North of Happenstance: Chapter Seventeen

Kate thought perhaps it was the loud conversation flowing around them, so she spoke up: “If we plan it on a Saturday, I think more people will be able to attend; however, if you want a reservation at the Rejuve Spa, they’re availability is booked until…” Kate’s voice trailed off. Her companion still wasn’t listening.

“Hello? Are you there?” Waving a hand in front of Penny’s face, Kate stifled a sigh. This was the third time, in the approximately fifteen minutes since they’d first nabbed a corner booth at the local diner that the psychic’s attention had so obviously wandered.

Penny’s eyes flickered at the movement, her gaze shifting slightly, latching onto to Kate. She seemed a million miles away. “Huh?” she asked and then, vaguely: “Yes…uh, what were you saying?”

Kate laughed shortly. “I’m trying to plan your birthday party. It’s coming up at the end of next month,” she supplied unnecessarily. “But it’s tough to do without a little input from you.”

“Right,” Penny mused, her lips hitching upward. Her fingers brushed against the Formica tabletop between them; it was at Penny’s insistent invitation that the women met up for lunch at Sammy’s Deli Shop. Kate had been mystified by the choice—it wasn’t exactly a known favorite. That puzzlement had only grown stronger when, as they’d sat down, Penny hadn’t so much as glanced at the greasy menu set before her,  nor seemed even slightly aware of what they offered, if they specialized in anything. They came for the food, but Penny, it seemed, couldn’t care less about eating anything.

“So?” Kate pressed.

“So what?” Penny asked.

“When do you want to throw this shin-dig?” Kate asked wearily. They were getting nowhere.

“Oh. Uh, let me think here—”

There, in midsentence, Penny stopped, side-tracked by something (yet again!)…Her head turned ever-so-slightly to the right, her stare moving beyond Kate, settling on something just behind their booth. Penny might as well have left the table for all her presence there; Kate had lost her to someplace else, someone else.

Fed up, Kate decided she wanted to know what it was that kept stealing Penny’s usually singular attention span away from her. Half-turning around in her seat, neck craned against her shoulder, Kate followed Penny’s look. Startled, her eyes landed on a man. He was sitting three tables back, a red ball-cap pulled low over his head, flannel shirt tucked into dark blue jeans. His beefy hands were cupped around a steaming mug of coffee.

Well, well, well. “Who’s that?” Kate whispered curiously.

Penny’s eyes snapped back over to Kate. The younger woman had a certain look on her face: expectant and saccharine. Pushing her body firmly against the vinyl of her seat, Penny adamantly shook her head, already in hot denial. “What? I don’t know. It’s nothing,” she answered quickly.

“I don’t know about that,” Kate teased, peeping back at him again, patently staring this time.

“Stop it Kate,” Penny said, tugging at her wrist. “Turn around before he notices.”

“Not until you spill,” Kate told her out of the side of her mouth.

“Okay, okay…just turn around,” Penny pleaded, crouching low in her seat now.

Without loss of time, Kate rotated around, resuming a normal sitting position. Plopping her elbows on the table, she leaned in close. “So, who is he?”

(Finally Kate was beginning to see the light. It wasn’t the food which had attracted Penny to this place.)

“His name is Hank. Hank Burke,” Penny mumbled, sounding just a touch grumpy at being found out.

“And?” Kate hedged. She’d never heard Penny talk about anyone in her life. This was definitely news.

“And nothing.”

Kate made a theatrical sound. “Do I have to start staring at him again?”

Penny grabbed Kate’s hand, forestalling the threatened movement. “No. I-I please don’t.” Her face was flushed, the words forceful.

A Cheshire grin split across Kate’s mouth.  “You like him.” It wasn’t a question.

Penny sucked in a breath. “Yeah, so what?”

The defensive tone didn’t fool Kate. She was nervous, edgy. She really liked him!

“So?! Does he know how you feel?” Kate inquired.

Penny snorted. “I doubt he even knows I exist,” she said in a self-deprecating manner.

“I find that hard to believe.” And Kate did. Penny made herself known wherever she went. “Have you talked to him?”

A look of chagrin crossed the psychic’s usually calm expression: “Uh, not really.”

“Okay—well what are you going to do about that?” Kate challenged, prodding gently.

“I’m doing it now.”

“You’re just staring at him,” Kate clarified.

Penny shrugged, “Like I said.”

Kate shook her head. “And how long has this been going on?”

“About two years.”

“Two years?!” Kate lowered her voice, swallowing back a chuckle. “Progress has been slow then.”

Penny glared. Kate grinned.

“You’re enjoying this!”

“Guilty as charged,” Kate confessed. “It’s not every day I see the esteemed Madame Penny out of her element.”

“Whatever. Just—let’s order something,” Penny said, firmly bringing the glossy menu up to her face, wielding it like a shield to protect against prying eyes from the blush working its way up her throat.

“I know what you’d like to order…” Kate said, her insinuation only too clearly threaded throughout the wording.

