Kate looked around the walls of her living room. The teal-blue accent of the room gave her peace, a welcoming she desperately needed. This was her haven. Her special place. No one could touch her here. She was safe—to think, to breath, to be Kate.
She felt bad for the way she’d treated Penny. She’d need to apologize—yes, tomorrow she’d seek her out. Did she but know it, her thoughts aligned perfectly with Maggie’s; she hadn’t meant to get so upset with the psychic—she hadn’t meant to take it out on Penny, all her frustration and sadness.
Sure, the thing with the boat had been annoying—really annoying. Typical Penny fashion: a train-wreck of good intentions. Still, it hadn’t deserved Kate’s scathing wrath. It hadn’t necessitated that big of a response. It had been Minnesota. She couldn’t get what had happened there off her mind. She’d thought it was a new beginning, seeing her mother standing there, having her wrap Kate up in her arms, whisper so lovingly in her ear:
“Don’t—it doesn’t matter, you’re here now. You’re here now.” Pulling back, Calida’s hands caressed the sides of Kate’s face, framing her cheekbones. “I’ve missed you, oh God, how I’ve missed you. Please don’t runway again…I’m so sorry!”
For a short time, Kate had almost believed her….
Staring uncomprehendingly at the tall, well-dressed woman before her, she’d waited for the other shoe to drop, for her mother to scold her, tell her what to do—make the demands the great Calida McDonald was so known for. But they hadn’t come.
“Your father—wait until I tell him. He’ll be so pleased.”
“Mom…” Kate’s voice came out in a protesting croak. She hadn’t signed up for a family reunion. She wasn’t ready for any of that.
But before Kate had time to process her thoughts, to marshal them into a semblance of order, Calida was speaking again, her gaze finally relinquishing its hold on her daughter to take in the other two women standing there…silently, curiously.
“Pardon me…I didn’t notice we had company?” There was no mistaking the question in her voice.
Over Kate’s head, the sister’s exchanged looks. Maggie’s eyes were wet with unshed tears; Penny’s were narrowed with suspicion.
“Not at all—I’m Maggie.”
“These are my friends,” Kate’s voice came out hard, defensive. “They’re with me.”
Maggie, taking her cue, quickly walked forward, reaching out her hand. Calida quickly took it in her own beautifully manicured grasp; she smiled wobblingly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. McDonald.
“Please, call me Calida.”
Penny smiled thinly in response.
“And how do you know Kate?” The question was calculating…. “You must not be from around here. That is, I’m sure I’d remember any of her childhood friends…?”
Penny stared her down. “No, we’re not from around here.” She gave Maggie, who had her mouth open in response, a firm, telling glance.
Maggie snapped her mouth closed quickly.
“I see,” Calida responded quickly. “Well, how wonderful to make your acquaintance—Any friend of Kate’s…”
And with that, Calida turned back to her daughter. “Oh, it will do my heart such good to have you settled in the house once again. And not to worry, we’ve kept your room ready… Cook will make all your favorite meals…”
“My room…. Cook?”
Calida’s smile faltered. “That is, you were planning to come back home, weren’t you darling?”
Kate’s eyes zipped meaningfully from her mother to Maggie and Penny.
“And your friends too,” Calida insisted quickly, following her daughter’s look with cunning precision. “You are both more than welcome to stay at our place. Do say yes.”
“The thing is, I’m not sure how long we’re staying…” Kate’s voice was a squeak of sound.
“And I won’t pressure you either way. We’d be thrilled to have you…all three of you…for just as long as you’ll let us.” Calida was adamant.
Kate’s mouth opened and closed but no words came out. Her body felt stiff, her breathing forced. This was all happening so fast. It was just like her mother, to come in and take charge, to put people in corners…
“If you wouldn’t mind very much, I’m afraid those doctors are going to come back any moment with those drugs of theirs that put me right to sleep—” the hoarse, yet forceful voice of Nanny Moore piped in. “Before then, I’d love a few minutes alone with my poppet…?”
Calida, as if sensing a supporter in the frail woman lying so cozily in the hospital bed, nodded sharply, her arms quickly steering Maggie and Penny toward the door. “Absolutely dear Ms. Moore. We’ll leave the two of you alone at once. Penny, Maggie, let’s get a cup of coffee. I’m sure we could all use one!”
Neither sister had so much as a chance to demur before Calida had them outside the hospital bedroom and into the long, sterile corridor running the length of that wing.
Kate stared beseechingly down at her oldest friend, hardly noticing the absence of the other women, her attention stolen by the wheezing plea in her old Nanny’s voice. “What is it, Nanny? Can I get you anything?”
