I Need The Practice

Kent stared at the white streak speeding across the evening lavender sky and wished he could be up there…heading west…anywhere but standing on the front porch of his wife’s mother’s new house. He couldn’t refer to Eula as his “mother-in-law” out loud. She had screamed the first time he used the word, a high-pitched shriek that raised the hairs on his arms like a warrior encountering a deadly beast.

Today her welcome echoed her former shriek, but with laughter lines around it. Her clutching embrace and a quick shove through the doorway stiffened his spine. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have been passionately loved and tossed away at record speed.

Bright lights and happy chatter crashed against his ears.

He knew perfectly well that this day would come. He’d have to meet all the relatives…and the relatives of the relatives…and the friends involved with said relatives. He peered ahead at the loud, mingling throng. A man with a fluted drink squeezed by a cloud of women, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Good Lord, everyone, including third cousins, must be here!

Being the only child of parents with no siblings, Kent’s life had always been simplified to minimalist family interactions. Frankly, they were lucky to scrape up a great, great granduncle once removed to invite to any particular holiday gathering. Not that they had a lot of those. Work—and more work—held a prime position in the academic hierarchy of the Stevenson family.

Laughter burst from the high ceilinged living room. Kent shivered. God save me.

Tina grabbed his arm and squeezed. “You’re going to be fine. They’ll love you.”

Kent dearly hoped not. He couldn’t take that much love. Not in one day. Not even in a lifetime.

He marched forward like a condemned man facing the executioner’s block. I will live through this…rippled through his mind like a mantra. I will…

“Tina!”

New shriek. But familiar somehow. Ah. Yes. Tina’s older, wiser, and classically gorgeous sister, Beth? Bella? Berta?

“Haven’t seen you since the wedding!”

Kent felt his other arm being snatched with relentless good cheer. “You’ve been good to her? Of course, you have!” She waved across the room to a clutch of elderly women. “Or they’d eat you alive…”

Tina chuckled, slipped her hand under Kent’s sleeve, and caressed his arm in that way she knew drove him mad.

He swallowed hard.

Tina’s voice dropped to a purr. “Oh, he’s good alright. No worries there.”

Oh, just take me, Lord. Kent smothered a groan and unclutched his arms. “I’ll get us something to drink.” Ambling toward the bar set up in the ultra modern kitchen, Kent bumped into the men’s department of said family gathering.

“Oh, there you are, ol’ boy!” Booming laughter. Perhaps one sneer.

There wasn’t much to say to such an obvious assessment, so Kent sidled up to the makeshift bar.

A man dressed in formal wear with an even more formal expression merely raised his eyebrows. After ordering his wife’s favorite wine, the same for his sister-in-law, and a beer for himself, Kent realized he didn’t have enough hands or the dexterity needed to carry three drinks through the mingling throng.

“So, I hear you’re a journalist.”

Kent turned and faced two men, one tall and lean and the other looked like an aging football coach. He cleared his throat. “Yep. I plod along as best I can…” He lifted the two glasses of wine from the counter and stepped forward. Hint. Hint.

Oblivious, the tall stranger laughed. “You don’t have to carry drinks around, kiddo. There’s plenty of help going around doing that sort of thing.”

Feeling his face flush, Kent couldn’t think what else to do but deliver the stupid drinks, even if a dozen helpers swirled about the place.

“My name’s Davies. William Davies. Chicago side of the family. This is my partner in crime, Shell Beck.” The tall man thrust out his hand.

Oh hell. Kent put the glasses back on the counter and shook each man’s hand in turn. He forced an innocent smile. “So what crime are you involved with at present?”

Shell snorted. “Same as everyone. Making a living in an insane world.” He scowled. “Surely you’ve heard of Davies and Beckman industries?”

“I thought you said your name was Beck.”

“Got to have some anonymity, you know. This way I keep my professional and private life separate.”

“Ahhh…” Kent just barely suppressed an eye-roll. Doing a great job. He snatched his beer and took a long swig.

William wagged a finger. “You know, I’ve read some of your stuff. Sure write a lot. You’re either rich or damn poor. Why do you pump out so much?”

Kent took another gulp and wiped his mouth. His gaze flashed to the doorway as Tina caught his eye and grinned. “I need the practice.”

