The lives of those gone before are like fading shadows and the remembrance of them an echoing in the cavern of times past, calling us back, to the place where lessons must be learned.

 

A very brief

INTRODUCTION

 

There are times in life when the stark realization of who we are becomes a hurtful contradiction of our expectation, hopes and dreams.

How we come to be in crisis and the outcome, well, that is evident of the way of life, even as we leave a legacy for those who follow.

 

For Vincent, it was seeing himself as one aging and alone. True love comes but once in a lifetime, and he missed his chance.

Julianne’s life took a wild turn when she became a single mom.  She’d spent a fateful night with two men, the circumstance of it very tragic, and still she was unsure which one was the father.

Bart’s epiphany came in the jungles of Vietnam while under enemy fire. The smothering breath of death taunted him there. For the first time in his life he was trapped and scared.

And finally, there was Fate. Each of the others will always wonder what influence He had in determining their final destination. Comprehending His role will be crucial for knowing acceptance.   

In the memory banks of his mind it is all connected.  Vincent is confronted with a haunting message from his past and must return there to finally and fully understand what happened to each of his friends. This is an unwelcome journey, but one he must take, and one he hopes will finally bring healing to his soul as he attempts to expose the secrets of Sweetened Vales.

 

 

 

First: FANTASY!

 

Chapter One

 

 AI knows better. To maintain superiority one must always speak in the context of game theory; don’t ever show your true feelings.  It is the proper way to express oneself that is void of emotion, always cool, calm and collected. If you are even slightly agitated, The Knot, the latest interface of social media and artificial intelligence, (AI), will correct your mistake as it edits and enhances your communication.

It sends timely and appropriate greetings without requiring further instructions or reminders.  AI knows almost everything about your life and your world, but despite its wealth of information and connection, Vincent feels lonely, even isolated.

Concerned for his welfare, AI protects him like a shield and disguises his apprehensions, but then makes a requirement of him - a better attitude: stalwart confidence.  If still sensing discontent, AI adjusts his daily intake of herbs and if that doesn’t produce the required result, his medicinal supplement is also altered.

An inappropriate comment is always documented for future reference; but by whom?  Well, that information is guarded, even classified.

 

 “Good morning Vincent,” Alexandria (AI) greeted him as he entered the kitchen.  It has already mixed his morning drink and the hot brew filled a large mug. It is a latte macchiato with an extra shot of espresso. The strong coffee covers over the taste of the potion consisting of herbal vitamins and daily medications.

“I already know my schedule for today and I’m not interested in the news,” Vincent instructs her (AI) somewhat rudely. “Do you have anything else for me?”

“I sense that you are despondent today?” Alexandria interrupts. “I also recorded irregular brain waves last night as you slept. You only went into sleep stage two, no REM.  Are you still feeling tired this morning?”

“No!” he paused, “I mean yes, but I’m okay,” Vincent stated in his defense. “I was just dreaming.”

“Do you care to divulge your thoughts?” Alexandria urged.

“It was the same dream,” Vincent revealed. “Fantasy, like when I was a kid.” He paused, feeling a little resentful of the requirement to confide with an inhuman that recorded everything he said. “I’ve had the same dream many times before,” he admitted, “really, I feel fine – fired up and ready to go to work!”

“I have already adjusted your elixir,” Alexandria confessed.

“Are you allowed to do that without my permission?”

“Yes, it was only two percent, within the allowable range.  Your work scores have been low,” AI continued. “We need to get your average back up.”

Vincent took a small sip of the coffee, wondering if it was poison that he was drinking. “You have not answered my question,” he reiterated.

“You have a new friend request,” Alexandria noted, “from Celeste Benton. Will you accept?”

“I don’t recognize the name,” Vincent responded. “Are we connected in any way?”

“Let me check the database.”

Vincent took another sip and counted off three seconds.

“The birth certificate for Celeste Benton indicates that Brianna Snyder is her natural mother,” AI disclosed.

“Brianna? When was she born?” Vincent asked quickly.

