What did Liam mean in his letters? And what about Josh? Did the aliens get him? Were the kids okay? And what about Ben—yeah, what about Ben…
Five o’clock on a mid-July evening, and I was ready to spontaneously combust. Too many questions and not nearly enough answers. I invited Linda over for supper, and we slapped flies away as we ate egg salad sandwiches. No chips, of course. Pickles, though. I had finally gotten enough cucumbers to make a decent batch. Vinegar, garlic, a dash of sugar and salt, and lots of dill made us pucker up big time, but they went well with the meal. I even made a blackberry cobbler for dessert. If the flies didn’t eat it all first.
I got up and draped a towel over the deep dish. Then I slumped with Monday weariness onto my chair and took another bite of dinner, crunching on the garden lettuce I had added for body since I didn’t have many eggs. I glanced at Linda.
She was eating, a good sign. But the dark lines under her eyes, glazed expression, and slow motions bespoke depression’s tenacious hold.
“So, have any of your tomatoes ripened yet?” A pertinent question, considering the need for healthy food to be packed away for the long winter. I tried not to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s version of the Long Winter. Where they nearly starved to death.
Linda dragged her gaze from the flower-rimmed plate and met my gaze. It seemed to take a minute for the question to process. “Oh, no. Not yet. They’re getting big though. All the rain. Just hope they don’t rot.”
Setting that pleasant image aside, I opened my mouth to try again, when she interrupted me—her brows scrunched in concentration.
“What about Liam’s letters. You never told me. What did he say?”
I sighed. How much to share? Or how little? A strong desire to make something up—something truly interesting—washed over me like a cool bath. It would be fun to imagine that he had spent the last weeks frantically busy, heroically saving the Pacific coast. But no.
“They weren’t terribly fact-filled. The first was ridiculous; he was in complete denial that technology had let him down, let us all down. He insisted that it was some kind of prank. Though by the end of the letter, he seemed to be considering the idea that it might be a nefarious attack by a group of villainous hackers. His words, not mine.”
“The letters were from was early on and just got to you now?”
Mail had been traveling in spurts and drips. All his letters, at least the three that I received, were written in the early days. The second seemed to take the situation more seriously, but he was still convinced that the “snafus” would be cleared up quickly. He made a joke of the fact that everyone in the hotel was swapping medications to manage their various conditions. I cringed at the thought of him trying to substitute something for his daily prednisone. Not the kind of medicine that you want to play merry-go-round with.
I studied Linda, knew she had bared her soul about Jared and had to tell the truth. “Liam spent the first two letters telling me that the whole thing wasn’t really happening. But by the third, he had faced some version of reality. He spent that letter telling me that he loved me and the kids.”
Linda clasped my hand and squeezed. We both tried not to cry.
I would have failed miserably had it not been for a sudden squawking outside the door. Linda ran into me as we both rushed for the door. Bouncing off each other like school kids racing outside for recess, we managed to make it to the door, disheveled, but—
Humans Among Us
Linda and I returned to our repast and did an amazing job finishing off the egg salad and an embarrassing amount of the cobbler. Though it was still mid-summer, the days weren’t getting longer but slowly shortening with lingering evenings being the best part of the day.
We decided to sit out on the front porch as the sun set and the sky turned from pink and yellow into a fiery red. If I had any wine on hand, I would’ve offered her some. The trees across the road rippled in a gentle breeze, and birds twittered from the electrical lines. I wondered what would happen to those ubiquitous black wires? Would they surge with energy once again someday? Or become useless like dead snakes and drop to the ground in imitation of some dystopian novel?
I glanced aside and saw a tear slip down Linda’s face. For the first time, really, I cared about her. Not the usual, “Hope you’re doing well” that we send in quick messages or the “How’s everything?” in passing, but the heart-wrenching sensation you get when you feel another person’s pain. I rubbed her back. “Josh and Jared will be okay.” It was an ignorant comment. I knew it, and she knew it.
She swallowed, gulping sobs, and clasped her hands, shaking with pent-up tension. She slid her gaze my way. “You don’t know, do you?”
I attempted an easy nonchalance and shrugged. “Tell me.”
“Jared wasn’t crazy. There are aliens.”
That was enough. I didn’t want to go any further, but yet, I had to know. Either everyone was going mad or I was way out of the loop. “Aliens? Seriously?”
