Monday, August 22, 2011

Aglow...Chapter 1

Dusk was falling and the curling ribbon of the old, familiar highway began to glow as drivers turned on their lights. Because it was the Christmas season, the familiar sight took on a festive magic. The lights looked like strings of red and white beads, strung like garland around the southern Missouri hills. As she saw it, Ashley felt warm tingles of happiness for the first time in weeks. The trip home for Christmas was usually a lot more exciting than this. “That’s life for you,” she thought, “Always so different than you expect it to be.”
She had made it home at the end of every fall semester since she’d left for college, eager to get home to celebrate Christmas with her family. Usually on these drives, she could barely contain her enthusiasm as she listened to Christmas music and imagined the delights to come. Just the thought of her mom’s baking had been enough to make her giddy with anticipation. This time however, no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on all of the things that made Christmas so magical, her mood hadn’t been even remotely festive. Even the thought of all the carefully selected gifts in the back seat didn’t cheer her up. Alone with her depression, the thirteen hundred miles from Salt Lake City to Forest View had been long and tedious.
Depression wasn’t new to Ashley, but the dull ache that had been plaguing her for weeks was different than anything she’d experienced before. She realized that it was bizarre to be depressed about finishing school, but no amount of rational thinking could banish it. After nine semesters at the University of Utah, she had her bachelor’s degree in biology and no idea what she wanted to do with it. This uncertainty was not the problem however. In rare moments when she allowed herself to consider the matter, she knew that the real problem was her personal life.
She’d always had a strangely romantic side to her that contrasted with her practical personality and logical mind. But logic was for science and not for the heart, so like most girls, she had dreamed of falling in love. But even surrounded by thousands of good LDS guys, love and marriage had eluded her. Ashley had seen all of her close friends happily married through the years, but she had never even dated anyone seriously. Finishing school had just highlighted her disappointment, leaving her unmotivated to consider her options in a future so different from the one she had always dreamed of.

Worse still, for one glowing day, she had glimpsed what love could be. “Why did I have to meet him? I mean, really, why?” As she spoke the words, they hung bitterly around her, waiting for an answer that wouldn’t come. But Ashley couldn’t allow herself to follow that train of thought further, so she turned on the radio. She scanned the local stations until she found one playing a Christmas song.

In her abstraction, she hadn’t noticed how close she was to home until she saw a sign that read, “Historic Forest View, Next Three Exits.” It was a large, artistic billboard with scrolled antique lettering, not a sign from the Highway Department. It was paid for by the city’s board of tourism. Both the sign and the board were new, and Ashley had wondered ever since they’d put it up what was historic about her home town. She knew it was good for the antique and hospitality business, however, so she didn’t blame them too much.
Forest View lay in a valley along the route of a new highway that went to Branson, Missouri, and the flood of tourists flocking there year round had begun to benefit the little town. Businesses that catered to these tourists had sprung up like weeds and the population had seen a sudden and unprecedented boom. The billboards advertising hotels and bed and breakfasts were unsightly, but Ashley felt that Forest View had so far managed to retain most of its small town charm.

Anticipation at last began to build within her as she crested a hill and caught a glimpse to her right of the little valley all lit up and welcoming. She turned up the radio and was finally successful in banishing her problems to the back of her mind.

Ashley took the exit that would take her through town, even though it wasn’t the shortest route to her parent’s house. She wanted to see the old downtown area where she knew the weathered buildings and lampposts would be brightly strung with Christmas lights and decorations. The lights that were strung from lamppost to lamppost across Main Street were the same old fashioned Christmas lights she remembered from her childhood. Many of them were burned out, but somehow that only added to the nostalgia of it. Here in town, the green and red traffic lights added to the glow and festivity of the scene, and an enormous tree was lit up in the square. It was nothing compared to some of the light displays she’d seen in Utah, but it affected her in ways that the others hadn’t because it meant home.

Soon she turned onto the road that wound slowly up a hill to where her parents lived. The other houses that she passed were strung with lights and seemed to twinkle a welcome at her as she went by. The familiar tones of Bing Crosby’s, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” began to play next, and Ashley laughed at the perfect timing. It was like a scene from a movie, complete with a soundtrack, as she rounded the last curve and pulled into her parents' driveway.

Their house was a two-story red brick home that stood solidly under a cluster of pine trees, but the traditional appearance of the house was hidden by an extravagant display of Christmas lights. There seemed to be lights everywhere, outlining the roof, the windows, and the railing on the porch. There were also lights on the trees, bushes, and fence, making her parents’ yard look like a beautiful, glowing fairy land.

