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April 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

The bunnies brought me cheer and a mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to a newsletter I subscribe to:

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

Daily Om, Planting the Seeds of Generosity

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

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

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

Brené Brown

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

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

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

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

Shared Between Neighbors by Charli Mills

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

🥕🥕🥕

April 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Way to Serve by Charli Mills

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

🥕🥕🥕

March 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glennon Doyle

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

Respond by March 30, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Wish to Escape by Charli Mills

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

🥕🥕🥕

March 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

The sound of voices in crowded places.

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

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

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

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

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

Respond by March 23, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

A Year Later by Charli Mills

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

🥕🥕🥕

March 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget eggshells. Some of us walk on broken glass.

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

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

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

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

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Myrtle’s Basket by Charli Mills

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

🥕🥕🥕

November 5: Flash Fiction Challenge

Wandering the pebble beach at McLain State Park, I lose track of time. I walk from the car through a forest rooted in eons of compacted sand dunes to emerge above the water. Lake Superior eats her shoreline like a sea-creature and the edge of the forest drops into her maw. For now, Lady Lake’s waves loll like the tongue of a placid pet. All it takes is for another gale to blow and she’ll bulldoze rocks to shore with bare teeth.

I follow the sandy trail to where it dips down a slope. It’s too fresh and granular to hold a path, and with each step, my feet sink and launch tiny avalanches of sand. A few months ago, the base of this transition zone formed a ten feet edge of sandy beach. Now, long ridges of rocks ranging in size from mangoes to huckleberries bury the beach.

Chaos is not without order. I notice the uniformity of different ridges and note the ones most likely to contain agates based on size. I’m searching for bars of rocks the size of purple grapes. I look for hints of copper in the bigger stones and readily find a water-worn piece of basalt with nodules of pyrite. The mineral forms cubes; the water prefers rounded edges.

With all the time in the world, water wins over rock.

It’s November. Winter arrives early to the Keweenaw. In fact, we had our first 2020 gale on September 3, two months ago. Littered leaves and people clad in knit hats slide into descending temperatures and accumulating snow. Already, our jut of land surrounded by Lake Superior has measured 11 inches of snow. So, you might be surprised to learn that I came to the lake today to swim. We have a rare break in the plummet to winter. It’s warm-ish and sunny.

On my head, I’m wearing a thick cable-knit hat. I’ve layered a swim top beneath a t-shirt, thermal long-sleeved shirt, and a down vest with a wool lining. But I wore my quick-dry kayak bottom that extend to my ankles and water shoes. Already, my exposed fingers are cold and I’m thinking this is a bad idea. Earlier in summer when I played in the waves with one of my local friends, she told me that some years you can swim in Lake Superior in November. I was captivated by the idea.

Today, with a stiff breeze clipping off the waves, fingers, and exposed ankles feeling the cold, I’m less captivated by a November dip in the lake. Undaunted, or stubborn, I must try. First, I circulate my blood by picking sun-warmed rocks. Each stone I touch holds heat. My hat itches and my head begins to feel hot. Time to dip my feet.

Cold can burn all the way to the marrow of bone.

I clench my teeth and reason the pain will soon pass. What a ridiculous thought, like sticking your hand in boiling water, expecting to adjust to the sensation. There is a reason our bodies react with alarm to extremes. I tolerate the pain for a full three minutes deciding I’m not here to prove any masochistic tenancies. Whatever romantic notion I held about swimming in Lake Superior in November vanish. I can say, I stood in Lake Superior in November and froze my ankles. I escape with all ten toes still attached.

Not one to waste time at the shoreline, I walk the water’s edge. I pluck a few wishing stones and pick up favosite — quartz-fossilized coral from ancient seas that existed long before glacier came and receded. Some of the fossils retain the shape of their honey-comb heads and other glitter with crystals. I collect enough to hold in each hand and sit in the sun-warmed rocks, close my eyes, and follow my breath in meditation.

