Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.
Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.
Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.
This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.
He had said he would.
And he had meant it.
But life got in the way, and he forgot.
Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.
Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”
He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”
“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”
No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”
“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”
The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.
Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.
Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.
He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?
His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.
Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂
Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.
Hearts and smiles,
If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.
From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.
He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.
He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.
Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.
Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.
Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.
He nudged her shoulder.
She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.
“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”
“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”
Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.
Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.
Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.
Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.
A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.
Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.
No such luck.
Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”
What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”
She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.
Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.
After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.
Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”
There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.
The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”
Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.
Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”
After an affirming nod, they were out the door.
Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.
Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.
“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”
Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”
But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.
She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”
All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.
After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.
“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”
A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.
Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.
Noman surveyed the white walls, considered the silence of the empty tomb, and knew that hell existed. He wiggled his sand-encrusted toes and straightened, his long, loose tunic rippling with the movement. Sweat dripped down his back as blazing sunlight glared from an unrepentant blue sky.
Where was Abbas now?
With a smothered curse, he shifted his gaze away from the gapping hole. There was no point in torturing himself with what might have been. If only Abbas had listened. If only someone had cared enough to believe him. But it was too late. He was on Earth, the challenge had been made, and he could not unmake it. He could only prove them wrong.
Abbas’ face appeared before his eyes. A man he could have loved and served heart and soul. Instead, he had another mission. Even love had its limit.
A squeal turned his attention. A woman stood frozen on the rocky path, her eyes wide with fear.
A scorpion poised in her path, ready for attack.
Bumbling woman! Humans had an ever-ready supply of idiocy. He stepped forward. Stopped. Why should he? What was this archaic inclination to assist lesser beings? The very image of Abbas. Noman stayed in the shadows.
A young man jogged forward and froze. He glanced from the scorpion to the woman.
Her voice shaking, the woman covered her mouth with her trembling hand. “I was bitten once, nearly killed me.”
The youth leapt aside, grabbed a stone and whisked it at the pest.
The venomous creature scuttled away.
Clutching her chest, the woman swayed, closing her eyes.
The young man held her upright, gripping her elbow in his hand. “You’re safe. It’s gone.”
She opened her eyes, gratitude in every feature. “Thank you. My name is Anna. I’m going home—I was too scared to think.”
“I’m Georgios. Now worries. Will you be able to—?”
She clasped her hands with a formal bow in humility and gratitude.
After a parting smile, Georgios sped off.
With a glance ascending like a prayer, the young woman paced forward, a serene expression replacing her former anxiety.
Noman stepped forward and shook his head.
The scorpion was still nearby. Its mission to paralyze and eat its prey had not changed. Mutant kindness meant nothing. One day, she would not be so lucky.
He peered along the path Georgios had taken. The perfect object lesson. Georgios would prove his point to Abbas. Kind-hearted fools—the best argument for humanity’s humiliation.
Ark stared at the vial clasped in his mate’s tentacles. She was grinning. He had no such intention. Still, it was an honor, though an unexpected and unwelcome one.
“Are you absolutely sure?”
Meta shook the clear tube. “As sure as a triple check can be.”
Immersed in his studies in the laboratory, Meta should’ve had the sense to wait until they were in the pool to share this news. But what can one expect from a female? They’re always so blasted unpredictable. “Watch where you put your tentacles” and “Don’t turn your eyes from a female in the lab” were two oft repeated truisms bandied about the private male laboratories. The females had their own scientific centers, ones Ark avoided with due care.
He adjusted his nostril tube and rubbed the cilia on the top of his head. What he wouldn’t give to speak with Teal at this moment.
“You will own it, won’t you?” Meta was clearly in no mood for obfuscations.
“I’ll run my own tests, if you don’t mind. But in end, if as I suspect is true and the pod is mine, then, of course, I will own it.”
Meta exhaled, bubbles forming around her breathing tube, and her smile widening. “Good. Once I give birth next cycle, it’s all yours!”
A crash splintered the silence.
Ark peered at the floor where his latest experiment had spilled in a gelatinous goo across the floor. One brief, well, three brief pleasant encounters, and he’d be paying for uncountable cycles. Perhaps for the rest of his natural life!
Meta shrugged her numerous shoulders and waved all six tentacles. “Make sure you clean that up carefully. You don’t want to get sick. New father and all.” With a giggle, she waddled through the open doorway.