By the time they were ready to leave, Kent had drunk more beer than was good for him, but Tina was as sober as the day she was born. Lucky for him.

~~~

After a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee the next morning, Kent attempted to process his first clan gathering. He stared open-mouthed as his wife dug into a stalwart breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns, and wheat toast. As she slathered grape jelly on her toast, he grimaced. “I suppose your family doesn’t think much of me, eh?”

Tina crunched, chewed, and swallowed with obvious relish. “Oh, honey, of course, they like you. As much as anyone.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

She reached across the table. “Dear Heart, you’re worried about nothing. You’ve got to understand, they’re far more interested in what you think about them than in what they think about you.”

Kent blinked. He remembered the Cheshire cat and wondered if he had actually dropped through the rabbit hole. “Say that again?”

Building a towering forkful of bacon, egg, and hash brown, Tina crunched her brow in concentration. “It’s like when I went to see your family and your mom showed me her china plate collection, and your dad shuffled those stuffy academic journals on the coffee table, and your great uncle whatever…told me all about his DNA test and how his genetic code is exactly split between Eastern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula.” She plunged the entire forkful in her mouth and grinned.

Kent’s stomach roiled.

After chewing, Tina handed him a piece of jelly toast. “Eat something, and you’ll feel worlds better.”

Kent felt his blood pressure rising. “My family adores you. But your family—?”

“Kent… Do you remember what happened when that stupid editor wrote that scathing review of your work but so many readers wrote in to say that they loved it, and he had to recant his statement?”

Kent nodded.

“You remember your reaction?”

Kent nodded.

“You said that you write like you live—the best you can—and you keep at it because you need the practice.” Tina rose from the table and carried her plate to the sink. She glanced back. “Oh, you’d better hurry up, or we’ll be late.”

Alarm shivered over Kent’s body. “Late?”

“Yeah. Remember? It’s Sunday. After church, we’re going to the picnic and jamboree. There will be quite the crowd, so put on comfortable shoes.”

Slowly, Kent rose and plodded to the window. A red bird perched on a branch and chirped its heart out. Almost seemed to be laughing. Kent shook his head and hunted for his shoes.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Some Days I Wonder…

So after school today, I took a few of the kids to the local thrift store. One stop shopping you might say, as they have a variety of goods. Excellent for kids on a limited budget and moms perfectly aware of pre-teen boy’s track record with jeans, coats, and anything that can be used in an imaginary world where barbarians play a significant role. We got what we needed, paid our due, which felt a lot like stealing and headed out with our clumpy bundle.

Next stop, the local bookstore. Trigger alert. I’m about to describe a real bookstore. A large room with high ceilings, peeling paint, drooping wallpaper, and lots of books. When I say, “lots of books,” I mean there is not an uncovered surface in the entire place. There are book racks on every wall, shelves of books all the way to the glorious heights, tables with stacks upon stacks of books, counters covered in piles of books, towers of books on the floor every few feet, and if it were possible, I’m nearly certain that books would hang from the ceiling like geometric stalactites.

The miraculous thing? Yep. You guessed it. We found our literary hearts’ desires in only a matter of minutes. I used to be a bit of a neat freak, and my late husband’s untidy habits left me cold and breathless. It was one of those—accept what you can’t change—sort of things. But lo and behold, give me five years running the homestead, and I’m quickly learning that a certain level of mess is good for the soul. Who knew?

A harrowing drive along narrow country roads at dusk with Sci-fi-Sears-Tower-sized tractors rounding every bend, and we made it home. And, no, I wasn’t speeding. Not so as anyone would notice.

Time to make a delicious meatloaf…and while I’m at it, I’ll just wipe out the refrigerator. What on God’s green Earth compelled me to such action, I hardly know. I had plenty of worthy things to do. I could write tomorrow’s spelling words on the chalkboard, work on my next novel, find the solution to human misery, but, no, instead, I decided to pull out the refrigerator drawers. And shelves. And what did I come slap face-to-face with?

Yep, you guessed it. Dante’s Inferno.

So, as the meat load did it’s thing inside the oven, (Which had done a self-cleaning yesterday. No little scrubbing arms—I was rather disappointed), I tackled the refrigerator. Scrubbing goo off plastic has never been a highlight in my day. But I figured I might as well make the most of it. But instead of whistling, I found myself remembering snatches of a book I read years ago—Men are from Mars and Women Are from Venus.

My mental state degenerated from there. I found myself asking the six-foot appliance why it had hidden this mess from me. I had been faithful, wiping it down every week, clearing out odoriferous leftovers promptly. So what was the deal? Why hit me with all this back-of-the-drawer, hidden-behind-shelves stuff now?

This past year, I realized, I’ve been hit with several relationship blowouts. Not unlike the bulb that exploded when I merely tapped it with a wet rag. Granted, with the hot glass and the damp rag, I deserved what I got. But with humans in my midst, I was completely taken by surprise. Didn’t see the rupture coming. Until I looked back. Then I saw all the obvious signs and wondered how I had managed to be so blind. So much for whistling. Only in the dark at this point.

So now, it’s time for prayers and (I-pray-to-God) a good night’s rest. But I can’t escape from the reality of my day. Lessons learned. Challenges faced. Goo removed.

Some days I wonder what’s in store for me. But I figure—I’ll get up anyway.

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 (In production)

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

My Kind of Madness

Over time, I’ve become convinced that madness must run in the family. How else can I explain my insane desire to “live simply” which, by necessity, involves all sorts of discomforts from merely annoying insects to knockdown drag-out encounters with the wild side of creation? Whoever said nature was innocent, never met nature up-close and personal.

