To Be Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Honey!”

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

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

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

“You’re a lifesaver, dear!”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what do you want?”

“A friend first. Then we’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

“Gerry asked me to marry him.”

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

“Should I say yes?”

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

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

“What do you want, Janet?”

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

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

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

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

“Discontent?”

“Yeah.”

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

“Can you make a life with him?”

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

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Your Prayer

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

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

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

How could such a wonderful day have gone so wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence swept over his arms and chilled his bones.

“Laurie?”

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

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

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

“Mr. Jones?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

Kelog pressed the phone to his ear.

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

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

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

“She was cold. Really cold, Nes.”

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

“I even brought home a mop.”

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

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

Kelog heard himself whisper. “The baby?”

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

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

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

“Oh, God. I thought I’d lost you.”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Beatrice stood before the crucifix. Staring.

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

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

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

It Might Have Been

A wrong number. Not a scam. Just some innocent woman looking for her sister Pearl. Jason assured her that he wasn’t Pearl, hit the end button, and slid the phone across his desk. He dropped his head onto his hand and tried to concentrate.

Inventory. Yay!

Even mental sarcasm fell flat. He should be pumped. The holidays approached with days off for leisure time, sleeping in, parties with assorted junk food, and perhaps a chance to head out to the park for a little fun and games. The image of a woman clad in a tight winter sweater and black leggings danced in front of his eyes. Heat licked his body.

The phone chimed. Jason tapped his fingers. Answer? Not answer? Hardly a life or death decision. He tapped the green button and slapped the phone against his ear. “Dad?”

“Jas?”

Carol? Cold water doused the flames. Oh heck, anybody but his stepmother. He’d rather have a root canal. Not that she wasn’t a perfectly nice person. It’s just that with a root canal, you know what you’re getting into. With Carol, Russian roulette seemed tame. Besides, he hated it when anyone shortened his name. What? Two syllables asking too much? Ja-son. Oh, forget it.

“Hey, Carol. What’s up?”

“Jas, I don’t want to take up your time, so I won’t beat around the proverbial bush, but your dad’s not doing too well. He’s really struggling, and I just want to give you a heads up before you come visit.”

Very subtle. Okay. It had been a while. A few weeks. Jason rolled his eyes over to the wall calendar—the one his wife had bought for him. Landscapes with hymns scrolled over the top. Oh yeah. Something safe that would keep his mind on celestial matters. Instead of other things.

Pine trees and a little manger scene. Hmmm…that time already?

He leaned back and let his chair fall into the relaxed mode. His head tilted, he considered the state of his office ceiling.

“You caught me, Carol. It has been too long. Waaay too long. I need to get my bu—, I mean, I should get Dinah and the kids and head out your way. Christmas season and all.” He grimaced at the thought of driving through snow and ice into Wisconsin but then the possibility of escaping Dinah’s family…

Carol ran roughshod over his thoughts. “You know, your dad always said that nothing mattered as long as his kids were happy. He still knows who you are. He recognizes me. Most of the time. But if you wait…”

Jason’s feet hit the floor with a slap. “What do you mean? He didn’t have any trouble recognizing me or the kids last time we were there.”

“A year ago.”

Jason smacked his forehead. He leaned in, peered at the calendar, and squinted. Was it? “Hey, you know. You’re right. I need to talk with Dinah and set something in motion. I’ll call you back, okay?”

“You won’t forget, now, will you?”

The snarky tone mixed with anxiety roiled Jason’s stomach. “No. I won’t forget.”

Once home, Jason perched on a stool at the kitchen island and outlined a quick road trip. Dinah listened in empathetic understanding. Such a generous spirit. Of course. She visited her parents every month. Good woman that she was. He couldn’t go most of the time, despite the fact that they lived only twenty minutes away, because, well, you know. He had a hell of a honey-do list and getting older wasn’t a picnic; let me tell you. Hey, I need some me-time, too.

His mind wandered back to the woman he’d met at the park last week. Gorgeous. Funny. Didn’t quote scripture while they strolled along the path. She wore a ring. He wore a ring. But still…

Dinah rattled on. “It’s all settled then. Next weekend, we’ll leave early Friday and be back by Sunday night. I’m sure your dad will be pleased. He loves you, you know.” Her eyes lingered on his face like she was sending some kind of coded message.

Sheesh. Lay on the guilt with a trowel why don’t you?

