Now—I See

Planet Earth

A longhaired, square-shouldered man with a thin scar under his eye, wearing a short leather tunic and fibrous sandals, paced toward a rough cave entrance at the top of a steep rise. Gripping a carved walking stick in his hand, he pounded it against the rocky ground with each step.

A barefoot, slender woman with a pile of black hair coiled atop her head, wearing a thick, woolen tunic traipsed along behind. Tripping on a sharp stone, she yelped and reached out.

The man spun about and grabbed her hand. “Itali!” With a snort of caution, he nodded to her feet. “Careful. It gets rougher.”

Itali cupped his hand in hers and let him pull her closer, directing her to a smoother path. “Etum?”

Pulling her along the rise, he studied their path. “What?”

“Am I the first?”

Halting in mid-stride, Etum stopped and turned. Caressing her soft cheek, he grinned. “No one but you.”

Smiling from ear-to-ear, Itali dropped his hand and raced up the last steps to the cave entrance. With a rosy blush, she charged in.

A dark shadow falling across his face, Etum trotted after her and entered the cave.

The darkness beat the light of day to the edge of the cave entrance. A musty smell and a pile of leaves alerted Itali to the cold fireplace. Squatting, she stacked dry leaves with a practiced hand and laid twigs with strategic skill.

Etum knelt to her right and worked the flint, raising sparks, which soon kindled an infant fire. As the flames grew stronger, he trotted deeper into the cave and bundled broken branches into his arms. Laying three pieces in tripod fashion over the fire, he sniffed in satisfaction.

Itali caught his gaze and grinned in daring merriment. “Now?”

With a nod, he stood and clasped her hand. They turned and stepped to the right, facing a smooth wall. The flickering firelight illuminated a painting depicting a man with a spear before a large, horned animal. Itali gasped, sending a grin bounding across Etum’s features. Etum clasped his hands behind his back, his chest thrust forward and his chin rose. “You like it?”

In rapture, Itali clutched his arm and squeezed. “It’s beautiful. The best yet.”

Holding her close, Etum pointed to the place directly behind the painted man. “I’ll add you in if you’d like.”

Tilting her head, she scowled. “But how will anyone know it is you—or me?”

“I’ll tell them.”

“But when you’re not here. In the time to come?”

Etum considered the painting through brooding eyes.

Lifting a soft finger, Itali traced the scar on his face. Suddenly, she spun around, grabbed a stick from the fire, and knocked the flame dead, leaving only a sharp, smoldering tip. She handed it to him.

Etum frowned. “With this?”

“Draw—so all will know the master’s sign.” She pointed to a blank space near the man.

Leaning in concentration, Etum pressed the blackened stick against the cave wall, drew a face and seared it with a double wedge on the left side.

Itali took the stick and gestured to her hair. “When you draw me, add this, so all will know it is me.” She turned the stick so the wedge formed a peak at the top.