“Drop it, okay?” Penny demanded. And then: “It’s- I wouldn’t know what to say to him. We don’t have anything in common.”

“You mean, there aren’t two psychics in Whestleigh?” Kate teased.

Penny stuck out her tongue.

“Okay, all jokes aside, tell me about him: what does he do for a living? What are his hobbies? Maybe I can help you…I’m quite adept at small talk,” Kate volunteered.

“He’s a car mechanic; he owns Burke’s Brakes and Auto Body Shop,” Penny muttered. “He likes hunting and bowling and eating out.”

That wasn’t a whole lot to go off. Still, “Well, why not go to his shop to get your oil changed or have your tires rotated—regular maintenance stuff. It would be a perfectly acceptable excuse to stop in and see him.”

Tapping a long fingernail against her chin, Penny seemed to be seriously considering the idea. “Okay,” she said at last, “but what would we talk about when I got there?”

“What else—cars!”

“Cars?” Penny wailed, “but I don’t know anything about cars.”

“Exactly,” Kate told her. “Tell him just that. Lament that, as a single woman, you would love instruction on some of the simpler, inner workings of your vehicle. Number one, this will show respect for his profession and number two, it will get him talking—it’ll grab his attention. He’ll be able to show off his knowledge on the subject. Make him look and feel impressive and conversation will flow naturally.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“It is. Ask questions, listen carefully, and most importantly, flirt a little. No big deal.”

“Yeah, flirting has never really been my thing. Subtlety either.”

True, Penny was about as subtle as a brick in the face. Regardless….

“It’s not hard. Just, laugh when he says something clever. Don’t overdo it; a tinkle of sound is enough. Bat at his arm when he makes a joke, or teases you. Touch him, make sure your body is leaning, angled in his direction. Make eye contact—but not for too long…” Kate said, ticking the growing list off quickly.

The door to the diner swished open just then, interrupting Kate’s lecture. Out of her peripheral vision, Kate caught sight of a pink scarf blowing gently against the breeze…the pattern looked familiar, ominously familiar.

“Oh that’s just great,” Penny cut in suddenly; judging by the agitation in her voice, and direction of her glare, she’d also taken note of the newest customer to walk in the joint. “Of all places, what are the odds that she just happened to choose this one? And, of all days, when I just happened to be here myself? Coincidence my foot.”

Diverted from her original point, Kate was now entirely focused on trying to temper Penny’s overly aggressive reaction to seeing M.T. Worrying about her feminine wiles would have to wait. “The deli is close by the church,” she reasoned.

“Whatever. More likely, she saw my car out in the parking lot,” Penny decided.

Kate refrained from telling Penny how childish that sounded.

“Penny…”

“She is not sitting with us,” Penny insisted. Reaching for Kate’s menu, she quickly threw it up in front of the other woman’s face. “Here, hide behind this.”

“Aren’t you being a little ridiculous?” Kate asked, lowering the laminated sheet down to the table.

“She hounds me constantly. You have no idea what that’s like.”

“That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.”

“Shh! She’s coming this way,” Penny said, waving Kate’s words aside.

Sure enough, Kate watched as M.T. moved gracefully further inside the building, her steps light and sure as she passed by the scattered tables decorating the front of the store. She did seem to be heading their way.

Kate lowered her eyes, praying Penny wouldn’t make a scene. Please, please, keep it civil between them, she repeated like a mantra, as the pastor’s steps neared. She was barely one table’s length away now: Please, please keep it civil between them…

Only, to Kate’s surprise and Penny’s ego, M.T. didn’t stop as she came upon their booth, her heels clipping steadily against the laminate flooring as she walked right on by….Her eyes were locked straight ahead at some other, pre-determined, destination. Could it be, was M.T. really here by some odd coincidence? Was it possible she didn’t realize Kate and Penny were also in the building? Shamelessly watching her movements, Kate couldn’t help wondering what had brought the esteemed pastor to such a dive, if not them.

Wait a minute…Oh. God. No.

Oh. God. No. Pastor M.T.—ex-step-sister to one very hostile Madame Penny—had finally come to a halt…three tables back. Oh. God. No. Kate wanted to look away, pretend she wasn’t seeing what she was: M.T. pulling out the chair opposite Hank Burke. Oh. God. No. She couldn’t be joining him for lunch, she just couldn’t be—yet she clearly was. Oh. God. No. Worse, an almost palpable nervousness radiated between the two of them…almost as though they were on a date.

Oh. God. No.

“What the hell?” Penny asked dumbly; her eyes were also glued to the scene unfolding between M.T. and Hank. The menu fell limply out of her hands, one corner bouncing against the tabletop, causing it to fall onto the un-swept flooring.

“Uh—,” Kate had no words.

“Is she—is that?!” Penny seemed to be chocking. Her lips formed a snarl. “Of course. Of course. It would be her if it were anybody!” Penny’s rage, instantaneous as it was, proved a convenient cover disguising her pain.

