Ashley rode her mare, Shelly out of the pen and led an obedient horse named Dude carrying a reluctant passenger named Caleb out along a path that led up towards the little bluff of trees at the north end of her father’s property.
The trail was dry, hard mud, but the snow still clung to the rest of the ground. It had melted off the tree branches, but the ground was cold enough that the snow that had fallen just before Christmas was here to stay for a while. It was a beautiful, late-afternoon ride.
They skirted the outside edge of the little forest, not too far in that it would be dark, just enough so they felt surrounded by a few trees. It gave them a feeling of seclusion, and almost felt romantic.
They walked along side by side and talked about nothing and everything. Caleb told Ashley about his drive with Greg and how her little brother seemed to really look up to her. They talked about the classes they were taking in the upcoming semester. They talked a little about where he served as a missionary. Finally, the conversation came around to something a little more serious.
“I’ve been wanting to tell you something,” Caleb started, then hesitated
“Okay,” she encouraged.
“There’s something I haven’t told you about my parents.” Caleb stopped again and looked over at her.
“They’re space aliens?” She teased him. “I knew it. No wonder you didn’t want me to meet them a few weeks ago. You didn’t want me to be afraid.”
He laughed softly along with her. Obviously she was trying to break down his level of seriousness, and reassure him that whatever it was couldn’t be that bad.
“They’re not members of the Church,” he finally said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.” It almost felt as if he’d been hiding it from her.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” she said quickly, trying to reassure him. “What’s the big deal?”
“Well, they’ll probably offer you a glass of wine with dinner,” he told her sheepishly.
“That’s shocking, Caleb!” she mocked him. “I’m only nineteen.”
“Oh my gosh.” He looked over at her, a different kind of panic in his heart. “I completely forgot about that. You’re so young.” He looked away again.
He was reminded of the thoughts he’d had a little while ago about her being wise beyond her years, but he hadn’t thought about it quite like this. She was so young. What am I doing? She’s just a little girl. I’m twenty seven. This is crazy.
“Caleb,” she asked, interrupting his inner panic. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head quickly, trying to clear his mind. He had just been telling himself how grown up she was. She was a legal adult. She was old enough, right? I mean if she looked like a little girl, and acted like a little girl, that would be different. It was just that number, nineteen. It hit him hard. She was a teenager.
He had to stop thinking about her that way. He looked back over at her and realized that she was still the woman that he was dating, not the little girl that his mind had suddenly concocted. He took a deep breath and smiled over at her.
“I just,” he stammered. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I mean, I knew you were a freshman and everything, you just seem so much older than… that.”
“Does it bother you that I’m so young?” The evening was as silent as her question, the air taking on a certain stillness. It was comforting. A peace came over him and he realized that it didn’t bother him.
“I guess not.” He smiled over at her. “I mean, when I asked you out, it was because I really liked you. I wouldn’t have if I’d felt you were too young for me. It was just the number that jumped out at me, I guess.”
“I won’t mention it again, if it makes you more comfortable.”
“No,” he backpedaled. “It’s fine. I’m past it now.” He was past it. He could feel that. He knew that from then on he wouldn’t be uncomfortable about her age. It was after all, just a number. And she was a legal adult and very mature for her age. It would all work out. “You don’t have to stress about it.”
“Alright, then. No stress,” she said.
He reached over and tried to grab for her hand. She reached across and took it, and they smiled at one another. It was going to be okay, and it would all work out.
Another thought entered the back of Caleb’s mind. Paul was exactly Ashley’s age. One more comparison. He needed to stop doing that. She wouldn’t be out with me if she didn’t want to be out with me, he reminded himself.
They walked along for a while again and she brought the conversation back around to his parents.
“So, your parents aren’t members of the Church, and they like to drink. No wonder you frequent a bar.” She was teasing him, obviously poking a little fun at him to lighten the mood.
“Ooh, that’s a low blow.” He laughed with her. “They’re actually not ‘drinkers’ really, they just like to have a glass of wine with dinner.”
“Jesus drank wine with dinner,” Ashley pointed out. “God still let him in to Heaven.”
She was teasing him again and he kind of liked it. She changed the subject again, but kept the air of flirtatiousness.
“So when did you embrace the Gospel?”
“It’s kind of an embarrassing story, actually.” He looked over at her a little sheepishly.
“Ooh, I’m going to like this.”
“I was invited to church by a girl I liked when I was in my early teens. In Germany.”
“Ooh, a girl. Do tell. Was she pretty?” She was obviously having fun teasing him.
“Well, my German was a little choppy back then. So I didn’t realize that she had invited me to church. I just thought we were going on a date. And yes, she was very pretty.” He stopped and smiled at her again. “You’re very pretty yourself, you know?”
“Oh, I’m sure I’m an ugly duckling compared to your cute little German girl.” She blushed a little and looked away for just a minute, then forced the conversation again. “So what did you do when you got there and found out where she had taken you?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” he explained. “I didn’t understand most of it. It was all in German, and like I said, I was pretty bad at German back then.” He stopped again and took a deep breath. When he looked back at her, he was more serious; almost reverent. “All I knew was how I felt while I was there. I had never experienced anything like that before, and I really liked the way it felt.”
“That’s so cool,” she whispered. “So what happened?”
“Well, as it turned out, there were two American missionaries there, and they had a nice long conversation with me after the service. In English. I was converted almost on the spot. My parents thought it was just a phase I was going through, and so they gave me permission to be baptized. The rest is history.”
“Sort of,” she said. “Whatever happened to the little German girl?”
“I have no idea,” he admitted. “We went back to America and I never saw her again.”
“Well, I guess she was a little angel put into your life to share the Gospel with you.”
“I guess so,” he said, looking off ahead of him.
It was starting to get dark, and they decided to head home. The loop back to the house was not very far and they were back in the barn in no time. The pain didn’t hit until he had gotten off the horse.
“Oh… my… gosh. I can’t walk.” He hobbled along, trying to lead Dude back to hook him up to the cross ties.
“You’ll be fine.” She laughed at him. “I’ll get you some Motrin when we get in the house.”
It felt easier to get the horse back into his stall. It was like everything was in reverse. The bridle came off, the harness back on, the saddle and blanket went back on to the saddle rack, the hoof pick came back out, and after a quick rub down, Dude was happily back in his stall and crunching on hay. Caleb felt a sense of accomplishment at having lived through the afternoon.
“How about we go get a piece of that apple pie my mom made?” Ashley suggested. “I’ll bet she has some ice cream we could have on top.”
“Do you make your own ice cream?” he asked, naively.
“No!” She laughed at him. “It’s probably Meijer brand.”
“Hey, I like Meijer brand,” he said. “Nothing but the best.”
“That’s right.” She grabbed his hand as they walked up to the house.
* * * * * * * * *
Late that night, Ashley got a text from Caleb. I can’t move! Remind me never to do that again. I had a really nice time with you though. See you next year.
Ashley giggled. The following day would be New Year’s Eve. The next time she would see Caleb would be after the semester started in a week. She was planning to spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with Paul. This was getting complicated.