With a weary sigh, Kate opened the door to the tutoring room. It had been a week since her midnight tell-all to Penny, and her grades had taken a serious nosedive in the aftermath. She couldn’t seem to focus, her thoughts stuck on repeat; this was why she’d run away from home, so she wouldn’t have to remember, wouldn’t have to evaluate what had gone wrong in her life, so she wouldn’t have to face her decision, guess at whether she’d made a mistake in her defection; so she could forget Phil, her mother, everything. She’d come to Whestleigh to escape but ever since that night….
She’d gotten a C on an exam in Art History last week. It had been a devastating blow. The worst test score she’d ever received. The consequences could extend to her overall grade point average. In order to negate this mishap, Kate needed to ace the class final, a presentation analyzing works from the Dada movement, highlighting their impact on art as it is known today.
She’d done the research. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was in the slideshow presentation she needed to incorporate into the project. When it came to that kind of technology, Kate was lost. Hence her decision to visit the tutoring center. She’d signed up for an hour long study session with a teaching assistant from the computer programming department.
Gaining the lobby of the brick complex, Kate walked up the information counter set up there. She smiled down at the girl working behind the desk. “Hello,” she said in greeting, “my name is Kate. Kate McDonald. I booked time with someone from IT—”
“Kate McDonald…of course,” the girl confirmed, running her finger down the reservation sheet beside her computer. “You will be in room 5. It’s down that hallway,” she said, pointing behind her and to the right.
Kate nodded eagerly, her eyes following the girl’s gesticulation. “Wonderful,” she said distractedly, already moving in that direction. “Thank you,” she threw over her shoulder belatedly.
When she came upon a door marked with a laminated ‘Five’ stamped across its surface, Kate stilled, rolling her shoulders before reaching for the doorknob. She needed to do well here. With that thought firmly in mind, she pushed it open.
In an instant, her eyes took stock of the surroundings: a long table stood in the center of the space, with two computers lined up against the windows on the far side, a long corkboard running the length of the wall opposite them. Posters abounded in every available crevice:
advertising everything from school activities, to political rallies, and even rentals.
It was in the midst of this cursory glance that Kate became aware of another person seated in the room—more specifically, a man, quietly reclining in a padding office chair amongst the clutter. He was staring at her. Conscious of his look, Kate turned to make eye contact. As she did so, the beginning of a blush rushed into blossom across his face….
“Kate,” he announced, pronouncing her name slowly, uncomfortably.
“Simon,” Kate returned just as awkwardly, her voice stilted with surprise and discomfort. Simon Yates. Horrible Date Simon Yates was her tutor?
“Um, take a seat,” he offered weakly.
Kate smiled tightly.
Patting a nervous hand against her hair, Penny silently pleaded for some divine intervention—just this once, she was desperate to keep its bigness under control, to flatten any flyaway pieces into submission. The length of her almost-black hair was displayed in startling effect, hanging over one shoulder in a loose, casual braid. Her usual attire had been swapped for a pair of black leggings, a long teal tunic top, and about four different necklaces. Her lips were painted a fiery red and her eyes wore a fresh application of make-up.
Breezy, cool, but damn nice.
Just in time, she heard the heavy tread of tires turning down the lane, the rumbling roar of an engine chugging closer her way, and she knew it was just a matter of seconds before the tow-truck would come into a sight—a large black vehicle inscribed with Burke’s Brakes and Auto Body down its sides.
With purpose in her steps, she walked out to the driveway in welcome as it lumbered into view. It was all working out perfectly—better than she’d even planned it. She’d known he would be there, at the shop. He never missed a day of work. But even better, as luck would have it, when she’d called in the request for a checkup, it was Hank himself who’d answered the phone, Hank who’d politely asked what he could do for her today….
“I’m not entirely sure,” she’d lied easily, her voice coming out soft. “My car won’t start. I was hoping you could take a look at it?” The plea was girlish, helpless, just like she’d practiced it.
Thing is, she knew exactly what was wrong with her car. She was the one who broke it. Deliberately. It had taken a lot of courage and more than one Angel Reading, but Penny was done playing backseat to the lovely, the effervescent, Margaret Thayer. She was done waiting for Hank to notice her. Her patience had run out. It was time for a blitz, a Hail Mary pass—it was time Hank knew who Penny was.
So she’d pulled the ignition fuse loose. Penny was no fool, she’d read the car manual expressly beforehand. She wanted the issue to have the feel of natural causes without doing any serious damage to her vehicle, all the while giving her a much-needed reason to see Hank, to work up the courage to actually speak to him this time. Unlike a mere oil change, this would require a diagnosis…leaving Penny ample time to capture his attentions.
She was a stranded motorist. He was her oasis. They’d be alone together. And what had Kate said? Engage in conversation about cars—maintenance, safety issues, easy fixes…yada, yada, yada.
