Short Story: Vera’s Wings

Vera tossed in her sleep, her dreams disturbed by flickering flashes of light and an acrid smell that wrinkled her nose. Sweat prickled her arms and legs till she panted and threw off her covers. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright, her eyes wide and staring. Swirling smoke stung them instantly.

Flames danced and darted like flickering fingers from under the door. Skittering to the chair by her desk, she pulled on her skirt and blouse and began screaming. “Pav! Pav, where are you? Help me!”

In the echoing house, she heard only the fire crackling on the other side of the door. Gripping the handle, she pulled and then screamed as the hot metal seared her hand. Grabbing another shirt from her dresser, she wrapped her throbbing hand and darted forward. Gripping the handle again, her whole body trembled. With a snapping, click, the knob turned, the door flew open, and a rush of heat and flame knocked her backward.

In horrified amazement, Vera stared at the flames. The LuKan had a natural fear of fire. Their tender flesh burned so easily that even sunburn could cause serious health issues. Crawling backward, she scurried to the back of the room and rose to her feet, the flames flickering toward her.

“Pav?” her hand clutched at her throat. She inched over to the window and stared down. It was a six-meter drop at least. In the dark, it looked like an endless chasm.

A sound of clattering boots running up the steps made her glance at the doorway. The door had swung shut again, but now the wood was engulfed in flames. A man called through the smoke and fire.

“Vera? Are you here?”

Vera’s shoulders slumped in relief. The blacksmith. “I’m here, Mr. Pollex. I can’t get out, and Pav’s not answering.” Vera clapped her hands together and winced as the blisters made contact.

A grunt and pounding shattered the air. Mr. Pollex shouted. “Pav? Pav, can you hear me?” A splintering thwack thudded against Pav’s door.

Vera closed her eyes and wiped sweat from her dripping face.

More splintering crashes and the sound of boots running across the floor. Shouts, grunts, and then silence.

Wrapping her long three fingered hands around her middle, Vera hugged herself. She swallowed against the bile that rose in her throat and ran to the window, sucking in fresh air.

Clattering boots and heaving grunts stopped outside her door. “Vera? Vera, stand back!”

Vera pressed her back against the window frame, her shoulders shaking.

A thwack smashed through the wood door, and a sharp, red-tipped blade shone through the flames. Uncounted thrusts tore at the wood until it fell aside like a torn curtain.

Lucius Pollex stepped through the flames. His red-rimmed eyes had scoured the room before they landed on Vera huddled against the back wall. He ran to her, gripped her arm, and lifted her to her feet. “Hurry, this timber frame won’t hold much longer.”

She froze at the flaming doorway. Without a word, Lucius stepped behind Vera and scooped her in his arms, enfolding her little body within his, and sprang through the red and orange darts of fire. Once outside the door, he dropped her in a clear space on the landing and bent over a prone figure.

Vera gasped. “Pav!”

Before she could run over, Lucius lifted Pav’s limp body over his shoulder and reached out for Vera. She shook herself, fighting nausea that bubbled up from her middle. As they descended the steps, she tripped and fell forward. Instantly, Lucius grabbed her around the waist, and, squeezing her body against his, he jogged down the last steps and through the front doorway into the smoky, night air.

Falling on her knees, Vera choked and sobbed, her hands over her face. She rocked back and forth, oblivious to everything except overwhelming pain and fear.

Shouting to her left forced her to look up. A small crowd huddled over a prone form laid out on the grass. Screaming, Vera scrambled like an injured animal toward the body. “Pav! Pav, get up. Talk to me. Pav!”

The crowd backed away.

Blinded by tears, Vera felt along Pav’s body, and finally, coming to his face, she lifted herself to peer into his face. If only she could look into his eyes and make a connection.

Pav’s arms were stretched out to the side, his legs lay limp and bent, his face turned up and his eyes wide open, but they saw nothing—not the stars that twinkled overhead, nor his sister’s tears as they landed on his cheek.

A firm but gentle hand gripped Vera’s shoulder.

She slid to the ground, her head landing on her brother’s chest, sobbing, clinging with her bleeding fingers.

The hand stayed with her, gentle, undemanding, warm and real in a nightmare of searing pain.

The murmuring crowd shuffled away. Someone bent low, and a woman’s voice whispered. “You want me to take her home with me? I’ve got room—”

Vera shivered.

Lucius tightened his grip. “Give her time. I’ll watch over her tonight.”

A man’s voice spoke in the air above her head. “It’s about out, nothing to do now but make plans to rebuild.”

Lucius murmured a soft, “Tomorrow.”

Footsteps padded away, voices chattering in an undertone. “Poor thing. Wonder how it started…”

Pav’s body, already cold, was growing stiff.

Vera shivered, opened her eyes, and blinked at the black night, tears slipping down her blistered cheek.

An arm reached around her shoulders and carefully pulled her off her brother’s body. Gently pulling her close, Lucius braced himself against a shed wall and wrapped his muscled, fire-seared and scoot-coated arms around her, pressing her head to his chest.

