jocowrites

By Maezee Khemraj

You check out a book from the Johnson County Library’s Central Branch and head out driving west onto I-70. The prairie is beautiful until you notice black clouds coming up behind you. Your engine light comes on, so you take the next exit, a rest stop you don’t remember ever seeing before in which the sign reads, Night Forest 1 mile…

I get out onto I-70. As I drive up onto the pavement of a side lot. I pick up my phone to call my mom, but it is dead. It had been plugged into the car the entire time, and when I checked a couple of minutes ago it was fully charged. I’m probably just in a dead spot I thought to myself. I look out the passenger window and see a gas station that says “Betty Ex”. I don’t know if it is open or not, but there are lights on inside. I drive up onto the pavement of the parking lot and get out. As I walked up to the door the headlights flickered on my car. I started to get kinda scared.

I went inside the gas station and called out to see if there was anybody there. I started to hear whining and growling, not mean growling, but more of a playful growl. I looked behind the counter and saw a box full of puppies. They were not ordinary puppies they were Canadian Eskimo puppies. They are one of the most expensive dogs in the world. They can cost from $800 to $8,750! Why would someone leave such expensive dogs behind the counter of a gas station? There were 3 of them. One was brown with white spots, one black with white around its eye, and the last one had a black body with a white chest. I couldn’t leave them here, they needed food and water. I looked around the store and spotted a section for dogs. I grabbed a bag of dog food and a couple of bowls and fed the dogs. Before I left I grabbed a few boxes of water and the necessities like shirts, pants/shorts, underwear, socks, sleeping bag, blankets, and a couple of pillows.

I took the box of puppies and 3 leashes out of the store with a few collars. I fastened each collar on the puppies and took them to the bathroom on a small patch of grass outside of the store, there was no way I was going to have them go to the bathroom in my car! I put a couple of towels on the backseat so that they could roam.

Suddenly you realize you are kind of lost. It seems really dark for an afternoon and you find yourself in a forest. Toto, you for sure aren’t in Kansas anymore. You are thinking of getting back in your car and ignoring the engine light when someone comes up behind you...

I was driving back onto the highway when someone pulled up behind me. I rolled down my window so the lady could talk to me. She asked me if I had seen the lady that runs Betty Ex. I told her that I was just there and nobody was at the counter. She told me that the lady is the granddaughter of Betty. She took over her grandma’s store after she had died. Her name was Brandy, she was a thief, she stole a very expensive car and is now on the run. She gave me her number and told me to call her if I spotted Brandy.

As I continued to drive more and more trees were coming up around me. I found that I was not on a paved road anymore. Dust was flying up behind me. Storm clouds started to form. It looked like tornado clouds, but I was not quite sure. The dogs started to whine and yip, so I pulled over and moved them to the front. They started to quiet down a little bit, but I knew something was still wrong.

Just when you think things can’t get any stranger, the rain and lightning start, the sky turns greenish yellow, and you hear strange winds whistling like a train coming. You don’t panic. You try to remember what to do from scout camp, back in the day. You are deciding between hiding under an enormous pine tree or laying down in a ditch you see up ahead, which you distinctly remember is for lightning or tornadoes (and at this point you could be in danger of both). You are leaning toward […] when you notice two things: a small cave in a little green hill to your west and a hot air balloon parked on top of it with no one inside. You immediately run to…

I immediately ran to the cave. If it was lightning I did not want to be stuck in the air and if it is a tornado I did not want to be outside, so the best choice was the cave. I quickly grabbed the Puppies and all the things I had bought at the Gas Station and ran to the edge of a ditch. I had to figure out how to get across a ditch to get to the cave. I took the puppies first, then came back for the rest of the stuff. As I stepped foot in the cave with the last load it started to pour. I set up the sleeping bag for me and then put the blankets and one of the pillows next to me for the puppies.

When it had stopped raining I looked outside to see how full the ditch was. It was full to the top. There was no way we would be getting out of here any time soon. I looked around the edge of the cave and spotted some sticks. I quickly took those inside and used them to make a fire with some grass that was dry enough to use. I look at the watch I have on my wrist. I could barely read it, but I think it says 8:30 pm. I decided that maybe we could get some sleep. I headed back to the sleeping bag and the puppies crawled to the end again. I couldn’t argue, at least they were keeping my feet warm.

Just when you think your day is turning out rather well considering everything, you realize the jig is up. They’ve found you. Should you fight back, run, or prepare a very zesty speech to get them on your side?...

