To Be Content

Regina would rather face a mob of angry clowns than admit that she wasn’t partial to puppies. After all, what kind of lunatic didn’t like puppies? So, when her friend and (lucky for her brother) sister-in-law, Claudia, asked if she’d watch their puppy while they took a sneak trip to Chicago for a weekend of theater and dancing, who was Regina to say no?

“Suuure—” She tried to toss a happy exclamation mark into her voice, but it cracked at the crucial moment.

Claudia packed in such a hurry she wouldn’t have missed a question mark streaking through the room buck-naked.

“Should I check in on him—her?—a couple of times a day?”

If Claudia had slammed her chest any harder, cardiac arrest would surely have ensued. “Oh, no! That won’t do. Not at all. The Timster needs around the clock care. You’ll take him to your place for the weekend. After all, he’s our little baby!”

At that moment, said baby was snatched from happily chewing a pink slipper on the rumpled bed into mommy’s arms. And rocked.

To its credit, the mutt had sense enough to look sheepish.

“Honey!”

Regina would know her brother’s voice if he was a penguin returning from an iceberg in the frozen north. It was that distinctive. Rog didn’t so much call as bellow. She honestly didn’t understand it. No one else in the family bellowed. Must go back generations. She’d have to ask mom—without sending the woman into fits of my-family-is-perfect hysteria.

Rog’s eyes lit up like a master criminal sizing up a safety deposit box. He even rubbed his hands together. “Hey, Regina! Glad you could make it! We’ll head out before traffic gets crazy! Thanks for taking our little boy!”

Despite the contagion of exclamation points flung into the air, said boy was now transferred to daddy so mommy could slam her bag shut, snatch a faux fur coat off the chair, and toss a kiss in Regina’s direction.

“You’re a lifesaver, dear!”

Rog dumped his four-footed progeny into his sister’s arms before skedaddling out the door.

