That’s How It Goes

“God, how I love my life.” The sun was shining, birds were singing, and the green park with purple and pink flowerbeds, brown benches, and scurrying squirrels, looked as gorgeous as any storybook garden. “So why is my heart so torn and ragged?”

The college buildings rose up before Victoria’s eyes, a U-shaped arrangement of stone structures built in imitation of the grand European universities. A tower with a clock set inside a green cupola bore testimony to strong eyes. She couldn’t see the hands, much less the numbers. But it didn’t matter. Her son’s campus tour would take three hours, so she had plenty of time before the long trek back home.

Home?

Out of five kids, Thomas was the youngest. And now it was his turn to spread his wings and fly away. The older four had fulfilled their destiny—college, good jobs, and two were married now. The second child, the only girl, had had a baby last winter.

Victoria was happy for them. She was thrilled that Thomas had found a college that he really liked and was eager to start classes in the fall. Everything was terrific. Wonderful. Blessed.

So why did an aching depression choke her soul?

A white mini-van pulled into the parking lot, and three kids tumbled out. A toddler scampered forward into the arms of young woman…a big sister? Victoria’s heart clenched. The father, thirtyish with greying temples, and the mother, wearing a long summer dress, joined the clutch around the young woman. Hugs and hellos and comments mixed together into a bright cacophony of delight.

Victoria felt the tear before she realized she was crying. Why on earth was she upset? Couldn’t she be happy for this family reunion? Even though it wasn’t hers…and never would be again?

Terry had passed away four years ago. Despite the agony of loss, she had shouldered her responsibilities and raised the kids as they had always planned. And the kids had surpassed their parents’ every hope and dream.

But she had never looked any further…to a life beyond the kids. Beyond marriage. Beyond her responsibilities. Once Thomas moved into the dorm and out of the house, he would live his own life. Have meals with friends instead of with her. Do his own laundry. Well, most of the time. And have fun elsewhere.

Would home be home anymore?

Certainly, there would be get-togethers. Family dinners. Holidays. But her heart sank at the thought of it all. How her eldest wanted to spend last Christmas with his wife’s family. Of course, it was her turn. And the grandbaby—grandbabies eventually—would have to be shared as well. She couldn’t very well snatch the little ones and relive her happy motherhood.

No. She couldn’t really.

The happy family moved off toward the main entrance, a celebratory look on all their faces, except for one. A teen girl. She moped. In a bad mood probably. Victoria wanted to grab the child and shake her, get into her face and make her listen. You’ve only got a little time. Don’t waste it! Don’t ruin the day for the others. Life is so damn short.

The father took the teen under his wing as they went through the doorway, and the child peered up with adoring eyes. The father glanced away, a cloud passing over his face. He knew. A shadow loomed.

But distant laughter broke the spell, the door shut, and Victoria was left with the birds. She reached into her bag and pulled out a novel. Some mystery or another. Anything to distract her thoughts. To make the hours pass so she could go home again and live…just a while longer…

An old woman toddled near, hobbling with the aid of a cane. She stopped when she saw Victoria.

Matching benches stood across from each other. Victoria looked over. A large splotch of bird poop marred the other one. She grimaced and scooted aside. There was room after all.

The woman nodded in gratitude and inched her way near.

Victoria stood and helped her sit, suddenly terrified that the frail body would slip and break a bone, and she’d have to call 9-1-1 and…

Once settled, the lady chuckled. “I used to be a long distance runner. Never guess it now.”

Victoria eyed the spare figure with new appreciation. “Really? How wonderful! I mean; that must’ve been very exciting.”

“Ronda the Runner…that was my name. I was something of a star here…long years ago. There have all my trophies in their wall cabinet, awards and such. I donated them when I sold my house. No point in keeping them. I know what I did. Memories are glorious…for a while. Then it’s time to let go.”

A sigh erupted from Victoria’s aching heart. She gazed at the flowers. A sudden image of ice and snow—the park covered in frozen death—enveloped her imagination. She heard her voice before she realized she had spoken. “And go where?”

Rhonda turned, her gaze sweeping over Victoria like a buyer at an auction. “Where ever life takes you. If you’re still above ground…make the best of it.”

“But when your heart hurts like it is being ripped in two? What then? When your old life is over and you have no new life to start?”

