With or Without the Pits

Eugene closed the oven door and faced his wife. “I hope I got all the pits out, or the boys will break their teeth on my cherry tarts.”

Samantha didn’t smile.

It was pouring rain and though the weather forecaster hadn’t suggested building an ark, her longed-for vacation at the lake seemed like a fading vision. A swampy muck of floodwaters hardly encouraged suntan-by-the-shore-eat-drink-and-dance-dreams.

With his hands on her shoulders, Eugene tried for a half-caress-half-shake. “I was only kidding. No deep metaphor of the state of the universe.”

Like a rusty robot, Samantha rotated to the French doors off the kitchen. The hanging plants sparkled with raindrops while a pair of red slippers she’d left by her favorite chair appeared as droopy as her spirits. “Summer will end, and I’ll be as exhausted as ever.”

Eugene didn’t know what to say. Cherry tarts seemed inconsequential. Like war humor—it just wouldn’t work as planned. Some things weren’t funny.

Devon, their six-foot-three and two hundred pound son, loomed into the room. His shadow entered first. He stopped, glanced from one parent to the next, and then shuffled his feet—indecision warring with better judgment. “Hey, just to let you know, I got the job. They want me to start next week. So—”

Though his heart soared with pride, Eugene’s stomach plummeted. Not for a minute could he glance at his wife and deal with her emotional mash-up. No, he’d go it alone. He threw his arms wide and embarrassed the hell out of his eldest with the tightest bear hug he’d given since Devon fell out of the treehouse at four and managed to walk away unscathed.

Doing a darn good impression of a startled linebacker with no ball in sight, Devon let himself be hugged. Then he hugged back.

Samantha stayed on the sidelines. Silent. Stoic. It took a full two and a half minutes before her composure crumbled, and she charged into the hug. Her muffled, “I can’t believe you’ll be leaving us…I’m so proud, but I can’t believe…” reverberated against the men’s You-Know-What-I-Mean eye lock.

Eugene pulled back and sniffed, fear reverberating through his body. “The tarts!” A quick U-turn.

Samantha tossed him the oven mitts.

Their youngest son, Kris sauntered in with the grace of a gangling teen that has outgrown every bit of his summer clothing. “Hey! You hear about Devon?” His gaze shifted from his mom to his brother. “I’ll get your room, right. It’s bigger than mine and besides, you can sleep on the couch if you ever come to visit.”

Samantha slapped her little boy’s arm and pooh-pooed the very idea. “Wait till he’s out of the house before any formal take over.” She leaned in and stage-whispered. “I have a whole house re-do that’ll cost a fortune, and I don’t want your dad to suffer cardiac arrest before I get a good contractor set up.”

Eugene waved a succulent, cherry popover before his wife’s face. “No goodies until you behave.”

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled over the celestial landscape.

Not to be held back by the threat of burned fingers or tongue, Kris attacked the hot cookie tray with the gusto of a starved rhinoceros.

Devon lowered his gaze.

Samantha accepted her husband’s offering and held it out to her eldest. “You first, Sweetie. The man of the hour.”

Eugene wrapped his arm around his wife and together they watched their sons partake of his latest culinary delight. He tipped his head, touching hers. “So the lake is out—but a cave tour would be pretty cool. Literally and figuratively.”

Samantha shrugged, her gaze wandering the room and out the door. Soothing drops fell in a steady rhythm while the fields and trees glowed, revitalized. “After we see Devon off…No hurry.”

While Eugene scrubbed the cookie trays, his wife chatted on the phone, spreading good news along the family gossip chain. A send-off party with matching luggage was in the works.

Once he slid the trays into place, Eugene eyed the last popover. He hadn’t even had one yet. He refilled his coffee cup, pulled out a chair, and plunked down for a well-earned respite. He took a bite. Wow! Better than he realized. He chewed and savored, and finally licked the last crumbs from his fingers. Not one pit.

With a sigh of contentment, he returned to the sink, washed his cup, and reset the coffee machine. He poured the spent grounds into the compost container and froze. There was Devon’s napkin with the red insignia of his new company—his mom had forgotten which job he had applied for. There, on the napkin, lay a cherry pit.

The silent accusation stared at him. He hadn’t gotten them all. Devon had never said a word. Eugene glanced at his wife. Did she know?

Samantha caught his gaze and frowned.

What should he do? Pretend it didn’t exist?

Samantha hung up and sauntered over. Wrapping her arm around her husband, she nuzzled his neck. “Say, how about we celebrate our successful launching of son number one into the world tonight?”

Eugene held up the cherry pit pinched in his fingers. “I missed one.” Blinking back ridiculous tears he fought the hammer blows pummeling his heart. “He could’ve broken his tooth and then—”

Samantha nudged her husband aside and practically sat in his lap, her arm still around his neck. “There are always cherry pits, honey. We’ll never get them all. Or stop rainy-day blues. Some things aren’t possible.”

Eugene nodded. She was right. But still, his heart ached. Damn cherry pit.

Footsteps approached, and Samantha practically fell on the floor in her haste to get on her feet. She stroked her husband’s cheek and then patted Devon’s arm as she headed out of the room.

Devon leaned in the kitchen doorway. “Hey, dad, before I go…just wondering…”

Eugene climbed to his feet and met his son’s bashful gaze. “Yeah?”

“Could you give me the recipe for your cherry tarts?”

Eugene smiled. He didn’t have to ask if his son wanted them with or without the pits.

They both knew.

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/cherry-berry-spring-summer-garden-2363739/

The Wheel or the Ball

“This town is teeming with eligible bachelors. If you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Cindy nodded, though her gaze stayed fixed on the hamster cage. She hadn’t honestly been listening. Of far more universal importance was whether Fred was sleeping…or…Gasp! Quite dead. There was no way on earth that her little girl was going to buy the I-don’t-know-what-happened—he-just-died excuse. Though the truth remained, Cindy really didn’t know what happened. Heck. He was a rodent after all. Rodents don’t live forever. Just seems like it when you’re a parent.

Jan stomped over, bent low, and added her gaze to the scene. “What we are looking at?”

Fred emerged from his wood-shaving encrusted boudoir. His whiskers twitching and his beady black eyes sparkling with a mischievous “Thought I was a goner, did ya?” expression.

Cindy sighed. Extravagantly. The munchkin drama wasn’t quite over. This tamed vermin would haunt her nights running the wobbly wheel of life a little longer. Oh well. He was rather cute for a critter with no tail and an independent personality.

She glanced at her desk. The jury duty summons sat next to her computer, which edged a stack of notebooks arranged for her convenience. She ignored them in order of importance. At the bottom, her house repair list. On top sat a list of dinner options. Grilled tuna and cheese sounded amazingly good right now.

“So, are we going out or what?”

“I’ve done my shopping, and church isn’t till Sunday. I’m not sure what going out would accomplish at this point.”

Eye roll. Jan had mastered it to a scintillating art form. “Just get out of the house, see something different. Maybe meet some new people. You know. Live-a-little.” Jan’s bug-eyed expression conveyed the theory that living involved effort beyond breathing and sustaining life functions.

Cindy begged to differ. “I’m still working on my lesson plans for next week, and the hens have taken up squatting rights in the garage. It’s time I gave them due notice.”

Thigh slap accompanied by yet another eye roll. Jan had it down. “Woman! You are so boring. All you ever do is work.”

Perhaps a change of location would ricochet the conversation into the outer atmosphere. Cindy swiped her muffin recipe book under her arm and charged into the kitchen. It was only two in the afternoon, and Patrick and Kelly loved muffins. Why not make them happy? Why not tilt the whole universe toward muffin-induced-joy?

The fact that the baking tins slammed on the counter like bullets discharged from a WWII blunderbuss did nothing to deter Jan’s train of thought. “We never have any fun!”

Apparently whining didn’t stop when one reached middle age.

