“I think you should wear this.”
Kate looked over to where Madame Penny was standing half-inside her closet.
“Just that, huh?” Kate asked incredulously. The psychic held in her hand a black lacy camisole. She knew what Madame Penny was doing, but it wasn’t going to work. Kate was not going to blush, she was not going to giggle nervously. She was not going to give her friend any more ammunition then she’d already done. “It might be a little too breezy. It is winter after all.” Kate was proud when her voice came out dry, unruffled.
Penny rolled her eyes, hanging the silky garment back in the closet. “Whatever. Fine. But at least promise you won’t wear that bulky fisherman’s sweater you seem so fond of.”
Kate frowned. She liked that sweater. “What’s wrong with that?”
Penny gave her a look. “I don’t have time to get into that right now.”
Kate gave up. Penny wasn’t going to allow Kate to leave the house without being dressed to the nines, and honestly, Kate wasn’t fighting her on that. She wanted to look good…she just didn’t want to be so obvious about it.
In three hours, Kate would head over to Whestleigh High School where she would participate as one of the judges in the school’s third annual writing contest. Jackson would, of course, also be in attendance (hence Penny’s wardrobe interference). The force behind Kate’s impromptu involvement, he’d bushwhacked her, stopping in at the LitLiber a couple of weeks ago with the favor…
“I would really love to get Janessa Cooper involved in the event,” he’d told her, knowing exactly which button to push to gain her interest. Jackson was a member at Good Sheppard Church; he knew of Kate and Janessa’s arrangement (and, of course, Penny being his only neighbor, Kate could only imagine how much he knew of her life). “She’s a very talented writer, but I don’t think she’ll enter without a little encouragement. She can be a bit of a resister, withdrawn…” a common coping mechanism for teenagers to reject before they can be rejected.
“Yeah, she’s pretty good at that,” Kate had admitted drily.
“It’s important not to allow them to completely alienate themselves. Not only do the students isolate them, but teachers will too. They give up on bright kids like Janessa because they don’t know how to reach them, breech that distance.”
That’s why he wanted Janessa in the competition: it would force her to put herself out there, to live in the same world as her peers. It would teach her how to handle risks: the failure of losing, the possibility of winning. Such things were important life lessons, he preached. They enabled social skills, autonomy, humility….
“I think I can convince Janessa to enter the contest, but in order to do that, I need to create an environment in which she feels safe and secure, accepted….”
In other words, Jackson wanted Kate to sign up as one of the judges—make it seem less personal, less scary. How Kate could walk away from that?
“And you think for some reason my presence will do that?” Kate asked on a half-laugh.
Jackson nodded gravely. “I do. I think you mean a lot to her Kate. More than you know, more than she’s willing to admit. I’ve seen it. She’s less antagonistic, less destructive since you’ve entered her life. She’s opening up a little bit—just here and there—she’s expressing herself, exposing some of her vulnerabilities. You are the only accountable change in her life.”
Well, Jackson’s plan worked. At least, Kate wasn’t sure if it was because of her participation or not, but regardless, Janessa had submitted an original piece into the competition. And though she didn’t want to admit it, Kate was actually pretty excited about tonight, when the judges would assemble to decide upon the winning entries. She wasn’t sure how many judges there would be, or even who any of them were. She only knew Jackson would be there. A smile Kate couldn’t quite fight back flash across her lips. Jackson would be there.
In the end, Kate dressed in a pair of tight blue jeans and a white button down shirt with long sleeves which flared slightly at the ends. A dark blue scarf dotted with silver stars adorned her neck. Her hair she’d left down, in a long blonde tangle midway down her back. Cool, casual, and Penny-approved.
Walking into the community education room, where the judging would commence, Kate spied a large oval table stretched out across the middle of the space, a pad of notebook paper and two pens sitting before each of the five chairs spanning its length. Besides Jackson and Kate, there were three other volunteers: Mr. Thompson, the 8th grade social studies teachers at Whestleigh, Mrs. Talley the town librarian, and Ms. Beckstrom a retired nurse known for her multiple book clubs.
A small refreshment table and had been constructed nearby, replete with a stack of Styrofoam cups and a plastic sugar caddy wrestling for space between a tray of doughnuts and a hotplate housing the coffee carafes. Kate poured herself a drink—the liquid was thick, a dark brown that required an extra packet of creamer to pacify Kate’s taste. Nabbing the nearest chair, Kate sat down, her eyes glancing nervously across the table as she did so. Directly across the way was a rather stern looking woman with a wobbling chin: Ms. Beckstrom.
Smiling tightly in greeting, Kate felt like a fraud. She wasn’t really the literary type and old nursey over there didn’t look any too welcoming.