Nanny waved her words aside. “Kate, I know you’re scared. You thought if you went far enough away she would no longer have such a hold on you.” Nanny didn’t need to explain who she was. “Like a mask, you thought the distance would free you—make you brave, give you the courage to be your own person. And you needed that, to be out of her clutches. I understood it then, that’s why I didn’t fight you. But there’s something you need to understand now…”
“Shh Nanny, don’t worry about me…”
“It worked,” Nanny continued as though Kate hadn’t spoken. “It gave you back the voice you’d lost long ago. I heard it in those letters you wrote to me. I saw it in the woman who walked through those doors not half an hour ago. You’re different. You’re stronger then you ever were.”
“Nanny, you shouldn’t tax yourself…”
“Now you have to believe it. You have to trust in that person you’re working so hard to become. Don’t let your fears keep you back—not any longer. You have stepped out of her shadows, be proud of that.”
“Remember that you’re the reason you’re back here—it was your choice. No one made you. No one can make you do anything, not anymore. Say it.”
And so Kate obligated her. “No one can make me do anything.”
“So now, it’s time to forgive her. Love your mother Kate. Find the good in her. It’s there. I assure you. And let her love you—you, Kate, and not the girl she wants you to be. She means well. She just doesn’t know any better, that’s why she pushes you so hard, that’s why she doesn’t always stop to hear you. She means well.”
“She’s a steamroller—”
Nanny more smiled. “It’s one of her best and worst characteristics.”
“What if I can’t? Find the good, I mean.”
“You will.” Nanny sounded so confident. “That’s one of your best and worst characteristics. You always look for in the good in people.”
Kate shook her head, her fingers curling trustingly in Nanny’s Moore’s grip. “What would I do without you?”
Nanny smiled. “Well, thanks to these here doctors, you won’t soon have to find out.”
“Don’t joke Nanny. Not about this.”
“All right, you’re right,” Nanny agreed. Laying back against the pillows, she sighed contentedly. “And anyway, seeing you is all the medicine I really need. Oh Katie—I’ve missed you.”
“I’ll stay as long as you need me.”
“And I’ll stay with her. For you I’ll stay with her.”
“Don’t make this about me….”
Kate laughed, wiping a stray tear off her cheek. “It’s what you want though, isn’t it?”
“For you and your mother to finally come to peace with one another? Oh yes, I’ve wanted that for years—”
“Then rest easy.”
Nanny coughed weakly. “You’re still missing the point, my sweet.”
“No I don’t think I am.”
“Do it because it’s something that you want—do it because you want to love your mother.”
Ten minutes later Kate walked out of Nanny’s room. One of the nurses had indeed come in with a sleeping sedative…. Taking her cue, Kate kissed Nanny’s soft cheek in goodbye and went in search of her mother and friends, sparing the latter a moment’s sympathy. Kate knew better than anyone what kind of pit-bull her mother could be when she wanted something.
And, more than almost anything in the world, right now Calida wanted to know where Kate had gotten off to.
Advancing into the small alcove designated as one of the sundry waiting rooms peppering the building, Kate heard her mother talking. Stomach muscles clamping, her ears turned eagerly to catch the sound of what she felt sure would be pleading demands for information on Kate’s whereabouts:
“…and oh! The dresses that child ruined. You never met a kid so fascinated by mud puddles.”
With something akin to the surreal, Kate waited a beat, the sound of Penny and Maggie’s laughter filtering vaguely though her senses.
“Penny was also quite fond of dirt, and sticky things as a small child,” M.T. recounted reminiscently.
“And of course, Nanny always tried to keep it a secret, how Kate’s clothes managed to get in such shambles, but I always knew.”
“And you didn’t mind?” Penny enquired disbelievingly. Kate could have kissed her.
Calida shrugged. “Well, yes, I suppose I did.”
“But you never let on? Stopped her antics?” Maggie asked, coming between them. “You let her believe she was pulling one over you?”
Calida laughed softly, a tinkling of sound Kate knew her mother had spent years perfecting. It was the epitome societal taste. “I suppose I didn’t have the heart to spoil her fun. I was hard on Kate—I know that. I don’t pretend otherwise. I wanted her brought up a certain way, and that dictated a more rigorous set of manners and behaviors. So when I could allow her to just be a small child, I did.”
“Well…” But whatever it was Maggie was going to say next died on her lips as she spotted Kate, standing uncertainly in the doorway there, shamelessly eavesdropping. Two pairs of eyes soon mimicked the pastor’s gaze.
“Kate, there you are—come and sit,” Calida invited, waving her daughter closer, thankfully overlooking Kate’s ill-bred activity—listening the others talking about herself. Kate’s face flamed with humiliation.