Rhonda waved a wrinkled hand and peered into the distance. “I remember…the day my sister was killed in a car crash. We were twins. It was like my body had burned with hers in the flames.” She peered at her hands. “When I looked in the mirror, I saw a living being…but vacant eyes. Like I had died with her.” With a grunt, Rhonda straightened. “But it was a lie. I wasn’t dead. Rita was dead. I had to discover how to make a new life. Grow a new identity without my twin.”

Tears flooded Victoria’s eyes, and an ache swelled in her throat. She couldn’t have spoken if the Queen of England implored her to.

A bell tolled three times. Another half hour and Thomas would be ready to leave.

Rhonda patted Victoria’s knee. “Lost everyone…or just someone special?”

“Everyone special…one at a time.

“That’s how it goes…if you live long enough.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Not your choice. You could try to cheat. But that’d just pass things along down the road. You’re going to face loss and misunderstanding and death…in a million forms before the end.” She chuckled. “You know what they used to say to me during the long practice runs when my whole body ached? ‘No pain, no gain.’” She waved away a passing insect. “Stupid phrase. It isn’t the pain that teaches you…it’s knowing that it won’t last…that it’s just a part of something bigger. Something better. I never expected to really win anything. Not after Rita’s death. But I did. I won medal after medal. I learned I could still love my sister…even when I couldn’t see her or feel her. I endured. And now my great grandson is starting his career as a runner. Wonderful boy. I’m happy for him.”

“So you married…and had a family…and they moved on… And your husband?”

“Cancer got him fifteen tears ago.”

Victoria stared at the ground.

A sparrow flittered on the grass before them, hopping about, as if doing a happy dance.

Rhonda shrugged. “Well, I best start back now…it’ll take me a while to get to the reception area. They’re having a little party for him.” She wavered to her feet.

Victoria stood and reached out. “You want a hand? I can walk back with you. It’ll be time to pick up my son soon.”

“If you’d like. We can share the path before we go our separate ways. Got to be glad for these little things.”

At the doorway, Thomas waved at his mother.

Victoria let go of Rhonda’s hand and watched the old woman unceremoniously disappear into a bright interior.

Thomas grinned. “Helping old ladies, Mom?”

Victoria took her son’s arm, the dull ache settling into calm acceptance. “The other way around, more like.” She wanted to tell him—”Don’t laugh, my boy. It’ll be your turn, soon enough.” But that would be cruel. Now was his time to smile and be glad.

A fresh wave of love comforted her soul. She could be happy for him.

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Love Anyway

I’ve never been particularly good with suffering. Avoidance? Insecurity? Hyper-control? Sure. Then my all-star qualities shine bright. But being insecure, hyper-controlling, and trying to avoid pain doesn’t a happy life make.

When I was twenty-one, I had the chance to meet my father after long years of separation at—of all places—the Art Institute of Chicago. I was meeting his second wife for the first time. And to make matters even more relaxed, I didn’t know a thing about modern art. But I did discover a latent sense of humor, which apparently shot to the surface like a geyser when under serious pressure.

I amused my dad, his wife, and even myself. Seeing absurdities in the uncomfortable world before me kept my eyes averted from haunting ghosts and garrulous gremlins. Our conversation never veered toward my mom, my brothers or sisters, loss of childhood, alcoholism, substance abuse, or neglect. The conversation stayed right where it needed to be, focused on pictures hanging on walls, which none of us understood.

Contrary to every psychological theory I knew at the time, communication was not the key to our relationship. After that initial reunion, I visited my dad regularly. He attended my wedding, got to know my growing family, and became a steady fixture in my life. Even at the age of ninety, we still connect at least once a week. He may not remember my name some days, but he always remembers that he loves me. And that I love him.

Over the years, we did have a couple of hard conversations about our family and the things that went so very wrong in our lives, but they were not all that productive. His simple admission, “I’m sorry,” was all I ever really needed to hear. And my, “I love you anyway,” was all he really needed to know.

In recent years, I have lost a husband, a brother, several friends, (I have a visitation to attend this weekend), my sense of worth, and even my heart, but in experiencing these losses, I have discovered that there is no fixing pain. There is only, “I’m sorry.” And “I love you anyway.”

Being truly sorry when someone is suffering shares the burden. It is one of the greatest acts of generosity that a human being can undertake.

