With or Without the Pits

Eugene closed the oven door and faced his wife. “I hope I got all the pits out, or the boys will break their teeth on my cherry tarts.”

Samantha didn’t smile.

It was pouring rain and though the weather forecaster hadn’t suggested building an ark, her longed-for vacation at the lake seemed like a fading vision. A swampy muck of floodwaters hardly encouraged suntan-by-the-shore-eat-drink-and-dance-dreams.

With his hands on her shoulders, Eugene tried for a half-caress-half-shake. “I was only kidding. No deep metaphor of the state of the universe.”

Like a rusty robot, Samantha rotated to the French doors off the kitchen. The hanging plants sparkled with raindrops while a pair of red slippers she’d left by her favorite chair appeared as droopy as her spirits. “Summer will end, and I’ll be as exhausted as ever.”

Eugene didn’t know what to say. Cherry tarts seemed inconsequential. Like war humor—it just wouldn’t work as planned. Some things weren’t funny.

Devon, their six-foot-three and two hundred pound son, loomed into the room. His shadow entered first. He stopped, glanced from one parent to the next, and then shuffled his feet—indecision warring with better judgment. “Hey, just to let you know, I got the job. They want me to start next week. So—”

Though his heart soared with pride, Eugene’s stomach plummeted. Not for a minute could he glance at his wife and deal with her emotional mash-up. No, he’d go it alone. He threw his arms wide and embarrassed the hell out of his eldest with the tightest bear hug he’d given since Devon fell out of the treehouse at four and managed to walk away unscathed.

Doing a darn good impression of a startled linebacker with no ball in sight, Devon let himself be hugged. Then he hugged back.

Samantha stayed on the sidelines. Silent. Stoic. It took a full two and a half minutes before her composure crumbled, and she charged into the hug. Her muffled, “I can’t believe you’ll be leaving us…I’m so proud, but I can’t believe…” reverberated against the men’s You-Know-What-I-Mean eye lock.

Eugene pulled back and sniffed, fear reverberating through his body. “The tarts!” A quick U-turn.

Samantha tossed him the oven mitts.

Their youngest son, Kris sauntered in with the grace of a gangling teen that has outgrown every bit of his summer clothing. “Hey! You hear about Devon?” His gaze shifted from his mom to his brother. “I’ll get your room, right. It’s bigger than mine and besides, you can sleep on the couch if you ever come to visit.”

Samantha slapped her little boy’s arm and pooh-pooed the very idea. “Wait till he’s out of the house before any formal take over.” She leaned in and stage-whispered. “I have a whole house re-do that’ll cost a fortune, and I don’t want your dad to suffer cardiac arrest before I get a good contractor set up.”

Eugene waved a succulent, cherry popover before his wife’s face. “No goodies until you behave.”

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled over the celestial landscape.

Not to be held back by the threat of burned fingers or tongue, Kris attacked the hot cookie tray with the gusto of a starved rhinoceros.

Devon lowered his gaze.

Samantha accepted her husband’s offering and held it out to her eldest. “You first, Sweetie. The man of the hour.”

Eugene wrapped his arm around his wife and together they watched their sons partake of his latest culinary delight. He tipped his head, touching hers. “So the lake is out—but a cave tour would be pretty cool. Literally and figuratively.”

Samantha shrugged, her gaze wandering the room and out the door. Soothing drops fell in a steady rhythm while the fields and trees glowed, revitalized. “After we see Devon off…No hurry.”

While Eugene scrubbed the cookie trays, his wife chatted on the phone, spreading good news along the family gossip chain. A send-off party with matching luggage was in the works.

Once he slid the trays into place, Eugene eyed the last popover. He hadn’t even had one yet. He refilled his coffee cup, pulled out a chair, and plunked down for a well-earned respite. He took a bite. Wow! Better than he realized. He chewed and savored, and finally licked the last crumbs from his fingers. Not one pit.

With a sigh of contentment, he returned to the sink, washed his cup, and reset the coffee machine. He poured the spent grounds into the compost container and froze. There was Devon’s napkin with the red insignia of his new company—his mom had forgotten which job he had applied for. There, on the napkin, lay a cherry pit.

The silent accusation stared at him. He hadn’t gotten them all. Devon had never said a word. Eugene glanced at his wife. Did she know?

Samantha caught his gaze and frowned.

What should he do? Pretend it didn’t exist?

Samantha hung up and sauntered over. Wrapping her arm around her husband, she nuzzled his neck. “Say, how about we celebrate our successful launching of son number one into the world tonight?”

Eugene held up the cherry pit pinched in his fingers. “I missed one.” Blinking back ridiculous tears he fought the hammer blows pummeling his heart. “He could’ve broken his tooth and then—”

Samantha nudged her husband aside and practically sat in his lap, her arm still around his neck. “There are always cherry pits, honey. We’ll never get them all. Or stop rainy-day blues. Some things aren’t possible.”

Eugene nodded. She was right. But still, his heart ached. Damn cherry pit.

Footsteps approached, and Samantha practically fell on the floor in her haste to get on her feet. She stroked her husband’s cheek and then patted Devon’s arm as she headed out of the room.

Devon leaned in the kitchen doorway. “Hey, dad, before I go…just wondering…”

Eugene climbed to his feet and met his son’s bashful gaze. “Yeah?”

“Could you give me the recipe for your cherry tarts?”

Eugene smiled. He didn’t have to ask if his son wanted them with or without the pits.

They both knew.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/cherry-berry-spring-summer-garden-2363739/

I Don’t Have To See Christmas

“Ya know…you’ll never live to see the nuts ripen from that tree. Much less eat them.”

George grunted as he pressed the shovel deeper into the sod. He didn’t look up, but his grunt served a duel purpose. At eighty-three, it took every ounce of his strength to dig even a moderately deep hole. This one had to be large enough to bed a well-rooted sapling. The woody mate stood proudly to the side, evidence that George’s tenacity hadn’t dwindled with the years. He glanced aside. Had his guttural response made his point quite clear?

Randy sucked a hard candy and nodded. “You know what I mean, though.”

Stabbing the earth to create a soft landing, George turned the shovel every direction he could and broke up the larger clumps. Satisfied he motioned to the arboreal infant.

Obliging, Randy placed the root ball in the center of the hole. Together the two men shoved loose earth around the exposed plant. Randy lugged a twenty-pound bag of luxurious soil to the edge and using both hands, poured the rich blackness around the trunk, creating an even mound.

“That’ll do.” George sloshed a five-gallon bucket of water to the edge and tipped it near the base. The mound melted like sugar in tea.

Randy poured more dirt and sucked the last of his candy bits from his teeth. “You’re doing this for grandkids, then?”

A woman’s voice called from the doorway. “Dinner’s ready. You boys better hurry up or it’ll get cold. Janie’s going to stop by on her way to the bank and pick up that piece you want repaired. Better be washed up.”

