Song sat at Teal’s bedside, her hands clasped and her head bowed. It was an old room, the remnant of the first prayer-house ever built on Helm. The teak wood window frames, baseboards, rafters, and furniture had ripened to a rich sheen, giving the space a comforting, ever-lasting feel.
Steepling her pale fingers under her chin, her gaze traveled over Teal. After cleansing the body and proper infusions with hypo-static thoughts, words, and actions in order to restore balance to the spirit, her attendants had left her to guard him in quiet prayer.
He lay still, quite naked to her eyes.
You won’t like that when you wake up.
After sucking in a bracing breath, she climbed to her feet and padded to the far wall. Though the temperature huddled close to the Bauchi comfort zone during the day, it often dropped below freezing at night. She selected a forest-green blanket from a colorful selection and carried it to the bed where she lay it gently over Teal.
With a groan, Teal opened his eyes to mere slits. “Song?”
She patted his hand, forcing a smile. “Yes. I’m here.”
Teal grimaced and licked his lips. “What—happened?”
“You collapsed.” Song perched on the edge of the padded chair and leaned forward. “Don’t worry. Cerulean is safe. He is with Sterling and the others on Earth, continuing their mission.”
Teal’s eyes widened, alarm filling them. “Where am I?”
“On Helm. Zuri helped me get you to my ship and we—”
“I must go back!” His voice wavering, he struggled to rise. “Now.”
Song laid her hand on his chest. She didn’t need to press. He had no strength to resist. “You may go back. In time. But not today. For now, you must rest.”
His jaw clenching Teal’s eyes narrowed in challenge. “And if I refuse?”
Unbidden tears filled Song’s eyes. “You will die.”
Teal stared at her, comprehension overwhelming his face. “But Cerulean…”
“He will learn. Just as you did. As your father did before you. We are allotted one lifetime. You can only live yours. Never your son’s.”
Teal’s gaze traveled to the ceiling and stopped, frozen.
Song glanced up. A spider dangled by a web from the beam above. Was it anyone she knew? Probably not. Likely just an honest spider looking for the day’s meal.
A tear trickled down Teal’s cheek. His face as still as carven stone.
Song stood, her long red dress sweeping over the flagstone floor. “Sterling must lead, and Cerulean will follow. They have much to teach each other.”
With almost imperceptible shake of his head, Teal continued to focus on the ceiling.
“Though I have never given birth in flesh and blood, I have mothered many. The hardest part of love is not holding a dear one close, it is letting them go.”
Song reached the doorway when she heard his raspy response.
As a kid, I knew my mind. I honestly believed I had a mind. But as the world turns on its axis, seasons change, and all forms of world leadership, pundits, and professionals offer their expertise, speeding through high-tech revolving doors, I find that my mind isn’t always my own.
Pursuing academic excellence is a fantastic way to lose one’s mind. But don’t stop there. Try marriage, parenting, and—goodness knows—volunteer service does wonders for one’s “I don’t know what I was thinking” mindset.
School days taught me to think. To read different resources. To consider various points of view. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a comparative religions class in my Catholic high school wondering if the teacher believed in anything at all. Respect implied an open mind to every question. An honest consideration that the presented view could possibly be the right one. Then they send in the next contestant. And so, on it went. Historical perspectives. Religious tenants. Persecution complexes. Vapid voyeurism. Collections and chapters detailing human interactions—interior thoughts and earthly battlegrounds—all striving to touch the finger of God.
Marriage snaps the sinews of personhood, demanding a level of “us-ness” that no one can properly prepare for no matter what bride magazine one subscribes to. Right after impassioned vows charges the inner-scream-crisis between self and self-denial. Have a mind-full opinion? Certainly. But share cautiously.
Parenting starts with euphoria, travels through exhaustion, canters about introspection, chokes out, “I don’t know” well before the kids’ reach their teen years, and sits humbly on a kitchen chair while family and friends illuminate what they can’t possibly see.
Volunteer service offers a nice platform to rest wounded egos and tired minds. After all, what could possibly go wrong? Between serving in Chicago’s inner city, a barrio in the Philippines, various pro-life adventures, and community opportunities, I’ve discovered that mindfulness abounds in every situation. To serve with a mind is one thing. To serve with the heart—quite another.
I’ve often wondered, who needs to have a mind when there are so many to choose from? As for the heart, well, it breaks all too easily.
Last night, I received a call from a woman who is arranging her mother’s funeral, and she had questions about the burial details. As the secretary for the local cemetery, I answered what I could and directed her to other resources when necessary. This morning, a funeral home called with information concerning another burial this weekend. The name rings familiar though I don’t know the man who died. He was a friend of a friend, his passing a loss to many.
When I accepted this position last year, I had no idea of what I was getting into. The logistics seemed simple enough. How hard can it be to bury a body? Little did I know. Seriously. We humans have an absolute knack for confusing ourselves and losing our loved ones. From attempting to locate bodies in unmarked graves using witching sticks (Not my idea—but certainly an experience I won’t soon forget) to submitting accurate records to the state of Illinois, I have learned the value of various kinds of knowledge.