As the fire grew, so the gleam in Etum’s eyes brightened. “Now—I see.”

~~~

Planet Lux

Teal, a Luxonian light being in the form of a tall, angular, middle-aged man with thinning blond hair strode through his bedroom doorway and laughed at his wife. “You’re in bed already?” Plunking down on the edge of a curved couch, he clasped his hands together and sighed.

Violet, shimmering in her Luxonian light form as a lavender Bhuaci beauty with striking almond-shaped eyes beckoned with one finger. “You look terrible. Why didn’t you come home earlier? You know how exhausted you get with them.”

With a shrug, Teal shook his head. “I couldn’t leave. You’ll never believe what my artistic couple has discovered.”

Smoothing back the silky sheets, Violet rose and prowled to Teal’s side. Sliding herself under his arm, she snuggled in close. “You’re right; I’ll never guess. So tell me.”

Teal leaned back, pulling her tight against his chest. “Writing. They caught onto the idea. A signature today—tomorrow—who knows?” He ran his fingers through her sumptuous hair, smoothing it under his chin. “You smell delicious.”

Violet arched one raven eyebrow and tapped a scar along his chin. “Well, at least you’ve healed up. Those blasted barbarian—”

Kissing her palm, Teal chuckled. “It was an accident. They meant no harm. I approached too quickly and scared them.” Lying back again, his gaze rose toward the round ceiling window studded with brilliant stars and the glow of three moons. He sucked in a deep, cleansing breath. “They have remarkable qualities. No telling what they’ll learn—in a few thousand years.” His gaze met Violet’s. “I’m recommending to the Supreme Council that we continue our observations. I believe that this species has great potential; someday they may even be in a position to help us.”

Violet lowered herself onto Teal, purring as she slid snugly into place. “That’s why I love you so much. You always see the best in others—even humans.”

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

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

Winter Irony

Barren branches against a pregnant sky,

Rustling leaves only sigh.

 

Soft flakes fall upon a hard ground,

In multitudes—without a sound.

 

Frozen blanket of icy snow,

Warm the burrows of those below.

 

Chilled bones hinder the will,

Yet glories roam the landscape still.

 

Ponder beauty from above,

As echoes mirror ancient love.

 

Unwelcoming winter may be,

Bringing joy, our eyes to see.

 

Ironic season of buried dreams,

Awakens our souls to hope unseen.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

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

2018 Short Stories

I don’t have a complete list yet of my 2018 short stories, but here’s a peek into what’s coming each Friday from January to May. 

My newest science fiction novel Newearth—Justine Awakens is slated for publication in early 2018. Many of the characters from my short stories really “come alive” in the Newearth books.

Enjoy!

January 5th

Winter Irony

January 12th

Now I See

January 19th

A Beggar’s Choice

January 26th

Intercept Course

February 2nd

Live Again

February 9th

Outlast the Ages

February 16th

Ol’ Diablo

February 23rd

Edge of Life

March 2nd

You Don’t Look Dead To Me

March 9th

Not Natural

March 16th

Don’t Miss a Day

March 23rd

The Great Wall

March 30th

My Love Is Strong

April 6th

Live

April 13th

So Blind

April 20th

Wait and See

April 27th

Alternate Universe

May 4th

Progress 

High

Hating Libby Lawrence wasn’t just self-defense, it was an undiluted, adrenaline high with a clean conscience. In the fifth-grade, Libby personified a “mean-girl” before the term had become popular. From the first day when she ordered me with a sneer and a glare to sit on the left of our shared desk, promptly told the teacher that I smelled bad, and scribbled a black line through my book report, I knew she and I would never get along. Unfortunately, since I was short, thin, and timid, I didn’t stand a chance. To boot, I stopped growing that year. Thanks to some kind of miraculous providence, her parents moved away, and I started growing again.

But from then on, even into my adult years, the name Libby sent chills down my spine. I tried to control my fury when my brother decided to name his first daughter Libby after some relation on his wife’s side. I didn’t care how great the relation; no child deserved to be stuck with such a moniker. Despite my best on-my-knees entreaties, he went forward with his malicious scheme, but to my surprise, the child grew up to be a pretty decent kid.

Years later, when my dream-teaching job opened up in my hometown, I only paused for a brief moment when my eyes tripped over the principal’s name—Libby Macintosh. Couldn’t be the same. After all, the Libby I knew could hardly control herself, much less a whole school.

I steeled myself for the long-distance phone interview from California to Wisconsin. I had taught five years at LA Unified and felt that if I didn’t get an infusion of the four Midwestern seasons soon, I’d dry up and wither away. I also missed my family and Lake Michigan. What’s an ocean I hardly ever saw—much less touched—to a lake that’s got miles of open beachfront?

