Healing through story

Category: books (Page 1 of 25)

shortfiction24 – enough of self-pity

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

Enjoy the story.

Enough of Self-Pity

Bob Gillen

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

Life imitates art. Sally had done the same. 

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Sally.”

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

“Vaughn?” A whisper.

A man sitting in her chair nodded.

Sally shook her head, blinked her eyes hard.

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

“I came back.”

“How? Why?”

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

Sally slid over to the couch and sat.

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

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

“Sally, I had to talk to you.”

“What? I’m dreaming, right?”

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

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

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

Sally again shook her head in disbelief.

“Sally, you’ve been drinking.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

Vaughn gave an almost unseen nod.

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

No reply. Sally turned. 

The chair was empty. No Vaughn. 

She shuddered, hugged herself. Am I hallucinating?

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



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

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

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

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

She watched the contents gurgle down the sink drain.


shortfiction24 – rare and aggressive

In story #7 of the Jack and Diane series, they face an unwanted diagnosis.

Another test of their relationship.

Enjoy the story. Previous six stories are here.

Rare and Aggressive

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin pulled his Ford F-150 into Diane Somers’s driveway, behind her Toyota Prius. He turned off the engine, sat in silence. How do I talk about this?

The clock on his dash read 6:30 p.m. An hour since he got his diagnosis. Since he lost something. Something as yet undefined.

Diane came to the door, her face grim. She stood, waiting, giving him space.

Jack slid out of his truck, walked toward her.

“It’s bad?” she said.

He nodded. “Yeah. Bad.”

“Come in.” She held the door for him.

Jack walked to her kitchen table, sat in his usual place, back to the living room. Diane came up next to him, stood there, her arm gently around his shoulder. “Want to talk about it?”

“Do you have coffee?”

Diane poured a cup from the French press. “Just made some.”

He sipped the coffee. “Better than the ‘Bucks, any day,” he said.

Diane sat opposite him.

“I had to wait for a bit. The patient ahead of me was late. Then his assistant ushered me to the doctor’s office. I was never there before. Usually an exam room. I knew…”

She reached across the table and touched his hand.

“He said the biopsy revealed carcinoma on my prostate. The spot he was concerned about after the MRI. He said it’s a rare and aggressive carcinoma.”

Jack sipped his coffee.

“Shit,” Diane said. “What now?”

Jack shrugged. “He wants to remove the whole prostate as soon as possible.”

“Will that get the carcinoma?”

“If I’m lucky.”

Diane frowned.

“If it doesn’t spread…”

“So…we hope for the best.”

“I guess.”

“Any after effects?”

“I’ll be incontinent…at least six to twelve months, maybe longer. I have to wear a paper diaper.”


“And I will have ED.”

Diane’s eyes widened. “Really?”


Jack raised his coffee mug to his lips. 

Diane said, “I ordered pizza. Should be here soon. Are you hungry?”

Jack shook his head. “Don’t think so. Maybe.”

He shrugged. “I knew right away it was bad.”

“We’ll get through it,” she said.

“Your boyfriend, the one with big boy pants and a non-working dick.”

“My boyfriend…stop there. The rest is not important.”

Jack looked up from his coffee mug. “I won’t have much to offer.”

“You’ll be here. That’s what counts.”

The doorbell rang. “Pizza’s here.” She got up to answer the bell.

“Will you feel bad if I eat?” she asked. “I skipped lunch today.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Diane pulled a slice out of the box and grabbed a napkin.

“I feel so bitter,” Jack said.

Diane peered at him over her slice.

“Bitter. My first reaction. Not fear or even anger. Bitter.”

Jack grabbed a napkin and a slice. “Maybe I am hungry.”

“Why bitter?”

“Did I ever tell you this? I pray every night for health. Years ago I listened to the audio tapes of a couple of Pema Chödrön books. You know her? The Buddhist nun?”

“I’ve heard of her. Don’t know her work.”

