I’ll Always Know

“She’ll never know.”

As I tromped along the cornfield-bordered road, I clamped down on the squirming kitten and stared bug-eyed at my friend-sometimes-worst enemy. “Won’t know? As in won’t notice another kitten among her whole slew of critters?”

Janet smiled that patronized smile she had—like she was four years older rather than four months. “Exactly.” She nudged me in the ribs.

My ribs had taken enough from the pounding of my heart. I stopped then and there. A storm was coming, and the kitty was onto it. That and the fact that we were well beyond my property line. “Listen, I’m not a deceptive person by nature. This whole enterprise—”

“Enterprise? We’re not on a starship. We’re in the middle of a blinking cornfield trying to do the right thing by this—” She zeroed in on the clawing bundle of black fur. “Fluff muffin.” With a hand on her hip and one finger-wagging, she launched in. “You’ve got another baby on the way, a husband who is hardly ever home, a house that’s falling about your ears, and a sick grandmother.” She jutted her jaw at the little eye peeking out from under my elbow. “You don’t need—that!”

I shrugged. “But it was in with the chickens—in the coop. Don’t you wonder if that was a sign…from God maybe?”

The roll of Janet’s eyes was positively eloquent. “God has got better things to do. Like, keep people—”

A long rolled “Helll-ooo” stopped us both.

Mrs. Blackstone trundled down the rocky drive and toodle-oooed. “Thought I heard voices. Just coming to check the mail—Al forgot yesterday.” She slapped her hands and chuckled as if her husband’s memory loss tickled her funny bone. “Not that there’s much to see—bills and ads and those obnoxious political adverts. Might as well tell me who to pray to.”

The kitten had had quite enough—and since I had tightened my grip—she probably wanted to breathe as well. The scratch she offered in return, set her free and let loose a naughty word on my part. I would’ve clamped my hand over my mouth, but I was too busy clamping my hand over the long bleeding tear in my forearm.

Janet merely shook her —at the scratch, the freed cat, or my poor literary choices, I didn’t know, and at that moment, I didn’t care.

Mrs. Blackstone, on the other hand, knew a thing or two about mercy and infections. “Oh, let me take you right in and put something on that. It’ll swell up quick if you don’t.” She peered around. “Was that the black kitten that went missing couple days ago?”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

I let myself be tugged along like the child I wasn’t and glanced at my neighbor. “Was that your kitten?”

“Oh, got so many; I lose count. New litters year round it seems. Some live, some die, some move on…” She led me up the back steps into a warm kitchen. A stew pot simmered on the stove. “Just sit and make—” She glanced at Janet as if she had noticed her for the first time. “Oh, hi, Jan.” She waved to a back room. “Back in a sec.”

Janet pulled out a chair and plunked down as if she had been the one been wrestling a miniature tiger.

I toed a stool forward—my good hand being occupied, trying to stem the flow of blood, which I was certain would cascade down my arm if I took my hand away. I perched on the edge.

“See, I told you. It never was your responsibility in the first place.”

I leaned in and, I’ll admit, my whisper wasn’t gentle. “As it turns out, if we’d left it alone, it probably would’ve wandered home on its own.”

“Not in a million years. You’d have babied it—like you baby everything. Why, you would’ve taken it in at night and fed it leftover hamburger.”

“That’s a crime?”

“How many hours sleep did you get last night?”

“What on God’s green earth does that have to do with—?”

“Here we are.” Mrs. Blackstone waved a vial of dark liquid, a cotton ball, and a package of Band-Aids. “We’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

I sniffed when she unscrewed the top. It smelled faintly familiar but unlike any medicine, I’d ever come across. “What’s that?”

“Oh, a homemade remedy my mama taught me.”

She dabbed the cotton ball in the liquid, motioned for my arm, and grinned.

I was fairly sure I’d make a mess of her floor if I let go of my arm, but her cotton ball commanded compliance, so I flung caution to the wind and extended my damaged limb. You can imagine my surprise when I saw not a flood of leaking corpuscles but rather a long swelling red mark.

As she ran the ointment-soaked swab down my arm, I suddenly knew with blinding certainty the main ingredient in her mama’s home remedy. I gritted my teeth against a fresh onslaught of naughty words. “Is that—apple cider vinegar—by—any—chance?”

“Certainly. Kills germs on contact.”

It was certainly killing something. I hoped not my will to live.

For the first time, Janet seemed to actually feel something for me other than contempt. She winced and patted the hand I clenched in my lap.

As we sauntered back up the road toward my farmhouse, she nudged me in the ribs again. “Listen. I was just trying to make a point. I didn’t expect you to get martyred by an old family cure-all.”