A throb building behind his eyes, Ark lusted for a tall glass of green and a trip to Lux. Yes, he’d stop by and see Teal. Compare fatherhood stories. After all, it was Teal who made interacting with the opposite sex so appealing. Had it all been a lie?
Before he officially met his offspring, he must find out.
Stupid mistakes left Trix cold. Her own especially. Who on planet Earth was responsible for spelling? And could she find a legal precedent for killing the nameless perpetrators outright or would it have to be a clandestine affair? Though surely, she’d had a good portion of the world’s fifth-graders in her corner.
Was it her fault that few human beings could state her name without topping it off with an “ie,” turning her name into a bunny meme, or that grey was spelled with an a on one side of the Atlantic and with an e on the other? What demon-possessed people to care—much less sing-song their way through a quarterly review, insisting that she better shape up or—
The words had been left hanging. Just like that. An unspoken doomsday “Trix End.”
Trix stomped through the grocery store, huffing through her mask, which only fogged up her glasses. Lord have mercy. Would the trials of the year never end?
Head down, shoulders at ear level, she maneuvered her cart through the seafood aisle, blinking at the prices. She mumbled to herself, though visions of serving shrimp with some-kind-of-undetectable-poison-and-watching-her-bossy-boss-slip-to-the-floor-dead flashed through her mind.
Glowing lava rocks exploding from an active volcano had nothing on Trix at that moment. She grimaced, keeping her eyes wide so that as far as anyone reading a masked expression could figure, there was a smile under there somewhere. She faced Brenda, one of the homeschooling moms who sat behind her at Mass. She had polished a small mittened-hand wave to good effect. “Hey, Brenda.”
“So, are you going to the Winter Fun Event on the town square on Sunday?”
Rolling her eyes to the ceiling, Trix mentally consulted her calendar. She had to teach school all week, an editing project was due on Thursday, her dad had slipped on the ice, so she wanted to drop off some chocolate panaceas on Friday. Saturday, she’d charge into battle against the encroaching spiderwebs, dust bunnies, and household scum that managed to accumulate when her back was turned. Sunday remained her shield against overwork and flippant insanity. “Well, I’m not sure. I’ve got a lot going on. And besides, is it safe?”
Attempting to avoid a maniacal expression, Trix hid her grin behind her mask. The “Is it safe?” comment usually stopped every conversation cold. She glanced aside at the rows of frozen foods. A suitable location, indeed.
Even behind her they-all-look-alike mask, it was obvious, Brenda’s face fell. Her eyes dimmed. Her joy-spark snuffed.
Geeze! Who cares about Winter Fun? I have my sanity to keep track of! Isn’t that more important!
Trix tried to cool the use of mental exclamation points, but her heart sank to her chilled boots. If Old Scrooge could see her now, he’d embrace her as a fellow frozen-soul.
Good soldier and honest Christian lady who kept faith with all sorts of happy thoughts, Brenda squared her shoulders and drowned whatever sorry-reality haunted the depth of her eyes. “No problem. I was just asking. You’re right to be careful. Just sometimes, you know—” She glanced aside, definitely not seeing the delightful array of frozen yogurts. “You’re doing well. That’s all that matters.”
Trix’s icy heart started to drip.
Her mistake hit Brenda like a bullet train. She burst with contrition. “Oh, I forgot. I said Trixie—and you hate that. Sorry. I mess up names all the time, so I use those stupid mnemonic-things to remember. But I still manage to—” Gripping her cart with dejected humiliation, she aimed for the meat and cheese aisle.
Her cheeks flushed, Trix swallowed a chunk of ice. She stopped Brenda’s cart. “I’m heading to the candy aisle to find something chocolatey for my dad. Want to come?”
As they turned into the next aisle and at the sight of Brenda’s tear-filled eyes, Trix snatched a box of cocoa off the passing shelf. “You want to stop by for a cup Sunday afternoon? We’ll both need warming up.” She grinned right through her mask.
Teal held Sienna close, her head resting comfortably on his chest as she slept in perfect security. They didn’t need to maintain human form, but he realized, with a luxurious sigh, that the human body offered something the Luxonian experience lacked: a wide range of physical pleasures.
Despite humanity’s limited knowledge and complete absence of technology, they did know a thing or two about adding spice to life, literally speaking.
