As Kate pulled up the church, she was mildly surprised to see that the parking lot was relatively empty. The mixer started in less than ten minutes. Where was everyone?
Getting out of her car, Kate reconciled herself to the evening’s fate. Pastor Thayer had called her two nights ago to seek Kate’s in participation in this event. At first, Kate had balked at the idea, and not without cause. She had reminded M.T. that she didn’t actually belong to her church. This had been worded firmly. She was not a member. While she was honored to be chosen for this selective outfit, she also didn’t want to disillusion the pastor. She wasn’t part of the congregation. She wasn’t ready to take that step, especially what with M.T. and Penny’s current relationship status. Unfortunately, she had also admitted to being raised Lutheran. That, apparently, had been enough for M.T.
Kate was a go.
Without any way to refuse, short of being rude, Kate had reluctantly agreed. It was difficult to say ‘no’ to a woman of faith. They call it Lutheran guilt for good reason. Not to mention, Kate had a sinking suspicion that M.T. was adept at getting what she wanted. She was probably a damn good religious leader because of it. Besides, Kate had reminded herself, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t asked for a favor from the pastor herself; M.T. had sworn she wouldn’t involve herself in Penny’s rent fiasco and yet, miraculously, after only hours of leaving that woman’s hotel room, Kate had been privy to some rather interesting news: Penny’s landlord had a sudden change of heart. He would allow her to keep on as his tenant.
Kate wasn’t naive. Miracles didn’t happen without a little nudging—and M.T. had clout with a certain Miracle Maker (you know, upstairs, if you catch the drift).
How could Kate refuse her after that?
Walking up to the white-washed building, Kate had a momentary attack of nerves. She wasn’t even sure where she was supposed to go? Pulling the door open, she walked inside the vestibule, ears stretched for any forthcoming sounds to help lead the way. Nothing. However, when her eyes landed on a directory map hanging above the front entrance, she decided she’d try out M.T.’s office first. Turning down a far hallway, Kate soon saw a door clearly marked Pastor.
As she made her way, Kate could just make out the vague sound of feet pacing against thin carpeting. The muffled sound grew steadily loud as Kate met up with the door. Guess she wasn’t the only one nervous about tonight. At least, they could sit and stew together. Raising her hand, Kate knocked firmly. She didn’t have long to wait before the door swung open before her, granting sight of an obviously harried M.T.
“Oh Kate, you made it. How wonderful,” M.T. said. Clearly she’d been worried about that.
Shaking her head, Kate decided not to be offended by the words. She doubted they’d been intentional. It didn’t take an optometrist to see that the pastor was preoccupied.
“Of course. I hope I’m not too early,” Kate said, trailing behind M.T. as that woman retreated back into the room. It appeared to be an outer office of some sort, with another door stationed at its rear. Probably, it was used for counseling sessions. Either that or M.T. kept her office heavily guarded from surprise visitors. Looking around her, Kate couldn’t help but notice that the room, whatever its real purpose, was painted a god-awful pea green. The interior design hadn’t seen a facelift since the seventies it seemed.
“No, no, not a bit of it,” M.T. answered. “I’m just glad you agreed to be a part of this little experiment. Now all we need are kids to show up,” she said on a rough laugh.
“Are you anticipating a certain number?” Kate asked politely.
“Well, as the bible says: where two or more are gathered…” M.T. said abstractly. Translation: she wasn’t anticipating a whole bunch.
“Well, since I am early and they aren’t here yet, why don’t you brief me a little more on what this evening will entail?” Kate asked.
M.T. waved her hand airily. “Well, there’s no exact script in an environment like this. Just talk to them, create an atmosphere of open dialogue. Get them to open up about their experiences, expectations, any questions they have as they grow older. Share what you’ve encountered along the way,” she ticked off. “The goal is to engage with them, being both young enough to remember what it’s like as a teenager, but also old enough to have insight into gaining adulthood.”
It sounded a little vague to Kate.
M.T. must have read that expression. “Honestly,” she admitted, “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m walking into it a little blind myself. The point is, I want these kids to know there are people they can talk to when it isn’t possible to talk with their parents, especially in an arena of grace and security. I want to close the gap between their world and the real world,” M.T. said, speaking quickly.
Kate hoped the pastor had brought along some cue cards. This was sounding more and more ominous by the minute. Kate wasn’t a natural talker, and teenagers? It’s like pulling teeth, on the best of days, to get them to communicate.
