Healing through story

Tag: skeleton

shortfiction24 – santiago’s bones

Leland Strong’s quest for a moment of genuine prayer leads him to reflections on Hemingway’s fisherman Santiago, A somber story of an old man’s search for the meaning of his life.

Enjoy the story. Comments are always welcome.

Santiagos’ Bones

Bob Gillen

Eighty-two year-old Leland Strong sat in the last row of the empty church. A church he did not know. The afternoon sun sprayed stained glass color over the middle of the interior. The color did not reach Leland’s row. That was fine with him. He was not there for beauty or inspiration. He sought solitude, a respite from the noise in his heart. He yearned for the few moments of silent prayer that had eluded him till now.

Leland jumped as outside on the street a motorcycle screamed through its gears moving past the church. He settled back in his seat.

Leland’s thoughts wandered. An avid reader, he sometimes compared himself to a protagonist in the stories. He smiled as his mind now ran to the opening line in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He paraphrased silently. ‘He was an old man who lived alone in the stream of life and he had gone eighty-four days now without a prayer.’

Running with the comparison, Leland pictured himself as Hemingway’s fisherman Santiago. A man who knew only one thing. Fishing. And he showed up for that every day. Even after eighty-four days without a fish. In his own lifetime Leland had known more than one thing. He was now long retired, living alone, most of his family and friends gone. And he showed up every day, searching for true solitude, for meaning. 

Leland scowled as he heard the backup beeping of a truck. More noise. In the parking lot the driver slammed trash bins as he emptied them into the truck’s maw. 

Quiet descended on the building. The day Santiago caught his great fish, Leland told himself, he had gone out far beyond his usual fishing waters. He had gone deep into the sea, beyond the other fishermen, beyond his own familiar locations. And in the deep he had found his great fish. Now, sitting alone in the depth of this church, Leland hoped he had moved beyond his usual routine as he sought his personal deep waters. Going beyond the usual places where he sought peace. A dark hollow had inched its way into Leland’s heart. A hollow he yearned to fill with prayer.

Leland cocked his head at the sound of shuffling footsteps. A man entered Leland’s pew from the far end, moved closer to him. He carried a plastic bag stuffed with what looked like clothing. He wore baggy, soiled jeans, a dirty white tee shirt, sandals on his feet. Long unkempt hair. A homeless man.

“You’re in my seat,” the homeless man said.

“The entire church is empty.”

“I have a deal with them.” He gestured to the front of the church with his thumb. “I sleep here every afternoon till they close up.” He waved an arm at Leland. “You have to move.”

“Whatever.” Leland shrugged, moved across the aisle to the other last row.

The homeless man stretched out on the pew. He tucked the bag of clothing under his head for a pillow. In moments he was asleep, breathing softly.

Leland stared across at the homeless man. It’s hopeless trying to find a quiet place. The homeless man began to snore. Loud enough to distract.

Leland continued to stare at the homeless man. He took in the man’s gaunt frame, highlighted by clothes that were much too big for him. The bones in his arms stood out, stretched over his sun-darkened skin. Leland looked down at his own frame. He too wore a tee shirt a size too big for himself. He held out his arm. Do people see me as gaunt, thin? 

A thought niggled at Leland’s mind. As he gazed at his arm, he began to realize…he was no Santiago. The metaphor was all off. No, he was Santiago’s fish. To make the metaphor more precise, he was the skeleton of Santiago’s fish. He was a reflection of what was left of Santiago’s quest. The remains of his own lifelong quest. Nature had chewed at Santiago’s fish. Bitten off chunks of flesh, down to the bones. Was he no different? A lifetime of living had chipped away at Leland’s ego, leaving him feeling empty, desolate, without depth.

That was it. Only Leland’s bones remained. Bones that told a story. Bones that pointed to a once full body. His hope was that the bones would reveal the fullness of what he had been and done in his lifetime.

Leland thought, I may have been a great fish at one time. Moving through my seas freely. I have lived a good life. I have cared, given, loved, been loved. Now, at my age, life has chewed away at my greatness, bitten chunks off my ego, until I am simply a skeleton of my earlier self. My bones are now what people see. A withered old man. Age spots, a shaky walk, hesitant at times, uncertain of much. But the image tells a story.

Leland grinned. In the dim light of the church, a homeless man snoring nearby, he saw himself as the skeleton that, like Santiago’s great fish, revealed its earlier glory. When Santiago had rowed back to his village, his fellow fishermen stared in awe at the bones of what was once a great fish. Leland realized he cannot control what people see of him. Even what he sees of himself. His hope – in his meager exterior, in his bones, they see what brought him to this moment in life.

