Author: Bob Gillen (Page 1 of 16)

shortfiction24

Death By Millstone

What I’m Writing

I am a few weeks late posting here. It took longer than usual to get this story right. I hope you enjoy it.

Reader caution: possible trigger regarding abuse.

Death By Millstone

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin and Diane Somers sat in rickety aluminum beach chairs a few feet back from the water’s edge at Point Dume. Southern California at its finest. A sky that defined the word blue. An ocean that shimmered in the breeze like the sequins on a go-go dancer’s dress. 

Jack wore a pale yellow baseball cap, faded jeans and a black sweatshirt. She was in gray leggings and an oversize white Oxford shirt. Both were barefoot.

Jack reached down for his Starbucks blond Americano, the cup wedged in the sand. Diane sipped a bottled water. 

Seagulls squawked overhead. Jack breathed in the salt air. “This is nice.”

Point Dume. Credit: AllTrails.com

Diane smiled. “Blue skies and fresh air. The start of what could be a nice relationship.”

Jack choked, swallowed his coffee hard.

Diane put her hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Shit. I always put my foot in my mouth. Let me re-phrase that. This is the start of a nice morning together.”

Jack leaned back in his chair. “Better.”

“I had coffee once with a guy I met on a different dating app,” Diane said. “Not the one where you and I met. It was a decent conversation. We talked about our kids. About what airlines we used the most. About our surgeries. After twenty minutes he suddenly stood up, said, ’Thanks, but this isn’t going to work,’ and he walked out.”

“Ouch.” 

“Yeah.” She pointed her water bottle toward Jack. “I think when he realized I never had a hysterectomy, and he never had a vasectomy, he got scared and took off.”

Jack laughed. 

Diane reached over and touched his arm. “Relax. Let’s just enjoy the beach together. No expectations.”

“That works for me.”

She sipped her water. “What kind of books do you like to read?” she asked.

“Mostly mystery and thriller. Some general fiction. You?”

“Contemporary fiction. Some biographies. A few romance novels thrown in, but I need to be in the mood.”

“What mood is that?” Jack stretched his legs out in the sand.

“Well…when I’m in an optimistic frame of mind. Then happily ever after makes sense. Most days, though, I’m not terribly hopeful.”

“Been burned?”

Diane blinked, reached down for a small picnic sack. “How about a snack?”

She pulled out a few containers with fruit slices, cheese bites, pretzels.

“Hey, thanks. I’ll try a pretzel.”

She grabbed two apple slices.

Jack said, “Last night I got fifty pages into a new thriller novel – an author I never read before. And I tossed it.”

“Boring?”

“No. Same old shit. A serial killer. A guy, of course, a long distance trucker, targets women at truck stops.”

“And?”

“And I am sick of crime stories where a guy targets vulnerable women and children as victims. The concept is so played out.”

 Diane nodded slightly. “Yeah, I get that.”

The ocean breeze picked up. Jack reversed his cap to keep it from blowing off. Diane’s shirt fluttered in the breeze.

“Okay, enough on books. What about travel? Do you travel much?”

Diane brightened. “Whenever I can. I love to fly. Last month I went to Cabo again. My fourth time. My first time alone.”

“Never been there.”

“But you’ve been to Mexico, right? Other beaches?”

Jack shook his head. “I went to Tijuana once…for about an hour.”

Diane smiled. “Don’t tell me…a quick lay.”

I embarrassed you.

Jack felt his face redden. “No. Just to say I had been there.”

“I embarrassed you.”

“No…yeah, a bit, I guess.” He grinned.

“Why bother? I mean, why go only to say you were there?”

Jack grabbed a handful of pretzels.

“You say you like to fly. Well, I don’t. But I will drive anywhere. Hitting Mexico was part of a cross-country road trip I did with a couple of buddies, years back. Many years back.”

“That sounds like a cool adventure. Was one of the buddies named Charley?”

Jack looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh, I get it. Steinbeck.”

She smiled.

“It was a long time ago. We were native New Yorkers. Nick, Gene, me. The road trip was one last guy thing before we all got settled in our careers and our lives.”

Diane stood up. “Leave the chairs and snacks here. Let’s walk. Tell me your road trip story.”

Jack stood, wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. “This comes with me.”

The two walked east along the beach, the surf slapping gently on the sand to their right, the breeze playing on their faces.

Jack sipped his coffee. “I haven’t thought about this in a long time.”

“A good memory, though?”

“Mostly. We left from New York, drove west on I-80, hit Reno, down through Tahoe to San Francisco. Then down the California coast to San Diego…man, was Tahoe beautiful!”

“And Tijuana,” Diane quipped.

Jack nodded. “Return trip past the Grand Canyon, then I-70 through the midwest to home.”

Jack chuckled. “You’re not from the mid-west, are you?”

“Born and bred right here.”