Before leaving Earth, Sienna had rubbed coconut butter into her skin, and the exotic scent pulsed erotic sensations through his whole body. Her hair, rain-washed and lightened by the sun, rippled through his fingers as he ran his hand along her back. After they returned to Lux, they had made love late into the night, but arousal returned with a vengeance as the first streaks of morning light filtered through the window.
Sienna stirred, stretched, and opened her eyes.
Their gazes met.
Would he ever stop falling in love with this woman?
“You’re awake?” Sienna stretched. “I thought you’d be worn out — ready to sleep through the day.”
With a grin, he ran his fingers along her side and —
Sienna sat up, clutching the bedsheet. “I don’t feel so — ” Leaping from the bed, she ran to the lavabo, the Luxonian refreshment room. Luxonians, as light beings, didn’t need the same care as humans, but they did need refreshment at times.
Trying to realign his plans for the morning, he climbed out of bed and grabbed his clothes. Disgruntled, he glanced at the doorway Sienna had sped through and considered following her. No, if she needed him, she’d ask. He pulled on his tunic and tied on his sandals.
A muffled call. “Dad?”
Teal stepped to the door, opened it, and met the gaze of his young son in his human form dressed in a simple brown tunic. “Cerulean, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to know when we’re going. I read a report about an unusual — ”
A heavy weight dropped on Teal’s chest. He had promised his son, but a visit to Earth wasn’t high on his agenda right now. He glanced back to the bed. “We haven’t decided yet. There’s a lot to think about.”
Sienna, dressed in a long dark blue tunic with a matching belt, swayed forward. She lifted Teal’s arm, snuggled in close, and pressed his hand onto her hip. She grinned at her son. “You’ll go soon, honey. But your father and I have some decisions to make. Let’s figure out the best time, and we’ll get you all set.” She arched her eyebrows. “You’ll be a guardian your whole life, don’t rush your childhood away, all right?”
Shifting his gaze from his mother to his father, Cerulean bit his lip, his words stifled.
Teal’s heart ached. He knew that look. He’d wanted to go on his first mission so much he could hardly contain his enthusiasm, but it had taken several tries to find the right placement. Once he discovered humanity on Earth, he never wanted to leave. He ran his fingers over Sienna’s belly. Until lately.
Cerulean liked to practice every mannerism he had learned from his off-world studies. With a curt nod and a slight bow, he respectfully turned away.
Teal closed the door.
Sienna sighed. “He really wants to go. His heart is set on it.”
Teal shrugged. “But we just got home. There’s nothing going on that can’t wait. He has to learn patience. The most important lesson in guardianship is knowing how to bide your time.” He leaned over and kissed Sienna, first on the cheek and then on the lips.
She groaned, Teal believed in pleasure, but then she slid her hand between them and halted his momentum toward the bed. “I can’t.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not feeling well.”
Teal looked away and tried to regain his composure. Anxiety crawled over his spine. He peered at her. “Are you ill?”
After a playful pinch on his arm, Sienna strode to the window. She leaned against the low railing and rested her head on the flower entwined post. Light shone over the calm blue-green water and cascaded across her face. Her whole being shimmered. “I can feel sick without being sick.”
An electric bolt could not have shocked Teal more. He leaped across the room and grabbed her arm, tugging her out of her reverie. “Are you — ”
A languid smile spread across Sienna’s face. “I think so.” A shadow darkened her features as she met his gaze. “It’s so rare these days — to be twice blessed. I must be one of the lucky ones.”
Cold fear shivered over Teal’s body. “But is it safe?”
Sienna stared at the sun and shimmered, her whole body wavering into colorful light beams. “Life isn’t safe, my love.” She stood there, a brilliant chorus of light rays, her voice clear as crystal. “Take Cerulean to Earth and let me rest. The future will unfold as it must.” She blinked away.
Joy and terror ran riot through’s Teal’s mind. He peered at his trembling hands. Humanity may have an edge on physical pleasure, but they faced fear much the same.
Outside the sun shines on still-green grass while glistening spider webs rock in a gentle breeze. Dead, prickly flower heads bob on brown stems while clusters of rust-colored oak leaves rattle against the bare branches of neighboring trees.
Even the indoor plants oppose each other in stark contrast. My green succulents proudly lean their round petals toward the window while my houseplants lay limp, trailing their vines over ceramic pots; clearly, life has become too hard to bear in an upright position.
