“Do you, Amanda Hallowell, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God?”
“Upon that confession of faith and in accordance with His Holy Word, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit for the remission of your sins and to receive the Holy Spirit.”
Fifteen-year-old Ashley watched as the preacher lowered her younger sister into the water and quickly lifted her back to her feet. She called out, “Amen,” and clapped along with the rest of the congregation as Mandy stood smiling out at the auditorium wiping back the wet hair out of her face. Ashley looked over at her dad, Adam, and could see tears welling up in his eyes, but her mom, Jeanine, was another story entirely – she was bawling like a baby, shuddering with her sobs, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her dad put his arm around his wife and rubbed her shoulder. Why was she carrying on so? Ashley could understand her shedding a few tears because her baby was growing up and being baptized, but this was kind of over the top. Then again, her mom always had seemed overly sensitive.
She slid her arm under her mom’s and took hold of her hand. Mrs. Norman, the preacher’s wife, turned around in her seat and handed Ashley’s mom a tissue. Her mom removed her hand from Ashley’s and blew her nose loudly. Ashley slid down in her seat a little, embarrassed by her mom’s loud honking noises. She glanced over at her older brother who raised an eyebrow at her. She pinched her cheeks together with her fingers to stifle a grin.
Perhaps what surprised Ashley more than her mom’s reaction to her eleven-year-old daughter becoming an official Christian was the fact that Mandy had even made the decision at all. Their little church in Key West was at one time a much larger congregation with eighty or so members. Back then there was many children attending so there were enough for Sunday and Wednesday classes for different age groups. Lessons had been fun, and activities were frequently planned for the youth. Something had happened over the years, however, that made the numbers dwindle and there were nowhere near as many kids attending. The body now was made up of mostly older people who seemed to have retired not only from their jobs but also from the service for the Lord. Classes for Ashley, Mandy, King, and the other two kids there now consisted of Mrs. Norman setting them up in individual booths with earphones and recorded lessons. It’s a wonder Mandy was motivated to turn her life over to the Lord at all. She credited her dad mostly for influencing her. Their mom was a Christian, of course, but she didn’t talk about her faith that much. Not like their dad did.
Mandy came out of the baptistry side room dressed once again in her street clothes. Her cinnamon hair hung straight without her signature shoulder-length curls like her sister’s. The congregation lined up to give her hugs and welcome her into the family of God.
“Hey, your hair’s all wet,” King said.
“No duh.” She punched him in the arm.
On the drive home off the island, their dad turned up the radio blasting Christian music and started singing along.
Somebody give me a microphone, or a megaphone, or a telephone.
You’re gonna clap your hands, gonna wanna dance, when you hear it.
Good news; got that old made new; got this joy coming through;
Got me feeling all right.
His enthusiasm was infectious, and Ashley, Mandy, and King started singing along with him. Their mom remained silent but smiled.
* * *
“Riley! Why do you do that? Gosh, you’re so immature sometimes.”
“Aww, stabbed in the heart!” He put his fist to his chest as if grabbing the hilt of a knife. “How can you treat me so mean?”
“Mean? What do you mean ‘mean’? I’m just being truthful,” she said with a crooked grin.
“So, what did you do this weekend?”
“Nothing much. Went to church yesterday. Mandy got baptized.”
“Gee, that sounds . . . wet.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“You’re right. I don’t see how getting dunked gets you into Heaven. But, hey! Whatever floats your boat.” He watched as she got her last book from her locker, shut the door, and closed the lock.
“So, you going to the formal with me?” he asked as they made their way slowly down the hall.
“Gee, I don’t know. I thought I’d just go along with Beth and Emma. I don’t know if I want to be tied to just one guy all evening.”
“Aww, you’re killing me here! Please say you’ll go with me! It’s our last big dance until we get to high school next year. You know, then we go back to being little fish in a big pond. Who knows, you may find some hot jock and leave me flat.”
“Of course, I’ll go with you. I’m just messing with you.”
“Okay, that’s better.” They reached her classroom, and he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before heading off in the direction of his class.
Ashley took a seat at one of the long tables next to Beth and Emma who were in the midst of a heated discussion. “I was not coming on to him!” Beth was saying. “I only asked him if he had asked you to the dance yet.”
