Friday, October 20, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: The Sliced Bagel

I stayed within the thresholds of flash fiction this week with 460 words. This week's format is a little different, however. My story is made up entirely of dialogue. I set the scene, conveyed tone, and established conflict without narrative description. In fact, you will notice there aren't even any attributes (he said, Jane asked, etc.). Happy reading.

Photo by Jennifer E. Miller

The Sliced Bagel
Jennifer E. Miller

“What is it, Katherine?”
“I’m putting the groceries away, and realized I purchased unsliced bagels.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s one of life’s great mysteries, I tell you.”
“Why? Is the hole in the bagel a portal to another dimension?”
“No, Richard. It’s a mystery to sell bagels without slicing them first. It’s silly. Who eats them that way?”
“Well, I don’t know, somebody must.”
“I don’t believe so.”
“How are you so sure, Katherine? Maybe they dip the whole thing into their coffee.”
“You’re confusing bagels with doughnuts.”
“Toast it with jam on the top, perhaps?”
“It needs to be sliced to fit in the toaster slot.”
“A toaster oven, then.”
“Really, Richard. No one uses those anymore.”
“I beg to differ; my mother still has one.”
“She doesn’t use it.”
“Fine. But I do say you are making too much fuss over this issue. And please stop slamming the refrigerator door when you put the groceries away.”
“Well, I expect the bagels I purchased to be sliced.”
“Katherine, how much time could it take to slice them yourself?”
“Too long.”
“You’re being a grouch. A few minutes is all it takes.”
“Would you care to do it, then?”
“Come now, that’s not necessary. You are capable of the task.”
“You just don't want to! You want your bagels sliced, just like I do. See? Selling unsliced bagels makes no sense. They must be sliced for practical convenience.”
“Perhaps the bakery didn’t have time.”
“They have machines to do it, Richard.”
“Missed a few?”
“I suppose that’s possible.”
“Ah, see! It’s just a mistake.”
“Then, you just proved my theory. A mistake indicates that the bagels were intended to be sold sliced. If they were, in fact, intentionally sold unsliced, it brings us back to my original thought: selling unsliced bagels are a mystery.”
“Alright, well, I guess the solution to your problem is to take the bagels back to the bakery and to have them sliced.”
“No, I won’t do that. It’s not worth my time.”
“But you’ve spent the last five minutes irritated, and convincing me that bagels should be sold sliced. How is this whole subject suddenly not worth your time?”
“I’ve vented my frustrations and now it’s over and done. I can move on to other things.”
“That’s reassuring. Shall we move on to lunch, then?”
“That sounds fine. What should we have?”
“Sandwiches sound dandy. I’ll gather and prepare everything since you just sat down.”
“Thank you.”
“Fantastic. Say, Katherine, I’ve got things lined up here on the counter, but it seems you forgot bread at the store.”
“Did I? Oh. Well, use the bagels instead.”
“There is a problem, though.”
“What’s that?”
“I need them sliced.”

Copyright 2017 Jennifer E. Miller

Friday, October 13, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: Swing It Away

I'm at 1531 words with this story. Five hundred and thirty-one more than I prefer for Flash Fiction Friday. Maybe I should just call it Fiction Friday. Anyway, this story is written in the first person, but, please note, doesn't represent me personally. 

