Mostly, I Live Life

Rebah stared—turning her head as far back as it would go—at the crow perched on an old wooden post in front of rows of golden corn stalks, as she drove no less than sixty on the rural Illinois road.

She should’ve stopped. By the time she made up her mind and looked in the rearview mirror, the proud plumage was flying high across the cornfield into the bean field.

Where’re you going?

It couldn’t hear her and wouldn’t care to answer if it did. Rebah only wanted to stare at it long enough to imbibe the magical power it held—the mystical passion embodied in a carefree moment.

She glanced at her handbag leaning forlornly on the passenger seat, the strap folded across the open pocket that held the keys to her current existence—her cell phone and her to-do list.

Jed, she repeated. Jed. Not Jeb or Jacob. It’s Jed. She tried to picture the man her husband told her owned the shop.

“Tall, lanky, elderly guy with gray hair.”

 Gee, thanks, Honey. Got it now.

 Rebah stretched her mind back. Had Brad ever used figurative language? Did he ever describe a person as more than a combination of physical attributes? It was one of the things she’d loved about him—his honest, clear thinking. Never sarcastic like her dad or manipulative like her sister. Just a straightforward kind of man.

Three plump blackbirds stood at odd angles to each other on the road ahead. Apparently, they weren’t in a hurry, but she was. As her car zoomed up to the twenty-yard mark, they flapped into the blue September sky, majestic and unperturbed. “We’re heading on anyway, Lady. Don’t think for a second that you altered our plans.”

She wanted to laugh. Giggle. A smirk would do. But she had to find Jed’s countryside shop and buy a part for the mower. It was an old mower and needed an old part, preferably one that worked. It was all Greek to her. Mowers belonged in the same category as electricity and nuclear fusion.

A right on Acorn Road, two streets down, and on the left, 119 E. Acorn Rd. a workshop appeared as if by magic. A wooden structure built back and to the left of a cottage that belonged in a land of “far away and long ago.” Charming hardly covered it.

The rock driveway lined with late-season flowers curved around the back of the shop. She parked, rolled down the window, and imbibed.

The porch cozied over two garden beds run riot with daisies, asters, chrysanthemums, and coneflowers. Cornstalks tied to the railings decorated the steps as a scarecrow stood watch, both his smile and his pitchfork ready for service. Hanging plants perked up the mellow season with dashes of red and green, while ceramic squirrels scampered down the steps, leading to a maple tree just breaking into full autumn glory.

Rebah climbed out of her car and exhaled. “Good God in heaven!”

“Yeah, I’d say that’s about right.”

The man’s deep voice followed by a light chuckle turned Rebah’s gaze.

Coming from the dim interior of the shop, ambled a man exactly as her husband described. Except her husband had failed to mention the bulbous nose, oversized ears, long grey beard, and the sweetest eyes she had ever delved.

“What can I do for you?”

Rebah wondered if she was in love. She wanted to live in this little house, sit on a bench, watch this gentle giant work in his shop, and absorb the conviviality that emanated from the air in this enchanted spot on Acorn Road.

She spluttered, “Oh, yes, actually, my-uh, husband sent me over to get a part. George. My husband. He needs something you have.”

She wasn’t sure if that last part was a question or a statement of fact, but she prayed Jed was a mind reader since she could no longer rely on the power of speech.

“George? Oh, yes!” Jed grinned impishly as befitted the gnome-spirit he represented. “I have the part right here in my shop. I was just cleaning it a bit. They get a mite dusty sitting on the shelf, don’t you know.”

A howl of laughter fought earnestly with a sob of despair. By all the saints, Rebah knew about dust! Dust bunnies and spider webs had beaten her into submission long ago. Who on earth cleaned an engine part? A pitiful squeak was the best she could manage as the battle ended in a draw.

“Well, come on in and have a cup of something while you wait. I like a little spiced cider as the evening draws close. Perks a fellow up after a long day.” He ambled back into the shop, turning a switch on the wall just inside the doorway.

