Autumn is just about here, and I am grateful beyond words for so many things. Even as local and world upheavals distress my soul, so I breathe a prayer and turn my gaze to tasks at hand.
What is my part to play in this maelstrom we call life with all its guts and glory?
I wear a number of hats throughout my day: mom, teacher, homemaker, mistress of a critter kingdom that ebbs and flows with old age, sickness, and new life. Two kittens, Cheddar and Bradley, have taken over the house, completely flummoxing our perpetual pup, Misty, who honestly believed she owned the domain. Surprise! There’s always room for one or two more, and she didn’t get a vote. I keep the peace by making sure that all are well fed and housed, though gluttony and sloth serve no one.
I also keep track of the bodies buried at our cemetery and track down gravesites for interested family members when possible. Sometimes, it’s mission impossible. That’s an unpleasant reality. We don’t always get questions answered to our satisfaction. Especially if there are imperfect records and no tombstones. Families beware, if you want great-grandkids to visit your grave, leave a tombstone and a map so future generations can find it.
Tutoring adult GED has been an unexpected pleasure. It’s a fairly straightforward task—helping someone learn the basics that they missed, for whatever reason, along the way. Makes a big difference in self-esteem and job opportunities. An act of kindness that echoes back long after algebra 101 fades into the mist.
I am still writing, publishing, and recently added podcasting to my regular daily do. Since I have managed a challenging schedule for much of the year, I am going to slow production in October. I will continue with Kindle Vella Homestead episodes and podcasting content, but I plan to revamp and, perhaps, reinvent my media approach, praying to God to make it a bit more effective. Marketing has never been my forte, so I am working with someone this time. We’ll see how it works out. Optimism is a tough choice, but the alternative doesn’t appeal much.
I finished writing the fifth novel in my OldEarth series, OldEarth Melchior Encounter this week and have sent it off to my editor and proofreaders. My goal is to get it published with live links before Thanksgiving. The operative word here is goal.
Rain is pouring from a grey sky, shivering the yellow leaves on the cherry trees, while our hyperactive kittens pounce on each other and attack my knitting. Though there is a great deal wrong in the world, there is also a great deal that is right. Focusing my daily goals toward what is good and beautiful, becoming less self-absorbed, and releasing anger and pent-up frustrations in healthy rambles and friend-centered conversations makes for a quality life. After all, despair doesn’t want a helping hand but hope does.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
It was nearing the middle of June, and I still didn’t know where Liam or the kids were, but perhaps I was the lucky one.
After receiving a strange note, Ben had advised Josh and Linda to intercept Jared at Terre Haute where the boy had been taken for evaluation. Apparently, he was raving about aliens and could get violent if people rolled their eyes in skepticism.
The day after they got back with a disheveled, skinny son in tow, they invited me over for a mid-morning snack. I fought down jealousy and cleaned up after a battle in the garden, trying to direct the zucchini vines away from the potato plants. What I said to the tomato plants doesn’t bear repeating, though the lettuce was behaving well and offered enough to share when I felt neighborly.
After getting settled on their plush couch in their purple-walled room, I stifled a gag in the rancid air.
The temperatures had rocketed to the low nineties with high humidity. Add the fact that Linda couldn’t get used to the idea that with no air conditioning, the inhabitants still had to breathe, so she had to keep windows open, but she often forgot.
I panted like a dog,
Linda perched on the edge of a straight-backed chair in the corner while Josh stood strangely indecisive in the doorway.
Jared paced like a caged animal before the clean fireplace.
Becoming more uncomfortable by the minute, sweat dripping down my back, and prickles spread over my arms at the sight of the twenty-five-year-old man. He had changed so completely; I almost didn’t recognize him. I glanced at Linda, then at Josh.
Neither offered a word.
Never one to jump off the deep end, I took tentative steps. “I’m so glad you made it home safe and sound, Jared. I’m rather jealous. My kids were supposed to be back a couple of weeks ago, but…still traveling…I guess.” My brave smile died a quick death. Jared stopped pacing. I’ve heard of people being frozen in place. An overused literary device that ought to be dropped. But as I stared at Jared, his still form brought the expression…
Winding Road Ahead
I didn’t have to wait long.
It may have seemed an eternity, but on Saturday, the nineteenth of June, I heard a familiar tromp of feet climbing up my back porch steps. Two pairs. My beloved kids had returned.
Or so I hoped.
I dashed my hands in the old ice cream bucket of cooled, boiled water I kept beside the sink to wash my hands, quickly rinsing sticky dough off my fingers. Though there was still a bit of kneading to finish the daily bread, that duty faded to insignificance.
I wiped my eyes, hoping that I’d keep from crying.
First, Dana stepped into the kitchen.
You guessed it; I burst into tears.
