Kate was late. Scurrying into her house, she threw her college book-bag aimlessly onto one of the pink upholstered chairs arranged in parlor room, her feet taking her quickly to the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom. Kate hated being late.
Despite this, she was nonetheless steadfast in her decision to change out of her school clothes first. Quickly shucking out of her jeans and t-shirt, Kate scoured through her closet. When her eyes landed on a bulky turtleneck, the material pilling at the neck, she reached for it gratefully. Throwing it over her head, the coarse fabric fell against her body loosely, ungainly, unseemly…it was perfect. Snapping a large scarf out of the woven bin laying on one of the shelves there, she quickly wrapped it over her hair, the style vaguely imitative of Madame Penny. All she needed know was that pair of sunglasses, the ones with the large lens, and she’d be ready.
It was the first time she was going out in public since…well, since her love life had gotten so conflicted. She’d holed up in her house the last three days, claiming school work as her excuse. Almost all the food was gone out of her house now, and the walls had started closing in around her. And, as Maggie had assured her when she’d called that afternoon, it was time to face the world again. She couldn’t hide out forever….Looking at herself in the mirror Kate nodded her head with satisfaction. She was almost unrecognizable.
Kate knew she was being ridiculous, wearing a disguise to go have coffee with Penny and Maggie, but she couldn’t help herself. What if Jackson decided to stop there on his way home from school? The store was only three building’s down from the LitLiber Bookstore….
“Too dramatic?” Kate mused to herself, as she raced back down the stairs. “I don’t think so.”
She had just reached the parlor room again, her thoughts preoccupied with the business of pushing the foot of one leg into her suede shoes, when she felt the unmistakable vibration of her phone ringing in her back pocket.
Rolling her eyes, Kate reached for the device. It was probably Penny, calling to enquire about Kate’s whereabouts, to scold her for being late. But, when Kate looked down at the screen in her hand, she was surprised to note she didn’t recognize the number calling her…except for the area code. She knew that area code all too well.
Abandoning her other shoe, Kate hobbled over to the pink upholstered chair, squeezing her body in beside her schoolbag. With tremendous strength, she answered the call, bringing the phone uneasily up to her ear.
“Hello?” she asked, her voice husky with dread.
“He’s tall, at least six foot four, with a shock of brown hair, hanging long and loose down his face,” Penny said, her voice soft in memory. “At first, I don’t notice him coming toward me. I’m too focused on the task at hand—”
“Oh yes…slaying zombies, right?” Maggie asked deadpan. With an almost imperceptible look, she glanced down at her watch. Kate was more than fifteen minutes late. It wasn’t like her.
“Hey, someone’s got to do it,” Penny defended lightly. “Anyway, I’m in the middle of a field, my machete in hand when I feel his presence behind me. Swinging around, thinking he’s one of the enemy, I raise my sword, ready to fight. That’s when our eyes meet. Stunned, frozen in that position, I can only stare into those amazing brown pools of wisdom, mesmerized by what I see. In them, I read our future, as easily as if I were reading a newspaper—it’s that clear. Standing right in front of me, naked from the waist up, is my soul mate.”
“Yeah, but Penny it’s only a dream,” Maggie reminded the younger woman gently. “You can’t really believe…”
“Of course, I really believe,” Penny insisted. “And it isn’t just a dream, it’s a reoccurring dream. In my profession, that means something.”
“So you think this half-naked man is a real person? Do you also think zombies are going to attack Whestleigh soon?” Maggie teased.
“Of course the zombie’s aren’t real. They’re merely symbolic—a representation of my life’s purpose. Since my life’s work is psychic intuition, the zombie’s are merely an alternate portrayal of my House of Intuition. In my dream, the man comes to me looking for help. So, if dreams imitate reality, I know that’s where I’ll meet him; through my work, at my shop!”
It’s patently clear to Maggie that Penny’s put a lot of analytic—if bizarre—thought and logic into this dream. “Right, well—”
“Where in the hell is Kate?” Penny said impatiently, her voice riding over Maggie’s half-hearted response. “She’s almost half an hour late. Should we try calling her again?”