Yellow lamplight flooded the room, conjuring images of children’s fairytale books. Cherry stained shelves lined the walls, filled with an impossible variety of projects. Small engine parts, kitchen essentials—toasters and mixers, a variety of wall clocks, one small organ, two violins, and, of course, an assortment of broken toys stood, sat, or leaned in repose for their appointment with Jed’s dexterous fingers.

Rebah tried to shake herself into conscious reality. “So, you’re a fixer? A repair guy?” Oh heck, that seemed as inadequate as calling a CIA agent a sleuth.

After pouring a fresh cup of cider into a mug from a dark brown jug and setting it within easy reach, Jed ran a cloth lovingly over the metal part that—in Rebah’s opinion—hardly deserved the attention.

She sipped the cider, warmth tingling all over. Her eyes strayed to the mower part. She frowned. It was just metal, after all. It would go in a machine, get dirty again, and no one would care in the least.

“I fix those things that I can. Mostly, I live life.”

A lump formed in Rebah’s throat. She blinked.

Two crows and three blackbirds hopped up to the open doorway, their bright eyes keeping a careful watch on Rebah.

Jed laughed. He laid the metal part on his workbench, scooped an old can into a plump bag hanging on the wall, then carried the full container of seeds to the doorway. He scattered supper to the hungry throng and watched them in serene joy.

Rebah watched his every move as absorbed as it was the finale of her favorite primetime drama. “God, I want what you’ve got.”

It felt like cold water in the face when Rebah realized that she had said the words out loud.

“Eh?” Jed returned to his machine part. He wrapped it in a clean cloth and laid it at the bottom of a paper bag. He folded the bag neatly and handed it to Rebah.

She slurped the rest of her drink, letting the warm tingly feeling bring a smile to her face, covering her confusion. Perhaps he hadn’t heard. “How much do I owe you?”

“Ten ought to cover it. It’s a recycled part and didn’t need much mending.”

She ran to her car, dropped the bag on the back seat, shuffled through her purse, found two fives, scurried back, and met Jed in front of his porch steps. She handed him the money. A longing nearly broke her heart. “I wish my place looked like this. More, I wish I felt like…this…place.”

To Rebah’s astonishment, Jed smiled.

“Yeah. That’s how I was when I first came here. I’d been in the army for more years than I can remember, fought people I didn’t want to fight, lost family to drugs and alcohol, though my youngest sister died of cancer last year. But you know, the old woman who owned this place said that it just needed tender care. If I’d give it that and do every task with gentle love, I’d be repaid in full.” Jed tapped the railing. “By golly, she wasn’t off the mark.”

Tears filled Rebah’s eyes. “You don’t mean that my place could look like this?”

