Healing through story

Tag: short story (Page 1 of 2)

shortfiction24 – an act of kindness, returned

Gina Rubin’s comfortable life is about to be upturned by a single act of kindness. She opened her door to find a mannequin. A mannequin who talks.

This story resulted from another writing prompt I came across last week. “When I opened the door, I never expected to be hit by ‘that‘.”

I hope you enjoy it.

An Act of Kindness, Returned

Bob Gillen

Gina Rubin put the shopping bag from the mall at the foot of the stairs. She headed to the kitchen to make her afternoon green tea. The doorbell rang before she could fill the kettle.

Gina opened the front door to come face to face with a mannequin. A female mannequin. A mannequin wearing black slacks, an ivory blouse, a black blazer, black flats. No jewelry, no makeup, no wig.

What the hell?

Gina stuck her head out of the doorway, looking right and left. No one. She stepped around the mannequin to look out to the sidewalk. Still no one.

I don’t like being pranked.

She started to close the door when she heard a voice, “Aren’t you going to ask me in?”

Okay, now I’m hearing voices.

She stepped back from the door. The mannequin walked stiffly past her, moving inside, through to the kitchen.

Gina followed.

The mannequin quite awkwardly sat, placed its hands on the table.

Gina said, “This is some kind of joke, right?”

The mannequin shook its head slowly. “No.”

“There’s a ventriloquist behind you somewhere. This is all explainable.”

“Just me,” the mannequin said. “I followed you home.”

“How did you do that?”

“It wasn’t easy.”


“You helped me. You were kind to me.”

“You’re a mannequin. How could I have helped you?”

“You were shopping for shoes. You sat in a chair next to me. My left shoe had slipped off. You reached over and put the shoe back on.”

“Yeah, I remember that. I’m kind of a perfectionist. You looked awkward with one shoe off.”

“Well, you were kind. I am here to return the kindness.”

Gina shook her head. “This is seriously weird.”

“I get that. This is the first time I’ve done this.”

The two sat staring at one another. Gina got up and finished making her tea. “I don’t suppose I can offer you a cup of tea?”

The mannequin shook its head. “I have a purpose. How can I return your kindness?”

“What can you do?” Gina warmed to having a kindness done for her.

“Pretty much wide open.”

Gina gestured with both hands. “I’m sitting at my own kitchen table…talking to a mannequin…a mannequin who speaks…saying she can do me a favor.”

“Weird for me too. Actually, I don’t even know what I can do for you. Gotta try me.”

Gina looked around her kitchen. Several pots and pans needed washing. No, don’t waste this on on dirty dishes. Laundry should be done. Again, don’t waste a favor on laundry.

Okay, we can make this work.

“Does anyone live here with you?” the mannequin asked.

“I’m alone.”

“What do you need?”

Gina thought for a moment. “Well…I was thinking about getting a cat.”

“Too easy. You can go to the shelter and get one. Gotta be more than that.”

“More? All I did was put your shoe back on.”

“And I need to return the kindness.”

“I’m at a loss.” Gina sipped her tea.

“Where do you work?”

“I got laid off last week. I was in customer service.”

“Maybe I can help you find a new job.”


“I don’t really know.”

The mannequin appeared to be thinking. “I know…you must be tense after being laid off.”

“To say the least.”

“How about a massage?”

Gina smiled. “That could work.”

She grabbed a kitchen towel and walked to the couch.

“The towel will keep me from smearing makeup all over the couch.”

She stretched out, face down. The mannequin knelt next to the couch, began massaging Gina’s back.

“Wow, it feels good, but your hands are really stiff.”

“I didn’t tell you…If I actually help you, if I do a genuine act of kindess, I have a chance at becoming a real person.”

“Huh? What is this? Another version of Pinocchio?”

“What is Pinocchio?”

“Never mind.”

The mannequin continued the massage.