“Sure no problem,” Hank had said. “Let me go grab the keys for the tow-truck, I should be able to get ‘er in right away.” He was nothing if he wasn’t blunt. “Is there anywhere you’d like me to drop you off on the way?”
Penny had frozen for a moment at the unexpected question. She hadn’t planned for that.
“Oh,” she’d said, stalling for time. She shook her head, “No. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just tag along and wait at the shop. Hopefully it shouldn’t take too long.” Her fingers she’d kept crossed down at her sides.
With suppressed delighted, Penny watched now as Hank clambered out of his truck, walking toward her. She would get ten extra minutes alone with him on the way back to town. How great was that?!
“That your car over there?” Hank asked, all-business. Rounding the hood of his truck, he sent a nodding glance toward her maroon colored sedan.
“Uh, yes,” Penny stumbled to say, unprepared for the briskness of his attitude. Pleasantries would be kept to a minimal she saw.
“No problem,” he said, his steps bent in that direction. “Give me a couple minutes to get it levered onto the truck and we’ll be on our way,” he said reassuringly.
Penny smiled at his turned back. It was all going according to plan.
She was putting her hat in the ring (and trying really hard to ignore the voice inside her head, ashamed of her machinations…making her feel guilty for trying to steal a man away from Maggie).
It was going to be a long day, Pastor Maggie thought as she walked into the main office at Good Sheppard Church. She’d only just arrived at work, and already she could feel a stress headache pounding at her temples: marital counseling at eleven, a sit-down with the youth director to talk schematics for the Christmas Pageant at noon, and a meeting with the Parish Planning Counsel to look forward to at five…and she still hadn’t written out her sermon for Sunday.
Reaching for a cup of coffee, at the small kitchenette just inside the doorway, she called a quick hello to Heather, the building’s grandmotherly receptionist. Inching close to ninety, Heather had been with Good Sheppard longer than most of the congregants combined. She’d had yet to mutter so much as hint at her desire to retire, and M.T. wasn’t about to force the issue. Heather did a fine job and the people loved her. Plus, she baked the best cinnamon cookies this side of the Mississippi.
Speaking of that…M.T.’s hand snaked out, grabbing for one of the delicious treats; Heather had them spread on tantalizing display beside the coffeemaker. Popping it in her mouth, Maggie figured she deserved the sugar.
“Good morning Pastor,” Heather said, barely pausing to lift her eyes from the computer screen before her in greeting. It was almost ten o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon which meant that Heather was busy writing up the bulletin for the Sunday morning service.
“It’s going to be a busy morning,” M.T. said inanely. Cup in hand, she wandered over to the inner-office mailbox. Her slot was, as usual, overflowing. Snatching the contents out, she figured she might as well rifle through some of them before her first appointment. “Guess I better get to it, huh?” she said, not really expecting a response from Heather. Body angled toward the doorway, she prepared to exit.
M.T.’s private office was located further on down the hallway, completely separate from anyone else. She had her domain, the secretary hers. The Youth Directory and the Nursery sat between them respectively. Some days M.T. valued the reclusively the space provided…of course it also meant a lot of back and forth between there and here—faxing, filing, arranging the church calendar. She and Heather worked together an awful lot for two women on opposite ends of a corridor.
“Oh, before you go,” Heather said, giving M.T. pause from her intended retreat, “another letter came for you this morning. Hold on.” Stopping momentarily, Heather bent to retrieve it from underneath a stack of assorted paperwork on her desk. Handing it to M.T. she added corridor apologetically. “It only came this morning…hadn’t had time to sort out the post yet.”
M.T. waved the words aside. “No worries. I’ve got it now,” she said, her eyes absently running down the length of the white envelope, her gaze zeroing in on the sender’s address…
Grace Lutheran Church
2680 Callaghan Road
Paisley Way, IN ….
M.T. didn’t read any farther than that. She didn’t need to: Callaghan Road. Paisley Way. Callaghan Road. Paisley Way.
It was probably the shock to her system which caused M.T.’s fingers to go numb, the additional letters slipping out of her grasp, falling in cascading effect to the floor. M.T. hardly noticed. Not even Heather’s surprised gasp resonated. M.T’s eyes were transfixed on the innocuous looking letter before her, her senses drowned by the haunted associations marked by those words: Callaghan Road. Paisley Way.
It was only the slosh of hot coffee spilling over the lip of her cup and splashing against the incriminating return address, which snapped M.T. back to attention. Righting her hand, she steadied the liquid back into the mug, vacant eyes looking down at the littered floor beneath her feet.
“Are you okay, Pastor?” Heather asked tentatively, getting down on her knees now to gather the mess together.
“I’m fine,” M.T. assured her. Setting the cup down safely and tucking the letter into the back waistband of her pants, M.T. bent to help Heather.
