Healing through story

Month: May 2023

shortfiction24 – santiago’s bones

Leland Strong’s quest for a moment of genuine prayer leads him to reflections on Hemingway’s fisherman Santiago, A somber story of an old man’s search for the meaning of his life.

Enjoy the story. Comments are always welcome.

Santiagos’ Bones

Bob Gillen

Eighty-two year-old Leland Strong sat in the last row of the empty church. A church he did not know. The afternoon sun sprayed stained glass color over the middle of the interior. The color did not reach Leland’s row. That was fine with him. He was not there for beauty or inspiration. He sought solitude, a respite from the noise in his heart. He yearned for the few moments of silent prayer that had eluded him till now.

Leland jumped as outside on the street a motorcycle screamed through its gears moving past the church. He settled back in his seat.

Leland’s thoughts wandered. An avid reader, he sometimes compared himself to a protagonist in the stories. He smiled as his mind now ran to the opening line in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He paraphrased silently. ‘He was an old man who lived alone in the stream of life and he had gone eighty-four days now without a prayer.’

Running with the comparison, Leland pictured himself as Hemingway’s fisherman Santiago. A man who knew only one thing. Fishing. And he showed up for that every day. Even after eighty-four days without a fish. In his own lifetime Leland had known more than one thing. He was now long retired, living alone, most of his family and friends gone. And he showed up every day, searching for true solitude, for meaning. 

Leland scowled as he heard the backup beeping of a truck. More noise. In the parking lot the driver slammed trash bins as he emptied them into the truck’s maw. 

Quiet descended on the building. The day Santiago caught his great fish, Leland told himself, he had gone out far beyond his usual fishing waters. He had gone deep into the sea, beyond the other fishermen, beyond his own familiar locations. And in the deep he had found his great fish. Now, sitting alone in the depth of this church, Leland hoped he had moved beyond his usual routine as he sought his personal deep waters. Going beyond the usual places where he sought peace. A dark hollow had inched its way into Leland’s heart. A hollow he yearned to fill with prayer.

Leland cocked his head at the sound of shuffling footsteps. A man entered Leland’s pew from the far end, moved closer to him. He carried a plastic bag stuffed with what looked like clothing. He wore baggy, soiled jeans, a dirty white tee shirt, sandals on his feet. Long unkempt hair. A homeless man.

“You’re in my seat,” the homeless man said.

“The entire church is empty.”

“I have a deal with them.” He gestured to the front of the church with his thumb. “I sleep here every afternoon till they close up.” He waved an arm at Leland. “You have to move.”

“Whatever.” Leland shrugged, moved across the aisle to the other last row.

The homeless man stretched out on the pew. He tucked the bag of clothing under his head for a pillow. In moments he was asleep, breathing softly.

Leland stared across at the homeless man. It’s hopeless trying to find a quiet place. The homeless man began to snore. Loud enough to distract.

Leland continued to stare at the homeless man. He took in the man’s gaunt frame, highlighted by clothes that were much too big for him. The bones in his arms stood out, stretched over his sun-darkened skin. Leland looked down at his own frame. He too wore a tee shirt a size too big for himself. He held out his arm. Do people see me as gaunt, thin? 

A thought niggled at Leland’s mind. As he gazed at his arm, he began to realize…he was no Santiago. The metaphor was all off. No, he was Santiago’s fish. To make the metaphor more precise, he was the skeleton of Santiago’s fish. He was a reflection of what was left of Santiago’s quest. The remains of his own lifelong quest. Nature had chewed at Santiago’s fish. Bitten off chunks of flesh, down to the bones. Was he no different? A lifetime of living had chipped away at Leland’s ego, leaving him feeling empty, desolate, without depth.

That was it. Only Leland’s bones remained. Bones that told a story. Bones that pointed to a once full body. His hope was that the bones would reveal the fullness of what he had been and done in his lifetime.

Leland thought, I may have been a great fish at one time. Moving through my seas freely. I have lived a good life. I have cared, given, loved, been loved. Now, at my age, life has chewed away at my greatness, bitten chunks off my ego, until I am simply a skeleton of my earlier self. My bones are now what people see. A withered old man. Age spots, a shaky walk, hesitant at times, uncertain of much. But the image tells a story.

Leland grinned. In the dim light of the church, a homeless man snoring nearby, he saw himself as the skeleton that, like Santiago’s great fish, revealed its earlier glory. When Santiago had rowed back to his village, his fellow fishermen stared in awe at the bones of what was once a great fish. Leland realized he cannot control what people see of him. Even what he sees of himself. His hope – in his meager exterior, in his bones, they see what brought him to this moment in life.

