A Connection

Selma was freezing. As she rubbed her frozen fingers together, she stomped her booted feet on the floor and started humming a lively tune she used to sing to the boys when they were babies. Ach! It wasn’t helping. Dang ice storm, falling tree branches, and downed power lines!

“Mom, I’ve got to get to work. You know…keep the pipes from freezing and the food from thawing.”

Selma waved her son away with a nod. “You’re a one in a million, boy.”

Her son laughed as he headed out the door. “You know my motto—Take no excuses, give no excuses.” He glanced back with an impish grin. “Sides, Bradley is already there, and he’ll give me hell if I don’t show up.”

The light was fading and her hurricane lamps were just about out of juice. There wasn’t a chance in the Kingdom that she’d be able to get more light or heat before tomorrow. She fed the dogs the last of their Alpo—as yet unfrozen—and wandered around the lonely, dark house. Icy branches swayed from the gleaming trees and powdery snow blew ghost-like swirls along the ground.

Once back in the kitchen, she filled her icy mug with the dregs of her cold coffee and peered at a large bag of old newspapers in the corner. “Wish we had a fireplace, I’d make the biggest bon—” She blinked.

In the backyard, the brick-lined fire pit staunchly faced the bitter winds without concern. Selma bit her lip. She could barely feel her fingers or her toes. Ice was crusting around the edge of her cup.

Without further thought, she dragged on her heavy coat, snatched a bottle of kerosene and a pack of matches from the cabinet, and lugged the bag of old papers out the back door to the fire pit. She dumped the sack in the center, squeezed the remaining Kerosene on top, and managed to light one match, which she flicked into the dark mess.

Instant bonfire!

She raced back into the house, got her mug and practically danced around the fire, turning around and around so as to warm her outsides and her insides and thaw her coffee in an orderly manner.

“Ahhh…you okay?”

Selma froze, her cup held out to the licking fingers of the flames like a devotee making an oblation to a fire god. She glanced aside and forced a grin.

Her neighbor, Jason, a respectable man in his forties, stood facing her—his eyebrows up, his legs jiggling, and his hands tucked into his armpits. “You don’t usually have a cookout this time of the year.” He stuck out one finger. “What you trying to do?”

Selma straightened and held out her mug. “Thaw out my coffee.”

The man blinked and peered into Selma’s backyard. “That your power line laying on the ground?”

“Sure is. The tree decided to shed a few limbs before summer and the line got in the way.” She started turning again. “So I gotta do, what I gotta do to get a decent cuppa before I settle in to freeze for the night.”

Jason trotted forward and threw a wave in Sema’s direction. “You’re coming home with me for a decent cuppa. Joyce and the girls are playing Monopoly and killing their old man. I could use a good excuse to get out of jail.”

A tug of shyness tugged at Selma’s composure. “I don’t want to interrupt…I know how you value your family time.”

“Oh, hell, family time includes freezing neighbors, don’t it?”

~~~

As she entered the brightly lit and gloriously warm kitchen, Selma noted the clean counters, the colorful row of assorted coats hanging on wall pegs by the door, a sterling sink unencumbered by dirty dishes, and an empty coffee pot sitting by it’s lonesome on the edge of the counter.

Guilt washed over her. “You probably have everything set for tomorrow. I hate to—”

Like a cat batting a ball of string, Jason swiped the air. “Forget it. We’re a social family, as you know. Not a Friday goes by that we don’t have people over.”

“But this is Sunday.”

Jason nodded to the living room. “So? Jeanne picked Friday for our socials. I pick Sunday to rescue neighbors.” He shrugged. “Seems fair to me.”

Selma perched on the edge of a stool and peered into the living room. When Jeanne glanced up, Jason bellowed. “Her power’s out. I’m making a cup of coffee to thaw her hands so she doesn’t have to set the neighborhood on fire.”

Jeanne called back. “Sounds good. You’re still in jail as far as we’re concerned.”

Jason snorted. “Every man’s dream wife.”

Selma’s throat tightened as she watched Jason prepare the pot.

Clicking on the red button with a little flourish, he grinned. “Takes two minutes.” He pulled up a stool and leaned across the counter. “Your boys at work?”

Selma nodded, unable to speak.

Jason sighed. “They’re good kids. Hard working as all get-out. I like that. Don’t see that in most kids these days.” He swept his hand toward the living room. “Care to give any parting advice? My girls are a little…shall we say…”

With a quick glance over her shoulder and a rush of embarrassment burning her face, Selma cleared her throat. “Can’t give any real advice. My boys work hard cause they have to. Their dad cut out years ago, and I only work part-time. So if they want to eat and live in a decent place…” She shrugged.

“Where’s he now?”

“Dead. Suicide. A troubled man. Still, I loved him…once. He was the boys’ father.” She peered into her clasped, chilled hands. “Never made any sense to me.”

Jason returned to the coffee maker and tapped the pot as if he could make it work quicker. “Sorry. Shouldn’t have asked. I just wondered…”

“Nothing to be sorry about. Just…” The exhaustion of battling the cold and darkness swept over Selma. “You know, experience is a great teacher, but it doesn’t give a lot of answers. The thing with raising kids is that they got to see a connection between themselves and the world around ’em. You give them love and support, but they gotta know that they aren’t in control all the time. But still, they have to be responsible for their part.”

The rich aroma of coffee filled the room as the black liquid poured into the empty pot. A cheer rose from the living room and one of the girls giggled.

Jason’s smile wavered as he glanced from the living room back to Selma. “You want to spend the night here? We’ve got a perfectly good couch.” He poured a cup of steaming coffee and handed it to Selma.

Selma shook her head. “Naw. This is great. Thanks. But I’ve got to keep the water running to keep the pipes from freezing and check on the dogs and…you know. I want to be home when the boys get back.”

Jason nodded and poured himself a cup.

