As a child, I wanted to know who the “good guys” were as opposed to the “bad guys.” Angels and devils jostled for position while I searched for my place in the world. The irony is that the bedrock of my identity, despite far more mechanized systems and the honest recognition of hidden realities, is clearer to me now than ever.
Growing up, robots were a part of the fiction genre. Though from the 1960s into the 1990s some form of “robots” did exist, they certainly weren’t a measurable influence in my daily life. I never thought of them or considered them “real.” Today, I can hardly live without them. Since bots typically imitate or replace human behavior and more than half of all web traffic is generated by bots, I depend upon them in innumerable ways on any given day. From bot managers that protect my website to chatbots, social bots, shopbots, web crawlers, and others, I wouldn’t even be able to get the answers I “need” from the Google Universe if they didn’t exist.
Does my world now sit on a bot fulcrum? Good bots assist my search needs, but bad bots hijack human credibility and try to steal my credit card info. Bots are a fact of life, a fiction story that has come true.
Once upon a time, “facts” seemed measurable and trustworthy. Robots were controllable. We knew where they began and we ended. Or where we began and they ended. Or… But now there are days when I answer the phone, ask a question online, or interact on social media, and I wonder—Who am I talking to? What am I talking to?
Is it any wonder that human beings stumble over who—and what—we are in response to this brave new world of ours?
I’ve never considered myself a mere human being existing in a natural world. Perhaps it is my Catholic upbringing which, though not particularly well-informed, nevertheless kept my head tilted in the up position—staring at the stars for a glimpse of the beyond, the life I could not see and didn’t expect to truly comprehend. I have always believed that I am part of a supernatural reality. My existence here on Earth feels more like a temporary exile than a home-sweet-home.
When television shows offered science fiction stories like the Twilight Zone, I was okay with that. As far as I was concerned, life here has always been a twilight zone. We see but a veiled reality, flashes of truth, splintered fragments of each other’s wholeness.
Before you cart me off to the nearest Shady Side for the Mentally Unmoored, allow me to say that I am at peace with bots as well. I find it ironically amusing that we have created mechanical assistants who like angels and devils assist or haunt every step we take.
Truth, for me, is not found on Google. Certainty does not revolve around my limited human identity. I started writing about my human journey in a series of posts as my husband faced the end of his earthly existence, dying from Leukemia in his early 50s, and while I raised my young kids as a single mom. My Road Goes Ever On, Spiritual Being, Human Journey is not simply a plaintive catalog listing, “Boy, life sure is confusing as heck!” examples, but rather the tentative steps of a person attempting to find her identity, her purpose of existence, her value as a human being—and something more—in a world ever more dependent on unfeeling, non-human, mechanized systems.
During the years I wrote those posts, I experienced a great deal of pain and joy, disaster and triumph, but the person that made me, me, remained much the same. Now, I see that as a good thing.
I have gotten to know myself on deeper levels and learned to trust my intuition and judgment. I am a better informed, perhaps a more completely formed, version of myself. And happily, I accept our bot-run reality as just another facet of our current twilight zone existence. If anything, it shows, ever more honestly, that there is more to life than facts, and fiction tells the truth in a world that we cannot fully see.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Brenda knew that she was awake and that her bed was off the ground. But that didn’t seem to change matters for the better.
With a loud thump, it landed on the floor and pretended like it had never flown in its life.
Sitting up didn’t seem to help anything either. It’s not as if she could get out of bed and investigate. The darn thing was now acting as innocent as pecan pie. Besides, she was too frightened to get out from under her thick covers.
She blinked, and the dark room came into focus. The clock on the cabinet glowed red digits warning her that she’d have to get ready for work in a mere four hours. If she didn’t lie down and sleep now, she’d be a wreck at work. Gosh knows, she didn’t need any sly looks from the high schoolers or their teachers who loved to catch any snippet of gossip and wring the life out of it.
Slowly, she lowered her head to the pillow, her gaze fixed on the closet door. If the handle disappeared from her line of sight, she’d know what was going on. Luckily, the only sight that demanded her attention was the back of her eyelids as they covered her concerns in exhaustion.
Morning came bright and early. The birds sang their merry hearts out and then squabbled in turn. Just like some people I know. Brenda hopped out of bed, remembered the nocturnal flight, and froze in mid-step. She peered at the scene, carefully analyzing the exact placement of each piece of furniture.
Yep. The bed had moved. Normally there was a walkway between the edge of the bed and the end table by her reading chair. Now, there was hardly room for a hand, much less a whole body.
She studied the dresser, the file cabinet, and the bookshelf. They all seemed in their usual place, though upon further examination, the file cabinet had parted with the wall by a good two inches.
Conclusion? Some strange force had been at work in her room last night.
Scampering to the bathroom, Brenda accomplished her necessary morning duties in a fraction of their normal time, skipped breakfast altogether, and ran out of her tiny house with her work satchel slung over her shoulder and her phone clutched in her hand.
Pounding along the leaf-strewn sidewalk, she texted with one hand. A skill she had learned from a student waiting to see the principal.
Jim, we have to talk!
Coffee at the Café in 5.
My sanity hangs in the balance.
