Trying to Be a Hero

Susanne shivered. Rain had settled into a steady drizzle, and dark clouds hid any vestiges of the evening sun. One of the very last pink and golden leaves of the season fluttered in a gentle breeze and then, without warning, careened from the heights to land on her head. She tried not to take offense as she plucked off the ragged symbol of autumn beauty and held it before her eyes. She glanced up. “Trying to tell me something?”

Her car, tilted at an odd angle sat before her like a shopping cart that had lost a wheel. Without premeditated thought, she kicked the flat tire and immediately regretted her actions. “Oh, holy cow, that wasn’t so smart!”

“I’d say not. It might decide to kick back, and then where’d you be?”

Susanne glanced across the road and met a strange woman’s gaze. Embarrassment and a tinge of fury ran laps around her insides. She knew perfectly well that she looked pathetic. She certainly felt pathetic. But heck, no one need make snide comments. Widening her stance like a prizefighter preparing to enter the ring, she ignored her toes yelping for immediate attention and faced the stranger. A scene from the OK Corral flashed through her mind.

Apparently, the strange woman had never seen the movie, didn’t comprehend body lingo, or she simply didn’t care how terrible Susanne’s day had been since she breezed across the street as if it were mid-summer and the sun was shining.

“Flat, eh?”

Susanne peered at the outstretched hand. Like now was a perfect time to say howdy and make friends!

“I’m Georgia. Visiting my niece this week from Michigan. I saw the flat and hoped the owner might be some muscled guy who worked for an auto station.” Her eyes roved over Susan’s petite form and shrugged. “Guess not.” Her eyes continued their stroll and landed on the elementary school. “You’re a teacher?”

Mental fibers started to snap, but with a mighty yank, Susanne gripped her emotions and demanded that they stay in line. “Office secretary. Terrific job. Just, I can’t get home with a flat tire.”

Georgia pointed to the trunk. “You got a spare in there?” She shrugged. “I’ve never actually changed one myself, but I watched my sons do it three or four times. How hard can it be?”

Bundled in a winter coat over a thick sweater, it was hard to tell Georgia’s body build, but Susanne guessed it to be somewhere between a heavyweight wrestler and Highland Dwarf. “Well, we can try, I guess. I hate to call the service station. So bloody expensive just to take it a few miles.”

In the style of a Commander and Chief taking charge of his army, Georgia flipped open the trunk, swept back the cover, lugged out the spare, dropped it handily on the ground, snapped open the enclosed tool kit, and plopped down on the wet ground, fitting the crank under the car. “I think it goes here.”

The word “think” sent another shiver down Susanne’s spine. But since Georgia seemed to be on a roll, she had no desire to interrupt. When it came time to unscrew the bolts, Susanne regained a modicum of self-respect by remembering “lefty-loosey” and thus saved her rescuer heaps of time.

The sudden downpour didn’t seem to affect Georgia like Susanne thought it would. In fact, it appeared to have no effect on her at all. The gray-headed woman unbolted the flat, switched out the tire, and then bolted on the spare with the same calm composure one would expect from a surgeon doing his fiftieth appendectomy. The painful tangle in Susanne’s middle began to loosen. Just a bit.

Once everything was put away and Georgia slapped her hands free of street grit and broken leaves, Susanne felt her newly assembled composure disintegrate. “Can I pay you for your—I would’ve—”

Georgia waved the suggestion away. “You would’ve called a tow truck and paid a bundle. How far you live from here?”

“Oh, just a few miles. It’ll be fine. I really…” As Susanne pictured her empty apartment, loneliness galloped over confusion and ran it into the ground.

