North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Four

What was it about her shop lately, Penny wondered fleetingly—everyone and their mother, it seemed, felt compelled to just drop by unexpectedly, seeking all sorts of random advice (like she was some columnist in the newspaper). All of this would be fine, of course, if even one person were interested in the spiritual world.

But there was pretty much zero chance of that, especially considering the latest in the long line of unannounced visitors who’d just passed over her threshold—

Hank Burke.

Didn’t need to by psychic to know he wasn’t here to get insight from the Angel messages.

Penny tried not to grimace when she looked up to see his unnerved person shadowed against her curtained doorway.

“Hank,” she stated drily, lifting one incredulous eyebrow at his entrance.

He nodded formally. “Penny.”

She pursed her lips. She had long ago gotten over her infatuation with the man, not the least of which had to with the fact that Maggie seemed so incredibly happy with him, that she and Hank were obviously the right choice. Penny was glad to have surrendered her chase. Hank treated Mags like…well, like she deserved to be treated.

But Penny wasn’t sure she was willing to forgive the man yet for his mocking attitude toward her profession. He’d laughed. Said he didn’t believe in her kind of hocus pocus. Granted, he’d said it kindly (she supposed) but it had rankled all the same.

And now he had the audacity to show up at her place of work?

The nerve.

Kate hadn’t understood her ceaseless grudge on this issue.

“It’s not like half the town hasn’t said the same about your psychic powers before—or worse,” she’d remarked one evening.

Penny had shrugged. “I know. It’s just—he was supposed to be different.”

“But he wasn’t. So you moved on. Isn’t that actually for the best?”

Penny had considered this for a second. “I suppose.”

“And really, isn’t it more important that he follow M.T.’s faith?”

“Yeah…”

“Do you still have feelings for him?”

Penny had made a face. “No.” And she’d meant it. Her feelings for Hank had never been real; she’d based them on an illusion of the Hank she’d made up in her mind.

“So what does it really matter?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Then learn to like him because I’m pretty sure that Maggie’s in love with him.”

….

Penny tried to hold on to that conversation as she reluctantly waved Hank inside her cramped quarters. “What can I do for you?” She enquired and then, before she could help it, Penny reached for her pack of Tarot Cards. “Questions about the future you’d like me to shed some light on?”

Hank stilled. “Ah. No. That’s, ah, that’s okay.”

“I thought not.” The sarcasm was as rich as it was uncomfortable.

Hank shifted from one foot to the next.

Penny waited him out.

Hank opened his mouth. “Penny…”

“Hank…”

He scratched the side of his head, his eyes dropping to the floor. And was that a blush working its way up his neck?

“I know we don’t know each other very well.”

Penny nodded.

“But you mean a whole lot to Maggie.”

“We’re sisters,” Penny stated simply. And they were.

“Yeah. And she really values your opinion, you know, and—”

Spit it out, Penny thought impatiently.”

“I want to marry her, Penny.”

Whoa.

“Marry her?” Penny sputtered. She hadn’t been expecting that.

“I’ve come here today to ask for your permission.”

“Permission?”

“I think she’d want that.” Hank cleared his throat. “Actually, I’m positive she’d want that. Your blessing—well, like I said, you mean a lot to her.”

“You want to marry Maggie?” Penny repeated.

“I love her.” There was no doubt about it now, Hank’s face was red.

“But—” Penny shook her head. “Give me a second here please. I’m just—this is such a surprise!”

Without warning, Hank nabbed the seat opposite Penny. She had a feeling his legs wouldn’t hold out on her much longer anyway.

“I know we haven’t been together for very long.”

Penny nodded silently.

“But—I’m sure.”

“And Maggie, how does she feel?”

“I haven’t talked to her about it. I came to you first.”

Penny was oddly touched. Still… “It is awfully quick. You’ve only been together for, like…”

“Seven months.”

“Well. Yeah.” Her voice was skeptical.

Hank sighed. “The thing is…”

Penny shook her head. “I mean, marriage—”

“I’m losing her, Penny.”

“What?” Penny was fast losing the thread of this conversation.

Hank waved his arms around furtively. “The church. Her position there. It’s, ah, put a toll on our relationship.”

“Oh.” This old thing again.

“At least, that’s what she thinks.”

“She lives in the proverbial fishbowl of practice what you preach.”

“Has she talked to you much about it then?”

Penny shrugged. “Yeah. She has.”

“And?”

“And what?”

Hank looked disgusted. “Did she tell you she was planning on talking to the council—asking them for permission to basically date me?”

Penny nodded slowly. “She did.”

Hank pounded his palm down on the tabletop. “Like they should get to decide? Pfft. Are they God?”

Penny could do nothing but shake her head. “I couldn’t agree with you more there.”

“She’s a person just like anyone else.”

“She shouldn’t have to defend her private life.”

“No more than anyone else.”

“Well…” Penny bit her lip. “But like I said—she’s got that whole ‘practice what you preach’ thing to follow. And then there’s the issue of a moral clause—though I’m not sure if that’s actually written anywhere in the bylaws, but she certainly seems to think so.”

Hank looked defeated. “Yup. She said it was the only way. She’ll have to talk to them, discuss the situation.” His lip curled. “I don’t mind her talking to the congregation about her personal life—”

“That’s a relief,” Penny felt obligated to say. “From what I hear, she does it constantly. You’d better get used to it now—”

“But there’s a line. She acts like she’s not free to have one without their say-so.”

“Especially her dating life.”

“Yeah.”

Penny was starting to get the picture. “Unless, of course, she got married. Is that it? Then she’d be off the hook to live her private life, um, privately?”

Hank’s face flushed.

“So that’s why.”

“Why what?”
“The sudden rush toward the altar.”

Hank shrugged. “I would have asked her anyway.”

“Just not quite this soon had it not been for all that.”

“I guess,” Hank mumbled.

“Hank…”

“She’s distancing herself from me. I can feel it.” Hank ran a rough hand through his hair. “Okay, so I don’t think we should have to grovel at anyone’s feet just to hold hands, but it doesn’t mean I don’t understand the responsibility she welds to the community…”

“And all the fringe conditions that go along with it,” Penny muttered.

“Exactly!” Hank insisted vehemently. “I just think there should be a limit.”

“Okay.”

“But no matter what I say, she seems convinced that I’ll eventually leave her. That I’ll grow tired of it all.”

Penny nodded. “Bracing for the inevitable.”

“I can’t get through to her.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Will you? Get tired of it?”

Hank laughed. “Probably. But I’ll never leave her.”

“Fair enough.”  Penny took a deep breath. “Still. That doesn’t sound like the best reason to get married—”

Hank looked affronted. “I’m doing it to save us!”

“Yeah. I know.” Penny looked sad. “But that’s just it. Marriage shouldn’t be used to save a relationship much like children shouldn’t be used to save a marriage.”

“You’re twisting it.”

“Maybe.”

“I love her. I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”

Penny smiled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah and—and if I don’t do something quick I won’t be able to. She’ll push me right out the door.”

Penny considered this.

Hank rubbed a hand down his face. “This isn’t going the way I planned.”

“Conversations with me rarely go the way anyone planned.”

Hank looked up at Penny. “It wouldn’t be—I want you to understand I wouldn’t be marrying her because of the church.”

“I didn’t think that was the case, but that’s good to kn—”

Hank continued doggedly. “I mean, I’m not doing it for the…ah,” he coughed. “For the ah, um…”

“Conjugal purposes?”

Hank blushed. “That either.”

Penny patted him softly on the shoulder. “Yeah. I know.”

“So what do I do?”

“Wait.”

“Wait?”
Talk to her,” Penny said. “Tell her what you told me just now. I promise you, she’ll stop running. And if she doesn’t, I’ll duck-tape her to a chair long enough to at least hear you out. You were willing to marry her just to keep dating her. That says something.”

Hank laughed begrudgingly. “Yeah. Probably that I’m a fool.”

“A fool who’s in love.”

Hank coughed.

“She’s lucky to have someone who cares so much.”

Hank looked acutely uncomfortable. “She’s a good woman.”

“One of the best.” Penny fixed him with her gaze. “You really want to marry her?”

“I do.”

“That’s all I really need to know then, isn’t it?”

