Good news! The Refusal is now available on Amazon!
Why do I do this to myself?
Why am I writing another controversial book?
You may know by now that I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons for short, however much of a misnomer that is since we worship Jesus Christ not the prophet Mormon). So why am I writing a book with a main character who is a Mennonite?
Because of my friend Troy (last name withheld for confidentiality). He was at my office one day a few years ago and I made a flippant comment about a man in my office who wasn't treating me very well and looked down upon me for being a headstrong woman.
I am a headstrong woman. Probably to a fault.
I'm a headstrong business woman who's taking on the world and standing up for the causes I believe in. I'm fighting for justice on behalf of the people and natural resources of our community. I'm a scientist. I'm a lobbyist. I'm a fighter.
But I also honor my husband as the head of my household just like Troy's wife presumably honors him as the head of her household.
The man I don't honor is the jerk who was treating me poorly at my office. He's gone now. He left years ago. I'm pretty sure he doesn't even live in the State of Michigan anymore. Good riddance. No man should ever treat a woman (or anyone) with disrespect. No one, male or female, should treat anyone else, male or female, with disrespect. I tend to believe that my friend Troy would agree with me on that.
But when I admitted that I'm a headstrong woman, Troy asked me, (I'll never forget his words so I'm putting them in quotation marks!) he asked me, "How does that work out at home?"
That stopped me in my tracks and I was speechless.
Did I not just state a moment ago that I honor my husband as the head of my household? Do most women honor their husbands as the head of their household? If you're ready to say something snippy to me about how men and women are created equal, let me ask the question of you, Is that really true?
Men and women are extremely different. I don't need to launch into an anatomy and physiology lesson here for you to visualize what I'm talking about. Is one better or worse? No, we're different.
Women are God's chosen vessels on this earth. We are the only gender able to have children. We are the only gender able to willingly agree to have a spirit body enter a tiny little physical body and carry that little physical body inside our larger physical body, endure an incredible amount of pain in order to push that little body into the big, scary world and then we hold that little body in our arms, crying with happiness that he or she was entrusted to us to nurse and love and teach and help become a larger physical body who will someday create more little physical bodies and bring them into the world to house God's spirit children.
And who is going to protect us (as mothers) as we protect these little physical bodies? It's not a trick question. You can say it out loud. Who has God asked to stand as protectors of the mothers chosen to create these little physical bodies? Our husbands.
If not our husbands, then who? Should we hire a bodyguard? I love my husband. He's way more than a bodyguard. He treasures me, not just as the woman who willingly accepted the little physical bodies who house the spirits we call our children. He LOVES me. I would not want any other person on this planet to stand as my protector. He provides for me. He goes to his job every day and brings home money that can be used to support me and our children. He would rather work two jobs than to ask me to hire someone else to nurse our children so that I can help bring in money to support our household.
So when Troy asked me, "How does that work out at home?" I realized, I'm not like this at home. I'm not a headstrong business woman who's taking on the world and standing up for the causes I believe in. I'm not fighting for justice on behalf of the people and natural resources of our community. I'm not a scientist. I'm not a lobbyist. I'm not a fighter.
Because I don't have to be.
I can come home and take off the business suit, and let someone else protect me for a change. I can snuggle into my husband's arms and let him protect me. He can make the decisions for just a little while. He can lead me and help me and care for me. And he's good at that. Because that's the way God made him.
Troy didn't tell me that's how it should be. He merely reminded me that my husband is there for me.
So, thank you, Troy for asking that poignant question that I haven't forgotten to this day. Is it any wonder that I had to name my character after you? You're old like me. I don't know what you were like as a young man. My character may not be anything like you. My character is not a real person. But he was inspired by you.
I hope that my story, called The Refusal, does justice to the teachings of both our religions and the gospel principles we hold to be true. You may not agree with how I chose to end the book, but that's okay. The book is fiction. The characters are not real. But maybe something in this story will touch your heart in the same way that your poignant question touched mine.
Sincerely, Julie L. Spencer
The Refusal - Chapter Ten - Troy
The Refusal - Chapter Nine - Troy
Good news! The Refusal is now available on Amazon!
The Refusal - Chapter Two - Troy
“Dang, why’s this place so busy on a Wednesday morning with the sun shining?” Troy wrinkled his brow and pursed his lips, looking at the café where a few old men usually hung out to drink burnt coffee and talk about the weather.
It wasn’t really a café in the literal sense, it was just a sitting area with a couple of tables next to a counter filled with complimentary donuts and bagels. Sometimes he wondered if the guys didn’t come here more for the camaraderie and free pastries than to get supplies.
