Leopold

 

Leopold2

For a read-aloud of this post, check out https://anchor.fm/ann-frailey/episodes/Leopold-esf87t

“If ever you go to the North Country

Where the oak and the ash and the rowan be,

And the ivy bosses the castle wall

You must go to Edenhall…

Miranda wrapped her arms around her middle and traipsed through the winter woods, tugging her coat tight, her gaze meandering. Not that there was much to see. Snow dusted the trees and covered the leaf-strewn ground. Barren. Empty. Aloneness personified in foliage.

A bird called. What was it saying? She could almost make out the tune, but it was too distant. A raucous crow rose, cawing, and flapped away.

She trudged back to the bright-lit home she shared with her cousin, Edna, and her husband and their kids. Turning at the door, she stared at the scene. The glorious woods silhouetted black against the white evening sky stabbed her heart.

The after-dinner routine, raucous as usual, soon settled into an evening of books and board games. Miranda knitted, sitting on her chair by the lamp and watched Edna settle with the baby in her lap and the toddler tucked under her arm. She balanced an illustrated bedtime story between them. Joe played Memory with the older two boys and groaned grandly every time they made a match.

By the time everyone marched up to bed, Joe stretched and yawned, saying that he’d hit the hay early since he had to get up before dawn the next morning. Edna switched off the lights, shut down the computer on her work desk, and started after him.

Miranda continued to knit.

Edna stopped and glanced back. She frowned.

Miranda heard her cousin’s footsteps draw near, but she didn’t look up. She didn’t have the heart to.

Edna’s shadow slanted over the knitting.

Miranda sighed and let the half-finished blanket fall flat on her lap.

“Something wrong, Miranda?”

Willing herself to face her cousin, Miranda shoved all pain aside and peered up. “Nothing’s wrong. How could it be? I have a perfect life.”

Edna tugged a footstool over and plunked down. “Normally, I’d agree. But something feels…wrong.” She perched her head on her hand. “You know, I always envied you.”

Miranda snorted. “Good Lord, what for?”

“You traveled…saw the world. You were a useful human being. Nursing the sick all over…helping surgeons. Teaching. Advising.” Edna sat up and spread her hands wide. “Why, you were a regular modern hero. None the like I ever met before in real life.”

Miranda picked up her knitting and squinted in the dim light. “The operative word there is ‘were.’ I was all those things.” She shrugged. “Now I’m just an old lady knitting in a corner and walking through the woods to while away my empty days.”

Edna slapped her hand on the edge of the footstool. “Not so! You help with the kids and keep me from madness. I consider that a worthy endeavor.”

A momentary squabble on the second floor filtered down but was soon checked by Joe’s command to ‘settle down—or else.’

Edna narrowed her eyes. “Besides, you’re not exactly old. Not by today’s standards. Still in your fifties. You’ve got years ahead of you.”

“Sixties looms ever nearer, and the years ahead look pretty desolate to me.” She adjusted her glasses. “Listen, you and I know perfectly well that the nursing profession slipped away while I took care of Jack, and my boy lives in Singapore. Not exactly around the corner. Today the world is connected in ways I can hardly fathom. I don’t recognize half the things your kids say. I’m what they call ‘out of the loop.’” She shook her head. “My glory days are quite gone.”

Edna clasped her hands and rose from the footstool. She paced across the room and then turned and faced her cousin. “Those days—yes—I agree. They’re quite gone. But—”

“I’m too tired to go back to school and start over, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Not school necessarily. But change…a trade…a skill…a new environment.” Edna marched forward, her hands on her hips. “Don’t you see? It’s all in how you look at your life—forever ending or forever beginning. You decide.”

~~~

The next day dawned bright and clear. Cold swept in from the north, but Miranda wasn’t one to be detained by the threat of frostbite. She knew how to dress warmly.

After the older kids were off to school, Edna settled the little ones down with activities and started in on her daily online routine.

Miranda bustled out the door with a quick nod to the perfect order of the little corner of her world and braced herself for the cold. But she didn’t feel it. She hurried into the woods, her gloved hands sunk deep into her heavy coat pockets.

A bird landed on a branch before her and started in its usual song. Leopold…Leopold…tweet, tweet, tweet…

Miranda frowned and knocked a bit of snow off a tree trunk. “Stupid bird. Always calling to your Leopold, but he never answers, does he?” She stumbled forward, fury building like an interior steam kettle.

The bird hopped along, calling the same plaintive song. “Leopold…Leopold…”

Her nerves strained to the breaking point, Miranda turned and screamed. “Stupid idiot. Stop waiting for Leopold!” She shook her fist at the snow-speckled trees. “Go make a nest and do your own thing…live your own life. Don’t ask for no—”

A choking sob welled up from Miranda’s middle and tears burned her eyes. She wiped them away, brushing snow across her glasses. “Dang it!” Nearly blinded, she plucked her glasses off her face and carefully paced her way to a fallen log. She plunked down, not caring that she’d wet her clothes through to the skin.

Taking off her gloves, she pulled a tissue out of a pocket and wiped her glasses dry.

The bird drew near one again. “Leopold…Leopold…tweet…tweet…tweet…”

Miranda blinked as she watched the little bird hop before her. “Oh, God.” She held out her hand. The bird hopped close, then proceeded to peck at the tree bark, intent, and perhaps content, with something besides Leopold.

A thrill rushed through Miranda. “Could it be?” She laid her hand open.

The bird lifted its beady eyes and stared at her. It hopped nearer, almost touching her hand.

“Good Lord. Am I—Leopold?”

~~~

Later that evening when Edna returned from taking all the kids to their dentist’s appointments, she stopped dead in her tracks.

The boys finished divesting themselves from their winter coats and then set to work on helping the little ones.

Edna swallowed and entered the warm, yeasty smelling kitchen following the sound a happy tune. She stared at her cousin.

Slicing into a hot loaf of homemade wheat bread, Miranda called to the kids. “Snacks are ready and on the table in five minutes, boys. Be sure to wash your hands.” She glanced at Edna. “I’ve made enough to go with supper; don’t worry. I also made a nice hot stew for everyone.”

Edna shook her head. “You’re feeling better, then?”

Miranda stopped and met her cousin’s gaze. “Yes…and no. I just have to find myself again. Not easy. But the first task is always the hardest.”

Edna crept into the room. “What’s that?”

“You got to figure out where you are.” She drew a dish of butter near and laid a knife beside it. “And go from there.”

