Healing through story

Category: filmmaking (Page 1 of 5)

shortfiction24 – my bag is packed

Five years ago I published a play on Amazon Kindle titled Buried Lies. The story traced a young man’s efforts to learn about the father he had lost 16 years before. The youth made a film about his dad, about his search for his legacy, about the raw discovery of his dad’s lover.

Earlier this year I re-wrote part of the story from the point of view of the father’s lover, exploring first person point of view with a different character than the original. I find first person POV difficult to write.

I hope you enjoy reading it.

My Bag Is Packed

Bob Gillen

It’s been four days since the funeral. Since Clare buried her Patrick. Sorry. Since we buried our Patrick.

My bag is packed. I have nowhere to go. But I’m ready. Clare doesn’t want me here.

Patrick chose me. I know that. Know it as sure as I know my own name. Yes, I admit he loved her. But he was so conflicted in the short time I knew him. 

We met a few months ago, entirely by accident. One Friday we were both in the same subway car riding home after work. A couple of jerks stood over me. Kicking my leg. Shoving me. 

I saw a man who looked like a construction worker stand up. He put his tool bag on his seat. Stepped over to where I sat. “You know these two?” he asked me. I shook my head no. He grabbed each one by the back of the neck. Squeezed hard enough to put them both on their knees. I thought they were going to pass out.

When the doors opened at the next station, he told them to get up. He walked them to the door. Waited till it started to close. Shoved them hard out onto the platform. Before they could find a breath, the train was moving out of the station.

I bought him a drink to thank him. A quiet little bar I knew, nearer to my place than his. Conversation was awkward, but I worked hard to keep it going. We met every Friday for a while. It was the highlight of my week. No, it was my week.

My job laid me off in mid-December. Merry Christmas! I was already a month behind on my rent, thanks to transmission work on my eight-year old Chevy. Patrick told me he could finish the work he had been doing on his basement by early January. He had planned a rec room for his son. He would make it a small apartment. He wanted me to move in. I was thrilled. “How will you make this work?” I asked him. He shrugged. “You can be my cousin. Over from Ireland. Looking for work.” 

It had been a sub-zero January night. I had moved in a week before. We should have waited. Should have told Clare first. I was downstairs in the basement apartment. Small, cozy, not well lit. I was waiting for the cold spell to break before I looked for a job. I wanted to pay rent, carry my weight. Clare’s washer and dryer took up a small corner of the basement, but we managed to dodge each other most of the time. Twice I ate dinner upstairs with them. I loved seeing Sean. Their two-year old. Loved watching Patrick play with him.

Clare came home early that January night from a church bible study meeting. Apparently they cancelled it when almost no one showed up because of the bitter cold.

Patrick had come downstairs with two cold beers. He never came downstairs. Not when Clare was home. And she was almost always home. 

Only one lamp lit the basement. I was wrapped up in a blanket on the daybed. Trying to read but not caring about the story at all. He held out a beer to me.

I felt a smile break across my face. He pulled the blanket aside and crawled under with me.

Oh God, I can remember what I felt. Warmth. Tingling. Anticipation. For a few minutes we talked about how he couldn’t justify this… this… love? He was conflicted. Torn. An Irish, Catholic, construction worker. Married. With a son. Living in a traditional blue collar neighborhood. No place for infidelity. Certainly not with me.

I put a finger to his lips. “Hush,” I said. I kissed him. He pulled back. Looked deeply into my eyes. I saw longing. I saw fear. He leaned in and kissed me back.

I felt his hands caress my neck. My ear lobes. I shuddered.  The wonderful first touches.

We hadn’t heard Clare come home. She must have looked around the house upstairs without finding Patrick. The door to the basement had been open. 

I heard a scream. Looking over Patrick’s shoulder, I saw Clare was halfway down the stairs. Still wearing her unbuttoned coat. We were shirtless under the blanket. Patrick leaped up, tripping on the blanket. I pulled the blanket back. 

“Patrick! Jesus Christ! What the hell is going on?” 

“Clare, you’re home early.” As Patrick reached for his shirt, I could see the flame in his cheeks. 

Clare stomped down the rest of the stairs. I had started to get up. Forgot I was pantless. She looked at me. She screamed again. “Matthew? Oh my God!”

