Kate dropped out of her Romantic Literature class. She figured it was the lesser of two evils: that or drop out of college all together. Definitely, she couldn’t face the humiliation of that again. Not this year. She still had Art History, the Shakespeare program (so she hadn’t ditched the English language entirely) and a pottery class. Those would keep her sufficiently occupied but not overwhelmed.
Absently running her thumb over the glossy length of the novel in her hands, Kate supposed she’d been partially right. She hadn’t been overwhelmed. Not after that. In fact, she hadn’t realized just how underwhelming three classes would be. The raised letting of some up-and-coming author’s penname skipped across the pad of her thumb—it wasn’t like she got a lot of homework in pottery. Adding another, different course to her workload was out for obvious reasons (been there, done that, failed miserably) so she’d decided to get a job instead. Something part time, just enough to conquer the boredom but remain undemanding. Something which wouldn’t come between her studies…something to quell the slight regret that she’d hadn’t measured up to the challenge of it all.
The LitLiber had seemed only too obvious. It was exactly the kind of environment she craved. Low-key, chill, a job she wouldn’t take home with her. So she’d applied. Maybe her resume was the product of good timing—surely the staff looked nothing short of harassed by the ratio of patrons. Or maybe it was the look on Jake’s face when he came out to talk with her, a cross between flattery and remembrance. Maybe it was neither, maybe it was both…either way:
“The job’s yours if you want it,” he’d said after the shorted interview of her life. Sitting in the bookstore’s small café, only a small bit of table separated him from Kate. “Though I must say, looking over your credentials, it’s clear to see you’re entirely over-qualified.”
Kate had shrugged. “That’s subjective I suppose. I’ve never worked with books before, so I doubt my past experiences will be of much use.”
Jake had grinned at this, not fooled by her elusive response. “Don’t be so modest. I’m sure you’d be an asset here. So, what do you think, would you like to work with us?”
“Yes,” she’d said without reservation. “Very much.”
That had been five days ago. She’d since completed her training, passing her skill review with a perfect score. In fact, today marked her first solo shift. Turning the paperback over her in palm, Kate celebrated that, all-in-all, it had gone rather smoothly. Granted, she should have been done twenty minutes ago, but the arrival of a shipping order, earlier than expected, had kept her. Jake wanted those books on the shelves post-haste. Not wanting to look like a slacker, she’d volunteered to stay late.
“Would you like some help?” The words, coming unexpectedly from off to Kate’s left, gave her a start. Immediately she recognized the voice belonging to that question, even before casting her eyes that way. Jake.
“No, no, I’ve got it,” she said quickly, nervously. Was she not going fast enough?
“Yeah, yeah. Move over,” he retorted easily, coming to stand beside her. Reaching inside the book trolley he took out a stack of novels. Quickly, mechanically he started inserting them into their appointed slots.
“Suit yourself.” Kate shrugged, returning to the pile in her own hands. Meticulous, she placed the books on the wooden panels. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched Jake—he’d managed to put away ten to her three.
“I feel ridiculously slow compared to you,” Kate joked lamely, but she wasn’t kidding. Embarrassment flared.
“Well, to be fair, I’ve been stocking books here since I was fourteen years old. Probably even earlier,” he confessed, reaching inside the cart yet again. Showoff. “Nepotism had nothing to do with it, I assure you.”
“Oh? Is this a family business?” Kate asked, momentarily distracted from proving what a hard worker she was, distracted from trying to compete with his deft maneuvering.
Jake laughed. “I forget sometimes that you’re new to town,” he said. “Yes, this store was founded by my grandfather. I took it over when he passed away.”
Kate nodded, mumbling her condolences awkwardly, unsure what to say.
“Thank you. It’s been almost four years now,” he said softly and it was obvious Jake had been very fond of him.
Kate nodded her head, not sure what to say back. Instead, a strange sort of silence fell between them. Kneeling down, Kate shuffled some books around, making room for a new addition in the ‘P’ section.
