Penny unlocked the back door to her office with more force than necessary, her wrist cranking hard against the metallic key in her hand. Moving inside, she dropped her purse down on the filing cabinet before plopping down in a seat.
It was almost four o’clock and she didn’t have any clients set up for the day. In fact, she’d posted a sign on her door earlier this morning, informing any passersby, that the shop was closed that afternoon.
Only, after spending all day at Maggie’s, tearing up carpet and carefully avoiding Kate, Penny hadn’t felt up to going back home. Not just yet. She didn’t want to be found, and with that sign on her office door, who would think to look for her here?
(Translation: Penny didn’t want to talk to Kate. She didn’t want to hear any more explanations. And she didn’t want to have to apologize for what she’d said earlier. Kate would assume Penny had gone home after M.T’s, hence her strong inclination to be anywhere but there.)
Penny knew what she’d said to Kate…. Closing her eyes, Penny shook her head. She’d been mean. Awful. Hurtful. And even knowing that, even running from the remembrance of that look on Kate’s face when she’d told her to leave Penny out of her love triangle…even with all of that, Penny wasn’t sorry for what she’d said.
She’d meant it. In fact, she hadn’t realized how much she’d meant it until all those words had come flying out of her mouth. She’d just stood there, and listened to a whole slew of truth as she’d spoken to Kate. Sure, it could have been worded better. And yeah, it could have been presented more calmly. Penny knew this. She regretted that it hadn’t been.
If she was sorry at all, it was only about that lack of diplomacy, not the message itself. She was tired of Kate’s attention-seeking indecisiveness. Kate just wanted to talk about herself…and to hear others talk about her too. Rinse and repeat. Penny was done being Kate’s lackey, patiently hanging by in the sidelines, apparently only good for her part in Kate’s daily saga of one dramatic episode after another.
The problem was: everything was always about Kate. Kate. Kate. Kate.
Perhaps Penny had enabled this behavior. When Kate had first moved to town she’d seemed so fragile, so unsure of herself. Penny had wanted to help her. She’d wanted to know what had happened to Kate to make her so terrified of…well, everything. So Penny had coddled her, and she’d encouraged her, and she’d checked-in…
Only now, it would seem she’d created a monster. Everything being about Kate had become a habit. When Kate had a question, it was an emergency and everyone around her was expected to drop everything and come to her aid. When Kate was uncertain about something, she considered it a crisis—and honestly expected everyone to do so, as well.
Which wasn’t so bad expect, lately, Penny had felt a keen lack of reciprocation in that department…. It had been weeks since Kate had so much as enquired about anything going on in Penny’s life. No: ‘Hey, how’s business?’ No: ‘Did you see that cute guy at Bean Tamptations, earlier? I think he was looking at you…’ and certainly no: ‘Hey, how have you been? Want to spend a relaxing evening just hanging out, you and me, with no agenda?’
No, instead Kate just barreled—
Penny’s musings were cut short by the sudden, expected knock coming from outside her office door. Closing her eyes tiredly, Penny realized she’d forgotten to lock the outside door when she’d come inside.
Maybe if she didn’t say anything, the person on the other end of the wall (namely Kate) would give up and go home.
“Hello?” A young, girlish voice asked through the thick curtains doubling as Penny’s door. That voice did not belong to Kate. Or Maggie.
Furrowing her brows, Penny tried to give a face to the small, nervous question. That voice sounded oddly familiar. “Hello,” Penny answered back. Standing up she moved to the curtain, and with a flourish pulled it back. “I’m sorry. We’re actually closed for the—Janessa?” At the sight of the teenager, Penny’s earlier sentence went into eclipse.
“What are you doing here? Is everything okay? Do you need Kate?”
Janessa pulled her signature eye-roll. “No, I don’t need Kate. I came here, didn’t I?”
“To see me?” Penny couldn’t keep the incredulous tone out of her voice.
“Yeah, well…I was outside when I saw you pull up and I thought…” Janessa’s words petered out.
Penny pulled a face. That had cleared up nothing for her. “Okay… is this about that job-shadowing essay? Do you have more questions for that?” she hedged.
“Hardly . I turned that paper in a week ago.”