I woke up suddenly in what I thought was the middle of the night. I checked my watch, it was 2:30 in the morning. I thought I had heard growling. I wasn’t sure though It could have just been the puppies. I was about to fall back asleep when it happened again. It was a low rumbling sound, like a wild dog. I got up and put the dogs on the leashes and packed everything up. Whatever it was I did not want to be in its territory. As I was about to leave the cave, the growling became more distinct. I turned around and I was face to face with a bear! I ran to the ditch and swam across while holding everything high up in the air including the dogs. When I got to my car I threw everything inside and locked the doors. The bear came thrashing through the water filled ditch. As he approached my car he threw his paws on it and rocked it back and forth. I was terrified! After about 20 min he went away. I was relieved, but I waited another 10 min just to make sure he was gone then fell asleep.

Morning finally comes. When you wake up, you find your car safely parked at the rest stop in Kansas. There aren’t many trees, if any, around. Inside your car, you find your library books and a note that reads…

I woke up and looked around, last night was terrifying. I checked to make sure the puppies were all ok. As I went back to looking at the Steering wheel I spotted a piece of paper on the dash that was not there before. I picked it up and read, “Daughter, thank you so much for going on this trip for me! I knew I was not going to be able to make it to Betty Ex in time for your birthday due to my trip to Texas. I think you have already found out what I was going to pick up for you from Betty Ex. The stuff the officer told you was all made up, the “officer” is a good friend of ours. That is why she was not in a real police car. I will meet you at home. Dad.” I knew my dad was ornery, but this, this was too far.

By Val Gilliam

You check out a book from the Johnson County Library’s Central Branch and head out driving west onto I70. The prairie is beautiful until you notice black clouds coming up behind you. Your engine light comes on, so you take the next exit, a rest stop you don’t remember ever seeing before in which the sign reads, Night Forest 1 mile…

The sign on I-70 says Night Forest. I’m not sure if it’s a town, a nature preserve, or maybe a rest stop, but hopefully it will have a gas station, whatever it is. I check my Google Maps but there’s no cell signal. Not a single bar. In fact, my phone is dead, though I know it’s been charging via the plug in my radio auxiliary.

I approach the little townlet, I suppose you could say, and there is indeed a gas station. There is also a hole in wall restaurant, an antique shop and, oddly, a nail salon. I’m strongly reminded of the next book in a series I checked out at the library before I left Kansas City. Charlaine Harris’ stories of Midnight, Texas, was fantastical fiction but here I am in a town that appears to be almost completely identical to Harris’ world.

I pull into the gas station, pull out my credit card for the pump and open my car door. A burst of wind snatches it from my grasp and slams the heavy door into the pole by the pump station. Cursing, I swing out and inspect for damage. A small dent in the door and some blue paint on the pole appear to be all that was done. I can live with that, I decide. The car is old, but reliable. A few dings make it look distinguished.

There is a credit card adapter to the ancient pump and, amazingly, it works. I fill up, pop the hood to check my oil and brake fluid levels, but everything seems normal. Well, I tell myself, it is an old car. The idiot light was bound to come on for no reason eventually. It didn’t look like there was anyone inside the store, so I forewent a drink and a candy bar, got back in my car, and drove off.

Suddenly you realize you are kind of lost. It seems really dark for afternoon and you find yourself in a forest. Toto, you for sure aren’t in Kansas anymore. You are thinking of getting back in your car and ignoring the engine light when someone comes up behind you...

I’ve no sooner gotten a mile out of Night Forest, when the dark sky seems to encroach, faster and faster. The clouds don’t appear to whirl like a tornado and there is no storm front line. I see no lightning and hear no thunder. There is a flash of light in front of my car, a strobe bright enough to blind me. I swerve a bit, hand raised to shade my eyes so I can see. The light disappears and instead of the flatlands of the Great Prairie, I’m in a dense forest unlike any I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been to the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Tetons, the Ozarks and the Appalachians. I’ve been in woods and forests many times in my life. I’ve never, in all the places I’ve been, seen trees like these. The limbs are leafless and some so brittle they are already cracked and hanging like some dead thing. The foliage at their base is thick, though, wild like blackberry brambles, ominous and dangerous-looking.

I squint, trying to see the road in front of me in the intense darkness, flipping on my headlights to bright. They barely penetrate the inky atmosphere that grows heavier by the second. A bit fearful and trying to cheer myself up, I think, Toto, you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Before I can think another thought, a loud honking horn blows behind me and a stream of what appears to be a semi-truck’s high beams light up the interior of my car. The semi comes up fast, horn still sounding like a warning. I pull to the side of the road, thinking to let the driver by, but nothing goes by and the headlights disappear. And my car is completely dead.