Tears welled in Edna’s eyes. “I’m glad.” She surveyed the brown bread and sucked in a deep breath. “My, but that looks good!” She perched on a stool and slathered a piece with a healthy dollop of butter. “What was that tune I heard you humming when I came in?”

Miranda blushed. “Oh, it wasn’t anything…just a birdsong you sometimes hear in the woods. “Leopold…Leopold…I’m here, I’m here.”

…But do our best and our most each day,

With a heart resolved and a temper gay,

         Which pleasure spoils not, not frights appall—

Though we never see Edenhall—

~Edenhall~

by

Susan Coolidge

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

Photo https://pixabay.com/illustrations/sunrise-bird-blackbird-silhouette-2360296/

Before the Lights Go Out

BeforeLightsGoOut

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 thumped 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.”

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

itmighthavebeen2ndamazoncover

https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Life and Literature…
To accomplish that which no earthly treasure buys,
A truth of loveliness that never dies.
A collection of short stories to enjoy and ponder.

“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~Steven R. McEvoy

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/theatre-theater-stage-curtain-813305/

In Two Words

 

InTwoWords

Professor Lana Bentley leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. Her gaze rolled over the eighteen-year-old woman, sitting ramrod straight before her. She practically glowed with her brightest smile. “So, Irma, are you excited about your first year of college?”

Irma slumped forward, her hands clasping and unclasping convulsively, like sea creatures swishing through the deep. Her grey eyes peered through thick glasses and heavy makeup, imploring the fountain of wisdom behind the desk. “I don’t know. I think I am. I mean, I’ve been looking forward to this my whole life. Always wanted to go to college, ever since I first learned there was such a thing.”

A twinge of alarm spread through Professor Bentley. “How old would that have been?”

“Four…maybe five.” Irma met Professor Bentley’s gaze. “My dad’s a janitor, and he got a job at a university. He took us to see where he worked. And—” Irma blushed. “It was love at first sight.”

Heat crept up Professor Bentley’s face. “Well, that’s the best of news.” She beamed again. She felt proud of her ability to put others at ease. Beaming was one of her specialties.

Irma frowned; her hands squeezed so tight her knuckles turned white.

Professor Bentley considered the girl’s hands. “But it appears that you’re still a little anxious. Is there something bothering you? Worried about your classes or—?”

Irma swallowed a gulp of air, a drowning victim at the end of her strength. “It’s just that I’m so afraid.”

Sitting up straight, Professor Bentley tapped her computer keyboard and pulled up Irma’s file. After scanning the record, she glanced at the girl before her. “Your grades and scores are excellent. You’ve already won awards in your chosen field of study, and your recommendations are brilliant.” She pursed her lips and tapped her fingers together, a serious professional doing her duty. “You have nothing to be afraid of. You’ll do fine.”

Irma shot from her chair and twirled around behind, gripping the back for dear life. “I’m not afraid of the work. I know I can get good grades.”

Professor Bentley snatched a glance at her watch. She stood and stepped away from her desk. “I have a class in fifteen minutes but walk with me across campus. She swung a satchel over her shoulder. “I really want to help—I’m just—”

Irma opened the door and let the professor pass through. Once outside crossing over the long shadows of an August afternoon, the student tromped alongside her mentor, her shoulders drooping and her hair hanging like a curtain across her face.

A young man jogged by and waved.

Irma averted her eyes.

Professor Bentley smiled, stopped, and laid a gentle hand on Irma’s shoulder. “You’re worried about making friends…men friends even?”

Irma’s eyes flickered to the sky. “Yes…and no. I make friends easy enough. Everyone likes the shy, smart girl who shares her notes.”

Professor Bentley choked, her eyes widening. She started forward again, her heels clicking on the tidy cement walkway. Autumn leaves whirled in a sudden breeze.

Quickening her pace, Irma kept up. “It’s just that I’ve dreamed about this for so long, it’s like the best fantasy ever…and I don’t want it to end.”

Stopping before the science building, Professor Bentley felt a chill run through her veins. “But, Irma, reality is better than fantasy.”

Irma shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose and peered into the eyes of wisdom. “Is it?”

