The town could be likened to the fourth leg of a table. On its own, it didn't hold any real value, but when combined with three of the other nearby towns, it became significant enough to bear the weight of a few national retailers and some decent restaurants. Situated in the Eastern part of Tennessee, tucked into the rolling hills while being hugged by rippling creeks, Cleveland was Mary's home. If the south was the Bible belt, this town was the brass buckle. It held dozens of churches. Crosses hoisted high upon steeples could be seen all over. People who loved Cleveland affectionately referred to it as "God's Country" while the less adoring folks said it was made of a sinking sand that wouldn't let you loose once you lived there. It was no matter to Mary, because to her, it was simply home sweet home.
Mary Montgomery and her husband, Philip, had been high school sweethearts. Their lives could have been ripped from the pages of a fairy tale. The six foot two inch star quarterback had been in love with Mary since grade school, and as soon as his sixteenth birthday approached, he gained permission from his parents to date. He had never looked back. For Philip, it had always been and would always be Mary.
Twenty years of marriage lavished good fortune upon the two. On a sprawling piece of land brimming with mature Cedar trees, sat their dream home. In the early 1900's it had been called a mansion, but by modern standards, it was simply an old house on Ocoee Street. Mary and Philip spent the better part of seventeen years refurbishing each room. Their three children had never lived anywhere else. Each had been brought home from the hospital and placed into the same antique cradle in the nursery next to the master bedroom suite.
William, now sixteen, was the first. Very much like his father, Wills was quick witted, athletic, and handsome. Five years passed before his younger sister, Tatum, would enter the world. Unlike Mary who was feminine and soft, "Tate" was a tomboy who wanted to be just like her big brother. To her, he was the most magnificent human being on the planet. From day one, she adored her Wills.
Nothing, however, prepared the family for the joy that would arrive on Philip and Mary's fifteenth wedding anniversary. The youngest Montgomery arrived two weeks early by a cesarean section, very much unlike her brother and sister who had both been delivered by natural child birth. When the doctor turned to hand the five pound one ounce bundle to the nurse, Philip recalled the nurse's expression. Something didn't seem quite right with the way she looked at the baby. He almost questioned her out loud, on the spot. But instead, he turned to Mary who was smiling at him:
"We did it, Chief!" she spoke. His heart always melted when she called him Chief. From the first day of their marriage she had named him The Chief Marriage Officer. Over time, the name "Chief" had stuck. Her voice was tired; she had been put through such an ordeal prior to the emergency surgery when the labor caused the baby's heart rate to plummet. At one point, they thought they might lose their daughter. He wondered how his wife remained so calm even in the midst of such a great storm.
Later that evening, Philip had climbed up into the hospital bed next to Mary as the two inspected baby Charity. The big strong athlete who had become a successful business owner eventually broke down and sobbed while Mary held both he and Charity close to her: "We are going to be fine, perfectly fine. I've always heard it said that God gives special babies to special families. And we, Philip Montgomery, have a wonderful family to offer Miss Charity."
And that is how the youngest daughter, who was born with the extra chromosome, came to be known in town as "Miss Charity".
At five years of age, Miss Charity had positioned herself as the one at the center of the family. A thick pair of glasses were a constant reminder of her poor vision while a scar on her chest told the story of a serious heart defect. Still non-verbal, the big brown eyed girl in pig tails could say one word: "Da-Da". If Mary was Philip's universe, Miss Charity was his brightest star. Wills and Tate adored her too. She could be found most afternoons on top of Will's broad shoulders, giggling with abandon as he tromped through the house acting like a horse carrying it's favorite cow girl. And in the evening, she snuggled in Tate's bed listening to her read stories of princesses who lived in far away places. While Tate didn't enjoy princess stories, she knew her little sister did. So at night, the eleven year old tomboy with skinned knees would place a crown upon her sister's head, swaddle a Cinderella doll beneath her tiny little arm, and she'd read until she heard a soft purr escaping from a tiny rose bud shaped mouth. Miss Charity was the colorful bow that completed the Montgomery family package. Mary was living the life she'd always dreamed of.
It was no wonder the enemy sought to destroy their lives. After all, scripture warns he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. What was most tragic, though, was they never saw it coming. When the devil slinked in like a thief in the night, he stole everything from the family. Well, almost everything. And unbeknownst to Philip and Mary, he had been at work for many years. In fact, it all began on Wills' first day of eighth grade when a boy named Crew Cutless walked onto the campus of Ocoee Middle School like he owned the place.
This is the story:
(To be continued)----
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