Gina pushed herself up, leaned on one elbow. “Wait a minute. If you become a real person, where would you go? What would you do?”

“I don’t know. There was one mannequin I knew, but after she changed she never came back.”

Gina stretched out again. “Do all mannequins get this chance?”

“Apparently no. Very few. Before the department store, I worked at a vintage clothing store on Magnolia Blvd. The Magic Shoe. Most of the mannequins there are head mannequins. They model hats and scarves. I was a full-body mannequin. Madam Ruby touched me.”

“Madam Ruby?”

“She had gifts. But she herself was a head mannequin. Anyone full-body she touched had the chance to become a real person. I was lucky.”

Gina snuggled down into the couch, enjoying the massage. “So what happens if you become real? Do you have ID, a personal history? Can you get a job?”

“Again, I don’t know.”

Gina popped up again. “Wait a minute. If you become a real person while you’re here with me, am I responsible for you?”

The mannequin shrugged.

“Do you even have name?”

“I always liked the name Meghan.”

“Okay, I’ll call you that.”

The mannequin gazed at Gina. “If I become a real woman, I could stay here with you.”

“Hold on.” Gina sat up, swung her legs to the floor. “You would need an ID. A personal history from birth till today. You would need a job, a place to live.”

“You can help me with that, no?”

Gina shook her head. “What you’re telling me is, you return my act of kindness, Meghan. I then become your keeper. I have to set you up in the real world. You want to move in here with me…Your one act of kindness would create a huge burden for me. It would turn my life upside down.” She shook her head. “I can’t do this.”

Meghan the mannequin looked down at the floor. “I see what you mean. I would rely on you for everything.”

Gina nodded. “Exactly. I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

“I should go back to the department store. Leave you alone.” She stood.

Gina watched Meghan the mannequin walk toward the front door.

“Wait. Do you know for sure that you would become a real person?”

“That’s what Madam Ruby said. If I perform a genuine kindness, I become real.”

Gina sat with her head in her hands. Her mind ran to her comfortable life. Alone, yes, But all to her liking. No one to hassle with. Her choices were all hers.

Meghan the mannequin stood with her hand on the door handle. “Goodbye. I hope I get anothr chance at this soon.”

Gina looked at her. “Come back to the massage. We can think this through. Maybe you would come with a package to get you started in the real world.”

She lay back on the couch. Meghan the mannequin returned to her position, continued the massage.

Gina was about to comment again on the stiff, hard hands when she felt a softening. The fingers on the mannequin’s hands spread as they massaged. Gina heard Meghan moan. “Something is happening.”

Gina propped herself on an elbow. The hard features on the mannequin softened as she looked on.

Meghan the mannequin stopped massaging, stared at her hands.

“I’m becoming a real woman!”

In a matter of moments Meghan the mannequin morphed into Meghan a real woman. Hair sprung out on her scalp. Fingernails grew on her hands. 

Gina felt a tremor pass through her body as she realized there was no going back. Meghan the woman was now her responsibility. 

Shit! Now what?


shortfiction24 – just ask her

On a lunch break at the racetrack, three young groundskeepers talking about their sandwiches leads to talking about sex.

Follow Dennis, Paulie, Mark as Dennis tries to tell Paulie how lucky he really is.


Just Ask Her

Bob Gillen

Dennis took a healthy bite of his sandwich. Roast beast on rye slathered with yellow mustard.

“What’ve you got today, Paulie?”

“Veal parmesan hero.” Paulie held it up for Dennis and Mark to see.

“Looks good, Paulie. You’re lucky,” Mark said.


Mark waved his sandwich at them. “Bologna on white bread with brown mustard.”

“Didn’t you have that yesterday?”

“Every day. It’s my go-to lunch.”

The three young men, groundskeepers hired for the summer, had just finished walking the track at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack with buckets, picking up loose stones and pebbles unearthed by the tractor running ahead of them. Clearing the way for the first race of the season that afternoon. They sat on upturned crates in the summer sun. 

