Trying to Be a Hero

Susanne shivered. Rain had settled into a steady drizzle, and dark clouds hid any vestiges of the evening sun. One of the very last pink and golden leaves of the season fluttered in a gentle breeze and then, without warning, careened from the heights to land on her head. She tried not to take offense as she plucked off the ragged symbol of autumn beauty and held it before her eyes. She glanced up. “Trying to tell me something?”

Her car, tilted at an odd angle sat before her like a shopping cart that had lost a wheel. Without premeditated thought, she kicked the flat tire and immediately regretted her actions. “Oh, holy cow, that wasn’t so smart!”

“I’d say not. It might decide to kick back, and then where’d you be?”

Susanne glanced across the road and met a strange woman’s gaze. Embarrassment and a tinge of fury ran laps around her insides. She knew perfectly well that she looked pathetic. She certainly felt pathetic. But heck, no one need make snide comments. Widening her stance like a prizefighter preparing to enter the ring, she ignored her toes yelping for immediate attention and faced the stranger. A scene from the OK Corral flashed through her mind.

Apparently, the strange woman had never seen the movie, didn’t comprehend body lingo, or she simply didn’t care how terrible Susanne’s day had been since she breezed across the street as if it were mid-summer and the sun was shining.

“Flat, eh?”

Susanne peered at the outstretched hand. Like now was a perfect time to say howdy and make friends!

“I’m Georgia. Visiting my niece this week from Michigan. I saw the flat and hoped the owner might be some muscled guy who worked for an auto station.” Her eyes roved over Susan’s petite form and shrugged. “Guess not.” Her eyes continued their stroll and landed on the elementary school. “You’re a teacher?”

Mental fibers started to snap, but with a mighty yank, Susanne gripped her emotions and demanded that they stay in line. “Office secretary. Terrific job. Just, I can’t get home with a flat tire.”

Georgia pointed to the trunk. “You got a spare in there?” She shrugged. “I’ve never actually changed one myself, but I watched my sons do it three or four times. How hard can it be?”

Bundled in a winter coat over a thick sweater, it was hard to tell Georgia’s body build, but Susanne guessed it to be somewhere between a heavyweight wrestler and Highland Dwarf. “Well, we can try, I guess. I hate to call the service station. So bloody expensive just to take it a few miles.”

In the style of a Commander and Chief taking charge of his army, Georgia flipped open the trunk, swept back the cover, lugged out the spare, dropped it handily on the ground, snapped open the enclosed tool kit, and plopped down on the wet ground, fitting the crank under the car. “I think it goes here.”

The word “think” sent another shiver down Susanne’s spine. But since Georgia seemed to be on a roll, she had no desire to interrupt. When it came time to unscrew the bolts, Susanne regained a modicum of self-respect by remembering “lefty-loosey” and thus saved her rescuer heaps of time.

The sudden downpour didn’t seem to affect Georgia like Susanne thought it would. In fact, it appeared to have no effect on her at all. The gray-headed woman unbolted the flat, switched out the tire, and then bolted on the spare with the same calm composure one would expect from a surgeon doing his fiftieth appendectomy. The painful tangle in Susanne’s middle began to loosen. Just a bit.

Once everything was put away and Georgia slapped her hands free of street grit and broken leaves, Susanne felt her newly assembled composure disintegrate. “Can I pay you for your—I would’ve—”

Georgia waved the suggestion away. “You would’ve called a tow truck and paid a bundle. How far you live from here?”

“Oh, just a few miles. It’ll be fine. I really…” As Susanne pictured her empty apartment, loneliness galloped over confusion and ran it into the ground.