Loving anyway explodes the walls of control, doubt, fear, hurt, avoidance, and insecurity. Love is not doormat material. Love demands decency, honesty, integrity, and heroism. But it doesn’t demand those qualities all at once in perfect order.

After a particularly brutal loss recently, my imagination conjured up the image of a wounded woman rising after tumbling down a hill. Not unlike Sam at the base of Mount Doom. How’s that for an “I’m sorry, and I love you anyway” scenario? But Sam rose again. Even when it was hopeless to do so. Even when pain had the upper hand. Even at the end of Middle-earth, he rose and loved anyway. And he wasn’t alone.

Pain and loss are twin hells that human beings experience in umpteen versions throughout the course of our journey toward heaven. We can’t fix reality, stop the hurt, make everything right, control outcomes, or even avoid tumbling down hills. Personally, I can crack a joke and laugh at absurdities to keep the ghosts and gremlins at bay, and that helps. Some.

But mostly, I can be sorry and love anyway.

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

One Aisle at a Time

Wilson stared at the blinking cursor and couldn’t think of a thing to write. His brain seemed frozen, unable to articulate one creative thought. All he could do was lean back on his swivel chair and let his gaze wander around the room. A midsized wooden bookshelf with five extra books arranged awkwardly on top. Lamp, coffee mug, printer, window, landscape painting hanging slightly crooked, dusty calculator, a crumpled stack of receipts, notepad, frogman…the one Sami had given him on Father’s Day—

Oh, God!

Searing pain clutched his innards. He closed his eyes and turned away. “This will kill me. A month after the funeral, and I’m still a mess.” He heaved himself out of his chair and paced across the room. He stopped at the doorway. Where could he go? To the kitchen? What for? He had no appetite. The thought of food made him nauseous. To the living room? Why? The couch was empty. No stuffed animals. No half-completed pictures. No 4th-grade math book shoved under the pillow.

His phone buzzed. Clenching his jaw, he returned to his desk and snatched up the phone. “Yeah!” He knew he sounded like an angry bull, but hell, he couldn’t help it. He was angry. Disgustingly, furiously, blindingly angry.

“Wil?” Camilla, his wife. She sounded strong. Too strong. Damn. She had no right to be strong. He swallowed and sucked in his cheeks as if chewing his own flesh might help him maintain a modicum of composure.

“Yeah, honey, what’s up?” His shoulders sagged as weariness enveloped him.

“I’m at the grocery store, and I forgot the list…could you get it for me and read it off as I go along?”

Before he could give his brain any formal directions, Wilson found his feet padding into the kitchen. Yep, sure enough, there was the list, written in his wife’s beautiful but tiny cursive. He’d be lucky if he could read it. “Got it.” He squeezed the phone between his chin and his shoulder and held the list out with both hands, far enough to read but not as steady as he would’ve liked.

Her voice calm and parental enunciated her next request. “Great. I made it past the chips and cracker aisle and now I’m stuck between peanut butter and cereal.”

Wilson frowned and leaned against the counter. “Yeah? It says peanut butter and cereal on here…” He shook his head. “Look, you’ve done this every week for years; you’ve got to have the entire store mapped in your head. Dang it, woman, you could do this in your sleep.”

Silence.

Wilson’s heart began to pound. “Honey?”

It was the softest sniffle in the world, but it nearly crushed Wilson’s will to live.

Camilla’s voice wavered through the air, into the phone, and pierced Wilson’s broken heart. “I just don’t know which peanut butter or what cereal…”

Flummoxed, Wilson felt a scream rise from his chest. “The ones you always get.”

A ragged breath brushed his ear and sent prickles of terror racing down his spine. “But we always got crunchy…because that’s what Sami—”

“Oh, God!” The phone clattered to the floor.

Waves smashed against his composure, heaving rocks at his innards. Black water smothered his airways. Vaguely in the distance, he could hear his wife’s plaintive voice calling from the floor.

“Wil? Please, I need to know. What kind of peanut butter? What cereal do I get—?”

Every ounce of his body wanted to grind the phone into smithereens with his heel, but his hands chose differently. He dropped down on a kitchen chair and pressed the phone to his ear. Camilla was crying. There were no sobs or wails. But he knew. She was probably just standing there in the middle of the aisle gripping the cart with one hand while tears poured down her face.

He leaned on one hand and waited. Muffled conversation rose over the distance. Camilla was talking to someone. Another woman…soothing words, a gentle tone… He pressed the phone harder. “Who the—?”

