Freely Written: Short Stories From a Simple Prompt


June 06, 2023 Susan Quilty Season 1 Episode 91
Freely Written: Short Stories From a Simple Prompt
Show Notes Transcript

In today's story, Popcorn, a new house brings up some old feelings

Today's prompt came up while I was explaining this podcast at a social gathering. There was a bowl of popcorn on the table, so I said a prompt could be anything, like popcorn. Then I decided to actually use that as my next prompt.

As always, the story was free-written from the prompt with no planning and very little editing. 

If you enjoy today's story, please share it with your friends and leave a review for Freely Written. Thank you!

More about Susan Quilty

Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society.  Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.

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Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 91 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:

Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.

[Light piano music] 

Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Popcorn.

If this is your first time listening, here’s how this podcast works: I sit down with a word or phrase as a prompt and write whatever comes to mind, with no planning and very little editing, and then I share that story with you.

Sometimes friends and listeners suggest writing prompts, which is always fun. More often, I pull a random word or phrase from anything that catches my attention. Today’s prompt came up while I was explaining this podcast at a social gathering. There was a bowl of popcorn sitting on the table, so I said, “A prompt could be anything, like… popcorn.” And then I decided to actually make that my next prompt. 

So, if Richard or his friends from Brightview happen to be listening, I hope you enjoy this story!  

And here we go…



The ceiling was dotted with plaster blobs. Sheila knew it was called a popcorn ceiling, but it didn’t look like popcorn to her. Especially with its gold flecks that glittered when they caught the light. She tried to decide what it did look like. Confetti waiting to drop on a crowd on New Year’s Eve? A shimmering beach on some exotic shore?

Her sister didn’t like the ceiling. It was her first critique when Sheila grandly opened her new front door. Ugh, what’s with the ‘70s ceiling? She said Sheila should have it removed right away, before she moved in, because those old popcorn ceilings were dangerous. Full of ancient dust and flaking asbestos. 

Sheila had shrugged off the advice. The home inspector had said the ceiling was safe, since the house was built in the ‘80s, after asbestos had been banned from new homes. He did say it was a bit odd though, to have a glitter popcorn ceiling when the house was built. Sheila thought it spoke to the original homeowners’ style. Whoever they were. 

The small house had been sold several times since it was first built. Sheila had seen the list of dates in the thick stack of papers her realtor had shown her during the buying process. She hadn’t given it much thought at the time. She was busy pulling together paystubs and bank records. Everything she needed to prove that she could buy this crumbling little house in this shabby little neighborhood.

The house needed work, the realtor had said. Sheila preferred to think that the house needed love. It was a good buy though, according to the realtor. A foreclosure in a neighborhood that would soon be revitalized. Gentrified, Sheila corrected, and felt guilt tug at her decision. 

She didn’t like the idea of moving into a neighborhood where it would soon become too expensive for average people—people like her—to buy a home. But she also knew that her finances were tight and the money she’d spent nearly a decade saving wasn’t enough to buy her a house in most places. 

She didn’t have plans to buy the house cheap, fix it up and flip it or rent it as an investment. She planned to live in the house because it was a house she could afford. The work it needed would happen in time, but slowly. As her limited free time and future earnings would allow. That was the difference, she told herself, and hoped she’d made the right decision.

Sheila didn’t listen to her sister. She didn’t remove the glittery popcorn ceiling before she moved in, and she wasn’t sure if she ever would. They’d fought about it, after Sheila finished giving the tour. Her sister insisted Sheila was in over her head. Sheila insisted she knew what she was doing. Her sister had snapped, “No one who knows what they’re doing would keep a popcorn ceiling!” 

Laying on the worn green carpet, Sheila let her eyes drift over the ceiling’s textured surface. 

The house she’d grown up in had swirled ceilings. Not globs of popcorn plaster or flower-like impressions from the stamp of a brush, but swirls without a set pattern. Whoever made those ceilings had been given free rein to swipe and swirl and spread the plaster with abandon. The result was an abstract dance of daubs and ridges, like clouds whipped and frozen in time. 

Sheila would lie on the floor in her childhood living room and stare at its swirled ceiling. She made friends in the whorls and ripples. There was a butterfly missing half of a wing, a smiling earthworm wearing a bowtie, and the tornado sweeping Dorothy’s house away. 

She thought of those old friends while staring at her glittery new ceiling, letting the years between fall away. Five minutes or an hour may have passed when she was startled by a ringing doorbell.


