Healing through story

Category: filmmaking (Page 1 of 6)

shortfiction24 – small-town betty

The local shortline railroad that ran through Betty’s town made a sharp curve within inches of her house. For over sixty years, Betty lived with this oddity. Even with offers to relocate her home, Betty refused to leave.

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Small-town Betty

Bob Gillen

Betty Thorndyke has lived in her quaint, gingerbread-edged home for over sixty years. Her husband Charley, gone nine years, had built the house as soon as Betty accepted his proposal. Charley worked at Jaxon Industries, the local factory at the west end of their town. He loved the work, and thrived on having no land to cultivate, not even a lawn to cut or a shrub to trim. When Charley was not working, he was on the front porch with a can of beer in his hand.

Main Street in their little town spanned a mile-long stretch extending from Jaxon Industries at the town’s west end to Charley and Betty’s home, the last house on the east end. A short-line railroad served the factory and half a dozen other factories in the area.

Unlike many other rural main streets, this one had every shop occupied. Occupied and thriving. A hardware store, two grocery stores, a barber and a hair stylist, a diner. A strong local economy, thanks to the town’s factory, Jaxon Industries, which employed a number of residents from the town and the surrounding county. 

Every morning, Monday through Friday, a diesel locomotive pushed two empty box cars down the track in the middle of Main Street to the factory’s loading dock. The engine then coupled to one or two box cars loaded with Jaxon product to ship out. The engine pulled the cars back up Main Street, turned north around Betty’s house, and headed for the other factories. Twenty miles up the line the engine set out the loaded cars to be picked up by a mainline railroad.

The rail curve from Main Street around Betty’s home was sharp, the trains passing within a foot of the house. Any stranger to the town stood in amazement watching the train navigate the curve.

Betty and her husband Charley had lived in the house since they were married sixty years ago. The railroad track was there first. Charley bought the property because it was so cheap. Who would want a house so close to a railroad track? For Charley and his new bride it was not an issue. The train passed only in the morning, only Monday to Friday, only moving at slow speeds. 

Now long retired from her earlier career as a nurse, with Charley gone nine years ago, Betty sat on her front porch and waved to Benny the engineer each time he passed. Benny drove a re-built SW1200 diesel belonging to Forward Rail, the shortline servicing the area. It was a small diesel by railroad standards, but a monster when passing within a foot of someone’s front porch. The diesel’s shorter wheelbase and minimum turning radius made it an ideal choice for the town and the curve around Betty’s house. 

In the summer months, with schools closed, Forward Rail had two men, one on each side, walk Main Street with the train to keep the local kids from climbing on the box cars. That, after one boy slipped and lost a foot under the train.

David Bauer, CEO of Jaxon Industries, was a decent employer. He paid his people well enough, considering he was the only game in town. But Bauer was a business owner interested in making profits. And additional profits were proving elusive. Bauer’s business had grown strong enough that he could ship more product. And in turn he could offer more jobs for the town. But that would require larger, longer box cars. And those cars would not tolerate the sharp curve around Betty’s house. Not without tearing the corner off her building. Bauer had first approached Betty three years ago. He offered to pay to relocate her house fifty feet back from the railroad track. The cost would be incurred equally by his company and by Forward Rail.

Betty refused the offer. The house was precious to her. The view of the countryside south of her front porch was magnificent. And having to move to a motel during her home’s relocation was in no way attractive to her.

Bauer came back with his offer yearly. 

Betty’s answer was always the same. 

No.

The cost of moving the rail track away from Betty’s house would not be exorbitant, Bauer knew, but the down time would be prohibitive. Product had to move out daily.

Last year someone had proposed using trucks to move the product out to the mainline railroad. Bauer considered it. But he would have to build more loading docks. And the town would have to tolerate trucks moving up and down Main Street. Not to mention cutting seriously into Forward Rail’s business.

 Both Bauer and the head of Forward Rail had also approached the town’s mayor several times to pursue eminent domain for Betty’s house. The mayor always backed down. Too harsh a solution, he said.

What the mayor did not say, not out loud – the town could not afford to offend Betty. For over thirty years, with her nursing background, Betty had run a free clinic for new mothers out of the church meeting room. Every Monday and Thursday morning she sat in the clinic, offering help and advice to the new and older mothers of the town. Rashes, scrapes and bruises, coughs, fevers – Betty got the moms through it all. Anything more serious, of course, had to be referred to the county hospital. After all, Betty was a nurse but no doctor. 

So Forward Rail added an extra boxcar when needed to accommodate added product shipments. Not ideal, but workable. An impasse, but not a nasty one. All the factory workers and railway people still greeted Betty in a friendly fashion on the street and in the market.

Each Christmas Betty’s two sons and their families showed up to celebrate the holiday. The grandkids were fascinated by the huge train passing within inches of grandma’s house. They loved waving to Benny the engineer. Betty kept a jar of pennies in the house, and her two sons showed the children how to place the pennies on the rail before the train passed. The huge train wheels flattened the pennies, which delighted the kids.

Betty lost her Charley almost nine years ago. A tragic disappearance. Charley left home one evening to go fishing and never returned. He was never found. After seven years the courts declared Charley dead and Betty collected five thousand dollars on his life insurance policy.

Charley’s disappearance and assumed death had upset the town. There was a large turnout at his church service. More casseroles than Betty could eat in her lifetime. And Betty had soldiered on. Every morning, on all but the bitterest winter days, Betty sat on her front porch. Her failing eyesight would not allow her to create the beautiful quilts she once made. Now it was mostly knitting. Easier on the eyes.

Nine years ago, Charley and Betty had driven to a hospital two counties over. Looking for anonymity. Within two days Charley got his diagnosis. Terminal cancer. Less than a year to live.

Back home, Charley had spent all his free time for the following weeks digging a four-foot deep grave in their basement. The basement was windowless, dark, dank, not much more than a tornado shelter.

After he completed his task, he and Betty made plans. When he began to have trouble functioning, when the pain grew intolerable, they would initiate his last days. Betty acquired a strong sedative and a lethal injection.

