Face the Cranberries

“Cranberries are the best food on the planet. And aliens are set to invade Earth any day now.”

I waited; my hands clasped around a bag of red berries in an attitude of perfect composure and watched my dearest husband add the final touches to his miniature boat. Well, it was Johnny’s boat. Or so the story goes… The perfect gift for an eleven-year-old boy who was all thumbs. A boat building kit. His dad couldn’t get the box open fast enough.

I cleared my throat. “Jack?”

“Huh?”

His big brown eyes peered at me as innocently as I’m certain he felt. He had no idea he was ignoring me. Or that I had a rotten day. Or that Jonny couldn’t care less about boats. He was simply focused. On his work…or his hobby…whatever.

I wanted to whap him with my bag of berries. But he wouldn’t have understood that either. Time out.

“I need some sugar. Going to Beth’s place for a bit.”

That caught his attention. “Way over there? She’s not a grocery store. Besides, I’m getting hungry and—”

“The chicken is in the oven, and there are crackers and cheese on the table. Have a snack. I’ll just be a bit.” Feeling ever so justified in leaving him to his newest pet project, I sauntered out the door and roared off in my mini-van with music blaring right through town. The only reason I didn’t close my eyes to deep cleanse my psyche lay in the curvy road and the glory of swiftly passing spring fields.

Beth had amazing kids. One was a doctor, another an astrophysicist, and the middle kids were all-purpose miracle workers. The youngest two stayed at home and managed the farm while her husband recovered from a…broken arm…or was it a leg? Appendicitis? Something.

Anyway, no matter how bad my day might have been, just stepping into Beth’s house offered me perspective. Like a clown on an analyst’s couch, I knew she’d listen to my dire groans and sprinkle witty inspirations and clever parenting tips upon me no matter how ridiculous I looked.

Or maybe not.

When I swept into the kitchen, Beth’s red-rimmed eyes bespoke some kind of serious dark matter in the Kilroy universe. My heart skipped a beat. “Something wrong?”

Beth’s eyes widened. With horror or stupefaction, I couldn’t tell. She seemed so surprised. I was surprised. After all, I’d been barging into her house, getting free analyst sessions for years. We were close friends. Like sisters. No warning phone call. No knock on the door. No loud call from the foyer. Just—

Beth broke down, lumbered over to me, and started sobbing on my shoulder. The sky could’ve fallen, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I half carried, half dragged her to the kitchen table and maneuvered her into a solid wood chair. Always loved those chairs. Practically indestructible. Sorry…I digress.

I put on a pot of water for the clearly needed cup of tea. “Herbal or something stronger?”

Beth looked up and waved a limp hand. “I don’t care. Whatever.”

Gee. That wasn’t like her at all. Bodysnatchers? My hands shook as I assembled the cups, brown sugar, and perched the English teabags in the cups just so. I leaned over and peered into my friend’s swollen eyes. And waited.

“Terry wants a divorce.”

The jolt that ran through my system could have electrified a city. “What? That’s crazy. Terry loves you. You love Terry. You love your kids. Your kids love you…” I sat back, my gaze stuck on her face.

“He’s not the man I married. After his heart attack, That was it! he says he wants to retire and travel to exotic places, have some fun…live before he dies.” She dropped her head onto her hands and sighed. “What have we been doing all these years? Play acting?”

The irony of our role reversal was not lost on me. Being the one expected to offer helpful advice pricked my conscience like angry hornets. After all, my oldest kid was only a teen, and I had three compared to her six. And Beth had been married nearly thirty years while Jack and I had a mere fifteen anniversaries tucked under our marriage belt.

I slumped down on the chair and tried to gird my loins. Ridiculous phrase but being biblical, it seemed to fit. I certainly needed supernatural assistance. Any time, Lord.

“I can’t believe that Terry told you that he wants a divorce. It’s just not like—”

“Oh, not in so many words. Of course not! He just scattered pamphlets, brochures, travel books all over the place and started listening to Spanish radio. He went shopping and bought casual shirts and jeans for crying out loud! Jack never wears jeans. He’s an office man who can’t leave the office—even when he comes home.”

