Hobbling carefully, her arms sturdy against the uncomfortable padding of her crutches, Kate made her way slowly into her kitchen. The soft click of the front door closing behind M.T.’s reluctant form ringing from the hall, Kate frowned. She was hungry. She hadn’t realized just how hungry when she’d more-or-less pushed the hovering pastor out the door; in retrospect, she should had her stay just a little while longer…but then again, if Maggie suspected Kate couldn’t even so much as make dinner she never would’ve agreed to leave Kate to her own devices.
Propping her body up against the counter, Kate fumbled a frying pan out from the cupboard. Eggs and toast. That’s what she’d make herself. Eggs and toast were easy, even for a woman with a sprained ankle. Plugging in her toaster oven, Kate spent the next few minutes fumbling about, gathering the required ingredients: milk, bread, eggs, butter, cheese…
Placing a skillet on the stovetop, Kate smiled wistfully. It had been quite a day. Sure, her ankle throbbed, but having Jake carry her out of the LitLiber, a look of frantic concern etched across his face had almost been worth it….
It had happened that morning, during the first hour of her shift at the bookstore. It was Thursday, and like all Thursdays, it saw the staff busily re-stocking shelves with new arrivals, preparing for a busy weekend. And that’s exactly what Kate had been doing, her arms loaded down with science-fiction novels, when she’d stumbled over the edge of a step-stool. It shouldn’t have been left there, the small step forgotten by an employee who, doing likeminded work as Kate, had been called away suddenly to help a customer.
Tripping hard, one moment Kate was walking quickly across the aisle way and, the next, she was being flung headfirst across the carpeted expanse before her, the books in her hands flying in any direction (some landing with a solid thump against her splayed body there). She’d tried to catch herself, her fingers reaching out for the ledges of the bookshelves, but to no avail. Stunned, for a moment, she’d just lain there, catching her breath.
Her fall had made quite boom of noise and, before she’d even regained the energy to gain her feet, Kate was looking up at Jake, who’d rushed over from his position behind the Customer Service Desk as the riotous sound.
“Jesus, Kate, are you okay?” he asked, bending down on his knee to brush off the bits of books enveloping her. “What happened?”
Kate pulled herself into a seated position. Her butt hurt. Her legs ached. Her foot, however, was all but howling in reaction to this. Grimacing, she hid the evidence of this as best she could. The embarrassment surrounding her—half the staff by this point was circled in witness to her fall—she didn’t have room to focus upon her physical woes.
“I-I tripped,” she said, pointing to the offensive article as she did so. The answering scowl on Jake’s face was fierce.
“Who left this here?” he demanded of the gawking staff. Clearly, someone was about to get their ass chewed.
Kate hadn’t meant to do that. Holding up her hand, she cut him off there. “No, no, it was my fault. I wasn’t looking were I was going. I had too many books in my hands.”
Slowly Jake rotated his gaze back to hers. “Are you okay?” he asked. The anger from just a second again was replaced with a look of genuine concern.
Kate nodded dumbly. She wished everyone would just return to work and leave her to her mortification. “Yes, I’m fine. Really, it was stupid. Sorry for all the ruckus,” she tried to say.
Jake nodded. “All right.” With that he gained his feet. Holding out his hand to her, he added: “Let me help you up.”
Placing her hand in his, Kate was unceremoniously hauled to her feet. Her left boot had barely made contact with the floor, however, when her face blanched. And, before she could help it, a soft cry of pain shot forth from her mouth. Just as quickly as she’d been brought to her feet, Kate felt her body drop back to the floor. She couldn’t stand.
“Kate?” Jake asked, squatting down beside her. “What’s wrong?”
Kate shook her head emphatically. If she just ignored it, refused to allow it to have hold over her… “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Just give me a moment.”
“Is it your foot?” Jake asked suspiciously.
Too late, Kate realized that she’d been unconsciously cradling the throbbing thing against the palm of her hand. Tears pricking against her eyes, Kate nodded in defeat. “Yeah, it’s a little sore from the fall, I guess.”
