Author: Bob Gillen (Page 1 of 18)

shortfiction24 – out of the game

What I’m Writing This Week

Mike Santiago is forced to take time off from his ER shifts to care for his own kidney injury. Being out of the game is not an option for him.

For all those who have to deal…

Out of the Game

Bob Gillen

Mike Santiago took a deep breath, settled back in the treatment chair. “Sorry to be late,” he said to the dialysis tech. “We were slammed with patients on my ER shift.”

“No worries, Mike.” The tech pierced Mike’s non-dominant arm with two needles and started the blood cleansing process. Blood out to the machine, back into his arm.

Mike leaned his head back. 

“Hey,” the man in the chair to Mike’s left said. “My name is Al. I’m here every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at this time. Looks like we’ll be neighbors.”

“I’m Mike. Yeah, this is my first treatment. New to this whole thing.”

“There was a woman in your chair for the last couple of months. Her name was Ellie. She fell down the stairs at her home. She’ll be in the hospital for a while.”

Mike nodded. “I hope I won’t be here too long. Blunt trauma to my kidneys in a car crash. This should be temporary till my kidneys get a rest.”

“Good for you, man. I’m in this for the long haul. Kidneys are shot. My diabetes went undetected for too long. Screwed me up.”

Mike squirmed in his chair. “Three hours of this.”

“What do you do?”

“ER nurse. Dealing with COVID patients all day.” 

“Shit. Hope you stay healthy. We need guys like you.”

Mike closed his eyes. His phone buzzed.

“Mike here…no, I can’t cover anyone. I’m getting dialyzed.”

He hung up. 

“Won’t let you rest, huh?” Al said.

Mike licked his lips. “Haven’t had a day off in four months.” Mike pointed to his abdomen. “That’s how I messed up my kidneys. I fell asleep at the wheel.”

“You need to chill.” Al held up his iPad. “I’m watching TV. I can turn it up if you want to watch with me.”

“I left my tablet home. Sure. What’s on?”

“The Mandalorian. Know it?”

“Heard of it.”

“Sit back. Enjoy.”

Mike turned his head to watch the iPad Al held out for him to see. Al turned up the volume.

I know that voice, Mike thought after a time. The Mandalorian character. That voice? 

Half an hour into the episode it came to him. He said to Al, “That’s the same voice as the The Lone Ranger. Not the Johnny Depp film. The original TV series with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.”

“You’re too young to know that show.”

“My dad watched the reruns all the time.”

 “You’re right, it’s the same vocal tone. Firm yet soft-spoken.”

“If I close my eyes, I see the Lone Ranger.”

Al smiled. “I’m guessing it’s deliberate on the part of the Mandalorian creators. He’s supposed to be a kind of lone ranger, roaming the universe looking for his people. Righting wrongs along the way. Both have their faces masked.”

“You sound like you’re in the business,” Mike said.

Al cocked his head. “Was in the business. A character actor. Retired a few years ago. Had to. Can’t do dialysis and be available for roles.”

“Enjoying your retirement?”

“As much as I can.” Al paused the iPad screen. “I got a small farm up in Ojai. Raise goats.”

“Any money in that?”

“I rent out the goats for brush clearance before fire season. They’ll eat through a whole hillside in a few days.”

I needed to be out of the game.

Mike nodded.

Al continued. “I got the farm early on in my career. I learned that I needed to be out of the game when I wasn’t working. Refreshing myself in nature. If you don’t have boundaries, you’re screwed in the entertainment industry.”

Mike leaned his head back. Without boundaries you’re screwed in any industry.

The tech came over to check Mike’s machine. “Want a blanket? It’s chilly in here today.”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

Al gestured around the expanse of the treatment room. Twenty-five treatment chairs, all occupied. “Look at this. See those faces. How many of them look healthy?”

Mike sat forward, studied the room. “Not too many.”

“Right.”

“You’re talking about quality of life.”

“Yes, I am. I feel pretty good. But man, three days a week, three hours each time, sitting here hooked up to a machine. For the rest of my life.”

“And…”

“And if I stop, I’ll be dead in a week.”

Mike closed his eyes again, leaned back in the chair.

A beeper went off at Al’s machine. The tech stepped over, tweaked a few settings. 

Al kept talking. “You know what I fear the most?”

“I’ll bite. What?”

“When I’m gone, all my memories are gone too.”

Mike sat up and turned to Al. “Don’t you have kids to pass them on to?”

“Yeah, I got kids. Grandkids too. And boxes full of old photos, old family films. That’s just stuff.”

Mike shook his head. “I don’t follow.”

“I got all these memories stuck in my head. Bits and pieces of my life. Stuff that means something only to me. It all goes when I go.”

“Can’t you talk it all into a recorder? Save it for your family.”

“Mike, you don’t get it. It don’t mean anything to anyone else.”

“Like what?”

 Al hesitated. “Here’s one. Years back I was living on the east coast while I auditioned for roles. One night, it was frigid out, almost below zero. I went out to meet a few guys at a bar. Just ahead of me a guy gets hit by a car. He’s lying in the street, his head bleeding. From his clothes, he was probably a homeless guy.”

Mike nodded.

“I go over to see if I can help. I see blood pooling around the guy’s head on the street…but he was lucky. It was so cold his blood was freezing. It stopped some of the bleeding. An ambulance pulled up in a few minutes. They took him away.”

Mike looked at Al. “And…?”

“That’s it. A scrap of memory. I got lots of these scraps. But they got no meaning. See? I spot a guy bleeding in the street one night. That’s it. Nothing more. When I’m gone, so is the memory.”