My predecessor helps me with the records and relations between folks. The who’s who and how to negotiate unexpected inquiries. How many bodies can be buried in a site? Two—if they are cremations. And, yes, sometimes people are buried in the wrong place, stones reflect broken family connections, and the rows aren’t always straight.
The grave digger offers his expertise—allowing me the security of double-checking my records and getting the facts, if not the lines, straight. No, bodies aren’t buried six feet under. Cremations can be hard to detect even a day later, and mounds over a full grave can linger for years.
In the end, literally and figuratively, I have discovered that though knowledge of the facts may be etched in stone and measured in records, it is the heartfelt memories that hold folks together—inside and out. The truest truth of a person isn’t detailed in words or numbers, it is shaped in lives. Those we know and those who know us through others, down through uncountable generations. DNA and the embodiment of the soul start a winding process that bends through dates, events, joys, and sorrows right into personhood.
The truth of who I am involves my mind, but it doesn’t end there. I am not what I think or who I know. More than tears, screams of frustration, cries of delight, or even laughter, I find myself concerned less with the content of my mind than the character of my heart. Or should I say characters… No man, woman, child, critter, or composition has left me untouched. I am chiseled and etched by the God who made me and the personalities of this world—now and forevermore.
Kiara loved the sound of the wind rushing through the woodland. Earthy and rustic, it spoke of invisible worlds and steadfast powers beyond human control. Blades of spring grass poked up from last winter’s mulch, and buds swelled in the promise of better things to come. She sighed. If only…
The sun had crested over an hour ago, and she must return to her apartment, then off to her shrill, insistent work place, always maintaining a calm, professional demeanor.
A redbird alighted on a fence post, chirping an attractive, lilting tune. Why can’t I be a bird?
Her sister’s voice. Myra always knew where to look.
Kiara stepped from the shadows into the field. “Yes?”
“There you are!” Myra jogged forward. “Let’s go to the lake. Mother left a cold supper in the kitchen, and the boys won’t be back for another couple of hours.”
A thrill ignited Kiara’s imagination. “You think we could?” Doubt quickly cooled the spark to mere ash. “But I should prepare for—”
“Another workday?” Myra gripped her sister’s arm and tugged. “You’re always working, and when you die, your spirit will float about this beautiful planet, wondering why you ever lived.”
Aching pressure surged against an inner wall, splashing over the ramparts. Tears filled Kiara’s eyes.
The two women stood on the rocky shore, surrounded by cliffs held together by a phalanx of trees, ripples scurrying across the blue-green water.
A tall, lean man strolled toward them, waves splashing his toes.
Shock filled Kiara as she stared wide-eyed. “What’s Jagan doing here?”
Myra kept her eyes glued to the horizon. “Does he have to have a reason?”
Images of the muddy water, floating debris, homes half-submerged in the flooded plain filled her mind. So many had lost loved ones in the disaster. The funerals never seemed to end. Then they did, and everyone returned to work and normal lives.
Normal? What does that mean? “I thought he moved up north, away from—”
Myra shot her a glance. “He did. But now he’s back.”
“He doesn’t have family here. Not anymore.”
Scuffing a bare toe against a smooth rock, Myra rubbed a fish-shaped pendant hanging around her neck. “Doesn’t he?”
With a snort, Kiara tossed her head.
Jagan stopped and nodded. His eyes reflected grief mingled with endurance. “I was down the shore and saw you; hope I’m not interrupting.”
Myra hugged her sister’s arm. “Of course not. Mother has made enough supper for a spring festival; come and join us. The boys would love to see you. They’ve been working on a kite.”
His gaze glancing off Kiara, Jagan waited.
Words tumbled from Kiara’s lips before she knew what she was about. “Certainly. Come and be welcome. I have to return to work so someone should enjoy—” What? Life? She blushed in confusion.
Ignoring the unfinished thought, Jagan fell in step between the two women as they headed back to a small blue Honda. “You’re still at the same place?”
Kiara nodded. “Same work. Same family. Same everything.”
Myra’s tiny head shake obliterated the lie. The tiny woman pulled out her keys and slid into the driver’s seat. “You two sit in back and don’t tell me how to drive.”
After supper, Jagan met Kiara in the kitchen as she wiped the wooden table free of spots and crumbs. He tugged a towel off the rack and started drying the dishes. “Keeping busy helps, doesn’t it?”
Her throat tightening, Kiara kept her gaze glued to the polished surface.
“I moved away. Thought I’d find peace if I didn’t have to run into a memory every time I turned around.”
The distant sound of rumbling thunder echoed off the hills. “But now you’ve returned. For good?”
He smiled and lifted the clean stack of plates onto the middle shelf. “For good? That’s funny. I hardly know.”
With a shrug, Kiara dismissed his honesty. “I like to keep busy. Productive.” She squeezed the sponge and laid it neatly on the soap dish. “Not a problem.”
Jagan leaned against the sink and nodded. “That’s good. I hated it when I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Just a vague unease, like something was supposed to be inside of me that wasn’t.”