“Psst.” The sudden sound, emerging through a gap in the orderly row of books, and coming from the other side of the shelving-rack, startled Kate. She knocked over a couple titles.
“Sorry,” she muttered to Jake, grabbing for the books anxiously. She decided not to comment on the hissing sound one aisle over. Hopefully he hadn’t heard it anyway. Closing her eyes, she prayed that Madame Penny, who she was downright positive had perpetrated the noise, would go away. This was not the time to be caught fraternizing with the customers. Not with her boss right there.
“Psst.” It was louder this time. “Kate?”
That sealed it. Jake heard it. Raising an eyebrow, he appeared to be fighting back a grin. “I think someone’s trying to get a hold of you,” he whispered at her, mimicking Penny’s urgent undertone.
“It would seem so,” she said apologetically, but she didn’t make any move in response. Ducking her head, she resumed her work, wedging a piece of work forcefully into a spot too narrow to fit its hefty breadth.
“Kate? Kate! It’s me, Penny.”
“Aren’t you going to find out what she needs?” Jake asked Kate, who was doing her level best to pretend she couldn’t hear the one-sided conversation playing out on the other side of the bookshelf.
Smiling up at him tightly, she nodded her head. What else could she do? If she didn’t, he might think she wasn’t a very good customer service agent. Not to mention, she doubted Madame Penny was going to shut up anytime soon. With a soundless sigh, she stood up, the remaining inventory left, abandoned at her feet, as she preceded down that aisle, onto the next.
Rounding the corner, her lips pressed into a tight line, Kate had little trouble spotting her intruder. Penny was crouched down, her face shoved against a line of paperbacks, her eyes searching for Kate’s outline….
“Penny, come here,” Kate demanded in a hushed tone.
For once, Penny did as requested. “Oh, I’m so glad I found you,” she started to say.
“Penny, I’m at work. My boss is right over there,” she said in an outraged whisper.
“I know, I know. I wouldn’t bug you normally.” Kate had some doubts about that. “But this is an emergency.”
With anyone else, Kate would have taken that at face value but what Penny considered an emergency, heaven only knew.
“What happened?” Kate asked.
“My sister just called me. It would appear she’s back in town—for the moment, at any rate,” Penny said drily.
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” Kate said, latching onto what she thought was most pertinent in the previous sentence.
“Well, actually, she’s my step-sister. My ex-step-sister,” Penny clarified. “We aren’t close.”
Kate was fast losing her patience. “Okay?”
“Listen, I need you to do me a favor. She wants to get together tonight and have like a “family dinner” or something. Hah! More likely, a sadistic reunion of dysfunction,” she said, her face contorted. “Like we were ever actually a family.”
“What do you need me to do?” Kate asked, concerned now, especially after the delivery of Penny’s last line. It held a mixture of resentment and pain. Besides, after all Penny had done for Kate in recent weeks, there was little she wasn’t entitled to.
“We haven’t seen each other in fifteen years—her choice—not since our parents divorced,” Penny explained hoarsely. This time there was no mistaking the hurt that echoed. “She just up, you know, and left. No note, no nothing. I haven’t heard or seen from her since then. And now, she just causally informs me that she’s here and she wants to get together. Like it’s nothing,” Penny scoffed.”
“I see,” Kate said, though she doubted she saw anything.
“If you ask me, she should have just stayed gone. I, for one, have nothing to say to her. But then my feelings don’t count for a whole lot, not with her.” The last part was said under Penny’s breath. “Please Kate. I need you. You’d be a natural buffer, a conversation piece. I don’t think I could stomach it alone.”
“Yeah, yeah of course I’ll come,” Kate assured her. This ex-step-sister must mean a lot to Penny if she was willing to go through with this get-together. Regardless of her demonstrations to the contrary, Kate doubted Penny would have ever agreed to it, if some small part of her hadn’t truly wanted to.