Professor Bentley blinked at the tears starting in her eyes. “Oh, my dear. You just told me the saddest story I ever heard—in two words.”

~~~

That evening as Lana sat ensconced in the crook of her husband’s arm, she laid her head on his chest and sighed.

George pulled off his glasses and laid them on the coffee table. “You want to tell me?” He titled his head and peered at her lifted gaze.

Lana shook her head, her gaze dropping. “I met a new student today, a friendly mentoring session. You know.”

“You’ve done hundreds. Best there is.” A smile quirked at the corner of his mouth, his eyes sparkling.

“I always thought so. But today—I was the one mentored. The student taught the teacher.”

“What on earth could an eighteen-year-old freshman teach you?”

Lana slapped her forehead and tugged her fingers through her hair. “What it feels like to be eighteen—a dreamer with nothing but dreams to hang on to.”

George shrugged. “You’ve handled that before.”

“Yes, and I always challenged it. I always knew best. I—” She pulled away and sat up, her hands clasping in an attitude of prayer. “I just realized—I don’t remember what it’s like to be a freshman, to be young, to be scared, to be idealistic.” She swallowed and met her husband’s frank stare. “From the first moment I saw her, I had this girl pegged from her thick glasses down to her skinny jeans. But, really, I have no idea what she dreams of. And if perhaps her dreams are better than the reality I’m offering.”

George shifted to the edge of the couch, positioned for a launch. He glanced at the kitchen counter with an array of drinks lined in neat order. “Dreams die in the light of day.”

“But somewhere, somehow, isn’t their room for both—a dream to guide and reality to rule?”

Standing, George peered down at his wife, a frown forming between his eyes. “Dreams don’t pay bills. You’ve told me that a million times.”

Lana stood and sauntered to the bay window. She stared at the black frame, peering into darkness. “That’s true. But when Irma told me she was afraid of reality, she scared me and made me sad.” She turned and peered at her husband, her own eyes imploring.

George sauntered toward the kitchen. “You don’t kill these kids’ dreams. Reality does.”

“Perhaps that’s why I feel so bad. I’ve known that all along.” Lana turned and faced her husband’s departing figure. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “When I dismissed her dreams, I dismissed the girl…and perhaps…a reality that might have been.”

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

itmighthavebeen2ndamazoncover

Buy Here  https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Life and Literature…
To accomplish that which no earthly treasure buys,
A truth of loveliness that never dies.
A collection of short stories to enjoy and ponder.

“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~Steven R. McEvoy

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/woman-glasses-girl-beauty-elegant-3426697/

 

All Humanity

AllHumanity

An empty bench waits by the sea,

Ponder time and silence free.

Loving son and loving daughter,

Blue sky and bluer sea.

 

Dragonflies flitter by,

The waves roll on a mid-day sigh.

Sand, rock, weed, and flower,

Nature changes by the hour.

 

All our name and titles float away,

Petty divisions hate of the day.

Only myself, yet everyone be,

Join in communion with all humanity.

 

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

That’s Your Job

Gabe pushed back from his luxurious, high gloss mahogany desk and swiveled around so that he faced the floor to ceiling plate glass window overlooking the city. A glorious sunset highlighted mountainous clouds, tinting them in gold and pink. The beauty moved him not. Except for the dull ache in his chest, he couldn’t feel a thing.

“What the h—’s wrong with me?” He leaned back, clasped his hands over his not-as-muscled-as-it-used-to-be middle, and exhaled a long, slow breath. His therapist said that would help.

It didn’t.

A ringtone blared a swinging rhythm that he once loved—until he put it on his phone. Now it sounded stupid. He snatched the phone off the desk, tapped the button, and pressed it to his ear. “Yeah?”

Blair, his eldest daughter, spoke with her usual calm authority. God, he loved her.

“Dad, I’ve got to stay late at the lab tonight. Professor Baughman said that they’ve got three internships opening in the fall, and if I can get all the paperwork in on time, I should get one. Plus, one of the freshmen got sick in class, and I need to help him disinfect the place.”

Gabe chuckled. “Always something—isn’t it?” He could almost hear her smile.

“Yep. So don’t expect me back till late, okay? I’m fine. Just working.”

Tiny sparks flickered to life in Gabe’s middle. “No problem. Just drive carefully. Especially around those d—” he caught himself. “The curves. Okay?”

“I always do.”

Gabe waited. He didn’t want to say goodbye. He shook himself. He couldn’t expect his daughter to fill the hollow void inside.

“Oh and dad.”

“Yeah?”

“Remember, you’re making dinner tonight. Johnny hates spaghetti, and Sarah loves pancakes.”

Tears flooded Gabe’s eyes, stinging them even as he blinked and swallowed the strangled whimper he knew would rise if he spoke to quickly. He sat up straighter. “Got it.”

“Love ya.” The connection severed.

Dropping the phone back on the desk, Gabe turned once more to the window. The sun hovered over the skyline. He glanced at his watch. “Blast! They’ll accuse me of overworking again.”

After heaving himself to his feet, he swung into his jacket and tucked his phone into his pocket. A quick glance at his desk and his unfinished work. “It’ll wait. Always tomorrow.” A sinking feeling followed him down the hall as approached the elevator. “I never get enough done. Come early, work late, try hard—but it’s never enough.” His therapist said it was a perpetual guilt syndrome from his early childhood and that being aware of it would help him grow past it.

It didn’t.

~~~

As Gabe loped into his country-style, well-lit kitchen, he glanced aside.

Johnny leaned over the wooden table staring at a half-finished puzzle, holding a piece in his hand, his brow furrowed. A stack of folded laundry lay at one end. He glanced at his dad and flashed a grin. “I won it in a contest at school. I’ve read more books this semester than anyone else in seventh grade.”

Gabe pursed his lips. “Shouldn’t surprise me—but it does. You don’t seem like the bookworm-type.” His gaze flickered to the laundry.

Johnny huffed. “I read a whole six books. Hardly makes me a worm. Just nobody else read that many.” He jerked his thumb at the neat pile. “Sarah’s getting pretty good at getting the corners straight.” He returned to his puzzle. “What’s for dinner?”

“Spaghetti, if you don’t move your puzzle.”

With a laborious groan, Johnny slid the puzzle pieces onto a cutting board and carried it out of the room.

Gabe searched through the refrigerator. A package of spicy sausages and a carton of eggs brought a tired smile to his lips. Thank, God.

A little girl with brilliant blue eyes, fair skin, and a pixie face wafted into the kitchen. Wrapping her arms around a bundle of clothes, she hefted it into a tight embrace. “I’ll put these upstairs and help set the table for you, dad.”

Slicing into the plastic wrapping around the sausages, Gabe nodded. “Thanks, sweetheart.” A painful tightening in his throat and stinging in his eyes warned of a fresh wave of grief. He clenched jaws and sliced faster. “Dang!”

He rushed to the sink and ran cold water over his bleeding finger.

Sarah came back, swished the second bundle away, and trundled off.

Gabe couldn’t move. He knew that if he took one step away from the sink, he’d start sobbing like a child. Sarah didn’t need that. He didn’t need that.

“Hey, dad?”

Gabe blinked and glanced down.

Sarah stood there, her hands empty, her eyes as blue as a summer sky. “You think mom’s happy now?”

Fearing that he might break his teeth if he clenched them any harder, Gabe slapped off the water, grabbed a dishcloth, wrapped his finger, and stepped to the kitchen table. He plopped down on a chair.

Sarah stood by the sink, her gaze on him. Waiting.

He tapped his knee and motioned her over.

Sarah stepped up but only leaned in. No hopping onto his lap anymore.

Gabe put the towel aside and peered into her eyes. “You know, we were separated most of your life.” He swallowed, anguish mounting, and forced himself to concentrate. “But I never wished her ill. I always wanted her happy.” He shook his head. “We just couldn’t make things work. Too different. Set in our ways.” He sucked in a deep breath. “She was a hard person to make happy.”

Sarah’s brow furrowed. “You too.”

The sky fell. Mountains crashed. Waves washed over Gabe as tears rolled down his cheeks. His words rose like strangled gasps. “I wish she were still alive. I wish she hadn’t died. You still needed her—even if I didn’t.”

Sarah laid a soft, gentle hand on his arm.

