Madame Penny asked for compete silence from Kate. The best way to channel the universe, as she dubbed it, was to meditate, to clear the mind of any blockage, let go of any worries, knowing they would be intercepted by a higher power. From somewhere near her feet, Penny pressed the Play button on a CD player, the soft strains of some string instrument filling the room.
“Close your eyes,” Madame Penny whispered, “and picture yourself swimming in a lake. There are no waves, no ripples. It’s clear as glass. The sun is high up in the sky and the warmth of it touches the tops of your shoulders. It’s peaceful and relaxing. Picture this moment,” she repeated.
Kate let out a deep sigh and did as she was bidden.
“Now, imagine yourself swimming from one end of the lake to the other. You feel your right arm lift out of the water, rotate forward, and then delve back underneath the silky depths. Your body sways with the action. You breathe out. Then your left arm lifts up toward the sky, following the same motion. Do you feel the movements of your body? You are not tired, nor are you stressed. It’s rhythmic and as natural as breathing. Keep picturing this movement: your right arm strokes against the water and just as it submerges back downward, the left arm copies its predecessor, sweeping and descending against the current you are creating. Over and over. Over and over.”
Kate felt her breathing slow. Her arms, where they rested on her lap, felt heavy, her feet cemented to the ground as her whole concentration focused on this scene, with only the lyrical undulation of Madame Penny’s voice keeping her steadily on point, keeping her from…. Kate yawned. It was keeping her from—blinking heavily, Kate’s lids drooped, her attention foggy, confused.
Her eyes closed; this time they didn’t reopen.
Madame Penny watched in quiet amusement as Kate slowly feel asleep, her body gradually hunching forward, her neck falling forward until her chin rested against her collarbone; the poor girl was dead to the world, she thought, stifling a laugh. It was too bad really, because Penny had just been about to get to the best part of her visualization technique: Kate was nearing the end of her swim, the conclusion of which would have brought her to a quiet beach where she could lay out in the sun.
It wasn’t all together uncommon for clients to fall asleep during meditation. It took practice to keep the mind and body suspended over a state of quiet consciousness. Although for a woman like Kate, who seemed fixated on the idea of being in control, always in command of herself and her surroundings, it was rather surprising. Shrugging, Madame Penny continued to shuffle the cards in her hands. Perhaps Kate needed the rest, she considered. If that were the case, she’d let her go on dreaming for a little while longer.
Something was shining against her eyes. Kate made a soft sound her in her throat and made to turn her head away from the offending light. Just as the thought penetrated, another disruption invaded her senses: the soft pitter-patter of feet moving across the wooden floorboards underneath.
Eyes fluttering open, the first thing Kate saw was a tabletop. It was currently cradling her head where it laid, her cheek pressed up against her crossed arms. It wasn’t Kate’s table. Remaining there for a moment, confusion flooded Kate’s senses. Where was she?
The sudden ping of a metallic lock pushing into place reminded her that, where ever it was, she wasn’t alone. Jerking upward, back into a seated position, Kate’s eyes frantically followed the noise, seeking out its source. They landed on none other than Madame Penny, who’d half-turned at the commotion of Kate’s awakening, her hands pressed up against the filing cabinet.
“What?” Kate asked disoriented, clearly unprepared for such a sight. “What am I—what?”
“You feel asleep during the reading,” Madame Penny filled in, coming back to the table to sit opposite of her.
“Reading?” Kate asked, still out of it.
“That’s it,” Penny confirmed matter-of-factly.
When that didn’t clear up the expression on Kate’s face, Penny continued: “Don’t you remember? You must be really out of it.” She chuckled. “I saw you outside my window? You came in for a tarot card reading” she prompted, stressing the last word pointedly. “We were just in the middle of a meditation activity…any of this ringing a bell?”
And then Kate did remember. She’d been swimming in a lake—her arms propelling her body, back and forth. “I feel asleep?”
“Like a newborn baby,” Penny told her, her tone laced with humor.
“What time is it?” Kate asked instinctively. Translation: how long had she been out for the count?
“It’s a little after three,” Penny supplied. Translation: for almost two hours.
Kate felt her cheeks redden as waves of embarrassment washed over her. She couldn’t believe she’d done that! To a stranger. Well, maybe not a stranger, but close enough. Kate had barely been able to go to sleepovers, even as a teenager, thanks to serve bouts of homesickness yet here she was now, caught taking a catnap—in a professional arena no less—just as though it were no big thing. What the hell was wrong with her?
“I am so sorry,” she began to say, shoveling her hair over her shoulder, completely without regard to order or neatness.
“No apologizes necessary,” Penny assured her.