“Bad news?” the other woman asked, not unkindly.
“Just a surprise, that’s all,” she assured her and, reaching for the scattered post, rose to her feet. “I’ll-I’ll be in my office if you need me,” she said, and with that, she hurried out the door. The coffee lay abandoned on Heather’s desk….
In the silence of her office, locked safely inside, Maggie sat and stared at the letter. She didn’t move to open it. She wasn’t sure she would. Breathe Maggie, breathe. Her thoughts were flooded, sorting together images she’d rather have forgotten. Her fingers clutching the heart-shaped locket she worn around her neck, Maggie tried to shut out the memories of that one day, that one horrible, fateful day: the shrieking cry of the congregation, their faces blotted by the stark fear of what they were witnessing…the cold sharpness biting against Maggie’s cheekbone, the hard felt of the altar carpet pressing up against her knees…the taste of bile rising up her throat, the film of tears covering her eyes, separating her from everyone else…
Breathe Maggie, breathe.
Janessa, a dark hoodie pulled low over her brow, gazed out across the myriad of bookshelves smattering the floor of LitLiber Bookstore. Her heart was beating a rapid tattoo, sweat pooling across her upper lip—she felt clammy, queasy. Secondary educational books stared back at her. Preparatory books: GED, GRE, ACT…where was it, she wondered, looking nervously over her shoulder, checking to make sure no one was watching her frantic searching. Where was the SAT book? Her fingers landed against the bindings on the second shelf; they were shaking…
Kate stared down at the computer before her, Simon’s words barely making an impression on her senses. He was showing her different applications available on the school’s slideshow software system. Vaguely she watched while he uploaded an audio file.
“A multi-faceted presentation helps to keep the audience’s focus,” he said.
She nodded dumbly, trying to pay attention. “You’re really good at this,” she said, for lack of anything else to say.
“Yeah well… if there’s one area in my life where I’m sought-after its computers,” Simon said drily, his eyes never leaving the screen before him. There was a decided edge to his words, and Kate had a feeling he was making more than just a frivolous comment. “Know what you’re good at and stick to it, right?” This time there was no mistaking the undercurrent to his meaning, the double ententre present in the words.
Blanching, Kate scrambled for something to say. He wouldn’t even look at her for Christ’s sake. Not that she could blame him, she was also having trouble with the whole eye-contact business. If only this were a normal tutoring session…. But it wasn’t. There was that disastrous date they went on that one time, and the reminder of it hung like a heavy veil in the air around them, punctuated in every stiff movement, every forced sentence.
He’d tried to call her afterward; he’d sent out various texts; until Kate’s voicemail had been overwhelmed with apologies and her message threads laden with hoped-for second chances. Kate had responded back only once, a quick reply, graceful in forgiveness, gentle in letdown, but still, firm in rejection. She hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings, but she also hadn’t wanted to lead him on. She’d gone with swift, quiet truth; no flowery speeches, no clichéd sentiments, just an honest, clean break; it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
Now she wasn’t so sure. The room was practically charged with unsaid tension. Something had to give. They still have forty-five minutes left of their allotted hour session. “Simon,” Kate said, her voice high, rushed with anxious self-reproach. Clearly, some tact was needed, some excusable explanation to soothe his hurt feelings. He deserved that. Contrition lining her words, Kate continued: “Listen, I-I…you and me, we… I had just gotten out of something—”
“It’s fine Kate,” Simon interrupted, waving off her feeble comeback, her belated apology. “Please, you don’t need to do this. I get it.” He shrugged, his voice low, hurried.
Yikes. Kate gulped.
Could this situation get any more uncomfortable?
Simon shook his head: “I’m used to it,” he added, the words said softly, so softly that Kate wasn’t sure she was meant to hear them at all.
“Are sure there isn’t some place I can drop you off?” Hank asked Penny as he pulled his truck into the car shop.
Hiding a secret grin, Penny shrugged: “Not really. I mean, I wouldn’t have any way to get back here. Cool if I just stick around?” she asked, reaching for the door handle as he put the truck into park.
Now it was Hank’s turn to shrug, leading her inside the industrial-sized garage doors before them: a tan sedan, raised up on hydraulic lifts, lay suspended in the air overhead as they advanced into the dimly lit space. “Fine by me,” he said, and making his way to the small service desk stationed over to one side of the building, directly before the front entrance, he reached for a notepad off its grimy countertop. Scribbling from memory, he jotted down her car’s information: make, model, problem, Penny’s name and number…
It was only as he finished this that he seemed to remember that she was still standing there, in front of him. Clearing his throat, Hank hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “Waiting rooms that way…make yourself comfortable. Should be plenty of coffee on.”