The great outdoors beckons, though I know perfectly well that the air has grown frigid. I’ll take my daily jaunt along the harvested field next to the woods at twilight—the most honest time of the day—when shadows play with the lingering light rays. Sunshine makes grand promises and offers a glorious spectrum, but inevitably night returns and covers all with the equality of darkness.
Some of the most powerful writers I know contrast bright humanity with our dark side. I always wondered about that. I need to be inspired, enriched, offered a crumb of hope in a mottled world. I can’t live on cigarette butts and broken glass. Turning from divorce and disfunction, cancer and casualties, abuse and absurdities, toward honest marriages, healthy lives, and baby hugs make each sunrise an embrace of possibilities. Yet, no matter how much I value daylight, night still falls. The price of sanity is to accept the reality of good and evil, happiness and misery.
That is probably why I enjoy twilight. It’s the cross over, the time between, the slow-down after a busy day, reminding me that I’m not all-powerful, all-seeing, all-anything. After attending to various matters from decoding modern calculators to figuring out (yet again!) why the toaster won’t toast on one side, I reflect and pray on matters that really matter. My friend’s young daughter who has been having epileptic seizures, an elderly lady’s nephew who fell and broke his back, a recent widower who is trying to figure out where to bury his wife’s ashes, two cases of abused trust, and a country so divided that conversations break down and pointed accusations, like blowing ash, are all that’s left of the fire that used to unite us.
Night is a great equalizer. I see why notable writers dare to tread on such sacred, painful ground. None of us live in continual daylight. No one knows all or sees all. Charging ahead in the darkness leads to dangerous falls.
The sun just dropped behind the horizon and the late-autumn trees appear stark against the pale, fading light. I walk along the uneven field, watching each step, and slow my mind and my heart to ponder and pray. Night falls on harvested fields and evergreens alike.
I head home, following the light of ancient stars, knowing the sun will rise on a new day. Rested and comforted by hope for a future I cannot yet see, I will stand and meet it.
“Temptations prove thee.” A line from a prayer book I read this morning stopped me in my mental tracks. I had been talking the night before with my daughter about the value of professionalism in our world and how important it is to apply the concept to our thoughts as well as our actions. The words struck a chord, reminding me of the value of intentionally directing myself rather than being swept along by roaring currents.
Now at the end of the day, as I listen to the frogs’ chorus, the rustle of wind across the dried cornfields, note the silence of kids gone to bed, and join in a peaceful moment of solitude, reflecting on a day of off-road paths, I realize how many times I was tempted to react rather than put my life in proper order. Not because it would have been good but rather because it would have felt so natural.
I have come to the conclusion that my life is a trial. Seriously. A try-out for something that I can’t see yet. The person that I could be. The life and home I long for. The love that every human desires in the core of his or her being. Free will is the name of the game. And transformation is the goal.
As spokespersons, media personalities, politicians, Google search engines, bots, and a host of realities nudge me through the highways and byways of my online world, I sometimes forget that I make the choice of what I hear, what I see, what I pay attention to, what I react to. I don’t have to get hot and bothered by commentaries. I don’t have to seethe, live in terror, or seek a particular end to someone else’s trauma drama. I can choose my mood and make productive even the oddest moment.
From unexpectedly having to get tires checked this morning, I was able to have a humorous chat with the service guy who proved that a gentleman doesn’t make a lady feel like an idiot even when her ignorance of auto operations should glare with flashing neon lights. I was tempted to feel stupid but decided to be grateful instead.
A surprise call from my sister who is dealing with health problems led to her offering me insight and advice with my own health challenges, drawing us beyond a dark past into a supportive present. I was tempted to end the call early but instead allowed her to be the big sister she longs to be and relaxed in her enduring love.
When a collaborative effort with a voice actor on one of my projects didn’t pan out, I could have been hurt and annoyed. But as the situation remained not only professional but also pleasant, we were able to recognize the situation honestly and wish each other the best and move on.
There are times when the trials of life enmesh me in idiocy, and I need help to break the fear and “What if—” cycle. Conversations with friends, classical music, a prayerful book, a walk in nature, efforts to seek out good, beautiful, and noble realities—even in stories—break the vicious cycle and redirect my mind as well as my feet.
