Brave Smile

I met a brave smile yesterday, and my faith in humanity flickered back to life. I had recently met with a painful disappointment, and I believed that a piece of my heart was broken beyond repair.

But I discovered that even a broken heart responds to a brave smile.

At the time, I was sitting between two young women I hardly knew, making light conversation with a few heavy topics thrown in for variety. The woman on my left was as innocent as the dawn of creation, but the one on my right smiled through sad eyes. Perhaps I read more in than was there…perhaps I saw myself reflected in her gaze. But that was what amazed me. I dared to care.

As I drove home from Mass tonight, a storm flickered in the northern sky. There isn’t usually lightning this time of the year, but the weather has been oddly mixed up. Probably just matching humanity’s mood swings. From the CD player, a violin rose and fell in wild cadences and on the horizon clouds loomed like mountains. I drove through the black night with rustling trees swaying and dried corn stalks swirling from the barren fields like remnants of ghosts.

At Mass Father had mentioned that life expectancy in the US has dropped the last few years, partially because of “diseases of despair”—addictions and suicide. This reality struck me as especially terrible in a generation with more technological and medical advancements and greater wealth, education, and entertainment opportunities than ever before. I guess the old saying is true: You can’t buy happiness…or even a ray of hope. Later as the priest held up the Host, I more clearly understood the reality of perfect God coming as food to a starving and imperfect human race.

And loving us anyway.

I rarely know the deep grief of those around me, but I still find it comforting to remember a young woman with sad eyes smiled at me.

The wind blows, rattling the windows as the threatening storm arrives, bringing freezing temperatures. Soon, the kids and I will watch part four of a series on John Quincy Adams, and I’ll be reminded once again that humanity has faced mighty trials both personal and societal yet lived to tell the tale…despite our hurts and broken hearts.

Despair is not the only option to pain, grief, and fear. Courage and endurance are still possible. No doubt, you, too, have known your share of grief. Just a quick scroll through any social media platform or the news of the day is enough to make a person want to crawl under a rock. Forever.

But a brave smile offered me encouragement and solace when I needed it. I doubt she’ll ever know. But you and I know.

A brave smile can enkindle a spark of hope in a world that needs it badly. Even if your heart is breaking…smile anyway.

Dare to care.

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

Sister-O-Mine

Giles slid onto the driver’s side of his compact car, buckled the strap over his lap, focused on the tight maneuver needed to get into the flow traffic, and felt his stomach clench.

Once he roared the motor to life, gripped the wheel and flipped the music on high, he made an expert swing into the proper lane. His fingers began tapping a lively dance, and his head started bopping to the rhythm. Blood pumped and his stomach unclenched. He grinned.

He sped onto the highway and pictured Esmeralda’s face. Lovely woman. Beautiful eyes. He suspected…beautiful everything. Well, from what he knew of her. Online chats can only take a man so far. One phone call. Lovely voice. Husky…just the way he liked it.

Once at the Millard exit, he turned off and scaled the hill to his sister’s house. Sadie had said she wanted to “talk.” His stomach tightened again.

After he rang the bell, Sadie swung the door wide and beckoned her brother inside with a languid half-wave. “Dan took the kids to a movie, so we have at least two hours of uninterrupted chat time.”

Giles pursed his lips as he slid one leg over the kitchen stool by the counter. “Why do we need”—he made quote marks in the air—”‘uninterrupted chat time’ together?”

Sadie rounded on the refrigerator, pulled out an ice-cold soda, swung to a high cabinet, flipped open the door, shuffled with her fingers, and pulled down a red bottle. After filling two tall glasses with crushed ice, lemon-lime soda, and Chardonnay, she handed one to her brother. She lifted her hand in salute. “Cheers, brother. Do I need a reason to chat with you?”

Giles leaned back, perching his foot on the stool rung. “Usually, you have a reason.” His eyes widened. “Is something wrong with Dan…or the kids?”

Sadie leaned on the counter, savoring her drink. “No. They’re fine.” She looked straight into Giles’ eyes. “As the older, wiser sibling, I just want to catch up with my little brother. Anything wrong with that?”

Giles snorted. “Seventeen months! You’re only seventeen months older, girl.”

Sadie straightened and clutched a platter of brownies. She slid them onto the counter. “Hard as rocks. Wilda made ‘em. First attempt. Not bad if you don’t break a tooth.” She tilted her head. “So, tell me all about Izzie.” Her eyebrows wiggled.