“Man, I’d be fine if we didn’t have to walk the track again,” Paulie said.

Dennis, the oldest of the three at twenty-one, a senior at St. John’s University, said, “Brace yourself. We’ll do it at least one more time.”

Paulie, the youngest, a high school senior, took an enormous bite of his hero. “I gotta tell you guys. Man, did I get lucky last night.”

“Oh,” Dennis said.

Mark, aged between the other two, said, “Again?”

“Yeah, I drove her to a spot in Brooklyn, right off the Belt Parkway near the water. Quiet, dark.”

Dennis pointed his sandwich at Paulie. “You’re going to tell us about this, right? Whether we want to hear it or not.”

Paulie took another bite. “Sure. Why not?”

Mark munched on his bologna sandwich. 

Paulie continued. “I got her blouse off right away. Then her braw.”

“Her braw?” Dennis asked.

“Yeah, you know…” Paulie gestured towards his own chest.

“Anyway, her boobs were like water balloons.”

Dennis and Mark both nodded.

“She opened my pants. Man, I almost blew her head off when I came.”

Another enormous bite of his hero.

Mark said, “Cool.”

“Yeah, I really lucked out. I might see her again in a couple of days for another BJ.”

Dennis wiped sweat from his brow, said. “Paulie, no offense, but you’re an asshole.”

“What, you calling me an asshole?”

“Yup. You get lucky and you can’t even pronounce her underwear properly. It’s brah, not braw.”

“Okay, whatever.”

“Do you know how lucky you really are? I don’t think so.”

“What’re you saying?”

“It’s all about you. The luck. Is anyone else in your life lucky?”

Paulie shook his head in frustration.

“Look at your lunch. Every day you got a hero. Veal, chicken, eggplant, meatballs…always a great sandwich.”

“Yeah, my mom is a great cook.”

“You ever tell her that? Ever buy her flowers?”

“Mother’s Day, her birthday.”

“That’s it? A great lunch every day and you thank her two times in a whole year?”

“Yeah, so…”

“And the girl you were with. The one who did your BJ.  You do the same for her?”


“You pleasure her?”

Paulie shook his head. “I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s my point.”

Dutch, the supervisor for the track’s infield, drove up in a golf cart loaded with tools. “Lunch break is over, you three. We got flower beds to hoe. Let’s go.”

Dennis stood, grabbed a hoe from the cart.

Paulie whispered to Dennis. “What’re you saying? How do you do it?”

Dennis shook his head. “I don’t talk about my sex life. You figure it out. Ask her.”

“Ask her?”

“Yeah, just ask her.”


shortfiction24 – how’re you holding up?

Mary Bering could not bear to hear one more person ask her, “How’re you holding up?” She wore her smile like a veneer, covering the deep grief of losing her beloved partner.

Mary planned her own disappearance. This story is for all those who deal with a grief hidden under the surface. All those tired of fielding well-meaning questions.

Enjoy the story.

How’re You Holding Up?

Bob Gillen

They never found Mary Bering’s body. Not that they didn’t try. The authorities in the small beach town searched for a full week. They brought in a search dog that tracked her scent from the dunes to the water’s edge. They even walked the dog a half mile in each direction, thinking Mary may have come out of the water disoriented.

A young couple on an early morning beach hike had spotted a neatly folded stack of clothes in the sand up near the dunes. Shoes, pants, a top, underwear. A costume necklace. They took a photo, brought it to the local sheriff when his office opened.

At the same time Mary’s boss at the town bakery called the sheriff to request a welfare check when Mary did not show for her early morning shift. A rare event. The sheriff entered Mary’s apartment. Her phone and keys sat on the kitchen table. No note, nothing askew. That’s when he called in the search dog.

A local news producer volunteered their helicopter to search offshore. Nothing.

