-Harvest Moon and all of its respective characters are property of Victor Interactive Software Inc. As I'm sure is obvious, they do not belong to me.
-This story is set in the 'Friends of Mineral Town' world.
-I'd like to thank my friend Rebecca for being my Beta for this short story. Even though she's not familiar with the Harvest Moon world, she helped me with some of the elements of punctuation and grammar that I've become rusty on.
-This story was originally written (and is the first entry by me) for the '30 Kisses' community on LiveJournal.
Eggplant in a Stew
It had been a little over two months since Jack had come to Mineral Town. He'd managed to get a nice amount of crops out in the spring and summer, and had even found the time to raise a couple chickens and one very temperamental cow. He'd made sure to attend every community gathering he could, even if he had to be a little sloppy on his chores to make it on time. The former city boy was now acquainted at least on a friendly level with almost everyone in town. An outsider would think that his transition to a new life had been a smooth one. Yet, Jack didn't feel quite fulfilled. In fact, sometimes he felt downright depressed. The worst part of it was that he had no idea what the source of the niggling feeling was.
This was in fact exactly what he felt that rainy autumn morning as he was making his way to the grocery store. Jack cursed as he tried not to slip on the cobblestone streets that had become slick in the storm. The cold rain that pelted him from above also caused him to scold himself internally for not buying an umbrella. By this point his drenched hair was plastered against his skin and his work shirt was completely soaked through. To say that Jack was miserable would have been quite the understatement. Desperate for a break, he paused for a few moments beneath a large tree. Even though quite a number of droplets did make it through the depleted amount of foliage the tree was bearing thanks to the season, it was certainly an improvement. The farmer leaned his back against the sturdy trunk of the tree, slowly looking over the town that lay before him. As ever, it looked to be the picture of tranquility. The kind of quaint small town you read about in books. It made Jack's stomach feel sour.
'I don't belong here,' he thought for perhaps the millionth time since he'd taken over the farm 'Everyone is nice enough, but they know the truth. They know in their hearts I don't belong. A city boy in a farming town is about as out of place as a rat in a dog show.'
That was exactly how Jack felt, really. He was surrounded by these people that had worked hard their entire lives to earn everything they had. It wasn't easy work either. It was back-breaking, thankless work the likes of which he'd never known. Nothing like the cushy desk jobs the majority of his friends back home had gotten into. Jack couldn't help but smirk a little at the image of himself in a boring white dress shirt typing endlessly away at a computer. Yeah, right. Like he'd be any happier, then. Sighing quietly he started to step away from the tree's shelter, praying that his trip wasn't in vain and that the store still had that large rucksack in stock that he'd been eyeing the day before.
"Jack!" a familiar voice called out.
The farmer stopped in his tracks and turned to the source of the voice, only to find the town's pastor, Carter, waving at him from the steps of the church. As much as Jack badly wanted to get this errand done so he could get back to his nice dry house, he wasn't about to be a jerk and ignore Carter. The pastor had always exuded genuine warmth that Jack found almost ethereal. Changing his course a bit, he approached the church with about as amicable a smile he could muster considering his current mood.
"Hey Carter, what's up?" Jack greeted the pastor.
"Hello Jack, sorry to bother you… but can I ask a favor?" Carter smiled apologetically.
"Well… you know Cliff, right?"
Jack thought for a moment, the name was indeed familiar. Then he remembered; Cliff was that quiet guy who was always hanging around the church and the Inn. He'd come from parts unknown shortly before Jack himself had arrived. The man was always so quiet, though, that it was easy to forget about him.
"Oh yeah, how is he?" Jack asked.
"Not very well, I'm afraid," Carter frowned. "He's been here awhile now and still doesn't seem to have any real friends. Just spends most of his time sitting around here and looking dejected."
Uh oh. Jack knew exactly where this was going, and he didn't like it. It wasn't that he didn't want to help Cliff, because he'd been a bit worried about the guy from the first time he'd met him. No, his apprehension came from the fact that him trying to cheer someone up would be a serious case of the blind leading the blind.
Carter continued, "Jack, you're in a similar situation to Cliff. You came to this town a stranger as well. I think that if anyone can help break him out of his shell, it's you."
"Well…" Jack looked away nervously, unsure of how to get out of the situation without seeming insensitive.
