Autumn is just about here, and I am grateful beyond words for so many things. Even as local and world upheavals distress my soul, so I breathe a prayer and turn my gaze to tasks at hand.
What is my part to play in this maelstrom we call life with all its guts and glory?
I wear a number of hats throughout my day: mom, teacher, homemaker, mistress of a critter kingdom that ebbs and flows with old age, sickness, and new life. Two kittens, Cheddar and Bradley, have taken over the house, completely flummoxing our perpetual pup, Misty, who honestly believed she owned the domain. Surprise! There’s always room for one or two more, and she didn’t get a vote. I keep the peace by making sure that all are well fed and housed, though gluttony and sloth serve no one.
I also keep track of the bodies buried at our cemetery and track down gravesites for interested family members when possible. Sometimes, it’s mission impossible. That’s an unpleasant reality. We don’t always get questions answered to our satisfaction. Especially if there are imperfect records and no tombstones. Families beware, if you want great-grandkids to visit your grave, leave a tombstone and a map so future generations can find it.
Tutoring adult GED has been an unexpected pleasure. It’s a fairly straightforward task—helping someone learn the basics that they missed, for whatever reason, along the way. Makes a big difference in self-esteem and job opportunities. An act of kindness that echoes back long after algebra 101 fades into the mist.
I am still writing, publishing, and recently added podcasting to my regular daily do. Since I have managed a challenging schedule for much of the year, I am going to slow production in October. I will continue with Kindle Vella Homestead episodes and podcasting content, but I plan to revamp and, perhaps, reinvent my media approach, praying to God to make it a bit more effective. Marketing has never been my forte, so I am working with someone this time. We’ll see how it works out. Optimism is a tough choice, but the alternative doesn’t appeal much.
I finished writing the fifth novel in my OldEarth series, OldEarth Melchior Encounter this week and have sent it off to my editor and proofreaders. My goal is to get it published with live links before Thanksgiving. The operative word here is goal.
Rain is pouring from a grey sky, shivering the yellow leaves on the cherry trees, while our hyperactive kittens pounce on each other and attack my knitting. Though there is a great deal wrong in the world, there is also a great deal that is right. Focusing my daily goals toward what is good and beautiful, becoming less self-absorbed, and releasing anger and pent-up frustrations in healthy rambles and friend-centered conversations makes for a quality life. After all, despair doesn’t want a helping hand but hope does.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
July decided that it wanted to make a name for itself before August elbowed its way to the front of the line, so the temperatures sky-rocketed in the latter half of July. It was weird to see empty fields where rows of corn and beans used to dominate the summer landscape.
Sure, families had planted gardens, but they were tiny compared to what I was used to seeing. What the winter would look like, no one could tell. I shuddered to think about the spring. Few people had supplies to last that long.
My zucchini was all but done, and only one giant sunflower lifted its head against the bright blue sky. The lettuce had bolted, though I pulled the last few tough leaves off the thick stems to add garnish to every meal. All the potatoes and onions had been pulled and hauled inside. I was rather proud of the cardboard boxes layered with my homegrown produce. I shifted the boxes onto a dark shelf in the basement where they were sure to stay dry. I planned to use lots of white onions when I made salsa. Just waiting for the tomatoes to do their thing and ripen in a big bunch to make a canning day worth the effort.
Feeling a tad lonesome, I let the oldest cat, Earl, into the house where he slept on the chair in the living room most days. His rickety old body could hardly jump the distance, and I knew there’d be a day when he’d fall back to the floor in cat disbelief. But for now, he was someone to talk to. Even if I knew full well that he was dreaming his last days away.
With the high humidity and heat, I didn’t feel terribly hungry mid-week. I had spent most of the day clearing out the back shed in the expectation that when Liam and the kids did make it home, we’d have to think seriously of getting a couple of cows and expanding our chicken run. We’d have to store hay for the winter and figure out how to grow our own feed grain. Other people were making adaptions—necessitating the use of every old barn and shed in the county. Wood and metal for roofing were going for a premium price. I had to make the most of what I had. And that meant clearing out the dusty space and shoring up the frame so it wouldn’t collapse over the winter.
Hot, sticky, and fearing the revenge the spiders would perpetrate on me for wiping out their webs, I trudged into the kitchen planning on nothing more than tomato slices and a glass of water for dinner.
I nearly had a heart attack when I saw a man sitting at my kitchen table. My first thought was that Liam had finally made it home, but then I realized that this guy was much too young.
He stood up and faced me, not a hint of a smile on his face. “I’ve got bad news, Mrs. Oxley.” I swallowed and gripped the kitchen counter. I didn’t want him to tell me…
I Had a Spirit
The temperatures continued to zig-zag right into August, but a storm front promised cooler temperatures soon. At least, that’s what Ben said when he returned with Dana and Juan following at his heels like lost puppies.
I was too depressed to care if an arctic winter was in the forecast. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I’d never see Liam again. That I had missed his last days, his last moments. His burial.
The tomatoes and peppers had ripened nicely, and with the pile of onions I had stored away, I had enough fresh ingredients, with bartered cilantro from a family in town, to make a decent batch of salsa. Luckily, I had stocked up on vinegar last year. The extra gallon came in handy with all the pickling and canning I was doing.
After washing the five gallon’s worth of tomatoes, I sat on the hardwood bench at the kitchen table and cut off the bad parts, and sliced the juicy red goodness into tiny pieces. Next, I worked on the pile of bright red and green peppers, and finally, I faced the dreaded onions. I didn’t need a reason to cry. I had plenty.
