Healing through story

Month: September 2023

shortfiction24 – casket watch

A young girl looks down on a casket that holds the body of her mother, a mother whose face was always turned away.

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Casket Watch

Bob Gillen

Amy knew her mother from the back. Now, standing over the open casket that held her mother’s body, the thirteen-year-old stared hard at her mom’s face. She cast a glance around the empty viewing room, then pulled her phone camera out. She aimed it at her mother’s face, snapped several shots, slipped the phone back in her pocket.

Her mom had been an artist, a prolific painter. She stood at her easel in her home studio morning, noon and night. Her back was always to the room. 

Her mom broke for meals, but even then she had her back to the kitchen while she cooked. She often took her meals back to the studio.

Amy stifled a sob, gulped in the cloying aroma of funeral flowers. Jasmine, lilies. From outside the viewing room she heard the muffled voices of her father and the funeral director.

It was her dad who read to her at bedtime. Her dad drove her to school and to her sports activities. 

With her mom gone, Amy had no idea what her dad would do with all the artwork. There were canvases everywhere. Their garage overflowed with frames, stretched and rolled up canvases, painting supplies. But the artwork meant little to Amy. She’d be happy never to see it again. Too much of a reminder. Her mom was gone. Gone suddenly. Falling to the floor face down of a heart attack. Face down. Even in her dying she kept her back to the room.

Amy studied the pictures she had just taken with her phone. Her mom looked dreadful. Of course. She’s dead. She deleted the photos. If she couldn’t rely on her memories for an image of her mom’s face, she told herself, she would go without. 

Amy continued to stand over the casket. Tears washed down her face. Mom, you always turned your face away from me. Now I have no chance to know you. To take in your face. Your smiles. Your frowns. Your far-away gaze. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand.

She studied her mom’s gray face. What color are your eyes? I’m not sure I ever noticed. They look brown right now. Do they change in death?

Amy’s dad entered the viewing room. “You okay, kiddo?”

Amy shook her head. “Why did she never look at us? At me?”

She pointed to the casket. “This is all I have to remember her face.”

Her dad handed her a tissue. He put his arm around her shoulder. “She loved you…. Her painting overwhelmed her life.”

“But it’s too late now. She’s gone.”

Her dad took Amy’s face in his hands. “Yes, she’s gone. But look at me. Look at my face.”

Amy stared at her dad.

“You’ve got me. You’ve got my homely face.”

Amy laughed in spite of herself. “It’s not homely.”

“Your opinion,” he said. 

Amy hugged her dad. “Don’t stop looking at me, okay?”


shortfiction24 – the power of the universe

While Riley MacLean waits for her biopsy results, she muses on how the universe has impacted her life.

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The Power of the Universe

Bob Gillen

Riley MacLean sat on a rigid plastic chair in an exam room waiting for her doctor. Apprehensive about biopsy results. “Do you want a magazine?” the medical assistant had asked her. “He’s running behind. We’ve been swamped today.”

Riley chose to sit quietly, composing herself. Five long, deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Relax.

Riley believed in the power of the universe.

Two weeks prior Riley had sat here as her doctor explained they had found a possible carcinoma on her uterus during an MRI scan. He scheduled a biopsy to check. Riley felt confident. But doubt tingled inside her gut. Like the tiny sensation when an ant crawled up your arm. Barely there. But clearly present.

Riley practiced meditation daily. She was aware there are not simply the collected memories of her life, of the years behind her. More than memories. Physical bits residing in her body. In her sessions she often called upon the healing power of the universe. She will gaze up at the stars, marvel at the photos sent back by the latest telescopes and satellites.

Riley believed in the power of the universe. 

Now, in the exam room, she closed her eyes, seeking peace. Inhale. Exhale. Her mind wandered. Her childhood home on the upper west side of Manhattan came to mind. She often played in Central Park, climbing the rocks, watching horses go by on the bridal path, chasing squirrels that scrambled for scraps of popcorn.

In her body, Riley believed, she carried microscopic molecules of her life. A speck of rock from Central Park. An atom from the park grass. 

When she swam in the ocean, when she swallowed a taste of sea water, in that swallow a bit from an old sea turtle far out at sea entered her body. Now a part of her.

These bits, she believed, now worked to counter the cells her body did not want.

Riley had done a drive across country years back. Breathing in the air of dozens of states. Hills, mountains, lakes, plains. Grasses and trees. Maybe breathing in a speck of a firefly from Kansas, a bison’s atom from the west, a trace of water from Lake Tahoe, a molecule from the sand in Malibu. All of these, again, she called on to prevent the unwanted cells.

Riley believed in the power of the universe.

She had worked on Wall Street, first for summer jobs, then later in fulltime work. She ate her lunch in Trinity churchyard in the summer. A speck of residue from the grave of Alexander Hamilton resided in her. As did an atom from the guitar of a busker band in the nearby city park.

All of these microscopic bits nourished her body. Fed her. The molecules from non-living things were immortal, and resided inside her.

Riley believed in the power of the universe. 