"I'm very worried about what might happen if someone doesn't reach him soon," Carter said gravely.
He didn't emphasize on what he meant by that, but it didn't take a genius to figure it out.
With a foreboding statement like that, there was no possible way that Jack was going to get out of this now.)
"I'll try my best," Jack nodded.
The pastor gave the farmer a grateful smile and led him into the church. Save for the sound of rain pattering against the roof, the inside of the building was eerily quiet. In a pew in the front row, a figure sat hunched over and still; it was the exact same spot Jack always saw Cliff in when he visited the church. Taking a deep breath, Jack made his way quietly down the middle aisle, getting increasingly tense with each step he came closer to Cliff. By the time he was actually beside the other young man the butterflies in his stomach were both dancing and jumping rope at the same time. Clearing his throat, Jack finally spoke.
"Hey there, Cliff."
Cliff jumped noticeably; obviously so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he hadn't heard Jack approach. It was obvious from the redness in his eyes and the glistening wetness of his cheeks that he had been crying.
"Oh, hi Jack," the other man replied timidly "Sorry, I guess I wasn't paying attention."
"That's OK…" Jack smiled warmly. "So… how've you been?"
The moment the query left his lips Jack wanted to kick himself. What kind of stupid question was that to ask a guy with tearstains on his cheeks? How did it look like he'd been?
"I've been fine," Cliff said with a weak attempt at a smile.
It was the typical answer one gives when they're not fine but don't want to draw any attention to themselves. Jack knew it all too well. He'd had to give that answer countless times lately. Out of respect for Cliff, the farmer didn't pry.
"That's good to hear," Jack nodded. "Mind if I sit with you for a bit?"
"No, that'd be OK," Cliff gently answered.
Jack sat himself down in a spot that gave Cliff plenty of personal space, putting his hands at his sides and looking around the cathedral absentmindedly. He was totally at a loss for what else to say. Seconds became minutes as he switched between viewing the interior of the church and stealing quick glances at Cliff. Where the heck had Carter disappeared to, anyway? At any rate, him just staring off into space wasn't going to help Cliff any. It was then that Jack thought of the perfect thing to say. He just hoped it would work.
"… man, I don't know if I'm ever going to get used to living here."
Jack's words caused Cliff to look up from the floor in surprise, "You mean, you're not?"
Jack laughed, "Oh, no way! I've never felt so out of place in my life. Everyone here is just so down to earth… and everyone seems to know what they're doing."
Cliff's eyes widened, "Yeah…"
"I mean, they've all known each other for years and almost seem like one big family. They know exactly what to say to one another, they know what lines not to cross. They're all really nice, don't get me wrong… but that doesn't change the fact that we're not on the same wavelength."
It felt so good for Jack to be able to say these things he'd had pent up inside him for so long. He'd never be able to tell the townspeople any of this; he'd be too worried they'd take it the wrong way and get offended. Somehow, it was different with Cliff. Jack suspected the other man felt the same, judging by the way his face was almost lit up.
"Me too." Cliff gasped before quickly adding, "Erm, what I mean is, I've felt the exact same way. Everyone here is so polite but…"
The shy fellow trailed off as a light blush formed on his cheeks where the tears had been. It was an odd reaction, Jack thought, but at least he wasn't moping now.
"I've got an idea," Jack beamed. "How about you come and hang out at the farm tomorrow when the weather's better? I've got a bumper crop of eggplants that need to be picked and if I do it by myself it'll take all day."
"Uh, I…" Cliff diverted his eyes hesitantly.
"Come on, us out-of-towners have to stick together, don't we?" Jack winked.
At the wink, Cliff nodded slowly, "OK, I'll be there."
Jack rose from the pew. "Great! Right now, I'm going to go buy a larger rucksack so I don't end up dropping eggplants all over the place. Seeya, Cliff!"
"Bye, Jack." Cliff said, actually managing an honest smile.
As he headed back down the aisle Jack found himself smiling honestly, too. Seeing Cliff a little cheerier made him overwhelmingly happy for some reason. He chalked it up to the joy of deed and decided it was silly to ponder over it. After all, why should he be upset with feeling sunny for a change? Upon exiting the church he was once again pelted with merciless cold rain. Groaning, the farmer wondered why the weather couldn't take a hint and become sunny as well.