Gabe buried his head on his arm. He couldn’t face her tears too.

~~~

Late that night, Gabe sat in bed staring at a page he couldn’t see.

A light knock on the door turned his gaze.

Blair stuck her head in the doorway. She frowned. “Heard you had a meltdown…want to talk about it?”

Snorting, Gabe waved her in. “Shhh. I just got Sarah to sleep, and God knows what Johnny thinks of me.”

Blair stepped in and perched on the edge of her dad’s bed. She laid her hand on his.

Gabe waited but Blair didn’t start. So much like her mother. “Okay. I had a little meltdown. No big deal. I’m going through some stuff.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Just because we were divorced doesn’t mean I didn’t care. I love you guys—and I know how hard this must be on you.”

Sarah scooted back and folded her legs to the side, leaning her weight on one arm. She tilted her head, her gaze direct and unwavering. “In a weird sort of way, I think mom’s death is easier on us. We got along and had some really good times together.” She shrugged. “I’m not saying that I don’t miss her or that it isn’t hard. But—I don’t know. We’re her kids. She sorta lives in us still.” Her gaze moved to the window. “I really believe we’ll see her again someday.” She squeezed Gabe’s hand. “Kinda different for you.”

Gabe stared at the ceiling. “She was always trying to make me a better man. Fix me.” He glanced at his daughter. “I only gave up smoking after we split to spite her.” He patted Sarah’s hand. “And for you guys.”

Sarah straightened, unfolded her legs, and swung them over the bed. “Well, she can’t fix you now.” She stood and started for the door. On the threshold, she stopped and peered back. “That’s your job.”

~~~

In the dark, Gabe patted the empty side of the bed. He swished his arm from the pillow all the way to his side. Lots of space…lots of empty space. His therapist said that pain was a good teacher.

It wasn’t.

But then he thought of his kids…and puzzle pieces, a neat stack of laundry, a decent dinner, and the work he left on his desk. He sighed, curled his arm around the pillow, and closed his eyes. That’s your job.

It was.

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

itmighthavebeen2ndamazoncover

https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Life and Literature…
To accomplish that which no earthly treasure buys,
A truth of loveliness that never dies.
A collection of short stories to enjoy and ponder.

“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~Steven R. McEvoy

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/girl-father-portrait-family-1641215/

Take Over the World

“Artificial intelligence will soon take over the world—you do realize that don’t you?”

Sasha popped a red M & M into her mouth and crunched. Her gaze swept across the campus with a practiced eye. “I think it already has.”

Barb shook her head as she appraised the harassed throng heading to various classes. “I’m not talking about people glued to their iPhones. I mean that my grandmother just texted me that a storm’s coming, and she wants me to email the grocer about delivering extra supplies this afternoon.”

Sasha shrugged as she pounded across the grassy courtyard to the library. “What’s so bad about that? Technology makes our lives easier.”

“Exactly my point!” Barb checked her phone, scrolled through three messages, and muttered. “Professor Gilmore is sick—she said to study chapter nine, and we’d meet next week.”

“Lucky you. My professors are health freaks. They know whether it’s coffee or tea that’ll kill us this week—or is it cheese?”

“You’re making my point again. We know too much. We have too much power. We can’t handle so much information—”

The electronic door swung open, and Sasha set off the entry alarm. “Dang it!”

The deputy security officer strolled over, a wide grin lighting up his blue eyes. “Carrying concealed weapons again—are we?”

Sasha dug into her pocket. “My grandpa gives my little brother all his old camping knives. Which the little idiot promptly uses to carve his initials into everything—so naturally—”

“You take it away and carry it into the library.” His grin widened. “An option.”

Sasha and Barb exchanged eye rolls.

Sasha pulled the offending pocketknife from her pocket and dropped it into the man’s hand. “Keep it, Jared. Carve your initials into something and feel smug.”

Jared stepped aside, flicked open the knife, and peered at a miniature toolkit with a sharp blade, a screwdriver, bottle opener, and file. “Cool—must be worth a fortune.”

Sasha frowned. “Hardly. My grandpa has dozens of these. All the rage when he was a kid.”

Barb nudged Sasha, glancing at Jared. “He’s a virtual-reality kind of guy—hardly ever sees anything real these days.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “An honest blade must come as a bit of a shock.” Waving her arm in a mock karate move, she went in for a slice to the arm.

Instinct kicked in and Jared lashed out, jabbing with the open knife.

