Persian

“They don’t think like us—you know that—don’t you?” The fluffy, white Persian with only one piercing blue eye stretched lazily across the porch floor in a patch of sunlight. Two kittens batted the leaves of a potted plant like players in an obscure Olympic game.

A miniature Panther sat on his haunches and blinked at a passing farm truck. “But they’re highly motivated; that’s what troubles me. Their whole demeanor of desperate devotion hides an unscrupulous plot—a cunning trick—to be sure.

“Unscrupulous? You’ve been listening to the boy at his lessons again, haven’t you?” Persian flicked her tail and eyed her kittens. “You give them too much credit. Most are as stupid as posts, though Clarabelle, now, she may have shepherding in her blood, but notice which critters she chooses to corral. Wouldn’t mind nipping that puppy in the heels, I’d warrant.”

Panther stretched. “You’d think the bipeds would sense the tension, but no, they just pat everyone on the head in the same enthusiastic way. The lady’s the worst, repeating that stupid mantra—My little loves—revolting.

A little boy jogged to the bank by the roadside and watched a tractor rumble nearer. Clarabelle raced by in a blur, weaving close to the huge, revolving tires.

Persian rose. “She’s at it again. One of these days—”

The boy screamed.

Persian scrambled down the wooden steps and raced across the yard with Panther dashing close behind.

The tractor rolled down the road—oblivious. The boy scuttled down the embankment and trotted to the pavement. He lifted a limp, fluffy, little body off the blacktop. Clarabelle barked and raced in circles around him.

Persian yowled. “Darius!”

Panther shivered. “I wondered where he’d gotten to.”

Tears streamed down the boy’s face as he climbed the hill and jogged toward the house. A lady flew out the door and raced down the steps. She stopped and knelt on the freshly mown grass at the boy’s side.

Persian cantered closer and swirled between them, meowing plaintively.

A pitiful cry issued from the limp kitten.

The woman looked from the Persian to the boy, one outstretched finger caressing the kitten’s head. “Look, even his mama’s worried…. I’ll take him inside and see what I can do. You go off to Daddy. He’s in the barn.” She lifted the limp body into her arms.

The boy stared up at her mutely.

“Go on; he needs you. We’ll see—” She turned and climbed the steps.

The boy watched her disappear behind the screen door, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and trudged away toward the barn.

Persian stood, glaring at the door. She trotted forward, scampered up the steps, and clawed at the screen.

Clarabelle sprang onto the porch and nosed her. “It’s no use. They’d just throw you out.” She sat on her haunches. “I tried to get in a few times, but—”

The Persian turned with a snarl and raked Clarabelle across the nose. The collie jumped with a yelp and trotted away with one, baleful, backward glance.

Panther edged closer to Persian, eyeing the retreating figure. “Take it easy. There’s nothing you can do.” He stepped between the mother and the door. “The lady will do what she can. You better get back to the others before something else happens.”

Persian yowled. “He’s my kitten!”

“They think he’s theirs. No point in arguing.”

Persian darted down the steps and hurried away, a warning growl vibrating deep in her chest.

Panther trudged down the steps and headed toward the barn.

Clarabelle stepped in Panther’s way. “I was only trying to help. Darius would already be dead if I hadn’t been there.” Clarabelle lifted her nose to the wind as two other dogs galloped closer. “But I shouldn’t be surprised—Persian never liked me.”

Panther eyed the collie, blinked, and then turned. “Like as not, you pushed Darius under the wheels.”

Clarabelle sneezed and watched Panther amble away before the two puppies pummeled into her. She snapped at them. “There’s been a tragedy, fools! Quit acting like drooling idiots.”

The hound snorted. “You mean that ball of calico fluff? Please, it’s been wandering far afield since the first day Persian let him out of the barn. I always said, coyotes or cars—”

The beagle yawned. “Never did see the use of all these darn cats. Two would do the job just as well. Sides, they’re so narcissistic!”

