Our Own Way

From ScienceNews.org

“Earth’s climatic future is uncertain, but the world needs to prepare for change…climate scientists also use these simulations to envision a range of different possible futures, particularly in response to climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions. These Choose Your Own Adventure–type scenarios aim to predict what’s to come…”

I am quite convinced of three points here—that the Earth’s climate is changing, that humans are stewards of the Earth, and that we are terrible at predicting anything.

The fact that the climate is changing seems rather obvious in light of the fact that once upon a time we were in an ice age and now we’re not. That we, as human beings with hot ideas and a penchant for making our lives simpler, easier, and more comfortable without realizing the cost, have altered the planet isn’t on the far side of believable. But I shake in my boots when we embrace “this is what the future looks like” scenarios. Not because they couldn’t possibly happen, but because, in a strange way, through our imagining them, we make them the very least likely thing to happen.

That’s where fiction comes in. The power of fiction is not that it simply tells an entertaining story, but good fiction tells the truth through an imaginary lie. Shadows outlining reality. Not how it actually is or is going to be, but shadowing the spirits of heroes and monsters stalking us through the highways and byways of human history.

I’m not suggesting that scientists can’t wring their hands with the best of us, worrying about our great-great-grandkids’ futures, but rather that we should take a cautionary peek inside ourselves as much as stare at threatening simulations.

As a teacher, I well remember the grand conferences where we’d gather in scholarly-bulk and the latest-greatest and most advanced reading programs would be laid before our wondering eyes. After a hearty lunch, we’d head back to our rooms and try to apply our newfound knowledge so that we could enflesh that glorious hope and teach our twenty-some kids to read. The next day, I’d have a kid whose mother threw a shoe at him on the way out the door, another child with an upset stomach, and one dad bellowing about the sports program. I’d scratch my head and pray I could manage to keep the class from breaking into hives, much less teach them to read.

In my Kindle Vella series, Homestead, I envision a rural homemaker trying to manage in a world where technology has crashed, and her husband doesn’t make it home. The key for her, teachers everywhere, and those humans who actually care about the Earth is that in order to achieve a noble end, we have to do a lot of little things right. And they have to be done at home. Up close and personal. Self-discipline married to selflessness.

Kids aren’t so keen to read when mom and dad are having emotional meltdowns. Improvements in the US, China, India, or any other country, aren’t going to happen simply because computer simulations show future generations wearing gas masks embedded in their skin.

The value of a good story, the ones that really stop human beings in their tracks, are the ones where we see ourselves reflected in the cause as well as the effect. It’s not because people are terrible, evil beings that we suffer climate change or any other danger. It’s because we like to travel far and fast, use air conditioners and refrigerators, eat lots of meat, and have our own way more than we care about long-term effects on others. Yes, we can make laws demanding lower emissions and whatnot, but as long as there are black-market buyers, there will be black-market sellers, and so it goes.

Whether we believe in a hot-house Earth, crashing technology, out of control bots, scammers extraordinaire, or whatever nightmare we can simulate, like Rosie, we must accept in our day-to-day lives, we are the homemakers or the home breakers—be it on the ground floor or in the middle of a solar system.

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

Kindle Vella Homestead

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Science News https://www.sciencenews.org/article/climate-change-projections-2500

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/children-future-america-usa-2883627/

New Generation

House, Deserted, Abandoned, Old, Landscape, Prairies

Elmer knew better than to believe in ghosts. But when he awoke with sweat beading on his forehead and the sensation that he had just returned from a long journey through wildlands with only his body and wits intact, he knew that something otherworldly was at work.

His wife stirred at his side. She slapped the blankets, her face half-smashed against the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t get up…too early.”

Too early or too late? He pressed his chest trying to steady his galloping heart. “Hon-honey?”

One eye opened. Not a flicker of interest.

“Do you remember going to a desert town with broken-down buildings and getting kidnapped?”

Lana sat up, groggily rubbing her fingers through her short tufts of hair.

Elmer swallowed the lump in his throat. What happened to her luscious brown locks?

She steered her gaze over her husband, taking the long tour. Dubious. Pity?