Vera could feel his chest rising and falling and hear his heart beating in a steady rhythm. His warmth settled over her shivering frame and calmed her. Relaxing, she closed her eyes and let the nightmare end.

~~~

An early bird chirped in the treetops. Vera opened her eyes and stared over Lucius’ charcoal-blackened shirt into a hazy world of drifting smoke, green grass, treetops, and a red sunrise.

Rising on her elbow, Vera studied the stubble-bearded face of Lucius Pollex. His warm chest still rose and fell rhythmically as she shifted her arm and looked around. Her hands stung. She stared at the red blisters on one hand and the angry red blotches over the other and her arms. Wiggling her toes, she was amazed that they didn’t hurt—nothing like her hands. Her gaze drifted over Lucius. She sucked in a horrified gasp. Lucius’ legs ended in smoldering stumps. “Oh, no….” Fresh tears welled in her eyes.

Lucius stirred and groaned. His eyes snapped open, and his arm squeezed protectively around Vera. When their gazes connected, he sucked in a deep breath and darted a glance around the field and burned timber. “You’re alive then?”

Vera nodded. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and sat up, her eyes searching.

Pav still lay stretched out in the field. She started forward, but Lucius held her back. “Wait. I’ll help.” He stood and assisted her to her feet. Peering down at her thin, burned face, he shook his head. “You need care, too, or I’ll be digging more than one grave this day.” Rubbing a tear from her cheek, he stared down, somber, and sighed. “And that, I won’t have.”

Vera stared at his burned stumps, her eyes wide in horror.

Lucius pulled up a charred pant leg and revealed a metal band connecting an artificial limb to the stump of his leg. “They were burned in an accident some time ago.” He raised his gaze to the blue sky and exhaled. “I was never happy about it, but now, I’m glad. If I didn’t have such feet, I could never have walked across a burning floor to save you.”

Lucius gaze fell over Pav’s body. “Only—I wish I had wings.”

Vera stepped over to her brother’s body and knelt down. She lifted Pav’s hand and kissed it. Looking over her shoulder, a shaky smile trembled on her lips. “Don’t feel too bad. The LuKan believe in the Immortal Life—today, Pav has wings for us both.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Short Story: Visions of Grandeur

Loren crouched low as she snuck up behind the enemy, one finger poised over the trigger. She knew all too well the price she’d pay if she missed.

The enemy swarmed off to the right—they’d be beautiful if they weren’t so dang dangerous. She had children to protect. Creeping ahead, she spied their base of operations.

Got ‘em now!

Exhilaration pumped adrenaline into Loren’s bloodstream. She rose to her feet, both hands braced over the canister, aimed, and fired. Direct hit!

The swarm didn’t know what happened. They dropped onto the porch floor and buzzed furiously until Loren swept them into the front garden bed with her foot. She exhaled a long, cleansing breath. Thank—

“Mom! You know it’s wrong to kill bugs. They’re a part of nature, and we’re supposed to respect them!”

Loren turned and faced her irate eleven-year-old daughter; the wasp spray canister hung limply in her left hand.

Kara, a self-appointed bug expert, propped her hands on her hips like a furious schoolteacher. She had watched numerous YouTube videos and read articles on-line about native, Illinois insects. In her spare time, she copied photos and made collages, which she hung up around the house underlined with dire warnings about the loss of native species.

Loren chewed her lip and rubbed her jaw as if it had been struck. “Listen, young lady, I got stung this morning, and your baby brother got stung yesterday. Insects may have some rights, but I’m the protector of this family and—”

Kara rolled her eyes and wandered away.

Loren clutched the spray canister so tightly that she accidentally sprayed the floor. Marching into the kitchen, she placed the bug spray on a high shelf and then turned to the sound of the dryer buzzing. She glanced at the stovetop clock, dashed downstairs, piled the warm laundry into a plastic tub, tossed the wet laundry into the dryer, shoved the last load of dirty clothes into the wash, set the timers and scurried back upstairs.

Baby Addison screamed as he climbed the last rail of his crib. Teetering on the edge, he nearly overbalanced before Loren dashed into the blue room and scooped him into her arms. “Whoa, Baby Boy, what do you think you’re doing? Besides giving me a heart attack….”

After a quick lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade pickles, sliced peaches, and milk, Loren placed Addison in the middle of the room with enough toys to keep a thirteenth-century emperor ecstatically happy and turned her attention to her computer. Onto the next battle—family finances. Well, somebody’s got to balance the books.

Two hours and momentous account juggling later, Loren looked up as Kara sauntered in with a neighbor boy. They both had their iPhones so close to their faces that Loren wondered how they had ever managed to walk into the room without bumping into a wall.

Kara peered over the rim of her screen. “Marvin is staying for dinner. His dad and mom had a big fight and started throwing things.”