Randy shook his head as he tossed the nearly empty dirt sack over his shoulder. “What’s the bank got to do with a well pump, I want to know. That woman just likes to run around town. All day and every day.”

The empty bucket banged against George’s knee as he walked. “The grass is always greener…”

As they entered the kitchen door, the smell of fried chicken, baked potatoes, boiled asparagus, and brownies smacked into them like the first day of summer vacation. Olfactory nerves did a happy dance.

Selma looked Randy up and down, apparently considering whether to send him back out the door or let him stay. “You get that last quarter done?”

“Sure. I just stopped by to see if—uh…”

Selma patted the tall man’s arm. “Well, you can eat and then help Janie put that pump part in her car.” She glanced at the laden table, ticking items off her fingers. “Oh, shoot, the butter!” She twirled and shot off, a heat-seeking missile after a new target.

Randy slipped into the nearest chair silent as a mouse sniffing the cat’s dinner dish.

A woman wearing a composition of pink jeans, a sky blue blouse with matching sandals, and jingling earrings, bounded into the room, pulled up short, and pressed her hand against her chest. “Thank God! I was afraid I’d find you all laid out on the floor.”

Sliding the butter dish beside a tall stack of bread, Selma eyed her cosmopolitan daughter. “We don’t usually eat on the floor, darling. Why’d we start now?”

George came in drying his hands on a towel. He worked his way around his DNA replica and dropped the towel in Randy’s lap.

Randy took the hint, slid out of chair, and headed for the tiny washroom off the kitchen door.

George plunked down at the head of the table and answered his wife’s question. “She heard that the economy is collapsing, our leaders are fools, there are twenty-three new ways to die, and—rumor has it—a comet is heading directly for earth.”

Randy poked his head out the washroom doorway, a confused frown running riot over his forehead. “Does that mean that the sky is falling—literally?”

With admonishing fingers, Selma waved the obscene consideration into oblivion. “This fried chicken won’t get any tastier just sitting here.”

“But, mom!” Janie’s hoops danced. “We have some really big problems to discuss—”

George clasped his hands and bowed his head. “They’ll wait till after dinner.”

Prayers said.

The meal commenced.

Selma was right.

The dinner could not have been tastier.

As he scooted his chair back, George peered from his wife to his daughter and finally landed on his nephew. “You asked if the nut trees are for the grandkids.” His gaze bounced off his daughter. “If we ever have any.”

Randy wiped his mouth, his eyes rolling upward, a clear attempt to retrieve his languid thoughts from the morning. “Yeah. Well…it’ll take a long time for those trees to mature, you know.”

Selma stopped; plates piled high on her left arm, her right swinging a dishcloth. “You planted them!” Her gaze softened, and she scurried to the window. Craning her neck, she smiled, unloaded the dishes, returned to her husband, and threw her arms around his neck. “You are the dearest man alive!”

Janie shook her head. “Like nut trees are going to any good. We’ll be lucky to see next Christmas the way things are going!”

In an act of open defiance, Randy tipped back his chair—normally a no-no. “To be honest…I don’t see the point either. Janie’s divorced and neither of us has kids…so who—”

“I don’t have to see Christmas to believe that someday, someone will enjoy those pecans.”

Selma wiped her sentimental, tear-filled eyes. “I told George I wanted him to show me that he loves me—in a new way.”

“What do pecans—?”

George chuckled. “She always loved those nuts. So when I proposed, I put a ring on the top of a pecan pie and gave it to her.”

Randy’s chair legs hit the ground, his eyes wide, taking in unrealized vistas of reality. “I never knew you had it in you—”

Janie straightened her shoulders and shot to her feet. “We’re just wasting time. I’d better get that pump part. At least I can do something useful.”

Randy took his cue, stood and bowed his gratitude to Selma. He pressed George’s shoulder as he followed his cousin out the door. “Never would’ve guessed.”

Selma sighed, reaching for her husband’s hand, her wedding ring glinting in the noonday sun as it poured through the kitchen window. “She doesn’t understand, does she?”

George stood and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Few do.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

It Takes Time

Marge wondered how it would feel to break her leg. Or arm. Or maybe just a finger. A toe? Would a hangnail suffice? Perhaps a bad headache. Some quality reason for staying in bed way past her usual wake up call.

She opened her eyes.

Oh yeah. Real-life. The world. Trial. Tribulation. Mistakes and Mayhem.

Sleep?

She dragged herself to the bathroom—washed her face and wondered if a bang on the head would induce amnesia. There was so much to forget.

“Hey, Mom?”

“Yep.”

“The coffee is ready, and there are rumors of breakfast.”

Saturday? Good glory. She sniffed. Sausage and eggs. Coffee. After wrestling out of her pajamas and into her day clothes, she snatched a look out the window. Blossoms filled the hedgerow. The apple trees were on a roll. Even the maples joined the fun, sending seedpods whirling through the air.

She sauntered into the warm kitchen while Jon and Kelly perched on stools at the counter, plates set. Food ready. Their fingers wrapped around coffee mugs from which swirls of hot steam unfolded like vaporous petals.

A glance at the crucifix. A breath of prayer. Lord, forgive us. We don’t know what we’re doing.

Kelly sloshed orange juice into her tall glass and took a sip. She smiled. “I wondered if you were ever going to get up.”

Jon shot his sister a warning glance.

Marge gratefully poured rich black coffee into her special mug. A birthday gift. Last year. An eon ago, it seemed. She leaned against the counter. “I just decided to take my time. Luxuriate in the reality of having nothing important to do.”

Jon shook his head.

Meg’s face imitated one of those Salvador Dali paintings, drooping like melting waxworks.

“You still have us.” Jon’s words barely broke the tension in the room.

She wanted to say—And you still have me. But for how long would that be true?

Her stomach clenched in tight knots, there was little hope of actually enjoying breakfast. But it would be cruel to refuse their offerings. Their kindness in making a good breakfast. She pulled her plate forward and sized up the fried egg, sausage, and toast as if they were enemies to conquer, rather than food to digest. Like a warrior, she nodded and set to battle.

