I May Never Know Why

I knew Elaine all my life. Like the sister I never had. Yet I could not make it to her funeral. I couldn’t. Perhaps I simply wouldn’t. She had died long ago…

Growing up on the east side, we knew we had it made. Life was good. Part-time jobs were easy to come by, school was never a serious challenge, and there was always tennis, soccer, or long walks by the lake.

I first started to notice a change when we were playing a game of tennis. She was always competitive, but this time a missed shot didn’t just spark irritation, it sparked rage. A repair guy on the roof nearby chuckled when she threw her racket. He sounded like the voice of God coming from a blue sky, “Shouldn’t lose your temper like that, girl.” Elaine looked like she’d heard a ghost, and I pretended not to know what she was talking about when she asked if I heard the voice. I just laughed.

But she didn’t. She looked scared.

Throwing a racket was a little out of her normal emotional range, but fear, real fear took her to a new universe.

I ignored the symptoms. I didn’t think they were symptoms. I thought she was just being silly.

Before I knew what was happening she was off to France to study for a semester. No big deal. I had plenty of studying at home to do. College and work-study kept me out of trouble. Well, for the most part.

But when she came home…something had changed. Her confidence had been shaken. It reminded me of another trip she’d taken the year before on some island or another. She had tried to explain about the people, their lifestyles…how different everything was… But I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t want to. Sounded pagan and vaguely selfish. Not a world I wanted to explore.

By the time she entered graduate school, she seemed bent on exploring extremes. If someone was having a wild time, she wanted to in on it. No matter what that entailed. The wilder the better.

I plodded through my courses and kept an eye on her. But I could not follow where she was going.

One day we walked along the lakeshore, and she explained ever so seriously that she was seeking help for depression. I shook my head. She had not the slightest reason to be depressed. She had a good family, an excellent education, she had traveled far and wide, and she had a wonderful future…if only she would see it.

But she couldn’t see it. She couldn’t feel it. A friend of hers had committed suicide the month before and it weighed on her mind. She was afraid it would spread like cancer. She’d be next.

I told her to shut up and quit thinking like that.

Elaine pleaded with me, stomping along like a little girl. “I need help. I’m sick…on the inside. Medication might help.”

I remember feeling so old. Worldly wise in my vast years of watching family members destroy themselves with drug and alcohol cure-alls. I grabbed her arm and glared into her eyes. “Medication can’t help you. Tough this out. Once you’re on that stuff…you’ll never get off it.”

She pulled away, dragging her fingers through her short hair the way she always did. “You can’t understand. I’m mentally ill. I’m crazy.”

I laughed. “By the very fact that you know you’re crazy, means that you’re not really crazy. In pain. Yes. Upset. Of course. But you can work this out…give yourself time. Not drugs.”

I might as well have been talking to the trees.

Before I knew what was happening, she was on an anti-depressant regime that would have knocked a rhino off its feet. It seemed to work. She finished graduate school without major problems…except for that map-laminating incident.

Then she went to look for work and torpedoed nearly every offer she got.

I took a job in another city and shut my eyes to her issues, hoping they’d just go away. Hoping she’d grow strong again.

She called me one day from a state out west. She was visiting family and thought she had accidentally taken her medication twice…enough to kill her. I told her to go see a doctor. She hung up.

By the time she called again, I was married, had three kids, and she was engaged. We agreed to meet up in our old hometown first chance we got. When we did run into each other months later, she looked very much like the girl who threw her racket across the court. But she smiled when she hugged my kids.

I sighed in relief. Time can heal even the most wounded souls. Even souls that should not be wounded at all. Even souls that appear to wound themselves.

Or so I thought.

The next call I got was from her brother. She had been killed crossing a street. She had stepped in front of a truck.

He wanted to know if I would fly out for the funeral. I was nursing my infant and it was the middle of winter…I had a lot of reasons not to go.

But I doubt I would’ve have gone even if her casket was next door and springtime flowers fluttered in the breeze.

Little by little Elaine had died. Not from childhood trauma, or teen rebellion, or even cultural clashes. Somewhere along the line her sanity, her identity, and her will to live a healthy life had eroded until there was only a thread left. And one day that thread snapped.

I may never know why.

A lot of years have passed…and I’ve never stopped praying for her. For the truth of it is, I now realize, she never really died.

Elaine will always live in spirit…and in me.

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

And Everything In Between

“Being rejected isn’t exactly the end of the world…just feels like it.” Gertrude heaved a long sigh. “Silly of me…to think that…but, you know, it’s…life. Beginnings…and endings.”

She launched herself from her partitioned, tan and grey workstation, pulled on her heavy winter coat, and plodded to the check out counter.

Dressed in a blindingly white parka with a fake fur fringe around the hood, her friend, Kamila, smiled as they punched in their work numbers and timed out. “Got plans for the weekend, Gerty?”