“She teaches you how to pray, in an expanding kind of way. Pray for yourself first. Then open your prayer to those close to you. If you are comfortable, move your prayer out further to those you may not know. And if you are able to, if you feel the generosity, even pray for your enemies, for those who do you and the world harm.”

Diane nodded.

“It helped me when I lost my wife…Anyway, especially the last few months I have prayed for health. For freedom from illness and malignancy. I have prayed to the spirits of love, to the healing power of the universe. I believe in that. And here I am…a rare and aggressive carcinoma. Not just a malignant cell. Rare.”

Jack set his slice down on the napkin. He lowered his head in his hands. Shook his head. “I’m not ready. I have too much to do yet. It’s not my time.”

Diane said, “Okay then, it’s not your time. Believe that. Hold on to that thought as you go forward.”

Jack looked up, nodded. “Can I stay here tonight? Nothing intimate. Just be with you. I need you.”

Diane’s eyes filled with tears. She got up and came to Jack’s side. “Stay here, of course.”

In the morning Jack woke to the smell of coffee. He rolled out of bed right away, got dressed, headed for the kitchen.

“Good morning.” A cheery greeting from Diane.


Jack hugged Diane. Hard. Close. “Thank you.”

Diane smiled. “We got this. Don’t know how yet, but we got this.”

Jack sat and sipped his coffee. “Any leftover pizza?”

“In the fridge,” she said.

He got up, put two slices on a paper plate in the microwave.

“I don’t know yet when surgery will be. The doc said within six weeks.”

“Okay.” Diane stirred oatmeal on a small pot, added raisins.

“How long have we known each other?” he asked. “Three months or so?”

“Three months, two weeks, four days.”


The microwave beeped.

“And we have both been playing this very cautiously. Friendship, with a touch of affection. An occasional PDA.”

Diane nodded. “It’s what we both needed to do.”

“Right. So…six weeks or so and I will never be able to be intimate with you…no matter how slow we want to go.”


“I don’t know if I want to be intimate now…before the surgery.”

Diane poured the hot oatmeal into a bowl. “We don’t need to decide that today.”

“No. I mean, if we were intimate now, it would be wonderful, but then we would never be able to do that again.”

“What exactly are we talking about here? You will not be able to have an erection? No orgasm?”

“I think so. The doc was not too specific.”

“But my parts would still work.”

He smiled. “A one way street.”

“One orgasm, two intimate partners.”

Jack waved his hand. “Enough on this. How about we hit the beach later today?”

“I could do that, if you go home to shower and change first. You may be sick, but you’re not throwing in the towel.”

He smiled. “Any more pizza in the fridge?”

Later, on the beach at Point Dume, they walked back and forth along the water’s edge. 

“I like you, Jack Marin.”

“Back atcha, Diane Somers.”

She reached out to hold his hand. “I feel like I might be moving towards loving you. Not sure yet.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

They stood still and listened to the surf crash on the sand.


shortfiction24 – tag, you’re it

Matthew’s spirit passes the baton before he leaves this world for the next. Baby Ethan will grow into his mission.

Enjoy the short story.

Tag, You’re It

Bob Gillen

Matthew lay in his hospital bed, the cancer claiming his life a breath at a time. His wife and two daughters lingered, knowing his last moment was imminent. IV tubes fed Matthew with pain killers, leaving him unconscious. A white beanie sat on his head. He had complained of being cold. His wife thought he was also self-conscious of his sudden and total hair loss.

At nine p.m. on Christmas Eve Matthew flatlined. His family sobbed, hugged one another, and said goodbye. The oncology nurse began removing the IV tubes. His hospital gown slipped off his shoulder, revealing a tattoo of a heart. She touched the tattoo gently, covered his body and left the room.

Matthew’s spirit lingered in the room. Not quite ready to pass over. He had one more task to perform. His spirit drifted off the Oncology unit and through the halls. Sadly quiet on a Christmas Eve. He moved until he found the Maternity unit. The room he was looking for was at the end of the hall. A few hours passed. At one a.m. on Christmas morning little Ethan burst onto the scene. His mother lay back exhausted. The nurse soothed the baby’s squawks, washed him, then laid his naked body on his mother’s bare chest. Skin to skin. Warmth to warmth. Bonding at the start of life.

