Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Two

A Worthy Goal

The evening’s winter wind had settled to a mild breeze as Derik jogged hunch-shouldered at Faye’s side. Slugging his chilled hands deep into his coat pockets, he frowned at the memory of Faye’s unblushing impersonation of a guard, allowing her to affect his release. Though he towered above her slight form, her prancing step kept him lumbering along at a quicker pace than was comfortable for his Cresta-booted feet. Tripping over a clump of ice, he nearly sprawled onto the sidewalk.

Faye reached out and steadied him. “Don’t slip. I can’t change out in the open, so I wouldn’t be much help if you got hurt.”

Derik pulled his hands out of his pocket to maintain his balance and nodded. He darted a quick look at the little Bhuac. “You’re amazing. I still don’t understand how your race can be at risk. You just sprung me from the clutches of Governor Right! You could use the same tactics everywhere and no one could touch you.”

Faye glanced up at Derik’s large brown eyes. “Have you never yearned to be free—to be yourself? Freed from the secret bonds necessary to keep you safe?”

Derik shrugged. “Beyond my boots, I don’t have many protective bonds. In fact, if you hadn’t saved me from my last fall, even these boots wouldn’t have saved me.”

A curious half-smile played around Faye’s lips.

Derik grabbed her arm and pulled her under the shelter of a weeping willow. The long tendrils swept around them like a lacy curtain as busy pedestrians hurried by. “What? There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Faye’s almond-shaped eyes danced at Derik. “There is a great deal I’m not telling you. But to keep you happy and in the interest of building trust, I will share this particular incident.”

Derik wiggled his fingers like a child waiting for a ball to come his way.

“When I learned of your existence, I was quite interested to learn more about you, which meant I had to learn more about Taug. So, on occasion, I would investigate his laboratory. Not long ago, I became so perplexed by one of his experiments that I did not notice his return—until it was almost too late.”

Faye blushed a bright pink and covered her cheeks with her petite hands. “This is very embarrassing.”

Derik’s grin widened.

“I reacted on instinct. I don’t know why, exactly, but I changed into a small dog, one of those yapping little quadrupeds that like to chew and snarl at everything.”

Derik shook his head and snapped a weathered twig off the tree. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice.”

“Certainly. If I had been prepared or thinking clearly…but I was so concerned by what I saw that I lost all reasoning.”

“What did Taug do when he saw a mutt in his immaculate laboratory? Oh, I wish I had been there!”

Faye blushed harder. “He did what any irate scientist would do. He tried to shush me away. But I was annoyed and—” She dropped her gaze.

“You’ve come this far. Tell me everything.”

“I attacked his boots. I nearly shredded them before I ran away.”

Derik let out a yelp that turned heads. One passerby stopped and peered between the swaying branches. “You okay in there, little Miss?”

Derik cupped his hands over his laughter.

Faye smiled brightly at the concerned face and nodded like a six-year-old. “I’m fine. My dad’s having one of his spells. Just give him a minute. He’ll come out of it.”

The stranger grunted, dropped the trailing vine, and turned away.

In a formal manner, Derik took Faye by the arm. “All right, daughter, you and I have a mission to accomplish. Let’s go find Taug and free Justine. If he gives us any trouble, you can turn into a poodle and shred his bio-suit.

~~~

The cold, sterile laboratory appeared ashen in the dim light, echoing only dead silence as if it knew it had been abandoned and could not bear the truth.

Faye entered first, one thin-fingered hand lifted in front, probing for danger. Not a whisper or a swirl of movement responded to their approach.

Derik marched stiff and hunch-shouldered behind, ready for anything. Not ready for nothing. “I wish I had a Dustbuster.”

Faye halted and looked back at him. “Why? No one’s here.”

“One never knows when Taug’ll show up. Remember the incident with the boots? Besides, I’d dearly love to blast his equipment to smithereens. It would serve him right. Double-crossing me!”

Faye circled the empty room, tapping and touching various instruments. “He never lied to you, Derik. He told you that he might have to kill you. It wasn’t exactly his choice.”

Derik tromped over to the pool wall, splayed his fingers across the glass, and stared into the murky depths. “You sound like you sympathize with him…your enemy.”

Faye lifted the top off the dissection tube and shuddered. “I sympathize with all trapped beings. I know how it feels.”

Derik slapped his forehead. “You’re—”

The sound of someone clearing his throat made Faye and Derik freeze. Slowly the two turned in unison, like ballet dancers thawing from a deep frost.

Cerulean stepped over the threshold and folded his arms across his chest. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this.”