When I stand up, I find time had been sitting next to me in the form of a 1982 rubber watch still as brown as the day it was lost. Objects make great props in the hands of fictional characters. They can initiate a story or provide a twist. I ponder this 38-year old cheap accessory, realizing that someone in the 1980s might have treasured it.

Lost time is the stuff that fuels the imagination.

November 5, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about lost time. You can write a realistic scenario or something speculative. How does lost time impact the character of your story? Bonus points if you include a 1982 brown rubber watch Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 10, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Not Her World by Charli Mills

Ivie stashed her digital watch in a pile of discarded clothes, ready to dive into Superior. She waved at her dad and brother bobbing in the lake. When she emerged, her family had vanished, the beach became a sterile room. Medical equipment pulsed and wheezed. Nurses initiated a flurry of activity until the room swelled with old people claiming to be her relatives. Ivie requested her watch to check the date and time for herself. A bearded geezer claimed it was lost the day of her accident. That’s when she knew. Ivie dove through time to a strange world.

🥕🥕🥕

October 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

My exuberance spills over, and birdseed scatters all over my back porch. I try to calm my shaking hands, remind myself to slow down and breathe. It’s a monsther of a month (thank you, D. for that word coinage), and this week is the busiest. Today, the Women Writing the West conference began online.

Earlier, I sat on my purple meditation pillow in the Unicorn Room for a three-hour critique with two authors and an agent. It always surprises me when so few writers take a chance — to enter a contest, to submit to a literary journal, or to sign up for a writing critique at a conference.

You gotta do the things that scare you.

Last night I confessed to my professor that terror frizzes my nerves every time I sat down to write my thesis. I recognized that any previous distractions or procrastination held these jumpy emotions. Like Anne Lamott hunting mice, I grabbed at the tails to listen to their squeaks, Yes, I know, I’m supposed to silence them, but I wanted to know THE fear. The one all the rest of the fears build upon.

You know what that mouse said? Beneath it all, I fear those I love, those who believe in me, those who cheer me on are going to find out that my writing really and truly sucks. That I can’t do it.

Sounds a lot like Imposter Syndrome and People Pleasing had a child. Yet, Nothing was beneath it. I had caught the last mouse. I pinched its tail, faced it, and tossed it in the jar with the rest of the squeakers. You can do this exercise, too. I’ll let Anne Lamott explain:

“I happened to mention this to a hypnotist I saw many years ago, and he looked at me very nicely. At first I thought he was feeling around on the floor for the silent alarm button, but then he gave me the following exercise, which I still use to this day. Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want—won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.”

~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Even with that fear, I faced the three-hour critique because I’ve learned to want that feedback for my process. I left with a list of action items, a better understanding of what agents want, and two pieces of satisfaction. First, every critique the agent offered the two other writers, I had noted, too. That says a lot about what I’m learning with my MFA coursework. Second, the agent noticed and complimented my voice and showed interest in the work.

That mouse was wrong. I don’t suck and I won’t disappoint you.

Gotta run! This week we have chores to do, which is foundational to every ranch, and I’m sure, is universal. I hope you dare to enter contests that unnerve you and seek to silence your head mice.

February 25 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about chores. It doesn’t have to be a western ranch chore; it can be any routine task. Go where the prompt leads!

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

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

February 28: Flash Fiction Challenge

February 28 Flash Fiction ChallengeBut for the kindness of others, my car is unburied, and my accessibility to Carrot Ranch improved. The storms have not entirely passed.

Last year, we received almost 60 more inches of snow before we called it good for flowers to burst forth from receding drifts in yards and woods. And officially, my computer is dead. Her memory broken, unable to function.

Not a way any of us want to go.

Today, I’m gratefully tapping away on a loaner laptop. I’m adjusting to not having the speeds I’ve grown accustomed to, or having all my files arranged just so. I spent the last week feeling lost, following an unfortunate computer crash. Each failed fix left me brooding.

