Note: This is something really different for me, inspired by a song that really touched my heart (if you've heard it, you'll probably know what it is).
The weak sun filtered through the bare trees as Jonah walked across the Millers' fields to get to Bethany's house. He listened to his feet crunching over the light snow, and wondered what Bethany's news could possibly be. They had been dating for five years, ever since the seventh grade, and Jonah could count on one hand the number of times she'd ever had anything approaching news to tell him. They lived in a tiny, fairly insular town peopled solely by followers of Christ seeking a simpler, more holy way of life. Most people lived without television or internet, and there wasn't a mall or a movie theater within twenty miles. There just wasn't much going on in their town, and most "news" was about marriages, or babies, or deaths.
He didn't think it could be any of those. Yet... Bethany had been complaining of pain lately, and Dr. Forrester hadn't been able to find anything wrong with her. Bethany's father had finally taken her to the nearest hospital, over 50 miles away, to see some doctors there. Perhaps they had been able to fix whatever was wrong with her. Yes, that must be it.
Jonah hopped the low wooden fence out of the field, spotting the Taylors' house rising butter-yellow before him. He knocked on the back door, and Bethany answered, neatly attired. She led him to the sparsely furnished sitting room, and sat on one end of the sofa. The rising sun pressed a warm line of light around her figure. There was a book open on the table, a careworn Bible. From the place it had been left open, Jonah thought it must have been Psalms. He sat a careful distance away from her.
"Is your father still asleep?" he asked.
"No," Bethany answered, with an odd expression. "He went for a drive. He's been gone a long time."
Jonah thought nothing could have surprised him more. Although he and Bethany were regularly allowed to be alone in the sitting room, usually studying or reading the Bible together, her father was always nearby. He was vaguely uncomfortable in the silence that followed.
"Did the doctors find out anything?"
"Yes. They said it's, um, osteo-, osteosarcoma," she said, fumbling a bit over the words. "Cancer of the bone."
An even longer silence followed. "Did they give you medication?"
"They, um, they said that, um, there's nothing they can do. All I can do is trust in God." She didn't cry, or even seem all that upset. Still, there was a trembling fragility about her that made Jonah want to gather her up in his arms.
"Then let's pray together," he said. He scooted farther over on the couch until he was sitting on the cushion next to hers. He held out his hands, and felt his heart skip a beat when she placed hers in them. They both closed their eyes and bowed their heads. Jonah tried to calm his mind, but his thoughts were racing. With every cell in his brain, he cried out to God to spare her, his oldest friend, his best friend, his only love.
He lifted his head and, before he could talk himself out of it, leaned over and kissed her firmly on the mouth. He felt her stiffen slightly, and then relax enough to move her lips against his. Her eyelids fluttered open, and suddenly he was looking directly into her pale blue eyes. Then she pulled back, a strange, panicked expression on her face.
Jonah turned, and saw Bethany's father, Samuel, standing in the hallway, watching them with a pained expression on his face. Jonah stood immediately, dropping Bethany's hands.
"Sir, I'm sorry," he stammered.
Samuel's expression softened. "You don't have to apologize, son."
"I should get back home. I'll see you tomorrow, Bethany." Jonah was halfway across their backyard when he realized that there was something he had wanted to ask Bethany. As he approached the house again, he saw through a crack in the shade that her father was embracing her, tears rolling down his cheeks. Whatever his question had been, it was forgotten again. Jonah left to go home, deep in thought.
Tuesdays, the dozen or so kids in their grade all met at someone's house for Bible study. It had been six weeks since Bethany's diagnosis, in deepest winter, January. Every week, they spent half an hour in prayer for Bethany, but she didn't seem to be getting any better. This week, they had met at the house of Jonah's cousin, Michael Blake. Bethany was in good spirits despite the pain she was no doubt in. Night had fallen, and most of the other kids left early.
When everyone was trooping up the stairs from the basement, Bethany caught the edge of Jonah's shirt to hold him back. The overhead light had been flicked off, and the only light was the dim glow from the kitchen upstairs. Bethany rested her forehead against Jonah's back, and grasped his hand tightly in hers.
"Jonah, I think we should talk."
