North of Happenstance: Chapter Three

Kate figured it would be hard to get lost in Whestleigh, Connecticut. Not only was the town set up in a grid pattern formation, the Avenues numbered one through ten accordingly and the Streets arranged alphabetically, but the main shops and stores were all located in the same general area: on Gadbee Street. This was particularly nice for Kate who lived on Eveleth Street—a mere two blocks away. Besides school, she figured her car would probably spend the majority of its life in her garage from now on.

Pocketing her house keys, throwing her purse over her shoulder, Kate stepped outside. Turning left down the sidewalk she considered that it was a great day for a walk. She forcibly repeated that sentiment when, ten minutes later, she realized she’d gone the wrong way. Kate shrugged; she’d always been a bit directionally challenged. Reversing her steps, refusing to let this detour get the better of her, Kate firmly reminded herself that if nothing else this had given her the chance to see a bit more of the town. How could that be a bad thing?

Finally reaching her destination, this time Kate had no trouble identifying the cause of her trip into town: The LitLiber Bookstore. This was probably partly due to the fact that she’d been there previously, and to it’s being rather hard to miss. The structure stood proudly on the corner of 2nd street. And it looked imposing there: the red-washed brick exterior, accented here and there with white plaster molding and honey-colored stucco, seemed only too grand for its otherwise demure setting. The bridal shop next door looked downright dowdy in comparison, its vinyl siding and modest window settings sparse.

Not entirely surprising then, the bookstore was busy when Kate walked inside. Bemused she stood for a moment, watching as harried cashier’s busily rang up orders, customer service agents zipped up and down the aisles—some three customers deep—shoppers milled in small groups discussing the newest releases, some waiting to be helped, others content to search through the masses of titles alone.

Still, despite the hustle and bustle, the building remained quaint. Darkly stained pine bookshelves lined the building in myriad of patterns. Even at a quick glance, they appeared to be handmade. There must be a woodworker in town, she supposed. The wainscoted walls, half wood-paneling and half wallpaper, the latter designed in muted yellow geometric designs, created a look both airy and warm. Not to mention, it allowed for the addition of eclectic pieces of furniture smattered about—a mismatched arrangements of recliners, couches, loveseats and table ends all of different origin and décor.

As she walked further inside, toward the small café nestled in the back nearest the Customer Service Desk, Kate overheard two staff members talking, catching a snatched moment alone together:

“…we’re so understaffed right now it’s ridiculous! Look at this place. We can hardly keep up!”

The other girl snorted in agreement. “And we’re running out of everything! A lady nearly threw a temper tantrum yesterday when I told her we’d sold out of the book she was looking for—like it was personally my fault.”

“It doesn’t help any that school is starting up next week. Why does everyone wait until the last minute to buy their books?”

“Beats me.”

The first girl rolled her eyes. “And if one more person asks me ‘where do I find the Self-Help section?’ I’m going to scream! Find it yourself, isn’t that the point? ….”

Carefully circumventing this conversation, Kate reconsidered her options. Asking for help was now out of the question. Turning on her hell, she pulled her school syllabus out of her purse. Shielding it against the palm of her hand, she bent her head determinedly over the list of ‘required course readings’ while purposefully steering her feet toward the section marked Academic. She was an independent woman; surely she could find the books on her own. Plus she was far too proud to admit defeat after hearing all of that. She would not be counted amongst those self-helpless customers.

It took nearly an hour, but at length Kate made her way up to the checkout counter, all necessary purchases held and accounted for. She wasn’t sure who organized the shelves in that building but they needed a serious talking-to, because nothing about it had made sense. Her History of Art book had been sidled next to her Romantic Literature text, while The Works of Shakespeare sat, buried beneath an array of Chemistry titles.

Kate paid for her items, adding a last minute tote bag to the lot as she handed over her credit card; if she was going to walk these back to her house, she wasn’t going to trust their weigh in some paper bag. Scrawling her name across the transaction slip, Kate hastily threw her purchases inside the bag before slinging it across her shoulder and leaving her place in the line. The woman waiting impatiently behind her had been nosily tapping her foot against the floor all the while, the click-clack an angry tattoo, as though annoyed Kate had dared stand in front of her.

Pausing in the shop’s entrance hall, partly to gain her bearings and partly to readjust the tote bag’s position—it was already rubbing funny against her clavicle—Kate had a sinking suspicion that even the two blocks home were going to be tiring with this load. At least her purse was lightweight. On second thought, her car may not become as superfluous as she’d originally hoped.