Regina held the squirming puppy and wondered what it ate besides slippers.

~~~

Safely ensconced in her favorite chair, a novel on her right, a half-finished ghostwriting assignment on her left, a cup of hot cocoa warming her hands, she watched the puppy chase a ball of colored yard across the floor. Regina decided that life—despite a twenty-minute I-will-be-calm-no matter-what-your-mother-says conversation with her dad—was pretty good. For her, at least.

A chime lifted her gaze from the miniature acrobat skidding into her coffee table to the green apartment door.

The rest of the apartment—painted Sahara tan—made the eye-catching door stand out like an oasis in the desert. Maybe that was the point? Dismissing the ever-present conundrum, Regina paced across the floor and peered through the peephole. “Yes?”

“It’s me! Goofy. Let me in.” Doing her signature cross-eyed, tongue out look, Janet wiggled two fingers.

Regina smothered a sigh, considered hiding the puppy in her bedroom, imagined her computer cords chewed to frazzled ends, clutched the door handle and let her friend in. “Hey, Janet.”

“Hey to you.” Janet paraded into the room. The woman simply could not walk normally. Her hips swayed, her shoulders danced, her eyes romped. Sexy coolness personified.

Then she saw the puppy and melted into a puddle. “Ohhhh…a puuupppyyy!!!” She scooped the suddenly terror-stricken critter into her arms.

Fear soon gave way to annoyance. The Timster squirmed like a child on a dentist chair.

“When did you get a puppy? Why didn’t you tell me? I thought I was your best friend—”

“It’s my brother’s and his wife’s. I’m baby—I mean—dog-sitting for the weekend. Don’t tell anyone. I’m not sure how my landlady would react since she enforces a No Pets law throughout the kingdom.”

Janet smirked. “Couldn’t get a date with a guy, huh?”

Regina dangled colored yarn in front of the frolicking mutt, making them both dance.

In an attempt to regain some measure of dignity, the puppy snatched the yarn and ran to the kitchen.

Regina returned to her chair and retrieved her cocoa from the end table. “I’m off the online sites, and I have no plans.”

If prohibition had made a comeback, Janet couldn’t have looked more horrified. “What happened? I thought you liked some of the guys.”

“Liking and making a life together are two different things.”

“So what do you want?”

“A friend first. Then we’ll see.”

“But you already got me.” Janet started for the kitchen. “Well, Tuesday through Thursday.”

Regina drained her cup and followed the swaying hips. “So, what are you doing here? It’s Friday. You should be out on the town with…”

“Yeah. I’m going. I just wanted to ask you something first.”

Regina set the cup on the kitchen counter, faced her friend, and raised her eyebrows

“Gerry asked me to marry him.”

Regina’s heart flipped. Jealous? Nope. Well, maybe. A little. “Yeah? So…?”

“Should I say yes?”

The puppy sauntered across the tiled floor, head up, chest out, clutching the skein of yarn in his teeth like a wolf carrying venison home to the pack.

Regina lifted her gaze to the older woman and for the first time, she really looked. And saw. The too-bright lipstick, the heavy makeup, faint shadows under her eyes, the long-suffering expression.

“What do you want, Janet?”

Janet shook her head. “I want what you got. With puppy. And your books. Work. Your bellowing brother, your persnickety mom and worn-out dad. Your damn—contentment.”

Regina laughed. It felt good to laugh. At her friend. At herself. At the silly puppy. “Goofy indeed, you are rightly named! Tell me, do you enjoy getting hungry?”

Janet turned her head, glaring from one eye. “Generally, before meals.”

“So being fed all the time wouldn’t suit you any more than being content all the time. You just haven’t learned to be content with periodic—”

“Discontent?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Gerry’s not perfect, but he loves me, and I—” The hips relaxed, her shoulders settled, and her eyes softened. “I rather like the guy.”

“Can you make a life with him?”

“We can try. If there’s a will—right?” She looked down as the doggy trotted near. “But what about you—and your temporary little friend?”

The Timster dropped the defeated yarn at Regina’s feet and peered up adoringly.

Regina scooped the puppy into her arms and chuckled all the way back to her chair.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Milestones

Milestones mark my place in life. I’m X many years old, graduated from such-and-such, married to so-and-so on a specific date and watched him die so many years later, gave birth to my children on appointed dates, grieved the loss of loved ones when and where, washed and dried twenty ka-billion loads of laundry, launched three careers, and savored countless peanut M & Ms.

Guess I’m done, eh? No need for another resolution. The umpteenth—“I’ll eat better, exercise more, practice charity, humility, self-control,” (We’re not referring to those M & Ms) or any other “I’ll-become-a-better-person-as-soon-as-I-get-it-planned-out-and-written-in-non-erasable (PDF?) format.

I sit in the park with this thought for a total of fifteen seconds and wonder why I’m not hyperventilating with joy. Doing Free-To-Be–Me cartwheels. Ignoring the indisputable fact that I’d appear deranged to the innocent folks walking their dogs.

Maybe because I’m not completely happy with the thought?

Err…that’s hardly in tune with the Love-Yourself-As-You-Are-So-You-Can Love-Others theme song I hear reverberating across the universe these days.

But then… (Yes, I am chatting to myself, and no one has said anything, so I think I’m okay for the moment.) I’m hardly ever completely happy. Really.

I have yet to become or meet anyone I think is absolutely perfect in every way, who can forgo the next life lesson stomping into the kitchen in the form of a confused child, or a comeuppance, appearing a lot like an irate boss with a hidden agenda, or the glory of a forgiving friend who remembers your birthday when you totally forgot theirs.

My life has always been about moving forward. Even when that “forward” ends up being a circle that meets up—a little chagrined—a couple of millimeters ahead of where I started.

Last year, I started dating for the first time since my husband died. Several dates and one almost relationship later, I’m only slightly wiser. I did learn some things. Some good. Some not so good.

Mostly, I realize once again that anything real comes in stages. Slowly. In relation to other things growing alongside, so everything can grow together in a healthy manner.

Like tomatoes for salsa. You have to start the seeds at the right time so they don’t get all spindly before the last frost signals real spring. And it’s a darn good idea to plan them so that the peppers ripen about the same week, or the tomatoes will rot, waiting for their culinary complements.

As a woman with kids, family connections, and life commitments, there is more to every human relationship than attraction, common interests, and shared goals.

Lots of people and circumstances to consider. And then there’s the reality of timing and hiking up that steep learning curve. Did I get an A+ on the last relationship lesson, or should I take remedial classes in self-awareness?