“I’m sure we don’t know what is going on there,” Kate tried…

Bu it was clearly a date. Hank Burke had lost no time in leaning across the table to kiss M.T. on the cheek in greeting. Her face was flushed in effect. Under the grimy tablecloth their legs brushed up against one another, innocent yet intimate.

Still, Kate tried to be practical. They could just be old, familiar friends. They could be having a meeting of the minds about what to do with the old church van. They could be organizing a Cleaner Air Act….

M.T.’s fingers skimmed over Hank’s hand. Turning his wrist over, he quickly caught hold of them, wrapping them tightly within his own grasp.

Okay, they are definitely on a date.

Kate looked over at Penny. Her face was a picture of devastation. Her skin was pale, her eyes sunken, a blank sort of expression was taking over. Any minute now she was going to snap out of whatever self-induced trance she was in. What happened next would be anyone’s guess.

“Penny—,”

At the sound of her own name, Penny recoiled—her eyes skipping toward the exit sign. “I’ve got to go,” she said abruptly, scooting out of her seat as though it had started on fire. “I’m sorry but I’ve got to go.”

“I’ll come with you,” Kate said, hurriedly making it to her feet. She was at a loss with how to handle this situation: did she pretend ignorance and try to spare Penny’s feelings, treating her like an idiot, all the while denying what was right under their noses? Or did she boldly accept it for what it was, and expect Penny to do the same? One was kinder in the short-term, the other in the long.

Walking, her body deliberately obstructing the view of M.T. and Hank,

Kate hustled Penny out the door. She felt wretched, numb, bemused. What did she say, what did she do? Kate felt helpless, inept. She was only just learning how difficult it was to be a friend.

When they reached the dirt of the deli’s parking lot, Kate felt her anxiety rise. Say something. Do something.

“Would you like to go back to my place? I can make us some lunch, we can talk….” Kate offered. Her voice came out thin, unsure.

“No.” Her feet braking hard, Penny shook her head.

“We—”

“No. I-I need to be alone right now,” Penny insisted, her voice cracking slightly. Averting her face, she moved further away from Kate.

“Are you sure?” Wasn’t she supposed to be offering Penny support right now—comforting her, making her feel better?

“Yes. I—,” Penny stopped talking. Shaking her head, she inhaled sharply: “Yes. Please, just leave me alone Kate.”

With that, Penny started walking away; she didn’t stop.

Mouth hanging half-open, Kate could do nothing but stand there, helpless and impotent. Anger, confusion, and fear battled for supreme position in her emotional turmoil. She was mortified for Penny. She was (perhaps unreasonably) upset with M.T. She was nervous for the future of the sisters.

Kate was in the middle of something she had no business being in the middle of, and worse, she had no idea what to do about it. Penny needed Kate, but she didn’t want her. Kate loved M.T. but she wasn’t supposed to…Hearts were on the line, all the way around.

Kate had to do something.

 

 

 

With a frenzied flick of her wrist, Penny threw the curtain open to her office. The tears she’d refused to shed in front of Kate, the tears that had burned their way up her throat as she’d carefully driven the four blocks from Sammy’s Deli to her House of Intuition, the tears that only one person seemed so adept at bringing to the surface, finally fell from her eyes.

Her face crumbling, Penny stumbled down into a chair, her elbows coming to rest against the oak table before it. Her shoulders shook with the force of her pent-up feelings. How could M.T? It was just so like her: sweep in and take whatever she wanted, and then toss it aside once she’d used it up to her satisfaction. It never occurred to her that other people might be involved, that their feelings mattered too.

Penny was used to hand-me-downs, wasn’t she? That’s all she’d ever received, growing up next to someone as delightful, as beautiful, as effervescent as Margaret Thayer. Maggie was the original child, the popular girl. She’d never had to wait for anything, never had to compromise anything; she’d never had a ‘Plan B’ because she’d never needed one. Maggie got everything she wanted and everyone else just had to deal with it, stand by and watch it happen.

Isn’t that what was happening now: M.T. just taking over, unwilling to concede to Penny, unwilling put someone else above herself, to settle for anything!

Well, dammit, Penny was sick and tired of it.

She was sick and tired of Maggie. Hadn’t she taken enough from Penny without adding Hank to the pile, as well?

 

 

 

Hesitantly, Kate pulled open the door to Good Sheppard Church. It took an hour of pacing her livingroom floor before Kate knew what she had to do. It was simple actually. She would explain to M.T., as gently as possible, how Penny felt about Hank. M.T. would never want to hurt her sister. Kate knew that.

Once M.T. was apprised of the situation, she’d let Hank go and all would go back to normal. Penny could resume her silent stalking of the car mechanic without hindrance.

Kate nodded her head sharply as she entered the building’s vestibule. Yes, it was quite simple. Walking down the hallway, Kate was affronted with the soft strains of the pastor’s voice. She was singing. It sounded happy.