Clarabelle tackled the beagle and nipped him in the ear. “Awful big word for such a small quadruped.” She cocked her head toward the barn. “I’m going to check on my boy. He’ll be taking it hard. Always does.”

~~~

The sun flickered between the tree trunks as it crested the horizon. The lady, the man, and the boy stood with bowed heads near a small mound of freshly dug earth.

The boy raked his sleeve across his tear-streaked face.

The man slapped a cap on his head and shuffled his feet. “It’s just a kitten for heaven’s—”

The woman glared at him.

The man knelt down beside the boy and squeezed his shoulder. “It’s part of life on a farm, son; you gotta accept that.”

The boy leaned forward and buried his face into the man’s chest, his sobs muffled by the man’s plaid shirt.

The man cleared his throat, glanced at the woman, and lifted the boy into his arms. He placed the child high on his shoulder and carried him away.

The woman sighed and picked her way across the dewy grass to the house.

Persian trotted to the small mound, sniffed, and scratched the crumbly surface.

Panther ambled over. “You’ve got two left. Not bad—considering.”

Persian’s one eye pierced him with an icy glare. “You’ll never understand.”

Panther yawned and strolled away. “Not my job—understanding. I’m a hunter. That’s why I’m here.”

Persian closed her one good eye and sat on her haunches.

Clarabelle circled around and plunked herself down out of scratching range. She blinked at the rising sun. “Males don’t think like us. Can’t grasp what it’s like.” She rose and trotted over to another, slightly larger mound, covered in short grass and dandelions. She pawed at the mound and then stared at Persian. “Poison. It was a mistake—the man felt bad—but she died a terrible death just the same.”

Persian’s whiskers twitched. “You think you understand me?” Her yowl was incredulous.

Clarabelle shook her coat and trotted toward a car pulling into the driveway. “Someday, there will be mounds for us all.”

Persian climbed the porch steps and was about to settle down in the sun when the woman came out and scooped her into her arms. She sat on the large, wooden rocking chair and smoothed Persian’s ruffled fur. She tucked a stray lock of her gray hair back into her disheveled bun. “Ah, Lordy. It’s not easy getting old; seeing so much hurt and loss and not able to stop a bit of it.”

Persian couldn’t help herself. She stared across the emerald lawn, over the treacherous road, toward the concealing woods, and her whole body relaxed into the soft folds of the woman’s lap. A vibrating purr began deep within her being. Someone understood.

Romantic Reality

romanticreality

Bala lay in bed, his arm around his wife, and stared up at the ceiling. The room glowed in soft, semi-darkness as faint starlight flowed in from the window. An abrupt snore from across the hall broke the silence. Bala chuckled. “After six of ’em, you’d think I’d get used to the idea that kids snore, but it always seems so ridiculous.”

Kendra shrugged. “I don’t see why they’d be any different than the rest of us. Blocked nasal passages are a part of life.”

Bala squeezed Kendra’s shoulder. “That’s what I love about you, so romantic!”

“Just telling it as it is.” She grinned. “Do you remember when we met?”

Bala stiffened. “You mean the very first time I saw you, or the first time we spoke, or the first time I kissed—”

Kendra jabbed him in the ribs. “The very first time, man-o-mine.”

Bala licked his lips. “Go ahead, refresh my memory.” He tickled her arm. “I know you’re dying to.”

Kendra rose up on one elbow and stared into Bala’s eyes. “Just for that, I’ll tell you what you never knew! So there!”

“Uh, oh. Can I rephrase—”

“Too late, boy-o. You’re going to get what you deserve.” Shoving her pillows up against the headrest, she sat up and pulled the blankets straight. Her long-sleeved, purple pajamas appeared black in the dim light.

Bala heaved a sigh and curled up on his side, propping his head on his hand. “Don’t mind my relaxed pose. I have to fight six children onto a transport in the morning, and I need to conserve my strength, what’s left of it anyway.”

Kendra kicked his foot and then positioned herself like a storyteller of old, tapping her fingers together meditatively. “I was seven—going on eight. You were nine—going on fifty.” She peered down at him, through the shadows. “You remember the playground at Saint Robert’s? Nothing but hard cement and a few rickety swings?”

Bala nodded.

“And you trudged up the driveway with your little sack slung over your shoulder. Full of provisions, I was sure. You looked like some kind of off-world trader, come to sell his wares. I was agog with curiosity.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched her hands gesturing. “Agog? Oh, my, you’re not supposed to do that in polite society.”

Kendra maintained her composure. “I didn’t tell anyone, but I watched the exchange as you explained yourself to Mother Superior. You looked like a miniature soldier reporting for duty. Your family sent you with no escort, no explanation, just your provision bag, and a datapad saying that you were there for the duration.”

