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shortfiction24 – losing Maxine

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

What I’m Writing This Week

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

Losing Maxine

Bob Gillen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy said, “Mark.”

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

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

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

“Sure, the Moulin Rouge paintings.”

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

Mark’s brows wrinkled. He shook his head.

“Anybody?” Grace called out to the class.

Silence.

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

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

Lots of nods.

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

The class peered at Grace.

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

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

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

Mark said, “That was really bad.”

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

More heads shook.

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

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

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

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

“This is Maxine.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You are…?” Grace asked. 

“Eric.”

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

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

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

A couple of girls grimaced.

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

Several other students shared their sketches as well.

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

Heads nodded.

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

More nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Students studied, sketched, wrote notes.

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

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

“Anyone want to share?”

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

“Good detail. Anyone else?”

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

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

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

“I’m Morgan.”

We’re all missing something.

“Okay, Morgan.”

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

Grace nodded. “Talk to me.”

“I see Maxine’s pain.”

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

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

Grace squinted.

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

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

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

“Yes. We see that too,” Grace said.

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

Grace stared at Maxine. 

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

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

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

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

***

shortfiction24 – the goat movie

What I’m Writing This Week

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

The Goat Movie

Bob Gillen

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

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

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

Diane hesitated, then replied, What’s playing?

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

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

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

“I don’t get it.”

“Goats? Billy goats?”

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

“Should I call later?”

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

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

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

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

“Vaguely.”

“Girl, your education has sadly been lacking.”

“A matter of opinion…boy.”

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

“Save it, Jack.”

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

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

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

A pause while Diane hesitated to react. 

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

“Jack, don’t.”

“Honest. His business card reads, Pachydermatologist.”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Jack. That’s nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

“See you there at six.”

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

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

***

shortfiction24 – our last downhill run

What I’m Writing This Week

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

Our Last Downhill Run

Bob Gillen

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

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

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

Jared fumbled in his own briefcase.

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

“Yeah?”

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

“Food?”

“Yeah. Steaks and burgers.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Spill,” Larry said. 

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

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

Jared shrugged. “I said I would try.”

“They couldn’t mail it?”

“Personal touch…I guess.”

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

“Ashley Peters.”

“Yeah, she can be persistent.”

Jared repeated, “I said I’d try.”

“Does the guy know you’re coming?”

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

“You’re crazy, you know that, right?”

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

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

“You don’t have to do this, Larry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The young man stared at Jared.

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

Jared held out the package.

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

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

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

“Wait, what?”

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

Jared stood frozen, hand holding the package out.

The cab driver honked the horn.

You got played.

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

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

He closed the door.

The horn honked again.

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

“How did it go?” Larry asked.

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

“No way. You got played.”

“No shit. That’s what he just said.”

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

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

Back at the hotel, Jared paid the driver.

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

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

“Now you’re talking!”

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

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

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

***

shortfiction24 – skeletons in a snowbank

Credit: brownstonedetectives.com

What I’m Writing This Week

A frustrated writer takes a night walk on the beach to make sense of his own story. Having fun with a mix of memory and imagination.

Skeletons in a Snowbank

Bob Gillen

Alden pushed his chair away from the table. The screen on his laptop read, Working Title: My Memoir. 

On top of a manila folder next to the laptop sat a faded black and white photo, a picture of himself as a toddler standing on an icy sidewalk surrounded by towering snowbanks. Alden flipped the photo over. Written on the back in neat penmanship, “Young Alden, the Great Blizzard of 1947.”

His family had called him Young Alden, to distinguish him from his grandfather. And no one in the family dared call him or his grandfather Al.

Alden tossed the photo down, slammed the laptop closed, turned off the desk lamp.

“Shit,” he said to an empty room. “This manuscript is garbage.”

He grabbed a cold beer from the kitchen, pulled on an oversized hoodie and stepped out from his bungalow into the blackness of a damp night. 

The sound of crashing surf drew him to the beach, where he turned into the wind and walked west. Mid May. No summer people yet. Another two weeks and the town would be crawling with them. He now prided himself on being a year-round resident, a retired would-be writer.

The chill wind prickled his face. Alden took a few steps away from the damp sand at the water’s edge and sat. He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around his legs. The first swig of beer went down cold. He shivered.