Leland stood, leaned on the back of the pew in front of him. Alone in the church, except for the homeless man, he extended his arms forward. “I am a man of bones,” he whispered, “standing as a testament to a life well lived. I have swum freely in the sea of life. I have been hooked, lashed to life’s boat. Picked apart.” 

Leland found his moment of prayer.


shortfiction24 – an act of kindness, returned

Gina Rubin’s comfortable life is about to be upturned by a single act of kindness. She opened her door to find a mannequin. A mannequin who talks.

This story resulted from another writing prompt I came across last week. “When I opened the door, I never expected to be hit by ‘that‘.”

I hope you enjoy it.

An Act of Kindness, Returned

Bob Gillen

Gina Rubin put the shopping bag from the mall at the foot of the stairs. She headed to the kitchen to make her afternoon green tea. The doorbell rang before she could fill the kettle.

Gina opened the front door to come face to face with a mannequin. A female mannequin. A mannequin wearing black slacks, an ivory blouse, a black blazer, black flats. No jewelry, no makeup, no wig.

What the hell?

Gina stuck her head out of the doorway, looking right and left. No one. She stepped around the mannequin to look out to the sidewalk. Still no one.

I don’t like being pranked.

She started to close the door when she heard a voice, “Aren’t you going to ask me in?”

Okay, now I’m hearing voices.

She stepped back from the door. The mannequin walked stiffly past her, moving inside, through to the kitchen.

Gina followed.

The mannequin quite awkwardly sat, placed its hands on the table.

Gina said, “This is some kind of joke, right?”

The mannequin shook its head slowly. “No.”

“There’s a ventriloquist behind you somewhere. This is all explainable.”

“Just me,” the mannequin said. “I followed you home.”

“How did you do that?”

“It wasn’t easy.”


“You helped me. You were kind to me.”

“You’re a mannequin. How could I have helped you?”

“You were shopping for shoes. You sat in a chair next to me. My left shoe had slipped off. You reached over and put the shoe back on.”

“Yeah, I remember that. I’m kind of a perfectionist. You looked awkward with one shoe off.”

“Well, you were kind. I am here to return the kindness.”

Gina shook her head. “This is seriously weird.”

“I get that. This is the first time I’ve done this.”

The two sat staring at one another. Gina got up and finished making her tea. “I don’t suppose I can offer you a cup of tea?”

The mannequin shook its head. “I have a purpose. How can I return your kindness?”

“What can you do?” Gina warmed to having a kindness done for her.

“Pretty much wide open.”

Gina gestured with both hands. “I’m sitting at my own kitchen table…talking to a mannequin…a mannequin who speaks…saying she can do me a favor.”

“Weird for me too. Actually, I don’t even know what I can do for you. Gotta try me.”

Gina looked around her kitchen. Several pots and pans needed washing. No, don’t waste this on on dirty dishes. Laundry should be done. Again, don’t waste a favor on laundry.

Okay, we can make this work.

“Does anyone live here with you?” the mannequin asked.

“I’m alone.”

“What do you need?”

Gina thought for a moment. “Well…I was thinking about getting a cat.”

“Too easy. You can go to the shelter and get one. Gotta be more than that.”

“More? All I did was put your shoe back on.”

“And I need to return the kindness.”

“I’m at a loss.” Gina sipped her tea.

“Where do you work?”

“I got laid off last week. I was in customer service.”

“Maybe I can help you find a new job.”


“I don’t really know.”

The mannequin appeared to be thinking. “I know…you must be tense after being laid off.”

“To say the least.”

“How about a massage?”

Gina smiled. “That could work.”

She grabbed a kitchen towel and walked to the couch.

“The towel will keep me from smearing makeup all over the couch.”

She stretched out, face down. The mannequin knelt next to the couch, began massaging Gina’s back.

“Wow, it feels good, but your hands are really stiff.”

“I didn’t tell you…If I actually help you, if I do a genuine act of kindess, I have a chance at becoming a real person.”

“Huh? What is this? Another version of Pinocchio?”

“What is Pinocchio?”

“Never mind.”

The mannequin continued the massage.

Gina pushed herself up, leaned on one elbow. “Wait a minute. If you become a real person, where would you go? What would you do?”

“I don’t know. There was one mannequin I knew, but after she changed she never came back.”

Gina stretched out again. “Do all mannequins get this chance?”

“Apparently no. Very few. Before the department store, I worked at a vintage clothing store on Magnolia Blvd. The Magic Shoe. Most of the mannequins there are head mannequins. They model hats and scarves. I was a full-body mannequin. Madam Ruby touched me.”

“Madam Ruby?”

