I write short fiction

Month: February 2022

shortfiction24 – Milo in Paris

Maurice and Milo are thrilled to perform at a club in Paris. They dream of becoming a global act. Alas…

What I’m Writing

In February 2020 I posted a story titled “Sawdust” about my quirky characters, Maurice and Milo, a ventriloquist and his dummy. A second story followed in August 2021. Today’s story is about them again, this time a prequel to Maurice’s sudden death onstage one night. POV is once again Milo’s. Here they are, excited to be performing at a club in Paris.

Milo in Paris

Bob Gillen

The club’s green room sat in the basement, under the stage. Dark, poorly lit. A tiny closet to the side. A locked door that led somewhere unknown. Maurice sat at the dressing table in front of the mirror. 

I watched him work through his makeup routine. He darkened his eyebrows, combed his moustache. Pulled on his fedora, positioning it carefully. He liked to frame himself as a film noir character.

Maurice turned to me. The dummy in the next chair. “You look good tonight, Milo.”

“Thank you. And I must say, you are looking quite well yourself, Maurice.”

Maurice smiled. “Thank you, my friend.”

Maurice smoothed my shirt, white with blue stripes. Pinched the crease in my dark slacks. He reached for a navy blue beret, positioned it carefully on my head. 

“I think we’re ready.”

A knock on the door. “Five minutes.”

“Thank you, five minutes.” Maurice stood. Smoothed his own outfit. 

“Our first gig in Paris, Milo. This is a big night. We’ll be here for a week, if tonight works. The first step in becoming a global act.”

“One show at a time,” I said.

“You’re right. You’ve heard me say that many times.”

Maurice picked me up and opened the door. As we mounted the stairs, I heard the applause from the act preceding us. Two dancers, their shoes tapping on the floor, dashed past us as we reached the wings.

“You’re on,” the club manager said.

Maurice took a deep breath, adjusted my beret, and stepped out on stage.

Credit: The Guardian

In the green room after our performance, Maurice said, “I hope you don’t feel badly when they call you sawdust, Milo.”

I shook my wooden head.

“The drunk in the Hawaiian print shirt was obnoxious. Obviously an American tourist speaking bad French.”

“We’ve seen worse,” I said, softly. “But it sounded classy in French. Sciure. Sawdust.”

“Funny…the word sawdust,” Maurice said. “Tonight it reminds me of my first job as a kid, right out of eighth grade. A summer job as a delivery boy for the local butcher shop. There was always sawdust on the floor of the shop. It was my job to sweep it up every night at closing time, and spread new sawdust on the floor. I did that while the butcher used a wire brush to scrub the blood and scraps off his carving block.”

I had never heard him talk of that before.

“That was a lot of years ago, Milo. A lot of years.”

Maurice folded my outfit carefully, placed it in the suitcase with his own jacket and fedora. 

“We’ve come a long way,” Maurice said. “A long way from doing sock puppets in my bedroom. Trying to drown out my mom and dad screaming at each other.”

It was always me.

He looked at the me. Me, Milo. It was always me, even as a sock puppet. Always French. Always there at his side. Somewhere at home he still had the sock. Rolled up in a drawer somewhere. Or in a box in the closet. If his ex-wife Darla hasn’t thrown it out. She hated me. Not at first. But it didn’t take long for her to realize I came first. I was more real than anyone else to Maurice.

I understood him like no one else did. An odd thing to say. A wooden dummy understands you better than any person. Odd, maybe, but real. Real for us.

“Tomorrow night will be even better,” Maurice said. “We open for a jazz trio. It will be an audience that appreciates the finer things in life.”

Oui,” I said.

Maurice smiled. “There’s always a tomorrow night.”

***

shortfiction24 – the trap door

Haillie’s dreams of becoming a fearless firefighter take an early turn when she discovers the secret behind a hidden trap door.

What I’m Writing

This week I followed a writing exercise from Ray Bradbury. He calls it Nouns and Titles. He suggests making a list of words, then using those words to trigger a story idea. I started with “trap door” and here’s the story that resulted. I hope you enjoy it.

The Trap Door

Bob Gillen

The trap door lay flush with the wide-plank floor boards, hidden under an enormous oriental rug. Furniture anchored the rug around the perimeter of the room. The trap door would be almost impossible to find. Almost.