“I guess I was more tired than I thought.” Kate tried to sound glib in an effort to salvage some of her pride, to mask her deep mortification. It didn’t work. “I haven’t been sleeping very well.” Snapping her mouth shut, Kate decided that was probably more information than she needed to divulge, and to Madame Penny of all people.
“I thought as much,” Madame Penny said knowingly. At Kate’s curious look, she went on: “You have circles under your eyes…plus your carriage seemed weighted when you first arrived,” she said bluntly. “Mediation sweeps the mind of its overriding anxieties and stressors. Yours was so exhausted from this detoxification it shutdown completely, reveling in the coveted and obviously unaccustomed state of an easeful and tranquil slumber.”
Pinned down by the blueness of those eyes, Kate knew she had been right in her phobia of over-sharing with this woman. Madame Penny had that look on her face, the same one she’d worn the other day at the coffee shop, like she smelled a story.
“I’m not sure about all of that. Probably I just need to get acclimated to the new house, new area—different sounds and stuff like that,” Kate said, purposefully vague.
“It can be difficult, I imagine, venturing out and starting a new life,” Madame Penny mused, her eyes steady on Kate’s averted gaze. “But know this, just because you chose to ignore something doesn’t mean it’s not still there, in your mind. It doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking about it. Consciously or unconsciously, awake or otherwise,” she added meaningfully.
“It was one nightmare,” Kate blurted out. Immediately, she regretted the words, her lapse in silence at Penny’s provocation.
“Want to talk about it?” Madame Penny asked. There was no mistaking the triumph in her posture. She’d hoped to make Kate crack and she’d succeeded.
“If I wanted to talk about it I’d have done so already,” Kate snapped, feeling a bit like a caged animal. Maybe she’d have been better off just going home earlier.
“All right, all right, I won’t push.”
“Too late for that,” Kate whispered loudly. Madame Penny said nothing in response. She knew better. She’d gotten a reaction out of Kate and, for the time being, that was good enough for her.
“Well, since you’re up would you like to know what I discovered from the reading?” She asked, changing the topic without qualm.
“You were still able to do that, even while I was, you know?” Kate insinuated, diverted from her earlier resolve at this newfound information. She’d have figured Madame Penny stopped at the sound of her snoring.
“Well, yes of course. Your presence is only superficial in matters such as these. The universe knew what you needed to hear, what questions you sought answers to, long before your head hit the table,” she assured her amusedly.
“Oh,” Kate said stupidly. She wasn’t sure what else to say. It was one thing to agree to have a reading performed, but it was quite another to sit by quietly by while someone told her what her future held—Kate’s freewill notwithstanding.
Madame Penny quickly rose to her feet and twisting a little to one side, with the pinch of her finger, opened the filing cabinet once more. Reaching inside its depth, her hand scuffled around for a moment before presenting the pack of cards. It felt a little like déjà vu to Kate. Hadn’t they done this before?
“I thought you already did the reading?” Kate asked, speaking her thoughts aloud.
“Then why are you taking those out again?” Kate asked, gesturing toward the deck in Penny’s hand.
“I’m not going to reshuffle them, if that’s what you mean. No, no. It’s redundant to do the same reading twice,” Penny said absently.
Kate blinked, more confused than when she’d originally asked the question. Reshuffle them? Do another reading? What?
As she was ought to do, Penny seemed to sense Kate’s consternation, saying further: “I just thought you’d like to see the cards I’d pulled—that’s why I brought them back out,” she clarified. “Sometimes the physical existence of them, their tangible message, is easier to comprehend then the mere mention of them.”
“I only put them away so you wouldn’t knock them over in your, um, state of slumber,” she said, her hands deftly laying out the top three cards from the pile.
“I did a traditional three card layout—it’s a general reading focusing on where you’ve been, where it’s lead you, and where you’re still headed,” Madame Penny continued, her voice brisk but educational. Slowly she turned the cards, one by one, face up.
Kate looked down. Checking the impulse against knee-jerk deprecation, instead she allowed her eyes to thoroughly scan each one, her attention sober and intent as she processed the images, and their representing notations, shown before her.
They read as follows:
Present: the Hermit
Future: the Sun
“Now don’t be alarmed by what you see here,” Penny warned, her fingernail tapping against the first of these symbolic articles. “The Death Card is often mistaken—it does not imply a physical loss, rather an end to something previously known. It’s placement in your past intimates a recent change in your life’s purpose…though I suppose one doesn’t need to be psychic to have realized that,” she added dryly.
Penny continued: “This is usually a hard transition, because the Death Card is accompanied by a simultaneous fear of the unfamiliar yet a constant urge to find something different. But know that it’s inclusion here—in your past—is deliberate, telling you that you made the right decision, warning you not to go back to that idea, that place-in-time….”