“She had gifts. But she herself was a head mannequin. Anyone full-body she touched had the chance to become a real person. I was lucky.”

Gina snuggled down into the couch, enjoying the massage. “So what happens if you become real? Do you have ID, a personal history? Can you get a job?”

“Again, I don’t know.”

Gina popped up again. “Wait a minute. If you become a real person while you’re here with me, am I responsible for you?”

The mannequin shrugged.

“Do you even have name?”

“I always liked the name Meghan.”

“Okay, I’ll call you that.”

The mannequin gazed at Gina. “If I become a real woman, I could stay here with you.”

“Hold on.” Gina sat up, swung her legs to the floor. “You would need an ID. A personal history from birth till today. You would need a job, a place to live.”

“You can help me with that, no?”

Gina shook her head. “What you’re telling me is, you return my act of kindness, Meghan. I then become your keeper. I have to set you up in the real world. You want to move in here with me…Your one act of kindness would create a huge burden for me. It would turn my life upside down.” She shook her head. “I can’t do this.”

Meghan the mannequin looked down at the floor. “I see what you mean. I would rely on you for everything.”

Gina nodded. “Exactly. I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

“I should go back to the department store. Leave you alone.” She stood.

Gina watched Meghan the mannequin walk toward the front door.

“Wait. Do you know for sure that you would become a real person?”

“That’s what Madam Ruby said. If I perform a genuine kindness, I become real.”

Gina sat with her head in her hands. Her mind ran to her comfortable life. Alone, yes, But all to her liking. No one to hassle with. Her choices were all hers.

Meghan the mannequin stood with her hand on the door handle. “Goodbye. I hope I get anothr chance at this soon.”

Gina looked at her. “Come back to the massage. We can think this through. Maybe you would come with a package to get you started in the real world.”

She lay back on the couch. Meghan the mannequin returned to her position, continued the massage.

Gina was about to comment again on the stiff, hard hands when she felt a softening. The fingers on the mannequin’s hands spread as they massaged. Gina heard Meghan moan. “Something is happening.”

Gina propped herself on an elbow. The hard features on the mannequin softened as she looked on.

Meghan the mannequin stopped massaging, stared at her hands.

“I’m becoming a real woman!”

In a matter of moments Meghan the mannequin morphed into Meghan a real woman. Hair sprung out on her scalp. Fingernails grew on her hands. 

Gina felt a tremor pass through her body as she realized there was no going back. Meghan the woman was now her responsibility. 

Shit! Now what?


shortfiction24 – just ask her

On a lunch break at the racetrack, three young groundskeepers talking about their sandwiches leads to talking about sex.

Follow Dennis, Paulie, Mark as Dennis tries to tell Paulie how lucky he really is.


Just Ask Her

Bob Gillen

Dennis took a healthy bite of his sandwich. Roast beast on rye slathered with yellow mustard.

“What’ve you got today, Paulie?”

“Veal parmesan hero.” Paulie held it up for Dennis and Mark to see.

“Looks good, Paulie. You’re lucky,” Mark said.


Mark waved his sandwich at them. “Bologna on white bread with brown mustard.”

“Didn’t you have that yesterday?”

“Every day. It’s my go-to lunch.”

The three young men, groundskeepers hired for the summer, had just finished walking the track at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack with buckets, picking up loose stones and pebbles unearthed by the tractor running ahead of them. Clearing the way for the first race of the season that afternoon. They sat on upturned crates in the summer sun. 

“Man, I’d be fine if we didn’t have to walk the track again,” Paulie said.

Dennis, the oldest of the three at twenty-one, a senior at St. John’s University, said, “Brace yourself. We’ll do it at least one more time.”

Paulie, the youngest, a high school senior, took an enormous bite of his hero. “I gotta tell you guys. Man, did I get lucky last night.”

“Oh,” Dennis said.

Mark, aged between the other two, said, “Again?”

“Yeah, I drove her to a spot in Brooklyn, right off the Belt Parkway near the water. Quiet, dark.”

Dennis pointed his sandwich at Paulie. “You’re going to tell us about this, right? Whether we want to hear it or not.”

Paulie took another bite. “Sure. Why not?”

Mark munched on his bologna sandwich. 

Paulie continued. “I got her blouse off right away. Then her braw.”

“Her braw?” Dennis asked.

“Yeah, you know…” Paulie gestured towards his own chest.

“Anyway, her boobs were like water balloons.”

Dennis and Mark both nodded.

“She opened my pants. Man, I almost blew her head off when I came.”

Another enormous bite of his hero.

Mark said, “Cool.”

“Yeah, I really lucked out. I might see her again in a couple of days for another BJ.”

