How does God play?
Is there a giant puzzle upstairs
Where He puts the corners in first,
Then the borders.
Does He match the colors,
darks and lights,
Sky and clouds,
Grass and flowers?
Suddenly you fit in
When our gazes locked into place,
And the missing piece was found,
When the hole became whole,
And the final picture was revealed,
Just as God knew it would.
He saw the box
With the million pieces
Because you were in it,
And He knew how perfectly you fit with me.
When she got off the phone back in her dorm room, she told Sara excitedly, "Pastor wants me to come in this afternoon for an interview! This may be just what I needed, as long as the kids aren't juvenile delinquents or something," she laughed.
"I'm Rick Carrington."
Her husband related Ashley's schedule. She sighed and said, "I can work around those hours." She cupped Heather May's chin. "They are my little darlings, but even grandmas can get tired."
"Well, it was nice to meet you, Ashley," Mr. Carrington said.
Rick picked up the infant , slung a diaper bag over his shoulder, held out his other hand and said, "Ready, Heather?"
"Yes, daddy. Bye Ashy."
It made Ashley smile. Her friends called her Ash for short, but she'd never been called Ashy before.
"They have been staying with us," Mrs. Rice said while sitting at her husband's desk writing something on a sticky note. "So, here's directions to our house and our landline phone number and then Rick's cell and my cell. I'll see you Monday afternoon after lunchtime, I guess."
"Perfect. See you then." Once in the hall, Ashley wanted to do a happy dance, but squelched a squeal of happiness. All she could whisper was, "Thank you, Lord! Please, make me a blessing."
When she went out to her car, Tim and Rick were talking while he was buckling the children in. As she approached, her new employer looked between them, her and Tim, with eyebrows raised and a crooked grin as if to say, "I see how it is."
Tim filled her in with details as they ate lunch together at In and Out Burgers. "I remember meeting Rick a long time ago, probably when they were still dating. He was about four years ahead of me in school, but I watched him play sports." Tim had grown up locally and in their church so he was privy to more than she was.
He continued though Ashley felt a little guilty like she was hearing gossip that she shouldn't as she sipped on her milkshake. "They had been high school sweethearts, got married, and seemed to be the golden couple. He got a good job, and they moved away somewhere. But then we heard he had an affair, and they separated. It was common knowledge since her mother requested prayer for them. Anyway, that's what my mom told me. His wife was going to divorce him, but then she found out about the cancer. So she asked him to move back home because of their little girl. He did. She went into remission, and that's when baby number came about. Then the cancer came back. I guess he really stayed with her and nursed her through it, was there for her right to the end. So, he is a mixed bag of good guy, bad guy. I just wanted you to know so you can be careful around him, okay?"
"Don't worry, Tim. I'm just there for the little kids." She felt like growling. As if he would have anything to do with her, she thought.
However, Monday, it wasn't Mrs. Rice who answered the chiming doorbell. It was Mr. Carrington himself. "Hello, Miss Ashley." He motioned her inside. "My mother-in-law forgot that she had a dental appointment this afternoon, so I rearranged my schedule to take off a couple of hours until you could get here.
Little Heather suddenly made her appearance running in to grab her hand. "Want to come play with me?" trying to tug her along.
"Just a minute, sweetie. I have to talk to Miss Ashley before I go back to work." He walked into the kitchen just off the great room. "Here's Hope's formula, and here are the bottles. I just laid her down for her nap. Make yourself at home and feel free to look in the cupboards for what you need. You can give Heather whatever snacks you think best, just not right before meals, of course. Let's see, here's a phone list of numbers you might need in case of an emergency."
He smiled just then, and a shiver ran through her. He studied her face, and she, his. His eyes were golden brown, but were tempered by a sadness in spite of his practiced smile which flashed dazzlingly from his tanned face. His brown hair was cut short. He had a tan line from where he usually wore a cap. She closed her eyes and opened them back up to look down where Heather was impatiently dancing. "Heather can show you where the bathroom is, can't you honey. I can tell you need to go. Hurry baby. Well, I'll see you when I get home, Ashley, unless my in-laws get here before I do." He bent and kissed his daughter's cheek, then said, "Better run." He looked back and said, "Don't hesitate to call me if you have any questions."