Giles bit into the brownie and froze. They were indeed hard as rocks. He tapped his tooth, laid the brownie aside, and glanced up. “Izzie? Who—?”

Opening the refrigerator, Sadie grabbed a bag of baby carrots. She pulled one out and crunched. She talked around munches. “You know…your online friend.”

Giles’ eyelids dropped to half-mast. “Her name is Esmeralda. And we’re just getting to know each other.” He shrugged. “What’s so wrong? You met Dan through a Catholic dating service.”

Sadie took a sip of her drink. “That’s my point. I knew something about Dan before we met. I knew he was Catholic, and that says volumes.”

Giles grimaced. “Screams loud and clear.” He wrinkled his nose and stared at the carrot held like a cigarette between Sadie’s fingers. “How can you eat a carrot and drink a wine-cooler at the same time?”

Sadie shrugged. “Easy. But don’t roam off topic. Listen brother-o-mine. I love you dearly, but I think you’re making a humongous mistake. You don’t know anything about this woman…and worse yet…she doesn’t know a thing about you.”

“I know she’s gorgeous.” Giles smiled. “I’m not bad looking…What else matters?”

“Is she funny? Does she handle money well? What religion is she? Any ax-murders to her credit?”

Rolling his eyes, Giles labored to his feet and sauntered into the strangely clean living room. He glanced back at Sadie who followed him. “What happened to all the toys…and the mess?”

Sadie punched Giles in the arm. “Listen, buddy, one time you show up unexpected and the house looks unfit for human habitation, and you act like that’s my usual routine.” She eyed him as he plopped down on the sofa. “You still got dust bunnies ruling the roost at your house?”

Giles set his drink on the end table and covered his ears. “Dang it, Sadie. I told you never to mix metaphors in my hearing. You know how that makes my skin crawl.”

“Sorry, Editor. Didn’t realize you wore your English Grammarian badge during off hours.”

Giles lifted his hands. “It’s a curse I’m learning to live with.” He smirked as Sadie sat on an overstuffed chair opposite him and threw her legs over the arm, just like one of the kids. “I know you think you’re helping me out…but I’m having a good time with Esmeralda. It’s a fling. Fun time. Nothing more.”

“You told her that?”

“Pretty obvious, I should think.”

“Obvious to who?” Sadie tapped the rim of her glass. “I know you, brother. You’re still dealing with all the baggage from Janet.” She took a long slurp, finishing off the contents. “You need to get an annulment before you start anything new.”

His eyes nearly popping out his head, Giles leaned forward. “Annulment? Lord, Sadie. A Justice of the Peace married us. I’m not Catholic anymore. Janet doesn’t even believe in God. I don’t think we really need to bother some overworked Cannon Lawyer with the hideous details of our failed marriage.”

Sadie set her glass down with a click and leaned forward. “I think you do. I think you’d be a fool to start anything new without figuring out what went wrong last time.”

Giles shot to his feet. “Well, don’t worry your pretty little head about it, sis. I know exactly what went wrong.”

Sadie held her position. Only her eyes followed him as he paced across the room, turned at the television, and faced her.

“We were kids…stupid kids overloaded with hormones.” Giles shook his head and chuckled, his gaze dropping to the brown carpet. “Your Catholic God is the funny one.” He lifted his finger and mimicked a voice from on high. ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’” His voice returned to normal. “And then He gives us bodies and sensual joyrides.” Giles retrieved his glass and swallowed the last drops. “Joke’s on us—eh?”

Sadie rose and stepped closer, her gaze fixed on her brother. “You got hurt—really hurt, Giles. I know you did. Divorce is hell, no matter what.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Listen to your older, wiser sister, will ya?” She tilted her head and peered deep into his gaze. “I love you, idiot. And I never want to see you in so much pain again.”

Giles dropped his head to his chest.

Sadie swung away. “I don’t care how hot she is…now.” Sadie ran her fingers along the edge of a crib set against the wall. “You know perfectly well, looks fade or get ravaged.” She glanced back. “Remember mom?”

Giles jaw hardened, his moist eyes darkened. “Don’t go there, Sadie.”

“Listen, Giles. Every relationship you have with a woman is colored by every other relationship with women—mom, me, Janet…and all the little flings you’ve had…online or in person.” She lifted her hand. “Don’t pretend innocence. I’m not stupid.”