She knew that the human body regenerates many of its cells periodically. Parts of us are brand new as we age. But she also knew that some of these cells, like the life rings on a tree trunk, remained inside her for her lifetime. And in these prevailing cells resided bits of her entire life, bits of her life experiences, bits of the universe. She was, at once, continually refreshing herself and also preserving herself.

Riley once heard Ray Bradbury speak at a book signing. She had been browsing when she spied the sign announcing the signing would start in half an hour. She had found a seat at the rear of the store, waited for Bradbury to appear. His adult daughter pushed his wheelchair in, Bradbury’s shock of white hair capping the image. At the Q&A a woman had asked Bradbury, What advice do you have for young people today? Bradbury had raised his shoulders, a gleam of passion sparking in his eyes. “We must go back to the moon,” he told the group. “Establish a base, go on to Mars and then to Alpha Centauri.”

And she felt, in her heart, that there was a sun far distant in our galaxy, far behind earth’s sun. That sun had, a long time ago, released a bit of ash into the universe. And Riley believed that that bit of ash drifted across the galaxy and settled in her lung one night when she took in a deep breath of cool night air. That speck unites her with the far-flung regions of the universe. Connects her to a power that is so far beyond her understanding. So far beyond her capacity to see. And yet she knows she herself is a speck in that universe. She too emits parts of herself when she exhales. She shares those life specks with those around her, with those perhaps miles away, generations away.

The power of the universe. 

A gentle knock and the door opened. “Ms. MacLean,” the doctor said, “thank you for your patience. A medical emergency this morning set us behind.”

Riley nodded.

The doctor sat, opened his laptop. He glanced at the screen. Smiled. Looked her in the eye. 

“No cancer.”

Riley believed in the healing power of the universe.


shortfiction24 – a teacher’s ghost on campus

Three teens making a scary film on their high school campus come face to face with the ghost of a deceased teacher.

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I took a few weeks off at the end of August to rest and re-create. Back on track now. I will post here every Friday. My newsletter will go up every Wednesday. You can subscribe here to get the stories early and read other content. Thanks for reading.

A Teacher’s Ghost on Campus

Bob Gillen

Lyndie waved to the security guard at the entrance to her high school campus and drove her Toyota sedan up the driveway to the parking lot. Even with the low beams on, she could barely see through the swirling pre-dawn fog. Tessa sat next to her, Eric in the back seat.

Eric said, “I can’t believe the principal gave us permission to be on campus this early.”

Tessa said, “I convinced her our film could represent the school in a film festival.”

She peered out the window. “I don’t see any other cars. Good. We’ve got time.”

The weather had cooperated as forecasted. A cold, clammy, thick fog. 

“This is perfect for our scary movie. We need to hustle before anyone else gets here.”

Eric said, “No one here at this hour except Mrs. Raines’ ghost.”

“Don’t say that,” Lyndie said. “I’ve got goose bumps already.”

“Let’s get the first shot done,” Tessa said. “Park somewhere where we can see only fog from the back of the car.”

Lyndie parked. Eric pulled down the back of the rear seat before getting out. 

“Okay, Tessa. Set yourself facing the trunk lid.”

Tessa crawled into the back seat, aimed her video camera at the closed trunk. She hit Record, waited a few seconds, and called “Action” to the others.

Eric opened the trunk from the outside, the camera picking up the sudden light, the fog swirling behind him. He and Lyndie pulled their backpacks out of the trunk and closed the lid.

“Got the shot,” Tessa said. “Now for the campus.”

They put their backpacks back in the trunk and walked onto campus through the fog. Dead silence. They could not see more than a few yards ahead. All three shivered in the damp fog.

Tessa stopped to capture a wide shot of the fog-bound campus. Lyndie peered into the fog. She heard a low moan.

“What was that?”

Eric said, “Probably wind in the trees.”

“There’s no wind,” Lyndie said.

She spun around, searching for the source of the moan.

Ahead, near the English classrooms, something moved. A flash of white. Almost imperceptible in the fog. Something ragged, frilly. 


Eric looked. “What the hell is that?”

Tessa looked up from her camera. “What are you two talking about?”

“Aim the camera up there,” Eric said. “Near Room 15.”

Tessa looked. “What am I supposed to see?”

Lyndie said, “It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?”

“A ghost.”

“Oh, Mrs. Raines, huh?” Tessa waved. “Hi Mrs. Raines. Good to see you this morning.”

“Stop!” Lyndie shuddered. “I want to wait in the car.”

Tessa said, “Come on. Let’s stick together. We have more shots to get before school starts.”

Lyndie followed Tessa, spinning constantly to spot any ghost.


The three spun in unison to see a trash can overturned, trash spilled out onto the sidewalk.

“Just a tipped trash can,” Tessa said.

“Tipped by who?” Lyndie said, wrapping her arms around herself.

Eric walked over to the can. There was no wind. The can looked sturdy enough. “I don’t think this tipped by itself.”

“Enough,” Tessa said. “Let’s get the shots while we have fog.”

They edged up nearer to the photography classroom.