Bala sighed. “I remember.” He frowned. “How did you know?”

Kendra’s grin gleamed in the half-light, which slanted across the bed. “I was very good friends with the Head Mistress. She thought the world of me. Dare say, after a few pointed questions, she told me what I wanted to know—fact wise. But I was still curious. So, I used to follow you around.”

Bala slapped his forehead. “That was you? I thought that bully, MacKery, was teasing me.”

“He was. I beat him up. Then I took his place.”

Bala snorted, clasping his hand over his mouth to stifle any further outbursts.

“Anyway, I liked what I saw. I decided that one day you’d marry me, we’d have a family, and live on Newearth. It was my grand scheme.”

Bala huffed. “Silly me. I thought I came up with the idea.”

Kendra stroked the side of his face. “You would’ve, in fact, you did. Once I told you.”

“You planned the six kids too, I suppose?”

“Hardly. They’re gifts. I just hoped.”

Bala nodded, raised himself to a sitting position, and folded his hands. “So, what plans do you have now?”

Kendra sighed. “That’s just it. My plans only went so far. They sort of—well—life took over. I stopped planning and just tried to keep up.”

Bala chuckled. “I know what you mean.” He pulled Kendra into his arms. “You know, wife-o-mine. It was no accident that my bedraggled, little body showed up at that school.”

Kendra tilted her head to the side, a gleam in her eye. “Oh? Really?”

Bala nodded as he shifted closer and wrapped both his arms around her, nuzzling her cheek against his. “Yep. You weren’t the only one making plans. And—” Bala gazed up as though he could see through the ceiling into the impenetrable, night sky. “I don’t think He’s done.”

Native Elements

Cyril swore under his breath as he stared at the mounting black clouds sweeping across the mountain range. The pine trees swayed with warning sighs as the wind whistled through their branches. Crows whirled towards earth, out-flying the looming threat.

“Stupid weatherman never said anything about a storm.” Cyril didn’t realize he had spoken aloud until Jeanette curled her arm through his and clucked her disapproval.

“Weatherwoman, Cyrus. Or person. Not man for God’s sake. Besides, no one is perfect.”

Cyril didn’t doubt that for a moment. He had never really intended to invite Jeanette to his private sanctuary—but in an unguarded moment he had pontificated, “Kids today are out of their native element,” and Jeanette, being his superior by two grade levels and French proficiency, had laughed. Smirked really.

She had sat across from him in the teacher’s lounge, sipped her black coffee, nibbled her wheat crackers, and shook her curly-haired head. “Native element? What, pray tell, is a kid’s native element, Sorrel?”

Cyril squeezed his eyes shut against the memory. His face flushed, as it always did when she mutilated his name. When she first practiced her ruinous arts at a teacher’s convention— “Oh, good, here’s Floral, so we’re well represented—” he had dared to object.

“The name is Cyril—not Sorrel, not Floral—see if you can remember that.”

The flock of attending teachers froze in the face of his unflinching correction, but Jeannette merely grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Oh, Creel, don’t get all flaky and fall to pieces.”

His only retort had been a mute glare while his co-workers simply chuckled and wandered toward other entertainment. He had been bested. Clearly.

For two years, he waged a stoic campaign to keep his name unaltered, but Jeanette found myriad atrocious variations to spring on him—passing in the hall, at meetings, and even as she waved goodbye in the parking lot. In the teacher’s lounge, she would rattle on about her latest date, fashionable clothes, a got-to-go-see movie, progressive teaching, antiquated traditions, and whatever else fueled her current passion while he doodled swaying pine trees on a memo pad and retreated into icy politeness.

Occasionally, he’d vary his day by hunting up extra resources for a struggling student, but most six graders hated math and made little attempt to hide their distaste for the subject in particular—or for him in general. Even when he lugged in architects’ drawings, carpentry notes, checkbooks, and myriad other real-world examples of math’s viability, he would still be slapped down with the oft opined sentiment, “We’re never going to use this stuff—it’s a waste of time.”

He might as well be forcing broccoli down innocent kids’ throats. At least, Jeannette never made him feel like the enemy—a fool—but never an enemy. Perhaps that was why he accepted her question as a challenge and invited her to come to the mountains with him and experience the native elements herself.

Only when the muscled P. E. teacher, Mr. James, squeezed his shoulder and intoned the words, “Best of luck, ol’ pal,” did Cyril realize that staring down a pack of hyenas would have been a wiser option.