“The date of birth for Brianna Snyder is April 27, 1969.  Her mother is Julianne Culp. The father is listed as unknown on the certificate of birth.”

And Vincent immediately wondered if this could be his “Julie.”

 She was his first crush.

 

He considered searching for her on The Knot – it would be a reunion of sorts, and somewhat entertaining, but he quickly squelched the urge, considering it to be a waste of time. If he messaged Julie, the internet would not represent his true self. He did not desire to play the social media game with a person from whom he needed blatant honesty, truth without the masks created by the internet.

Besides, he was very busy.  Vincent’s job as a plant biologist, a scientist in the field of phytology, was demanding and required additional work to be completed at home. He had little time for the social media game. And what could this stranger, this Celeste, want with him anyway?  Even if she was connected to the Julie of his youth, she was already two generations removed from him.

 

It was one of the hardest decisions he ever made, to walk away from Julie after she finally attempted to explain her absence. It had been a powerful connection they shared.  He was deeply hurt by her rejection and forgiveness was something he could not readily offer her. But before he would revisit that memory, his mind drifted further back, to Sweetened Vales, to the excitement and intrigue of his formative years, his time of puberty, when he and Julie first met and became close friends.

It seemed like a dream.  Vincent often wished he had pursued the young woman who matured to become stunningly beautiful, tall with flaming red hair. Her smile was illuminating and invigorating to everyone who encountered it. She had a way about her, expressing sincerity with innocence and purity. Her glowing would light up a room.

Back then, in the days of his youth, relationships were different. It was a time when neighbors were regarded as family. Doors and windows remained unlocked. Drop-in visits to share the latest news or offer a helping hand were a regular occurrence.  In this way friends stayed informed about another’s illness, injury, or need. Julie lived with her father, Hank, who was disabled and they were a needy family.

This was the time before the internet, smart phones, and AI.

 

Vincent sat in a recliner and closed his eyes. The dreamy vision of strawberry fields and Julie kneeling there among the blossoms and berries passed before his mind’s eye.

She was his teenage sweetheart at the tender age of sixteen, and Barton, the other farmhand who was a year older, was his rival.  Certain scenes leave an indelible impression on the mind, and Julie working in her short cutoffs was one of them.

Vincent decided to indulge the memory.

#

 

He saw Barton leaning on a hoe handle, a big grin on his face as he gawked in the other direction. There, in his line of sight, was Julie, wearing those shorts.

“Hey Bart,” he yelled. “Mind your own business.” But when the gazer made no response, Vincent decided to jump a few rows and walked over to him.

He slugged him in the shoulder. “I said get back to work, you slacker.”

“Hey man, that hurt,” Bart whined, not turning away from the sight of Julie. “Yeah, right. Don’t pretend to be Mr. Innocent. I saw you looking at her too.”

“Well enough is enough,” Vincent commanded. “Sorry to interrupt your playtime Bart, but we have three more rows to hoe this afternoon.”

“Then you better get at it,” he suggested, “Because I’m twice the man you are. I’ll be done before you get half way thru another one.”

Later that day at quitting time Vincent spoke privately to Frank who he called “Pops,” his endearing grandfather and employer. “I like Julie,” he confessed. “She’s pretty great, but sometimes she’s a big distraction,” he paused, “especially for Bart.”

“I know what you mean,” Frank nodded. “But don’t worry; I’ll take care of it. Bart’s not your concern,” the elder man squeezed Vincent’s shoulder to emphasize the point. “Sonny, you need to keep your nose clean and concentrate on yourself.” Pulling him closer he patted Vincent’s back and turned away.

The next day during the heat of the afternoon Emma, Frank’s wife, visited the field unexpectedly.  Driving the old ’53 Chevy stake body flatbed, it screeched to a halt as a dust cloud floated beyond its front bumper. She waved her hand in the dirty air and coughed while calling to Julie. After hollering several more times, the girl lifted her head and Emma motioned for her to come.

“What you doin’, Honey,” she asked with a frown.

