Friday Sneak Peek – So Like Us

Oh, Charity. This week’s sneak peek centers on one of my disliked characters. Why does everyone hate Charity? Could it be her grating personality? The way she talks? The fact that she goes to Wal Mart late at night and whacks people in the head with cans of baked beans? I’m not really sure. I knew where I was going with her when she first appeared in Happily Ever After, and I built on it in Perfectly Pretend. And by the time I got to So Like Us, she was fully formed in my mind… though that fast forward epilogue did surprise me. (But Adam and Eve – how could I NOT go there? Right?!)

So Like Us

Okay, so if you’re confused by all of this, you haven’t read this one. And you need to. It’s just $3.99 on Amazon and FREE on Kindle Unlimited. Glory. Seriously, y’all. Read this book before I come after you with a can of baked beans. Oh, I kid, but you should still read the book.

Here’s a little bit to get you started…

 

~Charity~

It all started with Hope. She was the reason I lost my ever lovin’ mind.

Well, that sounds really dramatic, doesn’t it? I would try and be a little less theatrical about the whole thing, but when I look back at how it all unfolded, there’s no denying that the beginning of the end came when my twin sister, Hope, ran off to Africa to elope.

See? Drama warranted.

Who does that? Who wakes up, says “oh, today would be a great day to fly to Africa and get married,” then does it without telling anyone?

Hope. That’s who.

She’d been like that, though. After a lifetime of being closer than any two sisters should be (sharing a womb and all, you know), she’d suddenly distanced herself from me when she’d moved out of the state for her work a year before all of this eloping business went down. I hadn’t known any of what was going on in her life until our dad’s work with the convention, with his church, and with his reputation as the man over our whole denomination required both of us to be back in Dallas for a huge gala.

She had shown up with a fiancé. My sister, who never dated, who never looked twice at a man, just showed up with a man. And not just any man. A fiancé!

“What the hee haw?!” I had yelled at my mother when she’d called me to tell me about the exciting life Hope had been living in Louisiana, saving pregnant teenagers, being her brilliant self in ministry, and, oh yeah, falling in love with some bayou hillbilly.

“I know,” my mother had calmly soothed across the phone lines, always the voice of reason and logic, even when there was absolutely no reason or logic to what was going on. “Apparently, Hope has a whole other life that we don’t know much about.”

Apparently. I had felt inched out and alienated. Enough so that I had spent three hours that night sobbing, then yelling, then sobbing again with John, my husband, about it all. My sister had left me out of her life. That warranted three hours of totally melting down about it all, right?

But I had gotten over it. Mostly, at least. We’d gone back to Dallas, and I’d met Craig, my brother-in-law-to-be. He made Hope happy, and she was everything to him. I could see that from the way he watched her as she introduced our father from the podium, as they exchanged some long meaningful looks with one another over breakfast the next morning, and as they’d shown up for the last night of the long convention weekend, holding hands and beaming at one another.

She was happy. Happier than she’d ever been.

So, I’d gotten over it. We’d all said our goodbyes, and I’d begun helping Hope long distance to make plans for a wedding.

A wedding that wasn’t going to happen.

Because she eloped! Because she chucked all the plans out the window! Because she made me lose my mind!

I should start at the beginning and tell you about what was happening that day, the day that I found out what had gone on. I had a poopy diaper in one hand and a fistful of mac-n-cheese in the other when it all started.

Yes. That’s how glamorous my life is. Poop and mac-n-cheese, y’all. Clearly, my sanity was already fragile, given Amelia’s astounding digestive capabilities and Aiden’s food throwing skills. Sanity, or my soon lack thereof, had a lot to do with my children, of course. But I was coping. Yes, I’d held it together for five years – five years! – of the ups and downs of motherhood, and I had very recently toasted my good fortune in having gotten through the worst of it. I’d concluded that I could survive anything if I could survive the first five years of raising a family, where no one slept all through the night, most conversations were babbling nonsense, and I couldn’t even identify the sources of all the stains on my shirt at the end of the day.

(Seriously? What is that on my favorite shirt? Snot? Spit up? Or translucent poop, which would suggest some serious issue that has very nearly had me speed-dialing the pediatrician with one hand while holding my mouth with the other, willing myself not to vomit because I am a mother, for corn’s sake, and moms have stomachs of steel underneath all that postpartum flab, right?)

Children are a blessing. An inheritance from the Lord.

But still.

I’d been nearly giddy when John had weakly waved goodbye to me on the morning he went back for the vasectomy a few months earlier. I’d literally sat in the waiting room and giggled, all but toasting him with a good glass of wine and a seductive wink as his sperm went on to meet their Maker. Seductive, y’all, because I could afford to give the man a thrill or two if it wasn’t going to lead to more children.

I could be me again.

Me. Charity Connor Pearson.

Whoever she was. Because I sure couldn’t remember who I’d even been back before I became… this.

(Oh, and I didn’t actually drink wine. Because I’m a pastor’s wife, and the word for us is that Jesus actually turned that water into Dr. Pepper because it’s more PC for the church crowds. And it’s the real thing, not Diet Dr. Pepper, because even though I’m still twenty pounds over my pre-pregnancy weight, I’ve got standards, y’all.)

All that said, I’d survived. The days were long, the years were short, and I had survived.

And I’d stayed sane, which was a real accomplishment. Even on days where poop and mac-n-cheese were plentiful, I’d stayed sane. Even on that particular day when it all began falling apart, I’d been congratulating myself on not losing my temper and screeching on the outside like I was on the inside when the phone rang. Depositing each handful right in the trash, rushing to the sink to wash my hands, and surveying where my children were now – Amelia, with bare buns, walking towards her brother, who was licking the rest of his lunch from his hands – I picked up the phone.

It would be John, of course. Because I was a stay at home mom and a pastor’s wife, and while friendships had been easy to come by and plentiful back when I was eighteen and on my own in the big city (you know, back when I was fun), they were practically non-existent here in the rural, far out, God-forsaken town where John had finally found a pastorate. No one called because there was no one here. And even if there had been, what did I have to offer anyone but poop and mac-n-cheese? Apart from my sparkling personality and witty conversation, all of which revolved around… mac-n-cheese and poop.

Hmm.

“Hey,” I said by way of greeting, marveling that there was still a thrill in waiting to hear his voice, even though there wasn’t much else that was thrilling in my life.

But it wasn’t his familiar voice that came through. Only a big inhalation of breath and a, “For the love, Charity, are you sitting down?”

It was Hope, of course.

“No,” I told her, already looking around for the wedding magazine I’d been browsing through since our last conversation a couple of weeks earlier. I’d earmarked at least thirty pages and had all kinds of suggestions on flowers, dresses, centerpieces, aisle decorations, and the like. Snatching it up and glancing over at my children again, I headed for the couch. “I’m not sitting down quite yet, but…” I plopped down and sighed. “Okay. Sitting down now. Which I should have been doing earlier. I have cramps like you wouldn’t believe!”

“Cramps?” Hope asked, an edge of excitement to her voice that normally wasn’t there. “Back cramps? Stomach cramps?”

“No,” I said. “Those cramps. I swear, two children later, and every time I have a period it feels like all of my parts are going to just fall right on out of my body. Those kinds of cramps.”

“Oh,” she said. Which, you know, was all anyone could say to something like that. No answers for why it was like this, not even from my doctor, who mercifully refrained from saying that sucks, girl. Welcome to life as a mother.

Which might have been a merciful thing to say, come to think of it. Honesty and all.

“At least this is blessed evidence that I’m definitely not pregnant,” I said, kicking my feet right on up next to me on the couch, looking over again at my children. Constant vigilance and all. There’s something they don’t tell you about being a parent, that your whole life will become constant vigilance. “And I really worried this month. You know, a vasectomy doesn’t mean he’s sterile immediately. But I’m done with the pill, and we’re not so good with remembering to wear a –”

“Charity,” Hope interrupted.

