Healing through story

Month: November 2023

shortfiction24 – small-town betty

The local shortline railroad that ran through Betty’s town made a sharp curve within inches of her house. For over sixty years, Betty lived with this oddity. Even with offers to relocate her home, Betty refused to leave.

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Small-town Betty

Bob Gillen

Betty Thorndyke has lived in her quaint, gingerbread-edged home for over sixty years. Her husband Charley, gone nine years, had built the house as soon as Betty accepted his proposal. Charley worked at Jaxon Industries, the local factory at the west end of their town. He loved the work, and thrived on having no land to cultivate, not even a lawn to cut or a shrub to trim. When Charley was not working, he was on the front porch with a can of beer in his hand.

Main Street in their little town spanned a mile-long stretch extending from Jaxon Industries at the town’s west end to Charley and Betty’s home, the last house on the east end. A short-line railroad served the factory and half a dozen other factories in the area.

Unlike many other rural main streets, this one had every shop occupied. Occupied and thriving. A hardware store, two grocery stores, a barber and a hair stylist, a diner. A strong local economy, thanks to the town’s factory, Jaxon Industries, which employed a number of residents from the town and the surrounding county. 

Every morning, Monday through Friday, a diesel locomotive pushed two empty box cars down the track in the middle of Main Street to the factory’s loading dock. The engine then coupled to one or two box cars loaded with Jaxon product to ship out. The engine pulled the cars back up Main Street, turned north around Betty’s house, and headed for the other factories. Twenty miles up the line the engine set out the loaded cars to be picked up by a mainline railroad.

The rail curve from Main Street around Betty’s home was sharp, the trains passing within a foot of the house. Any stranger to the town stood in amazement watching the train navigate the curve.

Betty and her husband Charley had lived in the house since they were married sixty years ago. The railroad track was there first. Charley bought the property because it was so cheap. Who would want a house so close to a railroad track? For Charley and his new bride it was not an issue. The train passed only in the morning, only Monday to Friday, only moving at slow speeds. 

Now long retired from her earlier career as a nurse, with Charley gone nine years ago, Betty sat on her front porch and waved to Benny the engineer each time he passed. Benny drove a re-built SW1200 diesel belonging to Forward Rail, the shortline servicing the area. It was a small diesel by railroad standards, but a monster when passing within a foot of someone’s front porch. The diesel’s shorter wheelbase and minimum turning radius made it an ideal choice for the town and the curve around Betty’s house. 

In the summer months, with schools closed, Forward Rail had two men, one on each side, walk Main Street with the train to keep the local kids from climbing on the box cars. That, after one boy slipped and lost a foot under the train.

David Bauer, CEO of Jaxon Industries, was a decent employer. He paid his people well enough, considering he was the only game in town. But Bauer was a business owner interested in making profits. And additional profits were proving elusive. Bauer’s business had grown strong enough that he could ship more product. And in turn he could offer more jobs for the town. But that would require larger, longer box cars. And those cars would not tolerate the sharp curve around Betty’s house. Not without tearing the corner off her building. Bauer had first approached Betty three years ago. He offered to pay to relocate her house fifty feet back from the railroad track. The cost would be incurred equally by his company and by Forward Rail.

Betty refused the offer. The house was precious to her. The view of the countryside south of her front porch was magnificent. And having to move to a motel during her home’s relocation was in no way attractive to her.

Bauer came back with his offer yearly. 

Betty’s answer was always the same. 


The cost of moving the rail track away from Betty’s house would not be exorbitant, Bauer knew, but the down time would be prohibitive. Product had to move out daily.

Last year someone had proposed using trucks to move the product out to the mainline railroad. Bauer considered it. But he would have to build more loading docks. And the town would have to tolerate trucks moving up and down Main Street. Not to mention cutting seriously into Forward Rail’s business.

 Both Bauer and the head of Forward Rail had also approached the town’s mayor several times to pursue eminent domain for Betty’s house. The mayor always backed down. Too harsh a solution, he said.

What the mayor did not say, not out loud – the town could not afford to offend Betty. For over thirty years, with her nursing background, Betty had run a free clinic for new mothers out of the church meeting room. Every Monday and Thursday morning she sat in the clinic, offering help and advice to the new and older mothers of the town. Rashes, scrapes and bruises, coughs, fevers – Betty got the moms through it all. Anything more serious, of course, had to be referred to the county hospital. After all, Betty was a nurse but no doctor. 

