The sun had only just dipped below the horizon, saying its goodnight with a magnificent tapestry of pinks, oranges, yellows, and indigos, by the time Ember Rose Bennett rambled down the long, dirt driveway leading to the half-century old, somewhat secluded log cabin. The sky transitioned from day to night much as a symphony obeys its maestro. She found the timing of her arrival strangely appropriate as the sun was setting on one chapter of her life, yet simultaneously rising on another.
Excitement mounting, Ember quickly unfastened her seatbelt and slipped her cramped legs out of the vehicle and planted them on solid ground—land that now bore her name. A laugh escaped her lips as she jogged up the oak steps, not bothered by the zapping of the overhead light wherein insects met their untimely demise. She took out the key and fiddled with the lock for only a second before she stood just inside the doorway hands shaking slightly, eyes darting from one corner of the room to the next—light and momentary—much like a butterfly’s dance. Ember took a deep breath, silently promising all the remembrances she would reacquaint herself soon, and made a beeline to her favorite memory-laden spot. A quick flip of a switch found just inside the back wall of the laundry room lit up the screened lanai that promised a crystal clear view of a small but fully stocked lake she remembered fishing in for hours as a child. Her eyes misted, remembering all the life lessons carefully passed down during the baiting and casting of cane fishing poles while sitting on the edge of the water, munching on apple slices and peanut butter sandwiches.
Ember could already smell the aroma of the delicious coffee she would hold in her hands tomorrow morning while observing the wildlife of the Ocala National Forest. Without thinking, her hand fell on the back of the oak rocker. Gently, she set it in motion, imagining her grandfather so vividly, smoking his pipe and craning his neck toward the starry night; tears sprung to her eyes. Bittersweet peace filled her from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. For months, she had dreamt of this moment.
Shaking off the heaviness of yesterdays gone by, her footsteps took her back into the house, and she ran long, slender fingers through her fiery red ponytail as she explored her new home. Emerald green eyes surveyed every detail: the spotless hardwood floors, the original pine walls, the comfortable open living/kitchen space, the charming four bedrooms, and the newly renovated bathroom. Thirteen hundred square feet wasn’t much, but to her this efficient space—once belonging to her beloved grandfather, Ransom Bennett— was paradise. The smooth, coolness of the metal railing slid under the palm of her hand as she lightly skipped down the wooden steps to retrieve the few bags she had brought from Jacksonville. Ember pushed the button on the remote to pop the trunk of her faithful Accord and smiled at the nocturnal serenade tickling her ears. As a little girl, she had always loved nighttime in the forest. She and Pops, slathered in a generous coat of bug-spray and armed with flashlights, would explore trails known only to them. Ember never felt fear with Pops, only a sense of wonder and adventure. She looked forward to revisiting places that reminded her of those happy times.
Smiling to herself, she stopped cold and frowned as bright headlights ominously lit up the woods surrounding the property. Deep breaths filled her chest as she tried to calm a gnawing sense of fear. To her knowledge, no living soul knew she was here tonight. Her hands automatically touched the holster hidden underneath her shirt.
The crunching of gravel rang through the night, and she squinted her eyes as the old, red pickup truck came to a stop before everything was bathed in black, lit only by the dim lights emanating from the porch. Her cell phone with the flashlight was sitting on the console of her car, not doing her any service at the moment. All she could make out was a tall, dark-haired man walking towards her; the sight of him rendering her speechless.
A deep, baritone voice interjected itself into the darkness, “Em?”
Ember audibly gasped. No one called her Em except Pops. Her mother and father called her by her middle name, Rose. She preferred Ember, but Pops tagged her with Em ever since she could toddle.
Her stammered response spoke of fear, “I—I’m sorry, but who are you?”
His voice was quick to respond, seemingly intent on setting her at ease. “Aiden. Aiden Steele —I knew your grandfather,” he paused. “Can we move up to the porch so we can see?”