Then he was gone, and his presence somehow left a void, as in no-more-adult-conversation for awhile. It was quiet even though Heather was already running down the hall yelling, "I have to go potty!" Ashley followed looking in the rooms with doors open, One was just barely cracked, baby Hope's room.
The day flew by as Heather May buzzed around as happily as a bee in a rose garden, the only thorn being when she pointed to a family photo on a shelf. "That's my mommy. She's in heaven now." Ashley always wondered how grief would appear on a child's face, apart from tears that is: it was a fleeting look of lostness with a tinge of wrenching sadness. Then it blew away like thistledown leaving her holding just the stalk of truth.
She waited until Heather was distracted with her building blocks before taking down the photo to look more closely. The child had the mother's coloring and hair, but held next to her father in the pose, it was obvious that she had her father's charming smile and eyes. His wife was pregnant and had an anxious look about her. Did she know how fast-growing her cancer was? Even so, she was stunning. The baby gave a cry so she quickly put the picture back. Hope awakened. That had a nice ring to it she thought as she went quickly down the hall.
The baby solemnly stared at her in an almost unnerving way. "Just so you know, it's not polite to stare," Ashley joked as she changed the baby's diaper. "I'm going to get to see a lot of you, it seems." Judging by how young the baby was, the mother's death could not have been very many months ago, five or six maybe? Ashley felt her heart falling, falling for this precious little one.
Mrs. Rice was the first one home. When she found Ashley in the backyard with baby Hope happily on her hip while pushing Heather on the swing, the poor woman burst into tears.
"I'm sorry dear, it just made me miss my daughter seeing you here with the babies," she said as the woman tried to get a grip on her emotions blowing her nose.
Ashley thought that surely she couldn't mean that she reminded her of her daughter because they were as different as night and day. Ashley had hair as dark as mahogany, dark brown eyes which sometimes blended the iris with the pupil when emotion flared. She was shorter compared to the young statuesque blonde who was svelte even with a baby bump in the photo. Her mother must mean that seeing someone else, as in a young female with her grandbabies, got to her.
Heather May ran to her grandma as soon as the swing stopped enough for her to jump off. "Grammie, guess what! I had a fun day with Ashy." The girl hugged on her grandmother's legs.
"I'm so glad, dear. It looks like baby Hope is happy too." Seven month old Hope made babbling sounds of her own baby language as she gripped a lock of Ashley's hair tighter.
"They were very good. I'm going to love watching them for you," Ashley told Mrs. Rice.
"That sounds wonderful. Well, are you ready for a full day tomorrow? Does 8:30 sound alright to you?"
"Perfect," Ashley responded. "Perfect" was something she'd trained her tongue to say as a way to remind herself that God's ways are always perfect. She could not have been more sure that it was true in this instance. Without a doubt.
Her days were so busy with work and school, that she was anxious for the Easter break. Watching the girls all days would be a piece of cake. Well, almost. They had their challenging moments too, just not something she couldn't handle. She felt that she was more mothering them than babysitting, probably because that was needed in their lives. She almost never saw their father. He left for work before she got there, and Mrs. Rice came home before he did.
One time though, her class got out early, and as she was grabbing a fast-food lunch she found Rick right behind her in the line. He put his hands on her shoulders as someone bumped past her with their tray of food. "Careful, there," he admonished them before removing his steadying hands. "Do you mind if I sit with you to eat? I haven't got a chance to talk with you to see how it's going with my kids," he asked.
"Of course. That would be perfect," she said more boldly than her fast beating heart could catch up with her as she was looking up into his smiling eyes.
She waited until he got his food before eating. Once seated he reached for her hand. "Mind if I pray? I know it's just fast food, but I'm hungry enough to be plenty thankful." She of course surrendered her hand into his. She was supposed to be praying, but was only thinking of the jolt that came from his touch. She needed to get a grip, just not on his hand. As soon as he finished, she pulled away.
He was looking at her in a piercing fashion. "So, tell me, how it is really going."
She finished chewing her first bite and swallowed, took a sip on her diet Coke before answering. "When you love what you do, it is perfect. I do love your girls. They are very precious."
He sat back in his seat, and studied her. "That is as good an answer as I could ask for."