Loren froze, though her eyes wandered over Marvin’s bulky frame and unkempt hair. “You want to talk about it, Marvin?”

Marvin shrugged, his eyes still glued to the screen in front of his face. “They hate each other. What’s to talk about?”

Loren’s head dropped to her chest. She felt tears well up, but she brushed them aside as her gaze swept the room. Uh, oh…where’s Addison?

Her heart pounding, she stepped passed Marvin, giving his shoulder a little squeeze as she went by. “I’m making fried chicken. You can stay as long as you need.”

When she entered the bathroom, she knew what she would find, though she clenched her hands in prayer. Please, God, let me get it cleaned up before James gets home.

It wasn’t as bad as she feared, though the wallpaper would never be the same. Thank heaven for disinfectants!

A car rolled over the gravel in the driveway, and Loren bustled with Addison into the blue room. She changed his stinky clothes at the speed of light, rushed into the kitchen, pulled the thawed chicken pieces out of the refrigerator, sprinkled spicy breading over them, poured oil in the pan, and popped muffins onto a tray. When James entered, she put Addison on the floor so he could toddle right into his daddy’s arms, a sacred tradition that James loved.

By the time James had changed and come back downstairs in comfortable jeans and a t-shirt, the table was set, the chicken was frying, a large tossed salad graced the center of the table, and a pyramid of muffins sat ensconced next to a jar of strawberry jam, front and center of James’ place.

At dinner, Addison gummed his crackers and chicken pieces with childish abandon while Marvin chomped on his chicken legs in morose silence. Kara nibbled carrot sticks and muffins slathered in jam, distaining, once again, the flesh of sacred animals. She wrinkled her nose at Addison until her dad told her to stop.

James pushed back from the table and patted his lean belly. “That was fantastic, sweetheart, thanks. His eyes followed Loren as she began to clear the dishes. “Oh, and thanks for mowing the front lawn. I wanted to get to it, but with all the extra work—”

Loren shrugged. “It’s fine. I’ll try to get to the back tomorrow, but I’ll have to squeeze it in before I take Addy in for his check-up.”

James swirled his water glass. “Oh, and could you invite Carl’s new wife—” he snapped his fingers together with a puzzled frown.

Loren glanced over. “Chelsea?”

“Yeah, right, I can never remember. Anyway, invite her to your next Lady’s Tea. I take it that the other wives have shunned her for a—shall we say—checkered past. If you act nice, they might follow.”

Loren filled the sink with soapy water and nodded. “Called into diplomatic service once again, eh? You know that’s what I first wanted—”

Addison’s wail cut short the conversation as James lifted the baby from his high chair and offered to walk Marvin back home.

Later that night as Loren brushed her teeth, she could hear sniffles from Kara’s bedroom. She tiptoed into the dark interior, trying not to bang into the desk or the multitudinous science experiments, which Kara laid like traps for her unwary parents. Shuffling forward in low gear, she found Kara’s bed and inched her hand up to Kara’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, honey?” She perched on the edge knowing full well that she was sitting on at least three stuffed animals.

Kara wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffed. “Jean texted me that I’m nothing but an amateur, and I’ll never amount to anything.”

Loren frowned. She didn’t know Jean, as she didn’t know most of the kids that Kara interacted with over her iPod. “Well, darling, you may be an amateur now, but if you study and keep working hard, you may become a professional someday. It all depends on much you—”

Kara waved her hands in contemptuous disdain. “Oh, you don’t understand. You’ll never understand. I want to be great at something. I don’t want to just make a living…or be like you.

Loren took the body blow with only a slight grimace. She swept a lock of Kara’s hair out of her face and took a deep breath. “You know, I like to think I’m doing something great—here—at home. It may not seem like much but—”

Kara shook her head. “You’re just a mom, there’s nothing great about it. Millions of women have done it—forever. I want something more, something grand and—”

Loren let her head drop as she listened to her daughter’s dreams and aspirations. They all sounded wonderful and noble, something that might make headlines one day. There was so much she wanted to say, to share about her own life and her experiences, which had lead her to the edge of her daughter’s bed, but Kara wouldn’t understand, not now. Maybe someday. When Kara talked herself sleepy, Loren squeezed her hand and tiptoed back into her bedroom and finished brushing her teeth.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Short Story: Grace Nelson’s Murder

 

I’ve got blood on my hands, pure and simple, but I’m not sorry. Grace Nelson pushed her father’s wheelchair up a gentle incline toward a small, yellow house set aside on a winding, pave-stoned lane. It looks like a picture on an Oldearth vintage postcard. Grace sniffed. So Bhuaci. She squared her shoulders. By the Divide, I hate it here. So blinking perfectI could smash it. Her eyes traveled over to a Bhuaci family strolling down the lane hand-in-hand. Or them.