Barb reeled back gripping her stomach, blood seeping between her fingers. “Oh, God. I didn’t mean it.” She stared at Sasha as she crumpled. “He didn’t mean it.”

~~~

Sasha watched Jared’s mother, Ms. Franklin, pacing in front of him in the hospital waiting room, her eyes glued to an iPhone.

Jared sat with his hands clasped, his head bowed, staring at the grey-tiled floor.

Sasha perched on the edge of a chair. “She’ll be fine. The doctor said it wasn’t deep and won’t even need a lot of stitches. It was an accident. Accidents happen.”

Jared lifted his head a fraction. “When’s her dad coming?”

“He’s on the east coast. Said that since she’s going to be okay, he’ll get the doctor’s official report and talk to her in the morning.”

“Doesn’t he even care?”

“He talked with her on the phone. She told him not to come.” Sasha shrugged. “I think she’s embarrassed. If he had to fly out here, across all those time zones and everything, he’d be sure to make it into a bigger deal than it is.”

“And her mom?”

“Who knows? One of those absentee moms.” Jerking to her feet, Sasha bypassed Jared’s mother and headed for the candy machine. “You want something?”

Jared shook his head. With a long, exhaled breath, he strolled over to his mom. “You don’t have to stay. It’ll be okay.”

Ms. Franklin peered into her son’s eyes, brushed a stray lock of hair from his face, and nodded. With a professional twitch, she straightened her skirt and flung her purse strap over her shoulder. She glanced from Sasha to Jared. “You need anything—just text me—all right?”

They nodded in unison.

Standing before the machine, Sasha tapped the key code and a bag of peanuts dropped with a thud. She snatched, ripped it open, and passed the bag to Jared. “Have a few; the protein will do you good.”

With a strangled cry, Jared staggered back to his chair. “God, do you hear yourself?”

Sasha swallowed and followed him. She peered at his bowed head. “What?”

“Protein. Text. Flights. Time zones. Absentee moms.” He covered his head with his hands. “I’ve played so many games where I slice up the bad guys—I can beat every opponent out there—long as he’s two inches high and made of pixels.” Jared sucked in a shuddering breath. “I don’t think I’m made for this world.”

Sasha slumped down on the chair. “Listen, you’ve had a bad day.”

Jared glared at her.

“Okay, a really bad day. But that hardly means that you’re doomed.”

“If I am, there’re a lot of guys just like me. Girls too.”

“Funny, but Barb and I were talking about this earlier. She said that artificial intelligence will take over the world.”

Jared shook his head.

A nurse stepped forward leading a wobbly Barb. “You the family?”

Jared glanced aside at Sasha.

Barb offered a weak wave. “Yeah, kinda like. Sasha’s my roommate.”

Sasha stepped forward. “Jared will drive us back to the dorm. Professor Kim said he’d have a pizza waiting when we got there.”

The nurse looked Barb in the eye. “You’ll follow the directions? The script has been sent in already.”

Barb nodded. “I’ll be good. Promise.”

The nurse smiled and retreated.

Jared stepped forward and took Barb’s arm. “I’m really am sorry about this.”

“You said that a million times on the way over. I get it. Nothing to forgive. It was my fault for starting it in the first place.”

Once they stepped into the cool evening air, Barb looked up at the millions of twinkling stars. “Guess I was kind of hard on Artificial Intelligence today. I’m paid back royally for my prejudice.”

Sasha shook her head. “How’s that?”

“It was modern medicine that fixed me up and modern miracle drugs that’ll keep me from dying from a stupid infection. Numbed my pain too.”

Jared patted her hand. “No, you had a good point—just got it a backward.”

Barb and Sasha stared at him.

“It isn’t artificial intelligence that’ll take over the world—it’s a lack of common sense that’ll lose it.”

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

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“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~Steven R. McEvoy

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Not With His Eyes

NotWithHisEyes

A yellow striped spider climbed down from a sparking web amid rainbow colored dewdrops and a faint breeze. Settling into a shadowed corner, it snuggled down to await its fortune. Two robins fluttered onto pine boughs and squabbled until a Blue Jay sprang between them and ended the conflict with a raucous call. A pink horizon brightened into a burnished red and gold spectrum as the sun crested the horizon, sending rays of light up the porch steps right into Betty’s blind eyes.

The tears washing down her cheeks did little to appease the anguish rising in her heart. Wiping them away with the back of her hand, she sniffed and shuddered. The air, tinged with spring’s warmth, wafted over her, yet her bones, chilled to the marrow, could not accept even a hint of hope.

“You’re up early.” Her mother, Kim, dressed in a pair of rugged jeans, a light sweatshirt, and slip-on shoes strolled onto the back porch. Laying a gentle hand on her daughter’s shoulder, she stared upon the same scene and reveled in the beauty. “It’s a gorgeous morning.”

Betty swallowed back a relentless sob. “I wouldn’t know.”

Pulling Betty into an embrace, Kim laid her head against her daughter’s. “Just be glad you’re alive. Those tumors would’ve killed you.”

Reflexively, Betty touched the healing wounds near her temples. She dropped her face into shadow. “They did—in a way. My old life is quite dead.”

Kim took a step away and peered at her daughter’s slumped figure. “You’ve got plenty of life ahead of you. And your sight might return. Doc Mallory said—”

“Doc Mallory is a know-it-all and a snob. Just because she’s had bazillion patients, she thinks she understands me. She doesn’t!”

Folding her arms over her chest and with a slight shake of the head, Kim turned and faced the rising sun. “Nevertheless, you have an appointment today, and she’s the best hope we’ve got.” After glancing at her watch, Kim started down the steps. “I’m going to check the cabbages I planted yesterday. Get ready, and we’ll leave in an hour.”

~~~

As Betty pounded out the clinic door, her mom grabbed her arm. “Stop and listen to me! I know you’re upset, but I’ve got to pick up the prescriptions. The door to the Arboretum is right here—” Kim pulled Betty forward and led her fingers to a metal handle on a wide industrial-sized door with a fancy steel plate entitled Garden Center. “Just go inside and wander around a bit. There’s staff nearby. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

With an angry grunt, Betty jerked open the door and stumbled inside. The humidity hit her like a slap in the face. Blinking, she stepped forward with her arms out, searching for obstacles.

Footsteps jogged forward. “Hi! Can I help you?”

Betty froze. The voice sounded like a young man. She cringed. Blindness humiliated her. For all she knew, her hair was a disheveled wreck, and her shirt was inside out. Squeezing her eyes, she reminded herself that her mom wouldn’t let her out of the house without checking her over. Lifting her head, she faced the voice. “I’d like to sit down.”

“Sure thing.” A gentle hand gripped her shoulder and led her to a bench.

Feeling her way, Betty sat with a relieved sigh. The sunshine warmed her face. Birds twittered and a fragrant scent wafted to her nose.

“You’ve been to the doctor—or waiting to get in?”

Betty grimaced. “Been there. Old crow.”

A snorted laugh made her tilt her head. She grinned against her will. “What’s so funny?”

The man sat down at her side. “Let me guess—Doc Mallory?”

Turning as if to stare into the stranger’s face, Betty blinked in surprise. “How’d you know?” She could practically hear his grin as he slapped his thighs.

“Ol’ Doc Mallory is famous—or infamous—around here. Knows everything, boss of the universe, can tell what a patient’s thinking and feeling miles away. Most patients hate her guts.”

Betty sniffed. “She’s not worth hating. Blindness—now that’s—”

A bird flew by and fluttered around the two figures. Betty jerked away, bumping the stranger.

“Don’t be afraid. Just a parakeet.”

She could sense the stranger lift his arm. The bird flew closer, the fluttering stopped. The voice crooned in a soft undertone.

Shivers ran down Betty’s spine.

The man shifted. “Despite her reputation, Doc Mallory’s not so bad. She helped to build this place—got the funding for the whole wing—glass ceiling and all. And she brought in these birds as an extra surprise. This one’s probably Bather—loves the birdbath and never a bit shy about asking for a little treat.”

Betty cocked her head and listened to the various chirping and warbling interplay all around her. “You know all the birds here?”

“Pretty much. I volunteer twice a week. Nice way to meet people and get away from stuff—all the antics of our wild world. You know.”

With a shrug, Betty dismissed the notion. “I’m never in the wild world these days—always stuck inside or holding someone’s hand.”

The man nudged her arm. “That’ll change. You’ll get more independent with time.” He stood. “Well, I better feed the fish—amazing how anxious they get if you’re late.”

A frown puckered over Betty’s brow. “You’re kidding—right?”

Though his shadow blocked the sunshine, he seemed to exude his own warmth. “Caught me.” He patted her shoulder. “Maybe you see better than you think.”

Slouching in sudden loneliness, Betty listened as his footsteps retreated across the garden. Something landed on her shoulder, chirping in her ear. Lifting her arm, she held out a finger and a tiny, feathery body fluttered onto her hand. She could practically feel it’s heart pounding. “You aren’t a bit shy—are you?” Lifting her chin, she listened. The sound of water trickling on her left pulled her to her feet.

