North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Five

Groaning quietly, Penny woke up slowly. Agonized. Eyes tightly closed, her brain felt like it was ricocheting madly around her head—even just breathing seemed to be sending the thing unraveling, bouncing painfully from left to right, unhinged. Parched. That’s how she felt. Her mouth was dry. Impossibly dry. Smacking her lips together, she tried to get some moisture inside the dessert coating her teeth, her tongue…

Stretching, Penny let her eyes slowly slip open.

Wait. Her arms raised up over her head, Penny felt confused, disorientated.

This wasn’t her duvet.

This wasn’t her bed.

This wasn’t her house.

It was only by sheer will that Penny kept herself from shrieking—alarm bells jangled unerringly in her bleating brain.

What happened last night—?!

Then, almost as quickly as the question popped into her head, Penny remembered, the night before slapping itself across her memories.

She and Jake had gone out for drinks, one round quickly following another. She wasn’t even sure how many beers—urgh, how many shots?—she’d consumed. Five? Six? God…

She’d told him about how lonely she’d been feeling lately, how insecure—. “…I mean, what is it about me? The everyman friend.” She’d laughed humorlessly.

Jake had jerked his head back. “Don’t say that…”

“Why not? It’s true. No one looks at me. Well,” Penny considered with a wicked grin. “Not unless their pointing at the freak show down the road.”

“Penny—” Jake growled warningly.

“I want to be look at,” Penny pleaded. “Really looked at, you know? Desired. Sought-after. I want to be the fantasy.” Flapping her hands dramatically, she said: “I want what comes so naturally for other women.” Women like Kate, she thought, but she didn’t speak that last bit out loud.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look to bad,” Jake joked with a wink in her direction.

Penny made a face. “I’m being serious here.”

“So am I.”

Confused, flustered, Penny hadn’t been sure how to interpret that. So she laughed, took it for the light-hearted comment it was most likely supposed to be. “Okay. Whatever.”

Jake sighed. Reaching forward, his hand hovering over hers, he said: “Penny, you have to know—”

She shook her head. “I mean, what do you look for in a woman?”

Jake reared back, his chair scraping against the tiled floor. “What?”

Penny persisted. “What makes a woman attractive to you? What’s your type?”

Jake looked uncomfortable. Taken aback.

Penny had waved her hand dismissively. “I’m looking for a little perspective here, and who better to ask than a man? You know what it is that makes one woman cute and another gorgeous; what makes one woman a good friend as opposed to a good…well, bedmate?”

“Bedmate?” Jake grinned.

Penny made a gesture. “You know what I mean.”

“Okay.” Jake took a deep breath, his hand dropping back down to the table. His eyes watched Penny’s hands as they ripped and shred the paper coaster before her. “I like a woman who has a great sense of humor.”

Penny stuck out her tongue. “Everyone says that.”

Jake shrugged. “It’s true. If she makes me laugh…that’s huge. Bantering back and forth. Wit. It’s so important.”

“Okay?”

“And someone who’s kind. Considerate. Someone who can be a good friend as well as a good, what was it you said?” Jake teased. “Oh, yeah. Bedmate.”

Penny gave him a look. “Really?”

“What?”
“Vague character traits? That’s what you’re giving me here? Sweet and funny? Really. What’s next: intelligent and driven? Adventurous and daring?” Penny shook her head vehemently. “No. I want specifics. What makes you tick?” Penny leaned in close.

Jaw swallowed hard.

Penny raised an expectant eyebrow.

A second passed in silence. Then another.

“Jake?”

“Brunettes.” He cleared his throat. “I like brunettes.”

“Since when?” Penny asked with a pfft of sound. “Pretty much every girl you’ve ever dated was blonde.”

“Preferences change.”

Penny considered this for a moment. “Okay. Well. What else?”

Jake held her gaze. “Dark eyes,” he offered softly. “Mysterious, exotic eyes.”

Penny nodded eagerly. “Go on.”

“A woman who isn’t afraid to take risks. Someone who believes in what she believes and who isn’t afraid to be herself, even if that makes her different from everyone else.”

“Different how—?”

But Jake was on a roll by then:

“…a woman who I know I can always go to for advice; who I want to go to for advice. Even when it’s zany or crazy. Especially then.”

Penny’s head tilted to one side. That sounded suspiciously like—

“—someone who’ll wait up for me when I ask, who’ll climb out windows for me without a second thought…”

“Jake?”

He rushed on ahead: “…a woman who is strong and independent but who I want to protect anyway, who I can’t help trying to protect.”

Penny’s voice was thin. “But-but, you’ve always done that for me,” she pointed out hesitantly. “Shielded me from a world of ugly gossips and rumors….”

Jake smiled sadly. “And I always will. That’s my point.”

