A World of Possibilities

A sliver of sky cut through the bustling cityscape ahead of me. No matter where someone came from, blue skies, thinly veiled with clouds that wrapped us in their embrace, were universal. After a long trip, I was grateful for anything that made me feel less alone. A new city stretched before me, and at times I felt overwhelmed. 

In the middle of unfamiliar sights and sounds, my mind reeled. It didn’t seem that long ago that I was safely at home, in the quiet of our rural community, focused on my studies at the institute. Graduation day meant celebrations with friends and family, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years. My grandmother flew in, and my cousins who had been living abroad made the trip home to be there for my big day. Even my hard-to-please father admitted I’d made him proud.

Graduation also meant I was no longer a child. I now had adult responsibilities, and those included being a productive part of my community. Everyone needed a job, and after being recruited by one of the biggest headhunters in the country, I didn’t think twice about taking a job far from home. I was flattered, in fact, that they’d want me to be the leadman in their new venture.

Fitting in wasn’’t going to be difficult. Not on the surface, anyway. I’d always had a knack for slipping seamlessly into whichever group I found myself. That was part of the repertoire I brought to the company. 

The question was where to start. My project was important, and my inexperience made me doubt whether I had what it took to identify even the correct starting point. As leadman, I’d already jumped ahead of some seasoned employees to have this position. Was I up to the challenge? After two days here, I had a nagging fear that I wouldn’t perform up to snuff.

The sheer number of possibilities in this place caused much of my anxiety.

Did I become an executive in one of these high rises? The excitement of infiltrating a corporate ladder intrigued me. The capitalist system revolved around making money, and the ability to wheel and deal would open a lot of doors for me.

I could become a shop owner. I’d soon hear all the local gossip and have keen insight into what made the people in this city tick. What motivated them? What did they fear? Who did they trust and distrust? This was all valuable information that my bosses wanted.

What about a taxi cab driver? They met customers from all over, and most people didn’t show discretion in their backseat conversations with others. Many loose lips sailed on those yellow ships that brought people back and forth from airports, hotels, and back door meetings. I’d be privvy to conversations meant to remain confidential, especially if they viewed me as no more than some foreigner who drove a dingy cab for a living.

Just where to start? I realized I had the ability to be flexible, but I didn’t want to waste time on fruitless efforts. If I didn’t make a good impression on the company execs, I’d find myself on the bottom of the heap sorting mail in the back room while my former classmates climbed ahead of me in the hierarchy. No, this was my chance to prove I could do something big. I had to do it right.

Just then, my phone rang.

“Michaelis, a lot is riding on this project.”

“I realize that, Sir. I arrived just two days ago and was familiarizing myself with the area.”

“Well, we aren’t paying you to sightsee. We need you to act quickly and decisively.”

“I understand that, and I apologize.”

“As venture capitalists, it’s our job to move in, use what we can, sell the rest for scrap, and move on. We can’t waste time with this. Other projects are on the burner, too.”

“I’ll start on it immediately.”

We hung up the phone as the light turned green. 

Looking in the rearview mirror of my car, I watched as my face and body completely transformed. Gone were my long green dreadlocks. My golden eyes had turned to a putrid brown common to the citizens of this area. My clothing switched from the shaala wool sweater and pants I’d been wearing to a neatly tailored Armani suit. The closely cropped black hair and a smug expression completed the look I was shooting for.

A corporate insider it was.

Once this job was complete and I’d stripped Earth of all useful resources, I’d return home for my next assignment.

A Box of Matches

Tuesdays were Henry Slidell’s favorite days. His love for them began when he was a boy and his grandmother gave him a stamp collecting set for his 10th birthday. His celebration fell on a Tuesday that year, and every week at the same time he and Grandma Pat added to his collection. They spent hours poring over his new acquisitions, and his grandmother would show him her own displays. Those were special times, and Henry would forever equate Tuesdays with happiness and warm memories. 

Grandma Pat lived in one of those old, carefully preserved homes that made Henry feel as though he had stepped back in time when he stayed there, and he stayed there a lot. His parents weren’t very involved in his upbringing, so he practically lived at Grandma Pat’s. That was just fine with Henry. He developed a special bond with her that shaped who he was and who he would become. Even after her death, he felt that she had never quite left him. On some days, he was sure he felt her gentle guidance with decisions large and small.

Henry’s grandmother was well-cultured and had exquisite taste. Having grown up as the daughter of a librarian and a museum curator, she was well-versed in fine literature and art. Beautiful carpets covered the hardwood floors, and expensive paintings adorned the walls. Years of travel had deeply influenced her eclectic style. If it caught her eye, she made it fit her decor. Primitive mingled with modern museum-quality pieces. Somehow, his stately grandmother made every new addition to her home blend with her other pieces. She had a real eye for placement. 

Grandma Pat was also quite the collector, and of more than just stamps. Of course, she acquired fine art and exotic home furnishings. However, one of her favorite pastimes was simpler in nature. She loved gathering an assortment of teapots. It was an interest that stretched from her childhood until she passed. When she was ten, she was given a special teapot that she loved to show off. This sentimental favorite of hers held center stage above all others. It was unique and whimsical and was shaped in the form of a little girl’s head with a purple butterfly as the lid. That first teapot began her foray into picking up the beautiful and the unusual. She never worried about their current worth or if they were antiques when she purchased them. She bought from the heart and used her artistic eye to judge if a new find was worthy or not. 

As she told Henry, “Everything gets old, so someday, as long as it’s cared for, any item will become an antique. That includes you and me. If it appeals to you, get it, and you won’t have any regrets later.” 

She’d then hug Henry and take him to the kitchen for cookies or some other treat. Grandma Pat was an excellent baker, and Henry was her biggest fan. He never turned down one of her creations. 

Henry fondly remembered her sunny yellow kitchen highlighted by a wall of windows across one side. The oven, range, and countertop covered the opposite wall. Ornate wooden cabinets filled with figurines, and of course, teapots, adorned the area under the windows. The sunlight streaming in made the figurines almost come to life in the mind of a little boy already jubilant from cookies.

A long wooden table filled the center of the kitchen, acting as both cooking island and social gathering place. Henry spent hours at that table, visiting with Grandma and staring out the windows into her lovely yard. In the spring and summer, the luscious smells of flowering trees and vines wafted through the open windows, causing Henry to believe there was no better place, at least not in his experience. Henry still believed there was no better place, and if it wasn’t for the tragic fire that happened shortly after his grandmother’s death, he would have lived the rest of his days in her house.

Grandma Pat was an enigma. As fine of a woman as she was, she was not a snobby elitist, and Henry was quick to remind himself of that. Sometimes his own lavish tastes blinded him to the world around him, and he was keenly aware that Grandma wouldn’t approve of his disdain for the common person. At times, Henry’s face flushed, knowing that his grandmother watched him from the other side, chastising him for his haughty ways.

His grandmother never lost touch of her place in the cosmos. Her life of wealth did not mean she was above anyone else, and she approached all aspects of life with the same humble opinion. While she had fine furniture and household adornments, Grandma Pat also collected strange, ordinary items such as door knobs, buttons, and beautiful rocks. Grandpa Jamison left her a hefty fortune to live on after he passed, so monetary value meant nothing to Grandma when it came to her collections. 

She told Henry many times, “Collect what makes you happy, regardless of what anyone else thinks.”

Henry took her advice to heart. Grandma’s enthusiasm for acquiring and categorizing odd things helped Henry not only with his own hobbies but in his career, too. Insects fascinated him as a child, and his grandmother encouraged him to collect those. It turned into a profession. As the chief entomologist at the university, he displayed insects from everywhere imaginable. Some were common. Others were exotic. Henry loved them all, but the stranger, the better was his motto. He traveled far and wide and never failed to bring specimens back with him. 

One unusual quirk of Henry’s was that he insisted on finding pairs. He wouldn’t place a single specimen in his cases until he knew he had its mate. Both male and female of a species must be together or the display was worthless in Henry’s mind. Who knew where his compulsion came from? Even Grandma Pat wasn’t so rigid, but Henry was a stickler.

Henry spent Tuesdays at home, and in honor of his grandmother, he used that time to go through his collections, making sure all was well with each one and adding to them when appropriate. A perk of being the top professor in his field at the university was that he could call some shots. One reason he’d been drawn to academia was the flexibility in his work schedule. As long as he gave his lectures, held consistent office hours for students, and continued his research (thereby bringing grant money and fame to the institution), he could pretty much do as he pleased. Spending Tuesdays at home to dote over his collections pleased Henry. 

Henry stopped for a moment as he became lost in a memory of his grandmother. He could see her pruning rose bushes, wearing that silly bonnet of hers. Henry sighed. 

She was such an instrumental part of his life, right up until her death. After all these years, he could smell her perfume and hear her sweet voice. She taught him all that was important in life. She taught him about the need to travel and the need to have a healthy curiosity. With the money necessary to support his every whim, she had indulged Henry. He always had whatever toy he wanted as a child, and he had the fastest sports car money could buy as a young man. She also provided him books to read about far away places, and as he became older, she gave him the ability to travel to those far off destinations. Her one requirement was that he bring back souvenirs for his collections. 

Oh, Grandma Pat, how I miss you. I feel so alone without you.

A tear welled in his eye. It was true. Henry was alone. Both parents died in a crash ten years before; not that they’d ever been close to him. One child was all they chose to bear, so he had no siblings to grow old with. As an adult, he’d yet to find friends who shared his sense of adventure and enthusiasm for finding the oddities you encounter when traveling out of your comfort zone. Once he thought he had a girlfriend, but it turned out she had dust in her eye and hadn’t been winking at him at all. Such a lonely life Henry led. 

I can’t dwell on that right now. Grandma wouldn’t want me to be sad.

When looking over his collections, he always began with the stamps because that’s where the shared passion they had began. Yes, those stamps were his prized possessions because they represented a bond that neither time nor his grandmother’s death could diminish.

Henry moved to the next room where he checked his collection of traps and weapons. It’s funny that he had a fascination with such devices. For all his love of travel, Henry wasn’t what you’d call an “outdoorsman.” Not even the pith helmet hanging on the nail over his trap collection allowed him to pretend he’d ever be mistaken for a man’s man. No, he’d always been weak and scrawny. The closest he came to a big game hunt was watching with binoculars from the vehicle. Still, his love of traps and weaponry held his attention—and it even came in quite handy at times, for work and for play. 

The chime of the clock in the living room reminded him it was almost time to eat. Henry considered himself a connoisseur of fine food and drink, and he kept a well-stocked refrigerator, pantry, and wine cellar. His stomach rumbled at the thought of the fine lunch awaiting him in the kitchen. He’d brought it home as take-out last night, knowing he’d be too preoccupied today to go anywhere to eat or to cook for himself. His mouth watered in anticipation. 

Before lunch, however, he had a few tasks to attend to. The next display was a sentimental favorite of his. He perused the collection of fine books, some left to him by his grandmother, and others acquired on his own. He always loved a fine piece of writing. Some poignant memories washed over him as he relived trips he’d made to find these literary beauties. Life as a collector and a traveler was full of so many joys that common citizens just wouldn’t understand. Wealth was a means to achieving a life well-lived. 

With that thought, Henry reached his most intriguing collection of all. The sheer size of it nearly filled an entire room, but it was worth it, especially now that he had found the missing mate to his crown piece. 

A collection is never complete until each piece has its match. 

Joy filled Henry as he carefully lifted the lid on the glass box. Using tweezers specially designed for this purpose, he lifted the wriggling female so he could place her in the display case next to the fine male counterpart he’d already secured with pins. 

“My, you’re a feisty one! This will just take a moment or two. I need to mount you just right. You’re more beautiful than any butterfly back at the office. Don’t struggle, my sweet.”

With that, he applied a dab of glue, and raised the first pin to put her in place. 

His most recent trip to Earth had been worth it to find a specimen such as this. He finally had his matched set of Homo sapiens.

