That’s How It Goes

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

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

Home?

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

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

So why did an aching depression choke her soul?

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

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

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

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

Would home be home anymore?

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

No. She couldn’t really.

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

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

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

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

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

The woman nodded in gratitude and inched her way near.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone special…one at a time.

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

“I’d rather not.”

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

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

“Cancer got him fifteen tears ago.”

Victoria stared at the ground.

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

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

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

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

At the doorway, Thomas waved at his mother.

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

Thomas grinned. “Helping old ladies, Mom?”

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Live and Learn

Thelma stared at her daughter and wondered if perhaps aliens had abducted her child and sent a brainless bot in her stead. She crossed her arms over her chest knowing full well that it was a defensive posture. “So, you’re going to move in with Brad without even a promise ring? A hint of a proposal? Without asking me what I thought—”

Bea grimaced and leaned against the kitchen counter, her hands cupping a mug of hot coffee. She shook her head, took a tentative sip, and then met her mom’s gaze. “Oh, Lord, Mom. I’m a grown woman, for Heaven’s sake. Brad and I are both starting out, and we don’t want to hike across the city just to meet up on weekends. Besides, it’ll save on expenses, and that’s a good thing. You’ve always been the thrifty one. You should be proud of us for saving money, not tossing religious dogma at us.”

The ache that had started in her throat had now risen to Thelma’s eyes. She couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. Where was the girl who had extolled C. S. Lewis as a brilliant Christian thinker? Who argued the merits of sincere religious faith over vacuous feel-good reasoning? The kid who went to Mass faithfully each week and Holy Days of Obligation? The one who—

“Earth to Mom…”

“Don’t you believe in marriage…the sacrament…what it stands for?”

Bea pulled a kitchen chair away from the table and plunked down with a sigh. She took another sip—a longer one—closing her eyes in apparent savory pleasure. “This is good, Mom. What kind—?”

“Don’t change the subject. I asked a simple question.” The morning sunlight hit Bea’s golden hair, highlighting it like a halo over the girl’s head. Thelma closed her eyes against tears.

Exhaling—a patient teacher waiting for her stubborn student to catch on—Bea tapped her fingers on the table. “Sit and relax, Mom. You’re getting worked up over nothing.”

Resentment burned her tears away. Thelma plunked down across from her daughter, her back ramrod straight.

“You know I haven’t been going to church for years. I still believe most of the stuff you taught me. And I like what the faith says, but I have to find my own way. I’m my own person. Brad’s a good guy. I really like him, and he really likes me. Sex is a natural part of our relationship, and I don’t think God disapproves of our enjoying each other. We’re human. God knows that. He made us this way. Your hang-ups about sex and marriage are from a different era. A time when women had no rights apart from a man. I’m not that kind of woman. So let me enjoy my life, okay?”

Thelma didn’t even know where to begin. Nothing in her homeschooling manual had prepared her for this conversation. After all the years of Catechism and spiritual nourishment, how could things turn out like this? How could all her loving examples and heartfelt teaching be wiped so effortlessly away?

The sensation of drowning overwhelmed her. From the crucifix on the wall to the painting of Archangel Michael above the archway, she sought support…inspiration…hope of any kind. O, God, have I believed an illusion?

As she clasped her hands, her attention fell on the faded white skin around her ring finger. Ron had died two years ago, but she could still feel the symbol of their love. Her thumb pressed against the soft flesh. She peered at her daughter. “The day your dad proposed, he knelt on one knee and held out a gold ring, his hands shook so hard, I was afraid he’d drop it. He didn’t. But the ring wasn’t the important thing…his declaration of love and fidelity was.”

Bea leaned back, her eyes scrolling the kitchen ceiling as if begging patience from the white stucco.

Thelma leaned forward. “Marriage isn’t about a piece of paper or an ancient ritual. It’s about what human beings believe and are willing to sacrifice for. You’re right; God created us as sensual beings, and I’m sure He highly approves of a union based on love and respect. So much so that He wants us to treat our relationship with great honor.”