~~~

Taug groaned as he leaned against the hard, uncompromising transport chair, his tentacles limp at his side. He squeezed his eyes against the discomfort of the harness that kept him from sliding off the seat, while his ample middle bulged unceremoniously at droopy angles.

He choked out a ragged whisper. “I deplore space travel.”

Justine, sitting ramrod straight with her feet firmly set on the smooth floor, crossed her arms languidly over her unharnessed lap. “It could be worse. You could be traveling in the baggage compartment.”

A mere flicker of a glance indicated Taug’s awareness of Justine’s dry sense of humor.

Four other travelers sat strapped in their own ample seats. Two humans, well equipped with state-of-the-art headsets, tapped their datapads while their eyes scanned invisible screens. Two Crestas, younger and more robust than Taug, strained against their harnesses and leaned over to whisper to each other.

A loud buzz announced their entry into space and freed the occupants from their unnatural positions. The humans unbuckled and left without even glancing at the other passengers. The Crestas grunted with relief as they rose and passed into the passage. They studied a map highlighting the ship’s points of interest, including the dining section.

Tapping her thigh, Justine rose and ambled across the small space.

Fumbling with his straps, Taug’s grunts sharpened to disgust.

Unmoved, Justine faced him. “So tell me more about your planet…your people. What is the plan?”

Taug jerked fiercely at his strap, which nearly choked him. He gasped. “Get this damn thing off me, or you’ll be arriving with a dead body.”

Justine frowned but stepped forward. “Is that how you see yourself? I thought you considered yourself a scientist of the highest order, nothing less than a brilliant mind—”

“Hurry! I can’t breathe!”

Justine jerked the strap so that it loosened the clasp and pulled it free from Taug’s body. She stared down at the threadbare material. “Primitive. I wonder why they haven’t come up with something better.”

Taug staggered to his feet and wiggled his tentacles to reanimate his circulation. “The captain knows that the few travelers between Crestar and Newearth are either desperate or preoccupied. Humans don’t go to Crestar unless they are ordered there on business, and Cresta scientists would rather keep our monetary resources for our work. No incentive for comfortable seating.”

“But you like padded chairs and easy comforts.”

“I’m high enough in the food chain to be used to such things. But I like to appear before my superiors as an earnest scientist who happily endures simple hardships without complaint.” He flicked a grimaced smile at Justine. “You won’t give away my little secret, now, will you?”

Justine tilted her head and gestured toward the dining section. “We all have our secrets. How about you teach me the fundamentals of Crestonian cuisine? After all, I intend to be at the top of your food chain, and I’d hate to eat anyone out of order.”

As they settled into their dining booth, Taug waved a tentacle and alerted the host on duty.

A Cresta youth ambled over, looking eager to please, his golden eyes large and watery. “We’re honored to have you onboard, Taug. I’ve been told to offer you the best we have—” He bent down and whispered in an awestruck tone. “—no matter the cost.” His fleshy eyebrows wiggled to underscore the momentous news.

Taug glanced at Justine and then offered a rewarding smile to the young, obviously aspiring Cresta. “I’d like to introduce my protégé to our finest selection. How about we start with—”

As Taug gabbed on about Cresta food options, Justine scanned the dining room. The two other Crestas were bent over sloppy bowls of sticky goo, though they hardly seemed to be eating. She watched as they made every pretense of conversing and enjoying a good meal. She smirked. Apparently, Taug’s own kind didn’t trust him either.

The host practically skipped away.

Justine eyed Taug as he leaned back in the padded booth. Burns, rips, and more than one dent in the furnishings attested to the lack of luxury. But it would hold together for their quick trip. “Happy now?”

Taug closed his eyes and sighed. “Until landing, I’m free and I’ve ordered the finest meal available this side of the Divide. I always like to look on the sunny side.”

“Sunnyside? A rather human sentiment for a Cresta, isn’t it? You like to dive into deep water and surround yourselves with murky gloom.” As Taug did not respond, Justine laced her fingers together, propped her elbows on the table, and leaned in. “Tell me your plans so I know what to expect. I’m not particularly confident that we’ll meet a happy reception.”

