Bob Gillen

I write short fiction

shortfiction24 – a rosary of names

Credit: BBC

What I’m Writing This Week

A teen tries to make sense of her father’s death and the murder of eleven school kids by making a film. Can new life come from this?

The story is my own way of dealing with the senseless and continual tragedies in our nation.

A Rosary of Names

Bob Gillen

Call me Alex. It’s what my father called me. My mother, she prefers Alexandra. Alexandra Sanchez. I live with my mother. My dad is gone. If it’s possible to die of a broken heart, that’s what killed him.

At this moment I am sitting in an empty classroom. In a vacant elementary school. The school will be torn down in a few months. The floor is cool on my butt, on my crossed legs. 

I’m holding my film camera in my lap. I came here to make a movie. To try to make sense of what happened five months ago. In this room. They called my father a hero at his funeral. He didn’t die here. Eleven children did. My father kept it from being worse. A teacher and eight children survived. 

My graduation from high school last month would have been a proud moment for my dad. I have a scholarship to study at the film school at CSUN. Cal State University Northridge. My dream come true, right? Today my college days are on hold. I can’t leave my mother to attend an out of state school. She needs me. I need her.

I’m sitting here alone. The school has been shuttered since the murders. I have a key. My father was the senior custodian. For twenty years. His keys were still in our house.

Last March, while a teacher worked with her students, all third graders, dad was in a corner of the room mopping up a kid’s puke. Something he did often. A man pulled open the door, started shooting an assault rifle at the kids. He didn’t see my father. Dad lifted his wet mop and ran at the shooter, shoving the mop and the puke in his face. The man dropped the rifle, pulled a handgun out of his belt, and shot himself in the head.

All the news reports say the whole thing was over in a minute. It will never be over for any of us. I want to capture the tragedy, the loss, on film. I don’t know how. I hope something will trigger an idea. I want the world to know what can happen in a moment’s time. How a deranged man can kill children, then kill himself to avoid responsibility for his actions. I want others to feel what we feel.

My father died in his sleep, two months after the shooting. My mother said he had nightmares every night. He would wake up screaming. In a sweat. Trembling. Every night. I can’t imagine what he must have seen in this room. The shooter dead. Eleven kids bloody and lifeless. Dad was like a zombie after that.

I’m thinking that the surviving children from this classroom also wake up screaming every night. As do the parents of the children who died.

I’m sitting here in silence. There are traffic noises outside. Far off, a siren. Distant thunder from an approaching storm. I listen. There is only emptiness. I turn on the camera. I check white balance and focus. I hit Record, panning around the shell of a room. All of the desks and tables have been removed. The walls are bare of teacher art, of student drawings and papers. The floor smells faintly of bleach and ammonia. I can only capture images and audio with my camera. No other sensory bites. The camera runs as I sit with my silence. A tear works its way down my cheek. I leave it to hang till it dries. 

It occurs to me, are the spirits of the dead children here? It’s been five months. Have they moved on?

And I wonder, do they grieve for their moms and dads, their brothers and sisters, their friends and classmates? Miss them the same way we all miss the kids? Do they reach out their hands for a mom who is not there? Do they call out into an empty space?

I have the names of the eleven dead children memorized. Like my dad. He knew most of the kids by name. The whole school. He was good like that. Always a smile, a nod, a fist bump. Mr. Sanchez. Always there when a teacher needed a cleanup. Always providing enough heat or air conditioning.

I begin to say the children’s names out loud. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey. I repeat the names. Over and over. Like a rosary prayer. My dad’s name…I can’t even say it.

Tears run down my cheeks freely. I extend the camera out to avoid dripping tears on it. It’s still running. Capturing a void. What should be a room full of noisy kids, writing their lessons, making art, listening to the teacher tell stories.

I continue to say the names aloud. Thunder rumbles a bit closer. 

And I hear a toilet flush. A toilet? Can’t be. I recite the names once more.

“Billy?”

A voice comes from somewhere in the building. Soft, tentative. I stop talking.

Again, “Billy?”

I’m sitting in the middle of the room. Nowhere to duck and hide. The door creaks open. I turn to see a girl peering in. She’s maybe my age. Dressed kind of shabby. Hair messy.

She stares at me. I stand, holding my camera. Still recording.

“You’re not Billy.”

I shake my head. 

“He left yesterday. He didn’t come back.”

She steps into the room. I see she is pregnant. I would guess five or six months.

My voice squeaks out, “Who are you?”

She looks around the room. “I heard voices. Are you alone?” 

I nod.

She smiles. “I’m Kenzie.”

“Why are you here?” I ask her. “The school is closed. How did you get in?”

“Billy jimmied a door at the back of the gym…he’s good at that stuff.”

She cradled her hands under her belly. “I’m pregnant.”

“I see that.”

“And I’m homeless.”

“Who is Billy?” I ask.

“My baby’s father.”

I take a step closer to her. She backs up. I stop. “Are you sleeping here?”

Kenzie nods. “We have a couple of sleeping bags in a closet.” She points to the rear of the school building. “It’s, like, a classroom, but it’s real empty.”

I feel my body tensing. I’m pissed. My focus is broken. I want to get her out of this room. “Show me.”

Kenzie walks me towards one of the classrooms near the back of the school. Mrs. Jenkins’s room. She opens the closet door at the back of the room. It’s a big walk-in closet. There are two dirty sleeping bags. Cans of diet soda, a loaf of bread, a few bags of chips. 

“I’m running low on food. Billy went out to get more.”

“Where is he?”

She shrugs. “He always comes back when he goes out for food. He didn’t come back yesterday.” She giggles quietly. “I’m like his little bird in my nest. Every day he goes out to bring me food.”

Thunder rumbles again. The storm is much closer. 

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Alex.”

“That’s cool. Alex.”

She points to my camera. “Are you filming something?”

I shake my head. “Just messing around.”

“Do you go to school here?”