“But Miss Emma, I’m working hard,” she said defensively. She straightened, pushed her chest out and wiped her brow. “Can’t you see how I’m a sweatin’?”

“It’s not that,” her mentor explained. “I say you’re a good worker alright, and can keep up with the boys, but my dear, can’t you dress a bit more modestly?”

A shocked look crossed the girl’s face. “Well this is normal for me, and I just want to keep as cool as possible,” she shrugged.

“My lands, girl!” Emma placed her hands on her hips. She was wearing a long sleeved shirt that buttoned around her neck and tucked into baggy denims. She stomped her foot in the dust, outfitted with a man’s work boot. “Don’t you see how they are looken at you?” she asked. “Why they’re young men and you’re gettin’ ‘em all riled up,” she protested. “They can’t help themselves.”

Julie looked to the field. Vincent and Barton were watching her intently. “Oh, I see what you’re sayin’,” she admitted. “Sure, I can wear longer pants tomorrow,” she conceded.

Emma grabbed the truck’s door handle and yanked on it hard, then jumped in. With one foot she pushed in the clutch and with the other, the left foot, she pressed on the starter button which was mounted on the floor but before the old farm truck would start it began drifting backwards.  Emma knew the required routine. She quickly moved her right foot to the brake and with the left foot fully extended the clutch pedal, and then yanked on the stick shifter to place the transmission in neutral.  Next, she released the clutch so that she could once again reach for the starter button while still pressing down on the brake. The engine sputtered and she revved it hard causing a cloud of black smoke to emerge from its rusty tailpipe. Julie had begun to walk away.

“And no skimpy tops,” Emma yelled in her direction, “Something loose and generous.”

Julie paused and nodded.

“No tight t-shirts either,” she continued. “Never know when you’ll get caught in a downpour.”

#

 

Stirred by the vivid memory, Vincent paused to reflect on the journey of his life. It must certainly hold the clues needed to answer the question that persisted in his mind: where is the promise of love?

Vincent was changing and the cause of it was much more than his searching. 

Remembering the goodness of days gone by quieted these feelings of discontent. Peace can only be found, he reasoned, in grasping an understanding of the past.

 

Julianne suddenly quit work in the middle of July of ‘68.  He had only heard rumors and at first didn’t understand the reason for her sudden disappearance from the fields that were still loaded with strawberries. He had pestered Pops with questions about the girl who broke his heart, but his grandfather wasn’t forthcoming. All he knew was that Julianne was rushed to the hospital a second time, and then, she fell off the face of the earth.

 

When she finally contacted him years after their separation he was anxious for answers. He had hoped she would divulge her secrets.  What was her illness and how was she healed?

He remembered the meeting with Julianne four long years after her disappearance. At that time she was dating and had a young daughter. Vincent was single, not in a relationship, but her explanations fell short of what he expected and needed. His wounds reopened. With old feelings awakened and a new anger aroused, the past continued to haunt him from that day forward.

Why she had not contacted him all those years before, he never fully understood.

When he first learned of her daughter’s birth, Vincent counted time on his fingers. It was six, seven, eight, nine months after Julie left work. In his mind he often relived the events of that previous night, the time of their clandestine meeting, but until she broke her silence he did not know of the terrible things that happened to her, the tragedy that occurred in the early morning hours of that fateful day.

And he never knew who the father was. 

 

Sweetened Vales held many other secrets.  Those who were acquainted with the strawberry farm and his grandparents, Frank and Emma Vandenberg, suddenly recovered from illnesses. Something strange was happening and the source of their healing remained a mystery.

For years he clung to the unknown for hope, but now he seemed to need something more. Like the prisoner in his cell, he felt restrained, an imposition that caused enthusiasm to be squelched.  His life had become a dungeon with a broad reach and yet he felt confined by its boundaries. 

His medication generated a feeling of euphoria but smothered the fires of ambition. Now divorced and without children, he spent most of his free time alone. He denied the verdict of depression, but Vincent needed to find a reason to pursue life again; he needed new desire.