His hands shaking, Elmer threw off the wrinkled sheets and stalked to the bathroom. He swiped on the cold water, splashed his face, straightened, and snatched a towel. He wiped the drips running down his baggy t-shirt. Have I lost weight? He sucked in a shuddering breath. “What day is it?”

Lana padded across the bedroom. “Sunday, goof. New Year’s Day, remember?”

An electric bolt sizzled through his body. “N-new year?”

With a snarky laugh, Lana strolled into the bathroom wearing a calf-length night dress that should look sexy as hell, but didn’t.

Elmer stared. Why?

She leaned her head on his shoulder, a buddy-nudge, nothing wifely about it. “You remember the year, right?”

Terror gripped Elmer, nearly closing his throat. “Twenty-twenty—”

“Ha-ha! Got ja!” She smacked him, grinning like a lottery winner. “You had a whole year to get used to the thirties, and now you’ve slipped-up. Used to make fun of me!”

His gaze shifted from his wife to the mirror. Where did these grey streaks come from? His eyes—haggard and…vacant? Lord, have mercy.

Frowning, Lana shoved off and crossed her arms, the tilt of her body accenting the sharpness of her bony frame. “Twenty-thirty-one! We toasted and the VR bots cheered. Remember?”

Elmer slapped his face. “Ten years?” He retreated to the bedroom, marched to the window, and lifted the curtain. A barren square of dead grass met his eyes. Only a rotting stump stood in testimony of past life. “What the—” He turned and glared at Lana. “Where’s our backyard?”

“Backyard?” She tiptoed forward and pressed her cold hand against his forehead. “You feeling all right?” She leaned in and stared deep into his eyes. “Time for your new-gen?”

A chill ran down his spine as he stared at the strange woman.

An elegant roll of the eyes. She flounced to the bedside, yanked open a drawer, and gripped a tube. She shook it, grinning. “You skipped your last dose—see what happens? Bad dreams, memory troubles… You need a pop and time inside.” Swinging the tube, she strode out of the bedroom.

His stomach dropped. Dragging it along behind, Elmer followed like a wary dog.

He faced what should have been his living room—a modern setup with overstuffed chairs, a broad couch, a large screen television centered on the back wall, matching end tables with iron lamps—opening to a large island-dominated kitchenette.

He froze.

Two worn chairs faced a bank of curved screens.

His gaze scraped the bare walls and grey floor. Cold. Dingy. Crumps, dust, stains, clutter. Broken family portraits lay scattered. One oil painting, ripped on the left side, stood propped on the floor, a forgotten project.

Elmer licked his lips. “Wh-where’s the Christmas tree?”

A snort and hollow laughter. “Christmas tree! What the hell is wrong with you?” She lumbered to the kitchen and dragged a chipped cup from the sink. She slapped the faucet, let water fill the container, plopped in a white pill, and watched it sizzle. She held out her offering. “Drink up!”

His whole body trembling, Elmer backed up, his hands raised. “What’s going on?”

Confusion raced irritation over Lana’s face. “I’ve heard of memory lapses, but this is a bit much. What’s the last thing you remember?”

Elmer edged his way to the nearest chair and plopped down, his body conforming to the seat, oddly comforting. “Christmas. We stopped at church for our ten-minute visit, came home, did our family video, then opened gifts. Jason gave us that new Virtual Reality Game…”

Lana sneered. “Ancient history, Elm. Christmas…church—mythology. Video chats for work, yeah, but who cares about family—it’s only DNA.” She wrinkled her nose and held out the cup.

He accepted it and sniffed. Nothing.

She tapped her wrist, bringing the screens to life. Rotating images flashed—a rainforest, a medieval castle, and a desert with broken-down buildings. “Time to get back to the real world.”

~~~

Sucking in a heaving breath, Elmer shot up in bed, his heart racing. He glanced wildly around.

Lana, her long brown hair running riot over the blankets, lay on her side, her face in peaceful repose.

He heaved a long sigh and softly inched out of bed. Padding to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror. No grey streaks. A little bloodshot and brooding, but definitely his eyes. Thank God.

“Honey?”

Elmer froze.

“I’m so tired. Get me that New-gen Marge gave me last night, okay?”

Blinking, Elmer trotted to the living room and snatched the curtain away from the bank of windows. A soft blanket of snow-covered their miniature backyard. The maple tree still standing in the center. Furniture, Christmas tree, paintings on the wall. Familiar. Home. He released a long breath.

“Honey?” Her voice had risen to a whine.

Like a wolf approaching a strange den, he sidled toward the kitchenette. The flash of a curved screen glinted from under the tree as he went by.

A red box with huge letters “A New Generation” screamed on the central island.

His fingers trembling, Elmer opened the box.