“This is…was…an elementary school. I graduated from high school last month.”

She looks confused. “This was a school?”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Kenzie looks down at her feet. “Me and Billy, we’ve been on the road for a couple months. Heading for California.”

On the road. That explains her sun-bleached hair. 

I stare at her belly. “What about medical care?”

“We hit a couple of clinics on the way. They say my baby is healthy.”

I look at the food on the floor of the closet. “You’re eating junk. Can’t be good for the baby.”

Again she shrugs. “Best we can do.”

We stand facing each other. Me with my camera. Her with her big belly. I wave my thumb back towards the classroom we left. “Eleven kids died in that room. Five months ago. A shooter. They’re going to tear this building down.”

“Oh shit.” She cradles her belly again. “Eleven kids?”

I nod.

“I don’t think I can stay here now.” She kneels to roll up her sleeping bag.

“Where will you go? How will Billy find you?”

“He’ll find me. Oh God. Eleven kids died here.” She shudders.

I lift my camera. Words spill from my mouth. “Do you want to be in my film?”

“Really?”

I nod.

“I never saw myself on video before.”

“How old are you?” it occurs to me to ask.

“Eighteen. I would have graduated last year…if I stayed in school.”

I begin taping the sleeping bags and the food spread out on the floor. I move the frame up to Kenzie’s belly, then to her face. I point to her.

“Am I supposed to talk? Okay. Hi, I’m Kenzie. I’m traveling to California with my boyfriend Billy.”

I roll my finger for her to keep talking.

“We’ve been sleeping here for a couple nights. So quiet here.” She pauses. “Not like the shelters we stay at. Or the homeless camps. They’re so noisy. This place…” She pauses again. “The silence is peaceful…but now, scary. I mean, I just found out eleven kids died here. Shot to death.” She wraps her arms around her torso. “I can’t stay here. I need to move on. Right now.”

Overhead a clap of thunder rattles the building. Rain falls outside. I turn the camera towards the windows. Rain pelts the glass like bullets. Like shots that won’t stop. I whisper the names. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey. 

“Iris.”

It’s a girl.

I turn to Kenzie.

She touches her stomach. “It’s a girl. I’m going to name her Iris. My grandmother’s name.” She slides up the right sleeve of her hoodie. The name Iris is tattooed on her wrist. Surrounded by flowers.

We both sit down on the floor, backs against the closet door. A flash of lightning streaks somewhere close by. I see Kenzie rub her fingers softly over her tattoo.

Through all the thunder and the pounding rain I keep on saying the names. My rosary of names. Reciting them over the crashing storm.

The thunder rages. My camera is still running, focused now on the rain against the windows. My voice runs on. Name after name. Dead child after dead child. I keep reciting. Not praying. Simply calling their names. Maybe I hope I can reach them. Tell them we have not forgotten them. Tell them we miss their smiles, their curiosities, their hopes and fears. Really, though, it’s probably all I can do… say their names.

After a time I realize Kenzie is echoing the names with me. Hesitantly, missing a few as she tries to follow my voice.

We go on repeating their names. The storm outside is passing. The rain quiets. I spy a streak of late afternoon sunlight beaming through the departing clouds. 

Kenzie turns to me. “I need to find Billy.”

I aim the camera at her. “Do you want me to go with you?”

She shakes her head. “I can do this.”

“What if you can’t find him?”

She stands. I do, too. 

“What if you get stopped? They’ll put you in the system, won’t they?”

“Been there, done that,” she shrugs. 

“What about Iris?” I point at her belly.

“I got four months to figure that out,” she says.

My camera is still running. 

“I’ll leave our stuff here,” Kenzie tells me. “If I find Billy, we can come back for it…don’t think I can sleep here again, though.” Once again she cradles her belly.

“Bye.” She heads for the door at the back of the gym. She stops, turns to me. “Thanks for putting me in your film. Me and Iris.”

I wave. “Bye.”

I’m back in the classroom again. Where the kids died. The late afternoon sun flares through the rain-spattered windows and sprays across the floor. I film what I see. Sunlight. I find myself thinking, I wish my dad could have seen only sunlight in this room.

I start reciting my rosary again, this time repeating only one name. Iris. Iris. Iris. 

***

shortfiction24 – torn and shredded

Credit: Mt. Saviour

What I’m Writing This Week

DeSean arrives at a monastery to rest for a few days after a grueling week-long writer’s retreat. Inspiration totally eludes him. He is desperate to find a compelling plot line for his novel. A dead monk helps him.

This week I share a story from the first person point of view. Honestly, I’m not comfortable writing with this POV. Not sure why. Maybe it requires a much deeper dive into a character’s psyche. I find it challenging.

I hope you enjoy it.

Torn and Shredded

Bob Gillen

As I pulled my backpack and duffle bag out of my dirt-streaked Toyota in the monastery parking lot, a robed figure approached me in the fading light.

“Hello, you must be DeSean. I’m Brother Lucien.”

I liked his firm handshake.

“We were concerned. Glad you made it.”

“A massive tie-up on the Thruway,” I said. “A couple of jack-knifed tractor trailers. Had me sitting in my car for hours. Sorry to be late.”

“You’re here now. Ease your mind.” He waved me forward.” Follow me.” Brother Lucien led me down several stone-walled corridors and motioned to a door. “This is your cell while you visit us. Are you hungry?”

“I got fast food when I got off the Thruway.”

“On the desk you’ll find the daily schedule the monks follow during the week. Visitors are welcome to join any of our services, early morning through evening.”

“Thanks.”

“Our first prayers are at 4:30 in the morning. You may find that too early. But the next is at seven, followed by breakfast.”

Brother Lucien turned back before leaving the room. “In your letter you said you were coming to us for a brief rest after a long writer’s retreat in Montreal. May I ask, how did that go?”

I shook my head. “Not well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I do hope you find peace while you’re here.”