“Oh.” Emma thought a minute. “Oh! That’s just as bad! How could you! Now he probably thinks I put you up to it, hinting that he should ask me!” Emma was livid. Ashley decided it would be best not to get in the middle of it. Emma had a volatile temper which lasted only about three minutes before she’d be completely over it and on to other things.
Not surprisingly, she turned to Ashley. “You and Riley are going to the dance together, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“What do you mean ‘I guess so’? You two are just so cute together. I don’t see why you aren’t more serious about him.”
“He is sweet. He’s just so . . . young. Sometimes he just acts like a little kid.”
“So? Guys are like that sometimes.”
“Yeah, but I am a year older than him thanks to being held back in first grade. If Mrs. Webster hadn’t insisted that I be able to read fifth-grade books, I’d already be in high school.”
“Yeah, but just think, you’ll be a year older than everyone when you start high school. You’ll be able to get your license a whole year sooner.” She twirled her hair around in her fingers. “Besides, we wouldn’t have become friends if you were a year ahead of me.”
Ashley bumped elbows with her and smiled. “I know, I know. But that doesn’t mean my parents still won’t make me wait to get my license.”
“Good morning everyone,” Mr. Harris interrupted. “Move everything off your desks and take out something to write with. Pop quiz!”
A collective groan went up from the room as books were dropped or put back in bookbags on the floor.
* * *
“Amen.” Ashley raised her head after her dad finished saying grace. She and her family still ate their evening meal together – something few of her friends said they did. She appreciated this time that she could have her parents undivided attention if she needed it.
“The Eighth Grade Formal is coming up. Can I get a new dress to wear?” Her dad looked at her mom and so did Ashley. Tears were welling up in her mom’s eyes.
He squeezed his wife’s hand. “Our little girl’s first formal,” he said smiling. “I guess we could manage that.” He looked at Ashley and winked. Her mom sniffled. “When exactly is it?”
“Two weeks from Saturday.”
“Mom, you want to take your little girl shopping this weekend for her first gown?” he asked. Her mom nodded and dabbed her eyes with her napkin.
“Gosh, Dad, I’m not a little girl anymore,” Ashley said rolling her eyes.
“You’ll always be our little girl.”
“Hey, what am I, chopped liver?” Mandy asked.
“You’re our baby girl,” he said, reaching over and patting the top of her head.
Now it was Mandy’s turn to roll her eyes. “Oh, gosh. Sorry I asked.”
King leaned over close to Mandy and whispered, “Baby.” She elbowed him. Ashley snickered.
“How was work today, Dad?” King asked.
“It was a fairly good day for Hallowell Motors. Ron made a deal on a used car that worked out better for the customer than it did us, but Joe sold a brand new, fully loaded Camaro.”
Ashley saw her chance. “Speaking of cars,” she said, “can you get me a car when I get my license next year?”
Her mom set her fork down and everyone around the table looked at Ashley wide-eyed. “Next year?” her dad said. “But you aren’t even old enough to get your learner’s permit yet.”
“I almost am. Then once I get it, I’ll only have to wait a year to get my license. Then I can get my own car.”
“Whoa, slow down there, kiddo. Let’s just take it one step at a time. You’re not even out of middle school yet.”
Ashley grew impatient. “But you got King a car when he got his license!”
“Well, yes. But he was already a Junior by then.”
“Yes, but I’ll already be sixteen when I’m a Sophomore!”
“Just be patient. We’ll talk about it again next year.”
“But I can’t wait! I don’t want to ride the bus when I’m in high school!”
“Regardless, even with a permit you’ll still have to for another year anyway.”
She fumed and pushed her peas around her plate with her fork.
* * *
The night of the dance came, and Ashley admired her new dress in the full-length mirror on the back of her bedroom door. It had a simple, fitted, sleeveless, bodice with a high round neckline. The skirt flared out from the waist and was slightly longer in the back than the front. What was stunning, however, was the color – a rich emerald color that complimented her long cinnamon hair and green eyes. The ends of her hair were curled into soft waves and the top was pulled back loosely held with a gold barrette. She smiled at her reflection, then hurried down the stairs.
“Holy cow! Who are you and what have you done with my little sister?” King asked.