Giles plunked down on the couch and buried his face in his hands. “Why are you making my life so damn complicated?”

“It’s a sister’s job. Actually, it would’ve been mom’s job…if she hadn’t—” She swallowed and turned away. “Don’t forget, Giles, this gorgeous woman you like so much is someone’s daughter…maybe someone’s sister.” She strode over to an iPhone lying on the table. “These tech toys help us forget—but we’re dealing with real people. Not just names. Not just faces. People someone else might love just as much as I love you.”

Giles rubbed his face and stared across the room through vacant eyes. “I’m not a creep, you know.”

“I never thought that for a moment.” Sadie returned and knelt at Giles’ side, folding her hands prayer-like on his knee. “But you are unguided. You could use some help to make a real relationship work—better than Mom, better than Janet. Heck, she could even be better than me.”

Giles reached out and brushed a strand of hair from Sadie’s eyes. “Not possible, sister-o-mine. Not possible.”

 

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

Well Lived

My youngest son decided to reorganize his room today, and when I went to check, I saw that he had piled a stack of box springs and mattresses on top of each other to rival something out of The Princess and the Pea. He called it King Sized. Yep. I’d say so. I swallowed and merely asked him not to fall off in the middle of the night and break himself into Humpty-Dumpty pieces. He assured me he’d be careful.

I had a sudden memory of the first time one of my boys climbed a tree, reaching what my mother’s heart considered dizzying heights. I knew at the time that climbing trees was a normal pastime for kids—I had climbed plenty in my day—but still, I had the urge to ask him to get back to earth. An urge I resisted.

Later as I plodded up the steps with my umpteenth load of laundry, I noticed that my formerly clean counter was now hosting what looked like a rather odd science experiment involving toothpaste, shampoo, and baking soda. I didn’t even ask. Just waved my hand in a “You know what you’ll be doing when you’re done—right?” attitude. “Please don’t spill it all over the floor” didn’t even need to be verbalized.

Sometimes I wonder what a stranger might think if he or she wandered into our home on any ordinary day. It’s generally quiet, though the piano is played quite a bit. Holidays and birthdays are celebrated in style with a cleaning frenzy right before. With laughter.

But more often than not, there are piles of books here and there. Pencils and papers scattered about. Drawings half-finished on the couch. Knitting projects proudly ensconced on a living room chair. Woodworking projects clutter the basement floor. Broken floor tiles skitter underfoot. Light smoke from the wood stoves tints the walls. A couple door handles are loose.

It is a well-used house. The kitchen sink is practically never empty, even though I (and the kids) do dishes the livelong day. The washer and dryer have given us their hearts and souls several times over. Footsteps patter upstairs or down the steps constantly. A door opens and shuts like a heartbeat.

We are not living in a magazine. Nor would I want to. The kids learn from taking their room apart and building glorious beds. They see new heights from the tops of trees. They practice drawing a face…or a landscape…a hundred times over and scatter the results everywhere. Birdhouses are built and hammered on posts outside. The birds come, lay eggs, and their lives join with ours.

There will be a day when the footsteps will fall silent. When the beds are made to perfection and the counter will stay clean for days on end.

I do not forward to that day. I am content with reality right now.

Our lives may not be perfect, but they are well lived.

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

With Your Help

Leander dropped his head on his hands and slouched on the edge of a metal, straight-backed chair.

The crowded room murmured with low-toned conversations amid a swirl of officious activity.

A uniformed officer paced before him, his hands clasped behind his back. “So you—what? Give online advice?”

The floor, grey plastic tiles with chipped edges and age cracks, offered not an ounce of inspiration.

Leander peered up, barely lifting his head above his hands. Weariness engulfed him. “No. Not really. I just…chat with people and reflect on the state of things in our world.” He sat straighter. “How could that be so wrong? Everyone does it.”

The officer stopped mid-pace and blew air into the stagnant room. “People make all sorts of suggestions—demands even. But few listen. In your case, you were unlucky enough to have someone follow your advice and do exactly as you suggested.”

Leander stood, his hands waving, imploring. “I only said that we should throw all our guns in the ocean…you know…get rid of our weapons of destruction.”

The officer chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. “So this lady gets a group of moms, and they gather every weapon they lay their hands on, hire a boat, and go out…and do just that!”

