Extreme Writing Challenge #58: “A Gift”

I can tell it’s fall by the fact that my fingers nearly froze as I was typing today’s story.  Brrrrr!  It’s almost the time of year where all of my free time will be spent curled up in a blanket with a book and a mug of hot chocolate.

The challenge today is: A story that contains at least 20 unique words containing all five vowels (a, e, i, o, u).  Hope you enjoy, and happy Monday!


Maddie’s education ceased when she was 12 years old, the same year she became possessed by the beast called menstruation. That’s what her father called it—possessed—and every month he disappeared the day her cramps began, returning two days later when the hormonal pandemonium had settled down.

Maddie’s father had never been prepared for her mother to pass away. He read the obituaries in the newspaper every morning, like they were no different than the stories on the front page. The morning he read his wife’s, he vomited up his breakfast.

Maddie was homeschooled, her mother the teacher. She learned phonics, geography, and equations. Her favorite lessons were in writing: weaving together imagery and metaphors and dialogue to create a parallel universe. Maddie was ambidextrous and grateful for it, for when one hand got tired of writing she could give it a break and write with the other. She never wanted to stop.

When her mother died, Maddie’s father didn’t resume the lessons. He was unorganized and impatient, a man with a reputation as the person who never should have had children. Maddie approached the subject of her education often, always with precaution. But her father’s tenaciousness never faltered.

Maddie dreamed of writing for a newspaper one day, or possibly even a magazine. It was a revolutionary time for women. Maddie knew that, even at her age. Precarious as her ambitions were, they would not be stopped by her father’s stubbornness. She would not grow up to be a housemaid or a secretary. That was simply a facetious notion.

Every day Maddie wrote down a new thing she would like to write about. The Zodiac. Automobiles. Dentistry. Sequoias. When her father read her list and chuckled, she was not discouraged. He would never understand the euphoria of combining single letters to paint a beautiful portrait.

After her father perished in a car wreck when she was 18, Maddie auctioned off every item in his home. He wasn’t worth much, but it was just enough for her to enroll in the university. What he didn’t give to her in life, she took from him in death. With a small amount of change to spare, she purchased flowers for her mother’s grave. She placed them in front of the tombstone and uttered her appreciation for the gift of knowledge she’d always taken for granted.


Comma: A Memoir of Believing in the Promise of Every Moment


I am so excited to announce the release of my memoir!  There’s really not much more for me to say than, I hope some of you indulge and enjoy this inspirational and moving story.  Paperback and Kindle versions are both available on Amazon.

At six years old, Hope McCain learned how to make Kool-Aid—-not because she liked to drink it, but because it might one day save her father’s life. Her father was a type 1 diabetic with kidney failure, and from an early age she made it her duty to do whatever it took to hold on to him.

Now Hope reflects on the 25 years since her father became ill, and how even the simplest moments with him have shaped her life. She has watched her father endure type 1 diabetes, end-stage renal failure, a double-organ transplant, cancer, and organ rejection. His determination that has helped him to live more than 15 years beyond one doctor’s promise that he’d never see his only daughter graduate from high school, has given Hope a unique appreciation for the idea of never giving up.

Inspired by the Gracie Allen quote, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma,” Comma: A Memoir of Believing in the Promise of Every Moment embraces that life is incredible because there is no telling what the next moment will bring. For anyone enduring a battle with illness or for those looking for hope and encouragement during a time of perpetual worry, Comma is a reminder that every second contains a glimmer of promise.


Extreme Writing Challenge #47: “Thread of Belief”

One of my friends recently posted this meme on Facebook.  Although I have yet to experience the thrill of putting young children to bed every night, I could only assume this is an accurate representation of the feeling.  (Give me a second to repress some awful decade-old babysitting nightmares.)

(Source: http://www.ninathemom.com)

After writing the story for today’s challenge, this image is exactly what came to mind.  While parents might be ready to collapse after the kids finally go to sleep, this is how I feel after finishing a particularly challenging story.

So what was this challenge that left me so frazzled?  Keep reading and I’ll let ya know at the end.


The snow in the forest was softer than what was piled up around Molly’s house. Though they’d walked eight miles and her nose tingled from the sting of the cold air, Molly wore a persistent smile. In the most silent moments, she daydreamed of glistening garland and tinsel and slow-blinking lights. She followed her father and uncle under spiked green evergreen arches in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

They entered a 30-mile spread of forest swallowed by a summer wildfire, which had spared not a single evergreen. The black skeletons singed by the flames were covered in a lacelike design of snow and ice. Molly’s father stopped and said, “There were some gorgeous firs about three miles back. We ought to head back that way, or it’ll be a tough walk out if it starts snowing again.” He scratched his beard, loosening bits of bread crumbs that had clung to his hair after their big breakfast. They’d left early in the morning when the previous night’s layer of snow was still undisturbed.