Charley ordered a body bag online. On his final day, he gathered his fishing gear and set out one evening to spend the night fishing. He left his gear at the river’s edge and quietly sneaked back home in the middle of the night. He and Betty descended to the basement. Charley pulled the body bag over himself, leaving enough room for Betty to do what she had to do. 

They kissed, held hands. After a while Charley simply nodded. Betty applied the sedative, waited for Charley to doze. Then she administered the lethal dose. She slipped the syringe into the body bag, zipped it up, and rolled Charley’s body into the grave. She spent an hour shoveling dirt back into the hole. She smoothed it over as best she could, dragged a sheet of plywood over the loose dirt, and laid an old rug over the plywood. She stomped down on the rug to flatten the soil.

A tear rolled down her cheek as she mounted the stairs.

A day later Betty reported Charley missing.

Now, nine years later, Betty will never move from her home. And her Charley.

***

shortfiction24 – a teacher’s ghost on campus

Three teens making a scary film on their high school campus come face to face with the ghost of a deceased teacher.

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I took a few weeks off at the end of August to rest and re-create. Back on track now. I will post here every Friday. My newsletter will go up every Wednesday. You can subscribe here to get the stories early and read other content. Thanks for reading.

A Teacher’s Ghost on Campus

Bob Gillen

Lyndie waved to the security guard at the entrance to her high school campus and drove her Toyota sedan up the driveway to the parking lot. Even with the low beams on, she could barely see through the swirling pre-dawn fog. Tessa sat next to her, Eric in the back seat.

Eric said, “I can’t believe the principal gave us permission to be on campus this early.”

Tessa said, “I convinced her our film could represent the school in a film festival.”

She peered out the window. “I don’t see any other cars. Good. We’ve got time.”

The weather had cooperated as forecasted. A cold, clammy, thick fog. 

“This is perfect for our scary movie. We need to hustle before anyone else gets here.”

Eric said, “No one here at this hour except Mrs. Raines’ ghost.”

“Don’t say that,” Lyndie said. “I’ve got goose bumps already.”

“Let’s get the first shot done,” Tessa said. “Park somewhere where we can see only fog from the back of the car.”

Lyndie parked. Eric pulled down the back of the rear seat before getting out. 

“Okay, Tessa. Set yourself facing the trunk lid.”

Tessa crawled into the back seat, aimed her video camera at the closed trunk. She hit Record, waited a few seconds, and called “Action” to the others.

Eric opened the trunk from the outside, the camera picking up the sudden light, the fog swirling behind him. He and Lyndie pulled their backpacks out of the trunk and closed the lid.

“Got the shot,” Tessa said. “Now for the campus.”

They put their backpacks back in the trunk and walked onto campus through the fog. Dead silence. They could not see more than a few yards ahead. All three shivered in the damp fog.

Tessa stopped to capture a wide shot of the fog-bound campus. Lyndie peered into the fog. She heard a low moan.

“What was that?”

Eric said, “Probably wind in the trees.”

“There’s no wind,” Lyndie said.

She spun around, searching for the source of the moan.

Ahead, near the English classrooms, something moved. A flash of white. Almost imperceptible in the fog. Something ragged, frilly. 

“Look!”

Eric looked. “What the hell is that?”

Tessa looked up from her camera. “What are you two talking about?”

“Aim the camera up there,” Eric said. “Near Room 15.”

Tessa looked. “What am I supposed to see?”

Lyndie said, “It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?”

“A ghost.”

“Oh, Mrs. Raines, huh?” Tessa waved. “Hi Mrs. Raines. Good to see you this morning.”

“Stop!” Lyndie shuddered. “I want to wait in the car.”

Tessa said, “Come on. Let’s stick together. We have more shots to get before school starts.”

Lyndie followed Tessa, spinning constantly to spot any ghost.

Crash!

The three spun in unison to see a trash can overturned, trash spilled out onto the sidewalk.

“Just a tipped trash can,” Tessa said.

“Tipped by who?” Lyndie said, wrapping her arms around herself.

Eric walked over to the can. There was no wind. The can looked sturdy enough. “I don’t think this tipped by itself.”

“Enough,” Tessa said. “Let’s get the shots while we have fog.”

They edged up nearer to the photography classroom.

“Isn’t this where Mrs. Raines died?”

“That’s the story. Four years ago. They say she came in early to make copies of her exams. The revolving door to the darkroom stuck after she went in, looking for her files.”

“Yeah,” Eric said, “They said she panicked and had a heart attack. They didn’t find her till it was too late.”

Eric yanked on the classroom door. Locked.

Tessa said, “Let’s get shots of you two walking out of the fog towards me. Walk slowly. Remember, you’re scared.”

“Like now!” Lyndie said.

The two walked about fifty feet away from Tessa, far enough that she could not see them.

“When I call, start walking.” 

Tessa set the camera. “Now.”

Nothing.

“Okay!”

Swirling fog. Nothing else.

“Come on, guys. We need to get this done.”

Silence.

A low moaning.

Tessa looked into the fog. She could just barely make out a figure. White. Swirling, like the fog. Moving as though part of it. But not.

Tessa turned all around. Looked again. Nothing.

The door to the photography classroom swung open.

She jumped.

“Hey.” Eric and Lyndie stepped out.

Tessa yelled. “You scared me. How did you get in there?”

“The hall door was unlocked. We walked through.”

“Were you…?” She started to point to the fog, hesitated. “Never mind.”

Lyndie said, “How about a shot of us stepping out from the room into the fog?”

“Okay,” Tessa said. “I’ll wait here.”

She checked the camera settings again, and called out. “Ready.”

Eric and Lyndie edged out of the room, peering around at the fog, looking behind themselves.

They slipped off into the fog.

Tessa followed them with the camera.

Another moan. Louder this time. It came from the classroom.

Tessa jumped. The other two spun around.

“What?”

“It came from the room.” Eric edged closer to the door. Tessa filmed him as he did.

Eric peeked into the classroom. Nothing. 

Then – he spied the darkroom revolving door… spinning! 

He flew out the door.

“Holy…!”

“What?”

“The door is turning!”

Another moan. This time to their right.

They turned to see a figure in white. Closer, this time. White veil covering the head and face. Gauzy strips, torn and fluttering as the figure moved.