I stopped and closed my eyes. Janet was right. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before…or the night before that…or the night… But it didn’t matter. It was my life. I could sacrifice myself in pieces and parts if I chose.

Janet sniffed.

Good Heavens! She couldn’t be…crying… My eyes snapped open.

No, she wasn’t crying—exactly. Just sad. And looked about as tired as I felt.

“I know you’re worried, Jan. But I’m fine. I like extending myself. I love babies and husbands who work too hard…and even killer fluff muffins that show up in my chicken coop.”

Janet considered me through narrowed eyes. “You’re giving me an inferiority complex.”

“Am not.”

Janet climbed the front lawn and headed for the porch steps. “Well, when you collapse from exhaustion—you know who you can rely on help you out.”

I sauntered along behind, checking for Bob’s truck in the driveway. He was still home. Good. The back door hinge was loose. I wrapped my arm around Janet and hugged her and then winced at the still searing burn in my arm. “You’re on my speed dial.”

She snorted and waved to the front door. There, sitting as pretty as a picture, sat the black kitten.

I looked at Janet, and Janet looked at me. The kitten didn’t seem to care when Jan picked it up and started down the road.

But I did. And I’ll always know.

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

We All Have Our Burdens

—OldEarth ARAM Encounter—

Teal rubbed his chin and surveyed the landscape.

The sun shone in brilliant splendor as five vultures circled overhead. The brassy sky, free of clouds, stretched from one side of the horizon to the other. Weathered grasses drooped like weary soldiers no longer able to stay erect.

Standing several feet away from Sterling, Teal motioned ahead. “You can’t see them, but there’s an artisan clan that way.” He turned and flicked a finger in the opposite direction. “And a lake clan this way.” He pulled his lip. “And Neb and his warriors are on the move.”

Sterling swayed on his feet.

Clicking his tongue, Teal strode over and gripped Sterling’s arm. “You all right, sir?”

Sterling smoothed his rough brown tunic. “Adjustment fever. I’ll be fine.” He pursed his lips. “There’s a reason I never wanted to be a guardian. Too much bloody traveling.”

Teal flung his hands on his hips, his own tunic grey and patched. “You travel all over the region—Ingot Magisterium Assemblies, Sectine Ultra Command Accords, Cresta Science Reveals. You even attend Bhuaci music festivals.”

Sterling plucked a grass stem and studied it. “In each case, I’m treated with high regard and fed extremely well.” His gaze rose and followed the vultures. “I suspect they’ll feast more to their liking this day than I shall.”

Clenching his jaw, Teal swiveled on his heel and started to pound away. “First, we’ll visit Aram, then take a glance at Onias, and finally—if we’re lucky—we’ll observe Neb.”

Sterling groaned. “Then will you show me the mineral deposits?”

Stumbling over a tuft of grass, Teal caught himself and cleared his throat. “That’ll be our last stop—before returning home.”

~~~

Aram strolled through the village, appraising the new homes and the layout of the village. He gestured to a youth.

The young man trotted near.

“Tell your father to spread out a little more; there’s plenty of room. We’re not hemmed in anymore—are we?”

“No.” The boy gazed at the landscape. “We have the whole world before us.”

Aram chuckled and patted the youth on the arm. “Well, not the whole world, but enough.” His gaze locked on a man. “I need to attend to business—remind everyone to keep the space between structures wide, so that even on a dark night a drunken man can find his way home.”

Grinning, the youth ambled off.

Aram sucked in a deep breath and marched across the village.

~~~

Teal hid in the shadow of a large spreading tree and rested his hand on Sterling’s arm. His voice dropped to a whisper. “You see how he cares for his people.” He frowned. “But he seems agitated. Something must’ve happened while I was away.”

“By the Divide, these are primitives. Of course, something happened. Weren’t they outrunning a vicious mammal last time you were here?”

Teal gestured to the lake shimmering against the bright sky. “Yet, they’ve outsmarted evil fate and found a new home. Impressive, don’t you think?”

A cluster of children scrambled into camp, followed by a large man with a huge grin. The children ran into their mothers’ arms, and laughter broke out all over the camp.

Sterling blinked. “Wonder what that’s all about.”

Teal chuckled. “Children like to play, and fathers like to tease.” His chest tightened. “Something we rarely experience.” Turning abruptly, he pointed toward the sun. “Let’s go.”