Of course, Jim always had coffee at the Corner Café before work, so she wasn’t exactly discombobulating his schedule. But as he liked to peruse the want ads, pretending that he was looking for a property where he’d build his dream house, adopt a puppy, and find a charming wife, he always acted like he was too busy to carry his half of a conversation.
He liked to listen though and grunted or hummed in all the right places.
She bounded along the quiet neighborhood street until she got to the Dividing Line. The high school was on one side and the main university campus on the other. She worked as a secretary at the high school. Jim worked as a maintenance guy on campus. They often thought of exchanging places for a day and see if anyone noticed. But as they hated a ruckus of any kind, they figured they’d just imagine the scene it would make and be content with that.
The Corner Café catered to high schoolers and the college crowd, making it a mainstay for more years than anyone could remember. The fact that it was decorated in the fifties style with movie star posters glittering from the walls, made it attractive without causing competitive friction.
Brenda breezed in.
Jim slouched over a newspaper at the counter. A coffee cup and a cream cheese bagel close at hand.
Brenda nodded at Jamie, the waitress, who didn’t need to ask what she’d have. She knew. In her fifties with a shock of red hair, maybe natural, she meandered about the café and accommodated customers with the pleasure of someone who long since decided that she worked to live not lived to work. It was a truce that offered benefits. Never in a hurry, she always brought what you wanted—eventually.
Brenda slid onto the red-covered stool next to Jim. “I got the scare of my life last night.”
Jim scratched his cheek. “Hmm.”
“My bed rose off the floor and then thumped to the ground.”
Jim turned the page of the newspaper with expert care.
“I could have been killed! How about if I had been sleeping on the edge? I sometimes do, you know. I could have slipped off and fallen under one of the legs, and it would’ve punched a big hole through me.”
Jim slapped his cheek.
Got his attention him at last!
Jim flicked a finger at the headlines. “The Paws Place has gone out of business. And just when I was getting up the courage to adopt one of their critters.”
Brenda shoved the paper aside. “Didn’t you hear me? I might have been killed. And even though it was rather unlikely, I still would like to know what the bed was doing bouncing up and down last night. And the file cabinet, too!”
Finally, Jim looked her way. “You do seem a bit disheveled. Did you even glance in the mirror?”
“Was it a poltergeist, you think?”
Jamie sauntered over and placed a cup of hot coffee on the counter in front of Brenda. Then she slid a plate of buttered wheat toast with two little jam packets on the side.
Starving, Brenda ripped open a creamer and four sugar packets and doctored her coffee. Then she tore open the jam packet and looked around for a knife.
None in sight.
A speedster roared down the street.
Jim looked out the window. “That’s Prof Kilroy. Got a new red one and loves to flash it about town.”
Desperate to get her toast jammed, Brenda squeezed the jellied mess onto its appointed destination. She spread it with a finger and nudged Jim with her elbow. “What do you think?”
“Not a poltergeist. They’ve gone completely out of style. Now, back in the eighties, you could still get away with that sort of thing, but try it now, and you’d be laughed out of town.”
Brenda glanced at the wall clock and took two hasty bites, then talked around her chews. “Aliens?”
Jim shrugged. “Possible but still unlikely.” He stared down his nose at her. “Why would aliens want to play pogo stick with your bed? Or redecorate the furniture in your room?”
“Maybe they were just passing through, and their force moved things unintentionally.”
Jim scratched his head, took a large bite of his bagel, and eyed the last dregs of his coffee. “Doesn’t work that way. Anything powerful enough to make it to this world and stupid enough to hang around would have either conquered us already or been decimated by our transportation system.”
A distant bell rang.
Jim sighed, folded his paper, and offered Brenda a deadpanned stare. “The kiddos will want to know where their late slips go, and your principal will want the agenda for the teachers’ meeting.”
Brenda chomped down the last of her toast and chugged her hot coffee, burning the back of her throat. “And campus security will want to know what to do with the latest vandalized bicycle and where to put the tiles that blew off in the storm last night.”
Parting just outside the door, Brenda waved good bye with a composed smile.
Jim waved back and started across the street. Suddenly he called out, “What storm?”
Knowing that she’d never survive the day if she considered Jim’s remark, Brenda pretended she didn’t hear and ran into the school building, hoping that she wasn’t too late.
That evening, Brenda returned home, flung her satchel aside, unloaded her grocery bag, and headed to the bedroom with her mind made up. She wasn’t going to have her life dictated by some malevolent spirits or mysterious aliens. She pulled off her work clothes, dragged on a pair of rugged work jeans and a warm pullover to fight the autumn chill, and faced her bedroom furniture.
“All right now! I’m putting you all back where I want you, and I expect you to behave properly. I’m the one who bought and paid for you, arranged a place for you in my home, and keep you from falling into total degradation in the dump.”
With concerted effort, she pushed the bed and then shoved the file cabinet into their former positions. Satisfied, she clapped her hands. Her world was back in order, and all was well.
Until approximately 2:00 am.
The bed danced, and the furniture shook.
Brenda jumped out of bed and looked around. She had been having a strange dream about ocean waves roaring into a tsunami.