“Well, before you go, I want you to come in and have a hot cup of tea. My niece is off on one of her trips. God knows where this time. That’s why I’m here. I saw her for a few hours and off she ran. I stay and watch the house for a week. She’s got an old Tomcat that can’t find his way from the yard to the food bowl without help. So I got the job.” She shrugged. “At least it’s something to do…” She grinned at the replaced wheel. “In my declining years.”

~~~

Embracing a hot cup of tea like a rescue buoy and ensconced on a very comfortable chair, Susanne wondered why this stranger felt like the best friend she never had.

Georgia plunked down, set her cup on a side table and leaned forward, clasping her hands over one knee. “Seems to me that you’d already had a bad day before you even saw your flat tire.”

Susanne’s sudden tears surprised her. But it was her own wracking sob that unhinged her.

Georgia sat comfortably in her chair, waiting, not cajoling or trying to hurry the process. She simply let the strange woman before her cry her eyes out.

Susanne could not have been more grateful. After she wiped her eyes with a tissue that seemed to spring out of thin air, she sat back, took a long sip of her lukewarm tea, and sighed. She lifted her gaze.

Georgia munched a fig newton. Completely at ease. No agenda. No tapping foot or imploring expression. Just calm acceptance, as if to say, “So this is how today is going. Huh.”

Susanne exhaled, pulled her feet onto the couch, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I lied today. Have you ever lied?”

Georgia grunted. “Oh, yeah. Of course. We all do. Sometimes on purpose with lots of planning. Sometimes on the spur of the moment without thinking. We usually have a fairly good reason. Or at least, we think we do.”

“Well, I lied for one simple reason. To get back at someone who hurt me. I wanted her to feel bad. The details don’t really matter. Maybe she deserved it for the way she treated me. But the lie was all mine. I knew it was wrong. But I did it anyway. And what’s worse, I did it over and over again so that this woman’s reputation will now be forever shattered. Or at least, questionable.” The tears started again. “I wanted to punish her, but I punished myself far worse.”

“And then you got a flat tire.” Georgia snorted. “Bet you thought Someone was trying to tell you something, eh?”

Nausea rose and started an open rebellion in Susanne’s stomach. She couldn’t look up.

“Listen. You did an awful thing. No matter why, you knew it was wrong, and you did it anyway. So deal with it. You admitted it to me. So tomorrow, go tell the people involved that you lied. Apologize to your enemy, regain your self-respect, and stop hating yourself.”

Susanne blinked, her eyes stinging with the effort. “It’s not that simple. I’m the nice person. Everyone looks up to me. They trust me. She’s the witch everyone hates. If I do that, they’ll think I’m some kind of blithering idiot trying to be a hero.”

“Well—in a way—you are.”

A cat appeared on Susanne’s right. It crouched, sprang, and landed on her lap. She yelped in surprise. And then, as the truth of Georgia’s words hit home, she laughed.

Georgia grinned “You like cats?”

“Not usually. But this one—” She peered into the orange-eyed calico as he kneaded his paws into her lap and started his engines full throttle. “He’s fine.”

“Good. I’ll leave him in your care while I go warm up the kettle. I think one more cup is in order before I send out into the rainy night.”

Susanne leaned back against the chair and felt the cat curl up in a contented ball. Her shoulders relaxed and warmth spread throughout her whole body.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seven

—Lake Land—

Make Yourself at Home

Eoban’s booming laugh reverberated through the trees. He stood in front of a new dwelling and watched Gilbreth try to free himself from his two younger siblings who clung to him like creeping vines in midsummer. Eoban stepped closer.

The children’s eyes widened in stark terror.

Loping forward, Eoban scooped Ham into his arms and swung him high into the air.

Screaming bloody murder, Ham struggled for a handhold, using Eoban’s nose for support.

Eoban laughed louder. He flipped the child around to face his mother and father.

Lud smiled and waved.

Dinah held out her hands, ready to receive her baby boy. She grinned as she took him her arms. “Does Eoban the Giant scare my baby?” Standing next to Eoban, she tapped his arm. “He’s a good man.” She kissed the little boy on the nose.

With a new light in his eyes and mad glee in his heart, Eoban strode toward Deli.

The little girl scampered into her brother’s arms in a desperate attempt to flee from the approaching menace.

Lud laughed so hard, he bent double and lifted one hand in surrender. “Deli, don’t be afraid. He’s a friend. He wants to make friends with you.”

The little girl peeked around Gilbreth’s neck and pointed an accusing finger. “He’ll throw me up in the air and drop me!” She nuzzled her head against Gilbreth and murmured into his neck. “You won’t let him get me, will you?”

Gilbreth managed to gasp. “Don’t worry. But please, I can’t breathe!”

Eoban shuffled to a halt and chuckled.

Lud strode over and rescued his eldest son.

Gilbreth offered wide-eyed gratitude as his father pried his sister from his body.

Eoban pointed at Gilbreth. “You have a remarkable son, Lud. Few boys could take such treatment without complaint. I bet he’s as fearless as he is good-natured.” Leaping forward, Eoban grabbed Gilbreth by the waste and then swung him over his shoulder. He peered from Ham to Deli. “See, little ones. I swing children into the air.” He swung Gilbreth around and then placed him gently on his feet. “But I do not drop.”

Red in the face, Gilbreth readjusted his tunic.

Eoban patted Gilbreth on the back, best of buddies.

Lud grinned. “You’re a man of many talents! As I remember, you used to tell entertaining stories, too. Maybe, if my children are very good, you’ll tell a few tales today?”

“To be sure!” Eoban smiled broadly. “Even if they are not so very good.” He stepped forward and waved to the dwelling before them. “So, how do you like the house?”

A rosy sun settling on the horizon, a cool breeze, and evening bird song set a peaceful scene.

“It’s beautiful.” Lud glanced at his wife. “We’d like to build one very much like it.”

Eoban rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Build? This one is vacant, and I know the owners. I’m sure they’d offer a fair deal.”

Dinah’s face lit up. “We’d be neighbors then?” She glanced at her children. “But we might get a bit noisy.”

Eoban ran his fingers through his wild, unkempt hair. “I’m easily bored. I enjoy hearing laughter—or screams—as the case may be.”

Dinah giggled, nestling her baby against her shoulder.

Stepping forward, Lud peered at the framework and slapped a post with a firm hand. “Could you introduce us to the owners tomorrow? We’ll make camp for the night and meet them in the morning.”

“Make camp? Perish the thought. I’ll introduce you to the owners tonight, though” —Eoban jogged a few paces away and waved at distant figures shuffling in the center of the village— “it might take me a few moments to gather them up.” He flung a grin at Lud. “Make yourselves at home. I’ll be right back.”