A voice rose. “Lost my son five years ago…hell on earth. Couldn’t pass his bedroom without breaking down and forget going out in public. Took me a whole year before I could go shopping by myself. Terrible. Yes, it is. God have mercy on parents who lose a child. Doesn’t matter how it happens…or how old. Just hell.”

Silence.

Tears streamed down Wilson’s face and meandered over the phone before they fell like miniature pools on the smooth kitchen tabletop. Then, like a tidal wave on the rise, his shoulders heaved and his whole body rocked with searing, overwhelming pain. God, the pain.

After a few moments, still clutching the phone, he heard Camilla sniff. And then a sigh. An embarrassed—giggle? “Cam, what’s going on?” Wilson sat up.

A distant conversation. “Yeah, I’m okay now. Thanks.” Camilla blew her nose. Loudly.

Wilson’s eyes widened. He wiped his face with the back of his hand.

“Wil?”

Teardrops smeared the phone. Wilson snatched a paper napkin, wiped it down, fumbled, and then smashed it against his ear again. “Yeah. You okay, honey?”

“No. But I’m…better.”

He could imagine her shyly ducking her head, winding a strand of hair behind her ear.

“A lady here…she understood…gave me a hug. It’s what I needed.”

Wilson nodded as his tears flowed again. He choked out his words. “So what’re you going to do?”

Camilla cleared her throat and undoubtedly squared her shoulders. “She suggested I try the smooth peanut butter and pick out a new cereal, one we never had before. So I grabbed a banana-strawberry granola mix.” Her voice dropped low, like a child begging for understanding. “Will that be okay?”

Wilson sniffed and grabbed another napkin. He wiped his nose. “Sure, honey. That’s perfect.” He swallowed back the ache in his throat and sat up. He fumbled for the list. “You want to do the rest of the shopping now or come home?”

Camilla’s voice steadied. “I’ll keep going…as long as you stay with me.”