“Kate,” M.T. announced moments later, opening the door to her office at the other woman’s polite knock, “what a lovely surprise!”

Kate nodded, her head bobbing up and down woodenly. M.T’s genuine pleasure stabbed at Kate’s conscience guiltily.  Now that she was here, she wanted to get the whole business taken care of.

“Well, come in, come in,” M.T. invited, waving her visitor inside. Kate felt her feet move in answer to this obediently. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so righteous anymore, so correct in her decision to invade upon the pastor’s love life.  “Tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

“Ah.” Absently Kate watched M.T. shuffle a couple papers off the only remaining chair in the room.

“Take a seat, won’t you?” M.T. asked. She, herself, was leaning up against the side of her desk. “I apologize about the mess. It’s been a busy morning.”

That was just the line Kate needed.

“Yeah, I think I saw you earlier…at Sammy’s Deli. You were with a man?” Kate hinted, her voice deliberately inviting.

M.T.’s face went a pretty pink. “Yes. Hank,” she said. Even the way she said his name sounded girlish.

“I—is he an old acquaintance?” Kate asked, fishing.

M.T. giggled again. It sounded odd. “Not exactly.”

“Oh?” Kate asked, the vowel coming out in a squeak.

Reaching forward, M.T. locked eyes with Kate, her tone conspiratorial: “We met last week. He’s a mechanic. I was having some car trouble,” she said, as though she simply had to tell someone about it. “Anyway, we started talking—who knew we’d both have such an interest in fly-fishing—well, one thing led to the next, and before I knew it he was asking me out.” M.T.’s teeth gnawed against the side of her lip self-consciously. “I can’t remember the last time I met a man… romantically speaking. My profession isn’t exactly a turn-on for most of them.”

“Well, the thing is—”

“And he’s, oh I don’t know, he’s nice Kate. Kind and funny, down-to-earth, and…” M.T. sighed “he’s something to look forward to.”

There was a look on M.T.’s face that gave Kate pause. Nostalgic, playful, animated…remembered.

Kate couldn’t take that look away from her.

“You had a good time?” she asked instead.

“I did.” M.T. smiled. She looked youthful. “He asked me out again for Friday. We’re going to a movie.”

“You are?” Kate’s voice was soft and warm, and despite her initial intentions, it was excited.

Penny liked Hank, but clearly so did Maggie. The car mechanic was filling a large void in the pastor’s life: M.T. was lonely.

She’d just returned to town after years of absence:

She didn’t have the steadfast loyalty of a devoted congregation—not yet.

She didn’t have any family—at least, none that would claim her.

Kate was her only friend.

Was she not to be allowed a budding relationship with a man she liked, either?

 

How was that fair, that M.T. should suffer so Penny wouldn’t have to?  Looking up into those whiskey brown eyes, those eyes of such gentleness, such generosity, Kate couldn’t fathom the strength to ask it of M.T.; she knew M.T. would do it, that she’d let Hank go, that she’d stand aside and let Penny have him, and she’d do it without a second thought. She’d put Penny’s happiness before her own. But that didn’t make it right. Kate couldn’t, she wouldn’t ask it of the pastor.

She’d just have to explain it to Penny, convince her to… to what? To move on? To fight M.T. for Hank’s affection? Kate was reminded of how Penny had looked earlier at the deli: at first hopeful and infatuated and then betrayed, lost, hopeless. Kate had never hurt for someone the way she had for Penny in those moments after M.T. sat down beside Burke. Her heart lurched even in memory. Penny was also kind and gentle. She was also undeserving of heartache. Kate felt more conflicted than ever.

“I haven’t looked forward to a movie this much in years,” M.T. continued on to say, her words breaking against Kate’s internal dilemma. She laughed nervously, pressing a hand against her collarbone. “Goodness, I’ll probably have to buy a new outfit; my wardrobe mostly consists of clothing that shouts ‘I love Jesus! How ‘bout you?’ That’s a pretty far cry from the attire of a sexy siren, huh?”

Sexy siren?

“I guess so.” Kate wanted to cry. Or puke. She’d never felt so torn on an issue in her life.

“Want to go shopping with me?” M.T. asked, her words driving the last nail in the proverbial coffin for Kate.

“I-uh…if I have the time. Maybe.” Kate felt like a heel. She should have been leaping up and down for M.T. but instead she was politely if coldly reserved about the whole state of affairs. She had Penny to think about, too.

 

 

 

“So, is it serious between them?”

Kate stared across the threshold of her front entryway to the outside porch, where her friend was standing, impatient. She’d no sooner opened the door then the words exploded in the air between them. Penny’s visit was both unannounced and inevitable.

As a preamble, her words were abrupt, but then again, Kate doubted much else had occupied the psychic’s mind since lunch that afternoon. It was nearing eight p.m. now, hours since Kate and Penny had separated, since Kate had visited M.T., hours still since she’d returned home, resigned to this fated conversation, to her part in the outcome of it all.