“I’m sorry,” I said, taking a breath. “You wanted to talk. I’ve got my wedding notes right here, on my phone, so if I hang up on you while I’m checking them, just call me back, and –”

“We eloped.”

Yes. She said it like that. Just like that. We eloped. Like I’d said, “You pooped!” earlier to Amelia. Like I’d said, “You burped!” earlier to Aiden.

Pooped. Burped. Eloped. No biggie, right?

Except it was, of course. For a good long moment, I wasn’t sure I’d heard her right. Hope, who had spent her life doing everything just exactly like our parents wanted her to – valedictorian of our graduating class, the dean’s list every semester of college, seminary degrees left and right, starting her own ministry from the ground up, being the embodiment of everything a pastor and his wife hope for their child to one day be… running off and eloping?!

That couldn’t be right.

“What?!” I managed, loud enough that both of my children turned to look at me, likely sensing that this was the moment I would begin to lose my marbles all over the place. (Long time coming, y’all.)

“Good grief, Charity,” Hope said, daring a laugh at this. A laugh. Like it was something good, like it wasn’t totally ruining the plans we’d been making together. After a few tense years where everything seemed a little off between us, we’d been connecting like we had as children and teenagers. I was helping her plan her wedding. I was getting her ready for her big day. I was giving her advice on marriage.

Ironic, that last one.

Still, though. She was laughing about it. Surely this meant that she hadn’t said what I thought she said –

“Craig and I got married,” she said, still laughing. “Just decided it was time and did it.”

“What?!” I asked again. “When?! Where?! Why?!”

“Charity,” she said, actual sympathy in her voice as she could likely hear the heartbreak in mine. “Dad’s schedule has been so crazy that Mom couldn’t even come up with a season that would be good for a wedding, much less a month or a weekend. Craig and I were just so tired of waiting. You remember what that’s like?”

Yes. I did. I thought about John and me, all those years ago, wishing the days and weeks away until we were married, until I was Charity Pearson, until we could finally feel right again.

Feelings aren’t everything.

“And with Evan so new,” Hope continued on, “I couldn’t wait to see him. David and Cammie, too.”

Evan, our nephew. David, our brother. Cammie, our sister-in-law.

All three of them were in Africa.

What? I thought we’d been talking about her eloping, and…

I gasped.

“You eloped to Namibia?!” Would I stop screeching any time soon? Likely not.

“Yes,” Hope laughed. “David did the ceremony himself. Cammie helped get everything ready. And Evan… oh, Charity, he’s perfect.”

Cammie had helped. All that I was supposed to do, as Hope’s sister, had been done by someone else. I swallowed back the sob that this was illogically producing, able to control my voice but not able to keep the tears from running down my cheeks.

“How’s she doing, so soon after the birth?” I asked, knowing that I should ask this, no matter how upset I was, knowing that it wasn’t Cammie’s fault that Hope had done this, after all. She was my friend, too…

“Tired, sore, still looks pregnant,” Hope said. “Just exactly like you always were after you had your babies. But she’s happy.”

Yeah, well, then that was different.

Troubling, this. I wouldn’t think about it.

I would think instead about how my sister had stabbed me in the back.

“Okay, well, you eloped,” I bit off, finding my anger again. “Ran off to Africa, and… how?! How did you pull this off?!”

“Craig had some money saved,” Hope said. “He had a ring from another engagement.”

“Craig was engaged before?!” I cried. Did I know anything about this man my sister had run off and married?! Did anyone in this family tell me anything?!

“I told you that,” Hope insisted. “We had a long conversation about it. Don’t you remember?”

No! No, I didn’t!

“My mind fails me at times, Hope, because I’m a mother and all,” I said. True that. I could be in the middle of a chore and totally forget halfway to my destination exactly why I had a toilet plunger in one hand and a hairbrush in the other. (Never figured that one out.)

But still.

“No,” I swore. “I would have remembered a conversation about your fiancé… excuse me, husband having been engaged to someone else!”

“Oh,” Hope said thoughtfully. “Maybe it was Cammie I told.”

She was confusing me with Cammie. She’d run off to get married somewhere where only Cammie could help. She’d picked Cammie over me.

For the love, y’all!

“Well, anyway, Craig was engaged before,” Hope said calmly. “And he sold the ring. We were going to use the money for a honeymoon, but when we got the word about Evan, he told me we needed to go. That we needed to just do it. Get there and get David to marry us. He knew how important it was for me to have David there for my wedding, and we didn’t know how long it would be before he could come back to the US, you know?”

It had been important to have David there… but what about me? I could picture the five of them – David, Cammie, Evan, Craig, and Hope – all together, laughing and playing around together, freakin’ theme music serenading their hijinks and big, emotional moments, like an episode of Friends or something, and…

A day of big moments that were so important. A day that I had missed.

I thought back to my own wedding day, to the small bridal room at New Life-Dallas, the church my dad pastored and the only real church home I’d ever known. They’d already moved all the bridesmaids to line up outside, but Hope had stayed with me.

I’d been so nervous. I’d nearly passed out. I had no doubts about marrying John… well, mostly no doubts. What I felt was normal likely, a moment of panic because there was a church full of people waiting for me to make one of the most important decisions of my life, most definitely, and all that John and I had gone through only contributed to the questions in my mind.

How can you ever be sure that you’re making the right decision? Is there just one right decision? Or could any number of possibilities lead to a happily ever after?

I wasn’t sure. And I’d felt so sick.

“Is she going to throw up?” David had asked, peeking his head into the room and assessing this after taking one good look at me.

“No!” Hope had hissed at him, and I could see the panic in her eyes as well. “She’s just nervous. It’s just nerves, Charity.”

“Dad’s welcoming everyone,” David had said. “So, it’ll still be another thirty minutes, likely.”

I had smiled weakly at this, imagining our old man, droning on and on and –

“Said he was going to share the Gospel,” Hope had murmured. “John thought it was perfect.”

“That’s what he said,” I had confirmed, suddenly feeling inexplicably cold… and sweaty. Really sweaty. Would there be gigantic sweat stains beneath my armpits in all the wedding pictures? Could they photoshop that out?

“And you told me,” Hope had said, her mind not on the immortalization of my armpits. “You told me that John thought it was perfect because John?”

“Is perfect,” I had managed, remembering that conversation. “I said that.”

“Charity, why are you shivering?” David had asked. “Hope, look at her!”

“You’re not helping!” Hope had said to him, purposefully not looking at my pale, sweaty self. “And thirty minute Gospel presentation or not, you need to get out of here. Aren’t you supposed to be escorting Mom down the aisle?”

“Yep,” David had nodded. “And she sent me to check on the bride. Should I tell her she’s fainted? Because I swear, she looks about ten seconds away from –”

“For the love, you little weirdo!” Hope had said, standing to her feet and shooing him from the room. She had turned back around to look at me with concern, and I had managed a reassuring smile.

Or, at least, it had felt reassuring.

“I love your dress,” I had said softly, admiring the bold blue color and the way her bouquet, full of soft spring colors and greenery accented it beautifully.

“You should,” she’d said, making her way back over to me. “You picked it.”

“I did, didn’t I?” I’d said, recalling the trips Hope and I had made to shop for everything. Hope had been more involved in the wedding planning than John had been, quite honestly, and it had been wonderful. So much time spent together, so many opportunities to repair the rift that had existed between us, starting with the first time I met John…

“I have great taste,” I had added.

She’d smiled at this observation. “You do,” she’d said. “Look at your groom.”

“I would if I could,” I’d answered, thinking that maybe, just maybe, I might feel better if I could see John right now, and –

“Well, you can’t,” she’d said. “And besides it –”

David had interrupted her when he poked his head in again. “He’s using the Roman road, y’all. We’ve got a good forty-five minutes until the ceremony.”

