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

Sometimes the sweetest lessons come with a price.

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.

Sincerely Yours

For several years I’ve prided myself as being a collector of the unusual. My idea of unusual doesn’t always match what others deem it to be. People bring all sorts of things into my shop, but most items are commonplace. Sure, an antique teapot or Grandpa’s WWII sidearm might have great sentimental value to the individual person, but as a category, those are typical artifacts that can be found just about anywhere. I’m not discounting the importance of memorabilia. I simply have more discerning tastes. 

Two days ago, I heard the jingling of the bell on my shop door. Medium-height with short brown hair, wearing a thin brown coat, I wouldn’t have given the man a second glance on the street. 

“Excuse me, are you Stanley Perkins?” He set a chest on my countertop. 

“Yes, I am. What can I do for you today?”

“I understand you dabble in the unusual. I may have something that would interest you.”

I hear that fifty times a week. 

Skeptically, I sized up the chest and saw nothing spectacular about it. 

“I don’t have any use for an old chest, Mr.—“

“Smith.”

Oh boy, another anonymous peddler of the unimpressive.

“Looks can be deceiving. The chest itself isn’t of importance. It’s the contents that you may find interesting.”

I stared at the chest, and I’m afraid I didn’t hide my doubts well. 

“You don’t have to make a decision now. I’ll leave this here for you to go through. All I ask is that you keep the contents in the same order they are now.”

“Sounds fair enough. How much do you want for it—if I decide I want it?”

“We can discuss the terms once you’ve taken a look. I’ll come back on Friday. I’ve only let a few people, those with an interest in the unusual and the unexpected, see what’s inside. Remember, go through every item, then we will close the deal.”

Apparently, no one else wants to buy it. What the hell, though? Business is slow, and I’ve got some time to go through it.

“Okay, I’ll give it a gander. No promises, though.”

“I assure you, we will strike a deal.”

I turned to unclasp the latch to the chest, and when I turned around, Mr. Smith was gone. The jingling of the bell on my door was my only indication he had left. 

Truthfully, I didn’t think there’d be anything worthwhile in it, but I opened the lid to find stacks of papers. The parchment was yellowed and brittle. Old paper like that requires special handling or the oil on our hands will ruin them, so I found my box of latex gloves and put a pair on. I had to protect the documents, not only out of respect for the current owner, but because I wanted to get top dollar for them if they turned out to be something special and I chose to strike a deal.

I picked up a few stacks and set them on the counter. Then I remembered Smith’s request to keep everything in order, so I carefully placed them back together and hoisted the chest to the floor. I pulled up my comfy chair, refilled my coffee cup, and took a look at the first paper in the chest. 

A letter. An old one. Dated May 4, 1864. Hmmm. What do we have here?

Dear Jimmy,

I have been by your side since you were a small boy. I’ve accompanied you on many adventures, and I have so many fond memories of you. Do you remember the time when you and your brother dove off Steeple Rock into the river, but the current had moved the location of the pool? Or the time Old Man Gentry mistook you for a burglar and barely missed you with that shotgun blast? Those were some close calls, but you made it through. 

Tonight you are sleeping on the ground, dreaming of home and of those loved ones you have left behind. Tomorrow is a big day. The enemy has advanced farther, and you are going into dangerous territory. 

Know I am standing beside you and will not leave you my good friend. 

Sincerely yours, 

G.R.

A second page accompanied the letter. An obituary for Jimmy Thompson from a small town newspaper gave the details of his passing. Age 17, son of Edith and Ezra Thompson, he died May 5, 1864 in the Battle of the Wilderness. 

Why, he died the day after that letter was written. 

Always a softy for Civil War memorabilia, I began to think the chest might have potential. 

I carefully set Jimmy’s letter and obituary on the counter and read one after the other. So many were written to Civil War soldiers on both sides of the fight. Others were to farmers, doctors, school teachers, and people of all ages and walks of life. Filling up my cup of coffee, I pondered the fact that each letter was written the day before the death listed in the obituary. I  picked up the next letter, dated November 18, 1904.  

Dear Maude,

You are a remarkable woman, my dear. You have come so far from being that scrawny little girl who caught frogs and climbed trees with her brother. I smile now thinking of the time you filled Mabel Hammond’s lunch bucket with lizards just to hear her squeal at the church picnic. Mabel never could take a joke, and you endured the whipping from your daddy like a champion. Your spunk and determination got you far. 

You survived the Yankees raiding your home and leaving your family near starvation. You and Harmon Mackey raised six mischievous boys without a moment of outward frustration. You’ve seen births, deaths, cholera outbreaks, and most recently a World’s Fair. You became a grandma and a great-grandma, and your family adores you. 

I have enjoyed every moment we have spent together. I will be seeing you soon. 

Sincerely yours,

G.R.

As with the other letters, an obituary for Maude Mackey accompanied it. 

I read through several more, and the dates moved progressively forward. The letters were personal and touching, and I felt as though I peered into a crystal ball and could see these people come to life. 

One letter to Conrad Milton gave me pause. It was written the day before he died in the Battle of the Bulge. Why would Conrad’s letter hit me emotionally? Because he was my father’s best friend. They joined the Army the day after Pearl Harbor happened and, like all small towns back then, the hometown recruits were put in the same unit. My father was with him when the mortar shell landed smack dab on Connie. I’d grown up listening to stories about Conrad Milton. The letter included a few I’d never heard, like the time he and his little sister almost died from scarlet fever. 

Something bothers me, though. Just who is this writing these letters? Who is G.R.? Because of the span of years, there’s no way it’s the same person. Also, these people lived all across the country. How can this be?

Over the course of the next few days, I continued reading, letter after letter and obituary after obituary. They always recalled poignant moments of the person’s life. They were always signed by G.R. 

If these are fiction, I have no use for them. I’m not sure what Mr. Smith thinks he’s trying to sell me here. 

On Friday morning, I finally reached the bottom of the chest. One final letter remained, but unlike the others, there was no obituary. 

That’s odd. 

I carefully opened the last letter written on bright white paper. I checked the date, which couldn’t be right. September 14 of this year—why that was yesterday. I shrugged and began reading. 

Dear Stanley,

You’ve been one of my favorites since you were a young boy living on South Orchard Street. Always curious and always drawn to people and things that were different or unique, you’ve lived quite the life. For your senior trip, you chose to go to exotic New Guinea just so you could see real head hunters. Most people your age went to Paris or Barcelona, but you aren’t like other people. By the way, I didn’t know for sure if we were going to get off New Guinea with your head still attached, but fate had it that you would survive. 

Because I’ve enjoyed following you for so long, I wanted to give you this one last treat. No one else has been privy to the private collection of letters I’ve written  to those I have treasured above all others. This chest was my gift to you. I’m so glad I was able to meet you in person before we embark on our journey. I will see you soon. 

Sincerely yours, 

G.R. 

Who would know about New Guinea? What kind of trick is this?

Just then the bell on my door jingled. At first, I didn’t recognize the person who interrupted my thoughts. Instead of an old brown jacket, Mr. Smith wore a hooded robe and carried a scythe. 

“Hello, Stanley. I hope you’ve enjoyed my gift. Now it’s time for us to finalize our deal and leave.”

He reached his hand out to me, and in that moment I clearly recognized the Grim Reaper. Tomorrow’s paper would hold the obituary he’d add to his collection.

At Day’s End

Daylight peeked through the looming storm clouds as Anderson Whitley finished his last shift as a train conductor. Thirty-three years had flown by. It hardly seemed possible that in a flash, a brief moment in the scheme of things, he had married, raised a family, and had a career that was mainly a good one. Not everyone could say that, and Anderson took pride in knowing he’d completed a job well done. 

Thoughts drifted back through the years. The scene played out before him as he remembered the nervous sweat trickling down the back of his neck as he interviewed with the railroad for his first job. Old man Zeb Haskins had arranged the interview for him. He had always taken a liking to young Anderson. Partly out of respect for Anderson’s father, Isaiah, who died in the war, and partly because Zeb raised five lovely daughters, but no sons, Anderson held a special place in the life of Zeb Haskins.

“Andy, I see my job at the railroad as a heritage. My father worked for them, and now I’m nearing retirement age. I have no son to pass my heirloom onto, but I have you. I’d be honored if you’d consider it.”

Anderson smiled a reminiscent smile. Zeb never did call him by his full name. To him, he was always Andy. 

“Zeb, I’m more than happy to interview for the job, but there must be two hundred people vying for that spot. You know times are tough. Don’t be too disappointed in me if I don’t get it.”

The old man blinked a few times and shifted his weight from side-to-side as he stared off into the distance before fixing his gaze back on the young man. “Andy, don’t you worry about that. You could never disappoint me. Just promise me you’ll do your best. And I mean do your best as an employee because I firmly believe the job is yours for the taking.”

That nervous kid in the sweat-drenched shirt sitting in front of Wilford Corning, the head of the railroad division in that region, wasn’t convinced he earned the spot on the crew. His voice shook. He nearly stumbled over the basic questions asked of him. Two days later, he received the call, however.

Of course, Zeb was the first person he told. “I can’t believe it. I got the job!”

Zeb seemed almost too confident when he replied, “I knew you would.”

Anderson had no doubt in that moment that Zeb had pulled strings and the job was his before the old man even asked him to apply. He didn’t care, however. It made Zeb happy, and it was a professional windfall a boy from a dirt poor family only dreamed of having. A career with the railroad would open many doors for Anderson. 

Within six months of starting his job, Anderson saved enough money for a down payment on a place he’d eyed for quite some time. The house had potential, and the land provided one of the prettiest views in the county. He dreamed of one day sitting on that front porch swing, holding the hand of a beautiful girl, and watching the sun go down. 

Anderson smiled. He always smiled when he thought of his Maryann. They had those sunset evenings, and after a whirlwind courtship, he brought her home as his wife. 

Oh, how she loved to cook. One of the first renovations Anderson made to the house was a custom kitchen for his aspiring gourmet chef. Maryann flipped through catalogs and scoured the aisles of home improvement stores until she found exactly what she wanted. His hefty paycheck with the railroad allowed Anderson the ability to pamper her. Any chance he had to dote on her, he did. 

On this last trip as a conductor, Anderson wondered what the future held for his darling wife and him. His family as a whole, really. 

Yes, his family. He had so many warm memories of the kids. His job kept him away from home more than he would have liked, but Anderson made every moment with his family count. He was driven to make sure they had wonderful experiences and a solid foundation to build their lives upon. The loss of his own father when he was a toddler compelled Anderson to be the best father he possibly could be. All six of his children assured him he had succeeded, and now he had grandchildren to help raise. Because of his position, and with tonight being his last trip down the tracks, Anderson hoped for many more days with his growing family.

“Hey, Mr. Whitley. Excuse me, sir, but how much longer before we get there?” A young employee interrupted his thoughts. 

“Gates, you know as well as I do that it’s another thirty minutes before we reach the station.”

“I know. I guess I’m just nervous.”

“Yes, I understand. It’s all right. This is a big night.”

“Thank you. Sorry for bothering you sir.”

“It’s okay, Gates. Now go back to your position.”