Jack was awoken the next morning by a knock on his door. In his sleepy haze he dismissed it as part of a dream at first, but when the knocking didn't stop he hoisted himself out of his bed to answer it. Still groggy, he let out a sizeable yawn as he opened the door.
"Oh, Cliff. Good mornin'" he mumbled.
Cliff did not reply at first, his face fully flushed and his eyes looking somewhere other than Jack's face. Once he realized he'd been greeted, the long-haired man quickly looked up at Jack.
"G-good morning Jack… uh, nice boxers." he meekly chuckled.
Only now did Jack feel the cool autumn breeze blow across the bare skin of his chest and remembered that he wasn't wearing anything but his underwear. It was now his turn to blush as he scratched the back of his head in an embarrassed manner.
"Heh, oops! Sorry, not used to having company this early. I'm going to go throw on some real clothes… you can come in if you want." The farmer held open the door and gestured towards the dining room table.
Cliff considered it for a moment, but then waved the offer away. "No, that's OK. I'll just wait out here for you."
Jack shrugged, "If that's what you wanna do. I shouldn't be too long!"
Once he'd gotten dressed Jack stepped outside and looked around for Cliff. He found him staring out at the field by the shipping bin; the slight wind causing his ponytail to dance behind him while the rest of his body remained still. At first Jack wasn't sure that he wanted to disturb him. Eventually, however, he walked over and stood beside Cliff, trying to decide what exactly to say to break the other man's trance. In the end, he didn't need to.
"It's beautiful… you planted all this by yourself?" Cliff asked, still looking out at the field.
"Yeah… not all on the same day, though," Jack said sheepishly. "It's not all that impressive, really…"
Cliff's brow furrowed as he turned to look at Jack, "Well, I think it's very impressive! This land used to be barren. I remember; I stopped by it once before you came."
"Well, yeah… but you didn't see my first few attempts at farming," Jack snorted. "I managed to grow one stupid turnip out of all the seeds I planted for my first crop. It was a pretty sickly looking turnip too."
"It's more than I've done." Cliff muttered, looking away uncomfortably.
Jack immediately felt horrible. How could he be so insensitive? He was talking to a man who had no home and who owned nothing but the clothes on his back. He was going to have to be more careful with his words.
"That's going to change today, Cliff." The farmer started to grin.
Cliff gave Jack a very perplexed look.
"Today, you're going to help me harvest," Jack explained. "So, by all accounts, you're going to become a farmer. So let's stop yapping and show those eggplants who's boss, eh?"
Slowly, Cliff started to form a smile identical to Jack's, "Sounds good."
Even though it wasn't as unbearably hot as it had been in the summer months, the sun was still shining brightly that day. That meant lots of sweating and plenty of water breaks for the two men as they toiled away in the fields. They would collect enough of the vegetable to fill their baskets before heading to the shipping bin to empty them and start anew. It wasn't exactly the most enjoyable task to spend hours doing, but every time Jack looked Cliff's way the other man seemed in high spirits. His eyes were filled with determination and each time he filled his basket he beamed in satisfaction. It seemed to Jack that Cliff was happy just to be helpful. Just as yesterday, the feeling was contagious.
As morning became afternoon and afternoon started to become dusk the two men were getting very close to being done. There was only one plant left to pick and Cliff was carrying his latest full basket back to the shipping bin. Since they didn't have long before Zack came to pick up the days shipment, Cliff was almost running during this trip, eager to get everything into the bin on time. His eyes were locked on his target, and it was this that would prove to be his downfall.
The dog's yelp was what first caused Jack to quickly turn around from the bush he was working on. It was the sight of Cliff falling hard onto the ground however that sent him dashing across the field. While the dog got up and ran from the scene unharmed, Cliff did not.
"Cliff! Geez, are you OK?" Jack skidded to a stop beside the collapsed man and kneeled over him.
Cliff sat up, biting his bottom lip and clutching his knee with a pained look. "I didn't see him… I'm sorry Jack. Is he all right?"
"Don't worry, he's fine! What about you?"
Still clutching his knee, Cliff winced as if to answer.
"Quick! Take of your pants!" Jack requested urgently.
Cliff's eyes shot open, "Huh?"
"Look, nobody's around... I need to check out your knee and make sure it's OK."
