“Come to the bonfire with us,” Matt said. “Bob scored a six-pack from his old man.”
Ashley felt her jaw clench at the suggestion and glanced over at Paul.
“Don’t tell him that!” Bob elbowed Matt. “He won’t come if he knows there’s gonna be beer.”
“Don’t worry, Paul. Nobody’s going to get out of hand,” Matt reassured him. “I promise. It’s only a few beers, and we won’t pressure either of you to drink. You know we won’t.”
“I’m not worried about it, guys,” Paul said. “Give us a couple more minutes. Ashley just sat down, and we’re not ready to leave yet. We’ll catch up with you in a bit, okay?”
“Sure, you will,” Matt teased him. “You two lovebirds just want to be alone, and you’re trying to get rid of us!”
“Whatever,” Paul mumbled, shoving his friends away before turning back to Ashley.
Ashley was sitting on the top rung of the fence next to the livestock barn. It was the last full day of the Livingston County fair in Fowlerville, Michigan and it had been a long, hot week.
Everyone was covered in dust and sweat, and the last thing Ashley wanted to do was sit around a bonfire out in the fields behind the fairgrounds, watching Paul’s friends get drunk and waiting for the police to come and break up the party. They always waited a few hours into the night to give the kids a chance to hang out before they came over and claimed that some local resident had complained and asked them to shut things down for the night.
The local cops knew there would be a party every year. They also knew it would never get out of hand. The only reason to break it up was to pretend they were doing their civic duty. Most of them were local boys who had been to the bonfire themselves just a few years prior. It was a tradition. But now that Paul’s buddies had accused them of wanting to sneak off on their own, she felt the pressure to at least make an appearance.
Paul leaned back against the fence and put his arm on Ashley’s knee. He wrinkled his nose at her and shook his head a little.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We don’t have to go.”
“No, I want to,” Ashley fibbed. “Besides, it’s too nice an evening to just head back to our campers. I want to hang out for a while. It’ll be fun.” That part wasn’t a lie. She didn’t want this week to end. It marked the beginning of the end of summer.
The fair was always a highlight in her life; a chance to show off in her English saddle and walk around to see all the little 4-H kids with their calves and pigs and chickens. These were the kids she’d mentored for years, and they loved to come see her as much as she loved to come see them. Plus, it took her away from the daily grind of farm life. It was as if all the work was on hold for that one week. Sure, the cows still needed to be fed and beans still needed to be canned, but for this one week she had an excuse to come right back up to the fairgrounds to tend to her horses. Everyone had a camper out near the barns, and everyone hung out like they didn’t have a care in the world. But Ashley was tired and had been on her feet all day. Paul was right; she wanted to sit down for a few minutes.
Paul moved closer to Ashley and wrapped his arms around her waist as if to protect her from falling off the fence. She had her dusty cowboy boots propped up on the lower rung and was leaning back a little. She knew she wouldn’t fall, but it felt good to have his arms around her, so she leaned against him.
“It would be nice if there was just a little breeze.” She looked up into the night sky and noticed that a few stars were popping out. The days were still quite long in late July, and the glow from the fairgrounds created a shield that penetrated high enough to block the host of lights. The stars would be more visible once she and Paul stepped out into the field. It almost made her look forward to going to the bonfire.
“There will be a breeze,” Paul promised. She looked down at him, wondering where he’d gotten the data that conflicted with every forecast Ashley had heard on the radio. It was predicted that they were in for at least another week of high humidity with no promise of relief in sight. “…in December.” He grinned at her, his sarcastic joke hanging in the air. She didn’t think it was funny.
“Ha ha.” Ashley poked back at him. “I’m not looking forward to that.”
“Hey, you wanted it to cool off, right?” His joke had hit a nerve and Ashley looked back up at the sky.
“It feels like it’s all coming to an end,” she said. “Not just the end of summer, but the end of the idyllic life that we’ve always lived.” She looked down at him and smiled sadly. “Everyone always claims that the end of high school is when life changes. It’s not true. After fair week it all changes.”
