With Your Help

Leander dropped his head on his hands and slouched on the edge of a metal, straight-backed chair.

The crowded room murmured with low-toned conversations amid a swirl of officious activity.

A uniformed officer paced before him, his hands clasped behind his back. “So you—what? Give online advice?”

The floor, grey plastic tiles with chipped edges and age cracks, offered not an ounce of inspiration.

Leander peered up, barely lifting his head above his hands. Weariness engulfed him. “No. Not really. I just…chat with people and reflect on the state of things in our world.” He sat straighter. “How could that be so wrong? Everyone does it.”

The officer stopped mid-pace and blew air into the stagnant room. “People make all sorts of suggestions—demands even. But few listen. In your case, you were unlucky enough to have someone follow your advice and do exactly as you suggested.”

Leander stood, his hands waving, imploring. “I only said that we should throw all our guns in the ocean…you know…get rid of our weapons of destruction.”

The officer chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. “So this lady gets a group of moms, and they gather every weapon they lay their hands on, hire a boat, and go out…and do just that!”

Leander gripped the desk for support. “I didn’t think anyone would really do it—not like that.”

“Like what—you think?”

“I just wanted to make a concrete suggestion, something people could do to make the world a better place.”

“Drop your assorted guns in the ocean?”

“Out of kids’ hands! Yeah. Is that a bad idea?” Embarrassment, fear, and anger played touch football in Leander’s stomach. “Listen, Officer, I’m not the bad guy here. I didn’t mean anyone should break the law or do anything stupid. I figured anyone who read my post would understand what I meant.”

“You know, when Ms. Stevens was apprehended, the first thing she said was—‘Leander Jones told me to do it.’”

“Oh, God.” Feeling faint, Leander dropped back into his chair.

The officer stepped over and crouched before him. “What—you’re in your forties; you’ve got a wife and kids, and you honestly thought you were helping humanity out.” He stood. “When she mentioned your name, I read through your blog. Got some nice sentiment there.” He stepped away and stared at the wall. “I’ve seen the aftermath of a school shooting. I know what guns can do. I know how—” He stopped and ran his hands over his face. He turned. “Still—fact is—she blames you.”

Lander pulled himself to his feet. “I didn’t say anything that Hollywood stars and politicians haven’t been saying for years. Guns are dangerous.”