Smothering a suffering sigh, Sterling nodded. They blinked away.

~~~

Teal rubbed his hands together like a man well pleased with a hard day’s work. “We’ve seen Onias assisting in the harvest and Neb marching across the plains—now let’s head west.”

In a hilly region, they stood on the edge of a crater and peered down.

Teal gestured into the pit. “Cresta investigators said it looks natural, but the telltale signs are obvious. Ingots have been mining and, fortunately, they didn’t find what they wanted.”

Sterling shrugged. “They covered it up, so humans won’t be the wiser. What are you worried about? A little foreign mining won’t hurt anyone.”

Teal clumped back down the crumbling dirt. “No?” He plodded to a sheltered spot between two large boulders.

Sterling joined him, standing shoulder to shoulder, staring at a small black mound. “What are we staring at?”

Without breaking his gaze, Teal remained fixed on the mound. “A grave. There are five human beings buried here. A hunting party that strayed too far and paid for it with their lives.”

With a weary harrumph, Sterling flapped his arms against his body like a guilty child about to explain away his misdeed. “It could happen anywhere—to anyone. Humans kill each other all the time.” He faced Teal. “You saw Neb. We both know what he’s planning—”

Pounding his fist into his hand, Teal’s colors blazed. “It’s their fight—they’re humans. It’s not right that a race with superior advantages comes in and steals—”

“You’ve become such a blasted moralist. What’s wrong with a little innocent skimming off the planet?” His gaze flittered over the mound. “I’ll admit—the deaths are unfortunate.”

“They had families—their people will suffer because Ingoti incursions rape the land, and Crestas experiment on their people.”

Sterling clapped his hands together. “You’re hysterical. And, frankly, vulgarity disgusts me.”

Teal shimmered. “Vulgarity? But murder is acceptable.” Gripping Sterling’s arm, Teal glowed like a furnace. “What’re the Cresta offering you?”

Shaking Teal’s hand away, Sterling stomped to an open space. “You’ve just crossed a serious boundary! I’m a judge—and your superior. Just because I was your favorite teacher, don’t assume you can take liberties.” Scowling, he shook a finger at Teal. “I’d hate to accuse you of treason before the council.”

Teal’s colors simmered as his human form solidified. His voice dropped to a stiff, formal tone. “Judge Sterling, I must inform you that Cresta incursions will likely alter the balance of power in this region.”

With a snort, Sterling waved at the mound. “How?”

“The Cresta will use any race they deem fit to further their scientific ends. If they find this planet resourceful, they might influence the inhabitants to protect their interests against the Ingots—and everyone else. Nothing works so well as using the natives to fight your battles.”

“They’d have to manage a whole planet! Cresta aren’t that stupid.”

“They wouldn’t see it that way. They’d simply see an easy profit and an expendable life form.”

Rubbing his hands together, Sterling trod back to the mound and stared at the gravesite. “As I ponder the ramifications, I believe that the Supreme Judges need to consider this situation more carefully.”

Teal’s head dropped to his chest, and he exhaled slowly.

As the pink horizon signaled the end of the day, Sterling sniffed the air. “Someone’s built a fire.”

“Probably making dinner.”

“Yes. Well, I suspect I’ll be dining with the Cresta Ingal in the near future.” Grimacing, he appeared to swallow back a bad taste. “I hate their before-dinner delicacies. But their vegetable dishes are quite good.”

Raking his fingers through his hair to control his temper, Teal forced a placid expression. “You know what’s in them?”

Sterling waved off the thought. “It’s best not to ask.” Placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder, he sighed. “We all have our burdens.”

Teal tipped his head at the obvious.

Looking askance, Sterling waved goodbye and flickered out of sight.

Teal’s gaze returned to the shallow grave.

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

They Are Not Pets

 

—OldEarth–

 Teal stomped his foot. “Bloody hell!”

In a wooded glade, Teal paced in front of a body sprawled on the ground before him. Four more bodies lay in a shallow grave. Freshly turned earth formed a mound behind him. After slipping a datapad out of a deep pocket, he tapped the panel. Sucking in a deep breath, he ran his fingers through his hair.

“For the official Luxonian record, Teal reporting from Earth, subject—Alien Abuse. Recently discovered five human bodies in a shallow grave on continent four, central basin. Cause of death unknown, but the lesions on their faces and bodies suggest Cresta experimentation.”

—Planet Lux—

Sterling grinned. In a gloriously bright room filled with glowing foliage and comfortable furniture, he poured a mug of thick, honey-sweetened brew and laid it on an ebony table before Teal. The table contrasted sharply with his white flowing robe, but Sterling always enjoyed contrasts. He grinned at Teal’s petulant expression. “Please, be kind. I ordered this especially for you.”

With a wave of acquiescence, Teal lifted the mug and sipped. He licked his lips and leaned back in his chair. “It’s better than I expected.”

Sterling’s eyes glittered. “I read your reports. Even the recipes.”

Shoving the mug to the side, Teal, dressed in a brown tunic, loose pants, and sandals, leaned forward and clasped his hands on the tabletop. “Did you read about the Cresta incursions?”

Sterling poured a second cup, took a tentative sip, and shivered. “Ugh!” he set the cup on a side counter.

Teal scraped his throat clear. “Sir?”

Clapping his hands, Sterling turned to the arched doorway.

A young woman, about twenty in human years, approached with a tray piled high with assorted sweets.

Sterling’s gaze shifted from the woman to Teal. “Sienna has a great future in Earth studies. She’s practiced maintaining their form for extended periods and even eats their food.