Leander gripped the desk for support. “I didn’t think anyone would really do it—not like that.”

“Like what—you think?”

“I just wanted to make a concrete suggestion, something people could do to make the world a better place.”

“Drop your assorted guns in the ocean?”

“Out of kids’ hands! Yeah. Is that a bad idea?” Embarrassment, fear, and anger played touch football in Leander’s stomach. “Listen, Officer, I’m not the bad guy here. I didn’t mean anyone should break the law or do anything stupid. I figured anyone who read my post would understand what I meant.”

“You know, when Ms. Stevens was apprehended, the first thing she said was—‘Leander Jones told me to do it.’”

“Oh, God.” Feeling faint, Leander dropped back into his chair.

The officer stepped over and crouched before him. “What—you’re in your forties; you’ve got a wife and kids, and you honestly thought you were helping humanity out.” He stood. “When she mentioned your name, I read through your blog. Got some nice sentiment there.” He stepped away and stared at the wall. “I’ve seen the aftermath of a school shooting. I know what guns can do. I know how—” He stopped and ran his hands over his face. He turned. “Still—fact is—she blames you.”

Lander pulled himself to his feet. “I didn’t say anything that Hollywood stars and politicians haven’t been saying for years. Guns are dangerous.”

The officer pulled out his desk chair. “In the wrong hands. I agree with you.” He sat and glanced up. “So is advice.”

~~~

Leander sauntered over to the embankment and stared at the waves rippling over the lake. Kids and adults hustled between picnic tables, arranging and snatching food, joking, chatting, and having a fun Sunday afternoon.

A man dressed in black, wearing a Roman collar, plodded over the short grass and stood next to Leander, facing the scenic beauty. “Love this view. Trees, sky, and water refresh the soul—” He glanced at Leander. “Don’t you agree?”

Leander’s eyes narrowed. “They should.” He sighed. “But I’ve found that life is nothing but a bundle of contradictions.” He whisked a fly off his arm. “You oughta know better than anyone. Blessed are the poor…riches lead to slavery…good intentions pave the way to hell.”

Father Peter retreated to a log situated on the water’s edge. Propping one foot on the trunk, he crossed his arms over his thigh and watched a flock of geese fly overhead.

Leander faced his priest. “What? No clarification? Aren’t you going to explain that God knows our hearts, and we should trust in Him no matter how wretchedly things turn out?”

Father Peter dropped his gaze and met Leander’s eyes. “You said it—what’s left?”

Leander pounded across the spongy turf and stood before the priest, his hands on his hips. “You know what happened! I gave innocent, well-meaning advice—and I nearly went to jail.” Tears welled. “What that would’ve happened to Jeanie and the kids then?”

Father Peter’s waited. His gaze steady, his demeanor calm.

Leander flung out his hand and waved a finger in the priest’s face. “Really, it’s all your fault! Aren’t you always preaching about how we should be salt and light in the world? What a world!” He turned and paced away. “The other day, I gave a steak bone to the dog, and he choked!” He swung around. “I gave twenty bucks to a homeless guy and not ten minutes later I saw him buying cigarettes!”

Someone called from the distance and waved.

Father Peter straightened and waved back. He returned his gaze to Leander. “So what do you want to do?”

“Do? Duck and hide—if only  I could. But this damned world hounds me. The other day my son came home with a guy dressed like a girl, my sister was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, and my boss thinks he might have cancer.” Leander plopped down on the log. “There’s too much grief and when I try to mend a problem, I nearly get sent to Alcatraz.”

Father Peter shook his head. “You can’t save the world.”

“Save? Heck, I can’t even apply a decent band-aid.”

Father Peter chuckled and patted Leander on the back. “The job of Savior has already been taken.”

Leander pivoted on his heel, thrusting Father’s hand away. “Ah! There’s where we disagree.” His face flushed, he felt nearly drunk on fury. “Kids are killing other kids, drug abuse is on the rise, for all our prosperity—the world’s a miserable place.” He glared at the priest. “Doesn’t seem to me that anyone’s safe—or saved!”

His jaw hardening, but his eyes softening, Father Peter lifted his hands in surrender. “You’re right. The world as we know it is pretty miserable. No denying that. But this world is not all there is. We don’t have to be saved —not if we don’t want to.”

“Stop being so sanctimonious.”

“Stop trying to be God.”

The two men glared at each other. A shuffle turned their gazes.

A little boy hovered near, his eyes wide. Fear scrawled across his face.

Leander closed his eyes and rubbed his temple.

Father Peter crouched and beckoned the boy over. “It’s okay, Davy. Your dad and I are just having a little discussion.”

Davy hesitated, glancing from one man to the next. He finally settled on his dad. “Mom said lunch is ready. Eat now cause she’s not fixing anything else.”

Leander opened his eyes and nodded. “Be right there.”

The boy turned and scampered away.

Father Peter turned to follow but glanced over his shoulder. “Everything you said is true, Leander. You’re not wrong. But you’re not completely right, either.”

A sob welled up inside Leander as he peered into the distance and watched his son tug on his wife’s arm, probably babbling on about how dad was arguing with the pastor. “So what, in Heaven’s name, am I supposed to do? How do I live in this crazy world?”

Father Peter sighed and waited. “Do the best you can. Remember, you’re a man. Not the Creator of the universe.”

Leander shuffled forward. “There’s a new world waiting for us—and God’ll make everything right in the end?”