The wind picked up, and branches swished against each other, groaning in stormy delight.
A shiver ran down Kiara’s arms. “I should’ve headed back to my apartment this afternoon, but I got caught up in the spring sunshine. And Myra and mom wanted…you know.” She sighed. “I’ll have to get up extra early tomorrow to make the drive if I want to get to work on time and do stuff.”
With a playful twinkle, Jagan twitched the towel at Kiara. “Love doing stuff, do ya?”
Laughter bubbled inside Kiara. “You betcha! The more stuff the better! I’m one of the best stuffers—” Suddenly, as if she had been stripped of every article of clothing like in a horrible nightmare, left without a single defense, choking tears killed all joy.
Jagan didn’t ask. He simply took her in his arms and held her. Softly, without possession, advice, or comment.
Her tears stained his brown shirt, but she couldn’t stop them. She hung on and let the tears do their work. After a deep calming breath, she pulled away. “I still have to go tomorrow.”
He nodded. “And you’ll manage another productive day.”
“I will.” She looked up and met his eyes. “And you?”
“I’m home now. Grief can find me whether I work or play.”
Rain pounded the roof and beaded the window. A breeze sashayed into the kitchen.
“I wish I were a bird…”
Jagan took her hand, led her to the doorway, and flung open the door. Messy drops drizzled and splattered.
He pointed to the treetops where a nest swayed in the wind.
Queasiness unsettled Kiara’s balance. “How do they stand it?”
He gripped her hand tighter. “It’s home.”
“The place where you face life’s storms.”
As the drops slowed, Kiara relaxed, peace enveloping her. Home isn’t a place. It’s a presence. For the first time in forever, her soul flew.
Song, in her petite elven form, wearing a dark green tunic over grey leggings, strolled along the wooded glen, soft brown soil cushioning each step while pink blossoms waved in a gentle breeze. She stopped and breathed in the deliciously sweet scent of spring.
Butterflies sailed by as birds twittered from the branches: bluebirds, redhearts, and goldenhues. Even a pair of orangefires insisted on wishing her a good morning.
She smiled and bowed in the accustomed greeting between Bhuac and natures’ citizens.
A fierce greenhawk swooped in and, with its large bulky body, bristled, sending the gentler folk into a frightened frenzy. The joy-filled chirping turned to cawing and sharp screams of distress.
Her heart twisting, Song watched, helpless to alter the scene for though she ruled the planet, her influence in the wild only reached so far.
Pounding steps along the wooded path, turned her attention. A figure jogged forward, long black hair flowing over thin shoulders, clear eyes narrowed in concentration. A strong woman suffering from unaccustomed weakness.
Slapping her hand against her chest, the woman came to a skidding halt before Song, heaving deep to catch her breath. “They’re going back!”
Her heart clenched; Song froze. As if understanding the gravity of the moment, the feathered feud ceased, and silence descended. Only the sun continued to shine unabated. With a start, Song realized that she could not sense a thing. Even the ground under her feet had fallen away.
“Did you hear me?” The woman drew closer, her hand reaching, whether to awaken her mentor or grasp at needed strength, neither could guess.
Song nodded. “I heard.” She forced a calm smile. “It is good to see you again, Kelesta. Where is your husband and daughter?”
A darted glance at the sky and a facial spasm spoke louder than words. “They’ve gone too.” Her gaze fell. “Ark passed on and his son, Tarragon is taking his place.” She straightened her shoulders. “Teal is sick, and Sterling is…preoccupied. A Luxonian named Mauve has stolen his heart.” She sucked in a deep breath, readying herself for painful truth-telling. “Zuri wants to teach Nova about humanity’s true nature. Perhaps make room in her soul for—” Kelesta flapped her arms like a bird perched on the edge of flight. “Something.” She shrugged. “She certainly isn’t interested in me.”
Caught in a snare that had held her for much too long, Song wrapped her arm around the young Bauchi woman. “She loves you—she just doesn’t know it yet.”
With a muffled sob against the older woman’s shoulder, Kelesta gave way to tears. “She can’t love someone she doesn’t know. She refuses to even consider what Zuri and I offer.”
The sun, still on its ascent, shone bright from the clear golden sky. “Let’s return and have a morning cup with biscuits and honey-jam. You’ve come home just in time to help me face the coming storm. Humanity measures time in such small increments; they do not see the landscape of their days. They are about to undergo a momentous change, and they have no idea of the long-range repercussions.”
“But what about Zuri and Nova—and all the rest?”
Song took Kelesta’s hand and started down the path, her feet padding on the soft, springing soil. “They must learn too. It is what all the living must do or else die in stagnation.”
Kelesta brushed a low hanging branch out of her way, pink blossoms falling on the path, as she kept in step with Song. “But what if she learns the wrong lesson and refuses her father and me? What if we lose our daughter?”
Tears aching behind her eyes, Song looked to the trees and silently beckoned to the birds. Give me strength. “It is the highest praise of our creator to give us freedom.” She squeezed her friend’s hand as the birds burst into fresh song. “It is our trial to endure whatever they choose.”