No ocean and no waves, but the floor was definitely vibrating. Perhaps the bed was not actually off the floor, but it had shifted from its assigned position.
The wind shrieked and pounded against the house.
Scampering to the window, she peered into the autumn night. The temperatures had dropped, and she could see leaves swirling in the wind.
Rubbing her arms, she sent a prayer to heaven for her heating system. At least the house was warm.
Then, silence and all was still. The wind settled down, and the floor becalmed.
With a weary sigh, Brenda climbed back into bed to snatch the last few hours of sleep.
In the morning, her hair uncombed and her shirt on inside out, Brenda slipped into place next to Jim at the cafe and pounded her fist on the counter. “It happened again last night! The whole house went on a rampage, and my furniture went where ever they wanted.”
Jim gave her a once over, pity flooding his eyes. He folded the paper and laid it aside.
In unusual efficiency, Jamie placed toast and coffee before Brenda like a lifeboat to a drowning victim. In the first intimidating act of the day, she stared at Jim.
In acknowledgment of the right thing to do, Jim nodded. “I’ll come by tonight and sleep on your couch. We’ll catch the culprit in the act.”
Relieved beyond measure, Brenda kissed Jim on the cheek before she inhaled her breakfast and headed off to work.
That night, Brenda got Jim settled comfortably on the couch with enough pillows and blankets to keep a petulant maharaja happy.
Since the temperatures had dropped below freezing, Brenda set the thermostat higher. It was an ancient heater that predated the civil war or close anyway, so she wanted to be sure that Jim wouldn’t think she was cheapskate and leave him to freeze during the night.
No chance of that as they both flew into the air at approximately the same moment when the house began to shake, rattle, and roll.
“Good golly, this house has more rhythm than the entire sixties generation!” He flicked on the table lamp.
Brenda scampered into the living room both scared silly and wildly exultant. “You see what I mean? It’s practically alive!” She was so glad that she wasn’t crazy that despite the vibrations making the couch skitter across the room, she actually felt amused.
The house settled down as quickly as it had erupted.
Jim plopped down on the edge couch. Or where it had been and promptly landed on the floor.
Brenda giggled as she helped him to his feet. “Gremlins or aliens, do you think?”
Jim snorted and headed directly for the floor vent. He peered at it, then demanded to see the furnace.
Confused, Brenda led the way to the miniature basement and pointed at the behemoth. “It’s been here as long as the house. Never causes me any problem. Just have to turn the dial a little more each year to get it to respond.”
Jim nodded, grabbed a metal poker off the shelf, and tapped the ductwork.
They tinged and banged in response, echoing throughout the house.
Brenda was charmed. “It’s like they’re singing. Do that again; it’s kind of fun.”
Jim snorted. “Ha! Fun you call it. You didn’t like it when they sang you awake the last few nights.”
Flummoxed out of any recognizable speech pattern, Brenda stared at the ordinary looking pipes that ran throughout her house.
“They’re all loosie-goosy—don’t you see? When it got cold, you set the thermostat to kick the furnace on, and so it did. And it set the duct work to singing—or grumbling—all over the house. Which set the furniture to dance on their vibrations.”
Embarrassment flushed through Brenda’s whole body. “Oh, gosh, I’m such an idiot.”
Jim smiled and tentatively placed his arm around her shoulder. “I wouldn’t say that. You’re a secretary who doesn’t know ductwork as well as a maintenance guy.” He led her back upstairs and nudged her toward her bedroom. “Get a blissful night’s sleep. Tomorrow is Saturday, and you can fix coffee and biscuits in the kitchen while I take look about and see what other wonders this house holds.”
Brenda stared at Jim almost as if he had begun to dance. She turned and headed back to bed. When she climbed under the covers, she knew the bed wasn’t floating off the ground. But her heart was.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For more stories like this one, check out One Day at a Time—And Other Stories
Autumn is just about here, and I am grateful beyond words for so many things. Even as local and world upheavals distress my soul, so I breathe a prayer and turn my gaze to tasks at hand.
What is my part to play in this maelstrom we call life with all its guts and glory?
I wear a number of hats throughout my day: mom, teacher, homemaker, mistress of a critter kingdom that ebbs and flows with old age, sickness, and new life. Two kittens, Cheddar and Bradley, have taken over the house, completely flummoxing our perpetual pup, Misty, who honestly believed she owned the domain. Surprise! There’s always room for one or two more, and she didn’t get a vote. I keep the peace by making sure that all are well fed and housed, though gluttony and sloth serve no one.
I also keep track of the bodies buried at our cemetery and track down gravesites for interested family members when possible. Sometimes, it’s mission impossible. That’s an unpleasant reality. We don’t always get questions answered to our satisfaction. Especially if there are imperfect records and no tombstones. Families beware, if you want great-grandkids to visit your grave, leave a tombstone and a map so future generations can find it.
Tutoring adult GED has been an unexpected pleasure. It’s a fairly straightforward task—helping someone learn the basics that they missed, for whatever reason, along the way. Makes a big difference in self-esteem and job opportunities. An act of kindness that echoes back long after algebra 101 fades into the mist.
