It Makes All the Difference

As far as I was concerned, the whole world was on a fast train headed for destruction, and I didn’t want to watch. Humanity might party on the way, but the crash wouldn’t be pretty. It would be painful. Very painful. I couldn’t think about it.

So I did the next best thing. I invited myself over to my sister’s place in the country. She has one of those mini-farms with cute domesticated animals, a huge garden, fruit trees, and a stack of firewood big enough to make Paul Bunyan envious. And, yes, they and their assorted young’uns eat bacon, eggs, and pancakes with homemade maple syrup every Saturday morning.

I got there on Friday night, just to be on the safe side.

Right off the bat, Leslie laughed at me.

I carried a cup of herbal tea to the counter, pulled up a wooden stool, and harrumphed. “Hey, I’m being serious. The planet is being poisoned beyond repair… we’ll likely nuke ourselves soon…and then aliens will decipher one of our stupid transmissions and figure that we really ought to be decimated just to end the drama.”

With complete indifference to my dismal prognostications, Leslie sloshed her hands into a sink of dirty dishes, steaming water, and soapy bubbles. “You need to lighten up. Tonight you can bunk with the girls; they don’t snore much. In the morning, we’ll all eat a healthy breakfast and then, while I brandish a chair and whip to keep the kids from following, you can take a long rambling walk in the woods. After that, I’ll put you to work helping me clean the basement, we’ll play a rousing soccer game, afterward, go to Mass, and by the evening, Jasper will join us for a family-feud Ping-Pong tournament. By Sunday, you’ll be a new person.”