Tonight was an unusual night, that was for sure. The sun had been all but lost in the gathering storm clouds. Lightning flashed ahead of the train, and the rays through the clouds cast an odd yellow hue to everything around the train as it barreled to its final destination.

This was not an ordinary trip, not simply because of his upcoming retirement. Anderson tried to soak in every sight along the way. He wanted these images burned into his memory forever.

He recalled the first time he’d heard the news. It wasn’t broadcast on the television or radio. No, he learned of it when he’d been called into a corporate meeting in Chicago. Over the years, his personable disposition and flawless work ethic earned him friends in high places in the company. It paid off for Anderson. His connections led to him having the privilege of this night. They allowed him to have hope for tomorrow as well. Not everyone—in fact, not most—were as lucky. 

Guilt swept over the conductor. He tried not to think of what tomorrow would bring for those less fortunate than his family. It wasn’t their fault to be on the losing end of this hand, nor was it Anderson’s fault for being dealt a better one. It was fate and luck. Nothing more. 

Anderson shook his head in silence. He wasn’t sure how lucky any of them were. Not anymore. 

Deep in thought, he’d lost track of time. He was surprised to see the lights of the station entrance tucked into the side of the mountain. The Rockies had been one of his most scenic routes. He’d taken Maryann and the kids on vacations there many times. His family, and soon the other passengers on this last train, would see the mountains from a different perspective: from the inside.

Anderson had been given a tour of the facility, or at least part of it. The gargantuan structure buried deep inside the range was too large for one man to walk in the course of a day. Then again, there were portions of the facility that regular citizens, like himself, would never have access to. Those were reserved for government employees and the military.

As they approached the entrance, a sophisticated gate slid open, allowing the train to be swallowed by the mountain. The tracks were empty, and the station was desolate, as Anderson guided the last train into the stop. Everyone else sheltered a few stories below, awaiting what tomorrow would bring.

As the gate slid closed behind the train, the last vestiges of daylight fell behind the clouds as rain pelted the ground outside. 

Anderson watched as the passengers disembarked, waiting eagerly for Maryann, his children, and his grandchildren to join him. He was thankful they were with him for his final day as a conductor. 

The train, nicknamed “The Ark” by many, carried the last of mankind to be saved from the cataclysmic asteroid impact that would happen at 5:17 the next morning.

Rocket Man

Last June, the world was supposed to come to an end when an asteroid hurtled through space on a collision course with our planet. Mankind had never faced a graver threat. Riots erupted, governments collapsed, and anarchy reigned on the streets. Things were so simple then. We faced unstoppable annihilation, and that truth couldn’t be changed, until it was.

We had two months of warning as the asteroid approached. Two months was plenty of time for us to tear ourselves to shreds. At a time when altruisms like peace and brotherhood would have made our deaths seem somehow noble, old wounds, barely covered hatreds, and primal fears wreaked havoc on civilization. Race against race, country against country, and religion against religion tore nations and allegiances apart. Neighbors and family members killed one another over bunkers and bread. Utter mayhem ruled the land for two months. Until we were surprised by what initially was considered good news.

Two days before impact, the asteroid slowed to a stop. No, it’s not possible for an asteroid to come to a halt. Nor is it possible for it to break up into smaller parts which then began separate orbits around Earth. Baffled, scientists scrambled to find answers.

The mystery was solved when one of those pieces crashed in a remote part of New Mexico in Rio Arriba County not far from Farmington. Teams of researchers raced to the area. There they found a badly disabled alien craft, no bigger than a Volkswagen in size. The asteroid was no asteroid at all. It was an alien craft sent as an expeditionary force to our planet.

Inside the damaged craft, scientists found the remains of five aliens, mutilated by the crash. Top researchers whisked the bodies off to government labs for study. While hideous from our perspective, the aliens were not so different from humans when it came to the basics. They breathed oxygen. Their bodies were 70% water. They had a well-developed brain and nervous system. Perhaps they were curious about their Earth cousins.

Two days after the crash, however, their intentions proved less than peaceful. They began by blowing up the International Space Station, then methodically took out one satellite after another. Earth’s enemies, the United States, Russia, and China, quickly pooled their abilities and scrambled a space force to neutralize our hostile visitors. 

A battle blazed across the sky, and losses were heavy for the international forces. They did prevail, however. Every alien craft, save for one, was destroyed. The lone craft made its way, damaged but still functioning, out of our solar system.

We breathed a sigh of relief, and our leaders vowed to spare no expense to take the fight to the aliens. In a joint statement, world leaders announced a plan.

“We will work tirelessly to use our latest technology to destroy our enemy. With the use of our space telescopes, we have located the alien planet. We have a plan in place to end the threat.”

A top secret project was launched that spanned the globe. For decades, robotics engineers had perfected nanotechnology. The joint military effort of Earth’s developed nations created an army of nano soldiers. Millions of tiny robots the size of grains of sand would be placed on a deep space rocket. Once landed, the micro force would spill out across the enemy land, destroying everything it encountered.

Backup scenarios were in place. In the event of a crash or even the destruction of the rocket, the tiny soldiers would jettison their way to the planet. If the project had to abort, the nano troops would self-destruct and become inoperable. This fail-safe method insured security while handling the force and allowed for contingencies.

Researchers who studied the dead aliens in New Mexico months earlier provided vital information for helping the nanotechnology target the life forms. No oxygen-breathing organisms would escape alive once the kill command was activated. 

As the project reached the end phase prior to launch, the public was informed of the plans. After so much grief, the citizens of Earth needed to know what mankind was doing to save itself. 

Top scientists from around the world worked day and night on Operation Hourglass. A Cal-Tech graduate, Edward Filmore was a perfect fit to work as a top technician on this vital project. Edward was a genius. He had a mad scientist look about him and, fortunately for him, his wife was attracted to his brilliance. It certainly wasn’t his looks or athletic ability that caught her eye. Edward had been known to trip over his own shoe laces, and handsome was never a word used to describe him. Edward was a klutz, but he was a good man. His worst attributes were his lack of common sense or social skills. Get him started talking about science and mathematics, however, and the man came to life.

Edward’s job wasn’t to develop nanotechnology. No, his team was tasked with guiding the rocket carrying the precious weaponized cargo into space. Many worked on his team, but he played a vital role in the success of the mission. While much of the flight would be controlled by computers, Edward’s job was to man the control panel, adjusting on the fly, so to speak, as necessary. It was the type of intellectual job he was geared for. 

Two weeks prior to launch, Edward and his team were invited into the containment facility where the nano force was stored awaiting its mission. The tiny grains of sand designed to prevail in Operation Hourglass were part of a Show-and-Tell presentation given by the lab.

“Rest assured, ladies and gentlemen, these robots are inert at the moment. Dip your fingers into this Petri dish to feel the tiny granules that will save our planet from any future alien attacks.” The head of the lab, Michael Fitzgerald, held a dish out for each of the technicians to take a close look at the tiny warriors.

Each technician pinched a portion between their thumbs and index fingers and examined the mechanical heroes. Inert was a good way to describe them, thought Edward. It was hard to believe that mankind’s future depended upon this metallic dust. Edward nearly dropped his pinch of nanotechnology, but he managed to catch himself just in time.

The project leaders gave short speeches, refreshments were served, and dignitaries thanked every member of the operation for their dedication and diligence. 

“No time in our history has relied so heavily on the know-how of our brilliant scientists. Thank you for coming on today’s tour. Now back to work! The clock for Operation Hourglass—and mankind—is ticking.”

Edward and his team returned to their stations. With only two weeks before launch, rest came in short breaks. Naps replaced full-fledged sleep. 

Unlike the time of chaos during the asteroid crisis, now that the world had a plan to end the alien threat once and for all, peace reigned on Earth. In our communities and on our streets there were marches of solidarity. People linked arms with one another, helped their neighbors, and began to act…humanely. 

There was hope. Maybe, just maybe, mankind had learned its lesson.

On the day of the launch, the world tuned in and held its collective breath. Bands played. Speeches were broadcast. Mainly, however, everyone watched the countdown clock. 

As the final seconds ticked away, the rocket’s engines flared to life. Millions—billions—of people roared with the thrust of the engines. 

Edward Filmore and his team pored over the controls. All systems were go. Until they weren’t. 

The rocket, ignoring all commands, toppled to its side, spilling its precious cargo of heroic warriors. Frantic, the scientists scrambled to regain control.

In the nano lab command center, panic erupted. Instead of self-destructing, the tiny robots weaponized and began spreading out across the grounds, intent on destroying all oxygen-dependent life in their path.

There was no stopping them.

Machines have no emotions. Or do they? 

The tiny robot that had jostled its way onto Edward Filmore’s shirt sleeve two weeks ago when he nearly dropped his sample during Show-and-Tell now rejoiced in a job well-done. Covertly slipping into Edward’s keyboard, it had worked hard in recent days reprogramming the rocket circuitry and activating the kill command.

A new day had dawned, and the world lay before his comrades.

When the Circus Comes to Town

Little Edie Franklin walked through the carnival runway, mesmerized by the colors, the sounds, and the smells. The screams from the Tilt-A-Whirl caused her to stop for a moment to watch. Cassie Nieman, her enemy during the school year, sat in one of the cars as it spun and rolled. Tyson Parks, Carol Renner, and Ashley Stokes also swirled past Edie amid the blaring music and raucous screams. Edie had longed for the arrival of summer so she could escape her tormentors, and seeing them now brought back the pain of their taunts. 

The sweet smell of cotton candy and corn dogs drew her attention to the food stand to her right. Digging out her hard-earned dollar bills, she slipped them to the worker and watched as he spun bright blue heaven onto the cardboard cone. Nothing said summer fun at the carnival like fresh cotton candy. 

The wind blew as she took her first bite of the delicious treat. Her long, blonde hair became tangled in the blue cloud, and it stuck to both her nose and her chin. She didn’t care. She’d waited all year for this. 

At thirteen, her family finally allowed her to meet her friends at the carnival alone. Always before, her older brother or her parents insisted on accompanying her. Edie begged them this year to let her ride the rides and watch the circus performers with her peers, and they relented. 

The sad truth, however, was that she had no friends to meet at the carnival—or anywhere else. She was too short, too skinny, too nerdy, too ugly—all the descriptions made by her classmates—to have any friends. Edie lived a solitary life. Sometimes her heart ached to belong to the crowd, but she told herself that they weren’t worth it. No one who could be as cruel as they were to her deserved to be her friend. 

She was right, but that didn’t lessen the pain. 

So Edie walked the strip of carnival barkers and rigged games by herself. She was, for the most part, comfortable with her solitude. Walking through the crowd, Edie found safety in her sense of invisibility. She blended in with the crowd, much like zebras do in the herd, and this insulated her from the mocking jabs made by people like Cassie Nieman. 

“Young lady, step right up! Five darts for just $2. You’re guaranteed to win a prize!” A tall, thin carnival worker with bright red hair and large ears tried to entice her to play at his stand,

Edie politely nodded her head no and quickened her pace so he would set his sights on someone more gullible than she was. 

