Reaching for the carafe, Penny poured out two cups of strong, black coffee. Turning carefully around, she handed one of the dainty porcelain saucers in her hand across the cramped oval table to where her sister currently sat.
“Thank you,” M.T murmured, accepting the steaming beverage.
With a grace of movement, Penny quickly deposited herself in one of the remaining chairs. Thin light streamed into the small room, casting a warm glow, accentuating the fine specks of dust dancing in the air around Penny’s office. A faint chirping of birds just penetrated the walls.
For a moment, the sister’s focused on the warm drink in their hands, neither one talking.
“Is Kate still mad?” M.T. finally asked, broaching the topic that had recently consumed both of their thoughts.
Penny sighed. It had a world-worry note to it. With a small, self-depreciating shake of her head, she nodded. “Oh yeah.”
It had all started out innocently enough. Returning home from their impromptu trip to Minnesota, Penny and M.T. had been desperate to keep Kate’s mind off of everything that had happened…especially that thing.
Silent, stiff, unnaturally pale, Kate had needed a distraction. It was one of those rare moments when the sister’s entirely agreed with one another. Kate needed space…to forget, to process. And this time they didn’t think Whestleigh would be far enough away.
It had been Penny’s brainchild: a weekend vacation out to Crane Bay—a premier camping resort, a mere two-hour drive south Whestleigh. The area was perfect, boasting a chain of twelve inter-connected lakes, restaurants nestled right up against the water, tennis and volleyball courts, ice-cream socials…the works. A girl like Kate, who grew up in the land of ten thousands lakes, was sure to find peace of mind out there so close to nature, and yet so far removed from the life she once knew.
So Penny had rented out a cabin for their stay—a kitschy, two-bedroom place, replete with plaid curtains, rough-hewn wooden furniture, and that particular style of enamel plate ware—blue with white speckles. Nestled in a picturesque landscape, they were steps from the lake, with a long, gorgeous dock reaching right out into the slivery depths.
For Kate, Penny was determined to master her dreadful, terrible fear of the water. For Kate. So, with that thought firmly in mind, she’d gone out and rented their party a boat. A speedboat.
It hadn’t been easy talking Kate into their plans. She’d seemed much more inclined to live out the rest of her days in sweats, eating chips and ice-cream, and laying about in her favorite lounge chair. But, through pure determination and willfulness, Penny and Maggie had worn her down. Honestly, she’d probably agreed just to shut them up about the whole idea, but they hadn’t looked that particular gift horse too closely in the mouth.
So, without further ado, the women had packed up their best summer clothes (Penny taking along about five different life-jackets, two snorkels, and a pair of, if one could believe it, arm floaters), and set off for this much-needed retreat.
The first day had gone off without a hitch. So all right, Kate hadn’t talked much, but that was hardly to be expected. She’d hardly spoken since…well, since their last night in Minnesota. Still, wrapped up in a sweater, she’d consented to sitting outside with the others, roasting s’mores in the small fire M.T. had built.
It was the following morning when things had gotten a bit hairy—when things had gone so terribly, terribly awry. Dragging the other two down to the dock, Penny insisted they take a morning cruise out in powerboat.
Thick splashes of red-and-blue paint decorated the side of the spearhead-shaped vessel. Secured tightly to the side of the dock, it was a thing of beauty. Even Penny, who had little actual experience with anything aquatic, despite living on a lake, was impressed by the look of the motorboat.
“What, was the rental agency out of pontoons?” M.T. whispered with a sidelong glance at Penny. Her eyes shifted uneasily toward the impressive vehicle.
“Don’t be silly—! A pontoon? That would have hardly done. This puppy is going to really zip!”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of,” M.T. muttered.
“Its fine,” Kate said, speaking quietly beside them. “I can drive if you’d like—”
“Absolutely not!” Penny shouted.
M.T. gave her a piercing look. “Penny are you sure? Kate seems the obvious choice here—”
“Yeah, I do have experience with speedboats,” Kate agreed, adding drily. “I grew up on Lake Minnetonka, you know.”
“Pish posh.” Penny waved their words aside. “I did a whole training session with the rental company. I know what I’m doing.”
M.T. didn’t look convinced.
Kate looked like she was about to argue the point again.
But Madame Penny stopped them both short with this: “I’m not big on water. I’d feel much better if I could be in control, okay?”
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure. Now, go put on some sunscreen and those swimsuits and let’s give this thing a run for its money.”
It had started out well enough at first. Penny had procured a map of the lakes and, as the self-proclaimed tour-guide had taken them, jerkily at first, through first Crane Bay and into the neighboring waters of Lilac Lake. The spray of bath-temperature water welcomed them as they sliced through the relatively open body, guiding them reassuring onward toward an upcoming channel.
