OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty

What Evil Can Do

Obed felt sharp knots chafing his raw skin, burning like fire. Darkness and hot, moaning bodies surrounded him. Dried sweat mixed with dirt stiffened his face into a tight mask. His legs ached and his head throbbed. The hard ground pressed into his buttocks, while pinpricks of stars flickered in a cold, distant sky. He closed his eyes, resting his forehead on his knees.

The stone city and its shimmering temple rose in his mind’s eye, sending a chill over his arms. He thought of Ishtar, images flashing like lightning in a summer storm: Ishtar sitting with Joash around an evening fire, Ishtar standing over Neb’s bloody body, Ishtar helping to evacuate the burning village, Ishtar with crazed eyes holding a knife over Aram’s daughter. Obed’s throat tightened. “Oh, God! Ishtar, what possessed you?”

A woman’s cry startled him into wakefulness. He lifted his head and stared across the motley throng. A limp child lay like a discarded piece of clothing over the woman’s lap. She peered with her head bent low, murmuring soft words.

Another woman leaned in close, attempting to touch the child.

The mother jerked the baby away with a screech.

The child’s head lolled to the side, his eyes unnaturally wide, and his body unresisting.

Obed swallowed a hard lump in his throat.

The second woman made another attempt to rouse the infant and the mother slapped her hand. They quarreled. An interested guard sauntered near. Crouching on his haunches, deep ravines furrowing his brow, he tapped the baby’s cheek. Pursing his lips, he shook his head and muttered sharply at the woman.

She hugged the baby closer, wrapping the ragged cloth tighter around it.

Rising, the guard called to an older warrior who limped over. He scowled at the two women, plucked the baby from the startled mother, and carried it away.

With an animal-like howl, the mother jerked up, but the ropes crippled her. She fell to the ground, screaming.

The other woman, crying, patted the mother’s arm and pulled her into an embrace.

Obed watched the limping man drop the baby beside another unresponsive body and hurry to a cluster of warriors clamoring for strong drink.

The mother crumpled, burying her face in the other woman’s lap.

Curling into a ball, Obed rocked like a child, wishing for the comfort of his mother…or his wife. Or death itself.

~~~

Ishtar perched on the cliff edge and watched the yellow- pink sunrise. His whole body relaxed between the cool morning air and the smooth rock under him. Though his eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of the enemy, gratitude suffused his heart. He replayed the reunion between Amin and Caleb in his mind and smiled at how they both stood awkwardly for a moment before Caleb rushed into his brother’s arms. Nodding, Ishtar applauded his eldest son’s nature, especially when the boy’s sensitive heart broke all restraint and responded to undiluted love.

Ishtar sighed.

Footsteps padded near.

Ishtar waited.

Tobia circled around, plunked down on his right, and stretched out. He sniffed in a long breath and exhaled. “Refreshing, isn’t it?”

A grin bubbled up from Ishtar’s insides. “You’re in a good mood—better than I expected—considering everything.”

Staring straight ahead, Tobia shrugged. “I’m not in a good mood, just accepting things as they are. Mother is sick with worry over me and Obed.” He rubbed his nose. “But there’s little anyone can do until the enemy gets here.” He blinked. “I don’t even know if Obed is still alive, or if I’ll survive…”

Ishtar glanced sharply aside. “You’ll survive. The clan needs you, Tobia.”

Tobia met Ishtar’s gaze and held it a moment. With a shiver, he returned to the sunrise. “I wish they’d come, and we could get this over with.”

“The scouts say they are still almost a full day away. They won’t attack until they’re closer and have had a chance to rest before battle.”

Running his fingers through his hair, Tobia lurched forward. “I don’t know what I’ll do till then.”

With a grunt, Ishtar rose and stretched. “Well, I have something to do. I’ll leave you to coordinate with Lud and the rest of the clans.”

Frowning, Tobia climbed to his feet. “What’re you going to do?”

“Free Obed.”

Tobia choked. “You can’t! There isn’t time. You’ll be caught, and then the clan will only have Lud and me.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Let me go instead.”

Ishtar peered into Tobia’s eyes. “You’ve been prepared through great hardship for this trial. Think, Tobia. Your brother died because he chose what he thought was the braver path. But the bravest path of all is the one ordained through circumstance.” Ishtar sucked in a deep breath and stepped away from the cliff’s edge. “Stay here and be the leader your people need. I must free an innocent man.”

~~~

Ishtar crawled on his belly to the border of the enemy camp. Sweat dripped into his eyes, but he didn’t dare wipe it away.

The sun shone bright but clouds hovered in the west. No hint of wind stirred the surrounding grasses.

Three hundred battle-hardened warriors hitched their gear together and strapped weapons to their belts, lacing them tight against the coming march.

Ishtar nodded, muttering under his breath. “You’ll arrive at twilight. Very clever.” He glanced around.

When his eyes fell on Obed, he sucked in a breath and a whirlwind of emotions struck him: shock, fear, and anger over what had been done to the man. The image of Obed in his prime—a strong and proud warrior—wrestled in his mind with what he saw now. Filthy and hunch-shouldered, Obed sat less than a stone’s throw away from Ishtar, but he would not be easy to rescue. He sat with his legs splayed out, his hands tied behind his back, and a rope strung between him and a line of men, women, and children.

Crawling on his elbows and knees, Ishtar slithered forward.

A man on Obed’s right glanced over, his eyes rounding at the sight of Ishtar.

Ishtar glanced from the guards only a few feet away to the man and lifted a finger to his lips.

The man continued to stare, his mouth dropping open. Without further thought, Ishtar scampered over the broken grass and hard-packed earth, wedging himself between the man and a drooping boy and pressed his knife against the ropes. “Please, make no sound. I’m here to rescue those I can.”

Closing his mouth and swallowing, the man glanced at the boy leaning on his arm. “Him first.”

Ishtar nodded. He scuttled closer and sawed at the boy’s ropes. The man watched, his gaze darting up and around every few moments like a sparrow. When the ropes fell slack, the man grunted and held out his hands. Ishtar gritted his teeth and maneuvered the knife into position.

As the last threads broke, Ishtar gripped the man’s arm, squeezing it hard and hissing his words. “Do nothing just yet. Pretend you’re still tied and don’t watch me. Keep your attention on your boy.”

The man nodded.

Crawling to Obed, Ishtar lifted his knife.

Obed glanced at Ishtar, his eyes widening in shock, and jerked away, pulling the ropes attached to his neighbor tight. Yelps of anger and distress rippled along the line.

His mind nearly numb with fear, Ishtar dropped and flattened his body into the crushed grass.

A warrior sauntered by, grunted, and moved on.

Lifting his gaze, Ishtar met Obed’s anxiety-ridden face. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to free you. The whole clan is ready for attack.”

Licking his cracked lips, Obed’s eyes narrowed. “What clan?”

