Kate thought perhaps it was the loud conversation flowing around them, so she spoke up: “If we plan it on a Saturday, I think more people will be able to attend; however, if you want a reservation at the Rejuve Spa, they’re availability is booked until…” Kate’s voice trailed off. Her companion still wasn’t listening.
“Hello? Are you there?” Waving a hand in front of Penny’s face, Kate stifled a sigh. This was the third time, in the approximately fifteen minutes since they’d first nabbed a corner booth at the local diner that the psychic’s attention had so obviously wandered.
Penny’s eyes flickered at the movement, her gaze shifting slightly, latching onto to Kate. She seemed a million miles away. “Huh?” she asked and then, vaguely: “Yes…uh, what were you saying?”
Kate laughed shortly. “I’m trying to plan your birthday party. It’s coming up at the end of next month,” she supplied unnecessarily. “But it’s tough to do without a little input from you.”
“Right,” Penny mused, her lips hitching upward. Her fingers brushed against the Formica tabletop between them; it was at Penny’s insistent invitation that the women met up for lunch at Sammy’s Deli Shop. Kate had been mystified by the choice—it wasn’t exactly a known favorite. That puzzlement had only grown stronger when, as they’d sat down, Penny hadn’t so much as glanced at the greasy menu set before her, nor seemed even slightly aware of what they offered, if they specialized in anything. They came for the food, but Penny, it seemed, couldn’t care less about eating anything.
“So?” Kate pressed.
“So what?” Penny asked.
“When do you want to throw this shin-dig?” Kate asked wearily. They were getting nowhere.
“Oh. Uh, let me think here—”
There, in midsentence, Penny stopped, side-tracked by something (yet again!)…Her head turned ever-so-slightly to the right, her stare moving beyond Kate, settling on something just behind their booth. Penny might as well have left the table for all her presence there; Kate had lost her to someplace else, someone else.
Fed up, Kate decided she wanted to know what it was that kept stealing Penny’s usually singular attention span away from her. Half-turning around in her seat, neck craned against her shoulder, Kate followed Penny’s look. Startled, her eyes landed on a man. He was sitting three tables back, a red ball-cap pulled low over his head, flannel shirt tucked into dark blue jeans. His beefy hands were cupped around a steaming mug of coffee.
Well, well, well. “Who’s that?” Kate whispered curiously.
Penny’s eyes snapped back over to Kate. The younger woman had a certain look on her face: expectant and saccharine. Pushing her body firmly against the vinyl of her seat, Penny adamantly shook her head, already in hot denial. “What? I don’t know. It’s nothing,” she answered quickly.
“I don’t know about that,” Kate teased, peeping back at him again, patently staring this time.
“Stop it Kate,” Penny said, tugging at her wrist. “Turn around before he notices.”
“Not until you spill,” Kate told her out of the side of her mouth.
“Okay, okay…just turn around,” Penny pleaded, crouching low in her seat now.
Without loss of time, Kate rotated around, resuming a normal sitting position. Plopping her elbows on the table, she leaned in close. “So, who is he?”
(Finally Kate was beginning to see the light. It wasn’t the food which had attracted Penny to this place.)
“His name is Hank. Hank Burke,” Penny mumbled, sounding just a touch grumpy at being found out.
“And?” Kate hedged. She’d never heard Penny talk about anyone in her life. This was definitely news.
Kate made a theatrical sound. “Do I have to start staring at him again?”
Penny grabbed Kate’s hand, forestalling the threatened movement. “No. I-I please don’t.” Her face was flushed, the words forceful.
A Cheshire grin split across Kate’s mouth. “You like him.” It wasn’t a question.
Penny sucked in a breath. “Yeah, so what?”
The defensive tone didn’t fool Kate. She was nervous, edgy. She really liked him!
“So?! Does he know how you feel?” Kate inquired.
Penny snorted. “I doubt he even knows I exist,” she said in a self-deprecating manner.
“I find that hard to believe.” And Kate did. Penny made herself known wherever she went. “Have you talked to him?”
A look of chagrin crossed the psychic’s usually calm expression: “Uh, not really.”