That day there were at least twice the number of men sitting around, and many of them were much younger than the usual crowd. He shook his head and started toward the counter so he could inquire about getting a new drive chain. A strange conversation caught his attention and he halted in his tracks, listening to a familiar voice in the next aisle.
“Since y’er new in town, y’er gonna need someone to show you around. I could take you for a drive in my new Chevy and give you the grand tour.”
“Thank you, I’m sure I can find my way around just fine.” The curt tone of voice spoke volumes. She wasn’t interested in his advances.
Troy decided to play the gentleman and rescue the damsel, whoever she was. He came around the corner and stepped behind a woman with long strawberry blond hair, barely glanced at her but made firm eye contact with his arch enemy.
“You know Dean, I don’t think the lady is interested in riding around in a Chevy truck.” Troy leaned against the shelving unit, putting a tiny bit of space between the woman and her pursuer.
“What’s it to you, farmer boy?” Dean took a step toward Troy, who straightened his stance protectively. “You think she’s gonna wanna ride around in yer fancy new Ford?”
“Thank you for the compliment Dean, but I think the lady can find her way home in whatever car she drove here this morning.” Craig came up behind his brother and Dean took a step back, narrowing his eyes.
They stood there a moment more, three men staring one another down, and one woman with her arms crossed and her chin raised. Dean was the first to back down.
“Whatever, farmer boy.” Dean tossed the bag of lug nuts back on the shelf and walked away.
“Thank you,” the woman said with annoyance, finally turning to Troy and Craig. The hardness in her eyes startled Troy. He had expected her to be grateful for his defense. Instead, she looked offended. “I’m pretty sure I can take care of myself from now on.”
“Uh… I’m sorry—” Troy read her temporary name tag and realized she was probably a new employee at the store “—Melissa. I was just trying to help. I didn’t mean to make you more upset.”
Melissa shook her head, rolled her eyes and turned around, confidently walking away. He hurried to keep up with her.
“Look, the guy’s a jerk, okay? He needed to be put in his place. He can’t just think he can make advances at any ol’ woman he wants.”
Troy halted to a stop when she suddenly turned to face him, eyes narrowed, a firm stance, arms crossed.
Crud, I’ve offended her again. “Not that you’re old. That’s not what I meant. You’re… I don’t know how old you are… but you’re definitely not old. It’s just that… it’s not about you. It’s about Dean. He’s a jerk.”
“You said that already.” She lifted her eyebrows. “The feelings must be mutual because he sure doesn’t seem to like you either… farmer boy.”
“Eh… I stole his prom date once and he’s never forgiven me.” That brought a little smile. “I’m kidding. We didn’t even go to the same high school. Plus, I’ve never actually dated a girl before. He just doesn’t like me because I called the cops on him for setting a field on fire when he was drunk one night a few summers back.”
By that time, Melissa was openly laughing at him and Troy realized he was rambling. He stopped, took a deep breath, and shoved his hands in his pockets. His finger sliced against glass and he pulled out the broken piece of beer bottle.
Troy held up the piece of glass with his right hand and stuck the side of his bleeding finger in his mouth. He cringed at the taste of blood mixed with manure and spit it back out, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and wrapping his finger in the hem of his shirt.
“I need a new drive chain for my drill.” Troy tried not to gag, wishing he could run over and take a swig out of one of those cups of burnt coffee just to get the flavor of manure out of his mouth.
“It looks more like you need a bandage than a chain,” Melissa said in a fake southern accent.
“Yes, please.” Troy nodded. “That, and I need to wash the manure off my hands, and somehow get the taste out of my mouth.”
“Come on.” She grabbed his shirtsleeve and playfully dragged him over to the counter where she opened the cooler of sodas and grabbed him a Coke. Shoving it into his hand, she led him further back to where a door led to a storage room.
Troy twisted the cap off the Coke and swigged half of it down as he walked straight over to a washbasin. He held his bleeding finger under cold running water.
Without hesitation Melissa scrubbed Troy’s filthy hands against a bar of soap.
Troy held very still. This was different from when his mom used to scrub his hands. Melissa probably didn’t see it that way, but to him it felt almost suggestive. Too soon, she turned off the water and calmly wrapped his hands in a cloth towel. He watched her walk away, but she didn’t go far.
From a cabinet nearby, she pulled out a small first-aid kit and rummaged around until she found a bandage. Almost mechanically, she pulled the towel aside and unwrapped the bandage, carefully pulling the little plastic tabs and sealing away the blood.
Troy almost felt like he was going to fall over, not from the loss of what little blood had flowed from his finger, but from the way it felt to have her caring for him. He wanted to sigh with contentment, but instead cleared his throat and took a step back.
“There, you’re all better.” She smiled up at him, clearly not as affected by the situation as he was. “Now, let’s go find you that… chain.”
