Healing through story

Month: July 2022

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.”

***

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