With a great deal less drama, her children did much the same.

~~~

Once out in the garden, Marge found herself relaxing in the warm sun. The weeds had been kept in check, so there wasn’t much to do. But the border needed to be pulled back, especially around the potato hills. The cucumber vines had to be directed away from the tomatoes, or they’d break their fragile stems.

The padding of feet and huffing of breath made her sit on her haunches. She reached over to give Old Sheba a quick pat. She brushed against a pant leg and almost fell back in surprise.

A tall, lean, brown-haired boy stood aside, staring down at her. Sheba was indeed there, sitting next to him as if this stranger were a guest she planned to introduce. The boy didn’t say anything. Apparently, she was supposed to go first.

Marge stood and wiped her hands on her dusty jeans. “Hi, there.”

“Hi.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Mom said I could stop and see your garden. Ask you a question.”

Marge wasn’t surprised. She had learned long ago that everyone in these parts knew everyone else. She was an outsider. The ignorant one who’d be forever baffled by second cousins’ great-grandma, brother in-law’s nephew, and various blended families with stepchildren.

“A question?” She wiped imaginary sweat from her forehead. “You can ask. Don’t know if I’ll have the answer, though.”

He adjusted his glasses with the back of his hand and waved at the garden spread. “How’d you learn to do all this?” He shrugged. “Mom said that gardening skill is something you’re born with. She wasn’t lucky that way.”

After the fact, Marge realized just how rude her snort must’ve sounded. People loved to say, “It just comes naturally.” Ha! No siree-bob. Nothing natural about it. The boy was tall but too skinny. Poor thing. What was Unlucky Mom feeding this kid? White bread and canned beans?

“Look.” She held out her hands. Thick fingers, broken nails, a few calluses, and enough wrinkles to send any lotion company into fits, advertised her imperfections. “These are the hands I was born with—but they never touched the dirt till I was a grown woman. I couldn’t keep a house plant alive.”

The boy—Slender, she’d call him—patted the dog at his side, not so much to comfort the animal, probably hoping to find a little support.

“But—” He glanced around at the glorious green bean vines, perfect little corn shoots, blossoming potato hills, budding zucchini plants, the whole luxurious garden breaking through the earth and soaking in the sun.

Marge shrugged. “In truth, my kids do most of the work.”

“How’d they learn?”

“I taught ‘em what mistakes I made so they wouldn’t make the same ones. They studied books. Tried a new crop each year. Failed some. Succeeded some. Got better over time.”

The slender child blinked, tilting his head as he stared at her. “But we need a garden this year.”

Marge knew that. It weighed on her mind. Like so many things. “Who’s your mom, honey?”

“Grandma Gale’s youngest, Rosie. Holloway. My dad lives the next state over. Mom’s staying with Grandma now. They’ve got the land, just not much energy. She thought maybe you could teach me. And I could…” He looked away. Dispirited.

The image of her daughter’s melting smile squeezed her heart till it broke into uncountable pieces.

Shame flooded Marge’s whole body. How could she be so selfish? It pounded over her like a torrent. Her sluggish attitude. Dragging herself to the fine breakfast her kids set before her. And her gifts. The ones she could offer. If she tried.

She pressed her hands to her chest. No hope of putting the pieces back together, she’d just have to let them melt in one fiery furnace and forge something new. Perhaps something stronger than a human heart.

She couldn’t promise to live tomorrow. She couldn’t fix all the problems that faced her…or the world…or her neighbors. But she had to admit; she did have one or two answers.

“Well, I’m not the gardening expert of the family. Jon is. Kelly raises the meat birds—if you care to see.” She pointed to the chicken coop fenced in with wobbly green netting rescued from an abandoned farm up the road. “They’re mighty tasty on a warm summer evening or during a fierce winter storm.”

He grinned up at her. “Can’t you do anything?”

Now her best snort bellowed. “Well, of course, I can! Why I make the best bread this side of the moon, child.”

He squinted. Testing her. Could she prove that?

In answer to the unspoken challenge, she dropped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You just come inside, and I’ll give you a piece. With butter. Maybe I have a loaf I can let your mom try. If she’d be interested, I can send her the recipe.”

“She’s not very handy in the kitchen.”

“None of us are when we’re born. It takes time. To learn. Anything.”

“You think your son Jon might teach me about gardening?”

“Can’t imagine why not. He’s a reasonable fellow.”

“And I could learn about the meat birds, too?”

“If you’d like.” She nudged him along toward the house. “Come on in a moment. I’ll get you that piece of bread and scrounge up a son or daughter—and we’ll see what we can do.”

The boy trotted at her side, one hand patting the dog in joyful abandon. Old Sheba jumped about like a pup ready for the first romp she’d had in years. He stopped a moment, his face sobering. “Mom said I shouldn’t wear you out.”

“Son, I only wished you’d been there to roust me out of bed this morning.”

“You slept in late?”

“Almost slept my life away.” She pointed her face toward the kitchen. “Now, where’d I put that recipe book?”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Why Wait for Tomorrow?

Stella figured that—given the chance—she would definitely haunt her ex-husband. He needed a little something to make his life complete. And it might liven up her after-Earth experience. Sitting on a cloud all day must get rather dull.

Her daughter was trying on a new dress in the changing room. Something for a school dance next month. Not that Lindsey needed a new dress. She had plenty. But apparently, there was a new boy…

Stella sighed. The girl was only in high school. A senior. Okay. But still. She had her whole life in front of her. Why mess it up with a relationship she couldn’t possibly handle? It would just bring heartache in the end.

Maybe when she was thirty…six…or something. After working a few years in her chosen field, building up a nice nest egg, maybe buying a house, she could consider an eligible male for companionship. Have a family. Or get a poodle. Whatever.

Lindsey stepped out of the dressing room wearing something that looked like it was ripped off the set of Little House on the Prairie.

What on earth? Stella smirked. “Is it a costume party, honey?”

Lindsey didn’t laugh. Heck, she didn’t even smile. In fact, her beaming expression faded to sunset pink. “I—I kind of like the old-style.”

Stella strolled over to her daughter. She considered the flower-print, the long sleeves, long full skirt, tight bodice, high neckline, and frowned. The whole thing screamed “modest girl.”

Lindsey stepped in front of the long mirror, smiled tremulously, and twirled. Her smile widened. A happy light beamed from her eyes.

Stella stepped back and considered the whole package. Gosh, the girl was stunning. She would be beautiful in a straight jacket.

Stella choked. Why had that image come to mind? Because Joanna was insane, living out her last years in a home for the mentally unbalanced? Lindsey was nothing like Joanne.

“Mom? You okay?”

“Yeah. Honey. Just wondering…what your dad will think. He’s into the fashion model types.”

Lindsey shook her head, perplexity and annoyance rippling in waves over her features. “You want me to dress like one of dad’s girlfriends?”

“No! Of course not.” So why did I say that? Stella squared her shoulders. I just don’t want you to hightail it to the other extreme. There’s got to be something between bare all and cover all.” She marched to the dress aisle and started shoving unworthies down the rack.

“But, mom, I like this one. I like the flowers and the soft, comfortable texture. I don’t want to expose my behind or my breasts or worry that some guy will think I’m looking for action. I like me in this one.”

Stella swallowed. Hard. She dared not glance at her own plunging neckline or notice the fact that she could hardly cross her legs. Everyone wears…

Joanne’s battered face, her scarred wrists. Puncture marks in her arms sobbed while her voice merely babbled incoherencies. “Don’t. Like. Me!”

Stella refocused. “Your great-grandma would like it. Or maybe Uncle Peter.”

The guy married at twenty-seven, had five kids, two adopted, and volunteered for some men’s church organization. Had to give it to him though. Never missed a family function, served at every funeral dinner, and could chat about sports till her ex dropped under the table. He was even nice enough to drive the slob home on occasion.

“So can I get it?” A mischievous grin sparkled in Lindsey’s eyes. “You know, Great-grandma always said she’d watch over me. I think she’d tell you to let me get this dress.”

The brown-skinned, wizened face, and those startlingly beautiful blue eyes. The firm chin and no-nonsense demeanor. Though she could outshine the sun when she smiled. She loved Joanne so. Nearly broke her heart…

“Ma’am?”

Stella looked up.

The perfectly manicured clerk stood next to Lindsey. Concern scribbled all over her exhausted face. “Are you all right?” She stepped closer, one arm out as if to offer a helping hand. “You want me to call your husband…or someone?”

Stella shook her head, tearing the cobwebs away. Heck no. She was fine. Her ex was across town probably gearing up for a night on the town. “Checking out the old watering holes,” he’d say. And the women, she knew.

She pulled her purse around to her front and unzipped the top, pulled out her wallet and wiggled her credit card from the proper pocket. “Here, we’ll take it.” She glanced at Lindsey’s shocked but pleased expression. “You ought to be comfortable in your own clothes, honey.” And in your body. Your mind. Your soul…

After they got in the car, Lindsey laid her new dress in the back seat. Then she reached over and hugged her mom.

Stella blinked back tears.