Swing It Away
Jennifer E. Miller
The sun begins setting over the grassy fields of the sports park. I don’t know why I was out here in the first place. I prefer the walking trails on the opposite side of the park that weave through trees, leading down to the river. The bunnies emerge in the evening to munch on the grass and other wild plants. Sometimes I surprise them when I walk around the corner, and they retreat back to safety under the shrubbery. Other times, at a comfortable distance from me, they hop out and let me watch them. It’s intriguing the way their noses twitch all the time. Their dark eyes stare me down in their peripheral vision.
I guess, simply, I want to see the other side of the park. The side I didn’t know but knew was there. It didn’t look unordinary. A bunch of soccer fields, I quit counting at dozen, and several baseball diamonds.
Various paved pathways zig-zag through the park. I step onto one and follow it through the soccer fields. Games or practices, how was I to know, were finishing up. The sounds of cooler lids clang shut, zippers zip, and final bounces of balls on grass-stained knees echo. The kids high-five each other, then climb into their vans, sliding the doors shut.
It reminds me of what I wished of my childhood. I longed for their laughter, the carefree way they went about their day. Heck, not even having to find a way home; their moms were waiting for them.
My mom never showed up for me after practice. I waited, hoping I’d hear the familiar sound of the tires. After twenty minutes or so, the coach offered to give me a ride home, where I’d find both my folks buzzed, in glassy-eyed stupor in front of a flickering television screen. They forgot again, they said. I didn’t bother telling them about the reminder note I left on the kitchen table.
I wrap my jacket tighter, continuing my walk, which brings me to empty baseball fields. The wind blows a thin cloud of dust over the bases. Glancing at an outfield, I see a silhouette of a man. He swings and twists his body. I wonder why he is batting in the outfield rather than at home plate.
The soccer moms drive past, taking the laughter and good times away. It was silent except for the occasional crunch of my shoes over the first few fallen leaves of autumn.
A noise caught my attention.
Curious, I look around.
I hear it again as the silhouette rotates. This time I realize he didn’t swing out in front, like a batter, he starts from the back, scooping up toward the sky. He was golfing.
But I hear no contact with a ball. No click as it met the metal club, no thud when it met the turf.
Curiosity gets the best of me and I make my way over. I pause at the bleachers behind first base and watch. Squinting against the setting sun, I walk along the baseline to see better, stopping when I am in line with this stranger, perhaps fifty feet away. Even though I know it’s rude, I intrusively stare.
The man repositions himself after his last swing, hips square, thumbs properly aligned on the club handle. Shifting his feet into place, he focuses on the grass at his feet, where a pitted ball would normally sit on a smooth wooden tee. He swings the club back, and thrusts his rotating torso, arcing the club toward the sky again.
“Ah!” the man says, satisfied.
I follow his gaze towards the sky, as though tracking his shot on the course, anticipating its landing spot.
This time, the man stands back, leaning against his club like a cane. He briefly looks in my direction, silently acknowledging my presence, and sets up for another empty swing.
“Why are you hitting nothing?” I blurt out.
“Ran outta balls,” he answers, shrugging.
I don’t see any in the distance I can retrieve for him.
“Got more?”
“Nah, they just bring back the problems.”
He swings again.
“What problems?”
“You nosy, ain’t ya?”
He sets himself up again.
I snort. “Not everyday one see a man swinging a golf club on a baseball diamond.”
“I ain’t in the diamond, I’m in the outfield.”
He swings.
“Oooh! That one wasn’t good. You’re distracting my game.”
“Sorry,” I mumble. But I stay put.
“You leaving?” he asks.
“I want to know why you don’t get more golf balls.”
The man sighs. “The same reason you’re out here loitering in a place designed for sports activities.”
He rests a fist on his hip. “When a man finds himself somewhere he don’t belong, it means one of two things: he is looking for trouble or trying to clear his mind. You don’t strike me as trouble-type.”
I study the man. Is he mad?
This time it’s he who snorts. “I see you don’t comprehend. Most don’t at first.”
He takes another swing. I welcome the now soothing stroke slicing the air. I can’t bring myself to break away from this mysterious stranger and our acute conversation, which I have no idea where it will lead. But I have to know.
“Explain,” I said. It was neither a demand or a request.
He strolls over to me. I thought him to be a small man, but he seems to grow taller as he approaches.
“You see,” he starts, “most people have a crutch; something to take their mind away from their troubles. Some drive along desolate highways with music blaring, other lose themselves in dense wilderness, many simply throw stones in the river.”
“Of course,” I say. “Otherwise they will go mad.”
The man smiles, showing a neat row of teeth. He raises his thick eyebrows as if in a eureka moment.
“Wrong. I, myself, hit golf balls as an emotional release. Standing on the range, I imagined each one representing a pesky thought, and I whacked it away far from me. Felt good to get physical. Give it a piece of my mind, if you will.”
I smiled at the pun.
“Therapeutic,” I said.
“Sure, sure.” He exhales, looking into the sky’s and its changing colors. “But they came back—and I figured out why.”
I straighten, standing more alert.
“Thinking I had knocked out my frustrations, I packed up and went home.”
Turning back, he sees my confused expression.
“It didn’t make sense at first to me either. Felt gratification doing something I enjoyed, to expunge whatever troubles consumed me. But why were they coming back into my mind?...” his thoughts trail a moment of ponder. “Then it hit me. I used golf as a way out. No, not golf. Swinging the damn club, that’s what.
“So the next time I went out to the range I didn’t bring balls with me. Wasn’t gonna let those little bastards torment me another second. I blasted imaginary golf balls off somewhere. The others thought I turned looney, swinging at nothing. Eventually, I was asked not to return on account I was making folks feel uncomfortable.”
“Now you come here?”
“Where ever. Sometimes I stand on a boulder overlooking the river. Another time, I climbed on the roof of my shed. Neighbor called somebody—adult protective services—on me. I explained I was just swinging away my troubles. They asked why I didn’t golf normally, so I described all the things I just told you.”
I shift uncomfortably. He notices.
“You think I’m mad, too, dontcha?”
“I think you found a creative way to interpret the world around you.” I was impressed at my quick thinking.
The man stands proudly, putting both hands on his hips this time.
“Ah! Finally, someone who understands,” he exclaims, gleefully satisfied. “You have a good night now.”
I reach the parking lot where my dented Ford waited for me. It hard starts, as always. I sit there thinking about what the man said. About swinging away troubles. I think about what I do to swing away my own troubles. I take walks, I guess. I go home and the next day I paint pictures with a clear mind. But the ugliness of my past returns and I go walking again.
The man’s way had never occurred to me before. How routine locks us into a thought prison.
I shift my Ford into gear and go home with the man’s revelation confusing and exhilarating me at the same time.
The next day I return for a nature walk, but I pause at the corner where I usually find the bunnies. Quietly, I sit down and dig out my sketch book and a pencil from my knapsack. I ignore the wet grass soaking into my rump, and the autumn leaves raining upon me.
When the bunnies appear I quickly sketch them, trying to capture their wiggling noses on my artist’s paper. I draw the baseball diamonds in the background, although they are disguised as hills to keep the naturalistic theme of my drawing. I finish with an outline of a man in the distance, swinging away.

Copyright 2017 Jennifer E. Miller

Friday, October 6, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: Target Cox Junction Part III

Welcome to the final installment of Target: Cox Junction which I reluctantly ended. I enjoyed this story line so perhaps I will change a few things and eventually make this a longer short story. If you haven't already, be sure to read Part I, and Part II.