A frustrated whimper escaped Ishtar as he clenched the knife tighter and began sawing the rope fibers. “Your clan…my clan…our people.” He glanced at the warriors and then back at Obed. “This must be confusing, but please—by God—trust me and let me cut your ropes.”

Shouts rang through the camp, and the warriors began assembling into groups. Guards marched along the line, kicking the prisoners. “Get up! Time to move on. Hurry, you lazy mongrels.”

Fighting a cramp in his hand, Ishtar sawed the rope around Obed’s waist faster.

As the rope fell free, a warrior stomped by, flailing his arms. “To the fires with you! Get moving!”

Obed and Ishtar rose together, their gazes cast down.

As the guard turned to the next group, Ishtar pressed the blade against the ropes binding Obed’s hands. The prisoners shuffled forward. Ishtar kept pace, his eyes down, working frantically to break the fibers.

They passed over rough terrain dotted with rises and huge rocks. Ishtar cut the last remaining strings and yanked Obed aside, dragging him into the shaded crevice between two boulders.

Obed fell flat on his face and curled up into a ball.

Ishtar crouched close, shielding Obed’s body with his own and prayed for rain.

~~~

Obed started at the sound of drops splattering on the hard ground. He looked up and met Ishtar’s gaze. Then he rubbed his eyes. “I can’t believe—”

Ishtar grunted. “There were a few clouds on the horizon when I came. I’m grateful for the storm; it’ll help hide us…and our footsteps.”

Closing his eyes, Obed groaned, stretched, and rubbed his arms and legs. “That’s not what I meant.”

Darting a glance at the backs of the departing enemy, Ishtar pointed south. “If we head for the cliffs, we can hide in safety, and when they’re taking their rest, we can finish our journey and warn Lud and the others.”

Heavy with sarcasm, Obed chuckled. “Great plan.” With a grimace, he staggered to his feet.

Ishtar scanned the area again and started forward.

Watching Ishtar, memories flooded Obed’s mind: Ishtar holding a knife over Aram’s sleeping daughter, his death struggle with his wife, Haruz, and her bloody body lying in the dirt. Fury flushing through his aching body, Obed gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Wait! I’m not going anywhere until I understand how you, of all people, happen to be the one to rescue me.”

His eyes flashing, Ishtar glared at Obed and waved toward home. “You want me to explain—now? My sons, your wife, and children, Barak’s family—the whole clan is about to be attacked, and you want me to—”

Obed slammed Ishtar against the rock wall, blind fury burying all reason. “By the devil, I’ve been through too much to trust you now.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar lifted his hands in an attitude of surrender.

Jerking away, Obed faced the rain.

Dark clouds rumbled overhead, but patches of blue broke through in the west.

Opening his eyes, Ishtar shoved off the wall and spoke to Obed’s back. “I slipped into madness, encountered a nomad who cared for me better than I deserved, and regained a sense of decency.” Ishtar shrugged. “Perhaps I discovered a decency in me I never knew was there.”

Curling his lips through a sneer, Obed turned around and stared Ishtar in the face. “You didn’t have to sacrifice anyone?”

“I protected a father from the evil deeds of his sons.”

With his eyes fixed on Ishtar, Obed snorted. “Fate or justice?”

“It doesn’t matter. I did it for one simple reason.”

Obed waited, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw hurt.

“I loved the old man.”

A miserable chill seeped through Obed’s body.

“I understand your mistrust. But you have no idea what evil can do to a man—if he gets too close.”

A sob rose in Obed’s chest. “But I do.” Relaxing his fists, he straightened and started forward. “Let’s go home.”

“…the Dark cannot claim what Light does not surrender.” ~C.L. Wilson

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Eight

For All the Trouble You’ve Caused

Eoban wiped his sweaty brow and came to a dead halt. “I’ve made a mistake.”

“What?” Tromping in front, Barak waved an insect away.

Eoban cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “I made a mistake!”

Barak stopped and turned around, frowning. “About what?”

“I should’ve gone with Obed. He won’t be able to find Amin. He’ll wander around the hills for years if I don’t help him.”

“Are you out of your mind? We’ve been traveling for hours! Obed is long gone in the opposite direction. Besides, what if there’s trouble at home?”

Eoban shook his head, feeling very much like a disgruntled bull. “You’ll find the way easily enough from here, and we’ve plenty of warriors to hold off an enemy until I get back.” He peered at the sky. “I’ll find Obed and get the boy.”

Barak snorted. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Eoban shrugged.

“Oh, all right, go on then. But look for Amin first. Frankly, I’ll be relieved if you do. I haven’t been so sure of Obed ever since he stepped out of that temple. In the meantime, I’m making a beeline for home.” Barak sighed as he shoved his bag high over his shoulder. “I’ll hold everything together until you return. Lud is probably ready to take my head off for being gone so long.”

“Jonas and Milkan, too, I imagine.”

“Always ready to offer a bit of comfort, aren’t you?”

“It happens to be the truth.” Eoban stepped forward and pounded Barak on the back. “Get going! I’ve lost enough time. It’ll be dark soon, and you know what happens in the dark.”

Barak swung his staff at a trailing vine. “Sing and nothing with any sense will bother you.”

Eoban turned away, muttering. “Who has sense these days?”

Eoban had not traveled far and wide for so many years without learning a few things. The next day, he found Luge’s new settlement. When he walked into the village, Luge strode forward, arms extended, ready to greet him.

They embraced like brothers, their eyes dancing in mutual amusement.

Luge called over his shoulder. “Lufti! Go find Amin. Tell him he’s finally going home.”

Eoban nodded at the boy. “There’s a tall handsome youth!”

Luge led the way to his hut, grinning. “Like his father, no doubt.”

As Lydia stepped outside, Luge waved at Eoban. “Meet the man who led me to my son!”

Wide-eyed, Lydia wiped her hands on her skirt and glanced from her husband to Eoban, her face flushing. “I owe you my life.”

Eoban gripped Luge’s shoulder. “Not at all. Your husband did the hard part. I just wandered where wise men wouldn’t go.” He met Lydia’s gaze. “I’m glad my foolishness paid a good return.”

Amin raced forward and skidded to a halt in front of Eoban, water dripping down his body.

Luge laughed. “You could’ve dried yourself!”

Amin grabbed Eoban’s arm, glancing around. “Where’s my father? Did you find—?”

Rubbing his forehead, the joy in Eoban faded like a plucked flower. “I’m sorry, Amin. We looked for him in the Stone City and even in the temple…but he wasn’t to be found.”

Frowning, Amin dropped Eoban’s arm. “Where’s Obed…and Barak?”

Eoban shrugged. “Obed was supposed to be here—to collect you.” He shook his head. “But, as I suspected, he must’ve gotten lost.”

Worry lines formed around Luge’s face. “And Barak?”

“He was in a hurry to get home…so he went on ahead.” He shifted his gaze to Amin. “There’s still light to see by, and I want to find Obed before he’s eaten by squirrels. So we best—”

Amin dug his toes into the dirt. “We’ll go home without my father?”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest. “Listen, I’ve lost just about everyone on this journey.” He looked up. “Now I want to find Obed and get you home safe.”

With lips pursed tight, Amin nodded.

As they turned to go, Lufti stepped up and handed Amin a beautifully carved spear. “I would not be free today had you not convinced my father to enter the Stone City.”

Clasping his fingers around the ornate weapon, Amin’s eyes shone. “I didn’t do anything except act as a pest.” He smiled at Lufti. “But I’m glad you’re home safe” —he glanced from Luge’s kind face to Lydia’s gentle smile— “with your father and mother.” He faced Eoban, squaring his shoulders. “I’m ready.”

Eoban lifted his hand in salute to Luge. “Keep the enemy at bay and prosper on your next hunt.”

Luge’s eyes clouded. “There are rumors that the enemy is heading into new territory.” He frowned. “Watch your back.”

“If I can find my clansmen, I’ll die a happy man.”

“You do know where you’re going?”

“I know the way home. Surely, Obed’s headed that way by now. After all, he has eyes and can find the sun, can he not?” Turning, Eoban shifted his bag over his shoulder and flung an arm over Amin’s shoulder. “So, my boy, you ready to sing?”