She wandered with no real direction, but she found herself at the circus big top tent. The sign outside said the next show wouldn’t happen for two hours. Edie popped her head inside the tent, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elephants. No one was around, so she quietly slipped all the way inside. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. 

The tent seemed bigger on the inside than it did from the outside. She edged her way around, disappointed that she found none of the animals. Where would they be? She heard the chatter of a monkey coming from outside the opposite end of the tent. A lion grumbled, and she heard the trumpet of an elephant. Of course, the animals were kept in their pens and not in the tent itself. 

A rustling of wings above drew her attention to the ceiling. Sparrows had flown into the tent where they flitted back and forth, sometimes landing on the trapeze swings. Edie giggled at the idea that the birds pretended to be circus performers. 

Still in search of the animals, she decided that she’d come this far, so why not slip out the back of the tent and get a closeup view of them? Animals brought her more joy than most people did, so it was natural for her to gravitate toward them. She believed she should spend her time at the carnival as she chose. No law said she had to stick to the midway. 

She pulled back the flap and bright sunlight caused her to squint. After a moment, she clearly saw the animals and their cages, and Edie silently walked toward the monkeys, looking over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching her mischief. Peering into their enclosure, she swore they smiled at her. One even waved. They swayed and leapt, putting on their own circus show just for her as she stood watching for several minutes. Edie turned her head to the sound of the elephants, and almost as though the monkeys understood, they stopped their antics and waved goodbye. 

To get to the elephants, she had to pass the lions. The male contentedly chewed on a large bone while the female lolled about flicking her tail at the annoying summertime flies. 

As she rounded a corner to find the elephants, she heard the laughter of children. Had others snuck back there too? She tentatively peered around the corner. Six or seven children, whom she guessed ranged in age from four to fourteen, gathered in a circle. None of them looked familiar to her. Before now, she’d never even considered that the carnival workers had children of their own who traveled with them. She’d always viewed carnies as adults with no ties to the world at all as they moved from one town to another. Yes, these must be the performers’ children.

Undetected, she watched as the children played, amusing themselves by climbing a ladder to the top of a stack of pallets. A stack, equal in height with another ladder, towered about fifteen feet away. 

“Now introducing the Elegant Ella. Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to the center ring. You will see an amazing demonstration of grace and death-defying acrobatics.” A boy of about seven pretended to hold a microphone as he motioned his arm in a grand swing to point at a little girl who bowed and waved atop the pallets. 

The other children clapped and cheered as they played their roles as audience members. Edie smiled as she watched the little girl pretend she was about to perform in the flying trapeze. Her delight turned to horror as Ella jumped high, springing from the pallets into thin air. 

Edie gasped. The girl was going to hurt herself, and none of the other children seemed the least bit concerned. Then Edie saw why. 

Ella did not fall. She somersaulted and pretended to swing from a trapeze—but she clung to nothing but thin air. After sailing back and forth five or six times, Ella flipped and landed onto the other pallet stack, turning to bow and wave to the audience once more. The other children cheered as another girl clamored to be next. 

Bewildered by what she saw, Edie stepped backwards, her foot catching on one of the concrete blocks used to keep an animal trailer in place. She landed with a thud and struck her head on a rock. When she awoke, the children surrounded her. Before she could open her eyes, she heard them speaking. 

“Do you think she saw us?”

“Mom and Dad are going to kill us if she did.”

“Maybe she won’t remember when she wakes up.”

As Edie gained consciousness, the first face she saw was Ella’s, and it must have been clear by the look on her face that she had seen, and she did remember. 

“Just what do we do now?” A boy rubbed his forehead in worry. 

A brown-haired girl of about Edie’s age spoke up. “Well, the first thing we do, Josiah, is help her up. Come on you guys.”

The girl and Josiah extended their hands to Edie and helped her sit. 

“Hi, there. I’m Calinda. They call me Callie.” She sat next to Edie. 

“I—I’m Edie. Edie Franklin. I think I should be going. Sorry to have bothered you.”

“Not so fast.” A tall boy with dark brown eyes stared down at her. “First tell us what you saw.”

Edie, frightened and confused, stammered. “Really nothing. I just need to go.”

The boy moved closer to her. 

“Stop it, Ryland!” Ella ran to Edie. “Did you see me fly? I think I did an extra twist this time. Did you like it?”

Ryland jerked his little sister by the arm. “Shut up, Ella! We aren’t supposed to talk about these things with—others.”

Callie held up her hand to stop the comments of the other children. “At this point, I think it’s too late to worry about what should or shouldn’t have happened. She saw. Didn’t you? You saw, right?”

Edie slowly nodded her head and looked up at the crowd of worried faces around her. 

Callie stood and faced the others. “Listen, we can’t change any of that now.”

One little girl began to cry. 

“Oh, please don’t cry,” Edie pleaded. “I promise I won’t tell. I won’t tell anyone.”

Ryland sneered. “I don’t believe you. You’ll run and tell all your friends. That’s what girls do.”

That comment drew ugly looks from half of the children in the group, and the other boys tried to act like they weren’t part of it.

“I won’t tell. I don’t have any friends to tell.”

“What do you mean you have no friends?” Ella frowned and placed her hands on her hips. 

“I mean I don’t have any friends. I have no one to tell.”

Ryland was about to say something else when Callie silenced him. 

“Listen you guys, think about it. If we didn’t have each other, none of us would have friends either.” Callie looked at the other children who shrugged their shoulders and nodded in agreement. 

Callie extended her hand to Edie. “Do you think you can stand?”

“I think so.” Callie and Josiah steadied her as she rose. 

“Someone get her something cold to drink.” Callie nodded her head at a little boy who ran off and returned a moment later with a grape soda. 

One by one, they introduced themselves to Edie. Thomas, Timothy, Lydia, Abigail, and Jack shook her hand after Ryland and Josiah formally introduced themselves. Timothy was the pretend announcer. Abigail, the girl next in line to play trapeze, was no more than six. 

Once the introductions were over, Edie asked Ella the question she needed answered. “How did you do that?”

“Fly?”

“Yes.”

Ella gave a nervous look to her brother and Callie, who nodded reassurance to her. 

“I’ve always been able to fly. We can all fly, Edie.”

“What?”

Callie led Edie to a chair. “We need to talk. This has to stay secret. Our lives are at stake.”

“I won’t tell anyone. I swear.”

Callie took a deep breath and paused. “We aren’t from here, Edie.”

“I know. You travel from place to place around the country.”

Callie reached to the ground and picked up a handful of dirt. She pointed at it. “No, we aren’t from here. We aren’t from Earth.”

Edie laughed. “That’s not possible!”

“Is it possible that I can fly?” Ella sounded indignant. 

“Well, no.”

“But I did, and I can. We come from out there.” Her little hand pointed toward the sky. 

“Are you hungry? Would you like us to get you something to eat? It’s not time for the show, but we can get you in for free. Would you like that?” Timothy’s eager eyes tried to put Edie at ease. Not quite comfortable with anything she’d seen or heard, she thought she should try to be agreeable. 

“Yeah, I could eat something.”

“Come with us, then. Our family is having lunch. You can join us.”

Edie followed them to a row of RVs where the carnival families lived as they traveled. 

“We’re all related. Timothy is my brother. The others are my cousins. I have a little sister named Carissa who is just a baby. My Aunt Nella watches her on performance days.” Callie squeezed her hand. “Let me do the introductions.”

Callie pulled the RV door open, and Timothy bounded up the steps. “Mom and Dad, we’ve made a new friend! Her name is Edie.”

Callie rolled her eyes at Edie and muttered, “So much for me making the introductions.” The two girls giggled and climbed into the RV. 

The adults, already in their trapeze outfits, stood from the table, a little shocked and dismayed, but still polite. “Edie, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Irene. This is my husband, Art. Please have a seat and join us for lunch.”

Edie slid into the bench seat between Timothy and Callie. “Thank you. Everything looks delicious.” They piled food onto her plate and everyone looked nervously around the table. 

“Mom and Dad, Edie knows. She knows about us.”

Art set his fork down and began to speak then stopped. Irene’s calming touch to his wrist quelled his outburst. “Hold on, dear. Let’s hear what our daughter has to say.” Irene gazed at the girls while squeezing her husband’s hand. “Before you continue, Callie, I do want to remind you that you knew what the rules were.”

“I know, Mom, but it was an accident. We were playing trapeze, and she saw Ella flying. We’re sorry, aren’t we?”

Both Edie and Timothy joined in with their apologies. “I promise I won’t say anything.”

Art sat silently for a moment. “What’s done is done. We can’t change it now. We are going to have to trust you, Edie. Our lives depend upon you keeping quiet.”

“I understand, and I promise.”

“Let’s finish up lunch. It’s almost time for our show. Would your parents mind if you watched our performance and then came back here so we could talk some more? Now that you know our secret, we may as well get to know each other better.” Irene smiled a tentative smile. 

“I’d like that. I’m here by myself. My parents won’t mind. I’d love to see your show.”

They placed the dishes on the counter to wash later and made their way to the big top. Inside the tent, music blared, and jugglers entertained the crowd. An elephant walked slowly around the ring performing tricks that brought cheers. Edie and the other children sat on the floor and waited for Art and Irene to begin their act along with Ryland and Ella’s parents, Rita and Benny. 

“Ladies and gentlemen. Children and the young at heart. Please turn your attention high above you. You are about to witness the death-defying acrobatics of the Flying Estrellas.”

Edie remembered from her Spanish class last semester that Estrella meant “star.” As though she knew what her companion was thinking, Callie said, “It’s a fitting name, isn’t it? But we should be known as the ‘Falling Estrellas’ if we wanted to be accurate.”

“They aren’t going to fall, are they?” Edie’s heart raced, and she almost ran out of the tent.

Chuckling, Callie clarified. “No, they aren’t going to fall. They can’t, remember? I’ll explain my joke later.”

The girls passed a bag of popcorn between them as the show began. 

“Mom is the most beautiful woman ever,” Callie whispered. 

Irene was a beauty, and bedazzled in sequins, she was eye-catching. Everyone in the tent held their breath as the other-worldly performers mesmerized them with their acrobatics. Twisting, turning, flipping through the air, they made it seem effortless. For added suspense, they performed with no net. The only member of the hometown crowd who knew their secret was Edie. They were so daring and graceful, however, that even their children were caught up in the moment. 

After what seemed like an eternity—yet not long enough at the same time—their act ended. 

“Let’s give a big round of applause to the Flying Estrellas!”

The crowd erupted, and they received a standing ovation. 

The children met their parents outside the back flap of the tent. 

“Did you enjoy yourself, Edie?”

“Oh, Irene, you were marvelous! All of you were!” The four adults beamed. 

“Thank you, young lady. Irene says you know our secret and that you’re joining us for dinner and a night on the midway. Is that right? Our daughter, Ella, promised us that you were wonderful, and I can see she was right.”

Benny scooped his daughter into his arms as Ella squeaked, “I did! I did! Edie’s my new best friend.”

As they walked to the RV, Edie fell silent beside Callie. 

“What’s wrong? Did someone upset you?”

