The Loving Choice

Jamie switched off the fire under the canner, wiped her tomato-splattered forehead, and wondered if Dante’s Inferno got as hot as her kitchen during canning season. She rolled her shoulders and flipped open the large wooden cabinet door to her pantry.

Her assembly of last year’s canned goodies had been whittled down to a couple of jars of pickles, three salsas, and one pear jam. This year’s strawberry jam had pride of place in the front row on the right. The kids had already made dangerous inroads to that line of preserved fruits. If she didn’t hide a few now, there would be none left for winter, much less next spring when everything felt old and barren. A jar of bright red strawberry jam could make all the difference between surviving February or succumbing to the inevitable late-winter blues. She shoved the strawberry jam way in the back and dragged the pear jam to the front. What’s wrong with pear jam anyway?

The sound of whistling broke through the humid air. Jamie’s lips twitched. Who in their right mind could whistle in this heat? Her adult daughter, Chris, practically bounced into the room. “Hey, Mom. How’s life?”

Blinking in the glare of Chris’ sunshiny mood, Jamie pulled out a kitchen chair and plopped down. “Life. Is. Hot.” She waved the tomato-scented air with one hand in front of her face as if that might help. Somehow.

“There’s a storm coming in tonight. It’ll cool things down. We’re looking at the end of August and the beginning of September in just a couple weeks. You should be happy.”

Staring at the sink like a desert wanderer wondering if the oasis ahead was just another blighted mirage, Jamie pulled herself to her feet. “Who says I’m not happy?” She snatched a glass from the cabinet and ran the cold water, hoping against hope that ice cubes would suddenly pour forth from the faucet. No such luck. She sighed, filled the glass half full, and pretty much poured the entire contents down her parched throat.

Chris shook her head, her voice rising. “Mom, you can get cans of fruits and vegetables from the store at a reasonable price. I don’t get why you put yourself through this every year.”

Now that her body had something to work with, a glorious sweat broke over Jamie’s body and cooled her considerably. Her gaze strolled over to the cookie jar. She chewed her lip.

Without a by your leave, Chris grabbed a potholder and lifted the steamy canner top. She peered inside. Her eyebrows jackknifed. “Whoa! That’s a lot of salsa!”

On autopilot, Jamie swiveled to the counter, pulled a towel off a triple line of cooling jars and dragged the center one forward. She popped the top, marched to the cabinet, ripped open a bag of corn chips, and shoved the salsa jar and the chips forward. “Try one…or ten.”

A smirk played on Chris’ lips. “I know; it’s the best batch yet.” She slipped a crisp chip from the bag and dipped it ceremoniously into the bright red mixture.

Jamie folded her arms and leaned against the counter, waiting. Her eyes narrowed as she followed her daughter’s chewing motions and eventual swallow.

Chris’ eyes rounded. “Oh, my! That’s hot. I mean, that’s good!” She snatched her mom’s glass, flew to the sink, filled the glass to the brim, and gulped the contents without a break. Then she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, grinning in delight.

Jamie wiggled her fingers like a robber about to break into the bank vault. She lifted a chip, dipped it three times into the salsa, and popped it into her mouth. She chewed with a thoughtful expression, allowing her palate to discern the merit of the new batch. “Hmmm. Well, it’s pretty good. Should keep winter germs at bay.”

Chris dipped another chip. “Anyone who eats this will have a super immune system all winter.” She crunched and then licked her lips. “Plus, it makes a good gift. A delicious way to say ‘I love you—stay healthy for the next seven months.’”

Jamie sauntered to the cabinet and waved at the empty space. “But you know, it would be a lot easier just to fill these shelves with sale brands from the store.”

The bright red flush that worked up Chris’ face matched the salsa almost perfectly. She took another chip and waved it in the air. “Yeah. Easier. But life isn’t all about doing the easy thing, now is it, Mom?” She dipped her latest chip and paused. “I could’ve stayed at home and read a book, but I decided to come to visit you instead. Not the easiest choice, I might add.”

Storm clouds darkened the room and a rush of cool air ruffled Jamie’s hair. As her body relaxed, her heart warmed and her mood lightened. “But you made the loving choice, kiddo. The loving choice.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Allow My Soul To Soar

So, there is a nest of swallows right above my porch doorway, high on the south side of the house, just under the eves. The papa and mama cared for three hatchlings throughout the spring, bringing them tidbits to munch on whenever they were hungry, which seemed like every minute of every day. Each morning, it has been a pleasant entertainment to watch the parents nurture the young ones overhead. The fact that they eat insects only makes the deal a sweeter—for me anyway.