Taug opened his eyes and let a lazy gaze rove over Justine. “Why are you worried? I politely informed Mitholie that I was bringing home a prize worth uncountable units.” Taug grinned. “Trust me, he’s waiting with bated breath.”

Justine pursed her lips in the direction of the two other Crestas. “So why did he send guards?”

Taug’s gaze rolled across the room. He shrugged. “I’m always watched. It’s part of the Cresta Code. Watch your back and watch everyone else too.”

“You’re not a very trusting race, are you?”

“Should we be? We value science, and we value advancement. We do not suffer fools.”

“So what am I? Besides a prize, I mean.” Justine’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to be experimented on?”

The host appeared with a large tray, which he set to the side. With skillful motions, he set the table with bowls, utensils, and drinks. Using padded mitts, he placed a steaming bowl in the center. “Watch yourselves now, it’s as hot as it looks, but the cook says it’s the best batch he’s made in eons.” With a sharp bow, the youth smiled, his eyes desperate for approval.

Taug accommodated the juvenile with a smile and a nod.

“I’ll check on the main course and be back shortly.” A quick turn sent the young Cresta on his way.

Taug delicately ladled soup into Justine’s bowl and handed it over. “Ah, I wish I were trying Samong for the first time with you. It’s a true delicacy.” He leaned in and whispered. “One of the ingredients is only found on a reclusive mountaintop. Though researchers have tried for years to duplicate it, they can’t get the subtle flavor that makes it so unique.”

Justine took a tentative sip. She shrugged. “It tastes a lot like the tomato soup that Cerulean makes.”

Taug sniffed the wafting aroma and grunted. “Cerulean! Don’t ruin my appetite.” He sipped from his spoon and hummed. “It is a good batch.”

Justine laid her spoon aside and folded her arms. “I have serious questions, none of which you are answering.”

Taug slurped another long draught, his shoulders relaxing. “I told you, Derik will be safe until your return. I offered Governor Right a deal she couldn’t resist.”

Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Such as?”

“She holds on to Derik, unharmed, until your return, and I’ll pass our android findings onto her—to do with as she wishes.”

“You’d do that? Give Newearth and that self-serving liar android—”

Taug lifted a tentacle. “You forget yourself. Remember, you’re serving your own interests as well. We all are.” He took another happy sip. “Besides, it’ll take her eons to decode it.” He leaned back and patted his stomach. “All you need to do is let a few select scientists study you—nothing invasive—and you’ll be free to return to Newearth under a new identity, collect Derik, and go wherever you wish.”

“You won’t need Derik—ever? You’re giving up your crossbreed studies completely?”

Taug grinned. “What do I need with a crossbreed when I have a much better alternative? An android with Cresta DNA will be a far more worthy goal. We’ll become like gods.”

Justine shoved her bowl away. “They will be, anyway…”

“Unless we learn to know ourselves, we run the danger of destroying ourselves.”
~Ja A. Jahannes

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

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With or Without the Pits

Eugene closed the oven door and faced his wife. “I hope I got all the pits out, or the boys will break their teeth on my cherry tarts.”

Samantha didn’t smile.

It was pouring rain and though the weather forecaster hadn’t suggested building an ark, her longed-for vacation at the lake seemed like a fading vision. A swampy muck of floodwaters hardly encouraged suntan-by-the-shore-eat-drink-and-dance-dreams.

With his hands on her shoulders, Eugene tried for a half-caress-half-shake. “I was only kidding. No deep metaphor of the state of the universe.”

Like a rusty robot, Samantha rotated to the French doors off the kitchen. The hanging plants sparkled with raindrops while a pair of red slippers she’d left by her favorite chair appeared as droopy as her spirits. “Summer will end, and I’ll be as exhausted as ever.”

Eugene didn’t know what to say. Cherry tarts seemed inconsequential. Like war humor—it just wouldn’t work as planned. Some things weren’t funny.