The interview went well. Ms. Macintosh was courteous and clear. She had a third-grade vacancy that needed to be filled for the autumn term. She wanted someone with experience who would be willing to take on a few extra duties as need be. The lack of specificity about the “other duties” worried me, but the school’s location—just five miles from my parent’s home and three miles from Lake Shore Drive—attracted me like a puppy to an untied shoelace. Daily runs along the lake and easy visits with my elderly parents would be worth a few extra duties. My spirits rising, I felt confident enough to ask a couple personal questions. “You’re a native of Wisconsin? Been a principal long?”

Yes and no was about all Ms. Macintosh had time for that day, but she kindly referred me to her Facebook page where we could connect—if I felt so inclined. Picturing myself on the cover of a Nancy Drew mystery novel, I quickly accepted the offer and gave her my email address so she could send me specifics on the school and the position. I would send my updated resume to her by return email. End of interview.

If it hadn’t been for a series of life crises involving a misfit kitten, an exploding dryer, and an elderly neighbor’s cries of distress, I would have put on my detective cap that same day. But as it was, it took me the weekend to get my life in order and my laptop to cooperate. Finding Ms. Macintosh wasn’t hard. What was hard was swallowing back was my horror at seeing those all-to-familiar green eyes, that pugnacious nose, and the jutting jaw that could clip a hedge.

If my mom hadn’t called at that moment, I would have turned off my computer and made a run for the nearest Dairy Queen—despite the fact that it was nearly eleven miles away.

My voice was a slight bit shaky, though I tried to cover myself. Still, moms have a way of noticing.

“You alright, honey? You sound out of breath.”

“I—I’m fine. Just—you know—busy. With stuff.”

Well, mom was never one to mess around on a long distance call even though she’s got a package deal that—never mind. She got to the point.

“Your father’s birthday is next week. And he’s not getting any younger.”

I could clearly drop my Nancy Drew persona. No detective needed here.

“Well, the plane ticket is pretty expensive, and I want to set up a few interviews before I—”

“Didn’t you have a phone interview this week?”

“Uh, yeah….”

“Well, then, just come home, check in on your poor, aging parents, and stop by the school. Never hurts to show a little interest. Besides, it’s a lot harder to turn someone down when you’ve met them in person.”

I pictured Libby’s furious glare framed by flapping, black ponytails as she pushed herself into my space with a whirling fist at her side. Somehow, I didn’t think she had any trouble turning people down. She probably arranged interviews for the sheer joy of knocking prospective hopefuls on their backsides.

“I bet she even sent you an invitation for an in-person interview. They do that, you know. Have you checked your email lately?”

As surprise and anxiety played touchdown football with my innards, my hand reflexively clicked to my email. A cold shock ran through my body when I saw the subject line— Invitation from Principal Macintosh.

I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, but I do know that mom had a list of airline specials for the coming week.

Getting home, celebrating dad’s seventieth birthday, catching up with my brother and his brood of three rapscallions, kept me busy over the weekend. I actually slept a few hours each night—after highlighting plans for a perfect revenge.

On Monday, I dressed in my most professional, intimidating gray suit with matching heels and I toted my very expensive, leather briefcase. I dearly hoped she was an animals’ rights activist and was deeply offended by my insensitivity. I sniffed back disdain till my sniffer was sore. I had a childhood score to settle, and I had not an iota of an intention of accepting the job. I wanted to see her in person, and after she reviewed my sparking work record, my laudable service in Peace Corps, my glowing endorsements, I would slap her offer into the dust. Only then would I remind her of her left-hand seatmate in fifth grade. And, yes, the past can come back to haunt you.

Why I felt the need to torture myself with a quick detour at the lake, I don’t know. I stood on the grassy shore, sucking in lung-fulls of invigorating lake scent and hoped that Libby hadn’t grown much taller since our last meeting. Her Amazonian height was still an issue to contend with. Reviewing the many trials and experiences I had had since fifth-grade, I wondered—briefly—if I wasn’t letting my childhood mini-trauma get the better of me.

When I saw a little girl and a bully of a big sister pull the child along like a rag doll—my burning resolve reformed itself. No! Justice demanded an honest accounting. I would face this haunting humiliation—or die trying.