"I'm sorry about the other day. It was forward of me," he responded.
"I thought it was nice." She stood on her tiptoes and pressed a gentle kiss on his neck, just below the ear. He shivered and turned to face her. "I want to do it again." Jonah leaned forward and barely brushed his lips against hers. He reached up to put his hands on her waist, but suddenly the light flared to life again.
"Come on up, everyone's gone!" called Michael.
"Let's meet in the glen tomorrow," Bethany said, and dashed off home.
Jonah scratched his head, dazed and a little baffled. He felt uncomfortable. As far as he knew, there was no specific Biblical provision preventing kissing or holding hands. It had just always been impressed firmly upon him that kissing was a special, private act, something you did only with the person you truly loved. Many young couples in their town shared their first kiss on their wedding day. He supposed it was possible that many other kids were doing the same thing, but it seemed that no one was really talking about it.
Jonah bundled himself up tightly in layers of wool, pulling a scarf around his ears, and struggled through the snow to the glen, one of many small clearings in the woods behind his house. It was so quiet, often with just the soft trilling of a nearby bird. He had always felt closer to God here, even closer than in the building they called church. But, Jonah reasoned, God hadn't actually built the church, but he had built their entire planet. Wasn't it all really God's house?
He remembered the first time he had confessed this to Bethany, she had been a little scandalized. After she had visited, and they prayed together, she finally understood. Sometimes Jonah thought she visited the glen more than he did. Certainly these days he often saw a lone set of tracks in the snow leading there.
Stepping neatly between the trees, he saw that Bethany was already there, kneeling silently on the thick blanket they kept folded in the hollow of a tree. She rocked back and forth gently as she prayed, and her cheeks were already pink with cold. He knelt before her, placing his hands over hers. Her eyes opened, and she smiled at him.
"Bethany, I don't think you should really be out in the cold so much. Shouldn't we go inside?"
"Why don't you just warm me up here?" she said, leaning forward and rubbing her nose against his, kissing him. He was so surprised, he didn't do anything for a long moment. Bethany had always been so demure, even blushing slightly when the backs of their hands brushed accidentally. What had gotten into her? His kiss had been impulsive, but was it possible that she had liked it? He did. Her kiss was warming him down to his toes, making his heart beat faster. He kissed her back.
When she pulled back, her face was no less flushed, but her eyes were bright. "Jonah, are you still planning to go into the seminary next fall?"
He shifted uncomfortably. He hadn't wanted to talk about the future since Bethany had gotten sick. A future without her in it didn't sound much like a future at all to him. He struggled to pull his mind away from those thoughts. He would not cry in front of her.
"Um, yes. I can't think of anything I would rather do than study the Bible, to bring the joy of the Word to others. I already talked to the pastor about it, and he said he would be happy to give me a position as his assistant when I graduate. If I want to come back to live here, that is..." he said, trailing off wistfully.
"I decided to withdraw my application to the girls' college." When Jonah started to break in, she interrupted him. "Please, you and I both know there isn't any point. Even if I am still here in September, will I want to spend my last days in a classroom? I just want to spend the time I have left experiencing new things."
"What kind of things?"
"Well... things like kissing." She gave him a small smile, looking up at him expectantly.
"Ah, well," he said, taken aback. "We can kiss."
She dropped her gaze to the ground and said quietly, "I want to do more than kiss."
Jonah was so surprised, he sat back on his heels suddenly. Was she talking about...sex? In the back of his mind, he supposed he wasn't even sure that Bethany knew what that was, though that was ridiculous. Surely her mother had told her about it before she had passed away? Jonah's father had sat him down at thirteen and explained the mechanics of it all, telling him it was something married people did to make babies, and that was all he really knew. He had discovered masturbation shortly before "the talk," and his father had said that was an unholy urge, that it might feel good now, but it would feel ten times as good when the urge was satisfied within a conjugal relationship.
"Bethany, I don't think that we should. That's something people do to have children," he said, confused.
She looked at him like he had sprouted a second head. "Is that what your parents told you? It's not only for that, you know. Mother told me that it's one of the most Godly expressions of love."