Her eyes finally met his and she didn’t look away. In the low light of the utility room, her eyes shone like emeralds. The fluorescent lights cast shadows across her strawberry blonde hair, turning it a classic shade of mahogany. Troy had the uncanny desire to reach out and grasp one of the long curls between his fingers to see if it felt as soft as it looked. Thankfully, the throbbing in his hand, and his strict upbringing reminded him to show a little more restraint. He shook his head and looked away, breaking the spell.
“Yes,” he whispered. “A chain. I came in here for a drive chain.” His breathing was heavy and fast, and he could tell hers was as well. She took one last deep breath, then walked from the storeroom. He watched her walk away, then quickly followed.
“What are you doing, Troy?” Craig asked, still standing near the door of the storeroom, arms crossed and furrowed brow.
“Buyin’ a chain…” Troy barely acknowledged his brother as he walked past and followed Melissa.
Book Club Discussion Question: Is it okay for a strong, independent woman to allow a man the chance to be chivalrous?
“It’s a good job, Mom.” Melissa pushed another pile of clothes into her suitcase and strode back across her room. She had barely unpacked the jeans and sweatshirts from college before loading up slacks and professional blouses. She hesitated as she held up her favorite Brigham Young University sweatshirt then shoved it back in the suitcase along with her nicest pair of jeans. “Don’t you want me to have a good job?”
“I just want you to be happy. Is this really the life you envisioned for yourself?” Jan Dalton, Melissa’s mom, sat on the edge of her twin bed. She glanced around Melissa’s childhood bedroom and fidgeted with a loose thread on the comforter. “Working at a hardware store?”
“Farm and Tractor Supply is hardly just a hardware store! We provide premium quality supplies to the rural community in a way that no other store can compete with. I’ve worked for the company all through college and we’re farmers for heaven’s sake. You and daddy have practically raised me to have this job.”
“You sound like a walking commercial.”
“I’m passionate about what we do.” Melissa held up two pairs of shoes, one that went with every dressy outfit she owned, from church clothes to work slacks, and the other a casual pair of loafers. She tucked them both in her suitcase and threw in her work boots for good measure. Then she realized she should have a grubby pair of jeans and flannel shirt as well. That led to a few of her favorite t-shirts. Before she knew it, she had re-packed half the clothes she’d brought home from college.
“But being a store manager is a huge responsibility,” her mom said.
“I’ve been an assistant store manager for almost two years, and pretty much ran the place while Donna was on maternity leave. I know what I’m doing, and I’m excited to transfer over here.”
“But rural Michigan is not the same as Utah.” Her mom shook her head and sighed.
“I grew up in rural Michigan. Right here in this house. On a farm. With farmers, remember?”
“Northern Michigan is not the same. You’re heading south. They’re different down there.”
“It’s beautiful down there. Rolling hills to the west. Open farmland to the east. Corn fields and sugar beets as far as the eye can see. My new office overlooks a pasture with horses so beautiful it takes your breath away. At my interview, I felt like I had finally found my home.”
“But it’s so desolate,” her mom whispered, apparently forgetting that Lowell was a suburb of Grand Rapids, the second largest city in Michigan. “How are you ever going to find a husband all the way down there?”
“That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?” Melissa stopped packing and sat on the bed next to her mom. “You’re still upset that I’m not marrying Andy.”
“He was a good man. Your refusal devastated him. He would have made a fine husband.”
“He didn’t love me.” Melissa felt the heat rush to her cheeks. “And I didn’t love him.”
“You did at one time…”
“He only wanted me as a trophy wife, to show me off. He called me ‘Eye Candy’ to his friend. I heard him say it. I don’t want to be sought after just because I’m beautiful. I want to be loved for who I am on the inside.”
“You can’t get around that, Melissa.” Her mom’s brow furrowed. “You’ve always been a beauty, and you’ll always be my gorgeous little girl. Your looks will always be the first thing men notice. It’s inevitable. But I understand your frustration. I’m sure when the time comes, you’ll meet someone who will see inside and fall in love with your fiery, confident personality… he may need to be blind…”
“Well, gee, maybe there’s a blind guy down there just waiting for a fiery, passionate, confident farm girl.” Melissa nudged her mom with her shoulder. “You know, I’ve prayed about this decision. I know this is where God wants me to be at this time in my life, and I’m going to keep my beautiful green eyes open to the possibilities. But I’m honestly not looking for a husband right now. I’m just going to have fun living with my cousin, going to church with her every Sunday, letting her drag me around to meet every young single adult in the Grand Rapids area, enjoying my new job, and finding my place in this world. Finding a husband will have to wait.”
Melissa stood up and finished packing, ignoring her mom until she finally left the room.