Dennis wiped sweat from his brow, said. “Paulie, no offense, but you’re an asshole.”

“What, you calling me an asshole?”

“Yup. You get lucky and you can’t even pronounce her underwear properly. It’s brah, not braw.”

“Okay, whatever.”

“Do you know how lucky you really are? I don’t think so.”

“What’re you saying?”

“It’s all about you. The luck. Is anyone else in your life lucky?”

Paulie shook his head in frustration.

“Look at your lunch. Every day you got a hero. Veal, chicken, eggplant, meatballs…always a great sandwich.”

“Yeah, my mom is a great cook.”

“You ever tell her that? Ever buy her flowers?”

“Mother’s Day, her birthday.”

“That’s it? A great lunch every day and you thank her two times in a whole year?”

“Yeah, so…”

“And the girl you were with. The one who did your BJ.  You do the same for her?”


“You pleasure her?”

Paulie shook his head. “I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s my point.”

Dutch, the supervisor for the track’s infield, drove up in a golf cart loaded with tools. “Lunch break is over, you three. We got flower beds to hoe. Let’s go.”

Dennis stood, grabbed a hoe from the cart.

Paulie whispered to Dennis. “What’re you saying? How do you do it?”

Dennis shook his head. “I don’t talk about my sex life. You figure it out. Ask her.”

“Ask her?”

“Yeah, just ask her.”


shortfiction24 – a first responder’s terror memory

Officer Paul Kim will live with the memory of torn and bloodied children for the rest of his life.

I responded to a prompt challenge this week to write a one-hundred word story. And always in the back of my mind, Hemingway’s advice: ‘write hard and clear about what hurts.’ This subject hurts. Deeply.

I hope you like the story.

A First Responder’s Terror Memory

Bob Gillen

Officer Paul Kim shot the active shooter as he reloaded his automatic weapon. Kim surveyed the classroom. Blood, moans, crying. 

“Children, you’re safe. We’re police. If you are not hurt, please stand and face the rear windows.”

Six third graders stood.

“Please hold hands and we’ll lead you out. Look at your feet. Don’t trip.” Another officer led them out.

EMTs rushed in, followed the sounds of whimpering. One EMT assessed five children and their teacher as unresponsive.

KIm turned away, threw up. Vomited his insides. Vomited hope, beauty, joy. Left only with a seared memory of torn, bloodied children.

shortfiction24 – how’re you holding up?

Mary Bering could not bear to hear one more person ask her, “How’re you holding up?” She wore her smile like a veneer, covering the deep grief of losing her beloved partner.

Mary planned her own disappearance. This story is for all those who deal with a grief hidden under the surface. All those tired of fielding well-meaning questions.

Enjoy the story.

How’re You Holding Up?

Bob Gillen

They never found Mary Bering’s body. Not that they didn’t try. The authorities in the small beach town searched for a full week. They brought in a search dog that tracked her scent from the dunes to the water’s edge. They even walked the dog a half mile in each direction, thinking Mary may have come out of the water disoriented.

A young couple on an early morning beach hike had spotted a neatly folded stack of clothes in the sand up near the dunes. Shoes, pants, a top, underwear. A costume necklace. They took a photo, brought it to the local sheriff when his office opened.

At the same time Mary’s boss at the town bakery called the sheriff to request a welfare check when Mary did not show for her early morning shift. A rare event. The sheriff entered Mary’s apartment. Her phone and keys sat on the kitchen table. No note, nothing askew. That’s when he called in the search dog.

A local news producer volunteered their helicopter to search offshore. Nothing.

In the end the sheriff concluded the tides pulled Mary Bering’s body out to sea. Suicide? No evidence either way. Case closed.

By the time the sheriff shut down his news conference, Mary Bering was miles to the south in her twenty-four foot boat, berthed at a marina several towns away. Mary had planned well.

What triggered her planned disappearance was a well-meaning question from her local preacher. She had run into him on her way home from work one day. “How’re you holding up?” The question punched Mary right in the chest. It was a question Mary had fielded dozens of times in the three months since her beloved partner Melody had died. Suddenly. Unexpected. Mary always responded to the question with, “Okay, thanks.”

The preacher’s question slammed her hard. You of all people. Can’t you see? No, I am not holding up. This is all a veneer. I am devasted without Melody.

Mary began assembling her plan that night over a dinner of chicken noodle soup and a white wine. The boat was the key. Mary had bought the boat, an older-model twenty-four foot cabin cruiser, from a guy whose job was relocating him to the midwest. The Salty Lady. She was berthed at the end of the marina. The guy had paid the monthly rental by cash, slipped into the office mail slot. Mary continued the practice. She never informed the office of the change in ownership. That was before Melody died. Mary had planned to refurbish the boat, present it to Melody on her July fourth birthday. The boat slept two, tightly. A tiny galley. A fair range with a large fuel tank and a one-hundred horsepower outboard engine.