“Thanks for cheering me up, Al.”

“Just keepin’ it real.”

Mike smiled. “I think I get it, though. Maybe I’ll end up with lots of memory scraps too. Jeez, all the COVID patients who died on my shifts. I’ve already forgotten most of their names, but I see their faces. Their eyes, in their last moments. Dying alone…”

Al gestured to Mike in the treatment chair. “Like I said about myself, buddy, you need to be out of the game when you’re not working.”

Mike tilted his chair back, closed his eyes, took a long breath.

Out of the game when I’m not working…

***

shortfiction24 – morning sun

What I’m Writing This Week

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper

I find Edward Hopper’s paintings thought- provoking. This week I used Morning Sun as inspiration for a short story. Lori Hines finds freedom in the warmth of a morning sun.

Back in May of 2021, I had used another Hopper painting, A Day on the Cape, for inspiration. Here’s the link.

Please enjoy my stories. And comments are always welcome.

Morning Sun

Bob Gillen

The phone woke Lori Hines at just shy of two on a Sunday morning, the incoming number an Arizona area code she knew too well. “Ms. Hines, I regret to say that your mother passed a short time ago. She left us in her sleep. I’m so very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Lori replied.

The caller hesitated. “We will comply with your final wishes. An undertaker will cremate her remains…and dispose of the ashes as they deem appropriate.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And we will donate her belongings to a local thrift shop.”

Lori’s nod went unseen.

“Is there anything else you wish us to do? If not, I am again very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Lori cut off the call.

She opened the window curtains, staring out at the city’s dark. Only a month before, in their last phone call, her mother had told Lori, ‘If you can’t find it in your heart to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.’

Well, mom, you got your wish.

Lori sat on her bed, her legs drawn up, the sounds of the nighttime city drifting in the window. Voices rose from the street as drinkers spilled out of a bar at closing time. 

Several hours later the dawn’s faint light illuminated blocks-long brownstone buildings, facades punctuated by rows and rows of windows.

The dawn offered light, a promise of warmth. 

Lori continued to sit on the bed as the warm morning sun inched over her feet, her legs, her arms. Her face. Lori felt her body ease with the heat. The blond hairs on her arms stood out in the sun. She picked at her bare fingernails. Licked her lips, dry without lipstick or balm. Rubbed her unshaven legs. Specks of blue toenail polish glinted in the sun. 

The stink of her own sweat wafted up in the flood of sunlight. 

Lori closed her eyes. A memory rose, like a sea monster rising out of the water, dripping menace and slime. She saw herself sitting on a wooden dock, drenched in sunlight reflected up from a still lake. Her feet dangled in the cool water. A canoe sat tied to the dock. In the canoe a picnic basket and two paddles. Tied to the front of the canoe a silver balloon. Happy 10th Birthday, it read.

In the memory Lori’s mother padded up behind her. “Your father will not be coming up from the city for your picnic…today…or ever. When we return from our vacation he will be gone.”

Lori had continued to face out over the lake. Her mother reached for the picnic basket. “Let me put this back in the cottage. Come up when you’re hungry.”

Lori had sat on the dock till her legs, her arms, her face were sunburned. At the cottage her mother rubbed lotion on the burned skin…and never again mentioned her father. 

Ever.

For twenty years Lori and her mother had gone about their lives. Her father had not died. He simply had ceased to exist. Lori did not know if her parents had divorced. She had had no word about him. Living or dead, who knew?

And now, twenty years after her mother’s lakeside announcement, Lori sat again in the bright sun. Basked in it like a house cat that had prowled for hours seeking the one spot of sunlight on the carpet.

Outside, the city braced for another hot day. Noise slashed at her senses. Sirens, honking, yelling, grinding gears.

Come up when you’re hungry. Lori shifted off the bed, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, stepped into the kitchen. Her faithful French press charged her with fresh coffee.

At least a rut leads somewhere

Lori sipped the coffee, grabbed a Mason jar from the kitchen counter. Paper strips filled the jar, strips saved from fortune cookies after years of eating Chinese take-out. Every morning she pulled one to start her day. Today’s message, Only difference between a rut and a grave is depth.

She shrugged. At least a rut leads somewhere. The strip fluttered into the trash.

She went to the bedroom, returned with a bottle of red nail polish. She tugged her foot up onto the edge of the chair, began painting her toenails.

Her phone chirped with a spam call. She ignored it, then thumbed in a number.

“Hey, Maya. Just wanted to let you know my mother died last night…”

Lori listened to Maya’s response. 

“Yeah, you’re right. It is a relief…Hey, are you up for a late lunch? My treat.”

***

shortfiction24 – my dance space

This week’s short story

Not all spirits move on right away. I offer you a story of two spirits intermingled after death. It’s quite loosely inspired by George Saunders’s book Lincoln in the Bardo.

Having some fun with Vinny and Lewis, a couple of dead guys whose spirits are stuck together in the transition. Can they move on?

My Dance Space

Bob Gillen

Margie Pasqualino slipped out into her small backyard after dark, pulling her sweater tight around her torso. The moonless night wrapped the neighborhood in silence. 

A ten-foot tall bottlebrush tree graced the rear of the yard, a handful of rocks circling the base. Margie knelt in the grass near the tree, next to the hole she had asked the gardener to dig for her. About a foot square, eighteen inches deep. A square of sod and the excavated soil sat on a flat piece of cardboard to the side of the hole.