“Course, honey. We’ll just take it one aisle at a time…”

~~~

A half hour later, Wilson returned to his desk. The curser was still blinking. He lifted his hand over the keys and tapped out five words.

One Aisle at a Time…

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Life Complications

 

So okay, after a series of events where I have to make choices, even though I don’t own a crystal ball, and I was definitely at the end of the line when God was handing out the Prophesy skills, I’ve decided that major life complications must be a sign of His love and awesome trust.

Not being able to solve my own problems…I naturally started thinking about everyone else’s. Good plan, eh?

I awoke thinking about Abraham. You know, the guy who just wanted a son, and God said, “Sure, I’ll take care of it. When you and your wife are so far beyond normal childbearing age that it’ll take a miracle to even conceive, she’ll give birth to a bouncing baby boy. Then, just to clarify my love, I’ll ask you to sacrifice that gift as an offering to me.”

Then a miracle happens—Not only is God’s son is offered in place of the human child, humanity is promised the ultimate gift of sacrificial love.

Next, my mind roamed over to Moses…the guy whose bucket list included setting his people free from slavery. Once again, God said, “Sure, I’ll take care of it. Just head on over to Pharaoh’s place and tell him to let loose nearly his entire workforce, and when he gets petulant about the situation, I’ll deal with him one catastrophe at a time. After he finally gives in and starts to chase you across the desert, you’ll run into a blockade of water, but don’t fret, you’ll walk across on dry land. And when your people start to act like whiny kids, I’ll just let them wander out their woes for forty years, till they’re really ready for home.”

More miracles—A new home, a new life, and a new identity as a free people of God.

On down the line to Mary, the model of human perfection. She just wants to do God’s will. God accepts her offer. “You, a single Jewish girl, will get pregnant by the Holy Spirit and carry my Son. But don’t worry, I’ll tell your husband, Joseph, all about it in a dream. Shepherds and Kings will kneel before the child, but all too soon you’ll have to hike over the desert into exile and return a few years later to live in obscurity with the Second Person of God who can turn water into wine and raise the dead. I’ll let Him tell you the bad news…and then the good news…”

And the greatest miracle—God unites Himself with humanity, and Communion becomes true. Humanity is offered, redeemed, given a new home, a new life, and a new identity.

So now when I face my own life complications, I’ve decided not to shake my fist at God and wonder why He has it in for me. Life complications and missions-impossible are His way of showing me His love and His trust.

My offering of love and trust is all I need to make things work. Now that is a miracle indeed.

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Picture link: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/right-direction-next-road-sign-238369/

The Kid Inside

So okay, I’m taking a new look at men & women relationships in the modern world and with grown kids looking to the future, and I wonder what’s in store for them.

As I attempted to sleep last night, I started thinking about the whole Adam and Eve scenario…but from a 21st-century perspective.

Imagine the complications…

God, Almighty Creator of the Universe, leads his charming beauty forward and—

Adam’s eyebrows furrow. “Hmmm, she’s got a rib there that looks mighty familiar.” He’d undoubtedly want to know if God got a legal release for the use of private property…and a few other concerns… “This a 50-50 deal or does she expect me to hunt all by my lonesome?”

Eve would eye the cave wondering if it would get cable, if the Internet could bounce through the thick walls, and how often Adam cleaned the gutters. “He wouldn’t expect me to grill one of those ridiculous woolly mammoths over an open fire, would he?”

Let’s hold off on serious family dysfunction issues for the moment. Even Adam and Eve had their trials.

Any words of wisdom?

Huh. I can hear your silence from here.

I did manage to fall asleep. But it took a while. When I awoke it was with the image of a child in my mind—a child disfigured by a facial wound, which hid his true features.

That image has haunted me all day. Now I’m wondering at my tendency to see men and women relationships as separate from our childhood experiences, though in reality, we are all children of God, still processing our own “child” within. Any wonder that people of very advanced age become as helpless as children?

Clearly, God could have arranged our life cycle another way…but instead, we start as helpless babies, grow strong (hopefully), and then grow weak and childlike again.

So how does that inform our most intimate relationships?

I realized some years ago that the only way to deal with people who make me angry is to lift my spirit to God and ask Him to help me see the other person as He does. As the child He created—innocent and full of glorious potential. When you’re looking at someone making an idiot of him or herself, or doing something so wrong that your whole body cringes, it’s mighty hard to picture them as glorious.

But that appears to be the key to long-lasting relationships. Not seeing what is…but what could be—what should be—and hanging in there. That hardly means we assent to Cain’s murderous actions or accept destructive behavior, but rather, though we may have to step away—we do so without wishing the worst for the other person.

When faced with bad behavior, I often think, “I’m not going to forget this.” Oh, I tell myself that I’ll forgive but forget? Why would I do that? Got to protect myself, don’t I?

Yet, I find that I can both forgive and forget the mistakes of children. They are just learning. They don’t know any better. “Father, forgive them…they know not what they do…”

Am I capable of channeling that grace toward the whole human race? To my brothers and sisters on this life journey? In up close and personal, even intimate, relationships?

I’m not claiming that I can. I’m just wondering aloud if that’s what it takes to make marriage and parenthood—even friendships—work.

The knitting of this country’s fabric is once again being tested to the breaking point. Like a marriage, we are bound together by ideals and ties that go well beyond our personal inclinations. We are more than an assembly of parts. Just like a family is more than just a room full of people. I doubt anyone is holding the US up as the picture of national contentment at this moment in history.

Our human progenitors may have had the first crack at the human family and the first experiment in designing a great society…but I doubt they had it easy. They had their trials too. Their kids probably didn’t exactly make them look like model parents.

Now when I consider my human relationships, I try not to demand an ideal scenario. Rather, I hope to look beyond the natural disfigurements of this imperfect journey and see the kid inside each of us

The one God loves as His own.

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Where Is My Hope Now?

Kevin stared at the red tube going from the pole into his arm and knew that he was going to die. At forty-five, he was still young enough to feel that he still had way too much ahead of him to quit now. But then, he sighed, I’ve had a better life than many of others. Still…

His mom’s grey head poked through the doorway. “You decent?”

With a snort, Kevin shook his head. “If you don’t mind the sight of blood flowing into my veins…I’m decent enough.” He peered down at his stained sweatpants and ragged shirt.

Ginger tiptoed into the room, her gaze roaming from side to side. Three other patients sat slumped in a line of chairs in various stages of intravenous feedings…blood, medicine…chicken soup, for all she knew. Swallowing back the ache in her throat at the sight of her son pale and drained, she squared her shoulders. No time to be weak now. Be strong, old woman. Still, her hand shook as she patted her son’s shoulder. “The nurse said you’re almost done, and you can go home as soon as they’ve made sure you’re not going to faint.” She looked around. “They give you crackers or anything?”

“Juice and crackers. Deluxe treatment.” Kevin winced. He didn’t mean to sound so sarcastic, but his back was killing him. Three hours was way too long to sit in a chair.

“Well, I’ve got coupons for the family restaurant next door. I thought we’d grab a bite before we head out into the wilds of—”

“I’m not hungry, Ma. But you can—”

“I’m not hungry either, but that hardly matters, does it? We don’t eat just to make ourselves happy. We eat to stay alive. And you need to stay alive a little longer. Hear me?”

Kevin clenched his jaw. He knew it was absurd to argue with his seventy-eight-year-old mother. She had a long-standing tradition of repeating herself until he gave in. He merely nodded and glanced over as the nurse came in and started to unplug him from the technology that saved his life each week.

After they settled in a red booth and the waitress took their order, Kevin pulled out his phone and scrolled through. There were three messages from his friend Dave at work. He frowned and pushed the redial.

Ginger pointed to the lady’s room and toddled off.

His eyes following his mom’s careful maneuvers around the café, he listened as Dave picked up the call.

“Kevin? That you?”

With a snort, Kevin laughed. “Yeah, what’da think? I was just getting blood, not a new heart or anything.”

“Oh, well, I’ve got news…”

Kevin felt a ripple of fear shoot through him.

David cleared his throat. “Hey, man, you sitting down?”

A headache building between his eyes, Kevin tapped the table top in staccato fashion. “In a booth at an overcrowded family diner, if that’s any comfort. What’s going on?”

“I hate to tell you this over the phone, but the news has it all over…”

Kevin’s hand shook and a thousand bees buzzed in his head. “What?”

“Rhonda was in a head-on collision after work today. Five-car pileup. Three dead, two critical, and one kid survived without a scratch. But Rhonda…”

“The bees began stinging. Kevin’s whole body trembled, and he wondered if he’d puke his crackers and juice all over the floor.

Dave’s voice rose. “You okay, Kev?”

Kevin dropped his head on his arms, the phone slipping off his ear. He could hear Dave shouting. “Kev? Where are you, man? I’m coming—”

He felt the phone plucked from his weak grasp and his mom’s shaky voice. “Hello? Oh, Dave. Yes, just saw it on the news. So tragic.”

Silence.

His mom’s voice dropped to bedrock. “I see. Terribly sad. For all of you. Rhonda was a dear girl…woman. Don’t worry. I’ve got Kevin with me. I’ll get him home now. If you want to meet us—”

Silence and then an assenting “Yes, that’s a good idea.”

Kevin had little memory of the drive home or how he got into bed. He only remembered the sensation of falling. And not being able to save himself.