Maggie shrugged, retrieving her phone from where it lay on the table beside her cappuccino. “Sure.”
But, after the fourth ring, all Maggie got was Kate’s answering machine.
“Okay…we’ll give her five more minutes to show,” Penny improvised. “Then we’ll start worrying.”
In the end, Penny and Maggie gave her ten minutes, but when Kate still hadn’t walked through the doors of Bean Tamptations, when she still hadn’t returned a single call, they knew something was wrong. As per Penny’s edict, they finally allowed the first strands of worry to envelope them. Quickly leaving the coffee shop and settling into Maggie’s SUV, they drove straight for Eveleth Ave. Penny tried calling Kate again, but again she was treated to that woman’s voicemail.
“Where the hell is she?” she asked, shooting a glance at Maggie’s profile.
“Don’t borrow panic,” Maggie pleaded, but her white knuckles clenching the steering wheel, the high rate of speed she took on the residential road belied the pastor’s cool facade. It was only as Maggie pulled into Kate’s driveway that the women allowed themselves a full breath. Kate’s car was there. She was home. That was something at least.
“She probably just fell asleep,” Penny said, working up the excuse even as she scrambled out of the truck, her feet making quick work to the front door. “I know she’s been stressed out about school lately…” she muttered inanely. Rapping her knuckles solidly against the door, she waited for Kate’s answer.
“And anyone who’s name begins with a J,” Maggie mused drily, coming up to stand beside her sister.
Penny knocked again, her ear pressed up against the door now, listening for any signs of life. She didn’t hear anything.
“Kate!” Maggie yelled. “Kate are you in there?”
“Should we just go inside?” Penny asked, her fingers already turning the knob in her hand. “It’s unlocked,” she whispered then, watching in quiet bemusement as the door swung open at her command.
“Kate? Kate, we’re coming in,” Maggie said, and pushing passed Penny, did exactly that.
The woman had barely made it up the two steps that led into the parlor room when they heard it: the sound of muffled footsteps coming from upstairs. Maggie and Penny exchanged glances. Without a word, they advanced further into the home, their steps light as they headed toward the stairs.
Penny had just placed a foot on the bottom rung when another sound penetrated the walls: a broken sob, followed closely by an anguished whimper…like that of someone crying. That did it. Past the point of caution, Penny and Maggie raced up the stairs, their feet smacking loudly against the wooden structure there. Something was definitely wrong!
Clearing the stairwell, vaguely out of the breath, Penny and Maggie pushed past the door marking Kate’s bedroom, their bodies barreling inside on a cluttered whirl of arms and legs and all-around panic. Pausing inside the threshold, that’s when they saw here. Kate, her make-up smeared across her crumpled face, standing before her bed, throwing clothes haphazardly into an open suitcase there.
“Kate?” Maggie queried softly. Of all the things she’d imagined in the frightful flight up here, this certainly wasn’t one of them. Kate was leaving?
“If this is about Jake and Jackson, I think it’s going a bit too far,” Penny parried half-humorously.
But Kate didn’t seem to hear them; undeterred by their presence, her body continued its robotic movement, alternating between the closet and her suitcase…hanger after hanger discarded in exchange for the heaping, untidy pile steadily growing on her body.
“Kate? Come on, talk to us,” Maggie pleaded. Moving forward, her fingers reached out to gently touch Kate’s shoulder.
Jerking at the contact, Kate’s head turned sharply, wild eyes landing with shocked dismay on Maggie’s face. “What—what are you doing here?” she asked.
Maggie smiled softly; at least Kate was finally talking.
“We’re looking for you,” Penny said simply.
“What’s going on Kate?” Maggie asked, and inkling her head, indicated the suitcase on the bed.
Moving on auto-pilot, Kate’s glance followed Maggie’s prompt. “I have to go,” she said softly, the words clipped, short.
“You’re freaking us out here.”