“Okay, good. On the drive home we stopped at an upscale restaurant in Kansas City for dinner. Looking for a good mid-west steak. I told the waitress, in my lousy French accent, we wanted a bottle of red wine, Saint-Émilion. She stared at me, said they didn’t stock that. Then her eyes widened. ‘Oh, you mean,’ and she said in her best flat mid-western accent, ‘St. Emilion.’”

New York snobs.

“New York snobs,” Diane said.

“You got it.”

“It sounds like a trip you’d never forget.”

“Yeah, well…”

The shadow of a lone seagull crossed the sand in front of Jack as it passed in front of the sun. 

“What?”

Jack kicked at the damp sand. “The trip was fine. It’s only after…”

“Do you not want to talk about it?”

“It’s okay.”

He sipped the last of his Americano as they walked.

“The other guys made their lives in New York. My wife and I moved out here. We lost touch. They’re both dead now. Nick a heart attack maybe fifteen years ago, I heard. The other guy, Gene…also a heart attack…shortly after he was arrested.”

“Arrested?” Diane stopped walking. Looked at Jack.

“Yeah. He was a predator. A child abuser.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah, shit is right. I only found out about him recently. When there was so much press about the abusers in the Catholic church, in the Scouts, other organizations. I was reading an article and saw his name.”

Diane turned to stare out at the ocean. “Was he…?”

“Was he an abuser when we took the road trip?”

“Yes.”

“I think so. I’ll never know, of course, but the paper said his crimes went way back. He often took the kids – his victims – camping.”

Diane gripped her water bottle hard.

“We did the trip in Gene’s car, an enormous Chevy Impala. And we carried camping gear. We camped maybe half the nights on the trip.”

Jack shuddered. “Fuck, I never thought of this before. We could have been sleeping in the same tent he used with the kids.” He stopped, sat down in the sand. Stared out at the ocean.

Diane sat next to him.

Jack took the lid off his empty coffee cup, scooped sand into the cup, dumped it out. He did this for a while, scooping, dumping, scooping. 

Diane sat in silence.

“Jesus,” Jack said. “He should burn in hell for what he did to those children.” He crushed the cup in his hand, jammed the lid into the cup.

Diane whispered, “Speaking of Jesus, maybe all the guy can hope for now is forgiveness.”

Jack turned to Diane, shook his head violently. “No! I’m not much of a religious guy any more, but I do remember Jesus saying, if you hurt the children, you should have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown in the sea.”

Diane nodded. “Yeah, he did say that. He also talked about loving everyone…”

“No. There’s no wiggle room there. You hurt kids, you die.”

“Do you think he was a tortured soul?”

“Seriously?” Jack pulled his ankles up to sit cross-legged. “A tortured soul? What about the tortured souls he left in his wake?”

They fell into a long silence. Both stared out at the ocean. They watched sandpipers run back and forth at the water’s edge, dodging each wave. Wave after wave hit the shore, disappeared in the sand, made way for the next one. 

Finally, “How did I not see it?”

Diane said nothing.

Jack ran sand through his fingers. 

“Was I blind? I mean, we knew each other. We were already in the jobs that marked our careers. Nick was studying for the bar in New York. Gene got his degree and was teaching elementary school in an underserved neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was engaged, planned to get married six months later. Shit, I was so naive.”

“What if you knew? What would you have done?”

“I would have turned him in.”

“He was your friend.”

“A buddy, yeah, but not a real friend. No friend does things like that.”

Jack brushed sand off the leg of his pants. “You know what’s ironic? Nick was a lawyer. I heard he worked for a firm that specialized in getting justice for abused children.”

“He represented the victims,” Diane said.

Jack nodded. “I wonder if that’s what got him. What caused his heart attack. Knowing what he knew.”

Diane drew up her knees, wrapped her arms around her legs.

Jack dug his heels into the warm sand. “Nick tolerated no bullshit. I’m guessing he would have thought, like me, predators should all burn in hell. These bastards preyed on vulnerable children. Stole their youth, ruined their lives for all their remaining years. And Nick would have known that these were not crimes of passion.”

Jack began tearing pieces off the crushed cup in his hand. “The bastards planned everything. Selected victims. Worked them and their families. Calculated all the abuse. Premeditated. Over and over.”

so many times there’s no happily ever after

Diane said, “Like I said earlier, so many times there’s no happily ever after.”

Jack picked up the pieces of his mangled coffee cup. “Let’s head back.”

They stood. Diane said, “Shit, I can sure clear a room on a first date, huh?”

Jack shrugged. “The last few years, it has always bugged me that I did that road trip with a guy who turned out to be a predator. How could I have done that?”

As they walked back to their beach chairs, Jack said, “Before the road trip I had bought a whole box of cigars. Garcia y Vega Bravuras. We smoked them at every campsite after supper. One night we were smoking at our campfire. Gene walked off to take our trash to a dumpster. On the way back, he stopped at the neighboring campsite to chat with a family that had two boys. Nick had to yell over to him to come back and leave them alone.”