~~~

Eoban marched into his village scowling. “Where is everyone?”

Amin trotted at his side, also scowling. “It’s much too quiet.”

Suddenly, Tannit pelted across the compound at full speed, shouting. “Eoban, you’re home! We’ve been worried sick.”

Dropping his bag to the ground, Eoban crossed his arms like a barricade as the boy skidded to a halt. “What’s happened? Where’s—?”

Tannit heaved a deep breath. “Enemies are on our doorstep, and the women and children have fled to the caves.” He glanced at Amin. “Hi, Amin! Glad you made it home safe.” His grin widened. “Your father’s been so anxious—”

Eoban choked. “Tannit? Do you realize who this is?”

Pursing his lips primly, Tannit glared at Eoban. “Of course! It’s Amin, Ishtar’s son.” He tipped his head toward the center of the village. “Ishtar’s been helping with preparations and watching over Tobia, who’s had a rough time of it. What, with Vitus getting himself killed and all. And then Obed being taken captive—”

Amin’s mouth dropped open. He glanced wide-eyed at Eoban.

Eoban, hot, frustrated, and confused, wondered if he would, in fact, boil over like an overheated stew. “Tannit, sometimes you—”

Amin cut in front of Eoban and grabbed Tannit’s arm. “Ishtar is here?”

Pointing, Tannit nodded. “Just over there, taking council with Lud.”

Eoban wrung his hands like a man practicing to wring a neck. “You said something about Obed?”

“You’d better ask Tobia. He saw Obed trussed up beside other prisoners taken by the enemy.”

Gripping Amin’s trembling shoulder, Eoban stared hard at Tannit. “Take us to Lud and Ishtar.” He swallowed a hard lump in his throat. “Then find Barak. I might need to apologize…”

Tannit waved as he turned. “Lud and Ishtar are over there.” He glanced back. “But no one’s seen Barak.” He winced. “I’m afraid Milkan will have strong words for you two.”

Eoban closed his eyes and stomped forward, gripping Amin hard enough to keep the boy from flying ahead.

At the sight of Ishtar and Lud standing together in conversation, Eoban felt the ground shift under his feet. His vision blurred. He gripped Amin’s shoulder tighter and leaned down to eye level. “Wait a moment. I want to speak to Ishtar alone first.”

Crossing his arms and clenching his jaw, Amin stood his ground. “Make it fast. I have something to say too.”

Eoban threw back his shoulders and strode forward.

Ishtar and Lud glanced over. Both sets of eyes widened. Lud exhaled a long breath and grinned.

Ishtar stood ramrod stiff.

Stepping up, Eoban met Lud’s eyes, his tone as dry as parched corn. “Glad you kept things well in hand while I was gone, Lud.”

“I hardly—”

Eoban turned his attention to Ishtar. “Ishtar, I’ve been looking for you.”

Ishtar nodded, his gaze fixed on Amin standing in the background. “So I heard.”

Like a dry stick about to snap, Eoban clenched his jaw, his teeth ready to crack under the pressure.

Ishtar turned his full attention to the warrior before him. “Do with me as you will.”

Lud stepped back and beckoned to Amin.

Amin ran to Lud’s side.

Swallowing, Eoban glared at Ishtar. “What under the sun does that mean? I’d like to beat you to a bloody mess for all the trouble you’ve caused.”

Maintaining their locked gaze, Ishtar nodded, his voice low and humbled. “And well I deserve it.” He stepped forward, his arms at his sides. “Beat me.”

Flinging his hands in the air, Eoban turned and pounded a few paces away. “By all that is decent and right in the world—do you have to take that tone?” With his head pounding and tears burning, Eoban glanced from Ishtar to Amin. “Do you know what you’ve done to your sons?”

His jaw clenching into a tight line, Ishtar shook his head. “I’ll regret my mistakes for the rest of my life, knowing that I never really can make up—”

Amin leapt forward. “I forgive you, father.” Halting right in front of Ishtar, he sucked in a deep breath. “I wanted to tell you that I don’t need you—”

Lud, Eoban, and Ishtar stared at the boy.

Amin swallowed and hung his head. “But it’s not true. I can’t manage on my own. I needed Barak and Luge…and—” He glanced up and met Eoban’s eyes. “Even Eoban.”

Eoban winced.

Amin peered at his father. “But I need you too. So does Caleb.” He glanced around, a frown building. “Where is he?”

Lud gripped Amin’s shoulder. “He’s safe in the caves with the women and children.” Glancing from Ishtar to Amin, Lud smiled. “You must have incredible stories to tell—”

Eoban snorted. “Stories? We’ve both seen too much!” He pounded his chest. “I don’t know about Amin here, but I’m thinking of settling down…maybe with a wife.”

Lud choked.

A hint of a grin broke over Ishtar’s somber face.

Eoban pursed his lips. “I’ll make an excellent husband.” He peered at Amin. “Didn’t I take good care of you?”

Amin glanced from Eoban to his father. “He tried. It’s not his fault that he lost his entire company at one time or another.”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest, exhaling a long, ragged breath.

With a snort, Lud patted Eoban’s back. “Don’t worry, Eoban. You can regain your honor by leading us to victory.” He gestured to the caves. “Jonas and Milkan are waiting. They’ll want to know what happened to Obed and Barak. Let’s go.”

Eoban lifted his head, all strength draining from his limbs. Shuffling along, he muttered. “Couldn’t we just go straight into battle?” Glancing aside, bittersweet grief made Eoban shake his head.

Ishtar clasped Amin’s shoulder and led his son home.

“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home.” ~Mother Teres

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You Have No Idea

If electrical tape could talk, Shasta was sure the strip she held her in her hand would scream, “I’m not made for this!”