Stepping carefully with one hand out and the other aloft with the bird, she finally bumped into the wide-brimmed birdbath. After laying her finger on the edge, the parakeet hopped off. Suddenly, drops of water splashed her face. A gasped laugh erupted from deep within her being.

Footsteps clicked up behind her. “You’ve been enjoying yourself?”

Betty turned and faced her mother. “It’s beautiful here.”

Kim sighed, her voice dropped low and soft. “Yes—it is.” She took her daughter’s arm and led her forward. “Did you meet Melvin?”

“You mean the guy who volunteers here?”

“Yeah. He was here on the day you went into surgery. I thought I’d go crazy with worry. But he set my mind at ease.”

“Seems nice enough. Is he still here?”

“I don’t see him now. But we better go—dad’s waiting to meet us for lunch. Besides, you can see Melvin next time. He’s practically a permanent fixture around here. He’s Doc Mallory’s son.”

Betty froze in her tracks. “What? That can’t be—not the way he talked about her. He seemed—to really understand!”

Kim pulled open the door and stepped aside. “Oh, I’m sure he does.” With a firm grip, she directed her daughter through the doorway. “He’s been blind since birth. It’s why Doc Mallory built this place—and works so hard.” The door swished shut behind them.

Betty choked. “He can’t see?”

Kim took her daughter’s arm. “Not with his eyes.”

Betty stumped along beside her mother. “Oh, Lord, Mom! He identified the bird, and I thought—”

Kim patted her daughter’s hand. “There are many ways to see, honey.”

Betty exhaled. “And many ways to go blind.”

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

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“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~Steven

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Impossible Beings

For a read-aloud of this story, check out https://anchor.fm/ann-frailey/episodes/Impossible-Beings-esf863

Rome 450 AD

As Lidia plopped her hands into a heavy clay bowl of flour, a dusty spray plumed into the air, casting a million specks into the sunlight slanting across the room from a high rectangular window.

Her daughter, Marcia, stared up enchanted. Her lips parted in a soft smile, while her eyes danced in rhythm to the twirling, sparking mini-universe spreading wide throughout the kitchen. Her voice dropped to a reverent whisper. “Papa says the world goes on forever—is that true?”

After thoroughly dusting a ball of dough, Lidia pressed it flat on the kneading trough. She grunted, her eyes on her work, but her gaze turned inward. “Your father says a great many things—some he oughtn’t.” She flipped the dough over and shrugged. Her focus cleared, and she spared a glance at the little girl. “You know how he is.”

Laying an open palm on the table, Marcia waited in hopeful expectation.

With a snort, Lidia ripped off a hunk and dropped it into the child’s hands. “Don’t knead it too much, remember. The soldiers return today—by the gods’ mercy—and he’ll enjoy a nice soft bread for a change.”

Marcia eased her fingers onto the pliant dough and allowed her hands to undulate like deep-sea fronds waving in a gentle current. A studious frown etched across her brow. “Will he stay long this time?”

Placing the shaped dough onto a baking tray, Lidia wiped the excess flour from the edges. “These are a ruinous time for soldiers and high born alike. Rome has lost her footing, and the gods are not pleased. Invaders break in the front door while useless slaves run out the back.”

“But Papa says that Rome is invincible. We dare the impossible”

Lidia shoved a smaller tray in front of her daughter and watched her lay the dough straight. A flicker of a smile swept across her face and just as quickly vanished. She retreated to a large oven set in the back wall and slid the two trays on a shelf. Clapping the dust from her hands, she jutted her chin in the direction of a pail of water. “Wash up and go outside now. Keep an eye out for Papa.”

Marcia dunked her hands in the cold water and scrubbed away the shreds of sticky dough. After rinsing twice, she patted her hands dry and held them up for her mother’s inspection. “We are invincible—aren’t we?”

Bending with her hands on her thighs, Lidia fixed her daughter in the eye. “Truth is, no one born of a woman is invincible. Only the gods be invincible—and even they suffer loss and death.” She straightened and washed her hands, splashing drops on the dusty floor. “We dare the impossible—true—while we may.” She nodded to the threshold leading to a garden path. “But don’t worry your father with such notions. He’s suffered on every side, and I won’t have him lose his faith as well.”

Marcia’s gaze wandered back to the sunlit kitchen. The sparking universe had disappeared into shadows. She blinked and set her jaw. The entire Roman world might crumble—but a miniature universe floated in hidden mystery all around her—if only she dared the impossible.

Planet Helm—Bhuaci Capitol

 *Bhuaci are a gelatinous race that can mold themselves into the likeness of a variety of races, both sentient and not. Bhuaci are often called the perfect race as they often mold themselves to the physical ideal of any race they encounter.

Sitting at a large ornate desk with a highly decorated border, Crimson dipped her quill in ink, wrote a long scrawling line, and grinned at the result.

A cherubic boy with a dimple in each cheek, golden curls, and twirling a blooming forsythia branch stopped before the red-hued, lanky Bhuaci beauty and grinned. “What ‘cha doing?”

Crimson peered from her parchment to the childish form in front of her and snarled. “Get away from me you—absurdity.”

The cherub’s eyes gleamed in anything-but-innocent delight. He swept his dainty fingers down his fulsome figure. “Don’t you like it? You’re always telling me to get a new look. Well, cherubs happen to be all the rage these days.”

Crimson let her pen fall from her fingers as her eyes widened in disgust. Her snarl morphed into a snort. “You always traipse after the newest fashion—never really live in any form—just change to keep up with the crowd.” Retrieving her pen, she punctuated the air. “You’d take an insect shape on a dare—and get stepped on before the day was out.”

The Cherub’s eyes glimmered and narrowed as his body grew, adding weight, muscle, color, and masculinity. Now towering above the Bhuaci female as a gleaming warrior wearing a sleeveless tunic—every fiber of his perfect form, from his deep-set blue eyes, determined chin, squared shoulders, barrel chest, and muscular legs screamed classic male beauty.

Crimson tilted her head and considered the specimen before her. She sniffed. “You might have hit on something this time, Kane.” Her mouth twitched. “Let’s see how long it lasts.”

Kane sauntered to the high desk and leaned over Crimson’s shoulder. “You never answered my question.”

With a plaintive sigh, Crimson picked up her pen and dipped it in the inkpot. “I’m trying to work—if you don’t mind.”

“With a feather?”

“It’s a quill, idiot.” Crimson pointed to a sign over the door. “Record’s office—remember? I transcribe ships’ logs. Today I have to transcribe Longjur’s hasty notes and send them—”

A blush crept over Kane’s face. “Longjur? He’s been observing Earth—right?”

