Time: 3:54 p.m.
Rushing up the steps to her front door, Kate was tempted to check the time on her watch—a fruitless endeavor. She knew what time it was. She’d never lost track since leaving Cordwyn College.
Penny and M.T. were coming over for dinner at 5:00 p.m.
It was another of the pastor’s attempts to see her sister and, as such, another of Penny’s provisions that Kate joins them. Somehow, Kate had found herself agreeing once again, and this time, not just to having dinner. She was also hosting the event. M.T. was still living out of a hotel and Penny’s cottage, it had be patently proved last time, maxed out at two dinner companions.
At least, Kate wouldn’t have to cook. Penny was bringing the food, M.T. the wine.
Unlocking her door and reaching the entryway, Kate tossed her book bag on one of the two pink upholstered chairs she’d unearthed from a nook under the staircase in the basement. Frantically, her eyes searched the downstairs: a pair of boots lay sprawled across the tile at her feet, a couple stray dishes remained in the sink, and a throw blanket was spread anyhow across the recliner in the living room. The kitchen floor needed to be mopped and the rug in the parlor room need a good vacuuming.
She had little over an hour to go-time.
Time: 4:38 p.m.
Thanks to the miracle of necessity and speed, Kate’s floors now shined, the rugs professionally turned out; the shoe rack sat, precisely arranged; presently the dishwasher ran, midway through its cycle. The table was carefully set with linen tablecloth and Kate’s delicate china. Add that to carefully placed candles, and the air smelled sweet and fresh.
Brushing a sweaty strand of hair off her flushed cheeks, Kate allowed her feet to swivel in a slow circle, her overly sensitive eyes looking for anything out of order. There were two pegs open in the parlor room for Penny and M.T.’s coats: check. The island was scrubbed clean, ready for the arrival of food: check. Three wine glasses were set out on the counter, a corkscrew placed beside them: check. Soft music whispered out of the television in the living area, and that room’s freshly painted walls—a creamy hue nicely offset by teal-blue draperies against the windows—gave an impression of cool comfort, a welcoming place to relax after the meal: check and check.
Kate’s self-soothed tranquility was soon disturbed by an unexpected rap at the door. Someone was there. Oh God, oh no. Not yet. She wasn’t ready yet, she thought as she raced to answer the call. She still had twenty minutes and she desperately needed that time. She hadn’t even managed to change out of her school clothes. And her hair—good gracious, it needed at least five minutes of dedicated work.
Kate breathed a sigh of relief, however, when she saw who was standing on the other side of her screen door.
At least it was only: “Penny…”
“Don’t worry, you’re not running behind,” she said without preamble, bustling past Kate without so much as a by-your-leave, a tote bag thrown haphazardly over her shoulder. “I’m early,” she continued, “I just wanted to give myself a little extra time to plate everything. I hope that’s okay.”
“Yeah, of course,” Kate said, trailing after her.
Standing irresolute, halfway through the kitchen, the stairwell just off to her right, Kate was momentarily torn… as a hostess she felt duty-bound to ask if Penny needed any help, but then again, she also felt obligated to look presentable to her guests. Her current disheveled appearance was strictly taboo.
She wouldn’t have time to achieve both of these aims.
“Don’t stand on ceremony with me,” Penny said, as though she’d just read Kate’s thoughts. Kate was starting to think the psychic really could. “Take yourself off, do whatever needs doing. I’m the one early, remember? This is not a reflection on your entertaining prowess.” Kate couldn’t help but chuckle at that, as Penny had intended her to do. “Besides, I’m covered.”
“Thank you,” Kate said. Without loss, she headed up the stairs, her feet taking them two at a time.
“Take your time—I’m fully capable of answering a door in your absence!”
“Never!” Kate yelled back playfully.
Time: 6:08 p.m.
“…and then he told me, it was just a joke. They didn’t even own a dog!”
Kate’s fist hit the table in her current fit of laughter. M.T. wiped a tear off her cheek, chuckling even in memory of that story—the third she’d recounted this evening, reminiscing about her troubles and mishaps as a young American in a foreign country.