“You think Nick knew?”

“Nick was smart. Street smart… If he did suspect something, he never let on.”

“And here you are, so many years later, walking a beach, trying to make sense of it.”

“Yeah. No offense, but with a woman I just met an hour ago.” He turned to Diane. “You’re a good listener.”

She smiled, nodded.

They reached their chairs. Jack tossed his crushed and torn cup down in the sand. 

Gulls screeched high overhead. Diane caught Jack’s eyes. “I could listen more if you wish.”

“Let’s sit and enjoy the ocean for a while,” he said. “Maybe happy can be one moment without worrying about ever after.”

***

shortfiction24

A Hard Frost

A reminder that my Mannequin Monday blog is now reborn as shortfiction24. I explain it all here.

What I’m Writing

This week’s story is inspired by a photo my brother Jim posted to his Facebook page last week. He titled it “Hard Frost on the Hydrangea.” It sparked the following story. I share it for your enjoyment. A short bite to read on the bus or subway, before bedtime, even on the toilet.

A Hard Frost

Bob Gillen

Christine sucked in the chill morning air as she ran her daily five miles. First day with the temps slipping below the freeze mark. The rising sun smeared the eastern sky with color, pushing away the stars, promising a warmer day. 

Christine ran hard this morning. Fueled by anger. An anger that made her sweat pants and hoodie almost too warm. She pounded along the asphalt road, dodging a few raccoons still picking over the trash cans at the curb.

Her thoughts would not let last night go. She and her husband had watched their favorite football team lose a critical game. The defense collapsed. The quarterback had been sacked. Twice. They carried him off the field with a probable sprained ankle. Christine had said, “They can put ice on the ankle.”

Gavin, her husband, had snorted. “He needs to keep playing. The team needs him.”

Christine had retorted, “You’re an ER doc. You know he needs treatment.”

And Gavin had said through clenched teeth, “Real players play hurt.”

“You can’t believe that.”

“Do you know how many people I treat who just need to suck it up and keep going? A few stitches or a taped up wrist and they go out on medical leave.”

Both had gone to bed pissed. Gavin left early for his shift. Christine ran.

As her mind rehashed last night’s fight, she failed to see the handful of broken stones in the street. Her left foot slammed down on a chunk of stone, dropping her to her knees. She stood, brushed at the road dirt on her knees, attempted to run. Pain shot through her left foot. She limped across the sidewalk to a park bench.

She slipped off her sneaker, rubbed at the bruise on the bottom of her foot. Nothing broken, nothing bleeding. But it sure hurt like hell. She put the sneaker back on immediately and laced it tight.

Let me rest it for a minute, she thought. No need to push it. She heard her husband’s voice in her head. Real players play hurt. Fuck that, she thought. 

Christine shivered on the cold bench. She stretched her limbs to keep from freezing up. As she rotated her neck, she spied a bouquet of flowers lying next to the bench. Hydrangeas. A pale purple, tinged with darker edges. And frost laced across the flowers. She picked up a card laying in the grass next to the bouquet. I love you forever, it read in green ink. She dropped the card back in its place.

Credit: Jim Gillen

“You can keep the flowers if you want.” The voice startled her. Where was the situational awareness her dad the cop had drilled into her since she was a tiny kid. She looked up to see a young man approaching, trailing footprints on the frost-covered grass. He wore wrinkled tan chinos, grass stains on the knees. A dress shirt with an open cardigan sweater, shoes coated with dirt. The man had stubble, disheveled dark hair, a haunted look in his eyes.

Christine stood, ready to run despite her injured foot. 

“Relax, I’m cool.” The man drew nearer. She saw his eyes were red and swollen.

“I gave that bouquet to my girlfriend last night.” He pointed. “Right here on this bench. Hydrangeas. Her favorite flower. She always talked about having them for her wedding bouquet.”

“Oh.” Christine sat down again as the man sagged down near her on the bench.

“I proposed last night.” The man pulled a ring box out of his pocket, opened it to show Christine a one carat oval stone in a simple setting. 

“That’s a lovely ring,” she told him. 

“She laughed last night when I opened the box. She wouldn’t even try it on. Is that the best you can do? she told me.”

“Wow. Cruel.”

“Yeah. I’ve been pacing around the park all night. She actually walked home by herself.” He shrugged. “I guess I should have seen it coming. She was champagne to my beer budget.”

Christine leaned over and picked up the bouquet. She twirled it in her fingers. Frost covered the petals, sparkled in the rising sun.

The man laughed. “Fitting, isn’t it? Frost on her bouquet?”

“I can’t say anything to console you,” Christine said, “but look at it this way. You saved a lot of money on a pricey wedding.”

The man laughed, nodded. “She would have run me into the ground with her tastes.”

He gestured to the flowers. “I’m serious. Take them home. The sun will melt the frost off them. They’ll be good as new.”

Christine stood, tilting to favor the bruise on her foot.

“You okay?” the man asked.