Father chuckled, patted Leander’s arm, and moved on. “With your help—yep.”

Leander snorted, shook his head, and headed for lunch.

 

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

Surprise Me

Sometimes I like to joke around with God. When trying to predict how something will turn out, I imagine all sorts of scenarios and feel pretty certain that nothing I imagine is even close to what will actually happen. Knowing this, I tell God, “Go ahead and surprise me.”

He does.

This has already proven to be a colder, snowier winter than I expected, so when I had to drive an hour away to take the kids to an appointment, I prepared for the worst. But in fact, the roads were perfectly clear, and the drive was easy.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the waiting room. Or rather the Kafkaesque reality therein.

The television—front and center—was blaring the latest news. Gloom and Doom. Isn’t it always? Lots of conflicts, doubt, and innuendo. I fully expect the news commentators to throw up their hands one of these days and screech “Head for the hills, the sky is falling!”

I pulled out my book and tried to shut out the flat screen horror. But…

To the left of me, a teen decided that it was time to quiz her mom on Spanish vocabulary, despite the fact that the mom kept insisting that she didn’t know any Spanish. The kid’s pronunciation was poor, so I could hardly blame the mother for not understanding her even if she did speak Spanish. But what caught me off guard was the kid’s snarkasm. New word. Like it? She was so snarkastic that she practically filled the small space with her snarality.

I crouched tighter over my book and pulled my coat up around my ears. Blinders. I thought that might help.

It didn’t.

Directly in front of me—just hovering over my book edge—a young couple huddled in glorious love. Glorious, except for the small fact that we were in the middle of a medium-sized waiting room. A strangled attempt to clear my throat never touched their consciousness.

And to the left of me…a young guy played with a bright, shiny, flashing arcade. Personally, I think he was almost as deeply impassioned as the snuggling couple before me. His bouncing, bopping, chattering to every mechanical ding and ring altered my sense of the human-machine divide. Apparently, some humans have crossed into new dimensions.

I’ve been blind. Again.

As I drove home, I relished the idea of retreating into my safe and snug little home world. Though I have to admit, I realize more than ever that my understanding of humanity is often based on fantasy and is nothing close to reality. I read books and watch a few programs and expect certain real-world scenarios to go according to a scripted formula. When they don’t, I’m a bit flummoxed.

I suspect God’s having a bit of fun with me. I worry about my kids driving on the roads. I scheme and plan for special events. I pray my heart out for certain causes. Sometimes, things go flat, and I’m disappointed. Sometimes terror strikes, and I have to hold on to my courage. Sometimes, I’m amazed by the richness and breathtaking joy of God’s vision, which turns into reality I could never have planned for or imagined in my wildest dreams.

All in all, I’m glad I went out in the cold and snow and sat in that waiting room. I could have avoided it by staying at home. Living in my safe, imaginary world. But then I wouldn’t really be living…

Would I?

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

Test a Theory

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Ark, dressed in a somber grey bio-suit and brown boots, waited for his superior to approach. It would never do to appear hasty.

Ungle, a Crestonian with bright red cilia wavering on top of his plump head and dressed in a spring-green bio-suit and matching boots, meandered the circuit of the room with two tentacles wrapped behind his back in a contemplative manner. A third tentacle held a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with blue gelatinous goo, and with his last tentacle, he shook hands—or mechanical armatures as the occasion required—with various Luxonian and alien representatives.

Ark slumped and glanced at a staring Luxonian. He patted his breathing helm as if stifling a yawn. His wide-eyed, peeved glare turned the Luxonian’s gaze away. Boor.

“So you finally made it.”

Ark’s head jerked so hard he felt a crackling in the bone holding his spine erect. Blast. I’ll have a muscle spasm from that. Holding out two tentacles, he clasped Ungle’s offered tentacle with gaudy bracelet attached. Ark blinked and swallowed. Better not expect me to kiss that thing—like some weird Bhuaci sign of obeisance.

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh, oh.

Ungle laughed, nearly spraying liquid over the top of his breathing helm. “I can’t read your mind—but really—Ark, you’ve become practically translucent. Among humans too long in my opinion.”

A waiter glided in close and offered a tray of pink, blue, and green drinks.

Ark glanced at Ungle.

Ungle poured his blue goo into his breathing helm, slurped, and shivered. “Not bad. But I’d recommend the green. Not authentic green, you understand, but less of a kick than the blue.”

Ark swiped the blue drink off the tray and poured it daintily into his breathing helm. Like a connoisseur savoring an ancient wine, Ark sipped his liquid while his gaze wandered the room.

Ungle waved the servant away.

Ark returned to his superior. “You were the first to recommend Earth observation. Have you changed your mind?”

“Not at all. I think humanity has a great deal to offer—in time. But I also realize there are many complications that must be considered—”

A bell tinkled.

“Bothmal those bells!” Ungle tapped Ark on the shoulder. “Meet me in my chambers after the meeting.”

“You aren’t staying for the Balatin Reenactment and festival?”

Ungle gurgled. “I’m a Crestonian. Science not pleasure dictates my schedule.”

Ark took the hint.

