I write short fiction

Author: Bob Gillen (Page 2 of 19)

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.”

*** 

shortfiction24 – losing Maxine

An art teacher has done a lesson on the power of observation a hundred times…until one student opens her eyes.

What I’m Writing This Week

Today’s story is inspired by an old, old (worn out?) joke and by an interview I did years back with Georgia Packard, a cinematographer who was taught by Ansel Adams. I hope you enjoy the story.

Losing Maxine

Bob Gillen

Students slipped in the classroom door just as the bell rang down the hall. Maria Santana turned to Grace Medford. “Ready?”

Grace nodded. “I’ve done this lesson a hundred times. Let’s do it.”

The two women stepped into the classroom. Sixteen heads turned to gaze at the stranger carrying a cardboard box.

“Let’s focus, class,” Maria said. “Today’s lesson will be fun.”

The high school juniors dumped backpacks on the floor, settled into their seats.

“I want to introduce Ms. Grace Medford to you. She is a friend and a fellow creative arts professional.” Maria gestured to the class. “Grace, this is my class. Sixteen students hungry for art.”

“Good morning,” Grace addressed the class. “I’m happy to be here, happy to meet the class my friend talks so much about.”

“Any of it good?” a boy piped up from the side of the room.

Grace said, “Yes, all of it good…although I don’t recall her mentioning you.”

“Woot,” a girl behind the boy said, as his face turned red.

Grace jumped in. “I’m teasing you. What’s your name?”

The boy said, “Mark.”

Maria slipped to the back of the classroom as Grace took over. “Mark, how’s your knowledge of art history?”

Mark perked up. “Pretty good. I read a lot of it.”

“Okay. Here’s a question for you. You know of the French painter Toulouse-Lautrec?”

“Sure, the Moulin Rouge paintings.”

“Mark, do you know how he got his name?”

Mark’s brows wrinkled. He shook his head.

“Anybody?” Grace called out to the class.

Silence.

“Okay, here’s a bit of art history you won’t learn in books. When Lautrec was a young teenager…maybe your age… most of his clothes were worn and faded.”

Grace looked around the class. “Still with me?”

Lots of nods.

“Lautrec’s mother was not much of a seamstress. She took her son to a tailor. The tailor looked Lautrec up and down, pulled a pair of pants off a shelf, and had him try them on. Lautrec pulled the pants up. The tailor told him, hold out your arms. I want to see how they fit.”

The class peered at Grace.

“So…Lautrec lifted his arms…and the pants fell down around his ankles. The tailor looked at the pants, looked at Lautrec, and said, ‘What’s the matter, Lautrec, too loose?”

Silence for a second. Then a groan from a girl in the front seat. Two more groans. A few students shook their heads.

“What, you don’t believe me?” Grace said.

Mark said, “That was really bad.”

Grace smiled. “Remember, you heard it first here.”

More heads shook.

“All right, let’s get serious. Mrs. Santana invited me here to talk about art and the power of observation.” She reached down and picked up the cardboard box, set it on a small paint-stained table.

“What’s in the box…a head?” one girl asked.

Grace pointed at the girl. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

She lifted the lid and pulled out a mannequin head. She turned the box upside down, set the head on the box, a right-side profile facing the class.

“This is Maxine.”

Maxine featured a smooth alabaster complexion, subdued makeup, a couple of barettes in her curly dark hair. 

“Let’s see what kind of sketching you can do,” Grace said. “Please study Maxine’s profile and sketch her. I’m not looking for a finished sketch. Highlight any features that appeal to you. Give me a snapshot of what you see.”

The students’ pencils scratched as they put on paper what they observed. Grace walked around the room, glancing at each sketch.

Grace stopped their work. “That’s enough time to capture an impression. Anyone want to share?”

A hand went up in the back. Grace waved the boy forward. He held up his sketch, moved it around so everyone could see it. 

“You are…?” Grace asked. 

“Eric.”

“Thanks, Eric. Any comments from the class?”

One girl said, “I like the way he captured the flow of her hair against her head. What I see first is a woman with really cool curly hair.”

“Yeah,” a boy said. “It’s kind of sexy how her hair flows down.”

A couple of girls grimaced.

“No…we’re talking about observation here,” Grace said. “That’s what he sees.”

Several other students shared their sketches as well.

Grace said, “You all know the photographer Ansel Adams, right?”

Heads nodded.

“Adams was a believer in observation. When he prepared to photograph a subject, he studied it carefully. He walked around it. Peered closely at its features. Studied the light.”

More nods.

“Look at Maxine again.” She stepped aside so all the class could see the mannequin head clearly.

“I asked you to sketch what you saw – a side profile. I did not give you an opportunity to study her completely.”

Grace turned the pedestal, box and mannequin to face the window.

“I want you now to stand up and walk around Maxine. Study her fully. Observe light and shadow. Look for features you did not see before. Bring your paper and pencil if you wish.”

Grace gestured and the students got up to walk around their subject.

“Please observe in silence. I would prefer you see what you see, not what someone else may notice.”