Hank smiled tightly. Then, with a hesitant movement, he gained his feet. “Well. I best be going. But, um, thanks,” he mumbled, his arms gesturing emptily: “for the…well, for whatever this was. I’ll talk to her.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Penny said, smiling after him as he made it toward the door. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all.

“Oh, and Hank,” she called out as his hand reached toward the curtain. He glanced back at her. “About my blessing…”

“Yeah?”

“Ask me for it again in a few months,” Penny told him quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’ll like my response.”

Hank smiled. “I’ll hold you to it.”

“Bye.”

“Goodbye Penny.”

 

 

 

Leaning back against her chair, once Hank had finally left, Penny felt a smile inking out across her lips. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, that everybody just kept showing up here.

Hank wanted to marry Maggie.

Because Penny had believed him when he said that he loved her, that he wanted to spend his life with her—that it wasn’t for the church that he’d come asking (if perhaps her position within its walls had been the reason he’d come asking now.)

Hank wanted to be with Maggie. That’s what was most important. Wedding or not, he wanted her.

Feeling oddly emotionally in the wake of her conversation with Hank, Penny almost reached for her phone to call Kate. Only Kate was on the way to Coventon with Janessa. Wincing a little, Penny wondered how the trip was going. According to her calculations, the girl’s should be arriving in town any time now.

That only left Maggie. And obviously she couldn’t talk to her about it.

Squirming in her seat, Penny felt her glee blossom.

Maggie was going to get her happily-ever-after. Penny couldn’t think of anyone who deserved it more. She wasn’t quite sure when it had happened but, Penny could no longer imagine her life with M.T. in it. For so long she’d tried to fight it, afraid that she’d get hurt again, abandoned again.

But there it was: Penny loved Maggie. Desperately. Forever.

There it was: despite all her efforts to the contrary, Penny had let Maggie back in. And now that she had, Penny knew she’d never let her out again.

She supposed it was true, what they say: that ex step-sisters make for the best kind of family.

With a contented sigh, Penny folded her arms over her stomach. Everything was finally coming together. Kate had Jackson. Maggie and Hank. And Penny had…

Frowning, Penny straightened slowly in her chair.

Who did she have?

For the first time Penny wondered at the flash of jealousy, almost instantly squashed, that squeezed at her chest: Kate and Jackson. Maggie and Hank. Kate and Jackson. Maggie and Hank.  Penny and nobody.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

“Well that’s quite enough of that,” Penny scolded herself, frowning so deeply that creases formed around her mouth. “I’ll have none of that, cry baby.” She nodded sharply. “I’m happy for Kate and Maggie. Incredibly. Sincerely. They both deserve everything they’re getting.”

But the words rang a bit hollowly in her mouth.

It was true—Penny was happy for them—only it wasn’t the whole truth;

no matter how many times she told herself it didn’t matter, that it shouldn’t matter, Penny still felt a little sad, bereft…alone at the thought of what Kate and Maggie had.

Because Penny couldn’t share in it.

Because she desperately wanted it.

Because she didn’t have it.

Penny wouldn’t take their joy away for anything in the world, but she also couldn’t deny a longing to be in their place…

 

 

 

“Hello?”

“Hey. Hi.” A slight pause. “It’s Penny.”

“Yeah. I know. What’s up?”

“You doing anything tonight?”

“Uh. No—”

“Want to?”

A quiet chuckle. “With you?”

“Well, who else?”

“Yeah. What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t care as long as there’s booze involved.”

“Everything okay?” A note of concern wove its way into the conversation.

Penny laughed. It had a smoky, deep sound. “It will be after about four tequila sunrises.”

The other end of the line went silent for a moment. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”

“Make it half an hour and we’re good.”

Jake grinned. “Half an hour then.”

“’Kay. Bye.”

 

 

 

 

It took three pints of a local IPA and one unfortunate tequila shooter, but finally Penny was feeling no pain. Squinting across the small round bar table at Jake, she grinned. Three empty glasses and two shooters lay scattered on the hardtop between them.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Jake shouted across the din. A live band was just starting up their second set.

Leaning closer, so he could hear her, Penny was forced to shout: “Nothing.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Really, I’m fine.”

Jake smiled. “Well, sure, you are now. But that’s hardly fair.”

Penny giggled. “It’s your fault. You ordered the last round.”

“You threatened bodily harm if I didn’t.”

Penny pouted. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jake gave her a level look, not bothering to get distracted. “Come on, Penny. What’s up?”
“Nothing—”

“It’s not nothing.”

Penny shrugged. “It’s embarrassing. Stupid, really.”
“It’s not stupid to me.”

Penny blinked. “Why not?”

Jake faltered. “Because you’re my friend.”

“Yup. Got lots of those lately.”

“And that’s a problem?”

“No—”

“But?”

“But—don’t you ever feel, I don’t know, lonely?”

Jake lifted his drink slowly to his mouth. “Yeah. Sure.”

“I know it’ll pass but it’s just hard. Seeing everyone else falling in love.”

“I get that.”

“First it was Kate and Jackso—!” Slapping a hand over her mouth, eyes clamping shut, Penny felt something close to horror steal over her body. Then self-hatred. How could she have let that slip?

Opening frightened eyes, Penny forced herself to look up at Jake. He seemed frozen, his glass still halfway to his lips.

“Oh Jake!” Penny felt like an ass. “Oh God. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry—I-I don’t know what I was thinking…” Penny cried, frantically now. “I just—I’m drunk…Please don’t pay any attention to what I’m say—”

“It’s okay, Penny,” Jake said, placing his glass down on the table now. “I knew already. Kate told me.”

“She did?”

“Yeah. A few days ago.”

“Oh.” Penny nodded. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“Well, clearly I didn’t need to,” Jake pointed out.

“Right.” Penny nodded. “Are you—are you okay?”

Jake shrugged. “If you can believe it, I was kind of relieved.”

“You were?” Penny felt her face go blank. What?

Jake smiled down at his beer. “Yeah.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yeah. That’s kind of what I’m afraid of.” With a quick motion he brought his beer back up to his lips. Three long swallows and he’d emptied it. “Want to get another round?”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Two

With a painful flick of her wrist, Penny thrust on the light switch as she entered her shop. Grimacing at the assaulting yellow glow of the overhead bulbs, her hand instinctively coming to rest against her temple, her mouth letting out a whoosh of breath, Penny slowly steered her way toward the coffee…. God, she’d forgotten how terrible a hangover really was…

Last night had been—well, it had been one of the best nights in her life. There she’d been, sitting up in bed, fully clothed in a pair of leggings and a dark blue tunic with a splash of dark green fabric around the hem, staring out her window, wondering what in the world Jake had up his sleeve—

And then he’d shown up, and he’d snuck her out to his truck—and Stink Pig had been just as good as Penny remembered, and with the tequila flowing, they’d practically sparkled on the stage. And she’d danced: fast, slow, off-beat and everything in between. And she’d drank: cocktails, classics, hard stuff, and beer. But best of all, Jake had danced right along with her, meeting her drink for drink….

Cringing now, as she made her way gingerly toward her desk, Penny considered that perhaps there had been a wee bit too much drinking. Then again…smiling softly, she eased her computer bag open and pulled out her tablet computer. Nah. Never mind. Come to think of it: the hangover was worth it, after all. She wouldn’t have changed a single thing.

High on that thought, Penny opened up her email account, her eyes glancing absently down at the inbox, scrolling quickly through the subject headings, and rifling through the junk mail and advertisements, the email subscription posts and newsletters…yawning, her finger inched toward the delete button.

Save on your house loan….

Delete.

Intuitive: How to Market—

Delete.

LitLiber, Chapter Fifty-Two…

Oh. Better keep that…. Mark Unread.

Case: COOPER, FATHER FOUND

            Wait. What?

            Freezing at the words, typed in Courier New, typed in ALL CAPS, Penny’s eyes widened disbelievingly. Opening up the email, her fingers clumsy on the screen—from the fear and dread of it all, the rising anticipation and excitement, Penny  held her breath, unsure what she was waiting for exactly, what she expected to find within its body…

Her mouth moving frantically to silently sound out the words she read in her head, Penny’s stomach knotted up tight, her fingers shook a little—and her headache from before was lost, forgotten in the overwhelming news staring back at her.

She’d found Janessa’s dad.

