They Had Their Chance

Gianna sat in her living room before a shoebox filled with memories and stared at an old, taped together letter. Anxiety scrambled after fear, chasing horror along the byways of her mind. How could he have done such a thing? But now she knew—for once and for all—she had done the right thing.

The screen door squeaked open. Her youngest, Janie raced into the room followed by her hyper-excited pup, tracking newly mown grass across the floor. “Mom! Guess what! There’s a new cat in the neighborhood. It’s black and white so I’m calling it Moonie.”

After dropping the letter onto a stack of family photos, Gianna shoved the box into a wooden cabinet and shut the door. She prayed that she could do the same with the images filling her mind.

Pup raced around the room, dove onto the couch, and flopped down, her tongue lolling. Janie laughed and joined her partner in crime.

In perfect imitation of a miffed prison guard, Gianna crossed her arms, peered down at the two innocents, and growled, “Think you can wander in here carrying all outdoors with you, eh? Suppose you’ll be expecting lunch, too, no doubt.”

With some kind of child’s extra-sensory perception, Janie scrunched her nose and tilted her head, listening for a hidden something.

Gianna relaxed her pose, returning to ordinary-mom.

Happy again, Janie tipped back her head and boldly proclaimed her really important news, “Dad says he wants grilled cheese, chips, and pickles for lunch.”

Gianna rolled her eyes and headed for the kitchen, glad for the distraction. “Oh, yeah? He wants your favorite lunch?” She hunched her shoulders in dejection. “And here I planned on liver and gizzards with a side dish of boiled onions. Oh, gee. I never get what I want.”

Janie and her sidekick bounced off the couch and followed in close proximity, perhaps to make double-sure that mom hadn’t gone to the dark side. She even scooted to the refrigerator and yanked out the cheese package just to be safe.

The puppy lapped up a bowl of water, while Janie propped her head on her hands, sitting at the kitchen counter, her eyes following her mom’s every move.

Pushing every thought away, except how to make extra-good grilled cheese sandwiches, Gianna performed mom-magic and prepared a delicious, healthy lunch just in time for her husband to tromp in, stomping a pile of cut grass and weeds on the doormat.

Matt looked up sheepishly. “Sorry, but I had to do a lot of cutting, or we’d need a compass and a map to get through the backyard.”

A waterfall of gratitude sluiced Gianna from head to foot. She could barely get out her words. “Thanks, sweetheart.”

With a perplexed frown, Matt peeled off his shoes, padded in his grungy socks across the room, eyed the lunch spread, and shot a hi-five to his daughter.

Janie giggled.

Pup slept curled up in her corner. A perfect picture of creature comfort.

