Recently, I celebrated another year marked on the calendar of my life. I am also considering how best to focus my energy and enlighten my soul, so I look back on my previous accomplishments and peer ahead into exciting new projects.
In our vastly changing world, we still follow an ancient path, searching for God, our proper place in family and society, and the meaning of our lives. Today, we live in a global reality little imagined in the land of Ur, though—made in the image of God—our souls have always held limitless possibilities.
In my OldEarth Encounter series, our world is viewed from a close-up Earth-bound, historical perspective but also from a distant, alien viewpoint. In the truest meaning of “Catholic,” the stories revolve around universal themes.
OldEarth ARAM Encounter—Humanity’s search for the one true God.
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Conflict between humanity’s need for God and our desire to be god.
OldEarth Neb Encounter—The price of chosen evil.
OldEarth Georgios Encounter—God as Father and Son and our personal reflection of those roles.
OldEarth Melchior Encounter—Marriage, parenthood, and the meaning of our Christian identity.
The first three books are currently available on Amazon, and the last two are near completion and will be available soon.
For the rest of April, I will take a break from creating new stories, My Road Goes Ever On reflections, and poems. I’ll start up again sometime in May. In the mean time, I am completing the work on the last two OldEarth books, reading my posts aloud for those who’d like to listen, (Just hit the Listen on Spotify button) and organizing my newest work:
My Road Goes Ever On II
Encounter—Science Fiction Short Stories II
It Might Have Been Short Stories II
I am also hoping to publish a collection of my poems at some point. Still have to come up with a name…
May our lives be blessed with God’s grace each day.
Zuri, wearing a course tunic over the simplest remnant of his armor paced along a worn path, the sun setting behind a distant, emerald-green hill.
With a flash, Teal appeared before him in a peasant’s outfit.
“There you are. I was afraid you’d have to wait till morning to see.”
Smirking, Teal bowed low. “Hello, Zuri. So glad we meet again.”
“None of that, now. We haven’t time. I want you to see this family! They’re magnificent and, to top it off, there’s been a murder. Some folks are running about insisting that Melchior’s son did it, but I hardly think so. Not the warrior type, if you know what I mean. I’m thinking it was the husband—though I have no—”
Teal faltered, his shape growing hazy. “By the Divide, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Zuri grabbed Teal’s arm and tugged him down the path. When they rounded a bend, a cottage stood before them, resplendent in evening hues.
“That’s Melchior’s place. He has a bunch of children, servants, and even a slave or two, yet he manages to keep his property intact and his head attached. In these parts, that’s something to be proud of.” He squinted in the failing light. “You all right? You look a bit…fuzzy.”
Teal lifted his hand and nodded. “Just been busy.”
Zuri glanced around. “Where’s Cerulean?”
“He’s taking care of Sterling. With strict orders to hurry him along, with or without Mauve.”
Teal rolled his shoulders. “His newest obsession.”
“You can say—”
A Bhuaci chime sounded.
Zuri tapped his chest and a holographic image of a Cresta with stringy yellow cilia drizzling from his head and dressed in a dark green bio-suit with matching boots appeared before them.
“Tarragon reporting for duty.”
Leaning toward Teal, Zuri dropped his voice low. “Ark’s son. Remember the pod…”
Teal nodded. He focused his gaze on the Cresta. “Thank you for being so prompt. But I thought we were going to meet here at—” He glanced at Zuri.
Tarragon waved a tentacle. “I wanted assure myself that someone would be there to greet me. I am still on board my ship, but I’ll shuttle down shortly.” He eyed Zuri. “If you’ll confirm the coordinates?”
Suppressing annoyance, Zuri pulled a datapad from his sleeve and tapped in the information. “Just be sure to stay out of sight. Your aircraft had better be native sensitive.”
“Of course. The Cresta are experts of disguise.”
Zuri chuckled. “Ark was anything but!” Realizing his mistake, a flush warmed his cheeks. “Sorry. No disrespect. I greatly valued Ark.”
Tarragon shrugged. “I hardly knew him.” With a smart salute, he signed off. The hologram evaporated.
Zuri slapped his face. “Oh, that went well, don’t you think?”
Looking haggard, Teal sighed. “He’s a hard one to figure. I’ve asked about him through the years, but he never responded, and Ark had little to offer. I thought he’d be at Ark’s passing-on ceremony, but he never showed. His mother did, though. Gave me an earful. More than I really wanted to know about Cresta—”
The pounding of horses’ hooves sent Zuri scurrying to a hedge row.
Teal blinked away and then reappeared at his side. “We’d better move further off. We don’t want Tarragon showing up in the middle of a family dispute.”