Ultimately, I—and everyone sharing the planet with me—are works in progress. I don’t see all ends. I’m lucky if I see the road a few feet ahead. Flexibly meeting the day while constantly reaffirming my priorities—toward what bears healthy, holy fruit makes every day a good one—no matter how tempting.
Samantha Keller just wanted to find a toothbrush. That’s all she asked out of life. Not an unreasonable request. Not considering the fact that she had just bitten into a luscious, though thoroughly deceptive, apple from her neighbor’s tree, which had seconds before had been home to a fat worm. Her frantic attempt at brushing her teeth in a hurry resulted in the toothbrush flipping between her fingers and landing in the toilet.
Hovering in front of the bathroom closet, patting the shelf just above her eye level where she always put the extras, availed nothing but sticky fingers. An empty cough syrup bottle lay like a forgotten soldier on a battlefield before red goo seepage and a decidedly sick-pink cotton ball offering testimony of other clumsy encounters.
Life really shouldn’t be this hard.
“Oh, to heck with it.” She turned to the sink, popped open the mouthwash, did a complete rinse, and considered herself lucky.
She peered into the mirror and saw her mom’s face. Though her hair sported the salt and pepper look of a middle-aged woman who can’t decide if she’s a new 40 or an old 50, the trapped expression of her mother riveted her gaze to the glass. “Ba-ba-ba…” Like a nursery rhyme never finished, Mom couldn’t get her words out, though her eyes pleaded for understanding.
Samantha yanked herself away and refocused. She tromped down the hall to the kitchen and stared at the bowl brimful of beautiful apples. “Tricked me once but not twice.” She snatched the paring knife off the counter.
The phone rang. She checked. A local number.
She answered with all the confidence of a homeowner in good standing, whose neighborhood friends might check on her once in a blue moon. “Hello?”
“As a residential customer, we would like you to answer a few simple—”
Slapping the end button, Samantha frowned. She had answered four scam calls through the week and vowed to let it ring forevermore. If someone wanted to actually talk with her, they’d leave a message, right? Why on Earth did she keep falling for the latest in life’s tricks?
Reaching for the knife, the phone rang again. With a shrug, she insisted on outwitting the maniacal scammers who poured out their lives in demolishing humanity’s trust in the phone system.
It stopped ringing.
She plucked an apple from the mound and made the first cut.
The phone rang again.
Completely against her will, Samantha glanced at the glowing screen and recognized the number. Her sister in Wisconsin. Blanch and her husband ran a dairy farm south of the city and made a decent living while raising the cutest set of twins God ever created.
Rolling every ounce of ill humor off her shoulders and sliding onto a stool, she leaned against the counter and let the apple and the knife fall from her fingers. “Hey, Blanch! I was just thinking of you while—”
A sob choked the line.
Samantha lifted the phone from her ear and stared at it. Had she lost the connection? Another scammer copying her sister’s number?
Sobbing tumbled into crashing thunder. A wail screeched over four hundred miles and smacked Samantha in the face.
“Oh, God, Blanch! What—?”
“She’s dead! I can’t believe it!”
Agony shivered over Samantha as tears sprang to her eyes. “Dead? Who?”
“Mom! She died during the night. I stopped by early to give her some homemade cookies and fresh apples off our tree, but when the nurse went to check on her…” Sobbing rampaged over a cliff.
Tired truisms sprang to Samantha’s lips. It’s better this way…a blessed relief…Mom would want us to live on…to celebrate her life without the all the horrific dementia…
But no words came.
They weren’t truly true. Not yet anyway.
As tears meandered down her cheeks, her husband Elliott wandered into the room. He frowned at her tears, bent low, and took her hand.
She listened to Samantha’s cascading grief, dragged a notepaper and pen front and center and wrote, “Mom died,” and shoved the bald announcement toward her husband.
Wrapping a comforting arm around her shaking shoulders, he offered what he could, a gentle murmur of sorrow.
A week later…
Samantha faced the mound of dirt piled in front of her parent’s headstone. Mom’s nicely dressed body lay four and a half feet under, safely encased in a mahogany coffin inside a cement vault, right next to her dad’s resting place. Samantha’s gaze wandered over the birthdates and death dates, and the scripture quote, “You shall be known by your fruit.” The etching of two apple trees that her mother had insisted mark their last place on earth stood in testimony to lives that never stopped bearing love and goodness even when they couldn’t say a word.
Elliott edged closer.
