Of Gods and Men

China @1041 AD

Bi Shang scooped a handful of sticky clay and set it on a wooden sideboard. Using sharpened sticks, he pulled off sections, and with sure and steady hands, shaped each piece into thin edged characters. Bending low, his eyebrows furrowed over the intense work, but a lilting hum escaped his lips.

A thin, young man draped in flowing pantaloons and a loose, grey tunic shuffled into the bright room, keeping close to the wall. His large eyes followed the older man with wide-eyed curiosity. “What’re you doing?”

Undisturbed, Bi Shang arranged each character on an iron baking tray. When the tray was full, he straightened and rubbed his back with one hand. With the other, he beckoned. “Come, Jian.”

Jian stepped forward, tilting his head to see better.

“I’m preserving human intelligence.”

Jian’s eyes narrowed. “My intelligence?”

With a chuckle, Bi Shang snatched a piece of wood from a basket and laid it carefully on a pile of glowing embers in a bake oven embedded in the wall. “Hmm. Yours and your children’s as well.”

Snorting, Jian waved the thought away. “You’re teasing.”

As the flickering flames grew, Bi Shang lifted a rack from the floor and placed it inside the oven. He grabbed a bowl of water and sprinkled the flames, taming them into smoky heat.

The boy’s eyes widened again. “But why—?”

“Because, this is delicate work, and I don’t want my characters to go up in flames.” Satisfied, Bi Shang carefully laid the tray on the rack over the radiant heat. With a contented sigh, he bent low and pointed. “See those shapes?”

Jian nodded.

“They represent the thoughts of men across the world.” His eyes twinkled. “And when we put many thoughts together—we shape both men and world.”

An angry pout formed on Jian’s lips. “You only tell me such stories because I’m small for my age.”

With a gentle hand, Bi Shang squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “On the contrary. I’m sharing great power with you. When my characters bake hard and strong, I’ll set them out for the world to read and ponder. Thoughts grow upon thoughts, and our people will know what wise men of the world believed.”

Stretching forth a tentative finger, Jian touched the clay and rubbed it between his fingers.

Tapping the boy’s arm, Bi Shang grinned. “Someday, if you watch and learn, you’ll know the thoughts of many and share your thoughts with the universe—wisdom to last beyond human sight.”

“Forever?” Jian squinted as if trying to see the edge of unlimited eons. “My thoughts are like the wind.” His gaze fell to the dusty floor. “And can sometimes be evil.”

Bi Shang stroked his face. “You are more honest than most.” Returning to his work, he turned his back to the boy. “Evil thoughts can teach us, too.” He glanced over his shoulder. “For none are barred from their embrace.” He sighed. “Though the wind sometimes uproots the old, it also carries in invigorating air.”

Jian shook his head, a worried frown etched across his forehead. “Such a power is for the gods and their anointed.”

Bi Shang nodded as he lifted his sharp sticks and began to shape a new character. He bent over his work in silent intensity.

Jian shuffled toward the door.

After placing new characters on a fresh tray, Bi Shang lifted his finger. “Before you leave, look at these.” He beckoned Jian forward.

Returning, Jian bent over the iron tray. A new light entered his eyes.”What do they mean?”

“Free—Spirit.” Bi Shang fixed his gaze on the boy. “We choose what we believe.”

Jian nodded, his bright eyes fastened on the figures. “Of gods and men.”

~~~

Sterling, a Luxonian disguised in the rough garb of a Chinese peasant, slapped a mosquito on his arm and frowned at the sight of blood. “Damn insects. Stupid humans! I’m so bored I could—”

“Sir?” Teal, a younger Luxonian dressed in a matching style, stepped out from behind a bush. He nodded toward a tree. “If you need to use—uh—want a little privacy—”

“I’d rather disintegrate.”

Smothering a smile as he rubbed a hand across his face, Teal nodded respectfully. “I doubt that’ll be necessary.” He started toward a sloping hill crowned with a copse of woods. “Though you did have five cups of tea.”

Laboring alongside his companion, Sterling blew air between his lips. “I keep thinking these new world voyages will stimulate me—invigorate my lagging spirit. But instead, everything is so blasted uncomfortable—it’s either hot and humid or dry and cold.” He tugged at his collar. “These ridiculous clothes scratch unmercifully, and the insect life—”

Teal huffed as he neared the crest. “But you enjoyed the tea and cakes—don’t deny it. And, you must admit, watching humans’ first foray into printing was rather fascinating.” With eager steps, he entered the woods.

Sterling tripped and grabbed a branch for balance. “I hate hiding in dark corners. And I’d hardly call a grown man attempting to convince a pathetic child that his clay characters imply a universal achievement—fascinating.” He snapped the twig off the tree and pounded further into the dense woods. “Really, I wonder if becoming a judge is worth all the risk.”

Yelping, Teal stopped and leaned against a tree. He dug a stone out of his sandal. “You have to understand the various life forms in your jurisdiction. How else will you make fair assessments?”

Sterling shuffled from one foot to another, his frown deepening. “I understand that. I just don’t like all the needless hardship. Why couldn’t I have been offered a position on Helm? Shapeshifters have much better sensibilities.” He swallowed and his face flushed. “I can’t stand it.”

Teal glanced around. “We’re safe here. Go ahead—return to Luxonian form.”

“No time!” Sterling rushed behind a tree.

Teal snatched a nut from a tree and studied it thoughtfully, ignoring Sterling’s long, shuddering sigh.

Wandering like a man lost in a dream, Sterling circled toward Teal. “I never imagined such relief—”

Teal pushed away from the trunk. “If you’re ready, we should make our report. Do a good job, and you’ll make a Supreme Judge someday.” He grinned. “As guardian, I’ll always be here to help.”

Sterling threw up his hands in renewed anguish. “But I haven’t got anything to report! It’s all so inconsequential.”

A brooding frown spread across Teal’s face. “Open your mind.” Teal strode closer and looked Sterling in the eyes. “Think about what you’ve seen—all of humanity’s challenges. They suffer from their corporeal bodies and their primitive living conditions—yet they manage to invent new ways to express themselves and preserve knowledge. They work hard, practice discipline and patience, endure pain and, yes, enjoy relief. And, from the look on the young man’s face, they also know ecstatic joy.” He waved his hands as if to encompass the entire planet. “I’d say that was consequential.”

Sterling peered up at the bright sky filtered between the leafy branches. “Perhaps you’re right.” He grinned as he leveled his gaze at Teal. “Supreme Judge, eh?” He glanced around, his smile fading. “Only if I survive.”

 

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

My Love Is Strong

Wendy tripped over a block castle, fell against the counter, knocked the coffee maker askew, and apologized. “Whoops, sorry ‘bout that!” Grabbing a sponge, she quickly mopped up the spill and darted a worried glance at the wrecked castle.

Ginny, her six-year-old daughter, skipped into the room. “Who you talking to?”

Before Wendy could answer, Ginny’s gaze swept across the devastation of her former block-castle glory. Her eyes widened in fitful rage. “What’da do that for, Mom?”

“It was an accident, honey. You shouldn’t leave—”

“Hey!” A large, heavily built man with a close-cropped, brown beard sauntered into the kitchen. “You remember me?”

Wendy blinked as wrinkles spread across her forehead. Something on the edge of her frazzled memory sounded a weak alarm. “My husband—right?”

“Very funny.” Mitch tapped his watch. “We’re going out tonight—anniversary? Ring any bells?”

After swallowing back a gasp, Wendy clasped her hands together. “Yeah, I remember, but earlier—I forgot. I, sort of, invited Deirdre over for a cup of tea.” Wendy’s hands flew out imploringly. “Her life’s falling apart. I thought tea might help—somehow.”

Mitch pulled a cup from the shelf and poured out the coffee dregs. “It’ll take more than tea to fix that woman.” He took a sip and winced. “Sides, I asked for tonight first—about twenty years ago.”

Wendy nodded. “Of course. I’ve been looking forward to it. Did you get Keith off to his game?”

Mitch leaned against the counter and rubbed his jaw. “Like a happy gladiator going into battle. Scary actually.” He peered down at his daughter’s pensive face. Reconstruction was well underway. “Who’s watching—?”

Wendy froze. “Oh, my gosh!”

Heaving himself into a chair, Mitch sighed. “And I don’t suppose you have anything ready for dinner?”

Wendy peered at the ceiling. “The part of my brain in charge of dinner remembered about going out. The rest of my brain forgot.” She rubbed her eyes. “What do you think—early dementia?”

“Well, I did notice that you put Patrick’s jeans in my drawer. Wasn’t till I got stuck somewhere around the knees that I figured it out.” Mitch pursed his lips. “How does that kid stay so dang thin? I pay enough for the meal plan.”

Wendy slumped into the chair opposite her husband. “He’s not coming home like he used to—preoccupied. I think it’s a girlfriend, or—”

“He’ll never make it through college.” Mitch rubbed his forehead. “I should’ve just had him take up a trade.”

Wendy shrugged. “He’s used to having his own way. Perhaps if he fails—”

“Fails with my money!” Mitch glanced at his watch and stood. “I’ll order pizza, and we’ll make it an easy night. Maybe watch a movie or something.”

Wendy’s heart sank as she offered a brave smile. After her husband clumped out of the room, she peered at her daughter. “Time to clean up, honey. Daddy’s going to—”

“Can’t I leave it here—please? It took me so long to fix—after you messed it up.” Gina’s large brown eyes implored with every fiber of her being.

“Well, okay. I guess—”

A large, heavy-set woman bundled into the kitchen. “Lord, where’s that tea? I’m about done-in.”

Wendy’s eyes flashed from her friend to the kitchen door.

“Mitch let me in the front. There’s a ton of mud in your driveway—it’s not safe.” Deirdre plunked down onto a kitchen chair and dropped her head onto her hands. “I can’t take it anymore. Life is pure hell these days.” She peered up at Wendy who stood frozen in the middle of the room. “I’m thinking of ending it all.”

A rumble scoured across the heavens.

Wendy strolled to the window and peered at the dark, threatening sky. She bit her lip and glanced at Deirdre. “I hate to tell you, but tonight’s Mitch’s and my anniversary and—”

Deirdre dragged her limp body off the chair and staggered to a standing position. “I tell you I want to kill myself, and you toss me aside. Sure—I understand. Loving hubby needs you. Priorities.” With a shaky hand, she patted Gina on the head.

Gina glowered.

Lightning flashed, lighting up the descending gloom.

Deirdre shrugged. “Sweet kid.” She started toward the kitchen door, her foot knocking part of the block castle across the floor.

Gina wailed.

Deirdre clasped the door handle and looked back at Wendy, her eyes half-lidded. “You got it all. Lucky woman.”

Mitch’s voice called from the living room. “Hey, honey, you want sausage, pepperoni, or meat-lovers?”

Rain pelted the window.

When the phone rang, Wendy wasn’t the least surprised. In an automatic motion, she pressed the receiver to her ear. “Yes?”

Patrick’s voice whined across two state lines. “Mom, I’m sick. Can you come get me?”

Wendy’s gaze swept from Deirdre—still gripping the door handle—to her sniffling, miserable daughter, to her husband’s frowning face peering through the doorway.

“Mom?”

Wendy didn’t hear anything break, but she felt a snapping deep within. Her gaze darted to a crucifix on the wall. Standing completely motionless, only her eyes widened.

She gripped the phone more tightly. “Patrick, the college has a clinic open twenty-four-seven. Go there and see if they can help. Then call back and let me know.” She pressed the end button.

With a nod, she waved goodbye to Deirdre and watched her friend harrumph her way out the door.

Turning her attention to the block-strewn floor, Wendy pointed at her daughter. “Pick it all up—now—and not a word, or you’ll go straight to bed.” Her gaze swung to her husband.

Mitch started to back away.

“Let’s try something new—the Hawaiian or Taco—surprise me.”

