Survival of the Fittest

Ling believed in wood-folk with her whole soul. The magic of a mid-winter snowstorm over sleeping fields opened a doorway into a world of scheming squirrels and spirit-filled pine trees. A cawing raven warned the tree-stump mouse family of a stalking calico cat while swaying trees forecasted an impending storm.

Though Ling could hear the voices plain enough, their actual words eluded her. The sound of their murmuring sent a warm thrill through her chilled body as she trudged across the newly fallen snow with a bulging backpack slung over her shoulder.

Skipping up the frozen steps to her snug house at the end of the block, she huffed a white plume of smoke into the air. Before turning the door handle with her mittened hands, she turned and bowed goodnight to her wood-folk-friends. No doubt they wished her well through the silent evening glow, and she, in turn, would not forget them.

After tugging off her wet boots and dropping her pack in a heap, she tiptoed down the dark hall toward her father’s study. His bent figure leaned over a hardwood desk with a computer screen outlining the edges of his head. Swallowing back her anxiety, Ling timidly tapped on the doorframe.

A shuffle and a snort precluded his slow turn. Black eyes in a pale face peered at the doorway.

Ling dropped her gaze.

“So, you made it home on time today.”

Ling nodded but stayed in place. “Yes, Papa.”

He granted permission to enter with a slight beckoning gesture. “Come in.” His gaze darted back to the screen. “There’s not much more I can do here today.”

Ling scuttled forward and placed her small hand on the arm of his chair. Her eyes flickered to the screen. A gorgeous painting of a woodland scene snatched her breath away. Her fingers rose as if to touch the gently swaying tendrils of an enormous weeping willow.

Her father wrapped a loose arm around her waist and drew her closer, his gaze joining hers. “It’s for a mid-western university. They want to demonstrate their inclusiveness by commissioning art from every culture in the world.”

Ling blinked, the spell broken. “Inclusiveness?”

The old man shrugged. “Art can be a unifying force.” He tilted his head. “Of course, it can be enslaved by a propaganda machine just as easily.” Ling’s puzzled frown brought a tired smile to her father’s face. “You are too young for such things. Enjoy your freedom while you may.”

Placing her hand on his silky sleeve, Ling pressed his arm in excitement. “I saw a red fox sneaking across the field. He’s been threatening the other animals, wants to rule the west woodland. Do you think the—?”

A shrill call cut through the air. “Ling? Come here, child, and bring your school bag.”

Her whole body drooping under a sudden weight, Ling stepped back toward the door. She gazed at her father. “You should draw a fox peeking out from behind the tree.”

The old man’s eyes shifted from the picture to his daughter, surprise on his brow but pleasure in his eyes. “Why?”

She trudged across the threshold, her eyes darting toward the kitchen. “Because—there’s always a fox around somewhere.”

~~~

After hours of study, Ling’s eyes burned with exhaustion. Her blurry vision made it difficult to make out the text before her. Her mother filled the kettle for tomorrow’s tea and set it in its designated place on the stove. The immaculate room stood in readiness for the next day to meet the demands of a peak performance.

In her weary haze, Ling wondered if a kitchen could revolt—demand a rest from the never-ending grind of routine preparations. Pots and pans, stovetops, counters, scraping, cleaning, bubbling, oil, smoke, dishes, and grime, wiping—endlessly wiping—it all away, only to start over the next morning before the sun even hinted at the day.

“What has gotten into you, child? You’ve been sitting there for an hour, and nothing is done. You know your exams are next month. You want to be ready.”

Ling nodded.

Her mother placed a damp hand on her shoulder. “You won’t succeed unless you work hard and try—”

“Mama?”

Her mother stared down, their gazes locking.

An implicit allowance offered Ling courage. “We’re supposed to make a family tree and describe our cultural heritage in class next week.”

A stiff jerk and the mother’s gaze shifted to the wall. “That won’t be hard. I have our whole lineage written down, and your father can tell you what each person did for a living.”

Ling shook her head, dissatisfaction pressing on her shoulders like a lead weight. “I’d rather take one of Papa’s pictures to show. That would—”

Her mother turned and swiped the clean counter with a vicious smack. “Pictures are only illusions. Don’t be ridiculous. Our family has survived a great deal—more than most—and we did it by facing facts and working hard.”

“But Papa’s pictures—”

“Your father makes pictures because he is paid to do so. He is an illustrator. He works at his job—as you will too before long.”

Her mother’s unflinching gaze squeezed Ling’s heart.

“It’s survival of the fittest, just like all the books say. And you, Ling, must survive.”

Ling’s gaze dropped to the floor. A small brown knothole in the wainscoting caught her eye. In sudden wakefulness, she thought she saw a small mouse dart out an inquiring face, blinking a question at her. It seemed to ask, “Why?” But Ling had no answer.