“Yeah, because next month you and I are going to be arch rivals!” Paul was obviously trying to lighten the mood. “MSU football always kicks University of Michigan’s team right back to Ann Arbor.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t take a football helmet to put out world-class doctors.” She teased right back. “We will be ready and waiting to rescue the players from their neck injuries after they try to kill each other out on the field.”
“Yeah, what are you going to do with me once you’re a big, smart doctor and I’m still just a little farm boy?”
That made Ashley laugh. There was nothing little about Paul. He’d been a man since he was a toddler. He was pure stock and muscle from head to toe and could lift a bale of hay with one arm. He’d been roping cattle and driving a tractor since before he had learned to read.
But it was more than that. Paul had his father’s farm running like a well-oiled machine. He’d been using every extra cent he made to pour all his money into purchasing the farm as soon as he was able, and it showed in the way he handled the whole business. He knew that he was going to own it someday and he treated it as if he already did. He took the business seriously, and it was obvious he loved what he did. He was also one of the smartest eighteen-year-old men she’d ever met. The gears in his head were working constantly. He was always paying attention to everything around him, and he seemed to know ahead of time what changes were coming.
Paul had spent his high school years preparing for college and planned to spend his college years preparing to run a large agricultural business. He had wanted to attend Michigan State University since the time he recognized that his John Deere Tractor was green and so was his favorite college banner. They also happened to have one of the best Agribusiness Management programs in the world. Between his work with 4-H, the hours he volunteered in the community, and his perfection in the classroom, he hadn’t had to go too far out of his way to court the university for scholarships. They came to him.
“The bigger question is ‘what are you going to do with a woman who spends so much time in the hospital that she doesn’t have time to help out on the farm?’ You’re not going to want me anymore once I’m a soft, feminine doctor who cares more about my stethoscope than I do about my garden. All you want is a brawny woman who can pop out kid after kid so that you can have a bunch of little farmers running around helping you out.”
“Now, you know that’s not true.” He tickled her before pulling her close again. “Some of those kids have to be little brawny girls so you’ll have someone helping you out in the kitchen.”
“You know that I’m not making you any promises about our future together.” She suddenly got serious. “I might meet some cute college guy in one of my biology classes and fall madly in love as we slice into some cadaver.”
“Well, we’ll just cross that bridge if we come to it, now won’t we?” Ashley could tell from the sound of his voice that it hurt him to even think about it. She decided to lighten the mood again.
“You might meet some brawny co-ed in one of your agriculture classes and envision her helping you on the farm in ways I can’t.” He didn’t laugh as he turned back to her.
“I’m not looking for anyone to replace you.”
“Well, I’m not looking for anyone to replace you either, but these things sometimes sneak up out of nowhere when you’re least expecting.” She put her hand on his shoulder, a gesture of comfort.
“All I’m expecting is ten years from now you’ll be a doctor and I’ll be a landowner and we’ll be popping out little brawny kids as fast as we can… to help you in the kitchen.” He grinned.
“Ha, ha.” She hopped down from the fence, barely using the assistance of his outstretched hand. “Let’s get this bonfire over with so I can get to bed early. We’ve got church in the morning.”
“Good point.” Paul brushed off his jeans as he pushed away from the fence. “Of course, I don’t have to be there until ten. Yours starts at nine. I practically get to sleep in.”
“You know… you could always come with me.” Ashley winked.
“Nah, you know I don’t hang out with those creepy Mormons.” She knew he was teasing. He’d been hanging out with her family since before either of them could remember.
Their fathers had been neighbors and best friends for years. Nothing about their respective religions would ever change that. Paul had attended the First United Methodist Church since he was born, and Ashley’s family was full of third generation members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both families were very conservative, non-drinkers, non-smokers with lots of kids and lots of family values.