“Well, before you go, I want you to come in and have a hot cup of tea. My niece is off on one of her trips. God knows where this time. That’s why I’m here. I saw her for a few hours and off she ran. I stay and watch the house for a week. She’s got an old Tomcat that can’t find his way from the yard to the food bowl without help. So I got the job.” She shrugged. “At least it’s something to do…” She grinned at the replaced wheel. “In my declining years.”

~~~

Embracing a hot cup of tea like a rescue buoy and ensconced on a very comfortable chair, Susanne wondered why this stranger felt like the best friend she never had.

Georgia plunked down, set her cup on a side table and leaned forward, clasping her hands over one knee. “Seems to me that you’d already had a bad day before you even saw your flat tire.”

Susanne’s sudden tears surprised her. But it was her own wracking sob that unhinged her.

Georgia sat comfortably in her chair, waiting, not cajoling or trying to hurry the process. She simply let the strange woman before her cry her eyes out.

Susanne could not have been more grateful. After she wiped her eyes with a tissue that seemed to spring out of thin air, she sat back, took a long sip of her lukewarm tea, and sighed. She lifted her gaze.

Georgia munched a fig newton. Completely at ease. No agenda. No tapping foot or imploring expression. Just calm acceptance, as if to say, “So this is how today is going. Huh.”

Susanne exhaled, pulled her feet onto the couch, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I lied today. Have you ever lied?”

Georgia grunted. “Oh, yeah. Of course. We all do. Sometimes on purpose with lots of planning. Sometimes on the spur of the moment without thinking. We usually have a fairly good reason. Or at least, we think we do.”

“Well, I lied for one simple reason. To get back at someone who hurt me. I wanted her to feel bad. The details don’t really matter. Maybe she deserved it for the way she treated me. But the lie was all mine. I knew it was wrong. But I did it anyway. And what’s worse, I did it over and over again so that this woman’s reputation will now be forever shattered. Or at least, questionable.” The tears started again. “I wanted to punish her, but I punished myself far worse.”

“And then you got a flat tire.” Georgia snorted. “Bet you thought Someone was trying to tell you something, eh?”

Nausea rose and started an open rebellion in Susanne’s stomach. She couldn’t look up.

“Listen. You did an awful thing. No matter why, you knew it was wrong, and you did it anyway. So deal with it. You admitted it to me. So tomorrow, go tell the people involved that you lied. Apologize to your enemy, regain your self-respect, and stop hating yourself.”

Susanne blinked, her eyes stinging with the effort. “It’s not that simple. I’m the nice person. Everyone looks up to me. They trust me. She’s the witch everyone hates. If I do that, they’ll think I’m some kind of blithering idiot trying to be a hero.”

“Well—in a way—you are.”

A cat appeared on Susanne’s right. It crouched, sprang, and landed on her lap. She yelped in surprise. And then, as the truth of Georgia’s words hit home, she laughed.

Georgia grinned “You like cats?”

“Not usually. But this one—” She peered into the orange-eyed calico as he kneaded his paws into her lap and started his engines full throttle. “He’s fine.”

“Good. I’ll leave him in your care while I go warm up the kettle. I think one more cup is in order before I send out into the rainy night.”

Susanne leaned back against the chair and felt the cat curl up in a contented ball. Her shoulders relaxed and warmth spread throughout her whole body.

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/2lWBd0z

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter Chapter One

—Planet Lux—
Test a Theory

Ark, his fleshy white potbellied body encased in a somber gray bio-suit and brown boots, stood aside from the main crowd in the domed Luxonian chamber. He blew bubbles through his breather helm, wrapped his four tentacles behind his back, and tried to ignore the bright light streaming in from above. Planet Lux has altogether too bright a sun. They ought to shield us from the blasted thing. He squinted and averted his eyes.

The Luxonian meeting hall, punctuated with purple-veined marble columns and glorious fountains shaped like creatures from every planet in the district, was filled to capacity with representatives from four races: Crestonian, Bhuaci, Luxonian, and Ingoti.

He studied a Luxonian Lightbird sculpture, as it appeared to fly into the air, spraying clear water from its beak. With a shrug, he shifted to the more fascinating Crestonian Sandfish, spouting green liquid from its razor-toothed jaws. A shiver rolled down his spine.

Dragging his gaze away, Ark nonchalantly shifted his stance and waited for his superior to approach. It would never do to appear hasty.

Ungle, a Crestonian with bright red cilia swaying on top of his plump head and dressed in a spring-green bio-suit and matching boots, meandered the circuit of the room with two tentacles wrapped behind his back in a contemplative manner. A third tentacle held a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with blue gelatinous goo. With his last tentacle, he shook appendages—or mechanical armatures—as the occasion required, with various Luxonian and alien representatives. His perpetual smile never wavered.

Ark slumped and caught the eye of a young Luxonian who stared directly at him. Ark patted his breathing helm as if stifling a yawn.

The Luxonian’s gaze delved deeper, his obvious curiosity breaking to the surface.

Annoyance broke Ark’s placid mood. He discharged a narrow-eyed glare at the Luxonian, who soon turned away. Idiot.

“So you finally made it.”

Ark’s head jerked so hard as he twisted around to face his superior that he felt a crackling in the bone holding his spine erect. Blast. I’ll have a muscle spasm from that. He clasped Ungle’s tentacle from which dangled a gaudy bracelet. Ark blinked and swallowed. Better not expect me to kiss that thing—like some weird Bhuaci sign of obeisance.

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh-oh.

Ungle laughed, nearly spraying liquid over the top of his breathing helm. “I can’t read your mind—but really—Ark, you’ve become practically translucent. Been among humans too long in my opinion.”

A Luxonian waiter in humanoid form, as befits the theme of the meeting, and dressed in an embroidered gold tunic and lavender leggings, glided in close. With a bow, he offered a tray of pink, blue, and green drinks.

Ark glanced at Ungle.

Ungle poured blue goo into his breathing helm, slurped, and shivered. “Not bad. But I’d recommend the green. Not authentic green, you understand, but less of a kick than the blue.”

Ark swiped a blue drink off the tray and poured it daintily into his breathing helm. Like a connoisseur savoring an ancient wine, Ark sipped his liquid while his gaze wandered the room.

Ungle waved the servant away.

Ark turned to his superior. “You were the first to recommend Earth observation. Have you changed your mind?”

“Not at all. I think humanity will have a great deal to offer—in time. But I also realize there are many complications that must be considered—”

A bell tinkled.

“Bothmal those bells!” Ungle tapped Ark on the shoulder. “Meet me in my chambers after the meeting.”

“You aren’t staying for the Balatin Reenactment Festival?”

Ungle gurgled. “I’m a Crestonian. Science, not pleasure, dictates my schedule.”

Ark took the hint.

~~~

Ark settled in a plump chair and hated the hiss of his bio-suit as it wedged between the stiff arms. Dark waters, I’ll never get up without help.

The Crestonian chambers included a mini-pool built into the back wall, cushy, white furniture, and a simple cleansing and dressing closet.

Ark glanced over as Ungle tapped a console, lighting up a holopad.

“Pay attention now. I’ve done careful research, and I think I have just the solution we need.”

Ark grunted as he tried to wiggle out of the chair. “What…is…the…problem?” Popping like a cork, he sprang to his feet.

Ungle straightened, and a hologram of the Luxonian guardian stationed on Earth—Teal—appeared before them. His slim, well-balanced figure, straight light brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and firm jaw emphasized his determined personality.

