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.
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…
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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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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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Amazingly, I lived through the next week and into the following week without falling into a heap of withered anxiety. If I had been a plant, I’m certain that my leaves would have turned brown and scattered to the four winds. As it happened, I turned out to be more resilient than I expected.
At first, I kept busy organizing my supplies. I grabbed my banking notebook, a hard-covered thing, and took a seriously honest inventory.
The cupboards weren’t bare, but they were hardly full either. I realized with chagrin how much food I threw away on a daily basis. In ordinary times, if we didn’t feel like leftovers, we gave them to the chickens. Oftentimes bones were given to the dog with plenty of meat still attached. And I had let milk spoil in the refrigerator more times than I could count. Suddenly, waste didn’t seem like a minor happenstance. It felt like a crime.
It wasn’t until nearly two full weeks had passed that I finally got word from Dana. Ben stopped by on that second rainy Wednesday morning with a satchel slung over his broad shoulders. He made his way inside the kitchen door after I had identified his unique, “Hey-ya!” and told him to come in.
His face looked older—lined with concern. His eyes a little sadder, like he has seen troubling things. More troubling than our small-town-techno-disconnect? I wasn’t sure.
But he forced a smile as he dug into his bag. “Feel a little like Santa delivering gifts to waiting families.” He pulled out a folded envelope. “Hope this helps.” Despite the grin, worry lined formed around his eyes. Gluttonously, I snatched it, tore the envelope open, and…
Living in Paradise?
I felt so proud of myself. One of the deadly sins, I know, so I should have surmised I was heading for trouble. By Thursday afternoon, I had cleaned the whole house, organized all the kitchen and downstairs storage shelves, written a complete inventory list, and even clipped the hedges so the house looked neat outside and as well as in.
By five in the afternoon, I was in a pleasant state of exhaustion and treated myself to a tall glass of sun tea. I sat relaxing before the garden under the grape arbor on the rickety old wooden swing, which was still servable if I didn’t sway too far.
The sound of a distant siren caught my ear. I remember thinking that it was in my imagination, a memory of some cop show where sirens blared across the cityscape. But this was rural countryside. A quiet backwoods world where police hardly bothered to flash their lights much less sound a siren. If one rolled up close behind, that was signal enough to pull over and find out if you’d surpassed the 30-mph speed limit. A definite no-no that earned a standard ticket and accompanying fine.
The siren continued unabated—no routine practice or alert for a single driver.
My heart began to pound.
I rose and glanced around. No smoke rising. I could safely assume no one’s house was on fire. An accident? A call for help?
I squinted at the falling sun. It was still bright, and I could easily traipse to town and see what was happening. But what good could I do? I’d more likely just get in the way.
Conflict tightening my stomach into knots, I paced back to the house with my empty glass in hand.
Josh jogged along the road.
I blinked and waved. “Hey, you heading to town?”
He nodded, slowing his pace but still moving forward. “Yeah. We arranged the siren as a signal for all able-bodied volunteers to meet up if something important happened.”
Not wanting to delay him, I waved him on. “Don’t let me slow you down. Just tell me what’s going on when you get a chance.”
He picked up speed. “Check on Linda, if you can. She’s not doing great.”
I called after him. “Sure thing!” Though checking on Linda was last on my list of want-to-dos. I really needed some solid food and a chance to gather my frightened wits. Oh, heck. Linda is probably chewing her fingers to the bone.
I ran inside, pulled a bowl of spiced pasta and tuna from the dark refrigerator, and speed-walked down the lane. Once at Linda’s house, I climbed the porch steps and knocked on the doorframe. “Hey, want to join me for dinner? I brought something tasty.”
Linda came to the door, her face red and blotched with the traces of tears still on her cheeks. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and forced a determined smile. “I’m not hungry, but I’m glad to see you.”
Completely unable to deal with her meltdown, but knowing that my only alternative was to trot home and have my own, I decided to forge ahead with my unwanted charity dinner. “Come on and try a bit. You need to keep your strength up.”
After setting two servings of my meager meal, I sat down opposite Linda at her kitchen table and tried to decide if I’d even attempt prayers before eating. What the heck. I made the sign of the cross and then halted when Linda burst into fresh tears.
“She died. Just like I thought she would.”
My heart jumped into my throat. “Who?”
“My mom. Got word last night. Some guy at the nursing home wrote—said that the folks are passing at an alarming rate. He can hardly keep up with notifications, much less burials. But, good news, she passed without pain or complaint.” Linda peered at me through narrowed eyes. “You don’t think someone is helping them to pass along, do you?”