Well, okay, actually the private investigator Penny had hired found him. (But really, what more could Janessa expect of the psychic? Penny hadn’t gotten any visions, any vibrations on the man. What else was there to do besides hire the assignment out?)

            Her breath coming slow, sputtering in the aftershock of what she’d just uncovered, Penny placed her tablet slowly, carefully down on the table…pushing it out of sight, her eyes shifted, taking in the busy sidewalk facing her storefront.

Breathe Penny.

Think Penny.

It was barely eight o’clock in the morning. Men and women, in all styles of clothing, from business professional to grungy, and casual, even touristy, walked past, their day only just beginning, fresh and ready to start a brand new day….

With a half wail, Penny realized that Janessa would be in school right about now, probably just sitting down to first period. It would be cruel to text her—to make her way some seven hours before coming over, to sit all day wondering, hoping, dreaming about the information (the potentially life-altering information) displayed oh-so-coolly across Penny’s computer screen.

Person: Mr. Paul D. Cooper. Age: 42 Occupation: UNKNOWN

Home Address: 13 Crabtree Way ——— (To Be Released Confidentially)

City: Coventon State: CT

 

Her eyes skimmed over the other details that the private investigator had seen able to report via electronic correspondence. It wasn’t much. Other information would be made available at another time, in a private, secured setting, if the client so-desired.

“Well,” Penny murmured to herself. “I guess that’s that.” Standing up, she moved to pour herself another cup of coffee.

 

 

 

As it happened, Penny hadn’t been able to wait until three o’clock to talk to Janessa. She’d barely been resigned to wait until lunchtime, the knowledge of what she had at her fingertips nearly splitting her in two. But, luckily, Whestleigh High offered off-campus school lunch periods, which meant that Janessa wouldn’t be breaking any rules if she stopped in at Penny’s between 12:00am and 1:00pm….

Which is exactly why she’d sent the text message at 11:55 am— Janessa, it’s Penny. I have news about your dad. We need to talk. Lunch?

The clock had no sooner ticked past 12:06 am then Penny  heard the front door click open, followed closely by the echo of heavy footsteps and slightly labored breathing before the thick curtain separating Penny’s shop from the outside hallway was thrust wide open, emitting the dark, snarly head of one Janessa Cooper.

“You found him,” Janessa wheezed, her breath coming out sticky and hot, the sound hitching unevenly out of her mouth. Her large blue eyes shined with so much feeling that Penny’s heart gave a great, hard lurch.

“Janessa, come, sit down,” Penny invited, waving the jumpy teenager towards a chair.

“Tell me,” Janessa insisted, not bothering to move so much as an inch. “You did find him, right?”

Penny sighed. “Yes. I found him.”

“Oh my God. I can’t believe it,” Janessa stated. “I can’t believe it.” The words, repeated, came out more slowly this time, as the full weight of the meaning seemed to settle down against her shoulders.

“I hired a private investigator to locate your father—”

“You did?”

Penny shrugged. “Psychic didn’t get a vision, okay? So I outsourced.”

Janessa nodded numbly. “Okay.”

“And, honey please sit down,” Penny pleaded.

With a lumbering step, as though she could no longer feel her feet, Janessa made her way to the small table in the center of Penny’s office, her body slipping untidily into the seat.

“I was sent an email with some information on your dad—”

“Do you know where he lives?” Janessa’s voice was soft, barely there, so light Penny almost couldn’t hear her.

Penny nodded. “Yes. That is…I don’t have his home address. But I can get it, if you’d like.”

Janessa nodded slowly.

“Where is he?”
“Pretty close by, actually,” Penny advised. “He’s in Coventon—which is about three and half hours from here.”

“You mean, he’s in Connecticut?” Janessa’s question was sharp, her head bobbing up quickly at the words, her blue eyes staring Penny down hard.

“Uh…yes?”

“All this time…” Janessa bit her lip. “He’s been here.”

Penny’s fingers fidgeting, she wasn’t sure how to respond. “Would you like to read the email?”

At Janessa’s slow, silent nod, Penny quickly pulled it up. Pushing her tablet into the younger girl’s hands, the email already on prominent display there, she stood back, biting her lip anxiously as Janessa’s eyes scrolled carefully, almost fearfully down the page.

One minute past in this fashion.

Then another.

Followed closely by a third minute…

Penny wasn’t sure what to say, what to do next. Janessa’s eyes still hadn’t unglued themselves from the bluish-glare of the computer screen, but Penny hardly thought the girl was still reading anything. The email was relatively short after all—a veritable bullet-list of highlights documenting Paul Cooper’s life, and it certainly wasn’t three minutes worth of reading.

“Janessa?” Penny asked tentatively in the silence.

At the sound of her name, Janessa’s head snapped up. Her eyes stared groggily up at Penny.

“Are you okay?”

Janessa didn’t speak.

“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in…” Penny said, her fingers clasped together in front of her body. “You don’t have to make any decisions today. Just—maybe just let information fully digest….”

Janessa rolled her eyes.

Penny tried to smile. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Janessa returned with a definitive tilt of her chin, an edge in her voice; anger simmered just below the question.

“About how you’re feeling? I can only imagine how…how—”

“You can’t imagine anything,” Janessa accused. “You don’t know anything.”

Penny swallowed difficultly. “No, of course you’re right. But if you want—I’m a very good listener. Maybe I can help you—”

“I don’t need your help!” Janessa screamed, her fist banging hard against the tabletop. Her mouth contorting into an ugly line, her face blossoming red, she stood up, the abrupt action shoving her chair back so hard it almost toppled over.

Wincing at the sound breaking out against her four walls, Penny held up her hands. “I’m sorry—Janessa, please…”

“God, just leave me alone,” Janessa sneered, pushing herself off the table and brushing past Penny, her shoulder hitting the psychic as she did so: “After all,” she added, reaching for the curtain. Her words were thick with tears. “I’m used to it, aren’t I?”

Watching her storm out of the office, terribly aware that her company was the last thing Janessa wanted or probably needed right now, Penny nonetheless knew what she had to do…. Reaching for her phone, she let out a momentary sigh as she punched in the well-remembered number. She’d have a lot of explaining to do, but she was willing even to withstand the lectures, the dramatic bits, everything…for Janessa.

 

 

 

Running, her feet skipping, slithering against the sidewalk, Janessa’s breath rasping harshly up her throat and out her parched mouth, the teenager let the tears she couldn’t shed in Penny’s office fall down her face.

Her stomach burned. It burned so hot she felt like she’d explode from the pressure, like she’d die if she couldn’t just let herself cool down. Running, frantic to get away, to hide away, Janessa’s body moving automatically, her steps steered her toward the only place she’d ever felt truly at home—

She ran to Good Shepherd Church.

Wrenching the door open at the side of the building, her shoulders quaking, eyes bloodshot now, and still the tears came streaming down her face—Janessa shot her body through the vestibule and out into the dim, hushed hallway.

A little after noon on a weekday, the building was silent except for the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights flicking haphazardly from the speckled ceiling tiles, and the slight click-clack echo of someone typing…

“Well, good afternoon darling,” Heather, the church secretary, called out then, looking up over her computer as Janessa came shortly into view. Guess that explained the typing noise…. “What can I do for you?”

Wiping the sleeve of her zippy under her nose, Janessa dropped her eyes. “I need Pastor Thayer.” And at the exaggerated silence that passed, Janessa added roughly, her eyes studying the flooring: “Please.”

Taking one good, hard look at the girl decided Heather’s answer. “Well, now, of course. Why don’t you just came in here and take a seat, while I go and get her.” Without another word, Heather was up on her feet, and shoeing Janessa into one of two chairs stationed just inside the office there. “Won’t be a minute,” she said, her feet taking her quickly down the hall.

Knocking quietly, Heather stuck her head inside M.T.’s outer office, taking a moment to smile demurely at the Parish Planning Council, all five of them, stationed around the oval table there, heads bent in serious discussion.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Heather said, “But I’m afraid Pastor Thayer is needed out in the office.”

“Is it urgent?” Gary, the head of the council, asked, turning his head to inquire nicely of Heather. “We’re right in the middle of the education board budget line….”

“I’m afraid it is,” Heather insisted. After all, the congregation should always come first.