The three teens froze.

Tessa whipped up the camera and aimed at the figure.

It withdrew back into the fog. Disappeared.

“Oh God!”

“The ghost is real. It must be Mrs. Raines.”

“I want to see inside the darkroom,” Tessa said.

The three crept in, Lyndie with her hands over her eyes.

They moved to the revolving door. It was still.

Tessa said, “I’m going in.”

“No!”

“We just saw the ghost outside. The room should be empty.”

Tessa pushed the revolving door. She aimed the camera, pushed further in. She stepped into total darkness.

She fumbled for the light switch on the wall. Turned it on. A red glow filled the room.

Tessa screamed. 

She was face-to-face with a bone-white skeleton.

Tessa fell back into a file cabinet, knocking it askew. She slipped to the floor.

Eric pushed his way in. “You okay?”

“How did this skeleton get here?” Tessa asked. “This is weird.”

Lyndie came in. “It’s part of the art class.”

Eric said, “Look!”

He pointed to the file cabinet. There was an envelope stuck between the cabinet back and the wall.

He dragged the cabinet further, reached in. Grabbed the envelope.

“Take it outside,” Tessa said. “Too dark in here.”

They backed out of the darkroom and moved outside.

Tessa said, “We should drag the skeleton outside and shoot it in the fog.”

Eric held up the envelope. The outside bore the name Mark in a neat handwriting. “Didn’t someone say Mark was her son? I remember them talking about how her son did not attend her funeral. They said the two were estranged.”

Lyndie shrugged.

“Should I open the envelope?”

“Yes,” Tessa said. “Let me get a shot of it.”

Eric pulled a note out of the unsealed envelope. He scanned the contents.

“What does it say?”

“It’s an apology. Signed by Mrs. Raines. Not clear what she’s apologizing for.”

“We need to get this to her son.”

Another moan, almost a howl, pierced the swirling fog. Tessa raised the camera, looking for the source of the sound.

“There!” Lyndie cried. Tessa whirled around to capture the shot. The white figure swirled out of the fog. The shape lingered as Tessa got the shot.

Eric held up the envelope. “We found your note, Mrs. Raines. We’ll be sure it gets to your son.”

The figure remained in view. Another moan. 

Tessa held the camera on the figure. 

More moans, the sounds decaying into silence. The figure began blending into the fog. In a moment it was gone.

Eric said, “Mrs. Raines was stuck here till someone found the note. Now she’s free to move on.”

A breeze rippled through the campus, breaking off scraps of fog.

“We’re going to lose the fog,” Tessa said. “Can we get a few more shots?”

“We’ve got some good stuff,” Eric said. “Mrs. Raines made herself visible for us. Maybe we should get a shot of the darkroom and the file cabinet.”

“Yeah,” Tessa said. “Put the note back in its place for a minute so I can get a shot of where we found it.”

“She led us to the note, didn’t she?” Eric said. 

Lyndie shivered. “This is all creepy.”

“It’ll make for a good film,” Tessa said. 

“Thanks, Mrs. Raines,” Eric said. 

A low moan drifted out of the fog.

***

shortfiction24 – Marina’s first oner

Steadicam operator Marina Cabrera steps in to replace Tyler, a male operator, for a tracking shot on a film set. He is furious over being replaced, but Marina aces the shot.

The photo shows real-life Steadicam operator Jessica Lopez, whom I interviewed for my filmmaker site ten years ago.

Enjoy the story. Comments welcome. And if you would like to suggest a story prompt that I might use, please drop a comment.

Marina’s First Oner

Bob Gillen

Marina Cabrera propped her Steadicam rig up against a storage shed wall on the outdoor set for a television show based in post Civil War Colorado. 

Confident her rig was secure, Marina moved to the Craft Services area, grabbed a turkey sandwich and a Coke, and looked for someplace to sit. Rodney the sound mixer waved her over as he and his assistant Terrell finished their lunches.

“Join us, girl,” Rodney said. Marina sat and dug into her sandwich.

“How was your morning?” Rodney asked.

“Good. I got more b-roll than the editors could ever use.”

“Be careful with that,” Rodney said, waving a finger in her direction. “You don’t want to piss off the editors, or they’ll never put any of your footage in the show.”

“Not to worry. I got shots of the schoolhouse, the steam locomotive, the town streets. All good stuff.”

As Marina wolfed down her lunch, the director called forTyler, the principle Steadicam operator, to strap on his rig for the rehearsal of the next scene. A tracking scene.

Rodney said to Marina, “You get a chance to do any tracking shots since I saw you last?”

Marina shook her head. “My dream is still the Dunkirk beach scene from Atonement. A five and a half minute tracking shot. A thousand extras. Incredible orchestration and rehearsal.” 

She waved her thumb toward Tyler. “I could dance around him with my eyes closed and still get a better shot. I hear about how some of these guys couldn’t do a decent tracking shot. Like their brains couldn’t tell their body how to move around.”

Rodney smiled. 

They watched from their table as the director began rehearsal for the one-shot. A production assistant, his hand against Tyler’s back, guided him through the shot. 

The director called “Background.” Several extras crisscrossed the street. A horse and rider rode by behind the camera. The director called “Action.” As the horse passed behind Tyler and the PA, it let loose an enormous stream of piss followed by a pile of horse apples. The PA stepped on a horse apple, slipped and stumbled, but stayed upright. Tyler also stumbled, fell on his butt in the middle of the horse droppings. He cursed a blue streak as he rolled off the mess and stood up. His rig was not damaged but he himself was covered in horse droppings and pee.

The director yelled “Cut.” She told Tyler to leave the set and get cleaned up. She waved Marina over.

“Take over the shot for Tyler. And hurry. We need to rehearse before we lose the light.”

Marina strapped herself into her rig as Rodney gave her a thumbs up.

The tracking shot would follow a couple as they exited a town building, walked down the street to the train station, where the man would board the train. 

While the director filled in Marina on the shot, crew moved in to remove the horse droppings and shovel dirt over the pee.

Tyler approached the director. “This is my shot. You can’t give it to a girl. She won’t have the stamina for the whole shot.”

