Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Five

Who Cares?

With a brown bag pressed to his chest, Cerulean savored the sweet taste in his mouth. No matter how long he lived among humans, he never ceased to marvel at the sheer variety of sense stimulations. Oatmeal-raisin-chocolate chip cookies had to be near the top of his personal list of favorites.

The sun lowered toward the horizon, casting long shadows. Gray clouds crisscrossed the sky while gnarled, old trees adorned their leafy tops with shades of pale yellow and brilliant orange. Flocks of geese gathered on the water’s edge and made final preparations for their hurried flights to warmer and sunnier climates.

Relaxing on his porch, Cerulean peered down into the valley and watched the miniature forms of his neighbors chop a felled tree into manageable pieces. The distant echo of the ax thwacking to the rhythmic ebb and flow of their alternating strokes comforted him. No one could be sick on such a beautiful day in such a vibrant world. Especially not him.

As he was one of the founders of Newearth, he’d had the first pick of the land. He had considered settling on Anne’s old homestead, but the emotionally-charged memories overwhelmed him. Instead, he had moved north, into Wisconsin Territory, on property bordering a great lake. It had once been the site of an extensive stone and wood mansion. He had found enough ruins bearing testimony to the past owner’s investment to assure him that he was not the first to value this particular view. The blue lake spread majestically before him, while a verdant valley lay to the east. Thick woods shrouded the northwest.

Cerulean sighed. He had accepted the protector role with weary hesitation, but even in their short acquaintance, he had come to love and respect these honest families and the lives they crafted in natural simplicity. Giving in to the innocent pleasure of a sweet morsel, he leaned back and closed his eyes.

“Hey, handsome. Got time for a world-weary detective?”

Cerulean choked on his cookie as he jerked forward.

Clare, looking not unlike her great-great-aunt Jackie, stared at him through teasing eyes.

Brushing away imaginary crumbs to regain his stricken dignity, Cerulean glared at her. “Why do you always sneak up on me like that?”

“It’s in my job description…being sneaky. How else am I going to find the latest killer?”

Cerulean nudged the other rocker in her direction with his toe. “Yeah, killer-catcher. Here, sit down. Tell me about it. Life has been quiet of late.”

Clare plopped down with a heavy sigh, her gaze absorbing the gorgeous scene. “I wish I had a retreat like this.”

“You can retreat here—anytime. You know that.” Cerulean eyed the dark circles under Clare’s eyes and her furrowed brow. “I thought you loved your work. You’ve wanted to become a Human Services Detective for so long—”

Clare leaned forward, slapping her hands over her eyes and groaned. “Oh, Cerulean, if only you knew!”

Rising, Cerulean shuffled to Clare’s side. “Hey, now, it can’t be that bad. There’s no war declared…that I know of. You’re in one piece.” Cerulean stroked her hair.

Clare sniffed, raised her head, and rubbed her eyes. “Sorry. It’s just that sometimes—”

With a grin, Cerulean waved her explanation aside. “Trust me, I understand—more than you know.” He reached for his paper bag. “Want a cookie?”

Clare sighed and pulled out a sample.

“I can do even better than that. See those fellows down there? Their wives grow the best tea this side of the Divide. It’s great for the nerves and helps you sleep. How about I brew some?”

A flock of birds settled in the trees off to the left, chirping their last songs of the day. The lake turned from blue to gray-black as clouds marshaled their forces overhead and the sunlight faded into twilight.

“Yeah, sure. I could use something.”

Cerulean led the way into a spacious, wood-beamed, country kitchen. He took a canister from the shelf and pried off the top. He motioned to an assortment of cups on the dish rack. “Go ahead; pick one. I’ll get the water on.”

A puzzle lay strewn across a large, oak table, framed by matching benches. After setting everything in order, Cerulean sat across Clare and motioned to the partially assembled picture of the Luxonian skyline. “It helps pass the time. Feel free.”

Clare slid onto the bench and picked up a red border and slid it into an empty slot. It fit perfectly. She shrugged. “Beginner’s luck.”

Cerulean picked up another piece and considered his options. “So, tell me, why can’t you sleep?”

Clare closed her eyes, clenching her hands. “It’s these dreams. You remember when my parents died? Everyone said it was an accident, but I never believed that. My mom knew her fungi. She’d never make a mushroom soup out of those poisonous things. The whole thing reeked of foul play.”

Cerulean tried to force a piece into place. “Why would anyone want to poison your parents? They had no known enemies. There weren’t any aliens around their place for a hundred kilometers. Frankly, I could never make any sense out of their deaths either. It could’ve been an accident.”

Clare linked three pieces together, puckering her brow as she considered where to put them. “Shortly before their deaths, I started having dreams. Something…someone came to me at night, a mind visitor of sorts. He had a husky voice, like he was using a translator or something. He seemed to want to be my friend—at first. He told me he was lonely.” Clare dropped the pieces and they fell apart. She shuddered. “I was just a little kid; I believed him. My parents used to talk about how Great-Aunt Anne thought you were a guardian angel. And when I asked what an angel was, they described a heavenly spirit. So, I thought—”

Cerulean swallowed. His face paled as he stopped trying to force the piece and considered it more closely. “So, what happened to him?”

Clare fiddled with the pieces she had dropped. “Nothing much. He’d come every now and again and ask me how I felt. Weird. He liked it when I described my feelings. He knew a lot about me, but he always wanted more.”

“Comforting you?”

“No.” Clare shook her head, wisps of disheveled hair falling into her eyes. “He just wanted to know how I felt—no matter how bad. I told my parents, but they thought I’d been dreaming. And I figured they must be right—until the day they died. He hadn’t communicated with me for a while and I’d thought he was gone, but that night, he came back. He wanted to know how it felt to see my parents dead.” Tears slipped down Clare’s cheeks. “I told him to go away and never come back.”

Cerulean’s gaze fixed on Clare. “Did he?”

“He tried a few more times…but I closed my mind. I recited math formulas, sang snatches of songs, prayers…anything to block him out. Eventually he…it gave up.” Clare heaved a sigh as she surveyed the puzzle again.

The kettle whistled. Cerulean rose and poured steamy, hot water into the teapot. He nudged the sugar towards Clare and returned to his bench. “I wish I had something a bit stronger.”

Wearily, Clare poured the fresh brew into her cup. She took a tentative sip and forced a smile. “It’s good.”

Cerulean poured himself a cup and blew a cleansing breath. “So, what’s brought all this back now? Has he returned?”

“Not exactly. It’s just that I’m working for this guy, Derik. He’s supposed to be human but now…well, it looks like he’s the product of some kind of a mixed-race experiment. From everything I’ve discovered, and I’ve been doing a lot of digging, there have been only two other cases of this kind, and they were hushed up real quick. All evidence was destroyed and everyone pretended that it never happened. Lucky for me, I have friends, so I was able to interview some key people.”

“You think this guy is related somehow to the voice you heard?”

“I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve carried this secret with me for twenty years, and this guy’s been lied to all his life. As far as some races are concerned, we’re nothing but pests, for others, we’re lab rats.”

“Very illegal.”

“Oh, but it happens. Don’t bat your innocent blue eyes at me. I know you don’t like to think about it, but even Luxonians….”

Cerulean frowned. “That was a long time ago and only some Luxonians.”

Clare picked up another puzzle piece and waved it in the air. “I know, and I’m not trying to be unfair. It’s just that I really want to help this guy, but I’m afraid of what I’m up against.”

Cerulean snapped his piece into place. “Once you have identified his DNA, what more can you do? You figured that out, right?”

“Yeah, he’s part Cresta. Poor guy. I don’t even want to tell him. The lab reports came to my office yesterday. He’s a nice guy, but I wonder what this’ll do to him.”

Cerulean nodded and rose. He peered into a black bay window, which reflected his somber face. “That’s not the worst, I assure you.”

Clare stared at his back. “Why?”

Turning around, Cerulean met Clare’s demanding gaze. “He’s illegal.”

Clare slid off the bench. “Well, that’s hardly his fault. It’s against the law to murder a sentient being, no matter its heritage.”

“I doubt his creators will care.”

“Oh—” Clare’s eyes widened, horror-struck. “If anyone else finds out what I’ve done, and it leads back— I’ve got to warn him!” Clare raced to the door.

Cerulean grabbed her by the arm. “You’ll do no such thing! You’re already in over your head. Wait and let me think. That voice you heard—that scares me more than your friend’s story.“

“But I can’t abandon Derik! He needs me.”