Jan plopped down on the kitchen stool and proper her head on her hands. A picture of disconsolate teetering on the edge of depression. “I’m divorced, and you’re a widow. Men are a pain in the…well…you know, but we can’t live without them. Well, we can, but we’d rather not. Still, even though I’ve given up any hope of ever finding a decent guy, it’s still fun to look around and see what’s out there. Just for old time sake.” The fact that her voice had risen three octaves was duly noted.

Cindy sucked in a fresh breath of oxygen.

The ingredients practically assembled themselves. Wheat flour, oats, sugar, eggs, oil, baking soda… Cindy tapped her foot. Oh, yeah, the recipe! She flipped open the tattered book to her last concoction—Queens Muffins, which the kids had devoured last week in unscrupulous haste. On the next page sat a close up picture of molasses-raisin muffins. Oh boy!

A heart-stopping moment. Did she have molasses?

“Are you even listening?”

Yes! Molasses to the rescue, right next to the Karo syrup. Cindy eyed the half-full black bottle with a practiced eye. It would do. A little brown sugar could make up for any deficiencies. She rolled up her sleeves and dove into baking mode.

“News around town is that John and Megan have split. You know anything about that?”

Cindy’s eye twitched. Three friends had politely informed her of the shocking news. How shocking could it be in a world with a divorce rate running faster than the national debt clock? She tossed a prayer to Heaven. God, help John and Megan. Even more importantly—help their kids.

She preheated the oven, sprayed the muffin tins with olive oil, and poured her friend a glass of iced tea. “You sneer at every man you meet, tell your mom that you’re entering a convent at the next summer solstice, and cater to your kids like they own the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jan actually frowned. Umbrage incarnate. “Do you have a point you’re trying to make?”

After a you-know-darn-right-well wave, Cindy scooped up gooey spoon-fulls and filled two muffin tins. “Dear-heart, you have a nasty habit of dipping into poisoned wells, and then you wonder why you feel sick.” She popped the trays into the oven.

Time to clean up.

Violins ready? Jan clasped her hands in pitiful desperation. “I just can’t give up on love.”

Cindy wondered if Elon Musk would allow her on board a spaceship heading—anywhere. “For God’s sake. Give love a chance—by all means. But love is a universe apart from happiness and romance.” She wiped her hands on a dishrag. Vigorously.

“Love is scrubbing the bathtub and getting off the grimy rings, making fried egg sandwiches for kids who seriously believe that they’re starving when they have no clue, filling in paperwork with black ink and writing legibly, doing your civic duty even when it means you can’t bring electronics into the courthouse, stopping at red lights, and not racing around tractors on a hill.”

Cindy tossed a drying towel to her friend.

Jan caught it handily.

Patrick jogged into the room. He jogged everywhere. If he wasn’t jogging he was eating or asleep. “Hey, Mom, I’m starving.” A statement of fact. Nothing more.

A frantic screech. Kelly skedaddled into the kitchen, arms circling, ready for takeoff. “Fred’s gone!”

Starvation would have to wait. Duty called. With an authoritative slouch, Patrick nudged his sister in the arm. “Naw. I just put him in his ball to roll around the house, so he won’t spend the whole night on that rickety wheel.”

Jan snorted. “With so much exercise, that rodent will outlive us all.”

Kelly sniffed. “What’s cooking?”

Cindy took a sip of tea and wondered which Fred liked better—the wheel or the ball.

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/woman-coffee-cup-morning-hands-2289453/

Funny How Life Goes

Who knew that staring at the neighbor’s backyard, watching for signs of life could be considered nosey?

I wondered if the whole concept of “Mind your own business” was carried just a tad bit too far. After all, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of the old man for weeks. He could’ve been dead for all I knew.

Or worse.

He could’ve turned into something… Okay, that image stemmed from last night’s horror flick that my teen son had insisted wasn’t scary. It all depends on if scary meant I freaked out on the couch or simply spent the entire day picturing my eighty-something neighbor as an alien experiment.

“Can I help you?”

Oh, great. The son. He caught me red-handed…actually wide-eyed. I turned from the fence amazed that he had snuck up so close. Gravel roads usually gave people away. And where were my lousy dogs? I gazed around. Sure enough. Napping in the sun…probably didn’t even lift their heads as this veritable stranger strolled up the driveway.

I faced the fifty-something gentleman and smiled brightly, frantically thinking up a good lie. Unfortunately, my mouth tends to leave the station before my brain is finished giving instructions.

“I just wanted to see if Mr. Jacob is still alive.”

A low whistle.

Well, I hit the prize impression with that one. “I mean…I haven’t seen him for a while, and he’s been on my mind.”

“He’s fine.” The man’s eyes stared at me as if an interrogation room was being contemplated. Dang, but he’d have the whole alien experiment thing outta me before I could get properly tied to the chair.

So what now? The guy is standing between me and my back door. I could skirt around him, pretending that I’m just ambling toward my garden to pick— Heck it’s full of seedlings too young to touch and with my daughter’s ruthless war on weeds, there wasn’t even a stupid dandelion to hide behind.

He clasped his hands and continued to stare as if he wanted to talk. Probably not about aliens.

The only decent thing to do was stand there and take it. Yes. I’ve been nosy. I’d imagined gosh-awful possibilities all day until I just had to sneak over and see if poor Mr. Jacob could still walk…or crawl…around his place. And no, I wouldn’t appreciate it if someone else was watching me with an overloaded imagination ignited by horror movie scenes.

Thoroughly ashamed was I.

He cleared his throat. Always a good sign. It meant he’d like to tell me off but was holding himself back.

“Dad’s been off his feed for weeks. My sister is spent taking care of her daughter who broke her leg and has three little ones to corral. I’ve got to go out of town for the weekend, and I was just wondering if you’d keep an eye on him for a couple of days.”

My brain couldn’t back up fast enough. For a moment, I actually believe I lost the power of speech. Which is darn unusual for me. “Uh…well…sure…I’d…be happy…to.”

“Pa thinks he can manage everything himself. But you know, he watched some scary movie last night and thought you were coming to get him for some kind of alien abduction thing.” The guy actually laughed.

At me!

I could’ve wept in relief.

“Oh, how silly!” I grinned good-naturedly. After all, I am a decent human being. From planet Earth no less. Heck, I now imagined baking this man the nicest pie in creation—after I fed his dad a delicious non-alien dinner.

Funny how life goes. When I sopped by over that first evening, Mr. Jacob backed up against the wall, apparently expecting my pie cutter to slice through more than crust, but when I unveiled the cherry pie, all was well.

Now I go to the fence nearly every day and stare until Mr. Jacob or his son comes out to chat. Occasionally I call ahead. But usually, they seem to just feel my presence. We meet up and talk. I might bring a pie. The son might bring a couple of beers. Mr. Jacob brings his smile.

And so far…no aliens.

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Rest Awhile

Elise loved the universe—and Beyond. It was mutual.

But the facts remained. Her friends and relations contradicted nearly everything she said, and her husband grinned wickedly whenever she used the words, “I’ve been thinking…”

Yet the oaks and maples swayed in exuberant joy whenever she strolled near the tree line bordering their property. Almost as if they spoke through motion, “Welcome, friend. Lay down your burdens. Rest awhile.”

If only—

A small body barreled into her. Jody, her youngest, was master of the yard and could roam from the front lawn to the back barbecue with complete freedom. Still, once she stepped off the porch, he inevitably pelted her direction and threw his arms around her legs as if he had not seen her for—what? How do six-year-olds measure time? Hours? Days? Clearly not years since he believed that she was older than the moon.

“Mom?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Can you play with me?”

Her shoulders sagged. His plea weighed on her shoulders like a boulder carried over a turbulent stream. The clicking-clacking sound of the drier rolled in the background. Must’ve left Clifton’s belt on his pants… She winced at the image of metal scraping metal.

“Deb?”

Her husband stood on the porch.

Deb shaded her eyes from the bright May sun. “Yes, honey?”

“You seen my belt?”

A number of lies jumped to the tip of her tongue. Would evasive half-truths work? “Uh…”

“It’s in the drier!” Jody beamed, proud of the “eagle eye” Daddy assured him he was born with. “Mom threw it in there.”

Caught like a rat in a trap.