“Okay—well what are you going to do about that?” Kate challenged, prodding gently.
“I’m doing it now.”
“You’re just staring at him,” Kate clarified.
Penny shrugged, “Like I said.”
Kate shook her head. “And how long has this been going on?”
“About two years.”
“Two years?!” Kate lowered her voice, swallowing back a chuckle. “Progress has been slow then.”
Penny glared. Kate grinned.
“You’re enjoying this!”
“Guilty as charged,” Kate confessed. “It’s not every day I see the esteemed Madame Penny out of her element.”
“Whatever. Just—let’s order something,” Penny said, firmly bringing the glossy menu up to her face, wielding it like a shield to protect against prying eyes from the blush working its way up her throat.
“I know what you’d like to order…” Kate said, her insinuation only too clearly threaded throughout the wording.
“Drop it, okay?” Penny demanded. And then: “It’s- I wouldn’t know what to say to him. We don’t have anything in common.”
“You mean, there aren’t two psychics in Whestleigh?” Kate teased.
Penny stuck out her tongue.
“Okay, all jokes aside, tell me about him: what does he do for a living? What are his hobbies? Maybe I can help you…I’m quite adept at small talk,” Kate volunteered.
“He’s a car mechanic; he owns Burke’s Brakes and Auto Body Shop,” Penny muttered. “He likes hunting and bowling and eating out.”
That wasn’t a whole lot to go off. Still, “Well, why not go to his shop to get your oil changed or have your tires rotated—regular maintenance stuff. It would be a perfectly acceptable excuse to stop in and see him.”
Tapping a long fingernail against her chin, Penny seemed to be seriously considering the idea. “Okay,” she said at last, “but what would we talk about when I got there?”
“Cars?” Penny wailed, “but I don’t know anything about cars.”
“Exactly,” Kate told her. “Tell him just that. Lament that, as a single woman, you would love instruction on some of the simpler, inner workings of your vehicle. Number one, this will show respect for his profession and number two, it will get him talking—it’ll grab his attention. He’ll be able to show off his knowledge on the subject. Make him look and feel impressive and conversation will flow naturally.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“It is. Ask questions, listen carefully, and most importantly, flirt a little. No big deal.”
“Yeah, flirting has never really been my thing. Subtlety either.”
True, Penny was about as subtle as a brick in the face. Regardless….
“It’s not hard. Just, laugh when he says something clever. Don’t overdo it; a tinkle of sound is enough. Bat at his arm when he makes a joke, or teases you. Touch him, make sure your body is leaning, angled in his direction. Make eye contact—but not for too long…” Kate said, ticking the growing list off quickly.
The door to the diner swished open just then, interrupting Kate’s lecture. Out of her peripheral vision, Kate caught sight of a pink scarf blowing gently against the breeze…the pattern looked familiar, ominously familiar.
“Oh that’s just great,” Penny cut in suddenly; judging by the agitation in her voice, and direction of her glare, she’d also taken note of the newest customer to walk in the joint. “Of all places, what are the odds that she just happened to choose this one? And, of all days, when I just happened to be here myself? Coincidence my foot.”
Diverted from her original point, Kate was now entirely focused on trying to temper Penny’s overly aggressive reaction to seeing M.T. Worrying about her feminine wiles would have to wait. “The deli is close by the church,” she reasoned.
“Whatever. More likely, she saw my car out in the parking lot,” Penny decided.
Kate refrained from telling Penny how childish that sounded.
“She is not sitting with us,” Penny insisted. Reaching for Kate’s menu, she quickly threw it up in front of the other woman’s face. “Here, hide behind this.”
“Aren’t you being a little ridiculous?” Kate asked, lowering the laminated sheet down to the table.
“She hounds me constantly. You have no idea what that’s like.”
“That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.”
“Shh! She’s coming this way,” Penny said, waving Kate’s words aside.
Sure enough, Kate watched as M.T. moved gracefully further inside the building, her steps light and sure as she passed by the scattered tables decorating the front of the store. She did seem to be heading their way.