Molly slid a gloved finger along a fringe of white powder dusting a low branch. Snowflakes fluttered down past her elbow and settled into her footprint below. Her father cupped her shoulder to steer her back on the path that led to the living trees. He muttered to his brother, “It would warm her mother’s heart to see how she connects so well with the earth.”

They fell quiet, all three lamenting the Christmases that would never be quite the same since Molly’s mother had passed. It had taken almost a year for Molly to display cheeks chubby with laughter instead of cheeks stained by tears. For a brief moment, every fiber of Molly’s body numbed at the mention of her mother. She could only agree with her father’s observation, which made her more eager to select a tree her mother would have loved.

Molly hated death, whether it was a person or a tree in the forest. But in her hatred was the thread of belief that times of sorrow can magnify the beauty of the world. Beauty would rescue her, and in its immortality she was secure.


The challenge in this story was:  Every sentence contains a pair of one-word anagrams at least five letters in length.  (For example, the first sentence contains “forest” and “softer.”)

Extreme Writing Challenge #46: “Homecoming”

Earlier this week, I was working on a writing challenge when I was struck by this horrific realization:

(Source: http://www.quickmeme.com)

I stared blankly at the last sentence I’d written, my thoughts bouncing back and forth between How the hell did I get here? and Where on earth did I expect this was headed?  I was about halfway finished with the story, but it was clear the second half was just not going to happen.  Sadly, this happens all the time with my writing challenges.  Just when I think it’s all going well, I discover the story makes about as much sense as combining the Declaration of Independence with Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Luckily, I started a new story and it makes a LOT more sense.  Enjoy!  Don’t forget, the challenge is revealed at the end.


I placed one last X on the calendar the day Ben returned home from Tokyo. George tried to convince me to give him a night to rest and recover from his jet lag, but it would have been silly not to celebrate. I baked pies in the morning and decorated the house with streamers and balloons, and I fidgeted restlessly on the sofa all afternoon. For two years, the only thing I’d looked forward to was Ben’s homecoming.

Ben was my only child, and I never told him about my depression. I’m sure he knew, as often as he found me on the couch eating ice cream from a gallon tub while curled up in the fetal position. It only grew worse when he moved to Japan for an advertising internship. I had been falling for a long time, and losing Ben meant I had lost my parachute.

At the airport, I sat on my hands to tame my edginess. George rubbed my thigh while I became immersed in the hollow growl of rolling luggage and the muffled echo of a voice on the intercom. The first glimpse of Ben’s face offered me instant protection. My son had returned, and with him came relief and harmony.

Ben’s hug erased my anxiety, like a silent lullaby. It wasn’t until we separated that I noticed the woman behind him, lingering.

“Mom, dad,” Ben said, “I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Alyssa.”

I’d been high on my own bliss and Ben’s announcement was sobering. My son and I were being robbed of our time together! Alyssa smiled and shook our hands, her soft touch emanating practiced innocence.

I was silent as we rode home in George’s new Cadillac. His cars gave him his happiness. Ben had given me mine, a happiness that was now infected.

In the evening, I sat on the back porch and burned through a pack of cigarettes. The sky was dark by six o’clock, giving me another reason to detest this awful first day of December. Eventually Ben joined me, offering me a handful of blueberries. He would never forget they were my favorite.

Ben said, “You’re not thrilled about Alyssa, I imagine?”

He pulled up a chair beside me as I said, “I’m terrified.”

“That you’ll be forgotten?”

I nodded as I stared out at the horizon. Ben reached out and massaged my shoulder, offering a secret assurance. Alyssa appeared in the doorway—a distraction.

“Mrs. Tolman?” she asked warily. “I was wondering if you would allow me to read some of your poetry. Ben says you’re very talented.”

I’d written poetry for years and Ben was the only person to ever show any interest. I told Alyssa, “Well, sure, I suppose I could show you some of my collections.”

Ben smiled at me as Alyssa and I retreated inside, leaving him alone on the patio. He knew as well as I did that my life was a constant process of acceptance.


The challenge for this story was:  Every sentence ends with a unique three-syllable word.

This Week’s Babble

Random thoughts, observations, and conversations from the week of February 17, 2014.

At 28 years old, I’m finally bothered by the fact that I can’t wink.