“Save the lecture, Mom. I’ve heard all this before. I’ve read the manual on marriage and the whole John Paul II Theology of the Body thing. I just don’t want to be tied down to rules. God is bigger than rules.”

A cloud swept in, obliterating the glorious rays of sunshine.

Thelma stood and poured herself a cup of coffee. She doused it with brown sugar and creamer and then leaned against the counter. “But, you, my dear, need rules. You’re not God. Neither is Brad. As it stands now, you two are simply using each other. And that works for a while. Until it doesn’t anymore. What about when one of you gets laid off…or sick…or bored? What if Brad sees another woman who’s more attractive to him? Or you find another man? What then?”

The line of Bea’s jaw hardened. “I know plenty of divorced Catholics. Their marriage vows didn’t save them.”

“But they should have. If they had lived marriage as it’s meant to be.”

Bea offered an exaggerated yawn. “The unbreakable union between God and His people…yadda…yadda…yadda. Yeah, I know. Sounds good. But, frankly, Mom, you’re not listening. I don’t care. I want to live with my boyfriend. I don’t need a long-term commitment. I just want convenient sex and a man I can rely on—”

Thelma’s jaw ached. “You’re not listening to yourself. You want someone to rely on without being honest about what it takes to depend on each other. Relationships are hard. They take work, sacrifice, and commitment.”

“Maybe for you. Not for me. I find relationships easy. Maybe that’s your problem, Mom. You ruin love by overthinking everything.”

The knife went deep, and Thelma knew she couldn’t pull it by herself. She set her cup on the counter and strode out of the kitchen. As soon as she was out the front door, she started walking toward the only answer she could depend upon.

It took nearly an hour to reach St. Bridget’s on foot, but she didn’t care. At least, she had stopped weeping long enough to wipe her eyes and enter the Adoration Chapel with a semblance of composure. An older man, probably in his 80’s, sat in a chair before the Monstrance, his hands clasped, his eyes closed. For a moment, Thelma wondered if he was awake. She couldn’t see his chest rising or falling. Oh, God, could he—?

The man opened his eyes and met her gaze. He blinked and grinned. “I concentrate better with my eyes closed.”

A blush rose over Thelma’s face. She bowed, made the sign of the cross, and then sat three seats away.

The man straightened and cleared his throat. “My granddaughter was supposed to be here today, but she broke her hand in a game yesterday. Stupid accident. I warned her, but the young never listen to the old. Think we’re fools and has-beens.”

Thelma nodded through a forced smile.

“Everyone’s got to make their own mistakes. Live and learn…then face God with the balance.” He sighed. “I didn’t listen to my grandpa either. Probably why I’m doing so much time in church now, eh?” He rubbed the small of his back. “Could you take the next hour till Judy comes?”

Thelma nodded. She hadn’t listened to her mom much either. Funny how that goes. She knelt down and bowed her head.

Later that night, Thelma dialed Bea’s number. She leaned against the counter and waited. When Bea answered, she knew that they wouldn’t talk about marriage, boyfriends, or God. There was only so much a mother could do. Even as she listened to a catalog of her daughter’s eventful day, the old man’s words rang in her ears: Live, learn, and face God with the balance.

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

New Life Into Her Soul

The end of a pier is a lonely place. But sometimes you have to face the deep before you can face your life.

The little bandage on Mary’s breast didn’t hurt, just felt odd, like a scab that needed to come off. She peered down. Her chest looked the same as always. But it wasn’t. She knew the truth. Under her bright yellow shirt, neat stitches marked the spot where a tumor had grown, threatening her very existence.

“There’s always hope,” the doctor had said. A thirty-something woman who had served in the military and brooked no dissent. Even her smile demanded obedience.

Mary didn’t have the heart to argue. Sure, the tumor was gone and new treatment plans prolonged life. But what years? Who wants to live through dying?