All evening, images of the park woman meandered through Jason’s mind. In frustration, he cuddled up to his wife in bed, but she was already asleep. Or so she wants me to believe. Great. Now I got nothing but a lousy trip to look forward to. He yanked the blanket to his side of the bed, exposing his wife’s slumbering form to the cold night air. She probably doesn’t even notice. Martyrs never do.

Images of the park woman slithered through his mind. Her perfect form, flashing smile, the teasing glint in her eye. Then, out of nowhere, his dad appeared on the opposite side of a busy street. The old man tried to cross, but trucks and cars whizzed by in city traffic madness. The old man locked eyes with Jason, bewildered desperation peering from the depths. He waved and called, “Ja-son!”

Jason dropped the woman’s hand, his heart pounding. “Dad? Hey, don’t try to cross there. It’s crazy traffic. You’ll get—”

Dinah’s scream ripped through the air as she ran out from behind, shoving the park woman aside. She dashed across the street, stopping traffic like magic. She reached her father-in-law’s broken body. In true superwoman form, she carried the old man across the street, tears streaming from her disappointed, despairing eyes.

Her words shot Jason like bullets. “All yours.”

Suddenly another man, a shrewd well-dressed gent with clever eyes and high cheekbones stepped forward and swept everyone else away. He pointed toward a wide doorway. “If you please.”

Heat flickered through Jason’s body, but he shivered uncontrollably. “What’s this?”

“What you wanted.”

“Wanted?” Jason wrinkled his nose at a strange stink. “I never get what I want! Seems to me that I have to pay a pretty steep price for everything.”

The gentleman chuckled. “Think so? But it’s all free. Free will and all.”

Jason looked around for his father, his wife, his home, anything familiar and comforting. “But I wanted to see dad. I could’ve—”

Laughter rang in Jason’s ears. “The saddest words man ever penned, were the words…”

Jason bolted upright. Sweat beaded across his brow. He shivered. “Oh, God!”

Dinah murmured and rolled over. She reached out. “You okay, honey?”

The Sahara desert had filled Jason’s mouth. He couldn’t utter a word.

Dinah sat up and leaned in, her fingers stroking her husband’s arm. “Worried about your dad?” She cuddled closer, pulling the blanket around them both. “It’ll be okay. He’s a good man. He’s made his life and even if he doesn’t remember now, when he dies, he’ll know the truth. Besides, he’s not dead yet. You still have time.”

Jason hugged his wife, tears streaming down his face. The words, “It might have been…” rang in his ears.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Four

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. A hot sun beat down on them from a clear sky. Propped on his arms and knees, he hovered over the length of her body.

Sienna waited, grinning.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over Sienna’s face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and plopped onto the grass beside her, sprawling out like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Rising, he slapped dry stems from his gray tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his fingers over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced his trembling hand to stop. He lifted his eyes to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna followed his gaze. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom of the incline and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren lands. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “By whom?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are here nonetheless.”

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

Teal watched Ishtar stumble. I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through his chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark. Luxonian Guardians should respect our own treaties.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest and started rubbing in slow circles.

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

With a teasing grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his eyes with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

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

Zuri crouched on a boulder, his black bio-armor including headgear, bodysuit, and hard-toed boots, glinted in the bright sun. As he hunched over a handheld screen, his gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal. Cresta Accords are nothing to splash at, especially when they’re backed up by a Luxonian treaty and your Ingoti Magisterium’s seal of approval.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and dropped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed day,

Ann

Seek to become someone’s true friend.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Wouldn’t You?

Henrietta Huber wanted to know why a dead cat lay across her doorstep. Animals didn’t normally pick her abode to succumb to death’s tyrannical fate. Nor humans for that matter, thank God. Still, the fact remained; a stiff body sprawled awkwardly before her front door.

She lifted her gaze and peered around her quiet, respectable neighborhood. She lived in the center of her cul-de-sac. It had always felt like a privilege, being snug in the middle of her neighbors; a dark brown ranch house to the right, and a two-story brick dwelling on her left. Upper middle class. Very. But today, her quaint neighborhood emitted the faintest odor of disease. Or was that the cat?

Not one to let fate have its way with her, Henrietta trotted a few steps down the street.

A fancy board painted with red fruit dangling from thick boughs and fancy lettering which spelled out “Apple Valley,” announced the entrance to their neighborhood, though only one pair of apple trees stood guard on each side of the road and no valley could be seen for twenty miles. Still, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and a pleasant assortment of craftsmen lived here. It was not a place to be sniffed at. Especially not today.

She chewed her lip as she returned to her front step. These simply were not the sort of people to drop a dead critter on a neighbor’s doorstep. On the contrary, Henrietta knew several with speed dial who would gladly report the slightest hint of animal abuse.