Aiden. The teenager that worked for Pops. Vague recollections of the tall, thin boy fishing with Pops down at the lake lingered on the outskirts of her little girl memory. No longer ready to fight or take flight, she led the way up the stairs. When she turned to face him, the cadence of her heart went into triple time, but not from fear. Aiden Steele stood ramrod straight—at least 6’ 2’’ with coal black hair that curled around his collar and fell over his forehead, coffee-colored eyes, and smooth olive skin. Calculating from memory, he had to be in his early to mid-thirties. Suddenly, she was conscious of her oversized mocha latte-stained t-shirt, yoga pants, and lack of makeup. The flavor from the sub sandwich and sour cream and onion chips combination she had gobbled on the road casually hung out in her mouth, and she was fairly sure she probably had remnants stuck in her teeth. Again, she rubbed her hand through her tangled curls, trying to adjust any that might have gone wildly astray.
In turn, Aiden put his hands in the front pockets of his dark-washed Wrangler jeans, then looked back at his truck as a dog started barking. Apologetically, he said, “Sorry, that’s Rusty.”
Ember craned her neck to catch a glimpse of his troubled companion.
He looked back at her to reassure, “He’s harmless. Just a chocolate lab that hates being solo.”
Nervous laughter echoed through the trees.
“I didn’t mean to scare you. Your grandfather wrote me a couple of months ago, told me about his condition and informed me he was leaving the place to you. I—knew he was gone, but I wasn’t sure when you would arrive.” His head looked to the left of the property through fifty yards of brush. “I live next door and saw the headlights. Wanted to check on everything to make sure all was well.” He looked down at the deck before meeting her eyes. “Is it?”
The rhythmic cadence of his voice put her in a trance-like state. Her body shivered as she shook her head willing herself to speak. Unconsciously, her arms found themselves wrapped around her waist, warding off a slight chill. “Yes—yes, I’m fine.” She inclined her head, looking up into his eyes. “Thanks for checking on me . . . I remember you.”
His head shifted, and his dark eyebrows rose in surprise. “Do you?”
She nodded. “Yes, I was young, but I do remember—you fishing with Pops, doing odd jobs. Am I right?”
Aiden shuffled his feet, cleared his throat, and rubbed his forehead, but with a slight nod confirmed her memory. “I should get going. Can I come by tomorrow morning and go over some paperwork with you?”
In response to her open, quizzical look, he continued, “I’ve managed the property for the last twelve years. I’d like to go through some of the details with you if that’s okay.”
Ember fidgeted with the diamond stud in her left ear but slowly nodded. “Yes, of course. Coffee at seven? Or is that too early?”
Aiden walked down the steps of the cabin towards his truck but turned back to answer, “Coffee at seven. Perfect.”
She called after him, stopping him in his hurried tracks, “You were there, weren’t you?”
Slowly, he turned to face her. She could barely make out his expression, but she sensed rather than saw a look of sadness. “Yes, I was there.”
An hour later, Ember finally sat down after unpacking the last of her kitchen essentials. The visit from Aiden brought back a flood of memories of times past, times when she followed her grandfather around like a shadow.
Today was a day to remember. The drive from Jacksonville through the forest wasn’t long, but it was sufficient to review the highs and lows of her twenty-five years. Ironic that some days she felt thirteen-years-old again, while other days she felt sixty-three.
Thirteen. A lot happened that year of her life. Ember and her parents moved to Jacksonville from Miami when she was in seventh grade. She had very few happy memories of her parents before the move. In fact, most shades of times past were bathed in silence. Her parents’ way of coping with their miserable cohabitation was the unending silent treatment—never violence or raised voices, but a quiet that screamed so loud she had to cover her ears. Therefore, she’d learned from a very young age to read facial expressions to gauge the moods of both mother and father. Within months of moving, the remnants of her parents’ marriage fell apart. Then, the cacophony of hurt and bitterness broke the impenetrable silence.
Ember, an unwilling participant in a no-holds-barred screech-filled tug-of-war, was miserable. Desperate for normalcy and peace, she prayed God would somehow rescue her from the mayhem. A giant of a man, Ransom Bennett, known to her as Pops, was His answer.
Ember’s mother grew up in the foster system, so she had no known maternal grandparents. Her father’s mother passed away from cancer when he was a boy, so the only grandparent Ember ever knew was Pops. From her first memory, she held him in her mind as a force to be reckoned with—a kind, gentle, but firm presence in a tumultuous life. Occasionally, her family would visit Pops out in the forest. Mostly, just she and her father. Even then, she was dropped off for a week while Jase Bennett reunited with old friends. Ember, never upset at her father’s departure, would follow behind Ransom like an eager puppy, ready to learn whatever life lesson he had on his agenda to teach.