Patrick reached for Clare’s hand. “Okay, calm down. It’s not what you think.” I thought, Patrick, don’t say that. It is what she thinks.

“Not what I think? Not what I think? You screwing your cousin in our house is not what I think?”

“Clare, calm down. Please.” I saw Patrick was shaking. I pulled on my pants.

“You bastard! You goddamn bastard! Is this why you built the basement apartment? Is this why you took in your cousin? Matthew is not your cousin, is he? Son of a bitch!”

Patrick gestured towards me. “Let me explain.” I cringed, stepped back. 

“Get out of the house, Matthew! Get out now!” 

“Clare, we can’t do that.” Patrick stepped between Clare and me.

Clare looked around the room. She grabbed an empty beer can from a table and hurled it at Patrick. He ducked and the can clattered against the wall.

“Clare, stop. You’ll wake Sean.” 

“I’ll wake Sean? What’s the worry? You don’t want him to know his father is gay? Go to hell, Patrick. Go to HELL!”

“Relax, Clare. Come on.”

“Patrick, stay in the basement with your lover boy if you want. You made your choice. But don’t let me ever see your face upstairs again. Do you understand? Not ever!”

“But Sean…”

“You’ve seen Sean for the last time.”

“Clare, in the morning you’ll see…”

“See what, you bastard? See what? That I married a liar? See what, Patrick? That the father of my son would rather hump another guy than sleep with me? What am I supposed to see, Patrick? Tell me… what?”

A thought clawed its way into my conscious mind… yes, he’d rather hump me. Yes, he made his choice. I could not help smiling. 

Clare broke down sobbing and ran up the stairs. Slammed the door.

Two weeks later Patrick was dead. Came home drunk, slipped on the ice in front of the house, and slammed his head on the sidewalk. The sub-zero cold had lingered. The blood from his wound froze. But it was the head trauma that killed him. A neighbor found him after midnight. Called 911. Then rang the bell upstairs. I heard Clare scream. Heard sirens. Somehow I knew. I stayed in bed.

For a few days I cocooned myself under blankets in bed. Clare was out every night at Patrick’s wake. Her mother sat for Sean. I could hear her voice soothing him, reading to him. Every morning I heard Sean running his toys across the floor upstairs. I heard him squeal in delight. I cried each time. Cried for his dead father. Cried he would never see his daddy again.

I went to the funeral. Sat in the back row. Talked to no one. Actually knew no one. Patrick’s friends from work, his fellow contractors and carpenters, milled around after the service to offer a word to Clare. The burial was private. I actually don’t know where his grave is. She didn’t have anyone back to the house after the cemetery. I heard her sobbing for hours that night.

The separate side entrance to my apartment keeps me from running into Clare since the funeral. I make sure to go out every afternoon so she can do the laundry without seeing me. 

As I said, my bag is packed. But I will not leave willingly. Patrick made his choice in that moment when he defended me to Clare. He built this apartment for me. He invited me to live here. I didn’t care how uncomfortable it made Clare. Patrick wanted me here.

The problem is, as I sit here in the basement, everything screams at me that my love is gone. I barely knew him, and he’s gone. I have a place to live, and nothing to live for.

The basement door squeaked open. Clare did not come down.

“Matthew?”

I answered.

“I talked to my accountant. I have to sell the house. I want you gone before I put it on the market. Is that clear?”

I stepped over to the stairs. “Clare, may I see Sean once before I leave?”

“Fuck you, no. I repeat, I want you gone.”

I looked up. Our eyes met. Searching in mine. Bitterness in hers.

“I’ll be gone.”

***

Buried Lies, the play, is available on Amazon Kindle.

shortfiction24 – just another movie shoot

Have you ever blundered into an awkward situation? Casey Romero found herself in the middle of a film shoot, on camera in a classroom scene. An imposter syndrome magnified!

Enjoy the short read. I’m back from a month’s hiatus and will post a fresh story every week. Stay tuned.

Just Another Movie Shoot

Bob Gillen

“Monty, I have to get a notebook out of my locker!” Casey Romero pleaded with the school security guard.

“No can do, kiddo. The campus is closed for the entire three-day weekend.” He gestured over his shoulder. “This film shoot is paying the school to use the campus. I can’t screw that up.”

