Shoulders racking with the force of her sobs, Kate reached blindly for her phone. She was hardly thinking straight. How could she possibly think straight after reading something like that? Dialing Penny’s number, she prayed the psychic wasn’t in the middle of a consult.
“Uh…hello?” Penny answered after the third ring. If Kate hadn’t been so upset, she’d have been immediately alerted to the distracted tone of voice. As it was, Kate was too upset to notice.
“Penny—” Kate warbled.
“Kate? Kate, are you alright?” Taking herself quickly into the kitchen, Penny’s voice came out low, hushed. Unbeknownst to Kate, she wasn’t at her office. Something had held her up…
“Penny, did you know Emily?”
“Emily?” Penny blinked, her mind blank.
“Jackson’s wife…his late wife, Emily?” Kate amended, impatiently wiping away the track of tears pooling underneath her eyes, around her nose. She was calmer now, the howl of her wailing diminished now to a whimpering snivel.
Penny looked back over her shoulder, toward the darkened living room. Moving further into the kitchen, she worked hard to follow Kate’s rambling. “Oh. Emily. Yes, I knew her.” Penny smiled sadly in memory. She hadn’t thought of Emily in a long time.
“Who told you about Emily?” Penny asked diverted.
“Jackson did. Kind of,” Kate said abstractedly. “It was a memoir he wrote—from that writing class he teaches—you know the one, at the LitLiber. It’s all about her, about Emily.”
“I see,” Penny said; she wasn’t entirely sure she followed Kate’s muddled explanation, but she figured the details weren’t necessary.
“Do you—did you know her well?” Kate felt compelled to ask.
Penny sighed. “Yeah, pretty well. She was wonderful person, Kate. Everyone liked Emily—and I’m not just saying that because she’s dead now. You would have liked her too, I’ll bet,” Penny predicted, her eyes glazing over with nostalgia. “Let’s see, she loved to garden; she had the most beautiful rose beds. And she sang in a wedding cover band during the summers. She was good people, kind and open. She was one of my first customers, as it happens; despite the town’s then leery appraisal of me and my offbeat ways, Emily stopped in to have a Reading done. That was when she and Jackson were trying to…” Penny hesitated.
“When they were trying to have kids,” Kate guessed.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It was in the memoir,” Kate said sadly.
“If only they’d been able to have a baby…” Penny mused wonderingly. Jackson would have cherished that child.
“And the car accident?” Kate asked haltingly, morosely.
“It was devastating,” Penny admitted. “The whole town was in mourning…Emily was so young, she had so much life in her yet. After the wreck, she was pronounced in critical condition—her injuries were bad. The crash, it was graphic, terrible. The doctors weren’t hopeful but Jackson—how do you stand by and watch your wife quietly die? His punishment was perhaps the worst of all.” Swallowing thickly, batting away the excess moisture rushing to her eyes, Penny stifled back her tears. Just the memory of it all…
Kate sniffled. “He really loved her.”
Penny pursed her lips. “Yes. He did,” she said simply, but there was a wealth of meaning behind those words.
“Why didn’t you tell me about her?” Kate asked. “You should have told me about her.” The accusation was strong.
Penny shrugged. “I guess I didn’t think it was mine to share.”
“But…you, you’re the one who kept pushing me toward him! You made me—”
Leaning back against the counter, Penny looked down at her bare feet. “I know, you’re right,” she agreed. “I should have told you. It’s just…he’s different around you. He’s carefree and goofy and he’s flirtatious. I didn’t ever think I’d see him that way again…”
“So this was all for him. All of your match-making, it was for him?” Kate asked bluntly.
“No,” Penny disagreed. “Kate—no! I thought, you appeared to reciprocate those feelings. I just didn’t want to spoil it, that’s all. I was afraid, if you knew, it would all be tainted somehow. You two are good together…”
“Apparently not. He doesn’t want to be with me,” Kate said.
“This letter, it says it all. He’s a man who’s broken, still desperately in love with his wife, living each day just to honor her memory.”
“Kate, give him time.”