When Pops moved from Ocala to Jacksonville to be a support system for Ember—to be her mother, father, and in many ways, her mentor—Ember felt as if she’d somehow been rescued. He spent time with her, helped her with homework, came to all her track meets, and proudly watched as she graduated from high school and then college. Ember was born with natural confidence; a respectful defiance channeled to rise to the occasion when challenged. Ignored at home, she learned to gain respect through achievement and praise. She would be noticed, even if she had to outperform everyone else to make it happen. Pops carried the wisdom to help mold that energy, which could have been destructive, into something productive and positive.
Soon after graduation, Ember’s world changed when her mother moved across the country with her new boyfriend, followed by her father’s decision to experience his youth again at the age of fifty—in Miami.
But, Pops, her foundation, remained solid. He was who she went to when she got her first job as a high school English teacher. He was who she went to when everything in her life went topsy turvy. He was who she went to when tragedy punched her in the gut, threatening to paralyze and steal everything she knew.
Suddenly, images of her first love flooded her mind. As a laser-focused teenager and college student, boys were on the peripheral and never tempted her beyond a casual flirtation. As a result, no boy or man had ever touched her heart. She had seen first hand the destructive nature of a marriage forced by consequences of temptation—of which she was the product—and she would wish her childhood on no one. She supposed divorce and a strained relationship built walls, but Pops also provided a standard hard to attain. Then, one encounter, one boy changed it all. Ember put her head on the back of the couch and closed her eyes, allowing herself moments to remember—a luxury her grief counselor encouraged her to savor.
Jonah Emit entered the pages of Ember’s life as a superhero. A new teacher at a large public school, Ember was intimidated by the students, the veteran teachers, the administration, and in particular by an intense fear of failure. For the first time in her life, whispers of “what ifs” threatened to paralyze her will to overcome. Jonah, a single rookie math teacher, sat beside her on the first day of orientation. Immediately, his laughter invaded every cell of her being. By the end of week one, he picked her up for their first date. She basked in his confidence, and within a month, the first year jitters had disappeared like early morning mist. Six months later, they were on the verge of something permanent, when a phone call turned her life upside down.
News of blonde hair, blue-eyed Jonah, a math geek that all the students fell in love with, a twenty-two-year-old guy with a sense of humor that would rival any stand-up comedian broke her world. Jonah, who loved Jesus, and served him faithfully; Jonah Emit, breathed his last breath on the side of I-95 when a drunk driver unknowingly aimed his car like a missile on a mission. In an instant, Jonah was gone.
The student body reeled, distraught their teacher had been taken from them. His parents, whom she’d grown to respect, his sisters—all of them were devastated. Ember was numb for months—going through the motions of life, checking off her boxes but disconnecting from any real feeling. She filled her days and nights—unwilling to stop long enough and experience the pain. Leigh, her mother, tried to offer comfort but was so wrapped up in her budding relationship, based in Seattle, with a man half her age, that all hugs and platitudes were as empty as a dry well. Her father attended the funeral, but Jase Bennett had never been a fountain of wisdom. His reflection in the mirror only showed himself, with no room for anyone else, even his only child. As soon as she unlocked the front door of her apartment after the memorial service, her father gifted her with a kiss on the cheek before heading south for Miami. His social life took precedence over his daughter’s shattered heart.
Pops was there though. Through months of denial ticking towards grief—the ready shoulders that held her while she cried were those of Pops. The soothing, gentle voice who counseled her through doubt and anger belonged to Pops. The wrinkled, rock solid hands that held the Bible, while praying Scripture over her were those of Pops. She was convinced her broken heart was mended because Pops was her lifeline.
However, her world continued to wobble when three short years later, Pops, her best friend, received the diagnosis that everyone dreads—cancer; that horrible six letter word that robs so many of life.