“You won’t. We won’t. I have friends too, you know.” Cerulean rescued the puzzle piece from Clare’s hand and placed it on the table. “We’ll figure this out—together.”

~~~

Clare sat in her living room in the small farming town of Waukee and stared at the DNA report on her computer screen. Derik Erland: 37% Cresta, 63% human. “Well, at least the human part outweighs the Cresta.” She pounded the desk. “Damn! He might end up all Cresta.”

Blaring music pounded from her neighbor’s house. Clare glared at the open window. Part of the reason she had moved into this ramshackle, country house was to avoid the crush of the city and revel in open spaces. Most of her neighbors were the typical farmer-types, quiet and with little nightlife. She had assumed that also meant little music-life, but this particular neighbor clashed with rural tradition. As a middle-aged musician, she would float strands of haunting Oldearth classical music into the somnolent darkness at midnight, then turn around and blare Newearth jingles by day, and throw in an eclectic mix of alien-tunes at odd moments to startle everyone. Clare sighed.

After striding to the open window, she considered shutting out the sound, but she knew from experience that would only mute the cacophony to an irritating thump. There was no way to solve a stupid neighbor problem, other than put up with it until fate intervened. She hoped that fate had nimble feet.

She shuffled back to her computer and shook her head at the open file. If she abandoned Derik’s case, she might as well abandon a dozen others. None of them were safe. Being human wasn’t safe. So why did she want to let this case slip by? She pictured Derik’s face and smiled, but then she remembered his Cresta DNA and shivered.

Someone outside yelled. “Hey, honey, you keep that music so loud, you’ll attract a nest of Ugani and you’ll have a party on your hands.”

The music stopped.

Clare ran to the front door and swung it open. Bala’s wife, Kendra, stood on the doorstep, a dish pressed to her chest. “I thought I’d bring this back since I was in the neighborhood.” She glanced at the neighbor’s house. “Whoo-hoo! You weren’t exaggerating. I should send Bala over with a warrant. That woman should be locked up in isolation for a month. Nothing will cure a person of foolishness faster than having to keep themselves sane.”

Clare blinked as she relieved Kendra of the casserole dish and squeezed her in a quick hug. “Come on in. I could use someone with common sense.”

Kendra bounced into the kitchen and laughed. “Oh good! You got someone with common sense inside? Can’t wait to meet ‘em…been waiting my whole life.”

Clare shut the door and led Kendra to her small, single counter. “Want something?”

“Water would be a blessing. I thought I’d melt with pity, leaving Bala with the kids. He was being buried under little bodies as I stepped out the door…”

“Bala’s as capable of manhandling that mob of yours as anyone I know. If you’re not careful, he’ll have them all practicing to be good little soldiers in God’s army and have the whole house swept and polished by the time you get back.”

Kendra’s eyes twinkled as she accepted the glass of water.

“It would be like him. Dear, skinny man.” Kendra took a long drink and then ran an appraising gaze over Clare. “So what’s going on with you? Bala said you practically abandoned him, leaving him to handle the Hoggsworth case while you took sole control of this mixed-race—”

“He told you!” A fierce blush ran rampant over Clare’s face. “About Derik being mixed race? He wasn’t supposed to tell anybody!”

“Oh, don’t worry. Bala tells me everything, and I tell him practically nothing. I’m not about to get your poor Derik killed. That’s not why I’m here.”

Clare’s eyes narrowed. “So? Why are you here?”

Pointing to the counter, Kendra sniffed. “Casserole dish.” She clapped her hands, discharging the heavyweight of responsibility. “I hate leftover dishes, especially the Oldearth ceramic kind. I get all paranoid that it’ll break and I’ll have to buy a new one, except they don’t make that kind anymore so I’ll have to take some stupid ceramic class, and it’ll take me about twenty years to figure out how they do that glazing thing, and by then I’ll be in my grave doing time you-know-where for breaking the blinking thing in the first place.” Kendra glanced at her datapad. “Oh, and I have a package to get out. When does your transport close?”

Clare eyed her computer. “In about ten minutes.”

“Oh, glory! Come on. It’s a wedding present…and the wedding’s tomorrow. My name will be synonymous with mud if I don’t hold up the family’s honor with the perfect gift. You know.”

Kendra rushed out of the house, snatched a package out of her autoskimmer, and looked wildly for the Trans-station.

Clare hustled out the door after Kendra. “Down one block, on the right. Here, I’ll show you. Stop floundering and hurry.”

Kendra jogged in step with Clare, who frowned in concentration as if thinking about it would get them there that much faster.

Matching her frown to Clare’s, Kendra waved her free hand. “Dark skies, you look sour! My name might be ruined, but that’s no reason for you to look so grim. What’s going on?”

Clare slowed her pace and nodded to the yellow stone building in front of them. “It’s Derik. I like the guy well enough, but I’d rather not deal with this mess. After all, he’s over thirty percent Cresta. Who knows—?”

Kendra’s eyebrows rose as she took the steps two at a time. “You want to restate that?”

Clare kept pace. “Don’t worry, they’ll stay open for us.” She pushed open the door and entered the Trans-station.

A Bhuac looking very much like an enchanted fairy stood behind the counter.

Kendra deposited her package, allowing the Bhuac to calculate the cost. She turned and faced Clare, her raised eyebrows returning to their previous subject.

Clare leaned on the counter. “Oh, come on. We’ve been dealing with Crestas all our lives. They’re not misunderstood good guys. When we finally find a case where a Cresta is actually innocent, I still wish I could arrest him since I know that he’ll probably commit a crime first chance he gets.”

The Bhuac cleared his throat. “That’ll be 1.23 units.”

Kendra grinned. “Better than I hoped. It’ll get there tomorrow?”

The Bhuac nodded. “By sunrise.”

“You just saved my life.”

The perfect, almond-shaped eyes twinkled. “Glad to be of service.”

Kendra winked at the Bhuac as she left. Sauntering down the steps, she whispered, “They are so cute! Don’t you just want to pick them up and hug ’em?”

“I don’t think that would be…understood.”

“Oh, you know what I mean. They’re so adorable—”

“Bhuacs love idealized forms of creation. They discovered an equivalent tendency in our Oldearth fairies, nymphs, and elves. So, whenever they take on human form, they maintain a bit of the fairy-tale style. Haven’t you ever noticed? You can always tell a Bhuac that way.”

Kendra slapped her face in fascination. “The things you learn as a detective! But—clue me in—when, exactly, did you get infused with the wisdom of God?”

Clare stopped mid-step and turned to face Kendra. “What?”

Kendra mimicked Clare’s inflection perfectly: “After all, he’s over thirty percent Cresta.”

“I’m just telling it like it is.”

Kendra nodded and strode toward her autoskimmer. “So, Derik’s guilty by DNA?”

“You’re putting words in my mouth.”

“I’d rather put sense in your head. Look, Clare, I understand your aversion to Crestas. I feel it too. But I fight against it. Crestas have formed agreements with us and, for the most part, they’ve kept up their end. There are traitors. There’re always traitors, but that’s not the point.”

Clare crossed her arms over her chest. “What is the point? What makes me unfit to judge another race?”

“Free choice.”

“Free choice? That’s what gives me the right—”

“Condemning a whole race is easy, a lunatic’s response. Only the best of us remember our humanity.”

Clare stopped beside Kendra’s autoskimmer and sighed. “Maybe you’re right. My DNA isn’t so perfect. Only human, after all….”

“Aw, you just need to find the right match. Nothing does so much for a woman’s good sense as looking after a husband.”

Kendra hugged Clare, climbed on her autoskimmer, and slipped a pair of pink goggles over her eyes. “Now, I’d better hurry back to my match…and see if I can scrape him off the floor.”

~~~

Standing in his apartment bathroom, Derik peered at his reflection in the mirror and appraised what he saw in cold honesty. He had no doubt the DNA reports were correct. Surely his parents had suspected. Why didn’t they tell me? He rubbed his weary, puffy eyes. They probably hoped it would stay dormant so I’d go to my grave never knowing.

A scuffle outside his door made him turn and frown at the offending sound. After a brave attempt to fix his autoskimmer nearly blew him to bits, he realized that he’d best not attempt any serious home repairs. So he had chosen to live on the second story of a well-managed apartment building. All had gone well, until recently.

A noisy pair of Crestas had moved in on the floor above, and they had a never-ending stream of late-night visitors. If he believed Crestas capable of romance, he would have smiled the incidents away. But Cresta mating procedures were legal affairs and occurred at set times in very specific locations. Midnight interludes with a lady friend simply didn’t enter the Cresta imagination. Though… Derik riffled through some books he had ordered on Cresta life and culture. He had read something about it being a very passionate, almost deadly event. Apparently Cresta females—Derik closed his eyes. No. He didn’t want to think about it.

Tiptoeing to the door, he pressed his ear against the thin wood and listened. The hissing of a breather helm was plain. Someone, probably a Cresta, stood right outside his door. Derik closed his eyes. Dang! Dang! Dang!

A muffled tap startled him.

In a sudden fit of passion, Derik kicked the door. The armored shoe he had taken to wearing to protect his now nearly boneless feet bashed right through the thin composite door.

“Hello?” The mechanical voice sounded curious.

Derik tried to extricate his foot, pushing on the frame as the hinges loosened. “Dang, cheap stuff! I pay good rent and—” With a quick, furious jerk, Derik stood before a wide-eyed Cresta, the door still attached to his foot, hanging at a crazy angle. He chose to ignore the door and struck a casual attitude. “Yes? Can I help you?”

The Cresta barely suppressed a smile. “I believe you can. But may I help you first?” He gripped the door and held it steady.

Derik jiggled his foot until it was free. A long bloody smear showed where a splinter had scratched his leg.

The Cresta pointed with a tentacle. “That looks painful…and dangerous. We should do something.”

Derik backed up, nearly tripping. “Ah, no, it’s nothing. I get scraped all the time. I just ignore it.” A clown would have envied his lopsided grin.

The Cresta lumbered into Derik’s apartment, neatly sidestepping the splinters. “Definitely a bad idea. Infections can lead to sepsis and that will cause death. I’ve seen it before. That’s why I wear this.” He gestured forlornly to his bio-suit. “You see; I know how it feels to be vulnerable.”

Derik propped himself against his bookshelf, clasping his shaking hands. Sweat trickled down the side of his face. “Do I know you…from somewhere?”

The Cresta stumped to Derik’s enormous fish tank and with a wide, childlike grin, he dipped a tentacle into the water. “Beautiful! I should’ve thought….” He turned and faced Derik. “But no, you don’t know me. I, however, know all about you.” The Cresta waved a tentacle in the air. “Please, let’s sit. Something this important should not be rushed.”

