“M.T. called you too, huh?” Penny asked.
Nodding, Kate pulled out the chair opposite Penny, setting her steaming latte down on the table as she did so. Slinging her purse on the back of the chair, she sat down, her eyes skipping across the coffee shop. Bean Tamptations was doing typical Saturday morning business—tired, harassed mothers buzzed through the line, towing impatient, bored kids behind them; college students sat huddled over computers, textbooks spread out before them… A rich aroma of freshly ground coffee invaded the cozy space.
“She sent me a text to meet her here,” Kate volunteered.
“Yeah. Me too.”
“It sounded urgent.”
Penny rolled her eyes, taking a dainty sip out of her herbal tea. “Typical.”
Kate gave her a look, but decided not to say anything. For the most part, the sister’s were getting along now, Penny’s snide comments becoming fewer and farer between…it was an exercise in choosing your battles. Besides, at just that moment, the tinkle of a bell over the front door to the coffee shop went off, signaling the arrival of a new customer.
On instinct, both Penny and Kate turned their heads, their eyes rewarded by the sight of M.T.’s ash-blonde hair. The pastor, spying them, jumped up on the balls of her feet, her left hand waving frantically (too frantically). She skipped toward them eagerly.
“God—It’s too early for her kind of energy,” Penny muttered. Kate ignored her.
“Good,” M.T. panted as she came upon them, her eyes drifting down to take in the drinks held in the women’s hands. “You’ve already ordered.”
“And you’re late,” Penny supplied, “for your own date.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” But the pastor didn’t sound even the slightest bit remorseful. Her eyes glowed, her cheeks were flushed, and her usually immaculate hair was slightly ruffled—as though her hands had shifted through the strands. “I got a little distracted—” she laughed. Giggled really.
Penny rolled her eyes again. “All right, well…what’s up?”
M.T. looked nonplussed.
Penny tried again, motioning toward the coffee shop: “What are we doing here?”
“Oh. That,” M.T. said, nodding slowly. “Actually, we’re leaving.” Maggie smiled broadly. Then, with a wave of her hands, she gestured quickly: “Up! Up. Let’s go.”
“What? Where are we going?” Penny asked, but at the slightest pinch from Kate’s hand, dropped the clipped edge to her voice. “I thought you said…we just got here.”
M.T. merely shook her head, her bob of hair swinging merrily across her cheeks. “I want to show you something. Come on.”
“Oh fine,” Penny grumbled, grabbing for her cup of coffee. “I’m just glad I asked for my tea in a to-go cup.”
Marshaling them out the door and into her SUV, M.T. reminded mysterious as she drove out of the parking lot, refusing to reveal their destination as she drove them down one street after another, circling out past the downtown shops and restaurants, and only slowing down as she reached the edge of the cities limits…somewhere out near walking distance to Bailey’s Park.
“Now, you’ll need to use a little imagination,” M.T. said, turning down a small avenue here, the car coming to a slow halt half-way down the block.
“Okay?” Penny breathed softly, slowly sounding out the word as she stared out around her. “What am I supposed to be looking at here?”
Staring out the back window, Kate was a little curious about that, as well. Houses lined both sides of the street. They were mostly older, smaller homes…a couple of them a little worse for wear.
M.T. stuck out her arm, pointing across Penny’s chest and out the passenger window. “There.”
“That house?” Penny asked, her voice squeaking. The worst in the lot.
Kate had a bad feeling about what was coming next.
“Yes. What do you think?”
Kate swallowed; that sounded like a loaded question. Speaking up quickly, before Penny had a chance to stick her foot in her mouth, Kate sputtered: “I think it has a lot of potential. Good, eh, good bones. Right Penny?”
That was a bald faced lie. The tired looking one-storey rambler looked more in need of a mercy killing than a face-lift. The exterior paint (a dirty yellow) was badly chipped, and if Kate wasn’t mistaken, some of the siding, especially the split and cracked section over one window, was rotted. And the windows: they were short and squatty, and small in number. Add to that the grime coating their panes and Kate wondered how much sun could possibly be expected to shine into the house. The grass was torn up and yellow. And the porch seemed to be sagging.
“Uh…yeah? I suppose so,” Penny finally said, following Kate’s lead. Tilting her head, she squinted…squinted until her eyes were damn near closed. “I mean, if I look at it in just a certain way, it’s almost…”
Kate jumped in. “It has character. And—it’s unique to this neighborhood.” That was definitely true.
“My thoughts precisely,” M.T. enthused, speaking up now, her voice loud. “The house has such possibilities. It could really be something beautiful. With a little love and care—”
“Try bucket loads of love and care,” Penny murmured under her breath.