Matthew hovered unseen in the background. “Hey, little buddy. Welcome.” Ethan blinked.

Ethan’s dad hurried into the room. “I go down for coffee and you have the baby!”

He rushed to see Ethan. A tear wound its way down his cheek. 

“He surprised us,” his mom said.

The dad sat at bedside, holding his wife’s hand. 

The nurse pointed to Ethan’s shoulder. “He has a tiny birthmark. Almost in the shape of a heart. It will probably fade as he gets older.”

The nurse slipped a white knitted cap on Ethan’s head. A precious gift from his grandma. “They lose some of their body heat through the top of their heads,” the nurse said.

Matthew’s spirit spoke to Ethan. “Little man, I know you can’t communicate yet. That will take time. I’m here to tell you, I’ve got your back. I’m leaving now. Turning it over to you. I’ve done what I needed to do. It’s your turn now.”

Matthew lingered for a few minutes. Christmas Day. New life. The baton passing to another. It was time for Matthew to leave. Matthew’s spirit brushed Ethan’s birthmark. “Tag, you’re it.”


shortfiction24 – a broken leg, a broken heart

Sister Grace has prepared her class for this moment for the past year. Their First Communion. The Gospel reading of the Good Shepherd. An old man turns it all upside down.

Enjoy the story.

And see more of my stories on my blog.

A Broken Leg, A Broken Heart

Bob Gillen

Sister Grace radiated with joy on this April Saturday morning. She beamed looking at her second-grade class lined up at the rear of the church. First Communion day for the children at St. Maurice School. The girls looked like little angels in their white dresses and gauzy veils. The boys – well, maybe not angels so much as fish out of water. Uncomfortable in navy blue suits, ties to match, hair slicked and combed.

From above them, in the choir loft, voices chanted the glory of the moment. Sister Grace nodded to the altar servers, who began the procession down the aisle. From the pews parents and relatives craned to get pictures of the children. Sister Grace had chosen the time for the ceremony with great care. Mid morning. As the children walked down to their pews in the front, the sun burst through the stained glass window behind the altar, spraying the aisle with color. Reds, blues, yellows, golds dappled the white dresses of the girls as they passed. A breathtaking display.

Sister Grace simply bubbled with pride as the children took their places. They would now know the joy she feels being close to her Lord.

Bringing up the rear of the procession came Father Francis. A shock of white hair, bushy white eyebrows, hands gnarled with age, a network of creases webbed on his face. He reached the altar, greeted the children and their families, and began the ceremony. Several well-rehearsed children read selected passages from the Bible. 

Father Francis climbed the steps to the pulpit for the Gospel reading. The story of the Good Shepherd. A favorite of Christians everywhere. Sister Grace had learned a week ago that  Father Francis would be performing the ceremony today. She had sent him a note explaining what she had taught the children about the Good Shepherd. How he persisted out of love to search for and retrieve the lost sheep. How he had cradled it in his arms and returned it to the safety of the flock. How he reflected the love Jesus has for the lost, for all of us. Her first note had been typed, but she thought better of that and sent a penned note instead. More personal, she felt.

Father Francis finished the Gospel reading and directed all to sit. He smiled at the children, welcomed their families once again, and opened his sermon. The raspy lilt of an Irish brogue hung on his words. 

“I want to welcome all of you to this wonderful occasion.” He gestured to the children in front of him. “These beautiful spirits will, in just a few moments, join with our Savior in a most wonderful way as they are united with Jesus himself. A spiritual union, a source of nourishment, that begins today and will continue with them for the rest of their lives.”

Father Francis directed his next comments to the children. “I know you are familiar with the story of the Good Shepherd. How he searched diligently until he found the lost sheep. But do you know what the Good Shepherd did when he brought that sheep back to the herd?”

There was a dramatic pause. Father Francis stared down at the children. A few of them shook their heads, no. 