Clouds obscured the moon and stars. The white crests of the breaking waves flashed out of the dark sea, only to disappear, one after another. The wind carried the rank smell of seaweed, the sweetness of seagrass, a hint of chimney smoke.

Alden’s mind drifted to the photo. He had a vivid memory of being dwarfed by the snowbanks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, snowbanks no doubt monstrous because people had shoveled it in piles to clear the sidewalks.

A gust of wind sprayed sand over his shoes. Sand stuck to the neck of his beer bottle. He stood, dumped the remaining beer into the sand, hurled the bottle into the sea beyond the surf. Still got my arm, he thought. 

“Sorry there’s no message in the bottle,” he said to the sea. “Only an empty container.” Empty, like my memoir.

No emotion

For the past three weeks Alden had sat at his laptop, six hours a day, seven days a week. If volume was any indicator, he had half a book on paper. No, he thought. Forty thousand words, but not a book. Only a jumble of isolated memories. There was no story there. No adventure. No journey. No lifetime of struggle and victory. No emotion.

Alden walked again, leaning into the wind. Jeez, I can’t make sense of the memoir. How will any reader give a shit?

Paris Catacombs

The darkness brought his mind back to a novel he had read last month. A story set in and around the catacombs of Paris. Miles of tunnels under Paris, walls lined with thousands of skeletons, many thousands of skulls and bones. He laughed aloud. I wonder if there were any skeletons in the snowbanks back in New York. Bodies buried in the snow, appearing after the thaw. A hand sticking out of the melting snow.

Alden stopped, turned his back to the wind. His mind raced. Snowbanks in my memory…skeletons in my imagination. Fuck the memoir. I’ll write stories triggered by my memories. Maybe readers would actually care about that.

He let the wind propel him back to the cottage. Back to the laptop. Back to create something a reader might actually read.

shortfiction24 – Milo in Paris

Maurice and Milo are thrilled to perform at a club in Paris. They dream of becoming a global act. Alas…

What I’m Writing

In February 2020 I posted a story titled “Sawdust” about my quirky characters, Maurice and Milo, a ventriloquist and his dummy. A second story followed in August 2021. Today’s story is about them again, this time a prequel to Maurice’s sudden death onstage one night. POV is once again Milo’s. Here they are, excited to be performing at a club in Paris.

Milo in Paris

Bob Gillen

The club’s green room sat in the basement, under the stage. Dark, poorly lit. A tiny closet to the side. A locked door that led somewhere unknown. Maurice sat at the dressing table in front of the mirror. 

I watched him work through his makeup routine. He darkened his eyebrows, combed his moustache. Pulled on his fedora, positioning it carefully. He liked to frame himself as a film noir character.

Maurice turned to me. The dummy in the next chair. “You look good tonight, Milo.”

“Thank you. And I must say, you are looking quite well yourself, Maurice.”

Maurice smiled. “Thank you, my friend.”

Maurice smoothed my shirt, white with blue stripes. Pinched the crease in my dark slacks. He reached for a navy blue beret, positioned it carefully on my head. 

“I think we’re ready.”

A knock on the door. “Five minutes.”

“Thank you, five minutes.” Maurice stood. Smoothed his own outfit. 

“Our first gig in Paris, Milo. This is a big night. We’ll be here for a week, if tonight works. The first step in becoming a global act.”

“One show at a time,” I said.

“You’re right. You’ve heard me say that many times.”

Maurice picked me up and opened the door. As we mounted the stairs, I heard the applause from the act preceding us. Two dancers, their shoes tapping on the floor, dashed past us as we reached the wings.

“You’re on,” the club manager said.

Maurice took a deep breath, adjusted my beret, and stepped out on stage.

Credit: The Guardian

In the green room after our performance, Maurice said, “I hope you don’t feel badly when they call you sawdust, Milo.”

I shook my wooden head.

“The drunk in the Hawaiian print shirt was obnoxious. Obviously an American tourist speaking bad French.”

“We’ve seen worse,” I said, softly. “But it sounded classy in French. Sciure. Sawdust.”