“Bruised my foot on a stone in the road.”

“I didn’t realize you were hurt. Thought you were just resting.”

The man noted the rings on Christine’s left hand. “I see you said yes to your guy.”

Christine snorted. “After last night I’m not so sure.”

The man nodded. “But you cared enough to say yes.”

She shrugged. “Yeah. We both said yes.” 

 He stood. “My car is there at the curb. Let me drive you home.”

“No, no. I’ll be fine.”

“I insist. You cheered me up a bit. I’m grateful.”

Christine hesitated.

“It’s okay. I’m no perv.”

Christine limped to a green Toyota Prius. 

As they settled into the car, the man said, “I’m a copywriter. But I write novels on the side.”

“That’s cool.”

“I think I found my next title. A Hard Frost on the Hydrangea.”

Christine laughed. “I’ll watch for it. I love a good romance.”

The man said, “No happy ever after in my story.”

Christine paused. “You know what? Can you drive me to the ER?”

“Sure. It’s actually on my way.”

“My husband works there. I need to see him.”

“You want to give that foot some attention?”

“Just the opposite. Give him and me some attention… Real players play hurt.”

***

What I’m Reading

I am about a hundred words into Kathleen Glasgow’s new book, You’d Be Home Now. I am a huge fan of her first two, especially Girl in Pieces. All her books are classed as Young Adult but read well for adults too. Her characters come alive on the pages. More comments next week when I finish the book.

What I’m NOT Listening To

Christmas music!

***

Mannequin Monday: Reborn

shortfiction24

Only Dead Fish Swim with the Current

An apt quote from Ernest Hemingway. When I focused my blog on short fiction well over a year ago, I had thought the title “Mannequin Monday” was a clever takeoff on “Manic Monday.” Every week words would drape the bare mannequin, clothing it in story. I added quirky mannequin photos to supplement each post. I have certainly enjoyed posting to it weekly. But “Mannequin Monday” has evolved into an ill-fitting name.

I have re-designed my blog to reflect more accurately my writing interests, my author identity. I now term it shortfiction24

I’ve been a presence on the internet for 12 years. I started with my filmmaker site in late 2009, added a blog about storytelling (now merged into the filmmaker site), then developed my current blog, this one my author site. I’ve also written a handful of non-fiction and fiction books in that time.

In those 12 years I have seen many of my original internet interviewees and connections change their online identities, their site logos, their purposes. Some simply moved from one social media outlet to another. Others have changed careers or even disappeared from the internet. 

For a time I found it puzzling how they all changed, thinking it displayed inconsistency. But recently I am realizing how normal this is. Change is normal. Stuck in a time warp is not.

Maria Popova has re-titled her popular Brain Pickings newsletter, now calling it Marginalian. “Becoming the Marginalian: after 15 years, Brain Pickings reborn.” Popova says that many things in life are beyond our control. “But amid our slender repertoire of agency are the labels we choose for our labors of love — the works of thought and tenderness we make with the whole of who we are.”

an ill-fitting name

She further says, “As we evolve — as we add experiences, impressions, memories, deepening knowledge and self-knowledge to the combinatorial pool from which all creative work springs — what we make evolves accordingly; it must, if we are living widely and wisely enough.” Her realization: Brain Pickings had evolved into “an ill-fitting name.” Time for change, for growth.

I once interviewed a Dutch video journalist named Ruud Elmendorp, who has covered Africa for various news services for many years. Ruud is now beginning a new journey filming from a large ship as it roams the Mediterranean Sea searching for immigrants in need of rescue. He has been posting video and his personal thoughts as he begins this journey, seeking a new purpose.

book cover for Keep It Moving, by Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp, in her book Keep It Moving, talks of growing and changing as we age. Of not being stuck in the past. She says, “Your objective is to free yourself to be whatever and whoever you need to be right now.”

I am seeing changes in my own identity and purpose. For years I wrote non-fiction. The move to writing fiction was difficult. Still is. I have now further evolved (at least for the moment!) from writing full length novels to focusing on short fiction. Writing a novel, and then trying to market said novel, is quite difficult. And time-consuming.

I have come to enjoy writing short fiction. Hence the change in my blog from “Mannequin Monday” to shortfiction24. The 24 honors my wife Lynn, born on the 24th of one month, years ago, died on the 24th of another month, in 2020. The image of a cupcake is one of Lynn’s creations, drawn digitally to create a simple greeting card. The cupcake represents a small story bite.

Writing short fiction is, for me, perhaps an outgrowth of writing exercises for the writing courses I have taken in recent years. I’ve worked through three online MOOC courses with the International Writing Program (IWP) of the University of Iowa. Each course involved writing exercises. And I currently belong to a small writing group which is an offshoot of IWP alums. I have also taken a short course in journaling, again with short writing pieces as a daily requirement. 

just keep swimming…

I have evolved through many iterations in my lifetime, yet I believe I have remained rooted in who I am. None of my changes have been total disconnects. As Tharp says, “When making big choices in our lives, the best course is to recognize continuity in our intention. Thus we are neither repudiating nor repeating the past but, rather, respecting it as we move on.”