~~~

When he opened his eyes, Kevin realized that he had slept through the night and a good part of the next morning. Groggily, he raked his fingers through his hair, shuffled from his rumpled bed to the bathroom, stripped, and took the longest, hottest shower he could stand. He stood naked and grimaced at the pile of dirty laundry on the wet bathroom floor.

He heard Dave’s voice on the other side of the door. “You want something bright or dark?”

Kevin shook his head. “Black as hell, if you can find it.”

As he dried himself, the door opened a crack and a pair of dark blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater flew through the air and smacked him in the head.

“Best I could do. You have the worst selection of clothes this side of—”

Ginger’s voice piped up. “Oh, leave him alone, Dave. You know how he is. Platypuses have more fashion sense.” She lifted her voice as if he was in Siberia rather than the bathroom. “Breakfast is ready. Better hurry before it gets cold.”

Kevin winced as he pulled on his jeans, mumbling under his breath.

When he sat down at the kitchen counter, a large platter of bacon, eggs, and toast was set in glorious array before his wondering eyes. He couldn’t believe that his stomach rumbled in salubrious joy. Traitorous things…stomachs.

Dave pulled up a stool and perched on Kevin’s right with a large cup of coffee, a faint aroma of cinnamon wafting through the air. His mom bustled about his tiny kitchen like she owned the place.