Jackson’s here, Kate reminded herself, as the other two panel members arrived, claiming the seats on either side of Ms. Beckstom. That left only the chair beside Kate open for Jackson. Thank God. He wouldn’t make her feel inferior, think lesser of her opinion.
Kate took a generous sip from her coffee….
Two hours later, she would learn to regret the consumption of that beverage. Kate’s bladder was damn near bursting at the seams, and it didn’t look promising for a session rap anytime soon. Passing in a flurry of nerves, tension, and hot debate, the evening progressed slowly, building tumultuously as it alternated from one minute to the next:
An agitated sigh, the tap-tap-tapping of someone’s eraser drumming against the laminate table, the room creaking in heavy silence as Jackson tallied up the votes from the latest series of eliminations….
Voices’ rising animatedly as each judge was given the opportunity to defend their choices, arguing merit versus creativity versus potential ejection:
“It’s obvious to me that ‘Winter Memories’ should be handed the first place prize,” Ms. Beckstrom prattled on at one memorable juncture, her nose twitched in irritation at any who dared disagree. “The writing is clear, the imagery striking and the red thread tying it together—a young woman on the verge of entering college, scared to leave home while simultaneously scared of failing to live out her dreams, is so relatable to these students.”
Mr. Thompson shook his head exhaustively. “While I agree with its relatablility, I think the message is a little trite, a story that’s be said before. The trap of indecision…Change is scary, the familiar is comfortable, yet change is necessary for growth, yada, yada, yada. Back and forth and back and forth. Been there, read that.”
Deliberations like these dominated as nightfall rapidly approached.
Kate sat silent throughout most of it, her eyes growing ever wider in her face. The criticisms being flung about were a little over-the-top for her taste. They were talking about high school students here, not professional authors. To mark their work as ‘trite’ seemed a bit pompous and, well self-serving. These students had put their necks out there, really bared themselves. To overlook that seemed not only insensitive, but debilitating to the purpose of the contest.
“You’d think we were discussing a PEN Award for all the literary terms being tossed around,” Jackson whispered, leaning down close to Kate, the words tripping softly from the corner of his mouth so as not to be overheard by the others.
Kate swallowed a laugh, “The atmosphere is getting a little weighty.” Even if she’d had something to say, Kate probably wouldn’t have, out of fear of looking like a buffoon. The way these guys were talking, they’d probably call her out on it too.
“The headiness of power—everyone’s a critic, even if only an armchair one,” he answered, his voice low in her ear. Kate doubted anyone was likely to notice their side conversation. By this point, Mr. Thompson and Ms. Beckstrom were interrupting each other so ruthlessly, they didn’t have time to gauge anyone else’s reactions.
“So you think ‘Dark Trials and Thatched Roofs’ should win because why? Because of its odd stream-of-consciousness writing style? Trendy perhaps, but personally I found it hard to understand,” Ms. Beckstrom argued.
Mrs. Talley, a mousey woman of an uncertain age, nodded her head, shooting Mr. Thompson a reluctant smile as she did so. “I must confess, I found it a bit hard to follow myself.”
“Well, that’s the point of it. It’s a microcosmic view into the rambling thoughts, ideas, the ideology of a high school student. It’s unstructured but true. This girl is trying to find the words to a write an essay for a writing contest and instead her mind wanders…what’s for dinner? Is mom making her lasagna again? It’s frozen and she hate’s frozen food. Is the ground frozen outside yet? She’d like to go skating. It’s the only part of winter she likes. She wonders if he’s ever noticed her out on the ice-rink at Strikers Pond? He probably isn’t that into her, she’s not his type anyway…” Mr. Thompson rambled on, nicely paraphrasing the work. He shook his head. “It’s brilliant. It’s real. It felt personal, like a diary, yet the drama wasn’t forced, the secrets weren’t disproportionate.”
Ms. Beckstrom looked ready to bite…
“I should probably step in here soon,” Jackson murmured to a highly amused Kate. He raised his voice above the din “Okay, let’s take a break here for a second, and put these two pieces aside. We still have four other works that need to be considered for evaluation. Let’s take a look at those, huh?”
“Personally, I really enjoyed ‘Summer Vacation’,” Mrs. Talley said. Mr. Thompson groaned; Ms. Beckstrom rolled her eyes. It would appear for the first time that night they agreed upon something.
“Really, I found the organizational pattern far inferior to the rest…”
“The transitions between points were poorly executed, and the story arc anti-climatic.”
‘Summer Vacation’ didn’t stand a chance.
By nine o’clock the finalists were chosen. Kate could have wept. All that was left was awarding first, second, and third place.