Teal frowned at the tray of neat confections. “These look like Bhuaci—”

Sterling waved the woman away. “You don’t expect me to sacrifice my health? I note your recipes. I don’t actually try them.” He scowled at the mug. “Except occasionally.”

After Sienna’s figure sashayed out of the room, Teal rose and strode to the open window. He gazed over the bustling cityscape filled with glowing beings in a variety of shapes and forms. “You should spend time on Earth—then you’d understand.”

Strolling over to the window, Sterling rested his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “We’ve known each other for a long time—you were my best student. Have you ever seen me accept any level of discomfort willingly?”

Teal’s gaze remained fixed on the bustling throng below. “You’re a judge now—you have new responsibilities.”

Sterling’s hand fell to the side. “You’re a guardian. You can describe all the news in your reports. Lovely reports by the way. Though I must say, you could go into a little more detail about the planet itself.” He shrugged. “I have to find out about Earth mineral deposits from the Ingots.” One eyebrow rose. “You know how that makes me feel?”

Teal turned and frowned, his gaze fixed on his superior. “And do you learn about human physiology from Cresta dissection reports?”

Sterling spread his hands wide. “Naturally.”

Folding his arms over his chest, Teal’s body glowed in rising heat. “You don’t care about alien life forms at all?”

Sterling slapped the window frame. “Why should I care? We study them to protect ourselves—they’re not pets.” He glared at Teal, his own body glowing at the edges. “Do you care about Ingots? The Crestas?” He wagged a finger. “How about the Bhuacs?”

Flaming through a long intense stare, Teal’s gaze zeroed in on Sterling.

Sterling closed his eyes and leaned against the window frame. A breeze blew in, ruffling his white hair. His glow faded. “You do.”

After pacing across the room, Teal’s heat receded to normal. He stopped in front of Sterling. “I always have. And you’re right—they’re not pets.” He turned sharply and marched toward the doorway.

Sterling opened his eyes and lifted one hand. “Alright! I’ll go with you—I’ll visit the planet.” He exhaled a long breath. “But none of that horrible brew!”

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

In Two Words

Professor Lana Bentley leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. Her gaze rolled over the eighteen-year-old woman, sitting ramrod straight before her. She practically glowed with her brightest smile. “So, Irma, are you excited about your first year of college?”

Irma slumped forward, her hands clasping and unclasping convulsively, like sea creatures swishing through the deep. Her grey eyes peered through thick glasses and heavy makeup, imploring the fountain of wisdom behind the desk. “I don’t know. I think I am. I mean, I’ve been looking forward to this my whole life. Always wanted to go to college, ever since I first learned there was such a thing.”

A twinge of alarm spread through Professor Bentley. “How old would that have been?”

“Four…maybe five.” Irma met Professor Bentley’s gaze. “My dad’s a janitor, and he got a job at a university. He took us to see where he worked. And—” Irma blushed. “It was love at first sight.”

Heat crept up Professor Bentley’s face. “Well, that’s the best of news.” She beamed again. She felt proud of her ability to put others at ease. Beaming was one of her specialties.

Irma frowned; her hands squeezed so tight her knuckles turned white.

Professor Bentley considered the girl’s hands. “But it appears that you’re still a little anxious. Is there something bothering you? Worried about your classes or—?”

Irma swallowed a gulp of air, a drowning victim at the end of her strength. “It’s just that I’m so afraid.”

Sitting up straight, Professor Bentley tapped her computer keyboard and pulled up Irma’s file. After scanning the record, she glanced at the girl before her. “Your grades and scores are excellent. You’ve already won awards in your chosen field of study, and your recommendations are brilliant.” She pursed her lips and tapped her fingers together, a serious professional doing her duty. “You have nothing to be afraid of. You’ll do fine.”

Irma shot from her chair and twirled around behind, gripping the back for dear life. “I’m not afraid of the work. I know I can get good grades.”

Professor Bentley snatched a glance at her watch. She stood and stepped away from her desk. “I have a class in fifteen minutes but walk with me across campus. She swung a satchel over her shoulder. “I really want to help—I’m just—”

Irma opened the door and let the professor pass through. Once outside crossing over the long shadows of an August afternoon, the student tromped alongside her mentor, her shoulders drooping and her hair hanging like a curtain across her face.

A young man jogged by and waved.

Irma averted her eyes.

Professor Bentley smiled, stopped, and laid a gentle hand on Irma’s shoulder. “You’re worried about making friends…men friends even?”

Irma’s eyes flickered to the sky. “Yes…and no. I make friends easy enough. Everyone likes the shy, smart girl who shares her notes.”

Professor Bentley choked, her eyes widening. She started forward again, her heels clicking on the tidy cement walkway. Autumn leaves whirled in a sudden breeze.

Quickening her pace, Irma kept up. “It’s just that I’ve dreamed about this for so long, it’s like the best fantasy ever…and I don’t want it to end.”

Stopping before the science building, Professor Bentley felt a chill run through her veins. “But, Irma, reality is better than fantasy.”

Irma shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose and peered into the eyes of wisdom. “Is it?”

Professor Bentley blinked at the tears starting in her eyes. “Oh, my dear. You just told me the saddest story I ever heard—in two words.”