Tarragon blinked in the blinding laboratory light, lifted a scalpel, and faced his father who lay still as a petrified tree on the table. “This won’t hurt much. I just need to get a proper sample to see what we’re dealing with.” He grinned. “You don’t mind?”
Ark huffed. “I’m not going anywhere on these blasted feet.” He flapped one tentacle. “Can’t even swim with all the pain.” He lifted his head and scowled at his son. “Just samples, mind you, I don’t want to have to regrow anything in a hurry.”
Bobbing his large bulbous head, his body tingling with heady responsibility, Tarragon started at the head and cut minuscule skin samples from all over his father’s mottled body. Circulation was clearly off, though his internal organs appeared to be functioning normally. His favorite Bhuaci hymn started low his chest and broke out in a vibrating hum across his vocal cords.
“What—are you doing?” Ark might have just run into a naked human frolicking on the artic tundra.
Startled into silence, Tarragon cut deeper than intended and sliced a significant portion of his father’s heel. “Whoops. Well, that’s a healthy sample!” He laid the scalpel on the standing tray and stepped aside. “I’ll just take a quick look—”
“You’ll help me get up first.”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
Groaning, Ark strained as his son pulled him to a sitting position. “I wish Zuri were here. He knew how to get me places without pulling my tentacles to pieces.”
Tarragon trotted around the bed, and, using all his tentacles, braced his father, then aided him across the room to soft couch.
Ark plopped down with a loud squelch.
Tarragon clapped his tentacles together, ready to get back to work. He collected the labeled slides. “If you’ll excuse me—”
Ark sighed. “You hardly ever talk to me anymore.”
Squinting, Tarragon peered at his father. “We never talk.” He trotted to the molecular scan embedded in the back wall and pulled down a survey tray. He placed the slides in a neat row. “We exchange information.”
Rubbing the sliced bit on his forehead, Ark grimaced. “What I wouldn’t give to see Teal and Zuri again.”
“Teal hasn’t been able to visit since his injury. Why he thought he could subdue an earthquake is quite beyond my understanding. Even with my limited knowledge of planetary geophysics, I would’ve advised him to stay clear—”
“He thought he could save lives—lots of human lives.”
“Even Luxonians aren’t that powerful. It was a rash and foolish act that cost him the last useful years of his life.” Tarragon shrugged. No use revisiting the past. He shoved the slid into place and peered at the enlarge screen on the wall.
With a harumph, Ark rocked back and forth until he got enough momentum to shoot to his feet. Pain shot through him like a thousand darts. “Oh, God!” He collapsed back onto the couch.
Passionless, Tarragon stared at him. “There is no need for histrionics. I will have the results ready for you in just—” He rapidly slid one slide in after another until he had exhausted the selection. He blinked at the screen, hummed quietly, and then turned and faced his father. “I know what’s wrong.”
Ark slapped one tentacle along the side of his face, a veritable picture of impatience. “Well, tell me.”
Being naturally pale, Ark didn’t have much color to lose, but what he did have soon disappeared entirely. “What?”
“I’ve seen it a few times before—it’s called Travelers Travails. We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but it usually starts in the skin, threads its way throughout the body, and eventually attacks the major organs. I’d say you have about half a cycle left.”
Ark closed his eyes, a tear trailed down his cheek. “I’m not ready. I still have so much to do.” His eyes popped open. “Teal needs me! Zuri needs me. Humanity needs us—together!”
A childhood memory floated through Tarragon’s mind, himself as a pod swimming in a large tank, watching his father plod off with Zuri. He had begged his father to stay with every ounce of his being but to no avail. Ark hadn’t even looked back. He had been so intent on his mission to Earth. Always Earth.
“Someone will take your place. We’re never as indispensable as we think.”
Ark groaned, his shoulders heaving. “I need them.”
For a moment, Tarragon felt an uncomfortable flicker. Pity? He waited a moment certain it would pass.
Ark sucked in a deep breath and glared at his son. “You have to promise me one thing.”
Tarragon tilted his head, his ear hole opened wide. “What?”
“You’ll find a suitable replacement. Someone who will really care.” His eyes narrowed. “Not you, of course.”
Exhilaration swept over Tarragon. He turned his back on his father and slapped the scanner off. “Let’s go. You need your rest, and I have to attend to other duties.”
With his son’s support, Ark heaved to his feet and hobbled to the door. “I’ll lie down in my room. You can meet me for dinner—if you like.”
Tarragon nodded. “Certainly. And you can tell me all about your travels.”
“You want to hear—”
Tarragon dropped the scalpel under a sterilizing ray. “As you said, we hardly ever talk. And we don’t have much time.”
Once he reached his home, Ark leaned against the door and sighed. “This is my end.”
Without much difficulty, Tarragon maintained his sober disposition and nodded. But my beginning.
Shailyn jerked upright in bed, jolted from the other world back into her own. The usual, odd discomfort dogged her as she peeled back the heavy bed covers, then trod to the bathroom for her daily ablutions.
I belong there haunted her thoughts as she tugged on her jeans and a heavy sweater, though she knew, realistically, she couldn’t live there. As a between-worlder, she was powerless to pick a permanent lodging.
