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

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Surprised Everyone

Marge sat in the corner near the window and let her mind wander. Not that it didn’t usually wander these days. Old memories ran riot over her soul and left her empty and depressed. If only life wasn’t so dreary, that would be a nice surprise.

Three CNAs strode into the nearly empty dining room. They started clearing away the last of the lunch dishes, pulling off tablecloths, scrubbing down the tables, and rearranging the condiments in preparation for the next meal.

Sitting hunched in her wheelchair and half hidden by a leafy palm tree, Marge rested her head on her good hand and watched the interaction. She knew each person by name since she made a point of paying attention. Made the place a little more human, if not humane.

The tall guy, Jamie, wearing a silver earring and sporting a series of tattoos on his left arm grinned at the little lady, Lula, with dark skin, serious muscles, and a perpetual “Don’t mess with me” look in her eyes. The older man, Reggie, with a grey ponytail and easy going demeanor, chuckled at the other two.

“You two never quit. I swear, if you both get to heaven, they’ll have to put you in different corners just so the angles can get some rest.”

Lula snorted. “Who said anything about getting to heaven? Heck, I’d be happy to stay out of the hothouse…but I don’t expect any special treatment. Besides, I’d be bored silly hanging out with angle types. I’m just not comfortable around clouds and all that—”

With an expert flick of his wrist, Jamie pulled off a stained tablecloth and tossed it onto a rolling table at his side. He nodded like a sage professor encouraging a slow student. “Yeah, you’d probably beat up the angles and fall through the clouds, missy. Sides, God’s probably doing something more fun. Bet he’s got friends all over the universe. Just making the rounds could take eons.”

Reggie wiped down the salt and pepper shakers, straightened, and then rubbed the small of his back. “Jesus has friends, but he’s with his Father…not playing games. Think of all the messed up people who die every day. God, he’s probably worn out listening to all the complaining and whining. You seriously think people go from being screwed up here to being perfect over there?” He shoved a chair in place with a grunt. “Doubt it.”

Her lids grew heavy; Marge closed her eyes. Her mom’s face rose in her mind. Such a kind woman…always thinking of others, except when she was drinking. Then she wasn’t so kind. Died peacefully though. No struggle. Just sort of expired. Not like her dad. Marge shut the last image from her mind and swallowed back bile. She opened her eyes again.

Jamie was laughing.

Marge frowned as she scanned the scene. What—?

Reggie was staring at Lula through flashing eyes. He pointed his finger. “I’m a good Christian Baptist, and I know what scripture teaches. You, my girl, don’t believe in anything. You don’t even know God…so—”

“If I recollect right, Jesus hated righteous old guys throwing everyone into hell.”

Jamie lifted his hands and stepped between the two. “Hey, now. Make love, not war. You know my motto…Jesus loves everyone…sinner and saints alike. We just have to love each—”

Lula shook her head and smoothed down a fresh tablecloth. “Yeah, right. You love everyone…how many boyfriends did you go through last month, stud?”

Jamie squared his shoulders, his face turning dark red. “Cruel, girl. Real cruel.”

Lula flung her hands on her hips. “As I see it, you’re cruel to yourself, buddy. Don’t get on me for saying things straight out. You go from manic on Friday to suicidal on Monday. Don’t expect me to think that’s healthy.”

Enough was enough. Marge cleared her throat.

Three pairs of eyes widened as they fixed on the crippled woman.

Using her good hand, Marge tapped the arm of the wheelchair. The disease that was killing her left her with little strength and even less mobility. She could barely lift her voice. “You all got different gods.”

Reggie’s gaze slid over to Jamie who swung his gaze from Lula to Reggie. Lula tromped over to the wheelchair. “We didn’t see you there, Ms. Henderson. Hope we didn’t disturb a nap or something.”

Marge tipped her head. “Naw. Just remembering. Wondering…”

Lula caressed Marge’s arm. “Bet you got all sorts of happy thoughts to take you back…”

Marge waved her good hand. “Not enough.” She gripped Lula’s arm. “Make some good memories…for yourself and others. You may never have another chance.”