She stared at the rippling water. Am I already dead? Her parents had passed away a decade ago, and her only brother lived on the coast of Main and practiced yoga. The fact that they shared the same DNA still amazed her. Her co-workers sympathized, but they didn’t understand.

A flock of honking geese flew in for a landing, sending a party of ducks flapping toward shore. Their startled cries sent the whole park into an uproar. Even a couple squirrels chattered in noisy complaint as they chased each other across the treetops.

With a sigh, Mary shivered. There was no point hanging out at the end of a pier. She had to go home and eat something. Just live until…

“Excuse me?”

Mary turned and blinked at a man’s figure silhouetted against the setting sun. She shaded her eyes and waited. She hardly had the energy to speak.

The man stepped aside. A big guy. Tall with a healthy build, wearing jeans and a button-down blue shirt. “You happen to see a book there?” He pointed to the edge of the pier. “I think I left it…”

Mary turned and considered the wooden planks as if she had never seen them before. To her surprise, white pages glinted in the evening light and fluttered in the breeze. The sound of their flapping awakened her from the torpid stupor. She stepped over and gently lifted the book. “To Kill A Mockingbird?”

The man reached out, his tanned, rough hand exposed his outdoor lifestyle. “Yeah. My wife read it to me when were first married. I thought it might bring back…” He dropped his gaze, his thoughts apparently falling into the rippling water.

Mary swallowed back fear. Her words rushed out like an avalanche trying to bury a mountain of pain. “I read it in high school. Really left an impression. I always wished I had Atticus as my dad.”

The man snorted. “I wish I was Atticus. Instead, I more like Boo Radley.”

Mary squinted. “You don’t look like Boo Radley.” She attempted a smile. “You‘re much too tan.” Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, so she clasped them behind her back. If only her stomach would stop rolling.

A sheepish grin spread across the man’s face. “Well, I wasn’t going for a literal interpretation.” His humor vanished as his brows furrowed. “You okay?”

With an uneven step, Mary gripped the slimy post and sucked in a deep breath. “My first dose of chemo. Does wonders for my disposition.”

The man grabbed her arm and helped her regain her balance. “Cancer? Oh, God. What kind?”

A surge of strength swept over Mary, and she found she could stand, her breathing calmed. “Breast. Early stage. The doc says I’ll be fine…” She squared her shoulders and panted like a runner about to start a marathon.

He led her away from the post. “Early stage is good…your doctor might be right.”

Mary nodded toward the parking lot. “Mine’s the blue cruise.”

He kept his arm fixed at her side and matched her pace as they maneuvered to the parking lot. He pointed to a Ford Focus. “That’s mine.” He helped her rest her weight against her car. “My name’s Brad. Lost my wife to cancer three years ago. Hell of a thing…”

The warm metal comforted Mary’s cold bones. “Yeah. You’ve got that right.” She peered at him. “Sorry about your wife. Not easy being the survivor, I suppose.”

Brad’s gaze swept across the road. “There’s a fish and chips place over there. You want something to eat before you go? Might do you some good.”

Mary considered the possibility. The faint smell of fried fish wafted on the air and sent demanding ripples through her body. “Yeah. It might do us both some good.” She eyed the book still gripped in his hand. “I always wanted to read that story again.”

Brad took her arm. “It’s a remarkable tale…tells it like it is. Lots of ways to die in this world.”

Mary nodded. “Yeah. Lots of ways to live, too.”

After they ordered, Brad hunched forward and pressed open the novel to the first page. He cleared his throat. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow…”

Mary leaned back and closed her eyes. The pier faded. A small southern town appeared, and a new vision breathed life into her soul.

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

Face the Cranberries

“Cranberries are the best food on the planet. And aliens are set to invade Earth any day now.”

I waited; my hands clasped around a bag of red berries in an attitude of perfect composure and watched my dearest husband add the final touches to his miniature boat. Well, it was Johnny’s boat. Or so the story goes… The perfect gift for an eleven-year-old boy who was all thumbs. A boat building kit. His dad couldn’t get the box open fast enough.