The blush that spread across Cliff's face this time was unrivaled by any of the previous blushes he'd had. Still, he obligingly slid his weathered trousers down his legs and brought up the pained knee. Jack was all business as he inspected the rather nasty looking cut that had formed just below the other man's kneecap.
"Wow, you must've landed on a rock… nothing a little cream and a bandage can't fix though," Jack said. "Stay here. I'll be right back."
Not waiting for a reply, Jack sprung up from the spot and ran to his house. He entered and exited the farmhouse in a matter of minutes and returned with a box of bandages and a small tube of antibiotic ointment. Kneeling down beside Cliff again he applied first the ointment and then the bandage in a way only one who has had many cuts can possibly do.
"First time I've had to patch up someone other than myself!" Jack chuckled as he pressed gently on the ends of the adhesive bandage to make sure it stayed put.
All this time the farmer had not realized that Cliff had not said a word. Due to the fact he was concentrating on the wound, Jack had also not noticed the new look that had appeared in the other man's eyes. It wasn't until Jack looked up to say something else that he noticed Cliff's expression; and even then he didn't get a chance to truly take it in. For in that split-second of time, Cliff leaned over and pressed his lips hard against Jack's. It was an awkward sort of kiss; the type given by one who had not planned to do the act more than a few nanoseconds before it occurred. It was unsure and quick, but it was also filled with an urgent passion so powerful that Jack felt a quiver run down his spine. As soon and as suddenly as it had begun however, it was over. Cliff gasped and sprang to his feet, as if only then realizing exactly what it was he had done.
"Jack… I'm sorry…" His eyes were wide and his hands trembled. "I… I didn't…"
Cliff never did finish that sentence. Instead, he hurriedly pulled up his pants and sprinted away, although thanks to the cut on his knee it perhaps wasn't as fast as he would have liked. Still, Jack was too dazed from what had just happened to comprehend what was going on until it was too late. By the time he snapped back to reality, Cliff was almost off the property, and all Jack could do was call out behind him.
While Jack's yell managed to make a few roosting birds scatter from the top of the barn, it failed to bring Cliff back.
Cliff ran for what seemed like years. Really, it only took him a half-hour to reach the beach. Even then the only thing that stopped him from running was the water. Once he'd reached the shore he collapsed to his knees in the sand, feeling the sharp sting of his still sensitive abrasion upon impact. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks as quiet sobs escaped his throat, his entire body quivering.
"What is wrong with me?" he whispered to no one.
Cliff had no idea why he'd kissed Jack. All he remembered was a swelling of something warm and wonderful inside of his chest when the other man was tending to him. Come to think of it, he'd felt a bit of it all day. Every time Jack would compliment him on his work or show him how to do something he'd feel a bit of that warmth. Nothing could compare to the intensity of what he felt when Jack was putting on the bandage, though. Having the farmer so near and having him and care about him made Cliff feel like he was going to explode from the feelings inside.
'But, Jack is a man.' Cliff thought, falling back onto his rear and clutching his legs close to his body. 'That's not how it's supposed to be. This is all wrong… why do I always have to be such a freak?'
It was a term that Cliff would never use out loud. In his mind however, that's the way he'd always seen himself. It wasn't that he looked especially different, or even the way he communicated. It was something intangible; something he lacked that he sensed everyone else around him had. He didn't know what that 'thing' was, but he knew he was missing it. It was why he'd left his old town, and it was why he never stayed in one place for very long. He didn't belong anywhere he went, and yet he didn't have the skills to survive alone. It was a horrible sort of existence.
Today though, he hadn't felt that way. On Jack's farm Cliff felt like he was home. The field felt like home, the crops felt like home, the annoying little bugs that feasted on him felt like home, and even the dirt that still clung to his clothes felt like home. Above all else, Jack felt like home.
Cliff wasn't sure what he was going to do. A part of him wanted to take his usual course of action and move on to the next town. A larger part of him though, the part that had probably made him kiss Jack, felt leaving would surely cause Cliff to die. He had found that sense of belonging he'd sought for so long; to leave now would be foolish.
When he finally brought himself to his feet and turned back to town Cliff still didn't know what he was going to do. The weariness in his body from both the day's labor and his sprint out of the farm had caught up with him, and all he wanted to do now was sleep. Sleep would afford him an escape, albeit temporary, from the millions of thoughts and feelings that fought for dominance inside him.