“Oh, God! Why you’d think that? It’s probably just the shock and the lack of—well, everything. Medicines must be hard to come by and—” I didn’t know what else to say. Knowing that the at-risk population was succumbing for a whole range of very good reasons hardly made it more acceptable.
Linda stared at the tabletop, her eyes dry now, but her gaze unfocused. “I just don’t know what to think. It’s like evil has been loosed against everyone. I don’t know what terrible thing will happen next.” She sniffed and glanced up. “Do we deserve this?”
Dread rose like a monster inside me. I forced it down with the fact that Dana and Juan were due home in the next few days, and they would help us manage through our dark future. Thank Heaven for my kids. “So has Jared started home, yet?” A shout brought us to our feet. It sounded like…
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My stomach rumbled. So much for the Celestial realm. I considered my guest’s quiet form for a moment then promptly rose to the challenge of finding a quick nourishing meal that didn’t require an engineering degree. I swept past Ben, marched down the porch steps, and crossed the backyard to the woodpile. I grabbed a couple of thick logs, snatched a handful of twigs from the brush pile, and charged into the house.
After assembling a conflagration in the woodstove, I popped the four limp loaves onto two shelves and closed the door with a sense of accomplishment. Next, I gathered three plastic containers, usually used for juice, and plodded to the prairie grass. I waded through the green tangle and stopped at the well pump. The steel handle glinted in the fading light. I pumped a bit and, sure as shooting, clear water gushed out. Before I could break a sweat, I filled the three containers and then realized that I only had two hands. Plodding back and forth, I managed to get all three containers to the woodstove where I poured their contents into a large metal pot on the stovetop. I covered it with a lid, checked the fire, added a few more sticks, and nearly pounded my chest with happy satisfaction.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Ben chuckled. To my surprise, he hadn’t deemed my marvel of efficiency as a proper excuse to run off and help some helpless neighbor. Linda perhaps?
Ben pointed to the chrome refrigerator. “You might want to use what’s in there before it goes bad.”
I blinked. Images of sour milk, rancid cheese, and brown lettuce rose in my mind. Before I could stop them, rude words poured forth from my lips. “How long have you been here?”
He tapped his watch and shrugged. “Don’t know, but too long apparently.” He rose to his feet and smiled, tipping his head in a gentleman’s goodbye. “Glad to know that you can manage so well. I’ll head out now.” He paced to the kitchen door and nodded. “If you need me, just call.”
I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t want to need him. “Thanks. If you need me, you know where I am.” I rolled my eyes. The guy was only trying to help. It wasn’t until after he’d left that I realized, he’d forgotten that the phones didn’t work. I couldn’t call him. My stomach rumbled—a volcano with dire predictions if I didn’t attend to internal matters. I swung open the refrigerator door and decided that…
A Day of Impossibilities
Yes, okay. You got me. I did forget the bread. But since I completely forgot the woodstove and let the fire go out, I stood amazed the next day—like a child on Christmas morning—to discover that instead of four burnt-to-a-crisp-loaves, I actually had something eatable waiting for me in the woodstove.
Still dressed in my pajamas, it was the sudden memory of the bread that shot me out of bed, I gingerly pulled out the pans and placed them on the cool stovetop.
If I hadn’t been so bloody miserable missing Liam and the kids, I probably would’ve done a happy dance. But happy was not to be. Not with my heart constricted and panic ready to seep from the pores of my skin. Liam had an auto-immune disorder, nothing terribly serious, but his body could go into painful flairs without his medication. He’d taken enough for his trip to L. A. but as he had no intention of staying more than the required three days, he probably hadn’t packed extra. I tossed a prayer to Heaven. “Please, God, assure me that he took extra. Or that a doctor is near at hand. Or he meets a pharmacist who happens to carry around extra doses of prednisone.”
A gentle breeze wended its way through the open window, fluttering the lacy white curtains. I took that as a sign. Then I snatched up one pan and carried it to the table. I plopped it onto a breadboard, snuck the jam jar from the dark refrigerator, and slathered a slice. “Oh, and—” I prayed between chews. “Thanks for this day’s bread.”
A headache slowed my reaction time, so it took me longer than usual to realize that someone was knocking at my kitchen door. Ben? Surely not. I glanced out the window. It couldn’t be much after 6:00 AM.
Linda peered through the storm door window. Anxiety lined her face, but she lifted a thermos like a peace offering. “I know just what you need.”