Target: Cox Junction 
Part III

Jennifer E. Miller

Sockeye’s smartphone screen blinked, asking if he wanted to connect to the new network. He wasn’t sure what to do. There was no protocol on how to handle outside wifi; because an outside router wasn’t expected.
Where is the damn thing? he wondered.
It wasn’t easy to sneak into a dam. They were quite secure, even smaller ones like Cox Junction. Stashing a router, while placing rocks and dead birds at various places, couldn’t go unnoticed when monitors watched and recorded every inch of this place. Even an inside job was nearly impossible. Sockeye’s thoughts settled on that one little word: nearly.
The siren nearly made Sockeye nearly jump of out his skin. It was the emergency evacuation siren; part of Bordman’s duties. He let out a deep exhale, but his pulse didn’t slow. Gathering his wits, and his keycard he opened the exterior door with a beep and dashed inside.
The siren blared inside the corridor. Red and yellow lights flashed, spewing eerie reflective shadows on the walls. Alone, Sockeye ran down the hall which led to an open floor with the generators. He scanned the floor. The area was deserted, which meant personnel evacuated like they were supposed to.
At the far end of the generator floor was a door leading into the engineers’ offices. Sockeye burst through it. One of the engineers was on the telephone.
A rap on the window interrupted the telephone conversation and Sockeye burst into the room.
“Move it!”
He covered the phone’s mouthpiece. “I’ve done drills before. I know what to do.”
“Obviously, not. This isn’t a drill.”
The engineer dropped the receiver to the base. He tried reaching for his coat but Sockeye pushed him out the door, ordering him to run down the hall.
The two men ran down the hallway to the other end of the dam. He ordered the engineer outside and stay with the group. Then Sockeye ran to the security control room where he met Jay.
“Hey, sir,” Bordman said. “I’ve checked all the monitors and no other movement or keycards were detected.”
Sockeye set the rock down on the desk and realized he was sweating. Sweating with fear rather than exhaustion.
“What’s this?” Bordman asked as he picked up the rock and examined it. “Jesus! Is this for real?”
“It might be.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means we need to grab the computer back-up and get the hell out.”
Sockeye grabbed his keycard and waved it in front of a small door behind the monitor. Pushing a button, he swung open a door, and yanked out small metal box. Its wires dangled limp as he shoved it into Bordman’s arms. Next, he scooped up the painted rock and a grasped a laptop. Sockeye intended to hook it up to the backup and examine the monitor history himself. Together the two men raced for the nearest exit and up the interior stairwell.
As they climbed the flights, Sockeye’s phone dinged again, but he didn’t notice it over the sirens. If he had, he’d realize the icon had accidentally been touched, therefore, connecting his phone to the RavensDam1 wifi network.
The last two employees of Cox Junction Dam joined the others in the parking lot. They were huddled together, relieved when they saw the security personnel.
Bordman set down the computer back up to catch his breath.
“What the hell is going on?” someone demanded. It was Quinn, head engineer.
Sockeye answered through gasps, “Don’t know…for sure.”
He showed the Cox Junction employees the rock.
“You evacuated us because of that?” he asked, flabbergasted.
“No,” Sockeye said. He quickly ran through the rest of the details; the emails regarding the activists, the raven, the fence post, the wifi network. He was certain they were all connected somehow.
Hearing some of this information for the first time, Jay Bordman said, “Wifi network?”
Sockeye pulled out his phone to show him. His heart dropped. The screen indicated “connected to RavensDam1.”
Noticing Sockeye’s pallor, Bordman said, “Sir?”
There was no need to respond. A muffled explosion, like dynamite buried deep within a hard surface was heard, and the ground shook. The employees shrieked, demanding to know what it was. Sockeye waved his hand at them as he and Bordman ran to the edge of the parking lot. The water over the far gates wasn’t flowing; it was spewing sideways from a gaping hole.
There was a second blast from the next gate, and a third, and so forth. The Cox Junction team watched helplessly as the entire dam collapsed, sliding into the river. The rapids tumbled and foamed about the debris, shoving it to its final resting place. Over the empty hollowed-out space behind, the river reworked itself to its ancient flow route.
Speechless, the crowd could do nothing but stare on in horror. Quinn tried calling the dam downstream to warn them, but there was no cell service. Sockeye hoped the issuance of code 999 alerted headquarters in time to give ample warning to other locations. He took one last look at his phone. There was no trace of RavensDam1 wifi network.
The activists were serious, and now a threat to national security.
Bordman walked up to Sockeye. “What should we do now, sir?”
“I’m not sure. I guess we wait.”

 The End
Copyright 2017 Jennifer E. Miller

Friday, September 29, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: Target Cox Junction Part II

Welcome to the latest installment of Flash Fiction Friday. Hopefully, you enjoyed the Part I of Target: Cox Junction. Once again, I will remind everyone this story is purely my imagination and not suggestive to knowledge of actual destruction plans. Thanks for reading!

Target: Cox Junction Part II

Jennifer E. Miller

Once Sockeye regained his footing, he gripped the post and pulled it up. It slid vertically from the concrete hole, but not all the way; like it was just loose. Annoyed, Sockeye wondered how long it sat needing repair.
He pushed his radio talk button. “Bordman!”
“Schedule maintenance to come out here asap to repair fence post...” he squinted at the worn typeface on the label. “…A5.”
“Sure thing.” Jay Bordman paused. “Everything all right out there?”
“I think so.”
“‘I think so’ isn’t yes.”
“Keep an eye on our monitors, Bordman,” Sockeye said.
“You got it, sir.”
Their radio communication ceased for the time being.
It’s just a repair, Sockeye thought to himself.
With the sun on his back, he gazed beyond the fence at the landscape carved from eons of erosion. It was littered with crumbling rock and dotted with shrubbery. Further up the hillside was a dense forest of trees engulfed by wilderness.
Disgruntled, Sockeye approached the stairwell to make his descent back to the lower catwalk. He scanned one more time over the long, narrow concrete straightaway. Everything looked normal.
As he lowered his head to watch his step, something glistened near one of the metal supports. Furrowing his brow, Sockeye walked to the object, squatted down, and picked it up.
It was a painted rock, about the size of his palm. He was aware of this trend. Artists paint rocks and leave them in public places for others to find. His kids got a big kick when they found them. But this rock had a large red X on the front. Turning it over, Sockeye found numbers and a few words written hastily in permanent marker. It had today’s date followed by “the salmon shall be free.”
“Shit,” he said, his heart began to pound.
Someone put the rock here. In a restricted area.
He pushed his radio.
“Anything unusual on the monitors?”
“No, sir.”
“What about last night’s logs?”
A short pause and the radio squawked again, “I don’t see anything. Is there a problem?”
Is there a problem? Bordman’s question echoed in Sockeye’s mind. He retraced his activities: rock, fence post, walking the dam, first stairwell, raven with yellow legs, memo—
Sockeye interrupted his own thought. Ravens don’t have yellow legs.
He got back on the radio. “Bordman, you still got that department memo handy?”
“In my inbox; haven’t deleted it yet.”
“Good. Open it and look at the photo of the protestors.”
“Got it.”
“What is the animal printed on their shirts and signs?”
“A raven.”
Sockeye swallowed.
“What color are the legs?” he was pretty sure he knew what the answer was.
Sockeye pressed the radio talk button again. It seemed to weigh a ton under his thumb which was shaking.
“Evacuate everyone.”
“Now?” came a surprised Bordman.
“Now. Precautionary.”
Jay Bordman knew better than to ask for details.
“Sure thing, Ripton. What code?”
“Code 999.”
“Say that again?”
999 was the code for an emergency attack and to evacuate immediately. The code was created after 9/11 if terrorists were to target the dams. Sockeye felt this scenario was legitimate enough to qualify as code 999. Nevertheless, it was surely alarming to his coworker.
“999,” Sockeye repeated.
“Roger. Now get back here.”
Get back here. Sockeye felt like he got punched in the gut. He’d walked across. If he drove his ATV he could’ve zipped back in a few minutes. He couldn’t get off the dam from this side, it was enclosed by the fence; not that there was any place to go except the wilderness. He had to run back across the top straightaway or down the stairs through the inside of Cox Junction facility.
He wondered if he was being paranoid. Then he looked at the rock, which was cool in his palm. No, better safe than sorry.
Holding onto the rock, he began his return path, racing down the steps to another exterior door. As he fumbled with his key card his cell phone dinged. The gentle sound alarmed him; surprising he heard it over the mighty rush of the river. There was no cell service in the area. Inside, they used their phones over wifi. But it wasn’t available outside.