“Hon-eeey!” That last drawn-out syllable said it all.

In desperation, Deb glanced at the trees. The maple branches swayed wildly though the wind wasn’t strong. Their offer of friendship stretched across the yard in a valiant attempt to calm her turbulent stomach.

She patted her son’s head. “I can’t play now; we’ve got company coming for dinner. But Uncle Ben is always up for a game of catch.”

Jody’s eyes widened. Uncle Ben—like superman—flew in, amazed anyone under the age of seven, and then flew away like a superhero ready to accomplish his next mission.

The gleeful little boy shouted and frightened a robin from her nest. She fluttered to a higher branch while the boy dodged around his dad intent on serious matters. Perhaps he’d clean his room? Fling his books and toys on the floor looking for a treasure to show his uncle more like.

Clifton plunked down the steps. His irritation over the belt forgotten in light of this newest doom. “Ben? Tonight?”

The branches slowed, subdued by the grim news. Another robin fluttered near and chirped a brave song of defiance.

There was never a good night for Ben, according to Clifton. Opposites on politics, religion, and how to properly open a can of beer, they saw eye-to-eye on absolutely nothing. Except mutual distrust bordering on hate. On that, they might actually agree.

“He asked if he could come by… What could I say? He wants to see Jody.”

Clifton gave her THE LOOK—head down, eyebrows up, eyes searing her brain like laser beams. “It took the man three years to realize that his nephew’s name isn’t Joel.”

The maple limbs drooped. A few baby leaves quivered. The joy of living barely vibrated in the still air.

“He wants to care.” Weariness enveloped Deb. The drier stopped with a long screech like a train arriving at the station. She could retrieve the clothes, return the missing belt, and lift one guilty burden off her shoulders. Jody would play with Ben and—whoosh—another guilt-rock would roll away. For a few minutes.

Her husband snorted.

Her spirits smashed to earth. She stared at the ground. Or was it quicksand?

“Well, if he’s coming, I’m going. I’ve got some work I can do at dad’s.”

Deb nodded. It was the most reasonable solution. “You want me to send some of the fried chicken over? You two could make a—”

“Naw. I’ll get pizza. We’ll be fine. He’ll scream at the politicians on TV and then fall asleep after a couple of bites.” He shrugged. “You know how he is. Never happy. But at least I can fix the bathroom sink in peace and quiet.”

Torn, Deb knew that Clifton would mutter under his breath when he couldn’t find some tool or another, but he’d get the job done. He always did.

The phone buzzed in her pocket. She grabbed it. Lia? Deb tensed, ready for anything between a molehill and an atomic explosion.

Clifton frowned.

She showed him the name and then plastered the phone to her ear. “Hey, Lia!” Her tone sounded much too cheerful.

Three states away, Lia could still moan like a cow mooing directly in your ear. “I’m soooo siiiick! Mom’s taking me to the doctor.” Sniff. Cough-cough. “I just want you to know that if she crashes us or something, it isn’t my fault.”

After living a thirty-year soap opera, Deb knew her lines perfectly. She used the right pitch, oohhed and awed appropriately, and hit the end button as soon as decently possible.

She looked up. The real world still existed. Except, now her husband was stomping away from the fence bordering the Chelsea Estate. Or such was the name etched into an enormous boulder at the base of their neighbor’s fifteen-foot driveway.

“Something wrong?”

“That witch says Jody plays too loud in the morning and wants us to keep him inside till ten so she can get her beauty sleep.”

Deb winced. “Well, he does get rather loud—inside or outside. I’ll have a talk with him and find something quiet he can do till mid-morning.”

“No wonder she’s always running to a therapist after every breakup. No sane human being would put up her with.”

“She’s had a hard life.”

Clifton slapped his hand against his cheek, his eyes alarmingly wide. “Of her own making.”

There was no point in denying the obvious. “I’ll get your belt.” Deb sighed and clasped the porch railing.

Rolling his shoulders, Clifton clearly wanted to start the day over. He stepped in front of her. “It’s okay. I’ll get it.” His face flushed pink. “I spilled some taco sauce on it the other day—it needed a wash.” He patted her arm, a quick massage with his thumb. A smile twitched, his eyes laughing. “I don’t know how you do it.”

A gust of wind sent delicious shivers over her skin, and the rustle of leaves tickled her ears. “What?”

“Put up with us.” Her husband chuckled. “Your brother’s an idiot and my dad’s a tyrant.” He climbed the porch steps. “Your sister’s crazy, the neighbor has a screw loose, and the world’s going to hell.” He stopped in the doorway and grinned back at her. “Yet you never seem to care.”

Deb watched her husband saunter into the house. He whistled a happy tune. All his irritations blown away like dust on the wind.

The tree limbs begged with frantic waves for her to come and visit.

She strolled over. Reaching up, she stroked the smooth bark and soft leaves. The rustling leaves danced in frantic joy.

Her spirit responded in kind.

Lifting her face to the sun, she closed her eyes and abandoned herself. Every sense in her body—and Beyond—filled with peace. “I do 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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

I Don’t Have To See Christmas

“Ya know…you’ll never live to see the nuts ripen from that tree. Much less eat them.”

George grunted as he pressed the shovel deeper into the sod. He didn’t look up, but his grunt served a duel purpose. At eighty-three, it took every ounce of his strength to dig even a moderately deep hole. This one had to be large enough to bed a well-rooted sapling. The woody mate stood proudly to the side, evidence that George’s tenacity hadn’t dwindled with the years. He glanced aside. Had his guttural response made his point quite clear?

Randy sucked a hard candy and nodded. “You know what I mean, though.”

Stabbing the earth to create a soft landing, George turned the shovel every direction he could and broke up the larger clumps. Satisfied he motioned to the arboreal infant.

Obliging, Randy placed the root ball in the center of the hole. Together the two men shoved loose earth around the exposed plant. Randy lugged a twenty-pound bag of luxurious soil to the edge and using both hands, poured the rich blackness around the trunk, creating an even mound.

“That’ll do.” George sloshed a five-gallon bucket of water to the edge and tipped it near the base. The mound melted like sugar in tea.

Randy poured more dirt and sucked the last of his candy bits from his teeth. “You’re doing this for grandkids, then?”

A woman’s voice called from the doorway. “Dinner’s ready. You boys better hurry up or it’ll get cold. Janie’s going to stop by on her way to the bank and pick up that piece you want repaired. Better be washed up.”

Randy shook his head as he tossed the nearly empty dirt sack over his shoulder. “What’s the bank got to do with a well pump, I want to know. That woman just likes to run around town. All day and every day.”

The empty bucket banged against George’s knee as he walked. “The grass is always greener…”

As they entered the kitchen door, the smell of fried chicken, baked potatoes, boiled asparagus, and brownies smacked into them like the first day of summer vacation. Olfactory nerves did a happy dance.

Selma looked Randy up and down, apparently considering whether to send him back out the door or let him stay. “You get that last quarter done?”

“Sure. I just stopped by to see if—uh…”

Selma patted the tall man’s arm. “Well, you can eat and then help Janie put that pump part in her car.” She glanced at the laden table, ticking items off her fingers. “Oh, shoot, the butter!” She twirled and shot off, a heat-seeking missile after a new target.

Randy slipped into the nearest chair silent as a mouse sniffing the cat’s dinner dish.

A woman wearing a composition of pink jeans, a sky blue blouse with matching sandals, and jingling earrings, bounded into the room, pulled up short, and pressed her hand against her chest. “Thank God! I was afraid I’d find you all laid out on the floor.”

Sliding the butter dish beside a tall stack of bread, Selma eyed her cosmopolitan daughter. “We don’t usually eat on the floor, darling. Why’d we start now?”

George came in drying his hands on a towel. He worked his way around his DNA replica and dropped the towel in Randy’s lap.

Randy took the hint, slid out of chair, and headed for the tiny washroom off the kitchen door.

George plunked down at the head of the table and answered his wife’s question. “She heard that the economy is collapsing, our leaders are fools, there are twenty-three new ways to die, and—rumor has it—a comet is heading directly for earth.”

