Healing through story

Month: April 2024

shortfiction24 the coffin on the ferry

Two teens, Meg and Ivy, chase down a van carrying a coffin that they spied on a ferry. They find unexpected answers.

Enjoy the story.

The Coffin on the Ferry

Bob Gillen

Meg stood next to her friend Ivy at the front of the car deck on the steamship heading for Nantucket Island. A strong breeze carried the scent of ocean and beach as it tossed her hair into knots.

Ivy wore faded red shorts and a yellow polo. Meg had a white tee over tan shorts.

“This is awesome,” she said to Ivy. “You do this every summer?”

“Yup. My parents have a standing reservation, the last week in June, the first in July.”

“Thanks for bringing me along.” She brushed her hair back out of her face. “Can we do a selfie?”

“Sure.” Ivy pulled her sunglasses off.

Meg held her camera phone at arm’s length. 

“Last year I was alone with my folks. So boring.”

“Do you know any kids here?”

“A few. Most of them change from year to year.”

The steamship began its turn around Brant Point and edged toward Steamship Wharf.

“When we leave,” Ivy said, “we toss a penny overboard at Brant Point to make sure we come back again.”

They saw crowds mobbing the wharf. Some lined up for the return trip to Hyannis. Others eagerly awaited incoming family and guests.

“Look,” Meg said. “A bunch of people are wearing shorts like yours.”

“Nantucket reds,” Ivy said. “We need to get you a pair.”

Passengers from the upper deck of the ferry began descending to the car deck and getting into their cars. Ivy and Meg moved towards Ivy’s parents’ SUV. Meg stopped. “Check this out.”

She took a picture of a decal in the rear window of a white van. How’s my driving? Call 1-800-EAT SHIT. “This is seriously cool. I need one for my dad’s car.” 

Ivy peeked closely. The window tinting peeled back at bit.

“Look,” she said, pointing Meg to the window.

“That’s a coffin,” Meg said.

“Looks like it.”

Meg shivered. “Let’s go.”

Before they climbed into their SUV, Meg said, “My grandma died last fall. Before Thanksgiving. I went with my parents to the service. It was an open casket. I freaked out. Went back to the car and sat there till it was over.”

“I would have done the same.”

 As they drove off the ferry and into the town’s streets, Ivy pointed. “There goes your decal.” The white van had turned away from town. Her parents were too preoccupied with avoiding pedestrians to take note of her comment.

They found their rental house and unloaded their luggage.  Ivy’s mom walked to the town’s only market for supper fixings. Cold cuts and salads for the first night. She bought steaks and fresh corn to grill the next night.

After dinner Ivy and Meg walked back to the wharf to get ice cream cones. 

“I love vanilla bean,” Ivy said. Meg’s cone had peanut butter and marshmallow piled on top of chocolate.

They wandered the streets, dodging tourists and what seemed like thousands of children.

“We can hit Mitchell’s to browse books tomorrow,” Ivy said. “Let’s find a bench and watch the tourists go by.”

They sat near a parked pickup with two golden retrievers sitting in the back, staring at their cones.

Later, as the sun dropped in the west, they strolled through a few quiet streets off Main Street. Ivy directed Mag’s attention to several historic sites.

She gestured to a large white house across the street. “That looks like the van you spotted on the ferry. See? Up the driveway.”

“It’s dark. Let’s get closer.” Meg dashed over and started up the driveway before Ivy could object.

The girls walked over a bed of crushed clam shells, stepping quietly up to the van. Sure enough, it was the one with the decal.

Meg peered in through the gap in the tinting material. “The light is bad, but I can’t see a coffin.”

“The coffin is in the house.”

Meg and Ivy jumped at the voice. They whirled around to see an old woman holding on to a railing at the foot of a stairway. She wore a faded floral housecoat, flipflops, her white hair up in a knot.

“You scared us,” Ivy said.

“The feeling is mutual,” the woman said. “I saw you from my window as you crept up my driveway.”

“We’re sorry to bother you. I saw the decal. I think it’s really cool.”

“Ah, yes. The van belongs to my son. He has a clear penchant for the crude.”

“We should go,” Ivy said, nudging Meg.

“Since your curiosity has carried you this far, why don’t you come in and see why I have the coffin?” Without waiting for a reply, the woman started up the stairs.

“Well, come on,” the woman said, as the girls hesitated. “I’m not an old witch.”