Heck, I thought, by Sunday it won’t matter where the world is heading, I’ll be dead.

~~~

True to her word, the girls didn’t snore. Much. With carefully placed pillows smashed against my skull, I managed to fall into a deep sleep in the wee hours of the morning. When Leslie clanged the outdoor bell calling her screaming kids and a much too happy husband to the breakfast table, I managed to stumble down the stairs with a modicum of composure. The fact that I felt like road kill didn’t appear to dampen anyone’s spirits.

But a glorious breakfast and a strong cup of coffee worked a miracle. For the first time in days, I actually felt glad to be a human. With Jasper’s assistance, Leslie managed to hold the kids back while I made my escape, and I practically skipped across the cow pasture, carefully sidestepping unmentionables, into the woods. A fun fantasy escape just for me.

Except it wasn’t.

Deer inhabited the woods and terrorized my thumping heart into regions it did not honestly belong. Stupid deer. Who knew such innocent creatures could look so darn ferocious up close and personal?

Brandishing my water bottle, I backed up toward the old Tobin place and decided to investigate the ancient ruins dating back at least…well…fifty years. It was a squirrel that ruined everything. That little scoundrel scurried into a hidey-hole by the back entrance, enticing me to follow when I suddenly felt my footing give way.

After I found myself flat on my back at the bottom of a muddy, brick lined, thank God not-full well, I said words I’m glad my nieces and nephews weren’t around to hear. Then I tried to sit up and found that I couldn’t. I tried to breathe instead.

That accomplished, I felt a tiny bit better. But I was still on my back at the bottom of a well, far from human habitation. Even if I could yell, no one was around to hear me. Well, I figured, no use straining myself. Just lie still and wait for someone to rescue me.

Did I mention I was feeling a little depressed before I fell down the well?

By the time the sun set, I was suicidal. And really hungry.

As the stars flickered on one by one, (I knew they don’t actually flicker on…but I was practically hallucinating at that point, so I wasn’t picky on the details) I wiped what I was certain would be my last tears off my face. I discovered that if I tilted my head just so, I could see more stars than I had ever seen in my life. The Big Dipper shone in splendor and since I’d never been one to stop and stargaze, I was rather amazed it actually existed. I’d heard of it, of course, but I’d never stopped to actually see it—outside of the kids’ picture book anyway. It took my breath away.

At that moment, I was glad I had breath to take away.

Then something ran across my hand. I shrieked and sat up. I’m sure I surprised whatever it was that scurried into the blackness. But even more, I amazed myself. I had been convinced that I was broken beyond repair.

Apparently not.

Did you know that stars actually move? That the sky turns? That you can see the universe from the bottom of a well?

When I heard voices calling my name, I winced. Part of me was ready to kiss the first person that pulled me out of the hole. But part of me felt a pang of regret. It was like I had made friends with some unseen universal force that sat with me, glimmered and danced before my eyes, silent yet speaking of wonders I could barely grasp.

Turned out it was a nice fireman who helped me out of the hole. And, yes, I did kiss him. On the cheek.

My sister hugged me so tight; I knew that if I hadn’t broken a rib in the fall, I broke one then. But I didn’t care. I was alive. I could breathe. And I had seen the stars for the first time in my life.

As I now stand on my apartment balcony, remembering snoring kids, bacon and egg breakfasts, rambling woods, and scary deer, I can’t help but stare up at the faint night sky. I can’t see the stars like I did at my sisters’ place. But I know they are there.

And it makes all the difference.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Die Hard Optimism

Agnes couldn’t decide which skirt to wear. Not that there was much of a selection. Her choices consisted of a black skirt reserved for funerals and formal church events, an autumn floral thing that she always tripped over because it was a hand-me-down from her sister who was a good three inches taller than her, a severe grey pencil skirt, which made her look like a desperate job applicant or a green knee-length accordion skirt that made her feel like she was back at St. Robert’s grade school.

She sighed and wondered if her daring pair of form-fitting black slacks would work. Not that she had ever actually worn them. She bought them in the hopes of one day needing them. Could this possibly be their call to duty?

She plopped down on the bed and let the weak rays of a February sun pour over her. “Good heaven. I’m agonizing over nothing. No one will notice what I’m wearing. They’ll only notice me if I trip the waiter and spill everyone’s drinks.” She shuddered at the thought.

A plaintive cry turned her attention.

“Come in honey.”

Lenora, her six-year-old daughter, wandered in, looking very much like a rumpled, exhausted princess. She had the tiara to prove her identity and the unsteadiness of a child woken from a sound sleep.

Agnes wiggled her fingers. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Her brightly speckled costume, a gift from Grandma last Halloween, sashayed and shoo-shooshed as she toddled over. She crawled up on the bed and curled into her mom’s arms.

Agnes ran her fingers through her daughter’s unruly tangles. “I’m going out for a bit, sweetie, and Grandma is coming by. She’s bringing pizza. Rumor has it that it might be pepperoni…”

Lenora hunched her shoulders as if she’d never heard of pizza and couldn’t care less if the whole world turned into a pepperoni.

With the sensation of a knife plunged in her chest, Agnes rolled off the bed, yanked open her dresser, pulled out her back slacks and a silky button-down blouse that rippled over her hips, and marched to the bathroom. “You know, I’m not the bad guy here.”

When she peered at the reflection in the mirror, she had to admit, she wasn’t the bad guy or a bad woman for that matter, though age had taken its toll. She wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. A hen? She turned from the mirror; best not to think about it.

By the time Grandma Mimi hustled through the front door and hung her coat on the rack, Agnes had Lenora bathed and in her best PJs.

Mimi practically swallowed the child alive in a one-arm hug and handed a frozen pizza to Agnes. “Take the wrapping off and don’t forget the cardboard. Oven at 400.”

With a half-satirical salute, Agnes marched into the kitchen.

Mimi followed.

Agnes could feel her mom’s eyes boring into her back. “Okay. What?” She turned around and ran her fingers over her slacks as if she could iron them by hand.

“Nothing. Much. Just wondering why you’re going to a work-related fundraiser dressed like a woman…”

Agnes felt the heat rise through the roots of her hair. “Because I am a woman, maybe?”

“Your husband isn’t dead. He’s just missing in action.”

“If only!”

“You know what I mean.”

“Mom, you know he’s not coming back. I know he’s not coming back. That’s all there is to it.”

“But not all there is to you, apparently.”

“What’s so wrong?”

Lenora tiptoed into the room with her hands clasped above her head twirling like a ballerina.

Agnes clenched her jaw and closed her eyes against tears.

Mimi led Lenora out of the room with cooing encouragement and pulled a small box out of a large pocket. “I brought a puzzle we can put together if you open it up and lay out the pieces on the coffee table. Okay, Sweetums?”

Agnes felt her mom’s firm hand on her shoulder. Then a gentle squeeze. “You’re a strong woman, Agnes. I’ve never thought otherwise. But I know how it is. You get lonely…and it takes more than a woman can stand to be both mother and father every day…day after day.”

Agnes blinked back her tears and focused on the kitchen table. Mismatched socks still lined the edge. She scooped them into a bundle and dropped them on the counter. “I didn’t think these slacks were such a big deal. I just wanted to look…”

Mimi set the oven timer. “I know. But you’re still married. At least in the eyes of the church. If you want to change that…”

“There’s always the chance—”

“Is there?”

“I’m caught between worlds, Mom. Stuck. Never really married and never really free. I can’t move forward. Or back for that matter.”

Mimi rummaged through the refrigerator. “You got any salad fixings? A side dish would go well with the pizza.”

Agnes pursed her lips, leaned in, yanked open the crisper, and pulled out a bag of lettuce and a soft tomato. “Good luck getting her to eat anything healthy. She’d rather die of the plague.”

With quick efficient motions, Mimi tore up the lettuce and diced the tomato. She kept her eyes on her work.

Agnes got the message, sighed, and retreated to change her clothes.