~~~

That evening as Lana sat ensconced in the crook of her husband’s arm, she laid her head on his chest and sighed.

George pulled off his glasses and laid them on the coffee table. “You want to tell me?” He titled his head and peered at her lifted gaze.

Lana shook her head, her gaze dropping. “I met a new student today, a friendly mentoring session. You know.”

“You’ve done hundreds. Best there is.” A smile quirked at the corner of his mouth, his eyes sparkling.

“I always thought so. But today—I was the one mentored. The student taught the teacher.”

“What on earth could an eighteen-year-old freshman teach you?”

Lana slapped her forehead and tugged her fingers through her hair. “What it feels like to be eighteen—a dreamer with nothing but dreams to hang on to.”

Georgios shrugged. “You’ve handled that before.”

“Yes, and I always challenged it. I always knew best. I—” She pulled away and sat up, her hands clasping in an attitude of prayer. “I just realized—I don’t remember what it’s like to be a freshman, to be young, to be scared, to be idealistic.” She swallowed and met her husband’s frank stare. “From the first moment I saw her, I had this girl pegged from her thick glasses down to her skinny jeans. But, really, I have no idea what she dreams of. And if perhaps her dreams are better than the reality I’m offering.”

George shifted to the edge of the couch, positioned for a launch. He glanced at the kitchen counter with an array of drinks lined in neat order. “Dreams die in the light of day.”

“But somewhere, somehow, isn’t their room for a both—a dream to guide and reality to rule?”

Standing, George peered down at his wife, a frown forming between his eyes. “Dreams don’t pay bills. You’ve told me that a million times.”

Lana stood and sauntered to the bay window. She stared at the black frame, peering into darkness. “That’s true. But when Irma told me she was afraid of reality, she scared me and made me sad.” She turned and peered at her husband, her own eyes imploring.

George sauntered toward the kitchen. “You don’t kill these kids’ dreams. Reality does.”

“Perhaps that’s why I feel so bad. I’ve known that all along.” Lana turned and faced her husband’s departing figure. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “When I dismissed her dreams, I dismissed the girl…and perhaps…a reality that might have been.”

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

Justify Your Evil

From OldEarth ARAM Encounter…

—Planet Lux—

Teal stood holding a drink in one hand, tapping his leg with the other, and a frown building between his eyes.

The brilliantly lit hall filled with trailing green vines, glowing flowers, and an astonishing array of birds, barely scored his conscious mind. He had seen a million such rooms before. The company was different though. Luxonians in their human forms, Ingots, encased in their mechanical exoskeletons, and Crestas, lumbering along in their terrestrial bio-suits mingled in forced diplomacy.

Zuri, back straight, chest out, circulated amid an Ingoti throng across the room, which hummed with the uneasy murmurings of three races attempting to mingle in an uneasy alliance.

Putting his drink aside, Teal’s gaze shifted to his superior, Judge Sterling, who looked like he had been chewing glass for breakfast.

Sterling, dressed immaculately in a long, flowing robe and cotton pants, stood square-shouldered as he faced off a leading scientist of Crestar. Sterling’s eyes lowered to half-mast.

Boredom or loathing? So hard to tell from this distance.

A hand gripped his shoulder. Teal stiffened as he glanced at the mechanical glove. How did Zuri manage to sneak around him like that?

“Teal, correct?”

Clenching his jaw, Teal peered at the Ingoti trader. “You should know my name by now—you’ve complained about me often enough to the Ingilum—and the Supreme Council.”

Zuri’s form-fitting techno-armor, a brilliant red for the conference, nearly outshone his wide, practiced smile. “In truth, I’m surprised they let you come. After all, this is where we make agreements to respect each other and—”

“Like you respect the human race?”