Marching up the steps, I passed a group of middle school kids texting one another. I didn’t even shake my head. It wasn’t worth the effort.

I gripped my briefcase, tapped the intercom, got permission to enter, pushed open the wide, front door, charged down the green and yellow hall—my heels clacking officiously—and entered THE OFFICE. It was empty. Since it was going on five o’clock, I hadn’t expected a crowd, but I was surprised by the stillness.

There was a counter with a little bell. I looked around, cleared my throat, stared at the half-opened door labeled Principal’s Office, and tapped my fingers on the counter. Nothing. Finally, in sheer desperation, I tinkled the stupid bell. A call from the office informed me that Ms. Macintosh was in.

“Coming.”

I squared my shoulders and straightened my back. Five foot four inches would only take me so far, but I had every intention of making the most of what I had. Deciding that I didn’t want to appear too interested, I strolled to the wall and glared at the bulletin board.

I heard an odd sound and a horribly familiar voice. “Oh, hi! You’re early. I like that. Thanks for coming, Grace.”

I turned, my eyes lifted high to meet those green orbs, but there was nothing there. Until I dropped my gaze. Sitting in an automated wheelchair was the shrunken visage of my childhood tormentor. I tried to control my intake of breath, but honestly, I could have sucked in the whole of Lake Michigan.

Adding a layer of bizarre on top of my shock, Libby Macintosh didn’t seem even remotely surprised. She just waved me toward her office. “Come on in. It’ll be more comfortable for both of us.”

Since walking was about the only way I could cross the room, and collapsing into a heap didn’t seem like a viable option, I followed.

With expert swiftness, she swiveled her metallic armature into place behind her desk, waved to the empty chair, and beamed at me.

“So how long has it been, Grace? Gosh, it’s got to be nearly eighteen years.”

Yes, my jaw did drop all the way to the floor. Stunned, I could hardly speak. Finally, trying to hide my shaking hands, I squeezed them into my lap, my shiny, leather briefcase forgotten on the floor where it fell when I landed in the chair. “You—you remember me, Ms.—?”

A waving hand and a disarming smile deflected my question. “Oh, not at first. Your mom came by my office a few weeks ago. She helps out in the library, you know. She’s the one who told me that you were looking to relocate. It wasn’t until she brought along a grade school yearbook and showed me your picture that I put two and two together.”

I honestly believe that my brain melted at that moment. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. The impulse to get up and walk out the door was the only idea that made even the slightest sense, but before I could arrange my synapses to fire coherent messages to my skeletal system, Libby chuckled.

With bubbling giggles, she wagged a finger at me. “Do you remember what a brat I was? Gosh, I was terrible. I used to go out of my way to make everyone miserable.” Suddenly, her laughter died as she dried her damp eyes. “But God got my attention.” She gestured to her emaciated legs and the wheelchair in a comprehensive sweep. “Car accident. Just a couple years later. My dad was killed and my mom never got over the loss—or my crippled legs. She took to drinking. I ended up living with my grandma.”

Blinking back sudden tears, I clasped my head with both hands before it exploded. “I doubt God wanted that.”

Libby nodded with a slow smile. “You’re right. He didn’t. But it changed my life. My parents were troubled people. I was a nasty kid, and I would have grown-up to make a lot of people miserable. But Grandma had a faith that could move mountains, and she taught me to use a wheelchair. She also taught me to think about others and to use my newfound understanding to better the world.”

Libby wheeled herself around the desk and arrived on my left. Reaching out, she clasped my hand in hers. “Can you forgive me for being such a wretched brat? I’m sure you must still carry some hurt for the things I did.”

I couldn’t wipe my tears way fast enough.

She scooted her wrecked body aside, pulled a clean tissue out of a hidden pocket, and handed it to me. “I always keep some handy. Never know.” She smiled through glimmering eyes.

Sniffing what was left of my composure under control, I met her gaze. “You know, I came here to teach you a lesson—to show you that I had always been better than you thought. I wanted—” I couldn’t go on. It all seemed so pathetic.

Libby squeezed my hand—comfortingly. “You know, when I realized who you were, I went out of my way to ask your mom to follow up with you. I was so grateful for this chance. There were a lot of people I hurt but thank God, there are a lot of people I help now. And I just thought it would be rather grand—if after our miserable past—that as adults we could work together for the next generation. Would you like to do that, Grace?”