He pointed at them. “Let me tell you. There is a lesson here for you…indeed for all of us. Straying from the flock brings with it a consequence, an accountability.”

Sister Grace felt coldness blooming inside her.

Father Francis spread his arms wide. “When the shepherd reunited the stray sheep with the flock,” he made a snapping gesture with both hands, “he broke one of its legs to prevent it from wandering away again.”

The children’s eyes popped wide open. There were audible groans from many of the parents and relatives.

“Yes, the lost sheep needed to be disciplined for wandering away, for its sinful behavior. And limping about, it now stood out among the other sheep as a sign of what happens when you stray from the flock. From the community.”

Sister Grace felt tears running down her face. One of the boys sitting in front of her turned and said to her, “Is that true?”

She patted his shoulder.

Father Francis concluded, “Let us not grow weary of being united in the fold of Jesus.”

Sister Grace’s tears continued to flow as the ceremony continued. She told herself, I think I am allowed a crude thought. One whole year’s worth of teaching, now gone down the toilet. All because of a couple of words from this clueless old man.

At the altar Father Francis intoned, “Let all God’s people say Amen.”


shortfiction24 – hot wings, hot words

Trust is everything. Brian’s lack of trust (read, stupidity) threatens to destroy his relationship with Erin.

This story started as a prompt almost a year ago. It has evolved a long way from my first draft. Please enjoy the story. I hope you like the characters.

Hot Wings, Hot Words

Bob Gillen

Brian tossed his phone face up on the bar table. “Shit! She’s still not picking up.”

Coming up on midnight on a Monday. Brian slid off his stool. “Who wants to go in on a double order of Nashville wings?” He pointed at Dina and Scott as they sipped their beers.

“I’m in, my man,” Scott said, hoisting his longneck.

“Not me,” Dina said. “Morning will come too soon. I need to leave in a few.”

Brian stepped away to put his order in with the bartender.

Dina turned to Scott. “He’s getting desperate, isn’t he?”

Scott nodded. “He wants her to be the one.”

Brian returned to the table. “Food’s up in a few.” He glanced at his phone. “I don’t get it. Erin isn’t answering my texts. Nothing. She said she’d be here tonight.”

A long moment of silence. 

‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ came up on the bar’s blues sound track.

A server set a plate of Nashville wings, a bowl of white sauce and a stack of napkins on the table.

“Pure heaven,” Scott said, grabbing three wings. “Hot wings, hot company.”

Dina grimaced.

Brian glanced again at his phone. A frown creased his face. “Is she dumping me?”

Dina said, “Brian, come on. Maybe Erin got caught up in a family emergency.”


“Stop looking at your phone. She’ll answer when she can.”

Scott motioned to Dina. “Try the wings.”

Dina rubbed a finger on a crispy wing, touched it to her lips. She shook her head. “Too hot for me.”

“More for me,” Scott said with a smile. He began piling bones on a napkin.

Brian stared at his phone.

“We have plans to go to Venice tomorrow. Walk the beach. Get some tacos.”

He took one bite of a wing, smearing sauce on his face. Carrying the wing, he got up, strode to the front door. He stepped outside, looked up and down the sidewalk.

“Man, I’ve never seen him so manic,” Scott said. “Someone has to talk him down.”

“Leave me out of this,” Dina said. 

Brian came back to the table, still holding the wing. “This sucks. Where is she that she won’t answer me?” He took a long pull on his beer with his free hand. 

The bar’s sound system thumped out ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’

“Love this song,” Scott said as he wiped grease off his fingers. “Got an awesome bottom to it.”

“Dude, you’re a bottom feeder,” Dina said.

“Proud of it,” Scott replied, taking a swig of his beer.

Brian’s phone chirped. He dropped the half-eaten wing on the table and wiped his hand on his jeans as he snatched up the phone. 


Brian listened for a moment. “Thanks, buddy.”

He set the phone down.

“That was Josh. He’s walking home past the new club over on Melrose.”

Brian stood, shoved the plate of wings aside. 