In the end the sheriff concluded the tides pulled Mary Bering’s body out to sea. Suicide? No evidence either way. Case closed.

By the time the sheriff shut down his news conference, Mary Bering was miles to the south in her twenty-four foot boat, berthed at a marina several towns away. Mary had planned well.

What triggered her planned disappearance was a well-meaning question from her local preacher. She had run into him on her way home from work one day. “How’re you holding up?” The question punched Mary right in the chest. It was a question Mary had fielded dozens of times in the three months since her beloved partner Melody had died. Suddenly. Unexpected. Mary always responded to the question with, “Okay, thanks.”

The preacher’s question slammed her hard. You of all people. Can’t you see? No, I am not holding up. This is all a veneer. I am devasted without Melody.

Mary began assembling her plan that night over a dinner of chicken noodle soup and a white wine. The boat was the key. Mary had bought the boat, an older-model twenty-four foot cabin cruiser, from a guy whose job was relocating him to the midwest. The Salty Lady. She was berthed at the end of the marina. The guy had paid the monthly rental by cash, slipped into the office mail slot. Mary continued the practice. She never informed the office of the change in ownership. That was before Melody died. Mary had planned to refurbish the boat, present it to Melody on her July fourth birthday. The boat slept two, tightly. A tiny galley. A fair range with a large fuel tank and a one-hundred horsepower outboard engine.

After the preacher’s question Mary began stocking the boat with bottled water, Spam, tuna packets and canned vegetables. Several changes of clothes. A few items at a time, to avoid suspicion and questions.

She bought charts of the coastline. South was the obvious way to go. More options.

On the morning of her disappearance she left for the beach before dawn. She picked a spot where her clothes would be found without too much difficulty. She stripped, folded everything neatly, pulled on the wet suit she had carried. She walked into the water, swam south, parallel to the beach for about two miles till she reached the rock jetty and the harbor inlet. She left the water, stripped off the wetsuit, found the bag of clothes she had stashed in the dunes the day before. She dried off, stuffed the wetsuit in a bag, and walked to the marina. Once there she left a note in the office mail slot. “Moving on.” She signed the former owner’s name.

The sun was breaking the horizon when Mary fired up the outboard engine. She eased the boat out through the inlet, turned south parallel to the beach. The boat moved smoothly on the early morning flat calm. Twenty miles down the coast she found another inlet. She turned in, located the marina she had come upon in a Google search, pulled into a guest berth. She crawled into the bunk, slept for a few hours.

Around noon that first day Mary sat on the side of her bunk, a small makeup mirror in front of her. She cut her hair short in a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol. She added a few blond streaks. Nothing too obvious. She bagged up the cut hair, planning to dump it in a trash bin later.

She removed the jar with Melody’s cremains from the bunk storage bin. “What do you think, Mel? You would probably hate this.”

In the town near the marina, Mary visited a thrift store, bought some clothes that Melody would have worn, more colorful than her own style. 

She found a coffee shop. A turkey sandwich and a black coffee satisfied her hunger. She ordered a second sandwich, a chocolate muffin and a vanilla shake to go.

Back at the boat, Mary studied the charts. Another ten miles to the next inlet. The wind had picked up in the afternoon. She chose to avoid what would be a choppy ride running parallel to the coast. Tomorrow morning would be fine.

Mary studied the notebook with her plan. Had she overlooked anything yet? Nothing obvious. Her credit cards would remain unused in her wallet for at least several months. Nothing to trace, if they did a deep-dive search. She had plenty of cash, accumulated over a month from ATMs. She had also transferred much of her savings to an out-of-state bank. She retained her original ID. No reason to change that, not unless someone became suspicious. She had left just enough of a trail for them to conclude this was a probable suicide. She knew the local sheriff well enough to know he would not likely search further. 

She felt a twinge of guilt over leaving her job. She always showed up early to bake bread and rolls for the morning customers. Her boss would be stressed for a time, but Mary knew someone else would take her place.