~~~

It was late by the time Agnes stepped into her living room. The lights were dim and her mom was sleeping on the couch with an afghan thrown over her legs. The same afghan Mimi had given her on her wedding day. The irony struck her as funny, and she giggled. The one beer she sipped through the evening might have helped.

Mimi sat up and rubbed her eyes. “You’re home safe. And giggling?”

“Yep. Safe and sound.”

Mimi patted the couch next to her. “Tell me about it.”

Agnes tucked the green skirt under, as she plunked down next to her mom. “Well, I had an epiphany as I sat at the gloriously set table and listened to people’s conversations. One woman bullied her husband mercilessly about not getting their garage cleaned out, while another couple sat in stony silence. Then there was this kid who kept screaming at his dad, saying that he wanted to go home and watch a movie and eat real food. One girl sat pathetically by the wall, her eyes searching for someone, while a crowd circled around a handsome bearded guy like he was the greatest thing since the invention of the iPhone.”

“Sounds like a dull crowd.”

“Average. That’s what struck me.”

“That people are average?”

“That even at an expensive club, wearing the best clothes, eating sumptuous food, drinking whatever, and all for a noble cause…most of us poor human beings weren’t happy.”

“Grim observation.”

“Yeah. But freeing too. I get it now…better than before. Jim’s abandonment nearly killed me, and deep down I know that he’s not coming back. I have to accept it. We’ve got more cause for an annulment than most…neither of us had a clue what marriage meant…and we were drunk on dreams. But most of all, I see now that my life is what I make of it…right now. Today. What’s before me. You know, even when God—Creator of the Universe—lived on Earth, we weren’t happy. If He couldn’t make us happy…”

“So you aren’t striving to be happy anymore?”

“Nope. I’ve decided to reach a little higher…go for contentment.”

Mimi stretched and pulled herself to her feet. “Well, tell me about the view when you get there. Right now I need to find my bed collapse. I’m leading three junior high classes through the museum tomorrow. If the effort doesn’t destroy the rest of my brain cells…I’ll be delighted.”

Agnes stood and hugged her mom. “I knew I got it from somewhere.” She stepped to the front door and handed her a floral-patterned jacket from the rack. “Be careful on the way.”

“I only live down the street.” Dressed in her winter best, Mimi opened the door, shivered, and stepped over the threshold. Her eyebrows puckered as she glanced back. “Got what?”

“My die-hard optimism.” After shutting the door, Agnes smiled and climbed the steps to bed, her green skirt rippling over her bare knees.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

I Need The Practice

Kent stared at the white streak speeding across the evening lavender sky and wished he could be up there…heading west…anywhere but standing on the front porch of his wife’s mother’s new house. He couldn’t refer to Eula as his “mother-in-law” out loud. She had screamed the first time he used the word, a high-pitched shriek that raised the hairs on his arms like a warrior encountering a deadly beast.

Today her welcome echoed her former shriek, but with laughter lines around it. Her clutching embrace and a quick shove through the doorway stiffened his spine. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have been passionately loved and tossed away at record speed.

Bright lights and happy chatter crashed against his ears.

He knew perfectly well that this day would come. He’d have to meet all the relatives…and the relatives of the relatives…and the friends involved with said relatives. He peered ahead at the loud, mingling throng. A man with a fluted drink squeezed by a cloud of women, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Good Lord, everyone, including third cousins, must be here!

Being the only child of parents with no siblings, Kent’s life had always been simplified to minimalist family interactions. Frankly, they were lucky to scrape up a great, great granduncle once removed to invite to any particular holiday gathering. Not that they had a lot of those. Work—and more work—held a prime position in the academic hierarchy of the Stevenson family.

Laughter burst from the high ceilinged living room. Kent shivered. God save me.

Tina grabbed his arm and squeezed. “You’re going to be fine. They’ll love you.”