Always a little on the plump side with a sweet round face and pink cheeks, long shiny brown hair, and dressed professionally, she now presented a very different image. All extra weight gone, her face lean with high, tight cheekbones, and her hair had been whacked off to ear length. I wondered if she had done it with a machete. Her clothes had certainly seen better days. I pressed my fingers to my lips to suppress an involuntary gasp.
Juan stepped in behind his sister. My overwhelmed gaze immediately recognized his state of malnutrition—bone-thin, the ghost-like pallor, sunken cheeks, dark cavernous circles under his eyes. But when he smiled, my son showed though.
They hesitated only a moment when I held out my arms, aching for a hug.
Sobbing, I gripped each of them, hanging on for dear life, but also, acutely aware that their bones felt sharp against my body.
Dana let go first. As usual, she wanted to get down to business.
“Where’s dad?” I ran my fingers through my short, unruly hair, recognizing the fact that it had come loose from its tie, and I probably looked like a seed pod ready to take flight. What could I say? I shook my head, my gaze…
For the rest of these episodes and others, visit Kindle Vella Homestead by A. K. Frailey.
My stomach rumbled. So much for the Celestial realm. I considered my guest’s quiet form for a moment then promptly rose to the challenge of finding a quick nourishing meal that didn’t require an engineering degree. I swept past Ben, marched down the porch steps, and crossed the backyard to the woodpile. I grabbed a couple of thick logs, snatched a handful of twigs from the brush pile, and charged into the house.
After assembling a conflagration in the woodstove, I popped the four limp loaves onto two shelves and closed the door with a sense of accomplishment. Next, I gathered three plastic containers, usually used for juice, and plodded to the prairie grass. I waded through the green tangle and stopped at the well pump. The steel handle glinted in the fading light. I pumped a bit and, sure as shooting, clear water gushed out. Before I could break a sweat, I filled the three containers and then realized that I only had two hands. Plodding back and forth, I managed to get all three containers to the woodstove where I poured their contents into a large metal pot on the stovetop. I covered it with a lid, checked the fire, added a few more sticks, and nearly pounded my chest with happy satisfaction.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Ben chuckled. To my surprise, he hadn’t deemed my marvel of efficiency as a proper excuse to run off and help some helpless neighbor. Linda perhaps?
Ben pointed to the chrome refrigerator. “You might want to use what’s in there before it goes bad.”
I blinked. Images of sour milk, rancid cheese, and brown lettuce rose in my mind. Before I could stop them, rude words poured forth from my lips. “How long have you been here?”
He tapped his watch and shrugged. “Don’t know, but too long apparently.” He rose to his feet and smiled, tipping his head in a gentleman’s goodbye. “Glad to know that you can manage so well. I’ll head out now.” He paced to the kitchen door and nodded. “If you need me, just call.”
I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t want to need him. “Thanks. If you need me, you know where I am.” I rolled my eyes. The guy was only trying to help. It wasn’t until after he’d left that I realized, he’d forgotten that the phones didn’t work. I couldn’t call him. My stomach rumbled—a volcano with dire predictions if I didn’t attend to internal matters. I swung open the refrigerator door and decided that…
A Day of Impossibilities
Yes, okay. You got me. I did forget the bread. But since I completely forgot the woodstove and let the fire go out, I stood amazed the next day—like a child on Christmas morning—to discover that instead of four burnt-to-a-crisp-loaves, I actually had something eatable waiting for me in the woodstove.
Still dressed in my pajamas, it was the sudden memory of the bread that shot me out of bed, I gingerly pulled out the pans and placed them on the cool stovetop.
If I hadn’t been so bloody miserable missing Liam and the kids, I probably would’ve done a happy dance. But happy was not to be. Not with my heart constricted and panic ready to seep from the pores of my skin. Liam had an auto-immune disorder, nothing terribly serious, but his body could go into painful flairs without his medication. He’d taken enough for his trip to L. A. but as he had no intention of staying more than the required three days, he probably hadn’t packed extra. I tossed a prayer to Heaven. “Please, God, assure me that he took extra. Or that a doctor is near at hand. Or he meets a pharmacist who happens to carry around extra doses of prednisone.”
A gentle breeze wended its way through the open window, fluttering the lacy white curtains. I took that as a sign. Then I snatched up one pan and carried it to the table. I plopped it onto a breadboard, snuck the jam jar from the dark refrigerator, and slathered a slice. “Oh, and—” I prayed between chews. “Thanks for this day’s bread.”
A headache slowed my reaction time, so it took me longer than usual to realize that someone was knocking at my kitchen door. Ben? Surely not. I glanced out the window. It couldn’t be much after 6:00 AM.
Linda peered through the storm door window. Anxiety lined her face, but she lifted a thermos like a peace offering. “I know just what you need.”
Conflicted between the need for my morning coffee and irritation, I opened the screen door and stepped aside.