Kate laughed hollowly. “Give him time? Penny, she died six years ago! And reading his memoir, you’d swear it was six days ago. He hasn’t even begun to heal; he’s grieving her death just as strongly now as the morning she passed away. ”
Rubbing a hand tiredly against her eyes, Penny tried again: “Oh believe me Kate, he’s definitely healing. The way he is around you…”
“But that’s just it,” Kate cried, “he’s not! He doesn’t know if can ever feel for someone the way he did for Emily. Not ever again. He doesn’t know if he wants to. He’s…it, my heart breaks for him.”
“Oh, Kate, I’m sorry—”
“No. No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Kate countered, exhaling deeply. Pinching her fingers against the bridge of her nose, she continued: “I didn’t mean to yell at you. This is not your fault. I just—it was a shock, learning about her.”
“I’m sure,” Penny started to say. She was interrupted from this by a noise coming from the living room. Jumping to attention, pushing away from the counter, when Penny spoke next, her voice was rushed, agitated: “Ah Kate…I-I have to go. Something’s just…uh, I have to go—”
“Is everything all right?” Kate asked worriedly; Penny’s sudden frazzle was disarming.
“Yeah, yeah,” Penny insisted, her feet shuffling soundlessly across the laminate flooring. “You’ll be all right now?”
“Of course,” Kate assured her.
“I’ll call you later,” Penny promised vaguely.
“Sure,” Kate said, but she was already talking to the dial tone.
Hurriedly rounding the corner of the hall, Penny’s eyes went pointedly to the couch. M.T.’s unconscious body was still laying there, a blanket half-on, half-off her body, right where Penny had left her when Kate called. She was moving restlessly in her sleep now which meant she’d probably wake up soon. Retreating quietly back to the kitchen, Penny went in search of a cookbook…the pastor would need something to ward off what would undoubtedly be a humdinger of a hangover.
Penny’s intuition had been correct. Something was wrong with Maggie. At first, she’d thought her worries groundless; after the reading two days ago, when repeated attempts to contact Maggie went unanswered, Penny had decided to drive over to the hotel where her ex-step-sister was staying, stop by for a quick check-in. Knocking loudly on her door, calling out Maggie’s name, Penny had been pacified when she’d heard, through its thick structure, her sister’s voice: “Go away,” she’d yelled groggily.
And so Penny had left; Maggie was fine. Probably sick from overindulgence but clearly fine. Chalking it up as nothing more than a reckless, if uncommon, night on the town, Penny had gone home with a clear conscience. So Maggie had gone out, so she’d gotten a little drunk—who hadn’t been there before? No big deal. Pastor’s could consume alcohol. They weren’t perfect. Maybe Maggie’d had a tough day. Whatever, she was done listening to the gossip of bored townsfolk.
But yesterday, her fears had returned tenfold. It’d been almost ten o’clock when she’d gotten the call. Ben Sneed, an old high school friend, and the current owner of a bar just outside of town, had contacted Penny: apparently Maggie had gone out again…this time at his watering hole. It seemed she’d taken to the bottle again and was, to put it lightly, smashed. Again. He was concerned for her safety. “You’re family right? Can you come and pick her up?” he’d asked.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” Penny had assured him, reaching for her purse without second thought.
When she’d entered the bar, Penny found Maggie half-asleep against its counter, her head resting haphazardly in one hand, her eyes bloodshot. Pulling out the stool beside her, Penny spoke softly, rousing M.T from her inane mumblings. “Maggie…it’s Ruthie. Hey, it’s time to go home. Put on your coat, let’s go.”
But Maggie had only shaken her head to this. “Ruthie, what are you doing here?” she’d slurred. “No, no, stay. Have a drink with me.”
Penny had looked on helplessly to Ben, who’d only shrugged in return.
“Let’s go home,” she’d repeated.
“I don’t want to.”
The normally pacifist Maggie wasn’t in the mood to make nice. In the end, it had taken both Ben and Penny’s combined efforts to remove Maggie from the establishment and into Penny’s car. Distraction hadn’t worked; the refusal of service had only spurred her on; so Penny had stooped to deception, convincing Maggie she was going to take her to another bar. The lie had done the trick and, as luck would have it, Penny had barely driven five miles down the road then when Maggie had blacked out.
