“Okay Janessa, close your eyes,” Penny commanded quietly, her voice in perfect modulated control. Reaching out, she patted down the backs of Janessa hands, in a comforting sort of way. The lights were dimmed in the small room Penny occupied as her office. Two fat candles burned on the table either side of Penny and Janessa, and one small lamp, a mock Victorian-era piece, shown limply, its shade casting a pink hue across the walls.
Penny took a deep breath. Be calm. Be confident. You can do this. Don’t sweat. Don’t frown. Don’t show fear. She took another deep breath.
“It may help for you to close your eyes. Think of your father. Picture him in your mind. It will help to call his spirit. The strength of that memory…it will build a stronger bridge, a deeper connection for him to find.”
“Okay,” Janessa whispered. Her face was screwed up tightly, the bridge of her nose winkled in thought and concentration.
Penny, heeding her own advice, also allowed her eye lids to shut. Behind them she saw nothing but inky, scratchy blankness. Deep breathe in. Deep breathe out.
The bangles on one hand dig into the skin around her wrist as Penny pressed down against the tabletop. Technicolor dots formed through the darkness blanketing her eyes. But it wasn’t because she was getting a vision…she was trying too hard.
Relax your mind, Penny. Relax. You can do this…
“I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper,” Penny called out; Adam, of course, was the name of Janessa’s father. Loosening her shoulders, Penny’s voice raised out again: “I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper.”
Then, she repeated this phrase one more time.
Squinting through the enveloping blackness of her closed eyes, Penny searched furtively. She saw nothing. Her ears were stretch, pointed for the whispered sound of his arrival, as they had been for each of the other three failed sessions she’d had with Janessa. She picked up on the small, cracking sound of the candle wick, and the slight humming of the air-conditioner stationed on the back window.
And nothing else.
Popping her eyes open, Penny swallowed back the invading panic. “Janessa…” Penny sighed.
“Nothing, huh?” Janessa asked knowingly, and her eyes were open too now, staring straight into Penny’s distressed face.
“No. I don’t…I’m not getting any activity on my end,” Penny confessed. She could feel the clammy sweat of failure sweeping over her body. “This has never happened to me before.”
“It’s okay,” Janessa said, but there was no mistaking the defeat in her tone.
Penny reached forward, grabbing the young girls hands. “Maybe—maybe if you can give a little more information on your father: did he pass recently, how did he die? Sometimes spirits get confused when they cross over…”
Penny hated the desperation in her voice. She hated the leading questions she was asking….they made her sound like a fraud. They made her feel like a fraud. She didn’t usually need clients to provoke her senses.
“Die?” Janessa queried. “What do you mean? He’s not dead.”
Penny reared back, her hands falling away from Janessa’s closed fists, her back hitting against her chair abruptly. “He’s…he’s not?”
Now, for the first time in the four sessions in which Penny had been unable to contact her father, Janessa looked suspicious. “No.”
“Why did you think he was dead?” Now she sounded defensive. Attacking.
And Penny’s unease built higher. Shaking her head, she tried to back-paddle. “It was…I just assumed…”
“Assumed?” Janessa voice was razor sharp. “Assumed? I thought you were supposed to know….”
“So, like, what, you’ve just been guessing? All along? Is that what you actually do here?” Janessa parried aggressively. “You’re a scam, aren’t you? Everyone said, when I read my essay to the class: she’s not the real thing—and it’s true, isn’t it?” Now Janessa’s blue eyes were like ice around her halo of snarled hair.
“No. Of course not,” Penny returned hotly. “If that were the case, do you think I would have so readily admitted I couldn’t make contact?”
Janessa didn’t say anything.
Penny tried again. “You spoke about him in the past tense and I just figured…If he was alive, why would you need my help—?”
“But couldn’t you tell, when you were, like, calling for him or whatever? You didn’t get the feeling that he was still alive?”
Penny shrugged. It was a fair question. “Probably because I never got a read on him, at all. If I had…”
“Yeah, sure,” Janessa barked. “If you had. But you didn’t. How convenient.” Betrayal. Distrust. The feelings all but oozed out of Janessa’s pores.
Penny fought back. “Look: I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have made sure—”
“I trusted you,” Janessa snarled, pushing back her chair. “I thought you’d be able to help.”
“I’m not a mind-reader,” Penny tried to explain. “At least, not in the way you’re wanting me to be. I communicate with spirits, with the universe, and yes, with the human psyche, but it’s not as simple as what you’re asking.”
“Yeah? What about the physics used by the police to help find missing people. How come they can do it, then? If you’re the real thing, that is.”
Penny fought back. “My line of work has always been called into skepticism for the very fact that it’s not a switch that can just be flipped on or off. I can’t make my extra Sight see things just because I want it to. Predictions, messages, communication…all of it, they come to me—not the other way around. They’re random, unbidden, unannounced, unreliable; and I am merely a conduit, a vessel for them to be realized. So yes, I see things, I know things, I hear things from a different plane, but I can’t, there are serious limitations to that.