~~~

As Selma heard the boys bumble through the front door, down the cold hallway, and into their frozen beds late that night, she pictured the warm house next door. The clean kitchen. The kids playing with their mom. Jason and his gentle kindness.

Though the coffee had only warmed her for a bit, she knew as she settled into bed wearing five sweaters and two pairs of sweatpants that she would sleep well tonight. The bonfire had burned out quickly. The power company had promised to be their first stop in the morning, and her boys were safe and sound.

For the first time in months, she felt warm all over.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Eternity Come to Earth

Frying chicken has its hazards. Tom stood back and considered the state of his kitchen. Flour covered the counter, grease specked the stovetop, blood dripped down the side of the sink, and the smoke alarm was blaring.

His eldest daughter, Katie, jogged forward, snatched a towel off the drainer and started waving it under the alarm. She glanced back at her dad. “You could take the fryer off.”

Tom sighed, dropped the last piece of chicken onto the serving dish and pulled the smoking fryer off the hotspot on the stove. He looked around as three more kids sauntered into the kitchen. He waved to the youngest. “Set the table, would you, Meg?”

Rolling her eyes and slouching her shoulders as if she had been asked to drain a swamp, Megan lumbered over to the cabinet and started piling plates into her arms.

Without comment, her older sister Martha placed knives and forks at each place with surgical precision.

Joey leaned against the wall. “I’ll be helping at the Lawson’s after school this week. So if you need something, you’ll have to tell Carl.”

Tom shut out the image of a stack of wood that needed to be split and his eleven-year-old’s last attempt to wield an ax. He frowned. “Where is Carl?”

“Out in the woods…as usual.” Meg simpered. “He wants to be a Nordic invader.”

Katie grinned as she sliced a warm loaf of homemade bread. “Don’t be silly. He wants to be an explorer…travel to distant lands and—”

Martha placed her hands on her hips, her brows drawn down in severe lines. “He needs to get practical. Joey found a good job…Carl could do the same. If he tried.”

“Like you work so hard!” Megan threw up her hands and blew a strand of hair away from her face.

Rubbing his temple, Tom slid onto his chair and dropped his head onto his hands. “Guys. No quarreling. You know how it makes me feel.”

Dead silence filled the room.

Tom felt Katie’s firm hand on his shoulder. “You’ve been working hard, Dad. Eat some dinner, and we can clear up.”

Fighting back tears, Tom waited a moment to gain his composure. Breathing through a quick prayer, Tom lifted his head at the sound of footsteps running into the room.

“Sorry, I forgot the time. Is that fried chicken?” Carl’s face lit up in boyish joy.

Tom waved to the sink. “Wash your hands first.”

As the chicken, mashed potatoes, a green salad, and canned slices of peaches were laid on the table and just as quickly consumed, Tom toyed with his food. He knew he needed to drop a bomb, but he wasn’t sure how to do it.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Uh, kids, I’ve got something to tell you.”

All heads rose and five pairs of eyes focused on their father.

“I’ve decided to put the house up for sale. We’re going to move to Wisconsin to be closer to Grandma and Grandpa.”

Silence.

“I know you love this place, but—”

Katie stood up. “You can’t, Dad!” Tears filled his eldest daughter’s eyes.
“It was bad enough the younger ones don’t get to grow up with a mom, but you want to take them away from the only home they’ve ever known. How could you?” She flung herself out of the kitchen while every gaze dropped to the floor.