Grace? Why’d you stop? I’m hungry and it’s getting hot.” Old-man Nelson swiveled his head back as far as it would go.

Grace leaned in and shoved the chair up the last steps to the brown and white front door. “Just tired, Dad. Not as young as I once was, you know.”

The old man chuckled. “None of us are.”

Grace turned the chair sharply about, opened the door, and started back over the threshold.

Nelson pointed a shaky finger at a Bhuac male in a trim, green uniform, brown, military-style boots, and with a severe haircut strolling toward them. “What’s he want?”

Grace shuddered.

“Lawman? That you?” Nelson’s wide grin accompanied his beckoning wave. “It’s been some time since you wandered down this way, Sir.”

Lawman offered a professional smile, but his gaze swept over Grace with anxious wrinkles around his eyes. He shook the old man’s hand. “It has.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry to hear about your wife. I was off-planet—”

Nelson waved the concern aside. “It’s better this way. She doesn’t have to slave away over a decrepit, old fool anymore.”

Lawman’s eyes flashed to Grace again.

Grace’s impenetrable stare focused on the park across the road.

Lawman gestured weakly with a pained look in his eye. “With Grace here, you’ll always be well looked after.”

Nelson’s chuckle sounded like a cackle. “She’s wasting her life on me—but I can’t seem to get her to leave.” His grin widened as he stared Lawman in the eye. “So, what can we help you with? Or is this a social call?”

Lawman’s back straightened. “I just wanted to check in and see if I can be of service. You’re one of our first human settlers on Helm, and I’d hate—”

Nelson’s voice boomed. “Don’t be ridiculous! We’re not going anywhere; are we Grace? Quite happy here. Couldn’t stand Lux with that bright sun in my eyes every minute and all those high and mighties zipping about. Never knew when one might be in the room with you. Now, you Bhuacs may be shapeshifters, but at least you have respect for human sensibilities. You maintain your form, and nice forms they are too, quite pleasing—”

Lawman’s eyes strayed over to Grace. “You’re happy here, Grace?”

Grace’s stiff smile matched her stony gaze. “I’m happy wherever I’m needed.” She sucked in a deep breath. “And, at the moment, I am needed in the kitchen. It must be past noon.”

Lawman nodded. “Certainly. Don’t let me keep you. Good day.” He dropped a smile on Nelson and backed away.

Grace maneuvered the wheelchair over the threshold and started to close the door.

Suddenly, Lawman gripped the edge and leaned in, peering into Grace’s face. “Oh, and Grace, we know…about it.” He nodded decisively. “You mustn’t let it ever happen again.”

An icy gleam narrowed Grace’s eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She swung her father’s chair around and let the heavy door fall shut. Her shoulders hunched up near her ears as she pushed the chair into a large, well-lit kitchen with a built-in oven next to a six-foot cabinet. She parked the wheelchair next to a cushioned recliner with a small table attached on one end.

Nelson swiveled his body from the wheelchair onto the recliner and plopped down with a long sigh. He snatched a datapad from the table and began to scroll through.

Grace pulled a container from a freezer unit, popped it into the wall-oven, and tapped a console. Efficiently, she laid the counter and her father’s table with bowls, utensils, and linen napkins. As she poured golden liquid into sparkling, crystal glasses, her father snorted. Her head snapped up.

Nelson’s eyes stayed glued to his datapad, but a smile played around his lips. “Silly fool. What’s he think he’s going do? Send me back to Lux? Imprison you?”

Grace froze. Her eyes rolled over to her father. “What are you talking about?”

Nelson slapped the datapad onto his lap with one eyebrow cocked. “Oh, please. You didn’t honestly think you could murder my wife without anyone noticing, did you?”

Grace reached out and leaned heavily on the counter, barely a breath escaping between her lips. “Oh, God.”

Nelson waived the sentiment away. “God had little to do with it, I’m sure. Besides, I’m not angry. Frankly, the old biddy was driving me mad. I’m sure that every Bhuac this side of the Divide felt sorry for me. You know, Lawman tried to talk me out of marrying Mara. Said she was unstable.” Nelson snorted. “Right about that! She may have looked like a nymph on steroids, but she acted like an Ingoti drug—”

Grace squared her shoulders and faced her father. “How long have you known?” Her blinking eyes searched the room as she wrung her hands together. “You don’t think Lawman will—”

Nelson’s eyes softened as he beckoned his daughter nearer. “Listen, it was my fault, really. I thought she’d liven up my final years. How was I to know she’d—”

Grace slapped the counter and swallowed, her gaze fixed on her father’s side table. “I poisoned her.”

“Aw, heck, she was poisoning me. Well, my sunset years, so to speak. Forget about it.” Nelson picked up his datapad and tapped it. “It won’t happen again. It’s not like you’re a serial killer or anything.” He grinned and darted a glance at his daughter before returning to his pad. “Then I’d have to poison you.”

Grace’s cooled gaze traveled from her father’s bowl to the cabinet and back to his bowl.

