Wildflower

Submitted into Contest #86 in response to: Write a story where flowers play a central role.... view prompt

54 comments

Asian American Drama East Asian

Jenny steadied herself with her left hand as she squatted among the rubble. With her right hand, she tried to push aside a slab of siding jammed against the remains of the patio table. She’d taken off her work gloves when the insurance agent stopped by and then plunged back into the debris forgetting where she’d set them. With shards of glass covering the ground, she moved cautiously. But she thought she’d seen a familiar bit of red ceramic among the jumble of splintered boards and branches. She kept pushing through bits and pieces.


One more heave. A brick clunked to the ground and she saw the crimson handle of her favorite mug. “I’d rather be sleeping” was written in bubble letters on one side, a fat orange cartoon cat snored on the other.  


Jenny pulled it from the debris and examined it. Not a scratch. She grasped the mug with both hands as though it still held tea, stood and surveyed her street. Unrecognizable. Boards and siding covered the ground along with roofing, tires, hunks of metal, branches and entire trees. Cars lay at odd angles, one sitting on its roof like an overturned turtle, another appearing to climb up the side of the house that was partially standing. Broken tree trunks pierced the sky. Police cars and ambulances flashed their lights and maneuvered where they could. Jenny knew that her neighbor two doors down, Celina Bourg, had been taken to the hospital. The body of Celina’s husband Joe had been found two streets over. Old Mrs. Kaine was missing. Only three houses had made it, if you could call it that. The tornado had ripped Jenny’s and Peter’s modest ranch in half and sent the roof flying, but at least part of the living room was still standing. 


“How did you survive?” she whispered to the mug.


Just 12 hours earlier, she’d set the mug, still steaming with green tea, on the counter as she and Peter picked up their phones to read the emergency tornado alert. Still new to Texas, they’d looked at each other, unsure if “Take Shelter” meant that instant.


“Should we try out the tornado shelter?” Peter asked, shrugging and half-smiling. Jenny shrugged too.


“Maybe? Better safe than sorry, I guess.”


Jenny set the mug in a box with smattering of other salvageable items. She was glad it was still around. Her best friends Maeko and Yua had given it to her when she left Tokyo for Boston 20 years earlier, giggling in the irony that she would never “rather be sleeping.” Jenny had always lived up to her Japanese name, Isamu - one full of energy.


She pulled her hair into a ponytail and dabbed her face with a paper towel. Barely 10 am and already the sun was heavy and yellow, baking the landscape. Peter had left to organize a rental car and a hotel.


She picked her way around a chunk of concrete, a wayward shoe and more boards - so many boards - to the backyard where she stared at the garden shed tucked away behind the azaleas. Building and plants looked untouched.  


Jenny shook her head, mystified by the whims of tornadoes, and pulled off the padlock they’d never bothered locking. The aroma of fertilizer, mulch and potting soil calmed her. She ran her hand over the shelves, looking for another pair of work gloves. As she maneuvered around two rakes and a shovel, she noticed an unfamiliar box taped shut. Forgetting about the gloves, she unwedged the box with her foot and jostled it out the door, knocking over the rakes and shovel. Her arms barely closed around the box and she couldn’t see beyond it, forcing her to pick her way slowly to the one spot she’d cleared on the patio.


Jenny sat on the tile and ran a knife along the tape. The moment she opened the flaps and lifted out an earthenware vase with a wide mouth, she remembered packing the box five years earlier and relegating it to their tiny storage locker in New York. She peered inside and saw a stack of shallow black bowls and some smaller vases in iridescent pearls and blues. A leather pouch held a small set of pruning shears. In a burlap bag, she saw six kenzans, discs with dozens of small brass spikes protruding from the base, like the grass of a perfectly mowed lawn. She pulled the Sharpie she’d been using all morning from her back pocket and scribbled “IKEBANA” on the box and pushed it next to the “SAVED ITEMS” box.


