Unless You Give Up

Grant dutifully signed the electronic notice declaring that his son was getting mostly C’s and two D’s—in English and Math of course—on his mid-term report and wondered what it felt like to not fail. Not that grades meant everything, and C’s were respectable enough, especially considering Jon’s disabilities. But he could hardly meet Ms. Berg’s direct gaze.

He nodded in all the right places. “Yes, mam. He has a quiet study place. No, we don’t allow that sort of thing in the house. Uh-huh…his sister helps him all the time. Yes, I know. She’s a bright little thing.”

Named after the General who helped to win the Civil War, Grant vowed at the age ten, when he read a biography of the hero, to never drink. But as the Parent-Teacher Conference wrapped up, and he gathered his two kids from the gymnasium, he wondered if perhaps the General had the right idea. After all, why not take the edge off reality?

Judy was a bright little thing. For some reason fathomable to God alone, she never grew beyond four feet six inches, but her brain—as well as her mouth—outran everyone in the eighth grade. Jon respected her academic abilities but hated her bossy “tude.” Grant dearly sympathized.

The drive home remained quiet as Judy was shushed every time she started extolling the virtues of her teachers, her wonderful grades, or the fact that school made life worth living.

It wasn’t until bedtime, while Grant sat on the edge of his son’s bed, folded his hands, and listened to their prayer time routine, that he realized that Jon was upset.

“And God, if you could just make me good at something—anything—I’d appreciate it.”

Grant frowned. He watched as the lanky young man, a freshman whose brain got stuck somewhere along 5th grade, climbed into bed. “You’re good at things.”

Jon reached for a dog-eared comic book. “My dad is still putting me to bed. How good can I be?”

Grant climbed to his feet and stared down at the boy. “What? I just figured that since I hardly see you…what with work and school…and sports…and…” He shrugged. “Praying with you hardly means I’m putting you to bed.” A flush burned his cheeks.

“You think that you have to check on me all the time.” Jon shook his head and slapped the comic book on his lap. “You don’t do that with Judy.”

“I never have to worry about Judy. She always brushes her teeth, puts on clean clothes, says her prayers, and gets up on time.”

“And gets all A’s.”

Exhaustion warred with frustration. Grant had suffered through a tedious meeting at work, waited through long lines at the grocery store, mentally calculated the years until his retirement, knowing all the while that he’d probably die in harness, and blindly stuffed aching loneliness to the furthest reaches of his mind. He started for the door.

The muffled words, “As usual.” stopped him in his tracks. He turned around. “What?”

Jon crouched forward peering at the comics like the nearsighted kid he was. His whitened fingers crumpled the edges so fiercely it would never lay flat again.

Grant stomped back and towered over the bed. “Say that again.”

Jon threw the comic book across the room. His eyes blazing, red-rimmed with tears, and his cheeks flushed, he thrashed his way free from his sheets and pounded to the other side of the room. With shaky hands, he rattled through his dresser drawers until he slammed one open and pulled out a sketchbook from between dingy pairs of socks.

Grant felt his heart racing. His latest story—unsold—sat quietly on a writer’s blogging site with only a handful of comments. He bit his lip.

Jon tossed the notebook at his father.

Too stunned to react, Grant watched the book flutter to the floor. He raised his eyes to his son as he picked it up. Then he leafed through the pages. The pictures were good. Not great…well…there was one. It held promise. Certainly creative. He frowned and looked up.

Jon had retreated to the far end of the room, leaning against the wall. The mast listing to one side after the bulk of the ship has gone down.

Honesty was hell. Vulnerability was worse. But watching his son die inside would kill him.

Grant dropped his head to his chest and exhaled a long slow breath. He lifted his hand in a wait-a-moment signal and left the room. He retreated to his room, picked up his laptop, and returned to his son’s room. “Here.”

Jon glanced over. Bored. “What? A new learning tool?”

Grant felt the smile even though he knew it probably wasn’t showing on his face. He needed to cry too much. “No.” He shoved three plants he had never noticed before aside and set the computer on Jon’s desk. Clicking on a link, he pulled up the writer’s site and scrolled through until he found his name. He clicked it, and his most recent story popped up with comments attached. He turned the computer so Jon could see.

If spent balloons could walk, they would look like Jon as he approached the table, flopped down, and crouched forward for a quick read-through.

But he wasn’t quick. He returned to the top and read the story again.

Grant’s heart clenched so tight he wondered if he was facing cardiac arrest.

Jon’s fingers hovered over the curser at the bottom of the page. He peered up at his dad. “You never told me.”

Grant shrugged. “I’m not very good.”

Jon shook his head. “But it’s creative. I think it’s good.” He pointed to the last comment. “This guy thinks so too.”

Grant swallowed the ache of loneliness and wondered where it was going. He crouched beside his son. “You know, there’s an art site where you can post your work. It helps to get other people’s opinions. Usually.”

“But I fail at everything.”

Grant rubbed his hand across his mouth and smothered a chuckle. “You won’t fail—unless you give up.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Three

—Hill Land—

Not Set In Stone

Lud, skinny but stalwart, watched his eldest son, Gilbreth, as they trudged over flat grassland.

Though small for his age, Gilbreth’s heavy frame gave him a robust appearance. His little brother, Ham, bumped into him and fell backward, sprawling flat on the green expanse. Gilbreth stared at his brother and smiled. He plucked the little boy out of the grass, easily swung him onto his hip, and continued his march. “Ham, look where you’re going. This is the third time you have run into me.”