After the preacher’s question Mary began stocking the boat with bottled water, Spam, tuna packets and canned vegetables. Several changes of clothes. A few items at a time, to avoid suspicion and questions.

She bought charts of the coastline. South was the obvious way to go. More options.

On the morning of her disappearance she left for the beach before dawn. She picked a spot where her clothes would be found without too much difficulty. She stripped, folded everything neatly, pulled on the wet suit she had carried. She walked into the water, swam south, parallel to the beach for about two miles till she reached the rock jetty and the harbor inlet. She left the water, stripped off the wetsuit, found the bag of clothes she had stashed in the dunes the day before. She dried off, stuffed the wetsuit in a bag, and walked to the marina. Once there she left a note in the office mail slot. “Moving on.” She signed the former owner’s name.

The sun was breaking the horizon when Mary fired up the outboard engine. She eased the boat out through the inlet, turned south parallel to the beach. The boat moved smoothly on the early morning flat calm. Twenty miles down the coast she found another inlet. She turned in, located the marina she had come upon in a Google search, pulled into a guest berth. She crawled into the bunk, slept for a few hours.

Around noon that first day Mary sat on the side of her bunk, a small makeup mirror in front of her. She cut her hair short in a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol. She added a few blond streaks. Nothing too obvious. She bagged up the cut hair, planning to dump it in a trash bin later.

She removed the jar with Melody’s cremains from the bunk storage bin. “What do you think, Mel? You would probably hate this.”

In the town near the marina, Mary visited a thrift store, bought some clothes that Melody would have worn, more colorful than her own style. 

She found a coffee shop. A turkey sandwich and a black coffee satisfied her hunger. She ordered a second sandwich, a chocolate muffin and a vanilla shake to go.

Back at the boat, Mary studied the charts. Another ten miles to the next inlet. The wind had picked up in the afternoon. She chose to avoid what would be a choppy ride running parallel to the coast. Tomorrow morning would be fine.

Mary studied the notebook with her plan. Had she overlooked anything yet? Nothing obvious. Her credit cards would remain unused in her wallet for at least several months. Nothing to trace, if they did a deep-dive search. She had plenty of cash, accumulated over a month from ATMs. She had also transferred much of her savings to an out-of-state bank. She retained her original ID. No reason to change that, not unless someone became suspicious. She had left just enough of a trail for them to conclude this was a probable suicide. She knew the local sheriff well enough to know he would not likely search further. 

She felt a twinge of guilt over leaving her job. She always showed up early to bake bread and rolls for the morning customers. Her boss would be stressed for a time, but Mary knew someone else would take her place.

Leaving her apartment behind was more painful. A cozy little space Melody and she had shared for almost ten years. She left behind treasured furniture, a quilt gifted from a friend, a collection of antique bottles.

Now what? Tomorrow morning another marina, more miles away from her old life. Mary stowed the thrift store clothes under her bunk. One item she had brought from home jumped out at her. She held up a white linen top. Tears ran down her face. Remember this, Mel? I wore this the night you proposed to me. She blotted her tears onto the top.

She continued, Where to, Melody? I don’t have a long-term plan. Only enough to get away from my…our…old life. No more well-meaning questions to field. No more masking how I feel. I miss you terribly. My heart aches for you. I am truly alone now, in every way. 

Mary ate her carryout food, again crawled into the bunk. Sleep came easily.

In the morning Mary hit a different coffee shop for croissants and coffee, picked up the local newspaper. A story below the fold told of a disappearance. Her disappearance. Search underway. No picture, no details. Good, at least they’re aware I’m gone.

She powered up the boat and set off for the next marina. Once there she again found a guest berth. Mary cooked up an early dinner of Spam and canned corn on her little gas stove. 

She held the jar of cremains close to her. She whispered, “This boat was my birthday surprise for you, Mel. When I get further down the coast I’ll find a painter and change the name to My Melody.”

Mary rooted through the bag of clothes she had purchased at the thrift shop. She picked a tie-dyed shirt with a yellow center. More whispers: “Tomorrow, Mel, I’ll dress more to your style, your liking. You always wanted me to be more daring with my outfits.”

Mary pointed to the coastal chart. “And tomorrow, on to another harbor, another marina, another town. Another step towards a new life. ‘How’re you holding up?’ Not too badly, if I say so myself. Not too badly.”


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