do when your state is no longer “a democracy”? One option, the one I believe Cobb took, is that you leave. Today, I doubt people are going to leave North Carolina as the outgoing state government attempts to cripple the incoming leadership. After all, there really is no settlement on the next frontier. I may call southern Utah Mars, but fleeing to Mars for better opportunities is not an option.
So, I’m stuck here in an icy winter storm contemplating what to do next. Like Danni, I think I’m going to bury myself in quiet research, but like the women who followed Cobb, I’m also going to stand strong wherever it is I find myself standing. The sabers are rattling, but I don’t yet know if its an echo from the past or a vision of the future.
According to Chilean history, saber-rattling comes from an incident that took place on September 3, 1924, when a group of young military officers protested against the political class and the postponement of social measures by rattling their sabers within their scabbards. In case you might want to use this phrase in the prompt.
January 5, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rattling sound. It can be an intimidating sound of protest, a disorienting loud sound, a musical expression or a gentle baby’s toy. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by January 10, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 11). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Unexpected Help (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Coins in a coffee can rattled as the boy ran across the parking lot. “Dr. Danni Gordon!” He yelled.
Danni and Michael turned. She recognized the boy from the class she had toured with Bubbie.
“For you. To find Bubbie.” He thrust the makeshift rattle at her. She peeled back the lid to see dollars among coins.
“To find Bubbie?”
“I heard Bubbie the Archaeology dog was AWOL. I took up a collection for a reward.”
Despite her panic, she forced a smile. Michael joined her and asked, “AWOL?”
“My Dad’s gone to Iraq. He’s a soldier, not AWOL.”
NOTE: AWOL is a military term for “absence without leave.”
With the New Year reflections, I’ve decided to alternate working on my two WIPs. I’ll write from the one I’m working on for the week.
December 15: Flash Fiction Challenge
Seeking icicles, I’ve returned to Zion Canyon. Red walls stained with black mineralization are capped with white and pink peaks as the sandstone fades. It doesn’t truly fade; it’s layers of sediment baked in earth’s oven and uplifted in turmoil, or perhaps triumph. Miles up the canyon, a river bubbles out of a cavern and repeats it’s process of carving. Upstream the rock layer is hard and cuts so steep that 16 miles of water touches each rock side. It’s called The Narrows and it’s hikeable, if you call wading and swimming a hike. Perhaps in summer when the desert turns on heat of its own.
For now I zip my fleece and scan the red rock walls for ice.
Each time I return to Zion, I learn something new. The black streaks, for example, are the tracks of rainwater. I can see icicles far up the canyon walls, but none along the trail. It was warmed up on Mars since last week. Closer scrutiny of the icicles reveal they are no longer ice, but white shadows. A new mineralization. Rain leaves traces of black, and ice leaves outlines of white. Ghost-cicles. A third color, that of algae-green pools, has gone missing. Evidently the famous Emerald Pools are not such in winter. I’ve climbed two miles and found nothing but fades.
My quickened breath reminds me I should hike more often. I say so to The Hub and he grunts that walking would be better. Some parts of the trail are so steep I can’t step my heel down, and I climb on tippy-toes. When the trail dips downward I breathe easier, but take tiny steps like a scrambling crab so I don’t slip on the sandy mud that sweeps across the paved trail of red cement. Somewhere along the trail my second wind kicks in and my leg muscles loosen up enough that my steps feel more confident. Never a sprinter; I’m built for endurance.
Disappointed to not find any icicles or gem-like pools, I see the sun lighting up a peak of white that towers like a glowing ember above the walls of red cast in perpetual shadow with the low winter sun. I take a few photos and notice a bird. That’s when the enormity of scale hits me. These sandstone cliffs are nearly a mile high. That I can even see a winged creature that isn’t some gigantic dragon is remarkable. Pines look like scrubs, caverns like pockmarks, and boulders bigger than buses like stepping stones. Until something appears against the cliffs, the mind is willing to believe they aren’t really the tallest sandstone features in the world.