Kate, her hair nicely pressed into a topknot, outfitted in a black skirt with grey tights and a loose-fitting silk top, was almost glad she’d been given a forced invitation to this party. Maggie could tell a mean tale!
The only person not partaking in the fun was Madame Penny. Like a stone, she’d remained seemingly unmoved through these little anecdotes. Twice, she’d tried to change the subject, but neither Kate nor M.T. had taken notice.
“I’m sure it’s the pastor in you, this knack for embellishing stories to their upmost ability,” Penny interrupted, her voice propelling like a crack against their merriment.
“Excuse me?” M.T. asked, with just the slightest note of defensiveness. Up to this point, through the spinach salad appetizer and even the shrimp bisque entrée, the sister’s had managed to remain civil. Of course, that was before they’d consumed an entire bottle of cabernet—and half of a second. Kate had a sinking suspicion something stormy was brewing.
“I’m just saying, you’ve always had a flair for, well, exaggeration,” Penny said sweetly, taking a vicious bite of her cheesy dessert.
Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten at the antagonizing words. Swallowing thickly, she could do nothing more than simply wait for what would happen next.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Remember that story you always tell, about how you and Bobby Atkinson were chased up a tree by an elk the summer after you first moved to town? Well, I’ve seen you climb before and, unless that elk was drunk, he’d have trampled you long before even one foot found a low-hanging limb.”
Kate felt sweat break out against her upper lip, her insides churning at the onslaught of what would surely only lead to a fight; acid bubbles were forming, popping….
“Oh, oh, and what about the time we took a family vacation out to Richfield and you claim the bellboy, who’d barely spoken five words to anyone of us, helped you sneak out on our first evening there, to go dancing at that nightclub? And, if that isn’t hard enough to believe—especially since you were sleeping soundly in the bed beside mine when I woke up at three to go to the bathroom—then, while you were supposedly there, the police showed up, raiding the bar for under-agers. Yet, miraculously you managed to escape out the bathroom window. I mean, come on!”
“You think I made the whole thing up?” M.T. sounded more incredulous than angry.
“Yes, I do.” Penny seemed to be warming up to her argument now. “That police raid was a huge story; it made front news on all the papers. I think you wanted to be part of it, after crafting a perfectly viable excuse for why it could never be proven first.”
Kate hardly heard M.T.’s response. Her head was pounding now, her palms felt clammy, her stomach fast approaching a stage of revolt. Gulping, she forced herself to breathe, forced her stomach to keep the contents of her dinner within its system.
“I mean, I could go on and on: the college party you crashed with Melinda Johnson, you remember that one, right? because apparently you passed out on the couch and Melinda and some frat boy had to carry you back to her parent’s house, somehow completing this feat and all without waking anyone up.”
“Don’t call me that,” Penny insisted so forcibly Kate winced.
“Sorry—Penny. I don’t understand where this is coming from. All of these stories are real. I did these things, they happened. Out-of-character, larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction, whatever you want to call them, everyone has a few stories like that…”
“No they don’t,” Penny insisted, her eyes averted to her plate. “That’s exactly my point.”
M.T. watched as Penny’s lips twisted, her face contorting with the words. This was far more personal than even M.T. had originally suspected; it was about Penny and not the other way around. Quietly the pastor spoke, her words measured with new insight. “People don’t have stories like that, or you don’t?” The words weren’t meant to be insolent, rather revealing.
Pressing her hands up against her hot cheeks, Kate wondered at the room’s temperature. She felt en fuego. She really, really hated fighting.
“I should,” Penny argued, “but, you’re right, I don’t have any stories like that. I don’t have any stories period—at least, not any to be retold at dinner parties. I guess I have you to thank for that…because someone had to be there: when mom needed her daily fifth of vodka, to make sure she didn’t drown in her own boozy saliva, put her to bed when she could no longer walk straight. Someone had to be home every night to make sure she didn’t accidently kill herself! Someone had to be responsible. So no, I wasn’t allowed to make any stories for myself.”