~~~

Ark settled in a pump chair and hated the hiss of his bio-suit as it wedged between the stiff arms. Dark waters, I’ll never get back up without help.

The Crestonian chambers included a mini-pool built into the back wall, plump, light-colored furniture, and a simple cleansing and dressing closet.

Ark glanced over as Ungle tapped a console, lighting up a holopad.

“Pay attention now. I’ve done careful research, and I think I have just the solution we need.”

Ark grunted as he tried to wiggle out of the chair. “What…is…the…problem?” Popping like a cork, he sprang to his feet.

Ungle straightened, and a hologram of Teal appeared before them.

Ark clumped forward, his embarrassment forgotten. “Teal?” His gaze swiveled to Ungle.

“As I mentioned earlier, science dictates the direction of my life. I believe that humanity has a great deal to offer Crestonian studies. Not the least of which is their obsession with good and evil.”

Ark wrapped his tentacles behind his back and meandered in closer. “Surely we understand the concept as well as anyone. Why—?”

“We don’t experience the polar opposites as humans do. It makes quite a difference. Consider—” He tapped the console. Teal dissolved, and Chai appeared beautifully dressed in his crimson robes embroidered in gold. “A dangerous—by all human standards—evil force controls this man. It’s a force I’ve rarely encountered before. Yet, this human believes he’ll benefit from the experience.”

Ark’s tentacles wiggled nervously behind his back. “What does he have to do with Teal?”

“This being—calls himself Chai—will cross paths with the one you call Ishtar. It doesn’t take serious extrapolation of data to figure this out. Their paths must intersect.”

“So—”

“Teal will be watching. He’ll care what happens. He might even attempt to interfere.”

“That goes against all his training.”

Ungle shrugged. “Given proper motivation, we all go against our training. Don’t be obtuse, Ark.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to see the natural exchange between Chai and Ishtar. I want to witness a soul damned to—”

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

“You want me to keep an eye on Teal—is that it?”

Chuckling, Ungle tapped the console. “Not primarily. I want you to keep your eye on her.”

The holographic image of Chai dissolved, and Sienna appeared in all her radiant glory on the holopad.

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

“She’s a Luxonian with a healer’s soul. She wants to help so badly, she could do a great deal of harm in the process.”

Ungle tapped the screen and Chai, Teal, and Sienna appeared together on the holopad facing away from one another.

“They are each convinced that they know what’s best for humanity. I’m convinced that they have no idea what’s in store for them.”

“And you want me to observe and collect data?”

“I want to test a theory—about good and evil.”

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

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