Kate lowered her eyes, praying Penny wouldn’t make a scene. Please, please, keep it civil between them, she repeated like a mantra, as the pastor’s steps neared. She was barely one table’s length away now: Please, please keep it civil between them…
Only, to Kate’s surprise and Penny’s ego, M.T. didn’t stop as she came upon their booth, her heels clipping steadily against the laminate flooring as she walked right on by….Her eyes were locked straight ahead at some other, pre-determined, destination. Could it be, was M.T. really here by some odd coincidence? Was it possible she didn’t realize Kate and Penny were also in the building? Shamelessly watching her movements, Kate couldn’t help wondering what had brought the esteemed pastor to such a dive, if not them.
Wait a minute…Oh. God. No.
Oh. God. No. Pastor M.T.—ex-step-sister to one very hostile Madame Penny—had finally come to a halt…three tables back. Oh. God. No. Kate wanted to look away, pretend she wasn’t seeing what she was: M.T. pulling out the chair opposite Hank Burke. Oh. God. No. She couldn’t be joining him for lunch, she just couldn’t be—yet she clearly was. Oh. God. No. Worse, an almost palpable nervousness radiated between the two of them…almost as though they were on a date.
Oh. God. No.
“What the hell?” Penny asked dumbly; her eyes were also glued to the scene unfolding between M.T. and Hank. The menu fell limply out of her hands, one corner bouncing against the tabletop, causing it to fall onto the un-swept flooring.
“Uh—,” Kate had no words.
“Is she—is that?!” Penny seemed to be chocking. Her lips formed a snarl. “Of course. Of course. It would be her if it were anybody!” Penny’s rage, instantaneous as it was, proved a convenient cover disguising her pain.
“I’m sure we don’t know what is going on there,” Kate tried…
Bu it was clearly a date. Hank Burke had lost no time in leaning across the table to kiss M.T. on the cheek in greeting. Her face was flushed in effect. Under the grimy tablecloth their legs brushed up against one another, innocent yet intimate.
Still, Kate tried to be practical. They could just be old, familiar friends. They could be having a meeting of the minds about what to do with the old church van. They could be organizing a Cleaner Air Act….
M.T.’s fingers skimmed over Hank’s hand. Turning his wrist over, he quickly caught hold of them, wrapping them tightly within his own grasp.
Okay, they are definitely on a date.
Kate looked over at Penny. Her face was a picture of devastation. Her skin was pale, her eyes sunken, a blank sort of expression was taking over. Any minute now she was going to snap out of whatever self-induced trance she was in. What happened next would be anyone’s guess.
At the sound of her own name, Penny recoiled—her eyes skipping toward the exit sign. “I’ve got to go,” she said abruptly, scooting out of her seat as though it had started on fire. “I’m sorry but I’ve got to go.”
“I’ll come with you,” Kate said, hurriedly making it to her feet. She was at a loss with how to handle this situation: did she pretend ignorance and try to spare Penny’s feelings, treating her like an idiot, all the while denying what was right under their noses? Or did she boldly accept it for what it was, and expect Penny to do the same? One was kinder in the short-term, the other in the long.
Walking, her body deliberately obstructing the view of M.T. and Hank,
Kate hustled Penny out the door. She felt wretched, numb, bemused. What did she say, what did she do? Kate felt helpless, inept. She was only just learning how difficult it was to be a friend.
When they reached the dirt of the deli’s parking lot, Kate felt her anxiety rise. Say something. Do something.
“Would you like to go back to my place? I can make us some lunch, we can talk….” Kate offered. Her voice came out thin, unsure.
“No.” Her feet braking hard, Penny shook her head.
“No. I-I need to be alone right now,” Penny insisted, her voice cracking slightly. Averting her face, she moved further away from Kate.
“Are you sure?” Wasn’t she supposed to be offering Penny support right now—comforting her, making her feel better?
“Yes. I—,” Penny stopped talking. Shaking her head, she inhaled sharply: “Yes. Please, just leave me alone Kate.”
With that, Penny started walking away; she didn’t stop.