What M.T. would have said next will forever remain a mystery. It was precisely at that moment when Kate’s body heaved with a force to knock her hands up against her mouth. Pushing her chair back she had just enough time to excuse herself before rushing through the living room and into the bathroom. Slamming the door behind her, she reached for the toilet and fumblingly wrenched open the lid ….
Five minutes later, her face flushed, Kate lay sprawled out on the cool tiling of the bathroom floor. Through a tidal wave of embarrassment, she reminded herself things could have been worse: at least she made it in time.
Of course that wasn’t much help. If only her mother could see her now, Kate mused. Calida MacDonald wouldn’t hear of getting sick at one of her own parties. No stomach bug was strong enough to penetrate that will of steel!
A quiet knock at the door roused Kate of these unwelcome thoughts. “Kate? Kate, it’s Maggie. Are you all right?”
“Ugh,” Kate said weakly, hoping the sound would make it through the door and convince M.T. to kindly go away.
It didn’t work.
“Kate, I’m coming in, all right?”
The sight of Kate, stretched limply across the floor, sent Maggie to her side at once. Squatting down on her haunches, she pressed the back of her hand against Kate’s brow.
“Oh sweetie, you’re burning up,” she said unnecessarily. Kate had intimate knowledge of just how warm her body temp was, thank you very much.
“So sorry,” Kate mumbled, “but I think I’m sick.”
“No doubt about it,” M.T. assured her.
“This isn’t exactly how I envisioned the evening would end,” Kate said, her eyes screwed tightly shut, hoping to ward off another wave of nausea, “but you two should probably go. Tell Penny I’m sorry but, I don’t want to get either of you sick.”
“And leave you here all by yourself? I don’t think so,” M.T. said firmly.
“Really, I’ll be just fine,” Kate tried to assure her.
“Kate, you’re face-planted on the floor of your bathroom. That doesn’t seem like the makings of fine to me. Come on, let me help get you up and into bed,” she said, proffering a hand at the words.
Kate shook her head vehemently. “Please, no. I want to lay here. It’s cool and it feels nice against my skin…not to mention it’s convenient in case of, well, you know,” she said emphatically.
“So what, you’re going to stay here all night then? In the bathroom?” M.T. asked skeptically.
“That’s the plan.”
“Well then at least let me get you a pillow and blankets.”
Kate nodded her consent. If it helped expedite the matter, she’d have agreed to just about anything. From her position on the floor, she could hear M.T. move out into the kitchen, followed by the faint mumblings of conversation passing between her and Penny before the soft echo of her feet moving up the stairs and, minutes later, back down them again.
When M.T. reentered the room, Kate blinked open one eye. Her arms were loaded down: five pillows, one comforter and two blankets. Before Kate could wrangle the energy to wonder at this excess, M.T. got to work. Instructing Kate to lift her head, she slid two pillows under her neck before carelessly tossing the remaining items to the side. Then she covered Kate’s body with the down-comforter.
“Thanks,” Kate mumbled warily, but it seemed that M.T. was quite finished. Bent over beside Kate, she was now in the process of creating what appeared to be another make-shift bed on the floor…presumably for herself. “Really you don’t need—”
Before Kate could protest this further, another soft knock sounded at the door, shortly chased by the appearance of Penny’s big hair, snaking around the side of it.
“Poor Kate,” she tisked, easing her body all the way inside the room then. She held a glass in her hand. “I brought you some wa-ter…” The last word trailing off, Penny’s attention shifted suddenly, her eyes raking over M.T.’s ministrations. “What are you doing?” she asked guardedly.
M.T. shrugged, not stopping to meet Penny’s eyes. “I don’t think Kate should be left alone tonight.”
“So I see…” she said, and to Kate’s sensitive ears it sounded peeved, annoyed, one step shy of hostile.
Please don’t fight, Kate thought to herself, not now. My stomach can’t take anymore madness.
Almost as though Kate had spoken the words out loud (or perhaps it was her all-too audible wince), Penny’s stance softened, her gaze sweeping past her sister to the poorly Kate and back again. “Well, I hope you brought down a pillow for me, as well.”