Red and green buoys bobbed glaring ahead…
“Penny, slow down!” Kate’s plaintive wail was the last thing anyone heard before the sickening crunch.
With a jolt, the boat came to a standstill, a terrific tearing sound reaching their ears from underneath the glossy depths below.
“What the—!” Wrenching her body against the side of the boat, Penny’s head stared down at the dark water. The boat sat silent, dead. Automatically, Penny’s hand seized the key, turning it frantically from ON to OFF and back again, but the engine refused to turn over. Nothing.
“What happened?” M.T.’s voice came out small, a squeak of confusion and mounting dread.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Kate said, her voice strangely loud. She was standing up now, leaning over the back of the boat, her fingers pointing shakily behind them. “We’re standing in no more than four feet of water—and Penny just ripped the engine off the boat!”
That explained a few things.
Kate rounded on the women now, her face blossoming a deep, burgundy red in her distress. “You didn’t even slow down Penny—Did you think those buoys were put there purely for ascetics? I assure you, they weren’t!”
“Jesus Christ, do you know what this means? We’re stranded!” Kate’s voice was so loud is echoed deeply off the surrounding trees, her voice rippling across the surface of the lake. “I mean, what the hell were you thinking, flying through a channel like that?”
“I didn’t know…” That was the wrong thing to say.
“Well no shit!”
M.T.’s eyes bulged out of her head at Kate’s nasty tone. It was so unlike the other woman’s usually calm, almost apologetic demeanor, that for a second no one spoke.
“Kate, I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?!” The words hit Penny like a slap in the face. “You’re sorry?! Seriously? We’re miles away from our cabin, stuck in the middle of nowhere, and for what? Because you wanted to play fast-and-loose with the rules of the waterway—”
“Kate, calm down,” M.T. tried to say.
“Look around,” Kate cried, waving her arms frantically at the densely wooded land on either side of them. “There are no houses here, no roads…”
M.T. spared a pitying look at Penny, whose face had gone three degrees of white during Kate’s tirade.
“All right,” M.T. agreed, speaking slowly, softly. “But what I do see are power lines. Which means—aha!” Pulling her cell phone out of her purse, M.T. held it up triumphantly. “I have a signal. We can call someone for help.”
Kate took a deep breath. Then another. “Okay. Who do we know that lives out here?”
The sister’s meaningful exchanged looks. The short answer: no one. But neither wanted to admit that…not with Kate’s current state of mind being what it was.
“Not to worry—I, um, I have someone I could call,” Penny improvised, speaking quickly, determinedly avoiding eye contact with Kate as she did so. Holding out her hand, she beckoned for M.T.’s phone. “I’ll just—I’ll give them a ring, huh?”
“And just who might that be?” M.T. whispered urgently to Penny, as she passed over the phone, careful to keep her voice out of Kate’s hearing range. “You don’t have friends out here—neither of us do!”
“Shh! Never you mind. Just—keep Kate preoccupied. All right?”
M.T. did as instructed. Walking over to Kate, she put her arms around the woman’s tense shoulders, effectively blocking Penny from her view. “Well, you have to give her this, Penny has certainly made this a trip we aren’t bound to forget.”
Kate’s snort was weary, uncooperative.
M.T. tried again. With a nod toward Penny’s outfit—she was wearing two life-jackets, one on top of the other, with three spares stacked neatly under the steering wheel, a snorkel mask perched atop her head. “At least, we have a plethora of floatation devices.”
“Like their necessary in less than a foot of water.”
M.T. pulled a face. “See, it could be worse. We could be in much direr straits.”
Kate gave her a long look. “Not if she’d let someone who actually knew what they were doing drive the damn boat.”
“Yes, well I doubt she’ll make that mistake next time.”
Kate snorted again. M.T. didn’t take that as a good sign.
Luckily for the pastor, however, by that time Penny had finished up with her mysterious phone call. Coming to join the women, she plastered a beaming smile across her face.
“Not to worry ladies, rescue is on the way!” Though she’d said this for comedic effect, judging by Kate’s stony expression, she wasn’t going to get the laugh she’d hoped for.
“Well, see now, everything is going to be just fine,” M.T seconded.
“It’s going to be a bit of a wait yet,” Penny cautioned, reaching underneath the front seat of the boat for a cooler neither Kate nor M.T. had noticed before. Popping the top open with something of a flourish, Penny reached inside, bringing out three bottles of cold beer.
“I knew these would come to good use. We’ve got to past the time somehow.” Penny tossed each girl a beverage. “Might as well enjoy ourselves.”
“Are you allowed to drink on a boat?” M.T. asked, but she’d already popped the top of her own beer.
Penny shrugged. “I don’t know. But, in the unlikely event that a patrol should actually float past, I doubt the alcohol would prove to be the most pressing issue.”
Kate grunted, but she too, had opened her beer.