Flies swarmed the pots and dove into my face, adding to my frustrations. Hot and sticky with a storm front pushing the humidity into the unbearable zone, I worked mechanically. Focusing on one step at a time.
Grab an onion by the tail
Slice one side.
Chop into rings.
Turn and chop into cubes.
Drop the pile into the pot.
Wipe my stinging eyes.
“You want some help?”
I looked up. There was Dana reaching for a knife and settling across from me at the table. Guess I didn’t need to answer. She could read my mind. Or so she thought.
I sniffed back stinging tears and lost my rhythm. I was supposed to be cubing, but I went to the sink and splashed water on my face instead.
After patting my eyes dry with a towel, I looked at my daughter. Why was I so angry at her? She hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, she had done everything right. Found her brother. Made her way home. Gone off and looked for her dad. And found him. And buried him.
“Mom? You okay?”
I stared at the onions. I wanted to hate them. But I couldn’t. “No. Not okay.”
Dana stopped chopping. “Me neither.” She had dropped her head onto her chest and I could tell by the heaving action that she was either sobbing silently or about to throw up. Or both. Maternal instinct to the rescue, I ran over and…
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What did Liam mean in his letters? And what about Josh? Did the aliens get him? Were the kids okay? And what about Ben—yeah, what about Ben…
Five o’clock on a mid-July evening, and I was ready to spontaneously combust. Too many questions and not nearly enough answers. I invited Linda over for supper, and we slapped flies away as we ate egg salad sandwiches. No chips, of course. Pickles, though. I had finally gotten enough cucumbers to make a decent batch. Vinegar, garlic, a dash of sugar and salt, and lots of dill made us pucker up big time, but they went well with the meal. I even made a blackberry cobbler for dessert. If the flies didn’t eat it all first.
I got up and draped a towel over the deep dish. Then I slumped with Monday weariness onto my chair and took another bite of dinner, crunching on the garden lettuce I had added for body since I didn’t have many eggs. I glanced at Linda.
She was eating, a good sign. But the dark lines under her eyes, glazed expression, and slow motions bespoke depression’s tenacious hold.
“So, have any of your tomatoes ripened yet?” A pertinent question, considering the need for healthy food to be packed away for the long winter. I tried not to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s version of the Long Winter. Where they nearly starved to death.
Linda dragged her gaze from the flower-rimmed plate and met my gaze. It seemed to take a minute for the question to process. “Oh, no. Not yet. They’re getting big though. All the rain. Just hope they don’t rot.”
Setting that pleasant image aside, I opened my mouth to try again, when she interrupted me—her brows scrunched in concentration.
“What about Liam’s letters. You never told me. What did he say?”
I sighed. How much to share? Or how little? A strong desire to make something up—something truly interesting—washed over me like a cool bath. It would be fun to imagine that he had spent the last weeks frantically busy, heroically saving the Pacific coast. But no.
“They weren’t terribly fact-filled. The first was ridiculous; he was in complete denial that technology had let him down, let us all down. He insisted that it was some kind of prank. Though by the end of the letter, he seemed to be considering the idea that it might be a nefarious attack by a group of villainous hackers. His words, not mine.”
“The letters were from was early on and just got to you now?”
Mail had been traveling in spurts and drips. All his letters, at least the three that I received, were written in the early days. The second seemed to take the situation more seriously, but he was still convinced that the “snafus” would be cleared up quickly. He made a joke of the fact that everyone in the hotel was swapping medications to manage their various conditions. I cringed at the thought of him trying to substitute something for his daily prednisone. Not the kind of medicine that you want to play merry-go-round with.
I studied Linda, knew she had bared her soul about Jared and had to tell the truth. “Liam spent the first two letters telling me that the whole thing wasn’t really happening. But by the third, he had faced some version of reality. He spent that letter telling me that he loved me and the kids.”
Linda clasped my hand and squeezed. We both tried not to cry.
I would have failed miserably had it not been for a sudden squawking outside the door. Linda ran into me as we both rushed for the door. Bouncing off each other like school kids racing outside for recess, we managed to make it to the door, disheveled, but—
Humans Among Us
Linda and I returned to our repast and did an amazing job finishing off the egg salad and an embarrassing amount of the cobbler. Though it was still mid-summer, the days weren’t getting longer but slowly shortening with lingering evenings being the best part of the day.
We decided to sit out on the front porch as the sun set and the sky turned from pink and yellow into a fiery red. If I had any wine on hand, I would’ve offered her some. The trees across the road rippled in a gentle breeze, and birds twittered from the electrical lines. I wondered what would happen to those ubiquitous black wires? Would they surge with energy once again someday? Or become useless like dead snakes and drop to the ground in imitation of some dystopian novel?
I glanced aside and saw a tear slip down Linda’s face. For the first time, really, I cared about her. Not the usual, “Hope you’re doing well” that we send in quick messages or the “How’s everything?” in passing, but the heart-wrenching sensation you get when you feel another person’s pain. I rubbed her back. “Josh and Jared will be okay.” It was an ignorant comment. I knew it, and she knew it.
She swallowed, gulping sobs, and clasped her hands, shaking with pent-up tension. She slid her gaze my way. “You don’t know, do you?”
I attempted an easy nonchalance and shrugged. “Tell me.”
“Jared wasn’t crazy. There are aliens.”
That was enough. I didn’t want to go any further, but yet, I had to know. Either everyone was going mad or I was way out of the loop. “Aliens? Seriously?”