Gertrude closed her eyes, sighed, and then straightened her shoulders. Focusing, she met Kamila’s teasing gaze. “Nope. But I’ll make some. And you?”

Kamila grinned. “Timmy is coming over for the weekend. We’re going out on the town and have some fun!” She did a little arm shake with a hip wiggle and laughed.

A stab of pain made Gertrude wince. Her stomach clenched. “You be careful, Kammy. People get hurt…driving around and partying…you know.”

“You’re such a worrier!” Sauntering out the main exit, Kamila shivered in the cold blast of winter air and linked arms with Gertrude. “You need to have more fun. Besides, people get killed sitting at home too. Heart attacks, cancer, random acts of violence—no one’s safe.” She tugged at her zipper. “Might as well live while you got the chance. Can’t stay at home all the time.”

Her plaid coat buttoned to the top, Gertrude pulled her keys from her purse and punched the unlock button as she neared her Cruise. “No safe place in this world, I agree. But it’s just plain dumb to beard the lion.”

“I don’t even want to know what that means.” Kammy waved as she scrunched into her tiny sports car. “Get a life, girl, not a proverb.” The engine roared and the tires squealed out of the parking lot so fast passersby had to scurry aside.

Gertrude shook her head and murmured under her breath.

When she got into her apartment, Gertrude tugged herself free from her coat and peeled off her work clothes. She stood under a hot shower for a full five full minutes and then dressed in her comfortable well-worn jeans, fluffy socks, and a long shirt. It had a tear at the neck when she had caught it on the latticework reaching for a hard-to-reach cluster of grapes last summer, but she figured that no one would see her and who would really care anyway?

Just as she settled down on the couch wrapped in a knitted blanket, a hot cup of tea near at hand, and a mystery novel on her lap, the buzzer rang long and loud. She glanced up, a thrill of fear racing through her. It’s just someone looking for a donation…or some lady looking for a friend…or—

The buzzer insisted.

Frowning, she set the book next to her teacup, tossed the blanket aside, and jogged forward. The buzzer raged for the third time. Irritated, she swung open the door. “Hey, unless someone’s about to be murdered, you can lay off the buzzer.”

Short and stocky, Ben stood before her in a crumpled EMT uniform, his brown hair disheveled, and a wild look in his eyes. “You’re okay?”

Gertrude scrunched her face like she was looking at a pink armadillo. “Yeah. You care?”

Passing through the doorway, Ben tromped to the couch and flung himself down with a long sigh. He ran his fingers through his hair, standing it up in a scattered array. “Good Lord. You know what you’ve put me through?”

Gertrude blinked. “I. Put. You. Through?”

“When they reported the accident, I recognized the vanity license plate. I called your office, and they said you’d just left. I thought you were with her!”

Gertrude slapped her cheek, all warmth draining from her body. “Kamilla?”

“Burned beyond recognition. At least her car is…it’ll take time to sort through the mess…”

Swaying on her feet, a roar swelled into Gertrude’s ears. Strong arms grabbed her and led her to the couch. Ben crouched at her side and stroked her hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to shock you like that. I was just so worried. There’s been one emergency after another… Crazy days. I’ve been working overtime…” He shook his head. “But when that call came in…I didn’t even ask. I just ran out the door.”

Before she knew what she was doing, Gertrude was sobbing on Ben’s shoulder.

By the time she had a fresh cup of tea, the blanket wrapped over her legs, and Ben’s arm around her shoulder, she had wiped the last of her tears off her cheek. “I must look awful.”

“Not to me. You look just fine. Alive. The way I like you.”

Gertrude dropped her gaze and tugged a loose yarn string. “I got the impression that…you know. You were tired of me. Too busy all the time. Working.”

“You do realize that I save lives, right? That I work hard to earn a good living…so that maybe one day we can…”

“So you’re not avoiding me?”

Ben grinned. “You know, it’d make things a lot simpler if you just ask me next time.”

“You didn’t return my messages…”

“Yeah. There is that. My fault. Sorry. Just so blasted busy. You know…I see it all the time. Misunderstandings. Couples going at each other. Kids wanting to kill themselves.”

Gertrude felt her throat tighten. “It wasn’t a misunderstanding today. Kamillia is dead. I tried to warn her…but…”

Ben harrumphed and clapped his hands together as he sat forward. “Kamilla drove like a speed demon. She was on the track to self-destruction long before you met her.” He dragged his hands over his face. “I can’t save everyone. And neither can you.” He pulled Gertrude into a tight embrace. “But I’m here now and…you know…we might make a life together. Despite this crazy world. Despite misunderstandings…”

Gertrude snuggled into Ben’s arms, her heart aching yet comforted. “Kamilla was going out on the town today…and I thought something in me had died. Guess it shows…we don’t really know. Life. Beginnings…and endings…and everything in between.”