Shasta batted away the hyper-personified thought and executed a swift fix. Only God and her electrician would ever know…and she wasn’t talking to either of them at the moment.

A second razz from her doorbell told her that someone was getting a tad impatient. She eyed her work critically. Black electrical tape on a clear refrigerator shelf, cracked nearly in half, but oh well… She shoved the shelf back into its slot. It works. That had to be enough.

The bell sounded in two short bursts this time. “I’m coming!”

After running her fingers through her hair, Shasta smoothed down her rumpled sweater and figured that no one would notice that her shoes were broken down at the heel. Besides, the only people who came for a visit were salespeople who blatantly ignored the no soliciting sign posted on the edge of town or a couple of elderly religious ladies from a denomination Shasta kept getting mixed up with the local sport’s team: Vandals or Evangelical—something…

She swung open the door prepared to be polite but firm. The answer was no.

“Hi, Shasta.”

There he stood. Tall. Grey-headed. Heavyset. But still handsome. The train whistle in the distance could have carried the entire train with it, rumbled over her front lawn, heading directly for her, and she wouldn’t have moved.

“Jasper?”

She blinked to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. Though she’d lived clean and sober all her life—one heard stories of strange events. Carbon Monoxide poisoning? She sniffed the air. Nope.

“Can I come in for a moment?”

Shasta backed up, opening the door wider, ignoring the cold wind rushing into the room. Good Lord, he looks like mom.

It must’ve been twenty years…no…she tried to calculate. She’d been living in Chicago the last time they’d talked. He’d been drunk and said some things he shouldn’t have. She’d hung up on him…

“A long time, eh?”

Shasta dropped her gaze and considered dissolving into the floor. Her heart pounded, and spots swirled before her eyes. Jasper had gone from being a disturbed kid to a dysfunctional adult. When her mom got the police report that his body had been found in the park, she had grieved, but then relief had—

“I figure it was about twenty-six years ago we last spoke.”

Thank God that good manners ruled society with habitual fluency. Shasta gestured to the couch. “Please, sit.” She reached out. “I can take your coat.”

He shrugged the heavy winter coat off his body and smiled as he handed it over. He wore an impeccable blue shirt with dark pants and gorgeous leather shoes.

Heaven, those shoes alone probably cost more than my monthly rent.

“Uh, you want some coffee…tea?” She only had cheap tea, but her coffee was pretty decent. Something to make waking up in the morning worthwhile.

“Only if you’re having something.”

Shoot. Shasta never had coffee in the afternoon since it would keep her up half the night, so she’d have to offer her bland tea. She eyed her brother again. He looked like he was used to having the best. A drug dealer? She shook her head and started for the kitchen.

“I’ll just put the kettle on. My tea’s not that great, but I can make it nice and hot—”

Jasper settled his large frame onto the couch. “Whatever you have is fine. Don’t go out of your way.”

Hmmm…this did not sound like the Jasper she knew. Her brother had always been wild and demanding. Flighty even. Nothing like this composed fifty-something gentleman making himself comfortable on her shabby sofa.

She slapped her cheek as she turned the fire under the kettle. She had patched a worn spot on the couch cushion with black thread, though the fabric was olive green because, well, heck, who has olive green thread?

She pulled two cups out of the cabinet, snatched a couple tea bags, dropped them into her finest mismatching mugs, and placed a jam-smeared creamer pot dead center. Dang, I meant to wipe that—

Jasper ambled into the kitchen, smiling.

Smiling? Certainly never like that. Shasta leaned on the counter. “Sorry, I’m a little befuddled. You’ve kind of taken me by surprise.”

Jasper leaned on the sink and crossed his arms, his expression grave, but not sad. Just serious. A deep thinker? Jasper?

“I thought about calling, but I was afraid you’d hang up on me.”

Shasta had to give him credit. He didn’t say “again” though the word hung heavy in the air.

Shasta shrugged. “I might have. I don’t know. Usually I try to give people a second chance—”

“Oh, but you did. And a third…a forth…God knows how many. You and mom never seemed to give up. Always took me back in.”

“But then you disappeared. We thought you were dead for a while there.”

Jasper nodded. “That was kind of the point. I wanted to appear dead. Got mixed up with the wrong type of people…” He exhaled a long breath, his gaze on a trail she could not follow.

Shasta’s body trembled. This was what was didn’t want to live with…why she’d been so relieved—

“So, I died. Sort of. Actually, I did time in prison, gave testimony, met an amazing teacher, and started going to Mass again. Then I—” He met his sister’s gaze. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

The kettle began to hum. “Like one of those reborn things people rave about?”

Jasper tilted his head. “That wouldn’t do it justice. I got into a fight while serving my time and didn’t win…if you know what I mean. I should’ve died. But for some reason, beyond everyone’s hopes and expectations, I lived.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me…or mom?”

“I wasn’t going to drag you guys back into my mess. I never gave anyone your names. I wanted to either die or start over.”

The kettle shrieked.

Shasta jumped.

Jasper laughed. “You always were sensitive.”

Shasta poured the steaming water into the cups, a blush working up her cheeks.

Jasper stepped closer and leaned in. “I made you cry more than once, and I’m really sorry about that, Shasta.”

Hot tears blurred Shasta’s eyes. Hot water burned her fingers.

Jasper took the kettle and placed it back on the stovetop. He took both her hands and peered at her. “I was a terrible kid and a nasty man. I choose to tackle hell and take everyone who loved me through it too.”

Her tears overflowed, and Shasta dropped her gaze. She wanted to wipe her face, but he still clutched her hands.

“I’ve made a new life, an honest one. Got married to a terrific lady and have three kids.” He let go of her hands and pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He flipped the picture section open and four attached photos dangled in the air.

A pretty woman with stylishly cut hair and perky blue eyes stared at Shasta. A handsome teen boy dressed in a basketball uniform smiled, while a preteen girl and an adorable baby made up the rest of the family.

Something hideous stabbed Shasta from the inside. Sarcasm dripped like poison from a keen-edged knife. “Great, Jasper! I’m so happy for you. When mom died, I, like the dutiful daughter, managed everything. I even paid for her funeral and cleaned out the old house. The next year, my prince of a husband left me, saying that he’d rather travel the world than pay bills. So, I’ve been slaving away at a dead-end job for sixteen years, and now—” She squeezed her eyes shut, smacked her hands over her face, and bent double under a nameless agony. Uproarious sobs exploded like lava from an uncapped volcano.

Jasper bundled his sister into his arms and held her close, rocking her ever so gently.

She could hear his heart beating through his fine shirt. A spicy cologne scent wafted into her nose. Her shivering body responded to the sudden warmth.

His voice turned husky. Choking on the words. As if he were crying too. “That’s why I’ve come back.”

Shasta pulled away and stared at her brother. “Why? Because you feel guilty? Because you heard that my life isn’t so great? That you’ve succeeded, and I’m a miserable failure?”