Kate shrugged. “Nanny is sick.”
Maggie’s brow furrowed. Nanny?
But, judging by the immediate response on her sister’s face, it seemed Penny understood who this Nanny person was. Face twisted in instant concern, Penny spoke softly: “Oh, Kate. I’m so sorry. What happened?”
As if her knees had suddenly gone out from under her, Kate slid into a seated position on the edge of the bed. “I was on my way to see you—I hadn’t forgotten—when I got a phone call. I didn’t recognize the number…when I answered it a stranger’s voice told me that Agatha Moore, my childhood nanny, was in the hospital…something about her heart,” Kate’s voice cracked just slightly over the word. Taking a deep breath, however, she found the composure to resuming speaking: “The man, I think it’s her son, thought I might like to know. He knew how close I was to her.”
“He wouldn’t have called it if wasn’t serious,” Kate sniveled. “Nanny would have never given him my number if she wasn’t scared.”
“Kate, what do you need?”
“I need to go, I need to be with her,” Kate said, misunderstanding Penny’s question. Buoyed by the words, she stood up again and, her purpose reawakened, took herself once more to the closet.
“Of course you need to go be with her,” Maggie soothed.
“When are you planning on leaving?” Penny asked, though she was pretty sure she knew the answer to that.
“As soon as I’ve finished packing,” came the terse response.
“Have you purchased your plane ticket yet?” Maggie asked, shooting Penny a telling look.
“Uh,” Kate stopped walking for a second, as though her thoughts couldn’t keep up with her. “No—”
“We’ll do that,” Maggie said.
Penny smiled secretively. “Yes, let us handle that.”
Kate nodded, but she hardly heard them.
Six hours later, three harassed women jostled about in their seats as the plane they were flying in taxied to a landing on the airstrip at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.
“You didn’t have to come, you know,” Kate said, watching through hollowed eyes as fellow passengers rose to their feet, exiting the massive aircraft. Neither Penny nor Maggie spoke, unsure of what to say. They hadn’t asked Kate’s permission, hadn’t so much as hinted at their intention to accompany her on this trip, they’d just gone and done it anyway. A surprise attack, they’d quietly driven her to the airport and, after ignoring her proffered goodbyes, had simply followed her to the security checkpoint where they’d produced their own tickets.
“…but, but I’m glad you did,” Kate continued. Reaching out on either side of her, she squeezed their hands. “I’m really glad you did.”
Maggie smiled. Penny bit her lip.
It was almost midnight. Going to the hospital at that hour was out of the question. Even Kate, in her current state of distress, knew that. So they took a shuttle to the nearest hotel and settled in for the night. The hospital was still some distance away, but in the blanket of pitch-black nightfall, Kate felt the first band of anxiety unfurl around her stomach. She was close to Nanny. For tonight, that was enough.
“…ain’t that life, the first vacation I take in years, and it’s to a climate colder than our own,” Penny said, walking out of the adjoining bathroom, her wet hair signaling a recent shower.
Kate, looking at the window, staring at the lights of the city she once called home, laughed, but it wasn’t filled with humor.
“Do you miss it here?” M.T. asked, slipping under the covers of the bed she and Penny were sharing for the night. They’d gotten a room with two queen-sized beds; it went without saying that Kate would take the other one for herself.
Kate’s shoulder hitched uneasily. “I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes, I guess.” Turning away from the scenery, a sad smile graced her face. “I missed her. She was part of every good memory I have of this place”
“Tell me about her,” M.T. insisted.
And Kate did. “She joined our household when I was six years old. She looked just the way you’d imagine an English nanny might…plump, middle-aged, iron-grey hair pulled into a tight bun…”
“Does she have an accent?” Penny asked sleepily.
Kate considered this for a moment. “Yes…but it’s not as noticeable as when she first moved here.”