Margie held her dead husband Vinny’s ashes in her hands, in a box made of thick biodegradable paper. She kissed the box gently, lowered it into the hole. With a garden trowel she scooped dirt over the box. When it was level with the rest of the lawn, she patted the soil firm. “Rest in peace, my love.” Tears fell, soaking into the soil. 

Eighteen inches below the surface, Vinny Pasqualino’s spirit moaned, stretched, wriggled into his new home. “Sure beats sitting on the bookcase,” he told himself. “I love my yard.”

“Move back. Gimme some room here.” A voice squeaked in the space.

Vinny’s spirit swirled around. “Who’re you? What are you doing here?”

“My name is Lewis. Lewis Bomer. Most of me is somewhere else, but a bit of me is here.”

Vinny stared at the wisp of a figure. “What the hell are you talking about?”

 “I got cremated before you. Some of my ashes got left behind as they cremated you…so here I am.”

You want a piece of me?

“Shit, this is my space.”

“You know the old line? ‘You want a piece of me?’ Well, you got a piece of me.”

“This is my yard.”

“Yeah, I get it. This is your dance space.”

“Dance space?”

“Yeah, you know, dancers don’t like to be crowded.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s start over. You’re Lewis. I’m Vinny.”

“Hi, Vinny. Was that your wife put us in here tonight?”

“Yeah. Margie. We were married fifty years when I bought the farm. Heart.”

“Good for you. I was single, still playing the field. Drunk driver got me.”

Vinny shivered. “Okay, so what the hell? You stuck here with me?”

“Beats me. My first time doing this.”

“Cramped in here. Can we move out of this box?”

The two spirits scrunched and wiggled, and found themselves up in the yard in the fresh air.

“Hey, this feels good,” Vinny said.

“Quiet here. Peaceful.”

“It would be more peaceful without you attached to me.”

“No worries. We’ll figure this out.”

Vinny nodded toward a faded red Adirondack chair. “I spent lots of hours after dinner in that chair. Margie would fall asleep watching her TV shows, and I would grab a cold longneck and sit out here.”

Lewis smiled. “The yard feels right for that kind of sitting.”

“I barbecued every weekend. Mostly burgers. My last year even some vegan burgers. Docs were all over me about my heart.”

“I had a studio apartment in the city. Cooked ramen noodles in a microwave.”

“Ouch.”

“I wasn’t home much. Ate a lot of snacks and happy hour food in bars.”

Dragging Lewis, Vinny’s spirit drifted around the yard. He hit a wall a few yards in each direction. “Looks like we got some restraints here.”

“Won’t last long, if we’re lucky.”

“How does this whole thing work?” Vinny asked. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be floating here forever.”

“Yeah, you know, shouldn’t we be part of that whole spirit world now? Back in touch with everyone we knew?”

“Sounds right.”

“This is truly weird.” Lewis shook his head. “Maybe some kind of transition.”

Vinny tested the boundaries again. No change. He said, “I feel like I should be standing in a rowboat paddling with one oar down a long dark tunnel with mist swirling around my feet, Phantom of the Opera music wafting around me.”

“Hah,” Lewis said. “More like going through Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride.”

Vinny held up his hand. “Don’t make that song the last I ever hear.”

Lewis peered around the space. “I wonder where the rest of me is. I have no idea what my mom would have done with my ashes.”

“Maybe in her living room.”

“I don’t know…she would be too sad looking at me all the time. She’s kinda the move-on type.”

“My ashes will be here for a long time…my spirit, that’s another issue.”

Lewis laughed. “You know what would be cool?” 

He paused.

“You gonna finish that thought?”

“I would like my ashes to be stuffed into a giant fireworks canister and shot off on the Fourth of July.”

He gestured to the sky. “Spread everywhere… in a blaze of glory.”

Vinny shook his head. “Who’s going to do that for you?”

“I know a guy, who knows a guy, who works on the fireworks barges for the Macy’s celebration every year.”

“Yeah, but does he actually fill the canisters?”

“He could just tape my ashes to one of the canisters.”

Vinny shook his head.

“No, really. Think about it. My ashes would explode high over the East River in New York, then drift down all over the city.” He laughed again. “Picture this. Some tourist is walking down Fifth Avenue looking in all the store windows. He takes in a deep breath. Says to his wife, ‘What a beautiful night’… while he breathes in a speck of my ashes. Don’t you love it?”

“I gotta hand it to you, Lewis. You got a big imagination.”

“I’m feeling kind of diminutive right now, if I may use a big vocabulary word. I wish I knew where the rest of me was.”

“So do I.”

“Hey, not my choice to be here.”

Scraps of night fog began drifting into the yard. 

“Am I missing the obvious?” Vinny said. “Are we expected to let go…somehow? Are we keeping ourselves here?”

“Like I said, it’s my first time. And I’m not all here.”

“No argument there.”

“You won’t let this go, will you?”

Vinny shrugged.

“I should consider myself lucky, you know? My ashes could have mingled so much with yours that we became one spirit.”

Vinny pointed at Lewis. “Maybe you got a point there. If I can figure out how to move on, you can just come along with me. Find the rest of you at the next stop…wherever that is.”

“What are you saying? We swirl together and float out of here? Like the fog?”

“Yeah,” Vinny said. “We twirl around, mingle our spirits, drift up and out of here.”

“Sounds too easy.”

“Got a better idea?”

Lewis whirled his spirit around Vinny’s. The two mingled. Spun together. Shaped themselves into a single wisp. 

Nothing happened. 