Ark shrugged and clumped forward, his embarrassment forgotten. “Teal?” His gaze swiveled to Ungle.

“As I mentioned earlier, science dictates the direction of my life. I believe that humanity has a great deal to offer Crestonian studies. Not the least of which is their obsession with good and evil.”

Ark wrapped his tentacles behind his back, arched his neck forward, and meandered in close. “Surely, we understand the concept as well as anyone. Why—?”

“We don’t experience the polar opposites as humans do. It makes quite a difference. Consider—” Ungle tapped the console. Teal dissolved, and Chai appeared beautifully dressed in crimson robes embroidered in gold. “A dangerous—by all human standards—evil force controls this man. It’s a force I’ve rarely encountered before. Yet, this human believes he’ll benefit from the experience.”

Ark’s tentacles wiggled nervously behind his back. “What does he have to do with Teal?”

“This being—calls himself Chai—will cross paths with the one you call Ishtar. It doesn’t take serious extrapolation of data to figure this out. Their paths must intersect.”

“So—”

“Teal will be watching. He’ll care what happens. He might even attempt to interfere.”

“That goes against all his training.”

Ungle shrugged. “Given proper motivation, we all go against our training. Don’t be obtuse, Ark.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to see the natural exchange between Chai and Ishtar. I want to witness a soul damned to—”

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

“You want me to keep an eye on Teal—is that it?” Chuckling, Ungle tapped the console. “Not primarily. I want you to keep your eye on her.”

The holographic image of Chai dissolved, and Sienna, a Luxonian beauty with reddish hair, golden eyes, and a slim figure appeared in all her radiant glory on the holopad.

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

“She’s a Luxonian with a healer’s soul. She wants to help so badly; she could do a great deal of harm in the process.” Ungle tapped the screen and Chai, Teal, and Sienna appeared together on the holopad facing away from one another. “They’re each convinced that they know what’s best for humanity. I’m convinced that they have no idea what’s in store for them.”

“And you want me to observe and collect data?”

“I want to test a theory—about good and evil.”

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

A new OldEarth Ishtar Encounter chapter coming each Tuesday and Thursday. 

Enjoy,

Ann

“He shook my dozing soul and threw the cold water of reality in my face, so that life and God and heaven and hell broke into my world with glory and horror.” (on CS Lewis) ~John Piper

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Wouldn’t You?

Henrietta Huber wanted to know why a dead cat lay across her doorstep. Animals didn’t normally pick her abode to succumb to death’s tyrannical fate. Nor humans for that matter, thank God. Still, the fact remained; a stiff body sprawled awkwardly before her front door.

She lifted her gaze and peered around her quiet, respectable neighborhood. She lived in the center of her cul-de-sac. It had always felt like a privilege, being snug in the middle of her neighbors; a dark brown ranch house to the right, and a two-story brick dwelling on her left. Upper middle class. Very. But today, her quaint neighborhood emitted the faintest odor of disease. Or was that the cat?

Not one to let fate have its way with her, Henrietta trotted a few steps down the street.

A fancy board painted with red fruit dangling from thick boughs and fancy lettering which spelled out “Apple Valley,” announced the entrance to their neighborhood, though only one pair of apple trees stood guard on each side of the road and no valley could be seen for twenty miles. Still, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and a pleasant assortment of craftsmen lived here. It was not a place to be sniffed at. Especially not today.

She chewed her lip as she returned to her front step. These simply were not the sort of people to drop a dead critter on a neighbor’s doorstep. On the contrary, Henrietta knew several with speed dial who would gladly report the slightest hint of animal abuse.

She frowned at the insinuation of less than stellar animal care at her feet.

Could this reflect badly on her, perhaps? Had she left some antifungal spray, insect killer, or some other ugly reminder of nature’s imperfect reality in a place where this critter inadvertently killed itself upon her carelessness?

Sheesh! One faced deadly peril at every turn these days.

A neighbor’s door opened and a head poked out.

Henrietta stepped in front of the circumstantial evidence and mumbled to herself. “Oh, blast, Lindsey Jenkins. Good Lord, I’ll be hauled before the county judge and sentenced to twenty hours of community service if this gets out.”

Lindsey, without delay, skittered across her neatly manicured yard, practically leaped over the prickly bush border, and with wringing hands prostrated her forlorn figure before her bewildered neighbor.

Considering that Lindsey was nearer seventy than sixty and usually worked her mouth more than her legs, Henrietta was duly impressed. She dragged her eyes off the thorny hedgerow and interrogated her elder neighbor with her eyes.

Lindsey, clearly in a hurry to immortalize herself in some kind of unforgettable apology, gushed her words. “Henny, so sorry about the cat carcass, but I really had no choice.”

In her attempt to draw her neighbor away from prying eyes, Henrietta tripped over the cat.

Lindsey clasped her friend’s arm and with surprising strength, ushered Henrietta inside the pristine abode.

Once safely ensconced on the beautifully embroidered divan, Henrietta, forgoing common decency, waited for the tale to be told before she offered a morning snack. She arched her brows.

Leaning back with one hand slapped against her cheek like a surprised matron finding the cook and the butler in a compromising position, Lindsey inhaled enough breath to begin. “You see, my grandkids simply adore my cat. Or rather, they adored it. Until it died. When I told their mother, my daughter-in-law, Myrtle, who was bringing the kids over for their usual visit today, that Cleopatra had finally succumbed to old age, she insisted that I tell the children before they arrived.”

Henrietta could not for the world imagine where this was going. Despite herself, she felt intrigued. The morning news could wait. Heck, if the world were on the verge of collapse, she would lift a hand in command that it wait a few moments so she could hear this before falling to its inevitable doom.

Henrietta didn’t need to prod. Lindsey knew what was expected. “And so, I did what any decent grandmother would do. I told a wonderful tale of how Cleo sprouted angel wings at the moment of death and flew off to her celestial reward.”

If someone had actually dropped a bar of hot lead in Henrietta’s lap, she would not have been more surprised. She shouldn’t have been so amazed. But that was the way of things. Being caught off guard by the obvious. They all lived in a fantasyland of sorts. She knew that perfectly well every time she steered her tiny car onto the speeding highway. But this? Angel cats with wings? Ascending into heaven? No wonder children dress up as zombies for fun. Why pretend anything makes sense?

Lindsey shook her head as if in sympathy with Henrietta’s perplexed expression. “When I heard the car drive up…and with Cleo still unburied…I knew I had to do something fast. I had no idea they were in the neighborhood when she called. I couldn’t think what to do!”

Henrietta grunted to her feet and strolled to the front door. She peered through the glass. Ah, yes. The prickly hedge hid the offending lie. She turned and faced her devious neighbor. “And now?”

With a swipe across her brow, Lindsey chuckled. “Well, the kids have gone off with their mama, and I’m in the clear. I told Jake to get the cat as soon as he gets a break and bury it out back somewhere. Maybe under that sugar maple we all love. It’d be fitting. And well out of the way.”

Remembering her manners, Henrietta offered a cup of tea and a little something, but Lindsey supposed that she better get home. She stood on the threshold and stared down at the remains of her once-loved pet. “I know I told a ridiculous tale and made a fool of myself trying to keep the kids in ignorance of the hard facts of life. But,” She glanced Henrietta’s way, a hopeful gleam in her eyes. “You’d do the same for your grandkids, wouldn’t you?”

As Jake scooped the stiff body onto a wheelbarrow and then wobbled it toward his backyard, Henrietta considered Lindsey’s question. “Would I?”

 

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

Eternity Come to Earth

Frying chicken has its hazards. Tom stood back and considered the state of his kitchen. Flour covered the counter, grease specked the stovetop, blood dripped down the side of the sink, and the smoke alarm was blaring.

His eldest daughter, Katie, jogged forward, snatched a towel off the drainer and started waving it under the alarm. She glanced back at her dad. “You could take the fryer off.”

Tom sighed, dropped the last piece of chicken onto the serving dish and pulled the smoking fryer off the hotspot on the stove. He looked around as three more kids sauntered into the kitchen. He waved to the youngest. “Set the table, would you, Meg?”

Rolling her eyes and slouching her shoulders as if she had been asked to drain a swamp, Megan lumbered over to the cabinet and started piling plates into her arms.

Without comment, her older sister Martha placed knives and forks at each place with surgical precision.

Joey leaned against the wall. “I’ll be helping at the Lawson’s after school this week. So if you need something, you’ll have to tell Carl.”

Tom shut out the image of a stack of wood that needed to be split and his eleven-year-old’s last attempt to wield an ax. He frowned. “Where is Carl?”

“Out in the woods…as usual.” Meg simpered. “He wants to be a Nordic invader.”

Katie grinned as she sliced a warm loaf of homemade bread. “Don’t be silly. He wants to be an explorer…travel to distant lands and—”

Martha placed her hands on her hips, her brows drawn down in severe lines. “He needs to get practical. Joey found a good job…Carl could do the same. If he tried.”

“Like you work so hard!” Megan threw up her hands and blew a strand of hair away from her face.

Rubbing his temple, Tom slid onto his chair and dropped his head onto his hands. “Guys. No quarreling. You know how it makes me feel.”

Dead silence filled the room.

Tom felt Katie’s firm hand on his shoulder. “You’ve been working hard, Dad. Eat some dinner, and we can clear up.”

Fighting back tears, Tom waited a moment to gain his composure. Breathing through a quick prayer, Tom lifted his head at the sound of footsteps running into the room.

“Sorry, I forgot the time. Is that fried chicken?” Carl’s face lit up in boyish joy.

Tom waved to the sink. “Wash your hands first.”

As the chicken, mashed potatoes, a green salad, and canned slices of peaches were laid on the table and just as quickly consumed, Tom toyed with his food. He knew he needed to drop a bomb, but he wasn’t sure how to do it.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Uh, kids, I’ve got something to tell you.”

All heads rose and five pairs of eyes focused on their father.

“I’ve decided to put the house up for sale. We’re going to move to Wisconsin to be closer to Grandma and Grandpa.”

Silence.

“I know you love this place, but—”

Katie stood up. “You can’t, Dad!” Tears filled his eldest daughter’s eyes.
“It was bad enough the younger ones don’t get to grow up with a mom, but you want to take them away from the only home they’ve ever known. How could you?” She flung herself out of the kitchen while every gaze dropped to the floor.

Tom’s stomach churned. The chicken he had forced down seemed to flutter about as if it was still alive. He exhaled a long breath and reviewed the rest of his despondent clan.

Martha wiped her hands with her napkin and pushed away from the table. “It’s gonna be hard, but I think you’re acting sensibly, Dad. We can’t take care of this place, and besides, there are better high schools up there. We’ll have grandma and papa to help so you can go to work without worrying all the time…”

As his second child began to clear the dishes, Joey silently stood and started for the door.

Tom cleared his throat. “Nothing from you, then?”

Joey shrugged. “I like helping out at the farm, but Wisconsin has farms too. And the city has… things.”

Tom felt tears flood his eyes again. “Like what?”

“Museums…a zoo.” He glanced at his little brother. “As long as we can get to nature once in a while…see some animals…it won’t be so bad.” He bunched his hands into his pockets and opened the door. “I’m going out.”

Tom nodded and watched his eldest boy lumber across the threshold. His gaze shifted to his two youngest. Carl sat slump-shouldered and unmoving. Meg peered up and met his gaze, her eyebrows raised.

“You have a question, Meg?”

“Are you going to get a new job?”

“Kind of. I’ll still do the same work, but there’s a new opening at the branch in Madison. You’ll get to be around more of the family. Lots of kids on the Leonard side…”

Meg slid from her seat and stopped before her father, pressing her body against his knees. “It’s okay, dad. I get it. Joey had to find another home for Molly cat last year.”

A laugh strangled his cry, as Tom hugged his daughter. Brushing her hair away, he stared into her deep-set blue eyes. “I love you.”

Meg grinned. “Yeah. Me too. I mean, love you, too, dad.”

Martha beckoned her little sister. “Come here, twerp, and help me do the dishes.”

Her grin widening, Meg tugged a towel off the rack. “I’ll beat you to the last dish.”

Martha shook her head. “I’ll wash; you dry. Then I’ll put them away. But tomorrow, you gotta set the table for breakfast.”

Meg stuck out her hand to seal the deal.

Tom leaned back on his chair, the heavy rock of depression lifting ever so slightly from his chest. He eyed his second son. “You okay, Carl.”

Carl shrugged.

Tom leaned on his elbows and clasped his hands. “Joey is right. There is a great zoo in the city. We went there once when you were small. You probably don’t remember—”

Carl fixed his gaze on the floor.

Katie stepped into the room, opened the closet and pulled out the broom. She started sweeping.

Tom watched and waited. He bit his lip. He started to open his mouth, but he could hear his wife’s voice in his mind. “Give ‘em time, Tom. Big changes are made of small moments.”

As he stood, he pressed Carl’s shoulder. “Let me know…when you want to talk about it…questions…anything.”

Tom stepped from the kitchen into the lamp-lit living room and peered through the front window into the evening horizon. Joey stood against a setting sun, his body outlined in crimson.

Loneliness engulfed Tom, though he wasn’t really alone. Catherine lingered in his mind and soul, and his kids tugged at every sinew in his body. Still, he had to make the hard call, the necessary decisions. He was the dad. God’s appointed to protect and provide for his family.

He felt Katie stop beside him, her broom in her hand. She shuffled her feet. “Sorry.”

“It’s hard. I know.”

Katie gripped her broom like a soldier about to enter the battlefield. “Go on…get Carl and walk that invisible line between day and night. Mom used to say that it was Eternity come to Earth.”

Tom opened the front door, felt a surge of fresh air enter his lungs. He called into the kitchen. “Come on, Carl. There’s wood to stack, and tomorrow you’re going to help me chop the rest of the pile.”

Carl stepped forward, blinking and hesitant. “You sure?”

“Yep. Let’s do what we can tonight. Tomorrow will be here soon enough.”

 

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

It Makes All the Difference

As far as I was concerned, the whole world was on a fast train headed for destruction, and I didn’t want to watch. Humanity might party on the way, but the crash wouldn’t be pretty. It would be painful. Very painful. I couldn’t think about it.

So I did the next best thing. I invited myself over to my sister’s place in the country. She has one of those mini-farms with cute domesticated animals, a huge garden, fruit trees, and a stack of firewood big enough to make Paul Bunyan envious. And, yes, they and their assorted young’uns eat bacon, eggs, and pancakes with homemade maple syrup every Saturday morning.

I got there on Friday night, just to be on the safe side.

Right off the bat, Leslie laughed at me.

I carried a cup of herbal tea to the counter, pulled up a wooden stool, and harrumphed. “Hey, I’m being serious. The planet is being poisoned beyond repair… we’ll likely nuke ourselves soon…and then aliens will decipher one of our stupid transmissions and figure that we really ought to be decimated just to end the drama.”

With complete indifference to my dismal prognostications, Leslie sloshed her hands into a sink of dirty dishes, steaming water, and soapy bubbles. “You need to lighten up. Tonight you can bunk with the girls; they don’t snore much. In the morning, we’ll all eat a healthy breakfast and then, while I brandish a chair and whip to keep the kids from following, you can take a long rambling walk in the woods. After that, I’ll put you to work helping me clean the basement, we’ll play a rousing soccer game, afterward, go to Mass, and by the evening, Jasper will join us for a family-feud Ping-Pong tournament. By Sunday, you’ll be a new person.”

Heck, I thought, by Sunday it won’t matter where the world is heading, I’ll be dead.

~~~

True to her word, the girls didn’t snore. Much. With carefully placed pillows smashed against my skull, I managed to fall into a deep sleep in the wee hours of the morning. When Leslie clanged the outdoor bell calling her screaming kids and a much too happy husband to the breakfast table, I managed to stumble down the stairs with a modicum of composure. The fact that I felt like road kill didn’t appear to dampen anyone’s spirits.

But a glorious breakfast and a strong cup of coffee worked a miracle. For the first time in days, I actually felt glad to be a human. With Jasper’s assistance, Leslie managed to hold the kids back while I made my escape, and I practically skipped across the cow pasture, carefully sidestepping unmentionables, into the woods. A fun fantasy escape just for me.

Except it wasn’t.

Deer inhabited the woods and terrorized my thumping heart into regions it did not honestly belong. Stupid deer. Who knew such innocent creatures could look so darn ferocious up close and personal?

Brandishing my water bottle, I backed up toward the old Tobin place and decided to investigate the ancient ruins dating back at least…well…fifty years. It was a squirrel that ruined everything. That little scoundrel scurried into a hidey-hole by the back entrance, enticing me to follow when I suddenly felt my footing give way.

After I found myself flat on my back at the bottom of a muddy, brick lined, thank God not-full well, I said words I’m glad my nieces and nephews weren’t around to hear. Then I tried to sit up and found that I couldn’t. I tried to breathe instead.

That accomplished, I felt a tiny bit better. But I was still on my back at the bottom of a well, far from human habitation. Even if I could yell, no one was around to hear me. Well, I figured, no use straining myself. Just lie still and wait for someone to rescue me.

Did I mention I was feeling a little depressed before I fell down the well?

By the time the sun set, I was suicidal. And really hungry.

As the stars flickered on one by one, (I knew they don’t actually flicker on…but I was practically hallucinating at that point, so I wasn’t picky on the details) I wiped what I was certain would be my last tears off my face. I discovered that if I tilted my head just so, I could see more stars than I had ever seen in my life. The Big Dipper shone in splendor and since I’d never been one to stop and stargaze, I was rather amazed it actually existed. I’d heard of it, of course, but I’d never stopped to actually see it—outside of the kids’ picture book anyway. It took my breath away.

At that moment, I was glad I had breath to take away.

Then something ran across my hand. I shrieked and sat up. I’m sure I surprised whatever it was that scurried into the blackness. But even more, I amazed myself. I had been convinced that I was broken beyond repair.

Apparently not.

Did you know that stars actually move? That the sky turns? That you can see the universe from the bottom of a well?

When I heard voices calling my name, I winced. Part of me was ready to kiss the first person that pulled me out of the hole. But part of me felt a pang of regret. It was like I had made friends with some unseen universal force that sat with me, glimmered and danced before my eyes, silent yet speaking of wonders I could barely grasp.

Turned out it was a nice fireman who helped me out of the hole. And, yes, I did kiss him. On the cheek.

My sister hugged me so tight; I knew that if I hadn’t broken a rib in the fall, I broke one then. But I didn’t care. I was alive. I could breathe. And I had seen the stars for the first time in my life.

As I now stand on my apartment balcony, remembering snoring kids, bacon and egg breakfasts, rambling woods, and scary deer, I can’t help but stare up at the faint night sky. I can’t see the stars like I did at my sisters’ place. But I know they are there.

And it makes all the difference.

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

Die Hard Optimism

Agnes couldn’t decide which skirt to wear. Not that there was much of a selection. Her choices consisted of a black skirt reserved for funerals and formal church events, an autumn floral thing that she always tripped over because it was a hand-me-down from her sister who was a good three inches taller than her, a severe grey pencil skirt, which made her look like a desperate job applicant or a green knee-length accordion skirt that made her feel like she was back at St. Robert’s grade school.

She sighed and wondered if her daring pair of form-fitting black slacks would work. Not that she had ever actually worn them. She bought them in the hopes of one day needing them. Could this possibly be their call to duty?

She plopped down on the bed and let the weak rays of a February sun pour over her. “Good heaven. I’m agonizing over nothing. No one will notice what I’m wearing. They’ll only notice me if I trip the waiter and spill everyone’s drinks.” She shuddered at the thought.

A plaintive cry turned her attention.

“Come in honey.”

Lenora, her six-year-old daughter, wandered in, looking very much like a rumpled, exhausted princess. She had the tiara to prove her identity and the unsteadiness of a child woken from a sound sleep.

Agnes wiggled her fingers. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Her brightly speckled costume, a gift from Grandma last Halloween, sashayed and shoo-shooshed as she toddled over. She crawled up on the bed and curled into her mom’s arms.

Agnes ran her fingers through her daughter’s unruly tangles. “I’m going out for a bit, sweetie, and Grandma is coming by. She’s bringing pizza. Rumor has it that it might be pepperoni…”

Lenora hunched her shoulders as if she’d never heard of pizza and couldn’t care less if the whole world turned into a pepperoni.

With the sensation of a knife plunged in her chest, Agnes rolled off the bed, yanked open her dresser, pulled out her back slacks and a silky button-down blouse that rippled over her hips, and marched to the bathroom. “You know, I’m not the bad guy here.”

When she peered at the reflection in the mirror, she had to admit, she wasn’t the bad guy or a bad woman for that matter, though age had taken its toll. She wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. A hen? She turned from the mirror; best not to think about it.

By the time Grandma Mimi hustled through the front door and hung her coat on the rack, Agnes had Lenora bathed and in her best PJs.

Mimi practically swallowed the child alive in a one-arm hug and handed a frozen pizza to Agnes. “Take the wrapping off and don’t forget the cardboard. Oven at 400.”

With a half-satirical salute, Agnes marched into the kitchen.

Mimi followed.

Agnes could feel her mom’s eyes boring into her back. “Okay. What?” She turned around and ran her fingers over her slacks as if she could iron them by hand.

“Nothing. Much. Just wondering why you’re going to a work-related fundraiser dressed like a woman…”

Agnes felt the heat rise through the roots of her hair. “Because I am a woman, maybe?”

“Your husband isn’t dead. He’s just missing in action.”

“If only!”

“You know what I mean.”

“Mom, you know he’s not coming back. I know he’s not coming back. That’s all there is to it.”

“But not all there is to you, apparently.”

“What’s so wrong?”

Lenora tiptoed into the room with her hands clasped above her head twirling like a ballerina.

Agnes clenched her jaw and closed her eyes against tears.

Mimi led Lenora out of the room with cooing encouragement and pulled a small box out of a large pocket. “I brought a puzzle we can put together if you open it up and lay out the pieces on the coffee table. Okay, Sweetums?”

Agnes felt her mom’s firm hand on her shoulder. Then a gentle squeeze. “You’re a strong woman, Agnes. I’ve never thought otherwise. But I know how it is. You get lonely…and it takes more than a woman can stand to be both mother and father every day…day after day.”

Agnes blinked back her tears and focused on the kitchen table. Mismatched socks still lined the edge. She scooped them into a bundle and dropped them on the counter. “I didn’t think these slacks were such a big deal. I just wanted to look…”

Mimi set the oven timer. “I know. But you’re still married. At least in the eyes of the church. If you want to change that…”

“There’s always the chance—”

“Is there?”

“I’m caught between worlds, Mom. Stuck. Never really married and never really free. I can’t move forward. Or back for that matter.”

Mimi rummaged through the refrigerator. “You got any salad fixings? A side dish would go well with the pizza.”

Agnes pursed her lips, leaned in, yanked open the crisper, and pulled out a bag of lettuce and a soft tomato. “Good luck getting her to eat anything healthy. She’d rather die of the plague.”

With quick efficient motions, Mimi tore up the lettuce and diced the tomato. She kept her eyes on her work.

Agnes got the message, sighed, and retreated to change her clothes.

~~~

It was late by the time Agnes stepped into her living room. The lights were dim and her mom was sleeping on the couch with an afghan thrown over her legs. The same afghan Mimi had given her on her wedding day. The irony struck her as funny, and she giggled. The one beer she sipped through the evening might have helped.

Mimi sat up and rubbed her eyes. “You’re home safe. And giggling?”

“Yep. Safe and sound.”

Mimi patted the couch next to her. “Tell me about it.”

Agnes tucked the green skirt under, as she plunked down next to her mom. “Well, I had an epiphany as I sat at the gloriously set table and listened to people’s conversations. One woman bullied her husband mercilessly about not getting their garage cleaned out, while another couple sat in stony silence. Then there was this kid who kept screaming at his dad, saying that he wanted to go home and watch a movie and eat real food. One girl sat pathetically by the wall, her eyes searching for someone, while a crowd circled around a handsome bearded guy like he was the greatest thing since the invention of the iPhone.”

“Sounds like a dull crowd.”

“Average. That’s what struck me.”

“That people are average?”

“That even at an expensive club, wearing the best clothes, eating sumptuous food, drinking whatever, and all for a noble cause…most of us poor human beings weren’t happy.”

“Grim observation.”

“Yeah. But freeing too. I get it now…better than before. Jim’s abandonment nearly killed me, and deep down I know that he’s not coming back. I have to accept it. We’ve got more cause for an annulment than most…neither of us had a clue what marriage meant…and we were drunk on dreams. But most of all, I see now that my life is what I make of it…right now. Today. What’s before me. You know, even when God—Creator of the Universe—lived on Earth, we weren’t happy. If He couldn’t make us happy…”

“So you aren’t striving to be happy anymore?”

“Nope. I’ve decided to reach a little higher…go for contentment.”

Mimi stretched and pulled herself to her feet. “Well, tell me about the view when you get there. Right now I need to find my bed collapse. I’m leading three junior high classes through the museum tomorrow. If the effort doesn’t destroy the rest of my brain cells…I’ll be delighted.”

Agnes stood and hugged her mom. “I knew I got it from somewhere.” She stepped to the front door and handed her a floral-patterned jacket from the rack. “Be careful on the way.”

“I only live down the street.” Dressed in her winter best, Mimi opened the door, shivered, and stepped over the threshold. Her eyebrows puckered as she glanced back. “Got what?”

“My die-hard optimism.” After shutting the door, Agnes smiled and climbed the steps to bed, her green skirt rippling over her bare knees.

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

Leopold

“If ever you go to the North Country

Where the oak and the ash and the rowan be,

And the ivy bosses the castle wall

You must go to Edenhall…

Miranda wrapped her arms around her middle and traipsed through the winter woods, tugging her coat tight, her gaze meandering. Not that there was much to see. Snow dusted the trees and covered the leaf-strewn ground. Barren. Empty. Aloneness personified in foliage.

A bird called. What was it saying? She could almost make out the tune, but it was too distant. A raucous crow rose, cawing, and flapped away.

She trudged back to the bright-lit home she shared with her cousin, Edna, and her husband and their kids. Turning at the door, she stared at the scene. The glorious woods silhouetted black against the white evening sky stabbed her heart.

The after-dinner routine, raucous as usual, soon settled into an evening of books and board games. Miranda knitted, sitting on her chair by the lamp and watched Edna settle with the baby in her lap and the toddler tucked under her arm. She balanced an illustrated bedtime story between them. Joe played Memory with the older two boys and groaned grandly every time they made a match.

By the time everyone marched up to bed, Joe stretched and yawned, saying that he’d hit the hay early since he had to get up before dawn the next morning. Edna switched off the lights, shut down the computer on her work desk, and started after him.

Miranda continued to knit.

Edna stopped and glanced back. She frowned.

Miranda heard her cousin’s footsteps draw near, but she didn’t look up. She didn’t have the heart to.

