Kate barely slept the night after Jake’s Halloween Party. Hell, she barely slept the next three nights in succession. That’s probably why it was so easy for Pastor M.T. to convince her to chaperone the church’s youth lock-in that coming Saturday night. Though, truth be told, it wasn’t just the lack of sleep, or the accompanying knowledge that Penny would be out of town at a psychic’s convention that weekend (Kate could only guess how well news of this would have gone over with her), that prompted Kate’s quick acceptance to this arrangement…. She’d barely been able to take two breaths, barely been given the reprieve of the blinking of her eyes, without remembering that kiss:
Jake’s lips seemed almost imprinted against hers, the feel of them brushed up against her heightened flesh. It was devastating even in memory. Without conscious thought, she could still believe his hands cradled the nape of her neck, his thumbs rubbing enticing circles over the underside of her jaw, his breath, singed with the effects of overindulgence, stroking against the air between them.
Riding close behind these terribly wanton fantasies was a swamping sensation of guilt. Kate had been an accessory to adultery—albeit an unintentional one. Even worse, no one but she knew that. She’d kissed her boss, her boss though he’d kissed his girlfriend. She’d kissed a man who didn’t know he was kissing her, a man who’d feel betrayed, probably even disgusted if he ever found out what had really happened that night. Jake thought nothing amiss had transpired, remaining peacefully naïve to it all—and here Kate was, all hot-and-bothered while consciously reliving the reality of that experienced. What kind of person did that make her?
Shaking her head, Kate decided she wasn’t ready to know. She had to get out of her own head, get off this merry-go-round of self analysis, depreciation, and loathing. She needed something to distract her attention, to redirect her energy in another direction. It was pointless to keep going over the events of that ill-fated Halloween Party. What was done was done, and not amount of daydreaming could change that. Plus, Kate had already pledge to never speak of it to another living soul. She was torturing herself in silence and it had to stop. As far as she should be concerned, it had never happened so there was nothing to think about anyway.
If M.T. was surprised by Kate’s capitulation on the subject of the youth lock-in, she kept her countenance well controlled. Other than her sincere thanks and the reminder that Kate be to the church by 6 p.m. she let the subject matter drop. Probably, Kate reasoned, she wasn’t interested in looking a gift horse in the mouth. Smart woman, she heard a ‘yes’ and ran with it! Packing her overnight bag, Kate didn’t pause to question her motives for the night’s activities. She was going to this overnight and she was going to save herself in the process of doing it. Zipping the contents inside, she headed for the door. Besides, it wasn’t all together a selfish act. She’d heard from M.T. that Janessa had signed up for the event, as well. At least, she could cleanse her conscience with the knowledge that she would be performing her mentorship duty.
“So, you actually showed up, huh?” Those were Janessa’s first words upon sight of Kate that evening. It was 6:30 p.m., making the girl half an hour late. The other kids were already gathered in the fellowship hall, munching away on chips and hamburgers, lovingly prepared by the kitchen ladies, before the evening’s festivities were scheduled to commence—a game of sorts involving dart guns.
Raising her eyebrows, when Kate had first learned of this, she hadn’t been able to keep from wondering at the religious upset such an activity may entail.
“I know, I know, a game involving shooting people, even if pretend, is hardly ideal for a church group, but the kids wanted to do it and, well, if it gets them through the door…” M.T. had shrugged at Kate’s obvious reservation. “The first step in making a community of faith is acquiring a community.”
“Hey, if the congregation is allowing it, who am I to object?” Kate had responded lightly.
Now, however, staring into the belligerent eyes of her mentee, Kate wasn’t so sure about this. She had a feeling Janessa would be only too thrilled to drill her through-and-through with those nonlethal ammo packs.
“Was I not supposed to show up?” Kate countered Janessa’s question, hoping her voice sounded cool and unaffected. She was nervous around the girl. Having survived in a corporate world, Kate wasn’t a stranger to hatred it’s just…it had never been so angst-riddled, so pent-up with teenage rate. This was way scarier.
Janessa shrugged one uncaring shoulder. “I don’t know, just didn’t think you would. I mean, it’s kind of lame, isn’t it, playing kid’s games at your age?”
The challenge had been thrown. Kate looked helplessly toward M.T. but that coward was already halfway out the door, trying to slink away unnoticed, leaving Kate to deal with the mutinous set of Janessa’s mouth all by herself.
“What? Afraid you can’t beat me, even with the handicap of my age?” Kate shot back, unwilling to back down. Maybe, just maybe, the taunt would do the trick. Maybe, just maybe, it would incite in Janessa a drive to win, to beat Kate, to stop making snide remarks and actually participate in the fun.