“Can I take a look at it?” Jake asked, his hand already reaching out to gently take hold of it. Slipping off her shoe, followed shortly by her sock, Jake bent down to examine the swollen, bruised limb in his hands.
Considering the state of her injury (discoloration, inflammation, tenderness), his next words weren’t all that surprising. Kate needed to see a doctor. Immediately.
“It’s probably just a sprain,” Kate had wailed when Jake ordered Jackie, the store supervisor, to bring his car around to the front of the building.
Jake threw her a dark look. “Oh? I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized you’d graduated with a medical degree.”
“No? Then maybe we should leave such diagnoses to someone who has.”
“Jake, really, I’ll be just fine. I don’t want to go to the doctor’s office.”
To this churlish plea, Jake didn’t bother answering. “Put your arms around my neck,” he said instead.
And, despite herself, Kate felt a thrill at the hot demand. Snaking her arms around either side of his shoulder, her trembling fingers clasped one another at his nape. Still, she had her pride…
“Satisfied?” she asked sarcastically, the purpose meant to disguise the reaction his proximity was costing her. Breath trapped in her throat, Kate felt the impact of his own hands curling around her body—the right wrapped around her back, the left cupped underneath her knees. He hugged her close against his chest.
“Exceedingly,” Jake grunted as he gained his feet, his arms tight against her captive body. With that, he lead her out of the building, his movements followed by every pair of eyes in that stupid bookstore.
Jake’s obvious concern as he drove her to the hospital, his gaze as frequently on her pained expression as it was on the road, was nothing compared to the reaction she received an hour later when, exiting the doctor’s private consulting room for the waiting area, her steps awkward with the aid of the foreign crutches, her eyes landed on the agitated movements of M.T. and Penny.
She’d barely made it halfway across the floor when they advanced on her.
“Kate?” Jake’s voice was soft, questioning.
“I knew it! I had a bad feeling this morning…a black premonition. I should have listened to it. I blame myself,” Penny all but swooned, her wrist draped dramatically over her forehead.
“How are you feeling?” Always the pastor, M.T. looked almost mothering.
The questions, barreling one after the other, hit Kate with the force of affectionate and frankly humbly, worry.
“Jake called us right after you’d been admitted,” Penny said, shooting him an appreciative look. “We got here as soon as we could.” It seemed important to Penny that Kate know this.
“You poor thing, does it hurt much?”
“I’m so sorry Kate. I feel responsible for this,” Jake interrupted, running a hand through his unruly hair.
“I took a personal day from work, so I’ll be able to take you home and get you all set up,” M.T. said, rubbing a hand against Kate’s back soothingly.
It was all just a little too much.
Holding up her hand, Kate pushed her voice forward: “Guys! Calm down. It’s just a sprained ankle.” The look she shot Jake echoed the soft strains of an “I Told You So” comeback.
“It could have been worse,” he groaned.
Kate stopped him right there. “But it’s not,” she assured him. “Jake please don’t—accidents happen.”
Penny made a tsking sound. “Accidents are merely portals of divine will.”
Kate screwed up her face—what?
M.T., giving Penny and Jake a pointed look, laughed gently: “Forgive us, Kate. We don’t mean to be overbearing. We were just worried. Still are, in fact.”
Kate nodded solemnly, gratefully. Her hand reached out to clasp that of her dear friend’s. “I know. Thank you for that.”
Jake shook his head, as if still not appeased. “Whatever you need Kate, just say the word. Okay?”
Kate smiled gently. He did look upset. “Just a couple days of rest, according to my doctor.”
“And rest you’ll get, even if it means I’ll have to sit on you!” Penny threatened, ever the theatric.
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Kate returned drily.
“Do you have school today? Would you like me to call any of your professors, explain what happened?”
Kate blanched at M.T.’s question, unused to all the attention. Her own mother wouldn’t have asked that.
“Uh, no. I don’t have school on Thursdays,” she said. Frowning she considered that though she might not have classes that day, she would the following one and it would involve multiple flights of stairs. Blocking the unnerving thought, Kate figured she had time to figure that out yet. Either way, M.T. was not calling the college on her behalf. Kate might not walk well, but her ability to speak hadn’t yet deserted her.
“Okay. Good.” M.T. nodded firmly, a woman in charge of her domain. “Let’s get you home then.” The words didn’t brook any argument. Kate was expected to meekly compel.
Taking his cue, Jake hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the parking lot, signaling his intent to depart, as well. “Yeah, I should probably get back to the store. You’re sure you don’t need anything?” he asked again, his voice beseeching.
“I’m fine,” Kate assured him again. “Really.”
“But, you’ll call if…?”
“I’ll call,” Kate lied. She absolutely would not call Jake if she needed help with anything. That would be the epitome of humiliation. Kate McDonald was a burden to no man. (Penny and M.T. on the other hand….)
Besides, a small mean little voice in the back of her head piped in, wasn’t Jake the one who’d called in the cavalry? Not a stupid man, Jake had to have known that doing so would effectively rid him of further ‘Kate Duty’. Probably, he was anxious to wipe his hands of the whole mess, conscience cleared by the presence of her newfound caretakers—caretakers he’d seen to himself, caretakers he wasn’t numbered amongst.
Dismissing the thought as ungrateful, Kate offered him a last line of farewell before turning her attention back to Penny, who was going on and on about the dark energy which surrounded hospitals.
“We should probably get you out of here while it’s only a sore ankle,” she insisted, her eyebrows arched comically. “It’s almost a full moon. Energy has increased power during that cycle.”
Somehow Kate refrained from rolling here eye.
Penny hadn’t been able to stay at Kate’s long. She had a meditation session scheduled for three o’clock that afternoon and, though she’d oscillated back and forth between canceling, neither M.T. nor Kate would hear of it. The psychic needed every paying customer she could fine. Plus, Kate had explained, with some exasperation, it was only a sprained ankle. She wasn’t an invalid or anything! M.T., on the other hand, had been a little more difficult. If Kate hadn’t insisted on some alone time—she’d promised to use the time to rest, keep her foot elevated, take a nap, anything to persuade Maggie— she doubted the pastor would have left her at all.
Now, standing over her stove, spatula in hand as she scrambled the eggs, Kate began to regret her hasty decision to be left unaccompanied. For one thing, bereft of her usual mobility, she wasn’t sure how she’d pass the night. Clicking through one television show after another held little appeal and just the thought of sitting down over homework was enough to send her yawning… Conversation with Maggie would have passed the time nicely. For another, cooking was proving slow-going and less then efficient.
It was her pride, Kate knew, reaching clumsily for the milk. She hated the thought of putting anyone out, for any reason. She hated knowing her situation would prove an inconvenience to someone else…that she’d been a drain on someone’s generosity. Most especially though, she despised the notion that she was weak, lacking in some way. So she’d asked to be left alone. And that was that.
Kate was still deep in these thoughts when the buzzer on her toaster oven went off. Startled from her reverie Kate jerked, the action sending one of her crutches out from under her arm, spinning across the floor. Clanking hard against the hardwood there, it landed with a whack, just out of her reach. The fingers of one hand gripping the lip of the counter, Kate was forced to shimmy forward as best she could, closer to the fallen object. Moving with two crutches was tough. One was damn near impossible.
The buzzer sounded again.
Desperate—the toast could be smelt burning—Kate used the length of the crutch she still possessed in attempts to recover its missing counterpart. Putting this leverage to good use, she tried to hook the cushioned rubber tip of the one crutch against the adjustable hand grip of the other, in attempts to bridge this divide. She’d just about done it but, in her haste, Kate’s hand flinched, inadvertently sending the prop even farther away. Crying in frustration, she tried again, her body leaning precariously forward…!
By the time Kate had regained her crutch, the toast was past the point of no return and worse, the smoke detector had gone off. And so, college notebook in hand, Kate soon found herself standing impatiently beneath the wailing alarm, her hand waving frantically to clear the haze circulating the room. The eggs, frying forgotten on the stove, had hardened beyond consumption by this point; in consequence, small wisps of grey vapors spiraled up from underneath the pan there, floating toward the ceiling. Kate was too busy to notice.
That’s when the knock sounded at the door.