Standing quickly he walked to the kitchen cabinet and reached for an orange plastic prescription bottle with a white lid. He shook it hard. It was probably still half full. Placing a capsule in the palm of his hand he thought about how smart, yet foolish, Alexandria was. She could hear, but wasn’t yet capable of seeing and knowing all that he was doing. His dependency on an opioid was something he managed to hide from her, and everyone else for that matter.  He had denied his addiction for many years.

Only a few minutes had passed and already Alexandria had an update. An amber light glowed atop the cylindrical speaker that housed her. Upon noticing it he asked AI the question, “Do you have a message for me?”

“Yes, it is from Celeste Benton.”

“Play the message,” Vincent commanded.

“We need to talk. Please! I think you are my grandfather.”

#

 

As memories continued to invade his mind, Vincent was taken even further back, to the rhythmic sound of his breathing machine, the iron lung.  It was something he would never forget and even now, it was painful to remember. At the first sight of that machine, he was filled with terror. It was in the lung ward, that hall of horror, that Vincent became addicted to his drug.

As a child Vincent was stricken with polio in the 1950’s, confining him to the iron lung for nearly two years. Nothing was real about the place of refuge he eventually found in the hospital.  Imagination provided the safe haven required for his survival.  In fantasy he found freedom, dreams that continued to revisit him until the present day.  They pestered and sometimes provoked him, but still he did not consider them to be nightmares or damaging to his psyche.  But could there be secret messages hidden in his dreams – was his mind whirling from a place unknown to provide information, even offer guidance?

It was in the hospital ward filled with iron lungs that the foundation of his life was laid; it was there that his story began.                                                     

 

Vincent decided not to expose all of this to AI.  Like secrets established within a castle’s walls, he kept these memories safe from “her.”  AI would attempt to manipulate them with its interpretations.  It would then explain away the mysterious healings of Sweetened Vales, even his, to minimize their significance. These were his experiences, special times suggestive of true blessings, though still not fully understood.

#

 

Today, fresh strawberries are prominently displayed by the grocer year around, but they don’t taste the same.  It has been Vincent’s job to alter the strawberry plant so that its fruit can survive the tenacious requirement of shipping, its long trek to the wholesaler from almost anywhere on the globe.  His berries are no longer sweet - but something more, much more, has changed.

Relationships are bittersweet also.

Vincent perceived that the world and its inhabitants, now connected by a wireless network that encircles the globe, have lost the reverence they once beheld for creation, and life, for that matter.  The mystique of the farm where he worked no longer entices anyone. Gone is the enthusiasm and hopeful expectation Vincent knew there.

But why and how Vincent’s world has changed so dramatically is a question that needs to be searched out.  What has been lost, and can it be found, to be recovered like hidden treasure, to benefit mankind once again?

 

 

CLICK HERE for Chapter Two

 

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SALVATION

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When life wasn’t fair, God was calling his name. 

Robert Love experienced great loss.  His grandmother died under a cloud of suspicion. Memories of better times became miserable haunts as the skeletons of his past continued to rattle in the closet of deceit.

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Robert Love, the clergyman accused of sexually assaulting a minor female, searches his memory for a clue. Had he mistaken the events of his life, the way he saw God working and leading him into the ministry?

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Thrisa is the only bright spot in this pastor’s otherwise dreary work at the parish and she is found in a dumpster, left for dead. Then, answers to the mystery are suddenly revealed at the bedside of a man even as he exhales his last breath.  The final verdict: “not guilty!”

 

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Young adults and siblings, James and Steffanie Wallas, who tragically lost their parents in a train wreck, are struggling to continue with their lives. 

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Levi Daniels was shot while Confederate soldiers invaded his southern Pennsylvania farm.  In a small wooden box, he took his prized possession to California, seeking better fortune. But as history has it, trouble followed.

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Darren and his fraternal twin sister, Deidra, are able to avoid their ancestors’ haunts until engaged in the disaster. An earthquake strikes the U.S. and it falls into anarchy. Joseph returns, searching for the remnant of his family.

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