She sat amazed for a moment, trying to take it all in. She hadn’t seen such a display at her parents’ house since before her father’s back injury three years ago. Her brother Shawn was back from his mission this year however, so she figured that her mom had somehow coerced him into putting up her lights. “He must have enjoyed that” Ashley thought. She'd have to remember to tease him about it.

She was just getting out of the car when the front door opened and her mom came out through a stream of light to welcome her. Her dad and Shawn followed close behind. They were all talking at once, hugging her and pelting her with questions. She clung to her mom for a moment, finding the peace that always came in the familiar warmth and scent of her mother’s embrace.

Then realizing that her Dad and Shawn were gathering up her things to bring inside, she turned to help them. “Don’t worry about your stuff,” her mom said, stopping her from turning back to the car. “They can get it. You’ve got to be exhausted after driving all day. Her mom put an arm around her and guided her up the front steps. “What took you so long?” her Mom asked. Without pausing to let Ashley answer, she continued, “I was going to call you, but I don’t like you talking on your cell phone when you’re driving.”

“I’m sorry. I should have called you when I stopped for gas,” she apologized, pausing on the porch to wait for her dad and Shawn. “Traffic was heavier than I expected and it rained all the way across Kansas so it took me longer than I thought it would when I called you this morning.”

“Well, you got here safe,” her mom consoled her, ushering her into the house. “Do you want something to eat?”

Ashley stood in the little foyer and looked around at the decorations and poinsettias that her mom always put there. Suddenly it was just too much. She threw her arms around her Mom and hugged her close to hide the tears that were slipping down her cheeks.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” her mom asked, lifting Ashley’s face with firm hands and wiping away the tears.

Ashley couldn’t stand her mom’s scrutiny or her concern right then so she just said, “Nothing, but, oh I needed this so much. I can’t tell you how good it is to be home.”

“I’ll bet. Well, come on. I’ve been keeping dinner warm for you, and I was just about to make some fudge.”





Not long after 9:00 a.m., the bright glow of morning finally penetrated Ashley’s closed eyelids. She tried to turn away from the window and drift back into the comfortable oblivion of sleep, but she needed to go to the bathroom. Groaning but resigned, she finally gave in and flung off the covers. Expecting to face the arctic climate of her dorm room, she was surprised to realize that it was warm. Her eyes weren't quite able to focus yet, but the faint whir of the heater and the plush carpet beneath her feet prodded her drowsy brain into remembering where she was. She was suddenly flooded with the realization that dorm life, with its cold musty air and clammy, commercial carpets, was finally over. She also realized that breakfast was probably waiting for her in the kitchen downstairs.

Not bothering to shower and change, she went downstairs a few minutes later still wearing an old T-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms. As she went, she considered redoing her ponytail since messy strands were flying all around her face, but she just pushed them impatiently behind her ears. It was Saturday morning, so she doubted that she would see anybody but family who wouldn’t care what she looked like. Being home was such a luxury!

The living room was deserted, but there was a fire burning in the brick fireplace - a definite sign that she wasn’t the first to wake up. As she crossed through the living room and foyer to the kitchen, she could hear the busy sounds of her mom loading the dishwasher. Like her bedroom, the kitchen faced east so she had to squint her still bleary eyes to keep from being blinded in the sunny room. As she gingerly tried to open them fully, her mom said, “Good morning, honey! Would you like some French toast?”
“Do you really need to ask?”

Her mom laughed and turned to put a few slices of egg sodden bread on the electric griddle. As Ashley’s eyes began to adjust, she couldn’t help but smile as she watched her mom with her softly rounded figure and graying hair cheerfully fixing breakfast, even though it was clear she’d already made it for the rest of the family earlier. Nothing made her mom happier than nurturing someone, and Ashley was happy to let her.

Ashley sat with one leg tucked under her on one of the tall kitchen stools at the counter, the other leg gently swinging in unconscious rhythm with the ticking of the kitchen clock. She glanced around at the familiar knickknacks and blue gingham curtains. She had been here for Thanksgiving, but it had only been for a few days. It felt good to be settling in indefinitely. Besides, she hadn’t paid much attention to things at Thanksgiving, being much too distracted by… “Shoot!” she said out loud before she realized it. Why couldn’t she stop thinking about that?

“What’s wrong?”

“Uh, nothing, Mom. Don’t worry about it. Just a stray thought.”