Shivering in the cold morning air, she plodded to the kitchen and gratefully poured herself a cup of steaming coffee. Her daughter, Win, always got up first and made sure that the pot was full and piping hot before she left for work. Bless that girl.
Retreating to the comfort of the living room, Shailyn added a log to the burning embers in the woodstove and sat on the sturdy rocker before the big bay windows. February rain slanted across the glass as pine boughs swayed against the gray sky.
Misty, her daughter’s tiny pup, scampered into the room and leapt into her lap, squirming with all the energy of young life.
Struggling to keep her coffee from spilling, Shailyn nudged the quadruped to a comfortable spot on her lap, took a sip of the dark brew, and then sat back and closed her eyes. Dream images of herself traipsing along the muddy bank of a beautiful lake, a distant, untidy cottage, and a huge water bird charging with flapping wings over a line dug in the earth while intoning, “Stay where you belong!” sent confused sensations rippling over her body.
Pounding steps echoed down the staircase. Her eldest, Morgan, tromped to the kitchen, splashed coffee into his oversized mug, and then meandered to her side. His hair disheveled and dressed in dark jeans, a pullover sweater, and boots, he peered over his cup as he took his first hurried gulp.
Shailyn waited. She knew what was coming. Just like she knew what her answer would be. Though she’d have to gather strength from somewhere else to make her words believable.
“You’ll be there to pick her up, right?”
“Absolutely. Once I get my old bones ready to face the day.”
“May’s going to need all the help she can get, but I have to handle the newest crises breaking out at work.”
“You take care of your business, and I’ll do mine.”
A snort turned Shailyn’s gaze from the tears streaming down the window pane.
“Technically, she’s not your responsibility. She’s my stepdaughter.” He shook his head. “If only—”
“Stop!” She couldn’t handle if-onlys today. There was no changing the past. No bringing the dead back to life. She glanced at her son’s weary, wounded soul peeking through his gray-green eyes. “She’s all our responsibility—everyone who has a heart to love, should.”
“It’s a lot to ask—by all rights, you’d be in retirement now, enjoying your last days, not taking care of a disabled kid.”
The wind picked up as rage surged through Shailyn. “She’s not a disabled kid! She’s a wounded child. Just like you’re a wounded man, though your wounds are on the inside.”
Chastened, Morgan swallowed the last drops and eyed his mom. “Most are.” He trod to the kitchen, placed the cup on the counter, and called out as he yanked open the door. “She’d be ready at ten. The nurse will have all her stuff packed, and they’ll fold and load the wheelchair for you, so don’t mess with it. May can walk into the house with help. Just get her settled downstairs. I’ll do the rest when I get home.”
The picture of May’s imploring, chocolate brown eyes following her as she puttered around the house sent shivers down her arms. She frowned and bit her lip.
A glittery box stuffed into the bookshelf caught her eye. Jessica from church thought that she’d enjoy an “epic puzzle” in her old age and had sent her one with a thousand pieces. She nudged the pup’s warm body from her lap and rose to her feet. She waved to her son through the window.
The box-cover picture, a fairy child plucking a blue flower under the umbrella of a wide, red-spotted mushroom, while raindrops splattered against the sheltering roof and vibrant grass stems bent in gentle perfection, soothed Shailyn’s soul.
May pressed a border piece into place, her eyes shining at the mighty accomplishment. “I got this side done.”
“You’re quick. I’m only halfway through my edge.”
“They gave me lots of puzzles to do at the hospital.” May’s gaze traveled to the couch loaded with stuffed animals and three colorful blankets. “Giving me stuff makes them feel better, I think.”
Shailyn held a corner piece and considered her options. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to help. Or attempting to make you feel better.”
“They couldn’t keep mom alive or fix my back.” She shrugged. “Not in this world.”
Shailyn pressed her piece into place and sat back. She rubbed her cold hands. “I’m going to stoke the fire and check the stew. You want anything while I’m up?”
“You have any chocolate milk?”
“I’ve got milk and cocoa packets. If I get wild and mix them—well, we’ll see what happens.”
A grin peeked through May’s eyes.
Darkness had laid the landscape still and silent by the time Morgan slipped in the back door. He shoved the wheelchair against the wall and unfolded it, ready for action.
Shailyn met him in the kitchen. “There’s stew left. Though you’re lucky. May managed to work her way through two bowlfuls, much to my amazement.”
Staring through haggard eyes, Morgan pulled off his coat and tossed it on a chair. “She always amazes me. Like her mom. Resilient beyond belief.”
Until she wasn’t.
Shailyn shook her head. “Sit down and take a rest. I’ll get it for you.” She glanced at the ceiling, giving due notice to the room above. “She went to bed at eight-thirty. Not a peep since.” Shailyn pulled a plastic container from the refrigerator and poured the chunky liquid into a glass bowl. She placed it in the microwave and hit two.
Morgan leaned on the worn wooden table, resting his head on his hand. “She do okay? And you—it wasn’t too much?”