~~~

I worked with Libby for twenty-two years until she had a debilitating stroke and had to retire. She asked me to take over as principal, and the school board unanimously agreed. During those years, and every autumn after, we’d start the term with an assembly, retelling the story of our fifth-grade animosity and how, in later life, we became good friends who loved kids and cherished the future.

In the end, loving Libby was the best high I ever had. I have no plans to come down.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

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

Common Destiny

Luxonians—light beings from planet Lux that can transform into any form they wish, usually matching their host’s physiology.

Crestonians—amphibious beings from the planet Crestar. They have no bones and wear a mechanical exoskeleton when out of the water. They have long, soft bodies and tentacles, while their eyes are large and watery. A large “brain sack” is tucked in a spiral shell on their head.

*Ingoti —androids from the planet Ingilium are large beings—up to seven feet tall with extensive weight and girth but still fast and powerful. They are never seen outside of their techno-organic armor and breather helms

 Bhuaci— shapeshifters from the planet Helm are gelatinous beings and often called the “perfect race” as they mold themselves into the physical ideal of any race they encounter. They have suffered massive persecution, and their sister planet was destroyed by the planet-eater Cosmos.

 ~~~

Cerulean, in his human form, wore casual clothes and stared at the magnificent painting before him—his gaze absorbing the hues of the landscape and the textures of the Oldearth farmhouse like a dying man inhaling his last, wholesome breath. Though the airy space surrounding him framed a myriad of Oldearth masterpieces in pristine clarity, a weary, echoing silence hung in the air.

Supreme Judge Sterling, a tall, ascetic-looking Luxonian arrayed in long, formal robes with flowing sleeves, strolled across the art gallery and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Cerulean—kindred spirits with vastly different points of view.

Before either acknowledged the other, slapping footsteps drew near, rhythmically pacing the distance across the highly polished floor.

A Crestonian, Taug, in high, thick boots eyed the two Luxonians. He stopped two meters away. His bulbous eyes followed the zigzagging path of a horsefly, which suddenly alighted on a bench and morphed into a lithe, almond-eyed, young woman. The Crestonian exchanged grins with the Bhuachi female—Faye.

Sterling lifted his arm in salute. “Welcome, Taug, Faye! We’re glad you were able to come. We are still expecting Riko—”

A Uanyi in a crisp, white shirt, tight, blue slacks and wearing an Oldearth ball cap clumped into the room, his gaze swung right and left in long, sweeping arcs. As he met Cerulean’s gaze, he slowed and tilted his head in inquiry.

Refusing any delay, Sterling ushered them into a right corridor where the light dimmed to a faint glow. Landscape paintings of ancient Oldearth monuments arrayed the walls in somber reminiscence.

The passage flowed into a smaller, mustard-yellow room simply furnished with a circular table, chairs, and a counter armed with assorted drinks. With a snap of his fingers, Sterling illuminated a brilliant hologram of Newearth turning in space. Docked at one of the three modest satellite stations off Newearth, a small, red ship glowed in readiness.

After clearing his throat, Sterling’s deep timbered voice broke the expectant silence. “My friends, may I introduce—The Summons. She awaits her crew—ready for her glorious mission—to chase a riddle and ensure our salvation.”

Taug’s bulbous eyes flickered from Sterling to Cerulean, one tentacle rose. “Translation?”

Darting a glance at Sterling, Cerulean stepped forward. “I’m leading a small crew to the Divide to find Omega in the hopes that he will help us to defeat Cosmos before she arrives.”

Faye’s naturally pale face, blanched to sheer whiteness. “You go to your death. No one goes to the Divide.”

Taug flicked a tentacle airily. “Well, some go in, but none come out.”

Sterling strolled around the hovering hologram and pointed to a black mass. “It’s true; the Divide is a vast mystery leading unwary ships to their demise, but in our own desperation, Luxonians investigated further than any other beings, and we have found it is possible to get very close, jumping from safe space to another, like jumping from stone to stone across an ocean.”

Riko plodded forward, staring at the black mass. “Fool’s errand.” His wide-eyed gaze lifted and surveyed the assembly with a slight shrug. “Of course, since death is imminent anyway—”

Cerulean clapped his hands in impatience. “We have no choice. I have no choice, and I’m leading a willing crew. No one is forced to come. But while I search out Omega, there will be another ship—”

Sterling snapped his fingers again and another spacecraft—smaller, more angular, and metallic gray—floated at docking bay two, next to the Summons. “The Merrimack—a marvel of modern engineering—is ready to search out our common enemy and monitor her every movement.

