Getting out of her car on Monday morning, Cat took a deep breath of still morning air. Shouldering the thick strap of her messenger bag, she shut and locked her vehicle before hiking up to the front doors of the credit union. Only, as she was on the verge of slipping through the small foyer and into the main lobby, her eyes caught the sight of the community bulletin board tacked up to a side wall.
She’d seen it numerous times before. Or perhaps it was more apt to say, she’d seen through it. For years, she’d breezed in and out of these same doors, her eyes always in the same direction, boring straight ahead of her, her attention either already sorting through the applications awaiting her on her desk, or contemplating what she’d make herself for dinner as she locked up for the evening.
But today, her eyes zeroed-in and caught the papers stuck to the cork-board, the assortment of colors waving at her with the breeze of the door. Her eyes narrowed and, almost without conscious decision, she felt her feet slant in its direction, bringing her closer.
Her eyes roamed over the announcements: a high school concert, a city council meeting, a few garage sales and—her eyes squinted. What was that? Running her fingertip along one of the pieces of paper, she read the headline:
Dance Classes at the Main Line Community Center—Couples or Singles Welcome!
Feeling the slight pressure of her teeth against her bottom lip, Cat felt her eyes anxiously racing toward the bottom of the sign, where the details seemed to be display. When—?
“Good Morning, Catherine.”
At the sound of a slightly nasal welcome behind her, Cat jumped her hand dropping from the paper as though she’d just been caught doing something inappropriate. Feeling the tips of her ears burning, she turned stiffly.
“Hello Janice.” Janice Beasley—one of the senior tellers at the credit union. She was fifty if she was a day, and though she outranked even the vice-president, she’d never seemed inclined to climb any higher in her career. Still, as far as Janice was concerned, no matter her title, pay grade, or responsibilities, she was the credit union, the face of the company, the employee the entire community knew—and every employee did best to remember that.
Seeing that Cat was almost twenty-five years her junior, it wasn’t really such a wonder that the two women had never exactly bonded. Cat could feel the older woman’s resentment like a heavy blanket, her stalwart resistance because Cat was technically her superior. Likewise, proud of her success and determination, Cat refused to succumb to Janice’s expectation that everyone would fall in line with her little “rules.”
Warily, Cat felt her mouth moving determinedly, quickly, almost rabidly now, as an overwhelming sense of transparency swamped her.
“I, uh, I usually don’t stop to look at the board, obviously. But, um…one of the papers looked like it was about to fall off its thumb tack—” she jerked her chin over her shoulder, pointing at the board for emphasis. She hated lying. She also hated how easily the lie tripped off her tongue.
But Janice clearly wasn’t deceived. Ironically, had Cat not tried so hard to convince her, she probably wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss over the younger woman looking at the announcement board. But that defensive stain on her cheeks, and her quick-fired, and rather lame, excuse was—how did that saying go? Cat had protested too much.
Holding the second set of doors open, Janice nodded to indicate Cat walk in ahead of her. The lobby was still dark, but the sound of Melanie’s, another teller, footsteps could be heard in the back room, as well as the hiss of the coffee maker.
“Yes. That’s how I found my knitting club,” Janice said, surprising herself a little at the note of sympathy in her voice. “I was walking in and I found one of the flyer’s dangling crookedly—” at this, she sent Cat a knowing wink. “—or so the story goes. Anyway, if you have any interest in knitting we’re always welcoming new members…?”
Janice left the sentence dangling meaningfully. Choking a little in surprise, Cat wasn’t sure how to respond to that very unsolicited invitation. She couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do less than sit around a table with a bunch of women like Janice, discussing different types of yarn.
Cat winced. That sounded harsh, even to her own ears.
And really, could she afford to be a choosy? After all, she and Ashley had come up with a big whopping nothing yesterday evening in their attempt to find her some hobbies. Try as they might, no matter how many suggestions they threw out, nothing had materialized. Nothing solid anyway.
Swimming would be difficult, since Cat had never been properly taught. And really, that was almost as bad as reading. Too solitary unless she was on a team.
She didn’t have a fancy camera or a keen eye for pictures.
She was too impatient for painting. And unless she signed up for a class—well, there was that whole solitary business again.
Obviously team sports were out since, well, since she didn’t have a team to join.
So now, staring up at Janice’s unusually kind expression, Cat hesitated. She’d rather bust another cabinet door over her knee that endure conversation over knitting needles, but then, she wasn’t sure she was in a position to turn away any kind of offers for friendship.
She opened her mouth, unsure what she’d intended to say to Janice’s expectation face, when the overhead lights blinked blindly to life. However, squinting against the harsh glare, Cat was spared from answering her—because at that same moment, Melanie appeared, carrying a coffee air pot up to the small service station to one side of the entrance.
“Morning girls,” she called out gaily.
“Say, Janice. I have a question about my morning cash count…”
And just like that, the moment was over. Slinking quietly out of sight, Cat took herself to her private office. Shutting the door behind her, she leaned against it for a moment, letting her eyes roam over the sparse room: two large, cheaply-made book shelves stood on either side of her desk. Two wooden chairs, with thin forest green padding, stood in the middle of the room, facing these dated furnishings. And against the far wall were framed pictures of tranquil nature scenes; on the opposite wall, lined up in a stately fashion, were her framed college degrees and the miscellany certifications she’d received in the five years she’d worked at the Fireside Credit Union.
