Those Pesky Black Holes

“Sucked into Black Holes During Sleep, They Share Their Darkest Secrets.”

Bruno read the headline twice, promptly running his cart into the store shelf. Stunned, he jerked his gaze off his phone.

“Hey, not supposed to read while driving.” A woman, fifties, blunt-cut, short hair, laughed with shining eyes.

Shocked, Bruno stashed his phone in his pocket and shoved his cart alongside the shelf, a guilty child trying to hide the evidence. He forced a grin. No words forthcoming.

She sidled up, her smile dimming by degrees. “Sorry. I tried to warn you. But you were so intent—”

He scratched his head. He didn’t want to have a conversation. A lie formed before his conscience could object. “I had to check a text—”

She lifted a hand. “Not my business. I was being stupid.” Her gaze took in the contents of his cart.

Dang, it. An extra-large bag of his dad’s Depends and a bright blue denture cleaner box bared the naked side of human misery. In revenge, he snuck a look at her cart. Red hair dye and blue nail polish. He glanced at her. Grey hair, fingers unadorned. He frowned.

She grimaced. “My mom’s dealing with that crap too. She was at Wayside, but with everything, I brought her home and got home healthcare. It’s better, but not really good, if you know what I mean.”

Relief, like a spring breeze, washed over Bruno. “Dad’s still on his own, sort of. Lives in the apartment above me. Neither of us can give up our independence. But…”

She snatched up the box of dye. “She gets bored and depressed. So, every couple of months I do a new treatment. This month—” Her lips flapped as she blew a puff of air. “Rad red! I’d like to take her out to eat or something—”

Bruno shrugged in compassionate understanding. “Hell trying to keep ’em on their feet.”

She snorted but a smile crept back into her eyes. “It was easier with a toddler. I could toss them into a cart and strap ‘em in.”

“My twins gave me weekly heart attacks, but they grew out of their hijinks.” Bruno tried not to let the next thought tear his heart out.

With a commander’s wave, she redirected her cart. “Well best of luck then, and keep an eye out for where you’re heading.”

“Ha. I’ll be more careful.” I’m not going anywhere.

~~~

Bruno flipped three grilled cheese sandwiches and then stirred a pot of creamy tomato soup. “Lunch is ready, Dad.”

His dad hobbled in. Using his cane with deft power, he nudged a kitchen chair aside and plunked down at the table with a long sigh. “Smells good. He stretched his neck, peering at the pot. “You add something extra?”

“Lots of garlic salt.” He slid one sandwich onto a plate and placed it on the table. Then he poured the soup into a wide bowl and set it alongside. He fixed his own meal, grabbed a couple of spoons, and dropped them into place. He plopped down on a chair across from his dad, folded his hands, and bowed his head.

Hurried sign of the cross, a quick prayer, and they started in.

Slurps and clanks of metal on glass accompanied their chewing and swallowing.

The old man glanced up, wiped his chin, and huffed. “Anything new in the big world?”

Bruno shrugged as he swallowed his last bite. “I ran into a shelf and some strange woman laughed at me.”

His eyes widening in horror, the old man spluttered. “The wretched—”

Bruno grinned. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and she was nice enough.” He pulled out his phone. “I wanted to check something, and I got stopped by a headline—something about people falling into a black hole. Caught my attention at a weak moment. Smack. Hit the toothpaste shelf full speed.” 

Grinning, the old man rested his spoon on his empty bowl and tucked the used napkin underneath. “Good thing you didn’t hit a middle aisle. You could’ve set off a cascade of cat food.” He frowned. “What were you checking?”

A blush burned Bruno’s face. “There was such a variety of adult diapers. I had no idea.”

Dropping his gaze, a flush darkened his dad’s cheeks. “Aw, hell. I wish—”

“Don’t, dad. It’s not so bad. Everyone has stuff to deal with. That woman’s mom is depressed and needs a new perm every month.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And likes to have her nails done. I’ll take a bag of Depends over that any day.”

The old man’s hand shook as he reached across the table and pressed his son’s fingers.

~~~

Though dark clouds scuttled in from the north and the temperature was dropping, there was still enough time to get in one more lap around the park. Bruno shook the last vestiges of tension from his shoulders and focused on a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree.

He promptly bumped shoulders with a woman jogging by on his left.

Huffing, she scowled and stopped. “Hey! Look where—”

She looked strangely familiar. Embarrassment and dripping sweat sent an uncomfortable chill down Bruno’s back. “Sorry. I was—”

“Oh, you again.” A smile quirked her lips. “But you’re not texting and driving, at least. Thank God for that.”

A park bench behind the central swing set beckoned.

“I’m ready for a break. You?”

She nodded. “Sure. Mom’s napping, so I sneak out on the weekends to get in a little R & R.”

