Enlightened

“The only thing worse than loving a married man—is loving a dead man.”

“Huh?” Patty passed one last, cleansing swipe across her baby’s bottom, tossed a soiled diaper into the trashcan and bundled the infant into clean clothes faster than her sister could comprehend. She turned triumphantly with a smiling, drooling baby in her arms. “Wanna explain that?”

Megan unfolded her body, rose from the chair and limped across the room. She wiggled inviting fingers, her wide eyes beckoning. “Airplane? Zoom-zoom?”

Baby Sam grinned over his mother’s shoulder, but as soon as Megan stretched out her arms, he shrieked and nearly strangled his mom in an attempt to stay out of Megan’s reach.

Backing off, Megan lifted her hands high. “I’ll stop. Geesh, you’ll give me a complex, little one.”

“He doesn’t mean anything insulting. Just loves his mama. You’ll find out.” Patty raised one eyebrow and pursed her lips. “What’ya mean by loving a dead man? Sounds creepy.” After throwing a clean cloth over her shoulder, she hitched Sam on her hip and speed-walked down the hall to the kitchen. She called over her shoulder. “And don’t you ever think about a married man. I’d get an exorcist over here so fast—”

Megan hobbled to the kitchen counter and flopped onto a barstool. “Pu-leez! I was just saying—in effect—that all the good men are taken. I have my choice of men other women already snatched up or dead poets who—though full of soulful sentiments—are now residing in six-foot coffins with only room enough for one.”

Patty closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Lord, where did mom get you?” She opened her eyes and stared at Megan. “Little sister, you need to get over yourself. You think it was magic that got me married to a great guy?”

Megan drummed her fingers on the countertop, her gaze wandering over to her brother-in-law’s hunter-green coat hanging on a peg by the back door. “Well, you did say about a ka-zillion rosaries, and I swear you bought so many votive candles, the church could afford to enlarge the parking lot.”

After sliding Sam into a highchair, Patty dropped a bowl of puréed fruit on the tray and invited him to dive in.

He did. With both hands.

Megan cringed.

Patty literally tossed a salad into a large bowl and shoved it near the center of the kitchen table, grunting. “Silly girl! I wasn’t asking for anything—I was thanking Him—for everything.” Her gaze darted to the door. “I was smart enough to follow the advice of nearly every saint in history.”

Megan sat bolt upright, folding her hands in apparent ecstasy. “Share the secret, oh enlightened one.”

The back door banged open and a muscular man in his late twenties with a scratch along the side of his face, wearing a dirty jacket and carrying a load of lumber struggled into the warm kitchen. “Honey, I’m gonna work in the basement—it’s too friggin cold out there. My hands keep freezing up.”

Tucking a loaf of bread under her arm, Patty swung the basement door open, toed a stray boot out of the way, and grinned. “Fine. Dinner’s almost ready.”

Megan grimaced at the sound of two-by-fours pounding down each step. She turned and watched as Patty laid the loaf of bread on a plate and set it at the head of the table. “He’ll make a mess. You just barely got the chick pen outta there.”

“Likely he’ll have to put it back and raise the chicks down there…if this weather doesn’t warm up soon.” Patty turned and pulled a steaming roast beef out of the oven and set it on the table. She sniffed in satisfaction as she eyed the well-laid table. “You know, the key to a man’s heart.”

Megan snorted. “So that’s your pearl of wisdom to a poor, unwed maiden…learn to cook and clean…and take care of babies?” Jumping off the stool, Megan winced and grabbed her ankle. “Stupid sprain!”

A hammering racket rising from the basement sent shivers through the house. Patty closed the door, steered her sister to the table, and pressed her shoulder, forcing her to sit. “No—and yes. Listen, the way to a man’s heart is the way to anyone’s heart. Love them, love what they love, and make their lives a little easier whenever possible.”

“Sounds so—Medieval.”

Baby Sam shrieked and threw his half-finished appetizer across the room, sending a splattering of purple goo over the chair, the wall, and the floor. Patty sighed, pulled the dishrag off her shoulder and started wiping. “Ancient maybe but not tied to any particular time or place.” She straightened, snatched a handful of paper towels off the counter, and passed them to her sister. “Here, you help.”

Megan’s lips pouted. “But my ankle hurts.”

Patty frowned as she bent forward and hissed in her sister’s ear. “Life hurts, kiddo. Accept that little fact and don’t let it ruin your day.” She pulled her baby from the high chair and snorted. “Sammy needs a new diaper.” She pointed to the bedroom “If you’d prefer—”

“No! I’d rather wipe up goo than—” She knelt on the floor, winced, and began wiping.

Patty retreated to the bedroom with the giggling baby on her hip.

Clumping footstep stopped behind her. Megan peered up and stared into the sparkling brown eyes of her brother-in-law.

The large man knelt at her side with a damp rag and began wiping the mess off the floor. He grinned. “Like I always say, you can always tell the worth of a woman by how she treats her sister.”

 

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

Decorum

Josie hated going to parties though she often spent hours imagining what they would be like beforehand. This party, a fundraiser for her father’s high school alma mater, involved an actual meal with fancy china, long-stemmed glasses, and two forks. She entered the reception area and instantly knew that she wore an invisibility cloak. Not only did no one look her direction, two people actually bumped into her as they headed across the room, apparently thinking they could walk right through her. She tugged at her black dress, trying to keep it from riding up her legs. It was already too short for her comfort, but her mom had insisted that it was the style nowadays. Yeah, stylish. That was Josie. About as stylish as a Jerusalem cricket on a potato leaf. Sheesh. Couldn’t anyone make dresses that fit a human body these days? Josie crept to a corner and hoped that her invisibility cloak would hide her from her parents as well as the scintillating society of Riverside High.

~~~

Kendrick Murphy tugged at his tie, flapped his hands at his side, and wondered if it would be rude to put his hands in his pockets. Why on earth had he agreed to this? Yes, he did want to support a worthy cause. Yes, he had spent four hideously bored years here, and he saw no reason to neglect the current generation’s allotment of torturous education. But. Still. Well, at least Jane was having a stupendous time. She swirled around the reception room like a ballroom dancer. And all eyes danced with her.

Whoa! Was that Mac? MacMcDermit? The football coach? Why hell, the man hadn’t aged a day! Oh, no, of course not. Too young. No wrinkles around the eyes. Oh, Lord in Heaven, that’s his son. There he is, shuffling on the boy’s right. Good, God! How he’s aged!

Kendrick stepped closer, leaned in, and nodded his head. Yep. This whole evening is some kind of retro-inferiority-complex come to haunt me.