And at that, Pastor Thayer rose graciously to her feet and, following behind Heather, soon found herself staring down at a surly, stony-faced expression—not quite what she had expected upon absconding from the PPC meeting….

“Janessa?” M.T. asked, putting a smile on her face as she greeted the girl. “What a wonderful surprise!” Reaching out her hand, she beckoned: “Come—let’s have some lunch…”

“Now tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine afternoon?” M.T. asked, putting a can of soup to heat on the oven. They hadn’t spoken once on the trip from the office to the kitchen. M.T. had wisely given Janessa that time to marshal her thoughts, regain her equilibrium, brush aside the track of tears smudged against the cheeks…

But when Janessa didn’t immediately answer, M.T. started to wonder if she hadn’t made a mistake, letting her keep quiet this long. Janessa frequently needed more prodding than most… But when she turned around, Maggie found the girl standing there, shoulders arching roundly, lips vibrating as large, silent tears—heavy, noiseless sobs—racked her body.

And within seconds, Janessa found herself cocooned in the arms she’d been dreaming about since she’d read that stupid, stupid email.

“What happened?” M.T. asked, her hands caressing Janessa’s disheveled hair. “What happened?”

And, within a matter of minutes, the whole sorry tale was revealed to Maggie, in between bouts of tears and sniffs and gargled words….

“I don’t know why I even care,” Janessa said then. “It’s not like he does. I mean, he’s three and a half hours away. All this time, and I haven’t seen him—” a wail followed the words, quickly covered up. “I thought—all my life, I thought he was dead.”

“I’m so sorry you’re hurting—”

“Why did he leave? Why didn’t he ever come back to see me?” And then: “Why doesn’t he love me?”

And for the second time since she’d shown up at the church, Janessa felt M.T.’s arms wrap themselves around her shaking body.

“Oh Janessa—oh, sweetheart….”

Pushing herself out of Maggie’s grasp, Janessa shook her head. “I thought I’d be so happy. You know, once I found out that he was alive and all. I thought—once I find out where he is, it’ll all—I don’t know. I thought….”

Janessa sighed a watery sigh.

“But I was wrong. I don’t feel better. I don’t. It just hurts more.”

M.T. nodded.

“Why?” Janessa wailed. “Why didn’t he want me?”

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure it’s not as simple as that—”

“Then why has he never tried to contact me? Why did he let me believe he was dead?”

M.T. bit her lip. “I can’t answer that question.”

Janessa’s lips quivered again.

“But I can tell you this,” M.T. said. “He sure missed out on getting to know a wonderful, special girl.”

Janessa snorted. “Whatever. You have to say that. You’re a pastor.”

M.T. laughed. “No, it’s my pleasure to say that, because it’s the truth.”

Janessa looked down at the floor, her feet scabbing nervously at the checkered tile. “What should I do?” Then, in an instant, those blue eyes were raised, staring imploringly up at Maggie.

“Have you talked to your mother?” M.T. asked quietly. She knew Janessa and her mom had a rocky, tumultuous relationship, but still, this was important— “Does she know about this?”

“Oh yeah,” Janessa scoffed. “She told me good luck and if I found him, to tell the bastard he owed her ten years back child support.”

“Oh.”

“So?” blowing out a huge breath, Janessa carefully considered her next words.

“So?”

“What should I do?”

But the pastor was too seasoned at her job to be easily manipulated into making someone else’s decisions. “What do you want to do?”

Janessa made a disgusted face. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Maggie only smiled. “All right, well answer me this: Why did you ask Penny to find your father?”
“What?” Rearing her head back, Janessa seemed caught off guard by the question.

“Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“I think you do.”

“So you think I should do it, go and see him—”

Maggie interrupted her firmly. “I think you should ask yourself if you still want to.”

 

 

 

At the sound of knocking at her front door, Kate jumped to her feet, her steps haphazard, frantic as she slipped from her living room, and slid past her kitchen, practically falling into the parlor room, her voice ringing out urgently as she went: “I’m coming, I’m coming—hold on!”

Throwing the door open, a big, tremulous smile etched across her face, Kate started down at the person she’d feared would never show up, the person she wanted to see most in the world right now.

“Janessa,” she breathed.

The teenager was pulling nervously at a loose string on the sleeve of her shirt. “Hey Kate.”

Stepping back, Kate tried to wave the girl forward. “Hey—won’t you come inside?”

“Nah,” Janessa said, shaking her head. “I’d better stay here.”

“Oh, okay,” Kate said slowly, nervously. Resting her shoulder against the door jamb, she waited, but when Janessa only stood there, Kate said: “What’s up?”

She tried to play it cool.

“I-uh,” Janessa’s mouth opened, but the words seemed to get stuck, lodged somewhere inside her throat.

“Is everything okay?” Kate probed, though she already knew the answer to that question. Still, she wanted Janessa to feel like she could talk—she wanted Janessa to talk.

“Have you ever been to a place called Coventon?”

Kate only just managed to keep a blank face. Of course, she knew what was going on here—Penny  had called her a few hours ago, guiltily filing her in on everything that had been going on between her and the young teenager these past few weeks or so; and after that, M.T. had called, wanting to give Kate the news that Janessa was fine. She was upset, but she was fine. And so Kate had waited. And she’d prayed that, after all, Janessa would finally come to her. That she’d finally want Kate.

“No, I’ve never been there. I’ve heard of it though…”

Janessa’s eyes were trained on the floor, where her feet were fidgeting restlessly, kicking at the air. “Do you want to go there—with me?”

Closing her eyes on a rush of love, and relief, and answered hopes, at first all Kate could do was nod her head in acceptance. “Yes,” she finally said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’d love to.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Nineteen

“I think you should wear this.”

Kate looked over to where Madame Penny was standing half-inside her closet.

“Just that, huh?” Kate asked incredulously. The psychic held in her hand a black lacy camisole. She knew what Madame Penny was doing, but it wasn’t going to work. Kate was not going to blush, she was not going to giggle nervously. She was not going to give her friend any more ammunition then she’d already done. “It might be a little too breezy. It is winter after all.” Kate was proud when her voice came out dry, unruffled.

Penny rolled her eyes, hanging the silky garment back in the closet. “Whatever. Fine. But at least promise you won’t wear that bulky fisherman’s sweater you seem so fond of.”

Kate frowned. She liked that sweater. “What’s wrong with that?”

Penny gave her a look. “I don’t have time to get into that right now.”

Kate gave up. Penny wasn’t going to allow Kate to leave the house without being dressed to the nines, and honestly, Kate wasn’t fighting her on that. She wanted to look good…she just didn’t want to be so obvious about it.

In three hours, Kate would head over to Whestleigh High School where she would participate as one of the judges in the school’s third annual writing contest. Jackson would, of course, also be in attendance (hence Penny’s wardrobe interference). The force behind Kate’s impromptu involvement, he’d bushwhacked her, stopping in at the LitLiber a couple of weeks ago with the favor…

“I would really love to get Janessa Cooper involved in the event,” he’d told her, knowing exactly which button to push to gain her interest. Jackson was a member at Good Sheppard Church; he knew of Kate and Janessa’s arrangement (and, of course, Penny being his only neighbor, Kate could only imagine how much he knew of her life). “She’s a very talented writer, but I don’t think she’ll enter without a little encouragement. She can be a bit of a resister, withdrawn…” a common coping mechanism for teenagers to reject before they can be rejected.

“Yeah, she’s pretty good at that,” Kate had admitted drily.

“It’s important not to allow them to completely alienate themselves. Not only do the students isolate them, but teachers will too.  They give up on bright kids like Janessa because they don’t know how to reach them, breech that distance.”

That’s why he wanted Janessa in the competition: it would force her to put herself out there, to live in the same world as her peers. It would teach her how to handle risks: the failure of losing, the possibility of winning. Such things were important life lessons, he preached. They enabled social skills, autonomy, humility….

“I think I can convince Janessa to enter the contest, but in order to do that, I need to create an environment in which she feels safe and secure, accepted….”

In other words, Jackson wanted Kate to sign up as one of the judges—make it seem less personal, less scary. How Kate could walk away from that?

“And you think for some reason my presence will do that?” Kate asked on a half-laugh.