“I can see it in my mind’s eye,” M.T. continued, her voice breathy, romantic. “The moment I saw it, I felt connected to this place…”
Kate had a really, really bad feeling about this.
“So I bought it.”
Kate sucked in a rush of breath. Penny’s head swiveled slowly around, her eyes landing with something of a shock on her sister. “You what?”
M.T. smiled. “I bought it,” she whispered.
“As in—you now own this thing?” Penny asked.
“That would be the general definition,” M.T. said drily. Unclipping her seatbelt, she reached for the door handle. “Come on. Let’s take a closer look.” Without another word, Maggie jumped out of the vehicle. Exchanging glances, Kate and Penny slowly clambered out of their seats on onto the curb, as well. But unlike M.T., their steps were hesitant, unsure.
Grabbing hold of Kate’s elbow, Penny pulled the other woman close to her side as they walked up the crumbling walkway, a few feet behind the oblivious M.T. “She did what now?” Her voice was hot on Kate’s ear.
“Support,” Kate hissed back firmly. “We need to support her. No matter what.”
“I know but—” Penny waved furtively. “But this? Is she out of her mind?”
“I’m not sure if I can—”
Kate’s eyes narrowed. “Then say nothing at all.”
Penny sighed. Shaking her head, she dropped Kate’s arm. “Okay. You’re right. Support.”
“Good.” And with that, Kate and Penny broke apart, their steps taking them hurriedly up to where M.T. was standing, her back to them as she fumblingly unlocked the door. Swinging it open, she threw her arms out wide with a flourish, glancing back at Kate and Penny. “Ladies,” she invited, brushing them forward, over the threshold.
Kate kept her face determinedly expressionless. It just seemed safer that way.
The door opened onto a long, skinny hallway, halfway down which, another long hallway appeared, veering off to the right. To the immediate left was the living room: green shag carpet with a stone fireplace taking up all of one wall, and popcorn ceilings. As Kate had feared, the room emitted very limited light, casting the space in a dull, dim grey. Directly across from this room was a pocket-sized powder room, big enough for a toilet and a pedestal sink.
M.T.’s study (a small, wood paneled box of space), along with a brightly pink painted spare room were located down the split passage, the bulbs here hanging bare, the wattage low, highlighting gloomy, plain walls. The kitchen—a late eighties splash of orange Formica countertops and squire-tiled floor, as well as a dinky dining room, an undistinguished full-bathroom, and a master bedroom, were located at the back of the house…each room a little more depressing than the last. Walking the oddly shaped, labyrinth-styled house, made of long, awkward corridors, Kate felt her spirits sinking.
M.T.’s house was barely habitable.
“Now, I know it needs some work,” M.T. defended, as she led the women back into the kitchen, “but I just know…it’s the right place for me. I can feel it.”
“Guess there’s no question of you sticking around now,” Penny whistled. “There’s enough work here to last you years—”
For the second time, Kate elbowed Penny silent.
M.T. laughed, but there was a decided edge to the sound. “No question of that. I’m staying Penny.” With a decided whack, she patted the palm of her hand against the stained, peeling wallpaper.
“I’m sure you’ll be glad to get out of that motel,” Kate said. It was red-herring.
For the first time that afternoon, M.T. looked a little discouraged at the words. Sighed, she shrugged. “Well, yes. Of course, I’ll have to figure out the plumbing here first…”
“The plumbing?!” Penny’s voice cracked. “What do you mean, figure out the plumbing?”
M.T. pursed her lips. “There’s something wrong with the pipes in the kitchen. I’m not exactly sure…. Anyway, I can’t expect to live someplace without running water, can I?”
Was it just Kate, or did M.T. look just the tiniest but cunning?
“Eh…when will that be taken care of?” Kate asked.
There was something ominous in those words.
“On how long it takes us to fix it?” M.T. stated, a hopeful, questioning, pleading note in her voice.
“Us?” Penny asked, taking a physical step backward at the words.
Kate’s forehead crinkled. “Yeah—Maggie, I don’t really do—”
“Come on girls, where is your sense of adventure?” Maggie asked, arms spread wide. “This could be fun—we’d be spending time together, learning new things…women power and all that.”
Penny and Kate looked at one another.
Biting her lip, Kate spoke hesitantly: “Yeah. Still, I’m not sure—”
“Is tomorrow too early to start?” Penny’s voice cut Kate’s rejection short. Two pairs of eyes turned incredulously to look at the psychic: M.T.’s with overflowing gratitude; Kate’s with surprised unreality. She shrugged: “Hey, I’ve always wanted to swing a hammer. Besides, I rock a mean bandana.”