“Going to be a blinking challenge to train someone new. And now we have Sterling and Mauve to deal with.”
Teal shrugged. “It could be worse. We could have the Mystery Race on our heels. At least we’re safe there.”
Zuri glanced at the starry sky, a sinking sensation enveloped him.
Kiara loved the sound of the wind rushing through the woodland. Earthy and rustic, it spoke of invisible worlds and steadfast powers beyond human control. Blades of spring grass poked up from last winter’s mulch, and buds swelled in the promise of better things to come. She sighed. If only…
The sun had crested over an hour ago, and she must return to her apartment, then off to her shrill, insistent work place, always maintaining a calm, professional demeanor.
A redbird alighted on a fence post, chirping an attractive, lilting tune. Why can’t I be a bird?
Her sister’s voice. Myra always knew where to look.
Kiara stepped from the shadows into the field. “Yes?”
“There you are!” Myra jogged forward. “Let’s go to the lake. Mother left a cold supper in the kitchen, and the boys won’t be back for another couple of hours.”
A thrill ignited Kiara’s imagination. “You think we could?” Doubt quickly cooled the spark to mere ash. “But I should prepare for—”
“Another workday?” Myra gripped her sister’s arm and tugged. “You’re always working, and when you die, your spirit will float about this beautiful planet, wondering why you ever lived.”
Aching pressure surged against an inner wall, splashing over the ramparts. Tears filled Kiara’s eyes.
The two women stood on the rocky shore, surrounded by cliffs held together by a phalanx of trees, ripples scurrying across the blue-green water.
A tall, lean man strolled toward them, waves splashing his toes.
Shock filled Kiara as she stared wide-eyed. “What’s Jagan doing here?”
Myra kept her eyes glued to the horizon. “Does he have to have a reason?”
Images of the muddy water, floating debris, homes half-submerged in the flooded plain filled her mind. So many had lost loved ones in the disaster. The funerals never seemed to end. Then they did, and everyone returned to work and normal lives.
Normal? What does that mean? “I thought he moved up north, away from—”
Myra shot her a glance. “He did. But now he’s back.”
“He doesn’t have family here. Not anymore.”
Scuffing a bare toe against a smooth rock, Myra rubbed a fish-shaped pendant hanging around her neck. “Doesn’t he?”
With a snort, Kiara tossed her head.
Jagan stopped and nodded. His eyes reflected grief mingled with endurance. “I was down the shore and saw you; hope I’m not interrupting.”
Myra hugged her sister’s arm. “Of course not. Mother has made enough supper for a spring festival; come and join us. The boys would love to see you. They’ve been working on a kite.”
His gaze glancing off Kiara, Jagan waited.
Words tumbled from Kiara’s lips before she knew what she was about. “Certainly. Come and be welcome. I have to return to work so someone should enjoy—” What? Life? She blushed in confusion.
Ignoring the unfinished thought, Jagan fell in step between the two women as they headed back to a small blue Honda. “You’re still at the same place?”
Kiara nodded. “Same work. Same family. Same everything.”
Myra’s tiny head shake obliterated the lie. The tiny woman pulled out her keys and slid into the driver’s seat. “You two sit in back and don’t tell me how to drive.”
After supper, Jagan met Kiara in the kitchen as she wiped the wooden table free of spots and crumbs. He tugged a towel off the rack and started drying the dishes. “Keeping busy helps, doesn’t it?”
Her throat tightening, Kiara kept her gaze glued to the polished surface.
“I moved away. Thought I’d find peace if I didn’t have to run into a memory every time I turned around.”
The distant sound of rumbling thunder echoed off the hills. “But now you’ve returned. For good?”
He smiled and lifted the clean stack of plates onto the middle shelf. “For good? That’s funny. I hardly know.”
With a shrug, Kiara dismissed his honesty. “I like to keep busy. Productive.” She squeezed the sponge and laid it neatly on the soap dish. “Not a problem.”
Jagan leaned against the sink and nodded. “That’s good. I hated it when I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Just a vague unease, like something was supposed to be inside of me that wasn’t.”
The wind picked up, and branches swished against each other, groaning in stormy delight.
A shiver ran down Kiara’s arms. “I should’ve headed back to my apartment this afternoon, but I got caught up in the spring sunshine. And Myra and mom wanted…you know.” She sighed. “I’ll have to get up extra early tomorrow to make the drive if I want to get to work on time and do stuff.”
With a playful twinkle, Jagan twitched the towel at Kiara. “Love doing stuff, do ya?”