Paul was the oldest of six brothers and sisters, and Ashley was the second to youngest of five. The fact that Paul and Ashley were sweethearts was, in their parents’ eyes, a nice way to combine the two families. Even though Ashley’s dad was the Bishop of their local ward, he never complained that Ashley was dating a non-Mormon. He knew he could search the whole world for a good man for his daughter and would never find anyone more suited for his little girl than Paul. Yes, he’d love to have Ashley marry a good man in the temple, but it was just as important to him for her to be happy and well cared-for. He also knew that Paul was a gentleman and wouldn’t lay a finger on Ashley for fear that he, and Paul’s own father, would kick his butt if he did anything that even appeared inappropriate.
“Well, this creepy Mormon is tired. Let’s go have a beer with your friends so we can get to bed early.”
Paul grabbed Ashley around the waist and pulled her to him, picking her up off the ground and tickling her.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” She laughed, trying to pull away from him. She loved teasing him about the time when he was fifteen and he’d allowed his friends to influence his choices. They’d talked him into drinking a lot of beer, and he’d spent the rest of the night puking and the entire next day working in the barn cleaning manure from the stalls, his father standing next to him, arms crossed and an angry look on his face. Paul had spent almost as much time dry heaving that day as he had shoveling. He vowed never to touch any alcohol again for the rest of his life.
Ashley managed to get out of his arms but grabbed his hand and started walking with him off toward the field, still laughing. He just shook his head and gritted his teeth. “I love you, Paul.” She cooed at him.
“I love you too, Ashley.” He rolled his eyes. She knew she was his best friend, and he couldn’t get angry at her if he tried. But she knew that she’d gotten him.
She also knew it was time to get going to the bonfire. The last thing she wanted was for any rumors to start about the two of them. It was already assumed, because she and Paul spent so much time together, that they were more physically involved than they were letting on. The rest of their friends’ opinion about what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate was different than theirs’ anyway. If their families knew they were behaving properly, and as long as they knew each other's’ intentions, there wasn’t a problem. But they weren’t going out of their way to increase the perception they were doing anything wrong.
They arrived at the bonfire no more than ten minutes after Matt and Bob had gotten there. The atmosphere was charged, and everyone was already having a good time. There really weren’t very many people drinking, and the few beers being passed around were gone quickly. They were there to congratulate each other on the blue ribbons they’d earned, and the pigs that had been sold at auction, and the barrel rides and the high jumps that had earned prizes.
There were kids as young as fifteen, and kids that were pushing the title of ‘kid.’ Once they were a year or two beyond high school, it was time to move on. Still, it was good to have a few older guys around when the young men who ran the carnival rides showed up and started flirting with the girls. One look from an older brother or friend and the outsiders stepped back a little. The younger girls seemed a little star-struck by the dangerous and mysterious guys who traveled around the state and shared stories of what life was like beyond the county line.
Ashley found a comfortable spot on a log near the fire and sat with Paul, holding his hand and gazing into the flames that leapt into the night air.
“So, are you going to marry me someday, or what?” Paul asked her, for what felt like the hundredth time.
“Ask me again when I’ve got my medical degree and you own a good chunk of land,” she teased him. She didn’t pull away from him, and she didn’t feel any resentment toward him asking her again. In fact, she loved it when he asked her. It reminded her frequently he was crazy about her. Still, she wasn’t willing to make a commitment to him when they were still so young. They were both eighteen, just graduated from high school. Plus, as he’d pointed out, they were heading off to rival colleges in less than a month. It had been a long week, and she just rested there leaning against his arm.
The fire crackled and sparked and Ashley’s mind wandered into the future. Visions of little kids running around a perfectly manicured farm bounced through her head as she drifted off. By the time she realized she was cold, she was far away from the roar of the fire and lying in Paul’s arms. He was almost to her camper when her younger brother held open the door and Paul laid her down in the little bed to the back end of the motor home. As his arms rested on the bed and she started to roll away from him, he caught her back to him and held her close. She looked up at him sleepily and mumbled with a chuckle. “Did we get married already?”
“If we had, I wouldn’t be walking away from you right now,” he whispered down to her. He leaned down and kissed her very softly. “Goodnight, my beautiful Ashley.” With that, he slipped out of the camper.