“Really Penny? You’ll do it? You too, Kate?” Maggie’s voice was thick with tears.
“Of course,” Penny assured her, her eyes daring Kate to disagree. “This was a big decision and Kate and I—we support you.”
Kate’s fingers danced across the paper spines of the books located in LitLiber’s How-To Section, her eyes focused on a group of paperbacks squeezed between the O’s and Q’s. Plumbing. Plumbing…
“Aha!” With something akin to a whispered shout, Kate’s finger landed on a promising title. Plumbing 101: A Guide to Fixing Everything under the Sink.
“Do I even want to know?”
Spinning around, jerking the book up tight to her chest, Kate raised startled eyes up to Jake’s smiling face (though, if one chose to look closely, and Kate most certainly did not, they would see the slightly forced curve of his lips, the strain in his eyes).
“What? Oh, this,” Kate said, glancing down at the poor book, its pages strangled in her nervous hands. “Yeah—Maggie. I mean, Pastor Thayer—”
“I know who Maggie is,” Jake said drily.
“Right.” Kate tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Anyway, she bought a house.”
“Good for her.”
“Yeah—not so good for me.”
Jake frowned. “Run that by me again? I thought you were friends?”
Kate held up the book. “That’s my point, exactly. Now I’ve been enlisted to help her fix it up.”
“Oh.” He made a face. “Plumbing is tough stuff, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing…”
Kate shifted, her voice unnaturally bright. “Yeah, I have a feeling, by the end of it all, I’ll be wetter than her kitchen pipes.”
Jake laughed. He laughed too loudly. Kate pretended not to notice. This was the new pattern of their interactions. Ever since that night at Julie’s Diner when Jake had drunkenly expressed feelings for Kate…feelings that were far more complicated than even he knew….things had become weird with them.
They’d never spoken of it after. It was as if, by mutual consent, they’d both decided it was better left forgotten, like it had never happened. They’d just gone back to the way things used to be. Only, it wasn’t the same. Jake laughed even when Kate wasn’t funny and Kate rambled nervously, talking on and on incessantly—about anything whatsoever. As long as they could keep the silence from invading….It was exhausting.
“As it happens, I do actually know something about this kind of work,” Jake hedged. “I could help you out…that is, if you’d like?”
Jake’s lips pulled into a tight smile. “Yes. My family tree is filled with laborers, of almost every trade and union.”
“Oh…well, yeah,” Kate said, throwing caution to the winds. She really could use the help and… she’d kind of, sort of, missed Jake. It would be nice to hang out. “If you wanted to, that would be—we’d love to have you.”
“Great.” Kate smiled.
Grabbing hold of her trash bag that evening, Penny headed outside. Swinging the hefty bag from side-to-side, humming softly, she looked down at the edge of her property, where the mouth of Packham Lake pushed up against the small, grassy bank. The water was sparkling, swaying softly in the hot summer twilight.
“Home at last,” she whispered, closing her eyes, drinking in the words.
“That must be some kind of daydream you’re having.”
Snapping her eyes back open, Penny laughed, turning expectantly to see Jackson standing just across the small dirt road which separated her house from his.
“It was better than that,” she mused, sending him a teasing glance as she brought her trash can to the edge of her driveway. “It isn’t a dream at all.”
Jackson crossed his arms. “What isn’t?”
Penny bit her lip. “Maggie.”
If Jackson was left grappling with this cryptic statement, he didn’t let on. For one thing, he was well aware of Penny’s truer feelings toward her sister, despite her frequent protests to the contrary. (In fact, he was probably more aware of them than the psychic herself even; they weren’t just neighbors after all, but good friends. Damn near family to one another). And, for another, he’d long since become adjusted to her more-or-less abstract way of describing things. Instead, he merely smiled. “I’m glad. For both of you.”
“Yeah,” Penny said, unable to keep the smile on her face from invading her voice. Then, with a slight wave of her hand, she turned to head back into her house. “Goodnight Jackson.”
“’Night Penny,” he called.
“Oh! Wait.” Spinning around quickly, just in time to see him heading toward the path which led to his part of the lake, Penny called out: “Jackson?”
Stopping short, he turned to look back at her. Raising an eyebrow, he waited.
“You don’t happen to know anything about plumbing, do you?” For added measure, Penny smiled impishly.
His head inclined a bit, but otherwise Jackson’s face remained neutral. “If I were to answer ‘no’ would that change what you’re going to ask me next?”
Penny shook her head. “No. Probably not.”
“We’re still talking about Maggie, aren’t we?”
“When do you need me?”
“I’ll see you then.”