“This is bullshit.”

“Damn, I can’t find the rest of me till we move on. We’re stuck together.”

Can’t stay here forever.

“Yeah, I’m not happy with the situation either, but it’s the best we got.”

“Can’t stay here forever.”

“Maybe I can stay here. I like my yard.” 

Lewis shook his scrap of a spirit. “Think of moving on in this way, Vinny. You can have an endless longneck. Ice cold, condensation running down the bottle, every sip crisp and cold.”

Vinny shrugged. “If I go, I would have to spend time with my dead in-laws, right? They hated my guts…”

Lewis wrapped himself around Vinny’s spirit. “What would you love to do, Vinny? Something you never got to do in your lifetime?”

Vinny did not hesitate. “I always wished I could play the guitar. Just one song. The delicate guitar melody Jerry Garcia played on ‘Ripple.’ You know, the Grateful Dead. That is one fantastic line.”

“Yeah. The song had such cosmic wisdom.”

“Don’t get sappy on me. It’s just a good song.”

“Ironic, though,” Lewis said.

“Huh?”

“Ironic you would want to do a song by the Dead.”

“I get it. Yeah, ironic.”

“Wouldn’t that make you want to move on? Spend forever playing ‘Ripple’ with a cold longneck at your side.”

“You’re starting to make sense, Lewis. Scary if all of you was here. You’d have me running to hug my in-laws.”

“Come on, Vinny. This life is over. Time to move on.”

Vinny smiled. “Maybe you’re right. Let’s try again.” He floated around the yard one more time.

“Bye, Margie. I’ll play guitar for you when you join me.”

Vinny and Lewis faded into the night fog.

Silence.

“Shit!”

“Yeah.”

“We’re still here.”

***

Let’s see what happens with Vinny and Lewis. More story to come.

shortfiction24 – the amber alert

What I’m Writing This Week

This week filmmaking teens Tessa and Eric become tangled in an Amber Alert situation. Did they find the abducted baby?

“The Amber Alert” features two of the teens from my Film Crew series. In book 1, Off-Road, the teens film an off-road race in the Mojave Desert while environmental activists sabotage their film shoot. You can find it on Amazon.

The Amber Alert

Bob Gillen

Four p.m. on a December afternoon, outside a mall packed with holiday shoppers, Tessa Warren balanced her film camera in her right hand, the camera bag over her shoulder, a tripod leaning against her leg. Thanks for being late, Eric. She panned the camera across the temporary skating rink set up alongside the mall entrance. Little kids shuffled around on the ice. Collided with each other. Cried to be picked up. Fell down again. Not exactly a winter Rockefeller Center skating rink scene.

Eric Pyne ran up. “Hey, Tessa.”

“About time you got here. Do you not remember our school video project on the insanity of the Christmas holiday is due in a week?”

“Detention. What can I tell you?”

“Again? You’ve got more than the entire junior class combined.”

Eric shrugged. He held up his phone.  “There’s an Amber Alert! I got the text message before I left school.”

Tessa continued to film the skating rink. “Oh, they alert you directly now, huh?”

“Yeah, actually they do. I put an Amber Alert button on my phone, and it triggered the alert. It happened a few miles from here.”  

She looked up. “Seriously?”

“A supermarket on Ventura Blvd. Only two hours ago. They grabbed a baby and drove off in a black SUV.”

“Help me with this tripod, will you? I want some shots of the outdoor decorations before it gets too dark.”

Eric put the tripod on his shoulder while Tessa carried the camera.

“What if we could help catch them?”

“They’re probably miles away by now,” Tessa said. “If a black SUV traveled for two hours at sixty miles an hour, that would put them a hundred and twenty miles away. A mile a minute for two hours… who said we don’t need math?”

“They could still be around,” he said.

“Let’s get this done. We need the footage for the school video.”

Tessa set her camera on the tripod and focused on a cluster of giant red and white holiday trees. 

Credit: MansionGlobal

“That’s an ugly shot,” Eric said.

“That’s the point. The malls are making the holidays uglier every year.”

Tessa started her shot with a close up of one tree, then pulled back slowly to take in the entire display. “I’m afraid the shot is going to be grainy. I had to open it to let it more light.”

Eric nodded.

“Let’s get some shots inside now.”

  Before they stepped inside, Eric motioned toward the parking lot.  

“What if the people who took the baby stayed in the area?” he said. “What if they tried to get lost in the holiday shopping crowds?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

They snaked themselves through the crowds inside the mall.

“Where do they all come from?” Eric said.

“They come down out of the hills,” Tessa said. “The once-a-year shoppers. You won’t see them here again till next holiday.”

Holiday music hit them from every angle. Hip hop versions from a teen clothing store.  Standards from the mall speakers. Women singing jazz tunes from a boutique. And down at the mall center, live music from a group of carolers.

“Let’s shoot the carolers before they stop singing,” Tessa said.  

“How about we shoot them to make them stop singing,” Eric said.

“Violence is an unacceptable solution.”

“Whatever.”

Eric watched a family walk by, the mom holding a little baby close. “Who could steal a baby?”

“Let’s hope at least it’s someone who wants a baby of their own,” Tessa said, “and not some creepy predator.” She scanned the mall.

“Let’s go up to the second level. I can get a better shot from up there.”

At the top of the escalator they elbowed through the crowd to get a position at the rail. Eric spread the tripod legs while Tessa set her white balance for indoor lighting.

Tessa tilted the camera down to get footage of the carol-singing on the level below.

“Getting any good shots?”