Their afternoon started more optimistically than he anticipated. Jeanette had met him in the parking lot decked out in cowboy boots, jeans, and a leather jacket.

He refrained from shaking his head and merely jiggled his keys. “Mind if I drive?”

Jeannette shrugged in utter nonchalance. “Might as well. You know where we’re going—I suppose.” Her grin widened wickedly as she added “Series.”

He sped up the winding road and, after arriving, started down the simplest and shortest trail. She bounced along at his side pointing out every squirrel and bird in hyper-exultation. When they returned to the parking lot, she deflated. “Is that it? I mean—that’s all you got, Virile?”

Cyril’s squinted at the lowering sun and considered his revenge—trail number five, meant for experienced hikers with a loud, splashing stream, a long, steep incline, two narrow passes, and one precipitous drop. His eyes narrowed as he returned to the forest.

They floundered across the bubbly stream and scrambled up the first incline when a warning rumbled across the sky. Distant trees swayed as a murmur rustled through the foliage. Cyril considered the low sun and a slight twinge shivered down his spine.

Jeannette scanned the waving branches with a frown. “How far have we come?”

“About half way.”

A brilliant flash of light made them blink as black clouds bundled together overhead.

That’s when he spouted his politically incorrect fury on the weatherperson. He could feel her arm squirming around his; searching for something he was loath to offer.

“Half-way? Seriously, Cereus, what were you thinking—”

He felt the familiar, hot flush rise to the roots of his hair. Cyril shook Jeanette’s arm away and snapped around like a wounded panther. “C-Y-R-I-L! My name is CYRIL!”

Jeannette blinked as the sky blustered overhead.

Cyril wrung his hands in a pantomime of strangling something—or someone—and bellowed. “Now shut up and quit acting like the stuck-up, little snob you always are and let me think of the quickest way out of here.” He looked up and down the paths and then pointed ahead. “Let’s go on.”

Doing a fair imitation of a rock wall, Jeanette folded her arms and glared.

Cyril stomped away with a wave of his hand. “Fine. Be a smart-ass. See if that gets you over the stream again. Not that I’d go back that way. But enjoy the incline and don’t slide off the edge of anything. There are about thirty minutes of light left—you might make it to a cave or something before night sets in.”

He was nearly a quarter of a mile down the path in the pelting rain when he heard her splashing steps. She charged into him, grabbed his shirt and yanked, sending them both careening into the mud. With her limp hair streaming across her face, she rounded a slug on his shoulder.

“You stupid pig! You mean, heartless idiot! Why I spent the last two years being nice to you is more than I can figure. But I never expected this! This—”

Cyril’s eyes widened as he staggered to his feet and watched her slip and slide. “You’ve been nice? When was that? I must’ve missed it. I could have sworn you spent the last two years tormenting me with your cruel, twisted, little name-calling.”

Lightning flared, and thunder crashed over their heads as Jeanette clenched her fists, facing him, bedraggled. “Always so high and mighty, aren’t you? Always getting your pants in a twist when I try to add a little fun into your life. Can’t climb down from your superior loft in the high and mighty world of algebra and advanced math. You think I couldn’t teach math? I could. I just chose to do something a little more creative, something that means something TO ME!”

A deafening crack of thunder sent them pelting down the path. Cyril slipped and threw his arms out for balance. The downpour increased, but Jeannette raced on. Cyril snatched her sleeve and pulled her to a jog. “You’ll fall, stupid. There’s a drop coming.”

Jeannette yanked away and raced ahead even faster. She shrieked as she started sliding down a steep incline.

Cyril grabbed her arm and pulled back, sprawling them both onto the muddy path.

Jeannette’s face twisted; she slapped his hand. “I’m not stupid!”

Cyril climbed to his knees, crawled under the shelter of a tree and let his head fall against the trunk, leaning back with heaving breaths. “Neither am I. Though every time you speak French, smirking as if I am too dense to understand, or when you mutilate my name—”

Jeannette rose shakily to her feet, slapped mud from her jeans, squared her shoulders, and started forward. She stepped into a dangling vine and yelped as a thorn scratched her cheek. She turned on Cyril, her voice low and menacing. “If you’re trying to get revenge—mission accomplished.”

Cyril rose and blinked at her silhouette in the dim light. He glanced at his muddy watch, sighed, and grabbed her hand. “Mission aborted. I’m an idiot, and we need to get out of here—now.”

Jeannette pulled away. “Don’t touch me!”

“You want to wander aimlessly in the dark under tons of swaying trees? Let’s make a truce and get out alive, okay?” Cyril stretched out his hand.

Jeannette turned and charged up the path.

