Novella

“You might not remember me,” she said. “My name is Crystal Hill. I was Crystal McMillan in high school.”

“Of course I remember you, Crystal,” Larry said quietly. His hand shook so violently that he nearly dropped the phone. He wanted to say more. He wanted to say, “There hasn’t been a day in five years that I haven’t remembered you. You and I were friends. I was hoping one day to marry you.” Instead, he waited to hear what she had to say.

She sighed. Then the words seemed to tumble out of her mouth. “Pastor Lee, you told me once a long time ago that if I ever needed anything, I should just ask you. You said that you would do anything for me.”

“I remember saying that,” Larry carefully answered. “Those words are still true today.”

“I need your help,” she said, a catch in her voice as if she were about to start crying. “Charlie and I both need your help. Our marriage is in trouble…has been for a while… and he has finally agreed to see a counselor with me. But he won’t pay for a professional marriage counselor. I remembered that you’re a minister. Do you ever do marriage counseling?”

“I do,” Larry said. He had counseled two couples since he got out of school and started serving in a church. One couple had gone ahead and divorced; the other was still together.

“That’s great,” and again there was a catch in her voice, nearly a sob. “How much do you charge?”

“Members of the congregation I counsel for free—it’s part of my job.” He thought for just a second. “For you and Charlie I’ll adopt a sliding scale. Think of what you can afford, check it with Charlie, and if he says it’s too much, I’ll take less.” When she didn’t answer right away, he added, “I don’t want money to be the reason you two don’t get the counseling you need. I’ll see you for free if you want.”

“No. No, we’ll pay you something. I don’t know how much, but Charlie wouldn’t have any respect for you if you did this for free.” Larry heard her take a deep breath, and then she asked, “How soon can we get started?”

“I’m free tonight if you’re both available.”

Another sigh. “I was hoping you’d say that. Yes, we’re both available. What time should we come?”

“I could come to your house if you’d be more comfortable.”

“I think… I think we’d better come to the church. Charlie will probably… behave better… if we come to the church.”

“Fine. I’ll meet you here at seven.”

“Thank you, Larry. Thank you so much.” The line went dead, so Larry clicked “end.”

How long had it been since Larry had seen Crystal or heard her voice? He knew it was about five years—long enough for him to go to Bible college, get a certificate to preach, and start helping his father lead the congregation. Edward Lee had married when he was nearly forty, and Larry was his only child. Ever since Elizabeth Lee had died, Edward’s plans had moved toward retirement. He had already moved into an apartment near the center of the town; the apartment building was largely populated by retired workers and widows. By now Edward and Larry each preached about half the time, but his father had gradually moved other responsibilities onto Larry’s shoulders: weddings and funerals, leading meetings of the church council, and counseling people with their various problems. At first people had thought of Larry as the youth pastor, but now they were used to thinking him of as much a leader as his father was.

But the older women of the congregation were always telling Larry that he couldn’t be a real pastor until he got married and started a family. Some of them had nieces and granddaughters to recommend to him. Others just gave him advice without anyone in particular in mind. While he was in college, Larry had dated a few times, but he didn’t feel comfortable having a social life now that he was back in his hometown, with everyone watching. What was more, he did not know of a woman that he wanted to date, let alone marry. Only Crystal, and she had gotten married while he was away at school. She hadn’t even bothered to send him an invitation—he found out about the wedding three months after it happened.

Over the years their paths had never crossed. Occasionally he saw from a distance a woman who looked like Crystal, but if they got closer, he saw that it wasn’t her. Larry had begun to believe that she and her husband had moved to another city. He had stopped looking for her in the grocery store and other public places. Hearing her voice so suddenly, making an appointment to see her in just a few hours, made his stomach churn with anxiety. Part of his mind wanted to call her back and say, “No, Crystal, I can’t do this after all. I’m still too much in love with you.” But he had promised, back in high school, that he would do anything she asked. He wasn’t about to go back on his word now.

In high school, they had both been part of a large group of friends that often did things together. A couple pairs in the group were seriously dating each other, but mostly they moved as a group. They ate lunch together in the school cafeteria. They saw movies together in the theater. At school dances, they cheerfully exchanged partners. Yet as he got to know Crystal, Larry had felt drawn to her in a special way. Young as he was, he knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her at his side. He wanted to make her happy. He wanted their experiences to be shared.

Crystal had laughed when he tried to tell her how he felt. “I’m too young to be tied to one man,” she carelessly told him. “You’re always so serious. Let’s enjoy being young before we grow up and talk about who we want to marry.” She spoke lightly, and Larry knew at the time she was not making him any promises. But he had still believed that their destinies lay together. That’s why he had said to her more than once, “If you ever need anything or want anything, just ask. I will always be here for you.”

Pastor Larry Lee reached for the textbook on counseling that he had bought in the college bookstore. He skimmed through the chapter on marital counseling, reviewing the steps he would want to take with Crystal and Charlie.

This novella has now been published; it is available in its entirety for print or digital version (as Kindle) at amazon.com; the name of the novella is To Keep a Promise (A Love Story).