Kent dearly hoped not. He couldn’t take that much love. Not in one day. Not even in a lifetime.

He marched forward like a condemned man facing the executioner’s block. I will live through this…rippled through his mind like a mantra. I will…

“Tina!”

New shriek. But familiar somehow. Ah. Yes. Tina’s older, wiser, and classically gorgeous sister, Beth? Bella? Berta?

“Haven’t seen you since the wedding!”

Kent felt his other arm being snatched with relentless good cheer. “You’ve been good to her? Of course, you have!” She waved across the room to a clutch of elderly women. “Or they’d eat you alive…”

Tina chuckled, slipped her hand under Kent’s sleeve, and caressed his arm in that way she knew drove him mad.

He swallowed hard.

Tina’s voice dropped to a purr. “Oh, he’s good alright. No worries there.”

Oh, just take me, Lord. Kent smothered a groan and unclutched his arms. “I’ll get us something to drink.” Ambling toward the bar set up in the ultra modern kitchen, Kent bumped into the men’s department of said family gathering.

“Oh, there you are, ol’ boy!” Booming laughter. Perhaps one sneer.

There wasn’t much to say to such an obvious assessment, so Kent sidled up to the makeshift bar.

A man dressed in formal wear with an even more formal expression merely raised his eyebrows. After ordering his wife’s favorite wine, the same for his sister-in-law, and a beer for himself, Kent realized he didn’t have enough hands or the dexterity needed to carry three drinks through the mingling throng.

“So, I hear you’re a journalist.”

Kent turned and faced two men, one tall and lean and the other looked like an aging football coach. He cleared his throat. “Yep. I plod along as best I can…” He lifted the two glasses of wine from the counter and stepped forward. Hint. Hint.

Oblivious, the tall stranger laughed. “You don’t have to carry drinks around, kiddo. There’s plenty of help going around doing that sort of thing.”

Feeling his face flush, Kent couldn’t think what else to do but deliver the stupid drinks, even if a dozen helpers swirled about the place.

“My name’s Davies. William Davies. Chicago side of the family. This is my partner in crime, Shell Beck.” The tall man thrust out his hand.

Oh hell. Kent put the glasses back on the counter and shook each man’s hand in turn. He forced an innocent smile. “So what crime are you involved with at present?”

Shell snorted. “Same as everyone. Making a living in an insane world.” He scowled. “Surely you’ve heard of Davies and Beckman industries?”

“I thought you said your name was Beck.”

“Got to have some anonymity, you know. This way I keep my professional and private life separate.”

“Ahhh…” Kent just barely suppressed an eye-roll. Doing a great job. He snatched his beer and took a long swig.

William wagged a finger. “You know, I’ve read some of your stuff. Sure write a lot. You’re either rich or damn poor. Why do you pump out so much?”

Kent took another gulp and wiped his mouth. His gaze flashed to the doorway as Tina caught his eye and grinned. “I need the practice.”