So Forward Rail added an extra boxcar when needed to accommodate added product shipments. Not ideal, but workable. An impasse, but not a nasty one. All the factory workers and railway people still greeted Betty in a friendly fashion on the street and in the market.

Each Christmas Betty’s two sons and their families showed up to celebrate the holiday. The grandkids were fascinated by the huge train passing within inches of grandma’s house. They loved waving to Benny the engineer. Betty kept a jar of pennies in the house, and her two sons showed the children how to place the pennies on the rail before the train passed. The huge train wheels flattened the pennies, which delighted the kids.

Betty lost her Charley almost nine years ago. A tragic disappearance. Charley left home one evening to go fishing and never returned. He was never found. After seven years the courts declared Charley dead and Betty collected five thousand dollars on his life insurance policy.

Charley’s disappearance and assumed death had upset the town. There was a large turnout at his church service. More casseroles than Betty could eat in her lifetime. And Betty had soldiered on. Every morning, on all but the bitterest winter days, Betty sat on her front porch. Her failing eyesight would not allow her to create the beautiful quilts she once made. Now it was mostly knitting. Easier on the eyes.

Nine years ago, Charley and Betty had driven to a hospital two counties over. Looking for anonymity. Within two days Charley got his diagnosis. Terminal cancer. Less than a year to live.

Back home, Charley had spent all his free time for the following weeks digging a four-foot deep grave in their basement. The basement was windowless, dark, dank, not much more than a tornado shelter.

After he completed his task, he and Betty made plans. When he began to have trouble functioning, when the pain grew intolerable, they would initiate his last days. Betty acquired a strong sedative and a lethal injection.

Charley ordered a body bag online. On his final day, he gathered his fishing gear and set out one evening to spend the night fishing. He left his gear at the river’s edge and quietly sneaked back home in the middle of the night. He and Betty descended to the basement. Charley pulled the body bag over himself, leaving enough room for Betty to do what she had to do. 

They kissed, held hands. After a while Charley simply nodded. Betty applied the sedative, waited for Charley to doze. Then she administered the lethal dose. She slipped the syringe into the body bag, zipped it up, and rolled Charley’s body into the grave. She spent an hour shoveling dirt back into the hole. She smoothed it over as best she could, dragged a sheet of plywood over the loose dirt, and laid an old rug over the plywood. She stomped down on the rug to flatten the soil.

A tear rolled down her cheek as she mounted the stairs.

A day later Betty reported Charley missing.

Now, nine years later, Betty will never move from her home. And her Charley.


shortfiction24 – i’m glad he’s gone

Donna Sykes tells the priest presiding at her teen son’s service, “I’m glad he’s gone.”

A boy’s love of his car brings a dark cloud over the people in his life.

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I’m Glad He’s Gone

Bob Gillen

The gray-haired priest stood in front of the closed casket in the crowded funeral home.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…”

The mourners picked up the prayer. “The Lord is with thee…”

Donna Sykes sat alone in the front row. She wore a gray business suit. A dark shade, just short of black. Her lips moved to the prayer, but no sound came out of her mouth. No tears were visible.

The priest finished the prayers, made the sign of the cross over the casket, took off his purple stole, and turned to the woman.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Sykes.”

“Thank you.”

“The Lord will help you find strength to get through this. Losing a son, a teen son on the cusp of life,  is a deep tragedy.”

Donna grimaced. “You know something, Father? I’m glad he’s gone. I had no control over him any more.”

The priest took a step back.  Blinked away his surprise.    

Donna turned away from him. Several mourners stepped forward to speak with her.

The priest nodded to some of the mourners as he headed for the exit.

Two teen girls, one on crutches, entered the back of the room. They both wore black dresses. The one on crutches had a navy blue paisley bandanna over her head, partially covering several gauze bandages and tape. They sat down in the back row.

“Donna, I’m so sorry. You must be going through hell.” A woman in black, a small black veil over her head, rosary beads wrapped tightly around one hand, took Donna’s hand. A few tears rolled down her cheek. Donna whispered, “Thank you.”

“And that flower display,” the woman pointed to an enormous spray of flowers near the head of the casket, “it’s so beautiful.”

“My company sent it,” Donna said.

The woman then moved around Donna and knelt in front of the casket. She crossed herself and mumbled a prayer.