Her son, daughter, sister, various friends, and relations had come to the funeral and left shortly after. Samantha had returned for three days in a row trying to understand how something as luscious as life could hold such a worm as death.
Elliott took her hand and said nothing. Wonderful in the mystery of communal silence, he didn’t need to fix her grief. He simply shared it.
Autumn leaves swirled from the colorful trees as black crows perched on mossy gravestones, creating a scene Alfred Hitchcock would’ve been proud to call his own.
“She was a beautiful baby.” Samantha had spent hours reviewing old family photos the night before, sharing her favorites with her patient husband.
Elliott smiled. “She was a good and holy woman with a gentle heart.”
“Though she could be a stickler! Remember how she insisted that every Thanksgiving had to be celebrated at her house?”
“And she never did forgive dad. She held his mistakes up to the light of day every chance she got. Trying to drag him to Heaven, she’d say, but it made life miserable sometimes.”
Elliott bowed his head.
The cell phone rang.
Samantha pulled it from her coat pocket.
After hitting the talk button, Samantha strolled across the graveyard toward a cluster of trees. “Yes, honey?”
Blanche’s voice rose strong and clear. “Just checking in. I made a pie for the kids and thought of mom. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
Samantha stared at the tree in front of her. “Were there any worms in it?”
“Worms? In what?”
“The pie.” Samantha cleared her voice and tried to jiggle her brain into coherent thought. I bit into an apple the other day…and you know…”
A chuckle broke the silence. “Oh, no. The pie looks delicious.” Her voice took on mom’s imperious tone. “You’re supposed to cut the worms out before you eat the fruit, you know.”
Ever my intention.
Samantha took her husband’s hand, meandered to the car, and left the mound of dirt behind.
Rebah stared—turning her head as far back as it would go—at the crow perched on an old wooden post in front of rows of golden corn stalks, as she drove no less than sixty on the rural Illinois road.
She should’ve stopped. By the time she made up her mind and looked in the rearview mirror, the proud plumage was flying high across the cornfield into the bean field.
Where’re you going?
It couldn’t hear her and wouldn’t care to answer if it did. Rebah only wanted to stare at it long enough to imbibe the magical power it held—the mystical passion embodied in a carefree moment.
She glanced at her handbag leaning forlornly on the passenger seat, the strap folded across the open pocket that held the keys to her current existence—her cell phone and her to-do list.
Jed, she repeated. Jed. Not Jeb or Jacob. It’s Jed. She tried to picture the man her husband told her owned the shop.
“Tall, lanky, elderly guy with gray hair.”
Gee, thanks, Honey. Got it now.
Rebah stretched her mind back. Had Brad ever used figurative language? Did he ever describe a person as more than a combination of physical attributes? It was one of the things she’d loved about him—his honest, clear thinking. Never sarcastic like her dad or manipulative like her sister. Just a straightforward kind of man.
Three plump blackbirds stood at odd angles to each other on the road ahead. Apparently, they weren’t in a hurry, but she was. As her car zoomed up to the twenty-yard mark, they flapped into the blue September sky, majestic and unperturbed. “We’re heading on anyway, Lady. Don’t think for a second that you altered our plans.”
She wanted to laugh. Giggle. A smirk would do. But she had to find Jed’s countryside shop and buy a part for the mower. It was an old mower and needed an old part, preferably one that worked. It was all Greek to her. Mowers belonged in the same category as electricity and nuclear fusion.
A right on Acorn Road, two streets down, and on the left, 119 E. Acorn Rd. a workshop appeared as if by magic. A wooden structure built back and to the left of a cottage that belonged in a land of “far away and long ago.” Charming hardly covered it.
The rock driveway lined with late-season flowers curved around the back of the shop. She parked, rolled down the window, and imbibed.
The porch cozied over two garden beds run riot with daisies, asters, chrysanthemums, and coneflowers. Cornstalks tied to the railings decorated the steps as a scarecrow stood watch, both his smile and his pitchfork ready for service. Hanging plants perked up the mellow season with dashes of red and green, while ceramic squirrels scampered down the steps, leading to a maple tree just breaking into full autumn glory.
Rebah climbed out of her car and exhaled. “Good God in heaven!”
“Yeah, I’d say that’s about right.”
The man’s deep voice followed by a light chuckle turned Rebah’s gaze.