As Hemingway says, “Only dead fish swim with the current.” And as Disney’s Dory says, “Just keep swimming…swimming.” We keep moving. Always upstream, if we are alive.

My blog shortfiction24 will remain true to its core, storytelling. A new story will appear next week, and every week. And more discussion on storytelling.

I hope you continue to celebrate story with me. Thanks for loving story as I do. Storytelling makes the world go round.

***

Mannequin Monday – Pink Lady

What I’m Writing

I offer you another Halloween-themed story. Desmond dodges trick-or-treaters, and encounters a woman in scrubs at Harry’s Bar and Grill. A note of caution: mature content. Enjoy.

Pink Lady

Bob Gillen

Desmond flipped on his TV to a live ball game. A cold sixpack waited for him in the fridge. Pure heaven. With Frida out of town at a company sales meeting, there’d be no yapping about how she couldn’t find enough buyers to meet her quota. No whining about the terrible economy. 

The doorbell rang.

Who ever comes to our door? He raised himself off the recliner and opened the door. Four kids in a mix of store-bought costumes yelled, Trick or treat!

Aw shit. Halloween. He pulled loose change out of his pocket and divvied it up among the four. As soon as they left, he turned off the porch light, grabbed the remote and killed the TV, then blacked out the living room.

I can’t deal with this shit. They’ll be ringing the bell all night.

Desmond slipped out the back door into the chill night. His destination, Harry’s Bar and Grill. Actually, just Bar. The Grill menu consisted of a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread. For an extra buck you could get the Special, grilled cheese with pickle and mustard.

Harry snugged his collar around his neck. He decided to walk. Too many kids out tonight for him to risk driving while high. Even though he had no plan to come home till every kid was off the street.

Four blocks down and around the corner, he stepped into Harry’s. One glance told him this was a mistake. All the patrons wore costumes. The bartender spied Desmond, said, “Costumes required tonight, buddy.”

Desmond looked around the dim interior. A few open seats at the bar, most of the patrons sitting or standing in the center of the room. Everyone talking loudly. A few couples danced off to the side. His sports channel played on the TV over the bar. 

He turned to leave.

The bartender handed Desmond a faded pink baseball jacket with a monogramed L and a Red Sox cap. “Here, wear this. From lost and found. You got a costume now.”

Desmond slipped into the jacket. A size too small. The cap, a size too big. He looked around again. No one was looking at him. Dark enough in here. This might work, he thought.

He found a seat at the bar where he could see the TV without staring at neon beer signs. The bartender put a longneck in front of him. Ice cold. Okay, this is working.

Three innings later, bored to death by a scoreless game, Desmond ordered his sixth beer. A woman sat down on the stool to his right, partially blocking his view of the game. The woman wore blue hospital scrubs and a surgical mask, the mask pulled down under her chin. 

“I like your costume,” the woman said to Desmond. “You must have put a lot of work into it.” 

The bartender stepped in front of her. “What’ll it be tonight, Liz?”

“Scotch,” she answered, holding up three fingers horizontally.

“You got it.” The bartender pointed his index finger at her, stepped away.

Desmond looked at the woman. Reflection from the neon beer signs gave her eyes a sickly green color. He said, “What are you, a nurse?”

“Nurse? I detect a note of sexism there. No, I am a surgeon.”

“Coulda fooled me,” he said.

“Wouldn’t be hard, I’m guessing.”

Shit, who is this dame?

“Okay, Scrubs, you’re a surgeon. Big whoop.”

The bartender put Liz’s drink down. She sipped it slowly. Smiled. “Mother’s milk.”

Desmond pointed his longneck at Scrubs. “I get it. You’re a tough broad doctor from one of those old noir movies. The ones with cliché dialogue.”

“You got me there, buddy. A tough broad doctor.  Why don’t you drop your pants and cough for me?”

Desmond tried to swallow, gagged, his eyes tearing up.

“Wow, most guys would have their pants around their ankles by now,” she said.

Desmond wiped his face with a bar napkin. He felt redness creeping up from his neck to his forehead.

“You like this, don’t you?” she said, waving towards the crowded room. “You came here to ogle the girls.”

“Lady, I came here to dodge trick or treaters and watch a ball game.” 

Scrubs hoisted her glass in his direction, slid off the barstool and melted into the crowd. Desmond went back to watching the game.

The ball game dragged on into extra innings. Many extra innings. A single run finally ended the misery. 

Desmond signaled for another longneck. Too early to go home. Shrieks and laughs from the crowd pierced the room.

“Hey, pink lady.”

Desmond turned to the voice. He needed a second to focus. The surgeon in blue scrubs. 

Desmond fingered his borrowed jacket. Forgot I was wearing this. “Hey Scrubs. You still here?”