Her mom looked like she would have liked to dig to the bottom of it, but she shrugged and changed the subject. She began talking about when Ashley’s brother Keith was due to arrive with his family, and everything that needed to be done before they got there. Ashley welcomed the turn of conversation because the last thing she wanted to do was talk about what was wrong with her.

When her breakfast was put down in front of her, she slathered it with butter and syrup, repressing her guilt over the calories, and dug in.

“Take it easy honey, it isn’t going anywhere!” her mom teased her.

“It’s so good! You have no idea. I’ve been living off energy bars and vitamin water for too long.”

“Well, why in the world didn’t you eat a better breakfast than that?”

“Oh, that wasn’t just breakfast. It was almost every meal. I didn’t have time for much more with all of my projects and tests, and it was better than constantly feeding from vending machines and fast food joints.”

“No wonder you’re looking so thin!”

“Don’t talk like it’s a bad thing, Mom! And don’t go trying to fatten me up either! I’ll do fine all by myself over Christmas. It’s amazing how quickly those Christmas goodies add up to pounds!” She concentrated on her breakfast for a minute before pausing to look up at her Mom. “Let’s not do much today, Mom. After the last few weeks, it would be wonderful to just lay around the house all day and do nothing.”

“You’re just burned out from school. You’ll soon be ready to tackle life again.”

“I don’t know. I’m having a bit of trouble with that right now. I don’t know what to do with my future. I’ve got to figure it out, but I just can’t seem to make any decisions. To be honest, I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Then don’t. Things have a way of straightening themselves out.”

Ashley looked skeptical, and began stirring streams of syrup and melted butter into swirling patterns on her plate with her fork. She’d heard her mom say that many times before, but it seemed unlikely that her future would just roll out before her like a red carpet leading to happiness.

“Sometimes I wish I was still a little girl. Being an adult is not easy,” Ashley said, almost to herself.

“It’s got its benefits too, don’t forget.”

“Like what, for example?”

“Well, like, you can be a wife and mother.”

Ouch. And just like that, her mom got to the crux of the matter. “Do you think I don’t want that Mom? I do, more than anything. I had expected to meet the man of my dreams and be married by now. All my friends are, but I guess I’m just not the kind of girl that guys go for.”

“That’s just ridiculous.”

Ashley saw the expression on her mom’s face and knew exactly what she was thinking. Their conversation teetered on the verge of one they’d had a hundred times. She knew that her mom thought she was beautiful, but didn’t all moms think that about their daughters? Ashley could accept that she was pretty, but apparently she didn’t have that unquantifiable something that made women attractive to men. Some girls had it in abundance, and sometimes with no more than average good looks, they were able to get more than their fair share of male attention. Her roommate Chloe had attracted men in droves. Hanging around her at social activities had never failed to deal Ashley’s fragile ego a harsh blow. It was always the same. Several guys would battle for Chloe’s attention and never give her a second glance.

Ashley had always assumed that it was her weight that made her unattractive, but as she had battled through the years to become thinner, she often wondered if it made any difference. It hadn’t seemed to. She had always been self-conscious around her stick figure friends because nature had cursed her with more than her fair share of curves. After countless hours of exercise, she was actually pretty pleased with the way she looked, but she would probably always be curvier than she wanted. Why couldn’t she have been born in the days when her type of figure would have been in style? Ah, this was the same pointless discussion she’d had with herself since she was sixteen.

She looked up and saw her mom glance anxiously at the clock. “Are you late for something, Mom? Don’t worry about me. I’ll wash these dishes and straighten up for you.”

“No, no. I’m not going anywhere. Don’t you think you should go and get dressed for the day?”

“I will eventually.” Ashley saw her mom reaching for her dishes so she quickly gathered them herself and went to the sink.

“Let me get those,” her mom objected. “Run on upstairs and shower. It will cheer you up.”

“Cheer me up? Honestly, mom, I’m fine. I’m happier this morning than I’ve been for a while.”

“But…”

“And I’ve got all day remember? I might not even get dressed at all!” Ashley took her dishes over to the sink. The dishwasher was running, but her mom had hot dishwater in the sink so she plunged her plate and fork into the foamy suds. Puffs of white bubbles flew in all directions, and she began swishing the dishrag over the smooth surface of her plate.

“Who needs men anyway?” she asked her mom, returning to their conversation as she searched for her fork in the sudsy water. It wasn’t her mom who answered however.

“Surely we’re good for something?”