Devon, their six-foot-three and two hundred pound son, loomed into the room. His shadow entered first. He stopped, glanced from one parent to the next, and then shuffled his feet—indecision warring with better judgment. “Hey, just to let you know, I got the job. They want me to start next week. So—”

Though his heart soared with pride, Eugene’s stomach plummeted. Not for a minute could he glance at his wife and deal with her emotional mash-up. No, he’d go it alone. He threw his arms wide and embarrassed the hell out of his eldest with the tightest bear hug he’d given since Devon fell out of the treehouse at four and managed to walk away unscathed.

Doing a darn good impression of a startled linebacker with no ball in sight, Devon let himself be hugged. Then he hugged back.

Samantha stayed on the sidelines. Silent. Stoic. It took a full two and a half minutes before her composure crumbled, and she charged into the hug. Her muffled, “I can’t believe you’ll be leaving us…I’m so proud, but I can’t believe…” reverberated against the men’s You-Know-What-I-Mean eye lock.

Eugene pulled back and sniffed, fear reverberating through his body. “The tarts!” A quick U-turn.

Samantha tossed him the oven mitts.

Their youngest son, Kris sauntered in with the grace of a gangling teen that has outgrown every bit of his summer clothing. “Hey! You hear about Devon?” His gaze shifted from his mom to his brother. “I’ll get your room, right. It’s bigger than mine and besides, you can sleep on the couch if you ever come to visit.”

Samantha slapped her little boy’s arm and pooh-pooed the very idea. “Wait till he’s out of the house before any formal take over.” She leaned in and stage-whispered. “I have a whole house re-do that’ll cost a fortune, and I don’t want your dad to suffer cardiac arrest before I get a good contractor set up.”

Eugene waved a succulent, cherry popover before his wife’s face. “No goodies until you behave.”

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled over the celestial landscape.

Not to be held back by the threat of burned fingers or tongue, Kris attacked the hot cookie tray with the gusto of a starved rhinoceros.

Devon lowered his gaze.

Samantha accepted her husband’s offering and held it out to her eldest. “You first, Sweetie. The man of the hour.”

Eugene wrapped his arm around his wife and together they watched their sons partake of his latest culinary delight. He tipped his head, touching hers. “So the lake is out—but a cave tour would be pretty cool. Literally and figuratively.”

Samantha shrugged, her gaze wandering the room and out the door. Soothing drops fell in a steady rhythm while the fields and trees glowed, revitalized. “After we see Devon off…No hurry.”

While Eugene scrubbed the cookie trays, his wife chatted on the phone, spreading good news along the family gossip chain. A send-off party with matching luggage was in the works.

Once he slid the trays into place, Eugene eyed the last popover. He hadn’t even had one yet. He refilled his coffee cup, pulled out a chair, and plunked down for a well-earned respite. He took a bite. Wow! Better than he realized. He chewed and savored, and finally licked the last crumbs from his fingers. Not one pit.

With a sigh of contentment, he returned to the sink, washed his cup, and reset the coffee machine. He poured the spent grounds into the compost container and froze. There was Devon’s napkin with the red insignia of his new company—his mom had forgotten which job he had applied for. There, on the napkin, lay a cherry pit.

The silent accusation stared at him. He hadn’t gotten them all. Devon had never said a word. Eugene glanced at his wife. Did she know?

Samantha caught his gaze and frowned.

What should he do? Pretend it didn’t exist?

Samantha hung up and sauntered over. Wrapping her arm around her husband, she nuzzled his neck. “Say, how about we celebrate our successful launching of son number one into the world tonight?”

Eugene held up the cherry pit pinched in his fingers. “I missed one.” Blinking back ridiculous tears he fought the hammer blows pummeling his heart. “He could’ve broken his tooth and then—”

Samantha nudged her husband aside and practically sat in his lap, her arm still around his neck. “There are always cherry pits, honey. We’ll never get them all. Or stop rainy-day blues. Some things aren’t possible.”

Eugene nodded. She was right. But still, his heart ached. Damn cherry pit.

Footsteps approached, and Samantha practically fell on the floor in her haste to get on her feet. She stroked her husband’s cheek and then patted Devon’s arm as she headed out of the room.

Devon leaned in the kitchen doorway. “Hey, dad, before I go…just wondering…”

Eugene climbed to his feet and met his son’s bashful gaze. “Yeah?”

“Could you give me the recipe for your cherry tarts?”

Eugene smiled. He didn’t have to ask if his son wanted them with or without the pits.