Just when you think things can’t get any stranger, the rain and lightning start, the sky turns greenish yellow, and you hear strange winds whistling like a train coming. You don’t panic. You try to remember what to do from scout camp, back in the day. You are deciding between hiding under an enormous pine tree or laying down in a ditch you see up ahead, which you distinctly remember is for lightning or tornadoes (and at this point you could be in danger of both). You are leaning toward […] when you notice two things: a small cave in a little green hill to your west and a hot air balloon parked on top of it with no one inside. You immediately run to...

As I look around in confusion and no small amount of terror, the storm that the darkness heralded starts in earnest. Now I see the lightning, the thunder rumbles through me like an entire orchestra of kettle drums, and the darkness has a hint of yellowish light that cannot be good. Knowing I can’t stay in the car in such dangerous conditions, I grab my purse, cell phone, and the flashlight from the glove compartment before exiting the car and running for what I hope is a ditch I can lay in.

I can barely stay upright, the wind buffeting me about like a ragdoll. The wood of the trees creak ominously. I’m afraid if the winds turn into something like a tornado, the limbs will snap and become projectiles. The powerful gusts have a whistling sound to them, like an oncoming train. I’m fairly certain that’s a harbinger of an approaching tornado.

There is no ditch. It’s flat all the way to the treeline. I’m frightened and don’t know what to do. My flashlight is like a dim candle in the pitch blackness of this middle of nowhere where there’s no moon overhead. In short, almost useless.

The lightning flashes make me look up reflexively and, to my amazement, I can see through the trees a hill. Have I gotten through the thick foliage and trees so effortlessly? Or am I so injured I don’t realize it? Or terrified? I keep going, thinking maybe to use the hill as a buffer.

As I get closer to the hill, the strobes of electricity reveal a cave at the base and, bizarrely, on top what looks distinctly like a hot air balloon. Despite the hurricane-type winds whipping about me, pushing and pulling me about, the balloon is calm and seems to not be affected at all by the massive storm around it.

I am less concerned about the balloon than I am my own safety and head for the shelter of the cave. Rain is starting to pelt and I’m certain there are hail lumps mixed with it. Either way it stings and stabs at me. I’m soaked to the bone in seconds.

Just when you think your day is turning out rather well considering everything, you realize the jig is up. They’ve found you. Should you fight back, run, or prepare a very zesty speech to get them on your side?...

The cave beckons and I make it, diving in head first as lightning bolts dog my footsteps. Without the wind dragging me around, I’m able to keep my balance but I have to crouch inside the cave. It has a very low ceiling. I shine my flashlight around and my stomach twists as it reveals the white gleam of old bones. Any thought that these might be animal bones is dispelled when a noise deeper within the cave makes me move the beam that way and a human skull gapes at me.

The book I had returned to the library before checking out Charlaine Harris was on myths and legends of Native Americans. I bought it for fun reading and enlightenment but now I wonder if it wasn’t fortuitous. The story of the little cannibals of the Great Plains are brought forcibly to mind, seeing this overabundance of human remains everywhere I shine my light.

There is a cackle to my left, but my light shows nothing. A snigger to my right reveals the same. Shuffling feet echo in my ears but I can see nothing, no matter where I aim my flashlight’s beam. My choice now is the storm raging outside or whatever is in here that consumes human beings. As I quickly weigh my options a third solution pops into my head: the balloon!

I dart out of the cave, stretching to full height as I exit and ignore the raging tempest around me. I go up and up the hill, dropping my purse in my haste but thankful I’d tucked my cellphone in my back pocket. There are outraged, tinny, distant shouts below me and I keep clambering up. The balloon is still there, a calm sentinel in the chaos.

There are ropes and stakes pounded into the ground to hold the old-style air transport in place but I make quick work of them, unwinding the ropes and climbing in the basket. Almost child-like howls of ire filter to my ears as the balloon begins to ascend and a jerk tells me I didn’t get all the ropes loose.

I run around the basket, getting rid of all the ropes, regardless if I’d undone them from the ground. Another lurch, though, means I am about to have potential fellow passengers. I’d lost my purse, which had my mace spray. A long bar of some sort was laying on the basket floor and I grabbed it up.

A little head, full of sharp teeth, popped over the edge of the basket and I bashed it hard. The being screamed and fell. Two more went the same way but that was all that appeared. The balloon was soaring off, no longer hindered. Now all I have to worry about is the storm. I have no way of controlling the balloon and can only hope for the best.

Morning finally comes. When you wake up, you find your car safely parked at the rest stop in Kansas. There aren’t many trees, if any, around. Inside your car, you find your library books and a note that reads...

I don’t know when I fell asleep or even how I could have considering the danger I was in all night. I’m in a ditch by the side of the road, near the little gas station of Night Forest, Kansas. I stagger to my feet, exhausted, bedraggled and really freaked out. There are no trees, no cave, no balloon, no storm, nothing but a little rest stop town that looks disturbingly like it was put there by a paranormal writer.