“You will? Oh! Thank you,” Penny said, her fingers reaching out to grab hold of Kate’s wrist. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Sure. No problem. But uh, listen, I’ve got to get back to my job now,” Kate told her, with a speaking glance over her shoulder, remembering suddenly that they were still at the LitLiber, that Jake had probably heard every word they’d just said, and that she was still on the clock.
“Yeah, yeah. Uh, show up at my place around 5pm?”
“Sounds good,” Kate agreed, gently shooing Penny away.
“And dress casually!” If Penny’s voice carried over that last statement, at least Kate could reconcile herself to the fact that she—and her big mouth—were heading toward the exit finally.
Without loss of time, Kate fetched herself back to where she’d been working before Penny’s intrusion. Jake was still standing there, though, by now, the entire shipment of books had been put away. Oh no, had he been waiting for her?
“I’m so sorry about that,” Kate rushed to say, sure she was inches away from a lecture about proper use of company time. How unprofessional could she get?
Jake brushed her words aside with the swipe of his hand. “Kate, its fine. To except that people’s personal lives won’t sometimes interfere with work is entirely naïve. It’s not like sometimes we won’t, oh I don’t know, ask you to stay late,” he said meaningfully. “That runs interference in just the same way.”
“Okay,” she said ineptly, “Um, thanks for finishing the rest of this without me,” she said, indicating the fully-stocked shelves.
“No worries. Now you should have plenty of time to get ready for your evening dinner,” he said with a wink.
“Heard that, did you?” she asked.
“I did,” he confessed and then, with a more serious tone of voice, added: “I know Penny. We grew up together. You probably don’t even know what your presence tonight will mean to her—what her childhood was like, but know this: you’re doing a fine thing. It’s none of my business, of course, but I’m happy to see she’s found such a good friend in you.”
Interest piqued, Kate wondered just how much of Madame Penny she had yet to meet. “She’s been a pretty amazing friend to me.”
“She certainly has a way about her, doesn’t she?” Jake asked with such obvious affection Kate felt a moment’s envy. She doubted any of her old friends back home had ever talked so selflessly about her, without some hidden agenda. Penny was luckier than she knew.
“Have you met her step-sister? Ex-step-sister?” she asked. Forewarned is forearmed.
“Yes. I have.” Jake said guardedly. It was said without disgust or shame. Indeed, it sounded almost gentle.
Kate pulled up to Penny’s house at 4:45pm. She figured the other woman would welcome reinforcements as early as possible. After leaving the LitLiber she’d rushed home to shower, don a bright yellow sundress, coupled with a chunky necklace in the shape of a sunflower, and apply the lightest brush of mascara to her person, before heading right back out the door. Jake’s words spurring her on, she felt suddenly protective of Madame Penny.
Knocking on the door, Kate couldn’t help being aware of the house across the street. Shimmying for cover, she hoped the tall, yellow Witchhazel shrug would sufficiently hide her person from sight, from potentially prying eyes. She didn’t look forward to any more chance meetings with Penny’s neighbor, like ever again….
Lost in her musings, she was brought back to reality by the opening of the front door.
“Oh God, I’m so glad you’re here,” Penny said in preamble, her expression tight in greeting.
“I hope it’s all right that I’m early…” Kate said, her voice trailing off.
“It’s more than all right,” Penny assured her forcefully. Waving Kate forward she welcomed: “Come in, come in.”
“Do you need help with anything?” Kate asked softly, stepping inside. Penny seemed a little unhinged.
“Do you cook?” Penny asked. “I could use some help finishing up my popovers.”
“Popovers?” Kate asked disparaging. She was more of a microwave-ready type of chef. Anything more complex than that and she ordered out. It was a McDonald clan tradition.
“Nevermmind,” Penny said, leading the way to her kitchen, “At least you can keep me company.”
Kate followed behind her. The room, she saw, squeezing inside its confines, was small to the point of miniscule—undoubtedly more of a kitchenette. What with Penny’s curvy proportions, an intrusive composter, and wall-to-wall cabinets and drawers, Kate found herself wedged up against the pantry closet, her elbow resting against the room’s singular window.
