Same Spirit

Mrs. Eula Claymore pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and peered at the dessert tray. Is that a lemon bar or pineapple upside-down cake? Her gaze swiveled around the large hall lined with long, white tables. Some of the elderly customers lingered over their meatloaf or breaded chicken, but she preferred to accomplish her meal—like ticking a duty off her list—and then enjoy her dessert with coffee. She returned to the tray and blinked rapidly, hoping to discern her choices better.

“Can’t decide, dear?” Mrs. Caroline Ramsey smiled graciously down on the old woman as she laid a steaming cup of coffee to her right.

Making a quick grab, Eula ended the struggle. “No, thank you, Mrs. Ramsey. Just weighing my options.” Her laugh sounded hollow. Weighing. Ha! Yes, have to weigh everything these days. The battle of the bulge was relentless.

Caroline’s paper-thin physique and tight smile swayed closer. “Oh, please, call me Carol, everyone does, and it sounds so much more romantic.” She raised her eyebrows archly.

Eula suppressed a snort, tapped her sticky fingers together and considered her baptismal name—Eulamay. With a quick thrust, she jammed the sweet treat into her mouth—and regretted it instantly. Her mouth pursed into the fiercest pucker she had ever endured. Lord in Heaven, where did they get these lemons? The devil’s kitchen? She peered up, her eyes filled with stinging tears. She must have water, or she’d expire on the spot. Unfortunately, Carol had hurried off to another table to intercede in a senior squabble before something got spilled.

“Mind if I sit here?” A large, buxom woman pointed to the seat across from her.

Eula nodded, attempting to stretch her lemon pucker into a smile.

The woman laughed as she pulled out a chair and laid her black handbag on the table. “Oh, you had a lemon bar, too, I see.”

With multiple swallows, Eula tried to eek out a sound akin to human speech.

The woman turned and scurried away.

Eula watched the blurry figure bundle off and wondered if she would have done better to stay at home like her friend Lola. Of course, Lola’s great-grandkids had visited her over on the weekend, so naturally, she would be prostrate for a week or so…. Eula’s thoughts were interrupted as a cool glass was slipped into her hand.

“Here, that ought to help. I thought I’d drink the whole Mississippi dry getting that taste outta my mouth.” The large woman plunked down in the metal frame chair.

Trying desperately not to slurp, Eula drained the contents in unspeakable relief. She wiped her eyes with her embroidered handkerchief and regarded her savior as best as she was able. “Thank you. I was wondering if I’d be left to die.” She waved a languid hand. “Not that it wouldn’t be rather appropriate, dying in a community hall, but somehow it wasn’t what I had in mind when I came this morning.”

The woman’s hearty laughter brought a smile to Eula’s face, as well as turned several heads. “No problem. We older ladies have to stick together, don’t we? So few of us left.” She stretched out a hand and leaned forward. “My name’s Mary Burns from Dartmouth County—off the blacktop at the end of Vet’s Road.

Eula peered up and appraised the woman before. Large, wispy gray hair, an honest, though blurry face, the usual stretch pants and loose flowered blouse—in short—a possible friend. Eula smiled and pressed the offered hand. “I’m Mrs. Eula Claymore from—”

Mary waved excitedly. “Oh, I know all about you. I’ve lived around here nearly ten years, but my husband, Melvin, passed away last year. Lola Kinsman was so kind. From the church—you know. She thinks the world of you, she does. That’s why I came by. She phoned and said she couldn’t make it, but she wanted me to introduce myself.”

Nodding, Eula wrapped a stray lock of hair back into her neat bun. “Her great-grandkids visited Saturday. I suspect she’ll be laid up awhile.” Nodding, she turned and appraised the crowd. “But I’m glad to meet you. I’ve been coming for years, but I never seem to— Anyway, Lola’s always been with me.”

Mary sighed. “To be honest, I’m rather out of place. I used to cook for Melvin and the boys, and there were usually hands and helpers about. Our trestle table would be full to bursting, and I managed it every day, seven days a week, but now, after a little slip and a hip replacement, my sons’ wives have decided it’s too much for me.” She peered around the room. “I don’t particularly take to being served.”

Eula smacked her lips. “Especially not lemon bars that could suck the life out of you.”

The two women hunched forward and failed to suppress their giggles.

