Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Thirteen

Long Past Trust

Justine stood in the middle of the pristine laboratory, analyzing Taug, her legs wide, her arms folded across her chest, and one eyebrow raised, marring her symmetrical face. She spoke with forced precision. “You-want-me-to-kidnap-Derik?”

Taug’s tentacles spread in acceptance. “You’ve accomplished far more difficult tasks. This shouldn’t prove much of a challenge.”

Justine swatted a mosquito on her arm and frowned. She darted a look from Taug to the sterile room and back to Taug. “Why?”

Taug slapped at the buzz of an insect in his ear. He waddled over to a small tank, lifted the lid, peered in, shook his head, and replaced it. “He hasn’t been answering my messages. The last time we spoke, I urged him to move in—”

“You want him to live in the lab? Why?” Justine squared her shoulders and unfolded her arms, fists ready for hand-to-hand combat.

Completely ignoring Justine, Taug’s eyes followed a buzzing insect around the room. “He might get hurt out in the open.”

Justine snatched the fly from the air and held it by the wing. It dangled, buzzing even more furiously. She pounded forward, staring Taug in the eye. “Tell me the truth.”

A tentacle flew at Justine. In a second, her legs were wrapped in a tight squeeze. Taug flipped her across the room.

Justine regained her footing and barreled forward, her head down in ramming position.

Taug’s body quivered on impact. He grabbed a tentacle-full of hair and pulled Justine’s head back so that she could see him. One tentacle held a Dustbuster while another tapped a small, black sphere on his belt.

Justine froze, her gaze fixed on the belt.

Taug shoved her back and gestured with the Dustbuster. “Stand by the wall.” He circled her as he held the weapon leveled at her chest. “When it comes to telling the truth, you’ve not been particularly forthcoming.” He nodded at the micro-recorder on his belt. “You’ve seen this before? I implanted a matching one on Derik; it looks like a mole on the back of his neck. I dare say he hasn’t noticed, but you have.” A snide grin slithered across his face. “With this little ear, I’ve heard every conversation he’s had. I must say, he’s not an original lover but at least he seems sincere.”

Justine’s jaw clenched, fitting her rock-like stance. “None of your business.”

Taug chided her with a waving tentacle. “Oh, but Derik is my business. As he is supposed to be yours. No good ever comes from mixing business with pleasure, I always say.” Taug aimed the Dustbuster as Justine’s hand quivered. “Don’t even think about it. I’m not a fool. It would only take one mark to have you disassembled for spare parts. My notes, available to every Cresta upon my death, would identify you as my murderer. Your memories are not so valuable so as to save you a second time.”

Justine threw back her head, defiant. “What do you want?”

“Retrieve Derik. I want him here, in my lab, tomorrow. And I want him to know that he needs to cooperate with me or—”

“You’re threatening me?”

“Very effectively.”

Justine strode to the wall-tank and ran a finger across the glass. She stared into the murky depths with studious indifference. “What are you planning to do, long term?”

Taug lowered his tentacle, relaxing the Dustbuster against his side. “If it was necessary for you to know, I’d tell you, but it’s not. All you need to know is that his life depends on how efficiently you obey me.”

Justine’s splayed hand stiffened. “I’m your slave now?”

“The term slave involves the possibility of freedom; you don’t have that, so you are not a slave.”

Justine turned, her gaze frozen, and stepped toward Taug. “What am I, then?”

“A tool.”

“You cold-blooded, inhumane—”

Taug chuckled, his bulbous eyes gleaming. “Trust me, being human isn’t quite as charming as it’s made out to be. I’ve had a lot of experience, and humans are often every bit as cold-blooded as a Cresta. The difference is that I work in accordance with my nature; therefore, I’m perfecting myself. Humans have no such hope.” Taug meandered past Justine toward the wall. “I’m going for a swim. Mention that to Derik. It’ll make your task a little easier.”

Justine strode to the door but before crossing the threshold, she stopped. She looked back at Taug. “And the insects? What are they for?”

Nodding in approval, Taug slid the Dustbuster back into a sleeve pocket. “I knew you’d ask. They are a part of my studies. Insects have some rather startling qualities that I might find useful.”

Justine grunted her agreement as she stalked out of the room. “You’d make a good insect yourself.”

~~~

Justine chopped carrots at lightning speed. Her fingers swept the assembly of other vegetables into a waiting pot, swiveled to the sink, and added water. Faster than a human eye could follow, she dropped in spices and a variety of mystery ingredients.

As the spicy aroma pervaded the room, Derik shuffled into the kitchen. He hugged her from behind and kissed her neck. “Hmmm, hmm, that smells good! How did you manage to put that together so quickly?”

Justine leaned back into the hug and reached behind to ruffle his thick hair. “I already had it prepared. I just needed to warm it up.”

“Gorgeous, intelligent, and a good cook. Is there another woman like you on the planet?”

Justine’s lopsided smile wavered. “Not likely.”

A ting sent her into her living room. Ivy stenciling meandered across the upper walls while baskets of hanging plants brightened the corners. Oldearth-style paintings hung strategically throughout the room. Justine ignored it all as she retrieved her datapad. Taug’s face rose into view. Justine slapped the datapad against her thigh as Derik ambled into the room.

Justine shook her head and flipped the pad over on her desk. “Just a reminder.” She stepped over to a wide couch and patted the seat next to her. “We need to talk.”

Derik grimaced. “Something important?”

Justine interpreted his expression and grinned winningly. “Not that kind of talk.”

“Ah, good!” Derik slid onto the couch beside her, one arm swinging up and around her shoulders.

She caressed one of his legs with hers. “I met a friend of yours, a Cresta named Taug.”

Derik jerked, but Justine held him back with a comforting touch. “Don’t worry. He told me everything. About you and his father. It was a relief, really. I knew there was something different about you, but I just never imagined—”

Derik closed his eyes and leaned back with a strangled sigh. “Why did he have to tell—you?”

“He cares about you.” Justine stroked Derik’s cheek. “For a Cresta, that’s a high compliment. He said he could help you adjust to all the changes. But you need to trust him.”

Derik opened his eyes and stared at Justine. “Did he tell you that he considered killing me?”

Justine shifted closer and breathed into his ear, stroking his cheek. Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “He told me everything. He needs you, and I want you to be happy.”

Tears brimming, Derik leaned forward. “I’m a mixed breed, illegal, and unwanted by every race in the universe. I should’ve had the courage to tell you. It’s been hell trying to hide my deformities, but I was afraid—”

Justine ran a finger across his lips. “Don’t. I have eyes; I already knew…some things. But it doesn’t bother me. The man I care about is on the inside. Not the shell on the outside.”

Derik’s delicate composure fractured. He dropped his face into his hands and sobbed. “I don’t deserve you.”

A twisted smile shadowed Justine’s face. “Maybe not. But you’ve got me just the same. And Taug. Question is, will you trust us?”

Derik wiped his eyes and leaned into Justine’s comforting embrace. “It’s gone long past trust.”

~~~

Derik removed the swimming mask from his face and pulled a large towel from a rack above his dripping bodysuit. The suit didn’t cover his Cresta anatomy, which allowed him to absorb the nutrients and experience the intoxicating sensation of revitalized Cresta skin. He had little to compare the sensation to, but he openly admitted that it was addictive. This month he had gone swimming with Taug nearly every day.

Taug donned his bio-suit in calm dignity. His eyes flickered over Derik’s human-Cresta body, and he pursed his puffy lips. He no longer shuddered at the sight of Derik’s anatomy. In fact, Derik wondered if he wasn’t just a bit jealous.

Derik had shown that he had the capacity to enjoy Cresta sensibilities with remarkable depth. Yet he also retained the ability to enjoy a fully functioning human body. Though Derik did have to wear bio-suits now, so did everyone in away. Even humans had to wear protective clothing.

As soon as they were dressed, Taug gestured Derik toward a round steel table piled high with instruments, standing in front of a wall of medical scanners. “It’s time.”