Leaving her apartment behind was more painful. A cozy little space Melody and she had shared for almost ten years. She left behind treasured furniture, a quilt gifted from a friend, a collection of antique bottles.

Now what? Tomorrow morning another marina, more miles away from her old life. Mary stowed the thrift store clothes under her bunk. One item she had brought from home jumped out at her. She held up a white linen top. Tears ran down her face. Remember this, Mel? I wore this the night you proposed to me. She blotted her tears onto the top.

She continued, Where to, Melody? I don’t have a long-term plan. Only enough to get away from my…our…old life. No more well-meaning questions to field. No more masking how I feel. I miss you terribly. My heart aches for you. I am truly alone now, in every way. 

Mary ate her carryout food, again crawled into the bunk. Sleep came easily.

In the morning Mary hit a different coffee shop for croissants and coffee, picked up the local newspaper. A story below the fold told of a disappearance. Her disappearance. Search underway. No picture, no details. Good, at least they’re aware I’m gone.

She powered up the boat and set off for the next marina. Once there she again found a guest berth. Mary cooked up an early dinner of Spam and canned corn on her little gas stove. 

She held the jar of cremains close to her. She whispered, “This boat was my birthday surprise for you, Mel. When I get further down the coast I’ll find a painter and change the name to My Melody.”

Mary rooted through the bag of clothes she had purchased at the thrift shop. She picked a tie-dyed shirt with a yellow center. More whispers: “Tomorrow, Mel, I’ll dress more to your style, your liking. You always wanted me to be more daring with my outfits.”

Mary pointed to the coastal chart. “And tomorrow, on to another harbor, another marina, another town. Another step towards a new life. ‘How’re you holding up?’ Not too badly, if I say so myself. Not too badly.”


shortfiction24 – a soldier’s wife

Agnes Morissey comes home to an empty house, with her husband away at basic training. No amount of prayer and pleading had kept him out of the draft.

She has held back some of her letters. He has enough to deal with without her passing on her own frustration.

A Soldier’s Wife

Bob Gillen

The midday Spring sun failed to light the dim interior of the old Manhattan church. A half dozen women were scattered about in the pews, all in deeply private prayer. All begged for the same thing: bring my husband, my son, my brother home safely from the war.

At the front of the church a wide rack of lit prayer candles cast a glow on the face of one woman kneeling in the first row. Dressed in black, with a black scarf pinned to the top of her head, Agnes Morrisey cast her eyes up on the statue of Mary looming over the candle rack. Her fingers moved silently over the beads on her rosary. Our Father. Hail Mary. Hail Mary.

A woman with a long scarf draped over her head stepped up to light a prayer candle. She nodded to Agnes. Peggy Gaffney. Her husband Vic had been discharged a week ago, in the hospital with a wound that paralyzed his left side.

Agnes finished her prayer, sat back in the pew. Opening her purse quietly, she removed an envelope thick with note papers. A large X slashed the address. These were letters she could never send Patrick. He had enough to deal with. 

She selected the top letter, read it to herself.

Dear sweetheart,

Easter is almost over and I’m so glad! Everybody kept telling me how much they missed you today, but nobody missed you as much as I do. It’s so lonely here with you gone, coming home to an empty house. Willie drove me home from mother’s house, so I didn’t have to take the trolley.

Our son Christopher has no patience and gets angry easily. The other day he slapped me in the face. I slapped him back but not in the face, of course.

Agnes paused, listened. So quiet you could almost hear the hot wax melting down the lit candles.

These letters reeked of disappointment, sadness. Even failure. Patrick could never see them. It would make his situation even harder to endure. Agnes worked hard, usually got  exactly what she wanted. Letters to the local Selective Service members. Calls to their homes in the evenings. Manhattan’s west side  was run by ward captains. She knew theirs well enough to feel confident asking for a postponement or even reversal of Patrick’s selection. Nothing worked.