“Thanks. I’ll see you in the morning.”

 A bed, a small dresser, a table and chair filled the tiny room. All wood, all austere. I tossed my bags under the desk, found a bathroom down the hall, and crawled into bed.

The silence crashing down on my little room didn’t reach my brain. I had anticipated this visit to be a rest after a productive writer’s retreat. Stress now oozed out of every one of my pores. The workshop had failed me. Or rather, I had failed. Failed to write anything of any consequence. I had an editor waiting for my manuscript. I was already a month late. All I had was several opening chapters, and the last chapter. Plot eluded me. Totally.

I woke to sun streaming in the single window, someone gently poking my shoulder. I blinked away the sleep. Brother Lucien stood over me. “Are you all right?” he asked.

I struggled to focus. “I think so, yes. What time is it?”

“Nine a.m. You missed services and breakfast.”

I shook the sleep from my head. “I thought it was optional.”

“Not mandatory, yes. Most of our guests do prefer to share our life while they are here.”

“I guess I needed my rest. Sorry you had to rouse me.”

Brother Lucien nodded. 

I stared at the sunlit window. “Looks like a good morning to walk, to clear my head. Are there any trails or paths here?”

Brother Lucien pointed to the desk. 

“There’s a map in the drawer. You will be able to find several quiet paths…Lunch will be at noon.”

I thanked him and he left.

After washing up, I stuck my laptop, a notebook, a pen in my backpack and followed the map to a path that looked promising.

I should have told Lucien I’m not a morning person.

I wandered along a path that took me deep into the woods surrounding the monastery buildings. Scuffing through the leaves on the path, I inhaled the aroma of both fresh and decaying vegetation. Within fifteen minutes I felt like I had disappeared off the face of the earth. Dense foliage, trees that arched over the path, no sunlight penetrating the cover. A profound silence punctuated only by bird calls.

I found a small shaded clearing after walking for another half hour. A bench sat in the center, wood slats set on stone pillars. The sun was not high enough as yet to shine straight down on the clearing. I sat, opened my notebook, and stared at the trees. Inspiration. It has to be here.

The trees offered no inspiration. Nor did the birdsong. Nor the blue sky above. I opened the laptop and read my first chapters. Nothing made sense. Where does the story go from here?

After a fruitless few hours I felt the sun’s heat as it drew directly overhead and warmed the bench. I felt drowsy. Stretching out on the bench, I fell asleep. 

For the second time that day, I woke to someone poking my shoulder. This time a bit more insistently. 

“DeSean.”

“Oh, hi, Brother Lucien.”

I looked around to get my bearings. “It seems I overslept again.”

“You missed lunch.”

I shrugged. “Odd. I don’t feel hungry.”

“I sense peace is eluding you. Would you prefer to sit here for a while longer?”

“Yes, if you don’t mind. I’m at least catching up on my sleep at your monastery.”

“We are here to provide a respite from a busy world. It’s good you are finding rest.” He extended his arms. “I do worry that you will need to eat soon. To nourish yourself.”

I brushed my hand through my hair. “I’ll be back for afternoon services and supper.”

Brother Lucien nodded. “Rest, and let peace find you.” He walked off.

I sat up, grabbed the notebook. Waited for the words, the inspiration. Waited. Waited. Re-read the first chapters. I had no clue where to take the story.

As the sun moved on, and the clearing moved back into shade, I stood. I shook my head, trying to clear my brain fog. No inspiration here. I shuffled back along the path.

Singing floated from the chapel. I slipped in and sat, back against the wall, watching the monks sing their Gregorian chant. About twenty five of them lined both sides of the chapel. I leaned my head back against the wall, enjoying the chants. 

I dozed off.

Again, a poke in the shoulder. “Time for supper.”

I felt myself grow crimson as Brother Lucien stood over me. I nodded. Followed him into the dining hall.

I sat in silence at a table with several other visitors I had not seen until now. A monk served us large bowls of lentil soup, filled with vegetables. The warm aroma gnawed at my insides. Trays of fresh bread filled the center of the table. Crusty. Chewy. I ate. Ate like I had never tasted food before. 

Afterwards, I wandered back to my cell. I stretched out on the bed with my notebook and pen. Doodled a bit. Wrote a few words. All shit. I fell asleep clutching my open notebook. 

Credit: Confidata

I dreamed. An intense dream. Of a monk I had read about years ago. Thomas Merton. Dreamed about him dying by electrocution from a faulty fan. In my dream I saw Merton’s ghost, his spirit, float into my cell, write in my notebook. Music notes appeared to flow from his pen. The notes clung to my notebook pages, then were sucked into an old metal electric fan and shredded, the bits falling around the room like snowflakes. 

A chapel bell woke me early. I jolted upright, still dressed from last night. Surprised for a moment. I hadn’t heard the bell yesterday. As my eyes adjusted to the breaking dawn, I saw shreds of paper littered across the floor. My notebook was torn and lying on the desk. I stood, blinking at the unreal scene. The dream came back to me. 

I felt like all my thoughts, my feelings lay shredded on the floor. Like it was me shredded and scattered on the floor.

I scooped up the paper shreds, laid them across the desk. I thought I could reassemble the pieces, but they were too small, too erratically torn. 

I spied one page intact in the notebook. Written there: Be still, and know that I am God.

Not my handwriting. I shivered.

A slight tap on my door. Brother Lucien stepped in.

“Ah, I see you are awake. I came to invite you to morning services and to breakfast.”

Lucien looked at the shredded paper scattered across the desk top.

“You appear to have had a difficult night.”

I shuddered. “This is not my doing.”

Lucien’s eyes took in the writing in the open notebook.

“‘Be still’…aah.”

A smile crept across his face. I felt confused. “What is it?”

“Am I right in saying you dreamed of this last night?” He gestured to the mess of torn paper.

I nodded. 

“One of our spirits has reached out to you. This is good.”