I am still writing, publishing, and recently added podcasting to my regular daily do. Since I have managed a challenging schedule for much of the year, I am going to slow production in October. I will continue with Kindle Vella Homestead episodes and podcasting content, but I plan to revamp and, perhaps, reinvent my media approach, praying to God to make it a bit more effective. Marketing has never been my forte, so I am working with someone this time. We’ll see how it works out. Optimism is a tough choice, but the alternative doesn’t appeal much.
I finished writing the fifth novel in my OldEarth series, OldEarth Melchior Encounter this week and have sent it off to my editor and proofreaders. My goal is to get it published with live links before Thanksgiving. The operative word here is goal.
Rain is pouring from a grey sky, shivering the yellow leaves on the cherry trees, while our hyperactive kittens pounce on each other and attack my knitting. Though there is a great deal wrong in the world, there is also a great deal that is right. Focusing my daily goals toward what is good and beautiful, becoming less self-absorbed, and releasing anger and pent-up frustrations in healthy rambles and friend-centered conversations makes for a quality life. After all, despair doesn’t want a helping hand but hope does.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
July decided that it wanted to make a name for itself before August elbowed its way to the front of the line, so the temperatures sky-rocketed in the latter half of July. It was weird to see empty fields where rows of corn and beans used to dominate the summer landscape.
Sure, families had planted gardens, but they were tiny compared to what I was used to seeing. What the winter would look like, no one could tell. I shuddered to think about the spring. Few people had supplies to last that long.
My zucchini was all but done, and only one giant sunflower lifted its head against the bright blue sky. The lettuce had bolted, though I pulled the last few tough leaves off the thick stems to add garnish to every meal. All the potatoes and onions had been pulled and hauled inside. I was rather proud of the cardboard boxes layered with my homegrown produce. I shifted the boxes onto a dark shelf in the basement where they were sure to stay dry. I planned to use lots of white onions when I made salsa. Just waiting for the tomatoes to do their thing and ripen in a big bunch to make a canning day worth the effort.
Feeling a tad lonesome, I let the oldest cat, Earl, into the house where he slept on the chair in the living room most days. His rickety old body could hardly jump the distance, and I knew there’d be a day when he’d fall back to the floor in cat disbelief. But for now, he was someone to talk to. Even if I knew full well that he was dreaming his last days away.
With the high humidity and heat, I didn’t feel terribly hungry mid-week. I had spent most of the day clearing out the back shed in the expectation that when Liam and the kids did make it home, we’d have to think seriously of getting a couple of cows and expanding our chicken run. We’d have to store hay for the winter and figure out how to grow our own feed grain. Other people were making adaptions—necessitating the use of every old barn and shed in the county. Wood and metal for roofing were going for a premium price. I had to make the most of what I had. And that meant clearing out the dusty space and shoring up the frame so it wouldn’t collapse over the winter.
Hot, sticky, and fearing the revenge the spiders would perpetrate on me for wiping out their webs, I trudged into the kitchen planning on nothing more than tomato slices and a glass of water for dinner.
I nearly had a heart attack when I saw a man sitting at my kitchen table. My first thought was that Liam had finally made it home, but then I realized that this guy was much too young.
He stood up and faced me, not a hint of a smile on his face. “I’ve got bad news, Mrs. Oxley.” I swallowed and gripped the kitchen counter. I didn’t want him to tell me…
I Had a Spirit
The temperatures continued to zig-zag right into August, but a storm front promised cooler temperatures soon. At least, that’s what Ben said when he returned with Dana and Juan following at his heels like lost puppies.
I was too depressed to care if an arctic winter was in the forecast. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I’d never see Liam again. That I had missed his last days, his last moments. His burial.
The tomatoes and peppers had ripened nicely, and with the pile of onions I had stored away, I had enough fresh ingredients, with bartered cilantro from a family in town, to make a decent batch of salsa. Luckily, I had stocked up on vinegar last year. The extra gallon came in handy with all the pickling and canning I was doing.
After washing the five gallon’s worth of tomatoes, I sat on the hardwood bench at the kitchen table and cut off the bad parts, and sliced the juicy red goodness into tiny pieces. Next, I worked on the pile of bright red and green peppers, and finally, I faced the dreaded onions. I didn’t need a reason to cry. I had plenty.
Flies swarmed the pots and dove into my face, adding to my frustrations. Hot and sticky with a storm front pushing the humidity into the unbearable zone, I worked mechanically. Focusing on one step at a time.
Grab an onion by the tail
Slice one side.
Chop into rings.
Turn and chop into cubes.
Drop the pile into the pot.
Wipe my stinging eyes.
“You want some help?”
I looked up. There was Dana reaching for a knife and settling across from me at the table. Guess I didn’t need to answer. She could read my mind. Or so she thought.
I sniffed back stinging tears and lost my rhythm. I was supposed to be cubing, but I went to the sink and splashed water on my face instead.
After patting my eyes dry with a towel, I looked at my daughter. Why was I so angry at her? She hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, she had done everything right. Found her brother. Made her way home. Gone off and looked for her dad. And found him. And buried him.
“Mom? You okay?”
I stared at the onions. I wanted to hate them. But I couldn’t. “No. Not okay.”
