Healing through story

Month: June 2022

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.

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