I squinted. “Huh?”

“I am guessing you feel as torn as your battered notebook.”

I felt something release in my chest. My shoulders slumped. “Yes.”

“Your work lies in your peace. You must first be still.”

“But how…?” 

Lucien held up his palm. “Come now. Join us in common prayer and a nourishing morning meal.”

I clutched my broken notebook, followed him out the door.

***

shortfiction24 – the flatbed ford

This Week’s Story

Almost two years ago I posted a story about a girl in a flatbed Ford. Back in the day, when I called this blog Mannequin Monday. More recently I revised it to take the two characters in a different direction.

Matt Briggs is hitching from northern California to Los Angeles in search of work. On the way he meets a girl driving a flatbed Ford. Intrigue ensues.

Here’s a link to the original story – August of 2020.

The Flatbed Ford

Bob Gillen

Matt Briggs sat on a bench at the edge of a mall parking lot, a quarter mile from the freeway off ramp where his last hitch dropped him. He held a cardboard LA sign damp with his sweat, backpack and guitar case at his feet.  

A dark green flatbed Ford drove past. The girl driving slowed as she turned to have a look at him. She parked farther out where there was room for her truck. 

She walked toward Briggs. Jeans, a faded red tee, worn cowboy boots. Her sun-bleached ponytail flashed in the sunlight. She pointed to his sign. “Headed to LA?”

He nodded.

“I’m headed in your direction. If you wait, I’ll drive you part way.”

Briggs smiled. “Sounds good. How long?”

“Long enough to eat a pizza. I mobile-ordereed.”

“Tell me – gluten free, veggies, fake cheese.”

“Pepperoni.”

“Fooled me,” Briggs said.

“Not hard, I see.”

He put up his hands in surrender. “Got me.”

She said, “I can share. Hungry?” 

“Yep.”

They sat outdoors at a metal table, steel chairs squealing on the concrete.

She opened the box, grabbed a slice. “What’s in LA?” she asked.

He shrugged. “A job, I hope. I know a guy runs a food truck. He needs help. Or he can get me in at a craft services company.”

“Where you coming from?”

“The Bay area. Worked a grill for the last six months.”

“Tired of it?”

He sipped a Coke. “Tired of the place. If I see another hipster with a long beard, I’ll throw up.”

She laughed. “A bit biased, are we?”

He chewed off another bite. Waited to answer. Had none.

He shrugged.

“You think you’ll lose that vibe in LA?”

“Nah. Just different. I hope.”

“No girl left behind up north?”

He looked at her over his pizza slice. “Talk about biasses…is it always a broken down love?”

“When is it not?” she asked.

Once more he shrugged. His signature move.

“What was she like?” ponytail asked.

“Wonderful…till she cheated on me.”

“Married?”

“No.”

“Engaged?”

“No.”

“Then how did she cheat on you?”

“You saying it was my fault?” He leaned in.

“I’m saying, she’s free till she promises herself, right?”

“Not how I see it.”

She pointed a finger at him. “You’re not seeing it right.”

“Isn’t a year together enough of a promise?”

“Not in my book.” She held out her left hand. “While this finger is empty, she’s free.”

“What about you?” Briggs said. “I don’t see a ring on your hand.”

“And you never will.” 

They finished the pizza. He ordered coffees for each of them.

“Where are you actually headed?” he asked her.

“Burbank.”

He tipped his head toward her. “A guy?”

She shook her head. “A horse. Checking out a mare I might buy.”

Briggs climbed into her truck, stashed his gear under his feet.

“If traffic is good, we should be in Burbank in under an hour.” 

“So, you into horses?’

She nodded. “All my life. No one comes close.”

Briggs leaned back, stared out the window as she drove eastbound on the 101 freeway.

“Where’s your buddy live?” she asked.

“Glendale.” 

“Not that far. You might catch a ride from where I’m stopping.”

“If you get the horse, where will you keep it?”

“Her.”

“What?”

“Her. She’s a mare. She, not it.”

He shook his head slightly. “Where?”

“I work on a ranch near Santa Barbara. I can board her there. Till I can afford my own place.”

“You want a ranch?”

“Yep. Some day.”

He turned to look at her. “That’s an expensive dream.”

“You originally from the Bay area?” she asked.

“Nah. College in Iowa. Raised in Indiana. Been out here since I got out of college twelve years ago. Mostly back and forth between LA and San Francisco. That’s where the food action is.”

“You a chef or something?”

He sat up straighter. “I call myself a chef. Everyone sees me as a cook.”

She cheated on me

She smiled. “You got a signature dish?”

“I did. She cheated on me.”

“Christ, that was a stupid answer.”

Another shrug. “A Monterey Club sandwich.”

She glanced over at him. “Make me want to taste it.”

“Three crispy whole wheat tortillas, layered with fried ham, marinated chicken, bacon, Colby Jack cheese, a spicy aioli.”

“What, no lettuce and tomato?”

“Thin slice of tomato, maybe. No lettuce. Makes for a sloppy sandwich.”

“What sides?”

“Thin cut fries, crispy and salty. A big mug of beer, or Coke. Either ice cold.”

She nodded. “You got me. Call me when you get set up somewhere.”

“You want to see me again?”

She pulled off the freeway onto Burbank surface streets. “I want you to cook for me.”

***

shortfiction24 – why am I doing this?

This Week’s Short Story

A mother embraces the return of her college-age daughter, whom she had not seen in a year. They reunite on Nantucket Island, each struggling with her own mistakes.

Why Am I Doing This?

Bob Gillen

Shit. Why am I doing this?

Riley Riggins had the text on her phone memorized by now.  

Riley: in Hyannis tomw. can I come over to see you

Mom: Yes! Yes, of course. Been so long! Will meet you at the wharf. Can’t wait!

Riley had boarded the car ferry late, sat in the last row inside the cabin, near the stern as it churned towards Nantucket Island. The glorious June sun sparkling on the sea went unnoticed. 