Jackson nodded gravely. “I do. I think you mean a lot to her Kate. More than you know, more than she’s willing to admit. I’ve seen it. She’s less antagonistic, less destructive since you’ve entered her life. She’s opening up a little bit—just here and there—she’s expressing herself, exposing some of her vulnerabilities. You are the only accountable change in her life.”

Well, Jackson’s plan worked. At least, Kate wasn’t sure if it was because of her participation or not, but regardless, Janessa had submitted an original piece into the competition. And though she didn’t want to admit it, Kate was actually pretty excited about tonight, when the judges would assemble to decide upon the winning entries. She wasn’t sure how many judges there would be, or even who any of them were. She only knew Jackson would be there. A smile Kate couldn’t quite fight back flash across her lips. Jackson would be there.

 

 

 

In the end, Kate dressed in a pair of tight blue jeans and a white button down shirt with long sleeves which flared slightly at the ends. A dark blue scarf dotted with silver stars adorned her neck. Her hair she’d left down, in a long blonde tangle midway down her back. Cool, casual, and Penny-approved.

Walking into the community education room, where the judging would commence, Kate spied a large oval table stretched out across the middle of the space, a pad of notebook paper and two pens sitting before each of the five chairs spanning its length. Besides Jackson and Kate, there were three other volunteers: Mr. Thompson, the 8th grade social studies teachers at Whestleigh, Mrs. Talley the town librarian, and Ms. Beckstrom a retired nurse known for her multiple book clubs.

A small refreshment table and had been constructed nearby, replete with a stack of Styrofoam cups and a plastic sugar caddy wrestling for space between a tray of doughnuts and a hotplate housing the coffee carafes. Kate poured herself a drink—the liquid was thick, a dark brown that required an extra packet of creamer to pacify Kate’s taste. Nabbing the nearest chair, Kate sat down, her eyes glancing nervously across the table as she did so. Directly across the way was a rather stern looking woman with a wobbling chin: Ms. Beckstrom.

Smiling tightly in greeting, Kate felt like a fraud. She wasn’t really the literary type and old nursey over there didn’t look any too welcoming.

Jackson’s here, Kate reminded herself, as the other two panel members arrived, claiming the seats on either side of Ms. Beckstom. That left only the chair beside Kate open for Jackson. Thank God. He wouldn’t make her feel inferior, think lesser of her opinion.

Kate took a generous sip from her coffee….

 

 

Two hours later, she would learn to regret the consumption of that beverage. Kate’s bladder was damn near bursting at the seams, and it didn’t look promising for a session rap anytime soon. Passing in a flurry of nerves, tension, and hot debate, the evening progressed slowly, building tumultuously as it alternated from one minute to the next:

An agitated sigh, the tap-tap-tapping of someone’s eraser drumming against the laminate table, the room creaking in heavy silence as Jackson tallied up the votes from the latest series of eliminations….

Voices’ rising animatedly as each judge was given the opportunity to defend their choices, arguing merit versus creativity versus potential ejection:

“It’s obvious to me that ‘Winter Memories’ should be handed the first place prize,” Ms. Beckstrom prattled on at one memorable juncture, her nose twitched in irritation at any who dared disagree. “The writing is clear, the imagery striking and the red thread tying it together—a young woman on the verge of entering college, scared to leave home while simultaneously scared of failing to live out her dreams, is so relatable to these students.”

Mr. Thompson shook his head exhaustively. “While I agree with its relatablility, I think the message is a little trite, a story that’s be said before. The trap of indecision…Change is scary, the familiar is comfortable, yet change is necessary for growth, yada, yada, yada. Back and forth and back and forth. Been there, read that.”

Deliberations like these dominated as nightfall rapidly approached.

Kate sat silent throughout most of it, her eyes growing ever wider in her face. The criticisms being flung about were a little over-the-top for her taste. They were talking about high school students here, not professional authors. To mark their work as ‘trite’ seemed a bit pompous and, well self-serving. These students had put their necks out there, really bared themselves. To overlook that seemed not only insensitive, but debilitating to the purpose of the contest.

“You’d think we were discussing a PEN Award for all the literary terms being tossed around,” Jackson whispered, leaning down close to Kate, the words tripping softly from the corner of his mouth so as not to be overheard by the others.

Kate swallowed a laugh, “The atmosphere is getting a little weighty.” Even if she’d had something to say, Kate probably wouldn’t have, out of fear of looking like a buffoon. The way these guys were talking, they’d probably call her out on it too.

“The headiness of power—everyone’s a critic, even if only an armchair one,” he answered, his voice low in her ear. Kate doubted anyone was likely to notice their side conversation. By this point, Mr. Thompson and Ms. Beckstrom were interrupting each other so ruthlessly, they didn’t have time to gauge anyone else’s reactions.

“So you think ‘Dark Trials and Thatched Roofs’ should win because why? Because of its odd stream-of-consciousness writing style? Trendy perhaps, but personally I found it hard to understand,” Ms. Beckstrom argued.

Mrs. Talley, a mousey woman of an uncertain age, nodded her head, shooting Mr. Thompson a reluctant smile as she did so. “I must confess, I found it a bit hard to follow myself.”

“Well, that’s the point of it. It’s a microcosmic view into the rambling thoughts, ideas, the ideology of a high school student. It’s unstructured but true. This girl is trying to find the words to a write an essay for a writing contest and instead her mind wanders…what’s for dinner? Is mom making her lasagna again? It’s frozen and she hate’s frozen food. Is the ground frozen outside yet? She’d like to go skating. It’s the only part of winter she likes. She wonders if he’s ever noticed her out on the ice-rink at Strikers Pond? He probably isn’t that into her, she’s not his type anyway…” Mr. Thompson rambled on, nicely paraphrasing the work. He shook his head. “It’s brilliant. It’s real. It felt personal, like a diary, yet the drama wasn’t forced, the secrets weren’t disproportionate.”

Ms. Beckstrom looked ready to bite…

“I should probably step in here soon,” Jackson murmured to a highly amused Kate. He raised his voice above the din “Okay, let’s take a break here for a second, and put these two pieces aside. We still have four other works that need to be considered for evaluation. Let’s take a look at those, huh?”

“Personally, I really enjoyed ‘Summer Vacation’,” Mrs. Talley said. Mr. Thompson groaned; Ms. Beckstrom rolled her eyes. It would appear for the first time that night they agreed upon something.

“Really, I found the organizational pattern far inferior to the rest…”

“The transitions between points were poorly executed, and the story arc anti-climatic.”

‘Summer Vacation’ didn’t stand a chance.

 

By nine o’clock the finalists were chosen. Kate could have wept. All that was left was awarding first, second, and third place.

“Well, I think it’s clear to all of us at this point that ‘Curdled Milk’ will finish in the rear,” Ms. Beckstrom stated tactlessly, her voice high.

“Kathy,” Jackson said, his voice gentle but firm, “you can’t push your opinion on everyone else.”

“I wasn’t pushing my opinion on anyone. Was I pushing my opinion on any of you?” she asked, her eyes skipping over the faces before her.

No one dared answer.

Jackson just shook his head. “Let’s take a quick break here,” he called instead. “Stretch your legs, hit up the bathroom, grab a last cup of coffee…”

Shooting Kate a sidelong glance, Jackson’s face was only too readable in that moment. The night was far from over yet. They still had to reopen the dreaded argument of ‘Winter Memories’ vs. ‘Dark Trials and Thatched Roofs.’

 

 

 

It was almost ten o’clock when the judging finally concluded. In the end, Jackson had had to call for a majority rule on first and second place, when it became only too obvious that neither Beckstrom nor Thompson had any intention of budging on their views. ‘Dark Trials and Thatched Roofs’ had won. Kate had been the deciding vote. She had a feeling Ms. Beckstrom had it out for her.

Whatever. It was done.

“Oh my God, I’m so tired,” Kate complained softly now, the door to the community ed. room closing in finality behind the retreating figure of Ms. Talley. She and Jackson were alone, with everyone else having barely stopped to toss their empty coffee cups in the trash before skipping out of the building, throwing hurried goodbyes over their shoulders at the evening’s close; it was late, and they needed to get home. Ms. Beckstrom had her gardening circle bright and early at ten tomorrow morning.

Jackson yawned. “Me too,” he agreed, gathering scraps of leftover paper together and tossing them in the garbage. He looked over at Kate. “Listen, you don’t have to stay and help me clean this up. Go home. I’m sure you have school in the morning.”

