Author's Note: This three-shot will be written for the contest on the Village Square Forums. The theme for October is Autumn, and since it's my favorite season, I'm really happy to enter. Well, here goes something! XD
Disclaimer: The title for this three-shot came from the Jim Croce song of the same name. I don't own Jim Croce or any HM characters which is very sad indeed...
What a lonely season, the young woman thought sorrowfully to herself as she walked along a forgotten forest path. She wondered vaguely why it was that the vibrant leaves always remained on the trees while the ones beneath her were always a muddy brown. Grass had long since overgrown the ridges where carts, hooves, and feet once passed through in great numbers. She tried to imagine herself among them during that distant time if only to help ease the pain of being on her own. She never liked having just herself for company, so even the illusion was a comfort.
From her ratty old clothes, a black sweater and washed-out denim jeans, both worn and torn with age to her brown eyes as dead as the dull leaves beneath her feet, she looked ragged from her journey. Her soft brown hair, almost as rich in darkness as the earth, had been hacked away which left it chopped and jagged around her cheeks and barely brushing the back of her bare neck. She had considered leaving it long for the cooler months to help keep her warm, but having few bathing opportunities on her travels, she'd learned to keep herself simple.
Just as she considered this, her stomach growled bitterly. The reminder was strong enough to cause her to cringe, clutching at her tiny waist, but she knew there was nothing she could do to ease the hunger. Fall may have been the season of the harvest, but not owning anything save for the clothes on her back and the memory in her pocket, she had no share in the bounty.
The young girl had never learned to forage for edibles in the wilderness although it was certainly a troubling fault given she hadn't a penny left to her name. Still, she'd managed to live for so long with so little that she wasn't worried in the least. She'd make it, somehow...
Just as she was about to ready herself for a pep-talk, she happened to catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye. It was a mushroom though not big by any means, but it was still food. At least, that's what she was hoping. She studied it from a distance before coming close and crouching down beside the fungus. It wasn't red and white like the ones she'd been warned about, but she had a nagging thought telling her it wasn't meant for eating.
However, she was far too hungry to fret over that detail. It was either she poison herself or she deal with starvation. Being that she'd enjoy living longer if only for a moment should she eat it, she opted to set her caution aside, and once she'd plucked it from the ground, she consumed the slippery thing in one cautious bite.
"Not... too bad..." she tried to convince herself, cringing at the slick texture in her mouth. At least she might be able to find something more satisfying in the time it took for the mushroom to settle, and in the end she figured that was all that mattered. By then she could-
The pain abruptly returned in the next instant, and her hand returned to her waist desperately clawing at her hunger. However, she had a feeling this was... different... some... how...
Without warning, she found herself caving as she folded up onto the ground. A small gasp of surprise was all she could manage before the world began to fade into a blurry darkness. She thought distantly, I think I'm fainting... or... maybe...
...I'm dying... she finished at last, feeling a sense of warmth wrapped around her where there had been the autumn chill what seemed to only be moments before.
"So you're comin' to, eh?" a deep voice asked. It echoed thickly in her mind as she began to stir. If only she could touch it, she supposed it would feel just like velvet. Reaching out her small chapped fingers, she brushed against something rough and bristled which caused her to sit upright quickly, wanting to know how such a smooth tone could come from something that felt like... that.
A large man was crouched beside the bed, his gray eyes filled with a gruff sort of concern. He looked just about as ragged in his soiled t-shirt and jeans as she was, but there was a big difference. If they were in what she assumed was his home, then he had far more than her. She hadn't had a place to call home in a very long time, almost too far in the past for her to even remember... Of course, the truth lay in if she wanted to at all.
"What'd you do to pass out like that out?" he asked roughly, his muscular arms crossed over his chest once he was upright. She blinked at him dumbly; seeing his bushy beard, she realized that had been the bristly sensation she felt when she reached out to touch his voice. "You didn't eat some them toadstools, did ya?"
"Are they all white?" she murmured while she rubbed the sleep from her eye.
"Figures..." the man muttered though it came out as more of a growl. "Don't you know those are poisonous?"
"I'm alive, aren't I?" she shot back, more sharply than she intended. But her rescuer just gave her a gravely chuckle in response. When he smiled, she felt herself relax some, and her guard faltered. He wasn't going to hurt her after saving her, she reasoned. "So... am I gonna be okay then?"
"Yeah," he assured her, composing himself a little although he shook his head at her foolishness. Kids these days wandering around the woods without a clue... "The poison is more of a sleep-inducer than anything, so you should be fine."