“And the reason that psychics are good with missing persons’ cases is because those people want to be found. Their energy is on high alert, and the sensitivity of my Sight picks up on that. If your dad doesn’t want to be found…” Penny let the sentence dangle uneasily in the air around them. “Then there isn’t much I can do, as far as my clairvoyance is concerned.”
Janessa snorted, but she’d stopped her headfirst race toward the door. That was something, at least.
Penny continued: “I can only receive and send messages. I am merely a vehicle for their voice and presence—but only if both channels are open, willing. I can’t control or manipulate the spirits. I can’t imitate them. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Janessa rolled her eyes.
“What you’re asking for is a cold reading. And, in my experience, they don’t work. I need to have consent, I have to be invited, feel connected.”
“I just want to know where he is,” Janessa spoke then, pleaded really. Her eyes were large in her face. Tears were not far from the surface. “That’s all I want to know. I thought, I guess it was stupid. I thought, if I could find him then maybe…” The teenager trailed off uncomfortably. “I don’t know.”
The air seemed too thick, too sickly scented in the room suddenly. Penny’s heart beat hard and fast against her chest. “It wasn’t stupid.”
Janessa nodded sharply.
“Tell me about him.”
Janessa looked at Penny.
“Not as your psychic,” the older woman rushed to explain, “but as your friend.”
Half an hour later, as Penny watched Janessa exit out of her office, the psychic allowed her body to slump tiredly in her chair. Her body felt weary after listening to Janessa’s story, her neck muscles tight and raw. Janessa’s life had been far from easy, her path littered with rejection, abandonment, and a lack of love and support. Penny’s own childhood came to mind; she could relate. And that was probably why she found herself so determined to help the young teenager, to do exactly as asked: locate Janessa’s missing father.
Of course, it was looking like that would require more on-the-ground detective work than other-worldly intervention, but Penny loved a good challenge.
Riding close on that thought, Penny tried not to acknowledge, was guilt at what she’d uncovered, at what she’d found out…because she had no plans of filling Kate in on this new-found information. And Kate would feel betrayed by that. She would claim a right to have known. After all, she was the girl’s mentor and had, for all Janessa’s resistance, really stepped up to that role, committed to helping the surly teenager, advising her, generally being there for her. Kate cared about Janessa. She wanted to help the young girl succeed.
And here was Penny, with intelligence Kate probably needed in aide of that endeavor, and she wasn’t sharing. It felt wrong. And yet, Penny wasn’t sure that going behind Janessa’s back would be right, either. The teenager had trusted her. She’d confided. Penny just couldn’t condone exposing that, exploiting it. Janessa’s story was hers to tell. Period. Kate would have to figure this out on her own, just like Penny had.
(The fact that Penny knew, without having to be told, that Kate would be more than willing, more than eager to be part of unearthing Janessa’s father, that she’d feel unduly hurt at being left out, the psychic refused to admit. If Kate was going to help, it had to be on Janessa’s terms.)
Straightening up the small table Janessa had only moments ago vacated, Penny walked over to her icebox. She needed a cup of coffee after that session. And a sandwich. Glancing up at the clock hanging overhead, she noted the time: 12:13 p.m.
Good, that left her just under two hours until her next appointment. Rummaging underneath the oval table that doubled as Penny’s desk, she was on the verge of grabbing for her wallet and making a quick lunch run, when a small knock on the wall outside her office, caught her up in surprise.
“Hello?” A deeply male voice asked. An oddly familiar male voice asked, seconds before a hand come into sight, pushing back the heavy brocade curtain she used for a door.
Stumbling upright, Penny’s eyes widened at the face that came into sights seconds later. Of all the people Penny might have expected to drop be unannounced—namely Janessa, coming for something she’d forgotten, or M.T. offering to take her sister to lunch, or her damned landlord, coming to enquire after her little ‘project’ on the ruse of checking she’d cover the rent this month (with a degree of resignation when she answered ‘yes’)—the one which greeted her now stole Penny’s breath, her ability to speak.
Standing there, silhouetted in the light off the narrow hallway, was Jake Farrow. As in, the owner of the LitLiber bookstore. As in, Part B of Kate’s current love triangle. As in, the boy who used to seat two rows behind her in high school geography….
“Jake?” Penny couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of her voice. In as long as she’d been operating as a psychic, Jake had never before graced the doorway of her shop.
“Hey Penny,” he said, smiling slightly.
“Uh…what are you doing here—I mean, not that you’re not welcome,” Penny rambled at his amused raised eyebrow. “It’s just…I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Yeah. Sorry to just drop by—”
“No, no,” Penny rushed to say. With a wave of her hand, she motioned him forward. “Please, come inside.”
Jake didn’t need further encouragement. Quickly, he slipped past the heavy curtain, to take a seat in the chair opposite Penny. Then, belatedly, he waved around the room. (Afraid, perhaps, she was in the middle of some ghostly chat or something?) “I’m not, uh, interrupting anything right now, am I?”
“No. I’m taking my lunch break, actually. Good timing for you.”
“Oh. Okay. I won’t keep you.”
Forehead crinkling, Penny waited for him to speak again. Jake looked uneasy.