“Define too much.” Shailyn shrugged. “She put half a puzzle together at the speed of lightning, slurped down a large chocolate milk, put away two bowls of stew, and agreed to my syllabus for home school for the rest of the semester.”
“Ma, you sure you want—”
The microwave beeped repeatedly, warning that it could keep stew hot only so long.
Morgan stood and waved his mom off. “Sit; relax. I’ll get it.” He pulled the hot stew from the microwave, rummaged in the cupboard for bread, and plunked down on his chair, ready to dig into his assembled meal. He took a large scoop, savored it, and then stared at his mom, his eyebrows finishing his question.
Shailyn peeled a banana and sat opposite. “I’m hardly the best teacher in the world, but I can help her through her online classes. We don’t know what next year will look like, but for now, this is where she should be. You and Win manage this big, old rambling house; I keep it stocked with healthy dinners and fun snacks. We’re family. What else should I be doing—putting bigger puzzles together?”
“You could be traveling, seeing the world, visiting friends…”
“I could be laying in the cemetery, cold and stiff. Lots of could be’s. All fantasy. What is—makes the world go around. I’m right where I belong.”
His shoulders relaxing as the weight of a grievous month lifted just a bit, Morgan offered a lopsided grin.
After dressing in comfortable, warm sweats in the quiet of her room, Shailyn stretched out on her bed, turned off the light, pulled her blanket over her shoulders, and slipped into dreams that would take her away but could never keep her.
“That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” ~Walt Disney
When I heard Walt Disney’s quote in the movie Saving Mr. Banks a few weeks ago, I knew that he had hit upon a powerful truth. Little did I realize at the time how much I would need to believe that it was the truth, clinging to hope beyond my human sight.
Since January first of this year, I have been hit with a series of personal losses. My brother, closest in age to myself, died unexpectedly at fifty-eight. The next week, my father-in-law passed away. One of our most faithful dogs, Sheba, died the following morning.
Death is part of the human cycle. I know that. Everyone knows that. But how we die can change everything for those left behind. And how we face life without them, either makes or breaks the order of our universe.
My mother, my childhood friend, my husband, nor my two brothers realized that they would die when they did. Each had plans, things to say and do the next day. But reality took over, and their will was not done according to their plans. Those left behind had to deal with what the situation offered, painful as it was.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of accepting tragic reality. So many things should have happened—but didn’t. Forgiveness and love should have softened hearts. Despair and pain should never have the last word. Too many times, a peaceful death is mere illusion, and we suffer sunderings that rip and tear, rather than breathe new life into our spirits.
So, what then?
Do I fashion a new ending? Write a happier, though fictions scene?
God created human beings with incredible imaginations. Based on His own, surely. Free will still reigns, a powerful force in a world full of ironic caprice. Restoring order, for me, is not about writing a better story despite a sad ending—it means becoming a better person, knowing that I can’t see the end.
I choose where to focus my gaze. Whether I scream at fate or hug a wounded inner-child, no one leaves this world in perfect shape. Scourged by hurts, pierced by grief, alone in confusion, there are plenty of reasons for giving in and giving up.
But what good would that do?
Lessons are learnable: Excessive drink and drugs destroy the body. Isolation and silence tear a soul to pieces. Loneliness is depressing, and despair is deadly. Evil acts bear bitter fruit.
I choose to believe that the end is not the end. I revel in the Grace that animated the positive aspects of those I loved. Gratitude is more than an attitude; it heals wounds so that we can grow new lives in glorious form.
When faced with death, I lift my gaze from the grave and remember the good, noble, strong, decent, kind, and beautiful aspects of the person I knew. I forgive. In my imagination, I do not refashion an idealized version of their lives. I learn from mistakes and hope that through the grace of painful lessons learned, that others (and my future self, perhaps) may be spared a few griefs at least.
The moon now shines through a cloudy sky, highlighting the bare branches of our winter woods. Crusty snow and icy cold made it too risky to go out today. But it was not a wasted day. It was a blessed day. Because I chose what to make of it. And despite sad realities and night falling, this is not the end.
Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.
Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.
Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.
This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.
He had said he would.
And he had meant it.
But life got in the way, and he forgot.
Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.
Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”
He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”
“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”
No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”
“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”
The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.
Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.
Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.
He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?
His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.
Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂
Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.
Hearts and smiles,
If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.
From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.
He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.
He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.
Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.
Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.
Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.
He nudged her shoulder.
She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.
“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”
“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”
Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.
Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.
Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.
Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.
A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.
Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.
No such luck.
Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”
What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”
She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.
Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.
After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.
Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”
There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.
The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”
Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.
Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”
After an affirming nod, they were out the door.
Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.
Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.
“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”
Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”
But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.
She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”
All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.
After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.
“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”
A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.
Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.
Samantha Keller just wanted to find a toothbrush. That’s all she asked out of life. Not an unreasonable request. Not considering the fact that she had just bitten into a luscious, though thoroughly deceptive, apple from her neighbor’s tree, which had seconds before had been home to a fat worm. Her frantic attempt at brushing her teeth in a hurry resulted in the toothbrush flipping between her fingers and landing in the toilet.