“Well, I think it’s clear to all of us at this point that ‘Curdled Milk’ will finish in the rear,” Ms. Beckstrom stated tactlessly, her voice high.
“Kathy,” Jackson said, his voice gentle but firm, “you can’t push your opinion on everyone else.”
“I wasn’t pushing my opinion on anyone. Was I pushing my opinion on any of you?” she asked, her eyes skipping over the faces before her.
No one dared answer.
Jackson just shook his head. “Let’s take a quick break here,” he called instead. “Stretch your legs, hit up the bathroom, grab a last cup of coffee…”
Shooting Kate a sidelong glance, Jackson’s face was only too readable in that moment. The night was far from over yet. They still had to reopen the dreaded argument of ‘Winter Memories’ vs. ‘Dark Trials and Thatched Roofs.’
It was almost ten o’clock when the judging finally concluded. In the end, Jackson had had to call for a majority rule on first and second place, when it became only too obvious that neither Beckstrom nor Thompson had any intention of budging on their views. ‘Dark Trials and Thatched Roofs’ had won. Kate had been the deciding vote. She had a feeling Ms. Beckstrom had it out for her.
Whatever. It was done.
“Oh my God, I’m so tired,” Kate complained softly now, the door to the community ed. room closing in finality behind the retreating figure of Ms. Talley. She and Jackson were alone, with everyone else having barely stopped to toss their empty coffee cups in the trash before skipping out of the building, throwing hurried goodbyes over their shoulders at the evening’s close; it was late, and they needed to get home. Ms. Beckstrom had her gardening circle bright and early at ten tomorrow morning.
Jackson yawned. “Me too,” he agreed, gathering scraps of leftover paper together and tossing them in the garbage. He looked over at Kate. “Listen, you don’t have to stay and help me clean this up. Go home. I’m sure you have school in the morning.”
Kate threw him a pert look. “And you don’t?”
Jackson laughed. “Fair enough.”
“Besides,” Kate assured him, “I helped make this mess, I can help clean it.”
That was the explanation Kate was going with anyway. Unlike everyone else, she’d stalled at the signaled intent to leave, throwing out deliberately protracted farewells, in no apparent rush to throw her coat on. Jackson had been busy, stacking up the chairs, gathering the remnants of creamer packets strewn throughout the place.
“Do you need help with anything?” Kate had asked him politely. That’s when she’d stumbled upon this motive: that it would be rude to leave him to clean up all on his own—a perfectly viable excuse to stay. Never mind the fact that beside thirteen sheets of notebook paper, one leaking pen, and four cups of Styrofoam, the room had been left in pristine condition. Rude was still rude.
“No, no. I just have to move the conference table and bring the coffeemaker back to the lounge and I’ll be good,” Jackson had said, waving her words away.
Deciding there had been enough arguing already that day, Kate hadn’t verbally responded to this. Instead, she’d just walked over to the table in question, her hands curling around its edges to grip the sides. With a raised eyebrow, she looked at Jackson meaningfully, stubbornly. It was answer enough.
Smiling in appreciation, Jackson had quickly skirted over to the other end, taking hold….
“Lift on three.”
The table back where it belonged once more, the room put to rights, Jackson reached for the cumbersome coffeemaker, waiting while Kate hoisted the garbage in her left hand. Hitting the lights, he steered a path out the door. “Hey, thanks again for helping out with this tonight,” he said, once they were out in the hallway.
Kate smiled. “I can’t believe it it’s over already. I thought the night would bleed into tomorrow the way Kathy and Mr. Thompson were going at it,” she admitted while he locked up.
“But it was fun. Long but fun,” she assured him as they started moving again, walking down the hall to where the Lounge was located.
“Well, you sure showed a lot of patience.” Motioning to the room coming up on their right, Jackson slowed to a stop before it. “Especially Ms. Beckstrom. She-uh, she has a strong personality,” Jackson said, inserting another key from his seemingly endless supply into the latch and pushing it open.
Kate snorted. “Yeah, that’s one definition,” she drawled, tagging along when he advanced into the dimly lit room. Jutting her hip up against the edge of an empty table, Kate watched absently while he disposed himself of the antiqued appliance in his arms, setting it down on the counter running the entire length at the back of the room.
Jackson laughed softly. “They’re a tough crowd, that’s for sure. I should have warned you but I thought maybe it would scare you off. Hell, the thought of those guys in the same room together scares me!”
Kate pursed her lips. “So I was reinforcement?”
“Just in case.”
Kate giggled, “I shiver to think what they’d have to say about my writing.”
Jackson nodded knowingly. “Been there, done that. They tore me to pieces.” Kate smirked at the mental imagine.