“I told you I’m not little anymore,” she said with a crooked grin.
Her dad got up from his chair in the living room and let out a long, low whistle. “Wow! You . . . look . . . beautiful!” he said.
Her mom stepped out from the kitchen and stood beside him, eyes watering up again. “Absolutely gorgeous!” she said. She moved over next to Ashley smoothing her skirt around her, then dabbed her eyes with a tissue she took out of her pocket.
The doorbell rang. King and his dad looked at each other and his dad gave a little nod. They went to the door together and King opened it. They stood with stern looks on their faces as Riley stood outside wide-eyed looking at them. He appeared to be at a loss for words. No one said anything until Ashley stepped forward. “Oh, for crying out loud. Come on in, Riley,” she said taking him by the arm.
Still her dad said nothing, and he and King glared at him. Riley went red in the face. “O-kaaay,” Ashley finally said. “Let’s go, Riley. Dad, you’ll be there to pick us up at eleven, right?” Her dad still didn’t say anything, just stared at Riley.
“Oh, come on,” she said, dragging him out the door by the arm. As she closed the door behind her she could hear her dad and King burst into laughter on the other side. Riley had gone pale. “Don’t let them bother you. They’re just messing with you.”
The dance committee had gone all out with decorations in the gym. Crepe paper was strung across from side to side forming a low ceiling, and arches of balloons in the school colors formed an entryway onto the floor. A banner hung across the wall over the stage that said, “Anchors Aweigh.” A band made up of guys from high school was playing on the stage.
Ashley saw Emma with Kyle and smiled. Looked like he asked her to come with him after all. “Excuse me a minute,” she said to Riley. “I’ll be right back.” He saw where she was headed and doubted that she’d be back anytime soon, especially when he saw Beth coming through the arches with her date. Sure enough, the three girls were soon standing off to one side of the gym talking and ooing and awwing about how they looked while their dates, Brad and Kyle, stood by themselves looking awkward.
The three guys walked over to pass the time at the refreshment table. “Good punch,” Riley said.
Brad and Kyle nodded. “Great band,” Brad said.
“Yeah, great,” Riley and Kyle both said.
“They did a great job with the decorations,” Kyle said. The other two nodded.
Riley cleared his throat and stood rocking back and forth from his heels to his toes with his hand in his pocket sipping his punch occasionally. All three looked around uncomfortably.
The girls finally returned to their dates. “Isn’t this great?” Emma asked. “Are you guys having a good time?”
“Oh, yeah, we’re having a great time,” Riley said. Brad and Kyle agreed but Brad looked at Kyle with a raised eyebrow.
Ashley and Riley danced almost every dance. She was impressed that he didn’t act immature at all during the evening. She was sorry to see eleven o’clock come.
“I guess we should go out and see if my dad’s here yet.” They walked hand in hand out to the front of the gym. There was no sign of him.
“You really look lovely tonight,” he said putting his arms around her.
“Thank you. You look pretty good yourself.” She put her hands on his chest and pushed him a little. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that. I don’t know what my dad would do if he drove up and saw you with your arms around me.”
His face dropped and he went pale. “You’re right. I don’t think he was very happy about you and me coming to the dance together.”
“Oh, that? He was just kidding. He’s actually a teddy bear – and a real jokester. He was just trying to scare you.”
“Well, it worked!”
They stood outside waiting for several more minutes. More and more of their classmates left the building as cars drove up to pick them up. Forty-five minutes went by and still her dad hadn’t shown up.
“Want to use my phone to call him?” Riley asked.
“Yeah, maybe I better. He probably fell asleep in front of the TV.” She dialed her dad’s number. It went straight to voice mail. “That’s strange.” She tried again. Still nothing. She hesitated to call her mom. She probably wasn’t waiting up and she didn’t want to wake her. She’d wait a few more minutes.
Still he didn’t show. After an hour had gone by, she tried calling again. Still no answer. “What’s going on?”
About that time a police cruiser drove up in front of them. The officer got out and walked up to her. “Are you Ashley Hallowell?”
Her stomach dropped to her bladder and she had the sudden urge to need a bathroom. “Yes,” she whispered.
“You’d better come with me. There’s been an accident.”
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