* * * * * * * *
“Blasted!” Troy kicked the tire on his no-till planter, where his drive chain had jammed right at the edge of the field. He crouched down and picked up the piece of broken glass that had been the culprit. The late-morning sun warmed his back, reminding him that his perfect day had just been ruined by some irresponsible kids throwing beer bottles in his fields again. Troy mumbled under his breath, “Seeds won’t get in the ground without a working drill.”
Troy waved to his brother in the next field over, holding up his roller chain. Craig climbed down from the tractor and came over to investigate the broken links. “Guess we’re gonna need to make a trip into town.”
“I don’t have time for this!” Troy hauled back his arm like he was going to chuck the piece of glass as far as he could throw it, then stopped himself at the last second realizing that wherever it landed would cause more problems at a later date. Instead, he tucked it into the pocket of his jeans, brushed off his hands and started toward the truck. His eyes lifted to the clear, blue sky and he started grumbling. “Rain’s going to be here in a day or two and I won’t have my beans in the ground. This is just perfect. Can’t get a break.”
“You need to relax.” Craig rushed to catch up with him and laid his hand on Troy’s shoulder, slowing him down. “We’ll get done in time.”
“You’re just glad we got your fields done yesterday.” Troy pushed his brother’s hand away and climbed into the driver’s side of his new Ford F-450. The keys were already in the ignition. This far out of town, anyone close enough to steal his truck was probably related to him and wouldn’t dare. He cranked the ignition and let the purr of the engine lull him out of his bad mood. The new car smell rushed from the air conditioner, reminding him what a good choice he’d made at the dealership. He reached up and ran his hand along the dashboard.
“You know, if you would just marry Becca you wouldn’t need to have an improper relationship with your new truck.” Craig raised his eyebrows and smirked suggestively.
“I don’t wanna marry Becca.” Troy ground his teeth together, and pouted.
“You know she’s the girl father chose for you…”
“I don’t care,” Troy said. He put the truck in reverse and backed out of the drive. “Don’t I get a choice in the matter?”
“That’s not the way it works in the Mennonite church,” Craig reminded him. “It’s time you grow up and accept your responsibilities as a Brother in the faith.”
“I’m not ready to grow up yet.” A devious grin threatened the corners of Troy’s mouth. Troy put the truck in gear and peeled out of the drive, fishtailing the back end of the truck and spraying gravel over the edge of the field.
“Geesh! Let me at least get my seatbelt on!”
Troy knew his brother wasn’t really mad at him for driving like a daredevil. The smile plastered on Craig’s face as he held the grab-bar above the door told Troy everything he needed to know. He cranked the steering wheel back and forth one more time, leaving ruts in the field behind him.
“Dad’s going to kill you!” Craig hollered above the country music blaring from the stereo.
“It’s my field now, I can do with it what I want.” Troy hollered back.
“Dad’s been cultivating those fields longer than we’ve been alive, and when are you going to grow up and quit listening to that horrible music?”
“I’ll grow up when I’m good and ready.” Troy smirked over at his older brother. “You were just as much a rebel when you were my age.” Craig smiled back and they raised their arms, bumping fists in solidarity.
“Good thing you don’t have a family to feed. You’d be taking better care of your soil.”
“That reminds me—” Troy reached over and turned off the radio, knowing his brother would appreciate it. His speed slowed to a more reasonable fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit and he creased his eyebrows. “Is little Jesse feeling better? Did he get over his cough? I’m sorry I forgot to ask this morning.”
“You’ve been a little distracted,” Craig acknowledged. “Yes, he’s fine. Nothing that can’t be fixed with a little homemade chicken soup and Jessica’s loving arms.”
“Must be nice to be married.” Troy sighed. He did want that. He just didn’t want it with Becca. He couldn’t understand why no one else in the community didn’t see that. She was more like a sister to him. He wasn’t even remotely attracted to her in a physical way. Yet, she followed him around at church, dropping hints about how nice his house was coming along and how she couldn’t wait to see what it looked like on the inside. It was like she, and everyone else, was just assuming that one day he would turn around, look down into her big brown eyes, and realize that she was the perfect girl to come and sew some curtains to hang in his new kitchen.
“Watch it, little brother!” Troy snapped out of his daydream soon enough to swerve back off the shoulder of the road. “You won’t live long enough to get married if you don’t learn how to drive.”
“I’ll show you how to drive.” Troy grinned and sped up again, making it to Farm and Tractor Supply in record time.
Book Club Discussion Questions: See any conflicts?
Mending Fences - Chapter Six - Paul
Paul fidgeted in the pew, adjusted his tie, and pulled at his collar. He’d been attending services all his life at the community church with his parents, and was still getting used to the differences in meeting style here at the LDS church.
The hymns were different. The sermons were different. The setup of the chapel was different.