As his little brother’s dark eyes filled with tears, Gilbreth’s voice softened. “I can’t be picking you up all the time. We have to travel far today.” By the last word, Gilbreth’s tone had lifted to a gentle croon.

Lud stifled a laugh. He dared not look at his wife.

Dinah clasped a hand over her mouth while a grin peeked out from her eyes. She carried her baby, Deli, in a sling wrapped over her shoulder.

Lud wrapped his arm around his son. “You’ll make a good father someday.”

Gilbreth rolled his eyes. “More than that, I hope! The new boys will think I am a nursemaid.” He met his father’s gaze. “Please, keep Ham and Deli away from me when we arrive.”

Lud grinned. “You think I’d be so cruel? When the others see what a good-natured boy you are, the whole community will speak of it. They’ll say, ‘Gilbreth is a boy to be trusted!’” Lud pointed from Ham to Deli. “Besides” —he cringed in mock fear— “what would they do to me if I kept you away?”

Gilbreth pursed his lips, set Ham on his feet, and readjusted the bag slung over his back. “You can at least tell me why we’re leaving. Did we do something wrong?”

Lud glanced at his wife, the dull thud of reality dragged his soaring spirit back to earth.

With an understanding nod, Dinah strode ahead. A sack strapped across her back bounced with each step. Deli swayed on her hip, and she gripped Ham’s small hand.

Lud cleared his throat and clasped his staff tighter. “My father thinks I’m soft in the head because I’m so friendly with everyone. I told him that we want to see the world, but that’s not the whole reason we’re leaving.” He peered into the distance. “My people won’t last much longer. They’ve refused visitors, and they view every new idea with suspicion. They cloud their minds with doubt and fear. Even their blood grows weak because they allow no new members to replenish the spring. They’re dying.” Lud sucked in a deep breath and hurried his pace.

Gilbreth frowned, gazing at his feet as he kept pace with his father.

“That’s why your mother and I decided to leave—so we could join with a different clan. They’re kind, like to travel, and they’re willing to learn about the world. Despite her upbringing, your mother has an adventurous heart. Look at her. Does she seem in the least bit afraid?” A warm burst of joy spread over Lud as he stared at the woman marching before him. “With each step, she soars—an eagle on an updraft—like an old friend I once knew.”

Gilbreth bit his lip. “But will I never see my grandparents or the rest of my family again?”

Lud glanced away and picked up his pace. “I can’t say. The future is not set in stone.”

Gilbreth glanced from his mother to his siblings, grief entering his eyes.

Lud pressed his son’s shoulder gently. “It is hard, but we must grow into a new life or die in stagnant waters. I’d not have you endure such a fate.” Hurrying forward, Lud caught up to Dinah and grinned in her direction.

Dinah smiled back.

As Gilbreth ran ahead, Lud watched him. “You’ll enjoy meeting Eoban. He came to visit just as your mother and I made our decision. I never saw a man so well pleased.”

When Ham tripped and squalled, Lud scooped the little boy into a comforting embrace.

With a harrumph, Gilbreth lifted his arms like a bird with wings slicing through the air. His bag bounced across his back.

Lud murmured under his breath, “Nothing is set in stone.”

 

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Enjoy,

Ann

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter Chapter Two

—Grassland— Begin Again

Jonas, in a simple gray dress with her black hair flowing over her shoulders, cupped her hands around her mouth and called. “Onia! Where are you?” Anxiety fluttered in her chest.

No answer.

Curious villagers weaving baskets, stirring bubbling cooking pots, tending to lines of dried fish, and other daily tasks swung glances her way.

After circling around her large thatched dwelling, she heaved an exasperated sigh and brushed strands of hair out of her sweaty face. Strolling through the dusty village of rounded huts and storage sheds, she continued the hunt for her youngest son.

Several heads lifted. Smiles crinkled in the corners of eyes, and lips curved in response to her plaintive quest.

A short, plump woman straightened before her loom and rubbed the small of her back. “If you find your son, maybe, you could find mine also? Send him home if you do.”

One grandmother called out in cheerful teasing. “Lose that youngest one again?”

Jonas controlled an urge to roll her eyes and merely shrugged.

The old woman pointed south. “When Eoban returns, he’s like the rain after a long drought—they flock to see what he’s brought and hear the news. I’ve seen many pass by this morning.”

Turning her head aside, Jonas caught her loose hair and braided it into a tight bun. She wrapped it with a dark woolen tie she pulled from her belt, squared her shoulders, and trudged on.

As the sun beat down, sweat trickled down her back. Her irritation building to the breaking point, she scowled. When she reached the edge of the village, a cacophony of voices met her ears, deepening her scowl. What on earth—?

Numerous boys and young men bustled around the framework of a new dwelling. Each youth appeared busy with a task. Two stacked mud bricks by an unfinished wall, three thatched a low roof, one braced a stout door, while two others dragged a wooden bench to the shaded side of the house.

Jonas stared, and her mouth fell open. As her gaze wandered, she found Onia, high on a rafter, patting thatch firmly into place. Her lips pursed, and she glanced about. Where is—

Eoban’s voice rose above the tumult.

With a quick shake, Jonas marched around to the back of the dwelling. She blocked the sun from her eyes.

His broad muscular shoulders barely covered by a sleeveless tunic, one hairy arm akimbo, and the other waving like a leaf in the wind, Eoban’s bushy beard moved in time with his words. His face crinkled in a grin. “Keep working, boys. That roof won’t thatch itself. Watch yourself there, son. Lay those bricks carefully. They’re worth all the time and energy it took to make them.”