Just as she was about to tell him why she'd eaten it in the first place, her stomach decided to explain for her. The disturbed sound was enough to catch the man's attention, and he raised a bushy eyebrow before asked her casually, "You want something to eat, I reckon?"
"Ah, no, that's-"
"Nonsense!" he bellowed as he broke into a heartfelt laugh like rolling thunder. "I'll fix ya up somethin' good! Just you wait!"
"So, what'd ya think of my cookin', girly?"
"It was delicious!" she cheered happily washing the dishes. She had insisted on it after he'd been so kind as to offer her dinner. She was just some troublesome kid, really, and he certainly didn't owe her anything. It was the least she could do to take care of the mess. It was also another way for her to play house for a while. A part of her had to admit she would love living in the warm cabin out in the wilderness. There was something... special and homey about the exposed wood and caulking.
"Good. Stew's just the thing to fill you up," he agreed, putting the dishes into the cupboard tenderly. He smiled as he did so, running his finger idly around the rim of the smaller plate she had used. She found it peculiar that he'd been so determined for her to use it when there were two larger place settings which they could've used, one for him and other for her. Still, he was her host, so she did as he asked.
"You know, I've never had it before now..." she told him shyly. "I really want to thank you, um..."
"The name's Gotz."
"Right. I'm..." she hesitated with some obvious embarrassment, "Charity." It had been a while since she'd had to tell anyone. For the most part, she wandered in the outskirts of communities, so she rarely came into contact with other people. When she did stumble upon a town, she chose not to speak to any of the residents, for she'd found that she didn't need to say a single to word to get what she needed. One would be surprised with how much people tended to throw away.
However, the woodsmen hadn't wasted any bit of the dinner from what she noticed. The green ends of the carrots went into a small container on the counter where she recognized other organic materials from the kitchen like potato skins, banana peels, apple cores. She vaguely knew it was for compost, but looking around his home, there was very little for him to use it on, save for a few plants scattered throughout the home.
"The farmer up the way likes to use natural fertilizer," he explained as he caught her staring at the odd assortment. "I usually fed the stuff to the deer and other forest critters, but as long as it's not being wasted, I don't worry about it none."
"Is is just you and the farmer, then?" Charity asked quietly, drying off the last plate of the night.
"Heck no!" Gotz roared. She had to smile although she was clearly blushing as well. That laugh of his was so genuine that she couldn't help herself. It made her feel safe and warm on the inside. "This here's a whole town, missy!"
"Oh..." she sighed, wringing her hands in a towel. Somehow, she would've preferred it with just a farmer and a woodcutter, but it would seem she'd have no such luck. Reluctantly, she looked up at the large man who dwarfed her tiny frame. She couldn't remember her father, but the fellow at her side seemed to be that sort. When she'd dream of having a father, she imaged a man very much like the one beside her. But this was a town... and that meant she wouldn't stay.
Charity loved the outdoors although she wasn't very good at surviving out there. She had learned how to fish with her bare hands, but she didn't really know how to prepare them with just her pocket knife. Cutting her hair was one thing, but the blade was far too dull for cleaning fish. That was the only reason why she'd found herself in Gotz's home. If only she could've afforded a hunting knife... but then she'd have never met him which was a very sad thought. She truly did admire him already.
"Don't worry about it none. It's a small little place," he assured her gruffly. "More of a village than anything."
"Everyone must be really close, huh?" To live in such a tight community would be even harder for her to bear. She didn't want to be the talk of the town, after all. Every place had a gossip or two, and she didn't want to be their main target, the poor ratty girl taking advantage of the man living on the outskirts of the village...
"Sure. But I don't spend much time there. I go up to the market on Saturdays, but that's only because I don't want 'em to forget I'm here. Otherwise, I'd be outta work!" The bear of a man began to laugh again while sitting down in his easy chair. She smiled seeing the cushion nearly swallow him whole as he leaned back. If it weren't for his heavy boots, she figured his feet wouldn't touch the ground.
"What's your job then?" she asked, sitting on his bed. Although she had protested, Gotz had made it clear that's where she was going to sleep for the night. Charity had tried to convince him she'd be okay sleeping outside, but he'd warned her about the wild dogs that ran through the wilderness after dark which had quickly ended that idea.
"I'm a carpenter," he explained proudly, closing his old eyes. "'Bout the only person who needs my services these days is that farmer boy, though."
"You must get along with him," she observed, starting to get groggy herself.
"Jack's a good guy," he said at last, his breaths evening out as he drifted to sleep. "You'll see him around soon enough."