“I’m just worried that my being a stranger here will come as a distinct disadvantage. I won’t even be a familiar face to these guys. Why would they open up to me, someone who isn’t even a member of the congregation,” Kate said.
M.T. smirked. Leaning back against a bookshelf lining one entire wall, she asked: “And who said all these kids “belonged” to our church?” Her finger-quote got the point across nicely.
“Touché,” Kate said, moving toward the small velvet settee stationed almost center mass of the room. She took a seat. Silence enveloped the room after that.
M.T. was too busy to talk anyway, moving frantically now across the office, pulling open cabinet doors, shuffling under piles of documents, rummaging around for papers and pens…. Biting her lip to keep from smiling, Kate watched this quiet unraveling, pretending not to hear when M.T. started mumbling under her breath, something about her poor organizational skills; sure she could think up a great idea but execution? Well, that was another matter.
It was at this time, Kate’s eyes ping-ponging back and forth, following the footprints of one harassed pastor that she spotted them…a rather peculiar addition to the room, especially where they rested, on the bottom run of M.T.’s bookshelf. They looked oddly familiar, though clearly out of place; at least, they didn’t belong there, half-buried by the overgrowth of textbook’s fight for space on either side.
“Did you hear that Madame Penny is not going to be evicted?” Kate asked suddenly, the change of topic calculated. “At the last minute, out of nowhere, her landlord changed his mind. And for no apparent reason.” Her words sounded conversational on the surface, with only the slightest of challenges laced throughout.
“Oh, did he? Well, that’s wonderful,” M.T. called over her shoulder, her head shoved inside a cabinet door, her arms digging through loose papers.
“Yeah, but I’m guessing you already knew that,” Kate said, her tone loaded with implication.
M.T’s head whipped around at that, and her startled eyes tried, but couldn’t quite meet, Kate’s level stare. “Huh?” She asked, buying for time.
Carefully Kate stood up and, as if she had all the time in the world, slowly made her way toward that shelf of staggering literary depth, her fingers sweeping against the bindings of the novels it held as she passed down its length, her booted feet stopping only as she came upon that same decorative peculiarity she’d witnessed only moments before. Bending down on her haunches she reached one hand out, her fingers gentle when they landed upon a soft, almost waxy surface.
“Are you starting a garden?” Kate asked, the redirection a deliberate stall, a well-crafted trap meant not to accuse, rather encourage confession.
M.T.’s eyes widened: the flowers! Kate had found the flowers.
“Oh those,” M.T. said, her voice pitchy, “those aren’t mine. They’re for—um, for the church altar.” M.T. made a horrible liar. Kate could practically see the wheels churning in her mental fabrication station.
“Ah,” Kate said, enjoying herself now. “In lieu of what?”
“Do-donations,” M.T. stuttered. “Just donations.”
“Well, it’s a lucky thing they were only purchased days ago,” Kate mused out loud.
“Excuse me?” M.T. said shortly; however, her defensive tone implied much more than that.
“These books,” Kate indicated them, “they’re casting too much of a shadow on them, they won’t long survive it. But, if they’ve only spent a day or two in this condition…” Kate shrugged. She didn’t need to finish that sentence.
M.T. said nothing to this, only breaking her vow of silence with the slightest of squeaks when Kate’s hand dipped inside one of the flower pots, her fingers skimming across the soil, circling the edges of the hardened clay perimeter. Kate was looking for something and, within seconds, she found it. Pulling out the plant label, Kate lost no time turning it over in her hand. There, clearly marked in all its marketing glory were these words: Massie’s Florist
Without a word, Kate placed the card in M.T.’s hand. “Now, how many degrees of separation is that…?” Kate didn’t even bother to hide the smile from her voice, much less her lips. She didn’t wait for an answer to this question either. She didn’t need one. She knew what M.T. had done.
Kate was damn proud of her newest friend.
Two hours later, sitting beside M.T., the smell of stale coffee permeating the air, Kate was sorely tempted to reevaluate her earlier estimation of the term ‘friendship.’ Out of the corner of her eye, she caught M.T’s rapt stare, the look of fear she couldn’t disguise, stamped across her features.
She was nervous of Kate now. She had reason for it, too.
The esteemed pastor had been a little less than forthcoming about what this little gathering would require from Kate. She’d rightfully assumed the evening would progress as follows: a roundtable discussion about life post high-school, attending college, meeting new people, getting good grades, learning how to network…that sort of stuff. She’d been prepared to sacrifice a couple hours out of her life for the greater good of the church’s youth. That’s what she’d been led to believe would happen. She was wrong.