“So what can I do for you? Call it intuition, but I’m not getting the sensation you’re here to have your future foretold,” Penny hedged amusedly.
Jake laughed softly. It came out more like a cough. “Uh, no. Not…” absently, his hand came up to rub against the stubble settling across his jaw line. “Um, not that.”
Penny nodded knowingly. “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…” and she’d been sitting at one of the cafeteria tables all alone, her eyes steady on the sandwich in her hands, shoulders hunched inward, ears picking up the sounds of voices coming from three rows behind her:
“Look at what she’s wearing…seriously, she looks ready for a flood in those pants.”
Twittering laugher. “A flood might do her some good. I bet she doesn’t even bathe.”
“So you’d rather she look like a drowned rat?”
“Anything’s better than that.”
And on and on the insults flew, the girls gossiping loudly, enjoying her mortification, and enjoying the notoriety they were gaining from the student body, most of which couldn’t help but overhear the waspish sentiments.
And of course, because it wouldn’t have been a truly clichéd moment if it hadn’t been coming from the most popular girls in school. If these terrible words hadn’t been frothing from the mouths of cheerleaders.
“Hey…mind if I sit here?” a male voice asked, breaking through Penny’s determined resolve to ignore the chatter going on over her head.
Looking up quickly, on the verge of warning this unsuspecting visitor that sitting next to her was the closest thing to status suicide—that is, sitting next to the most made-fun of girl in school—when her eyes met the kindest green eyes she’d ever seen. The most adored green eyes in school. The eyes of Whestleigh football star, Jake Farrow.
Penny’s eyes thinned into slits. Now what. “Just haven’t had quite enough of a laugh yet, huh?” she asked venomously. Painfully shy, it was probably the longest sentence she’d ever spoken to the boy who’d shared the same school schedule with her for the past eleven years running. Only, she was past her limit today. She was over being the subject of everyone’s ridicule. And this was just too much, anyway.
Why did they have to pick on her? Penny had never done anything to them. She was quiet. Kind. She’d never pretended to be cool, tried to fit in. She’d never vied for their attention. So why wouldn’t they just leave her alone? She’d tried the old adage: kill them with kindness. It hadn’t worked. She’d tried not to react, to appear bored with their little games, hoping it would eventually ruin them of their fun. If anything, it had only spurred them on more.
“Excuse me?” Jake asked, and for his part, he looked genuinely baffled.
“What, you’ve come over here on some dare to sit beside the freak show, what her in her natural habitat, telling everyone just how weird she is—what, that she speaks in tongues or wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her filthy shirt? Or…oh, wait, I know: that she can’t chew without drooling? Anything to please the masses, huh?”
Jake’s mouth turned down. “No…”
And suddenly, Penny knew why she was so particularly upset now. Because, through all the harassment, all the hurtful things her peers had slung at her, Jake had never partook himself. Granted, he hadn’t stopped them either. But he’d never been outright rude to her. He’d never joined in their mockery and jeers.
But it seemed at last, he’d stepped over to the dark side.
Staring up at his face, which was rigid above the red plastic food tray, Penny had a new terrible horrible sensation. “Oh God…”
“You’re going to dump your food on my head, aren’t you? Claim you tripped.”
“No. What?” With a plop, Jake dropped the rectangular tray carefully, upright, on to the table. “Why would you…” and with a sigh to beat all sighs, he shook his head. “Never mind. I know why.”
Silent now, Penny watched him take a seat on the bench chair opposite her. “Is it a social experiment then? See how it feels: to be the most un-liked person in school?” Penny didn’t know where the nerve was coming from. She’d never spoken to anyone this way before, and certainly not the most popular guy in school. Only, once she’d started she couldn’t seem to stop.
“No. I came over to say I’m sorry.”
Penny blinked. “Excuse me?”
“For everything we’ve done to you. I’m sorry.”
“Well, you actually never did anything,” Penny felt obligated to mention.
Jake gave her a look. “Maybe not. But that changes today.”
Penny cleared her throat, bringing herself back to the present, hearing her voice carry over the quiet office: “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…I can only assume this isn’t a social visit?”
Jake laughed softly. “That wasn’t the last time we shared a table at lunchtime,” he seemed compelled to say. “We shared that table every lunch for the rest of that year.”
Penny smiled. “And the year after that.”
“Fair enough. But, since high school ended, you’ll allow that they rather came to an abrupt end?”
Jake shrugged. “I went always to college.”
“And I didn’t.”
“And when I came back…”
“I was a full-fledged freak,” Penny teased. “One that even you couldn’t save.”
“Don’t.” Jake didn’t smile in return. “I always hated it when you called yourself that.”
Penny nodded sharply. “Okay.” She cleared her throat uncomfortably, her shoulders jerking with the sound. “Well, anyway…I think we’re getting a little off track here.”
“How do you know?” Jake challenged, and there it was, that note of amusement threaded in his voice again. “After all, I’m the one who came to see you.”
Penny stared at him levelly. “And this is what you came to talk to me about?”
Jake grinned. “No.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“Actually, I came to talk about Kate.”
As if she hadn’t seen that one coming.