But the doctrine was perfect.
He had to keep reminding himself that. The rest of these things were just habits and traditions. He knew he’d grow more and more comfortable with everything in time.
Paul knew the gospel of Jesus Christ was found in the doctrine. Reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon brought peace to his heart. He couldn’t deny that. He couldn’t turn his back on the teachings of the church now and face himself in the mirror. He knew the teachings were true. And once a person knows something, he can’t un-know that something.
He wanted to shout the message from the rooftops. The gospel of Jesus Christ is true! He sat up a little straighter in the pew with renewed confidence.
The topics for discussion that Sunday morning were on missionary work. All of a sudden, they were speaking his language. As if his internal shout had been heard by God and he’d swooped in to provide exactly the words Paul needed to hear.
An older teenager who was preparing for his mission was the first speaker. He seemed nervous, but excited.
A recently returned missionary was the second speaker, and she seemed confident and self-assured.
An older married couple sat side by side on the stand until the wife stood up to speak about how much she loved being a mission president’s wife. She described the bond she felt for the young men and women who served in their area and treated her like a mother. She pulled several tissues from the box on the podium before taking her seat and allowing her husband his opportunity to speak.
The mission president talked about how much he loved the young missionaries and how much he loved serving with his wife. He encouraged older couples to consider serving a mission together and urged young people to submit their papers to the church stating their intention to serve a mission.
Somewhere between watching the older sister missionary testifying about her love for the young missionaries and the mission president’s encouragement, Paul realized that the whole day’s talks had been prepared so that Heavenly Father could tell him what he already suspected. He was going to serve a mission. And he was suddenly terrified.
He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know who to talk to about it, or even if he should yet. He’d only been a member of the church just over four months. It would be another eight months before he could even leave. There was so much he needed to know.
How much was it going to cost? What types of things did he need to do to prepare? What paperwork would be required? What clothes and supplies would he need to buy?
And then there were the tougher questions. What would his parents think? How would they feel when he told them that he was going to take some of the money he’d been saving to purchase their farm and use it to serve a mission? How was he ever going to finish college?
Every question seemed to float away like a balloon on a string when he realized none of them mattered. This was his chance to wear a little black tag on his lapel and shout from the rooftops that the gospel of Jesus Christ was true!
“Amen,” Paul said a little too loudly when the mission president ended his talk. The lady in front of him turned around and smiled politely. He gave her a nod and smiled back, feeling his cheeks heat with embarrassment.
The closing hymn was Called to Serve, and Paul sang out with a hearty voice. Called indeed. He was going on a mission!
Book Club Discussion Questions: What do you think? Predictable? Do you think Paul's going to make a good missionary?
“Well, here’s to lost causes.” Caleb held up his glass of punch and reached over to Paul. They clinked their glasses together in a solemn toast as they stared wistfully across the room at the girl they both loved dancing in the arms of her new groom.
He wasn’t sure why they’d even come to the wedding reception. It had been mere weeks since Ashley had dumped both of them and they were still in shock. But they were family now. It was too late.
Paul in particular had always been family, having lived next door to the Hardman’s all his life. Caleb had just been part of their lives for the past two years, but it was enough that he’d probably always feel comfortable with them.
He’d been surprised to receive the invitation. He never would have expected to feel this resigned about watching his ex-girlfriend get married. He and Paul had decided to go to the reception together in an act of camaraderie and joked that they might meet some nice women there. Unfortunately, Ashley didn’t have any girlfriends and there weren’t many people in attendance who were the right age. They were stuck with each other and were seriously considering ditching early.
“What the heck are we supposed to do with our lives now?” Paul’s question wasn’t really a question.
“Well, what would you have done if I’d married Ashley?” Caleb asked him.
“I hadn’t gotten that far,” Paul admitted sheepishly.
“Well, I’m going to Germany,” Caleb declared.
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Why?”
Caleb backpedaled to explain himself. “I used to live there, remember?”
“Uh, I guess I don’t know that much about what you did prior to meeting Ashley,” Paul admitted. “I think Ashley was always trying to shield me from knowing too much about just how rich you really are. She knew how intimidated I was by you, and everything I learned about your wealth made me that much surer that I didn’t stand a chance next to you.”
“Well, my parents are wealthy beyond either of our imaginations.” Caleb rolled his head around to look over at Paul. He was starting to sound like a man who had spent the past few hours drinking himself into a stupor. He was slouching back in his chair and his face was forlorn. “My dad’s a retired CEO from the North American Division of Porsche.”
“Seriously?” Paul looked over at him with a slacked jaw. “No wonder she didn’t tell me.”
“I really don’t know what the big deal is, but maybe that’s just because I grew up with money.” Caleb was almost slurring his words. “I spent half of my childhood traveling back and forth to Germany. I think I’m going to go see if I can find that angel who introduced me to the Church.”