“Whatever,” the girl said, but she didn’t sound as uncaring now. Turning on her heel, Janessa made her way to the fellowship hall then. Quietly, a small smile playing at the edges of her mouth, Kate followed closely behind.
She was ready now. Game on!
The first couple rounds of dart tag—the title of which involved the word Zombie?!—didn’t bode well for Kate. This was mostly a by-product of Janessa’s spot-on aim and fierce will to see Kate eat her earlier words. Unknown to Janessa, this was fine with Kate. It meant that she was on the girl’s radar and even if it was as “Enemy No 1”, anything was better than the indifference she’d suffered with up to this point. It was a step.
Though Kate hadn’t been overly fond of the idea of being a mentor at first, mostly because of M.T.’s sneak-attach style, she’d nonetheless committed to it and when Kate committed to something she went all the way. It was the perfectionist in her. And Kate was determined to succeed with Janessa. She was determined to build a relationship with the stormy teenager.
If Kate didn’t mind being Janessa’s personal format for target practice, what happened next proved for superior in effect. It was after the fourth round of this particular game, when a couple of the kids got bored. They wanted to try something different, something that involved team play. The free-for-all, everyone versus everyone had gotten old. Instead, “Capture the Flag” was chosen—with the inclusion of dart guns, of course. The rules: get the flag over the finish line first, without being ‘tagged’ by an opposing player. If one person on a team is hit, both players are out. There was only one flag in this game, and only one finish line. Each team had their own home base.
All at once, Kate felt like that gawky thirteen year old again, ready to be picked last, the pity partner that nobody really wanted. Already, pairs were forming together, huddled in little sections of the building, plotting out their strategies. Swallowing back panic at her solitary position, Kate forcibly reminder herself that she wasn’t a teenager any more. She was an adult. A chaperone and it would be perfectly acceptable for her to sit this one out.
She was on the verge of doing this very thing when she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. Turning around, Kate saw none other than Janessa standing behind her.
“I guess neither of us has a partner,” the girl mumbled under her breath.
Surprised, Kate nonetheless asked, “You? How can that be? You’re great at all of this,” she said, her hand gesturing to the toy gun in her hand.
“Pfft, you expect me to be on the same team as one of those fools?” Janessa asked belligerently, her eyes skipping over the heads of the other kids there. “Not even for some stupid game.”
Kate felt sure there was a story there. Certainly the rest of the group didn’t seem to be cut from the same cloth as Janessa: the girls were wearing make-up and perfume; Janessa hadn’t even bothered to run a brush through her thick black hair. Vague snarls could be seen running almost to her shoulder blades. Everyone was wearing designer, trendy clothes; Janessa had shown up in a ratty old football jersey and jeans. To further widen this division, these kids had grown up in this church together, been confirmed together. They were friends; Janessa remained an outsider looking in.
(There was also the whole swearing thing. Janessa…well, in the last game she’d let out a couple not-so-ladylike words, her vulgarity frothing to the surface in an almost comical contrast to everyone else’s more refined speech; Kate hadn’t heard so much as a ‘heck’ squeak past any of their lips.)
With a start, Kate realized she wasn’t the only solitary figure there tonight.
“Should we gather up a game plan?” Kate asked, trying not to let her excitement at the prospect of playing side-by-side with her charge show too clearly.
Janessa rolled her eyes. “Just follow my lead,” she said.
A nerve-wracking five minutes later, Kate’s calves were screaming in her hunched down pose, her neck spying around one of the room’s support columns. There were only two other teams remaining. Kate and Janessa were more than halfway to the finish line already, the flag safely tucked under Janessa’s arm. The others were in hot pursuit.
“Cover me,” Janessa mouthed.
Hefting the weapon up against her shoulder, Kate did as she was told, letting off a couple rounds of ammo, her body pushed momentarily in view of her assailants, stealing the attention away from Janessa while that girl scurried ahead, making her way to one of the three safety zones set-up.
A sole dart zipped through the air just then, headed straight for Kate. Reacting on impulse, she pulled the trigger one last time before holstered her shooter and ducking back behind the cement edifice again. Hugged up against its solid structure, the hit missed her by inches. Kate swore she felt a ripple of air as it sailed past.
“Nice shot Kate,” Janessa called.
Cautiously craning her head to the side, Kate glimpsed two pairs of hands waving in the air—the signal for having been ‘hit’. Sure enough, the bodies belonging to those very hands quickly moved off the battlegrounds. Holy smokes, Kate’s shot had actually tagged someone. Sighing in relief, Kate figured it was bound to happen at one point in time. She’d actually taken out one of the teams.