Meg followed the woman. Ivy held back. Meg waved her on.

Inside, the woman passed through a large kitchen, an enormous bowl of purple hydrangeas on a worn table. They passed through into a dining room. Only a single lamp cast a yellow light over the room. Meg peered into the dim space. “Oh.”

Next to a long mahogany dining table a pine coffin lay spread across two chairs.

A man, shaved head and a long beard, was screwing the lid down on the coffin. He looked up.

“I see our two nosy friends found us.”

“I would prefer to call them curious,” the woman said.

“I saw them nosing around the back of my van on the ferry.”

Meg spoke up, trying to avoid looking at the coffin. “The decal. I thought it was cool. I want to get one for my dad.”

The woman shook her head. “Now, there’s no point in continuing the crudity, is there?”

Meg shrugged.

“Why do you have a coffin?” Ivy asked.

“Tell them, Mom,” the man said.

“Come in the kitchen,” she said. “More pleasant than this room.”

In the kitchen the woman and the two girls sat at the scarred table. “I would offer you iced tea or lemonade – it’s what an old lady does, right?”

The girls nodded. 

“However, my routine has been disrupted of late. Please forgive me.”

“It’s okay,” Meg said. She shivered as she glanced back towards the dining room. 

A tear worked its way down the woman’s cheek.

“My sister is in the box.”

Meg glanced at Ivy. “We need to go.”

“Please wait a moment,” the woman said. “You see, my sister, her name is Abigail, she came to visit me last week. Two mornings ago she died in her sleep. She would have been ninety-one in August.”

“Sorry,” Meg said.

“It was her time.”

The woman held up a hand. “Please forgive me. I have not introduced myself. My name is Martha Lou. I have lived here for over thirty years. Abigail spent summers with me for the last ten years, since her husband passed.”

Meg managed a weak smile. “I’m Meg. This is my friend Ivy.”

“A pleasure to meet you. My two Nancy Drew friends.”

The man entered the kitchen. “Finished, Mom.”

Martha Lou said, “This is my son Richard. He built the coffin for me.”

“I’m a carpenter,” he said. “I live off island outside of Boston. Near aunt Abigail. Mom asked me to help.”

Meg frowned. “Why not bury Abigail here?”

“Ah. Excellent question. The island’s undertaker – Frank Clancy – is a prig…and a crook. He would charge me quite a bit of money for an island funeral and burial.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Richard brought a body bag with the coffin. Abigail is now sealed in the coffin. He’ll drive her back to her home tomorrow. I’ll ride in with him.”

“But how will you do a burial there?”

“The local funeral director is an old family friend. I already called him to be ready for Abigail.”

Richard said, “I have a standby reservation for tomorrow to get the van on the ferry. It’s a busy time for them.”

“I can call my friend at the ferry office.”

“No, Mom. Let’s not call attention to what we’re doing.”

Meg nudged Ivy. “We should go.”

Martha Lou stood. “I need your word that you will keep our secret.”

Both girls nodded. “No worries,” Meg said. “Again, we’re sorry for your loss.”

They stood and headed for the door. Richard said, “I’d be more comfortable if you would delete those photos from your phone.”

Meg opened her phone and deleted the pictures. She held it up for Richard to see.


“And, since you’re here, I could use help getting the coffin to my van. It’s dark enough that no one should see us.”

“Oh, my folks will be expecting us,” Ivy said.

Meg wrapped her arms around her body. Shivered.

“It will only take a minute,” Richard said.

“You would be doing a kindness for our Abigail,” Martha Lou said.

Richard picked up the head end of the coffin while Ivy and Meg grabbed the foot end. Martha Lou held the back door open. Meg stared at the box. There’s a dead body in there

“I’ve never been this close to a dead body,” Meg said.

Martha Lou touched Meg’s shoulder. “There’s a time for everything.”

They hauled the coffin down the steps and slid it into the van. The darkness veiled their activity.

As Richard closed the van doors, Ivy said, “We really should be going.”

“Wait one moment,” Martha Lou said. She reached into the pocket of her housecoat and took out a silver bangle bracelet.

“This belonged to Abigail. She had trouble wearing it lately. Her wrists were too thin. I want you two to take it. You can share the bangles. There are six in all.”

She handed the bracelet to Meg.

“We shouldn’t.” 