Randy poked his head out the washroom doorway, a confused frown running riot over his forehead. “Does that mean that the sky is falling—literally?”

With admonishing fingers, Selma waved the obscene consideration into oblivion. “This fried chicken won’t get any tastier just sitting here.”

“But, mom!” Janie’s hoops danced. “We have some really big problems to discuss—”

George clasped his hands and bowed his head. “They’ll wait till after dinner.”

Prayers said.

The meal commenced.

Selma was right.

The dinner could not have been tastier.

As he scooted his chair back, George peered from his wife to his daughter and finally landed on his nephew. “You asked if the nut trees are for the grandkids.” His gaze bounced off his daughter. “If we ever have any.”

Randy wiped his mouth, his eyes rolling upward, a clear attempt to retrieve his languid thoughts from the morning. “Yeah. Well…it’ll take a long time for those trees to mature, you know.”

Selma stopped; plates piled high on her left arm, her right swinging a dishcloth. “You planted them!” Her gaze softened, and she scurried to the window. Craning her neck, she smiled, unloaded the dishes, returned to her husband, and threw her arms around his neck. “You are the dearest man alive!”

Janie shook her head. “Like nut trees are going to any good. We’ll be lucky to see next Christmas the way things are going!”

In an act of open defiance, Randy tipped back his chair—normally a no-no. “To be honest…I don’t see the point either. Janie’s divorced and neither of us has kids…so who—”

“I don’t have to see Christmas to believe that someday, someone will enjoy those pecans.”

Selma wiped her sentimental, tear-filled eyes. “I told George I wanted him to show me that he loves me—in a new way.”

“What do pecans—?”

George chuckled. “She always loved those nuts. So when I proposed, I put a ring on the top of a pecan pie and gave it to her.”

Randy’s chair legs hit the ground, his eyes wide, taking in unrealized vistas of reality. “I never knew you had it in you—”

Janie straightened her shoulders and shot to her feet. “We’re just wasting time. I’d better get that pump part. At least I can do something useful.”

Randy took his cue, stood and bowed his gratitude to Selma. He pressed George’s shoulder as he followed his cousin out the door. “Never would’ve guessed.”

Selma sighed, reaching for her husband’s hand, her wedding ring glinting in the noonday sun as it poured through the kitchen window. “She doesn’t understand, does she?”

George stood and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Few do.”

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

It Takes Time

Marge wondered how it would feel to break her leg. Or arm. Or maybe just a finger. A toe? Would a hangnail suffice? Perhaps a bad headache. Some quality reason for staying in bed way past her usual wake up call.

She opened her eyes.

Oh yeah. Real-life. The world. Trial. Tribulation. Mistakes and Mayhem.

Sleep?

She dragged herself to the bathroom—washed her face and wondered if a bang on the head would induce amnesia. There was so much to forget.

“Hey, Mom?”

“Yep.”

“The coffee is ready, and there are rumors of breakfast.”

Saturday? Good glory. She sniffed. Sausage and eggs. Coffee. After wrestling out of her pajamas and into her day clothes, she snatched a look out the window. Blossoms filled the hedgerow. The apple trees were on a roll. Even the maples joined the fun, sending seedpods whirling through the air.

She sauntered into the warm kitchen while Jon and Kelly perched on stools at the counter, plates set. Food ready. Their fingers wrapped around coffee mugs from which swirls of hot steam unfolded like vaporous petals.

A glance at the crucifix. A breath of prayer. Lord, forgive us. We don’t know what we’re doing.

Kelly sloshed orange juice into her tall glass and took a sip. She smiled. “I wondered if you were ever going to get up.”

Jon shot his sister a warning glance.

Marge gratefully poured rich black coffee into her special mug. A birthday gift. Last year. An eon ago, it seemed. She leaned against the counter. “I just decided to take my time. Luxuriate in the reality of having nothing important to do.”

Jon shook his head.

Meg’s face imitated one of those Salvador Dali paintings, drooping like melting waxworks.

“You still have us.” Jon’s words barely broke the tension in the room.

She wanted to say—And you still have me. But for how long would that be true?

Her stomach clenched in tight knots, there was little hope of actually enjoying breakfast. But it would be cruel to refuse their offerings. Their kindness in making a good breakfast. She pulled her plate forward and sized up the fried egg, sausage, and toast as if they were enemies to conquer, rather than food to digest. Like a warrior, she nodded and set to battle.

