Now it was Kate’s turn to look shocked, Penny’s words floating across her psyche: “Kate, are you telling me—did Phil? Did he cheat on you?” Stammering in surprise, Kate was nonetheless quick with her denial. “Cheat on me? No! No-no, Phil would never do that.” Early morning streaks of sunlight could be seen now, shining with watery rays over the horizon. Kate didn’t dare look down at her watch to check the time.
Clutching a hand to her heart, Penny took a deep breath, her relief at the news almost palpable. “Okay, then…?”
Kate’s lips twisted. She could still remember the sounds of that night, see the whispered impressions pulsing against her bedroom window: the hurried crunch of cars driving past, the imposing lamplight of a nearby park just faintly visible…She couldn’t breathe, her hands, when she’d pressed them against her aching head felt tingly, almost numb. Phil had been sleeping peacefully beside, his face turned in her direction, the slightest waft of his breath floating across her overwhelmed senses. If he’d woken up in that moment, it would have been to see her eyes wide in a white face, her body hunched forward in a kneeling position. He would have witnessed the stark horror she’d been experiencing.
“Nothing so dire happened, not really. I mean, something happened…” Kate paused for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. “I got a wakeup call, I guess.” Literally and physically.
Penny looked confused.
Kate tried again: “I told you, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to be happy. I had it all—or so everyone thought…”
“And you’d invested time and energy into all that,” Penny prodded.
Kate shrugged. “Yeah, but deep down inside, I knew it was a wasted effort.”
She had Phil had lived in a gorgeous house. Four bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a dining room table that seated twelve people, and a stainless steel kitchen offering every modern convenience: mosaic backsplash, custom-cabinetry, puck lighting, inlaid floor heating…. Phil was well on his way to making partner at work, with Kate as equally successful in her own field of study. They spent their weekends entertaining with friends, sailing, dining out, attending private parties and banquets. She should have been on top of the world.
Only, she didn’t like their friends very much; she was pretty sure Donna was sleeping with Christy’s husband, and Stacey could be downright rude, always picking on Kate’s clothing, condemning her diet, mocking her opinions, her education. And the dining out… it was so staged, so put-upon, their choice of establishments alternating between the trendy and the now. Spontaneity was out, hunger wasn’t considered. Same for the society functions: rooms full of Calida McDonald’s, no escape in sight. It was stifling, boring, intimidating.
Then again…Kate hated going out almost as much as she hated staying in. Phil had decorated the house. His tastes were particular and if there was one area in which he wasn’t a nice man, it was fashion. He’d picked every curtain, every picture, ever knick-knick in the house, and he’d chosen their exact location within each room, too. He didn’t like clutter, he didn’t like chaos. Nothing was ever amiss, nothing was ever moved. Period. Kate had lived there for three years half-afraid to touch anything.
(And that stupid painting, the one Phil had bought her, Kate had wanted to hang it up in their bedroom but he’d only laughed: Absolutely not. It was hideous. Maybe it could hang up in the laundry room, someplace where guests would never have to see it.) That had stung. Kate loved that painting, it held sentimental value, and Phil’s rejection of it had felt personal. She’d thought it meant something to their relationship. His ability to toss it aside so indifferently…. Nevertheless, it sat beside the washing machine, above the folding table. Kate hadn’t dared disagree. It’s not that she feared Phil per se, she just didn’t want to deal with one of his little lectures.
He could be a patronizing ass at times. It was probably the lawyer in him, which stemmed from the lawyer in his father, but Phil hadn’t yet met a fight he didn’t relish arguing his way through. Kate, not so much. She’d rather agree to disagree and move on. It wasn’t completely altruistic on her end either, she just didn’t like fighting. She’d never been allowed to win one. Not with her mother. Not with Phil. Not even about the stupid goddamn vase.
At a work Christmas party two years prior, she’d been gifted a beautiful glass amphora vase by her boss. Feeling reckless, immediately after returning home that evening, she’d set it on the mantelpiece in the living room. She hadn’t asked for Phil’s permission, his input. It was the first time she’d thought to defy him, to decorate unaccompanied. Hell, he did it to her all the time. But she’d barely had time to assess it on the marble surface when Phil sauntered in, his eyes zeroing in on the foreign object and finding fault with its placement. A vase for Christ’s sake!
“It’s cobalt blue,” Phil had stated.
“So?” Kate’d asked, looking rebelliously at him.