~~~

When Omega’s shadow appeared in Grace Nelson’s bedroom that night, she stifled a scream. Catching her breath, she gritted her teeth. “Lawman, is that you? Trying to scare me—”

Omega, dressed in a flowing, purple tunic with green leggings and orange slippers held up a long-fingered hand and huffed. “Hardly!” He circled the perimeter of the room. “I’ve been watching you, Grace Nelson, and I think you’re on the brink of great self-discovery.” He stroked his chin. “Or self-destruction.”

Grace took a step closer, her hands balled into fists. “Who the h—?”

Omega flourished a graceful bow. “My name is Omega, last son of…oh, never mind. Listen, human, I’m trying to save your miserable life and offer you a chance. The Bhuaci are notoriously suspicious of strangers, and you certainly put their hackles up by killing one of their own, even though they admit—privately of course—that Mara’s moons weren’t in proper alignment—as they say.”

Grace sat on the edge of her bed and rubbed her temple. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Omega flicked his index finger upwards and a small town appeared floating in mid-air. Humans bustled in and out of markets, and cars rolled down the dusty roads.

Grace stood up, fascinated, staring at the scene. “Is that a hologram—from somewhere?”

Omega pursed his lips. “That, my dear woman, is Mirage-Reborn—your new home.”

“Home? Don’t be stupid. Why would I go there? It looks primitive. There’s not even—”

Omega snapped his fingers and the town disappeared. “Because, Grace Nelson, if you don’t go there, you will be murdered here.”

Grace froze. “But my father….”

Omega laughed. “Don’t worry; we’ll bring him along. After all, he’s the reason you need to leave. Your mother didn’t die in her sleep like he says—she was very much awake—poor thing. Father like daughter, I always say.” Throwing his arm over her shoulder, he led her back to bed. “Get some sleep, Grace, and I’ll arrange everything in the morning.”

Grace stumbled onto her bed, pulled her covers close under her chin, closed her eyes, and wondered who she should trust—this stranger named Omega or the father she had never really known.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Short Story: Drama Trauma

Kelly shuffled forward in line at the Save-All Market and averted her eyes.

Directly in front of her, a woman with spiky hair and dangling earrings swatted a heavyset four-year-old as she tossed items on the counter.

The girl whined a long, high-pitched squeal.

The woman swatted again and flung an iPhone into the child’s grubby hand. Gleefully, the child tapped the screen, and suddenly a Disney movie theme blared.

Kelly’s gaze grazed the cashier’s face in the midst of an eye roll.

A young man wearing an orange uniform and carrying a sweeper stepped near. He waved at the little girl and grinned. “One of my favorites, too.”

The woman swung around and glared, one arm barring the child from leaning forward. “Get away from her, pervert!”

Kelly’s eyes rounded as she watched the young man back away, hunch his shoulders, and with grieved eyes, begin sweeping near the restrooms.

“Twenty-five dollars and eighty cents.” The cashier pushed her glasses up her nose and waited, her eyes fixed on the space above the woman’s head.

As Kelly fumbled to unload her purchases, her gaze meandered to the newspaper selection. On the left, bold headlines screamed: “Aliens Alive and Menacing on Mars!” Before she had time to consider the possibilities, much less the syntax, a man jostled her arm as he snatched a magazine with a full-color picture of a terrorist holding a severed head with the headline: “World War III Imminent.”

“Fourteen sixty-five.” The cashier considered the state of her nails.

Kelly slipped her card through the scanner mechanically as the woman and child struggled for control of the iPhone. She could hear their sharp argument rise to hypersonic pitch as she scurried her cart to the door. Another swat set off a long wail.

Maneuvering her car across the parking lot, Kelly spotted a disheveled man with long, stringy hair and a tattered coat huddled on the corner where she had to turn. Kelly’s heart raced. How fast could she pass him? Or should she stop and give him something? The man, in his forties maybe but roughly used, held a sign. “Out of work and going blind—Please help.”

Kelly knew she had a ten dollar bill in the front pocket of her purse, but it would take a lot of agility to get it out, steer close enough to hand it out, and not tick off the line of cars behind her. Kelly sped up.

Once on the highway, Kelly began to breathe a little easier. Then a series of red revolving lights caught her eye. She slowed and peered at a police officer waving traffic onto one lane. “Oh heck.” Kelly blew air between her lips and tapped the steering wheel.

As she navigated to the left, she glanced over and saw a smashed truck cab and a mangled tractor. An ambulance siren wailed nearby, and a woman sat on the embankment, her head in her hands. She seemed to be sobbing. Kelly’s attention snapped back to the road. The police officer waved her on.

When she finally picked up speed, Kelly darted a glance at her watch. She’d be late for class if she didn’t hurry. Her foot pressed the pedal nearer the floor. She upped the volume on her favorite music and lost herself in scenes from a horror movie she had seen over the weekend.

When she slipped into her seat, her professor waved to a large screen in the front of the room. “Today, we will focus on the oppressive state of our culture and how we are destroying our world.” Kelly tapped on her recorder. This would be on the exam—no doubt about it.

By the time she pushed her way through the front door late that night, Kelly’s shoulders drooped, and she had a splitting headache. A light shone in the kitchen, so she wandered inside.

Her mom, wrapped in a garish orange bathrobe, sat plowing through a quart of chocolate ice cream.