Because I can see this bird and it’s flying near the rim, I realize it must be huge to be seen. A bald eagle? No white head or tail. A golden eagle? Maybe. I watch it glide against the red rock, approaching a fissure in the face. It disappears into a cave. Yet another thing to fade before my eyes on this hike. Ice, algae and now a bird. Eagles build impressive nests high up on ledges, but this bird went into the wall. One bird in all of Zion does that. And I’m once again breathless — this time because I realized I just saw a rare California Condor, the largest bird in North America.
Seeing this soaring giant of Zion brings up an issue of names. The Hub says we saw condors all the time in north Idaho. Another tourist, joins me in the watch and the bird emerges. He thinks it’s a buzzard. Vultures, buzzards and condors are all raptors and different as bald eagles from goldens. Science is specific about how it names species so we get it all sorted out and the three of us marvel at the rare sight.
If only human names were easy to apply and differentiate. Over time, history and historical writers can struggle with names. Take the names Sarah and James. These two names create challenges for me in my writing of Rock Creek. Sarah is the name of both Cobb’s former mistress and his brother’s wife. Cobb’s full name was David Colbert McCanles, and his nickname was Cobb. But no one recorded the nicknames of the two Sarahs. Since one is the protagonist, I kept her name Sarah, and gave Cobb’s sister-in-law the probable familiar name of Sally.
Ah, but the James names are more numerous. Wild Bill Hickok’s full name was James Butler Hickok. He wasn’t dubbed Wild Bill until after the Civil War. Historical accounts say that Cobb teased the young man for his protruding upper lip and called him Duck Bill. But why Bill? One biographer thinks James went by the name Bill, his father’s name. When Cobb’s brother gave his statement and accused three men of murdering his brother and two ranch hands, he was recorded as calling Hickok, Dutch Bill, probably because he didn’t know Hickok by any other name. The one writing out the statement must have heard “Dutch” rather than “Duck.” If you don’t know the joke, Duck Bill doesn’t make sense.
But that’s not all. In addition to James Hickok, the other Pony Express employee on duty at Rock Creek the day of the incident was James Brinks. Brinks also had the nickname Doc, not because he was a physician but most likely because he worked on the steamship docks along the Missouri. He, along with the station manager (Horace Wellman), and Hickock were accused of murdering Cobb and his two men — James Gordon and James Woods. Four of the six men involved in this hotly debated historical incident were named James.
Joseph Rosa, Hickok biographer, writes:
“No single gunfight, with the possible exception of the Earp-Clanton fight in October, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, has caused so much controversy as the Hickok-McCanles affair at Rock Creek on the afternoon of Friday, July 12, 1861.”
Families, historians, State Historical societies, books, movies, magazine editors and western writers have all squared off over the years into factions. I name these the White Hat/Black Hat factions because each side believes to understand what happened that day you have to place a good-guy white hat on one and a bad-guy black hat on the other. You can read the nasty digs historians have given one another in their books or articles. I’ve interviewed McCandless family historians who tell me Hickock was short, mean and the devil on earth. I’ve been interviewed by a writer of a modern documentary who only wanted facts that painted McCanles in the worst way possible. Joseph Rosa offers the most compelling account because of his research into Hickok, but he fails to give the same diligence for McCanles.
No one considered the women’s perspectives.
Several historians did take an interest in Sarah Shull (often miss-naming her Kate Shell), but only due to intrigue over a perceived lover’s triangle between her, McCanles and Hickok. And sadly, no one even tried to research Jane Holmes’ name, only known as the common-law wife of Horace Wellman. To understand the Rock Creek Affair, you need to understand the men through the women’s lens. You need to understand the women. This may shock the history of the West, but women had motives, too.
After my own shock of seeing a California Condor in flight (you, too can see the spec in my photo for this prompt), I remembered that what appears and fades before us can have a sort of non-verbal language that is life. We might set out to see one thing and see another. The best we can do is try to name our experience. Names are such a human attribute. What is in a name?
December 15, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) explore the importance of a name within a story. It can be naming an experience, introducing an extraordinary name, or clarifying a name (who can forget Who’s on First). Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by December 20, 2016 to be included in the compilation (published December 21). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
His Name Remembered (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Nancy Jane shoveled dirt over her baby’s nameless grave. Her Pa retreated to the barn and more liquor. Hang up that suit first, she reminded him.