Regaining her composer, Eula leaned back. “It’s cataract surgery for me. Can hardly see my hand before my face.” She gestured to the small crowd. “I served most of these people when I ran the school lunchroom. And I managed the parent group and the sewing circle. Never stopped for a moment, except—”

A racket at the end of the hall pulled their attention forward. One of the men stood stiffly, staggered, jerked, and then fell into a crumpled heap. Eula gasped. Mary rose like a puppet on strings.

Carol rushed across the hall, wended her way through the startled crowd, and took charge. At least three people had their cell phones in hand and were dialing.

After the emergency team had carried off the unfortunate gentleman, Carol circled around and spoke with each table. The crowd shuffled away in turn. When Carol made it to their table, Eula shook her head. “Will ol’ Bertie be all right?”

Carol shook her head and wiped a red-rimmed eye. “They said he was dead before he hit the floor.” She peered at them and forced a smile. “I guess we all have to go sometime.”

Eula wrung her hands together. “Bertie was such a fun boy and a hardworking man—but he never wanted to linger.”

Mary sighed. “None of us do.”

Carol stared down at them. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not lingering. You’re living.” Pulling out a chair, she plunked down and put her head into her hands. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took this on. I thought it’d be fun: serving the ladies and gents in the community, making money on the side, getting out of my empty nest.”

Mary tilted her head at an appreciative angle. “But—”

Carol ran her fingers through her short, brown hair. “But, I can’t keep pace. This is the third customer I’ve lost in two months. And I don’t mean that the way it sounds. It’s just…I get to know people, and then I lose them. It feels—useless.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Help me out here.”

Eula leaned over and patted Carol’s hand. “It’s not useless. You’re right. We are living—and dying. Hard for young people to understand, but we’re as new to old age, as they are are to adulthood, and you are to middle age. Same spirit, greater experience perhaps, but encased in bodies that break down and wither.”

Mary wrapped her fingers over her purse and clutched it to her chest. “I know that the gentleman’s death is tragic, but I can’t go back; I must go forward. Knowing that I can join you, ladies, a couple times a week—well, it’ll make the journey less lonely.” She patted Carol’s shoulder. “Don’t fret. None of knows how to keep pace. That isn’t the point, is it?”

After Mary had lumbered away, Carol stood and helped Eula to her feet. She took her friend’s arm and led her to the door. “Will you be able to make it home, all right, Eula?”

Eula pressed Carol’s warm hand and focused her blurry gaze on the woman in front of her. “Yes, I can make it home. See you on Friday—Carol.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: Guardian

I turned thirteen that summer and had my first real job. Well, it felt real, even though I didn’t get paid much. I helped out at the local library, shelving books, cleaning up, and polishing the tables after closing. This was back in the day when libraries bustled with students who plucked paperbacks and heavy resource volumes from designated sections labeled with letters and numbers according to the Dewy Decimal System. They propped their elbows on long, polished tables and turned thin, paper pages. It was old-time, but it worked. My heart still thumps with joy at the sight of books stacked neatly on shelves.

We had a hot summer that year. I was late getting home because the library hosted a big, summer festival and someone needed to put the place back together afterward. I didn’t mind. Shelving, sweeping, even wiping down the tables, kept me busy and at peace. I would stop and flip open an interesting cover, read the first page, and then let the story linger in my imagination. I felt like a kid snitching candy off a shelf, but I don’t think anyone minded. Sometimes my boss, Mrs. Murdock, would smile at me, her eyes twinkling even though she usually kept a serious demeanor about the place.

When I trudged home in that late evening, I didn’t know what I might find. When mom was sober, she captivated the house and neighborhood with witty banter and lively open houses. But when she wasn’t sober, few saw her except me, and then she was anything but witty.

Since money was scarce and taxes had risen, Mom had taken in a couple foreign students to board for the year. Jamal stayed in the backroom on the second floor, while Mr. Chin occupied the refurbished attic. Jamal was young, energetic, and obsessed with engineering. He never talked about anything else, and I wondered if he dreamed science formulas in his sleep. Mr. Chin was quiet and always polite. He noticed when things weren’t right about mom and the house, but he never said anything. He’d just go to the kitchen, make himself a cup of tea, and take it to his room to finish his work.

That summer night, I came in exhausted, longing to collapse on my bed, but the moment I stepped in the house, I knew something was wrong. Mom and my brother, Glen, were in the kitchen arguing. Glen was a lot like mom. Smart and good-looking, he could charm a room full of mountain lions, but when he started drinking, he turned even nastier than mom. When they were both drinking, life turned sour real fast.