~~~

Elmer closed the door, padded to his bedroom, and flopped onto the bed.

Sitting propped against a bank of colorful pillows with a book in her hands, Lana peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I still don’t get why you had to have the whole family over.”

Elmer shrugged.

“And what happened to the new VR set Jason gave us?”

Elmer kicked off his shoes and slid back onto the pillows. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “We don’t need it.”

She shook her head. “Like Marge’s gift?” She laid the book on her lap. “You know, you’ve been a different guy since New Year’s Day.”

Elmer exhaled and pulled his wife close, his passion real and desire rising. “I hope so, sweetie. I hope so.”

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

https://amzn.to/2YFtQ5r

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/house-deserted-abandoned-old-4828660/

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Two

 

NEJustineCh1

For One Purpose

Slowly, deliberately, a light scalpel moved over cold flesh. “Tell me, do you fear death?” Mitholie, a brilliant Cresta renowned throughout the interplanetary scientific community, fixed his companion with a hard gaze as they stood in the bright-lit Crestar laboratory.

Taug, an up-and-coming apprentice, let a tentacle drift through the warm salt water of his bio-suit. His large, golden, watery eyes gazed coolly at the specimen lying suspended in the examination tube. “No. Why should I fear a void?” His eyes slowly rose to meet the elder’s scrutiny.

“Well—” Sensitive tentacles curled about the delicate equipment as Mitholie’s green eyes returned to the subject of their examination. “—your sociological profile says you…dislike death.” The light scalpel cut deeper, revealing bone. Mitholie’s mouth orifice lit up in a pleased smile.

Taug moved his bio-suit slightly nearer, bending over the examination tube. His eyes, lit by the dim, icy-blue lighting, flickered over the specimen. “I don’t fear death. I see it as a waste.”

“A waste?”

“Yes. I calculate waste on how hard it is to retrieve lost data.” Taug sucked in water letting it drift slowly over his gills. “A brain sack once destroyed is gone, forever beyond our reach.”

Mitholie scanned each of the specimen’s organs carefully, individually. “But what if I no longer need that mind?”

“It’s hard to tell when and how something might be useful, or even worse, necessary.”

“You have an…intriguing mind.” Mitholie turned a lump of flesh in his tentacles.

Taug watched intently. “Beyond that, there is a practical reality. I’m neither a trained soldier nor an assassin.” He gestured with waving tentacles, “Like you, science is my passion.”

“Your father’s pet project has been identified—alive.” Mitholie’s eyes remained fixed on his work, ignoring Taug.

Taug slowly exhaled water. “I would say that was impossible, but I know the High Tribunal must be certain or else you wouldn’t have told me.” His mouth orifice remained in a fixed smile. “Is this a favor? Am I being offered a chance to commit suicide before the messy business of torture, trial, and execution?”

Mitholie spasmed, his long body wiggling with glee, “No such dramatics, no.” His tentacles released the delicate equipment; he looked Taug in the eye. “The High Tribunal simply wishes you to…purge your father’s unfortunate experiment. That done, I’m sure this messy business can be consigned to the dark waters.”

Taug’s tentacles curled thoughtfully. “Forgotten?”

“And forgiven.”

“I’ll need its location.”

With a flick of a tentacle to his bio-suit, Mitholie effected a transaction. “I’m transferring the data now. By the way, hiring another Cresta to kill it is…unadvised. The High Tribunal wishes the waves of the ‘humons’ to be kept tranquil, at least for now. Besides, you have contacts? Yes?”

Taug’s eyes moved swiftly, scanning the long streams of data crossing before his eyes. “Yes….”

Mitholie laid down his knife and stepped back. “Very good. I’ll go with you to the harbor dock.”

Taug stepped aside. “Thank you.”

Together they moved down the sterile, rounded, white hallway, deep in secretive conversation. Plugging their bio-suits into the wall jacks, they shed them, and came out on the other side of the wall free, gliding through the dark water.