Haillie ran her toy firetruck back and forth in the center of the room. “Vroom, vroom.” She dreamed of the day she would be a firefighter, driving a powerful truck to an emergency, roaring down the streets with siren screaming and horn blaring. “Vroom, vroom.” I’m a brave firefighter, she imagined, climbing a ladder to save a child from a burning building.

“Haillie, can you keep the noise down? Please?” her mother pleaded from the kitchen. “I’m on an important call.”

Haillie cut the volume on her voice, continued pushing the firetruck across the rug. The toy truck hiccuped over a slight depression, a tiny blip under the plastic tires. She rolled the truck back and forth over the indentation. Weird, she thought. Never felt this before. She probed the tiny ridge with her finger, pressing hard to feel it. A few feet along the ridge, the indentation made a right angle. Haillie followed it, meeting two more right angles till she came back to the original spot.

She peered into the kitchen. Her mother was blabbing away on her phone.

Haillie lifted the front two legs of an easy chair from one edge of the rug, pulled the rug away, and peeled it back to where she had felt the indentation. She came upon a brass ring, set flush into what looked like a door or lid of some sort. It was the same wood as the floor, with two edges lined up along the floorboard seams. Only the other two sides intersected the floor seams.

Again, Haillie peered toward the kitchen. Her mom had retreated to the back porch to continue her conversation.

Haillie lifted the ring on the trap door. It came up easily, without a squeak. She tugged at the ring. The trap door rose a few inches above the floor. A chill rush of air puffed out from the opening. A dark smell, musty, old. Haillie pried the door up further. She spied a ladder leading down into a dark void.

I am a firefighter, she told herself. I go where I need to go, to rescue people in danger. Setting her feet on the ladder, Haillie lowered the trap door a few inches above her head, and shoved at the rug to push it away from the opening, enough to hide the door. She let the door close. 

Credit: Pixy.org

Total darkness. Oh no. I need a flashlight. She peered down into the void. There was a sliver of light far down into the void. She thought to go back for a flashlight, but she heard footsteps above her.

“Haillie? Where are you?” Her mother’s voice. “I almost tripped on your toy truck…Oh dear, you moved the rug. Why do you always make it harder for me?”

Haillie heard the rug dragged, the chair lifted and set down again. Only one way to go now. Down.

Haillie descended into the dark, one rung at a time. Dust coated her hands as she grabbed each rung. She rubbed them on her jeans, one hand at a time. She looked up and could see nothing. The trap door was invisible in the dark.

“Someone is in trouble,” she said in a whisper. “I need to reach them.” She moved down and down. 

Her left foot hit bottom. Hard bottom. Cement? Dirt? There was a faint glow of light here at the bottom. Coming from somewhere away from the ladder.

She wiped the last of the dust from her hands. Her nose wrinkled at the musty odor. She turned towards the light. The fire! They need me.

Haillie walked slowly, feeling her way with her feet, touching her fingertips to walls on either side of her. Must be a tunnel, she thought.

A tiny voice. You found me. 

Haillie froze. Listened.

You found me.

She peered into the darkness. No one visible. No shape, no silhouette. Only a voice. She moved ahead a few steps.

Her right hand felt a break in the wall. An alcove of some sort.

Here I am.

Haillie jumped back. She could make out a dark shape in the alcove, lying prone. Not moving. She took a step toward it.

I’m here. Don’t be afraid.

Did I find someone in need? Now what?

Haillie extended her hand toward the shape. She touched something round, hard, dry.

That’s my head.

Haillie jumped back again.

Don’t be afraid. You came.

Haillie shook her head. What?

I’ve been waiting a long time. I kept count. More than twenty years.

Wait, what? A voice is talking to me but there’s no one there.

I’m here. Reach out your hand. Move it around.

Haillie hesitated, groped with her fingers. Two holes on top of the round object. Teeth lower down. Teeth?

Keep going, the voice said.

Haillie took a step forward, ran her hand further along, felt ribs, arm bones.

Are you a skeleton?

“Are you a skeleton?” she asked aloud.

I am now. I didn’t start out that way.

“You’ve been here twenty years? How did you get here?” Her voice echoed in the dark tunnel.

I was eight years old. I died from a fall. Off the old oak tree in the yard.

“But why are you in here?”

My father was afraid everyone would blame him. He always left me alone while he went to work.