Coming from the dim interior of the shop, ambled a man exactly as her husband described. Except her husband had failed to mention the bulbous nose, oversized ears, long grey beard, and the sweetest eyes she had ever delved.
“What can I do for you?”
Rebah wondered if she was in love. She wanted to live in this little house, sit on a bench, watch this gentle giant work in his shop, and absorb the conviviality that emanated from the air in this enchanted spot on Acorn Road.
She spluttered, “Oh, yes, actually, my-uh, husband sent me over to get a part. George. My husband. He needs something you have.”
She wasn’t sure if that last part was a question or a statement of fact, but she prayed Jed was a mind reader since she could no longer rely on the power of speech.
“George? Oh, yes!” Jed grinned impishly as befitted the gnome-spirit he represented. “I have the part right here in my shop. I was just cleaning it a bit. They get a mite dusty sitting on the shelf, don’t you know.”
A howl of laughter fought earnestly with a sob of despair. By all the saints, Rebah knew about dust! Dust bunnies and spider webs had beaten her into submission long ago. Who on earth cleaned an engine part? A pitiful squeak was the best she could manage as the battle ended in a draw.
“Well, come on in and have a cup of something while you wait. I like a little spiced cider as the evening draws close. Perks a fellow up after a long day.” He ambled back into the shop, turning a switch on the wall just inside the doorway.
Yellow lamplight flooded the room, conjuring images of children’s fairytale books. Cherry stained shelves lined the walls, filled with an impossible variety of projects. Small engine parts, kitchen essentials—toasters and mixers, a variety of wall clocks, one small organ, two violins, and, of course, an assortment of broken toys stood, sat, or leaned in repose for their appointment with Jed’s dexterous fingers.
Rebah tried to shake herself into conscious reality. “So, you’re a fixer? A repair guy?” Oh heck, that seemed as inadequate as calling a CIA agent a sleuth.
After pouring a fresh cup of cider into a mug from a dark brown jug and setting it within easy reach, Jed ran a cloth lovingly over the metal part that—in Rebah’s opinion—hardly deserved the attention.
She sipped the cider, warmth tingling all over. Her eyes strayed to the mower part. She frowned. It was just metal, after all. It would go in a machine, get dirty again, and no one would care in the least.
“I fix those things that I can. Mostly, I live life.”
A lump formed in Rebah’s throat. She blinked.
Two crows and three blackbirds hopped up to the open doorway, their bright eyes keeping a careful watch on Rebah.
Jed laughed. He laid the metal part on his workbench, scooped an old can into a plump bag hanging on the wall, then carried the full container of seeds to the doorway. He scattered supper to the hungry throng and watched them in serene joy.
Rebah watched his every move as absorbed as it was the finale of her favorite primetime drama. “God, I want what you’ve got.”
It felt like cold water in the face when Rebah realized that she had said the words out loud.
“Eh?” Jed returned to his machine part. He wrapped it in a clean cloth and laid it at the bottom of a paper bag. He folded the bag neatly and handed it to Rebah.
She slurped the rest of her drink, letting the warm tingly feeling bring a smile to her face, covering her confusion. Perhaps he hadn’t heard. “How much do I owe you?”
“Ten ought to cover it. It’s a recycled part and didn’t need much mending.”
She ran to her car, dropped the bag on the back seat, shuffled through her purse, found two fives, scurried back, and met Jed in front of his porch steps. She handed him the money. A longing nearly broke her heart. “I wish my place looked like this. More, I wish I felt like…this…place.”
To Rebah’s astonishment, Jed smiled.
“Yeah. That’s how I was when I first came here. I’d been in the army for more years than I can remember, fought people I didn’t want to fight, lost family to drugs and alcohol, though my youngest sister died of cancer last year. But you know, the old woman who owned this place said that it just needed tender care. If I’d give it that and do every task with gentle love, I’d be repaid in full.” Jed tapped the railing. “By golly, she wasn’t off the mark.”
Tears filled Rebah’s eyes. “You don’t mean that my place could look like this?”
“No. This place belongs here on Acorn Road. But the beauty I wake up to every day? Why, that belongs everywhere that’ll allow it in.”
When Rebah drove up to her short straight driveway, her husband, George stood on their overgrown lawn, grinning.
She grinned back. “I’ve got the part, and I’ll get dinner on in a minute, Love.”
When a crow flapped overhead, she knew whom she’d invite to dinner next.