Ashley spun around as she heard the deep voice. She recognized it instantly, but her brain couldn’t make sense of it. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw who was standing in her mom’s kitchen, casually leaning over the counter, for all the world as if he belonged there. A stream of suds ran from the dishrag in her hand, down her arm, and finally off her elbow to the floor. She never even noticed it however because her whole attention was focused on Mark Ellison.

He raised his eyebrows, but his brown eyes were twinkling merrily as if he found her surprise amusing. After a few seconds, Ashley realized that her mouth was hanging open and closed it firmly. Then, she stood stunned while her mom greeted him as though nothing earth shattering was happening, which she could have assured her that it was.

“Good morning, Mark. I forgot you were coming so early. I’ve been talking to Ashley and I lost track of time. I didn’t even hear the doorbell.”

“I ran into your husband outside and he told me to come on in.”

“Oh, I didn't know Charles was out there. Well, the kids aren’t here yet, but I’m sure you won’t mind waiting a little bit. Ashley just got up,” her mom pointed out rather awkwardly.

But Mark would be able to see this for himself, Ashley realized with horror. He was studying her from head to foot, taking in the full glory of her crumpled pajamas and bed head. She could happily have sunk into the floor and sweet obscurity.

“So I see. Good morning, Ashley,” Mark said, shining the full force of his fatally attractive smile at her. She almost didn’t hear his next words because her focus was riveted on the thin, vertical dimples on either side of his mouth. “How was the drive?”

“Uh, not bad. It rained all the way across Kansas,” she replied mechanically, and rather tonelessly, as her mind struggled to figure out what was going on. “What are you doing here?” she finally managed to spit out.

“Your mother roped me into getting her Christmas tree with your niece and nephew this morning.”

“I see,” she replied, but she didn’t. She was more confused than before.
“Nonsense,” her mom said. “You said you’d be happy to do it when I waved the promise of dinner in front of you.”
“You’re shameless and you know it, Nora. A home cooked meal is awfully tempting for a single guy who lives on take out.”

“You drove all the way from Idaho to get us a Christmas tree?” Ashley asked, feeling stupid, but determined to get things straight.
Mark looked at her for a moment as though she was speaking gibberish, and then he suddenly burst into laughter. She looked at her mom for an explanation, but Nora was concentrating on scraping some invisible spot off the counter.

As soon as he was able, Mark said, “Sorry, I didn’t know that no one had told you. I moved down here a few weeks ago, right after Thanksgiving in fact. I took that job as city planner for Forest View. I’m living next door.”

Ashley was sure the earth was suddenly spinning faster on its axis. It was too good to be true. And too horrifying. “Which house next door? The Sherrons’ place?”

“Yep. They happened to be moving out at the same time I needed a place to stay. It worked out pretty good. There aren’t too many apartments in this town yet. I’m renting it with an option to buy later if I want to. I guess you haven’t had time to catch up on things around here yet, have you?”

“There was plenty of time for someone to mention that we had a new neighbor!” Ashley cast a suspicious glance at her mother’s entirely too serene face.

Mark too was looking at Nora strangely. “Well, anyway, that’s why I’m here. Your family has been great, helping me get settled in and stuff.”

Just then, the doorbell began ringing wildly and Nora hurried to open the front door. Left alone with Mark, Ashley turned back to the sink to finish washing her dishes so that she could go change.

“It’s great to see you again, Ashley.”

Suddenly, the humor of the situation struck her. “Well, thanks,” she said, setting her dishes to dry on a dish towel and turning around, “but I can’t imagine a worse sight than I must be right now.”

“What's the problem? It’s not like I’ve never seen what a girl looks like when she’s just rolled out of bed.”

Ashley looked at him as though he had grown a third eyeball.

“I’ve got three sisters,” he hurried to explain, apparently realizing how his comment could be interpreted.

“Yeah, of course. Sorry. I just,” Ashley shook her head to clear it. “I’m still sleepy I guess. I didn’t mean…um, yeah.” On that brilliant conclusion, she made herself shut up.

“You look better than they do,” he assured her, sounding and looking uncharacteristically awkward.

She was struggling to find something to say, feeling absurdly like she needed to reassure him, when she was suddenly mobbed by two kids who threw themselves at her almost hard enough to knock her over.

“Ashley! You’re back!” squealed her five year old niece Rebecca, who was managing to bounce up and down while hugging her tightly around the hips.