Leland stood, leaned on the back of the pew in front of him. Alone in the church, except for the homeless man, he extended his arms forward. “I am a man of bones,” he whispered, “standing as a testament to a life well lived. I have swum freely in the sea of life. I have been hooked, lashed to life’s boat. Picked apart.” 

Leland found his moment of prayer.


shortfiction24 – and they were gone

Vinny and Lewis’s spirits are entangled due to a mixup at the crematorium, Tangled, and trapped in Vinny’s backyard, they can’t move on to the spirit world till Lewis finds the rest of his ashes. Along comes Fanny to help.

This is the third and final story in a three-part series. The early parts ran in May and November of 2022. You can find the original stories here:

Story 1: My Dance Space

Story 2: Not Ready For Us Yet

And They Were Gone

Bob Gillen

“So what’s your story?”

Fanny’s spirit hovered in front of Vinny and Lewis’s spirits. Fanny had just been freed after thirty years trapped in the roots of a bottlebrush tree in Vinny’s backyard. A lightning strike had seared the tree to its roots, burning off the wrappings on Fanny’s body. 

“We can’t move on. Our spirits are tangled together. A mistake at the crematorium. Some of Lewis’ ashes got mingled with mine,” Vinny said. “Lewis needs to find his other ashes. Then we’ll both be free.”

“Tough one,” Fanny said. “But now I’m free. I can move on.”

She swirled around the yard. “Feels wonderful.”

Vinny peered around his yard. His wife Margie had buried his ashes at the foot of the tree. The other day she set out a few Halloween decorations in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. The lightning strike destroyed the fake skeleton Margie had hung in the tree. It now lay twisteed and charred beneath the tree.

“We’re doomed,” Lewis said. “We haven’t got the strength to leave the yard.”

Fanny  moved close, grinned. “Sorry, boys. Time for me to move on.” And she was gone.

“Shit,” Vinny said.

Moments later Fanny returned.

“I got the nod. They can wait for me while I help you guys.”

Vinny shrugged. Lewis managed a weak smile.


“I can move around pretty freely. Lewis, where are your other ashes likely to be? Where did you live?”

“About a mile from here…a few streets over from the Interstate.”


Lewis told her.

“Wait for me.” And she was gone again.

Dusk was turning to dark when Fanny finally returned.

“We gotta get moving.”


“I’ll explain on the way.”

“We can’t leave the yard, remember?”

“You can do limited movement if you’re with me. Stay close.”

Lewis beamed. “We can go?”

Fanny nodded. “Let’s move.”

Vinny hesitated. “I won’t be coming back, will I?”


“Bye, Margie. Catch you in the next life.” He blew a kiss towards the house.

Fanny turned to leave.

Vinny’s eye caught the charred skeleton. “Hold up.”

He floated over and raised up the skeleton. “Might as well have some fun on the way out.”

The three spirits moved off, Vinny hauling the skeleton.

Darkness was falling now. Vinny and the other two floated across front yards as they headed out. Vinny kept an eye out for children. No need to scare them with a floating skeleton.

Four doors down the street Vinny stopped in front of Mr. Cruikshank’s door. The neighborhood crank. Every neighborhood had one. He used the skeleton to ring the doorbell. When Cruikshank opened the door, Vinny shook the skeleton violently, dropped it to the floor. As he floated away, he heard Cruikshank screaming.

“So worth it,” he said.

After a time they came to rest in front of Lewis’ former home. His mother’s house.

“Here’s the issue,” Fanny said. “I heard your mother talking on the phone. She plans to take the boat over to Catalina Island tomorrow morning. She’ll spread your ashes at sea.”

“Shoot. Can’t we stop her?”

“Best chance is to get at the ashes before she leaves.”

“Where are they? I’m not feeling anything.”

“In the trunk of her car. She’s already packed and ready to go first thing in the morning.”

“So how do we do this?” Vinny asked. “How about we jiggle the doors and shake the car…set off the alarm? That will draw her out to the driveway.”

“My mother never locks anything.”

“Let’s try.”


“Now what?”

“Duh. Why don’t I release the trunk lock?” Fanny swirled into the car. The trunk lid opened halfway.

Immediately Lewis disentangled from Vinny, swirled into the trunk. “Bye.” And Lewis was gone.

Vinny felt light, ecstatic. “I’m free. As Lewis would have said, I got my dance space back.”

“You can thank me later.” Fanny drifted next to him. “Ready?”

“So ready.”

And they were gone. Off to the spirit world.


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?


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.”


© 2024 Bob Gillen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