Tears brimmed Edie’s eyes. “No, Callie. I guess when Ella said I was her best friend it just really hit me. I’ve never had friends before.”

Callie gave her hand a squeeze. “Well, you do now.”

After dinner, the evening was spent riding all the rides and playing any game she wanted—only this time, Edie actually won. The Estrellas introduced her to all the carnival workers that they met. Before she knew it, it was getting late and she had to call her parents to meet her at the front gate. 

“Please come back tomorrow, Edie. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun.” Callie have her a hug, and so did Ella, Timothy, and Abigail. 

“Here you go, Edie. It’s a free pass for as long as we are in town.” Art pulled a card from his shirt pocket. “I’ll be glad to talk with your parents so they know it’s legit. Anyone who can keep up with our Callie is welcome with us.” He tousled Callie’s hair. 

“Oh, Daddy.” She wrapped her arms around him, grinning. 

Once arrangements were made with Edie’s parents, she practically lived at the carnival. The children told her stories from their home planet, and they even helped her fly with them. She had to hold their hands, like she was Wendy and they were Peter Pans, but she flew. 

One afternoon, Callie and Edie took a walk to the park near the fairgrounds. A little creek gurgled through the trees, and the two girls soaked their feet in the cool water under the shade of a large white oak. 

“Do you remember the day I met you, how I had tears in my eyes?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“I was crying because in that one afternoon I felt closer to you and your family—more accepted—than I ever have here.” She motioned to the world around her. 

“You are always welcome with us.”

“But you are leaving the day after tomorrow, and I will be alone again.” Edie turned her head away.

“We’ll be back. I promise. This is one of our regular stops.” She looked dreamily up at the sky. “And someday, if you want, we will take you with us.”

“Up there?”

“Yep. Up there. Which reminds me. I never did tell you why we should be called the Falling Estrellas.”

“That’s right. You didn’t. What does that mean?”

“Well, we weren’t actually supposed to land here. We sort of crashed.”

“Then how are you going to get back home?”

“We’ve run the carnival so we could make enough money to repair our ship. We also needed to travel around to get all the materials we need. Zeke, the guy who runs the dart stand, he’s our chief engineer. He knew what we needed and where to go.”

“Crazy Zeke is an engineer?”

Callie threw her head back and laughed. “Yep! He doesn’t look like much, but he’s brilliant. It was his idea to use the disguise of being a traveling circus. He said no one would pay much attention to us or keep track of where we were going.”

“That is pretty smart.” Edie thought about how looks could be deceiving. 

“I’ve already talked to Mom and Dad about it. They are happy to bring you with us, if you’d want to, at least for a visit sometime to our planet.”

“Really? I’d love that! I wish I could go now.”

“But you can’t leave your parents. Not yet anyway. Once we are older, you can, though.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Hey, Callie?”

“Yeah.”

“How will you get back to your ship?”

“We have it with us now.”

“What?”

“Yeah, we’ve kept it with us and made repairs as we could.”

“No way! Where do you hide it?

“We don’t hide it, silly. In fact, you’ve been on it. Lots of people have. They’re on it right now. They just don’t know it.” 

“How?”

“It’s the Tilt-A-Whirl. Zeke turned it upside down and mounted seats on top of the thrusters. Of course, he had to do some adjustments so people didn’t get blown off.” They laughed at the thought, and Edie imagined Cassie Nieman jettisoning out into the atmosphere.

“I want you to have this.” Callie handed her a small jewelry box. “Open it.”

“Oh, Callie, it’s a necklace just like yours.” She held it next to Callie’s, and the stones glowed.

“This is how we will keep in touch until we see each other. We are friends forever.”

The two girls hugged as tears ran down their faces. 

“I’ll always be your friend, Callie.”

Holding her hand, Callie rose and helped Edie to her feet. “We’d better get back”

Two nights later, as the carnival workers tore down their tent, Edie watched, unable to hide her grief. The Estrellas gathered around her and assured her they would meet again soon. 

“Edie, I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about you when Timothy first burst into the RV with you, but I already love you like a daughter. Keep this to remind yourself you have us as friends. It’s not much, but I hope it makes you feel better.” Art handed her an envelope. 

“Honey, your parents are here to pick you up. One more round of hugs, and then you need to go.” Irene wiped a tear from her eye. 

Sitting in the back of her father’s car, Edie opened the envelope she clutched. Inside was a card that read “Free Admittance When the Circus Comes to Town.”

The Joy Ride

Teenagers have a habit of pushing the envelope of their parents’ patience. Sometimes they push the boundaries of what society and the law allows, too. Such was the case with young Yurgen. He had never been an unruly child, but as he moved farther into his teenage years he had a rebellious streak that caused his parents and community leaders to shake their heads and whisper words of concern for his future. 

Tonight was one of those nights when Yurgen crossed the threshold of what was acceptable—and what was not. 

The evening began with a double date between Yurgen, his best friend, and their girlfriends who happened to be twins. They went to the movies, and because the girls had a father no one wanted to anger, the boys dropped them off at home a half hour earlier than their curfew. The father was a known tough guy with a shady past, and true hell would have been paid had those girls not arrived home on time. Yurgen was stupid, but not that stupid. 

At midnight, Yurgen parted ways with his pal who dropped him off at the end of his street. He wanted to enjoy the beautiful night by walking the rest of the way home. The stars were out, and a warm breeze blew through the trees. In the moment, Yurgen reveled in being alive. Young and adventurous, he wasn’t ready to call it a night, however. A big world stretched before him, and surely there was something he could do to quench his thirst for fun. He weighed his options. By this hour, most of the hangout spots were empty. The diners were closed. None of his friends were anywhere to be seen. 

This town is dead, thought Yurgen. 

He nearly gave up, but something caught his eye in the moonlight. A shiny new model just sat there for the taking. 

He knew he didn’t have his license. He didn’t even have his permit, for that matter. Yurgen knew he shouldn’t, but when would he get a chance like this again? He’d have bragging rights amongst his friends, and they’d be jealous of his brave adventure. Recklessness was an admired trait in the hearts and minds of rowdy boys, and he’d be the hero of his peers. 

The keys were there for the taking, and he’d seen models like this in magazines. He’d longed for the opportunity to try one out—and here it was, nearly begging him to go for a ride. 

Just a little joyride. What could it hurt? Isn’t that the question all rebellious teens ask when they do something they shouldn’t do?

Yurgen nervously looked around, but the street was empty. Not totally without a conscience, thoughts of what could happen flashed through his mind. He knew his mother would cry if he was caught breaking the law, and his father would… Well, he didn’t want to think of what his father would do. 

For a second, he considered walking away. That would be easy and safe. But who has fun playing it easy and safe? Certainly not a young firebrand like Yurgen. The world was at his fingertips, and come hell or high water he was going to make the most of his youthful energies. Tonight would be a memory maker.

Checking one more time for onlookers or security cameras, Yurgen grabbed the keys and slid into this shiny little number he’d discovered. He turned the ignition and revved the motor. The exhilaration of being in control was unlike any feeling he’d had before. His body melded into his new ride, and they became one. His heart raced, and he felt giddy. 

He put it in gear and headed for open stretches of road to test the power of the engine. Tearing across town, he squealed its tires, spun donuts, and rejoiced in creating mayhem. He reached speeds he’d only dreamed of, and a few times he nearly lost control. For two hours, he wallowed in unrestrained abandon. 

Then it happened. 

The crashing cascade of glass as he flipped end-over-end, went through the front window of the local department store, and then landed in a ditch, brought his night of frivolity to an abrupt end. The flashing lights of the police cruiser let him know, without a doubt, that his joyride was over. 

Down at the station, his parents thanked the officer for contacting them first without filing formal charges. 

“Do you have any idea how worried your mother was young man?”

His father towered above him while his mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue. 

“I—“

“Save the excuses, Yurgen. You know what you did was foolish and wrong.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“I’m grounding you for a month, and I’m calling your Uncle Jack tomorrow about the Newbury Demon Reform School.”

“But Dad—“

“Your father is right. You knew better than to take possession of a human before you were legal to drive. For now, we are going home.”

His father’s tail flicked toward the open door leading to the parking lot. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson.” 

Yurgen’s own tail dropped to the ground as he lowered his head and slunk out the door behind his parents.

The Garden

The gentle hum of the landing gear soothed Seth Langley’s frayed nerves. Normally, he enjoyed his excursions. This time, he craved one.

I never imagined I’d be so happy to get away from home.

Seth winced at the thought. He loved Lori. He really did. The tensions between them had grown in recent months, and the pressures came from many sides. His job with the company occupied more time these days, and her parents nearly demanded that he and Lori pick up and move closer to them. Then there were their struggles with infertility. 

It’s reached the point that we’re trying too hard. Everything’s become mechanical. We’ve lost intimacy. I can’t enjoy time with Lori because I feel forced to perform. I’m not sure I even want to be a father. 

Yes, getting away for this field study came at a good time. He needed a chance to catch his breath. He loved Lori, he loved his job, and he even loved Phil and Doris, his in-laws. He just needed the chance to experience the beauty of the deep forest to rejuvenate his senses. The Cascade Mountains brought him a sense of well-being he could find nowhere else. 

The flight was smooth, and Seth had even allowed himself the guilty pleasure of a nap during the trip. Moments of relaxation were few and far between. As one of the leading scientific researchers in his field, he seldom took breaks. While most people never thought twice about where pharmaceutical discoveries came from, it was Seth’s life. He specialized in the study of using natural elements in medications. The stigma created towards pharmaceuticals by the overuse of chemicals for decades gave rise to the “Back to Nature” movement that became his passion. Natural cures were for the taking, if we would look for them. 

That passion and drive brought Seth here today to the dense forests of the Cascade Range. He lovingly referred to the area as “The Garden.” Seth believed the flora of the old forest held the cures to many diseases. He had three new medications nearing completion of the testing and approval stages, and all came from plants he’d discovered in The Garden. As often as he could, he stole away to this botanical paradise. 

Simply being there healed Seth on so many levels. 

The company, wanting easy access to the area but being environmentally conscious, developed a landing pad and a small research lab that blended into the area so well that no one noticed it unless they knew what to look for. The shuttle, now ready for its passengers and crew to disembark, slid into the hangar. The doors closed behind the vehicle, and the team quickly made its way to the lab. 

Safely past the airlock, Seth slipped out of his travel clothes and into the required biosuit. His skin condition required extra protection from the increased UV rays. Thin mountain air and the elevation of the range blocked fewer of those rays than the atmosphere found at sea level. Seth grimaced as he remembered the time he hadn’t worn his biosuit. 

Never again.

His company spared no cost to protect its rising star researcher. The suit was clumsy, but once in the woods, Seth forgot his discomfort. He was the only team member allowed to venture into the forest. The rest stayed behind to analyze his samples and to record data. His walks in the woods, while not without risks, were his own. Seth relished them. 

Biosuit safely on, Seth motioned to the staff member in the bubble, more formally known as the control unit. The door slid open, and Seth plodded out the front of the building into the bright sunlight. 