“Decent enough,” she said. “Now I want shots of the crowds. From the shoulders down so I don’t have to worry about signed releases.”

“Good thinking,”

Eric tapped the tripod. “I need to pee. I’ll be right back.”

He headed down the mall to the nearest bathroom. As he washed his hands, a man came in with a crying baby. He put the child down on a changing table, then dug through a small bag.

“Damn,” the man said. Turning to Eric, he said, “Where can I buy a diaper here? My girlfriend didn’t show up.”

Eric shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe one of the big department stores.”

“Watch the baby, will you, while I take a leak.”

The man turned his back for a few moments. This is weird, Eric thought. Out with no diapers? Keeping one eye on the man, Eric took out his cell phone and got a few shots of the baby. The little thing was crying harder now. 

The man washed up, grabbed up the baby and the bag, and walked out without a word of thanks. Eric followed.

He saw the man dash quickly to the escalator and head for the mall exit.

How long does it take to pee?

Eric grabbed his cell phone and phoned Tessa while he kept an eye on the man and baby.

“I need you here,” she said. “How long does it take to pee?”

“Meet me at the mall exit. Where we came in earlier. Hurry. There’s a man with a baby and he’s acting weird.”

“All men act weird with babies,” she said. “They’re clueless. Come back here and help me.” She hung up.

Eric continued to follow the man as he exited out into the parking lot.

Dodging the cars that prowled for an open parking spot, Eric kept his eyes on the man till he stopped at a black SUV. Eric felt the hair stand up on his neck. Could this be real?

Eric casually walked down the row of parked cars so he could get near the back of the parked SUV. Holding his phone low, he snapped a photo of the license plate.  

The man had opened the passenger door and was laying the baby on the seat. Wait… no child seat! This wasn’t right.

He started to call Tessa again, but the man slammed the car door and stepped around to get in the driver’s side. No time, Eric thought. He walked a few steps away from the SUV and dialed 911. “I think I know where the Amber Alert baby is,” he almost shouted. “The mall parking lot. Hurry.”

“Slow down,” the emergency operator said. “What’s your name?”

“Eric Pyne.”

“And where are you calling from, Eric?”

“The mall parking lot.” He looked around. “Near a light pole that says section P3. There’s a black SUV here with a baby in it.”

“Son, how old are you?”

“Sixteen… come on, you have to hurry.”

“Why do you think this is the missing baby?”

“The man just laid the baby on the front seat. No child seat. And I followed him from the mall bathroom. He had no diapers for the baby. The baby is screaming.”

“Okay, slow down,” the 911 operator said.

“No, he’ll drive off in a minute. I got pictures of the baby and the license plate.”

“You have pictures?”

 “Yes. Hurry.”

“Wait, give me your email address. I’ll send you a message. When you get the message, reply and attach the pictures. And stay on the line.”

“Okay. Just hurry.” Eric dashed over under the parking lot light pole to see his phone more clearly.

The message came through right away. He attached the pictures and hit Send.

The operator said, “We may have a match. I’m sending a police officer. Please step away to ensure your own safety.”

Eric’s phone buzzed. He put the operator on hold to take Tessa’s call.

“Where are you?”

“Out in the parking lot. Section P3. I got the Amber Alert kidnapper right here! The police are coming!”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, hurry!”

“On my way.”

The black SUV started to back out of the parking spot. Eric panicked. Where is everybody? A car coming up the parking lot lane signaled to take the spot of the exiting SUV. But as the SUV backed out, another car from the opposite direction also signaled for the spot.

Yes, thought Eric. He’s blocked in for a few minutes while the two cars fight over the spot.

Tessa ran up behind him. She shoved the tripod at Eric. “That him?” she pointed with her camera.

“Yeah, move around and get a shot of the driver, if you can.”

“It’s getting dark, and the windows are tinted,” she said.

 Eric spotted a police cruiser move into the lane. He turned to see another from the opposite direction. Eric waved to them. Red and blue flashing lights lit up the lane.

“The cops are here!”

The SUV driver’s door flew open. The man jumped out and ran forward to another lane. Tessa ran after him, her camera running.

The best she could do was a profile of his side. The man ran under the parking lot lights for a moment and Tessa’s shot brightened.

The sound of the baby’s wailing filled the air.

Then he was gone. “Black sweatshirt and jeans,” Eric yelled. Two officers ran off in pursuit. The other two approached the SUV. Guns drawn, they stepped up slowly. The door was still open, and the sound of the baby’s wailing filled the air.

“All clear,” one officer shouted. An ambulance now pulled into the lane. The two cars vying for the parking spot were now totally blocked in.  

An officer waved the EMT over to check the baby. She wrapped it in a blanket and carried it to the ambulance.

Eric and Tessa approached the officer. “Is it the Amber Alert baby?”

“You the kid who called it in?”

“Yeah.”

“Nice work, kid. Step over here so I can get your name and address.”  

“What about the kidnapper?”

“They’ll run him down. We got his car and his plate number.”

“I recorded him,” Tessa said, holding up her camera.

The officer looked at her. “I’ll have to take the memory card.”

Tessa ejected it from the camera. “Can I get it back? I’ve got other footage I need for a school project.”

“Probably not. We’ll need to hold it for evidence.” The officer pocketed the memory card.

Eric smiled. “Tessa, we did good!”

“Yeah, we did,” Tessa said. She high-fived Eric.  “This holiday isn’t ugly after all.”

***

shortfiction24 – the day after

Credit: BAY Photography

Kim Bailey had no tomorrows. Only days after. Days after her son’s death. Seventeen years of days after.