Derik shook his head. “I’m awfully tired. Couldn’t we skip it today? I mean, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Taug rubbed one tentacle across his chin meditatively. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.” He padded across the room. “I’m concerned about you.”

Idly lifting one of the medical instruments, Derik peered at it closely. “Me? Why? You’re the only one I know who wants me dead, so I’m relatively safe, don’t you think?” Derik’s accompanying chuckle proved how far their relationship had developed.

Taug appeared to appreciate the joke and offered a thin smile in return. “True, but Newearth is still a dangerous place. Beings get injured all the time; they’re victims of a hundred crimes a day. You never know when something might happen.”

Derik thumped his chest. “No one is going to mess with me.” He wagged his finger playfully at Taug. “You’re in far more danger than I am.”

“That is another consideration.” Taug shuffled closer. “Derik, I’d like you to live here.”

The instrument dangled from Derik’s hand. “At a laboratory?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you live here?”

“I have a small room in the back, but I would install separate quarters for you, a nice apartment, better than what you have now. That way you won’t have to travel back and forth, and we can continue working—”

Slapping the instrument on the table, Derik pouted. “But I have a job and a life! I’m not just your pet project, you know. I have a relationship and my job is very—”

“Low paying. I could pay you five times as much.”

Derik shuffled across the room, curiosity getting the better of him. “You never offered to pay before.”

“I was still deciding.”

Stopping in mid-stride, Derik turned and unrolled a heart monitor from the wall. He darted a glance at Taug and twirled the tip between his fingers. “So if I take your offer, you’re certain you won’t kill me?”

Taug hesitated for just an instant. “Yes.”

Derik dropped the heart monitor. “I don’t know. I like your offer, but I need to think about it. I want to talk to Justine.” Derik smirked and tilted his head back, appraising the figure before him. “So, are you considered good looking, on Crestar, I mean?”

Taug wiggled, a humorous gleam in his eye. “I was what you would call ‘quite the catch.’ In fact, I had so many Crestar females asking to be my mate that my parents held an auction.”

Derik swallowed, his eyes bugging as he stumbled forward. “What? Your parents auctioned you off?”

Taug nearly fell backward in a spasm of delight. “No, no. You are such a hatchling! I forget. No, they auctioned for the female to be my prize.”

Derik rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as if to wipe away a bad taste. “That’s sick! I thought males and females had equal status in your culture.”

Taug shook his head impatiently. “They do, but you misunderstand. Equal does not mean the same. We have rituals for mating and procreation, much like you humans. There was once something humans called the bride price, was there not?”

“In our barbaric past.”

“Perhaps, but for us, the bride price is not barbaric. It shows how much the family wants the match and the worth of the female. You can trust that we do not waste our families. Males, females, and hatchlings each have an important part to play in our culture, and we do not treat any of them as expendable.” Taug looked away.

Derik reached for the heart monitor again, as if clinging to a lifeline, and pulled it free of the wall. “But you’re scientists. You experiment on everyone. If you experiment, someone has to be expendable.”

Taug stood frozen. His gaze returned to Derik, appraising him anew. “It’s intriguing, the way you think. But still, you don’t understand. Science is our greatest good. To further science is the highest call, and therefore, no one is expendable.”

Derik shook his head and stepped to the door. It slid open automatically. “Well, for a while there, I was pretty expendable. Maybe I’m not now, but seeing how things can change, I’d rather keep my options open.” He trudged across the threshold.

Taug shuffled over, picked the heart monitor off the floor, and clutched it to his chest, his gaze never leaving the doorway.

“Ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” Desmond Tutu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Eight

If You Dare Enough

—Grassland—

Namah watched a spider weave its web in the corner of her home while the sun set in crimson and gold. A conviction that she would never see such a sight again spread through her.

After an uneventful night’s sleep, she stood in the doorway and watched the morning’s sunrise, feeling mildly surprised that she had lived to see a new day. She glanced in the corner. The spider was nowhere in sight, but the web sparkled in a shaft of a sunbeam.

She stepped outside and began her morning routine. Pouring water from a large basin, she washed her hands and face and then stirred the outdoor fire and added kindling to the pink-centered coals, drawing life from the gray heap.

After a simple breakfast of mixed grains and goat’s milk, she called next door for her daughter, Gizah, to attend her. Living with her sister, Bethal, and her brother, Bararam, Gizah fit herself to the role of servant to all. She hurried to her mother with a beaming smile and clasped her hand. “Morning!”

Namah’s heart clenched and then expanded as she smiled back. Squeezing her child’s hand, she peered into the young woman’s laughing eyes. “You are the treasure of the family, child.”

Gizah giggled. “Treasure that some lucky man is just waiting to possess, no doubt!”

“No doubt, indeed. Your line will prosper like no other. I’ve seen it in my mind’s eye.” A return of foreboding clutched at Namah’s chest. “Tell your sister and brother I want to see them. I have things to give them before I go.”

All hint of laughter fled from Gizah’s face. “Why? Where are you going?”

“Not for me to say or you to know just yet. Do as I say, girl. Tell them to come before sunset, or it’ll be too late.”

A frown flittering over her face, Gizah turned and entered her sister’s home.

Namah returned to her own home and poked among the shelves. She found a clay pot with an intricate design fashioned along the sides. She laid it aside and then tugged at her finest cloak until it fell free from a high hook and landed softly in her hands. Caressing the fine fibers, she eyed the bright colors and detailed edging that made it one of the finest wraps in the whole village. She had made it for Aram. He had told her to keep it for her burial.

Shaking her head, she mumbled under her breath, “And you were buried in nothing but your tunic and that old wrap with the torn edging.” She sniffed and chuckled. “I wanted to disobey you, but I didn’t. I loved you that much.”

Rubbing her back, she rifled through her possessions again, fingering toys for the children—and grandchildren—she hoped. She set certain objects to the left and others to the right and only two lay on the ground before her feet.

When the sun had risen to its peak, Bethal and Bararam appeared in her doorway.

Namah beckoned them forward, her gaze darting to Gizah, who shuffled in behind them. Stepping back, she opened her arms to the objects laid before them. “Today you must take what I give you so there will be no confusion after I’m gone.”

Tall and muscled with a head of rich black hair, Bararam towered above the women, but his surprised grin hinted at his mischievous side. “Where are you going, mother, that you offer us such gifts?”

“I go where you cannot follow…at least not yet.” She pointed to the pile on the left. “These are for you two and your families when you have them.”

Bethal gasped and knelt before a decorated pot, a pile of colored beads, and a sharp knife. Picking up the child’s toy, she caressed it in her fingers. “I remember this. It was my favorite.” She glanced up. “Why give us these now? Why not wait until I’m married and settled?”

“I may not be here then. And I want you to know…I offer these with all my love.” She nodded to the right. “And you, Gizah, will take this house and these other things: the pillow, the blanket, and my best rope for your own.”

Opening her mouth but unable to speak, Gizah stepped toward her mother and stopped suddenly at the middle pile. Her eyes widened as she stared at the fine cloak and the carved figure of a man.

Namah lifted the cloak and the wooden figure and pressed them into Gizah’s hands. “Wrap me in this, as was your father’s wish, and lay Tobia’s gift in my hands when you bury my body.” A smile quivered on her lips. “I know well enough that it is not my husband but only a likeness of his figure. But Tobia comforted me during my loss, and I want to comfort him. We will always be together like good friends.”

Voices rose across the village, and mothers called little ones to supper.

Bethal glanced at her brother.

Bararam gathered the objects in his arms and shook his head. “There’s no hurry. You’ll live many long years yet. But we’ll keep them safe in our house—until you wish them back again.”

Namah raised her eyebrows in command to her youngest daughter.

In shy obedience, Gizah bundled her gifts in her arms and followed her sister to the doorway.

Stopping on the threshold, Namah called after them. “Remember, the greatest treasure I have given you—is each other.”

Namah watched them pace to their home next-door and returned to her own abode. Fixing a light supper, she sat outside and enjoyed a cool breeze that rose with the night. A distant bird warbled and two owls hooted back and forth as in their usual evening conversation.