“Afraid so. Nobody to go home to.” She signaled for a refill.

“Yeah, me too. But that’s okay.”

“Oh?”

“You wouldn’t believe the yapping and yimmering I put up with.”

“The only whining I hear comes from my vacuum cleaner…when I use it. Doesn’t happen often.”

Getting near to closing time.

Scrubs lifted herself onto the empty seat next to Desmond. She gestured back towards the crowd. “Getting near to closing time. Desperation is rearing its ugly head.”

“Wait,” Desmond said. “If I took a drink for every cliché you came out with tonight, I’d be passed out by now.”

“Buddy, if you even recognized all my clichés, you’d have brain overload.”

Geez, she’s got a mouth. Change the topic.

Desmond said, “Looks like you come here often.”

“Score one cliché for the man in the pink jacket.”

Desmond shrugged. As the crowd screeched loudly, he managed a weak smile, “You’re not the only one with wit.”

The woman blinked, shook her head slowly. “You just call me a twit?”

Desmond laughed. “Wit. I said, wit.”

“Oh. Awful loud in here.” She waved the bartender over for another refill.

The bartender set the glass down. “You’re not driving tonight, are you, Liz?”

“I walked. I plan on getting home alive.”

She turned to Desmond, gestured to the crowd. “Closing time soon. Have you picked out who you’ll ask home yet?”

“Lady, I told you before. I came here to watch a game and dodge kids ringing my bell.”

“So you don’t want anyone ringing your bell?”

“Scrubs, your cliché score must be over a hundred by now.”

“Seriously, look at the women there on the dance floor. Who would you ask?”

“Them? Pathetic. One night a year they dress slutty and get away with it.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Most of those women are too old or too big to look sexy in those costumes.”

Scrubs smirked. “We all look the same when we’re standing on our heads.”

Desmond choked on his drink. He wiped beer off his mouth. “You got all the clever lines tonight, don’t you?”

“I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your server.”

Desmond took a last slug of his longneck, slid off the stool. He peeled off the pink jacket and hat, piled them on the bar.

“Another time, Scrubs. I hope you’re happy tonight with whoever picks the doc with all the lines.”

He stepped out into the night. Scrubs had it right. Nobody rings my bell.

What I’m Reading

I finished reading Drift, by L. T. Ryan , the first in a series of eight thrillers with main character Rachel Hatch. An enjoyable read. Refreshing – not quite the usual (trite) “gory serial killer preys on women or children” premise.

Hatch is ex-military, a wanderer after serving for 15 years on a slew of difficult and classified assignments. In Drift she works to find her twin sister’s killer. The author presents a compelling and authentic character, different enough from many other novel protagonists to be quite readable. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

***

And coming soon, a new format for this blog. Mannequin Monday will yield to a new title and logo. Sneak previews soon!

***

Mannequin Monday – The October Tree

What I’m Writing

In keeping with my October Halloween-themed stories, here’s one inspired in part by my friend Caroline. Maddie and Lyndie are two characters from my teen Film Crew series. This story serves as a kind of character study as I explore their personalities further. I hope you enjoy it.

The October Tree

Bob Gillen

Mid October. Fall descending into winter. Rain pelted the north-facing windows of Maddie Dela Riva’s house. Sodden gold and red leaves blanketed the backyard. 

Maddie hung a palm-sized pumpkin on a branch, stood back from the six-foot artificial tree standing in a corner of the living room. She smiled. Done.  

Winding around the tree was a long stream of narrow tatted lace, yellowed in more than a few places. A string of black-lit skull heads circled from top to bottom. Front and center hung a foot-long skeleton. Several smaller skeletons peered out from other branches. At almost eye level a puffy white ghost floated in a silent stare.

Miniature orange pumpkins followed the line of the tatted lace around the tree. A handful of glossy pine cones filled in the blank spaces on the tree.

Topping the tree, with a commanding view, a doll bedecked in black and white lace, black hair cascading down the sides of a skull face.

Maddie reached for her phone and snapped pictures of the tree from different angles. She texted her mom at work, sending her the pictures.

The doorbell rang. Maddie’s friend Lyndie Reed stepped in out of the rain. 

“Hey. Thanks for coming over.”

Lyndie shrugged out of her soaked parka.

Maddie smiled. “I just finished the tree.”

“Tree?” Lyndie peered over Maddie’s shoulder. “Way too early for Christmas decorations.”

Maddie stepped aside.

Lyndie’s eyes popped open. “Holy shit! What is that?”

She stepped closer, taking in the image before her.

“Girl, this is awesome!”

“You like it?”

“I love it. Do you do this every year?”

“The last two years…since my dad died.”

“Oh.”

Lyndie saw a tear roll down Maddie’s cheek.

“Hugs, girl.” She swallowed Maddie in an enormous hug.

Maddie stepped back. “My dad died on Halloween. Mom and I started this to honor him. You don’t think it’s weird, do you?”