She snorted, should’ve had a whisky to belt back. “Yeah. They’ve been here a long time. Since humanity got started, I think.”
Whoa! This was a new take on an old theme. “They’ve been watching us since—when?”
Linda straightened, rubbed her listless arms, and exhaled a long breath. A weary pedagogue having to go round ten with a recalcitrant student. “Not watching. They’ve been raised with us. Look, I don’t know the whole story, but I get the general drift. When life first started on this planet, for a time, everything was just at animal level—you know, fish and birds, creepy crawly things, and then mammals and more adaptable critters. At some point, I have no clue when, there was a divide. Actually, from what I understand, there were several splits. Some of the more intelligent or adaptable animals, pre-human-kind survived while others fell by the wayside. Was there warfare, a genocide of sorts? Can’t say if they were capable of comprehending that sort of thing. But it happened nonetheless.”
My gaze strayed to the flowering Rose of Sharon bushes. Their starburst pink flowers with white centers sure looked beautiful. I didn’t want an anthropology lesson. I always figured that we could clog the Earth with what we didn’t know about our past, and our ever-changing hypothesis about our true origin should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. “Anyway” Linda must’ve sensed my mood shift. She hurried on. “These alien beings came along and decided—
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Dana couldn’t stand still for a minute. Even perpetual motion machines of the world took notice.
I sat on the back steps letting a cool front work its magic. For the end of June, it was gorgeous. Cool sunny mornings, warm days with afternoon rainstorms, and blessedly chilly nights. “I wish this would last forever.”
Dana stopped pacing under the maple tree and stared at me. Glared really. But who am I to quibble? She had stayed longer than she intended, only because I threatened to get on my knees and beg.
“You’re okay without dad?”
I shook my head and tried to wave her comment into oblivion. “That’s not what I meant. I was talking about the weather.”
Her hands went to her hips. “It’s time we left. You’re not going to give us any trouble, right?”
Juan slipped out my bedroom door and stopped on the top porch step. I didn’t see him. But I didn’t need to. I knew the sound of my son’s footsteps as well as my own heartbeat.
I waited. Juan didn’t want to leave home. I knew that, but there was an unspoken understanding that he would go with Dana. He had to. She was going no matter what I said. But she couldn’t go alone. And I was hardly fit enough to traipse across an out-of-control country. I’d do better to keep the home fires burning. Literally.
I peered at Dana. She was the same woman who had driven to St. Louis weeks ago, but at the same time, she seemed so altered that I hardly felt comfortable in her presence. There was something she wasn’t telling me. And I was weary of not knowing—fighting off the horrors that raged in my mind. So, I countered with a question of my own, “You want to tell me about the aliens?” That threw her. I knew it would. The look that crossed her face when…
Into the Deep End
It was late by the time Ben left and the kids settled down for a good night’s rest before their adventure the next day.
To my everlasting gratitude, Ben offered to go with the kids. He didn’t start with that offer though. Ben is far wilier than I had realized. What comes across as boyish innocence masks a deceptively perceptive nature. He outfoxed Dana better than I ever could.
He spent the majority of the evening asking her advice, taking her lead. Even glancing her way when I suggested an early bedtime. Almost as if he and she had formed an inside club that knew better than color-in-the-lines-can’t-be-too-careful mom.
Juan sat back and luxuriated in someone else taking the burden of conversation off his shoulders. Though he did add texture to the stories, Ben got Dana to share details about their travels.
No one mentioned aliens.
I wished Ben had asked. For some reason, I thought he might be able to get away with that line of inquiry when it was clear, I’d be blown to smithereens for my efforts. Still, it was a great evening. A memory I could snuggle close to, comforting me through the ordeals ahead.
When I heard knocking on the kitchen door at six in the morning, I assumed it was Ben ready to roust the kids out of bed and hit the road for a fresh start before the sun climbed too high. I poured the last of the pancake batter into the frying pan and wiped my hands on a clean towel. “Coming, sir. Right in time for—”
Josh stared at me through eyes glossy with exhaustion, his body limp and his clothes filthy.
“Is he here?”
“Who? Ben? He’ll be coming along in a bit.”
Pushing past me, Josh stumbled into the house and landed on the kitchen bench, his whole body sagging. “No, Jared. Has he come by? Or said anything to you?”