On stiff legs, she heeded her mother’s words, nabbing the seat on the other side of Penny.
“What did Nanny want to talk to you about?” Calida asked.
Kate felt her teeth snap together. “That’s between her and me.”
For a second, Kate felt a certain, tingling buzz going off inside her head. It was the heady sensation of rebellion. Never in her life had she spoken like that to her mother. And it had felt kind of…good.
Calida looked as taken aback as Kate felt. “Oh—well, yes, of course. How rude of me.”
For a second no one spoke. Penny readjusted her position on the hard seat, fidgeting nervously. Maggie sat quite still, composed. She was used to uncomfortable silences; hazards of the trade. Kate stared down at the floor, unwilling to meet her mother’s eyes, which were gazing hopefully at her daughter’s down-bent head.
“Well, we were all having a nice little chat—I was telling them what you were like as a child.”
Kate nodded. “Yeah, I heard.” Then, almost against her will, her eyes looked up, catching hold of her mother’s steadfast look. “Did you really know—about what really happened to my dresses?”
Calida smiled. “Yes. I really knew. Nanny minded most of them rather well, but I could always tell her work apart—especially the items she had to stitch in repair.”
“But you didn’t—you never said anything to me.” Kate’s voice was accusing, disbelieving. It was too much to digest.
Calida shrugged. “And in a way I regret that.”
Kate smiled. That sounded much more like the mother she knew so well.
“…if I had, maybe we could have jumped in puddles, or rolled down hills, together. I think I would have done well with a little more playfulness.”
Kate dropped her eyes again. Water was threatening to spill out of them. She wasn’t prepared to let her mother see that form of weakness. Not from her anyway.
Calida sighed. “Hindsight: what a terrible thing. It fills you with a kind of regret you don’t know is possible in your youth.”
Out of Kate’s peripheral vision, she watched Maggie’s hand come out, rest comfortingly on Calida’s knee. For some reason, that softened her.
“I would have loved that, you know,” Kate’s voice came out raspy, coarse. “To build forts with you—to run through the sprinkler system with you.”
Calida nodded, her throat constricting visibly. “Then let’s do that.”
“No, I mean it,” Calida said then, her voice firm. “Let’s jump in piles of leaves—whatever you want! I would do any of it, just to spend a little time with you.”
Kate shook her head. “I’m going back, Mom. This isn’t home anymore.”
“I know that. I know,” Calida assured her. “Just—stay with your father and me while you’re here. Please. Let us have even that much of you.”
The soft entreaty; the tangible fear in her mother’s eyes—Kate wasn’t aware she’d made up her mind on this issue until her mouth opened and she said: “Yes. All right. I’ll stay with you.”
“And you two, as well,” Calida said, turning to Penny and Maggie. “I meant what I said earlier. Say you’ll stay.”
“We already made reservations—”
“We’d love to,” Maggie said, speaking over Penny, her eyes looking at Kate’s pale face.
Kate’s house was opulent. Penny twirled around, taking it all in at a glance: the massive, 18th century chandelier in the foyer, sprinkling soft light from the lofty ceiling onto the marble floors; the large, faded Oriental rug at their feet; two stripped peach-and-cream upholstered chairs sitting to one side of the door, a small fireplace before them, giving off a cozy look. Opposite of this grand opening, a winged staircase stood, wrapped around with old-fashioned balustrades. And to the right of this mammoth architectural delight was the large, impressive dining room, the arched doorway flung wide open, revealing a table which would easily sit twelve; floor-to-ceiling windows, and a large, ornately designed serving buffet finished off the formal, luxurious look.
“And Kate just left all this?” Penny muttered underneath her breath.
Maggie silently had to agree. They’d always known Kate had come from wealth but this—this was a whole different plane of rich. The kind that bespoke of instant power, influence…opportunities unfounded.
And Kate had walked away from it all. Without a backward glance.
“Well…money doesn’t buy happiness—isn’t that what they say,” Maggie said, speaking her thoughts a loud.
“Yeah, but being poor isn’t exactly fun central, either.”
“Ladies,” Calida said then, coming to stand beside them, “please, make yourselves comfortable. But first, Regina will show you to your rooms,” and out of seemingly nowhere a young, blonde woman came forward and, reaching for their bags, ushered them up the curved staircase….
Turning to Kate, Calida held open her arms. “Kate. Welcome home.”
Kate pulled a sad face. It had all started out so well. She’d thought—just at the first, that perhaps this time around things would be different. She’d hoped for…Kate shrugged. She didn’t know what she’d hoped for, but whatever it was, she hadn’t gotten it.
She’d been duped. Again.
Only this time, it was the last time.