In reality, what happened went a little more like this: three kids begrudgingly showed up. Kate watched in mounting dismay as they sprawled out against the chairs, set in circular pattern, as far away from Kate and M.T. as possible. And then poor Janice Spencer, the church’s forty-seven year old secretary, had been more-or-less forced to join the group when none of the other adult volunteers M.T. had expected showed up. All in all, the turnout had been less than ideal.
But it was about to get worse, as Kate would soon come to realize. M.T. had conveniently forgotten to mention certain things about this so-called mixer when she asked for Kate’s assistance. Things like how it would be structured: as a reoccurring discussion of indefinite length, maintained weekly. Things like how it would be organized: one adult matched with one youth, and vice versa. Permanently. Things like how it would be arranged: like a mentoring program. Because that’s exactly what it was. Kate could see the word flashing like a neon sign behind her eyes.
But most importantly, M.T. had mentioned how tough these kids would be. They came from low income, broken families. If first impressions were anything to go by, they had no understanding of words like curfew, respect, rules, decorum….
This held especially true for Janessa, the girl Kate got paired up with. She’d said the “F” word a total of seventeen times throughout the two hour orientation. Kate had started to keep count. Her clothes were dirty, filthy really, and they reeked of cigarette smoke. Her long brown hair was so snarled Kate wasn’t sure a brush would survive running down its length. And according to her file, a compilation of school records and personal history, given with the consent of her parent, Janessa was inches away from expulsion at school for fighting. And her grades! Goodness, they were so low it was almost comical. She was barely managing a D in choir. Choir! Who fails out of choir?
She was mean, too. She kept calling Kate, Missy Prissy. It wasn’t a term of endearment. She’d told M.T. she wasn’t sure she wanted to be teamed together with a woman quite as manufactured as Kate, whatever that meant. On top of that, she’d outright refused to shake Kate’s hand in farewell, merely rolling her eyes when Kate said it’d been a pleasure to meet her.
“Pfft. I’m so sure,” she’d muttered in response. “Who’s surprised? Missy Prissy doesn’t lie very good.”
It took everything in Kate not to correct her grammar.
“The church is planning a youth lock-in later on in the month,” M.T. said, coming to Kate’s rescue at the exact right moment, “we’d love it if you and Kate joined us.”
“That sounds fun,” Kate said hurriedly. “Janessa?”
The teenager managed a shrug.
“There are going to be a lot of fun games,” M.T. assured her. “The lock-ins around here are famous for them!”
Janessa snickered. “I don’t know, my partner here doesn’t look to be all that hand-eye coordinated.”
“I’ll have you know I played softball and volleyball in high school,” Kate shot back, stung. Her barb went seemingly unnoticed.
“Whatever. Maybe I’ll come,” Janessa threw over her shoulder, already walking out the door.
Let it not be said that Janessa didn’t share well. She was antagonistic through-and-through.
“I can be tough,” Kate insisted to a highly amused M.T.
That woman patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sure you can.”
“I am not Prissy.”
M.T. wasn’t a foolish woman; she saw the opening Kate’s worded delivered. “Does that mean you’ll show up for the lock-in? I could really use another set of eyes and ears?” she asked slyly.
Kate just shook her head. She had a feeling she may have walked right into that one.
“Maybe,” she settled on, copying the wise words of her mentee.
M.T. nodded, satisfied with that. “Now for the real question,” she said then, changing the subject, her features once again taking on a look of unease, “How did tonight go? Are you in? I mean—”
Kate knew what M.T. meant. Was Kate willing to commit herself to this new enterprise, was she willing to subject herself to future encounters with Janessa?
Kate took a deep breath. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she said. “This was a lot to take in. You led me to believe my participation would be far less…uh, involved. This has become much bigger then what you’d intimated. And I get the feeling you purposely deliberated that misguided notion.” Kate wasn’t about to let M.T. off the hook for that.
Pastor Thayer had the grace to look ashamed. “In my profession, I’ve learned it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” Peeking up at Kate, she paused, waiting to see if her words had any effect. “I didn’t think you’d agree to it otherwise,” she admitted finally.
She had a point, Kate considered silently, but she refused to confess that acknowledgement out loud, and certainly not to M.T. It would probably give her reason to suppose she’d been justified in her little trick.