But then, sadly, recently, a car hit one of our oldest cats. It was a tragic event since several of the kids witnessed the accident, and it left an ugly mark on the day. It was no one’s fault as the cat got right under the car’s tire and there was no way to stop it from happening. Just one of those terrible things…like a destructive storm or a deadly disease. Hell happens. Even here.

Finally, last night, as the heat of the day finally dropped to a moderate temperature, I sat out and watched the baby swallows join their parents careening about the sky. They flew in bird ecstasy, capering about like sky-born gymnasts. Delight incarnate.

I know perfectly well that the critters around the place only live for a short time. I care for them as well as I can. Even to the point of risking life and limb by hanging hummingbird feeders out the second-story window. Two of our dogs are so old; they can barely shuffle down the road. They try to follow us on our evening walk, and it becomes painful to watch them trying to keep up. I worry that a tractor will hit them. But they stay off the road if we’re not on it. They want so much to be with us. So they stagger along.

In the country, it can seem foolish to get attached to animals since we know full well that some critters are raised as food. Pets are a luxury. An illusion sometimes. It is a human decision who lands on the dinner table and who gets fed from the table.

But decide we must. And our hearts get involved whether we like it or not. I struggled with the irony of critter care and affection until I realized that I’m more steward than owner. I treat each animal well, whether it is a chicken raised for meat, a dog trained for protection, or a cat urged to hunt for mice. Most of our cats and dogs do earn their keep. But not by any monetary standard.

As Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Margery Williams, and other famous authors have taught me, animals do speak to the human spirit. Personally, my life would be much poorer without Peter Rabbit, Tabitha Twitchit, Tigger, Eeyore, and the skin horse.

As I observe a household cat lounging on the porch with one eye following the birds overhead, a dog ambling about the backyard with its tail wagging in silent greeting, the hens pecking at melon rinds thrown out back, and the happy swallows dancing in air, I have to stand in awe of our mighty Creator who makes the sublime so honest and approachable.

After all, who am I to befriend the supremely confident cat, the immodestly enthusiastic hound, and the sky-larking-singing-a-merry-tune birds?

I am humbled by the honor. When tragedy strikes, I bow my head and accept what I cannot change. We are all only here for a short time. When fried chicken feeds my family, I am grateful. When I stroke the thick fur of a pet, I join their gladness. When I hear the hens cackle, I laugh at their ridiculous antics. While I live, I love and nurture where I can, not drawing thick lines between the human and animal kingdom. God has already done that.

I simply admire and allow my soul to soar.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

A Real Smile This Time

“I have seen alternate realities…” Megan believed it, too. As sure as shoot’in, she’d spout off the latest and greatest in how life could’ve been…fantasies…every one.

I wanted to shoot something myself. But it would have landed me in a reality I didn’t want. A small, windowless, jail cell reality. So I did the next best thing. I started humming a bizarre childhood tune. Couldn‘t for the life of me remember the words.

We both loved novels and sweet treats, so a Saturday browsing books shops and getting ice cream on the village square seemed like a prelude of heaven. If only…

The sky blazed in mid-summer blueness, the sun-scorched my already-tanned-to-a-crisp skin, and the humidity index was near a thousand, but Megan breezed along the quaint street, stopping only long enough to pat a Rottweiler tied to a fire hydrant on its ferocious head. How on earth she managed to get away with such antics, I’ll never know. When I sidled past a canine, even with my best smile plastered on, the quadruped sized me up as lunchmeat, and inevitably, the damn thing lunged.

I skirted the beast, returned to my humming, and tried valiantly to steer Megan’s brain away from fantasy towards something more profitable. “So, how are the kids?”

Megan pulled the shop door open, her delicate muscles bulging attractively with the effort. Somehow, she managed to stay slim yet develop an awesome physique. With me it was a straight forward choice: stay thin and weak or eat like a horse, pump iron, run marathons, and watch my body morph into a hulk-like structure, which caused my husband no end of unease.

I slipped past her fully aware that my plastered smile was still frozen in place. I mentally thwacked myself over the head. What was wrong with me? Jealous? Never. No.

Megan rushed to the last open booth and waved her hand to the empty seat, offering me the honor of sitting with her. Her smile, so sweet and sincere, Anne of Green Gables could’ve taken a lesson or two.

I mentally thwacked myself again. And then slid into place with the odd sound of hot, sticky legs skidding over hard plastic. I rubbed my forehead and wondered if an alternate reality might be a good idea at this point.

She browsed the menu for a nanosecond, tossed it aside, clasped her hands on the table and leaned in, staring deep into my eyes. “The kids are great. I’m doing wonderful. Jim is the light of my life. But you, Honey? How are you doing?”