But an hour and a half later, Penny’s so-called help still unaccounted for, Kate grew restless. “Shouldn’t they be here by now? Are you sure you gave them the correct coordinates? They know we’re on Lilac Lake, right?”
“Yes, I gave the right coordinates. It’s just…these things take time.” Penny spoke quickly. Too quickly. “You know how it goes: first they have to get here, get their hands on a boat, haul that to a landing, and depending on where that is…these things take time.”
“Well, how much longer, do you think?” Kate whined annoyingly. They were only their third beers by this time.
Penny feigned a nonchalant air. “Oh, I don’t know, give or take another hour.”
“Another hour! It doesn’t take that long to get a boat, surely? And just what did you mean, first they have to get here? Just where are they coming from?”
Penny looked guilty.
“Who did you call Penny?” Kate asked, her jaw clenched in anticipation. There was really only one person…She should have known.
“What matters here, is that we’re going to get toed back to safety.”
“Who?” Kate demanded.
M.T. held her breath. Kate sounded, if possible, more upset than when the engine flew off the back of the boat.
Penny lowered her eyes, intently inspecting her sandals as she mumbled: “Jackson.”
Kate sucked in a hard, uneven breath. “Jackson? As in your neighbor—Jackson?”
“That would be the one…”
“ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW?!”
Kate’s reaction was so far removed from normal, that even M.T., an old hat at dealing with counseling, seemed taken aback, unsure how to proceed.
“I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU—AFTER EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED BETWEEN US—HOW COULD YOU?!”
Penny raised her hands up high, in a position of surrender. “Please Kate, stop yelling at me. I didn’t know anyone else.”
Kate took a calming breath. Her voice, at least, went down a couple octaves, if her accusations only got wilder. “You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you had planned this all along.”
“Kate, I would never…”
“Oh, no! Of course not.” Kate was the epitome of sarcasm. Lips snarling, mock sympathy. “You never push people to do things they aren’t ready for, claim to know better than everyone else—or put your nose where it doesn’t belong. No, not you! How could I even think that for a minute!”
“It’s what you’ve always wanted, though, isn’t it?” Kate eyes glowed. “For me to choose Jackson—for us to end up together. You’ve all but admitted it from the moment we met. So why not plot a little scheme to get us together—especially when I can’t escape.”
“Nor can Maggie and I,” Penny reminded her. “Think about it. Our being here would sort of defeat the purpose of that little ploy, wouldn’t it?”
“It wouldn’t be your first stupid plan.”
“News flash Kate, not everything is about you!” The moment the words were out of her mouth, Penny deeply, truly regretted them. Kate had gotten a rise out of her, the last thing Penny intended to happen.
And that had effectively ended that. By the time Jackson had arrived, the women were no longer speaking to one another, Maggie stuck playing the uncomfortably middleman. Kate’s mood hadn’t improved one iota at his appearance, her eyes skittering anywhere but his face, her words clipped, short, uncommunicative to say the least. Mirror images of one another, Penny, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to shut up…blabbing on and on insistently, clearly trying to cover up any attempt at an awkward silence. Instead, it was just awkward chatter.
Once back at the cabin, the women lost no time in packing up their things and, trailing the beat-up boat back the rental shop (the damage of which caused Penny a dear sum of money), headed for home. It was the longest, quietest two hour drive of M.T’s life. Even the music, which Penny kept at blaring level, wasn’t enough to still the undercurrent of seething anger swirling around the women.
“I’ve tried calling, but she won’t answer.” Penny’s voice drifted over M.T.’s consciousness, brining her back to the present. “I hate having her mad at me.”
M.T. smiled sadly. “I know.”
“How long do you think she’ll stay that way?” Penny, did she but know it, sounded like a small, hurt child.
“I don’t know,” M.T. said honestly “Just give her the time and space she needs right now. She’ll come around when she’s ready.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, what if she doesn’t come around? She was so angry. It was like she hated me.”
“Penny, try not to take it so personally. It’s not you she’s really mad at. Not entirely anyway. She just—” M.T. shook her head, pushing her cup of coffee to the side of the oak table. “She needed someone to be mad at, and you—well, you gave her the outlet she so desperately needed. After what happened in Minnesota—she bottled it all up inside her. All that anger, that hurt… it was bound to come out. She needed to let it out.”
M.T. stared across the table at her sister. “Try and remember: we, as humans, tend to project the kind of pain she’s going through on the people we love the most, the people who deserve it the least…”
“Because we know they’ll still love us, no matter what we say or do” Penny finished.
“Exactly. And Kate’s no different from anyone else in that department.”
Penny sighed. “I’ll try to take comfort in the compliment inherent in that statement.”
“As you should.”
Penny placed one of her hands gently over Maggie’s. “Thank you—for stopping by today. For checking in on me.”
“Always Ruthie. Always.”