Jonas’s hand dropped to her side as tension seeped from her body.

“No, be careful there, Malib! If you don’t do it just right, you’ll end up like a man I knew in Asher.” Eoban scratched his beard and propped one hand on a post. “He built his house so quickly; he thought he was a god, and everyone spoke of the marvel. Until the rains came and woke him from a sound sleep.”

Eoban turned his voice high and squeaky. “‘Never mind, I’ll fix it tomorrow.’” His voice returned to its usual rumble. “Then a cold wind blew and his walls cracked.” High and squeaky again. “‘I’ll take care of that in the morning.’”

Eoban spat on the ground. “Finally, the ground shifted, and the fool was just about to close his eyes—when the house fell in.”

The boys chuckled, all eyes fastened on Eoban.

Jonas’s irritation vanished with a laugh. She strolled over to Eoban. “You’re a wise teacher, my friend.” She swept her hand in the direction of the new dwelling. “Have you decided to move? Or do you build with someone else in mind?”

With a teasing sneer, Eoban waved her questions away. “No and no.”

Jonas poked his arm in mock severity, her tension rising again. “Don’t make me angry, Eoban. Tell me, why is every boy, including my son, helping you make a new house?”

Eoban stared at the sky, shrugged, and clasped Jonas’s arm. He led her aside, out of earshot of the bustling workers.

A gentle wind rippled the grass, and the smell of ripening wheat filled the air. A hawk soared across the sky and screeched as it dove toward a grove of trees in the distance.

“All right, I’ll tell you, but I wanted it to be a surprise.” Straightening, Eoban met Jonas’s gaze and puffed out his chest. “Lud and his family are moving here. They’ll be my neighbors.”

Her skin tingling pleasantly, Jonas inhaled. “Lud? And his family? That’s wonderful!” She squeezed Eoban’s massive hand. “I am so glad!”

Eoban grinned, his eyes beaming with joy.

With a quick pat, Jonas dropped his hand and stared over the horizon. “I only hope—”

Images flashed into her mind: Ishtar struggling with Haruz, and then her bloody body sprawled on the ground. Jonas swallowed and wrapped her arms around her middle. “After that awful night, I was afraid he’d never return. You know he only came for Pele. He couldn’t reconcile himself to her death.”

Eoban’s gaze floated west, across the river toward Ishtar’s village. “I wonder where he is now?”

She shivered. “She’s dead, and he’s gone. That’s all we need to know. I’m still frightened by the memory of that night. I’ll never forget it.”

Eoban ran his hand through his thick, disheveled hair. “It still baffles me too. But then, I never pretended to understand such things.”

“I had hoped that Lud would help Ishtar, but he left as quickly as he came.”

Eoban snorted and glanced into the sky. “No one could’ve helped Ishtar. Lud was right to return home.” He shifted his gaze to Earth and squeezed Jonas’s shoulder. “Lud’s a smart man—even though he is too skinny.” A smile twitched his lips.

Rolling her shoulders to release the tension yet again, Jonas faced Eoban. “So why does he want to move here, so near you, of all people?”

Eoban rubbed his nose like an abashed child and glanced about. “He never fit in back home. He’s seen too much, been too many places. He likes to welcome strangers and travel. His people don’t understand. They’re so suspicious. Even when I visited, they glared at me—like I was a monster from the deep. Can you imagine!”

A villager strolled by and waved.

Jonas waved back, glancing at Eoban. “Well, you’ve been known to intimidate even—”

Eoban raised an eyebrow and turned back to the half-finished structure. “We’re lucky that Lud married well. Dinah is a sensible, hardworking girl. They have three children all ready. Lud wants to enjoy the world as a gift, not a threat.”

Jonas chimed in, “A gift from God.”

With a noncommittal shrug, Eoban lifted a load of thatch and balanced it over his shoulder. “They’ll be good neighbors. Obed agrees. He says Lud is a unifying force since he’s been the slave of one clan, the rescuer of another, and a friend to all.”

Dropping the thatch against the west wall, Eoban lowered his voice. “I’ll stay closer to home now anyway. There’s more to life than trading and riches.” His eyebrows danced as his head tilted toward the assembly. “Someone has to train up the youth. Good warriors are good workers first.”

A cool wind swept through, and relief spread over Jonas, relaxing every muscle in her body. Affecting nonchalance, she suppressed an exuberant smile and merely nodded.

A shout and a sharp yelp turned every head.

Eoban jogged forward as a crowd gathered under a hole in the roof.

Jonas skirted around with one trembling hand clasped over her mouth and the other over her pounding heart.

Onia lay on the ground, peering through a mask of straw and mud. He attempted a brave grin. “Just slipped through a little hole.”

Eoban cleared his throat as he glanced from the broken roof to the boy. “Tell me, Onia, do you remember what I told you about laying thatch?”

Onia blinked, his mouth dropping open.

Eoban waved a finger, his voice rising. “What happens to the foolish builder?”

Onia’s eyes screwed up as he recited from memory. “Without a strong frame, the builder builds in vain.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Eoban swiped straw from the boy’s hair and pulled him to his feet. “Now go make bricks.”

Onia glanced at his mother and shrugged helplessly.

Jonas sighed as she watched her youngest son amble off to his next duty, knowing full well that by the time he got home, he would be too tired to be of any use to her.