Tom’s stomach churned. The chicken he had forced down seemed to flutter about as if it was still alive. He exhaled a long breath and reviewed the rest of his despondent clan.

Martha wiped her hands with her napkin and pushed away from the table. “It’s gonna be hard, but I think you’re acting sensibly, Dad. We can’t take care of this place, and besides, there are better high schools up there. We’ll have grandma and papa to help so you can go to work without worrying all the time…”

As his second child began to clear the dishes, Joey silently stood and started for the door.

Tom cleared his throat. “Nothing from you, then?”

Joey shrugged. “I like helping out at the farm, but Wisconsin has farms too. And the city has… things.”

Tom felt tears flood his eyes again. “Like what?”

“Museums…a zoo.” He glanced at his little brother. “As long as we can get to nature once in a while…see some animals…it won’t be so bad.” He bunched his hands into his pockets and opened the door. “I’m going out.”

Tom nodded and watched his eldest boy lumber across the threshold. His gaze shifted to his two youngest. Carl sat slump-shouldered and unmoving. Meg peered up and met his gaze, her eyebrows raised.

“You have a question, Meg?”

“Are you going to get a new job?”

“Kind of. I’ll still do the same work, but there’s a new opening at the branch in Madison. You’ll get to be around more of the family. Lots of kids on the Leonard side…”

Meg slid from her seat and stopped before her father, pressing her body against his knees. “It’s okay, dad. I get it. Joey had to find another home for Molly cat last year.”

A laugh strangled his cry, as Tom hugged his daughter. Brushing her hair away, he stared into her deep-set blue eyes. “I love you.”

Meg grinned. “Yeah. Me too. I mean, love you, too, dad.”

Martha beckoned her little sister. “Come here, twerp, and help me do the dishes.”

Her grin widening, Meg tugged a towel off the rack. “I’ll beat you to the last dish.”

Martha shook her head. “I’ll wash; you dry. Then I’ll put them away. But tomorrow, you gotta set the table for breakfast.”

Meg stuck out her hand to seal the deal.

Tom leaned back on his chair, the heavy rock of depression lifting ever so slightly from his chest. He eyed his second son. “You okay, Carl.”

Carl shrugged.

Tom leaned on his elbows and clasped his hands. “Joey is right. There is a great zoo in the city. We went there once when you were small. You probably don’t remember—”

Carl fixed his gaze on the floor.

Katie stepped into the room, opened the closet and pulled out the broom. She started sweeping.

Tom watched and waited. He bit his lip. He started to open his mouth, but he could hear his wife’s voice in his mind. “Give ‘em time, Tom. Big changes are made of small moments.”

As he stood, he pressed Carl’s shoulder. “Let me know…when you want to talk about it…questions…anything.”

Tom stepped from the kitchen into the lamp-lit living room and peered through the front window into the evening horizon. Joey stood against a setting sun, his body outlined in crimson.

Loneliness engulfed Tom, though he wasn’t really alone. Catherine lingered in his mind and soul, and his kids tugged at every sinew in his body. Still, he had to make the hard call, the necessary decisions. He was the dad. God’s appointed to protect and provide for his family.

He felt Katie stop beside him, her broom in her hand. She shuffled her feet. “Sorry.”

“It’s hard. I know.”

Katie gripped her broom like a soldier about to enter the battlefield. “Go on…get Carl and walk that invisible line between day and night. Mom used to say that it was Eternity come to Earth.”

Tom opened the front door, felt a surge of fresh air enter his lungs. He called into the kitchen. “Come on, Carl. There’s wood to stack, and tomorrow you’re going to help me chop the rest of the pile.”

Carl stepped forward, blinking and hesitant. “You sure?”

“Yep. Let’s do what we can tonight. Tomorrow will be here soon enough.”

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

For the First Time in Months

Standing outside the huge garage door, Madge fumbled with her keys and then handed them over to the serviceman.

Without a word, he took them and nodded.

Buttoning her coat against a bitter late winter wind, Madge forced a grin. “Sorry, I’m so clumsy. I was out at the zoo, showing the school kids the monkeys—kind of a funny how they play off each other—but dang my hands get so cold, I could probably freeze water, like one of those superhuman types on TV.”

The service guy grinned and started away. “Well, if you want to sign for the order inside, we can get things moving so you don’t have to wait too long.” He stopped by her car, frowned at the tires, circled around and shook his head. He opened the service door and stood aside.

Nervous anxiety rippled through Madge’s body as she traipsed inside. She tossed her bulky purse onto the high counter. She glanced at the nameplate with Rick written in bold letters, next to a family photo with a pretty wife and two adorable kids.