The officer pulled out his desk chair. “In the wrong hands. I agree with you.” He sat and glanced up. “So is advice.”

~~~

Leander sauntered over to the embankment and stared at the waves rippling over the lake. Kids and adults hustled between picnic tables, arranging and snatching food, joking, chatting, and having a fun Sunday afternoon.

A man dressed in black, wearing a Roman collar, plodded over the short grass and stood next to Leander, facing the scenic beauty. “Love this view. Trees, sky, and water refresh the soul—” He glanced at Leander. “Don’t you agree?”

Leander’s eyes narrowed. “They should.” He sighed. “But I’ve found that life is nothing but a bundle of contradictions.” He whisked a fly off his arm. “You oughta know better than anyone. Blessed are the poor…riches lead to slavery…good intentions pave the way to hell.”

Father Peter retreated to a log situated on the water’s edge. Propping one foot on the trunk, he crossed his arms over his thigh and watched a flock of geese fly overhead.

Leander faced his priest. “What? No clarification? Aren’t you going to explain that God knows our hearts, and we should trust in Him no matter how wretchedly things turn out?”

Father Peter dropped his gaze and met Leander’s eyes. “You said it—what’s left?”

Leander pounded across the spongy turf and stood before the priest, his hands on his hips. “You know what happened! I gave innocent, well-meaning advice—and I nearly went to jail.” Tears welled. “What that would’ve happened to Jeanie and the kids then?”

Father Peter’s waited. His gaze steady, his demeanor calm.

Leander flung out his hand and waved a finger in the priest’s face. “Really, it’s all your fault! Aren’t you always preaching about how we should be salt and light in the world? What a world!” He turned and paced away. “The other day, I gave a steak bone to the dog, and he choked!” He swung around. “I gave twenty bucks to a homeless guy and not ten minutes later I saw him buying cigarettes!”

Someone called from the distance and waved.

Father Peter straightened and waved back. He returned his gaze to Leander. “So what do you want to do?”

“Do? Duck and hide—if only  I could. But this damned world hounds me. The other day my son came home with a guy dressed like a girl, my sister was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, and my boss thinks he might have cancer.” Leander plopped down on the log. “There’s too much grief and when I try to mend a problem, I nearly get sent to Alcatraz.”

Father Peter shook his head. “You can’t save the world.”

“Save? Heck, I can’t even apply a decent band-aid.”

Father Peter chuckled and patted Leander on the back. “The job of Savior has already been taken.”

Leander pivoted on his heel, thrusting Father’s hand away. “Ah! There’s where we disagree.” His face flushed, he felt nearly drunk on fury. “Kids are killing other kids, drug abuse is on the rise, for all our prosperity—the world’s a miserable place.” He glared at the priest. “Doesn’t seem to me that anyone’s safe—or saved!”

His jaw hardening, but his eyes softening, Father Peter lifted his hands in surrender. “You’re right. The world as we know it is pretty miserable. No denying that. But this world is not all there is. We don’t have to be saved —not if we don’t want to.”

“Stop being so sanctimonious.”

“Stop trying to be God.”

The two men glared at each other. A shuffle turned their gazes.

A little boy hovered near, his eyes wide. Fear scrawled across his face.

Leander closed his eyes and rubbed his temple.

Father Peter crouched and beckoned the boy over. “It’s okay, Davy. Your dad and I are just having a little discussion.”

Davy hesitated, glancing from one man to the next. He finally settled on his dad. “Mom said lunch is ready. Eat now cause she’s not fixing anything else.”

Leander opened his eyes and nodded. “Be right there.”

The boy turned and scampered away.

Father Peter turned to follow but glanced over his shoulder. “Everything you said is true, Leander. You’re not wrong. But you’re not completely right, either.”

A sob welled up inside Leander as he peered into the distance and watched his son tug on his wife’s arm, probably babbling on about how dad was arguing with the pastor. “So what, in Heaven’s name, am I supposed to do? How do I live in this crazy world?”

Father Peter sighed and waited. “Do the best you can. Remember, you’re a man. Not the Creator of the universe.”

Leander shuffled forward. “There’s a new world waiting for us—and God’ll make everything right in the end?”

Father chuckled, patted Leander’s arm, and moved on. “With your help—yep.”

Leander snorted, shook his head, and headed for lunch.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Test a Theory

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

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

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

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

“So you finally made it.”

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

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh, oh.

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

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

Ark glanced at Ungle.

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

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

Ungle waved the servant away.

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

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

A bell tinkled.

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