She snorted, should’ve had a whisky to belt back. “Yeah. They’ve been here a long time. Since humanity got started, I think.”
Whoa! This was a new take on an old theme. “They’ve been watching us since—when?”
Linda straightened, rubbed her listless arms, and exhaled a long breath. A weary pedagogue having to go round ten with a recalcitrant student. “Not watching. They’ve been raised with us. Look, I don’t know the whole story, but I get the general drift. When life first started on this planet, for a time, everything was just at animal level—you know, fish and birds, creepy crawly things, and then mammals and more adaptable critters. At some point, I have no clue when, there was a divide. Actually, from what I understand, there were several splits. Some of the more intelligent or adaptable animals, pre-human-kind survived while others fell by the wayside. Was there warfare, a genocide of sorts? Can’t say if they were capable of comprehending that sort of thing. But it happened nonetheless.”
My gaze strayed to the flowering Rose of Sharon bushes. Their starburst pink flowers with white centers sure looked beautiful. I didn’t want an anthropology lesson. I always figured that we could clog the Earth with what we didn’t know about our past, and our ever-changing hypothesis about our true origin should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. “Anyway” Linda must’ve sensed my mood shift. She hurried on. “These alien beings came along and decided—
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Driving into town this morning, passing by the refurbished diner, the town hall—its door wide open to the Coffee and Gab Saturday regulars, a friend heading into the post office, and finally turning into the Glendale Cemetery to check on a recent inquiry about a gravesite, I considered a book my friend Anne DeSantis has written about “ministering to the marginalized.”
Anne and I chatted on the phone yesterday, a hot, humid Friday afternoon when my body wanted nothing more than a cold drink, a whirling fan, and a soft bed. Yet as I listened to her describe the reason for writing her book and her personal mission to be present to the marginalized, I considered—who are the marginalized in my world? And who am I to them?
As Anne describes it, the marginalized are not necessarily “poor people” but rather those individuals who have been left out, shoved aside, demoted to untouchable in our society’s unique caste system. Amazingly, a wealthy man as well as a beautiful woman could be marginalized if they are valued only for their wealth or beauty.
This week, one of my middle daughters asked if we could visit the Volunteer Fire Department here in Fillmore. I asked around, and we were able to stop by on Tuesday evening. We were given a tour of the place, a detailed description of their work, and shown their impressive equipment. Laura, my usually quiet kid, asked a number of questions. Knowing that she volunteers at the Lighthouse in Vandalia and serves in our church, I wasn’t surprised that she wanted to know more about the volunteer fire department. I was surprised when she wanted to try on their gear.
The firefighters seemed happy to answer every question and suit her up. I was impressed. Not only with their kindness in responding to her but in the joy that I felt in experiencing their sincere passion for a such a worthy cause. Though there are hospitals in nearby towns, we live in the rural countryside, so these volunteers are the first to arrive on a local scene and offer immediate assistance—be it to a health crisis, a brushfire, a car accident, a house fire, or other situation where someone calls for help.
I’m reminded of the people of ancient times who maintained lighthouses to keep ships safe at sea, assorted medics who have served well beyond official capacities, service men and women who have protected their country not only in battle but in rebuilding broken homes and lives after battles, first responders who have risked life and limb to rescue victims after a disaster—noble souls throughout all of human history, serving all over the world.
Like a Hobbit in one of Tolkien’s stories, I am not a warrior or a leader. I don’t fight Balrogs or draw national boundaries, but I do encounter human beings every day. Most days my struggle might involve nothing more than a laundry issue or what to put on the table for dinner, but the person who needs clean clothes or is hungry is as important as any before God.
In a world of everlasting crisis, where hate and anger join in mindless destruction, there are both wounded souls and quiet heroes. With the same twenty-four hours in a day and an unknown lifespan, we have opportunities before us. We are not all the same. None of us have the same skill sets, strength, intelligence, opportunities, passions, interests, wounds, or limitations.
Dana couldn’t stand still for a minute. Even perpetual motion machines of the world took notice.
I sat on the back steps letting a cool front work its magic. For the end of June, it was gorgeous. Cool sunny mornings, warm days with afternoon rainstorms, and blessedly chilly nights. “I wish this would last forever.”
Dana stopped pacing under the maple tree and stared at me. Glared really. But who am I to quibble? She had stayed longer than she intended, only because I threatened to get on my knees and beg.
“You’re okay without dad?”
I shook my head and tried to wave her comment into oblivion. “That’s not what I meant. I was talking about the weather.”
Her hands went to her hips. “It’s time we left. You’re not going to give us any trouble, right?”
Juan slipped out my bedroom door and stopped on the top porch step. I didn’t see him. But I didn’t need to. I knew the sound of my son’s footsteps as well as my own heartbeat.
I waited. Juan didn’t want to leave home. I knew that, but there was an unspoken understanding that he would go with Dana. He had to. She was going no matter what I said. But she couldn’t go alone. And I was hardly fit enough to traipse across an out-of-control country. I’d do better to keep the home fires burning. Literally.
I peered at Dana. She was the same woman who had driven to St. Louis weeks ago, but at the same time, she seemed so altered that I hardly felt comfortable in her presence. There was something she wasn’t telling me. And I was weary of not knowing—fighting off the horrors that raged in my mind. So, I countered with a question of my own, “You want to tell me about the aliens?” That threw her. I knew it would. The look that crossed her face when…
Into the Deep End
It was late by the time Ben left and the kids settled down for a good night’s rest before their adventure the next day.