Rick punched numbers into a calculator.

Marge swallowed back her fear. “So before you get too far, you want to tell me what I’m looking at? I mean, it’s just the oil change, right?”

Rick looked up, an appraising expression on his face. “Truth is, your two front tires are as bald as any I’ve ever seen. I’m surprised you made it through the winter on those things. Your steering wheel has more tread on it.”

Madge’s courage fell to the cement floor. “Well, I’ve been hoping they would make it to June. I only have to drive into the city twice a week, so I figured—”

The horrified look on Rick’s face forced her to grip her courage with both hands. She swallowed hard. “You’re right. It’s not safe. For me or anyone. Okay, I’ll get new ones. Can you get something a little better than what I have now? These only lasted a couple years..”

With obvious relief, Rick nodded and started tapping the calculator again. “We’ll take you up a step and with the oil change we’re looking at…”

Marge knew he was looking at a number larger than anything she had in her checking account. Or would likely have in the near future. When he was done with the detailed costs, tax, she sucked in a fresh breath and pulled her bag forward. “Do you mind if I call my bank? I’ll transfer what I have from savings…and then” —she squinted as if the light hurt her eyes— “maybe you’d let me make monthly payments on the rest? I’m good for it. It’ll just take three…four months tops. My job…well…it’s not one of those high paying ones.”

Rick nodded. “That’s fine. I’ll have to order these now, and when they come in, we can get everything done at once. Will that work?”

Pulling her phone from her purse, Madge exhaled. “Yep. I’ll call the bank now and pay you what I can and then—”

A man behind Marge cleared his throat.

With a frown, Rick peered over Madge’s head.

Marge started for the door. “I’ll go outside. I can’t get any reception in here anyway.” The wind had died down, and Marge soaked in the noonday sunshine. Her heart pounded as she pressed the phone to her ear. A tap on the shoulder turned her attention.

Rick stood before her, a strange expression on his face. “Hey, don’t worry about it. Just go home, and I’ll call you when I have everything set. Okay?”

A fresh blast of frigid air careened through her thin coat. She peered at the service door. “You sure?”

“Yeah. No problem. I’ve got some things to take care of right now, but I’ll call you about arranging the balance and payment.”