“I thought you were supposed to be psychic? Shouldn’t you know why I’m here?” Janessa asked belligerently.
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“But you are a psychic, right?”
“Well, that’s why I’m here.”
Janessa shrugged. “Can I come in?”
“Oh…Oh!” With a flourish, Penny stepped back, allowing Janessa room to advance into her small, cramped quarters. “Sure. So, what’s up? You looking for a reading or something?”
“Or something,” Janessa returned. Now that she was inside the room, the youngster looked uncertain, her mascara laced eyes looking down at her hands, which were fidgeting down at her sides. She shrugged again. “That is, I was wondering, um, you said you can communicate with people’s spirits, right?”
Penny motioned for the girl to take a seat. “Yes, as long as the spirit is willing.”
Penny tried again. “Is there someone you’d like to speak with?”
Janessa picked at her nail. Then, as if the thought just then occurred, she looked up: “First, I want you to promise me you won’t call Kate, and tell her, you know, that I was here or anything.”
Penny wasn’t sure she liked the sounds of that. “Why not?”
“Because she’ll just turn this into some kind of after-school special….”
“Turn what into an after-school special?” Penny asked patiently.
“I want you to promise first,” Janessa insisted. “I mean, isn’t there like some kind of client confidentiality thing with stuff like this?”
“I suppose so…” Penny had never given it much thought before, but it sounded right.
“So, do you promise?”
“No. Not until I know you aren’t in some kind of trouble.”
“I’m not in trouble.”
Janessa looked up at the psychic, her shoulder’s squared. “I want you to help me contact my father.” And, while Penny sat there, mouth a gap, staring at her, Janessa pulled out her wallet. “That is what you do, isn’t it? I can pay you.”
Penny swallowed, overcoming her surprise. She hadn’t realized that Janessa’s father had died. She knew he wasn’t in the picture, but Kate had never mentioned this fact before. Perhaps she didn’t know it herself. Janessa, Penny had heard often enough, wasn’t one for opening up.
“Yes. That is what I do. And—does your mother know you’re here?”
Janessa bit her lip. “No, not exactly. But—she wouldn’t mind. I know she wouldn’t. She’s always saying how she wished she could talk to him too…”
Reacting on instinct, Penny didn’t comment on that. “All right, when would you like to make the appointment?”
“What about right now?”
Penny nodded stupidly. “Okay…” In hindsight, perhaps she should have just gone home.
Firmly thrusting the niggling worry at the back of her mind that Kate would be far from pleased—would probably throw a major freak-out—when she found out about this little private session (if she found out, that is), Penny reached for her stack of cards. There really was no reason for her to call Kate. Janessa had a right to her privacy. And the teenager was probably right, if she learned what they were up to, Kate was bound to blow things all out of proportion. And wasn’t that, Kate’s tendency to embellish ever little thing to it’s utmost capacity, at the root of all Penny’s resent resentments toward? Wasn’t that (Kate’s almost too-predicable reaction) just the kind of thing Penny so sorely wanted to avoid right now?
With a weary sigh, Kate closed the front door of Maggie’s house behind the retreating figures of Jake and Jackson. It was almost five and, walking slowly back to the kitchen, Kate couldn’t help but feel proud, even if incredibly tired, at what had been accomplished that afternoon. Besides just the kitchen sink and the guestroom carpet, the five of them had managed to re-paint the living room, re-caulk the tub in the master bathroom, fix the storm-door out back, and re-hang all the curtains. And, after Penny had left, on some lame excuse about getting her dinner ready (Kate made a face), the remaining four had even chipped away the backsplash in Maggie’s kitchen. There was still a lot to be done, but the house was starting to take shape under all that construction.
“Kate, I can’t thank you enough…” Maggie started to say the moment Kate’s person came into view.
Laughing, Kate waved her off. “Stop. Really, M.T. after the five-hundredth thank-you, I can honestly say, I believe you’ve shown more than enough gratitude.”
Maggie blushed. Then, nodding toward the coffee maker, she asked: “Want a cup?”
“God yes.” Pouring herself a generous mug-full, Kate turned to face the pastor, her hip leaning back against the countertop.
“Maggie…can I ask you a question?”