Taking two steps into Teal’s personal space, Zuri waved a mechanical hand that could snap a neck. “Do you see any humans here? And why would that be? Possibly because they’re not evolved to the point where they can represent themselves at our level?”

Teal glanced ahead as Sterling wandered in his direction. Teal’s frown melted as he lifted his hand in salute.

Zuri backed off.

Sterling offered a slight bow. “Well, what have we here? The most infamous Ingoti trader this side of the Divide?”

Teal’s gaze bounced like a ball from Sterling to Zuri.

Flexing his impressive biomechanical exoskeleton, Zuri’s chest expanded alarmingly. “Don’t get jealous, Judge Sterling. Ingoti trade benefits Ingots, Luxonians, and Crestas—anyone willing to pay a fair price.”

Sterling tucked a stray lock of his luminous white hair into perfect place. “Pity, humans keep getting in your way. Teal has reported that humans seem to disappear when they have the unfortunate luck to wander too close to one of your mining operations.”

Zuri’s hands clenched. “I’ve taken plenty of native-sensitive precautions. I introduced three kinds of protective repellants and made bloody well sure that they appeared to be right out of one of their superstitious belief systems. I did my research!”

A bell toned.

The two Luxonians glanced at the Ingoti representative beckoning them to their next meeting.

Zuri kept his glare plastered on Sterling.

Teal glowered. “Like it or not, we need stronger non-interference regulations for undeveloped planets. You’re already exploiting their natural resources, and humanity will suffer from your greed.”

The tone repeated—louder.

Judge Sterling tugged Teal toward the conference door. “We’ll handle this issue in the proper setting.”

Zuri smacked his metallic fists together. “You think humans don’t exploit each other? What about that creature called Neb? And his son—Ishtar? Don’t tell me that their noble hearts will win out over generations of greed. I’m just doing to humans what they’ll do to each other given time.”

Teal pulled away from Sterling’s grasp and stared deep into Zuri’s narrowed eyes. “You don’t know who Ishtar might become or what’ll happen to Neb. Don’t justify your evil by insisting everyone is evil. It’s too simplistic—even for an Ingot.”

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 Living and the Dead

Yvonne stopped on the threshold and sucked in a deep breath. Oh, Lord, have mercy. It never gets any easier.

A slender, willowy woman with flaxen hair turned, stared, and with her hands squeezed tight, red-rimmed eyes, and quivering lips, sat beside an occupied bed.

Frank’s feet pointed to the side, his arms limp over the white sheet, his eyes closed. Wrinkles, like signposts of pain, edged his eyes and mouth.

Yvonne didn’t need to be told the details. How many bedsides had she visited this year alone? Too many. She strode forward, her hands extended. “I’m here, Catherine.”

Catherine stood and they hugged. A tight embrace that would’ve broken an unscarred heart. “Thanks for coming. I wanted you to have a chance to say goodbye.” She glanced back, blinking. “It can’t be long now.”

A shuffling at the door turned both their gazes. Two men stepped in, one tucking away a phone, the other holding a ball cap. They hugged Catherine in turn.

Catherine gestured to Yvonne. “Carl, Ben, this is Yvonne. From my church. She helps arrange things…visitation, the dinner…you know…”

Carl shook his head, his gaze swinging beyond the women to his friend. “Frank was never much of a believer. But if it makes you feel better.”

Yvonne’s lips tightened. Not now, Lord, not now. She took a step nearer Catherine and clasped her hand.

A moan erupted from the bed.

Everyone shuffled closer.

Frank’s eyes fluttered open, his gaze searching until he locked on Catherine.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Catherine leaned in, clutching his hand in both of her own.I’m here, honey. Anything you want?”

His husky whisper barely rose above the pounding hearts around him. “Sorry…to leave. Don’t know…where…I’m going…”

Flinging one hand against her face, Catherine stifled a sob. “You’re going home, Frank. You’re going to God.”

Yvonne laid a soft hand on her friend’s shoulder.

Frank’s gaze floated to the ceiling. “Don’t know…”

Carl bent low, blocking the light from the window, throwing a shadow over Frank’s body. “Doesn’t matter, friend. You’ll soon be outta pain. That’s what counts. Like as not, we’ll meet up in Valhalla for a drink or two, buddy. Save a seat for me, will ya?”

Frank’s gaze wandered. He winced.

Catherine glanced back at Yvonne, her eyes wide with a slapped-across-the-face expression.

Yvonne clasped her hands and closed her eyes. Her prayers would reach God if no one else.

Time passed. Frank closed his eyes; his breathing falling into irregular rasps. Ben paled and wrung his ball cap. Finally, he excused himself. Carl pulled up a chair and leaned over his friend with his hands clasped and his knee bouncing.