By the time they were ready to leave, Kent had drunk more beer than was good for him, but Tina was as sober as the day she was born. Lucky for him.

~~~

After a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee the next morning, Kent attempted to process his first clan gathering. He stared open-mouthed as his wife dug into a stalwart breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns, and wheat toast. As she slathered grape jelly on her toast, he grimaced. “I suppose your family doesn’t think much of me, eh?”

Tina crunched, chewed, and swallowed with obvious relish. “Oh, honey, of course, they like you. As much as anyone.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

She reached across the table. “Dear Heart, you’re worried about nothing. You’ve got to understand, they’re far more interested in what you think about them than in what they think about you.”

Kent blinked. He remembered the Cheshire cat and wondered if he had actually dropped through the rabbit hole. “Say that again?”

Building a towering forkful of bacon, egg, and hash brown, Tina crunched her brow in concentration. “It’s like when I went to see your family and your mom showed me her china plate collection, and your dad shuffled those stuffy academic journals on the coffee table, and your great uncle whatever…told me all about his DNA test and how his genetic code is exactly split between Eastern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula.” She plunged the entire forkful in her mouth and grinned.

Kent’s stomach roiled.

After chewing, Tina handed him a piece of jelly toast. “Eat something, and you’ll feel worlds better.”

Kent felt his blood pressure rising. “My family adores you. But your family—?”

“Kent… Do you remember what happened when that stupid editor wrote that scathing review of your work but so many readers wrote in to say that they loved it, and he had to recant his statement?”

Kent nodded.

“You remember your reaction?”

Kent nodded.

“You said that you write like you live—the best you can—and you keep at it because you need the practice.” Tina rose from the table and carried her plate to the sink. She glanced back. “Oh, you’d better hurry up, or we’ll be late.”

Alarm shivered over Kent’s body. “Late?”

“Yeah. Remember? It’s Sunday. After church, we’re going to the picnic and jamboree. There will be quite the crowd, so put on comfortable shoes.”

Slowly, Kent rose and plodded to the window. A red bird perched on a branch and chirped its heart out. Almost seemed to be laughing. Kent shook his head and hunted for his shoes.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Leopold

“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 little 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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

What Are We Searching For?

I decided to check the final 2018 stats on my blog this week. Nearly gave myself a heart attack. Not that it was bad…but the reality of the numbers and the fact that the globe was almost completely covered overwhelmed me. 65 countries have logged into my website this year, many of them multiple times. Even hundreds of times. The US, of course, topped the list with over 4000 views.

I’m from the generation where globetrotting was considered unusual. Travel abroad was for those with money and means. Granted, I grew up in a house where foreign students boarded with us from all over, so I understood the multicultural reality of our planet.

But websites and blogging have tightened the embrace.

On a given day, I may interact with people from half a dozen countries. And I might not even realize it. I’m used to calling my dad and asking about the weather in Kansas, but it still feels weird to ask a friend what the weather is like today in India. Or to be checking world time zones to see if someone would be available for a chat. And to consider that normal.

My kids play online games with people from all over the globe. But they don’t see it as unusual. They’ve grown up with it. They may not be multilingual except for high school level Spanish or German, but they manage to make headway in a world dominated by computer technology.

Back in the day, science fiction really was really fiction. Nowadays, we have nearly everything Captain Kirk had—but better. Granted we don’t travel to distant galaxies…or do we? We’re building telescopes that can reach to the edge of the universe. That’s a pretty big reach. We’re exploring planets, stars, black holes, and outer space like never before in human history.

At the same time, we’re discovering more about our universe on the opposite end of the spectrum. Go small and discover a whole new world. Look inside and travel deep into the microstructure of life.

It isn’t just that we are interconnected, but we’re a world changing at super speed at the same time. If Adam and Eve chomped on an apple for knowledge…I’d say we must be getting pretty close to the core.

Or maybe not.

God is infinite. Our search may go on forever.

Which begs a question: What are we searching for?

I remember returning to the US from the Peace Corps in the Philippines and realizing that there was a lot of work that needed to be done in my own hometown. In my own family. I hardly needed to go across the planet to find a cause to live for, a love to die for, or a purpose to give meaning to my day.

I’m glad that my website reaches so many countries, and I’m glad that my kids are living in such illuminating times. But I can’t help but wonder if we tend to look up when we should also look in. We’re peering at a screen when we should be gazing into a pair of eyes.

Am I tapping a pad, when I might be holding a hand?

Yes, I reached around the globe this past year, but have I touched a heart today?

Maybe I should tighten the embrace…indeed.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Legitimate Concerns

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it past Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you described in your reports?”

He shoved loose soil aside and nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a sterile surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips.

Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists. “Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” He eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched and an oval blue-green piece of fruit from a bowl on the coffee table and chomped a big bite. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressure everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around him too much. “I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You glare like he does.”

Teal chewed and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up behind and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip.

A chime sounded. Teal and Sterling turned to face the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged. “Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything. Worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass. “Having liquids are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched over to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. Taking copious notes.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted the full glasses and strolled across to Ark. “Here. You can have two since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out.” He nodded to the counter. “You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “Or do they have claws?”