Allowing other people to have their say in the conversation makes what might otherwise seem impossible, quite possible. It’s the best defense before the big guns—I-got-to-get-it-done-by-this-date and it-should-look-like-this-when-I’m-done mentality shoots down relationships and ends conversations before they really get started.

So, my life is made of milestones. Resolutions. Learning curves. Timing and openness. If next year, I’m only a couple of millimeters ahead…again… Well, a step forward is a step forward—no matter how small.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Your Prayer

Kelog chewed his lip as he watched an oversized gnat circle the room. Why didn’t someone smash the blinking thing into oblivion? He would. Certainly. If it got close enough. But it never did. Fury seethed through his whole system. Gnats shouldn’t be flying about on a frozen December day. They had no right to exist. Not here. Not now.

A gale wind struck the windowpane. Dang! Driving home will be hell. Not as bad as the drive here though. That’s not possible. He wiped sweat from his hands, rubbing them along his jeans. He glared at the fake poinsettia, the cheery signs on the wall with comforting platitudes, the assembly of grey humanity sitting hunched over their phones on lounge chairs that no one ever lounged on. Kelog loathed waiting rooms.

He peered at the doorway. He wanted to be in there. With his wife. But given the fact that he had carried her into the emergency room screaming for help, medics had promptly laid her on a stretcher, and then—in no uncertain terms—ushered him out, he figured he shouldn’t distract them from their primary concern. Laurie. And the baby.

How could such a wonderful day have gone so wrong?

They had snuggled in bed, comforting each other. Calm. Loving. The grey skies only highlighted the red and green decorations hanging in ornamental beauty along the porch railing. Quickly dressed. A strong cup of coffee. A kiss goodbye that hinted of pleasures intended for after work hours.

The day had flown by. “Any day now…” everyone had chanted with twinkles in their hope-filled eyes. And they weren’t talking about Santa and a new train set.

He had come home early. A surprise. He knew how tired Laurie had been, and he wanted to help clean the house before the big family gathering. She had probably done most of it, he knew. But in her condition, she never got as much done as she intended. And he was going to be her knight in shining armor and come to the rescue. He even brought home a new mop!

But after a twenty-minute drive against a roaring wind, parking in the snug garage, whistling his way into the kitchen armed with his playful sword-mop, he glanced around.

Somewhere in the universe, a sorceress plucked a low, vibrating chord. An oddity jumped at him from the corner of his eye. His morning coffee cup sat unwashed in the sink. Perplexity somersaulted right into anxiety.

“Laurie?” He laid the mop with a bow wrapped around it on the kitchen table where she couldn’t miss it. “Hey, honey! Guess what?”

Silence swept over his arms and chilled his bones.

“Laurie?”

He could hear his own footsteps as he pounded upstairs two at a time to their bedroom. Horrible images filled his mind. And then his heart.

She lay in bed, still as stone. Cold to his touch.

Calling for an ambulance never crossed his mind. The hospital was down the street, and his car was warm and close. Without conscious thought, he bundled her into his arms, her snoopy pajamas flaring and her arms flopping to the sides, and he trotted downstairs with the two most precious people in the universe.

“Mr. Jones?”

Kelog peered up. The gnat swirled in the air before him. He stood.

“The doctor will be here in a moment. Have you called anyone?”

Kelog blinked. His mouth dropped open. He knew he looked stupid. He felt stupid. Not idiotic just unable to think. Unable to process her words. “Call? Who?”

The nurse pressed his arm, gesturing back to the chair. As if sitting might help him think. “Your family? Her family? Parents?”

Yes. Of course. He should call someone. But who? And say what? He glanced at the nurse. Her uniform tag said “Beatrice.”

Nothing mattered. Except his wife. And the baby. “How are they?”

Beatrice had perfected the non-committal smile. “I really can’t say too much. The doctor will be here in a moment. I just came to check on you and see if you want me to call anyone. If you need anything?”

An award-winning android could not have moved more precisely. Kelog pulled his phone from his shirt pocket, hit the contacts list, pointed to Nestly Smith, and cleared his throat. “My sister. She’ll know what to do.”

With a compliant nod, Beatrice rose, tapped the phone and put it to her ear. She strolled a few feet away, stopping in front of a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Kelog blinked. I should be praying. I should’ve called mom. I should have…done something.

But nothing mattered. Time had stopped when that dark chord had struck. Life had ceased to exist as he knew it. Was he even breathing?

“Sir?”

Beatrice held out the phone. “She wants to talk to you.”

Kelog pressed the phone to his ear.

“I’m coming. Tom’s getting the car, and we’ll be there in about twenty minutes. Hang on, sweetheart. She’ll be okay. Everything will be all right.”

Tears flooded Kelog’s eyes. A million gnats swarmed around him. “But I didn’t call an ambulance. I forgot to pray. Never thought to call mom…”

“I’ll call mom. We’ll all be there. Soon. Hang on! Don’t give up.”

“She was cold. Really cold, Nes.”

“I’m praying, Kelly. Tom’s praying. Everyone who knows us will be praying.”

“I even brought home a mop.”

Kelog felt the shadow stop before him. The phone slipped from his fingers. He stood and faced the doctor.

“Mr. Smith, your wife had slipped into a coma—but she’s recovering now.”

Kelog heard himself whisper. “The baby?”

“She’s fine. Probably didn’t notice a thing. Just thought her mama was resting all day. Which, in a way, she was. Diabetic shock. It could’ve been worse. But she came out of it, and they’ll both be fine. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on them.”

The rest of the doctor’s words blurred as Beatrice, with a surprisingly firm grip, directed him to his wife’s bedside.

Laurie’s pale face broke into a sheepish grin when their eyes met. “I didn’t follow the doc’s directions last night…you know…I had other things on my mind.”

“Oh, God. I thought I’d lost you.”

Beatrice and the doctor meandered to the far side of the room.

Laurie’s grin widened. “You can’t lose me, love. Your prayers probably saved me.”

The gnat darted in front of Kelog’s eyes. He slammed his hands together, making everyone jump. When he spread his hands wide, a black smear decorated his palms. “Damn bug.” He glanced at his wife. “It distracted me; I forgot—”

A lightning bolt of sisterly anxiety sped into the room and catapulted into her brother’s arms. “I got here as soon—” She glanced over to the bed and shrieked. “You’re okay!” Veering from brother to sister-in-law, Nestly flung herself into Laurie’s arms.

Tom sauntered up and pressed Kelog ‘s shoulder. No words needed.