What was this? I was the one who stuck to my daily duty, lived hardcore realism to the max, allowed myself only enough fiction to put me into a good night’s sleep, and nailed my friend’s feet to the ground every chance I got with apt advice. And she’s asking how I’m doing with a hint of concern in her eyes? Harrumph!

The fact that my parents, in a fit of complete idiocy and flower-power egoism, named me after a viscous food substance produced by bees fed my belief that life started out unfair and never got much better. I was named Honey at my birth, but I spent my life living it down. Becoming hard as a rock. Strong as iron. Solid as… You get the idea.

The waitress sashayed over, took our orders, and clumped away. Apparently one didn’t need to look as good going as coming.

I returned Megan’s stare. “I’m doing brilliantly. Exhausted but such is life. Carl is good. Usually. The kids all have jobs now. I hardly see them.” I twiddled my thumbs. Hmmm. This wasn’t sounding as wonderful as I intended, even to my ears.

Megan reached out and stilled my busy fingers. “You’re not happy. It’s clear as rainwater.”

I played with that image. Rainwater? Like in a creek?

Megan continued as if I wasn’t straying from the field. “You need help.”

Whoa! “Me? Help? Like a doctor? A therapy group?” My voice had risen to a squeak.

The waitress practically skipped over with our ice cream Sundays. Her eyes sparkled with the delight of a hound on a new scent. Gossip never failed to attract.

With the cool hand of a surgeon, Megan accepted her dessert, inserted the spoon just so, and took a modest bite.

I plunged my spoon to its depth and nearly cracked the glass dish.

After an appreciative, “Hmm, that’s so good,” Megan resumed her dissection of my imperfect life. “Actually, I was thinking that you might do well with a friendly counselor or a spiritual director. You know they have people available through the diocese.”

The idea that I’d rather skydive into Mount Doom sizzled across my brain. I slurped my chocolate chip ice cream savoring not a bite. It took every effort to swallow the gooey delight. Finally, out of sheer desperation, I sucked up a deep breath, dropped my spoon, squared my shoulders, and faced the boogeyman in the closet. “Why? What’s wrong with me?”

Pity and honesty poured from Megan’s eyes. Okay, not literally. But you know what I’m saying. Megan exhaled sorrow. “You’re so angry. All the time. Everyone knows how I like to fantasize about other worlds, make up scenarios, joke around with the kids and stuff. Well, it’s my break from reality. All the stuff that gets me down. Life is hard. So much duty that’s not fun…every day. Even the news depresses me. But I toss the bad over my shoulder every now and again and enjoy a change of scenery—even if it’s only in my imagination. Maybe it’s cheating, but it keeps me happy.”

I sat back and clasped my hands over my aching belly. “Your point?”

“You need to remember why you are a wife, a mother… a friend. You need to get away, take a break, and find your joy. Talk to someone who isn’t a part of it all.”

“You think I’m crazy? Or too weak to manage my life without running to a hippy-land like my parents?” I shoved the empty dish across the table; only somewhat glad it didn’t fall over the edge.

Megan rested her spoon inside her dish and nudged it to the side. “Listen, Honey, I love you for not saying the cruel things that run through your mind. Your eye-rolling, grimaces, and sarcastic tone speak more than your words. You are so fed up with life; I’m surprised you haven’t…”

Tears flooded my eyes. Honesty pervaded my being. The boogeyman stomped up, grabbed me by my shirtfront, and demanded that I listen.

“Your parents were messed up. But they weren’t all wrong. They wanted to be happy. That part was right. They just didn’t know how to balance their needs with others’ needs. That doesn’t mean you have to be the sacrificial goat here—”

Despite the ice cream, my insides boiled in fury. There was so much that I wanted to say, but my mind blanked. Which, in the end, was a very good thing. Once said, it’s impossible to put words back in the unsaid bottle. All I remember was sliding out of the seat, turning without a word, and walking out the door. I didn’t even offer to pay the tip.

It was months before Megan and I met up again. At the grocery store. Both our carts full to bursting. She flipped a stray lock of hair from her eyes and sighed as she nodded at my cart. “You’ve been busy.”

There was so much I needed to tell her, to explain, the stuff that I had unbottled and set free. But it was late afternoon, and I knew her husband and kids were waiting, as were mine. I just patted her shoulder and smiled. A real smile this time. I was so glad to see her. “We should get some ice cream this weekend.”

Megan met my gaze, her face a frozen mask. “It’s the middle of January.”

“Yeah. That’s when it tastes the best.”