Laughter bubbled inside Kiara. “You betcha! The more stuff the better! I’m one of the best stuffers—” Suddenly, as if she had been stripped of every article of clothing like in a horrible nightmare, left without a single defense, choking tears killed all joy.
Jagan didn’t ask. He simply took her in his arms and held her. Softly, without possession, advice, or comment.
Her tears stained his brown shirt, but she couldn’t stop them. She hung on and let the tears do their work. After a deep calming breath, she pulled away. “I still have to go tomorrow.”
He nodded. “And you’ll manage another productive day.”
“I will.” She looked up and met his eyes. “And you?”
“I’m home now. Grief can find me whether I work or play.”
Rain pounded the roof and beaded the window. A breeze sashayed into the kitchen.
“I wish I were a bird…”
Jagan took her hand, led her to the doorway, and flung open the door. Messy drops drizzled and splattered.
He pointed to the treetops where a nest swayed in the wind.
Queasiness unsettled Kiara’s balance. “How do they stand it?”
He gripped her hand tighter. “It’s home.”
“The place where you face life’s storms.”
As the drops slowed, Kiara relaxed, peace enveloping her. Home isn’t a place. It’s a presence. For the first time in forever, her soul flew.
Song, in her petite elven form, wearing a dark green tunic over grey leggings, strolled along the wooded glen, soft brown soil cushioning each step while pink blossoms waved in a gentle breeze. She stopped and breathed in the deliciously sweet scent of spring.
Butterflies sailed by as birds twittered from the branches: bluebirds, redhearts, and goldenhues. Even a pair of orangefires insisted on wishing her a good morning.
She smiled and bowed in the accustomed greeting between Bhuac and natures’ citizens.
A fierce greenhawk swooped in and, with its large bulky body, bristled, sending the gentler folk into a frightened frenzy. The joy-filled chirping turned to cawing and sharp screams of distress.
Her heart twisting, Song watched, helpless to alter the scene for though she ruled the planet, her influence in the wild only reached so far.
Pounding steps along the wooded path, turned her attention. A figure jogged forward, long black hair flowing over thin shoulders, clear eyes narrowed in concentration. A strong woman suffering from unaccustomed weakness.
Slapping her hand against her chest, the woman came to a skidding halt before Song, heaving deep to catch her breath. “They’re going back!”
Her heart clenched; Song froze. As if understanding the gravity of the moment, the feathered feud ceased, and silence descended. Only the sun continued to shine unabated. With a start, Song realized that she could not sense a thing. Even the ground under her feet had fallen away.
“Did you hear me?” The woman drew closer, her hand reaching, whether to awaken her mentor or grasp at needed strength, neither could guess.
Song nodded. “I heard.” She forced a calm smile. “It is good to see you again, Kelesta. Where is your husband and daughter?”
A darted glance at the sky and a facial spasm spoke louder than words. “They’ve gone too.” Her gaze fell. “Ark passed on and his son, Tarragon is taking his place.” She straightened her shoulders. “Teal is sick, and Sterling is…preoccupied. A Luxonian named Mauve has stolen his heart.” She sucked in a deep breath, readying herself for painful truth-telling. “Zuri wants to teach Nova about humanity’s true nature. Perhaps make room in her soul for—” Kelesta flapped her arms like a bird perched on the edge of flight. “Something.” She shrugged. “She certainly isn’t interested in me.”
Caught in a snare that had held her for much too long, Song wrapped her arm around the young Bauchi woman. “She loves you—she just doesn’t know it yet.”
With a muffled sob against the older woman’s shoulder, Kelesta gave way to tears. “She can’t love someone she doesn’t know. She refuses to even consider what Zuri and I offer.”
The sun, still on its ascent, shone bright from the clear golden sky. “Let’s return and have a morning cup with biscuits and honey-jam. You’ve come home just in time to help me face the coming storm. Humanity measures time in such small increments; they do not see the landscape of their days. They are about to undergo a momentous change, and they have no idea of the long-range repercussions.”
“But what about Zuri and Nova—and all the rest?”
Song took Kelesta’s hand and started down the path, her feet padding on the soft, springing soil. “They must learn too. It is what all the living must do or else die in stagnation.”
Kelesta brushed a low hanging branch out of her way, pink blossoms falling on the path, as she kept in step with Song. “But what if she learns the wrong lesson and refuses her father and me? What if we lose our daughter?”
Tears aching behind her eyes, Song looked to the trees and silently beckoned to the birds. Give me strength. “It is the highest praise of our creator to give us freedom.” She squeezed her friend’s hand as the birds burst into fresh song. “It is our trial to endure whatever they choose.”
“Sucked into Black Holes During Sleep, They Share Their Darkest Secrets.”