Kate threw him a pert look. “And you don’t?”

Jackson laughed. “Fair enough.”

“Besides,” Kate assured him, “I helped make this mess, I can help clean it.”

That was the explanation Kate was going with anyway. Unlike everyone else, she’d stalled at the signaled intent to leave, throwing out deliberately protracted farewells, in no apparent rush to throw her coat on. Jackson had been busy, stacking up the chairs, gathering the remnants of creamer packets strewn throughout the place.

“Do you need help with anything?” Kate had asked him politely. That’s when she’d stumbled upon this motive: that it would be rude to leave him to clean up all on his own—a perfectly viable excuse to stay. Never mind the fact that beside thirteen sheets of notebook paper, one leaking pen, and four cups of Styrofoam, the room had been left in pristine condition. Rude was still rude.

“No, no. I just have to move the conference table and bring the coffeemaker back to the lounge and I’ll be good,” Jackson had said, waving her words away.

Deciding there had been enough arguing already that day, Kate hadn’t verbally responded to this. Instead, she’d just walked over to the table in question, her hands curling around its edges to grip the sides. With a raised eyebrow, she looked at Jackson meaningfully, stubbornly. It was answer enough.

Smiling in appreciation, Jackson had quickly skirted over to the other end, taking hold….

“Lift on three.”

The table back where it belonged once more, the room put to rights, Jackson reached for the cumbersome coffeemaker, waiting while Kate hoisted the garbage in her left hand. Hitting the lights, he steered a path out the door. “Hey, thanks again for helping out with this tonight,” he said, once they were out in the hallway.

Kate smiled. “I can’t believe it it’s over already. I thought the night would bleed into tomorrow the way Kathy and Mr. Thompson were going at it,” she admitted while he locked up.

“I know.”

“But it was fun. Long but fun,” she assured him as they started moving again, walking down the hall to where the Lounge was located.

“Well, you sure showed a lot of patience.” Motioning to the room coming up on their right, Jackson slowed to a stop before it. “Especially Ms. Beckstrom. She-uh, she has a strong personality,” Jackson said, inserting another key from his seemingly endless supply into the latch and pushing it open.

Kate snorted. “Yeah, that’s one definition,” she drawled, tagging along when he advanced into the dimly lit room. Jutting her hip up against the edge of an empty table, Kate watched absently while he disposed himself of the antiqued appliance in his arms, setting it down on the counter running the entire length at the back of the room.

Jackson laughed softly. “They’re a tough crowd, that’s for sure. I should have warned you but I thought maybe it would scare you off. Hell, the thought of those guys in the same room together scares me!”

Kate pursed her lips. “So I was reinforcement?”

“Just in case.”

Kate giggled, “I shiver to think what they’d have to say about my writing.”

Jackson nodded knowingly. “Been there, done that. They tore me to pieces.” Kate smirked at the mental imagine.

“I’d like to see how they rate,” Kate returned coyly. “It’s a whole different perspective when you’re the one being judged.”

Jackson faked a look of shock at her teasing rejoinder. “Revenge Kate?”

“Karma baby,” she returned.

Turning fully in her direction now, Jackson smiled down at her, a chuckle still rolling off his lips: “See, I knew there was a reason I needed you here tonight.”

“For Janessa, you mean?” Kate asked, but she didn’t sound so sure of that answer, of his intentions.

Jackson winked, “Make that two reasons.”

Taken aback, Kate’s mouth moved soundlessly, the room turning heavy on the unfinished implication of those words, at the unanswered comeback. Was Jackson flirting with her? Did Kate want him to be flirting with her? The industrial wall clock tick-ticked loudly in the background….

Clearing his throat nosily, Jackson gestured toward the garbage bag still held loosely at Kate’s side. “Here let me…I can take that off your hands,” he said fumblingly, the rich timbre of his voice betraying the innocence of the remark, his eyes looking anywhere but directly at her.

Taking a step forward, he slowly closed the gap between them, his right arm extended, reaching for her left. The tips of his fingers skimmed just over her knuckles at the contact. It was light, barely-there, but heady nonetheless. Instinctively, Kate sucked in her breath at the touch—how long had she wanted him to do that? All that teasing, that foreplay…

The sound of her indrawn breath distracted Jackson. His eyes lowered, her lips parted. Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten, her feet press firmly against the flooring, her calves arch in expectation.

Only nothing happened. That is, something happened, just not what Kate had been anticipating. She hadn’t made it up, she couldn’t have made it up, misread that look in his eyes so completely, that silvered haze which had descended there, living in his gaze…she’d seen it, she’d read the attraction on his face, but then, as quickly as it’d come it had left, replaced, disappearing behind a bland expression leaving nothing bare.

Jackson pushed backward, the garbage bag slipping out of Kate’s fingers at the movement. A lopsided smile came to rest against his lips, masking its former countenance. “It’s late. Have a good night Kate,” he said. There was no mistaking the finality of those words.

Kate nodded jerkily. She couldn’t manage words, so she just turned and walked away, her knees threatening to buckle underneath her at any moment. It wasn’t until she was rounding the hallway, the front entrance to the school shining like a beacon, behind which doors her car was parked, that Kate felt her body react: her chest heaved, her throat constricted, her pulse spasmed… Fingers shaking violently, she dug through her purse, pulling out her keys and her cell phone simultaneously.

She needed to talk to someone. Now.

Dialing Penny’s number, she waited impatiently for the psychic to pick up on the other end.

“Hello?”  Penny sounded groggy, sluggish, like she’d been sleeping….

“Penny! I just…listen, I know it’s late but—”

“How’d the judging go?” Penny asked over a yawn. “Wait, is that just getting over with now?”

“That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about,” Kate started to say, her feet skipping over the cold cement of the parking lot.

 

 

 

Kate pulled up the curb outside Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Killing the engine, she jumped out, relieved to see the lights were already on inside. Penny was there. Kate knew it was asking a lot, but she needed to talk to her friend—it couldn’t wait, and this wasn’t a conversation she relished having over the phone, nor was it one she could have taken to Penny’s house. There, her car would have been too out in the open, clear to see for any prying eyes…

“All right, what happened?” Penny asked as soon as Kate stepped through the curtained doorway and into her office. With only one lamp turned on for illumination, the room jumped in shadows.

Now that she was here, facing Penny, Kate wasn’t sure what to say, how to begin. She felt jittery, anxious…confused. “I almost kissed Jackson,” she said settled on, taking the direct approach.

Penny’s eyebrows shot up at the words. “Almost?” she asked.

Kate paced the length of her shop, a hand running absently through her thin blonde hair. She shrugged. “At least, I think we almost kissed.”

Head tilted to the side, lips pressed together, Penny didn’t remark on that.

Spinning around, Kate leveled Penny a direct look. “I wanted to kiss him,” she wailed, her forehead creased, a look of dismay, of defeat crossing her features.

“And that’s a bad thing?” Penny guessed.

“Yes. No. It’s just—”

“Jackson reminds you of Phil,” Penny filled in. She remembered Kat saying that once, and judging by the exasperated look on her face, she hated herself for wanting him despite it—for wanting a man so similar to the one she’d recently jilted. Kate wasn’t a woman to abide by personal weaknesses.

“Yeah,” Kate confessed, her shoulders sagging with the confession.

Penny took a seat at the round table and, waving a hand expressly, invited Kate to do the same. Folding her arms across its surface, it was Penny’s turn to be frank. “I think perhaps it’s time you told me about Phil, don’t you agree?”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Seven

“Ohmigod, can I just say that I feel great?” Kate shouted at Penny.

Biting her lip, Penny tried not to laugh at the sight before her. It was barely five o’clock, and already Kate was, to put it politely, tanked.

It was entirely Penny’s fault. She’d demanded Kate get in the car—she’d demanded an evening of relaxation. She’d demanded this little girl’s night in.

Kate hadn’t been keen, not at first. “That’s really not necessary,” she’d stressed when Penny informed her of the plan.

“Well, I insist. Now where did you park?” Penny had thrown back, craning her neck to the left, the better to see behind her.