~~~

As they sat dripping and muddy in the school parking lot, a sickle moon peeked through the vestiges of drifting clouds. Cyril hadn’t looked at her during the whole, miserable drive back to the city. She had stared straight ahead, silent as a tomb. When he parked, he expected her to bolt, but she just sat there.

Finally, he broke the ice with the most inane comment he ever made. “Well, at least it’s Friday.”

She stared at him a long moment, shifted in her seat, and faced him. “Native elements? You want the kids to experience the wonders of—”

Cyril let his head drop back against the headrest, though he would have welcomed a brick wall. He took a long cleansing breath. “I wasn’t expecting a storm of biblical proportions. I just wanted—”

Jeanette lifted her hand. “No, I get it. I just wish you’d have told me, not tried to kill me.” Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I was just joking. It was all in fun.”

The lump in his throat surprised Cyril. It was hard to swallow away. “Not so fun for me.”

They sat in silence, the school building a rectangular shadow looming in the background.

Cyril rubbed his dirty fingers together. “The woods—the natural world—it’s like God made it just for me. Thousands have been there before, but for a little while, it’s all mine. No forcing dreaded math problems on squirming kids—”

Jeannette sighed and wiped a stray strand of hair from her eyes. “Most kids think French is stupid. After all, who needs a teacher when there’s Google translator?”

Cyril folded his hands and shrugged. “Google would have me ordering snails for breakfast.”

The barest hint of Jeannette’s smile glimmered between the neon light posts and the black night. “To be totally honest, variables scare me. Letters smacked up against numbers, it seems wrong, somehow.”

Cyril never knew exactly what came over him, but he reached across the seat and lifted Jeanette’s hand, lacing her fingers with his. “Actually, they can do amazing things together.”

Jeanette tilted her head, the moonlight highlighting a teasing smile. “Like thunderstorms in native elements—Cyril?”

Cyril grinned.

Off-World Faith

church

Bala knelt on the hard, stone floor and folded his hands across the latticed-carved railing, his head bowed. As the priest approached, he stared straight ahead; his eyes fixed on the ornate altar under the stained glass window of Jesus embracing His Mother Mary. With precise steps, the robed figure bent and offered him a gift. The greatest gift Bala could imagine.

He accepted it, crossed himself, and stood.

When he returned to his pew, he knelt beside Kendra; her head bowed onto her hands clasped over the pew in front of her.

Final prayers and chants completed the liturgy, and Kendra sank back with a deep sigh. Her gaze floated up to the gorgeously painted ceiling.

Bala slid back on the pew and echoed her sigh. It had been so long. So much had happened. Six kids had happened. A new job, an attack on his family, and now a new threat. Bala sighed again.

Kendra reached over and clasped his hand. With a quick squeeze, she nudged him.

The procession had left, and only a few others remained behind, praying, crying, thanking God, adoring—Bala didn’t know; he didn’t need to know. He scooted out of the pew and Kendra followed.