Kate hardly heard Madame Penny; she hardly thought to listen, the psychic’s voice drowned out by Kate’s own inner-musings, her own personal discernment. Kate knew what each card meant; she didn’t need their significance interpreted by an outsider. And with that knowledge came a sense of release, of peacefulness that even the meditation hadn’t quite accomplished.
Her life wasn’t over, rather reincarnated. She was no longer a part of her past. It was gone, done, over. Brighter days were ahead, and when she finally decided to come out of reclusion—when she finally healed herself—the sun would be there ready to kiss her in welcome.
Twenty minutes later, as Kate was walking up to her front door, having just left Madame Penny’s House of Intuition, she was surprised to find a woman standing under her covered porch, waiting patiently it seemed for just such an arrival. She wasn’t a woman Kate had ever met before, but Kate figured she was getting used to that—Whestleigh wasn’t shy when it came to strangers. The woman appeared to be holding a baked goody of some kind in her hand, if the plastic wrap covering the disposable dish was anything to go by.
“Hello,” Kate said, as she mounted the steps to stand beside her.
The woman smiled in greeting. She appeared to be in her mid-fifties. “Hello. My name is Anne Ganthy. I live just two houses down,” she said, pointing down the street. The home, an off-white clapboard cottage, was small but quaint, the grounds immaculately trimmed, yet overflowing with flowers. “Anyway, I-I stopped over to say: welcome to the neighborhood!” she added awkwardly, the enthusiasm slightly false. With that she thrust the pan, which Kate could now see held chocolate cake of some kind, into Kate’s unsuspecting hands.
“Oh, well, thank you! I’m Kate McDonald,” Kate supplied, fumbling the aluminum sheet to her left hand. Holding out her right, which was quickly grasped and shaken, she smiled in return.
“I wanted to come over the other day but I saw you had, er, company,” that lady said. There was something in the way she said that last bit which unnerved Kate.
“Well, this was awfully kind of you,” she responded instead, deciding to let the comment pass unquestioned. Reaching inside her pocket, she carefully retrieved her keys. Inserting them into the keyhole, all the while balancing her cake, Kate clumsily undid the lock.
“Please forgive my tardiness in making your acquaintance,” Anne started in again, apparently not to be put-off. “Let me assure you, all of us on Eveleth Ave are anxious to meet you. I wouldn’t want you to think our little community was unfriendly.” She trilled in laughter at this small joke.
“How could I think anything of the sort?” Kate asked, feeling oddly comforted by the sentiment behind this woman’s visit. She’d heard of such concepts as welcoming committees before, but in her estimation it had always measured up to nothing more than folk lore. Apparently it was actually a thing. “This whole town has been nothing but inviting and gracious since I’ve moved here. It’s been, well, really uplifting for someone new to the area.”
Anne frowned a little of the words. “Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but…Listen, you do want to be discreet within your, er, associations. The people around here, well they can get to talking…. That is to say, Whestleigh prides itself on the reputation of the society it keeps,” she explained rather obtusely.
Kate felt her head tilt a little to one side at the words. They sounded ominous, and ironically, a little less than friendly. “Excuse me?” she asked then, and to someone who knew her well, it was done so icily.
“Well that psychic woman, what’s her name?”
“Madame Penny,” Kate offered, though she doubted the woman’s name actually eluded Anne.
“Yes, well, I saw the two of you chatting the other day, and I happen to know she was over here the other night. If I were you I’d be careful of being seen together too frequently. She’s not made much of a name for herself around here, if you catch my drift. Frankly, she’s considered: weird, peculiar, an outcast,” she said exhaustively, waving her hand in the air expressively. “I’m merely trying to offer up some helpful advice. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Just what kind of impression are you hoping to leave on our townsfolk? You seem like a nice, respectable young woman, that’s all I’m saying.”
Kate felt her mouth drop open. She couldn’t believe she’d just heard all of that nonsense. She wasn’t sure where the energy came from. She wasn’t even entirely sure she was upset on Penny’s behalf. She was weird and peculiar and those were traits Kate didn’t think the psychic found all that insulting. Rather it was the way that Anne had said it, with such scathing holier-than-thou judgment that did Kate in. If Kate didn’t know any better, she’d swear she was talking to her own mother.
Swap out Anne’s dark brown hair for a blonde coif and change her slacks for a couture skirt with a silk blouse and they could be dead-ringers for one another. Kate couldn’t count the number of times she’d come home to find her mother waiting in the kitchen, her fingers tapping against the jut of her hipbone, her mouth turned downward. This scene always precluded the onslaught of a lecture. Lectures about Kate’s daily choices and opinions, almost all of which her mother found fault within. Lectures which Kate knew as the only mother-daughter bonding offered in her household.