Kelly tossed her car keys on the counter and nodded.

Her mom nodded back. “Lousy day. You?”

Kelly shuffled to the cabinet, snatched up a rumpled bag of broken cookies, and grabbed a spoon out of an open drawer. “Nothing new. You know—same ol’, same ol’.” She plopped down beside her mother, poured the cookies on the table, and dug in.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Short Story: A New Life for Lucius Pollex

The fight was inevitable. The outcome was not….

Sweat poured down Lucius Pollex’s face as heat seared the hairs on his arms. A blast knocked him to his knees. He sucked in a lung full of air. Suddenly, a baby’s wail pierced the smoke-filled corridor.

“Oh, God.” Lucius’ muscles gleamed as he crawled forward. He could hear Captain Akio’s voice ringing in his ears. “Keep the governor safe—at all costs. She’s more important than the entire force put together.” Lucius shook his head and choked, nearly sobbing for air.

“Matthews! Governor Matthews! Can you hear—?”

A terrified shriek split the air.

A hologram picture of Governor Matthews signing an Inter-Alien Alliance treaty between the Friezing Outpost and the Crestonian government while cradling a newborn baby in her other arm filled his mind. The sight had left him incredulous. She was a woman of renowned diplomatic abilities, but over the year and a half he had served her, his doubt had turned to silent awe.

Lucius’ shoulder grazed a corner. On his right, he heard the incessant screams of a terrified baby, on his left a blocked doorway led to the governor’s private office. An explosion rocked the ship. He banged his head against the wall and struggled to stay conscious. With a fist, he pounded the closed door.

“Governor Matthews!”

The shrieks dwindled to a whimper wafting from the open doorway. Lucius turned, rose to his feet, and staggered in.

~~~

Dressed in prison garb, Lucius awoke to a light beam focused on his eyes. He sat up, cupping his hands over his face as his prosthetic feet hit the cold stone floor.

“Get up. They’re waiting for you.”

Lucius stood and faced his jailor, a short, blond man with the name tag “Officer Quinn” imprinted on his uniform. A small man who obviously delighted in small power. What would he do with great power? Lucius shuddered.

Quinn jabbed Lucius’ in the chest with the tip of his Dustbuster. “If you’re found guilty, you’re mine—forever.”

Lucius shrugged. “Not forever.”

“It’ll feel like it before long.” Quinn gestured through the doorway. “Let’s go.”

Lucius tripped. The lifeless prosthetics never moved as quickly as he expected. He righted himself; his gaze stayed fixed straight ahead.

~~~

In the courtroom, Lucius stood on a center dais with his hands clasped behind his back. Quinn stood near at hand, his Dustbuster at the ready. Frisian and Crestonian representatives sat in the wings.

The Crestonian judge tapped two tentacles together. “We find you guilty of gross negligence in the performance of your duty and hereby sentence you to—”

Lucius’ gaze wandered from the scene and retreated to the moment he clasped the baby girl in his arms and held her tight against the searing flames. He had little memory of the rest of his rescue mission, only the moment he awoke to discover that the baby was gone and so were his feet. Why they blamed him was of little importance. They had to blame someone, and he was expendable. The Frisians and Crestonians would agree on that at least.

On the way back to his cell, Lucius stumped along in silence.

Quinn’s grin appeared almost boyish. “What the hell did you expect? It’s not like the baby was really worth it or anything. She’s dead now, you know. Lung damage—”