~~~

Dinah sighed, strode to her husband’s side, and clasped his hand.

Carrying the little ones and with Gilbreth in tow, Lud and Dinah circled the dwelling.

Lud stroked his chin. “It’s new. A few rough spots but generally well-done.” He nudged his wife. “Eoban’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t he?”

Dinah’s gaze roamed over two matching front benches. “I trust him. A man without guile.”

Lud nodded. “Honest to a fault. You’ll never wonder what he thinks.” He glanced at the sinking sun. “It’s getting late. Let’s get supper.”

Gilbreth jumped forward. “I’ll start the fire. Man’s work. Finally.”

Lud unrolled mats, and Dinah pulled provisions from their bags.

A rumble of murmuring voices rose in the distance. Dinah glanced up as Lud turned to face the approaching throng. She edged closer to Lud and gripped his arm.

A crowd of young men ambled forward chattering in high-spirited exuberance.

Eoban led the group, his voice rising above the rest. “Remember your manners. They’re new here, and their children are a bit skittish. Don’t talk too loud or make foolish jokes. Just smile a lot. Understand?”

The assembled heads nodded. One voice lifted above the rest. “Just don’t tell them who made the roof, whatever you do!” Laughter soared like a flock of excited birds.

Eoban tapped the speaker on the head. “You know who’ll be doing all the repair work if there are any problems, right?”

The boys chorused as one voice. “Eoban!” A roar of approval met this comment.

Lud glanced at his wife and grinned.

Eoban and his troop halted in front of the stupefied family. Silence ensued as the two groups stared at one another.

Lud laid a comforting hand on his Gilbreth’s shoulder.

Eoban nudged one young man forward. “Go on, Tannit.”

A handsome, dark-haired lad of fifteen stepped forward, his gaze skittering from husband to wife. “You and Dinah were expected, Lud, and your children too, of course. We wanted to make you feel welcome. It was Eoban’s idea, but he made us feel like it was ours, since we did all the work.” He blushed. “Though he worked, too. He had to tell all those stories!” Tannit grinned. “So, we built you this house. We figured it was something you’d need right away, and it wouldn’t spoil if you were late in coming.” He glanced at the house. “Hope you like it.” Biting his lip, he stepped aside.

Giving Tannit a firm pat on the shoulder, Eoban spoke up. “The boys worked very hard.” He flashed a grand smile.

Lud stood frozen and wondered if his heart had stopped beating.

Dinah smiled, her eyes round with shock.

Attempting to make his mouth work, Lud swallowed and sucked in a deep breath. “You mean…this house is ours? It’s too much. How could we ever repay such generosity?”

A younger, slighter-built youth stepped forward and stared boldly at Lud. “My name is Onia, son of Jonas and Obed.” He brushed a stray lock of hair from his eyes. “Truth is, we’re only paying you back for all you’ve done for us. Didn’t you lead the slave revolt? Wasn’t it you who befriended Pele so she could warn us about the Giants? You helped a whole passel of children during the great fire and brought the vision that stopped Ishtar.” He shuffled his feet, his gaze dropping to the ground. “It seems to me that we’d have to build many houses—and better ones than this—to repay all you’ve done for us. We’re just being grateful…as all worthy people are grateful.” With a little shrug, he stepped back among his peers.

Mouths fell open across the assembled group.

Tears ached behind Lud’s eyes. Straining, he swallowed and clasped his hands together. “I accept your gift then, and my family and I will treasure this house as a warrior treasures his finest weapon.” He glanced from one face to another, finally landing on Eoban. “We thank you from the depths of our hearts.”

His eyes gleaming, Eoban squeezed Onia’s shoulder. “Breeding is in the blood.” He glanced around. “Boys, show Gilbreth around while I help Lud and his family get settled. We ought to celebrate!”

Dinah’s face blanched. “I don’t have enough provisions to feed the whole clan.”

Onia turned on his heel and called back. “Don’t worry. Mother and the other women have been preparing a feast for days. It’s their surprise.”

The troop of boys galloped away, laughing and shouting. Looking like a proud father, Eoban stared after the boys.