That man, that awful man who played his fiddle over the open grave, as if she wanted to share her sorrow uninvited. That man who hauled her father to the gravesite behind his horse all because Pa stole a suit in his drunken sorrow. Who did he think he was to name Pa a thief? He demanded Pa return the suit cleaned and mended. That man. Cobb McCanles.
She’d not forget his name.
Puppy Names (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Selling puppies became a town spectacle. Ike’s coffee buddies showed up to chaperone, making certain Ike’s pups went to good hunting homes. Danni didn’t care if they hunted. Everyone wanted the male, including this couple.
“He bites,” said Danni. On cue, Bubbie chomped the tender spot behind Greg’s knee, pinching the skin. Danni diverted Bubbie, smiling.
They bought one of the roan sisters. Trina suggested the name Maria, and Greg countered with Cooper or North. Len from the coffee klatch suggested Buckshot.
As the couple drove off, Danni turned to Len. “Seriously? You’d name one of these girls Buckshot?”
October 7: Flash Fiction Challenge
The way he bounds across the fading green grass of my lawn says he’s still a puppy. Yet, he’s well over 100 pounds with long white fur wet with morning frost. His tri-colored face looks like that of a St. Bernard. I just caught him and a chunky Dobernam Pincher lifting legs over my snap dragons.
I’ve never seen these dogs before, but here they are.
Dobie has a collar and I call. A sleepy voice acknowledges the one dog, but not the other. Thirty minutes later and the owner collects her dog. She lives across the highway and train tracks from us, on the hill. I cringe at the thought that these two crossed those deadly paths. Hunk stays behind and sprawls at my feet on the porch as I dial dispatch for the county sheriff.
Someone had reported a missing St. Bernard. Male. The dispatcher asks if my new dog is that gender. If she could see the long hair she might better understand my dilemma in answering! Maybe, I say. Then I remember he lifted his leg on my flowers. Yes! The missing dog was reported to be male, too so she gives me a phone number to call, but no one answers. For Hunk’s safety we house him in the garage with Bootsy. Somehow, the Hub knew he wouldn’t harm the cat. He doesn’t but eats all her morning kibble, then pokes his nose out the cat door.
About the time we — as in the Hub, his brother Gee, sister-in-law the Italian Cowgirl and me — wonder what to do, a truck pulls into our driveway. A small woman climbs out and in a worried tone, asks if we’ve seen a St. Bernard. Hunk’s real name is Doug and he’s only eight months old. He grins like a kid when we let him out and he sees his mama. She was worried he’d been stolen like her last dog. It broke her heart.
Thievery is on the rise in Elmira.
We tell Hunk’s mama that while we were gone a week to Nevada someone stole every last apple from our tree. I was devastated when we came home. No more apple pannekoeken for breakfast; no apple crisp or apple pie; no apples to sauce, dry or cider. We had shared with the bucks who munched nightly on the dropped apples. We gathered up fallen apples before we left and never considered that anyone would steal the entire crop in the tree.
Hunk’s mama tells us that the blueberry farmer on the hill above Elmira lost half her harvest in a night to thieves. Another neighbor has lost all her eggs. Someone is stealing food.
Never would I turn down a hungry person. In fact, I feed people; it’s in my nature. With family who followed us 16 hours from Nevada, the first thing I did when I got home was ready the kitchen. I’d happily share my garden harvests. Most of my neighbors are the giving sort. And most of us work hard to plant, hoe and harvest food. To have that stolen is a deep insult. It’s time and effort none of us can easily get back. It was to save us money and provide a treat for us and visitors in winter. Food is to be shared, neither hoarded nor filched.
The thought of having a dog stolen is just as unsettling. It’s like a family abduction. Most of us wear that worried face we saw on Hunk’s mama when she pulled in to ask about her dog. Missing is hard to take; stolen is unconscionable. When I posted Hunk on Facebook with my phone number, many people said keep him; he’s beautiful. Yes, he is. But he’s no object. Had he been abandoned or abused we would have done something to protect him. Never would I steal another family’s beloved four-paw.