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

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

Ark took the hint.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So—”

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

“That goes against all his training.”

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

“What do you want?”

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

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

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

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

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

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Crushed—But Not to Death

Camilla sat at the outdoor café and listened to the twittering of the birds and the distant rumble of thunder. How was possible that the two co-existed yet seemed so oblivious to each other? Did the birds worry about an approaching storm? Not so you’d notice—they flew and chirped in their usual abandon. And the storm clearly wasn’t about to alter its course to avoid a flock of happy birds.

“Perhaps it’s a grace…”

“Excuse me?”

Camilla glanced up. A man in blue jeans, a white shirt stretched over defined muscles, with wavy black hair, intense sparkling eyes, and a charming grin stood before her table with a tray in hand. A hot flush swept up her cheeks. Lord, don’t let me blush…please… Too late.

“Uh, oh, nothing…just talking to myself. Odd. Me.” She glanced around. All the other tables were full. A quick glance at her purse loitering on one empty chair and her foot absently propped on the other. Selfish slob. She dropped her foot, snatched her purse off the chair, and blushed. Again. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to—” Oh, Lord, he’s sitting down…at my…table. Not mine. Just…a table…

“Do you mind?” He gestured to the unencumbered portion.

She scrunched her books closer. “No, course not.” She swished her gaze around the bustling café. When did it get so busy? She glanced at her watch. “No, can’t be!”

Arranging his breakfast plate and hot coffee, the man peered up. “Something wrong?”

Camilla swallowed. “I just lost three hours.” She adjusted her glasses on her nose. “I came in when they opened at 6:30 and now my watch is telling me that it’s 9:30. That can’t possibly be.”

After slathering his wheat toast with grape jelly, the man proceeded to take a large bite. He chewed, swallowed, and tapped his watch. “What day is it?”

Frowning, Camilla blinked. The dark clouds and their faint thunder had veered north. Sunshine reflected brilliantly on every surface. “Uh, Friday, November eleventh.” She grinned like she had just won the final match of a tennis game.

“Nope. It’s Saturday, November the twelfth.”

Shock drained all thought from her mind as Camilla shot to her feet. “It can’t be! I’d have missed my class and mom’s evening medication—Oh God!” She practically inhaled her notebooks in one encompassing swish.

A strong hand reached out and gripped her hand. “Sorry! Really.”

The grin was still there, though a little sheepish now. “I was joking. Didn’t think you’d take me seriously. Please. Sit down. It’s Friday. No time warp or anything.”

Camilla thrust her hand against her chest as if she could put it back in place manually. “Lord, have mercy.” She glanced at him as she sat down. Such a sweet face, too. Kind or cruel…

He cut his egg into bite-sized pieces with the side of his fork, dropped a bit of bacon onto each piece, and enjoyed.

Camilla pursed her lips. “You like to traumatize people before you eat?” She thrust out a hand. “Camilla. Just so you know who you almost sent into coronary arrest.”

He swallowed. “James.” Then he took a sip of coffee and leaned back for a moment’s respite from the exhausting labors of eating and teasing. “So tell me, Camilla. How did you manage to lose three hours on such a glorious morning?”

Clutching her notebook against her chest, one shoulder doing its own little shrug, Camilla glanced across the campus. “I was writing. It’s like that Narnia story where you go into another world for a few days and thousands of years pass back home.” She met his intense gaze. And blushed. Again.

“What do you write?” He sipped his coffee, his hands cradling the cup, but he seemed interested.

Camilla swallowed panic. He’s really bored. Waiting for his girlfriend to get here. Or his wife… “Oh, just stuff. Stories that never get published and sit on my laptop languishing for—”

His gaze followed another student as she sauntered by.

Hot lead burned in Camilla’s stomach feeling strangely akin to jealousy. Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t even know this guy! She gathered her notebooks. One slid off the top and landed on his jellied toast.

He glanced up and met her gaze. “Why do they languish? Stories are meant to be read.” With care, he used his napkin and wiped the notebook free of jam.

Camilla laid it back on top. She peered at him. “To be perfectly honest, I’m ridiculously sensitive—totally crushed by rejection.”

“Not totally.” He started on his second egg.

Camilla clutched her books tighter. “Yes. I am. I know how I feel about my writing. I’m sick for days when my professors correct my papers. I hate it when anyone finds fault—”

He took another sip and frowned. “I didn’t say you liked it. I said you wouldn’t be totally crushed. You’ll be a better writer by hearing what others think of your work.”