Lud took his wife’s hand, and they laced their fingers together. His heart swelled, joy flooding his whole body.

“I want to see!” Ham scampered to the doorway and peered inside with Gilbreth holding Deli on the other side. Lud and Dinah stepped closer and leaned over them, glimpsing the dim interior.

Lud felt a hand on his shoulder.

Eoban nudged him forward, nearly tumbling the whole family. “Go on! It’s your house now. Make yourselves comfortable!”

Before stepping over the threshold, Lud glanced back at the glowing horizon. The same horizon he knew as a boy in captivity. The same horizon he shared with his family in the hills. The same horizon he shared with his wife and children while traveling. Tears slipped down his cheek. Forever, now, this horizon would glow in splendor…just outside his home.

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

The ache for home lives in all of us…

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Six

—Grassland—

That God of Yours

Jonas stood outside her dwelling and hugged Tobia in a tight embrace, an ache building behind her eyes.

Vitus, dressed in a short gray tunic, matching leggings, and with a dark red cloak flung over his shoulders, stood aside, tapping his foot and drumming his fingers on his walking staff. As he looked to the sky, he exhaled a long-suffering sigh.

Tobia, wearing a new long-sleeved white robe over tan leggings pulled back and chewed his lip. His gaze flickered to Obed out of the corner of his eyes.

Jonas glanced from her son to her husband and back to her son. Her stomach clenched into painful knots. She caressed the side of Tobia’s face, letting strands of his fine brown hair stream through her fingers. Staring into his eyes, she tried to memorize every feature.

Obed turned away.

Like children at play, birds swooped and circled in the sky above.

Vitus drummed his staff faster, louder. His sighs turned to huffs and were not encouraging.

Pulling away, Jonas released her boy. “I’ve lost one son—and your father. I cannot bear—”

Vitus lifted his hand. “We’re not going to the earth’s edge, woman. Just the trading circuit.” He slung a limp bag over his shoulder and peered at Tobia’s bulging bag. “We have a long road before nightfall, so if you don’t mind?”

Jonas forced a smile despite impending tears. “I’m sure you’ll do well.” She smashed down rising nausea. “Vitus is a good man of business, and he’ll teach you a great deal. And” —she dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in— “you’ll teach him a thing or two, no doubt.”

With a grunt, Vitas whapped Tobia on the back and looked up. “The sun is far higher than I intended for our leave-taking. Come now, you’ve said enough farewells for six sons.” His scowl swung from Tobia to Jonas. “Let’s go!”

Tobia nodded and shifted his bag over his shoulder. “I’ll do what I can.”

Vitus stomped off in haste.

Tobia trotted after him.

Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Jonas glanced around. Villagers scurried in their daily duties, no one noticing a mother’s tears. Her shoulders sagged under a hidden weight as she turned to her dwelling and stepped into the cool interior. Slicing roots and vegetables for the mid-day meal, she muttered under her breath. “If that man—”

“Talking to someone?” Obed stood in the doorway, his face draped in shadow.

A stream of light broke through the window and fell across Jonas, making her blink.

With a headshake, Obed grinned and strode to her side. He sniffed the pot. “I hope you’re making something good. I’m starving.”

Her irritation frothing into righteous indignation, Jonas scowled. “Everything I make is good.” She swept the sliced pieces into a pot. “And yes, I am talking to someone. And no, I’m not overprotective.” She sloshed water from a pitcher into the pot and plunked it on the table.

Obed lifted his hands. “I didn’t say anything.” He snatched a date from a bowl and chewed.

Pulling a tray close, Jonas flipped a cloth off a rounded ball of dough. She flattened the dough with her fist and began kneading it with her palms. “You don’t need to say anything. The look in your eye is enough.”

Obed’s eyes widened. “What look?”

“The look you gave me when I hugged Tobia goodbye. The look you make every time Tobia and I pray to God.” She laid the dough aside.

Shaking his head, Obed retreated to the other side of the room, folded his arms, and leaned against the wall. “I won’t deny that your private conversations do seem rather childish, and you did act like Tobia was being sent to his death this morning.”

With deliberate jerks, Jonas wiped the dough off her fingers and rinsed them under a stream of water from the pitcher. “First things first. Our prayers are childish?” Jonas dropped the washcloth on the board. “How about Eymard? Was he a foolish old man? Or Pele? Was she being childish when she appeared out of nowhere and stopped the sacrifice?”

Pushing off the wall, Obed sauntered to a corner and plopped down. He plumped the pillow beside him and peered at Jonas. He waved her over. “Let’s talk without all the dramatic fury—if that’s possible.”

Her shoulders drooping, Jonas stepped over and plunked down stiffly at his side.

“I’m willing to consider what you have to say, but it’d help if you weren’t bristling like a pine tree in high wind every time I talk to you.”