I blinked. Suddenly I saw the universe from an entirely new angle. “Uh, Beth darling, do you think that perhaps you are misreading Jack? I mean, perhaps he is kinda tired of being the office guy and wants to have a little fun. Doesn’t mean he wants a divorce. Why would he scatter the travel paraphernalia under your eyes if he wanted to leave you behind?”

“Why didn’t he just tell me?”

“Have you ever mentioned an interest in traveling?”

“I’ve been too busy raising kids for thirty years. And doing a darn good job of it I might add. Who’s got time for frivolity?”

My throat had gone as dry as Mars. The singing kettle saved me. As I poured the steaming water into our mugs, Beth skedaddled to the counter, snatched a handful of pamphlets and slapped them on the table.

“See what I mean?”

I stirred sugar into my tea with one hand and browsed through the offending material with the other. Hmm… Yep. Terry wanted a little fun. Looked like a lot of fun. I tried not to turn green with envy.

I took a long sip and sat down. Then I reached over and patted my friend’s hand and said the only thing that might save her universe. “Go have fun, Beth.”

Beth’s eyes widened.

I stirred two scoops of sugar into her cup and nudged it closer. “If it makes you feel any better, you can learn Spanish before you go.” I leveled my gaze at her. “But go.”

~~~

I didn’t turn on the music on the drive home. I need to think and pay more attention to my pounding heart than a pounding pop song. By the time I stepped into the kitchen, my brain was clear enough to take in the wonderful aroma of cooked cranberries.

Jack stood at the head of a table, which apparently had been set by visiting gremlins since the knives and forks were scattered at awkward angles and the plates and glasses marched up wobbly lines on either side of the table. But a roast chicken and mashed potatoes did sit comfortably in the middle of the table near the glorious bowl of cooked berries.

I glanced at my husband. My throat had returned to Mars. And after three cups of tea, too. “Uh, Jack?”

Jack smiled at me through such proud eyes I thought my heart might burst right through my chest. “The kids and I fixed dinner. Course, you had the chicken in the oven already. But we did the rest.”

Standing around the table, the kids looked like miniature versions of their dad. It took me a moment, but I did eke out a coherent, “Thank you, guys!”

Jack peered at me, his smile fading. “You okay?”

And at that moment I knew with unerring certainty what I needed to do to make my universe perfect. “Yep. Everything is great. But I do have one request.”

Jack and the kids looked at me. God only knows what they were thinking.

“Show me your boat after dinner, okay?”

Jack’s smile returned, and I could finally face the cranberries.

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

One Aisle at a Time

Wilson stared at the blinking cursor and couldn’t think of a thing to write. His brain seemed frozen, unable to articulate one creative thought. All he could do was lean back on his swivel chair and let his gaze wander around the room. A midsized wooden bookshelf with five extra books arranged awkwardly on top. Lamp, coffee mug, printer, window, landscape painting hanging slightly crooked, dusty calculator, a crumpled stack of receipts, notepad, frogman…the one Sami had given him on Father’s Day—

Oh, God!

Searing pain clutched his innards. He closed his eyes and turned away. “This will kill me. A month after the funeral, and I’m still a mess.” He heaved himself out of his chair and paced across the room. He stopped at the doorway. Where could he go? To the kitchen? What for? He had no appetite. The thought of food made him nauseous. To the living room? Why? The couch was empty. No stuffed animals. No half-completed pictures. No 4th-grade math book shoved under the pillow.

His phone buzzed. Clenching his jaw, he returned to his desk and snatched up the phone. “Yeah!” He knew he sounded like an angry bull, but hell, he couldn’t help it. He was angry. Disgustingly, furiously, blindingly angry.

“Wil?” Camilla, his wife. She sounded strong. Too strong. Damn. She had no right to be strong. He swallowed and sucked in his cheeks as if chewing his own flesh might help him maintain a modicum of composure.

“Yeah, honey, what’s up?” His shoulders sagged as weariness enveloped him.

“I’m at the grocery store, and I forgot the list…could you get it for me and read it off as I go along?”