He slid it from his pocket and examined the screen. It had detected a new wifi network. Sockeye’s heart nearly stopped at the network name: RavensDam1.
(To be continued...)
Copyright 2017 Jennifer E. Miller

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: Target Cox Junction Part I

Welcome back to Flash Fiction Friday, on a Saturday. This story is turning out longer than expected so I decided to break it into short weekly segments. Technically, in its entirety, this wouldn't be a flash fiction piece. Please note, the premise is from my imagination and is in no way suggesting any sort of impeding doom. Please also keep in mind it is a work in progress.

Target: Cox Junction 
Part I

Jennifer E. Miller

Sockeye Ripton rubbed his temples, rose from his computer desk, and stretched. He finished reading the latest department memo about the continued threats to dam integrity. Various environmentalist groups attempted using legal action to get dams removed from the nation’s river. Ignoring the fact that dams provided affordable power and prevented floods, they were convinced free-flowing rivers in their natural state were more environmentally conscience, particularly to the salmon.
After the recent federal ruling to maintain them, the groups banded together threatening to perform the removals themselves. It was in honor of the salmon, they said. The memo included a photo of protestors blocking employees into a prominent dam. They were holding signs, shouting, and using inappropriate finger gestures.
Security was almost instantly increased at every location, including, Cox Junction Dam. Too quickly, Sockeye felt. Having worked for the federal government for several years, he was surprised at how quickly new agents were hired. Were background checks thorough enough in a short amount of time? But demand was at an all-time high.
His radio crackled.
“Socky, you making the rounds?” came the voice of Jay Bordman, who had been hired a couple months ago.
Pushing the talk button he responded, “It’s Sockeye; like the salmon.” He released the button, annoyed at the mispronunciation.
“I could call you by your other name, if you’d prefer,” Jay teased.
He never cared for his given name: Dickson Sockeye Ripton. He described his parents as rich hippies. Not live in-a-mansion-and-drive-Lamborghinis, but certainly not frugal. They loved nature enough to, apparently, name their son after a fish. Unfortunately, they didn’t foresee the consequences of their choice of his first name.
After relentless teasing and bullying in elementary school, the counselor recommended using his middle name. At the time, it seemed an equally ridiculous name. But to his surprise, Sockeye was so uncommon his classmates found it interesting, and things settled down. He decided to keep it. Unfortunately, Dickson was still his legal first name and it still appeared on most documentation.
Locking the office door behind him, he pushed the radio talk button again. “I’m headed out for the perimeter check, Bordman.”
“Roger,” squawked the return communication.
Sockeye’s boots echoed in the cement corridor as he made his way to the exterior door. Unlocking it with his coded key card, he swung open the door and was met with the autumn afternoon’s cool air, and the thundering roar of the water rushing through the dam’s gates.
Stepping out onto the maintenance catwalk, the door’s large deadbolt clicked into place. He expected this to be a routine walk, like any other shift. Cox Junction Dam supplied power to a small town, and no one was all that interested in a small cement structure. Once in a while, there was a classroom or family who came to tour it. Otherwise, it was the giant dam in the middle of the state that tourists flocked to.
Despite the remoteness, Sockeye like his job here. He like the small-town atmosphere and the fact that not much happened. Other colleagues would say a boring job doesn’t keep one on their toes, but Sockeye felt the opposite. He felt more connected to his routine and knew when anything seemed out of place.
He walked along the catwalk, his hand gliding over the cool metal railing. Everything was in its place until he arrived at the stairwell. A dead raven lay at the foot, its yellow legs sticking straight out from rigor mortis. Resisting temptation to kick it over the edge into the river, Sockeye scooted it aside. He planned to return with a garbage sack and take care of it.
Up the stairs he climbed, his heavy-duty boots rattled the metal-grated steps on contact. An enclosed ATV waited at the top. Normally, Sockeye would drive it across the concrete top of the dam to the other side, but today he felt like walking. 
Atop the dam was different than the lower level; Sockeye braced himself against the wind. A fifteen minute walk separated him from the opposite side of Cox Junction Dam. Concrete safety barriers ran parallel along the straightaway; vertical metal supports protruded in partitions here and there. He scanned back and forth as he patrolled the area, looking for anything out of place.
Shortly, he saw the edge of tall chain link fence that kept trespassers out of the restricted area. Nothing looked tampered with from here, but he had several more feet to go. Then, he could descend the stairwell on the opposite side, and make his way back to his office.
Sockeye reached the fenced gate, subsequently finishing his trek across the dam. He jiggled the gate, verifying it was locked in place, and let out a sigh of relief. The department memo had him nervous, although he shouldn’t be. It’s a small town, he thought.
After collecting himself, he headed for the stairwell by walking along the fence, pushing on the posts as he went. A repetitive mundane movement helped ease his tension. Each was solid, until he came to the fifth one. It wobbled when he pushed it, causing Sockeye to nearly lose his balance.
“What the hell!” he said.
(To be continued)
Copyright 2017 by Jennifer E. Miller