A Bucketful of Wishes

The warm rays of a glorious June sun played on her ringlets. Annalee was captivated by the butterflies flitting from flower to flower in her grandfather’s pasture. The farm was her favorite place to be and, in all of her four years, boredom had ignored her. Whether it was the cows and horses, Grandpa’s faithful dog Shep, or the whimsy of the breeze, Annalee’s imagination was always at work.

As the butterflies circled her, she filled her pail with the daisies that covered the field, careful to smell each one she plucked. Each time, she closed her eyes and smiled before placing the flower in the bucket. The wind blew wisps of her hair in her eyes, and she wiped her forehead with her arm. A monarch caught her attention, and she playfully chased it, hoping to have it land on her outstretched hand. 

Close by her side was good old Shep. He was nearly blind at the age of twelve, but he was devoted to his girl. On the day we brought Annie home from the hospital, Shep had lain beneath her crib, making it clear that she was under his watchful eye. From then on, the two were inseparable whenever we drove to see my mother and father at their eighty-acre farm in the country.

When Annalee made it back to the yard, I had to ask. “Annie, why did you close your eyes every time you put a flower in your bucket?”

“Oh, Mama, I was putting wishes, not flowers, in my bucket. Here, I picked you a bouquet.”

I tousled her hair and swung her up on my hip.

“Let’s put these in a vase. Grandma said lunch is almost ready.”

We made our way up the wooden steps leading to the front door whose threshold I’d crossed thousands of times. I stopped to glance into Annalee’s pink bucket and gave her a little squeeze as I thought about her bucketful of wishes.

I’d grown up on the same piece of land that mesmerized my daughter but, until Annalee showed me its beauty, I’d never recognized the magic it held. Too busy grousing about the endless chores of my childhood, I’d only seen the drudgery of weeding and smelled the stench of the barnyard. My self-centered ways blinded me to the little miracles that surrounded me every day. I grew up, went to college, and secured an office job in the city. Until our Annalee opened my eyes, I missed a lot. I learned, through her, to never miss the chance to see the magic. Even if I came to it a little late, the old homestead tugged increasingly at my heartstrings.

Annalee saw all the miracles. When tadpoles in the pond morphed into frogs, she bounced up and down.

“Mama, just look at them! How does God know that they need to lose their tails and learn to hop?”

“I don’t know, Annie.”

When one of Grandma’s hens hatched a clutch of chicks, Annalee squealed with joy.

“Look at how perfect they are! They’re so good, too. See how they follow their mama everywhere so they don’t get lost?”

She reached her little hand out to me, grasping mine, as she stood wide-eyed in admiration of her new friends.

Just as she saw the magic in the world around her, there was something magical about our strawberry-blonde girl. We weren’t the only ones to notice either. Complete strangers stopped us on the street or in the grocery store.

“What a beautiful child you have!”

“Those eyes are the most amazing shade of blue I’ve ever seen.”

Her zest for life was what impressed everyone the most. She laughed, played, and made friends with everyone she met. Her boundless energy wore us out, but she was a sight to behold. She carried her bucket on most of her adventures, and we were never sure what treasures she’d bring home with her. Rocks, lizards, and fish from the creek all made their way back in her little pink pail. Fearless and determined, she kept us on our toes, and since she was determined to climb trees and to run after her older brother, she always had some sort of bump or scrape.

That’s why we didn’t pay much attention to the bruises she had on her arms and legs. We started to worry, however, when the fevers, joint pain, and fatigue hit her. Instead of our vibrant Annalee, she now fell asleep out of exhaustion an hour after she woke up in the morning.

“Mindy, I think it’s time you and Brian took Annalee into Doc Stevens to see what’s going on.” My mother seldom thought doctors were worth their while, so when she was the one who made the suggestion, we realized we weren’t the only ones who noticed the changes in Annalee.

Doc Stevens took blood samples, and I could tell by the wrinkles on his forehead as he examined our little girl that he was more worried than he let on.

“I’ll send these off to the lab, and we should have the results in a day or two. I’ll let you know when I hear anything, and bring her back in if she seems worse.”

That was the beginning of our nightmare. Leukemia did its best to kill our little girl–and the heart and soul of our family. I stopped eating and refused to leave my bed. Brian worried that he’d have to hospitalize me.

“Mindy, I’m as torn up as you are, but we have to be there for Annalee.”

He was right. I strapped on my emotional armor and made every trip to St. Jude’s in Memphis with her. Our lives revolved around the fight for our daughter’s life.

There are few things I can imagine that are more painful than watching a four-year-old undergo cancer treatments. The only thing that was worse was when the doctors said the unthinkable, “We’ve done all we can do for her. We’ll keep her comfortable.”

It was a rainy June day. Annalee had turned five three weeks before, and her celebration had been from inside a hospital room. We’d turned it into a makeshift hotel room, with at least two of us in the room with her at all times. Now that the end was at hand, the entire family, even my brother Evan who lived in Sacramento, had gathered to be with our Annalee. Since animals weren’t allowed, Shep’s favorite toy, a tattered old bear that was no more than rags, was in the bed next to Annalee. She clung to it.

As the beeping of the heart monitor slowed, and the gauges on the machine registered her weakening vitals, Annalee turned to me in almost a whisper.

“Mama, where’s my bucket?”

“It’s in the corner, next to Grandpa.” 

“Can you bring it to me?”

I wiped the tears from my eyes as my father handed me the tiny pink pail. He gently squeezed my hand as he gave it to me. Turning back to her bedside, I carefully handed it to Annalee.

She peered inside it and smiled. 

“It’s full, Mama. I want you to have it.”

We all glanced curiously at each other, knowing the bucket was empty.

“Why do you want me to have it, Annie?

“I’ve been saving these for you for a long time. I knew you’d need them.”

“Baby girl, I don’t understand.”

“They’re my wishes, Mama. I knew I couldn’t go until I had a bucketful to leave you. You’ll be okay without me now. I put these wishes in here so you’d always have plenty of good luck.”

A tear trickled down the side of my face. Annalee looked out the window as a butterfly landed on the pane. And then my little girl closed her eyes, content that she’d left me with her bucketful of wishes.

When the Cowbird Sings

The black velvet of night fell across the landscape, and somewhere in the distance a whippoorwill called mournfully for a mate in the woods across from our neighborhood. The cloudless sky revealed a dazzling show of brilliant stars, and not even barking dogs broke the beauty of the late hour with shrill yips. I remember it clearly. It was the night my life, and everyone else’s, changed forever.

I was thirteen when Miranda came to us. Mom and Dad had wanted more children, but after my brother Kyle was born, they had no luck getting pregnant. Finally, they decided to become foster parents. I was eager to have a sister, so when I got the news that Miranda would move in with us, I was thrilled. She was three and just old enough for me to coddle and play dress-up with. She was a dream come true for all of us. 

For the first time since I was a little girl, I held tea parties, built a dollhouse, and helped name stuffed animals. We played school by lining the bears and other dolls up in neat rows. I was the teacher, and Miranda was always the star pupil. I put her bouncy curls up with ribbons, used my allowance money to buy her dresses, and did everything I could to be the perfect big sister. I’d needed Miranda. We had all needed Miranda. 

Even Kyle was happy to have her with us. Sure, he grumbled for a while that she wasn’t a boy, but Miranda had an adventurous spirit, and soon he was playing bucking bronco with her and teaching her how to fish at the local lake. He gave up on having a brother, at least for a while, and happily assumed the role of protective big brother. At ten, he figured he was just the man for the job.

Mom and Dad held a lot of sway in our community. Yes, they held admirable jobs, but they had a natural charisma that attracted people to them as well. If we bought a certain kind of car, people we knew followed suit. When Mom decided to grow a garden and donate to the local food shelter, suddenly gardens sprang up everywhere in our town. When they committed to becoming foster parents, others decided that they, too, could provide homes to needy children. Kyle and I were constantly in awe of what our parents could accomplish.

Dad was frequently asked to run for mayor, which he gracefully declined. “I’m no politician, and I don’t want to start now. I’d rather keep my feet planted in the grassroots of helping our neighbors. I’m not one much for titles.”

Following our lead of adopting Miranda, the Roberts family took in Lily and Lamar, siblings. Mrs. Roberts told Mom, “Grace, I’ve thought about it, and now that our children have grown and moved away, Jack and I have plenty of room to take in children who need our help.”

“Meg, that brings tears to my eyes,” Mom said. “Thank you for helping fill a big need in our community.”

The Hagers fostered Joelle. The Kincaids took in Tyler and Trinity. The list of foster homes grew and grew until there were no longer children without homes. Starting this trend was far more fulfilling to my parents than the other ways our family brought about changes in our town. 

Not long after Miranda arrived, we got even more good news. Kyle, Miranda, and I were called into the living room one afternoon for a family meeting. At first, we shot each other worried glances. The last time we had a conference in the living room we discussed whether or not to be a foster family. The time before that, though, Dad’s firm was considering selling to a corporation that wanted to take it over, and we were told we might have to move to Cincinnati. Neither Kyle nor I were keen on upheaval. We didn’t want bad news this time, so we worried each step of the way to the family meeting.

We were relieved to find Mom and Dad smiling when we came downstairs from our rooms. 

“As you know, we only call these meetings when there is something big to talk over as a family.” Dad looked at each of us. Mom squeezed his arm. 

“Yeah, Dad. What’s up?” Kyle and I leaned forward on the couch while Miranda played with her doll. 

“Kids, Mom and I are expecting another baby!” 

“Really?” We leapt from our seats and rushed to hug our parents. 

“When?”

“We still have a long way to go. Not until the end of October or the first of November, but we wanted to let you know right away. We saw the doctor today, so it’s official.”

Miranda blinked her big blue eyes at us as we celebrated. We’d waited so long, and now we would have two little ones to love. 

“I hope this one’s a boy!” Kyle crossed his fingers and whooped with joy. 

I secretly hoped for another girl. 

“Well, we’re going to be happy with either. We just want a healthy baby.” Mom patted her stomach that, before now, I hadn’t noticed was growing. 

During the next few months, every time we went shopping we came home with something for the new baby. The upstairs bedroom at the end of the hallway was converted to a nursery, and new items were stored for safekeeping. Kyle and I were thrilled. 

Miranda was not so thrilled. We’d ask her, “Aren’t you excited about Mama’s baby?” 

She’d bat her blue eyes and say, “I thought I was the baby.”

No amount of explaining to her how much fun being a big sister would be made a difference. 

Mom just sighed. “Lydia, you weren’t thrilled about Kyle coming along either. Miranda will come around. We just need to give her extra attention. She’s in the foster care system for a reason. Life has been hard on her.”

After that, Kyle and I did our best to dote on Miranda. If she felt secure, she’d accept the baby easier. We played with her more, brought special treats home for her, and did all we could to make her feel loved. We even asked her for suggestions on what to get for the baby, thinking if she felt included she would accept her new role as big sister. 

She’d still bat her blue eyes and say, “I thought I was the baby.”

We resigned ourselves to having to deal with sibling rivalry when the time came for the baby to arrive. 

In the meantime, life continued. School ended and we went on our family vacation to see our grandparents who lived in the country. It was wonderful to be out of the noise and traffic of the city. We didn’t live in downtown, but our suburban life wasn’t the same as living on a farm like they did. 

Every day after we arrived, Grandpa, Kyle, and I took walks along the nature trails where he explained what the different plants and animals were that we met along our way. He knew just about all of them. 

“See this little guy? He’s a painted box turtle. He won’t bite you, so you can pick him up.”

As we oohed and aahed over his decorated shell, Kyle turned him upside down to look at his butt. 

“Whatcha doin’ there, Kyle?” Grandpa’s eyes twinkled. 

“How do you know it’s a boy? I don’t see anything down there.”

Grandpa chuckled. “That’s not how you tell. It’s easy. Boys have red or orange eyes and girls have brown eyes. See?”

Sure enough, our new companion had bright orange eyes. 

Grandpa pointed out the birds we encountered. “That’s a wren. That one’s a chickadee. That one over there is an oriole.”

We heard a raucous song above us. “What’s that one?” I asked. 

“Oh, that’s a cowbird. I hate those things.”

Grandpa had never said he hated any animal, not even snakes. We looked up at a bird that didn’t seem harmful. It’s song wasn’t very pretty, but it hardly seemed like a menace. “Why don’t you like them? It seems okay.”

“Well, cowbirds are what are known as parasitic nesters. They wait for another bird to build a nest and then the cowbird lays an egg in it so another bird has to raise its baby. Usually it’s bigger than the host bird’s babies and eats most of the food when they’re growing up.”

“That doesn’t sound fair at all.” Kyle glared up at the chirping bird. 

“It’s worse than that. They will toss one of the host bird’s eggs out so their chick has more food later on.”

“Why don’t the other birds just throw the cowbird egg out?” I was quickly hating the annoying bird myself. 

“Those cowbirds are smart. They watch to see what the other birds do. If they throw the foreign egg out, the cowbirds will destroy the entire nest in revenge.”

“What a terrible creature.”

“Now you know why I hate it. But, kids, let’s go this way. There’s a nice little pond I want to show you. There’s usually some wild ducks and egrets that hang around there.”

We put the cowbird behind us and went off on our adventure. Every day, Grandpa had some sort of fun nature experience for us to go on. 

“It’s a shame you kids don’t live in the country. There’s a whole lot more to the world than city life,” he’d tell us. We knew he was right.

We had fun with Grandma, too. She was funny and young at heart, and she took us on trips around the area to see the sights. Our summer visit went by way too fast, and we all cried when we said goodbye. 

Back home we continued our plans for the new baby. Nine months might seem like a long time, especially when you’re a child, but before we knew it there were only a matter of weeks before the baby’s arrival. In the meantime, we learned Mom was having a girl. Her name was Adylin, or Addy for short. 

Instead of a joyous birth, however, we were confronted with tragedy. A month before she was due, Mom slipped on the stairs. We rushed her to the hospital, but there was nothing the doctors could do. The trauma was too great. We almost lost Mom, too, and the doctors said to not count on her ever having a baby again. We were devastated.   

In a tragic twist of fate, three other couples we knew also miscarried within weeks of the death of little Addy. Our whole town was grief stricken. 

Miranda was too young to really grasp what had happened. “Am I still the baby?” She asked. 

“You are,” I said as tears streamed down my face. 

She hugged me tight and said, “it’s okay, Lydia. I’m here, and I love you.”

We lived in perpetual grief for months. The nearly-complete nursery at the end of the hall reminded us of the loss we had sustained. 

Then, almost unbelievably, Mom and Dad told us that they were pregnant once again.

“We waited until we were past the first trimester. We didn’t want to get your hopes up too soon.”

Kyle and I swarmed Mom and Dad with hugs, and we embraced as silent tears fell down our cheeks. It was a miracle.  

By now I had begun the start of my sophomore year in high school. I was busy with band and cheer, and I became the typical teenager on the go. My best friend Emmie and I were inseparable, and I spent many nights at her house. It’s not that I didn’t love my family. I just took them for granted and bonded with my friends.

Late one night I returned home. The stars blazed and the night was thick. As I walked up the driveway, something seemed “off.” Too quiet. Too still. Not just at my house, but in the entire neighborhood. I pulled out my key and opened the door. 

Blood slickened the tile and a strange glow came from the upstairs. 

“Mom? Dad? Kyle? I’m home. What’s going on?”

Utter silence. 

My legs felt weighted as I forced myself to climb to the second story. I can’t forget it. For as long as I live, for however long that is, I won’t get those images out of my mind. 

Hovering over the bloody bodies of my family was Miranda. Only she wasn’t the sweet little girl that I knew. Her eyes glowed and she had an otherworldly strangeness to her voice. 

“Miranda! What happened here?”

“You foolish girl, Lydia Bennett.”

She’d never called me by my whole name before. 

“All you stupid humans had to do was not take our place in the nest with another baby. My people were content, for now, having you raise us.”

“Miranda, what are you talking about?” My voice shook and my heart pounded. The dripping knife in her hand made it clear she had killed my family.

“This is happening across the city. You people were so eager to help out the children who needed homes, you never stopped to ask where we came from. It’s from there!” She tossed open the curtains and pointed at the sky.

“No! None of this makes sense! How could you do this?”

“Your mother didn’t slip on the stairs. I pushed her. With you and Kyle already here, I couldn’t risk my resources being used for another baby. I thought I solved the problem, but your stupid parents insisted on having another child. I had no choice but to destroy the whole nest.”

Trembling, I ran down the stairs and out into the street. Flashing lights in the sky above me revealed a fleet of saucers flying above the town. I ran as quickly as I could to the woods, at once panicked but still trying to understand what happened to my world.

Just then, it all made sense. I heard the unmistakable song of a cowbird in the trees above me.

My Best Friend Roger

It’s funny how time causes some memories to fade while others are clear as yesterday. I can’t remember a thing I learned in algebra class or the name of our high school quarterback. I can’t tell you what the old neighbor on Filbury Street’s name was. Heck, I might be hard pressed to tell you what I ate for breakfast two days ago. But some memories are crisp as an autumn morning. 

Roger Fenmore left a mark on me. It seems like we were inseparable from the time we were boys. Where you saw one of us, you saw the other. Our mamas were best friends, so it made sense that we’d be instant companions, and we were. 

Roger had a devilish grin and was funny. That boy could make a dog laugh, as the saying goes. He was tall and lanky, could hit a baseball over the fence by the time we were in junior high, and was much better with the ladies than I was. 

We grew up on a quiet street in upstate New York, far from the bustle and crowds of New York City. Cosmopolitan wasn’t a word to describe our hometown. There were two banks, an ice cream parlor, a movie theater, two factories, a bar, and about every denomination of Protestant church you could name. We were Methodists. 

Just down the street from us lived the Sullivans and the McLartys. Between the two families, they had eleven boys and five girls. No one dared to ask one of the girls out. They were strict Catholics, and they went to private school. I’m not sure who would have been more upset in those days if a Methodist had married a Catholic: their families or ours. That doesn’t mean Roger and the rest of us didn’t notice how pretty they were in their sharp school girl outfits. Our sisters were known, a time or two, to take a long gander at the boys, too. 

But that’s not the real reason I mentioned the neighborhood kids. There were more important things than dating, at least when we were much younger. We spent our evenings and summers playing baseball, going fishing, and racing bikes. With so many kids on the block, everyone had someone to play with nearly all the time. Even Jimmy Perkins, who was an only child, never had a reason to feel lonely. 

Our childhoods were just about idyllic. Mamas always seemed to have cakes and pies and cookies baking. Even when times were hard, no one in our corner of the world went hungry. The community pulled together and helped each other out back then. Each family raised a large garden, and every man I knew could hunt and raise animals to feed his family. Even in town it wasn’t uncommon for families to own a few acres, so most of us raised chickens and even a beef or two. 

While there were a lot of kids to play with, Roger and I were always a pair. I remember the time I caught the biggest catfish I’d ever seen, and Roger just about tipped our little johnboat over in the current trying to haul it over the edge of the boat. One time I saved him from being bitten by a sneaky cottonmouth. I just happened to spy it before he stepped on the log it was hiding beside. We always had each other’s backs, and we needed to because we got into some scrapes we never told our mamas about. Some of those could have killed one or both of us. Once we got the crazy idea to explore a cave during a rainstorm. The waters rose so fast we almost didn’t get out. In those days, kids went out and played and no one felt the need to know where they were going. If we’d drowned in that cave, no one would have ever known what became of us. 

As bad as that was, it didn’t compare to what we saw during the war. Back then, platoons were made up of boys from the same hometown. Of course, all the boys on our block signed up at the same time. We weren’t going to let the Japanese or the Germans get away with trying to take over the world. It got our Yankee ire up. Some of us went into the Navy, and some of us went into the Army. Roger and I figured we’d had our fill of nearly drowning, so we went with the Army. If trouble came along, we thought it would be easier to walk to safety than to swim across a foreign ocean. 

At the start of the war, we believed we were invincible. Youth has a way of being caught on fire by patriotism. Something about the uniforms, the structure of boot camp, and the feeling of being needed by our country caused us to hunger for battle. In our little town, we took the attack on Pearl Harbor personally. Our second grade teacher, sweet Emily Watkins, lost her youngest son there. He’d called her no more than two days before the attack telling her he wished she was there to see the beautiful beaches and to enjoy a break from the harsh New York winter we were having. We needed to avenge the death of Joshua Watkins. 

And so we left, bright-eyed and seeking adventure. It felt like we saw every side of the war there was in the next years. First we went to the Pacific and then to Europe as we tried to break Hitler’s grasp and liberate millions. It came at a heavy cost. Three of the Sullivans and four of the McLarty boys died along the way. Some were evaporated by mortar shells, but a few we held in our arms in brutal jungle heat and frozen foxholes. It never got easier watching our friends die. I don’t think it ever got better for most of us even in the years after the war. 

Some deaths stuck with a person more than others. Tommy McLarty told me, as he lay dying, that he’d always been sweet on my sister, Doris. He asked me if I’d let her know that. Then, in the moonlight of a western front night, the light left Tommy’s eyes. Since that night, I’ve always wondered why we let little differences like Catholic versus Protestant separate us. I told Doris when I got back home, but it was something Tommy should have felt comfortable telling her himself in some movie theater or on a walk down by the orchard. The sadness in her eyes told me she would have been happy to hear it from him. 

Finally, after countless losses, the war ended and we picked up our broken lives and tried to piece together a good life. We owed it to the ones who weren’t so lucky. Roger and I opened a business together, raised our families, and spent many years living the American Dream we’d fought so hard for. We watched our own children and grandchildren play baseball, go fishing, and find the magic of small town adventures. It was a good life. 

But, now, looking out at the sun as it sets, I wonder whatever happened to my best friend, Roger Fenmore. Do you happen to know? Have you seen him around?

The assisted care nurse patted his arm. “I think it’s time I take you back in. My shift ended fifteen minutes ago.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sorry for keeping you. Thank you for listening to me ramble on about long ago times.”

“I don’t mind at all, but we do need to get inside.”

She wheeled him through the automatic doors where a young man, arriving for his shift, met her at the door.

“James, could you please return him to Room 318?”

“Why, yes. I’ll have you upstairs in time for dinner. I think you’ll like what we’re having tonight.”

The two employees exchanged a wink. James knew that soon he’d be hearing more stories from the sweet old man named Roger Fenmore.

Just Another Day in Dayton

A small town morning dawned in picturesque Dayton, Tennessee. Its beauty was hard to beat, and Jenny Russell smiled a sleepy grin as she sipped her coffee and watched the wild birds at her feeder. Cardinals were her favorites, but wrens, chickadees, and occasional woodpeckers were also welcome sights as she watched the morning sunrise from her back deck.

Moments like these, when the quiet of the night met the new day, were magical. Each morning brought a promise of hope as the rush of the workday hadn’t fogged the mind with worry or beaten down the body with fatigue. Yes, these still moments caught between night and day were heaven on earth, and ever since she was a little girl, Jenny relished them.

A whiff of lilacs in bloom caused her to lean forward on the railing and breathe deeply. Her grandmother planted a dozen bushes shortly after she and Grandpa Willis moved into this rambling Victorian home in the 1940s. Their scent was indelibly linked to Jenny’s memories of her grandmother, slender and graceful, and her grandfather, wise and mischievous. Willis, who returned safely from the shores of Normandy, swore he and his bride would surround themselves with beauty for the rest of their lives, and the lilacs were among the many beautiful things they enjoyed.  

“Margie, my dear, I’ve seen more death and destruction than anyone should witness. We are going to have nothing but the good things in life from now on.”

That desire, and a plum engineering job he landed with the newly-founded Anderson Mechanics plant, took them from the clogged streets of Pittsburgh to small town life in their adopted town of Dayton. Willis, an expert woodcrafter, in addition to being a fine engineer, created a home full of beauty. Door sills weren’t simple wood frames. No, Willis hand carved ornate details into the doorways, and he built exquisite furniture for his beloved wife. 

“Willie, you’ve turned our house into a real showplace–a castle.”

“My dear, you’re my queen, and you deserve a castle. Your king is at your service.” With that, Willis bowed to his wife and then swept her into his arms. 

Grandma loved telling me that story.

Looking around her, Jenny admired the lovely home her grandparents left her when they passed away two years ago, just six hours apart from each other. So much love could be felt in that grand old home. Memories of boisterous family gatherings and quiet moments alike resounded through those rooms. Jenny always felt at home there, and she was grateful her grandparents gave it to her in their wills. 

Dayton had been good to the Russell family. The move her grandparents made there after World War II was an investment in their children and grandchildren. Working at Anderson Mechanics provided a lucrative living for her entire family. Her father and his four brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and worked their way up in the company. It was expected that their children would follow suit and also return home after college to work for the company that sustained not only their family but the entire community. 

When her college roommate, Nora, asked her what the draw was to returning to such a small town when the world was full of opportunities, Jenny had replied, “It’s family tradition, for one thing.”

“Well. What exactly do they do at Anderson Mechanics?” Nora wanted to know.

“Do?”

“Yes, do.”

Jenny paused.

“They make something, Jen. What is it?”

“To be honest, I’m not quite sure, and if I did know, I couldn’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Look, all I know is that they have government contracts and aren’t allowed to talk about what exactly it is they make. You know, like the factory you told me your cousin works at.”

Nora bit her lip. Jenny had a point. “Yeah, the one that makes some kind of coil that they’re in competition with LTE for. I get it. Trade secrets and all. Sorry if I seemed pushy.”

“Nah, you’re just curious. I am too. I guess I’ll find out after graduation when I start work there too. Dad did say there’s a big new contract coming up, and his boss was asking if I was ready to join the company yet. He told him to let me graduate first.”

Nora laughed. “Three more months, girl. But we’d better get back to studying for this chem midterm or neither one of us will be walking onto that stage graduation night.”

Jenny stretched and rolled her eyes. “Okay, task master…”

They both passed their tests, and they both graduated. That was nearly a year ago. Nora took a job in Chicago, and Jenny returned to her beloved Dayton. 

That brought her to this morning. She finished her cup of coffee just as the sunrise turned into daylight. Stretching once and taking a few more deep breaths of the lilacs, she looked at her phone. 

I’d better get a move on. Work won’t wait just because it’s a beautiful spring day.

She was running behind and now rushed through her morning routine. Just as she was leaving home, her phone rang. 

“Hey, Daddy, good morning! What’s up?”

“Good morning sunshine. Hey, Jenny, do you have a moment to talk? There’s something I’d like to run by you.”

“Sure. I’m on my way to work, but we can talk on the way.”

“Okay, good. What I wanted to ask you about has to do with work, as a matter of fact.”

Jenny tossed her briefcase onto the passenger seat, pausing to give a brief wave to Mrs. Ramsey who lived across the street. She was out walking her Yorkie, a sweet little dog named Poppy. Mrs. Ramsey waved in return and lifted Poppy up, moving her paw up and down to wave back too. Jenny grinned. She’d known the Ramseys since she was a toddler. 

Small towns, where everyone is like family, are the place to live.

“Did you hear me, Jen?”

“What? Oh, Daddy, I’m sorry. I got distracted. I’m here now. What was that?”

“I said, ‘This could be a big day for you.’ Are you listening now, Tinkerbelle?”

Jenny laughed. No matter how old she was, her dad would forever call her Tinkerbelle. 

“Yes, I’m listening. A big day? For me?”

“I was talking with George Mathews.”

“George Mathews—the president of Anderson Mechanics?”

“The one and only. Anyway, we were talking out on the links. He has a special project in mind. He’s heard you’re bright and a hell of an engineer. He wanted to know if I thought you’d be up for the position.”

“What position are we talking about?”

“He’s beginning a new project, and he’d like you to be on the team. I told him I thought my little Tinkerbelle would be interested.”

Embarrassment washed over Jenny. “Oh, Daddy, please tell me you did not call me Tinkerbelle to George Mathews.”

Silence on the other end of the call gave her her answer. 

“Daddy? Really?”

“Before you get mad at me, George and I have known each other for years. He’s always known I call you Tinkerbelle. Secondly, that nickname gave you this shot at a promotion.”

Still angry, Jenny wasn’t willing to let her dad off the hook that easily. 

“Dad, I’m a grown woman—a professional. Please don’t talk about me like I’m five.”

“Jennifer Marie, did you hear what I said? Tinkerbelle got you this chance.”

“What do you mean?”

“The new project is called The Peter Pan Project. He got the idea to bring you onboard because I call you Tinkerbelle.”

Jen bit her lip, debating whether or not to stay mad at her father. Since she didn’t want to give in just yet, she said nothing.

“George said he hadn’t thought of it before, but when I mentioned you he realized you’d be the perfect employee to round out the team. If you want the job. Do you?”

“Well, yeah, I do. I think. What’s it involve?”

“That’s for George to explain. I can’t talk about it. Confidentiality and all.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“George will be expecting you when you get to work.”

“I’m just about there now. Thanks, Daddy. I love you.”

“I love you too. Now go see what this is about.”

Well, today is starting out better than I ever imagined. First an incredible sunrise. Now a promotion? I never knew Dad and George Mathews were friends. Then again, he never talks about work very much. 

She pulled her blue sedan into the parking lot. Anderson Mechanics was an imposing complex. It seemed out of place, in fact, in a town like Dayton. The rest of the community was quaint, much like a Norman Rockwell painting. Anderson, however, was massive and state of the art. 

To passersby from out of town, the complex might be mistaken for a junior college. Large brick buildings spread over several acres of neatly manicured grounds. On second look, however, the highly guarded security fence surrounding Anderson Mechanics would disprove the college campus notion. No school had twenty-foot fences guarded by armed security forces. Instead, the complex more likely resembled a prison and not a campus. 

No one in Dayton gave the security presence much thought. Over the years, Anderson had expanded, building by building. The changes were slow, and the residents in the community took them in stride. A growing complex meant more jobs, and jobs meant a higher standard of living for the people in Dayton. Schools reaped the benefits of the tax base. Support businesses boomed. Residents didn’t question much of anything Anderson Mechanics did since they were not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth. 

That was good, considering employees weren’t allowed to talk about what they worked on behind the guard posts. 

Jenny put her lanyard around her neck. From it hung her ID badge and keys to her locker, desk, and office door. To get into the complex, she had to slide her badge through the reader at the front gate and then place her index finger on another box so her fingerprint could be scanned. The guard on duty nodded to her, gave a slight wave with his hand, and released the locked gate to slide open and allow Jenny entrance. 

A warm breeze blew as Jenny briskly stepped down the sidewalk lined with carefully cared for flowers. Anderson spared no expense in providing a beautiful workplace for their employees. Granted, inside it was much like any other assembly line or research facility, but the grounds were worthy of a spot in Better Homes and Gardens. That is, if outside cameras were allowed on the property. Still, it certainly made a pleasant sight for its dedicated employees. 

I can’t stop and enjoy the view right now. I’m almost late, and it sounds like George Mathews is expecting me.

Arriving at the front door of the administrative building, Jenny punched her code into the box mounted to the right of the door. The distinctive clunk of the lock let her know her code was accepted and she had exactly three seconds to get into the building before the door locked once again. 

All employees had to pass through the administration building, regardless of where they worked on the compound. Staff mailboxes were to be checked upon entering and leaving the facility, so entry through one building insured employees routinely checked for messages. More importantly, it streamlined security. In a tightly guarded complex like Anderson, it was important that the movements of all personnel were closely monitored. 

Why? Well, all the community knew was that Anderson worked on government contracts. That’s all anyone needed to know. In this patriotic, red, white, and blue stronghold of Americana, the community took pride knowing they contributed to the safety and well-being of the country. In a practical sense, the town’s financial prosperity rested on the blessings brought by having Anderson Mechanics in their area. Steady paychecks and the chance to pursue the American Dream were not taken lightly by the good people of Dayton. 

Jenny walked through the spacious lobby and made for the room where mailboxes P-Z were housed. An envelope with the company logo awaited her. She turned it front to back then opened it. 

Jenny Russell,

Please come see me when you arrive at work on Monday. I have something I’d like to discuss with you.

Yours,

George Mathews

A handwritten note from the head honcho. I won’t keep him waiting.

With that, Jenny found the elevator and punched the button for the twelfth floor. The executive offices lay before her as the doors came open. 

Dolores, the smartly dressed receptionist greeted her. “Good morning, Ms. Russell. Go ahead and have a seat. I’ll let Mr. Mathews know you’re here.”

After a few moments, George Mathews, tall and athletic with salt-and-pepper hair swept out of his office to meet her. 

“It is so good to see you! Please, come into my office.”

With that, he guided her into his office and shut the door.

“Have a seat. Can I get you some coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.” Her nerves were already on edge, so caffeine wasn’t necessary, but she didn’t want to be rude. This was the big boss, after all. 

“Cream? Sugar?”

“Black.”

“A young woman after my own heart. You certainly have changed since the Jenny I remember at employee picnics. Gerald is very proud of you.”

“Dad always enjoyed taking us to those events. He’s happy to have all three of us kids working for Anderson. It’s family tradition for a lot of people around here.”

“Yes, it is. Now, Jenny… Can I call you Jenny?”

“You may,” and she couldn’t suppress a chuckle. 

“Did I say something funny?”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry, sir. I was just relieved you didn’t call me Tinkerbelle. My father told me that’s what he called me when you were golfing the other day.”

A smile spread across his face. “Oh, yes—that. Don’t worry, I have nicknames for my children that embarrass them, too. I think it’s a cross most of us have to bear growing up. My father called me ‘Spud.’ To this day, I don’t like potatoes because of it.”

A hearty laugh broke the tension Jenny had felt. 

“It was actually a good thing Gerald called you by your nickname. It made me realize you may be just who I need for my new project. What has your father told you?”

“Dad didn’t say much of anything. He just said you may have a position to discuss with me. Dad has always prided himself in keeping the company’s private information private.”

“That is true. That’s also one reason Gerald Russell has been my trusted friend for years. He understands the delicate nature of our business.”

“I’m not sure what the position is, but I’m eager to discuss it.”

“I have to say, Jenny, that I took the liberty of looking in your personnel file. Your transcripts from the Georgia Institute of Technology are impressive. Magma cum laude in aerospace engineering. Excellent letters of recommendation.”

“I worked hard to make my family proud.”

“You succeeded. Do you enjoy the field?”

“I do.”

“I ask because it’s important to have a job you find fulfilling. Are you an engineer for your own sake as well as wanting to follow in your father’s footsteps?”

“Why, yes. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been fascinated by math and science. Aerospace was my dream career.”

The spark in her eyes as she talked about her chosen field convinced George Mathews she was sincere.

“I believe you. Your credentials are notable, and it means a great deal that you chose to come back home to Dayton to work for us. With your qualifications, you could have gone anywhere. I value your loyalty to our company and community.”

“I never had a doubt I’d return to work at Anderson. This is home.”

“I’d like you to be a part of a new project we are beginning. It’s one close to my heart. My grandfather, Edward Anderson, started this company years ago in hopes we would reach this point.”

“I’m definitely interested.”

“Someone named Tinkerbelle will surely appreciate this particular project.” A twinkle lit his eye. “I’ve dubbed it ‘The Peter Pan Project.”

A grin spread across Jenny’s face. “I’d like to hear more.”

“Before I tell you more, I need to know if you accept the position. Confidentiality is, of course, vital.”

“Yes, I accept the position.”

“Very well. Peter Pan is intended to take mankind beyond our current limitations. Our goal is to develop a high speed space vehicle. One faster than any ever built on Earth.”

“A space ship?”

“Yes. Beyond what was attempted by previous companies. More than an orbital craft. A manned deep space transportation means. You see, Peter Pan could fly. We want to give mankind the ability to travel farther and faster. I need your help, Tinkerbelle.” He winked. 

“I’m flattered. This is the type of project aero scientists dream of being part of. Thank you, Mr. Mathews.”

“Call me George. We are team members now. I’m not just a stuffed suit who sits in the office. I get into the trenches and work on special projects myself. My degree is from MIT. That’s why your dad and I are such good friends. We’ve been team members more than a few times.”

“Wow! I had no idea.”

“Of course not. As you said, Gerald is conscientious about not discussing work. So are Gavin and Jake.”

“Are my brothers on this project?”

“No, they’re working on other jobs. This one is especially important to me. I’m glad you’re onboard.”

“Me too. When do I start?”

“There’s no time like the present. Go to your old work station and gather anything of yours that you want. Meet me in an hour in Sector B.”

“I’ll see you then, Mr. Math—George.”

He walked her to the door and opened it to the reception area. Dolores sat at her desk typing a transcription. She smiled as Jenny passed and gave a quick wave. 

I don’t know what kind of raise I’ll get with this position, but I’m about to work on something transformative. Imagine mankind being able to travel at light speed! It’s just like the movies. This is big. 

In less than an hour, Jenny was in Sector B. She’d had to ask for directions from the security officer at her old station. Officer Brennan made a quick call to dispatch to make sure he was authorized to give Jenny directions. Sector B wasn’t the typical engineering lab Jenny was accustomed to. This part of the complex was heavily guarded, and no one could enter without special permission. Located five floors beneath Building 6, Jenny was in awe of the magnitude. She walked through what felt like a mile of corridors, escorted by security, before she reached the location where she was to meet George Mathews and the rest of her new team. 

No one would ever know this was here. There’s no hint of it above ground. This is like something I’d expect to find underground at NORAD.

No sooner had she arrived at the designated area than George Mathews arrived, precisely one hour after he’d spoken with Jenny In his office. 

“What do you think? This is quite the set up, right?”

“Mr. Math—George, yes, it’s very impressive. I had no idea this was here.”

“Few do. Do you want to know a secret?”

“If you don’t mind telling me.”

“Sector B is the reason why Anderson Mechanics exists.”

Her eyes widened. 

“It’s true. As a Peter Pan team member, you are about to see why. Before I introduce you to the rest of the team, I want to show you something. Let’s step this way.”

George Mathews led her to a sealed door and slid a key card through the reader. Then he punched in a code and leaned forward for a retinal scan. The door slid open, and in front of them lay an immense room.

Jenny couldn’t believe her eyes. 

“Is that what I think it is?”

George smiled. “That it is.”

A large metallic disk was secured in place by scaffolding. 

“How is this possible? UFOs don’t exist.”

“Oh, but they do, Jenny. We have had this one since the 1940s when my grandfather first began this company.”

“This is why Anderson Mechanics began?”

“Yes. My grandfather was a leading engineer in his time and a shrewd businessman. He negotiated a government contract to study and advance American technology. What we have learned from this downed ship has led to many modern breakthroughs.”

“The confidential projects my family works on are spin-offs of this ship?”

“They are. For nearly a century we have brought advances to nearly every field with what we’ve learned from this craft.”

“And no one in quiet little Dayton has a clue that a UFO research center exists beneath their feet.”

“Only a handful of us know. My grandfather chose Dayton for the very reason that no one would suspect such an operation in a quaint town such as this. There are good employees here. Honest, hard working Americans who understand ethics and loyalty. It’s the only way to keep a place like this secret.”

Jenny couldn’t take her eyes off the craft. “True” was all she could utter to George Mathews’s explanation. 

“Thanks to our community, a lot of good has come from our work.”

Jenny stood dumbfounded. George tapped her on the shoulder. 

“Tinkerbelle, would you like to go aboard?”

Hearing her nickname brought her out of her trance. 

“I’m sorry. What?”

“Would you like to go aboard?”

Jenny nodded as George led her up the ramp. “You will see some technology that we have been able to replicate. Some we are still trying to unlock. That’s where Peter Pan comes in.”

“You want us to figure out how this craft flies at such high speeds? And then build our own flying saucers?”

“That’s the plan. It’s the last piece of the puzzle my grandfather started out to solve.”

“How did your grandfather even know this existed? I’m surprised the government let anyone know.”

“Well, he was in the right place at the right time. He was working on a dam project out west when the spacecraft crash landed in front of him and a handful of other engineers. It was an isolated area with few witnesses. Only my grandfather’s crew saw it.”

“I’m sure the government didn’t want word getting out.”

“No, it didn’t. For once, the government was smart, though. Instead of trying to shut the witnesses up, it made them part of the research team.”

“And that was the beginning of Anderson Mechanics.”

“Yes. The technology we’ve given the world through our research has been peripheral, though. The goal has always been to build our own fleet of these. This is where we are at today.”

“What happened to the people who were onboard when it crashed?”

“People? I don’t think we’d call what came off that craft ‘people.’ The beings were taken to a military base, and I have no idea what happened to them after that.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess they are being studied like we’re studying their ship.”

“Exactly. Now let’s go on our tour.”

George pointed to the room to their left and took her on a tour of the craft.

“Feel free to examine anything you’d like to. I want you to learn this ship inside and out. I’m counting on you to help us reach our goal.”

“This is a lot to take in. Excuse me if I’m in shock.”

“It’s quite all right. I have grown up knowing about this.” He paused to gesture to the craft. “I’m still in disbelief on some days that all this is real.”

“But it is.”

“And it’s our mission to use this to give mankind the ability to travel through space. Not taking years to send an unmanned craft to Jupiter but sending people there in the blink of an eye.”

“I hope I don’t let you down.”

“You won’t. Now let’s go to the shop where I can introduce you to the rest of the team.”

Jenny’s knees wobbled as she descended the ramp. 

This is so much to take in. I can’t believe this has been going on right beneath my sleepy little town. Most people here would laugh if someone told them aliens are real. Our town is actually ground zero for proof they exist.

Jenny’s thoughts were interrupted as George led her to where the real work was done. Her six team members greeted her as she arrived. 

“Jenny, meet your team.” 

To her surprise, she didn’t have to meet them. She already knew them. 

Mark Hanson “introduced” himself. “Welcome aboard, Jenny! I’m the team leader. It’s great to have you join us.”

Jenny extended her hand to shake his. “Yeah, Mark, it’s always good to see you. I’m just a little surprised to see you here.”

Mark chuckled. “Usually it’s Sunday mornings at church. I know this is a little bit of a shock.”

Mark not only led The Peter Pan Project, but up to this moment Jenny knew him as the youth group leader at church and the oldest son of her third grade teacher.

His wasn’t the only familiar face. Scott Filmore, her nephew’s soccer coach, stood before her, as did Debrah Hastings who made high school history with the highest number of points scored in a basketball game. Rob Manning, brother of her insurance agent was there. Linda Mayhew, the pianist at church, and Quinton Ramsey, son of the Ramsey’s across the street, also welcomed her. 

“Fancy meeting us here, right?” Rob nudged her with his elbow. 

“Yeah, it’s a real surprise. I mean, I knew you worked for Anderson, but I never imagined this.”

“Neither had we before we started here. It’s okay. We’ll show you the ropes. We’ve heard nothing but good things about your engineering skills, and you know we already consider you family.”

“That’s right,” Debrah said. “We are doing this for our country and our community. I think it helps that we already know each other. We are a ready-made team.”

Mark made a sweeping gesture towards the room. “Let’s get started.”

This began the next five years of work for the seven engineer. Each day Jenny joined her friends and neighbors as they unlocked the secrets of intergalactic flight. Each day she drove home to her lovely old home on Orchard Road, and each day she thought about the lives of the people in her beloved hometown. They lived ordinary lives, oblivious to what was going on around them. 

“I used to live in oblivion too.”

Each Sunday, she sat in her family’s regular spot as Mark Hanson and his family sat in theirs. They sang hymns accompanied by Linda Mayhew on the piano. Each Tuesday she watched her nephews play soccer, and every Saturday morning Quinton stopped by his mother’s house to care for her lawn. To the outside observer, they were quiet, simple folk without a care in the world. 

At work they strained under the enormous pressure to learn all they could from the alien craft. The government expected them to produce results. 

Slowly, but surely, the secrets were revealed. Each new advancement the team made led to the next discovery. Once the key to the propulsion system was deciphered, the project moved at, well, warp speed. 

“Team, I can’t begin to tell you how pleased I am with you and this project.” George Mathews addressed the engineers flanked by high ranking Defense Department officials. 

“It’s been an honor, Mr. Mathews.” Mark Hanson turned to his team. “I can honestly say this wouldn’t have been possible without the skill and dedication of these people right here.”

“We won’t forget your service to this country.” A man with medals covering his chest spoke to the group. “You will be financially rewarded for your efforts.”

George cleared his throat. “There’s another perk you will have.”

“Really?” The team looked at each other then back at George Mathews. 

“Isn’t that right, General Hopkins?”

“Yes. Our contractors have completed the prototype of your design. We offer you the opportunity to ride in it on its maiden voyage.”

Enthusiastic shouts erupted. “We’d love to accept your invitation!” Mark Hanson shook the general’s hand. He looked at George. “Are you going to be with us?”

George’s shoulders slumped. “No, I can’t. My doctor would never allow me to. I’ve had two heart attacks already. I want you all to go for me, though.”

The team members silently nodded. They knew how much it must hurt George to not share in this experience. 

The general cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the sudden emotion filling the room. 

“Very well. We will begin your in-flight training immediately. No, you will not be a part of the flight crew, but as passengers you will need to be trained to adapt to the rigors of the flight.”

“We understand.” Mark checked his team members expressions for agreement. 

“Meet us here at 0700. Tell your families you are going to a conference in Baltimore and will be out of touch for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, you will take flight.” George Mathews beamed. “This is what we’ve worked so hard for.”

“Yes, sir.”

The next morning, Jenny walked towards her new SUV. Sweet Mrs. Ramsey and Poppy were out for their morning walk. 

“Leaving a little early, aren’t you, dear?”

“Yes, I’m going to a conference. Say, don’t worry if you don’t see me for a few weeks. My dad will be stopping by to get my mail and check on the place. Nothing is wrong.”

“Thank you for letting me know. I do worry about you, you know.”

“I know. I’ll see you when I get home.”

The training was rigorous, and eighteen-hour days exhausted Jenny and her team. The adrenaline of being the first people to travel at those speeds overrode their need for sleep, however. The days were a blur, and before they knew it, it was the day of the launch. 

Climbing aboard the sleek craft emblazoned with the American flag, their hearts raced. Each passenger meticulously strapped themselves into the seats. Reclining, the voice coming through their headsets told them to relax and close their eyes. The countdown began by a control room commander whose soothing voice calmed their frazzled nerves. 

Suddenly, the sensation of being sucked down a drain enveloped them. 

“Whoa, boy!” Mark Hanson exclaimed. “I thought there’d be a roar of engines first, even though I knew better.”

The seats automatically rose to the sitting position as the astronauts looked out the panoramic windows. The stars looked like streaks of light, as though from some 1970s science fiction drama. 

The craft smoothly glided to a stop. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, what you see ahead of you is our solar system. That’s something no human being has ever laid eyes on. I’ve dreamed of this my entire life. Thank you, engineers, for making this possible.” Commander Raymond Kipling made the announcement to the crew. 

First Officer Merritt spoke next. “Take this all in. It’s beautiful.”

For the next thirty minutes, they sat in stunned silence. The view was, in fact, beautiful. 

Commander Kipling came back on the radio. “I could stay here forever looking at this, but we need to get back to the base. Prepare for reentry.”

In a flicker of time, the craft silently arrived back on Earth. Joy and wonder kept conversation to a minimum. Awaiting them on the ground were physicians who whisked them off to be monitored. 

“We’ll keep you under observation for the next twenty-four hours, but your vitals all look excellent.” The chief medical officer scribbled down a few notes on his tablet. “I’ll be back to check on you myself in the morning.”

To everyone’s relief, no one suffered any ill effects from the flight. The military flew them back to Anderson Mechanics via helicopters the next day. There they debriefed George Mathews. 

Once the meetings ended, the space travelers made their way to the parking lot where their more pedestrian vehicles awaited. 

“Let’s take the morning off. I’ll see you back here at noon.”

“See you then, Mark.”

Jenny didn’t want to rush home. So much was going through her mind. Instead, she drove through the neighborhoods of Dayton, reminiscing about the childhood memories made in this town. Dayton had given her so much. As night fell, she finally made her way to Orchard Road. 

Mrs. Ramsey and Poppy sat on their porch. Happy to see her young neighbor return, she smiled and waved to Jenny. 

“Oh, it is so good to see you are back home. How was the conference? Did anything interesting happen on your trip?”

Jenny paused then smiled. “The conference was great. No, nothing exciting happened. You know, just a lot of engineering talk.”

“Well, you can’t always expect these things to be out of this world excitement.”

“No, you can’t. And how about you? Did anything exciting happen here while I was gone.”

Mrs. Ramsey patted Poppy who had jumped into her lap. 

“Oh, lands no. It was just another day in Dayton.”

With that, Jenny stepped into the home her grandfather built last century during a time when standard air travel was a rarity. As she drifted off to sleep, her mind was a million miles away. 

Much closer than a million miles away, a frenzied discussion was taking place. 

“I’m afraid our test subjects have discovered our secrets to space travel. They were more intelligent than we suspected.”

“You are correct. If they have discovered the key to our flight technology, it will be no time at all before they can recreate our weaponry.”

“They will pose a danger to the rest of civilization.”

“We have no other options, do we?”

“It’s time to put an end to this experiment. Tomorrow, I will order the decontamination squad to sterilize the region.”

Shelf Life

Frankie stoked the coals and put another log on the fire. He was tired, and the grind of getting back to work caught up with him as heavy shadows began to paint the view from his cabin window.

He’d returned from vacation a few weeks ago, and as he gazed into the distance he remembered the warmth of the Florida sun and the sound of waves crashing outside the beach house, his usual getaway spot.

Still, as much as he’d enjoyed his yearly southern excursion, this was home. His hosts at the Florida bed and breakfast wouldn’t understand the draw, he doubted. Whistling wind, feet of snow, and sub-zero temperatures turned a lot of people off. 

Not Frankie, though. He came from pioneer stock. His family settled here generations ago, and they’d adapted well. The blue tones of the approaching evening on the snow-laden trees tonight were comforting and familiar. There’s nowhere else he’d want to live, and he’d had his share of world travels. No, vacations were nice, but there’s no place like home, as the saying goes. 

The teapot whistled, and Frankie turned from the view to get a cup and saucer out for his evening tea. The steam from the kettle swirled like a magical spirit ascending to heaven in a waltz of fluid motion. Frankie was mesmerized by little details like that. 

He smiled in spite of an aching lower back. 

Tonight I’m definitely using some ointment on it. I’m not so young anymore, and those boxes did a number on me this week.

Like most of his friends and neighbors, he worked at the local factory. Work was steady, and the benefits were good. His bosses even gave him paid vacation time which accounted for his yearly trips to the beach. All he had to do was squeeze in an hour or so a day on work-related activities and he could write off his entire trip as a business expense. He couldn’t complain about his boss or the company. It was a respectable job, and nearly everyone in town worked there in one capacity or the other. 

Normally Frankie’s position wasn’t as physically taxing as it was this week and for the next few.  The annual inventory and retooling took place at this time, and that meant all hands on deck. Everyone from the first-year rookie to the general manager rolled up sleeves and assisted in counting, packing, and cleaning. They all dreaded this difficult, but necessary, time. 

This downtime, of sorts, at work was nothing like the adventures Frankie had while traveling. Production would begin again in a month after new orders came in to prepare for next year’s rush. As boring as January was at work, Frankie and his friends accepted the fact it had to be done. The fun they’d had on their excursions made up for any tedium they faced on the job. 

Frankie returned to his comfortable chair as his gaze settled on the glistening scene before him. The scent of cinnamon lifted from his steaming cup of tea, and the frost on the windows mingled with the aroma to provide a poignant moment. Another twinge in his lower back made him wince, however, ruining the otherwise perfect instant.

I can’t blame it all on work, unfortunately. My back hasn’t felt right since the trip home from vacation. That’s what I get for traveling coach. Next year, I’ll see about better travel arrangements.

The fun he’d had was worth the current discomfort, though. He’d loved every minute of his time with this hosts and their children. 

Kids make you feel young again, and that’s good for the mind and soul.

The fire crackled, and another hour dwindled by while the blue cast of the snow outside his window faded into a velvet black. The clock chimed, and he knew it was time to crawl under the quilts and go to sleep. 

His eyes grew heavy as he snuggled under the blanket. Yet, suddenly, he sat up in bed. 

I almost forgot my nightly journal entry! I’ll never write my memoir accurately if I don’t log the day’s events.

Opening the drawer to his nightstand, Frankie retrieved his diary and favorite pen. The leather cover felt good in his hands, and his heart leapt at the working title he’d given it: Shelf Life.

I’ve always loved a good turn of phrase, and I think this book has potential. After all, what other elf has revealed the inside story of life as an Elf on the Shelf? I’m sure I can get a publishing contract with one of the Big 5 with this one.

He quickly scribbled down today’s entry, then yawned, turned out the light, and fell asleep with the satisfaction of knowing he was working on something big.

The Call

Autumn blew on the breeze as trees waved in a sea of reds, oranges, yellows, and lingering greens. Breathing in the refreshing, earthy smells of a beautiful October morning, Greta Maxwell savored this season. Soon the wind would bring a biting, icy chill, but for now, the world seemed perfect. This was her favorite time of year, and it made her sentimental as she longed for the people she loved.

Her eyes grew misty as she remembered her husband’s favorite line about the bitter cold air of deep winter. “It smells like Canada out there,” he would say, breathing the crisp air into his lungs. Oh, how she missed him. He would return one day. For now, she relied on her own gumption and wits to make it through the days. She never regretted choosing him above all other men, even with the prolonged separations they endured, and she knew their chance meeting had changed the course of her life. He saved her, and that wasn’t something Greta was used to. She’d always been one to save herself. 

Her brother’s absence also caused tears to well in her eyes. Yes, it was her choice to leave their homeland of Germany, but weekly phone calls with him just weren’t enough on some days. This was one of those days. Memories flooded back, and she found herself lost in those long-ago days of childhood. In some ways, their youth was commonplace, yet it had its extraordinary moments. The two remained remarkably close regardless of the distance. Truly, no one understood her more than her brother did. 

He’s the only person who can relate to what drives me to be who I am today.

She loaded her vehicle and pulled away from her hideaway set deep in the woods. Greta was a hermit in many ways. Bad experiences with strangers—and some family members—as a young girl created scars, and those scars resulted in her desire to live as far away from others as possible. 

As with many who suffered abuse as a child, she carried a distrust of people in general. The best way to avoid trouble, in her mind, was to avoid the public once she was safely tucked back into her home each night. She was kind and caring, but none of her distant neighbors knew her well, and she wanted to keep it that way. No one was welcome at her house unless invited, and few were invited.

Ironically, at work, everyone described her as a “people person.” She loved to make others laugh and she eased their burdens when possible. People turned to Greta for moral support when they felt down. Somehow, she empathized with them, no matter their struggle. A heart like that was born of survival. She’d suffered hardships few knew of. Greta refused to make herself the center of conversations. No, she was there to give aid and comfort to others. She fiercely guarded her own sadness and worries. 

For several years, as long as anyone could remember, she taught literature at a school in the neighboring county. Watching fine writing impact young minds was one of the most rewarding aspects of her job, and she was quite attached to her school. Coworkers asked from time to time why she wouldn’t move closer to work. Others asked why she didn’t find a job closer to her home. That was nonsense as far as Greta was concerned. 

If I love my job, and I love where I live, why would I want to make a change?

Her lengthy commute gave her time to prepare for the day ahead in the mornings and to unwind from a stressful day in the evenings. What was time anyway? She’d learned to become patient, especially with her husband away for so long, and if she was to be alone for now, why not enjoy the sights she encountered during her drive? On this October morning, the miles disappeared behind her, and she thought about the profession she chose. 

Oh, how she loved teaching, even if it had changed—for the worse, in her opinion. Being a teacher was simple in her early days of education. Back then, a teacher focused on not only the content but on inspiring her students. Now the world complicated her passion. Too many rules, too much reliance on technology, and too much dependence on test scores had practically ruined the joy of teaching. Yes, negligent parents and lazy students played a part in the downfall of modern-day education. Greta understood that some families failed to foster healthy childhoods. She dealt with the unruly children—those who simply wanted someone to care. Greta relished her time spent with her students. To her, teaching was always about the children. Besides, no matter how many generations passed, children were full of energy, and being around them kept her young. 

On this morning, she knew what her school expected of her. Every Tuesday, Greta arrived with platters of tasty treats. People for miles around talked about the fine desserts she created. Some asked her to open her own bakery, but Greta had her reasons for declining. 

“How ever did you know how to make these?” Margaret Humphrey stuffed another gooey bite into her mouth. Greta barely had time to set the platter on the table in the teacher’s workroom before Margaret grabbed a handful.

“Oh, I learned how to bake as a young girl back in Germany. It was expected of me.”

“Well, you know I’m a big fan of your desserts. I always admire people who carry on family traditions.”

Greta simply smiled. It wasn’t worth getting into the backstory of her baking skills. 

It’s enough to know they enjoy my goodies.

Greta didn’t leave her students out, either. No, she made sure every child had a delicious snack during each class. She was pretty sure some of the upper-classmen took two or three of her electives classes for that very reason. Double- and triple-dipping her pastries was okay as far as Greta was concerned. It made the children happy, and if it got them to take more literature courses, then all the better.

Greta baked for one reason only: She believed in turning bad experiences into positives. For her, baking was designed to bring joy. No one needed to know the price of those recipes.

That night she arrived at her eccentric little home in the woods. People whispered about its unusual architecture, but Greta ignored their comments. The design had a purpose. It reminded her of that house years ago that shaped who she became. Some people run from their ghosts. Others embrace them. Greta chose to embrace hers.

At exactly eight o’clock, as the flames in her fireplace flickered and shadows danced on the walls, Greta called her beloved brother in Stuttgart.

“Hello, Hansel.”

“Ah, my dear Gretel. How I have looked forward to your call.”

The Lighthouse

It seems barbaric to exile someone to a desolate land. Granted, traditional prison bars don’t surround penal colonies, but the exiled are trapped nonetheless. Stripped of their identities, no longer members of society, they lose more than their freedom. Many who are exiled lose their will to live and commit suicide rather than exist as a solitary person. Others lose all that is good in them. With no one to be good for, they spiral downward until all that’s left is pure evil. That happens too often.

That did not, however, happen to inmate number 7652590, previously known as Percy Lansdown. He was one of those rare individuals who maintained his sense of self. He knew he deserved punishment. His crimes were many, and he didn’t expect society to simply wipe his slate clean. When sentenced, Percy winced in pain, however, as he heard the words “You will hereby be sentenced to life imprisonment on Penal Colony 524.”

Percy was a sociable man, and he knew 524 was solitary confinement. He would never again see another soul. The loneliness he’d endure was worse than if he’d been sent to a standard prison. At least there he’d have someone to talk to, hell, maybe even someone to be friends with. He’d never again hear another person’s laughter nor see the twinkle in another’s eye. He’d never again wipe away someone else’s tears—or have someone to do the same for him. 

For the first two years, the isolation nearly drove him insane. The days and nights filled with his lamenting screams. He begged God to allow him to die in his sleep, but the morning sun always rose again. 

One day, while looking at his reflection in the pool of water near the cabin he was provided, a realization struck him. 

This. This is all I have. All I will ever have.

He looked around him. Deep forest surrounded him on three sides. On the remaining side, a vast ocean, foaming and crashing upon the rocks, reminded him daily of the folly in attempted escapes. Sure death would befall anyone who ventured onto those rocks and into the crashing waves. He looked back at his reflection. 