“Glory,” Hope had muttered, looking over at me, probably making the very good prediction that I didn’t have that long until I passed out. Or threw up. Or both.

“I’m all for the Gospel,” David had said, grinning, “but we’ve got groomsmen falling asleep out here waiting.”

“The groomsmen,” I’d said, thinking about John, thinking again about seeing him. “Are they nearby?”

“Right over here,” David had looked over his shoulder. “Don’t worry. John’s at the far end so he won’t see you –”

“I want to see him,” I had said.

Hope had gasped. “You can’t see him before the wedding!”

For a smart girl who relied on Scripture as much as she did, Hope sure was giving more thought to annoying superstitions than was warranted. And because her insistence in keeping these dumb traditions was keeping me from what I wanted, I was supremely annoyed by it.

“Glory,” I’d muttered. “I can see him if I want to. He’ll keep me from passing out. What would be worse, me seeing him and risking whatever bad luck we’ve got coming, or me vomiting all over this dress? And I ate pink frosted donuts with sprinkles for breakfast, Hope, so give that a good, long think, will you?”

Hope and David had glanced at one another, and David’s smile had grown, just like Hope’s frown.

“But it’s –”

“I don’t care, Hope,” I’d said through clenched teeth, like we were back in elementary school. The Connor twins. Closest friends, most bitter enemies.

Sisters, in other words.

“Fine,” Hope had sighed dramatically, turning to David. “What Charity wants, Charity gets, like always. But don’t let Mom know that –”

“On it,” David had said, ducking out while Hope frowned over at me.

“I’ll just… leave you two to it once he gets in here, I guess,” she’d said uncomfortably.

She’d been like that lately, whenever John came around. I’d confronted her on it once, and she’d sworn that it wasn’t anything – not him, not me, not us.

But I’d wondered.

“Don’t leave,” I’d said. “I want you here, too. Every dream I’ve ever had of this day has had you here, right here, not leaving my side. You figured into my wedding dreams more than any groom quite honestly, Hope.”

It had been the truth. She’d been my life for most of my life.

She’d frowned at this, clearly still frustrated that I was going to break the rules and all by seeing my groom before the ceremony. “Well, this is your wedding.”

“But we planned it together,” I’d said, smiling over at her, wanting her to forgive me for doing this my way, not hers. “So, it’s like our wedding.”

“Glory, I’m not marrying you,” she’d sworn, a tiny smile finding its way to her lips at last. “You’re a horrible roommate.”

And the doors to the bridal room had opened, and John had stepped in.

“Did you catch that last part, John?” Hope had asked. “She’s an awful roommate, and she’s yours now, for the rest of your life.”

I had smiled at this as well, fighting another wave of nausea as I’d looked at John and how he’d stood frozen in the doorway. A tuxedo that fit his tall frame so well, the boots that I’d gifted him (to keep him from walking the aisle in the old brown ones he practically lived in), his hair freshly cut for the occasion, and his face so newly shaven that he looked every bit as young as he was, as we both were.

And he had been staring at me.

I’d spent a good portion of the day looking at myself in the dress, in all the layers of tulle and satin and lace, with my hair done up, a veil all the way to the floor, and my eyes done in bright shadowed colors.

I had long since stopped pausing at my reflection, wondering over how I’d transformed into this – a fairy tale version of myself.

John hadn’t gotten the opportunity, however. There in his surprised eyes had been admiration, attraction, and affection.

And adoration. That was there, too. I’d never felt adored by anyone until John came along, and I’d felt it with greater conviction and affirmation as I’d watched him watch me.

“Wow,” he’d said. “She’s mine, for the rest of my life.” Hope’s words repeated, made to sound so much better.

No doubts. There hadn’t been any doubts from that point on.

“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” I’d said, a laugh in my voice.

No doubts. But still nerves.

“Me, too,” he’d said, grinning, stepping into the room, making his way to me. “There are, like, no empty seats in the sanctuary. Everyone in Texas is here, Charity.”

“It’s like a royal wedding,” I’d sighed, a little anxiety in my voice. “If we were denominational royalty, that is.”

“Which we aren’t,” John had murmured, taking my face in his hands and putting his lips to mine.

All the fears were gone. All the worries. He was enough. This was going to be enough.

“Well, you aren’t,” Hope had said, breaking into our moment. “But Dad is.”

“And speaking of your dad,” John had said, pulling away from my lips and smiling, “he’s totally preaching an entire sermon right now. Before the wedding even starts. Give him five minutes, and he’ll take the whole hour.”

“Typical preacher,” I’d murmured, kissing him again. “You’d do the same.”

“Not even a preacher yet,” he’d said, kissing me back.

“Soon enough,” I’d breathed, wrapping my arms around him, pulling him closer –

“For the love,” Hope had muttered. “I’m sitting right here, y’all. The honeymoon hasn’t started quite yet. You two are forgetting everyone and everything around you.”

John and I had only watched one another, communicating a world of emotions and feelings without using a single word.

“So like us,” he’d finally said.

“So like us,” I’d answered.

The door had opened again. “He’s winding it down,” David had told us. “It’s a miracle. Shortest sermon he’s ever preached.”

“Then, I’ll need to get going,” John had smiled, kissing me one last time. “See you up there at the altar, Mrs. Pearson.”

Charity Pearson.

A new version of myself, I had concluded. As he’d left the room, I’d looked to Hope, surprised to find that she was blinking back tears.

“I always liked Charity Connor,” she’d said, “but I’m sure I’ll like Charity Pearson just as much. Maybe even more, huh? Especially if I get some nieces and nephews out of the deal, right?”

A small but definite reminder of just who Charity Connor was. But Hope hadn’t known what her words meant.

I had felt cold again… but only for a moment.

“Now, come on,” she’d said, wiping a tear away. “Stand up so I can get you all straightened out.”

And I’d obeyed her, letting her come around and billow out the train of my dress, just like the seamstress had shown her months ago as we’d done the final alterations. I’d let her fuss over me, walking all around the bride like she’d done, until we were face to face, where she adjusted my veil one last time and had looked me in the eyes.

“He’s a good man,” she’d said softly. “And he loves you.”

I had nodded at this, knowing it, believing it, still feeling affirmed by the words.

“And this is right, Charity,” she’d said, leaning forward and whispering it.

Those words had been so powerful, like a blessing promised to me right before I changed my name and my entire life.

“Thank you,” I had murmured, reaching out to embrace her, to be held, and to thank God for the millionth time in my life that I had a sister.

I’d so wanted to do the same for her. In all the preparations for Hope’s wedding, I’d been spending most of my time planning the words I’d say to her back in that bridal room as she prepared to marry Craig.

But I wasn’t going to get my chance. She didn’t need me like I’d needed her.

“Oh,” I managed on the phone with her, unable to say much of anything without bursting into loud, obnoxious sobs.

Because that’s who I am. Charity Pearson, full of loud, obnoxious sobs.

“Are you okay?” Hope asked.

And I wanted to tell her, NO! I’m NOT okay! I’m a totally dispensable part of everyone else’s life, including my own, and –

But would she even care? Running off, getting married, and living her life, with no room left for me, obviously. I could get upset, I could let her know that I was mad, and I could cry all over the place.

But it would make no difference. Hope was living her own life. She couldn’t be concerned about mine.

Suddenly, the parsonage felt a whole lot lonelier. Which is saying a lot, y’all, because it had always felt lonely.

“Well… congratulations,” I managed, the tears falling again, my breath nearly held to stop the sobs from coming. “I wish I could have been there.”

And as she went on to fill me in on all the details, I began to listen to the voices that were always whispering to me.

Forgotten again. Pushed aside again.

Not so important after all.

That’s so like you, Charity.

I got to break the news to John.

That was fun.