Derik’s eyes darted to Cresta-shaped shadows in the open doorway.

“Don’t worry. I asked a couple of my associates to see that no one interrupts us.” The Cresta waved his tentacle again. “Please sit. You’re like an unschooled hatchling.” He chuckled, softly.

Derik stood immobile, his fingers white and bloodless. “Look, I hate to be rude, but I don’t particularly like it when people show up at my door uninvited and then—”

“You had better see to that cut. You will bleed all over your clothes.”

Derik pulled up his pant leg and forced back a gasp. Closing his eyes he swayed and then sat down. He squeezed his hand over the wound.

The Cresta gestured airily with a tentacle. “Where do you keep your bandages?”

Derik winced and nodded to the left. “In the bathroom.”

The Cresta shuffled off.

Derik studied his leg. “Great! Clumsy as a Cresta, but I bleed like a human.”

The Cresta returned with a white package and a small scissors in its tentacles. “Here we are. We’ll have you fixed up in no time.” He motioned for Derik to move over on the couch.

Derik did as directed and looked away during the procedure. He hated to see the tentacles working across his bare flesh, though he had to admit that the Cresta’s touch was very light, and he felt not a particle of pain.

“Done! Good as new.” The Cresta’s golden eyes glowed with the pride of a job well done.

Derik remembered his manners. “Thanks.”

Depositing the last of the bandage roll on the coffee table, the Cresta leaned back and folded its tentacles. “My name is Taug, and I’ve been sent here to kill you.”

Derik’s whole body jerked, his eyes wide and staring.

Taug reached out protectively. “Don’t. There’s no need to panic. I haven’t decided to follow orders—yet.” Taug resituated his tentacles on his lap, attempting to find a comfortable position for what promised to be a serious chat. “You see, you are the result of my father’s dream. But Crestas signed an agreement years ago with the Inter-Alien Commission to never perform crossbreed experiments. That doesn’t mean we don’t perform other experiments, but it does mean that obvious proof of our breaking the law would put us—shall we say—in dark waters. So, you, as a mixed-breed human, are in need of aid and advice. I am here to give that.”

Derik was trying hard not to swallow his heart, which had somehow managed to climb into his throat. “Mr. Taug, I appreciate—”

“Just call me Taug.”

“Well, Taug….” Derik wrapped his arms around his body and tried not throw up. “I appreciate what you are trying to do—I think. But the fact is—” He jumped to his feet and winced.

Pacing around the room, he hugged himself to keep the shakes from rattling him into a million pieces. “Humans won’t accept me and, as you say, I’m an embarrassing mistake to Crestas.” He stopped and stared at Taug defiantly. “If I had an ounce of courage, I’d drown myself.”

“Ah, that would be difficult. You’re growing gills—the Cresta in you, I’m afraid.”

Derik hung his head. Tears welled in his eyes, but he forced himself to maintain control with a violent shudder.

Taug appraised Derik with concern. “You are unwell. I understand that this is a shock. Though you must have known that you were not fully human for some time now. Crestas begin to mature at about thirty.”

“I’m thirty-five.”

Waving the difference away like an indulgent father, Taug attempted a soothing tone. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. Some develop a little slower than others.”

“Oh, God.”

Taug blinked as he turned his full gaze upon Derik. “I came here to appraise the true situation. It’s not your fault that you were created by a well-meaning being who misjudged the generosity of his race.”

Derik raised his head. “Excuse me?”

Taug’s tentacles spread benevolently before him. “That’s why I’ve come. You have a right to know. Even if we are forced to…eliminate you, at least you have a right to understand why you were created, and perhaps, why you must die.”

A tear slid down Derik’s cheek. “You know, it sounds awful when you say it, but in a way, I’m relieved. I wanted to know. And I appreciate the decency in you to be willing to explain.”

Taug bowed his head and tapped two tentacles together meditatively. “My father was a scientist and a dreamer. My mother found certain aspects of his personality…challenging. She said he ought to write fiction.” Taug wiggled gleefully. “They were like that, playful insults swirling through the water at all hours. But I digress.

“My father believed that Newearth embodied the ideal experimental environment. He knew, all too well, that inter-alien conflicts waste tremendous resources. He felt that there had to be a better way. So, he approached our scientific leadership with the idea of creating crossbreeds to ensure better relations, but the Inter-Alien Commission had just signed a treaty to desist from crossbreeding with humans. Seems that humans can’t see protein for what it is…but that’s another debate.

“My father decided to create one crossbreed in secret, hoping that if he could raise the thing, it would prove his theory. Apparently, two others, quite inferior, were created, soon discovered, and quickly destroyed. Then you were created, but not long after, my father died. I have always wondered if—but, again, I digress.

“Someone—I have long suspected my mother—stole you away and placed you in an adoption agency. You have lived, hidden in plain sight these thirty-five years. Only recently were we made aware that you were beginning to develop. My superiors approached me with clear instructions.”

“To kill me.”

“To eliminate my father’s mistake.” Taug patted Derik on the knee with one tentacle. “But you know, there are many ways to approach the word eliminate. Now that I’ve met you, I want to consider matters more deeply before taking action.”

“You mean—you’re not going to kill me?”

“Not today.” Taug rose to his feet. “You must understand. If it gets out that we broke our word and, worse yet, that we kept the result hidden after we discovered our mistake, it would look very bad, indeed. No one would trust us again. And trust is what makes the world go round, they say.”

Derik’s eyes begged. “But I’m an innocent man.”

“Yes, there’s that too.” Taug lumbered toward the broken door. “I have much to consider. There are more beings than myself involved. You understand?”

Derik shuffled in step with Taug. He stared absently at the splintered frame.

“You’ll need to get that fixed. Oh, and take care of that wound. We don’t want that to fester.”

Derik ran a finger along the ragged edge. “Who cares?”

Stepping through the doorway, Taug murmured. “I do.”

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ~Mother Teresa

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Once Upon A Time They Were Here

Sometimes life just turns pure strange, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I received an email this week from someone wanting to know where three bodies were buried.

Now before you jump to unholy conclusions, I happen to be the cemetery secretary for our little town. So the question was perfectly legitimate. Though—it turned out—not so easy to answer.

The woman asking was kind enough to send copies of three obituaries so I knew that the deceased persons in question were, in fact, former residents and buried at our cemetery.

So far so good. Just look the names up in the official cemetery computer file, which was crafted a few years ago, so it only goes back so far and then…well…good luck, buddy. Search the paper files and maps.

I did both and came up with four sites bought in their names. Boy-o-boy, I felt good. Nancy Drew had nothing on me. In a fit of generosity, I decided to go out and take a picture of the tombstone to send the family.

I get to the right place…find the right section and site…and match up all the tombstone names for the area. Except for the ones I am looking for. I find grass. Lots of green grass where the bodies should be. At least, where a particular tombstone should be.

Nada.

So a few more phone calls, pleas for assistance from previous cemetery secretaries. And as Luck-Would-Have-It, One-of-the-Knowledgeable-Ones just happens to be driving by. Divine Intervention? Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking too.

So I meet him and tell him my quandary. He steps out of his truck. Takes a long look. I explain that since there isn’t any tombstone, the family wants to place one on the right site. But, here’s my fix, where are the bodies…exactly?

So he steps back to his truck and takes out Divining Rods. Uh…oh… Then he paces up and down the area, and the rods move as he steps over two of the gravesites, but stay still over the other two. Now, I’m really in a fix. There are supposed to be three bodies. And I don’t know who the two are and where the third is…or what might have happened.

Besides that, I don’t believe in diving rods so the whole thing is ridiculous anyway.

Apparently, my face must’ve shown some level of doubt.

He handed me the rods and told me to try. Bloody heck, I insist that I don’t have the power…but he just waves me on. So I hold the durn things in my hands, letting them rest there, (making sure I’m not moving my hands) because I know perfectly well I’m going to be condemned by both science and religion for this one.

I pace across the grass. Those blamed things moved every time I stepped over a grave and over the two grassy sites where I’m wondering who’s on first. Or in graves numbered 4 & 5, as the case may be.

So there you have it. Ann Frailey’s leap into the deep end of strange. I did let the family know that, as best I can tell, we can place a stone at the head of sites 4 & 5. Yes, I did tell her how I “know” someone is buried there. Or don’t know. As the case may be. Funny, but she never responded back…

I can’t blame her.

I don’t know what to think about the matter. I’m perfectly well aware that scientists are laughing and any serious religious person has stepped a safe distance from the bolt of lightning that ought to be hitting me any time now.

All I do know is that three people are buried in unmarked graves…and someone hasn’t forgotten them entirely.

Next time I’m out there, I’ll probably stop by. Because the more I do this job, the more I appreciate gravesites. Not that I think anyone is there waiting for a chat. I know they have moved on.

But because once upon a time they were here. With us.

And that still matters.

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

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

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

Short Stories

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

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter One

All My Sins Remembered

“We have definite…” The Luxonian Supreme Judge in a trim human form and dressed in a dark blue robe, stirred in her seat, “…proof that you assassinated well over a hundred and fifty beings on the troop transport called…” She glanced down at a datapad, “…the Generous Sharon.” She fixed her black-eyed gaze on the lone figure standing on the floating dock with narrowed eyes.

Well over fifty delegates had gathered at Bothmal Criminal Court and sat on comfortable chairs, each tailored for a particular species. Every sentient race on the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, including Ingots, Uanyi, Crestas, Luxonians, Bhuacs, and humans had at least one representative in attendance. No race wanted to be absent from this trial. Hundreds more sat in the court’s upper wings, savoring the spectacle while millions watched the unfolding drama on holoscreens.