Marina said, “Oh. Because I’m a woman, I can’t carry a rig, I can’t be that good?”

“You’re out of here,” the director told Tyler. “You smell like shit. Clean up. There’s plenty of work tomorrow.”

Tyler stormed off. 

Now stationed at his sound cart, Rodney bit down on a finger to keep from laughing out loud.

The director walked Marina and the PA through the tracking shot. 

The director said to Marina, “I’m going for the pain of separation in this shot. Keep the two actors in frame.”

Marina nodded. “Got it.”

As the director called “Background,” then “Action,” Marina followed the two actors as they exited the building. She was able to whip pan to the townspeople for a brief moment. She then kept the two in frame as they walked to the station. 

The director yelled, Cut.” She pointed to a horse tied to a hitching rail.” Someone quiet that horse.”

The horse was chewing loudly on a wooden hitching rail. Rodney got up, approached the horse. He stroked its nose gently, whispered to it. The horse calmed down.

“Thanks, Rodney,” the director called out. “Okay, from the beginning.”

Marina and the PA positioned themselves in front of the town building. “And action.”

They moved through the shot, following the couple down the street and up to the rail station.

Once at the station Marina whip panned to the steam locomotive, then back to the two actors. The PA guided her onto the passenger car, followed the male actor as he took a seat by the window, waving at his tearful woman companion on the platform. 

The train began to move out of the station. Marina kept the woman in frame until the director called, “Cut.”

From the video village, the collection of camera monitors, the director called out. “That’s a wrap. Good work, Marina.” Several of the crew applauded Marina’s work.

The director moved on to setting up the next shot.

Marina crossed to the audio cart as Rodney moved it to the next scene. “My first oner!”

“Be proud, girl.”

Marina unstrapped her rig as a huge smile broke across her face. “Wait till you see that shot, Tyler!”

***

shortfiction24 – a stairway to money

A client brings P.I. Frank Derringer a new case, and a chance at a lucrative bonus. My attempt at noir.

Please enjoy the story. Comments always welcome.

A Stairway to Money

Bob Gillen

The stairway echoed with the clang of dress shoes on the steel steps. Frank Derringer reached the third floor landing where his office was located. He paused to catch his breath. No wonder I have no clients. No one wants to climb these stairs with the elevator out of order. Again. 

Frank turned to his office, stopped short. Sitting on the floor in front of his office door was a woman. A beautiful woman. Blond hair. High heels and a black suit with a white blouse. Her long legs spanned the width of the corridor.

Wow, that’s gotta hurt ya, he muttered under his breath.

Frank stepped closer to the woman. He caught a whiff of a perfume foreign to his experience. “Can I help you?”

The woman waved her thumb towards the stenciled glass panel in the door. 

“If your name matches the name on the door, then yes.”

“I’m Frank Derringer. Derringer, PI.”

“Help me get up and find me a chair.”

Frank offered his arm and the woman rose gracefully from the floor. Frank unlocked the door and ushered her in. He moved straight to his desk, brushed an ashtray full of cigarette butts into a waste basket.

The woman sat opposite Frank. “I need your help in finding someone.”

“Before we start, I should say I take a twenty percent deposit before I start any assignment.”

“Seeing as you were an hour late in opening your office, I see no need for me to pay you a deposit. Take the job or I’ll find someone else.”

Frank opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it.

“Okay, how can I help you?”

“My name is Lily Collingswood, I want you to find my husband.”

Ah, another easy divorce case.

“What can you tell me about him”

“He’s dead.”

“Dead?”

“The  cops shot him two nights ago.”

“And you don’t know where he is.”

“Well…he’s in the morgue. They’re holding him till they finish their investigation.”

“So…you know where he is.”

“In the morgue, but they will only let me see him through a glass window.”

“Did you identify him?”

“Yes.”

“Then why do you need me?”

“It gets complicated. I need a picture of the tattoo on his arm.”

“Lady, this is getting weird.”

“I need that picture before they bury him.”

Frank let a cigarette. “Smoke?”

“No, thanks. Can you take the job?”

“You want me to go to the morgue, access your husband’s body, and take a photo of his arm?

“Yes, and more precisely, his left bicep.”

“May I ask why?”

“My husband stole a satchel full of diamonds three years ago. That tattoo is the key to where he hid them.”

“Haven’t you seen the tattoo already?”

“Yeah, but it’s a little esoteric. I would need to study it.”

“And if you find the diamonds?”

“Your fee would then be ten percent of what I get.”

“That’s generous…but I could lose my license dealing with stolen stuff.”

“Your decision.” Lily sat back in the chair, letting Frank stew over his answer.

The following morning Frank was at the city morgue. The medical examiner was an old friend. Frank stood over Lily’s husband’s body. His story, he was representing a client who was considering suing the city over the shooting. The medical examiner had shrugged, turned away.

Frank palmed his phone down behind the morgue table. While his friend examined another body, Frank slipped the cover down, spotted the tattoo, and snapped several photos. He pulled the cover sheet back up to the body’s chin. He then thought to look for surveillance cameras, but did not see any. He slipped the phone back into his pocket.

That afternoon, in a coffee shop with Lily Collingswood, he shared the photo. She studied it for long moments. “This is a tough one.”

“Nothing obvious?”

“No.”

Frank sipped his black coffee, watched Lily intently.

“There are no numbers here. No names. Only symbols.”

Frank had already studied the tattoo before sharing it. Nothing made sense to him.

“Tell you what. You pay me my usual fee and I walk away. I trust you that if you recover the diamonds, you might remember me.”

Lily took out her checkbook without a word, wrote a check paid out to Frank Derringer.

“Deal.”

Frank stood to leave. 

“I won’t forget you.” She said.

Frank nodded.

Back in his office, a cigarette burning down in his ashtray, Frank pored over the tattoo picture. He transferred it to his laptop screen for a larger view. Nothing jumped out pointing to a hiding place. 

If I can get to the diamonds before Lily does, I can offer her the ten percent cut.

Three days later Frank paced in a downtown subway station watching for passengers to clear the platform. When it was clear, he stepped around the south end of the platform and entered the tunnel. If he was right, the diamonds were stashed just inside the tunnel, under a patch of broken concrete.