Friday, September 15, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: Paradise Falls

Welcome! I'm trying to resurrect Flash Fiction Friday. Otherwise known as short short stories that are made up.
Paradise Falls
Jennifer E. Miller
Melinda and Craig stood at the visitor’s vantage point of Paradise Falls. It overhangs a crater, tumbling into a shallow pool, and rejoins the river to continue downstream. With a name like Paradise Falls, one would expect palm trees and turquoise water. But there was neither to speak of. This area was carved from prehistoric floods. It’s now a desert landscape with dry rock and sagebrush.
Wind blasted the two spectators, all but muffling the roar of the waterfall which overflowed with force from the springtime run-off.
“Perfect luck being the only ones here this afternoon. Let’s move,” Craig said, impatiently. He was anxious to hike to the bottom of the waterfall. The trails were rough, and generally considered unsafe, but the thrill of the challenge fueled his enthusiasm.
Veering farther from the main sightseeing area, they saw various caution signs. The first one said, “Warning: non-maintained trails.” This wasn’t anything new. They’d hiked several other places with unmarked trails. Ignoring it, they moved on.
Craig found a trailhead pinched between two boulders. They turned sideways to squeeze through.
Curving around the path, they came to an orange cone held down by a few cinder blocks. A handwritten sign, stapled to a piece of narrow lumber, stuck out of the top.
“Seismic activity reported. Proceed at your own risk.”
Melinda stopped. “What do you think this means? That isn’t normal around here.”
“The sign doesn’t even appear official. It’s probably a prank. Forget it.”
She shrugged off the warning and continued.
Narrow, steep trails with near vertical drop-offs led to the bottom. One wrong step and they would slide down the cliff side. Melinda shivered as she imagined jagged rocks tearing their skin as gravity pulled them down.
Craig was trekking fast for the conditions.
“Wait up!” she hollered. “I don’t want to lose my footing.”
“This is a simple walk. We’ve accomplished far more intense hikes,” Craig said, pausing in annoyance.
But something about it today didn’t feel right to Melinda; she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
Soon, she caught up with Craig. She was breathing heavily.
“I sense something...uncomfortable,” Melinda said. “Maybe we should turn back.”
Craig jeered. “You can walk back up if you’d like. I’m heading down.”
Not wanting to be left behind, she agreed to stay. 
One foot at a time they tackled the switchbacks, occasionally sending rocks down the side. They tumbled for what seemed like a long time before finding their new resting place.
After about an hour, they finally reached the bottom. They stood next to Paradise Falls as it dumped its fury over the edge. Its deafening roar was ten times louder than from the vantage point. It was exhilarating. Melinda felt the strong spray of the water.
“Let’s move back some,” she yelled.
“The water will drench us. We’ll be freezing once we return to the top and the wind hits us.”
Walking back about a hundred feet, they hopped onto a rock sticking partway out of the water. The couple clung to each other, enjoying nature’s show.
She looked around for other signs of life such as a marmot jutting its head out of a crevice. Or a bird soaring in front of the water fall. Maybe even—
“Where are the birds?” she said, alarmed.
“I don’t know. Why do we care? We are here directly in front of Paradise Falls. Enjoy it,” Craig said.
Melinda let go of him and look up in the air and on the precipices. She examined the ground; nothing. Not even the giant beetles commonly encountered this time of year. This wasn’t normal.
“Craig, not a single animal or insect is in sight. Something is wrong here.”
This news unsettled Craig as he looked around for himself. Gazing down at his hiking boots, he felt a pulse, and saw ripples in the water. A stronger pulse followed, making the couple’s knees wobble. They shuffled their feet to keep balance.
“The sign was a prank, huh? We should get out of here!” Melinda exclaimed.
Hiking up those narrow steep switchbacks with seismic activity meant a higher chance of falling. However, there was no alternative. They must leave. Now.
But a rumble rocked them off the boulder they stood upon. They splashed in to the frigid water. Luckily, they were still in a shallow spot and placed their feet on the river bottom.
Shocked from the unexpected jolt, and shivering from the dunk, they held hands as they retreated toward shore.
They didn’t get far when more movement was felt. Steady shaking was followed by an ear-piercing crack.
There was no time to scream. A hole had opened up in the pool’s bed. Water forced its way through, causing the level to rise rapidly. Now afloat, they watched Paradise Falls shrink in height as the crater filled.
Soon, they would be level with the top of the cliff. Instinct told them to summon any unused strength and energy, and swim. Against the chop, they crawl-stroked toward the edge. They were close.
A new noise presented itself. It was like the sound of a vacuum, revving suction-like action.
The force from the hole reversed itself, sucking the water back down in a swirling vortex.
Craig and Melinda screamed as they were dragged into an abyss of the unknown. No trace of them remained.
As quickly as it happened, the hole closed and the river returned to its normal steady flow. Paradise Falls roared.
Soaring in front of the waterfall, was a lone hawk. He screeched and went about his usual business.

Copyright 2017 by Jennifer E. Miller

Friday, September 8, 2017

Middle Schoolers Know Everything

Middle Schoolers Know Everything

Jennifer E. Miller
I added to my scope of volunteer experience and am helping with the yearbook committee at the kiddo's school. This year, a class of 7th and 8th graders will design and compile both the elementary and middle school yearbooks. The class teacher is excited I could help, and I was looking forward to it, too. I write. I snap photos. I can help with yearbook. It will be fun, I told myself.
It’s only the third week of class, but already I have a deeper understanding why some animal species eat their young. I had all but forgotten one important characteristics middle schoolers: they already know everything. 

