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

I Need The Practice

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

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

Bright lights and happy chatter crashed against his ears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tina!”

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

“Haven’t seen you since the wedding!”

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

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

He swallowed hard.

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

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

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

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

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

“So, I hear you’re a journalist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you said your name was Beck.”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

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

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

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

Kent’s stomach roiled.

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

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

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

Kent nodded.

“You remember your reaction?”

Kent nodded.

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

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

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Mirage

How many years had they been married? Abbas sighed. He couldn’t remember. His wife had always taken care of the details—anniversaries, birthdays, and celebrations of all kinds. He had always been too busy. Mirage rather than marriage demanded his unfailing obsession.

The town folk bowed their heads and shuffled their feet in shy obeisance as the funeral procession marched passed. His son, Omega, strode at the front helping to bear the slight weight of the petite coffin. The shoemaker, furrier, carpenter and other inhabitants marched in a stately manner to the Resting Field.

Flowers bloomed in glorious array; Abbas had made sure of that. Color splashed against the horizon from simple white daisies to blood-red roses. Though there had been a murmuring among the children at the sight of spring blooms in the middle of winter, their parents had sense enough to hush the little ones and remind them that Abbas could do what other mortals could not. He was their father, after all. And today they must bury their mother.

~~~

After the intoned words of blessing upon her spirit, which everyone trusted to the outer limits of their imaginations, a wailing chant set them into mournful retreat. Abbas stood alone by the stone slab engraved with her name: Mother. It was her vocation and her title. Even Abbas called her Mother in the intimacy of their chamber. She was, above all things, a giver of life and love.

Omega stepped to his father’s side, and the two stared in silence at the grave. A red bird burst from the woods and soared into the noon sunshine. Omega lifted his tear-stained eyes and gazed in wonder. “I imagine she flew to her rest—as happy to go as to stay. She was always a cheerful being.”

Abbas glanced at his son. “We grieve, nonetheless.”

Omega nodded. “Yes, but perhaps we should do more. We ought to bear testimony to her spirit somehow.”

Abbas shrugged and turned, his body hunched and his gaze blank. “I bore little testimony to her while she lived. I hardly—”

Omega grasped his father’s long, flowing sleeve and halted him in his tracks. “But that’s not true. You adored her. You fulfilled her every wish.” Omega threw back his head and closed his eyes to the burning sun. “It was I who tore her heart, always racing about the universe, chasing every passing fantasy, leaving her to hug vaporous memories of my childhood and those who passed beyond.”

Abbas placed a warm hand on his son’s shoulder. “You were her passion. I loved her, but Mirage and world-making were my chosen professions. It seems we three, despite our mighty powers, have been little more than star-crossed lovers.”

A large, muscled man with thick, brown hair dressed in a jerkin worn over a black, cotton tunic strode forward and bowed with a hand clasped over his heart. “My lord, the townsfolk have set the repast in the main hall and await your arrival.”

Abbas nodded in dignified acceptance, and the man turned to his next duty.

Omega stroked his chin with the glimmer of a smile. “Father, I have a magnificent idea! Mother enjoyed my stories of Newearth and—”

“One village is enough, son.” Abbas marched at a quicker pace toward the lofty castle on the hill. His boots left no print on the rocky road.

Omega squared his shoulders as a light flared in his eyes. He hustled alongside. “She thought that the universe would be much improved if there were more places like Newearth—”

Abbas stopped suddenly. “You want to introduce other species—here? Do you realize what that would entail? The shifting of populations and the destruction of their native culture!”

Omega laughed. “But it would be a challenge. Medieval OldEarth has its limitations—as well you know. We could remake it, completely fresh, in a new century with a variety of life forms. Mother enjoyed a scene I once brought of a small farming town with a vibrant population—”

Abbas waved his hand toward the little village nestled against the hill. “And what would you do with this population? Mirage is the only world most of them have ever known.”

Omega strode to the gate where an elderly woman in a long, homespun dress curtseyed in formal recognition of her Master. He clasped her wrinkled hand and gazed into her eyes. “Martha, dear, what would you say if I wanted to bring new life into this old, barren village? Would you support me?”

The old woman gazed back with devotion. “We would do anything you ask, for you are our Lord. You can do no wrong.”

Omega hugged her frail shoulders and led Martha toward the open door and the lighted hall filled with tables loaded with food. “You do me great honor, my friend. And I’m sure it would please Mother. We must honor her memory with a new direction, a new life.” Omega charged ahead, leaving his father on the threshold.

Abbas lifted his eyes to the sparkling, blue sky and shrugged. “He is your son as well as mine. What would you have me do?”

~~~

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