The human specimen floated in the examination tube, alone.

~~~

Floating in deep space, Bothmal Penal Internment was left deliberately unmarked on any space charts. Its layout was confusing and disorienting; carved from an asteroid, it stood as a grim reminder of what could happen to one if you angered enough powerful beings. Many sentient races held a similar vision of hell, and those imprisoned at Bothmal all agreed that if it wasn’t hell—it was right next door.

Zenith stood beside the docking bay port, scanning a list of names being streamed to him. Long ago, he had been fully human, but the allure of immortality had led him to enhance most of his body with synthetic replacements, including his eyes. He would celebrate his four-hundredth birthday this year, if he continued the practice. A heavy trans-platinum chest guard protected his vital organs. Over this, he wore a synth-weave robe with a hefty handgun resting on his hip.

As the Chief Warden of Bothmal, Zenith knew the tangled structure like the back of his bio-metal hand and had several backup maps downloaded to his brain, just in case.

An interstellar ship, several times larger than the skyscrapers of Oldearth, docked nearby with its boarding tube neatly extended. Only one passenger exited the ship.

Taug moved slowly down the platform, flexing his tentacles in his new bio-suit. Biomechanical three-toed feet moved him smoothly over the floor, keeping his center of gravity low.

“Ah…Taug.” Zenith deftly pronounced the name that popped up in his holo-vision. “Pleased to meet you.” He inclined his head, motioning with his arm. “This way, if you please.”

Taug mimicked the bow and moved silently after his host.

“I hope you’ll forgive us for giving you this guided tour rather than allowing you to down-stream your own maps.” Zenith turned slightly. “Security, you know.”

Taug spoke, his voice synthesized. “I do.”

“You’re here on business?”

Taug’s brow furrowed.

Zenith’s grin turned malicious, “You’re not here to visit a relative…?” 

“Certainly not! As you say, it’s business. I simply need to see if someone is still…available.”

The burly, six-foot human guard was not happy to see the large, soft-bodied Cresta in a gleaming black mechanical exoskeleton lumber toward him. His squint-eyed frown kept pleasantries to a minimum.

Taug strode forward. His tentacles arched stiffly at his side as he assumed the air of a harassed official, which was not off the mark. The journey to Bothmal had been long and exhausting. He hated the tough, unrelenting metallic form that allowed him to move and breathe on land, but he had little choice. Terrestrials dominated the universe. He felt out of sorts and hungry, but this part of his plan could not be delayed.

“I have an appointment.” Taug pinched a computer chip with his tentacle and dropped it on to the guard’s palm.

The guard inserted it into his datapad. Scowling, he jerked his head toward the back room. “Oh, it’s you. I was wondering who in darkness would want it. After all these years, it’s probably not any good. I’d start fresh if I were you.”

Taug shook his head, the water in his breathing helm swishing with each motion. Water dripped down the side of his face. “Good thing you’re not me.”

The guard sneered his reply.

The two shuffled through the doorway into a back room where Justine lay immobile on a steel table, the same table where she had been turned off. Taug stared at the figure and appraised its strength, noting its perfect symmetry and conjecturing on its intelligence. He turned to the guard.

The guard hesitated. “Like I said, it’s probably no good, but if you want to waste your time—”

The guard punched some numbers into his datapad and swiped it with two fingers.

The guard jumped back but threw out his hand protectively in front of Taug. “You never can tell how these things’ll react. She could go bloody ballistic, if you know what I mean.”

“Now, please.” Taug cleared his throat.

Justine jerked.

Taug stood motionless. His eyes narrowed as he studied Justine’s response.

She opened her eyes, turned her head, and stared first at Taug and then at the guard.

Taug nodded. “She is awake. Everything looks fine. You may leave us.”

The guard shook his head. “You sure? She could sit up and throttle you as soon as I walk out the door.”

“Will you throttle me, Justine?”

Justine sat up, her gaze fixed on Taug. “Should I?”

The guard stifled a laugh.

Taug ignored the guard and returned Justine’s intense stare.

“No.”

“Then I won’t.”

Taug’s gaze shifted back to the guard. “Thank you. You may leave.”

With a shrug, the guard shuffled to toward the doorway. “Okay, it’s your neck. If I hear a scream…or something…I’ll—”

Justine flicked her gaze to the guard. “You wouldn’t have time.”

The guard stalked out the door.

Taug stepped back, allowing Justine room to shift herself off the bed.

She stood and appeared to be appraising her internal workings.

“Are you all right?”

“It appears so.”

Taug meandered toward a conference table and a pair of comfortable chairs. “Please, let’s sit. You can hardly imagine what I’ve been through to get here. Interminable bureaucrats…but, never mind.” Taug lowered his stiff body onto a chair and sighed. He sniffed into the breathing helm and allowed the briny liquid to play over his face.

Justine strode over and stood by him. “I’d rather pace if you don’t mind. I’ve been lying around for…how long?”

“Approximately seventy years, give or take, depending on whose calendar you use these days. Since we’ll be settling on Newearth, you might as well get used to their systems of measurement.”

“Why? I mean, why have you…?”

“Turned you back on?”

“I would have said awakened.”

“Yes, I suspected as much. You seem to consider yourself…human. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