Kate motioned Penny inside, but the other woman wouldn’t budge. Apparently, she wanted answers first.

“I know you talked with her,” Penny persevered, “I saw your car at the church.”

Kate nodded slowly.

“So?” Penny repeated, “is it serious between them?”

Kate sighed. “I don’t know.”

Penny’s face contorted. “But, they were on a date right?”

“Yes.”

“Typical,” Penny spat, “just typical. She takes what she wants, regardless of everyone else and their feelings.”

“Oh Penny…” Kate’s voice was soft, sympathetic, hurting for her friend.

“Well, not this time. This time she’s in for a fight. This time I’m not backing down.”

“Oh Penny…”

“And she is not invited to my birthday party. You hear me Kate?”

Kate heard her all right. She heard Penny’s pain—it damn near throbbed from her person. M.T. had let her down (again). And though she didn’t know it, Kate had too.

The urge to puke resurfaced.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fourteen

Kate barely slept the night after Jake’s Halloween Party. Hell, she barely slept the next three nights in succession. That’s probably why it was so easy for Pastor M.T. to convince her to chaperone the church’s youth lock-in that coming Saturday night. Though, truth be told, it wasn’t just the lack of sleep, or the accompanying knowledge that Penny would be out of town at a psychic’s convention that weekend (Kate could only guess how well news of this would have gone over with her), that prompted Kate’s quick acceptance to this arrangement…. She’d barely been able to take two breaths, barely been given the reprieve of the blinking of her eyes, without remembering that kiss:

Jake’s lips seemed almost imprinted against hers, the feel of them brushed up against her heightened flesh. It was devastating even in memory. Without conscious thought, she could still believe his hands cradled the nape of her neck, his thumbs rubbing enticing circles over the underside of her jaw, his breath, singed with the effects of overindulgence, stroking against the air between them.

Riding close behind these terribly wanton fantasies was a swamping sensation of guilt. Kate had been an accessory to adultery—albeit an unintentional one. Even worse, no one but she knew that. She’d kissed her boss, her boss though he’d kissed his girlfriend. She’d kissed a man who didn’t know he was kissing her, a man who’d feel betrayed, probably even disgusted if he ever found out what had really happened that night. Jake thought nothing amiss had transpired, remaining peacefully naïve to it all—and here Kate was, all hot-and-bothered while consciously reliving the reality of that experienced. What kind of person did that make her?

Shaking her head, Kate decided she wasn’t ready to know. She had to get out of her own head, get off this merry-go-round of self analysis, depreciation, and loathing. She needed something to distract her attention, to redirect her energy in another direction. It was pointless to keep going over the events of that ill-fated Halloween Party. What was done was done, and not amount of daydreaming could change that. Plus, Kate had already pledge to never speak of it to another living soul. She was torturing herself in silence and it had to stop. As far as she should be concerned, it had never happened so there was nothing to think about anyway.

If M.T. was surprised by Kate’s capitulation on the subject of the youth lock-in, she kept her countenance well controlled. Other than her sincere thanks and the reminder that Kate be to the church by 6 p.m. she let the subject matter drop. Probably, Kate reasoned, she wasn’t interested in looking a gift horse in the mouth. Smart woman, she heard a ‘yes’ and ran with it!      Packing her overnight bag, Kate didn’t pause to question her motives for the night’s activities. She was going to this overnight and she was going to save herself in the process of doing it. Zipping the contents inside, she headed for the door. Besides, it wasn’t all together a selfish act. She’d heard from M.T. that Janessa had signed up for the event, as well. At least, she could cleanse her conscience with the knowledge that she would be performing her mentorship duty.

 

 

 

“So, you actually showed up, huh?” Those were Janessa’s first words upon sight of Kate that evening. It was 6:30 p.m., making the girl half an hour late. The other kids were already gathered in the fellowship hall, munching away on chips and hamburgers, lovingly prepared by the kitchen ladies, before the evening’s festivities were scheduled to commence—a game of sorts involving dart guns.

Raising her eyebrows, when Kate had first learned of this, she hadn’t been able to keep from wondering at the religious upset such an activity may entail.

“I know, I know, a game involving shooting people, even if pretend, is hardly ideal for a church group, but the kids wanted to do it and, well, if it gets them through the door…” M.T. had shrugged at Kate’s obvious reservation. “The first step in making a community of faith is acquiring a community.”

“Hey, if the congregation is allowing it, who am I to object?” Kate had responded lightly.

 

Now, however, staring into the belligerent eyes of her mentee, Kate wasn’t so sure about this. She had a feeling Janessa would be only too thrilled to drill her through-and-through with those nonlethal ammo packs.

“Was I not supposed to show up?” Kate countered Janessa’s question, hoping her voice sounded cool and unaffected. She was nervous around the girl. Having survived in a corporate world, Kate wasn’t a stranger to hatred it’s just…it had never been so angst-riddled, so pent-up with teenage rate. This was way scarier.