Lula maneuvered the chair away from the window. Her voice rose high and tight, “You got that right, Ms. Henderson. You’re a right smart woman.” She circled around the two men. “I’ll take her back to her room. Time for her meds.”

Reggie nudged Jamie’s arm. “Better get this room done.”

Jamie nodded and pulled another tablecloth free.

Marge closed her eyes and grinned. She pictured her God. The one they all argued about. The one who surprised everyone. Maybe life wasn’t so dreary after all.

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

Romantic Soul

Kathy loved hot tubs. But she couldn’t admit that to a living soul. She also loved chocolate chip mint ice cream, but she rarely indulged. And as for mystery novels…well, if there was a bit of romance thrown in, so much the better. But God forbid anyone ever caught her reading a trashy novel. No, she kept those squashed under a tower of historical biographies detailing the late-greats of the nineteenth century. So far…no one ever caught on.

It was a perfect spring day. The cherry and peach trees were in full bloom and if the sky glowed any bluer, she’d break into song…and that would never do. Lord have mercy. Kathy’s heart swooned, but her body stayed as ridged as a cliff facing turbulent ocean waves.

Elliot had no idea what he was doing to her insides. But then Elliot had better things to do than worry about his frazzled Catechism assistant. As a director of social services for the county, he had people with real problems to deal with. Unwed mothers, abused kids, out of work fathers, drug-addicted teens. The list was endless. People’s problems were endless. Yet Elliot always managed to smile at his hyperactive class of Catholic kids and act like he was having great fun just being with them.

Kathy’s heart melted at the mere memory of Elliot’s face. She pulled open the door to the Sacred Heart Community Center and stepped into the quiet interior. No one else had arrived yet. Good. That gave her time to arrange the material for today’s class and set the player on the right episode for tonight’s theme—Who Do You Say That I Am?

As she brushed by the front desk, she noticed a half-empty water bottle. Elliot’s? Probably. No one else used this classroom during the week. She picked it up and stared at it as if its previous owner would magically appear to take back his property. She jumped at the sound of a woman’s voice.

“Staring at it won’t bring it to life, honey.”

Kathy turned around and faced the matronly figure of the Pro-Life Director.

In her early fifties, with salt and pepper hair that she kept tied in a neat bun on the top of her head, Chika might look like a schoolmarm of old, except that she wore jeans, hiking boots, and an oversized plaid shirt, which would have fit a lumberjack.

A blush spread over Kathy’s cheeks.

Chika moved into the room like a ship’s captain taking the helm. “I’ll be delivering the main address today. Elliot asked me to come in and highlight some behavior issues he’s concerned about.”

Kathy bit her lip. “I thought we were doing Who Do You Say That I Am?”

“Well, we are…sort of. Just add in the consequences of unregulated lust and rampant promiscuity, and we’ll have tonight’s theme.”

Kathy thought her face might have caught on fire. “Oh?”

Chika grinned. “It’s a talk the kids need to hear…but, not you. In fact—” She wandered to the front of the room, pulled a key out of a deep pocket, and unlocked the cabinet. “I think you could do with a little more romance in your life…not less.”

Embarrassment combated with fury as Kathy stood before the chalkboard. Undiluted anger won. “Oh, really?” An edge sharpened her voice as it rose to a squeak.

Chika shook her head. “Come on. Be honest with yourself. You like Elliot. And I think he likes you…but you give that poor man not an ounce of encouragement. It’s time to step off the sidelines and make your move.”

“That’s hardly my place! I’m a modest woman and I—”

“What’s modesty got to do with it? Look in the Bible, honey, and get with the times. God made man and woman for a reason!”

“I’m perfectly well aware of that fact, but I’m hardly about to throw myself—”

Chika grinned. “No one suggesting anything radical. Would be amusing to see you get a little radical, I’ll admit. But—” She leaned in closer. “Since you’re the two shyest people on the planet when it comes to romance…I’ll just ask God to do His thing and give you two a little nudge.” She nodded to a foot high statue of Jesus with His sacred heart glowing in his chest. She grinned. “Author of romance, don’t you know?”