Oh, really? Camilla tried to take the edge of sarcasm off her tone and slipped back onto her chair. She leaned forward, her hands clenched tight around her stack. “I got something published once…in a magazine. You know what happened?”

James bit his toast and raised an eyebrow.

“One reader wrote in and said that my beginning sucked, it was boring and flat. But then, some other guy wrote and said he loved the way it began and thought I had an artistic touch.”

James wiped his mouth and drained the last of his coffee. “So?”

“So, readers mess with my mind! I didn’t know what to think or who to believe.”

“Do you like your work?”

“I love my work. That’s the problem. Each story is like an innocent child—and when I send them out in the world…they get throttled. Or ignored. Which is even worse.”

“Was your next piece a little better?”

“That’s generally the goal.”

“So you weren’t crushed.” He looked around. “I wish they had waitresses who came around with coffee.”

Camilla kept her gaze steady. I will not roll my eyes…I will not roll my— “It’s self-serve, here.”

James stood with his plastic coffee cup in hand. “Yeah. I get that.” He glanced at the table and her empty cup. “Want some more?”

Camilla glanced at her watch. “I have a noon class.”

“So you’ve still got a couple hours—right?” He started away. “You said it. Self-serve. Gotta take a chance. That’s what writing is all about—isn’t it?”

Swiping up her empty, she trotted to his side and filled her cup with just enough room for three scoops of sugar and a dollop of cream. “How do you know so much about writing?”

“I’m an architect. I plan beautiful buildings and cities and—” Stirring his coffee, James started back to the table. “You know what happens?”

Camilla shook her head, frowning.

“Everyone makes suggestions. Helpful hints. Monetary considerations. Historical reflections…” He slid back into his chair. “No one gets to have it their own way.”

“But you’re not crushed?”

“Crushed. But not to death.”

A shadow dimmed the light. Dark clouds swept in and a rumble of thunder rolled overhead.

Camilla laughed. She glanced at James. “Perhaps, it is grace…”

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

A Hostile World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hawk squawked and flapped its wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That hardly justifies war.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d flash away.”

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

“I’d rather be a rock.”

“Not a good choice.”

Sienna squinted, confused.

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

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

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

“And the Cresta and Ingoti?”

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

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

A gorgeous Peregrine Falcon swooped overhead.

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

I’ll Always Know

“She’ll never know.”

As I tromped along the cornfield-bordered road, I clamped down on the squirming kitten and stared bug-eyed at my friend-sometimes-worst enemy. “Won’t know? As in won’t notice another kitten among her whole slew of critters?”

Janet smiled that patronized smile she had—like she was four years older rather than four months. “Exactly.” She nudged me in the ribs.

My ribs had taken enough from the pounding of my heart. I stopped then and there. A storm was coming, and the kitty was onto it. That and the fact that we were well beyond my property line. “Listen, I’m not a deceptive person by nature. This whole enterprise—”

“Enterprise? We’re not on a starship. We’re in the middle of a blinking cornfield trying to do the right thing by this—” She zeroed in on the clawing bundle of black fur. “Fluff muffin.” With a hand on her hip and one finger-wagging, she launched in. “You’ve got another baby on the way, a husband who is hardly ever home, a house that’s falling about your ears, and a sick grandmother.” She jutted her jaw at the little eye peeking out from under my elbow. “You don’t need—that!”

I shrugged. “But it was in with the chickens—in the coop. Don’t you wonder if that was a sign…from God maybe?”

The roll of Janet’s eyes was positively eloquent. “God has got better things to do. Like, keep people—”

A long rolled “Helll-ooo” stopped us both.

Mrs. Blackstone trundled down the rocky drive and toodle-oooed. “Thought I heard voices. Just coming to check the mail—Al forgot yesterday.” She slapped her hands and chuckled as if her husband’s memory loss tickled her funny bone. “Not that there’s much to see—bills and ads and those obnoxious political adverts. Might as well tell me who to pray to.”

The kitten had had quite enough—and since I had tightened my grip—she probably wanted to breathe as well. The scratch she offered in return, set her free and let loose a naughty word on my part. I would’ve clamped my hand over my mouth, but I was too busy clamping my hand over the long bleeding tear in my forearm.

Janet merely shook her —at the scratch, the freed cat, or my poor literary choices, I didn’t know, and at that moment, I didn’t care.

Mrs. Blackstone, on the other hand, knew a thing or two about mercy and infections. “Oh, let me take you right in and put something on that. It’ll swell up quick if you don’t.” She peered around. “Was that the black kitten that went missing couple days ago?”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

I let myself be tugged along like the child I wasn’t and glanced at my neighbor. “Was that your kitten?”