As Marge gave Rick her phone number, she wondered if she had accomplished anything. She marched to her car, her keys biting into her grip.

~~~

Once at home, Marge made herself a hot cup of tea and settled on the sofa with her checkbook and a pad of paper. She had to rethink her options. She sighed and took a tentative sip. Lipton’s best wasn’t nearly so good without sugar, but hey, it was better than just hot water.

Her phone rang. Dragging her purse by the long strap, she yanked it closer and sifted through myriad objects. Once she had her phone in hand, she tapped it on. “Yeah?”

“Marge?”

Marge waited. Oh boy… Exhaustion seeped through her body.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you…and I suppose I acted a little odd when you left. But, you see, the guy in line behind you told me that he overheard our conversation, and he offered to pay for your tires if we ate the cost of labor and the tax.”

Marge froze. She wondered how long she could go without breathing. When conscious thought returned, she blinked and stared at her worn black bag slumped on the floor. “Who? Did what?”

“The gentleman behind you…well, he heard about your situation, and when you went outside, he offered to pay for your tires… but he didn’t want you to know it was him. He said he doesn’t know you or anything. Just his good deed for the day sort of thing. So that’s why I told you to go home.”

A lump swelled in Marge tears, burning behind her eyes. “I never…I mean…I can’t believe…”

“We told him okay; it’s a deal. So I ordered your tires, and you can bring your car on Friday at noon. We’ll have everything done by 3:00. That’ll work for you?”

“But I’d really like to thank him…whoever he is. And you too, of course. I can’t believe…”

“Don’t worry about it. Just bring your car on Friday, and everything will be taken care of. Free of charge. Sometimes life is good, you know.”

Marge swiped the tear from her cheek. “People are good, Rick.”

As she dropped her phone back into her purse, Marge realized that not only weren’t her hands cold, but her whole body felt warm for the first time in months.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

I May Never Know Why

I knew Elaine all my life. Like the sister I never had. Yet I could not make it to her funeral. I couldn’t. Perhaps I simply wouldn’t. She had died long ago…

Growing up on the east side, we knew we had it made. Life was good. Part-time jobs were easy to come by, school was never a serious challenge, and there was always tennis, soccer, or long walks by the lake.

I first started to notice a change when we were playing a game of tennis. She was always competitive, but this time a missed shot didn’t just spark irritation, it sparked rage. A repair guy on the roof nearby chuckled when she threw her racket. He sounded like the voice of God coming from a blue sky, “Shouldn’t lose your temper like that, girl.” Elaine looked like she’d heard a ghost, and I pretended not to know what she was talking about when she asked if I heard the voice. I just laughed.

But she didn’t. She looked scared.

Throwing a racket was a little out of her normal emotional range, but fear, real fear took her to a new universe.

I ignored the symptoms. I didn’t think they were symptoms. I thought she was just being silly.

Before I knew what was happening she was off to France to study for a semester. No big deal. I had plenty of studying at home to do. College and work-study kept me out of trouble. Well, for the most part.

But when she came home…something had changed. Her confidence had been shaken. It reminded me of another trip she’d taken the year before on some island or another. She had tried to explain about the people, their lifestyles…how different everything was… But I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t want to. Sounded pagan and vaguely selfish. Not a world I wanted to explore.

By the time she entered graduate school, she seemed bent on exploring extremes. If someone was having a wild time, she wanted to in on it. No matter what that entailed. The wilder the better.

I plodded through my courses and kept an eye on her. But I could not follow where she was going.

One day we walked along the lakeshore, and she explained ever so seriously that she was seeking help for depression. I shook my head. She had not the slightest reason to be depressed. She had a good family, an excellent education, she had traveled far and wide, and she had a wonderful future…if only she would see it.

But she couldn’t see it. She couldn’t feel it. A friend of hers had committed suicide the month before and it weighed on her mind. She was afraid it would spread like cancer. She’d be next.

I told her to shut up and quit thinking like that.

Elaine pleaded with me, stomping along like a little girl. “I need help. I’m sick…on the inside. Medication might help.”

I remember feeling so old. Worldly wise in my vast years of watching family members destroy themselves with drug and alcohol cure-alls. I grabbed her arm and glared into her eyes. “Medication can’t help you. Tough this out. Once you’re on that stuff…you’ll never get off it.”

She pulled away, dragging her fingers through her short hair the way she always did. “You can’t understand. I’m mentally ill. I’m crazy.”

I laughed. “By the very fact that you know you’re crazy, means that you’re not really crazy. In pain. Yes. Upset. Of course. But you can work this out…give yourself time. Not drugs.”

I might as well have been talking to the trees.

Before I knew what was happening, she was on an anti-depressant regime that would have knocked a rhino off its feet. It seemed to work. She finished graduate school without major problems…except for that map-laminating incident.

Then she went to look for work and torpedoed nearly every offer she got.

I took a job in another city and shut my eyes to her issues, hoping they’d just go away. Hoping she’d grow strong again.

She called me one day from a state out west. She was visiting family and thought she had accidentally taken her medication twice…enough to kill her. I told her to go see a doctor. She hung up.

By the time she called again, I was married, had three kids, and she was engaged. We agreed to meet up in our old hometown first chance we got. When we did run into each other months later, she looked very much like the girl who threw her racket across the court. But she smiled when she hugged my kids.

I sighed in relief. Time can heal even the most wounded souls. Even souls that should not be wounded at all. Even souls that appear to wound themselves.

Or so I thought.

The next call I got was from her brother. She had been killed crossing a street. She had stepped in front of a truck.