Birds sang, and small animals scampered through the undergrowth. He had no fear of the raccoons, deer, and other small creatures he encountered. Other, larger animals were the threat. Seth carried no weapons, and a few times one would have come in handy. His suit, covered in a material resembling fur, protected him from UV rays, but it masked his resemblance as a person enough that some predators mistook him as either prey or competition. It was a risk he willingly took, even though it could be a fatal one. 

Pushing any lingering fears from his mind, Seth emerged into the forest. His heart swelled with joy. 

This. This is what I’ve needed.

Immediately, he took the trail down to the first plant plot he cultivated. A particular strain of sword ferns held promise to help the blind. Seth’s college roommate was blind, so this study was close to Seth’s heart. He carefully measured and recorded the plants, collecting samples and putting them in the various velcroed pockets covering his biosuit. Yes, they made the suit bulky, but they freed Seth’s hands. It was a worthwhile trade-off. 

Next, he hiked to a grove of deciduous larch that Seth believed contained an ingredient that would reverse a rare, but devastating, degenerative nerve disease. As he climbed higher, he stopped along the way, measuring, documenting, and collecting various flora. Some new species to study grew wild. If they held potential benefits, he’d return to create plots for those as well. 

Then he heard it. It wasn’t a bear, although those did prowl the mountains. It wasn’t a cougar either. Seth’s blood ran cold when he realized he was being trailed—stalked—by a more dangerous predator. 

Quickly, taking long strides down the mountain trail, Seth bounded for the safety of the laboratory. He tripped and stumbled, nearly sliding down an embankment. The racing footsteps of his enemy approached, and Seth knew he must hurry. The fall injured his knee and aggravated an old back injury, causing him to stoop and hobble as he ran. His friends would have laughed at the sight he made, but this was no laughing matter. 

For a moment, he paused to catch his breath. The high elevation made it difficult for him to run far, even with the aid of the emergency oxygen packs built into the biosuit. 

Have I lost them?

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind, Seth had his answer. No, he had not lost them. His short rest allowed his predators to gain ground on him. 

Two hundred yards separated him from the safety of the concealed lab opening. Could he make it?

I have to make a break for it and keep my head together. I can’t afford another fall. God, how I wish I could tell Lori I love her. That more than anything, I want a baby with her. I’ve bee. An idiot hiding behind work. I’ll make it up to her when I get home. Right now, I have to make sure I get home.

Mentally plotting his course through the forest, Seth took off on a run. His pursuers yipped behind him, their high-pitched yells and howls searing Seth’s eardrums. 

Then the unmistakable crack of a rifle and the whizzing of a bullet as it sailed past the back of Seth’s head caused him to panic. He’d never had that happen before. In these encounters, he’d merely been chased. Now he was hunted. 

Fifty yards. Twenty-five yards. Seth’s lungs felt as though they would burst, but another volley of bullets drove him to push harder. 

At the entrance of the cave-like opening, Seth slammed his hand on the emergency button. The door slid open, and he flung himself onto the cold concrete floor as a bullet ricocheted off the door as it slid closed. 

Damn, that was close. Maybe I need to carry a weapon after all.

Teammates rushed to his side and peeled him out of his biosuit, whisking him away to the on-site doctor. 

Seth, still in shock from the ordeal, had one thought. 

I just want to get off this planet and get home to Lori.

Outside, his pursuers scrambled to the mouth of the cave. 

“He’s got to be somewhere. He couldn’t have gone far.”

His companion, leaning over, breathless with his hands on his knees, nodded. “Dave, can you believe that? We almost bagged ourselves a Bigfoot!”

Kicking the ground, Dave took his frustrations out on a bracken fern. “We sure enough did. Let’s look around for a blood trail. There’s no way he disappeared into thin air.”

Given the events of the morning, the team decided to concentrate on experiments within the lab. The forest would wait for their next trip to Earth.

The Importance of Good Neighbors

Alice Cameron lived at the end of a long, tree-lined drive. Few would even notice her three-bedroom farmhouse tucked under the shade of the hillside, and she liked it that way. 

“Neighbors are like fleas,” her grandpa used to say. “It doesn’t seem like they would bother you, but once you get one, you usually end up with several.”

What her grandpa said made sense to Alice. She watched the area where she grew up change from a few scattered farms to subdivisions in a matter of ten years. Once people “discovered” the beautiful countryside, they told others, who told others, and so on, until the beauty was destroyed by the influx of people.

Grandpa’s heart would have broken to see what happened to the place he loved most in the world.

Alice searched carefully for a secluded piece of property where she could build her home. She considered that eighty-acre plot her sanctuary. The surrounding large tracts of land were undeveloped and owned by people who had no desire to live so far out in the sticks. They used the land primarily as a hunting spot a few weeks a year, and the rest of the time Alice was completely alone on her piece of paradise.

It’s not that she didn’t like people. She was a nurse and enjoyed her patients and coworkers. People enjoyed her bubbly personality and quick wit. At the end of the day, however, Alice wanted the peace and quiet of her farm. Her dogs, cows, and chickens were the only companionship she craved outside of work. 

That’s why she was so disappointed when construction crews cleared land two miles down the road from her farm. Each week “progress” continued on the construction project. Whatever home was being built was down a long driveway and not visible from the dirt road.

Hmm… Maybe someone else wants to be left alone out here too. Still, I’d rather they’d found another place to build.

There wasn’t much she could do about it, though. It was, after all, still a free country, and other property owners had the right to build homes there if they wanted to. Alice vowed to keep her distance, however. 

I don’t need someone coming over to borrow a cup of sugar or wanting to sit on the porch to chitchat.

To Alice’s surprise and relief, workers installed an imposing and elaborate gate at the entrance of the new neighbors’ drive. Intricate designs decorated the wrought iron bars, and unusual insignias, perhaps Arabic or some other language, were embossed on the concrete pillars holding the gate panels. 

Great. Looks like foreigners. At least they don’t seem to want company either.

A few months went by and construction activity ended. Late one night, Alice awoke to lights flashing around the vicinity of the new house. 

They sure picked a weird time to move in. I didn’t even hear the moving van.

Dead tired from a twelve-hour shift at the hospital, a bleary-eyed Alice crawled back into bed. She wasn’t the type to be nosy, and she would afford the new people the same respect she expected in return. 

Alice went about her routine as the days passed. With winter approaching, she had plenty to do. She needed to stack hay for the animals, and there was wood to cut for her fireplace. She used propane as her main heat source, but she found comfort in curling up on the couch with a cozy fire blazing in the fireplace as she watched winter birds eating from the feeders. 

Alice had a soft spot for things that flew. Grandpa bought her a bird identification book when she was five, and she still loved tracking what species came to her feeders. 

She never had the heart to cage a bird that could take flight. To satisfy her love of feathered creatures, she raised chickens. They couldn’t fly far on their own, and the flock seemed to appreciate her doting. 

As winter’s grip found its way into the world, it dawned on Alice that she hadn’t seen any activity coming from the neighbors. She knew someone lived there. Smoke billowed from their chimney, and on rare occasions, delivery trucks dropped packages off at the ornate gate. She had yet to see anyone who lived there, however.

I sure hope it’s not some weird religious cult. I don’t need a Waco to happen next door.

Alice imagined police helicopters flying overhead, dramatic footage on news stations, and a sensational inferno ending her solitude. No doubt the infamy of the cult would lead to onlookers, and onlookers would lead to people thinking how pretty this area was, and she knew what that led to. 

No, please don’t let them be fanatics or nut jobs.

Shrugging it off, she continued life as it always was. She went to work and spent twelve hours on her feet changing IV drips and catheters while dealing with sometimes difficult patients—and even more difficult doctors. Her sense of humor carried her through most shifts. Most of the time, the monotony was the worst aspect of working evenings. One night, however, an interesting case entered the doors.

A woman in her late sixties with a burning rash on her extremities was wheeled in by ambulance. Normally, the EMTs stayed for a moment, but they must have had another call because they left before anyone could speak to them about the patient. 

Alice had never seen anything like the woman’s injuries. The attending doctor, however, had seen a lot in his forty years as a physician. He ordered medication and told the nurses assigned to that room to apply the prescription cream and then wrap gauze around the woman’s affected areas. She was to be placed under a lamp, much the same as jaundiced babies are put under, for one hour, four times a day. During daylight hours, the shades to her room were to be drawn. 

The woman, a Marjorie Henson, according to the papers left with her on the stretcher, was unconscious and immediately admitted to the hospital. The treatment required a number of days to complete according to Dr.Steinman. Monitors checked her vitals, and an IV drip was started. Antibiotics began as a precautionary measure. 

This almost looks like a burn of some sort, but her skin isn’t reacting like a burn patient’s skin normally would. What are those blisters? They look green.

While unusual, it wasn’t the first odd case Alice had treated, so she shrugged her shoulders and followed the doctor’s instructions. Her best friend at work, Janice, was also on duty that night. Together they wound the gauze and placed the woman under the lamp. It took two people to lift her as she was rather large. 

Down at the nurses’ station, Janice rubbed her aching neck.  “We sure see some doozies, don’t we, Alice?”

“Yes, we do. I’ve never seen blisters on someone quite like Mrs. Henson’s. I’ve never heard of this treatment, either, but Dr. Steinman was confident this would do the trick.”

Right before visiting hours ended, Mrs. Henson’s son arrived. 

“Hi, I’m Lenny Henson. I’m hoping to see my mother.”

Alice and Janice looked at the clock. It was a quiet night on the floor, and while policy said no visitors were allowed after nine o’clock, exceptions could be made. Neither wanted to make him leave. He looked frazzled and worried. 

What could be the harm?

“Sure, come this way. As long as you’re quiet, you can stay as long as you want to. There’s no one in 12-B tonight, so she won’t have a roommate to disturb.”

“Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”

The two women smiled and escorted him down the hall. 

The next night, Lenny arrived at the same time. He held two bouquets of flowers for the nurses. 

“I know it’s an inconvenience to have me show up like this, so I wanted to bring you something special.”

“Mr. Henson, you didn’t have to do that.”

“No, I insist. Call me Lenny. I can’t get away from my work at home until after dark. I really can’t go anywhere until after dark. I appreciate the good care you are taking of my mother.”

“Well, thank you. We’ll put these in some water.”

“I appreciate it. It takes a while to get into town from McGinty Road.”

Alice stopped. “McGinty Road? You live on McGinty Road?”

“Yes, ma’am. We’ve been there since early last fall.”

“So you are my neighbor?”

Lenny cocked his head slightly. “Do you drive a blue Chevy?”

“I do. You have a rather impressive gate at your drive. We haven’t had a chance to meet yet.”

“That’s true. We like to keep to ourselves. We don’t mean to be rude.”

“No, it’s completely okay. I’m the same way you are.”

Lenny gave her a look, as though he doubted something she’d said. 

“Truly, I’m not much of a socializer,” Alice added. 

“Oh, yeah. Now I see what you’re saying. We prefer to be homebodies. I’m glad you understand.”

Once at Mrs. Henson’s room, they parted ways. Lenny stayed until nearly two in the morning, and throughout the evening Alice and Lenny shared several friendly exchanges as she checked his mother’s vitals. 