The figure standing silently at the center of this hurricane of watchful emotion was a biomechanical hybrid, an android built in female form, in this case, human. Long black hair fell like a cascading waterfall down her back; her blue eyes stared straight ahead, peering into shadows. Massive cuffs, secured with powerful magnets and chains, were locked tightly about her wrists and ankles.

The android moved slightly, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. An expectant hush settled over the assembly. The silvery rattle and clanking of chains broke the quiet.

“Well?” The Supreme Judge leaned forward in her chair, fixing the prisoner with narrowed eyes and lowered brows.

“Yes.” The word was a sigh, not of regret, but of weariness or boredom. “Yes, I killed them.” She glanced up at the massive holoscreen hovering over the assembly. On its curved surface the security recordings from the Generous Sharon played on a constant loop. “My guilt is…pretty obvious. There’s no point denying it.” A small smile curved at the corners of her lips.

Cerulean shifted to the edge of his seat and coughed lightly into his hand. “If I may ask, why?”

Pondering a moment, the android straightened. “They were in my way.” Her musical, almost bell-like voice would have been lost in the echoing chamber if not for the amplifiers.

“Justine, correct?” Cerulean folded his hands into his long robes, leaning forward.

“That is my name.”

“It was necessary, you say. Did you feel no…revulsion? Pity? Empathy? How could it be necessary to end the lives of over a hundred beings?”

Justine placed her shackled hands on the dock’s rails. “You work in this hall. Did you ask the building permission to occupy it? What its feelings were?”

Two delegates, a Cresta and a human, spoke at once.

“So, you compare yourself to an inanimate object?”

“Are you suggesting that you, as an android, cannot be sentient?” The human representative’s fingers nervously played with a datapad.

Cerulean raised his hand. “Justine, I’ve read the reports, your psychological profile.” He cocked his head. “You’ve made jokes, noted ironies—shown a full range of emotions. Are you suggesting that, like an inanimate object, you can’t feel or rather, that you had no choice?”

Justine looked at the human, turning slightly. “The Inter-Alien Commission declared that it is impossible for a robot to be sentient. That is your belief. I say nothing about my own.” She fastened her cold, blue eyes on the Cresta. “I am the product of fetal tissue and a computer. How much choice do I have?” Her lips curved mockingly.

“Well, we know she appreciates sarcasm.” The Cresta’s dry wit drew a chuckle from the crowd.

The Supreme Judge rapped her gavel on the metallic podium. “Order! Order!”

Silence fell as the Cresta representative raised his voice to speak once more. “What are we doing here?” The silence continued as the Cresta chair detached from its mooring and floated before the assembly. “Does no one here appreciate the irony that we are, in fact, holding a trial for a gun?” The chair slowly revolved as the Cresta looked at each of the delegates in turn. “Thousands of machines, robots, and androids were used on both sides of the late Oskilth Civil War. This particular gun,” The Cresta gestured with a free tentacle, “just happened to kill its targets more effectively than most.”

The android remained still, her mouth drawn in a hard line.

“No, the real reason we’re here is because the ringleaders of the war escaped, and now, like hatchlings, you stage an elaborate show, desperate to vent your frustrations on something.” The Cresta floated back, locking his chair in place, his tentacles wiggling smugly.

The courtroom erupted into roars; many in the assembly leaped to their feet.

“Bold words, coming from you who never suffered an invasion!” The Bhuac representative shimmered as he struggled to maintain his human form.

The Cresta snorted water through his breathing helm dismissively. “To be frank, I don’t care what you do with it. Let’s wipe its memories and be done with it.”

“Memories make us who we are! Wiping her memories is a death sentence.” Cerulean’s voice reflected stern determination in contrast to the discord all around.

“Order! Order!” The hard smack of the gavel echoed over the uproar. “Any further disturbance and this courtroom will be cleared!” The noise subsided as the judge’s sharp gaze scoured the room. “The fate of the accused will be decided by the jury at the proper time.”

“If I may speak before they adjourn?” Cerulean rose to his feet.

The Supreme Judge nodded.

“Thank you.” Cerulean’s chair floated before the assembly. He paused a moment. “Fellow beings, I have studied many different sentient races, my own included.” He looked down at the android, who continued to stare off into space.

“I believe that this being calling herself Justine Santana is both sentient and aware, although,” he raised his hand as the human delegate jumped to her feet, “I’m also aware that this is only my opinion. I believe that she was not fully responsible for her actions. My argument against the death sentence, or memory wipe, is not based on opinion, however.” His back straight, he gazed into the throng, his hands gripping the guard- rail. “Once destroyed, her memories are gone—forever beyond our reach.”

The Cresta representative’s tentacles gently caressed his bio-suit, his eyes fixed intently on the Luxonian, his tendrils wiggling thoughtfully.

“Who knows when, or how, the data stored in her brain could benefit one of us.” Bowing, Cerulean returned his chair to its original location.

No one in the massive courtroom noticed the subtle flicker in Justine’s eyes as she appraised the Luxonian before he sat down, storing his features in her data files.

Many of the delegates muttered and whispered, while expressions of indecision crossed their faces.

“If no one else has anything to say….” The Supreme Judge’s head swiveled, appraising the vast crowd. “No one? Very well—” she pointed to the assembly of six beings representing each race sitting at her left, “the jury may now adjourn.”

~~~

Justine sat alone in a Bothmal holding cell, lit only by a dim, red light. Her chains had not been removed, but they did not hinder her as she dabbed paint, faster than the eye could follow, on a bare, whiteboard.

With a hissing squeak a small, thickly barred window opened in the fat cell door.

“You.” Her hand continued to flicker over the whiteboard. She remained focused on her work.

“Yes, me.” The Luxonian tilted his head, peering down through the bars. “You draw?” He nodded at the rapidly filling canvas.

“Paint.” She tilted her head, lips pursed. “It helps pass the time. A cheap means to keep the prisoner quiet. You have the advantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Cerulean.”

“Thank you, Cerulean.”

“You’re thanking me for…?”

“I may be an unrepentant murderer, but I still appreciate those who aid me.” Her brush paused mid-stroke. “Your speech out there is the only reason they’re having any discussion about my fate at all.” Her brush continued to dance across the board.

“I read the full reports.”

“Really?”

“I was probably the only one to do so.”

Justine’s sigh was barely audible. “This trial was pure politics.”

Cerulean wrapped his fingers around the bars, tilting his head to view as much of Justine’s face as possible. “Your objective was to disable the troop carrier?”

She shrugged. “Yes.”

Cerulean’s voice rose slightly. “I’ve seen the carrier’s blueprints. Deck forty-two A and rooms thirty-two C and B were nowhere near the command room. I saw where you breached the ship. You doubled back and deliberately searched those rooms. Why?”

Justine smiled coldly, her hand moving a bit faster, the tip of the brush a blur. “Maybe I just like to kill.”

Cerulean pursed his lips. “Then why were troopers Alex and Jerrod left alive?”

Her mouth drew into a tight line. “Maybe I missed them. Maybe I thought they were already dead.”

“I read your specs. Enhanced senses, hearing, sight… You can hear a heartbeat from a hundred meters away.”

The brush moved faster.

“Trooper Jerrod thought it was a miracle that the escape pod managed to fire on autopilot.”

Justine’s mouth twisted into a mocking smile. “So, what’s your explanation?”

“You resent humans, hate them, and by extension their allies. You saw it as payback, didn’t you, as justice? But when you saw trooper Jerrod trying to stanch his comrade’s wound, even as he was bleeding out himself, you couldn’t bring yourself to press the trigger. Even though it went against orders, you lowered your gun.”

“A charming story. But why wasn’t that…story used to play to the court’s sympathy?” The brush tip filled in tiny details.

“Unlike the Cresta, I don’t see a gun. I don’t see a cold, calculating machine.” His voice softened. “I see a very scared woman who desperately wants to seem strong in her final moments.”

The brush froze. Justine’s head lowered, and for a second, the proud shoulders sagged. The moment passed as her head lifted again, a confident smile playing on her face. “Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She carefully laid the brush aside. “It’s finished. What do you think?” She displayed the panting in the crook of her arm.

His eyes widening, Cerulean stared into a portrait of himself, true to life on even the tiniest of hair ends. “It’s…beautifully done.”

“Thank you. Keep it.” She set the painting aside before making eye contact with Cerulean for the first time.

Cerulean swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what to say. I’m honored.”

“You can hang it on your wall or throw it in the trash. Whichever you prefer.” Justine rose. “Anything else?”

Cerulean stood thoughtfully before he shook his head. “No.”

“Then goodbye.”

Cerulean turned to go. He closed his eyes as a sudden wave of dizziness swept over him. Squaring his shoulders, he forced open his eyes and marched down the long, dim hall.

Justine called after him. “You know, if I had killed them and blown up the ship, there wouldn’t have been anything to identify me. I wouldn’t be here right now.” Justine’s voice echoed down the tunnel, her face and hands pressed against the bars. “No good deed goes unpunished, right?”

Cerulean stopped in midstride and looked back. “Everything we do has consequences. Alex and Jerrod are still alive.”

Silence.

“I hope you find happiness.” Justine’s fingers rubbed against the bars as the window slowly moved.

“You too.”

“Not likely.”

The window shut with a clang. Cerulean stood in the dim, red light, his hands clasped, his head bowed.

~~~

“This jury has found you guilty.” The Supreme Judge craned her neck.

Justine stood alone on the floating dock, her wrists and ankles bound with chains.