Dana stopped chopping. “Me neither.” She had dropped her head onto her chest and I could tell by the heaving action that she was either sobbing silently or about to throw up. Or both. Maternal instinct to the rescue, I ran over and…
For more of these episodes and others, check out Kindle Vella Homestead or
Rather not. Jeremiah slid into his seat at the back of the lecture hall and prayed that the scrawled message on the board referred to a campus cult’s lack of original thinking rather than a preview of his professor’s worldview.
A tall thin spectacle with a man-bun on top, a tie-dyed shirt, bloomers-like shorts, and flapping bedroom slippers sauntered up to the podium.
I should’ve taken the online class.
A young woman, mid-twenties, long brown hair, wireframe glasses, small build but toned legs dropped her bulging backpack by the third empty chair to the right of him.
But then again…
The room filled to capacity and Jerimiah opened his notebook, flipped it to a new section, and tapped his pencil.
The young woman slid a recorder to the front of her desk, then leaned back and closed her eyes.
What’s this? A lazy beauty who gets through class by replaying the lecture when it suits her fancy?
Jerimiah shoved the thought—Wish I’d thought of it—far away.He rubbed his eyes. Between his mom’s recent liver transplant, the store downsizing and leaving managers like him in the dust, and the new graduation regulations, he’d come to think that the Universe was in a sour mood. He wasn’t too Sweet himself.
The professor started—digging into societal ills, cultural concerns, hot button issues, even picking on the front row students like lab rats who couldn’t escape the taunting labels expelled from his gut based on their hyperventilated one-word answers. “When you leave this class, you won’t know yourself! Kiss mommy and daddy’s straightjacket goodbye!”
Jeremiah dropped his head on his hands. “At least online I could’ve muted him.”
“What? And missed all this fun?”
Jeremiah glanced over.
Beauty, still leaning back with her eyes closed, appeared very much asleep.
The professor sucked in a lungful for another charge. “How can you say you know anything—you believe anything—until you’ve heard all sides? I’m here to bring you into direct contact with ALL SIDES!”
Beauty sat up, a frown making her nose wrinkle in an alarmingly adorable fashion. “He’s a circle?”
The gut-busting laugh that exploded from Jeramiah made him clutch his notebook and pencil as he fled the room.
Two days later, Jeremiah hurried down the hall after his last class of the week. He had a ton of work over the weekend, his mom needed someone to fix her end table, which tended to send her books and medicines crashing to the floor by evening no matter how well she propped it up each morning, and he had an interview for a part-time manager position on Saturday. If he could finish the year with the stellar grades he started with, he’d be sure of a full-time position before the year was out.
Only one class stood in his way.
Beauty strode along with him into the library, her bulging backpack pressing her shoulders into a stooped position.
A million introductions flashed through his mind, creating a linguistic maelstrom, not unlike ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on steroids. Lacking any rational brain cells to call upon, Jeremiah simply stepped in front of the pretty woman, halting her in her tracks.
She looked up and stared blankly.
“He’s a circle?”
Astonishing how long she could maintain that blank expression.
“In class? The professor promised to bring us in contact with all sides…”
Comprehension filled her eyes. Light broke over the mountains. Beauty smiled. Then the gate slammed shut. “It’s an English class! What’s he doing—social engineering?”
The puppy inside every man has moments when he desperately wants to run around in wild circles with his tongue lolling out and a wide grin encompassing his face.
The library would not be the appropriate setting.
“You free? I’m about ready for a cup of—” He shrugged. “You name it, and I’ll get one for you too.”
Three hours later, Jeremiah took the steps to his parent’s house two at a time. He stepped into the living room and caught his mom napping lopsided in a chair and his dad pacing in circles.
“Hey, Dad. Everything okay?”
His dad’s tear-filled eyes glinted in the afternoon light. “She’s slipping away, son. Won’t be long now.”
A day and a half later, Jeremiah finished the arrangements for his mom’s funeral Mass and then ran as fast as his legs would carry him into class.
Well into the first hour, the professor was in his element, extolling the freedom of thought that would lead to well-formed lives and true humanity. With pounding steps, he labored across his personal stage, excoriating the fools who marched in lockstep with old traditions, unmindful of the variety of options available.
Beauty slouched in her seat, one hand covering her eyes.
Jerimiah slipped into his seat and for the first time since his mom’s death, felt the crushing loss that he knew he’d live with for the rest of his life. Only the words of scripture, the hymns, and songs, the candlelight comforted his aching soul. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God…
“Let go!” The professor hammered the podium like a preacher swearing hellfire to the damned.
“Where? You only offer a void.” Beauty’s face glowered, anger and hurt glaring through her eyes.
His chin up and hand raised, the professor demanded obedience. “Open your minds!”
So low, Jeremiah barely heard her words, Beauty’s spirit screamed, “So, the wind can blow through?”
Snatching her hand, Jeremiah helped her grab her bag, and they hustled outside.
Beauty flopped against the wall. “I need that class. But I don’t think I can stand his rants for another day.”
Jeremiah nodded. “My mom just passed away. All I can think of is how much I wish I had her back—and he keeps screaming that I have to let go.”
Beauty’s eyes reflected from twin pools of grief. “I’m sorry.”