I go to my car, ignoring the odd look from the gas station attendant staring at me through his grimy window. When I look inside my car, I stop and stare. There is my purse. My cellphone is charging through the auxiliary plug and lit up with the time of 8:18 a.m. The library books I’d checked out are in my passenger seat, where I’d left them.

I open the car door and sink onto the seat, leaning back to take deep breaths and wonder if there was something in that kombucha I drank yesterday. Had I hallucinated everything? Did I step into another dimension somehow? Maybe I’d fallen asleep at the rest stop, too tired to continue on and it had been a wacky nightmare that caused me to sleep walk…

Something flutters and catches my eye. On the windshield there is a piece of folded paper tucked under my driver side wiper. I get out, snatch it up and read it:

You’ve always wanted your own adventure. Thought I would give you a bit of a scary one for a start. Look for more to come. Maybe this will inspire something that you’ll get published. Take care and I love you. -Dad

I smile, warmed despite the harrowing adventure I’d had. Dad. That man was pure mischief, even in the afterlife apparently.

November/December Writers Conference 2020 Prompt

November/December 2020 Prompt

Join our 2020 Johnson County Library Writers Conference Prompt. These five connected mini prompts will lead you on a short choose-your-own-adventure story journey. We offer the choices but it’s up to you to take the adventure!

Here’s how it works: Use all five prompts to lead you through a written adventure in any way you imagine.

Write prose or poetry or anything in between.

Aim for 500 words or less for each part of your journey.

Have fun!

If you feel comfortable doing so, upload your finished work at submit.as/jocowrites. The submission window for this prompt will open November 1, 2020, and close December 31, 2020.

From those entries, we’ll choose three adventures at random. Each of those three authors will receive one of the following: a coaching session with Philip Denver of Bard Coaching OR twenty pages of free editing plus Q&A from Authorpreneurship Coach Jessica Conoley OR a prose or poetry editing session with Polly Alice McCann of Flying Ketchup Press.

  1. You check out a book from the Johnson County Library’s Central Branch and head out driving west onto I70. The prairie is beautiful until you notice black clouds coming up behind you. Your engine light comes on, so you take the next exit, a rest stop you don’t remember ever seeing before in which the sign reads, Night Forest 1 mile… Write up to 500 words.

  2. Suddenly you realize you are kind of lost. It seems really dark for afternoon and you find yourself in a forest. Toto, you for sure aren’t in Kansas anymore. You are thinking of getting back in your car and ignoring the engine light when someone comes up behind you... Write up to 500 words.

  3. Just when you think things can’t get any stranger, the rain and lightning start, the sky turns greenish yellow, and you hear strange winds whistling like a train coming. You don’t panic. You try to remember what to do from scout camp, back in the day. You are deciding between hiding under an enormous pine tree or laying down in a ditch you see up ahead, which you distinctly remember is for lightning or tornadoes (and at this point you could be in danger of both). You are leaning toward […] when you notice two things: a small cave in a little green hill to your west and a hot air balloon parked on top of it with no one inside. You immediately run to...
    Write up to 500 words.

  4. Just when you think your day is turning out rather well considering everything, you realize the jig is up. They’ve found you. Should you fight back, run, or prepare a very zesty speech to et them on your side?... Write up to 500 words.

  5. Morning finally comes. When you wake up, you find your car safely parked at the rest stop in Kansas. There aren’t many trees, if any, around. Inside your car, you find your library books and a note that reads... Write up to 500 words.

When you’ve finished all five prompts, submit your piece here.

Read other responses here


Thanks for all the thoughtful responses you submitted to our September/October prompt!

By Katt

You check out a book from the Johnson County Library’s Central Branch and head out driving west onto I70. The prairie is beautiful until you notice black clouds coming up behind you. Your engine light comes on, so you take the next exit, a rest stop you don’t remember ever seeing before in which the sign reads, Night Forest 1 mile…

Normally, rest stops along I-70 are swarmed with semitrucks and their sleeping drivers. The smaller stops will at least have one or two trucks parked haphazardly on the gravel parking lot or at least one mini van filled with cross county travelers bickering about what roadside attractions are worth stopping at. The vacancy of this rest stop is not ominous, but is of no comfort either. Still, a check engine light can be pretty serious if not investigated so you pull into the parking lot and park in front of a small, newer building.

You climb out of your car and prop the hood open hoping the issue would be obvious, but aside from some stray leaves, everything looks and smells like a car that has been running should. You are just about to close the hood of your car when you hear the door to the small building get thrown open violently causing you to jump and lose your grip on the hood. The combined sound of the door hitting the exterior wall and the hood crashing down into place sends a wave of anxiety into your stomach.