~~~

An hour later, after a fast-food run, Kelog stepped through the waiting room with two paper bags loaded with a selection that would ‘ve sent his high school health teacher into a panic attack.

Beatrice stood before the crucifix. Staring.

His mood leaping amid moonbeams, Kelog hardly missed a beat as he changed his trajectory and stopped beside the middle-aged woman. “Thank you. For today. For thinking of me and calling my sister.”

Beatrice looked over. She wiped away an errant tear. “I was glad to help.”

Kelog pointed to the cross and shrugged, unable to comprehend his lapse. “I forgot to pray.”

Beatrice shook her head. “No. You didn’t. Your love is your prayer. I only wish everyone prayed as much.”

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/2lWBd0z

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

Short Stories

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

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.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

As Mom Used To Say

Richard wanted to kill someone. It wasn’t his usual state of being, but at the present, it was undoubtedly for the best that he stomp into the wilderness and get some space between him and the rest of humanity.

A squirrel scampered across his path, halted, raised itself on its hind legs, and stared as if considering the possibility between a snack and sudden death.

Richard clenched his hands in his pockets, crunched a snack bar in one and gripped his phone in the other. He pounded forward.

The squirrel high tailed it to the nearest tree and clawed its way to the top.

Richard, who normally enjoyed wildlife, grunted and smacked a branch out of his way.

The branch smacked him right back.

The squirrel, chattering from a high limb and holding a couple of notes longer than usual, warned the entire animal kingdom what kind of man approached.

“To heck with it.” His calf muscles burning and his lungs screaming, Richard aimed for a bench set on the edge of the wooded path. As he neared the resting spot, his joints thanking him profusely for the privilege of living through another day, Richard stopped short. A new sound broke through the air. He peered up.

The treetops, devoid of chattering squirrels and cawing birds, had nothing to add to the faint call or whine that Richard was sure he had heard. An injured dog?

“Awww—hell!”

It was a woman’s voice. A woman in pain, by the sound of it. The term “damsel in distress” crossed Richard’s mind. He swatted it away with the autumn insects.