“What?!” he’d asked, even as he’d been bent over, hugging our children, looking as exhausted as my father always had, every day he’d come home from church.

Yes, I’d made the transition from a pastor’s daughter to a pastor’s wife. You would be surprised by how similar the two roles are. Both find you opening the door to a worn-out shell of a man most evenings. Both find you at every church function conceivable. Both find you waking up in the middle of the night when the pastor has an emergency call. Both find you praying for a little more peace when things aren’t rosy at the church.

Of course, as a daughter, I didn’t know the particulars most times. I’d watch my mother, though, memorizing how she’d handle it all, how she’d make our home a retreat for my father, and how she’d be encouragement and affirmation to him, even when she was worn out and tired, too.

I’m not much like her, honestly. In the beginning, I was so good to John, so good for him. I remember those early days back before we’d found a pastorate, back when we’d been so young. It had been a hard road, being turned down by churches left and right after John finished college, then as he’d been struggling to get through seminary while working one demeaning job after another while I worked on campus to pay for his tuition.

A hard road… but a happy one.

I can still remember him coming home at night, only about thirty minutes after I’d come home myself, leaving me just enough time to put something in the oven for dinner, change out of my heels and my super conservative dresses, and hang out there in the kitchen in something decidedly less conservative, checking dinner and waiting.

For the love, y’all. The anticipation of waiting for him every night. The way I’d bite my lip and watch the doorknob on the door that didn’t hang quite right because the apartment was old, the rent was cheap, and the maintenance was spotty at best. The way I’d wait, knowing that it was going to be so good, every second he was with me. The way I’d count the seconds, willing John to come home, to come to me, to come back…

He’d come in still wearing his work shirt from his janitorial shift, still smelling like toilet cleaning chemicals, his hands still chalky from all the times he’d wash them throughout the day, a nighttime full of studying ahead of him.

“Mrs. Pearson,” he’d say, dropping everything at the door, a light in his eyes even in the midst of all the work he always had and the exhaustion he always felt. Before I could answer, he’d sweep me into his arms and put his lips to mine, pulling back only to tell me, “I missed you.”

How incredible, that we’d miss each other like that.

We’d let dinner get cold and disappear into one another for a while. I believed so sincerely that things had been made right, that we had moved on, and that life was going to be perfect for us after all.

And then… we had children. Well, duh, right? Because that’s what happens when you keep letting your dinner get cold, right?

Things changed.

The church that eventually hired him was difficult. Our relationship with our families was difficult. Finances were difficult. Life was difficult.

And I? I was difficult.

I could see the remembrance of those times in John’s eyes, even as our babies kissed him and clung to him that night, their arms around his knees, their feet on his boots.

“Hope did what?!” he asked, with Aiden chatting directly into his ear, loudly and urgently. (Just like his mother, that one.)

“Eloped,” I told him, following my children, standing taller to give him a very chaste peck on the lips. “I know, right?”

“Why?” he asked, even as he pulled Amelia up into his arms and bounced her there playfully.

“Oh, don’t do that, John,” I began, “she just nursed and –”

Puke. All over him, before I could even finish warning him. Maybe her digestive system wasn’t so great after all.

“Just great,” John said, wincing. “Charity, could you help me out a little?”

The sharpness in his tone was for the mess, but I heard it differently. It’s amazing how the intention of something can be so differently construed in the delivery of it.

I’d helped him plenty. I’d been taking care of our children, of our home, of our lives all day long while he got to escape to an office where people talked to him, though not nicely or civilly at times, but still.

I bristled at his tone, even as I reached for Amelia.

“I told you,” I said. “But you didn’t listen.”

He wasn’t listening even as I chided him. “I’ll go change,” he sighed, even as Amelia hiccuped and Aiden began pulling on my free arm. I opened my mouth to ask him if he could at least take the casserole out of the oven as the timer beeped, but he was already gone.

Just great.

It had gotten better.

He’d come out of our room with a better attitude and a fresh outlook that matched the clothes he’d changed into. I’d done my best to change his good mood by being passive-aggressive in serving up his mystery casserole (seriously, that’s all I can cook now as a pastor’s wife), offering up one word answers to his questions, and silently being hurt and offended all during dinner.

But he’d been a better man than me. He’d asked for more clarification about the Hope situation. He’d helped Amelia eat her dinner. He’d let Aiden talk his ear off about every last Thomas the Train book we’d read that day (fifteen, y’all – we’d read fifteen), and he’d promised him a bike ride around the neighborhood afterwards.

“So Mommy can have a little Mommy time,” he’d said, even as he’d loaded Amelia up into the baby backpack and put Aiden’s helmet on him.

I couldn’t be mad for long, obviously. I’d given him a begrudging kiss, still wanting to be hurt, but he’d held onto me longer and made it more. With a knowing wink, he’d gone on, and I’d gotten myself ready for bed.

Long after John had come back and I’d done the same for our kids, we’d come back to the bedroom, where he’d told me about his day. Discouraging, exhausting, and just like every other day in this season of our lives. Small, declining churches have the potential to eat you up and spit you out, and we’d been through a lot in our years in ministry. We were in a good season, though… but even good seasons come with ups and downs.

Enough of that. I redirected the conversation back to Hope and how she’d gone crazy on us.

“What do you think about it all?” I asked, propping myself up on my elbow and studying him, even as he grinned over at me.

“About what?” he asked, putting his glasses on the bedside table, moving right over, and frankly, ignoring my question completely, his lips already on my neck.

Which was weird. Because John, even after so many years of us being an old married couple, still listens, still goes out of his way, and still hears me. Especially in moments like this, with his lips traveling, his hands following, asking me do you like this, Charity and tell me what you want, Charity. He never takes it for granted that what worked yesterday will still work today, never assumes that he has it figured out entirely, and never hesitates to clarify, which in and of itself is a turn-on greater than anything he could do. I hear from other girlfriends that most husbands aren’t like this. (Okay, so I have no girlfriends. I read about these things in advice columns online, though, you know, when I’m trapped underneath two napping children with nothing but my smart phone to keep me company.)

It’s just more proof that John is perfect. Which is great. And annoying. Because just once in a fight, I’d like for him to be wrong, you know? I’d like for him to have some transgression, some flaw, some sign that he’s not nearly as holy as I’m certain he is. Sometimes I even look for flaws, certain that finding them will make me feel like I actually do deserve him after all.

No flaws… except for that one thing.

But I didn’t want to think about it. I wasn’t looking for any flaw that night, especially not that one. Which made it even more shocking when I settled right on it.

He ignored my question. Ignored me and tried to distract me from the topic on hand.

I kept right on talking, though, even as I laid back and moved my head just so, giving him full and easy access to my neck, which he took as an invitation… despite the words that kept tumbling out of my mouth.

“About Hope. Eloping. Hope. Elope. Wow, John, that rhymes,” I said. “You know?”

“Nope,” he murmured, his lips still on my skin.

“Very funny,” I said.

“Mmmhmm…”

“Seriously, though,” I said, pulling his face up with my hands and looking at him. “She ran off and got married! What do you think about it?”

I could see him compose himself. I could see him do it, even as he took a breath, even as he focused on me.

Diplomatically trying to figure out a way to answer without revealing too much either way.

I could see him do it.

“What do you think, John?”

“Good for Hope,” he said, moving away from me just slightly. No longer interested in any action, now that we were talking about Hope. Interesting. And so not surprising. “She deserves to be happy.”

“I guess,” I said, feigning ignorance, just like I always had, just like dumb blondes were supposed to and all. “But crazy, huh? Went off and married a guy we hardly know. I mean, we had one weekend with him. Did you even get to talk to Craig?”

John didn’t look happy. Little surprise. “Yeah, I did. For a while. Seems like an okay guy.”

“He just whisked her away,” I murmured, wanting John to show his cards. Finally. Get it out in the open. “To Africa! Married her!”