“It doesn’t match the color scheme,” Phil had pointed out unnecessarily, waving his arm to encompass the space: distressed leather couch, white shag rug, sandpaper colored throw pillows, a dark maple bookcase. Tying it all together were hints of honey yellow in the wall décor.
“Call it a conversation piece, something to direct the eye,” Kate had pursued doggedly, but she’d already known she’d lost. Phil had been shaking his head even as he’d walked toward her, lifting the vase in his hands.
“I think it would look nice in the bathroom…”
Bringing herself back to the present, Kate locked eyes with Penny, a cup of coffee the sole item between them on the table. Absently, she considered that the other woman must be close to consuming the entire pot by now. A niggling of guilt pricked at the base of her neck with the thought, it was unlikely either of them would get any rest tonight. Kate had classes and Penny well…she had extra-sensory stuff to do, or something.
“September 21st” Kate mused out loud, the words seemingly arbitrary, casual…out of place.
“September 2st?” Penny repeated questioningly. “What’s September 21st?”
Kate smiled sadly. “That was the last evening I spent with Phil.” She snorted derisively. “A typical weekend, spent with the typical crowd, we’d attended a surprise birthday party earlier in the day. It was being thrown for a co-worker of Phil’s, and as such, it was essential that we at least make an appearance.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Everyone was there, all in good spirits. The theme was fiesta—margaritas and sangrias to compliment the Mexican fare, paper lanterns dotting the outside patio….” Kate frowned, getting momentarily lost in reverie. She’d worn a flowing white dress with an embroidered top for the occasion.
“But you didn’t want to go?” Penny asked perceptively.
Kate sighed. “No, I didn’t. I was overwhelmed at work, and I’d wanted to spend the afternoon going through some of the account portfolios piling up on my desk. Work rarely stayed at the office,” Kate admitted ruefully. “Anyway, I’d tried to bow out, but Phil promised we wouldn’t stay late. It hardly mattered though, I was tired, abstracted, preoccupied…it was the middle of a busy period at the firm and I felt overwhelmed with the backlog.”
Penny nodded slowly, absorbed with Kate’s ramblings, storing the bits of information into a mental filing cabinet. There was a reason she was being told all of this. Attempting to marshal them into a semblance of order, she kept quiet.
“Still, to give Phil credit we did leave fairly early, but by then my tension was like a livewire….”
Kate had been fidgety, distracted. It was so noticeable that it gave Phil a headache just from being around her, or at least that’s what he’d claimed when they entered the house that evening, immediately excusing himself from her company. He was going to lay down, close his eyes and relax. He had a busy day in the morning. Kate had barely waved him off, her attention already bent over the spreadsheet she’d left open on the dining room table, her eye’s absorbed, figuring economic trends. When she lifted her head again, it was ten o’clock. Phil was already cocooned in the soft flannel of his pajamas, and claiming his intention to turn in for the night, he sternly recommended she do the same. It wouldn’t do for her to be sleep-deprived tomorrow at the office.
“But nothing really unusual happened. We settled in, had a relatively quiet night and then we just—we went to bed,” Kate continued softly.
It was then that things started to get weird.
It all started with a dream. Kate and Phil were excavating an underground tunnel. They each held a small shovel in one hand, with only a flashlight (attached to their construction hats) throwing a dim patch of light ahead of them as they slowly crawled forward; the passageway was narrow, the width of their shoulders, no taller than the length from knee to head. The air was sticky, heavy, sweet…Inch by inch, they progressed further and further inside…and then, suddenly, without warning, the tunnel came to an abrupt end. Kate and Phil were stuck, staring forward into a wall of suffocating dirt and soil and earth. Kate felt her heart skip a beat then speed up at the sight. They wouldn’t be able to shovel their way through it, either. It was as solid as cement.
“We have to turn around,” she called to Phil over her left shoulder. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure how they’d manage to do that in the tight quarters, but what other option did they have?
“We can’t,” Phil whispered from behind her. There was a distinct edge to his voice…
“We have too,” Kate insisted, her voice pitchy, breathy, high.
“No, I mean, we can’t,” he said, and giving her a little nudge, motioned for Kate to look behind her. The tunnel had collapsed behind them, an avalanche of splintered rock and filth covering the space.
They were trapped!
“It was a nightmare. I had a nightmare. That’s why I left,” Kate told Penny gravely, her voice ominous in the quiet room. She’d woken from it with a terrific jerk, jack-knifing in position. Her breath wheezing out of her mouth so rapidly, Kate hadn’t been able to suck in enough air to calm down. “I’m sure it was a mixture of things: acid indigestion from the spicy food, my nerves at work, the terrible dream…add it all up and voila! Panic attack.”