A grin hovered on Megan’s lips. “In an alternate universe maybe.”

“Yep. Want to join me?”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Blue Ink Flowed

Edna watched the fly buzz around her kitchen with all the intensity of a warrior spying out the movements of the enemy. Finally, the devil’s minion dared to land on her clean counter. Ah ha! With a victorious slap, she smashed it. Barbarian exultation surged through her.

Her phone chime, a song her father had loved, drew her attention to the living room. She scampered to her work desk and swiped up the phone, one hand still brandishing the swatter in case of any enemy retribution.

He sister’s name flashed on the screen. A groan erupted from Edna’s middle. She pressed the phone to her ear, her gut twisting. If she had to hear one more rendition of how Tabitha’s recent fling, Marvin, used her and dumped her and how men were all cheats and liars, she’d— “Yeah, honey, what’s going on?”

“Hey. Just wanted to let you know that Dave was in an accident over the weekend. Drunk driving.”

Edna’s heart stopped beating. She was sure of it. “The kids?”

“They’re fine. He was out with his buddies, and the kids were with a sitter. Actually, he picked a good one this time. Real responsible girl. She called me right away and then found Dave’s mom’s number and sent her all the info from the police. I went over, got the kids and figured I’d let Dave die on the emergency room table. He deserved it, right?”

Edna wasn’t sure if she had pulled the chair out, but she was grateful when her behind hit the firm seat, and she didn’t land on the floor. “Is he…did he—”

A strange tone entered Tabitha’s voice, one Edna had never heard before. “No, he’s just got a few scratches. But it scared the hell out of him. And it’s going on his record. His boss called and told him that he’s fired. The firm can’t allow this kinda stuff.”

Silence.

Edna swallowed and took a deep breath. “So what now?”

“Ya know. I hate the guy. He was always a jerk. Well, after a couple good years…he revealed that he was a jerk.”

Edna rubbed her temple. Here it comes… She waited.

“But funny thing, he started crying. Real tears. His mom came and got him, and I went by this morning to check in.”

Edna felt waves of turbulent water splashing about her ears. “What about letting him die on the table?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. That’s what I thought. At first. How I felt. But then, you know, turns out that Marvin has cancer…something with his pancreas. He didn’t tell me because he was afraid I’d dump him.”

A pad of paper sat squarely in her desk corner. Edna grabbed it and flicked a pen point down. If one was facing crazy, might as well doodle. She murmured, “And so…”

“So, it hit me, that perhaps, I might hate the men in my life for the wrong reason.”

The doodle became a black storm cloud. “I’m not sure I’m following.”

“Well, Dave drank like an idiot when he was with friends, but that’s not why we got a divorce. I divorced him because he was so selfish. He never thought about me…not really. He just lived his life with me in it. And then, you know, Marvin was the same. So I figured, all guys are blithering fools.”

A painful cramp seized Edna’s hand. She switched the phone to the right and continued the parade of raindrops from the storm cloud with her left. Wobbly raindrops…but she didn’t care. She exhaled. “And so?”

“So, as I watched Dave meltdown in his mom’s house and how his mom just shook her head and put her arm around him, I thought…I’d do that if it was one of my boys. I’d love him even though he acted like a complete jerk. And I thought of Marvin getting those test results and never telling me…because…you know…he figured I wouldn’t really care about him. I’d just be mad because he was sick.”

Silence stretched over the miles between Colorado and Illinois.

Edna didn’t dare breath. Her hand froze. The raindrops had become a river at the bottom of the page.

“So, it dawned on me. Maybe, I hate ‘em because they remind me of me.”

A splash brought the river to life and blue ink flowed. Edna wiped her eyes. She swallowed the ache in her throat. “It’s hard to love like you want to be loved.”

“Yeah. That’s what I think. Kinda what dad told us before he died. Remember how he wanted that song? It irked me because I thought it was so stupid. But the words spoke to me today. Ya, know…letting go of the bad and keeping the good.”

Edna sniffed, laid the pen aside, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I remember.”

“Sorta like what you’ve been doing with me all along, eh?”

The river became a torrent. Edna wrapped her arm around her face and stifled a sob. After a monumental struggle, she lifted her head and found her voice. “I’ve tried. Though I haven’t always succeeded. “

“But, at least, you tried.”

After the last bit of conversation and a final, ‘talk later,’ Edna laid the phone on the table and stood. She stared at the pad of dribbled blue ink. It didn’t look like the original anymore. She ought to crumple it and toss it away.

A fly landed on the paper. Pure instinct incarnate, Edna grabbed the swatter and lifted her hand. This devil deserved to die.

But the picture didn’t.