Sighing impatiently, Kate was almost glad for the disruption. It was probably Penny, finished with her client. Thank god. Kate could use a little help here. Unwilling to leave her station, Kate called out loudly, when the rapping at the door only continued to intensify in volume: “Just come in already. Doors open.”
Only, it wasn’t Penny who answered back. It wasn’t Penny who, bidden entrance, came
trudging up the split entryway, her voice fighting to be heard above the din: “Is everything all right in there?”
Kate cringed, her stomach dropping. No, it definitely wasn’t Penny at the door. It was Anne Ganthy. Kate could pick her querulous voice out of a crowd.
“Just peachy!” Kate hollered back, her own voice dripping with distain. Please go away. Please go away.
“Well!” Anne huffed, sailing into view then, “how rude! Your alarms have been going off for quite some time…do you have any idea how loud and irritating—what are you doing?” she accused, stopping abruptly at the sorry sight before her. Kate, wobbling against the kitchen chair, her bandaged foot dangling off to one side, looked anything but composed.
Composure wasn’t really any option anyway. By this point, the excess smoke had spilled out from the kitchen into the living room and downstairs bathroom, coating the main floor in a fine mist. Kate’s battle against the detector had failed. Instead of just one, now three alarms, from each respective room, were a-singing. Hence, Anne’s apparent desire to drop in.
Kate growled. “I’m doing the best I can here,” she shouted, her overwhelming frustration leaving no room for manners or niceties. “You want silence? Then start fanning!”
“Oh for goodness sakes,” Anne cried, marching over to the kitchen window. Cracking it open, it was then she noticed that the stove was still on, and the enamel frying pan, lying negligently against one of the burners, was melting from overexposure.
Watching her neatly dispose of this fire hazard, Kate grimaced.
“Well get done from there,” Anne demanded then, after relocating the demolished skillet onto a safe surface, turning her attention toward Kate once more. “Before you hurt yourself more than it seems you already have.”
Mute, Kate followed this order. It seemed pointless to argue.
“I’m going to open some more windows, try to get some fresh air in here,” Anne informed her, scuttling off without so much as a by-your-leave.
Steering herself back to the counter, Kate took the liberty of seeing to the toaster oven. The contents inside had to be scraped out. She was in the process of doing this when Anne came back. The smoke detectors had since silenced themselves and, with the cool breeze of the afternoon wafting throughout the house, the room was soon cleared of the cloudy residue her disastrous attempt at dinner had created.
Head hanging low, Kate addressed Anne. “I’m very sorry to have disturbed you. I-I sprained my ankle this afternoon…”
“And lost your ability to cook along the way?” Anne asked crossly.
Kate shrugged. “I hadn’t realized how much it’d hamper the process.”
“Humph.” Anne didn’t look to be in a forgiving mood. Nothing unusual there.
“I know how much you value your peace and quiet….”
“That’s right I do. I’ve almost forgotten what that’s like, since you’ve moved to town,” that woman acknowledged, her hands on her hips now. Then, reluctantly, she nodded toward Kate’s ankle. “What did you do to yourself anyway?”
“I tripped at work this afternoon. It’s nothing serious.”
“Apparently it’s the reason you almost burnt your house down just now. I’d say that’s serious.” Anne wasn’t going to give so much as an inch.
“I’ll order take-out from now on. I promise.”
“Humph,” Anne said again. “That’s no way to eat.”
Kate didn’t have any response to this.
“I’m making chicken parmesan for supper. It’s nothing fancy but it’s isn’t scorched either.” Anne’s face puckered with obvious discomfort.
Kate tilted her head to one side. Was that an invitation? “Oh?”
Anne huffed. “I eat promptly at 6:00pm. Shall I set the table for two?”
Kate could hardly believe her ears. “That’s very kind of you—”
Anne waved Kate’s words aside uneasily. “Simply sparing myself the trouble of standing guard outside your house with a fire extinguisher.”
Kate hid a smile. Behind that crotchety scowl beat the heart of a woman who had, at least a smidge of, kindness inside her. Besides, Kate had the feeling Anne was a good cook. And hadn’t she only just been thinking how nice it would be to have a little conversation….
“Six is perfect. Thank you.”