Jasper took his sister’s hand and tugged her back to the couch. They sat side by side. He plopped his family photos on the coffee table, never noticing that she had used a brown marker to color in a water stain.

“Last Christmas, my two oldest kids—” he pointed to the appropriate photos as if she didn’t have a brain in her head. “—got into an argument. Mary said some hard things to Dominic, and it got ugly fast. Everything was patched up after a bit…but the whole thing stirred some unpleasant memories.”

Shasta swallowed and wiped the residue of tears off her cheeks.

“I told them that family is forever. But then, Mary pointed at me and asked where my family was. Dom waited, like he wanted to know too.”

Shasta sighed. “Ouch, eh?”

Jasper threw back his head and stared at the ceiling. “I was convicted all over again. How could I tell my kids to forgive…to love each other through—whatever—when I had cut myself off from my own family?”

Shasta raked her fingers through her hair and straightened her shoulders. “You want to make amends?” She shook her head. “I never hated you or anything. It just hurt…that mom died thinking the worst.”

“I will live with that for the rest of my life. But you—” He swallowed and tears rolled down his face. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I don’t deserve another chance or the happy life I have. But…Shasta—I want to be able to tell my kids the truth. That family can forgive and love does—”

Shasta stood and waved to the kitchen. “Enough. I’ve cried enough for today. If you don’t mind stale tea, I think I have a package of cookies in the fridge.”

Jasper gave his face a quick rub down and followed Shasta into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?”

“Well, the cookies are in the crisper…” She put the teacups into the microwave and hit the minute button.

Jasper laid the package of Fig Newtons on the counter and smiled. “By the way, I like the black electrical tape on the shelf. Very chic.”

Shasta grinned. “Oh, you have no idea, brother. You haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

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

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

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

The Kid Inside

So okay, I’m taking a new look at men & women relationships in the modern world and with grown kids looking to the future, and I wonder what’s in store for them.

As I attempted to sleep last night, I started thinking about the whole Adam and Eve scenario…but from a 21st-century perspective.

Imagine the complications…

God, Almighty Creator of the Universe, leads his charming beauty forward and—

Adam’s eyebrows furrow. “Hmmm, she’s got a rib there that looks mighty familiar.” He’d undoubtedly want to know if God got a legal release for the use of private property…and a few other concerns… “This a 50-50 deal or does she expect me to hunt all by my lonesome?”

Eve would eye the cave wondering if it would get cable, if the Internet could bounce through the thick walls, and how often Adam cleaned the gutters. “He wouldn’t expect me to grill one of those ridiculous woolly mammoths over an open fire, would he?”

Let’s hold off on serious family dysfunction issues for the moment. Even Adam and Eve had their trials.

Any words of wisdom?

Huh. I can hear your silence from here.

I did manage to fall asleep. But it took a while. When I awoke it was with the image of a child in my mind—a child disfigured by a facial wound, which hid his true features.

That image has haunted me all day. Now I’m wondering at my tendency to see men and women relationships as separate from our childhood experiences, though in reality, we are all children of God, still processing our own “child” within. Any wonder that people of very advanced age become as helpless as children?

Clearly, God could have arranged our life cycle another way…but instead, we start as helpless babies, grow strong (hopefully), and then grow weak and childlike again.

So how does that inform our most intimate relationships?

I realized some years ago that the only way to deal with people who make me angry is to lift my spirit to God and ask Him to help me see the other person as He does. As the child He created—innocent and full of glorious potential. When you’re looking at someone making an idiot of him or herself, or doing something so wrong that your whole body cringes, it’s mighty hard to picture them as glorious.

But that appears to be the key to long-lasting relationships. Not seeing what is…but what could be—what should be—and hanging in there. That hardly means we assent to Cain’s murderous actions or accept destructive behavior, but rather, though we may have to step away—we do so without wishing the worst for the other person.

When faced with bad behavior, I often think, “I’m not going to forget this.” Oh, I tell myself that I’ll forgive but forget? Why would I do that? Got to protect myself, don’t I?

Yet, I find that I can both forgive and forget the mistakes of children. They are just learning. They don’t know any better. “Father, forgive them…they know not what they do…”

Am I capable of channeling that grace toward the whole human race? To my brothers and sisters on this life journey? In up close and personal, even intimate, relationships?

I’m not claiming that I can. I’m just wondering aloud if that’s what it takes to make marriage and parenthood—even friendships—work.

The knitting of this country’s fabric is once again being tested to the breaking point. Like a marriage, we are bound together by ideals and ties that go well beyond our personal inclinations. We are more than an assembly of parts. Just like a family is more than just a room full of people. I doubt anyone is holding the US up as the picture of national contentment at this moment in history.

Our human progenitors may have had the first crack at the human family and the first experiment in designing a great society…but I doubt they had it easy. They had their trials too. Their kids probably didn’t exactly make them look like model parents.

Now when I consider my human relationships, I try not to demand an ideal scenario. Rather, I hope to look beyond the natural disfigurements of this imperfect journey and see the kid inside each of us

The one God loves as His own.

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

High

Hating Libby Lawrence wasn’t just self-defense, it was an undiluted, adrenaline high with a clean conscience. In the fifth-grade, Libby personified a “mean-girl” before the term had become popular. From the first day when she ordered me with a sneer and a glare to sit on the left of our shared desk, promptly told the teacher that I smelled bad, and scribbled a black line through my book report, I knew she and I would never get along. Unfortunately, since I was short, thin, and timid, I didn’t stand a chance. To boot, I stopped growing that year. Thanks to some kind of miraculous providence, her parents moved away, and I started growing again.

But from then on, even into my adult years, the name Libby sent chills down my spine. I tried to control my fury when my brother decided to name his first daughter Libby after some relation on his wife’s side. I didn’t care how great the relation; no child deserved to be stuck with such a moniker. Despite my best on-my-knees entreaties, he went forward with his malicious scheme, but to my surprise, the child grew up to be a pretty decent kid.

Years later, when my dream-teaching job opened up in my hometown, I only paused for a brief moment when my eyes tripped over the principal’s name—Libby Macintosh. Couldn’t be the same. After all, the Libby I knew could hardly control herself, much less a whole school.

I steeled myself for the long-distance phone interview from California to Wisconsin. I had taught five years at LA Unified and felt that if I didn’t get an infusion of the four Midwestern seasons soon, I’d dry up and wither away. I also missed my family and Lake Michigan. What’s an ocean I hardly ever saw—much less touched—to a lake that’s got miles of open beachfront?

The interview went well. Ms. Macintosh was courteous and clear. She had a third-grade vacancy that needed to be filled for the autumn term. She wanted someone with experience who would be willing to take on a few extra duties as need be. The lack of specificity about the “other duties” worried me, but the school’s location—just five miles from my parent’s home and three miles from Lake Shore Drive—attracted me like a puppy to an untied shoelace. Daily runs along the lake and easy visits with my elderly parents would be worth a few extra duties. My spirits rising, I felt confident enough to ask a couple of personal questions. “You’re a native of Wisconsin? Been a principal long?”