She waved her hand and the miniature demon flew off to annoy her another day.

She laid the swatter aside, picked up the picture and taped it to the refrigerator. It wouldn’t last forever. But it would outlast the flies.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

That’s How It Goes

“God, how I love my life.” The sun was shining, birds were singing, and the green park with purple and pink flowerbeds, brown benches, and scurrying squirrels, looked as gorgeous as any storybook garden. “So why is my heart so torn and ragged?”

The college buildings rose up before Victoria’s eyes, a U-shaped arrangement of stone structures built in imitation of the grand European universities. A tower with a clock set inside a green cupola bore testimony to strong eyes. She couldn’t see the hands, much less the numbers. But it didn’t matter. Her son’s campus tour would take three hours, so she had plenty of time before the long trek back home.

Home?

Out of five kids, Thomas was the youngest. And now it was his turn to spread his wings and fly away. The older four had fulfilled their destiny—college, good jobs, and two were married now. The second child, the only girl, had had a baby last winter.

Victoria was happy for them. She was thrilled that Thomas had found a college that he really liked and was eager to start classes in the fall. Everything was terrific. Wonderful. Blessed.

So why did an aching depression choke her soul?

A white mini-van pulled into the parking lot, and three kids tumbled out. A toddler scampered forward into the arms of young woman…a big sister? Victoria’s heart clenched. The father, thirtyish with greying temples, and the mother, wearing a long summer dress, joined the clutch around the young woman. Hugs and hellos and comments mixed together into a bright cacophony of delight.

Victoria felt the tear before she realized she was crying. Why on earth was she upset? Couldn’t she be happy for this family reunion? Even though it wasn’t hers…and never would be again?

Terry had passed away four years ago. Despite the agony of loss, she had shouldered her responsibilities and raised the kids as they had always planned. And the kids had surpassed their parents’ every hope and dream.

But she had never looked any further…to a life beyond the kids. Beyond marriage. Beyond her responsibilities. Once Thomas moved into the dorm and out of the house, he would live his own life. Have meals with friends instead of with her. Do his own laundry. Well, most of the time. And have fun elsewhere.

Would home be home anymore?

Certainly, there would be get-togethers. Family dinners. Holidays. But her heart sank at the thought of it all. How her eldest wanted to spend last Christmas with his wife’s family. Of course, it was her turn. And the grandbaby—grandbabies eventually—would have to be shared as well. She couldn’t very well snatch the little ones and relive her happy motherhood.

No. She couldn’t really.

The happy family moved off toward the main entrance, a celebratory look on all their faces, except for one. A teen girl. She moped. In a bad mood probably. Victoria wanted to grab the child and shake her, get into her face and make her listen. You’ve only got a little time. Don’t waste it! Don’t ruin the day for the others. Life is so damn short.

The father took the teen under his wing as they went through the doorway, and the child peered up with adoring eyes. The father glanced away, a cloud passing over his face. He knew. A shadow loomed.

But distant laughter broke the spell, the door shut, and Victoria was left with the birds. She reached into her bag and pulled out a novel. Some mystery or another. Anything to distract her thoughts. To make the hours pass so she could go home again and live…just a while longer…

An old woman toddled near, hobbling with the aid of a cane. She stopped when she saw Victoria.

Matching benches stood across from each other. Victoria looked over. A large splotch of bird poop marred the other one. She grimaced and scooted aside. There was room after all.

The woman nodded in gratitude and inched her way near.

Victoria stood and helped her sit, suddenly terrified that the frail body would slip and break a bone, and she’d have to call 9-1-1 and…

Once settled, the lady chuckled. “I used to be a long distance runner. Never guess it now.”

Victoria eyed the spare figure with new appreciation. “Really? How wonderful! I mean; that must’ve been very exciting.”

“Ronda the Runner…that was my name. I was something of a star here…long years ago. There have all my trophies in their wall cabinet, awards and such. I donated them when I sold my house. No point in keeping them. I know what I did. Memories are glorious…for a while. Then it’s time to let go.”

A sigh erupted from Victoria’s aching heart. She gazed at the flowers. A sudden image of ice and snow—the park covered in frozen death—enveloped her imagination. She heard her voice before she realized she had spoken. “And go where?”

Rhonda turned, her gaze sweeping over Victoria like a buyer at an auction. “Where ever life takes you. If you’re still above ground…make the best of it.”

“But when your heart hurts like it is being ripped in two? What then? When your old life is over and you have no new life to start?”