“I have to write a paper. Can’t you get my notebook? I’ll give you my locker combination.”

Monty shook his head.

A passenger van pulled up to the gate. Monty checked the driver’s name against his list. “Good to go. Let me give you your passes.”

Monty swung a box full of lanyards towards the van. One fell to the asphalt. Casey stepped behind Monty, keeping him between her and the driver. She scooped up the lanyard pass, stuffed it in her jeans pocket.

Without a word, she mounted her bike and rode away. Over her shoulder, she could see that Monty was back inside his doghouse-sized guard shack. She made a quick turn and headed for the back gate. No one around. She shoved her bike into the shrubs and climbed over the fence. Texted her study partner Martin. Might be a few minutes late.

With the lanyard hanging prominently around her neck, she weaved through the parking lot and headed for the classroom building that housed her locker.

Shoot!

The film production swarmed over that building. Large scrims on aluminum frames stood outside one of the classroom windows, blocking the direct sunlight. Cables snaked from an enormous generator in the parking lot, through the doors and down the hallway. Crew scurried everywhere. 

Casey held back to observe, trying to find a clear path to her locker. She straightened her shoulders, put on a false face of confidence, and walked into the hallway. She spied a big aluminum cart right in front of her locker. A guy sat on a stool, fingers working sliders on a sound mixer. Now what?

From down the hall she heard someone yell, Cut! The sound guy stood, stretching his legs. Casey approached him. “Can I just get to that locker?” she asked, pointing over his shoulder.

As the sound guy looked at her, she felt a hand on her shoulder. “You’re early. We don’t need background till this afternoon.”

Casey turned to see a tall young man with a clipboard and a tablet. The sound guy said to Casey, “This is our 1st AD. I can’t move this cart until this scene is done.” He pointed at the young man. “1st AD…First assistant director. His name is Rod.”

“Rod!” a voice bellowed from down the hall. Rod ran to the voice. 

“I just need a notebook from my locker.” Casey said.

The sound guy winked. “You’re not an extra, are you?”

Casey shook her head.

The sound guy edged his cart and stool away from Casey’s locker. She quickly spun the combination, yanked out the notebook, closed up the locker.

“Thank you,” she smiled at the sound guy.

He nodded, “Now get out of here before someone catches on.”

“You!” Rod came back, pointing at Casey.

“Too late,” the sound guy whispered.

Rod motioned to Casey. “Over here. The director wants to see you.”

Oh shit!

Rod steered Casey to a man wearing a baseball cap and sitting in a chair marked “Director.” An array of video monitors sat in front of him

The director said to Casey, “As long as you’re early, we’ll put you in this scene.”

A woman seated next to the director, a tablet and a clipboard on her lap, said, “It’s not in the script.”

“It is now,” the director said. The woman’s fingers flew over her tablet keyboard.

Rod ushered Casey into the classroom. Two actresses stood at the teacher’s desk. Towels covered the shoulders on their pants suits while makeup people fussed over their faces and hair.

“Sit there,” Rod said, pointing to a desk near the window. He looked around to make sure she would be in the camera shot.

Casey slipped into the seat, her notebook in front of her.

“Remember, you’re background. Ignore everything going on. Sit still and look at your notebook.”

Casey nodded. This isn’t happening.

Rod called to makeup. “Touch up this kid, will you?”

A woman blotted Casey’s face, brushed a bit of powder on her cheeks. “Take off the lanyard before I do your hair.” She ran a brush through Casey’s hair.

Moments later two men came in, one with a Steadicam camera strapped to his torso. The second man had his hands on the camera operator’s waist, ready to steer him. Another sound guy stood near the two actresses with a long boom holding a mic. From the corner, out of the camera frame, Rod yelled, “Roll sound.” Everyone went silent. Then he yelled “Roll camera.”

That’s me. Look invisible.

“And action!” Rod said. 

Casey froze, her eyes rigid on the notebook in front of her. In a few moments, Rod yelled, “Cut!”

The director stepped into the room. “Background,” he said, pointing at Casey. “You’re not a statue. I want you invisible, but I want you to look like you’re alive. Turn a page in that book. Run your finger over a page…got it?”

Casey felt her face turn red. She nodded.