Completely flummoxed by this unorthodox reasoning, Kathy snorted a tiny puff of dragon’s breath and retreated across the room.

The sound of pounding feet turned both women to the doorway.

His eyes wide with anxiety, Elliot rushed into the room. “Call 911 and get Jason’s mom. He’s having an asthma attack. I can’t calm him down.”

With flashbacks of her own childhood asthma trauma flooding her brain, Kathy rushed to the hallway and found Jason slumped against the wall. His face flushing bright red and his hands fluttering in a panic as he dragged a ragged breath from his chest.

Kathy dropped to her knees and braced his body upright. She stared into the boy’s face. “Look at me, Jason, and squeeze my arms. Breathe. Slow in…slow out…look at me…everything is going to be okay. I’m here. You’ll be fine. Relax. Let your breath come…one in…two out…”

His shoulders relaxing as he clasped Kathy’s arms, Jason closed his eyes and exhaled.

A bustling movement forced Kathy aside. She got out of Jason’s mother’s way. The harried woman handed an inhaler to the boy who gripped it in both hands and soon had it pressed to his mouth, his mother continuing to count out slow breaths.

Kathy stepped aside and stood alone as the blare of an ambulance sounded in the parking lot. Her heart pounded, but she sucked in a deep breath and then exhaled releasing the tension. A firm hand pressed her shoulder.

Elliott leaned in and whispered in her ear. “You’re amazing. Thank you.”

With only a slight turn of her head, Kathy met Elliot’s gaze. A blush warmed her cheeks. The smell of chocolate-chip mint ice cream filled her imagination. As she swallowed hard, a figure across the room caught her attention.

Chika raised her eyebrows, a knowing smile on her lips. She pointed to the figure of Christ. A rose lay at His feet. Kathy blinked…and then squinted. It was one of the plastic roses used to decorate the room. Well, okay, it was a romantic gesture…giving God a rose.

Elliot’s hand still rested on Kathy’s shoulder. It felt warm and comfortable there.

A shocking thought raced through Kathy’s mind, sending a shiver down her back. Does God have a romantic soul?

Perhaps He likes chocolate-chip mint ice cream too.

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

Legitimate Concerns

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it past Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you described in your reports?”

He shoved loose soil aside and nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a sterile surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips.

Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists. “Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” He eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched and an oval blue-green piece of fruit from a bowl on the coffee table and chomped a big bite. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressure everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around him too much. “I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You glare like he does.”

Teal chewed and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up behind and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip.

A chime sounded. Teal and Sterling turned to face the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged. “Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything. Worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass. “Having liquids are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched over to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. Taking copious notes.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted the full glasses and strolled across to Ark. “Here. You can have two since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out.” He nodded to the counter. “You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “Or do they have claws?”

Ark poured the drink into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed his entire drink down his throat in one swallow. Stay calm. Right. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned and turned abruptly. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and headed for the cabinet again. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He stopped and turned, swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “And I left him alone on the planet.” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discrete distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter. “Of all the—” He felt his composure cracking. “Do you mean to tell me that you have someone watching Zuri, who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and waved Sterling and Ark closer. “I want to return to Earth undetected and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark shook his head and tapped Teal on the shoulder. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. In surprise, he realized that his fingers actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot is afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his pot, pulled it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands, free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and perched all four tentacles onto his thick waist. “How’d you know we’re focusing our attention on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile made up of the same—Uh oh. He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground. If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” Pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down and stretched out. “Mine if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the edge of a chair.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He glanced at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal tented his fingers before his face. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark wiggled a tentacle in the air. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Sterling rubbed his brow, he felt drained. “Can’t I just lie and say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark and Teal glanced at each other and shook their heads.

Teal slipped back onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

Sterling lay stretched out as if ready for his analyst session, crossed his feet, and placing his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb like this. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth—you know what I mean.”