Memories of her first journey to the lake made her gaze shift over the water. Twinkling lights flickered in the last sunbeams as they slanted across the rippling surface.

When her chest tightened, as it usually did at night, Namah pulled herself to her feet and dragged herself to her bed. Laying her weary head on her pillow, she remembered Aram’s face, Barak’s stern countenance, Irad’s last words, her fall from the cliff, meeting Jonas for the first time, her daughters’ births, her son’s laughter, Aram’s hand clasping her own, and her trust in the unseen God. She closed her eyes and sighed in contentment.

~~~

Gizah tiptoed into her mother’s house with a bundle in her arms. She laid it aside and knelt at the bedside. She clasped the old woman’s cold hands and pressed them to her cheek. Then she kissed the gnarled fingers and held them against her breast. “Best of mothers, I will miss you forever.”

Namah did not stir.

Bowing her head, Gizah reached back and tugged the cloak free. She unfolded the cloth and laid it gently over her mother’s body. Then she reached deep into a pocket of her tunic and drew forth the wooden figure. She kissed it and laid it on her mother’s breast.

~~~

Barak exhaled a long breath and wrapped his arm around his wife as they lay in bed.

Milkan rolled onto her side and peered into Barak’s eyes. “You miss her so very much?”

“I miss many people.”

Milkan snuggled closer, drawing the blanket over her shoulders. “I wonder…is she with Aram now?”

His eyes widening, Barak stared at the thatched ceiling. “I don’t know.”

Milkan laid her head on his chest. “I wonder which of us will die first.”

Spluttering, Barak coughed. “I can’t say.”

“Well, anyway, I’m glad I knew Aram and Namah, and I’ll always miss them, but I can never be too sad when you’re with me.”

As if grief had been shoved to the side, Barak’s heart stirred with overwhelming love. Warmth spread through his body. He wrapped his wife in his arms. “I am blessed among men.” He leaned down to kiss her.

A baby cried out and an older child whined, “Mama!”

With a low groan, Milkan threw the blanket aside, heaved a deep breath, and rose to her feet.

Barak watched her, his heart swelling.

Milkan turned back and laughed. “You’re much too comfortable!”

“I will be—as soon as you return to bed.”

The cry rose a decibel to a high-pitched shriek.

Milkan stumbled away.

The crying stopped abruptly.

Milkan plodded back to bed and plunked the baby on Barak’s chest.

A whimper broke the still air.

Milkan paced away and returned with a whimpering little boy. She tucked the child under Barak’s arm, swung the baby to her chest, and lay down in bed, nudging Barak over a bit. She glanced at him. “Comfortable?”

“Not in the least.”

Milkan stared and opened her mouth.

Barak leaned over and kissed her. “But happy nonetheless.”

~~~

Jonas watched Onia saunter out of the village with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder, and her heart soared. No anxiety tugged at her heart as he wandered away to trade among their neighboring clans. He was so well-liked and trusted that Obed said he could trade a sunbeam for a loaf of bread. Jonas didn’t doubt it.

Laughter turned her attention. Mari helped one of Ishtar’s men string the day’s catch of fish on the line. The girl was always laughing—too spirited for her own good. Jonas shrugged. She had her father’s nature.

Her gaze wandered to the edge of the village, to where her first husband’s grave had melted into the earth and could only be seen by the mound of stones on top. “You are not there, love.” She placed her hand on her heart. “You’re right here.”

An arm slid around Jonas’ middle, and she shivered. She peered into Obed’s alert, sober eyes.

Obed glanced from the grave to Onia. “He’s off again?”

Jonas nodded. “He’s taking some of Tobia’s carvings this time. Said there’s a growing market for such things.”

With his shepherd’s staff clutched one hand, Obed led Jonas toward the shady side of their house. “Sit and rest a moment. You rose before the sun.”

Jonas perched on the edge of a bench. “Only to catch up with you.”

His gaze traveled around their neat and prosperous village, Obed sighed as Tobia strode toward him with Kamila walking at his side. “I’m glad that Tobia’s settled into married life and started carving again. He seems too old for one so young.”

Tobia stopped before his mother and nodded respectfully. Kamila did the same but with a smile spreading across her face.

Obed scrunched his brows together. “Where’s that figure of Caleb you made? I want Jonas to see it.”

Tobia shrugged. “I gave it to Ishtar.”

“Oh.” Disappointment washed over Obed’s face as he leaned on his staff.

Her heart bursting with joy, Jonas clasped Obed’s hand. “But I did see it. Ishtar carries it everywhere, and he showed it to Eoban. Eoban told me about it, and when I saw Ishtar, I asked about it.” Pride swelled in Jonas as she nodded at her son. “It’s your finest work yet.”

Obed glanced from his wife to Tobia. “I never saw a man change as much as Ishtar. I thought that once evil had hold, there was no turning back.”

A hot flush worked up Jonas’s cheeks.

Obed pressed her hand playfully. “But I’ve learned.”

Jonas peered into her husband’s eyes. “What have you learned?”

Obed gripped his shepherd’s staff and looked to the hills. “If you dare enough—there’s always hope.”

~~~

Lud paced silently through the wheat field, slicing weeds at their roots. As sweat poured down his face, he straightened, wiped his brow, and glanced at Dinah and the children working in their garden patch. He smiled.

The sun blazed with mid-day strength. Thirst stung his throat. Time to go home and rest. Swinging his hoe over his shoulder, he started down the incline.

A flock of birds sailed before him, twisting and turning, and then fluttering high into the sky.

Lud shook his head. The vision of Pele’s face as she peered at the wide blue expanse flashed before his eyes. He never could see what she saw. He stopped and wiped his brow again. He didn’t have to. He had seen her, and that was enough.

Gilbreth called, Dinah grinned, and Lud’s heart soared like the birds.

~~~

Eoban perched on the edge of a log as a full moon floated overhead, shrouded in wispy clouds. A fresh breeze rustled the high branches of distant trees. Lud and Gilbreth sat cross-legged on each side, while Deli dangled on his left knee, and Ham nestled contentedly in the crook of his arm.

Dinah bustled before the fire, preparing a dinner of spiced rice and rabbit with vegetables and fresh bread.

Eoban’s mouth watered.

Gilbreth glanced over. “Any stories to tell, Eoban?”

Shifting to keep his blood in circulation, Eoban met the challenge. “Well, once on a night very much like this one, there was a boy about as big as Gilbreth there, named Kilbreth.”

Deli gasped and turned wide-eyes on her brother.

Eoban patted her arm reassuringly. “Yes, similar names. Hadn’t realized. Anyway, this boy was brave and strong, but no one knew it because he never left his parents’ sides. He pined to see the world, so he left home and traveled far and wide. Time passed quickly—as it does in stories—and after many years, Kilbreth returned home much bigger and swaggering with a bounty of knowledge. The whole village welcomed him with a grand feast.”

Deli wiggled. “Like we’re going to have?”

Eoban nodded and pressed on. “But tragically, he’d forgotten everyone. His mother and father tried to pretend it wasn’t so, but he called everyone by the wrong name and, worst of all, he spent the whole night telling his family about all the fine people he met, and he never once asked about his own clan.”

Ham yawned, and Deli kicked her legs.

Lud shook his head in definite admonishment. “Foolish boy.”

Gilbreth peered through the darkness. “What happened to him?

Eoban straightened up. “Well…one dark night, he fell into a hole. He called and screamed, but no one came—remember—he had forgotten all their names.”

Deli smacked her hand against her cheek. “Uh-oh.”

Eoban shifted. “Right. Eventually, his father heard him, got the neighbors, and they hauled him out.”

Gilbreth’s eyes twinkled in the firelight. “Did Kilbreth learn his lesson?”

Eoban laid Deli in her brother’s arm and scooted Ham to the ground. “From then on, Kilbreth traveled the world, telling everyone about his own marvelous clan—and he called them each by name.”

Dinah raised her head and smiled. “Supper is ready.”

Shuffling to his feet and rubbing his back, Eoban glanced at Gilbreth. “Thank the stars above. I’m about worn out. Now let’s do justice to your mother’s cooking. There’s no one who can make a feast as well as she.”

Dinah waved Eoban along. “Come eat then.”

As they crossed the threshold, Lud chuckled. “And no one tells a tale like Eoban!”

As he stepped inside, Eoban grinned. “And later, we’ll all sing!”