“He seems nice enough, but he’s a little socially awkward, don’t you think?” Janice asked as she returned from the supply cabinet with a new box of gloves. 

“Yeah, it’s obvious he doesn’t get out much. He seems shy, and just… different. I hope not everyone who lives on McGinty Road is that eccentric.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I hear his neighbor is a weird one.” 

Alice snorted. She always snorted when she laughed hard. “Yeah, that Alice Cameron is a weird one, for sure.”

The next night Lenny arrived at his usual time. 

“Is she still unconscious?” Lenny asked as he approached the desk. This time he carried two boxes of chocolates. 

Too bad I can’t find a boyfriend who’s as attentive.

Alice never could turn down chocolate. She gladly took the boxes. “Oh, these are the really good kind. Thank you so much, Lenny. I’ll make sure Janice knows they’re here when she’s done in Room 3.”

Throughout the night the trio became familiar with each other, and conversations lasted longer when other patients had been cared for. 

At around midnight, Lenny stood in his mother’s room with his forehead pressed against the window overlooking the hospital courtyard. Deep in thought, he sighed occasionally. 

“The stars are beautiful tonight.” Lenny turned to the nurses. “Do you ever just sit and stare at the stars?”

“I do, sometimes, when I’m sitting on my porch on a warm evening like this. As you know, we’re the only ones out there on McGinty Road, so there aren’t any lights to dull their sparkle.”

“That’s true. It’s one of the reasons why we chose that spot to build our compound.”

“Compound?”

“I mean house. Excuse the slip. I’m a military pilot. I think in military terms.”

Janice gave Alice a skeptical glance. Lenny was short—maybe 5’6” with shoes on. He was on the pudgy side and didn’t resemble anyone’s image of a military man.

To break the awkward silence, Alice thought she’d better say something. 

“The military. Well, you must have traveled to some interesting places.”

“Oh, I have.” Lenny’s eyes twinkled, and he stood a bit straighter. “I’m very proud of my service.”

Both women nodded in agreement. Lenny turned back to the window as his mother’s dressings were changed. 

Most men are squeamish.

“Do either of you believe in UFOs?”

Alice and Janice finished the last of the dressing changes, and as they removed their gloves, the women shot each other looks, unsure how to take Lenny’s question. 

“I’m sorry, Lenny. What did you say?” Janice had a habit of asking people to repeat something she was nervous about. 

Turning from the window, he faced them. “It’s not a typical question, I’m sure, but I asked if you believe in UFOs. Do you think there are aliens out there?” He pointed toward the window and the sky. 

Alice, a lifelong science fiction buff, spoke first. “Actually, I think it’s possible. Why should we be the only beings in the universe?”

“What about you, Janice?”

“Oh, my mother and I have talked about it from time to time. She’s a big fan of those shows. She even bought herself a telescope thinking she might spy a UFO. All she’s ever seen is the occasional shooting star. She’s still got the thing set up on our back deck.”

“Your mother lives with you?”

“Yes, she has since Dad died two years ago. It’s just easier that way.”

“I completely understand. My parents live with me for the same reason.” Lenny patted his mother’s still hand. “I insisted they move in. They needed someone to watch over them, and they’re so much help with the lab.”

“Lab?” Alice raised her eyebrows. “Is that why you have a gate?”

“Oh, yes. We thought security would be important.”

A pause filled the air. 

“Would you like to see it? The offer stands for both of you—and your mother, Janice. I have some UFO artifacts you might be interested in.”

“Wait—you’ve seen UFOs?” Alice nearly had to put her jaw back in its socket.

“I’ve seen them. I’ve been on them. Would you like to find out more? As I said, you can bring your family, if you would like, to our home. I just ask for discretion. We deal with sensitive government contracts, as you can imagine.”

Oh, I can imagine they’d be very sensitive. This sounds fascinating.

“I’m game!” Before this moment, Alice hadn’t realized that she sought some excitement in her life—and she wouldn’t even have to leave McGinty Road to find it. 

“I’m sure Mom would kill me if she ever found out I passed up this opportunity, so count us in too.

“Splendid. When is the next night you have off work?”

“Tomorrow,” they said in unison. 

“How about you meet me at my house at 8:00 tomorrow night? Just park at the gate, and I’ll let you in.” He looked at his mother and the monitor displaying the rhythmic beating of her heart. “I’m sure she will be fine for one evening without a visitor.”

The next night Janice and her mother met Alice at her house. She was the only coworker who had ever been to Alice’s hideaway home in the woods, and that spoke volumes about Alice’s opinion of Janice. 

“Jerry couldn’t come with us tonight. He was sent on an emergency call. Electricians kind of have to go when a customer has a serious problem. Mr. Patterson’s weatherhead on his house was damaged by this morning’s storm, and he needs it working for his wife’s oxygen machine, so Jerry left. He told me to tell you he‘ll miss seeing you, Alice.”

“Oh, he’s just sorry he isn’t here for some of my chocolate chip cookies. Here, grab a few and we’ll be on our way.”

Alice held the platter out for Janice and her mother, Connie. 

“Oh, these are still warm. Thank you, dear.” Connie grabbed a third and fourth one for good measure. 

Soon the three of them pulled up to the gate. Lenny stood in the dark waiting for them. Alice jumped when he appeared at her driver’s side window. 

“Excellent. You’re right on time. Give me a moment to put my dog up, then I’ll open the gate for you. Thank you for coming by. We wouldn’t invite just anyone here, but it’s so important to have good neighbors.”

Lenny smiled, stepped back behind the gate which closed after him, and whistled for his dog.

“That’s not any ordinary dog. What is that thing, Alice?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like that.” Alice rolled her window up for a little added protection. 

Connie chimed in. “It sure looks to me like one of those wolves we saw when your father and I went to Yellowstone.”

Yes, a wolf. It certainly looks like a wolf.

Alice thought of her sweet English shepherds and her little shih tzu and wondered why anyone would need a beast the likes of Lenny’s “dog.”

A few moments later, the metal gates slowly opened. As the car approached the house—a mansion, really—the three women couldn’t help but gawk. In addition to the house, three or four other large buildings lined the paved drive. 

“When he said ‘compound,’ he wasn’t exaggerating.” Alice pointed at a building to her left. “That looks for all the world like a hangar.”

“It most definitely does, dear.” Connie had already had more excitement than she’d had in a while—not since she dialed a wrong number and enjoyed an hour-long conversation with some nice man in Brooklyn. She couldn’t contain her glee. 

Lenny met them in the circle drive in front of the Spanish-style villa. They introduced him to Connie, and then Lenny walked them inside. While not posh, it was splendid in its own eclectic way. Artwork, including detailed sculptures, decorated each room as Lenny gave them a tour. 

Is that an African mask? Native American, perhaps? Lenny did say he had traveled many places.

A tall man, exceptionally tall, in fact, entered the living room where Lenny sat with the ladies. He smiled and extended his hand to greet them.

“Good evening. It’s nice to meet you. Lenny has told me so much about you. I’m Lenny’s father, Melvin.”

He doesn’t look a thing like Lenny, but then again, family genetics can be strange. I look nothing like my sister.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Melvin. Your family has a lovely home. Thank you for having us over.”

“Alice, right?” He looked to his left. “And you must be Janice. Lenny has described you so perfectly, I feel like I already know you.”

His comments raised the hairs on Alice’s arms, and his oddly long arms and hands didn’t help matters, but it was the photo hanging on the wall that captured everyone’s attention.

“That’s a nice shot, isn’t it?” Melvin beamed. 

“Is Lenny standing next to what I think it is? Is that really a UFO?” Alice stared in disbelief. 

“That it is. It’s been a while since that was taken. Would you like to see some more?” Lenny nodded towards his father who motioned for the women to follow him down a hallway. 

“If you need to use the restroom, it’s this door to the left, ladies. We’re going to the control room at the end of the hallway.”

Control room?

Janice squeezed Alice’s hand for support. Connie looked like she was on a grand adventure. 

Maybe at her age she’s not as worried about death, but I am. Are these people crazy? Are we going to be on the next missing persons show? This may have been a mistake.

Lenny pulled a strange triangular-shaped object from his pants pocket. About three inches in length, it filled his pudgy hand. 

“Give me just a moment ladies. There’s a code I must enter as well.” He flipped open what could have passed for a wall thermostat and punched numbers on a keypad. 

A clunking sound signaled that the door unlocked. Lenny turned the handle and ushered them in. “Control room” aptly described what they saw. Panels and switchboards with flashing lights filled the room. Monitors lined the walls, most flipping from view to view like those behind the scenes at Las Vegas casinos. Alice wasn’t sure exactly what was shown on the monitors, but the room was quite busy. Computer screens rolled digital readouts across them, and an occasional buzzer or bell went off. Sitting on one desk was a red phone. 

Lenny saw Alice staring at the phone. “That’s our direct line. Anytime anyone—anywhere—wants to contact us, they use that red phone.”

More UFO photos hung on the walls. 

Connie, never one to hold her tongue around strangers, said, “Just what movie studio did you take these pictures at? I don’t recognize these from any movies I’ve seen—and I’ve seen about all of them. Although, that alien character there with Melvin looks like one of those beings from War of the Worlds.”

Melvin cleared his throat and shifted from one leg to the next as he stood behind the ladies. “Connie, I can assure you that these are not movie props. They are real aliens and ships.”

Connie squinted her eyes as she peered closer at the photograph. “Ya don’t say? I’ve waited my whole life to see one in real life. Do you think there’s any chance you could introduce me to one?”

Lenny and Melvin stood in awkward silence. Then Lenny spoke up. “Miss Connie, we work in very classified conditions. I’m afraid such a meeting is not possible. However, would you like to hear some of the recorded interviews we have with the aliens?”

“Recordings? Ya don’t say?” 

Connie wasn’t the only one interested. Alice and Janice silently nodded their heads up and down. 

“Very well. You must understand something first, however. There is a battle going on up there.” Melvin pointed his long index finger upwards toward the sky. “There are good aliens, and there are evil ones.”

“How come none of this is on the news then?” 

Janice nudged Connie with her elbow. “We don’t want to be rude, Mother.”

No kidding. We don’t know what these people might do.

“It’s quite all right, I assure you. She reminds me of my dear Marjorie, always asking questions that make our son, Lenny, uncomfortable.”

Right then, Lenny came from a back room with reels of tape and an audio machine. 

For the next several hours (time got away from them, and none of the women knew just how long they had been there), they listened to computerized voices on the recordings. 

“Their languages have been synthesized by our computer program so they are audible to humans—I mean us, people” Melvin gave Lenny a stern look. 

Aliens from planets far beyond our own solar system shared their messages with Earth. There were the usual promises of peace and good will. A few mentioned the galactic warfare Melvin had previously talked about. 

The longest recording came from an alien named Insinyor, or at least that’s what it sounded like. Alice secretly jotted down notes on a pad she kept in her purse while supposedly searching for a piece of gum. 

Insinyor told of plans for his people to one day make themselves known to humankind. He told of epic battles to protect this planet. He spoke of faraway planets and gave details that were meaningless to the three captivated women in the room. Melvin and Lenny, however, nodded in agreement from time to time and interjected the occasional “yes” or “absolutely” in support of what the alien said. 