Students studied, sketched, wrote notes.

“Go back to your seats now and sketch a fuller impression of Maxine. I’ll give you fifteen minutes.”

After Grace wandered around observing their work, she asked them to stop.

“Anyone want to share?”

A girl came forward. Held up her paper. She had captured a forward profile of Maxine, the flow of hair to one side, a high fade on the other, a single earring to the left side. In her sketch the earring caught the light from the window.

“Good detail. Anyone else?”

Another student displayed a close-up sketch of Maxine’s left side, where three tiny butterfly tattoos could be seen behind her ear.

More students shared their sketches. Grace smiled. “You all get it. I can see that from your sketches. If you had limited yourself to your initial view of Maxine, her right-side profile, you would have done a decent study. But by walking around, studying all angles and lighting, you produced work with greater depth. Greater interest.”

A hand went up. Grace acknowledged the student. “You are?”

“I’m Morgan.”

We’re all missing something.

“Okay, Morgan.”

“You’re talking to us about observation, but I think we’re all missing something.”

Grace nodded. “Talk to me.”

“I see Maxine’s pain.”

Grace turned to look at the mannequin head. “How so?”

“You keep referring to Maxine as she and her…”

Grace squinted.

“Maxine could be they/them. Maxine could be different from what we see on the surface.”

Grace looked at the student. “Morgan, what are you seeing here?”

Morgan stood, hesitated, stepped up to the mannequin. Lifted it to face the class. “I see someone with one earring. Not usual for a girl. I see butterfly tattoos tucked behind the ear. Visible…but not obvious.”

“Yes. We see that too,” Grace said.

“But they speak to me of pain…and of courage. The earring and tattoos are on the side of their head with the fade. They can easily be seen. There’s no earring or tattoos on the side with all the curly hair.” 

Grace stared at Maxine. 

Morgan set the head back on the table. A girl from a side seat stepped forward, her smartphone extended. “Cool. I want a picture of Maxine.”

 Grace continued to stare at Maxine. “I started the lecture with a weak attempt at humor, but I did not anticipate closing here. Observing difference in our subject.” 

Grace spoke to Maria. “I applaud your class. If Maxine could speak, she…they… would thank you for truly seeing them.”

Grace placed the mannequin head back in the box, closed the lid. She turned to Morgan, smiled. “From here forward Maxine’s name will be Morgan.”

***

shortfiction24 – the goat movie

What I’m Writing This Week

Jack and Diane are back. Jack reaches out, tries his humor on a distraught Diane. This is the pair’s fifth appearance on shortfiction24. The characters continue to talk to me.

The Goat Movie

Bob Gillen

Tears ran down Diane Somers’s face as she sipped the last of her breakfast coffee. A single photo lay unframed on the kitchen table. A picture of her late husband, Frank, a huge grin spread across his face, poised to blow out birthday candles. Their daughter Margaret sat at his side. A memorable occasion, only six weeks before Frank’s deadly heart attack. 

Diane pushed the photo aside. Three years gone. Frank…and Margaret. Frank dead, Margaret estranged from her mother. 

Her phone chirped. A text from Jack Marin. Want to see a movie tonight?

Diane hesitated, then replied, What’s playing?

A text came back. A star-studded feature: Billy Idol, Billie Eilish, Billie Holiday, Billy Elliot and Billy Porter starring in the barnyard classic ‘What’s Got Your Goat’? 

Diane stared at the phone. What the hell? She dialed Jack, rather than deal with typing on the phone.

“Hi,” Jack said. “The goat movie sound interesting?”

“I don’t get it.”

“Goats? Billy goats?”

She smiled in spite of herself. “Okay. Sorry, you caught me at a bad time.”

“Should I call later?”

“No, no. It’s fine. Did you stay up all night thinking of that?”

“Nope. I have a notebook filled with these. Been writing them for years. Did you ever watch the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?”

“Some. He was not a favorite of mine.”

“Yeah…well I always loved his character Art Fern. Remember? Art Fern and the Tea Time Movie?”

“Vaguely.”

“Girl, your education has sadly been lacking.”

“A matter of opinion…boy.”

Jack snorted. “Okay, I’ll drop it for now…but you may hear more where that came from.”

“Save it, Jack.”

“Listen, if you’re not up to a movie, we could spend a few hours at the zoo. I have a friend who works there. I can get free tickets.”

“Probably not…not today, Jack.” Diane reached for a paper napkin as tears began to flow again.

Jack pushed on. “Yeah, okay. My friend’s a vet. Does a lot of work with the LA Zoo.”

A pause while Diane hesitated to react. 

“He treats mostly the elephants. They seem prone to some kind of skin condition.”

“Jack, don’t.”

“Honest. His business card reads, Pachydermatologist.”

Diane moaned. “I see what you did there…and it hurt.”

“Hey, you throw enough on the wall, some of it will stick.”

Diane took a deep breath, dabbed at stray tears. “Was there a real reason you texted?”

“Actually…yeah. Thinking of you and reaching out.”