My husband and I both grew up in cities. He in Los Angeles, I in Milwaukee. We both traveled and knew “something of the world” before we met and married. Thankfully, we both came to the conclusion that we wanted to raise our kids in the country. Images of blissful encounters with nature and the soul-steadying reality of hard work encouraged us to forge ahead with what would become a lot more intense experience than we could have ever realized.

But that was good. Otherwise, we would’ve never done it. God isn’t stupid when He doesn’t color in all the details. Oh, no.

Luckily, John was very strong and loved nature. He was soon dubbed “Our Amish Paul Bunyan” by the homeschooling dads. Good thing because I was rather busy having babies. Eight babies. Yes. One at a time.

During those years, we learned to raise laying hens for eggs, meat birds for our winter chicken supply, maintain a humongous garden, and raise bees and gather the honey. Each spring, John collected sap from the maple trees and made maple syrup. That was fun. Kids around a huge cauldron over an open fire in the backyard stirring…and stirring…and stirring. And then pancakes. Life was good.

We got a cow and learned to milk it. Or rather my eldest daughter did. I hid with the chickens. But I did learn to make cheese. Sort of. Okay, my homemade bread was eatable, though.

We are the kind of people who drive other people nuts. We don’t use air conditioning—unless you have a heart condition or are with social services. We actually like to recycle. All the kids work. Or else. Pretty much everyone collapses on Sunday. No need for a “Though shalt rest” commandment. God knows what He’s doing.

When John was diagnosed with Leukemia, our youngest was only seven months. There was no way I could do everything. So I didn’t. I simply did what I could. The kids did what they could. John did what he could—till he couldn’t do anything. But those joint efforts—raising the chickens, milking the cow, making cheese (sort of), gardening—they did a lot to keep the rhythm of our lives going even when our hearts were skipping beats.

John died in December 2013, and since then, the kids and I have struggled to maintain the core of our little natural world. I can’t really call it a farm. We have loosey-goosy hens that lay eggs in the doghouse, meat birds that die without asking, and bees we watch but do not follow, a middle-sized garden, fruit trees, nut trees, and more dogs and cats than I care to count. Don’t ask about the possums and assorted critters that like to visit. We do chat on occasion. I tell them to go home. They ignore me.

When things get tough and I’m ready to give up on one more thing, I remember why John and I started this foolishness in the first place. There is something sublime about working hard and living according to your conscience. Nature isn’t always easy, but in the fruits, vegetables, nuts, critters, weather, and the land itself, we see daily facets of God’s abundant imagination.

We learn balance and integrity while working with God’s created world. Jesus spoke in nature parables all the time. We are stewards. If we’re not ever vigilant, weeds will destroy our garden.

There’s nothing quite like the blessings of hard physical labor, homemade bread and strawberry jam. It isn’t the amount of land worked, the number of chickens raised, the variety of critters encountered. It’s the interaction. The noticing…the caring…the faithfulness needed to keep everyone alive. We are known by our fruit.

It’s my kind of madness.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Enlightened

“The only thing worse than loving a married man—is loving a dead man.”

“Huh?” Patty passed one last, cleansing swipe across her baby’s bottom, tossed a soiled diaper into the trashcan and bundled the infant into clean clothes faster than her sister could comprehend. She turned triumphantly with a smiling, drooling baby in her arms. “Wanna explain that?”

Megan unfolded her body, rose from the chair and limped across the room. She wiggled inviting fingers, her wide eyes beckoning. “Airplane? Zoom-zoom?”

Baby Sam grinned over his mother’s shoulder, but as soon as Megan stretched out her arms, he shrieked and nearly strangled his mom in an attempt to stay out of Megan’s reach.

Backing off, Megan lifted her hands high. “I’ll stop. Geesh, you’ll give me a complex, little one.”

“He doesn’t mean anything insulting. Just loves his mama. You’ll find out.” Patty raised one eyebrow and pursed her lips. “What’ya mean by loving a dead man? Sounds creepy.” After throwing a clean cloth over her shoulder, she hitched Sam on her hip and speed-walked down the hall to the kitchen. She called over her shoulder. “And don’t you ever think about a married man. I’d get an exorcist over here so fast—”

Megan hobbled to the kitchen counter and flopped onto a barstool. “Pu-leez! I was just saying—in effect—that all the good men are taken. I have my choice of men other women already snatched up or dead poets who—though full of soulful sentiments—are now residing in six-foot coffins with only room enough for one.”

Patty closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Lord, where did mom get you?” She opened her eyes and stared at Megan. “Little sister, you need to get over yourself. You think it was magic that got me married to a great guy?”

Megan drummed her fingers on the countertop, her gaze wandering over to her brother-in-law’s hunter-green coat hanging on a peg by the back door. “Well, you did say about a ka-zillion rosaries, and I swear you bought so many votive candles, the church could afford to enlarge the parking lot.”

After sliding Sam into a highchair, Patty dropped a bowl of puréed fruit on the tray and invited him to dive in.

He did. With both hands.

Megan cringed.

Patty literally tossed a salad into a large bowl and shoved it near the center of the kitchen table, grunting. “Silly girl! I wasn’t asking for anything—I was thanking Him—for everything.” Her gaze darted to the door. “I was smart enough to follow the advice of nearly every saint in history.”

Megan sat bolt upright, folding her hands in apparent ecstasy. “Share the secret, oh enlightened one.”

The back door banged open and a muscular man in his late twenties with a scratch along the side of his face, wearing a dirty jacket and carrying a load of lumber struggled into the warm kitchen. “Honey, I’m gonna work in the basement—it’s too friggin cold out there. My hands keep freezing up.”