“That’s crazy.”

He was scared. He put me in here, and told everyone I ran away. I don’t know if they believed him.

“Where is he now?”

No idea…He never came back.

“My mom bought the house a year ago. It’s just me and her. I don’t know who she bought it from.”

What’s your name?

“Haillie.”

I’m Molly. Hi.

“Hi, Molly.” Haillie looked up and down the tunnel. “What do we do now?”

I think you can go now. Tell people I’m here. Then I can move on.

“How do I get out of here?”

Follow the tunnel to the end. It opens into the woods behind a big rock, at the edge of the property.

“My mother is going to be so pissed at me for coming in  here…She won’t like what I tell her.”

It’s the only way, Haillie. I can’t move on till they find me. 

Haillie detected a quiver to Molly’s faint voice.

“I found you. Isn’t that enough?”

No. People need to know my story. The truth. I didn’t run away. My dad didn’t hurt me.

Haillie reached out, probing for Molly’s hand. She gripped the bones. Shuddered. “I’m afraid.”

If a skeleton could cry, Molly was weeping. Haillie felt it. Felt the sadness, the desperation.

Take my ring. On my right hand.

Haillie probed in the near darkness till she felt a plain band. She tugged at it. 

“It’s stuck.”

Pull harder.

The ring came loose, along with a finger bone. Haillie shivered. 

Take the bone, too. People will believe you.

“Molly, this is so weird.” Haillie rubbed the ring, slipped it on her own finger.

Keep the ring. It will be our secret. Show everyone the bone.

“I’ll try, Molly.” She touched Molly’s skull, stroked it for a moment.

I hear you when you run your firetruck on the floor above.

“You do?”

Sure. I hear you pretend you’re a brave firefighter. You’re saving me now.

Haillie stood tall. “Okay, Molly. I’ll do it for you.” She squeezed the bone tightly in her fist.

Thanks. When you come back, I won’t be here… I won’t forget you.

Haillie nodded, turned toward the light.

“Bye, Molly.”

***

shortfiction24 – a new morning

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, Columbus Museum of Art

In today’s micro story Diane Somers feels relief after returning her berserk cat Zero to the animal shelter. Relief…and emptiness.

More short fiction in the Jack and Diane series. Enjoy.

What I’m Writing Today

Today I’m exploring a lonely moment as Diane sits at home after returning her cat to the shelter. This is #4 in the Jack and Diane series of stories. As I have said before, I did not expect to continue the story line, and I have no plan as to where it is going. The characters interest me. I’ll see where it goes as we proceed.

Catch up on previous stories with Jack and Diane on this blog: A Third Date, The Second Date, Death by Millstone.

A New Morning

Bob Gillen

Diane Somers woke at 7:30 without an alarm. She stretched, slid out from under her covers. The east-facing window filled the room with light. 

Diane smiled. I slept through the night, she told herself. First time in a month. She stepped into her fuzzy slippers, pulled on a well-worn blue chennile robe, and padded to the kitchen. In under ten minutes she had her French-press coffee in hand. She settled in her chair and gazed out at the trees moving in the brisk Santa Ana winds. 

She sighed as she sipped her coffee. 

Sleep was good. After a month of near-sleepless nights she had finally surrendered and returned her cat Zero to the rescue shelter. As a retiree, she had the option of afternoon naps. But nothing replaced a good night’s sleep. Zero had been with her for close to two years. In that time the cat had never once purred or meowed. Never snuggled with Diane in her chair or in bed. The cat did nothing but eat, pee and sleep. Hence the cat’s name. Diane gave zero fucks about him.

But Zero had taken to roaming the house every night for the last month. Running from room to room. Hissing. Knocking books off tables. The last straw, two nights ago he swept her favorite mug off the kitchen table and shattered it. 

The guy at the shelter had accepted Zero back. “Didn’t work for you, huh?” he asked.

“Not your normal cuddly cat.”

The clerk had nodded. “Thanks for trying. Not always a match.”

“Thanks for understanding,” Diane had called out as she left.

She sipped her coffee. A couple of dry leaves scratched across the concrete patio in the wind. For some weird reason, the moving leaves reminded her of the black and white movie with Peter Lorre, where a severed hand crawled around the house causing mayhem and murder. That’s what Zero had been, a hand detached from anything that would give it life, creeping about in the darkness. Diane shuddered. He’s gone now.