Gianna sat next to her husband, and they clasped hands as they said grace over the meal, their heads bowed. Then everyone dug in, filling their plates. Suddenly, the imaged of the torn and taped letter flooded Gianna’s mind. Choking back a sob, she ran out of the room.

~~~

The July sun finally released the day, and dark coolness settled over the bedroom as Gianna readied for bed.

Matt hadn’t said anything since she had told him to leave her in peace for a bit. She had cried for over an hour, and her eyes were still puffy at dinner time.

Matt had taken Janie to his parents’ house where they fed the assortment of dogs, cats, and hummingbirds awaiting their return from Mount Rushmore. He had simply offered a quick kiss on Gianna’s cheek and roared off with a squealing-happy Janie down the road.

Thank God.

Alone in the house, Gianna pulled out the old shoebox and tipped it upside down. She spread out the photographs, putting them into chronological order: her parents wedding photo, her brother’s fifth birthday party, Thanksgiving with Grandmother and Papa, her sister’s third birthday party, Christmas with Aunt Selina. Her baptism. Everyone had looked so happy, smiling so bright for the camera.

There were no photos of the fights, the drunken spells, the rampages. No copy of the divorce decree. Only the one letter. Torn into pieces. It had been taped so that the edges matched, and the words, though dim, were clear enough to read.

“I love you…”

Gianna plunked down on the edge of her bed, her gaze straying to the fireflies sparkling just outside the window.

Matt padded in and sat down next to her, their shoulders touching. “You ready, yet?”

She nodded, tears filling her raw eyes again. “He loved her. He really did. And I never knew.”

“This has to do with that box you found at your mom’s, doesn’t it?”

She nodded. “All the old photos and a love letter—from dad to mom.”

Matt didn’t shrug or murmur. He just clasped his hands, his head bowed, listening.

“I never knew them as a happy couple. I only knew the fights and all the nasty stories they told about each other. When Dad died, mom seemed relieved. She never once said a kind word about him. When she died, I only grieved for what I’d never known.”

Matt cleared his throat, pausing, parsing his words carefully. “It bothers you that he once loved her? That they loved each other—long ago? Like maybe that’ll happen to us?”

Gianna glanced over and saw a wrinkle of concern on her husband’s forehead. “No. Not that. I understand that what tore them apart is on them. It’s not us.” She sniffed back her pain and straightened. “No, what got me was that despite everything, I still believed in marriage. I dared to hope.” She took her husband’s hand and caressed the ring on his finger. “By some miracle, we did what they couldn’t.”

Matt nodded and clasped her hand in his. “Or wouldn’t.” He stood and led her to the bed, pulling the soft sheet back and letting her slide under the coolness. He leaned over and wiped away the last vestige of a tear. “What’ll you do with the letter?”

She sighed as she leaned back on the pillow, expectantly awaiting her husband at her side. “I’ll put it away. After all, they had their chance.”

Matt climbed into bed and wrapped his arms around her.

Gianna snuggled in close. “Now it’s my turn.”

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Poetry

Hope’s Embrace & Other Poems https://amzn.to/3cn22X8

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/old-letters-portrait-old-letter-436502/

Homestead Parts 1 and 2

The first three chapters are free on Kindle Vella.

For the rest of the complete, available chapters check out…

https://www.amazon.com/Homestead/dp/B094PVCT26/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=a.+K.+Frailey&qid=1626266332&s=falkor&sr=1-1

Home is where the heart is. But when the world fell apart, an alien race invaded, and my husband and children were in different locations, my heart dug deep into the home stead. If I couldn’t get to them, I’d hold fast, so they had home to return to…

Part 1

No Place I’d Rather Be

I clasped a hot cup of coffee in my hands, stepped onto the back porch as the rising sun peeked between the flowering trees, and breathed deep. As if wishing me a good morning, sparrows, robins, blue jays, and a couple of cardinals fluttered about in springtime joy. I had a whole weekend to myself, and I planned to enjoy every peaceful minute of it.

Home.

There was no place else I’d rather be.

That has remained true, despite everything. Maybe because of everything. Perhaps some part of me knew what was coming, and I needed to savor every drop of beauty, glory, and strength to live beyond my small, about-to-combust, world.

Dana had left for her new job in St. Louis the previous Sunday afternoon. It was a great opportunity for her. And she knew it. I knew it too. Somewhere deep inside.

“Mom, please don’t dribble your despondency all over my clean car.”

Her dad, Liam—aka my beloved—grinned like the besotted fool he was.

The kid got her sarcasm from me, so I could hardly complain. Though I did scrunch my eyes, stomp my feet, and pantomime a child having a conniption fit.

Dana laughed. A loud bark that set our hounds into howls.

Her car, stuffed with two kitchen chairs, bedding, the last of her clothing, enough comfort food to get her through the first week, and a miraculous medal and prayerbook she didn’t know about tucked into the glove compartment, announced her readiness to fly from the proverbial nest.

She came around the front fender and wrapped me in a big hug. Dana was never small. Even as a baby, she came into the world larger than life, thrashing and screaming, her black hair wild, making her look bigger and badder than she really was.

I hugged her back with every ounce of my fifty-year-old strength.

When her car turned at the end of the lane, I stopped waving and wiped tears from my eyes. Liam held my hand all the way up the front steps.

Juan, my broad shouldered, eighteen-year-old, sunshine child, brought into my life by two miracles—his birthmother’s big heart and my husband’s absolute trust—bounded down the back porch steps on Thursday afternoon with the abandon of a guy ready for an early weekend.

I reminded him of dinner. “I’ve got a roast chicken and an apple cobbler nearly ready.”

An apologetic shrug. “I’m heading out—gonna go camping with a few friends.”

“It’s April!” I thought that explained everything well enough.

Not according to Juan’s logic. “Hey, ma, I’ve worked hard. The guys and I want to get away for a bit, think things over before our next big move.”

I scratched my head. “By move, you mean summer work, right?”

He chuckled.

Crossing my arms, I shot one over the bow. “You ask dad?”

“He said go have a good time.” Juan squinted in his playful way. “I think he’d like to get out his corporate meeting and come with us instead.”

If I was perfectly honest, I’d rather Liam head to the wilds of Alaska than the L. A. madness that was his corporate headquarters. But mine was not to reason why…

It was only after Juan had roared his car down the road that it dawned on me. He took no clothes, no bedding, no tent. Camping? My eye.

I sighed as I headed back to the house and faced the roasted chicken that I knew my husband wouldn’t eat.

By Friday morning, Liam was a mess. He hated traveling. He loathed meetings. He despised corporations. How he managed to rise so high in the tech field is one of the mysteries of life. I forgave him for the third time for picking my beautiful dinner to pieces, knocking the Easter Lilly off the shelf, and nearly shutting the car door on my hand in his haste to get to the airport on time.

“If they try to drag me to one of their get-togethers, I’ll tell them I have a fever and—”

“Say you’re sick, and you’ll have the entire place hyperventilating. Just say you have work to do. They’ll respect that.”

“They’ll laugh and try to set me up with drinks and dates.”

I glared out of the corner of my eye.

He kept his eyes on the road.

“You ever consider starting your own multi-million-dollar business and work from home?”

He laughed.

Such a bark, I could almost hear the dogs howl though they were miles away back on the homestead. “I know where Dana gets it.”

“What?”

“That laugh. It sounds like a bark.”

For the first time in three days, Liam smiled. “It’s not a bark. It’s a hoot.”

“You’re a hoot.” I smiled back, kissed him at the visitor parking lot, and kept it plastered on all the way along highway seventy till I reached home.

Saturday morning, I rose early, poured myself a cup of hot coffee, traipsed onto my bedroom porch and breathed deep without an inkling that the world as I knew it was about to end.

Part 2

Even the Birds Stopped Singing

After dressing in jean shorts and a tunic top, I enjoyed coffee and a robust breakfast of eggs and toast. Fortified, I ran downstairs and tossed in a load of laundry. Then I scurried back upstairs and wondered why I was in such a hurry.  With a reminder to take it easy, I grabbed another cup of coffee and meandered to the roll-top desk in my studio. Like a lady of leisure, I scrolled through my emails and social media.

When the internet flickered off and on around ten o’clock, I didn’t think anything of it. We live in farm country, so wild critters sometimes make a bad life decision and interfere with the lines, or storms miles away can interrupt service. I glanced outside. No storm. A perfect sunny May first. I shivered for the critter that may have suffered an untimely death.

When my phone chimed from the kitchen counter an hour later, I had just kneaded the last bit of dough for my weekly bread making and lined up the greased bread pans. My fingers, covered in sticky goo, weren’t suited for a technological device at the moment. So, I used my elbow and managed to make the connection.

My sister, Sarah huffed her words. Must’ve been running, I figured.

“Hey, Kiddo, did your power go off this morning?”

I slapped on the tap water and rinsed my fingers, talking over my shoulder. “Just for a sec.” I scowled at the trickle dribbling over my hands. The water pressure was down. Deep inward sigh. Water pressure meant a lot to me. How was I going to take my bed-time shower?

“But it’s back on, right?”

The proverbial light bulb clicked on. Power outage and loss of water pressure. Oh, yeah. Made sense. I peered at the ceiling. The light wasn’t on. I glanced to the counter. Nor was the coffee maker. But, silly me, they shouldn’t be. It was bright and sunny and I’d cleaned the coffee maker after my second cup. I glanced at the stove. The clock showed the time, but only dimly.

“Hmm…it came back on but—” I ran and flipped the light switch with my wet hand.

My sister broke through. “Hey, I’ve got another call. It’s Bill. Poor guy had to work over the weekend. Better go.”

I listened to the click as she hung up, but my eyes stayed fixed to the ceiling. Brown light. Not the bright glare I was used to.

A sound in the distance caught my ear. Horns? Who on earth would be blowing their horn out here? We lived on a dead-end lane and there wasn’t any traffic even during planting season.

“Oh, God!” It was an accident. I was sure of it.

But just as suddenly, it stopped. All noise stopped. Even the birds stopped singing. Complete silence.

If you’ve ever been suddenly thrust into the pitch black, you know how disorientating that can be. Well, the same was true when all sound stopped. It was as if the whole world was holding its breath. The moment after a collective gasp.

And then, all hell broke loose.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Poetry

Hope’s Embrace & Other Poems https://amzn.to/3cn22X8

Photo https://pixabay.com/illustrations/window-cosmos-window-pane-5624014/

We Get Along

Weary after a long day at work, Everleigh forced down a tuna salad at the kitchen counter as evening closed in. Blessedly, a cool wind rippled the curtains, relieving the furnace-blast heat of the hot summer day. Body and soul still together, she patted her sleepy do-nothing cat as it dozed on the couch, and then padded down the white hallway to her bedroom.

Her phone binged, notifying her that she had received a message. Without even looking at it, she placed it by her bedside and began her evening routine. A cold shower would revitalize her, surely.

Well, that didn’t work.

Bleary eyed, she brushed her teeth and then plopped onto her bed.

Boring rote days, toss-and-turn nights, and high humidity drained her will to live.

She stared at the fan. “Don’t just hang there.”

Padding to the wall switch, she did the needful and then grabbed her phone on the way back to her bed.

“Dad?” She scrolled to message.

Your grandpa is arriving on Sunday to celebrate his 90th.

Hope you’ll come too.

Love, Dad

The scene from The Lord of the Rings where Frodo sets off from Rivendell, heading to Mount Doom in order to save the Shire flashed through her mind.

It’s not quite that bad.

Ignoring the jittery goose bumps that raced up her arms, she scrolled down.

Yep. There’s the address. “Dad doesn’t miss a beat.”

With a mighty effort, she gripped her will by the collar. Behave yourself! She talked out loud to encourage her flagging spirits. “Dad never asks for much, and he hasn’t seen grandpa in years. I’ll be merciful and go along.”

She squinted as she googled the address.

“Oh, wait! That’s way south. Nearly in another state. There’s no direct road!”,

Panic reared its ugly head, and Everleigh sucked in a shuddering breath. Then her phone binged again.

What now? The whole thing’s been canceled? Sure, that’s it. Thank you, God. I promise I’ll—

The thought—Check the message before making any promises—wiggled through her brain.

She scrolled down.

Aunt Kate needs a ride. Pick her up on the way, okay?

No “please, dear daughter.” Not even an emoji grimace—a way of saying “Sorry for the horrific situation I’m putting you in.”

Her fingers itched to tap back a formal message stating, “Everleigh died last year and was peacefully buried in the local cemetery.” She’d even be willing to pay for a tombstone to make it look good.

Dying was one thing. Being buried under her family’s strange coping mechanisms was quite another.