Still clasping hands, they strolled through the enormous, carved doorway and stood on the top row of twenty, stone steps leading into the heart of a bustling city. Saint Francis, it was called. Bala chuckled at the incongruity of the sign across the street proclaiming itself the city’s finest Savings and Loan on the planet: “Saint Frances would keep his units here—if had any.” Bala pointed out the sign to Kendra.

She laughed. “Well, at least they have a sense of humor, even if they have no common sense to speak of.”

“Speaking of sense, I’m starving. Want to get something before we pick up the kids?”

“You mean to eat in peace and quiet?” Kendra’s eyes widened as if she were scandalized. “What would the kids say?”

“Let’s not tell them.” Bala dragged her along as he led her down the street toward a fancy establishment. “Besides, I’m sure that Sister Mary Rose will have stuffed them with enough breakfast to keep them happy for at least an hour or two.”

Kendra sniffed with a shrug. “If not her, then one of her fourteen sisters will see to it.” Kendra halted in mid-stride. “Lord, you don’t think our little darlings will end up with fifteen breakfasts, do you?”

Bala stared wide-eyed. “If they do, we’ll be able to stay out for the whole morning.” He nudged Kendra through the delicately carved glass doorway.

They followed a portly, smartly dressed waiter to a table laid with a white, linen cloth and real silverware. Bala’s eyes bugged. “It’s been so long!”

Kendra patted his hand. “Don’t go getting attached. We have to return tomorrow. This is our last fling with Oldworld comforts.”

Exhaling, Bala perused the menu, and they ordered two healthy breakfasts. The waiter retreated, and Kendra folded her hands in her lap. “So? What did he tell you?”

Bala tapped his water glass and frowned. “Confession is supposed to be private. You know what priests have gone through to keep—”

“Awe, come on. We always share. And besides, this was more like spiritual direction. You don’t have much to confess, I imagine.”

Bala shrugged. “Your imagination is lacking. Trust me, I had plenty to confess.” Bala shook his head. “Funny, but when I was a kid, I used to face the priest like a soldier going into battle. I was always scared to death, shook like a leaf. This time, I felt rather sorry for the poor man. The things he must have to listen to! Felt rather sorry for myself, too.”

Kendra nodded as the waiter placed two steaming cups in front of them and retreated. She returned her gaze to Bala’s face. “Any conclusions?”

Bala sipped the hot coffee and blinked. “Yeah. But you won’t like it. It seems that our sins make us who we are. And we forgive others and ourselves and move on, knowing all the while, we’ll have to forgive again later.”

Kendra sipped her coffee and then leaned across the table, clasping Bala’s hand. “And?”

Bala swallowed, his gaze fixed on the tablecloth. “And I have to go. Clare will chase after Omega, but someone has to locate Cosmos. It’s my duty. I can’t shrink from it, not even for you and the—” Bala swallowed back his last word.

The waiter returned with loaded trays of steaming food. He placed them silently on the table, and with a bow, retreated again.

Bala shuddered. “I have to go. If—”

Kendra squeezed his hand and nodded. “I know. Why do you think I insisted on this family trip? We needed to return to our home—to our roots. We needed to remember why we settled on Newearth in the first place.”

Bala lifted his gaze and stared into Kendra’s eyes. “I married you for two very good reasons.”

Kendra smiled. “My charm and money?”

Bala scratched his head with a grin. “Okay, four very good reasons. But it was your wisdom and love that won me over.”

Kendra picked up her fork, eyeing her food like a tiger about to pounce. “Yeah, same with me. I figured that no matter how many kids we had, you’d provide what we need. And probably not go insane in the process.”

Bala chuckled and speared his ham and eggs with gusto. “Cool-headed-logic, that’s my middle name!”

Translator

To be honest, I thought she was a bag-lady. The long, scraggly, gray hair, the oversized, shapeless sweater, the dark circles under her eyes, and the haunted expression all pointed to one, obvious conclusion—a conclusion I was in too big a hurry to even pity.

