Together Again

Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.

Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.

Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.

This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.

He had said he would.

And he had meant it.

But life got in the way, and he forgot.

Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.

Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”

He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”

“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”

No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”

“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”

The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.

Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.

~~~

Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.

He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?

His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.

Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂

Surprise!!!!!

Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.

Hearts and smiles,

~Mom

If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.

~~~

From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.

He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.

He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.

Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.

Oh, God.

Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.

Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.

He nudged her shoulder.

She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.

“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”

“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”

Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.

Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.

Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.

Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.

A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.

Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.

No such luck.

Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”

What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”

She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.

Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.

~~~

After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.

Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”

There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.

The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”

Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.

Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”

After an affirming nod, they were out the door.

Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.

Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.

“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”

Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”

But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.

She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”

Charles nodded.

~~~

All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.

~~~

After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.

“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”

A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.

Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.

Then it fluttered its wings and flew away.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Short Stories

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

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

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

Children’s Book

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/robin-bird-on-branch-in-the-garden-818126/

To Be Content

Regina would rather face a mob of angry clowns than admit that she wasn’t partial to puppies. After all, what kind of lunatic didn’t like puppies? So, when her friend and (lucky for her brother) sister-in-law, Claudia, asked if she’d watch their puppy while they took a sneak trip to Chicago for a weekend of theater and dancing, who was Regina to say no?

“Suuure—” She tried to toss a happy exclamation mark into her voice, but it cracked at the crucial moment.

Claudia packed in such a hurry she wouldn’t have missed a question mark streaking through the room buck-naked.

“Should I check in on him—her?—a couple of times a day?”

If Claudia had slammed her chest any harder, cardiac arrest would surely have ensued. “Oh, no! That won’t do. Not at all. The Timster needs around the clock care. You’ll take him to your place for the weekend. After all, he’s our little baby!”

At that moment, said baby was snatched from happily chewing a pink slipper on the rumpled bed into mommy’s arms. And rocked.

To its credit, the mutt had sense enough to look sheepish.

“Honey!”

Regina would know her brother’s voice if he was a penguin returning from an iceberg in the frozen north. It was that distinctive. Rog didn’t so much call as bellow. She honestly didn’t understand it. No one else in the family bellowed. Must go back generations. She’d have to ask mom—without sending the woman into fits of my-family-is-perfect hysteria.

Rog’s eyes lit up like a master criminal sizing up a safety deposit box. He even rubbed his hands together. “Hey, Regina! Glad you could make it! We’ll head out before traffic gets crazy! Thanks for taking our little boy!”

Despite the contagion of exclamation points flung into the air, said boy was now transferred to daddy so mommy could slam her bag shut, snatch a faux fur coat off the chair, and toss a kiss in Regina’s direction.

“You’re a lifesaver, dear!”

Rog dumped his four-footed progeny into his sister’s arms before skedaddling out the door.

Regina held the squirming puppy and wondered what it ate besides slippers.

~~~

Safely ensconced in her favorite chair, a novel on her right, a half-finished ghostwriting assignment on her left, a cup of hot cocoa warming her hands, she watched the puppy chase a ball of colored yard across the floor. Regina decided that life—despite a twenty-minute I-will-be-calm-no matter-what-your-mother-says conversation with her dad—was pretty good. For her, at least.

A chime lifted her gaze from the miniature acrobat skidding into her coffee table to the green apartment door.

The rest of the apartment—painted Sahara tan—made the eye-catching door stand out like an oasis in the desert. Maybe that was the point? Dismissing the ever-present conundrum, Regina paced across the floor and peered through the peephole. “Yes?”

“It’s me! Goofy. Let me in.” Doing her signature cross-eyed, tongue out look, Janet wiggled two fingers.

Regina smothered a sigh, considered hiding the puppy in her bedroom, imagined her computer cords chewed to frazzled ends, clutched the door handle and let her friend in. “Hey, Janet.”

“Hey to you.” Janet paraded into the room. The woman simply could not walk normally. Her hips swayed, her shoulders danced, her eyes romped. Sexy coolness personified.

Then she saw the puppy and melted into a puddle. “Ohhhh…a puuupppyyy!!!” She scooped the suddenly terror-stricken critter into her arms.

Fear soon gave way to annoyance. The Timster squirmed like a child on a dentist chair.

“When did you get a puppy? Why didn’t you tell me? I thought I was your best friend—”

“It’s my brother’s and his wife’s. I’m baby—I mean—dog-sitting for the weekend. Don’t tell anyone. I’m not sure how my landlady would react since she enforces a No Pets law throughout the kingdom.”

Janet smirked. “Couldn’t get a date with a guy, huh?”

Regina dangled colored yarn in front of the frolicking mutt, making them both dance.

In an attempt to regain some measure of dignity, the puppy snatched the yarn and ran to the kitchen.

Regina returned to her chair and retrieved her cocoa from the end table. “I’m off the online sites, and I have no plans.”

If prohibition had made a comeback, Janet couldn’t have looked more horrified. “What happened? I thought you liked some of the guys.”