~~~

As Stella dressed for bed, she grabbed her usual black nightie, flung it on her body, and then stared at the long bathroom mirror. She wasn’t a kid anymore. That much was obvious. But who was she? Whose was she?

A chime rang. She scurried to her bedside table and snatched up the phone.

Not a call. Just that stupid auto-reminder thing. Tomorrow’s Joanna’s birthday. Great-grandma used to bring a cake and balloons for every birthday. Always wore those horrid old polyester pants and faded button-down blouses. But her grin as she hugged Joanna was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Stella tiptoed down the hall. A light shone under Lindsey’s door. She knocked.

“Yeah?”

Stella opened the door and leaned in.

Lindsey sat in bed with her Kindle propped on her knees. She waited. Teen patience incarnate.

“Hey, honey. I was just thinking. How about you come with me to give Joanna a little birthday party tomorrow? We’ll buy a cake and some of those wild balloons she used to like.”

Straightening, Lindsey’s face lit up. “I’d love to! I’ll bring the family album. You know how she loves to see pictures of great-grandma.”

Stella paused and then leaped into the abyss. “Think we should invite your dad?”

Lindsey frowned. Confused.

“She is his sister after all.”

Lindsey tilted her head. “You know, I almost forgot that.” She nodded. “Yeah. He should come.” Her gaze wandered back to the page.

Satisfied, Stella blew her daughter a kiss. “Oh and wear your new dress.” Then she started back to her room, humming a tune…Why wait for tomorrow?

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

No Reasonable Cause

“What the hell just happened?” Joe knew his blood pressure had risen to dangerous heights, but there was no way he was going to back down. He had to have an explanation, even if there was no reasonable cause in sight.

“Well, sir…” The younger, slimmer man, somewhere in his twenties, rubbed his gloved hands together, probably attempting to maintain circulation in the biting January wind. He looked at the overpass. “Looks like some ice just flew off and smacked into your windshield.”

Joe returned his gaze to his minivan packed to the brim with his family, an insanely hyperactive dog, and two miniature palm trees his wife, in a spirit of well-I-can’t-just-say-no-now-can-I? had accepted from her grieving sister who was inundated with funeral plants after the untimely death of her husband in a railroad accident.

“I have a cousin who’ll come out and fix that windshield in a jiffy. He’s pretty close by, and his rates are reasonable.”

A throb jumped from Joe’s heart to his head. His wife looked like she had been turned to stone, and the dog, with his tongue hanging out, scrabbled at the back window like a deranged con artist trying to escape a long prison sentence.

Joe jogged forward, slid open the back door, and barked at his eldest son. “Cody, take him for a walk but don’t go too far.”

Slowly, one lanky jean-clad leg appeared, quickly followed by four shaggy doglegs, and then the rest of the desperate hound. The complete boy followed in due course. The boy stood on the roadside wide-eyed but calm. The dog, wild-eyed, lunged against the restraints of the synthetic blue leash.

The boy swept his gaze up and down the busy highway and then looked at his dad. “Where?”

Joe pointed to the metal rail dividing the opposite lanes of traffic. “Walk along that, but stay close. Don’t let Hunter go, or it’ll be the end of him.”

Joe ducked his head in through the open doorway and tapped the other two kids on their respective knees. “It’ll be okay, guys. No problems.”

His wife, Mary, sat stiff, facing forward, her shoulders rigid. The cracked windshield seemed to accent her solid form. He patted her shoulder and felt her collarbone. When did she get so thin? Joe spoke to the back of her head. “The guy outside said he knows someone who can fix the windshield, but it’s only broken on your side. I can see well enough to make it home.”

He wanted confirmation— “Yes, honey, that sounds good to me.” —would have been music to his ears. But she didn’t say anything. What? Like a big chunk of ice blowing off an overpass and smashing their windshield was his fault?

“It wasn’t my fault, you know.”

“We know, dad.” It was his middle kid, Taylor. She always took his part. Even when he didn’t deserve it. Like the time he forgot the roast in the oven, and Mary came home to a smoke-filled house with a cinder block for dinner. Taylor had insisted that it was roasting pan’s fault.

Mary had tossed both the blackened pan and the burned dinner in the trash and made peanut butter jelly sandwiches with tomato soup for dinner.

Joe considered her now. She didn’t need explanations, just the next step.

He, on the other hand, wanted to smack something. Or someone.

He looked back at the skinny guy still rubbing his hands together, closed the car door, and stepped over. “Look, I think we’ll be okay.” He felt for his keys in his pocket and then remembered that they were still in the ignition. “It’s not like the car is out of commission or anything. It just cracked the windshield. We’ll make it home. I’ll have our guy in town take care of it tomorrow.”

The skinny guy seemed disappointed. He really wanted to help? Or did he get paid for referrals? Joe scratched his head. “I appreciate your stopping to check on us.” He stuck out his hand.

Skinny guy glanced aside, blinked, and then clasped Joe’s hand. “No problem. My sister was in a car accident last month. She and her husband. Dead. Newlyweds, too.” He shrugged. “Some things can’t be explained. But people can help. Sometimes.” He bobbed his head and jogged back to his car. With a quick wave, he darted inside and drove off.