John nodded and opened his mouth, likely to say congratulations or something equally infuriating.

So, I gave him more details. About the honeymoon. About what I knew would certainly make him uncomfortable. “And then, he brought her back home and off to some shady lake house in the middle of nowhere for five days. No contact with the outside world. Just him and Hope and –”

“Mercy, Charity,” John said, looking away from me. “Good for her. Good for him. Why are you so interested?”

“And why are you so squirmy when I mention it?” I asked. “It’s not like hearing about Hope has ever had this effect on you.”

I thought about the years of our marriage, how he’d always liked to hear about what Hope was doing. About how he’d smile when I would mention another accomplishment, another great thing she’d done. John couldn’t get enough of talk about Hope.

Until now.

“Just wanted to be with my wife,” he said, coming close to me again, so obviously trying a new move to get me off the subject.

No dice, buddy. I know what you’re doing.

“I know, right?” I said. “Craig probably feels like that about Hope. Never can get enough of her. I can only imagine what –”

“Charity,” John said, cutting me off. I could see how bothered he was.

And so I just said it. Threw it out there. Finally.

Because maybe… maybe I wasn’t imagining things.

“This must be rough for you,” I murmured. “You know, since you’re in love with her.”

 

~John~

 

It all started with Hope.

I met her during the first week of class.

Not in class itself, of course. The university was huge, as were the classes, and it was impossible to get to know anyone apart from being involved in student life organizations, rushing the Greek system, or playing an intramural sport.

I had opted for the first. Fraternities weren’t going to be my thing because I didn’t party and still felt, even at eighteen, awkward around girls. Intramural sports weren’t going to be my thing either because most of the games took place on Sunday, and I knew my place on that day was in church, learning more about Christ, committing myself further to live what I’d known my whole life, and preparing for a future in ministry.

So, a student life organization would have to be my way to meet other students in this new city I found myself in and at this university so far from home, and I settled on one ministry in particular that first week of class.

Christian Campus Ministries. A very simple name with a very clear purpose. I’d known it from the moment I walked through the doors, that I’d find my place there with students just like me, who came to college for an education, their eyes set on Christ.

Of course, they all looked quite different than I did. It was a commuter college, mostly, full of kids who’d grown up in the city. I’d gone there because of the academic scholarship, something that the son of a poor preacher man and his homemaker wife couldn’t very well refuse.

Standing there in my boots and jeans, though, like I’d just stepped off the farm (quite literally) had left me feeling a little ill at ease.

But I could make do. Life was about making the best of where you found yourself, and surely I could do that.

The campus ministry was doing a new student orientation my first day there, and I joined the other freshmen that had gathered there, looking around, wondering who I’d befriend that day, if I’d have someone to go have lunch with that afternoon on the huge campus where it was hard to meet anyone because everyone was always in a rush to go somewhere.

Before I could settle in on which of the guys I’d probably have the most in common with, an upperclassmen leader began counting us off into two-person groups with instructions to play a getting to know you game… which wasn’t much of a game, actually. We were just supposed to come up with five things we had in common.

I thought this would be easy enough (I’m at this orientation, I go to this college, I live on this campus, I love Jesus, and I’m a guy – done and done), until we broke off into our groups and I found myself sitting face to face with her.

She was the only one who had looked more out of place than I did, as she glanced around and surveyed everyone in the group with reserved judgement in her eyes.

And then, those eyes were on me.

“Hope Connor,” she said, all business like, holding her hand out to me.

She wasn’t very attractive. I may have been awkward around girls, but I had certainly noticed them. Hope wasn’t someone I would have looked twice at, though, with her very plain appearance, her even duller clothing choices, and her impassive face as she watched me, waiting for me to respond.

“John Pearson,” I said, taking her hand with a smile and shaking it. “And the first thing we have in common is that we’re both at this orientation.”

I let go of her hand and leaned back in my chair, sure that she’d see how easy this game would be.

“Oh, no,” she said. “There’s no glory in winning if you cheat, John Pearson.”

“That’s not cheating,” I said. “It’s going for the obvious.”

“Yeah, that’s not the way I do things,” she said.

“Well, then,” I said, trying to imagine what we could have in common. “Let’s do it your way. You have brothers and sisters?”

“One of each,” she said.

“Me, too,” I said. “There’s one thing we have in common. And I’m the middle child. How about you?”

“Another thing in common,” she said, actually taking notes. “Well, technically. I’m a twin. But second born. Likely because Charity was kicking me in the back so she could be the first out. Lucky she didn’t harm my kidneys. But the joke’s on her if she did, because she’d have to donate me one of hers given our gene connection, right?”

I had smiled at this. “Charity,” I said. “Charity and… Hope? Is that your name?”

“Yes,” she said, grimacing just slightly. “Hope and Charity. My dad’s a pastor, so you could bet it would a Bible name or something hippy dippy like Constance and Prudence. I’ll be thankful for Hope.”

She looked like a Prudence, quite honestly.

“You’re dad’s a pastor,” I said, refraining from telling her this observation. “Write that down as well. I’m a PK, too.”

“Awesome,” she said. “Church around here?”

“No, San Angelo,” I said, thinking about how far I was from home.

“Hmm,” she said, noting it. “Big church out there?”

“Two hundred members,” I said, thinking that, yes, it was a decent sized church, certainly bigger than the thirty member, then fifty member, then eighty member congregations we’d been through as I’d been growing up. “How about your dad? He pastor a church that size?”

“No,” she said, still making notes. “Dad’s church has twenty-six thousand members.”

Wow. This was impressive.

“Are you kidding?” I asked.

“Nope,” she said, glancing up at me. “That’d be a weird thing to kid about.”

True enough. I thought about what else we might have in common.

“Are you living in the dorms?” I asked.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m in an apartment with my sister farther into the city. She wouldn’t, and I quote, ‘do the dorm thing.’ You’re obviously doing it, though. Can’t commute from San Angelo.”

“You’re right,” I said. “And I’m glad for it, since I have 8am classes every day of the week this semester.”

“Me, too, at least on Mondays and Wednesdays,” she said. “Traffic is going to be a beast, but getting that English requirement out of the way early on will be worth it.”

“I have that class, too,” I said, grinning because I’d actually met someone who would be in one of the same classes that I was in.

It was a real rarity at a university this big.

“Seriously?” she asked, smiling. “Have you picked up the books for it yet?”

“All ten of them,” I said.

“For the love,” she muttered. “I’m going to spend most of my time this semester reading for that one class.”

“Looked like good stuff, though,” I said.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “And I’ve read half of them once already for AP English, but still –”

“Will end up reading them again,” I said. “Which is just exactly what I said when I saw what books were on the list.”

It had been. That had been exactly what I’d said to myself as people had rushed all around me in this big university in this big city where I’d wondered how I’d get to meet anyone, feel connected anywhere, and make this home.

Hope looked up at me and grinned. A genuine smile. The smile of someone who looked like she could be a friend.

“Well, I don’t even know how to put all of that in words,” she said, looking back at her list. “But I’ll just call it English. The fourth thing we have in common.”

“Do you like pizza?” I asked.

“I love it,” she answered.

“Then, there’s number five,” I said. “We should get a group together after this, go on over, and split one to celebrate a new beginning and all.”

She smiled again. “John Pearson,” she said, “that’s a great idea.”

We spent that entire first year together.

Not together, of course. And not just the two of us, obviously. But we’d found a group in that campus ministry, and from that first night where we’d all split a pizza, we’d been friends. Hope and I had more than just the one same class, so we’d spend a good portion of our time together during the week, every week, as the seasons changed and the semester went along.

The second semester was the same. Days spent together going to class then taking a bigger leadership role together at Christian Campus Ministries. We both led a small group, and meeting up more times a week hardly seemed like a big deal since we were already spending so much time together. The semester went by so quickly, and at the end of it all, we were better friends than we had been.