Before he could give his brain any formal directions, Wilson found his feet padding into the kitchen. Yep, sure enough, there was the list, written in his wife’s beautiful but tiny cursive. He’d be lucky if he could read it. “Got it.” He squeezed the phone between his chin and his shoulder and held the list out with both hands, far enough to read but not as steady as he would’ve liked.

Her voice calm and parental enunciated her next request. “Great. I made it past the chips and cracker aisle and now I’m stuck between peanut butter and cereal.”

Wilson frowned and leaned against the counter. “Yeah? It says peanut butter and cereal on here…” He shook his head. “Look, you’ve done this every week for years; you’ve got to have the entire store mapped in your head. Dang it, woman, you could do this in your sleep.”

Silence.

Wilson’s heart began to pound. “Honey?”

It was the softest sniffle in the world, but it nearly crushed Wilson’s will to live.

Camilla’s voice wavered through the air, into the phone, and pierced Wilson’s broken heart. “I just don’t know which peanut butter or what cereal…”

Flummoxed, Wilson felt a scream rise from his chest. “The ones you always get.”

A ragged breath brushed his ear and sent prickles of terror racing down his spine. “But we always got crunchy…because that’s what Sami—”

“Oh, God!” The phone clattered to the floor.

Waves smashed against his composure, heaving rocks at his innards. Black water smothered his airways. Vaguely in the distance, he could hear his wife’s plaintive voice calling from the floor.

“Wil? Please, I need to know. What kind of peanut butter? What cereal do I get—?”

Every ounce of his body wanted to grind the phone into smithereens with his heel, but his hands chose differently. He dropped down on a kitchen chair and pressed the phone to his ear. Camilla was crying. There were no sobs or wails. But he knew. She was probably just standing there in the middle of the aisle gripping the cart with one hand while tears poured down her face.

He leaned on one hand and waited. Muffled conversation rose over the distance. Camilla was talking to someone. Another woman…soothing words, a gentle tone… He pressed the phone harder. “Who the—?”

A voice rose. “Lost my son five years ago…hell on earth. Couldn’t pass his bedroom without breaking down and forget going out in public. Took me a whole year before I could go shopping by myself. Terrible. Yes, it is. God have mercy on parents who lose a child. Doesn’t matter how it happens…or how old. Just hell.”

Silence.

Tears streamed down Wilson’s face and meandered over the phone before they fell like miniature pools on the smooth kitchen tabletop. Then, like a tidal wave on the rise, his shoulders heaved and his whole body rocked with searing, overwhelming pain. God, the pain.

After a few moments, still clutching the phone, he heard Camilla sniff. And then a sigh. An embarrassed—giggle? “Cam, what’s going on?” Wilson sat up.

A distant conversation. “Yeah, I’m okay now. Thanks.” Camilla blew her nose. Loudly.

Wilson’s eyes widened. He wiped his face with the back of his hand.

“Wil?”

Teardrops smeared the phone. Wilson snatched a paper napkin, wiped it down, fumbled, and then smashed it against his ear again. “Yeah. You okay, honey?”

“No. But I’m…better.”

He could imagine her shyly ducking her head, winding a strand of hair behind her ear.

“A lady here…she understood…gave me a hug. It’s what I needed.”

Wilson nodded as his tears flowed again. He choked out his words. “So what’re you going to do?”

Camilla cleared her throat and undoubtedly squared her shoulders. “She suggested I try the smooth peanut butter and pick out a new cereal, one we never had before. So I grabbed a banana-strawberry granola mix.” Her voice dropped low, like a child begging for understanding. “Will that be okay?”

Wilson sniffed and grabbed another napkin. He wiped his nose. “Sure, honey. That’s perfect.” He swallowed back the ache in his throat and sat up. He fumbled for the list. “You want to do the rest of the shopping now or come home?”

Camilla’s voice steadied. “I’ll keep going…as long as you stay with me.”

“Course, honey. We’ll just take it one aisle at a time…”

~~~

A half hour later, Wilson returned to his desk. The curser was still blinking. He lifted his hand over the keys and tapped out five words.

One Aisle at a Time…

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

A Connection

Selma was freezing. As she rubbed her frozen fingers together, she stomped her booted feet on the floor and started humming a lively tune she used to sing to the boys when they were babies. Ach! It wasn’t helping. Dang ice storm, falling tree branches, and downed power lines!

“Mom, I’ve got to get to work. You know…keep the pipes from freezing and the food from thawing.”