Justine did not break her stride. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“I awakened you because I need you.”

Justine paced across the cylindrical room.

Taug’s eyes followed her. “What do you know about Crestar?”

Justine stopped and peered inward. She refocused her gaze on Taug. “Apparently, my databank remains intact. No memory wipe of any kind?”

Taug shrugged. “A very persuasive advocate advised against it. A Luxonian, I believe.”

With a stiff nod, Justine clasped her hands behind her back and resumed a professional mode. “Crestar, home of over twenty-seven billion life forms. A water planet ruled by a coalition of seven leading scientists called the Ingal. Notorious for unprecedented experimentation on other beings—”

Two tentacles admonished Justine into silence. “Stop. You’ve been brainwashed by those on the Inter-Alien Alliance—”

Justine leaned forward, her eyes flashing. “No!” She glared down at Taug. “I am incapable of being brainwashed. Especially not by the very beings that nearly destroyed me.”

Taug nodded. “Good to know. Please….” He nodded toward the chair. “Sit.”

Justine perched on the edge of the available chair, her back straight and uncompromising.

Taug sighed. “You must understand my position. I am a Cresta caught between worlds. I believe in my culture, but at the same time, I fear we are heading to our doom.”

Justine pursed her lips. She folded her hands in her lap, her gaze fixed on Taug.

“I have a plan to assist my race, but I need your help to see it through. During your long sleep, a new force has arisen in the universe. It is called by the remarkably unimaginative name ‘Newearth.’ Do you happen to know anything about Oldearth?”

Justine’s gaze hardened. “I am partly composed of human DNA.”

“That was not my question.”

“I know everything about their history and downfall up until I was shut down.”

Taug nodded and struggled out of his chair. “That would be year twenty-three of what the human remnant calls their ‘Hidden Years.’” He padded to a wall screen and pushed a button. A light flared and the screen illuminated the starry universe.

“They stayed on Lux for forty years, resettled Newearth, and lived in relative obscurity until our leadership recognized an opportunity.” Taug tapped a keypad and the image zoomed through space until it focused on Newearth spinning in all its blue-green glory. “We invaded successfully until the Luxonians took the humans’ part and negotiated a peace treaty called the Inter-Alien Alliance.” He tapped again and the image refocused on a human city. Low lying buildings dotted the landscape, and humans bustled about in self-made importance.

Justine stared at the screen in unblinking fascination.

Taug looked from Justine to the image. “I’ve been ordered to serve in a city called Vandi and accomplish a, shall we say, delicate task. It is hoped that I will learn ways to secure a stronger position for my government in the alliance.”

Justine’s gaze slid to Taug’s face. Her lips stiffened. “I am not for hire.”

Taug shrugged. He flicked off the image, breaking the trance. “I didn’t say you were. I simply have plans for myself…and Newearth.”

“What plans?”

“They can’t be shared at this early stage. I just need someone with your abilities at my disposal.”

“Why?”

“I may be forced to kill someone, a mixed-breed accident, but I’m not particularly suited to committing acts of murder. Especially since no one can discover an association between me and the—”

“Object?”

“Yes, I guess you could say that. Though he does have a name.” Taug folded his tentacles together in a meditative motion. “You see, he does not appear to be a threat at the moment, but he could become one. I need to consider the situation carefully. In the meantime, I must be ready to act—if necessary.”

“What’s its name?”

“He is not an it, though I suppose… Still, I object. His name is Derik Erland, and you are to treat him with respect. He is part human, part Cresta.”

“So, I’m an assassin—again?”

“If need be.”

Justine tapped her thigh as she circled the room. “Why not make it easy on yourself? Give me a description and its location, and I’ll take care of it. After all, you just gave me back my life. I ought to do a little…something.”

Taug chuckled. “You’ll have me convinced that you are sentient before long. No, I can’t simply kill Derik. After all, he may be worth more alive. My father, Taurgon, created him. He believed, quite naively, that once races begin interbreeding, then divisions melt away. I’m not such a fool.”

“So? What’s the mixed-breed worth to you?”

“He might be the answer to every Cresta’s deepest aspiration—immortality and nearly infinite power. Once we are able to successfully graft our intellect onto other beings, we can simply regenerate ourselves as often as need be.”

“There are creatures that do something similar. I believe they are called parasites.”

“Ah, but there would be a difference. We would not simply live off our host; we would become more…a greater being in our own right. We might even rival the creator in time.”

“Who?”

Taug raised a tentacle. “I’ve already said too much.” He rose stiffly to his feet. “I have awakened you for one purpose: to be of service to me. At some point, the High Council might have decided that they needed your bed, and then where would you be? Recycled perhaps? That would be a shame. You have a lot of history tucked into that synthetic brain of yours. You might become much more than an assassin. Again, I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, come with me.”

Taug led the way toward the door where the guard snorted with irritation.

Justine took one final glance at the abandoned, steel bed and marched after Taug. “Where are we going?”

“Newearth. It’s my home for now. You may call it what you wish.”