She was glad when he finally began eating. Ashley found herself sneaking glances at him. She had craved her food, but she honestly didn't know if she ate it or just imagined it going through the motions of chewing. When her heart slowed down though, she relaxed and began telling him cute little things his daughter said, or how she was teaching Hope to play patty-cake, and other things like that. It made him smile, a smile that was deeply satisfying.
I wish I could be with them all the time, you know. I did take a month off after my wife passed away. Please keep telling me all these little things when I do see you as it makes me glad that you are there with them. I love my mother-in-law, but she is so exhausted when I get home that she just hands them over to me with a huff and goes to lay down never telling me the little things like you just did. Thank you." He held her gaze with a look that left her puzzled, not so much as if she had lettuce stuck to her teeth, but as if a piece was missing, a piece that he was searching for. It made her want to hide under the table.
Then he took in a deep breath while looking away and said, "I don't know how much you've heard about me, Ashley, but it's probably all true. I just want you to know what the Lord's been doing in my life. My wife's cancer was a refining fire. She forgave me for everything, because that's just the kind of Christian she was. She said that she could not meet God in heaven with anything against me here on earth." Rick was tearing up so it was Ashley's turn to look away.
He cleared his throat and continued. "I'm in an accountability group of men now. I am partnered with a good man who calls me several times a week. I've told him all about you and the wonderful job you are doing taking care of my kids. But before that, he also had prayed with me for the perfect person to do the job. You are that answer to much prayer."
Ashley didn't know what to say so just stared at the man. He went on, "I want to show you my life verses. I've got them here in my phone and read them at least once a day, usually when I sit down at a meal like this , especially when I am eating alone." It only took a minute for him to find them, then he showed her.
Ashley almost gasped when he showed her because this was one of her favorite passages that God used in her life. The man continued, "He restored my soul. He's acquitted me of great transgressions and presumptuous sins. He's teaching me to seek what He desires what is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true in my heart and life with the help of the Holy Spirit. I don't know why I'm telling you all this, but it seemed important for me to share it with you."
"This is the same verse, the one that God gave me to always trust that His way is perfect. It's helped me a lot, especially being on my own for the first time with my parents away on the mission field while I'm here at college. You've probably heard me say it often enough, "Perfect." It's my way of remembering He is always at work in me as I try to His will."
"That's pretty amazing, I'd say," Rick said. "Hey, do you think we can keep meeting like this for lunch, say on Tuesdays, so that you can catch me up on how my girls are doing?"
Ashley struggled for a moment with a fleeting thought of what Tim might think, but said, "Sure. That's a good idea," even though she wasn't sure it was a good idea at all.
His phone buzzed. "I'll get it when I'm in my truck. I guess you need to take off to my in-laws place to take care of my kids anyway. I feel like I'm in an eighties time warp living there. Don't take me wrong because I am grateful for all they are doing for us, but I can't wait until we are ready to get our own place and can get our stuff out of storage. Anyway, thanks for listening, Ashley."
She would answer him if she could just get this smile off her face.
He followed her out with his hand on her back and opened the door for her. She wondered if he could feel the way it made her heart beat faster. Of course, he didn't. He was just being polite. Except when they were outside, he gave her a side-hug and his hand lingered at her neck under her hair before he left. "Thanks for caring for my girls," was what he said, but she wondered if it was maybe a little more, perhaps a hunger for a touch, just out of loneliness. But it was nothing like the way it felt when Tim hugged her. She had not felt electricity with Tim, not even when he kissed her, not one teensy, weensy spark.
That night she looked up on the internet on how to tell the difference between infatuation and true love. It didn't help very much with it all mangled together in her brain. She couldn't get her head and her heart to agree on anything. So she did her reading for literature class instead, and sure enough came upon this...
That's all it was, a chemical reaction. It was silly. It was as if she was looking at another woman's husband and felt guilty. So the next day she told Tim that she would go out with him Sunday night to the movies, even though the action-thriller was not something she was into. She just needed to get her heartbeats in order and stop thinking about a pair of golden brown eyes. Tim's eyes were, well, she'd check the color of his eyes when he picked her up Sunday night for their date.
Then she had an idea for an experiment, a scientific kind of a chemical nature. So Sunday morning after church she told Tim that she wanted him to go with her to say hi to little Heather and baby Hope after church. They met them in the parking lot. As they were talking, Ashley put her hand on Tim's arm. Nothing. No zap. Then she turned slightly and was going to put her hand on Rick's arm but she couldn't. The electrical current was too strong just thinking about it. She'd be electrocuted for sure and certain if she dared to touch the man. He looked down at where her hand hovered and then at her with a questioning look. Her cheeks were set on fire. So much for that little experiment.
Blue. A very light almost greyish blue. There. She tried to keep thinking about Tim's eyes. She thought about how it felt when he was holding her hand, kinda sweaty. When he brushed up against her shoulder, it was just an annoying bump. Nope. No electricity, sadly. He was perfect in that he was just another nice guy kind of perfect. That was all. It wasn't that she wanted a bad guy, just someone with a current that could zap her once in awhile, enough to make her know she was still alive and desirable and hopefully a current that went both ways.
During the movie as her thoughts wandered, she decided she'd let Tim kiss her again when he took her home. It was just a crush of lips that did not hardly get the kiss-a-meter off "0." It was enough to make her sigh, which Tim took as a good sign. She told him good night. Her kiss had been the obligatory thank-you-for-the-date, the kind you gave a guy for when he took a girl out to dinner or to the movies or something, nothing more, just slightly more than a kiss on the cheek. She sighed again, a two-deep-sigh date, but not the good kind.
"Oh God, I pray, that you have someone, something more for me, or at least could you give Tim just a shot of electricity from on high that could create even a tiny spark?" She wasn't sure if she should ask God for something like that, but oh well, she needed hope, someone to get her mind off another pair of eyes.
That week during classes, Ashley tried to look, really look into guys' eyes as they walked by in passing. If one of her guy friends stopped to talk to her, she really searched their eyes. A couple of them looked encouraged, which she tried to squelch immediately saying something like, "Did you see the movie Tim took me to see?" Good ol' Tim. But the male attraction to the action movie was a good way to side-track their attention off her as their pupils enlarged and their breath came in stutters as they spoke of their heroes and big explosions. She could slip away unnoticed then.
In her bed at night, Ashley thought over each one of the guys she knew at school, even those she'd casually met, even ones she could possibly wish to meet. Nada. No one. Not one created a spark of interest in her. She was doomed. It was too bad that her conservative Christian faith did not have something like a nunnery to go to so she could take a vow of celibacy. However she knew she wasn't dead or called to be single, because she had truly felt that jolt of electricity, just from a forbidden someone, or rather from an off-limits kind of guy. A guy with a past. An older man. Yep. She was vulnerable, just like the pastor said. Ashley knew she had to be very careful and prayed harder for Tim to get that shot of lightning.
Then she saw them. Sara and Tim were talking outside the dorm and didn't see her. Sara had that doe-look in her eyes. Her roommate then flipped her hair over her shoulders without thinking. It was the unconscious move signaling attraction. Sara wasn't out to steal her guy exactly, she was simply truly attracted to Tim. Ashley was sure she had never looked at Tim that way, not even close. And Sara seemed to be a Tim-magnet as he stepped closer to her, as if it felt good to share the same air. It was time. Ashley needed to cut Tim free. To tell the truth, she already knew their relationship was dead, she just hadn't had the funeral yet to mourn another possible love life gone to ashes.
"Hey, Tim, can I talk to you for a moment, privately?"
At least he had the graciousness to act a little pink-cheeked embarrassed as he stepped away from Sara who would not even look at Ashley, as if she felt guilty even talking with her roommate's boyfriend. This was ridiculous. Tim took it well then left anxious to go find Sara, she was sure. Ashley sucked up a breath of fresh air, then let it out slowly. Okay, that's done, she told herself. Now what?
That night she signed into a free sample on a Christian dating sight. No. So not her. She signed right back out before she finished registering. It was quiet because Sara was still out with Tim. Laying back on her bed, a tear slipped out. "What am I going to do, God? Is my heart going places it shouldn't? Help me find your perfect way."
On Sunday, she tried not to see Rick as he came in with his children before taking them to the children's classroom and nursery. It was hard not to run over to see the girls. As soon as he came back to the foyer, he was surrounded by a flock of flipping-hair young women. He practically needed a miracle to part the waters so he could go find a seat with his buddies. Ashley spied Sara and was going to sit with her until she saw who was next to her. Tim. Oh, well. So she just slipped into a back pew. By herself. Alone. But she could see the back of Rick's head where his hair curled slightly over his collar. It just so happened that during the offering, Rick looked back from where he sat on the aisle. He glanced over at Sara and Tim, frowned then kept looking back over the pews until their gazes locked. He sent her a crooked grin before turning back around. It was just enough of a moment for her heart to beat out a rhythm, "Danger, danger, danger."
At least she didn't have to worry anymore abut what Tim would say when she met Rick for lunch on Tuesday. Rick was there waiting for her having ordered her food already.
"I hope this is what you like. It's the same thing you ordered last week."
"That's...'perfect,'" they both said in unison and laughed."
"I think I'm figuring you out a little now," Rick said still smiling.
"I'm not too complicated," Ashley admitted. "What you see is what you get."
He looked at her seriously for a long moment before asking, "What if I like what I see?"
She had to get her heart out of her throat to answer him. "I'm not sure what you mean?"
He held her gaze and would not let her look away.
It made her blush so that she had to avert her eyes. "Yes, I know what you mean. I'm sure I'm easy to read about how I feel. It's just that, I'm not sure what to do about it, except keep praying about it."
"I have been and have asked my accountability partner to pray for me too. You know, most people would think it's too soon for me to see someone else. But when you go through the process of death like cancer with someone so close to you, you have been grieving for a long time, every day, every minute, every second. I'm ready to join the land of the living again even if other people can't understand that. I've decided to get my own place too. My in-laws aren't ready for me to move on, I'm sure, so I shouldn't do it under their roof. Besides, my girls need a mother, Ashley."
They were her babies. The thought of somebody else stepping into that role grabbed her heart and made her look sharply up at Rick with a catch in her breath. She could only nod.
"So you understand what I am saying, Ashley? I'm not looking to join the dating scene, but I asked God to bring just the right person into my life. Then you showed up. I know I'm a lot older than you, but I hope that's not a problem."
She shook her head. She felt silly now. She had just asked God for someone with electricity, the kind she felt with him. But there was so much more to it to get involved than a spark, like a forest fire that could quickly rage out of control. It made her feel oxygen deprived, like she could hardly breathe.
"Am I scaring you?" He reached over her uneaten food to hold her hand.
"Yes, but you are not scaring me off, if you know what I mean. I'm just overwhelmed wondering if this could be God's perfect way."
"That's encouraging," he grinned.," but I better let you eat. I know you need to get to the girls, and I have to hurry to get back to work myself." He still was holding her hand as he prayed over their lunch."
He walked out with his hand around her waist and pulled her to him in a tighter side hug kissing the top of her head. "That's the best lunch I've had in a long, long time," he said with a wink. "Thanks."
She didn't see him again until Thursday morning. It was going to be a warm Spring day, so she had broken out a sundress and flip-flops. When she knocked on the pastor's door, Rick answered. He looked her over good before letting her in. Ashley kicked off her shoes in the entry as Mrs. Rice liked them to do. She was sure he was checking her out from behind too. When she glanced back, he gave her a guilty as charged kind of look. She took a deep breath before going into the kitchen where Heather was finishing a bowl of Pretty Ponies cereal.
"Remind me not to take a four year old grocery shopping with me. I come home with the weirdest, most awful things, that, for instance." He was more than grinning at her. It was like she was the sugar.
Ashley began reading the back of the cereal box as if it was the Gospel. "Aren't you supposed to be going to work?" She asked him without taking her eyes off the list of ingredients. When he came closer, she added, "I don't think there's anything in this but additives and sweeteners, not even any real sugar." But he came up right next to her and leaned his elbows up against the counter with his shoulder brushing against hers.
"By the way, what happened with you and your Tim thing? I noticed that you weren't sitting with him on Sunday and hoped that meant what I thought it meant. He was sitting kind of close to another girl while you sat by yourself in the back. Did he break your heart?"
Ashley almost snorted. "No, I broke up with him. It wasn't a heartbreaker for either one of us actually. We tried, but there wasn't any spark." She couldn't believe she'd just said that.
"Good. I wouldn't want you hurt," he said as he put his hand over her white knuckled one before quickly withdrawing. But unfortunately, he left an arc of electricity going up her arm that caused her heart to implode.