She gripped Eoban’s arm. “You may have him until noon, but then I need him back. I have work for him as well. And feel free to tell your workers a little story about boys who help their mothers being the best of sons.”

Jonas and Eoban locked eyes in a struggle for dominance. Eoban broke first, and they both grinned.

Jonas turned toward home and peered over her shoulder. “You might want to check this house before Lud moves in, or he’ll be in for a few surprises.”

Eoban folded his arms high across his chest and surveyed his confused crew. He called after Jonas. “They do great work—you’ll see!” He nodded to the boys and lifted his hands like a warrior readying his men for battle.

Jonas walked backward, watching and grinning.

A fresh smile broke over Eoban’s face. “Back to work, everyone. Did I ever tell you about the Sun Keepers? No? Well, there’s a lesson in perseverance, let me tell you! You see, long ago…”

Jonas turned and strolled toward home, her arms swinging at her side.

—Lake Land—

Barak clasped his hands around one knee as he sat on a bench leaning against the back wall of his dwelling. His work-worn, patched tunic and leggings rippled around his thick, muscled body. He tipped his head up.

Brilliant stars twinkled overhead in miraculous glory.

Inside a nearby dwelling, a child murmured plaintively, and a woman crooned a baby to sleep.

Barak sighed as his gaze wandered the heavenly sphere. He whispered. “Aram, where are you now?”

Stretching out, he sprawled on the bench, one leg hanging over the side. “There’s so much I don’t know.” His brows furrowed. “I’m not alone.” He waved a finger at the sky. “Your God follows me everywhere, but He won’t speak to me!”

Clasping his hands over his face, he groaned. “If your God spoke to Eymard and comforted you, why won’t He do the same for me?” Barak ran his fingers through his hair. “By the cat’s paw, can’t He choose someone else? Eoban would make a great leader. He’s forever telling me what to do.”

A soft wind with a spicy, resin scent stirred his hair, sending a chill over his body. Sitting up, he snapped a broken twig off the bench. “Eymard, can you hear me? I can’t lead all these people! If Ishtar can return to evil ways, who can I trust?”

Slumping in exhaustion, Barak lay back down, pillowing his head with his arm and closing his eyes.

In a dreamy haze, Aram appeared before him, standing with a lean, sober-eyed, black-haired man, who looked somewhat familiar yet unknown. The stranger reached out with his palm up.

Fear warring with excitement, Barak lifted his arm. He clasped the man’s hand, and lightning raced through his body.

Jerking awake, Barak bolted upright and opened his eyes.

A pinkish hue on the horizon signaled the start of another day.

—Grassland—

Obed stepped away from his rolled-up bed, pulled an embroidered tunic over his broad shoulders, and let it fall gently over his white leggings. With care, he slipped his feet into a pair of new sandals.

Jonas stood near the doorway, her arms folded. “And about Tobia—”

Rounding on his wife, Obed glared, hot fury flushing his face. He slapped the wall post. “Why are you bringing this up again? It’s the best thing for the boy, and well you know it. He’s too retired and shy. He’s a man now, but he doesn’t seem to know it.”

Jonas clenched her jaw, her lips in a tight line.

“He spends all his time carving figures and dreaming. I can’t find him when there’s work to be done, and when I ask why he’s not at the field, he shrugs. He doesn’t seem to know that we need to work…to build homes…to trade and acquire the items that we can’t make for ourselves.”

Jonas glared, her eyes narrowing as she gripped her waist.

Obed swiveled away and pounded to the other end of the room. He waved and knocked a bowl of fruit askew, spilling a cluster of grapes. Ignoring the mess, Obed refocused his gaze on Jonas. “He’s consumed with carving, and even when he makes something decent, he’s reluctant to trade it for anything useful. He needs to grow up!” Obed folded his arms over his chest in a precise manner, his heart pounding against his ribs.

Readjusting the bowl and settling the grapes in place, Jonas, stiff as a board, choked out her words. “He is doing something important—his carvings speak to the part of us that makes us more than beasts.” She closed her eyes and swallowed. “Onias believed in the value of art. Tobia is following in his father’s footsteps.”

Obed’s jaw clenched. “Since I’m not his blood father, I can’t see his worth—is that what you mean?”

Her anger flashing, Jonas plunged forward. “I never said that! You’ve been a wonderful father, but Tobia is different from you. Even from me. Is that wrong?”

A knot forming in his stomach, Obed shook his head. “You and I hold this village together. What’ll become of our people if Tobia dreams his life away—even in the noble pursuit of becoming more than” —he gritted his teeth— “a beast?”

Jonas lifted her hands as if in a truce. “Stop! Please.” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “You’re right. Traveling and trading will probably do Tobia good. I just don’t think that Vitus is the right man to lead our son into manhood. He’ll never confide in Vitus, and Vitus will never understand him.”

Sensing victory, Obed’s heart leaped. “My point exactly! Tobia has been coddled for too long. He needs a man’s influence. A man who will not coddle him. Vitus knows a lot of people along his trade routes, and that’ll force Tobia out of his shell. He won’t stand by and let him stare aimlessly with those sad eyes, carving useless pieces of wood.”

Jonas wrung her hands and meandered to the open window, staring ahead. “Vitus is not the man you think.”