Conflicted between the need for my morning coffee and irritation, I opened the screen door and stepped aside.
She pulled a second thermos from behind her back. “We’ll chat over hot coffee like old times.”
My mind ricocheted around the room. The morning light streaming in the kitchen windows. A hen clucking in annoyance at the collie’s advances. Linda sidling over to a chair and plopping down as if the last couple of days had never happened. My headache sped into overdrive. An image of Ben with his hands folded, concerned, yet strangely peaceful, flittered through my mind. Liam, Juan, and Dana should be sitting at the table, joking and eating breakfast together. Oh, God, when will I see them again?
Linda took a hearty swig from her thermos. “You better drink up. It took Josh an hour to get the fire warm enough to heat up our camp coffee pot. Lucky I still had that old thing. I got the rust out, don’t worry.”
I unscrewed the top and took a tentative sip. Yowch! It was definitely hot. But the scalding actually felt good going down. Caffeine addict that I was, relief cruised through my body. I sank back into the chair and realized, with only slight discomfort, that Linda was fully dressed while I was still in my morning rumpled condition. My hair undoubtedly looked like I had spent quality time in close proximity to a wind turbine.
Linda didn’t seem to mind. Especially not considering the fact that she was drooling, quite literally, at the sight of my home-baked bread.
Being a good Christian woman, I sliced a thick piece, placed it delicately on a napkin, and nudged the jam jar with a strategically placed spoon in her direction. “Eat up. I’ve got three more.”
Linda didn’t waste any time. I shouldn’t have been surprised when…
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At precisely noon, my brown kitchen light dimmed to black. The clock blinked off. The internet disconnected. The refrigerator stopped humming. The hot water heater stopped heating. The freezer stopped freezing. And I couldn’t get a dial tone on my phone.
Discombobulated, I knew I should be freaking out, but a strange calm flowed over me.
The crunching of a car heading down our gravel lane broke the silence.
I stepped out on the porch and waved.
Our neighbor, Josh slowed down. He rolled down the window and came to a stop. A perplexed grin spread over his face. “Something funny’s going on, Rosie.”
I shrugged his concern away. “Just a power outage. We’ve had ‘em before.”
He blinked and shook his head. “I was at the café in town, sitting around with the guys talking, and Mark said his daughter was having a brown out, just like we were.”
Six of my aged hens crossed the driveway, heading for the pine woods behind the woodpile. I watched the collie out of the corner of my eye. She liked to bark at them, thinking she could scare an extra egg loose. “Well, it’s no—”
“Mark’s daughter lives in Australia.”
I snorted in disbelief. “Coincidences do happen.”
So, Ray called his brother in Anchorage, and would you believe it? But they’re having power issues too.”
Another car came up behind, Josh’s wife, Linda. Under normal circumstances, I’d have waved Linda inside for a cup of tea, but the look on her face told me that she knew I wasn’t going to be heating up a pot of anything soon. Her eyes, wide and scared, sent prickles down my arms. “Hey, Linda. Don’t look so worried! You’ll scare your husband—”
Linda ran from the car to her husband’s cruise and practically tore the driver’s side door open. “The power is out in every town and city as far as anyone knows!”
“But you can’t know.” I shoved fear away, as far as I could with every ounce of logic that my brain could muster. “So, there’s some power outages across the world. That hardly means that everyone is out. Could be a weird sun thing. A grid failure that knocked out a bunch of places at once. Perhaps there’s an internet virus.” I shrugged. “Give it a few hours. There’s no way we won’t get this fixed.”
Linda turned on me and for the first time in our friendship, I realized that I didn’t really know her.
“You’re being stupid, Rosie. Completely stupid!” She stalked back to her car, yelling over her shoulder. “Get home, honey. We better prepare for the worst.” She slammed her car door and opened the window as she passed, following Josh. “Just be glad your family is with you, Rosie. My mom is three states away, and Jared is working in Indiana. I just hope to God that they can make their way here before things get bad.”
Without the least regard for one of my cats ambling across the road, Linda raced after her husband. I knew I wouldn’t be inviting her in for anything any time soon.
But as I made my way toward the house, her words rang in my ears. “Before things get bad…”
Failed to Send
There was nothing to do but finish making bread. It seemed like the most reasonable course. Besides, whole wheat bread straight from the oven soothes even the most troubled soul. I ambled back to the kitchen, put the loaves in the oven, and turned it on low to help them rise.
The oven didn’t respond.