A blue hoodie covered her head. Ragged cutoff jeans and faded green Cons completed the outfit. Reaching into the backpack she clutched on her lap, she pulled out a book. The Silver Hammer. Author Hollis Riggins. Riley opened to the front matter. “Hollis Riggins, author of 15 thriller and adventure novels. Hollis Riggins’s characters prowl the New England seacoast, solving mysteries that elude others.”

Her mom made a comfortable living as a successful career novelist, working with a renowned publishing house. A tentative smile cracked Riley’s face as she remembered how her mom had worn out five keyboards cranking out her novels.

The last time Riley saw Hollis, she was driving away from Riley’s dorm at Syracuse University. Freshman year, with a declared major in biology and medical research. 

On the steamship wharf, Riley hung back, waiting for most of the passengers and the cars to move ahead. She stepped into the blazing sun, squinting and keeping her eyes down. Maybe she won’t see me.

“Riley! Over here.”

She looked up to see her mom waving both arms. Hollis wore a khaki skirt, a white cotton shirt, sandals. A navy bandana circled her head. Huge sunglasses hid her eyes.

“Mom.” Barely a whisper.

Hollis ran up, reached out to embrace Riley. Stopped midway. Riley stood, arms at her side, shoulders hunched. Hollis took a step back.

“Oh, Riley, it’s been too long. I’m so happy you came. What a great surprise.” Hollis looked deep into Riley’s eyes. She reached up, pushed the hoodie back off Riley’s head. “Oh.”

“I cut it.”

“And added green streaks, I see.”

Riley nodded, eyes on her feet.

“Come on back to my place. I have food in the house.”

Hollis put one arm around Riley’s shoulder. They started off.

“Did you want ice cream? Or a slice?”

Riley shook her head.

They walked in silence, dodging the hordes of passengers and island residents swarming over the wharf. Long lines of cars and cyclists waited to roll onto the departing ferry. Parents herded little kids holding ice cream cones, the drips running down their hands and arms. Dads stuffed pizza slices into their faces. Everyone had a carryon suitcase, a backpack, a tote bag…and a sunburned face. Dogs on leashes paced restlessly. 

As they walked nearer to town, Hollis stopped when Riley began sniffling. She pulled Riley aside, guided her to a sidewalk bench.

“What is it?” Hollis asked.

Tears flooded down Riley’s face. She put her head in her hands. Sobbed. Shuddered. 

I failed

Hollis sat without speaking.

“I failed.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“I fucked up. Fucked up everything.”

Hollis remained silent.

Riley looked up, stared at Hollis. “I dropped out.”

“When?”

“In April. I flunked all but one of my midterms.”

“Which one did you pass?”

“English.”

“Well, okay then.”

Riley managed a weak smile.

“I got a job in a coffee house, crashed with some students who had their own apartment.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

Riley shook her head.

“And now you’re home.”

Riley bit her lower lip. “For a few days.”

“Then what?”

“No clue.”

“Okay. One day at a time.”

Riley wiped her face on her hoodie sleeve. “You’re not mad?”

“Confused. Hurt that you didn’t tell me. But thrilled to have you here in front of me. It’s been too long.”

Riley sniffled. “I’m sorry I missed the holidays.”

Hollis said, “Yeah. Me, too.”

The conversation dropped off. 

Riley looked to her mom. “I saw your new book.” She pointed to the backpack. “I bought it.”

“You never read my books before.”

“I haven’t read this one yet. Maybe I’ll start it tonight.”

Hollis smiled.

Riley asked, “Is there any place to run here? I’ve taken up running in the last couple months.”

“Yeah, there are trails. Plenty of open space…You like running?”

“I lose myself when I run. It all melts away…for a few hours.”

“Lose yourself…or find yourself?”

Riley shrugged. “That’s a heavy question.”

Hollis nodded. “Maybe I’ll ask you another time.”

“Is it okay I stay with you?”

“Of course. I’m beyond excited you’re here.”

“I’ve never been to Nantucket before.”

“Duh. I forgot. Yeah, I took an apartment here after the holidays. To finish my current novel. I’m really struggling with it.”

A group of teens hustled past, laughing as they took selfies.

“Really?”

“I’m stuck in the middle. I know how it ends, but I can’t get it there. Not yet.” Hollis stood. “Let’s go home.”

Credit: IMG Global

Riley slung her backpack over her shoulder.

Hollis led them to the cobblestoned Main Street. “Look at them all,” she said, waving her hand at the crowds. “They’re either day trippers, or they have a ton of money. Not much in between here.”

Riley listened to the car tires battering over the cobblestones. Smelled the salt air. A white Lab sitting in the back of a parked pickup truck stared at her as they passed. She stepped over, held out her hand for the Lab to sniff. She stroked his fur. The Lab closed its eyes in delight.

They continued walking. “This is nice.”

“My landlord has a couple of Labs. She runs a catering company here. Busy as hell all summer, then all but dead in the winter…She’s always looking for staff.”

Riley nodded, pointed across the street. “Is that a farm truck selling fruit?”

Hollis nodded. “He’s here every day.”

“Be right back.” Riley dodged traffic to cross Main Street. She came back a few minutes later with two peaches. She handed one to her mom. Took a huge bite, the juice running down her arm.

“It’s getting on your hoodie.”

“No worries. It’s already covered with snot.”

At Hollis’s apartment, Riley took a quick shower while Hollis seared scallops in butter. Riley put together a green salad.

Halfway through their supper, Riley set her fork down as tears channelled down her cheeks. “Mom, I fucked up so badly. A whole year gone. The tuition money…”

“Did you fuck up…or was it a learning experience?”

“Shit, you’re doing it again.”

“What?”

“The existential questions.”

“It’s what I do. I’m a writer.” She used her knife to guide lettuce onto her fork.

Riley wiped her eyes with a paper napkin.