With a great deal less drama, her children did much the same.

~~~

Once out in the garden, Marge found herself relaxing in the warm sun. The weeds had been kept in check, so there wasn’t much to do. But the border needed to be pulled back, especially around the potato hills. The cucumber vines had to be directed away from the tomatoes, or they’d break their fragile stems.

The padding of feet and huffing of breath made her sit on her haunches. She reached over to give Old Sheba a quick pat. She brushed against a pant leg and almost fell back in surprise.

A tall, lean, brown-haired boy stood aside, staring down at her. Sheba was indeed there, sitting next to him as if this stranger were a guest she planned to introduce. The boy didn’t say anything. Apparently, she was supposed to go first.

Marge stood and wiped her hands on her dusty jeans. “Hi, there.”

“Hi.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Mom said I could stop and see your garden. Ask you a question.”

Marge wasn’t surprised. She had learned long ago that everyone in these parts knew everyone else. She was an outsider. The ignorant one who’d be forever baffled by second cousins’ great-grandma, brother in-law’s nephew, and various blended families with stepchildren.

“A question?” She wiped imaginary sweat from her forehead. “You can ask. Don’t know if I’ll have the answer, though.”

He adjusted his glasses with the back of his hand and waved at the garden spread. “How’d you learn to do all this?” He shrugged. “Mom said that gardening skill is something you’re born with. She wasn’t lucky that way.”

After the fact, Marge realized just how rude her snort must’ve sounded. People loved to say, “It just comes naturally.” Ha! No siree-bob. Nothing natural about it. The boy was tall but too skinny. Poor thing. What was Unlucky Mom feeding this kid? White bread and canned beans?

“Look.” She held out her hands. Thick fingers, broken nails, a few calluses, and enough wrinkles to send any lotion company into fits, advertised her imperfections. “These are the hands I was born with—but they never touched the dirt till I was a grown woman. I couldn’t keep a house plant alive.”

The boy—Slender, she’d call him—patted the dog at his side, not so much to comfort the animal, probably hoping to find a little support.

“But—” He glanced around at the glorious green bean vines, perfect little corn shoots, blossoming potato hills, budding zucchini plants, the whole luxurious garden breaking through the earth and soaking in the sun.

Marge shrugged. “In truth, my kids do most of the work.”

“How’d they learn?”

“I taught ‘em what mistakes I made so they wouldn’t make the same ones. They studied books. Tried a new crop each year. Failed some. Succeeded some. Got better over time.”

The slender child blinked, tilting his head as he stared at her. “But we need a garden this year.”

Marge knew that. It weighed on her mind. Like so many things. “Who’s your mom, honey?”

“Grandma Gale’s youngest, Rosie. Holloway. My dad lives the next state over. Mom’s staying with Grandma now. They’ve got the land, just not much energy. She thought maybe you could teach me. And I could…” He looked away. Dispirited.

The image of her daughter’s melting smile squeezed her heart till it broke into uncountable pieces.

Shame flooded Marge’s whole body. How could she be so selfish? It pounded over her like a torrent. Her sluggish attitude. Dragging herself to the fine breakfast her kids set before her. And her gifts. The ones she could offer. If she tried.

She pressed her hands to her chest. No hope of putting the pieces back together, she’d just have to let them melt in one fiery furnace and forge something new. Perhaps something stronger than a human heart.

She couldn’t promise to live tomorrow. She couldn’t fix all the problems that faced her…or the world…or her neighbors. But she had to admit; she did have one or two answers.

“Well, I’m not the gardening expert of the family. Jon is. Kelly raises the meat birds—if you care to see.” She pointed to the chicken coop fenced in with wobbly green netting rescued from an abandoned farm up the road. “They’re mighty tasty on a warm summer evening or during a fierce winter storm.”

He grinned up at her. “Can’t you do anything?”

Now her best snort bellowed. “Well, of course, I can! Why I make the best bread this side of the moon, child.”

He squinted. Testing her. Could she prove that?

In answer to the unspoken challenge, she dropped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You just come inside, and I’ll give you a piece. With butter. Maybe I have a loaf I can let your mom try. If she’d be interested, I can send her the recipe.”

“She’s not very handy in the kitchen.”

“None of us are when we’re born. It takes time. To learn. Anything.”

“You think your son Jon might teach me about gardening?”

“Can’t imagine why not. He’s a reasonable fellow.”

“And I could learn about the meat birds, too?”

“If you’d like.” She nudged him along toward the house. “Come on in a moment. I’ll get you that piece of bread and scrounge up a son or daughter—and we’ll see what we can do.”

The boy trotted at her side, one hand patting the dog in joyful abandon. Old Sheba jumped about like a pup ready for the first romp she’d had in years. He stopped a moment, his face sobering. “Mom said I shouldn’t wear you out.”

“Son, I only wished you’d been there to roust me out of bed this morning.”

“You slept in late?”

“Almost slept my life away.” She pointed her face toward the kitchen. “Now, where’d I put that recipe book?”

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

You Decide

Clyde was sure he was dead. Who survived a storm of this magnitude? In a car…sitting in the middle of a highway… He closed his eyes. If he was going to be blown to kingdom come, he didn’t want to see it happen.

“Why’d we stop?” Dan, Clyde’s neighbor and sometimes home-improvement partner, roused himself from sleep, rubbing his eyes and stretching like a kid after a long nap.

Clyde pointed ahead. “There’s a barricade…some road problem, and it looks like the storm of the century is heading this way. Someone is trying to get people to turn around.

Dan rolled down the window and craned his neck out, swiveling right and left.

A long line of cars snaked ahead and behind into the dense gloom.

“We’re not going anywhere in a hurry.”

Clyde felt his heart drop to his boots. “If only.”

Dan unstrapped his shoulder harness and pulled the door lever.

Clyde’s heart did a one-eighty and jumped to his throat. “Hey, where the H are you going?”

Dan waved ahead. “Look, it’s just a young guy. Some patrol officer is trying to steer everyone back.” He chuckled. “It’s like Fred Rogers facing down a pack of irritated hyenas.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s what he’s paid to do.”

A frown creased Dan’s forehead. He leaned in and clamped his gaze on Clyde. “So you’d rather sit here and wait for the storm toss us into never-never land?”

A baby squalled in the distance. Clyde dearly sympathized.

“Besides, you know Jennie would be irate as a pancake flipper with no spatula if you got killed in a spring storm. She has you pegged for a long-liver or a go-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory kind of guy.”

Clyde felt a hot flush work over his face. “Ayah. I guess.” He really would hate to disappoint his wife. Though she’d get along without him all right. The kids were all grown. The house was pretty much paid for, and there was a good life insurance policy, but she’d reeeeally hate to be left with— “He got carried away.” —in his obituary.

The two strolled down the road, passing twenty-three cars. Clyde kept his face forward, avoiding eye contact. Dan, on the other hand, waved and grinned, apparently practicing for the role of the neighborhood ice cream man. He ought to have a little bell.

It was all too clear that sweat-stained the officer’s armpits as he repeatedly lifted his arms in a futile effort to direct irate drivers to maneuver their vehicles to the side so some kind of turning zone could be arranged.

Clyde measured the growing storm with his eyes. He wondered if a sincere act of Contrition would work for his Confession or if he was stuck with the full weight of the last three months I-don’t-have-time-to-count-‘em-now-sins.

Dan chewed his lip, swiveled his head forward and back, and then clapped his hands. He jumped up on the hood of the patrol car, waved, and shouted.

Clyde wanted to grab the officer’s arm for support. Considering the look on the young man’s face, the feeling must’ve been mutual.

“Hey! Hi, ya’ll!”

Dizziness ensued. Eyes can’t really roll around like on those cartoon characters—can they? Clyde peered askance at the officer. Darn. Guess they can.

The officer tried to recover command of the situation. “Excuse me. I’m—”

Dan smiled down. A benevolent benediction if ever there was one. “Yes, Sir! You’re right, Officer. If everyone would steer their cars to the far right side, onto the shoulder here, (Lots of hand motions for those without brains.) there’d be enough for a turn lane.”

Dan jumped down, directed the lead car to follow his example, and quickly assisted the driver to face the car in the right direction. The officer, his eyes steadied, his confidence returned, worked alongside. Together they maneuvered down the line, beckoning with rotating hand motions, calling, cajoling, and even teasing, until in a matter of moments a flow of traffic started away from the impending storm.

Once salvation was at hand, the masses knew what to do. And they did it. As fast as their wheels could carry them.

The patrol officer waved with a grateful grin as Clyde maneuvered his car away. The storm still appeared menacing, but there was a decent chance they’d make it home before it struck.

Another patrol car zipped by on its way to assist the lone officer. Clyde shook his head. “There’s a reason I’m not a cop.”

Dan nudged him. “Or a doctor.” He closed his eyes and leaned back.

A flush reheated Clyde’s face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Dan opened one eye.

Clyde slowed for the turnoff. Only five miles to go. Raindrops sprinkled the windshield. He smacked the wiper switch and grunted his disapproval of raindrops and cryptic comments.