Ark poured the drink into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed his entire drink down his throat in one swallow. Stay calm. Right. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned and turned abruptly. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and headed for the cabinet again. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He stopped and turned, swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “And I left him alone on the planet.” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discrete distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter. “Of all the—” He felt his composure cracking. “Do you mean to tell me that you have someone watching Zuri, who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and waved Sterling and Ark closer. “I want to return to Earth undetected and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark shook his head and tapped Teal on the shoulder. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. In surprise, he realized that his fingers actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot is afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his pot, pulled it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands, free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and perched all four tentacles onto his thick waist. “How’d you know we’re focusing our attention on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile made up of the same—Uh oh. He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground. If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” Pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down and stretched out. “Mine if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the edge of a chair.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He glanced at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal tented his fingers before his face. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark wiggled a tentacle in the air. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Sterling rubbed his brow, he felt drained. “Can’t I just lie and say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark and Teal glanced at each other and shook their heads.

Teal slipped back onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

Sterling lay stretched out as if ready for his analyst session, crossed his feet, and placing his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb like this. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth—you know what I mean.”

Teal glanced at the bright sunlight filtering through the window. The purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. “That from Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers steeple style. “Yes. They’re a super race. They can create new life forms, terra-form entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While Luxonians, Crestas, Uanyi, Bhuaci, and Ingots each have our own unique abilities, this race can do all we do, but better…with more flare. They’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbow room, so to speak. We’ve only discovered a few of their kind. The ones the Crestas irritated must have been a bit high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep entire worlds in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark frowned at Teal. He tapped Sterling on the shoulder. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn as much as they do…and more. Apparently, your studies on Earth caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Perhaps evil like Ishtar?”

Teal stomped across the room. “Ishtar isn’t evil…he’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb. You called him evil.”

Teal stopped. “But why kill me? Or Zuri? We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed and swung his feet off the couch. “They aren’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants you to continue your work so that—” Ark’s pink cheeks blanched. “Oh, no.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark by a tentacle. “What?”

Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted…by anything…or anyone.”

Teal shrugged. “Zuri is annoying, but not really a distraction. Usually, he’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. “Not Zuri. Sienna. That gorgeous Luxonian. He wanted me to make her leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and I don’t believe that was a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s a Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner—it was hers by the way.”

Teal sprang at Sterling and wrapped his fingers around his neck.

Ark’s tentacles peeled Teal’s fingers away. Slapping Teal’s hands away with one tentacle, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “How could you? Sienna is innocent. I’m a Luxonian guardian, and I thought we—” He spat his words. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark waddled between them, shoving them further away from each other. He turned from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand Ungle’s persuasive nature. He can make life on Lux much more challenging—if he wants. He can create an interstellar incident and make it look like Sterling’s long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that he knows quite enough about evil already.”

Ark laughed. “Very observant. But Ungle has legitimate concerns. The mystery race will dictate the entire Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put the entire planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really am having a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head. “Not possible. In your case, I wish it was, though.”

Sterling peered at Teal. “You’re right. I should’ve told you. I was wrong. But Ungle…all his talk of good and evil…I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna into leaving seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to that stupid planet now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in all directions. “I don’t know if I have enough to keep everyone in line.”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment. I’m not feeling well.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed—he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

Ark slapped Sterling on the side of the head.

Sterling stood and placed his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “I know you have feelings for her. I’d spontaneously combust if it’d make you feel better.” His gaze wandered to his vine.

It appeared to wave its purple fronds at him.

Oh hell.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Ironic Twist of Fate

In an ironic twist of fate, short-term memory loss has advantages. For example, it’s great for my daily workout. I run downstairs on a specific errand…get sidetracked, drop the laundry into the dryer, sweep up a mess, and climb all the way to the top step, before I realize that I really came down to get some frozen pumpkin to make a pie.

Short-term memory loss may also be one of the reasons mothers can enter into a third pregnancy as if they had never suffered morning sickness in their lives. Or why an otherwise perfectly sane person adopts a second puppy.

There are a lot of ways of peering at reality. Not that objective reality changes. Nooo. That’s silly. Two plus two still adds up to four. Unless you want to throw in variables…or play socio-political mind games. But that’s another story.

Still, I like to tell my kids that, as fate would have it, their weaknesses can, if utilized properly, become their greatest strength. Stubbornness heated in the fire of charity can be forged into loyalty. Unregulated passion can be shaped and molded into charity. Intellectual challenges can inform our human empathy. Physical imperfections can free us from societal-conformist chains.

When my daughter sliced her finger while making her very first batch of potato soup today, I kicked myself for not watching her more closely. But then I remembered that I learned to make potato soup pretty much the same way. The irony of injury is that we learn to be more careful, and potato soup eventually gets made without any unsavory ingredients.

My life appears to be stuffed with irony. The more I empty myself of selfish preoccupation, the more God widens the breadth and depth of my human journey. As I settle into the frozen stillness of winter, the more snugly the seeds of spring embed in my soul.

My memory loss doesn’t seem to reach back to childhood, though. If anything, I can recall images and sensations more vividly as I grow older than ever before. Perhaps because in my mad rush to get pumpkin for pies and load washers and clean up messes, a part of me understands that every bit of this journey will become a memory. And as ironic reality would have…I might enjoy the moment more…then.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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