Riko’s glare zeroed in on the small craft. “With all our abilities, one of our races should have destroyed Cosmos generations ago. Why is it left to Newearth to defeat her now?”

Touring around the hologram, Cerulean’s fingers slid along the table edge. He stopped in front of Riko and stared down. “Because no one dared. She is a planet-eating terror, and she always strikes the weakest planets. Like a virus, she smells discord and pounces when the inhabitants are obsessed with turmoil.” He sighed and moved past Riko, circling around, his gaze flowing over Newearth, absorbing her marble-like beauty.

“Newearth has been ripe for a disaster since her inception, but we have been gaining strength of late. We’re at a crossroads, whether to sink into a morass of divided beings or grow into a stronger world, ready to embrace a universe of possibilities. Cosmos knows this. She has waited for this ripening and now turns her appetite toward us.”

“We’re doomed?” Faye’s child-like eyes brimmed with tears.

Placing a firm hand on Cerulean’s shoulder, Sterling surveyed the assembly. “Not—if you save yourselves.”

Cerulean opened his arms. “This is Newearth’s hour of Common Destiny. What shall it be? An ancient death, devoured by an unfeeling beast or rising to new life?”

Taug nodded to the floor, then raised his bulbous eyes and grinned. “I’d like to stay alive. Where would you have me serve?”

Cerulean’s gaze flickered over Faye.

Grabbing Taug’s tentacle, she stepped up to Cerulean. “We’ll serve together.”

Four pairs of eyes swiveled toward Riko.

Riko pursed his lips and rubbed his jaw. “Yeah, yeah. You’ll need a communication center on Newearth, and my café serves up the wildest gossip possible—this side of the Divide—right along with our quality food.”

Sterling grinned. “Common Destiny prevails.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

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

Survival of the Fittest

Ling believed in wood-folk with her whole soul. The magic of a mid-winter snowstorm over sleeping fields opened a doorway into a world of scheming squirrels and spirit-filled pine trees. A cawing raven warned the tree-stump mouse family of a stalking calico cat while swaying trees forecasted an impending storm.

Though Ling could hear the voices plain enough, their actual words eluded her. The sound of their murmuring sent a warm thrill through her chilled body as she trudged across the newly fallen snow with a bulging backpack slung over her shoulder.

Skipping up the frozen steps to her snug house at the end of the block, she huffed a white plume of smoke into the air. Before turning the door handle with her mittened hands, she turned and bowed goodnight to her wood-folk-friends. No doubt they wished her well through the silent evening glow, and she, in turn, would not forget them.

After tugging off her wet boots and dropping her pack in a heap, she tiptoed down the dark hall toward her father’s study. His bent figure leaned over a hardwood desk with a computer screen outlining the edges of his head. Swallowing back her anxiety, Ling timidly tapped on the doorframe.

A shuffle and a snort precluded his slow turn. Black eyes in a pale face peered at the doorway.

Ling dropped her gaze.

“So, you made it home on time today.”

Ling nodded but stayed in place. “Yes, Papa.”

He granted permission to enter with a slight beckoning gesture. “Come in.” His gaze darted back to the screen. “There’s not much more I can do here today.”

Ling scuttled forward and placed her small hand on the arm of his chair. Her eyes flickered to the screen. A gorgeous painting of a woodland scene snatched her breath away. Her fingers rose as if to touch the gently swaying tendrils of an enormous weeping willow.

Her father wrapped a loose arm around her waist and drew her closer, his gaze joining hers. “It’s for a mid-western university. They want to demonstrate their inclusiveness by commissioning art from every culture in the world.”

Ling blinked, the spell broken. “Inclusiveness?”

The old man shrugged. “Art can be a unifying force.” He tilted his head. “Of course, it can be enslaved by a propaganda machine just as easily.” Ling’s puzzled frown brought a tired smile to her father’s face. “You are too young for such things. Enjoy your freedom while you may.”

Placing her hand on his silky sleeve, Ling pressed his arm in excitement. “I saw a red fox sneaking across the field. He’s been threatening the other animals, wants to rule the west woodland. Do you think the—?”

A shrill call cut through the air. “Ling? Come here, child, and bring your school bag.”

Her whole body drooping under a sudden weight, Ling stepped back toward the door. She gazed at her father. “You should draw a fox peeking out from behind the tree.”

The old man’s eyes shifted from the picture to his daughter, surprise on his brow but pleasure in his eyes. “Why?”

She trudged across the threshold, her eyes darting toward the kitchen. “Because—there’s always a fox around somewhere.”