These were the materials of Japanese flower arranging, an art mastered by her great-grandmother, her grandmother and her mother. But not by Jenny. She remembered afternoons as a child, kneeling next to her grandmother, mesmerized by the sweep of her arm and the drape of her kimono sleeve as she held first one stem and then another to the light. Ikebana was nothing like Western flower arranging. As much a meditation as it was art, ikebana was based on the principles of minimalism, harmony, balance, nature and silence - ideas that felt foreign and ancient to Jenny. Still, she had loved those afternoons with her grandmother - her Baba - and was mesmerized by the process. As a child, Jenny was sure her grandmother possessed some sort of magic. She started with the humblest of flowers, twigs and leaves but wove them into masterpieces that won praise even from the staunchest of Tokyo’s critics. Jenny had made a few half-hearted attempts while still living in Japan, but she couldn’t cast the spell she saw from her grandmother. Then there was school, boys, shopping. And then university, career, America.


Jenny smiled at the box before turning to the debris surrounding her. Baba never pushed….but she had never given up either. Year after year, she sent Jenny vases, shears and kenzans. Each one was carefully stacked, packaged and stowed away among the things Jenny would never use, but couldn’t let go.


The next day, bulldozers and dump trucks rolled onto the tornado-ravaged street. Jenny stood with Peter on their front lawn and watched the machines rumble and squeal, as they pushed debris into heaps.


As the afternoon waned, Jenny sat on a lawn chair with a clipboard, making notes for the insurance company. But the numbers swam in front of her. Setting down her pen, she rubbed her eyes and slumped in the chair, arms and legs heavy with exhaustion. She let her gaze drift past a bulldozer to the fields and barns that stretched along the horizon, noticing a splotch of pink against the sun-baked browns and yellows of the Texas summer.


“Break time,” she said and made her way across the backyard, a little way down the next street and through the neighbor’s yard until she found herself surrounded by hundreds of pink and lavender wildflowers. The petals were layered one atop another, surrounding the stalk and coming together in a cone shape, where they swayed and bent with the wind. Jenny caught one petal between her thumb and forefinger, surprised by the softness. As she touched the flower, she felt her chest loosen and she sighed, realizing she hadn’t really breathed in days. She recognized the blossoms as “obedient plant”, but had always preferred their other name, false dragonhead. She looked back over her shoulder at the destruction and felt a longing to bring a piece of the peaceful field home. She knelt and used her Leatherman to cut three stems near the ground. 


She cradled the flowers like a baby, feeling a lightness carry her back through the neighbor’s yard and across the street. Squeezing between the jagged boards of broken fence, she felt the branch of a mesquite tree grab her hair and she stopped, trying to untangle it without dropping the flowers. As she pushed the branch away, she paused, seeing an elegance in the angles and a grace in the leaves which draped from them. She clipped a few branches and continued home, her thoughts on the ikebana box. 


The trucks were still working when she arrived and she cleared an area in the living room.  Although the roof and two walls had been ripped away, Jenny longed for a moment of normalcy in her home, something to remind her of life just days earlier. She carried the ikebana box into the room and contemplated it.


“This is stupid, Jenny. You have a lot to do,” she whispered. Yet, she couldn’t push away her grandmother’s voice. She heard the rich, gentle murmur that always seemed to bathe any space with light.


First, lay out your materials.


Jenny knelt on the floor and, one by one, placed the false dragonheads and mesquite branches before her as though they were glass. She lifted the wide-mouthed vase from the box and set it next to the pruning shears and one kenzan. Phone in one hand, she Googled “ikebana first step” but then heard her Baba again.


Pick that which is most dramatic….to you.


Jenny reached for the largest stem and examined it.


The form of the flowers is found, not planned.


She snipped a few leaves from the base and tried to drive it onto the kenzan, which sat amid water in the vase.


When you struggle, cut your stem at an angle.


Jenny lowered the stalk into the water and clipped the end as she’d seen her Baba do. This time, the stem stood easily. She sat back and studied it, bending the flower just another degree to bring light to the petals. 