“It smells delicious in here,” Kate said, wrinkling her nose. That was no lie. The air wafted out a warm, smoky scent that sent Kate’s stomach into overdrive.
“Ah—our family’s secret sauce,” Penny responded knowingly. “I basted it over the rainbow trout. You do like fish don’t you?” Troubled eyes latched onto Kate, as though the question only just occurred to be asked.
“I love fish,” Kate said. That was perhaps stretching it a bit, but Penny didn’t need any more worries. Besides, it had a heavenly aroma.
Madame Penny nodded her head in acceptance of this before placing the cornbread mixture into the oven. “That’s good because we’re also having clam chowder for starters.”
“You really went all out,” Kate said impressed.
“Hah,” Penny said, slamming the over door shut with her hip. “For all the good it’ll do me. Margaret will probably contend, in the passive-aggressive manner she perfected in childhood, that I picked it up from a restaurant somewhere. As though she’s the only person in the world who can read a recipe,” she muttered.
Kate gulped. Well, at least she knew Penny’s sister’s name now.
“You know, I really love the color of the walls in here,” Kate redirected, her eyes making a point of traveling along the peachy-hued paint running the length of the room, between jutting cupboards and appliances.
“It’s like she always needed to prove to me that she was better. She ran faster than I did, completed her homework quicker…she was always in competition with me. No doubt she’ll regale us tonight with tales of her culinary abilities!”
“You know, the last time I was here I only really saw the living room. I’d love a tour of the place,” Kate said, but she may as well have been talking to the walls…
“She’ll probably have created a meal just the same as this, only it’ll have been richer, more proportional, the cream thicker, et cetera et cetera.”
Kate gave up. Her attempts at distraction hadn’t worked anyway. “You said it’s been fifteen years,” she reminded Penny, “maybe she’s changed.”
“No. no-no,” Penny said, wagging a finger close to Kate’s nose. “You are not allowed to defend her.”
“I’m not,” Kate promised, holding up her hands in self-defense. “I just thought, maybe…I don’t know. She could be different. That’s all. I know I’ve changed from the person I was before.”
Blowing out her breath, Madame Penny dropped her hand back down at her side. “In her case, I doubt it highly.”
Two hours later, a bemused Kate sat looking down at the half-consumed fish on her plate. The conversation (if you could call it that) between sisters, strategically placed one on either side of Kate, went, momentarily unheard, over her head. She was too busy trying to absorb what she’d learned in the last hour to pay much attention.
Margaret Thayer, commonly referred to either Maggie or MT—something she’d invited both Kate and Penny to call her—was a pastor. Good Christ, the woman was a pastor! And that, that was only the beginning of the polarities. Maggie was tall, standing at probably five feet eight inches. Reed thin, she had ash blonde hair cut in a short bob across her chin. She had a look of porcelain grace. Of course, genetic resemblances would hardly factor into step-sisters but the contrast was startling nonetheless.
Where Penny was sarcastic, to the point of hostile, Maggie was demure, almost apologetic in her speech and manner. Try as she might, Kate couldn’t find a competitive bone in the pastor’s attitude. That seemed to be coming from Penny alone; the famous Hamlet line popping into her head, Kate wondered if Penny doth protest too much!
“I was very sorry to hear of your mother’s passing, Penny,” Maggie said, her words bringing Kate’s attention back to the present. She hadn’t realized Penny’s mother had died..
“Not sorry enough to come to her funeral though. Not that I was surprised,” Penny responded bluntly.
Maggie had the grace to look ashamed. “Unfortunately, I was holding a mission trip in Africa during that period. I couldn’t make it back to the States in time.”
“How providential. I believe mass means of travel has always been your excuse,” Penny retorted, her fork stabbing into the flaky fish with enough force to break her plate in two.