Teal glanced at the bright sunlight filtering through the window. The purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. “That from Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers steeple style. “Yes. They’re a super race. They can create new life forms, terra-form entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While Luxonians, Crestas, Uanyi, Bhuaci, and Ingots each have our own unique abilities, this race can do all we do, but better…with more flare. They’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbow room, so to speak. We’ve only discovered a few of their kind. The ones the Crestas irritated must have been a bit high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep entire worlds in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark frowned at Teal. He tapped Sterling on the shoulder. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn as much as they do…and more. Apparently, your studies on Earth caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Perhaps evil like Ishtar?”

Teal stomped across the room. “Ishtar isn’t evil…he’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb. You called him evil.”

Teal stopped. “But why kill me? Or Zuri? We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed and swung his feet off the couch. “They aren’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants you to continue your work so that—” Ark’s pink cheeks blanched. “Oh, no.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark by a tentacle. “What?”

Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted…by anything…or anyone.”

Teal shrugged. “Zuri is annoying, but not really a distraction. Usually, he’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. “Not Zuri. Sienna. That gorgeous Luxonian. He wanted me to make her leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and I don’t believe that was a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s a Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner—it was hers by the way.”

Teal sprang at Sterling and wrapped his fingers around his neck.

Ark’s tentacles peeled Teal’s fingers away. Slapping Teal’s hands away with one tentacle, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “How could you? Sienna is innocent. I’m a Luxonian guardian, and I thought we—” He spat his words. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark waddled between them, shoving them further away from each other. He turned from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand Ungle’s persuasive nature. He can make life on Lux much more challenging—if he wants. He can create an interstellar incident and make it look like Sterling’s long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that he knows quite enough about evil already.”

Ark laughed. “Very observant. But Ungle has legitimate concerns. The mystery race will dictate the entire Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put the entire planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really am having a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head. “Not possible. In your case, I wish it was, though.”

Sterling peered at Teal. “You’re right. I should’ve told you. I was wrong. But Ungle…all his talk of good and evil…I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna into leaving seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to that stupid planet now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in all directions. “I don’t know if I have enough to keep everyone in line.”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment. I’m not feeling well.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed—he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

Ark slapped Sterling on the side of the head.

Sterling stood and placed his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “I know you have feelings for her. I’d spontaneously combust if it’d make you feel better.” His gaze wandered to his vine.

It appeared to wave its purple fronds at him.

Oh hell.

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

By Nature Fleeting

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter…

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. The hot sun beat down on them. He held himself above her, propped on his arms, his knees dug into the grass, the length of her body below him.

Sienna waited. A grin hovered on her lips.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over her face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and rolled to the side sprawled flat 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.” Climbing to his feet, he slapped dry stems from his grey 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 hand over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced himself to stop. He lifted his gaze 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’s gaze followed his. 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 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 land. 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. “Who?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are there none-the-less.”

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

 I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through Teal’s chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark.”

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.

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

With a smug 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 gaze with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

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

Zuri crouched on a boulder and 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.”

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 slapped 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 over 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. “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.”

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

Test a Theory

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Ark, dressed in a somber grey bio-suit and brown boots, waited for his superior to approach. It would never do to appear hasty.

Ungle, a Crestonian with bright red cilia wavering on top of his plump head and dressed in a spring-green bio-suit and matching boots, meandered the circuit of the room with two tentacles wrapped behind his back in a contemplative manner. A third tentacle held a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with blue gelatinous goo, and with his last tentacle, he shook hands—or mechanical armatures as the occasion required—with various Luxonian and alien representatives.

Ark slumped and glanced at a staring Luxonian. He patted his breathing helm as if stifling a yawn. His wide-eyed, peeved glare turned the Luxonian’s gaze away. Boor.

“So you finally made it.”

Ark’s head jerked so hard he felt a crackling in the bone holding his spine erect. Blast. I’ll have a muscle spasm from that. Holding out two tentacles, he clasped Ungle’s offered tentacle with gaudy bracelet attached. Ark blinked and swallowed. Better not expect me to kiss that thing—like some weird Bhuaci sign of obeisance.