She frowned at the insinuation of less than stellar animal care at her feet.

Could this reflect badly on her, perhaps? Had she left some antifungal spray, insect killer, or some other ugly reminder of nature’s imperfect reality in a place where this critter inadvertently killed itself upon her carelessness?

Sheesh! One faced deadly peril at every turn these days.

A neighbor’s door opened and a head poked out.

Henrietta stepped in front of the circumstantial evidence and mumbled to herself. “Oh, blast, Lindsey Jenkins. Good Lord, I’ll be hauled before the county judge and sentenced to twenty hours of community service if this gets out.”

Lindsey, without delay, skittered across her neatly manicured yard, practically leaped over the prickly bush border, and with wringing hands prostrated her forlorn figure before her bewildered neighbor.

Considering that Lindsey was nearer seventy than sixty and usually worked her mouth more than her legs, Henrietta was duly impressed. She dragged her eyes off the thorny hedgerow and interrogated her elder neighbor with her eyes.

Lindsey, clearly in a hurry to immortalize herself in some kind of unforgettable apology, gushed her words. “Henny, so sorry about the cat carcass, but I really had no choice.”

In her attempt to draw her neighbor away from prying eyes, Henrietta tripped over the cat.

Lindsey clasped her friend’s arm and with surprising strength, ushered Henrietta inside the pristine abode.

Once safely ensconced on the beautifully embroidered divan, Henrietta, forgoing common decency, waited for the tale to be told before she offered a morning snack. She arched her brows.

Leaning back with one hand slapped against her cheek like a surprised matron finding the cook and the butler in a compromising position, Lindsey inhaled enough breath to begin. “You see, my grandkids simply adore my cat. Or rather, they adored it. Until it died. When I told their mother, my daughter-in-law, Myrtle, who was bringing the kids over for their usual visit today, that Cleopatra had finally succumbed to old age, she insisted that I tell the children before they arrived.”

Henrietta could not for the world imagine where this was going. Despite herself, she felt intrigued. The morning news could wait. Heck, if the world were on the verge of collapse, she would lift a hand in command that it wait a few moments so she could hear this before falling to its inevitable doom.

Henrietta didn’t need to prod. Lindsey knew what was expected. “And so, I did what any decent grandmother would do. I told a wonderful tale of how Cleo sprouted angel wings at the moment of death and flew off to her celestial reward.”

If someone had actually dropped a bar of hot lead in Henrietta’s lap, she would not have been more surprised. She shouldn’t have been so amazed. But that was the way of things. Being caught off guard by the obvious. They all lived in a fantasyland of sorts. She knew that perfectly well every time she steered her tiny car onto the speeding highway. But this? Angel cats with wings? Ascending into heaven? No wonder children dress up as zombies for fun. Why pretend anything makes sense?

Lindsey shook her head as if in sympathy with Henrietta’s perplexed expression. “When I heard the car drive up…and with Cleo still unburied…I knew I had to do something fast. I had no idea they were in the neighborhood when she called. I couldn’t think what to do!”

Henrietta grunted to her feet and strolled to the front door. She peered through the glass. Ah, yes. The prickly hedge hid the offending lie. She turned and faced her devious neighbor. “And now?”

With a swipe across her brow, Lindsey chuckled. “Well, the kids have gone off with their mama, and I’m in the clear. I told Jake to get the cat as soon as he gets a break and bury it out back somewhere. Maybe under that sugar maple we all love. It’d be fitting. And well out of the way.”

Remembering her manners, Henrietta offered a cup of tea and a little something, but Lindsey supposed that she better get home. She stood on the threshold and stared down at the remains of her once-loved pet. “I know I told a ridiculous tale and made a fool of myself trying to keep the kids in ignorance of the hard facts of life. But,” She glanced Henrietta’s way, a hopeful gleam in her eyes. “You’d do the same for your grandkids, wouldn’t you?”

As Jake scooped the stiff body onto a wheelbarrow and then wobbled it toward his backyard, Henrietta considered Lindsey’s question. “Would I?”

 

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

I Think I’ll Live

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

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

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

Or it should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip winced. He knew darn well what was coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our wounds make us weaker. More uncertain.”

Brent whistled low.

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

Brent smiled. “It’s lovely.”

With a hesitating smile, she swung away.

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

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

“Wisdom of Solomon, man.”

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

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

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

Philip’s jaw clenched.

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

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

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

“You could’ve, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guess you’re going to live, eh?”

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

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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