Short Story: Crucible

My eighth-grade teacher once said that a crucible was a really tough situation where guys with serious attitude issues go up against each other, but something good usually comes out of it. Well, looking at it like that, I’d have to say, I’ve done serious time in a crucible of my own.

In eighth grade, I couldn’t decide whether to go onto high school or drop out entirely. I wasn’t a great student. Not the worst—but failing on my own terms, if you know what I mean.

My sister went into the Navy, and my older brother, J. J., was into stuff. My little brother was toddling about the place, and mama was still carrying the baby on her hip like a sack of groceries. She wanted me to go on in school and told me to get extra help. I wasn’t about to ask for any, but then my teacher told me that there was this college lady, Kelsey, who needed to earn points or something for her teaching degree. She needed someone to tutor, and he thought I could use the practice.

The first day Kelsey came after school, I was a little nervous. She was a bookish type—short hair, glasses, dark sweater, and a real stiff handshake—though nice enough.

We went to the library, and Kelsey asked me what I liked to read. I pulled out a book about a sports hero, and she smiled. I can still remember that smile. We met after school for weeks, and every day I read a little better. She’d asked me questions—what I thought about a character or what might happen next. She didn’t seem to care that I skipped over some of the words, or that I couldn’t pronounce the names. It was about getting inside the writer’s head and figuring out why the story mattered. I liked that. Understanding the whole point made it work for me. Kelsey would say, “Motivation is everything, James.”

One day, I had to hurry home. There’s been trouble between Mama and J. J., and I was worried, but Kelsey said she’d come with me so that we could read at home. I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. My house was on the other side of the river, and I doubted she’d ever been in that part of town before. But Kelsey said she’d be okay with it. So—we went.

Mama greeted Kelsey like a long lost cousin, all smiles, and a big slapping handshake. I looked around for J. J., but he was nowhere insight. The baby was sweating in her diaper, and Mama went back to fixing supper. Kelsey and I sat at the kitchen table, and we started on the last chapter of the book. I had already figured out the ending; I had kinda looked ahead a few days back. I also knew that this would be our last meeting since Kelsey had graduated and taken a job in the northwest.

Suddenly, J.J. stomped in and started yelling—screaming his head off. I didn’t know what had set him off this time, but his glazed, red eyes and waving arms told me all I really needed to know. Kelsey rose to her feet like she was expecting to be introduced, but J.J. got in her face and screamed some more.

“Why didn’t nobody ever help me? What’s so damn important about James that he gets all the attention?”

Kelsey stood her ground, but she couldn’t break through. She said she’d help him if she could, but I knew it was hopeless. J. J. didn’t want to read.

After a bit, J. J. blew out of the kitchen as fast and furious as he had blown in.

Mama went over to Kelsey and lifted a big, black skillet she had in her hand. “I would’ve banged him over the head if he’d have taken another step.” Poor Mama was shaking all over—from rage or fear I didn’t know. Probably both.

Anyway, I knew our time was over. Kelsey had given me her best effort, and I appreciated it, but it was time to move on. Her last words that day were: “Don’t forget the last chapter, James; it’s often the most important.”

I can’t remember the last chapter of that sports book. It didn’t matter much. But the skillet in Mom’s hand and Kelsey’s courage did. I found a job working across the river and, though it took me some time, I did make it through high school. I never went to college, but I got a good job. J.J. did some time in prison, and then one day my sister found him od’ed in his room.

When I think back to all the things I’ve done, the people I’ve known—like Kelsey and mom—and how things turned out for J. J., I’ve got to say that something good came from my crucible. I started reading my life, and I got motivated to write a really good last chapter.

Melchior Chapter One

Available Now On Amazon: Melchior

Chapter One

Hairy Hedgehogs

Melchior felt the sneeze pulsing through his head like liquid fire. Squeezed under his bed, arms lodged tightly against his body, he had no opportunity to stem the rushing tide.

“Agh! If-only Chloe-dusted more-thoroughly! Slovenly house-maaaaaid! Achoo! Achoo!”

The smarting pain to his head when he smacked his skull against the wooden frame definitely checked the relief of the explosion. Melchior grimaced. The real object of his interest lay just out of reach. He stretched as far as his short stature would allow; the vellum roll merely sat there, completely indifferent to his struggle.

“Aw! Hairy hedgehogs! Why can’t I do this one thing? Why does everything have to be so…damnably difficult?”

“Father! Faaaather!”

Melchior’s head smashed against the underside of his bed one again as he struggled to extricate himself before his daughter entered the room and found her noble father’s backside peeking out from under the bedstead. He had his reputation to protect…among other things. But Melchior’s respectability could hardly cloak his body at this crucial moment. Although he wiggled backwards as fast as he could, the sneezes grew in proportion to his anxiety.

“Oh, Mother Most Holy, I’ll say my devotions more regularly if only—”

“Father…? Father! What in Woden’s name are you doing down there?”

Melchior’s whole body slumped against the dusty floor.

“One more incident like this,” his eldest daughter had warned him just yesterday in her most despairing tone, “and I’ll have to send for Aunt Martha.”

Yes, yes! Roaring rabbits! He was getting old, and perhaps a tad bit forgetful, but that wasn’t what led him to squiggle under the bedstead. He had a perfectly good reason for getting down on all fours and lodging almost his entire body between his hard bed and the dusty floorboards. It was all because of that treacherous roll of vellum. He needed it. He must have it! Who cared for dignity when the whole world waited on the brink of despair for this one piece of momentous news?

Angels above be praised! He had discovered the most amazing thing. He, Melchior, son of Jeremiah and Freda, simple thane, wordsmith, and inventor, had discovered, well, it had been revealed to him in a dream – the one unifying principle of reality! He knew it, and he knew he knew it….or at least he had known it last night when he woke up in the pitch black with the vision still clear in his mind. So, he had done what any intelligent, honest, decent man would do. He struck a flame to his candle, retrieved his quill, and, snatching his precious roll that contained all his inspirations, he wrote down this most amazing bit of universal truth. Why, the world would never be the same once he shared what he had learned!

Unfortunately, after having scribbled down the vision in its entirety, he was exhausted. He carefully rolled the vellum and placed it beside his bed. When he awoke this morning, he remembered his great good luck, but to his horror there was no sign of his treasure. He searched frantically all over the room, tearing it to pieces. Not that there was much to tear apart; his personal possessions consisted only of a bed, a desk with one leg slightly shorter than the others, and a single straight-backed, armless chair. He had tossed his clothes upon the floor in his desperate search…or were they there already? Never mind that!

Perhaps the roll had merely fallen and rolled under the bed? When he got down on all fours, which was no easy feat, he could see the edge of what looked very much like his precious document. Without premeditated thought, he began to squiggle…and thus…here he lay…bare legs sticking out from under his bed. What else might be laid bare; he shuddered to think.

“Father? Are you ill? Having some kind of a fit?”

Melchior sighed.

“Harry! Come here! I think father’s had a fit and died half under his bed! Hurry!”

“Hurry, Harry!” mimicked Melchior under his breath. “Hurry and save your already dead father! Bah!”