~~~

Ishtar stripped to the waist and wrapped a cloth tightly around his head, holding his hair away from his face.

In the pre-dawn light, a fire blazed before him with a tripod fixed over the flames. Nearby, perched on a flat rock, sat bowls filled with different colored substances. A cauldron hung from the center of the tripod.

Working methodically, Ishtar sifted the ingredients and poured a little of each into the pot. After it melted, he tugged a mold into place and poured the mixture into it. Then he added another substance, waited for it to melt, and poured the thick liquid into a second mold. After he had several molds lined up beside the fire pit, he sat back and wiped his forehead.

The sounds of the waking village drew his gaze. Two of his men passed and nodded. He nodded back.

When the first mold cooled, he took a hammer and knocked the frame away. Then he peered at the metal piece narrowly, looking for tiny bubbles and weak spots. Satisfied, he laid it on the flat rock and hammered it until it fell apart. He gathered up the pieces and threw them back into the cauldron. As he reached for one of the bowls, Amin shuffled by.

Ishtar sucked in his breath. “Amin, come and help me a moment.”

With his head down and his shoulders drooping, Amin took the necessary steps and halted before Ishtar. “Yes?”

“Help me sift the ore. I’m trying different kinds and amounts…your sharp eyes would—”

“I’m not a metal worker, Father.”

“You could be.”

“I don’t care to be.”

“What do you care to be?”

Amin shifted from one foot to another and glanced aside.

Concerned, Ishtar stood and motioned his son to the fire pit. “Sit with me and watch awhile. You might find it interesting.”

“I won’t find metal work interesting any more than I found trading and traveling interesting.”

Ishtar’s jaw clenched. “Why are you still angry at me?” He swallowed hard and blinked as he stared at the glowing horizon. “He was my son as well as your brother.”

“You’ve found other things to interest you. I’m not so easily amused.”

With a swift motion, Ishtar swept up a handful of the dirty ore. “Do you see this?”

Stiff and unyielding, Amin merely raised an eyebrow.

“It’s what the Creator gives us to work with. Dirt. And with this dirt” —Ishtar snatched up a metal tray behind him and held it out— “we can make beautiful things.” He tossed the dirt and tray aside. “But it’ll never happen without a willing mind and a dedicated heart to shape it.” He peered into Amin’s eyes. “The tray is worth nothing if no one cares for beauty.”

Amin spat his words. “Caleb was worth more than a tray!”

Ishtar leaned in. “But Caleb would’ve seen the beauty and cared.” Ishtar waved a broken piece of metal before Amin’s face. “Impurities must be driven out by fire and hammer.” He turned and peered at the mountains “Like ore, we are shaped by things that burn and beat us, and we think we’ll never recover. But in the end, we’re transformed.”

Amin closed his eyes, his lips trembling. After a moment, he met Ishtar’s gaze. “Without Caleb, I feel so…dead.”

Ishtar gripped Amin’s shoulder. “Hold on—even in the depths of despair. Only then can true faith be born.” Wrapping his arm around his son, Ishtar turned the boy from the mountains and the fire. Together, they faced the rising sun.

“Time heals some wounds, but love heals them all.” ~Matshona Dhliwayo

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Seven

For The Sake of Your Son

—Grasslands—

Ishtar tossed the last shovelful of earth aside and stared at the long, deep trench. He wiped sweat from his brow, laid the shovel aside, and plopped down, leaning back on his hands.

A glorious breeze ruffled his long hair, and children called in the distance. He glanced up. Eoban and Obed marched toward him with Barak trudging along behind.

Ishtar scrambled to his weary feet, his gaze level as the men approached. “To what do I owe this honor? Three dignitaries coming to view my” —he glanced aside and shrugged— “ditches.”

Obed laughed. “That’s why we’ve come. Word reached us that you’re digging canals to carry water to your village.”

“It’s just an idea…something I saw while traveling.”

Barak shaded his eyes and surveyed the long trench meandering from the base of the hill to the edge of the village. “You saw this?”

“I saw how water travels down from the hills. And sometimes it reaches the people. Sometimes not.” He rubbed his chin. “It seemed that a little assistance might give us what we need in dry spells.”

Eoban glanced at Obed. “It’s a brilliant idea. Surprised you didn’t think of it.”

“Wish I did.” Obed turned to Ishtar. “But it’s all yours. Except…” He laughed. “I might steal it and do something similar in my village.”

“Feel free. I’m too—”

Amin sprinted into view, jogged around stray sheep, and stopped with gasping breaths before his father.

Eoban gripped the young man’s shoulder. “What in the world are you eating, boy? Whole hogs? You’ve grown twice your former size!”

Ishtar’s smile broadened.

Obed nodded his agreement. “You’ll be ready to take the mantle of leadership off Ishtar’s shoulders soon.”

Barak frowned. “What is the matter, Amin? You look upset.”

Gulping his breath, Amin gazed from one man to another. “It’s Caleb. He’s not feeling well.” He turned to his father. “I told him to rest. I’ll do his work today.”

With a nod, Ishtar’s joy dimmed. “Fine. It was good of you to think of it.” He pointed to his efforts. “I’ll show them my grand scheme and come home in a bit.”

Amin glanced at the field and nodded. “I’ll get to work but keep an eye on Caleb too.” He stepped away.

Ishtar waved toward the base of the hill. “Let’s go. I can show you what I’ve done. You might have ideas to add.”

Eoban and Obed fell in line behind Ishtar.

Barak stopped and peered back at Amin. “You think he’ll be all right?”

Ishtar grinned. “Caleb is a wonderful child…but sometimes he doesn’t like to work, and Amin is more than generous.” He bit his lip. “I’ll have a talk with the boy.”

The three trudged upland to a natural land basin where Ishtar had enlarged the width and depth and added a channel leading toward the village.

As the sun descended, Lud and Gilbreth joined them, and they followed the trench into the village, making suggestions and exchanging ideas.

As he loped along, Eoban scratched his head. “Looks like Gilbreth has grown as much as Amin. What do you feed your children these days?”

Barak chuckled. “Anything and everything. Boys are always hungry. Ask Milkan.”

Rubbing his stomach, Eoban winced. “Speaking of food…”

Glancing from Eoban to the other men, Lud laughed. “That’s why I was sent…to tell you that a repast awaits at my home if you’d like to join us.”

Eoban leapt ahead like a yearling goat. “Don’t be sluggards! The boys will eat it all if we don’t hurry.”

~~~

Ishtar reclined on the ground after the repast, and everyone grew quiet as they sat around a modest fire. The warm evening air stilled, and songbirds settled in for the night.

Eoban glanced at each of the men. “So much has changed since we first met.”

His eyes widening, Lud sucked in his breath. “More than words could ever say.”

Barak nodded. “Aram has been gone for so long, I forget his face but never his strength. I only hope that the future will bring us more peace and less anxiety.”

Ishtar watched the flames flicker and the sparks intertwine as they rose into the sky. “I, too, hope we will know peace, but I wouldn’t wish to live without burdens or trials. It was a heavy burden that brought me to a place I could not run from. It was a painful trial that forced me to face the spirits that haunted me.” He sat up. “We must continually strive to become better than our former selves, or we stagnate and corrupt. I pity the man who is satisfied with himself.”

Barak shifted, his voice dropping low. “Even Aram struggled to become a better leader. He never really knew how good he was.”

Lud dropped another log on the fire. “As a father, I agree. One is never done learning.”

Stretching, Eoban yawned. “Since I am neither married nor have children, it seems that I have an easy life, but I tell you—in truth—I’m married to the entire village. I’m father to the young, brother to my men, servant to every woman who needs an extra hand, and uncle to the children near and far. I am the most married man I know!”

Chuckles rose with Eoban as he staggered to his feet.

The setting sun spread a pink and lavender glow over the village. The rest of the company stood, said their goodbyes, and started to their homes. Silence, the companion of each, framed the village in quiet slumber.

Ishtar strode along the trail with his heart at peace and knew that, for once, joy united them.