Jeremiah sucked in a deep breath and took her hand. “Perhaps we should take his advice.”
“There are other classes.” He shrugged. “It might mean a summer school, but instead of this—”
“We can actually learn something.” Beauty grinned. “We’re more squares than circles, eh?”
His mom’s endearing smile before his eyes, Jeremiah nodded, took Beauty’s hand, and let go.
What did Liam mean in his letters? And what about Josh? Did the aliens get him? Were the kids okay? And what about Ben—yeah, what about Ben…
Five o’clock on a mid-July evening, and I was ready to spontaneously combust. Too many questions and not nearly enough answers. I invited Linda over for supper, and we slapped flies away as we ate egg salad sandwiches. No chips, of course. Pickles, though. I had finally gotten enough cucumbers to make a decent batch. Vinegar, garlic, a dash of sugar and salt, and lots of dill made us pucker up big time, but they went well with the meal. I even made a blackberry cobbler for dessert. If the flies didn’t eat it all first.
I got up and draped a towel over the deep dish. Then I slumped with Monday weariness onto my chair and took another bite of dinner, crunching on the garden lettuce I had added for body since I didn’t have many eggs. I glanced at Linda.
She was eating, a good sign. But the dark lines under her eyes, glazed expression, and slow motions bespoke depression’s tenacious hold.
“So, have any of your tomatoes ripened yet?” A pertinent question, considering the need for healthy food to be packed away for the long winter. I tried not to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s version of the Long Winter. Where they nearly starved to death.
Linda dragged her gaze from the flower-rimmed plate and met my gaze. It seemed to take a minute for the question to process. “Oh, no. Not yet. They’re getting big though. All the rain. Just hope they don’t rot.”
Setting that pleasant image aside, I opened my mouth to try again, when she interrupted me—her brows scrunched in concentration.
“What about Liam’s letters. You never told me. What did he say?”
I sighed. How much to share? Or how little? A strong desire to make something up—something truly interesting—washed over me like a cool bath. It would be fun to imagine that he had spent the last weeks frantically busy, heroically saving the Pacific coast. But no.
“They weren’t terribly fact-filled. The first was ridiculous; he was in complete denial that technology had let him down, let us all down. He insisted that it was some kind of prank. Though by the end of the letter, he seemed to be considering the idea that it might be a nefarious attack by a group of villainous hackers. His words, not mine.”
“The letters were from was early on and just got to you now?”
Mail had been traveling in spurts and drips. All his letters, at least the three that I received, were written in the early days. The second seemed to take the situation more seriously, but he was still convinced that the “snafus” would be cleared up quickly. He made a joke of the fact that everyone in the hotel was swapping medications to manage their various conditions. I cringed at the thought of him trying to substitute something for his daily prednisone. Not the kind of medicine that you want to play merry-go-round with.
I studied Linda, knew she had bared her soul about Jared and had to tell the truth. “Liam spent the first two letters telling me that the whole thing wasn’t really happening. But by the third, he had faced some version of reality. He spent that letter telling me that he loved me and the kids.”
Linda clasped my hand and squeezed. We both tried not to cry.
I would have failed miserably had it not been for a sudden squawking outside the door. Linda ran into me as we both rushed for the door. Bouncing off each other like school kids racing outside for recess, we managed to make it to the door, disheveled, but—
Humans Among Us
Linda and I returned to our repast and did an amazing job finishing off the egg salad and an embarrassing amount of the cobbler. Though it was still mid-summer, the days weren’t getting longer but slowly shortening with lingering evenings being the best part of the day.
We decided to sit out on the front porch as the sun set and the sky turned from pink and yellow into a fiery red. If I had any wine on hand, I would’ve offered her some. The trees across the road rippled in a gentle breeze, and birds twittered from the electrical lines. I wondered what would happen to those ubiquitous black wires? Would they surge with energy once again someday? Or become useless like dead snakes and drop to the ground in imitation of some dystopian novel?
I glanced aside and saw a tear slip down Linda’s face. For the first time, really, I cared about her. Not the usual, “Hope you’re doing well” that we send in quick messages or the “How’s everything?” in passing, but the heart-wrenching sensation you get when you feel another person’s pain. I rubbed her back. “Josh and Jared will be okay.” It was an ignorant comment. I knew it, and she knew it.
She swallowed, gulping sobs, and clasped her hands, shaking with pent-up tension. She slid her gaze my way. “You don’t know, do you?”
I attempted an easy nonchalance and shrugged. “Tell me.”
“Jared wasn’t crazy. There are aliens.”
That was enough. I didn’t want to go any further, but yet, I had to know. Either everyone was going mad or I was way out of the loop. “Aliens? Seriously?”
She snorted, should’ve had a whisky to belt back. “Yeah. They’ve been here a long time. Since humanity got started, I think.”
Whoa! This was a new take on an old theme. “They’ve been watching us since—when?”