I nodded. So okay. Not a brilliant move, but I wasn’t about to be thrown off by my first setback. I placed the loaves on the counter. They would rise eventually. On impulse, I texted my sister. Sarah always maintained an upbeat disposition under the most trying situations, and besides, I wanted to know what happened to poor Bill. He wasn’t really poor. The guy made more money than Liam. I dashed off a quick note.
Failed to send.
Then my heart started to race. I dashed off a text to Liam.
Failed to send.
I tried calling Dana.
I tried Juan.
I stared at my phone like it had betrayed me…really let me down.
Now I knew what being lost at sea must feel like. The ground had fallen away, and there were no walls to grab onto. No ceiling. Nothing but a world of non-functioning tools and toys.
I looked at the stovetop to see the time, but, of course, that didn’t tell me anything. The house was quiet. Even the road was silent. I walked outside and strolled into the backyard.
The sun perched high and the birds were singing their pretty little heads off. I wanted to talk with someone, but town was a couple of farm fields away. A long walk.
My stomach clenched into a tight knot.
The big maple outside my bedroom window sported seed pods that helicoptered to the ground. It usually seemed amusing to watch them whirl about and land in masses, covering the ground. But they didn’t seem particularly funny now.
I told them the hard truth. “Most of you won’t make it to the next season—you realize that don’t you?”
Well, that was morbid.
I shivered in the sun. A big wooden swing set that Liam had arranged under the grape arbor beckoned, so I made my way over and perched on the edge. The garden beds had recently been turned over and potatoes, onions, even lettuce seeds had been planted. The tomato and pepper plants still sat in flats on the front porch. Liam would get to them next week.
My fingers inched toward me phone, so I pulled it out, leaned back on the swing, savored the earthy garden scent, and imagined the story I would tell my beloved—once I got ahold of him.
I tapped his number. Nothing. I texted. Failed to send. I squinted in the strong light, trying to make out how much battery power I had left. About half.
I rubbed the back of my neck.
A couple of vultures circled overhead. Thanks, guys. Really. Can’t you go intimidate someone else?
Before I knew it…
For more episodes, visit Kindle Vella Homestead by A. K. Frailey.
Home is where the heart is. But when the world fell apart, an alien race invaded, and my husband and children were in different locations, my heart dug deep into the home stead. If I couldn’t get to them, I’d hold fast, so they had home to return to…
No Place I’d Rather Be
I clasped a hot cup of coffee in my hands, stepped onto the back porch as the rising sun peeked between the flowering trees, and breathed deep. As if wishing me a good morning, sparrows, robins, blue jays, and a couple of cardinals fluttered about in springtime joy. I had a whole weekend to myself, and I planned to enjoy every peaceful minute of it.
There was no place else I’d rather be.
That has remained true, despite everything. Maybe because of everything. Perhaps some part of me knew what was coming, and I needed to savor every drop of beauty, glory, and strength to live beyond my small, about-to-combust, world.
Dana had left for her new job in St. Louis the previous Sunday afternoon. It was a great opportunity for her. And she knew it. I knew it too. Somewhere deep inside.
“Mom, please don’t dribble your despondency all over my clean car.”
Her dad, Liam—aka my beloved—grinned like the besotted fool he was.
The kid got her sarcasm from me, so I could hardly complain. Though I did scrunch my eyes, stomp my feet, and pantomime a child having a conniption fit.
Dana laughed. A loud bark that set our hounds into howls.
Her car, stuffed with two kitchen chairs, bedding, the last of her clothing, enough comfort food to get her through the first week, and a miraculous medal and prayerbook she didn’t know about tucked into the glove compartment, announced her readiness to fly from the proverbial nest.
She came around the front fender and wrapped me in a big hug. Dana was never small. Even as a baby, she came into the world larger than life, thrashing and screaming, her black hair wild, making her look bigger and badder than she really was.
I hugged her back with every ounce of my fifty-year-old strength.
When her car turned at the end of the lane, I stopped waving and wiped tears from my eyes. Liam held my hand all the way up the front steps.
Juan, my broad shouldered, eighteen-year-old, sunshine child, brought into my life by two miracles—his birthmother’s big heart and my husband’s absolute trust—bounded down the back porch steps on Thursday afternoon with the abandon of a guy ready for an early weekend.
I reminded him of dinner. “I’ve got a roast chicken and an apple cobbler nearly ready.”
An apologetic shrug. “I’m heading out—gonna go camping with a few friends.”
“It’s April!” I thought that explained everything well enough.
Not according to Juan’s logic. “Hey, ma, I’ve worked hard. The guys and I want to get away for a bit, think things over before our next big move.”