Tears threatening, Jonas closed her eyes and clasped her hands. After a deep breath, she opened her eyes and met Obed’s gaze.

Obed wrapped his arm around her and drew her to his chest.

“I’m sorry I insulted your faith. I shouldn’t say anything”—he grinned— “even with my eyes.” He peered at her. “But you know perfectly well that Tobia’s journey will be good for him. You were suffocating him, treating him like a child.” He squeezed her shoulder playfully. “I bet that God of yours would agree.”

Her stomach unclenching, Jonas relaxed and sighed. “You might be right, but I wish you’d talk to Tobia about his beliefs—and his work. It means so much to him.”

With a chuckle, Obed pulled his arm free and laced his fingers together. “What’s there to talk about? How to hoe a field or watch over a flock?”

Her chin hardening, Jonas nudged away. “I mean his carvings. Tobia’s art speaks to the human spirit.”

With a grunt, Obed shook his head and rose. “Men don’t need to trouble themselves with spirits. I have no wish to become like Ishtar—or any of his kind.” He took Jonas’s hand and pulled her to her feet.

Jonas slapped dust off her dress. “I’m not asking you to become like Ishtar—God forbid. But don’t you ever wonder where the soul goes at death? What other world we might enter? What happened to Onias and Aram?”

Clenching his jaw, Obed slapped a post. “Onias is dead. Aram is dead. Ishtar might as well be dead. It’s time you moved on.” He swung around. “I can’t live in two worlds. One is quite enough for me.” He glared at Jonas, his nostrils flaring as his breathing quickened. “There is no other world.” He bent over and pinched a smidgen of dirt, sifting it through his fingers. “After death, there’s nothing more than this.”

Jonas stomped across the room and stared Obed in the eye. “How can you be so blind? Don’t you see that we have a Creator—a great being beyond us?”

A grin played on Obed’s lips as his gaze roamed over Jonas. “I see greatness before me. I don’t need to look beyond.”

Blushing, Jonas dropped her gaze. “You’re just being stubborn.”

“No, I’m being honest. I’ve more useful things to do than worry about other worlds and gods beyond my sight.”

“Aram believed in God. He told Tobia so.”

Obed grabbed another date and studied it as if it contained a secret. “When a man is dying, it’s comforting to think such things—great banquets in the sky, meeting old friends. I’ll probably want the same comfort when I’m on my death bed.”

“Why wait till then? Talk to God now. Just once—pray.”

With a groan, Obed popped the date in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “I’d feel like a fool.”

Defeat bowing her shoulders, Jonas dropped her head.

Obed rolled his shoulders. “All right. If it’ll make you happy, I’ll try.” He blew air between his lips and peered at his wife. “But you’ve got to stop babying Tobia. He’s a man, and he must grow up. Carving is fine—but he needs to support his family and this clan.”

Jonas nodded.

Stepping forward, Obed ran his fingers over her hair, caressing her neck.

A pleasant shiver ran down Jonas’ back.

Obed whispered in her ear. “I’m still hungry. You won’t let me starve?”

Jonas rolled her eyes. “If you catch a couple fish, I’ll do my best to keep you alive another day.”

“Now I can thank your God.”

Jonas returned to the lump of dough, her stomach still in knots, but her shoulders relaxing. “Poor man, I should’ve sent you on a journey.”

With a chuckle, Obed started for the doorway. “Not a bad idea. You think Vitus would wait up while I got ready?”

Jonas watched her husband, with his broad shoulders and straight back, saunter into the sunlight. She glanced up at the rafters. “You may have created him—but I have to live with him.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Enjoy,

Ann

“Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” ~Anonymous

 

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Five

—Amin’s Village—

My Enemy’s Sons

Amin, with his sharp, chiseled chin and pointed nose, stood in front of a grave mound with his hands clasped behind his back. Tears clouded his vision.

Villagers strode by—unaware or uncaring—never once looking in his direction.

Shuffling footsteps neared.

Amin scowled.

A small brown hand clasped his. Amin peered down and met the sad-eyed gaze of his little brother, a red-cheeked child losing his bloom too early. He swallowed back a lump and cleared his throat. “Caleb. What’re you doing here?”

A slight shrug hinted at a deeper ignorance.

“Did you eat yet?”

Caleb drew one hand from behind his back. A half-eaten piece of bread crumbled beneath his grasp. “It’s all she could spare—at the moment.”

Amin nodded. “Finish it.”

Caleb frowned. “Half’s for you.”

“I already ate. Got some broiled fish off one of the men. Threw it at me like I was a dog.”

Caleb’s eyes widened, his tone a pitch higher. “Fish?”

“I would’ve saved it for you, but it fell in the dirt—wasn’t more than—” He shrugged, clasped his brother’s shoulder, and turned away from the grave.