“No. This place belongs here on Acorn Road. But the beauty I wake up to every day? Why, that belongs everywhere that’ll allow it in.”

~~~

When Rebah drove up to her short straight driveway, her husband, George stood on their overgrown lawn, grinning.

She grinned back. “I’ve got the part, and I’ll get dinner on in a minute, Love.”

When a crow flapped overhead, she knew whom she’d invite to dinner next.

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/crow-bird-animal-plumage-beak-3604685/

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction Novel

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

 

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

Riko’s Uncle Clem

*Uanyi are smaller, slim creatures, standing about four to five feet tall. They are insectine with soft, rubbery exoskeletons as well as internal bones. Uanyi most prominent features are their enormous eyes, some almost a foot in diameter, which is endearing to some, but nightmare fuel to others. Their bright colorations are also striking as are their long necks. Uanyi do not breathe the same air mixture as humans, and so they wear breathing masks that cover their mouths. Many humans find their crab-like mandibles rather frightening. Although they speak with synthesized voices, they have a terrific grasp of various languages.

 *Ingoti are large, ranging from six to seven feet tall. They are heavy due to their extensive weight and girth but are fast and extremely powerful. They are never seen outside of their bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms, leading some to believe that they are in fact cyborgs and that the “armor” is built directly into their bodies. They are scientists at heart, but their moral reasoning tends to be very black and white, almost child-like.

Riko stared at the larger-than-life screen and felt his Uanyi physique tremble beneath his immaculate white shirt and pressed, dark blue pants. He swallowed and tried not to blink too rapidly.

Uncle Clem beamed a radiant grin across the universe, his excitement apparent in his waving hands and nearly epileptic shaking. “It’ll be like ol’ times, Riko! You and me—against all opposing forces. We can—”

Riko raised a thick-fingered hand. “Uncle Clem, stop! Listen. It’s not like that here. I own an establishment, a nice place. Beings come from all over Newearth just to enjoy my varied cuisine and OldEarth-style comforts. There are no opposing forces.”

With a shake of his head, Uncle Clem dispelled that foolish naiveté. “If you think that just because things are calm at the moment means it’ll always be so, then you’re not thinking like a Uanyi. We know our history. Worlds change. Cultures change. Clashes are inevitable.”

A clattering of dishes falling into the auto-wash forced Riko to glance away and yell at the new waiter. “Hey, careful there! Dents ruin reputations. You’re not paid to kill my business.”

Apologetic murmurs and a softer rattling allowed Riko to return to his uncle. “Listen, you’re welcome to come and stay as long as you like. I just don’t want you to think that you need to fix anything. Nothing is broken. Life is good here.”

Uncle Clem nodded, his shoulders straighter and his eyes darker. “You do know about Cosmos, the planet-eater, right?”

Riko swallowed, his hands clasped behind his back. “I’ve heard rumors—but they’re only rumors. I’ve got friends, and they’re looking into things. The Interalien Alliance is working with the Luxonian Supreme Council, and even the Ingoti Magisterium is—”

A weary hand stopped Riko’s assurances. “And the humans? What about the Newearth Governor? She’s gonna to let alien races decide Newearth’s fate?”

A huge Ingot strode forward in her bulky techno-organic armor and hissed through her breathing helm in Riko’s ear.

Riko scrunched his shoulders reflexively. He listened and then glanced back at the screen. “Listen, I got to get back to work. One of my customers just drank himself under the table, and no one wants to admit that he’s got a problem. A regular…you know.” Riko heaved his shoulders and shook off his concerns. “I’m glad you’re coming, Uncle Clem, really. Just don’t expect too much. We live a pretty boring existence here—and I don’t want to change that. You understand?”

Uncle Clem held up his laced, tented fingers in Uanyi I-promise-or-hope-to-die fashion. “Trust me. I want what you want. I’m just coming to see you and bask in your success.”

Riko nodded. “Stupendous. See you in the next moon cycle then.”

The screen blinked to black, and Riko stood silent.

The Ingot returned and tapped him on the shoulder.

Riko looked up, his huge bulbous eyes fixed on his hostess. “Yeah? What now?”

The ingot shrugged sheepishly. “Taking a bit of risk—aren’t you?”

Riko glared and poked the Ingot in the chest. “What’s the risk? He’ll come, and everything’ll be fine.”

“Maybe. Or he’ll come and find nothing but space debris.” The Ingot paced away. “Course, he could get in the way and become space debris.”

Riko froze.

~~~

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

Jazzmarie

The grin on Jazzmarie’s face startled Max. As an android with human tendencies, or, as Cerulean likes to say—Android Extraordinaire—Max considered himself something of an expert on pretty much everything. But from the moment that Jazzmarie first stepped her dainty foot on the deck of the Merrimack, he felt bewildered. Worse—completely disarmed. He glanced over as she tapped the communications console. She was still grinning. Max veered his eyes away. Quickly.

Jazzmarie looked up and stared, her grin still wavering like a mirage in the desert. “By the Divide, what are you so scared of?”

Though Max’s skin was entirely synthetic and he could never actually jump out of it, suddenly the Oldearth expression made horrific sense to him. Clamping his jaw into what he hoped was an impressive bulge, he turned sharply. “I am not scared of anything.” His gaze skimmed directly over Jazzmarie’s head.

Stepping over, Jazzmarie propped herself on her tiptoes and raised her head to eye level, intercepting his gaze. “So why do you look pale enough to rival a Greek Goddess?”