~~~

The thing about Aunt Kate, Everleigh reminded herself as she sped along the country road, was that she had lost the ability to communicate decades ago, but no one had the heart to tell her.

She parked her car in front of the tiny white ranch house in the quiet neighborhood and peered in the back seat, mentally reviewing her to-do list. Blanket for Auntie—since ninety-five degrees in the shade just won’t cut it for her old bones. A bottle of cola, two root beers, a water bottle, and a flask of gin. She’d make her way through them with unerring determination. Heaven help her if she forgot one of the nectars of the gods.

Her sainted sister, Jane would take care of the food. Jane would also take care of the decorations, insurance policies, and would make sure that two televisions were blaring—one covering the conservative side of world affairs, the other keeping the liberals in touch with hot-button issues. Of course, the internet would be available at all times.

Or the universe would evaporate.

Ready to leap forth and assist her eighty-something aunt, Everleigh froze when the old woman speed-hobbled down the walk swinging her cane. “Open the door, honey cakes! Can’t ya see, I’m ready?”

According to Google maps, the drive was only supposed to take two and a half hours. According to Everleigh’s comfort barometer, the drive was interminable.

The old woman chatted rapid-fire for several minutes, then asked incomprehensible questions.

Repeat.

After using every stock answer in the omniverse, Everleigh soon reverted to “Hmmm” and “you don’t say?”