Dave watched him eat with absorbed interest. Finally, Kevin nodded to his mom. “She can make you a plate—”

“Naw, I already ate.” He glanced at the bustling homemaker. “You ever want to trade moms, just let me know. I’d even pay extra…”

An image of Dave’s fashionable mother as she commanded underlings at city hall sent a shudder through Kevin’s body. Then he remembered the news and dropped his fork. “Oh, God. Rhonda.”

Ginger turned and gripped his hand. “It’s awful, honey. But—”

Nearly leaping from his seat, Kevin felt his pulse racing. “But what? We have to accept what we can’t change? She died mercifully quick—God, I hope so!” A sob struggled to free itself from his throat. “But where is my hope now?”

With tears coursing down his cheeks, Dave took Kevin’s other hand. “Where it’s always been, man. Right here. With us. With Joe, Dan, Kelly, and all the others at work. With the nurses, the doctors, your mom, and…” He swiped the rolling tears away. “Oh, God.”

Ginger lifted her chin. “Listen, if you’d have been at work yesterday, more than likely you’d have been in that car with Rhonda. And you’d probably had died then and there. But instead, you were getting your treatments…ones that save your life one week at a time.”

Ice coursed through Kevin’s body. “But not forever.”

“No. Not forever. Not for you…not for me…” Ginger glanced at Dave. “Not for any of us.”

Kevin sucked in a deep shuddering breath and slumped on the counter. He covered his face with his hands. “So much pain.”

Dave gripped his arm. “But you’re not alone.”

Kevin looked up and met his friend’s honest gaze.

Dave nodded in Ginger’s direction as she returned to the sink. “She needs you. So do I. And everyone at work misses your ugly face.”

As Kevin felt his friend’s hand grip his arm, he could practically feel fresh blood flowing into his veins.

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Die Hard Optimism

Agnes couldn’t decide which skirt to wear. Not that there was much of a selection. Her choices consisted of a black skirt reserved for funerals and formal church events, an autumn floral thing that she always tripped over because it was a hand-me-down from her sister who was a good three inches taller than her, a severe grey pencil skirt, which made her look like a desperate job applicant or a green knee-length accordion skirt that made her feel like she was back at St. Robert’s grade school.

She sighed and wondered if her daring pair of form-fitting black slacks would work. Not that she had ever actually worn them. She bought them in the hopes of one day needing them. Could this possibly be their call to duty?

She plopped down on the bed and let the weak rays of a February sun pour over her. “Good heaven. I’m agonizing over nothing. No one will notice what I’m wearing. They’ll only notice me if I trip the waiter and spill everyone’s drinks.” She shuddered at the thought.

A plaintive cry turned her attention.

“Come in honey.”

Lenora, her six-year-old daughter, wandered in, looking very much like a rumpled, exhausted princess. She had the tiara to prove her identity and the unsteadiness of a child woken from a sound sleep.

Agnes wiggled her fingers. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Her brightly speckled costume, a gift from Grandma last Halloween, sashayed and shoo-shooshed as she toddled over. She crawled up on the bed and curled into her mom’s arms.

Agnes ran her fingers through her daughter’s unruly tangles. “I’m going out for a bit, sweetie, and Grandma is coming by. She’s bringing pizza. Rumor has it that it might be pepperoni…”

Lenora hunched her shoulders as if she’d never heard of pizza and couldn’t care less if the whole world turned into a pepperoni.

With the sensation of a knife plunged in her chest, Agnes rolled off the bed, yanked open her dresser, pulled out her back slacks and a silky button-down blouse that rippled over her hips, and marched to the bathroom. “You know, I’m not the bad guy here.”

When she peered at the reflection in the mirror, she had to admit, she wasn’t the bad guy or a bad woman for that matter, though age had taken its toll. She wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. A hen? She turned from the mirror; best not to think about it.

By the time Grandma Mimi hustled through the front door and hung her coat on the rack, Agnes had Lenora bathed and in her best PJs.

Mimi practically swallowed the child alive in a one-arm hug and handed a frozen pizza to Agnes. “Take the wrapping off and don’t forget the cardboard. Oven at 400.”

With a half-satirical salute, Agnes marched into the kitchen.

Mimi followed.

Agnes could feel her mom’s eyes boring into her back. “Okay. What?” She turned around and ran her fingers over her slacks as if she could iron them by hand.

“Nothing. Much. Just wondering why you’re going to a work-related fundraiser dressed like a woman…”

Agnes felt the heat rise through the roots of her hair. “Because I am a woman, maybe?”