Afraid to just drop Maggie off at back the hotel, leave her all by herself—especially in that condition, Penny decided Maggie could sleep it off at her own place. It had taken all Penny’s strength just to drag her dead weight from the car inside, but somehow she’d managed it. Necessity was a strong motivator. Setting her up on the couch, covered in blankets, Penny had made herself comfortable on a bamboo-framed chair, positioning it until she was facing the floral-patterned sofa M.T. was snoring all over. She sat there all night, awake, keeping watch over her sister.
Now, with heavy bags under her eyes, she searched aimlessly around her cupboards, gaining ingredients, devising a homemade cocktail to hopefully alleviate what would undoubtedly be a terrible morning for M.T. In retrospect, it was probably the continued opening and closing of the cabinets, the jostle of silverware, the slight clinking of a spoon ringing against the sides of a glass, which had finally woken M.T. from her fitful sleep, but next thing Penny knew, she wasn’t alone in the kitchen.
Glancing up, she tried to smile at the haggard looking woman leaning so pitifully against her wall. “Good afternoon. I was wondering when you’d finally get up,” she teased softly.
M.T. groaned. “Yeah…how did I get here? What are you making? Is that what was so loud?” she asked, with a barbed look toward the liquid concoction in Penny’s hand.
“Oh this,” Penny said, looking down at the tumbler glass herself. The drink looked funny, almost an orangish-brown color, and the consistency was chunky. “It’s a hangover cure. Drink it,” she prompted.
“It looks disgusting,” M.T. said rudely. Penny ignored it, however. It was hardly the time to correct manners. “What’s in it?”
Penny shrugged. “How should I know? A little of this, a little of that. Drink it,” she repeated, more forcefully this time. “And when you’ve finished, we’re going to have a little talk.”
“A talk?” M.T. asked through pursed lips.
“Yeah, I want to know what the hell has been going on with you lately.”
M.T. shifted. “I had too much to drink last night, that’s all.”
“It wasn’t just last night,” Penny said knowingly, and at M.T.’s surprised look, added, “Whestleigh is a small town or did you forget that?”
Maggie grimaced. Penny frowned. She hadn’t meant to scold.
“Come. Sit. Talk,” Penny said, invitingly now, leading the way out to her dinky dining room.
“You’re being awfully nice to me,” Maggie said not unkindly, following closely behind her. “The last time I was here, you would have been happy to never have another conversation with me again.”
Penny could hardly disagree with her. “Well, things change. I may not like you a whole lot but you’re family…family takes care of family.”
Maggie bit down hard on the words, instead focusing on pulling out her chair without spilling the nasty looking drink in her hand. “Thank you for taking care of me last night. I…I don’t remember much,” she said. Brining the glass up to her mouth, Maggie managed a small swallow. Judging from the sour expression on her face, it left something to be desired.
“God, that’s terrible,” she sputtered.
“Yeah, it didn’t look very enticing,” Penny conceded.
“I got a letter from the church where I used to preach—the one I worked at before moving here, that is,” M.T. said without preamble, the words seemingly torn from her without conscious thought.
“Okay.” Penny folded her arms across the table. She could only assume there was a point to that otherwise worthless remark.
“They want me to come back.” M.T. twirled the glass slowly in her hands. “That’s what the letter said anyway. They want me to come back,” she whispered, haunted.
Penny stared at M.T. uncomprehendingly.
“That’s why,” M.T. admitted uncomfortably.
M.T. set her glass down. It was three sips shy of being full still. “Why I was out last night…why I’ve been out the last few nights,” M.T. confessed.
“Because of a letter from a church?” Penny asked incredulously.
M.T. shrugged. “There are certain, uncomfortable memories I have, associated with that church.”
“I met a man while I was there—Carl Denny.”
“It’s always about a man,” Penny interrupted, tisk-tisking with sympathy.
M.T. gave her a hard look. “Not quite,” she informed her coolly.
“Oh! Oh,” Penny returned clumsily, reading the other woman’s sharp condescension only too well. Clearly, she’d got it wrong. Uncomfortable under that shrewd stare, Penny had the grace to blush. “Right. I’ll just let you tell the story then, how about that?” she asked rhetorically, self-consciously.