Dan sat up. He glanced out the window as slashing drops obscured the fields and woods. “You’re not a leader, Clyde. You don’t want to be. You’re happy for someone else to step up.”

“That’s not true!” Clyde’s face burned with righteous indignation. “I wrote to the county commissioner about our sewer problem. I stood up at the school board meeting and told off principal what’s-his-face that one time. I even re-tweeted—”

Dan lifted his hand. “I didn’t say that you haven’t complained.”

Furious drops pelted the windshield. Clyde’s grip tightened, and his jaw clenched. He slowed the car to a crawl as his heart pounded in tune with the storm.

Lights glimmered in the distance; the faint outline of a farmhouse shimmered through the rain-drenched window. Dan’s wife, Gloria, would be worried, but she’d pretend she wasn’t. She’d laugh off her fears and welcome her husband from the front porch with beckoning arms. He’d sweep her into a bear hug, swing her around, and they’d go inside to dance or make love.

Clyde halted the car, undoubtedly splashing mud up the side in the process. “You want to explain that?”

Dan shook his head. “Not really. But honestly, Clyde. Come on. You live inside a fear-filled box. You bang on it by complaining. But when something needs doing, you wait for someone else to step in.”

“So, I’m not a big know-it-all.”

“Look, buddy. I’m not trying to be cruel. But, truth is…well.”

Stomach-churning anger swirled inside Clyde. “Damn it. I never expected this from you, Dan. I thought you had my back. I thought—” In a rush of fury, he jabbed a shaking finger at the passenger door. “Just get out. You can walk the rest of the way home. I’ve got to get back to Jennie. At least she really cares about me.”

Dan placed his hand on the door lever and stopped. “I had your back…and your front…today. I always do. But soon that won’t be true. I’ve got cancer, man. Chances are… But that doesn’t matter. Fact is; death comes for us all.” He swung his head like an exhausted bull and stared at Clyde through weary eyes. “You got to decide if you’re going to keep complaining and following…or if you’re going to start solving.” He shrugged. “It’s up to you.”

Clyde stared as the wavering form of his friend climbed the steep porch steps. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he could see Gloria’s shape as she stepped down to meet him. Yep. They embraced.

Slowly Clyde maneuvered the car around and started toward home. One mile up the road. The rain lightened, but his vision remained blurred.

This time, he’d keep his eyes open.

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

We’re Not Neanderthals

Sydney knew he faced mission impossible, but he had to try. She’d never be a fully functioning human being until she joined the ranks of millions—no billions—who had gone before her and embraced the brave new world.

He felt the gravel crunch under his tires as he turned into the driveway. The back gate was closed, which meant that the goat was probably in the barn, safe and sound, thank God. He’d spent the entire weekend either catching up on house repairs, work reports, or alternating with his wife at one of the kid’s weekend games. What idiot scheduled soccer practice twice a week and games on Sunday?

He took the key out of the ignition. Four o’clock. He might as well get this over with. Mom and dad ate a formal dinner at noon and a light supper at six. Promptly. He hardly wanted to try squeezing the whole technological world in between the early news and grilled cheese & tuna sandwiches.

But try he must. He grabbed the Kindle from the passenger seat and lumbered from the car, huffing with the exertion. Darn, but he should’ve had another cup of coffee before coming. He felt in his pockets. A handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans ought to do the trick.

Munching, he climbed the steps up to the porch and pressed open the door with a “Hey, anyone home?”

“Sydney!”

As if she didn’t expect to see me. Hah! Sydney felt a rush of guilt. For what, he wasn’t sure and wouldn’t stop to think about it. Roll away, guilt. Just roll away.

“Hey, mom.” The hug. The warm kitchen. The sense that nothing ever changed. Though she was a bit older. Moved slower as she crossed the room. “Dad here?”

“Oh, he’s out back with the dogs. Taking care of one of the Kerns’ pups. It got injured, and he’s nursing it back to health.”

“Nice of him. Never could say no.”

His mom shook her head, smiling the way she always did. “Why would he? He likes dogs. You know that.” She peered at her son.

Sydney felt like he time-warped back to yesterday’s airport security. What a horrible flight. The baby crying, the guy snoring, the storm clouds looming.

“You okay, son?”

Sydney shook himself. “Sure.” He laid the Kindle on the counter. I brought it like I said I would.

A combination of fear and distaste flickered over his mom’s seventy-year-old face. “That was nice of you. But I don’t really need it. I’ve got two library cards and that flip phone you gave me last year.”

“But, mom, this is so much easier. You won’t have to get out in the weather to go to the library. Books come to you. Right here. In your hands.” He lifted the Kindle like a car salesman showing off his latest option. He shrugged the image away.

With a long sigh, his mom picked up a long-handled spoon and stirred a pot bubbling on the stove. “I made chili—used up the last of the frozen, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. I even tossed in a can of homemade salsa for zest. We’ve got enough hamburger to last into May, but dad says he’s gonna butcher that old cow. She’s never recovered since the fall she had, and he figures she’d be enough to give you and Heidi some and still last us until next year.”

Sydney pictured the last package of hamburger he bought at the store—unnaturally red and outrageously priced. Had a strange taste too. “Well, I never say no to your food. The kids love your cooking more than me, I think.”

“Oh, honey. Don’t be silly. It’s just that we spent so much time with them when they were little.” A wistful expression spread over her eyes. “It’s good that they’re involved in so many activities now, but I hope they won’t forget grandma and grandpa…”

As if he could stop a knife twisting his innards, Sydney clutched the Kindle harder. “Well, let’s get down to business, shall we?”

A defeated damsel, his mom laid the spoon aside, pulled out a wooden kitchen chair and sat down. “You can show me, but I can’t promise I’ll remember…”

“Just try, ma. It’s all I ask. Do it for me. This way I don’t have to worry about you going out in all kinds of weather just to get to the library. Or doing so many things you don’t have to do. There are more than books on here. You can get music and movies. You can look up—”

Like a zealot cajoling a wayward member of the flock back into the fold, Sydney showed off the cyber universe with finesse and confidence.

The back door slammed. Dad strode in, slightly bent, but grinning from ear to ear. “Got that pup fed, its leg splintered, and now she’s sprawled out with the hounds like she’s never known any different.”

Looking up like a drowning woman begging for a lifeline, his mom stared at her husband through a plastered smile. “Look what Sydney brought us.”

Discomfort sent prickles over Sydney’s spine. “Oh, dad don’t care about this stuff. He’s told me so a hundred times.”

With a snort, his dad splashed his hands under the tap, scrubbed vigorously with soap, then rinsed and dried like a professional hand washer. He sniffed the chili, hobbled to his chair, and plunked down with a happy sigh. “You make it sound like I hate what you do, son. I don’t hate it.”

“You’ve never taken any interest in it, that’s for sure. Every time I try to show you what I do for a living, you turn away. Or say you don’t understand. When I know you could—if you wanted to.”

Dad and mom exchanged a quick glance, understanding each other in a way that strangled Sydney’s heart.

Sydney closed the Kindle. Defeat weighed a couple of tons at least. Mission impossible. I knew it.

Nudging him in the shoulder, his dad offered an encouraging smile. “You’re not listening, son. I appreciate what you do. You’re technology skills amaze me. Your mom and I are very proud of you. We just have better things to do than join in on everything.”

“Join in? What are you talking about? I’m just offering a Kindle devise so she can get—”

Mom placed her hand over Sydney’s and patted with maternal tenderness. “I like to go to the library. My friends are there. We chat and share what we’re reading, tell about things going on in town, the latest news. Last week when I wanted a new way to fix venison, Jan found a great recipe online. She even identified that weird bug your dad found in the woodpile the other day from some etymologist in India.”

She gazed into her memory. “Interesting man. Wish India were’ so darn far away.” She glanced at her husband and once again they agreed in a silent conversation. “Your dad got his email address and is thinking of writing and asking how the bug managed to find its way into our backyard.”

Sydney swallowed. “You’ve been on the web?”

Bernie grinned, leaning back against the sink, one brown gnarled hand propped on the counter. “Of course. We’re not Neanderthals. We just don’t want to get all caught up in that stuff. It’s fine now and again. But when Jill and the kids come over, they spend more time looking at their phones than talking with us. It’s like they can’t put the things down for even a minute.” He shrugged. “Your mom and I have other things we like to do with our time.” A twinkle entered his eyes as he met his wife’s gaze.

A shocking, mischievous spark danced from husband to wife. Thankfully, mom recovered quickly and swung her full attention to her son.

“You understand?” Mom’s eyes pleaded.

Sydney heaved his body from the table. “So you don’t want this?”

“It’s just—we’d rather not be tempted.” Dad clapped his hands together. “Now when are we going to have that chili? I’m as hungry as a bear after a long winter.”

Mom hopped up and flipped open the cabinet. She grabbed bowls and charged into the utensil drawer, gunning for action, “Can you stay and have some, Sweetheart? I’ve got garlic bread warming in the oven.”