Paul started laughing kind of loudly and Caleb joined in even though he wasn’t sure what they were laughing about. He reached his glass up again and they toasted to their own laughter. People at the tables around them politely looked over at them in curiosity.
“Who is this angel of whom you speak?” Paul spoke with a lilting Shakespearean accent.
“I thought she was asking me on a date.” Caleb shook his head and chuckled. “But I didn’t speak enough German to realize that she was taking me to church.”
They both laughed loudly again and this time they caught the attention of more people at the surrounding tables. Their behavior was beginning to draw a few dirty looks. People probably thought that they’d been drinking.
“Maybe if I can find her again, she’ll see that I’m a strong, upstanding returned missionary who can take her on a real date!”
“Hey, I like going to church,” Paul said. “I think that sounds like a great place to meet chicks.”
“It probably is, actually.” Caleb sat forward and looked at his young friend more seriously. Even though Paul had only been a member of the church a few weeks, he had embraced the gospel so fully that Caleb could already tell how important it was in Paul’s life.
Paul shifted his gaze away from Caleb’s. “I still think I should have changed the shape of that pretty boy’s nose the day he stole her from us.”
“I was very impressed by your restraint.”
“Yeah—” Paul smirked. “That’s only because you were standing in between us holding me back. If only you hadn’t…”
“Their wedding pictures would have looked a little different,” Caleb mused. They grinned at each other conspiratorially.
“Here’s to meeting someone new at church,” Paul said, holding up his glass again.
“Here’s to a second chance with my angel in Germany.” Caleb reached over and clinked Paul’s glass. “Yeah… here’s to a second chance.”
Book Club Discussion Questions: This chapter is an edited version of the epilogue for The Farmer's Daughter. Not really a question, just a notation.
Sarah didn’t need to spend the morning in the library while Paul was in class because she ended up taking a tour of the Stoddard Living Center, a grouping of small apartment buildings behind the Institute of Religion building.
Mostly populated by students who attended Michigan State University or Lansing Community College, the Living Center was almost exclusively LDS. The students got together regularly for institute classes, scripture studies, and church meetings. But they also had a place to hang out, have dances, sit around the campfires that they built out back, and go canoeing and hiking.
Paul dropped Sarah off with some friends he knew, and they showed Sarah what college life was like in East Lansing. Sarah loved the place immediately and turned in her application to rent an apartment before she’d even been accepted to Lansing Community College.
Her parents were very supportive, and Sarah suspected they were glad to see her finally leaving the nest and doing something with her life. They even agreed to pay for her apartment, since she didn’t have a job.
Sarah had never had a job. What Paul said the day before about her relying on her good looks and voice was true. She knew she needed to grow up, and this was the first step.
Book Club Discussion Questions: This is more of a comment. I'm not feeling this book, which is probably why Chapter Four is skeletal at best. Thank you for your patience with me as I work through this. -Julie
“Paul, can I ask for your advice?” Paul looked up from his work to see Sarah leaning against the side of the stall. That was not normal.
Sarah rarely came into the barn, and he knew she wasn’t here to pick up a shovel and lend a hand. He straightened, leaned against his pitchfork, and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow. He cleared his throat and tried not to portray the shock he felt at seeing her standing there.
“I want to go to college,” Sarah said.
“What do you need me for?” Paul asked. His question wasn’t intended to be mean or condescending; more that he was baffled that she felt that he had some knowledge that would help her.
Paul had only been in college two years and was far from an expert. Plus, his studies were in agribusiness management and he knew that she had no interest in farming.
Sarah may be a farmer’s daughter, but she had never embraced the lifestyle. She was more suited for luxury and took advantage of the fact that her parents allowed her to live under their roof with no plans for her future. Although she was five years his senior, in many ways Sarah was far less mature.
“I don’t know how…” She looked down at her perfectly manicured fingernails and pouted a little.
“You don’t know how to apply for college?” Paul was trying to see where she was going with this.
“I don’t know… that I’m smart enough for college.” She finally looked up at him and her face reminded him of an insecure puppy who was looking for positive reinforcement. Paul sighed and realized he had more work cut out for him than he’d realized.
“Sarah, you’re smarter than you give yourself credit for.” He set aside his pitchfork and walked over to her. He stood in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. She let her eyes fall to the side, avoiding his gaze. “Look at me.”
She met his gaze with the vulnerability of a little girl.
“You’ve always relied on your good looks and voice to let others praise you, but it’s time to grow up,” Paul told her firmly. “You’re not some little damsel in distress. You’re a grown woman and it’s time you started acting like one. You’ve played up this role of being a goodie-two-shoes and it’s time to stop. Accept yourself for who you are.”