With more certainty, she reached for the next dragonhead and then the next.


Arrange your branches only after you have placed the Shin, the Soe and the Hikae.


She added a mesquite branch. And another.  


Jenny wrinkled her nose as she evaluated her work. It felt barren. She scanned the yard, her eye falling on the azaleas. She cut a mound of leaf-encrusted branches and jammed them into the kenzan, filling in the bare spots. But that didn’t look right either. 


Her grandmother whispered.


Leave space between the branches for the breeze. Allow the flowers to breathe.


Jenny pulled out the azaleas. Yes. Better.


Feel the energy and you will know where to place the next element.


She covered the base of the kenzan with the mesquite leaves.  


Now stand. Walk around your arrangement. Study it from all angles. Look for depth.


Jenny let her gaze move from the vase and up the stems and branches as her grandmother had taught her. It was the formal way of appreciating ikebana.


A sense of balance is essential.


Jenny clipped another leaf and bent a blossom a deeper angle. She let out a breath she hadn’t even realized she was holding. It was done. 


The pink and green blooms stretched upward and outward, their grace contrasting with the angled branches twisting to pierce the air around it. In the mesquite leaves, Jenny saw a vibrant green that was scarce around central Texas in the summer. She brushed her hand against a leaf, which seemed to give her a jaunty wave.


Jenny’s phone rang - a loud, old-fashioned jangle - and she jumped. She’d turned the volume up to hear over the bulldozers and trucks. She touched the Facetime icon and her Baba’s broad face filled the screen.


“My Isamu! I have been so worried. Your mother told me the storm destroyed your home. How are you, my granddaughter?”


Jenny smiled and switched to Japanese.


“Baba! I am so happy to see you. All is well. We are fine. Look …”


She turned the phone to her ikebana arrangement, which had picked just that moment to glow in the late afternoon sun.


“Baba, the wildflowers are beautiful this year.”




March 25, 2021 21:29

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54 comments

Kristin Neubauer
21:33 Mar 25, 2021

Author's Note: This was inspired by a story a friend told me about her ikebana teacher in Tokyo who went through a very difficult time following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. When my friend called to check in on her teacher, the teacher just focused on the beauty of the cherry blossoms. I know nothing about ikebana or the Japanese culture other than what I've researched online. I know very little about Texas, but Brad is from Texas and used to be a tornado-chaser, so I had him read this first. Apologies for anything I may have gotten ...

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Shea West
18:53 Apr 22, 2021

I loved how Jenny was able to conjure up how to arrange the Ikebana. Sometimes the words of our loved ones just come back to us in the time we need them the most. But what stuck out to me the most was the steps to arrange the Ikebana also felt like the same kind of steps one would take to build, or rather in this case re-build one's life. They felt like they could apply to flowers and life all at once, and I found the parallel symbolism of them both to be so sweet and meaningful.

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Kristin Neubauer
11:35 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you for that insight, Shea! I hadn’t thought about the building of the Ikebana arrangement as a metaphor for Jenny rebuilding her life, but I see it now. Maybe that worked it’s way in there subconsciously - I appreciate you highlighting it!

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21:00 Apr 15, 2021

Kristin, it took me an eternity to get to this, but I'm so glad I finally did! I absolutely loved it. It's such a deeply affecting story, and your decision not to place focus on the tornado itself is brilliant. We still see how the disaster affects Jenny, but instead of focusing on grief, anger, frustration, you depict a healthy coping mechanism. When big, horrible things happen, sometimes the best thing to do is focus on something small. And I also love how Jenny didn't turn to ikebana because she was already good at it, but because it was ...

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Kristin Neubauer
01:14 Apr 16, 2021

Thank you so much, Natalie. I always admire your writing so these compliments mean son much to me. It also very valuable to know what you thought worked so that I can try to replicate strains of that in the future. Thank you!!