Sydney pictured the scene at his home. His kids would each be in their room staring at their computers…or Kindles. Jill would be slouched on the couch—maybe playing a game or binge-watching her latest TV obsession. He’d walk in, say hi, no one would respond. He’d go to his room and turn on his computer.

He peered down at the eager, alive faces of his parents and sat back down.

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

The Delete Button

“Modern technology is decimating my literary prowess as well as my love life.”

Evangeline held her gaze steady, refusing to give in to an auto-eye-roll. I love my cousin. Mom loves her. Dad loves her. I can’t kill her without due process of the law. She snatched a pecan from the trail mix bag and eyed it carefully.

“What? You think a nut can explain my life?”

There were so many possible responses—Eva’s head swam. She popped the dainty morsel into her mouth and crunched. She peered over the top of her reading glasses at her DNA-sharer and wondered how any one human being could get so thoroughly confused on a daily basis.“What has the computer done to you now, Tracy?”

“The blinking delete button!”

Another pecan followed the first. Eva glanced at the car’s dashboard. Six minutes to go. Once the kids were out of school and slumped into the back seat, they all could race to the store, pick up the cake mix and two kinds of frosting for the bake sale, plus three kinds of sprinkles because kids these days won’t shell out their parent’s money without sprinkles, speed home, get the girls on baking duty, let the dog out…no, definitely let the dog out first. Then preheat the oven. Then get the girls baking…

“Don’t you want to know about the delete button?”

Eva propped her head against the warm car window. Four minutes. She could live through four more minutes, surely. “So what evil has the delete button been perpetrating upon you, my dear?”

“I don’t have one when I talk.”

Eva groaned.

“You know, I’ve won awards for my writing. I’m considered one of the most professional science journalists out there. But heck, put a mike in front of my mouth or perch a good looking guy on the stand, and I’m a babbling idiot.”

A tiny piece of pecan had wedged itself behind one of Eva’s front teeth and it was worth more than the cost of her new couch to get the thing into a more approachable position. She took a sip of water as the school bell buzzed.

Kids swarmed like bees in springtime. The two second cousins, Kala and Marci bustled along bumping shoulders, as if they had just shared a joke or were in on a secret together.

At least, they looked like they are having fun. Eva pressed the unlock button. The kids tumbled in. End of conversation. She hoped.

Tracy dashed such dreams to smithereens without conscious thought. “My theory is that human beings are going to kill each other before the century is out because we’re used to editing our words with the ease of a delete button, and we’re slowly but surely losing the ability to speak coherently face to face.” She turned and squinted at the girls with a two-fingered wave. “Hi, beautiful babes.”

Eva didn’t have to look in the rearview mirror to see the eye-rolls. The car nearly lurched into oncoming traffic with the force of them.

Marci patted her mom’s shoulder. “Hi, pretty mama.” She nudged Kala. They both grinned.

Eva made a slow turn into the store parking lot, which happened to be conveniently located between the grade school and the high school.

“Some city planners in cahoots with local business interests.”

“What?” Tracy’s wide-eyed expression left no doubt that the delete button was missing in action again.

Eva shook her head and darted from the stopped car like a puppy off its leash. “Sit tight. I just have to grab a couple things—”

No such luck. Tracy flew to her side and flung her purse strap over her shoulder. Soldiers had been known to carry injured buddies off the battlefield with less drama.

Speeding down the baking aisle entertaining fantasies of finding both frosting and sprinkles on a half-off sale kept Eva’s mind so busy she didn’t hear a word her cousin said. Not until the babbling stopped short, and the woman’s steely grip yanked her sleeve off her shoulder. “There he is! The guy I was interviewing today. He’s a scientist. But you’d never guess, would you?”

With slow, nonchalant dignity, Eva redressed her shoulder and slid a glance at the scientist in aisle two. Indeed. He did not match any stereotypes currently running around Eva’s married head. Except perhaps about some childish long-forgotten barbarian king with long, wavy, hair, intense brooding eyes, broad shoulders and mighty biceps, who swept her off… Whoa—

Tracy strode forward and thrust out her hand.

Eva closed her eyes and thanked God that their innocent daughters were still in the car.

Tracy babbled. The man nodded.

Repeat.

Eva debated the need for Confession if she just slinked to the bakery aisle, retrieved her much-needed items, and then scraped her cousin off the floor after the fact. She turned, prepared for flight.

“Eva!” Tracy grabbed the man’s hand and attempted the yank maneuver.

Eva froze, wondering if spontaneous combustion was a legitimate option.

By some kind of supernatural Grace, which apparently altered the known universe, the man grinned and allowed himself to be towed across two aisles.

Tracy beamed. Seriously. Beams of happiness shot from her eyes nearly blinding Eva. “Guess what? I bet you’ll never guess!”

Eva considered the guy. He appeared to be amused. Tickled even. His gorgeous physiology only accented his apparent joy.

Eva slapped her hand against her cheek.

The man laughed, pulled his hand free, and held it out. “I’m Kendrick and work at the state forensics lab. Your cousin interviewed me for—”

“He doesn’t think I need a delete button!”

Eva shook her head. “But I do. Let the man finish his sentence.”

Tracy blushed. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.”

Kendrick’s smile didn’t waver. “It doesn’t really matter. I was just glad we bumped into each other. I was rather short with her today, and I wanted to apologize. One of my kids has been sick, and I’ve been up two nights in a row helping my wife take care of him.”

Without looking, Eva knew that Tracy’s beam had faded into shadow. She offered the father a comforting shoulder pat. “Oh, been there, done that. Hope your boy gets better soon. Our girls are waiting for us in the car—we better run.”

With a gentleman’s nod, he returned to his niche aisle. Cold remedies and vitamins.

By the time they had returned to the car, Tracy had rediscovered her voice. “I didn’t see a ring on his finger. So I just figured…and when he recognized me and said—”

Eva stopped beside the car and gave her cousin a one-armed hug, the other hand clutching the baking supplies. “Listen, honey, it isn’t that you need a delete button—so much as a listening ear. Just give other people a chance to show you who they are before you decide you know them. Okay?”

Tracy nodded, yanked open the passenger side door and slid in with a harrumph.

Eva pulled into traffic, trying to decide if she should preheat the oven or hug her husband first.

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Six

He Ran Faster

Eoban’s legs wobbled. He called for a halt and dropped to his knees before a broken tree trunk and gulped warm, stale water from his skin bag. After wiping his mouth, he glanced from Obed to Barak. “I’m not sure, but Luge’s clan might’ve left for their migration by now. It’s past their usual time.”

Barak guzzled his water, scowled, and tossed his empty bag aside. “It’s past time we went home.”

Eoban frowned and took another long drink.

“I think we’re close enough now. We could go in either direction.” Barak shrugged. “I’m ready to go home.”

Obed stepped forward, wiping his lips as he held his bag in a tight grip. “But what about Amin? Surely, you’re not suggesting that we leave him behind?”

Barak shook his head. “By no means! I want to find him, but I’ve a clamoring in my mind, insisting that I go home.”

Eoban waved Barak’s words away though his stomach twisted, anxiety churning the fluids in his middle. “You worry too much.”

Barak slapped his thigh and looked to the sky as if beseeching the heavens for strength.

Obed raised his hand. “I’ll find Amin. You two return home and make sure everyone is safe.” He raised his eyebrows and tipped his head at Barak. “I’m learning to trust your instincts.”

A relieved grin broke over Barak’s face.

With a dizzy sensation and a feeling that his world was swiftly falling apart, Eoban pounded over to Barak and shook a finger in the direction of Obed. “You really believe that man can find Amin and make his way home again before the season turns?”

Barak met Eoban’s gaze, steady and unblinking. He crossed his arms high over his chest.

Turning, Eoban glared at Obed. “You’ve never traveled alone! You prefer to sit around and think—”

A small stick smacked Eoban on the nose.

Eoban turned and caught Barak’s hard gaze and his fingers still in the flicking position.

Barak dropped his hand and faced Obed. “It’s a workable plan. We’ll split up. You find Amin. I’ll take Eoban, and we’ll meet at home.”

With a quick nod, Obed turned and began clearing a spot for their evening fire.

Eoban threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Oh, of course. I’m talking nonsense, just being difficult as usual.” A flush worked up his face as he indulged in a righteous pout. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ve half a mind to go off on my own.”

Snorting, Barak bundled kindling into his arms. “And where would you go?”

Eoban ripped into his bag and pulled out a handful of shriveled berries. “I could go anywhere.” He tossed the desiccated fruit into his mouth and chewed vigorously. “I could visit friends. I could find new trade routes. I could —”

Barak looked at Obed. “Take him if you want, or he’s welcome to come with me, but I think you’re right. I can’t ignore this inner turmoil any longer. I must get home.”

“Inner turmoil?” Eoban rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Now I’ll be worried about you, Barak. Obed might get lost, but you’ll make yourself sick.” He blew air through his teeth. “I’ll go with you for Milkan’s sake. She’d be devastated if you perished—even though you’re enough to drive any man mad.”