~~~

Amin raced up to Ishtar in the darkness outside his house, his heart clenched into a tight ball both furious and afraid. “Caleb is worse. I’ve done everything I can think of. Water, wine, broth, food…but nothing helps. He vomits everything.” He wrung his hands as he trotted at his father’s side. “He said his belly hurt, but I can’t see any wound.”

Ishtar peered through the darkness as he stopped before the doorway. “Did you call for the healer?”

Amin nodded. “She made him swallow an herbal brew, and he fell asleep.”

Ishtar paced to Caleb’s side and knelt on the hard ground.

Sweat beaded Caleb’s forehead. His cheeks were flushed an angry red, and he tossed with his arms flailing.

Ishtar stroked his son’s head, but Caleb brushed his hand away. Swallowing hard, Ishtar turned to Amin. “I’ll get Jonas. If anyone can understand what’s wrong, she can.”

Amin nodded, terror biting at his insides as Ishtar hurried outside. He dropped to his knees, clasped his little brother’s sweaty hands, and watched his every move.

Time slowed to a standstill. An owl hooted in the distance and a wild dog howled.

Caleb fell into a deep slumber, his body stilled, and his skin paled to a deathly white.

Amin’s eyelids grew heavy. His head dropped onto the edge of the bed and exhaustion took him.

When a bird chirped, Amin jerked awake and rubbed his eyes. A sliver of gold-edged the horizon and the sound of shuffling feet drew him upright. He stood and faced the door.

Ishtar ushered Jonas inside.

Striding to Caleb’s side, Jonas touched the little boy’s face and arms, and then carefully worked her way down his body, peering intently at each limb.

Ishtar tossed kindling onto the dying fire, flaring it into renewed life.

Jonas beckoned Amin closer. “Did he fall? Any accidents?”

Amin shook his head, his stomach churning. “He was fine up until a couple days ago. Then he said he felt sick and didn’t want to eat. After a time, he said his side hurt…and then his middle. He got so weak he could hardly stand.” Amin glanced at the rising sun, tears filling his eyes. “The more I tried to get him to eat, the sicker he got. Once the fever set in, he didn’t even know me.”

Jonas rose, soaked a cloth with cool water, and sponged Caleb’s head and wiped down his body.”

Ishtar crouched at her side and watched her every move. Amin paced away and added fuel to the fire.

As brilliant rays of light streaked over the horizon, Caleb awoke. Appearing calmer, he peered through red-rimmed eyes.

Jonas backed away and let Ishtar kneel closer. “Caleb?”

With a weak smile, Caleb grinned as his father took his hand. “I felt terrible. But I’m…better now.” He glanced aside. “Amin?”

Amin shifted near, kneeling by his father. “I’m here.”

Caleb blinked and frowned. “It’s so dark, I can’t see you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But I can hear you.”

Choking on strangling grief, Amin stifled a sob. Tears flooded his eyes. “I’m here, Caleb.”

Caleb closed his eyes, murmuring. “Father’s back, you know… So glad.” He gasped a rattling breath and exhaled slowly.

Amin squeezed his brother’s hand, but it felt cold and lifeless.

Caleb’s head drifted to the side, his whole body falling limp.

Amin shrieked. “Caleb!”

Trembling, Ishtar wrapped his arm around Amin and held Caleb’s fingers in his own.

Jonas nudged in closer and pressed her ear to Caleb’s chest, her eyes wide and staring.

Tears rolled down Ishtar’s cheeks, as a low groan escaped. “Please…”

Jonas blinked back tears. “He’s gone.”

Dropping his head onto Caleb’s chest, Ishtar sobbed.

A stabbing pain pierced Amin’s chest. He rose and fled into the searing light of day.

~~~

Ishtar sat outside his dwelling staring at a gray fire pit mounded with dead ashes. Beyond that, in the distance, a small grave lay covered with large flat stones.

Footsteps shuffled near and a shadow crossed over him.

Tobia knelt at Ishtar’s side. “May I sit with you?”

Hollow as a drum, Ishtar didn’t care who came or went.

“The wedding ceremony was beautiful. Obed outdid himself. Even Eoban behaved well.” Tobia crossed his legs. “Wish you’d been there.”

With a feeble effort, Ishtar waved him off. “Kamila was with you. That’s all that matters.” He closed his eyes. “I’m very tired.” He stretched out on the bench and clasped his hands over his chest, lying like a dead man. Something small and hard pressed on his chest.
Ishtar opened his eyes and peered down.

A little wooden boy with his arms outstretched lay over his beating heart. Ishtar choked and struggled for control as he sat up and clasped the figure in his hand.

Tobia peered into the distance, his voice as steady as if he were telling an evening story by firelight. “Long ago, Eymard told me that our mighty Creator made this world and took all life back to Himself when he willed it. It sounded good and made losing my father easier to bear. But when Vitus died, and I saw so much death and horror, I shoved Eymard’s story away and grew angry at God.”

He paused as if the words stuck in his throat. “Did our Creator have the right to punish Vitus for his foolish pride? Did the elders deserve to see the last of their line suffer imprisonment and death? Who was this terrible God I prayed to?”

Ishtar peered into the azure sky and blinked back tears.

Tobia’s voice rose. “But then someone told me that I was thinking like a man and not like God. Someone said that no one knows what goes on between a soul and his Maker.”

Dropping his face onto his hands, Ishtar rocked in misery.

“Pele lives beyond our sight. The same is true for Aram. Is it not true for Caleb too?”

Dragging his fingers down his face, Ishtar lifted his gaze and met Tobia’s honest eyes. “Caleb showed great promise. He would’ve grown up to be an honorable man— perhaps a leader among men. Why was he taken and not I?”

Tobia peered at the horizon. “I can’t answer your question. And neither can you.” He glanced aside. “Repentance brought you home, Ishtar. Let hope keep you here, for your sake and the sake of your other son.”

Straightening, Ishtar nodded. “You are honest and true, my friend. I’ll be a man again, but—”

Tobia turned to leave. “God did not abandon Matalah. He will not abandon you.” With a nod, Tobia paced away. Rising, Ishtar gripped the figure in his hand and let the sun pour over him as fresh tears fell.

“The emotion that can break your heart is sometimes the very one that heals it…” ~Nicholas Sparks,

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There Is Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Four

You’re Not God

Ishtar entered Jonas’ dwelling and peered through the slanting rays of golden light. His attention wandered from a half-eaten meal of barley bread with roasted fish to a sharp carving knife resting on a piece of wood. No wood shavings littered the floor.

Tobia slept curled up on his pallet, his chest barely stirring, though his bruised face still showed the marks of recent events. The bandages wrapped around his hand and arm told the tale of wounds he took in the battle.

Jonas tiptoed up to Ishtar and lifted a finger to her lips.

With a nod of understanding, Ishtar backed over the threshold.

Jonas followed.

Strolling to the shady side of the house, Ishtar perched on the bench. “Where’s Obed?”

Flicking a glance to the distant hills, Jonas wrinkled her brow. “He’s helping a shepherd who can’t keep track of his sheep.”

Amusement coursed through Ishtar as he remembered his own flock on the other side of the distant mountains. “Sheep are not always as compliant as one might think. There are some…” His gaze drifted away.

Jonas drummed her fingers on the stout framework of the house. “Something is upsetting Tobia.” She jutted her chin toward the hills. “Anxiety weighs him down.”

“Even when we live beyond a trial, the horror still clings to us.”

Squinting, Jonas shaded her eyes from the bright sun. “But you defeated your enemy when you killed your father and again when you killed Chai.” She bit her lip. “Tobia suffers from an enemy he can’t defeat.”

Irritation flushed through Ishtar. “I didn’t defeat my father or Chai. They succumbed to the evil fate they created for themselves. I merely endured their self-destruction.” He rose and paced in front of Jonas. “Tobia faces the same enemy we all face: despair.”

Coming to a halt, Ishtar pointed to fresh grave mounds. “Men died defending us. Women lost their husbands and children lost their fathers. Though slaves were freed, many have no families to return to.” He glanced at Jonas. “Homes and villages can be repaired, but lost innocence can never be found again.”

Setting her jaw in a firm line, Jonas scowled. “You think I don’t know that?” She pointed to the great lake. “I lost Tobia’s father and my eldest son in the battle with the giants. Tobia was there. He’s known both evil and courage.” She shook her head and turned away. “But this time…”

Ishtar frowned. “What about his carving?”

Jonas shrugged. “Obed gave him a new knife and a beautiful piece of wood, but Tobia hasn’t touched them.” She flung her hands in the air. “He seemed so excited when he heard that Remy was here, asked to see him and smiled when they met. But then—”

A sudden memory riveted Ishtar in place—the first time he beheld a beautiful woman. He pursed his lips. “Tobia once mentioned that Remy has a very kind sister.”

Jonas met Ishtar’s gaze. “A woman?”

“Tobia is a man.”

Swallowing, Jonas leaned on the wall and slid onto the bench. “You think—?”

A shout in the distance turned their attention.

Eoban stood between Obed and Barak, calling, “Ishtar, Jonas, come say goodbye to Luge, the man who made our success possible!”

Ishtar held Jonas’s eye a moment and tipped his head.

Sucking in a deep breath, Jonas marched forward.