A ring-tone chimed and Catherine rose, pulled out the phone, pressed the button, and listened.

Yvonne watched her wander from the room, her friend’s gaze unseeing.

Taking Catherine’s chair, Yvonne clasped Frank’s hand and kissed it.

In a blink, Frank opened his eyes. His wretched breathing rose and fell in spurts. Only his eyes could speak. They implored.

Yvonne leaned in and peered deeply into Frank’s eyes. “Trust, Frank. You’ve been a good man and loved deeply. You’re loved in return.”

Catherine reentered and dashed to her husband’s side.

Yvonne stepped back, tears flowing, as Frank gasped his last, and Catherine sobbed at his side. Yvonne glanced at Carl and gestured to the door.

Carl stood, stiffly, like an old man. He ambled out and strode to the kitchen.

Yvonne followed Carl and stopped at the sink. She heaved in deep gulping breaths.

Carl leaned on the counter and peered at her through narrowed eyes. “You think you had a right to do that?”

Yvonne turned, a headache pounding. “What?”

“All that, trust in Jesus crap.” Carl shook a finger at Yvonne. “There’s no way in hell you know where he’s going and that’s a fact. Offering a dying man a mirage isn’t an act of kindness in my book.”

Yvonne straightened, her eyes drying fast. She swallowed back the ache in her throat. “If I’m right…what harm did I do?” Her gaze stayed fixed on Carl, searing into him. “If I’m wrong…what harm did I do?”

Catherine staggered into the kitchen and leaned on the counter. Her tear-strewn face rose as she glanced from Carl to Yvonne. “He’s gone. Beyond our reach, now.” She extended a hand to Carl. “Thank you for being here. I know how much you loved him. He loved you too.”

Carl took her hand and pressed it. A tear slipped down his face.

Catherine reached for Yvonne. “Thank you.”

Yvonne embraced her friend and then stood back. “I didn’t do much.”

Catherine shook her head, glancing back toward the bedroom. “Oh, but you did. Hope is for the living—as well as for the dead.”

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

That’s Your Job

Gabe pushed back from his luxurious, high gloss mahogany desk and swiveled around so that he faced the floor to ceiling plate glass window overlooking the city. A glorious sunset highlighted mountainous clouds, tinting them in gold and pink. The beauty moved him not. Except for the dull ache in his chest, he couldn’t feel a thing.

“What the h—’s wrong with me?” He leaned back, clasped his hands over his not-as-muscled-as-it-used-to-be middle, and exhaled a long, slow breath. His therapist said that would help.

It didn’t.

A ringtone blared a swinging rhythm that he once loved—until he put it on his phone. Now it sounded stupid. He snatched the phone off the desk, tapped the button, and pressed it to his ear. “Yeah?”

Blair, his eldest daughter, spoke with her usual calm authority. God, he loved her. “Dad, I’ve got to stay late at the lab tonight. Professor Baughman said that they’ve got three internships opening in the fall, and if I can get all the paperwork in on time, I should get one. Plus, one of the freshmen got sick in class, and I need to help him disinfect the place.”

Gabe chuckled. “Always something—isn’t it?” He could almost hear her smile.

“Yep. So don’t expect me back till late, okay? I’m fine. Just working.”

Tiny sparks flickered to life in Gabe’s middle. “No problem. Just drive carefully. Especially around those d—” he caught himself. “The curves. Okay?”

“I always do.”

Gabe waited. He didn’t want to say goodbye. He shook himself. He couldn’t expect his daughter to fill the hollow void inside.

“Oh and dad.”

“Yeah?”

“Remember, you’re making dinner tonight. Johnny hates spaghetti and Sarah loves pancakes.”

Tears flooded Gabe’s eyes, stinging them even as he blinked and swallowed the strangled whimper he knew would rise if he spoke to quickly. He sat up straighter. “Got it.”

“Love ya.” The connection severed.

Dropping the phone back on the desk, Gabe turned once more to the window. The sun hovered over the skyline. He glanced at his watch. “Blast! They’ll accuse me of overworking again.”

After heaving himself to his feet, he swung into his jacket and tucked his phone into his pocket. A quick glance at his desk and his unfinished work. “It’ll wait. Always tomorrow.” A sinking feeling followed him down the hall as approached the elevator. “I never get enough done. Come early, work late, try hard—but it’s never enough.” His therapist said it was a perpetual guilt syndrome from his early childhood and that being aware of it would help him grow past it.