“One more team left,” Janessa hissed unnecessarily. Kate had figured that out herself. She was good at math.
“What do we do next, Captain?” Kate called toward her.
“Smoke ‘em out. We don’t have another choice. It’s a standstill now. We’ve got to make a run for it…we’ve got to cross the finish line,” Janessa deliberated. If they made it, they’d win. Of course, it was a risky move, leaving them wide open for attack. If they got taken out the other team would be able to cross the line without hindrance, a sure win.
They didn’t have far to go, a span no larger than ten-feet stood between them and their goal. But it looked a lot further away to Kate’s weary eyes. Ten feet was a lot of time to try and dodge flying darts.
“We’ll go on the count of three,” Janessa whispered to Kate. “Just keep your eyes open, zig-zag back-and-forth and keep you finger poised to shoot,” she directed.
“Okay,” Kate said, her heart beating wildly in her ears. At some level she realized how ridiculous she was acting, getting completely carried away and all for the sake of a game that didn’t mean anything. Except, except Kate got the feeling it meant something to Janessa and, if that were the case, it meant something to Kate. “Ready when you are.”
“One…two…Three: Go!” Janessa yelled.
Rolling off the side of the column, Kate did as told, her feet hitting the tile with conviction. She and Janessa separated, each moving to opposite ends of the narrow hall, skirting this way and that, to avoid potential targeted aims. They hadn’t made it more than a foot when the first dart flew through the air. Spinning on her heel, Janessa just managed to miss it.
Turning around, running backward all the while maintaining her speed, the spunky teen released a few shots herself, spraying a proverbial hail of foam-filled shells in all directions.
“Janessa on your left, your left!” Kate called urgently, barely pausing to see her partner outmaneuver yet another futile attempt, her feet skipping past the veritable trail of casings littering her feet with skill and precision.
Eyes swinging back and forth and straight ahead, Kate counted her steps. Five maybe six to go—out of her peripheral vision, she saw the glowing neon tip of an airborne object slicing through the air, headed right for her; its purpose couldn’t have been clearer. Five, maybe six steps to go. Years of dedicated ballet kicking in, Kate leapt just when the dart would have hit her leg, executing a perfect grand jete; she had no more than landed when another attempt was made. Skipping into a pas de chat elegant enough to make the very Swan Lake cry, she foiled her opposition once more. A final pirouette and…! With something sadly akin to exultation, Kate saw her left boot and then her right skip across the threshold of the finish line. Good God, she was safe. The rules said: a player couldn’t be tagged once they crossed the finish line. She was safe!
The same could not be said for her cohort. Janessa remained about four feet out still. She was so busy avoiding intruder attacks she could hardly move forward at all. This wouldn’t do.
Lifting up her model rifle, Kate squinted. In a way, Janessa’s plan had worked out perfectly. They’d managed to drive the last remaining team out of hiding. Now, bold with confidence, they weren’t even attempting to conceal their whereabouts. Unfortunately for them, they’d made one massive tactical mistake: they let Kate cross to the other side; they were no longer the only people playing the offensive. Unlike Janessa, twisting this way and that, moving in and out, dipping here and ducking there, they were a relatively easy mark, just squatting there, right out in the open. Smiling to herself, Kate took aim. Then her finger squeezed against the trigger.
Two pairs of arms went straight up, waving in the air.
“That was a pretty special moment, you and Janessa winning team dart tag,” M.T. said hours later. She and Kate were sitting side-by-side out in the hallway. The rest of the kids, most of whom had fallen asleep by now, were grouped together in the Youth Room, watching a movie. M.T. and Kate were pulling the first round of the overnight watch. The other two chaperones, a married couple with no children themselves, would relieve them of their station at the next appointed shift-change: three a.m.
Stifling a yawn, Kate wondered how she’d make it up that late. It was barely twelve-thirty now and her eyes felt like dead weights. At M.T.’s words, however, she couldn’t help but perk up a little, unable to quiet the spark of pleasure those words evoked.
Still, she responded cautiously, nervous of getting her hopes up too high; probably Janessa still thought Kate was totally weird. “Yeah, I guess.”
“You guess? Janessa whooped so loudly when you eliminated Kenny Tomkins, securing your win, I thought the building would crumble from the noise alone.”
Kate felt a smile tug at her lips in memory of Janessa throwing both her arms up in the air and racing full-speed to where a stunned Kate stood. The smack of her high-five had stung, but Kate had, oddly, rarely felt as proud of herself as she had in that moment. She’d done something amazing. She’d brought a full smile to that teenager’s face, something which, until then, she’d never witnessed. Janessa was a beautiful girl when she smiled.