~~~

Tobia stirred and rubbed his bleary eyes. His stomach rumbled, and as he scratched his head, he became aware that someone else was in the room.

Ishtar sat in the doorway, carving a piece of wood. His piece of wood. Tobia sat up and frowned. “Obed gave that to me.”

Nodding, Ishtar’s gaze fixed on a long wood shaving that curled around the knife. “Jonas told me.”

Tobia bit his bottom lip. He glanced at the dish of bread. “I’m hungry.” He licked his lips. “And thirsty.”

With a shrug, Ishtar continued his work. “There’s wine in the jug and bread on the table.”

Mild complaints issued from his joints as he stood, but Tobia ignored them and hobbled to the food. He swiped the jug from the shelf, pulled out the stopper, and took a long swig. He eyed Ishtar. “What’re you making?”

“A boy.”

After smacking the jug on the table, Tobia ripped off a broken piece of flatbread and took a bite. He talked around a chew and stepped closer. “Why?”

“I am going to replace the son that Matalah lost.”

Tobia stared at Ishtar’s bowed head of shining black hair and snorted. “Matalah won’t laugh at your joke.”

Ishtar glanced up, his eyes wide with wonder. “I’m not joking.”

Tobia scowled and bit off another piece.

“I only want to heal a terrible injury. Is that wrong?”

Dropping the bread, Tobia slapped the wood out of Ishtar’s hand. “You can no more make a man than I can.”

“I made my sons.”

“Not from wood! And you didn’t make them. Your wife conceived them by the will of God.”

Picking up the wood with a disinterested shrug, Ishtar appeared to inspect it for flaws. “After I make Matalah a son, I’m going to make a new Vitus.”

Hot fury flushed Tobia’s face. “Damn you!”

After laying the wood and the knife aside in slow, precise motions, Ishtar stepped into the evening air.

As if pulled by a cord, Tobia followed. His breath jerked at the coolness, and he flushed with hot shame. “I—I didn’t mean that.” He stopped on the threshold. “You don’t understand. Nothing is funny to me. Everything hurts too much.” He closed his eyes. “I’ll never laugh again.”

A hand pressed on his shoulder, and Tobia opened his eyes.

Ishtar met Tobia’s gaze. “You’ll never love again?”

Shoving off the frame, Tobia hobbled across the compound toward the grave mounds by the rolling river.

Ishtar followed at an even pace.

When Tobia halted, a shiver spread over his body. “I’ve died inside. I’m old. Too old. I can’t marry and have children…because I already know how it’ll end. Some invaders will come. I’ll do battle and die. My sons will die. My wife and daughters will become enslaved or die of sickness or starvation—”

Ishtar clapped his hands together and gasped. “Tobia! Stop. You’ll depress the fish in the river, and I’ll want to kill myself before nightfall.” A grin played on his face.

Burning in rage, Tobia flung himself on Ishtar and beat his chest. “It’s not funny! Damn you—I mean it now. How can you joke?”

Ishtar grappled with Tobia. Clutching his arms to his chest and shoving Tobia’s back against a tree, he stilled his raging fury. “I’m not laughing at you, Tobia. Only at the horror that you must leave behind.”

Tobia writhed, attempting to free himself. “It won’t leave!”

“It will—if you let it go.” Ishtar held Tobia’s gaze and tightened his grip.

Gulping air, Tobia calmed into a shaky acceptance. “Let me go.”

“Stop fighting your pain. It’s making you mad. You think you’re doomed because pain blinds you to any other possibility.”

“What other possibility is there?”

“Evil is only one option, Tobia.” Ishtar let go and turned away. “I know what you fear, for I’ve feared it too. Even when I turned from Neb’s evil ways, I could not really succeed because I never accepted the truth.”

Rubbing his arms, Tobia spat his words. “What truth?”

“That there’s more to life than this world and the evil we must endure here. I’ve passed through madness into a new hope. Life does not end there.” He pointed to the grave mounds. “Aram does not live in the dirt. There are more worlds than the ones we see.”

Burning indignation rose from Tobia’s middle. “I never deserved to suffer like I did.”

“And I never deserved forgiveness.”

Tobia’s rage tripped and fell, but questions still pounded his mind. He looked Ishtar in the eye. “And Vitus?”

“How do we know what he deserved?”

Tobia dropped his head onto his chest with a sigh.

“The beginning of wisdom is to realize—God exists—but you are not Him.”

Ishtar stepped over to the doorway and picked up the piece of wood and the carving knife. He held them out.

With the last flicker of his anger dying like a flame in summer rain, Tobia accepted them.

“Darkness is part of this life, but so is light.” ~Millie Florence

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Eight

For All the Trouble You’ve Caused

Eoban wiped his sweaty brow and came to a dead halt. “I’ve made a mistake.”

“What?” Tromping in front, Barak waved an insect away.

Eoban cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “I made a mistake!”

Barak stopped and turned around, frowning. “About what?”

“I should’ve gone with Obed. He won’t be able to find Amin. He’ll wander around the hills for years if I don’t help him.”

“Are you out of your mind? We’ve been traveling for hours! Obed is long gone in the opposite direction. Besides, what if there’s trouble at home?”

Eoban shook his head, feeling very much like a disgruntled bull. “You’ll find the way easily enough from here, and we’ve plenty of warriors to hold off an enemy until I get back.” He peered at the sky. “I’ll find Obed and get the boy.”

Barak snorted. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Eoban shrugged.

“Oh, all right, go on then. But look for Amin first. Frankly, I’ll be relieved if you do. I haven’t been so sure of Obed ever since he stepped out of that temple. In the meantime, I’m making a beeline for home.” Barak sighed as he shoved his bag high over his shoulder. “I’ll hold everything together until you return. Lud is probably ready to take my head off for being gone so long.”

“Jonas and Milkan, too, I imagine.”

“Always ready to offer a bit of comfort, aren’t you?”

“It happens to be the truth.” Eoban stepped forward and pounded Barak on the back. “Get going! I’ve lost enough time. It’ll be dark soon, and you know what happens in the dark.”

Barak swung his staff at a trailing vine. “Sing and nothing with any sense will bother you.”

Eoban turned away, muttering. “Who has sense these days?”