I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the young man. Didn’t want to either. “No. Everything has been quiet here. Ben and the kids are heading out this morning—”
Josh wavered to his feet. “Don’t!”
I swallowed the fear lodging itself in my throat. “Why?”
This time the knock was followed by the door opening in quick succession. Ben swung into the room, his gaze locking on me. “You okay?” Footsteps pounded down the stairs, and Dana joined the coffee klatch though no coffee had been served yet, and I was as confused as…
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My stomach rumbled. So much for the Celestial realm. I considered my guest’s quiet form for a moment then promptly rose to the challenge of finding a quick nourishing meal that didn’t require an engineering degree. I swept past Ben, marched down the porch steps, and crossed the backyard to the woodpile. I grabbed a couple of thick logs, snatched a handful of twigs from the brush pile, and charged into the house.
After assembling a conflagration in the woodstove, I popped the four limp loaves onto two shelves and closed the door with a sense of accomplishment. Next, I gathered three plastic containers, usually used for juice, and plodded to the prairie grass. I waded through the green tangle and stopped at the well pump. The steel handle glinted in the fading light. I pumped a bit and, sure as shooting, clear water gushed out. Before I could break a sweat, I filled the three containers and then realized that I only had two hands. Plodding back and forth, I managed to get all three containers to the woodstove where I poured their contents into a large metal pot on the stovetop. I covered it with a lid, checked the fire, added a few more sticks, and nearly pounded my chest with happy satisfaction.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Ben chuckled. To my surprise, he hadn’t deemed my marvel of efficiency as a proper excuse to run off and help some helpless neighbor. Linda perhaps?
Ben pointed to the chrome refrigerator. “You might want to use what’s in there before it goes bad.”
I blinked. Images of sour milk, rancid cheese, and brown lettuce rose in my mind. Before I could stop them, rude words poured forth from my lips. “How long have you been here?”
He tapped his watch and shrugged. “Don’t know, but too long apparently.” He rose to his feet and smiled, tipping his head in a gentleman’s goodbye. “Glad to know that you can manage so well. I’ll head out now.” He paced to the kitchen door and nodded. “If you need me, just call.”
I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t want to need him. “Thanks. If you need me, you know where I am.” I rolled my eyes. The guy was only trying to help. It wasn’t until after he’d left that I realized, he’d forgotten that the phones didn’t work. I couldn’t call him. My stomach rumbled—a volcano with dire predictions if I didn’t attend to internal matters. I swung open the refrigerator door and decided that…
A Day of Impossibilities
Yes, okay. You got me. I did forget the bread. But since I completely forgot the woodstove and let the fire go out, I stood amazed the next day—like a child on Christmas morning—to discover that instead of four burnt-to-a-crisp-loaves, I actually had something eatable waiting for me in the woodstove.
Still dressed in my pajamas, it was the sudden memory of the bread that shot me out of bed, I gingerly pulled out the pans and placed them on the cool stovetop.
If I hadn’t been so bloody miserable missing Liam and the kids, I probably would’ve done a happy dance. But happy was not to be. Not with my heart constricted and panic ready to seep from the pores of my skin. Liam had an auto-immune disorder, nothing terribly serious, but his body could go into painful flairs without his medication. He’d taken enough for his trip to L. A. but as he had no intention of staying more than the required three days, he probably hadn’t packed extra. I tossed a prayer to Heaven. “Please, God, assure me that he took extra. Or that a doctor is near at hand. Or he meets a pharmacist who happens to carry around extra doses of prednisone.”
A gentle breeze wended its way through the open window, fluttering the lacy white curtains. I took that as a sign. Then I snatched up one pan and carried it to the table. I plopped it onto a breadboard, snuck the jam jar from the dark refrigerator, and slathered a slice. “Oh, and—” I prayed between chews. “Thanks for this day’s bread.”
A headache slowed my reaction time, so it took me longer than usual to realize that someone was knocking at my kitchen door. Ben? Surely not. I glanced out the window. It couldn’t be much after 6:00 AM.
Linda peered through the storm door window. Anxiety lined her face, but she lifted a thermos like a peace offering. “I know just what you need.”
Conflicted between the need for my morning coffee and irritation, I opened the screen door and stepped aside.
She pulled a second thermos from behind her back. “We’ll chat over hot coffee like old times.”