Selma waved her son away with a nod. “You’re a one in a million, boy.”

Her son laughed as he headed out the door. “You know my motto—Take no excuses, give no excuses.” He glanced back with an impish grin. “Sides, Bradley is already there, and he’ll give me hell if I don’t show up.”

The light was fading and her hurricane lamps were just about out of juice. There wasn’t a chance in the Kingdom that she’d be able to get more light or heat before tomorrow. She fed the dogs the last of their Alpo—as yet unfrozen—and wandered around the lonely, dark house. Icy branches swayed from the gleaming trees and powdery snow blew ghost-like swirls along the ground.

Once back in the kitchen, she filled her icy mug with the dregs of her cold coffee and peered at a large bag of old newspapers in the corner. “Wish we had a fireplace, I’d make the biggest bon—” She blinked.

In the backyard, the brick-lined fire pit staunchly faced the bitter winds without concern. Selma bit her lip. She could barely feel her fingers or her toes. Ice was crusting around the edge of her cup.

Without further thought, she dragged on her heavy coat, snatched a bottle of kerosene and a pack of matches from the cabinet, and lugged the bag of old papers out the back door to the fire pit. She dumped the sack in the center, squeezed the remaining Kerosene on top, and managed to light one match, which she flicked into the dark mess.

Instant bonfire!

She raced back into the house, got her mug and practically danced around the fire, turning around and around so as to warm her outsides and her insides and thaw her coffee in an orderly manner.

“Ahhh…you okay?”

Selma froze, her cup held out to the licking fingers of the flames like a devotee making an oblation to a fire god. She glanced aside and forced a grin.

Her neighbor, Jason, a respectable man in his forties, stood facing her—his eyebrows up, his legs jiggling, and his hands tucked into his armpits. “You don’t usually have a cookout this time of the year.” He stuck out one finger. “What you trying to do?”

Selma straightened and held out her mug. “Thaw out my coffee.”

The man blinked and peered into Selma’s backyard. “That your power line laying on the ground?”

“Sure is. The tree decided to shed a few limbs before summer and the line got in the way.” She started turning again. “So I gotta do, what I gotta do to get a decent cuppa before I settle in to freeze for the night.”

Jason trotted forward and threw a wave in Sema’s direction. “You’re coming home with me for a decent cuppa. Joyce and the girls are playing Monopoly and killing their old man. I could use a good excuse to get out of jail.”

A tug of shyness tugged at Selma’s composure. “I don’t want to interrupt…I know how you value your family time.”

“Oh, hell, family time includes freezing neighbors, don’t it?”

~~~

As she entered the brightly lit and gloriously warm kitchen, Selma noted the clean counters, the colorful row of assorted coats hanging on wall pegs by the door, a sterling sink unencumbered by dirty dishes, and an empty coffee pot sitting by it’s lonesome on the edge of the counter.

Guilt washed over her. “You probably have everything set for tomorrow. I hate to—”

Like a cat batting a ball of string, Jason swiped the air. “Forget it. We’re a social family, as you know. Not a Friday goes by that we don’t have people over.”

“But this is Sunday.”

Jason nodded to the living room. “So? Jeanne picked Friday for our socials. I pick Sunday to rescue neighbors.” He shrugged. “Seems fair to me.”

Selma perched on the edge of a stool and peered into the living room. When Jeanne glanced up, Jason bellowed. “Her power’s out. I’m making a cup of coffee to thaw her hands so she doesn’t have to set the neighborhood on fire.”

Jeanne called back. “Sounds good. You’re still in jail as far as we’re concerned.”

Jason snorted. “Every man’s dream wife.”

Selma’s throat tightened as she watched Jason prepare the pot.

Clicking on the red button with a little flourish, he grinned. “Takes two minutes.” He pulled up a stool and leaned across the counter. “Your boys at work?”

Selma nodded, unable to speak.

Jason sighed. “They’re good kids. Hard working as all get-out. I like that. Don’t see that in most kids these days.” He swept his hand toward the living room. “Care to give any parting advice? My girls are a little…shall we say…”

With a quick glance over her shoulder and a rush of embarrassment burning her face, Selma cleared her throat. “Can’t give any real advice. My boys work hard cause they have to. Their dad cut out years ago, and I only work part-time. So if they want to eat and live in a decent place…” She shrugged.

“Where’s he now?”

“Dead. Suicide. A troubled man. Still, I loved him…once. He was the boys’ father.” She peered into her clasped, chilled hands. “Never made any sense to me.”

Jason returned to the coffee maker and tapped the pot as if he could make it work quicker. “Sorry. Shouldn’t have asked. I just wondered…”

“Nothing to be sorry about. Just…” The exhaustion of battling the cold and darkness swept over Selma. “You know, experience is a great teacher, but it doesn’t give a lot of answers. The thing with raising kids is that they got to see a connection between themselves and the world around ’em. You give them love and support, but they gotta know that they aren’t in control all the time. But still, they have to be responsible for their part.”

The rich aroma of coffee filled the room as the black liquid poured into the empty pot. A cheer rose from the living room and one of the girls giggled.

Jason’s smile wavered as he glanced from the living room back to Selma. “You want to spend the night here? We’ve got a perfectly good couch.” He poured a cup of steaming coffee and handed it to Selma.

Selma shook her head. “Naw. This is great. Thanks. But I’ve got to keep the water running to keep the pipes from freezing and check on the dogs and…you know. I want to be home when the boys get back.”

Jason nodded and poured himself a cup.