I remember standing on the threshold. I didn’t want to go in, but it was getting dark, and I had nowhere else to go. Besides, I didn’t want them to hurt each other. I had always been the peacemaker. Hell of a job.

Suddenly, I saw Mr. Chin step between them and go around and about the kitchen. He was making himself a cup of tea, acting like they weren’t having a big screaming match right in the middle of the room. I thought I’d fall over in a faint. How could he be so calm?

It took a little while, but eventually, Mom seemed to realize that Mr. Chin was trying to get his evening meal. Glen tossed them both a contemptuous glare, grabbed a six-pack off the table, and hustled out. I tiptoed in and helped Mom up the stairs to her bedroom. I knew she would sleep it off. By the time I came back downstairs, the kitchen was clean, and Mr. Chin was nowhere in sight.

I went to my room, dropped on my bed and felt like crying, but being thirteen, I figured that I’d better get a grip on my emotions, so I grabbed a mystery novel, leaned back against my headboard, and tried to relax. Tree frogs croaked in unison like a church chorus, and I could see the night sky filling with twinkling fireflies. My head soon felt heavy and drowsy. Then I heard the front door crash open, furniture scraping across the floor, and my mom and Glen yelling at the top of their lungs.

By the time Mom was back in bed and Glen had retreated to his makeshift basement room, I could hardly see straight. But I dared not go back to my room for fear they would start up again. Stumbling to the couch in the living room, I settled on the edge, waiting. I faced mom’s rocking chair and remembered how many times we had snuggled there when I was little. I held back aching tears and, in time, I must have fallen asleep for the light was off, and I found myself laying on the couch with a blanket over me.

I remember being so tired that I could barely lift my head off the couch, but I sensed someone was there, sitting on the rocking chair. He wasn’t making any noise, just sitting there, quiet, and watching—watching over me. I tried to mumble thanks, but my mouth felt glued shut. Peace settled over me. Someone else was on guard, so I relaxed and finally slept.

It took me a couple of months to get up the nerve to thank Mr. Chin for taking over that night. We were alone in the kitchen in on a brisk autumn evening, and I had settled down with a cup of tea. He sat with a bowl of Chinese noodles before him.

“Thanks for being there—you know—that night Glen and Mom had the big fight.”

Mr. Chin chewed his noodles meditatively, his eyes averted like he was trying to remember. But then he smiled and our gazes connected. “Wasn’t me. Must have been your guardian.”

I’m sure my eyes couldn’t have extended any further from my face if I had been a human-sized snail. “Excuse me?”

He pointed at me with one of his chopsticks. “You have a guardian. Big fellow. Nice looking.”

Whoa! I must’ve paled considerably because suddenly Mr. Chin looked rather alarmed. He waved his chopsticks in the air as if to wipe away my concerns. “I didn’t see him, exactly, I just know he exists. You have troubles too big to carry alone, and someone has been helping you. So, you see, I know by evidence. Someone watches over you, and he must be big because your burdens are so heavy. And someone that kind must be good looking—especially around the eyes.”

Mr. Chin’s face wrinkled in delight at his logic, and I couldn’t help but smiling back at him. I never knew I had a guardian, but his words made sense to me.

From that day to this, I have remembered my guardian whenever I’m overwhelmed. I feel a presence around me, whether I’m dealing with old family issues or my latest boss’ antics. I’m not alone, and my burdens are never too heavy to carry. When I imagine what my guardian looks like, I see a man much like Mr. Chin—smiling, making a cup of tea, and quite good looking—especially around the eyes.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: Vera’s Wings

Vera tossed in her sleep, her dreams disturbed by flickering flashes of light and an acrid smell that wrinkled her nose. Sweat prickled her arms and legs till she panted and threw off her covers. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright, her eyes wide and staring. Swirling smoke stung them instantly.

Flames danced and darted like flickering fingers from under the door. Skittering to the chair by her desk, she pulled on her skirt and blouse and began screaming. “Pav! Pav, where are you? Help me!”

In the echoing house, she heard only the fire crackling on the other side of the door. Gripping the handle, she pulled and then screamed as the hot metal seared her hand. Grabbing another shirt from her dresser, she wrapped her throbbing hand and darted forward. Gripping the handle again, her whole body trembled. With a snapping, click, the knob turned, the door flew open, and a rush of heat and flame knocked her backward.

In horrified amazement, Vera stared at the flames. The LuKan had a natural fear of fire. Their tender flesh burned so easily that even sunburn could cause serious health issues. Crawling backward, she scurried to the back of the room and rose to her feet, the flames flickering toward her.