Rebecca’s seven year old brother Daniel was quick to curb her enthusiasm. “Settle down,” he told his sister. Then to Ashley he said, “We were so mad last night when mom and dad wouldn’t let us come see you, but they said it was too late. So, we came as soon as they would let us today.” His tone clearly expressed his opinion of their decision.

Knowing that her brother Justin and his wife Kayla were hardly unreasonable parents, she replied soothingly, “Well, that wasn’t very nice of them to make you wait, but it was pretty late when I got home last night. In fact, you wouldn’t have been able to stay very long anyway, but now we have the whole day!”

Becca bounced around with glee and yelled, “Yay!” at the top of her lungs.

Daniel looked excited too, and he asked hopefully, “Are you coming with us to get the tree?”

Ashley wasn’t sure what to say to this without hurting their feelings, but she was saved from answering by the arrival of their parents, her brother Justin and his wife Kayla, as well as the baby of the family, Andrew. They'd been walking too slowly for Becca and Daniel, who'd quickly left them behind on the short walk from their house. Ashley hugged Kayla and Justin, and then held out her hands to Andrew. He was bigger than the last time she'd seen him just a few weeks before, and from the way he went right to her, she was hopeful that he remembered her.

As the adults stood around talking, Becca reached a very definite conclusion. She pointed an accusing finger and said, "Aunt Ashley's still wearing her pajamas and her hair is all messy. She can't go like that!"

“Aunt Ashley isn’t going,” her father said firmly. “There isn’t room for her in Grandpa’s truck. Unless one of you wants to stay behind to make room for her?” He raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Rebecca and Daniel immediately volunteered each other to stay home, but both insisted that they were going. It was therefore sadly determined that Aunt Ashley couldn’t come. “We’ll be back soon,” Becca told Ashley to make her feel better. Ashley tried to look appropriately disappointed.

“Now, Mark, are you sure you know where Brother McDaniel’s field is?” Ashley’s mom asked him before they left.

“I have a pretty good idea. I’ve got his number in my cell phone, so I’ll call him if I need to. He said that the gate was unlocked and that he had tied orange construction tape around the trees that we could choose from. Oh, and can you tell me why he said not to worry about stopping by to pay him for it, because you’d already sent him a check?”

Ashley couldn’t figure out why, but there was a note of severity in Mark’s tone, and his eyebrows were raised expectantly as if he was waiting for her mom to explain herself.
Surprisingly, Ashley saw that her mom was looking a little embarrassed. “Oh, Mark! I knew you would try to pay for it yourself, but it’s our tree. You’re already doing so much by going all the way out there to get it!”

Mark’s dimples flashed briefly. “Never mind. I’ll think of something else to get you for Christmas, Nora!”

Justin had already taken the kids out to the truck, so on these words, Mark left, closing the door with a swirl of cold air. Ashley stood staring at the closed door for a second then turned to confront her mother. Seeing the storm brewing on Ashley's face, Kayla took Andrew from her, but stayed to watch the fireworks.

“So, Mom – how did you forget to tell me that Mark Ellison had moved in next door? I suppose it just slipped your mind.”

“It never came up,” she replied defensively.

“You didn’t think I would be interested, I suppose?” she asked sarcastically.

“Well, you never asked about him.”

Ashley clenched her teeth in an effort not to let her frustration get the best of her. “I never asked about him because I was doing my best not to think about him. I didn’t think that there was a chance in the world that he would take a job in such a Podunk place as this, so I thought I’d never see him again. You knew all along that he was going to show up here this morning and you let me sit around the kitchen looking like this until he showed up! Aagh! I’m so embarrassed!”

“Well, that was quite an explosion! I was trying to get you to go get dressed.”

“You could have said, ‘Hey, by the way, Mark Ellison is coming over in a few minutes. You might want to look half-way decent.’”

“I wanted to surprise you. Don’t worry, you look fine,” her mother assured her.

Ashley just stared at her as if she was crazy.

“Anyway,” Kayla said joining in, “Mark sure seemed to think so. He hardly took his eyes off of you the whole time!”

Part of her was pleased by this, but she was mostly furious with embarrassment. “And this is what he was looking at!” Ashley exclaimed, motioning to her unkempt appearance. “Sorry, Kayla. I know you just got here, but I have to go shower.”

As she clumped up the stairs, fuming, Ashley thought to herself, “Impossible. I just absolutely can’t believe this.” And yet it was true. She’d thought she would never see him again, but Mark Ellison, hunk of all hunks, had moved in next door.


1 comment:

  1. So good. I've got to read the rest Sooooon!

    ReplyDelete

Cute Flying Pink Bird