Hope was like a sister to me, which was great.

But I had my suspicions that she felt more than I did.

I suspected it even more when I got the word that the dorms would be closing before I could take my last final.

“Should be against the rules,” I muttered to her as we worked side by side on the prep work for our last Bible study of the semester. “If they’re going to kick out students, they should cancel all finals after the closing date.”

“The more troubling thing, though,” she said, pointing her pen at me, “is that the need to exterminate is that urgent. Makes you wonder what kind of vermin you’ve been living alongside at Ye Olde Public University.”

I frowned at this… but she just smiled.

“I’m glad you find humor in this,” I said, looking back down at my notes. “You can afford to, with the luxury apartment you’re living in.”

“Not for much longer,” she sighed. “Moving back home a whole week before you move out, honestly.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I said, already well aware of this, grinning to hear her bring it up as it was a sore subject. “Daddy’s little princess flunked out, so you have to go home, too. Poor, poor Hope.”

“Charity is hardly a princess,” Hope muttered. “But, yes, poor, poor me, being dragged into her poor choices.”

I couldn’t say honestly whether Charity was spoiled or not because I had never, in all the trips I’d made back and forth from Hope’s apartment that first year, ever run into her. Hope assured me that Charity did, in fact, exist, and the perfume that permeated the air in the spaces they shared was proof that she was in and out at least some of the time, as were the heaps of laundry, short skirts, low cut shirts, and very dainty, lacy undergarments that I always quickly looked past.

Can she not find a dirty laundry hamper?!, Hope had fumed once, picking up a sheer pink bra and all but shaking it in my face. I swear, I’ll be cleaning up her messes for the rest of my life!

She’d not even thought twice about the blush that had crept onto my face at the sight of that interesting little piece of Charity. Probably because she didn’t think of me like that.

Except she did, as evidenced by the way that she looked up at me and grinned as I continued making notes, more than a little admiration in her eyes when she noted the references I’d made and copied them into her own notes.

“That’s a good cross reference,” she’d murmured. “I’m going to miss studying with you. You’re leaving right after your final?”

“May have to leave before then,” I said. “May have to skip it unless I can find some park bench to sleep on somewhere on campus.”

“For the love, John,” she sighed, suddenly nervous. “You can come stay at my parents’ house with me.” Then, glancing up at me with her own cheeks blushed she muttered, “I mean, not with me, but… well, you know.”

I could see it then, more clearly than I had before.

She liked me. Not in the same way I liked her, like she was a great friend, my best friend, honestly. She liked me in a different way.

She was attracted to me. She wanted me. But I didn’t feel the same.

Still, though, as we’d done a great job of serving alongside one another, being there for each other, and living as best friends… I had wondered.

I had wondered if it was enough, what I felt for her, to start something substantial. What’s real love anyway? Attraction’s just a chemical thing and a shallow thing at that. Wasn’t it more spiritual to sacrifice those feelings for something more real, like what we had? Relationships weren’t about gushy feelings all the time, were they? And that’s all attraction really was, anyway.

I wasn’t sure, though. I told myself, as I agreed to spend that extra night at her parents’ house, that maybe I would have a better idea about it all after meeting her family, after diving a little deeper into her world.

Feelings weren’t everything, after all.

I met the family the afternoon I moved out. Hope’s mother, Phoebe, wasn’t so different from my own mother. Very busy with her husband’s work, even busier in keeping a home running and worrying incessantly, it seemed, over her youngest child, David, who was also there, telling Hope about the job he’d gotten for the summer, working on roofs with members of their church.

“Not getting paid for that,” Hope’s father muttered, watching his son.

Yeah, Hope’s father was an entity all unto himself. Nothing like my own father, nothing like the pastor I envisioned one day being myself. Hard, calculating, and preferential in his treatment of his children.

Hope was clearly his favorite.

“I’m not getting paid at my job either,” Hope noted. “Because my boss is a tightwad.”

She was auditing classes that summer at the seminary. Greek and New Testament II. Her church, or rather her church’s pastor, had commissioned her to do it so that she could chair a committee of lay people who had been assigned to write curriculum for a small group series the church would do the following summer. Her work would extend into the school year, would require a lot of time with the senior pastor, and wouldn’t make her a single cent.

Paul smiled over at her. “I’m not technically your boss.”

“You’re everyone’s boss at New Life,” Hope corrected him.

He shrugged. “True enough. But what expenses do you have anyway? Living here for the summer, school already paid for in the fall. You don’t need to be paid money by the church. And what you’re gaining is worth far more than a paycheck anyway. And what you’re giving is yourself, all for the Lord’s glory, which is better than a paycheck.” He looked over at his son. “And, David Paul –”

“I know,” David said to him. “It’s not like Hope’s job. But it’s worth something, right?”

“Would have rather had you working alongside her on the team,” Paul said, “if you weren’t going to work a real job.”

“I’m helping with roof repairs for people who can’t afford them,” David said, grinning. “It’s a ministry.”

“That ministry hasn’t brought in any significant numbers to our church in all the years it’s been operating,” Paul swore. “Better for you to be preparing yourself for Bible college, for seminary, for the pastorate.”

“You’re going to be a pastor?” I asked David, thinking of the opportunities he had, opportunities that I definitely didn’t have at my dad’s church back in San Angelo. I wasn’t going to be a pastoral intern that summer. I was going to be lucky to find a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s, probably.

“No,” David said, shaking his head. “Or… I don’t know. Called to ministry, but who knows beyond that.”

“Pulpit ministry,” Paul said emphatically. “Where knowing how to roof a house won’t do you any good.”

“I imagine knowing how to roof a house will be a good life skill no matter what kind of ministry he ends up in,” Phoebe spoke up. “He’s sixteen, Paul. He doesn’t have to have everything figured out yet.”

“How about you, John?” Paul asked. “Hope tells us you’re looking towards pastoral ministry yourself.”

I’d felt pride at this, at being able to associate with this very important man who was already a success in the field I wanted to be in. “Yes, sir,” I said. “That’s the goal, at least.”

“What are you doing to reach that goal now?” he asked. “Plans for the summer?”

“No plans quite yet,” I said. “I had hoped to intern at one of the bigger churches in the city, but nothing panned out. Everyone said I was too young.”

“You said you’re from San Angelo, right?” Paul asked, pulling out his phone.

“Yes, sir,” I nodded. “My dad pastors a church there.”

He narrowed his eyes. “What’s the name?”

“Community Cowboy Church,” I said. “We’re a plant from Faith Church of San Angelo.”

He nodded appreciatively. “Conservative. A friend to the convention. Just like my church.”

My dad’s church was nothing like Paul’s, but they were doctrinally similar, at least. I didn’t know how involved Paul was in the convention in Texas, but I got a clearer picture when he pressed a button on his phone.

“Hey, Rick,” he said. “This is Paul Connor from New Life-Dallas.” He grinned rather smugly. “Yeah, we’re doing good. Busy summer schedule. Hosting the Texas delegation for the convention next month. Hope we’ll see you there.” Then, after just a few seconds of listening, he was back to business again. “I have a young man here who comes highly recommended for a pastoral internship. Would hire him in a heartbeat for New Life-Dallas, but he’ll be out your direction for the summer. Wondered if you might know someone in the association out there who can give him some good experience?”

I looked at Hope, shocked by what I was hearing. She simply smiled over at me, obviously very accustomed to this kind of thing.

“That would be excellent,” Paul said, grinning. “Let me get you his email address so you can send over whatever you need him to fill out.” Hope grabbed her own phone, and after a few clicks, she handed it to Paul, who already had his hand out for it. “Okay, here’s that address.”

A few pleasantries later, it was done, and Paul hung up.