Her mother—the great Calida McDonald—would wonder why in the world her eight year old daughter had decided to play football with the Douglass brothers, who lived down the block. Hadn’t she been brought up like a proper young lady? And why, when she was in the seventh grade, had her only child thought it would be a good idea to visit the planetarium instead of the Manuscript Library? Where was her culture, her class? And how about the time that Kate had befriended the Larson girl from her geometry class? She’d been picked on at school for her wardrobe choices. Kate had taken her shopping. Calida had damn near burst in half when she found out just who Kate was seen with—an inferior little girl of no-stock.
Kate had always bowed down to her mother. She’d loved that split second after these go-rounds when Calida would smile lovingly, pat Kate on the shoulder (sometimes even bring her in for a hug), explaining that she was only trying to protect her daughter and Kate would understand one of these days just how much. She’d go on to say how proud she was when Kate inevitably collapsed to her bidding. She had a truly wonderful daughter, didn’t she?
She sincerely doubted her mother was saying anything of the sort nowadays, but she supposed she didn’t really know, did she? Kate had never gotten up the nerve, even at twenty-eight years of age, to tell her mother ‘no.’ She’d never challenged her, forced her voice into existence, she’d never been able to argue that what Calida wanted and what Kate wanted were not the same thing. She’d just run away, escaped into the night. But she was done with that. Here. Now.
Kate felt her hand curl around the doorknob. “I suppose you’re right. It is of great consequence with whom I chose to fraternize.” She gave Anne a saccharine smile, a disguise to hide the blow of her next words. “Which is why I’ll kindly ask you to leave. Right now.”
Anne’s noisily indrawn breath was as far as Kate allowed her to get in retort.
“I will not be bullied, coerced or shamed into this arbitrary and antiquated format for propriety and social suitability, especially by a woman whose nerve is such to speak to a veritable stranger in this manner.”
With that, Kate felt her wrist twist, the knob turning over in her hand. Tucking the cake against her elbow, because she refused to give it back to the conniving woman, Kate pushed the door open. Striding over the threshold she spared Anne, standing, shocked, her mouth contorted in stupefaction, one last glance before promptly swinging the door shut once again.
Breath coming out rapidly, knee’s wobbling uncertainly, adrenaline taking over, Kate stumbled backward, her body sagging thankfully against the door she’d only just closed behind herself. Safely protected from the piranha outside by its secure bulk, nonetheless, she could still hear Anne talking quietly to herself as she made to exit Kate’s property, muttering something about how she’d never been treated so poorly in her life and what was this world coming to? Kate had shut the door on that woman’s face. Feeling the force of this realization with wonder, Kate corrected this statement. No, she’d slammed the door on that woman’s face. And it had felt kind of good. It had felt amazing.
This same foreign state of impulsiveness encouraged Kate to take her phone out of the back pocket of her pants, along with the business card Madame Penny had given Kate at the end of their session together, the psychic’s office number boldly printed across its glossy length. Without thought, Kate punched its numeric sequence into her keypad and hit the call button. Putting the phone up to her ear she waited for the line to be picked up on the other end.
“Hello?” Kate heard after the third ring.
She didn’t need further encouragement. “The nightmare I had, it was about my ex-fiancé. But that’s all I want to say on the matter,” Kate said breathlessly, “I-I don’t believe in dream interpretations, I’ve never bought into the idea that they are the windows to our souls, so please don’t go there.”
“Okay,” Madame Penny said, sounding out the word slowly, probably unsure what to say in reaction to this preamble-less confession.
Kate felt the sigh that expulsed out her mouth intensely. “I’m not even sure why I’m telling you this,” she admitted, the emotion which had buoyed her into making the call having suddenly abandoned her.
“Sometimes the simple act of admitting to something relieves you of its power, its hold over you,” Madame Penny offered in answer.
“Yeah, maybe,” Kate said, chewing on the bottom of her lip—a habit her mother had spent many years trying to break her from.
The line remained silent for a beat.
“Was there anything else you didn’t want to talk about?” Madame Penny asked, the slightest note of amusement trailing the question.
Actually there was, Kate thought, her confrontation with Anne only too fresh in her mind. “Someone dropped a dessert off at my place tonight, a sort of housewarming gift I guess.”
“Yes?” Madame Penny prompted when Kate stopped there.
Kate cleared her throat, unused to the sensation of vulnerability rushing through her. “Well, how do you feel about chocolate cake?”
“Are you offering?” Penny returned eloquently.
Madame Penny smiled softly, the dim light coming off a table lamp casting a pink glow around her closet-cum-office, making it look almost beautiful. “In that case, I love it.”