“He spotted Erin coming out of there with a tall guy in a dark suit. He said she’s all dressed up.”

B. B. King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ came up on the sound system.

“She lied to me,” Brian said. He flipped a middle finger at the phone. “She lied. She said she’d be here tonight.”

Scott and Dina exchanged worried glances.

“Enough with her bullshit,” Brian said.

He pounded out a text message on his phone, hit Send.

Dina put her hand on Brian’s arm. “What did you just do?”

“I told her off.” He slammed his phone down on the table.

“Not a good move, Bri,” she said.

Brian slammed his hand on the tabletop. “She lied.”

Dina raised her eyes to the bar’s door. Squinted. “I think I need to go.”

She slipped off her stool. Took a last gulp of her beer.

Scott continued chewing the wings, adding to the pile of bones in front of him. Dina caught his eye, directed his glance to the door.

His eyes popped wide. He jumped up, fisted two more wings, and followed Dina to the door. “See ya, buddy.”

“Where are you guys going?”

They were gone.

Brian sagged, grabbed for a wing, dropped it on the floor.

He stooped to pick  up the stray wing. A pair of white sneakers spattered with red moved in front of the wing, blocking Brian’s grip. He looked up.

Erin glowered down at Brian. She stepped up next to him, waving her phone in his face. “I just got your text!”

“Wait, I thought you were clubbing with some guy.” He stood quickly, bumping his shoulder on the table’s edge.

“Where did you hear that?”

“Josh saw you.”

She pointed to his phone. “You took the word of your drunken buddy over mine?”

“He said he saw you.”

“Whoever he saw, it wasn’t me.”

Brian’s shoulders sagged with relief.  “Oh.” He attempted a smile. “I guess you can ignore my text, then. Sorry.”

Sorry? Ignore your lack of trust?”

Panic flashed in his eyes. He combed his fingers through his hair. “Where’ve you been all night?”

 “I got called in to the ER. They had five gunshot victims and they needed more trauma nurses.”


“I didn’t have time to text you. It was a nightmare. We lost two. The other three will probably wish they didn’t make it.” A single tear inched down her cheek. “After what I saw tonight, I hoped for a warm hug.”

Brian looked over toward the bar.

“Can I get you a beer?”

Her head shook. “Are you serious?”

Brian shrugged. Reached for a wing. Dropped it back on the plate.

Erin shoved her phone in her jeans pocket. “You expect me to sit here and drink with you?”

Brian nodded weakly. His eyes could not meet hers.

She lifted one foot. “Did you not see the blood on my sneakers? I spent the last six hours piecing people back together. I am damn good at it. The ER docs and the trauma surgeons trust me. The patients trust me…But you? Zero trust.”

A quiet fury flamed in her eyes. She gritted her teeth to hold back tears.

“You…after a year of seeing each other…you don’t trust me.”

Brian’s cheeks burned red.

Erin pointed to her chin. “Take a good look. This is the last time you’ll see my face. Asshole.”

She turned to walk out. Stopped and pivoted.

“Wait. This is my bar. I introduced you to this place. I want you to leave.”

She waved to the bartender. “Joe, vodka rocks…please.”

Brian stood motionless. 

“I’m serious, Brian. Move your ass.” She waved her thumb towards the door.

She pulled over a stool. “And leave the wings.”


shortfiction24 – peter’s heavenly holiday

Peter enjoys a brief break from his gatekeeper duties. But long lines of souls pile up at the gates.

I enjoyed an exercise of “what if” speculation for this story. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Peter’s Heavenly Holiday

Bob Gillen

It’s a known fact that St. Peter guards the gates of Heaven. Well, perhaps guard isn’t the right word. More like monitors or oversees. No one is ever turned away.

What is little known is Peter has a crew that helps him admit souls to Heaven. On a normal day Peter can handle the admissions well enough. But normal days are relatively rare these days. The earth’s population has grown exponentially, and the world continually suffers with death-dealing events.

Peter’s crew are individual souls who are earning their way into full joy and eternal bliss. Despite common belief, there is no Purgatory or Hell. The afterlife is only Heaven. But within Heaven there are levels of bliss. Most souls need to atone for something to earn higher levels of joy.