“Pav?” her hand clutched at her throat. She inched over to the window and stared down. It was a six-meter drop at least. In the dark, it looked like an endless chasm.

A sound of clattering boots running up the steps made her glance at the doorway. The door had swung shut again, but now the wood was engulfed in flames. A man called through the smoke and fire.

“Vera? Are you here?”

Vera’s shoulders slumped in relief. The blacksmith. “I’m here, Mr. Pollex. I can’t get out, and Pav’s not answering.” Vera clapped her hands together and winced as the blisters made contact.

A grunt and pounding shattered the air. Mr. Pollex shouted. “Pav? Pav, can you hear me?” A splintering thwack thudded against Pav’s door.

Vera closed her eyes and wiped sweat from her dripping face.

More splintering crashes and the sound of boots running across the floor. Shouts, grunts, and then silence.

Wrapping her long three fingered hands around her middle, Vera hugged herself. She swallowed against the bile that rose in her throat and ran to the window, sucking in fresh air.

Clattering boots and heaving grunts stopped outside her door. “Vera? Vera, stand back!”

Vera pressed her back against the window frame, her shoulders shaking.

A thwack smashed through the wood door, and a sharp, red-tipped blade shone through the flames. Uncounted thrusts tore at the wood until it fell aside like a torn curtain.

Lucius Pollex stepped through the flames. His red-rimmed eyes had scoured the room before they landed on Vera huddled against the back wall. He ran to her, gripped her arm, and lifted her to her feet. “Hurry, this timber frame won’t hold much longer.”

She froze at the flaming doorway. Without a word, Lucius stepped behind Vera and scooped her in his arms, enfolding her little body within his, and sprang through the red and orange darts of fire. Once outside the door, he dropped her in a clear space on the landing and bent over a prone figure.

Vera gasped. “Pav!”

Before she could run over, Lucius lifted Pav’s limp body over his shoulder and reached out for Vera. She shook herself, fighting nausea that bubbled up from her middle. As they descended the steps, she tripped and fell forward. Instantly, Lucius grabbed her around the waist, and, squeezing her body against his, he jogged down the last steps and through the front doorway into the smoky, night air.

Falling on her knees, Vera choked and sobbed, her hands over her face. She rocked back and forth, oblivious to everything except overwhelming pain and fear.

Shouting to her left forced her to look up. A small crowd huddled over a prone form laid out on the grass. Screaming, Vera scrambled like an injured animal toward the body. “Pav! Pav, get up. Talk to me. Pav!”

The crowd backed away.

Blinded by tears, Vera felt along Pav’s body, and finally, coming to his face, she lifted herself to peer into his face. If only she could look into his eyes and make a connection.

Pav’s arms were stretched out to the side, his legs lay limp and bent, his face turned up and his eyes wide open, but they saw nothing—not the stars that twinkled overhead, nor his sister’s tears as they landed on his cheek.

A firm but gentle hand gripped Vera’s shoulder.

She slid to the ground, her head landing on her brother’s chest, sobbing, clinging with her bleeding fingers.

The hand stayed with her, gentle, undemanding, warm and real in a nightmare of searing pain.

The murmuring crowd shuffled away. Someone bent low, and a woman’s voice whispered. “You want me to take her home with me? I’ve got room—”

Vera shivered.

Lucius tightened his grip. “Give her time. I’ll watch over her tonight.”

A man’s voice spoke in the air above her head. “It’s about out, nothing to do now but make plans to rebuild.”

Lucius murmured a soft, “Tomorrow.”

Footsteps padded away, voices chattering in an undertone. “Poor thing. Wonder how it started…”

Pav’s body, already cold, was growing stiff.

Vera shivered, opened her eyes, and blinked at the black night, tears slipping down her blistered cheek.

An arm reached around her shoulders and carefully pulled her off her brother’s body. Gently pulling her close, Lucius braced himself against a shed wall and wrapped his muscled, fire-seared and scoot-coated arms around her, pressing her head to his chest.

Vera could feel his chest rising and falling and hear his heart beating in a steady rhythm. His warmth settled over her shivering frame and calmed her. Relaxing, she closed her eyes and let the nightmare end.

~~~

An early bird chirped in the treetops. Vera opened her eyes and stared over Lucius’ charcoal-blackened shirt into a hazy world of drifting smoke, green grass, treetops, and a red sunrise.

Rising on her elbow, Vera studied the stubble-bearded face of Lucius Pollex. His warm chest still rose and fell rhythmically as she shifted her arm and looked around. Her hands stung. She stared at the red blisters on one hand and the angry red blotches over the other and her arms. Wiggling her toes, she was amazed that they didn’t hurt—nothing like her hands. Her gaze drifted over Lucius. She sucked in a horrified gasp. Lucius’ legs ended in smoldering stumps. “Oh, no….” Fresh tears welled in her eyes.

Lucius stirred and groaned. His eyes snapped open, and his arm squeezed protectively around Vera. When their gazes connected, he sucked in a deep breath and darted a glance around the field and burned timber. “You’re alive then?”

Vera nodded. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and sat up, her eyes searching.

Pav still lay stretched out in the field. She started forward, but Lucius held her back. “Wait. I’ll help.” He stood and assisted her to her feet. Peering down at her thin, burned face, he shook his head. “You need care, too, or I’ll be digging more than one grave this day.” Rubbing a tear from her cheek, he stared down, somber, and sighed. “And that, I won’t have.”

Vera stared at his burned stumps, her eyes wide in horror.

Lucius pulled up a charred pant leg and revealed a metal band connecting an artificial limb to the stump of his leg. “They were burned in an accident some time ago.” He raised his gaze to the blue sky and exhaled. “I was never happy about it, but now, I’m glad. If I didn’t have such feet, I could never have walked across a burning floor to save you.”

Lucius gaze fell over Pav’s body. “Only—I wish I had wings.”

Vera stepped over to her brother’s body and knelt down. She lifted Pav’s hand and kissed it. Looking over her shoulder, a shaky smile trembled on her lips. “Don’t feel too bad. The LuKan believe in the Immortal Life—today, Pav has wings for us both.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: Drama Trauma

Kelly shuffled forward in line at the Save-All Market and averted her eyes.

Directly in front of her, a woman with spiky hair and dangling earrings swatted a heavyset four-year-old as she tossed items on the counter.

The girl whined a long, high-pitched squeal.

The woman swatted again and flung an iPhone into the child’s grubby hand. Gleefully, the child tapped the screen, and suddenly a Disney movie theme blared.

Kelly’s gaze grazed the cashier’s face in the midst of an eye roll.

A young man wearing an orange uniform and carrying a sweeper stepped near. He waved at the little girl and grinned. “One of my favorites, too.”

The woman swung around and glared, one arm barring the child from leaning forward. “Get away from her, pervert!”

Kelly’s eyes rounded as she watched the young man back away, hunch his shoulders, and with grieved eyes, begin sweeping near the restrooms.

“Twenty-five dollars and eighty cents.” The cashier pushed her glasses up her nose and waited, her eyes fixed on the space above the woman’s head.

As Kelly fumbled to unload her purchases, her gaze meandered to the newspaper selection. On the left, bold headlines screamed: “Aliens Alive and Menacing on Mars!” Before she had time to consider the possibilities, much less the syntax, a man jostled her arm as he snatched a magazine with a full-color picture of a terrorist holding a severed head with the headline: “World War III Imminent.”

“Fourteen sixty-five.” The cashier considered the state of her nails.

Kelly slipped her card through the scanner mechanically as the woman and child struggled for control of the iPhone. She could hear their sharp argument rise to hypersonic pitch as she scurried her cart to the door. Another swat set off a long wail.

Maneuvering her car across the parking lot, Kelly spotted a disheveled man with long, stringy hair and a tattered coat huddled on the corner where she had to turn. Kelly’s heart raced. How fast could she pass him? Or should she stop and give him something? The man, in his forties maybe but roughly used, held a sign. “Out of work and going blind—Please help.”

Kelly knew she had a ten dollar bill in the front pocket of her purse, but it would take a lot of agility to get it out, steer close enough to hand it out, and not tick off the line of cars behind her. Kelly sped up.

Once on the highway, Kelly began to breathe a little easier. Then a series of red revolving lights caught her eye. She slowed and peered at a police officer waving traffic onto one lane. “Oh heck.” Kelly blew air between her lips and tapped the steering wheel.

As she navigated to the left, she glanced over and saw a smashed truck cab and a mangled tractor. An ambulance siren wailed nearby, and a woman sat on the embankment, her head in her hands. She seemed to be sobbing. Kelly’s attention snapped back to the road. The police officer waved her on.

When she finally picked up speed, Kelly darted a glance at her watch. She’d be late for class if she didn’t hurry. Her foot pressed the pedal nearer the floor. She upped the volume on her favorite music and lost herself in scenes from a horror movie she had seen over the weekend.

When she slipped into her seat, her professor waved to a large screen in the front of the room. “Today, we will focus on the oppressive state of our culture and how we are destroying our world.” Kelly tapped on her recorder. This would be on the exam—no doubt about it.

By the time she pushed her way through the front door late that night, Kelly’s shoulders drooped, and she had a splitting headache. A light shone in the kitchen, so she wandered inside.

Her mom, wrapped in a garish orange bathrobe, sat plowing through a quart of chocolate ice cream.

Kelly tossed her car keys on the counter and nodded.

Her mom nodded back. “Lousy day. You?”

Kelly shuffled to the cabinet, snatched up a rumpled bag of broken cookies, and grabbed a spoon out of an open drawer. “Nothing new. You know—same ol’, same ol’.” She plopped down beside her mother, poured the cookies on the table, and dug in.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: A New Life for Lucius Pollex

The fight was inevitable. The outcome was not….

Sweat poured down Lucius Pollex’s face as heat seared the hairs on his arms. A blast knocked him to his knees. He sucked in a lung full of air. Suddenly, a baby’s wail pierced the smoke-filled corridor.

“Oh, God.” Lucius’ muscles gleamed as he crawled forward. He could hear Captain Akio’s voice ringing in his ears. “Keep the governor safe—at all costs. She’s more important than the entire force put together.” Lucius shook his head and choked, nearly sobbing for air.

“Matthews! Governor Matthews! Can you hear—?”

A terrified shriek split the air.

A hologram picture of Governor Matthews signing an Inter-Alien Alliance treaty between the Friezing Outpost and the Crestonian government while cradling a newborn baby in her other arm filled his mind. The sight had left him incredulous. She was a woman of renowned diplomatic abilities, but over the year and a half he had served her, his doubt had turned to silent awe.

Lucius’ shoulder grazed a corner. On his right, he heard the incessant screams of a terrified baby, on his left a blocked doorway led to the governor’s private office. An explosion rocked the ship. He banged his head against the wall and struggled to stay conscious. With a fist, he pounded the closed door.

“Governor Matthews!”

The shrieks dwindled to a whimper wafting from the open doorway. Lucius turned, rose to his feet, and staggered in.

~~~

Dressed in prison garb, Lucius awoke to a light beam focused on his eyes. He sat up, cupping his hands over his face as his prosthetic feet hit the cold stone floor.

“Get up. They’re waiting for you.”

Lucius stood and faced his jailor, a short, blond man with the name tag “Officer Quinn” imprinted on his uniform. A small man who obviously delighted in small power. What would he do with great power? Lucius shuddered.

Quinn jabbed Lucius’ in the chest with the tip of his Dustbuster. “If you’re found guilty, you’re mine—forever.”

Lucius shrugged. “Not forever.”

“It’ll feel like it before long.” Quinn gestured through the doorway. “Let’s go.”

Lucius tripped. The lifeless prosthetics never moved as quickly as he expected. He righted himself; his gaze stayed fixed straight ahead.

~~~

In the courtroom, Lucius stood on a center dais with his hands clasped behind his back. Quinn stood near at hand, his Dustbuster at the ready. Frisian and Crestonian representatives sat in the wings.

The Crestonian judge tapped two tentacles together. “We find you guilty of gross negligence in the performance of your duty and hereby sentence you to—”

Lucius’ gaze wandered from the scene and retreated to the moment he clasped the baby girl in his arms and held her tight against the searing flames. He had little memory of the rest of his rescue mission, only the moment he awoke to discover that the baby was gone and so were his feet. Why they blamed him was of little importance. They had to blame someone, and he was expendable. The Frisians and Crestonians would agree on that at least.

On the way back to his cell, Lucius stumped along in silence.

Quinn’s grin appeared almost boyish. “What the hell did you expect? It’s not like the baby was really worth it or anything. She’s dead now, you know. Lung damage—”

Without a minuscule change in expression, Lucius reached out and gripped Quinn by the throat. He squeezed. Even when Quinn nudged the Dustbuster between them, and alarms blared throughout the corridors of Bothmal prison, Lucius kept squeezing.

~~~

Suddenly, Lucius felt a jolt sear through his body. He assumed he had just disintegrated to the tune of Quinn’s Dustbuster, but to his amazement he found himself standing in a field of daisies. Lucius raised his hands and examined them. He pinched his arm. A chuckle made him turn around.

“No, you’re not dead.” Omega, wearing a brown jerkin and tan, cotton pants waved Lucius forward. “Nothing of the kind. Come, let’s get you settled before I go.”

Lucius took a tentative step forward and tripped.

Omega sighed. “Yes, sorry, I didn’t fix them. Not yet, anyway. But your weakness will prove your strength.” Omega smiled airily. “Right now, I just want you to rest up for new challenges. I’ve got a whole world waiting for you.”

Lucius folded his arms across his chest and allowed his eyes to absorb the glory of a copse of woods and the flower-strewn field all around him. Slowly, his gaze wanted back to Omega. “And you are—?”

Omega sniffed and clapped his hands together. “Yes, of course. I always forget. Not everyone in the universe acknowledges me as lord and master.” He stepped forward and flourished a formal bow. “I am Omega, last son of my father, a being of wisdom and dignity who will soon become like a father to you as well. He is the creator of Mirage-Reborn—your new home.” Omega waved to the right, and a small, thatched cottage appeared. “But before I send you home, you need rest and time to adjust.”

Lucius shook his head. “Why? I mean, why save—”

Omega strode to the cottage door and swung it wide with an even wider smile. “For the same reason I do everything. I need something from you.”

Lucius stroked his chin as his eyebrows rose. “You? Need something from me?”

Omega shrugged with a tilt of his head. “You see, I must discover if the impossible is possible.” His gaze delved deep into Lucius’ eyes. “I am settling Quinn on Mirage-Reborn with you. I’d prefer you not kill him.”

Lucius’ eyes widened.

Omega waved his hand. “And he’s not to kill you, of course.”

A red bird burst from the grove of oaks along the edge of the woods behind the cottage and soared into the air.

Lucius caught his breath, and then let his gaze land on Omega once more. “I’ve already been found guilty of—”

Omega laughed. “That’s why I chose you, such an honest man!” Omega gestured toward the doorway. “It is well provisioned, and you will have plenty of time to rest up. My father, Abbas, will retrieve you when he’s ready. But now, I really must go. I’m terribly late.” Omega raised his hand in salute.

Lucius shouted. “Wait! I don’t understand—”

Omega grinned as his figure faded into the sunset; his voice carrying even after the last glimmer of his sparkling eyes disappeared. “We all have impossible choices to make.”

Lucius’ hands flapped to his side as he sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. He gazed at the natural beauty before him and took his first step toward home.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: Fiery Furnace

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~Edmund Burke

I’d never seen a dead body before, and the sight of him lying there must’ve sent me into shock. I stared, mute, unable to believe it was really a human being before me, hogtied to a pole, warning us—of something. I looked at my counselor, Mr. Jansen, the one in charge of us “Witnesses for Christ.” I didn’t feel like a witness. I felt like a bloody idiot staring at some murdered kid like he was the newest exhibit in the science museum back home.

It had been my mom’s great idea to expand my horizons. “Get out and see the world. Find out what is real. Discover your potential.” She’s got a million of ‘em. Brilliant ideas to transform me from an ordinary, blemished teen dressed in cheap clothes into the hero of the week. After all, we’re fed the Hero’s Vision from infancy – Be all you can be. No one can stop you. No limits to your horizons. And all that crap. Apparently, this kid met his limit. At gunpoint by the look of it.

Mr. Jansen glanced at the soldier with the biggest gun—the one who was supposed to be on our side. He was a big guy. Even his muscles had muscles. But his eyes gleamed like dead stones. He didn’t turn and explain. He didn’t offer us a pep talk. He just spoke in his guttural way so that even Mr. Jansen could understand. “Not. One. Word.”

Mr. Jansen obeyed. Pale and shaking, he directed the four of us from Team Gabriel to step aside and head back to our tents. I was glad to obey. I hardly wanted to ruffle any feathers here in the wilds of wherever the blank I was. Heck, I hadn’t learned anyone’s name because I could hardly pronounce a word of their language. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for this real-ness.

Three more days…two more days…one more day. Like a mantra, I counted the allotted time before we could return to my version of reality. Yet, I knew deep inside that somehow my reality had changed. It now included a dead kid hogtied to a pole. I left my tent during recreation time and hunted up our guard. It wasn’t hard. He stood a foot taller than everyone else.

“Mr. uh….” I shuffled from foot-to-foot.

“Kohl.” He peered down at me like I was one of those scurvy dogs they like to kick around. Or poison.

“Yeah, well, I was just wondering, if you could, sort of, explain what happened to that kid—you know the one that—”

“Clermont.”

I could feel my eyes widen. “Excuse—?”

“His name was Clermont.”

In all my wild imaginings I never expected a Clermont. A Dead Clermont. What an ordinary, nerdy sort of name. “Really? He was a soldier—or something?”

“Brother of one.” Mr. Kohl hefted his gunbelt studded with bullets a little higher across his shoulder and started shuffling down the dirt path they optimistically call Main Street. He never looked at me, but I felt the invitation, so I shuffled alongside.

“But why—?”

“We live differently than you. We’ve got our own rules. It all goes back to—”

“But he’s—he was—just a kid. How can your rules apply to him? I mean, he didn’t do anything bad, did he?”

“No. Not at all. He was a good kid. But his family belongs to a certain sect—”

“You kill families for their beliefs? Their allegiances?”

When Mr. Kohl peered at me, I swallowed, afraid of the fiery furnace of his gaze.

“For survival. We live by our beliefs. And we die by them, too.” He spat into the dust. “I doubt you’d understand.”

My clenched hands trembled at my side. “Not fair! I’m here because I’m a witness for—”

Mr. Kohl’s snort turned a few heads, but he strolled on, his shoulders squared in cocky self-assurance. “You? You witness nothing. I’ve watched you—and your kind—wander into our world, lost sheep looking for purpose—or excitement—to fill your boring days. You’re more dead than Clermont.”

I nearly pulled out my hair as I tugged at my short, bleached locks. “How can you be so unfeeling—so cruel? Some poor kid dies because of your vicious lifestyle—one you could change—and yet you dare attack me, someone who only wants to bring a bit of light and hope into your—”

Mr. Kohl moved faster than I would have imagined. He gripped me by the throat and slammed me against a stonewall. My eyes searched frantically for a rescuer, someone who’d see this outrage and help. Where was my counselor, now? Probably watching from a distant doorway.

“Listen, child. You know nothing! This is our world. It’s brutal. I didn’t make it so, but I know it well. I don’t lie and pretend it’s something else. We can’t hide here. Death happens—all the time. I live by my conscience. So did Clermont. But we must bow to a greater authority. That cruelty you see here, it lies in you as well. How do you think we feel—you coming and preaching to us when you do not know our truth?”

He let me go and patted me on the arm as if to make amends. “It’s not your fault. You were born into your world. I was born into mine. We both have to make do with what we got.”

I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face. “But I do believe in something. I came here because—” I hesitated, grappling for words. “I believe that there is more to life than cruelty and death.”

The shadow of a smile glistened from Mr. Kohl’s deep black eyes. “So do I. That’s why I offer my services, year after year, and I let your kind preach. Even though you don’t understand. Your Mr. Jansen and those like him, at least they try. Against all odds, they offer a better vision. It probably won’t happen. But, it’s something. It’s all the hope we got.”

~~~

By the time I returned home, sitting on the overstuffed couch in our air-conditioned house, I had pretty much gotten over my fright—and my rage. I could barely remember Clermont’s bruised face. It would fade in time. But Mr. Kohl’s eyes—they would stay with me forever.

When mom came in, all cheerful and happy in her shorts and bright T-top, I felt Mr. Kohl’s fingers around my throat.

She plopped an assortment of summer wildflowers into a vase on the table. “So, how was it? Did you have a good time and learn about the wide world?”

Her smile was so genuine; I felt tears flood my eyes. I wanted to explain, but she raised her hand. “Oh, before I forget, we’ve got a luncheon on Thursday, and I want you to bring your music books. It’d be great if you played a little something.”

I choked and covered my face with my hands. “Mom….”

Before I could prepare myself, she threw herself down on the couch next to me. Her arm wrapped around my shoulders, and her voice cracked. “Was it awful, then?”

I pulled away and stared at her much like I must’ve stared at Dead Clermont. “You know?”

Tears glimmered in her eyes. “I’ve known and tried to live with knowing all my life.”

I bolted to my feet. “Why on God’s green Earth did you send me then? The whole thing was hopeless, a total disaster!”

It was almost as if she and Mr. Kohl were related. Her eyes burned, and I was back in that fiery furnace. “You were born into this world, but that hardly excuses you from knowing their world. I could never have explained. You had to see for yourself.”

She was right. No one could’ve explained. And even when you get up close and personal, you still don’t really understand. But now—in an aching sort of way—it’s your world too.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: The Visit

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled. “Most do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

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

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00