~~~

As Selma heard the boys bumble through the front door, down the cold hallway, and into their frozen beds late that night, she pictured the warm house next door. The clean kitchen. The kids playing with their mom. Jason and his gentle kindness.

Though the coffee had only warmed her for a bit, she knew as she settled into bed wearing five sweaters and two pairs of sweatpants that she would sleep well tonight. The bonfire had burned out quickly. The power company had promised to be their first stop in the morning, and her boys were safe and sound.

For the first time in months, she felt warm all over.

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

Eternity Come to Earth

Frying chicken has its hazards. Tom stood back and considered the state of his kitchen. Flour covered the counter, grease specked the stovetop, blood dripped down the side of the sink, and the smoke alarm was blaring.

His eldest daughter, Katie, jogged forward, snatched a towel off the drainer and started waving it under the alarm. She glanced back at her dad. “You could take the fryer off.”

Tom sighed, dropped the last piece of chicken onto the serving dish and pulled the smoking fryer off the hotspot on the stove. He looked around as three more kids sauntered into the kitchen. He waved to the youngest. “Set the table, would you, Meg?”

Rolling her eyes and slouching her shoulders as if she had been asked to drain a swamp, Megan lumbered over to the cabinet and started piling plates into her arms.

Without comment, her older sister Martha placed knives and forks at each place with surgical precision.

Joey leaned against the wall. “I’ll be helping at the Lawson’s after school this week. So if you need something, you’ll have to tell Carl.”

Tom shut out the image of a stack of wood that needed to be split and his eleven-year-old’s last attempt to wield an ax. He frowned. “Where is Carl?”

“Out in the woods…as usual.” Meg simpered. “He wants to be a Nordic invader.”

Katie grinned as she sliced a warm loaf of homemade bread. “Don’t be silly. He wants to be an explorer…travel to distant lands and—”

Martha placed her hands on her hips, her brows drawn down in severe lines. “He needs to get practical. Joey found a good job…Carl could do the same. If he tried.”

“Like you work so hard!” Megan threw up her hands and blew a strand of hair away from her face.

Rubbing his temple, Tom slid onto his chair and dropped his head onto his hands. “Guys. No quarreling. You know how it makes me feel.”

Dead silence filled the room.

Tom felt Katie’s firm hand on his shoulder. “You’ve been working hard, Dad. Eat some dinner, and we can clear up.”

Fighting back tears, Tom waited a moment to gain his composure. Breathing through a quick prayer, Tom lifted his head at the sound of footsteps running into the room.

“Sorry, I forgot the time. Is that fried chicken?” Carl’s face lit up in boyish joy.

Tom waved to the sink. “Wash your hands first.”

As the chicken, mashed potatoes, a green salad, and canned slices of peaches were laid on the table and just as quickly consumed, Tom toyed with his food. He knew he needed to drop a bomb, but he wasn’t sure how to do it.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Uh, kids, I’ve got something to tell you.”