“Do you have anything to say?”

A mocking grin formed at the corners of Justine’s lips. “I regret nothing.”

“Very well.” The Supreme Judge frowned. “I will read your sentence. You are to be turned off, and your body will be locked in Bothmal Penal Internment forever or until such time as the information encrypted into your brain is deemed useful. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

Two security drones placed heavy hands on Justine’s shoulders and led her from the room.

One by one, the delegates filed out and the vast wings emptied. The courtroom grew dark as millions of holoscreens switched to yet another stream. Within a few days, the delegates and judge would relegate these memories to deep storage or utter forgetfulness.

~~~

Cerulean stood at the head of a large, metal table. He was the only one in the small, red-lit room that wasn’t a prisoner, guard, or a technician.

“You came.” Justine lay flat on the table. Large metal bands secured her legs, arms, and neck. She twisted her head slightly, smiling crookedly at Cerulean. “To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub…all my sins remembered.”

“Oldearth poetry?”

“A point well made. ‘To be or not to be….’”

Cerulean patted the helpless hand. “It’ll be…all right.”

A frown puckered Justine’s brow. “Being turned off isn’t like going to sleep, you know.” She turned away. “When a human sleeps, their mind is turning, working, dreaming. When a robot is turned off, its mind is completely inert. Dead.” She gazed fixedly ahead, her mouth set in a grim line.

Cerulean sucked in a breath. “But this way, there’s at least a chance…for you to…come back.”

“Thanks.”

A technician cleared his throat. “It’s time. Sorry.”

Justine’s fingers gripped the air, her hand opening and closing, her jaws clenched. Her voice became a whisper. “I’m… scared….”

Cerulean placed his hands on hers.

The technician swiped a bar on his datapad.

Cerulean watched Justine’s eyes widen and freeze, her mechanical body jerking against the restraints like a living thing. Her hand fell limp and no longer gripped his. His jaw clenched as he swallowed hard. “Goodbye, Justine.”

“Sir?” The technician looked up from his datapad, a puzzled frown on his face.

The table slid into a receiving hole in the wall.

“Nothing.” Cerulean turned away.

“It wasn’t human. Sir…?”

The door clanged behind Cerulean.

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

You Decide

Clyde was sure he was dead. Who survived a storm of this magnitude? In a car…sitting in the middle of a highway… He closed his eyes. If he was going to be blown to kingdom come, he didn’t want to see it happen.

“Why’d we stop?” Dan, Clyde’s neighbor and sometimes home-improvement partner, roused himself from sleep, rubbing his eyes and stretching like a kid after a long nap.

Clyde pointed ahead. “There’s a barricade…some road problem, and it looks like the storm of the century is heading this way. Someone is trying to get people to turn around.

Dan rolled down the window and craned his neck out, swiveling right and left.

A long line of cars snaked ahead and behind into the dense gloom.

“We’re not going anywhere in a hurry.”

Clyde felt his heart drop to his boots. “If only.”

Dan unstrapped his shoulder harness and pulled the door lever.

Clyde’s heart did a one-eighty and jumped to his throat. “Hey, where the H are you going?”

Dan waved ahead. “Look, it’s just a young guy. Some patrol officer is trying to steer everyone back.” He chuckled. “It’s like Fred Rogers facing down a pack of irritated hyenas.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s what he’s paid to do.”

A frown creased Dan’s forehead. He leaned in and clamped his gaze on Clyde. “So you’d rather sit here and wait for the storm toss us into never-never land?”

A baby squalled in the distance. Clyde dearly sympathized.

“Besides, you know Jennie would be irate as a pancake flipper with no spatula if you got killed in a spring storm. She has you pegged for a long-liver or a go-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory kind of guy.”

Clyde felt a hot flush work over his face. “Ayah. I guess.” He really would hate to disappoint his wife. Though she’d get along without him all right. The kids were all grown. The house was pretty much paid for, and there was a good life insurance policy, but she’d reeeeally hate to be left with— “He got carried away.” —in his obituary.

The two strolled down the road, passing twenty-three cars. Clyde kept his face forward, avoiding eye contact. Dan, on the other hand, waved and grinned, apparently practicing for the role of the neighborhood ice cream man. He ought to have a little bell.

It was all too clear that sweat-stained the officer’s armpits as he repeatedly lifted his arms in a futile effort to direct irate drivers to maneuver their vehicles to the side so some kind of turning zone could be arranged.

Clyde measured the growing storm with his eyes. He wondered if a sincere act of Contrition would work for his Confession or if he was stuck with the full weight of the last three months I-don’t-have-time-to-count-‘em-now-sins.

Dan chewed his lip, swiveled his head forward and back, and then clapped his hands. He jumped up on the hood of the patrol car, waved, and shouted.

Clyde wanted to grab the officer’s arm for support. Considering the look on the young man’s face, the feeling must’ve been mutual.

“Hey! Hi, ya’ll!”

Dizziness ensued. Eyes can’t really roll around like on those cartoon characters—can they? Clyde peered askance at the officer. Darn. Guess they can.

The officer tried to recover command of the situation. “Excuse me. I’m—”

Dan smiled down. A benevolent benediction if ever there was one. “Yes, Sir! You’re right, Officer. If everyone would steer their cars to the far right side, onto the shoulder here, (Lots of hand motions for those without brains.) there’d be enough for a turn lane.”

Dan jumped down, directed the lead car to follow his example, and quickly assisted the driver to face the car in the right direction. The officer, his eyes steadied, his confidence returned, worked alongside. Together they maneuvered down the line, beckoning with rotating hand motions, calling, cajoling, and even teasing, until in a matter of moments a flow of traffic started away from the impending storm.

Once salvation was at hand, the masses knew what to do. And they did it. As fast as their wheels could carry them.

The patrol officer waved with a grateful grin as Clyde maneuvered his car away. The storm still appeared menacing, but there was a decent chance they’d make it home before it struck.

Another patrol car zipped by on its way to assist the lone officer. Clyde shook his head. “There’s a reason I’m not a cop.”

Dan nudged him. “Or a doctor.” He closed his eyes and leaned back.

A flush reheated Clyde’s face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Dan opened one eye.

Clyde slowed for the turnoff. Only five miles to go. Raindrops sprinkled the windshield. He smacked the wiper switch and grunted his disapproval of raindrops and cryptic comments.

Dan sat up. He glanced out the window as slashing drops obscured the fields and woods. “You’re not a leader, Clyde. You don’t want to be. You’re happy for someone else to step up.”

“That’s not true!” Clyde’s face burned with righteous indignation. “I wrote to the county commissioner about our sewer problem. I stood up at the school board meeting and told off principal what’s-his-face that one time. I even re-tweeted—”

Dan lifted his hand. “I didn’t say that you haven’t complained.”

Furious drops pelted the windshield. Clyde’s grip tightened, and his jaw clenched. He slowed the car to a crawl as his heart pounded in tune with the storm.

Lights glimmered in the distance; the faint outline of a farmhouse shimmered through the rain-drenched window. Dan’s wife, Gloria, would be worried, but she’d pretend she wasn’t. She’d laugh off her fears and welcome her husband from the front porch with beckoning arms. He’d sweep her into a bear hug, swing her around, and they’d go inside to dance or make love.

Clyde halted the car, undoubtedly splashing mud up the side in the process. “You want to explain that?”

Dan shook his head. “Not really. But honestly, Clyde. Come on. You live inside a fear-filled box. You bang on it by complaining. But when something needs doing, you wait for someone else to step in.”

“So, I’m not a big know-it-all.”

“Look, buddy. I’m not trying to be cruel. But, truth is…well.”

Stomach-churning anger swirled inside Clyde. “Damn it. I never expected this from you, Dan. I thought you had my back. I thought—” In a rush of fury, he jabbed a shaking finger at the passenger door. “Just get out. You can walk the rest of the way home. I’ve got to get back to Jennie. At least she really cares about me.”

Dan placed his hand on the door lever and stopped. “I had your back…and your front…today. I always do. But soon that won’t be true. I’ve got cancer, man. Chances are… But that doesn’t matter. Fact is; death comes for us all.” He swung his head like an exhausted bull and stared at Clyde through weary eyes. “You got to decide if you’re going to keep complaining and following…or if you’re going to start solving.” He shrugged. “It’s up to you.”

Clyde stared as the wavering form of his friend climbed the steep porch steps. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he could see Gloria’s shape as she stepped down to meet him. Yep. They embraced.

Slowly Clyde maneuvered the car around and started toward home. One mile up the road. The rain lightened, but his vision remained blurred.

This time, he’d keep his eyes open.

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

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

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

Short Stories

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

There Is Hope

Yesterday I did our weekly shopping at Walmart, and though crowded, few people spoke. Everyone appeared preoccupied and vaguely distressed. I was a bit distressed too when I saw the bread and flour shelves empty. Again. But as I passed down the candy aisle (I was looking for chocolate for my dad—Really) a woman dropped a bag of sweets right in front of a Walmart worker. Without missing a beat, the store clerk groaned and pretended that it landed on her foot—then grinned real big. A collective sigh and the first smiles I’ve seen in weeks passed through aisle twelve. One was mine.

This afternoon I took a stroll with a neighbor lady, keeping the requisite safe distance, but still able to chat amiably, and the sun broke through the clouds. A kiss from heaven could not have felt better. Perhaps it was.

I have connected with people I haven’t talked to in months. I’ve checked with family and friends regularly. My kids have spent more time together than they have in years. Even birthdays have been celebrated in homegrown style.

But as I write this, greater numbers of people are of dying from the coronavirus than ever before. Families are losing loved ones. Only a fool would not be afraid. My dad just turned 91 and lives two states away. I wonder if I will ever see him again. I wonder about my sisters and brothers who have health issues. I wonder what kind of a world my kids are inheriting. I wonder about a lot of things.

As I mentioned my concerns to my elderly neighbor, she reminded me of what I already knew—Just take care of today. Live now. Love now.

I tell myself that. And I try. But it was good to hear it from a woman I respect. A woman who has lived through trials and knows that none of us know what is around the bend—good or bad.

The candy and chocolate cookies sit on my dresser waiting for me to box up and send off to my dad. I’ll call to let him know they are coming. Something fun he’ll forget in ten minutes. But we’ll have a fun ten minutes. And the treats will taste good when he gets them.

My neighbor is sewing masks for the hospitals—she and a group of ten ladies from town are working on this project together, each in their own homes. Their generation hearkens back to another era where making-do was second nature.

For now, I sit looking out the window at the evening sky; maple tree branches sway in the wind, showing off their perfect little buds like proud mamas—See what I’m giving birth to.

There is a lot to grieve these days. And there will be more grief to come. But it is on the darkest nights that the stars shine the brightest.

If an exhausted Walmart clerk can send the candy aisle into relieved giggles, then there is hope for us all.

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

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

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

Short Stories

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

You Never Know

As Lucy stared at the wafts of steam spiraling up from her cup into the frosty air, a bittersweet pang fluttered in her chest. So like the incense they use at Mass. Frankincense clouds rising toward the heavenly beings painted on the ceiling. She always felt like she was being left behind somehow.

She tapped her numb fingers on the mug to ensure circulation. It wasn’t right, sitting here in the truck, out of the blasting wind, while the men dug the hole. Granted, they had a huge machine to do the digging. She only had to record the fact that the deed was done in the right place and mark it on the map. Perhaps she didn’t need to be here at all.

But no. It was her job. Had been for years and everyone trusted her to do it right. No one was ever buried in the wrong plot under her watch. A couple of families squabbled about who would go where, but that was quickly settled with cheerful tact and abundant patience.

But this time? There certainly were no squabbles. Even the deceased didn’t specify exactly where he wanted to be buried. Only “in his home town.” He could have wanted to be buried in someone’s basement for all she knew. Why didn’t anyone ask him to clarify his wishes before it came to this? And put some money down while they were at it?

Lucy placed the cold mug in the cup holder and clapped her gloved hands together, sending prickling stings along her fingers. She could turn on the engine and warm up…but that’d be like telling the guys she was tired of waiting. Or too cold to stand it. They’d turn her way, looking apologetic. But then, they’d still have to get back to work and open the grave before it got any darker. Bothering them wouldn’t make this go any faster.

With a sigh, her exhaled breath clouded the scene. She glanced at the folder in her lap. Might as well open it and appear to be doing her job. She flipped the thick, stapled papers to the last page. Section P. There were really only seven sections, A through F, and by all rights, this one ought to be labeled G, but someone around 1902 must’ve thought that future generations needed a little help keeping things straight. So he or she labeled this section P. For pauper.

She didn’t know much about Mr. Keelson. Oh, there were Keelsons living throughout the county. But this particular twig must’ve snapped off long ago since no one knew him or his history. When the funeral home called and said that a Mr. Thomas J. Keelson had left a scrawled note in the hospital, requesting to be buried in his hometown, she had recorded all the relevant info sure that, in time, some knowledge of him or his family would surface.