The thin bluish-gray carpeting stared up at her when she dropped her eyes, her shoulders sagging with sudden exhaustion. On her desk, beside her computer, she knew a stack of papers were neatly piled besides a few other documents. Her job was spent loaning out money to the hard working residents of Cornwell. She used to love what she did, except of course during those meetings when she was forced to admit that, unfortunately, the customer’s request had been denied. She used to feel like she played an important part in some of the most special moments in people’s lives: their first car, their home, their college tuition, their boat…
But then, face after face, application after application, she’d grown not bored exactly, just indifferent to it all. Her smile had become more robotic, her responses more scripted, her interest waning as her fingertips tapped impatiently on the edge of her desk as she waited for her next appointment.
The thought was as lowering as it was aggravating.
“Oh enough,” she barked suddenly, pulling herself off the door. The sound of her voice jarred her effectively out of her reverie. “This is really just becoming too much now. Grow up, pull yourself together. And while you’re at it, shut the hell up.” Smacked by the force of her own words, Cat flipped on her light switch and walked to her desk, pulling out her chair and turning on her computer.
If she felt like some of the enthusiasm for her job had waned, well that was fine. She could fix that. It was just like any relationship, the love required a little bit of work, a little attention. So fine, no big deal. All she’d needed was a little reminder call—to help her find and nourish those aspects of her job that she once loved so much, to stop taking it for granted.
Well, okay, she’d done that. Now, it was time to put a little muscle behind all that whining.
For the first time in months when she looked down at her appointment book the smallest glint of anticipation filled her person. She had a meeting that very afternoon, at two p.m. to discuss the possibility of someone taking out a small business loan. She felt her shoulders straighten.
“Welcome to Fireside Credit Union, Mrs Amelia Stilton—”
“Actually, it’s Kelley. Ms. Kelley.”
Cat felt her eyebrows pull together in confusion, her glance taking in the application quickly.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I, uh, I hadn’t realized until recently that I was going to take my maiden name back.”
Cat nodded uncomfortably. The woman was had just walked into her office and taken a seat across from her desk couldn’t have been much older than Cat, herself. Of course, Cat wasn’t so naive as to think that a woman in her late twenties couldn’t be divorced. But still…it wasn’t so common.
And there was something, well, sad about it. Sadder perhaps because of the very youth of it all. Wiping the unnecessary melancholic thought from her mind, Cat brought her attention back to the topic at hand. Studying the application in her hand, she spoke. “I see that you’re applying for a business loan.”
“Yes.” Amelia nodded sharply, her fingers pressed tightly together in her lap.
With a flick of her eyes, Cat noted the stiff posture, the tension in her unbelievably straight shoulders. At the sight, Cat remembered her conviction earlier. Lowering the paper slightly, she leaned across her desk.
“I fear that if you grip your hands together any tighter you’re going to cut off the circulation to your fingers.”
“Huh?” Jerking a little, Amelia blinked.
“Please relax. I promise it’s not nearly as painful as, well…” Cat nodded toward Amelia’s clenched hands. “As that.”
Hearing the smile in Cat’s voice, the other woman laughed, her finger springing apart nervously. “Yeah. Sorry. I guess I’m a little nervous.” She rolled her shoulders for good measure.
Amelia’s eyes widened.
Cat smiled. “It means you really want this.”
“Oh, I do!”
Cat nodded. She managed to do it without looking patronizing. It had taken years of practice to master, especially when most of the people sitting across from her tended to be twenty-plus years older than her, and inclined to feel uncomfortable by her very lack of age. “It shows in your application. In fact,” lowering her eyes to the paperwork held loosely in her hand, she whistled. “I’m impressed.”
“You are?” Leaning forward, Amelia aimed a big-eyed glance Cat’s way.
Cat’s smile widened. “Yes. I am. Your business proposal was thorough, as were your references and credentials. Looking at a market analysis…”
And slowly, as the words flowed from her mouth—words of a familiar and comfortable world in which Cat knew her business—she watched as Amelia transformed, her stiffness giving away to an affinity to talk with her hands, her laugh lowering to a normal octave, even a few jokes managed to pass between her lips.
It wasn’t so strange really, then, was it that Cat’s premonition turned out to be correct? She enjoyed her conversation with Ms. Kelley, felt again that flicker of excitement when she informed Amelia that she would indeed be getting her loan. She hardly noticed the time passing as they sat and talked, Amelia pouring out her vision for her new studio to an unexpectedly apt audience.
Standing up at the end of their meeting, Cat held out her hand. “Welcome to Fireside Credit Union. I’m looking forward to doing business with you.”
She was rewarded for her show of good faith by the sudden surge of Amelia’s body bolting up and across her desk, her arms quickly wrapping themselves around Cat’s unsuspecting neck.
Bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet, Amelia promised: “You won’t regret this. You won’t. You absolutely will not.”
“I believe you.”
“I will work endlessly in my pursuit to be successful.”
Pulling away from her, Amelia brushed quickly at a sheen of tears under her eyes. Sniffling, she smiled. “Thank you. Thank you for taking a chance on me.”
“And I’m sorry for this,” she said, waving her arms around herself. “I promise I won’t make this a habit.”
“You mean, I can’t expect a hug every time you make a payment on your loan?”
Amelia laughed weakly. “Not every one.” She smiled broadly. “But I make no guarantees when I hand over my final check.”
Cat smiled involuntarily, her professional mask, which she’d spent the last few years perfecting, slipping just the slightest bit. “Well, forewarned is forearmed, as they say.”
Amelia managed to sneak out three or four more fervent thank-you’s before finally making it out of Cat’s office minutes later.
Alone once more, Cat nodded.
There it was. That warmth of satisfaction that she’d just helped to change somebody’s life. Maybe it wasn’t as strong as three years ago, but it felt a little bigger than it had last Friday, when she’d barely acknowledged the triumph of Mary Dean, who’d received her first ever car loan. Cat had offered her little more than an empty smile and a request for her signature.
So okay, the warmth of satisfaction invading her chest wasn’t much. But it was something. And today, something was enough.