Trudging across the dead winter grass, he puffed a laugh. “You call running rest and relaxation?”

She plodded alongside. “Don’t you?”

He waited while she brushed broken twigs aside and plopped down.

They breathed freely for a few moments, gazing at the quiet park.

A trio of squirrels scampered past.

Bruno wagged his finger. “It was their fault, really. I got caught up in their drama.”

Laughter filled the park. A happy sound. She settled into a giggle. “Yeah, it’s always something, isn’t it?”

He turned. “How’s your mom doing?”

She blinked and swallowed. “Okay. Not really thrilled with the red. She wants to go back to being a blond, but with her wispy threads, it wouldn’t be pretty. Need something to distract the eye, if you know what I mean.” Changing course, she clapped one mittened hand over the other and focused on him. “And your dad. How’s he?”

“Scarfs down my grilled cheese and tomato soup like it’s going out of style.”

A fresh laugh, softer, but honest and appreciative.

Two plump robins hopped nearby.

He nudged her and signaled with his eyes.

She smiled. “Wish I brought something. Breadcrumbs…”

He nodded.

She cleared her throat. “You ever bring your dad out to eat? Like to your kids’ place or—”

He tipped his head. “I would, but they live in California. An airport would be a nightmare.” He cut his glance aside. “Yours?”

“Naw. They’re not very patient with her. Nice enough when I do everything, but they’re mostly eat-outers.”

Like a bobblehead, he just nodded a bit.

The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine illuminated the park, bathing the playground in golden light.

“I have a ramp up to the kitchen door. A neighbor helped with it. Got treads and everything.”

“Me too.”

Two of the squirrels perched on a branch, sitting amiably. The third bounded toward the swings.

“Your mom likes grilled cheese?”

Though her head stayed down, a smile lit her face brighter than sunshine. “She loves it.” She looked over, shifting in her seat, getting a firmer position. “I make a fantastic beef stew. Really easy to chew but nutritious as all get out.”

“Really?” He pulled out his phone. “You know, I read that black holes have been catching people while they sleep. Thought maybe you’d like to help me keep watch out for ‘em.” He cleared his throat, scrounging up his courage. “Maybe we could have dinner together sometime—your mom, my dad—us.”

A glimmer entered her eyes as her smile widened. “Oh, yeah. Got to keep our eye out for those pesky black holes. They swallow people alive, I hear, unless we help each other out.”

He stood and pointed across the park. “My place is just there. Dad’s got his own ideas about things—but he’s feisty enough to keep black holes at bay. Care to meet him?”

She stood and squared her shoulders. “Only if you’re willing to meet my mom. God knows what color her hair will be.”

He laughed as he nudged her forward. “Long as she hasn’t been swallowed whole—she’ll be all right with me.”

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter https://amzn.to/3v7w8oI

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings https://amzn.to/3rtAy6S

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/science-science-channel-5350597/

The Me I Want to Be

Martin, dressed in jeans, a light sweater, and his running shoes, stood on the edge of a gaping hole where his home was supposed to stand and realized that the earth beneath his feet could give way at any time. He stepped back. When the pressure of solid earth penetrated the soles of his feet, he stopped.

Taller than her brother, with long black hair rippling down her back, her body wrapped in a winter coat, yet still shivering, Jacquelyn meandered close and clasped his frozen hand. “You need to forget it. Let it go.”

His snort, bitter and abrupt, left no doubt about his feelings on that score. “It let me go! It left me without a foundation for my house.”

Jacquelyn hugged his arm. Words were of no use now.

With a sigh, he turned away. “There’s nothing to do but abandon the whole thing. Chalk it up as a learning experience, though I can’t say I learned much. What’s a sinkhole supposed to teach me? That my hopes, like my marriage, can drop into the abyss at a moment’s notice?”

Jacquelyn pulled a thick strand of hair from her face. “You’ll find a better place and another—”

Heat flushed Martin’s face as his heartbeat ricocheted through his tense body. “Good God, if you say I’ll find another wife, I may never speak to you again.”

Tears filled Jacquelyn’s eyes.

With an apologetic shake of his head, Martin grabbed her hand and hurried to his truck. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s too cold, and you’re just getting over that ridiculous flu.” He opened the passenger door to his Ford truck and helped her climb in. Then he jogged to the driver’s side, slapping his hands to regain feeling in his fingertips. He slid into place, started the car, and backed out of the makeshift driveway.

A few trees still sported burnt orange and yellow leaves. As dark clouds bundled in the west and the wind picked up, only the hardy oaks held fast. The rest would be stripped bare before the week was out. With a sinking feeling, the image of his wife, soon to be ex-wife, describing the house she wanted and all the fun they’d have filling it with adorable children, stabbed his gut.

He turned the truck onto the freeway. “You feeling okay?”