But no.

Mr. Thomas John Keelson was born in the town as the records stated, but not one person claimed him or his family. The Keelsons that lived over on Six Sisters Road had no idea who he belonged to. And Velma, the patriarch of the country, said she’d never clapped eyes on the man. It was a mystery. A sad one, at that.

A knock on the glass startled her. She looked up. Glen waved a couple stiff fingers with his dirty-gloved hand. His tight smile tried to appear cheerful, but his frosty white cheeks and squinting eyes bore testimony to a north wind that just wouldn’t quit. He shouted through the glass as if the cold had made her hard of hearing. “We’re ready.”

She nodded and flipped the book back into her folder. She knew the lot number by heart. Seven-two-three. Block P. Three from the top. Three from the right. Nestled between Mrs. Eula Patel and open ground. There was an oak nearby. With an iron bench situated just under the heavy boughs. In the springtime, it looked picturesque. Today it sat between forgotten and forlorn. Her heart throbbed more painfully than the rheumatism in her joints. She climbed out of the truck and braced herself against the wind. She didn’t even notice that she let her muttered thoughts loose as she tugged on her cream-colored crocheted mittens and then stuffed them into her oversized coat pockets.

“Why don’t people think about the future? Surely…”

“What’s that?” Glen, huffing through his scarf, still shouted. He tucked his hands under his armpits. His coat, as well as his frame, was so thin, she imagined that if the wind grew any stronger, it would surely knock him back all the way into block A.

“Oh, nothing. Just wondering why no provisions were made. It’s not hard to pick out a plot, and they’re not expen—”

“Family is probably all dead. Maybe he had one but gave it away like that Joseph guy in the bible did for Jesus.”

Lucy shook her head and felt the wind bite her ears. She yanked her hood tighter around her head. Glen’s gentle heart always looked for the best in folks.

Once she reached the graveside, she nodded to Paul. Short and stout to Glen’s tall, lanky build, the two made a study of contrasts. Paul hardly ever said a word. Just did his work as carefully as ever a man could. A state inspector might review every grave dug in the last thirty years under Paul’s watch but would never find a single fault.

The movement of the hearse backing up caught her attention. It stopped with the flash of the brake lights, and then the engine died. The door swung open and Berta swung out. The woman practically sprang from the front to the back like a released rubber band.

Being a funeral director, Berta had a certain gift for dramatic style. Despite the fact that there was no real assembly to speak of, the power of her movements retained their usual vigor. The back doors swung open, and the two men stepped forward in lockstep. The king’s guard would’ve been impressed with the stately manner in which they carried the cheap wooden coffin from the hearse to the plot.

It took a bit of managing to get everything lined up just so, and the box down smoothly, but despite the wind howling in her ears, Lucy felt warm relief flood her whole body as Mr. Thomas J. Keelson was finally laid in his eternal resting place.

Once the process was completed to Berta’s satisfaction, she grinned, waved, and then retreated from whence she had come like a motion picture star going off stage.

Glen and Paul began to fill in the hole. There was nothing left but to wait in the truck. Lucy climbed in, shoving her notebook and papers aside. It was too cold. She eyed the key in the ignition.

They won’t mind.

The truck roared to life, and Lucy turned the heater on full blast. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes to the sound of the tractor shoveling dirt into the hole. She tried not to imagine it in her mind.

Her phone chimed.

After yanking off one mitten, Lucy tugged her phone from her coat pocket and smacked it against her ear. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Lucy Harden?”

“Speaking.” Lucy felt her heart constrict. She didn’t recognize the voice, but who on earth would be calling her this late on a Friday evening?

“Sorry to bother you, but I just discovered that my dad’s body was taken to your cemetery to be buried.”

“Your…dad?” A chunk of ice caught in her throat.

“Yeah. He’d been ill for some time and couldn’t remember things so well. I’ve been living on the west coast. There’s no one else. When he was sick, I made sure that the funeral home would do right by him…but I never actually specified where he was to be buried.”

Lucy shook her head. Tears sprang into her eyes. “He left a note saying he wanted to be buried in his hometown. So we did.” She grabbed a breath and choked it down. “Just now.” Tears sprang into her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you existed, or I would’ve let you know. The funeral home never told me—”

“Oh, they didn’t know. See, my dad and I didn’t get along. He was a terrible dad, as a matter of fact, and a worse husband, if you know what I mean.”

Lucy’s gaze drifted to the two men adding the final touches to the grave, piling on the last of the dirt and rounding the edges. Their backs were bent and the oak’s black branches seemed to claw the air above them like a menacing monster.

She made a proper grieving sound. As she must.

“But despite everything…I knew my dad was terrified of being cremated. He thought it was a prelude to hell. Used to say that if we had him cremated, he’d come back and haunt us. I figure he won’t have any say in the matter…but still. I can’t explain. I made sure he wasn’t cremated. But I just couldn’t bury him.”

Lucy couldn’t think of a thing to say. Her nose and ears burned like hellfire.

A knock on the window nearly wrenched her out of her skin.

“Done!”

Glen looked so happy through his dog-tired eyes, and Paul waved as he hustled to his own dirt-splattered truck.

Lucy nodded. To no one in particular.

Glen climbed in the driver’s side, slapped his hands on the wheel, and grunted. “Thank God!” He saw her frown and froze.

Lucy spoke into the phone. “Sorry. But, what did you say your name was?”

“Oh, yeah. Thomas, like my dad. Though everyone just calls me Tom. Named my son is Thomas too. Tommy. My wife insisted; she loves the name…”

A tear rolled down Lucy’s cheek, and she couldn’t for the world explain to Glen why she was crying. I did my job, after all.

 “Well, Mr… I mean Tom. You can rest assured that your dad is buried properly. If you ever want to visit him, he’s in section P.”

“Thank you, mam. I just wanted to know. I doubt I’ll ever come.”

Lucy could hear Tom shift the phone against his ear.

“Maybe my boy will, someday. Never know.”

Another tear followed the first.

“But I’m just glad it’s over. Maybe now I can forget it all. Thanks…Bye.”

Lucy stared at the silent phone as if it might dissolve in her hand.

Glen sniffed. “He had a son? Sorry he wasn’t here to say a few words over his dad, I suppose. Poor guy. But he can come in the springtime—Memorial Day. We get a real crowd then. Maybe he’ll even meet up with some long lost family members.” Glen put the truck into gear and headed onto the main road.

Lucy dropped her hands, still holding the dead phone, onto her lap. She stared at the houses with lit windows shining onto Main Street. Each a personality unto itself. Miniature little worlds.

Glen cleared his throat and jutted his jaw as if to defend a point of honor. “Well, you never know.”

Lucy nodded. “You’re right. You never know.”

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

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

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

Short Stories

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

Small Town Life

When I drive through small-town America, my heart responds to the sheer variety of life options. Mobile homes, well-kept trailers, two-story white farmhouses, ranch homes, horses grazing on a side lot of a tiny home, manicured lawns, garden beds adorned with huge metal roosters that beat all.

Even the cemetery speaks of loved ones long or recently departed. Tombstones of black granite, white stone, heart-shaped, tree styled, announce names, dates, and the final resting place of those who once occupied the various homes throughout town.

Business is limited here as there isn’t the infrastructure to feed a large number of main street stores. I figured that most everyone worked in a farming-related industry, but I’ve been surprised to discover a variety of employment options. People drive from various places or work online.

But why live here? I wondered.

Turns out there is a good reason. Family.

I have come to know several families in the area and discovered that though younger members may have found employment in another town or city, they frequently return home to visit.

Personally, I find that rather awesome. In a disconnected world, to discover three, even four generations still closely connected, rivals anything I could learn about my family on Ancestory.com. And then, there’s that cemetery. The one here in my town goes all the way back to the 1830s. Who needs an Internet search when great-great-grandpa is laid to rest next to great-great-grandma on Burg Road?

I’ve spent time with several of the elderly folks who have lived in town for most of their lives. They had children, and their children had children. And so it went. On birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, families gather for food, conversation, and support.

This feels a bit like peeking in on an alien world. A little enviously. Except now, the alien world has become my home.

Granted this little town isn’t as vibrant as it once was, and big-city problems plague people here too. But I’ve come to admire the tenacity of small-town life. Deep roots. Hard-working. Quiet and enduring.

Some people sneer at crumbling barns, closed storefronts, and population counts that would look more impressive if they included horses, house pets, and God’s glorious nature, but I’ve learned to look through the broken parts and be amazed by the spirit of those who came before.

To be honest, as I drive down Main Street to a meeting at the tiny municipal building, also known to host the morning’s Coffee & Gab gatherings, I feel honored to be a part of this world. Maybe someday, I’ll leave my mark behind—for those who come after.

 

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

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

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

Short Stories

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

Why Wait for Tomorrow?

Stella figured that—given the chance—she would definitely haunt her ex-husband. He needed a little something to make his life complete. And it might liven up her after-Earth experience. Sitting on a cloud all day must get rather dull.

Her daughter was trying on a new dress in the changing room. Something for a school dance next month. Not that Lindsey needed a new dress. She had plenty. But apparently, there was a new boy…

Stella sighed. The girl was only in high school. A senior. Okay. But still. She had her whole life in front of her. Why mess it up with a relationship she couldn’t possibly handle? It would just bring heartache in the end.

Maybe when she was thirty…six…or something. After working a few years in her chosen field, building up a nice nest egg, maybe buying a house, she could consider an eligible male for companionship. Have a family. Or get a poodle. Whatever.

Lindsey stepped out of the dressing room wearing something that looked like it was ripped off the set of Little House on the Prairie.

What on earth? Stella smirked. “Is it a costume party, honey?”

Lindsey didn’t laugh. Heck, she didn’t even smile. In fact, her beaming expression faded to sunset pink. “I—I kind of like the old-style.”

Stella strolled over to her daughter. She considered the flower-print, the long sleeves, long full skirt, tight bodice, high neckline, and frowned. The whole thing screamed “modest girl.”

Lindsey stepped in front of the long mirror, smiled tremulously, and twirled. Her smile widened. A happy light beamed from her eyes.

Stella stepped back and considered the whole package. Gosh, the girl was stunning. She would be beautiful in a straight jacket.

Stella choked. Why had that image come to mind? Because Joanna was insane, living out her last years in a home for the mentally unbalanced? Lindsey was nothing like Joanne.

“Mom? You okay?”

“Yeah. Honey. Just wondering…what your dad will think. He’s into the fashion model types.”

Lindsey shook her head, perplexity and annoyance rippling in waves over her features. “You want me to dress like one of dad’s girlfriends?”

“No! Of course not.” So why did I say that? Stella squared her shoulders. I just don’t want you to hightail it to the other extreme. There’s got to be something between bare all and cover all.” She marched to the dress aisle and started shoving unworthies down the rack.

“But, mom, I like this one. I like the flowers and the soft, comfortable texture. I don’t want to expose my behind or my breasts or worry that some guy will think I’m looking for action. I like me in this one.”

Stella swallowed. Hard. She dared not glance at her own plunging neckline or notice the fact that she could hardly cross her legs. Everyone wears…

Joanne’s battered face, her scarred wrists. Puncture marks in her arms sobbed while her voice merely babbled incoherencies. “Don’t. Like. Me!”

Stella refocused. “Your great-grandma would like it. Or maybe Uncle Peter.”

The guy married at twenty-seven, had five kids, two adopted, and volunteered for some men’s church organization. Had to give it to him though. Never missed a family function, served at every funeral dinner, and could chat about sports till her ex dropped under the table. He was even nice enough to drive the slob home on occasion.

“So can I get it?” A mischievous grin sparkled in Lindsey’s eyes. “You know, Great-grandma always said she’d watch over me. I think she’d tell you to let me get this dress.”

The brown-skinned, wizened face, and those startlingly beautiful blue eyes. The firm chin and no-nonsense demeanor. Though she could outshine the sun when she smiled. She loved Joanne so. Nearly broke her heart…

“Ma’am?”

Stella looked up.

The perfectly manicured clerk stood next to Lindsey. Concern scribbled all over her exhausted face. “Are you all right?” She stepped closer, one arm out as if to offer a helping hand. “You want me to call your husband…or someone?”

Stella shook her head, tearing the cobwebs away. Heck no. She was fine. Her ex was across town probably gearing up for a night on the town. “Checking out the old watering holes,” he’d say. And the women, she knew.

She pulled her purse around to her front and unzipped the top, pulled out her wallet and wiggled her credit card from the proper pocket. “Here, we’ll take it.” She glanced at Lindsey’s shocked but pleased expression. “You ought to be comfortable in your own clothes, honey.” And in your body. Your mind. Your soul…

After they got in the car, Lindsey laid her new dress in the back seat. Then she reached over and hugged her mom.

Stella blinked back tears.