Using his phone as a flashlight, he groped around for the satchel. Another light flashed over his shoulder. He whipped around.

“Shit” 

“Shit yeah. So much for trusting.”

Frank stared at Lily. 

“You.”

“Looks like we both figured it out at the same time.”

Frank stood away from the concrete. “Fair is fair. He was your husband.”

Lily stepped around Frank, poked around at the spot, and pulled back with a maroon satchel in her hand. She slipped open the drawstring. “Diamonds. Uncut.”

Frank took a few steps back, not wanting to appear threatening. He held up his hands. “They’re yours.”

Lily smiled. “Yeah. For the years of grief he gave me, I deserve this.” She shoved the satchel into her pocket. The two peered into the station platform. Still clear. They walked out into the light.

Up on the street, Lily signaled for them to step into an alley. She took out the satchel, removed a single diamond, slipped it into Frank’s palm. “No idea if this is ten percent, but my gesture of thanks…even if you were apparently going to screw me over.”

Frank shrugged, muttered a thank you. 

Lily walked off down the sidewalk.

Later Frank climbed the stairs to his office, called a fence he knew. Maybe I can afford an office with an elevator now.


***

shortfiction24 – we gotta go, lady

Rosa Merced is riding home on the subway on a frigid January night after another twelve hour day at the office. She did not expect to come face to face with a dying man.

This story was inspired by a newspaper article I read years back in NYC. Don’t recall if it was legit news or a tabloid version. Enjoy!

We Gotta Go, Lady

Bob Gillen

Rosa Merced stomped her feet on the floor in a futile effort to warm them. The air in the near-empty subway car had to be ten degrees colder than the winter air up on the street. She pulled her wool beanie further down on her head and snugged the scarf on her neck.

Two more stops and home. Rosa pictured herself wrapped in an electric blanket, with a cup of hot tea and the chocolate chip cookie she had wrapped in a napkin in her purse, a leftover from her department’s catered lunch. That seemed like an eternity ago. Twelve hour days were getting too common.

The train doors were closing as a transit cop stepped in from the platform. He stood eyeing each passenger in the car. Satisfied, he moved to the door at the end of the car. The train began to move into the tunnel. Rosa closed her eyes for a moment, wishing for her warm blanket. Just as her car rolled into the blackness of the tunnel, the train squealed to a halt.

Shit, what now? Come on guys, I need to be home.

The lights in the car flickered, went dark. Rosa could hear the transit cop talking into his intercom. “Okay. Okay, yeah.” She turned to stare out the window. Darkness. She sat in the frigid blackness for what felt like hours.

She spotted beams from flashlights bobbing around in the tunnel. 

The conductor’s voice came over the train’s PA system, so garbled all she heard was, “…delay…as soon as possible…”

The transit cop exited the car and walked towards the rear of the train. Rosa heard voices, muffled, anxious, coming from outside along the tracks. An emergency floodlight powered on, lit the tunnel. Several firefighters stood nearby. An EMT approached the side of her train holding up a blanket.

Rosa startled as she followed the EMT’s path. She was face to face with a man. A man standing up against the side of the train. He had a filthy beanie pulled down over long gray hair. An unkempt gray beard trailed down from his chin. The man’s face was lower than Rosa’s. She guessed he was standing on the wooden guard that ran across the top of the powered third rail. 

The EMT draped the blanket over the man’s body, covering him from the shoulders down. Rosa realized the man was wedged between the side of the subway car and a steel support column alongside the track.

The man looked up. His eyes locked on Rosa’s.

The transit cop reappeared, his flashlight poking the darkness. “We need you all to walk though to the rear of the train and exit at the last station.” Without waiting for a reply he moved on to the next car. The few passengers began to shuffle toward the door.

Rosa stared at the man in the tunnel. His eyes pleaded for help. Firefighters fussed around him but he took no note. He continued to look to Rosa. She met his eyes, willing herself to hold his gaze. It was a look she knew well. Her dear aunt had lay dying, unable to speak, her eyes saying, ‘Don’t leave me. I’m not ready to go yet.’

The transit cop came back, waving his flashlight beam in her direction. “Lady, you have to exit the car. We need to move the train.”

Rosa said, “Give me a minute.” The cop looked out the window, saw the trapped man, nodded, stepped away.

Rosa pulled off one glove, fumbled to open her purse. She found the chocolate chip cookie. She stood. A blast of frigid air hit her face as she opened the train window. An almost overwhelming smell of urine wafted in. She knelt on the train seat and handed the cookie out the window. She realized the man’s arms were pinned. She reached down to hold the cookie to his mouth. He took a bite, chewed, swallowed. A thin smile creased his face. A face crisscrossed with lines and crevices of pain. Rosa offered him a second bite. His eyes lit with joy. A tear rolled down his cheek, froze before it reached his chin.

“We gotta go, lady.” The transit cop spoke quietly from behind her.

Rosa pulled her arm back inside the car. She held the man’s gaze for a few seconds longer. 

Oh God, I shouldn’t do this. Rosa smiled at the man, took a bite of the cookie herself. He nodded. She stood, placed her palm against the cold glass for a moment, and backed away from the window. The cop directed her to the rear of the train.

When she reached the station platform, the doors closed. The train inched forward. Rosa stood watching it crawl into the tunnel. Shouts of firefighters and EMTs filled the space as the train moved further into the tunnel. Somewhere in that tunnel a man was dying. She heard a single scream echo through the tunnel and the station.

Rosa tossed the bitten cookie down on the tracks. “For your journey, my friend. Vaya con Dios.” She turned towards the exit.

***

shortfiction24 – Ashley plans for her transition

Searching for a college is a daunting task for Ashley. A poor GPA and an upcoming gender transition narrow her choices dramatically.

College night at her high school is a bleak experience until she meets an unlikely possibility.

Ashley Plans For Her Transition

Bob Gillen

Megan pulled her Prius into a spot in the school’s lot.

“College night, Ashley. Seniors rule.” She killed the engine.

“Let’s wait a minute.”

“Yeah? What’s up?”

“I’m nervous.”

“No worries, Ashley.”