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Writer Maniac
02:44 Apr 11, 2021

I'm sorry I'm late, I had a few exams to take care of, but I'm finally here! The story was beautifully articulated, and the way you described the ikebana part was so calming, it's something that I will definitely read back again. I learnt something new today, and that is all because of you. The way you started with something as insignificant as a mug and slowly worked back into what had happened seemed natural and kept me hooked to the story till the very end. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will look forward to reading more of your works in th...

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Kristin Neubauer
19:04 Apr 12, 2021

Thank you so much! I know how hectic things can get and it means a lot that you took the time to read and offer such a detailed comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I am hoping to get a story written by Friday this week, but we’ll see!

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Writer Maniac
02:16 Apr 13, 2021

You're welcome! I had quite a few stories to read, so I just took some time out and read them all. I'll be sure to look out for your future stories :)

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Lani Lane
23:02 Apr 07, 2021

Kristin, first of all, I'm so sorry it took me this long to get to your story. But I have to say, I'm happy I waited until I could fully read and absorb, because this is absolutely one of my new favorite stories on this website. I'm blown away! This was a detailed, slow-burning story and I think the pace was perfectly balanced. I loved the way you described ikebana; I appreciate when I get to learn something new from a short story. Your comment said that what your wrote about ikebana was just what came from online research, but you wrote in...

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Kristin Neubauer
20:02 Apr 08, 2021

Thank you so much and no worries on the timing. I totally understand how life gets in the way. I am on overnight shifts now which completely turns my life upside down. I will catch up on your next ones tonight or tomorrow night. You always have such vivid, tight writing that I learn a lot from. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment even amid all the craziness of these days!

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Nainika Gupta
00:06 Apr 05, 2021

Oh. Oh- OH. Kristin, I am in love. No, seriously, I can't stop re-reading this again and again. And again. And then to my dog. And once more for good measure. :) This was super sweet and emotionally-draining :) (In a good way of course!) The tornado made me nervous, not going to lie, and not because it's a...well tornado and I live in tornado alley so I know about the horror of them, but because the way you wrote it just....gHA just made me feel like I was there and terrified and hopeful at the same time! The character development is ...

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Kristin Neubauer
13:53 Apr 05, 2021

Thank you so much! Your comments are as much fun to read as your stories.....and this one, in particular, has turned a rather gloomy and mopey day completely around. I really appreciate your feedback, especially after being in such complete admiration of your writing. I felt pretty good about this story when I posted it....I don't always feel that way. Sometimes I post feeling as though what I've written is too rough or open-ended....that it hasn't really worked as I'd hoped. But I liked Wildflower and it gives me a big boost to hear tha...

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Nainika Gupta
14:45 Apr 05, 2021

Aw my pleasure! I’m glad!! :) Of course!

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Amany Sayed
23:46 Apr 03, 2021

Oh, wow! This was so sweet! There were so many emotions packed into here, and it was beautiful. There was the fear of the tornado, the shock, the hope... I really don't have any critique, other than the small grammar errors here and there. I won't point them out since this has been approved, but the main thing is commas- when you have lists like blank, blank, and blank, you missed the comma before the and a couple times. Nothing too big. I really enjoyed this. Keep writing (and sorry it took me so long to read)!

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Kristin Neubauer
00:37 Apr 04, 2021

Thanks so much for taking the time to read! I know it can get difficult with everything else going on. I really appreciate your thoughts and observations - I need to pay better attention to my grammar and punctuation. We have copy editors at work who fix all that, so I have gotten lazy. Thanks for the reminder!!

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K. Antonio
17:53 Mar 28, 2021

I loved where you drew inspiration from. The story is emotional and your character in my eyes is so well developed. Glad to see you back! Loved to read a story with such cultural influence.

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Kristin Neubauer
22:10 Mar 28, 2021

Thank you so much! After reading so many of your wonderful stories, it means a lot to hear that this story worked you. Made my day!