What I’m Writing This Week

More musings on life and loss. Please enjoy the story.

The Day After

Bob Gillen

Kim Bailey sat in her Toyota sedan, the engine idling, parked off the two-lane canyon road. A stiff ocean breeze off the coast pushed fog through Malibu Canyon.  She shivered watching the fog churn through the night air, the fog creating an almost hallucinogenic black and white vista. 

Her mind drifted back to the days when her two kids were little, lying in the grass looking for shapes to emerge from the moving clouds. 

Not the same with fog, she thought. Nothing looks familiar when you’re in the middle of it.

Headlights pierced the fog, coming off the road towards her.

Damn.

The car stopped. A black and white. The headlights remained on. The driver got out. A sheriff’s deputy.

Shit. Shit.

The deputy approached Kim’s car by the passenger side. Kim rolled down the window.

“Ma’am?” The female deputy said.

“Yes?”

“Are you all right?”

“Stopping to rest for a minute, officer. Hard to see in the fog. I was on my way to the beach.”

The deputy shined a flashlight into the car. The light reflected off the sequins on Kim’s evening purse, off her long silver dress. The deputy spotted a wilting corsage on Kim’s wrist.

The flashlight moved to Kim’s face.

Kim held up her hand to block the light.

“Can I see your license and registration, please?”

The deputy took the papers. “Mrs. Bailey? Randall Bailey’s mom?”

Kim peered at the deputy.

“You won’t remember me. I was in Randall’s class.”

Kim shook her head.

“Erin Alcala, Mrs. Bailey. It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, it has. I’m sorry, Erin… I don’t remember you.”

The deputy saw a tear slide down Kim’s cheek. “Are you all right?”

Kim shook her head slowly. “No, I’m not. I haven’t been all right for the last seventeen years.”

Erin handed Kim her papers, went back to her cruiser, turned off the headlights. She returned to the Toyota. Kim gestured to the passenger seat. “Want to get out of the chill for a minute?”

The deputy shook her head. “I’m on duty. Can’t do that.”

Kim nodded. She stepped out into the night. Her silver profile almost disappeared in the fog.

“You’re not dressed for this,” the deputy said.

Without speaking, Kim popped the Toyota’s trunk. She pulled on a faded Old Navy hoodie. She slipped off her heels and tossed them in the trunk, tugged on a pair of black Cons.

“Better, yes?” 

“Better.”

Randall was my first crush.

 Fog and night surrounded them.

“Randall was my first crush,” Erin said.

“Really?”

“I never told him. Well, I told him at the service. He couldn’t hear me.”

“Maybe he did.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” 

Kim stared into the fog. 

“I’m kinda curious, Mrs. Bailey. Why are you parked here at two in the morning, wearing an evening gown?”

Kim sighed. “My daughter Christine got married today.”

“Congratulations.”

“Don’t congratulate me. My husband is at home right now…packing his things. He’s leaving me. He held on till Christine’s wedding. Waited till he knew she was safely in someone else’s hands.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Save your sorries. His heart left years ago.”

Kim pulled a package of tissues from the hoodie pocket.

“After the accident my husband freaked every time I drove Christine to school or to a sports event. If he couldn’t drive her himself, he made me call him and stay on speaker phone the whole drive. He did that till she got her own license.”

The deputy’s radio squawked. She spoke into it. “I’m taking my break now.” 

She turned from her radio. “Okay, sorry for the interruption.”

Kim wiped her eyes. The corsage brushed her face. She yanked it off her wrist, tossed it into the darkness. 

“See this scar?” She held her wrist up close to Erin’s face. “That’s what I came away from the accident with. A one-inch scar. Just big enough to remind me every day of what I did.”

Kim closed her eyes. A thin smile cracked her face. “All Randall cared about was baseball. He was the captain of his team…The night he died, he was so excited. They had won the regional championship.” 

Kim shivered, pulled the hood up over her head. “We stopped for a quick fast food meal, then hit the road. We had a fifty mile drive home. It was late, after a long day sitting out on a hot ball field…I should have had coffee.”

She turned to look at Erin. “I was worried I’d have to pee on the drive home. Stupid, right? I skipped the coffee.”

Kim choked back a sob.

Clad in all her cop gear, the best Erin could do was put her hand on Kim’s shoulder.

“I fell asleep at the wheel…”

“I remember hearing that.”

“Of course. Everyone knew it. Everyone knew it was my fault.”

“It was an accident, Mrs. Bailey.”

“The EMTs said Randall struck his head. He had looked okay to me. I couldn’t believe it. He was gone. Not me. Randall died. It wasn’t fair.”

Erin shifted her feet.

“I should have gone with him. Then I wouldn’t have had to live with this grief. With an enormous hole in my heart. I brought grief down on our whole family.” She looked over at Erin. “Hell, I brought grief down on you, too. You never had a chance to tell Randall you liked him. I’ve had to live with this horror for seventeen years. Why? What was the point?”

Kim began pacing back and forth in the churning fog.

“We kept Randall’s desk empty for the rest of the school year, after the accident. The class took turns bringing a flower in every day to place on the desk. We hung his picture up too, but in the back where we didn’t have to see it all day.”

Kim felt the tears run.

“We would start crying,” the deputy continued. “We would just start and go for a while. The teacher let us. She cried too. Somebody came in to talk to us, but I don’t remember what he said.”

It’s always the day after for me.