The pastor, who was bending inside an open cardboard box, a spatula in one hand and an old-fashioned cheese grater in the other, looked up at Kate’s plea. “Of course,” she said, carefully putting these items in the drawers earmarked for them.
“Well…Penny seemed kind of upset with me today.” Reaching inside the box, her eyes carefully dodging Maggie’s gaze, Kate retrieved a whisk and a thermometer, before handing them off to the pastor.
When Kate didn’t expand on this, M.T. nodded slowly. “Yeah. I guess I noticed she was a little snippy with you earlier.”
“It wasn’t just that,” Kate admitted. “When she was ripping out the carpet, I went to talk to her and she—she seemed really mad. And I got the impression she’s been that way for a while. Has she said anything to you? Have I done something?”
Maggie moved on to the next box, pulling out more mugs and coffee cups. Moving methodically, she seemed to be carefully deliberating her next words. “I don’t think it’s really about you…”
“I’m not so sure. She said some things—” Kate shrugged.
“Kate,” M.T. shook her head. Her tone was insistent, persuasive: “It’s not…the thing with Penny that you have to understand is that her whole life has been spent in the shadows.”
Kate tilted her head to one side questioning.
M.T. shrugged. “Growing up, I was my father’s pet. He adored me. Lavished me with attention and love. And when he married Penny’s mother, while he was fond of Penny, it wasn’t the same. She didn’t fill his world the way I did and, kids notice things like that.” M.T. made a movement with her shoulder. “And, well, her mother wasn’t very…ah, maternal. Or particularly demonstrative.”
“So you got most of the affection.”
“And Penny got what was left over.”
Kate took a sip of coffee. “But you loved Penny.”
“Oh, yes I did. But I was also a teenager and there were times I viewed her more as a pest than a wanted companion. So she really only ever had me, and even than it was only part-time. When I left,” Maggie pulled her lips tight. “She was very much alone.”
Kate nodded. She’d heard this story before. Only, she’d never really considered….
The pastor grimaced. “And it’s easy to overlook—or just not see—how desperately Penny’s always craved that attention she never got as a child. It’s probably why she’s so faithfully followed the path of an intuitive…and why she’s so flamboyant in the expression of that work.”
“Because it would get her noticed,” Kate mused meaningfully.
Maggie smiled. “But in a weird sort of way, that’s actually alienated her from the town more than anything. Made her ever the outsider. She got attention, but not the right kind. Not the kind that cares about you.”
Kate stared down at her coffee. “I never knew…”
Maggie smiled. “Of course not. Because, for all that her profession involves in-depth communication and contact with people, and for all her persistent delving into the intimate, personal moments of other people’s lives, Penny is actually a very private person, herself.”
“I guess you know a lot about her though,” Kate whispered.
“And so do you,” M.T. said to surprise the other girl. “Penny talks to you, Kate. And while it may not seem like she’s saying all that much, know that, to her, it’s everything.”
Kate swallowed the hot liquid. “But I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Just like everyone else.”
Maggie smiled. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s been a tough couple of months for you. Penny knows that. Between your nanny getting sick, traveling to Minnesota, and all that transpired with your mother…”
Kate made a self-depreciating noise, feeling compelled to add when Maggie didn’t: “And then there’s the whole Jackson-or-Jake debate.”
Maggie grinned ruefully. “Well, yes, there’s that too.”
“That’s what she was mad about this afternoon,” Kate confessed. “She thinks I need to make a decision between them. Jackson and Jake, that is—and to stop stringing everyone along.” Kate grimaced. “But it’s not as easy as snapping my fingers, you know?” Her pleading eyes landed on M.T. “I have feelings for both men, and…” Kate waved her hand fruitlessly, adding glibly: “And she’s completely biased anyway. Penny just wants me to chose Jackson—”
At M.T.’s prompting, the younger woman stopped talking.
“You asked me what was wrong with Penny—why she was upset?”
Maggie gave her a direct look. “You wanted to know, you asked me about her.”
“And yet, here you are, talking about what’s wrong with you.”
Kate put her cup down on the counter. “No, I was just saying—”
“And so am I,” M.T. persisted. “So am I.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
M.T. smiled. “I know you didn’t. And she does too. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Just remember her, Kate. That’s all. Remember everyone else, too.”