“Why?” Kate had tried to ask, but it was fruitless. Penny had already spotted her compact sedan. Her effects redoubled, without invitation, she’d made her way over to it, knowing good and well that Kate would inevitably follow behind; what else could she do?

“We’re going to need liquor that’s why. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen right.”

As Penny predicted, Kate had finally relented.

“Well, why the hell not,” Penny had heard her say to herself. “I hadn’t been able to with Simon Yates, that’s for sure.”

Penny had a feeling that Phil—from the little she’d been able to glean of his character—probably hadn’t stood for such behavior either. No doubt, Kate was due for it.

They’d left only long enough to grab the essentials: a bottle of tequila, a six-pack of import beer, a bag of potato chips, and enough margarita mix to drown a person. When they returned to Penny’s place, arm’s loaded down, they were stocked-up, settled in, and ready to commence on the evening’s entertainment.

 

Now, four hours later, the snacks were long since demolished, glass bottles were strewn out about the fire pit, the scent of salt and lime remained, permeating the air, and Kate was standing chin-deep in the lake…wearing nothing but her bra and panties. Penny wouldn’t have thought the city woman had it in her to do something so, well risqué.

It had started out innocently enough—lawn chairs were perched around a cozy bonfire, a makeshift bar was constructed, well within arms span, and soft music played out over the still afternoon air. The scene was set: inviting but loose, intimate yet vague. It was exactly what Kate needed. Penny announced herself both the bartender and emcee: firmly resolved to keep the drinks coming and the conversation deliberate. So they drank and talked. Not about anything serious, Penny made sure of that. It was chill. Short anecdotes were swapped back and forth in a lively non-threatening way:

“I had a client last week ask me to get in contact with her dead cat.”

“Shut up. Did she really?”

“Yes. It was a very awkward conversation.”

“With the client or the cat?”

“Well, both really. The cat was glad to be dead. Never liked her owner.”

“I used to have a cat.”

“Really?”

“Well, no not really. It was imaginary. I named him Mr. Whiskers. I know, I know, how very original. My mother wouldn’t let me have a real one. Not the great Calida McDonald. She wouldn’t hear of owning such a filthy animal—the hair, the claws, the meowing. It was all too much. So I made one up. I think I did it to spite her.”

They sat there, laughing, reminiscing, each one content in their environment. Until…well, until what happened next. In retrospect, Penny figured it was probably the fourth beer-margarita that pushed Kate over the edge. Call it overkill. One minute she’d been calmly swaying against her chair, her speech only slightly stirred as she stared, mesmerized, into the flames of the fire, her actions depressed from the effects of the alcohol and then…boom! Kate pulled a one-eighty. Pushing herself off the chair, her glass dangling precariously in one hand, she was suddenly adamant that it was perfect weather for an evening dip. Then she’d giggled. Then she’d hiccupped. Kate’s behavior was as abrupt as it was unexpected. They hadn’t been talking about swimming—or even the lake for that matter!

Penny tried reminding Kate that she hadn’t brought her bathing suit. Did she forget that? Kate had simply shrugged off this information, telling Penny that she didn’t need swimwear. Then she hiccupped again.

Throwing her hands up in the air, Penny caved. She doubted there was much she could say or do to dissuade Kate after that. And she wasn’t about to be a killjoy. The designated sober party, Penny hadn’t allowed herself to reach even so much of a buzz. She’d been too focused piling Kate with booze to bother overmuch. She was glad for that now. Someone had to keep an eye out.

Scooting one of the chaise loungers closer to the perimeter of the lawn, Penny cautiously congratulated herself on the night’s success. Kate may be a hurting unit tomorrow morning—Lord only knows how that would bode for Tuesday’s class schedule—but tonight, well tonight she was having a damn good time.

“Are you sure you don’t want to-to come in?” Kate sputtered. Coughing, the last words came out garbled as she took in a mouthful of water.

It was the gurgle of her words—that gulp of soggy, accidental, inhalation—that did it. Penny’s body seized at the remembered sound, at its dark influence. She’d worked hard to forget it, to feign that she’d forgotten it. Hell, she’d laughed earlier when Kate jumped into the water, consciously in command of it—or so she’d thought. Not anymore. A mental paralysis, a derelict flashback, a holy nightmare; Penny no longer saw Kate dancing against the tide, she no longer heard her friend’s girlish squeals of delight as the water brushed against her skin; she was no longer mildly amused at the antics. Just like that, one innocuous, wet reverberation and it all came flooding back.

Transported to another instance, to an unwanted memory, the world around her seemed to shrink, as if rewinding back through time, stopping, sticking, and playing on repeat: she tasted bile on her tongue—she couldn’t swallow. Blinded, dots flickered spasmodically across the cornea of her eyes. Brilliantly, they expanded then burst, over and over, hindering her vision, protecting from the sight of what lay ahead.  The sound of her feet, smacking against the wooden dock, beat a hurried drum against her ears, accompanied only by the sound of her voice breaking out over the rippling waves, screaming out an echo of resounding fear….

And suddenly the water wasn’t gentle anymore, the slosh and babble of its movement no longer melodic or soothing. The dusky reflection, broken here and there by the sway and spray of the current, wasn’t picturesque. It looked angry, billowing and spitting out a blackish pit, frothing at the mouth to swallow up everything in its path….

Stop!

“Stop it,” Penny half-scolded to herself. Shaking her head, dislodging any claim of the past, she unclenched the fits she hadn’t realized she’d made down by her sides. Shakily, she let out her breath. Clearing her mind, erasing, she firmly refused its presence, disallowing herself to go back there. Not tonight. Not with company over.

With a concentrated focus, she stretched her lips outward and upward, channeling her energy, centering her spirit, to a lighter plane. She was fine. Kate was fine. Everything was fine.

Opening her mouth, she prayed for glibness: “No, no. I like to keep a dry distance from all that business,” she assured her lightly. “I’m more of a spectator than partaker.”

Kate was drunk and some fifteen yards away, Penny doubted she’d notice the slight wobble in her façade.

“Your loss,” Kate called before dunking her body underneath the darkened liquid washing gently around her.

“Kate don’t go out too far,” Penny called urgently, checking herself just in time. She hadn’t been lying. She couldn’t swim and Kate, in her current condition, couldn’t be all that much better off.  If something happened…!

“Don’t be such a sour puss,” Kate called moments later, her head rising above the glassy surface fearlessly. Madame Penny breathed a sigh of relief.

Easing back against the mesh cushion, Penny decided to follow Kate’s lead; she certainly didn’t appear worried—probably she was an ace swimmer, even while under the influence. She didn’t seem to be sinking, at any rate. Yeah, Penny would follow Kate’s lead. She was fine. She was just fine.

No sooner had Penny come to this conclusion, her body reclining comfortably, her muscles loosening under the strain, then a distinct sound, coming just left of the dock, reached her ears. It was rhythmic, swift and steadily growing nearer. Perking, her attention diverted in that direction, she decided it was the echo of repeated movement: water cresting, splicing and breaking over…over something. But what? Squinting her eyes, Penny could just make out the lines of a shadowy object hovering in the midst of this quiet commotion. Leaning forward, she studied its accent, its voluntary extension, its limber projection. And then she knew, she knew what the sound was.

Good God, it was the stroking motion of a swimmer. And that swimmer was most definitely not Kate McDonald, who was too busy treading water to do much more than simply remain afloat.

Madame Penny didn’t need to be psychic, either, to know who was in the lake with an unsuspecting Kate. It was Jackson Fischer, her one and only neighbor. His was the other house on the lane, sitting almost directly across the way from her own little cottage. Only, his was a dark grey clapboard estate—boasting three levels and 3,000 square feet of space. He’d inherited it from his late grandfather. She’d always wondered how he afforded to keep the place up. Penny had also inherited her home (about the only thing her mother had possessed of any redeeming value and worth), and even that, with its far humbler heritage—a veritable shoebox in comparison—was damn near too much house to manage and maintain for just one person. A mystery, she’d always suspected Fischer had more money than he let on.

Penny and Jackson had grown up together. She knew him almost as well as a sister knows her brother. His daily routine could be clocked to the minute: he swam the perimeter of the lake every evening, right around this time. She should have remembered that. How could she have forgotten that? Had she forgotten that? Had she really?

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Some things were meant to be overlooked. Who knew?