“Easy for you to say. You got your pick of almost any college in the US, with your GPA. Me, I could double my GPA and not come close.”

“Remember what our counselor said. There’s a school for everyone.”

Ashley shrugged. “I have to limit my search to schools in fifteen states, the fifteen that are LGBTQ-accommodating.”

Megan punched Ashley on the arm, slid out of the car. “Come on. Let’s find our schools.”

Inside Ashley followed Megan to the Duke table. Out of her league. Ashley left Megan there and walked the aisles. She found herself getting discouraged quickly. A number of the smaller colleges were in states Ashley would avoid.

Ashley wandered to the rear of the room. Her classmates crowded the UC system table. At the end of the row, Ashley spied a table with a banner that read: Vancouver. Discover Canada. The rep behind the table was reading what looked like a well-worn paperback copy of Kerouac’s On the Road. She looked up as Ashley approached the table.

“Hi. Can I help you?”

The rep had black curly hair to her shoulders. She wore a simple black dress, a necklace with a turtle hanging down.

“If you take students with a 2.6 GPA.” Ashley managed a weak smile.

The rep wobbled her head for a moment. “That might be doable. Talk to me. What are you interested in?”

“Wildlife conservation.”

The rep nodded. “My name is Jennifer. You are?”

“Ashley. Hi. Glad to meet you.”

“I represent three different colleges in Vancouver.”

“I didn’t know we had Canadian options.”

“We welcome international students…and yes, America is considered international for us.”

Ashley fingered her list. 

“I see you prepared for tonight. Mind if I see your list?”

Ashley handed Jennifer the list. 

Jennifer glanced at the items on the list. She nodded.

“I know this list. States favorable to LGBTQ, right?”

Ashley felt her face redden. She nodded.

“You can add Vancouver to your list.”

“Oh.”

Jennifer glanced around. “You know what, I think it’s snack time. Will you watch my table for a moment while I get coffee?”

“Sure”

“What can I get you?”

“Coffee…black. Maybe a brownie bite?”

“Done. Be right back.”

Ashley looked around the room. There was a soundtrack of dozens of voices, all animated, excited. A big moment for many of the seniors. Searching for their leap into the future.

Jennifer returned, juggling two drinks and a plate of snacks. She grabbed an empty chair and set it beside her. “Come. Sit with me. I think we have a lot to talk about.”

Ashley slid behind the table, grabbed a snack.

Jennifer sipped her drink. “Let me start by saying the colleges I represent tonight do not offer much, if anything, in wildlife conservation. Can I ask what appeals to you about that career?”

Ashley shrugged. “I’ve always liked animals. I don’t have the grades to go for a veterinarian degree.”

Jennifer peered at Ashley. “What really appeals to you about wildlife conservation?”

Ashley sipped her coffee. She looked directly at Jennifer. “It looks like a quiet way to make a living.”

“Quiet how?”

Ashley took a breath. “Away from a lot of harassment.”

Jennifer smiled. 

Ashley found herself spilling to someone she just met.

“I’m trans. My parents are giving me a breast reduction surgery as a graduation gift. Once I get out of here I’ll change my name to Asher. And I need a school in an LGBTQ-accommodating state.”

Jennifer smiled. “I’m trans too. Made my transition five years ago.”

Ashley stared open-mouthed. “Wow. you fooled me.”

“Yeah, the docs did a good job.”

Ashley brought the conversation back to its purpose. “Your schools don’t have a wildlife conservation program.”

“We don’t. The bigger schools in Vancouver do, but honestly, I don’t think they would look at you with your GPA.”

Ashley nodded.

“Let me ask you this. Would you consider a different major if it suited your lifestyle?”

“Like what?”

“Film and television, for example.”

Ashley frowned. “Never thought of it, but the work involves lots of people, right?”

“If you mean, a lot of people collaborating on projects, yes.”

“I don’t know…”

“One of the schools I represent is Columbia College. It has a strong media program. Film, television. Good internships. Are you aware they are calling Vancouver Hollywood North?”

Ashley shook her head.

“Tons of film and television production going on. Plenty of jobs and internships.”

“I don’t know…”

“You certainly don’t have to decide tonight.”

Ashley picked up her list from the table.

“Before you go… have you considered a gap year?”

Ashley squinted. “How would I do that?”

“If I am getting too personal here, stop me. You said you’ll have surgery as soon as you graduate.”

“Right.”

Just then two classmates stopped at the table. One said, “Ashley, are you already a college admissions rep?”

“I’m repping for our high schools. You two morons want to repeat senior year? Lots of perks.”

The two laughed and moved on.

Jennifer continued, “With a gap year you can manage your transition more effectively. Take the summer to recover, and start your transition. Columbia College will admit you as a delayed admission. You may have access to student housing. I would have to look into that. I should add, Vancouver is an expensive city to live in. Rent and housing are among the highest in Canada.” 

She sipped her coffee. “With your admission and initial leave of absence, you can get an entry level job in film right away. I told you, Vancouver is quite LGBTQ-friendly. You can explore the city, find groups that will support your transition. And with the job you will have insurance. That may pay for at least some of your hormone therapy.”

“This is too amazing to be true.”

“All true. After a year you can decide if you want to continue with Columbia. You will be admitted as a full-time international student.”

Ashley said, “That’s a lot to think about.”

Jennifer handed Ashley a business card. “My phone is here. Call or text anytime.”

Back out in the parking lot Ashley met up with Megan. “Duke, here I come,” Megan said. I can get early admission if I want.”

“Sweet.”

“How did you do?”

Ashley pulled her list from her pocket, ripped it in shreds.

“Fuck the US. I can go to Canada. Take a gap year and work in film and television while I manage my transition, then attend Columbia College. As an international student.”

Megan stared at Ashley for a moment. Broke into a grin. Hugged Ashley hard.

“Friends forever.”

Ashley’s phone chirped. A message from Jennifer. So happy to meet you tonight. Call if you need more info or just want to talk.

Ashley texted back. Thanks! I’ll be in touch soon. I already feel safe about my future.

Jennifer replied. Safer, yes. But safety will remain elusive. We are always vulnerable.