“Funny…the word sawdust,” Maurice said. “Tonight it reminds me of my first job as a kid, right out of eighth grade. A summer job as a delivery boy for the local butcher shop. There was always sawdust on the floor of the shop. It was my job to sweep it up every night at closing time, and spread new sawdust on the floor. I did that while the butcher used a wire brush to scrub the blood and scraps off his carving block.”

I had never heard him talk of that before.

“That was a lot of years ago, Milo. A lot of years.”

Maurice folded my outfit carefully, placed it in the suitcase with his own jacket and fedora. 

“We’ve come a long way,” Maurice said. “A long way from doing sock puppets in my bedroom. Trying to drown out my mom and dad screaming at each other.”

It was always me.

He looked at the me. Me, Milo. It was always me, even as a sock puppet. Always French. Always there at his side. Somewhere at home he still had the sock. Rolled up in a drawer somewhere. Or in a box in the closet. If his ex-wife Darla hasn’t thrown it out. She hated me. Not at first. But it didn’t take long for her to realize I came first. I was more real than anyone else to Maurice.

I understood him like no one else did. An odd thing to say. A wooden dummy understands you better than any person. Odd, maybe, but real. Real for us.

“Tomorrow night will be even better,” Maurice said. “We open for a jazz trio. It will be an audience that appreciates the finer things in life.”

Oui,” I said.

Maurice smiled. “There’s always a tomorrow night.”

***

shortfiction24 – the trap door

Haillie’s dreams of becoming a fearless firefighter take an early turn when she discovers the secret behind a hidden trap door.

What I’m Writing

This week I followed a writing exercise from Ray Bradbury. He calls it Nouns and Titles. He suggests making a list of words, then using those words to trigger a story idea. I started with “trap door” and here’s the story that resulted. I hope you enjoy it.

The Trap Door

Bob Gillen

The trap door lay flush with the wide-plank floor boards, hidden under an enormous oriental rug. Furniture anchored the rug around the perimeter of the room. The trap door would be almost impossible to find. Almost.

Haillie ran her toy firetruck back and forth in the center of the room. “Vroom, vroom.” She dreamed of the day she would be a firefighter, driving a powerful truck to an emergency, roaring down the streets with siren screaming and horn blaring. “Vroom, vroom.” I’m a brave firefighter, she imagined, climbing a ladder to save a child from a burning building.

“Haillie, can you keep the noise down? Please?” her mother pleaded from the kitchen. “I’m on an important call.”

Haillie cut the volume on her voice, continued pushing the firetruck across the rug. The toy truck hiccuped over a slight depression, a tiny blip under the plastic tires. She rolled the truck back and forth over the indentation. Weird, she thought. Never felt this before. She probed the tiny ridge with her finger, pressing hard to feel it. A few feet along the ridge, the indentation made a right angle. Haillie followed it, meeting two more right angles till she came back to the original spot.

She peered into the kitchen. Her mother was blabbing away on her phone.

Haillie lifted the front two legs of an easy chair from one edge of the rug, pulled the rug away, and peeled it back to where she had felt the indentation. She came upon a brass ring, set flush into what looked like a door or lid of some sort. It was the same wood as the floor, with two edges lined up along the floorboard seams. Only the other two sides intersected the floor seams.

Again, Haillie peered toward the kitchen. Her mom had retreated to the back porch to continue her conversation.

Haillie lifted the ring on the trap door. It came up easily, without a squeak. She tugged at the ring. The trap door rose a few inches above the floor. A chill rush of air puffed out from the opening. A dark smell, musty, old. Haillie pried the door up further. She spied a ladder leading down into a dark void.

I am a firefighter, she told herself. I go where I need to go, to rescue people in danger. Setting her feet on the ladder, Haillie lowered the trap door a few inches above her head, and shoved at the rug to push it away from the opening, enough to hide the door. She let the door close. 

Credit: Pixy.org

Total darkness. Oh no. I need a flashlight. She peered down into the void. There was a sliver of light far down into the void. She thought to go back for a flashlight, but she heard footsteps above her.

“Haillie? Where are you?” Her mother’s voice. “I almost tripped on your toy truck…Oh dear, you moved the rug. Why do you always make it harder for me?”

Haillie heard the rug dragged, the chair lifted and set down again. Only one way to go now. Down.

Haillie descended into the dark, one rung at a time. Dust coated her hands as she grabbed each rung. She rubbed them on her jeans, one hand at a time. She looked up and could see nothing. The trap door was invisible in the dark.