Janessa shrugged one uncaring shoulder. “I don’t know, just didn’t think you would. I mean, it’s kind of lame, isn’t it, playing kid’s games at your age?”

The challenge had been thrown. Kate looked helplessly toward M.T. but that coward was already halfway out the door, trying to slink away unnoticed, leaving Kate to deal with the mutinous set of Janessa’s mouth all by herself.

“What? Afraid you can’t beat me, even with the handicap of my age?” Kate shot back, unwilling to back down. Maybe, just maybe, the taunt would do the trick. Maybe, just maybe, it would incite in Janessa a drive to win, to beat Kate, to stop making snide remarks and actually participate in the fun.

“Whatever,” the girl said, but she didn’t sound as uncaring now. Turning on her heel, Janessa made her way to the fellowship hall then. Quietly, a small smile playing at the edges of her mouth, Kate followed closely behind.

She was ready now. Game on!

 

The first couple rounds of dart tag—the title of which involved the word Zombie?!—didn’t bode well for Kate. This was mostly a by-product of Janessa’s spot-on aim and fierce will to see Kate eat her earlier words. Unknown to Janessa, this was fine with Kate. It meant that she was on the girl’s radar and even if it was as “Enemy No 1”, anything was better than the indifference she’d suffered with up to this point. It was a step.

Though Kate hadn’t been overly fond of the idea of being a mentor at first, mostly because of M.T.’s sneak-attach style, she’d nonetheless committed to it and when Kate committed to something she went all the way. It was the perfectionist in her. And Kate was determined to succeed with Janessa. She was determined to build a relationship with the stormy teenager.

If Kate didn’t mind being Janessa’s personal format for target practice, what happened next proved for superior in effect. It was after the fourth round of this particular game, when a couple of the kids got bored. They wanted to try something different, something that involved team play. The free-for-all, everyone versus everyone had gotten old. Instead, “Capture the Flag” was chosen—with the inclusion of dart guns, of course. The rules: get the flag over the finish line first, without being ‘tagged’ by an opposing player. If one person on a team is hit, both players are out. There was only one flag in this game, and only one finish line. Each team had their own home base.

All at once, Kate felt like that gawky thirteen year old again, ready to be picked last, the pity partner that nobody really wanted. Already, pairs were forming together, huddled in little sections of the building, plotting out their strategies. Swallowing back panic at her solitary position, Kate forcibly reminder herself that she wasn’t a teenager any more. She was an adult. A chaperone and it would be perfectly acceptable for her to sit this one out.

She was on the verge of doing this very thing when she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. Turning around, Kate saw none other than Janessa standing behind her.

“I guess neither of us has a partner,” the girl mumbled under her breath.

Surprised, Kate nonetheless asked, “You? How can that be? You’re great at all of this,” she said, her hand gesturing to the toy gun in her hand.

“Pfft, you expect me to be on the same team as one of those fools?” Janessa asked belligerently, her eyes skipping over the heads of the other kids there. “Not even for some stupid game.”

Kate felt sure there was a story there. Certainly the rest of the group didn’t seem to be cut from the same cloth as Janessa: the girls were wearing make-up and perfume; Janessa hadn’t even bothered to run a brush through her thick black hair. Vague snarls could be seen running almost to her shoulder blades. Everyone was wearing designer, trendy clothes; Janessa had shown up in a ratty old football jersey and jeans. To further widen this division, these kids had grown up in this church together, been confirmed together. They were friends; Janessa remained an outsider looking in.

(There was also the whole swearing thing. Janessa…well, in the last game she’d let out a couple not-so-ladylike words, her vulgarity frothing to the surface in an almost comical contrast to everyone else’s more refined speech; Kate hadn’t heard so much as a ‘heck’ squeak past any of their lips.)

With a start, Kate realized she wasn’t the only solitary figure there tonight.

“Should we gather up a game plan?” Kate asked, trying not to let her excitement at the prospect of playing side-by-side with her charge show too clearly.

Janessa rolled her eyes. “Just follow my lead,” she said.

 

A nerve-wracking five minutes later, Kate’s calves were screaming in her hunched down pose, her neck spying around one of the room’s support columns. There were only two other teams remaining. Kate and Janessa were more than halfway to the finish line already, the flag safely tucked under Janessa’s arm. The others were in hot pursuit.

“Cover me,” Janessa mouthed.

Hefting the weapon up against her shoulder, Kate did as she was told, letting off a couple rounds of ammo, her body pushed momentarily in view of her assailants, stealing the attention away from Janessa while that girl scurried ahead, making her way to one of the three safety zones set-up.

A sole dart zipped through the air just then, headed straight for Kate. Reacting on impulse, she pulled the trigger one last time before holstered her shooter and ducking back behind the cement edifice again. Hugged up against its solid structure, the hit missed her by inches. Kate swore she felt a ripple of air as it sailed past.