“Weird? I love it.”

“My aunt, my dad’s sister, hates it. She thinks it’s creepy. Won’t come over till we take it down on November second.”

“November second?”

“All Souls Day.”

Lyndie looked down at the base of the tree. Black lace wrapped around the trunk. A black knit cat sat peering up. A large battered book titled “Witches” sat off to the right. And at the center, nestled in the lace, a white box with a raffia ribbon bow on top.

Lyndie pointed at the box. “You do Halloween gifts?”

“Dad’s ashes.”

“Oh…oh.” Lyndie paused. “I didn’t know you back then. Your dad’s not buried in a cemetery. He’s…”

“Here.”

Lyndie shuddered. She turned, sat down on the nearby couch. “I’m missing something.”

“Yeah?”

“Isn’t this a dark way to remember your dad? I mean, skeletons and witches and skulls…”

“My dad’s gone, Lyndie. He’s at peace.” Maddie waved her hand at the tree.

“The skeletons and skulls are for me and my mom… till we find our own peace.”

***

And don’t forget, I’ll be starting a new blog theme soon to replace the Mannequin Monday one. Stay tuned.

What I’m Reading

I’m bouncing from book to book this week, not able to keep focus for too long on anything. Last night I started Drift, a thriller by L.T. Ryan. Looks promising so far. I’ll let you know next week.

***

Mannequin Monday – James the Invisible

What I’m Planning

I am working on a redesign of this blog. I want to move away from the Mannequin Monday theme and make the tone more heartfelt. A bit warmer. More on the redesign next week.

I’ll continue posting a short short story every week, and maybe offer more thoughts on my reading and my journey as a writer/creative. As they say, watch this space.

What I’m Writing

Continuing the Halloween theme for this month, here’s a fun story I wrote about a boy and his new crush. Enjoy.

James the Invisible

Bob Gillen

James the Invisible sat in Science lab, partnered with Dawn, the curly haired redhead. Dawn, the only person he would shed his invisibility for. Dawn, who looked right through him. Dawn, who was currently crushing on Ian, at the lab station next to them.

James dubbed himself The Invisible. No one knew him. No one saw him. And he was fine with that. Until now.

Ian passed Dawn a note. James peered over Dawn’s shoulder at the note. Meet me in the pumpkin patch after school. I’ll buy you the biggest one they have.  Pumpkins. She likes pumpkins. 

That night James the Invisible waited quietly for his parents to fall asleep. His little brother snored blissfully. James pulled on a pair of jeans, a black hooded sweatshirt, and sneakers. Marker pens in several sizes and colors. A pocket knife with a four-finger blade. Ready. James slipped downstairs and out the kitchen door. 

A chill breeze ruffled his hair, the bit that hung out from under his hoodie. A harvest moon hung up there somewhere, hiding behind clouds. James walked briskly to Randall’s Farm, the town pumpkin patch. 

She had been here, he thought. Only a few hours ago. With that clown Ian. Ian wasn’t strong enough to lift a large pumpkin, much less carry it home to Dawn’s house. James thought himself smarter than Ian. He would not pick the largest pumpkin. Nope, he would go for beauty. For symmetry. The pumpkin with the best shape. Like Dawn. Graceful. Cool. A radiant kind of beauty.

Credit: Goodfon

James slipped into the pumpkin field at the far end of the property. Away from the barn and the dogs. Away from the lights. He treaded his way down rows and rows of pumpkins. All so-so. None stood out. A bad crop, he thought. Fit only for carving up. But no carving tool would touch James’s pumpkin. No, its beauty would stand out of its own accord.

A dog barked off in the distance. James froze. Waited. The moon remained behind clouds. Not much chance of it showing itself tonight.

James spied the pumpkin. Dawn’s pumpkin. Round, no blemishes or scratches on the surface. He pulled out his pocket knife and sliced off the vine, preserving a three-inch stem. A gentle curve to the stem. Like Dawn, he thought. All gentle curves. No blemishes, like some of the other girls at school. Perfect. 

James pulled a rag from his pocket, wiped the field dust off the pumpkin. It was a beauty. Perfectly round. Smooth. 

James pulled markers from his pocket. Began writing Dawn’s name on the pumpkin. On her pumpkin. DAWN, in a graceful script. Red letters with several green leaves for a flourish. The letters wrapped around half the pumpkin. James smiled.

He waited a few minutes for the marker ink to dry. He could not dare smudge this beauty. He checked his phone. After midnight. Time to move. He lifted the pumpkin carefully. Admired his work. Walked away from the field.

One last thing. Leave the pumpkin in front of Dawn’s door. He knew where she lived. He had spotted her address on a form she had at her desk last week. Easy. Drop it and run. Mission accomplished.

James slipped along the sidewalks in the dark. Not a sound anywhere. No one walking their dogs. No cats prowling about. James found Dawn’s house easily. Number 1215 on Broad Street. He looked right and left, satisfied no one was around. 