All heads rose and five pairs of eyes focused on their father.

“I’ve decided to put the house up for sale. We’re going to move to Wisconsin to be closer to Grandma and Grandpa.”

Silence.

“I know you love this place, but—”

Katie stood up. “You can’t, Dad!” Tears filled his eldest daughter’s eyes.
“It was bad enough the younger ones don’t get to grow up with a mom, but you want to take them away from the only home they’ve ever known. How could you?” She flung herself out of the kitchen while every gaze dropped to the floor.

Tom’s stomach churned. The chicken he had forced down seemed to flutter about as if it was still alive. He exhaled a long breath and reviewed the rest of his despondent clan.

Martha wiped her hands with her napkin and pushed away from the table. “It’s gonna be hard, but I think you’re acting sensibly, Dad. We can’t take care of this place, and besides, there are better high schools up there. We’ll have grandma and papa to help so you can go to work without worrying all the time…”

As his second child began to clear the dishes, Joey silently stood and started for the door.

Tom cleared his throat. “Nothing from you, then?”

Joey shrugged. “I like helping out at the farm, but Wisconsin has farms too. And the city has… things.”

Tom felt tears flood his eyes again. “Like what?”

“Museums…a zoo.” He glanced at his little brother. “As long as we can get to nature once in a while…see some animals…it won’t be so bad.” He bunched his hands into his pockets and opened the door. “I’m going out.”

Tom nodded and watched his eldest boy lumber across the threshold. His gaze shifted to his two youngest. Carl sat slump-shouldered and unmoving. Meg peered up and met his gaze, her eyebrows raised.

“You have a question, Meg?”

“Are you going to get a new job?”

“Kind of. I’ll still do the same work, but there’s a new opening at the branch in Madison. You’ll get to be around more of the family. Lots of kids on the Leonard side…”

Meg slid from her seat and stopped before her father, pressing her body against his knees. “It’s okay, dad. I get it. Joey had to find another home for Molly cat last year.”

A laugh strangled his cry, as Tom hugged his daughter. Brushing her hair away, he stared into her deep-set blue eyes. “I love you.”

Meg grinned. “Yeah. Me too. I mean, love you, too, dad.”

Martha beckoned her little sister. “Come here, twerp, and help me do the dishes.”

Her grin widening, Meg tugged a towel off the rack. “I’ll beat you to the last dish.”

Martha shook her head. “I’ll wash; you dry. Then I’ll put them away. But tomorrow, you gotta set the table for breakfast.”

Meg stuck out her hand to seal the deal.

Tom leaned back on his chair, the heavy rock of depression lifting ever so slightly from his chest. He eyed his second son. “You okay, Carl.”

Carl shrugged.

Tom leaned on his elbows and clasped his hands. “Joey is right. There is a great zoo in the city. We went there once when you were small. You probably don’t remember—”

Carl fixed his gaze on the floor.

Katie stepped into the room, opened the closet and pulled out the broom. She started sweeping.

Tom watched and waited. He bit his lip. He started to open his mouth, but he could hear his wife’s voice in his mind. “Give ‘em time, Tom. Big changes are made of small moments.”

As he stood, he pressed Carl’s shoulder. “Let me know…when you want to talk about it…questions…anything.”

Tom stepped from the kitchen into the lamp-lit living room and peered through the front window into the evening horizon. Joey stood against a setting sun, his body outlined in crimson.

Loneliness engulfed Tom, though he wasn’t really alone. Catherine lingered in his mind and soul, and his kids tugged at every sinew in his body. Still, he had to make the hard call, the necessary decisions. He was the dad. God’s appointed to protect and provide for his family.

He felt Katie stop beside him, her broom in her hand. She shuffled her feet. “Sorry.”

“It’s hard. I know.”

Katie gripped her broom like a soldier about to enter the battlefield. “Go on…get Carl and walk that invisible line between day and night. Mom used to say that it was Eternity come to Earth.”

Tom opened the front door, felt a surge of fresh air enter his lungs. He called into the kitchen. “Come on, Carl. There’s wood to stack, and tomorrow you’re going to help me chop the rest of the pile.”