I cleared my throat. “Jack?”

“Huh?”

His big brown eyes peered at me as innocently as I’m certain he felt. He had no idea he was ignoring me. Or that I had a rotten day. Or that Jonny couldn’t care less about boats. He was simply focused. On his work…or his hobby…whatever.

I wanted to whap him with my bag of berries. But he wouldn’t have understood that either. Time out.

“I need some sugar. Going to Beth’s place for a bit.”

That caught his attention. “Way over there? She’s not a grocery store. Besides, I’m getting hungry and—”

“The chicken is in the oven, and there are crackers and cheese on the table. Have a snack. I’ll just be a bit.” Feeling ever so justified in leaving him to his newest pet project, I sauntered out the door and roared off in my mini-van with music blaring right through town. The only reason I didn’t close my eyes to deep cleanse my psyche lay in the curvy road and the glory of swiftly passing spring fields.

Beth had amazing kids. One was a doctor, another an astrophysicist, and the middle kids were all-purpose miracle workers. The youngest two stayed at home and managed the farm while her husband recovered from a…broken arm…or was it a leg? Appendicitis? Something.

Anyway, no matter how bad my day might have been, just stepping into Beth’s house offered me perspective. Like a clown on an analyst’s couch, I knew she’d listen to my dire groans and sprinkle witty inspirations and clever parenting tips upon me no matter how ridiculous I looked.

Or maybe not.

When I swept into the kitchen, Beth’s red-rimmed eyes bespoke some kind of serious dark matter in the Kilroy universe. My heart skipped a beat. “Something wrong?”

Beth’s eyes widened. With horror or stupefaction, I couldn’t tell. She seemed so surprised. I was surprised. After all, I’d been barging into her house, getting free analyst sessions for years. We were close friends. Like sisters. No warning phone call. No knock on the door. No loud call from the foyer. Just—

Beth broke down, lumbered over to me, and started sobbing on my shoulder. The sky could’ve fallen, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I half carried, half dragged her to the kitchen table and maneuvered her into a solid wood chair. Always loved those chairs. Practically indestructible. Sorry…I digress.

I put on a pot of water for the clearly needed cup of tea. “Herbal or something stronger?”

Beth looked up and waved a limp hand. “I don’t care. Whatever.”

Gee. That wasn’t like her at all. Bodysnatchers? My hands shook as I assembled the cups, brown sugar, and perched the English teabags in the cups just so. I leaned over and peered into my friend’s swollen eyes. And waited.

“Terry wants a divorce.”

The jolt that ran through my system could have electrified a city. “What? That’s crazy. Terry loves you. You love Terry. You love your kids. Your kids love you…” I sat back, my gaze stuck on her face.

“He’s not the man I married. After his heart attack, That was it! he says he wants to retire and travel to exotic places, have some fun…live before he dies.” She dropped her head onto her hands and sighed. “What have we been doing all these years? Play acting?”

The irony of our role reversal was not lost on me. Being the one expected to offer helpful advice pricked my conscience like angry hornets. After all, my oldest kid was only a teen, and I had three compared to her six. And Beth had been married nearly thirty years while Jack and I had a mere fifteen anniversaries tucked under our marriage belt.

I slumped down on the chair and tried to gird my loins. Ridiculous phrase but being biblical, it seemed to fit. I certainly needed supernatural assistance. Any time, Lord.

“I can’t believe that Terry told you that he wants a divorce. It’s just not like—”

“Oh, not in so many words. Of course not! He just scattered pamphlets, brochures, travel books all over the place and started listening to Spanish radio. He went shopping and bought casual shirts and jeans for crying out loud! Jack never wears jeans. He’s an office man who can’t leave the office—even when he comes home.”

I blinked. Suddenly I saw the universe from an entirely new angle. “Uh, Beth darling, do you think that perhaps you are misreading Jack? I mean, perhaps he is kinda tired of being the office guy and wants to have a little fun. Doesn’t mean he wants a divorce. Why would he scatter the travel paraphernalia under your eyes if he wanted to leave you behind?”