She looked at another letter. 

Everyone I meet from the neighborhood says, What a shame a nice quiet fellow like you couldn’t be allowed to stay home with his family. I agree, of course, but all I can do is nod and smile.

I am trying to toilet train Christopher. I sat him on the toidy three times this morning. I tried for twenty minutes again right after lunch, but no luck. I took him off and he ran inside without any pants on, and hid behind the bed. I went to get clean pants for him and when I came back, he had left his calling cards from the bed to the bathroom, to say nothing of his legs and shoes and stockings. Was I mad!

In another letter:

Patrick’s a great guy, everyone says. Do anything for anyone. But there is no fight in you, is there. Willie thinks you should be okay, with your occupation as purchasing agent. Maybe be based here in the States somewhere.

Has basic training toughened you in any way? You’ll probably come home and be taking over. 

No, I can’t tell him that.

A woman slipped into the pew next to Agnes. She slid the letters onto the pew out of sight.

“Betty,” she whispered. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Hi Agnes. I heard Patrick was called up. How is he doing?”

“He seems to be all right. Still in basic training. I hear from him almost every day.”

“Good. And how is little Christopher? He must be almost two by now.”

“Eighteen months…And how is Joe?”

Betty turned away.

Agnes gripped Betty’s hand.

“He was killed overseas last September. In Italy.”

Agnes felt redness creep up her face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I’ve been staying downtown with my mother. I’m all right. We didn’t have any children. That makes it easier to start fresh.”

“Oh Betty.”

“I better be going. My mom is outside.”

Betty left Agnes alone again in the pew.

How did I not know Joe died?

Later as Agnes climbed the stoop to her building, anxious to see Christopher, a voice called to her. She turned to see a man in a Western Union uniform. “I have a telegram. Do you live in apartment 201?”

Agnes froze, gripped the rail with both hands. She slipped down to sit on the steps. Not now. He hasn’t even finished basic training. She reached for the telegram, tore it open. Tears poured down her face. 

The Western Union man touched his cap. “Ma’am.” He walked away.

Agnes’s tears dripped on the edge of the telegram, fell down on her skirt.

Tears of joy.


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!”


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?”


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


“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.


“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.”


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.


shortfiction24 – two strikes

I used Edward Hopper’s well-known painting ‘Nighthawks’ as inspiration for this story.

WWII Army vet Dan nurses the pain of rejection in an all-night diner, where he meets an intriguing woman ship welder.

Two Strikes

Bob Gillen

Three nights after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, Dan sat at an empty stretch of counter in an all-night diner not far from his old neighborhood. On the counter next to his coffee cup an engagement ring glinted in the neon light, a tiny diamond set in a gold band. Tonight had been the moment he dreamed of since he was drafted. 

She said no.

The counter man stepped over to refill Dan’s black coffee, remove the empty plate once graced by a hefty slice of apple pie. 

“Bad night, huh?” the counter man said.

Dan nodded.

The counter man grabbed the bill lying on the counter, balled it up in his fist. “On the house tonight. You come back again, you pay.”

He went back to chatting with the only other customers in the diner at the two a.m. hour, a man and woman about Dan’s age. The three laughed quietly while the counter man rinsed glasses.

Looking over his coffee cup, Dan saw the man across the counter get up, kiss the woman on the cheek, and head for the exit. The woman waved to him. As the counter man cleared dishes, the woman put money on the counter and also headed towards the exit. Moments later Dan heard the juke box begin playing, ‘I don’t want to walk without you.’

“Lonesome, soldier?”

Dan started. Without waiting for an answer, the woman sat down next to Dan.

Dan felt a blush rage up his cheeks. Who is this dame?

The woman signaled the counter man for fresh coffee. She pointed to the engagement ring. “You need someone to wear that ring?”

Dan turned to look at the woman. “You proposing to me? After your boyfriend walks away?”