~~~

As Stella dressed for bed, she grabbed her usual black nightie, flung it on her body, and then stared at the long bathroom mirror. She wasn’t a kid anymore. That much was obvious. But who was she? Whose was she?

A chime rang. She scurried to her bedside table and snatched up the phone.

Not a call. Just that stupid auto-reminder thing. Tomorrow’s Joanna’s birthday. Great-grandma used to bring a cake and balloons for every birthday. Always wore those horrid old polyester pants and faded button-down blouses. But her grin as she hugged Joanna was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Stella tiptoed down the hall. A light shone under Lindsey’s door. She knocked.

“Yeah?”

Stella opened the door and leaned in.

Lindsey sat in bed with her Kindle propped on her knees. She waited. Teen patience incarnate.

“Hey, honey. I was just thinking. How about you come with me to give Joanna a little birthday party tomorrow? We’ll buy a cake and some of those wild balloons she used to like.”

Straightening, Lindsey’s face lit up. “I’d love to! I’ll bring the family album. You know how she loves to see pictures of great-grandma.”

Stella paused and then leaped into the abyss. “Think we should invite your dad?”

Lindsey frowned. Confused.

“She is his sister after all.”

Lindsey tilted her head. “You know, I almost forgot that.” She nodded. “Yeah. He should come.” Her gaze wandered back to the page.

Satisfied, Stella blew her daughter a kiss. “Oh and wear your new dress.” Then she started back to her room, humming a tune…Why wait for tomorrow?

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

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

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

Short Stories

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

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Six

—Mountains and Valleys—

Following in Their Footsteps

Ishtar and Tobia climbed hills, trudged through mountain passes, and marched day after hot, sticky day, rarely talking and never smiling.

When the outline of a village rose in the distance, Tobia pointed and cleared his throat. “Maybe, we’ll finally enjoy a little hospitality.”

A memory of the reception he received from Lud’s clan flashed through Ishtar’s mind. He stumbled, righted himself, and swallowed. “That’d be a welcome change.”

As they drew near, Tobia wrinkled his nose. “What’s that awful stench?”

Ishtar froze, then his arm jerked out and he gripped Tobia’s sleeve. “Wait here a moment.” He jogged ahead and circled the first hut. Oh, God! Bile rose in his throat as he stared at the remains of a massacre.

Stagnant blood pooled on the ground and splattered across the dwellings. Snarling dogs chewed on unnamed bones.

His stomach heaving, Ishtar ran to a grassy bank and soon retched the contents of his stomach.

Tobia jogged forward, laid his hand on Ishtar’s back, and turned away. His voice fell to a whisper. “I would too—if I had anything in me.”

Wiping his mouth, Ishtar clenched his jaw and straightened. “Sorry. I should be stronger—with all I’ve seen.” He shook his head. “But it was a shock.”

Tobia crept forward, his hand over his mouth and nose. “You think anyone’s still alive?”