Heaving his robust frame, a little larger in the tummy than he would like, though he had to admit his legs looked great in shorts, Richard lumbered back the way he had come.

Yep. There she sat, crouched like a kid on the playground when the other girls got mean, holding her ankle and…swearing like a sailor?

Richard scratched his head and glanced up. Really? Retirement had been nothing it was cracked up to be. He traveled for the first six months, took up volunteer work for the next six months, and recently got into a tangle with an idiot from his church who insisted that predestination was part of their faith system and would not allow any new members to join unless they had paid-up life insurance policies.

The woman—somewhere in her late forties—stopped rocking, and thankfully, stopped swearing. With a sudden intake of breath, she lurched to her feet, yelped, and hopped on one foot until she smacked into an oak tree, which managed to hold her in a partially upright position.

Richard snorted and practically pulled out his hair as he ran his fingers over the top of his head. So like something his first wife would’ve done. Stubborn as the day was long.

The woman glared at him. “So glad you’re enjoying my plight.”

“Hey, I would’ve helped you up…” Richard looked around. “You want me to call for… assistance?”

Despite an October breeze rustling through the trees, sweat beaded on the woman’s brow. “Sure. My phone is dead as a doornail.”

Richard’s ears twitched. He pulled his phone from his sweatpants pocket and punched the keypad to life.

The woman lifted her hand. “Hey, stop. Really. It’s not that bad. My car is only a mile or so back. I can make it. I hate to have paramedics come all the way out here. I’d feel like a fool. Besides, they might have someone in real need somewhere else.”

Richard stepped forward and shrugged. “You can use my arm if you want to hop that far.” He tilted his head, peering at her, and offered his elbow.

She shoved off the tree, balancing on her good foot, and listed like a sinking ship. “Thanks. My name’s Sigrid.” She huffed at his quizzical expression and gripped his elbow. “From a Scandinavian author…my parents were literary fools. I forgave them long ago.” She limped at his side. “Like an idiot, I decided to get in shape and start jogging, and look what happens!”

Richard nodded. Her hand felt firm but strangely familiar on his arm. He always went for women in trouble. Soft heart his friends said. Soft mind his mother told him. Good ol’ mom. Richard chuckled.

“Am I still amusing you?”

Sigrid’s tone carried an edge, but when he glanced at her, there was a light in her eye and a smile hovering on her lips.

“No, mam. Sorry. I was just remembering something my mom told me long ago.”

“Care to share? I love a good quote.”

“Well, my mom liked history. Made me something of an eccentric among my peers since I would quote obscure historical facts while throwing together financial plans for my clients. Anyway, she loved to remind me that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Sigrid nodded and stopped, catching her breath. “Just a sec. I’m not trained for the hop-Olympics quite yet.” She leaned more heavily on Richard’s arm.

Richard pointed to a hefty tree trunk lying near the path. “Here, let’s stop a minute.”

Sigrid plopped down on the log and wrapped her fingers around her ankle, wincing. “Dang, but I am such a klutz. My daughters ordered me out of the kitchen because they say I’ll break dinner instead of make dinner.”

Richard snorted. Then, as the mental image washed over him, he laughed outright. It felt so good to laugh again. He peered at her left hand. No ring. “Your husband doesn’t help with the cooking?

Sigrid hooted. “Well, that was subtle!” She lifted her ring-less hand. “Divorced seven years. Then, using air quotes, she smirked. “We’re friends.” With a shrug, she shoved the topic aside. “Two college-age girls and a married son. Their dad sees them when he wants. I keep busy with work and—” She rolled her eyes, “Keeping in wonderful shape.”

Confession time? Richard wondered why he felt like he should order a drink from the bar. “Divorced ten years. Retired one year. Two grown sons who live overseas. Do lots of charity work and slowly losing my mind to boredom.

“Hah! You sound like my ex. Always doing other people a good turn but never satisfied with himself.”

Oh, brother. Richard figured he’d cut this short. “I’m an introvert, Aries, non-denominational Christian, and sleep without a pillow.”

Clapping her hands over her mouth, Sigrid nearly exploded in laughter.

Four birds escaped with their lives from the leafy foliage.

Sigrid stood and beckoned Richard with a sly glance. “Come on, Mr. Aries, you gotta walk me to my car so I can get home in time for dinner and tell my girls that I’ve had the best jog of my life.”