Keeping thirteen/fourteen-year-olds focused is like demanding a toddler to nap after consuming caffeine. When the teacher is giving the day’s lesson plan, the kids multitask. By multitasking, I mean tripping each other in the classroom, being dramatic about the resulting boo-boo and making the girls giggle about it. Other times, they kick one another’s chairs, or somersault over the carpet. This instigates peers to point and laugh while others bark at them to shut up and listen. They insist it can all be done while mindfully attending to their assignment, once they've asked for the details a second or third time. I’m curious how teachers survive an education career while maintaining a functional level of sanity.
The students arrived to the yearbook class with their own visions of what it should entail. In other words, it must be a cake class. An easy way to earn a passing grade. On the first day, they quickly decided on a design plan for the elementary book. Although creative, the discussion went something like this: 
"Hey how about if we design the book with such-and-such and accent it with yadda-yadda."
"Yep, sounds good."
Surely, their reason for speedy decision-making was to allow more time for chit chat. But I easily caught on to their rouse. To keep them on task I asked, “That sounds great. What do you think you should do next?”
One boy rolled his eyes. “Um, duh. Now we wait for people to give us photos.”
With a grin upon her face, the teacher gave them a glimpse into their future as yearbook editors.
“Well, in fact, you guys will be responsible for collecting most of the photos. You will be required to attend events and activities to photographically document them.”
Insert teenagers wrinkling noses, curling lips, and scoffing at not getting their way.
“You mean we actually have to go to stuff?!” one girl exclaimed.
“Yeah, like, who has time for all that?” another said.
“You can’t be serious,” a boy grumbled, with a slight an eye roll.
“Yes, I am serious. One or two of you will be present during various activities,” the teacher explained. “You guys will be taking ownership of the yearbook production.”
Snobby snuffs of disapproval puffed out of their noses. They were certain that there was no need for them to "actually do stuff." 
“But...but...but...for all the other yearbooks, parents provided the photos,” the boy whined. “It’s unfair that you want us to do it now.”
Unfair. Welcome to real world, kid, I thought.
One student brightened. “Hey! That means we can go with the elementary kids on their field trips.”
“Oooo. Skip class. Yessssss! agreed another.
“Nice try, but no,” their teacher said.
“Ohhhh,” the class said in unison, disappointed.
I tried lifting their spirits. “You know, as the photographer, you essentially are an observer, rather than a participant. It gives you a unique perspective.”
Once again, middle schoolers know everything.
“Whatever. We just have more work now. It should've been enough to organize the books in the first place.”
I wanted to ask if they thought it would be enough if their parents only gave them shelter, leaving the responsibilities of cooking and paying bills for them to deal with. I wanted to inform them that even though a boss gives a stack of papers with a deadline, it doesn’t mean he or she won’t add more duties. Effort, in any of life’s aspect, doesn’t simply begin and end; its continuous. Seeds can be planted in dirt, but need nurturing even when they sprout into plants. Water alone won’t always do. Insects will need to be kept away, leaves pruned, soil tilled. Care is ongoing.
The effort they put into their lives, and the yearbook, is also continuous. The end result depends on this, and on their flexibility to adapt to life's little surprises. It was apparently surprising to them to be responsible for taking photos for the yearbook; you know, a book full of photos.
But, I forgot, middle schoolers already know everything.
This will be fun, I reassured myself.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Camping Adventures

Camping Adventures

Jennifer E. Miller

(Alternate names used for privacy but to maintain story simplicity.)

It’s that time of year for our family’s annual camping trip. I’m not sure why we like to spend half a day packing up a carload of stuff, drive for an hour, and pay a nominal fee to sleep uncomfortably inside a meager soft-sided structure which holds no protection for things like bears or psychotic murderers. Maybe it’s the endless cricket chatter as we drift off to sleep. Or the eerie dead silence at three am when we are awoken because of nature’s calling. It could dalso be the s’mores and hotdogs. At any rate, this year we changed things a bit. We left the boat at home, in favor of our bikes to ride on the paved trail. That’s when the trouble started.
Our bike rack only holds two bikes so we borrowed a larger bike rack from the neighbor. Everything was going smoothly until it came time to secure the bike rack to the hitch. Tom decided he didn’t need the pin that was made for the bike rack and left it with the neighbor. One of his own must be better than the OEM. As you can guess, it didn’t work.
We couldn’t reach the neighbor to retrieve the part, which left no choice but to figure out another option. Since our rack only held two bikes, we secured Gia’s bike to the luggage rack on top of our SUV. Placing the bike on its side brought forth a new issue: it could possibly scratch the roof of the vehicle.
“Does it really matter?” I asked. “The car is twelve years old.”
“I don’t want a big scratch up there.”
“It’d be on the roof. No one will see it.”
“It could rust a hole in up there.”
“A sunroof would be nice,” I pointed out, trying to keep some optimism. We were already an hour passed our preferred departure time.
“It will rust quicker than you think,” Tom grumps.
“You said you wanted a new truck in the next couple of years anyway.”
No response.
“I’ll just place a towel under the bike.”
“Are we ready yet?” complained Gia. She had been waiting on the front steps, eager to leave home and, no doubt, eat her share of s’mores.
“Almost,” I said.
To speed up our departure, I assisted strapping down the bike. I grabbed a bungee cord and tightly wrapped one end around the bike and the other end to the luggage rack. Now all I had to do was hook the ends together and voila! We would finally be on our way.
Anyone who is familiar with the temperament of bungee cords, knows that you never pick quite the right length for the job on the first try. I wound it a little too tightly and the two ends were just short of reaching each other. But they’re so close. I decided to stretch just a little further...whack! One end slipped out of my hand and slammed into my knuckle. Our departure was delayed another fifteen minutes so I could ice my bruised finger.
“I really want to go camping now!” complained Gia.
Off we went.
About an hour later, we steered into the visitor’s center. I informed the gal behind the front desk we needed a campsite.
“Go pick one out. Just check the tags on the site’s post to make sure it’s not already reserved for tonight.”
I paid, and we zigzagged up the hillside’s dirt road.
Rolling into the campground’s road loop, we picked a campsite. A middle-aged couple was in set up in site next to us and they waved a friendly hello as we walked by with armfuls of camping gear.
Gia was a self-proclaimed expert at setting up tents. At Girl Scout camp, they were required to erect the tents themselves. I think she forgot the whole “many hands make like work” motto and quickly found setting up a large tent solo was complicated. We helped her finish, then grabbed a snack.
After a healthy dose of Pringles chips, Gia declared she was ready for a bike ride. Jumping on our bikes, we headed for the trail. We pedaled up and over the steep bridge an onto the other side of the lake where we stopped for a break. Good thing cause I noticed my injured finger ached from gripping the handlebar.
We happened to park ourselves in just the right spot because hopping from one tree to the next was a pileated woodpecker. If you’re not familiar, that’s the Woody the Woodpecker woodpecker. It is surprisingly large; I’d say slighter bigger than a crow. And it cackled like jungle bird. I can just imagine this thing hollowing out a tree, power pole, or the side of log cabin, and every so often pausing to throw back its little red mohawk to erupt into a cackle like the wicked witch of the west. “I’m going to peck irreversible damage into this thing. Ah hahahahahaha!”
I only had my phone camera. The woodpecker is on the trunk. Can you see him? I didn't think so.