Maggie sighed. Her head ached.
“So, you met a guy?” Penny prompted when the silence had stretched too long.
Maggie’s eyes narrowed—in memory or annoyance Penny wasn’t certain. Regardless, it got her talking again: “Yes, Carl,” Maggie murmured. “Carl was different. He didn’t officially belong to the church, he didn’t officially belong anywhere. Homeless, later diagnosed schizophrenic, though I didn’t know it at the time, he just showed up one Sunday morning and never quite left. I don’t think he had anywhere else to go—and we didn’t ask awkward questions.
“He wouldn’t talk to anyone, wouldn’t look anyone in the eye, he’d just mumbled quietly to himself, shivering…. But anytime there was something going on, whenever the church doors were open, he would be there.”
“Sounds like a rough life,” Penny said quietly, staring down at her clasped hands.
“To compliment a tough man,” Maggie agreed. “I had to fight my parishioners for his welcome; they wanted to kick him out. He scared the children, he scared the adults. He was dirty, unfriendly, he was a reality they didn’t want to believe existed. But I stood my ground, I refused to allow for his removal. We were a church founded on the principle of grace, of forgiveness, of acceptance. He would be received by all. Period.”
The decision hadn’t made M.T. popular, but her congregants hadn’t known of any defense against her words. So they’d begrudgingly given into her demands. No one sat beside Carl on Sunday mornings. No one asked him to volunteer. No one offered a seat at their table during fellowship, but no one asked him to leave, either.
M.T. went it alone. She’d purposefully track him down after her weekly sermons, ask him how he was. He’d rarely answer her directly: once he’d told her his pants were suffocating him, another time that he’d always wanted a pet rock. Sometimes he’d ramble nonsensically; sometimes he wouldn’t react to her presence at all and other times…a man of severe mood swings, sometimes he’d tell her to just shut the hell up—that he hated her. But M.T. recognized a man who was hurting, who was needful, and she couldn’t turn her back on that. So she would sit beside him during coffee hour, she would invite him to fundraisers, concerts, breakfasts. And he always came.
“We went on this way for quite some time. After awhile, the congregation stopped seeing him as some foreign objection, they stopped whispering whenever he walked by. I thought things were finally starting to shift, taking to a state of quiet acceptance, of renewed favor,” M.T. shook her head, “but then, one Sunday afternoon, just I was ready to believe this, everything changed.”
“Maggie? What happened?” Penny asked when it appeared her sister wouldn’t go on.
“In the middle of my sermon, Carl stood up.” She could still see his body springing so suddenly into action. “He stood up and started shouting—quoting verses from Psalm 12; a controversial piece, it’s often a biblical passage of contention for believers,” Maggie said on a tangent.
“Sure,” Penny agreed, but she hadn’t the slightest idea what Psalm 12 was even about. She’d look it up later.
“Over and over again he yelled: ‘They speak vanity every one… flattering lips…a double heart…. The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things….’ Then, slipping out from behind the pew, he marched into the aisle way, arm outstretched, finger pointing directly at me.”
“What…?” Penny murmured, shocked at the mere image.
“He starting moving, ranting and raving all the while, pledging that if the Lord wouldn’t cut off flattering lips, than he would! The congregation, myself, we were all momentarily frozen in surprise, in shock at what was going on before us. Before I could react, before anyone could act, he’d already advanced onto the altar, his hands curled up in fists as he’d approached the pulpit, behind which I was standing.” The words were flat, emotionless.
“Maggie, did he—?” Penny was almost afraid to voice the question aloud.
“I don’t remember everything that happened next, just snatched moments here and there,” M.T. admitted, as though it were something to apologize for. “However, I do remember raising my hands up defensively when he reached me. I remember telling him it was okay, trying to soothe his obvious anger, pleading with him to calm down.”
“Shut up. I hate you. I hate you!” He’d screamed, one hand snaking out and grabbing hold of her hair.