To my everlasting gratitude, Ben offered to go with the kids. He didn’t start with that offer though. Ben is far wilier than I had realized. What comes across as boyish innocence masks a deceptively perceptive nature. He outfoxed Dana better than I ever could.
He spent the majority of the evening asking her advice, taking her lead. Even glancing her way when I suggested an early bedtime. Almost as if he and she had formed an inside club that knew better than color-in-the-lines-can’t-be-too-careful mom.
Juan sat back and luxuriated in someone else taking the burden of conversation off his shoulders. Though he did add texture to the stories, Ben got Dana to share details about their travels.
No one mentioned aliens.
I wished Ben had asked. For some reason, I thought he might be able to get away with that line of inquiry when it was clear, I’d be blown to smithereens for my efforts. Still, it was a great evening. A memory I could snuggle close to, comforting me through the ordeals ahead.
When I heard knocking on the kitchen door at six in the morning, I assumed it was Ben ready to roust the kids out of bed and hit the road for a fresh start before the sun climbed too high. I poured the last of the pancake batter into the frying pan and wiped my hands on a clean towel. “Coming, sir. Right in time for—”
Josh stared at me through eyes glossy with exhaustion, his body limp and his clothes filthy.
“Is he here?”
“Who? Ben? He’ll be coming along in a bit.”
Pushing past me, Josh stumbled into the house and landed on the kitchen bench, his whole body sagging. “No, Jared. Has he come by? Or said anything to you?”
I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the young man. Didn’t want to either. “No. Everything has been quiet here. Ben and the kids are heading out this morning—”
Josh wavered to his feet. “Don’t!”
I swallowed the fear lodging itself in my throat. “Why?”
This time the knock was followed by the door opening in quick succession. Ben swung into the room, his gaze locking on me. “You okay?” Footsteps pounded down the stairs, and Dana joined the coffee klatch though no coffee had been served yet, and I was as confused as…
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It was nearing the middle of June, and I still didn’t know where Liam or the kids were, but perhaps I was the lucky one.
After receiving a strange note, Ben had advised Josh and Linda to intercept Jared at Terre Haute where the boy had been taken for evaluation. Apparently, he was raving about aliens and could get violent if people rolled their eyes in skepticism.
The day after they got back with a disheveled, skinny son in tow, they invited me over for a mid-morning snack. I fought down jealousy and cleaned up after a battle in the garden, trying to direct the zucchini vines away from the potato plants. What I said to the tomato plants doesn’t bear repeating, though the lettuce was behaving well and offered enough to share when I felt neighborly.
After getting settled on their plush couch in their purple-walled room, I stifled a gag in the rancid air.
The temperatures had rocketed to the low nineties with high humidity. Add the fact that Linda couldn’t get used to the idea that with no air conditioning, the inhabitants still had to breathe, so she had to keep windows open, but she often forgot.
I panted like a dog,
Linda perched on the edge of a straight-backed chair in the corner while Josh stood strangely indecisive in the doorway.
Jared paced like a caged animal before the clean fireplace.
Becoming more uncomfortable by the minute, sweat dripping down my back, and prickles spread over my arms at the sight of the twenty-five-year-old man. He had changed so completely; I almost didn’t recognize him. I glanced at Linda, then at Josh.
Neither offered a word.
Never one to jump off the deep end, I took tentative steps. “I’m so glad you made it home safe and sound, Jared. I’m rather jealous. My kids were supposed to be back a couple of weeks ago, but…still traveling…I guess.” My brave smile died a quick death. Jared stopped pacing. I’ve heard of people being frozen in place. An overused literary device that ought to be dropped. But as I stared at Jared, his still form brought the expression…
Winding Road Ahead
I didn’t have to wait long.
It may have seemed an eternity, but on Saturday, the nineteenth of June, I heard a familiar tromp of feet climbing up my back porch steps. Two pairs. My beloved kids had returned.
Or so I hoped.
I dashed my hands in the old ice cream bucket of cooled, boiled water I kept beside the sink to wash my hands, quickly rinsing sticky dough off my fingers. Though there was still a bit of kneading to finish the daily bread, that duty faded to insignificance.
I wiped my eyes, hoping that I’d keep from crying.
First, Dana stepped into the kitchen.
You guessed it; I burst into tears.
Always a little on the plump side with a sweet round face and pink cheeks, long shiny brown hair, and dressed professionally, she now presented a very different image. All extra weight gone, her face lean with high, tight cheekbones, and her hair had been whacked off to ear length. I wondered if she had done it with a machete. Her clothes had certainly seen better days. I pressed my fingers to my lips to suppress an involuntary gasp.
Juan stepped in behind his sister. My overwhelmed gaze immediately recognized his state of malnutrition—bone-thin, the ghost-like pallor, sunken cheeks, dark cavernous circles under his eyes. But when he smiled, my son showed though.
They hesitated only a moment when I held out my arms, aching for a hug.
Sobbing, I gripped each of them, hanging on for dear life, but also, acutely aware that their bones felt sharp against my body.
Dana let go first. As usual, she wanted to get down to business.
“Where’s dad?” I ran my fingers through my short, unruly hair, recognizing the fact that it had come loose from its tie, and I probably looked like a seed pod ready to take flight. What could I say? I shook my head, my gaze…
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Amazingly, I lived through the next week and into the following week without falling into a heap of withered anxiety. If I had been a plant, I’m certain that my leaves would have turned brown and scattered to the four winds. As it happened, I turned out to be more resilient than I expected.