“Oh, but I insist. You will be carrying Abigail’s memory farther than I or Richard can.”

Meg took the bangles. She handed three to Ivy.

“I will be off island for several days for Abigail’s burial. But I would be pleased if you rang my bell before you finish your vacation. We can share a proper lemonade and homemade cookies.”

Richard nodded to the girls. Martha Lou leaned forward and touched her cheek to Meg and to Ivy’s faces. “Thank you.”

As Ivy and Meg walked back towards Main Street, Meg slipped the bangles on her wrist. She wiggled them at Ivy. “Don’t tell me this stuff happens to you every summer.”

Ivy laughed, shook her head. “Only since you arrived, Nancy Drew.”


shortfiction24 – enough of self-pity

Sally lost her husband two years ago. She’s slipping into finding solace in a bottle of scotch.

Enjoy the story.

Enough of Self-Pity

Bob Gillen

Sally eased her Subaru into the carport and carried coffee and a bag of bagels to the house. Her headache throbbed. Too much Johnny Walker Black last night. Her mistake – watching an episode of Jesse Stone on TV. In the story Stone had settled into his worn leather chair in his secluded beach house at the end of the day, his dog at his side. Stone told himself one drink was enough. Half a bottle later he fell asleep in the chair till morning. 

Life imitates art. Sally had done the same. 

Her drinking came too easy. Easy to enjoy. Easy to excuse. It had been two years since she lost Vaughn, her husband of forty years. Since then two more years of continuing to avoid alcohol, as she and Vaughn had promised each other years back. Enough alcoholism in our families, they had both agreed.

Sitting one night in front of the TV, watching a musical movie Vaughn had loved, Sally had broken into tears. A thought wormed its way into her mind. Why go on avoiding drinking? Vaughn is gone. What does it matter any more? 

The result – two drinks every night. Until she knocked off half a bottle last night.

Sally opened the front door and put the coffee and bagels on the kitchen counter. She took a few gulps of the coffee. Cleared her head for a moment. She moved to the living room and opened the patio blinds. 

“Hi, Sally.”

“Holy shit!” She clenched her hands into fists. Whirled around to find the voice.

“Vaughn?” A whisper.

A man sitting in her chair nodded.

Sally shook her head, blinked her eyes hard.

“Not possible. You died. Two years ago.”

“I came back.”

“How? Why?”

“Move away from the window. You’re backlit. I can’t see your face.”

Sally slid over to the couch and sat.

She saw that Vaughn was wearing jeans and his usual faded polo that still hung in his closet. The closet she had not yet cleared out.

“This isn’t possible. You were cremated. You’re dead. How?”

“Sally, I had to talk to you.”

“What? I’m dreaming, right?”

“I only get to do this once, Sally. Listen carefully.”

“Vaughn, you sound so business-like. It’s me. Sally. Your wife.” She leaned forward on the couch.

“I am limited by how much emotion I can bring to this visit. It’s real, but it isn’t.”

Sally again shook her head in disbelief.

“Sally, you’ve been drinking.”

“Is that what this is all about? A few drinks?”

“Your father was a nasty drunk. So was mine. We stopped drinking to avoid that for ourselves.”

Vaughn sat still, did not move to gesture or point. His face was almost expressionless.

“Enough, Sally. Stop before you get in too deep.”

“But it’s only me now. Who am I going to hurt?”


“Come on, Vaughn. You came back only to tell me this? To stop having a couple of drinks at the end of my day?”

Vaughn gave an almost unseen nod.

Sally jumped up from the couch and stared out at the patio. She ran her hands through her hair. She laughed. “Vaughn, my coffee is getting cold. Can I warm it up while we keep talking?”

No reply. Sally turned. 

The chair was empty. No Vaughn. 

She shuddered, hugged herself. Am I hallucinating?

She approached the chair. Patted the cushions. Ran her hands over the arms. 



She dashed to the bedroom, looked in the closet. The polo Vaughn had worn still hung there, dust on its shoulders.

Sally edged back to the kitchen. She warmed her coffee in the microwave. Sliced and buttered a bagel.

Sitting in her chair, coffee and bagel in hand, a half-smile crept across her face. 

She set the food aside, returned to the kitchen. She pulled a half-empty bottle of scotch out of the cabinet. 

She watched the contents gurgle down the sink drain.


© 2024 Bob Gillen

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