In counter, Maggie placed her fork discreetly beside her dish. “I’m so sorry Penny. I was young. I didn’t know what I was doing, how much it would hurt you. I just, I didn’t know.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve made mistakes, I won’t deny that—”
Penny snorted. “Well, don’t let me keep you from a guiltless conscience. It wasn’t your responsibility. You made that emphatically clear. I wasn’t—and still, am not— your responsibility.”
Kate had sinking suspicion they weren’t just talking about the funeral anymore.
“I’m not the same person I once was,” Maggie said urgently.
“How convenient for you,” Penny said smarmily. “Me, well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”
Maggie straightened her back at these words. “I expect I’m happy to hear that, at least.”
Pushing her plate away, Penny leaned across the table. “Why are you even here? After all this time, why now—you never seemed inspired during any of the other fifteen years spent without any form of communication. What’s changed?”
“Oh Penny, this was hardly a rash decision. I’ve wanted to see you, to talk to you, and touch you, oh, every day that’s passed since.”
“Then why didn’t you?” The words tore across the expanse between them.
“There were so many reasons, I suppose, but none of them good enough. I know that now. At first I was just so scared, so lost—I guess, I’d convinced myself I needed to find me before I could find you. I thought it would be better that way; I wanted to believe that I was saving you, but I was wrong. And by then, so much time had gone by it seemed easier somehow to stay away, to hide from the reality of what I’d done. But I never stopped missing you, I never stopped loving you. Not once.” Maggie’s voice cracked. “I’m sorry it took me so long, sorrier than you’ll ever know. But I’m here now and I have to hope—”
“You’re here now? What, am I supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at that?” Penny asked, cutting Maggie off.
“I just meant, I wanted you to—”
“To what? To forgive you?” Penny asked roughly. “Is that it? You came all this way, after all this time, for my forgiveness? You expect me to just forget about all that’s transpired? To be thankful instead, that you decided to grace my dining room with your presence?”
“No, Penny that’s not—”
“Newsflash: I’m not interested in what’s expedient for you. I mean, who do you think you are? ‘Please forgive me so I can feel better about myself!’” Penny’s voice was sharp in mockery. Kate sat, shocked. She’d never heard Penny so cynical, so angry. Before tonight, she wouldn’t have thought the psychic had it in her to be either. Kate knew presence here tonight had been for the sole purpose of avoiding this very confrontation, but it hadn’t been enough; the hurt went too deep.
For still, Penny wasn’t finished: “Are you kidding me with all of this? That sort of cheap, instantaneous confession may work with Catholics but around here, not so much.”
“You know I’m Lutheran, don’t you?” Maggie asked and then, before Penny could say anything to response, continued, “Never mind. I-I’m not expecting you to forgive me. At least, I pray that someday I may be given a chance to atone….”
That didn’t sound promising, even to Kate’s mystified ears. Neither of the girls had directly mentioned the past but it was obviously weaved into every aspect of their dialogue and, poor friend that Kate was, she was almost desperately curious about what had happened to them. They must have been close once otherwise whatever it is that Maggie had done to Penny wouldn’t have hurt so much, the wound would’ve healed by now.
“All I’m asking for is a chance to…to get to know you again, to reintroduce you to who I am, who I’ve become,” the pastor said, her voice grabbing Kate’s attention. She had a presence about her. No doubt she was good in front of a captive audience on Sunday mornings. “I’d just like to spend time with you—if you’ll allow it.”
“And you’re hoping to accomplish all of this within, what, a week? I’m only assuming that’s the extent of your vacation here?”
Smiling nervously, Maggie spoke, “Actually, I’m not on vacation. I…well, I officially accepted a position as the Worship Pastor at Good Shepherd, only just this morning.”
Wasn’t there a Good Shepherd on Pickett Avenue? Kate’s mind whirled, picturing the small chapel she passed every morning on her way to school.
“What?” The chair scratching against the wood flooring, Penny pulled her body into an upright position.
Other than swallowing thickly, MT didn’t seem all that taken aback by this explosive response. “I’m moving back to Whestleigh, Penny.”