At first, I kept busy organizing my supplies. I grabbed my banking notebook, a hard-covered thing, and took a seriously honest inventory.
The cupboards weren’t bare, but they were hardly full either. I realized with chagrin how much food I threw away on a daily basis. In ordinary times, if we didn’t feel like leftovers, we gave them to the chickens. Oftentimes bones were given to the dog with plenty of meat still attached. And I had let milk spoil in the refrigerator more times than I could count. Suddenly, waste didn’t seem like a minor happenstance. It felt like a crime.
It wasn’t until nearly two full weeks had passed that I finally got word from Dana. Ben stopped by on that second rainy Wednesday morning with a satchel slung over his broad shoulders. He made his way inside the kitchen door after I had identified his unique, “Hey-ya!” and told him to come in.
His face looked older—lined with concern. His eyes a little sadder, like he has seen troubling things. More troubling than our small-town-techno-disconnect? I wasn’t sure.
But he forced a smile as he dug into his bag. “Feel a little like Santa delivering gifts to waiting families.” He pulled out a folded envelope. “Hope this helps.” Despite the grin, worry lined formed around his eyes. Gluttonously, I snatched it, tore the envelope open, and…
Living in Paradise?
I felt so proud of myself. One of the deadly sins, I know, so I should have surmised I was heading for trouble. By Thursday afternoon, I had cleaned the whole house, organized all the kitchen and downstairs storage shelves, written a complete inventory list, and even clipped the hedges so the house looked neat outside and as well as in.
By five in the afternoon, I was in a pleasant state of exhaustion and treated myself to a tall glass of sun tea. I sat relaxing before the garden under the grape arbor on the rickety old wooden swing, which was still servable if I didn’t sway too far.
The sound of a distant siren caught my ear. I remember thinking that it was in my imagination, a memory of some cop show where sirens blared across the cityscape. But this was rural countryside. A quiet backwoods world where police hardly bothered to flash their lights much less sound a siren. If one rolled up close behind, that was signal enough to pull over and find out if you’d surpassed the 30-mph speed limit. A definite no-no that earned a standard ticket and accompanying fine.
The siren continued unabated—no routine practice or alert for a single driver.
My heart began to pound.
I rose and glanced around. No smoke rising. I could safely assume no one’s house was on fire. An accident? A call for help?
I squinted at the falling sun. It was still bright, and I could easily traipse to town and see what was happening. But what good could I do? I’d more likely just get in the way.
Conflict tightening my stomach into knots, I paced back to the house with my empty glass in hand.
Josh jogged along the road.
I blinked and waved. “Hey, you heading to town?”
He nodded, slowing his pace but still moving forward. “Yeah. We arranged the siren as a signal for all able-bodied volunteers to meet up if something important happened.”
Not wanting to delay him, I waved him on. “Don’t let me slow you down. Just tell me what’s going on when you get a chance.”
He picked up speed. “Check on Linda, if you can. She’s not doing great.”
I called after him. “Sure thing!” Though checking on Linda was last on my list of want-to-dos. I really needed some solid food and a chance to gather my frightened wits. Oh, heck. Linda is probably chewing her fingers to the bone.
I ran inside, pulled a bowl of spiced pasta and tuna from the dark refrigerator, and speed-walked down the lane. Once at Linda’s house, I climbed the porch steps and knocked on the doorframe. “Hey, want to join me for dinner? I brought something tasty.”
Linda came to the door, her face red and blotched with the traces of tears still on her cheeks. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and forced a determined smile. “I’m not hungry, but I’m glad to see you.”
Completely unable to deal with her meltdown, but knowing that my only alternative was to trot home and have my own, I decided to forge ahead with my unwanted charity dinner. “Come on and try a bit. You need to keep your strength up.”
After setting two servings of my meager meal, I sat down opposite Linda at her kitchen table and tried to decide if I’d even attempt prayers before eating. What the heck. I made the sign of the cross and then halted when Linda burst into fresh tears.
“She died. Just like I thought she would.”
My heart jumped into my throat. “Who?”
“My mom. Got word last night. Some guy at the nursing home wrote—said that the folks are passing at an alarming rate. He can hardly keep up with notifications, much less burials. But, good news, she passed without pain or complaint.” Linda peered at me through narrowed eyes. “You don’t think someone is helping them to pass along, do you?”
“Oh, God! Why you’d think that? It’s probably just the shock and the lack of—well, everything. Medicines must be hard to come by and—” I didn’t know what else to say. Knowing that the at-risk population was succumbing for a whole range of very good reasons hardly made it more acceptable.
Linda stared at the tabletop, her eyes dry now, but her gaze unfocused. “I just don’t know what to think. It’s like evil has been loosed against everyone. I don’t know what terrible thing will happen next.” She sniffed and glanced up. “Do we deserve this?”
Dread rose like a monster inside me. I forced it down with the fact that Dana and Juan were due home in the next few days, and they would help us manage through our dark future. Thank Heaven for my kids. “So has Jared started home, yet?” A shout brought us to our feet. It sounded like…
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David Koelth couldn’t believe his luck. Even if it was well-earned. He deserved it, really. The award had his name on it, after all: The Koelth Department of Welfare and Well Being.
David tossed the green apple left over from lunch into the air and caught it handily. He leaned back in his swivel chair before his Richman Hill Executive Desk and surveyed his dingy office. Granted, he was on the top floor of the four-story building and had a decent view of the east side of town, but still, it was only a lecturer’s office. An assistant had it before him, for Heaven’s sake.
