Early in the evening, a black Porsche screeched its tires as it tore into the Hardman’s driveway. Paul sighed in frustration.
Ashley had been helping Paul and her brothers clear some debris from a downed tree, but she dropped the branches she’d been carrying and ran to Caleb as he scrambled out of his car.
They ran towards one another and she fell into his arms breaking down into tears. She was shaking and crying uncontrollably. She hadn’t so much as whimpered prior to seeing Caleb, but suddenly she was crumpled to the ground and he sat down hard and held her.
Paul watched in horror and gripped his hands into fists. He turned away and felt his breathing accelerate. Steve was right beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. He wasn’t so much holding him back from getting angry, as much as he was comforting his young friend.
Suddenly Paul realized exactly what was happening. Ashley had cracked. She’d been strong for everyone else. She’d withstood fear in the face of danger in order to comfort her horses, she’d risen to check on all of them when the storm had passed, she’d run to comfort her family, and she’d stood alongside them clearing debris and hauling away tree branches.
But she didn’t have to be strong for Caleb. She was finally able to let herself go. She was finally able to break down and let herself cry. Paul took comfort that Caleb was there for her in a way that he didn’t want to admit out loud.
Paul loved Ashley enough to want her to be comforted in whatever way she needed. He looked up at Steve, took a deep breath, then bent down to pick up his chain saw and go back to work. He would have to wait to deal with his own pain at another time. There was work to be done, and this was his farm.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“I was so worried about you,” Caleb whispered down to her when Ashley had calmed down to soft sobbing. She was still shaking and clinging to him, but was no longer crying uncontrollably. “When I saw on the news the path that the storm had hit, I just knew that your house was right there. I came immediately. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for you.”
Caleb kept talking softly to her as he rocked her in his arms. She was like a little girl, and he wanted to protect her from the horror she’d just witnessed. He decided to change the subject and asked about her horses and cows and told her that the worst was over. No other major damage had happened throughout the region. He asked her if all of her family was safe and if the animals were all safe. She was able to nod her head. He told her that all the buildings and fences could be rebuilt and the insurance agent would be coming to assess the damage. He reassured her over and over that everything was going to be okay. When she had mostly calmed down, he asked her if she wanted him to take her up to the house.
“No,” she whispered with a scratchy voice. “We’re staying over at the Davis’ house tonight. They have a generator and we don’t.”
Caleb looked up and glanced across the property to where Paul lived. As he stared in that direction, he caught Paul’s eye and nodded slightly to him. Paul set down the chainsaw and walked over to where Ashley was still crumpled on the ground in Caleb’s arms.
“Will you help me get her over to your house?” Caleb asked Paul. “I think she needs to get some rest.” Paul and Caleb helped Ashley to her feet and Paul reached down and swept her up in his arms. Caleb was surprised by how easily Paul was able to carry her, without effort like she weighed very little. Ashley reached her arms up around Paul’s neck and held him.
“Hi,” she whispered up to him.
“Hi, honey.” Paul leaned down and kissed her lightly on her lips then started walking toward the house. Caleb stopped him and came around to talk to Ashley.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” he said to her, and brushed her hair off her forehead. “I’ll be back to help get things cleaned up. Get some rest.”
“Okay,” she whispered and tried to smile softly up at him. He held her eyes for just a minute, then looked up at Paul, nodded his head slightly and stepped aside. Paul continued up the little hill to his house and Caleb went over to say hello to Ashley’s dad and brothers.