My mind ricocheted around the room. The morning light streaming in the kitchen windows. A hen clucking in annoyance at the collie’s advances. Linda sidling over to a chair and plopping down as if the last couple of days had never happened. My headache sped into overdrive. An image of Ben with his hands folded, concerned, yet strangely peaceful, flittered through my mind. Liam, Juan, and Dana should be sitting at the table, joking and eating breakfast together. Oh, God, when will I see them again?
Linda took a hearty swig from her thermos. “You better drink up. It took Josh an hour to get the fire warm enough to heat up our camp coffee pot. Lucky I still had that old thing. I got the rust out, don’t worry.”
I unscrewed the top and took a tentative sip. Yowch! It was definitely hot. But the scalding actually felt good going down. Caffeine addict that I was, relief cruised through my body. I sank back into the chair and realized, with only slight discomfort, that Linda was fully dressed while I was still in my morning rumpled condition. My hair undoubtedly looked like I had spent quality time in close proximity to a wind turbine.
Linda didn’t seem to mind. Especially not considering the fact that she was drooling, quite literally, at the sight of my home-baked bread.
Being a good Christian woman, I sliced a thick piece, placed it delicately on a napkin, and nudged the jam jar with a strategically placed spoon in her direction. “Eat up. I’ve got three more.”
Linda didn’t waste any time. I shouldn’t have been surprised when…
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A poem a day might well keep despair away. I’ve been reading 150 Most Famous Poems published by Poetry House with works by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and many more. What I find so extraordinary is that while reading, I enter a sort of dreamland, an extra sensory awareness shared by many fellow humans. It’s the strangest sort of community in that we never have to have met or even speak a word to each other, yet we share a fathomless bond.
It’s the images, the juxtaposition of contrary thoughts, even transitions from this world to the other world so smoothly delved that the reader discovers they have entered someone else’s dreamscape, yet, it feels like home.
As William Blake so perfectly states in his poem Auguries of Innocence
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wildflower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Or as George Gordon, Lord Byron reveals in There Is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods
There is a rapture in the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes…
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
Emily Dickenson hits the mark in her poem Hope is the thing with Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words…
With shocking insight, Paul Lawrence Dunbar strips our pretense away in We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise…
These poems and so many others embrace the sunrise in company with souls alight with mystical spirit. No matter the day or year, highborn or low, city dwellers or country folk, they fellowship in a shared human journey. In a world torn by strife and divided along so many lines, these voices rise like a chorus, reminding me, no matter how painful my steps or proud my goals, I have never journeyed alone.
As I maneuver between the goalposts of my day, I brush up against all sorts of realities. Some deceivingly mundane, some clearly molehills, others require deep prayer to survive their clutching, smothering embrace.
As a sat in the library on a Saturday morning, where I had offered a writers’ support group, but no one showed up, because, as I well knew, there are few people looking for writing support—life support, perhaps, but that is another topic altogether—I alternately worked on a writing project and considered the shelves of untouched books. My mind floated back to a barrio library in the Philippines where the door remained locked most of the time because, quite frankly, the library was not intended to be used. It was simply a designated requirement. The supervisor didn’t want kids in there messing about. That’s not what it was meant for.
Allowing my mind to roam off the page, it floated to other scenes—places of fulfilled requirements: schools packed with kids who experienced little connection between the exam page and the events testing their daily lives, jobs staffed with workers who put in their time like prisoners carrying out a life sentence, and “homes” packed with elderly—retired from work, family gone, all together isolated.
Recently I chatted with someone who likes to hike. A lot. When I asked if part of his motivation was spiritual, he seemed surprised. The answer was, yes. Super-physical and super-spiritual. Supernatural without the eerie music. A purposeful engagement with something beyond fulfilling a requirement. So far as I know, no one is required to take a hike. Suggested maybe…
Violent crimes—organized and unorganized—hunger, domestic abuse, and other horrors plague our world. So often, the malaise of meaninglessness haunts humanity. Why is that?
A storm just rumbled in, thick raindrops splatter everything and gutters shoot like geysers. The internet is out. Our power flickers off—on—and off again. Sheets of rain saturate our already sodden fields. Pumpkin vines sway with shredded leaves. Flower pots overflow, draining good soil away.