If this is all I have, I need to make the most of it. I need to do what I can to give my life meaning. But what?

What indeed? The next several days he spent organizing his living space. He’d let the place pile up with debris of all sorts back when he thought it didn’t matter. Now it mattered. It had to matter or Percy was admitting that he no longer mattered. Within a month, he expanded his efforts. The cabin and surrounding area were immaculate. Pristine and picturesque, it would have made a lovely park. Standing in the yard, he admired his handiwork. 

In another time and circumstance, tourists would pay top price to stay in accommodations as fine as these with a view like this.

An emotion he’d lacked for far longer than he’d been imprisoned came over his heart: satisfaction .

I can’t remember the last time I felt satisfied. Isn’t that why I committed my crimes in the first place? I looked for something to fill the void, to leave me satisfied?

The irony of losing everything in order to finally be satisfied did not escape Percy.

However, as time passed, he lost the sense that he’d completed something worthwhile. He was no longer content simply maintaining the improvements he’d made to his living area. 

There has to be more.

On a particularly stormy night, the crashing waves kept him awake and left him with nothing but his thoughts. 

Those rocks would rip someone to shreds. A ship wouldn’t have a chance on a night like this. Except for my little cabin, there are no lights to warn travelers of the danger. In the pitch black, it would be certain death to come near this shore.

At first, he dismissed the idea. 

That’s a moot point. Seldom, if ever, would a ship come near this place. The court sent me here because it’s so isolated.

However, it wasn’t impossible for a ship to come this way. It could happen.

What if… What if I could do something to help someone besides myself? What if I did something that could help others, even if no one ever actually came by here? If there’s even the slimmest of chances I could be of service to others, that would truly make my existence here meaningful.

Percy knew what he needed to do. It wouldn’t be easy, and it would take years, but he knew he must build a lighthouse.

All I have is time. I can be patient.

He began by gathering stones. When the low tide occurred, he rushed to collect as many as he could before the waters raced back to the shore. He chopped down trees and slowly cut planks from the wood. Years passed as he gradually built his labor of love.

Up, up, up his lighthouse grew from the rocky shore. It took a while, but he conceived of a way to bring light to its cabin. By combining fire and minerals he dug from the clay in the forest floor, he happened upon the perfect formula. 

On the night of its completion, Percy struck a match and lit the lantern containing a wick and the precious minerals. He smiled in wonderment as bright greens, yellows, and reds lit up the beacon. 

Every night Percy manned his lighthouse, warning fellow celestial travelers of the dangers along the rocky shore. 

For those of us who long ago were left in other areas of Penal Colony 524, we and our descendants, on nights when the air is crisp and clear, we can also marvel at the glory of Percy’s lighthouse. 

We call them the Northern Lights.

A Merry Christmas

This was Merry Smedley’s favorite time of year. Vintage Bing Crosby crooned in the background as she hummed along while putting the finishing touches on gifts for her husband, Hank. Spread across the king-size bed were wrapping papers of various colors and the treasure trove of gifts she had picked up all year long to make Hank happy. Merry stopped for a moment to look at the light flurries coming down outside her bedroom window.

I think they said the heavy stuff will hit tonight, and we’ll have a white Christmas—just like you’re singing about, Bing.

Glancing at the family photos displayed around the room, Merry’s eye released a tear as she admired the photograph of her father. In the photo, he smiled brightly as he had his arms around his wife and daughter in front of a large, glittering Christmas tree. He’d always told Merry that Christmas was his favorite holiday, and while he was alive he made it a huge event. It accounted for her name, even though she’d been born in the heat of summer.

“My sweet little Merry, you’re the best present Daddy could ever have.” She could hear the  soothing baritone voice of her father.

She had always been close to him. That is until he died suddenly a few weeks before Christmas the year she turned eight. He’d been her knight in shining armor, and she believed in fairy tales and happy endings because of him. Her mother never remarried because, as they all knew in their hearts, there was no replacing Howard Stark. He’d been a loving husband, father, and successful engineer who was missed by everyone who knew him.

The first thing that attracted Merry to Hank Smedley their freshman year in college was that he was an engineering student. He had the same shade of light brown hair as her father had, too, and she was certain she had found her own Prince Charming. Her friends hadn’t been so certain, and her best friend Patty would say, “No, Merry. What you’ve found is the frog. Toss him back.”

Merry wasn’t deterred, however. Even though Hank had a few rough social edges, and maybe he did say some things that came across as rude, she stuck by her prince. They married at the end of their sophomore year at the University of Illinois. The next year, Merry dropped out of her microbiology program to work full time as a secretary. Engineering school was too important for Hank to work a part-time job, and the stress caused him to drink. Merry didn’t mind taking a break from her studies. After all, her prince needed her support. She could pick up a career later. 

Things looked up when NASA hired Hank shortly after graduation. His bachelor’s degree earned him a spot as a junior technician at the esteemed organization. Merry and Hank loaded up their car and moved to Huntsville, Alabama for his new career. Merry had visions of a happy life filled with love, vacations, and stability.

When they arrived in Huntsville, Merry continued working as a secretary because Hank said he needed to know dinner would be ready for him after he came home from a long day at work. “If you’re in college, all you’ll want to do is study and the house will go to hell.”

While Merry didn’t agree with his appraisal, she swallowed her hopes and dreams and continued to work as a secretary at the local insurance agency. After all, now that Hank had his career started at NASA, the nice house and the children would be soon to follow anyway.

 Then, one day, after Hank had worked at NASA for a year and a half, Merry came home to find him sitting on the couch, drinking heavily. A twelve-pack of “dead soldiers” (the term Merry used for his empty beer cans) sat next to his feet. His drinking had never tapered off after college, and there were mornings he’d still smelled of alcohol when he left for work. Merry could feel the tension the moment she walked through the door.

“Those damn cheats!”

“What do you mean, Hank? What’s happened?”

“The sons-of-bitches can keep their job. They stole my idea, Merry. Just because they have ‘PhD’ after their names, those bastards thought they could walk all over me.”

“Were you fired?”

“They claimed I had poor evaluations and were letting me go. Really they used it as an excuse to take my idea and get famous with it themselves. The dirty bastards.”

Merry’s heart sank. She’d suspected Hank hadn’t been upfront with her when she’d made the “mistake” of asking him if his drinking impacted his work.

She swallowed her pride, however, and relied on the goodwill of her family to get them back to Illinois. That’s where they had lived ever since. Hank went without working for nearly a year, claiming he was “done” with engineering. Finally, her uncle got him a job at the local factory, and that’s where he’d worked for the past fifteen years.

During that time, Libby and Joey came along, and Merry did her best to keep up a good front for them. Her children weren’t ever to know of any strife. She also didn’t utter one word of complaint to her family, although she knew that they believed Hank was deadwood in the family tree. 

“Really, Mom, Hank didn’t mean for that to come out the way it sounded. He has a good heart. You just can’t see it,” she’d said on more than one occasion.

The support of her family was what got them by, especially during the holidays. Hank’s pride kept her from telling him that her Christmas savings fund wasn’t what bought the children their toys from Santa. It was best he didn’t know that the gifts came from her mother. 

Assembling the toys was Hank’s one contribution to Christmas. Her mother didn’t mince words while unloading the boxes of toys to be put together by her son-in-law. “If there’s one thing Hank is good at, it’s using a screwdriver.” 

Merry’s thoughts were brought back to the present. Hank would shine tonight as her handyman prince and would put together the toys once again.

Let’s hope we don’t have a repeat of the year he drank too much and didn’t tighten Libby’s training wheels.

Immediately, Merry chided herself for thinking such a negative thought. It was the holidays, after all. Her favorite time of year. She busied herself with wrapping gifts. She wanted Hank to be surprised. She’d gotten him a brand new tackle box filled with expensive lures and fishing gear. He so loved his weekend outings to his getaway spot. Merry had never seen Hank happier than when he was heading there.

As she placed the last tag on the last gift, her phone rang. The number was a familiar one. Her mother was calling from Wheaton, Merry’s childhood home near Chicago. They chatted and laughed for a good half hour before Merry heard Hank calling from downstairs.

“Mom, I really need to go. Hank says he needs my help with something in the garage. Love and kisses to you.”

In the darkness of a snowy Christmas Eve, Hank slowly drove his truck with the lights off through the subdivision. Merry had begged many times for him to take her to his special getaway place. He’d never shared that—or many other parts of himself—with her before tonight. Well, Merry was finally going to be at his secret spot.

Hank’s First Christmas

Hank Smedley hated Christmas. Well, not the holiday itself, but certainly all the “honey-dos” he was forced to tangle with during the hectic days around it. His wife, Merry, (and oh, how she thought it was hilarious to tell everyone she wished them a “Merry” Christmas) had never-ending lists of work for him to do. All Hank wanted to do was relax.

His job at the factory wasn’t bad. Monotonous? Yes. Bad? Well, not really. He had spent the past fifteen years with a screwdriver in his hand, securing Part A to Part B on the assembly line. Maybe that was why he resented the “Assembly Required” warnings on each box he opened that quiet, snowy evening. 

How would she like it if I made her be a secretary here at home? Huh? I’ve never told her that she needs to take dictation or file paperwork when she’s on vacation. Why can’t she ever give me a break?

The clock tick-tocked on the wall, and sweat formed on Hank’s forehead. He sat in silence, staring at the screwdriver in his hand. It fit perfectly. Tonight that had been useful. The red on the handle reminded him that he still had much to do before the morning arrived. There would be people coming to the house over the next few days. The red just wouldn’t do.

Why does she insist on buying toys that have to be assembled? Why couldn’t she let me enjoy the holiday?

With each turn of the screwdriver, his frustration mounted. Years of resentment and anger caused him to lean in with every rotation.

Hank shrugged. He knew he shouldn’t complain. Not really. Tonight was like all the Christmas Eves he’d spent since their oldest, Libby, had been born eight years before, but he was certain this wouldn’t happen again. His time had come to enjoy Christmas too. 

His thoughts drifted to the year Libby opened her little, pink, motorized convertible.

I swear I thought this screwdriver was going to give me blisters that night.

Hank had to smile, however, at the vision of his Libby giggling with joy. 

The smile left his face when he remembered Merry’s harping the year he didn’t tighten the training wheels on Lib’s bicycle. Five stitches at the emergency room on Christmas morning hadn’t been how she wanted to spend the day. As if it was all about her? No thanks for the hours he’d spent putting it all together. No concern about Libby’s forehead that had whacked the pavement on the driveway as the bicycle tipped over. 

Damn it, Merry. Why did everything always have to be about you?

The clock chimed 12:30.

Hank knew if he’d gotten started on the toys sooner, he wouldn’t be in the rush he was now. If it hadn’t been for Merry nagging about one thing and another, he’d have gotten these toys assembled hours ago.

But there was the issue of Merry.

Turning the television set on with the volume low, he searched for the Weather Channel. 

“Accumulations are expected to be in the eight-to-twelve inch range this evening with a coating of ice to be added in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. Stay tuned for updated forecasts for your area.”

Eight inches should be enough. Hell, twelve inches will be even better.

Hank returned his thoughts to the diagram laid out before him. One side of the directions was in Chinese. The other in English. None of the diagrams made sense to him. The only thing that kept Hank going was knowing how excited Libby and Joey would be in the morning.

Once I’m done with this, I’ll finish cleaning up the mess.

After an hour of assembling and reassembling the pieces, he completed the last toy of the evening. His knees ached as he stood. A good stretch and a yawn helped clear his head. 

The smell of bleach still permeated the room, and he knew that had to go. He quietly slipped into the kitchen pantry, where Merry stored the Scentsy wax. “Apples and Cinnamon” sounded delicious. Opening the door to the garage and turning on ceiling fans, Hank hoped to remove the antiseptic smell while he went from wax warmer to wax warmer, depositing double doses of scented magic into each one.

Breathing deeply, Hank quietly said, “Ah, that’s much better.”

He washed the screwdriver carefully–meticulously–and placed it in the dishwasher for good measure. 

“That should take care of that.”