“Okay, let’s go again.” The director left the room.

“Roll camera.” Rod yelled. Silence fell. “And action.”

The actresses engaged in a conversation, something about another teacher being incompetent. Casey turned a page. She moved the notebook slightly. 

“Cut!” Rod said. “Moving on.”

Casey sat still. The director came in. “Background, you’re released.” He grabbed her notebook off the desk, handed it to Rod. “Let the teacher hold this in the next scene.”

He and Rod left the room with Casey’s notebook.

Shit!

Casey put her lanyard back on, stayed in the seat as the room cleared and the crew moved on to a different location down the hall. One of the two actresses approached her. “Honey, be a dear and go over to Crafty and get me a bag of chips. I have to stay close.” The actress peered at Casey. “You look pale. Get something for yourself, too.”

Casey left the room, looked around for craft services. She spotted tables outside the building at the edge of the parking lot. She walked over, got a bag of chips and a bottle of water, and headed back to the classroom. 

The actress thanked her. “Listen, hon, help me out here. If I get crumbs on this outfit, Wardrobe will kill me.” She handed the bag back to Casey. “Open this and put a few chips in your hand.”

Casey tore open the bag, set chips in the palm of her hand. The actress picked one and nibbled on it, leaning forward to keep food bits from falling on her clothes.

“I need that notebook the director took away,” Casey said.

“It’s a prop, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s mine. I need it for a paper I have to write.”

The actress stared hard at Casey. “You’re not an extra, are you?”

Casey shook her head no.

“You’re a student here, right?”

Again Casey nodded.

“You got guts, girl. I’ll hand you that.”

“Thanks, but guts aren’t doing me any good right now.”

The actress finished a few chips. “Thanks. Listen…wait, what’s your name?”

“Casey.”

“Okay, Casey. I’m Nora.” She glanced around the room. A bookcase full of books sat in one corner of the room. Nora grabbed a book. “Here’s what we’ll do. I’m in the next scene with the actress who has your notebook. Let me go hover in the background. I’ll swap this book for yours when they’re done. You stay here. Keep your head down, I’ll be back. Okay?”

Casey nodded. “Thanks.”

Casey’s phone chirped. “Shut that off!” Nora said. “If the director hears it, you’ll be out on your ass.” Casey silenced the phone. Nora left. Casey glanced at the screen. Martin. Where are you? Aren’t we studying together?

Casey shoved the phone in her pocket. Later, dude.

An eternity later, Nora slipped into the classroom. She smiled, handed the notebook to Casey. “Get your ass out of here before we both get caught. The script supervisor will have a fit when she realizes the notebook is missing.”

Casey opened her mouth to say thank you. The actress grabbed her by the shoulders, turned her towards the door. She held up a hand. “Shh.”

The actress peeked out the door. All the crew clustered down the hall. She stepped out to block for Casey. “Go!”

Casey dashed for the door at the end of the hall, broke out into daylight. 

She had gone just a few steps into the parking lot when a voice called out. “You. The extra. Come here.”

Aah, no! 

Casey turned to see a woman standing next to a rack of clothes, pointing straight at her.

“You. Here.”

Casey stepped over, holding her notebook behind her back.

The woman held up a phone. “I need a picture of your outfit. For continuity. In case we have to shoot your scene again. Stand still.”

Casey held one arm down, the other behind her back with the notebook.

The woman took a few shots. “You dressed from your own closet, right?” she asked.

“I usually do.”

“Not bad. You look like a student.”

I am a student.

“Can I go now?”

“Yeah. They won’t need you till after lunch.”

Casey flew to the rear gate, climbed the fence again, and grabbed her bike.

She texted Martin. On my way. My film shoot ran late. Added a smiley face emoji.

***

shortfiction24 – a rosary of names

Credit: BBC

What I’m Writing This Week

A teen tries to make sense of her father’s death and the murder of eleven school kids by making a film. Can new life come from this?

The story is my own way of dealing with the senseless and continual tragedies in our nation.

A Rosary of Names

Bob Gillen

Call me Alex. It’s what my father called me. My mother, she prefers Alexandra. Alexandra Sanchez. I live with my mother. My dad is gone. If it’s possible to die of a broken heart, that’s what killed him.