“Not my boyfriend. Cousin. First time I’ve seen him since he was drafted.”


“She dumped you, right?”

Dan shrugged.

The woman sipped her coffee. 

“You deserve better than her.”

“My family, my whole neighborhood, had us married right after the war. I guess she thought different.”

“It’s over. Move on.”

“Not so easy.”

The woman gestured to the diner’s interior. “I come in here almost every night. Have been since the war started. I get off work at 10 p.m., come straight here. Beats a bar. I can’t deal with drunks.”

Dan asked, “Where do you work?”

“Brooklyn Navy Yard. Half hour by subway. I’m a ship welder.”

Dan reached over, took her hands in his. “Pretty smooth hands for a welder.”

“Gloves, honey. You gotta take care of yourself. This job ain’t gonna last forever.”

Dan eyed the woman’s outfit, a dark dress accented with a bright scarf. 

“You clean up pretty good.”

“I’m at the shipyard six days a week, nine to ten hours a day. That shit stays behind when I walk out the gate.”

Dan turned to stare at the ring.

“When did you get home?” the woman asked.

“Three days ago.”

“No surprise there. I can smell the mothballs on your suit.”

Dan held up his sleeve to his nose. Grimaced.

“Were you overseas?”

“No. I did logistics. Worked at a couple of bases across the states. I was lucky.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Not for me. I could find anything.”

The woman cocked her head. “Really?”

“That’s how I got the ring.”

“Tell me,” she said.

Dan sipped his lukewarm coffee. Wiped his sweaty hands on his pants leg.

“I once shipped a pallet of toilet paper to a tiny base in Greenland. Had to disguise the carton as winter coats.”

Dan sat up straighter.

“That base sent me a new jeep they had no use for. Still in its factory carton, some assembly required. I sent it to Montana, to a general I knew. His son had been wounded, and the general wanted something to occupy his son’s time, help him get past the trauma.”


“Yeah, so, the general sent me a box of fresh-cut steaks. I shipped them to a supply officer for a submarine crew ready to ship out to patrol the Atlantic coast. The supply officer sent me the ring.” Dan pointed to the counter. “He said he had no need for it.”

“I’m guessing he had the same luck you did.”

Dan nodded.

“So the ring’s got two strikes against it.”

Dan stared at the ring for a few moments. He grabbed it, stuffed it deep in his pants pocket.

“You can pawn it, use the cash for a new suit. You’ll need it.”

“You’re probably right.”

“What’s your name, soldier?”

“Dan…You always this forward?”

“No. I told you, I come here rather than a bar because I can’t deal with the scum. Three years without a decent man to talk to. Ray here,” she nodded in the counter man’s direction, “is a jewel. Keeps this place a safe haven. The baseball bat under the counter helps. Six nights a week I come here for a burger and coffee. So…when I see a man like you, I know the real goods.”

Once again Dan felt his cheeks blaze.

“I gotta go. Morning comes too soon.” She stood. “My name is Betty. I’ll be here tomorrow, and for a few more months, till all the men are back and I lose my job.’

“What will you do then?”

“No idea. I’ll land on my feet somewhere. A paycheck makes this woman feel good.”

She waved goodnight to Ray.

“You okay walking home?” Dan asked.

“Sure. No one messes with a woman ship welder.”

“Maybe I’ll stop in again tomorrow night.”

Betty smiled. “You do that, Dan. Without the mothball suit.”

She extended her arm, shook his hand. “Soft hands for an Army guy.”

“Maybe I wore gloves.” He laughed. “Gotta look good for the ladies.”

“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night.”

Betty turned as she headed for the exit. She pointed to Dan, winked. “Be careful out there. It’s a tough neighborhood.”


shortfiction24 – morning sun

What I’m Writing This Week

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper

I find Edward Hopper’s paintings thought- provoking. This week I used Morning Sun as inspiration for a short story. Lori Hines finds freedom in the warmth of a morning sun.