Eoban had not traveled far and wide for so many years without learning a few things. The next day, he found Luge’s new settlement. When he walked into the village, Luge strode forward, arms extended, ready to greet him.

They embraced like brothers, their eyes dancing in mutual amusement.

Luge called over his shoulder. “Lufti! Go find Amin. Tell him he’s finally going home.”

Eoban nodded at the boy. “There’s a tall handsome youth!”

Luge led the way to his hut, grinning. “Like his father, no doubt.”

As Lydia stepped outside, Luge waved at Eoban. “Meet the man who led me to my son!”

Wide-eyed, Lydia wiped her hands on her skirt and glanced from her husband to Eoban, her face flushing. “I owe you my life.”

Eoban gripped Luge’s shoulder. “Not at all. Your husband did the hard part. I just wandered where wise men wouldn’t go.” He met Lydia’s gaze. “I’m glad my foolishness paid a good return.”

Amin raced forward and skidded to a halt in front of Eoban, water dripping down his body.

Luge laughed. “You could’ve dried yourself!”

Amin grabbed Eoban’s arm, glancing around. “Where’s my father? Did you find—?”

Rubbing his forehead, the joy in Eoban faded like a plucked flower. “I’m sorry, Amin. We looked for him in the Stone City and even in the temple…but he wasn’t to be found.”

Frowning, Amin dropped Eoban’s arm. “Where’s Obed…and Barak?”

Eoban shrugged. “Obed was supposed to be here—to collect you.” He shook his head. “But, as I suspected, he must’ve gotten lost.”

Worry lines formed around Luge’s face. “And Barak?”

“He was in a hurry to get home…so he went on ahead.” He shifted his gaze to Amin. “There’s still light to see by, and I want to find Obed before he’s eaten by squirrels. So we best—”

Amin dug his toes into the dirt. “We’ll go home without my father?”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest. “Listen, I’ve lost just about everyone on this journey.” He looked up. “Now I want to find Obed and get you home safe.”

With lips pursed tight, Amin nodded.

As they turned to go, Lufti stepped up and handed Amin a beautifully carved spear. “I would not be free today had you not convinced my father to enter the Stone City.”

Clasping his fingers around the ornate weapon, Amin’s eyes shone. “I didn’t do anything except act as a pest.” He smiled at Lufti. “But I’m glad you’re home safe” —he glanced from Luge’s kind face to Lydia’s gentle smile— “with your father and mother.” He faced Eoban, squaring his shoulders. “I’m ready.”

Eoban lifted his hand in salute to Luge. “Keep the enemy at bay and prosper on your next hunt.”

Luge’s eyes clouded. “There are rumors that the enemy is heading into new territory.” He frowned. “Watch your back.”

“If I can find my clansmen, I’ll die a happy man.”

“You do know where you’re going?”