“What did you two do together?” M.T. asked, prompting Kate along. In times like this, the best distraction was talking about the happier times, remembering the good instead of dwelling in the fear of what could lay ahead…
Kate’s eyes softened. “We did everything together. We built fords in the house with old sheets, hunted for bugs in the backyard. We’d slay dragons in the afternoon, using sticks as swords and pillows as monsters. Sometimes she’d snuck me out to get an ice-cream cone. That was strictly secret,” Kate said, lost in her memories now. “If my mother had known…well, if mother had known half the stuff Nanny Moore allowed, she wouldn’t have lasted a week.”
“She was a rebel.” M.T. said
Kate smiled. “Oh yeah…and I was her faithful sidekick. I mean, she still made me do my homework, and I had chores to get done but…she used to say there was a time for work and a time for play, and enough hours in everyday for both.”
“Sounds like she loved you a whole lot.”
“And I loved her. She was my savior.”
At 8:30 the next morning, a solemn Kate led Penny and Maggie to the bank of elevators standing guard at the front of St. Ann’s hospital. She’d already seen to the receptionist. Nanny was on the 8th floor, room 822. Riding inside the cold metal box as it ascended the commanded height, Kate tired to level her breathing.
It had been almost nine months since she’d seen her beloved Nanny; Kate felt guilty about that. In her selfish desire to get away, she’d never considered all that she was leaving behind. She’d never considered this. Nanny was edging eighty, but somehow in Kate’s mind she’d never been allowed to really age from the woman she was all those years ago, when she’d first opened the imposing door to the McDonald house, her smiling eyes meeting those of the shy, nervous little girl standing before her. Nanny had always been there, the one constant in Kate’s life.
And now she was sick.
“Kate, it’s going to be okay,” M.T. murmured softly, her hand sweeping comforting circles on the girl’s back. Kate looked bad today. No amount of concealer could hide her sleepless night; no rogue could disguise the paleness of her cheeks.
“I hope so,” she whispered as the doors ahead of them whooshed open, opening gracefully on the cardiac ward. Stepping out of the elevator and down the accompany corridor there, Kate hardly noticed the beige walls with their neutral paintings, depicting calm, peaceful landscapes, her eyes intent on the plastic door signs she passed: 816…818…820….
Coming to a halt, Kate stopped to collect herself for a just a moment before knocking.
“Come in.” The voice which answered didn’t sound like that of the Nanny Kate remembered. It was too weak, too frail, too devoid of the energy that lady always had in abundance.
Poking her head inside the semi-private room, Kate’s nervous eyes searched for, and quickly located, that of her childhood friend: snowy hair hanging limply around a flaccid, too-still body. Without realizing she’d even moved, within seconds Kate found herself closing the distance between them, shakily reaching for the thin hand resting at the side of the hospital bed.
“Nanny! Oh Nanny,” she wailed, bending down o kiss the paper-thin cheek on display.
“Poppet!” Nanny breathed, her fingers holding tightly to Kate’s hand. “What are you doing here? If they find out…it’ll blow your cover.”
“Who cares,” Kate cried, and she meant it. “You’re the only thing that matters right now. Oh, I’ve been so worried! How are you? Are you all right?”
Nanny scowled. “It’s this damn ticker. If it weren’t for that, I swear I’d live forever.”
Kate blanched at the reminder. “What happened?”
But Nanny Moore brushed this question aside. “Kate, where are your manners?” she tut-tutted. “You’ve yet to introduce me to the lovely women who followed you inside.”
Faltering, Kate looked over her shoulder to where a hesitant M.T. and Penny stood, hovering just inside the doorway. “Forgive me. Nanny—these are my friends, Maggie and Penny.”
Waving them forward, Kate continued: “Penny, Maggie, this is my nanny.”
“Hello,” Penny and Maggie said in unison.
Nanny smiled in welcome. “Yes, yes, hello; I’ve heard so much about you two,” she announced, coughing a little over the words. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”
“I only wish it could have been under better circumstances,” M.T. said, smiling gently in greeting.
“Kate speaks very highly of you,” Penny seconded.