The blizzard that shut down our town (even snowmobiles got stuck) delayed the response from the only tech store we have. By then, a friend who works in IT offered to help, running diagnostics to pinpoint the actual problem. A rep who called me back said they probably couldn’t fix it or retrieve data, and they wouldn’t have new computers in stock until March 15 because of some Intel processing glitch.

Let’s pause a moment and discuss backup strategies.

Early on, I learned to back up my work as a professional. Not only did I write content for businesses, but I was also responsible for archiving it. As technology grew into the Information Age, archives grew into fierce beasts to manage. By 2010, we had servers to back up all our computers nightly. In 2012, I purchased an external hard drive for all my personal and professional work.

Today we have a myriad of choices to backup our writing files from hardware to digital clouds. However, nothing is failproof. In 2016, I carefully boxed up my physical portfolio into three large plastic tubs. In my previous move, I lost all my earlier writing to a nesting mouse, learning the value of plastic. I also lost my college writing because floppy disks became obsolete.

Thus we each need a Backup Strategy that fits our needs and resources.

WANTS & NEEDS

First, determine what is essential to preserve. Flag these files as needs. For me, it’s a single folder marked as NOVELS. Each individual novel has its own folder within the main one. Each revision has its own folder. And, each novel has its own research file filled with photos, links, articles, and notes. Finally, I backup each novel project from Scrivener (where I write and save every scrap of writing and revision in a “project” as well as arranging my research, character and setting notes on board).

That way, I have a single NEED TO SAVE folder called NOVELS. I have one folder to backup, which I did two days before my laptop crashed.

The rest of my files I want to save, but I won’t die if something catastrophic happens. Most of these are unessential archives. Some also exist in hard copy files (such as my editorial calendar, budget, and workshop materials). Other writing and genealogy research exists on other platforms. Photos are backed up automatically to Google, and now my new iPhone comes with iCloud storage for which I expanded for a nominal monthly fee.

HARD COPIES 

Photos, books, magazines, printouts or tearsheets (as we used to call evidence of publication back in the printing days) comprise most hard copies. These are the documents we often scan or have backed up digitally. I’m old school and keep way too many hard copies. In 2016, when I knew I had to pack up my office, I used the NEED vs. WANT system to prioritize what got scanned, placed in a plastic tub, or filed into a carrying case which I kept throughout my wandering adventures.

Don’t keep everything.

Think about who has to sort your stuff after you die. Seriously. I’m not trying to be morbid, but after helping my best friend sort her parents’ hoard after they died, I can tell you there is no joy in going through stuff they found sentimentally worthy. Then my best friend died, leaving the sorting unfinished along with her own items. Watching her grown children muck through an entire storage unit and cry over the burden of decisions, I decided I’d not do that to my own kids.

Hard as it may be, I use moves to confront the reality — what if I lost this document or item forever? Remember, NEEDS vs. WANTS. Sometimes you have to separate from things you want to keep but if they do not serve a purpose, toss. Question:

  1. Does it keep your portfolio relevant to next big goal?
  2. Does it serve a future purpose?
  3. Is it an heirloom someone else will appreciate?
  4. Is it essential to your writing?
  5. Is it valuable?

DIGITAL BACKUP

Having organized files is the first step toward a good backup plan. Every year, I make it a practice to archive files so I can minimize the number of documents I have to scroll through. At work, I used to sort data by quarters. It makes document sorting and relocation easier. Annual archiving works well. But what happens if your software or hardware fails?

You have many choices for backup:

  1. USB (or USB-c) drives, also known as “memory sticks”
  2. External hard drives for data (especially if you need large storage for high-resolution photos, videos or graphic design of book covers, advertising, etc.)
  3. Multiple computers (home, work, and laptop)
  4. Time Machine (an Apple product)
  5. Server used for networks (something not readily affordable for the home user)

Keep in mind these backups can fail, or technology can advance. Somehow I damaged my external hard drive storing it in a fireproof lockbox (it got damp). It is possible to retrieve the data, however but requires an expert technician. My floppy discs from college are obsolete, but again, an expert with the right equipment can retrieve the data if it felt like a need. My honors thesis was published at Carroll College and may be digitally scanned, something I never dreamed could happen 20 years ago!