Bruno read the headline twice, promptly running his cart into the store shelf. Stunned, he jerked his gaze off his phone.
“Hey, not supposed to read while driving.” A woman, fifties, blunt-cut, short hair, laughed with shining eyes.
Shocked, Bruno stashed his phone in his pocket and shoved his cart alongside the shelf, a guilty child trying to hide the evidence. He forced a grin. No words forthcoming.
She sidled up, her smile dimming by degrees. “Sorry. I tried to warn you. But you were so intent—”
He scratched his head. He didn’t want to have a conversation. A lie formed before his conscience could object. “I had to check a text—”
She lifted a hand. “Not my business. I was being stupid.” Her gaze took in the contents of his cart.
Dang, it. An extra-large bag of his dad’s Depends and a bright blue denture cleaner box bared the naked side of human misery. In revenge, he snuck a look at her cart. Red hair dye and blue nail polish. He glanced at her. Grey hair, fingers unadorned. He frowned.
She grimaced. “My mom’s dealing with that crap too. She was at Wayside, but with everything, I brought her home and got home healthcare. It’s better, but not really good, if you know what I mean.”
Relief, like a spring breeze, washed over Bruno. “Dad’s still on his own, sort of. Lives in the apartment above me. Neither of us can give up our independence. But…”
She snatched up the box of dye. “She gets bored and depressed. So, every couple of months I do a new treatment. This month—” Her lips flapped as she blew a puff of air. “Rad red! I’d like to take her out to eat or something—”
Bruno shrugged in compassionate understanding. “Hell trying to keep ’em on their feet.”
She snorted but a smile crept back into her eyes. “It was easier with a toddler. I could toss them into a cart and strap ‘em in.”
“My twins gave me weekly heart attacks, but they grew out of their hijinks.” Bruno tried not to let the next thought tear his heart out.
With a commander’s wave, she redirected her cart. “Well best of luck then, and keep an eye out for where you’re heading.”
“Ha. I’ll be more careful.” I’m not going anywhere.
Bruno flipped three grilled cheese sandwiches and then stirred a pot of creamy tomato soup. “Lunch is ready, Dad.”
His dad hobbled in. Using his cane with deft power, he nudged a kitchen chair aside and plunked down at the table with a long sigh. “Smells good. He stretched his neck, peering at the pot. “You add something extra?”
“Lots of garlic salt.” He slid one sandwich onto a plate and placed it on the table. Then he poured the soup into a wide bowl and set it alongside. He fixed his own meal, grabbed a couple of spoons, and dropped them into place. He plopped down on a chair across from his dad, folded his hands, and bowed his head.
Hurried sign of the cross, a quick prayer, and they started in.
Slurps and clanks of metal on glass accompanied their chewing and swallowing.
The old man glanced up, wiped his chin, and huffed. “Anything new in the big world?”
Bruno shrugged as he swallowed his last bite. “I ran into a shelf and some strange woman laughed at me.”
His eyes widening in horror, the old man spluttered. “The wretched—”
Bruno grinned. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and she was nice enough.” He pulled out his phone. “I wanted to check something, and I got stopped by a headline—something about people falling into a black hole. Caught my attention at a weak moment. Smack. Hit the toothpaste shelf full speed.”
Grinning, the old man rested his spoon on his empty bowl and tucked the used napkin underneath. “Good thing you didn’t hit a middle aisle. You could’ve set off a cascade of cat food.” He frowned. “What were you checking?”
A blush burned Bruno’s face. “There was such a variety of adult diapers. I had no idea.”
Dropping his gaze, a flush darkened his dad’s cheeks. “Aw, hell. I wish—”
“Don’t, dad. It’s not so bad. Everyone has stuff to deal with. That woman’s mom is depressed and needs a new perm every month.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And likes to have her nails done. I’ll take a bag of Depends over that any day.”
The old man’s hand shook as he reached across the table and pressed his son’s fingers.
Though dark clouds scuttled in from the north and the temperature was dropping, there was still enough time to get in one more lap around the park. Bruno shook the last vestiges of tension from his shoulders and focused on a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree.
He promptly bumped shoulders with a woman jogging by on his left.
Huffing, she scowled and stopped. “Hey! Look where—”
She looked strangely familiar. Embarrassment and dripping sweat sent an uncomfortable chill down Bruno’s back. “Sorry. I was—”
“Oh, you again.” A smile quirked her lips. “But you’re not texting and driving, at least. Thank God for that.”
A park bench behind the central swing set beckoned.
“I’m ready for a break. You?”
She nodded. “Sure. Mom’s napping, so I sneak out on the weekends to get in a little R & R.”