“Someone is in trouble,” she said in a whisper. “I need to reach them.” She moved down and down. 

Her left foot hit bottom. Hard bottom. Cement? Dirt? There was a faint glow of light here at the bottom. Coming from somewhere away from the ladder.

She wiped the last of the dust from her hands. Her nose wrinkled at the musty odor. She turned towards the light. The fire! They need me.

Haillie walked slowly, feeling her way with her feet, touching her fingertips to walls on either side of her. Must be a tunnel, she thought.

A tiny voice. You found me. 

Haillie froze. Listened.

You found me.

She peered into the darkness. No one visible. No shape, no silhouette. Only a voice. She moved ahead a few steps.

Her right hand felt a break in the wall. An alcove of some sort.

Here I am.

Haillie jumped back. She could make out a dark shape in the alcove, lying prone. Not moving. She took a step toward it.

I’m here. Don’t be afraid.

Did I find someone in need? Now what?

Haillie extended her hand toward the shape. She touched something round, hard, dry.

That’s my head.

Haillie jumped back again.

Don’t be afraid. You came.

Haillie shook her head. What?

I’ve been waiting a long time. I kept count. More than twenty years.

Wait, what? A voice is talking to me but there’s no one there.

I’m here. Reach out your hand. Move it around.

Haillie hesitated, groped with her fingers. Two holes on top of the round object. Teeth lower down. Teeth?

Keep going, the voice said.

Haillie took a step forward, ran her hand further along, felt ribs, arm bones.

Are you a skeleton?

“Are you a skeleton?” she asked aloud.

I am now. I didn’t start out that way.

“You’ve been here twenty years? How did you get here?” Her voice echoed in the dark tunnel.

I was eight years old. I died from a fall. Off the old oak tree in the yard.

“But why are you in here?”

My father was afraid everyone would blame him. He always left me alone while he went to work.

“That’s crazy.”

He was scared. He put me in here, and told everyone I ran away. I don’t know if they believed him.

“Where is he now?”

No idea…He never came back.

“My mom bought the house a year ago. It’s just me and her. I don’t know who she bought it from.”

What’s your name?

“Haillie.”

I’m Molly. Hi.

“Hi, Molly.” Haillie looked up and down the tunnel. “What do we do now?”

I think you can go now. Tell people I’m here. Then I can move on.

“How do I get out of here?”

Follow the tunnel to the end. It opens into the woods behind a big rock, at the edge of the property.

“My mother is going to be so pissed at me for coming in  here…She won’t like what I tell her.”

It’s the only way, Haillie. I can’t move on till they find me. 

Haillie detected a quiver to Molly’s faint voice.

“I found you. Isn’t that enough?”

No. People need to know my story. The truth. I didn’t run away. My dad didn’t hurt me.

Haillie reached out, probing for Molly’s hand. She gripped the bones. Shuddered. “I’m afraid.”

If a skeleton could cry, Molly was weeping. Haillie felt it. Felt the sadness, the desperation.

Take my ring. On my right hand.

Haillie probed in the near darkness till she felt a plain band. She tugged at it. 

“It’s stuck.”

Pull harder.

The ring came loose, along with a finger bone. Haillie shivered. 

Take the bone, too. People will believe you.

“Molly, this is so weird.” Haillie rubbed the ring, slipped it on her own finger.

Keep the ring. It will be our secret. Show everyone the bone.

“I’ll try, Molly.” She touched Molly’s skull, stroked it for a moment.

I hear you when you run your firetruck on the floor above.

“You do?”

Sure. I hear you pretend you’re a brave firefighter. You’re saving me now.

Haillie stood tall. “Okay, Molly. I’ll do it for you.” She squeezed the bone tightly in her fist.

Thanks. When you come back, I won’t be here… I won’t forget you.

Haillie nodded, turned toward the light.

“Bye, Molly.”

***

shortfiction24 – a new morning

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, Columbus Museum of Art

In today’s micro story Diane Somers feels relief after returning her berserk cat Zero to the animal shelter. Relief…and emptiness.

More short fiction in the Jack and Diane series. Enjoy.