He wanted to know if I would fly out for the funeral. I was nursing my infant and it was the middle of winter…I had a lot of reasons not to go.

But I doubt I would’ve have gone even if her casket was next door and springtime flowers fluttered in the breeze.

Little by little Elaine had died. Not from childhood trauma, or teen rebellion, or even cultural clashes. Somewhere along the line her sanity, her identity, and her will to live a healthy life had eroded until there was only a thread left. And one day that thread snapped.

I may never know why.

A lot of years have passed…and I’ve never stopped praying for her. For the truth of it is, I now realize, she never really died.

Elaine will always live in spirit…and in me.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

And Everything In Between

“Being rejected isn’t exactly the end of the world…just feels like it.” Gertrude heaved a long sigh. “Silly of me…to think that…but, you know, it’s…life. Beginnings…and endings.”

She launched herself from her partitioned, tan and grey workstation, pulled on her heavy winter coat, and plodded to the check out counter.

Dressed in a blindingly white parka with a fake fur fringe around the hood, her friend, Kamila, smiled as they punched in their work numbers and timed out. “Got plans for the weekend, Gerty?”

Gertrude closed her eyes, sighed, and then straightened her shoulders. Focusing, she met Kamila’s teasing gaze. “Nope. But I’ll make some. And you?”

Kamila grinned. “Timmy is coming over for the weekend. We’re going out on the town and have some fun!” She did a little arm shake with a hip wiggle and laughed.

A stab of pain made Gertrude wince. Her stomach clenched. “You be careful, Kammy. People get hurt…driving around and partying…you know.”

“You’re such a worrier!” Sauntering out the main exit, Kamila shivered in the cold blast of winter air and linked arms with Gertrude. “You need to have more fun. Besides, people get killed sitting at home too. Heart attacks, cancer, random acts of violence—no one’s safe.” She tugged at her zipper. “Might as well live while you got the chance. Can’t stay at home all the time.”

Her plaid coat buttoned to the top, Gertrude pulled her keys from her purse and punched the unlock button as she neared her Cruise. “No safe place in this world, I agree. But it’s just plain dumb to beard the lion.”

“I don’t even want to know what that means.” Kammy waved as she scrunched into her tiny sports car. “Get a life, girl, not a proverb.” The engine roared and the tires squealed out of the parking lot so fast passersby had to scurry aside.

Gertrude shook her head and murmured under her breath.

When she got into her apartment, Gertrude tugged herself free from her coat and peeled off her work clothes. She stood under a hot shower for a full five full minutes and then dressed in her comfortable well-worn jeans, fluffy socks, and a long shirt. It had a tear at the neck when she had caught it on the latticework reaching for a hard-to-reach cluster of grapes last summer, but she figured that no one would see her and who would really care anyway?

Just as she settled down on the couch wrapped in a knitted blanket, a hot cup of tea near at hand, and a mystery novel on her lap, the buzzer rang long and loud. She glanced up, a thrill of fear racing through her. It’s just someone looking for a donation…or some lady looking for a friend…or—

The buzzer insisted.

Frowning, she set the book next to her teacup, tossed the blanket aside, and jogged forward. The buzzer raged for the third time. Irritated, she swung open the door. “Hey, unless someone’s about to be murdered, you can lay off the buzzer.”

Short and stocky, Ben stood before her in a crumpled EMT uniform, his brown hair disheveled, and a wild look in his eyes. “You’re okay?”

Gertrude scrunched her face like she was looking at a pink armadillo. “Yeah. You care?”

Passing through the doorway, Ben tromped to the couch and flung himself down with a long sigh. He ran his fingers through his hair, standing it up in a scattered array. “Good Lord. You know what you’ve put me through?”

Gertrude blinked. “I. Put. You. Through?”

“When they reported the accident, I recognized the vanity license plate. I called your office, and they said you’d just left. I thought you were with her!”

Gertrude slapped her cheek, all warmth draining from her body. “Kamilla?”

“Burned beyond recognition. At least her car is…it’ll take time to sort through the mess…”

Swaying on her feet, a roar swelled into Gertrude’s ears. Strong arms grabbed her and led her to the couch. Ben crouched at her side and stroked her hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to shock you like that. I was just so worried. There’s been one emergency after another… Crazy days. I’ve been working overtime…” He shook his head. “But when that call came in…I didn’t even ask. I just ran out the door.”

Before she knew what she was doing, Gertrude was sobbing on Ben’s shoulder.

By the time she had a fresh cup of tea, the blanket wrapped over her legs, and Ben’s arm around her shoulder, she had wiped the last of her tears off her cheek. “I must look awful.”

“Not to me. You look just fine. Alive. The way I like you.”

Gertrude dropped her gaze and tugged a loose yarn string. “I got the impression that…you know. You were tired of me. Too busy all the time. Working.”

“You do realize that I save lives, right? That I work hard to earn a good living…so that maybe one day we can…”

“So you’re not avoiding me?”

Ben grinned. “You know, it’d make things a lot simpler if you just ask me next time.”

“You didn’t return my messages…”

“Yeah. There is that. My fault. Sorry. Just so blasted busy. You know…I see it all the time. Misunderstandings. Couples going at each other. Kids wanting to kill themselves.”

Gertrude felt her throat tighten. “It wasn’t a misunderstanding today. Kamillia is dead. I tried to warn her…but…”

Ben harrumphed and clapped his hands together as he sat forward. “Kamilla drove like a speed demon. She was on the track to self-destruction long before you met her.” He dragged his hands over his face. “I can’t save everyone. And neither can you.” He pulled Gertrude into a tight embrace. “But I’m here now and…you know…we might make a life together. Despite this crazy world. Despite misunderstandings…”

Gertrude snuggled into Ben’s arms, her heart aching yet comforted. “Kamilla was going out on the town today…and I thought something in me had died. Guess it shows…we don’t really know. Life. Beginnings…and endings…and everything in between.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Brave Smile