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

Sister-O-Mine

Giles slid onto the driver’s side of his compact car, buckled the strap over his lap, focused on the tight maneuver needed to get into the flow traffic, and felt his stomach clench.

Once he roared the motor to life, gripped the wheel and flipped the music on high, he made an expert swing into the proper lane. His fingers began tapping a lively dance, and his head started bopping to the rhythm. Blood pumped and his stomach unclenched. He grinned.

He sped onto the highway and pictured Esmeralda’s face. Lovely woman. Beautiful eyes. He suspected…beautiful everything. Well, from what he knew of her. Online chats can only take a man so far. One phone call. Lovely voice. Husky…just the way he liked it.

Once at the Millard exit, he turned off and scaled the hill to his sister’s house. Sadie had said she wanted to “talk.” His stomach tightened again.

After he rang the bell, Sadie swung the door wide and beckoned her brother inside with a languid half-wave. “Dan took the kids to a movie, so we have at least two hours of uninterrupted chat time.”

Giles pursed his lips as he slid one leg over the kitchen stool by the counter. “Why do we need”—he made quote marks in the air—”‘uninterrupted chat time’ together?”

Sadie rounded on the refrigerator, pulled out an ice-cold soda, swung to a high cabinet, flipped open the door, shuffled with her fingers, and pulled down a red bottle. After filling two tall glasses with crushed ice, lemon-lime soda, and Chardonnay, she handed one to her brother. She lifted her hand in salute. “Cheers, brother. Do I need a reason to chat with you?”

Giles leaned back, perching his foot on the stool rung. “Usually, you have a reason.” His eyes widened. “Is something wrong with Dan…or the kids?”

Sadie leaned on the counter, savoring her drink. “No. They’re fine.” She looked straight into Giles’ eyes. “As the older, wiser sibling, I just want to catch up with my little brother. Anything wrong with that?”

Giles snorted. “Seventeen months! You’re only seventeen months older, girl.”

Sadie straightened and clutched a platter of brownies. She slid them onto the counter. “Hard as rocks. Wilda made ‘em. First attempt. Not bad if you don’t break a tooth.” She tilted her head. “So, tell me all about Izzie.” Her eyebrows wiggled.

Giles bit into the brownie and froze. They were indeed hard as rocks. He tapped his tooth, laid the brownie aside, and glanced up. “Izzie? Who—?”

Opening the refrigerator, Sadie grabbed a bag of baby carrots. She pulled one out and crunched. She talked around munches. “You know…your online friend.”

Giles’ eyelids dropped to half-mast. “Her name is Esmeralda. And we’re just getting to know each other.” He shrugged. “What’s so wrong? You met Dan through a Catholic dating service.”

Sadie took a sip of her drink. “That’s my point. I knew something about Dan before we met. I knew he was Catholic, and that says volumes.”

Giles grimaced. “Screams loud and clear.” He wrinkled his nose and stared at the carrot held like a cigarette between Sadie’s fingers. “How can you eat a carrot and drink a wine-cooler at the same time?”

Sadie shrugged. “Easy. But don’t roam off topic. Listen brother-o-mine. I love you dearly, but I think you’re making a humongous mistake. You don’t know anything about this woman…and worse yet…she doesn’t know a thing about you.”

“I know she’s gorgeous.” Giles smiled. “I’m not bad looking…What else matters?”

“Is she funny? Does she handle money well? What religion is she? Any ax-murders to her credit?”

Rolling his eyes, Giles labored to his feet and sauntered into the strangely clean living room. He glanced back at Sadie who followed him. “What happened to all the toys…and the mess?”

Sadie punched Giles in the arm. “Listen, buddy, one time you show up unexpected and the house looks unfit for human habitation, and you act like that’s my usual routine.” She eyed him as he plopped down on the sofa. “You still got dust bunnies ruling the roost at your house?”

Giles set his drink on the end table and covered his ears. “Dang it, Sadie. I told you never to mix metaphors in my hearing. You know how that makes my skin crawl.”

“Sorry, Editor. Didn’t realize you wore your English Grammarian badge during off hours.”

Giles lifted his hands. “It’s a curse I’m learning to live with.” He smirked as Sadie sat on an overstuffed chair opposite him and threw her legs over the arm, just like one of the kids. “I know you think you’re helping me out…but I’m having a good time with Esmeralda. It’s a fling. Fun time. Nothing more.”

“You told her that?”

“Pretty obvious, I should think.”

“Obvious to who?” Sadie tapped the rim of her glass. “I know you, brother. You’re still dealing with all the baggage from Janet.” She took a long slurp, finishing off the contents. “You need to get an annulment before you start anything new.”

His eyes nearly popping out his head, Giles leaned forward. “Annulment? Lord, Sadie. A Justice of the Peace married us. I’m not Catholic anymore. Janet doesn’t even believe in God. I don’t think we really need to bother some overworked Cannon Lawyer with the hideous details of our failed marriage.”