Tucking a loaf of bread under her arm, Patty swung the basement door open, toed a stray boot out of the way, and grinned. “Fine. Dinner’s almost ready.”

Megan grimaced at the sound of two-by-fours pounding down each step. She turned and watched as Patty laid the loaf of bread on a plate and set it at the head of the table. “He’ll make a mess. You just barely got the chick pen outta there.”

“Likely he’ll have to put it back and raise the chicks down there…if this weather doesn’t warm up soon.” Patty turned and pulled a steaming roast beef out of the oven and set it on the table. She sniffed in satisfaction as she eyed the well-laid table. “You know, the key to a man’s heart.”

Megan snorted. “So that’s your pearl of wisdom to a poor, unwed maiden…learn to cook and clean…and take care of babies?” Jumping off the stool, Megan winced and grabbed her ankle. “Stupid sprain!”

A hammering racket rising from the basement sent shivers through the house. Patty closed the door, steered her sister to the table, and pressed her shoulder, forcing her to sit. “No—and yes. Listen, the way to a man’s heart is the way to anyone’s heart. Love them, love what they love, and make their lives a little easier whenever possible.”

“Sounds so—Medieval.”

Baby Sam shrieked and threw his half-finished appetizer across the room, sending a splattering of purple goo over the chair, the wall, and the floor. Patty sighed, pulled the dishrag off her shoulder and started wiping. “Ancient maybe but not tied to any particular time or place.” She straightened, snatched a handful of paper towels off the counter, and passed them to her sister. “Here, you help.”

Megan’s lips pouted. “But my ankle hurts.”

Patty frowned as she bent forward and hissed in her sister’s ear. “Life hurts, kiddo. Accept that little fact and don’t let it ruin your day.” She pulled her baby from the high chair and snorted. “Sammy needs a new diaper.” She pointed to the bedroom “If you’d prefer—”

“No! I’d rather wipe up goo than—” She knelt on the floor, winced, and began wiping.

Patty retreated to the bedroom with the giggling baby on her hip.

Clumping footstep stopped behind her. Megan peered up and stared into the sparkling brown eyes of her brother-in-law.

The large man knelt at her side with a damp rag and began wiping the mess off the floor. He grinned. “Like I always say, you can always tell the worth of a woman by how she treats her sister.”

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Ol’ Diablo

Among the spruce and maples, surrounded on three sides by vast fields of freshly tilled soil, Joy pushed her baby girl in a swing. Her husband couldn’t pass the wooden structure without slapping a beam and grinning. “Solid as a rock!”

In her first audacious foray into playdates, Joy had invited a friend from church and a colleague from her husband’s work for an afternoon of fun and frolic. Joy exhaled a cautious breath. So far so good. The kids are getting along well together.

A professional in a pinstripe pantsuit, Ginny Hawthorn exuded efficient confidence; while Ruth in a jean skirt and a flowery blouse breathed exuberance—like a full-page, color advertisement for the outdoor life. Ginny’s boy, Frank, tossed a Frisbee to Ruth’s boy, Ezra. Being the same age, they enjoyed the usual eight-year-old entertainments. One minute they were racing each other across the yard, the next, they were climbing a tree to see who could get to the top the fastest. Ruth watched them with an anxious eye, but Ginny hardly peeled her gaze from her phone.

After lifting her baby from the swing, Joy ambled over to the two women. “I’m so glad the boys are getting along.” She pointed to Ruth’s round tummy. “Soon, we’ll have another little one to join in the fun.”

Ruth’s face glowed. “I can hardly wait. It’s been so long—I just about gave up hope. But God is good.”

With a slight grimace, Ginny slipped her phone into her purse and peered across the yard. “Hey, kiddo, I’ve got a conference call at 5:00—twenty minutes.” She strode over to an Adirondack chair and perched on the edge. “I really appreciate your befriending us, Joy. The kids at Frank’s school are such Neanderthals—obsessed with the latest gadget. I’m too busy to play games, so the kid doesn’t get much fresh air, and I’m sure he’s putting on weight.”

Joy shrugged. “I don’t know how you do it. I can barely manage with Rick and the baby, yet you juggle a family and a full-time career.”

Ruth shaded her eyes as she scanned the yard, a frown building between her eyes. “Is it okay if they play in that dirt over there?”

Joy turned and appraised the scene. The two boys had jumped into a fresh hole and were digging with frenetic energy. “Oh, I don’t think they can do any harm. Rick pulled out a fallen tree, and he thought maybe he’d excavate a bit and make a root cellar. He sure—”

A scream sent all three women hustling toward the site.

Frank scrambled out of the hole holding a large, angular jaw bone ennobled with wide, flat teeth. Ezra ran to his mother and yanked her over. “Look at what we found! It’s a skull—think it might be from a dinosaur?”

Ruth’s frown deepened.

Ginny leaned in, adjusting her glasses to peer at the skull in her son’s hands. “Could be—I’ve heard of farmers finding all sorts of prehistoric—”

“Cool!” Ezra jumped forward and stroked the bone. “I wish I could’ve seen it when it was alive. I would’ve ridden—”

Frank lifted the bone out of reach. “Don’t be stupid. Humans and dinosaurs didn’t live at the same time. Dinosaurs had been gone for a zillion years—”

Ezra shook his head and leaped for the bone. “Not true. Men and animals were created in the same week—says so in the Bible.”

Ginny laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding—only flat-worlders believe in that nonsense.”

Ruth pulled Ezra to her side. “The Bible isn’t nonsense. It’s the world of God, and He doesn’t lie.”

“You can’t be serious—”

Joy cleared her throat and tried to steer Ruth toward the house. “Come on, let’s not get into a debate. We’re friends—”

Ruth’s gaze met Joy regretfully. “I’m sorry, Joy, but we have to go. Ezra doesn’t need to hear a grown woman spouting misinformation—”

Ginny waved an accusing finger. “Misinformation? Because I teach my kid to use his brain and not believe every—”

A truck pulled into the driveway. Joy sighed and waved. “Rick’s home. He can probably identify the bone for us.”

Ginny waved Joy’s suggestion away. “I’ve got to go.” She patted Joy’s limp hand. “Nice try anyway.” Ginny nudged Frank toward her car.

Ruth wrapped her arm around Ezra and pointed to their minivan. The boy lumbered away with his head down. Ruth stroked Joy’s arm. “I’m sorry, but I can’t just stand by while someone tries to shake my son’s faith. I have to stand up for what I believe, right?”