As he stepped up to the porch, lights flashed on. Damn. Motion detectors. James put the pumpkin down in front of the door, turned to run, and smacked face-on into a rock pile of a man. The man pushed James back. James landed on his rear on the porch step.

“What are you doing, you little shit?” the voice boomed. “Ready to TP my house again?”

James could not find his voice. He squeaked. Pathetic. But no longer invisible. Nope, quite visible to this huge man.

The man stepped around James and peered at the pumpkin. He picked it up, gazed at the writing on its surface. Looked over at James. The man looked back and forth between the pumpkin and James’s face. Back and forth. And a grin cracked the man’s face. Just a slit at first. Then wider. And wider. Now, almost a laugh.

“You crushing on my Dawn?” the man asked James.

James felt redness flaring up his neck, his face. He could not lift his eyes to meet the man’s stare.

The man put the pumpkin down in front of the door. “What’s your name, kid?” 

A whisper. “James.”

“Okay, James. Here’s the deal. I will leave the pumpkin there for Dawn to find in the morning. I will not tell her who left it. How she finds out, if ever, that’s for you to figure out. Deal?”

James nodded. 

“Now go home before I kick your ass down the street.”

James jumped up and ran off. Mission accomplished. 

And still invisible.

***

Continue reading

Mannequin Monday – Full Moon

October. The month of hauntings. Ghosts. Spooky visions. Ichabod Crane fleeing in fright through Sleepy Hollow. I am aiming to offer a Halloween story every week this month. Today, Straw Man.

Mannequin Photo Credit: Dennis Duchet, CNN

What I’m Writing

I offer a Halloween story for your reading enjoyment. A short read for busy people.

Straw Man

Bob Gillen

A figure stood tall in the dark field, lit by a full moon lurking behind clouds drifting across its face. The figure stood stippled, dappled by the erratic moonlight. The first thing that came to the mind of the person watching the figure was a Halloween movie. A mysterious figure, tall, most likely male, silhouetted in the moonlight. No doubt a pitchfork or razor-sharp scythe in his hand. Ready for dark deeds. 

Credit: Depositphotos

The watcher stood motionless at the fence rail lining the pasture. The figure in the field did not move. Did not so much as lean or tilt for a moment. The figure did not look at the moon. It stared off toward the forest that rimmed the field to the north. The watcher saw a flicker of light at the edge of the trees. A whisper of a breeze gave the leaves the tiniest of movement. The flicker could have been moonlight reflected off a shifting leaf.

The figure in the field raised one arm and pointed in the direction of the now-disappeared light. There. Another flicker. Brief, almost unseen if one was not looking in that direction. The watcher leaned on the fence rail, leaned easily so as not to cause a creak. The figure’s arm lowered. The figure took a step toward the light. The light was now constant. A pinpoint of light. Like a candle flame off in the distance. Tiny. Steady. 

The watcher saw the figure take more steps, stiff, awkward. The clouds above streaked it with mottled light as it moved. Moved slowly. Moved toward the light. 

The watcher moved stealthily along the fence rail, staying parallel to the figure. The watcher remained vigilant, avoiding a snapped twig or a step in cow flop. 

The figure drew closer to the rim of the forest. It was within mere steps of going into the trees when the tiny light exploded in a flash. Illuminating the distant figure. The watcher gasped, shuddered in disbelief. The watcher saw a scarecrow, straw sticking out of the arms, legs, neck of ragged clothing. The figure, the scarecrow, disappeared the moment the light went out. Blinded by the flash of light, the watcher could see only the silhouettes of the trees edging the field.  The watcher blinked, trying to adjust to the darkness. The moon hid behind clouds now. Darkness. Impenetrable darkness. The watcher lost sight of the figure. The scarecrow. The tiny light in the trees, now gone. 

The watcher moved a few steps along the rail, peering into the darkness. Nothing. No figure. No light. No moon. 

Darkness.

And in a moment the clouds floated slowly away from the face of the moon. Light moved across the field. Moved toward the watcher. And as the sweep of moonlight reached the fence rail, a straw figure reached up from the ground under the rail and grabbed the watcher by the throat. Pulled the watcher over the rail. Slammed the watcher to the ground. A light flashed next to the rail. 

And then, only darkness.

***

What I’m Reading

I recently read William Kent Krueger’s latest book Lightning Strike. This is a prequel to the series of mystery novels with lawman Cork O’Connor as sheriff in a small Minnesota town. In this book we find twelve-year old Cork learning crime-solving, and the path of honesty, from his father, also a sheriff.

Krueger fills his stories with lively characters, locales that breathe with life, and a strong dose of Indian lore. Every page vibrates with the foibles and the goodness of human nature.

Don’t miss this one. It’s a joy to read.

***

Here’s another adventure story, as three teens film an off-road race in the Mojave Desert while facing down environmental activists set on sabotaging the race – and their film. Off-Road is a short novel on Amazon Kindle.

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