Penny’s eyes landed with dismay on a small, glum-looking alcove. The walls were decorated with sundry tires, tools, and emergency car-care kits. Three vinyl chairs were scattered any which way around a metal cart holding a very old bubble TV. The speckled tile floor was smeared with dirt, mud, and salt. Just to the right of this “homey” space was a bar housing a microwave, mini-fridge and burnt coffee.
Her eyes narrowing into slivers, Penny swallowed mounting displeasure. This was not how she envisioned this going down. She hadn’t gone through all this mess just to sit and watch Hank …been there, done that, got nothing.
Shifting, Penny watched Hank leave from behind the desk, his stride steady as he walked across the length of the garage alley to the last empty stall, where another mechanic was already carefully depositing her car. She had to do something and quick.
“Actually,” she called out, her voice echoing loudly against the thin metal walls, “If I may, there are one or two questions I’d like to ask you about my car?”
At the sound of her voice, Hank automatically slowed down, giving Penny time to catch up to his stride. With the tilt of his head, Hank gave her the benefit of his attention, albeit, his quiet attention. Nevertheless, Penny went on: “I figure, since I’m here, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to learn something—who knows, it may save you the trouble of another SOS call in the future…”
She gave him her sweetest smile, accompanied by her girlish giggle.
“That is, if you don’t mind?”
M.T. wasn’t sure how she’d managed to get through that pre-marital counseling session. She could hardly remember what had been said, what advice she’d given to the young couple who’d sat on that couch before her, listening gravely to her so-called words of wisdom.
It’s because she’d opened the damn letter. She knew she shouldn’t have, but she hadn’t been able to help herself. She hadn’t been able to control her shaking fingers from slipping open the seal, plucking out the paper which lay inside…And now, all she kept seeing, burnt across her retinas, imprinted on her consciousness, were the words she’d read on its generic cardstock surface. The missive had been short, written in neat penmanship underneath a simple biblical verse (Isaiah 41:10):
Please come back home. Help us heal the wounds—let us mend yours. Together, we can get through this period of crisis, of mourning. Come home.
That’s it! Nabbing up her purse and jacket, M.T. staggered out into the hallway, the door to her office shutting firmly in her wake. She knew what she had to do. After a preliminary knock, she poked her head inside the main office quarters, signaling the attention of her one-woman staff.
Heather, hard at work, looked up at her entrance, smiling softly. “Pastor—”
“Cancel my meeting with Sandy,” —the youth director—, “and inform the Parish Planning Counsel that I’ll be unable to attend the meeting tonight,” M.T. said briskly.
The usually unflappable Heather looked visibly baffled at the news. “Uh…sure. Is everything alright?” She asked softly.
M.T. nodded shortly. “Yes…ah, something’s come up though. Something I need to take care of immediately. I’ll be out of the office for the remainder of the day.”
Without waiting for a response, M.T. turned on her heel, her steps leading her quickly out into the parking lot of the church. She needed to get out of there. She couldn’t breathe in there.
She needed a drink. Maybe two.
The sudden vibration of Kate’s phone sliding across the laminate worktable, accompanied by its sounding ring, came as welcome interruption distracting from Simon’s most recent lecture on widget functionality…. Shooting an apologetic smile his way, Kate reached forward to grab it. At this point, she’d welcome the automated voice of a telemarketer.
Note to self: get another IT guy!
If it were possible, the atmosphere had gone from awkward to down-right uncomfortable between the two of them since Kate’s regrettable faux pas earlier. She couldn’t focus. Simon couldn’t talk fast enough. It was tutelage hell. Worse, they still had twenty minutes left on the clock.
“Hello?” Kate answered, her voice giddy with relief.
Her stomach muscles tightening, Kate felt her face flush for the second time that day. She recognized that voice.
“Jake?” She asked. Good God—please, tell me I didn’t forget a shift?!
“Kate, I’m calling on behalf of a Janessa Cooper. Do you know her?”
“Janessa?” Kate asked stupidly. Huh? Why would Jake be calling her about Janessa? “Uh…Yeah. Yeah, I know her. What—? Is everything all right?” Kate asked anxiously. This didn’t make any sense. A knot of fear was forming slowly in her stomach.
Jake sighed on the other end of the line. Kate could practically see him running a hand through his thick dark hair. The knot expanded. “No, it’s not. I-Kate, I caught Janessa trying to steal a book from the LitLiber this afternoon.”
“What?!” Kate screeched. Pushing her chair back roughly on the words, stunned surprise stealing throughout her body, Kate gained her feet.
“I’m sorry to call you about this, but when I couldn’t get a hold of the girl’s mother, Janessa gave me your number instead. I hope that was okay.” Jake’s voice sounded, just for a moment, unsure.
Kate nodded numbly. “Yeah, that’s fine, it’s fine… Um, where is she?” she managed to ask through tight, dry lips. Please, please not the police station!
Jake seemed to sense her unease. “She’s here, at the store,” he told her quickly. “Can you—can you come?”