Yes and no was about all Ms. Macintosh had time for that day, but she kindly referred me to her Facebook page where we could connect—if I felt so inclined. Picturing myself on the cover of a Nancy Drew mystery novel, I quickly accepted the offer and gave her my email address so she could send me specifics on the school and the position. I would send my updated resume to her by return email. End of interview.

If it hadn’t been for a series of life crises involving a misfit kitten, an exploding dryer, and an elderly neighbor’s cries of distress, I would have put on my detective cap that same day. But as it was, it took me the weekend to get my life in order and my laptop to cooperate. Finding Ms. Macintosh wasn’t hard. What was hard was swallowing back was my horror at seeing those all-to-familiar green eyes, that pugnacious nose, and the jutting jaw that could clip a hedge.

If my mom hadn’t called at that moment, I would have turned off my computer and made a run for the nearest Dairy Queen—despite the fact that it was nearly eleven miles away.

My voice was a slight bit shaky, though I tried to cover myself. Still, moms have a way of noticing.

“You alright, honey? You sound out of breath.”

“I—I’m fine. Just—you know—busy. With stuff.”

Well, mom was never one to mess around on a long distance call even though she’s got a package deal that—never mind. She got to the point.

“Your father’s birthday is next week. And he’s not getting any younger.”

I could clearly drop my Nancy Drew persona. No detective needed here.

“Well, the plane ticket is pretty expensive, and I want to set up a few interviews before I—”

“Didn’t you have a phone interview this week?”

“Uh, yeah….”

“Well, then, just come home, check in on your poor, aging parents, and stop by the school. Never hurts to show a little interest. Besides, it’s a lot harder to turn someone down when you’ve met them in person.”

I pictured Libby’s furious glare framed by flapping, black ponytails as she pushed herself into my space with a whirling fist at her side. Somehow, I didn’t think she had any trouble turning people down. She probably arranged interviews for the sheer joy of knocking prospective hopefuls on their backsides.

“I bet she even sent you an invitation for an in-person interview. They do that, you know. Have you checked your email lately?”

As surprise and anxiety played touchdown football with my innards, my hand reflexively clicked to my email. A cold shock ran through my body when I saw the subject line— Invitation from Principal Macintosh.

I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, but I do know that mom had a list of airline specials for the coming week.

Getting home, celebrating dad’s seventieth birthday, catching up with my brother and his brood of three rapscallions, kept me busy over the weekend. I actually slept for a few hours each night—after highlighting plans for a perfect revenge.

On Monday, I dressed in my most professional, intimidating gray suit with matching heels and I toted my very expensive, leather briefcase. I dearly hoped she was an animals’ rights activist and was deeply offended by my insensitivity. I sniffed back disdain till my sniffer was sore. I had a childhood score to settle, and I had not an iota of an intention of accepting the job. I wanted to see her in person, and after she reviewed my sparking work record, my laudable service in Peace Corps, my glowing endorsements, I would slap her offer into the dust. Only then would I remind her of her left-hand seatmate in fifth grade. And, yes, the past can come back to haunt you.

Why I felt the need to torture myself with a quick detour at the lake, I don’t know. I stood on the grassy shore, sucking in lung-fulls of invigorating lake scent and hoped that Libby hadn’t grown much taller since our last meeting. Her Amazonian height was still an issue to contend with. Reviewing the many trials and experiences I had had since fifth-grade, I wondered—briefly—if I wasn’t letting my childhood mini-trauma get the better of me.

When I saw a little girl and a bully of a big sister pull the child along like a rag doll—my burning resolve reformed itself. No! Justice demanded an honest accounting. I would face this haunting humiliation—or die trying.

Marching up the steps, I passed a group of middle school kids texting one another. I didn’t even shake my head. It wasn’t worth the effort.

I gripped my briefcase, tapped the intercom, got permission to enter, pushed open the wide, front door, charged down the green and yellow hall—my heels clacking officiously—and entered THE OFFICE. It was empty. Since it was going on five o’clock, I hadn’t expected a crowd, but I was surprised by the stillness.

There was a counter with a little bell. I looked around, cleared my throat, stared at the half-opened door labeled Principal’s Office, and tapped my fingers on the counter. Nothing. Finally, in sheer desperation, I tinkled the stupid bell. A call from the office informed me that Ms. Macintosh was in.

“Coming.”

I squared my shoulders and straightened my back. Five foot four inches would only take me so far, but I had every intention of making the most of what I had. Deciding that I didn’t want to appear too interested, I strolled to the wall and glared at the bulletin board.

I heard an odd sound and a horribly familiar voice. “Oh, hi! You’re early. I like that. Thanks for coming, Grace.”

I turned, my eyes lifted high to meet those green orbs, but there was nothing there. Until I dropped my gaze. Sitting in an automated wheelchair was the shrunken visage of my childhood tormentor. I tried to control my intake of breath, but honestly, I could have sucked in the whole of Lake Michigan.

Adding a layer of bizarre on top of my shock, Libby Macintosh didn’t seem even remotely surprised. She just waved me toward her office. “Come on in. It’ll be more comfortable for both of us.”

Since walking was about the only way I could cross the room, and collapsing into a heap didn’t seem like a viable option, I followed.

With expert swiftness, she swiveled her metallic armature into place behind her desk, waved to the empty chair, and beamed at me.

“So how long has it been, Grace? Gosh, it’s got to be nearly eighteen years.”

Yes, my jaw did drop all the way to the floor. Stunned, I could hardly speak. Finally, trying to hide my shaking hands, I squeezed them into my lap, my shiny, leather briefcase forgotten on the floor where it fell when I landed in the chair. “You—you remember me, Ms.—?”

A waving hand and a disarming smile deflected my question. “Oh, not at first. Your mom came by my office a few weeks ago. She helps out in the library, you know. She’s the one who told me that you were looking to relocate. It wasn’t until she brought along a grade school yearbook and showed me your picture that I put two and two together.”

I honestly believe that my brain melted at that moment. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. The impulse to get up and walk out the door was the only idea that made even the slightest sense, but before I could arrange my synapses to fire coherent messages to my skeletal system, Libby chuckled.

With bubbling giggles, she wagged a finger at me. “Do you remember what a brat I was? Gosh, I was terrible. I used to go out of my way to make everyone miserable.” Suddenly, her laughter died as she dried her damp eyes. “But God got my attention.” She gestured to her emaciated legs and the wheelchair in a comprehensive sweep. “Car accident. Just a couple years later. My dad was killed and my mom never got over the loss—or my crippled legs. She took to drinking. I ended up living with my grandma.”

Blinking back sudden tears, I clasped my head with both hands before it exploded. “I doubt God wanted that.”