Joy nodded and shifted her baby higher on her hip. “Sure. You just have different views.”

Ruth shook her head. “More than that. Well, I better go. See you Sunday.”

After her guests had cleared the driveway, Joy picked up the bone and drifted toward her husband.

Rick greeted his wife with a kiss on the cheek. He accepted the bone and laughed. “Good heavens, where did you find this?”

“The boys dug it up from the hole—where the old tree used to be.”

Folding one arm around his wife and the baby, Rick nudged them toward the back door. A grin broke across his face. “Old Diablo—I forgot we buried him under that tree.”

Joy’s eyes widened—alarmed. “What? Who?”

Rick stopped and gazed over a distant field. “An old donkey of my dad’s—meanest creature ever to set hoof on God’s green earth. He called it Diablo because he swore that the devil himself had a hand in creating that creature’s nasty tricks.”

“So you buried him by the tree?”

“He fell dead there one day, and Dad dug a hole and pushed him in. He said that Ol’ Diablo wouldn’t get the last laugh this time.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Have a good time with your friends?” He rubbed his stomach. “Boy, I’m starving.”

Joy nodded. “Dinner’s almost ready.” She started up the back porch steps after her husband. “But you know—” she looked back toward the hole, “I think Ol’ Diablo’s still laughing.”

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

High

Hating Libby Lawrence wasn’t just self-defense, it was an undiluted, adrenaline high with a clean conscience. In the fifth-grade, Libby personified a “mean-girl” before the term had become popular. From the first day when she ordered me with a sneer and a glare to sit on the left of our shared desk, promptly told the teacher that I smelled bad, and scribbled a black line through my book report, I knew she and I would never get along. Unfortunately, since I was short, thin, and timid, I didn’t stand a chance. To boot, I stopped growing that year. Thanks to some kind of miraculous providence, her parents moved away, and I started growing again.

But from then on, even into my adult years, the name Libby sent chills down my spine. I tried to control my fury when my brother decided to name his first daughter Libby after some relation on his wife’s side. I didn’t care how great the relation; no child deserved to be stuck with such a moniker. Despite my best on-my-knees entreaties, he went forward with his malicious scheme, but to my surprise, the child grew up to be a pretty decent kid.

Years later, when my dream-teaching job opened up in my hometown, I only paused for a brief moment when my eyes tripped over the principal’s name—Libby Macintosh. Couldn’t be the same. After all, the Libby I knew could hardly control herself, much less a whole school.

I steeled myself for the long-distance phone interview from California to Wisconsin. I had taught five years at LA Unified and felt that if I didn’t get an infusion of the four Midwestern seasons soon, I’d dry up and wither away. I also missed my family and Lake Michigan. What’s an ocean I hardly ever saw—much less touched—to a lake that’s got miles of open beachfront?

The interview went well. Ms. Macintosh was courteous and clear. She had a third-grade vacancy that needed to be filled for the autumn term. She wanted someone with experience who would be willing to take on a few extra duties as need be. The lack of specificity about the “other duties” worried me, but the school’s location—just five miles from my parent’s home and three miles from Lake Shore Drive—attracted me like a puppy to an untied shoelace. Daily runs along the lake and easy visits with my elderly parents would be worth a few extra duties. My spirits rising, I felt confident enough to ask a couple of personal questions. “You’re a native of Wisconsin? Been a principal long?”

Yes and no was about all Ms. Macintosh had time for that day, but she kindly referred me to her Facebook page where we could connect—if I felt so inclined. Picturing myself on the cover of a Nancy Drew mystery novel, I quickly accepted the offer and gave her my email address so she could send me specifics on the school and the position. I would send my updated resume to her by return email. End of interview.

If it hadn’t been for a series of life crises involving a misfit kitten, an exploding dryer, and an elderly neighbor’s cries of distress, I would have put on my detective cap that same day. But as it was, it took me the weekend to get my life in order and my laptop to cooperate. Finding Ms. Macintosh wasn’t hard. What was hard was swallowing back was my horror at seeing those all-to-familiar green eyes, that pugnacious nose, and the jutting jaw that could clip a hedge.

If my mom hadn’t called at that moment, I would have turned off my computer and made a run for the nearest Dairy Queen—despite the fact that it was nearly eleven miles away.

My voice was a slight bit shaky, though I tried to cover myself. Still, moms have a way of noticing.

“You alright, honey? You sound out of breath.”

“I—I’m fine. Just—you know—busy. With stuff.”

Well, mom was never one to mess around on a long distance call even though she’s got a package deal that—never mind. She got to the point.

“Your father’s birthday is next week. And he’s not getting any younger.”

I could clearly drop my Nancy Drew persona. No detective needed here.

“Well, the plane ticket is pretty expensive, and I want to set up a few interviews before I—”

“Didn’t you have a phone interview this week?”

“Uh, yeah….”

“Well, then, just come home, check in on your poor, aging parents, and stop by the school. Never hurts to show a little interest. Besides, it’s a lot harder to turn someone down when you’ve met them in person.”

I pictured Libby’s furious glare framed by flapping, black ponytails as she pushed herself into my space with a whirling fist at her side. Somehow, I didn’t think she had any trouble turning people down. She probably arranged interviews for the sheer joy of knocking prospective hopefuls on their backsides.

“I bet she even sent you an invitation for an in-person interview. They do that, you know. Have you checked your email lately?”

As surprise and anxiety played touchdown football with my innards, my hand reflexively clicked to my email. A cold shock ran through my body when I saw the subject line— Invitation from Principal Macintosh.

I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, but I do know that mom had a list of airline specials for the coming week.