Hollis said, “Can I share something with you?”

Riley’s eyes widened. “I guess.”

“I fucked up, too.”

“Huh?”

“A major fuckup. I lost my publisher. After fifteen years.”

“How?”

“You know how I have always had a benign disrespect for authority…in this case, management.”

“You were hell on my teachers in high school.”

“Which I do not apologize for….well, they assigned me to a new editor. Someone with not a lot of experience. I think they thought she could break in with me. I’d be an easy writer to work with….Wrong!”

“They dumped you?”

“Well, I suppose it was mutual. She tried to turn my book into a different story. I looked her in the eye, told her ‘ESAD’.”

“Wait, what?”

“ESAD. Eat shit and die.”

“Oh.”

Hollis leaned back in her chair. “That did not go well. The new editor had connections. We parted ways.”

“Now what?”

“Finish my work-in-progress, then find a new publisher.”

“Anyone would be glad to take you on.”

“I have a good track record…but publishing is a small world. I may have burned my bridges.”

“Can you live on your royalties?”

“If they don’t take my books out of print.”

Sounds like we’re both in between

Riley reached her hand out to touch Hollis’s wrist.

Hollis said, “Sounds like we’re both in between.”

As they washed and dried the dishes, Hollis asked, ”Would you like to read my draft?”

“Really? I don’t know any of your stories.”

“A fresh eye might help. But there are a lot of gaps.”

“No worries. I can get a sense of it.”

Hollis stepped into the living room and came back with a flash drive. “This is it. Go for it.”

“Tomorrow…after a good sleep.”

“I’m going to the market to get in some breakfast food. Want anything?”

“A decent bagel, if you can find one.”

“See you in a few.”

Hollis woke to the aroma of fresh coffee. She stepped into the kitchen to find Riley working on her laptop. “You’re up early.”

“I don’t sleep in any more. Can’t when you’re crashing in someone else’s place.” She pointed to the counter. “Have a bagel. They’re not bad. Much better than upstate New York.”

Hollis poured coffee, slathered a bagel with blueberry jam. “It’s so refreshing to see you sitting at the table again.”

Credit: WeeklyGravy

Riley pointed to her screen. “I made comments on your story.”

“Comments? Did you read all of it?”

Riley smiled. “Read it… and wrote comments. I left your original document untouched.”

“You could have added comments and hit Track Changes.”

“I know, but I wanted to read it through first.”

Riley got up to refill her coffee mug. Leaning against the counter, she looked at her mom. “You know the ESAD thing you talked about last night?”

“Yeah?” Hollis bit off a chunk of bagel. 

Riley took a deep breath. “I think my fuckup caused that, too.”

Hollis cocked her head. “How so?”

“I’ve been thinking…you must have been so distressed over my not coming home for the holidays, and not texting often enough…I made you lose your publisher.”

Riley’s eyes glistened with fresh tears. “And it’s my fault you can’t pull this book together. You’ve never had trouble with that.”

Hollis pursed her lips. “You could be right.” 

Riley’s eyes widened. Hollis said, “The ESAD incident had nothing to do with you. That was strictly a work issue.” She got up to warm her coffee in the microwave. “But…you’ve been so distant since the holidays. You stepped away from me. Why?”

Riley shrugged, brushed away more tears. She sat again. “My roommate had a biology major, like me. Her family works in healthcare…well, in pharma. I met some of them in Miami. They turned my stomach. It was all about money for them. Fuck the little guy. Sell millions of pills and put it all in the bank. I spent two weeks there living off their money, off the money they got from screwing over their customers.”

Riley wiped her eyes. “When we got back to campus for second semester, I drifted away from her. And someone in our dorm OD’ed. On pills. My head got so twisted.”

She stood, side by side with her mom. “I sold my dorm stuff, got a job in the coffee shop, and crashed with a couple of older students. I paid some rent, but mostly crashed. When school closed, I knew I had to see you. I couldn’t stall any more.”

“I’m glad you came.”

Riley sat once again and pulled her laptop close. “I was thinking. Maybe this book should be a standalone from your earlier ones. New setting, even a couple of new characters.”

Hollis squinted. “So you agree with the editor I dumped. I need to turn it into a different book.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I’m guessing it’s already different from your others. That’s why it won’t come together for you. You’re forcing it to be like the others.”

Hollis ran her tongue over her upper lip.

Rileys words came out slowly, hesitantly. “If you think I might be right…I can help you…if you want.”

Hollis crossed her arms. “That’s a lot of change to consider.”

“I just thought…” She closed her laptop.

Hollis stared out the window. Turned back to Riley.

“If I do this…if I ask you to help…no more bullshit.”

Riley met Hollis’s eyes. “I can take a gap year. And you can talk to the caterer for me…about summer work.”

She took Riley’s hands, stood her up, hugged her hard. Then set her at arm’s length. “Don’t expect a co-author credit on the book.”

“Ghost writers don’t usually get attribution, do they?”

“You were a ghost the past year. You’re real now. And no, no attribution.”

Riley smiled. “Deal.”

***

See the Nantucket Steamboat Authority for pictures of the Nantucket wharf.

shortfiction24 – shaping a story

I offer a collage, a convergence, of past work for this week’s post. On LinkedIn yesterday I saw a reference to a sculptor named Michelle Millay, who works in the film industry. I interviewed Michelle in May of 2013 for my website on filmmaking. Her sculpting work is featured on movies like Batman and Robin and Pirates of the Caribbean.

What I’ve Written

Thinking of Michelle reminded me of two stories I’ve posted here in the last few years that have sculpting as a theme.

One story is titled “The Hand”. I used an image of several Rodin sculpture as inspiration for the story. I first posted it in February of 2021.

The Hand

A man’s left hand reaches forward, bent at the wrist. Three fingers curl inward. Thumb and index fingers extending. Poised. Expectant. Ready to grasp. 