~~~

As ragged clouds drifted across a waxing moon, Mitch wound his arms around his wife in the privacy of their bedroom. He peered through the dim light and grinned. “What got into you this afternoon—I hardly knew you.” He chuckled. “Scared everyone—even me.”

Wendy slid her fingers down her husband’s bare, muscular arm, her eyes radiating a serious glow. “When I looked at the crucifix—I heard a voice inside my head.”

With a startled jerk, Mitch fixed his gaze on his wife. “What did it say?”

Wendy sucked in a deep breath and enunciated each word carefully. “‘I said meek—not weak.’”

Mitch loosened his hold over his wife and swallowed. “Am I in for it now?”

Wendy giggled, leaned forward, and kissed her husband. “My love is strong.”

Grinning, Mitch pulled his wife into a tight embrace. “Lord, have mercy.”

 

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 

Romantic Reality

romanticreality

Bala lay in bed, his arm around his wife, and stared up at the ceiling. The room glowed in soft, semi-darkness as faint starlight flowed in from the window. An abrupt snore from across the hall broke the silence. Bala chuckled. “After six of ’em, you’d think I’d get used to the idea that kids snore, but it always seems so ridiculous.”

Kendra shrugged. “I don’t see why they’d be any different than the rest of us. Blocked nasal passages are a part of life.”

Bala squeezed Kendra’s shoulder. “That’s what I love about you, so romantic!”

“Just telling it as it is.” She grinned. “Do you remember when we met?”

Bala stiffened. “You mean the very first time I saw you, or the first time we spoke, or the first time I kissed—”

Kendra jabbed him in the ribs. “The very first time, man-o-mine.”

Bala licked his lips. “Go ahead, refresh my memory.” He tickled her arm. “I know you’re dying to.”

Kendra rose up on one elbow and stared into Bala’s eyes. “Just for that, I’ll tell you what you never knew! So there!”

“Uh, oh. Can I rephrase—”

“Too late, boy-o. You’re going to get what you deserve.” Shoving her pillows up against the headrest, she sat up and pulled the blankets straight. Her long-sleeved, purple pajamas appeared black in the dim light.

Bala heaved a sigh and curled up on his side, propping his head on his hand. “Don’t mind my relaxed pose. I have to fight six children onto a transport in the morning, and I need to conserve my strength, what’s left of it anyway.”

Kendra kicked his foot and then positioned herself like a storyteller of old, tapping her fingers together meditatively. “I was seven—going on eight. You were nine—going on fifty.” She peered down at him, through the shadows. “You remember the playground at Saint Robert’s? Nothing but hard cement and a few rickety swings?”

Bala nodded.

“And you trudged up the driveway with your little sack slung over your shoulder. Full of provisions, I was sure. You looked like some kind of off-world trader, come to sell his wares. I was agog with curiosity.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched her hands gesturing. “Agog? Oh, my, you’re not supposed to do that in polite society.”

Kendra maintained her composure. “I didn’t tell anyone, but I watched the exchange as you explained yourself to Mother Superior. You looked like a miniature soldier reporting for duty. Your family sent you with no escort, no explanation, just your provision bag, and a datapad saying that you were there for the duration.”

Bala sighed. “I remember.” He frowned. “How did you know?”

Kendra’s grin gleamed in the half-light, which slanted across the bed. “I was very good friends with the Head Mistress. She thought the world of me. Dare say, after a few pointed questions, she told me what I wanted to know—fact wise. But I was still curious. So, I used to follow you around.”

Bala slapped his forehead. “That was you? I thought that bully, MacKery, was teasing me.”

“He was. I beat him up. Then I took his place.”

Bala snorted, clasping his hand over his mouth to stifle any further outbursts.

“Anyway, I liked what I saw. I decided that one day you’d marry me, we’d have a family, and live on Newearth. It was my grand scheme.”

Bala huffed. “Silly me. I thought I came up with the idea.”

Kendra stroked the side of his face. “You would’ve, in fact, you did. Once I told you.”

“You planned the six kids too, I suppose?”

“Hardly. They’re gifts. I just hoped.”

Bala nodded, raised himself to a sitting position, and folded his hands. “So, what plans do you have now?”

Kendra sighed. “That’s just it. My plans only went so far. They sort of—well—life took over. I stopped planning and just tried to keep up.”

Bala chuckled. “I know what you mean.” He pulled Kendra into his arms. “You know, wife-o-mine. It was no accident that my bedraggled, little body showed up at that school.”

Kendra tilted her head to the side, a gleam in her eye. “Oh? Really?”