You quickly turn to see who has burst forth with such gusto and are surprised to see a little girl no older than eight standing with one hand one hand in the front pocket of her muddied jeans and the other still on the door. A strange red insignia was printed on her baggy black t-shirt that was two sizes too big and rippled like waves as the wind blew. The girls eyes drift upward and a malicious smile creeps across her face as the black clouds try to block the sun. You swear you can hear the sound of muffled cracking and popping coming from the girl’s jaw as her grin grows unnaturally wide, revealing a set of sharp canines.

“Your roll on the encounter table resulted in wolves, Adventurer,” the little girl snarls at you and she lets out a howl that echoes across the empty parking lot and back into the Flint Hills behind you. In a flash, the girl leaps up onto your car preventing you from taking shelter inside. Patches of chestnut fur have starting sprouting on her arms and face. “Oh no, Adventurer,” she laughs, “I won’t let you take the easy way out of this.”

Two more kids in the same half-wolf state as the girl come tearing out of the building. Your fight or flight instincts kick in and you turn to start running away. Your parents didn’t raise you to fight children. There is a cluster of trees about 100 yards away with a small house barely visible through the privacy forest. Your best guess is that the kids must live there which means their parents can’t be too far away. Its time to channel your inner Tyreek Hill and run. You take two seconds to look behind at your pursuers and to your utter surprise all you can see is trees.

Suddenly you realize you are kind of lost. It seems really dark for afternoon and you find yourself in a forest. Toto, you for sure aren’t in Kansas anymore. You are thinking of getting back in your car and ignoring the engine light when someone comes up behind you...

Instinctively you turn around with your fists up ready to teach these kids or pups maybe, a lesson for messing with you. Instead you find yourself face-to-face with an actual wolf-man.

“Ope, sorry to startle you like that, Adventurer,” the wolf-man says throwing his hairy hands up. You notice he is wearing a necklace with the same insignia as the one on the girl’s shirt from before. “Humans like yourself find themselves lost in here every now and then so whenever I come across one I like to point them in the right direction.”

“I need to get back to my car,” you manage to spit out while your mind still tries to process the impossible creature standing before you. “And I am being chased by...”

“I’ll stop you there, Asdventurer,” the wolf-man says with a laugh. “Those are my pups and I’ll have to apologize on their behalf. They get bored easily and don’t always make the best decisions. Doctor says they are on the chaotic side of the chart and I blame their mother.”

You look back over your shoulder into the forest behind you expecting to see the pups come crawling out from behind the trees, but the wolf-man grabs you by the shoulders before you can get a good look.

“Hey I have an idea, why don’t you come wait in the house for a bit till the wife gets back from Night Forest and then she can drive you back to your car,” he says excitedly brandishing his sharp teeth.

Not wanting to be rude, or eaten, you halfheartedly agree and start walking with the wolf-man to his house. You make a point to remain vigilant and take mental notes of your surrounds which unfortunately amount to very little other than trees and the occasional squirrel.

You and the wolf-man finally arrive at what looks to be an ordinary farm house.

“I don’t remember catching your name,” you say stopping in front of the steps leading up to the porch. The wolf-man has his hand on the door when he freezes and slowly turns to look at you with his piercing yellow eyes. A sudden shiver of fear crawls down your spine.

“Parents named me Louis, but folks around here just call me Lou,” he replies. All you can do is nod in response as the tension between you and Lou grows uncomfortable.

Somewhere behind you in the forest a twig snaps sending a flock of birds flying off and Lou shifts his gaze from you into the forest. A gentle breeze comes rolling through the clearing and Lou sniffs the air for a minute.

“Is something wrong?,” you ask with an obvious tremor in your voice.

“What is that insignia on your clothes,” Lou asks glaring at your Kansas State University shirt.

“A wildcat,” you say looking down at you shirt and pointing to the mascot.

“My pups were right, you are the enemy. You are Catfolk, and I must destroy you.”

You run.

Just when you think things can’t get any stranger, the rain and lightning start, the sky turns greenish yellow, and you hear strange winds whistling like a train coming. You don’t panic. You try to remember what to do from scout camp, back in the day. You are deciding between hiding under an enormous pine tree or laying down in a ditch you see up ahead, which you distinctly remember is for lightning or tornadoes (and at this point you could be in danger of both). You are leaning toward making a break for the pine tree in the hopes you could also climb it should Lou find you when you notice two things: a small cave in a little green hill to your west and a hot air balloon parked on top of it with no one inside. You immediately run to...

The cave to seek shelter from the coming storm. Trying to operate a hot air balloon with no experience is one thing, but to try and do it during a storm with no experience is a death wish.