“It was a good moment,” Kate agreed.
“You crossed more than just one finish line tonight,” M.T. said quietly, meaningfully.
Kate sighed, blowing her bangs off her forehead. “I hope so, I really do.”
M.T. patted Kate’s thigh comfortingly. “Baby steps, Kate. You two worked together as a team tonight. You communicated with one another, supported one another, but mostly, you taught Janessa that she can trust you. It may have only been a game, but the outcome carries much farther than that.”
“What do I do next?” Kate asked, letting her guard down just long enough to show M.T. that she really cared about this relationship, that she was terrified of screwing things up with Janessa.
M.T. laughed. It sounded a little hard. “Are you sure you want to ask me that question? Have you not seen the product of my relationship expertise with Ruthie?”
Kate tipped her head. “Who’s Ruthie?”
“Yeah, that clarified nothing for me,” Kate said.
“Penny, Madame Penny,” M.T. said. At Kate’s blank look, she continued: “You did know that Penny isn’t her real name, didn’t you?”
“Uh, I guess it never occurred to me to wonder.”
“It’s—what do they call that—a stage name.”
“Ruthanne didn’t sound psychic enough?” Kate asked a tad insensitively.
“Well, I suppose it’s because she’s always hated her given name. Personally, I think it’s beautiful, but then again, that’s likely part of the problem. I doubt she’d even allow herself the peace of mind to so much as agree with me…on anything.
“I keep trying,” M.T. went on to say, “but—,”
“But she’s not making it easy for you, huh?” Kate intercepted.
“No, she’s not,” M.T. sighed. “Did you know, I called her last week but at the sound of my voice she just…she just hung up? And, when I ran into her at the LitLiber a few days ago she pretended I wasn’t there, that I wasn’t talking to her. I won’t stop trying though. I won’t.”
The pain laced throughout these words cut to Kate’s heart. She didn’t need to know her well to know that M.T. was a woman with a sensitive nature, a gentle soul, unprepared for this sort of combat. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she said then, and now it was her time to offer comfort. Grabbing M.T.’s balled up fists, Kate said the first thing that came to her mind, “She must love you a lot to hate you this much.”
M.T. sniffed. “Well, at least she used to love me.”
Kate smiled “I’m sure she did.”
“We were actually quite close as children,” M.T. went on to say. “Let’s see, I was ten years old when my dad married her mom. Ruthie was only seven. Within a week of moving in, she was my shadow, followed me everywhere I went, wanted to do everything I did,” M.T. mused, her gaze glossed over in memory.
“I loved having a little sister. I taught her how to swim, how to braid her hair, and even how to make banana bread. She was my pet. That never changed, not even when I reached my teenage years. Ruthie was special. She could, oh, she could make me laugh!”
Kate smiled wistfully, “It sounds lovely.” An only child, Kate had always wanted to experience a sisterhood much the way M.T. and Ruthie had shared
M.T. shook her head. “It was, for a while,” she said ominously. “I’m not sure how much she’s told you about her mother, but, well, she took to the bottle pretty heavily around the time my father became ill. He died of pancreatic cancer when I was eighteen.”
“I’m sorry,” Kate mumbled awkwardly, not sure what to say.
“Thank you,” M.T. said, her voice sounding watery at these next words: “I was so lost without him. I couldn’t breathe anymore, I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Not even toward Ruthie. I just, I was hurting so much and I didn’t know how to process the building anger and fear and grief taking hold of me, so I turned to apathy instead.”
Kate’s fingers squeezed against M.T.’s hand. It couldn’t have been easy, reliving that place in her life, that point of such confusion. It was brave.
“I couldn’t stay. I needed to escape, to start over, at least that’s what I told myself and at the time I believed it. So I left. I traveled the world for a year—I visited Italy and Spain, spent time in Greece and Turkey, even lived in France for awhile. I met beautiful, wonderful people, listened to remarkable stories about life and love and somehow I found myself again. I found my purpose in life. I went from there straight to seminary school.”
“You never came back?” Kate asked, though she was pretty sure she knew the answer to that question already.
M.T. shook her head. “No, I left Ruthie behind. I left her to pick up the pieces of her life all alone.” I left her with an alcoholic mother hardly fit to raise a child, much less her own self, M.T. added silently to herself. “I abandoned her, leaving her just as lost as my father’s passing had left me. I didn’t know, I was too young to know what I was doing. I was too young to cope with what was happening, and I hurt Ruthie because of it—the only person I should have been thinking about above all. I regret that most of all.”
“Is that why you came back to town?” Kate asked boldly.
“Yes, I want to make amends, I want my sister back. I want to be a sister to her—again.”