He glanced at his calendar marked in bold colors depicting the various hats he wore each day of the week. Educational Psychology Lecturer Mondays and Thursdays, Assistant Dean of the Health Department on Wednesdays and Fridays, Published Author working on his latest masterpiece—Wholly You—on Tuesdays (his favorite day of the week), and attentive Husband and Father Saturday and Sunday.
A yawn bubbled up from his middle. It was late on Friday afternoon, but he hadn’t been able to get much done. Constant interruptions!
First, Mildred from accounting had taken issue with his taxes. Something about a form that no one told him to fill out and now “they had to take a tiny snippet”—her exact word choice—from his salary to make everything come out “even-steven” at the end of the year. What? Did the woman eat archaic expressions for breakfast? He’d give her a thesaurus for Christmas.
Then coach Max waddled in from the ballfield. How such an overweight guy managed his role as athletics director stumped David. Must have relatives in high places. Or he knows where to get the choice meats and offers discounts for the university banquets. The strange thing about Max was that he never really explained anything. He spoke in eyebrows and syllables.
Eyebrows in the up position. “Eh, you o-kay?”
David spent a half hour of his very valuable time trying to figure out why Max had hefted his way to his office.
Turning beet red and sweeping the floor with his gaze, Max just leaned on the door frame and stared through those bulbous eyes with dreary pleading. For what… Only God and the next empty container of dairy queen’s chocolate chip ice cream would know for certain. He had tossed him his apple. Maybe the guy would get a clue.
Finally, just when he was putting the last touches on his monthly planner, his wife, Ruth, had phoned and insisted that the hot water heater was broken. Lord have mercy. He had called the plumber three times this summer, and he sure as heck wasn’t doing it again. He could shower at work while she figured out what she was doing wrong. No way in hell he’d fork out another hundred bucks for plungers, pipes, or screwed up thermostats. Wait till the season got cold, then he’d think about it. Probably all in her head anyway.
Oh well, time to head to the club and see what was on tap. He didn’t need a drink, but it’d be good to check on the guys and gals. Gossip was a university’s life blood, and he had no intention of becoming anemic anytime soon.
Surprisingly, no one at the club seemed in the mood to chat. Not with him anyway. Had he forgotten to use deodorant this morning? He sniffed. Nope. Nothing wrong with him. Must be a full moon. Everyone was acting weird, like they had been having a con-fab when he arrived but wouldn’t speak again till he left. He’d shrugged it off. If they wanted to get hot and bothered about sport’s team failures, a roller-coaster economy, or the latest-greatest plan to serve the community, he was glad he’d missed it.
Apparently, there were no faculty leaks about his up-coming award. He had looked for silent congratulations or the ever-present green-eyed monster, but nothing of the sort. Just a few head shakes and shrugs.
Who cares about them?
He drove through snarly traffic in anticipation of his wife’s Friday dinner special, his son, David Jr’s weekly school report, and his daughter, Lilly’s cuteness. He’d give David the pointers every high-school kid needed to be college ready and enjoy the last days of Lilly’s childhood since he knew perfectly well that once she became a teen, she’d become unbearable. Inevitably, he’d have to distance himself so that she wouldn’t use him as a cash box.
After arriving at his two-story colonial house with wrap around porch, he parked the car in the attached garage and sauntered into the house.
“Honey, I’m home!”
He glanced around the quiet kitchen in the dim evening light. What’s going on? Where is everyone?
He laid his leather briefcase on the counter and headed to the living room. His heart nearly stopped. Books and magazines lay scattered as if they’d left the room in a hurry.
What a mess! Is this what he’d worked all day to come home to?
David pulled out his phone, ready to give hell to his wife, then order pizza for dinner since clearly nothing would be ready in time for his growling stomach.
The doorbell rang.
Who the—? He charged forward, ready to dispatch the devil himself.
But he didn’t need to. The devil already had plans.
David sat in the emergency room where his wife had just breathed her last, and the bodies of his children were stretched out nearby. The staff had brought them in so he could offer a personal goodbye.
He didn’t have anything to offer. He couldn’t think. Or feel.
A heavy tread paced forward.
David lifted his aching head and tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
Max stopped before him and laid his meaty hand on David’s shoulder. His voice shook with emotion. “So—so sorry.”
That’s all it took, and David lost all power of speech. For once he listened.
“We planned a big celebration for tonight—the guys from the department, Ruth, family and friends from all over were coming tonight. But Mildred—from accounting—fell and broke her wrist so she called Ruth. She and the kids hurried over to get the last details in place—except they never made it. A tired truck driver crossed the line. No one survived.” His eyes welled in tears. “And this was supposed to be your glory day.”
The Koelth Department of Welfare and Well Being echoed in David’s head like a devil’s cackle.
—Five Years Later—
Dave closed his computer, leaned back in his office chair, and stared out the window, grateful for the view of the quiet neighborhood. Friday again. I’ve got a lot to do.
Footsteps padded closer. Max stuck his head in the doorway, tossed David a ripe red apple, and grinned. “I heard the news.”
Catching the fruit with one hand, David smiled back at his friend. “No secret this time.”
After losing sixty pounds, Max could saunter into the room. “You deserve it. I can’t think of anyone else who has dedicated so much time and energy to others’ welfare as you have these past few years.”