Saying goodbye to Pops, her beloved grandfather, was the most excruciating phrase she had ever uttered. But she knew if she didn’t give him permission to go, he would hang on to this life with every labored breath. She loved him too much to watch him suffer anymore. The memory of sitting beside him in the hospital with his once strong hand, now frail, holding onto hers would never leave her mind. Branded on her soul were his last words, “Em, don’t be afraid to love again,” his voice crackled, but he continued, “with your whole heart. Trust, baby girl. Seek direction, but don’t be afraid to move in the direction you are called and don’t be afraid of the silence. Listen. Embrace it and seek wisdom from the only One who has it to give.” Her tears soaked the sterile hospital sheets as she leaned close to his mouth. Despite the difficulty of speaking, he was intent on finishing his message, “You will never be alone. Never. Promise me you will remember.”
All she could do was nod her head, promising she would try to trust. She would attempt to rest—something he accused her of never doing. According to Pops, she was always trying to prove something to someone—to deserve love. The last words he heard from her trembling lips were the only ones that mattered. “I love you, Pops.” Minutes later he was gone. With his last breath, the foundation that she rested on crumbled to ashes. Ember felt—lost.
Both parents showed up for the service, but no looks were exchanged. They went through the motions, flanked on either side of her and then quickly went their separate ways. Again, horrible silence. She remembered looking out over the few people in attendance and seeing a stranger standing on the outskirts of the graveyard. The rain obscured a clear view, but the tall, dark figure retreated before she could find out who he was. Consumed by her grief, and walking through the motions, she forgot about the mysterious appearance—until today. Seeing Aiden shadowed in the front yard evoked the memory from that horrible day. He was there.
Neither parent cared to be present for the reading of the will, neither cared much about Pops as far as she was concerned. Strained on a good day, the relationship between Ransom and his son wavered from tentative to civil. However, the last twelve years had been riddled with constant turmoil, typically around her father’s inability to grow up and take responsibility for his choices. The fact that Pop’s only possession, outside of the few boxes housed in apartment 316 in the assisted living facility, went to Ember, surprised no one.
The cabin in the forest. The cabin she had only visited a handful of times as a child, before Pops moved and rented it out to outdoorsmen looking for adventure. The cabin where she could hopefully find what was desperately missing from her life, something she could depend on, something she could believe in again. The cabin in the quiet of the woods, where maybe she could befriend the silence, rest in it, instead of running from it.
Spring came, and Ember did not renew her teaching contract. Today, on the last day of post-planning in early June, Ember headed south with a packed car and a heavy heart but with hope for tomorrow.
Aiden carefully navigated the familiar driveway before making an immediate right on his property. Slowly, he put his faithful truck—one he’d fixed up in high school and couldn’t bear to part with—in park and cut the lights but didn’t get out. Rusty sensed something was wrong because instead of demanding release, he laid his head on Aiden’s lap. Absently, Aiden ran his fingers through Rusty’s silky dark chocolate coat. He looked down at the dog and released a half laugh, before looking up at the ceiling of his truck. He pulled down the visor where a time-worn picture of him standing next to a large, older man stared back at him. They’d been fishing, and Aiden had snagged the biggest trout he’d caught to date. The expression on Pop’s face–priceless—a mixture of indignation at having been out-fished but also an intense pride that still brought tears to his eyes. Aiden spoke through emotion to the picture as if the man himself would respond, “Pops, what are you trying to do to me?”
The old man had been for all essential purposes, his father. A rebellious fifth grader, up to no good, Aiden met his match in Ransom Bennett, a volunteer at the elementary school he attended. Ransom coached tackle football and noticed the unusual aggression boiling over in Aiden. After doing a little research, Ransom apparently learned Aiden’s story. Abandoned by an abusive father, being raised by a single mother who worked three jobs, young Aiden ran wild and answered to no one. Ransom took the time to contact his mom and charmed her into allowing him to work with him after school.
Coach Bennett drove him relentlessly on the football field and taught him about effort and motivation, and then the value of a work ethic when he hired him to help him out on the property doing odd jobs. As a full-blown teenager, he invested in Aiden with life’s most precious commodity—time. Eventually known to him as “Pops,” Aiden knew he owed the old man everything, mainly because Ransom introduced him to faith in Someone beyond himself. Although he had only seen Ransom a handful of times over the last decade, he loved him. He would do anything for him, and Ransom knew that. Aiden had agreed to manage the property when Pops moved to Jacksonville to be with his beloved Ember. And during their last stream of correspondence, Aiden decided to follow through on something he would only do for the man who had invested so much time in him. He agreed to watch over his precious granddaughter.
