Die Hard Optimism

Agnes couldn’t decide which skirt to wear. Not that there was much of a selection. Her choices consisted of a black skirt reserved for funerals and formal church events, an autumn floral thing that she always tripped over because it was a hand-me-down from her sister who was a good three inches taller than her, a severe grey pencil skirt, which made her look like a desperate job applicant or a green knee-length accordion skirt that made her feel like she was back at St. Robert’s grade school.

She sighed and wondered if her daring pair of form-fitting black slacks would work. Not that she had ever actually worn them. She bought them in the hopes of one day needing them. Could this possibly be their call to duty?

She plopped down on the bed and let the weak rays of a February sun pour over her. “Good heaven. I’m agonizing over nothing. No one will notice what I’m wearing. They’ll only notice me if I trip the waiter and spill everyone’s drinks.” She shuddered at the thought.

A plaintive cry turned her attention.

“Come in honey.”

Lenora, her six-year-old daughter, wandered in, looking very much like a rumpled, exhausted princess. She had the tiara to prove her identity and the unsteadiness of a child woken from a sound sleep.

Agnes wiggled her fingers. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Her brightly speckled costume, a gift from Grandma last Halloween, sashayed and shoo-shooshed as she toddled over. She crawled up on the bed and curled into her mom’s arms.

Agnes ran her fingers through her daughter’s unruly tangles. “I’m going out for a bit, sweetie, and Grandma is coming by. She’s bringing pizza. Rumor has it that it might be pepperoni…”

Lenora hunched her shoulders as if she’d never heard of pizza and couldn’t care less if the whole world turned into a pepperoni.

With the sensation of a knife plunged in her chest, Agnes rolled off the bed, yanked open her dresser, pulled out her back slacks and a silky button-down blouse that rippled over her hips, and marched to the bathroom. “You know, I’m not the bad guy here.”

When she peered at the reflection in the mirror, she had to admit, she wasn’t the bad guy or a bad woman for that matter, though age had taken its toll. She wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. A hen? She turned from the mirror; best not to think about it.

By the time Grandma Mimi hustled through the front door and hung her coat on the rack, Agnes had Lenora bathed and in her best PJs.

Mimi practically swallowed the child alive in a one-arm hug and handed a frozen pizza to Agnes. “Take the wrapping off and don’t forget the cardboard. Oven at 400.”

With a half-satirical salute, Agnes marched into the kitchen.

Mimi followed.

Agnes could feel her mom’s eyes boring into her back. “Okay. What?” She turned around and ran her fingers over her slacks as if she could iron them by hand.

“Nothing. Much. Just wondering why you’re going to a work-related fundraiser dressed like a woman…”

Agnes felt the heat rise through the roots of her hair. “Because I am a woman, maybe?”

“Your husband isn’t dead. He’s just missing in action.”

“If only!”

“You know what I mean.”

“Mom, you know he’s not coming back. I know he’s not coming back. That’s all there is to it.”

“But not all there is to you, apparently.”

“What’s so wrong?”

Lenora tiptoed into the room with her hands clasped above her head twirling like a ballerina.

Agnes clenched her jaw and closed her eyes against tears.

Mimi led Lenora out of the room with cooing encouragement and pulled a small box out of a large pocket. “I brought a puzzle we can put together if you open it up and lay out the pieces on the coffee table. Okay, Sweetums?”

Agnes felt her mom’s firm hand on her shoulder. Then a gentle squeeze. “You’re a strong woman, Agnes. I’ve never thought otherwise. But I know how it is. You get lonely…and it takes more than a woman can stand to be both mother and father every day…day after day.”

Agnes blinked back her tears and focused on the kitchen table. Mismatched socks still lined the edge. She scooped them into a bundle and dropped them on the counter. “I didn’t think these slacks were such a big deal. I just wanted to look…”

Mimi set the oven timer. “I know. But you’re still married. At least in the eyes of the church. If you want to change that…”

“There’s always the chance—”

“Is there?”

“I’m caught between worlds, Mom. Stuck. Never really married and never really free. I can’t move forward. Or back for that matter.”

Mimi rummaged through the refrigerator. “You got any salad fixings? A side dish would go well with the pizza.”

Agnes pursed her lips, leaned in, yanked open the crisper, and pulled out a bag of lettuce and a soft tomato. “Good luck getting her to eat anything healthy. She’d rather die of the plague.”

With quick efficient motions, Mimi tore up the lettuce and diced the tomato. She kept her eyes on her work.