Nanny inclined her head in acknowledgement of this. “I watched her grow up. I like to think, in some small way, I helped contribute to the beautiful woman she is today—”
“Oh, you did!” Kate insisted tearfully.
Nanny went on as though Kate hadn’t interrupted. “For many years, it was my job to protect Kate; somehow, I never learned how to stop doing that. So I don’t mind telling you how worried I was when she up and decided to move out to Whestleigh, a town she didn’t know, all alone in the world,” Nanny’s voice was gruff, hard but on the next words, it softened: “But then she wrote to me about these two women she’d met…these silly, crazy, amazing women, and suddenly I knew: I wasn’t the only person protecting her anymore. She tells me you’re the best friends she’s ever had. You don’t know how good it did my heart to hear that.”
Kate blushed. Even after all these years, Nanny still possessed the power to render Kate speechless in embarrassment. Neither M.T. nor Penny seemed fazed by this response however.
“But who’s taking care of you, that’s what I’d like to know? Who’s protecting you?” Kate wailed, and those feelings of guilt she’d experienced earlier came back to haunt her again.
Nanny frowned. “Don’t be silly, the doctors are. Why, do you think you could do their jobs better?” she challenged.
Kate sighed. “That’s not what I meant. This time around, I’m the one who’s worried.”
Nanny only stared up at her with guileless eyes. “Well, enough of that. All the worry in the world isn’t going to change anything, it’ll just make you grey faster,” came the wise reply.
“But it’s okay for you to worry about me?” Kate returned hotly.
Nanny Moore grinned. “Exactly. You were my charge. It was in my very job description.”
“That’s not fair.”
Nanny smiled. “What’s that expression: do as I say, not as I do? Kate, if there’s one thing I never got around to teaching you it’s this: don’t over-think everything so much. That brain of yours, no matter how powerful, can’t write the future, or rewrite the past.”
Kate had her mouth open in retort to this when another’s voice rang out…
The questioning exclamative came from somewhere near the room’s entrance; in their excited chatter, no one had noticed the shadow filling the doorway. Kate’s words dying on her lips, the previous conversation was brought to an abrupt end as four pairs of eyes swiveled around, following the sudden, unexpected sound.
Standing, silhouetted in the fluorescent lighting of the hallway behind her, was a tall distinguished woman. Hair piled high on her head, she wore a plum-colored suit, the fine material making the most of her fit body. If it weren’t for her fingers, strangling the sides of a bouquet of flowers she held in her hands, she would have passed as a flawless.
Penny’s eyes slithered suggestively to Maggie’s.
Kate’s eyes, however, never strayed from the mysterious woman before them. Straightening her back, the movement slow, stiff, Kate brought herself up to her full height. For a moment, no one spoke, they just stared, Kate’s eyes wide with fear, the woman’s with dead disbelief.
Finally, chin tipped up a notch or two, a look of unconscious arrogance flitting across her expression, Kate spoke, her words quiet, resigned. “Hello, mother.”
“I knew it,” Penny hissed softly to Maggie, but no one heard her quiet victory. All eyes were glued to the sign unfolding before them.
Dropping the now-forgotten bouquet to the ground, Calida McDonald, for perhaps the first time in her life, didn’t stop to think before acting—she didn’t counsel decorum, didn’t give a damn about convention. Instead, she ran, her arms outstretched, straight into Kate’s immobile body. Wrapping her daughter tightly into her arms, Calida’s body shook with the force of her feelings: “Oh Kate—I’m so sorry! Please forgive me. I’m so sorry!”
Stunned, Kate brought her arms cautiously around her mother’s thin body. “Mom?”
“We’ve been so worried—where have you been?” Tears Kate had never seen shed fell from her mother’s eyes, messing with her carefully done mascara. “Don’t—it doesn’t matter, you’re here now. You’re here now.” Pulling back, Calida’s hands caressed the sides of Kate’s face, framing her cheekbones. “I’ve missed you, oh God, how I’ve missed you. Please don’t runway again…I’m so sorry!”
Maggie’s eyes went round. Penny held her breath.