At this moment I am sitting in an empty classroom. In a vacant elementary school. The school will be torn down in a few months. The floor is cool on my butt, on my crossed legs. 

I’m holding my film camera in my lap. I came here to make a movie. To try to make sense of what happened five months ago. In this room. They called my father a hero at his funeral. He didn’t die here. Eleven children did. My father kept it from being worse. A teacher and eight children survived. 

My graduation from high school last month would have been a proud moment for my dad. I have a scholarship to study at the film school at CSUN. Cal State University Northridge. My dream come true, right? Today my college days are on hold. I can’t leave my mother to attend an out of state school. She needs me. I need her.

I’m sitting here alone. The school has been shuttered since the murders. I have a key. My father was the senior custodian. For twenty years. His keys were still in our house.

Last March, while a teacher worked with her students, all third graders, dad was in a corner of the room mopping up a kid’s puke. Something he did often. A man pulled open the door, started shooting an assault rifle at the kids. He didn’t see my father. Dad lifted his wet mop and ran at the shooter, shoving the mop and the puke in his face. The man dropped the rifle, pulled a handgun out of his belt, and shot himself in the head.

All the news reports say the whole thing was over in a minute. It will never be over for any of us. I want to capture the tragedy, the loss, on film. I don’t know how. I hope something will trigger an idea. I want the world to know what can happen in a moment’s time. How a deranged man can kill children, then kill himself to avoid responsibility for his actions. I want others to feel what we feel.

My father died in his sleep, two months after the shooting. My mother said he had nightmares every night. He would wake up screaming. In a sweat. Trembling. Every night. I can’t imagine what he must have seen in this room. The shooter dead. Eleven kids bloody and lifeless. Dad was like a zombie after that.

I’m thinking that the surviving children from this classroom also wake up screaming every night. As do the parents of the children who died.

I’m sitting here in silence. There are traffic noises outside. Far off, a siren. Distant thunder from an approaching storm. I listen. There is only emptiness. I turn on the camera. I check white balance and focus. I hit Record, panning around the shell of a room. All of the desks and tables have been removed. The walls are bare of teacher art, of student drawings and papers. The floor smells faintly of bleach and ammonia. I can only capture images and audio with my camera. No other sensory bites. The camera runs as I sit with my silence. A tear works its way down my cheek. I leave it to hang till it dries. 

It occurs to me, are the spirits of the dead children here? It’s been five months. Have they moved on?

And I wonder, do they grieve for their moms and dads, their brothers and sisters, their friends and classmates? Miss them the same way we all miss the kids? Do they reach out their hands for a mom who is not there? Do they call out into an empty space?

I have the names of the eleven dead children memorized. Like my dad. He knew most of the kids by name. The whole school. He was good like that. Always a smile, a nod, a fist bump. Mr. Sanchez. Always there when a teacher needed a cleanup. Always providing enough heat or air conditioning.

I begin to say the children’s names out loud. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey. I repeat the names. Over and over. Like a rosary prayer. My dad’s name…I can’t even say it.

Tears run down my cheeks freely. I extend the camera out to avoid dripping tears on it. It’s still running. Capturing a void. What should be a room full of noisy kids, writing their lessons, making art, listening to the teacher tell stories.

I continue to say the names aloud. Thunder rumbles a bit closer. 

And I hear a toilet flush. A toilet? Can’t be. I recite the names once more.

“Billy?”

A voice comes from somewhere in the building. Soft, tentative. I stop talking.

Again, “Billy?”

I’m sitting in the middle of the room. Nowhere to duck and hide. The door creaks open. I turn to see a girl peering in. She’s maybe my age. Dressed kind of shabby. Hair messy.

She stares at me. I stand, holding my camera. Still recording.

“You’re not Billy.”

I shake my head. 

“He left yesterday. He didn’t come back.”

She steps into the room. I see she is pregnant. I would guess five or six months.

My voice squeaks out, “Who are you?”

She looks around the room. “I heard voices. Are you alone?” 

I nod.

She smiles. “I’m Kenzie.”

“Why are you here?” I ask her. “The school is closed. How did you get in?”

“Billy jimmied a door at the back of the gym…he’s good at that stuff.”

She cradled her hands under her belly. “I’m pregnant.”