Aunt Kate was not amused.

~~~

Everleigh’s dad, on the other hand, seemed to find everything and everyone funny. He never laughed out loud, just let the glitter in his eyes chuckle at the cymbal-clash reality of the family gathering.

Out back, her brother-in-law-number-two, Donnie, barbecued ribs and turkey burgers for those who either wanted delicious food or clean arteries. Jane sent the vegans into ecstasy with crispy buffalo cauliflower bites, oil-free pumpkin pancakes made with gluten free flour, and no-tuna salad sandwiches.

The two teens in attendance peeled off into opposite corners of the house and played multiplayer games with people on the other side of the globe.

Grandpa sat stage center stretched out on a lawn chair, a mild afternoon sun brightening his pale face. His wandering wide-eyed gaze reflected little of his glory years serving in two wars and then managing a realty business for forty years, till grandma died and all her money sense was buried with her.

After seeing that auntie was stashed safely at the picnic table where she could snatch whatever food or drink took her fancy, Everleigh wandered about, checking to see if there were any friendly aliens about the place.

Naw. Just family.

Then a hand tapped her shoulder and Everleigh shrieked. She turned and stared into the blackest eyes she had ever seen. Set in a golden face crowned with blue-black shiny hair that trailed down a straight back, Everleigh realized that beauty knew how to arrange her jewels.  

The woman thrust out a hand. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. Just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Lekha, a nursing student from the hospital where your sister works. I watch over your grandpa whenever she’s too busy or something special is going on.”

Everleigh shook the offered hand and tried to think of coherent words. “Oh?” Where was Auntie’s quick wit now? “Well, that’s good of you. To come all this way—” She glanced over her shoulder.

Jane’s boy, Earl, sat beside the old man, showing him something on his phone. A game probably.

Unabashed, Lekha took in the scene with an expression suggesting that not only was her eye color different, her vision was too. “I enjoy it. Seeing a family together is refreshing, lifts my spirits.”

Everleigh gawked. She clamped her mouth shut to keep it from dropping open. She swept her gaze over the yard. Probably fifteen people in all and no large family confabs. All intimate clusters. Each to their own niche.

“We’re not a very cohesive group, I’m afraid. We get along by not having too much to do with each other.”

Lekha grinned. “Most of my family is home in India. I’m here studying. At least your family is on the same continent. That’s something.”

Earl stepped up, barging into the conversation as entitled people often do. He beckoned Lekha with a waving hand. “Hey, you gotta come and check on grandpa. I think he’s thirsty, but he’s trying to drink the hand sanitizer.”

Undisturbed by this newest proof of borderline insanity, Lekha hurried away to her duty.

Everleigh strolled over to her dad who stood near the empty grill holding a sampler plate—a bit of everything on there. “You having a good time?”

He shrugged. “I don’t come to have a good time.”

Everleigh sighed. “I thought that was the point.”

Her father took a bite of a buffalo cauliflower and shook his head. “Honey, we can’t make each other happy. But we can get along well enough to celebrate a person’s life while he’s still with us. That’s pretty good, in my book.” He lifted a pumpkin pancake and offered it to her.

Hungry for the first time in days, Everleigh took a bite.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Poetry

Hope’s Embrace & Other Poems https://amzn.to/3cn22X8

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/nature-summer-grass-travel-3245401/

For That, I Was Glad

Balloons have no business on the ground. It’s quite obvious why, and I shouldn’t have had to explain it to anyone, much less my nearest and dearest. But then, one has to explain everything these days, doesn’t one?

I had just lost a tooth. One I had been particularly fond of as it made chewing so much easier. It was a chilly spring afternoon, and I was at the college graduation party for my niece, Marley-May. A child saddled with such a legal title deserved my compassion, as well as monetary encouragement, so I generously supported my favorite niece through five years of college. It took her a year and a half to change her major six times. But once she settled on Art Therapy with a minor in Anxious Languages taught by a guy named Phil-something, she plowed right through.

Using every ounce of her hard-earned sensibility, Marley-May was dressed for the weather that morning in a skin tight, sleeveless dress and high heels. The spring thunderstorm held off until the last of the graduates made it across the stage. Then it swooped in for revenge.

I and sundry family, faculty, and community members scattered to our cars and made it to graduation ceremonies throughout town, gripping steering wheels and squinting into failing light.

My sister, Marley-May’s mom, Geraldine, had decorated the garage with streamers, balloons, and hung a huge, stenciled swag: CONGRADULATIONS, NOW GET A JOB!  

Piled high with sandwiches, snacks, cakes, and drinks of all kinds, a standard plastic table dominated the oil stained, cement floor. An array of nails and screws piled up in old tin cans lining the shelving was a sight to behold. I had no idea that Geraldine’s husband, Sherman, was into recycling. I admired his organizational skills almost as much as I admired Geraldine’s dam-the-torpedoes approach to life’s challenges. Her husband’s projects among them.

Then, I took a bite of a caramel candy and promptly broke my tooth. But I couldn’t tell her that. So, I wrapped the piece in a matching “Congratulations, Now Get A Job” napkin and grinned through my discomfort.

“Having a good time?”

I glanced at my sister and grimaced. “Course. I love these get-togethers.”

She grimaced back. “Liar.”

“You know me too well.”

“I know that you made this day possible. Marley’s got a lead on a job, and her future looks bright. Thanks to you.”

I lifted my gaze beyond Geraldine’s left shoulder and watched my happy niece swigging back a soda with a half-eaten sandwich in the other hand. She chattered excitedly in a gathering of two other gals and a couple of interested, though not overly enthusiastic, young men. Did she have any idea how harsh the world would be? How dreams would be dashed? Aspirations squashed? The mighty burden of reality overload?

I shook my head. Of course not. She wouldn’t be smiling right now if she knew. Like a young bride going on her honeymoon, there’s no warning in the world to prepare a person for real sacrifice. That few care to notice. Even when it costs everything.

Geraldine patted my hand.

I met her gaze.

“You’ve done more than your fair share.”

“I did what needed to be done. Like what you did for Mom.”

“I just read her stories and relived my childhood as she slept in a chair.”

“You also held her hand. That’s what mattered.”

Geraldine’s eyes filled with tears.

Sherman marched into the make-shift party grounds and boomed. “Hey, I got old family videos set up in the living room and there’s hot cocoa on the stove. Let’s take this party to new heights, shall we?”

Wide-eyed horror rippled over Marley’s face.

Geraldine stood and faced the crises with charming calm. “Family videos are for us older folks who have no plans tonight.” She sidled into the youth’s gathering and drew her daughter aside. They spoke, and Marley looked over.

My stomach sank. The obligatory thank you was heading my way, complete with the hunted look and swift backward glances, pleading for courage from her friends.

Marley stopped in front of me and wrung her hands, her shoulders thrust back, ready to do her duty. “Hey, Auntie, just wanted to thank you for everything. I never could have made it through college without your support.”

I nodded graciously. The sharp edge of my tooth cut my tongue. “Happy to help. ‘What good you can do, you should do,’ Mom always said.” I shrugged. “Besides, Joe left me more than I really needed. It was only right that I share.”

A perplexed expression squinted through Marley’s eyes. “Oh, the money was nice. But what I really mean was your—I don’t know—your being you. Always there. Someone who cared about me.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Mom and dad are great. But, you know, they don’t always understand.”

The combination of honest flattery and dishonest betrayal sliced through me.

Words fell from my lips before I could stop them. “No one understands us completely, Honey. Only bits and pieces. The parts that reflect what we know. The rest confuses the hell out of us. We just try not to get mean about it.”

A startled glimmer of understanding quivered over Marley’s face.

Then a high, laughing voice rose from the background, “Hey, Graduate, you coming?” One of the gals pointedly tapped her watch. Fun called. Best not be late.

Marley squeezed my hand and smiled, peering into my eyes as if to convey something no words could tell. Real gratitude?

I nodded in acceptance and let her go her way.

Geraldine swept the remnant of the party-goers inside while Sherman took charge of clearing the faded festive grounds.

I stood and swiped my wrapped tooth from beside my paper plate. I’ll get it fixed next week. Geraldine will fill me in on Sherman’s newest home-improvement project, and Marly will find a job, making a life somewhere, somehow.

A red balloon skittered out of my way as I stepped across the floor. I picked it up and carried it with me. For a while, at least, it could hang in honor on my kitchen wall.

And for that, I was glad.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Poetry

Hope’s Embrace & Other Poems https://amzn.to/3cn22X8

Photo https://pixabay.com/illustrations/balloon-heart-grass-grasses-halme-208255/

Journey On

It amazes me that we humans ever understand each other given our robust ability to mess with syntax, translations, and meaning.

Some years back, the kids and I visited my dad in Kansas. My youngest, only about five at the time, was very impressed by something my dad shared with her. I was clueless.

After we returned home and I was making bread in the kitchen, my little one climbed up on a stool, watched me for several minutes, inflating my ego no small sum. Me thinking that my exceptional ability to knead dough actually impressed her developing mind.

She looked at me and inquired, in that adorable way small children do, with big searching eyes, “We’re related to pastry-people, aren’t we, Mom?”

I stopped kneading. Flummoxed. My eyebrows must have spoken for me.

Her voice rose with her determined desire to be understood. “You know, Pastry People. Granddad said we’re related to PASTRY PEOPLE!”

Thank the Lord of Heaven that daughter number four wandered through the kitchen at that appointed moment in history. I stalled her with a well-aimed, albeit desperate attempt to clarify our ancestry. “Uh, do you know anything about…”

She stared at me, furrowed her brows, pursed her lips, then smiled as light dawned. “Oh, yes, Granddad did say something about us being related to the Danish.”

Danish. Pasty-people. Get it?

I forgive you if you’re slow on the uptake. It took me a moment.

I don’t know if my youngest has yet forgiven me for merely being related to some of the greatest sea-faring humans in history, Hans Christian Anderson, and kings and castles rather than pastry-people. Though the discoverers of butter cookies are relatable!

When I took my ancestry test last March and got the results in May, I discovered that Dad was pretty much on the mark. 61% Irish, 26% English and northwestern European, 6% Scottish, 4% Welsh, 3% Swedish, I’m a mixed lot to be sure.

At an Irish pub with friends—back in my Chicago days—an Irish gentleman discussed ancestry with me and, when I shared my mixed heritage, his eyes rounded in something akin to horror. “You’re made up of people who hate each other, Love.” Add the fact that going generations back, we have mixed religious affiliations as well—heck, it is surprising love survived long enough to grow new lives. To say nothing of generations of lives.

It seems that everyone wants to be different these days. The irony is that we are different. Go back far enough, we all travel through the highways and byways of DNA history. And no one journeys unscathed. That’s what makes us the same. What unites us and makes us strong.

Nobility of character, depth of soul, worthiness as fellow human beings reflect both our shared human-kind but also the choices we make as individuals, including the stories we tell our kids and what’s put on the supper table.

So, though my daughter has to accept her nature as non-pastry-people, she does share our heritage as a chosen race—beings that our Creator willed into life. On a good day, we make bread and conversation, nourishing bodies and souls to journey on.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/gravel-road-lady-walking-road-1031726/

Betrayal

Nova stood in her bedroom before a full-length mirror dressed only in leggings and a short slip and stared at her perfect body. Unlike her Bhuaci mother, she didn’t have the power to shape shift. But she had been born with the preferred elfin face and figure of most Bhuaci girls.  

She glanced aside at her round, white bed piled with Ingoti armor. Her father, Zuri, had renounced most of the technological advancements his race had adopted. But that would hardly stop her.

She tried on the chest guard first. Lightweight, it didn’t hinder her movements, though it added bulk to her lithe figure. She smiled. Black was definitely her color. She slipped the arm bands up over her elbows, first the right and then the left. Snug, but with the thick red bands, they definitely added a touch of class to her cuteness. She hated cuteness.

Next, she tugged on the boots. Heavier than her normal slippers, they forced her to plan her steps more carefully. With the added height and bulk, she nearly appeared intimidating.

A tap on the door knocked the smile off her face.

Mom or dad? Probably mom.

She sighed. There was no way she could take it all off in time.

And why should I?

“Open!” She placed her hands on her hips and faced her future.

In the open doorway, Kelesta stared at her daughter, her eyes rounded with horror. “What are you doing?”

Nova groaned. Her mom wasn’t stupid, but she could sure ask the dumbest questions. “I’m discovering my heritage.”

Like a sleepwalker, Kelesta glided into the room, her hands lifted. “Your father renounced the technology that invaded his body.”

Swinging her arms high, Nova exulted in testing her limits. “I haven’t attached anything. Yet. It’s just armor after all. Though I wouldn’t mind a few synaptic connections. That way I’d have at least a few advantages.”

Kelesta caressed Nova’s face, her eyes grieving. “Haven’t we always taken good care of you? There’s no need for Ingoti protection.”

Nova pulled away and stomped to the door. “I’m not like you, Mother. I can’t shapeshift whenever I feel like it, turning into a clawed beast or hiding in a hole.”

Kelesta stood in the middle of the room, her gaze falling to the floor. “You have no idea. Really. How unprotected we are.”

As if she smelled an intoxicating scent, Nova turned on the threshold and faced her mother. “How do you mean?”

“You’re so young. I wanted to wait to tell you…but…” Her gaze rolled over the mechanical hardware attached to her daughter. She stepped forward and held out her hand. “Let’s take a walk. By the oceanside, I can face old memories.