“Why didn’t he just tell me?”

“Have you ever mentioned an interest in traveling?”

“I’ve been too busy raising kids for thirty years. And doing a darn good job of it I might add. Who’s got time for frivolity?”

My throat had gone as dry as Mars. The singing kettle saved me. As I poured the steaming water into our mugs, Beth skedaddled to the counter, snatched a handful of pamphlets and slapped them on the table.

“See what I mean?”

I stirred sugar into my tea with one hand and browsed through the offending material with the other. Hmm… Yep. Terry wanted a little fun. Looked like a lot of fun. I tried not to turn green with envy.

I took a long sip and sat down. Then I reached over and patted my friend’s hand and said the only thing that might save her universe. “Go have fun, Beth.”

Beth’s eyes widened.

I stirred two scoops of sugar into her cup and nudged it closer. “If it makes you feel any better, you can learn Spanish before you go.” I leveled my gaze at her. “But go.”

~~~

I didn’t turn on the music on the drive home. I need to think and pay more attention to my pounding heart than a pounding pop song. By the time I stepped into the kitchen, my brain was clear enough to take in the wonderful aroma of cooked cranberries.

Jack stood at the head of a table, which apparently had been set by visiting gremlins since the knives and forks were scattered at awkward angles and the plates and glasses marched up wobbly lines on either side of the table. But a roast chicken and mashed potatoes did sit comfortably in the middle of the table near the glorious bowl of cooked berries.

I glanced at my husband. My throat had returned to Mars. And after three cups of tea, too. “Uh, Jack?”

Jack smiled at me through such proud eyes I thought my heart might burst right through my chest. “The kids and I fixed dinner. Course, you had the chicken in the oven already. But we did the rest.”

Standing around the table, the kids looked like miniature versions of their dad. It took me a moment, but I did eke out a coherent, “Thank you, guys!”

Jack peered at me, his smile fading. “You okay?”

And at that moment I knew with unerring certainty what I needed to do to make my universe perfect. “Yep. Everything is great. But I do have one request.”

Jack and the kids looked at me. God only knows what they were thinking.

“Show me your boat after dinner, okay?”

Jack’s smile returned, and I could finally face the cranberries.

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

One Aisle at a Time

Wilson stared at the blinking cursor and couldn’t think of a thing to write. His brain seemed frozen, unable to articulate one creative thought. All he could do was lean back on his swivel chair and let his gaze wander around the room. A midsized wooden bookshelf with five extra books arranged awkwardly on top. Lamp, coffee mug, printer, window, landscape painting hanging slightly crooked, dusty calculator, a crumpled stack of receipts, notepad, frogman…the one Sami had given him on Father’s Day—

Oh, God!

Searing pain clutched his innards. He closed his eyes and turned away. “This will kill me. A month after the funeral, and I’m still a mess.” He heaved himself out of his chair and paced across the room. He stopped at the doorway. Where could he go? To the kitchen? What for? He had no appetite. The thought of food made him nauseous. To the living room? Why? The couch was empty. No stuffed animals. No half-completed pictures. No 4th-grade math book shoved under the pillow.

His phone buzzed. Clenching his jaw, he returned to his desk and snatched up the phone. “Yeah!” He knew he sounded like an angry bull, but hell, he couldn’t help it. He was angry. Disgustingly, furiously, blindingly angry.

“Wil?” Camilla, his wife. She sounded strong. Too strong. Damn. She had no right to be strong. He swallowed and sucked in his cheeks as if chewing his own flesh might help him maintain a modicum of composure.

“Yeah, honey, what’s up?” His shoulders sagged as weariness enveloped him.

“I’m at the grocery store, and I forgot the list…could you get it for me and read it off as I go along?”