Rhonda waved a wrinkled hand and peered into the distance. “I remember…the day my sister was killed in a car crash. We were twins. It was like my body had burned with hers in the flames.” She peered at her hands. “When I looked in the mirror, I saw a living being…but vacant eyes. Like I had died with her.” With a grunt, Rhonda straightened. “But it was a lie. I wasn’t dead. Rita was dead. I had to discover how to make a new life. Grow a new identity without my twin.”

Tears flooded Victoria’s eyes, and an ache swelled in her throat. She couldn’t have spoken if the Queen of England implored her to.

A bell tolled three times. Another half hour and Thomas would be ready to leave.

Rhonda patted Victoria’s knee. “Lost everyone…or just someone special?”

“Everyone special…one at a time.

“That’s how it goes…if you live long enough.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Not your choice. You could try to cheat. But that’d just pass things along down the road. You’re going to face loss and misunderstanding and death…in a million forms before the end.” She chuckled. “You know what they used to say to me during the long practice runs when my whole body ached? ‘No pain, no gain.’” She waved away a passing insect. “Stupid phrase. It isn’t the pain that teaches you…it’s knowing that it won’t last…that it’s just a part of something bigger. Something better. I never expected to really win anything. Not after Rita’s death. But I did. I won medal after medal. I learned I could still love my sister…even when I couldn’t see her or feel her. I endured. And now my great grandson is starting his career as a runner. Wonderful boy. I’m happy for him.”

“So you married…and had a family…and they moved on… And your husband?”

“Cancer got him fifteen tears ago.”

Victoria stared at the ground.

A sparrow flittered on the grass before them, hopping about, as if doing a happy dance.

Rhonda shrugged. “Well, I best start back now…it’ll take me a while to get to the reception area. They’re having a little party for him.” She wavered to her feet.

Victoria stood and reached out. “You want a hand? I can walk back with you. It’ll be time to pick up my son soon.”

“If you’d like. We can share the path before we go our separate ways. Got to be glad for these little things.”

At the doorway, Thomas waved at his mother.

Victoria let go of Rhonda’s hand and watched the old woman unceremoniously disappear into a bright interior.

Thomas grinned. “Helping old ladies, Mom?”

Victoria took her son’s arm, the dull ache settling into calm acceptance. “The other way around, more like.” She wanted to tell him—”Don’t laugh, my boy. It’ll be your turn, soon enough.” But that would be cruel. Now was his time to smile and be glad.

A fresh wave of love comforted her soul. She could be happy for him.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

The Real Reason

So last evening, I sat on the back porch and watched fireflies twinkle, appearing at different spots in our beautiful garden like Tolkien-esk-fairies. When I tipped my head back, I could see faint stars turning ever brighter as the blue sky darkened to dusky-purple.

The kids still living at home slumbered in their beds. The dogs and cats stretched out on the porch. The garden rested without chiding me for neglect. Peace and contentment pervaded my little universe, and my heartbeat slowed to the rhythm of a lovely universe.

Then a mosquito bit me. A moth fluttered close and attempted to smack me in the face.

What the—?

I decided I had tempted fate long enough, and I rose to my feet. I was just about to go inside when the phone rang. It was my daughter who had moved into her own place last week. With a lurch, my heart gripped the phone harder than my hand. It was so good to hear her voice. To chat. To know she was okay. Yeah, I had figured she was fine…but now I knew. Happiness. Even better than contentment.

Later, as I crawled into bed, a soft cool breeze rippled the curtains, sending a chill down my spine. I realized, for the umpteenth time, that I’m in a new period of adjustment. I can name four families without blinking that are going through the same adjustment—transitioning on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis from caring for aged parents to children flying from the nest.

Was there ever a time when life was simple? When the fireflies ruled and the stars stayed still? If there was, it didn’t last long.

One of the things I always loved about Tolkien’s stories was the way he managed to include some kind of retreat. A time-out. Or maybe, a time-in. It was a period where the characters would get off the road, luxuriate in a hot bath, shift into clean clothes, eat honey and homemade bread, and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.

I’ve been pregnant eleven times, lost a husband to cancer, and raised eight kids over twenty-three years. I could try and list the number of things in the house that I have fixed, but it would be a fake number since I usually have to fix the same blessed thing multiple times. I’ve supervised innumerable gardens, raised chickens, stacked woodpiles, managed accounts, planned and executed educational programs, and done whatever job/task/mission seemed necessary to ensure the health and wellbeing of my family…and my sanity.

Days run together like a stream joining the ocean. Yet, over time, the stream of life changes course. Challenges are met and new missions accepted. Chicken pox, the death of a beloved pet, toppled trees, a shoulder injury, a new electric appliance, a scholarship, college, a new job…

Being a child and loving our parents—difficult as that some times can be—seems easy when you become a parent yourself and look back—I had it easy then. Raising a baby seems heroic until you get to the teen years and wonder how the human race ever survived. Each new challenge seems to play a game of one-up-man-ship with the stage before.