“I have to think about it. It’s not that I don’t want to help,” Kate rushed to say. It’s not that she couldn’t see that Janessa needed a guiding hand—someone to smooth out her rough-around-the-edges routine, “It’s just, I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job.”
“You’re the perfect person for the job,” M.T. corrected her.
“How so? I don’t have any experience with troubled teenagers.”
“Well, they don’t come one-size-fits-all,” M.T. said dryly. “Talk to her, get to know her. Listen, care, be there for her. That’s all you need to do to help someone.”
“How do I relate to her?” Kate persisted. “I grew up with nannies, private coaches, tutors! I’m far removed from the world of the underprivileged,” Kate said without apology. “I see it. Janessa sees it.”
“All the better. Teach her what you were so blessed to be taught. Give her the education, the experiences, the love that was bestowed upon you. Close the gap, shift the perspective. This is about growth, about change. Be that for her.”
With heavy steps, Kate let herself back into her house. Danger, the ever watchful guard dog, laying snoring at the bottom of the stairs upon her entrance. Hanging up her coat, she proceeded into the kitchen. She desperately wanted to take a shower, pour herself a glass of wine and shutdown after those last few turbulent hours, but first things first….Saddling up to the island counter, Kate retook her pen; she had to finish her letter. She couldn’t afford to wait much longer or else Nanny might talk….That was to be avoided at all costs.
Smiling in a depreciating matter, she returned to the last paragraph. Hand poised over the paper, her eyes lighted on the last few sentences. She had some corrections to make.
I don’t belong to Pastor Thayer’s church. I think Penny would kill me if I did, but I couldn’t say no either when she asked if I’d partake. I like M.T. Still, the matter remains that I do this incognito, or face a sure fit of hysterics. Besides, it’s just for one night. I figure it couldn’t hurt to lend a helping hand for one night. Right?
Turns out, I was wrong. This evening proved to be far from transitory in existence. Pastor Thayer didn’t require my services for just one night. She meant this evening to be but a beginning…to a mentorship organization of a protracted timetable! She was, how shall I say, opaquely transparent in her schematic design of this thing’s overall purpose.
I got duped, and by a woman of God.
After being unjustly blindsided by all this, I told her I’d have to think about whether or not I’d be willing to involve myself any further than I’d originally intended, which was only one night! After all, that’s a pretty substantial discrepancy in time.
Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to do it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more excited I get about the prospect. The girl I got matched with is really something, and you know how much I love a challenge. She’ll be that, and then some. Regardless, I told Pastor Thayer I’d have to think about it—I want her to sweat it out a bit first. It seems only fair.
It’s nearing ten o’clock now and with it, this letter’s conclusion. I promise to get the next one out much more promptly. I don’t want you calling in the cavalry on me, now do I? Rest assured, I will be placing this letter in the mail presently after licking the envelope closed. It should reach you no later than Tuesday.
All my love.
P.S. You’ll find mother and father’s version of this letter underneath—aka, the edited script guaranteed to keep up appearances of the daughter they think they raised. Don’t, for the love of all, ever let them know of the existence of our correspondence. They don’t want to know what’s really going on in my head, what’s really important to me, and don’t bother to deny it. That’s why we’re in this situation in the first place.
Kate looked down at the letter in her hand before carefully folding in into thirds. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt a nagging pang in the pit of her stomach. Maybe it was because she missed her dear Nanny Moore, or maybe it was because she had play practice tomorrow and she wasn’t memorized yet? Or it could be fear of Penny’s reaction to her part in M.T.’s machination
Kate just didn’t want to screw up with Janessa. She’d never held that kind of responsibility before—counseling someone on how to live life. She didn’t want to let Janessa down the way Kate’s mother had always let Kate down.
Kate stuffed her letter inside its matching white envelope. Maybe M.T. was right. Maybe she would be good for Janessa. Not because of her cultured past, but because she knew how much it hurt to feel forgotten by the very people who should have never lost her, she knew how it felt to be unheard, unwanted by those who should have loved her the most. Because she was learning herself just how special, how healing a true friend could be.
On that thought, Kate pushed herself of the island, and walked over to her refrigerator. On one side of it she’d hung up a magnetized calendar. Placing her hand on its glossy page, and grabbing for the pen hanging on a string beside it, she drew a large circle over one date in particular: Saturday, the 23rd.
The night of the lock-in.
Now she only had to wait and see if Janessa would show up.