This, of course, takes me to pondering Rock Creek. Thievery is an underlying theme. Cobb McCanles historically was accused of stealing tax-payers’ money in North Carolina and robbing pioneers on the immigrant trail past his ranch. Cobb was sheriff in North Carolina and once he arrived in Nebraska Territory he formally applied to be adjudicator of local crimes. The territorial governor denied his request because the population was too sparse in his county, but like Elmira, his ranch had a major thoroughfare. You never know who wanders these roads anonymously. In the end, Cobb’s that is, he was the victim of theft. The Pony Express bought his Rock Creek Station without ever paying him. Yet, Sarah Shull returned home to North Carolina as an old woman where family and neighbors believed her to be in possession of “gold and silver” that Cobb had stole earlier.
My research shows that these myths are unfounded, though historians continue to repeat them. During the Civil War, the Watauga County courthouse and all its records burned to the ground. Those who claim that Cobb stole tax-payers’ money also claim that the evidence went up in smoke. Yet, I discovered an interesting way to explore the legal proceedings without court documents. Because Cobb McCanles left the area, any lawsuits or pending crimes had to be published in the legal notices of a newspaper. The only legal notices that mention Cobb relate to the sale of his own property in an elusive manner that avoided a creditor. The creditor is actually the one who scammed locals out of their property by selling big lots with homes used as credit. As sheriff, Cobb had to collect money due or serve notice of default. He could have stolen money had the locals any to take. Instead, he sold his property in succession to several buyers to avoid his creditor’s claim. It’s complicated, and it worked. He defaulted but was not a thief.
Perhaps it is a fine line between needs and wants; earning and taking; survival and thievery.
October 7, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a thief or a theft. Consider motives and repercussions. Is the act a matter of perception? Is it a daring maneuver or a desperate bid for survival? Think about different instances of stealing.
Respond by October 13, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Prairie Justice by Charli Mills
Joe’s body crumpled to the ground. Sarah held back Nancy Jane who trembled while they watched Cobb punish Nancy Jane’s father.
“Thieves get the third degree, Joe Holmes. You were caught with stolen goods.” Cobb hauled the old man to the thorny locust tree.
“No!” Nancy Jane screamed and Sarah lost her grip on the woman. She flung herself between her father and Cobb. Sarah flinched.
“This is interesting.” Hickok walked up to Sarah from the barn, arms folded, revolvers resting on both hips.
“Do something,” Sarah pleaded.
“A thief deserves a noose,” he drawled. “Joe’s getting off easy.”
Got Your Back
When facing a trial, unyielding institutions or difficult committees it helps to have an advocate. Sometimes that advocate is hired, and often not. A mother might have her child’s back or a grandchild might look out for the elderly.
The idea for “got your back” sprang from support for a veteran facing a difficult situation. The expression comes from being in a dangerous situation where you might need another to cover your back as you move forward. In the military, this is called “got your 6.” And there is an organization that seeks to empower today’s US veterans to be community leaders and for the community to have a more normal perspective of veterans beyond “heroic or broken.”
Check out the organization Got Your 6 and see the video clip at the end of this compilation.
The following stories are based on the August 12, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a character who is called to have the back of another.
Back Up by Sherri Matthews
The questions had started out basic but became more complex with every turn of the page.
Write in as much detail as possible the applicant’s difficulties with everyday tasks.
She sighed and ran her hands through her unwashed hair as she glanced up at her kitchen clock. Damn. Already noon and still she hadn’t showered.
Her phone vibrated, she jumped.
“Mrs Martin? This is Dee Caldwell, the Council Welfare Officer. I had a message to call you about helping fill out some forms for your daughter. When can I visit?”
Someone had her back. Someone cared just enough.
Back to the Future by Geoff Le Pard
‘Sore?’ Paul massaged Mary’s back.
‘Hmm. I need a better chair.’
‘What you reading?’
‘Rupert’s notes. He’s determined to find my twin.’
‘What’s he found?’
‘She was definitely Katherine not Sharon. That’s my imaginary friend. Katharine was adopted by a family called Potts.’
‘They moved to Ireland in 1984. He’s going to see what he can find. He wants me to go too.’
‘What about you?’
‘Would you mind? I’d take the baby but you’ll have Penny.’