Finally, Lenny shut the audio machine off. “There are so many other tapes, however, you have gotten the gist of our research. Now, if you please, I will escort you to your vehicle.”

Melvin rose. “Thank you for a lovely evening. We do so enjoy having you as a neighbor.” He shook Alice’s hand, then those of Janice and her mother. 

Lenny walked them to Alice’s Chevrolet. “Ladies, it’s been a pleasure. Alice, may I speak with you for a moment privately?”

Glancing towards her two friends, Alice tried to act fearless as she strolled down the walk with Lenny. 

“I realize this was a lot to take in. Please understand that we allowed you insight into our lives for two reasons. First, we are forever indebted to you for the marvelous care you have given my mother. She has a rare skin condition. Sunlight causes terrible blisters, far worse than a normal sunburn. We received a call from Dr. Steinman earlier letting us know she is conscious and ready for release. I can’t thank you enough for the care you have given her—and for the kindness you have shown me.”

“Lenny, we’ve been happy to care for your mother. We’ve devoted our lives to caring for those in need. As far as being kind to you, there’s no need to thank us. We like you.”

Lenny lifted his face to the sky. For a moment, Alice thought he might cry. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. 

“What was the other thing?” Alice now looked at the sky too. 

“Hmm?”

“You said there were two reasons you had us over tonight. What is the second?”

“You’re a good neighbor, Alice. When we moved here, you didn’t try to force yourself into our lives. You gave us our—space. That means so much to us.”

“I think we both live out here to have our privacy.”

“Yes, it’s true.”

The two stood in silence for a moment. 

“Listen, Alice. To a certain extent, we are kindred souls. What you learned tonight is true. There is a great battle raging over this planet. The government keeps it secret. No more than twenty people in the world—and now you three ladies—know of this war. Things could become dangerous someday, and if you ever need us, please call us. Our red phone works both directions. We will help. After all, it’s important to be a good neighbor.”

With that, he walked her back to the car and bid them goodnight. 

The three women sat in silence as Alice drove them to the opened gate then to her own home two miles away. The stars blazed brightly, and a full moon illuminated their faces through the windshield.

Only once they were inside the farmhouse did they let their guard down.

“I’ve never been so frightened and excited and enthralled at the same time!” Connie grabbed three more cookies off the platter on the countertop as she spoke. 

“Mother, I know this was a huge event in your life—in all our lives. I don’t think we should ever speak of this to anyone outside the three of us. What do you think, Alice?”

“I agree. It could be dangerous.”

The three women swore to carry the secret with them to their graves. 

The next night at work, Marjorie Henson was no longer in Room 12-A. The day shift had no record of her being discharged, but she was gone. 

Life resumed its normal routine. Alice never again saw Melvin or Lenny, and if she was busy, it was possible to forget for a moment or two that the compound existed. 

Two months later, sitting on her porch enjoying a late summer evening, Alice witnessed a spectacular meteor shower. 

Funny, I hadn’t heard on the news that one was expected. They usually make a big hoopla when these things happen.

The next morning on her way to work something caught her eye. The gate to the compound was flung open. 

Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like I should drive to the house to see if they’re okay.

Pulling into the circle drive, she saw the doors wide open to the house. The scene looked like the hasty eviction of renters who had squatted too long and who fled into the night. 

The next night, the meteor shower continued. 

Two days later, a delivery truck driver knocked on Alice’s farmhouse door. 

“A package for Alice Cameron.”

“That’s me.”

“Here you are, ma’am.”

He handed her a nondescript white box. 

“No need to sign. Have a good day.”

Stepping inside the house, she set the box on the kitchen counter and pulled a steak knife from the utensil drawer to slit the packing tape open. 

Inside, wrapped in tissue, was the one item Alice would never forget from the compound: the triangular key. A note sat at the bottom of the box. 

Dear Alice, 

Please use the red phone. It’s urgent. The war tides have turned. The code is 86392.

Your neighbor,

Lenny

Wings of Glory

Enveloped in a sea of blue, the jet hurtled through the bright sky in a hurry to get to its destination. Tom Harper gazed out the window. Below him, city skylines and checkerboard farm fields passed by. Major cities looked like dots. Tom was amazed by just how much farmland was out there. He’d lived in the city for so long that he’d lost track of the agricultural base of the country. Little houses speckled the view, and farm-to-market roads crisscrossed the landscape. 

I can’t help but wonder about the people down there. Who are they? Are they happy with their lives? Would we be friends if geography didn’t separate us? Are they celebrating the birth of a child or the loss of a loved one? People from all different walks of life are going on about their days as we fly overhead. Do they ever think about who I am flying above them? I’ve stood on the street by my office building and stared up at the flights taking off from La Guardia. Wondering about the people in those thin metal tubes. Flight still amazes me. an’t help but wonder about the people down there. Who are they? Are they happy with their lives?

The clanking of a cart brought Tom’s attention back to the flight he was on. The monotonous hum of the plane engines droned in the background as flight attendants made sure passengers were happy with their meals and beverages. The food was incredible, which surprised Tom. It certainly wasn’t the normal bag of peanuts he was used to on commercial flights. 

With radiant smiles, attendants checked on each guest, doling out pillows and warm blankets. The gentle flutter of movement as the attendants went about serving the needs of passengers was comforting. Real care was given each member of the journey, and Tom had never seen an entire flight receive first-class treatment before. 

I knew the perks would be good, but this goes beyond what the company rep told me. Everything from the friendly flight attendants to the food is amazing. New hires usually don’t get this kind of treatment, at least not in the jobs I’ve had in the past. I think this is going to be a good gig, even if it’s a long flight.Thank God there’s plenty of leg room.

At 6’6” Tom Harper needed the extra room. He stretched his lanky legs and yawned. He gladly accepted one of the pillows and a warmed blanket as the attendant stopped at his seat. He was tired. 

While exciting, the unexpected string of events he was experiencing took a toll on him. On the one hand, Tom had an overwhelming sense of well-being. This was the most important job he’d ever taken, and he knew he was in the right place doing the right thing. On the other hand, he mulled over the whirlwind events from the past twenty-four hours and couldn’t fight off a sense of guilt. 

Just yesterday morning, Tom’s biggest concern was dropping his daughters, Lily and Hannah, off at school on time. His oldest had lost her homework from the night before, and his youngest had insisted on wearing her Cookie Monster slippers as shoes. It was chaos getting them fed, dressed, and out the door in one piece. Thanks to Michelle’s new work schedule, Tom was responsible for getting the girls to school and picking them up in the afternoon. He smiled. He didn’t mind the extra time with them. He loved being a dad, in fact. A wistfulness fell over him as he thought about the spring break plans he had with them. He was going to take them fishing at the family cabin in the Adirondacks. 

A dinging bell drew Tom’s attention to Mrs. Swenson in seat 4C. A sweet woman with a southern drawl, she asked for ear phones. The flight offered a variety of movies to break the tedium of the trip, and she’d chosen an old western to occupy her. Tom overheard her tell the blonde stewardess that she’d once met John Wayne. Mrs. Swenson became animated as she retold the memory. She was especially pleased when the attendant told her that she, too, had met John Wayne. 

Looking up and down the aisle, Tom noticed the flight was surprisingly full. Not a seat was vacant, and Tom marveled at his fellow passengers. 

This wasn’t what I expected. I’m impressed by the diversity on board this flight. I don’t know why, but I thought we’d all be a little more homogeneous.

People of all races, ages, previous professions, and political beliefs were aboard. Tom chuckled. 

Not that long ago, given today’s divided political climate, you’d never catch Democrats and Republicans getting along so well. 

Two rows ahead of him, proving his point, was a smartly dressed twenty-something having a charming discussion about fine art. This wouldn’t be unusual, except her companion was a man in his sixties who made his fortune as a venture capitalist. It was unlikely, before their addition to the company payroll, that they’d have been so fond of one another. 

Across from Tom was another odd pairing, at least from outward appearances. Sharice Davis, liberal councilwoman from the rougher neighborhoods of her hometown, talked and laughed about grandbabies with the man sitting next to her. Mark Perry, a red-headed police officer with years of experience patrolling Sharice’s same neighborhoods, told Sharice how sorry he was he’d arrested so many young people in her area. In reality, they weren’t all that different from her beloved grandsons. They’d just made bad choices and hadn’t had opportunities. He held her hand as he learned that Sharice still carried wounds from the loss of her brother. His death had fueled riots that made national headlines. Two days ago, both Sharice and Mark might have seen each other as adversaries. Now, common ground and empathy were apparent on their faces. Family meant a great deal to both. 

Tom’s thoughts returned to Michelle and the girls. He winced. 

By taking this assignment, do they think I’ve turned my back on them? Will they hate me? Will they ever understand that I had to take this opportunity? How afraid were the girls when I got on this flight and left them standing outside their school? Is Michelle angry with me that I accepted this job without talking with her first? She didn’t even get to see me before I signed the contract and boarded.

Visions of his girls crying in the rain as he never arrived in the parent pick-up lane at Hunter Grove Elementary stung. Those wouldn’t be the only tears they cried. 

Yesterday’s storm had been fierce. Lightning flashed non-stop, and the streets were overcome with floodwaters. Driving conditions that afternoon were hazardous, and Tom was thankful he’d been the one crossing those treacherous intersections and not Michelle. 

Why do people have to drive like idiots when it rains? Don’t they know speeding up doesn’t get them home faster in those conditions? It just makes it more dangerous for everyone else.

Well, with his new job, neither he nor the other new members of the company would have to worry about their safety. No, they’d be on security detail for others, and there was plenty of worry involved with the job description. 

I still don’t understand why I was chosen out of all the other candidates out there. I mean, I’ve always tried to be a good man, a good husband, father, and friend. I never thought I’d be offered a chance at a job like this, though.

Tom’s thoughts were interrupted by the brunette flight attendant who asked if she could get him anything—another beverage, perhaps a magazine?

Her name tag said “Christine.” That was Tom’s mother’s name. She’d have liked this Christine. Her warm smile and soothing nature would have appealed to Tom’s sweet mother. Beneath Christine’s name, Tom saw the company logo: Guardian Angel Express. As she handed him his soda, her right wing brushed his arm. 

Christine smiled sweetly and said, “Don’t worry, Tom. I know you’re nervous. You’ll make a great guardian angel. And your wife and daughters, they’re in good hands. The Big Guy takes special care of his employee families.”

Peace filled Tom, and he relaxed. Important work was ahead, and soon he’d be wearing his own wings of glory. 

A Marvelous Sunrise

The pastel palette of the morning sky was soothing to the eyes. A few clouds drifted above the horizon, outlined in dazzling silver as the rays of a new day began to creep above the placid waters of the cove. This was Sutton Kincaide’s favorite place on earth. Ever since their first vacation as newlyweds to the quiet coastal community of Serenity Beach, Sutton and Maralee Kincaide fell in love with the sights, sounds, and smells of their version of heaven on earth. The waves lapped a lullaby that was as comforting as the morning vista.