“I see that.”

“And I’m homeless.”

“Who is Billy?” I ask.

“My baby’s father.”

I take a step closer to her. She backs up. I stop. “Are you sleeping here?”

Kenzie nods. “We have a couple of sleeping bags in a closet.” She points to the rear of the school building. “It’s, like, a classroom, but it’s real empty.”

I feel my body tensing. I’m pissed. My focus is broken. I want to get her out of this room. “Show me.”

Kenzie walks me towards one of the classrooms near the back of the school. Mrs. Jenkins’s room. She opens the closet door at the back of the room. It’s a big walk-in closet. There are two dirty sleeping bags. Cans of diet soda, a loaf of bread, a few bags of chips. 

“I’m running low on food. Billy went out to get more.”

“Where is he?”

She shrugs. “He always comes back when he goes out for food. He didn’t come back yesterday.” She giggles quietly. “I’m like his little bird in my nest. Every day he goes out to bring me food.”

Thunder rumbles again. The storm is much closer. 

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Alex.”

“That’s cool. Alex.”

She points to my camera. “Are you filming something?”

I shake my head. “Just messing around.”

“Do you go to school here?”

“This is…was…an elementary school. I graduated from high school last month.”

She looks confused. “This was a school?”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Kenzie looks down at her feet. “Me and Billy, we’ve been on the road for a couple months. Heading for California.”

On the road. That explains her sun-bleached hair. 

I stare at her belly. “What about medical care?”

“We hit a couple of clinics on the way. They say my baby is healthy.”

I look at the food on the floor of the closet. “You’re eating junk. Can’t be good for the baby.”

Again she shrugs. “Best we can do.”

We stand facing each other. Me with my camera. Her with her big belly. I wave my thumb back towards the classroom we left. “Eleven kids died in that room. Five months ago. A shooter. They’re going to tear this building down.”

“Oh shit.” She cradles her belly again. “Eleven kids?”

I nod.

“I don’t think I can stay here now.” She kneels to roll up her sleeping bag.

“Where will you go? How will Billy find you?”

“He’ll find me. Oh God. Eleven kids died here.” She shudders.

I lift my camera. Words spill from my mouth. “Do you want to be in my film?”

“Really?”

I nod.

“I never saw myself on video before.”

“How old are you?” it occurs to me to ask.

“Eighteen. I would have graduated last year…if I stayed in school.”

I begin taping the sleeping bags and the food spread out on the floor. I move the frame up to Kenzie’s belly, then to her face. I point to her.

“Am I supposed to talk? Okay. Hi, I’m Kenzie. I’m traveling to California with my boyfriend Billy.”

I roll my finger for her to keep talking.

“We’ve been sleeping here for a couple nights. So quiet here.” She pauses. “Not like the shelters we stay at. Or the homeless camps. They’re so noisy. This place…” She pauses again. “The silence is peaceful…but now, scary. I mean, I just found out eleven kids died here. Shot to death.” She wraps her arms around her torso. “I can’t stay here. I need to move on. Right now.”

Overhead a clap of thunder rattles the building. Rain falls outside. I turn the camera towards the windows. Rain pelts the glass like bullets. Like shots that won’t stop. I whisper the names. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey. 

“Iris.”

It’s a girl.

I turn to Kenzie.

She touches her stomach. “It’s a girl. I’m going to name her Iris. My grandmother’s name.” She slides up the right sleeve of her hoodie. The name Iris is tattooed on her wrist. Surrounded by flowers.

We both sit down on the floor, backs against the closet door. A flash of lightning streaks somewhere close by. I see Kenzie rub her fingers softly over her tattoo.

Through all the thunder and the pounding rain I keep on saying the names. My rosary of names. Reciting them over the crashing storm.

The thunder rages. My camera is still running, focused now on the rain against the windows. My voice runs on. Name after name. Dead child after dead child. I keep reciting. Not praying. Simply calling their names. Maybe I hope I can reach them. Tell them we have not forgotten them. Tell them we miss their smiles, their curiosities, their hopes and fears. Really, though, it’s probably all I can do… say their names.

After a time I realize Kenzie is echoing the names with me. Hesitantly, missing a few as she tries to follow my voice.