Agnes got the message, sighed, and retreated to change her clothes.

~~~

It was late by the time Agnes stepped into her living room. The lights were dim and her mom was sleeping on the couch with an afghan thrown over her legs. The same afghan Mimi had given her on her wedding day. The irony struck her as funny, and she giggled. The one beer she sipped through the evening might have helped.

Mimi sat up and rubbed her eyes. “You’re home safe. And giggling?”

“Yep. Safe and sound.”

Mimi patted the couch next to her. “Tell me about it.”

Agnes tucked the green skirt under, as she plunked down next to her mom. “Well, I had an epiphany as I sat at the gloriously set table and listened to people’s conversations. One woman bullied her husband mercilessly about not getting their garage cleaned out, while another couple sat in stony silence. Then there was this kid who kept screaming at his dad, saying that he wanted to go home and watch a movie and eat real food. One girl sat pathetically by the wall, her eyes searching for someone, while a crowd circled around a handsome bearded guy like he was the greatest thing since the invention of the iPhone.”

“Sounds like a dull crowd.”

“Average. That’s what struck me.”

“That people are average?”

“That even at an expensive club, wearing the best clothes, eating sumptuous food, drinking whatever, and all for a noble cause…most of us poor human beings weren’t happy.”

“Grim observation.”

“Yeah. But freeing too. I get it now…better than before. Jim’s abandonment nearly killed me, and deep down I know that he’s not coming back. I have to accept it. We’ve got more cause for an annulment than most…neither of us had a clue what marriage meant…and we were drunk on dreams. But most of all, I see now that my life is what I make of it…right now. Today. What’s before me. You know, even when God—Creator of the Universe—lived on Earth, we weren’t happy. If He couldn’t make us happy…”

“So you aren’t striving to be happy anymore?”

“Nope. I’ve decided to reach a little higher…go for contentment.”

Mimi stretched and pulled herself to her feet. “Well, tell me about the view when you get there. Right now I need to find my bed collapse. I’m leading three junior high classes through the museum tomorrow. If the effort doesn’t destroy the rest of my brain cells…I’ll be delighted.”

Agnes stood and hugged her mom. “I knew I got it from somewhere.” She stepped to the front door and handed her a floral-patterned jacket from the rack. “Be careful on the way.”

“I only live down the street.” Dressed in her winter best, Mimi opened the door, shivered, and stepped over the threshold. Her eyebrows puckered as she glanced back. “Got what?”

“My die-hard optimism.” After shutting the door, Agnes smiled and climbed the steps to bed, her green skirt rippling over her bare knees.

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

to believe in god

So, I took a couple of the kids to the Christian Mission Thrift Store this week. We usually drop some stuff off, and if the kids see something in their price range that they like, blessings follow.

As they wandered down the knick-knack racks, (say that five times fast), I wandered over to the brick “prayer wall” where people post prayer intentions. Contemporary Christian music played in the background—a rather good beat, I might add.

I stood there and read the post-it notes…one after another. I wasn’t surprised by the “Please pray for my…who has cancer.” Or the “Prayers for my friend, injured in a car accident.” Or any of them…until I came to the very last note centered at the bottom and scrawled slantwise across the paper: “…to believe in god.”

Neat small letters.

My heart nearly broke.

I’m not entirely sure why this note filled my eyes with tears. But it did. Such an honest plea.

Terrible things happen and humanity is stuck with the default reality that we will suffer and die at some point on this journey. But when a person believes in God, there is hope…the possibility of joy that can transcend all suffering and even death itself.

But if you don’t believe in God…or even god…you find yourself at the mercy of fate and all the little hells of human existence.

Though I have questioned why certain things have happened in my life, I’ve rarely—even for a moment—doubted the existence of God. He is as real to me as my own skin. The only times I’ve doubted His supernatural existence is when I have placed Him on my human level and discovered I really don’t see Him as clearly as I want to.

Lessons #1—God is God and I am not.

My faith is pure gift. I don’t deserve it. I never earned it. And I grieve for those who don’t share it.

As I drove the kids home with their new found treasures—gifts I know they plan on giving for the next birthday or holiday—I am grateful not only for my faith but also for the anonymous note on that brick wall.

To pray for faith…is the beginning.

God will do the rest.

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

 

 

I May Never Know Why

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

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

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

But she didn’t. She looked scared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might as well have been talking to the trees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

I may never know why.

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

Elaine will always live in spirit…and in me.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Go Get ‘Em, Girl!

So, okay…I decided I’d had enough of the broken plastic tiles in the basement, and I was going to fix the problem once and for all. Go get ‘em girl!

I strode into the flooring store ready to pick out a solution and get on with my life.

I entered said store and was immediately overwhelmed by the glorious selections hanging from wall to wall. I never realized I had been floor-deprived before, but I suddenly felt like I had entered a new dimension. One where floors stay politely underfoot and don’t slide backward as you go out the door. Or fall to pieces if one dares to sweep out the corners.

A nice gentleman strode up and asked me a simple question, which quickly made me realize that I not only was I floor deficient; I also have an uncanny ability to become an instant idiot. Recipe? Just ask a question and wait.

“So what are you looking for?”

Seemed like a straightforward query, but my one-word answer “flooring” didn’t take us anywhere. I finally clued into his pointed stare and responded with “for a hallway and a bathroom,” regaining a semblance of composure.

Which I lost again within seconds.

“So what are the dimensions?”

He might as well have asked the circumference of the moon. I had realized approximately a nanosecond before he spoke—not only what he was going to ask—but that I had not a centimeter’s clue as to the answer.

My I-might-as-well-fake-it response, “Well, about from here to the door and about yay-wide” only brought a completely composed expression from the salesman. Though I do suspect that behind the mask, he was wondering why he hadn’t retired the day before.

Ladies, I feel I owe you a collective apology. Not only do I never knock out the bad guys like in every Marvel movie ever, but my retorts to clear questions are lame, and when face to face with the average salesman/repairman, I usually leave the impression that I don’t know which end of a hammer pounds a nail.

Why is that?

It’s not that I don’t have any savvy role models in my life. I know plenty of intelligent, quick-witted women who can make conversation sparkle like champagne. But put me in a room with more than one other person—or a repair guy—and I might as well have been born in the Neolithic age.

Good Heavens! I’ve raised eight kids and lived to tell about it. My whole life is one escapade after another. But my adventures are not the big screen kind. And that may be part of my problem. Being a woman in the modern age appears to require a level of heroism unmatched in human history. And frankly, I don’t know how the gorgeous, snappy-talking, totally composed, strong-as-titanium women presented to the world through big and little screens actually feel, but I wonder if the load gets a bit heavy sometimes.

I’m hardly advocating floor-dimension-ignorance when shopping for tiles, but I imagine that the sales guy wasn’t nearly as scandalized by my imperfections as I was. I’ll still tackle my list of home improvement projects, and hopefully, remember to bring any significant information into the process, but I won’t bother to go into it with a kick-a attitude.

Too exhausting.

I will measure the floor, though.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

And Everything In Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude shook her head and murmured under her breath.

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

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

The buzzer insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you’re not avoiding me?”

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

“You didn’t return my messages…”

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

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

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Brave Smile

I met a brave smile yesterday, and my faith in humanity flickered back to life. I had recently met with a painful disappointment, and I believed that a piece of my heart was broken beyond repair.

But I discovered that even a broken heart responds to a brave smile.

At the time, I was sitting between two young women I hardly knew, making light conversation with a few heavy topics thrown in for variety. The woman on my left was as innocent as the dawn of creation, but the one on my right smiled through sad eyes. Perhaps I read more in than was there…perhaps I saw myself reflected in her gaze. But that was what amazed me. I dared to care.

As I drove home from Mass tonight, a storm flickered in the northern sky. There isn’t usually lightning this time of the year, but the weather has been oddly mixed up. Probably just matching humanity’s mood swings. From the CD player, a violin rose and fell in wild cadences and on the horizon clouds loomed like mountains. I drove through the black night with rustling trees swaying and dried corn stalks swirling from the barren fields like remnants of ghosts.

At Mass Father had mentioned that life expectancy in the US has dropped the last few years, partially because of “diseases of despair”—addictions and suicide. This reality struck me as especially terrible in a generation with more technological and medical advancements and greater wealth, education, and entertainment opportunities than ever before. I guess the old saying is true: You can’t buy happiness…or even a ray of hope. Later as the priest held up the Host, I more clearly understood the reality of perfect God coming as food to a starving and imperfect human race.

And loving us anyway.

I rarely know the deep grief of those around me, but I still find it comforting to remember a young woman with sad eyes smiled at me.

The wind blows, rattling the windows as the threatening storm arrives, bringing freezing temperatures. Soon, the kids and I will watch part four of a series on John Quincy Adams, and I’ll be reminded once again that humanity has faced mighty trials both personal and societal yet lived to tell the tale…despite our hurts and broken hearts.

Despair is not the only option to pain, grief, and fear. Courage and endurance are still possible. No doubt, you, too, have known your share of grief. Just a quick scroll through any social media platform or the news of the day is enough to make a person want to crawl under a rock. Forever.

But a brave smile offered me encouragement and solace when I needed it. I doubt she’ll ever know. But you and I know.

A brave smile can enkindle a spark of hope in a world that needs it badly. Even if your heart is breaking…smile anyway.

Dare to care.

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