Before either Harry or his eldest daughter, Adele, could rescue him, Melchior managed to squiggle backwards the last bit and fully extricated himself from the humiliation he had plunged himself into. He sat there, his head propped on his arm, which was propped rather casually upon his knee. He stared at his two children, rather surprised that the whole brood hadn’t followed them up the stairs into his little sanctuary. After all, their house only had a few rooms, and every squirrel and bird knew exactly what went on inside each. He blinked like a cat as he waited for the inevitable.

“Father, what were you doing? You scared me half to death! I thought…well…I don’t know what I thought, but—”

Melchior put up his hand wearily. “Don’t say another word. I know what you imagined, and I must say, you have a deplorable lack of faith in your father. Do you think I’d die in such an unceremonious way? When I’m ready to die, I’ll let you know.”

He looked at his son, whose mouth hung slightly open. Although Harry possessed a kind and gentle soul, he was not the brightest candle on the lampstand. But he was strong, and that was worth something. “Help your father to his feet, Harry.”

Harry obliged.

Melchior surveyed his eldest daughter and then his son. His shoulders slumped. They were truly the kindest people he knew, but times were hard and there was so much decency being lost from their everyday world that his heart nearly broke when he thought of it. He remembered the stories his father and grandfather used to tell of the Roman days and how things used to be. But now, all was rot and ruin. There was so little of the old grandeur left.

If only his wife, Edwina, had not passed away, leaving him to manage everything. He still owned a small portion of his lands. As a full-fledged thane, he maintained five hides as the law demanded. And he possessed a name and reputation as an educated man. He was considered wise in a land of ignorant, inarticulate…. Oh, never mind! He must not think of it. If only Edwina had been able to pass along more of her own noble strength. But she had been so busy raising the babies and maintaining the household that she had had little time to speak about the past and what they had known…their honorable name and stolen inheritance. Melchior forced himself into the present moment. “Where are the others?”

Harry’s mouth hung open, but Adele spoke up in her usual brisk fashion. “They’ve gone to the festival. Don’t you remember, Father? You gave permission last week. Lord Gerard is holding a feast in honor of his daughter’s betrothal to Lord Marlow with games and races and food and drink. You promised everyone might attend.”

“At this hour? Why the sun has just risen!”

Adele studied her father, one eyebrow raised. “You’ve been up half the night again, haven’t you? Oh, father!”

Melchior grimaced at the reproach for he had been up half the night; undoubtedly the morning had flown by while he slumbered, but still…. Melchior fell to his knees again.

Adele shrieked. “What now, Father?”

“My roll! My parchment fell on the floor―that’s was why I was half buried under the bed when you found me.” Melchior struggled to his feet and, carefully appraised his two children, eyeing not only their size but also their agility and mental acuity. He pointed to his daughter. “Adele, get under there and retrieve my roll. It’s very important, and I must have it!”

Adele shook her head one last time before she got on her knees, wiggled under the bed, and returned with the roll pinched daintily between two fingers. She held the dusty vellum out to her father. “What’s it this time?”

Melchior pursed his lips although his eyebrows furrowed anxiously. What if he had imagined the whole thing? What if he had dreamed that he had discovered the one great unifying principle of the universe? What could he say?

“I’ve discovered something very important, but I’m not ready to reveal it yet. Besides, the world, as it stands today, isn’t ready for what I have to offer. We live in a land of fools ruled by barbar—”

“Father! Don’t speak so loud! King Radburn is very powerful and has many spies. Besides, we owe him our allegiance.” Adele’s gaze fell, her cheeks flushed.

Melchior lips stretched back with a slight hiss. “Yes, they are rather treasonous words, but they have meaning―at least they should.” He had more intelligent conversations with merchants than with lords, and the Saxon king was one of the most loutish men he had ever met. King? Why, Melchior could name three hunting dogs with more sense! But that was none of his business. All he had to do was manage his own estate, keep his children alive, and stay out of trouble. He snatched the roll from his daughter’s outstretched hand. “Yes, well, this will help to keep my mind on better things.” A sudden frown crushed his heavy brows over his eyes. “Why aren’t you two at the celebration?”

Adele ran her fingers through her hair, a sheepish grin replacing her serious expression. “Ahh, we’re going…but there were things to attend to. You want something to eat? Some bread and meat?”

Melchior rubbed his lean belly. Yes, food would definitely help. Hot food and a mug of warm ale would go a long way toward improving his mood. Then he could read over his work in the quiet of an empty house. Peace and quiet? Why this would be a prize! “Is everyone going?”

“Not Selby. I’m leaving him behind to watch over things―in case you need something.”

Melchior put on his most benevolent face, a wide smile to match his wide eyes. “Ah, let the poor man go. Even if he can’t partake, he can watch, and you might slip him a little something.”

Adele’s pursed lips and scowl disagreed. “I don’t know if Lord Gerard would like that. Slaves aren’t invited to such things. Father, what can you be thinking?”

Melchior could feel his quiet time slipping away. Selby had an uncanny ability of finding him alone when he least desired company. The old fool would sidle forward with a ridiculous complaint or some “momentous” news (the cow had calved, the oats were up, it looked like a storm was coming), and then the garrulous codger would start to chatter. Why he could chatter a man’s two good ears right off his head.

Melchior aimed his gaze and spoke so clearly, that no one, not even Harry, could mistake his meaning. “Adele, I order you to take Selby and the rest with you. Say that they’re to help with the children. Say that they’ll help with the cooking or the cleanup. Say whatever you wish, but take them away and stay a good long time! You understand?”

Adele nodded and sniffed. She understood all too well. Her father was up to one of his schemes again, and he wanted to be alone. Well, she wouldn’t get in his way. She had better things to do than fret about an old man’s foolishness. It would break her mother’s heart to see him now. He never took care of himself. He never bothered to dress neatly and he was so reclusive that all their neighbors were saying that he was mad. He was an old man, it was true, but Adele knew her father better than anyone, and she knew that he was as wise and crafty as ever, but he obsessed over strange secrets.

In a fit of lonely desperation, he once recited some notable quote to Lord Gerard but Lord Gerard had only laughed, pounded him on the back, and said that he had drunk too much strong wine. Melchior, who already hated the man, hated him even more and avoided him after that. Adele winced at the memory. Though she had no love for the conquering Saxon, she did like the look of Lord Gerard’s nephew, Robert. She dearly hoped that her father’s eccentricities wouldn’t make her less attractive to her neighbors.

“As you say, Father. We’ll be leaving in a few moments. I just need to get my cloak. The night will surely be chilly.” Adele left the room with one final direction to her brother. “Get father’s food, will you, Harry? See that Selby carries in the tray and a flask of ale.”

Harry, used to obeying his sister’s commands, turned away.

Melchior watched him go with a slight ache of regret. He hardly ever spoke to the boy in kindness for there was so little to praise. Suddenly his heart smote him, and Melchior called out to his son’s retreating figure. “Have a good time, Harry! Dance with one of the pretty maidens for me.”

Harry turned and gazed at his father. He knew when people were making fun of him for the sting bit deep, but he realized with an indecipherable sense of sadness that his father was not taunting him but wishing him well, saddened all the while that it would never happen.