Sadie set her glass down with a click and leaned forward. “I think you do. I think you’d be a fool to start anything new without figuring out what went wrong last time.”

Giles shot to his feet. “Well, don’t worry your pretty little head about it, sis. I know exactly what went wrong.”

Sadie held her position. Only her eyes followed him as he paced across the room, turned at the television, and faced her.

“We were kids…stupid kids overloaded with hormones.” Giles shook his head and chuckled, his gaze dropping to the brown carpet. “Your Catholic God is the funny one.” He lifted his finger and mimicked a voice from on high. ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’” His voice returned to normal. “And then He gives us bodies and sensual joyrides.” Giles retrieved his glass and swallowed the last drops. “Joke’s on us—eh?”

Sadie rose and stepped closer, her gaze fixed on her brother. “You got hurt—really hurt, Giles. I know you did. Divorce is hell, no matter what.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Listen to your older, wiser sister, will ya?” She tilted her head and peered deep into his gaze. “I love you, idiot. And I never want to see you in so much pain again.”

Giles dropped his head to his chest.

Sadie swung away. “I don’t care how hot she is…now.” Sadie ran her fingers along the edge of a crib set against the wall. “You know perfectly well, looks fade or get ravaged.” She glanced back. “Remember mom?”

Giles jaw hardened, his moist eyes darkened. “Don’t go there, Sadie.”

“Listen, Giles. Every relationship you have with a woman is colored by every other relationship with women—mom, me, Janet…and all the little flings you’ve had…online or in person.” She lifted her hand. “Don’t pretend innocence. I’m not stupid.”

Giles plunked down on the couch and buried his face in his hands. “Why are you making my life so damn complicated?”

“It’s a sister’s job. Actually, it would’ve been mom’s job…if she hadn’t—” She swallowed and turned away. “Don’t forget, Giles, this gorgeous woman you like so much is someone’s daughter…maybe someone’s sister.” She strode over to an iPhone lying on the table. “These tech toys help us forget—but we’re dealing with real people. Not just names. Not just faces. People someone else might love just as much as I love you.”

Giles rubbed his face and stared across the room through vacant eyes. “I’m not a creep, you know.”

“I never thought that for a moment.” Sadie returned and knelt at Giles’ side, folding her hands prayer-like on his knee. “But you are unguided. You could use some help to make a real relationship work—better than Mom, better than Janet. Heck, she could even be better than me.”

Giles reached out and brushed a strand of hair from Sadie’s eyes. “Not possible, sister-o-mine. Not possible.”

 

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

With Your Help

Leander dropped his head on his hands and slouched on the edge of a metal, straight-backed chair.

The crowded room murmured with low-toned conversations amid a swirl of officious activity.

A uniformed officer paced before him, his hands clasped behind his back. “So you—what? Give online advice?”

The floor, grey plastic tiles with chipped edges and age cracks, offered not an ounce of inspiration.

Leander peered up, barely lifting his head above his hands. Weariness engulfed him. “No. Not really. I just…chat with people and reflect on the state of things in our world.” He sat straighter. “How could that be so wrong? Everyone does it.”

The officer stopped mid-pace and blew air into the stagnant room. “People make all sorts of suggestions—demands even. But few listen. In your case, you were unlucky enough to have someone follow your advice and do exactly as you suggested.”

Leander stood, his hands waving, imploring. “I only said that we should throw all our guns in the ocean…you know…get rid of our weapons of destruction.”

The officer chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. “So this lady gets a group of moms, and they gather every weapon they lay their hands on, hire a boat, and go out…and do just that!”

Leander gripped the desk for support. “I didn’t think anyone would really do it—not like that.”

“Like what—you think?”

“I just wanted to make a concrete suggestion, something people could do to make the world a better place.”

“Drop your assorted guns in the ocean?”

“Out of kids’ hands! Yeah. Is that a bad idea?” Embarrassment, fear, and anger played touch football in Leander’s stomach. “Listen, Officer, I’m not the bad guy here. I didn’t mean anyone should break the law or do anything stupid. I figured anyone who read my post would understand what I meant.”

“You know, when Ms. Stevens was apprehended, the first thing she said was—‘Leander Jones told me to do it.’”

“Oh, God.” Feeling faint, Leander dropped back into his chair.

The officer stepped over and crouched before him. “What—you’re in your forties; you’ve got a wife and kids, and you honestly thought you were helping humanity out.” He stood. “When she mentioned your name, I read through your blog. Got some nice sentiment there.” He stepped away and stared at the wall. “I’ve seen the aftermath of a school shooting. I know what guns can do. I know how—” He stopped and ran his hands over his face. He turned. “Still—fact is—she blames you.”

Lander pulled himself to his feet. “I didn’t say anything that Hollywood stars and politicians haven’t been saying for years. Guns are dangerous.”