Getting home, celebrating dad’s seventieth birthday, catching up with my brother and his brood of three rapscallions, kept me busy over the weekend. I actually slept for a few hours each night—after highlighting plans for a perfect revenge.

On Monday, I dressed in my most professional, intimidating gray suit with matching heels and I toted my very expensive, leather briefcase. I dearly hoped she was an animals’ rights activist and was deeply offended by my insensitivity. I sniffed back disdain till my sniffer was sore. I had a childhood score to settle, and I had not an iota of an intention of accepting the job. I wanted to see her in person, and after she reviewed my sparking work record, my laudable service in Peace Corps, my glowing endorsements, I would slap her offer into the dust. Only then would I remind her of her left-hand seatmate in fifth grade. And, yes, the past can come back to haunt you.

Why I felt the need to torture myself with a quick detour at the lake, I don’t know. I stood on the grassy shore, sucking in lung-fulls of invigorating lake scent and hoped that Libby hadn’t grown much taller since our last meeting. Her Amazonian height was still an issue to contend with. Reviewing the many trials and experiences I had had since fifth-grade, I wondered—briefly—if I wasn’t letting my childhood mini-trauma get the better of me.

When I saw a little girl and a bully of a big sister pull the child along like a rag doll—my burning resolve reformed itself. No! Justice demanded an honest accounting. I would face this haunting humiliation—or die trying.

Marching up the steps, I passed a group of middle school kids texting one another. I didn’t even shake my head. It wasn’t worth the effort.

I gripped my briefcase, tapped the intercom, got permission to enter, pushed open the wide, front door, charged down the green and yellow hall—my heels clacking officiously—and entered THE OFFICE. It was empty. Since it was going on five o’clock, I hadn’t expected a crowd, but I was surprised by the stillness.

There was a counter with a little bell. I looked around, cleared my throat, stared at the half-opened door labeled Principal’s Office, and tapped my fingers on the counter. Nothing. Finally, in sheer desperation, I tinkled the stupid bell. A call from the office informed me that Ms. Macintosh was in.

“Coming.”

I squared my shoulders and straightened my back. Five foot four inches would only take me so far, but I had every intention of making the most of what I had. Deciding that I didn’t want to appear too interested, I strolled to the wall and glared at the bulletin board.

I heard an odd sound and a horribly familiar voice. “Oh, hi! You’re early. I like that. Thanks for coming, Grace.”

I turned, my eyes lifted high to meet those green orbs, but there was nothing there. Until I dropped my gaze. Sitting in an automated wheelchair was the shrunken visage of my childhood tormentor. I tried to control my intake of breath, but honestly, I could have sucked in the whole of Lake Michigan.

Adding a layer of bizarre on top of my shock, Libby Macintosh didn’t seem even remotely surprised. She just waved me toward her office. “Come on in. It’ll be more comfortable for both of us.”

Since walking was about the only way I could cross the room, and collapsing into a heap didn’t seem like a viable option, I followed.

With expert swiftness, she swiveled her metallic armature into place behind her desk, waved to the empty chair, and beamed at me.

“So how long has it been, Grace? Gosh, it’s got to be nearly eighteen years.”

Yes, my jaw did drop all the way to the floor. Stunned, I could hardly speak. Finally, trying to hide my shaking hands, I squeezed them into my lap, my shiny, leather briefcase forgotten on the floor where it fell when I landed in the chair. “You—you remember me, Ms.—?”

A waving hand and a disarming smile deflected my question. “Oh, not at first. Your mom came by my office a few weeks ago. She helps out in the library, you know. She’s the one who told me that you were looking to relocate. It wasn’t until she brought along a grade school yearbook and showed me your picture that I put two and two together.”

I honestly believe that my brain melted at that moment. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. The impulse to get up and walk out the door was the only idea that made even the slightest sense, but before I could arrange my synapses to fire coherent messages to my skeletal system, Libby chuckled.

With bubbling giggles, she wagged a finger at me. “Do you remember what a brat I was? Gosh, I was terrible. I used to go out of my way to make everyone miserable.” Suddenly, her laughter died as she dried her damp eyes. “But God got my attention.” She gestured to her emaciated legs and the wheelchair in a comprehensive sweep. “Car accident. Just a couple years later. My dad was killed and my mom never got over the loss—or my crippled legs. She took to drinking. I ended up living with my grandma.”

Blinking back sudden tears, I clasped my head with both hands before it exploded. “I doubt God wanted that.”

Libby nodded with a slow smile. “You’re right. He didn’t. But it changed my life. My parents were troubled people. I was a nasty kid, and I would have grown-up to make a lot of people miserable. But Grandma had a faith that could move mountains, and she taught me to use a wheelchair. She also taught me to think about others and to use my newfound understanding to better the world.”

Libby wheeled herself around the desk and arrived on my left. Reaching out, she clasped my hand in hers. “Can you forgive me for being such a wretched brat? I’m sure you must still carry some hurt for the things I did.”

I couldn’t wipe my tears way fast enough.

She scooted her wrecked body aside, pulled a clean tissue out of a hidden pocket, and handed it to me. “I always keep some handy. Never know.” She smiled through glimmering eyes.

Sniffing what was left of my composure under control, I met her gaze. “You know, I came here to teach you a lesson—to show you that I had always been better than you thought. I wanted—” I couldn’t go on. It all seemed so pathetic.

Libby squeezed my hand—comfortingly. “You know, when I realized who you were, I went out of my way to ask your mom to follow up with you. I was so grateful for this chance. There were a lot of people I hurt but thank God, there are a lot of people I help now. And I just thought it would be rather grand—if after our miserable past—that as adults we could work together for the next generation. Would you like to do that, Grace?”