As soon as everyone was gone, Melchior picked up his scroll and carefully began to unroll it by the window. He stared wide-eyed, anxious to uncover its marvelous contents. First, there was the part about the stars alignment, which he had begun to chart five years ago after he had seen a propitious sign leading him to believe that his future was exceedingly bright. After a bit, he had become frustrated with the clouds forever covering the night stars so he began to record his family tree, and, although it wasn’t particularly detailed, it pleased him to have the whole family in one place. Then, of course, there was that bit about animal husbandry…but his interest had faded after a disease nearly carried off all the cows. In the margins, he printed quotes of learned men that he soon memorized. He used to recite them at gatherings to amaze his family and impress his friends.

Finally, here it was. Why? What had happened? The first few words were clear, for he had still had some ink on his pen; he must have wet it with his tongue as was his usual habit but…. Oh, flummoxed foxes! He had forgotten to dip his pen in ink. All that remained of his vision were some scratches and stray marks where his fingers had smudged the material. Just a few faint words were all that bore testimony to his vision, his wonderful knowledge that would save the world from disgrace and utter ruin!

Melchior stepped away from the light and fell heavily onto his bed, his hands hanging at his sides. How could this have happened? How could he have both been given such a gift and then had it snatched away all in one pitiless day? Did God not care for him? Did the Heavenly Host laugh at his attempts to understand his mighty world? Or was this the work of the devil to send him straight into the arms of the mistress of despair? If so, Beelzebub almost won.

Sighing, Melchior rose off the bed and went back to the light streaming through the window. There were a few readable traces upon the parchment. Melchior considered throwing the whole document into the fire, but then he remembered that such costly vellum was hard to obtain, and he would have nothing to write upon if he threw this away.

“Bah! What does it matter? The greatest knowledge in the universe has just slipped through my fingers. I am not likely to have that vision twice! And I can’t even remember the first thing about it other than it was lovely, and I was happier thinking about it than I had ever been in my life. But it’s gone now. The treasure has been stolen not only from my grasp but from my mind as well. Oh, Lovely Mother, have you no pity for your servant?”

Melchior heard the song of a bird just outside his window. It was a perky sparrow bouncing about from branch to branch as if it had nothing better to do than dance away the day. But as Melchior stared, the light fell on the vellum in such a way that the first scratches were discernible and Melchior bent in closer. “What’s this?” Melchior peered at the vellum and the words were suddenly quite clear.

“And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal….”

Clenching the velum in utter frustration, Melchior shouted, “What in eternity does that mean?” Yet his heart was lightened, for although his entire vision did not come back to him, he did sense the unspeakable joy he had known when he had first sat upon his chair in the blackness of night and wrote the message he was sure had come from God. Well, if God did not want him to know the whole message now, so be it. God was a mystery. He still had hidden within him this marvelous secret, and when God wished him to remember, he would recall the vision in full. And next time…he would dip his quill in ink!

Persian

“They don’t think like us—you know that—don’t you?” The fluffy, white Persian with only one piercing blue eye stretched lazily across the porch floor in a patch of sunlight. Two kittens batted the leaves of a potted plant like players in an obscure Olympic game.

A miniature Panther sat on his haunches and blinked at a passing farm truck. “But they’re highly motivated; that’s what troubles me. Their whole demeanor of desperate devotion hides an unscrupulous plot—a cunning trick—to be sure.

“Unscrupulous? You’ve been listening to the boy at his lessons again, haven’t you?” Persian flicked her tail and eyed her kittens. “You give them too much credit. Most are as stupid as posts, though Clarabelle, now, she may have shepherding in her blood, but notice which critters she chooses to corral. Wouldn’t mind nipping that puppy in the heels, I’d warrant.”

Panther stretched. “You’d think the bipeds would sense the tension, but no, they just pat everyone on the head in the same enthusiastic way. The lady’s the worst, repeating that stupid mantra—My little loves—revolting.

A little boy jogged to the bank by the roadside and watched a tractor rumble nearer. Clarabelle raced by in a blur, weaving close to the huge, revolving tires.

Persian rose. “She’s at it again. One of these days—”

The boy screamed.

Persian scrambled down the wooden steps and raced across the yard with Panther dashing close behind.

The tractor rolled down the road—oblivious. The boy scuttled down the embankment and trotted to the pavement. He lifted a limp, fluffy, little body off the blacktop. Clarabelle barked and raced in circles around him.

Persian yowled. “Darius!”

Panther shivered. “I wondered where he’d gotten to.”

Tears streamed down the boy’s face as he climbed the hill and jogged toward the house. A lady flew out the door and raced down the steps. She stopped and knelt on the freshly mown grass at the boy’s side.

Persian cantered closer and swirled between them, meowing plaintively.

A pitiful cry issued from the limp kitten.

The woman looked from the Persian to the boy, one outstretched finger caressing the kitten’s head. “Look, even his mama’s worried…. I’ll take him inside and see what I can do. You go off to Daddy. He’s in the barn.” She lifted the limp body into her arms.

The boy stared up at her mutely.

“Go on; he needs you. We’ll see—” She turned and climbed the steps.

The boy watched her disappear behind the screen door, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and trudged away toward the barn.

Persian stood, glaring at the door. She trotted forward, scampered up the steps, and clawed at the screen.

Clarabelle sprang onto the porch and nosed her. “It’s no use. They’d just throw you out.” She sat on her haunches. “I tried to get in a few times, but—”

The Persian turned with a snarl and raked Clarabelle across the nose. The collie jumped with a yelp and trotted away with one, baleful, backward glance.

Panther edged closer to Persian, eyeing the retreating figure. “Take it easy. There’s nothing you can do.” He stepped between the mother and the door. “The lady will do what she can. You better get back to the others before something else happens.”

Persian yowled. “He’s my kitten!”

“They think he’s theirs. No point in arguing.”

Persian darted down the steps and hurried away, a warning growl vibrating deep in her chest.

Panther trudged down the steps and headed toward the barn.

Clarabelle stepped in Panther’s way. “I was only trying to help. Darius would already be dead if I hadn’t been there.” Clarabelle lifted her nose to the wind as two other dogs galloped closer. “But I shouldn’t be surprised—Persian never liked me.”

Panther eyed the collie, blinked, and then turned. “Like as not, you pushed Darius under the wheels.”

Clarabelle sneezed and watched Panther amble away before the two puppies pummeled into her. She snapped at them. “There’s been a tragedy, fools! Quit acting like drooling idiots.”

The hound snorted. “You mean that ball of calico fluff? Please, it’s been wandering far afield since the first day Persian let him out of the barn. I always said, coyotes or cars—”

The beagle yawned. “Never did see the use of all these darn cats. Two would do the job just as well. Sides, they’re so narcissistic!”