~~~

Still wearing her body armor, though without the boots Nova paced over the white sand keeping step with her mother.

The green-orange sun crested the waves, sending a sparkling glow over the water. Seabirds sailed overhead, calling to each other.

Her arm bands pinched, but she ignored that. She’d get a helmet next. One that came with implants so she could have direct access. Her heart pounded with the thought—There’s no stopping me. She stepped into the water and splashed the waves with her feet.

Kelesta sighed and faced the ocean as foaming crests ran over her toes and receded again. “Everything has a price. The Bhuaci learned this truth eons ago. No one knows exactly how we became shape-shifters, but everyone realizes that our abilities came at a cost.”

Perplexed, Nova wrinkled her nose. Something tickled her feet. She looked down at a school of fish darting about. Funny. They aren’t scared of me.

Kelesta’s voice took on a schooled tone, controlled and disciplined. “In the beginning, we were aimless, mere beasts, not unlike these fish. We lived as flightless birds for a long time and then, through some kind of gift or curse, we learned to use our wings. And not just our wings but our whole bodies in relationship to our minds. We discovered the connection between physical matter and thought. All too soon, we learned to manipulate our bodies’ matter and imitate any shape we wanted.”

Annoyed, Nova splashed her mother. “I know all this. But why you think it could ever be a curse is beyond me. If I could alter my shape, I’d become a bird right now and fly into the sky. Or become one of these fish and swim deep into ocean.” She jumped up and down, splashing everything within reach.

Allowing the drops to fall where they may, Kelesta peered up. “You’d fly into the sky and then what? You’d still be yourself. Your mood and attitude, your hurt and hate, would follow you just as much as your friendships and love.”

With a snort, Nova rushed deeper into the water, running against the oncoming waves. “I could protect myself from every danger, enjoy every sensation, experience life from a thousand perspectives.” She dove into the murky green depths ignoring her mother’s call.

“Nova, no!”

Swimming against the current, Nova stared at the swirling bubbles and dancing seaweed. A huge blue-green fish with gold sparkles running down its back caught her eye. Thrilled, she paddled with her arms and legs to give chase.

The fish darted down, deeper into the gloom.

Nova knew that she must stay close to the surface and that her armor weighed her down, but desire flushed all reason aside. I’ve got time. Besides, mom’s still close. She arched her shoulders and dove deeper.

Suddenly, the flashy fish turned and peered at her through glowing eyes. It grew larger, until it was twice her size. Opening its mouth, rows of razor-sharp teeth snapped the water.

Panic clutched Nova. She raised herself vertically and tried to paddle upward, but tiny darting fish nipped at her feet and legs. Pain shot through her as terror took over. “Noooo!” Using every bit of her strength, she shot upward.

When her head broke the surface, she looked around. “Mom?”

No one. She was alone.