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10:43 Mar 26, 2021

Wow. Simply wow. I know I've got to start somewhere but this is just wonderful. At the start, we get to see the destruction of people's lives and properties caused by the tornado. And we get to see the loss through Jenny. We learn about the people who had died or who'd been taken to the hospital. Things like that. But what is most important is how all that brings us closer to Jenny and helps us to feel that frustration and exhaustion. I like how you infuse the flowers into this story. Brings hope to both the readers and Jenny. It's like a w...

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Kristin Neubauer
20:13 Mar 26, 2021

Thank you so much, Abigail! Your comments have sent me soaring! And it was so helpful to hear what stood out to you in the story and what worked for you - that really helps inform and sharpen my future writing. I appreciate it!

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Thom Brodkin
01:27 Mar 26, 2021

This is my favorite story of yours so far which is saying a lot because I’ve loved so much of your writing. As I read it didn’t feel like fiction, it felt like a warm friendly story told by someone who had gone through the experience. You always have a way of describing things that Is vivid yet not busy. It makes it easy to see your vision. This was truly fantastic and I’m so glad you invited me to read.

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Kristin Neubauer
08:21 Mar 26, 2021

Thank you Thom! Your comments have given me a boost of confidence, especially coming from a writer I admire so much. My time on Reedsy and the critiques have helped me sharpen my style and I felt like my writing on this was tighter than in the bast - I’ve been mindful of using modifiers sparingly and I find that really does make a difference. Looking forward to your next one!

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Rohit Mukundan
07:04 Jun 13, 2021

That was beautiful.

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Kristin Neubauer
18:45 Jun 18, 2021

Thank you so much!!

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Philip Clayberg
02:54 Apr 30, 2021

Beauty sometimes hides amidst destruction. Not only that, but sometimes it's better to look at what/who survived vs. what/who didn't. I didn't say it was *easier* to react that way, but that it's better if one *could* react that way. Thank you for writing this story. Thank you also for the hope in the narrator's voice and her heart as she speaks to her grandmother. I've seen videos of tornadoes here in America and the tsunami that hit Japan after an offshore earthquake. It's a miracle that people can survive such things, and equally sa...

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Kristin Neubauer
12:51 Apr 30, 2021

Thank you so much, Philip! You identified some of the themes that were swirling around in my mind when I was writing it. I haven’t really managed to write an inspirational story yet - most of mine are either silly or sad. But I really wanted to write one that leaned more toward inspirational so I felt good about Wildflower. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment!

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Philip Clayberg
14:55 Apr 30, 2021

You're very welcome (both times). It's nice finding stories that get me interested in them. Even if the pathway in the story itself is sometimes *very* bumpy (like someone climbing up and over or making their way around the piles of debris after a tornado, or hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami hits), it's worth reading all the way through. Especially if there is hope at the end, rather than still more tragedy. It must seem like the end of the world to the survivors of catastrophes. But somehow they manage to collect what they can from wh...

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Arwen Dove
20:09 Apr 26, 2021

Brilliant!

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Kristin Neubauer
21:05 Apr 26, 2021

Thank you!

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Thom Brodkin
14:37 Apr 19, 2021

Hey there Ms Kristen. I posted a new story yesterday call "The Promise." It's one of my favorites. It's actually an extended version of a story I wrote for another contest and I like being able to add to it. If you get a second can you let me know what you think?

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Vicky S
05:17 Apr 11, 2021

Kristen, I loved this story. The details and the flow worked really well. I agree with Leilani, one of my favourite stories!

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Kristin Neubauer
20:30 Apr 11, 2021

Thank you so much! It one of the rare ones that flowed pretty easily for me - that doesn’t often happen!

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Amanda Kelly
13:41 Apr 06, 2021

This was an amazing story!! So flowy and beautiful. I love the mood of it, and the Japanese hints, and everything about this story, really!! Fantastic job ;)

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Kristin Neubauer
17:48 Apr 06, 2021

Thank you so much! I was nervous about the Japanese angle since that was all based on research, not experience. Your kind words have made my day!