Trudging across the dead winter grass, he puffed a laugh. “You call running rest and relaxation?”
She plodded alongside. “Don’t you?”
He waited while she brushed broken twigs aside and plopped down.
They breathed freely for a few moments, gazing at the quiet park.
A trio of squirrels scampered past.
Bruno wagged his finger. “It was their fault, really. I got caught up in their drama.”
Laughter filled the park. A happy sound. She settled into a giggle. “Yeah, it’s always something, isn’t it?”
He turned. “How’s your mom doing?”
She blinked and swallowed. “Okay. Not really thrilled with the red. She wants to go back to being a blond, but with her wispy threads, it wouldn’t be pretty. Need something to distract the eye, if you know what I mean.” Changing course, she clapped one mittened hand over the other and focused on him. “And your dad. How’s he?”
“Scarfs down my grilled cheese and tomato soup like it’s going out of style.”
A fresh laugh, softer, but honest and appreciative.
Two plump robins hopped nearby.
He nudged her and signaled with his eyes.
She smiled. “Wish I brought something. Breadcrumbs…”
She cleared her throat. “You ever bring your dad out to eat? Like to your kids’ place or—”
He tipped his head. “I would, but they live in California. An airport would be a nightmare.” He cut his glance aside. “Yours?”
“Naw. They’re not very patient with her. Nice enough when I do everything, but they’re mostly eat-outers.”
Like a bobblehead, he just nodded a bit.
The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine illuminated the park, bathing the playground in golden light.
“I have a ramp up to the kitchen door. A neighbor helped with it. Got treads and everything.”
Two of the squirrels perched on a branch, sitting amiably. The third bounded toward the swings.
“Your mom likes grilled cheese?”
Though her head stayed down, a smile lit her face brighter than sunshine. “She loves it.” She looked over, shifting in her seat, getting a firmer position. “I make a fantastic beef stew. Really easy to chew but nutritious as all get out.”
“Really?” He pulled out his phone. “You know, I read that black holes have been catching people while they sleep. Thought maybe you’d like to help me keep watch out for ‘em.” He cleared his throat, scrounging up his courage. “Maybe we could have dinner together sometime—your mom, my dad—us.”
A glimmer entered her eyes as her smile widened. “Oh, yeah. Got to keep our eye out for those pesky black holes. They swallow people alive, I hear, unless we help each other out.”
He stood and pointed across the park. “My place is just there. Dad’s got his own ideas about things—but he’s feisty enough to keep black holes at bay. Care to meet him?”
She stood and squared her shoulders. “Only if you’re willing to meet my mom. God knows what color her hair will be.”
He laughed as he nudged her forward. “Long as she hasn’t been swallowed whole—she’ll be all right with me.”
Shailyn jerked upright in bed, jolted from the other world back into her own. The usual, odd discomfort dogged her as she peeled back the heavy bed covers, then trod to the bathroom for her daily ablutions.
I belong there haunted her thoughts as she tugged on her jeans and a heavy sweater, though she knew, realistically, she couldn’t live there. As a between-worlder, she was powerless to pick a permanent lodging.
Shivering in the cold morning air, she plodded to the kitchen and gratefully poured herself a cup of steaming coffee. Her daughter, Win, always got up first and made sure that the pot was full and piping hot before she left for work. Bless that girl.
Retreating to the comfort of the living room, Shailyn added a log to the burning embers in the woodstove and sat on the sturdy rocker before the big bay windows. February rain slanted across the glass as pine boughs swayed against the gray sky.
Misty, her daughter’s tiny pup, scampered into the room and leapt into her lap, squirming with all the energy of young life.
Struggling to keep her coffee from spilling, Shailyn nudged the quadruped to a comfortable spot on her lap, took a sip of the dark brew, and then sat back and closed her eyes. Dream images of herself traipsing along the muddy bank of a beautiful lake, a distant, untidy cottage, and a huge water bird charging with flapping wings over a line dug in the earth while intoning, “Stay where you belong!” sent confused sensations rippling over her body.
Pounding steps echoed down the staircase. Her eldest, Morgan, tromped to the kitchen, splashed coffee into his oversized mug, and then meandered to her side. His hair disheveled and dressed in dark jeans, a pullover sweater, and boots, he peered over his cup as he took his first hurried gulp.
Shailyn waited. She knew what was coming. Just like she knew what her answer would be. Though she’d have to gather strength from somewhere else to make her words believable.
“You’ll be there to pick her up, right?”
“Absolutely. Once I get my old bones ready to face the day.”
“May’s going to need all the help she can get, but I have to handle the newest crises breaking out at work.”
“You take care of your business, and I’ll do mine.”