~~~

Two dozen years later, Ling pushed her father’s frail form engulfed in a wheelchair through the wide doors out into spring sunshine. A trailing line of elderly people sat like potted plants on the edge of the retirement property. Small blooms added texture to the scene. She found a quiet corner and pressed the brake lever with her foot. Her father, asleep again, would rest in the mild sunshine for an hour or so, until the nurses collected their charges and set them all in a straight row at the long table for a noon dinner.

A passing nurse stopped and patted Ling’s shoulder. “I heard about your mama. So sorry. But your papa is beyond worry now. Just be glad he’s so content.”

Ling nodded and choked back a rising sob. She let her gaze fall on the surrounding scenery. No one could fault the clean and professional atmosphere. Suddenly, her eyes fell on the swaying branches of a weeping willow in a neighboring yard.

She felt a hand on her arm. Looking over, she met her papa’s gaze. “I painted in the fox, but I forgot something.”

With wide-eyes, Ling marveled at her father’s sudden lucidity. “What? What could you have forgotten, Papa?”

His eyes drooped in weariness, though a feeble finger shook in emphasis. “I forgot to paint a little girl—to admire the tree and keep an eye on the fox.”

~~~

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

Good Deed

Richard Tyler knew his own mind. After dashing from his job at the gym to his mom’s house, he breezed through the kitchen door with all the confidence of an Academy Award winner.

His mom’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “I thought you were having lunch with Kimberly.”

Despite the August heat, Richard shivered. “She decided she needs to ‘reevaluate her priorities.’” He shrugged off his discomfort. “Guess that includes lunch.”

His mom’s gaze swiveled from her baloney and cheese sandwich set neatly on a plate with a modest mound of chips on the side—to Richard. She slid the plate across the table. “Here. Sit and eat before your class.” She crossed to the stove and stirred a pot of tomato soup.

Richard plunked down in the chair, grabbed the sandwich, and chewed with a faraway look in his eyes.

After pouring the soup into a ceramic mug, his mom slid into a chair across from Richard. “You know, she’s only nineteen, in journalism, and you’re a bit older, wanting to be an actor—”

Richard stiffened; a frown burrowed across his forehead. “What? Like I’m not really an actor, and she’s looking for honest work?”

Mom stirred her soup as she stared into its swirling, red depths. “You might try to see things from her point of view. I mean, she’s—”

Richard shot to his feet scattering breadcrumb across the table. “Totally selfish and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Journalism? Ha! Not an ounce of life experience, and she thinks she’ll wake up the world’s conscience. Yeah, right.”

Mom stared at the cup, searching for wisdom. She responded with a shrug.

With a fretful glance at his watch, Richard started for the door. “I gotta go. We ‘re having a guest director today—said to be brilliant. Might make a good connection.”

The screen door slammed as it closed behind him. Mom wiped up the crumbs.

~~~

As Richard leaned back in his theater chair, he had to stifle a yawn. The room was stuffy, and the new director had been introducing himself for almost an hour. Suddenly, he felt a jolt charge through his body.

“Hey, you, kid with the big chin and blue eyes.”

Richard sprang to his feet.

The director waved him onto the stage. “Come here. I want to demonstrate a point.”

Without hesitation, Richard sprang forward and landed lightly before the rotund, thin-lipped director. “Okay. Listen carefully. You’ve just climbed out of a car wreck, people milling about—horror everywhere. You got a broken rib or something.” He pointed to the stage. “Show me.”

Dropping to his knees, Richard writhed in pain, moaning. He scrambled forward on one arm, the other clutching his middle. His eyes squeezed shut, he rocked and—”

“Stop! Enough. You’ve made my point.”

Panting from his exertion, Richard climbed to his feet, his eyes darting over the other students who studied him with uncertain expectation, waiting to be told whether he deserved approval or scorn.

The director flung a disenchanted arm in Richard’s direction. “I see the same thing all the time—day after bloody day. Actors who forget they aren’t alone. People! It’s not all about you. Remember your audience! They pay for the tickets.”

As Richard stepped into the strong afternoon light, he blinked in near blindness after the hours in the theater’s semi-darkness. He felt lightheaded and needed a drink. Starting across the street toward a fast-food stand, he heard a familiar voice.

“Hey, Richard, wait up.”

With a groan, Richard turned and faced his girlfriend. “Hey, Kimberly.”

Kimberly shifted a stack of books onto her left arm. “Sorry about this morning. I was…I needed some air. Got some bad news.” She glanced up and intercepted Richard’s glazed stare. “My dad’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stage four. Not much time left.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m going to focus on him awhile.” She nodded to her shoes to see if they agreed.

Richard’s gaze fell on the top of her bowed head. “Dang waste.” He clenched his jaw as his mind went completely blank.

Kimberly shook her head. “At least, we have a chance to say goodbye.” She leaned forward and kissed Richard’s cheek. “Good luck—in everything.” Her books stacked in her arms, she turned and trotted across the street.

~~~

Later that evening, Richard jogged around the campus track listening to music through his earbuds. Nausea and malaise seeped throughout his body and soul, burying him deep in gloom. Running as fast as he could, he scowled at the realization that the sensation grew in proportion to his desperation.

Skidding to a halt, he sucked in deep lung-fulls of air. Words, images, impressions kept intruding even as he stared across the dimming horizon. He imagined himself driving along the coast, the windows down and the music loud, accompanied by a gorgeous sunset dispelling the evils of the day. He trotted across the street from his parked car and halted.

A teen, plump with rumpled hair and sagging shoulders, was standing between his beautiful, red car and a battered, old truck. A ragged scratch scarred his car’s shiny exterior. Richard closed his eyes, lifted his head back, and smothered a scream. Finally, he squared his shoulders and marched forward.

The kid glanced over and caught sight of Richard. He wavered between evasion and a complete meltdown.

Taking long strides, Richard’s gaze flashed from the truck to his damaged car.

The kid, now nearly in tears, lifted his hands. “Sorry, mister. It’s all my fault. I’m new at parallel parking—always been a nightmare in driver’s ed.” He scanned Richard’s car wistfully and shoved his glasses further up his nose. “My mom’s got insurance, and I’ll pay with my own money too. So stupid. I should’ve gone to the lot up the street.”

Though the light was failing, Richard’s vision cleared. He swallowed back a rising ache and blinked in hesitation. “Listen, it’s no big deal. I got a friend who works in a body shop, and he owes me. He’ll fix this up in a couple minutes, and it’ll be as good as new. Don’t worry about it.”

The eye-popping relief on the kid’s face tightened Richard’s throat to a searing ache. He sniffed, regaining a semblance of cool composure—the best acting he’d done all year.

~~~

It was nearly midnight when Richard slipped into his mom’s dark kitchen. He plunked down on a chair and laid his head on his arms. A warm hand clasped his shoulder. He didn’t need to look up.

“You okay?”

Richard shook his head and groaned. He sat back and stared through the darkness at his mom’s rumpled figure in her long, shapeless bathrobe. “The director made me look like a fool, Kimberly showed me I was a fool, and some kid I don’t even know gave me a shot at redemption.”

His mom chuckled and sat down, her hand sliding over his. “You know, one good deed deserves another.”

Richard pressed his other hand on top of hers and grinned with the first joy he had felt all day. “It does.”

~~~

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