Absently, her eyes landed on a large bulletin board hung up against one wall, its space filled to overflowing with advertisements, business cards, For Sale signs, and one lone picture of a lost cat. It was so cluttered she wondered how someone could possibly wade through the overload of information, how unlikely it was they’d actually find what they wanted—better luck scrolling through the yellow pages, or Google, at that rate. Chucking mindlessly at the thought, she braced her hand against the doorframe and pushed it open…

It was half a block down from LitLiber, on the left-hand side of the road, when Kate saw it. A small sign nailed just above an otherwise nondescript window. The cursive writing was hardly legible from where Kate stood but she was almost sure it read: Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Crossing the street, Kate called herself ten times a fool, but still she couldn’t seem to stop herself from getting a closer look. Her curiosity piqued, she supposed she hadn’t actually considered Madame Penny’s business being so, well, viable…so brick-and-mortar accessible. But if that sign, and the small flicker of light illuminated from the edges of the window blinds was anything to go by, she figured wrong. Madame Penny was a professional, through-and-through.

Coming up beside the window, Kate couldn’t quite fight an urge to take a quick peep inside. She had visions of velvet covered tables, darkened walls hung with heavy drapery, shelves filled with vases and jars containing herbs, essential oils, pearls and gems, yada yada yada. Laying center mass of it all would be a book of incantations, tea leaves, maybe even a crystal ball, eerily reflected in the shadows of some gilt-framed mirror or something. Circling the perimeter of this would be candles. Fat ones, tall ones, skinny ones, half-melted ones…it didn’t matter just as long as there were copious amounts of candles.

Unfortunately, when she turned to look, all that met her eyes were shadows. The window shade was pulled almost completely shut, with only an inch separating it from the bottom sill. Squinting her eyes, tilting her head, Kate struggled to make out the surroundings. She thought she spotted a table sitting beside one of the walls, and what was that particular shadow to the left? Pressing her nose up against the glass, she peered harder but when the shadow moved suddenly, Kate’s head whipped backward so hard it jarred her teeth. A small shriek may have escaped her mouth, as well. Too late, she realized that what she’d just made out was the silhouette of Madame Penny herself.

Quickly pushing herself away from the building, Kate made to retreat. She wasn’t sure if she was more embarrassed at the possibility of being caught snooping, or just afraid Madame Penny would get the wrong idea about Kate’s intentions. Frankly, she didn’t believe in psychic visions—or whatever they called it. And, it’s not that Kate didn’t like the woman, she didn’t know her well enough to carve out an opinion, but Madame Penny came off a little strong and, well, eccentric. To say the least.

Kate had gained about two feet when the crack of a side door swinging open announced someone’s presence outside. More specifically, it announced Madame Penny’s presence, judging by the musical twinkle of bangles accompanying the matter.

“Kate?” Yup. That definitely sounded like Madame Penny.

Stalling out, Kate stopped. Her back to the other woman, she carefully rearranged her facial expression before turning in greeting. Madame Penny was almost on her by then, her hand reaching out to grab Kate’s elbow in her rush of reception. “I thought that was you peeking through the windows,” she said enthusiastically, just as Kate had feared.

“Oh, yeah, I was just looking around at the local shops,” she muttered inanely, hitching her shoulder a little over the words. “Trying to get the lay of the land, so to speak.” She wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Well, in that case come inside, let me give you the grand tour,” Penny said, gesturing toward the door she’d just exited.

Kate shook her head ‘no’ even while she felt her body pulled in that direction. “Oh, no. I don’t want to bother you….”

“It’s no bother at all. Come inside. I’ve got coffee on. Or tea, if you’d rather,” she insisted, all but pushing Kate’s reluctant body through the narrow entrance.

“Well, all right. But I can only stay for a minute,” Kate heard herself concede. There was really nothing else to say. She was already inside the building, and besides Madame Penny’s bulk was blocking the way out anyway. Plus, a small voice in her head chimed in, you wanted to see what her shop looked like so here’s your chance.

“Sure, sure,” Madame Penny said soothingly, as if quieting the younger woman’s fears. They were standing in a cramped hallway barricaded on every side by doorways. The one directly facing them led to the bathroom, or so the sign overhead said. Oddly enough, it was the door on the left that primarily confused Kate. It was made of glass and it looked out into rows upon rows of potted plants, sorted bouquet arrangements and lawn furniture. A florists shop?”

As if on cue, Madame Penny confessed, “I rent the space from Massie’s Flower Shop. It’s just over here, on the right.” Kate’s eyes followed the words. A curtain, hung up where a door might have been, met her look. This was presumably the opening to Madame Penny’s workspace? A curtain?