Jacquelyn shrugged. “Dad didn’t know who I was on my last visit. Jay got laid off, so I’m trying to pick up another online teaching job. Amy hates her biology teacher, and me half the time, but she’s getting through. Our family stubborn streak comes in handy.” She flashed a smile, though her face didn’t reflect it.

His eyes on the road, Martin pressed her arm in a gentle squeeze. “Sorry. I’m not the only one going through stuff.” He sighed. “You’re right. I got the land cheap, and I’ll find another place to build. Sandra only married me for my good looks, charm, and oodles of money. Guess it served her right to discover the frog under her prince, eh?”

Jacquelyn peered out the window, her tears gave way. “She doesn’t know you, or she’d never have left.”

“She knew. She just wanted something else. Someone else.”

“She wants to be someone else.” Jacquelyn shrugged. “Easy mistake to make.”

Martin took the right lane and followed it to the exit. He curved with the road, checked the quiet intersection, and pulled onto Main Street. Going a modest 30 mph felt like crawling.

A group outside the Famished Farmers café waved as they passed.

Martin waved back.

Jacquelyn imitated an Egyptian mummy.

With a tilt of his head, Martin frowned. “Wasn’t that blond with the spike heels your friend from—?”

“She made some comments on my peer review…pretty harsh. I’m staying out of her way.”

“Oh.”

“Her husband had a crush on me and well…”

Martin winced. God, when did life get so bloody complicated?

As he wound his way through town, Martin picked a safe topic. “Still taking your medicine?”

“Only if I have trouble breathing. Been doing well the last few days.” She glanced aside. “And you? Still taking that anti-depressant?”

Martin wanted to slam his head against the steering wheel as he picked up speed along the country road. “No. I had lots of reasons to be depressed, but it isn’t the end of the world. I just need to figure out how to get undepressed.”

A hound chasing a rabbit dashed out in front of the truck.

Martin swerved, hit the brakes, and skidded to abrupt stop inches from a deep ravine.

As they sat there, stunned, Jacquelyn exhaled a long shuddering breath.

Martin swiveled out of the truck, not even bothering to slam the door shut. He strode around, stared at the tires peeking over the edge of the gorge, and waved at his sister. “Don’t move!”

He sped to the truck, slipped into place, and slowly edged the car backward. Then he started to sob.

Jacquelyn rubbed his back in a large, slow circle. “Catch your breath, Marty.”

Martin rested his head on the steering wheel. “After the accident, I thought I’d be strong. Mom died so quick. But no matter what I do, Dad’s slipping into senility. Despite the fact that my wife found a guy she likes better, I still planned to build the house, and then the ground sinks from under me, literally. And now, I nearly drive us off a cliff.” Martin lifted his head and stared at his sister. “You think someone got me mixed up with a guy named Job?”

A tired smile ghosted across Jacquelyn’s face. “Life is hellishly hard, but we hang in there anyway.”

Martin’s mind drew a blank. “Why? It’d be so much easier to give up.”

Jacquelyn dug into her purse and pulled out a wallet. She snapped open a small picture album and wiggled out a photo. It was a long-legged, longer-haired Martin, age twelve. She held it up.

Martin leaned forward; his jaw dropped open. “What’re you doing carrying that around? It should be burned! I’m wearing bell-bottoms for Heaven’s sake! It could be used against me in a court of law.”

Jacquelyn snatched it back and pressed it to her chest. “It’s mine. When I have a bad day, I pull it out.”

Martin shook his head, confusion rising like late-summer fog.

“This was the year that guy I loved dumped me for my best friend, I got that awful perm, and I failed algebra. Mom was working evenings, dad started drinking, and I hated everyone.”

“You were fifteen.” He pointed to the picture. “Why are—”

“You took me out for ice cream, and I punched you, splattering chocolate sauce on your good shirt. Made a big stain on the front, you can still see the mark.” She tapped the picture.

A smile spread across his face, reaching his heart. “You were a bully. What’s new?”

“I tried to apologize by ordering you to wear a clean shirt, but you said that you’d know people by what they saw. Either they’d see a stain or they’d see you. Later you gave the shirt to Rosco so he’d sleep in the doghouse without barking all night.”

Martin ran his fingers through his hair. “Color me confused.”

“When I look at the picture, I see the me I want to be. I don’t see a stain. I see possibilities.”

Martin tilted his head, put the car into gear, and pulled onto the road. “You think I could turn a sinkhole into a basement or something?”

Jacquelyn laughed. “Make it a family room, and I’ll help you build it.”

Martin dropped Jacquelyn at home and then headed to the worksite. He was back on solid ground.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter https://amzn.to/3v7w8oI

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings https://amzn.to/3rtAy6S

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/cave-hole-landscape-blue-sky-sunny-555727/