~~~

After hours of study, Ling’s eyes burned with exhaustion. Her blurry vision made it difficult to make out the text before her. Her mother filled the kettle for tomorrow’s tea and set it in its designated place on the stove. The immaculate room stood in readiness for the next day to meet the demands of a peak performance.

In her weary haze, Ling wondered if a kitchen could revolt—demand a rest from the never-ending grind of routine preparations. Pots and pans, stovetops, counters, scraping, cleaning, bubbling, oil, smoke, dishes, and grime, wiping—endlessly wiping—it all away, only to start over the next morning before the sun even hinted at the day.

“What has gotten into you, child? You’ve been sitting there for an hour, and nothing is done. You know your exams are next month. You want to be ready.”

Ling nodded.

Her mother placed a damp hand on her shoulder. “You won’t succeed unless you work hard and try—”

“Mama?”

Her mother stared down, their gazes locking.

An implicit allowance offered Ling courage. “We’re supposed to make a family tree and describe our cultural heritage in class next week.”

A stiff jerk and the mother’s gaze shifted to the wall. “That won’t be hard. I have our whole lineage written down, and your father can tell you what each person did for a living.”

Ling shook her head, dissatisfaction pressing on her shoulders like a lead weight. “I’d rather take one of Papa’s pictures to show. That would—”

Her mother turned and swiped the clean counter with a vicious smack. “Pictures are only illusions. Don’t be ridiculous. Our family has survived a great deal—more than most—and we did it by facing facts and working hard.”

“But Papa’s pictures—”

“Your father makes pictures because he is paid to do so. He is an illustrator. He works at his job—as you will too before long.”

Her mother’s unflinching gaze squeezed Ling’s heart.

“It’s survival of the fittest, just like all the books say. And you, Ling, must survive.”