His love lies dying. Ravaged by disease. Poised to let go. In a moment of mindfulness, she comes through the pain. She slides her wedding ring off her left hand and holds it out to him. A gesture of giving, of surrender. I won’t need this. I want you to keep it. Her eyes speak. Remember me when you hold it. Touch it. Feel its smoothness, worn by years of  love. Years of twisting and turning. Of sliding off at night, back on every morning. 

He reaches for the ring. Index finger and thumb extend. Moving in hesitation, in reluctance…in acceptance. He grips the ring lightly. Feels the warmth of her finger as it fades slowly from the ring’s surface.

He has no words. He slides the ring partially over his forefinger. Enough to maintain a grip on it. He knows that to accept the ring is to accept her leaving. 

His eyes meet hers. She smiles weakly. Closes her eyes. A shallow breath. Another. And a last one.

He rubs his thumb hard against the ring. I will remember.

***

More on a Convergence of Theme

I add another converging element on the theme of carving and sculpting. Check out a song of loss and remembrance from The Subdudes: Carved in Stone.

And read on for the second story about a woman with cancer scars.

Continue reading

shortfiction24 – state property

Credit: John DeVore

What I’m Writing This Week

Kate Skelton waits till Spring to scatter her husband’s ashes at his favorite park pond. A park ranger faces off against the feisty Kate.

This story started as a man spotting a blue-beaked duck on a pond. It didn’t work. He morphed into she, and the duck went away, maybe for another story.

Please enjoy.

State Property

Bob Gillen

Kate Skelton looked east into a morning Spring sun that warmed her face, made it feel hotter than the air temperature. She ran a finger along the wooden bench sitting six feet back from the edge of Oak Pond. The smell of new grass and budding shrubs tickled her nose. This had been Harry’s favorite outdoor place. For two years after he had retired, he came here three or four times a week, to this secluded spot near the state’s largest reservoir. Came here because no one else did. Came here to forget. Forget the years he put in as homicide detective. Forget the evil that man inflicted on man. 

Kate set her tote bag in the grass next to the faded bench. Okay, Harry. This is it. She pulled out a can of paint, a brush, a couple of rags, and a small screwdriver to pry off the can lid. She left a pewter urn in the tote. With one rag she dusted off the surface of the bench. Fifteen minutes later she was midway through painting the bench a deep hunter green when she heard a scuffling in the brush behind her. She turned to see a state park ranger staring at her.

“Mind if I ask what you’re doing?” the ranger said.

Kate pointed to the bench with her brush. “Painting.”

“That’s state property.”

“So are you,” she replied.

“Ah, I see we have a wiseass here.”

Kate looked around. “I don’t see one.”

The ranger shook his head. 

“Why are you doing this?”

“The bench needed fresh paint.”

The ranger blew out his breath. “Why here?”

“Oh. That’s easy. This was my husband’s favorite spot — she waved her arm around — in the entire park. This bench and this forgotten little pond in the corner of the park.”

“And where is your husband now?”

Kate hesitated. Pointed out over the pond. “Out there.”

The ranger peered over Kate’s shoulder. He shook his head.

Kate set the paint brush across the top of the can. “My husband is dead. His ashes are out on the pond.”

The ranger nodded. “His ashes are in the pond.”

Kate smiled.

“That’s illegal, spreading human remains on public property.”

She held her hands out. “I didn’t know that.”

“Did you do it?”

Kate shrugged. “Maybe.”

The ranger reached for a notepad and pen. “Do you have ID?”

“Yes.”

He blew out another breath. “May I see it?”

“It’s in my bag…in my car…in the parking lot.”

“Name?”

“Kate Skelton.”

The ranger wrote on his pad. 

“Address?”

Kate smiled. “Are you writing a ticket?”

The ranger nodded.

“Wow.”

“What?”

“You left your heart at home today.”

The ranger bit his lower lip.

Kate pointed at the ranger’s chest. “Your heart. It’s not there. You must have left it home.”

“Address!”

“I wonder where you put it. Left it on the bathroom sink. Or on the kitchen table…No, no. I got it. You tucked your heart away in your sock drawer. Where you keep all your personal stuff.”

The ranger flipped his notebook closed. “Lady, I can see I’m wasting my time with you. I’ll get a photo of your plate number off your car. What do you drive?” He held up a hand. “Don’t tell me. A Toyota Prius.”

Kate snickered.

Not even close.

“Yeah, that’s it, lady. A Prius, the model that comes without a gas pedal.”

Kate laughed, shook her head. “Not even close.”

She pointed to the can of paint. “Do I finish painting the bench? Or leave the can for a state employee to finish the job?”

The ranger said nothing.

“I could leave it half painted. It will become a state park legend. A curiosity. Who is the mysterious artist who painted half a bench? I can see the headline: What is the meaning behind the half-painted bench?”

The ranger’s Sat phone squawked. He listened, grunted.

“I gotta go. Finish the job, and don’t let me ever see you here again.”

“Yes, sir,” Kate said as she saluted the ranger. “Mission will be completed.”

The ranger spit to the side, turned and left.

Kate waited to be sure he was gone. She grabbed the brush and finished painting the bench. The can, the brush, the rags went into a plastic trash bag.

She took the  pewter-colored metal urn out of the tote bag. Unscrewed the lid.

“Okay, Harry,” she whispered. “Now it’s time.” She stepped to the edge of the pond, took a final look around, scattered Harry’s ashes over the pond. She rinsed out the urn, filled it with water, and threw it out to the middle of the pond.

“Bye, Harry.” 

All her memories welled up, turned to tears, dripped down into the pond.

Kate sobbed. Shook head to toe.

She backed away from the pond, sat down on the bench.

“Shit!”

***

shortfiction24 – out of the game

What I’m Writing This Week

Mike Santiago is forced to take time off from his ER shifts to care for his own kidney injury. Being out of the game is not an option for him.