“Yep, and by the Divide, he has a lot to say! Mostly it’s as boring as watching a cactus grow in the dry season. But this part—”

Kane’s gaze scanned the nearly empty page. “Where?”

Crimson frowned. “Well, I was just getting to it when you interrupted. I have it here.” She tapped a panel embedded in the desk. “But I’m making a formal copy for the Kestrel Committee. I thought ink on parchment would do nicely to reflect the culture and add a bit of authenticity and charm. They’ll look it over before making recommendations—”

Kane shook his head. “Forget all that! What did he say? Is he going back?”

Crimson slapped her cheek and rolled her eyes. “He went on and on about silly details—Emperors and warriors and their never-ending battles, women and men sweating in the hot sun and toiling for their food, and the most ignorant ceremonies I’ve ever heard of! But, there was one point of interest…” She checked her notes, running her finger along the lines. “About a little girl, sunlight, and a hidden—”

Kane groaned, his shoulders sagging. “I want to go there—someday.” He shrugged. “It’s why I take on so many forms—for practice. I’d love to explore that system. Humanoids seem so—impossible.” He peered down at Crimson and their eyes met. “You know what I mean?”

Crimson tapped the panel, a lopsided smile wavering on her lips. “Don’t despair. You must have read Longjur’s mind. He said that exact thing—and I quote: ‘They are impossible beings, yet they bring their faith to fruition.’”

Kane leaned in and stared deep into Crimson’s eyes. “So, you think I might go—”

Crimson chuckled and returned to her work. “You’d fit right in.”

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

For other science fiction short stories—Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella

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Innocence

Sunrays slanted across the budding woods as Sean dragged a dead sapling along a well-worn trail. He yanked it over a makeshift wooden bridge crossing over a spring-swollen stream. Grunting, he lifted the thick end over his shoulder and hefted it on a mountainous brush pile by a tumbledown old barn.

“What ‘cha doing? Building a pyre to the gods of ol’?”

Sean turned, his blue eyes glinting in the bright light. “More like penance for my sins.” He pulled off a torn work glove and rubbed his face where a two-day-old beard highlighted the edge of his chin. He offered a quick, half-hearted smile. “What’re you doing here, Clive? I thought you were helping out at the McAllen place.”

Clive shrugged and started ahead as Sean turned back across the bridge. “Ah, they got the plumbers and electricians in today. I went to help at the Buran building, but Joe said they have enough guys—told me to take the rest of the day and catch up on my rest.”

With a snort, Sean yanked on his glove. “So kind of him. Always thinking of the other guy.”

Clive stepped off the edge of the bridge and gazed in wonder at the matriarchal old maple cut into manageable lengths. “What’s this? Sarcasm from Mr. Congeniality himself?”

Without a backward glance, Sean pulled a branch free and tugged it to the bridge.

“So, this what you’ve been up to the last few days?” Clive grasped another branch and followed his friend. He cleared his throat. “I heard about Ginger.”

For a brief moment, Sean halted in the middle of the bridge, but then he yanked the branch free of a snag and tromped off to the brush pile, his back straight and his feet unwavering.

Clive hurried after him. “I’m the one who warned you about her, remember? Always said she had a roving eye.”

Grunting, Sean shoved the branch high on the pile. “When it was roving over me, I didn’t mind so much.” He stood back and let Clive heave his branch on the pile. “I should’ve seen it coming. Stupid of me to be so blind.”

Clive’s branch rolled to the ground and both men hefted it back on top. Clive turned and stared his friend in the eye. “You’re a trusting sort of guy. Wasn’t your fault.” He eyed the huge pile and then let his gaze roam the wooded landscape. “You’ve got enough here to keep your woodstove stocked for a century.” He lifted his chin. “You don’t really blame yourself—do you?”

Tromping down the path, Sean intercepted a hound that jumped and wiggled for attention. Bending down, Sean scratched behind the dog’s ears. “Joseph asked me why his mom moved out.” He straightened and glanced back at his friend, his blue eyes appearing grey and clouded.

“I hope you told him the truth—she’s a manipulative shrew without an ounce of human kindness—”

Storm clouds entered Sean’s eyes as he stomped back to his friend, the dog following with its tail lowered. “Seriously? You’d have me tell my seven-year-old boy that his mother is anything less than—”

“He’ll find out some day. Besides, you gotta hate her for what she’s done.”

Exhaling a long breath, Sean pulled off his gloves and ran his fingers through his unkempt, brown hair. “She’s hardly my favorite person at the moment, but I don’t hate her, and more importantly, I don’t hate my son. What’da think it’d do to him to learn the truth—if I ever knew the truth.” His gaze stabbed the air before him. “I can’t trust my own judgment anymore.”

A ringtone blared from Clive’s pocket. Clive dug deep and pulled out his phone, his gaze flickering between his friend and the number scrolling across the screen. He sighed, punched the keypad, and lifted the phone to his ear. “Yeah?”

Sean returned to the dead maple, pulled two more branches forward and stacked them on the pile.

Clive trotted up to his friend. “Hey, Joe said they’re ready to finish up at the McAllen place this week—he wants you to come along—needs all the help he can get to finish on time.” Clive glanced at his phone. “Can I tell him you’re coming?”

Sean peered up at the sky and rubbed his face. He nodded. “Yeah. I have to live.” He shrugged. “I can do my penance anywhere.”

A quizzical expression wandered over Clive’s face as he returned to his phone. After a moment, he caught up with Sean returning to his grey house on the hill. “You’re kidding about the penance, right? I mean, we both know it was her fault.”

Sean toed an empty dog dish by the back door. “Funny thing about penance, it doesn’t have to be for anyone in particular. Just has to be sincere.”

Clive stood rooted to the ground, his eyes wide. “But you’re an innocent man, Sean.”

Sean snorted and opened the back door. “Not anymore.” He pointed to his truck in the driveway. “I’ll be at work in the morning. Right now I got to feed the dog and take care of the last shred of innocence in my life.”

Clive blinked and glanced at a boy’s face in an upper window, peering at his dad. Clive nodded and turned away.

Sean peeled off his gloves, opened the back door, and stepped inside.

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

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Alternate Universe

Jim Smith’s office loomed in darkness except for a single lamp highlighting a cluttered desk.

A tall man with a black ponytail leaned back on a rolling chair and rubbed his eyes. “Dang, it’s been a long day.”

