Elmer knew better than to believe in ghosts. But when he awoke with sweat beading on his forehead and the sensation that he had just returned from a long journey through wild-lands with only his body and wits intact, he knew that something otherworldly was at work.
His wife stirred at his side. She slapped the blankets, her face half-smashed against the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t get up…too early.”
Too early or too late? He pressed his chest trying to steady his galloping heart. “Hon-honey?”
One eye opened. Not a flicker of interest.
“Do you remember going to a desert town with broken-down buildings and getting kidnapped?”
Lana sat up, groggily rubbing her fingers through her short tufts of hair.
Elmer swallowed the lump in his throat. What happened to her luscious brown locks?
She steered her gaze over her husband, taking the long tour. Dubious. Pity?
His hands shaking, Elmer threw off the wrinkled sheets and stalked to the bathroom. He swiped on the cold water, splashed his face, straightened, and snatched a towel. He wiped the drips running down his baggy t-shirt. Have Ilost weight? He sucked in a shuddering breath. “What day is it?”
Lana padded across the bedroom. “Sunday, goof. New Year’s Day, remember?”
An electric bolt sizzled through his body. “N-new year?”
With a snarky laugh, Lana strolled into the bathroom wearing a calf-length night dress that should look sexy as hell, but didn’t.
Elmer stared. Why?
She leaned her head on his shoulder, a buddy-nudge, nothing wifely about it. “You remember the year, right?”
Terror gripped Elmer, nearly closing his throat. “Twenty-twenty—”
“Ha-ha! Got ja!” She smacked him, grinning like a lottery winner. “You had a whole year to get used to the thirties, and now you’ve slipped-up. Used to make fun of me!”
His gaze shifted from his wife to the mirror. Where did these grey streaks come from? His eyes—haggard and…vacant? Lord, have mercy.
Frowning, Lana shoved off and crossed her arms, the tilt of her body accenting the sharpness of her bony frame. “Twenty-thirty-one! We toasted and the VR bots cheered. Remember?”
Elmer slapped his face. “Ten years?” He retreated to the bedroom, marched to the window, and lifted the curtain. A barren square of dead grass met his eyes. Only a rotting stump stood in testimony of past life. “What the—” He turned and glared at Lana. “Where’s our backyard?”
“Backyard?” She tiptoed forward and pressed her cold hand against his forehead. “You feeling all right?” She leaned in and stared deep into his eyes. “Time for your new-gen?”
A chill ran down his spine as he stared at the strange woman.
An elegant roll of the eyes. She flounced to the bedside, yanked open a drawer, and gripped a tube. She shook it, grinning. “You skipped your last dose—see what happens? Bad dreams, memory troubles… You need a pop and time inside.” Swinging the tube, she strode out of the bedroom.
His stomach dropped. Dragging it along behind, Elmer followed like a wary dog.
He faced what should have been his living room—a modern setup with overstuffed chairs, a broad couch, a large screen television centered on the back wall, matching end tables with iron lamps—opening to a large island-dominated kitchenet.
Two worn chairs faced a bank of curved screens.
His gaze scraped the bare walls and grey floor. Cold. Dingy. Crumps, dust, stains, clutter. Broken family portraits lay scattered. One oil painting, ripped on the left side, stood propped on the floor, a forgotten project.
Elmer licked his lips. “Wh-where’s the Christmas tree?”
A snort and hollow laughter. “Christmas tree! What the hell is wrong with you?” She lumbered to the kitchen and dragged a chipped cup from the sink. She slapped the faucet, let water fill the container, plopped in a white pill, and watched it sizzle. She held out her offering. “Drink up!”
His whole body trembling, Elmer backed up, his hands raised. “What’s going on?”
Confusion raced irritation over Lana’s face. “I’ve heard of memory lapses, but this is a bit much. What’s the last thing you remember?”
Elmer edged his way to the nearest chair and plopped down, his body conforming to the seat, oddly comforting. “Christmas. We stopped at church for our ten-minute visit, came home, did our family video, then opened gifts. Jason gave us that new Virtual Reality Game…”
Lana sneered. “Ancient history, Elm. Christmas…church—mythology. Video chats for work, yeah, but who cares about family—it’s only DNA.” She wrinkled her nose and held out the cup.
He accepted it and sniffed. Nothing.
She tapped her wrist, bringing the screens to life. Rotating images flashed—a rainforest, a medieval castle, and a desert with broken down buildings. “Time to get back to the real world.”
Sucking in a heaving breath, Elmer shot up in bed, his heart racing. He glanced wildly around.
Lana, her long brown hair running riot over the blankets, lay on her side, her face in peaceful repose.
He heaved a long sigh and softly inched out of bed. Padding to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror. No grey streaks. A little bloodshot and brooding, but definitely his eyes. Thank God.
“I’m so tired. Get me that New-gen Marge gave me last night, okay?”
Blinking, Elmer trotted to the living room and snatched the curtain away from the bank of windows. A soft blanket of snow covered their miniature backyard. The maple tree still standing in the center. Furniture, Christmas tree, paintings on the wall. Familiar. Home. He released a long breath.
“Honey?” Her voice had risen to a whine.
Like a wolf approaching a strange den, he sidled toward the kitchenet. The flash of a curved screen glinted from under the tree as he went by.
A red box with huge letters “A New Generation” screamed on the central island.
His fingers trembling, Elmer opened the box.
Elmer closed the door, padded to his bedroom, and flopped onto the bed.
Sitting propped against a bank of colorful pillows with a book in her hands, Lana peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I still don’t get why you had to have the whole family over.”
“And what happened to the new VR set Jason gave us?”
Elmer kicked off his shoes and slid back onto the pillows. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “We don’t need it.”
She shook her head. “Like Marge’s gift?” She laid the book on her lap. “You know, you’ve been a different guy since New Year’s Day.”
Elmer exhaled and pulled his wife close, his passion real and desire rising. “I hope so, sweetie. I hope so.”
“Temptations prove thee.” A line from a prayer book I read this morning stopped me in my mental tracks. I had been talking the night before with my daughter about the value of professionalism in our world and how important it is to apply the concept to our thoughts as well as our actions. The words struck a chord, reminding me of the value of intentionally directing myself rather than being swept along by roaring currents.
Now at the end of the day, as I listen to the frogs’ chorus, the rustle of wind across the dried cornfields, note the silence of kids gone to bed, and join in a peaceful moment of solitude, reflecting on a day of off-road paths, I realize how many times I was tempted to react rather than put my life in proper order. Not because it would have been good but rather because it would have felt so natural.
I have come to the conclusion that my life is a trial. Seriously. A try-out for something that I can’t see yet. The person that I could be. The life and home I long for. The love that every human desires in the core of his or her being. Free will is the name of the game. And transformation is the goal.
As spokespersons, media personalities, politicians, Google search engines, bots, and a host of realities nudge me through the highways and byways of my online world, I sometimes forget that I make the choice of what I hear, what I see, what I pay attention to, what I react to. I don’t have to get hot and bothered by commentaries. I don’t have to seethe, live in terror, or seek a particular end to someone else’s trauma drama. I can choose my mood and make productive even the oddest moment.
From unexpectedly having to get tires checked this morning, I was able to have a humorous chat with the service guy who proved that a gentleman doesn’t make a lady feel like an idiot even when her ignorance of auto operations should glare with flashing neon lights. I was tempted to feel stupid but decided to be grateful instead.
A surprise call from my sister who is dealing with health problems led to her offering me insight and advice with my own health challenges, drawing us beyond a dark past into a supportive present. I was tempted to end the call early but instead allowed her to be the big sister she longs to be and relaxed in her enduring love.
When a collaborative effort with a voice actor on one of my projects didn’t pan out, I could have been hurt and annoyed. But as the situation remained not only professional but also pleasant, we were able to recognize the situation honestly and wish each other the best and move on.
There are times when the trials of life enmesh me in idiocy, and I need help to break the fear and “What if—” cycle. Conversations with friends, classical music, a prayerful book, a walk in nature, efforts to seek out good, beautiful, and noble realities—even in stories—break the vicious cycle and redirect my mind as well as my feet.
Ultimately, I—and everyone sharing the planet with me—are works in progress. I don’t see all ends. I’m lucky if I see the road a few feet ahead. Flexibly meeting the day while constantly reaffirming my priorities—toward what bears healthy, holy fruit makes every day a good one—no matter how tempting.
Chai’s fingers stuck together as he clutched a bloodstained knife at his side. His unruly black hair, muscled build, wide stance, and flashing black eyes proclaimed his dominance. He swept a long flowing cape over his shoulders and watched an enormous shadow slither forward. His heart pounded. The deed had been done.
The body of a young man was lowered into the pit.
For a horrifying moment, Chai stiffened as he beheld a vision: His mother’s face as she lowered him onto his soft bed, cradling his body and crooning in her sweet voice.
Chai froze. The knife slipped from his fingers and clattered on the stone floor.
A circle of robed figures turned toward him.
He raised his head, searching wildly for direction.
The stone carving of his god—a man’s head with the body of a great cat and the wings of an eagle—stood in the center of the cold room staring sightlessly through blood-red eyes.
Chai exhaled a long breath. Squaring his shoulders, he forced himself to look into the pit one final time. A dead body. No personality, no family, no loving mother—no grief.
The shadow followed the body into the black depths.
A servant tiptoed near and retrieved the knife.
Chai grunted, and the knife was slapped into his hand.
He held it aloft, his crimson sleeves flowing in rippled folds down his arms. His heart thudded against his chest. The dazzling fire flared in front of the stone god and burnished the blade a deep bronze.
A new vision framed itself in his mind. He sat on a high seat above every mortal man. Every being on Earth shrunk from him in terror. His will reigned supreme. He could feel a smile creep across his face, but the burning in his heart seared all joy.
As he stared at the stone figure, his vision widened. A wall of impenetrable mountains opposed him. Suddenly, he flew aloft and with a bird’s-eye view, vast rolling hills and open grasslands slid away under him. Clans huddled against the foothills and nestled between the shoulders of the great mountains. Chai caught his breath. A great throng—people from all over the mountainsides, hills, and valleys—gathered. Finally, a conquest worthy of his skill!
He dragged his gaze from the vision and stared at reality. In utter silence, the pit consumed his offering. He lifted his gaze to the blood-red eyes. “I will bring more…and become worthy of renown.”
With a guttural command and a sharp gesture, he ended the ceremony. His quick, sharp steps echoed through the dim temple hall. When he reached the open doorway, he halted on the threshold. Peering into the black night, a sensation so riotous it could not be controlled rose up inside him and demanded release.
So, yeah, it’s that time of the year again. School arrives with all its rigor and tight schedules. The hot summer zigzags toward a mild autumn. Or so I hope. Late summer heralds the joy of cooler temperatures and lightens the weary weight of high humidity and sticky sweat.
Around here, August kicks off the birthday season and tumbles right into the holiday season. Suddenly there are presents to give and secrets to keep. The joys of life are not completely swallowed up by essays and exams.
I glory in every hint of change, watching with eager eyes as leaves turn from dark green to shades of and pink and red, while orange pumpkins and yellow squash form wobbly lines on the porch steps.
It isn’t autumn yet. But my imagination offers the next best thing. I can practically feel autumn’s coolness playing over my skin even while I inhale the hot smells of drying cornfields. The gritty dust of the road settles for the last time between my toes as I watch caterpillars wriggle their way to where ever they insist they are going. Even though grasshoppers fly in my face and annoy me, I remember Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories about the late summer grasshoppers and luxuriate in the knowledge that they don’t arrive in massive clouds anymore and nibble away local farmers’ entire crops. At least that’s one problem we don’t have to deal with.
On Sunday, I took some of the kids to Coffeen Lake in the hopes of catching a cool breeze. Alas, the road was closed to the entrance we normally use, so we had to settle for a smaller section of the lake instead. Since there was a trail nearby, we decided, with true Sunday afternoon “What do we have to lose?” aplomb, we ventured ahead. After running smack into the fifth spider web, with sticky spider prizes attached, I sent my eldest son ahead to clear the path of all entrapments. Good son that he is, he did so without complaint, though I noticed after a bit, he did swing a branch ahead as he went.
Strolling behind, I noticed beautiful leaves along the path. I might have missed them if the spiders had been less diligent about knitting open-air markets on the path. I was surprised at the first crimson delight and astonished by the time I swept up the sixth autumn leaf and then found a perfectly formed acorn with cap still attached.
Through the week, I have let my eyes linger on their fading, crumpling forms sprawled across my desk, knowing full well that even autumn’s glory can’t last forever. The north wind will sweep fall’s gentle mellow mood aside as biting cold and white and black attitudes force their way to center stage.
This evening, a mosquito bite itches my leg while I watch patterns of leaves rise and fall over a speckled tree trunk. Green leaves hang still and quiet in the evening air. Birds chirp noisily, and my crimson foliage yet more crumpled and dried out warns me of things to come.
This year has been a collage of joy-filled triumphs and humiliating defeats. My kids have won prizes, graduated from classes, mastered new skills, and suffered the consequences of a world at war with its better self. I have discovered—to my heart-wrenching grief—that hoping for the best doesn’t always reflect reality. Some hopes and prayers are not answered as I wish yet I must plod along life’s rugged path even while keeping on the lookout for hope and light. This evening, my spirit is rekindled as I sit under the darkening sky and stars twinkle in concert with darting fireflies.
There is no perfect season, though autumn will always hold a special place in my heart. Perhaps because it seems so dreadfully honest. Its bittersweet end-of-summer breeze, whispers in my ear, reminding me to live not what is now only…but what might be. What should be. What will be… Searing hot summer winds scorch our souls and winter ice freezes our spirits, but spring and autumn balance the extremes. Each season journeys along by the hand of God.