After the mourners had greeted Donna and moved back to their seats, the girl in the back rose, hoisted herself on her crutches, and hobbled up to the front row. All eyes in the room followed her. Someone whispered, “She’s the one who was with him…in the car.”

The girl looked to Donna Sykes. No words came out of her mouth. She simply stared at Donna.

Donna patted the chair next to her. The girl sat down, her crutches stretched out in front of her.

“How are you feeling, Rosemary?” Donna asked.

Tears welled up in the girl’s eyes. “Okay, I guess. Doctors say my leg will be healed in a month or so.”

Donna looked over her shoulder, said in a low voice, “I just told the priest I was glad he was gone…I couldn’t control him any more.”

Rosemary drew back. “Did you really mean that?”

“In a way, yes. I had no influence on him at all. He did whatever he wanted to.”

Rosemary sat silent. 

“That car,” Donna continued in a low voice. “He worked his ass off to buy the car and pay for the insurance. I wanted him to save his money for college.”

“He loved the car,” Rosemary said. “It was his whole world… I think he loved it more than he loved me.”

“And me. Yeah, I get that.”

Donna took Rosemary’s hand.  “How did the accident happen? The police told me nothing.”

Rosemary said, “We were down on Shore Road. Just cruising. A guy in a GTO pulled up next to us at a red light. He revved his engine. Jesse did the same. When the light turned green we both took off. A car backed out of a driveway. Jessie swerved to avoid the car and slammed into a tree.”

Donna said, “It’s a miracle you survived.”

“I put my hand on his arm just before we took off, to keep him from racing. He shrugged me off. It was the last thing he did. I didn’t know he was gone till I woke up in the hospital.”

Rosemary hesitated. “He loved you. He was so proud of buying his car. He wanted to take you for a drive. He said you were never around.”

Donna nodded. “I was entertaining clients almost every night. Selling ad space is a tough business.”

A tear finally worked its way down Donna’s cheek. “For me that car stood in the way of Jesse’s future. He wouldn’t talk about college at all. Shut me down every time I brought it up.”

Donna wept openly now. She gripped Rosemary’s hand. “I’m alone now…and I will miss him.”

Rosemary reached her arm around Donna’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth…I’m here.”

Donna dug a tissue out of her purse and wiped her eyes. “It’s worth a lot..”


shortfiction24 – a meditation lost

The grinding of a landscaper’s wood chipper conjures images of horror movies in Carl’s mind as he attempts to do a morning meditation.

Everyone who meditates can appreciate how distraction seeps in to destroy the moment. Enjoy the story.

A Meditation Lost

Bob Gillen

Carl sits in the center of his living room in the early morning hours. Sun streams in through the east-facing patio sliders. He feels the warmth on his bare feet. Enjoys the light splashing over the floor and furniture. Appreciates the early silence.

He closes his eyes, takes five slow breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Carl breathes in the vanilla-scented candle burning at his side.

Becoming aware of his body, he starts at the head, the eyes, the jaw and neck. He feels tension there. Always tension in the jaw. He tries to release it. Not happening. Not yet.

Carl extends his awareness down through his torso. He pauses to acknowledge his heart. His constant companion. He calls on his heart for an attitude of openness and gratitude. He directs his awareness down until he can sense his feet planted firmly on the floor. More deep breaths. A feeling of warmth and openness quivers within him.

A loud droning pulls him out of the moment. From the upstairs condo unit a vacuum cleaner starts up. Grinding, sliding back and forth, back and forth. He tries to acknowledge the sound, be aware without judgement, without distraction. But he feels warmth and openness seeping out of him. 

Carl hangs in, calls on loving kindness, until the vacuum motor finally turns off. Silence again. He focuses on his breath once more. Inhale. Exhale.

Moments later another whining noise jolts him, this one off in the distance, yet stronger, louder, than the vacuum cleaner. The sound of a landscaper’s chain saw. Tree trimers. A wood chipper joins the noise. Chattering as the machine grinds leaves and branches.

Carl struggles to envision a peaceful place. A walk on a deserted beach. His feet nestled in the warm sand. A gentle breeze caressing his face. Anything to move his mind beyond the wood chipper sound. He focuses on his breath. Inhale. Exhale. 

Carl’s mind wanders. The chipper’s grinding conjures up images of horror movies. Victims tossed into chippers. Piercing screams. Bodies torn apart. Blood spraying everywhere.

Carl opens his eyes. One long deep breath. So much for meditating today.


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