The officer pulled out his desk chair. “In the wrong hands. I agree with you.” He sat and glanced up. “So is advice.”

~~~

Leander sauntered over to the embankment and stared at the waves rippling over the lake. Kids and adults hustled between picnic tables, arranging and snatching food, joking, chatting, and having a fun Sunday afternoon.

A man dressed in black, wearing a Roman collar, plodded over the short grass and stood next to Leander, facing the scenic beauty. “Love this view. Trees, sky, and water refresh the soul—” He glanced at Leander. “Don’t you agree?”

Leander’s eyes narrowed. “They should.” He sighed. “But I’ve found that life is nothing but a bundle of contradictions.” He whisked a fly off his arm. “You oughta know better than anyone. Blessed are the poor…riches lead to slavery…good intentions pave the way to hell.”

Father Peter retreated to a log situated on the water’s edge. Propping one foot on the trunk, he crossed his arms over his thigh and watched a flock of geese fly overhead.

Leander faced his priest. “What? No clarification? Aren’t you going to explain that God knows our hearts, and we should trust in Him no matter how wretchedly things turn out?”

Father Peter dropped his gaze and met Leander’s eyes. “You said it—what’s left?”

Leander pounded across the spongy turf and stood before the priest, his hands on his hips. “You know what happened! I gave innocent, well-meaning advice—and I nearly went to jail.” Tears welled. “What that would’ve happened to Jeanie and the kids then?”

Father Peter’s waited. His gaze steady, his demeanor calm.

Leander flung out his hand and waved a finger in the priest’s face. “Really, it’s all your fault! Aren’t you always preaching about how we should be salt and light in the world? What a world!” He turned and paced away. “The other day, I gave a steak bone to the dog, and he choked!” He swung around. “I gave twenty bucks to a homeless guy and not ten minutes later I saw him buying cigarettes!”

Someone called from the distance and waved.

Father Peter straightened and waved back. He returned his gaze to Leander. “So what do you want to do?”

“Do? Duck and hide—if only  I could. But this damned world hounds me. The other day my son came home with a guy dressed like a girl, my sister was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, and my boss thinks he might have cancer.” Leander plopped down on the log. “There’s too much grief and when I try to mend a problem, I nearly get sent to Alcatraz.”

Father Peter shook his head. “You can’t save the world.”

“Save? Heck, I can’t even apply a decent band-aid.”

Father Peter chuckled and patted Leander on the back. “The job of Savior has already been taken.”

Leander pivoted on his heel, thrusting Father’s hand away. “Ah! There’s where we disagree.” His face flushed, he felt nearly drunk on fury. “Kids are killing other kids, drug abuse is on the rise, for all our prosperity—the world’s a miserable place.” He glared at the priest. “Doesn’t seem to me that anyone’s safe—or saved!”

His jaw hardening, but his eyes softening, Father Peter lifted his hands in surrender. “You’re right. The world as we know it is pretty miserable. No denying that. But this world is not all there is. We don’t have to be saved —not if we don’t want to.”

“Stop being so sanctimonious.”

“Stop trying to be God.”

The two men glared at each other. A shuffle turned their gazes.

A little boy hovered near, his eyes wide. Fear scrawled across his face.

Leander closed his eyes and rubbed his temple.

Father Peter crouched and beckoned the boy over. “It’s okay, Davy. Your dad and I are just having a little discussion.”

Davy hesitated, glancing from one man to the next. He finally settled on his dad. “Mom said lunch is ready. Eat now cause she’s not fixing anything else.”

Leander opened his eyes and nodded. “Be right there.”

The boy turned and scampered away.

Father Peter turned to follow but glanced over his shoulder. “Everything you said is true, Leander. You’re not wrong. But you’re not completely right, either.”

A sob welled up inside Leander as he peered into the distance and watched his son tug on his wife’s arm, probably babbling on about how dad was arguing with the pastor. “So what, in Heaven’s name, am I supposed to do? How do I live in this crazy world?”

Father Peter sighed and waited. “Do the best you can. Remember, you’re a man. Not the Creator of the universe.”

Leander shuffled forward. “There’s a new world waiting for us—and God’ll make everything right in the end?”

Father chuckled, patted Leander’s arm, and moved on. “With your help—yep.”

Leander snorted, shook his head, and headed for lunch.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

A Deep Moral Dilemma

So, an old farmer friend called today and asked if I wanted my annual bales of straw. Since the dogs and cats seem to appreciate the snug houses my kids build for them each autumn, I maintained my routine. My friend is the kind of person that I’m convinced that if more people acted like him, angels could retire. Uncomplicated but thoughtful. Honest yet self-effacing. He’ll never take money for the bales. Though, thankfully, he will take jars of homemade pickles, salsa, and jam.