Flummoxed, Max’s eyes searched for an escape. His gaze grazed her lips. “For your information, Miss Marie—”

“Nope.”

Max tilted his head; his mouth froze in the O position.

“My name is Jazzmarie. One word. My parents liked how the sounds flowed together.” Her fingers caressed the edge of the console as she emitted a plaintive sigh. “I wouldn’t have minded something from my native Oldearth heritage like Arjun or Sachin, but—” the grin was swallowed whole by a determined pout, “—Mom liked Jazz and Dad liked Marie, so….”

With a blank stare, Max reverted to the facts at hand. “I’m not scared—just naturally pale. I am an android embedded with an embryonic human brain that has developed—actually overwhelmed—parts of me.”

Raising one eyebrow, Jazzmarie twirled toward the medical database console and tapped the surface. “Which parts?”

Max practiced an eye roll like the one he had seen Cerulean preform to devastating effect. Unfortunately, it took three tries to achieve a complete rotation. Max gripped the railing for support.

Jazzmarie waved with a couple dainty fingers. “Just joking. I know all about you. Don’t think I would sign aboard a mission without knowing the crew intimately—do you?” With a startling jerk, she stretched and yawned. “By golly, I’ve already put in a full day. What say we get something to eat? This little rocket ship has got a sweet canteen according to the specs.”

Max squared his shoulders and lifted his head. If he was right, this formidable woman had just asked him for a date. Flinging a gallant elbow aside, he nodded his assent.

Jazzmarie took his arm; her grin led the way.

~~~

The canteen’s décor left much to be desired by most human standards. Gray walls surrounding three, pale blue tables with seats enough for twelve, and the barest culinary choices set a Spartan tone. Max ordered his favorite yogurt-plus and a coffee, while Jazzmarie selected a grilled tomato & cheese sandwich and hot cocoa.

Jazzmarie slipped onto one swivel chair, sliding her tray on the table, and huffed in disgust. “Good thing I have a vivid imagination or this wasteland would get me down.” She snapped her fingers in Max’s direction. “Wait—great idea flooding my brain!”

Horror rippled across Max’s face as he spluttered his coffee.

Without ceremony, Jazzmarie mopped up the spray. “I have a set of OldEarth visuals that I can plaster over the walls. It’ll look so cool—”

Max attempted a semblance of dignity. “Our preferred temperature range is—”

“Just an ancient expression, Maximan. Now, look—” she sipped hot cocoa from her mug, “I’ve researched everything about this Cosmos we’re chasing, but I bet you know more. You’ve traveled all the highways and byways—right? I want to see this mission from your perspective.”

Holding a spoon brimful of a yogurt-granola mix approximately seventeen centimeters from his open mouth, Max waited.

Jazzmarie frowned. “What?”

Resuming his trajectory, Max slurped, chewed, and swallowed. He titled his head in consideration of the woman across the table. “I do not think it is within the realm of possibility that you seen anything from my perspective. It isn’t physically—”

Jazzmarie waved his words away like dust. “So? You think we can stop this monster?”

Placing his spoon beside his bowl, Max crossed his legs and leaned back. He attempted a studious expression. “I must take issue with the term ‘monster.’ Technically, Cosmos is a massive, simple-celled, space creature that feeds off planetary matter. While a monster is—”

“Someone’s nightmare, I know.” Jazzmarie’s gaze traveled around the perimeter of the room. “She’s got that painted all over her.” Jazzmarie’s gaze returned to Max. She let it rove over him a moment as a slow smile tugged at her lips. “I like your style, Maximan. No jumping to conclusions or hasty appraisals.” She took a huge bite out of her sandwich and chewed, her grin back in full force.

Max gulped his coffee heedless of the burn scorching his throat.

After Jazzmarie had polished off her sandwich and pushed aside her empty cup, she snatched a glance at her data-pad. “Jumping Jackdogs, Roux and the new gal will be here at any moment.” She pointed to the pink, gelatinous mass in front of him. “You better finish that up in a hurry, or you might look unprofessional on your first day.”

Grabbing the edge of the dish, Max lifted it to his lips and slurped the contents in one last, desperate effort.

The door slid open revealing the Luxonian commanding officer, Roux, and his  Bhuaci assistant, Yelsa Prater, standing side-by-side. Roux stepped in, and Yelsa followed.

Jazzmarie shot to her feet saluting smartly.

Roux walked forward, a little frown embedded in his forehead. “No ceremony with me, Doctor.” He glanced at Max.

Max stood and thrust out a stiff hand. A pink circle highlighted his lips.

Roux’s hand rose to his face with an automatic swiping motion. Regaining his composure, he shook Max’s hand, sparing a hesitant glance at the doctor. “Max, you and the doctor have gotten acquainted, I see.” After a sizable swallow, he faced the doctor head-on. “Are you comfortably settled in?”

With the most serious expression Max had seen all day, Jazzmarie nodded and clipped her words with deadly precision. “Certainly. Thank you for asking.” Her gaze fixed on Yelsa. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

Roux waved in Yelsa’s direction. “Yelsa Prater, tactical expert, the renowned Doctor Jazzmarie.”

Yelsa swung out a confident hand. “It is an honor. I have been looking forward to meeting you.”

Roux’s gaze swept over Max who stood back watching with raised eyebrows, the pink circle still in place. As sweat broke over his brow, Roux gripped Max’s arm. “I need to see you for a moment.” With an authoritative tug, he jerked Max to the other side of the room, swiped a napkin from a dispenser, and waved it in the direction of Max’s mouth.

In bug-eyed comprehension, Max wiped his lips. “Sorry, Sir. I was distracted—”

Roux shook his head and glanced back at the two women. “Never mind.” His gaze stayed fixed on the doctor. After a moment, he turned and faced Max. “I’m just glad that Doctor Jazzmarie didn’t see your…little indiscretion.”

Max shrugged. “She practically choreographed—” He blinked. “Why do you say that?”

With another tug, Roux yanked Max to a side counter and turned his back on the women. “You’re not from around here, so you wouldn’t know her reputation. Just don’t make that woman mad; that’s all I ask. She is Newearth’s medical leader in alien biology and has more reconstruction surgeries under her belt than any being this side of the Divide, but her temper is as renowned as she is—devilish—they say.”

Tilting his body slightly, Max veered his gaze around Roux and over the renowned, and now quite composed, Doctor Jazzmarie. Taking a deep breath, he nodded and swiveled back to Roux. “She certainly has a dangerous grin.”

~~~

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

Soul’s Birth in Morning Soil

Soul’s birth in morning soil,

Spring sprouts from ancient toil.

First steps—firm hold to fingertip,

Grace flows from humble village to ocean ships.

Learning, spinning—webs of life,

Heavenly rays over world-weary strife.

Burdens heavy lay,

Under heat of summer day.

Teacher, prophet, counselor—grief overcome,

Waning light, shortened day—whispers a weakened sun.

Age lines, gray hair, gathering fate,

Autumn harvest—profits wait.

Family tree beyond the page,

Humble grains on winter days.

Souls rebirth in Heaven’s glory,

Sings of God’s unending story.

~~~

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

Grace Nelson’s Murder

I’ve got blood on my hands, pure and simple, but I’m not sorry. Grace Nelson pushed her father’s wheelchair up a gentle incline toward a small, yellow house set aside on a winding, pave-stoned lane. It looks like a picture on an Oldearth vintage postcard. Grace sniffed. So Bhuaci. She squared her shoulders. By the Divide, I hate it here. So blinking perfectI could smash it. Her eyes traveled over to a Bhuaci family strolling down the lane hand-in-hand. Or them.

Grace? Why’d you stop? I’m hungry and it’s getting hot.” Old-man Nelson swiveled his head back as far as it would go.

Grace leaned in and shoved the chair up the last steps to the brown and white front door. “Just tired, Dad. Not as young as I once was, you know.”

The old man chuckled. “None of us are.”

Grace turned the chair sharply about, opened the door, and started back over the threshold.

Nelson pointed a shaky finger at a Bhuac male in a trim, green uniform, brown, military-style boots, and with a severe haircut strolling toward them. “What’s he want?”

Grace shuddered.

“Lawman? That you?” Nelson’s wide grin accompanied his beckoning wave. “It’s been some time since you wandered down this way, Sir.”

Lawman offered a professional smile, but his gaze swept over Grace with anxious wrinkles around his eyes. He shook the old man’s hand. “It has.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry to hear about your wife. I was off-planet—”

Nelson waved the concern aside. “It’s better this way. She doesn’t have to slave away over a decrepit, old fool anymore.”

Lawman’s eyes flashed to Grace again.

Grace’s impenetrable stare focused on the park across the road.

Lawman gestured weakly with a pained look in his eye. “With Grace here, you’ll always be well looked after.”

Nelson’s chuckle sounded like a cackle. “She’s wasting her life on me—but I can’t seem to get her to leave.” His grin widened as he stared Lawman in the eye. “So, what can we help you with? Or is this a social call?”

Lawman’s back straightened. “I just wanted to check in and see if I can be of service. You’re one of our first human settlers on Helm, and I’d hate—”

Nelson’s voice boomed. “Don’t be ridiculous! We’re not going anywhere; are we Grace? Quite happy here. Couldn’t stand Lux with that bright sun in my eyes every minute and all those high and mighties zipping about. Never knew when one might be in the room with you. Now, you Bhuacs may be shapeshifters, but at least you have respect for human sensibilities. You maintain your form, and nice forms they are too, quite pleasing—”

Lawman’s eyes strayed over to Grace. “You’re happy here, Grace?”

Grace’s stiff smile matched her stony gaze. “I’m happy wherever I’m needed.” She sucked in a deep breath. “And, at the moment, I am needed in the kitchen. It must be past noon.”

Lawman nodded. “Certainly. Don’t let me keep you. Good day.” He dropped a smile on Nelson and backed away.

Grace maneuvered the wheelchair over the threshold and started to close the door.

Suddenly, Lawman gripped the edge and leaned in, peering into Grace’s face. “Oh, and Grace, we know…about it.” He nodded decisively. “You mustn’t let it ever happen again.”

An icy gleam narrowed Grace’s eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She swung her father’s chair around and let the heavy door fall shut. Her shoulders hunched up near her ears as she pushed the chair into a large, well-lit kitchen with a built-in oven next to a six-foot cabinet. She parked the wheelchair next to a cushioned recliner with a small table attached on one end.

Nelson swiveled his body from the wheelchair onto the recliner and plopped down with a long sigh. He snatched a datapad from the table and began to scroll through.

Grace pulled a container from a freezer unit, popped it into the wall-oven, and tapped a console. Efficiently, she laid the counter and her father’s table with bowls, utensils, and linen napkins. As she poured golden liquid into sparkling, crystal glasses, her father snorted. Her head snapped up.

Nelson’s eyes stayed glued to his datapad, but a smile played around his lips. “Silly fool. What’s he think he’s going do? Send me back to Lux? Imprison you?”

Grace froze. Her eyes rolled over to her father. “What are you talking about?”

Nelson slapped the datapad onto his lap with one eyebrow cocked. “Oh, please. You didn’t honestly think you could murder my wife without anyone noticing, did you?”

Grace reached out and leaned heavily on the counter, barely a breath escaping between her lips. “Oh, God.”

Nelson waived the sentiment away. “God had little to do with it, I’m sure. Besides, I’m not angry. Frankly, the old biddy was driving me mad. I’m sure that every Bhuac this side of the Divide felt sorry for me. You know, Lawman tried to talk me out of marrying Mara. Said she was unstable.” Nelson snorted. “Right about that! She may have looked like a nymph on steroids, but she acted like an Ingoti drug—”

Grace squared her shoulders and faced her father. “How long have you known?” Her blinking eyes searched the room as she wrung her hands together. “You don’t think Lawman will—”

Nelson’s eyes softened as he beckoned his daughter nearer. “Listen, it was my fault, really. I thought she’d liven up my final years. How was I to know she’d—”

Grace slapped the counter and swallowed, her gaze fixed on her father’s side table. “I poisoned her.”

“Aw, heck, she was poisoning me. Well, my sunset years, so to speak. Forget about it.” Nelson picked up his datapad and tapped it. “It won’t happen again. It’s not like you’re a serial killer or anything.” He grinned and darted a glance at his daughter before returning to his pad. “Then I’d have to poison you.”

Grace’s cooled gaze traveled from her father’s bowl to the cabinet and back to his bowl.

~~~

When Omega’s shadow appeared in Grace Nelson’s bedroom that night, she stifled a scream. Catching her breath, she gritted her teeth. “Lawman, is that you? Trying to scare me—”

Omega, dressed in a flowing, purple tunic with green leggings and orange slippers held up a long-fingered hand and huffed. “Hardly!” He circled the perimeter of the room. “I’ve been watching you, Grace Nelson, and I think you’re on the brink of great self-discovery.” He stroked his chin. “Or self-destruction.”

Grace took a step closer, her hands balled into fists. “Who the h—?”

Omega flourished a graceful bow. “My name is Omega, last son of…oh, never mind. Listen, human, I’m trying to save your miserable life and offer you a chance. The Bhuaci are notoriously suspicious of strangers, and you certainly put their hackles up by killing one of their own, even though they admit—privately of course—that Mara’s moons weren’t in proper alignment—as they say.”

Grace sat on the edge of her bed and rubbed her temple. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Omega flicked his index finger upwards and a small town appeared floating in mid-air. Humans bustled in and out of markets, and cars rolled down the dusty roads.

Grace stood up, fascinated, staring at the scene. “Is that a hologram—from somewhere?”

Omega pursed his lips. “That, my dear woman, is Mirage-Reborn—your new home.”

“Home? Don’t be stupid. Why would I go there? It looks primitive. There’s not even—”

Omega snapped his fingers and the town disappeared. “Because, Grace Nelson, if you don’t go there, you will be murdered here.”

Grace froze. “But my father….”

Omega laughed. “Don’t worry; we’ll bring him along. After all, he’s the reason you need to leave. Your mother didn’t die in her sleep like he says—she was very much awake—poor thing. Father like daughter, I always say.” Throwing his arm over her shoulder, he led her back to bed. “Get some sleep, Grace, and I’ll arrange everything in the morning.”

Grace stumbled onto her bed, pulled her covers close under her chin, closed her eyes, and wondered who she should trust—this stranger named Omega or the father she had never really known.

~~~

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

The Kingdom of IF

Once upon a time there was the kingdom of IF (Indivisible Fiefdom – a bit of an oxymoron but as people liked it, so it was) and the people of IF had a king, King Oban, who was chosen by them because of his great popularity, and so they believed, as every generation before had believed, that he would be the perfect king.

When he ascended to the throne they hailed him as both hero and savior, and he believed every word of their hearty proclamations (though why he should is a bit of a mystery for even a smattering of IF history should have warned him that no king served unscathed and more often than not was picked to pieces before he was ousted for a more promising candidate).

The kingdom had started out nobly enough, in fact, inspiring quotes like “I will live and die for the salvation of IF” were quite prominent in their early history. Young citizens of IF loved to thrust their little fists against their chests with hearty thuds and quote the luminaries who offered their lives in the service of IF, though in more modern times this had gone quite out of fashion for everyone is well aware that it is a young person’s primary duty was to live and die only for themselves.

But the Kingdom of IF faced a crisis, unlike anything they had ever faced before, though to be sure they had faced and overcome many dire situations in their uncounted generations of existence. But now, the Indivisible Fiefdom was sorely divided between the Earth-dwellers and the Sky-dwellers both of whom claimed the right to influence the king. But as it turned out, King Oban was heavily in debt to the Earth-dwellers (for his great-great-grandmother on his father’s side was an Earth-dweller of immense standing, and she had quite a bit of money in very deep pockets) and this left the Sky-dwellers in a high dungeon for they felt left out of everything.  In fact, every decision the king had to make was considered from these two opposing camps, but he overwhelmingly favored the Earth-dwellers.

The Earth-dwellers saw everything from a personal point of view.  “It is my right!” was their motto and “Save the Earth!” was another favorite axiom. The Sky-dwellers, on the other hand, saw everything as a matter for long consideration in relation to right and wrong. Though there were a variety of different clans in the Sky-dwellers dominion, still they tended to group around a vision of a “higher-calling” and this left the Earth-dwellers perfectly incensed for they believed that no one had the right to tell anyone else what to do (except of course when they were telling the Sky-dwellers where to go and how to follow their laws) but the Sky-dwellers were also in the habit of telling the general population how things ought to be done though they argued, quite honestly that they were not preaching a singular individualistic doctrine, but the beliefs of their ancestors dating back time out of mind. Their favorite motto was “God really rules” (though there was some debate as to what God believed exactly) and they loved the ancient melody and lullaby “Tradition Still Has Meaning In Our Lives.”

But the real danger facing the Kingdom of IF was not simply their divided nature, for they were always arguing, but rather that they did not look very far into their own future.  For it was the will of the people of IF that when the king chose a side, he must stick to that side at all costs and listen not a word to the other side—even if they happened to be making humongous good sense.

So the population of IF was dwindling into sad chaos, in fact, it was only surviving due to the charity of a few who still believed in the ancient prophesy that the Kingdom of IF was the best of all the kingdoms put upon the earth.

But there was another danger facing the kingdom that few seemed to realize. There was an enormous kingdom to the east known as DOOM whose motto was “Conquer without battle”.  And though they professed enduring love for the people of IF, they were secretly rubbing their hands in glee at all the in-fighting between the Earth-dwellers and the Sky-dwellers for they were observing that all the work of destruction was being done quite efficiently for them. Also on the sidelines were the tri-kingdoms of Kab, Bab, and Dan.  These three semi-allied kingdoms (always together except when they were at each other’s throats) also professed an enduring love for the people of IF, though they would chant “Death to the King of IF” at every family gathering.

Besides the efforts of King Oban (who was himself a hard worker except when he was on vacation, which was at least once a week or every day that began with a headache and that was becoming rather more common) there were organizations of “Centralized Order” with highly trained worker-bureaucrats toiling ever so hard in the dark, dank libraries of great wisdom (though their words were drier than the parchment they lay upon) to keep the kingdom financially afloat. They had at that time finished volume P of laws and rules for tax regulation though they were now working on volume Q, but it had become stalled when the president/ CEO (and DMD for he pulled teeth on the side) of Rule-Keepers had to have an extended stay at Sunny-Shade, for his nerves had become rather undone in all the hairsplitting technicalities of tracing contradictory laws and rules and regulations to their origin and rewriting them in modern jargon.

But the people of IF saw not their danger.

There was, however, one child who had written a poem for her mother, who seemed to grasp the implications of the dire times. She had learned in school of their noble history, and her friends had all chosen sides. But one sunny day her little brother sat down beside her near a great old oak tree, and he asked her why she looked so sad.  Though she could not answer her sibling’s innocent question, she did think that a poem might relieve her pent-up feelings, so she wrote this quaint little prose, and she gave it to her mother who was clearly too busy to read it.

But you may find time in your busy life to read it before the parchment crumbles into dust—for even questions from young people will fade if given enough time to wither and fall.

THE KINGDOM OF IF

If only we remembered from whence we came

And delighted in the goodness from above.

If only we grew our strength

From the victory of enduring love.

If only we realized that everything we have is a gift.

And that gifts can be taken away.

If only we toiled for that which lasts

And not so much for the day.

If only we lived lives of hope and not of dreadful dread-

We would know lives of joyful fruit

And not live as if we were already dead.

So, though the Kingdom of IF still stands upon its majestic past, and faces its future quite blindfolded, still it will not last forever, for nothing in this world ever does.  But there is a quaint little plea in the child’s verse that strikes deep into the heart—for history will record not only how well the kingdom rose but how badly it fell.

Yet may our world live long, inspiring hope and enduring faith in humanity.

If only….

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