“That guy is a colossal jerk,” Paul frowned. “But he loves Jesus. And he’s got three churches out in the sticks around the association that would kill for some free help this summer.” He nodded at me. “You okay with a thirty minute commute?”

I nodded dumbly. “I’d be okay with a much longer commute, sir. Thank you.”

“Seeing a godly young man take advantage of the opportunities given to him is thanks enough,” Paul said, shooting another look at his son.

Before I could respond either way, we all heard the back door to the house open.

“And speaking of college students being all that they can be, that must be Charity,” Hope sighed, just as my phone alerted me to an email. Rick Stephens. Midwestern Texas Association DOM.

I quickly pulled it up, only half listening to the conversation around me.

“Is she even awake yet?” David asked.

“She’s been up for a few hours,” Paul clarified. “Said she was going to turn over a new leaf this summer. Thank You, Jesus.”

“John, I apologize in advance that she didn’t come in as soon as you got here,” Phoebe said, to which I glanced up and nodded politely… then went right back to the email about a job I’d never dreamt I could get. “I’m sure she was studying hard out by the pool.”

“Hardly studying,” David said. “Classes don’t start until next week.”

“Next Tuesday,” Hope affirmed. “I hope she takes it seriously so she can make up some of the credit she lost.”

And then, another voice and the sound of the fridge opening.

“For the love, is everyone in here talking about me?”

I looked up just as her eyes found mine… and suddenly, I didn’t give a rip about that email on my phone.

Charity Connor. A faceless, humorous anecdote from my first year of college. Flunking out of everything, never doing what she should do, sleeping through class, partying all weekend. The anti-Hope, if you will. My mind went to the perfume and those scraps of lace, the hints of someone I hadn’t cared to know or even meet, just as her eyes locked onto mine.

“John, this is my twin sister, Charity. Charity, this is my friend, John,” Hope said, her voice sounding like it was miles and miles away now, especially as her sister smiled my direction, the fridge half open, a Coke in her hand, the towel she was wearing over her bikini dipping just low enough to show me that she was going to have one awful sunburn the next morning.

“Well,” I said, thinking that if beauty were personified, it would be blonde haired, blue eyed, petite, and curvy, just exactly like this. “Clearly you’re fraternal twins.”

I had never imagined Charity. Not like this.

I don’t know how anyone else reacted to that great introduction because I was still staring at Charity, even as she grinned and giggled just a little.

“Well,” she sighed, shutting the fridge and tilting her head to the side as she looked me over. “Hello, Hope’s friend.”

There was a lot Hope hadn’t told me about her sister.

She was funny. There was that. The two of them were funny together.

And Charity was amazing. Beautiful. Incredible. Everything good and wonderful in this crazy world, so obviously.

Everything.

Yes. That’s honestly what I thought. I was nineteen, after all, and she was really, really cute.

There was dinner with the whole family, where we’d talked about the last semester we’d all had. Charity told me about the classes she’d hated, and I told her about the classes she should take instead in the fall. Charity had talked about some of her favorite spots around town, and I’d told her about how few of them I’d been able to get to yet. Charity told me about some of the things she had planned for the summer, stuck in Dallas, and I talked about how much I wished I would still be around.

I’m sure everyone else had plenty to say during dinner, but I couldn’t rightly recall anything anyone had said, because all of my attention was on Charity.

And all of her attention was on me.

As Paul had left afterwards to get to a meeting at the church, he’d shaken my hand and told me to keep him in the loop about my job that summer, the job that he said would certainly be mine after I responded back to Rick.

I’d forgotten all about it, honestly, thanks to Charity.

Once reminded of it, though, I’d been eager to get back to the email. Rick had included a questionnaire, no doubt in an effort to place me somewhere, to assign me a task, and to validate me in the eyes of pastors who hadn’t asked for summer help.

I’d opened it back up once dinner was done, when it was just Charity, Hope, and me in the kitchen.

“He wants a solid answer about your theology there,” Hope said, pointing to the question on my laptop as she sat next to me. “That’s the only reason he’s even delving into the subject matter.”

I was about to agree with her when Charity spoke up, making her way over to us from where she’d been helping herself to a huge amount of ice cream, from where I’d been watching her, super aware of her presence no matter where she went in the large kitchen.

“What’s the question?” she asked, smiling over at me and walking my direction.

“Um… what’s the most effective means of reaching the community with the Gospel?” I read, looking at her, even as she slid into the seat next to me, sitting much closer than Hope did as I was literally sandwiched between the Connor twins, Hope passive on one side like my good friend, Charity’s thigh already lined up with mine like… well, like we could be a whole lot more than just friends.

“The preaching of the Word of God,” Hope said, breaking my attention away from Charity’s legs. “The infallible, sustaining, empowered Word of God. John, go ahead and type that out.”

But my eyes were still on Charity as she grinned over at her sister. “For a smart girl, you’re really dumb sometimes, Hope.”

“Hello, pot,” Hope murmured. “Meet kettle.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” Charity said, licking her spoon carefully… which sure wasn’t helping me to concentrate on the conversation. “But I know that what you said sounds good. But they’re looking for something different.”

“What are they looking for?” I asked her, even as I glanced over at Hope and watched her roll her eyes.

“They want to hear that you’re actually going to get out in that community and do something to reach the lost there,” Charity said, nudging me with her elbow. Glorious, that. “Lost. That’s a weird way of putting it, isn’t it? Like everyone in Texas doesn’t already know all about Jesus, right?”

“There’s a difference between knowing about Him and living your life for Him, Charity,” Hope said, and I got the impression that she’d said this to her sister maybe a few other times in her life. “And the difference is made through hearing His Word, letting His Word change you.”

“Change me?” Charity asked, grinning over at her sister. Then, a glance my direction. “Do you think I need to change, John?”

Not a bit, I was tempted to say as she continued looking at me like that…

“Oh, for the love,” Hope muttered. “Could you be any more obvious?”

“I could be way more obvious,” Charity laughed, going back to her ice cream. “John, do you want some of this that I’ve got here?”

Yes, I wanted to say without knowing what she was even asking. Yes to it all.

“I’ll get you some of your own, John,” Hope said, standing and going over to the fridge.

“I have too much here,” Charity protested. “He can get in on some of mine.”

“Uh, no, that’s okay,” I said, trying to get my head back to where it needed to be. “Thanks, Hope. And what was it you said? The Word of God is…”

Hope began to tell me, even as she worked on opening up the ice cream, but Charity interrupted her.

“Write this down,” she said, tapping her finger on my hand, sending jolts of something wonderful up through my arm and down my whole body with just that tiny contact. “The best way to reach the community for Christ is to live in the community. To become a part of the community. To give yourself wholly to being in community with others, like Jesus did. To live a life in Christ, as you live in that community, in such a way that others want to know Him like you do.” She grinned. “That’ll get you any job.”

I thought about her words, about what ministry really should be.

This sounded right on.

“That’s good,” I said. “Where’d you pick that up?”

“Years of sermons,” she said. “I mean that literally. Years.”

“Didn’t know you were paying attention,” Hope said, still at work at the counter.

“Some of the time,” Charity shrugged. “And more of the same this summer, now that we’re living here. I didn’t know Dad already had you booked up solid at New Life.”

“That’s the word,” Hope said. “Not like I had big plans to do anything anyway.”

“Oh, but I did,” Charity sighed. “I was going to take a road trip with friends.” She looked over at me. “We were going to go out to California. Hollywood. San Francisco. Up and down the coast. Sleeping in the car, taking odd jobs.”

“Likely starving to death out there with no money,” Hope noted.

“I was going to be so thin by the end of the summer,” Charity sighed heavily, almost mournfully… even as she stuffed another bite of ice cream into her mouth. “Oh, well.”

“You’re beautiful just the way you are,” I said, wondering only a split second later if I should’ve said anything at all, given the way the two sisters exchanged a look at my boldness.