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh, oh.

Ungle laughed, nearly spraying liquid over the top of his breathing helm. “I can’t read your mind—but really—Ark, you’ve become practically translucent. Among humans too long in my opinion.”

A waiter glided in close and offered a tray of pink, blue, and green drinks.

Ark glanced at Ungle.

Ungle poured his blue goo into his breathing helm, slurped, and shivered. “Not bad. But I’d recommend the green. Not authentic green, you understand, but less of a kick than the blue.”

Ark swiped the blue drink off the tray and poured it daintily into his breathing helm. Like a connoisseur savoring an ancient wine, Ark sipped his liquid while his gaze wandered the room.

Ungle waved the servant away.

Ark returned to his superior. “You were the first to recommend Earth observation. Have you changed your mind?”

“Not at all. I think humanity has a great deal to offer—in time. But I also realize there are many complications that must be considered—”

A bell tinkled.

“Bothmal those bells!” Ungle tapped Ark on the shoulder. “Meet me in my chambers after the meeting.”

“You aren’t staying for the Balatin Reenactment and festival?”

Ungle gurgled. “I’m a Crestonian. Science not pleasure dictates my schedule.”

Ark took the hint.

~~~

Ark settled in a pump chair and hated the hiss of his bio-suit as it wedged between the stiff arms. Dark waters, I’ll never get back up without help.

The Crestonian chambers included a mini-pool built into the back wall, plump, light-colored furniture, and a simple cleansing and dressing closet.

Ark glanced over as Ungle tapped a console, lighting up a holopad.

“Pay attention now. I’ve done careful research, and I think I have just the solution we need.”

Ark grunted as he tried to wiggle out of the chair. “What…is…the…problem?” Popping like a cork, he sprang to his feet.

Ungle straightened, and a hologram of Teal appeared before them.

Ark clumped forward, his embarrassment forgotten. “Teal?” His gaze swiveled to Ungle.

“As I mentioned earlier, science dictates the direction of my life. I believe that humanity has a great deal to offer Crestonian studies. Not the least of which is their obsession with good and evil.”

Ark wrapped his tentacles behind his back and meandered in closer. “Surely we understand the concept as well as anyone. Why—?”

“We don’t experience the polar opposites as humans do. It makes quite a difference. Consider—” He tapped the console. Teal dissolved, and Chai appeared beautifully dressed in his crimson robes embroidered in gold. “A dangerous—by all human standards—evil force controls this man. It’s a force I’ve rarely encountered before. Yet, this human believes he’ll benefit from the experience.”

Ark’s tentacles wiggled nervously behind his back. “What does he have to do with Teal?”

“This being—calls himself Chai—will cross paths with the one you call Ishtar. It doesn’t take serious extrapolation of data to figure this out. Their paths must intersect.”

“So—”

“Teal will be watching. He’ll care what happens. He might even attempt to interfere.”

“That goes against all his training.”

Ungle shrugged. “Given proper motivation, we all go against our training. Don’t be obtuse, Ark.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to see the natural exchange between Chai and Ishtar. I want to witness a soul damned to—”

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

“You want me to keep an eye on Teal—is that it?”

Chuckling, Ungle tapped the console. “Not primarily. I want you to keep your eye on her.”

The holographic image of Chai dissolved, and Sienna appeared in all her radiant glory on the holopad.

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

“She’s a Luxonian with a healer’s soul. She wants to help so badly, she could do a great deal of harm in the process.”

Ungle tapped the screen and Chai, Teal, and Sienna appeared together on the holopad facing away from one another.

“They are each convinced that they know what’s best for humanity. I’m convinced that they have no idea what’s in store for them.”

“And you want me to observe and collect data?”

“I want to test a theory—about good and evil.”

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

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 Hostile World

Teal led the young Luxonian, Sienna, to the far side of the lake and perched on the edge of a boulder.