“I don’t know who I am,” she admitted.
“Well for one, you’re a child of God.”
“You sound like my dad!” Sarah pushed Paul’s arms from her shoulders and walked over to one of Ashley’s horses, petting its mane with her feminine hands.
Paul couldn’t help but notice the difference between Sarah and her younger sister, his childhood sweetheart. Ashley was always so much of a tomboy and never cared about what her hair looked like or whether her clothes were covered in soil and horse manure. He felt the nostalgia of wishing Ashley were here instead. He tried to turn his attention back to the girl in front of him. “Your dad’s a smart man.”
“Which reminds me”—She turned to him— “Why are you still here? You’re not dating Ashley anymore. Don’t you think you should get on with your life and go do someone else’s chores?”
Paul snorted as he realized that no one other than himself and Stan Hardman knew their little secret. “Your dad’s been paying me to help out on his farm for years. I just never told Ashley, because I didn’t want her to think that the only reason I was coming over was to get a paycheck. I really did love her and loved working alongside her.” He sighed and looked away.
“I’m so sorry Paul.” Sarah reached out to him. “I know I haven’t always been very nice to you and I feel bad now.”
It was true; Sarah could be downright mean to him and everyone else in her path. She was always kind of a stuck-up snob who cherished any opportunity to rub it in whenever something went wrong in his life. This was incredibly unlike her to humble herself enough to admit that she’d been wrong.
“I forgive you,” Paul said. “I’m trying to learn this whole ‘forgiveness’ thing.”
“Hey, how do you like being a member of the Church… after all these years?” she asked him. “Do you feel the Spirit, and all that cool stuff?”
“I love it,” he quietly admitted. “Don’t you? Do you… have a testimony of the Gospel?”
His voice was almost a whisper. He wasn’t sure why he was asking her. He almost assumed that she didn’t have a testimony. She sure didn’t act like someone who had committed her life to following Christ’s teachings.
“Heck yeah!” Sarah swung her arms around her and twirled like a little girl. “I love being a member of the Church! I read my scriptures every night and everything. Sorry if I’m not a very good example.” She stopped and smiled at him, sheepishly.
“People can change,” he pointed out.
“I’m working on it,” she admitted. “Which brings us back to my reason for coming out here and bugging you. Will you help me apply for college? I hear that Lansing Community College is good for someone just starting out and they don’t look down on people who are starting school when they’re… older.”
“You’re not that old,” Paul told her. “But yes, I can take you up there next week when I go. LCC and MSU are practically next door to each other. My Wednesday classes are pretty light. You can wait in the library or something and then I’ll take you over to LCC and help you figure things out.”
“Thank you so much.” Sarah actually sounded sincere. This was going to take some getting used to.
Now, get out of here and leave me alone. I’ve got work to do!” He teased her and shoved her away.
“Yes, and since my dad is your employer, that means I can boss you around!” She teased back.
“I don’t think so. You are more like an annoying older sister, and your dad doesn’t pay me enough to be considered my boss anyway. Besides “When I get done buying my parents farm in a few years, I’ll own way more land than he does. He doesn’t intimidate me, and neither do you.”
Paul walked over to pick up his pitchfork and got back to shoveling straw into the horses’ stalls. He grinned to himself as he worked and felt lighter than he had in weeks.
“So, Caleb,” Sarah cooed, stepping closer to him. “Now that my sister’s out of the picture, what do you say you and I try going out on a date?”
Caleb took a step back and almost spilled his glass of punch. He couldn’t believe that after so many months of rejecting her that Sarah still had the gall to keep trying.
A mere three weeks had passed since he’d been dumped by Ashley, and it was hard enough to be in the same room with her family and Paul’s family for the baptism.
Caleb’s mind was on Paul and the importance of his decision to be baptized, so he wasn’t prepared to deal with Sarah. He’d all but forgotten about her because he hadn’t been spending any time at the Hardman’s house.
Sarah had been an annoyance to him since the first time they’d met, and it appeared that he was going to have to make it very clear that he was not interested in taking this conversation any further.
“Sarah, it’s not going to happen. So, give it up.” Caleb didn’t mean for it to come out snippy, but he was tired of her advances. This was one part of dating Ashley that he wouldn’t miss.
“What, I’m not pretty enough for you?” Sarah pouted and batted her eyelashes with an expression that told him she knew just how beautiful she really was. He rolled his eyes at her and shifted his attention away, unfortunately catching Ashley’s eye from across the room. He looked away quickly and inadvertently looked right back at Sarah. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders in defeat. “Or am I not smart enough?”
Suddenly Caleb realized that she was feeling a lot more insecure than he had given her credit for. Here she was the older sister to Ashley, who was acing her pre-med classes at the prestigious University of Michigan.