Swallowing his doubts, Obed hesitated a moment. But as irritation welled, he leaned against the wall and struck again. “Vitus will do more good than you or I. We’ve almost ruined the boy.” He slapped his hands together, lacing his fingers in a stranglehold. “Boy! Why, he’s a man in size and strength, but we speak of him as a child!” Pushing off the wall, Obed started for the door. “No, my mind is made up. Tobia is leaving with Vitus in the morning.” Looking back, Obed felt his stomach crunch. Standing stiff and unyielding, Jonas blinked back tears. With a shake of his head, Obed charged through the doorway and sped through the village.

—Wilderness—

Ishtar halted and stared ahead at a barren landscape. His long, unkempt hair blew around his dirt-smeared face. A rough beard sprouted along his jawline, accenting the hollows of his cheeks.

The sun rose into a hazy sky. Clouds swirled through the red glow of an angry firmament that bespoke of troubles in the heavens. A sharp breeze blew, and a line of pine trees behind him groaned in warning.

His toes bled onto the hard rocky ground. Ishtar peered at his torn skin and clothes—a ragged loincloth and a sleeveless tunic—hung loosely about him as if they might sail into the wild wind. Long strands of hair obscured his vision, but his ears thrilled to the howling wind through the heavy pine boughs. His lean body, sunken to near emaciation, bowed to the tempest. Neither fear nor pain accosted him.

He waited. But death did not come. Pain did not come. Sorrow did not fill his heart. He felt nothing. He cared for nothing. He wondered if he had, in fact, become nothing. Was he a man or had mere shadow engulfed his very being?

Without thought, he strode on.

The sun crawled overhead as he paced out his measured steps. Slipping on an incline, he instinctively grabbed hold of a rock embedded in the dirt to steady his balance. He climbed for time uncounted and, without interest, crossed a flat expanse.

Finally, the fog-ridden landscape cleared. To his utter amazement, he peered across an enormous desert. After an entranced moment, he glanced down at his torn feet and realized with the first tremor of fear that he stood with his toes pointing over a vast and mighty cliff edge. If he took one more step, he would fall to a bone-crushing death.

In the distance, mountains dwarfed the hills he had already ascended. Purples, blues, and pinks vied with one another to create a rainbow landscape over the barren land.

He gasped, sucking in the breathtaking beauty. Tears coursed down his cheeks. Grimacing in pain, he curled his toes around the rocky ledge. Birds, swirling in the heights, crisscrossed one another in innocent delight, dancing for him alone.

Ishtar raised his hand to his face and brushed his hair behind his ear. He stared at the glorious sky, never looking down at the depths that beckoned.

A vision of Pele, her gentle eyes set in her perfectly oval face, wisps of hair swirling as if in the evening breeze, swayed before him. But unlike the birds, she gazed upon his troubled face. A faint message traveled through the harsh wind. “You live, Ishtar. Begin again.”

Ishtar’s heart pummeled his chest. Begin again? He was an exile, an outcast—no longer a man. Twice cursed. Was redemption possible after such a fall?

The birds faded like specks of dust into the horizon as his vision paled into vaporous clouds. He stared into the suddenly clear blue sky and wiped away fresh tears.

He took one step back.

 

Enjoy a new chapter from OldEarth Ishtar Encounter each Tuesday and Wednesday.

Blessings,

Ann

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
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Back to Shore

When I was ten, my mom began renting out rooms to foreign students. Over the next eleven years, while I lived at home, I became friends with students from countries all over the world—Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Venezuela, Germany, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, India, and many others. Each man widened my understanding and appreciation of humanity.

One summer, my mom decided that we (the remnant of my family) deserved a little break. A change of pace. So she rented a little place on a lake for a week. Lake Danoon. It was beautiful, and the first real “vacation” I could ever remember. As glad as I was for a chance to enjoy “free time” without the daily grind, I soon realized that our renters made my life far more interesting than it would ever have been without them.

Three of the guys showed up on Saturday, and I remember how glad I was to see them. Not only did I miss our “Hi, how ya doing?” as we passed in the kitchen each day, but I also missed their presence. Their scholastic-obsessed good sense and hardworking example.

I had, in a fatally flawed bit of logic (given my arm strength) tried to row myself out onto the lake in the morning and did nothing but bump up against the shore for an hour. So when Wael, a Lebanese student studying engineering, Ting, a student from Singapore also studying engineering, and Bala, an Indian student, (I have no idea what he was studying but I knew he was deeply spiritual, making him wise if not brilliant in my eyes) showed up, I grabbed my chance and convinced them to get in the boat and head out into the middle of the lake. With me—of course. I was about fifteen at the time and acted like the cajoling little sister who could do no wrong.

We had a great deal of fun.

Until the boat started to leak.

Then the engine died.

No problem thought I. I have two engineers and a guru. Who cares about a little leak?

They did apparently.

Not one of the three men could swim.

Now that did surprise me. But good sense kicked in, along with engineering skills, and we, (they) managed to maneuver the boat back to shore. Safely.

So when the rental guy came over, I explained about the leak and the engine trouble, expecting him to apologize and show some level of gratitude for the fact that my friends not only saved their own lives but the boat as well.

But no. The rental guy broke into a tirade. For some odd reason, the leak and the engine trouble was our fault. My fault.

Being true to my nature, I immediately felt guilty. Not only had I risked innocent lives on a lark, but I had also managed to enrage a boatman. Sheesh. I hardly deserved to live.

Now I had seen these guys deal with all levels of stress during the time they rented with us. Final exams, being away from family, economic hardships, cultural crisis, so I knew how each of them might react when confronted with trouble. I stepped in front of Wael, expecting him to bellow back at the boat guy. But no. He crossed his arms and glared. Then I glanced at Bala, expecting him to offer some consoling wisdom and smooth the fellow’s ruffled feathers. But no. He clasped his hands and stepped aside.