“Oh, got so many; I lose count. New litters year round it seems. Some live, some die, some move on…” She led me up the back steps into a warm kitchen. A stew pot simmered on the stove. “Just sit and make—” She glanced at Janet as if she had noticed her for the first time. “Oh, hi, Jan.” She waved to a back room. “Back in a sec.”

Janet pulled out a chair and plunked down as if she had been the one been wrestling a miniature tiger.

I toed a stool forward—my good hand being occupied, trying to stem the flow of blood, which I was certain would cascade down my arm if I took my hand away. I perched on the edge.

“See, I told you. It never was your responsibility in the first place.”

I leaned in and, I’ll admit, my whisper wasn’t gentle. “As it turns out, if we’d left it alone, it probably would’ve wandered home on its own.”

“Not in a million years. You’d have babied it—like you baby everything. Why, you would’ve taken it in at night and fed it leftover hamburger.”

“That’s a crime?”

“How many hours sleep did you get last night?”

“What on God’s green earth does that have to do with—?”

“Here we are.” Mrs. Blackstone waved a vial of dark liquid, a cotton ball, and a package of Band-Aids. “We’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

I sniffed when she unscrewed the top. It smelled faintly familiar but unlike any medicine, I’d ever come across. “What’s that?”

“Oh, a homemade remedy my mama taught me.”

She dabbed the cotton ball in the liquid, motioned for my arm, and grinned.

I was fairly sure I’d make a mess of her floor if I let go of my arm, but her cotton ball commanded compliance, so I flung caution to the wind and extended my damaged limb. You can imagine my surprise when I saw not a flood of leaking corpuscles but rather a long swelling red mark.

As she ran the ointment-soaked swab down my arm, I suddenly knew with blinding certainty the main ingredient in her mama’s home remedy. I gritted my teeth against a fresh onslaught of naughty words. “Is that—apple cider vinegar—by—any—chance?”

“Certainly. Kills germs on contact.”

It was certainly killing something. I hoped not my will to live.

For the first time, Janet seemed to actually feel something for me other than contempt. She winced and patted the hand I clenched in my lap.

As we sauntered back up the road toward my farmhouse, she nudged me in the ribs again. “Listen. I was just trying to make a point. I didn’t expect you to get martyred by an old family cure-all.”

I stopped and closed my eyes. Janet was right. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before…or the night before that…or the night… But it didn’t matter. It was my life. I could sacrifice myself in pieces and parts if I chose.

Janet sniffed.

Good Heavens! She couldn’t be…crying… My eyes snapped open.

No, she wasn’t crying—exactly. Just sad. And looked about as tired as I felt.

“I know you’re worried, Jan. But I’m fine. I like extending myself. I love babies and husbands who work too hard…and even killer fluff muffins that show up in my chicken coop.”

Janet considered me through narrowed eyes. “You’re giving me an inferiority complex.”

“Am not.”

Janet climbed the front lawn and headed for the porch steps. “Well, when you collapse from exhaustion—you know who you can rely on help you out.”

I sauntered along behind, checking for Bob’s truck in the driveway. He was still home. Good. The back door hinge was loose. I wrapped my arm around Janet and hugged her and then winced at the still searing burn in my arm. “You’re on my speed dial.”

She snorted and waved to the front door. There, sitting as pretty as a picture, sat the black kitten.

I looked at Janet, and Janet looked at me. The kitten didn’t seem to care when Jan picked it up and started down the road.

But I did. And I’ll always know.

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

We All Have Our Burdens

—OldEarth ARAM Encounter—

Teal rubbed his chin and surveyed the landscape.

The sun shone in brilliant splendor as five vultures circled overhead. The brassy sky, free of clouds, stretched from one side of the horizon to the other. Weathered grasses drooped like weary soldiers no longer able to stay erect.

Standing several feet away from Sterling, Teal motioned ahead. “You can’t see them, but there’s an artisan clan that way.” He turned and flicked a finger in the opposite direction. “And a lake clan this way.” He pulled his lip. “And Neb and his warriors are on the move.”

Sterling swayed on his feet.

Clicking his tongue, Teal strode over and gripped Sterling’s arm. “You all right, sir?”

Sterling smoothed his rough brown tunic. “Adjustment fever. I’ll be fine.” He pursed his lips. “There’s a reason I never wanted to be a guardian. Too much bloody traveling.”

Teal flung his hands on his hips, his own tunic grey and patched. “You travel all over the region—Ingot Magisterium Assemblies, Sectine Ultra Command Accords, Cresta Science Reveals. You even attend Bhuaci music festivals.”

Sterling plucked a grass stem and studied it. “In each case, I’m treated with high regard and fed extremely well.” His gaze rose and followed the vultures. “I suspect they’ll feast more to their liking this day than I shall.”

Clenching his jaw, Teal swiveled on his heel and started to pound away. “First, we’ll visit Aram, then take a glance at Onias, and finally—if we’re lucky—we’ll observe Neb.”

Sterling groaned. “Then will you show me the mineral deposits?”

Stumbling over a tuft of grass, Teal caught himself and cleared his throat. “That’ll be our last stop—before returning home.”