“Nice shot Kate,” Janessa called.

Cautiously craning her head to the side, Kate glimpsed two pairs of hands waving in the air—the signal for having been ‘hit’. Sure enough, the bodies belonging to those very hands quickly moved off the battlegrounds. Holy smokes, Kate’s shot had actually tagged someone. Sighing in relief, Kate figured it was bound to happen at one point in time. She’d actually taken out one of the teams.

“One more team left,” Janessa hissed unnecessarily. Kate had figured that out herself. She was good at math.

“What do we do next, Captain?” Kate called toward her.

“Smoke ‘em out. We don’t have another choice. It’s a standstill now. We’ve got to make a run for it…we’ve got to cross the finish line,” Janessa deliberated. If they made it, they’d win. Of course, it was a risky move, leaving them wide open for attack. If they got taken out the other team would be able to cross the line without hindrance, a sure win.

They didn’t have far to go, a span no larger than ten-feet stood between them and their goal. But it looked a lot further away to Kate’s weary eyes. Ten feet was a lot of time to try and dodge flying darts.

“We’ll go on the count of three,” Janessa whispered to Kate. “Just keep your eyes open, zig-zag back-and-forth and keep you finger poised to shoot,” she directed.

“Okay,” Kate said, her heart beating wildly in her ears. At some level she realized how ridiculous she was acting, getting completely carried away and all for the sake of a game that didn’t mean anything. Except, except Kate got the feeling it meant something to Janessa and, if that were the case, it meant something to Kate. “Ready when you are.”

“One…two…Three: Go!” Janessa yelled.

Rolling off the side of the column, Kate did as told, her feet hitting the tile with conviction. She and Janessa separated, each moving to opposite ends of the narrow hall, skirting this way and that, to avoid potential targeted aims. They hadn’t made it more than a foot when the first dart flew through the air. Spinning on her heel, Janessa just managed to miss it.

Turning around, running backward all the while maintaining her speed, the spunky teen released a few shots herself, spraying a proverbial hail of foam-filled shells in all directions.

“Janessa on your left, your left!” Kate called urgently, barely pausing to see her partner outmaneuver yet another futile attempt, her feet skipping past the veritable trail of casings littering her feet with skill and precision.

Eyes swinging back and forth and straight ahead, Kate counted her steps. Five maybe six to go—out of her peripheral vision, she saw the glowing neon tip of an airborne object slicing through the air, headed right for her; its purpose couldn’t have been clearer. Five, maybe six steps to go. Years of dedicated ballet kicking in, Kate leapt just when the dart would have hit her leg, executing a perfect grand jete; she had no more than landed when another attempt was made. Skipping into a pas de chat elegant enough to make the very Swan Lake cry, she foiled her opposition once more.  A final pirouette and…! With something sadly akin to exultation, Kate saw her left boot and then her right skip across the threshold of the finish line. Good God, she was safe. The rules said: a player couldn’t be tagged once they crossed the finish line. She was safe!

The same could not be said for her cohort. Janessa remained about four feet out still. She was so busy avoiding intruder attacks she could hardly move forward at all. This wouldn’t do.

Lifting up her model rifle, Kate squinted. In a way, Janessa’s plan had worked out perfectly. They’d managed to drive the last remaining team out of hiding. Now, bold with confidence, they weren’t even attempting to conceal their whereabouts. Unfortunately for them, they’d made one massive tactical mistake: they let Kate cross to the other side; they were no longer the only people playing the offensive. Unlike Janessa, twisting this way and that, moving in and out, dipping here and ducking there, they were a relatively easy mark, just squatting there, right out in the open. Smiling to herself, Kate took aim. Then her finger squeezed against the trigger.

Two pairs of arms went straight up, waving in the air.

 

 

 

“That was a pretty special moment, you and Janessa winning team dart tag,” M.T. said hours later. She and Kate were sitting side-by-side out in the hallway. The rest of the kids, most of whom had fallen asleep by now, were grouped together in the Youth Room, watching a movie. M.T. and Kate were pulling the first round of the overnight watch. The other two chaperones, a married couple with no children themselves, would relieve them of their station at the next appointed shift-change: three a.m.

Stifling a yawn, Kate wondered how she’d make it up that late. It was barely twelve-thirty now and her eyes felt like dead weights. At M.T.’s words, however, she couldn’t help but perk up a little, unable to quiet the spark of pleasure those words evoked.

Still, she responded cautiously, nervous of getting her hopes up too high; probably Janessa still thought Kate was totally weird. “Yeah, I guess.”

“You guess? Janessa whooped so loudly when you eliminated Kenny Tomkins, securing your win, I thought the building would crumble from the noise alone.”

Kate felt a smile tug at her lips in memory of Janessa throwing both her arms up in the air and racing full-speed to where a stunned Kate stood. The smack of her high-five had stung, but Kate had, oddly, rarely felt as proud of herself as she had in that moment. She’d done something amazing. She’d brought a full smile to that teenager’s face, something which, until then, she’d never witnessed. Janessa was a beautiful girl when she smiled.