~~~

“Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” ~Lao Tzu

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Children’s Book

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

Poetry

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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/fantasy-portrait-clock-time-2790666/ 

You Don’t Look Dead To Me

YouDontLookDead

Jack marched over the threshold, slammed the front door with a backward kick, and slapped his phone on the counter. With a groan, he fell onto the couch and buried his face in his hands. Stupid manager! Idiot clerk. How was I supposed to know the kid was lying? Three grand—gone—on my watch. Blast!

Rolling onto the couch, Jack stared at the ceiling and considered his existence. What’s the point? I’ve tried so hard. No breaks. There’s always someone ready to mess with your mind—or break your heart. The picture of his ex-wife embracing his best friend floated before his eyes. He squeezed his eyes shut.

A revolving red siren blared by his window and drowned in the distant cityscape. With a strangled cry, he sat up, his eyes darting around the room like a trapped animal. “I’ve got to get out of here.” He started forward. A magazine caught on his sleeve and flipped to the floor, exposing a full-page, glossy ad. Frowning, Jack retrieved the magazine and stared wide-eyed at his salvation.

Two days later, Jack squatted before a modest fire in an immodestly large national forest. His chin sported a rough beard, and his wrinkled shirt, torn pants, and mud-smeared boots proclaimed their freedom from the usual constraints of formal living. He bit his lip, his red eyes peering intently at the stripped twig bearing his dinner, which he balanced over the flickering flames. Three blackened cinders and an open package of surviving hot dogs bore testimony to his recent culinary adventures.

After achieving the perfect level of brown with only a hint of carbon coating, Jack pulled a white bun out of his portable kitchen sack and sat cross-legged for the first meal of the day. It took three more such examples to settle his stomach into a mere grumble. He rummaged through his bag, grabbed a bag of corn chips, and then snapped open a beer. With a satisfied sigh, he plunked down on the picnic bench in front of his one-man tent and smiled.

A pink and orange sunset melted into the horizon across the lake. “God, this place is beautiful.” He rubbed his chin. “I may never go back. Why should I?” The food, the beer, and assorted mental strains whispered together in conspiratorial tones. Before Jack knew what hit him, he fell into a deep sleep before his dying fire.

The next morning after a quick swim in the lake, a change of clothes, and three granola bars, he rummaged through the glove compartment of his car and found his jackknife. Scuffling through many years’ accumulations of dead leaves, Jack found a small branch with a quirky knot. He snapped off a section, perched himself on his bench, and commenced to whittling.