Billy pointed out three see-through tubs of things in the garage I still haven’t unpacked since we moved in December.  In one of them, I could see a ceramic skunk the size of a coffee mug.  “Yeah, I need to get rid of a lot of this stuff,” I told Billy.  “I mean, why the hell do I have a ceramic skunk?”


Billy:  Can I pee on your foot?
Me:  No.
Billy:  What if a jellyfish stings you?
Me:  Uh, okay.  In that case, I’d let you pee on my foot.
Billy:  All right, I’m bringing home a jellyfish tomorrow!


Text conversation between my mother and myself:
Mom:  So I hear your phones and power were down [at work].
Me:  They were indeed.  I had to pee in the pitch dark!
Mom:  And here I was thinking you peed in the toilet.
Me:  Don’t be silly, that’s where all the normal people pee.
Mom:  I pee in the field.
Me:  Yes, abnormal peers unite!
Mom:  Yes, I consider you one of my peers.
Me:  Hahaha…well, pee-ers, then.
Mom:  You stutter.
Me:  It’s all part of my charm.
Mom:  Charmin.  That’s the appropriate tool for all my closest peers.



I’ve lived in this city for 28 years and am amazed to discover things I’ve never seen or noticed before.  Simply realizing that Bergeson and Apple intersect has inspired me to spend more time exploring the hidden treasures in this city.


A squirrel is having a fit in the backyard.  I can’t see him, but I can hear him chattering on.  I wonder if anyone has incorporated a sample of squirrel chatter into a video game–maybe as an intergalactic laser gun of some sort.  It would be perfect.

Extreme Writing Challenge #29: “Cheyenne”

Before I say anything more in this post, let’s get this important detail out of the way:

Right?  RIGHT?!

Now, who’s ready for a story?  I’m curious to see if anyone catches on to the challenge.  See you at the end, where I’ll reveal what it is!


I didn’t know what to expect when I met my brother at the airport.  Whatever had happened while he was away, it was clear from our phone conversations that he’d been brainwashed.   From what I could tell, everything that was once important to him—horseback riding, football, volunteering at the animal shelter—had become as meaningless as rollerblades to a paraplegic.

I hardly recognized the man who sauntered toward me wearing designer sunglasses, a crisp necktie, and shoes as black and shiny as obsidian.

“Little sis,” he said, setting down his suitcase so he could scoop me up in a hug.

“Come on,” I said.  “Mom made a big dinner for you.  We’re having Oreo milkshakes for dessert.”

On the way home, my brother said, “I have to tell you something.”  I wished he would have waited until we were off the highway.

“Okay,” I said.  “Let’s hear it.”

“When I was in New York, I didn’t really go to a retreat for aspiring screenwriters.”

I nodded and pretended to be concerned with something in the rearview mirror.  Really, I wondered if my heartbeat could possibly get any faster.  We all knew he hadn’t been forthcoming about his trip, but I hadn’t guessed that he would tell the truth to me.

“Okay,” I said, trying to keep the butterflies in my stomach from flying out of my mouth.  “So what did you do?”

“You can’t tell anyone,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“Not even mom and dad.”


“I mean, I’ll tell them.  Just…in my own time.”

My brother takes a deep breath.  He tells me he’d reconnected with an ex-girlfriend.  Found her online.  Cheyenne.  She’s a newscaster in New York.

“Oh, so you went to New York to rekindle your romance?” I asked.

No, no, he told me.  They didn’t feel that way about each other anymore.  But the more they talked, the more they realized how much they had in common.

By now we were only a mile from home.  I would have no time to recover from his secret before we pulled up to mom and dad waiting on the doorstep.

There is a pause, and then he says, “She wanted to have a baby.”

“So?” I asked.

“More than anything,” he said.  “She wanted to have a baby.”  Another pause.  “And you know, I’m not getting any younger.”

I nearly swerve the car off the pavement.

“I was there to interview for a job.”

I did not foresee this.

“And I got it,” he said.  “It’s in finance, and the pay is phenomenal.”

The thought of Oreo milkshakes makes me want to vomit.

“And in nine months, I’m going to be a dad.”


The challenge was:  I used at least 25 unique compound words in a story less than 500 words in length.

Extreme Writing Challenge #19: Up All Night

If you noticed my slightly-longer-than-usual absence, a recent business trip is to blame.  However, during my trip I made an impromptu visit to Hollywood (my first time), and I have never had such prime seating for people-watching.  Holy inspiration, Batman!

Anywhooo……here is a new story.  This challenge might be easy for some of you to identify.  Happy reading, and I’ll reveal the challenge at the end!