Scrambling into a seated position, Kate had tried to swallow but her tongue felt thick, her chest shaking, constricting…her heart beating loudly in her ears, drumming thickly against the blood running there. It kept skipping, stopping and then tripping to a start again. “I’d never had a panic attack before; I thought I was dying.” Kate laughed, the sound scratching against her raw throat. “I’m not being dramatic. I actually thought, in those terrifying moments, that I was having a heart attack.” Sweat had beaded out across her forehead and the room had swum before her eyes to a dizzying effect.
“I felt so weak I couldn’t even force the energy to scream for help, to wake up Phil. And as I stared down at his unconscious form, my eyes fierce in an imprisoned body, I kept thinking: this is how I’m going to die? Next to this man? I don’t love him. I don’t even like this bed! How sad: I’m going to die and I wasted my opportunity to live.” Wiping a stray tear off her cheek, Kate went on: “I was so scared, and not because I thought I was leaving this life, but because I didn’t want to fight for what I thought I was leaving. How pathetic! To leave such a desperate legacy behind…no one would ever know who I really was. I kept thinking about who would show up at my funeral; I didn’t want any of them there. They would mourn the passing of a woman who’d never existed. And I resented that. I resented that they would remember me as someone I hated.”
Kate sighed heavily after admitting to this, her head bowed low over the table. Penny raised her hand in comfort but on second thought, let it drop down to her lap once more. She doubted it was what the other woman wanted right now.
“Obviously you didn’t die though,” Penny said instead, refusing to let Kate stall out. The story needed to be told, no matter how painful it was.
Kate nodded, her eyes tracing the grain of the wood before her. “No, I didn’t. After a couple minutes, my heartbeat slowed back down, the air in my lungs filled again…” It had happened almost without Kate being aware of it, her thoughts so focused upon to her impending doom that she’d hardly noticed at first when her body stilled, the blood flowing freely once more throughout, oxygen levels rising adequately, stomach muscles loosening. “And with it my strength came back, a strength I never knew I even had before.”
Without a peep, Kate had snuck out from underneath the covers of the bed. Rising on to her tiptoes, she’d escaped out of the room, her nightgown whispering softly against the hardwood flooring as she raced down the hallway and toward Phil’s home office.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly, yet I knew I was right. I had to leave. I knew if I waited until the morning, if I tried to talk to Phil about how I felt, he’d just argue me into submission. He’d convince me that my feelings were tied to my nightmare, that it was just wedding jitters, that I was being an emotional woman…I knew that the strength of character running through my system wouldn’t be there in the morning. I knew I had to leave,” Kate repeated.
Entering Phil’s office, she’d floundered for a second. “I knew he had a map in there, an old-school atlas of the United States.” Kate’s eyes flicked in Penny’s direction, trying to gauge her listener’s reaction to this incredible tale; she couldn’t read anything on the psychic’s face. “If I was going to runaway, I knew I would need a destination in mind. I told you once before how I ended up in Whestleigh: I let my fingers run blindly across the map and when they stopped they were hovering over this city. Well, that’s the truth. That’s what I did.”
“And Phil?” Penny asked wonderingly
“Phil woke up in the morning to a half-empty bed and a coward’s note,” Kate said cryptically.
I’m so sorry, but I can’t do this. I can’t lie to you, to myself. I can’t marry you. I’m sorry. Know that I wish you nothing but happiness. Please, do the same for me.
All my gratitude, my love,
“You left Phil,” Penny said decisively.
Kate shook her head. “No. I left everything. It wasn’t just Phil I didn’t love; it was everything…my persona, the friends that came along with it. Even my job.” Kate sighed for a moment, sorting her scattered thoughts into words. “It was a foregone conclusion, before I was even out of diapers, that I would enter the investment world. My father was always there, pulling the strings: from my enrollment at college, to my internships, the right networking opportunities, all the way to my position with Banner Investment. And I’d sat by idly letting him—letting everyone but me—live my life. Hell, I don’t even like math,” Kate murmured inanely.
“You quit? Just like that?” Penny asked incredulously. This didn’t sound like Kate.
Kate smiled. “Just like that. I emailed my boss my notice, effective immediately.” No need to stop in, she hadn’t had any personal items stashed there anyway. It was all done, in a matter of minutes, via Smartphone. She didn’t have the convenience of time to offer anything else. “It sounds bad, but in the investment world, any decision to quit is considered effective immediately anyway. Once you state the intent to leave, they want you gone—too much access to confidential information. I wouldn’t be missed. I was barely known.”