~~~

Aram strolled through the village, appraising the new homes and the layout of the village. He gestured to a youth.

The young man trotted near.

“Tell your father to spread out a little more; there’s plenty of room. We’re not hemmed in anymore—are we?”

“No.” The boy gazed at the landscape. “We have the whole world before us.”

Aram chuckled and patted the youth on the arm. “Well, not the whole world, but enough.” His gaze locked on a man. “I need to attend to business—remind everyone to keep the space between structures wide, so that even on a dark night a drunken man can find his way home.”

Grinning, the youth ambled off.

Aram sucked in a deep breath and marched across the village.

~~~

Teal hid in the shadow of a large spreading tree and rested his hand on Sterling’s arm. His voice dropped to a whisper. “You see how he cares for his people.” He frowned. “But he seems agitated. Something must’ve happened while I was away.”

“By the Divide, these are primitives. Of course, something happened. Weren’t they outrunning a vicious mammal last time you were here?”

Teal gestured to the lake shimmering against the bright sky. “Yet, they’ve outsmarted evil fate and found a new home. Impressive, don’t you think?”

A cluster of children scrambled into camp, followed by a large man with a huge grin. The children ran into their mothers’ arms, and laughter broke out all over the camp.

Sterling blinked. “Wonder what that’s all about.”

Teal chuckled. “Children like to play, and fathers like to tease.” His chest tightened. “Something we rarely experience.” Turning abruptly, he pointed toward the sun. “Let’s go.”

Smothering a suffering sigh, Sterling nodded. They blinked away.

~~~

Teal rubbed his hands together like a man well pleased with a hard day’s work. “We’ve seen Onias assisting in the harvest and Neb marching across the plains—now let’s head west.”

In a hilly region, they stood on the edge of a crater and peered down.

Teal gestured into the pit. “Cresta investigators said it looks natural, but the telltale signs are obvious. Ingots have been mining and, fortunately, they didn’t find what they wanted.”

Sterling shrugged. “They covered it up, so humans won’t be the wiser. What are you worried about? A little foreign mining won’t hurt anyone.”

Teal clumped back down the crumbling dirt. “No?” He plodded to a sheltered spot between two large boulders.

Sterling joined him, standing shoulder to shoulder, staring at a small black mound. “What are we staring at?”

Without breaking his gaze, Teal remained fixed on the mound. “A grave. There are five human beings buried here. A hunting party that strayed too far and paid for it with their lives.”

