Author's Note: The final chapter of this three-shot is now complete! Anyway, I had a hard time trying to fit this whole plot into three parts, but I did my best. I was surprised that this was such a challenge for me since I just wanted to jump into the contest for fun... Enjoy!
Charity had spent the next morning with Gotz in relative silence. Although she spoke when spoken to, she kept to herself while foraging. Jack's words were still ringing in her mind. "Gotz would probably understand," he had told her, "After all, he- Wait, I'll let him be the one to tell you. That way you can tell him your story, too." That's what he had said, but how could she possibly do it when she had no reason to? It was an uncomfortable subject for her without it being brought up out of nowhere.
She studied the woodsmen carefully from behind as she considered what to say. However, she couldn't really bring herself to speak, even quietly, about the matter. He had been asleep when she'd come in the night before, or so it seemed, yet he was unusually tired. His broad shoulders slumped forward while he shuffled his feet on their way through the forest. Yes, there was certainly something wrong though she couldn't put a finger on it.
"Hey, little missy," the man's gruff voice brought her out of her thoughts suddenly which caused her to jump. "Sorry 'bout that," he chuckled; she simply blushed. "I've got something that I think belongs to you..."
The girl's face paled considerably when he said this, and her slender hand instinctively went for the pocket of her worn jeans, only to find it was empty. Her brown eyes widened, expressing that the worst of her fears had come to pass. He found it... she thought desperately, feeling the tears making their way down her soft cheeks.
"Wh-what is it, Papa?" she managed to choke out before realizing he was holding an old photograph in his large, calloused hand. She made a grab for it, but he pulled it away just out of reach. His gray eyes watched her carefully with her eyeing the object longingly.
"Could you tell me who these people are?" he asked gently as he could manage with his naturally rough tone. He handed her the image while she nodded weakly, her fingers reaching out gratefully. She sighed inside herself once it had been safely returned to her. How could she have possibly lost it? It was never parted from her, for it had been the only thing holding her together before she met this man. She needed it more than anything or anyone... unless she happened to find that someone.
Sitting down together on an aged tree stump, he eased her onto his lap while she mumbled something or other. Her lips trembled as she began quietly, "I don't know what I should say... really. I've never told anybody, so..."
"Just start by telling me who they are, I guess," Gotz suggested lamely. She had a feeling he was just as afraid as she was about the whole ordeal, so she took a deep breath to calm herself down. When she let it out, she continued to shake violently, however.
"Well," she whispered, her voice cracking slightly, "that's me." The figure she pointed to was a small girl; however, the child wasn't nearly as thin or frail as the older version of itself. Her hair had once been very long, two braids on either side of her head draped down over her chest and around her waist, and she was wearing a delicate dress. She explained further, "That was my favorite dress. It was a pale yellow with white lace, but of course you can't really tell since the photo's so beaten up."
Charity had to giggle at that statement. There were creases cutting through everything, even the faces, from the years she had carried the photograph with her. It had survived through rain and snow as well as a few accidental washes in a river or two, but she didn't have to see it to know what it meant to her. She couldn't even remember that day it had been taken by the photographer although she supposed what was must important were the people in it.
"That's my mother..." she bit her lip as she said it. "You know I never knew my father, right?" she asked her face turned to his briefly.
Gotz nodded slowly, his grip on her waist tightening a bit. "She's beautiful," he said at last. Though she couldn't be certain, he looked like he was upset seeing her mother.
"Yes," the girl agreed, "she was." Her mother certainly was a lovely woman. Her hair was the same rich brown as her daughter's although there she had noticeably lighter tips. She wasn't very tall and a bit on the petite side, but her facial features were delicate and soft. Unfortunately, her eyes had been lost in the folds, but according to Charity's memories, they had been a deep chocolate. Her dress matched her daughter's, in every detail, and both of which were hand-sewn.
"Was?" he asked solemnly, choking on his own question.
"Mm-hmm. Momma died soon after this picture was taken... That was about... four years ago, I think, when I was ten."
"Didn't you say you were sixteen," the man scolded her, chuckling to himself.
"Er..." Crap. He caught me, she thought bashfully before admitting, "Yeah... I just..."
"It's fine," he assured her with a warm smile. "I figured you were lying. You aren't that good at it, really."
"Right..." she returned his smile, a hint of pink on her cheeks. "Well, I guess Momma taught me right being that she took my big brother and me to church nearly every day. At the very least, I won't be lying again anytime soon."
"She was a devout woman then?"
"I think so," she guessed, not having ever asked her mother during her life. "Jack invited me to go to church with him today, but..."
"He's still doing farm work at this hour, so let's worry about that later. Now tell me about that boy. I assume he's your brother, right?" Gotz pressed eagerly.