It sounded sort of blasphemous to Jonah. He looked at her dubiously, but her mother had been a very pious woman. According to his parents, one of the least sinful people they knew. So if she had said it was all right. "But it's something you can only do once you're married," he insisted before he had thought of the implications of his logic.
"I'll never get married," Bethany reminded him sadly.
"You don't know that," he argued back. "Just because the doctor said..."
"Stop it, stop it!" she shouted, even though for her it was still a quiet sound, like she was shouting through a pillow. "We have to be adults about this, Jonah. I am going... to die."
They sat in silence together for a long time. Jonah felt bad for upsetting her. There had to be a way to make things right.
"Bethany," he said softly, resting a hand on the back of her cheek, so cold. "Let's get married."
"We can't! Daddy would never approve, and what about your parents? Besides, we would need a license, and witnesses, and everything."
"Only if we want to be legally married. I'm sure Pastor Stevens would do it, if we asked him. We're adults now. The only witness we need is God."
"Let me think about it," she said.
It was the last week in February. Bethany was still sick. She hadn't said a word about Jonah's suggestion, and he was sure she had forgotten about it. That Friday morning, she did another very un-Bethany-like thing, passing him a note in the middle of class. It said, "Monday morning. Meet me at church."
Jonah's hands were shaking as he tied his shoes and straightened his tie. If he was going to be married today, he was at least going to wear his Sunday suit, even if he had just worn it the day before. It was six o'clock, the sky just barely lightening. He wanted to get out before anyone else was awake. He didn't want to answer their questions.
Remnants of the last snow were still on the ground. He shivered in his jacket, and stuck his hands in his pockets. When he got to the church, he stood outside, looking at the tall wooden doors, the little spire, the cross that topped it. He thought about what he was going to do, wondered if he was making the right decision. He was going in to ask a man of God, whom he greatly respected, to confer upon him one of the greatest permanent human connections, and all so that he and Bethany could experience this one physical act without sinning. To Bethany, though, it was more than just a physical act. It was the pinnacle of human love on earth. He couldn't deny her that.
Soft footsteps behind him alerted him to her presence. She wore an ankle-length quilted jacket with the hood up. Her face was very pale, but she gave him a tiny smile. He opened the doors, and they entered the sanctuary. The Pastor wasn't in sight, but he would most likely be in his quarters, four small rooms behind the sanctuary. Jonah tapped lightly on the door to his office, and the door opened, showing a kind, puzzled face behind it.
"Jonah, Bethany, what are you doing here at this hour?"
"Pastor, we need to talk to you." The door opened wider, admitting them into a small office with several chairs and bookshelves crammed with books, notebooks, and papers. The Pastor sat in front of his desk and gestured for them to do the same. They engaged in a few pleasantries. Their parents were fine, cousins were fine, friends were fine. Finally, Jonah got to the point.
"We want you to marry us," he said.
There was a long pause. "Do you understand what you're asking?" asked the Pastor.
"Yes. I want to do this before I die," said Bethany with certainty.
"Normally, I only marry couples who have had a chance to talk with me at length about marriage and the commitment it requires. I have never married any couple before their 19th birthdays, and I've been doing marriages in this town for over thirty years. Why, I married both your parents!" He paused, evidently thinking hard. "Let's pray together."
They fell silent and bowed their heads. Jonah questioned his decision again, but at last came to peace.
"Pastor," he said. "I understand that it might not be a traditional marriage in a lot of ways. But Bethany and I love each other. Ever since we started dating, I knew that she was the one I would someday marry." As he said it, he felt the truth of it. "The day may have come a lot faster than we thought, and 'til death do us part' will come a lot sooner than we want, too. But I am sure this is the decision I want to make."
Pastor Stevens looked from one to the other again, sighed gently, and preceded them into the sanctuary. Jonah and Bethany removed their coats before kneeling. He noticed that she was wearing a long, white cotton dress and a string of seed pearls.
"This is what my mother got married in," she explained. "Daddy doesn't know I have them."
The service was not long. In fifteen minutes, Jonah was pressing his lips against Bethany's, feeling her tremble against him. The Pastor retired to his quarters where, Jonah was sure, he would be praying all day. Jonah and Bethany left the church hand-in-hand, but Bethany said goodbye to him outside the church.