Wet and disheveled, Nova stumbled across the shore toward her home in the woods. Once in her room, she peeled off her wet armor and soaking underclothes. She wrapped herself in a warm robe and climbed into bed. Tossing and turning through the night, she brooded over her mother’s betrayal.

~~~

Three days later, Nova sat beside the window in the kitchen decorated with herb plants and primitive art and ate her grain cereal with cream and berries absorbed in plans for escape from  her traitorous family.

Zuri paced in, a frown dominating his face. “Where’s your mother?”

“I have no idea.”

His scowl deepening, Zuri dragged a chair from beside the hearth and placed it next to his daughter. He clasped his hands and leaned forward. “I know something is going on between you and your mother. Though she won’t say anything, I know you both well enough to guess.”

Her appetite disappearing, Nova shoved her bowl onto the windowsill and crossed her arms. “Know everything about me, do you?”

“I know that armor excites you. Adventure beckons. And you’re tired of being treated like a child.”

Her interest snared, Nova tilted her head. A silent acquiescence.

“I was just like you.”

Nova rolled her eyes.

“And I have the perfect answer.”

A huff of air to hint that she only had so much patience.

“You’ll come with me to Earth. We’re being sent back—Teal and his son Cerulean are coming. No reason you shouldn’t attend.”

Excitement raced through Nova. “I can come and work? I’m not just a student observer?”

A grin broke over Zuri’s face. “You’ll take notes and help to present our finding to the council when it’s time.”

Rubbing her hands together, happiness flooded Nova.” Finally! I can do something worthwhile.” She glanced at her father. “Does mom know?”

The light dimmed in Zuri’s eyes. “Yes. She’s not happy about it, but she accepts my reasoning.”

Perplexed, Nova jumped to a new thought. “Can I wear my armor?”

“As much as you like.”

Her appetite renewed, Nova grabbed her half-eaten breakfast and stood. “I’m going to get a list of things I’ll need.”

Zuri nodded, his gaze distant.

Nova started for the door and then stopped. “What reasoning?”

Zuri glanced up. “We can do our best to protect you from the world. But only you can protect you from yourself.”

After laying her bowl in the sink, Nova stepped outside. She moved toward the rising sun as she crossed the courtyard to her room, a new thought plaguing her steps. Who betrayed who?

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/fantasy-beach-planet-girl-light-6203744/

Between Worlds

Shailyn jerked upright in bed, jolted from the other world back into her own. The usual, odd discomfort dogged her as she peeled back the heavy bed covers, then trod to the bathroom for her daily ablutions.

I belong there haunted her thoughts as she tugged on her jeans and a heavy sweater, though she knew, realistically, she couldn’t live there. As a between-worlder, she was powerless to pick a permanent lodging.

Shivering in the cold morning air, she plodded to the kitchen and gratefully poured herself a cup of steaming coffee. Her daughter, Win, always got up first and made sure that the pot was full and piping hot before she left for work. Bless that girl.

Retreating to the comfort of the living room, Shailyn added a log to the burning embers in the woodstove and sat on the sturdy rocker before the big bay windows. February rain slanted across the glass as pine boughs swayed against the gray sky.

 Misty, her daughter’s tiny pup, scampered into the room and leapt into her lap, squirming with all the energy of young life.

Struggling to keep her coffee from spilling, Shailyn nudged the quadruped to a comfortable spot on her lap, took a sip of the dark brew, and then sat back and closed her eyes.  Dream images of herself traipsing along the muddy bank of a beautiful lake, a distant, untidy cottage, and a huge water bird charging with flapping wings over a line dug in the earth while intoning, “Stay where you belong!” sent confused sensations rippling over her body.

Pounding steps echoed down the staircase. Her eldest, Morgan, tromped to the kitchen, splashed coffee into his oversized mug, and then meandered to her side. His hair disheveled and dressed in dark jeans, a pullover sweater, and boots, he peered over his cup as he took his first hurried gulp.

Shailyn waited. She knew what was coming. Just like she knew what her answer would be. Though she’d have to gather strength from somewhere else to make her words believable.

“You’ll be there to pick her up, right?”

“Absolutely. Once I get my old bones ready to face the day.”

“May’s going to need all the help she can get, but I have to handle the newest crises breaking out at work.”

“You take care of your business, and I’ll do mine.”

A snort turned Shailyn’s gaze from the tears streaming down the window pane.

“Technically, she’s not your responsibility. She’s my stepdaughter.” He shook his head. “If only—”

“Stop!” She couldn’t handle if-onlys today. There was no changing the past. No bringing the dead back to life. She glanced at her son’s weary, wounded soul peeking through his gray-green eyes. “She’s all our responsibility—everyone who has a heart to love, should.”

“It’s a lot to ask—by all rights, you’d be in retirement now, enjoying your last days, not taking care of a disabled kid.”

The wind picked up as rage surged through Shailyn. “She’s not a disabled kid! She’s a wounded child. Just like you’re a wounded man, though your wounds are on the inside.”

Chastened, Morgan swallowed the last drops and eyed his mom. “Most are.” He trod to the kitchen, placed the cup on the counter, and called out as he yanked open the door. “She’d be ready at ten. The nurse will have all her stuff packed, and they’ll fold and load the wheelchair for you, so don’t mess with it. May can walk into the house with help. Just get her settled downstairs. I’ll do the rest when I get home.”

The picture of May’s imploring, chocolate brown eyes following her as she puttered around the house sent shivers down her arms. She frowned and bit her lip.

A glittery box stuffed into the bookshelf caught her eye. Jessica from church thought that she’d enjoy an “epic puzzle” in her old age and had sent her one with a thousand pieces. She nudged the pup’s warm body from her lap and rose to her feet. She waved to her son through the window.

~~~

The box-cover picture, a fairy child plucking a blue flower under the umbrella of a wide, red-spotted mushroom, while raindrops splattered against the sheltering roof and vibrant grass stems bent in gentle perfection, soothed Shailyn’s soul.

May pressed a border piece into place, her eyes shining at the mighty accomplishment. “I got this side done.”

“You’re quick. I’m only halfway through my edge.”

“They gave me lots of puzzles to do at the hospital.” May’s gaze traveled to the couch loaded with stuffed animals and three colorful blankets. “Giving me stuff makes them feel better, I think.”

Shailyn held a corner piece and considered her options. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to help. Or attempting to make you feel better.”

“They couldn’t keep mom alive or fix my back.” She shrugged. “Not in this world.”

Shailyn pressed her piece into place and sat back. She rubbed her cold hands. “I’m going to stoke the fire and check the stew. You want anything while I’m up?”

“You have any chocolate milk?”

“I’ve got milk and cocoa packets. If I get wild and mix them—well, we’ll see what happens.”

A grin peeked through May’s eyes.

~~~

Darkness had laid the landscape still and silent by the time Morgan slipped in the back door. He shoved the wheelchair against the wall and unfolded it, ready for action.

Shailyn met him in the kitchen. “There’s stew left. Though you’re lucky. May managed to work her way through two bowlfuls, much to my amazement.”

Staring through haggard eyes, Morgan pulled off his coat and tossed it on a chair. “She always amazes me. Like her mom. Resilient beyond belief.”

Until she wasn’t.

Shailyn shook her head. “Sit down and take a rest. I’ll get it for you.” She glanced at the ceiling, giving due notice to the room above. “She went to bed at eight-thirty. Not a peep since.” Shailyn pulled a plastic container from the refrigerator and poured the chunky liquid into a glass bowl. She placed it in the microwave and hit two.

Morgan leaned on the worn wooden table, resting his head on his hand. “She do okay? And you—it wasn’t too much?”

“Define too much.” Shailyn shrugged. “She put half a puzzle together at the speed of lightning, slurped down a large chocolate milk, put away two bowls of stew, and agreed to my syllabus for home school for the rest of the semester.”

“Ma, you sure you want—”

The microwave beeped repeatedly, warning that it could keep stew hot only so long.

Morgan stood and waved his mom off. “Sit; relax. I’ll get it.” He pulled the hot stew from the microwave, rummaged in the cupboard for bread, and plunked down on his chair, ready to dig into his assembled meal. He took a large scoop, savored it, and then stared at his mom, his eyebrows finishing his question.

Shailyn peeled a banana and sat opposite. “I’m hardly the best teacher in the world, but I can help her through her online classes. We don’t know what next year will look like, but for now, this is where she should be. You and Win manage this big, old rambling house; I keep it stocked with healthy dinners and fun snacks. We’re family. What else should I be doing—putting bigger puzzles together?”

“You could be traveling, seeing the world, visiting friends…”

“I could be laying in the cemetery, cold and stiff. Lots of could be’s. All fantasy. What is—makes the world go around. I’m right where I belong.”

His shoulders relaxing as the weight of a grievous month lifted just a bit, Morgan offered a lopsided grin.

~~~

After dressing in comfortable, warm sweats in the quiet of her room, Shailyn stretched out on her bed, turned off the light, pulled her blanket over her shoulders, and slipped into dreams that would take her away but could never keep her.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/sunset-nature-landscape-outdoors-3154715/

I Lift My Gaze

“That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” ~Walt Disney

When I heard Walt Disney’s quote in the movie Saving Mr. Banks a few weeks ago, I knew that he had hit upon a powerful truth. Little did I realize at the time how much I would need to believe that it was the truth, clinging to hope beyond my human sight.

Since January first of this year, I have been hit with a series of personal losses. My brother, closest in age to myself, died unexpectedly at fifty-eight. The next week, my father-in-law passed away. One of our most faithful dogs, Sheba, died the following morning.