David rose, grabbed his threadbare coat from the back of his chair and tucked the apple into the pocket. “What I should’ve been doing all along.” He pointed to the door. “Want to meet at the track? I have a tutoring session at the community center in a couple of minutes, but I could meet you after that.”
“Sure!” Max’s grin widened, his eyes alight with happiness. “See what I mean; you’re always helping people. You encouraged me to give up death burgers and get healthy. The department heads are finally doing the right thing—naming the department after you, a man of well being if ever I knew one.”
David patted Max on the shoulder as he headed for the door. “Thanks, my friend, but I had to refuse the honor.”
Startled, Max blinked, his mouth dropping open.
“Don’t feel bad. Maybe someday. But in the meantime,” David opened the door and crossed over the threshold, “I went through too much hell to forget—it’s best to wait till the fruit ripens to name the tree.”
My stomach rumbled. So much for the Celestial realm. I considered my guest’s quiet form for a moment then promptly rose to the challenge of finding a quick nourishing meal that didn’t require an engineering degree. I swept past Ben, marched down the porch steps, and crossed the backyard to the woodpile. I grabbed a couple of thick logs, snatched a handful of twigs from the brush pile, and charged into the house.
After assembling a conflagration in the woodstove, I popped the four limp loaves onto two shelves and closed the door with a sense of accomplishment. Next, I gathered three plastic containers, usually used for juice, and plodded to the prairie grass. I waded through the green tangle and stopped at the well pump. The steel handle glinted in the fading light. I pumped a bit and, sure as shooting, clear water gushed out. Before I could break a sweat, I filled the three containers and then realized that I only had two hands. Plodding back and forth, I managed to get all three containers to the woodstove where I poured their contents into a large metal pot on the stovetop. I covered it with a lid, checked the fire, added a few more sticks, and nearly pounded my chest with happy satisfaction.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Ben chuckled. To my surprise, he hadn’t deemed my marvel of efficiency as a proper excuse to run off and help some helpless neighbor. Linda perhaps?
Ben pointed to the chrome refrigerator. “You might want to use what’s in there before it goes bad.”
I blinked. Images of sour milk, rancid cheese, and brown lettuce rose in my mind. Before I could stop them, rude words poured forth from my lips. “How long have you been here?”
He tapped his watch and shrugged. “Don’t know, but too long apparently.” He rose to his feet and smiled, tipping his head in a gentleman’s goodbye. “Glad to know that you can manage so well. I’ll head out now.” He paced to the kitchen door and nodded. “If you need me, just call.”
I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t want to need him. “Thanks. If you need me, you know where I am.” I rolled my eyes. The guy was only trying to help. It wasn’t until after he’d left that I realized, he’d forgotten that the phones didn’t work. I couldn’t call him. My stomach rumbled—a volcano with dire predictions if I didn’t attend to internal matters. I swung open the refrigerator door and decided that…
A Day of Impossibilities
Yes, okay. You got me. I did forget the bread. But since I completely forgot the woodstove and let the fire go out, I stood amazed the next day—like a child on Christmas morning—to discover that instead of four burnt-to-a-crisp-loaves, I actually had something eatable waiting for me in the woodstove.
Still dressed in my pajamas, it was the sudden memory of the bread that shot me out of bed, I gingerly pulled out the pans and placed them on the cool stovetop.
If I hadn’t been so bloody miserable missing Liam and the kids, I probably would’ve done a happy dance. But happy was not to be. Not with my heart constricted and panic ready to seep from the pores of my skin. Liam had an auto-immune disorder, nothing terribly serious, but his body could go into painful flairs without his medication. He’d taken enough for his trip to L. A. but as he had no intention of staying more than the required three days, he probably hadn’t packed extra. I tossed a prayer to Heaven. “Please, God, assure me that he took extra. Or that a doctor is near at hand. Or he meets a pharmacist who happens to carry around extra doses of prednisone.”
A gentle breeze wended its way through the open window, fluttering the lacy white curtains. I took that as a sign. Then I snatched up one pan and carried it to the table. I plopped it onto a breadboard, snuck the jam jar from the dark refrigerator, and slathered a slice. “Oh, and—” I prayed between chews. “Thanks for this day’s bread.”
A headache slowed my reaction time, so it took me longer than usual to realize that someone was knocking at my kitchen door. Ben? Surely not. I glanced out the window. It couldn’t be much after 6:00 AM.
Linda peered through the storm door window. Anxiety lined her face, but she lifted a thermos like a peace offering. “I know just what you need.”
Conflicted between the need for my morning coffee and irritation, I opened the screen door and stepped aside.
She pulled a second thermos from behind her back. “We’ll chat over hot coffee like old times.”
My mind ricocheted around the room. The morning light streaming in the kitchen windows. A hen clucking in annoyance at the collie’s advances. Linda sidling over to a chair and plopping down as if the last couple of days had never happened. My headache sped into overdrive. An image of Ben with his hands folded, concerned, yet strangely peaceful, flittered through my mind. Liam, Juan, and Dana should be sitting at the table, joking and eating breakfast together. Oh, God, when will I see them again?
Linda took a hearty swig from her thermos. “You better drink up. It took Josh an hour to get the fire warm enough to heat up our camp coffee pot. Lucky I still had that old thing. I got the rust out, don’t worry.”
I unscrewed the top and took a tentative sip. Yowch! It was definitely hot. But the scalding actually felt good going down. Caffeine addict that I was, relief cruised through my body. I sank back into the chair and realized, with only slight discomfort, that Linda was fully dressed while I was still in my morning rumpled condition. My hair undoubtedly looked like I had spent quality time in close proximity to a wind turbine.