Ling’s gaze dropped to the floor. A small brown knothole in the wainscoting caught her eye. In sudden wakefulness, she thought she saw a small mouse dart out an inquiring face, blinking a question at her. It seemed to ask, “Why?” But Ling had no answer.

~~~

Two dozen years later, Ling pushed her father’s frail form engulfed in a wheelchair through the wide doors out into spring sunshine. A trailing line of elderly people sat like potted plants on the edge of the retirement property. Small blooms added texture to the scene. She found a quiet corner and pressed the brake lever with her foot. Her father, asleep again, would rest in the mild sunshine for an hour or so, until the nurses collected their charges and set them all in a straight row at the long table for a noon dinner.

A passing nurse stopped and patted Ling’s shoulder. “I heard about your mama. So sorry. But your papa is beyond worry now. Just be glad he’s so content.”

Ling nodded and choked back a rising sob. She let her gaze fall on the surrounding scenery. No one could fault the clean and professional atmosphere. Suddenly, her eyes fell on the swaying branches of a weeping willow in a neighboring yard.

She felt a hand on her arm. Looking over, she met her papa’s gaze. “I painted in the fox, but I forgot something.”

With wide-eyes, Ling marveled at her father’s sudden lucidity. “What? What could you have forgotten, Papa?”

His eyes drooped in weariness, though a feeble finger shook in emphasis. “I forgot to paint a little girl—to admire the tree and keep an eye on the fox.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

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

Riko’s Uncle Clem

*Uanyi are smaller, slim creatures, standing about four to five feet tall. They are insectine with soft, rubbery exoskeletons as well as internal bones. Uanyi most prominent features are their enormous eyes, some almost a foot in diameter, which is endearing to some, but nightmare fuel to others. Their bright colorations are also striking as are their long necks. Uanyi do not breath the same air mixture as humans, and so they wear breathing masks that cover their mouths. Many humans find their crab-like mandibles rather frightening. Although they speak with synthesized voices, they have a terrific grasp of various languages.

 *Ingoti are large, ranging from six to seven feet tall. They are heavy due to their extensive weight and girth but are fast and extremely powerful. They are never seen outside of their bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms, leading some to believe that they are in fact cyborgs and that the “armor” is built directly into their bodies. They are scientists at heart, but their moral reasoning tends to be very black and white, almost child-like.

Riko stared at the larger-than-life screen and felt his Uanyi physique tremble beneath his immaculate white shirt and pressed, dark blue pants. He swallowed and tried not to blink too rapidly.

Uncle Clem beamed a radiant grin across the universe, his excitement apparent in his waving hands and nearly epileptic shaking. “It’ll be like ol’ times, Riko! You and me—against all opposing forces. We can—”

Riko raised a thick-fingered hand. “Uncle Clem, stop! Listen. It’s not like that here. I own an establishment, a nice place. Beings come from all over Newearth just to enjoy my varied cuisine and Oldearth-style comforts. There are no opposing forces.”

With a shake of his head, Uncle Clem dispelled that foolish naiveté. “If you think that just because things are calm at the moment means it’ll always be so, then you’re not thinking like a Uanyi. We know our history. Worlds change. Cultures change. Clashes are inevitable.”

A clattering of dishes falling into the auto-wash forced Riko to glance away and yell at the new waiter. “Hey, careful there! Dents ruin reputations. You’re not paid to kill my business.”

Apologetic murmurs and a softer rattling allowed Riko to return to his uncle. “Listen, you’re welcome to come and stay as long as you like. I just don’t want you to think that you need to fix anything. Nothing is broken. Life is good here.”

Uncle Clem nodded, his shoulders straighter and his eyes darker. “You do know about Cosmos, the planet-eater, right?”

Riko swallowed, his hands clasped behind his back. “I’ve heard rumors—but they’re only rumors. I’ve got friends, and they’re looking into things. The Interalien Alliance is working with the Luxonian Supreme Council, and even the Ingoti Magisterium is—”

A weary hand stopped Riko’s assurances. “And the humans? What about the Newearth Governor? She’s gonna to let alien races decide Newearth’s fate?”

A huge Ingot strode forward in her bulky techno-organic armor and hissed through her breathing helm in Riko’s ear.

Riko scrunched his shoulders reflexively. He listened and then glanced back at the screen. “Listen, I got to get back to work. One of my customers just drank himself under the table, and no one wants to admit that he’s got a problem. A regular…you know.” Riko heaved his shoulders and shook off his concerns. “I’m glad you’re coming, Uncle Clem, really. Just don’t expect too much. We live a pretty boring existence here—and I don’t want to change that. You understand?”

Uncle Clem held up his laced, tented fingers in Uanyi I-promise-or-hope-to-die fashion. “Trust me. I want what you want. I’m just coming to see you and bask in your success.”

Riko nodded. “Stupendous. See you in the next moon cycle then.”

The screen blinked to black, and Riko stood silent.

The Ingot returned and tapped him on the shoulder.

Riko looked up, his huge bulbous eyes fixed on his hostess. “Yeah? What now?”

The ingot shrugged sheepishly. “Taking a bit of risk—aren’t you?”

Riko glared and poked the Ingot in the chest. “What’s the risk? He’ll come, and everything’ll be fine.”

The Ingot turned away. “Maybe. Or he’ll come and find nothing but space debris.” The Ingot paced away. “Course, he could get in the way and become space debris.”

Riko froze.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

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