Edna’s shadow slanted over the knitting.

Miranda sighed and let the half-finished blanket fall flat on her lap.

“Something wrong, Miranda?”

Willing herself to face her cousin, Miranda shoved all pain aside and peered up. “Nothing’s wrong. How could it be? I have a perfect life.”

Edna tugged a footstool over and plunked down. “Normally, I’d agree. But something feels…wrong.” She perched her head on her hand. “You know, I always envied you.”

Miranda snorted. “Good Lord, what for?”

“You traveled…saw the world. You were a useful human being. Nursing the sick all over…helping surgeons. Teaching. Advising.” Edna sat up and spread her hands wide. “Why, you were a regular modern hero. None the like I ever met before in real life.”

Miranda picked up her knitting and squinted in the dim light. “The operative word there is ‘were.’ I was all those things.” She shrugged. “Now I’m just an old lady knitting in a corner and walking through the woods to while away my empty days.”

Edna slapped her hand on the edge of the footstool. “Not so! You help with the kids and keep me from madness. I consider that a worthy endeavor.”

A momentary squabble on the second floor filtered down but was soon checked by Joe’s command to ‘settle down—or else.’

Edna narrowed her eyes. “Besides, you’re not exactly old. Not by today’s standards. Still in your fifties. You’ve got years ahead of you.”

“Sixties looms ever nearer, and the years ahead look pretty desolate to me.” She adjusted her glasses. “Listen, you and I know perfectly well that the nursing profession slipped away while I took care of Jack, and my boy lives in Singapore. Not exactly around the corner. Today the world is connected in ways I can hardly fathom. I don’t recognize half the things your kids say. I’m what they call ‘out of the loop.’” She shook her head. “My glory days are quite gone.”

Edna clasped her hands and rose from the footstool. She paced across the room and then turned and faced her cousin. “Those days—yes—I agree. They’re quite gone. But—”

“I’m too tired to go back to school and start over, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Not school necessarily. But change…a trade…a skill…a new environment.” Edna marched forward, her hands on her hips. “Don’t you see? It’s all in how you look at your life—forever ending or forever beginning. You decide.”

~~~

The next day dawned bright and clear. Cold swept in from the north, but Miranda wasn’t one to be detained by the threat of frostbite. She knew how to dress warmly.

After the older kids were off to school, Edna settled the little ones down with activities and started in on her daily online routine.

Miranda bustled out the door with a quick nod to the perfect order of the little corner of her world and braced herself for the cold. But she didn’t feel it. She hurried into the woods, her gloved hands sunk deep into her heavy coat pockets.

A bird landed on a branch before her and started in its usual song. Leopold…Leopold…tweet, tweet, tweet…

Miranda frowned and knocked a bit of snow off a tree trunk. “Stupid bird. Always calling to your Leopold, but he never answers, does he?” She stumbled forward, fury building little an interior steam kettle.

The bird hopped along, calling the same plaintive song. “Leopold…Leopold…”

Her nerves strained to the breaking point, Miranda turned and screamed. “Stupid idiot. Stop waiting for Leopold!” She shook her fist at the snow-speckled trees. “Go make a nest and do your own thing…live your own life. Don’t ask for no—”

A choking sob welled up from Miranda’s middle and tears burned her eyes. She wiped them away, brushing snow across her glasses. “Dang it!” Nearly blinded, she plucked her glasses off her face and carefully paced her way to a fallen log. She plunked down, not caring that she’d wet her clothes through to the skin.

Taking off her gloves, she pulled a tissue out of a pocket and wiped her glasses dry.

The bird drew near one again. “Leopold…Leopold…tweet…tweet…tweet…”

Miranda blinked as she watched the little bird hop before her. “Oh, God.” She held out her hand. The bird hopped close, then proceeded to peck at the tree bark, intent, and perhaps content, with something besides Leopold.

A thrill rushed through Miranda. “Could it be?” She laid her hand open.

The bird lifted its beady eyes and stared at her. It hopped nearer, almost touching her hand.

“Good Lord. Am I—Leopold?”

~~~

Later that evening when Edna returned from taking all the kids to their dentist’s appointments, she stopped dead in her tracks.

The boys finished divesting themselves from their winter coats and then set to work on helping the little ones.

Edna swallowed and entered the warm, yeasty smelling kitchen following the sound a happy tune. She stared at her cousin.

Slicing into a hot loaf of homemade wheat bread, Miranda called to the kids. “Snacks are ready and on the table in five minutes, boys. Be sure to wash your hands.” She glanced at Edna. “I’ve made enough to go with supper; don’t worry. I also made a nice hot stew for everyone.”

Edna shook her head. “You’re feeling better, then?”

Miranda stopped and met her cousin’s gaze. “Yes…and no. I just have to find myself again. Not easy. But the first task is always the hardest.”

Edna crept into the room. “What’s that?”

“You got to figure out where you are.” She drew a dish of butter near and laid a knife beside it. “And go from there.”

Tears welled in Edna’s eyes. “I’m glad.” She surveyed the brown bread and sucked in a deep breath. “My, but that looks good!” She perched on a stool and slathered a piece with a healthy dollop of butter. “What was that tune I heard you humming when I came in?”

Miranda blushed. “Oh, it wasn’t anything…just a birdsong you sometimes hear in the woods. “Leopold…Leopold…I’m here, I’m here.”

…But do our best and our most each day,

With a heart resolved and a temper gay,

         Which pleasure spoils not, not frights appall—

Though we never see Edenhall—

~Edenhall~

by

Susan Coolidge

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