***

shortfiction24 – chasing freedom on a city bus

Jennifer Bailey needs a passing grade in her History course. Senior citizen Mrs. Rice drags her along on a bus ride and helps her create a moment in history.

I wrote this story a few years ago. It’s a bit longer than my usual offering. I hope you enjoy it.

Chasing Freedom on a City Bus

Bob Gillen

Jennifer Bailey stumbled up to the entrance of the Sweet Meadow Assisted Living Residence. Late afternoon in early December in Southern California. Temps hung in the low 50s. Cloudy, cold, a chill wind blowing. Her ears did not register the whine of the gardeners’ leaf blowers. The only noise she heard sat deep inside her head. A hollow echo. Her History teacher standing over her desk. You failed your American History exam.  She would need a miracle to finish her paper and pass the final in two weeks.

Before she opened the door, Jennifer stopped, pulled her cell phone out of her back pocket, and texted her friend Lindsay Beckwith. Two hours at the nursing home. Without service credits I fail History for sure. But I need to be writing my paper.

Lindsay replied right away. I feel your pain. Hang in.

As soon as Jennifer opened the front door Mrs. Hannah in Administration beamed. “Jennifer!”

Jennifer managed a weak smile.

“Jennifer, Mrs. Rice has requested you for this afternoon.”

Just kill me now.

“Please report to room sixty-two. Mrs. Rice is expecting you.”

Motor Mouth Rice. She never stopped talking. You only got a break when she went to the bathroom, which was usually every hour. No chance to sit and do some homework. She demanded you listen.

Jennifer dragged herself down the hall toward room sixty-two. Several residents gave her a big hello. “Will we see you later?”

Jennifer pointed to room sixty-two. One resident grinned, said, “Sorry, dear. Good luck.”

As she approached the room, she could hear Mrs. Rice’s voice. A drone like a thousand bees. Incessant.

“Why can’t I go back to my old house?”

“Tell them about the food… today’s lunch was indigestible.”

“The nurses ignore me.”

As Jennifer turned into the doorway, she spotted a man sitting next to Mrs. Rice, a pained look on his face.

“Jennifer!” Mrs. Rice called out. Before the word was out of her mouth, the man jumped up, waved to Mrs. Rice, and ran out the door.

“That was my brother,” Mrs. Rice said. “I would have introduced you if the wimp hadn’t run away.”

“Hi, Mrs. Rice,” Jennifer said.

“Glad you’re here, dearie.”

Mrs. Rice tossed aside the blanket covering her legs, pulled herself up out of her chair and stood wobbling on her cane.

“Did you bring your video camera today?”

“It’s in my locker at school.”

“What about that video function on your phone? Every kid has one, right?”

Mrs. Rice was a lot of things, but ignorant wasn’t one.

“I can do short videos with my iPhone.”

“Perfect. I need your help with a very important task today,” she said.

Now what?

“Please get my sweater from the closet. The wool one with the purple flowers. I want to go out for a walk,” Mrs. Rice said. “A walk out back in the gardens.”

“Mrs. Rice, it’s chilly out today and you have trouble walking.”

“Never mind, child,” Mrs. Rice said. “I need to do this today.”

Before Jennifer could get the sweater, Mrs. Rice took her arm.  

“Put that backpack of yours down and walk me to the bathroom.”

Ten minutes later Jennifer helped Mrs. Rice inch down the back steps of Sweet Meadow and out to the garden. A staff member called out as they walked. “Good to see you out and about, Mrs. Rice.”

The garden stretched down away from the main buildings. A pleasant place on most days. The nearing darkness made the cold wind feel like a hand pushing them along.

“Take me down there by the back fence,” Mrs. Rice said. “It’s pretty there.”

The two made their way along the path until they came to tall shrubs lining the back fence. Mrs. Rice looked around, saw that no one seemed to be watching, and pulled Jennifer behind the shrubs.

“Mrs. Rice, what are you doing?”

“There’s a hole in the fence back here,” Mrs. Rice said. “I’ve seen the gardeners cutting through here after work.”

“A hole? In the fence? Why? Where are we going?” Jennifer protested.

“Stop your whining, girl, and help me through.”

Jennifer held the old woman’s arm while she stooped and stepped sideways through a big gap in the chain link fence. Jennifer followed. Pedestrians passing on the sidewalk paid no attention to them.

“Do you know what today is?” Mrs. Rice asked.

“Tuesday,” Jennifer replied.  “December first.”

“Yes, and do you know the significance of today?”

“Uh, it’s the day you escape from the nursing home?”

“Don’t be fresh, young lady.” Mrs. Rice paused as the two walked along the sidewalk behind Sweet Meadow. “Today is indeed December first. It’s the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955.”

Not history. Please, not today.

“Do you know who Rosa Parks is?” Mrs. Rice asked. Her eyes bored a hole in Jennifer’s.

“Uh, she was, like, part of the Civil Rights movement, I think.”

“Part of it?”  Mrs. Rice said.  “Jennifer, her action started the Civil Rights movement!”

“Oh.”

The two continued along the sidewalk toward Ventura Blvd. and a bus stop.

“She refused to give up her seat on the bus and move to the rear,” Mrs. Rice said. “They arrested her. That prompted the Montgomery bus boycott by the black community.”

“Okay.” Jennifer eyed her surroundings.

“Every year on this date I ride a bus to honor her. My brother usually takes me. As you saw, he took the coward’s way out today.”

Mrs. Rice tugged Jennifer’s arm. “Let’s not miss the bus.”

“Is this a good idea?” Jennifer asked.

“You’re here to offer community service, are you not?”

Jennifer felt in her pocket for her iPhone. This escape was going to need an intervention. She slipped the phone out of her pocket and began keying in the phone number for Sweet Meadow.

Mrs. Rice spotted the movement. “Put that phone back in your pocket, Jennifer. When I want you to take video, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, I want to see your hands at all times.”

This was not going well.

They got to Ventura Blvd. just as a bus pulled up. Good timing. For Mrs. Rice. Jennifer looked around, hoping someone from the nursing home was running after them. No luck.

Mrs. Rice whipped out a senior-fare bus pass. Jennifer scrambled to find exact change in her pocket.