Sipping on his second cup of Kona coffee, Sutton reflected on the happy times he and Maralee had spent in Serenity; first as vacationers, and then as permanent residents as his salary and career ambitions peaked. Yes, working for the Department of Defense and then for NASA had provided them an incredible life full of travel, interesting coworkers and friends, and a more than comfortable living including a spacious beach house.

It’s too bad Maralee isn’t here to see this. We had so many sunrises together. She’d have wanted to be here with me today. Then again, she would have been philosophical about how all things must come to an end.

Maralee’s death less than a year ago from the cancer that struck in an unexpected fury had changed many of their plans. No European ski trips. No Costa Rican getaways. No more dinner parties for their friends and visiting dignitaries. No growing old together sitting on their balcony watching sunrises like the one today. Those days were gone.

Those days were gone…

Sutton rose from his chair long enough to pour himself another cup, then settled back down in his favorite spot to witness the glory unfolding before him. His thoughts began to drift in a peaceful contemplation. In his youth, Sutton was known for letting stress get to him. Maralee always said he was “highstrung,” but Sutton knew he’d more than once let his worry spill out in the form of dictatorial behavior. Sometimes at work and, sadly, sometimes to his beloved Maralee. Sutton had learned, though. Life lessons and irrefutable truths had tempered his urges to control, and now he sat in careful thought, resigned to life as it was–and wasn’t.

Memories of times spent with Maralee flooded over him. She was the epitome of a gracious hostess. Entertaining guests, making others feel at ease, and knowing how to create just the right mix of people at a gathering were some of her many strengths. Sutton jokingly referred to Maralee as his “secret weapon.” She had it all, and her social skills had helped his career on more than one occasion.

A particular dinner party changed Sutton’s life. Shortly after he began at NASA, he had the pleasure of meeting Gene Shoemaker and his wife Carolyn at a conference. As luck had it, the renowned astrogeologist would be speaking at the University of Florida, not far from lovely Serenity Beach. Shoemaker was already famous for his discovery of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet, and Sutton had long admired the Shoemakers and their work on Near-Earth Objects. Sutton jumped at the opportunity to speak at length with Gene and Carolyn.

“Would you like to have dinner with my wife and me some evening while you are in the area?” Sutton proposed.

A smile had spread across his idol’s face. “Sutton, I’d be honored. Here’s my card with my personal phone number on it. Call and we’ll make arrangements. Carolyn will be thrilled.”

That chance conversation turned the course of Sutton Kincaide’s life. The lovely dinner Maralee made was the backdrop to an hours long discussion of what dangers lurked beyond our atmosphere. Craters around the world proved that impacts had happened before, and here he was, Sutton Kincaide, sitting with the man who had discovered countless cosmic objects. Gene Shoemaker’s life revolved around the search for threats, most completely unknown to us even today, that would result in a cataclysm rivaling the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Under Gene’s supervision, Sutton began working alongside him in earnest. Finding a way to protect Earth was as worthy a cause as he could imagine, and the NASA project they led produced groundbreaking (No pun intended, Sutton chuckled) discoveries regarding potential celestial bodies that could impact our world.

Gene’s death in an automobile accident in Australia was a blow second only to Maralee’s death for Sutton. His mentor, his friend, the father he’d never had, was gone. 

Our best chance at detecting a killer died with you, my friend.

Maralee had rallied to his side and given him strength, however. “Sutton, I know you are crushed, but you must continue this work. Gene would have wanted you to.” 

She was right.

Over the next several years, Sutton and the team scanned the universe for signs of trouble. Universities, scientific associations, and public and private entities sought his wisdom on the topic. Sutton traveled the world giving lectures and advising governments on ways to combat the threat.

But it was to no avail.

As Sutton Kincaide sat on his balcony, savoring the aroma and taste of the fine Kona coffee he had special ordered from Heavenly Hawaiian Farms, he was captivated by the glow of the sky. Breaking through the pastel hues, the golden rays of light became blinding. 

This, however, was no ordinary daybreak. Asteroid N26549, completely unnoticed by scientists until it was too late, hurtled through the atmosphere. 

Sutton, at peace with this irrefutable truth, took a final sip. This has been a marvelous sunrise.

Out of Nowhere

Lincoln Hayes breathed in the sounds and smells of the first pleasant spring evening of the year. He was relaxed and happy, reveling in the breeze that ruffled his blond hair. The stress of the day melted away, and he slowly swayed on the wooden porch swing.

It’s nights like this that I live for.

As he enjoyed the moment, he thought of his family, his friends, and the good fortune he had of teaching in this community he had grown up loving. All the hard work he put into college was paying off. He had his own house close to his parents, he had lifelong friends that he saw daily, and he taught in the school that provided so many good childhood memories for him. Lincoln Hayes was home.

The most satisfying part of life was being near his family. Family was everything to Lincoln. His parents, Max and Patricia, worked hard providing a comfortable upbringing for their family. He admired their willingness to give their children the best they could, and he knew they were proud of them. Even though, without a doubt, Italia, his younger sister, outshined any effort Lincoln had ever made. Strangely, he never felt any childish pangs of sibling rivalry towards her. 

Had he? Could he even recall any childhood arguments with her?

The answer was no. Granted, he was much older than she was, but still, he couldn’t think of a time when he resented her.

In fact, Lincoln couldn’t remember a time before his little sister was a central figure in his life. Feelings of protection and pride overcame him when he thought about the brown-haired, blue-eyed girl who became the adoration of the entire family. Always a natural beauty, her talents in music, art, and most recently dance, made her the star of every family gathering. A few short months ago, her acclaim spread to the community as a whole. Parkville High School’s performance of The Nutcracker Suite just before Christmas highlighted both her talent and her beauty.

    “That little sister of yours is something else,” his colleagues at Parkville told him.

    “Yes, she is. Mom and Dad are very proud of her,” Lincoln had said with a warm smile. 

Lincoln’s thoughts turned from his immediate family to the community and how it had changed since he was a child. 

Parkville was becoming quite the magnet for talented children. Prodigies of all types, from piano to mathematics, overflowed into the halls of the school. Sports flourished, and academic awards poured in. Life was good in Parkville, but it did make people wonder at the newfound success of the community.

Just last week as he was shopping, Gary Lister, the local grocer, asked Lincoln as he checked out, “Since when did we become state champs?” 

“Certainly not when we were in school,” Lincoln replied with a chuckle. 

“Well, I don’t know what’s in the water, but I’m not going to jinx us by talking about it. We’ve got a shot at another baseball title this spring.”

“Let’s certainly hope.” Lincoln walked out to his car, groceries in arm, thinking about Gary’s comment.

The Carter twins were star athletes, which surprised many because neither Elaine nor Dan Carter, parents of the twins, were athletic, either in high school or now. The Lundquists’ daughter scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, but neither parent showed exceptional intelligence. Then there was Kyle Larner, the freshman successfully taking college courses ranging from art history to calculus. Kyle was overheard explaining to a classmate that the math books he read sounded like music in his head. Kyle’s parents were past retirement age, and both were simple people who had lived simple lives.

Actually, most of the children are exceeding their parents’ abilities. Out of nowhere we are winning championships and raising geniuses. I don’t remember any of us performing at such a high level when we were kids. This isn’t normal for Parkville. 

He hit the button on his key fob, raising the hatchback of his vehicle. As he placed the groceries down, the teacher in him forced Lincoln to consider the most reasonable explanations.

Maybe the helicopter parents, the parents grooming their children for success straight from the womb, are making a difference. Maybe we’ve focused on bringing out the best and the brightest in all our children, and it’s working. After all, “No Child Left Behind.” He didn’t give it much thought, however, it did intrigue him.

Parkville was a modest town, a quiet suburban sanctuary for middle-class families seeking a better life than the frenetic pace of the big city, This was Lincoln’s fifth year of teaching in Parkville, his alma mater, and he was proud of the accomplishments of his students. Just this year, three students qualified for national competitions in physics. Two more won awards for their research project on cells and their regenerative properties in some amphibians, such as the frogs that sang a lullaby this spring evening in the nearby pond. 

Tomorrow was a big day for him. He’d been nominated for Teacher of the Year. His students’ excellent scores on state tests and their success in high profile competitions had put a spotlight on Lincoln and the science program he was developing at Parkville. 

I’d like to think I’m the reason for their success, but I’m not so sure I am. A nagging doubt plagued Lincoln. A doubt that he had anything to do with the abilities of his students.

This evening, however, Lincoln sat on his porch, enjoying the warm breeze and the smell of the earth awakening after a long winter’s rest. The aforementioned frogs created a pleasant din of noise in the background, and Lincoln’s thoughts shifted. His memories wallowed in the magic of nights like this. When he was a child, he’d beg his parents to let him play one more inning of baseball with his friends or to let him make one more cast into the creek before he came in to go to bed. Visions of warm days, picnics, and a leisure that can’t be found in the icy haze of winter swam in Lincoln’s head. Recollections of growing up, some vivid and others a little more fuzzy, passed through his mind. The fact that some were indistinct bothered Lincoln.

Why can’t I remember the day Italia was born? I can’t remember life without her, but it’s off that at this moment I can’t remember her coming home from the hospital—or Mom even being pregnant with her.

That unsettling thought, along with a slightly out of place sound that made its way through the chorus of frogs caused Lincoln to pause for a moment as he rose to go in for the evening. 

Its probably just a night creature. I’m turning in for the evening. Deserved or not, tomorrow could be a big day.

Tomorrow was a big day.

In a grove of trees less than a hundred yards from Lincoln Hayes’s porch, a group gathered. Italia, the Carter twins, and roughly one hundred and fifty other teenagers were in a circle, deep in conversation.

“I think we can safely say that our five-year pilot program has been a success.” An athletic, brown-haired Chet Carter stood before his comrades. “It’s time we broaden our scope. Our people are depending on us, and time is running out.”

Nods of agreement swept through the crowd.

“When we began this expedition, we weren’t sure if we would survive. Much like the early Pilgrims we learned about here on Earth, we faced uncertainties. We now know we can survive, and it’s time for us to begin a full-fledged colonization of this planet.” Chet scanned the crowd for questions.

“Do you think we will be as successful in other parts of the world? We’ve masqueraded as children here in Parkville, but once we begin to outnumber the residents on Earth, can we continue without war?” Kyle Larner was skeptical by nature and was known for his lack of adventurous spirit. Back on their home planet, many had worried about including Kyle on this mission.

“I think we’ve proven that mind control works well on these weaklings.” Chris Carter responded. “In no time we were able to manipulate the people of Earth into believing we were their children and brothers. If we can do it in Parkville, we can do it anywhere. Like Chet said, time is running out. We need to move quickly, and tomorrow was our target date from the start.”

Italia raised her hand. “Some are less likely to be manipulated. You read the thoughts of Lincoln Hayes as I did earlier this evening. He is catching on. He is questioning why he doesn’t remember. There are others who will be difficult to control, too. What will become of the Lincolns?”

“Our leaders have considered this. Starting tomorrow, we will deal with Lincoln Hayes.”

The warm breeze blew, and the chorus of frogs sang out into the darkness.

Where Real Meets Imagined

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started