Drained of motivation after a rough night, Edith tried to smooth the flyaway hairs of her frizzy mane.  The old Russian stylist who lived down the hall would tell Edith it was time for a new look.  Though Edith never gave it serious thought, she always promised that nosy Elena she’d consider some highlights.

Even with an early start, Edith arrived late to brunch.  Her mother, father, and sister were seated at a table against the wall and, as if they knew she had been up crying half the night, they had already ordered coffee for Edith.  Her mother pulled out the empty chair so Edith could sit, and her big, baby-like eyes were so full of zeal that Edith dreaded delivering the news.

As Edith removed her coat, her sister said, “Well don’t take all day, Edith, give us the good news!”

Edith swallowed a hard lump of shame as she realized this wouldn’t be as easy as she had hoped.  They stared at her together, their expectant expressions identical, and Edith’s confidence began to fall apart.  She said, “We were wrong; right after I arrived, he broke up with me.”

None of them spoke, but they all began to stir their coffee as if extra creamer had magically materialized inside of their cups.  Edith carried on and browsed the menu, hoping to ward off an awkward interrogation.

At last, her father set down his spoon and stared at Edith until she looked up and locked eyes with him.  “I know you loved him,” he told his daughter, “but I don’t have to hide it any longer:  I hated that man.”

Edith and her father were close, but they’d always kept the topic of love distant from their conversations.  When the subject did sneak its way in during their discussions, they tossed them right back out.

“I was the first to say it wouldn’t last,” he continued.

Edith thought it best not to tell him that she had actually been the first to say it—after all, the end of her relationship wasn’t the worst thing her father was going to hear that morning.


Didja get it?  Didja?  If you didn’t (or if you did and you just want to confirm your awesomeness), the challenge was:  Every sentence contains a pair of opposites.  For example:  rough/smooth, close/distant, best/worst.  For some extra fun, read it again and see if you can pick out all the pairs.  😀

Extreme Writing Challenge #18: “Bad Dad Alliance”

I’ll tell you right now:  this is the most excruciating story I’ve written to date.  I’m sure some of you will catch on to the challenge, but if you don’t, you’ll see it at the end.  Meanwhile, I’m exhaling a HUGE sigh of relief now that this challenge is complete.


I hadn’t wanted to join the Bad Dad Alliance, but when my wife died, it felt like the right thing to do.  My daughter Ellen and I didn’t get along well, and I dreaded the time ahead of me:  eating alone, going to the gym alone, gardening alone, lying in bed alone.  Lou had been begging me to join the Alliance, and once Madeline gave in to the call of Death, the thought of guaranteed company comforted me.

After my initiation, there were 18 men in the Bad Dad Alliance.  We got together once a week at a crumbly brick building downtown with an old, broken traffic light affixed to the door.  Before I joined, I had thought the Alliance met to drink beer and play poker.  But that old brick building turned out to be a wonderland filled with everything I’d dreamt of while growing up.  I found Lou and David on a giant trampoline in the center of the room while Eric worked on a model train made with a full mile of track.   I gawked in wonder at the Theatre of Magic pinball machine, the RC car collection, the pool table, the 84-inch TV, and the bar filled with high-priced liquor.

I laughed excitedly, frozen in awe in the doorway.  From the trampoline, Lou cried, “Get on up here!”

“What the hell?” I crowed.  “I’ve got to admit, Lou, I’m a little taken aback.”

Lou jumped down and grabbed a beer for me.  “Why do you think I kept hounding you to join the Alliance?”

Tony walked in behind me with pizza and added, “And why do you think we call it the Bad Dad Alliance?”

We dug into the pizza and plopped down on the leather couch in front of the TV.  Lou chugged a beer and explained, “I tell my wife we play poker when we meet up.  I’d never tell her the truth about our manly utopia.”

Eric, who continued to work on the model train while he ate, admitted, “We all pretend we’re broke when we’re really not.  We pool our money and have a little covert fun.”

That night, a month after Madeline died, the Bad Dad Alliance proved to me that I could, indeed, dodge the real world if only for one night a week.  Retreat from reality.  That part felt good.

But I couldn’t help wondering:  had I known all along what really went on when the Bad Dad Alliance convened, would I have done it?  Would I have traded in time with my Madeline for fraudulent fun with men who take what they have for granted?

I wanted to think I would not have.  But in front of the 84-inch TV on the leather couch with a beer in hand, I knew that I probably would have. That part hurt like hell.


Now for the reveal:  the challenge was that this story does not contain the letter sI never thought I would be so desperate to use the letter s, but now that I can again:  sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss!!!