Carl stepped forward, blinking and hesitant. “You sure?”

“Yep. Let’s do what we can tonight. Tomorrow will be here soon enough.”

 

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

It Makes All the Difference

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

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

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

Right off the bat, Leslie laughed at me.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

Except it wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently not.

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

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

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

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

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

And it makes all the difference.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

For the First Time in Months

Standing outside the huge garage door, Madge fumbled with her keys and then handed them over to the serviceman.

Without a word, he took them and nodded.

Buttoning her coat against a bitter late winter wind, Madge forced a grin. “Sorry, I’m so clumsy. I was out at the zoo, showing the school kids the monkeys—kind of a funny how they play off each other—but dang my hands get so cold, I could probably freeze water, like one of those superhuman types on TV.”

The service guy grinned and started away. “Well, if you want to sign for the order inside, we can get things moving so you don’t have to wait too long.” He stopped by her car, frowned at the tires, circled around and shook his head. He opened the service door and stood aside.

Nervous anxiety rippled through Madge’s body as she traipsed inside. She tossed her bulky purse onto the high counter. She glanced at the nameplate with Rick written in bold letters, next to a family photo with a pretty wife and two adorable kids.

Rick punched numbers into a calculator.

Marge swallowed back her fear. “So before you get too far, you want to tell me what I’m looking at? I mean, it’s just the oil change, right?”

Rick looked up, an appraising expression on his face. “Truth is, your two front tires are as bald as any I’ve ever seen. I’m surprised you made it through the winter on those things. Your steering wheel has more tread on it.”

Madge’s courage fell to the cement floor. “Well, I’ve been hoping they would make it to June. I only have to drive into the city twice a week, so I figured—”

The horrified look on Rick’s face forced her to grip her courage with both hands. She swallowed hard. “You’re right. It’s not safe. For me or anyone. Okay, I’ll get new ones. Can you get something a little better than what I have now? These only lasted a couple years..”

With obvious relief, Rick nodded and started tapping the calculator again. “We’ll take you up a step and with the oil change we’re looking at…”

Marge knew he was looking at a number larger than anything she had in her checking account. Or would likely have in the near future. When he was done with the detailed costs, tax, she sucked in a fresh breath and pulled her bag forward. “Do you mind if I call my bank? I’ll transfer what I have from savings…and then” —she squinted as if the light hurt her eyes— “maybe you’d let me make monthly payments on the rest? I’m good for it. It’ll just take three…four months tops. My job…well…it’s not one of those high paying ones.”

Rick nodded. “That’s fine. I’ll have to order these now, and when they come in, we can get everything done at once. Will that work?”

Pulling her phone from her purse, Madge exhaled. “Yep. I’ll call the bank now and pay you what I can and then—”

A man behind Marge cleared his throat.

With a frown, Rick peered over Madge’s head.

Marge started for the door. “I’ll go outside. I can’t get any reception in here anyway.” The wind had died down, and Marge soaked in the noonday sunshine. Her heart pounded as she pressed the phone to her ear. A tap on the shoulder turned her attention.

Rick stood before her, a strange expression on his face. “Hey, don’t worry about it. Just go home, and I’ll call you when I have everything set. Okay?”

A fresh blast of frigid air careened through her thin coat. She peered at the service door. “You sure?”

“Yeah. No problem. I’ve got some things to take care of right now, but I’ll call you about arranging the balance and payment.”