“I know the way home. Surely, Obed’s headed that way by now. After all, he has eyes and can find the sun, can he not?” Turning, Eoban shifted his bag over his shoulder and flung an arm over Amin’s shoulder. “So, my boy, you ready to sing?”

~~~

Eoban marched into his village scowling. “Where is everyone?”

Amin trotted at his side, also scowling. “It’s much too quiet.”

Suddenly, Tannit pelted across the compound at full speed, shouting. “Eoban, you’re home! We’ve been worried sick.”

Dropping his bag to the ground, Eoban crossed his arms like a barricade as the boy skidded to a halt. “What’s happened? Where’s—?”

Tannit heaved a deep breath. “Enemies are on our doorstep, and the women and children have fled to the caves.” He glanced at Amin. “Hi, Amin! Glad you made it home safe.” His grin widened. “Your father’s been so anxious—”

Eoban choked. “Tannit? Do you realize who this is?”

Pursing his lips primly, Tannit glared at Eoban. “Of course! It’s Amin, Ishtar’s son.” He tipped his head toward the center of the village. “Ishtar’s been helping with preparations and watching over Tobia, who’s had a rough time of it. What, with Vitus getting himself killed and all. And then Obed being taken captive—”

Amin’s mouth dropped open. He glanced wide-eyed at Eoban.

Eoban, hot, frustrated, and confused, wondered if he would, in fact, boil over like an overheated stew. “Tannit, sometimes you—”

Amin cut in front of Eoban and grabbed Tannit’s arm. “Ishtar is here?”

Pointing, Tannit nodded. “Just over there, taking council with Lud.”

Eoban wrung his hands like a man practicing to wring a neck. “You said something about Obed?”

“You’d better ask Tobia. He saw Obed trussed up beside other prisoners taken by the enemy.”

Gripping Amin’s trembling shoulder, Eoban stared hard at Tannit. “Take us to Lud and Ishtar.” He swallowed a hard lump in his throat. “Then find Barak. I might need to apologize…”

Tannit waved as he turned. “Lud and Ishtar are over there.” He glanced back. “But no one’s seen Barak.” He winced. “I’m afraid Milkan will have strong words for you two.”

Eoban closed his eyes and stomped forward, gripping Amin hard enough to keep the boy from flying ahead.

At the sight of Ishtar and Lud standing together in conversation, Eoban felt the ground shift under his feet. His vision blurred. He gripped Amin’s shoulder tighter and leaned down to eye level. “Wait a moment. I want to speak to Ishtar alone first.”

Crossing his arms and clenching his jaw, Amin stood his ground. “Make it fast. I have something to say too.”

Eoban threw back his shoulders and strode forward.

Ishtar and Lud glanced over. Both sets of eyes widened. Lud exhaled a long breath and grinned.

Ishtar stood ramrod stiff.

Stepping up, Eoban met Lud’s eyes, his tone as dry as parched corn. “Glad you kept things well in hand while I was gone, Lud.”

“I hardly—”

Eoban turned his attention to Ishtar. “Ishtar, I’ve been looking for you.”

Ishtar nodded, his gaze fixed on Amin standing in the background. “So I heard.”

Like a dry stick about to snap, Eoban clenched his jaw, his teeth ready to crack under the pressure.

Ishtar turned his full attention to the warrior before him. “Do with me as you will.”

Lud stepped back and beckoned to Amin.

Amin ran to Lud’s side.

Swallowing, Eoban glared at Ishtar. “What under the sun does that mean? I’d like to beat you to a bloody mess for all the trouble you’ve caused.”

Maintaining their locked gaze, Ishtar nodded, his voice low and humbled. “And well I deserve it.” He stepped forward, his arms at his sides. “Beat me.”

Flinging his hands in the air, Eoban turned and pounded a few paces away. “By all that is decent and right in the world—do you have to take that tone?” With his head pounding and tears burning, Eoban glanced from Ishtar to Amin. “Do you know what you’ve done to your sons?”

His jaw clenching into a tight line, Ishtar shook his head. “I’ll regret my mistakes for the rest of my life, knowing that I never really can make up—”

Amin leapt forward. “I forgive you, father.” Halting right in front of Ishtar, he sucked in a deep breath. “I wanted to tell you that I don’t need you—”

Lud, Eoban, and Ishtar stared at the boy.

Amin swallowed and hung his head. “But it’s not true. I can’t manage on my own. I needed Barak and Luge…and—” He glanced up and met Eoban’s eyes. “Even Eoban.”

Eoban winced.

Amin peered at his father. “But I need you too. So does Caleb.” He glanced around, a frown building. “Where is he?”

Lud gripped Amin’s shoulder. “He’s safe in the caves with the women and children.” Glancing from Ishtar to Amin, Lud smiled. “You must have incredible stories to tell—”

Eoban snorted. “Stories? We’ve both seen too much!” He pounded his chest. “I don’t know about Amin here, but I’m thinking of settling down…maybe with a wife.”

Lud choked.

A hint of a grin broke over Ishtar’s somber face.

Eoban pursed his lips. “I’ll make an excellent husband.” He peered at Amin. “Didn’t I take good care of you?”

Amin glanced from Eoban to his father. “He tried. It’s not his fault that he lost his entire company at one time or another.”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest, exhaling a long, ragged breath.

With a snort, Lud patted Eoban’s back. “Don’t worry, Eoban. You can regain your honor by leading us to victory.” He gestured to the caves. “Jonas and Milkan are waiting. They’ll want to know what happened to Obed and Barak. Let’s go.”

Eoban lifted his head, all strength draining from his limbs. Shuffling along, he muttered. “Couldn’t we just go straight into battle?” Glancing aside, bittersweet grief made Eoban shake his head.

Ishtar clasped Amin’s shoulder and led his son home.

“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home.” ~Mother Teres

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Humanity Exists For A Reason

Supernatural reality imbues all things with Presence.

I’ve got a lot to learn. But one thing I do know, denying the elemental forces of the spiritual world would be—for me—like denying the power of the sun. As I strolled through the woods and fields yesterday, the cosmic reality of the V-shaped flock of geese flying overhead, in tune with their own powers, neither startled nor concerned me. They were no threat to my mental constructs or my spiritual understanding.

Dogs played along the hedgerow, squirrels scampered from tree limb to tree limb like some kind of high-flying trapeze artists, and trees, rooted deep within the frozen earth, reached with budded tips toward the light that feeds them magically or scientifically—or miraculously—take your pick.

This past month, I’ve been reading about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. Beyond the fact that the man rose from being a social outcast amid poverty and uncertainty to becoming one of the most influential human beings on the planet, exists the reality that he managed to plant cornerstones of inventive genius in our government platform in a world where there was no lack of men who considered themselves the last word in reasoned thinking. It’s no wonder he died in a duel. What’s a wonder is that he lived fast and furiously enough to accomplish the startling amount of work he did.

Like the power of the sun’s rays, the innate directional sense of geese, the circus show of the average squirrel, and the glory of an old oak tree, so human beings reflect something quite beyond our limited nature.

I hear all sorts of rational criticisms about God and the spiritual world. I’ll not deny that our human explanations fall short. But I find it highly ironic that we humans create the reasons to condemn the supernatural world while history, science, and even good fairy tales continue to demonstrate that we see but with only one eye open. If even that.

I find it much harder to believe in humanity than in God. Human beings are so much more unreasonable—astonishingly unpredictable even. We have the power to save starving children from hunger, but we choose to entertain ourselves instead. We could visit lonely shut-ins, but we often forget. The worst of humanity battles the best of humanity on a daily basis. Sometimes within the very same person.

I believe in God because His existence is obvious. Supernatural reality imbues all things with Presence. It’s our existence that needs a rational explanation.

I figure that humanity exists for a reason. A good one at that. I may not know it today. But the geese seem to know where they are going. The squirrels rush off on another caper. The trees continue to stretch, and when the earth swings around again, the buds will burst with new life.

Yes, I’ve got a lot to learn. I don’t know why you and I are on this particular human journey—other than to reflect that God’s love is far more than rational.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Love Alone

My daughter showed me a YouTube video recently of a little girl meeting her adoptive parents for the first time. The child, about four, could not have been more adorable. Beyond her innate cuteness, her enthusiasm, her voice quality and mannerisms, which all personified the very best of child-ness, it was her words that rang in my ears long after the video segment fell silent. After a rambling intro, the little girl launched into the core of her happiness: “When I saw you, my heart just fell in love with you.”

It’s funny how easily those words tripped off the child’s tongue. I had to remind myself, she is an orphan. She has lost her parents. God knows how. I had no idea what her life had been like up to that point, but losing both parents isn’t usually the direct road to happiness. Losing loved ones doesn’t usually make a person more loving.

In fact, it’s darn hard for most people to ever say, much less intend the words, “I love you.” Of course, we do use the words in a variety of ways, adding a few extras. “I love you…r spicy chicken.” But it’s hard to tell someone, perhaps a parent who has rocked us through childhood illnesses but drank a bit too much at holiday parties, a sibling who teased us unmercifully but freely loaned a hundred bucks for car repairs, a lover who understood our dreams but couldn’t accept our lifestyle, that we care about them, much less admit that let our hearts fell in love with them. Even when our love isn’t so much about “falling into” but rather a slow awakening. Or an admission of the obvious. “Heck, do you think I’d do your laundry if I didn’t…?”

Declaring our love gives another person power. He or she can choose not to respond. Leaving an empty hole where “I love you, too” should have flowed naturally. Or he or she can reject our love outright. Hurt us. Hate us. Make love feel like a curse rather than a blessing.

Perhaps I don’t feel enough. Or I feel too much. But in the end, I find that saying the words, “I love you,” without expectations but simply because it happens to be true— even when I disagree with that person over politics, religion, and how to properly laminate the floor—is very freeing. I can love even though the other person has bad habits, is an unresponsive jerk or jerkette at times, and worst of all, might not love me back the way I want them to. My love, like my self-esteem, does not depend upon another person’s acceptance. It is a free gift. Even when it stands alone.

The adorable little girl had no idea that she was giving herself the greatest gift she could. As she offered her heart, she became love personified. When Christ admonished the human race to become like little children, I doubt he meant we should toss our vegetables off the dinner plate or elbow our way to the front of the line. I suspect He meant exactly what the little girl meant when she told her new parents that “her heart fell in love with them.” She had love to give. And she gave. Freely. Abundantly.

She will never love alone.

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/2lWBd0z

 

Love Anyway

I’ve never been particularly good with suffering. Avoidance? Insecurity? Hyper-control? Sure. Then my all-star qualities shine bright. But being insecure, hyper-controlling, and trying to avoid pain doesn’t a happy life make.

When I was twenty-one, I had the chance to meet my father after long years of separation at—of all places—the Art Institute of Chicago. I was meeting his second wife for the first time. And to make matters even more relaxed, I didn’t know a thing about modern art. But I did discover a latent sense of humor, which apparently shot to the surface like a geyser when under serious pressure.

I amused my dad, his wife, and even myself. Seeing absurdities in the uncomfortable world before me kept my eyes averted from haunting ghosts and garrulous gremlins. Our conversation never veered toward my mom, my brothers or sisters, loss of childhood, alcoholism, substance abuse, or neglect. The conversation stayed right where it needed to be, focused on pictures hanging on walls, which none of us understood.

Contrary to every psychological theory I knew at the time, communication was not the key to our relationship. After that initial reunion, I visited my dad regularly. He attended my wedding, got to know my growing family, and became a steady fixture in my life. Even at the age of ninety, we still connect at least once a week. He may not remember my name some days, but he always remembers that he loves me. And that I love him.

Over the years, we did have a couple of hard conversations about our family and the things that went so very wrong in our lives, but they were not all that productive. His simple admission, “I’m sorry,” was all I ever really needed to hear. And my, “I love you anyway,” was all he really needed to know.

In recent years, I have lost a husband, a brother, several friends, (I have a visitation to attend this weekend), my sense of worth, and even my heart, but in experiencing these losses, I have discovered that there is no fixing pain. There is only, “I’m sorry.” And “I love you anyway.”

Being truly sorry when someone is suffering shares the burden. It is one of the greatest acts of generosity that a human being can undertake.

Loving anyway explodes the walls of control, doubt, fear, hurt, avoidance, and insecurity. Love is not doormat material. Love demands decency, honesty, integrity, and heroism. But it doesn’t demand those qualities all at once in perfect order.

After a particularly brutal loss recently, my imagination conjured up the image of a wounded woman rising after tumbling down a hill. Not unlike Sam at the base of Mount Doom. How’s that for an “I’m sorry, and I love you anyway” scenario? But Sam rose again. Even when it was hopeless to do so. Even when pain had the upper hand. Even at the end of Middle-earth, he rose and loved anyway. And he wasn’t alone.

Pain and loss are twin hells that human beings experience in umpteen versions throughout the course of our journey toward heaven. We can’t fix reality, stop the hurt, make everything right, control outcomes, or even avoid tumbling down hills. Personally, I can crack a joke and laugh at absurdities to keep the ghosts and gremlins at bay, and that helps. Some.

But mostly, I can be sorry and love 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 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