I scratched my head. “By move, you mean summer work, right?”
Crossing my arms, I shot one over the bow. “You ask dad?”
“He said go have a good time.” Juan squinted in his playful way. “I think he’d like to get out his corporate meeting and come with us instead.”
If I was perfectly honest, I’d rather Liam head to the wilds of Alaska than the L. A. madness that was his corporate headquarters. But mine was not to reason why…
It was only after Juan had roared his car down the road that it dawned on me. He took no clothes, no bedding, no tent. Camping? My eye.
I sighed as I headed back to the house and faced the roasted chicken that I knew my husband wouldn’t eat.
By Friday morning, Liam was a mess. He hated traveling. He loathed meetings. He despised corporations. How he managed to rise so high in the tech field is one of the mysteries of life. I forgave him for the third time for picking my beautiful dinner to pieces, knocking the Easter Lilly off the shelf, and nearly shutting the car door on my hand in his haste to get to the airport on time.
“If they try to drag me to one of their get-togethers, I’ll tell them I have a fever and—”
“Say you’re sick, and you’ll have the entire place hyperventilating. Just say you have work to do. They’ll respect that.”
“They’ll laugh and try to set me up with drinks and dates.”
I glared out of the corner of my eye.
He kept his eyes on the road.
“You ever consider starting your own multi-million-dollar business and work from home?”
Such a bark, I could almost hear the dogs howl though they were miles away back on the homestead. “I know where Dana gets it.”
“That laugh. It sounds like a bark.”
For the first time in three days, Liam smiled. “It’s not a bark. It’s a hoot.”
“You’re a hoot.” I smiled back, kissed him at the visitor parking lot, and kept it plastered on all the way along highway seventy till I reached home.
Saturday morning, I rose early, poured myself a cup of hot coffee, traipsed onto my bedroom porch and breathed deep without an inkling that the world as I knew it was about to end.
Even the Birds Stopped Singing
After dressing in jean shorts and a tunic top, I enjoyed coffee and a robust breakfast of eggs and toast. Fortified, I ran downstairs and tossed in a load of laundry. Then I scurried back upstairs and wondered why I was in such a hurry. With a reminder to take it easy, I grabbed another cup of coffee and meandered to the roll-top desk in my studio. Like a lady of leisure, I scrolled through my emails and social media.
When the internet flickered off and on around ten o’clock, I didn’t think anything of it. We live in farm country, so wild critters sometimes make a bad life decision and interfere with the lines, or storms miles away can interrupt service. I glanced outside. No storm. A perfect sunny May first. I shivered for the critter that may have suffered an untimely death.
When my phone chimed from the kitchen counter an hour later, I had just kneaded the last bit of dough for my weekly bread making and lined up the greased bread pans. My fingers, covered in sticky goo, weren’t suited for a technological device at the moment. So, I used my elbow and managed to make the connection.
My sister, Sarah huffed her words. Must’ve been running, I figured.
“Hey, Kiddo, did your power go off this morning?”
I slapped on the tap water and rinsed my fingers, talking over my shoulder. “Just for a sec.” I scowled at the trickle dribbling over my hands. The water pressure was down. Deep inward sigh. Water pressure meant a lot to me. How was I going to take my bed-time shower?
“But it’s back on, right?”
The proverbial light bulb clicked on. Power outage and loss of water pressure. Oh, yeah. Made sense. I peered at the ceiling. The light wasn’t on. I glanced to the counter. Nor was the coffee maker. But, silly me, they shouldn’t be. It was bright and sunny and I’d cleaned the coffee maker after my second cup. I glanced at the stove. The clock showed the time, but only dimly.
“Hmm…it came back on but—” I ran and flipped the light switch with my wet hand.
My sister broke through. “Hey, I’ve got another call. It’s Bill. Poor guy had to work over the weekend. Better go.”
I listened to the click as she hung up, but my eyes stayed fixed to the ceiling. Brown light. Not the bright glare I was used to.
A sound in the distance caught my ear. Horns? Who on earth would be blowing their horn out here? We lived on a dead-end lane and there wasn’t any traffic even during planting season.
“Oh, God!” It was an accident. I was sure of it.
But just as suddenly, it stopped. All noise stopped. Even the birds stopped singing. Complete silence.
If you’ve ever been suddenly thrust into the pitch black, you know how disorientating that can be. Well, the same was true when all sound stopped. It was as if the whole world was holding its breath. The moment after a collective gasp.