They both knew.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/cherry-berry-spring-summer-garden-2363739/

Possibilities

Living in a fantasyland is fine. So long as I remember it’s not real. As a writer, I get to legitimize my role-playing, living the adventure of hero or villain as the case may be. But I’m not quite so dense as to believe that much of what I spend my cranium capacity on is little more than imagined reality.

Today, I’m sitting outside the local high school while my two middle daughters finish up their Drivers Ed classes. A gentle breeze blows and softens the intense heat of this summery day.

The last time I sat in this spot, I had plans well laid—practically none of which actually happened. I went from knowing my life trajectory to not being certain of anything. Even longstanding traditions—like going to Mass on Sunday—jumped the tracks and entered a new reality. One I never imagined.

Some people have told me that they just want things to go back to normal. While others have suggested the possibility of accepting a new normal. My guesstimate would be that we’ve always lived in a world of possibilities. The surprise is not that we live in fantasylands. The surprise is when we are shaken out of them.

Yesterday, the girls and I went to pick cherries from a neighbor’s tree. My friend had invited us several times, but I wanted to wait until she got all she wanted first and the luscious fruits were fully ripe. So, with a beautiful breeze blowing, the kids and I arranged to stop by with buckets in hand and harvest what we could. I knew what to expect—green leafy boughs bountifully speckled with ripe cherries.

But that’s not what we found. The tree was smaller, older, and there were few cherries among the sparse leaves. Where had the image in my mind come from? Experience, I told myself. History. Years of picking cherries off that same tree.

Only it wasn’t that same tree. It was older and worn and not so fruitful.

Long years ago, when my dad and mom divorced, I decided in a fit of self-preservation that I had no dad. I would expel his existence from my mind and cleanse my heart from the hurt of longing for a “real” father figure. But adulthood, a chance meeting (Actually after several grace-filled meetings), we developed a relationship. Though it wasn’t an ideal father-daughter-thing, it became a source of mutual kindness—love without counting or defining. As he nears his end—and at 91, I know he can’t go on forever—I look back on a friendship that could not have existed outside the grace of God.

Even my kids challenge my preconceptions. My older daughters tend to push the limits—managing things ahead of their age groups, amazing friends with their proficiency and abilities. So when my youngest came along, I naturally charged ahead, figuring that’s what she wanted. Guess not.

So as I think about it on this bright, blue-sky day, my ability to judge people and situations knows no bounds. I decide I know stuff not because I have amazing powers of forecasting, inside information, or unlimited spiritual insight, but because I simply want to get a handle on my life and decide between making a hot stew or cold egg salad sandwiches for dinner. Between calling a friend who hasn’t responded back in weeks and accepting the inevitable valley in our friendship. Between letting the poison of media-gossip roll off my shoulders or hugging it like a snake that strangles all hope of sincerity.

Accepting the mysteries of life and their involved vague possibilities mean that sometimes I get things wrong. I do have a dad, and I love the man more than words can say—partly because I have had to fight every demon in hell to hang onto our fragile relationship. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, what will happen with my friends, if the apples will ripen or rot, but I do believe that possibilities exist. That hope is not fantasy. That telling people what I “know” puffs my ignorance rather than fuels the informed.

Turns out that I won’t make a cherry pie, but we’ll have ice cream with a few cherries on top as a treat this week. A possible new friend asked if I wanted to meet for a cup of coffee. Recent media-gossip died a couldn’t-be-soon-enough death.

And I called my dad on Father’s Day.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/iced-coffee-cherry-cream-ice-cream-3429495/

The Wheel or the Ball

“This town is teeming with eligible bachelors. If you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Cindy nodded, though her gaze stayed fixed on the hamster cage. She hadn’t honestly been listening. Of far more universal importance was whether Fred was sleeping…or…Gasp! Quite dead. There was no way on earth that her little girl was going to buy the I-don’t-know-what-happened—he-just-died excuse. Though the truth remained, Cindy really didn’t know what happened. Heck. He was a rodent after all. Rodents don’t live forever. Just seems like it when you’re a parent.

Jan stomped over, bent low, and added her gaze to the scene. “What we are looking at?”

Fred emerged from his wood-shaving encrusted boudoir. His whiskers twitching and his beady black eyes sparkling with a mischievous “Thought I was a goner, did ya?” expression.