Without a minuscule change in expression, Lucius reached out and gripped Quinn by the throat. He squeezed. Even when Quinn nudged the Dustbuster between them, and alarms blared throughout the corridors of Bothmal prison, Lucius kept squeezing.

~~~

Suddenly, Lucius felt a jolt sear through his body. He assumed he had just disintegrated to the tune of Quinn’s Dustbuster, but to his amazement he found himself standing in a field of daisies. Lucius raised his hands and examined them. He pinched his arm. A chuckle made him turn around.

“No, you’re not dead.” Omega, wearing a brown jerkin and tan, cotton pants waved Lucius forward. “Nothing of the kind. Come, let’s get you settled before I go.”

Lucius took a tentative step forward and tripped.

Omega sighed. “Yes, sorry, I didn’t fix them. Not yet, anyway. But your weakness will prove your strength.” Omega smiled airily. “Right now, I just want you to rest up for new challenges. I’ve got a whole world waiting for you.”

Lucius folded his arms across his chest and allowed his eyes to absorb the glory of a copse of woods and the flower-strewn field all around him. Slowly, his gaze wanted back to Omega. “And you are—?”

Omega sniffed and clapped his hands together. “Yes, of course. I always forget. Not everyone in the universe acknowledges me as lord and master.” He stepped forward and flourished a formal bow. “I am Omega, last son of my father, a being of wisdom and dignity who will soon become like a father to you as well. He is the creator of Mirage-Reborn—your new home.” Omega waved to the right, and a small, thatched cottage appeared. “But before I send you home, you need rest and time to adjust.”

Lucius shook his head. “Why? I mean, why save—”

Omega strode to the cottage door and swung it wide with an even wider smile. “For the same reason I do everything. I need something from you.”

Lucius stroked his chin as his eyebrows rose. “You? Need something from me?”

Omega shrugged with a tilt of his head. “You see, I must discover if the impossible is possible.” His gaze delved deep into Lucius’ eyes. “I am settling Quinn on Mirage-Reborn with you. I’d prefer you not kill him.”

Lucius’ eyes widened.

Omega waved his hand. “And he’s not to kill you, of course.”

A red bird burst from the grove of oaks along the edge of the woods behind the cottage and soared into the air.

Lucius caught his breath, and then let his gaze land on Omega once more. “I’ve already been found guilty of—”

Omega laughed. “That’s why I chose you, such an honest man!” Omega gestured toward the doorway. “It is well provisioned, and you will have plenty of time to rest up. My father, Abbas, will retrieve you when he’s ready. But now, I really must go. I’m terribly late.” Omega raised his hand in salute.

Lucius shouted. “Wait! I don’t understand—”

Omega grinned as his figure faded into the sunset; his voice carrying even after the last glimmer of his sparkling eyes disappeared. “We all have impossible choices to make.”

Lucius’ hands flapped to his side as he sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. He gazed at the natural beauty before him and took his first step toward home.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Short Story: Decorum

Josie hated going to parties though she often spent hours imagining what they would be like before hand. This party, a fundraiser for her father’s high school alma mater, involved an actual meal with fancy china, long-stemmed glasses, and two forks. She entered the reception area and instantly knew that she wore an invisibility cloak. Not only did no one look her direction, two people actually bumped into her as they headed across the room, apparently thinking they could walk right through her. She tugged at her black dress, trying to keep it from riding up her legs. It was already too short for her comfort, but her mom had insisted that it was the style nowadays. Yeah, stylish. That was Josie. About as stylish as a Jerusalem cricket on a potato leaf. Sheesh. Couldn’t anyone make dresses that fit a human body these days? Josie crept to a corner and hoped that her invisibility cloak would hide her from her parents as well as the scintillating society of Riverside High.

~~~

Kendrick Murphy tugged at his tie, flapped his hands at his side, and wondered if it would be rude to put his hands in his pockets. Why on earth had he agreed to this? Yes, he did want to support a worthy cause. Yes, he had spent four hideously bored years here, and he saw no reason to neglect the current generation’s allotment of torturous education. But. Still. Well, at least Jane was having a stupendous time. She swirled around the reception room like a ballroom dancer. And all eyes danced with her.

Whoa! Was that Mac? MacMcDermit? The football coach? Why hell, the man hadn’t aged a day! Oh, no, of course not. Too young. No wrinkles around the eyes. Oh, Lord in Heaven, that’s his son. There he is, shuffling on the boy’s right. Good, God! How he’s aged!