Clarabelle tackled the beagle and nipped him in the ear. “Awful big word for such a small quadruped.” She cocked her head toward the barn. “I’m going to check on my boy. He’ll be taking it hard. Always does.”

~~~

The sun flickered between the tree trunks as it crested the horizon. The lady, the man, and the boy stood with bowed heads near a small mound of freshly dug earth.

The boy raked his sleeve across his tear-streaked face.

The man slapped a cap on his head and shuffled his feet. “It’s just a kitten for heaven’s—”

The woman glared at him.

The man knelt down beside the boy and squeezed his shoulder. “It’s part of life on a farm, son; you gotta accept that.”

The boy leaned forward and buried his face into the man’s chest, his sobs muffled by the man’s plaid shirt.

The man cleared his throat, glanced at the woman, and lifted the boy into his arms. He placed the child high on his shoulder and carried him away.

The woman sighed and picked her way across the dewy grass to the house.

Persian trotted to the small mound, sniffed, and scratched the crumbly surface.

Panther ambled over. “You’ve got two left. Not bad—considering.”

Persian’s one eye pierced him with an icy glare. “You’ll never understand.”

Panther yawned and strolled away. “Not my job—understanding. I’m a hunter. That’s why I’m here.”

Persian closed her one good eye and sat on her haunches.

Clarabelle circled around and plunked herself down out of scratching range. She blinked at the rising sun. “Males don’t think like us. Can’t grasp what it’s like.” She rose and trotted over to another, slightly larger mound, covered in short grass and dandelions. She pawed at the mound and then stared at Persian. “Poison. It was a mistake—the man felt bad—but she died a terrible death just the same.”

Persian’s whiskers twitched. “You think you understand me?” Her yowl was incredulous.

Clarabelle shook her coat and trotted toward a car pulling into the driveway. “Someday, there will be mounds for us all.”

Persian climbed the porch steps and was about to settle down in the sun when the woman came out and scooped her into her arms. She sat on the large, wooden rocking chair and smoothed Persian’s ruffled fur. She tucked a stray lock of her gray hair back into her disheveled bun. “Ah, Lordy. It’s not easy getting old; seeing so much hurt and loss and not able to stop a bit of it.”

Persian couldn’t help herself. She stared across the emerald lawn, over the treacherous road, toward the concealing woods, and her whole body relaxed into the soft folds of the woman’s lap. A vibrating purr began deep within her being. Someone understood.

Translator

To be honest, I thought she was a bag-lady. The long, scraggly, gray hair, the oversized, shapeless sweater, the dark circles under her eyes, and the haunted expression all pointed to one, obvious conclusion—a conclusion I was in too big a hurry to even pity.

The boys were due home at any minute and the babysitter would expect me to have dinner ready. Julian hated to be late and since we missed our date-night the month before, I wasn’t about to let anything mess with this one. I felt a head cold coming on, the refrigerator had gone on the blink, and I was struggling to maintain a civil, if not cordial, relationship with my boss at work. It had been a tough week.

So when the disheveled woman appeared in line ahead of me, I wouldn’t have bothered with a second look—if it hadn’t been for the flowers. The incongruity of the scene struck me like a splash of cold water. I even dropped my fish fillets. There she stood, or stooped rather, hugging this glorious bouquet. A worn out bag-lady with spring flowers. Crazy, right?

I rescued my fish, hurriedly emptied my cart, and watched with unabashed fascination as this odd spectacle leaned forward and whispered in Spanish to the cashier.

I rolled my eyes. I had worked as a translator long enough to understand exactly what she said, but I didn’t really want to get mixed up in some crazy situation in the middle of a grocery store. I had more pressing matters to attend.

The cashier stared blankly and shook her head. “I don’t understand.” She looked beseechingly at the line forming and called to the other cashier. “You understand Spanish?”

The other cashier shrugged. It wasn’t his concern. Realizing that doing nothing meant this situation would take longer; I volunteered to assist. “She asked how much.” I pointed to the woman’s bundle. “For the flowers.”

This time, it was the cashier who rolled her eyes. “It’s on the tag.”

I translated and pointed to the aforementioned stub.

The woman’s hand shook as she considered the cost. I sighed. Lord, she probably doesn’t even have enough money. I had already opened my wallet, and though I had more than enough to buy my groceries and her flowers several times over, the principle of the situation rankled. What in God’s name had she been thinking when she picked up those stupid flowers?

Almost as if she had read my mind, she blinked and answered my question. With a shaking hand, she pulled a tiny purse out of her shapeless sweater, and hugging her flowers even tighter, she pulled folded bills into the light of day, explaining all the while in her husky, whisper voice.

“Mi hijo…solo diecinueve…trajeron su cuerpo a casa hoy. Mi esposo está trayendo su foto, y tienen una bandera—pero—yo quería flores….”

My translation skills kicked in automatically.

My son…only nineteen…they brought his body home today. My husband is bringing his picture, and they have a flag—but—I wanted flowers….

She peered at me, her eyes brimming. “¿Tú entiendes? Estaba en la flor de su juventud.”

I closed my eyes but I could not escape her meaning.

You understand? He was in the flower of his youth.

She smoothed the bills on the counter and nodded to the cashier who snatched them up and efficiently offered her change.

The cashier and I both watched the lady over the threshold, even as we went about the business of packing my groceries.

“Thanks for helping out.” The young woman peered at me. “What did she say?”

I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t explain. My translation would miss too much.

The cashier forced her curiosity aside as the next patron stepped up. “Never mind. Just glad it worked out. I thought for sure she didn’t have enough money.”

I edged away, my eyes scanning the parking lot for a husband with a photo in his hand.

The cashier called after me. “Guess it shows—you never know, eh?”

I hefted my bulging bag into my arms and nodded. “You’re right. We never know….”

Lilliputians

“It’s the little things that tie us down—you know—like the Lilliputians.”

Adam snorted, his eyes stayed glued to his phone. “Life’s what you make of it, Grandma.” His attention wavered. She said something he couldn’t catch.

He scrolled. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” There were three new messages, and he was itching to check his Facebook and Twitter pages. His stomach rumbled. He checked the time. Sigh. He knew his duty. “Hey, have you eaten yet, Grandma?”

Her puzzled frown annoyed him. It was a simple question; it shouldn’t cause brain strain.

“I—I don’t think so…. But don’t worry. I’m not hungry. You go ahead and check your box now and then we can chat.”

On autopilot, Adam scooted the kitchen chair out and sat with his arms propped on the table. There were a lot of posts to scroll through…and through.

A sudden bang snapped his head up. Grandma’s stricken expression propelled him to his feet. She stood in the middle of the room staring at the fallen teakettle as if it had flown through the window. A pool of steaming water slowly spread across the floor.

“You okay? Did you burn yourself?” The stovetop was glowing red and the kettle spout smoked like a chimney. Adam gritted his teeth as a wrenching pain punched his gut. He led Grandma to the table.

“Here, sit down. I’ll clean up. What were you doing anyway?” He grabbed a towel and tossed it over the wet floor. The twin pools of confusion and disappointment in Grandma’s eyes sent another twist to Adam’s gut.

“I just wanted to make us a cup of tea—for our chat.” She plopped down heavily on a chair. Her right hand stayed fixed with the palm up.

Snatching a potholder, Adam conveyed the kettle back to the stovetop and turned it off. He plucked ice from the freezer, wrapped it in a paper towel, and handed it to Grandma. “Here, put this on your hand.”

“Why?”

“Cause you burned it, see? It’s red there. Might blister. Dang it, Grandma, you know you’re not supposed to touch the stove! Just let me do it next time, okay?”

Grandma blinked back tears and straightened her shoulders. “I’m not a child—or a loony—you know. I can still make a cup of tea!”

“Sure, sure. I know. I shouldn’t yell. Just Mom will get so mad that you got hurt under my—”

Adam’s phone chimed. He snatched it up and stared. “Oh, brother! Some idiot just plastered a bunch of political slogans on my page.” He barely glanced at Grandma. “Just a minute, I gotta—”

Grandma shook her head as she rose and returned to her tea making.

An hour later, Adam looked up. Grandma’s place was empty. A cold cup of tea with a slice of lemon balanced on the saucer and a little cookie sat before him. He stood and looked around. Her washed teacup lay neatly drying on the drain board. Long evening shadows slanted across the tidy kitchen.

Adam tiptoed down the hall. “Grandma?” He peeked into her room. There she lay, sleeping peacefully on her bed, her hands folded over her trim waist. She’s really a beauty—funny I never noticed before.