“Your husband isn’t dead. He’s just missing in action.”

“If only!”

“You know what I mean.”

“Mom, you know he’s not coming back. I know he’s not coming back. That’s all there is to it.”

“But not all there is to you, apparently.”

“What’s so wrong?”

Lenora tiptoed into the room with her hands clasped above her head twirling like a ballerina.

Agnes clenched her jaw and closed her eyes against tears.

Mimi led Lenora out of the room with cooing encouragement and pulled a small box out of a large pocket. “I brought a puzzle we can put together if you open it up and lay out the pieces on the coffee table. Okay, Sweetums?”

Agnes felt her mom’s firm hand on her shoulder. Then a gentle squeeze. “You’re a strong woman, Agnes. I’ve never thought otherwise. But I know how it is. You get lonely…and it takes more than a woman can stand to be both mother and father every day…day after day.”

Agnes blinked back her tears and focused on the kitchen table. Mismatched socks still lined the edge. She scooped them into a bundle and dropped them on the counter. “I didn’t think these slacks were such a big deal. I just wanted to look…”

Mimi set the oven timer. “I know. But you’re still married. At least in the eyes of the church. If you want to change that…”

“There’s always the chance—”

“Is there?”

“I’m caught between worlds, Mom. Stuck. Never really married and never really free. I can’t move forward. Or back for that matter.”

Mimi rummaged through the refrigerator. “You got any salad fixings? A side dish would go well with the pizza.”

Agnes pursed her lips, leaned in, yanked open the crisper, and pulled out a bag of lettuce and a soft tomato. “Good luck getting her to eat anything healthy. She’d rather die of the plague.”

With quick efficient motions, Mimi tore up the lettuce and diced the tomato. She kept her eyes on her work.

Agnes got the message, sighed, and retreated to change her clothes.

~~~

It was late by the time Agnes stepped into her living room. The lights were dim and her mom was sleeping on the couch with an afghan thrown over her legs. The same afghan Mimi had given her on her wedding day. The irony struck her as funny, and she giggled. The one beer she sipped through the evening might have helped.

Mimi sat up and rubbed her eyes. “You’re home safe. And giggling?”

“Yep. Safe and sound.”

Mimi patted the couch next to her. “Tell me about it.”

Agnes tucked the green skirt under, as she plunked down next to her mom. “Well, I had an epiphany as I sat at the gloriously set table and listened to people’s conversations. One woman bullied her husband mercilessly about not getting their garage cleaned out, while another couple sat in stony silence. Then there was this kid who kept screaming at his dad, saying that he wanted to go home and watch a movie and eat real food. One girl sat pathetically by the wall, her eyes searching for someone, while a crowd circled around a handsome bearded guy like he was the greatest thing since the invention of the iPhone.”

“Sounds like a dull crowd.”

“Average. That’s what struck me.”

“That people are average?”

“That even at an expensive club, wearing the best clothes, eating sumptuous food, drinking whatever, and all for a noble cause…most of us poor human beings weren’t happy.”

“Grim observation.”

“Yeah. But freeing too. I get it now…better than before. Jim’s abandonment nearly killed me, and deep down I know that he’s not coming back. I have to accept it. We’ve got more cause for an annulment than most…neither of us had a clue what marriage meant…and we were drunk on dreams. But most of all, I see now that my life is what I make of it…right now. Today. What’s before me. You know, even when God—Creator of the Universe—lived on Earth, we weren’t happy. If He couldn’t make us happy…”

“So you aren’t striving to be happy anymore?”

“Nope. I’ve decided to reach a little higher…go for contentment.”

Mimi stretched and pulled herself to her feet. “Well, tell me about the view when you get there. Right now I need to find my bed collapse. I’m leading three junior high classes through the museum tomorrow. If the effort doesn’t destroy the rest of my brain cells…I’ll be delighted.”

Agnes stood and hugged her mom. “I knew I got it from somewhere.” She stepped to the front door and handed her a floral-patterned jacket from the rack. “Be careful on the way.”

“I only live down the street.” Dressed in her winter best, Mimi opened the door, shivered, and stepped over the threshold. Her eyebrows puckered as she glanced back. “Got what?”

“My die-hard optimism.” After shutting the door, Agnes smiled and climbed the steps to bed, her green skirt rippling over her bare knees.

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00