After a second cup of coffee, she continued to stare out the window at the wind-blown trees. All the movement was outside. Inside, only stillness. Diane felt alone, empty. Her mind drifted back over the three years since her second husband had died. She lost him quite suddenly of a massive heart attack. And she had lost her only daughter in a maelstrom of anger and bitterness. Margaret had not spoken to Diane since Mark’s death. Diane had still to reason why, exactly. 

Her thoughts were interrupted by sirens from the nearby fire station, as a crew went out on call. Her neighbor’s German shepherd howled. Howled mightily. It always brought a smile to her face. The dog was normally rather stoic, but the sirens gave him voice every time.

The feeling of emptiness fell over her again. She was utterly alone in the house once again. No husband, no connection to her daughter, no cat. Only her.

She returned to the kitchen for more coffee. Zero’s food and water dishes were still on the floor under the counter. She picked them up and tossed them in the trash. That was the last trace of him. Gone.

Diane settled in the chair with a third cup of coffee. She opened her iPad to read emails. On top was the monthly newsletter from one of her favorite mystery authors. As she read the newsletter, she teared up. The author talked about losing her spouse in the previous year. She spoke of herself recovering from a mild bout of Omicron, spoke of the almost two years of pandemic lockdown and restrictions. The author described her current life as a scaled-back life. A scaled-back life, yet nurtured by gratitude and appreciation for what she does have.

A scaled-back life

Diane thought, that’s it exactly. That’s my life. Scaled back. Not the same. Maybe never to be the same again. But clearly scaled back. Full of limitations and restrictions. Filled with absence and emptiness. Tears flowed.

Her phone chirped. She glanced at the screen. Jack. The guy she met on an online dating app for the over-fifty crowd. She let the call go to voicemail. Later, dude. I need some me time right now.

She wiped away her tears, smiled, recalling the day she and Jack had spent in Santa Barbara a few days ago. Appreciation. Gratitude.

Outside a single dry leaf continued to scratch across the patio in the wind. Diane got up, opened the slider, and stepped on the leaf. Crushed it to small pieces. She closed the slider, settled back in her chair.

She reached for the phone. Took a deep breath, hit Jack’s number. 

***

shortfiction24 – single again

Credit: Beanbox

A micro story about a woman facing yet another reminder of her husband’s death.

What I’m Writing This Week

Single Again

Bob Gillen

Marie Reston returned home from her Starbucks run with a slice of lemon loaf and a grande Americano. Early afternoon on an October Sunday. Hours to kill till it was time to make dinner. She flipped on her TV. Two weeks ago she had recorded a movie she had been promising herself she would watch soon. An action thriller set in the Colorado mountains. Not her usual TV fare, but she needed a distraction.

Marie set her snack next to her easy chair, hit Play to begin the movie. She strained to make out the dialogue. Two men in winter gear sat around a fire. Why was character audio so hard to hear on movies? Several words popped up clearly. Frio. Cuidado

What the hell? She had recorded the Spanish-language version of the film. Shit.

Marie turned off the recording. She scrolled through the current TV fare. Might as well be doom scrolling. Nothing worth watching. She settled on a cooking show for a few minutes. Pasta shells with pancetta and broccoli rabe. Her stomach rumbled. Enough of this.

She turned off the TV, picked up her iPad to find Spotify. The music site suggested an album of piano solos called December, by George Winston. She connected her bluetooth to the soundbar under the TV and hit Play on the album. She finished the lemon loaf, sipped the Americano.

Maria picked up her laptop, opened to her bank website to check her account status. Yesterday she had met with the local branch manager to close out her deceased husband’s accounts and remove his name from her accounts and their joint credit card. Kenny was gone just over a year, a short bout with a deadly disease. Marie had waited this long to adjust the accounts, figuring there would be no further direct deposits or other activity. The bank manager accomplished the adjusting in half an hour. Marie gave no thought to it afterwards.

Now, seeing only her name on the bank accounts, she felt a loneliness creeping over her. On the December album Winston played “Carol of the Bells”. She stared out the patio window at the October skies, the Southern California foliage fringed with a touch of color. The vision grew blurred as tears welled up in her eyes. Kenny’s name was gone from their accounts. After so many years, she was again a single account holder. Maria shuddered. Tears flowed freely.

***

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