Mouth hanging half-open, Kate could do nothing but stand there, helpless and impotent. Anger, confusion, and fear battled for supreme position in her emotional turmoil. She was mortified for Penny. She was (perhaps unreasonably) upset with M.T. She was nervous for the future of the sisters.
Kate was in the middle of something she had no business being in the middle of, and worse, she had no idea what to do about it. Penny needed Kate, but she didn’t want her. Kate loved M.T. but she wasn’t supposed to…Hearts were on the line, all the way around.
Kate had to do something.
With a frenzied flick of her wrist, Penny threw the curtain open to her office. The tears she’d refused to shed in front of Kate, the tears that had burned their way up her throat as she’d carefully driven the four blocks from Sammy’s Deli to her House of Intuition, the tears that only one person seemed so adept at bringing to the surface, finally fell from her eyes.
Her face crumbling, Penny stumbled down into a chair, her elbows coming to rest against the oak table before it. Her shoulders shook with the force of her pent-up feelings. How could M.T? It was just so like her: sweep in and take whatever she wanted, and then toss it aside once she’d used it up to her satisfaction. It never occurred to her that other people might be involved, that their feelings mattered too.
Penny was used to hand-me-downs, wasn’t she? That’s all she’d ever received, growing up next to someone as delightful, as beautiful, as effervescent as Margaret Thayer. Maggie was the original child, the popular girl. She’d never had to wait for anything, never had to compromise anything; she’d never had a ‘Plan B’ because she’d never needed one. Maggie got everything she wanted and everyone else just had to deal with it, stand by and watch it happen.
Isn’t that what was happening now: M.T. just taking over, unwilling to concede to Penny, unwilling put someone else above herself, to settle for anything!
Well, dammit, Penny was sick and tired of it.
She was sick and tired of Maggie. Hadn’t she taken enough from Penny without adding Hank to the pile, as well?
Hesitantly, Kate pulled open the door to Good Sheppard Church. It took an hour of pacing her livingroom floor before Kate knew what she had to do. It was simple actually. She would explain to M.T., as gently as possible, how Penny felt about Hank. M.T. would never want to hurt her sister. Kate knew that.
Once M.T. was apprised of the situation, she’d let Hank go and all would go back to normal. Penny could resume her silent stalking of the car mechanic without hindrance.
Kate nodded her head sharply as she entered the building’s vestibule. Yes, it was quite simple. Walking down the hallway, Kate was affronted with the soft strains of the pastor’s voice. She was singing. It sounded happy.
“Kate,” M.T. announced moments later, opening the door to her office at the other woman’s polite knock, “what a lovely surprise!”
Kate nodded, her head bobbing up and down woodenly. M.T’s genuine pleasure stabbed at Kate’s conscience guiltily. Now that she was here, she wanted to get the whole business taken care of.
“Well, come in, come in,” M.T. invited, waving her visitor inside. Kate felt her feet move in answer to this obediently. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so righteous anymore, so correct in her decision to invade upon the pastor’s love life. “Tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
“Ah.” Absently Kate watched M.T. shuffle a couple papers off the only remaining chair in the room.
“Take a seat, won’t you?” M.T. asked. She, herself, was leaning up against the side of her desk. “I apologize about the mess. It’s been a busy morning.”
That was just the line Kate needed.
“Yeah, I think I saw you earlier…at Sammy’s Deli. You were with a man?” Kate hinted, her voice deliberately inviting.
M.T.’s face went a pretty pink. “Yes. Hank,” she said. Even the way she said his name sounded girlish.
“I—is he an old acquaintance?” Kate asked, fishing.
M.T. giggled again. It sounded odd. “Not exactly.”
“Oh?” Kate asked, the vowel coming out in a squeak.
Reaching forward, M.T. locked eyes with Kate, her tone conspiratorial: “We met last week. He’s a mechanic. I was having some car trouble,” she said, as though she simply had to tell someone about it. “Anyway, we started talking—who knew we’d both have such an interest in fly-fishing—well, one thing led to the next, and before I knew it he was asking me out.” M.T.’s teeth gnawed against the side of her lip self-consciously. “I can’t remember the last time I met a man… romantically speaking. My profession isn’t exactly a turn-on for most of them.”