Tall, broad-shouldered with sandy blond hair, cut meticulously short to compliment brown eyes, Jackson was a fine looking man. Even more, he was dependable, honest, always willing to offer a helping hand. Single, too. Penny had it on good authority that Jackson was very single. Truth be told, she would be drooling over him herself if she hadn’t know him her whole entire life. But Kate…well, that could be a different story. He was no Simon Yates. No harm in meeting someone new, right?

Of course, Kate was out there in her underwear. That gave Penny pause.

“Um, Kate I think it’s time to come out of there,” she called out, rising from her chair now to wave her drunken charge back to the shore. If her voice sounded a bit frantic, well, dammit this time she didn’t care; on second thought, they could meet some other day.

“No way, the water feels so-o nice,” she heard back.

“No really, I think it’s—,”

Too late, Kate saw what Penny had been trying so hard not to point out, what she’d been trying so hard to screen Kate from. The screech she let out at the incoming intrusion of Jackson’s breaststroke was enough to send Penny’s hands up to cover her sensitive ear buds. Unfortunately, it was also loud enough to alert Jackson, knocking him off balance.

Bobbing up out of the water, his eyes zeroed in on Kate, who was now squatting in the water, hoping to shield her scantily-clothed person from his prying eyes.

“Wha—?” His half formed question was only too well understood by Penny. No one other than she lived on that side of the lake and he knew all too well that her idea of submergence went no farther than the dip of her toes. He’d probably never run into another person here before—much less on a school night, much, much less howling like some crazed animal.

“Oh hello there,” Kate said, demure now, her alarm giving way to a correctness of manner she’d probably had beaten into her at a young age. If Penny hadn’t been so embarrassed for her, she’d have probably laughed at that. As it was, Kate’s eyes rose no higher than the water level and Penny’s heart went out to her. “Pardon me. You gave me a fright.”

“I noticed,” Jackson said drily.

“Jackson, Jackson,” Madame Penny called, waving her arms overhead to get his attention. It worked.

“Oh hey Penny,” he called back, seemingly less disoriented at the entrance of her presence. At least he wasn’t going to have to kick someone off the property now.

“So sorry to startle you,” she told him, coming up to the sandy shore. “Um, have you met Kate?” she asked dumbly. Shooting an apologetic glance her way, Penny called herself a fool; she’d meant to distract his attention away from Kate, not redirect it there. She’d panicked.

As if on cue, Jackson turned back to Kate, who was only visible from her chin up by this point. “No, I can’t say that I have,” he answered, with just a hint of mirth. “Uh, it’s nice to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand to properly introduce himself. Water dripped across the splay of his fingers. Awkwardly, he made to move closer, stopping only at her frantic half-step backward.

“Yeah. Yes. It’s, um, nice to meet you too,” Kate replied back, saluting him from the safety of the distance carefully kept between them.

Jackson noticed that too. A wicked glint entered his expression. “I’d be careful of moving back too much farther,” he cautioned her. Pointing up at the yard light situated exactly between his and Penny’s property line he added, “Pretty soon I’ll have a clear sight of what you so obviously don’t want me to see.”

Kate stopped, petrified at the words. Her eyes, hunted, wide, sought out Penny for help. It was clear the psychic would be of little assistance however, even to an inebriated Kate. She was damn near bent over double in her fit of laughter.

“Oh Jackson knock it off. You’ll give the poor girl a heart attack.” Penny guffawed out, her voice far from commanding. It seemed Kate would have to make do with that.

“Sorry,” he said to Kate, but he didn’t sound sorry. Not in the least. “But if you’re going to skinny-dip you’ve got to be prepared to be found out.”

“I am not skinny-dipping,” Kate protested, straightening her back artlessly at the accusation. The action left her shoulder’s bare. The cups of her bra could just barely be made out from the outline of water pooling around her.

“Yeah,” he said slowly, his eyes eloquent, “I see that.”

With a second screech, Kate feverishly crossed her arms over her chest, plunging her body back underneath the wet layer of protection, her knees buckled meanly. “That was a low thing to do,” she seethed.

“I didn’t do anything,” he protested, arms raised in defense. Smiling boyishly between Kate and Penny, he seemed to be looking for reinforcement on this issue.

“Oh Kate, its fine,” Madame Penny said soothingly. “You aren’t showing anything a bikini wouldn’t put on display.”

In response Kate whimpered, hugging her arms around her chest even tighter if that were possible. Jackson laughed. Kate shot him a scathing look which he ignored.

“Hey, if it bothers you so much, why don’t you just get out of the water?”

“Because—because you’re here,” Kate garbled. “I can’t—you’ll see…stuff,” she ended lamely.

“All right, all right, calm down,” Jackson chuckled. “Listen I’ll swim out away from the dock and you can escape, how ’bout that? I won’t be able to see anything that way, okay?” At Kate’s suspicious look he added, “If it’ll make you feel more comfortable I’ll even agree to remain completely underwater throughout. I can hold my breath for about forty-five seconds. That should give you enough time to reach land and cover up sufficiently.” There was nothing for it but to agree to this.

“You better not peek,” Kate said.

Jackson didn’t respond to this, which was just as well since he’d already told her he wouldn’t. “Penny have you got a something to cover her up with?” he asked instead, turning away from Kate without so much as a by-your-leave. His indifference smarted, not that Kate was about to admit it.

“Oh!” Turning in earnest, Penny wondered where she’d put the beach towel she’d brought out earlier. “Yes,” she called triumphantly, grabbing it from off the back of the lounger she’d since vacated; she’d hung it there for easy reach.

“Great. Ready?” he asked Kate now and, without further ado, dove under the water, his feet kicking out for momentum behind him.

In all Penny’s life she’d never seen anyone move as quickly as Kate did just then. She was up and out of the water and swaddled in Penny’s microfiber towel before such much as thirty-seconds had passed. They never even saw Jackson’s head rise above the water. Kate had Penny firmly inside the house, the blinds pulled, tightly closed, and the lights dimmed down before then.

“God, what a righteous jerk, making fun of me like that. So I went swimming without proper attire, so what?” Kate said, her voice infused with feeling, her wet hair dripping on Penny’s carpet. She’d barely allowed for the front door to swing shut before barging into speech.

Penny tried to be neutral. “Jackson’s just a teaser—it’s nothing personal. You’d have to know him but—”

“Pfft. Nothing personal? That was the very definition of personal out there Penny!”

“I just meant he’d do it anybody, regardless,” Penny said, but she might as well have been talking to herself for all the attention she received.

“And as for getting to know him, that’s not likely,” Kate seethed, pacing the short length of Penny’s living room. “I mean, he was just so—so, like casual about the whole thing.”

Penny shrugged, unsure how to proceed. “Well, it wasn’t a big deal Kate. You were decently covered—in your underwear. Like you said, so what?”

“It wasn’t a big deal?” Kate shouted, turning on Penny. “I was practically naked in front of the man, and…instead of being a gentleman and, you know helping me out of an uncomfortable situation, he just sat there, snickering!”

“He was caught off guard too—”

Kate was hardly listening. “Did you see the way he was looking at me?”

“Uh, I don’t know?”

“I mean, am I so unappealing? Is it ludicrous, to expect a level of deference rather than hilarity at the site of my body?”

“No, no—”

“Is his body so perfect?” Kate damn near shouted.

“Well…”

Kate’s eyes narrowed at Penny’s hesitation. “Yeah, okay, fine. He’s in great shape. He lives on the freaking water—I should hope he takes advantage of all the aquatic exercise at his disposal!”

Penny fought back a smile. Aha, so maybe there was something there, between them, after all—or at least, there could be, in time, fostered by a certain amount of pushing and prodding, here and there, of course. Without a doubt, Jackson had made an impression on Miss Kate. And it was definitely strong. Madame Penny wasn’t a conceited woman but her gift of intuition hadn’t led her astray yet. Besides, she figured, everyone needed at least a little companionship. Who better than her oldest friend and the woman fast becoming her dearest?

Silently she turned her attention back to Kate:

“I’ve never been more humiliated in my life! You don’t think he saw anything, do you?”

“No, I’m sure he didn’t,” she soothed quietly.

….

 

Okay, so maybe the night hadn’t been a complete triumph but at least Kate wouldn’t find her life in Whestleigh boring. That had to count for something.