Libby nodded with a slow smile. “You’re right. He didn’t. But it changed my life. My parents were troubled people. I was a nasty kid, and I would have grown-up to make a lot of people miserable. But Grandma had a faith that could move mountains, and she taught me to use a wheelchair. She also taught me to think about others and to use my newfound understanding to better the world.”

Libby wheeled herself around the desk and arrived on my left. Reaching out, she clasped my hand in hers. “Can you forgive me for being such a wretched brat? I’m sure you must still carry some hurt for the things I did.”

I couldn’t wipe my tears way fast enough.

She scooted her wrecked body aside, pulled a clean tissue out of a hidden pocket, and handed it to me. “I always keep some handy. Never know.” She smiled through glimmering eyes.

Sniffing what was left of my composure under control, I met her gaze. “You know, I came here to teach you a lesson—to show you that I had always been better than you thought. I wanted—” I couldn’t go on. It all seemed so pathetic.

Libby squeezed my hand—comfortingly. “You know, when I realized who you were, I went out of my way to ask your mom to follow up with you. I was so grateful for this chance. There were a lot of people I hurt but thank God, there are a lot of people I help now. And I just thought it would be rather grand—if after our miserable past—that as adults we could work together for the next generation. Would you like to do that, Grace?”

~~~

I worked with Libby for twenty-two years until she had a debilitating stroke and had to retire. She asked me to take over as principal, and the school board unanimously agreed. During those years, and every autumn after, we’d start the term with an assembly, retelling the story of our fifth-grade animosity and how, in later life, we became good friends who loved kids and cherished the future.

In the end, loving Libby was the best high I ever had. I have no plans to come down.

~~~

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

Same Spirit

Mrs. Eula Claymore pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and peered at the dessert tray. Is that a lemon bar or pineapple upside-down cake? Her gaze swiveled around the large hall lined with long, white tables. Some of the elderly customers lingered over their meatloaf or breaded chicken, but she preferred to accomplish her meal—like ticking a duty off her list—and then enjoy her dessert with coffee. She returned to the tray and blinked rapidly, hoping to discern her choices better.

“Can’t decide, dear?” Mrs. Caroline Ramsey smiled graciously down on the old woman as she laid a steaming cup of coffee to her right.

Making a quick grab, Eula ended the struggle. “No, thank you, Mrs. Ramsey. Just weighing my options.” Her laugh sounded hollow. Weighing. Ha! Yes, have to weigh everything these days. The battle of the bulge was relentless.

Caroline’s paper-thin physique and tight smile swayed closer. “Oh, please, call me Carol, everyone does, and it sounds so much more romantic.” She raised her eyebrows archly.

Eula suppressed a snort, tapped her sticky fingers together and considered her baptismal name—Eulamay. With a quick thrust, she jammed the sweet treat into her mouth—and regretted it instantly. Her mouth pursed into the fiercest pucker she had ever endured. Lord in Heaven, where did they get these lemons? The devil’s kitchen? She peered up, her eyes filled with stinging tears. She must have water, or she’d expire on the spot. Unfortunately, Carol had hurried off to another table to intercede in a senior squabble before something got spilled.

“Mind if I sit here?” A large, buxom woman pointed to the seat across from her.

Eula nodded, attempting to stretch her lemon pucker into a smile.

The woman laughed as she pulled out a chair and laid her black handbag on the table. “Oh, you had a lemon bar, too, I see.”

With multiple swallows, Eula tried to eek out a sound akin to human speech.

The woman turned and scurried away.

Eula watched the blurry figure bundle off and wondered if she would have done better to stay at home like her friend Lola. Of course, Lola’s great-grandkids had visited her over on the weekend, so naturally, she would be prostrate for a week or so…. Eula’s thoughts were interrupted as a cool glass was slipped into her hand.

“Here, that ought to help. I thought I’d drink the whole Mississippi dry getting that taste outta my mouth.” The large woman plunked down in the metal frame chair.

Trying desperately not to slurp, Eula drained the contents in unspeakable relief. She wiped her eyes with her embroidered handkerchief and regarded her savior as best as she was able. “Thank you. I was wondering if I’d be left to die.” She waved a languid hand. “Not that it wouldn’t be rather appropriate, dying in a community hall, but somehow it wasn’t what I had in mind when I came this morning.”

The woman’s hearty laughter brought a smile to Eula’s face, as well as turned several heads. “No problem. We older ladies have to stick together, don’t we? So few of us left.” She stretched out a hand and leaned forward. “My name’s Mary Burns from Dartmouth County—off the blacktop at the end of Vet’s Road.

Eula peered up and appraised the woman before. Large, wispy gray hair, an honest, though blurry face, the usual stretch pants and loose flowered blouse—in short—a possible friend. Eula smiled and pressed the offered hand. “I’m Mrs. Eula Claymore from—”

Mary waved excitedly. “Oh, I know all about you. I’ve lived around here nearly ten years, but my husband, Melvin, passed away last year. Lola Kinsman was so kind. From the church—you know. She thinks the world of you, she does. That’s why I came by. She phoned and said she couldn’t make it, but she wanted me to introduce myself.”

Nodding, Eula wrapped a stray lock of hair back into her neat bun. “Her great-grandkids visited Saturday. I suspect she’ll be laid up awhile.” Nodding, she turned and appraised the crowd. “But I’m glad to meet you. I’ve been coming for years, but I never seem to— Anyway, Lola’s always been with me.”

Mary sighed. “To be honest, I’m rather out of place. I used to cook for Melvin and the boys, and there were usually hands and helpers about. Our trestle table would be full to bursting, and I managed it every day, seven days a week, but now, after a little slip and a hip replacement, my sons’ wives have decided it’s too much for me.” She peered around the room. “I don’t particularly take to being served.”

Eula smacked her lips. “Especially not lemon bars that could suck the life out of you.”

The two women hunched forward and failed to suppress their giggles.

Regaining her composer, Eula leaned back. “It’s cataract surgery for me. Can hardly see my hand before my face.” She gestured to the small crowd. “I served most of these people when I ran the school lunchroom. And I managed the parent group and the sewing circle. Never stopped for a moment, except—”

A racket at the end of the hall pulled their attention forward. One of the men stood stiffly, staggered, jerked, and then fell into a crumpled heap. Eula gasped. Mary rose like a puppet on strings.

Carol rushed across the hall, wended her way through the startled crowd, and took charge. At least three people had their cell phones in hand and were dialing.

After the emergency team had carried off the unfortunate gentleman, Carol circled around and spoke with each table. The crowd shuffled away in turn. When Carol made it to their table, Eula shook her head. “Will ol’ Bertie be all right?”

Carol shook her head and wiped a red-rimmed eye. “They said he was dead before he hit the floor.” She peered at them and forced a smile. “I guess we all have to go sometime.”

Eula wrung her hands together. “Bertie was such a fun boy and a hardworking man—but he never wanted to linger.”

Mary sighed. “None of us do.”