“Well, the thing is—”
“And he’s, oh I don’t know, he’s nice Kate. Kind and funny, down-to-earth, and…” M.T. sighed “he’s something to look forward to.”
There was a look on M.T.’s face that gave Kate pause. Nostalgic, playful, animated…remembered.
Kate couldn’t take that look away from her.
“You had a good time?” she asked instead.
“I did.” M.T. smiled. She looked youthful. “He asked me out again for Friday. We’re going to a movie.”
“You are?” Kate’s voice was soft and warm, and despite her initial intentions, it was excited.
Penny liked Hank, but clearly so did Maggie. The car mechanic was filling a large void in the pastor’s life: M.T. was lonely.
She’d just returned to town after years of absence:
She didn’t have the steadfast loyalty of a devoted congregation—not yet.
She didn’t have any family—at least, none that would claim her.
Kate was her only friend.
Was she not to be allowed a budding relationship with a man she liked, either?
How was that fair, that M.T. should suffer so Penny wouldn’t have to? Looking up into those whiskey brown eyes, those eyes of such gentleness, such generosity, Kate couldn’t fathom the strength to ask it of M.T.; she knew M.T. would do it, that she’d let Hank go, that she’d stand aside and let Penny have him, and she’d do it without a second thought. She’d put Penny’s happiness before her own. But that didn’t make it right. Kate couldn’t, she wouldn’t ask it of the pastor.
She’d just have to explain it to Penny, convince her to… to what? To move on? To fight M.T. for Hank’s affection? Kate was reminded of how Penny had looked earlier at the deli: at first hopeful and infatuated and then betrayed, lost, hopeless. Kate had never hurt for someone the way she had for Penny in those moments after M.T. sat down beside Burke. Her heart lurched even in memory. Penny was also kind and gentle. She was also undeserving of heartache. Kate felt more conflicted than ever.
“I haven’t looked forward to a movie this much in years,” M.T. continued on to say, her words breaking against Kate’s internal dilemma. She laughed nervously, pressing a hand against her collarbone. “Goodness, I’ll probably have to buy a new outfit; my wardrobe mostly consists of clothing that shouts ‘I love Jesus! How ‘bout you?’ That’s a pretty far cry from the attire of a sexy siren, huh?”
“I guess so.” Kate wanted to cry. Or puke. She’d never felt so torn on an issue in her life.
“Want to go shopping with me?” M.T. asked, her words driving the last nail in the proverbial coffin for Kate.
“I-uh…if I have the time. Maybe.” Kate felt like a heel. She should have been leaping up and down for M.T. but instead she was politely if coldly reserved about the whole state of affairs. She had Penny to think about, too.
“So, is it serious between them?”
Kate stared across the threshold of her front entryway to the outside porch, where her friend was standing, impatient. She’d no sooner opened the door then the words exploded in the air between them. Penny’s visit was both unannounced and inevitable.
As a preamble, her words were abrupt, but then again, Kate doubted much else had occupied the psychic’s mind since lunch that afternoon. It was nearing eight p.m. now, hours since Kate and Penny had separated, since Kate had visited M.T., hours still since she’d returned home, resigned to this fated conversation, to her part in the outcome of it all.
Kate motioned Penny inside, but the other woman wouldn’t budge. Apparently, she wanted answers first.
“I know you talked with her,” Penny persevered, “I saw your car at the church.”
Kate nodded slowly.
“So?” Penny repeated, “is it serious between them?”
Kate sighed. “I don’t know.”
Penny’s face contorted. “But, they were on a date right?”
“Typical,” Penny spat, “just typical. She takes what she wants, regardless of everyone else and their feelings.”
“Oh Penny…” Kate’s voice was soft, sympathetic, hurting for her friend.
“Well, not this time. This time she’s in for a fight. This time I’m not backing down.”
“And she is not invited to my birthday party. You hear me Kate?”
Kate heard her all right. She heard Penny’s pain—it damn near throbbed from her person. M.T. had let her down (again). And though she didn’t know it, Kate had too.
The urge to puke resurfaced.