A snort turned Shailyn’s gaze from the tears streaming down the window pane.
“Technically, she’s not your responsibility. She’s my stepdaughter.” He shook his head. “If only—”
“Stop!” She couldn’t handle if-onlys today. There was no changing the past. No bringing the dead back to life. She glanced at her son’s weary, wounded soul peeking through his gray-green eyes. “She’s all our responsibility—everyone who has a heart to love, should.”
“It’s a lot to ask—by all rights, you’d be in retirement now, enjoying your last days, not taking care of a disabled kid.”
The wind picked up as rage surged through Shailyn. “She’s not a disabled kid! She’s a wounded child. Just like you’re a wounded man, though your wounds are on the inside.”
Chastened, Morgan swallowed the last drops and eyed his mom. “Most are.” He trod to the kitchen, placed the cup on the counter, and called out as he yanked open the door. “She’d be ready at ten. The nurse will have all her stuff packed, and they’ll fold and load the wheelchair for you, so don’t mess with it. May can walk into the house with help. Just get her settled downstairs. I’ll do the rest when I get home.”
The picture of May’s imploring, chocolate brown eyes following her as she puttered around the house sent shivers down her arms. She frowned and bit her lip.
A glittery box stuffed into the bookshelf caught her eye. Jessica from church thought that she’d enjoy an “epic puzzle” in her old age and had sent her one with a thousand pieces. She nudged the pup’s warm body from her lap and rose to her feet. She waved to her son through the window.
The box-cover picture, a fairy child plucking a blue flower under the umbrella of a wide, red-spotted mushroom, while raindrops splattered against the sheltering roof and vibrant grass stems bent in gentle perfection, soothed Shailyn’s soul.
May pressed a border piece into place, her eyes shining at the mighty accomplishment. “I got this side done.”
“You’re quick. I’m only halfway through my edge.”
“They gave me lots of puzzles to do at the hospital.” May’s gaze traveled to the couch loaded with stuffed animals and three colorful blankets. “Giving me stuff makes them feel better, I think.”
Shailyn held a corner piece and considered her options. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to help. Or attempting to make you feel better.”
“They couldn’t keep mom alive or fix my back.” She shrugged. “Not in this world.”
Shailyn pressed her piece into place and sat back. She rubbed her cold hands. “I’m going to stoke the fire and check the stew. You want anything while I’m up?”
“You have any chocolate milk?”
“I’ve got milk and cocoa packets. If I get wild and mix them—well, we’ll see what happens.”
A grin peeked through May’s eyes.
Darkness had laid the landscape still and silent by the time Morgan slipped in the back door. He shoved the wheelchair against the wall and unfolded it, ready for action.
Shailyn met him in the kitchen. “There’s stew left. Though you’re lucky. May managed to work her way through two bowlfuls, much to my amazement.”
Staring through haggard eyes, Morgan pulled off his coat and tossed it on a chair. “She always amazes me. Like her mom. Resilient beyond belief.”
Until she wasn’t.
Shailyn shook her head. “Sit down and take a rest. I’ll get it for you.” She glanced at the ceiling, giving due notice to the room above. “She went to bed at eight-thirty. Not a peep since.” Shailyn pulled a plastic container from the refrigerator and poured the chunky liquid into a glass bowl. She placed it in the microwave and hit two.
Morgan leaned on the worn wooden table, resting his head on his hand. “She do okay? And you—it wasn’t too much?”
“Define too much.” Shailyn shrugged. “She put half a puzzle together at the speed of lightning, slurped down a large chocolate milk, put away two bowls of stew, and agreed to my syllabus for home school for the rest of the semester.”
“Ma, you sure you want—”
The microwave beeped repeatedly, warning that it could keep stew hot only so long.
Morgan stood and waved his mom off. “Sit; relax. I’ll get it.” He pulled the hot stew from the microwave, rummaged in the cupboard for bread, and plunked down on his chair, ready to dig into his assembled meal. He took a large scoop, savored it, and then stared at his mom, his eyebrows finishing his question.
Shailyn peeled a banana and sat opposite. “I’m hardly the best teacher in the world, but I can help her through her online classes. We don’t know what next year will look like, but for now, this is where she should be. You and Win manage this big, old rambling house; I keep it stocked with healthy dinners and fun snacks. We’re family. What else should I be doing—putting bigger puzzles together?”
“You could be traveling, seeing the world, visiting friends…”
“I could be laying in the cemetery, cold and stiff. Lots of could be’s. All fantasy. What is—makes the world go around. I’m right where I belong.”
His shoulders relaxing as the weight of a grievous month lifted just a bit, Morgan offered a lopsided grin.