Linda straightened, rubbed her listless arms, and exhaled a long breath. A weary pedagogue having to go round ten with a recalcitrant student. “Not watching. They’ve been raised with us. Look, I don’t know the whole story, but I get the general drift. When life first started on this planet, for a time, everything was just at animal level—you know, fish and birds, creepy crawly things, and then mammals and more adaptable critters. At some point, I have no clue when, there was a divide. Actually, from what I understand, there were several splits. Some of the more intelligent or adaptable animals, pre-human-kind survived while others fell by the wayside. Was there warfare, a genocide of sorts? Can’t say if they were capable of comprehending that sort of thing. But it happened nonetheless.”
My gaze strayed to the flowering Rose of Sharon bushes. Their starburst pink flowers with white centers sure looked beautiful. I didn’t want an anthropology lesson. I always figured that we could clog the Earth with what we didn’t know about our past, and our ever-changing hypothesis about our true origin should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. “Anyway” Linda must’ve sensed my mood shift. She hurried on. “These alien beings came along and decided—
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Driving into town this morning, passing by the refurbished diner, the town hall—its door wide open to the Coffee and Gab Saturday regulars, a friend heading into the post office, and finally turning into the Glendale Cemetery to check on a recent inquiry about a gravesite, I considered a book my friend Anne DeSantis has written about “ministering to the marginalized.”
Anne and I chatted on the phone yesterday, a hot, humid Friday afternoon when my body wanted nothing more than a cold drink, a whirling fan, and a soft bed. Yet as I listened to her describe the reason for writing her book and her personal mission to be present to the marginalized, I considered—who are the marginalized in my world? And who am I to them?
As Anne describes it, the marginalized are not necessarily “poor people” but rather those individuals who have been left out, shoved aside, demoted to untouchable in our society’s unique caste system. Amazingly, a wealthy man as well as a beautiful woman could be marginalized if they are valued only for their wealth or beauty.
This week, one of my middle daughters asked if we could visit the Volunteer Fire Department here in Fillmore. I asked around, and we were able to stop by on Tuesday evening. We were given a tour of the place, a detailed description of their work, and shown their impressive equipment. Laura, my usually quiet kid, asked a number of questions. Knowing that she volunteers at the Lighthouse in Vandalia and serves in our church, I wasn’t surprised that she wanted to know more about the volunteer fire department. I was surprised when she wanted to try on their gear.
The firefighters seemed happy to answer every question and suit her up. I was impressed. Not only with their kindness in responding to her but in the joy that I felt in experiencing their sincere passion for a such a worthy cause. Though there are hospitals in nearby towns, we live in the rural countryside, so these volunteers are the first to arrive on a local scene and offer immediate assistance—be it to a health crisis, a brushfire, a car accident, a house fire, or other situation where someone calls for help.
I’m reminded of the people of ancient times who maintained lighthouses to keep ships safe at sea, assorted medics who have served well beyond official capacities, service men and women who have protected their country not only in battle but in rebuilding broken homes and lives after battles, first responders who have risked life and limb to rescue victims after a disaster—noble souls throughout all of human history, serving all over the world.
Like a Hobbit in one of Tolkien’s stories, I am not a warrior or a leader. I don’t fight Balrogs or draw national boundaries, but I do encounter human beings every day. Most days my struggle might involve nothing more than a laundry issue or what to put on the table for dinner, but the person who needs clean clothes or is hungry is as important as any before God.
In a world of everlasting crisis, where hate and anger join in mindless destruction, there are both wounded souls and quiet heroes. With the same twenty-four hours in a day and an unknown lifespan, we have opportunities before us. We are not all the same. None of us have the same skill sets, strength, intelligence, opportunities, passions, interests, wounds, or limitations.
Dana couldn’t stand still for a minute. Even perpetual motion machines of the world took notice.
I sat on the back steps letting a cool front work its magic. For the end of June, it was gorgeous. Cool sunny mornings, warm days with afternoon rainstorms, and blessedly chilly nights. “I wish this would last forever.”
Dana stopped pacing under the maple tree and stared at me. Glared really. But who am I to quibble? She had stayed longer than she intended, only because I threatened to get on my knees and beg.
“You’re okay without dad?”
I shook my head and tried to wave her comment into oblivion. “That’s not what I meant. I was talking about the weather.”
Her hands went to her hips. “It’s time we left. You’re not going to give us any trouble, right?”
Juan slipped out my bedroom door and stopped on the top porch step. I didn’t see him. But I didn’t need to. I knew the sound of my son’s footsteps as well as my own heartbeat.
I waited. Juan didn’t want to leave home. I knew that, but there was an unspoken understanding that he would go with Dana. He had to. She was going no matter what I said. But she couldn’t go alone. And I was hardly fit enough to traipse across an out-of-control country. I’d do better to keep the home fires burning. Literally.
I peered at Dana. She was the same woman who had driven to St. Louis weeks ago, but at the same time, she seemed so altered that I hardly felt comfortable in her presence. There was something she wasn’t telling me. And I was weary of not knowing—fighting off the horrors that raged in my mind. So, I countered with a question of my own, “You want to tell me about the aliens?” That threw her. I knew it would. The look that crossed her face when…
Into the Deep End
It was late by the time Ben left and the kids settled down for a good night’s rest before their adventure the next day.
To my everlasting gratitude, Ben offered to go with the kids. He didn’t start with that offer though. Ben is far wilier than I had realized. What comes across as boyish innocence masks a deceptively perceptive nature. He outfoxed Dana better than I ever could.