“Liking and making a life together are two different things.”

“So what do you want?”

“A friend first. Then we’ll see.”

“But you already got me.” Janet started for the kitchen. “Well, Tuesday through Thursday.”

Regina drained her cup and followed the swaying hips. “So, what are you doing here? It’s Friday. You should be out on the town with…”

“Yeah. I’m going. I just wanted to ask you something first.”

Regina set the cup on the kitchen counter, faced her friend, and raised her eyebrows

“Gerry asked me to marry him.”

Regina’s heart flipped. Jealous? Nope. Well, maybe. A little. “Yeah? So…?”

“Should I say yes?”

The puppy sauntered across the tiled floor, head up, chest out, clutching the skein of yarn in his teeth like a wolf carrying venison home to the pack.

Regina lifted her gaze to the older woman and for the first time, she really looked. And saw. The too-bright lipstick, the heavy makeup, faint shadows under her eyes, the long-suffering expression.

“What do you want, Janet?”

Janet shook her head. “I want what you got. With puppy. And your books. Work. Your bellowing brother, your persnickety mom and worn-out dad. Your damn—contentment.”

Regina laughed. It felt good to laugh. At her friend. At herself. At the silly puppy. “Goofy indeed, you are rightly named! Tell me, do you enjoy getting hungry?”

Janet turned her head, glaring from one eye. “Generally, before meals.”

“So being fed all the time wouldn’t suit you any more than being content all the time. You just haven’t learned to be content with periodic—”

“Discontent?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Gerry’s not perfect, but he loves me, and I—” The hips relaxed, her shoulders settled, and her eyes softened. “I rather like the guy.”

“Can you make a life with him?”

“We can try. If there’s a will—right?” She looked down as the doggy trotted near. “But what about you—and your temporary little friend?”

The Timster dropped the defeated yarn at Regina’s feet and peered up adoringly.

Regina scooped the puppy into her arms and chuckled all the way back to her chair.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Allow My Soul To Soar

So, there is a nest of swallows right above my porch doorway, high on the south side of the house, just under the eves. The papa and mama cared for three hatchlings throughout the spring, bringing them tidbits to munch on whenever they were hungry, which seemed like every minute of every day. Each morning, it has been a pleasant entertainment to watch the parents nurture the young ones overhead. The fact that they eat insects only makes the deal a sweeter—for me anyway.

But then, sadly, recently, a car hit one of our oldest cats. It was a tragic event since several of the kids witnessed the accident, and it left an ugly mark on the day. It was no one’s fault as the cat got right under the car’s tire and there was no way to stop it from happening. Just one of those terrible things…like a destructive storm or a deadly disease. Hell happens. Even here.

Finally, last night, as the heat of the day finally dropped to a moderate temperature, I sat out and watched the baby swallows join their parents careening about the sky. They flew in bird ecstasy, capering about like sky-born gymnasts. Delight incarnate.

I know perfectly well that the critters around the place only live for a short time. I care for them as well as I can. Even to the point of risking life and limb by hanging hummingbird feeders out the second-story window. Two of our dogs are so old; they can barely shuffle down the road. They try to follow us on our evening walk, and it becomes painful to watch them trying to keep up. I worry that a tractor will hit them. But they stay off the road if we’re not on it. They want so much to be with us. So they stagger along.

In the country, it can seem foolish to get attached to animals since we know full well that some critters are raised as food. Pets are a luxury. An illusion sometimes. It is a human decision who lands on the dinner table and who gets fed from the table.

But decide we must. And our hearts get involved whether we like it or not. I struggled with the irony of critter care and affection until I realized that I’m more steward than owner. I treat each animal well, whether it is a chicken raised for meat, a dog trained for protection, or a cat urged to hunt for mice. Most of our cats and dogs do earn their keep. But not by any monetary standard.

As Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Margery Williams, and other famous authors have taught me, animals do speak to the human spirit. Personally, my life would be much poorer without Peter Rabbit, Tabitha Twitchit, Tigger, Eeyore, and the skin horse.

As I observe a household cat lounging on the porch with one eye following the birds overhead, a dog ambling about the backyard with its tail wagging in silent greeting, the hens pecking at melon rinds thrown out back, and the happy swallows dancing in air, I have to stand in awe of our mighty Creator who makes the sublime so honest and approachable.

After all, who am I to befriend the supremely confident cat, the immodestly enthusiastic hound, and the sky-larking-singing-a-merry-tune birds?

I am humbled by the honor. When tragedy strikes, I bow my head and accept what I cannot change. We are all only here for a short time. When fried chicken feeds my family, I am grateful. When I stroke the thick fur of a pet, I join their gladness. When I hear the hens cackle, I laugh at their ridiculous antics. While I live, I love and nurture where I can, not drawing thick lines between the human and animal kingdom. God has already done that.

I simply admire and allow my soul to soar.

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

A Timeless Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical and Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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