After dressing in comfortable, warm sweats in the quiet of her room, Shailyn stretched out on her bed, turned off the light, pulled her blanket over her shoulders, and slipped into dreams that would take her away but could never keep her.
Jacob read the quote twice before he put the fragile newspaper aside. Cleaning had never been his favorite job, but after his grandma passed two months before, he knew that he couldn’t sell her old farmhouse until it was completely cleaned out and that meant sorting through all the junk from her past. A long past full of cards, letters, mementos, pictures, and even great-granddad’s old house key. The woman saved everything.
He sighed, shifted his crouched position in the dim, dusty attic, and glanced at the carefully cut-out article again. Who was this man that she bothered to save his obituary? And was he really missed? He had died so long ago, those who cared were long gone. Doesn’t matter now.
Rosie’s voice, melodic and enticing, still sent chills up his arms. He could hardly believe she had married him and that they were expecting their first child in the spring. After sweeping the last stacks of papers off the shelf, Jacob bundled them into the over-filled plastic container and grunted as he hefted it to the top of the steps. “This is the last of it. I’m coming down now.”
With her rounded belly giving shape to her bright maternity top, Rosie peered up from the bottom step. “Don’t carry too much. You might fall.”
With a half-laugh, Jacob defied the silly notion and started down the narrow steps, slipped on the fifth, and landed with decided “Ugh!” and a sharp pain in his back.
As if to add insult to injury, the box tipped and spilled its guts all over the floor.
Suddenly commander and chief of healthcare, Rosie dove into action, her hands fluttering. “Stop! Stay where you are. Let me see if your—”
Ignoring her attention, Jacob tried to stand, then muffled a series of profanities as he fell again.
By late afternoon, Jacob had been x-rayed, found he had slipped a disk, and was sentenced to bed for the duration with enough pain killer and vegetable soup to keep him alive though not uncomplaining.
After arriving at their single-story ranch home, Rosie made the necessary phone calls, informing work, family, and friends that her “strong-man” was doing fine, though he wouldn’t be getting around for a few days.
Jacob could hear her voice from the bedroom as she prepared dinner, soothing away worries, insisting that she didn’t need any help, and glorying in the fact that she had tried to warn him, “But you know how he is…”
He considered popping another pill to dull the humiliation.
Cute as always but with a hint of smugness, Rosie toted in a tray just as the winter sun set. A roast beef sandwich with barbecue chips, coleslaw, and a glass of milk gladdened his eyes, bringing his salivary glands back to life, though he looked twice at the glass of milk. A faded newspaper article lay complacently under the fork.
“You need extra calcium. The doctor specifically mentioned that you should drink milk and get more exercise.”
Jacob’s brain spun, trying to think of a non-profanity-laden retort.
“Oh, and Mrs. Miller put the box in the car and carried it into the living room so we could go through it.” She tapped the paper. “I found this article on a great-great-uncle of yours. Sounds like he was quite a guy.”
His brain had frozen at the image of Mrs. Miller carrying the box to the car. “The woman is seventy-six years old! How could she carry—”
“Very carefully. She wouldn’t let me touch it because of the baby. And she knows how much we want to get the house cleaned out. Her son said he’d bring his boys over, you know the twins, Jim and Jerry, to do the last of the patching and painting. Then it’ll be fit for the realtor to put on the market.”
Picturing the middle-aged brothers, grizzled farmers who lived down the lane, Jacob stifled a groan. When did my life slip out of control? “Really, I think we should hire someone to—”
Rosie perched on the edge of the bed and shook her head, eternally patient wise-woman. “Don’t be ridiculous. There isn’t a carpenter to be had—no professional wants to go into these old farmhouses unless you want a complete refurbish job. Which we can’t afford. Jim and Jerry have done tons of work on their own place; they can handle this. We’ll pay them, and the house will be fine.” She nudged the milk closer, glanced pointedly at the article, and climbed to her feet. “Eat and rest. I’m going to see how many hearts and likes we got on Facebook.”
Oh, heck… Jacob shoved the Facebook humiliation out of his mind and chomped down his meal. He ignored the article. But as he couldn’t eat it, there wasn’t a television or a computer within reach, and he had left his phone in the car, his fingers inched toward the yellowed newspaper.
He read it three times. His eyes filled with tears on the second round and flowed after the third. How could he have had such a relative and never heard? But then he remembered. Grandma had spoken of her Uncle Thomas, a priest who had served his flock in love and devotion, who had died unexpectedly. But he had never paid it much mind. Some old relative who had passed away long before his time.
Rosie hummed as she switched off the last of the lights, waddling closer, her happy disposition radiating through the house.