Peter has been at the gates for two thousand years, in earthly time. Ever since shortly after Jesus told him he was the rock on which Jesus’s church would be set. While there’s no measurement for time in the spirit world, Peter would tell you he’s been on the job for a long time. He doesn’t remember who had the job before him. Not important, anyway.

So, here’s Peter, standing at the gates 24/7. For two thousand years. Even spirits get tired. Peter’s second in command, Calvin, is earning his way to full bliss in Heaven. Calvin approached Peter.

“We got advanced notice. There’s going to be a massive earthquake tomorrow on earth. Many thousands of souls will be lining up at the gates. All at once.”

Peter groaned. “It never stops, does it?”

“Billions of people down there. Earth’s population keeps growing.”

“I’m tired,” Peter said.

“Want a break? I can take over while it’s quiet.”

Peter nodded. “See you in a few.”

Peter smiled, moved off.

He wandered through sections of Heaven. First he passed the many souls enjoying full eternal bliss. Everyone entering Heaven got to see these souls first. Kind of a teaser. This is what you will enjoy when you have grown into it, earned a path to it.

Farther, deeper, into the folds of Heaven, he came upon the area reserved for those who have a long way to go before experiencing full joy. This was Heaven’s back forty. A dark aura pervaded. In earthly terms one would experience dark purple clouds, even an occasional flash of lightning. An area Peter took no joy in visiting. Hitler’s spirit resided here. So did the spirits of the clergy who had abused children. In one small corner were the spirits of several deceased American politicians, people who had boldly displayed willful ignorance in their years allegedly serving their constituents.

Peter moved on quickly. He found himself in a part of Heaven he wished he could spend all his time in. He enjoyed music. There wasn’t much one could call music when he was working on earth so many years ago. He had seen many musicians pass through the gates in his time as gatekeeper. He marveled at what they could do with instruments and voice. Here, too, were the spirits of children. School children. Children murdered by shooters in their own classrooms.

Peter smiled. Freddy Mercury, Janis Joplin, Loretta Lynn and Charlie Watts entertained this group of children. Actually, referring to them as children was a point of discussion. Was there any age distinction in Heaven? Were all spirits the same level of spirit regardless of their ages on earth? 

Peter has had this discussion with Calvin many times. With no definitive answer. Peter believed all souls would be equal when the last of times occurred.

The four musicians Peter knew well. They were in various stages of their own personal transitions into full joy. They provided joy for the children’s spirits until their parents and friends passed and joined them in Heaven. Peter lingered for a time, watching the musician spirits bring joy to the younger souls.

Peter had recently yearned to go back to earth for a visit, to attend a Springsteen concert. “Hungry Heart” was a favorite. But Peter had no time for that kind of activity.

He crossed to the section where well-known authors tended to gather. Hemingway, Sontag, Steinbeck, Seuss, Bradbury, Silverstein. Here, too, the creative process amazed him. Making scenes come to life with words. Many children’s souls lingered here, as the authors told stories of adventure and drama.


The voice of Calvin.

“It’s time. Incoming.”

Peter sighed. Back to the gates.

There would be a day, he knew not when, when life on earth came to an end. Then no more souls would cross through the gates. His duties would be done. For the moment, however, souls kept coming.

Peter glanced at the children. Sighed. “I’ll be right back, Calvin.” 


#shortfiction24 – slow to change

A year ago I introduced Moneen to the Milo story series. This will mark the sixth story. The earlier stories appear on my blog www.bobgillen.net. The standup comic and the dummy have spent eight months together on the road and are ready for a winter hiatus. And a lifestyle change?

Slow To Change

Bob Gillen

I gazed out the windshield of the pickup from my booster seat as Moneen parked the truck in the near-empty beach parking lot.

“I’ve never been to a beach,” I said.


“Nope. Maurice was strictly an urban guy. Hated the outdoors.”

Moneen turned off the engine.