Near the end of our “How’s life treating you?” conversation, which naturally canvasses the weather, family, and sublime universal themes, he asked if I needed any wood this winter. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to say. Seemed like a simple question, but it involved a deep moral dilemma.

When my late husband and I moved out to the country, we hadn’t a fig’s newton what we were doing. We were both city people and the idea of raising children in the country seemed so terribly healthy and right. So—you know—natural. Turns out—it sure is. But nature is nothing to be sniffed at.

John being John, he did all the muscle work, and I did the other stuff. House management. Finances. Kid care. Education. We made an excellent team. We were practically Amish in our desire to keep everything as natural as possible. As close to home as possible. As holistic as possible. We were going to “steward” our world, not destroy it.

After his death, I continued our long-standing traditions. So far as I was able. A few things changed, though. The bees have had to manage on their own, and I’ve about given up reasoning with the hens. They lay wherever the huff they want to and good luck finding the eggs before the dogs do.

But before my friend called today, the kids and I had been watching a documentary on JRR Tolkien. At one point, his son, Christopher, described Tolkien’s severe dislike for machinery, and my mouth about dropped to the floor. How familiar—that sense that man-made takes us away from God-made. Except in the case of washing machines, of course. Washing machines are a divine gift to the human race. Try washing eight sets of kids’ clothes by hand, and you’ll see what I mean.

Getting older myself, and having kids who keep adding years to their ages at an alarming rate, I realized that perhaps our woodstove would become another casualty of “Things-That-Just-Can’t-Be-Managed.” I like the woodstove because the heat feels warmer and because, like the garden, it takes healthy work. I’m more sensitive to the weather and the natural world around me because I have to plan ahead if a cold blast or a storm is coming. The kids have to fill the stick boxes. Wood has its own lovely scent, rough texture, and can smash your fingers if you’re not careful. I wasn’t ready to let the woodstove go, but I honestly couldn’t scrounge off my friend or chop down the scanty woods we have around here. So I explained that I’d love to keep the wood stove going, but…

Turns out, my friend has a friend who sells wood at a reasonable price and even delivers. Reprieve! Tendrils of wood smoke will still grace our chimney this winter.

I certainly appreciate Tolkien’s view on machines…though I’ve made peace with more hardware than I’d like to admit. Still, I think he had a point…and my younger less-worn-out self had a point too. Nature-made tools and materials speak to a part of our humanity that we often abandon for more efficient manmade tools. They demand a level of attentiveness and care that comfort seekers might find irritating.

Yet I can’t ignore the fact that my critters abandon their plastic igloos and snuggle up in their straw bale abodes ever winter, and nothing beats the cheery glow, embracing warmth, and crackle of a wood fire on a cold evening. Perhaps I feel this way because I, too, am naturally God made…

But I’ll still keep the washing machine.

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

We All Have Our Burdens

—OldEarth ARAM Encounter—

Teal rubbed his chin and surveyed the landscape.

The sun shone in brilliant splendor as five vultures circled overhead. The brassy sky, free of clouds, stretched from one side of the horizon to the other. Weathered grasses drooped like weary soldiers no longer able to stay erect.

Standing several feet away from Sterling, Teal motioned ahead. “You can’t see them, but there’s an artisan clan that way.” He turned and flicked a finger in the opposite direction. “And a lake clan this way.” He pulled his lip. “And Neb and his warriors are on the move.”

Sterling swayed on his feet.

Clicking his tongue, Teal strode over and gripped Sterling’s arm. “You all right, sir?”

Sterling smoothed his rough brown tunic. “Adjustment fever. I’ll be fine.” He pursed his lips. “There’s a reason I never wanted to be a guardian. Too much bloody traveling.”

Teal flung his hands on his hips, his own tunic grey and patched. “You travel all over the region—Ingot Magisterium Assemblies, Sectine Ultra Command Accords, Cresta Science Reveals. You even attend Bhuaci music festivals.”

Sterling plucked a grass stem and studied it. “In each case, I’m treated with high regard and fed extremely well.” His gaze rose and followed the vultures. “I suspect they’ll feast more to their liking this day than I shall.”

Clenching his jaw, Teal swiveled on his heel and started to pound away. “First, we’ll visit Aram, then take a glance at Onias, and finally—if we’re lucky—we’ll observe Neb.”

Sterling groaned. “Then will you show me the mineral deposits?”

Stumbling over a tuft of grass, Teal caught himself and cleared his throat. “That’ll be our last stop—before returning home.”