"Uh-huh..." she relented. The girl had been hoping her papa would've forgotten him. "He was eight years older than me, but he was only a bit taller than me as you can see." Her eyes glanced to see the carpenter was following along. "I didn't like him all that much, to be honest. He was always picking on me when we were growing up. If Momma caught him teasing me, she'd make him cut his own switch, though," she remembered with a cruel, light laugh. The boy's hair was identical to their mother's though his was cut shorter back then than Charity's was at the moment. He was wearing a stiff suit, much to his noticeable displeasure, she observed.
"Why aren't you with him then?" the man asked curiously, readjusting her on his knee which was beginning to fall asleep.
"Because," she began, her eyes misting again at the memory, "he left Momma and me as soon as he could. He wanted 'to see the world,' I guess."
"Did he know about... your mother?"
Charity shook her head, trying (and failing) to keep herself from crying. "No..." she squeaked, wiping away a few tears. "Momma died of phenomena a couple seasons after he ran off... He couldn't have known..."
"Then..." he trailed off, holding her closer to him. The bristles of his bread scratched her face irritably, but she didn't pull away. She felt safe there against his broad chest, held by his strong arms, because she knew it's what a father would've done to comfort his child. It was strange to know that even with her mother gone, she felt she'd been looking for a father. Did that make her selfish?
"Father Mitchell took me in because my family was... gone," she whispered as if she were telling a secret to the older man, "but I... I ran away. I just wanted to find... my brother, I guess, and..."
"I had a wife and daughter once," the woodsman interrupted her, bring her even closer. "They... passed away only four years ago, on the mountain here." The young woman gasped slightly before he continued a moment later. "My wife... she looked very much like your mother. Pale skin, dark eyes and hair..."
Charity nodded slowly as she listened to his heart. It beat steadily, not picking up or slowing down, and she likened it to time ticking on. Even when there's hurt, the universal clock never stops.
"You... missy," he mumbled, bringing her out of her brief thoughts, "are just like... my own little girl, you know."
"Really?" she asked quietly, her eyes growing wide as she gently eased out of his hug to look at him. Large tears were rolling down his face as well, and she wondered how he must've felt when he found her laying in the wilderness. Did he think, even if only for an instant, that she may have been his daughter? It was no surprise he had been so shocked to have her liken him to a father. Was "Papa" what his child called him, and had he called her "little missy" when she'd been alive?"
"Absolutely," he reassured her, giving her a faint smile. "She'd be the same age as you, too."
At last, her tears overflowed completely. The girl threw her arms around the man's neck as she began to sob. "Papa..." she cried into his already dampened shirt, "Papa, I-I'm sorry... I'm s-so sorry..." He held her lovingly, rubbing his large hand up and down her back to soothe her while she cried for him. They stayed that way in the forest until she simply drained herself completely, and even then, he carried her home in his arms while she drifted off to sleep, exhausted by the wave of raw emotion. His face was tender as he did so.
"Is it really alright for me to join you two, Jack?"
"Come on, Gotz, it's fine by me!" the young man laughed, his hand shyly in Charity's own. His cheeks were still slightly scarlet from when she'd taken it without an explanation; of course, her own face was a light shade of pink as well.
"Besides, the Goddess really doesn't care what you look like, so you'll be fine!" she agreed in a chipper voice. The tear stains had long since dried although her eyes were a bit red and puffy yet. The farmer had asked her if she'd been crying, yet she was quick to skirt around the subject. She found she may have been terrible at telling a lie, but beating around the bush was more than effective... at least with him.
"Hey, little missy, are you sayin' I don't look like dressin' up sort to you?" the carpenter teased, giving her a wink.
She laughed away his joke happily while they made their way through the Town Square. The women there turned to face the trio, yet Charity only counted two. Neither of them fit the description of the legendary town gossip she'd heard about though it was quite obvious that's what they were doing. Jack happened to follow her gaze, and he told her casually, "It's Saturday, so Manna'll be at the church to hear the evening sermon with Duke and that fella I was telling you about the other night."
The girl nodded contently upon hearing this. Even so, she was sure that the women in the square would be just as quick to spread the word that she had been seen with Gotz and the young man soon enough. Their eyes looked hungrily at them as if they'd spotted fresh meat for the rumor mill.
The thought simply made her cringe and concentrate on the road ahead of her as they passed briskly by.
When the town's small church came into view, Charity felt her chest tighten considerably. There was something inside meant for her. Whether it be a sign from the Goddess or not, she just knew it. Her heart began to race with every step, and she could feel her grip on Jack's hand grow stronger...
"Are you okay?" he asked quietly. He noticed, too, apparently.
"Yeah... I'm nervous is all..." she admitted shyly, her brown eyes still focused on the door of the sanctuary. What was inside that she needed to see so desperately?
"Over what?" he pressed, his own brown eyes filled with concern.