Death is part of the human cycle. I know that. Everyone knows that. But how we die can change everything for those left behind. And how we face life without them, either makes or breaks the order of our universe.

My mother, my childhood friend, my husband, nor my two brothers realized that they would die when they did. Each had plans, things to say and do the next day. But reality took over, and their will was not done according to their plans. Those left behind had to deal with what the situation offered, painful as it was.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of accepting tragic reality. So many things should have happened—but didn’t. Forgiveness and love should have softened hearts. Despair and pain should never have the last word. Too many times, a peaceful death is mere illusion, and we suffer sunderings that rip and tear, rather than breathe new life into our spirits.

So, what then?

Do I fashion a new ending? Write a happier, though fictions scene?

God created human beings with incredible imaginations. Based on His own, surely. Free will still reigns, a powerful force in a world full of ironic caprice. Restoring order, for me, is not about writing a better story despite a sad ending—it means becoming a better person, knowing that I can’t see the end.

I choose where to focus my gaze. Whether I scream at fate or hug a wounded inner-child, no one leaves this world in perfect shape. Scourged by hurts, pierced by grief, alone in confusion, there are plenty of reasons for giving in and giving up.

But what good would that do?

Lessons are learnable: Excessive drink and drugs destroy the body. Isolation and silence tear a soul to pieces. Loneliness is depressing, and despair is deadly. Evil acts bear bitter fruit.

I choose to believe that the end is not the end. I revel in the Grace that animated the positive aspects of those I loved. Gratitude is more than an attitude; it heals wounds so that we can grow new lives in glorious form.

When faced with death, I lift my gaze from the grave and remember the good, noble, strong, decent, kind, and beautiful aspects of the person I knew. I forgive. In my imagination, I do not refashion an idealized version of their lives. I learn from mistakes and hope that through the grace of painful lessons learned, that others (and my future self, perhaps) may be spared a few griefs at least.

The moon now shines through a cloudy sky, highlighting the bare branches of our winter woods. Crusty snow and icy cold made it too risky to go out today. But it was not a wasted day. It was a blessed day. Because I chose what to make of it. And despite sad realities and night falling, this is not the end.

I will hope again tomorrow.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/illustrations/faith-love-hope-clouds-sky-hand-4880805/

Love’s Fire

Last evening, my kids gathered on a far section of our land. We traipsed across a rickety bridge over our ever-widening creek to reach it. Sheltered by old-growth maples, full of tall grass, vines, and brambles, it’s a wild bit of land. The kids worked hard to clear a space for a woodfire, which they soon surrounded with river stones. They also placed two inviting benches strategically on the east and south ends. By the time I arrived, the afternoon had waned to evening, and the flickering firelight against the bare, winter trees, set a charming scene. Like walking into a Kinkade painting.

This new year has already hit hard, delving deep into human suffering, physical, emotional, spiritual limits, and the reality of abiding love. Like crossing a rickety bridge, I can’t get to the other side without getting muddy and taking a few risks.

What amazes me in current challenges—everything from family illness to missed mail—is that with an open heart, my trials morph into blessings.

For some odd reason, I never received the bill for our house insurance last month, (or the warning letter, apparently) so the company canceled our policy. I was shocked when I discovered the problem that a simple phone call could have solved. But ironically, my kind insurance agent then went to the trouble to update our info, and now our policy is more comprehensive and cheaper.

Today, my youngest son’s online class hit a roadblock, and I tried to go through the usual communication pathways to solve the problem, but that didn’t work, so I ended up chatting on the phone with his teacher this evening. I discovered a remarkable woman who just got assigned to the job in an overwhelmed system but has the grace and enthusiasm born of a beautiful spirit.

When a family member became seriously ill this week, friends and support personnel proved beyond all shadow of doubt that love and extraordinary generosity of spirit are alive in the world today.

And in my ever-evolving adventure as secretary to Glendale Cemetery, I lost a piece of information and had to check in with a couple of folks to clarify. Did I meet with annoyance and correction? No. Quite the opposite. Kindness and understanding ruled.

A vision runs through my head these days. It’s not so much about me seeing eye-to-eye with everyone, but rather, all eyes seeing with the same glorious, God-centered vision. There is a bridge that takes us over murky water and into the wildlands of our human experience. It’s in shadows that firelight has the most play. Against cold pain and despair, a noble act brings the human family closer, sharing the warmth of love’s fire.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/illustrations/fire-heart-heart-fire-love-symbol-961194/

For Me?

An old woman and her sandwich saved my life. Not that I was starving. I wasn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had an appetite in three days. Moreover, I had no wish to live. She didn’t know that. But, still, she wouldn’t let me die.

Mom reeked of respectability and intelligence. She could entertain a crowd, outpace a runaway train, and beat the devil himself to the punch line. And she could outdrink all the other moms at our daycare center. Her liver didn’t appear to mind. Her brain cells did. But they didn’t let on until much later.

The winter I turned twenty, my world froze hard and deep. Not that December was ever particularly warm in Chicago. But that year, the trip home to Milwaukee on the Greyhound bus left me shivering even after I got inside Mom’s house. The holidays were tough. Lots of memories. Not the jolly kind. But I faced the season with all the joy I could muster. After all, Mom loved Christmas. It was the day after Christmas that got her down.

When I bustled through the door, a blue-green Christmas tree about six inches high with holes for lollipops stood on the phone stand. A rainbow of candies stuck out on each side, aching to send a diabetic into insulin shock. An adorable miniature Santa with his cutesy reindeer attached to his well-appointed sled stood ready for takeoff at the edge of the coffee table. Various Santas, elves, and other decorative pictures adorned the walls. The Christmas tree was bare, waiting for my brother, Jack, and I to do the honors. Which we did with cups of cocoa near at hand and mom’s eyes twinkling.

She sat regally, her evening drink resting in her grasp, comfortably, like the old friend it was. She glowed at our progress and cheered us on with only an occasional, “Missed a spot,” which we would amend with clumps of tinsel and shots of laughter.

God, it was good to be home. I couldn’t think why I had dreaded it.

During the whole Greyhound ride across the snowy landscape, my stomach had churned. Cityscapes and rural townships had passed in picturesque glory. Yet I had only smelled the dank odor of bodies crushed into seats, heard the overworked and underpaid—or so he said—driver grumble, and felt the crack in the seat where the ragged plastic rubbed into my jeans.

Now, as Christmas songs played and snow fell in fat flakes, my brother and I decorated the tree, and my mom watched—happiness pooling in her eyes—I wondered at my moodiness. Why was I always so darn glum? Couldn’t I just relax and enjoy myself?

So I did. I enjoyed the gift exchange. Early Mass. The open house when mom’s friends came and sampled her dark fudge and the variety of snacks we had laid out. I savored every happy smile, every teasing joke, even washing the mountain of dishes in warm sudsy water. There was a reason for the season, and I knew what it was. Love. Joy. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men.