Cindy sighed. Extravagantly. The munchkin drama wasn’t quite over. This tamed vermin would haunt her nights running the wobbly wheel of life a little longer. Oh well. He was rather cute for a critter with no tail and an independent personality.

She glanced at her desk. The jury duty summons sat next to her computer, which edged a stack of notebooks arranged for her convenience. She ignored them in order of importance. At the bottom, her house repair list. On top sat a list of dinner options. Grilled tuna and cheese sounded amazingly good right now.

“So, are we going out or what?”

“I’ve done my shopping, and church isn’t till Sunday. I’m not sure what going out would accomplish at this point.”

Eye roll. Jan had mastered it to a scintillating art form. “Just get out of the house, see something different. Maybe meet some new people. You know. Live-a-little.” Jan’s bug-eyed expression conveyed the theory that living involved effort beyond breathing and sustaining life functions.

Cindy begged to differ. “I’m still working on my lesson plans for next week, and the hens have taken up squatting rights in the garage. It’s time I gave them due notice.”

Thigh slap accompanied by yet another eye roll. Jan had it down. “Woman! You are so boring. All you ever do is work.”

Perhaps a change of location would ricochet the conversation into the outer atmosphere. Cindy swiped her muffin recipe book under her arm and charged into the kitchen. It was only two in the afternoon, and Patrick and Kelly loved muffins. Why not make them happy? Why not tilt the whole universe toward muffin-induced-joy?

The fact that the baking tins slammed on the counter like bullets discharged from a WWII blunderbuss did nothing to deter Jan’s train of thought. “We never have any fun!”

Apparently whining didn’t stop when one reached middle age.

Jan plopped down on the kitchen stool and proper her head on her hands. A picture of disconsolate teetering on the edge of depression. “I’m divorced, and you’re a widow. Men are a pain in the…well…you know, but we can’t live without them. Well, we can, but we’d rather not. Still, even though I’ve given up any hope of ever finding a decent guy, it’s still fun to look around and see what’s out there. Just for old time sake.” The fact that her voice had risen three octaves was duly noted.

Cindy sucked in a fresh breath of oxygen.

The ingredients practically assembled themselves. Wheat flour, oats, sugar, eggs, oil, baking soda… Cindy tapped her foot. Oh, yeah, the recipe! She flipped open the tattered book to her last concoction—Queens Muffins, which the kids had devoured last week in unscrupulous haste. On the next page sat a close up picture of molasses-raisin muffins. Oh boy!

A heart-stopping moment. Did she have molasses?

“Are you even listening?”

Yes! Molasses to the rescue, right next to the Karo syrup. Cindy eyed the half-full black bottle with a practiced eye. It would do. A little brown sugar could make up for any deficiencies. She rolled up her sleeves and dove into baking mode.

“News around town is that John and Megan have split. You know anything about that?”

Cindy’s eye twitched. Three friends had politely informed her of the shocking news. How shocking could it be in a world with a divorce rate running faster than the national debt clock? She tossed a prayer to Heaven. God, help John and Megan. Even more importantly—help their kids.

She preheated the oven, sprayed the muffin tins with olive oil, and poured her friend a glass of iced tea. “You sneer at every man you meet, tell your mom that you’re entering a convent at the next summer solstice, and cater to your kids like they own the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jan actually frowned. Umbrage incarnate. “Do you have a point you’re trying to make?”

After a you-know-darn-right-well wave, Cindy scooped up gooey spoon-fulls and filled two muffin tins. “Dear-heart, you have a nasty habit of dipping into poisoned wells, and then you wonder why you feel sick.” She popped the trays into the oven.

Time to clean up.

Violins ready? Jan clasped her hands in pitiful desperation. “I just can’t give up on love.”

Cindy wondered if Elon Musk would allow her on board a spaceship heading—anywhere. “For God’s sake. Give love a chance—by all means. But love is a universe apart from happiness and romance.” She wiped her hands on a dishrag. Vigorously.

“Love is scrubbing the bathtub and getting off the grimy rings, making fried egg sandwiches for kids who seriously believe that they’re starving when they have no clue, filling in paperwork with black ink and writing legibly, doing your civic duty even when it means you can’t bring electronics into the courthouse, stopping at red lights, and not racing around tractors on a hill.”