Technology changes and technology fails. Keep your backups backed up.

THE CLOUD

Cloud service might seem practical, especially to younger generations who don’t recall life without the internet. It might feel suspicious to those of us who grew up reading about Big Brother. Certainly, it is convenient, much of it is free, and many reputable services offer extra storage. Here are links to learn more:

  1. Google Drive
  2. DropBox
  3. iCloud
  4. Microsoft One Drive
  5. Amazon (and you’re unlikely to use it, but know it exists because it might make a great plot twist in that thriller you’re writing).

The cloud can fail, too. Security and solvency remain two major issues.

Facing the vulnerability of our backups is like facing our mortality. Our writing, our art, our work won’t live forever. But while we yet breathe, we make art and we back it up best we can. Have a plan that fits your needs and assess it regularly.

My future computer is unknown. It kills me to think my Acer is gone. Her memory sits in a clunky piece of hardware on my desk marked with my name on a strip of blue tape. Her body rests on my printer, paining me each time I look at her. How it became her in death, I’m not sure, but she served me well. Until she up and quit on me. Bah…!

Meanwhile, I have a hardy little Dell to help see me through to what next. I’m considering going over to the dark apple.

Something to think about (me, and others considering a new laptop) — when my component failed, I learned it is soldered onto the mainboard. My tech friend explained this new practice to me, and Acer confirmed it. To replace the faulty piece, I’d have to buy an $875 board which is $25 less than the cost of my laptop.

If you are in the market for a laptop, ask if the model you are considering has a soldered board. If so, you might want to reconsider. Single components are easier and cheaper to replace. However, you would be best guided by a trusted IT person. Chromebooks are inexpensive, and MacBook Airs are dependable. I feel like a widow having to pick a new mate one week after the funeral. I just want my old love back.

Moving onto snow, we are still digging out but have had sunshine. Today, Mrs. H called in the serious snow removal equipment to deal with her blocked garage. Each time the loader backed up, a loud beep echoed throughout the neighborhood. The sound of progress. The sound of moving onward.

Up to a challenge? After you back up your writing, eh.

February 28, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the term backup. You can back up or have a backup, just go where the prompt leads!

Respond by March 5, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

 

Backup Work (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Mars sparkled overhead. Could Ike see their favorite constellations from his post in Iraq? Danni lit a lantern at the kitchen table. With the power out from the wind storm, she couldn’t access her computer files. Good thing her work included books and items found in the dirt. She poked at the latest sorting of glass globs. A fire, which locals claimed was the burning of the Rose Bud Inn during Prohibition. If so, Danni might have found its location. Tonight, she couldn’t back up her reports, but she could sift the remains of another era. Stories always surface.

September 20: Flash Fiction Challenge

How quietly fall colors sneak up like Jack Frost has an airbrush. The colors subtly tint a leaf or two, then a cluster here and there. The color from the airbrush increases and soon the maple trees catch the brilliance of red and orange. No two trees turn simultaneously.

In our small neighborhood of a dozen old miners’ homes, I watch trees change hue in succession. My daughter tells me that their biggest maple is often the last to take on autumn’s hues. From the back deck where the Hub puffs a pipe, I lean back on the bench and watch the maple behind him.

At first, the giant maple appears vividly green. If I stare long enough I can catch the faint tracings of yellow across the leaves. Oranges burst like flowers. And the flowers are not yet to be outdone. Hibiscus unfolds daily in the front yard, each blossom unfurling like pleated burgundy satin.

A flash of gray flits from the trees and I watch a whiskey jack (Canada jay) flutter above the porch door jamb of our neighbor. He’s shoving a peanut behind a loose piece of trim with his beak, squawking and beating his wings. The whiskey jack has the right idea — winter is coming.

But not to the rest of the world. And that’s what is so fascinating about a global community. Somewhere, winter is not coming. Somewhere the flowers are a different color. Somewhere the trees are not maple. Somewhere the pipe is a different relaxant. Somewhere is a place so exotic to my own Keweenaw, I couldn’t imagine all the differences.