Staccato heels clicked across the floor. “Muttering to yourself again, Jimmy-boy?” A grinning brunette with round, jovial eyes tapped the edge of Jim’s computer screen. “Time you gave it a rest. Kenny and I are going to grab dinner at the Seashell. Wanna come?”

Leaning on one arm and looking like he might slide to the floor in a puddle of spent energy, Jim eyed his compatriot in exotic studies. “No rest for the wicked, Christy. You ought to know that by now.”

Christy leaned in her smile widening in a challenge. “Even the devil gets time off for good behavior.” Swiping a stray lock of hair from her eyes, she straightened and shrugged. “We’ll hang out for a bit. Come when you can.”

Sliding his fingers down the side of his face, Jim shook his head as he watched Christy’s silhouette pass through the doorway. “Gorgeous but never makes the least effort to be logical. The devil—hah!” His gaze flickered to the screen. Under a subheading “Alternate Universe Citations,” thirty resources lined the page in perfect APA order.

With the sublime effort of a god-finger reaching toward Adam, Jim tapped the off switch and the screen blinked to black. “Time to feed the cat.” He struggled to his feet, staggered, and then, like a ship when the wind dies down, righted his mainmast and headed for the door.

At home, Jim found the cat alive though far from happy. He scoured the shelves and discovered what the cat already knew—the cupboard was bare. “Dang it!”

The cat couldn’t have agreed more.

“Guess it’s out into the wilds once again.” Jim peered down at the feline. “It won’t take me long. They have eatables in the shop on the corner.” He glanced at his watch. “If they’re still open.” He rattled through the doorway, clumped down his apartment steps, and plowed his way through the crowded street.

The cat watched from the window.

Inside the market, Jim snatched up a bag of kitty food, a quart of milk, a box of granola, and a sausage pizza. He pondered a can of root beer.

A man, loaded with foodstuffs, stepped next to him. “Excuse me.” The man pulled open the glass door and plucked a root beer off the shelf.

Jim glanced over and nearly dropped his groceries.

They peered at each other, both sets of eyes widening in confusion.

Jim’s arms began to shake. Mirror, mirror…. He peered at the items in the man’s arms. Kitty food, a pizza—pepperoni not sausage—a quart of milk and a pack of granola bars. His gaze traveled to the other man’s round, frozen eyes. He swallowed and stuttered a single word. “H—Hello.”

The stranger cleared his throat. “You seem awfully familiar.”

Like a pricked balloon, they burst out laughing. Jim piled his parcels onto one arm and thrust out a hand. “Name’s Jim. Always wanted to meet my alternate universe persona.”

The other man balanced his goods on his left arm and grasped Jim’s hand with a warm smile. “James.” He shook his head. “Never seen anything like this.” He nodded to the checkout counter. “I’m just staying the night at the One-Stop next door. Traveling through. Me and Millie—my cat. We’re visiting friends in Milwaukee.”

Jim dumped his foodstuff on the counter and faced James. “I live up the block. I wasn’t kidding about an alternate universe—that’s my thesis. I’m a student at Chicago University.”

James lined his foodstuffs in neat order behind Jim’s. “Very cool. My dad’s big into theoretical science too—time travel, extraterrestrial stuff—all that.”

The two men paid their dues and started for the door with matching sacks hanging at their sides.

Jim opened the door and nodded to the left. “Well, I go this way.”

James grinned. “Hey, how about you stop by the motel a minute, and I’ll get a picture of us together. My friends won’t believe that I have a lookalike.”

Jim shrugged. “My cat’s about ready to kill me—but sure. I’ll take one too. My mom will freak. She thinks I’m crazy—this’ll at least bring some credence to my theory.”

As soon as the two entered the dark room, James snapped on a light and dropped his groceries on a table. He pointed to another. “Just put your stuff there—” He fished his phone out of a pocket as his gaze roamed over the matching foodstuffs. “Did you notice? We got almost the exact same things?”

Jim nodded. He bent down and patted a gorgeous white Persian cat. “Well, at least we have different tastes in cats. Mine is a calico.” He straightened and peered at James. “So, what do you do for a living?”

James adjusted the camera feature on his phone. “I’m studying to become a Jesuit priest.” He peered over the camera and grinned. “Thought my dad would kill me—alternate universe here I come.”

With his hands clasped, Jim sniffed back sudden irritation. “What do you mean by that?”

Focusing on Jim, James waved with two fingers to the left. “Take a step—there. Perfect.” He tapped the phone and scanned through images. “Take a look at my dad. He’s a big man—important in his own way—never to be taken lightly.” He turned the phone around so the image faced Jim.

Jim took three steps forward and froze. As if his hand moved by a separate power, it found his shirt pocket, lifted a phone forward, and within seconds, his eyes scanned through multiple images. “Dad hates to have his picture taken—now I know why.” He turned the phone around.

James staggered and fell on the edge of the bed. “Oh, Lord.”

Jim plopped down next to James and rubbed his face. “God had little to do with this.”

Slapping his leg, James stood. He stalked across the room. “So, that explains everything. All the business trips. Gone for months at a time!”

The cat twirled around James’ leg.

With shaking fury, James peeled open a can of cat food, pounded to the bathroom, and slapped the container on the floor. “Here, now quit being a pest.”

Jim’s gaze strolled from the cat to James. “It isn’t the cat’s fault.” He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “I should’ve guessed. I always thought his secretiveness had to do with his science—never occurred to me he was leading a double life.” His fingers curled into clenched fists. “Poor mom.”

His eyes closed in pain; James leaned against the wall. “What’s your mom’s name?”

Jim’s gaze flickered over his phone. He found another picture, stood, and held it out. “Saundra.”

James opened his eyes and nodded. “She’s beautiful.” He held up his phone, found an image, and passed it over. “Maria.”

Jim stared at the photo. “Gorgeous.” He slapped his face as he handed the phone back. “Dad always has had a strange sense of morality.” He shuddered a long exhaling breath. “Odd sense of humor too.”

James shook his head as if chastising the floor. “True. I just never thought it extended this far.” He nudged his half-brother. “Guess the joke’s on us.”

Jim stood to his full height and pulled a card out of his wallet. “Call me when you get home, and we’ll arrange a little joke on Dad.” He gathered his groceries into his arms and stepped to the door.

James followed and tapped his card into Jim’s shirt pocket. “I’ve always believed in a supernatural, not an alternative universe. But in this case, I’ll bet by the time we’re through, Dad will believe in both.”

Jim stepped over the threshold. “When our moms find out—likely—he’ll be heading for one—or the other.”

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

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