Kim nodded. “I watched my daughter marry the love of her life today…No, not today. Yesterday. It’s already the day after.”

Kim twirled her arms through the fog. “It’s always the day after for me. I haven’t had a tomorrow in seventeen years.” 

Kim wrapped her arms around her body. She fell to her knees.

Erin crouched down next to Kim. “Your daughter has a whole lot of tomorrows to look forward to. Hell, even your husband thinks he has a bright tomorrow, right?”

“I guess so.”

“Why deny yourself a tomorrow?”

“I don’t deserve one.”

“I can’t say if you deserve it or not. I can say, one comes along every day. One with your name on it.”

Kim stood. She reached to hug Erin. Realized the cop gear wouldn’t let her near Erin. She put her hands to Erin’s face. “Look at us. Two women in the night, fog swirling around us. One in full cop gear, the other in a ragged hoodie and an evening dress.”

Kim laughed, lifted her arms to the night sky. Twirled around, slicing the churning fog.  

She shouted. “I want it to be tomorrow.”

Erin’s radio squawked again. “They’re looking for me.”

“Go ahead.”

“Do you want to follow me to the Valley? Let’s get out of this fucking fog.”

“Why not?,” Kim replied. “Maybe today can be my first tomorrow.”

***

shortfiction24 – reduce by half

Credit: edf.org

The nations of the world have been slow to act on climate change. What if they took a giant step, almost overnight?

What I’m Writing

This week I share with you a writing exercise I did several years ago for an online course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. The assignment was to make a fictitious news statement look true. I wrote an imagined in-studio conversation between a host and two guest commentators for a nightly news program about G-7 actions on climate change. (The story is NOT inspired by any popular superhero films.) I hope you enjoy it.

Reduce by Half

Bob Gillen

Good evening and thanks for joining us this hour. I’m Nicki McNally. I’ve said before that the time of slow news days on Fridays is long gone. Today’s news will exceed even your wildest imagination.

We reported exclusively on this show last night that the G-7 called an emergency meeting. As we speak, they are together in an undisclosed location in Switzerland. Our sources tell us they are discussing climate change.

Apparently the G-7 are so serious about this meeting that they invited Russia to join them on a temporary basis. So, the G-8.

Well, that was last night’s news. Tonight our sources tell us, again exclusively, that the eight nations have today decided on a course of action. A shocking course. Earth-shattering, if I may be allowed a pun.

After a marathon day of meetings, the G-8 have moved quickly beyond the what and why of climate change. Our sources tell us that today they addressed the how. Their conclusion – the earth must reduce its population by half if we are to survive the current crisis.

You heard me correctly. Reduce the earth’s population by half. And the G-8 believe that this needs to be done within the next two years. Two years.

I pause for a moment to let that sink in.

All gone within 24 months.

Our planet is inhabited by about 7.7 billion people. Half that would be roughly 3.8 billion people. All gone within 24 months.

In this almost unimaginable recommendation, the G-8 are bypassing the United Nations. Bypassing all other countries, including India and China. Disregarding NPOs around the world. With this decision the G-8 have assumed control over the climate crisis. Up for discussion now is their proposal for how this will be achieved.

We have with us in the studio tonight climate expert Jon Greenleaf. Jon, this is enormous. What’s your initial take on this?

Thanks, Nicki. Enormous is an understatement. Here are only a few of the issues facing the G-8. How do we eliminate 3.8 billion people from the earth? In two years?

Who will be eliminated? We are not talking about genocide here. This is above race and ethnicity. This is planet-wide.

Let me run through a handful of bullet points for your consideration.

First, no one disputes the necessity of the action. Our planet is dying. We are killing it.

Next, there is the issue of the hubris, if you will, of only eight nations making this decision. Granted, the eight – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and now Russia – represent 58% of global net worth. They are considered to be advanced economies.

Next, who will be designated for reduction? Do we do half of every nation on earth? Do we target entire areas on the globe?

The objective is to leave large areas of the earth to regenerate on their own. 

Now, the how. The methodology. Are we talking euthanasia? Eugenics? Sterilization is far too slow. What about asking for volunteers? Perhaps paying their surviving members a stipend. Maybe a lotto. Everyone on earth is assigned a computer-generated number. Odd numbers stay, even numbers are subject to reduction.

Who will enforce this action?

A further point – who will enforce this action? It could easily result in military action, at least with several nations. Will North Korea, for example, comply willingly with this?

Let me interrupt you, Jon. I’m thinking, what of the ethics of this? The moral implications? Think of the reaction of the world’s religions.

Indeed, Nicki. Say the world successfully carries this out somehow. It will impact economies as well. Losing half the residents of the United States, for example, could eliminate millions of jobs. I should say, eliminate people filling the jobs. Who will continue to maintain agriculture, financial institutions, education? Granted, the need for food and education could be less with all those people gone. But globally, it’s a huge issue.

What of taxes? The tax base could be cut in half. In every nation in the world. Fewer resources for services, police and fire protection, defense.

What of the talent base? The resources available to us now. The creative minds. The engineering folks. Computer systems.

And there is a huge logistical issue. Where and how will we bury 3.8 billion bodies? Can we do cremation on such a large scale? Bodies cannot easily be transported to large-scale disposal sites. 

Thank you, Jon, for your insights. Jon Greenleaf, climate change expert.

I am reeling. Of course, no one will dispute the crisis, the need for immediate action.

I have here with me another climate expert. James Walker. James, talk to us.