"Daddy is leaving me alone tonight to go see his sister in the hospital. I hope you'll come."
That night, Jonah told the only lie he could remember telling. He told them he would be up before the sun to go to church, so if he wasn't home when they awoke, that was why. In reality, he stuffed some clothes into his backpack and, after his parents and brothers had gone to bed, snuck out of the house. It wasn't until the walk to Bethany's house that he really thought about the reason he was going over to her house. They wouldn't be studying the Bible all night, anyway. Suddenly, he was really nervous. He wiped his sweating palms on the leg of his slacks, and let himself into Bethany's house. She had left the door unlocked so his knocking wouldn't rouse the neighbors.
The house was dark, only a weak light shining down from the top of the stairs. Jonah swallowed hard, feeling more nervous than he had ever felt before. He climbed the stairs, deliberately stepping on the squeaky fifth one to announce his presence to Bethany. Before he had made it to the landing, she was peeking at him from around the corner. They hugged briefly in greeting, and she took his hand, leading him toward her bedroom as if he was a child. I am a child, he thought to himself, and tomorrow I will be a man.
He dropped his backpack onto the floor by her door, which she closed behind them. The click of the lock sounded very final. There was no going back now.
Jonah took his first good look at Bethany, surprised to see her still in the white dress she had worn that morning. She smiled at him demurely, guessing what he was thinking.
"I took it off when I got home so Daddy wouldn't see it. I really don't think he'd be happy if he knew. But...this is what she wore the night they, um, well, got married, and I wanted to..." She trailed off, looking vaguely uncomfortable.
"So, uh, do you know how we're supposed to...?" Jonah asked, blushing bright red.
"Oh! Yes. My mother, well...let's...let's get into bed," Bethany suggested. She slid onto the narrow little bed, covered with a sunny yellow spread. Jonah sat down beside her, finding there was just enough room for the two of them to sit side-by-side. She looked up at him, and he felt himself leaning toward her, toward the softest lips he thought he would ever feel in his life, toward his...wife. As he kissed her, she trembled beside him.
For a long time, Jonah held Bethany close, gently kissing her lips, and occasionally trespassing upon her cheeks, her ears, her neck. She gave a nearly inaudible sigh each time his lips brushed along her collarbone, and eventually he knew the time was right. He slid his fingertips along the back of her dress, finding the zipper and drawing it down shakily. He pulled her dress over her arms, exposing her plain cotton bra for the first time. As simple as it was, he found it tantalizing.
Bethany helped him push it over her hips when his nerves failed, and he saw that she was wearing matching panties. She lay back on the bed looking so thin, and so beautiful. His mouth went dry looking down at her. Eventually his inaction made Bethany falter, and she lifted her arms to cover herself.
"You don't like..." she began.
"You're beautiful," he rushed to assure her. Hands shaking, he undid the buttons on his own clothes, very aware that Bethany was watching his every move closely. He set aside pants and shirt, socks and shoes, and eventually stood in her bedroom clad only in his underwear. He soon drew those down, too, conscious of exposing himself for the first time to anyone as far as he could remember, and then knelt on the bed again.
Bethany was unclasping her bra, and then she held it in front of her, afraid to let it go. He leaned over to kiss her again, and he felt her jerk as he brushed against her thigh. He rested his hand lightly on her stomach, and she released her bra, dropping it to the floor. When he drew back to see her, she hooked her fingers into her panties and slid them down her legs until she was as bare as he, save for the seed pearls encircling her throat.
Then she was touching him, bringing him to full hardness while he closed his eyes and tried to relearn how to breathe. When she parted her legs and he slid inside her, it was like he was stepping into a whole new world. Her soft skin slid against him as he moved, pressing into her tight, wet heat. She was murmuring his name as she cried out beneath him, and he could only follow her under, sinking beneath the pleasure like a drowning man.
Jonah and Bethany woke with the dawn and made love again, this time more eagerly, with the anticipation born of knowledge. When it was over, they lay in bed, silently, enjoying the sound of the chittering sparrows outside the window. The silence was broken by the soft sound of a door closing downstairs. Bethany's head snapped up, and she grabbed for her underclothes, hurriedly pulling them on.