With a weary harrumph, Sterling flapped his arms against his body like a guilty child about to explain away his misdeed. “It could happen anywhere—to anyone. Humans kill each other all the time.” He faced Teal. “You saw Neb. We both know what he’s planning—”

Pounding his fist into his hand, Teal’s colors blazed. “It’s their fight—they’re humans. It’s not right that a race with superior advantages comes in and steals—”

“You’ve become such a blasted moralist. What’s wrong with a little innocent skimming off the planet?” His gaze flittered over the mound. “I’ll admit—the deaths are unfortunate.”

“They had families—their people will suffer because Ingoti incursions rape the land, and Crestas experiment on their people.”

Sterling clapped his hands together. “You’re hysterical. And, frankly, vulgarity disgusts me.”

Teal shimmered. “Vulgarity? But murder is acceptable.” Gripping Sterling’s arm, Teal glowed like a furnace. “What’re the Cresta offering you?”

Shaking Teal’s hand away, Sterling stomped to an open space. “You’ve just crossed a serious boundary! I’m a judge—and your superior. Just because I was your favorite teacher, don’t assume you can take liberties.” Scowling, he shook a finger at Teal. “I’d hate to accuse you of treason before the council.”

Teal’s colors simmered as his human form solidified. His voice dropped to a stiff, formal tone. “Judge Sterling, I must inform you that Cresta incursions will likely alter the balance of power in this region.”

With a snort, Sterling waved at the mound. “How?”

“The Cresta will use any race they deem fit to further their scientific ends. If they find this planet resourceful, they might influence the inhabitants to protect their interests against the Ingots—and everyone else. Nothing works so well as using the natives to fight your battles.”

“They’d have to manage a whole planet! Cresta aren’t that stupid.”

“They wouldn’t see it that way. They’d simply see an easy profit and an expendable life form.”

Rubbing his hands together, Sterling trod back to the mound and stared at the gravesite. “As I ponder the ramifications, I believe that the Supreme Judges need to consider this situation more carefully.”

Teal’s head dropped to his chest, and he exhaled slowly.

As the pink horizon signaled the end of the day, Sterling sniffed the air. “Someone’s built a fire.”

“Probably making dinner.”

“Yes. Well, I suspect I’ll be dining with the Cresta Ingal in the near future.” Grimacing, he appeared to swallow back a bad taste. “I hate their before-dinner delicacies. But their vegetable dishes are quite good.”

Raking his fingers through his hair to control his temper, Teal forced a placid expression. “You know what’s in them?”

Sterling waved off the thought. “It’s best not to ask.” Placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder, he sighed. “We all have our burdens.”

Teal tipped his head at the obvious.

Looking askance, Sterling waved goodbye and flickered out of sight.

Teal’s gaze returned to the shallow grave.

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

Before the Lights Go Out

Kasandra heaved herself up the ramp and plodded into the back room where various set pieces leaned against the wall, waiting, like the unused furniture they were, for their next big scene.

Allan followed close behind, his dark head bent in thought. The smell of old wood, sweat, and a miracle on the brink of bright lights always sent chills down his arms. He chewed his lip, then peered up at the older, buxom woman. “But you’re great at what you do. They’ll always need women to play your parts—” Kasandra’s abrupt laugh short-circuited his thoughts.

“My parts, you say?” She shook her head and marched with determined steps toward the last dressing room on the right. “Look around, child, and get it through your head that what seems to be is all that matters in this world. Whatever body fits the seeming will get the job done.”

He trotted along and entered the room close behind. “But you’re skilled, and that’s a fact. I wish I were half as good as you.”

Kasandra flopped down on a hard chair and beckoned to the young man. “Get me my shift there on the back of the door.” She pointed to the left. As Allan handed the thin gown to her, she eyed him with a soft smile. “You’re a dear, and that’s a fact. With those blue eyes, firm chin, chiseled jawline, you’re a man made for the stage—or film. Whichever suits your fancy.”