The image reminds me that I’ve recently attracted an internet antagonist who feels the need to point out his view of my literary and logical shortcomings. At first, I ignored him. Not out of malice, but simply because I didn’t have much to say in return. No one is required to read my posts. No one has to think as I think or believe as I believe. I simply share my point of view—life from my small and relatively quiet world. Yet an antagonist found me and shot his bolts of angry lightning my way.
What’s a meaningful response to a cyberbully? I could hurl back verbal bolts, but what’s the point?
I’ve been watching PBS’ World on Fire, an excellent WWII drama relating the hellish realities too many human beings endured ninety years ago. In my world, if the internet goes down for a couple of hours, it seems like a big deal. A molehill grown to gargantuan proportions. For them, cruelty and death chased sanity into close quarters and then hunted down families for generations. Devilry itself hidden behind national doors.
So once again, I consider what really matters. I knew when I arranged the writers’ support Saturdays that few people would show up. But I did it anyway. Why? Because I believe that libraries, writers, and support matter even when no one shows up. For the day when someone does step over the threshold hoping to exchange a word or two. I appreciate my hiker-friend since he has taken the road less traveled but found health and peace of mind in clear air and a rugged path.
Kids should have an opportunity to go to school—but daily purpose should be relatable to lives, not built on designated requirements that allow planners to check off boxes. Can a child find meaning in his or her lessons? Even simpler, will he or she grow up, be able to put food on the table, and care to eat it?
And how to manage in a world where bullies, baddies, and rivers of wrong flood the highways of our lives? Where old age leaves us alone without words or coherent thought.
The rain has stopped, and one of the cats just curled up in a flower pot between the fern and the pumpkin plant. A cool breeze has taken the edge off the heat of the day, and night is falling. Birds twitter their goodnight songs, and fireflies are flashing their lights for an evening of delight.
Each day unfolds its mysteries and conundrums. Sometimes I stroll, other times, I run. Never answering everything or certain sure of all.
But I make it to the end, glad I was a part of it. I’ll crack open my library book now, relax a bit, and be present to the Presence of life itself. For the meaning I searched for—was inside of me all along.
Sitting in a relatively quiet room—the birds are chirping outside, the downstairs refrigerator is rattling, and the drier is whirling about—I alternate my gaze from myriad unfinished projects to pictures and paintings covering the walls to the well-tended jungle growing just beyond my porch.
In a conversation with a friend today, we shared the compactness of every waking hour. So much happens that our brains jump the tracks at little things. Even attempting to drive a well-known path suddenly seems like wandering among a menagerie of hidden influences.
It’s when we slip into habitual actions that images, memories, shoved aside I-will-deal-with-it-later emotional sucker punches leap in for the kill.
Don’t get me wrong. I love our wide and wild, varied, and far-reaching world. I even love texting. Especially the sheer fun of sending a string of ridiculous emojis. But the benefit of instant communication is the inherent danger of instant communication. So much. So fast.
My eldest brother, who—like me—remembers the days of landlines, snail-mail, and when there was such a reality as “long-distance” shared that he has to leave his phone in another room because the constant notice pings were getting too much for his nerves.
My daughter told me the other day that we humans have figured out how to grow meat in vats. Not from animals, mind you, just from cells of animals—replicated. Like something off of Star Trek. She was thrilled with the idea. “Think about it—real meat but no suffering animals!”
And a couple of young friends asked my advice on out how to get married with God as their witness without involving religion, since the religions they’ve experienced have been severely disappointing.
What do the last few examples have in common? They all happened when I was too busy to think about what they meant to me. My thoughts tumble over each other trying to sort out whether I am worried about meat vats getting married long distance without any religious affiliation.
So much needs to be tended to in a day. Like breathing in humid air that could smother a hippopotamus, formatting a Spanish version of one of my books, sending a goodies box to my dad, walking the dog despite attacking insects, answering multitudinous emails, viewing social media, checking the weather app in a vain expectation that it will now announce a cool front, and figuring out how on earth to get the chickens to quit laying on the porch steps.
When the sun finally decides to have mercy on my soul and hits the horizon, I’m weary, body and soul.
Unlike my November break from social media, I’ve decided, once again, to reign in the forces that play tug-of-war with my life without cutting anything off completely. Priorities matter. Sticking to those priorities may keep me sane. So, I don’t have to break away, so much as choose how I will spend my time, engage my mind, and grow my soul.