The hill you have stumbled across is void of trees which leads you to believe that someone cleared the area themselves for the soul purpose of parking their hot air balloon there. You stop at the tree line to try and scope out the area, but the heavy rain fall is making impossible to see if anyone is around. A web of lightning crawls across the sky followed by an enormous clap of thunder that shakes the ground. Even if there is someone hiding in the cave, dealing with them will be better than standing out in a storm.

The cave smells like your basement back at home which is oddly comforting to you as you press you back against the wall close to the opening and slide down it so you are sitting on the ground. You keep thinking about Lou and the pups. Why did they call you Adventurer? What is an encounter table? What was the weird insignia? What about your car? Are you going to die out here? Before you mind can continue to race with these thoughts, you see what appears to be a lantern light from the back of the cave. There’s also a pair of glowing yellow eyes staring at you.

“You smell vaguely of those dogs living in the forest,” a female’s voice echoes from the back of the cave, “but I can see you are not of their pack.” The eyes and lantern start moving closer to you at the mouth of the cave. Another bright flash of lightening reveals what looks like a silver tabby cat walking towards you on two legs.

“I need to get back to my car,” you say, soon remembering that you said the same thing to Louis and look where that has gotten you.

“Consider yourself lucky, Adventurer,” the silver tabby says setting the lantern down at your feet. “It is not every day you get so lucky with random encounters.”

“Lucky?” you shout, “how can you call me lucky? My engine warning light is on, I have been chased through a forest by what I think are werewolves, and now I am in a cave during a bad storm talking to a bi-pedal cat.” The cat bursts out laughing.

“Werewolves? HA. Dogkin hounds maybe, but Werewolves? Trust me if you had run into a werewolf at your current level, you’d be dead and starting over.”

“Are you going to help me?” you ask the tabby.

“In this rain? No, I am neutral so there’s no obligation for me to help. Dogs are scared of thunder so I wouldn’t waste anymore time.”

You take the tabby’s advise and get moving. You run past the house with no incident and soon can see your car though the trees.

Just when you think your day is turning out rather well considering everything, you realize the jig is up. They’ve found you. Should you fight back, run, or prepare a very zesty speech to get them on your side?...

Lou is standing with his pups growling at you. The storm is still raging on and the young pups are visibly scared.

“Pack code is to destroy any Catfolk on sight,” Lou grows at you. “There is no place for you in Night Forest or anywhere.”

“I don’t even look like Catfolk!” you yell back at Louis. “I am human! I don’t even like cats! I have a Labrador named Chance at home!”

The pups gasp collectively and look up at their father.

“First you conceal your alliance with Catfolk and now you admit to keeping Dogkin as pets?! Adventurer, you have made two grave mistakes today.”

“The Wildcat is my school’s mascot, it has nothing to do with Catfolk, and Chance is just a regular dog,” you try to explain, “I didn’t even know Dogkin or Catfolk were real until my car broke down and I ended up in this, this mess!”

The oldest of the pups is shaking something in her fist and drops what looks like a rock onto the ground. Louis bends down to look at it.

“Looks like you failed your persuasion roll, Adventurer.” Lou lets out a howl that drowns out the sound of the rain.

“The pine tree,” you whisper to yourself. You can easily climb it to get out of reach. Dogs can’t climb well if at all. For the third time today you find yourself running away from angry dogs.

Once you reach the tree, you clumsily make your way up into its branches. Lou, despite his humanoid build is unable to climb up after you. Which is puzzling cause you know he has thumbs, but that isn’t the puzzle that needs solving right now. The pups, however are trying their hardest to make it up past the second row of branches.

A pine cone comes into view as you near the crown of the tree. A tame enough projectile that could disrupt the balance of the pups and send them back to the ground. You yank the pinecone off the tree and throw it at one of the pups hitting one on their snout causing them to lose their grip on the branches and fall.

A snicker comes from the branches of the tree adjacent to you and you look over to see the silver tabby standing among the branches with a handful of other Catfolk.

“Tree climbing was a smart move Adventurer,” the silver tabby says while silently applauding. The other Catfolk are nodding in agreement and clapping their paws like observers on a golf course.

“Will you please help me escape?” you ask as desperately as possible. “I can’t do this alone.” Discussion breaks out among the group and you hear a dice being rolled.

“Bastet be praised,” the silver tabby groans. “Alright lets go.”

The Catfolk leap off the branches towards the Dogkin giving you the perfect distraction to escape and two of the Catfolk lead you to a hideout where you can sleep for the night.

Morning finally comes. When you wake up, you find your car safely parked at the rest stop in Kansas. There aren’t many trees, if any, around. Inside your car, you find your library books and a note that reads...