It was Ling, the quiet and most mild-mannered of men, who stepped up and described to the boatman—in a clear and loud voice—the exact disastrous proceedings and with admonishing finger pointed at me. “And what about her? She could’ve drowned!” With matching glares, Wael and Bala nodded emphatically. That was the crux of the matter as far as they were concerned.

Without further argument, the boatman apologized and offered to refund the rental payment.

My mom, brother, and I returned home the following week, and life resumed its normal pace. School. Exams. Meals with spicy scents lingering in the kitchen. Cups of hot tea shared at the table. Hot summer days. Freezing winter evenings. Holidays. Ordinary realities.

But all my life, I have remembered those three men’s outrage. Not because they got stuck in the middle of a lake in a leaky boat with a kid who couldn’t row herself to shore. No. They were outraged because they feared for my life.

And I was the only one who could swim.

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/2lWBd0z

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter Chapter One

—Planet Lux—
Test a Theory

Ark, his fleshy white potbellied body encased in a somber gray bio-suit and brown boots, stood aside from the main crowd in the domed Luxonian chamber. He blew bubbles through his breather helm, wrapped his four tentacles behind his back, and tried to ignore the bright light streaming in from above. Planet Lux has altogether too bright a sun. They ought to shield us from the blasted thing. He squinted and averted his eyes.

The Luxonian meeting hall, punctuated with purple-veined marble columns and glorious fountains shaped like creatures from every planet in the district, was filled to capacity with representatives from four races: Crestonian, Bhuaci, Luxonian, and Ingoti.

He studied a Luxonian Lightbird sculpture, as it appeared to fly into the air, spraying clear water from its beak. With a shrug, he shifted to the more fascinating Crestonian Sandfish, spouting green liquid from its razor-toothed jaws. A shiver rolled down his spine.

Dragging his gaze away, Ark nonchalantly shifted his stance and waited for his superior to approach. It would never do to appear hasty.

Ungle, a Crestonian with bright red cilia swaying on top of his plump head and dressed in a spring-green bio-suit and matching boots, meandered the circuit of the room with two tentacles wrapped behind his back in a contemplative manner. A third tentacle held a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with blue gelatinous goo. With his last tentacle, he shook appendages—or mechanical armatures—as the occasion required, with various Luxonian and alien representatives. His perpetual smile never wavered.

Ark slumped and caught the eye of a young Luxonian who stared directly at him. Ark patted his breathing helm as if stifling a yawn.

The Luxonian’s gaze delved deeper, his obvious curiosity breaking to the surface.

Annoyance broke Ark’s placid mood. He discharged a narrow-eyed glare at the Luxonian, who soon turned away. Idiot.

“So you finally made it.”

Ark’s head jerked so hard as he twisted around to face his superior that he felt a crackling in the bone holding his spine erect. Blast. I’ll have a muscle spasm from that. He clasped Ungle’s tentacle from which dangled a gaudy bracelet. Ark blinked and swallowed. Better not expect me to kiss that thing—like some weird Bhuaci sign of obeisance.

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh-oh.

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

A Luxonian waiter in humanoid form, as befits the theme of the meeting, and dressed in an embroidered gold tunic and lavender leggings, glided in close. With a bow, he offered a tray of pink, blue, and green drinks.

Ark glanced at Ungle.

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

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

Ungle waved the servant away.

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

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

A bell tinkled.

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

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

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

Ark took the hint.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Ungle straightened, and a hologram of the Luxonian guardian stationed on Earth—Teal—appeared before them. His slim, well-balanced figure, straight light brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and firm jaw emphasized his determined personality.

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

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

Ark wrapped his tentacles behind his back, arched his neck forward, and meandered in close. “Surely, we understand the concept as well as anyone. Why—?”

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

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

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

“So—”

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

“That goes against all his training.”

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

“What do you want?”

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

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

“You want me to keep an eye on Teal—is that it?” Chuckling, Ungle tapped the console. “Not primarily. I want you to keep your eye on her.”

The holographic image of Chai dissolved, and Sienna, a Luxonian beauty with reddish hair, golden eyes, and a slim figure appeared in all her radiant glory on the holopad.

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

“She’s a Luxonian with a healer’s soul. She wants to help so badly; she could do a great deal of harm in the process.” Ungle tapped the screen and Chai, Teal, and Sienna appeared together on the holopad facing away from one another. “They’re each convinced that they know what’s best for humanity. I’m convinced that they have no idea what’s in store for them.”

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

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

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

A new OldEarth Ishtar Encounter chapter coming each Tuesday and Thursday. 

Enjoy,

Ann

“He shook my dozing soul and threw the cold water of reality in my face, so that life and God and heaven and hell broke into my world with glory and horror.” (on CS Lewis) ~John Piper

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

As Mom Used To Say

Richard wanted to kill someone. It wasn’t his usual state of being, but at the present, it was undoubtedly for the best that he stomp into the wilderness and get some space between him and the rest of humanity.

A squirrel scampered across his path, halted, raised itself on its hind legs, and stared as if considering the possibility between a snack and sudden death.

Richard clenched his hands in his pockets, crunched a snack bar in one and gripped his phone in the other. He pounded forward.

The squirrel high tailed it to the nearest tree and clawed its way to the top.