Bala nodded as he shifted closer and wrapped both his arms around her, nuzzling her cheek against his. “Yep. You weren’t the only one making plans. And—” Bala gazed up as though he could see through the ceiling into the impenetrable, night sky. “I don’t think He’s done.”

~~~

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

Native Elements

Cyril swore under his breath as he stared at the mounting black clouds sweeping across the mountain range. The pine trees swayed with warning sighs as the wind whistled through their branches. Crows whirled towards earth, out-flying the looming threat.

“Stupid weatherman never said anything about a storm.” Cyril didn’t realize he had spoken aloud until Jeanette curled her arm through his and clucked her disapproval.

“Weatherwoman, Cyrus. Or person. Not man for God’s sake. Besides, no one is perfect.”

Cyril didn’t doubt that for a moment. He had never really intended to invite Jeanette to his private sanctuary—but in an unguarded moment he had pontificated, “Kids today are out of their native element,” and Jeanette, being his superior by two grade levels and French proficiency, had laughed. Smirked really.

She had sat across from him in the teacher’s lounge, sipped her black coffee, nibbled her wheat crackers, and shook her curly-haired head. “Native element? What, pray tell, is a kid’s native element, Sorrel?”

Cyril squeezed his eyes shut against the memory. His face flushed, as it always did when she mutilated his name. When she first practiced her ruinous arts at a teacher’s convention— “Oh, good, here’s Floral, so we’re well represented—” he had dared to object.

“The name is Cyril—not Sorrel, not Floral—see if you can remember that.”

The flock of attending teachers froze in the face of his unflinching correction, but Jeannette merely grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Oh, Creel, don’t get all flaky and fall to pieces.”

His only retort had been a mute glare while his co-workers simply chuckled and wandered toward other entertainment. He had been bested. Clearly.

For two years, he waged a stoic campaign to keep his name unaltered, but Jeanette found myriad atrocious variations to spring on him—passing in the hall, at meetings, and even as she waved goodbye in the parking lot. In the teacher’s lounge, she would rattle on about her latest date, fashionable clothes, a got-to-go-see movie, progressive teaching, antiquated traditions, and whatever else fueled her current passion while he doodled swaying pine trees on a memo pad and retreated into icy politeness.

Occasionally, he’d vary his day by hunting up extra resources for a struggling student, but most six graders hated math and made little attempt to hide their distaste for the subject in particular—or for him in general. Even when he lugged in architects’ drawings, carpentry notes, checkbooks, and myriad other real-world examples of math’s viability, he would still be slapped down with the oft opined sentiment, “We’re never going to use this stuff—it’s a waste of time.”

He might as well be forcing broccoli down innocent kids’ throats. At least, Jeannette never made him feel like the enemy—a fool—but never an enemy. Perhaps that was why he accepted her question as a challenge and invited her to come to the mountains with him and experience the native elements herself.

Only when the muscled P. E. teacher, Mr. James, squeezed his shoulder and intoned the words, “Best of luck, ol’ pal,” did Cyril realize that staring down a pack of hyenas would have been a wiser option.

Their afternoon started more optimistically than he anticipated. Jeanette had met him in the parking lot decked out in cowboy boots, jeans, and a leather jacket.

He refrained from shaking his head and merely jiggled his keys. “Mind if I drive?”

Jeannette shrugged in utter nonchalance. “Might as well. You know where we’re going—I suppose.” Her grin widened wickedly as she added “Series.”

He sped up the winding road and, after arriving, started down the simplest and shortest trail. She bounced along at his side pointing out every squirrel and bird in hyper-exultation. When they returned to the parking lot, she deflated. “Is that it? I mean—that’s all you got, Virile?”

Cyril’s squinted at the lowering sun and considered his revenge—trail number five, meant for experienced hikers with a loud, splashing stream, a long, steep incline, two narrow passes, and one precipitous drop. His eyes narrowed as he returned to the forest.

They floundered across the bubbly stream and scrambled up the first incline when a warning rumbled across the sky. Distant trees swayed as a murmur rustled through the foliage. Cyril considered the low sun and a slight twinge shivered down his spine.

Jeannette scanned the waving branches with a frown. “How far have we come?”

“About half way.”

A brilliant flash of light made them blink as black clouds bundled together overhead.

That’s when he spouted his politically incorrect fury on the weatherperson. He could feel her arm squirming around his; searching for something he was loath to offer.

“Half-way? Seriously, Cereus, what were you thinking—”

He felt the familiar, hot flush rise to the roots of his hair. Cyril shook Jeanette’s arm away and snapped around like a wounded panther. “C-Y-R-I-L! My name is CYRIL!”

Jeannette blinked as the sky blustered overhead.

Cyril wrung his hands in a pantomime of strangling something—or someone—and bellowed. “Now shut up and quit acting like the stuck-up, little snob you always are and let me think of the quickest way out of here.” He looked up and down the paths and then pointed ahead. “Let’s go on.”

Doing a fair imitation of a rock wall, Jeanette folded her arms and glared.

Cyril stomped away with a wave of his hand. “Fine. Be a smart-ass. See if that gets you over the stream again. Not that I’d go back that way. But enjoy the incline and don’t slide off the edge of anything. There are about thirty minutes of light left—you might make it to a cave or something before night sets in.”

He was nearly a quarter of a mile down the path in the pelting rain when he heard her splashing steps. She charged into him, grabbed his shirt and yanked, sending them both careening into the mud. With her limp hair streaming across her face, she rounded a slug on his shoulder.

“You stupid pig! You mean, heartless idiot! Why I spent the last two years being nice to you is more than I can figure. But I never expected this! This—”

Cyril’s eyes widened as he staggered to his feet and watched her slip and slide. “You’ve been nice? When was that? I must’ve missed it. I could have sworn you spent the last two years tormenting me with your cruel, twisted, little name-calling.”

Lightning flared, and thunder crashed over their heads as Jeanette clenched her fists, facing him, bedraggled. “Always so high and mighty, aren’t you? Always getting your pants in a twist when I try to add a little fun into your life. Can’t climb down from your superior loft in the high and mighty world of algebra and advanced math. You think I couldn’t teach math? I could. I just chose to do something a little more creative, something that means something TO ME!”

A deafening crack of thunder sent them pelting down the path. Cyril slipped and threw his arms out for balance. The downpour increased, but Jeannette raced on. Cyril snatched her sleeve and pulled her to a jog. “You’ll fall, stupid. There’s a drop coming.”

Jeannette yanked away and raced ahead even faster. She shrieked as she started sliding down a steep incline.

Cyril grabbed her arm and pulled back, sprawling them both onto the muddy path.

Jeannette’s face twisted; she slapped his hand. “I’m not stupid!”

Cyril climbed to his knees, crawled under the shelter of a tree and let his head fall against the trunk, leaning back with heaving breaths. “Neither am I. Though every time you speak French, smirking as if I am too dense to understand, or when you mutilate my name—”

Jeannette rose shakily to her feet, slapped mud from her jeans, squared her shoulders, and started forward. She stepped into a dangling vine and yelped as a thorn scratched her cheek. She turned on Cyril, her voice low and menacing. “If you’re trying to get revenge—mission accomplished.”

Cyril rose and blinked at her silhouette in the dim light. He glanced at his muddy watch, sighed, and grabbed her hand. “Mission aborted. I’m an idiot, and we need to get out of here—now.”

Jeannette pulled away. “Don’t touch me!”

“You want to wander aimlessly in the dark under tons of swaying trees? Let’s make a truce and get out alive, okay?” Cyril stretched out his hand.

Jeannette turned and charged up the path.

~~~

As they sat dripping and muddy in the school parking lot, a sickle moon peeked through the vestiges of drifting clouds. Cyril hadn’t looked at her during the whole, miserable drive back to the city. She had stared straight ahead, silent as a tomb. When he parked, he expected her to bolt, but she just sat there.

Finally, he broke the ice with the most inane comment he ever made. “Well, at least it’s Friday.”

She stared at him a long moment, shifted in her seat, and faced him. “Native elements? You want the kids to experience the wonders of—”

Cyril let his head drop back against the headrest, though he would have welcomed a brick wall. He took a long cleansing breath. “I wasn’t expecting a storm of biblical proportions. I just wanted—”

Jeanette lifted her hand. “No, I get it. I just wish you’d have told me, not tried to kill me.” Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I was just joking. It was all in fun.”

The lump in his throat surprised Cyril. It was hard to swallow away. “Not so fun for me.”

They sat in silence, the school building a rectangular shadow looming in the background.

Cyril rubbed his dirty fingers together. “The woods—the natural world—it’s like God made it just for me. Thousands have been there before, but for a little while, it’s all mine. No forcing dreaded math problems on squirming kids—”

Jeannette sighed and wiped a stray strand of hair from her eyes. “Most kids think French is stupid. After all, who needs a teacher when there’s Google translator?”

Cyril folded his hands and shrugged. “Google would have me ordering snails for breakfast.”

The barest hint of Jeannette’s smile glimmered between the neon light posts and the black night. “To be totally honest, variables scare me. Letters smacked up against numbers, it seems wrong, somehow.”

Cyril never knew exactly what came over him, but he reached across the seat and lifted Jeanette’s hand, lacing her fingers with his. “Actually, they can do amazing things together.”

Jeanette tilted her head, the moonlight highlighting a teasing smile. “Like thunderstorms in native elements—Cyril?”

Cyril grinned.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

Off-World Faith

church

Bala knelt on the hard, stone floor and folded his hands across the latticed-carved railing, his head bowed. As the priest approached, he stared straight ahead; his eyes fixed on the ornate altar under the stained glass window of Jesus embracing His Mother Mary. With precise steps, the robed figure bent and offered him a gift. The greatest gift Bala could imagine.

He accepted it, crossed himself, and stood.

When he returned to his pew, he knelt beside Kendra; her head bowed onto her hands clasped over the pew in front of her.

Final prayers and chants completed the liturgy, and Kendra sank back with a deep sigh. Her gaze floated up to the gorgeously painted ceiling.

Bala slid back on the pew and echoed her sigh. It had been so long. So much had happened. Six kids had happened. A new job, an attack on his family, and now a new threat. Bala sighed again.

Kendra reached over and clasped his hand. With a quick squeeze, she nudged him.

The procession had left, and only a few others remained behind, praying, crying, thanking God, adoring—Bala didn’t know; he didn’t need to know. He scooted out of the pew and Kendra followed.

Still clasping hands, they strolled through the enormous, carved doorway and stood on the top row of twenty, stone steps leading into the heart of a bustling city. Saint Francis, it was called. Bala chuckled at the incongruity of the sign across the street proclaiming itself the city’s finest Savings and Loan on the planet: “Saint Frances would keep his units here—if had any.” Bala pointed out the sign to Kendra.

She laughed. “Well, at least they have a sense of humor, even if they have no common sense to speak of.”

“Speaking of sense, I’m starving. Want to get something before we pick up the kids?”

“You mean to eat in peace and quiet?” Kendra’s eyes widened as if she were scandalized. “What would the kids say?”

“Let’s not tell them.” Bala dragged her along as he led her down the street toward a fancy establishment. “Besides, I’m sure that Sister Mary Rose will have stuffed them with enough breakfast to keep them happy for at least an hour or two.”

Kendra sniffed with a shrug. “If not her, then one of her fourteen sisters will see to it.” Kendra halted in mid-stride. “Lord, you don’t think our little darlings will end up with fifteen breakfasts, do you?”

Bala stared wide-eyed. “If they do, we’ll be able to stay out for the whole morning.” He nudged Kendra through the delicately carved glass doorway.

They followed a portly, smartly dressed waiter to a table laid with a white, linen cloth and real silverware. Bala’s eyes bugged. “It’s been so long!”

Kendra patted his hand. “Don’t go getting attached. We have to return tomorrow. This is our last fling with Oldworld comforts.”

Exhaling, Bala perused the menu, and they ordered two healthy breakfasts. The waiter retreated, and Kendra folded her hands in her lap. “So? What did he tell you?”

Bala tapped his water glass and frowned. “Confession is supposed to be private. You know what priests have gone through to keep—”

“Awe, come on. We always share. And besides, this was more like spiritual direction. You don’t have much to confess, I imagine.”

Bala shrugged. “Your imagination is lacking. Trust me, I had plenty to confess.” Bala shook his head. “Funny, but when I was a kid, I used to face the priest like a soldier going into battle. I was always scared to death, shook like a leaf. This time, I felt rather sorry for the poor man. The things he must have to listen to! Felt rather sorry for myself, too.”

Kendra nodded as the waiter placed two steaming cups in front of them and retreated. She returned her gaze to Bala’s face. “Any conclusions?”

Bala sipped the hot coffee and blinked. “Yeah. But you won’t like it. It seems that our sins make us who we are. And we forgive others and ourselves and move on, knowing all the while, we’ll have to forgive again later.”

Kendra sipped her coffee and then leaned across the table, clasping Bala’s hand. “And?”

Bala swallowed, his gaze fixed on the tablecloth. “And I have to go. Clare will chase after Omega, but someone has to locate Cosmos. It’s my duty. I can’t shrink from it, not even for you and the—” Bala swallowed back his last word.

The waiter returned with loaded trays of steaming food. He placed them silently on the table, and with a bow, retreated again.

Bala shuddered. “I have to go. If—”

Kendra squeezed his hand and nodded. “I know. Why do you think I insisted on this family trip? We needed to return to our home—to our roots. We needed to remember why we settled on Newearth in the first place.”

Bala lifted his gaze and stared into Kendra’s eyes. “I married you for two very good reasons.”

Kendra smiled. “My charm and money?”

Bala scratched his head with a grin. “Okay, four very good reasons. But it was your wisdom and love that won me over.”

Kendra picked up her fork, eyeing her food like a tiger about to pounce. “Yeah, same with me. I figured that no matter how many kids we had, you’d provide what we need. And probably not go insane in the process.”

Bala chuckled and speared his ham and eggs with gusto. “Cool-headed-logic, that’s my middle name!”

~~~

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

Life of Gorth—Fate of a Weapon Maker

ruin-540830_960_720

Planet – Ingilium

Moglum’s Land Base Rental

Renter: Gorth – practicing war games on the backlot…

“I will not die! At least not today! So take that! And that! And that!”

Bam! Fizzzt!

“Gorth! Hold on would you? You’re turning my back lot into a crater. I know you’re a lean, mean, fighting machine—but please—I need some space that isn’t constantly being bombarded with shrapnel. My poor nerves—”

“What a landlord! Where’s your Ingilum spirit, Moglum? Your mama should’ve packed you off on one of those slave transports.”

“Nice. Real nice, Gorth. Now shut up and listen. Someone from the Imperium just sent a message—”

“From the Imperium? For me?”

“Yeah, and if you’re being transferred, you better fix this mess before you leave!”

~~~

Imperium Central Office for Inter-planetary Security

Hologram message coming through…

“Citizen Iz, secretary for the Imperium, can I help you?”

“Oh, hi, it’s me…I mean…this is citizen Gorth. You sent a message….”

“Gorth! Yes, thank you for checking in so quickly. Good news. We’ve been watching your progress and decided that this is the time to support your… unique skills.”

“Um. What does that mean exactly?”

“Listen, Gorth, there’s a new threat. We’ve received secret information that the Cresta are planning an invasion… and they won’t be coming alone.”

“Annihilate! Really? This is big. How can I help? I mean with the weapons’ ban and all…”

“The ban has been lifted. Your research may continue where you left off. In fact, the Imperium is prepared to assist you by any means necessary.”

Silence.

“Gorth?”

“Oh, yeah… I just had to get back on my feet…I sorta fell over. Honestly, I never expected this. You know, weapons are my passion. I live to evaporate. It’s what I dream about. After the ban, I had to be content with just blowing—”

“We understand. That’s why you have been chosen. You’re gifted and if it hadn’t been for interplanetary pressure, we’d never have agreed to that infernal… Never mind. The fact is, you are now reinstated. Fully. Get back to work, Gorth.”

~~~

Three moon cycles later…

Back at Moglum’s Land Base Rental

Moglum’s Living Space

Moglum and Gorth sit hunched on a steel bench as they lean over a long table strewn with various weapon and weapon parts.

Gorth holds up a small, smooth, and rounded handheld devise, his chest puffs with pride. “I’m calling it the Evaporator.”

Moglum frowns. “Nah… Come on Gorth; don’t be stupid. That name’s already been taken. It blew the entire watching audience to smithereens. Don’t you remember? It was on every hologram from here to the Cresta Divide.”

“Musta repressed it. Hmmm… I’m not so good at naming things. Any ideas?”

“How about the Destroyer? The Atomizer? The Dustbuster?”

“Hey, I like that. The Dustbuster! I’ll call it the Dustbuster I. I mean, I’ve done about a kazillion of these things but nobody needs to know that.”

“Go down in history as the greatest weapon maker of all time… Brilliant. Oh, and when you get paid… You are getting paid for this right?”

“Sure. The Imperium said they’d give me what I deserve.”

“Well, then, you’ll be in a position to rebuild the back lot. I was thinking of turning it into something like that resort on the South Sea. You know, the one with all the foliage and females…”

“Yeah. Yeah… I’ll get to it. But first I got to present this to the Imperium. See what they think.”

“You’ll be a hero. No doubt about it. I always said you’d make the Ingot name great again.”

“Ah… Just following my passion.”

~~~

Universal News Today:

It has been verified that the missing inventor of the Dustbuster I, Gorth, has finally been tracked to the back lot of Moglum’s Land Base Rental. Apparently, his newest weapon had been used against him and then stolen.

The Imperium requests that any information concerning Gorth’s demise be sent directly to their Central Security Office.

On the interplanetary front, it appears that Crestas are once again up to no good….

~~~

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 Never Had a Son

Planet Lux, courtyard, dominated by a two-story fountain and decorated with generous fauna wafting in a gentle breeze as cloud sprays reflect every color in the spectrum. Cerulean stands before the fountain, silent and alone.

I miss Viridian. Or rather, I miss what I hoped we’d have together—my son, following in my footsteps or perhaps forging a new path together.

Must all such dreams die? Surely not…

Anne had a second chance with her daughter, and Peter has grown closer to his son. Not all families are doomed to a hideous fate. But me? My father has been long gone, and I’ll never have another son.

“Cerulean?”

“Yes, Judge Sterling. What can I do for you, sir?”

Surprise…. He’s in his human form, with his matching white suit and beard…looking as dashing as any aging Luxonian with delusions of—

“Supreme Judge. Formality, I know, but we must keep up appearances.”

“Yes, Supreme Judge. Sterling.”

“Odd. When you say it— Never mind. I’ve come to inform you that a council has been appointed to discuss the Human Question…again.”

“Sir?”

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed your efforts on their behalf.”

“I believe I told you my concerns up front.”

“Yes, and I was listening. You look doubtful.”

“You never appeared interested.”

“Humanity has proven useful. I’m not ignorant of their worth. I simply needed to understand how involved the Cresta was going to be.”

“Now that Ingots, the Uanyi, and Bhuacs have staked their claims—is it involved enough?”

“Stop scowling, Cerulean. If you’d appear like a proper Luxonian, I’d feel more comfortable.”

“But I wouldn’t.”

“So I’ve noticed. In any case, I have a friend…shall we say a benign enemy who—”

“You mean the reporter—Lang?”

“You know her?”

“She’s notorious.”

“Yes, well, we have an understanding. She lies to me… I lie to her… And we understand each other perfectly.”

“What lies has she been telling you now?”

“She was kind enough to inform me that Crestas have outlawed all crossbreed experimentation, that the Ingots have no interest in Newearth, that the Uanyi plan on relocating on the dark side of the Divide, and that the Bhuacs are quite happy being decimated.”

“With enemies like her, who needs friends?”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“So— What’s the next step?”

“We must regain our position on Newearth, but that means we need an alliance everyone can agree with.”

“An impossible challenge.”

“It’s your challenge, Cerulean. Come up with a plan, think of a way to present it to the Supreme Council so that they see how it benefits Luxonian society, in fact, make it seem like their idea. Then return to Newearth and make it happen.”

I can feel sweat trickling down my back. What I wouldn’t do for an ice-cold—anything. “I can’t do this alone.”

“You won’t. Roux will accompany you to Newearth. You’ll make friends—”

Uh, oh, that one-of-a-kind, tormented stare….

“You always do. Find allies; convince them that it is in their best interest if we all work together.

“It will be.”

“See? You’ve convinced me already.”

Odd. I never noticed that his smile has a certain charm. “When is the council meeting?”

“Tomorrow, early. Come ready for battle. Act like it’s the end of life as we know it—”

“I’ve already used that argument. It only works once.”

“True.”

By the Divide, he’s pacing the walkway, stroking his beard like a human patriarch of old.

“Lang advised me that since Newearth is so poor in natural resources, there isn’t a merchant within a million light-years who’d be interested in it.”

“Merchants? They’re as dangerous as politicians.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Merchants are thieves and liars, but they have honest souls. They know perfectly well that war shrinks the profit margin. The Luxonian Council—”

“Supreme Luxonian Council.”

“Yes, of course, they want happy merchants because happy merchants protect our assets.”

“I see.”

Strange that I never noticed this side of Sterling before. How could I have missed it?

“Thank you, sir. I was nearly out of options.”

“I know. I do have eyes…never mind. I must attend to other Supreme Judge business.”

“Of course.”

“Cerulean?”

Deep breath. He’s staring again. “Yes?”

“I never had a son.”

Forget ice-cold; my mouth just went as dry as the dark side of the Divide. “If you had, he’d probably have been just like you.”

Exactly. But you—you’re nothing like me.

“Sir?”

“I never wanted a son, Cerulean…. See you in the council chamber.”

~~~

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

James Milford Parker III

sunset

James Milford Parker III

Death

James Milford Parker III stared at the gravestone with his name etched out in block print and realized that he would never be the same. James had seen tombstones before. Many times, in fact. But they had all been part of a set. His father had been a movie producer and his mother an actress of some renown in her early days. Now, they were just aging celebrities who lived quiet lives in as stress-free an environment as possible. They deserved some rest and fun. After all, they had given their best years to the world of entertainment. They ought to keep their golden years for themselves.

James stared and wondered why the stone in front of him did not seem real. He stepped forward and pressed his fingers against the marble slab in an attempt to dislodge it from its foundation. It did not budge. It was stone all right. He could feel the firm, smooth foundation under his casual shoes. Patting the stone, he smiled, as if asking the stone if it could take a little joke. You don’t mind, do you? I had to make sure. The image of a plastic tombstone being carried off in one hand by a prop man turned his smile into a grimace. So hard to be sure, you know.

James turned, got into his car, and drove twenty-seven miles home. He lived in the country on a sprawling estate. He never knew why his wife had insisted on having a place so far out, but he respected her wishes as he had respected everything about her. She was a good woman and that was why her sudden death baffled him to the point of incomprehension. He got out of his car and looked around. Everything was very quiet. It was early autumn, but the days were still quite warm. California seasons change almost imperceptibly. It was hard to realize that anything had changed. But he knew the night would bring a chilling breeze and he shivered at the thought.

I could use a drink, he mumbled to himself but brushed the thought away with a flick of his hand. He had suffered the pains of hell trying to sober up permanently. He wasn’t going to risk a rerun of that life, not without Cindy. Cindy had been the bedrock of his sanity when alcoholism almost destroyed his will to live. It had cost him his job at the studio and many of his friends. Though his name alone would always assure him of a following, it would not always assure him of friends. There were very few people he called friends, and he just lost the best of the bunch four days ago. Shaking his head to ward of any other dangerous thoughts, James punched in his key code and then slid the glass door open and walked inside. The echoing silence nearly deafened him.

He scratched his head and wondered if perhaps he should have just one drink. After all, his wife had died and no one would blame him for getting drunk. Standing in the middle of the foyer, he lifted his head and his gaze fell on a small marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that Cindy had installed in a little niche as you entered the house. Good Lord, how he hated the thing! He tried for weeks to convince Cindy that it made them seem like religious fanatics, like real provincials, but she had just smirked and said that at this point in her life, she didn’t give a hoot what people thought. Maria, her maid, had given it to her just before she died from liver cancer, and she wasn’t about to remove it. Cindy had said that it reminded her of something important. When James had asked her what was so damn important about it, she just told him that when he grew up, he’d figure it out. She said this with a smile, so James didn’t take it as an insult, though as he thought of it now, he wondered if it was an insult ― he’d just been too besotted to catch on.

He moved toward the expansive living room, all done up in wood paneling, shag rugs, and Native American themes. He found it rather revolting. His boyhood had been immersed in ultra-modern chromes and sleek metals and this reversion toward mother-earth had struck him as somewhat barbaric, but once again, this was what Cindy wanted and as he had his own place closer to work, he was willing to allow her decorators do their worst. And they did. Oh, Lord, did they ever.

James suddenly realized that he would have to sell the place, and he would need help. He considered several options for a moment. There were so many ramifications of Cindy’s death that his head spun. Too much to think about. Ever since Thursday morning when he awoke and realized that Cindy, lying there beside him, was not moving, that she was too still and too cold, he had existed in numbed shock. He had called an ambulance and his personal physician, but it was too late at that point. He then called his secretary and after telling her the news, she had promised to clear his calendar. All his projects had been shoved to the side. His father had said that he might come for the funeral, but as his mother hadn’t been feeling well, she probably wouldn’t be able to make it. James knew. His mother never liked Cindy, and it wasn’t in her nature to do anything she didn’t want to do. He was grateful for his father though. He didn’t have any other family to call, and Cindy’s family was spread all over the globe. Her brother flew in from Texas, but that was it. Her father was in a nursing home and her mother had died years ago. Cindy had wanted to go to her mother’s funeral, but they had been in the middle of a big movie opening. James insisted that he couldn’t break away and since his sobriety was still in question, Cindy had elected to stay at his side. Later she told him that she felt like she had betrayed her mother by not going to her funeral, but James had just laughed.

“Good God, Cindy! The woman was cremated! What kind of funeral can there be for a pile of dust?” He had not realized how cruel he was at the time. Cindy had walked out of the room. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that she reminded him of the incident and asked him if he remembered. He said he didn’t remember his exact words, but he supposed he had said something like that. She asked him if he still felt the same. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t like to think about death. It was a long time ago, Cindy, forget it.” She seemed to. But it nagged at him now. It more than nagged at him. It felt like a hammer blow to the heart. How could he have been so cold?

James turned and walked toward the steps. Well, if I can’t have a drink, I’m sure as hell not going to stand around here thinking about the past. I can’t change anything. It is – what it is. He walked into his study and turned on a large screen television. He picked up the remote and began flipping through the channels as he pulled at his tie. He stopped at a news channel and then threw his cell phone on his dresser and tugged off his dress shirt. He began talking to himself “Why did I go today? The funeral was yesterday. I didn’t need to check to see if the stone was set. Totally neurotic. I could have sent Edwardo. Damn, I am such―”

James turned at the sound of his cell phone ringing. He snatched it off his dresser and stepped over to the window only dressed in his casual pants and shoes. His chest was bare and he allowed the sunlight to warm him through the window. “Yeah?”

It was Dalton, his friend and buddy from days long past. He hadn’t heard from Dalton for years. Dalton explained that he had just heard about Cindy’s death, and he was in the area. Would it be okay if he stopped by for a moment? He was on his way to a screening, but he really wanted to see him for a bit. James squinted, trying to remember what had happened at their last meeting. He had a vague feeling that their last conversation had not gone well, but he couldn’t remember the details. He shrugged in the afternoon sun. “Yeah, sure. I’m not doing anything.”

James could almost feel Dalton’s relief. He stared out over the vast expanse of scrub brush and rocky hills and tried not to sigh. He wasn’t sure what would be worse. Sitting here alone or having an old friend come by and try to comfort him. Well, it was a moot point now. Dalton made sure of the address and punched it into his phone. He was as good as in his living room.

James pressed the end button and threw the phone back on his dresser. Well, so much for immersing himself in some stupid movie or another. He looked at the screen and scowled. There were images of his wife’s face and then scenes of the funeral. What? Couldn’t people ever leave them alone? Voyeurs and parasites! Then the screen blinked to the most recent war victims. It showed the fragmented remains of a school that had been bombed. Bodies were everywhere. The sound was muted so James couldn’t hear the grisly details, but he could see the reality for himself.  “Christ! Do they have to put that up all the time? Isn’t there ever any good news?” James looked for the remote but he couldn’t find it. He began to scramble madly around the room, searching for it. He wanted to turn the bloody thing off but in his confusion, he felt his face flush with fury. “Where the hell did it go? Damn it! Where―” He saw it under his shirt and grabbing it, he squeezed the off button. When the screen turned black, he flopped down on a chair and buried his head in his hands. “God, Almighty! I just can’t take things like that. Not today.”

James sat there for a moment and then remembered that Dalton was coming. He tossed his used shirt into the over-flowing hamper relieved that the cleaning woman would come in the morning. He tried to remember her name. Cindy was the one who hired and managed their help. He didn’t know a thing about them other than they came and went like invisible angels of mercy. He supposed he’d have to find out what their names were. He opened his closet and pulled a casual shirt from the rack. He could smell a faint odor coming from the closet and realized that Cindy had come in the other day night before they were heading out to a party; she had practically reeked of perfume. Funny I can smell it now. I didn’t notice it this morning. I never smell anything anymore… James realized that this wasn’t helping him get ready for Dalton, so he strode to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face, and returned to the first floor.

He meandered into the kitchen and decided he would fix a little something for his old friend. He took out a package of fat-free chips and a platter of cut vegetables that had been left over from the funeral, and he poured some ranch dressing into a container. He put these on the counter with some cold meat and cheese that had been carefully wrapped away, in case he got hungry, someone had said. Who had said that? James tried to remember who had been at the funeral dinner, but it was a blur.

James was about to open the refrigerator when his hand accidentally brushed against the counter and sent the chip bowl sprawling. He bent down reflexively to catch it and slammed his head against the edge of the marble counter. The blow sent lights flashing before his eyes, and he lurched backward from the sharp pain. He clasped his hand over his temple and realized with a shock that he was bleeding. He knew that head wounds tend to bleed profusely, and it did little to stem the rise of panic as he felt drops of blood slide through his fingers. He rushed to the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror and suddenly felt sick. Before he even thought out his next move, he found himself retching into the toilet. Grabbing roller-spinning wads of toilet paper, he tried to wipe his face and temple and stem the flow of blood. After a few moments, the dripping slowed, and he cautiously moved toward the living room. He plopped down on the couch and lay his head back with a muted groan.

Does it get any worse? James closed his eyes and tried to calm down. His stomach was empty now and the blood was definitely congealing though he feared that if he got up, it might start up again. He lay as still as possible and tried to think. He should call Dalton and tell him not to come. He probably should call someone to take him to the doctor. He envisioned Dalton forcing the door open and fining him in a pool of blood. He saw himself floating above his wife’s tombstone…also his tombstone. He realized that it was his now as much as hers. He would die and he would lie there and his body would never bleed again. He would never breathe again. He would never answer the phone or have old friends coming over to comfort him. He’d never make another deal or handle another movie project. He’d never give advice or slap down a stupid idea. He’d…

He saw Dalton entering the room calling for him. He tried to tell Dalton that he wasn’t here anymore, to go look at his wife’s tombstone, but his tongue felt thick and his mouth was glued shut. Someone was tugging at him. James grew frightened. He felt himself fighting, trying to slap with cardboard arms that couldn’t move. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t know what death meant. He hadn’t decided yet.

“James! James for God’s sake, wake up! Jenny, call the doctor! I think he’s tried to kill himself or something!”

James’ eyes fluttered open, and he saw a salt and peppered swatch of hair way too close to his face. He tried to lift his arm but it was too heavy. He decided to scream.

Dalton heard the merest whisper brush against his ear. He stared at James lying prone beneath his inquiring gaze and when he saw eyes staring back, he jerked backward. “Oh, James! Looks like something happened. You looked so bad lying there, and you didn’t answer the doorbell. I got worried and we just walked in. Hope you don’t mind.”

James tried to sit up but the pain in his head throbbed him into submission. “No, not at all.” He whispered. He tried to pull off the messy swath of toilet paper and found that it was glued to his head. He grimaced and pointed with his other hand. “I hit my head against the counter – stupid.”

Dalton smiled, relieved. “Oh, I’ve done that a hundred zillion times. Hurts like hell doesn’t it?”

James grimaced his agreement. Jenny came over and inquired if she should call for an ambulance. James looked at the sleek blond in front of him with her large worried eyes and realized how bad he looked. He felt like a fool and wanted nothing more than to get them out of his house and take a hot shower and then crawl into bed. He envisioned some sleeping pills that his wife occasionally took. They were probably still in the cabinet. He waved his hand benignly.

Dalton got up from the couch and took Jenny by the arm. “Hey, honey, why don’t you get James something to eat? It looks like something spilled over there. Maybe you could―”

Jenny nodded and turned to accomplish her domestic duty. Dalton turned back toward James and smiled. “Well, I know better than to ask if you want a drink. But perhaps a soda or something?”

James smiled at the incongruity of having a guest treat him to his own food. “Yeah, that’d be fine.”

Dalton stepped away to perform his act of mercy. James forced himself into a sitting position and tried not to groan as his head swam. He pulled the tissue away from his head, tearing it, and was disappointed by how little blood was actually there. It was hardly the excessive bloodbath he had imagined. “Huh.”

Dalton returned a moment later with a tray of drinks and the cut vegetables with the little ranch dressing poured off to the side. Dalton nudged the end table a little closer with his foot and set the tray down. Then he sat in a chair next to the couch. He handed James his drink and leaned in. “So apart from nearly smashing your head in and your wife dying, how’ve you been?

James merely mumbled something about the fires of hell, so Dalton accepted the mantle of charming host and continued talking.

~~~

Seven months later, James sat in his office, staring out a large bay window, his swivel chair facing away from his top aide.

Todd was gesturing enthusiastically as he outlined his newest great idea. “Do you know what the term ‘forged by fire’ really means? Some guy, Ignatius something-or-other wrote about it. I had no idea. I think that’d make a great title for a movie – don’t you? How about if we take that surreal concept by that new writer – you know the one who’s always acting so damn deep – and throw that at her and see what she comes up with. It might be good – we can always add in some fast action sequences and a bit of sex to spice it up. Besides, deep is in right now.”

James wondered if it would be considered first-degree murder to strangle an idiot.   Why do I let this man work here? Why do I listen to him? James continued to stare out the window overlooking one of the highest priced pieces of real estate in Los Angeles and heard the answer in his head. Because he turns stupid ideas into multi-million dollar winners.

James turned and looked at the well-dressed man in front of him. Todd was sharp in the worst sense of the word, yet he also had a boyish charm that made even those who had suffered at his hands care about him. He really didn’t mean any harm. He merely had an incredible knack for taking the pulse of the movie-going public and serving up what they wanted. If they were obsessed with scary aliens landing on our shores, he found a script with the scariest aliens possible and if New York had to be smashed to bits once again – so much the better. If the public was subconsciously feeling a little guilty, he didn’t bother to know why; he just found a way to address that hidden psychosis through a cathartic heroic-romance where even the worst sinner alive could feel a dash of patriotic hope. If they were looking for their lost childhood, he found a way to update one of the oldies-but-goodies. Todd was a gifted man all right but who he was working for, James was never certain. Todd was a natural chameleon. Perhaps that’s what made him so good at what he did. He understood every one because, in truth, he was no one.

James rubbed his chin. “Funny you should mention Ignatius. It’s also the name of a priest. Ignatius of Loyola.” James turned and stared at Todd’s blank expression. “I only know because Martha, my cook, has her daughter dropped off at our house after school and she studies in the kitchen until they go home at seven. The other day I went in to ask Martha something, and I saw the book on the table, so I asked the kid about it. She got excited telling me all about him – she went on and on. She goes to a Catholic school and they fill her head with all sorts of stuff.” James stared right into Todd’s eyes. “The kind of stuff that you should steal and turn into a movie, maybe.” James briefly wondered if Todd would jerk away shielding himself like Dracula did when presented with a crucifix. Todd merely stared back, his mouth slightly open. Finally, he smiled and nearly giggled.

“Damn it, James, you had me going a minute.”

James smiled. “Yeah, gotcha.” He leaned over his desk. “Well, if that’s all you have to cover, I think we can quit for today. I’d like to get home early. Jimmy wants me to attend his party tonight and I need to get ready. Besides, I’m feeling kind of tired. I think I’ve been working too much lately.”

Todd nodded, his appraising glance telling James more than he wanted to know. He already realized that a lot of people thought he was having some kind of break down. There was even a rumor, months ago, that he was drinking again, but he had put that one down by showing up for work early and in perfect form every day for six months. He usually stayed over time and he had never been as successful as he had been in these last months. Everyone was full of admiration for how well he had handled his wife’s death. Until recently. Recently he had started to leave a little earlier and come in a little later. Though he still looked good and was at the top of his game, he realized, along with everyone else that something had changed.

Todd shut the door quietly behind him after saying that he’d see him at the party. His parting shot to demonstrate that he was invited “everywhere” too. James closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. God, what’s happening to me? What’s wrong? James realized that he wasn’t merely speaking rhetorically. He was really asking a question of God – well, of Someone anyway. When did this start?

 It started with the dreams. After selling the house and reorganizing almost his entire life, James had felt that he deserved a little break and a change, so he took a week’s vacation. He went to a resort in Nevada that someone had insisted was just the place to get his mind off his troubles. It was the worst vacation of his life. He not only didn’t get his mind off his troubles, he found he was being haunted by his grief, a grief he thought he had already worked through. He started dreaming about Cindy. He hadn’t done anything she would have disapproved of, well, maybe a couple things, but she’d understand. He was no longer a married man. He had his needs. It took him the better part of the week and three very unpleasant encounters to realize that his needs had changed. He may not be Cindy’s husband anymore, but he wasn’t the man of his youth either. There was no going back, only forward, but without some kind of a roadmap, he wasn’t exactly sure where the future led. He cut his vacation short and threw himself into his work with a vengeance. It worked for a while. He was able to concentrate amazingly well while in his office and he found himself arriving early and staying late. But then there was that incident with the cook…

James rubbed his face and tried to shake off his recollections, but before he realized it, he was staring into space again. It had been nearly four months ago when his life took the next unexpected bend in the road. His old cook had been a rather eccentric old fellow by the name of Filippo. James figured that he was Malaysian though when he’d ask him, Filippo would just smile and say that he came from a lot of places. James always felt like he was on the outside of a joke. But one day, Filippo didn’t show up for work and James was having a few friends over for an important get-together that night. He got pretty worked up about it. He ended up having to order some food in, and it wasn’t nearly as good as what Filippo could dish out with a snap of his fingers.

The next day, when Filippo again didn’t show up, James sent someone to his place to find out what the hell he was doing, and they reported back that Filippo had died in his apartment and no one had realized until the landlady had been alerted. James sat dumbfounded on his couch as he took in the news that his cook was dead and had laid there cold and stiff in his apartment for two whole days while he had secretly, and not so secretly, raked him over the proverbial coals for not doing his job.

It was when Filippo’s daughter came to the house asking for any personal items Filippo had left behind, that the whole event began to really sink in. There was this beautiful twenty-year-old girl standing in his doorway asking with her big honest eyes if she could come in and collect her father’s things. It was then that James realized that he knew absolutely nothing about the man who had worked for him, other than the fact that he was a great cook. He stepped aside and let the woman in and he followed her to the kitchen, opening the closet where Filippo usually hung his sweater and stored whatever stuff he had brought with him. It was there that James discovered that Filippo was Roman Catholic, for there, hanging on a little nail inside the closet door, was a set of rosary beads. What? Did the man recite prayers in between courses? James felt as if his head would explode.

He watched from the side as Filippo’s last remaining worldly possessions were gathered into his daughter’s arms. As she stepped over the threshold, James felt a resolution form in his core and he decided to act on it at once. “Can I ask your name?”

She looked at him with those sad, sweet eyes and spoke so softly that James had to lean in to hear. “My name is Martha.” James nodded, and before she could retreat into the outer world again, he put out his hand and stopped her.

“And what do you do for a living, Martha?”

She whispered, her eyes downcast. “I was training to be a cook, like my father.”

James felt a spark of life flicker in his middle. “Really?” He appraised her. She could not be more than twenty. “How old are you?’

“Twenty-Seven.”

James’ eyebrows rose. He was used to people undercutting their age, not adding to it. But – who knows. He leaned on the doorframe. “Why do you say, ‘was’?”

“My father helped to pay my tuition. I cannot pay it by myself. I have a daughter to raise.”

James stopped leaning. “Where’s your husband?”

“He is away.”

James nodded. “Well, I just happen to be in need of a cook. Do you think you might consider working here?”

Those luminous, black eyes stared into his soul, searching, and he stared back uncertain for what she was looking for. She barely nodded her head.

Perhaps, James realized, as he propped his head on his hands in his silent office, perhaps he had been infatuated with those eyes and that perfect face. Perhaps he felt just a tad guilty for the way he had behaved toward Filippo and wanted to right some wrongs. Perhaps, he was just a mercenary jerk who just wanted to banish all grief and doubt from his mind. But as the weeks passed and as Martha came dutifully each day, he kept true to his resolution. He had decided that he would know more about the people in his life, no matter who they were. They could be the lowliest trash collector to the highest producer; he would ask more questions; he would get to know the people in his life.

He was never more surprised than when Martha’s husband showed up one day asking for her, and she threw herself into his arms like some sticky, sweet version of a movie he had dubbed a failure to express real life. Apparently the husband, Max, really had been away. He had been working in Alaska and was home, at least until he found another job. James discovered opportunities a little closer to home. Max was grateful to take one. So Martha and her daughter, Elizabeth Grace, and husband, Max, became members of James’ household – though he never mentioned this fact to anyone. There was never any need. Not really. How does one casually bring up the subject that you’ve practically adopted an entire family?

But the dreams about Cindy never really stopped. Despite everything. James wondered about that, but he figured that Cindy would be pleased with him. She was always so kind to the servants. Really, she was very kind to everyone – especially him. James realized that now.

James got up from his desk and looked at his watch. He gathered up his keys and his cell phone. He didn’t want to go to this party, and he really didn’t want to have to appear happy. Wasn’t he happy? James sighed at the question and moved across the room. The sudden image of a plastic tombstone being carried away made him stop. Counterfeits were such a part of his life; he had to wonder if he’d ever really been happy.

~~~

Five years later, on James 47th birthday, when he was returning home from a long day at work, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a minivan barreling toward him. In a split second, he realized he was not going to be able to avoid being hit; he realized that he was probably facing his final moments on earth. As he lay in the car, after the smashing, grinding impact, he could not think. Everything was immensely quiet. Then, just as suddenly, there was more noise and confusion than he could tolerate. As he blacked out, he hoped that someone nice had decided what death meant for him – he still didn’t know.

When he woke up, he was on a hospital bed in a white-walled room with large vinyl curtains blocking out the sunlight. He blinked and attempted to move his head. He discovered he could not move anything but his eyes and his mouth. He felt like his whole body had been frozen but his face was still free. His brow furrowed as he pictured a man buried up to his neck. As his mind became alert, James started to realize what this meant. Frantically, he tried to remember what had happened. Panic began to rise as he felt his breathing becoming faster and shallower. A nurse bustled into the room looking right at him with a laptop clasped to her chest. She saw the fear in his eyes, and she placed the laptop on the counter and moved to his side.

“Mr. Parker, it’s alright. You’ll be all right. You might feel rather numb right now but that’s from all the medication and the nature of your injuries. Most of your injuries should heal in time. Right now, you should just be happy you’re alive. It was a close call.” He knew she was patting his arm from the rustling of her sleeve against his hospital gown. He did not feel the pat. She bent closer and stared him right in the eyes. “Mr. Parker, it is very important that you stay calm. You’re in good hands. I’ll call Dr. Freeman and let him know that you’re awake.”

James wanted to say something to the effect – “Yes, you do that, and by the way, while you’re at it, would you mention the fact that I’m practically dead. He might find that interesting as well.” But he found his mouth was too dry and his tongue too thick to form articulate words. He just mumbled something that the nurse took to mean “Thanks.” He watched as her upper half moved to the head of the bed, her arm adjusted his drip line, and then her shoulders and head moved away from him and bobbed out the doorway. He imagined getting one of his men in here and whispering a desperate plea to pour a pint of whiskey into the drip bag. Todd might do it. It would be just the thing that might amuse him – offbeat, gritty realism. The only problem would be that Todd would need an audience, so he’d have to tell the whole floor of nurses and they’d freak out, end of the scenario. James wondered if he could be arrested for attempting to spike his own drip bag. He closed his eyes. Can it get any worse than this? When had he thought that before? He couldn’t remember. But he realized; he’d have a lot of time to play memory games. Lots of time to consider the direction his life was taking.

A white-coated doctor entered the room. He looked Indian; his smile seemed genuine. James swallowed and was relieved that he actually felt the sensation. He did not smile back, however.

“Hello, James. My name is Dr. Joshi. I was on the team that worked on you. It was a mighty good fight you put up. We were relieved when your heart started again. I just want to let you know that though you did sustain serious injuries, it looks like the worst is behind you. With some physical therapy and perhaps a couple minor reconstructive surgeries on your right leg, you should be able to get up and move around again. But right now, all you need to know is that your paralysis should be temporary, and you’ll be feeling more like your normal self in a few days, though I don’t suggest you attempt to do anything too strenuous too soon.”

If James could have burst out laughing, he would have at this bit of incongruity. Was Dr. Joshi blind, or was it no big deal that he had just about died? What did he say about getting his heart started again? Was returning to life just a mere blip in the day’s events? Everything will be back to normal? Yeah right! James merely blinked rapidly and attempted to shake his head. Dr. Joshi took that for agreement and smiled again.

“Your nurses will be close by if you need anything, and they’ll check on you regularly.” The doctor straightened and turned to the nurse, giving her directions that James could not understand, and he started walking away, his head bobbing slowly out of the room. The nurse checked James’ drip line, took his pulse, and did various other duties and then patted him on the arm. Rustle, rustle. She ordered him to get some rest. James didn’t bother to watch her head bob out the door.

He stared up at the ceiling and realized that before long he’d know exactly how many tiles comprised the ceiling and how many dots in each. This was life right now. Surely they had a television, a way to listen to music…something to occupy his mind. James realized he felt very relaxed and sleepy. Apparently, he didn’t need to spike his drip bag – they’d done it for him. Perhaps later, when the nurse came back, he’d ask a few questions. James would learn all about life here and find a way to survive. He closed his eyes. He wondered who would care that he was here. His mother? She was slipping into another world ― dementia at its best. He’d leave her to go gently into her private world. His dad? Yeah, his dad would come and be very pleasant and upbeat, trying to cheer him up so that no one need feel sad. Tears were just for critical moments in movies. Tears weren’t intended for real life. If one got sad enough for tears, it was time to pack it in. There were those who took that way out. But Dad wouldn’t be one of those. He would die cheerfully, pretending that death wasn’t getting the last word, even when it did. James wasn’t sure he wanted his dad’s pleasant ignorance at this point. James sighed and was infinitely relieved when he felt his chest heave painfully. He wasn’t quite as numb as he thought. He tried to feel some other part of his body, but it still felt still absent. Damn. I’m living in a dead man’s body.

 ~~~

There were visitors those first days, mostly people from work and a policeman who wanted to go over the accident report with him. The friendly visits were painful as James attempted to do more each time to appear less disabled than he was, but he got through them with as much aplomb as he could muster. He assured everyone that he would fully recover and be back at work by the New Year at the latest. When the policeman entered, James felt the greatest flutter of excitement since he had first awakened. He told the officer what he could remember and then waited for him to explain what had actually happened. After the officer told him, James felt his spirit go as numb as his body. A woman and child had been in the other car. No one was exactly sure what made her drive into him, could be the slight drizzle obscured her vision, or she just wasn’t thinking and didn’t see the red light directly in front of her, but she rammed into his car full speed. She and the child died. Their names were Mrs. Carol Jones and Sylvia Jones. Sylvia had only been five. They think that Carol had been driving so fast because she was hurrying to pick up her son from soccer practice. Sylvia had been at tumbling class and they had gotten behind schedule. James wondered at the value of his life when it had almost been snuffed out because of soccer practice. It wasn’t until the officer mentioned that the husband was outside waiting to see him that James wondered if it would have been easier to simply die.  He merely mumbled, “Yeah, sure, what can it hurt?”

The police officer had tapped his notebook closed and left the room with a nod, hoping that James would “get better soon.” Mr. Jones entered the room slowly. His eyes had dark circles under them. His hands hid in his pockets as he moved to the side of the bed. The nurse had raised James’ bed so he was in a semi-sitting position. James wasn’t sure why this man had come or what on earth he was supposed to say, but he figured that he should be compassionate. After all, he did know how it felt to lose a wife and the officer had said something about there being another child. So, along with everything else, this guy was a single parent now and that couldn’t be easy.

Mr. Jones shuffled his feet and then looked at James. “I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am that this happened, Mr. Parker. My wife was a good woman, and I know she’d never have wanted this. It was just some stupid accident and…” Mr. Jones’ voice cracked and his stricken eyes filled with tears.

James felt his own eyes ache. He realized that he was hurting inside in ways he had not admitted to himself and he did not want to face. He could not lift his arm well, but he could gesture feebly. He attempted to do so. “Please, Mr…” James tried to control his voice. “What’s your name?”

“Eric”

“Listen, Eric, I know it was an accident, and it looks to me like you’ve suffered more than me. I’ve just got bruised up a bit, but you’ve lost your wife and kid. I lost my wife a few years back; I know how hard that can be. We never had kids… but I can only imagine the hell you’re going through. So please, no apologies―”

Tears were flowing down Eric’s face. “My son blames me. He said I should have gone to pick him up. I knew Carol was behind schedule, but I was at work and…”

James felt his breathing quicken. He couldn’t handle this. He wasn’t a therapist. He was a recovered alcoholic who made a living by faking reality. “Eric, your son is just lashing out at you because you’re all he’s got to lash at. Who else is he going to blame? God?”

Eric stood there mute with tears falling freely. James stared at the ceiling tiles and tried to remember how many he had counted before he gave up. “Oh, God!” He looked back at Eric. “I can’t help you, Eric. I don’t know how. I wish I could. But if it means anything to you – I don’t blame you or your wife. I don’t blame anyone. I can’t say why. But you and your son are still alive and you’ve got to figure out how to live through this. Just like me. It’s a hell of a world, and I’m the last person on earth to give anyone advice, but if I did, I’d say it’d be better to try to make the best of this rather than let it tear you to pieces.”

Eric nodded, wiping his face with his arm. “I’m sorry I fell apart like this. I didn’t mean to. It’s just when I saw how bad you got hurt and I remember… It just kills something inside me.”

James shook his head. “Well don’t! Don’t let it kill you. Not yet. Death gets its way often enough. Don’t give it anymore.”

Eric stuck out his hand and gripped James free hand lying on his bed sheet. “I meant to come here and apologize for hurting you – but you’ve helped me – more than you realize. Thank you.”

James watched as Eric left the room and for one astounding moment, he realized that he thought of death as an enemy – one that must be avoided at all costs. Problem was, he knew he couldn’t avoid him forever.

~~~

When James was sixty-eight years old he was diagnosed with a severe heart condition and was hospitalized in the hope that he would undergo a heart transplant. But that transplant never took place. He died two days before the planned surgery. But the day before he died an old friend came to visit ― his cook’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth Grace, now grown into a matronly woman with four kids.

She had taken his cold, papery hand in her own and stroked it gently as she smiled through her gentle laugh. “Hey, Mr. James, how you doing today?” They bantered about her mother and brothers and sisters, about all the “goings-on” in the world, and recent events in the family they shared. James suddenly realized that with Elizabeth Grace at his side, he felt brave and comfortable. She looked at him with eyes that could peer directly into his lost soul and she loved him anyway.

“Hey, my little love, I have a question for you. You were always so smart in school and read all those books about saints and heroes of old―”

Elizabeth stared at him, keeping his eyes held in her own.

James felt he could go on. “So what’s death, anyway? I mean, where is it? What happens when the old, grim reaper shows up?”

Elizabeth’s eyes grew round and her smile widened. “Wow, Mr. James, you always know how to surprise me.” Her smile faded as she saw something in his eyes that saddened her. “I don’t know anything about grim reapers and such, but you know, I was taught that death is a doorway ― from this world to the next. It’s a chance to go home, really — if you want to.”

James shook his head. “I don’t get it. I’m home now. I mean; I want to go home to my place on the hill. I want to get back home – not leave it forever. Death is about leaving.”

Elizabeth Grace shrugged. “I guess; you can look at it that way. But my dad used to say that he never really had a home here. He wasn’t so worried about leaving since he knew that he’d be going to his real home later. I miss him, but I don’t worry about him. He was right. He was a good man who loved a lot of people. His love didn’t disappear – I think it just led him home.”

James nodded. Then he squeezed Elizabeth’s hand and closed his eyes. “I’ll have to think about that. I’ve never understood death, but I like your version. I’ve tried to love more, to really care, and ― it has led me home ― already.”

Elizabeth smiled as she let his hand go and then bent down and placed a kiss on his white cheek. “Good night, Mr. James. You’ll always find a home in those you love.”

James smiled as he drifted into a peaceful slumber. He still didn’t know exactly what death meant, but he did know what happiness was. And he figured that knowledge would lead him past the tombstone.

~~~

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 Million Faceted Crystal

Guest Post: By T. E. Frailey

A Young Person’s Vision

In Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Chapter Three, entitled: The Night Shadows, he wrote, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is preferable to this.”

Dickens struck upon an integral characteristic of humanity, that every beating heart is the greatest quandary to its companions. The uniqueness of each human person far exceeds the design of a thumbprint. The human person (rational animal or not) is a mystery that would take, I think, an eternity to unravel.

Dickens’ words strike a deep chord in me. The fact that we can see only through our own eyes is a somewhat mind-boggling consideration. The image of a city at night, filled with tens of thousands of unique hearts, paints a spectacular image. It makes me think of the human heart as a diamond, or crystal, with a million facets. We show particular faces to particular people. But when all is said and done, even our best friend will, at times, still marvel at the mystery of who we are.

 

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

Encounter Culture

I am blatantly stealing the term “Encounter Culture” from Pope Frances—but I don’t think he’ll mind.  I hope not…

As I consider the last days before Christmas begins, I think about the ways in which I miss the whole point of the season, year after swiftly passing year.  I tend to get caught up in the details of shopping, sending out cards, finishing school assignments, getting cookies baked and decorated, remembering to take things out of the freezer to defrost… I get so tired that my soul lays down and begs for a rest.

So, I try to make up for my spiritual emptiness by praying in the evening.  Unfortunately, my body thinks this is a good time to turn off my brain.  And so it is.  I am finding that praying is a sort of emptying experience.  I have to stop and not be efficient for a bit.  My to-do lists get shoved to the side and my self-esteem wilts as guilt kicks in, but then, I reevaluate my life.

Here is a little thought that has helped me remember the “reason for the season” and hug my relationship with God a little tighter:

If I miss God in my life, will I find Him at my death? 

December 15th was the 2nd anniversary of my husband’s death after a four year battle with leukemia.  My daughter and I went to his gravesite last weekend and placed flowers next to his tombstone—which bears my name as well. Charles Dickens was right on the mark when in The Christmas Carol he has old Scrooge finally relent and change his life when he sees his tombstone bearing his name.  There is something relentless about confronting your name inscribed in stone and place your feet on the dead grass where your body will someday lie.

My heart beats at the command of God.  I don’t want to face a hole where a relationship with the Eternal should have been.

Each Christmas is a reminder of a universal truth—God lives and He comes to us as both Man and God for our salvation.

I may not be able to tuck and that under the tree, but my life can live the truth of it as I unwrap the gift of each day.

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