Allan leaned against the dressing counter, his back to the huge mirror. “I’m not special. There’re a hundred guys who look as good as me and can make better use of their arms and legs.” He chuckled. “I’m learning, but it’s a steep curve, and one slip will land me in the mud.”

Kasandra peered into the mirror, dabbed her fingers in cold cream, and smeared it over her face. She tilted her head to get every angle. “You’re a wise kid if you see that all ready.” Her gaze reached through the mirror and smacked into his eyes. “Gain a few too many pounds, get sick, pick up a bad habit…and you’re done for.”

With a shrug, Allan pushed off the counter and sauntered across the room. “Could be true for any profession. Most guys—”

“Naw, it’s not.” She peered back into the mirror. “Well, maybe some. But there’s nothing like show business to teach a person their place.” She thumbed the counter with the flat of her hand. “No place.”

Allan pulled down an oversized feathered hat and slid his fingers along the edge. “How’s that?”

“Can’t hardly be your self. Always got to be somebody else to survive. And you got to look the part and act the part all the time, or your audience will think you’ve gone traitor.”

Plucking the feather, Allan grinned. “You make it sound like we’re prisoners of our profession.”

Kasandra frowned as his fingers played with the feather. “Damage that stupid thing, and  I’ll get hell for it.” She scoured her face and wiped it clean with a fresh cloth. “Prisoners of our bodies, our profession, and our success—if we’re lucky enough to have any.” She nodded to the door. “You better hurry, kiddo. Time and opportunity are passing faster than you think.”

~~~

Late that night, Allan ambled up the steps to his house, strode through the entryway, and frowned at a light glinting from a back room. Stepping carefully, he inched his way forward.

Not a sound.

He poked his head through the open doorway and peered at his father sitting up in bed with a book in his hand.

Allan sauntered forward, a grin warring with a frown. “What’re you doing up so late, da?”

The old man glanced up, startled. He laid the book on his lap with a tired smile hovering on his face. “Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d catch up on my reading.”

Allan titled his head back, considered the cover, and glanced at his father. He turned the book around. “The Egoist?” He pursed his lips. “Thought you liked the classics—”

Da slapped his hand over the cover. “It is a classic. At least in some circles.” He flipped the book over. “It was the title that caught my eye. Thought it might have a few answers.”

One of Allan’s eyebrows rose. “How to be one—or get rid of one?”

Da’s smile reached his eyes. “You’re too damn smart for your own good, laddie.” He shoved the book aside. “How’d it go today?”

“Same as usual. I made mistakes, and I learned from them.” He sat on the edge of the bed. “You remember Kasandra? You know the big—”

Yeah? What about her?”

“She seems to think that as an actor, I’m in for a life sentence—a prisoner of sorts.”

“You think that?”

“I don’t know. It could be true. But then doesn’t every profession make demands, have expectations…I could get fired from anything.”

“True, but not everyone would notice or care. There’s something about becoming a public person that comes with its own set of rules. It’s a matter of trust.”

“Lots of public figures mess up. Sometimes it actually helps their careers—”

“Careers aren’t the person on the inside, son. Don’t forget that. It’s true, you could be a school teacher and get run through the mill, but the public light burns awful bright. It doesn’t care about the person inside.” He tapped his chest and leaned back. “You know, I was in the limelight for a good many years. Cost me more than I care to admit. I got paid well, and I got a lot of attention. But…”

“But?”

“Well, in the end, we’re all going to die and when you get to my age, that makes a person think. If you live long enough, you get old…and hints come along to remind you that we’re not here forever. The lights will dim, the stage door will close, and we’ll have to face what every human being through history has had to face. The great equalizer.”

“Maybe they’ll invent a bio-engineered body when my time comes.”

The joke fell flat. Allan flushed.

“Just remember, Allan, a career, no matter how good, no matter how well you’re paid, no matter how many people tell you they love you— You’re on your own at the end. You better get to know that person…” He tapped his chest again, “before the lights go out.”

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