“Thanks, Jack. That’s nice.”

“How about dinner tonight? I’d offer to cook for you, but I know you’re skittish about moving too fast.”

“Dinner would be great. How about something light? Maybe a sandwich and salad somewhere.”

“Done. Can I pick you up…or would you rather meet there?”

“Let’s meet there. Wherever ‘there’ is.”

“How about that bistro place at the promenade? They make a good sandwich. Lots of outdoor seating too.”

“See you there at six.”

Diane put her phone down. Her gaze returned to Frank’s photo. You’ve been gone for three years now…please help me understand why Margaret refuses to talk to me. She won’t take any calls from me. It’s killing me, Frank. She’s all I have left.

She reached for a Post-It pad from the counter, pulled off a tab and stuck it over Margaret’s face on the photo. This comes off when you call me.

***

shortfiction24 – our last downhill run

What I’m Writing This Week

Jared Clark is a teacher, a man of his word. He promised a student he would drop off a gift she handed him for her long-distance boyfriend while Jared attended an out-of-town conference in New York City. It cost him.

Our Last Downhill Run

Bob Gillen

Jared Clark high-fived his buddy Larry. “It’s over!”

The two men huddled in a corner of the hotel lobby as conference participants streamed out of the ballroom. 

“Yup. Continuing ed credits done, and on the school district’s dime.” Larry stuffed his course notes into his briefcase. “And now, a night out in New York before we fly home.”

Jared fumbled in his own briefcase.

Larry said, “A guy in my discussion group told me about a cool jazz club. Only a few blocks from here. We can walk it easy.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s called Reedy’s. All kinds of musicians jam there. This guy swears he saw Sonny Rollins sit in on one set last week.”

“Food?”

“Yeah. Steaks and burgers.”

“I’m in.” Jared cocked his head. “But I have to meet you there later.”

“The conference is over.” Larry brushed his hands together. “We’re free.”

“I have to drop something off. It’s about 20 minutes from here.”

Larry grinned. “Jared, get real. You can’t afford a New York hooker.”

Jared grew red in the face. “No, no. Seriously.”

“Spill,” Larry said. 

“Okay. One of my students asked me to drop off a gift for some guy she met while skiing last winter break.” He pulled a small package out of his briefcase.

“You can’t be serious. Winter break was three months ago. We’re a thousand miles away from our school.”

Jared shrugged. “I said I would try.”

“They couldn’t mail it?”

“Personal touch…I guess.”

Larry lifted his chin. “Who asked you to do this?”

“Ashley Peters.”

“Yeah, she can be persistent.”

Jared repeated, “I said I’d try.”

“Does the guy know you’re coming?”

“Nope. I don’t have a number. Just an address.”

“You’re crazy, you know that, right?”

“Yeah. But I don’t want to let her down.”

Larry shrugged on his jacket. “I don’t want to go to Reedy’s alone. Come on, let’s hail a cab.”

“You don’t have to do this, Larry.”

“No worries. Let’s double-team this guy, then go party.”

They hustled out of the hotel lobby and grabbed a cab.

“Friday night, mister. Traffic will be bad.”

An hour later, the cab pulled up in front of a modest home on a quiet street. Larry pointed to the meter. “I said I’d ride with you, but the fare is on you.”

Jared nodded. He told the cab driver to wait. “I’ll only be a minute.” 

A young man in jeans and a black hoodie answered the bell.

“Hi. I’m a teacher. My name is Jared. I’m looking for Wayne.”

The young man stared at Jared.

“Ashley Peters is a student of mine. She asked me to drop off a package for Wayne while I was in New York.”

Jared held out the package.

The young man didn’t move. “I’m Wayne.”

“Oh good. Then this is for you, and I’ll be on my way.”

Wayne did not extend his hand. “She broke up with me.”

“Wait, what?”

“She broke up with me, man. Yesterday. I got a text. She’s seeing another guy.”

Jared stood frozen, hand holding the package out.

The cab driver honked the horn.

You got played.

“I gotta go,” Jared said. “Do you want this?”

Wayne shook his head again. “No way. You got played…we both got played.”

He closed the door.

The horn honked again.

Jared climbed back in the cab. “Back to the hotel, please.”

“How did it go?” Larry asked.

Jared held out the package. “He didn’t want it. She broke up with him.”

“No way. You got played.”

“No shit. That’s what he just said.”

Larry grabbed the package, tore the tissue wrapping off to reveal a book. Magic on the Lifts. Inside, the inscription: I’ll never forget our last downhill run.

Larry laughed. “Okay, you tried. Let’s go party.”

Back at the hotel, Jared paid the driver.

“You need to send Ashley a delivery bill for the cab.”

“Right? Come on. The club is my treat!”

“Now you’re talking!”

Jared crumbled the tissue wrapping into a tight ball and tossed it in a trash can on the sidewalk.

“Should I return the book?” Jared asked. Larry shrugged.

Jared said, “I tried.” He flipped the book sideways under a passing crosstown bus.

***

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