Richard rose and offered his arm. “But what about being doomed to repeat history?”

Sigrid grinned. “Ah. But as my mom used to say, ‘Live and learn.’”

A young squirrel, probably still in adolescence, froze directly in Richard’s path. It rose with a hopeful expectation in its eyes.

“Aw, heck.” Richard pulled the broken candy bar from his pocket, peeled off the wrapping, and slung it at the quadruped.

Duly grateful, the squirrel grabbed the treat and sped away.

Richard slipped the sticky wrapping into his pocket, stuck out his arm, felt the weight her of hand, and strolled back to civilization.

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/2lWBd0z

I Think I’ll Live

Sometimes silence cuts deeper than words. Philip laid his phone aside and stared at his desk. It was a half-day Friday, so his students had gone home early and the other teachers were busy in their rooms, doing whatever set up they still needed to accomplish before the full academic season started in earnest. He could hear someone stapling in the hall. Putting up the “Welcome Back!” bulletin board no doubt.

He swiveled in his chair and did a one-eighty, surveying his classroom from one end to the other. Everything looked neat and well organized. Luckily, this year he had been assigned the end room with windows facing southeast. So there would be plenty of bright sunshine for his grumpy morning students, but it wouldn’t face the worst of the storms coming in from the west.

He should be thrilled. Well, he should at least be happy. But his gut felt tight and his chest leaden. A whole month had passed since Kelly had stopped talking to him. Ghosted him was the new slang though he hated the term. She wasn’t a ghost. Just someone he had loved and lost. Simple as that. Life moved on.

Or it should.

A knock on the door turned his attention. Brent, his colleague in the math and science department, stood hesitating in the doorway. A grin swept over his face but was quickly replaced by a concerned frown. “Hey—just wondered if you’d like to grab some lunch.”

Philip climbed to his feet feeling every bit of his fifty-five years. He had been married to a lovely lady who died suddenly from a brain aneurysm twelve years ago, raised his four boys as a single parent to the point where they were now on their own and doing great, a testimony to their creative spirits and his hard work. He loved teaching, been doing it for more years than he cared to remember, but this year it seemed stale and tasteless. Like so much of life. He met Brent’s gaze and forced a smile. “Sure. Sounds good.”

When they entered the small-town diner, Brent nudged Philip toward the red booth in the back. “Might as well get a break from all the noise. We’ll get enough of that starting Monday.”

Philip shifted his body into the booth and looked around. Nothing had changed since the last time he had been here—springtime—when his world was bursting with life and new adventures. Now, late August, he wondered at his naiveté. Who was he to think he could fall in love like a kid and start a new life? He shook his head and flipped open the menu.

Brent made a humming noise as he perused his choices. He tapped a spot and glanced up. “You ever have the Rueben?”

Philip shrugged. “Yeah. It’s okay. Nothing to write home about, though.”

Brent nodded and continued his search. He tapped the menu again. “I’m craving red meat and something salty.”

Philip’s stomach clenched. He had lost five pounds this month, and he knew he needed to eat, though nothing tasted good anymore. Still, a hamburger and fries might restore a modicum of balance to his system. “I’ll have the cheeseburger, steak fries, and a cola.”

Brent waved to the waitress and ordered the same. He watched her tuck her pad into a pocket and saunter away, then he stared at Philip. “So, you going to tell me about it?”

Philip shrugged and wrapped his fingers around the full water glass the waitress had brought. Condensations dribbled down his fingers. He took a sip and pushed the glass aside. “Nothing much to tell.”

Brent leaned back and lounged in the booth like a guy about to tell a long story.

Philip winced. He knew darn well what was coming.

Brent’s gaze floated to the ceiling. “So, you remember my sister, Krista?” His eyes rolled over Philip’s slight nod. “Well, she was an adorable kid. A real sweetheart. But she had the unfortunate luck to marry a louse. A jerk beyond redemption.”

Philip’s eyebrows lifted, but he kept his mouth firmly closed.

“So after the divorce, I took her aside and gave her a little advice. She listened, and she’s been happily married to a great guy for…” Brent closed one eye in concentration. “About twelve years now.”

The waitress sauntered up with drinks, napkins, and silverware they didn’t need. Only the clattering of the cold glasses hitting the Formica table and a tiny hum she apparently carried with her filled the booth.