In Hope’s eyes, there was disappointment. In Charity’s, there was mainly eagerness to see how Hope reacted.

Once it was clearly noted, she smiled at me.

“Well, thank you for that, John,” she said sweetly. “I’ll enjoy my ice cream, then, and can I just say that you also –”

“Here,” Hope said, dropping my bowl in front of me without fanfare. “Charity, don’t you have some studying to do? Speaking of your road trip gone wrong and all?”

“Yes,” Charity breathed dramatically. Then, turning to me and ignoring Hope all together, “Dad moved me home for the summer. Said I needed to retake the classes I flunked. But I only flunked them because my dear, darling twin didn’t help me study like she promised she would back when we pinky-swore that we would go to college together and –”

“You can lead a cow to water, but you can’t make her drink,” Hope murmured.

Charity frowned at her. “That’s like the hundredth time you’ve called me a cow,” she said. “Seriously. When all I was trying to say was that you’re smart and I know I could’ve passed those classes if you’d been helping –”

“I know,” Hope said, some apology in her voice. “I’ll help you this summer. You’ll get those hours back.”

“I probably should be studying,” Charity murmured.

“Me, too,” I said, looking over at her. “I still have a final tomorrow. But the company was so great that… well, you know.”

Again, what was I doing, saying these things to her, giving her open doors to flirt with me?

I don’t know. There was just something about her.

She smiled. “I agree.”

And we watched one another for a long moment, clear interest there for us both.

Hope, given the loud way she cleared her throat to break our attention away from one another, was obviously irritated. “Maybe you both need to –”

But her phone interrupted her. Charity recognized the tone.

“Dad’s calling you from the church, isn’t he?” she said, eating another bite.

“Yes,” Hope sighed. “Told me he probably would when he left after dinner. Probably needs me to do something.”

As she answered the call, she left the room, her voice fading as she left me alone with Charity.

“He’s calling to ask her a question about one of the ministries he’s thinking about starting up,” Charity said softly. “An outreach program to college students. Which, you know, he could ask me about, since I’m that demographic, too.”

I’d simply listened and watched as she’d looked up and smiled uncertainly at me.

“No big deal, huh?” she asked. “No wonder he asked Hope instead of me, since she’s so smart and all.”

“Well, she knows a lot,” I conceded. “Made a point of beating me in every class we took this last year. And we had a lot of the same classes during the spring.”

“She’s like that,” Charity said. “So, are the two of you…”

She left the question open, but I knew just exactly what she was asking.

“No.”

A look of understanding passed between us.

Okay, then.

“Besides, being book smart isn’t everything,” I said, looking back at my laptop, thinking about what we’d just communicated. “Like your answer to the question. I think you’re right. In fact, I think your answer is a lot better than Hope’s.”

Her eyes shone just a little brighter as I said it.

“You should put that in there, then,” she said. “But I figure that you already know the right answer anyway, don’t you?”

I wasn’t sure I did, honestly. “Why do you figure that?” I asked her.

“Because you seem like that kind of guy,” she said. “The guy who’s already got it all together… I like that about you.”

And I found myself sitting a little taller, even as she helped me finish the rest of the questionnaire, between ice cream and laughter as we continued to get to know one another.

I rushed through that last final.

I knew the material well enough, so it wasn’t too difficult. I had a long drive back out west that afternoon, all the way back home.

I was in a hurry, in other words. But that had nothing to do with the drive or the test.

I was in a hurry because I wanted to go back by the Connor house one last time to see Charity.

I wasn’t even sure where Hope was going to be. It made me a bad friend likely, just as the rest of my stay had made me. When Hope had returned from the phone call the night before, she’d only spent a few minutes with Charity and me as we’d been chatting, then she’d gone away, likely to bed.

Neither one of us had even asked her where she was going or thought to include her in our conversation.

Horrible, really, but I’d not thought it at the time, grinning over at Charity, watching as she grinned back at me.

The two of us had stayed up half the night, talking, just like that. I hadn’t been able to sleep once we’d finally said good night because I’d been thinking about her, wondering at how miserable the rest of the summer would be now, so far away from her after just one night of getting to know her. I’d stayed awake thinking of her.

I would likely have to down some energy drinks on the drive to keep from falling asleep at the wheel, but it had been worth it.

The rush back to the house later, after my exam was turned in, was even more worth it, as Charity herself answered the door, beamed at me, and put her arms around me in a very unexpected, very welcome embrace.

“Hey there, new friend,” she giggled, even as her hands traveled up my back and held me close, the familiarity not even surprising given who she was and how I was already feeling. I did what came naturally, putting my arms around her and drawing her even closer, without even thinking at all. “I didn’t know you were coming back by the house!”

“I wanted to see you again,” I said, as she continued to hold me, as I continued to hold her. It should’ve been weird, this closeness after so little time, but it was so perfect, so right. Just being there. Together. Just like that.

Charity felt it, too.

“I wish I’d met you sooner in the semester,” she said after a long, quiet moment, pulling back just enough to look me in the eyes.

“I was at your apartment all the time,” I said softly.

“Darn you, Hope,” Charity murmured, grinning. “She should’ve introduced us long ago. Trying to keep the good stuff for herself.”

This felt like yet another admission that there was definitely something here.

It was enough of an affirmation for me to act on what I’d wanted to do since meeting her, not even twelve hours earlier.

I kissed her.

She was the only girl I had ever kissed. I should’ve felt timid about it all, tentative, cautious, careful, and prayerful about the whole thing, given my inexperience and the intensity I was feeling for the first time. But I only felt confident, certain, and clear-minded as I’d taken her face in my hands and expressed emotions that I’d never had before.

For all of her teasing and aloofness (because even in her flirting, she’d been that, almost as though she was still considering me and wasn’t yet decided on the whole matter), she wasn’t unaffected by the kiss. As my lips left hers, I saw the surprise in her eyes as she looked back at me before she could grin and try to appear amused.

“I’m going to call you,” I told her simply, bold because of the way she looked at me. “Like, all the time.”

“Wow, stalker,” she murmured.

“And I’ll be thinking about you,” I continued. “Like, all the time.”

“And if I told you not to?” she asked softly.

“I’d pray that God changes your heart,” I said. “Because I’m into you, Charity.”

That’s why God had to change her heart. It wasn’t right, of course, wanting to be with her, trying to convince her to give me a chance, and pursuing her since my one night of being around her hadn’t given me any inkling as to where she was when it came to Christ. With Hope, there was no doubt as we were following Him at the same pace and on the same track. But Charity was different, obviously. There was belief, certainly. But it wasn’t life-changing. Not yet.

The fact that I ignored this and went ahead said less about Charity’s love for Christ and more about mine.

Perhaps I didn’t love Him as genuinely as I thought I did if I could so easily persuade myself to want someone who wasn’t living for Him.

I gave it no thought then, as I held her in her parents’ kitchen.

“Praying that God changes my heart,” she murmured, leaning up to kiss me again, laughing softly as I pulled her closer, my mind as far from Christ as it could get. “That’s so like you.”

“You can tell that after just one night?” I asked, staring into her eyes, imagining a whole lifetime full of nights with her, with the same foolish enthusiasm of a man who really has no idea what he’s getting himself into.

“I can,” she said. “Just like I can tell that you’re seriously going to keep on trying to talk me into whatever it is you have planned for us.”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking about the time, about how I needed to get going… about how I wasn’t going to go anywhere if she wanted me to stay right here.

“Well, get on the road, then,” she smiled.

“And I’ll be seeing you, right?”

I should’ve been thinking more clearly. I should’ve taken it slower. I should’ve been smarter about how to treat her.

Should’ve. I should’ve.

But I didn’t.

She shook her head and let out a small, excited breath. “Maybe, Mr. Pearson.”

 

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