Ishtar moved stealthily into the village. “There’s only one way to find out.”

As they searched through the primitive village, a groan rose in the air. Ishtar quickened his pace.

A skinny, toothless old man lay near a grass hut. A bloody cut on his leg, purple bruises on his face, and the way he cradled his left arm told the tale of recent events.

Tobia glanced around. “You know more about healing, so you can tend to him while I see if I look for others.”

Ishtar knelt at the old man’s side and helped him to sit up.

The old man snatched at Ishtar’s sleeve. “Water!”

A jug near a doorway caught Ishtar’s eye. He grabbed it and jogged around the village, a sour taste still burning in his mouth. A creek bubbled in the distance. He filled the jug, slaked his own thirst, and returned to the old man.

The old man’s hands shook as he slurped great mouthfuls. He wiped his lips with the back of his trembling hand and nodded. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Wael. I was the patriarch of this ruined village.”

Leading a dark-skinned, wrinkled old woman and another old man, Tobia wandered back to Ishtar. “I found a few others too weak to rise, but with water and food, they’ll soon recover.”

Ishtar passed the jug to the newcomers and stood, surveying the scene. “Raiders must’ve killed the men and taken the women and children.”

Tobia pointed to the rummy-eyed elders crouching near at hand. “Why leave them?”

Ishtar shrugged. “They’re no threat and no use. It was easier to get what they wanted and leave.”

One old woman groaned. “I wish I were dead.”

Wael shook his head as he surveyed the bodies shriveling in the sun. “Who’ll bury them?”

Ishtar glanced at Tobia, and they shared an understanding gaze.

~~~

Tobia relished the cool breeze of evening. Rubbing his aching back, he returned from the burial duty and stood before the strongest of the old women. He wiped his sweaty brow. “We need something to eat.”

Her limbs shaking, the old woman rose and limped to a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of the village. Glancing aside, she peered at Tobia. “My name’s Olna, and I be the oldest living member of the clan…not much to boast of now, I know. But—” She ambled inside.

Tobia waited, rubbing grit from his eyes.

Wood scraped across dirt and a labored grunt rose.

“If you want to eat, come help me, boy.”

Tobia crossed over the threshold and found Olna leaning on a sturdy table.

“Move it over there.” She pointed to the east wall.

Dutifully, Tobia shoved the table aside and watched Olna rip a covering of wood from the back wall. From a deep hole, she tugged a large, tightly woven basket. Tobia gripped the handle and pulled it into the light. “What’s this?”

“Our salvation.” Olna grinned a nearly toothless smile. “I’ve seen my share of attacks, and we old women know to keep precious things well hidden.”

Flipping back the basket lid, Tobia’s heart sang. Uncounted packets lay before his eyes like a sparkling stream to a thirsty man. He lifted one and unwrapped the leaves. Inside, grain the color of honey glistened, sending his stomach into spasms and his mouth-watering. “Thank God.”

Olna nodded. “And you can thank me, too, while you’re at it. No one remembers the old ways and tucks good food aside for bad times—no one but Old Olna.”

Tobia wrapped his arm around the old woman and gently hugged her shoulder. “I thank you, indeed.”

~~~

Ishtar clasped his hands before his face and pondered the melancholy assembly before him. They were fed for the moment. But their slim resources would not last long. He peered at Olna as she perched on a bench outside her family hut, her hands still, and her gaze unfocused. “What’ll you do now, Olna?”

Olna’s head lifted a fraction. “What is there now but to die?”

Three old men and two other women crouched around a meager fire. Wael shook his finger at her. “Die then, old woman, but the rest of us” —he waved at other survivors— “we’ve a mind to live yet a little longer.”

Shrugging, Olna turned her gaze to the food basket. “You go on then, Wael, and farm the land, scare up some meat, and pick rations to last us through the season.”

Frowning, Wael rose and shuffled to a hut. He grabbed the shovel leaning against the wall. “I’ll start now. Don’t think I can’t.”

Ishtar rose and glanced at Tobia, who wrapped a wet cloth around the injured arm of one old man. “You won’t survive here, alone. You’ll have to come with us.”

Olna shook her head. “I don’t know that I can leave them…” She peered at the mounds in the distance. “You buried them, but someone should watch over their remains and pray for their spirits.”

Wael leaned on the shovel, his eyes glistening. “They would want us to survive.” He slapped the shovel. “What else did they fight for…but to have someone live…and remember them?”

Tobia stepped forward. “We’ll place markers around the mound so that anyone coming through will know of them. Though many perished, they were not forgotten.”

Ishtar rose and stepped toward the first hut. “We’ll leave tomorrow. But before then, let’s gather everything useful—anything you wish to take.” He glanced at the setting sun. “Time passes, and we need to move on.”

Tobia bit his lip. “Where do you think the raiders have gone?”

Ishtar sucked in a deep breath. “That’s what I’m afraid to find out.”

~~~

Tobia shared the last of the grain with Olna and the assembly on the third evening of their journey. Everyone settled around a small fire, exhausted after a hard day’s march through thick grass under a warm sun.

Olna chuckled as she swished the grains in her mouth, softening them before swallowing.

Startled, Tobia nudged her with his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

After wiping her lips, Olna smiled and stared at the pink horizon. “My granddaughter loved to sit in my lap and hear the old stories. She was never content until I told at least three.” She lifted three fingers to clarify and shook her head, her grin fading. “Ay, but there’s no one to remember them now.”

With a sigh, Tobia shrugged. “Perhaps you can tell them to our children. Though they belong to another clan, we’re all related in some measure, created by the same God. The stories belong to all of us—do they not?”

Tears slipped down the old woman’s face. “But there’s few of us old ones left. Those brutes will attack the next village soon.”

Jerking upright, Tobia glanced from Ishtar back to the woman. “You know where they’re heading?”

“Though they spoke poorly, they questioned us about the nearest clans. We refused to answer…until forced. But the dogs learned what they wanted. This final conquest will be their greatest triumph, they said—”

Rising, Ishtar stepped closer, knelt, and peered into the old woman’s eyes. “What direction?”

Olna shrugged. “We’re following in their footsteps, I think.” Heaving a miserable sigh, she shuddered. “They’re far from their homeland…but the leader said they’d soon turn back.” She wiped away her tears. “Won’t be soon enough for those in their path.”

Tobia gripped Ishtar’s shoulder. “Could they be heading—?”

Ishtar shook his head. “There’s not much between us and home—nothing to turn them aside.”

Tobia leapt to his feet, his stomach churning. “We must warn them!”

Meeting Tobia’s gaze, Ishtar nodded. “Yes, we must.”

Heart pounding, Tobia reached for his staff. “I’ll leave right away.”

Ishtar grabbed his arm. “You were lost and starved, wandering in the desert not long ago.” He glanced at the old people hunch-shouldered and clearly afraid. “They trust you—they need you.” He retrieved his own staff. “I’ll go.”

A ripple of terror washed over Tobia. “But, Ishtar, you’re the enemy—remember?”

With a clenched jaw, Ishtar faced the setting sun. “Not anymore.”

Barely controlling his trembling limbs, Tobia watched Ishtar sprint into the diminishing horizon. Vitus’ face rose like a specter in his mind. Tears blinded him.

Olna patted his arm. “He’s a strong man, that one. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe.”

Tobia’s throat constricted. “It’s not him I’m worried about.”

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ~T. S. Eliot

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Laughing, Crying, and Living

So, okay, a great aunt died, one of my cats got sucked into my friend’s car engine belt, and a friend with a malignant tumor passed away this week. Australia has been burning. Bombs have been dropped. Through online sources, I’ve been informed about how best to make a match and keep a man “coming back for more,” how to make big bucks, become productive and efficient, and why fellow human beings have given up caring what other people think.

Did I mention that my kids still like to eat at regular intervals, school is in session, and dust bunnies have been up to their nefarious tricks again?

For years, I’ve had it drummed into my head that in order to make money, be a successful writer, educate efficiently, and generally pursue happiness, I must crunch the numbers. Try harder. Work longer. Be better. Golly, sweat a bit! Put. It. Out.

That’s all, huh?

Now I don’t claim to be successful in the writer’s money market. No siree bob. So I bow to the big-hitters’ authority on how to do that. But as for creating work that I like, where I’ve honed my craft to a sharper point, it turns out that word count, speed, and furious production levels aren’t particularly inspirational. Having something of value to say seems to be more helpful. To me at least.

I want to live a quality life—a life that doesn’t merely revolve around my goals. In order to write anything purposeful, I have to live purposefully. In order to relate to other human beings, I actually have to know other human beings. Care. Interact. Be involved in their ups and downs. Life and death realities.

That takes time. It might interfere in my color-coded writing schedules. It might mean—gasp—that I won’t meet surrealistic achievement of the year awards.

And what do I get in return?

This week I prayed for a dying man. I supported a widow. I consoled a friend. I compared notes with a frantic mother. I visited the sick. I got to be a part of some of the most poignant moments in human experience.

We laughed. We cried. We lived.

We are still laughing and crying and living.

As I sit in the park and watch a woman speed walk around the track, notice a whole line of green plants in a house window, listen to traffic rush behind me, consider why a grown man just climbed the jungle gym bars on his way through the park, I am grateful to be a part of the human journey.

Though I know that terrible things are happening all over the planet, I can be a part of our struggle to endure—find solutions to environmental catastrophes, face violence with humane solutions, make healthy meals, hold a hand, and be deeply involved in our shared, messy experiences.

After all, my job isn’t just to write about humans. It’s to be one.

 

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

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

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

Short Stories

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