Mrs. Rice teetered as she boarded the bus. The driver motioned her to a couple of seats near the front of the bus.

They sat. Mrs. Rice said, “Jennifer, I want you to take a video of me right now, with enough background so people can see I’m riding a bus.”

Jennifer pulled out her phone. 

“Can you get audio on that thing?” Mrs. Rice asked. 

Jennifer nodded. As she hit Record, Mrs. Rice began speaking. “Today is the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s famous bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama. I am honoring her memory by riding a bus today.”

Several passengers looked up, decided she was crazy, and looked away. One older woman across the aisle from Mrs. Rice smiled.

“Thank you for reminding me about the date,” the woman said. 

“Does it mean something to you?” Mrs. Rice said.

Jennifer panned her phone to capture the woman.

“Indeed, it does.” The woman smiled. “My name is Barbara.”

“I’m Mary, and this is my friend Jennifer.”

Mary? Jennifer had never heard Mrs. Rice’s first name before. And my friend?

Barbara said, “I was a Freedom Rider. Mississippi, in 1961.”

Mrs. Rice nudged Jennifer. “Record this on your phone.”

“I’m getting it.”

“I admire your courage,” Mrs. Rice said to Barbara. “I almost did that, but I was too scared.”

“It had its frightening moments,” Barbara said.

“I wanted to spend a summer with the Freedom Riders,” Mrs. Rice said. “I thought voting rights were so important. I requested a registration form from Snick—.“ 

“What’s Snick?” Jennifer interrupted, as she panned back and forth between the two women.

“SNCC. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was a civil rights organization formed in the 1960s in the South.”

Barbara nodded.

“When my registration papers came,” Mrs. Rice said, “I got as far as the part about waiving my rights in case of injury or death… I did something else that summer.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Barbara said. “It was a difficult experience. I lasted three weeks, and came home. After I left, one of my companions was hurt when their bus was burned. It was horrible.”

Jennifer interrupted, “Why did you do that?”

“I believed in equality. We are not a country unless we are all treated as equal.”

“Were you scared?”

“Terrified, at times.”

The bus driver’s voice squawked on the PA system. “Folks, there’s an accident up ahead. The street is closed. I have to divert up to Victory Blvd. to bypass it. It shouldn’t take us too long. Thank you for your patience.” 

Barbara jumped up. “I need to get off here. I’ll be late.” She pulled the cord and headed for the door. “Thanks for our little talk.”

Jennifer turned off her phone’s recording. “We should head back, Mrs. Rice.”

“Nonsense, girl. A few more minutes won’t be a problem.”

The bus turned north with all the other traffic. Jennifer glanced at the time on her phone. At this rate she would never get to her paper.

The two sat quietly for a few minutes. The bus moved slowly along the detour, stuck in a lot of traffic. Jennifer noticed that Mrs. Rice began to wriggle in her seat.

“I think I will need a bathroom stop very soon,” she said. 

The bus finally turned onto Victory Blvd. Mrs. Rice pulled the stop cord.

“Wait,” Jennifer said. “Where are we?”

“We just passed a fast food place. I can go there. Then we’ll get a bus back to the home.”

They exited the bus and trudged to the fast food restaurant. While Mrs. Rice was in the restroom, Jennifer texted Lindsay. Nightmare. Stuck in a fast food place on Victory Blvd. with a resident from the nursing home. Help. Do you have your car?

Lindsay answered: No car today. Sorry.

Jennifer whipped the phone back in her pocket as Mrs. Rice returned. “I need a snack.” She rooted around in her pockets, found a few singles, and bought fries for her and Jennifer. She insisted they sit to eat.

“Don’t even think about reaching for your phone,” she said to Jennifer. “We have plenty of time.”

“If they discover you missing,” Jennifer said, “I’ll never be allowed to do community service there again. And I’ll lose my extra credits. I need them.”

They picked at the fries. Outside, it was now full dark. Jennifer kept her eye on Mrs. Rice. So far she seemed okay.

“How are your grades?”

“I’m failing history.”

“Did you record our conversation on the bus?”

“Yes.”

“You know, history is all about people. Not events or plans or movements. People.”

“So?”

“So…” Mrs. Rice pointed a fry at Jennifer. “You can write a paper about your experience today. That should get you extra credit.”

“There’s not enough to work with.”

“Young lady, use your head. Research Rosa Parks. Research the Freedom Riders. And use today as anecdotes. Real people who were part of history. Well, Barbara anyway.”

“You were too scared to go?”

“Honestly, yes. I believed in rights for all, but I’m afraid it was not at the threat of injury or death.”

Jennifer’s phone chirped. She pulled it out. Glanced at the screen. A text from Lindsay. 

“Who is it?” Mrs. Rice asked.

“My friend Lindsay.”

“You can reply.”

Jennifer texted back and forth with Lindsay for a few moments. She looked up intently at Mrs. Rice.

“Well?”

“It seems that Sweet Meadow is trying to locate us. They called Lindsay because they couldn’t find my number.”

“Oh dear. I guess we should be heading back.”

Jennifer peered out at the street. Traffic crawled along Victory Blvd.

“It’s going to take us forever to get a bus back home.”

Mrs. Rice laughed. “And I will surely have to pee again before we get home.”

Jennifer smiled. Okay, now what?

“I surrender. You better call the home. Let them figure it out.”

Jennifer made the call. Gave Mrs. Hannah in Administration their location. Told her the streets were tied up due to the accident. Mrs. Hannah said they would have a van get as close as the driver could. They’d bring a wheelchair for Mrs. Rice.

While Mrs. Rice went to the restroom again, Jennifer texted Lindsay with an update.

An hour later they had Mrs. Rice settled in her room. Jennifer grabbed her backpack and hurried for the door.

“Jennifer,” Mrs. Rice said. “We made history today.”

“Huh?”

Mrs. Rice tucked her blanket around her legs. “Very minor, of course, but a moment of history. A bit of interaction between generations. I hope you enjoyed it.”

Jennifer nodded.

“And thank you for having the courage to go along with me. It meant a lot.”

Jennifer smiled and stepped out into the hall. Now for making history over my failing grade.

***

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