Suddenly, Jacob envisioned the web of interconnected lives. The great uncle who had powerfully influenced his mother, who had formed him. The long descent of relatives who arrived and left the human stage in numberless succession, changing the landscape for each generation.
Rosie stopped in the doorway; her eyes widened in alarm as she stared at him. “What’s wrong, honey?” She hustled close, arms ready to snuggle and comfort.
Jacob breathed her unique scent, soaked in her gentle touch, and knew, beyond all shadow of a doubt, he had been richly blessed.
Teal watched Arc’s holographic message twice and sighed. He passed his hand over the holopad; the wavering image disappeared.
Her touch soft, Sienna placed her hand on his arm, slipping around from behind. “What’s wrong?”
The thrill of her unexpected touch dissipated too quickly for Teal’s comfort. He glanced from the low couch to the shelf packed with OldEarth crafts—a decorated pot from Aram’s clan, a woven blanket from Ishtar’s clan, even one of Neb’s forgotten obsidian knives. He shrugged and turned away. “Arc’s worried. So, he’s got Zuri worried. And before you know it, I’ll be worried.”
Sliding around her husband’s waist, Sienna snuggled under his arm. A smile played on her lips. “Cerulean has been begging to go. Maybe…”
“I should have followed up before this. It’s just—”
Sienna nodded. “It was a big event. Everyone talked about it, but then, things died down. We’ll probably never know.”
Teal padded to the window and peered across the Luxonian skyline, the suns setting and moons rising. “Things are happening, changing. I don’t think humanity will ever be the same.”
“Can they handle the responsibility?”
A snort sounding rude to his own ears, Teal shrugged. “Of course, they can’t. No one can. It’s impossible. The very notion. God-man? We don’t even dare define—”
“Children can imagine what adults don’t dare dream of—the limitlessness of youth, perhaps?”
Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can’t even begin to go there. It has to be a misunderstanding. Wishful thinking.”
“And if it’s not? If it is real…” She joined him at the window, sharing the view.
Heat working through his body, Teal swallowed. “Define real.” A soft sound caught his ear. He glanced over his shoulder.
Cerulean, youthful, eager, and ready for anything stood in the open doorway. “Ark sent a message. He has something for me.”
Teal closed his eyes. Oh, God. He opened his eyes and met his son’s innocent gaze. “I’m sure he has.” He peered at his wife. They both knew. No one would be the same.
Ark zipped up his bio-suit, dragged on his boots, and glared at the pod swimming energetically in the murky pool against the back wall.
The door swished open, and Zuri tromped in, his head and hands bare, but wearing a modified version of Ingoti armor. “You ready?”
Ark huffed through his breathing helm; bubbles rose. “Now or never.”
The pool swished spasmodically, a riot of bubbles rising. The pod stopped and hung weightless, its large eyes staring, imploringly at Ark.
Zuri halted and glanced back. “What’s—I mean—who’s that?”
Ark cleared his throat and tugged at the collar of his bio-suit. “Uh, my son, Tarragon.”
Zuri’s eyes couldn’t have opened any wider if he’d had implants. “What? You never told me you had a son!” He slapped Ark on the back. Hard. “Congratulations!”
Stomping to the doorway, his boots smacking the ground with emphasis, Ark aimed for his escape. “It just sort of happened.”
Zuri swiveled his head as if testing the limits of his joints. “What does that mean? You have a son and you’re—what—irritated?”
Stopping on the threshold, Ark waved all six tentacles and forced a smile at the pod. “Just out of sorts, really. It wasn’t expecting it.” He scowled at Zuri. “I have important work to do. We both do.” He turned his back on the pod. “There’s a new player on Earth, a mystery being, who has a bet to win…a challenge. He’s trouble, make no mistake.”
“In proper diplomatic response, we’re going to…?”
“Meet Song and discuss possibilities. Then we return to Earth.”
“I thought we couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t is strong word. Shouldn’t perhaps…” Ark clumped out the door.
Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.
Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.
Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.
This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.
He had said he would.
And he had meant it.
But life got in the way, and he forgot.
Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.
Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”
He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”
“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”
No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”
“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”
The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.
Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.
Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.
He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?
His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.
Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂
Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.
Hearts and smiles,
If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.
From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.
He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.
He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.
Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.
Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.
Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.
He nudged her shoulder.
She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.
“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”
“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”
Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.
Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.
Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.
Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.
A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.
Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.
No such luck.
Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”
What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”
She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.
Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.
After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.
Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”
There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.
The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”
Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.
Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”
After an affirming nod, they were out the door.
Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.
Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.
“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”
Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”
But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.
She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”
All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.
After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.
“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”
A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.
Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.