~~~

Aram strolled through the village, appraising the new homes and the layout of the village. He gestured to a youth.

The young man trotted near.

“Tell your father to spread out a little more; there’s plenty of room. We’re not hemmed in anymore—are we?”

“No.” The boy gazed at the landscape. “We have the whole world before us.”

Aram chuckled and patted the youth on the arm. “Well, not the whole world, but enough.” His gaze locked on a man. “I need to attend to business—remind everyone to keep the space between structures wide, so that even on a dark night a drunken man can find his way home.”

Grinning, the youth ambled off.

Aram sucked in a deep breath and marched across the village.

~~~

Teal hid in the shadow of a large spreading tree and rested his hand on Sterling’s arm. His voice dropped to a whisper. “You see how he cares for his people.” He frowned. “But he seems agitated. Something must’ve happened while I was away.”

“By the Divide, these are primitives. Of course, something happened. Weren’t they outrunning a vicious mammal last time you were here?”

Teal gestured to the lake shimmering against the bright sky. “Yet, they’ve outsmarted evil fate and found a new home. Impressive, don’t you think?”

A cluster of children scrambled into camp, followed by a large man with a huge grin. The children ran into their mothers’ arms, and laughter broke out all over the camp.

Sterling blinked. “Wonder what that’s all about.”

Teal chuckled. “Children like to play, and fathers like to tease.” His chest tightened. “Something we rarely experience.” Turning abruptly, he pointed toward the sun. “Let’s go.”

Smothering a suffering sigh, Sterling nodded. They blinked away.

~~~

Teal rubbed his hands together like a man well pleased with a hard day’s work. “We’ve seen Onias assisting in the harvest and Neb marching across the plains—now let’s head west.”

In a hilly region, they stood on the edge of a crater and peered down.

Teal gestured into the pit. “Cresta investigators said it looks natural, but the telltale signs are obvious. Ingots have been mining and, fortunately, they didn’t find what they wanted.”

Sterling shrugged. “They covered it up, so humans won’t be the wiser. What are you worried about? A little foreign mining won’t hurt anyone.”

Teal clumped back down the crumbling dirt. “No?” He plodded to a sheltered spot between two large boulders.

Sterling joined him, standing shoulder to shoulder, staring at a small black mound. “What are we staring at?”

Without breaking his gaze, Teal remained fixed on the mound. “A grave. There are five human beings buried here. A hunting party that strayed too far and paid for it with their lives.”

With a weary harrumph, Sterling flapped his arms against his body like a guilty child about to explain away his misdeed. “It could happen anywhere—to anyone. Humans kill each other all the time.” He faced Teal. “You saw Neb. We both know what he’s planning—”

Pounding his fist into his hand, Teal’s colors blazed. “It’s their fight—they’re humans. It’s not right that a race with superior advantages comes in and steals—”

“You’ve become such a blasted moralist. What’s wrong with a little innocent skimming off the planet?” His gaze flittered over the mound. “I’ll admit—the deaths are unfortunate.”

“They had families—their people will suffer because Ingoti incursions rape the land, and Crestas experiment on their people.”

Sterling clapped his hands together. “You’re hysterical. And, frankly, vulgarity disgusts me.”

Teal shimmered. “Vulgarity? But murder is acceptable.” Gripping Sterling’s arm, Teal glowed like a furnace. “What’re the Cresta offering you?”

Shaking Teal’s hand away, Sterling stomped to an open space. “You’ve just crossed a serious boundary! I’m a judge—and your superior. Just because I was your favorite teacher, don’t assume you can take liberties.” Scowling, he shook a finger at Teal. “I’d hate to accuse you of treason before the council.”

Teal’s colors simmered as his human form solidified. His voice dropped to a stiff, formal tone. “Judge Sterling, I must inform you that Cresta incursions will likely alter the balance of power in this region.”

With a snort, Sterling waved at the mound. “How?”

“The Cresta will use any race they deem fit to further their scientific ends. If they find this planet resourceful, they might influence the inhabitants to protect their interests against the Ingots—and everyone else. Nothing works so well as using the natives to fight your battles.”

“They’d have to manage a whole planet! Cresta aren’t that stupid.”

“They wouldn’t see it that way. They’d simply see an easy profit and an expendable life form.”

Rubbing his hands together, Sterling trod back to the mound and stared at the gravesite. “As I ponder the ramifications, I believe that the Supreme Judges need to consider this situation more carefully.”

Teal’s head dropped to his chest, and he exhaled slowly.

As the pink horizon signaled the end of the day, Sterling sniffed the air. “Someone’s built a fire.”

“Probably making dinner.”

“Yes. Well, I suspect I’ll be dining with the Cresta Ingal in the near future.” Grimacing, he appeared to swallow back a bad taste. “I hate their before-dinner delicacies. But their vegetable dishes are quite good.”

Raking his fingers through his hair to control his temper, Teal forced a placid expression. “You know what’s in them?”

Sterling waved off the thought. “It’s best not to ask.” Placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder, he sighed. “We all have our burdens.”

Teal tipped his head at the obvious.

Looking askance, Sterling waved goodbye and flickered out of sight.

Teal’s gaze returned to the shallow grave.

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

Before the Lights Go Out

Kasandra heaved herself up the ramp and plodded into the back room where various set pieces leaned against the wall, waiting, like the unused furniture they were, for their next big scene.