She's not a team player.
Our late afternoon-into-early-evening bike ride worked up appetites. We returned to our campsite for a dinner of hot dogs. Blast this extreme heat and dry conditions resulting in a burn ban. No real campfire for us this year, but we lit up our propane stove.
If I had known the smell of propane attracted troops of yellow jackets, I may have opted for takeout pizza. After turning on the fuel, and lighting the burner with a muffled whoomp!, the next sound was buzzzzzzz! First it was just a few of the little suckers hovering over the stove or in front of our faces. They do a little bee dance, reposition themselves, and in their special little insect language call all their friends over. Much of the time cooking was spent swatting at the yellow jackets with the skewers, which sent hot dog juice dripping onto the propane burner with ferocious pops. This had no effect on our unwelcomed guests and they continued arriving in hungry swarms. Thankfully, none of us are allergic, but we ate our dinner in the tent to escape the flying devils.
I know, I know, I know. Food in the tent is a Camping 101 failure. But I would have preferred a bear’s visit over those trauma-inducing bugs! They perched on the screen of the tent with angry eyes. They revved their wings faster and faster while the buzzing became louder. They were ready for an opening when they’d hit the gas pedal and zoom in. Too bad for them.
After they watched us consume our dinner, they got distracted by another family of campers preparing to dine and buzzed off. I realized my finger was throbbing again under the anxiety.
“Good. They’re gone. Let’s eat s’mores now,” Gia proclaimed.
“I like what she said,” Tom said.
I nodded in agreement.
After listening for the shrieks and cries of the unfortunate campers under the current yellow jacket attack, we determined it was safe to fire up the propane stove again. We looked forward to relaxing with a sweet treat.
Tom gathered the items for the s’mores and asked how many I wanted.
“Two is good. But I want my s’mores without the graham crackers or chocolate, please.”
Gia was stumped. “You mean you want a roasted marshmallow?”
“No. I’m going to eat s’mores with you guys. I just happen to prefer mine without the graham crackers or chocolate.”
After an eyeroll, Gia said, “Whatever. That’s just a roasted marshmallow.”
Not wishing to start an argument with an eight year old who clearly knows more than her mother, I let it slide.
Roasting s’mores marshmallows over a propane flame is not the same as roasting them over a real fire. The propane gives food a weird taste. But there was a far more unpleasant reason this marshmallow roasting session was different.
As we stood over the stove, with white puffy things on the end of sticks, we heard an ear splitting cccccrrrrrrrrrrr. Our auditory senses perked up as we listened for the rest of the rrrraaaccckkkkkk! We turned our heads in the direction of the sound in time to see a nearby tree plummet to the ground with a thump! followed by a whoosh! as the draft rustled the dry shrubbery.
Did you notice I said “nearby?” The tree was only about a hundred feet from our campsite. What’s that old saying? If a tree falls in the forest will anyone hear it. Yyyyyyyep! Yep, they certainly will. Falling trees are loud, and they make sure everyone knows it.
After we scooped up our jaws off the ground, I shoved my marshmallow into Tom’s hand and took off.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To check out the tree.”
“It’s not going anywhere. Come back and cook your own marshmallow.”
“I know but I want to see it. Finish cooking my s’more, please.”
As I walked down the pathway I heard, “You mean your roasted marshmallow!”
Chuckling to myself, I continued walking towards the tree. I came across the couple who was camped next to us. The woman looked alarmed and relieved at the same time.
“There you are! We were worried that tree smashed you in your tent. Judging from the lack of screams, we figured it didn’t.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be thankful the campers nearby were concerned, or worried that they thought about us being squished to death.
“No, no. We’re good,” I said.
They had already located the tree in question and pointed it out. The man mentioned it looked as though it rotted out and gave way. We all noticed a couple other trees leaning a bit too much on their neighbors. Luckily, no campsites were in their direct leaning path. 
Small trees carry BIG sound!
We parted ways as we walked into our campsites.
Gia heard my approaching footsteps on the dirt. “Mom’s back for her roasted marshmallow,” she bellowed.
While eating my specialty s’more, I examined the trees directly around our tent. I noticed one was a little bent.

The sun went down and we turned in for the night. The crickets seemed louder and more populous than usual. My finger throbbed. I couldn’t get the woodpecker’s cackle, the yellow jackets’ battle buzz, or the ear-splitting crack of the tree out of my head. Yeah. That was a great night’s rest. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Eclipse Hype

My Observations of the Eclipse

Eclipse from Spokane WA at 10:15 am.
(All photos by Jennifer E. Miller)

There was this thing called a total solar eclipse that happened on Monday. Did you hear about it? There was sure a lot of hype over the moon blacking out our sun. To have a solar eclipse happen where you live is a rare occurrence. If its so infrequent, why the frenzy? In fact, I'm surprised people were making such a big deal about it. The quail visit our yard nearly everyday; now that's a spectacle.