A creak tripped over an embankment and illuminated a rainbow in a shower spray.

Enchanted, Teal turned from one glory to another and grinned. “So, you want to become a healer?”

Dressed in a rough brown tunic with a thin shawl thrown over her shoulders, Sienna navigated the swirling creek bed and perched on another rock, dipping her toes in the rushing water. “Yes.” Her arched brows bespoke a serious nature, while her soft tone beguiled unwary hearts. “Luxonians serve in many capacities—I’m drawn to the healing arts. My father and grandmother were healers in their own time.”

Slipping out of his sandals, Teal splashed in the water, his grin tightening as the cold rippled over his body. “Why Earth? These people have nothing like our physiology or skills. What do you hope to—?”

A falcon flew overhead and landed in a tree. It turned its head, peering at them through one piercing eye.

Sienna’s gaze swept the area. A lizard sat sunning itself on a rock a few feet away. Snatching the reptile by the tail, she flung it into the tall grass.

The hawk squawked and flapped its wings.

Glancing up, Sienna blushed. “Innocent creatures shouldn’t suffer just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

A pigeon fluttered into the air. In an instant, the falcon soared in hot pursuit.

Teal winced as the falcon plucked its dinner from the sky. He glanced at Sienna.

Unperturbed, Sienna bent over and splashed water on her arms. “Though humans are not very advanced, they do have a keen eye for detail and an amazing depth of insight. In your reports, you mentioned purges, herb drinks, and poultices, which humans use to heal their sick and wounded.”

Teal nodded. “True. Both the Lake Clan and the Grassland Clan have healers.” He squinted. “I don’t know about the River Clan. Neb appears bent on hurting more than healing.”

“It’s in a war that the greatest cures are found—when they are most needed.”

“That hardly justifies war.”

With a nod, Sienna tiptoed to distant perch. “Yet you have set the Supreme Council on the brink of war with both the Cresta and the Ingoti.”

Jerking to his feet, Teal’s face flushed. “Why are you really here?”

Leaning back on a rock and lacing her fingers together, Sienna shook her head. “Isn’t it obvious? I want to learn. I’ve read every one of your reports. Fifth years are allowed access to planet documents—when it bears on our studies.”

Like the falcon, Teal turned his head and stared out of one bright eye. “And what—exactly—are you studying here? Certainly, Luxonians don’t need human poultices and herb drinks.”

Leaving the stream, Sienna wandered to the grassy bank and plucked a wildflower. She held it before her like a shield. “Some Luxonians look to a brighter, broader future, where we will interact with other beings more freely.”

Teal plodded out of the water, water dripping down his legs. He glanced at the perimeter. “There’s plenty of interaction between the Supreme Council and other—”

“That’s my point!” Sienna flung her flower to the ground. “The Supreme Council shrouds us in darkness. We know little beyond what we read in the guardian reports. They insist that they shield us from a hostile world—but do they?”

A murmur of voices rose in the distance. Teal sucked in a breath; alarm bells rang in his mind. “Neb’s closer than I thought. We need to move on.” He glanced around.

Scurrying across the distance, Sienna arrived at Teal’s side. “Would they hurt us?”

Peering into Sienna’s bright eyes, Teal scowled. “Neb would attempt to kill me—certainly. What he’d do with you—I don’t dare think about.”

“I’d flash away.”

“He’d remember you. You’d become the stuff of legends—and nightmares.” Taking her arm, he pointed to a high embankment. “We’ll hide over there. Lizard?”

“I’d rather be a rock.”

“Not a good choice.”

Sienna squinted, confused.

“If you need to move, it’ll look odd.”

Glancing to the sky, she pointed. “A falcon then.”

“Fine. Just remember, the Supreme Council does shield us from a hostile world, even when we’d rather they didn’t.”

“And the Cresta and Ingoti?”

The murmurs grow closer. Teal frowned, lifting his hand like a man taking an oath. “I’ll fight that war myself.”

Sienna gripped his arm. “And I’ll heal you—if need be.” She blinked away.

A gorgeous Peregrine Falcon swooped overhead.

Teal stared—fascinated—and then blinked away just as Neb and his men pounded into view.

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