Caleb turned back, staring at the mound. “Hagia would want flowers.”

An ache throbbed in Amin’s middle. “If she were alive. No need of flowers where she’s gone.” He pulled his brother along.

Caleb followed with a sigh. They wandered to the center of the village.

A young couple bustled in serious industry outside a large, sturdy dwelling. The woman shifted a bench from the right to the left, while the man strung a rope taut from one pole to another. They stopped and peered with sour expressions as the two boys shuffled closer.

The woman waved toward a boulder surrounded by rank grass. “Go over there. That woman left you a tray. Eat the leavings and move on.” She glanced at the hills as if indicating the way.

On the boulder, a tray of gruel lay broiling in the hot sun.

Amin’s frown deepened as he stared back. “What woman?”

The man marched forward, his face flushed, and his brows arched. “Namah. But why she should care for you— after what your father did—is beyond me.” He spat on the ground. “I’d have slaughtered my enemy’s sons. Not fed ’em.”

Caleb trotted over to the food and sniffed. The gruel had jelled into a thick gelatinous mass.

Amin peered over his brother’s shoulder. “Disgusting.”

The woman’s hand fluttered like a garment in a strong breeze. “Not so loud. She’s over there. Discussing you two, no doubt.”

After settling on the ground cross-legged, Caleb pulled the tray onto his lap and shoveled the messy mixture into his mouth with his dirty fingers. He glanced at Amin while dribbles leaked down his chin. “Want some?”

Amin’s gaze fixed on Namah’s back as she stood across the village chatting in a company of other women.

“Wonder what she’s saying.”

The woman straightened a blanket on the line. “She wants someone to adopt you.” She thwacked the heavy cloth with a stick.

Amin whirled around. “Adopt me?”

The woman pounded in a steady rhythm, sending billows of dust into the air. “You and him.” She gestured with her chin. “You’ve got to live somewhere.”

Amin glanced at the dwelling, fury rising like hot liquid in his stomach. “This used to be our home.”

Dropping an ax on the bench, the man turned around, glaring. “Not anymore. Ishtar’s disgraced himself—exiled to his doom, far as I care.” He slapped the doorpost. “But it’s a solid house. I’ve as much right to it as anyone.”

Caleb peered up, licking his sticky lips. “Why?”

With two strides, the man leaned forward and cuffed Caleb on the head. “No more questions. Be on your way now. You’re lucky I didn’t let the dogs have that mess.”

Whimpering, Caleb dropped the tray in the dirt and covered his head.

Growling like a chained animal, Amin gripped his brother’s hand and lurched him to his feet. Tugging him along the path between the buildings, he glanced around. No Namah. “Curse that man! He’s no right to hit you. Or order us away.”

Caleb sniffed as he rubbed his ear. Tears welled in his eyes. “Everyone hates us.”

Amin lead Caleb to a grove of trees beside a rushing stream. “Not everyone.” He frowned and glanced at Caleb as he settled him under the shade of a large tree. “Rest. We’ll sleep here tonight.”

Caleb’s eyes rounded. “But animals come at night.”

Amin tugged a piece of flint from a small wallet tied around his waist. “I can make a fire.” He glanced around. “There’s plenty of tinder, and we can gather bigger pieces before dark.”

Caleb’s sniff turned into a shudder. “I wish Hagia were here. She loved us.”

“She did. But” —Amin shrugged away his helplessness— “at least Namah and Jonas leave us food.”

“Why? I mean, why do they?” Caleb peered up, squinting into the light filtering through the branches.

“Barak probably tells them to. He’s a good man. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Hagia said Namah would follow Aram to the grave. How can she?”

“It’s just a saying.” Tousling his brother’s thick, curly hair, Amin worked up a crooked grin. “No more questions, all right?”

Caleb ran a filthy hand over his sweaty face, smearing streaks of dirt over his head and neck.

Amin’s stomach churned. “Go wash in the stream. I’ll get some wood.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Maybe I’ll even catch a fish for tonight, and we can roast it.”

A new light entered Caleb’s eyes. Turning on his heel, he scampered away.

Amin watched the boy leap like a frisky puppy into the bubbling stream. He sighed and turned to the woods. As he stepped into the cool shade, he glanced back at his old dwelling. Setting his jaw, his eyes narrowed.

 

*A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed week.

Ann

“A home is made of hopes and dreams.” ~Anonymous

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Four

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. A hot sun beat down on them from a clear sky. Propped on his arms and knees, he hovered over the length of her body.

Sienna waited, grinning.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over Sienna’s face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and plopped onto the grass beside her, sprawling out like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Rising, he slapped dry stems from his gray tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his fingers over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced his trembling hand to stop. He lifted his eyes to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna followed his gaze. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom of the incline and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren lands. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “By whom?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are here nonetheless.”