Cindy tossed a drying towel to her friend.

Jan caught it handily.

Patrick jogged into the room. He jogged everywhere. If he wasn’t jogging he was eating or asleep. “Hey, Mom, I’m starving.” A statement of fact. Nothing more.

A frantic screech. Kelly skedaddled into the kitchen, arms circling, ready for takeoff. “Fred’s gone!”

Starvation would have to wait. Duty called. With an authoritative slouch, Patrick nudged his sister in the arm. “Naw. I just put him in his ball to roll around the house, so he won’t spend the whole night on that rickety wheel.”

Jan snorted. “With so much exercise, that rodent will outlive us all.”

Kelly sniffed. “What’s cooking?”

Cindy took a sip of tea and wondered which Fred liked better—the wheel or the ball.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/woman-coffee-cup-morning-hands-2289453/

I Don’t Have To See Christmas

“Ya know…you’ll never live to see the nuts ripen from that tree. Much less eat them.”

George grunted as he pressed the shovel deeper into the sod. He didn’t look up, but his grunt served a duel purpose. At eighty-three, it took every ounce of his strength to dig even a moderately deep hole. This one had to be large enough to bed a well-rooted sapling. The woody mate stood proudly to the side, evidence that George’s tenacity hadn’t dwindled with the years. He glanced aside. Had his guttural response made his point quite clear?

Randy sucked a hard candy and nodded. “You know what I mean, though.”

Stabbing the earth to create a soft landing, George turned the shovel every direction he could and broke up the larger clumps. Satisfied he motioned to the arboreal infant.

Obliging, Randy placed the root ball in the center of the hole. Together the two men shoved loose earth around the exposed plant. Randy lugged a twenty-pound bag of luxurious soil to the edge and using both hands, poured the rich blackness around the trunk, creating an even mound.

“That’ll do.” George sloshed a five-gallon bucket of water to the edge and tipped it near the base. The mound melted like sugar in tea.

Randy poured more dirt and sucked the last of his candy bits from his teeth. “You’re doing this for grandkids, then?”

A woman’s voice called from the doorway. “Dinner’s ready. You boys better hurry up or it’ll get cold. Janie’s going to stop by on her way to the bank and pick up that piece you want repaired. Better be washed up.”

Randy shook his head as he tossed the nearly empty dirt sack over his shoulder. “What’s the bank got to do with a well pump, I want to know. That woman just likes to run around town. All day and every day.”

The empty bucket banged against George’s knee as he walked. “The grass is always greener…”

As they entered the kitchen door, the smell of fried chicken, baked potatoes, boiled asparagus, and brownies smacked into them like the first day of summer vacation. Olfactory nerves did a happy dance.

Selma looked Randy up and down, apparently considering whether to send him back out the door or let him stay. “You get that last quarter done?”

“Sure. I just stopped by to see if—uh…”

Selma patted the tall man’s arm. “Well, you can eat and then help Janie put that pump part in her car.” She glanced at the laden table, ticking items off her fingers. “Oh, shoot, the butter!” She twirled and shot off, a heat-seeking missile after a new target.

Randy slipped into the nearest chair silent as a mouse sniffing the cat’s dinner dish.

A woman wearing a composition of pink jeans, a sky blue blouse with matching sandals, and jingling earrings, bounded into the room, pulled up short, and pressed her hand against her chest. “Thank God! I was afraid I’d find you all laid out on the floor.”

Sliding the butter dish beside a tall stack of bread, Selma eyed her cosmopolitan daughter. “We don’t usually eat on the floor, darling. Why’d we start now?”

George came in drying his hands on a towel. He worked his way around his DNA replica and dropped the towel in Randy’s lap.

Randy took the hint, slid out of chair, and headed for the tiny washroom off the kitchen door.

George plunked down at the head of the table and answered his wife’s question. “She heard that the economy is collapsing, our leaders are fools, there are twenty-three new ways to die, and—rumor has it—a comet is heading directly for earth.”

Randy poked his head out the washroom doorway, a confused frown running riot over his forehead. “Does that mean that the sky is falling—literally?”

With admonishing fingers, Selma waved the obscene consideration into oblivion. “This fried chicken won’t get any tastier just sitting here.”

“But, mom!” Janie’s hoops danced. “We have some really big problems to discuss—”

George clasped his hands and bowed his head. “They’ll wait till after dinner.”