‘You know I’ll do whatever you need.’
‘Course. Covering your back has always been my priority!’
Lost Loyalties by Christina Rose
She found the emails from his ex, the U-Haul rental receipt in her name, obvious signs of a quick exit. He he was gone by the time she got home.
I emailed him, unleashing my rage, my fury over their actions, the betrayal she was too brokenhearted to fight. He took the lowest of blows, personal attacks, things she said behind my back.
She denied saying those things of course, but I always wondered.
Years later, we don’t talk. Memories of me, bring back memories of him. Avoidance from the friend I once loved, no appreciation for the loyalty.
Providing Cover by A. R. Amore
The overnight detective was young, respectful and professional; he started almost every sentence with, “I’m sorry sir, but…” Chief Barret felt he actually meant that.
“Bring him,” he ordered and the detective nodded.
When they brought him all he could say was, “It looks bad but they have it wrong. It was a wild frat party…”
“The girl was 17,” Barret said. “You drugged her.”
“I didn’t,” his son mumbled. “No, I…”
This was his second college and third assault allegation.
“She was drugged; raped.” The Chief stood thinking: I won’t cover this one up. He needs to learn.
Growth: a Mindset by Norah Colvin
Marnie propped her head on one hand while the pencil in the other faintly scratched the paper. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that she didn’t get it. But she didn’t get it. She didn’t get last year, or the year before. Why should she get it now? What was the point? Her brain just didn’t work that way. She was dumb. They had always said she was dumb. No point in trying.
Then the teacher was there, encouraging, supporting, accepting. “Let me help you,” she said. “You can do this. Let’s break it down into steps. First …”
Eating…by Bill Bennett
I had to have his back. I couldn’t count the times he had saved me from being bitten and turned. The Ruger 10/22 was a great weapon for killing the eaters, and I had never had a problem until now. The stupid gun kept jamming. Was it the amo or was it because the gun was dirty? Never the less I had to do something. I pushed my back against his and jabbed each eater in the eye socket with the gun and thrust harder into the skull, killing each monster and the threat of catching the hideous virus.
I Have Your Back, Grandma by Kate Spencer
“I have your back, Grandma”
“Yes, you have tact. Always have – ever since you were a little boy.”
“Grandma, listen, I’ll take care of you.”
“You? What can you do? Oh, goodness, no Jason. I’m fine and can manage quite nicely. Did I tell you I went strawberry picking last weekend?”
“Yes you did, but I wanted you to know that I’ll be there for you.”
Grandma walked over to the kitchen counter and Jason watched as she re-arranged some tomatoes in a bowl with one hand and quietly wiped her eye with the other.
“Love you Grandma.”
The Irony by Ruchira Khanna
Trisha lay still accompanied by silent sniffs.
“Don’t worry Trish. I am right here” she said in a pacified tone.
“Oh! I am scared Mommy,” she said while sniffing, “Will it hurt?”
“Not at all dear!”
Soon she felt the prick, the pressure on her arm build up, and within seconds, everything was back to normal.
She wailed, whimpered as the nurse dabbed cotton on the spot.
Mom took over with a gentle smile while making her sit up.
Aha! The paradox of life that in spite of a whining, weepy kid, the Mom was wearing a smile.
The Advocate by Sarah Unsicker
Mrs. Smith felt less alone when she walked into the room with her advocate behind her, but she still instinctively cowered when she saw the table with ten people around it. Ten people unwilling to expend resources on her child. Ten people who saw his naughty behavior as willful disobedience rather than inability to comply.
The teachers’ names flew past before she could take them in.
“I’m sorry, can we repeat those introductions, slower, so I can write down everybody’s names?” said the advocate.
Mrs. Smith’s shoulders relaxed. Finally, at this meeting, somebody had her back—and her son’s.
Two at Her Back by Paula Moyer
“You will have 10 minutes to empty your desk.” Jean knew she was good. What was up? She handed her key to the guard. Walked out like a robot.
Still numb, she drove home, walked up the drive, unlocked the door. Ellie was on the other side, whole body wagged by the tail. Jean dropped into the couch. Ellie’s manic wagging stopped. She plopped her head onto Jean’s knee.
Jean pulled out her phone, scrolled to Lynn. “Cousin, I just got fired.”
Lynn gasped. “How could they?”
“Well.” Lynn’s trademark.
“I’ll just take my business elsewhere.”
I’ve Got Your Back by Irene Waters
Close to the summit, Kathy’s hand hold faultered. The crevice was tiny and her anxiety was turning to panic.
“You can do it.” Richard gently encouraged her onwards in his calming, believable voice. “I’ve got your back so don’t worry. Your safe. One step at a time.” She trusted him and reached the top.
Now, back home, they danced. She loved being held against him but Richard was dancing clumsily, trying to look behind him to avoid collisions on the crowded dance floor.
“Look forward. Trust me, like I trusted you. I’ve got your back now. You have mine.”
Chips Are Unhealthy for More Reasons Than You Think by Dave Madden
The door jam is my Prime Meridian. In waiting for the right choice, I notice potato chips next to the garbage.
A wave of boys wishing “good mornings” heightened wonderment: How good would it have been had I crossed any time zones through the door’s threshold?
An innocent Kindergartner admitted, “A friend shared them.”
My tone validated, with no hint at hiding urgency, “We don’t share food at school, so go throw them away.”
He nods his head; I turn around.
Crunch, crunch, crunch!
Even when teachers try to have students’ backs, it doesn’t always go as planned.
Family Reunion by Sarah Brentyn
“That’s not how it happened,” Terri barked.
“Who cares,” Kim interrupted, “I want to hear more about Tracy’s new ‘boyfriend’.”
“No,” Mark gestured with his beer, “let’s hear more about this supposed thing I did to Tracy. I hurt her wittle feelings?”
Britney laughed. “It’s bullshit. Like her new job.”
“Tracy?” Her mother glared. “Don’t just stand there like an idiot.”
Tracy’s boyfriend squeezed her hand. “It was nice to meet all of you but we have a weekend meeting at work.” He turned to her. “Do you want to leave now or wait a bit?”
“Now is good.”
Undaunted by Ann Edall-Robson
Hearing the horses milling around in the corral, she slipped into her coat. Picking up her rifle, the undaunted woman headed for the barn.
She shivered. The hair on the back of her neck was standing. The screaming had been sporadic for weeks. Tonight it was close.
The tawny coloured cougar lay waiting. Ears back. Tail twitching. Ready to spring.
A blur rushed past her towards the cat.
One shot and it was over.
Squatting, she rested her hand on the dog that came to stand beside her.
She depended on her partner. He was always there for her.
Legal Maneuvering by Larry LaForge
Judge Stone called Ed to the podium and read the charge. “How do you plead?”
Ed stood nervously.
“Not guilty,” someone proclaimed from behind. All eyes turned toward Edna, whose loud voice surprised even her.
The Judge was startled, then amused. “Does she always have your back?”
Ed answered immediately. “Guilty as charged, Your Honor.”
Judge Stone didn’t know if Ed was admitting he ran the stop sign or proudly affirming he has a supportive spouse.
The Judge smiled, scratched his head and then announced “Charge dropped.”
Ed ignored Edna’s signal to remain silent. “The defense rests,” he said.
Special Recipe by Pete Fanning
They tortured that boy. Day after day, smacking his head and taunting him. He never said much. But that numb look on his face said it all. His clothes were a mess. His hair butchered. And that bruise under his collar? I’d been there.
I don’t know how they found out Butch was on assistance, but by then I’d had enough.
The hell with probation, the next morning I wrapped that hairnet for the last time. When Butch arrived I took that bowl of pudding from off his plate and winked.
“Might want to pass on the that today.”
Sarah’s Deliverer by Charli Mills
He’d hid the kittens Mr. Boots had in the barn. On those nights when coyotes yipped and she felt abandoned on the prairie, Hickok read to her his mother’s letters. Last night, after Cob raged that he’d clean out Rock Creek, Hickok calmed her fear. “I got your back, Sarah,” he said.
Now that Cob had thrown Wellman to the ground, Nancy Jane growled by the door and young Sally whimpered from under the kitchen table. Hickok strode tall and calm from the barn, walked right past Cob.
“Friends, aint’ we Hickok?”
No Cob, it’s my back he has.
The Good Parent by Jules Paige
Children who are different – some schools want to put them on drugs.
To make them docile and compliant and pliable. Ones who are curious,
disrupting the normal routines of a class. But Janice had her son Manning’s
back. As a parent you have be your child’s best advocate. Since they
just don’t always have the right words to express their needs.
If you didn’t know it, at least where Janice lived there was such a
document called “The Parent’s Bill of Rights.’ And she used it. Janice
had Manning’s back. And he knew it.
Veterans, we got your 6!
August 12: Flash Fiction Challenge
His back is to me as he casts his flies. Hoppers or nymphs. He’d know; he discerns to the insect hatch. I observe not to plop a reading seat on an ant hill or encounter anything crawling across stones in the creek.
He’s Sgt. Mills, ex-Army Ranger and I’m the buckaroo writer he teasingly calls the Cowardly Cowgirl. He tosses a live grasshopper at my open Kindle and I squeal. He laughs and asks how I’d ever survive in the wilderness. I’d manage. After all, I’m a survivor.
We each have our own kind of toughness. He has physical, mental and moral strength; not someone to be broken. If you’ve ever watched a special forces movie with the proverbial ring-the-bell-to-quit element, know that Ranger Mills never rung the bell. The Army pushed him until it proved he was a soldier with no quit in him. He never quits.
In my wilderness, I know what it is to quit and be broken. My toughness comes from fighting back. There are some bells I’ve never rung — I escaped a family dynamic few ever do. I know to be hopeful, to persevere and to believe in a greater good. I’ve learned that quality of life is worth fighting for and that every individual has a right to his or her full potential. I am empowered.
We both have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The gift of surviving; the mechanism itself that allows one to survive.
I’ll advocate for others with PTSD, and even share snippets of my story, but frankly I’m not a fan of labels. While diagnosis can offer insight, I don’t ever want it to be an excuse. When I was first diagnosed 24 years ago, it explained so much. I had a great team of therapists who loaded up my toolbox with ways to cope — emotional reprogramming, art therapy, parenting classes, group therapy. Recently I learned of the Human Givens approach in the UK and although that wasn’t my course of therapy I found several similarities. It starts with awareness.
Yet it I’d be unaware for years about my husband’s PTSD. It wasn’t until a mutual military friend asked for my help with her volunteer service to the Army psych unit at Fort Snelling (in St. Paul, Minnesota). She was using auricular acupuncture in a study to reduce combat stress. I did intake and brought rocks (that’s for another story, one day). Slowly, I began to see patterns in these soldiers that I recognized in my own Ranger Mills. She wasn’t the first person to point to him and PTSD.
I met my best friend Kate the first day of college. We were both writing majors and OTAs– older than average students. Our adviser was a no-show and from day one we looked out for each other. Our bond was instantaneous, but it took the normal paths of trust and disclosure to learn that we both had been diagnosed with PTSD two years earlier. She was married to a combat veteran who was irresponsibly put on medication and pulled off without thought to consequences. In a PTSD fugue state (where he’d wake up in the middle of the night reenacting scenes from Vietnam), he shot himself.
These are hard topics to share; hard for discourse. Many people squirm and change the subject. Yet Kate and I found in each other a friendship that had at its core an understanding of the brain’s survival mechanism. We could discuss symptoms, therapies, studies and stories without censure and feel a peace at knowing what each of us had gone through was familiar.
Kate never came out and said that my husband had PTSD, but she cleverly included him in key conversations over the years that planted a seed in my head. Even after my other friend suggested that my husband reach out to the VA, I never disclosed my thinking to Kate until she was on her deathbed. She nodded. She knew. And that’s when she gave me the second best piece of deathbed advice: “Charli, you go home and tell him, you have his back.”
Simple words soldiers understand.
When in the heat of combat, when my husband jumped into Grenada with 110 pounds in his rucksack and landed with his parachute looking like Swiss cheese from bullet holes, all he fought for was the brother next to him. Not flag and country, not God and humanity, but for the soldier in the same firefight as he. 110 pounds was nothing. He’d easily carry a 175 pound Ranger because not only do they not quit, they don’t leave anyone behind.
I came home from Helena and told Ranger Mills I had his back. He teared up, nodded and choked out a “Thank you.”
His PTSD is unlike mine in a few significant ways. First, I developed PTSD as a child which impaired personality development. He went into the Army mostly developed (18 is young for the male mind which some scientists suggest isn’t completely hardwired until the early 20s). Second, I’ve had a formal diagnosis and therapy. His diagnosis happens tomorrow at a hearing and he hasn’t once been examined by a qualified (or unqualified for that matter) professional. Typically, the VA assigns a diagnosis upon proof of combat service.
I have his back tomorrow. And I know I’m preparing for a fight because I’m going to push against the grain. I don’t believe that Ranger Mills has PTSD from a single point of conflict — the invasion of Grenada. I believe he already had PTSD before he jumped. I believe the Army Ranger School actually triggers the PTSD response and then qualifies those who can use it to become soldiers who don’t quit. Hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal, both symptoms of PTSD, are also traits of the elite soldiers.
The Army trained its Rangers “live” between Vietnam and Desert Storm in conflicts we never heard about in South America. Panama, Nicaragua, the Rangers were essentially the CIAs backup army, but shh, I never told you that. Neither has my husband. He’s loyal to the creed. I found out through a Catholic group (in college) who protested the School of Americas and had stories from nuns and priests in South America that never hit the news. What it does explain is his sustained exposure to PTSD triggering events. Ones the military will never grant him officially. But he has Grenada to count. Officially.
My next fight is against medication. Not once was I medicated until I voluntarily joined a PTSD drug study in the late 1990s. I had already been through my therapy and in control of my triggers for several years when I saw an ad for the study. Thinking I was going to help others, I went through a series of discomforting sessions until I received my second diagnosis of PTSD. Then they gave me pills. I wish I recall what they were; but I know they triggered symptoms I couldn’t control. I quit the meds immediately and the symptoms abated. I told the researchers what happened and it became a footnote in side-effect warnings.
Because of my experience, I don’t believe in medication as a way to cope with PTSD. Already, I think our culture is too quick to believe in the pill-that-solves-all. I’m not saying that drug therapy doesn’t have its place, but it should be either an emergency intervention to stabilize a person or the last tool in the box after trying other non-invasive therapies. In fact, the Journal of Psychiatric Practice posted a review to NOT recommend anxiety medication for PTSD. Had Kate’s husband not been medicated (he had lived with PTSD for over 20 years prior to being medicated), he might have lived to be the one at her side while she battled cancer.
Consider this statistic:
According to the VA, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. This means approximately 8,030 veterans kill themselves every year, more than 5,540 of whom are 50 or older.
Ranger Mills is 52. Tomorrow he gets his diagnosis. I will fight for him to get the best in the VA’s toolbox that doesn’t include medication first. I wonder how many of those veterans who died were offered nothing more than a prescription? They trained this Ranger never to quit. They can train this Ranger to know how to stand down his hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal. They can train him to manage his anger, to allow that civilians do things differently. They can help him with job-training or help him start a business, stand up for him when employers are unfair (his current employer pulled his route from him because he has this appointment tomorrow). I’ll help him communicate tomorrow; I’ll help him with future therapy; I’ll help him understand that PTSD is not a label or stigma.
I have his back.
August 12, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a character who is called to have the back of another. What circumstances led up to this moment? What are the character motives? Think about the interaction, the setting, the tone. What does it look like to have another’s back?
Sarah’s Deliverer by Charli Mills
He’d hid the kittens Mr. Boots had in the barn. On those nights when coyotes yipped and she felt abandoned on the prairie, Hickok read to her his mother’s letters. Last night, after Cob raged that he’d clean out Rock Creek, Hickok calmed her fear. “I got your back, Sarah,” he said.
Now that Cob had thrown Wellman to the ground, Nancy Jane growled by the door and young Sally whimpered from under the kitchen table. Hickok strode tall and calm from the barn, walked right past Cob.
“Friends, aint’ we Hickok?”
No Cob, it’s my back he has.