“Adventurer, you should have mentioned sooner that you were allied with the Wild Clan of the Catfolk. I saw the insignia on your garb, but did not believe you to be a true ally. Upon examining your car and seeing the insignia on it I decided to call upon my clowder to see if you would ask us to aid you. Give thanks to Bastet that we arrived when we did or you would have become a chew toy for Cerberus.”

You tuck the note inside one of your library books and start up your car. No engine light. Must have been a fluke or weather related thing. You make a note to call your dad and ask his opinion on it when you get back to your apartment in Manhattan.

The drive is uneventful and you start to forget about the wild experience you had at the rest stop off the highway. The Flint Hills blur by and are soon replaced by farmers fields and barns used by the University’s Agricultural department. You park in an empty spot at your apartment complex and quickly carry your things and library books up to your home.

Your roommates are in the kitchen making brunch when you come through the door. They are happy to see you and ready to start your apartment’s traditional table top gaming weekend.

“Did you get the books I asked you to pick up while you were at the library,” one of your roommates asks as you throw your overnight bag into your room. “We can manage if you didn’t, but it would be helpful for all the first time players if we have all the manuals on hand.”

“Yeah I got all of them,” you reply looking down at the stack of books in your hands. You look down at the first book’s cover and your jaw drops. There on the cover is the same red insignia that the Dogkin had been wearing. It is the dragon ampersands from the Dungeons and Dragons manuals. Your experience suddenly comes rushing back to you and and you turn to look at your roommates in the kitchen.

Standing over the stove flipping pancakes is a person you have never seen before.

“Oh before we get started,” one of your roommates says, “this is my cousin Louis, he’s going to DM for us!”

You drop the books as Louis turns and looks at you with a smile.

“Hello Adventurer…”

By Helen Elizabeth Hokanson

What does freedom mean to me?

Since this question of freedom was posed on the first of September, I’ve been struggling to articulate just what freedom does mean to me. Do I answer to the backdrop of BLM protests, and respond in the context of the larger world? Maybe write a poem about systemic racism and my relationship with it. Or do I focus on the personal? An essay about the irony of people telling me they just want me to have what they have, while being alternately ignored or screamed at by the spouse they pity me for not having. Why would I want that? Or is there something in between I might place under the microscope? So many ways to be free. So many ways to be bound.

As October crawls along, bringing prompts end, I still can’t quite put my finger on how to address this question no matter which way I turn it. It’s a problem even my insomnia can’t cure. Now there’s something I wish to be free from. I had given up hope that I would be able to post a response. Until this morning. I am Reading Rebekah Taussig’s Sitting Pretty: The View From My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, where she perfectly articulates this slippery, twisty concept.

It’s a long passage, and I hope Rebekah doesn’t mind me sharing it.

“When I was small and just learning how to do life in my body, I didn’t hesitate, didn’t hold back, didn’t worry how it would look, didn’t look for cues or ask for a line. My imagination ruled. I saw no incongruities in being both a puppy rolling around in the mud and a poised princess. I wore dress-up gowns on afternoon trips to the library and drew magic-marker purple diamonds across my forearms and shins. I didn’t wonder what dancing could or should be; I moved my body to music and called it dancing. I used the shelves and cabinets in the kitchen to climb onto the counter and crawled headfirst down the hardwood stairs at top speed. I scooted around the neighborhood on a red tricycle with streamers flowing out of the handlebars. I was entirely free to be, driven by the innovation my body inspired. This is the wild emancipation I wish for all of us – a world where we are all free to be, to move, to exist in our bodies without shame; a world that isn’t interested in making all of its humans operate in the exact same way; a world that instead strives to invite more, include more, imagine more. That world sees the humans existing on the margins and says, You have what we want! What barriers can we remove so we can have you around? What do you need? How can we make that happen?” <

I’ve now read this paragraph about ten times. More by the time you have read it and I’m gob smacked each time. Wild emancipation. Yes! Wild emancipation. Freedom to be can be nothing less.

By Molly McCluskey-Shipman

I wish for you to be free of…

The ties that still bind Of assumptions and false narratives Of guilty until proven innocent

Beginning where you’ve started Way behind Any starting line Where it’s not safe to imagine

Imagining a future because you may not survive Freedom from assumptions based on Your skin Your hair Hoodies Zip code

Freedom to visualize a future Beyond the ifs Not IF you’ll go to college but where Freedom from only lip service of a better tomorrow

Actions of worth for our kids Most deserving Underserved Constantly emotionally battered By history and present day

Attempting to withdraw From a bankruptcy of broken promises Freedom from labels “Poor kids” “Those kids” “Them” “The black kids”

Freedom to walk down the street Without scorn Fear Assumptions

A promise to be a kid Recognized As having promise

Freedom to BE To shine Soar Impact Shouldn’t that be Attainable For all of us?!?