We go on repeating their names. The storm outside is passing. The rain quiets. I spy a streak of late afternoon sunlight beaming through the departing clouds. 

Kenzie turns to me. “I need to find Billy.”

I aim the camera at her. “Do you want me to go with you?”

She shakes her head. “I can do this.”

“What if you can’t find him?”

She stands. I do, too. 

“What if you get stopped? They’ll put you in the system, won’t they?”

“Been there, done that,” she shrugs. 

“What about Iris?” I point at her belly.

“I got four months to figure that out,” she says.

My camera is still running. 

“I’ll leave our stuff here,” Kenzie tells me. “If I find Billy, we can come back for it…don’t think I can sleep here again, though.” Once again she cradles her belly.

“Bye.” She heads for the door at the back of the gym. She stops, turns to me. “Thanks for putting me in your film. Me and Iris.”

I wave. “Bye.”

I’m back in the classroom again. Where the kids died. The late afternoon sun flares through the rain-spattered windows and sprays across the floor. I film what I see. Sunlight. I find myself thinking, I wish my dad could have seen only sunlight in this room.

I start reciting my rosary again, this time repeating only one name. Iris. Iris. Iris. 

***

shortfiction24 – shaping a story

I offer a collage, a convergence, of past work for this week’s post. On LinkedIn yesterday I saw a reference to a sculptor named Michelle Millay, who works in the film industry. I interviewed Michelle in May of 2013 for my website on filmmaking. Her sculpting work is featured on movies like Batman and Robin and Pirates of the Caribbean.

What I’ve Written

Thinking of Michelle reminded me of two stories I’ve posted here in the last few years that have sculpting as a theme.

One story is titled “The Hand”. I used an image of several Rodin sculpture as inspiration for the story. I first posted it in February of 2021.

The Hand

A man’s left hand reaches forward, bent at the wrist. Three fingers curl inward. Thumb and index fingers extending. Poised. Expectant. Ready to grasp. 

His love lies dying. Ravaged by disease. Poised to let go. In a moment of mindfulness, she comes through the pain. She slides her wedding ring off her left hand and holds it out to him. A gesture of giving, of surrender. I won’t need this. I want you to keep it. Her eyes speak. Remember me when you hold it. Touch it. Feel its smoothness, worn by years of  love. Years of twisting and turning. Of sliding off at night, back on every morning. 

He reaches for the ring. Index finger and thumb extend. Moving in hesitation, in reluctance…in acceptance. He grips the ring lightly. Feels the warmth of her finger as it fades slowly from the ring’s surface.

He has no words. He slides the ring partially over his forefinger. Enough to maintain a grip on it. He knows that to accept the ring is to accept her leaving. 

His eyes meet hers. She smiles weakly. Closes her eyes. A shallow breath. Another. And a last one.

He rubs his thumb hard against the ring. I will remember.

***

More on a Convergence of Theme

I add another converging element on the theme of carving and sculpting. Check out a song of loss and remembrance from The Subdudes: Carved in Stone.

And read on for the second story about a woman with cancer scars.

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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 – half a keyboard

Credit: Hello Music Theory

Harry played in the orchestra pit for 15 years till a stroke numbed his left hand.

This Week’s Story: A Stroke Disables a Theater Musician

Harry played keyboards in the orchestra pit for dozens of Broadway shows over the years. Now his left hand lay numb on the keyboard after a debilitating stroke.

Half a Keyboard

Bob Gillen

Harry spread his fingers over the keyboard. A deep breath filled his lungs. His right hand began playing a high, delicate melody. Harry closed his eyes. Let the music flare up inside him, burn out his fingers. His left arm lay at his side as melodies danced in the air.

For Harry, the piano was life. That life was cut down with the stroke that disabled his left hand. A life cut in half. There was no bass for his melodies. No bottom. No foundation. Playing melody with his right hand felt like riding a bike with only one leg. Not just difficult. Near impossible. 

Harry continued playing. His left arm instinctively raised to the keyboard, but there was no movement, no feeling, in his hand. 

Tears seeped from his eyes. Ran unchecked down his cheeks and splattered on his shirt front. He continued to play. He felt lopsided. Off balance. He closed his eyes again, this time to offset the dizziness he felt. 