The boys were due home at any minute and the babysitter would expect me to have dinner ready. Julian hated to be late and since we missed our date-night the month before, I wasn’t about to let anything mess with this one. I felt a head cold coming on, the refrigerator had gone on the blink, and I was struggling to maintain a civil, if not cordial, relationship with my boss at work. It had been a tough week.

So when the disheveled woman appeared in line ahead of me, I wouldn’t have bothered with a second look—if it hadn’t been for the flowers. The incongruity of the scene struck me like a splash of cold water. I even dropped my fish fillets. There she stood, or stooped rather, hugging this glorious bouquet. A worn out bag-lady with spring flowers. Crazy, right?

I rescued my fish, hurriedly emptied my cart, and watched with unabashed fascination as this odd spectacle leaned forward and whispered in Spanish to the cashier.

I rolled my eyes. I had worked as a translator long enough to understand exactly what she said, but I didn’t really want to get mixed up in some crazy situation in the middle of a grocery store. I had more pressing matters to attend.

The cashier stared blankly and shook her head. “I don’t understand.” She looked beseechingly at the line forming and called to the other cashier. “You understand Spanish?”

The other cashier shrugged. It wasn’t his concern. Realizing that doing nothing meant this situation would take longer; I volunteered to assist. “She asked how much.” I pointed to the woman’s bundle. “For the flowers.”

This time, it was the cashier who rolled her eyes. “It’s on the tag.”

I translated and pointed to the aforementioned stub.

The woman’s hand shook as she considered the cost. I sighed. Lord, she probably doesn’t even have enough money. I had already opened my wallet, and though I had more than enough to buy my groceries and her flowers several times over, the principle of the situation rankled. What in God’s name had she been thinking when she picked up those stupid flowers?

Almost as if she had read my mind, she blinked and answered my question. With a shaking hand, she pulled a tiny purse out of her shapeless sweater, and hugging her flowers even tighter, she pulled folded bills into the light of day, explaining all the while in her husky, whisper voice.

“Mi hijo…solo diecinueve…trajeron su cuerpo a casa hoy. Mi esposo está trayendo su foto, y tienen una bandera—pero—yo quería flores….”

My translation skills kicked in automatically.

My son…only nineteen…they brought his body home today. My husband is bringing his picture, and they have a flag—but—I wanted flowers….

She peered at me, her eyes brimming. “¿Tú entiendes? Estaba en la flor de su juventud.”

I closed my eyes but I could not escape her meaning.

You understand? He was in the flower of his youth.

She smoothed the bills on the counter and nodded to the cashier who snatched them up and efficiently offered her change.

The cashier and I both watched the lady over the threshold, even as we went about the business of packing my groceries.

“Thanks for helping out.” The young woman peered at me. “What did she say?”

I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t explain. My translation would miss too much.

The cashier forced her curiosity aside as the next patron stepped up. “Never mind. Just glad it worked out. I thought for sure she didn’t have enough money.”

I edged away, my eyes scanning the parking lot for a husband with a photo in his hand.

The cashier called after me. “Guess it shows—you never know, eh?”

I hefted my bulging bag into my arms and nodded. “You’re right. We never know….”

From Machine to Man

max

“Sir? You need to wake up now, sir.” The white, uniformed human shook Max’s shoulder. He focused and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. A woman stood over him and peered intently into his face. Max turned away. He did not feel well. Not well at all. And wasn’t that rather odd?

He closed his eyes and tried to remember. What happened? Ah, yes, Ingot thugs, mercenaries who preyed upon unwary merchants burst aboard ship and caught him just as he was transferring his data to another guard. An unlucky moment. Surely, it had been planned. But who could have known? Abanaber? He was new and seemed eager enough, but then, he disappeared once the fighting started.

Max sighed. He remembered facing the lead Ingot, a thin, sharp little being. He didn’t want to have to kill him, so he raised one hand and offered—nothing. He looked down and his leg was gone. No pain. No horror. Just falling, sliding to the floor, and the Ingot standing over him, chuckling.

He blinked open his eyes.

The nurse was still there, still peering. Her brown eyes were crinkled at the edges. She was pretty, neat with short, stylishly cut hair, over fifty, and worried. Very worried.