Yet for what variation might exist, we are all the greater tribe of humanity. Linguists know we all have words for mother/father. Humanitarians know we all suffer and yet strive for better lives. Culinary experts record our shared love of food, no matter how we spice it. Every culture has a flatbread. Caves and museums record our need to communicate stories in art. Fashion reveals our propensity for clothing that adorns.

And a single Ranch in Hancock, Michigan witnesses the power and creativity of storytelling around the world. Here we make literary art no matter how we experience this time of year.

With the coloring of the north-woods comes the return of almost 8,000 students to Finlandia University (600) and Michigan Tech (7,200). Over 1,000 of these students are international. Our peninsula shares Lake Superior with Canada and several tribal nations, including the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC). Thus, every September we celebrate a Parade of Nations.

KBIC lead us in the cultural activity, drumming blessings before and at its conclusion. Representatives of various nations line up alphabetically and march from Finlandia University in Hancock across the portage bridge to the Dee Center (aka the hockey rink) at Michigan Tech in Houghton. Beneath national flags, people proudly express their origins, often in colorful clothing. Children march with adults, KBIC members dance, and school mascots toss candy.

The parade tasted bittersweet to me this year. I had planned to wear my Finlandia blues to show my school colors, but the unexpected happened. The course I created for the CTE Marketing Program closed because the roster of students dropped out. This devastated me initially, but I remain in good graces with both Finlandia and the CTE division. They have asked my to come up with some solutions to problems we encountered and it may work out next year. I watched the Finlandia students march and accepted: next year will be different.

Another milestone of bitter-sweetness passed this week — 31 years with the Hub. If you’ve had the chance to listen to the Rodeo Playlist, maybe you caught Garth Brooks’ song, The Dance. The line, “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance” says so much. I would not have missed how right we used to be even knowing how this will go.

But we have some bright news — the Hub has finally received an admission date to the Poly Trauma Center at the Minneapolis VA. They almost denied his referral completely, citing that after review of his case, they believe he can not be rehabilitated. Yeah, we’ve already accepted that painful reality. However, I’ve not only advocated for my husband, I’ve also been driving the point that in order to help younger soldiers, the one’s we know have brain injuries from bomb blasts, we need to better understand “after brain injury.”

Already, I’ve made many aware of the plight. I’ve talked with younger wives who’ve told me their spouse is kind of like mine except…And I tell them that my spouse once had those exceptions, too. Instead of waiting between initial recovery and eventual degeneration, we need to do more than ignore the problem. That is why Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC has a Brain Injury Research Center. Pending paperwork, the Hub will take part in an observational study he can contribute to through surveys (mostly the focus is on emotions). He also plans to sign documents to donate his brain for further study.

It’s been a boon to have insights from this cutting edge research on CTE because they can help us when the Hub goes to Minneapolis. They know what to look for, including biomarkers the VA has already missed. It was so validating to read that the signs I had been trying so hard to get the VA to read are exactly the ones they see in cases of CTE.

And don’t think I’ve missed the irony of my course and my husband’s suspected condition. Yes, they are both CTE. One is career technical education and the other is chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is causing strife but I’m fighting back with another set of letters — EMDR. I’ve recently, thanks to the help of a veteran spouse friend, started to see a therapist who uses EMDR as a tool to access traumatic memory and resolve the impact. It’s not an easy therapy, but it is powerful.

An interesting side-note to EMDR is that I’ve had such vivid visual memories that I realized why I don’t like writing memoir — my visual recall is normally not that sharp. I wonder if I’ll gain a new ability? I have plenty of fiction to attend to, though so I don’t plan on adding to my writing bucket list just yet.

With all that has been going on, the Parade of Nations was the balm I needed. To share some of the vibrancy with you, I have photos:

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As a reminder to regular or occasional Ranch Writers — this will be the last Weekly Flash Fiction Challenge until November 1. The Rodeo begins October 1 when we announce the five writers who will compete every Monday for the TUFFest Ride. Every Wednesday in October, a different Rodeo Leader will launch a flash fiction contest.

Any Minneapolis writers? Give a call out in the comments. I’ll actually be doing the first live read on October 1 from Minnesota! Not what I had planned, but that’s the first week of the Hub’s 4-week evaluation. I’ll return to Michigan October 4.

All contests are FREE to enter and offer a $25 first place prize. All five TUFF contestants will also each win a cash prize. We might have a sixth unadvertised advertising contest for a local sponsor and that will be announced October 5. There’s much to do in October during the Flash Fiction Rodeo! I hope you feel inspired to participate. It’s something different and more challenging.

If you want to sponsor the event, check out the different levels of sponsorship.

For now, let’s go out with a Parade of Nations.

September 20, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a parade of nations. It can be literal, or it can be a phrase that you use to describe a situation. Explore what it could be. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by September 25, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.

Flash Dance by Charli Mills

Jamie clacked his tap-shoes across the pavement. He’d found the kilt at the Keweenaw Consignment and paired it with his mother’s discarded turquoise blouse, the one that matched his sunglasses. He danced every day, preparing for his solo march in the Parade of Nations. Jamie was alone in his nation – an outcast. Many people treated him kindly and he managed to live on his own. Others said cruel things or pointed and laughed. He ignored them. A shout from the bystanders, “Dance, laddie, Dance!” inspired a spontaneous back-flip. Too late, he remembered what was worn beneath a kilt – nothing.

May 17: Flash Fiction Challenge

As tight young leaves unfurl, real estate has gone to the birds. Some couples arrive at the neighborhood to find protected perches to weave grass nests. Others seek cavities. A turf war broke out between two couples who each wanted the same property. Those of us who live here, wonder what will become of the property values.

Much depends on the new neighbors.

When the woodpeckers first arrived, I admit I felt some alarm. After all, they make holes in trees. However, they eat insects that kill trees; thus they can be good neighbors. I watch them move into a tall maple at the edge of the backyard. They are northern flickers, and chatty. Across Ethel half a block away we can hear a resident blue jay. He’s even chattier.

That’s when the Whirlygig bird makes his move. He stands atop the peaked roof of the red house between ours and Ethel, next door to Cranky, my walking neighbor. With her lovely sewing skills, she’s embroidered me a fox potholder, embellishing it with a carrot. I’m blessed to have good neighbors. We both watch the newcomer cautiously. How will he fit in?

Like lead in a pencil, he squeezes his dark body into a wooden crevice we didn’t know existed in the attic of the red house. When not shoving snippets of pine twigs or grass into the opening, he stands on the roof’s peak and twirls his wings like a mechanical wind-up bird. He clicks and cries and steps a few dance moves. The sun catches iridescent colors, and we realize a starling has arrived in the ‘hood.

There go the property values.

Starlings are not native to the US. Like most Americans who are also not indigenous, the birds arrived on boats from Europe. Also, like those who colonize from elsewhere, they bully others out of their native homes. Starlings also prefer the crevices woodpeckers seek. In short order, Whirlygig comes knocking on the new residence of the northern flickers.

For two days, I’ve held my breath. Who will win the hole in the maple? Starlings have forced woodpeckers to delay breeding. A compromise of sorts. But northern flickers are also migrators, unlike their downy, red-headed and piliated cousins. Therefore they must compete and not delay.

Whirlygig is dogged in his dance. The moment he catches the flicker couple away, he flies from the roof of the red house into the hole in the maple. He throws out their nesting material and my writer’s mind shifts to what if…What if squatters took over your home? What if a couple went out to buy groceries and returned to an aggressor throwing out their bed and shoes?

In the end, aggression wins. It seems unjust, and I recognize how easy it is to villainize starlings. They are the loud, boisterous neighbors no one wants. Whirlygig is the equivalent of the guy mowing the lawn without a shirt (oh, wait, that’s the Hub). Starlings are the noisy college frat boys sitting on their roof drinking beer. Uncouth, but does it really mean the values sink?

My new bird-feeders overflow with promise of more than starlings. An American goldfinch and a rose-headed house finch have made introductions. The jay down the street continues to squawk. A black and white woodpecker crawled all over the backside of Cranky’s house carefully pecking between the slates for insects. It a diverse neighborhood despite the obnoxious bird and his new bride.

Warmer days, longer sunlight and the absence of snow brings out the two and four-legged neighbors, too. Cranky and I continue our walks, exploring the flowers of our neighborhood, gossiping about Whirlygig. It’s the first time I’ve had a fellow nature-lover for a neighbor. Walks end up with us standing in other people’s yards inspecting flowers or gawking up into tree limbs to identify a bird.

Yesterday, we spotted a trail that led off the road into the woods. A hand-painted sign warned that bridges were unstable. Oh, how could we resist exploring? We walked through trees waving miniature flags not yet full leaves. Cranky taught me to smell the leaves to aid identification. We scanned birch for conks of chaga, a medicinal fungus. We admired trout lilies and spotted early sprouts of trillium.

Then I saw the pile of rocks.

It was old, perhaps from mining days or maybe this hilltop meadow was once pastured. Whatever its purpose someone moved a lot of stones. I suggested that it was a farm with ten children and the kids grew up picking rocks from the fields. We both hoped it had nothing to do with mines for we had left the beaten path. I began to scope for shafts.

At one point we crossed a bog (no unstable bridge in sight). I was certain the snowmobile trail was just ahead, and we could catch that and walk back into town. On the edge of the bog, Cranky spotted dark green bushes with salmon-colored berries. She plucked one and said, “Eat this.” Whether or not this was a starling-like tactic to rid the neighborhood of me, I thought nothing of it and popped the berry in my mouth.

Cranky smiled and said, “Taste the wintergreen?”

I said, “No.”

She frowned and said, “Spit it out!”

We both laughed. She thought she was giving me wintergreen. We’re not sure what it was, but wintergreen it was not. Neighbors can be trusting in that way. We found our way back, and I never suffered for the nibble of an unknown spring berry. Closer to home we met more dogs and neighbors. Everyone is raking grit out of the front lawns, and a few real estate signs have appeared.

To me, the value is high, starlings and all.

This weekend marks my last as age 50. On Friday I go out with my fellow veteran spouses. I order my birthday cake and will buy brats and champagne for my Sunday party. On Saturday morning I’ll head to a local cemetery with a Wounded Warrior Sister and plant American flags on the graves of soldiers for Memorial Day. That evening, I’m attending a dance performance at Michigan Tech. My daughter’s dance classes are in the show.

Sunday is the big shin-dig at Calumet Waterworks (McLain cost too much, and Calumet reserves it’s picnic shelter for free). I like CWW better for hunting rocks. I’m bringing all the binoculars, too. C Jai Ferry is planning to drive all the way from Nebraska to celebrate. And on Monday we’ll go out to Gemminani’s, the Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. They give out free dinners on your birthday, and I turn 51 on Monday.

All in all, life is good. You can’t avoid the starlings or mistaken berries along the way, but you can make the best of what you have where you are and who you meet.

May 17, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about property values. Perhaps its a home, business or pencil museum. What makes them go up or down? Go where the prompt leads.

Deadline Extended. Continue to Use Form.

Respond by May 29, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

If you want your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.

 

Value in the Balance (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

“Property values go up the more improvements we make.” Cobb replaced his years of responsibility as a sheriff with a drive to improve every inch of Rock Creek Station.

Sarah unpacked the latest freight of sundries from St. Louis While Cobb sawed planks for the new schoolhouse. The wood gleamed gold like the barn, toll booth, toll bridge, post office, eastside station and horse stables. The store Sarah operated had gray wood, showing its age. Sarah calculated Cobbs improvements and noted that it added up to more debt that income.

“Those values had better go up soon,” she muttered.