I met a brave smile yesterday, and my faith in humanity flickered back to life. I had recently met with a painful disappointment, and I believed that a piece of my heart was broken beyond repair.

But I discovered that even a broken heart responds to a brave smile.

At the time, I was sitting between two young women I hardly knew, making light conversation with a few heavy topics thrown in for variety. The woman on my left was as innocent as the dawn of creation, but the one on my right smiled through sad eyes. Perhaps I read more in than was there…perhaps I saw myself reflected in her gaze. But that was what amazed me. I dared to care.

As I drove home from Mass tonight, a storm flickered in the northern sky. There isn’t usually lightning this time of the year, but the weather has been oddly mixed up. Probably just matching humanity’s mood swings. From the CD player, a violin rose and fell in wild cadences and on the horizon clouds loomed like mountains. I drove through the black night with rustling trees swaying and dried corn stalks swirling from the barren fields like remnants of ghosts.

At Mass Father had mentioned that life expectancy in the US has dropped the last few years, partially because of “diseases of despair”—addictions and suicide. This reality struck me as especially terrible in a generation with more technological and medical advancements and greater wealth, education, and entertainment opportunities than ever before. I guess the old saying is true: You can’t buy happiness…or even a ray of hope. Later as the priest held up the Host, I more clearly understood the reality of perfect God coming as food to a starving and imperfect human race.

And loving us anyway.

I rarely know the deep grief of those around me, but I still find it comforting to remember a young woman with sad eyes smiled at me.

The wind blows, rattling the windows as the threatening storm arrives, bringing freezing temperatures. Soon, the kids and I will watch part four of a series on John Quincy Adams, and I’ll be reminded once again that humanity has faced mighty trials both personal and societal yet lived to tell the tale…despite our hurts and broken hearts.

Despair is not the only option to pain, grief, and fear. Courage and endurance are still possible. No doubt, you, too, have known your share of grief. Just a quick scroll through any social media platform or the news of the day is enough to make a person want to crawl under a rock. Forever.

But a brave smile offered me encouragement and solace when I needed it. I doubt she’ll ever know. But you and I know.

A brave smile can enkindle a spark of hope in a world that needs it badly. Even if your heart is breaking…smile anyway.

Dare to care.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Leopold

“If ever you go to the North Country

Where the oak and the ash and the rowan be,

And the ivy bosses the castle wall

You must go to Edenhall…

Miranda wrapped her arms around her middle and traipsed through the winter woods, tugging her coat tight, her gaze meandering. Not that there was much to see. Snow dusted the trees and covered the leaf-strewn ground. Barren. Empty. Aloneness personified in foliage.

A bird called. What was it saying? She could almost make out the tune, but it was too distant. A raucous crow rose, cawing, and flapped away.

She trudged back to the bright-lit home she shared with her cousin, Edna, and her husband and their kids. Turning at the door, she stared at the scene. The glorious woods silhouetted black against the white evening sky stabbed her heart.

The after-dinner routine, raucous as usual, soon settled into an evening of books and board games. Miranda knitted, sitting on her chair by the lamp and watched Edna settle with the baby in her lap and the toddler tucked under her arm. She balanced an illustrated bedtime story between them. Joe played Memory with the older two boys and groaned grandly every time they made a match.

By the time everyone marched up to bed, Joe stretched and yawned, saying that he’d hit the hay early since he had to get up before dawn the next morning. Edna switched off the lights, shut down the computer on her work desk, and started after him.

Miranda continued to knit.

Edna stopped and glanced back. She frowned.

Miranda heard her cousin’s footsteps draw near, but she didn’t look up. She didn’t have the heart to.

Edna’s shadow slanted over the knitting.

Miranda sighed and let the half-finished blanket fall flat on her lap.

“Something wrong, Miranda?”

Willing herself to face her cousin, Miranda shoved all pain aside and peered up. “Nothing’s wrong. How could it be? I have a perfect life.”

Edna tugged a footstool over and plunked down. “Normally, I’d agree. But something feels…wrong.” She perched her head on her hand. “You know, I always envied you.”

Miranda snorted. “Good Lord, what for?”

“You traveled…saw the world. You were a useful human being. Nursing the sick all over…helping surgeons. Teaching. Advising.” Edna sat up and spread her hands wide. “Why, you were a regular modern hero. None the like I ever met before in real life.”

Miranda picked up her knitting and squinted in the dim light. “The operative word there is ‘were.’ I was all those things.” She shrugged. “Now I’m just an old lady knitting in a corner and walking through the woods to while away my empty days.”

Edna slapped her hand on the edge of the footstool. “Not so! You help with the kids and keep me from madness. I consider that a worthy endeavor.”

A momentary squabble on the second floor filtered down but was soon checked by Joe’s command to ‘settle down—or else.’

Edna narrowed her eyes. “Besides, you’re not exactly old. Not by today’s standards. Still in your fifties. You’ve got years ahead of you.”

“Sixties looms ever nearer, and the years ahead look pretty desolate to me.” She adjusted her glasses. “Listen, you and I know perfectly well that the nursing profession slipped away while I took care of Jack, and my boy lives in Singapore. Not exactly around the corner. Today the world is connected in ways I can hardly fathom. I don’t recognize half the things your kids say. I’m what they call ‘out of the loop.’” She shook her head. “My glory days are quite gone.”

Edna clasped her hands and rose from the footstool. She paced across the room and then turned and faced her cousin. “Those days—yes—I agree. They’re quite gone. But—”

“I’m too tired to go back to school and start over, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Not school necessarily. But change…a trade…a skill…a new environment.” Edna marched forward, her hands on her hips. “Don’t you see? It’s all in how you look at your life—forever ending or forever beginning. You decide.”