What I’m Writing Today

Today I’m exploring a lonely moment as Diane sits at home after returning her cat to the shelter. This is #4 in the Jack and Diane series of stories. As I have said before, I did not expect to continue the story line, and I have no plan as to where it is going. The characters interest me. I’ll see where it goes as we proceed.

Catch up on previous stories with Jack and Diane on this blog: A Third Date, The Second Date, Death by Millstone.

A New Morning

Bob Gillen

Diane Somers woke at 7:30 without an alarm. She stretched, slid out from under her covers. The east-facing window filled the room with light. 

Diane smiled. I slept through the night, she told herself. First time in a month. She stepped into her fuzzy slippers, pulled on a well-worn blue chennile robe, and padded to the kitchen. In under ten minutes she had her French-press coffee in hand. She settled in her chair and gazed out at the trees moving in the brisk Santa Ana winds. 

She sighed as she sipped her coffee. 

Sleep was good. After a month of near-sleepless nights she had finally surrendered and returned her cat Zero to the rescue shelter. As a retiree, she had the option of afternoon naps. But nothing replaced a good night’s sleep. Zero had been with her for close to two years. In that time the cat had never once purred or meowed. Never snuggled with Diane in her chair or in bed. The cat did nothing but eat, pee and sleep. Hence the cat’s name. Diane gave zero fucks about him.

But Zero had taken to roaming the house every night for the last month. Running from room to room. Hissing. Knocking books off tables. The last straw, two nights ago he swept her favorite mug off the kitchen table and shattered it. 

The guy at the shelter had accepted Zero back. “Didn’t work for you, huh?” he asked.

“Not your normal cuddly cat.”

The clerk had nodded. “Thanks for trying. Not always a match.”

“Thanks for understanding,” Diane had called out as she left.

She sipped her coffee. A couple of dry leaves scratched across the concrete patio in the wind. For some weird reason, the moving leaves reminded her of the black and white movie with Peter Lorre, where a severed hand crawled around the house causing mayhem and murder. That’s what Zero had been, a hand detached from anything that would give it life, creeping about in the darkness. Diane shuddered. He’s gone now.

After a second cup of coffee, she continued to stare out the window at the wind-blown trees. All the movement was outside. Inside, only stillness. Diane felt alone, empty. Her mind drifted back over the three years since her second husband had died. She lost him quite suddenly of a massive heart attack. And she had lost her only daughter in a maelstrom of anger and bitterness. Margaret had not spoken to Diane since Mark’s death. Diane had still to reason why, exactly. 

Her thoughts were interrupted by sirens from the nearby fire station, as a crew went out on call. Her neighbor’s German shepherd howled. Howled mightily. It always brought a smile to her face. The dog was normally rather stoic, but the sirens gave him voice every time.

The feeling of emptiness fell over her again. She was utterly alone in the house once again. No husband, no connection to her daughter, no cat. Only her.

She returned to the kitchen for more coffee. Zero’s food and water dishes were still on the floor under the counter. She picked them up and tossed them in the trash. That was the last trace of him. Gone.

Diane settled in the chair with a third cup of coffee. She opened her iPad to read emails. On top was the monthly newsletter from one of her favorite mystery authors. As she read the newsletter, she teared up. The author talked about losing her spouse in the previous year. She spoke of herself recovering from a mild bout of Omicron, spoke of the almost two years of pandemic lockdown and restrictions. The author described her current life as a scaled-back life. A scaled-back life, yet nurtured by gratitude and appreciation for what she does have.

A scaled-back life

Diane thought, that’s it exactly. That’s my life. Scaled back. Not the same. Maybe never to be the same again. But clearly scaled back. Full of limitations and restrictions. Filled with absence and emptiness. Tears flowed.

Her phone chirped. She glanced at the screen. Jack. The guy she met on an online dating app for the over-fifty crowd. She let the call go to voicemail. Later, dude. I need some me time right now.

She wiped away her tears, smiled, recalling the day she and Jack had spent in Santa Barbara a few days ago. Appreciation. Gratitude.

Outside a single dry leaf continued to scratch across the patio in the wind. Diane got up, opened the slider, and stepped on the leaf. Crushed it to small pieces. She closed the slider, settled back in her chair.

She reached for the phone. Took a deep breath, hit Jack’s number. 

***

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