Jennifer, are you serious?!

No, no! Of course not. You should know by now I love sarcasm.

When I first heard about the solar eclipse, I mistook it for a lunar eclipse, which happen more frequently. When all these eclipse glasses starting popping up for sale, I didn't understand why they were necessary. I thought they were a toy to enhance the experience. By the time I realized how special a solar eclipse is, and the need for anti-retina-frying goggles, it was a little late in the game as retailers were sold out. I came to terms with my mistake and researched other interactive ways to experience the eclipse.

There were many creative ways to view a solar eclipse with a pinhole method. I got really excited to use my homemade pinhole viewer that took a whopping 47.3 seconds to gather supplies and create. All I needed was a sheet of white paper with a small hole punched out. With my back to the sun, hold up the paper. The sun shines through the hole onto the ground or other surface. When the moon crosses paths with the sun, the bright circle changes into a crescent shape. Use this same idea and enclose a pinhole viewer in a cereal or other small box. But wait! You can lay your fingers over one another in a waffle pattern to create a pinhole effect (which is cool cause it shows several little eclipses all at once). Again, using the same idea, look at the ground through the shadows of a leafy tree. Even a pasta colander with all those little holes. The creative possibilities are endless.

I was very curious about the light and/or darkness. While we weren't in the path of total totality, our area would get around 92% and I wondered how much darkness was coming. What would the light be like? Would it resemble twilight, dusk, or dawn? Would it glow, making long shadows? I also looked forward to feeling the eclipse. Would it be cold? Folks using those stinking glasses wouldn't be able to experience any of those things because, surely, they would only be focusing on the sun's show and not its affect on earth.

I got hyped up over my own hype. At the last minute, a friend said, "Hey, I have an extra pair of eclipse glasses. Do you want them?" I almost said no. I looked forward to a creative experience. But, knowing how hard those suckers were to come by, I took them home. They sat on my counter overnight, twinkling under my kitchen lights. I felt as though I was cheating on my creativity.

Eclipse Day, August 21, 2017, arrived and I sent G off to school. Someone managed to secure eclipse glasses for the students and I was glad she would get to see the sun and the moon competing for alignment. Since I wasn't exactly sure how the school was planning to ensure that all 500+ students kept their anti-retina-frying goggles on their faces, we went over safety precautions again. And again. And again. G was annoyed with my worrying that she finally said, "Can I just take a pinhole view instead?" I sent her with one, but explained that this is really special and she should look at the eclipse through the special glasses...and only the special glasses. (I had to get that one last mom warning before sending her loose through the hallways.)

Back at home T and I had the TV switched on to one of dozens of stations covering the eclipse. Around 9:15 am the eclipse started. The news anchors enthusiastically announced the moon has just taken its first bite out of the sun. On the screen was the orange circle of our sun with a teeny tiny edge covered. I wondered if we could actually see that with the glasses, so outside I went with my eye cover. By golly! We can see it. Until about an hour later, that was about all the excitement. The moon reportedly travels 2,288 miles her hour. When a human is firmly planted on Earth, it sure doesn't seem that fast. So we waited

Near 92% at 10:23 am. Notice the long shadows and "glow" on T's skin. Not typical of a cloudless bright day.

I only have 8% of the sun shining on me!

Taken after school. She is mimicking "Ooooo" because that's what she says she was doing when watching the eclipse. Notice how the light is significantly different that the top photo. Both subjects are facing the sun.

About 10:00 am the moon was positioned enough that the eclipse projections through the pinholes were a true crescent shape. It was like the moon phases, only with the sun. I got some neat photos.

Pinhole viewing method. This was about at peak totality.

Punch a bunch of holes to see multiple eclipses! 10:41 am.

Fast forward about an hour to 10:15 am and things start to get really interesting. Of course we took peeks through the glasses here and there, too, but the vibe was obviously different. The normally scorching sun rays disappeared. Not filtered as though behind clouds, but blocked; similar to a sunset dipping behind the horizon. The temperature suddenly dropped several degrees, giving me goosebumps. The sunlight was noticeably dimmer and less intense.

Our neighbors walked onto their back deck about this time, too. It was fun shouting across the yards to them. "Do you see it?" "It's pretty cool." "T is worried he might be missing out on good fishing."

10:27 am was to be the peak of Spokane's totality (remember 92%). As the moon inched closer, the temperature continued to cool and the sunlight was losing its battle to shine at capacity. The normally bright blue sky turned greyish blue. And everything was quiet. The birds disappeared. Wasps retreated to their nests. There was no rustling of the tree branches; even the slight breeze present was stealth. It felt as though nightfall was on its way. Curiously, even I felt the urge to bundle up, light a campfire, and roast marshmallows (hey that's what someone does outside at night!) I was unexpectedly uncomfortable experiencing twilight at 10:27 am. It was cold, dim, and quiet. Entirely too quiet.

The last bird we saw before 92% totality: a Eurasian Collared Dove. The sky is taking on a deeper tint.

Luckily, totality only lasts a couple minutes and soon the moon floated out of the sun's way. Its retreat was even more interesting that its advance. The crescent shape, which formed on the sun's left side, curved over the top, and ended on the right side. Like the sun was a lazy susan spinning in the sky.

Finally, with the eclipse completed, the all-powerful sun once again spit its warmth and strength onto Spokane. And my adorable little birdies returned for their snacks.

The eclipse was over quickly. While we were not in the path of complete totality, it was interesting how light it stayed, even with less than ten percent of sun's capacity upon us. That goes to show the sheer power of the sun (and the necessity for proper eyewear). I had fun observing this phenomenon and its affects right from home.