“It’s going to be chilly out there.”

“I don’t feel the cold much. I’ll be okay.”

I watched Moneen zip up her puffy blue coat and pull a beanie on her head. The middle of December on Cape Cod. Cold but above freezing.


“Yeah, Milo.”

“I don’t think I ever said a proper thank you for rescuing me from that awful club.”

 “No need.”

“No, I need to say it. I was buried in the bottom of that closet for so long, I thought I’d never be free again.”

“And here you are, ready to walk the beach for the first time.” She yanked on a pair of leather gloves.

I felt excited to see the beach and the ocean. Moneen slipped out of the truck and came around to pick me up from the seat. She locked the truck and we started for the beach.

There were a few cars in the parking lot. I didn’t see anyone around. Just as well. It must have looked odd for a woman to be carrying a ventriloquist’s dummy to the beach. In the winter. But if the two of us were anything, it was odd. 

A straight and a queer, I like to say. A straight dummy and a lesbian standup comic. We had been touring LGBTQ clubs in the northeastern US for the last eight months or so. Ever since she found me – entirely by accident – in the bottom of a clothes closet in a club green room. Moneen adopted me and included me in her act. Not too much. I have to admit, I am still getting used to the situation. I don’t do change very well. But she’s a pretty good ventriloquist.

For years I toured with my ventriloquist Maurice until his sudden death on stage one fateful night. Maurice was my friend, my constant companion. And now here I am touring with Moneen.

“The beach is at the end of this path,” Moneen said. She shrugged a scarf tighter around her neck with one hand, holding me with the other.

We followed a sandy path over a rise in the dunes. I smelled a smell I had never experienced before. A mix of grass, sand, salt. To the side of the path dune grasses rustled gently in the breeze off the ocean. As we topped the rise the panaroma of beach and ocean opened before us. The waves coming in off the ocean slapped softly against the beach’s edge. They slapped and slipped away. Slapped and slipped.

This is seriously cool, I thought. 

Moneen took us down near the water’s edge. The tide was out and there were hundreds of ripples in the wet sand. It looked like the inside of a corrugated box.

Moneen stopped, reached down and slipped off her sandals.

“I may regret this,” she said, “but I need to feel sand between my toes.” 

“What does that feel like?” I asked.

She knelt down in the damp sand, lowered me so my hand could touch the sand. 

It felt grainy, damp. Not smooth, like the makeup Maurice used to wear on stage. Not powdery, like talcum. More like a handful of sugar or salt.

Moneen moved my hand through the sand, digging down and pulling out a handful that ran between my fingers.

If my rigid face could crack a smile, now would be the moment.

I saw birds skittering across the sand at the water’s edge. They weren’t pigeons…the only bird I had seen before today.

“The clouds are beautiful,” Moneen said. She pointed to a horizon filled with low hanging purple clouds.

We walked along the water’s edge for a while. Farther down the beach I saw two figures. Maybe a woman and a child. The child was wearing yellow boots and a puffy pink coat. The birds scattered as they walked along, then reassembled behind them.

“They look like they’re having fun,” I said.

Moneen nodded.

“Are you enjoying this?” she asked me.

“Oh yes.”

“There’ll be more of this in Florida, when we get there in a few days.”

“No more gigs?”

“No more gigs, Milo. Not for a while. Today is the start of my winter break. I have friends in Florida. I crash with them every winter. There’s a softball league I play with. I’m the shortstop. Pretty good at it, too.”

“There’s more beach there?”

“Miles and miles of beach. Warm too. You’ll like it.”

“What will I do?”

“What do you mean?”

“No gigs?”

“No gigs. I always promise myself a few months off the road. Time to refuel. Write new material. Sleep.”

“So I just lay around?”

“Well…you can help me write new material. Look for the humor in life.”

“Sounds kinda boring.”

“Boring is good, Milo. I need it to refresh myself.”

The woman and child ahead of us had turned around and were walking back towards us. The child, a girl, pointed at us, said something to her mom.

They approached us. 

“Is that a dummy?” the girl asked Moneen.