The sun sailed over the sky. Jack peered at his food bag. Just as he reached for the trail mix, he paused at the sound of angry voices.

A man and a woman clumped down the trail, their hands flailing and their tempers flaring. Jack retreated to his bench and his half-carved bird.

“It’s your fault! You’re the one who said that it’d only take an hour. Now we’ll be late, and Mom will complain, and Dad will hate you!”

“Your dad already hates me. Being late hardly changes—”

The two pair of eyes fastened on Jack. The woman blushed as she came to a complete stop. “Oh, sorry. Didn’t know we were trespassing. Kinda got lost.” She squeezed her mate’s arm like a lifeline.

Jack stood and shrugged. “No problem. The road’s about half a mile that-a-way.” He jerked his thumb to the right.

The man stepped forward, one hand extended. “Thanks. Name’s Jansen—this is Colleen. We’re getting married next week.”

Jack swallowed.

Colleen’s eyes rounded into glowing orbs as she focused on the food sack. “You have any water by chance? I’m nearly dead. Janen forgot to pack the water bottles and then led me on this forsaken adventure—”

“Hey! Not fair. Who forgot to bring the snacks—huh? You—”

Shaking his head, Jack retreated to his car, pulled two water bottles from the back seat and then snatched a couple of candy bars from his food bag. He tossed them over. “Here. You’ll live long enough to get married, okay?” His eyes shifted to the right.

Jansen nodded appreciatively and tugged Colleen aside. “Thanks! You’re a lifesaver.” He checked his watch. “We’ll still make it if we hurry. Come on.”

Jack watched the couple bounce down the road, gulping water and tearing into the snack food. Just as he settled back to his bench, he heard a squawk. A blue jay hobbled into view, a bright orange twine wrapped tight around his leg.

Five minutes, three pecks, and innumerable protesting squawks later, the bird flew free into a nearby pine tree.

Shading his eyes from the sun’s glare, Jack considered the angry bird. “You might try a little gratitude, you—”

A chuckle turned Jack to the left. The oldest man in creation ambled toward him. “Oh, they’ve no sense of gratitude. Not a blue jay. They like to complain. No matter what happens, they gotta squawk about it. It’s their nature, you know, like some people—bitter to the very end.”

Jack cleared his throat, his eyes shifted to his limp food bag. “You need something?”

The old man settled on the edge of Jack’s bench. “Naw. Just a second to catch my breath. This used to be my spot. I’d come up here to get away from things and consider my next steps.” His aged, lined face wrinkled into a wreath of smiles.

Heaving a deep breath, Jack plunked down on the other side of the bench, his hands resting on the knife and the half-carved figure. “I wish I could. No next steps for me. Just retreat.”

The old man surveyed the sky. “Yep. I done that too. It’s a good move—while it lasts. But you can’t retreat forever. You got to keep moving or lay down and die.” With a tilt of his head, his gaze swiveled over to Jack. “You don’t look dead to me.”

Tears filled Jack’s eyes. Snatching up the knife and figure, he set to work.

As he rubbed his beardless chin, the old man surveyed the distant hills. “It was a nice thing you done—helping out that lost couple and freeing that ornery bird. That’s how it often works out. Can’t help yourself, but you can help someone. Makes life worth living.”

Jack’s hands froze. He tried to blink away his blurry vision.

The old man stood and stretched. “Well, this isn’t my place anymore. I gotta move on, too. But stay and enjoy—till you’re ready. You can always come back.”

When Jack dared to look up, a breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and rumpled his hair. No old man. No couple. Even the bird was gone. His stomach growled. His eyes flickered from the depleted food bag to the remains of last night’s charred feast.

He picked up the knife and the wooden figure and stared into the horizon.

Four hours later, Jack steered his car down the road. A roughly carved bird sat perched on the dashboard, its gaze pointed straight ahead.

~~~

A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.

Make the most of life’s journey. 

For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page

https://www.amazon.com/author/akfrailey

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Life and Literature…
To accomplish that which no earthly treasure buys,
A truth of loveliness that never dies.
A collection of short stories to enjoy and ponder.

“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~Steven R. McEvoy

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