Surprised Everyone

Marge sat in the corner near the window and let her mind wander. Not that it didn’t usually wander these days. Old memories ran riot over her soul and left her empty and depressed. If only life wasn’t so dreary, that would be a nice surprise.

Three CNAs strode into the nearly empty dining room. They started clearing away the last of the lunch dishes, pulling off tablecloths, scrubbing down the tables, and rearranging the condiments in preparation for the next meal.

Sitting hunched in her wheelchair and half hidden by a leafy palm tree, Marge rested her head on her good hand and watched the interaction. She knew each person by name since she made a point of paying attention. Made the place a little more human, if not humane.

The tall guy, Jamie, wearing a silver earring and sporting a series of tattoos on his left arm grinned at the little lady, Lula, with dark skin, serious muscles, and a perpetual “Don’t mess with me” look in her eyes. The older man, Reggie, with a grey ponytail and easy going demeanor, chuckled at the other two.

“You two never quit. I swear, if you both get to heaven, they’ll have to put you in different corners just so the angles can get some rest.”

Lula snorted. “Who said anything about getting to heaven? Heck, I’d be happy to stay out of the hothouse…but I don’t expect any special treatment. Besides, I’d be bored silly hanging out with angle types. I’m just not comfortable around clouds and all that—”

With an expert flick of his wrist, Jamie pulled off a stained tablecloth and tossed it onto a rolling table at his side. He nodded like a sage professor encouraging a slow student. “Yeah, you’d probably beat up the angles and fall through the clouds, missy. Sides, God’s probably doing something more fun. Bet he’s got friends all over the universe. Just making the rounds could take eons.”

Reggie wiped down the salt and pepper shakers, straightened, and then rubbed the small of his back. “Jesus has friends, but he’s with his Father…not playing games. Think of all the messed up people who die every day. God, he’s probably worn out listening to all the complaining and whining. You seriously think people go from being screwed up here to being perfect over there?” He shoved a chair in place with a grunt. “Doubt it.”

Her lids grew heavy; Marge closed her eyes. Her mom’s face rose in her mind. Such a kind woman…always thinking of others, except when she was drinking. Then she wasn’t so kind. Died peacefully though. No struggle. Just sort of expired. Not like her dad. Marge shut the last image from her mind and swallowed back bile. She opened her eyes again.

Jamie was laughing.

Marge frowned as she scanned the scene. What—?

Reggie was staring at Lula through flashing eyes. He pointed his finger. “I’m a good Christian Baptist, and I know what scripture teaches. You, my girl, don’t believe in anything. You don’t even know God…so—”

“If I recollect right, Jesus hated righteous old guys throwing everyone into hell.”

Jamie lifted his hands and stepped between the two. “Hey, now. Make love, not war. You know my motto…Jesus loves everyone…sinner and saints alike. We just have to love each—”

Lula shook her head and smoothed down a fresh tablecloth. “Yeah, right. You love everyone…how many boyfriends did you go through last month, stud?”

Jamie squared his shoulders, his face turning dark red. “Cruel, girl. Real cruel.”

Lula flung her hands on her hips. “As I see it, you’re cruel to yourself, buddy. Don’t get on me for saying things straight out. You go from manic on Friday to suicidal on Monday. Don’t expect me to think that’s healthy.”

Enough was enough. Marge cleared her throat.

Three pairs of eyes widened as they fixed on the crippled woman.

Using her good hand, Marge tapped the arm of the wheelchair. The disease that was killing her left her with little strength and even less mobility. She could barely lift her voice. “You all got different gods.”

Reggie’s gaze slid over to Jamie who swung his gaze from Lula to Reggie. Lula tromped over to the wheelchair. “We didn’t see you there, Ms. Henderson. Hope we didn’t disturb a nap or something.”

Marge tipped her head. “Naw. Just remembering. Wondering…”

Lula caressed Marge’s arm. “Bet you got all sorts of happy thoughts to take you back…”

Marge waved her good hand. “Not enough.” She gripped Lula’s arm. “Make some good memories…for yourself and others. You may never have another chance.”

Lula maneuvered the chair away from the window. Her voice rose high and tight, “You got that right, Ms. Henderson. You’re a right smart woman.” She circled around the two men. “I’ll take her back to her room. Time for her meds.”

Reggie nudged Jamie’s arm. “Better get this room done.”