Hound and boy reentered the family minivan, and Joe, with a last surveying glance at the cracked windshield, threw himself into the driver’s seat.

Relief flooded his system as the car rumbled to life. He glanced in the rearview mirror, offered a brave smile to his kids and the relieved hound, waited for an opening, and then merged into the late afternoon traffic. He ignored his wife.

As the last rays of the sun faded, and he made the turn onto the lane leading home, Mary’s voice startled Joe out of his reverie. He glanced into the rearview mirror. The kids seemed to have fallen asleep. Even the dog was snoring.

“He was right.”

Joe slackened the pressure on the gas pedal and let the car coast the last bit to their driveway. “How’s that?”

“The guy who tried to help. He couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t explain why the ice fell on our car, why his sister was killed. Why Kelly’s husband died.”

Joe frowned. “He didn’t even know—”

Mary turned and faced him. Speared him with her gaze more like. “I have a point, here.”

Joe knew perfectly well that he wasn’t the sharpest blade in the cutlery drawer. His wife often sighed and merely shook her head when he missed some metaphysical point she was making. He needed to try to understand. He let the car come to a smooth stop in their driveway and squinted with intellectual concentration.

“You wanted to know what happened. Remember?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, we’ll never know exactly how the ice came to hit our car. But we do know that some decent guy tried to help us.”

Joe swallowed. “Yeah?”

“And perhaps that’s enough.”

For her, maybe. But he had every intention of starting an investigation of overpasses and the number of icicles that fell and hit passing cars. Still, if it worked for her… “If it makes you happy, honey.”

She shook her head and smiled as she unbuckled. “You may figure out how to stop icicles from falling from overpasses…but you won’t figure out why bad things happen.”

Joe flipped his seat buckle off his shoulder and glanced back at his kids waking from sleep. He chewed his lip and then leaned over and spoke in a soft undertone. “No. But my job is to keep my family safe. And your job—” he stepped out and pulled open the back door, moving aside for the dog’s explosion from the car.

Mary emerged from the passenger side and peered at her husband. Waiting.

“You make the best of the situation. No matter what.”

The kids straggled to the house. A tired yawn escaped the youngest as she leaned on Taylor. Cody chased the dog to the backyard.

Myriads of stars twinkled from a black sky. The frozen air tingled Joe’s fingers and nose. He exhaled a frosty breath as he met his wife in front of their minivan. He wrapped his arm around her waist. “You need to eat more. You’re getting thin.”

She snuggled into his shoulder. “I’ll make dinner tonight, and you can deal with the car—and underpasses—in the morning.”

Joe’s heart settled into a peaceful rhythm. “Makes sense to me, honey.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

And To Think

Stacy stared at the enrollment form and frowned at the first line. She hated her name. No imagination at all. Her parents might just as well have named her munchkin or kiddo.

Perched on the edge of an icy blue cafeteria chair, she sipped from a steaming cup of mud-colored cocoa. She had taken the entire afternoon off from work just so she could sign up for a night class that would inch her one step closer to getting her teaching degree. Not that she wasn’t already teaching. But only as an assistant. If she wanted the title and pay of a “real” teacher, she needed the certificate with her name on it.

Youngsters looking very much like loping trees bustled down the corridor, talking, shoving, laughing in the way that carefree youth usually do. Conflicts with the landlord, insurance issues, and a steamy romance gone haywire probably didn’t disturb their optimistic lives. Her mom, a couple of good friends, and a decent job didn’t a thrilling life make. She wished she were someone else with a better name. She tapped her purple pen, inscribed with a goofy cartoon character down one side, against her mini-notepad. Nothing new to write today.

She took another sip of cocoa, closed her eyes, and sighed.

Two chairs scraped on her right and an on-going conversation dominated the swirling sounds around her. Two trays plunked down on the table, plastic smacking plastic. A woman’s voice—excited, eager, and determined clawed at Stacy’s insides.

Don’t listen! Keep your mind on the cocoa!  She popped her eyes open, clutched the cup like a drowning victim gripping a lifeline and swallowed a burning gulp.

The woman rattled on mercilessly. “And so—I told my husband, ‘You’re so ignorant, and then I slammed the door in his face.’”

Stacy wondered if it would look odd if she pressed her hands against her ears and started rocking in place.

The other woman’s voice piped up, practically breathless. “And then?”

Stacy stared at her pen, focusing on the inane figure. A student had presented this gift as a token of her appreciation for Stacy’s effort to teach her long division using pictures and creative stories. She knew the child would probably be haunted by math for the rest of her life, but apparently, the kid appreciated sincere efforts. Stacy glanced aside, hoping the two women had evaporated.

The first woman clearly liked bright flowers for she wore an eye-catching blouse that would have put a landscape artist to shame. But unfortunately, her language was as loud as her clothes. “So, the idiot slept on the couch!”

A psychic warrior battling for peace of mind—jabbing at judgments, parrying insinuations, knocking off observations, and blasting conclusions could not have fought any harder. But never the less, a picture of a man’s sad, pathetic face as the door closed on him…and then his drooping figure trudging to a sagging couch and flopping down in a bundle of husbandry despair filler Stacy with red-eyed rage.

A little voice tried to reason with her. You don’t know these people, woman!

She whirled her gaze around the food court. Uncaring neon signs glared back: Asian Delights, Mexican Combos, All American Platters, and a Salad Bar.

Inhale. Exhale. Mind your own business!

Stacy slurped her cold cocoa and then mopped up the dribbles dotting the table.

The lively chatting continued though the voices dropped an octave.

New pictures formed in Stacy’s mind. A shoe sale, something about church services, and a trip to the airport with a secret admirer?

Enough! Stacy jumped to her feet, wondering if it was possible to have her imagination disconnected from her brain. She dumped her Styrofoam cup into the trashcan and headed for the door.

Once out in the late afternoon sunshine, she prompted her feet toward the football-field-sized parking lot. Her car was out there…somewhere.

A child’s scream turned her attention. With a hand blocking the slanting rays of the sun, she scanned the area. There, next to a table and bench on a grassy field, stood a lanky man wearing jeans and a black hoodie, gripping the arm of a young girl in a pink skirt and an oversized sweater. The child struggled to pull away.

Stacy’s heart constricted. She fumbled for her phone, but as her panic increased, she hustled toward the child faster than her fingers could unzip her purse. She halted before the pair, staring or glaring, she wasn’t sure.

The child glanced at Stacy, cut the scream dead, and slammed herself against the man, wrapping her arms around his middle and pressing her face into his stomach.

A burning blush tingled from Stacy’s face to the roots of her hair. She scratched her head and wavered.

The man waved as if conducting an orchestra. “She’s being dramatic. Like always, eh, honey bun?” He peered down at the child, and a grin played on his lips. “Not too happy that mama is taking a class, and you can’t be in on the action?”

“Oh.” Stacy hadn’t a clue what else to say.

The girl pulled away, propped her hands on her hips, tilted her head, and accused Stacy. “You’re a teacher here!”

Stacy lifted her hands in surrender. “Oh, no ma’am. I do help out a school, and I want to be a teacher someday. But right now, I’m just taking classes, like your mom.”

The child nodded in defeat. She leaned comfortably against the man. “Daddy? Can’t I at least draw something? It’s so boring out here.”

Now it was the man’s turn to flush. “Sorry, baby. I left your pencils at home.”

Stacy plunged her hand into her purse and pulled out her notepad and purple pen. “Here, kiddo, take these. You can draw pictures for your mama and give them to her when she comes out. I bet she’ll like that.”

The man tried to wave off the gifts, but the child took them with eager hands and a surprisingly charming grin.

Once she found her car and started the long drive home, Stacy glanced in the mirror and laughed. “Who’s the kiddo, eh?”

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

Hidden Under Irony

“I’ve lost my sense of humor and all reason to live.”

Sylvia closed her eyes and sighed. Lord in Heaven, if it is possible, let this cup pass… The shattering sound of crockery shocked her eyes open. She made a one-eighty and stared at a splintered flowerpot, spilled dirt, and a pathetic Dahlia sprawled like a wounded soldier on the floor. She glanced at her assistant dressed in a long flowered skirt, a light blue blouse, and lacy sandals, wincing at what she knew she would see.

Yep. Karen had one hand over her wavering lips as she blinked back tears. What a mess. Sylvia stepped forward with a raised hand. “You get the broom; I’ll save the bloom.”

Karen’s expression hardened, her eyes drying like a swimsuit under a hot desert sun. “You think that’s funny or something?”

Sylvia swallowed back a retort with a cleansing breath. “I had no intention of being funny, or even alluding to an alliteration…” Oops. What the heck? “I’m not trying to speak in rhymes today…” She paused, perched her hands on her hips, and stared at the woman fifteen years her junior. “Look, I know it’s been hard. Breaking up with your fiancé, the loss of your grandmother, the move to a new city…you’ve had a lot on your plate. Life is challenging. But you can’t let things get you down. You just gotta face the day and be strong—”

“I’m not an infant. I’m a grown woman.”

Keeping her face impassive, Sylvia nodded. “Yep. Got me there.”

A cat padded near and sniffed the dirt.

Scuttling forward, Sylvia shooed it away. “Don’t you dare track this mess all over my clean store.” She glanced up. “Get that broom, would you? I’ll repot the flower and put it in the south window. That way you won’t have to knock anything over when you water it.”

Karen retreated, taking her personal storm cloud with her.

With a shake of her head, Sylvia carried the limp plant to the back room, passing the classics section, the romance nook, and finally, the kids’ corner. Books of all shapes and sizes perched on shelves, sat on end tables, cluttered corners, sagged comfortable couches, tottered in towers, and even hugged the walls in uneven stacks.

She pulled a tall clay pot off a shelf and, with dexterous fingers, dug through the soft potting soil and laid the afflicted plant in its new home.

A familiar thrill swelled in her chest as she glanced around. Her crowning glory, this beautiful bookstore, thriving despite economic downturns and all the nay-sayers’ dire predictions. She hadn’t closed within a year…or even ten years.

After pouring a comforting stream of water over the buried roots, she cradled the pot in her arms and retraced her steps, quickly arriving at the south end of the store. Like a mother showing off her prodigy, she set the plant just so in the window seat between a first edition Harry Potter and the framed picture of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Next Monday, she would celebrate ten years as proprietor of the most successful bookstore in the city. Perhaps in the whole country. Any why? Because she—

“Excuse me?”

Sylvia peered down. There, standing before her, had to be the tiniest woman she had ever set eyes on. Considering her own Amazonian stature, this was something of a novelty. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Karen wiping the floor with a damp towel. She certainly had cleaned up the mess—gotta give the girl that.

“Are you busy?”

Sylvia shook herself. “No, of course, what can I do for you?”

“Well…” The tiny, well-dressed matron jutted her chin toward the old-fashioned teapot sitting on top of an antique dresser with an ornate mirror reflecting the glory of happy book buyers.

A round table dressed in lace and surrounded by plush chairs announced a comfortable corner for any book lover just needing a place to cozy up with his or her newest acquisition and a spot of tea. To the left, a no-nonsense black coffee maker stood at attention on a low table with a carafe of creamer, a dish stuffed with a variety of sweeteners, and a jar of luscious cookies, available at the reasonable donation of seventy-nine cents. The jar was stuffed full of one dollar bills. It was so much easier to drop in a bill than to dig through one’s wallet for the needed four pennies.

After settling the elderly matron in a chair with a warm cup of tea and a cookie, Sylvia waited. She clasped her hands on her knees, one eye following Karen, though she couldn’t help but be curious about this commanding little personage. Of course, old women were notoriously lonely, and they frequently begged a cup of tea and a moment’s “rest,” which often involved relating all sorts of stories about relatives that Sylvia didn’t honestly care a fig about. Still…

“So are you from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you in the store before.”

“No…you haven’t. Not, at least, if I could help it. I mean; I’ve been here…a few times. Checking up, so to speak. I came first, years ago, before you even bought the store.”

Prickles raced over Sylvia’s arms. “Oh?” She sat up and tried to keep her heart from galloping through her chest.

“Yes. You see; I wanted to know if you were the kind of person who could make a go of such a thing.”

Sylvia wondered if an earthquake actually rocked the room or if it was merely her imagination. “What do you mean, exactly?”

After wiping her fingertips free of cookie crumbs, the woman stretched out her hand. “I’m your birth mother. Matilda Scott. I gave you up for adoption when you were just a wee thing…but I never lost track of you. I’ve followed your progress through babyhood, high school, college and right into this business here. In fact, I was the anonymous donor who helped to pay for your tuition, and I also spearheaded the citywide revitalization project, which is what gave you the support you needed to do—” She waved her hand at the posh space. “All this.”

The expression, “You could’ve knocked me over with a feather,” suddenly embodied Sylvia’s very existence. She stared hard at the old lady, wondering if the person before her was a psycotic illusion. “You must be—”

“Oh, don’t say mad. That wouldn’t be very nice.” She pulled her little black purse onto her lap. “I have all the proof I need, right here. A copy of your birth certificate, the adoption papers…even clippings from every—”

“Oh, God!” Sylvia shot to her feet and wondered if she would make to the back room before she threw up. Her whole body trembled as her self-image tottered on the edge of an abyss.

Matilda reached out and, with surprising strength, gripped her arm. “Take a deep breath, and calm your self. I know this comes as a shock, but it’s not exactly the end of the world.”

Sylvia could not open her eyes any wider. She blinked to return the world to some sense of normalcy. “Are you sure?”

Her eyes twinkling, Matilda chuckled. “See! That’s why I knew you could do this. Your humor and your tenacity are a rare combination. It comes from your dad…and me, I suppose. We were a rare combination too. Until he died. I knew that I could never take care of you. Unwed…and all that. But I knew you had our blood flowing in your veins. Our spark in your soul. So…I’ve always believed in you.”

A sob rose and burst the dam of Sylvia’s self-control. “Oh, Lord in heaven. I knew I was adopted…but I never knew…not a thing about you…or my father.” She plopped down on the chair. “My biological parents, I mean. My real parents were—”

“Yes, I know. And I’ve stayed out of the picture all these years to give you space to live…to…how shall I say…to discover your own identity.”

“But why—? Why tell me at all?”

“Through the years, I ‘d stop in now and again. Look and listen. See how you’re getting on. Discover what kind of woman you’re turning into.” Matilda glanced aside at the dropping figure behind the counter. “I overheard your comment today. How your young friend shouldn’t let things get her down. She hasn’t been so lucky as you. She’s lost a great deal in a short time.”

Sylvia swallowed a lump in her throat.

“You see, you’ve been watched over and cared for in ways you’ve never known. But that girl there…maybe she hasn’t been so lucky. Maybe life is impossible for her. Maybe she has lost her sense of humor…for good reason. And perhaps, she might wonder why she’s alive.”

“But doubt and despair won’t help. No matter what the situation, I did the hard work…no matter what. And like you said, it was my spark…my humor and tenacity—”

“Yes, but also my love and your parents’ compassion. Your words were right…but your attitude is wrong.” Matilda laid the stack of yellowed papers on the end table by the cookie jar. “I’ll leave these for you to look over when you have time.” She glanced at the old fashioned clock on the wall. “I should go now. But don’t worry, I’ll be back, and we can chat again.” Her gaze peered into Sylvia’s eyes. “If you want me.”

Sylvia nodded. Her voice lost in a whisper. “Yes. Please.”

Matilda toddled to the door, smiling at Karen as she passed.

Sylvia scurried ahead and tugged open the ornate glass door. She stepped aside.

Matilda patted her daughter’s arm and grinned. “It’s been lovely to meet you…after all these years. I’ve dreamed about this moment…and it has not been a disappointment.” She waved to the tea table. “Oh, but a word of advice…make the donation offering a dollar.”

Sylvia’s world swirled again. “Why?”

“Because, my child, it’s what you really mean.” She turned and stepped into the summer sunshine.

As the door shut, Sylvia turned and met Karen’s gaze.

Karen pursed her lips into a twisted smile. “I think I just found my sense of humor.”

Sylvia sighed. “I bet you have. Hidden under irony, I’m sure.”

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

Live and Learn

Thelma stared at her daughter and wondered if perhaps aliens had abducted her child and sent a brainless bot in her stead. She crossed her arms over her chest knowing full well that it was a defensive posture. “So, you’re going to move in with Brad without even a promise ring? A hint of a proposal? Without asking me what I thought—”

Bea grimaced and leaned against the kitchen counter, her hands cupping a mug of hot coffee. She shook her head, took a tentative sip, and then met her mom’s gaze. “Oh, Lord, Mom. I’m a grown woman, for Heaven’s sake. Brad and I are both starting out, and we don’t want to hike across the city just to meet up on weekends. Besides, it’ll save on expenses, and that’s a good thing. You’ve always been the thrifty one. You should be proud of us for saving money, not tossing religious dogma at us.”

The ache that had started in her throat had now risen to Thelma’s eyes. She couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. Where was the girl who had extolled C. S. Lewis as a brilliant Christian thinker? Who argued the merits of sincere religious faith over vacuous feel-good reasoning? The kid who went to Mass faithfully each week and Holy Days of Obligation? The one who—

“Earth to Mom…”

“Don’t you believe in marriage…the sacrament…what it stands for?”

Bea pulled a kitchen chair away from the table and plunked down with a sigh. She took another sip—a longer one—closing her eyes in apparent savory pleasure. “This is good, Mom. What kind—?”

“Don’t change the subject. I asked a simple question.” The morning sunlight hit Bea’s golden hair, highlighting it like a halo over the girl’s head. Thelma closed her eyes against tears.

Exhaling—a patient teacher waiting for her stubborn student to catch on—Bea tapped her fingers on the table. “Sit and relax, Mom. You’re getting worked up over nothing.”

Resentment burned her tears away. Thelma plunked down across from her daughter, her back ramrod straight.

“You know I haven’t been going to church for years. I still believe most of the stuff you taught me. And I like what the faith says, but I have to find my own way. I’m my own person. Brad’s a good guy. I really like him, and he really likes me. Sex is a natural part of our relationship, and I don’t think God disapproves of our enjoying each other. We’re human. God knows that. He made us this way. Your hang-ups about sex and marriage are from a different era. A time when women had no rights apart from a man. I’m not that kind of woman. So let me enjoy my life, okay?”

Thelma didn’t even know where to begin. Nothing in her homeschooling manual had prepared her for this conversation. After all the years of Catechism and spiritual nourishment, how could things turn out like this? How could all her loving examples and heartfelt teaching be wiped so effortlessly away?

The sensation of drowning overwhelmed her. From the crucifix on the wall to the painting of Archangel Michael above the archway, she sought support…inspiration…hope of any kind. O, God, have I believed an illusion?

As she clasped her hands, her attention fell on the faded white skin around her ring finger. Ron had died two years ago, but she could still feel the symbol of their love. Her thumb pressed against the soft flesh. She peered at her daughter. “The day your dad proposed, he knelt on one knee and held out a gold ring, his hands shook so hard, I was afraid he’d drop it. He didn’t. But the ring wasn’t the important thing…his declaration of love and fidelity was.”

Bea leaned back, her eyes scrolling the kitchen ceiling as if begging patience from the white stucco.

Thelma leaned forward. “Marriage isn’t about a piece of paper or an ancient ritual. It’s about what human beings believe and are willing to sacrifice for. You’re right; God created us as sensual beings, and I’m sure He highly approves of a union based on love and respect. So much so that He wants us to treat our relationship with great honor.”

“Save the lecture, Mom. I’ve heard all this before. I’ve read the manual on marriage and the whole John Paul II Theology of the Body thing. I just don’t want to be tied down to rules. God is bigger than rules.”

A cloud swept in, obliterating the glorious rays of sunshine.

Thelma stood and poured herself a cup of coffee. She doused it with brown sugar and creamer and then leaned against the counter. “But, you, my dear, need rules. You’re not God. Neither is Brad. As it stands now, you two are simply using each other. And that works for a while. Until it doesn’t anymore. What about when one of you gets laid off…or sick…or bored? What if Brad sees another woman who’s more attractive to him? Or you find another man? What then?”

The line of Bea’s jaw hardened. “I know plenty of divorced Catholics. Their marriage vows didn’t save them.”

“But they should have. If they had lived marriage as it’s meant to be.”

Bea offered an exaggerated yawn. “The unbreakable union between God and His people…yadda…yadda…yadda. Yeah, I know. Sounds good. But, frankly, Mom, you’re not listening. I don’t care. I want to live with my boyfriend. I don’t need a long-term commitment. I just want convenient sex and a man I can rely on—”

Thelma’s jaw ached. “You’re not listening to yourself. You want someone to rely on without being honest about what it takes to depend on each other. Relationships are hard. They take work, sacrifice, and commitment.”

“Maybe for you. Not for me. I find relationships easy. Maybe that’s your problem, Mom. You ruin love by overthinking everything.”

The knife went deep, and Thelma knew she couldn’t pull it by herself. She set her cup on the counter and strode out of the kitchen. As soon as she was out the front door, she started walking toward the only answer she could depend upon.

It took nearly an hour to reach St. Bridget’s on foot, but she didn’t care. At least, she had stopped weeping long enough to wipe her eyes and enter the Adoration Chapel with a semblance of composure. An older man, probably in his 80’s, sat in a chair before the Monstrance, his hands clasped, his eyes closed. For a moment, Thelma wondered if he was awake. She couldn’t see his chest rising or falling. Oh, God, could he—?

The man opened his eyes and met her gaze. He blinked and grinned. “I concentrate better with my eyes closed.”

A blush rose over Thelma’s face. She bowed, made the sign of the cross, and then sat three seats away.

The man straightened and cleared his throat. “My granddaughter was supposed to be here today, but she broke her hand in a game yesterday. Stupid accident. I warned her, but the young never listen to the old. Think we’re fools and has-beens.”

Thelma nodded through a forced smile.

“Everyone’s got to make their own mistakes. Live and learn…then face God with the balance.” He sighed. “I didn’t listen to my grandpa either. Probably why I’m doing so much time in church now, eh?” He rubbed the small of his back. “Could you take the next hour till Judy comes?”

Thelma nodded. She hadn’t listened to her mom much either. Funny how that goes. She knelt down and bowed her head.

Later that night, Thelma dialed Bea’s number. She leaned against the counter and waited. When Bea answered, she knew that they wouldn’t talk about marriage, boyfriends, or God. There was only so much a mother could do. Even as she listened to a catalog of her daughter’s eventful day, the old man’s words rang in her ears: Live, learn, and face God with the balance.

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

New Life Into Her Soul

The end of a pier is a lonely place. But sometimes you have to face the deep before you can face your life.

The little bandage on Mary’s breast didn’t hurt, just felt odd, like a scab that needed to come off. She peered down. Her chest looked the same as always. But it wasn’t. She knew the truth. Under her bright yellow shirt, neat stitches marked the spot where a tumor had grown, threatening her very existence.

“There’s always hope,” the doctor had said. A thirty-something woman who had served in the military and brooked no dissent. Even her smile demanded obedience.

Mary didn’t have the heart to argue. Sure, the tumor was gone and new treatment plans prolonged life. But what years? Who wants to live through dying?

She stared at the rippling water. Am I already dead? Her parents had passed away a decade ago, and her only brother lived on the coast of Main and practiced yoga. The fact that they shared the same DNA still amazed her. Her co-workers sympathized, but they didn’t understand.

A flock of honking geese flew in for a landing, sending a party of ducks flapping toward shore. Their startled cries sent the whole park into an uproar. Even a couple squirrels chattered in noisy complaint as they chased each other across the treetops.

With a sigh, Mary shivered. There was no point hanging out at the end of a pier. She had to go home and eat something. Just live until…

“Excuse me?”

Mary turned and blinked at a man’s figure silhouetted against the setting sun. She shaded her eyes and waited. She hardly had the energy to speak.

The man stepped aside. A big guy. Tall with a healthy build, wearing jeans and a button-down blue shirt. “You happen to see a book there?” He pointed to the edge of the pier. “I think I left it…”

Mary turned and considered the wooden planks as if she had never seen them before. To her surprise, white pages glinted in the evening light and fluttered in the breeze. The sound of their flapping awakened her from the torpid stupor. She stepped over and gently lifted the book. “To Kill A Mockingbird?”

The man reached out, his tanned, rough hand exposed his outdoor lifestyle. “Yeah. My wife read it to me when were first married. I thought it might bring back…” He dropped his gaze, his thoughts apparently falling into the rippling water.

Mary swallowed back fear. Her words rushed out like an avalanche trying to bury a mountain of pain. “I read it in high school. Really left an impression. I always wished I had Atticus as my dad.”

The man snorted. “I wish I was Atticus. Instead, I more like Boo Radley.”

Mary squinted. “You don’t look like Boo Radley.” She attempted a smile. “You‘re much too tan.” Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, so she clasped them behind her back. If only her stomach would stop rolling.

A sheepish grin spread across the man’s face. “Well, I wasn’t going for a literal interpretation.” His humor vanished as his brows furrowed. “You okay?”

With an uneven step, Mary gripped the slimy post and sucked in a deep breath. “My first dose of chemo. Does wonders for my disposition.”

The man grabbed her arm and helped her regain her balance. “Cancer? Oh, God. What kind?”

A surge of strength swept over Mary, and she found she could stand, her breathing calmed. “Breast. Early stage. The doc says I’ll be fine…” She squared her shoulders and panted like a runner about to start a marathon.

He led her away from the post. “Early stage is good…your doctor might be right.”

Mary nodded toward the parking lot. “Mine’s the blue cruise.”

He kept his arm fixed at her side and matched her pace as they maneuvered to the parking lot. He pointed to a Ford Focus. “That’s mine.” He helped her rest her weight against her car. “My name’s Brad. Lost my wife to cancer three years ago. Hell of a thing…”

The warm metal comforted Mary’s cold bones. “Yeah. You’ve got that right.” She peered at him. “Sorry about your wife. Not easy being the survivor, I suppose.”

Brad’s gaze swept across the road. “There’s a fish and chips place over there. You want something to eat before you go? Might do you some good.”

Mary considered the possibility. The faint smell of fried fish wafted on the air and sent demanding ripples through her body. “Yeah. It might do us both some good.” She eyed the book still gripped in his hand. “I always wanted to read that story again.”

Brad took her arm. “It’s a remarkable tale…tells it like it is. Lots of ways to die in this world.”

Mary nodded. “Yeah. Lots of ways to live, too.”

After they ordered, Brad hunched forward and pressed open the novel to the first page. He cleared his throat. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow…”

Mary leaned back and closed her eyes. The pier faded. A small southern town appeared, and a new vision breathed life into her soul.

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