“Yup. His name is Milo.”

Moneen slipped her hand inside my controls.

“Hi,” she had me say. “Are you enjoying the beach?”

The girl beamed, looked to her mother. “He’s talking to me!”

“Answer him,” her mom said.

“I love the beach. Look.” She reached into her pocket. “I found this today.”

She held out a piece of blue sand glass. 

“Blue is pretty rare,” Moneen said.

The mom said, “Thank you for talking to us. We need to go. She has a hot chocolate waiting for her at our favorite diner.”

The girl waved as they walked off.

“Cute kid,” I said.

Moneen nodded.

I sensed sadness in her face.

“Are you okay?”

Moneen was silent for a bit as we walked on.

“Milo, I may be finished with gigs and standup.”

“Finished? Why? What do you mean?”

I saw a few tears run down Moneen’s cheek. I don’t recall ever seeing her cry.

She held up her free hand. “Give me a few minutes.”

We walked along the beach for a while. Moved away from the water’s edge, up where the sand was drier. 

After a bit Moneen turned and we headed back to the parking lot. 

At the truck Moneen used an old towel to wipe the sand off her feet. She put her sandals back on. “My ankles and soles are killing me,” she said. “That rippled sand is a killer to walk on.”

She set me on my booster seat, came around and fired up the engine. She cranked up the heat.

“I think my standup days are done.”

She stared out the windshield as the sun began to set. 

“I never told you this, Milo.” I saw her pull a tissue out of her pocket. 

“I’m tired.” She leaned forward on the steering wheel. “Finding you…working with you…it’s been great. You got me through this past year.”

Moneen sat back, stared up at the roof of the cab. “Working with you has made me think, I want a child. I want a partner. Someone to love. Like the mother and daughter we just met on the beach.”

“You can love me,” I said. I was feeling a touch of panic. Will I be left alone?

“I do love you. And you will always have a place in my heart. But I need a human love too.”

Moneen began to sob. I never saw this. I didn’t know what to do. After all, she was my voice.

“What I started to say a minute ago, I never told you I once had a partner. Chrissy. She and I were together for five years. In our third year we adopted a baby. Actually a toddler. He was a year and a half when we got him.”

Moneen wiped her face with a tissue.

“His name was Roddy. Our baby. God, he was beautiful. But my partner and I split up two years later. I was on the road a lot, and she resented my being gone so much. Anyway, she got custody of Roddy. I haven’t seen him since. They moved out to California, to the Bay area. I get a card and a picture every Christmas.”

I watched her cry and cry. What should I do? I can’t hug her unless she moves me.

“When I get to Florida there should be a card waiting for me.”

Moneen reached over, lifted me off the seat, and hugged me. Hugged me hard. No one had ever done that to me. It felt good. Warm. Like I was more than a wooden dummy. 

Moneen laughed. She set me back in the seat. 

“I was just thinking of that joke I used in our last gig. It was a real groaner, wasn’t it?”

I had to agree. 

“Any of you into art history?” she had asked the audience. “Do you know the painter Toulouse Lautrec?” Most of the audience nodded.

“Do you know how he got his name? No? Let me tell you.

“When Lautrec was a young teenager he was going through a growth spurt. His mother took him to a tailor. The tailor handed him a pair of pants, sent him to the changing room. Lautrec came back a few minutes later. ‘Put your arms at your side,’ the tailor said. The pants fell down around his ankles. The tailor said, ‘What’s the matter, Lautrec? Pants too loose?’”

Moneen laughed again. “I’m getting stale.”

She pulled out of the parking lot.

“I think we have to find a laundromat, buddy. Get cleaned up. Florida is a long drive.”

I looked down at my navy pants and striped shirt. “Maybe I should get a new outfit.”

“Really? Wow. Time to shed the French sailor boy look?”

“I told you I’m slow to change.”

Moneen shrugged. “Yeah, buddy, so am I.”

She reached over and patted my knee. “What do you say we do this together?”

Deal,” I said. “A straight and a queer, looking for change.”


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