~~~

Two months later, Adam sat beside Mom on the front pew at church. Grandma was laid out in her finest, and her hands once again rested in quiet repose over her neat, trim waist.

Mom’s shoulders shook as she covered her face with her hands. Dad wrapped his arm around her and leaned in. “You were always there for her, honey. Now, it’s time to let go.”

Adam stared straight ahead. All he could see through his parched, unfocused eyes was a cold cup tea with a slice of lemon on the side. His phone vibrated in his pocket. But he only felt the sharp snap of strings breaking.

To Make a Difference

outlookspaceman

Soul-Searing

Autumn is always bittersweet and beautiful―like a memory. I am nearly fifty now and yet my childhood seems as close as the doorway. More distant, and more painful are the memories of my sons. I had only two, Joseph and David, both fine young men, each born with a high sense of duty. One is dead now and the other might be soon. People tell me that I can’t change anything―that fate is what it must be. I try to accept that. But the memories haunt me, like autumn. They beguile me with their sweetness and then frighten me with what comes after.

I grew up endowed with a mission to change the world. I was going to be somebody. My relations going all the way back to Adam and Eve were much the same. It must be something in our genetic code. We were the branch that reached for the sun and was never content to live in the shade of another’s glory. My father was a radio broadcaster and my mother was an artist. They both strove with straining hearts to be great at what they did. You probably never heard of them. Few ever did. But they lived and died believing that they made a difference. And I guess that is all that really matters, believing in yourself. At least, that is what David keeps telling me.

It is late now, and the house is quiet. The cicada came out late this year, and I can still hear them in the evenings joining their songs with the crickets and the frogs. It makes a low, pleasant hum, always in the background, like the music in a movie. You aren’t always aware of it, but it affects your mood and soothes, or warns you, as the case may be. Right now, the evening sounds are soothing. There are no dreadful winds screeching against the windows or thunder hammering on the roof. Right now, I feel peaceful and even a little drowsy. David should be home soon. His shift ended at 8:00 P.M. but he said it might take him a little longer as he was going to talk to his director about his options. That is what he calls it, his options.

War broke out again four years ago and I thought that Joseph would stay out of it, but since he was trained as a psychiatric nurse, he saw it as his duty to join up as soon as possible and help out in whatever way he could. I admired his patriotism. Everyone did. After all, we had not looked for war. It came to us, landed in our laps when extremist terrorists set off bombs in our cities. There have always been problems in the world and tensions were especially high with threats at the time, but I had always figured that we were secure, our lives would remain on the periphery of events. I had hoped that living in the countryside might shield us. But fate crosses all boundaries and Joseph was determined to make a difference. He wanted to save people. He wanted to be helpful. How could I blame him? Over a thousand people were killed in those attacks and more died in the following battles. War comes at a cost. But I hoped that it would not cost the life of my son. I am not sure why I thought he should be exempt. But I did. I honestly thought that he was too good to die.