Her eyes were heavy as she began to doze off under the warm blankets. The smell of him was strong, like the dampness of the leaves and the crisp air of the outdoors, and she found it was pleasantly comforting to snuggle deep within them. Her host began to snore after a short time, but she enjoyed as she did the rest of the place. She couldn't explain it, yet a part of her was more than happy to be there with him as if it had been this way for far longer than a mere day or two. Charity was at home although she felt in her heart it couldn't last.
Nothing in her life ever did...
"So what are we doing, exactly?"
"I need to find us dinner for tonight, and you need to learn your edibles, little lady."
"Aw, come on, Gotz! I can handle myself," Charity pouted, a small brush of scarlet across her freckled cheeks. The man just laughed at her expression, shaking his head. She let loose a small giggle, too, knowing full well how bad she really was at taking care of herself since no one else was passing out after eating the wrong mushroom. That she knew of, anyway...
"Good morning!" a voice broke through the trees. The pair turned to see what the girl assumed to be Farmer Jack making his way over to them by the lake. He was kind of a tacky sort with his blue overalls and reversed baseball cap, but when Gotz smiled, she found herself smiling, too. If the woodsman thought he was alright, she couldn't find any fault with him, either.
"Mornin', Jack," he greeted the fellow. His voice was a tad stiff, but it seemed it was his way of greeting people, whether he cared for them or not.
"Who's this?" the young man asked, pointing at her while he returned the smile. He was a bit taller than her, but he was far shorter than the carpenter. She was slow to realize his hair and eyes were much like her own, yet after she did, she found she couldn't look at him without her cheeks starting to warm. It was too embarrassing... even for her...
"Charity... At least that's what she tells me," Gotz introduced her gruffly.
"Glad to meet you, Charity," Jack offered his gloved hand which she took shyly. She really liked how his voice was smooth as melted chocolate, but that thought only made her blush further. She was reluctant to see him turn to leave so soon although she couldn't understand for the life of her as to why. "Well, I gotta get to work out here then, so I suppose I'll see you at the Harvest Festival?"
"Of course! I wouldn't miss a chance to eat food like that!" Gotz bellowed happily, slapping the farmer hard on the back. The poor girl had to stifle another giggle at how the boy winced at the impact. She reasoned the woodcutter didn't know his own strength though he seemed to use it frequently. However, just spending a night with the older man made her feel more at ease like she didn't have to worry about things anymore. After all, a secure man like himself could easily protect her.
Maybe that was a selfish way to think... She certainly couldn't stay with him forever, being that there was a... promise.
An invaluable promise she still had to keep.
"What'd ya think of Jack, little missy?" Gotz asked the young woman at his side jovially. She blushed, glancing down at their fresh harvest of mushrooms and truffles they'd spent the morning gathering together, when he brought up the young farmer. Although it'd only been about a half a day since the two saw him, she found she couldn't keep him out of her mind. There was something about him that made her feel he was a very kind man. He certainly seemed to be the caring, generous sort.
"He was nice," she confessed, sheepishly looking away from her companion, "but I don't really know him, so I can't say whether I like 'im or not..."
"That's good," he observed thoughtfully. "If you liked everyone right off the bat, you'd be more helpless than ever." His voice sounded strangely disappointed while he praised her, or so she thought. Charity happened to realize quickly that maybe the carpenter misunderstood her for saying she didn't like him, so she tried her best to assure him otherwise. She loved the man...
"I know it sounds a little strange for me to say so, but I do like you, though," she began quietly before her words picked up speed. "I mean, you're like... the papa I never really had, you know?"
She was surprised to sense the man stop dead in the middle of the forest path leading to his home. His eyes were so full of a deep sadness, she wasn't sure if she should even try to touch it. However, she recognized what lingered there, for it was a part of her own heart at well. The feelings of regret, remorse, and loneliness were hidden in the grayness of the windows to his soul, and she had to wonder what she had said to trouble him that terribly. When he caught her worried gaze, he gave her a soft smile.
His large hand patted her head gently. "You can call me... 'Papa' if you'd like, little missy..." Gotz relented at last. He couldn't hide the smudge of scarlet across his own cheeks, however.
"Really?" Charity whispered, her brown eyes shining with relief and excitement as she returned his smile.
"I-I'd like that very much," he confessed, laughing nervously. She could still see a hint of hurt in his gaze, but there was a warmth, too. That in itself was a happy thought, and she found she wanted that feeling to grow inside him until the pain was all but gone.
Of course, she knew there was enough pain in her own heart, but she had chosen to seal it all away. She put all that suffering into one thing, her very own treasure, and as long as it remained locked inside of it, she had convinced herself she'd never have to face it ever again. Even so, life rarely goes as planned, and secrets are almost always shared...
...whether we want them to be or not.