Ashley had drawn the attention of three men in recent years; he a recently graduated medical doctor, Paul, who was a straight ‘A’ student at Michigan State University, and now she was engaged to a young veterinarian.
No wonder Sarah thought she wasn’t good enough.
Caleb finally felt pity for this woman who was much closer to his own age than Ashley had been and would probably make a good trophy wife for the right man. But she was right; Caleb wanted someone who could hold a conversation intellectually with him, not just look good on his arm.
In a way, Sarah reminded him a lot of his own mother. She had been very beautiful when she was younger but had never gone to college nor had she needed more than her own charm to get her through life. His father was wealthy enough that his mom never had to lift a finger. She spent a good deal of her time hosting bridge club, attending fundraising luncheons, and raising her children. His mom and dad seemed happy together and still very much in love, so something must have worked out right. Still, he knew that Sarah was not the right woman for him. He took a deep breath and looked at her with new understanding.
“Sarah, look. I appreciate your interest, but I’m really not your type.” There, he thought; throw it right back on her. “I’m sure you’re plenty smart, and you know how beautiful you are. I just think you need to look for someone who is in a better place mentally. It’s going to be a long time before I’m ready to pursue another relationship. Your sister messed me up pretty bad, and I just need to get away from dating for a while. I hope you can understand.”
That should help; Caleb had taken Sarah’s sister a little farther off the pedestal that everyone seemed to elevate her on and made it sound like it was him who wasn’t good enough for her. He hoped that would be enough to stop her advances, but he also knew that the best thing he could do was put some distance between him and Sarah.
If Paul hadn’t asked Caleb to baptize him, he most definitely wouldn’t be here today. He wasn’t ready to be in the same room with Ashley right now and he was sure that Paul probably felt the same way. Yet, Ashley was practically Paul’s family, and there wasn’t any way to avoid the inevitable.
Suddenly, there she was standing next to her sister. Ashley looked up at him and smiled slightly, almost apologetically. This was the first time he’d seen her since he and Paul had confronted her and Roy that first day in the barn. Caleb had heard that Ashley and Roy had been inseparable since the day they met and were planning a wedding in just a few weeks.
Caleb understood why. When you know you’ve found the right person, there’s no reason to wait. He should have known all along that Ashley wasn’t the right girl for him. They had never felt that overwhelming need to be together all the time like she seemed to have with Roy. It still hurt. He knew it was time to get this over with.
“Hello Ashley,” he said, formally but with slightly more confidence than he felt. “How are you?”
“I’m good Caleb, how are you?” she asked, quietly. Her voice was just as beautiful as ever and it almost brought tears to his eyes knowing that he would never hold her in his arms again, would never kiss her or tell her that he loved her. He coughed lightly and decided to change the subject.
“I’m very pleased for Paul today. He made a good choice, and I’m glad to have been here for him.”
“I’m proud of him too,” she confirmed. “It was really nice of you to take the time to share the gospel with him this way.”
Caleb snorted slightly, knowing that it was years in the making and he was just the last catalyst to put Paul over the edge. Caleb still didn’t fully understand why Paul had asked him to baptize him when he lived next door to his new bishop and his family. But Caleb had gone along with it because it felt like the right thing to do.
“I think the credit lies mostly with you Ashley,” he pointed out. “It was the story about Joseph Smith that you shared with him in the meadow outside your house that did it. You’re a really good missionary.”
“If I were a good missionary, he would have been baptized years ago.” She blushed from his compliment.
“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” he whispered. He couldn’t understand why he was doing this; why he was allowing himself to get drawn back in by her. He decided to change the subject again. “Your sister and I were just discussing you before you walked up. I was telling her that I’m going to be missing you for a long time and she seemed very understanding about my insecurities.”
“Yes,” Sarah interjected. “He seems much more confident than he did just a few minutes ago. Sometimes it helps to talk things out and understand our own feelings. I think he’ll get over you just fine!” She winked at him, but not in a flirtatious way, more a conspiratorial way. He smiled back at her, knowing that Sarah was probably right; things would all work out for the best.
“By the way—” he turned his attention back to Ashley. “Congratulations. I understand you’re finalizing plans to go to the temple in a few weeks.”
“We are. And thank you.”
“I wish you all the best,” Caleb nodded his head slightly in a way that almost felt regal. He was happy for her, but he was ready for this conversation to be over. “Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I should go offer my congratulations to the man of the hour. I can tell that Paul would love someone to pull him away from talking to his great-aunt. It was nice talking with you both.”
With that, Caleb walked away from them with more confidence than he’d felt in weeks.
Book Club Discussion Questions: I this gives Caleb a little closure, don't you?