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Amanda Kelly
18:18 Apr 07, 2021

In the beginning, you had me wondering if you were from a Japanese background or something! Your research was spot on! ;)

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A.Dot Ram
21:52 Mar 26, 2021

It's great to see you back, and with such a strong story. Like everyone else, I appreciated the juxtaposition of disaster and beauty/normalcy. We all have our survival strategies. I also really liked the part where, new to Texas, Jenny and her husband were nonchalantly like, "should we test the storm shelter?" It felt really authentic, and also shows how the destruction totally blindsided them. That tiny moment of levity seem to me to do something in your story like flower arranging. I'll have to read the steps again and look at how you've i...

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Kristin Neubauer
11:40 Mar 27, 2021

Thank you! I have to say, reading so many of your stories and absorbing your style impacted this one. There were a few moments during the writing of this where I felt like there was more to say, another way to go deeper into Jenny’s experience..... but either the answer didn’t present itself if I was just getting impatient to finish. And I was tempted to move on and leave it open. But I kept thinking about your stories and how you go deeper and deeper and deeper. Told myself to stick with it and figure out what was driving a certain act...

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A.Dot Ram
05:46 Mar 29, 2021

You've made it your own!

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Daniel R. Hayes
16:44 Mar 26, 2021

Hi Kristin, I'm so glad to see a new story from you :) I love how you can write stories with different cultural backgrounds. I've never heard of the art of ikebana before, and it sounds like a beautiful thing. Also, bringing attention to the destruction that tornado's cause and adding that in the story is amazing. This story was very visualizing, and I noticed an improvement in your writing. I haven't read all of your stories yet, but I can see a big difference. I'm glad to see you back and I think you did a fantastic job writing this. ...

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Kristin Neubauer
11:21 Mar 27, 2021

Thanks so much, Daniel... and thanks for noticing the improvement. By listening to critiques and reading other stories, I’ve worked on tightening up my writing - particularly in terms of using modifiers more sparingly and avoiding cliches. A work in progress!

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H L Mc Quaid
14:39 Mar 26, 2021

yay, you're back. :) This was a story full of memories threading through the deconstructed landscape. Creation often involves destruction, as we need the old materials to create something new. Even breathing is an act of destruction and creation, as we change oxygen into carbon dioxide. Gosh, you've got me waxing scientific now, ha! As you can probably tell, I very much liked this story. The writing was very good. Only one thing I noticed is that you used "paused" twice in close proximity: "....grab her hair and she paused, trying to unt...

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Kristin Neubauer
22:03 Mar 26, 2021

Oh no! I’ve been having problems with a corrupted flash drive and have been going back and forth between Google Drive and my drive. And there is a version of the story where I had fixed the double pause and a few other things. But I can’t remember where that is now. I think I still have time to fix it - thank you as always for your careful editing!

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H L Mc Quaid
13:27 Mar 27, 2021

oh, grrr. that's annoying. I've got copies on my laptop and it's hard enough keeping track of versions!

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Julie Ward
14:24 Mar 26, 2021

I'm so glad you're back, Kristin! I've missed your stories! I absolutely love what you've done with this prompt. Starting with the chaos at the beginning, the sadness and the loss - Jenny's feelings of confusion, how she's just plodding through, trying to figure out "what next." I love the tea mug, how you used that small thing to say so much about who she is. It's a fantastic symbol of her resiliency and such a seamless way to reveal things about her backstory. And then the flowers. Even the name of the flower - it's called obedient pl...

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Kristin Neubauer
20:32 Mar 26, 2021

Thank you, Julie, for taking the time to make such extensive comments! It really helps to hear what in the story worked for you - I soak that up and keep it in mind when I work on my next ones. I want to learn ikebana too! I watched so many YouTube videos and was mesmerized .... but it might have to go on the Things To Do When I Have More Time list. Hopefully, I’ll get next week’s story out - I have and idea but not sure about the time. Can’t wait for your next!

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