As Marge gave Rick her phone number, she wondered if she had accomplished anything. She marched to her car, her keys biting into her grip.

~~~

Once at home, Marge made herself a hot cup of tea and settled on the sofa with her checkbook and a pad of paper. She had to rethink her options. She sighed and took a tentative sip. Lipton’s best wasn’t nearly so good without sugar, but hey, it was better than just hot water.

Her phone rang. Dragging her purse by the long strap, she yanked it closer and sifted through myriad objects. Once she had her phone in hand, she tapped it on. “Yeah?”

“Marge?”

Marge waited. Oh boy… Exhaustion seeped through her body.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you…and I suppose I acted a little odd when you left. But, you see, the guy in line behind you told me that he overheard our conversation, and he offered to pay for your tires if we ate the cost of labor and the tax.”

Marge froze. She wondered how long she could go without breathing. When conscious thought returned, she blinked and stared at her worn black bag slumped on the floor. “Who? Did what?”

“The gentleman behind you…well, he heard about your situation, and when you went outside, he offered to pay for your tires… but he didn’t want you to know it was him. He said he doesn’t know you or anything. Just his good deed for the day sort of thing. So that’s why I told you to go home.”

A lump swelled in Marge tears, burning behind her eyes. “I never…I mean…I can’t believe…”

“We told him okay; it’s a deal. So I ordered your tires, and you can bring your car on Friday at noon. We’ll have everything done by 3:00. That’ll work for you?”

“But I’d really like to thank him…whoever he is. And you too, of course. I can’t believe…”

“Don’t worry about it. Just bring your car on Friday, and everything will be taken care of. Free of charge. Sometimes life is good, you know.”

Marge swiped the tear from her cheek. “People are good, Rick.”

As she dropped her phone back into her purse, Marge realized that not only weren’t her hands cold, but her whole body felt warm for the first time in months.

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

Like Dreams Upon Waking

“You’ve checked your watch five times in the last fifteen minutes. Would you stop already?” Greg grabbed a handful of chips from the bowl on the coffee table, leaned back on the plush sofa, and pointed to the big screen TV centered on the back wall. “You’ll never enjoy the game if you keep this up.”

Tom crossed his arms, plopped down on the easy chair on Greg’s left and glared at his best friend. “You have no idea what I’m going through.”

Greg chomped on a chip, swallowed, and wiped his hand on his jeans. “I have a daughter, too.”

“She’s four!”

“Yeah, but she’ll grow up and probably date some guy with tattoos and a shaved head, and I’ll be cool enough to shake his hand, point to my gun rack, and remind him of the curfew. I’ll leave it at that.”

“Ha! If I know anything about you, buddy, you’ll barricade the door until he leaves the names and addresses of his closest kin. And even then, Sally-Ann will be wired for sound.”

As if called by magic, a little girl scampered into the room and flew into her daddy’s arms. “Give me a ring-a-round, Daddy!”

With a groan, Greg pulled his daughter into his arms, centered himself in the living room, and began to spin her in a wide arc.

Tom grinned as Sally-Ann squealed in delight.

Speeding up, Greg edged to the couch and deposited his daughter on the cushions. “Enough. If you throw up, your mama’s going to blame me.”

A woman’s voice called from another room. “Sally-Ann, get your backside into your room and pick up these toys like I told you.”

Tom and Greg froze.

With a fresh squeal, Sally-Ann raced out of the room.

Tom peered at Greg. “So, you think Joan will interview the prospective dates when Sally-Ann gets of age?”

Greg nodded and stroked his chin. “Might work.” He frowned. “Sorry, man. I know you’re on your own. If you want…Joan could come over and…”

Tom checked his watch, his foot tapping. “It’s barely eight. I gave them until eleven. It’s only a school dance, but if the guy doesn’t act like a perfect gentleman—”

“Like you were?”

Tom squeezed his eyes shut a moment and then ran his fingers through his hair. He stood up. “I think I’d better go.”

“But the game!”

“I can’t relax. Besides, I have things to check out.”

“Such as?”

“You don’t think Kami would mind if I stopped by—”

“You’d have more to fear than death itself. Don’t go there. Literally or figuratively.”

“Maybe Joan could go undercover?”

“Joan happens to trust your daughter enough to babysit our kids. I doubt she’d spy on Kami…even for a good cause. Like keeping you sane.” Greg spread himself on the easy chair and nudged the chips in Tom’s direction. “Have a healthy snack and sit down. Put your mind on the game and just live through the next few hours. Okay?”

Tom plunked onto the couch and closed his eyes. “Only because I know I couldn’t stop myself from stopping at the school if I left now.”

Greg snorted. “A little self-control, man. Just a little.”

Tom opened one eye and peered at Greg. “I’ll have my revenge one day. You realize that, right?”

Greg laughed as he reached for another chip. “How do you figure?”

“Sally-Ann’s so enamored with her daddy…she’ll pick a man just like you.”

Leaping from the chair, Greg knocked the bowl over, and chips scattered like dreams upon waking.

 

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