He stepped into the garage to take inventory. The set of clothes he’d worn earlier in the day was secured in the large black trash bag. Yes, he had both gloves in there as well, and he had properly disposed of his boots by double-wrapping them before putting them in the bag. Slipping into his vehicle, he left the lights off as he drove out of the subdivision, turned onto Highway 205, and went to his favorite getaway spot. He was glad he had thought to put the camper shell on the back. He hated nosey neighbors.

Within forty-five minutes, he was back home. The snow was really falling now. Looking out the kitchen window, the tire tracks into his driveway were almost erased already. 

At around four o’clock, well before his children would awake to see what Santa had brought them, Hank, sleepy and spent, stumbled into his bedroom where saw the king-sized bed that Merry insisted he put together five years ago. She’d said the mattress would help her back. Hank crawled under the covers, stretching out fully in this bed that he now had all to himself.

Scarcity

The sharpness of the wind caused the feeble old man to tighten his grip around the collar of his tattered coat. Occasional bits of sleet from scattered clouds added to the misery of the impending evening. Alone and hungry, this weary soul found himself once more reduced to begging. 

I remember a day when life was easy. I didn’t suffer like this. The world has become a miserable place.

Arnie Hammond then chided himself for his grumbling.

At least part of this is my fault. I put myself in this position, and I can’t blame anyone else for that. I’ve become too dependent on others, and that’s why I’m where I’m at. I knew better.

Still, the biting cold was hard on a man of his age. Street lights began to turn on as the amber sun sank, peeking through a stormy horizon. The trees lost their leaves weeks ago, and they were reduced to mere shells of what they once were, much like Arnie himself. He stopped walking to take in the scene before him.The trees stood like skeletons silhouetted against the darkening sky, and their branches reached up as though in a fervent prayer toward the heavens.

“God grant us mercy,” Arnie muttered. 

He blew on his cracked hands and his breath filled the air. 

“It’s going to be a rough one tonight. I’m not asking for much. Just a little comfort for my weary bones.”

Shuffling along the asphalt of the city, Arnie approached an intersection frequented by panhandlers. He was in luck, it appeared, because none of the regulars worked the spot. 

I guess it’s too cold out here even for the young

A short line of cars sat waiting for the light to change. Arnie carefully approached the first, a white sedan, driven by a man yelling into his cell phone. He gently rapped on the passenger window.

Glaring, the man rolled down the window. 

“What in the hell do you want, old man? Do I look like I care about your problems? I’ve got problems of my own. Go somewhere else!”

With that, he pushed the button to raise the window, shutting Arnie out of his small, angry world.

Arnie shrugged his shoulders and stepped to the next car in line. His heart leapt as the window lowered before he even reached the vehicle. His joy was short-lived.

“Listen, buddy, go get a job. Stop freeloading off honest Americans. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“There was a time when–”

“Save it! Leave me and my wife alone.”

It’s ‘my wife and me’ Arnie thought as he shuffled along to the next vehicle, a large diesel truck. His luck was no better there. No one screamed at him, but no one looked at him either. It was as though, if they ignored him, he would disappear into thin air. For the next hour, he faced one rejection after another.

A bustling parking lot to the west of the intersection offered some promise. His knees creaked as he climbed the embankment. The exertion wore on his battered body, but the shortcut saved him an added quarter mile of walking to reach the entrance of the big box store. Busy holiday shoppers rushed about, eager to finish the last of their errands. The wind whipped, and the sleet intensified. Christmas carols rang out over the store’s speakers, wishing peace and good will toward men. It was the season of giving, the soothing voice announced between songs. The jingling bell of the Salvation Army volunteer mingled with the wind.

Arnie thought a lot about peace and joy. He yearned for the time when his world was filled with peace and joy. Wiping his dirty hand over his face, he remembered what it was like to be loved. He fought back the tears welling in his eyes from a combination of emotion and stinging wind.

He tottered toward the exit of the store and leaned against a post for a moment to catch his breath. 

This may be my last chance to find any relief tonight.

He mustered his strength and slowed his breathing as he approached a woman briskly stepping toward her Mercedes. He didn’t want to appear desperate, although, as a beggar on the street, that was exactly what he was at this moment.

“Please, ma’am, I’m not asking for much, I was wondering if…”

His words faded away as she clutched her purse and gave him a baleful stare. “Mister, you can just back away. I’ll call the police on you.”

“I’m sorry to bother you.”

“Well, you did. Go away.”

Arnie turned to see a gentleman pushing a cart loaded with bags.

“Excuse me, sir.”

“Listen, you can take your panhandling someplace else. I don’t have time for thieves like you. Take one step closer and I’ll beat the hell out of you. You nasty thing, you. Stop trying to sponge off others. Get a job. Make yourself useful.”

The comments were a crushing blow to Arnie’s spirit. His bearded chin slumped against his dirty shirt. As ashamed as he was by his current appearance, nothing hurt worse than the accusation that he wouldn’t work for his own living. He was willing to do any job, but his failing health made work nearly impossible. In the past year, it became a vicious circle. The longer he went without adequate food and shelter, the less capable he was to work. The less capable he was to work, the worse his living conditions became. 

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” floated through the air as the angry man turned once more and raised his fist toward Arnie. 

“No need to become violent, sir. I won’t bother you again.”

“You won’t bother anyone ever again if you provoke me one more time. If  I don’t see you walking out of this parking lot, I’m going to take you around the corner and make you wish you’d never met me. I’m going to stand here and watch you go. Now get!”

“But–”

“I don’t want to hear it, creep. Go!”

The man’s eyes flashed, and Arnie knew he had no choice. If he lingered, the man would make good on his threats. There were a lot of ways to die, but beaten on a cold winter’s night was not how Arnie wanted to face his end.

He turned to walk away, looking over his shoulder one more time at the man whose fist remained raised. With shoulders drooping, Arnie made his way back to the main road, accepting that no sustenance would come on this night.

All alone in the dark corner of an industrial building, Arnie Hammond leaned against the cold brick wall. The cold wind seared his face and swept the breath from his lungs. Pellets of sleet fell in earnest now, and Arnie slumped onto the icy concrete. There would be no Christmas cheer for him. 

Peaceful thoughts washed over Arnie as he dreamed of better days. He’d come so far from home and had asked for so little. He knew he’d been foolish. Even in his reverie, he knew he’d expected far too much from the cosmos.The dream was so vivid that he felt it had to be real. The sights, sounds, and smells of home came to life. The love he felt during childhood flooded over him.

He heard his mother’s voice and felt her hand caress his hair. “Arnie, my boy, I’d have saved you if I could.”

“I know, Mama.”

“Tell me, son, what have you learned?”

“I learned that the cosmos is unkind to a lonely traveler. A man like me had no business coming to a foreign planet thinking I could survive on what, I now know, is a scarce commodity: human kindness. Please forgive me, Mama.”

Hypothermia and hunger took their toll on our weary visitor. Two, maybe three, days later, someone would stumble upon what remained of a hobo, frozen and alone in an icy, barren alley.

Memory Lane

Evangeline Moore brushed the wisps of brown hair out of her eyes as she sailed down Concord Avenue on her bicycle. This old bike took her wherever she wanted to go, and she smiled as the familiar places of her youth passed by her while she picked up speed. 

“Be careful, Evie,” her father always cautioned her. “You have the heart of a lion, and I’m afraid you’re going to hurt yourself one day on that contraption.”

“That’s impossible, Daddy. My bicycle is my freedom.”

Freedom.

Yes, this old bicycle was her freedom. Whenever she felt down or useless, she hopped on her trusty bike and pedaled. All her cares slipped away as she rode to her heart’s content. 

She remembered her first real bicycle. It had training wheels, and she was four that Christmas. More than anything that year, she’d wanted a bike so she could keep up with her three siblings. Looking back, she wasn’t sure how her parents raised four children on her father’s paycheck, let alone bought them the very presents they desired most, but they managed. Having grown older and wiser, she now guessed that Grandma Wilson had her hand in the gift getting. It was a testament to Granny’s character that she never wanted credit if she had, in fact, bought those presents. 

All Evangeline knew for certain was that her family loved her. What she wouldn’t give to ride bikes with Sallie, Dot, and Mack again. Their absence was the only drawback to her solitary bike rides. She couldn’t bring the people she missed along with her these days. 

She could, however, take rides down memory lane where she heard their peals of laughter and the whirring of their wheels as they raced each other to Sutter’s Orchard or to the top of Crabapple Hill. On especially daring trips, they took moonlit rides around the perimeter of the cemetery. That, of course, didn’t happen until their teenage years. Their parents would have killed them for being out at that hour, so the four had developed a system for leaving their home undetected. 

Evangeline laughed out loud at their antics. They were brave and they were daring, that was for sure. Mack bragged that they came from pioneer stock and that’s what made them fearless. Not a one of them turned down some wholesome fun when they could find it. 

Turning right, she rode past the barber shop, the grocer, and Doc Gower’s office. She winced at the thought of the time she’d fallen from the top of their maple tree and Doc Gower had to reset her arm. Glancing down at her tanned, smooth skin, the white of the scar near her elbow was a reminder of that mishap. She swore she could still feel the pain and hear the sounds as the gentle doctor manhandled her arm back into place. That was one memory she did not care to relive. 

Up ahead, a cottontail hopped across the road in front of her, then it stopped to stare at her while sitting on its hind legs. It was early summer, and she had a suspicion that the bunny came from Mildred McEnany’s garden. 

“Little one, I won’t hurt you, but I can’t make any promises about old Mildred. She’s got buckshot waiting for you if you’re not careful.”

Evangeline slowed to watch the rabbit. It cocked its head, almost as if it considered her advice. A neighborhood dog barked, spooking the cottontail just enough that it decided to hop on along. 

Evangeline, in turn, quickened her pace. Her hometown hadn’t changed a bit, and she wanted to take in all of her favorite spots before her ride was over. 

She turned a corner and saw one of her special places. The glorious oak tree stood as it always had. Just as it stood the night Jacob Moore kissed her for the first time. Butterflies took flight in Evangeline’s heart as she thought of that warm summer evening. 

There is nothing like true love.

If she listened carefully, she could hear the birds sing the same as they had the night Jacob swore he’d love her forever. And he had. At least until his plane was shot down during the war. The diamonds on her wedding ring lit up as brightly as her heart did whenever she thought of that sweet man. 

Evangeline wiped a tear, blew a kiss at the tree, and rode past. There was no sense in dwelling there. Her memories with Jacob would always be just as vivid. 

Next she rode down Culver Hill and past the schoolyard. Oh, the fun she and her classmates had. The swings. The monkey bars. The teeter-totter. Now those were some good times. 

Kids these days just don’t know what they’re missing with their noses stuck to a screen.

She was half-tempted to hop off her bike and try out the swing herself, but she thought better of it. She needed to stay on her bike. It was enough to catch a look at the recess yard. 

The church bell tolled noon, and she knew what that meant. It was time to return home. She didn’t dare have Layna arrive at the house while she was gone. Too many questions. Too much unnecessary prying

My daughter seems to think I can’t take care of myself.

Evangeline wasted no time pedaling home, wind whipping past her as she breathed deeply. The rides did so much for her.

“Exercise is important,” her mother always said. 

She slowed as she approached her house, relieved that Layna had yet to arrive. Leaning her bicycle against the yellow wall by her garden gate, she slowly made her way up the steps and into her kitchen.

I’d best fix my hair before she gets here.

Evangeline looked into the mirror. The wrinkled old woman staring back at her reminded her of her grandmother. Her wizened hands, knuckles swollen from arthritis, grasped the brush as she untangled her long grey hair.

Gone were her youthful arms and legs. Gone was the burst of energy she had while riding her special bicycle. 

Someday. Yes, someday I will tell Layna about my little secret. She, too, will use my magic bicycle to go down her own memory lane.

Her daughter rapped gently at the front door.

“Mom, are you ready for me to take you shopping?”

“Yes, dear, I’m coming.”

For now, though, it’s okay for this old girl to keep this secret to herself.

Where Real Meets Imagined

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