In his mind’s eye, Aiden could visualize the energetic, inquisitive little girl who tagged behind her grandfather the few times he’d seen her. No way he would forget the freckle-peppered fiery, redhead with sparkling eyes the color of evergreen oaks. But Ransom had not shared that the little girl had grown into a stunning beauty—one that had the power in one short conversation to render him speechless. One that he suspected had passion and determination simmering underneath the surface. No, Ransom didn’t fill him in on any of that vital information.
Exiting the truck, followed by Rusty, Aiden bypassed the expansive front porch of his renovated farmhouse and marched towards the stables. There, he found Solo and Freedom, the two quarter horses he called friends. Solo, his dark bay horse, was gentle and easy going, whereas Freedom, with her rich, coppery coat, was more adventurous boasting a hint of mischief. As he watered and fed his family, Aiden mentally dug his heels into his lifestyle. He was a loner, a writer—one who had moderate success in the vast world of fiction. He fished, gardened, hunted, canoed, kayaked, and was perfectly satisfied with the solitary existence he had so carefully crafted. Ever since Audrey, he had no desire to nurture relationships, much less one with a beautiful young woman. Five long years had passed since Audrey left him waiting—at the altar. No, Aiden had learned his lesson more than once when it came to loving someone with all your heart. When that someone betrays you, the fallout is unbearable. Walking back to the house with Rusty by his side, he knew what he would say to Ember tomorrow. He had a plan, one that did not include her as a neighbor.
Ember chose the largest bedroom with the picture window facing the right side of the property. As she closed the last drawer in the antique oak chest, she was satisfied with her progress for the evening. Besides the kitchen and bathroom necessities, she had only packed clothes and a few pictures; she had no desire to change anything about her little haven. She would have to drive into Ocala to pick up a few essentials the next day, but overall she was set. As she lay in bed reading a new best-selling novel, she took a moment to thank God for the blessing of safe travel and for bringing her to these crossroads in her life.
The wall of crosses, the arrangement untouched through the years, drew her attention. Pops and the grandmother she’d never met collected them through the years. Some were simple and others more elaborate; they all reminded her that Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross for everyone, regardless of what they looked like or where they came from–a fact she was ever so grateful to embrace. Pops introduced her to the Jesus, who welcomed little children instead of silencing them when she was eight years old. Through the ups and downs, her faith grew from a tiny seed to one that propelled her forward. She learned, even in the face of loss and pain, hope existed. Pops helped her navigate through the crises of faith in the face of all she’d been through, and in her heart of hearts, she knew Jesus would meet her right where she was. Her heart still hurt from so many losses and the insecurities she’d experienced as a child and nurtured as an adult—insecurities that had to be surrendered every single day. Part of her still believed she had to prove herself, prove her worth, even prove she could start over again. But she was determined to stop believing the lies, she was determined to embrace hope.
The chiseled face of Aiden Steele floated through her mind. Aiden. The essence of pain hardened his gaze when he looked at her during their earlier conversation, yet there was something else in that look too. Something she couldn’t identify.
Property manager. No wonder the meticulously kept surrounding acre and the fifty-year-old cabin appeared brand-new. Even the outlying shed was well taken care of from what she could tell. Was it possible that he loved her grandfather as she had? Was it possible they might share their sorrow? Ember blinked rapidly and attempted to refocus on the descriptive words laying across her lap beckoning her to escape into the story. She didn’t have time to focus on Aiden. She was here to stand on her own two feet, to learn to live independently—a new home, a new job, a new community, a new start. After all, the memory of Jonah was real and reminded her firsthand, the pain associated with love lost.
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Amanda Williams is a forty-year old wife and mother of two who can still swing her pony tail and display just a tad of sass. She is also a Jesus loving girl who realizes she is nothing without the One who saved her. Amanda has two degrees specializing in serving students with special needs and is currently working in the field of Leadership Development. She is a Christian author, speaker, blogger, and publisher who loves serving beside her husband at her local place of worship, First Baptist Church of Ocala.