“Isn’t this where Mrs. Raines died?”

“That’s the story. Four years ago. They say she came in early to make copies of her exams. The revolving door to the darkroom stuck after she went in, looking for her files.”

“Yeah,” Eric said, “They said she panicked and had a heart attack. They didn’t find her till it was too late.”

Eric yanked on the classroom door. Locked.

Tessa said, “Let’s get shots of you two walking out of the fog towards me. Walk slowly. Remember, you’re scared.”

“Like now!” Lyndie said.

The two walked about fifty feet away from Tessa, far enough that she could not see them.

“When I call, start walking.” 

Tessa set the camera. “Now.”



Swirling fog. Nothing else.

“Come on, guys. We need to get this done.”


A low moaning.

Tessa looked into the fog. She could just barely make out a figure. White. Swirling, like the fog. Moving as though part of it. But not.

Tessa turned all around. Looked again. Nothing.

The door to the photography classroom swung open.

She jumped.

“Hey.” Eric and Lyndie stepped out.

Tessa yelled. “You scared me. How did you get in there?”

“The hall door was unlocked. We walked through.”

“Were you…?” She started to point to the fog, hesitated. “Never mind.”

Lyndie said, “How about a shot of us stepping out from the room into the fog?”

“Okay,” Tessa said. “I’ll wait here.”

She checked the camera settings again, and called out. “Ready.”

Eric and Lyndie edged out of the room, peering around at the fog, looking behind themselves.

They slipped off into the fog.

Tessa followed them with the camera.

Another moan. Louder this time. It came from the classroom.

Tessa jumped. The other two spun around.


“It came from the room.” Eric edged closer to the door. Tessa filmed him as he did.

Eric peeked into the classroom. Nothing. 

Then – he spied the darkroom revolving door… spinning! 

He flew out the door.



“The door is turning!”

Another moan. This time to their right.

They turned to see a figure in white. Closer, this time. White veil covering the head and face. Gauzy strips, torn and fluttering as the figure moved.

The three teens froze.

Tessa whipped up the camera and aimed at the figure.

It withdrew back into the fog. Disappeared.

“Oh God!”

“The ghost is real. It must be Mrs. Raines.”

“I want to see inside the darkroom,” Tessa said.

The three crept in, Lyndie with her hands over her eyes.

They moved to the revolving door. It was still.

Tessa said, “I’m going in.”


“We just saw the ghost outside. The room should be empty.”

Tessa pushed the revolving door. She aimed the camera, pushed further in. She stepped into total darkness.

She fumbled for the light switch on the wall. Turned it on. A red glow filled the room.

Tessa screamed. 

She was face-to-face with a bone-white skeleton.

Tessa fell back into a file cabinet, knocking it askew. She slipped to the floor.

Eric pushed his way in. “You okay?”

“How did this skeleton get here?” Tessa asked. “This is weird.”

Lyndie came in. “It’s part of the art class.”

Eric said, “Look!”

He pointed to the file cabinet. There was an envelope stuck between the cabinet back and the wall.

He dragged the cabinet further, reached in. Grabbed the envelope.

“Take it outside,” Tessa said. “Too dark in here.”

They backed out of the darkroom and moved outside.

Tessa said, “We should drag the skeleton outside and shoot it in the fog.”

Eric held up the envelope. The outside bore the name Mark in a neat handwriting. “Didn’t someone say Mark was her son? I remember them talking about how her son did not attend her funeral. They said the two were estranged.”

Lyndie shrugged.

“Should I open the envelope?”

“Yes,” Tessa said. “Let me get a shot of it.”

Eric pulled a note out of the unsealed envelope. He scanned the contents.

“What does it say?”

“It’s an apology. Signed by Mrs. Raines. Not clear what she’s apologizing for.”

“We need to get this to her son.”

Another moan, almost a howl, pierced the swirling fog. Tessa raised the camera, looking for the source of the sound.

“There!” Lyndie cried. Tessa whirled around to capture the shot. The white figure swirled out of the fog. The shape lingered as Tessa got the shot.

Eric held up the envelope. “We found your note, Mrs. Raines. We’ll be sure it gets to your son.”

The figure remained in view. Another moan. 

Tessa held the camera on the figure. 

More moans, the sounds decaying into silence. The figure began blending into the fog. In a moment it was gone.

Eric said, “Mrs. Raines was stuck here till someone found the note. Now she’s free to move on.”

A breeze rippled through the campus, breaking off scraps of fog.

“We’re going to lose the fog,” Tessa said. “Can we get a few more shots?”

“We’ve got some good stuff,” Eric said. “Mrs. Raines made herself visible for us. Maybe we should get a shot of the darkroom and the file cabinet.”

“Yeah,” Tessa said. “Put the note back in its place for a minute so I can get a shot of where we found it.”

“She led us to the note, didn’t she?” Eric said. 

Lyndie shivered. “This is all creepy.”

“It’ll make for a good film,” Tessa said. 

“Thanks, Mrs. Raines,” Eric said. 

A low moan drifted out of the fog.


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