Carol stared down at them. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not lingering. You’re living.” Pulling out a chair, she plunked down and put her head into her hands. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took this on. I thought it’d be fun: serving the ladies and gents in the community, making money on the side, getting out of my empty nest.”

Mary tilted her head at an appreciative angle. “But—”

Carol ran her fingers through her short, brown hair. “But, I can’t keep pace. This is the third customer I’ve lost in two months. And I don’t mean that the way it sounds. It’s just…I get to know people, and then I lose them. It feels—useless.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Help me out here.”

Eula leaned over and patted Carol’s hand. “It’s not useless. You’re right. We are living—and dying. Hard for young people to understand, but we’re as new to old age, as they are are to adulthood, and you are to middle age. Same spirit, greater experience perhaps, but encased in bodies that break down and wither.”

Mary wrapped her fingers over her purse and clutched it to her chest. “I know that the gentleman’s death is tragic, but I can’t go back; I must go forward. Knowing that I can join you, ladies, a couple times a week—well, it’ll make the journey less lonely.” She patted Carol’s shoulder. “Don’t fret. None of knows how to keep pace. That isn’t the point, is it?”

After Mary had lumbered away, Carol stood and helped Eula to her feet. She took her friend’s arm and led her to the door. “Will you be able to make it home, all right, Eula?”

Eula pressed Carol’s warm hand and focused her blurry gaze on the woman in front of her. “Yes, I can make it home. See you on Friday—Carol.”

~~~

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

Guardian

I turned thirteen that summer and had my first real job. Well, it felt real, even though I didn’t get paid much. I helped out at the local library, shelving books, cleaning up, and polishing the tables after closing. This was back in the day when libraries bustled with students who plucked paperbacks and heavy resource volumes from designated sections labeled with letters and numbers according to the Dewy Decimal System. They propped their elbows on long, polished tables and turned thin, paper pages. It was old-time, but it worked. My heart still thumps with joy at the sight of books stacked neatly on shelves.

We had a hot summer that year. I was late getting home because the library hosted a big, summer festival and someone needed to put the place back together afterward. I didn’t mind. Shelving, sweeping, even wiping down the tables, kept me busy and at peace. I would stop and flip open an interesting cover, read the first page, and then let the story linger in my imagination. I felt like a kid snitching candy off a shelf, but I don’t think anyone minded. Sometimes my boss, Mrs. Murdock, would smile at me, her eyes twinkling even though she usually kept a serious demeanor about the place.

When I trudged home in that late evening, I didn’t know what I might find. When mom was sober, she captivated the house and neighborhood with witty banter and lively open houses. But when she wasn’t sober, few saw her except me, and then she was anything but witty.

Since money was scarce and taxes had risen, Mom had taken in a couple foreign students to board for the year. Jamal stayed in the backroom on the second floor, while Mr. Chin occupied the refurbished attic. Jamal was young, energetic, and obsessed with engineering. He never talked about anything else, and I wondered if he dreamed science formulas in his sleep. Mr. Chin was quiet and always polite. He noticed when things weren’t right about mom and the house, but he never said anything. He’d just go to the kitchen, make himself a cup of tea, and take it to his room to finish his work.

That summer night, I came in exhausted, longing to collapse on my bed, but the moment I stepped in the house, I knew something was wrong. Mom and my brother, Glen, were in the kitchen arguing. Glen was a lot like mom. Smart and good-looking, he could charm a room full of mountain lions, but when he started drinking, he turned even nastier than mom. When they were both drinking, life turned sour real fast.

I remember standing on the threshold. I didn’t want to go in, but it was getting dark, and I had nowhere else to go. Besides, I didn’t want them to hurt each other. I had always been the peacemaker. Hell of a job.

Suddenly, I saw Mr. Chin step between them and go around and about the kitchen. He was making himself a cup of tea, acting like they weren’t having a big screaming match right in the middle of the room. I thought I’d fall over in a faint. How could he be so calm?

It took a little while, but eventually, Mom seemed to realize that Mr. Chin was trying to get his evening meal. Glen tossed them both a contemptuous glare, grabbed a six-pack off the table, and hustled out. I tiptoed in and helped Mom up the stairs to her bedroom. I knew she would sleep it off. By the time I came back downstairs, the kitchen was clean, and Mr. Chin was nowhere in sight.

I went to my room, dropped on my bed and felt like crying, but being thirteen, I figured that I’d better get a grip on my emotions, so I grabbed a mystery novel, leaned back against my headboard, and tried to relax. Tree frogs croaked in unison like a church chorus, and I could see the night sky filling with twinkling fireflies. My head soon felt heavy and drowsy. Then I heard the front door crash open, furniture scraping across the floor, and my mom and Glen yelling at the top of their lungs.

By the time Mom was back in bed and Glen had retreated to his makeshift basement room, I could hardly see straight. But I dared not go back to my room for fear they would start up again. Stumbling to the couch in the living room, I settled on the edge, waiting. I faced mom’s rocking chair and remembered how many times we had snuggled there when I was little. I held back aching tears and, in time, I must have fallen asleep for the light was off, and I found myself laying on the couch with a blanket over me.

I remember being so tired that I could barely lift my head off the couch, but I sensed someone was there, sitting on the rocking chair. He wasn’t making any noise, just sitting there, quiet, and watching—watching over me. I tried to mumble thanks, but my mouth felt glued shut. Peace settled over me. Someone else was on guard, so I relaxed and finally slept.

It took me a couple of months to get up the nerve to thank Mr. Chin for taking over that night. We were alone in the kitchen in on a brisk autumn evening, and I had settled down with a cup of tea. He sat with a bowl of Chinese noodles before him.

“Thanks for being there—you know—that night Glen and Mom had the big fight.”

Mr. Chin chewed his noodles meditatively, his eyes averted like he was trying to remember. But then he smiled and our gazes connected. “Wasn’t me. Must have been your guardian.”

I’m sure my eyes couldn’t have extended any further from my face if I had been a human-sized snail. “Excuse me?”

He pointed at me with one of his chopsticks. “You have a guardian. Big fellow. Nice looking.”

Whoa! I must’ve paled considerably because suddenly Mr. Chin looked rather alarmed. He waved his chopsticks in the air as if to wipe away my concerns. “I didn’t see him, exactly, I just know he exists. You have troubles too big to carry alone, and someone has been helping you. So, you see, I know by evidence. Someone watches over you, and he must be big because your burdens are so heavy. And someone that kind must be good looking—especially around the eyes.”

Mr. Chin’s face wrinkled in delight at his logic, and I couldn’t help but smile back at him. I never knew I had a guardian, but his words made sense to me.

From that day to this, I have remembered my guardian whenever I’m overwhelmed. I feel a presence around me, whether I’m dealing with old family issues or my latest boss’ antics. I’m not alone, and my burdens are never too heavy to carry. When I imagine what my guardian looks like, I see a man much like Mr. Chin—smiling, making a cup of tea, and quite good looking—especially around the eyes.

~~~

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