So now I sit here trying to make sense of my memories and trying to decide what I believe. If fate rules us, then it really does not matter what I believe. I can sit here until Doom’s Day, and nothing will change. But if fate is just an excuse for not accepting our part of things, then perhaps it does matter. Maybe I have more to do with Joe’s death than I realize. Maybe David still has a chance.

~~~

Kurt and I were older when we got married. It took us a long time to find each other. We were like that song―looking for love in all the wrong places. But eventually, we met right where you’d expect two Catholics might meet, in a church. It was at Christmas time and we were both out of college, and it turned out we had some friends in common. It didn’t take us long to decide that we wanted a life together. It did take a couple years to pay off old debts and clear out our lives so that we could make room for our marriage. But once that was taken care of, we went forward and had a big wedding, inviting everyone near and far. We’re both believers, but not terribly involved in church activities, except around holiday time. Our lives revolved more around our work. I had been endowed with a missionary spirit, teaching in poor neighborhoods while Kurt had worked as an English as a Second Language instructor. Both of us were zealots. Both of us wanted to make a difference. And both of us were rather tired and worn out by the time we got married.

It took us three years to have our first child, but there was never a more anticipated bundle of joy than out little Joe. Suddenly all our zeal was directed toward this tiny little baby. It was as if no other baby had ever been born before, the way we acted. Kurt made every birthday a major holiday and started to teach little Joe the letters of the alphabet and how to play ball when he was barely old enough to toddle across the floor.

I was intent on providing the best home and the nicest, most delicious meals ever created by any mother anywhere. The poor child never had a chance to know moderation. Moderation just wasn’t in our vocabulary. If he even got a sniffle, I ran him to the pediatrician so fast that the doctor would usually just tell me to turn around and go home, giving me nothing more than an encouraging word and a slight sigh. Joseph either had a great immune system or we frightened every illness away before it had a chance for Joe grew up as healthy as an ox. He grew big too. The other kids in school used to say that he ought to try out for football, but I’d never let him. It was too risky. He had a smart mind and I didn’t want his head broken in some game which would only decide the fate of a team for a season. I wanted my boy to make decisions about far more important things. Luckily Kurt agreed with me. Kurt would read him stories by the hour about famous men in history. That boy went to bed dreaming about knights in shining armor and martyrs who suffered for their faith. Though we lived in farm country and envied farmers their knack for bringing fruit from the earth, even if it was simply acres and acres of corn or beans, still we never saw ourselves as farmer types. We had the missionary spirit. So when Joe grew up and chose medicine as his field, Kurt and I smiled in complete understanding. This was something worthy, something grand that could make a difference in the world.

Joe joined Peace Corps after college, and Kurt and I were so proud of him; we could hardly contain ourselves. We sent packages and extra money to support him through the two years he spent in the Philippines. He got Typhoid while he was there, and Kurt thought about going over to check in on him, but Joe told us not to come. His letters became subdued. Joe seemed to be changing in ways I couldn’t understand. I wondered if he was depressed, but Kurt said that he was just seeing the world as it really was and that sobered him up a bit. Besides, everyone was telling me: “Joe’s his own man now; he’s over twenty-one; you need to let him be.” It wouldn’t do any good to worry anyway. I had no control over the world or my son anymore. There weren’t any options I could veto.

When Joe arrived back in the states one blistering hot July day, he met us at the airport looking like an overgrown scarecrow. He had lost so much weight that I barely recognized him. He was tanned but his face was gaunt with exhaustion. I was appalled, but Kurt gripped my arm and told me not to mother him. He was a man now. Joe needed to tell us what happened in his own way. At least Kurt realized that something had happened. But as we drove through the city noise of Saint Louis back toward the rural quiet of Illinois, I waited expectantly for Joe to say something, for him to tell us his story. He didn’t.

He hardly talked that whole drive home and he talked very little for the three months that he lived with us before he found a job in Washington D.C. He didn’t seem to care about anything except getting busy someplace far away from us. I couldn’t understand. I thought my heart might break. I had always considered myself a wonderful mother, but now I wondered what I had done wrong. Why didn’t Joe seem to care about me, or his father, or even his little brother? Joe and David had never been especially close but they had been good friends. Now it was as if they hardly knew each other.

David was finishing college, and he was busy with dreams of his own. He seemed grieved by the change in his brother, but he didn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. I remember David came to me as I was sitting on the porch watching the sunset one evening and said, “Don’t worry about Joe, Mom. He’s made his decisions. He can’t go back to being your little boy anymore. You’ve got to accept that.”

I had no idea what David was talking about, but it seemed to be the advice everyone was giving me. Even Kurt told me not to worry. Joe was a big boy. He would make his own way. And he did. He made his way right into a psychiatric ward where he was helping men who had returned from the war with serious mental conditions. He was a very capable nurse and he got along with everyone, well, almost everyone. It was one of his own patients who killed him. Shot him in the heart. I never knew how a patient got ahold of a gun. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. Joe was dead and that was all I really needed to know.

At his funeral, the director of the hospital came over and shook my and Kurt’s hands and tried to console us. He looked me right in the eye and said that Joe died making a difference. I had to believe that was true. But I couldn’t understand why it was supposed to make me feel better. After all, if he was making a difference, wouldn’t it have been better if he lived? How did his death serve anyone?

It wasn’t until Kurt and I was cleaning out Joe’s apartment, when I came across his journal, that I began to understand the man my son had become. I found the journal tucked under a copy of The imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. I had heard of the book, but I had never read it, and I was surprised to find it among Joe’s things. I had been more afraid of finding girlie magazines, but there was none of that. In fact, his whole apartment was rather Spartan.   Kurt put a few of books in a box and then he said he needed to make some phone calls. He left the room and didn’t come back until later that evening when I was about done. I wanted to be angry at him for leaving me to work alone, but then I realized that he couldn’t help himself. Kurt wasn’t the kind of man who could cry in front of people, even me. He needed to be alone to deal with his grief. I figured pretending that everything was okay was the nicest thing I could do. Sometimes not talking was our way of getting through things.

I gave most of Joe’s stuff away, but I kept the journal. I couldn’t read it for over a year. But then in late September the following year, I picked it up after lunch, and I didn’t put it down even to make dinner. Kurt had gone to a game with some friends, and David was living on campus. I was completely alone. I wish I hadn’t been. It was an experience that seared my soul forever.

I’ve Played My Part

The first part of Joe’s journal was much like what I would have expected. He was obsessed with his work, and he wrote about the people he worked with and the things he was doing. But then he wrote about a series of nightmares which were haunting him and his reflections about what they meant. Then a few entries later, Joe finally admitted that he was struggling with his faith. There was a long time lapse between entries at this point and when he finally started writing again, he wrote about his experiences in the Philippines. He had become good friends with a girl there, and he had even thought about bringing her home and marrying her, but then he discovered that she was pregnant. His friends warned him that he would be in a lot of trouble, so they advised him to help the girl get an abortion. Abortion was not an option for this girl or Joe either, but her father found out, and there was a big scene and Joe discovered that he was in bigger trouble than he had realized. The girl’s father wanted Joe to marry her right away, and Joe knew that his dreams for the future were seriously compromised. A friend got him some medicine that was supposed to end the pregnancy quick and easy. Joe gave his girlfriend the medication, telling her that it would make everything better. She believed him and took it and soon became so sick she nearly died. The baby miscarried and Joe transferred to another village. After that, he fulfilled his time in Peace Corps as perfectly as possible. He wrote that he never even looked at another girl for a long time. He tried to put the whole event out of his mind and promised himself that he would make up for his mistake by being the best nurse he could be. And everything seemed to work out. Except that he couldn’t completely forget the girl he once believed he loved, or atone for the past with promises for the future. Nightmares haunted his nights.

I sat there sobbing, hugging Joe’s journal, thinking that my son had died a tormented man when I realized that he had left three pages blank before his last entry. When I thought about it later, I realized that perhaps he had left those pages blank for a reason. Maybe he had wanted to mark the place in his journal with white pages, to show the difference in his life. In any case, Kurt came home before I could read that last entry, and it was a long time before I could pick it up again.

Kurt never drank much but occasionally when he was out with friends they would stop by someplace and have a few beers. This particular night, he had had more than a few. I wondered at him as he came in swaying haphazardly and I asked him if he wanted anything to eat, but he just waved me away. He said he had finally realized that his whole life was a sham. He was never any hero, and he had never accomplished anything. The world would be better off without him. I was shocked and hurt. After all, if his life was a sham, what was mine? What was our marriage? I couldn’t understand this pit he had suddenly fallen into, but I did have sense enough to realize that a good night’s sleep would probably help, so I pretty much agreed with everything he said, and I helped him to the bedroom. I gave him a back massage and let him mumble himself to sleep.

As I watched him lying obliquely on the bed half dressed, since I couldn’t manage to get him completely undressed or completely straight on the bed, I realized that this was our life. A half-done life. We had the ideals and the zeal, but we didn’t have something that made things really work out properly. I wondered about that as I made my way to the living room. I didn’t bother undressing either, for I thought Kurt might get sick in the night; he wasn’t a drinking man and this little bout with the bottle might have other unpleasant consequences. So I just piled up the couch pillows, and I lay in the dark living room and thought about what I had read in Joe’s journal. I don’t know why I didn’t just get it and read the last entry, but I felt so overwhelmed that I couldn’t take one more emotional revelation. I just lay there and wondered what Kurt had meant by his life being a sham. Was his life really a sham? Didn’t he love me? What did that say about my life? I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I awoke to the sound of Kurt calling me from the bathroom. There were other unpleasant consequences all right.

That spring David graduated from college with an engineering degree. He had decided that he wanted to specialize in aeronautics and though I didn’t see the “big plan” David seemed to feel that there was one, and he needed to be a part of it. The war had slowed down and was rolling along like many modern wars, mostly on someone else’s turf. I read on-line reports and I wondered if anyone would ever find a way to convince leaders that killing each other’s young people was no way to solve our differences. But I could see the necessity of protecting the innocent. After all, “the only way for evil to conquer was for good men to do nothing.” I had always believed that. So had Kurt and Joe. But now Kurt was submerged in doubt, and Joe was dead. I had a hard time lifting myself to the heights of idealism that I used to love.