Back in May of 2021, I had used another Hopper painting, A Day on the Cape, for inspiration. Here’s the link.

Please enjoy my stories. And comments are always welcome.

Morning Sun

Bob Gillen

The phone woke Lori Hines at just shy of two on a Sunday morning, the incoming number an Arizona area code she knew too well. “Ms. Hines, I regret to say that your mother passed a short time ago. She left us in her sleep. I’m so very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Lori replied.

The caller hesitated. “We will comply with your final wishes. An undertaker will cremate her remains…and dispose of the ashes as they deem appropriate.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And we will donate her belongings to a local thrift shop.”

Lori’s nod went unseen.

“Is there anything else you wish us to do? If not, I am again very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Lori cut off the call.

She opened the window curtains, staring out at the city’s dark. Only a month before, in their last phone call, her mother had told Lori, ‘If you can’t find it in your heart to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.’

Well, mom, you got your wish.

Lori sat on her bed, her legs drawn up, the sounds of the nighttime city drifting in the window. Voices rose from the street as drinkers spilled out of a bar at closing time. 

Several hours later the dawn’s faint light illuminated blocks-long brownstone buildings, facades punctuated by rows and rows of windows.

The dawn offered light, a promise of warmth. 

Lori continued to sit on the bed as the warm morning sun inched over her feet, her legs, her arms. Her face. Lori felt her body ease with the heat. The blond hairs on her arms stood out in the sun. She picked at her bare fingernails. Licked her lips, dry without lipstick or balm. Rubbed her unshaven legs. Specks of blue toenail polish glinted in the sun. 

The stink of her own sweat wafted up in the flood of sunlight. 

Lori closed her eyes. A memory rose, like a sea monster rising out of the water, dripping menace and slime. She saw herself sitting on a wooden dock, drenched in sunlight reflected up from a still lake. Her feet dangled in the cool water. A canoe sat tied to the dock. In the canoe a picnic basket and two paddles. Tied to the front of the canoe a silver balloon. Happy 10th Birthday, it read.

In the memory Lori’s mother padded up behind her. “Your father will not be coming up from the city for your picnic…today…or ever. When we return from our vacation he will be gone.”

Lori had continued to face out over the lake. Her mother reached for the picnic basket. “Let me put this back in the cottage. Come up when you’re hungry.”

Lori had sat on the dock till her legs, her arms, her face were sunburned. At the cottage her mother rubbed lotion on the burned skin…and never again mentioned her father. 


For twenty years Lori and her mother had gone about their lives. Her father had not died. He simply had ceased to exist. Lori did not know if her parents had divorced. She had had no word about him. Living or dead, who knew?

And now, twenty years after her mother’s lakeside announcement, Lori sat again in the bright sun. Basked in it like a house cat that had prowled for hours seeking the one spot of sunlight on the carpet.

Outside, the city braced for another hot day. Noise slashed at her senses. Sirens, honking, yelling, grinding gears.

Come up when you’re hungry. Lori shifted off the bed, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, stepped into the kitchen. Her faithful French press charged her with fresh coffee.

At least a rut leads somewhere

Lori sipped the coffee, grabbed a Mason jar from the kitchen counter. Paper strips filled the jar, strips saved from fortune cookies after years of eating Chinese take-out. Every morning she pulled one to start her day. Today’s message, Only difference between a rut and a grave is depth.

She shrugged. At least a rut leads somewhere. The strip fluttered into the trash.

She went to the bedroom, returned with a bottle of red nail polish. She tugged her foot up onto the edge of the chair, began painting her toenails.

Her phone chirped with a spam call. She ignored it, then thumbed in a number.

“Hey, Maya. Just wanted to let you know my mother died last night…”

Lori listened to Maya’s response. 

“Yeah, you’re right. It is a relief…Hey, are you up for a late lunch? My treat.”


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