She pulled a second thermos from behind her back. “We’ll chat over hot coffee like old times.”
My mind ricocheted around the room. The morning light streaming in the kitchen windows. A hen clucking in annoyance at the collie’s advances. Linda sidling over to a chair and plopping down as if the last couple of days had never happened. My headache sped into overdrive. An image of Ben with his hands folded, concerned, yet strangely peaceful, flittered through my mind. Liam, Juan, and Dana should be sitting at the table, joking and eating breakfast together. Oh, God, when will I see them again?
Linda took a hearty swig from her thermos. “You better drink up. It took Josh an hour to get the fire warm enough to heat up our camp coffee pot. Lucky I still had that old thing. I got the rust out, don’t worry.”
I unscrewed the top and took a tentative sip. Yowch! It was definitely hot. But the scalding actually felt good going down. Caffeine addict that I was, relief cruised through my body. I sank back into the chair and realized, with only slight discomfort, that Linda was fully dressed while I was still in my morning rumpled condition. My hair undoubtedly looked like I had spent quality time in close proximity to a wind turbine.
Linda didn’t seem to mind. Especially not considering the fact that she was drooling, quite literally, at the sight of my home-baked bread.
Being a good Christian woman, I sliced a thick piece, placed it delicately on a napkin, and nudged the jam jar with a strategically placed spoon in her direction. “Eat up. I’ve got three more.”
Linda didn’t waste any time. I shouldn’t have been surprised when…
For the rest of these episodes and others, visit Kindle Vella Homestead by A. K. Frailey.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?”
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?”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Though I do believe that John Donne was right, “No man is an island,” since we are all connected to the God who made us, I must also toss in a clarification: suffering can separate us in ways that islands don‘t dare to dream.
For the past several months, I’ve dealt with neck and shoulder pain to the point where I’ve decided that a good night’s rest is a charming illusion. It’s hard to explain the crucifix of nightmarish exhaustion mixed with throbbing aches. Each night, I just have to survive on my own till I can join humanity’s daily-do at the break of dawn.
Because I’m a mom, I learned long ago that it is possible to feel another person’s pain. If my kids slipped on the rocks, I would cringe on impact and endure their moment of hurting shock. Though my pain wore off while theirs had to heal naturally, still, I felt for them. Literally.
But that’s not how things usually go in this world. More often than not, I turn away from pain and suffering. I hate the sight of it because I know darn well that if I think about it, if I imagine one of my children in that hurting place, I will get hurt, share a loss, suffer embarrassment, cringe in fear, wince in agony. So, not being a glutton for punishment, I shy away.
Yesterday, when I spoke with a nurse about arranging an MRI scan, she mentioned that she knew I was in discomfort. Discomfort is one way to put it. Not particularly accurate, but as a nurse, she can hardly suffer the blows of misfortune with every patient she encounters. If she did, she’d never get her job done. The MRI scheduler jokingly said, “Hope you aren’t claustrophobic.” Deflecting fear with humor helps her do her job, though I didn’t laugh.
So I get it. Sharing each other’s pain isn’t always a good idea. We’ve got to survive and do our jobs. But I have to wonder if we can’t find a middle ground, a sane space between taking on burdens that aren’t ours and insisting, “I feel your pain” when, in fact, we really don’t, and the protection of an island existence that barely keeps us human.
The Internet and online media tend to hyper-inflate isolationist islands in our social seas. A casual reviewer drops a few cruel lines, thinking nothing of it but real pain ripples to far shores. The comment section becomes battlegrounds where no blood is actually drawn, but unseen wounds reach deep.
A year ago or so, someone posted a video about a young man in an interview who failed hard. Apparently, lots of people shared the post as slapstick humor. I nearly cried. The guy valiantly struggled through the interview, stammering when he realized he was the cause of the sarcastic laughter behind him. His ability to rise to the challenge plummeted. He stood on an island of misery surrounded by a mocking crowd.
When I served in Peace Corps, I once watched in horror as a teacher called a child who had a severely enlarged head (undoubtedly due to some physical illness) to the front of the class to teach the concept of “gigantic.” I felt the little boy’s embarrassment. I also felt the teacher’s anxiety when I (as a teacher trainer) tried to explain after class that her method wasn’t the proper way to teach that concept (or any concept really). She didn’t think she had hurt the boy, but she was terrified of losing her job. Two islands of pain right there in the same room
The other day, I read a post by someone I know to have suffered greatly. He didn’t share his singular grief; rather his sarcasm insulted many.
Pain comes in so many forms and levels; we can’t feel it all. It would kill us if we did. For me, the key is not feeling everything; it’s being able to feel something. I don’t like pain. But suffering—my own and others’— informs me in a way nothing else can.
Ironically, though suffering may force us to live an island experience— we’re all on the same island.