Today marked a month since his stroke. They caught it early. Limited damage, the doctors said. Limited, yeah. Maybe for them. For Harry, the joy of his life cut in half. His friends told him he could still play melody. That was better than losing his right hand. He could live without the bass, they said.

Harry knew better. Bass was the bottom. The support for melody. Without the bass he felt like he was dancing without shoes. Without feet. 

His career was over. He would never play in the pit again. Eight shows a week. Eight times a week for the last fifteen years. Pure joy. He had his favorite shows, but he would play even for the bombs. Live performance was his life.

And the beauty of it. He played unseen in the pit. His joy bloomed nightly in the cocoon of the theater pit, shared with his fellow musicians. For the audience, the music was background to the stage action. They did not feel any need to see the orchestra. They knew it was there. That was enough.

After each show a few theater goers gathered at the edge of the pit, pointing out the instruments to their kids, their nieces and nephews, their grandkids. 

Harry would make their night by waving from his piano bench. Then he’d stand and head for home.

Home. Where he sat now. Nowhere else to go. Disability insurance would cover some of his previous income. The rest? Who knows? 

Harry reached deep into his memory. The muscle memory of playing for a lifetime. He began playing “Try to Remember” from the Fantasticks. “Deep in December.” This was his December, he thought. Reaching back like some old guy to recall the good times, the Septembers of his life. The times when the embers burned brightly. When life was good.

His left arm twitched. Harry moved the arm up to position his numb hand over the keyboard. The melody continued to flow from his right hand. 

The pinkie finger on Harry’s left hand ticked. Twitched. Hit a deep C note. 

Once.

Harry took his left hand in his right. Massaged it gently. Another tic. Slight. 

He let his left arm fall to his side and resumed playing with his right. 

His pinkie finger twitched again. Twice. Harry smiled. Played on with his right hand. Played on and on…

***

An Interview with a Film Composer

Here’s a link to an interview I did a few years back with film composer Thomas VanOosting. You may enjoy reading it. And thanks for stopping by.

Mannequin Monday – I play her guitar

5:55 p.m. Supermarket checker Lari talks addiction recovery with a customer. A story bite of mine.

And I visit the songwriting doc It All Begins with a Song. It’s all about the thriving artist colony that is the Nashville songwriting community.

What I’m Writing This Week

I’m sharing another story bite, this one inspired by a real supermarket checker I knew. I hope you enjoy it.

  Five Fifty Five

Bob Gillen

Lari’s phone alarm chirped as she scanned the last of twelve cans of cat food for her supermarket customer. She dug the phone out of her jeans pocket, smiled at the display, turned off the alarm. She stuffed the phone back in her pocket.

Her customer glanced at her own watch. “5:55. Is your shift ending?”

“I don’t get off till eight tonight.”

“Oh?” Her customer gave Lari a puzzled look.

Lari leaned around the register to see that there were no other customers in line.

“Five fifty five,” she said. “I had my last drink at 5:55 in the afternoon, I’m six years thirty two days sober today.”

“Good for you,” the customer said, as she slipped her credit card into the card reader. “You must be proud.”

Lari reached into another pocket, placed a large token on the counter next to the card reader. 

“I got this at my fifth year sober. Pick it up.”

The customer handled the token. “It’s heavy.”

Lari nodded.

“Your family must be happy with your sobriety.”

Lari checked again that there was no one else in line. 

She shrugged. “No one left. I do this for me.”

“I admire your courage.”

Lari looked the customer in the eye. “Husband left me years ago. My daughter is dead. OD’d last year.”

“Oh.”

“She’d be twenty eight tomorrow, if she had made it. Booze got her.”

“I’m so sorry.” Her customer took the receipt Liza handed her, folded it into her purse.

Lari put the token back in her pocket. Filled a paper bag with the customer’s grocery items.

I play her guitar.

“How do you cope?” the customer asked.

“I play her guitar.”

 The customer picked up her bag. “Her guitar?”

“I play it every night. Her favorite songs. I don’t play well, but…” 

A new customer began tossing her groceries on the belt. The exiting customer said, “You take care.” She walked away.

Lari scanned the first item sliding off the belt, a bottle of vodka. She quickly pulled out her phone, reset the alarm for 5:55 p.m. tomorrow.

***

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