~~~

Obed rose at daybreak refreshed and ready for adventure. Springing to his feet, he relished the very thought of traveling alone, with its unparalleled level of freedom. Closing his eyes, he sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. At the sound of footsteps, he flicked his eyes open.

Eoban stood three feet away, staring at him through narrowed eyes.

Obed waited, dreading an announcement.

In an unexpected move, Eoban threw his arms out and enveloped Obed in a bear hug. “Since I may never see you again—”

Relief flooding his senses, Obed shoved Eoban away with an awkward laugh. “Likely, I’ll make it home with Amin before you and Barak even get out of this trackless wilderness.”

Eoban lifted his hands in defeat. “If you say so.” He lifted one eyebrow. “I’ve gone over the directions to Luge’s place. Any questions?”

Chuckling, Obed stepped around Eoban and slapped Barak on the shoulder. “Thank you, my friend, for your loyalty to the clan. Best of luck on your return journey.” He glanced aside. “I surely have the easier task.”

Barak dropped his head to his chest and sighed.

Pursing his lips, Eoban clapped his hands. “Enough blathering.” He swung his bag over his shoulder and stomped away.

As Barak trailed after Eoban, he glanced back, met his friend’s gaze, and rolled his eyes.

Obed grinned.

~~~

Obed sauntered over the rough woodland, his arms swinging at his sides, whistling a jaunty tune. Sweat trickled down his back as he swatted insects beyond all possible count. Three times he circled around prickly thickets, and twice he forded meandering creeks and joyfully splashed himself as he went. He reveled in his slow pace and the exuberance of running down an incline with his arms spread wide to catch the breeze. When his stomach rumbled, he stopped to gather berries. By noon, he came upon a large tree with branches hanging low from an abundance of nuts. He pawed through his bag and drew out an empty leather pouch.

He scrambled up the lowest branches and picked to his heart’s contentment. When the bag was bulging, he dropped to the ground, toed through the foliage, and found a rock of sufficient size. After smashing a handful of nuts, he rested against the firm, smooth trunk and enjoyed the crunchy, meaty insides.

The filtered sun speckled the ground around him, light and dark dancing like children at play. Birds chirped and flew from branch to branch overhead. A rodent scampered near, sniffed the broken shells, then rose on its haunches and peered at Obed through tiny black eyes.

Grinning and satiated with simple pleasures, Obed relaxed in weariness and closed his eyes. Pleasurable rest spread through his whole body and cast pretty images of woods and streams in his mind…

Sometime later, strange shuffling, huffing sounds stirred, disturbing Obed’s rest. He rubbed open his eyes, yawned, and climbed to his feet. Glancing at the sky, he squinted at the bright rays of sunlight. He gathered his bag and spear and stumped forward. In bemused exhaustion, he trudged across a wide, meandering stream and circled around large boulders.

By late afternoon, the air grew thick and his feet dragged. He stumbled twice and then stopped to catch his breath.

Speckled sunlight glimmered through the branches before him.

Pursing his lips, Obed craned his neck around.

Twilight descended behind him.

Frowning, he turned and peered at the low, western sun before him. He rubbed his jaw, his confusion ending in a bemused chuckle. Obed crouched beneath a large spreading tree and murmured, “I can’t be lost. It’s too ridiculous.” He pointed at the sun and grinned, wondering if he was drunk on innocent pleasure. “You’re supposed to be behind me.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Maybe I—”

A blurred force of wind and a stone sped by, nicking his face. Confused, he slapped his cheek and glanced aside.

A spear embedded in the tree wavered like an insect tail. Cold shock drenched Obed.
Crashing, pounding footsteps accompanied by grunts and yells drew close.
Without thought, Obed rushed madly into the woods. As the voices grew more distinct, all strength drained from his limbs.

A gruff voice rose behind him, and a sharp pain on the back of his head sent brilliant lights flashing before his eyes. He fell into blackness.

~~~

Obed awoke with a throbbing headache, barely able to recognize the moon shining down from a star-studded sky. When he tried to rub his stinging neck, he found his arms bound tight. Groaning, he realized that he lay among a crowd of people all trussed up like pigs fit for a feast.

His cramped legs ached, demanding a stretch, but when he tried to straighten, his ropes jerked a heat-laden, stinking body close to him.

A groan swelled on his right.

Obed twisted and peered at a scrawny, filthy boy with a rope strung around his neck and waist. When he twisted to the left, his mouth fell open at the sight of half-starved men, women, and children tightly packed all around him.

Sour body odor, stomach leavings, stale urine, and excrement dragged a retching sensation from his stomach. He heaved and realized that there was no place to throw up except upon another person. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fought the upheavals through gritted teeth.

Once he gained mastery over his stomach, he turned his attention to the hot, smothering camp. Flickering flames danced amidst a huddle of armed warriors, who stomped and pounded their spears in rhythm to a low, incessant drumbeat.

In the distance, a whimper rose, followed by a skirmish of shuffling feet and flailing arms.

A murmur flittered among the prisoners, then a gasp and a stifled cry.

The beat grew stronger and more insistent.

A shriveled, ragged figure was dragged before the fire, pleading and whimpering.

A new figure appeared following the first, short-sleeved, muscled, straight-backed, and pointing a glinting knife.

Nausea again erupted from Obed’s middle, spreading acid through his mouth. He dropped his head to his chest, gasping short breaths. Fear closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders against his ears.

A scream tore through the night air.

Arrows of agony ripped through Obed. Everyone stiffened. Even the air held its breath.

The cry faltered, slipped to a groan…and died.

Tears flooded Obed’s eyes and slipped down his cheeks.

~~~

Obed jolted awake as cold water splashed his face.

A giggle passed on and then a cry, a jerk, and another giggle. Obed swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth, glancing at the dripping figure beside him. He wanted to wipe his own face, but since his hands were restrained, he couldn’t reach it.

The man on his left scuttled to a sitting position and wiped his face against his shoulder, peering from the passing guard to Obed. “He generally do like that. Funny he thinks it. Giggles like a maniac every morning. Always the same.” He shook his head.

Obed pictured Luge’s anxious face when he’d mentioned his lost son. He blinked the drips away and met the other man’s gaze. “Where are they from…these slavers?”

Jutting his chin outward, the man glanced away. “Over the mountain some say. Talk of a stone city and glories beyond description.” He shrugged. “Demons of hell more like.”

Obed peered at the well-armed warrior who stalked among the captives drenching the sleepers, kicking those who didn’t budge, and giggling like a fool. Demons of hell…indeed.

~~~

Tobia strode with purposeful concentration, relieved of his burden yet anxious to get home. With his back to the setting sun, he charged ahead with dexterous steps, paying little heed to his surroundings.

As evening fell, a strange silence caught his attention. No birds flittered about, as if an unseen warning held every animal at bay.

Slowing, he turned aside and noticed broken branches and a beaten path across the woodland floor. He crouched low and examined the ground, tracing the prints of feet shod in soft leather and the marks of numerous bare toes.

He rose and rubbed his sweaty neck.

A scream ripped through the air.

Scuttling like a crab, Tobia made his way forward and stopped on the edge of a large assembly gathered around a central fire. His innards twisted into a hard knot.

He circled around the gathering, freezing when the scream rose and fell in torment and finally faded in a pitiful death. After a silent moment, he crawled forward. When his muscles contracted, he stopped before a ragged throng of prisoners. Studying the assembly, his throat tightened and his stomach lurched.

He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Surely his eyes were deceiving him. There, tied to a long line of men, women, and children sat a filthy man with a bowed head. Shadows covered the man’s face, but still, Tobia recognized him. “Obed?”

Tobia tried to swallow. Had Ishtar failed? Had his people been attacked and overcome? Cursing himself for his stay at Kamila’s village, he leaned forward and studied the group. Tears filled his eyes as he frantically searched the crowd for familiar faces.

He frowned even as relief poured over his body. He recognized no one except Obed.

Shaking, he scuttled backward slowly to avoid any undue noise. Stopping some distance away, he crouched on his haunches and considered his options. He glanced back the way he had come. Remy was too far away and unprepared for such a situation. Only the united clans with Eoban and Barak in the lead could hope to make a successful attack.

Scowling, he positioned himself like a man prepared to race like the wind. He turned toward home. A question haunted his mind. What happened to Ishtar?

With narrowed his eyes, he darted ahead, his whole body screaming. Run!

As he picked up speed, tears blurred his vision. He had not saved his first father or Vitus, and most likely Ishtar had come to a bad end. But still, he had a slim chance of saving his second father and his village. His heart hammered against his chest, ready to burst.

He ran faster.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

New chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)