Jamie nodded and pulled another tablecloth free.

Marge closed her eyes and grinned. She pictured her God. The one they all argued about. The one who surprised everyone. Maybe life wasn’t so dreary after all.

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

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

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

Legitimate Concerns

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it past Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you described in your reports?”

He shoved loose soil aside and nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a sterile surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips.

Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists. “Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” He eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched and an oval blue-green piece of fruit from a bowl on the coffee table and chomped a big bite. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressure everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around him too much. “I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You glare like he does.”

Teal chewed and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up behind and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip.

A chime sounded. Teal and Sterling turned to face the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged. “Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything. Worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass. “Having liquids are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched over to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. Taking copious notes.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted the full glasses and strolled across to Ark. “Here. You can have two since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out.” He nodded to the counter. “You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “Or do they have claws?”

Ark poured the drink into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed his entire drink down his throat in one swallow. Stay calm. Right. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned and turned abruptly. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and headed for the cabinet again. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He stopped and turned, swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “And I left him alone on the planet.” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discrete distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter. “Of all the—” He felt his composure cracking. “Do you mean to tell me that you have someone watching Zuri, who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and waved Sterling and Ark closer. “I want to return to Earth undetected and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark shook his head and tapped Teal on the shoulder. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. In surprise, he realized that his fingers actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot is afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his pot, pulled it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands, free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and perched all four tentacles onto his thick waist. “How’d you know we’re focusing our attention on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile made up of the same—Uh oh. He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground. If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” Pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down and stretched out. “Mine if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the edge of a chair.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He glanced at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal tented his fingers before his face. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark wiggled a tentacle in the air. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Sterling rubbed his brow, he felt drained. “Can’t I just lie and say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark and Teal glanced at each other and shook their heads.

Teal slipped back onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

Sterling lay stretched out as if ready for his analyst session, crossed his feet, and placing his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb like this. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth—you know what I mean.”

Teal glanced at the bright sunlight filtering through the window. The purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. “That from Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers steeple style. “Yes. They’re a super race. They can create new life forms, terra-form entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While Luxonians, Crestas, Uanyi, Bhuaci, and Ingots each have our own unique abilities, this race can do all we do, but better…with more flare. They’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbow room, so to speak. We’ve only discovered a few of their kind. The ones the Crestas irritated must have been a bit high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep entire worlds in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark frowned at Teal. He tapped Sterling on the shoulder. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn as much as they do…and more. Apparently, your studies on Earth caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Perhaps evil like Ishtar?”

Teal stomped across the room. “Ishtar isn’t evil…he’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb. You called him evil.”

Teal stopped. “But why kill me? Or Zuri? We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed and swung his feet off the couch. “They aren’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants you to continue your work so that—” Ark’s pink cheeks blanched. “Oh, no.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark by a tentacle. “What?”

Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted…by anything…or anyone.”

Teal shrugged. “Zuri is annoying, but not really a distraction. Usually, he’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. “Not Zuri. Sienna. That gorgeous Luxonian. He wanted me to make her leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and I don’t believe that was a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s a Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner—it was hers by the way.”

Teal sprang at Sterling and wrapped his fingers around his neck.

Ark’s tentacles peeled Teal’s fingers away. Slapping Teal’s hands away with one tentacle, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “How could you? Sienna is innocent. I’m a Luxonian guardian, and I thought we—” He spat his words. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark waddled between them, shoving them further away from each other. He turned from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand Ungle’s persuasive nature. He can make life on Lux much more challenging—if he wants. He can create an interstellar incident and make it look like Sterling’s long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that he knows quite enough about evil already.”

Ark laughed. “Very observant. But Ungle has legitimate concerns. The mystery race will dictate the entire Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put the entire planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really am having a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head. “Not possible. In your case, I wish it was, though.”

Sterling peered at Teal. “You’re right. I should’ve told you. I was wrong. But Ungle…all his talk of good and evil…I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna into leaving seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to that stupid planet now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in all directions. “I don’t know if I have enough to keep everyone in line.”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment. I’m not feeling well.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed—he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

Ark slapped Sterling on the side of the head.

Sterling stood and placed his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “I know you have feelings for her. I’d spontaneously combust if it’d make you feel better.” His gaze wandered to his vine.

It appeared to wave its purple fronds at him.

Oh hell.

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