So, that’s why God created fireflies. And starry skies. The real reason behind hot showers and cool breezes. I’ll never actually get to Tom Bombadil’s house, but I can sit on the back porch, nibble a chocolate-zucchini-nut muffin, watch the fireflies twinkle and the stars turn.

And answer the phone when it rings.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Hidden Under Irony

“I’ve lost my sense of humor and all reason to live.”

Sylvia closed her eyes and sighed. Lord in Heaven, if it is possible, let this cup pass… The shattering sound of crockery shocked her eyes open. She made a one-eighty and stared at a splintered flowerpot, spilled dirt, and a pathetic Dahlia sprawled like a wounded soldier on the floor. She glanced at her assistant dressed in a long flowered skirt, a light blue blouse, and lacy sandals, wincing at what she knew she would see.

Yep. Karen had one hand over her wavering lips as she blinked back tears. What a mess. Sylvia stepped forward with a raised hand. “You get the broom; I’ll save the bloom.”

Karen’s expression hardened, her eyes drying like a swimsuit under a hot desert sun. “You think that’s funny or something?”

Sylvia swallowed back a retort with a cleansing breath. “I had no intention of being funny, or even alluding to an alliteration…” Oops. What the heck? “I’m not trying to speak in rhymes today…” She paused, perched her hands on her hips, and stared at the woman fifteen years her junior. “Look, I know it’s been hard. Breaking up with your fiancé, the loss of your grandmother, the move to a new city…you’ve had a lot on your plate. Life is challenging. But you can’t let things get you down. You just gotta face the day and be strong—”

“I’m not an infant. I’m a grown woman.”

Keeping her face impassive, Sylvia nodded. “Yep. Got me there.”

A cat padded near and sniffed the dirt.

Scuttling forward, Sylvia shooed it away. “Don’t you dare track this mess all over my clean store.” She glanced up. “Get that broom, would you? I’ll repot the flower and put it in the south window. That way you won’t have to knock anything over when you water it.”

Karen retreated, taking her personal storm cloud with her.

With a shake of her head, Sylvia carried the limp plant to the back room, passing the classics section, the romance nook, and finally, the kids’ corner. Books of all shapes and sizes perched on shelves, sat on end tables, cluttered corners, sagged comfortable couches, tottered in towers, and even hugged the walls in uneven stacks.

She pulled a tall clay pot off a shelf and, with dexterous fingers, dug through the soft potting soil and laid the afflicted plant in its new home.

A familiar thrill swelled in her chest as she glanced around. Her crowning glory, this beautiful bookstore, thriving despite economic downturns and all the nay-sayers’ dire predictions. She hadn’t closed within a year…or even ten years.

After pouring a comforting stream of water over the buried roots, she cradled the pot in her arms and retraced her steps, quickly arriving at the south end of the store. Like a mother showing off her prodigy, she set the plant just so in the window seat between a first edition Harry Potter and the framed picture of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Next Monday, she would celebrate ten years as proprietor of the most successful bookstore in the city. Perhaps in the whole country. Any why? Because she—

“Excuse me?”

Sylvia peered down. There, standing before her, had to be the tiniest woman she had ever set eyes on. Considering her own Amazonian stature, this was something of a novelty. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Karen wiping the floor with a damp towel. She certainly had cleaned up the mess—gotta give the girl that.

“Are you busy?”

Sylvia shook herself. “No, of course, what can I do for you?”

“Well…” The tiny, well-dressed matron jutted her chin toward the old-fashioned teapot sitting on top of an antique dresser with an ornate mirror reflecting the glory of happy book buyers.

A round table dressed in lace and surrounded by plush chairs announced a comfortable corner for any book lover just needing a place to cozy up with his or her newest acquisition and a spot of tea. To the left, a no-nonsense black coffee maker stood at attention on a low table with a carafe of creamer, a dish stuffed with a variety of sweeteners, and a jar of luscious cookies, available at the reasonable donation of seventy-nine cents. The jar was stuffed full of one dollar bills. It was so much easier to drop in a bill than to dig through one’s wallet for the needed four pennies.

After settling the elderly matron in a chair with a warm cup of tea and a cookie, Sylvia waited. She clasped her hands on her knees, one eye following Karen, though she couldn’t help but be curious about this commanding little personage. Of course, old women were notoriously lonely, and they frequently begged a cup of tea and a moment’s “rest,” which often involved relating all sorts of stories about relatives that Sylvia didn’t honestly care a fig about. Still…

“So are you from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you in the store before.”