He spent the majority of the evening asking her advice, taking her lead. Even glancing her way when I suggested an early bedtime. Almost as if he and she had formed an inside club that knew better than color-in-the-lines-can’t-be-too-careful mom.
Juan sat back and luxuriated in someone else taking the burden of conversation off his shoulders. Though he did add texture to the stories, Ben got Dana to share details about their travels.
No one mentioned aliens.
I wished Ben had asked. For some reason, I thought he might be able to get away with that line of inquiry when it was clear, I’d be blown to smithereens for my efforts. Still, it was a great evening. A memory I could snuggle close to, comforting me through the ordeals ahead.
When I heard knocking on the kitchen door at six in the morning, I assumed it was Ben ready to roust the kids out of bed and hit the road for a fresh start before the sun climbed too high. I poured the last of the pancake batter into the frying pan and wiped my hands on a clean towel. “Coming, sir. Right in time for—”
Josh stared at me through eyes glossy with exhaustion, his body limp and his clothes filthy.
“Is he here?”
“Who? Ben? He’ll be coming along in a bit.”
Pushing past me, Josh stumbled into the house and landed on the kitchen bench, his whole body sagging. “No, Jared. Has he come by? Or said anything to you?”
I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the young man. Didn’t want to either. “No. Everything has been quiet here. Ben and the kids are heading out this morning—”
Josh wavered to his feet. “Don’t!”
I swallowed the fear lodging itself in my throat. “Why?”
This time the knock was followed by the door opening in quick succession. Ben swung into the room, his gaze locking on me. “You okay?” Footsteps pounded down the stairs, and Dana joined the coffee klatch though no coffee had been served yet, and I was as confused as…
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It was nearing the middle of June, and I still didn’t know where Liam or the kids were, but perhaps I was the lucky one.
After receiving a strange note, Ben had advised Josh and Linda to intercept Jared at Terre Haute where the boy had been taken for evaluation. Apparently, he was raving about aliens and could get violent if people rolled their eyes in skepticism.
The day after they got back with a disheveled, skinny son in tow, they invited me over for a mid-morning snack. I fought down jealousy and cleaned up after a battle in the garden, trying to direct the zucchini vines away from the potato plants. What I said to the tomato plants doesn’t bear repeating, though the lettuce was behaving well and offered enough to share when I felt neighborly.
After getting settled on their plush couch in their purple-walled room, I stifled a gag in the rancid air.
The temperatures had rocketed to the low nineties with high humidity. Add the fact that Linda couldn’t get used to the idea that with no air conditioning, the inhabitants still had to breathe, so she had to keep windows open, but she often forgot.
I panted like a dog,
Linda perched on the edge of a straight-backed chair in the corner while Josh stood strangely indecisive in the doorway.
Jared paced like a caged animal before the clean fireplace.
Becoming more uncomfortable by the minute, sweat dripping down my back, and prickles spread over my arms at the sight of the twenty-five-year-old man. He had changed so completely; I almost didn’t recognize him. I glanced at Linda, then at Josh.
Neither offered a word.
Never one to jump off the deep end, I took tentative steps. “I’m so glad you made it home safe and sound, Jared. I’m rather jealous. My kids were supposed to be back a couple of weeks ago, but…still traveling…I guess.” My brave smile died a quick death. Jared stopped pacing. I’ve heard of people being frozen in place. An overused literary device that ought to be dropped. But as I stared at Jared, his still form brought the expression…
Winding Road Ahead
I didn’t have to wait long.
It may have seemed an eternity, but on Saturday, the nineteenth of June, I heard a familiar tromp of feet climbing up my back porch steps. Two pairs. My beloved kids had returned.
Or so I hoped.
I dashed my hands in the old ice cream bucket of cooled, boiled water I kept beside the sink to wash my hands, quickly rinsing sticky dough off my fingers. Though there was still a bit of kneading to finish the daily bread, that duty faded to insignificance.
I wiped my eyes, hoping that I’d keep from crying.
First, Dana stepped into the kitchen.
You guessed it; I burst into tears.
Always a little on the plump side with a sweet round face and pink cheeks, long shiny brown hair, and dressed professionally, she now presented a very different image. All extra weight gone, her face lean with high, tight cheekbones, and her hair had been whacked off to ear length. I wondered if she had done it with a machete. Her clothes had certainly seen better days. I pressed my fingers to my lips to suppress an involuntary gasp.
Juan stepped in behind his sister. My overwhelmed gaze immediately recognized his state of malnutrition—bone-thin, the ghost-like pallor, sunken cheeks, dark cavernous circles under his eyes. But when he smiled, my son showed though.
They hesitated only a moment when I held out my arms, aching for a hug.
Sobbing, I gripped each of them, hanging on for dear life, but also, acutely aware that their bones felt sharp against my body.
Dana let go first. As usual, she wanted to get down to business.
“Where’s dad?” I ran my fingers through my short, unruly hair, recognizing the fact that it had come loose from its tie, and I probably looked like a seed pod ready to take flight. What could I say? I shook my head, my gaze…
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