“It was a good moment,” Kate agreed.

“You crossed more than just one finish line tonight,” M.T. said quietly, meaningfully.

Kate sighed, blowing her bangs off her forehead. “I hope so, I really do.”

M.T. patted Kate’s thigh comfortingly. “Baby steps, Kate. You two worked together as a team tonight. You communicated with one another, supported one another, but mostly, you taught Janessa that she can trust you. It may have only been a game, but the outcome carries much farther than that.”

“What do I do next?” Kate asked, letting her guard down just long enough to show M.T. that she really cared about this relationship, that she was terrified of screwing things up with Janessa.

M.T. laughed. It sounded a little hard. “Are you sure you want to ask me that question? Have you not seen the product of my relationship expertise with Ruthie?”
Kate tipped her head. “Who’s Ruthie?”

“Ruthanne.”

“Yeah, that clarified nothing for me,” Kate said.

“Penny, Madame Penny,” M.T. said. At Kate’s blank look, she continued: “You did know that Penny isn’t her real name, didn’t you?”

“Uh, I guess it never occurred to me to wonder.”

“It’s—what do they call that—a stage name.”

“Ruthanne didn’t sound psychic enough?” Kate asked a tad insensitively.

“Well, I suppose it’s because she’s always hated her given name. Personally, I think it’s beautiful, but then again, that’s likely part of the problem. I doubt she’d even allow herself the peace of mind to so much as agree with me…on anything.

“I keep trying,” M.T. went on to say, “but—,”

“But she’s not making it easy for you, huh?” Kate intercepted.

“No, she’s not,” M.T. sighed. “Did you know, I called her last week but at the sound of my voice she just…she just hung up? And, when I ran into her at the LitLiber a few days ago she pretended I wasn’t there, that I wasn’t talking to her. I won’t stop trying though. I won’t.”

The pain laced throughout these words cut to Kate’s heart. She didn’t need to know her well to know that M.T. was a woman with a sensitive nature, a gentle soul, unprepared for this sort of combat. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she said then, and now it was her time to offer comfort. Grabbing M.T.’s balled up fists, Kate said the first thing that came to her mind, “She must love you a lot to hate you this much.”

M.T. sniffed. “Well, at least she used to love me.”

Kate smiled “I’m sure she did.”

“We were actually quite close as children,” M.T. went on to say. “Let’s see, I was ten years old when my dad married her mom. Ruthie was only seven. Within a week of moving in, she was my shadow, followed me everywhere I went, wanted to do everything I did,” M.T. mused, her gaze glossed over in memory.

“I loved having a little sister. I taught her how to swim, how to braid her hair, and even how to make banana bread. She was my pet. That never changed, not even when I reached my teenage years. Ruthie was special. She could, oh, she could make me laugh!”

Kate smiled wistfully, “It sounds lovely.” An only child, Kate had always wanted to experience a sisterhood much the way M.T. and Ruthie had shared

M.T. shook her head. “It was, for a while,” she said ominously. “I’m not sure how much she’s told you about her mother, but, well, she took to the bottle pretty heavily around the time my father became ill. He died of pancreatic cancer when I was eighteen.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate mumbled awkwardly, not sure what to say.

“Thank you,” M.T. said, her voice sounding watery at these next words: “I was so lost without him. I couldn’t breathe anymore, I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Not even toward Ruthie. I just, I was hurting so much and I didn’t know how to process the building anger and fear and grief taking hold of me, so I turned to apathy instead.”

Kate’s fingers squeezed against M.T.’s hand. It couldn’t have been easy, reliving that place in her life, that point of such confusion. It was brave.

“I couldn’t stay. I needed to escape, to start over, at least that’s what I told myself and at the time I believed it. So I left. I traveled the world for a year—I visited Italy and Spain, spent time in Greece and Turkey, even lived in France for awhile. I met beautiful, wonderful people, listened to remarkable stories about life and love and somehow I found myself again. I found my purpose in life. I went from there straight to seminary school.”

“You never came back?” Kate asked, though she was pretty sure she knew the answer to that question already.

M.T. shook her head. “No, I left Ruthie behind. I left her to pick up the pieces of her life all alone.” I left her with an alcoholic mother hardly fit to raise a child, much less her own self, M.T. added silently to herself. “I abandoned her, leaving her just as lost as my father’s passing had left me. I didn’t know, I was too young to know what I was doing. I was too young to cope with what was happening, and I hurt Ruthie because of it—the only person I should have been thinking about above all. I regret that most of all.”

“Is that why you came back to town?” Kate asked boldly.

“Yes, I want to make amends, I want my sister back. I want to be a sister to her—again.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Eight

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.

“Join us.”

“What?”

“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.

Kate cringed.

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….”

“Humph.”

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.”