With a snort, Sienna tossed the rock to the side. “You’re a regular Bhuaci with all your riddles.”

Teal watched Ishtar stumble. I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through his chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark. Luxonian Guardians should respect our own treaties.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest and started rubbing in slow circles.

Teal peered down, clasped one of her hands, and examined it. “Never any jewelry. Why?”

With a teasing grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his eyes with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

Ark sat on a log next to a rippling stream and slapped his fleshy, three-toed feet into the flowing water. He shivered in delight.

Zuri crouched on a boulder, his black bio-armor including headgear, bodysuit, and hard-toed boots, glinted in the bright sun. As he hunched over a handheld screen, his gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal. Cresta Accords are nothing to splash at, especially when they’re backed up by a Luxonian treaty and your Ingoti Magisterium’s seal of approval.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and dropped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed day,

Ann

Seek to become someone’s true friend.

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Unless You Give Up

Grant dutifully signed the electronic notice declaring that his son was getting mostly Cs and two Ds—in English and Math of course—on his mid-term report and wondered what it felt like to not fail. Not that grades meant everything, and C’s were respectable enough, especially considering Jon’s disabilities. But he could hardly meet Ms. Berg’s direct gaze.

He nodded in all the right places. “Yes, mam. He has a quiet study place. No, we don’t allow that sort of thing in the house. Uh-huh…his sister helps him all the time. Yes, I know. She’s a bright little thing.”

Named after the General who helped to win the Civil War, Grant vowed at the age ten, when he read a biography of the hero, to never drink. But as the Parent-Teacher Conference wrapped up, and he gathered his two kids from the gymnasium, he wondered if perhaps the General had the right idea. After all, why not take the edge off reality?

Judy was a bright little thing. For some reason fathomable to God alone, she never grew beyond four feet six inches, but her brain—as well as her mouth—outran everyone in the eighth grade. Jon respected her academic abilities but hated her bossy “tude.” Grant dearly sympathized.

The drive home remained quiet as Judy was shushed every time she started extolling the virtues of her teachers, her wonderful grades, or the fact that school made life worth living.

It wasn’t until bedtime, while Grant sat on the edge of his son’s bed, folded his hands, and listened to their prayer time routine, that he realized that Jon was upset.

“And God, if you could just make me good at something—anything—I’d appreciate it.”

Grant frowned. He watched as the lanky young man, a freshman whose brain got stuck somewhere along 5th grade, climbed into bed. “You’re good at things.”

Jon reached for a dog-eared comic book. “My dad is still putting me to bed. How good can I be?”

Grant climbed to his feet and stared down at the boy. “What? I just figured that since I hardly see you…what with work and school…and sports…and…” He shrugged. “Praying with you hardly means I’m putting you to bed.” A flush burned his cheeks.

“You think that you have to check on me all the time.” Jon shook his head and slapped the comic book on his lap. “You don’t do that with Judy.”

“I never have to worry about Judy. She always brushes her teeth, puts on clean clothes, says her prayers, and gets up on time.”

“And gets all As.”

Exhaustion warred with frustration. Grant had suffered through a tedious meeting at work, waited through long lines at the grocery store, mentally calculated the years until his retirement, knowing all the while that he’d probably die in harness, and blindly stuffed aching loneliness to the furthest reaches of his mind. He started for the door.

The muffled words, “As usual.” stopped him in his tracks. He turned around. “What?”

Jon crouched forward peering at the comics like the nearsighted kid he was. His whitened fingers crumpled the edges so fiercely it would never lay flat again.

Grant stomped back and towered over the bed. “Say that again.”

Jon threw the comic book across the room. His eyes blazing, red-rimmed with tears, and his cheeks flushed, he thrashed his way free from his sheets and pounded to the other side of the room. With shaky hands, he rattled through his dresser drawers until he slammed one open and pulled out a sketchbook from between dingy pairs of socks.

Grant felt his heart racing. His latest story—unsold—sat quietly on a writer’s blogging site with only a handful of comments. He bit his lip.

Jon tossed the notebook at his father.

Too stunned to react, Grant watched the book flutter to the floor. He raised his eyes to his son as he picked it up. Then he leafed through the pages. The pictures were good. Not great…well…there was one. It held promise. Certainly creative. He frowned and looked up.

Jon had retreated to the far end of the room, leaning against the wall. The mast listing to one side after the bulk of the ship has gone down.

Honesty was hell. Vulnerability was worse. But watching his son die inside would kill him.

Grant dropped his head to his chest and exhaled a long slow breath. He lifted his hand in a wait-a-moment signal and left the room. He retreated to his room, picked up his laptop, and returned to his son’s room. “Here.”

Jon glanced over. Bored. “What? A new learning tool?”