Prayers said.

The meal commenced.

Selma was right.

The dinner could not have been tastier.

As he scooted his chair back, George peered from his wife to his daughter and finally landed on his nephew. “You asked if the nut trees are for the grandkids.” His gaze bounced off his daughter. “If we ever have any.”

Randy wiped his mouth, his eyes rolling upward, a clear attempt to retrieve his languid thoughts from the morning. “Yeah. Well…it’ll take a long time for those trees to mature, you know.”

Selma stopped; plates piled high on her left arm, her right swinging a dishcloth. “You planted them!” Her gaze softened, and she scurried to the window. Craning her neck, she smiled, unloaded the dishes, returned to her husband, and threw her arms around his neck. “You are the dearest man alive!”

Janie shook her head. “Like nut trees are going to any good. We’ll be lucky to see next Christmas the way things are going!”

In an act of open defiance, Randy tipped back his chair—normally a no-no. “To be honest…I don’t see the point either. Janie’s divorced and neither of us has kids…so who—”

“I don’t have to see Christmas to believe that someday, someone will enjoy those pecans.”

Selma wiped her sentimental, tear-filled eyes. “I told George I wanted him to show me that he loves me—in a new way.”

“What do pecans—?”

George chuckled. “She always loved those nuts. So when I proposed, I put a ring on the top of a pecan pie and gave it to her.”

Randy’s chair legs hit the ground, his eyes wide, taking in unrealized vistas of reality. “I never knew you had it in you—”

Janie straightened her shoulders and shot to her feet. “We’re just wasting time. I’d better get that pump part. At least I can do something useful.”

Randy took his cue, stood and bowed his gratitude to Selma. He pressed George’s shoulder as he followed his cousin out the door. “Never would’ve guessed.”

Selma sighed, reaching for her husband’s hand, her wedding ring glinting in the noonday sun as it poured through the kitchen window. “She doesn’t understand, does she?”

George stood and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Few do.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

There Is Hope

Yesterday I did our weekly shopping at Walmart, and though crowded, few people spoke. Everyone appeared preoccupied and vaguely distressed. I was a bit distressed too when I saw the bread and flour shelves empty. Again. But as I passed down the candy aisle (I was looking for chocolate for my dad—Really) a woman dropped a bag of sweets right in front of a Walmart worker. Without missing a beat, the store clerk groaned and pretended that it landed on her foot—then grinned real big. A collective sigh and the first smiles I’ve seen in weeks passed through aisle twelve. One was mine.

This afternoon I took a stroll with a neighbor lady, keeping the requisite safe distance, but still able to chat amiably, and the sun broke through the clouds. A kiss from heaven could not have felt better. Perhaps it was.

I have connected with people I haven’t talked to in months. I’ve checked with family and friends regularly. My kids have spent more time together than they have in years. Even birthdays have been celebrated in homegrown style.

But as I write this, greater numbers of people are of dying from the coronavirus than ever before. Families are losing loved ones. Only a fool would not be afraid. My dad just turned 91 and lives two states away. I wonder if I will ever see him again. I wonder about my sisters and brothers who have health issues. I wonder what kind of a world my kids are inheriting. I wonder about a lot of things.

As I mentioned my concerns to my elderly neighbor, she reminded me of what I already knew—Just take care of today. Live now. Love now.

I tell myself that. And I try. But it was good to hear it from a woman I respect. A woman who has lived through trials and knows that none of us know what is around the bend—good or bad.

The candy and chocolate cookies sit on my dresser waiting for me to box up and send off to my dad. I’ll call to let him know they are coming. Something fun he’ll forget in ten minutes. But we’ll have a fun ten minutes. And the treats will taste good when he gets them.

My neighbor is sewing masks for the hospitals—she and a group of ten ladies from town are working on this project together, each in their own homes. Their generation hearkens back to another era where making-do was second nature.

For now, I sit looking out the window at the evening sky; maple tree branches sway in the wind, showing off their perfect little buds like proud mamas—See what I’m giving birth to.

There is a lot to grieve these days. And there will be more grief to come. But it is on the darkest nights that the stars shine the brightest.

If an exhausted Walmart clerk can send the candy aisle into relieved giggles, then there is hope for us all.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz