Start in the Clouds

“Just put me out of my misery now, would you?” Wearing a pair of worn work jeans, a plaid shirt, and mud splattered tennis shoes, Kevin pushed back from his laptop desk and swiped a large coffee mug off the side table. “I might as well try fishing for tuna at the Skinner’s pond.”

His bulky frame positioned before his ancient computer, George grinned and thrust out his empty mug. “Since you’re getting a refill?”

“What do I look like? A serving—”

“Ah, ah! Careful. Don’t lose your nice boy demeanor the moment you get offline. After all, a good woman can smell a fraud all the way across the cyber universe.”

“Sure, she can smell fraud…but can she see decency, kindness, and everlasting patience?” Kevin plowed his way through the cluttered office, scattering stray papers in his wake.

The overhead light glinting off his bald head, George leaned back on his chair, the rollers squeaking in useless appeal, and propped his scuffed boots on the corner of his desk. “I told you that this online dating thing was a waste of your time and talent. No good woman will put her face on a dating site. And those that do will only see you’re an unmarried farm boy with four kids. Not a romance in the making, my boy.”

Sloshing coffee into his cup, Kevin shook his head. He yanked a paper towel from the rack and wiped up the spill. With a steadier hand, he filled George’s mug brimful. “Look, this isn’t exactly St. Louis. Small town America has lots of land and sky but few people. Not a lot of unmarried options around here.”

“You could try the big city…visit your friend…the cool one with the long ponytail and suave attitude. He’s probably got women lining up—”

Passing George’s mug safely into his friend’s hands, Kevin perched on the edge of a ripped couch and blew on the steaming coffee. “Not really. He’s struggling as much as I am. Says that every woman he goes out with has this list…an impossible list by the way. A guy has to split the bill…or he’s a Neanderthal. Except for the ones who expect him to pay for everything, or he’s a selfish jerk. And women like beards…or hate them. Got to have a decent job that pays well, you better revere your mother, and God forbid you have a strong opinion about religion or politics.”

George snorted. “Just to be fair…”

Kevin stared over his cup. “Yeah? What?”

“Well, I happened to notice that you put on your profile that you live with your mom.”

“She’s sixty-eight years old and would be in a nursing home if I wasn’t helping her out.”

“Not exactly chick-bait, my friend.” He swallowed a sip of coffee and shrugged. “Though I admire your honesty, did you have to mention that you got laid off last year?”

“The harvest was terrible. Besides, I picked up carpentry work and made more money in the long run…”

“I know and you know…but listen, buddy… You’re going to have to explain every bloody detail or learn to leave some stuff out.”

“I suppose I should leave my kids out?” Kevin’s jaw hardened as he returned to his desk.

“Naw. I think you should tell the truth about them upfront. Your wife died. You’ve done a great job with the kids…and any woman who isn’t open to that isn’t worth your time anyway.”

“Like anyone wants to deal with…”

“What?”

“Anyone’s real life.”

George sighed and dropped his feet to the ground. “Now, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.” George folded his hands in his lap and leaned forward. “Look. Back in my day, a guy met a gal at a school dance or got set up by a friend…or maybe saw a nice girl at church or something. Heck, it just sort of happened. We had movies and stuff, but we knew that wasn’t real. Least most of us knew.”

Kevin propped his head in his hand. “But now?”

George flicked a finger at the computer screen. “Well, now, everything is done online. Shopping, banking, even this dating thing. And it’s all in the head. Works for numbers…but not so good for the heart. How many women have you reviewed just this week, say?”

Kevin shrugged. “Maybe twenty profiles…”

“See? That’s exactly what I mean. Twenty! Lord, have mercy; they all get to looking alike after five. No one can get excited about meeting woman number seven or eight…or fifteen. We’re just not built that way. We’re social beings…our attraction is filtered through our senses. All you got to go on is a few pictures and a carefully worded bio.”

Kevin dragged his fingers through his hair. “Times are a changing, my friend. I’m long past school dances, my friends are married—hanging on for all they’re worth—or divorced and bitter. And the average age of women at my mom’s church is about seventy.”

George squinted at Kevin. “You looked at twenty profiles? Really?”

“Or so…”

“And not one of them caught your eye?”

“Several did…but one gal had a weird sense of humor, another was three years younger than me, two were going to nursing school so they’ll never even think about staying home with kids, and besides…can you imagine the school loans? And the rest either had kids or had ticking clocks or—”

“Sheesh! And I thought women were picky!”

“Aw, quit! I just don’t want to get entangled in another messy family. You remember Brenda’s sister? Issues, man. Major drama. And I’m hardly in a position to take on anyone’s financial mess…”

“Do you happen to hear yourself when you talk?”

Kevin tapped his keypad and glared at George.

“Hey, just saying… You’ve decided all this stuff without one conversation, right? Or maybe one or two conversations…”

“Who wants to wade into quicksand?”

George snorted and glanced at his watch. “You do, pal. You do. You want a relationship with a woman…expect quicksand. Expect drama, financial stress, scary family closets, sick kids, bad-mood days, lonely nights, and a few headaches to boot.”

Kevin stared at his screen. “Sounds charming.”

“Yeah. But that’s only part of it. There are also the quiet talks on the couch, holding hands, smiles from across the room when you both know what the other one is thinking, the kind of hug that holds your heart in place when nothing else in the world can…” George stood and plodded across the room. He patted Kevin’s arm. “Hell, look at us. You hate how I decorate the workspace, whine about my filing system, undermine my authority every chance you get, and act like an overgrown puppy half the time. Do I mind? Yeah. But do I put up with you? Sure. And we make a great team.” He leaned down. “Now add in a great—”

George put his hand in front of George’s mouth. “Stop now. Save yourself. And me.” He shifted and glanced at his friend. “I get it.”

“Good.” George put his empty mug on the sideboard and headed for the restroom. “After work, check out a couple profiles, chat to some lucky woman. And bring yourself back to earth, man. Even if you do have to start in the clouds.”

Kevin watched his friend stride out the door. He shook his head…and grinned.

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

The Kid Inside

So okay, I’m taking a new look at men & women relationships in the modern world and with grown kids looking to the future, and I wonder what’s in store for them.

As I attempted to sleep last night, I started thinking about the whole Adam and Eve scenario…but from a 21st-century perspective.

Imagine the complications…

God, Almighty Creator of the Universe, leads his charming beauty forward and—

Adam’s eyebrows furrow. “Hmmm, she’s got a rib there that looks mighty familiar.” He’d undoubtedly want to know if God got a legal release for the use of private property…and a few other concerns… “This a 50-50 deal or does she expect me to hunt all by my lonesome?”

Eve would eye the cave wondering if it would get cable, if the Internet could bounce through the thick walls, and how often Adam cleaned the gutters. “He wouldn’t expect me to grill one of those ridiculous woolly mammoths over an open fire, would he?”

Let’s hold off on serious family dysfunction issues for the moment. Even Adam and Eve had their trials.

Any words of wisdom?

Huh. I can hear your silence from here.

I did manage to fall asleep. But it took a while. When I awoke it was with the image of a child in my mind—a child disfigured by a facial wound, which hid his true features.

That image has haunted me all day. Now I’m wondering at my tendency to see men and women relationships as separate from our childhood experiences, though in reality, we are all children of God, still processing our own “child” within. Any wonder that people of very advanced age become as helpless as children?

Clearly, God could have arranged our life cycle another way…but instead, we start as helpless babies, grow strong (hopefully), and then grow weak and childlike again.

So how does that inform our most intimate relationships?

I realized some years ago that the only way to deal with people who make me angry is to lift my spirit to God and ask Him to help me see the other person as He does. As the child He created—innocent and full of glorious potential. When you’re looking at someone making an idiot of him or herself, or doing something so wrong that your whole body cringes, it’s mighty hard to picture them as glorious.

But that appears to be the key to long-lasting relationships. Not seeing what is…but what could be—what should be—and hanging in there. That hardly means we assent to Cain’s murderous actions or accept destructive behavior, but rather, though we may have to step away—we do so without wishing the worst for the other person.

When faced with bad behavior, I often think, “I’m not going to forget this.” Oh, I tell myself that I’ll forgive but forget? Why would I do that? Got to protect myself, don’t I?

Yet, I find that I can both forgive and forget the mistakes of children. They are just learning. They don’t know any better. “Father, forgive them…they know not what they do…”

Am I capable of channeling that grace toward the whole human race? To my brothers and sisters on this life journey? In up close and personal, even intimate, relationships?

I’m not claiming that I can. I’m just wondering aloud if that’s what it takes to make marriage and parenthood—even friendships—work.

The knitting of this country’s fabric is once again being tested to the breaking point. Like a marriage, we are bound together by ideals and ties that go well beyond our personal inclinations. We are more than an assembly of parts. Just like a family is more than just a room full of people. I doubt anyone is holding the US up as the picture of national contentment at this moment in history.

Our human progenitors may have had the first crack at the human family and the first experiment in designing a great society…but I doubt they had it easy. They had their trials too. Their kids probably didn’t exactly make them look like model parents.

Now when I consider my human relationships, I try not to demand an ideal scenario. Rather, I hope to look beyond the natural disfigurements of this imperfect journey and see the kid inside each of us

The one God loves as His own.

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

Supernatural Synchronization

So today I sat in the car waiting for kid #8 to finish her piano lesson while a CD daughter #1 put together with a variety of music played in the background. I finished saying the rosary, and then I watched the wind run rampant over the yard, tugging at ribbons tied to posts, and setting tree branches dancing. A strange synchronization of music and rippling grass made me sit up and take notice.

I’ve been reading Christopher West’s book Theology of the Body, which delves into the mysteries of the human experience as body and soul and God’s manifestations of love through His desire to unite with us. The concept of “Spiritual Communion” in terms of the human race, past, present, and future is familiar to me, so I wasn’t completely overwhelmed by the profound sense of unity I experienced as the wind and music swept over me.

What did raise my heart beat was when I started thinking about how this world is full of mysterious gateways and then the literal gate directly in front of me broke free from its constraint and bounced wide open. Now that startled me. But I had to smile.

As the music slowed and the song ended, a cloud swept overhead and darkened my little part of the world. At that same moment, the wind disappeared. All was quiet, dark, and still. My heart pounded a little harder.

When the next song started, the cloud vanished; sunbeams streaked across the ground, and the wind rose up and animated everything in its path. The glory of music and nature along with this supernatural harmony was impossible to miss.

I’m sure there are many explanations for the beauty of those moments. But as I drove my daughter home and reentered the “real” world, I didn’t care about explanations. I felt as if I had encountered a moment of spiritual lovemaking, and I wasn’t going to mess it up with words or rationales.

Sometimes, I suspect, the reason we humans get so lost and depressed isn’t because no one knows or loves us. It’s simply because we don’t know ourselves, Whose we are, and accept the love that is staring us in the face.

I started out this morning convinced that I was a failure on a hundred levels. I sat in a car and allowed something mysterious to happen. I did not will it. I did not deserve it. But I sure did accept it.

I’m home now and there is no music and little wind, but my heart is still beating, and I’m smiling.

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 and 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

Where Is My Hope Now?

Kevin stared at the red tube going from the pole into his arm and knew that he was going to die. At forty-five, he was still young enough to feel that he still had way too much ahead of him to quit now. But then, he sighed, I’ve had a better life than many of others. Still…

His mom’s grey head poked through the doorway. “You decent?”

With a snort, Kevin shook his head. “If you don’t mind the sight of blood flowing into my veins…I’m decent enough.” He peered down at his stained sweatpants and ragged shirt.

Ginger tiptoed into the room, her gaze roaming from side to side. Three other patients sat slumped in a line of chairs in various stages of intravenous feedings…blood, medicine…chicken soup, for all she knew. Swallowing back the ache in her throat at the sight of her son pale and drained, she squared her shoulders. No time to be weak now. Be strong, old woman. Still, her hand shook as she patted her son’s shoulder. “The nurse said you’re almost done, and you can go home as soon as they’ve made sure you’re not going to faint.” She looked around. “They give you crackers or anything?”

“Juice and crackers. Deluxe treatment.” Kevin winced. He didn’t mean to sound so sarcastic, but his back was killing him. Three hours was way too long to sit in a chair.

“Well, I’ve got coupons for the family restaurant next door. I thought we’d grab a bite before we head out into the wilds of—”

“I’m not hungry, Ma. But you can—”

“I’m not hungry either, but that hardly matters, does it? We don’t eat just to make ourselves happy. We eat to stay alive. And you need to stay alive a little longer. Hear me?”

Kevin clenched his jaw. He knew it was absurd to argue with his seventy-eight-year-old mother. She had a long-standing tradition of repeating herself until he gave in. He merely nodded and glanced over as the nurse came in and started to unplug him from the technology that saved his life each week.

After they settled in a red booth and the waitress took their order, Kevin pulled out his phone and scrolled through. There were three messages from his friend Dave at work. He frowned and pushed the redial.

Ginger pointed to the lady’s room and toddled off.

His eyes following his mom’s careful maneuvers around the café, he listened as Dave picked up the call.

“Kevin? That you?”

With a snort, Kevin laughed. “Yeah, what’da think? I was just getting blood, not a new heart or anything.”

“Oh, well, I’ve got news…”

Kevin felt a ripple of fear shoot through him.

David cleared his throat. “Hey, man, you sitting down?”

A headache building between his eyes, Kevin tapped the table top in staccato fashion. “In a booth at an overcrowded family diner, if that’s any comfort. What’s going on?”

“I hate to tell you this over the phone, but the news has it all over…”

Kevin’s hand shook and a thousand bees buzzed in his head. “What?”

“Rhonda was in a head-on collision after work today. Five-car pileup. Three dead, two critical, and one kid survived without a scratch. But Rhonda…”

“The bees began stinging. Kevin’s whole body trembled, and he wondered if he’d puke his crackers and juice all over the floor.

Dave’s voice rose. “You okay, Kev?”

Kevin dropped his head on his arms, the phone slipping off his ear. He could hear Dave shouting. “Kev? Where are you, man? I’m coming—”

He felt the phone plucked from his weak grasp and his mom’s shaky voice. “Hello? Oh, Dave. Yes, just saw it on the news. So tragic.”

Silence.

His mom’s voice dropped to bedrock. “I see. Terribly sad. For all of you. Rhonda was a dear girl…woman. Don’t worry. I’ve got Kevin with me. I’ll get him home now. If you want to meet us—”

Silence and then an assenting “Yes, that’s a good idea.”

Kevin had little memory of the drive home or how he got into bed. He only remembered the sensation of falling. And not being able to save himself.

~~~

When he opened his eyes, Kevin realized that he had slept through the night and a good part of the next morning. Groggily, he raked his fingers through his hair, shuffled from his rumpled bed to the bathroom, stripped, and took the longest, hottest shower he could stand. He stood naked and grimaced at the pile of dirty laundry on the wet bathroom floor.

He heard Dave’s voice on the other side of the door. “You want something bright or dark?”

Kevin shook his head. “Black as hell, if you can find it.”

As he dried himself, the door opened a crack and a pair of dark blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater flew through the air and smacked him in the head.

“Best I could do. You have the worst selection of clothes this side of—”

Ginger’s voice piped up. “Oh, leave him alone, Dave. You know how he is. Platypuses have more fashion sense.” She lifted her voice as if he was in Siberia rather than the bathroom. “Breakfast is ready. Better hurry before it gets cold.”

Kevin winced as he pulled on his jeans, mumbling under his breath.

When he sat down at the kitchen counter, a large platter of bacon, eggs, and toast was set in glorious array before his wondering eyes. He couldn’t believe that his stomach rumbled in salubrious joy. Traitorous things…stomachs.

Dave pulled up a stool and perched on Kevin’s right with a large cup of coffee, a faint aroma of cinnamon wafting through the air. His mom bustled about his tiny kitchen like she owned the place.

Dave watched him eat with absorbed interest. Finally, Kevin nodded to his mom. “She can make you a plate—”

“Naw, I already ate.” He glanced at the bustling homemaker. “You ever want to trade moms, just let me know. I’d even pay extra…”

An image of Dave’s fashionable mother as she commanded underlings at city hall sent a shudder through Kevin’s body. Then he remembered the news and dropped his fork. “Oh, God. Rhonda.”

Ginger turned and gripped his hand. “It’s awful, honey. But—”

Nearly leaping from his seat, Kevin felt his pulse racing. “But what? We have to accept what we can’t change? She died mercifully quick—God, I hope so!” A sob struggled to free itself from his throat. “But where is my hope now?”

With tears coursing down his cheeks, Dave took Kevin’s other hand. “Where it’s always been, man. Right here. With us. With Joe, Dan, Kelly, and all the others at work. With the nurses, the doctors, your mom, and…” He swiped the rolling tears away. “Oh, God.”

Ginger lifted her chin. “Listen, if you’d have been at work yesterday, more than likely you’d have been in that car with Rhonda. And you’d probably had died then and there. But instead, you were getting your treatments…ones that save your life one week at a time.”

Ice coursed through Kevin’s body. “But not forever.”

“No. Not forever. Not for you…not for me…” Ginger glanced at Dave. “Not for any of us.”

Kevin sucked in a deep shuddering breath and slumped on the counter. He covered his face with his hands. “So much pain.”

Dave gripped his arm. “But you’re not alone.”

Kevin looked up and met his friend’s honest gaze.

Dave nodded in Ginger’s direction as she returned to the sink. “She needs you. So do I. And everyone at work misses your ugly face.”

As Kevin felt his friend’s hand grip his arm, he could practically feel fresh blood flowing into his veins.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

A Timeless Truth

Henrietta has escaped, and my daughter is dearly worried. Henrietta has been missing all day. Henrietta is a hamster.

The truth is, I heard Henrietta scrabbling at her cage, saw that it was two in the morning, mumbled, “No bloody way,” and pulled the covers over my head to keep out the cold. And any furry visitors.

My daughter got up, comforted her progeny, and went back to bed.

But did that satisfy the quadruped? Nope. Henrietta chewed a hole through a cage any decent rodent would be proud of and ran off to golly-knows-where.

As my kids searched the house from top to bottom, I tried really hard to get emotionally invested. I squinted so I could remember what the tan and white critter looked like, squeezed my heart into kid-remembrances of former rodent pets, cajoled my mood to get into the spirit of concern…but…frankly, it was a losing battle.

I’ve had too many episodes with mice in the cabinets, rats in the outbuildings, possums in the feed sacks, and countless other run-ins with wildlife to get overly upset over a missing hamster.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about Henrietta. I do care, for one very good reason. My daughter cares.

There have been many instances in my life where I have had to stretch my emotional bank account into new territory. Many the time I have stood before an array of photos while family members gushed through wonderful memories, smiling, giggling, outright belly laughing at memories of so-and-so doing such-and-such and nudging me in the ribs as if I shared their glorious past. I had no clue. No memory. No warm feelings. No shared gush of any kind.

I learned after one particularly dramatic episode when a friend laughed till she nearly cried to look—not at the photo—but rather at the person remembering. The one still loving. Then I discovered that I could join in. Sort of.

In some weird, mysterious way, I could then see the baby, the brother, the husband, or mother through familiar eyes and gain a semblance of the reality they were seeing. I never actually co-opted their memories. I could never go back in time and experience those exact memories of nights rocking the little one, sibling pillow fights, intimate spousal lovemaking, or parental forgiveness, but I could love the person standing next to me as they remembered. That act of love crosses time, distance, and even death itself. The remembered loved one might as well have been perched on the arm of the couch, filling in the details. They become that real.

So now, when photos are pulled out, I don’t pull away. I look, listen, and watch the walls of reality open to a timeless truth. Sincere love does not die. It may lie quietly on a shelf for years but pull out the photos…and it lives once again.

As for Henrietta, she must have been sleeping. Once night fell, her tummy awoke, and she sashayed into the middle of the bedroom looking for all the world as if she owned the place and expected room service. My daughter scooped her up, offered a minor scold, fed, and played with her. Lucky rodent.

Okay, the truth is, I don’t feel any closer to Henrietta…but I still care. Because love can be shared. Even with a hamster.

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 and 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

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

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