“Sir? I need you to sit up so I can make a proper assessment. Can you do that?”

Keeping his face as neutral as possible, Max raised his upper body, expecting to list to the right since one leg was gone. But he didn’t. He scowled at the end of the bed and the outlined forms of two legs lay there in front of him. He carefully lifted the sheet that covered his lower half. Yep. Two legs. He peered up at the nurse, one eyebrow raised.

She beamed. “Yes, we managed to save it. You were nearly dead when they brought you in. Honestly, I never saw—but never mind. You pulled through, that’s all that matters, right? Now, I just need to take your vitals. You can lean back against these pillows—”

She pummeled a couple of pillows into submission and then, with a gentle shove; she pushed him back, still beaming. “There now. Feel better?”

Max opened his mouth but closed it promptly. What could he say? Did he feel better? He did not feel well. But was that better than how he had felt? How had he felt? Blinking, he realized that his head ached. He touched his head and tapped around. It did not feel like his head. It was bumpy and hard with no hair. His eyes widened as his gaze darted to the nurse’s face.

She stared at an instrument panel; worry crinkles around her eyes again. “Yes, your—skull—was damaged but we were able to replace the missing part.” She glanced at him and patted his arm, a confident smile replacing the worry. “And your brain is completely intact.”

Max shook his head. “I thought my leg was blown off. I had no idea—”

The nurse tapped a console and raised her finger for momentary silence.

Max waited.

She tapped the last time and turned to face him, offering her complete attention. “No, your leg was damaged, but it was your head that received the worst of the blast. You can thank Captain Kimberling that he got you here in time, or we may not have been able to save you. Your friend, Mr. Abanaber, has asked about you every day—for weeks.”

Max bolted straight up. “Weeks? How long have I been unconscious?”

The nurse glanced at the console. “Exactly three Lunar cycles. I honestly didn’t expect you to do anything this different this morning. I’m so glad you woke up. Doctor Mangham will be here momentarily.” The nurse adjusted a tray near the table with studious concentration. “She wrote up a review about you for a prominent scientific journal. You’re the first android she ever worked on. And such an—”

Max shook his head. “But my leg was blown off. The Captain was taken and Abanaber was nowhere to be found—”

The nurse titled her head and smiled indulgently. “You were just dreaming. A nightmare, I’m sure. After all, it was a serious explosion. Stupid accident. Someone didn’t pack their materials properly, and then you came too close with your magnetic—”

Max almost rose from the bed, but a sharp pain to the head forced him to freeze. Holding his head in his hands, he moaned. “I can’t dream. I’m an android; I—”

The nurse chuckled. “Well, maybe you were an android once. Not anymore. At least not completely. I saw the pictures. The doctors were amazed. They wanted to do further studies, but of course, they needed your consent. It was Kelly who saved your life, really. She was the assistant on the scene. When the emergency team realized you were an android, they were going to turn you off in order to make the necessary repairs, but Kelly insisted that they check your brain functions first.”

The nurse leaned in and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Your android brain is overgrown with the human neurons they placed in you at creation. If they had turned you off, they would’ve never have been able to turn you on again.” She straightened up and adjusted the sheet. “You’re a lucky man, Max Wheeler. Most humans add mechanical parts and turn into machines. You, on the other hand, have changed from a machine into a man. A miracle, if I may say so.”

She turned to leave. “The doctor will be in shortly. Get some rest. You’ve awoken into a whole new life.”

Max watched her leave and lay back on his pillows. He blinked and felt an odd ache behind his eyes. Apparently being human involved some level of pain and discomfort. But then—he considered the possibilities—human?

He smiled as a tear traced its journey down his cheek.

Melchior—Historical Fiction for the Soul

Well, here it is…. The working cover of my newest historical fiction book: Melchior

Britain in the fifth century was a land torn by war, while Melchior was a man torn by choice. His son is accused of murder, his daughter is forced to marry a brutal king, and his sister is driving him mad, but a prophetic vision saves him from despair. 

Trese M Gloriod is my book designer—she always does beautiful work!

We plan to have Melchior published and available on Amazon on June 18th—Father’s Day. (God willing!)

Blessings!

Ann