Hovering in front of the bathroom closet, patting the shelf just above her eye level where she always put the extras, availed nothing but sticky fingers. An empty cough syrup bottle lay like a forgotten soldier on a battlefield before red goo seepage and a decidedly sick-pink cotton ball offering testimony of other clumsy encounters.
Life really shouldn’t be this hard.
“Oh, to heck with it.” She turned to the sink, popped open the mouthwash, did a complete rinse, and considered herself lucky.
She peered into the mirror and saw her mom’s face. Though her hair sported the salt and pepper look of a middle-aged woman who can’t decide if she’s a new 40 or an old 50, the trapped expression of her mother riveted her gaze to the glass. “Ba-ba-ba…” Like a nursery rhyme never finished, Mom couldn’t get her words out, though her eyes pleaded for understanding.
Samantha yanked herself away and refocused. She tromped down the hall to the kitchen and stared at the bowl brimful of beautiful apples. “Tricked me once but not twice.” She snatched the paring knife off the counter.
The phone rang. She checked. A local number.
She answered with all the confidence of a homeowner in good standing, whose neighborhood friends might check on her once in a blue moon. “Hello?”
“As a residential customer, we would like you to answer a few simple—”
Slapping the end button, Samantha frowned. She had answered four scam calls through the week and vowed to let it ring forevermore. If someone wanted to actually talk with her, they’d leave a message, right? Why on Earth did she keep falling for the latest in life’s tricks?
Reaching for the knife, the phone rang again. With a shrug, she insisted on outwitting the maniacal scammers who poured out their lives in demolishing humanity’s trust in the phone system.
It stopped ringing.
She plucked an apple from the mound and made the first cut.
The phone rang again.
Completely against her will, Samantha glanced at the glowing screen and recognized the number. Her sister in Wisconsin. Blanch and her husband ran a dairy farm south of the city and made a decent living while raising the cutest set of twins God ever created.
Rolling every ounce of ill humor off her shoulders and sliding onto a stool, she leaned against the counter and let the apple and the knife fall from her fingers. “Hey, Blanch! I was just thinking of you while—”
A sob choked the line.
Samantha lifted the phone from her ear and stared at it. Had she lost the connection? Another scammer copying her sister’s number?
Sobbing tumbled into crashing thunder. A wail screeched over four hundred miles and smacked Samantha in the face.
“Oh, God, Blanch! What—?”
“She’s dead! I can’t believe it!”
Agony shivered over Samantha as tears sprang to her eyes. “Dead? Who?”
“Mom! She died during the night. I stopped by early to give her some homemade cookies and fresh apples off our tree, but when the nurse went to check on her…” Sobbing rampaged over a cliff.
Tired truisms sprang to Samantha’s lips. It’s better this way…a blessed relief…Mom would want us to live on…to celebrate her life without the all the horrific dementia…
But no words came.
They weren’t truly true. Not yet anyway.
As tears meandered down her cheeks, her husband Elliott wandered into the room. He frowned at her tears, bent low, and took her hand.
She listened to Samantha’s cascading grief, dragged a notepaper and pen front and center and wrote, “Mom died,” and shoved the bald announcement toward her husband.
Wrapping a comforting arm around her shaking shoulders, he offered what he could, a gentle murmur of sorrow.
A week later…
Samantha faced the mound of dirt piled in front of her parent’s headstone. Mom’s nicely dressed body lay four and a half feet under, safely encased in a mahogany coffin inside a cement vault, right next to her dad’s resting place. Samantha’s gaze wandered over the birthdates and death dates, and the scripture quote, “You shall be known by your fruit.” The etching of two apple trees that her mother had insisted mark their last place on earth stood in testimony to lives that never stopped bearing love and goodness even when they couldn’t say a word.
Elliott edged closer.
Her son, daughter, sister, various friends, and relations had come to the funeral and left shortly after. Samantha had returned for three days in a row trying to understand how something as luscious as life could hold such a worm as death.
Elliott took her hand and said nothing. Wonderful in the mystery of communal silence, he didn’t need to fix her grief. He simply shared it.
Autumn leaves swirled from the colorful trees as black crows perched on mossy gravestones, creating a scene Alfred Hitchcock would’ve been proud to call his own.
“She was a beautiful baby.” Samantha had spent hours reviewing old family photos the night before, sharing her favorites with her patient husband.
Elliott smiled. “She was a good and holy woman with a gentle heart.”
“Though she could be a stickler! Remember how she insisted that every Thanksgiving had to be celebrated at her house?”
“And she never did forgive dad. She held his mistakes up to the light of day every chance she got. Trying to drag him to Heaven, she’d say, but it made life miserable sometimes.”
Elliott bowed his head.
The cell phone rang.
Samantha pulled it from her coat pocket.
After hitting the talk button, Samantha strolled across the graveyard toward a cluster of trees. “Yes, honey?”
Blanche’s voice rose strong and clear. “Just checking in. I made a pie for the kids and thought of mom. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
Samantha stared at the tree in front of her. “Were there any worms in it?”
“Worms? In what?”