With a wink, M.T. held up the fifth pillow. “I had a feeling I wouldn’t be unaccompanied in that thought.”
“Indeed,” Penny said huffily.
Kate’s bathroom wasn’t exactly small but it certainly wasn’t large either. Somehow, though, by sheer force of will Kate supposed, the three of them managed to squeeze together, side-by-side, against the unforgiving tiles, straddled on either side by the toilet and the vanity. It was only as they all got comfortable that Kate remembered: “The lights. Can we turn the lights off, they’re hurting my eyes.”
Madame Penny may not have looked like an athletic person, but Kate learned to reevaluate that judgment seconds later when, kicking her foot up off the floor and arching her back, she managed to hit the switch with her big toe.
M.T. laughed. “Impressive.”
“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear,” Penny said then, into the darkness. All three of them were laying on their backs, looking up at the ceiling. In the quiet of the room, her voice sounded like a foghorn.
“Kate did not get sick from my food. I won’t have rumors spread about my shrimp bisque. It was perfect, heavenly.”
Kate was barely listening. Her eyes, now blissfully unaffected by the harsh lighting, looked unseeingly upward at the ceiling. She felt better already. Her cheek, nestled against the porcelain base of the toilet seat, found comfort in both its chilling effect and nearness.
“I think that’s fair,” M.T. mused, “It usually takes longer than fifteen minutes for food poisoning anyway.”
“Good, that’s settled then.”
M.T. nodded, the movement felt by both her companions. “You know, this isn’t the weirdest dinner party I’ve ever been a part of….” Stopping short, M.T. decided perhaps she needn’t expound on that. She’d shared enough tonight. Too much apparently. Her opener was abandoned, left hanging limply in the air around them.
A few seconds passed.
“Well?” Penny prompted, when M.T. remained silent.
“Well what?” the other woman asked carefully.
“What’s the weirdest dinner party you’ve ever been a part of?”
The question was an olive branch, but still the pastor hesitated. “It’s probably not that interesting.”
“I doubt that.” Penny sighed. “Your stories are good. You tell them well.” The admission was said chokingly, begrudgingly, but also…genuinely.
Turning her head a little to the left, M.T. looked at Penny, her features barely distinguishable in the shadows. “It’s not too late to make some yourself, you know. And, I’d love to be a part of them.”
“I know you would,” Penny said, and it was as close to an invitation as M.T. was bound to get.
“I kissed my boss last week at the LitLiber Halloween party.” The words dropped like a bomb around the ex-step-sisters. Kate’s mouth snapped shut at the involuntary admission. Apparently, she wasn’t going to keep anything inside of her tonight.
“Was it hot?”
The questions, shooting out of her comrades mouths one after another, without pattern or conscience thought, settled around Kate.
“He doesn’t know though,” she said, her half-explanation only adding to the veritable flood of confusion.
“He doesn’t know he kissed you?”
“Was he drunk?”
“How did he miss that fact?”
“Is this one of those…he tripped and his lips landed on yours, kind of excuses?”
Holding up her hand, Kate pleaded: “Stop! I can’t focus.”
“Maybe it would be a good idea to start from the beginning?” M.T. asked, ever the rational one.
“And don’t leave out any details,” Penny chimed in.
Kate obliged them. Perhaps it was because the lights were off and, shrouded in darkness, she felt emboldened to share. Add to that the fact that, in their current position, she couldn’t look them in the eye even if she wanted to, and any awkwardness melted into the mists, crafted by a disguise in which to hide her discomfort. But mostly, Kate needed to tell someone about it. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t. She’d sworn herself to secrecy, but it hadn’t worked, it hadn’t stopped her thinking about it, dreaming about it, analyzing the hell out of it.
She needed some perspective and what better way than in a cramped room with her two best friends?
“So that’s why you met me at the end of Jake’s street that night,” Penny said at the end of Kate’s woebegone tail.
“I thought that was weird,” she said, talking to herself.
“Yeah,” Kate said wearily. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from her listeners, but it certainly wasn’t Penny’s current reaction, though that was hardly an uncommon occurrence. No one processed news quite like her.