“No…you haven’t. Not, at least, if I could help it. I mean; I’ve been here…a few times. Checking up, so to speak. I came first, years ago, before you even bought the store.”

Prickles raced over Sylvia’s arms. “Oh?” She sat up and tried to keep her heart from galloping through her chest.

“Yes. You see; I wanted to know if you were the kind of person who could make a go of such a thing.”

Sylvia wondered if an earthquake actually rocked the room or if it was merely her imagination. “What do you mean, exactly?”

After wiping her fingertips free of cookie crumbs, the woman stretched out her hand. “I’m your birth mother. Matilda Scott. I gave you up for adoption when you were just a wee thing…but I never lost track of you. I’ve followed your progress through babyhood, high school, college and right into this business here. In fact, I was the anonymous donor who helped to pay for your tuition, and I also spearheaded the citywide revitalization project, which is what gave you the support you needed to do—” She waved her hand at the posh space. “All this.”

The expression, “You could’ve knocked me over with a feather,” suddenly embodied Sylvia’s very existence. She stared hard at the old lady, wondering if the person before her was a psycotic illusion. “You must be—”

“Oh, don’t say mad. That wouldn’t be very nice.” She pulled her little black purse onto her lap. “I have all the proof I need, right here. A copy of your birth certificate, the adoption papers…even clippings from every—”

“Oh, God!” Sylvia shot to her feet and wondered if she would make to the back room before she threw up. Her whole body trembled as her self-image tottered on the edge of an abyss.

Matilda reached out and, with surprising strength, gripped her arm. “Take a deep breath, and calm your self. I know this comes as a shock, but it’s not exactly the end of the world.”

Sylvia could not open her eyes any wider. She blinked to return the world to some sense of normalcy. “Are you sure?”

Her eyes twinkling, Matilda chuckled. “See! That’s why I knew you could do this. Your humor and your tenacity are a rare combination. It comes from your dad…and me, I suppose. We were a rare combination too. Until he died. I knew that I could never take care of you. Unwed…and all that. But I knew you had our blood flowing in your veins. Our spark in your soul. So…I’ve always believed in you.”

A sob rose and burst the dam of Sylvia’s self-control. “Oh, Lord in heaven. I knew I was adopted…but I never knew…not a thing about you…or my father.” She plopped down on the chair. “My biological parents, I mean. My real parents were—”

“Yes, I know. And I’ve stayed out of the picture all these years to give you space to live…to…how shall I say…to discover your own identity.”

“But why—? Why tell me at all?”

“Through the years, I ‘d stop in now and again. Look and listen. See how you’re getting on. Discover what kind of woman you’re turning into.” Matilda glanced aside at the dropping figure behind the counter. “I overheard your comment today. How your young friend shouldn’t let things get her down. She hasn’t been so lucky as you. She’s lost a great deal in a short time.”

Sylvia swallowed a lump in her throat.

“You see, you’ve been watched over and cared for in ways you’ve never known. But that girl there…maybe she hasn’t been so lucky. Maybe life is impossible for her. Maybe she has lost her sense of humor…for good reason. And perhaps, she might wonder why she’s alive.”

“But doubt and despair won’t help. No matter what the situation, I did the hard work…no matter what. And like you said, it was my spark…my humor and tenacity—”

“Yes, but also my love and your parents’ compassion. Your words were right…but your attitude is wrong.” Matilda laid the stack of yellowed papers on the end table by the cookie jar. “I’ll leave these for you to look over when you have time.” She glanced at the old fashioned clock on the wall. “I should go now. But don’t worry, I’ll be back, and we can chat again.” Her gaze peered into Sylvia’s eyes. “If you want me.”

Sylvia nodded. Her voice lost in a whisper. “Yes. Please.”

Matilda toddled to the door, smiling at Karen as she passed.

Sylvia scurried ahead and tugged open the ornate glass door. She stepped aside.

Matilda patted her daughter’s arm and grinned. “It’s been lovely to meet you…after all these years. I’ve dreamed about this moment…and it has not been a disappointment.” She waved to the tea table. “Oh, but a word of advice…make the donation offering a dollar.”

Sylvia’s world swirled again. “Why?”

“Because, my child, it’s what you really mean.” She turned and stepped into the summer sunshine.

As the door shut, Sylvia turned and met Karen’s gaze.

Karen pursed her lips into a twisted smile. “I think I just found my sense of humor.”

Sylvia sighed. “I bet you have. Hidden under irony, I’m sure.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00