Thanks for having me, Nicki. This is radical beyond belief. If we began to work on climate change today, it would take many years to see a difference. Carbon emissions, glacier melting, rising ocean levels, storms, fires. Reversals will take years, decades. Sure, we can begin to change these, if globally we agree to a course of action. Yet the world’s population keeps growing. The chances of making a significant impact are honestly slim.

The solution to reduce the world’s population by half is radical. To add to Jon’s points, how do we decide who goes? Do we do it by nation? Are some nations less important than others? Could we do this by continent? Free up an entire continent for re-growth?

And in terms of impact, how do we do this without harming the flora and fauna of the earth? Can we eliminate all those humans and leave animals and plant growth unscathed?

James, my producers are telling me to take a one-minute break. Stay with me, please, for more discussion.

Please stay with us. What a day this is. So much to talk about.

***

shortfiction24 – sweet beginnings

This week’s short story is the 62nd I’ve posted to this blog. And there are another ten waiting in draft form so far. I hope you are experiencing them as enjoyable, entertaining, even thoughtful. I am certainly enjoying writing them.

What I’m Writing This Week

A man walks into a bar to forget his breakup. And leaves…well, you’ll see.

Sweet Beginnings

Bob Gillen

Josh ignored the tables, steered for the bar at the back of the room. A yellow neon sign read, Sweet Beginnings. He caught the bartender’s eye. “Johnnie Walker Black. Neat.” He held out two fingers horizontally. The bartender nodded.

A band blasted a cover of Rockin’ Robin on a tiny stage backed by a red brick wall. None of Josh’s buddies ever came here. Tonight he was on the down low. His one-month anniversary. She moved out. Gone. 

He sipped his scotch, staring down into the glass, only half-hearing the music. A woman stepped up, slid her glass towards the bartender. She glanced over at Josh. “You look like shit.”

Josh sighed without looking up. He rubbed the stubble on his face. “At this particular moment, I can’t say you’re wrong.”

The woman laughed. “Tough night, huh?”

“Tough life.”

Josh turned to see long fingers, capped with short nails, wrapped around a glass of straight vodka. His gaze went up to her face. Light makeup, a few lines around the eyes and mouth. Long hair tied back, streaked with blond.

“You specialize in calling guys out on their shit lives?” he said.

Again she laughed. Throaty, soft.

Credit: Sam Teichman

“I call them as I see them.”

“Wow. A line right out of a noir film.”

The woman pulled up the stool next to Josh. 

“I’m guessing a breakup.” She looked to Josh for an answer.

He looked back into his glass. “She moved out after a year. ’You don’t surprise me anymore,’ she told me.”

“What the hell did she mean by that?”

The room roared as the band launched into Johnny Burnette’s Train Kept A Rollin’.

Josh shrugged, raised his voice. “I’m boring. I bring nothing new to the relationship.”

The woman turned to sip her drink. “How do you like the music?” She thumbed in the direction of the stage.

“Not bad for a cover band.”

Under the music there was a layer of chatter in the room, a few attempting to sing along. Most of them off key.

“They might be better without this audience,” he added.

The woman said, “I’m Lily.”

“Josh.”

“I haven’t seen you here before.”

“Never been. You come here often, I take it.”

Lily nodded. “When I’m not working.”

“Night shifts?”

“ER nurse. Uptown.”

He sipped his drink. “A lot you want to forget, I bet.”

“I’ve seen some bad stuff, yeah…but a lot of them make it. We have a good team.”

The band finished a cover of Little Liza. The guitar player said, “Be back in a few for our last set.”

Another sip. “Good crowd for a Sunday night.”

“This band pulls them in…excuse me.” Lily stepped away to talk with the band leader.

Ten minutes later, the lead vocal stepped up to the mic. “Last set of the night, folks. And a surprise for you.” He gestured towards the bar.

Lily set her drink down next to Josh, said “Wait for me.” She dodged through the servers and tables and up to the stage. 

“Lily is sitting in with us tonight.”

Hoots and cheers from the audience.

Josh turned to stare at the stage. Lily hugged the piano player, sat and began playing an intense boogie woogie tune. The bass and drums slipped in under her, trying to keep up. Her fingers flew over the keys. The piano player leaned in on Lily’s right, played high notes with his right hand. The house cheered, clapped. Two people stood, moving to the music in between the tables.

Mouth hanging open, Josh leaned forward, slid off the stool, swayed to the music. A hollow ache rose, blossomed in his gut as he saw her losing herself in the music. Why did I quit piano lessons when I was a kid?

Half an hour later, the set over, Lily returned to her bar seat. Sweat glistened on her brow. The bartender slipped her a fresh drink. 

“Holy shit, that was awesome!” Josh said.

“Thanks.” She took a long pull from her drink.

“Music isn’t music without a strong bottom.”

“So much power in your left hand. That’s great bass.”

“Music isn’t music without a strong bottom.”

The house lights flicked once. Closing time. The bartender hustled to fill the last drinks of the night.

Josh gestured to the room. “This is when the fun starts. All the singles trying to pair off before hitting the street.”

Lily nodded.

“When the house lights come up, there’ll be a few surprises, I’m thinking. Some older chicks out there.”

Lily turned to look at him. “Hey, that’s harsh… We all look the same when we’re standing on our heads.”

“Ouch.” He drained his glass. “Time for me to roll. Con calls starting at nine tomorrow.”

“Yeah, beat it now. I may not look so good when the lights come up.”

Josh met her gaze. “I may come back.”

“You do that. Surprise me, though. Don’t look like shit the next time.”

Josh nodded. “Deal.”

*** 

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