(For my students, past and present)

By Joni Abilene

Freedom was presented to me in childhood as a commerce, an idea wrapped up with the flag like a striped candy wrapper. Freedom meant society coming together, to celebrate with picnics and fireworks on the Fourth—of beer and fried chicken and sucked-up cigarettes littered along gravel ditches. My mother sewed identical dresses for my sister and me-we two of compete opposition. Little wars in pretty dresses. The forcing of this did not feel like freedom to me. Later on, a music teacher spoke of man and music, of the fool creating sound as a means to entertain himself in our prefabricated, preindustrial world. Lips poised in an O, he or she produced song wherever they wanted: amid a field, a mountain, a forest. The simplicity of this meant true freedom to me. I loved the idea and held onto it like a salve when life turned complex and chaotic. Now I know that true freedom is not the absence of conflict, but the acceptance of it. Life taught me this. Freedom is the ability to be that simplistic music-maker amid the fray. To whistle and have the world scorn, but still whistle because it makes you happy. If every person did this they would know true freedom. Lauren Bacall said it best, “You just put your lips together and blow.”

By Chris

I Have No Answers

All are welcome here is a political statement.

So is Some are welcome here.

Why? Should they be? Who gets to decide?

Is the second a statement that highlights emphasizes corrects or excludes?

Is it a statement about the some or the not-some, the rest, the others?

Who gets to decide? The speaker or the listener?

Is what matters intent or impact?

Eighty years ago an establishment could post a sign saying “Coloreds not welcome” and the intent was clear: exclusion.

Would a sign saying “Coloreds welcome” mean the same: all who are not colored are excluded? Or would it mean the colored are included along with the rest?

I grew up with the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” All the children of the world the lyrics went Red, brown, yellow, Black and white It spelled it out, that “all.” It listed the skin tones to emphasize their inclusion.

If I sing a partial lyric— “Jesus loves Black children”— does that merely highlight a part of the song, emphasize or make note of a part of the whole? Or does it make a new song and cancel the rest? If I say the song mentions Jesus loves Black children does that imply he hates red, brown, yellow, and white?

Assumed exclusion; implied negation. If I say “I love dogs” does that mean I hate cats? If Mozart is my favorite is Beethoven then slandered? When I savor a steak do I debase all salad?

Who gets to decide whether I have and what my words mean? Is my intent behind them all that matters? Or do others determine the impact regardless of what I meant?

Some say wearing a mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19 makes a political statement about those who don't or can't or won't. Does it? Some say saying “Black Lives Matter” makes a political statement about lives that aren't Black. Does it? Do you get to decide the meaning behind my intent? Do I get to decide for you? Are these things personal? Individual choices and freedoms? Or are they political, attempting to influence who we are together? Who gets to decide if I'm being personal or political? Some, all, or me?

If I am your host and you feel unwelcome by my Black Lives Matter pin am I at fault? Am I failing as a host? Do I need to “correct” my behavior to change the way you feel?

If I have a library or school or public space that is intended as welcome to all and I display a Black Lives Matter sign meant to particularly indicate inclusion and you feel it means something different, that others are less welcome than Black in comparison, have I done something wrong? Who owns your perception? Is my intent or my impact decisive?

(Because in similar but reverse situations, when you intend something harmless that I perceive as racially harmful, I would say the impact outweighs the intent.)

(If I attempt to restrain you and you die have I committed murder?)

I'm sure there are professionals who study this kind of thing, philosophers and ethicists and the like, who have formal systems for determining answers to my many questions, who know how to weigh one benefit against another, one harm against another, one intent against another, one freedom and right against other freedoms and rights, when they compete against each other, when one would cancel the other, and reach decisive conclusions.

They are not me. I'm stuck in my questions, unsure how to proceed. Chances are, they are not you. How do we negotiate this, me and you?

I'm not sure who gets to decide. Are you?

September/October 2020 Prompt

What does freedom mean to you? What does it mean in this country? What do you want to be free of or from?

Submit your piece here

and, Read other responses here


Thanks for all the thoughtful responses you submitted to our August prompt!

By Chris

To be kind is to notice. To perceive. To see, hear, feel, understand. To feel kindness is to feel recognized. To be acknowledged and comprehended.

Respect. The root “spect” is for seeing. Spectacles. Spectator. Inspect. “Re” is again. To re-spect is to look and then look again, closely enough to see carefully. Accurately. Truly.

Kindness is attention. It is paying attention with a desire to understand, without judgment or conditions or self-interest. It is accepting the other on their own terms.

Random acts of kindness are small moments of attention. . . .