~~~

I worked with Libby for twenty-two years until she had a debilitating stroke and had to retire. She asked me to take over as principal, and the school board unanimously agreed. During those years, and every autumn after, we’d start the term with an assembly, retelling the story of our fifth-grade animosity and how, in later life, we became good friends who loved kids and cherished the future.

In the end, loving Libby was the best high I ever had. I have no plans to come down.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Same Spirit

Mrs. Eula Claymore pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and peered at the dessert tray. Is that a lemon bar or pineapple upside-down cake? Her gaze swiveled around the large hall lined with long, white tables. Some of the elderly customers lingered over their meatloaf or breaded chicken, but she preferred to accomplish her meal—like ticking a duty off her list—and then enjoy her dessert with coffee. She returned to the tray and blinked rapidly, hoping to discern her choices better.

“Can’t decide, dear?” Mrs. Caroline Ramsey smiled graciously down on the old woman as she laid a steaming cup of coffee to her right.

Making a quick grab, Eula ended the struggle. “No, thank you, Mrs. Ramsey. Just weighing my options.” Her laugh sounded hollow. Weighing. Ha! Yes, have to weigh everything these days. The battle of the bulge was relentless.

Caroline’s paper-thin physique and tight smile swayed closer. “Oh, please, call me Carol, everyone does, and it sounds so much more romantic.” She raised her eyebrows archly.

Eula suppressed a snort, tapped her sticky fingers together and considered her baptismal name—Eulamay. With a quick thrust, she jammed the sweet treat into her mouth—and regretted it instantly. Her mouth pursed into the fiercest pucker she had ever endured. Lord in Heaven, where did they get these lemons? The devil’s kitchen? She peered up, her eyes filled with stinging tears. She must have water, or she’d expire on the spot. Unfortunately, Carol had hurried off to another table to intercede in a senior squabble before something got spilled.

“Mind if I sit here?” A large, buxom woman pointed to the seat across from her.

Eula nodded, attempting to stretch her lemon pucker into a smile.

The woman laughed as she pulled out a chair and laid her black handbag on the table. “Oh, you had a lemon bar, too, I see.”