During that spring and early summer, Kurt seemed to be getting ill a lot. He lost weight and looked tired all the time. I urged him to go to see a doctor, but he insisted that it was just a summer cold and he’d get over it. He didn’t. By the time he finally did see a doctor, the cancer had spread throughout his lymph nodes and into his bones. It had progressed to the point where even the specialists didn’t think he had much time left. They were willing to do chemo treatments, but Kurt said that he was too old and too tired to fight that hard. He was ready to go. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt like I never knew my husband at all.

By the fall, Kurt was in the hospital a lot. I would go see him after a full day of teaching and spend the evening with him before I went home to shower and get ready for the next day. As we sat there in that white walled room, we would sometimes watch TV or we’d talk about stuff on the news. Kurt always enjoyed discussing current events, and he loved history so he’d often tell me everything he knew about the countries that were in the news. He loved sharing his knowledge. That was one reason he had been such a wonderful ESL teacher. He was smart, and he cared about the people he worked with because he knew something about them and where they came from. He had always seen a connectedness between people and events. Yet now, as he slowly succumbed to the ravages of cancer, he didn’t see himself as being particularly connected to anything or anyone. When I asked him why he was so ready to leave me and David behind, he said, “I’m done – that’s all. I played my part and though it wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, still, I gave it my all. Now it’s my turn to go off stage and let someone else take over.”

I remember; I wanted to slap him. I wanted to beat him on the chest and tell him that he wasn’t God and no one said he could slip quietly into the dark night. But even as I was shaking with fury, I wondered if I was being fair. Kurt had a right to face his death in his own way, and I should be glad he wasn’t suffering any worse. I should be relieved he was accepting his fate. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I was troubled. My heart was hurting and my head was aching. Nothing seemed to be making any sense. I tried to reach back to my youthful sense of high purpose but it was elusive. Everything that used to comfort me was slipping through my fingers. I sat there, the blinds closed against the blazing August sun and Kurt fell into one of his evening naps.

I wondered at my stomach crunching distress. I could feel the familiar ache in my middle and knew that inner turmoil was one of the worst pains in the world. I tried to talk myself out of my suffering. If Kurt was accepting his fate, why couldn’t I? If Joe had died making a difference, then what good did it do to grieve over his death? Was I was just lonely and frightened? No, I had friends, and I was certainly capable of taking care of myself. Though I was losing my best friend, I didn’t need to think I was losing my whole life. My life would still have a purpose. I would still be a valuable person, and I needed to accept what I could not change. But somehow all my reasoning just made my stomach clench harder and my brain whirl that much faster.

Late one October afternoon, one of Kurt’s students came by to see him. He was an elderly Asian man and though many of Kurt’s students had come before to say hi and engage in some kind of humanitarian kindness, this man, I don’t even remember his name, was the kindest of all. He didn’t say much, but as Kurt was sleeping, he just came over and shook my hand then he knelt by Kurt’s bed and began to pray. I was taken a little aback. I wasn’t sure what religion this guy was or who, exactly, he was praying to, but his sincerity was obvious. He stayed there kneeling for what seemed like hours but was probably only just a few minutes. When he got up, he smiled at me and just whispered as he left, “God knows.” I have absolutely no idea why those words comforted me so much, but they did. I could actually feel the knots in my middle unloosen a little and though I didn’t knee on the floor, I did bow my head.

Certainly, I had prayed for Kurt just like I had prayed for Joe. A priest had come in and anointed Kurt. Our faith had been an intrinsic part of our lives. But suddenly, I saw things from a different view. It was as if I was looking at my life from a new perspective. In my youth, I had always been trying to make a difference. Then as tragedy entered, I tried desperately to grasp its meaning. Everyone advised acceptance but that had seemed cowardly, elusive, a run-away kind of thing. But there, as an October rain drizzled against those never-opened windows, for a brief second, I grasped what I was missing.

Twinkling Stars

Kurt died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. We hadn’t planned much since he was so ill but several of his relatives had come to town for family get-togethers so, in a way, it was good timing. Everyone was close, and the funeral was arranged without difficulty. Kurt had insisted on making out a will as soon as he knew he was seriously ill, so money matters slipped into place easily. David came home from his work at NASA, and he did everything he could to help me out. He was as good and kind a son as a mother could want. But he didn’t talk much about his work. He just said that there were a lot of wonderful possibilities in the future, and he wanted to explore some of them. I knew he had always been interested in space exploration, but as he turned his attention toward engineering and then toward planes, I figured his childhood fantasies of traveling to far off planets had vanished like other vaporous dreams. It turned out I was wrong.

His dreams had never died and as he faced a world in turmoil and the deaths of his brother and father, his dreams seemed to revive with alacrity. Even during that wet and cold November, he would sit out on the porch in the evenings watching as the sky turned from misty-grey to solemn-black. When I came out and asked him why he didn’t come inside where it was warm, he simply said he was watching for any stars which might break through the clouds. I remember telling him that any stars which broke through a November night were more likely to be airplanes or aliens, and he just chuckled and said, “Maybe so, maybe so.”

I finally had the courage to read the last chapter of Joe’s journal that winter, and I could have kicked myself for waiting so long. It turned out that Joe had met someone in the hospital that he really admired, and he had shared his turmoil with him. The man, whose name was Dr. Scanlon, was just starting out, but he must have had been born with the wisdom of the ages for he told Joe that his mission in life was not defined by his mistakes but by how he handled his mistakes. Apparently, Joe got a new lease on life, and he realized that he would never be a perfect man. That job had already been taken. He was called to be as good a man as he could be, and when he slipped up, he was called to stand back up and try again.

I realized as I read this, how common place those words seemed. They were the kinds of things I told my fifth graders. But I understood that Joe had grasped them on a whole new level. I suppose someone would say that Joe had been born again. He suddenly seemed to believe that his life had a meaning beyond what he could fully grasp. And that encouraged him. “Thank God,” I murmured as I sat there on my bed once more rocking and hugging his journal to my chest. “Thank God.”

The next time David came home for a visit, I handed him Joe’s journal and told him he’d enjoy the last entry. David only smiled and said that he probably knew more about Joe than I realized. Joe had called him the day before he died and said that he was thinking about asking out a particularly beautiful intern.  They had laughed together, and David said he felt that Joe was relieved of a heavy burden. I just stared at my son and asked him if there was any hope that I would know him before I died, and he smiled that bewildering smile he has and said that he would share more―if he could. I just sighed and shook my head. David then did one of the most surprising things he has ever done. He took my hand and he led me out to the twilight sky and he pointed to the stars. He said, “Look up there, Mom, and tell me what you see.”

I told him I saw a multitude of twinkling lights that scientists tell me are really balls of burning gas bigger than the earth and that though I believe them, I’d be equally content to have them just be twinkling lights.  David has such an infectious laugh. I had to laugh with him. We stood there, him holding my hand like a little boy again, and he suddenly turned to me and said, “What if I told you that out there lies the hope of humanity? If only we have the daring to realize it?”

Well, what could I say? What would you say? I remembered my youth and I felt a strange flicker of hope and life. I felt his excitement. But I also felt a ripple of fear. What was he about to do? What was he about to risk? So I looked at his upturned face and I asked him, “What do you mean? Tell me about it.”

So David explained. He told me all about how he was working on the design for a settlement on Mars and how one day he hoped to be part of a mission which would initiate the first building efforts on Mars. There was even talk of him being a part of the next space mission so that he could better prepare himself for that experience and have a better understanding of what would be needed for a lifetime in a space settlement. I stared at David, much like I had stared at Kurt, wondering if I ever knew the man in front of me. I asked him why he had never shared these plans with me before, and he chuckled again.

“Some of this is not for the general public, Mom, and besides, it still sounds strange even to my ears. I wasn’t sure I could handle the bewildered expression I see in your eyes now. There was a time when I would have doubted my sanity for even dreaming of such things.”

“But now?”

David had grinned. “Now I feel a confidence born of grace. I trust that if God wants this done, it will be done. And I’ll be the man to help do it.”

There was so little I could say at that point. I realized that my whole life had been the humus of this dream. David’s dream, like so many others: Christopher Columbus, Einstein, Albert Switzer, Mother Teresa, had borne fruit not from the desert of fantasy, but from the nurturing love of family who dared to believe in things, who dared to dream big dreams even when those big dreams ended up being little more than a life well lived or a death well faced. I stood there as the clouds passed away and the stars broke through, twinkling their hearts out. I held my son’s hand and I never wanted to let him go.

So the Earth continues to revolve around the sun in its allotted course, and seven more years have passed. David has been on two space missions, and now, he has to decide if he will go on this last one. This will be a mission which will take him further than even my imagination can travel. He will begin a new phase in his dream. He will be a part of a team that will begin building a settlement on a very, very distant planet. He will likely spend the rest of his life working with robots and men who have sacrificed everything for a home very different from this one. He’s never been a coward, and he doesn’t expect to start now. I always wished David would settle down and have a family, but now I see how that was always impossible. He was a man born for a mission. I guess, we all have our missions. Perhaps mine was to give life to such a man and to plant a seed of daring hope.

Have I made a difference? Did Kurt? Surely when Kurt read those stories to the boys, he made a difference in the kind of young men they would be. He did as much as I to form them, not just their bodies, but their very souls. Kurt died believing his mission was over. Joe died trying to help an insane man deal with his suffering, hoping to have a family of his own someday. His life was about never giving up. My mission?

The winds have picked up, and I can hear David’s car pull into the driveway. He said he would come home tonight, even if it was late. It’s nearly midnight. It is raining now and there is a rumble of thunder in the distance. I suppose, he has accepted his mission.

I suppose I have too.

The forecast says that the temperature will drop tonight, down to the forties. Winter is on its way. Autumn can’t last forever. No season ever does. I left some chicken and fixings on a plate for him. I guess I’ll warm them up and sit with him awhile. I even made a few chocolate brownies. They’re his favorite.

Rain from a Cloudless Sky – Short Story

Breathe. In… Out…

Savor the sensation.

Oh, God, how do humans stand it? So many sensations all at once. The warm sun on the face, the chill breeze as it rolls over the skin, the sound of laughter, the scent of… What is that? Fried chicken? Yes, that’s what Father called it. Fried chicken. Hmmm.    

I wish Father hadn’t left. I know what he thinks; I depend on him too much. But being here alone… It’s strange. Humanity is strange. Heck, the whole dang planet is strange.

Better get used to it. Life’s profession and all.

Breathe.

Okay, Jacob, you can’t see me, but I’m watching you. I’m a Luxonian Guardian now, and I’m going to stick to you like… glue? Humans come up with the oddest expressions!

Uh, ho. No… You’re not supposed to be doing that…