It didn’t.

~~~

As Gabe loped into his country-style, well-lit kitchen, he glanced aside.

Johnny leaned over the wooden table staring at a half-finished puzzle, holding a piece in his hand, his brow furrowed. A stack of folded laundry lay at one end. He glanced at his dad and flashed a grin. “I won it in a contest at school. I’ve read more books this semester than anyone else in seventh grade.”

Gabe pursed his lips. “Shouldn’t surprise me—but it does. You don’t seem like the bookworm-type.” His gaze flickered to the laundry.

Johnny huffed. “I read a whole six books. Hardly makes me a worm. Just nobody else read that many.” He jerked his thumb at the neat pile. “Sarah’s getting pretty good at getting the corners straight.” He returned to his puzzle. “What’s for dinner?”

“Spaghetti, if you don’t move your puzzle.”

With a laborious groan, Johnny slid the puzzle pieces onto a cutting board and carried it out of the room.

Gabe searched through the refrigerator. A package of spicy sausages and a carton of eggs brought a tired smile to his lips. Thank, God.

A little girl with brilliant blue eyes, fair skin, and a pixie face wafted into the kitchen. Wrapping her arms around a bundle of clothes, she hefted it into a tight embrace. “I’ll put these upstairs and help set the table for you, dad.”

Slicing into the plastic wrapping around the sausages, Gabe nodded. “Thanks, sweetheart.” A painful tightening in his throat and stinging in his eyes warned of a fresh wave of grief. He clenched jaws and sliced faster. “Dang!”

He rushed to the sink and ran cold water over his bleeding finger.

Sarah came back, swished the second bundle away, and trundled off.

Gabe couldn’t move. He knew that if he took one step away from the sink, he’d start sobbing like a child. Sarah didn’t need that. He didn’t need that.

“Hey, dad?”

Gabe blinked and glanced down.

Sarah stood there, her hands empty, her eyes as blue as a summer sky. “You think mom’s happy now?”

Fearing that he might break his teeth if he clenched them any harder, Gabe slapped off the water, grabbed a dishcloth, wrapped his finger, and stepped to the kitchen table. He plopped down on a chair.

Sarah stood by the sink, her gaze on him. Waiting.

He tapped his knee and motioned her over.

Sarah stepped up but only leaned in. No hopping onto his lap anymore.

Gabe put the towel aside and peered into her eyes. “You know, we were separated most of your life.” He swallowed, anguish mounting, and forced himself to concentrate. “But I never wished her ill. I always wanted her happy.” He shook his head. “We just couldn’t make things work. Too different. Set in our ways.” He sucked in a deep breath. “She was a hard person to make happy.”

Sarah’s brow furrowed. “You too.”

The sky fell. Mountains crashed. Waves washed over Gabe as tears rolled down his cheeks. His words rose like strangled gasps. “I wish she were still alive. I wish she hadn’t died. You still needed her—even if I didn’t.”

Sarah laid a soft, gentle hand on his arm.

Gabe buried his head on his arm. He couldn’t face her tears too.

~~~

Late that night, Gabe sat in bed staring at a page he couldn’t see.

A light knock on the door turned his gaze.

Blair stuck her head in the doorway. She frowned. “Heard you had a meltdown…want to talk about it?”

Snorting, Gabe waved her in. “Shhh. I just got Sarah to sleep, and God knows what Johnny thinks of me.”

Blair stepped in and perched on the edge of her dad’s bed. She laid her hand on his.

Gabe waited but Blair didn’t start. So much like her mother. “Okay. I had a little meltdown. No big deal. I’m going through some stuff.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Just because we were divorced doesn’t mean I didn’t care. I love you guys—and I know how hard this must be on you.”

Sarah scooted back and folded her legs to the side, leaning her weight on one arm. She tilted her head, her gaze direct and unwavering. “In a weird sort of way, I think mom’s death is easier on us. We got along and had some really good times together.” She shrugged. “I’m not saying that I don’t miss her or that it isn’t hard. But—I don’t know. We’re her kids. She sorta lives in us still.” Her gaze moved to the window. “I really believe we’ll see her again someday.” She squeezed Gabe’s hand. “Kinda different for you.”

Gabe stared at the ceiling. “She was always trying to make me a better man. Fix me.” He glanced at his daughter. “I only gave up smoking after we split to spite her.” He patted Sarah’s hand. “And for you guys.”

Sarah straightened, unfolded her legs, and swung them over the bed. “Well, she can’t fix you now.” She stood and started for the door. On the threshold, she stopped and peered back. “That’s your job.”

~~~

In the dark, Gabe patted the empty side of the bed. He swished his arm from the pillow all the way to his side. Lots of space…lots of empty space. His therapist said that pain was a good teacher.

It wasn’t.

But then he thought of his kids…and puzzle pieces, a neat stack of laundry, a decent dinner, and a stack of work on his desk. He sighed, curled his arm around the pillow, and closed his eyes. That’s your job.

It was.

 

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