The woman on Sheila’s porch was a little older than Sheila. She wore flip-flops with her tank top and sweatpants and held a large stack of gift boxes with both hands. The colorful boxes were tied together with a wide green ribbon and topped with a huge blue-and-green bow. The precarious stack cradled against the woman’s body, running from her hip to above her left shoulder. The oversized bow pressed into her left cheek.

“Are you Sheila?” 

“Um, yes,” Sheila confirmed, noticing there was no sign of a car or delivery truck behind the woman.  

“I thought so,” the woman said with a friendly smirk. “It was delivered to my house, but I’ve been there over 10 years.”

Sheila nearly asked why the gift would be for her, until she noticed the boxes were patterned with cartoon houses and script on the ribbon read, Welcome to Your New Home! 

“Oh, thank you!” 

Sheila awkwardly reached for the boxes, but the woman stopped her, saying, “It’s probably easier if I carry them in, now that I have them. The top one is pretty loose.”

Stepping aside, Sheila ran ahead to clear space on her dining table, which was cluttered with knickknacks and paper-wrapped picture frames. Half-unpacked boxes were in two of the chairs. More unopened boxes were scattered around the open dining and living areas. 

“Are you sure it’s for me?” Sheila asked once the decorative boxes had been safely transferred to the table. A quick glance at the card showed her name with an address that was off by one number. 

“No one else has moved in lately.” The woman shrugged and looked around Sheila’s cluttered house. “Looks like you’ve barely moved in yourself.”

“Yeah, it’s been hard to find time to unpack,” Sheila explained, mentally counting the days since she’d brought her boxes to the house in a rented truck. Twelve, she thought. Or was it 13?

“It takes a while,” the woman agreed, glancing around at the bare walls and kindly looking away from the pile of take-out containers visible through the kitchen doorway. 

“I work a lot,” Sheila told her, stopping herself from adding that she’d taken on extra shifts to cover her moving expenses and her first round of home repairs. 

“I’m Margo,” the woman said, turning her assessing eyes on Sheila. “I’m across the street. Blue house with the rose bushes.”

“They’re beautiful,” Sheila told her, painfully aware that the bushes in front of her new house were in terrible shape. Overgrown in places and dead in others. 

“You could offer me a drink,” Margo suggested with a teasing smirk, the kind between friends not strangers who had barely met. “Coffee, tea, lemonade. Whatever. And I can tell you about the neighborhood.”

“Oh,” Sheila looked toward her kitchen, wondering if she had two clean glasses unpacked. “I have iced tea, or I could make coffee?”

“Iced tea is good.” Margo looked back at the gift boxes. “Don’t you want to know who sent that?”

“Oh, uh…” Sheila looked between Margo and the gift. For a moment, she wondered if she was still on the floor, staring at the ceiling and imagining this whole interaction.

“I’d be dying to know what’s inside,” Margo said, clearly curious herself. “I’ve never seen anyone actually send something like that.”

“Right?” Sheila laughed, trying to show that she wasn’t in the habit of having fancy gifts delivered either. “It’s like from a movie.” 

Opening the card, Sheila rolled her eyes. “I should have known. It’s from my sister.”

“That’s nice of her,” Margo said, then noticed Sheila’s expression. “Or not?”

“No, it is. She’s just been… Well, she wasn’t all that supportive of me buying a house.”

Sheila was careful to say a house instead of this house, but Margo laughed and said, “I’d worry if my sister bought this place, too! I mean, no offense, but it needs a lot of work. 

“I’ve noticed,” Sheila agreed, though the observation didn’t bother her as much as it usually did. She studied the boxes warily, then said, “All right, let’s see what’s inside.”

Each box was filled with a different flavor of gourmet popcorn. Sheila blinked at the cheerful boxes, unsure if the gift was meant as a joke or a peace offering. The dashed excitement she’d felt when showing her sister the house washed over her. For a sickening moment, she wondered if she’d made a horrible mistake. 

“Oh, nice!” Margo smiled. “Caramel popcorn is the best!” 

Looking at her happy face, Sheila realized that she didn’t care what her sister intended. She had boxes of gourmet popcorn, a house of her own, and a potential new friend.  

The End

Thanks for joining me today. Here’s a fun fact: I grew up in a house with a swirled ceiling and would look for hidden images in it just like Sheila did. Though I had forgotten all about it until I got to that part of the story, so I have no idea why my mind went to popcorn ceiling when I sat down with this prompt. Just one of those strange twists of imagination!

If you enjoy Freely Written, please tell your friends and leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also learn about my novels on my website: 

Your support is truly appreciated. Links are in the show notes.

Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you. 

[Light piano music]