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 (In production)

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 (In production)

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

In Two Words

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.”

Georgios 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 a 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.”

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 (In production)

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

Justify Your Evil

From OldEarth ARAM Encounter…

—Planet Lux—

Teal stood holding a drink in one hand, tapping his leg with the other, and a frown building between his eyes.

The brilliantly lit hall filled with trailing green vines, glowing flowers, and an astonishing array of birds, barely scored his conscious mind. He had seen a million such rooms before. The company was different though. Luxonians in their human forms, Ingots, encased in their mechanical exoskeletons, and Crestas, lumbering along in their terrestrial bio-suits mingled in forced diplomacy.

Zuri, back straight, chest out, circulated amid an Ingoti throng across the room, which hummed with the uneasy murmurings of three races attempting to mingle in an uneasy alliance.

Putting his drink aside, Teal’s gaze shifted to his superior, Judge Sterling, who looked like he had been chewing glass for breakfast.

Sterling, dressed immaculately in a long, flowing robe and cotton pants, stood square-shouldered as he faced off a leading scientist of Crestar. Sterling’s eyes lowered to half-mast.

Boredom or loathing? So hard to tell from this distance.

A hand gripped his shoulder. Teal stiffened as he glanced at the mechanical glove. How did Zuri manage to sneak around him like that?

“Teal, correct?”

Clenching his jaw, Teal peered at the Ingoti trader. “You should know my name by now—you’ve complained about me often enough to the Ingilum—and the Supreme Council.”

Zuri’s form-fitting techno-armor, a brilliant red for the conference, nearly outshone his wide, practiced smile. “In truth, I’m surprised they let you come. After all, this is where we make agreements to respect each other and—”

“Like you respect the human race?”

Taking two steps into Teal’s personal space, Zuri waved a mechanical hand that could snap a neck. “Do you see any humans here? And why would that be? Possibly because they’re not evolved to the point where they can represent themselves at our level?”

Teal glanced ahead as Sterling wandered in his direction. Teal’s frown melted as he lifted his hand in salute.

Zuri backed off.

Sterling offered a slight bow. “Well, what have we here? The most infamous Ingoti trader this side of the Divide?”

Teal’s gaze bounced like a ball from Sterling to Zuri.

Flexing his impressive biomechanical exoskeleton, Zuri’s chest expanded alarmingly. “Don’t get jealous, Judge Sterling. Ingoti trade benefits Ingots, Luxonians, and Crestas—anyone willing to pay a fair price.”

Sterling tucked a stray lock of his luminous white hair into perfect place. “Pity, humans keep getting in your way. Teal has reported that humans seem to disappear when they have the unfortunate luck to wander too close to one of your mining operations.”

Zuri’s hands clenched. “I’ve taken plenty of native-sensitive precautions. I introduced three kinds of protective repellants and made bloody well sure that they appeared to be right out of one of their superstitious belief systems. I did my research!”

A bell toned.

The two Luxonians glanced at the Ingoti representative beckoning them to their next meeting.

Zuri kept his glare plastered on Sterling.

Teal glowered. “Like it or not, we need stronger non-interference regulations for undeveloped planets. You’re already exploiting their natural resources, and humanity will suffer from your greed.”

The tone repeated—louder.

Judge Sterling tugged Teal toward the conference door. “We’ll handle this issue in the proper setting.”

Zuri smacked his metallic fists together. “You think humans don’t exploit each other? What about that creature called Neb? And his son—Ishtar? Don’t tell me that their noble hearts will win out over generations of greed. I’m just doing to humans what they’ll do to each other given time.”

Teal pulled away from Sterling’s grasp and stared deep into Zuri’s narrowed eyes. “You don’t know who Ishtar might become or what’ll happen to Neb. Don’t justify your evil by insisting everyone is evil. It’s too simplistic—even for an Ingot.”

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 (In production)

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

All Humanity

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.

 

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 (In production)

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

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 a stack of work on his desk. He sighed, curled his arm around the pillow, and closed his eyes. That’s your job.

It was.

 

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 (In production)

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

Blanket Personalities

 

Blankets have personalities.

Literally.

I’m not talking about some highfalutin metaphorical image of our broken world. I’m talking about the strange personalities our blankets and sheets take on at night while we are in our weakest state, unable to properly defend ourselves. If you’re deeply honest, you’ll recognize your own blanket’s personality here.

First, there’s the most common—what I call the slithering personality. Not to be stereotypical about sheets, but I do believe more bed coverings slip into this category than any other. The night starts off optimistically enough. You get on your PJs, slide under the coverlet, read your book till you’re nice and drowsy (certain books accomplish this better than others), and fall asleep with your sheets and blanket nicely positioned.

But then…you awake shivering. Grasping confusedly, you find your supposed friend and nighttime ally, slumped on the floor to the right or left, or (in extremely embarrassing situations) at the foot of the bed. After a bit of a tussle, you punch a little life into the fabric and spread it out, encouraging words tangled up with grunts and slight aspersions to the sheet’s quality. Once set, you try again…and again… But by morning, there it lay in a heap, looking just as miserable as you feel—as you rub your eyes in exhaustion.

Second, there’s what I fondly refer to the enchiladas-lover personality. You find yourself waking up completely stiff, unable to move, wrapped up as tight as King Tut’s mummy. Sheets have been known to accomplish this maneuver just as well as blankets. Personally, I think they are tied for honors here. It’s a difficult situation to manage and not get caught in mid-stream. It’s an even more difficult situation to get out of. If they’re really good, they get both your arms wrapped up tight against your body while you are face down. Top points! Marks off for leaving one arm free or being loosey-goosey in the middle.

Third and finally, there’s the nefarious personality in which a blanket likes to congregate around the head pretending that he’s keeping the mosquitoes off your face, but you have your doubts, as it’s nearly twenty below zero outside. Though the initial “head covering” is the most common maneuver of this personality type, they have been known to attempt strangulation by wrapping themselves about the neck. Once caught, they fall limp in your hands, as if the thought of anything ominous never entered their fibers. Beware of this kind…they’re sneaky and highly proficient sleep stealers. After all, who in their right mind can get any rest after such an encounter?

So there you have three inescapable blanket personalities. Not being a particularly worldly person, my catalog is naturally quite small. Perhaps you’ve met a few other types? Feel free to send me a note about those you’ve encountered. I really ought to write a scientific book labeling them all properly (in Latin?) for posterity’s sake.

Maybe then I’d get some sleep.

 

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 (In production)

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