“The pie.” Samantha cleared her voice and tried to jiggle her brain into coherent thought. “I bit into an apple the other day…and you know…”
A chuckle broke the silence. “Oh, no. The pie looks delicious.” Her voice took on mom’s imperious tone. “You’re supposed to cut the worms out before you eat the fruit, you know.”
Ever my intention.
Samantha took her husband’s hand, meandered to the car, and left the mound of dirt behind.
Patrick O’Donnell had been married for eighteen years, and only today did he realize that he loved his wife.
Emily had insisted on an October wedding, though he knew that was ridiculous. Couldn’t trust the weather in October any better than a used car on the highway. Still, rather than listen to her complain every anniversary about how she wished she had gotten to pick the date, he had acquiesced.
He sat in their bedroom and rubbed his stubbly chin. At fifty-two he was a relatively strong and good-looking guy. Any woman would be lucky to have him, even now. He certainly got inquiring looks when he was away from home. He’d made a habit of placing his left hand, thus his “owners tag,” in plain sight so whomever he was interviewing would get the hint, and there’d be no awkward moments. Flattered by the shine in a woman’s eyes, he enjoyed knowing that he still attracted women, but he rarely let it go for long before he’d make some obvious comment about his wife and kids, clarifying his position.
Only once did he joke with Em about his magnetic power with women. She didn’t see the humor. She took it like a challenge. The next time they went out, she flirted with every guy in the room, and every time they grinned at her, she sent a beaming smile his way.
He’d come to marriage late in life, at thirty-four his mom had all but given up hope for him. He didn’t date much since the whole asking out and wading through the get-to-know-you process disturbed him.
Emily was a schoolteacher seven years his junior when they met. He was a reporter for the city paper. When he did a piece about their accelerated school program, she was one of the people he interviewed. In fact, he interviewed her three times before he asked her out.
It wasn’t long before he asked her to marry him.
After a church wedding, one of the few times he went to church, he traveled for the paper, wrote articles, took a series of editing positions, did freelance work, studied photography, took yearly wilderness trips with the guys, even did a stint in Guatemala for six weeks one summer.
Em did much the same, living life to the fullest.
Patrick rose from the edge of the bed and faced the open French doors blowing in a gentle breeze. The last day of September. Tomorrow was October first and their eighteenth anniversary. But for the first time in their married life, Emily wouldn’t care.
The process had started so slowly that neither of them thought that anything was wrong. Just an occasional headache. Then the slight trembling. When she couldn’t remember how to get to the grocery store, she had laughed it away. “Too much on my mind, what with violence on the rise, and three kids failing my class. Lucky I can remember my name!”
It seemed mildly amusing, until it wasn’t.
Footsteps padded near. Bare feet by the sound of it. Patrick shook his head. His kids befuddled him. Clare was the more logical of the two, but Tige was easier to handle. Clare had a knack for misunderstanding him while Tige didn’t seem to care. As long as he could see his friends and play games on a regular basis, he’d do whatever his parents asked. A fair trade, he’d say. But Clare classified and parsed everything. Big jobs required big rewards. He asked as little as possible from her.
“Hey, dad?” Tall and lanky at sixteen, Tige stood in the doorway in his baggy black sweatpants and long-sleeved shirt, a set he used as his nightclothes for the last year.
Patrick returned his gaze to the outdoors. The sun had risen but with the heavy mist, a dreary gray hung over the land. He could barely make out the neighbor’s house just beyond the two maple trees.
Tige stepped in and stopped just behind Patrick’s right elbow. “Just thinking that mom’d like it if we did something tomorrow. Maybe we could bring her flowers. There’re a few blooms left on the Rose of Sharon.”
A choking ache rose from the depth of his being and flooded Patrick’s whole body. The porch railing blurred.
A higher voice rose from behind. Clare, petite with long blond hair and bright blue eyes, so much like her mother, took charge. “Those’ll wilt before we get there. The cafeteria lady owns a shop that sells decorative arrangements, fake ones that won’t fade. I could get some after school since it’s Friday, and I don’t have to get my school work done in a hurry.”
Annoyance squeezed Patrick’s heart, but he couldn’t say anything. She was right. Fresh flowers, even colorful leaves, would fade and look terrible in a few days. But still—
“Mom hates fake stuff, Clare. We aren’t doing this to save you trouble. We’re doing what mom loved best.”
A tear meandered down Patrick’s cheek. He knew who else loved Emily.
Her voice high and strained, Clare ground her point into their hearts. “Mom won’t know the difference.”
Patrick turned around. “We will.” He clasped his son’s shoulder. “Pick a few just before we leave in the morning. It won’t matter how they look in a week.”
Tige nodded and padded out the door.
Clare’s mouth trembled. “Why not get something that lasts? It’ll look better when she wakes up—”
Patrick held out his arms. No words could explain.
Clare flung herself into her dad’s embrace and held on for dear life.
After the room was clear, the fog had lifted, and the clock insisted that he get ready for work, Patrick closed the French doors.
Love hurts like hell, he realized. He wiped his eyes and faced the day. Maybe that’s when you know it’s real.