~~~

“Ma?”

“Jacob?”

“I’m here, Ma. I just wanted to see you.”

“Oh, Jacob. You’re not supposed to. Go, on. I’ll be all right. Go home…”

“You’re not all right. You’re sick. I want to help.”

Silence.

“No one can help me now, honey. I can’t lie to a smart boy like you. You gotta accept. Go home.”

“Not without you… without Pa… Janie…”

“Don’t! I wish I could… God, the pain—”

“Ma!”

Shuffling feet. A clucking tongue…

“Hmmm, huh! Come, on boy. Your mother needs rest. Let her go. You’ll do her no good here.”

“But Ma!”

~~~

Breathe.

I can feel tears aching to free themselves from behind my eyes. God, how do they stand it? I suffered when my mother passed, but it was different. Our suffering is different. Too many sensations here. My head aches, my stomach’s churning with bile, I feel shivery…

Yeah, Father… I remember what you said. Light beings are different. It’s not so painful for us. I have to relax, accept… Their suffering informs them… It’s part of them.

Breath. In. Out…

Father, I wish you’d stayed.

Uh, oh… Jacob? What’re you doing now? A letter? Well, that’s good…I hope.

~~~

Dear Uncle Matthew,

I appreciate your offer, but I realize now—it’d be wrong. I can’t help you. First baby Jane, then Pa, and now Ma. I can’t do this. The trip west was supposed to give us a new chance…but now… I’m alone. I don’t care anymore. California might be everything you say, but it doesn’t matter…not to me.

Someone could’ve helped us. But no one did. Only one old lady gave Ma a place to die. And afterward, she told me to find my own place. She has troubles enough.

Life’s too hard—

Jacob

~~~

Sniffling. A sharp click.

“Jacob?”

A chair falls over. Scurrying footsteps.

“Who the—? Where’d you come from? The door was locked!”

“Stop, Jacob. I know you can’t understand but don’t do it. It’s not over. You’re not over. You’re only fifteen—”

“Don’t move. I’ll shoot, swear to God I will.”

“If you shoot, I’ll just return later. Listen, Jacob, my name’s Cerulean. I’m from another world… I can’t explain, but I’ve been sent here to…how do I say…to watch over you…”

“An angel?”

Thud.

“Get off your knees, Jacob. No, not an angel. A being—not so different from you. I’m from Lux, another planet. But, listen… Here, sit down. Are you going to faint?”

“No. Maybe…”

“Breathe. Take a deep breath. It always helps me.”

“Yeah… I feel a little better. So you’re—”

“A friend. Now, put that gun away. Better yet. Let me have it.”

“What’ll you do with it?”

“That old lady who helped you—She’s has been robbed three times this year; she might appreciate it.”

“You’ll give it to her?”

“She’ll find it. I’ll make sure of that.”

“And me?”

“California isn’t so bad. You’re a smart boy. Your uncle has a shop you might like… He’s a doctor of sorts. You’d learn a lot.”

“It won’t make any difference.”

“Listen, Jacob, if you stay alive… You’ll make a difference. You’ll save someone’s life, many lives.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t…not unless you’re willing to try.”

~~~

“You did well, son. Don’t be afraid, you did the right thing. The Supreme Council has absolved you from your interference, But you know, there will be consequences… down the road.”

“But wasn’t it worth it?”

“Certainly. Part of being a Guardian involves risk. Personally, I find humanity worth a great deal of risk. They’re surprising…the way they think…the way they love.”

“They’re not so different from us, are they?”

“No. But beware.”

“What?”

“They’re unpredictable. Like rain from a cloudless sky. Remember to breathe. In…Out…”