"This guy I'm going to meet..." she reasoned as it slowly came to her. All she knew about him was he had a story similar to hers... and he worked in a vineyard. That was all she'd been told, but she couldn't shake the feeling that this would be a very important meeting. It didn't make any sense though the anticipation was all but killing her inside.
Just as her companion was about to assure her everything would be alright, Gotz happened to push open the doors to the church. Charity blinked when they came into the snug, dimly lit chapel. However, once her sight adjusted, she found it was a quaint, but elegant, place. The windows on either side were rather small, yet behind the pulpit at the back of the sanctuary, there were three, towering stained glass windows made of all kinds of brilliant glass through which a cascade of light shone through.
Although the pastor smiled to see his sermon would be heard by a few unexpected visitors, he continued to preach in a soothingly peaceful voice. If her papa's tone was like that of velvet, this holy man spoke in silk! A gentle tug on her hand let her to the front pew, and she followed the young man who held her fingers tenderly.
Charity assumed the woman with the black hair and shawl was the town's gossip, for her head instantly swerved to get a better look at the newcomer. She pulled on the sleeve of, what her target assumed was, her husband's white sleeve and pointed eagerly. The man in the purple vest hushed her calmly which led her to cross her arms and pout. She was a bit childish, but the girl thought she appeared to be very kind.
However, Charity's attention was soon grabbed by someone far more attention grabbing than a housewife with too much time on her hands. When she happened to catch a glimpse of him, her breath was stolen away, and she stopped dead in her tracks. She could feel both Jack's hand slip out of her own and her mouth fall open slightly, but either action meant little to her then. Her whole being was wrapped up into that one person in the next pew over from theirs.
"C-Cliff?" she gasped, almost in a whisper. The young man lifted his head from prayer as he heard his name being faintly called. His brown eyes met her own, matching them perfectly, and he blinked in bewilderment before recognition shone in his gaze. They remained in a state of frozen surprise while they tried to evaluate one another and changes during their years apart.
His hair was no longer shaped nicely since he'd grown it out over time and tied it in a ragged pony tail, but the tips were still a light caramel, drastically different from his chocolate roots and the rest. Her hair was no longer worn in two long braids after she'd cropped it into a shaggy pixie-cut. Their clothes were far removed from what they'd worn that day so long ago that neither one could remember it. He had been wearing a suit while she'd been in a dress. Now she wore an old pair of jeans and a faded, black sweatshirt, and he had dressed in animal furs.
Neither one was sure what they could say to the other. However, they didn't have to wait for one of them to speak. "Do you two know each other already?" Jack asked curiously, glancing from her to him as he stood between them. The sermon had abruptly been stopped as everyone had come to realize the two staring intently at each other amid a lost of words, and the members of the church crowded around in mild curiosity.
"Um... Charity?" the young man across from her wondered aloud at last, his gaze fell to the floor as a small tint of red brushed his cheeks.
"Y-yeah?" she managed to squeak, her face warming, too. Had she been expecting him to be the same as when he left? she wondered. For that matter, did he expect her to be the same as well? There were so many questions, and-
"I-I'm sorry," he apologized shyly, turning his face up to the ceiling as if praying for guidance in the situation. After a few blank moments and an empty stare on her part, she almost let loose a giggle. When did he become so... introspective?
This is what became of the boy who used to tease her? This was the same boy who cracked an egg over her head because he said he'd heard it would make her hair shiny? He seemed... different. No longer was he restless sitting in the church or kicking his heels obnoxiously on the bottom of the pew. He had been anything but a choir boy, yet now he appeared to be a saint! Before she'd said his name, he'd been bowing his head devoutly as he prayed.
"What's so funny?" Cliff asked sheepishly, lifting himself from his seat and coming towards her slowly.
"Just..." Charity began cautiously with a smile, "I thought... after all this time, I would never..." She had to pause to collect her thoughts until she could continue comfortably. It was too late, though, since her eyes had already begun to mist at seeing him again.
"Please don't cry... um... sis," he begged, reaching for her arm tenderly. She imagined he felt she might break apart or fade away if he touched her, and even she wondered what would happen should he do so. However, she was tired of waiting for this moment, and she wrapped him in a stiff hug until he relaxed and she sighed from relief. All time stood still as she held him after four long years apart.
I found you, brother... I found you...
Final Author's Note: Urgh... The ending seemed so rushed, but I didn't want to make this over 3,000 words. It would feel like cheating if I did...
Did anyone guess Charity was Cliff's sister before this chapter?
Important Notice: I'm kind of early on this, so be sure to read all the entries for the autumn contest. You can find details as well as other author's entries on the Village Square Forums under Contests, and voting will take place after October 31 (Halloween). Please be sure to vote for your favorite stories because there are going to be a lot of great writers involved!