Either undaunted or unaware of Kate’s inner musings, Madame Penny swung the curtain to the side with a flourish, its plastic rings jingling against the rod support at the action. “Welcome,” she breathed.

Kate’s first impression of the setup was certainly surprising, just not in the way she expected. The room was kind of boring looking. And, truth be told, she wasn’t entirely sure if it could really be called a room. It felt more like a utility closet.

A small icebox was wedged against the back wall, the top holding a service tray with a carafe of coffee, a sugar caddy and a container of creamer resting atop it. She watched as Madame Penny opened one of its side doors to pull a saucer and a cup. Directly before it, so close it barely allowed for a walkway, was a small oval table, big enough for two, maybe three people. It was wooden. Oak and bare.

A space heater was kicked underneath the street-side window, and pushed out of the way. But it was actually the placement of a braided rug underfoot, colored with soft pinks, greens, and blues, which kept the floor from appearing hard and cold. The only other form of adornment came from the two paintings hung up on the walls: one, a picture of the night sky, stars blazing out at the spectator, the other an orchestra of flowers blossoming beside one another in a wild field; Kate found it a little amateurish. Winter Jasmine and Sunflowers would never bloom simultaneously.

“It’s small, but it’s mine,” Madame Penny said, the words tearing Kate’s inspection short, reminding her that she wasn’t alone.

Turning to smile at the other woman, Kate found she couldn’t imagine what that felt like. “You must be very proud of yourself.”

Penny shrugged this off as though it were of no consequence. “This is my life’s purpose. I’m just lucky enough to have stumbled upon it early enough to be useful,” she said, as though it were that simple. Kate felt a pang of envy at those words, at the easy acquiesce, even as they came from a person dressed in caricature.

“Listen, since you’re here why don’t I do a reading on you?” Madame Penny suggested then, her hand sweeping Kate toward a seat at the table.

“That’s okay. I don’t—,” Kate stopped, unsure how to proceed.

As it happened, Madame Penny seemed to know exactly what it was she couldn’t quite say. “You can tell me you aren’t interested in this all you like, but I’ve got eyes in my head. I saw your pert little nose pressed up against my window, your eyes searching out for answers. You weren’t just looking at the shops in town. You were looking at my shop. Because, whether you like it or not, you are… intrigued, curious,” she said, testing out the words.

“Might as well indulge yourself. And me,” she finished bluntly.

The words rankled a bit, but Kate found she couldn’t necessarily disagree with Madame Penny. It wasn’t so much what she said. Kate still didn’t buy into her profession and she wasn’t about to change on that, but she was lonely and maybe, just maybe a small part of her had been counting on Madame Penny noticing that when she’d been thrust up against the window outside.   It wasn’t that Kate was intrigued by Madame Penny, rather that Madame Penny seemed intrigued by her. Kate couldn’t remember the last time she’d been that to someone. Intriguing. And it was either sit here and play pretend or go home. All alone. The taste of that now familiar fear filled Kate’s tongue once again.

Without further ado, she took the proffered seat, dropping her heavy book bag and purse on the floor beside her feet. Within seconds, a cup of coffee was placed discreetly by her elbow, replete with a packet of sugar and creamer beside it. Stirring the contents together, Kate noticed that Penny had not poured any refreshments for herself. On the verge of questioning this, Kate was forestalled when she spied Penny reach into a filing cabinet shoe-horned in beside the icebox and retrieve from within a pack of cards. Kate swallowed back her disquiet. Apparently the psychic wasn’t thirsty.

“If you don’t have a preference, I think I’ll do a tarot card reading on you,” Madame Penny said, wasting no time. “There are many different formats available in psychic readings but I frequently find tarot cards, with their more specific instructions, easier to digest for those a bit more, shall we say, skeptical of the craft,” she said, adding half under her breath, “and of course, sometimes they aren’t! But I felt my hand tugged in their direction and I took that as a sign. Signs mean everything to me,” she told Kate deadpan.

Kate nodded, unsure what to say in response. Her stomach muscles tightening, she watched as Penny claimed her seat, the pack held loosely in her hands. They looked like cartoon trading cards. Kate wasn’t sure how seriously she could be expected to take ‘the craft’ when its supposed messengers looked as though they’d just stepped off a medieval comic strip. She kept that thought to herself however.

“Finish your coffee,” Madame Penny instructed, shuffling the deck. Kate did as she was told, swallowing most of liquid whole. She could hardly believe it herself but she was kind of, maybe, sort of excited to—

“Let’s begin, shall we?” Penny asked rhetorically, her voice cutting off Kate’s rambling thoughts, which was probably for the best. The less she confessed to herself the better.

Kate felt her head nod in response.