~~~

The next day dawned bright and clear. Cold swept in from the north, but Miranda wasn’t one to be detained by the threat of frostbite. She knew how to dress warmly.

After the older kids were off to school, Edna settled the little ones down with activities and started in on her daily online routine.

Miranda bustled out the door with a quick nod to the perfect order of the little corner of her world and braced herself for the cold. But she didn’t feel it. She hurried into the woods, her gloved hands sunk deep into her heavy coat pockets.

A bird landed on a branch before her and started in its usual song. Leopold…Leopold…tweet, tweet, tweet…

Miranda frowned and knocked a bit of snow off a tree trunk. “Stupid bird. Always calling to your Leopold, but he never answers, does he?” She stumbled forward, fury building little an interior steam kettle.

The bird hopped along, calling the same plaintive song. “Leopold…Leopold…”

Her nerves strained to the breaking point, Miranda turned and screamed. “Stupid idiot. Stop waiting for Leopold!” She shook her fist at the snow-speckled trees. “Go make a nest and do your own thing…live your own life. Don’t ask for no—”

A choking sob welled up from Miranda’s middle and tears burned her eyes. She wiped them away, brushing snow across her glasses. “Dang it!” Nearly blinded, she plucked her glasses off her face and carefully paced her way to a fallen log. She plunked down, not caring that she’d wet her clothes through to the skin.

Taking off her gloves, she pulled a tissue out of a pocket and wiped her glasses dry.

The bird drew near one again. “Leopold…Leopold…tweet…tweet…tweet…”

Miranda blinked as she watched the little bird hop before her. “Oh, God.” She held out her hand. The bird hopped close, then proceeded to peck at the tree bark, intent, and perhaps content, with something besides Leopold.

A thrill rushed through Miranda. “Could it be?” She laid her hand open.

The bird lifted its beady eyes and stared at her. It hopped nearer, almost touching her hand.

“Good Lord. Am I—Leopold?”

~~~

Later that evening when Edna returned from taking all the kids to their dentist’s appointments, she stopped dead in her tracks.

The boys finished divesting themselves from their winter coats and then set to work on helping the little ones.

Edna swallowed and entered the warm, yeasty smelling kitchen following the sound a happy tune. She stared at her cousin.

Slicing into a hot loaf of homemade wheat bread, Miranda called to the kids. “Snacks are ready and on the table in five minutes, boys. Be sure to wash your hands.” She glanced at Edna. “I’ve made enough to go with supper; don’t worry. I also made a nice hot stew for everyone.”

Edna shook her head. “You’re feeling better, then?”

Miranda stopped and met her cousin’s gaze. “Yes…and no. I just have to find myself again. Not easy. But the first task is always the hardest.”

Edna crept into the room. “What’s that?”

“You got to figure out where you are.” She drew a dish of butter near and laid a knife beside it. “And go from there.”

Tears welled in Edna’s eyes. “I’m glad.” She surveyed the brown bread and sucked in a deep breath. “My, but that looks good!” She perched on a stool and slathered a piece with a healthy dollop of butter. “What was that tune I heard you humming when I came in?”

Miranda blushed. “Oh, it wasn’t anything…just a birdsong you sometimes hear in the woods. “Leopold…Leopold…I’m here, I’m here.”

…But do our best and our most each day,

With a heart resolved and a temper gay,

         Which pleasure spoils not, not frights appall—

Though we never see Edenhall—

~Edenhall~

by

Susan Coolidge

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter  https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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