“I’d like to see how they rate,” Kate returned coyly. “It’s a whole different perspective when you’re the one being judged.”
Jackson faked a look of shock at her teasing rejoinder. “Revenge Kate?”
“Karma baby,” she returned.
Turning fully in her direction now, Jackson smiled down at her, a chuckle still rolling off his lips: “See, I knew there was a reason I needed you here tonight.”
“For Janessa, you mean?” Kate asked, but she didn’t sound so sure of that answer, of his intentions.
Jackson winked, “Make that two reasons.”
Taken aback, Kate’s mouth moved soundlessly, the room turning heavy on the unfinished implication of those words, at the unanswered comeback. Was Jackson flirting with her? Did Kate want him to be flirting with her? The industrial wall clock tick-ticked loudly in the background….
Clearing his throat nosily, Jackson gestured toward the garbage bag still held loosely at Kate’s side. “Here let me…I can take that off your hands,” he said fumblingly, the rich timbre of his voice betraying the innocence of the remark, his eyes looking anywhere but directly at her.
Taking a step forward, he slowly closed the gap between them, his right arm extended, reaching for her left. The tips of his fingers skimmed just over her knuckles at the contact. It was light, barely-there, but heady nonetheless. Instinctively, Kate sucked in her breath at the touch—how long had she wanted him to do that? All that teasing, that foreplay…
The sound of her indrawn breath distracted Jackson. His eyes lowered, her lips parted. Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten, her feet press firmly against the flooring, her calves arch in expectation.
Only nothing happened. That is, something happened, just not what Kate had been anticipating. She hadn’t made it up, she couldn’t have made it up, misread that look in his eyes so completely, that silvered haze which had descended there, living in his gaze…she’d seen it, she’d read the attraction on his face, but then, as quickly as it’d come it had left, replaced, disappearing behind a bland expression leaving nothing bare.
Jackson pushed backward, the garbage bag slipping out of Kate’s fingers at the movement. A lopsided smile came to rest against his lips, masking its former countenance. “It’s late. Have a good night Kate,” he said. There was no mistaking the finality of those words.
Kate nodded jerkily. She couldn’t manage words, so she just turned and walked away, her knees threatening to buckle underneath her at any moment. It wasn’t until she was rounding the hallway, the front entrance to the school shining like a beacon, behind which doors her car was parked, that Kate felt her body react: her chest heaved, her throat constricted, her pulse spasmed… Fingers shaking violently, she dug through her purse, pulling out her keys and her cell phone simultaneously.
She needed to talk to someone. Now.
Dialing Penny’s number, she waited impatiently for the psychic to pick up on the other end.
“Hello?” Penny sounded groggy, sluggish, like she’d been sleeping….
“Penny! I just…listen, I know it’s late but—”
“How’d the judging go?” Penny asked over a yawn. “Wait, is that just getting over with now?”
“That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about,” Kate started to say, her feet skipping over the cold cement of the parking lot.
Kate pulled up the curb outside Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Killing the engine, she jumped out, relieved to see the lights were already on inside. Penny was there. Kate knew it was asking a lot, but she needed to talk to her friend—it couldn’t wait, and this wasn’t a conversation she relished having over the phone, nor was it one she could have taken to Penny’s house. There, her car would have been too out in the open, clear to see for any prying eyes…
“All right, what happened?” Penny asked as soon as Kate stepped through the curtained doorway and into her office. With only one lamp turned on for illumination, the room jumped in shadows.
Now that she was here, facing Penny, Kate wasn’t sure what to say, how to begin. She felt jittery, anxious…confused. “I almost kissed Jackson,” she said settled on, taking the direct approach.
Penny’s eyebrows shot up at the words. “Almost?” she asked.
Kate paced the length of her shop, a hand running absently through her thin blonde hair. She shrugged. “At least, I think we almost kissed.”
Head tilted to the side, lips pressed together, Penny didn’t remark on that.
Spinning around, Kate leveled Penny a direct look. “I wanted to kiss him,” she wailed, her forehead creased, a look of dismay, of defeat crossing her features.
“And that’s a bad thing?” Penny guessed.
“Yes. No. It’s just—”
“Jackson reminds you of Phil,” Penny filled in. She remembered Kat saying that once, and judging by the exasperated look on her face, she hated herself for wanting him despite it—for wanting a man so similar to the one she’d recently jilted. Kate wasn’t a woman to abide by personal weaknesses.
“Yeah,” Kate confessed, her shoulders sagging with the confession.
Penny took a seat at the round table and, waving a hand expressly, invited Kate to do the same. Folding her arms across its surface, it was Penny’s turn to be frank. “I think perhaps it’s time you told me about Phil, don’t you agree?”