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Something to Think About
In “As Far as a Former Prisoner Can Go”, a freed prisoner is at a loss about what his next steps are going to be. Maybe you’ve never been in prison, but have you ever felt alone and hopeless?
- Why did the prisoner envy the sleeping passengers?
- What have you done when you felt alone, helpless, and hopeless?
- What famous story or character does “As Far as a Former Prisoner Can Go” remind you of?
- What questions did you ask yourself as you read “As Far as a Former Prisoner Can Go”?
“As Far as a Former Prisoner Can Go”
by Charli Mills
James found out how far gate money would get him from state prison in Sacramento. When the bus pulled into a convenience store after midnight, he thought its name funny – Kum & Go. It wasn’t until the bus driver yelled, “Paulina!” that James realized he’d reached the destination on his ticket. He slid out of his seat, grabbed his paper bag, and walked to the front, envying the sleeping passengers.
“Where’s the town?” James asked.
“This is Paulina, Iowa.” The driver made notations into an electronic device.
“It’s a gas station in the middle of tall grass.”
The driver snorted. “If you haven’t ever seen corn before, you’ll get an eyeful here.”
James left the bus and faced the gloom at the edge of fluorescent lights. The bus door sealed and the engine spewed diesel fumes. Silence. Darkness. The despair of solitary confinement settled over him like the smell of rot.
How long he stood there, James couldn’t say. His thoughts lingered on coffee, but he’d spent all the $200 they gave him for leaving prison. He hadn’t counted on an isolated destination.
Tires crunched gravel scattered across the pavement and James shuddered, staying small in the shadows. A black Ford truck with shiny rims swung into the gas station, pulling up to the pumps. The driver stepped out and spotted James like a seasoned warden. He dropped his eyes in deference to the authority of the stranger but not before catching a glimpse of blonde hair from within the cab. James snapped his head back up, eyes wide, mouth slack.
“You gonna rob the place?” the man asked.
James stammered, searching for words.
“Or maybe you think you can rob me, the dude with no legs.”
James realized the man stood on two prosthetics beneath his khaki cargo shorts. The man’s t-shirt stretched across a broad chest and proclaimed, “NO ONE DIED.” US ARMY and American flag decals decorated the back window. It all made sense. For the first time in two years, James felt a flutter of hope. He dropped to his knees and cried out, “Buttercup!”
A yellow lab leaped from the front seat, wiggled from wet nose to feathery tail, and encircled James. He laughed and cried as the dog’s tongue slopped across his face. A sharp whistle, and the dog loped back to the man at the truck. The gas pump ticked like a clock while the man finished filling his tank.
James met the stranger’s gaze. “You served in Iraq.” It wasn’t a question.
The man nodded. “How do you know my dog?”
“I trained her. In prison. Two years ago, she was placed with a wounded soldier.”
The man walked over and offered James a hand up. “Two years ago, that dog gave me a new life.”
James felt his throat thicken. He nodded. “I’ve missed her.”
“When did you get out?”
“Three days ago. This was as far as I could get with a bus ticket.”
“What the hell kind of badass prisoner names a dog ‘Buttercup’?”
James grinned and tipped back his head. “She was the sweetest puppy any of us had ever seen. Kind eyes. Soft hair. The color of meadow flowers. Something better than concrete, gangs, and drugs. We whispered ‘Buttercup’ like a prayer.”
The man grunted. “Well, Buttercup and I are on our way to help build tiny houses for homeless vets in Kansas City. At least three other vets involved with the project have dogs from the prison program. We’ve been talking about starting one of our own.”
“A service dog program?”
“Yeah. You trained a good dog. Could you train more?”
Once again, Buttercup gave James the chance to be human.
Charli hosts a Flash Fiction Challenge each week. This week she has invited you to rewrite her story, “As Far As a Former Prisoner Can Go,” in 99 words – no more no less. Click on the link to contribute your story.
About Charli Mills
Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, is the award-winning goat-tying champion of a forgotten 1970s rodeo. Now she wrangles words.
Married to a former US Army Ranger, Charli Mills is “true grit” but no John Wayne. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and gives voice to women and others marginalized in history, especially on frontiers.
In 2014 she founded an imaginary place called Carrot Ranch where real literary artists could gather. As lead buckaroo, she’s crafted and compiled enough flash fiction to understand its value. Charli Mills developed the Congress of the Rough Writers to collaborate with flash fiction writers from Carrot Ranch.
Charli hosts a literary community at Carrot Ranch with weekly Flash Fiction Challenges open to all writers. 99 words, no more, no less. Her mission as a literary artist is to make literary art more accessible one flash fiction at a time.
Charli’s Amazing Interview on Always Write
- Challenge Interview Series: Charli Mills published July 7, 2020
Please take some time to check out Charli’s links. Her website is one of the best-organized and collaborative blogs on the internet. Beyond her amazing educational achievements, her Curricula Vitae lists her numerous published articles and presentations.