Grant felt the smile even though he knew it probably wasn’t showing on his face. He needed to cry too much. “No.” He shoved three plants he had never noticed before aside and set the computer on Jon’s desk. Clicking on a link, he pulled up the writer’s site and scrolled through until he found his name. He clicked it, and his most recent story popped up with comments attached. He turned the computer so Jon could see.

If spent balloons could walk, they would look like Jon as he approached the table, flopped down, and crouched forward for a quick read-through.

But he wasn’t quick. He returned to the top and read the story again.

Grant’s heart clenched so tight he wondered if he was facing cardiac arrest.

Jon’s fingers hovered over the curser at the bottom of the page. He peered up at his dad. “You never told me.”

Grant shrugged. “I’m not very good.”

Jon shook his head. “But it’s creative. I think it’s good.” He pointed to the last comment. “This guy thinks so too.”

Grant swallowed the ache of loneliness and wondered where it was going. He crouched beside his son. “You know, there’s an art site where you can post your work. It helps to get other people’s opinions. Usually.”

“But I fail at everything.”

Grant rubbed his hand across his mouth and smothered a chuckle. “You won’t fail—unless you give up.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Three

—Hill Land—

Not Set In Stone

Lud, skinny but stalwart, watched his eldest son, Gilbreth, as they trudged over flat grassland.

Though small for his age, Gilbreth’s heavy frame gave him a robust appearance. His little brother, Ham, bumped into him and fell backward, sprawling flat on the green expanse. Gilbreth stared at his brother and smiled. He plucked the little boy out of the grass, easily swung him onto his hip, and continued his march. “Ham, look where you’re going. This is the third time you have run into me.”

As his little brother’s dark eyes filled with tears, Gilbreth’s voice softened. “I can’t be picking you up all the time. We have to travel far today.” By the last word, Gilbreth’s tone had lifted to a gentle croon.

Lud stifled a laugh. He dared not look at his wife.

Dinah clasped a hand over her mouth while a grin peeked out from her eyes. She carried her baby, Deli, in a sling wrapped over her shoulder.

Lud wrapped his arm around his son. “You’ll make a good father someday.”

Gilbreth rolled his eyes. “More than that, I hope! The new boys will think I am a nursemaid.” He met his father’s gaze. “Please, keep Ham and Deli away from me when we arrive.”

Lud grinned. “You think I’d be so cruel? When the others see what a good-natured boy you are, the whole community will speak of it. They’ll say, ‘Gilbreth is a boy to be trusted!’” Lud pointed from Ham to Deli. “Besides” —he cringed in mock fear— “what would they do to me if I kept you away?”

Gilbreth pursed his lips, set Ham on his feet, and readjusted the bag slung over his back. “You can at least tell me why we’re leaving. Did we do something wrong?”

Lud glanced at his wife, the dull thud of reality dragged his soaring spirit back to earth.

With an understanding nod, Dinah strode ahead. A sack strapped across her back bounced with each step. Deli swayed on her hip, and she gripped Ham’s small hand.

Lud cleared his throat and clasped his staff tighter. “My father thinks I’m soft in the head because I’m so friendly with everyone. I told him that we want to see the world, but that’s not the whole reason we’re leaving.” He peered into the distance. “My people won’t last much longer. They’ve refused visitors, and they view every new idea with suspicion. They cloud their minds with doubt and fear. Even their blood grows weak because they allow no new members to replenish the spring. They’re dying.” Lud sucked in a deep breath and hurried his pace.

Gilbreth frowned, gazing at his feet as he kept pace with his father.

“That’s why your mother and I decided to leave—so we could join with a different clan. They’re kind, like to travel, and they’re willing to learn about the world. Despite her upbringing, your mother has an adventurous heart. Look at her. Does she seem in the least bit afraid?” A warm burst of joy spread over Lud as he stared at the woman marching before him. “With each step, she soars—an eagle on an updraft—like an old friend I once knew.”

Gilbreth bit his lip. “But will I never see my grandparents or the rest of my family again?”

Lud glanced away and picked up his pace. “I can’t say. The future is not set in stone.”

Gilbreth glanced from his mother to his siblings, grief entering his eyes.

Lud pressed his son’s shoulder gently. “It is hard, but we must grow into a new life or die in stagnant waters. I’d not have you endure such a fate.” Hurrying forward, Lud caught up to Dinah and grinned in her direction.

Dinah smiled back.

As Gilbreth ran ahead, Lud watched him. “You’ll enjoy meeting Eoban. He came to visit just as your mother and I made our decision. I never saw a man so well pleased.”

When Ham tripped and squalled, Lud scooped the little boy into a comforting embrace.

With a harrumph, Gilbreth lifted his arms like a bird with wings slicing through the air. His bag bounced across his back.

Lud murmured under his breath, “Nothing is set in stone.”

 

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Enjoy,

Ann

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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