As she turned away, Philip met Brent’s gaze and sighed. “So, okay. I know you’ll die if you don’t…so go ahead. Tell me.”

Philip leaned forward and clasped his hands. “I told her to think of the best men she had ever known in her life…our dad…a teacher she respected…me, of course…and then figure out what she liked about those guys. Then look for those qualities in a man she might like to date. Ignore looks, education, style, money. Just find a guy who she liked and trusted. Then she’d find she find a real husband.”

Philip nodded. “I found a woman I liked and trusted. It just turned out, I was wrong to do so.”

Brent shook his head. “You found a woman you wanted to like and trust. Big difference, man. Real trust takes time. Everything real takes time.”

“You think I was too quick to trust her?”

“With your heart. Yep. But that’s not a fault really. Just a painful lesson. Funny thing is…Krista’s second marriage is so much better than her first. Probably because she really appreciates him, and he really appreciates her.”

“Our wounds make us weaker. More uncertain.”

Brent whistled low.

The waitress pursed her lips tight as she centered the plates on the table before the two men. She darted a glance from one to the other, measuring their moods. “Everything okay?”

Brent smiled. “It’s lovely.”

With a hesitating smile, she swung away.

Brent lifted his burger and inspected it like a scientist doing a data check. “Think this will give me a heart attack?”

Philip shrugged. “Only if you inhale it and five more like it.”

“Wisdom of Solomon, man.”

They ate in relative silence while the rest of the diner bustled in noonday chatter. A tired mother shoveled food into her mouth while bouncing a toddler on her knee. Two teenage girls laughed behind their hands, their eyes darting to four construction guys perched on stools at the counter, their bare arms coated in dirty sweat. One middle-aged man, his left hand stretched out holding a phone, appeared to be scrolling through messages…or the day’s news. His face remained impassive though his right hand carried a soupspoon to his mouth, and he swallowed a mouthful at all the right intervals.

Philip dropped his half-eaten burger on the plate and shoved it aside. He took a long slurp of his soda and tapped his fingers on the table. “I really should get back.”

Brent wiped his mouth and shook his head. “Where? You got some hot date waiting?”

Philip’s jaw clenched.

Brent washed his last bite down with the soda. “Look. I’m not trying to be cruel, but you’ve wasted enough time, waiting for what ain’t gonna happen. She made her choice. So you gotta move on. Now, I know you still feel a bit sore about things…but I do have another sister…and she’s…”

Philip’s eyes widened. “You’ve got to be kidding!” He waved his hand at the diner as if encompassing that part of the world. “This whole thing was a setup?”

“Not exactly. But…just let me say this. Sometimes other people can help us see things more clearly than we can see for ourselves. If you get what I mean. I could’ve told you that Kelly wasn’t your type. Or rather…you weren’t her type.”

“You could’ve, huh?”

“Yep. And being the decent, good-hearted man that I am—a friend indeed—as they say. I think I might know a good match when I see one.”

“So? What’s the condition? I know you’ve got something…”

“Just give my sis, Ronda, a chance; that’s all I ask. She’s not a beauty…on the outside. Kinda the runt of the family. Real shy because of it. But she’s got a heart of gold, is smart and knows how to get things done. She’s got love to give…but too many guys are looking for that magic chemistry…that cute chick. The spark. You know what I mean. They don’t know how to make a friend and fall in love with a beating heart.”

Philip took a fry and chewed it thoughtfully. He took a sip of soda and stared at Brent. “So what…you set us up on a date? Wouldn’t she feel kinda weird about going out with a perfect stranger?”

“Naw, nothing like that. Just come around to dinner tomorrow. She always comes on Saturday nights and helps out. She’s a good cook—if that interests you.”

“I’m a good cook…I don’t need… But…yeah, what the heck. It’ll be better than sitting home alone.”

Brent polished off his burger and fries with relish. He waved at the waitress for the check. A grin spread wide over his face as Philip took the last bite of his burger and slurped down the dregs of his soda. “You liked it?”

“Yeah. It was surprisingly good. Best thing I’ve eaten in a while.”

“Guess you’re going to live, eh?”

Philip nodded and stretched, his stomach full for the first time in months and his heart a touch lighter. “Yeah. I think I’ll live…”

 

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

So What’ll It Be?