Extreme Writing Challenge #17: “Kids”

Happy Monday!  I hope your week is starting out beautifully.

The first order of business today is to reveal last week’s challenge, which was:  Every sentence started with a vowel.

Next order of business?  A new challenge, of course!  I won’t make you guess this one, but I will make you read it before I reveal it at the end.  😀 Enjoy!


Kids:  we turn boxes into spaceships, sheets and chairs into fortresses,  closets into time machines.  Give us a twig and we’ll have a wand, a sword, a microphone.

When Alan and I were kids, the twins next door had everything most kids could only dream of.  They came to expect new toys and gadgets the same way Alan and I simply expected clean underwear to put on every day.  Mama didn’t make much money and our dad was long gone, probably living in Mexico with the men he used to go drinking with.  Most of the time, my brother and I carried on as if there weren’t two other children living just a picket fence away.  That is, until Alan stole their remote-control car on his first day of third grade.

Mama was fixing spaghetti and meatballs when a stampede of fists erupted against the front door.  “What in the heavens is that?” Mama cried as she handed me the spoon she’d used to stir the sauce.  When she opened the door, Mama was hit by a blast of unsynchronized screaming as the twins tattled on Alan.

Alan was sitting against the wood pile in the back yard.  Next to him sat the remote-control car, glistening red and black underneath the late afternoon sun.  Mama told me to stay inside and stir the sauce as she put on her sweater to go talk to him.

Over the years, Alan always stumbled upon things that got him scolded:  keeping jars of pet beetles in his room, drawing on the walls with Sharpies, sneaking cookies from the pantry when Mama said no snacks before dinner.  Alan wasn’t the most obedient child, but he’d certainly never stolen anything before.  Sure that Mama was going to hang him out to dry, I cracked open the back window and eavesdropped.

What I’d expected to be the come-apart of the century turned out to be the biggest heart-to-heart Mama and Alan ever had.  Mama had barely opened her mouth before Alan began to bawl with the strength of ten infants.

“They made fun of me!” Alan sobbed.  “They saw me playing with my rock cars—you know, the rocks I painted to look like cars?  Then they picked them up and tossed them into the pond.”

They sat on that wood pile together and talked for so long that I had to warn them the sauce was starting to burn.  Mama gave Alan a piggyback ride into the house, where she let him play with the remote-control car for an hour before she returned it to the twins.  From that day on, Alan and Mama had a special bond that could only be seen in the glances they exchanged.

Kids:  give us a rock and we’ll have a car, a grenade, a pet.  Give us a mom, and we’ll have a superhero.


If you didn’t catch on, the challenge for this story was:  Every sentence begins with a 4-letter word.  I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t want to do this challenge again–not because it was hard, but honestly, it was obnoxious!

Extreme Writing Challenge #6: “Warmth”

My first post was a story that consisted entirely of one-syllable words and contained no e‘s.  This time, I did the same thing, except instead of e, I eliminated all o‘s.


I sat in her truck bed with a gray cat named Zeus and a mesh bag filled with cash.  She said her name was Beth, which may have been true, but I lied and said my name was Star.

I leaned back and let the warm breeze pet my skin.  Zeus curled up by my face and purred; he knew things had changed.

At the state line, I paid Beth and thanked her, and I walked the last mile with Zeus in my arms.

Ma was in the yard with shears and a trash can.  She trimmed each bush with grace, as if it was an art.

“Hi Ma,” I called as I walked up the drive.

She set her shears in the grass and dabbed at her sweat with her sleeve.  I laid Zeus in the grass and hugged Ma.  Her squeeze was like a snake’s but it made me feel safe.  Zeus sniffed the grass and pawed at a bee.  I felt peace as I watched him act like a real cat.

“Did he put up a fight?” Ma asked.

“Nah.  He laughed ‘til his gut burst.  He threw a wrench at me.”

We knelt in the grass and played with Zeus.  “He’ll have a nice life here,” Ma said.  She raised him up and rubbed his fur with her cheek.

“As will I,” I said.  “As will I.”

Ma brewed tea and we sat in lawn chairs in the sun.  I felt it burn, yet I stayed where I was.  My place was in the light, in the warmth.

Ma smiled, but she sat hunched with fear.  She stared at my bruised neck while she bit her lip.

“Ma, I’ll be fine,” I said.  “I’m safe here.”

“He’ll burn in hell,” she cried.

“Yes, he will.”

When the sun set, we linked arms and went in.  The air smelled like pie.  Ma gave Zeus milk, and when he’d lapped it all up, we curled up in the spare bed with fresh sheets.  I knew I’d have the best dreams I’d had in ten years.