 ~~~

Jane’s smile began to ache. Her gaze scoured the room. Where in the world was Josie? She ought to be helping out. Oh, there in a corner, hiding, as usual. Jane patted the arm of the lady in front of her, Sue Some-thing-or-other, and swayed over to the dark side of the room. As she drew closer, she wiggled two fingers expressively toward Josie.

Josie’s eyes widened in terror. Oh, no! She wants me out there. Where everyone is mingling, chatting, and pretending to have a marvelous time. Me. And. My. Invisibility Cloak. Out There?

Jane laid a hand on Josie’s shoulder. “You’re too timid for your own good; now look at your father over there. He’s chatting away with that old man and some young guy as if they’re old friends.”

Josie refrained from stating the obvious. She tried to disappear entirely, but her mom’s hand would not let her dematerialize.

“Listen, I know how hard it is.” Jane leaned in and whispered. “I hate these things too. I always feel like a fool, wondering what everyone says the second I turn my back.”

Josie blinked as if someone had just shoved a light in her face.

“But listen, honey, it’s part of life, part of growing up. We have to do these things. It’s called social decorum. You need to get good at it.”

Josie blushed and stared at her high heeled shoes.

“All you have to do is walk around and introduce yourself. Say that your dad went here and that you—”

A tall man in his late fifties sauntered over swishing a drink in his hand. “Hey, are you Gracie? You remember—”

Jane gave her daughter a little shove. “Off you go now. Be nice. Make friends.”

Josie nearly tripped, but she tottered into the noisy room. Her dad was talking sports with the old guy. Well, at least he’s saved. She looked back over her shoulder. Her mom had dragged the tall man over to a crowd of women, and suddenly there was a burst of laughter. Apparently, the tall man just met the real Gracie. Josie stood in the middle of the room and wondered how long until the appalling dinner and the hour of retreat. Her gaze fell on a thin, short girl about her age standing in the shadows—her shadows.

When Josie sauntered up, she met the girl’s eyes as they fixed on her. Josie shrugged. “You here with your dad?”

The girl shrugged back. “My mom.” She pointed. “Over there.”

Josie glanced to the far side of the room. A short, plump woman with striking red hair and a tight dress exchanged laughs with a bubbly assortment of guests. “Well, at least she’s having fun.” Josie turned and stuck out a limp hand. “My name’s Josie.

The girl returned the handshake, limp for limp, like two octopus tentacles passing in deep water. “Karen. Nice to meet you.”

She has good manners. Wish I’d thought to say that. “Nice to meet you, too.” Josie surveyed the bar on the right and realized that there wasn’t a single soda bottle among them. Hopeless. “So, where do you—”

The lights flickered, and conversation stopped for a second before it picked up to the tune of everyone strolling toward the dining room.

Karen teetered on her heels, sticking close to Josie’s side. As they entered the huge room lit by ornate chandeliers and arrayed with round tables decorated with flowers and fine dinnerware, Karen froze. “Oh, no. I don’t know which fork to use. I meant to ask mom, but I forgot.”

Josie grinned. She tugged at her dress and watched her Mom and Dad sit side-by-side looking into each other’s eyes as if they shared a grim secret. Suddenly, she understood.

Decorum. Society. Two forks.

“Use the one on the outside first. But don’t worry. No one will notice. They’re scared too. Trust me.”

~~~

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 Visit

Autumn was cold that year, frigid by all accounts. But in Chicago, I hardly noticed since I couldn’t see many signs of life on the Southside, much less the beauty of autumn that I was accustomed to from my Wisconsin upbringing. I felt cold most of the time I lived there, no matter the season.

I taught kids for as far back as I could remember. Now, I was getting paid to follow my passion. It was a good deal, except I felt like a fish out of water. My white skin didn’t fit in, my naiveté often set me up for a fall, and my past haunted me.

Dealing with kids from broken homes kept me safe from dealing with my own broken life. Teaching assured me that I was in charge. Until a letter arrived.

My dad had been out of my life for so many years; I could hardly remember his face. I harbored no hatred. No guilt. Just a mountain of sadness. Sadness that kept me comfortable in its very familiarity. I liked walls. And a mountain makes a terrific wall.

During my second year in Chicago, I received a letter from my father. He was going to be on the North Shore, touring with his new wife. They were both highly educated, well paid, and living in another world. I remember the feel of the crisp, thick paper in my hand, and my surprise that it had actually traversed the distance from his home out east to my present abode. Quality paper like that hardly seemed real as I scanned the stained, cement sidewalk, the broken glass littering the street side, the scraps of candy papers blown by a forlorn wind.

He had asked if he could drop by and see me. A short visit, since he’d only spend the weekend in town. But would I mind? Seeing him. Visiting a bit.

I stuffed the letter in my jacket pocket and descended the apartment steps. Looking around, I realized there was nowhere for me to go. My lesson plans were complete for the following week; the afterschool kids had gone home hours ago, everyone I knew was gone for the day. Yet, I must go somewhere.

I trudged back to school with no object in mind. It was late on Friday afternoon; no one would be around. As I crossed the playground toward the redbrick building, I saw Mr. Carol. His stooped back bent over a broom as he swept up the latest mess in a continuous stream of litter and broken bottles. I wondered for the zillionth time where all the glass came from. Did vicious, little gremlins dance about each night and sprinkle broken bits like confetti? Hardly likely. But it was a better vision than the alternative.

I stepped up to the old man, though I realized anew that he wasn’t really old. It was his clothes, his shoulders, and his demeanor that left the impression of elderliness. Oldness. Worn out like his faded jeans. “Hey, Mr. Carol. You’re working late.”

It was a stupid comment. He worked early, late, and all the time in between. A maintenance man’s work was never done.

Mr. Carol turned, startled. He rarely spoke, and I never dared to break through his own private wall. But this time, he smiled. Looking me up and down, he seemed to see something that I didn’t realize I was showing. With a wave of his hand, he pointed to the cement steps leading to the front door. “Hey, yourself, young lady. What you doing here?”

Feeling very much like one of the kids I taught, I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer, except the one in my pocket.

He leaned the broom against the wall and lowered himself to the middle step and gestured. “Sit a minute. Keep an old man company.”

I remember the burning tears that filled my eyes. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want my mountain to crumble. But I sat anyway. For a brief second, it seemed as if the world was perfect, as if everything were where it was supposed to be, and I was destined to be sitting on the third step with a man in faded jeans and a worn, blue shirt. I clasped my hands tight, hoping to hold my voice steady. “Do you have any kids, Mr. Carol?”

Mr. Carol looked off into the blurry distance and tented his fingers in steeple position as if in prayer. “Yeah, I do. A daughter. But I haven’t seen her since she was a baby.” He looked at me. “She’d be about your age by now.”

The rightness of things settled into quiet conviction as I sighed. “I have a dad.”

He smiled. “Most do.”

“I haven’t seen him for a long time.” I pulled the letter out of my pocket.

Mr. Carol stayed very still as if he was afraid of frightening a mouse back into its hole.

I tapped the cream colored envelope. “He’s going to be in town and wants to see me. But it’s been an awfully long time. And he’s bringing his wife.”

Mr. Carol leaned back onto the second step and stretched his legs. “You know, I have thought of writing such a letter. Many times. Though I have no wife to bring along.” He sighed. “But, you know, my writings not so good. And my girl’s got her own life now. Besides, I don’t have anything to offer. It’s too late to meet up and start over. But, still, I’d like to tell her something.”

The earth was rumbling under my feet. I could feel clods of dirt scuttle passed me as my mountain, and my voice, shook. “What would you tell her?”

“I’d tell her that I never stopped thinking about her. That I wish I had been a better man, a better father. A real dad.” He shook his head. “There’s no excuse, I know. I failed. I wasn’t there for her, and I’ll always be in the wrong about that.” He stood up and took the broom from the wall. “But, you know, I regret it. Deeply. I think of her every day.”

I stood up and crunched the letter back into my pocket. “You think I should see him?”

This time, Mr. Carol shrugged. “I’ve found that it wasn’t the things I done that I regretted the most. It was the things I didn’t do, the things I left undone. You know what I mean?”

I pictured the lined, school paper stacked on a shelf in my apartment; it wasn’t thick and fancy, but it was letter sized. “Yeah. I do.”

Mr. Carol returned to his endless sweeping as he nodded. “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

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

Lilliputians

“It’s the little things that tie us down—you know—like the Lilliputians.”

Adam snorted, his eyes stayed glued to his phone. “Life’s what you make of it, Grandma.” His attention wavered. She said something he couldn’t catch.

He scrolled. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” There were three new messages, and he was itching to check his Facebook and Twitter pages. His stomach rumbled. He checked the time. Sigh. He knew his duty. “Hey, have you eaten yet, Grandma?”

Her puzzled frown annoyed him. It was a simple question; it shouldn’t cause brain strain.

“I—I don’t think so…. But don’t worry. I’m not hungry. You go ahead and check your box now and then we can chat.”

On autopilot, Adam scooted the kitchen chair out and sat with his arms propped on the table. There were a lot of posts to scroll through…and through.

A sudden bang snapped his head up. Grandma’s stricken expression propelled him to his feet. She stood in the middle of the room staring at the fallen teakettle as if it had flown through the window. A pool of steaming water slowly spread across the floor.

“You okay? Did you burn yourself?” The stovetop was glowing red and the kettle spout smoked like a chimney. Adam gritted his teeth as a wrenching pain punched his gut. He led Grandma to the table.

“Here, sit down. I’ll clean up. What were you doing anyway?” He grabbed a towel and tossed it over the wet floor. The twin pools of confusion and disappointment in Grandma’s eyes sent another twist to Adam’s gut.

“I just wanted to make us a cup of tea—for our chat.” She plopped down heavily on a chair. Her right hand stayed fixed with the palm up.

Snatching a potholder, Adam conveyed the kettle back to the stovetop and turned it off. He plucked ice from the freezer, wrapped it in a paper towel, and handed it to Grandma. “Here, put this on your hand.”

“Why?”

“Cause you burned it, see? It’s red there. Might blister. Dang it, Grandma, you know you’re not supposed to touch the stove! Just let me do it next time, okay?”

Grandma blinked back tears and straightened her shoulders. “I’m not a child—or a loony—you know. I can still make a cup of tea!”

“Sure, sure. I know. I shouldn’t yell. Just Mom will get so mad that you got hurt under my—”

Adam’s phone chimed. He snatched it up and stared. “Oh, brother! Some idiot just plastered a bunch of political slogans on my page.” He barely glanced at Grandma. “Just a minute, I gotta—”

Grandma shook her head as she rose and returned to her tea making.

An hour later, Adam looked up. Grandma’s place was empty. A cold cup of tea with a slice of lemon balanced on the saucer and a little cookie sat before him. He stood and looked around. Her washed teacup lay neatly drying on the drain board. Long evening shadows slanted across the tidy kitchen.

Adam tiptoed down the hall. “Grandma?” He peeked into her room. There she lay, sleeping peacefully on her bed, her hands folded over her trim waist. She’s really a beauty—funny I never noticed before.

~~~

Two months later, Adam sat beside Mom on the front pew at church. Grandma was laid out in her finest, and her hands once again rested in quiet repose over her neat, trim waist.

Mom’s shoulders shook as she covered her face with her hands. Dad wrapped his arm around her and leaned in. “You were always there for her, honey. Now, it’s time to let go.”

Adam stared straight ahead. All he could see through his parched, unfocused eyes was a cold cup tea with a slice of lemon on the side. His phone vibrated in his pocket. But he only felt the sharp snap of strings breaking.

~~~

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

Go On

GO ON

Winter never came,

Spring came too soon.

Summer came and burned us up,

Autumn’s hope from doom.

Childhood raced me by,

Grown-up came too soon.

Parenthood came and livened things up,

Ancient wisdom is my future bloom.

I live upon the seasons, God,

Seasons come and go.

So fast, oh God, so fast.

We yearn, we long,

We freeze, we burn,

We change as seasons go.

Forgive us, Lord,

We forget; we long for seasons gone.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Look and see the leaves fall and freeze,

Then, oh God, the spring breeze.

Go on—go on.

~~~

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

Every Word

Lawry considered the long, red scratch on his face. “It’ll leave a scar—that’s for certain. Just the luck! Spiteful bush! Clip a few branches and wham—raked across the face. Well, I was never handsome to begin with….”

Lawry dabbed the dried blood with a wet tissue and stumped past his unmade bed to his littered desk. A cup with dried fruit juice, a scattering of cereal flakes, and bread crumbs testified to where he ate a majority of his meals. Tottering piles of books crowded around his computer. He fell into his chair with a sigh.

His mom had knitted him a blue hat with his name in scripted, bold, red letters across the top L-A-W-R-Y three Christmases ago, but never having the courage to actually wear it, he had placed it jauntily on his stuffed monkey who adorned the top of his computer like a good-hearted, though rather mischievous looking, angel.

Maximus Monkey, Ruler-Of-All-He-Surveyed, was the main character in a series of comics that Lawry had been working on for years. A moldy orange rind had somehow landed on Max’s shoulder. Lawry winced, and pinching the offending bio-matter in two fingers, he pitched it into an over-filled trash can. He tucked Max’s arm against the wall for better support. Though the little monkey still leaned, at least he wasn’t in imminent danger of careening to the floor. Lawry peered under his desk, his eyes widened. “Oh, wow! I really need to do something about this mess.” He looked for a broom, but as none was in sight, he returned to his computer screen and hit the power button.

He checked his mail. Nothing but spam. No agents or publishers begging rights to any of his stories. He checked the news. “Yep—the world’s going to hell in a hand basket—as usual.”

He opened his recent story page and stared at the blinking cursor. What could he write about that he hadn’t already written? What story was left to tell that hadn’t been told a million times over in cyberspace—a universe filled with unread, unloved stories?

A light knock drew a grunt from Lawry’s middle.

The knock tried again.

Lawry grunted again, a little louder, a little more articulately. “Yeah, what?”

A young boy, Jimmy, stuck his head through the opening. “Mom said thanks for cutting the hedge, and she’s making—hey, you get cut?”

Lawry rolled his eyes. Jimmy had an exasperating habit of stating the obvious as if it was headline news.

“Yeah. It’s nothing.”

Jimmy took those three words as an invitation and crept into his brother’s inner sanctum—holy ground—albeit a messy holy ground. A badminton racket dangled from Jimmy’s hand.

Lawry shifted his gaze away. He wasn’t an outdoorsman as today’s battle with the hedge surely proved. He sighed, his shoulders slumping even further. He leaned in towards the computer screen, tapping keys aimlessly. Just look busy.

“What’re you working on?”

“Nothing.”

“How about Maximus? He doing anything?”

Lawry’s gaze shot to the skinny eight-year-old. How did the little twerp manage to stay so skinny? He ate at least as much as any ravenous jungle animal Lawry had ever read about, but he stayed stick-thin. Metabolism. Lawry shifted his heavy frame in the chair. Damn metabolism.

“Can you read me something?”

Red, hot blushing fury filled Lawry. It was ridiculously unfair. Here he’d written his heart out for three long years, read every book there was about the art and craft of writing comics, joined clubs, took online classes, worked at a stupid, menial job on the side just to pay his fair share while he still lived at home—yet nothing. Not one,

“Dear Mr. Lawry Lawrence,

             We would love to represent you—”

Not even “—like to represent you—” heck even a “—we’d consider representing you—” would be a joy. But no, week after week, he received: “Your work does not fit our needs at this time.”

Lawry glanced at Jimmy’s hope-filled eyes. He was a lonely little kid. Doesn’t seem to make many friends at school. Just hangs out with his stuffed animals, mostly.

Lawry’s hands dropped to his lap. “Well, I don’t have anything new—not really—”

“That’s okay. I like all your stuff. How about ‘Maximus Meets a Moon Alien?’”

“I read that a hundred times. It’s—well—not one of Max’s favorites.”

Jimmy slid to the edge of Lawry’s bed and leaned against it. A stuffed rabbit peeked out from his pant’s pocket.

Lawry tapped his fingers on his desk and stared straight ahead, unblinking. He cleared his throat. “Maximus doesn’t have any favorites. Not anymore. Max is thinking about moving away. Maybe getting a real job—in the real world.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened, fear rippling across his face. “But Max can’t go! He can’t leave here. At least not till he saves his Monkey clan—like he’s always planning….”

Lawry felt the lump in his throat rise before he realized that his eyes stung. “Maximus can’t save anyone, Jimmy. He’s really a rather unimportant little monkey. He’s decided to settle down and stop all this adventure nonsense. Can’t be a silly monkey forever, you know. Gotta grow up sometime.”

Jimmy brushed back tears with the back of his hand, pretending he wasn’t.

Lawry glanced out of the corner of his eye. He reached up, lifted Maximus off the computer, stared into Maximus’ ready-for-anything eyes, and passed him over to his little brother. “You take him. Maybe with you, he can have some fun. He’s tired of being stuck in down here every day. Go play badminton with him—or something.”

Jimmy slid Maximus under his arm uncertainly. “We can’t play alone….”

Lawry huffed a long drawn out sigh. “Oh, what the heck. We’ll play together. Max can watch.”

~~~

Two weeks later, Lawry sat at his computer desk. His face was almost healed, though he had been right, there was a scar. His desk was clean, the floor was swept, and his bed was neatly made. He placed one last sheet of neatly printed paper onto a stack and clipped it into a large, red binder entitled in bold blue letters:

THE ADVENTURES OF MAXIMUS MONKEY

By Lawry Lawrence

For Jimmy Lawrence On His Ninth Birthday

Lawry snatched car keys off his dresser and hustled outside with the binder snuggled under his arm. Jimmy was swinging Maximus from a long “jungle rope” in the backyard. Lawry smiled as Jimmy trotted over.

Jimmy pointed to Max. “He hasn’t given up his adventures—see? He’s back in the jungle and leading all the other monkeys to safety.”

Lawry grinned. He could almost see the entire herd as they swung from branch to branch under the green canopy. He patted Jimmy’s shoulder. “Listen, I gotta go to work now, and I probably won’t be back until late—but I wanted to give you this. It isn’t much, I know, but you always liked my stories. I figure they’re best in your hands.

Jimmy hugged the binder—his eyes wide. “Wow! You sure? I mean—I can’t believe it. Now I can read ‘em whenever I want. I can read them to Max!” Jimmy scurried back to the tree, untied Max’s dangling arm, and showed the little monkey the cover of the binder. Max’s face glowed.

~~~

Fifty-six years passed, and Lawry sat in a wheelchair near a bright window. His mind wandered endlessly after a severe stroke and the ravages of diabetes took his body places he never intended to go. Speaking was a challenge now, but he could hear as well as ever. His ears were cocked for the light tread of his brother returning home in the evenings. The shadows are growing long. Soon, he’ll come. He’ll sit with me awhile—he always does. Green day—almost feel—

The door opened and Jimmy stepped in, heavier, stooped a bit, and gray hair crowned his head. “Hey, Lawry. The grandkids were going through the attic over the weekend and guess what they found?”

A bald-spotted, dustier version of his former self, but still staring out of those read-for-anything eyes, Maximus Monkey landed in Lawry’s lap. Lawry blinked. His hand, as well as his voice, shook as he lifted the adventuresome critter. “I—almost—remember—”

Jimmy chuckled as he scraped a chair near, into the dwindling sunlight. “Don’t worry. I remember every word.” Jimmy leaned in, patted Lawrey on the knee, and grinned. “Once upon a time, there was a monkey named Maximus, and he had grand plans—”

~~~

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

To Make a Difference

outlookspaceman

Soul-Searing

Autumn is always bittersweet and beautiful―like a memory. I am nearly fifty now and yet my childhood seems as close as the doorway. More distant, and more painful are the memories of my sons. I had only two, Joseph and David, both fine young men, each born with a high sense of duty. One is dead now and the other might be soon. People tell me that I can’t change anything―that fate is what it must be. I try to accept that. But the memories haunt me, like autumn. They beguile me with their sweetness and then frighten me with what comes after.

I grew up endowed with a mission to change the world. I was going to be somebody. My relations going all the way back to Adam and Eve were much the same. It must be something in our genetic code. We were the branch that reached for the sun and was never content to live in the shade of another’s glory. My father was a radio broadcaster and my mother was an artist. They both strove with straining hearts to be great at what they did. You probably never heard of them. Few ever did. But they lived and died believing that they made a difference. And I guess that is all that really matters, believing in yourself. At least, that is what David keeps telling me.

It is late now, and the house is quiet. The cicada came out late this year, and I can still hear them in the evenings joining their songs with the crickets and the frogs. It makes a low, pleasant hum, always in the background, like the music in a movie. You aren’t always aware of it, but it affects your mood and soothes, or warns you, as the case may be. Right now, the evening sounds are soothing. There are no dreadful winds screeching against the windows or thunder hammering on the roof. Right now, I feel peaceful and even a little drowsy. David should be home soon. His shift ended at 8:00 P.M. but he said it might take him a little longer as he was going to talk to his director about his options. That is what he calls it, his options.

War broke out again four years ago and I thought that Joseph would stay out of it, but since he was trained as a psychiatric nurse, he saw it as his duty to join up as soon as possible and help out in whatever way he could. I admired his patriotism. Everyone did. After all, we had not looked for war. It came to us, landed in our laps when extremist terrorists set off bombs in our cities. There have always been problems in the world and tensions were especially high with threats at the time, but I had always figured that we were secure, our lives would remain on the periphery of events. I had hoped that living in the countryside might shield us. But fate crosses all boundaries and Joseph was determined to make a difference. He wanted to save people. He wanted to be helpful. How could I blame him? Over a thousand people were killed in those attacks and more died in the following battles. War comes at a cost. But I hoped that it would not cost the life of my son. I am not sure why I thought he should be exempt. But I did. I honestly thought that he was too good to die.

So now I sit here trying to make sense of my memories and trying to decide what I believe. If fate rules us, then it really does not matter what I believe. I can sit here until Doom’s Day, and nothing will change. But if fate is just an excuse for not accepting our part of things, then perhaps it does matter. Maybe I have more to do with Joe’s death than I realize. Maybe David still has a chance.

~~~

Kurt and I were older when we got married. It took us a long time to find each other. We were like that song―looking for love in all the wrong places. But eventually, we met right where you’d expect two Catholics might meet, in a church. It was at Christmas time and we were both out of college, and it turned out we had some friends in common. It didn’t take us long to decide that we wanted a life together. It did take a couple years to pay off old debts and clear out our lives so that we could make room for our marriage. But once that was taken care of, we went forward and had a big wedding, inviting everyone near and far. We’re both believers, but not terribly involved in church activities, except around holiday time. Our lives revolved more around our work. I had been endowed with a missionary spirit, teaching in poor neighborhoods while Kurt had worked as an English as a Second Language instructor. Both of us were zealots. Both of us wanted to make a difference. And both of us were rather tired and worn out by the time we got married.

It took us three years to have our first child, but there was never a more anticipated bundle of joy than out little Joe. Suddenly all our zeal was directed toward this tiny little baby. It was as if no other baby had ever been born before, the way we acted. Kurt made every birthday a major holiday and started to teach little Joe the letters of the alphabet and how to play ball when he was barely old enough to toddle across the floor.

I was intent on providing the best home and the nicest, most delicious meals ever created by any mother anywhere. The poor child never had a chance to know moderation. Moderation just wasn’t in our vocabulary. If he even got a sniffle, I ran him to the pediatrician so fast that the doctor would usually just tell me to turn around and go home, giving me nothing more than an encouraging word and a slight sigh. Joseph either had a great immune system or we frightened every illness away before it had a chance for Joe grew up as healthy as an ox. He grew big too. The other kids in school used to say that he ought to try out for football, but I’d never let him. It was too risky. He had a smart mind and I didn’t want his head broken in some game which would only decide the fate of a team for a season. I wanted my boy to make decisions about far more important things. Luckily Kurt agreed with me. Kurt would read him stories by the hour about famous men in history. That boy went to bed dreaming about knights in shining armor and martyrs who suffered for their faith. Though we lived in farm country and envied farmers their knack for bringing fruit from the earth, even if it was simply acres and acres of corn or beans, still we never saw ourselves as farmer types. We had the missionary spirit. So when Joe grew up and chose medicine as his field, Kurt and I smiled in complete understanding. This was something worthy, something grand that could make a difference in the world.

Joe joined the Peace Corps after college, and Kurt and I were so proud of him; we could hardly contain ourselves. We sent packages and extra money to support him through the two years he spent in the Philippines. He got Typhoid while he was there, and Kurt thought about going over to check in on him, but Joe told us not to come. His letters became subdued. Joe seemed to be changing in ways I couldn’t understand. I wondered if he was depressed, but Kurt said that he was just seeing the world as it really was and that sobered him up a bit. Besides, everyone was telling me: “Joe’s his own man now; he’s over twenty-one; you need to let him be.” It wouldn’t do any good to worry anyway. I had no control over the world or my son anymore. There weren’t any options I could veto.

When Joe arrived back in the states one blistering hot July day, he met us at the airport looking like an overgrown scarecrow. He had lost so much weight that I barely recognized him. He was tanned but his face was gaunt with exhaustion. I was appalled, but Kurt gripped my arm and told me not to mother him. He was a man now. Joe needed to tell us what happened in his own way. At least Kurt realized that something had happened. But as we drove through the city noise of Saint Louis back toward the rural quiet of Illinois, I waited expectantly for Joe to say something, for him to tell us his story. He didn’t.

He hardly talked that whole drive home and he talked very little for the three months that he lived with us before he found a job in Washington D.C. He didn’t seem to care about anything except getting busy someplace far away from us. I couldn’t understand. I thought my heart might break. I had always considered myself a wonderful mother, but now I wondered what I had done wrong. Why didn’t Joe seem to care about me, or his father, or even his little brother? Joe and David had never been especially close but they had been good friends. Now it was as if they hardly knew each other.

David was finishing college, and he was busy with dreams of his own. He seemed grieved by the change in his brother, but he didn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. I remember David came to me as I was sitting on the porch watching the sunset one evening and said, “Don’t worry about Joe, Mom. He’s made his decisions. He can’t go back to being your little boy anymore. You’ve got to accept that.”

I had no idea what David was talking about, but it seemed to be the advice everyone was giving me. Even Kurt told me not to worry. Joe was a big boy. He would make his own way. And he did. He made his way right into a psychiatric ward where he was helping men who had returned from the war with serious mental conditions. He was a very capable nurse and he got along with everyone, well, almost everyone. It was one of his own patients who killed him. Shot him in the heart. I never knew how a patient got ahold of a gun. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. Joe was dead and that was all I really needed to know.

At his funeral, the director of the hospital came over and shook my and Kurt’s hands and tried to console us. He looked me right in the eye and said that Joe died making a difference. I had to believe that was true. But I couldn’t understand why it was supposed to make me feel better. After all, if he was making a difference, wouldn’t it have been better if he lived? How did his death serve anyone?

It wasn’t until Kurt and I was cleaning out Joe’s apartment, when I came across his journal, that I began to understand the man my son had become. I found the journal tucked under a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. I had heard of the book, but I had never read it, and I was surprised to find it among Joe’s things. I had been more afraid of finding girlie magazines, but there was none of that. In fact, his whole apartment was rather Spartan.   Kurt put a few books in a box and then he said he needed to make some phone calls. He left the room and didn’t come back until later that evening when I was about done. I wanted to be angry at him for leaving me to work alone, but then I realized that he couldn’t help himself. Kurt wasn’t the kind of man who could cry in front of people, even me. He needed to be alone to deal with his grief. I figured pretending that everything was okay was the nicest thing I could do. Sometimes not talking was our way of getting through things.

I gave most of Joe’s stuff away, but I kept the journal. I couldn’t read it for over a year. But then in late September the following year, I picked it up after lunch, and I didn’t put it down even to make dinner. Kurt had gone to a game with some friends, and David was living on campus. I was completely alone. I wish I hadn’t been. It was an experience that seared my soul forever.

I’ve Played My Part

The first part of Joe’s journal was much like what I would have expected. He was obsessed with his work, and he wrote about the people he worked with and the things he was doing. But then he wrote about a series of nightmares which were haunting him and his reflections about what they meant. Then a few entries later, Joe finally admitted that he was struggling with his faith. There was a long time lapse between entries at this point and when he finally started writing again, he wrote about his experiences in the Philippines. He had become good friends with a girl there, and he had even thought about bringing her home and marrying her, but then he discovered that she was pregnant. His friends warned him that he would be in a lot of trouble, so they advised him to help the girl get an abortion. Abortion was not an option for this girl or Joe either, but her father found out, and there was a big scene and Joe discovered that he was in bigger trouble than he had realized. The girl’s father wanted Joe to marry her right away, and Joe knew that his dreams for the future were seriously compromised. A friend got him some medicine that was supposed to end the pregnancy quick and easy. Joe gave his girlfriend the medication, telling her that it would make everything better. She believed him and took it and soon became so sick she nearly died. The baby miscarried and Joe transferred to another village. After that, he fulfilled his time in the Peace Corps as perfectly as possible. He wrote that he never even looked at another girl for a long time. He tried to put the whole event out of his mind and promised himself that he would make up for his mistake by being the best nurse he could be. And everything seemed to work out. Except that he couldn’t completely forget the girl he once believed he loved, or atone for the past with promises for the future. Nightmares haunted his nights.

I sat there sobbing, hugging Joe’s journal, thinking that my son had died a tormented man when I realized that he had left three pages blank before his last entry. When I thought about it later, I realized that perhaps he had left those pages blank for a reason. Maybe he had wanted to mark the place in his journal with white pages, to show the difference in his life. In any case, Kurt came home before I could read that last entry, and it was a long time before I could pick it up again.

Kurt never drank much but occasionally when he was out with friends they would stop by someplace and have a few beers. This particular night, he had had more than a few. I wondered at him as he came in swaying haphazardly and I asked him if he wanted anything to eat, but he just waved me away. He said he had finally realized that his whole life was a sham. He was never any hero, and he had never accomplished anything. The world would be better off without him. I was shocked and hurt. After all, if his life was a sham, what was mine? What was our marriage? I couldn’t understand this pit he had suddenly fallen into, but I did have sense enough to realize that a good night’s sleep would probably help, so I pretty much agreed with everything he said, and I helped him to the bedroom. I gave him a back massage and let him mumble himself to sleep.

As I watched him lying obliquely on the bed half-dressed, since I couldn’t manage to get him completely undressed or completely straight on the bed, I realized that this was our life. A half-done life. We had the ideals and the zeal, but we didn’t have something that made things really work out properly. I wondered about that as I made my way to the living room. I didn’t bother undressing either, for I thought Kurt might get sick in the night; he wasn’t a drinking man and this little bout with the bottle might have other unpleasant consequences. So I just piled up the couch pillows, and I lay in the dark living room and thought about what I had read in Joe’s journal. I don’t know why I didn’t just get it and read the last entry, but I felt so overwhelmed that I couldn’t take one more emotional revelation. I just lay there and wondered what Kurt had meant by his life being a sham. Was his life really a sham? Didn’t he love me? What did that say about my life? I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I awoke to the sound of Kurt calling me from the bathroom. There were other unpleasant consequences all right.

That spring David graduated from college with an engineering degree. He had decided that he wanted to specialize in aeronautics and though I didn’t see the “big plan” David seemed to feel that there was one, and he needed to be a part of it. The war had slowed down and was rolling along like many modern wars, mostly on someone else’s turf. I read online reports and I wondered if anyone would ever find a way to convince leaders that killing each other’s young people was no way to solve our differences. But I could see the necessity of protecting the innocent. After all, “the only way for evil to conquer was for good men to do nothing.” I had always believed that. So had Kurt and Joe. But now Kurt was submerged in doubt, and Joe was dead. I had a hard time lifting myself to the heights of idealism that I used to love.

During that spring and early summer, Kurt seemed to be getting ill a lot. He lost weight and looked tired all the time. I urged him to go to see a doctor, but he insisted that it was just a summer cold and he’d get over it. He didn’t. By the time he finally did see a doctor, cancer had spread throughout his lymph nodes and into his bones. It had progressed to the point where even the specialists didn’t think he had much time left. They were willing to do chemo treatments, but Kurt said that he was too old and too tired to fight that hard. He was ready to go. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt like I never knew my husband at all.

By the fall, Kurt was in the hospital a lot. I would go see him after a full day of teaching and spend the evening with him before I went home to shower and get ready for the next day. As we sat there in that white-walled room, we would sometimes watch TV or we’d talk about stuff on the news. Kurt always enjoyed discussing current events, and he loved history so he’d often tell me everything he knew about the countries that were in the news. He loved sharing his knowledge. That was one reason he had been such a wonderful ESL teacher. He was smart, and he cared about the people he worked with because he knew something about them and where they came from. He had always seen a connectedness between people and events. Yet now, as he slowly succumbed to the ravages of cancer, he didn’t see himself as being particularly connected to anything or anyone. When I asked him why he was so ready to leave me and David behind, he said, “I’m done – that’s all. I played my part and though it wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, still, I gave it my all. Now it’s my turn to go off stage and let someone else take over.”

I remember; I wanted to slap him. I wanted to beat him on the chest and tell him that he wasn’t God and no one said he could slip quietly into the dark night. But even as I was shaking with fury, I wondered if I was being fair. Kurt had a right to face his death in his own way, and I should be glad he wasn’t suffering any worse. I should be relieved he was accepting his fate. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I was troubled. My heart was hurting and my head was aching. Nothing seemed to be making any sense. I tried to reach back to my youthful sense of high purpose but it was elusive. Everything that used to comfort me was slipping through my fingers. I sat there, the blinds closed against the blazing August sun and Kurt fell into one of his evening naps.

I wondered at my stomach crunching distress. I could feel the familiar ache in my middle and knew that inner turmoil was one of the worst pains in the world. I tried to talk myself out of my suffering. If Kurt was accepting his fate, why couldn’t I? If Joe had died making a difference, then what good did it do to grieve over his death? Was I was just lonely and frightened? No, I had friends, and I was certainly capable of taking care of myself. Though I was losing my best friend, I didn’t need to think I was losing my whole life. My life would still have a purpose. I would still be a valuable person, and I needed to accept what I could not change. But somehow all my reasoning just made my stomach clench harder and my brain whirl that much faster.

Late one October afternoon, one of Kurt’s students came by to see him. He was an elderly Asian man and though many of Kurt’s students had come before to say hi and engage in some kind of humanitarian kindness, this man, I don’t even remember his name, was the kindest of all. He didn’t say much, but as Kurt was sleeping, he just came over and shook my hand then he knelt by Kurt’s bed and began to pray. I was taken a little aback. I wasn’t sure what religion this guy was or who, exactly, he was praying to, but his sincerity was obvious. He stayed there kneeling for what seemed like hours but was probably only just a few minutes. When he got up, he smiled at me and just whispered as he left, “God knows.” I have absolutely no idea why those words comforted me so much, but they did. I could actually feel the knots in my middle unloosen a little and though I didn’t knee on the floor, I did bow my head.

Certainly, I had prayed for Kurt just like I had prayed for Joe. A priest had come in and anointed Kurt. Our faith had been an intrinsic part of our lives. But suddenly, I saw things from a different view. It was as if I was looking at my life from a new perspective. In my youth, I had always been trying to make a difference. Then as tragedy entered, I tried desperately to grasp its meaning. Everyone advised acceptance but that had seemed cowardly, elusive, a run-away kind of thing. But there, as an October rain drizzled against those never-opened windows, for a brief second, I grasped what I was missing.

Twinkling Stars

Kurt died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. We hadn’t planned much since he was so ill but several of his relatives had come to town for family get-togethers so, in a way, it was good timing. Everyone was close, and the funeral was arranged without difficulty. Kurt had insisted on making out a will as soon as he knew he was seriously ill, so money matters slipped into place easily. David came home from his work at NASA, and he did everything he could to help me out. He was as good and kind a son as a mother could want. But he didn’t talk much about his work. He just said that there were a lot of wonderful possibilities in the future, and he wanted to explore some of them. I knew he had always been interested in space exploration, but as he turned his attention toward engineering and then toward planes, I figured his childhood fantasies of traveling to far off planets had vanished like other vaporous dreams. It turned out I was wrong.

His dreams had never died and as he faced a world in turmoil and the deaths of his brother and father, his dreams seemed to revive with alacrity. Even during that wet and cold November, he would sit out on the porch in the evenings watching as the sky turned from misty-grey to solemn-black. When I came out and asked him why he didn’t come inside where it was warm, he simply said he was watching for any stars which might break through the clouds. I remember telling him that any stars which broke through a November night were more likely to be airplanes or aliens, and he just chuckled and said, “Maybe so, maybe so.”