He kissed Heather May on top of the head to avoid her milky pretty pony lips, and wound up Hope's baby swing. "I already gave Hope her bottle. Well, y'all have a good day." He drifted his hand over the small of her back on his way out. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her heart.
"Are you sleeping standing up, Ashy?"
"No, sweetheart. I was just resting my eyes for a moment." She smiled at the little one whose grin was so much like her daddy's that it put an ache inside of her. Good gracious. She was in trouble.
"More?" Heather begged.
"Sure, why not." Ashley poured out more of the cereal before adding milk. Then she went over to say good morning to Hope and sprinkled some of the sugary dry cereal on her tray. Hope was trying out new sounds. "M, mm , ma, ma." It must be a phase babies go through, she reasoned, but Heather squealed.
"She called you Mama! Wait till I tell Daddy. He's been trying to teach her to say daddy, da, da, but she just said mama first!" And the little girl chortled. "That is funny. You are funny, Hope. Say it again."
Ashley got busy unbuckling Hope from the baby swing and picking her up to ride on her hip. "She's just practicing her sounds, Heather. It's nothing to tell your daddy. It might make him feel bad."
"Oh." She was quiet for a moment. "Do you think Hope remembers our real mama, not just the pretend one you are?"
That sent a stab to her heart. "I don't know sweetheart. You remember though and can tell her all about it when she gets older."
Ashley wasn't trying to pretend to be their mama. She was just there to give them as much love as she could. But Hope clutched onto a lock of her hair and continued to say, "M, mm, ma, ma..." Heather was laughing her head off.
"Sure enough, she's calling you mama. Good girl, sissy! She doesn't even say it to Grammie, just you."
Heather shook her head which made the hair Hope had grabbed hurt. There was no use in arguing with a four-year old. She just hoped that Heather wouldn't remember to tell her daddy.
That night she thought of what Mrs. Rice had told her, that they were going to a leadership dinner at church. Rick was the one who was coming home. When she heard the door open and his footsteps, she paused in the hallway waiting to hear if he went into the kitchen where she had their dinner cooking in the oven. She'd made hamburger enchiladas with red sauce. Instead he came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. She froze. Then they slid down her arms where his thumbs were rubbing like a spark to dry kindling.
"I don't think..." She couldn't think was right with her heart going crazy.
"Daddy, you're home!" Heather ran up and jumped into his waiting arms. "Guess what! Hope called Ashy mama. Yes, she did."
Rick was looking at Ashley with his eyebrows cocked and a grin on his face. "Really, what'd ya know?"
"I already fed Hope and gave her a bath. She just needs her bottle now. Your dinner will be ready in about twenty more minutes." Ashley was chattering and trying to change the subject.
"Heather, honey, can you go play with your sister for a minute? Daddy wants to talk to Miss Ashley."
He caught her eyes up with his as his daughter ran off. He didn't say much, but his kiss communicated a lot. Maybe hers did too because he cut it off before she wanted him to. But he still held her backed up against the wall. "I've been wanting to do that since I saw you for the first time in my father-in-law's study. Well, that's not the truth. I'd been watching you for several Sundays, so I couldn't believe it when you walked in that day in the office. But you were always with that Tim guy. I'm sure glad you broke up with him finally. I've been waiting, you know. I feel it too, the spark between us."
Ashley felt like the circuits were overloaded and could blow up at any second. Then everything would go dark, and she'd faint. She took a deep breath. "I know. But, I don't know if it's right to feel this way. I don't really know you enough, except you're a good father..."
"My dad married my mom six weeks after they met," he said while tucking her hair behind her ears.
"My grandpa proposed two days after meeting my grandma," she added, then her eyes grew huge as she covered her mouth shocked at her confession.
Rick threw his head back and laughed. "I bet they had a good marriage too."
"Fifty-two years of marital bliss."
"I did it the other way, high school sweethearts, then courting for three years, engaged for another year. I don't want to do it that way again..."
He was kissing her again and she felt the last piece of resistance melt away like the pieces all fit. She only needed to stand back and see the completed puzzle because the last piece was finally in place, the hole was filled. Then Heather came skipping out. She giggled, "Oh, daddy, did you find your princess?" He sighed and turned to his daughter with a smile. "Maybe I have. What do you think?"
"I think it's perfect."