With multiple swallows, Eula tried to eek out a sound akin to human speech.

The woman turned and scurried away.

Eula watched the blurry figure bundle off and wondered if she would have done better to stay at home like her friend Lola. Of course, Lola’s great-grandkids had visited her over on the weekend, so naturally, she would be prostrate for a week or so…. Eula’s thoughts were interrupted as a cool glass was slipped into her hand.

“Here, that ought to help. I thought I’d drink the whole Mississippi dry getting that taste outta my mouth.” The large woman plunked down in the metal frame chair.

Trying desperately not to slurp, Eula drained the contents in unspeakable relief. She wiped her eyes with her embroidered handkerchief and regarded her savior as best as she was able. “Thank you. I was wondering if I’d be left to die.” She waved a languid hand. “Not that it wouldn’t be rather appropriate, dying in a community hall, but somehow it wasn’t what I had in mind when I came this morning.”

The woman’s hearty laughter brought a smile to Eula’s face, as well as turned several heads. “No problem. We older ladies have to stick together, don’t we? So few of us left.” She stretched out a hand and leaned forward. “My name’s Mary Burns from Dartmouth County—off the blacktop at the end of Vet’s Road.

Eula peered up and appraised the woman before. Large, wispy gray hair, an honest, though blurry face, the usual stretch pants and loose flowered blouse—in short—a possible friend. Eula smiled and pressed the offered hand. “I’m Mrs. Eula Claymore from—”

Mary waved excitedly. “Oh, I know all about you. I’ve lived around here nearly ten years, but my husband, Melvin, passed away last year. Lola Kinsman was so kind. From the church—you know. She thinks the world of you, she does. That’s why I came by. She phoned and said she couldn’t make it, but she wanted me to introduce myself.”

Nodding, Eula wrapped a stray lock of hair back into her neat bun. “Her great-grandkids visited Saturday. I suspect she’ll be laid up awhile.” Nodding, she turned and appraised the crowd. “But I’m glad to meet you. I’ve been coming for years, but I never seem to— Anyway, Lola’s always been with me.”

Mary sighed. “To be honest, I’m rather out of place. I used to cook for Melvin and the boys, and there were usually hands and helpers about. Our trestle table would be full to bursting, and I managed it every day, seven days a week, but now, after a little slip and a hip replacement, my sons’ wives have decided it’s too much for me.” She peered around the room. “I don’t particularly take to being served.”

Eula smacked her lips. “Especially not lemon bars that could suck the life out of you.”

The two women hunched forward and failed to suppress their giggles.

Regaining her composer, Eula leaned back. “It’s cataract surgery for me. Can hardly see my hand before my face.” She gestured to the small crowd. “I served most of these people when I ran the school lunchroom. And I managed the parent group and the sewing circle. Never stopped for a moment, except—”

A racket at the end of the hall pulled their attention forward. One of the men stood stiffly, staggered, jerked, and then fell into a crumpled heap. Eula gasped. Mary rose like a puppet on strings.

Carol rushed across the hall, wended her way through the startled crowd, and took charge. At least three people had their cell phones in hand and were dialing.

After the emergency team had carried off the unfortunate gentleman, Carol circled around and spoke with each table. The crowd shuffled away in turn. When Carol made it to their table, Eula shook her head. “Will ol’ Bertie be all right?”

Carol shook her head and wiped a red-rimmed eye. “They said he was dead before he hit the floor.” She peered at them and forced a smile. “I guess we all have to go sometime.”

Eula wrung her hands together. “Bertie was such a fun boy and a hardworking man—but he never wanted to linger.”

Mary sighed. “None of us do.”

Carol stared down at them. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not lingering. You’re living.” Pulling out a chair, she plunked down and put her head into her hands. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took this on. I thought it’d be fun: serving the ladies and gents in the community, making money on the side, getting out of my empty nest.”

Mary tilted her head at an appreciative angle. “But—”

Carol ran her fingers through her short, brown hair. “But, I can’t keep pace. This is the third customer I’ve lost in two months. And I don’t mean that the way it sounds. It’s just…I get to know people, and then I lose them. It feels—useless.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Help me out here.”

Eula leaned over and patted Carol’s hand. “It’s not useless. You’re right. We are living—and dying. Hard for young people to understand, but we’re as new to old age, as they are are to adulthood, and you are to middle age. Same spirit, greater experience perhaps, but encased in bodies that break down and wither.”

Mary wrapped her fingers over her purse and clutched it to her chest. “I know that the gentleman’s death is tragic, but I can’t go back; I must go forward. Knowing that I can join you, ladies, a couple times a week—well, it’ll make the journey less lonely.” She patted Carol’s shoulder. “Don’t fret. None of knows how to keep pace. That isn’t the point, is it?”

After Mary had lumbered away, Carol stood and helped Eula to her feet. She took her friend’s arm and led her to the door. “Will you be able to make it home, all right, Eula?”

Eula pressed Carol’s warm hand and focused her blurry gaze on the woman in front of her. “Yes, I can make it home. See you on Friday—Carol.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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