“And then you left?” Penny asked.
Kate nodded. “Then I left.”
“You didn’t talk to your parents, your friends? No one?” Penny’s voice was strained, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. In fact, she couldn’t.
“No. I knew they would have convinced me to stay. I couldn’t give them the chance. It wasn’t like they didn’t try afterward…” Phil tried the hardest: voicemails, text messages, emails, all of them demanding to know what was going on, where Kate was, what the hell she was thinking…? “But I didn’t respond, wouldn’t answer back. I know Phil,” Kate pleaded to Penny. “My defection hurt his pride more than anything, it embarrassed him. If I’d thought it was more that that—,” Kate paused jerkily, “but it wasn’t. He had lost control and that wasn’t acceptable to him. Phil never lost control.”
“And your mother?” Penny asked next. She’d never meet Calida McDonald but from what Kate said, she sounded like a law unto herself.
“I haven’t spoken to her either. If they knew where I was—any of them, I wouldn’t stand I chance. I’d be back in Minneapolis and married to Phil before I even knew what was even happening to me.”
Silence descended upon the room after that. Kate’s story was finished. Penny knew the rest. Daylight was streaking through the blinds. With a glance at the alarm clock sitting beside the coffeemaker, Penny noted the time: 4:15 a.m.
“And you’re afraid of anyone ever having that kind of power over you again, right? That’s what scares you. This attraction you feel for Jackson—the attraction you’d feel for anyone—it triggers the reminder of what you worked so hard to leave behind?”Penny asked, bringing the conversation back around, full circle.
Kate shifted restlessly. She’d never thought about it that way before. “I’m not good at asserting myself. You know that. You talk me into things all the time,” Kate said instead.
With the tip of her head, Penny conceded Kate’s point. “Yes…”
“I’m a pushover. I don’t have a backbone.” No doubt because Calida McDonald had wanted it that way, Penny thought silently to herself.
“Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” Penny insisted then, her voice infused with energy, passion, anger even. “You can have a backbone if you want one. You just have to want one.”
Kate opened her mouth, no doubt to refute this, but Penny wasn’t finished talking: “Phil, your mother, everyone from your past told you who you were and you hated that—that’s why you left, right? Stop letting people do that. Stop being a pushover just because other people think you should be one. Tell me, right now, what kind of person do you want to be?”
Kate stared at Penny, dumbfounded.
“Because baby,” Penny continued, her voice softer now, “You can be anyone you want. That strength you felt that night, it didn’t dessert you with the rising of the morning sun. It brought you here, to college, to new friends…Don’t be fooled. You are strong.”
Kate swallowed hard, the tears from earlier making an encore appearance. “I want to be autonomous, multifaceted. I want to be free, fearless: to change, to make mistakes….”
Penny stood up, her joints sore and stiff from the extended period of sitting. Rounding the table, she cupped Kate’s chin in her hand and, tilting her head, forced their eyes to meet. “Then don’t make it about Jackson—make it about you.”
“I’m not sure how,” Kate wailed
Penny smiled lovingly down at her friend, at her best friend. “You’ll learn. I’ll teach you.”
“No,” Penny said, shushing Kate. “Rule Number One: before you start worrying about other people, you take care of yourself. Let Jackson worry about Jackson for the time being. Right now you need to decide what you want Kate?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, if Jackson walked through that door right now, would you want him to kiss you? Don’t worry about what anyone else may think. Just focus on you.”
Chewing on that for a second, Kate tried to imagine him doing just what Penny said, his body coming into view from behind her curtained door, eyes narrowing as they spot Kate, face flooded with desire. With a purposeful stride, he draws nearer. In her mind’s eye, Kate feels her back arch at the sight, her lips responding to the imagined invitation as he comes closer. And then, just as he’s about to reach her, Jackson’s face morphs, twisting…his eyes turning a darker shade of brown, his blonde hair growing dark, unruly, his build exchanged for something huskier… until it’s the likeness of Jake that Kate sees standing before her.
Gasping, Kate’s jaw dropped at the unintended switch but, before she could make comment on this conversion, the apparition changed back, taking on Jackson’s form again. Then Jake. Then Jackson. Jake. Jackson…over and over, it alternated before her eyes.
“Um…Yes,” Kate whispered, but she wasn’t entirely sure to whom she was referring.