Kendrick stepped closer, leaned in, and nodded his head. Yep. This whole evening is some kind of retro-inferiority-complex come to haunt me.

 ~~~

Jane’s smile began to ache. Her gaze scoured the room. Where in the world was Josie? She ought to be helping out. Oh, there in a corner, hiding, as usual. Jane patted the arm of the lady in front of her, Sue Some-thing-or-other, and swayed over to the dark side of the room. As she drew closer, she wiggled two fingers expressively toward Josie.

Josie’s eyes widened in terror. Oh, no! She wants me out there. Where everyone is mingling, chatting, and pretending to have a marvelous time. Me. And. My. Invisibility Cloak. Out There?

Jane laid a hand on Josie’s shoulder. “You’re too timid for your own good; now look at your father over there. He’s chatting away with that old man and some young guy as if they’re old friends.”

Josie refrained from stating the obvious. She tried to disappear entirely, but her mom’s hand would not let her dematerialize.

“Listen, I know how hard it is.” Jane leaned in and whispered. “I hate these things too. I always feel like a fool, wondering what everyone says the second I turn my back.”

Josie blinked as if someone had just shoved a light in her face.

“But listen, honey, it’s part of life, part of growing up. We have to do these things. It’s called social decorum. You need to get good at it.”

Josie blushed and stared at her high heeled shoes.

“All you have to do is walk around and introduce yourself. Say that your dad went here and that you—”

A tall man in his late fifties sauntered over swishing a drink in his hand. “Hey, are you Gracie? You remember—”

Jane gave her daughter a little shove. “Off you go now. Be nice. Make friends.”

Josie nearly tripped, but she tottered into the noisy room. Her dad was talking sports with the old guy. Well, at least he’s saved. She looked back over her shoulder. Her mom had dragged the tall man over to a crowd of women, and suddenly there was a burst of laughter. Apparently, the tall man just met the real Gracie. Josie stood in the middle of the room and wondered how long until the appalling dinner and the hour of retreat. Her gaze fell on a thin, short girl about her age standing in the shadows—her shadows.

When Josie sauntered up, she met the girl’s eyes as they fixed on her. Josie shrugged. “You here with your dad?”

The girl shrugged back. “My mom.” She pointed. “Over there.”

Josie glanced to the far side of the room. A short, plump woman with striking red hair and a tight dress exchanged laughs with a bubbly assortment of guests. “Well, at least she’s having fun.” Josie turned and stuck out a limp hand. “My name’s Josie.

The girl returned the handshake, limp for limp, like two octopus tentacles passing in deep water. “Karen. Nice to meet you.”

She has good manners. Wish I’d thought to say that. “Nice to meet you, too.” Josie surveyed the bar on the right and realized that there wasn’t a single soda bottle among them. Hopeless. “So, where do you—”

The lights flickered, and conversation stopped for a second before it picked up to the tune of everyone strolling toward the dining room.

Karen teetered on her heels, sticking close to Josie’s side. As they entered the huge room lit by ornate chandeliers and arrayed with round tables decorated with flowers and fine dinnerware, Karen froze. “Oh, no. I don’t know which fork to use. I meant to ask mom, but I forgot.”

Josie grinned. She tugged at her dress and watched her Mom and Dad sit side-by-side looking into each other’s eyes as if they shared a grim secret. Suddenly, she understood.

Decorum. Society. Two forks.

“Use the one on the outside first. But don’t worry. No one will notice. They’re scared too. Trust me.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Short Story: Crucible

My eighth-grade teacher once said that a crucible was a really tough situation where guys with serious attitude issues go up against each other, but something good usually comes out of it. Well, looking at it like that, I’d have to say, I’ve done serious time in a crucible of my own.

In eighth grade, I couldn’t decide whether to go onto high school or drop out entirely. I wasn’t a great student. Not the worst—but failing on my own terms, if you know what I mean.

My sister went into the Navy, and my older brother, J. J., was into stuff. My little brother was toddling about the place, and mama was still carrying the baby on her hip like a sack of groceries. She wanted me to go on in school and told me to get extra help. I wasn’t about to ask for any, but then my teacher told me that there was this college lady, Kelsey, who needed to earn points or something for her teaching degree. She needed someone to tutor, and he thought I could use the practice.

The first day Kelsey came after school, I was a little nervous. She was a bookish type—short hair, glasses, dark sweater, and a real stiff handshake—though nice enough.

We went to the library, and Kelsey asked me what I liked to read. I pulled out a book about a sports hero, and she smiled. I can still remember that smile. We met after school for weeks, and every day I read a little better. She’d asked me questions—what I thought about a character or what might happen next. She didn’t seem to care that I skipped over some of the words, or that I couldn’t pronounce the names. It was about getting inside the writer’s head and figuring out why the story mattered. I liked that. Understanding the whole point made it work for me. Kelsey would say, “Motivation is everything, James.”

One day, I had to hurry home. There’s been trouble between Mama and J. J., and I was worried, but Kelsey said she’d come with me so that we could read at home. I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. My house was on the other side of the river, and I doubted she’d ever been in that part of town before. But Kelsey said she’d be okay with it. So—we went.

Mama greeted Kelsey like a long lost cousin, all smiles, and a big slapping handshake. I looked around for J. J., but he was nowhere insight. The baby was sweating in her diaper, and Mama went back to fixing supper. Kelsey and I sat at the kitchen table, and we started on the last chapter of the book. I had already figured out the ending; I had kinda looked ahead a few days back. I also knew that this would be our last meeting since Kelsey had graduated and taken a job in the northwest.

Suddenly, J.J. stomped in and started yelling—screaming his head off. I didn’t know what had set him off this time, but his glazed, red eyes and waving arms told me all I really needed to know. Kelsey rose to her feet like she was expecting to be introduced, but J.J. got in her face and screamed some more.

“Why didn’t nobody ever help me? What’s so damn important about James that he gets all the attention?”

Kelsey stood her ground, but she couldn’t break through. She said she’d help him if she could, but I knew it was hopeless. J. J. didn’t want to read.

After a bit, J. J. blew out of the kitchen as fast and furious as he had blown in.

Mama went over to Kelsey and lifted a big, black skillet she had in her hand. “I would’ve banged him over the head if he’d have taken another step.” Poor Mama was shaking all over—from rage or fear I didn’t know. Probably both.

Anyway, I knew our time was over. Kelsey had given me her best effort, and I appreciated it, but it was time to move on. Her last words that day were: “Don’t forget the last chapter, James; it’s often the most important.”

I can’t remember the last chapter of that sports book. It didn’t matter much. But the skillet in Mom’s hand and Kelsey’s courage did. I found a job working across the river and, though it took me some time, I did make it through high school. I never went to college, but I got a good job. J.J. did some time in prison, and then one day my sister found him od’ed in his room.

When I think back to all the things I’ve done, the people I’ve known—like Kelsey and mom—and how things turned out for J. J., I’ve got to say that something good came from my crucible. I started reading my life, and I got motivated to write a really good last chapter.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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