Linda didn’t seem to mind. Especially not considering the fact that she was drooling, quite literally, at the sight of my home-baked bread.
Being a good Christian woman, I sliced a thick piece, placed it delicately on a napkin, and nudged the jam jar with a strategically placed spoon in her direction. “Eat up. I’ve got three more.”
Linda didn’t waste any time. I shouldn’t have been surprised when…
For the rest of these episodes and others, visit Kindle Vella Homestead by A. K. Frailey.
At precisely noon, my brown kitchen light dimmed to black. The clock blinked off. The internet disconnected. The refrigerator stopped humming. The hot water heater stopped heating. The freezer stopped freezing. And I couldn’t get a dial tone on my phone.
Discombobulated, I knew I should be freaking out, but a strange calm flowed over me.
The crunching of a car heading down our gravel lane broke the silence.
I stepped out on the porch and waved.
Our neighbor, Josh slowed down. He rolled down the window and came to a stop. A perplexed grin spread over his face. “Something funny’s going on, Rosie.”
I shrugged his concern away. “Just a power outage. We’ve had ‘em before.”
He blinked and shook his head. “I was at the café in town, sitting around with the guys talking, and Mark said his daughter was having a brown out, just like we were.”
Six of my aged hens crossed the driveway, heading for the pine woods behind the woodpile. I watched the collie out of the corner of my eye. She liked to bark at them, thinking she could scare an extra egg loose. “Well, it’s no—”
“Mark’s daughter lives in Australia.”
I snorted in disbelief. “Coincidences do happen.”
So, Ray called his brother in Anchorage, and would you believe it? But they’re having power issues too.”
Another car came up behind, Josh’s wife, Linda. Under normal circumstances, I’d have waved Linda inside for a cup of tea, but the look on her face told me that she knew I wasn’t going to be heating up a pot of anything soon. Her eyes, wide and scared, sent prickles down my arms. “Hey, Linda. Don’t look so worried! You’ll scare your husband—”
Linda ran from the car to her husband’s cruise and practically tore the driver’s side door open. “The power is out in every town and city as far as anyone knows!”
“But you can’t know.” I shoved fear away, as far as I could with every ounce of logic that my brain could muster. “So, there’s some power outages across the world. That hardly means that everyone is out. Could be a weird sun thing. A grid failure that knocked out a bunch of places at once. Perhaps there’s an internet virus.” I shrugged. “Give it a few hours. There’s no way we won’t get this fixed.”
Linda turned on me and for the first time in our friendship, I realized that I didn’t really know her.
“You’re being stupid, Rosie. Completely stupid!” She stalked back to her car, yelling over her shoulder. “Get home, honey. We better prepare for the worst.” She slammed her car door and opened the window as she passed, following Josh. “Just be glad your family is with you, Rosie. My mom is three states away, and Jared is working in Indiana. I just hope to God that they can make their way here before things get bad.”
Without the least regard for one of my cats ambling across the road, Linda raced after her husband. I knew I wouldn’t be inviting her in for anything any time soon.
But as I made my way toward the house, her words rang in my ears. “Before things get bad…”
Failed to Send
There was nothing to do but finish making bread. It seemed like the most reasonable course. Besides, whole wheat bread straight from the oven soothes even the most troubled soul. I ambled back to the kitchen, put the loaves in the oven, and turned it on low to help them rise.
The oven didn’t respond.
I nodded. So okay. Not a brilliant move, but I wasn’t about to be thrown off by my first setback. I placed the loaves on the counter. They would rise eventually. On impulse, I texted my sister. Sarah always maintained an upbeat disposition under the most trying situations, and besides, I wanted to know what happened to poor Bill. He wasn’t really poor. The guy made more money than Liam. I dashed off a quick note.
Failed to send.
Then my heart started to race. I dashed off a text to Liam.
Failed to send.
I tried calling Dana.
I tried Juan.
I stared at my phone like it had betrayed me…really let me down.
Now I knew what being lost at sea must feel like. The ground had fallen away, and there were no walls to grab onto. No ceiling. Nothing but a world of non-functioning tools and toys.
I looked at the stovetop to see the time, but, of course, that didn’t tell me anything. The house was quiet. Even the road was silent. I walked outside and strolled into the backyard.
The sun perched high and the birds were singing their pretty little heads off. I wanted to talk with someone, but town was a couple of farm fields away. A long walk.
My stomach clenched into a tight knot.
The big maple outside my bedroom window sported seed pods that helicoptered to the ground. It usually seemed amusing to watch them whirl about and land in masses, covering the ground. But they didn’t seem particularly funny now.
I told them the hard truth. “Most of you won’t make it to the next season—you realize that don’t you?”
Well, that was morbid.
I shivered in the sun. A big wooden swing set that Liam had arranged under the grape arbor beckoned, so I made my way over and perched on the edge. The garden beds had recently been turned over and potatoes, onions, even lettuce seeds had been planted. The tomato and pepper plants still sat in flats on the front porch. Liam would get to them next week.
My fingers inched toward me phone, so I pulled it out, leaned back on the swing, savored the earthy garden scent, and imagined the story I would tell my beloved—once I got ahold of him.
I tapped his number. Nothing. I texted. Failed to send. I squinted in the strong light, trying to make out how much battery power I had left. About half.
I rubbed the back of my neck.
A couple of vultures circled overhead. Thanks, guys. Really. Can’t you go intimidate someone else?
Before I knew it…
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