Richard, who normally enjoyed wildlife, grunted and smacked a branch out of his way.

The branch smacked him right back.

The squirrel, chattering from a high limb and holding a couple of notes longer than usual, warned the entire animal kingdom what kind of man approached.

“To heck with it.” His calf muscles burning and his lungs screaming, Richard aimed for a bench set on the edge of the wooded path. As he neared the resting spot, his joints thanking him profusely for the privilege of living through another day, Richard stopped short. A new sound broke through the air. He peered up.

The treetops, devoid of chattering squirrels and cawing birds, had nothing to add to the faint call or whine that Richard was sure he had heard. An injured dog?

“Awww—hell!”

It was a woman’s voice. A woman in pain, by the sound of it. The term “damsel in distress” crossed Richard’s mind. He swatted it away with the autumn insects.

Heaving his robust frame, a little larger in the tummy than he would like, though he had to admit his legs looked great in shorts, Richard lumbered back the way he had come.

Yep. There she sat, crouched like a kid on the playground when the other girls got mean, holding her ankle and…swearing like a sailor?

Richard scratched his head and glanced up. Really? Retirement had been nothing it was cracked up to be. He traveled for the first six months, took up volunteer work for the next six months, and recently got into a tangle with an idiot from his church who insisted that predestination was part of their faith system and would not allow any new members to join unless they had paid-up life insurance policies.

The woman—somewhere in her late forties—stopped rocking, and thankfully, stopped swearing. With a sudden intake of breath, she lurched to her feet, yelped, and hopped on one foot until she smacked into an oak tree, which managed to hold her in a partially upright position.

Richard snorted and practically pulled out his hair as he ran his fingers over the top of his head. So like something his first wife would’ve done. Stubborn as the day was long.

The woman glared at him. “So glad you’re enjoying my plight.”

“Hey, I would’ve helped you up…” Richard looked around. “You want me to call for… assistance?”

Despite an October breeze rustling through the trees, sweat beaded on the woman’s brow. “Sure. My phone is dead as a doornail.”

Richard’s ears twitched. He pulled his phone from his sweatpants pocket and punched the keypad to life.

The woman lifted her hand. “Hey, stop. Really. It’s not that bad. My car is only a mile or so back. I can make it. I hate to have paramedics come all the way out here. I’d feel like a fool. Besides, they might have someone in real need somewhere else.”

Richard stepped forward and shrugged. “You can use my arm if you want to hop that far.” He tilted his head, peering at her, and offered his elbow.

She shoved off the tree, balancing on her good foot, and listed like a sinking ship. “Thanks. My name’s Sigrid.” She huffed at his quizzical expression and gripped his elbow. “From a Scandinavian author…my parents were literary fools. I forgave them long ago.” She limped at his side. “Like an idiot, I decided to get in shape and start jogging, and look what happens!”

Richard nodded. Her hand felt firm but strangely familiar on his arm. He always went for women in trouble. Soft heart his friends said. Soft mind his mother told him. Good ol’ mom. Richard chuckled.

“Am I still amusing you?”

Sigrid’s tone carried an edge, but when he glanced at her, there was a light in her eye and a smile hovering on her lips.

“No, mam. Sorry. I was just remembering something my mom told me long ago.”

“Care to share? I love a good quote.”

“Well, my mom liked history. Made me something of an eccentric among my peers since I would quote obscure historical facts while throwing together financial plans for my clients. Anyway, she loved to remind me that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Sigrid nodded and stopped, catching her breath. “Just a sec. I’m not trained for the hop-Olympics quite yet.” She leaned more heavily on Richard’s arm.

Richard pointed to a hefty tree trunk lying near the path. “Here, let’s stop a minute.”

Sigrid plopped down on the log and wrapped her fingers around her ankle, wincing. “Dang, but I am such a klutz. My daughters ordered me out of the kitchen because they say I’ll break dinner instead of make dinner.”

Richard snorted. Then, as the mental image washed over him, he laughed outright. It felt so good to laugh again. He peered at her left hand. No ring. “Your husband doesn’t help with the cooking?

Sigrid hooted. “Well, that was subtle!” She lifted her ring-less hand. “Divorced seven years. Then, using air quotes, she smirked. “We’re friends.” With a shrug, she shoved the topic aside. “Two college-age girls and a married son. Their dad sees them when he wants. I keep busy with work and—” She rolled her eyes, “Keeping in wonderful shape.”

Confession time? Richard wondered why he felt like he should order a drink from the bar. “Divorced ten years. Retired one year. Two grown sons who live overseas. Do lots of charity work and slowly losing my mind to boredom.

“Hah! You sound like my ex. Always doing other people a good turn but never satisfied with himself.”

Oh, brother. Richard figured he’d cut this short. “I’m an introvert, Aries, non-denominational Christian, and sleep without a pillow.”

Clapping her hands over her mouth, Sigrid nearly exploded in laughter.

Four birds escaped with their lives from the leafy foliage.

Sigrid stood and beckoned Richard with a sly glance. “Come on, Mr. Aries, you gotta walk me to my car so I can get home in time for dinner and tell my girls that I’ve had the best jog of my life.”

Richard rose and offered his arm. “But what about being doomed to repeat history?”

Sigrid grinned. “Ah. But as my mom used to say, ‘Live and learn.’”

A young squirrel, probably still in adolescence, froze directly in Richard’s path. It rose with a hopeful expectation in its eyes.

“Aw, heck.” Richard pulled the broken candy bar from his pocket, peeled off the wrapping, and slung it at the quadruped.