For all those who have to deal…

Out of the Game

Bob Gillen

Mike Santiago took a deep breath, settled back in the treatment chair. “Sorry to be late,” he said to the dialysis tech. “We were slammed with patients on my ER shift.”

“No worries, Mike.” The tech pierced Mike’s non-dominant arm with two needles and started the blood cleansing process. Blood out to the machine, back into his arm.

Mike leaned his head back. 

“Hey,” the man in the chair to Mike’s left said. “My name is Al. I’m here every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at this time. Looks like we’ll be neighbors.”

“I’m Mike. Yeah, this is my first treatment. New to this whole thing.”

“There was a woman in your chair for the last couple of months. Her name was Ellie. She fell down the stairs at her home. She’ll be in the hospital for a while.”

Mike nodded. “I hope I won’t be here too long. Blunt trauma to my kidneys in a car crash. This should be temporary till my kidneys get a rest.”

“Good for you, man. I’m in this for the long haul. Kidneys are shot. My diabetes went undetected for too long. Screwed me up.”

Mike squirmed in his chair. “Three hours of this.”

“What do you do?”

“ER nurse. Dealing with COVID patients all day.” 

“Shit. Hope you stay healthy. We need guys like you.”

Mike closed his eyes. His phone buzzed.

“Mike here…no, I can’t cover anyone. I’m getting dialyzed.”

He hung up. 

“Won’t let you rest, huh?” Al said.

Mike licked his lips. “Haven’t had a day off in four months.” Mike pointed to his abdomen. “That’s how I messed up my kidneys. I fell asleep at the wheel.”

“You need to chill.” Al held up his iPad. “I’m watching TV. I can turn it up if you want to watch with me.”

“I left my tablet home. Sure. What’s on?”

“The Mandalorian. Know it?”

“Heard of it.”

“Sit back. Enjoy.”

Mike turned his head to watch the iPad Al held out for him to see. Al turned up the volume.

I know that voice, Mike thought after a time. The Mandalorian character. That voice? 

Half an hour into the episode it came to him. He said to Al, “That’s the same voice as the The Lone Ranger. Not the Johnny Depp film. The original TV series with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.”

“You’re too young to know that show.”

“My dad watched the reruns all the time.”

 “You’re right, it’s the same vocal tone. Firm yet soft-spoken.”

“If I close my eyes, I see the Lone Ranger.”

Al smiled. “I’m guessing it’s deliberate on the part of the Mandalorian creators. He’s supposed to be a kind of lone ranger, roaming the universe looking for his people. Righting wrongs along the way. Both have their faces masked.”

“You sound like you’re in the business,” Mike said.

Al cocked his head. “Was in the business. A character actor. Retired a few years ago. Had to. Can’t do dialysis and be available for roles.”

“Enjoying your retirement?”

“As much as I can.” Al paused the iPad screen. “I got a small farm up in Ojai. Raise goats.”

“Any money in that?”

“I rent out the goats for brush clearance before fire season. They’ll eat through a whole hillside in a few days.”

I needed to be out of the game.

Mike nodded.

Al continued. “I got the farm early on in my career. I learned that I needed to be out of the game when I wasn’t working. Refreshing myself in nature. If you don’t have boundaries, you’re screwed in the entertainment industry.”

Mike leaned his head back. Without boundaries you’re screwed in any industry.

The tech came over to check Mike’s machine. “Want a blanket? It’s chilly in here today.”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

Al gestured around the expanse of the treatment room. Twenty-five treatment chairs, all occupied. “Look at this. See those faces. How many of them look healthy?”

Mike sat forward, studied the room. “Not too many.”

“Right.”

“You’re talking about quality of life.”

“Yes, I am. I feel pretty good. But man, three days a week, three hours each time, sitting here hooked up to a machine. For the rest of my life.”

“And…”

“And if I stop, I’ll be dead in a week.”

Mike closed his eyes again, leaned back in the chair.

A beeper went off at Al’s machine. The tech stepped over, tweaked a few settings. 

Al kept talking. “You know what I fear the most?”

“I’ll bite. What?”

“When I’m gone, all my memories are gone too.”

Mike sat up and turned to Al. “Don’t you have kids to pass them on to?”

“Yeah, I got kids. Grandkids too. And boxes full of old photos, old family films. That’s just stuff.”

Mike shook his head. “I don’t follow.”

“I got all these memories stuck in my head. Bits and pieces of my life. Stuff that means something only to me. It all goes when I go.”

“Can’t you talk it all into a recorder? Save it for your family.”

“Mike, you don’t get it. It don’t mean anything to anyone else.”

“Like what?”

 Al hesitated. “Here’s one. Years back I was living on the east coast while I auditioned for roles. One night, it was frigid out, almost below zero. I went out to meet a few guys at a bar. Just ahead of me a guy gets hit by a car. He’s lying in the street, his head bleeding. From his clothes, he was probably a homeless guy.”

Mike nodded.

“I go over to see if I can help. I see blood pooling around the guy’s head on the street…but he was lucky. It was so cold his blood was freezing. It stopped some of the bleeding. An ambulance pulled up in a few minutes. They took him away.”

Mike looked at Al. “And…?”

“That’s it. A scrap of memory. I got lots of these scraps. But they got no meaning. See? I spot a guy bleeding in the street one night. That’s it. Nothing more. When I’m gone, so is the memory.”

“Thanks for cheering me up, Al.”

“Just keepin’ it real.”

Mike smiled. “I think I get it, though. Maybe I’ll end up with lots of memory scraps too. Jeez, all the COVID patients who died on my shifts. I’ve already forgotten most of their names, but I see their faces. Their eyes, in their last moments. Dying alone…”

Al gestured to Mike in the treatment chair. “Like I said about myself, buddy, you need to be out of the game when you’re not working.”

Mike tilted his chair back, closed his eyes, took a long breath.

Out of the game when I’m not working…

***

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