Before he could give his brain any formal directions, Wilson found his feet padding into the kitchen. Yep, sure enough, there was the list, written in his wife’s beautiful but tiny cursive. He’d be lucky if he could read it. “Got it.” He squeezed the phone between his chin and his shoulder and held the list out with both hands, far enough to read but not as steady as he would’ve liked.

Her voice calm and parental enunciated her next request. “Great. I made it past the chips and cracker aisle and now I’m stuck between peanut butter and cereal.”

Wilson frowned and leaned against the counter. “Yeah? It says peanut butter and cereal on here…” He shook his head. “Look, you’ve done this every week for years; you’ve got to have the entire store mapped in your head. Dang it, woman, you could do this in your sleep.”

Silence.

Wilson’s heart began to pound. “Honey?”

It was the softest sniffle in the world, but it nearly crushed Wilson’s will to live.

Camilla’s voice wavered through the air, into the phone, and pierced Wilson’s broken heart. “I just don’t know which peanut butter or what cereal…”

Flummoxed, Wilson felt a scream rise from his chest. “The ones you always get.”

A ragged breath brushed his ear and sent prickles of terror racing down his spine. “But we always got crunchy…because that’s what Sami—”

“Oh, God!” The phone clattered to the floor.

Waves smashed against his composure, heaving rocks at his innards. Black water smothered his airways. Vaguely in the distance, he could hear his wife’s plaintive voice calling from the floor.

“Wil? Please, I need to know. What kind of peanut butter? What cereal do I get—?”

Every ounce of his body wanted to grind the phone into smithereens with his heel, but his hands chose differently. He dropped down on a kitchen chair and pressed the phone to his ear. Camilla was crying. There were no sobs or wails. But he knew. She was probably just standing there in the middle of the aisle gripping the cart with one hand while tears poured down her face.

He leaned on one hand and waited. Muffled conversation rose over the distance. Camilla was talking to someone. Another woman…soothing words, a gentle tone… He pressed the phone harder. “Who the—?”

A voice rose. “Lost my son five years ago…hell on earth. Couldn’t pass his bedroom without breaking down and forget going out in public. Took me a whole year before I could go shopping by myself. Terrible. Yes, it is. God have mercy on parents who lose a child. Doesn’t matter how it happens…or how old. Just hell.”

Silence.

Tears streamed down Wilson’s face and meandered over the phone before they fell like miniature pools on the smooth kitchen tabletop. Then, like a tidal wave on the rise, his shoulders heaved and his whole body rocked with searing, overwhelming pain. God, the pain.

After a few moments, still clutching the phone, he heard Camilla sniff. And then a sigh. An embarrassed—giggle? “Cam, what’s going on?” Wilson sat up.

A distant conversation. “Yeah, I’m okay now. Thanks.” Camilla blew her nose. Loudly.

Wilson’s eyes widened. He wiped his face with the back of his hand.

“Wil?”

Teardrops smeared the phone. Wilson snatched a paper napkin, wiped it down, fumbled, and then smashed it against his ear again. “Yeah. You okay, honey?”

“No. But I’m…better.”

He could imagine her shyly ducking her head, winding a strand of hair behind her ear.

“A lady here…she understood…gave me a hug. It’s what I needed.”

Wilson nodded as his tears flowed again. He choked out his words. “So what’re you going to do?”

Camilla cleared her throat and undoubtedly squared her shoulders. “She suggested I try the smooth peanut butter and pick out a new cereal, one we never had before. So I grabbed a banana-strawberry granola mix.” Her voice dropped low, like a child begging for understanding. “Will that be okay?”

Wilson sniffed and grabbed another napkin. He wiped his nose. “Sure, honey. That’s perfect.” He swallowed back the ache in his throat and sat up. He fumbled for the list. “You want to do the rest of the shopping now or come home?”

Camilla’s voice steadied. “I’ll keep going…as long as you stay with me.”

“Course, honey. We’ll just take it one aisle at a time…”

~~~

A half hour later, Wilson returned to his desk. The curser was still blinking. He lifted his hand over the keys and tapped out five words.

One Aisle at a 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