“I remember how hard he tugged on that fistful in his hand, my head snapping back, forced to look up into his face,” M.T. said, her words mechanical, rehearsed. “I remember his eyes, how much anger and pain and hurt there was, locked away deep inside their depths.”
He’s swung her around then, to face the congregation.
“I remember the look on their faces…fear, complete and utter fear and maybe just a little self-righteousness; they’d known it all along. Carl was bad news. They’d tried to warn me, but would I listen?”
From the back of the sanctuary M.T. had spied three men quietly gain their feet, a matching look of retribution stamped across their expressions, as they made their way purposely closer, following Carl’s earlier steps. Heaving a sigh of relief, for just a moment, M.T. had felt the beginnings of hope. They were coming to save her, free her. They were coming to restrain Carl, put an end to this assault.
“I remember how those men looked when, without warning, they just stopped…stopped walking toward me, a mask of terror crossing their faces when their steps faltered. Their attention had been taken, their courage abandoned, robbed by the presence of something far more sinister than Carl himself. I heard a collective gasp ripple across the crowd, followed by an inhaled scream…
“I remember the moment I saw the gun in Carl’s hand. Apparently, he’d had it stuffed into the back of his pants, brandishing it only at the foiled rescue attempt….”
Penny choked back a desire to scream herself.
M.T. continued without notice. “Waving it wildly in the air, I remember him proclaiming it his deed to cease of the ungodly!” Knocking Maggie to her knees, he’d commanded she be punished for her sins.
“I remember the feel of the hard floor against my legs, the scratchy texture of the carpet where it rubbed against my nylons. I remember the feel of that metallic weapon; Carl kept caressing my face with it, almost petting me with it.”
Swallowing thickly, Penny suppressed a desire to puke.
“I remember watching helplessly as the congregation watched on…they were stuck motionless, paralyzed, unwillingly witnesses to an intended murder. Mother’s desperately hushed their children, turning young heads into the folds of their skirts, shielding against what was yet to come. They were just as much a victim as myself.
“So what happened next?” Penny asked thinly.
“The church housed a complex intercom system and on Sunday mornings all the speaker’s in all the rooms—particularly the nursery and the kitchen—were linked to my microphone. It was a young confirmand student, volunteering to watch the kids in the nursery, who, listening, had realized that something was wrong. She’d heard the shrieks, the screams… Sneaking down the hallway, she’d peered inside the half-glass screen of the sanctuary doors. Then she’d called 911.”
“Maggie…” Penny reached out, grabbing for both her sister’s hands.
“Not much had changed by the time help arrived,” M.T. supposed. “Carl was still talking, mumbling about how much damage my words caused; didn’t I know how much I hurt him? It was time for me to go—time to end my wretched weakness. I was still kneeling beneath his gun, sweat blinding me now from everything else.
“I don’t really know what happened next. I didn’t even know the police were there until…. They’d entered from the sacristy door, which was located behind us. Neither Carl nor I suspected a thing. One minute I was praying for my life and the next I heard a voice telling Carl to put the gun down!”
Chills racing up and down her arms, Penny wasn’t sure what to say. She didn’t feel equipped to deal with such a monumental happening. “So that’s why you came here. That’s why you came to Whestleigh.”
Maggie gestured weakly. “It was one of the reasons.”
Penny nodded quietly, trying to absorb this bombshell of information.
“I’ve tried so hard to forget what happened that day. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t look at them—any of them. It was too much.” M.T.’s look begged Penny to understand. “That sanctuary was no longer a place of safety. Not for me. And I knew, I couldn’t be a good reverend, not there. So I left. I did a cowardly thing and I left. I wasn’t the only one in crisis. All of my worshippers that Sunday…the church was rocked, reeling desperately in response to this atrocity. They needed me to guide them, to counsel them back to a place of peace and godliness, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that. I—I was too shattered to even contemplate putting them back together. I couldn’t be the reverend they needed, the reverend they deserved, and they could no longer be my solace in a world of disbelief.”
“It’s okay Maggie,” Penny consoled, squeezing her hand.
“Until I got that stupid letter, I’d begun to think I was putting it behind myself,” M.T. considered derisively. “In reality, I’d never stopped running away.”