“Have you seen him since then?” M.T. asked. Finally a question Kate had expected.
“No. I managed to cover two shifts earlier this week, and I had a girl stay late for me yesterday. I’ve been able to avoid him up until now. But tomorrow…tomorrow we work together. No one was able to switch with me. I-I don’t know how I’m going to face him.”
“That probably explains your stomach problems.” Again, this piece of unhelpful estimation came from Penny.
“Maybe.” Kate sighed, her eyes dancing across the ceiling, inanely wondering when the fan had last been cleaned. It was pointless to have one if it was just breathing in and blowing out continuous sprays of dust.
“That’s tough. Are you planning on telling him—what really happened that night?”
“No!” Kate half-sat up in exclamation, only brought back down to the floor by M.T.’s arm, slung over her chest. “No.”
“Okay, I hear you. Calm down,” M.T. said dryly.
“Here it comes, the pastoral beat down,” Penny commented.
Even in the dark, it wasn’t difficult to see M.T.’s quick frown. “You’re right, I don’t condone lying,” she admitted. Raising up a hand to ward off Penny’s snort of derision, she continued: “but I also don’t pretend to preach a perfection I don’t live,” she said clearly. “Besides, I’m not just a pastor; I’m a supporter, a conspirer, a confidant. I’m a friend.”
Kate patted M.T.’s arm in reassurance of this. “A good one, too.”
M.T. seemed pacified. “Bottom line: you have no intention of telling Jake what happened that night.”
M.T. shrugged. “Well, if that’s the case, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“How so?” Penny and Kate asked in unison.
“Well, if he’s never going to know, and if, according to you, nothing ever happened then you can walk in there with your head held high, a swagger in your steps and a carefree smile on your face. Because nothing should be any different than it was the last time you saw him.”
Kate shook her head. “That’s easier said than done. Things are different. For me anyway. I do know what happened and I don’t think I can pretend that well. And,” Kate took a deep breath, because what she was about to say next held weight, “I keep waiting for him to figure out that it wasn’t Ashley he kissed that night. It’s bound to happen, right? Then what? Does he start looking for answers? If I make one mistake, if I give one tell away….”
“Why not just tell him the truth then?” Penny asked, playing the other side of the coin.
“How do I do that: ‘Oh hey Jake, gosh I sure had fun at your Halloween party last week! I’m not sure if you remember, but we made out in your cloakroom? You didn’t know it was me, but surprise! You got the wrong girl. Anyway, see you around the office—oh, and by the way, you’re a great kisser?’” Sarcasm dripped off Kate’s voice.
“Kate I never pegged you as the dramatic type,” Penny said.
“I have my moments.”
“We are talking circles here, Kate,” M.T. interjected. “You either tell him or you don’t. You’ve got to decide that first.”
“I can’t tell him,” Kate repeated. “I know I probably should, but I just can’t.”
“Can you deal with the fear of him someday figuring it out—unveiling your secret? Because you’re right, that is a definite possibility,” M.T. agreed, including: “Can you get good at pretending? Can you act like the same person you were before it happened? He’ll see right through the lies if not. Can you be fine with that?”
Kate swallowed. “I guess I’ll have to.”
“Mm-hmm,” M.T. murmured, unconvinced. “Show me.”
“Practice on me and Penny.”
“Like a dress rehearsal. Penny, you pretend to be Jake. And Kate, obviously, you’ll be yourself. We’ll run through a couple different scenarios for when you see him next—what to say, how to behave, stuff like that.”
At fist, Kate said nothing to this request, seemingly chewing on the idea with all the vigor of a teenager choosing her first-day-of-school outfit.
“I’m in. What else have we got to do to entertain ourselves at the moment?” Penny asked. “Kate?”
She sighed, giving in with all the enthusiasm of a teenager contemplating her first homework assignment. “I suppose I’ve already lost my dignity, what more could this hurt?”
“That’s the attitude,” Penny enthused. “All right maestro, set the scene:” This was directed toward M.T.
Kate braced herself for what was coming….