I finally had the courage to read the last chapter of Joe’s journal that winter, and I could have kicked myself for waiting so long. It turned out that Joe had met someone in the hospital that he really admired, and he had shared his turmoil with him. The man, whose name was Dr. Scanlon, was just starting out, but he must have had been born with the wisdom of the ages for he told Joe that his mission in life was not defined by his mistakes but by how he handled his mistakes. Apparently, Joe got a new lease on life, and he realized that he would never be a perfect man. That job had already been taken. He was called to be as good a man as he could be, and when he slipped up, he was called to stand up and try again.

I realized as I read this, how commonplace those words seemed. They were the kinds of things I told my fifth graders. But I understood that Joe had grasped them on a whole new level. I suppose someone would say that Joe had been born again. He suddenly seemed to believe that his life had a meaning beyond what he could fully grasp. And that encouraged him. “Thank God,” I murmured as I sat there on my bed once more rocking and hugging his journal to my chest. “Thank God.”

The next time David came home for a visit, I handed him Joe’s journal and told him he’d enjoy the last entry. David only smiled and said that he probably knew more about Joe than I realized. Joe had called him the day before he died and said that he was thinking about asking out a particularly beautiful intern.  They had laughed together, and David said he felt that Joe was relieved of a heavy burden. I just stared at my son and asked him if there was any hope that I would know him before I died, and he smiled that bewildering smile he has and said that he would share more―if he could. I just sighed and shook my head. David then did one of the most surprising things he has ever done. He took my hand and he led me out to the twilight sky and he pointed to the stars. He said, “Look up there, Mom, and tell me what you see.”

I told him I saw a multitude of twinkling lights that scientists tell me are really balls of burning gas bigger than the earth and that though I believe them, I’d be equally content to have them just be twinkling lights.  David has such an infectious laugh. I had to laugh with him. We stood there, him holding my hand like a little boy again, and he suddenly turned to me and said, “What if I told you that out there lies the hope of humanity? If only we have the daring to realize it?”

Well, what could I say? What would you say? I remembered my youth and I felt a strange flicker of hope and life. I felt his excitement. But I also felt a ripple of fear. What was he about to do? What was he about to risk? So I looked at his upturned face and I asked him, “What do you mean? Tell me about it.”

So David explained. He told me all about how he was working on the design for a settlement on Mars and how one day he hoped to be part of a mission that would initiate the first building efforts on Mars. There was even talk of him being a part of the next space mission so that he could better prepare himself for that experience and have a better understanding of what would be needed for a lifetime in a space settlement. I stared at David, much like I had stared at Kurt, wondering if I ever knew the man in front of me. I asked him why he had never shared these plans with me before, and he chuckled again.

“Some of this is not for the general public, Mom, and besides, it still sounds strange even to my ears. I wasn’t sure I could handle the bewildered expression I see in your eyes now. There was a time when I would have doubted my sanity for even dreaming of such things.”

“But now?”

David had grinned. “Now I feel confidence born of grace. I trust that if God wants this done, it will be done. And I’ll be the man to help do it.”

There was so little I could say at that point. I realized that my whole life had been the humus of this dream. David’s dream, like so many others: Christopher Columbus, Einstein, Albert Switzer, Mother Teresa, had borne fruit not from the desert of fantasy, but from the nurturing love of family who dared to believe in things, who dared to dream big dreams even when those big dreams ended up being little more than a life well lived or a death well faced. I stood there as the clouds passed away and the stars broke through, twinkling their hearts out. I held my son’s hand and I never wanted to let him go.

So the Earth continues to revolve around the sun in its allotted course, and seven more years have passed. David has been on two space missions, and now, he has to decide if he will go on this last one. This will be a mission that will take him further than even my imagination can travel. He will begin a new phase in his dream. He will be a part of a team that will begin building a settlement on a very, very distant planet. He will likely spend the rest of his life working with robots and men who have sacrificed everything for a home very different from this one. He’s never been a coward, and he doesn’t expect to start now. I always wished David would settle down and have a family, but now I see how that was always impossible. He was a man born for a mission. I guess, we all have our missions. Perhaps mine was to give life to such a man and to plant a seed of daring hope.

Have I made a difference? Did Kurt? Surely when Kurt read those stories to the boys, he made a difference in the kind of young men they would be. He did as much as I to form them, not just their bodies, but their very souls. Kurt died believing his mission was over. Joe died trying to help an insane man deal with his suffering, hoping to have a family of his own someday. His life was about never giving up. My mission?

The winds have picked up, and I can hear David’s car pull into the driveway. He said he would come home tonight, even if it was late. It’s nearly midnight. It is raining now and there is a rumble of thunder in the distance. I suppose, he has accepted his mission.

I suppose I have too.

The forecast says that the temperature will drop tonight, down to the forties. Winter is on its way. Autumn can’t last forever. No season ever does. I left some chicken and fixings on a plate for him. I guess I’ll warm them up and sit with him awhile. I even made a few chocolate brownies. They’re his favorite.

~~~

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

Hope’s Embrace: A Bhuaci Poem

bhuachiwomanpoem

Sisters—linking arms amid the crashing seas-breeze waves—laughing as we fell,

For we knew no fear in our homeland—there we did happily dwell.

Hope ever sprouted,

Love never doubted.

When invaders destroyed our youth and ships to far stars were sent,

Still, our hearts beat true to love—to our faith’s content.

You on board, shivering and afraid,

Me, left behind to protect the homeworld, where I stayed.

Long years passed and messages did tell of new homes fair,

I wish I’d been with you and every adventure shared.

But my content was in knowing you were free,

For enduring great danger here, never safe were we.

Strange silence then ensued and fearful the cause we pursued.

No words can describe the loss—an entire planet laid waste.

Only dead rocks floating in space—a home—myriad dreams erased.

So sister now, only memory serves to fill the aching void,

Where once we played and with our lives enjoyed.

But somber truth teaches—even in heavy loss we endure,

To strengthen that which is beyond any mortal cure.

My daughter now I send—to far distant stars to seek,

Our salvation in a future none yet can hope to speak.

My child, cling fast to the dream that held us in its sway,

The joys and laughter that brighten youth’s holy, every-day.

For there is no salvation found apart from the dreams that dwell,

Safely in the hearts of those who know how to love so well.

~~~

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)

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

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