Allan followed close behind, his dark head bent in thought. The smell of old wood, sweat, and a miracle on the brink of bright lights always sent chills down his arms. He chewed his lip, then peered up at the older, buxom woman. “But you’re great at what you do. They’ll always need women to play your parts—” Kasandra’s abrupt laugh short-circuited his thoughts.

“My parts, you say?” She shook her head and marched with determined steps toward the last dressing room on the right. “Look around, child, and get it through your head that what seems to be is all that matters in this world. Whatever body fits the seeming will get the job done.”

He trotted along and entered the room close behind. “But you’re skilled, and that’s a fact. I wish I were half as good as you.”

Kasandra flopped down on a hard chair and beckoned to the young man. “Get me my shift there on the back of the door.” She pointed to the left. As Allan handed the thin gown to her, she eyed him with a soft smile. “You’re a dear, and that’s a fact. With those blue eyes, firm chin, chiseled jawline, you’re a man made for the stage—or film. Whichever suits your fancy.”

Allan leaned against the dressing counter, his back to the huge mirror. “I’m not special. There’re a hundred guys who look as good as me and can make better use of their arms and legs.” He chuckled. “I’m learning, but it’s a steep curve, and one slip will land me in the mud.”

Kasandra peered into the mirror, dabbed her fingers in cold cream, and smeared it over her face. She tilted her head to get every angle. “You’re a wise kid if you see that all ready.” Her gaze reached through the mirror and smacked into his eyes. “Gain a few too many pounds, get sick, pick up a bad habit…and you’re done for.”

With a shrug, Allan pushed off the counter and sauntered across the room. “Could be true for any profession. Most guys—”

“Naw, it’s not.” She peered back into the mirror. “Well, maybe some. But there’s nothing like show business to teach a person their place.” She thumbed the counter with the flat of her hand. “No place.”

Allan pulled down an oversized feathered hat and slid his fingers along the edge. “How’s that?”

“Can’t hardly be your self. Always got to be somebody else to survive. And you got to look the part and act the part all the time, or your audience will think you’ve gone traitor.”

Plucking the feather, Allan grinned. “You make it sound like we’re prisoners of our profession.”

Kasandra frowned as his fingers played with the feather. “Damage that stupid thing, and  I’ll get hell for it.” She scoured her face and wiped it clean with a fresh cloth. “Prisoners of our bodies, our profession, and our success—if we’re lucky enough to have any.” She nodded to the door. “You better hurry, kiddo. Time and opportunity are passing faster than you think.”

~~~

Late that night, Allan ambled up the steps to his house, strode through the entryway, and frowned at a light glinting from a back room. Stepping carefully, he inched his way forward.

Not a sound.

He poked his head through the open doorway and peered at his father sitting up in bed with a book in his hand.

Allan sauntered forward, a grin warring with a frown. “What’re you doing up so late, da?”

The old man glanced up, startled. He laid the book on his lap with a tired smile hovering on his face. “Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d catch up on my reading.”

Allan titled his head back, considered the cover, and glanced at his father. He turned the book around. “The Egoist?” He pursed his lips. “Thought you liked the classics—”

Da slapped his hand over the cover. “It is a classic. At least in some circles.” He flipped the book over. “It was the title that caught my eye. Thought it might have a few answers.”

One of Allan’s eyebrows rose. “How to be one—or get rid of one?”

Da’s smile reached his eyes. “You’re too damn smart for your own good, laddie.” He shoved the book aside. “How’d it go today?”

“Same as usual. I made mistakes, and I learned from them.” He sat on the edge of the bed. “You remember Kasandra? You know the big—”

Yeah? What about her?”

“She seems to think that as an actor, I’m in for a life sentence—a prisoner of sorts.”

“You think that?”

“I don’t know. It could be true. But then doesn’t every profession make demands, have expectations…I could get fired from anything.”

“True, but not everyone would notice or care. There’s something about becoming a public person that comes with its own set of rules. It’s a matter of trust.”

“Lots of public figures mess up. Sometimes it actually helps their careers—”

“Careers aren’t the person on the inside, son. Don’t forget that. It’s true, you could be a school teacher and get run through the mill, but the public light burns awful bright. It doesn’t care about the person inside.” He tapped his chest and leaned back. “You know, I was in the limelight for a good many years. Cost me more than I care to admit. I got paid well, and I got a lot of attention. But…”

“But?”

“Well, in the end, we’re all going to die and when you get to my age, that makes a person think. If you live long enough, you get old…and hints come along to remind you that we’re not here forever. The lights will dim, the stage door will close, and we’ll have to face what every human being through history has had to face. The great equalizer.”

“Maybe they’ll invent a bio-engineered body when my time comes.”

The joke fell flat. Allan flushed.

“Just remember, Allan, a career, no matter how good, no matter how well you’re paid, no matter how many people tell you they love you— You’re on your own at the end. You better get to know that person…” He tapped his chest again, “before the lights go out.”

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