Margery stared at her reflection in the mirror and wondered if the hairstylist could read her thoughts. Naw…

Good thing, too.

At the moment, she was battling a strong desire to call her boss and quit her job. And then there was the issue about dating three guys at once. Who knew that would get so complicated? Eeney…meeney…miney…moe…

“So what’ll it be?”

Margery lifted her gaze and met Shasta’s piercing blue eyes.

“Same as usual. Just a trim.”

Shasta snipped the scissors, her eyes fixed on Margery. “I mean…the choice you’re trying to make. Come to a decision yet?”

A shiver ran down Margery’s spine. “Whatda’ you mean? What choice?”

“Look, honey, people come in here every day wanting a new look, a fresh style, a whole passel of unrealistic expectations. Hey, I cut hair, you know? But you, you come in and just want a trim…but I can see in your eyes…you’re contemplating something serious. Deep. You know what I mean?”

Yep. Margery knew. Uh huh. She had been reading self-help books and posts with themes like “Managing Your Life, So You Can Fall In Love Without Regret.” But even though they often made sense, she had a hard time applying popular wisdom in her particular orbit.

Shasta started to snip. Apparently, she didn’t need answers to cut hair.

A woman with a model’s figure, holes in her jeans in all the right places, a glorious tan, a tank top that could knock Miss Universe off her pedestal, and a perfect pout swung onto the chair next to Margery.

Jealousy never reared its ugly head. A sudden desire to evaporate—maybe.

Shasta snipped her fingers in the newcomer’s direction. “Be with you in a minute. You’re early.”

The walking advertisement for beauty shrugged. “I’ve got nothing better to do. Thought I’d bug you for a while.” She dropped her head onto her sculptured hand. “Get so lonely sometimes…you know?”

Margery strangled the scream rising in her throat. She just managed to eke out the words, “Lonely? You?” She let her eyes roll over the woman’s figure to highlight her point.

Shasta tapped Margery’s shoulder. “Hey, don’t judge a book by its cover, hon. Gale here deals with a lot.”

Margery lowered her eyes and clasped her hands. “Sorry. That was rude. I just figured that with your body…lots of guys…”

“I try too hard. Scares men silly. Actually, I’ve got a degree in social work and a minor in Spanish, so I have a good job, and I make friends easy enough. I dunno…I just can’t seem to keep things going over the long haul. People get too serious or move away…or have a crisis of some kind.”

Shasta tapped Margery’s head to get her to tilt it to one side. “It’s this dang modern technology. Everybody’s so plugged in they forget to touch base…and they lose what’s really important.”

Gale wrinkled her nose like a rabbit about to sneeze. “That’s the trendy answer. But really, it’s the same ol’ same ol’. People don’t pay attention to anyone else. They want everyone to pay attention to them.”

Margery glanced in the mirror and stared into her own eyes. Yep. Convicted. She might as well have a sign with a number on it hanging around her neck. Though most prison photos didn’t look this good. She pursed her lips. Whoa. For a second there, she actually looked hot.

With a nudge, Shasta made it clear that her job was done.

Margery stood and brushed off her shoulders.

Gale slipped to the edge of her seat.

Shasta held up a finger. “Hang on one sec while I sweep up this mess. She reached for her broom and began to tidy up.

Gale climbed to her feet and faced Margery. “You’re a pretty gal. I bet you don’t get lonely.”

Margery ran her fingers through her hair, shaking off the cut ends. “Funny, but I do. Or at least, I get bewildered. If only someone really understood me…” She glanced from Shasta to Gale. “But that’s not really anyone else’s job, is it?”

Shasta laughed and dumped the dustpan full of clipped hair into the trash. “You know how it is…we search for what we’re afraid to find cause we love the chase more.”

Gale plopped down onto the waiting chair as Margery pulled a couple bills out of her wallet and laid them on the table.

Shasta snipped her scissors. “What’ll you have today? A whole new look or—”

Gale glanced at Margery. “What did she have?”

“Just a trim.”

“Then give me a trim. It’s time I stick with something for once in my life.”

With a nod and a wave, Margery turned and strode out the door. The sun shone and the breeze rippled her hair. She didn’t need to look in a mirror to see that she looked almost exactly the same as when she went in.

She grinned. But then again, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

 

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