After everything was cleaned and put away, exhaustion hit. I lay in my attic room staring at the blackness, as there was no window to peer through. My first year of teaching had left me bewildered and insecure. Was I really cut out to lead kids to educational enlightenment? So far I hadn’t had a whole lot of luck getting anyone to shut up long enough to define the week’s spelling words, much less discover the astonishing exploits of early explorers or memorize the time’s tables. Who knew that eight-year-olds could get so rowdy? Sheesh. Five months in and my teaching fantasy had cracked under the pressure of thirty-one hyperactive little kids. Didn’t take much to make me tumble. But it was a job. That took me away from home.

Why? Mom had been great that year. Life was good. Be happy. I fell asleep convinced that my pep talk had done me good.

Morning came. I knew because the sun rose and nearly blinded me when I went outside to see how much snow had fallen through the night. I stood on the porch amazed at the beauty of fresh snow spread over the neighborhood. Dressed in white caps, the houses along the street matched like siblings at a family reunion. The expanse of woods in the distance put seasonal greeting cards to shame. Even the university across the street arched its towers and pinnacles in newfound pride at thrusting beyond—not just gross ignorance—but the current weather conditions.

“Katherine!”

I froze. Perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively. The tone, the volume, the acid ‘tude told me that Christmas was over even though the season had just begun.

“Come here!”

I didn’t need to respond verbally. She knew I would come. She could hear the front door close no matter how softly I pressed the latch into place. She would hear my footsteps, no matter how carefully I tread. She would know, with some kind of extra-sensory freaky-weirdness when I stood in her doorway.

“Damn you! I said come here. Now!”

Jack had left early. He had only come home for a couple of days. The best days. No fault of his that he had to return to work. Before things got out of hand. Again. He always said that he was older and wiser. He was right.

I faced mom alone. Well, not entirely alone.

At Mass, I often stared at the lights, the windows, the statues, anywhere but at the tabernacle. Or the altar. The priest swept in and out of my peripheral vision so often, I only noticed the color of his vestments, not his face or form. The vestments rippled deep red.

But that Christmas my eyes had strayed. The golden tabernacle glowed, as if in a spotlight. Must be the sun on the snow, I reasoned. Yet it perplexed me. No slanting rays reached that far. As I sat there, battling my inner demons, I finally settled down and faced the gold box. The house of God. The home of faith. The reason for the season. And for an electrifying moment, I knew that Someone lived inside that box.

“Yes, mom?”

Her demands were the same as they had been the year before. Her fury spewed forth at the usual rate. She drank and smoked, nearly setting her bed on fire that night. Numbness came to the rescue. As always. Meals prepared. Refused. I took down the decorations. Perhaps to hurry the season along. The tree got sent to the curb. Tinsel froze on the branches.

Sunday afternoon, I took the Greyhound bus back to Chicago.

As I peered out the window, avoiding every possible human encounter, I decided that I just couldn’t care anymore. Like every kid who had been lied to, I had struggled for so long to believe that perhaps I had simply misunderstood. That a lie wasn’t really a lie. I hadn’t been tricked. And heaven and hell weren’t the same place.

My appetite had died the moment mom called my name in that tone. Too chicken to kill myself outright, after all, it was a sin to do that, right? I figured I just didn’t have to fight to stay alive anymore. I could let death have what despair already prepared, an empty soul.

It was my resolution. Die. As simply and as easily as possible. Before the New Year rolled around, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking any promises.

In Chicago, I lived in a house with an old woman named Patricia. I paid a meager sum from my meager salary and put medicinal drops in her eyes every night. A fair exchange. She didn’t ask much of me. We lived across the street from the church, so she attended social gatherings to her heart’s content. She also kept a stack of sultry romances on a chair in her living room. Considering her advanced years, I found her selection rather astonishing. Apparently, she didn’t have any cardiovascular issues.

It was noon when I climbed the steps to her home that she had lived in with her husband of forty years; she had the pictures to prove it. I naturally had to pass through the living room to get to the stairway in order to sneak up to my attic apartment. Painted a sky blue with one window facing north and one south. Not that I could see much more than various roofs and a few stray birds, but it was adequate. And adequate was all I had asked for.

I slipped inside, shut the door ever so softly, quite certain that she’d be napping in her chair and nearly jumped out of my skin when she sprang out from the kitchen like one of those New Year’s Eve’s poppers that idiots blow in other people’s faces. Like that’s funny or something?

No matter.

She grinned. A Cheshire cat would’ve been proud.

“Katherine? You’re home!”

I hate it when people state the obvious and then wait. As if they really want confirmation of reality. “Uh. Yeah.”

“Oh, good! I just made a sandwich! And I’ve got a nice glass of cocoa ready! Here! Come in and get warmed up!”

Dang. What was up with all the exclamation marks? Her whole body shivered with the delight of a pen smacking the paper with a dot at the end of an exclaim.

“Uh. No. Thanks. I really appreciate it. But I’m not hungry.” No, I didn’t tell her the truth. There is no good way to tell an eighty-something old woman who has survived the demise of her beloved husband, the ravages of breast cancer, the Great Depression, and a World War that I’d given up on life and wanted to starve myself to death as an easy way out.

She shook her head.

What? She couldn’t just shake her head and smile at me like that. It wasn’t fair. I hated my life. My mom’s manic-depressive, schizoid, personality disorder ruined everything. I couldn’t hope. I couldn’t live and be happy. Life was a damned lie and that was all there was to it.

“I made grilled tuna with chips!”

In a moment of insane distraction, I actually tried to figure out whether she meant she had grilled the chips with the tuna or if she just screwed with syntax like a possessed scrabble demon.

Bloody hell but that woman was determined. But so was I. My misery must end. I would not eat another bite of food till…well… Gee. Killing yourself was frowned upon, and I might not get a seat at the Heavenly table. So what? I clamped my lips shut.

Then I made a huge mistake. I stood still and let her look at me. Really look. And she saw. Tears formed. All cheer fled. Compassion arrived. And ran me over.

She took my arm and started chatting. A blue jay at the bird feeder filling in all her feathered friends on recent gossip could not have done any better. I hardly noticed when she led me into the warm kitchen and pressed my shoulder hard enough to force my knees to buckle so that I actually sat at the Formica kitchen table. The grilled tuna sat on a plate with little flowers on the border. The chips spilled around the edge. A cup of cocoa sat within easy reach.

“For me?”

It was her question. Not mine. I should have been the one to ask. I should have wondered how she knew I was coming in early. Or why she was fixing me lunch when she never had done so before.

But no. She asked if I would eat to please her. To satisfy some longing she had to watch a miserable, disappointed, despairing woman eat a grilled tuna sandwich at her plastic table.

“Okay.”

So I ate the stupid 2000-something calorie meal and watched as she bustled about the kitchen in do-nothing activity that mystified me. I ate every blessed crumb and drank the dregs of the cocoa only slightly surprised that there was a tiny Jesus face on the bottom of the cup.

When I slipped into bed that night, I looked out the window at the sky. Blackness filled the upper echelons of the cityscape, but a few stars twinkled, determined, I guess, not to let the night speak for them.

Christmas was what I had expected, disappointing, yet enthralling none-the-less. Confusion and grief had blanketed my soul. But the light from a golden box spoke of a presence beyond my sight. And an old woman fed me.

I will die someday. But not in despair.

 

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/girl-moonlight-night-photography-5279250/