Duly grateful, the squirrel grabbed the treat and sped away.

Richard slipped the sticky wrapping into his pocket, stuck out his arm, felt the weight her of hand, and strolled back to civilization.

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/2lWBd0z

And To Think

Stacy stared at the enrollment form and frowned at the first line. She hated her name. No imagination at all. Her parents might just as well have named her munchkin or kiddo.

Perched on the edge of an icy blue cafeteria chair, she sipped from a steaming cup of mud-colored cocoa. She had taken the entire afternoon off from work just so she could sign up for a night class that would inch her one step closer to getting her teaching degree. Not that she wasn’t already teaching. But only as an assistant. If she wanted the title and pay of a “real” teacher, she needed the certificate with her name on it.

Youngsters looking very much like loping trees bustled down the corridor, talking, shoving, laughing in the way that carefree youth usually do. Conflicts with the landlord, insurance issues, and a steamy romance gone haywire probably didn’t disturb their optimistic lives. Her mom, a couple of good friends, and a decent job didn’t a thrilling life make. She wished she were someone else with a better name. She tapped her purple pen, inscribed with a goofy cartoon character down one side, against her mini-notepad. Nothing new to write today.

She took another sip of cocoa, closed her eyes, and sighed.

Two chairs scraped on her right and an on-going conversation dominated the swirling sounds around her. Two trays plunked down on the table, plastic smacking plastic. A woman’s voice—excited, eager, and determined clawed at Stacy’s insides.

Don’t listen! Keep your mind on the cocoa!  She popped her eyes open, clutched the cup like a drowning victim gripping a lifeline and swallowed a burning gulp.

The woman rattled on mercilessly. “And so—I told my husband, ‘You’re so ignorant, and then I slammed the door in his face.’”

Stacy wondered if it would look odd if she pressed her hands against her ears and started rocking in place.

The other woman’s voice piped up, practically breathless. “And then?”

Stacy stared at her pen, focusing on the inane figure. A student had presented this gift as a token of her appreciation for Stacy’s effort to teach her long division using pictures and creative stories. She knew the child would probably be haunted by math for the rest of her life, but apparently, the kid appreciated sincere efforts. Stacy glanced aside, hoping the two women had evaporated.

The first woman clearly liked bright flowers for she wore an eye-catching blouse that would have put a landscape artist to shame. But unfortunately, her language was as loud as her clothes. “So, the idiot slept on the couch!”

A psychic warrior battling for peace of mind—jabbing at judgments, parrying insinuations, knocking off observations, and blasting conclusions could not have fought any harder. But never the less, a picture of a man’s sad, pathetic face as the door closed on him…and then his drooping figure trudging to a sagging couch and flopping down in a bundle of husbandry despair filler Stacy with red-eyed rage.

A little voice tried to reason with her. You don’t know these people, woman!

She whirled her gaze around the food court. Uncaring neon signs glared back: Asian Delights, Mexican Combos, All American Platters, and a Salad Bar.

Inhale. Exhale. Mind your own business!

Stacy slurped her cold cocoa and then mopped up the dribbles dotting the table.

The lively chatting continued though the voices dropped an octave.

New pictures formed in Stacy’s mind. A shoe sale, something about church services, and a trip to the airport with a secret admirer?

Enough! Stacy jumped to her feet, wondering if it was possible to have her imagination disconnected from her brain. She dumped her Styrofoam cup into the trashcan and headed for the door.

Once out in the late afternoon sunshine, she prompted her feet toward the football-field-sized parking lot. Her car was out there…somewhere.

A child’s scream turned her attention. With a hand blocking the slanting rays of the sun, she scanned the area. There, next to a table and bench on a grassy field, stood a lanky man wearing jeans and a black hoodie, gripping the arm of a young girl in a pink skirt and an oversized sweater. The child struggled to pull away.

Stacy’s heart constricted. She fumbled for her phone, but as her panic increased, she hustled toward the child faster than her fingers could unzip her purse. She halted before the pair, staring or glaring, she wasn’t sure.

The child glanced at Stacy, cut the scream dead, and slammed herself against the man, wrapping her arms around his middle and pressing her face into his stomach.

A burning blush tingled from Stacy’s face to the roots of her hair. She scratched her head and wavered.

The man waved as if conducting an orchestra. “She’s being dramatic. Like always, eh, honey bun?” He peered down at the child, and a grin played on his lips. “Not too happy that mama is taking a class, and you can’t be in on the action?”

“Oh.” Stacy hadn’t a clue what else to say.

The girl pulled away, propped her hands on her hips, tilted her head, and accused Stacy. “You’re a teacher here!”

Stacy lifted her hands in surrender. “Oh, no ma’am. I do help out a school, and I want to be a teacher someday. But right now, I’m just taking classes, like your mom.”

The child nodded in defeat. She leaned comfortably against the man. “Daddy? Can’t I at least draw something? It’s so boring out here.”

Now it was the man’s turn to flush. “Sorry, baby. I left your pencils at home.”

Stacy plunged her hand into her purse and pulled out her notepad and purple pen. “Here, kiddo, take these. You can draw pictures for your mama and give them to her when she comes out. I bet she’ll like that.”

The man tried to wave off the gifts, but the child took them with eager hands and a surprisingly charming grin.

Once she found her car and started the long drive home, Stacy glanced in the mirror and laughed. “Who’s the kiddo, eh?”

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/2lWBd0z