Penny looked down nervously. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but something definitely was— it was there in his voice, in the gaze he leveled her way. Frantically, she tore a new chunk off her coaster.

“Penny.”

“Yeah?”

“Look at me.”

Slowly, she raised her eyes.

“Do you know what else I like?”

Penny shook her head slowly. “No.”

“Curly hair. Bangles and scarves and flowing skirts.” Jake dropped his eyes down to her mouth. “And red lipstick.”

Penny’s hands flittered up to her lips. “Oh.”

Reaching forward, his hand came to rest over hers, stopping her fingers mid-motion from their shredding. “Penny. Don’t you know?”

“Know?” Her voice came out like a squeak.

“How beautiful you are?”

“Don’t,” she whispered, shaking her head hard. “Don’t say stuff you don’t mean.”

Jake grinned. It was lopsided. “Why are you so sure I don’t mean it?”

Penny throat convulsed. “I don’t want to be your charity case, Jake,” she insisted. “Saying stuff just because—well, it’s almost worse, you know. People telling you the things they think you want to hear, regardless of whether or not they’re true. It’s so clichéd and humiliating.” She made a face. “The comforting friend telling the ugly, fat one she’s actually gorgeous and skinny—or what have you.”

Jake had whistled then. Long and low. “You’re way off. That’s not it at all.”

“No?”

“No.”

Penny hardly dared to breathe. There it was again—that note in his voice that she wasn’t quite sure how to read. Intense. Emotional. Heated. Breathy, pitchy, she risked her pride: “Then why are you saying it?”

He’d given her a meaningful look. “I think you know why. At least, I hope you do. That you feel the same.”

As the previous evening’s conversation floated over Penny’s consciousness she felt her stomach getting tight, her palms sweating…

They’d paid out after that. Neither of them had brought the conversation back up again, but it remained there, between them …

Closing her eyes, Penny watched the rest of the night through her mind’s eye, the events parading past like the reels on a feature movie presentation.

They’d stood up to leave, Jake helping Penny shrug into her light jean coat.

Jake reaching for her hand as they walked outside.

“Don’t worry,” He’d assured her as they marched up to the curb. “I had the bartender call us a cab. They should be here any minute.”

Then she was sliding inside the crummy, unclean vehicle, sitting demurely beside Jake as he raddled off the address.

They were huddled together at the steps leading up to Jake’s apartment. It was misty outside. Penny was snuggled in her jacket, teetering unsteadily on her four inch heels, the faint sound of the taxi pulling away echoing in her ears—and then he was kissing her. Just as she’d expected him to do. Just as she’d been hoping he’d do. (After all, with a telling look sent her way, he’d only proffered his address to the cabbie, hadn’t he? It wasn’t like she was so drunk she hadn’t understood that look in his eyes when he’d done it, the unspoken question mark hanging in the air, her subtle but unmistakable answer. She hadn’t offered up a second address.)

Right there, at the base of the steps, his arms winding themselves around her back, hauling her body up close to his, Jake kissed Penny.

The feel of his belt digging against her stomach; the graze of his fingers at her waist, pulling her impossibly closer; the scent of his aftershave wafting up in the still night air; the taste of whiskey where his lips clung to hers…

Penny didn’t remember going upstairs but then, somehow they were, his arms steering her toward the bedroom, her shirt falling off one shoulder as the back of her knee bumped up against the living room end table, upending her balance…his hands guiding her as she walked backward, her thoughts too consumed by his lips, his hands, those roaming fingers, to be bothered overmuch with walking. Then she felt the world dip, her body being pushed backward, her shoulders falling softly against his mattress….

Feeling her heart picking up double-time in her chest as what happened next transfixed itself upon her gaze, Penny slowly felt her head turn to the left.

And there, not five inches away from her was Jake, his black hair spiking out against his white pillow, his face expressionless in sleep, those impossibly long eyelashes resting against his high cheekbones, the beginnings of a beard shadowing across his jawline.

Oh God he was gorgeous.

Her chest shaking, quaking as the full realization of what happened settled upon her person, Penny could feel the onslaught of a panic attack take form. She was in bed with Jake. Jake.

Dammit, what had she been thinking?

What had he been thinking?

Penny felt tears crowding against her throat. Jake. And it had been glorious. Everything she’d dreamed it could be and more (and dammit, she had dreamt about this. About him and her; and, if she were honest, she’d dreamt about it pretty much since high school.)

But she and Jake were never supposed to actually happen. He was supposed to be a fantasy. Someone she could curl up to in her imagination, all the while knowing that reality would never bend so far as to allow for something so—unnatural. The cool guy and the weirdo? Yeah right. No thanks.

There is only so much disbelief the mind can handle.

Biting her lip, Penny let her eyes wander down his sleeping form. Better soak it in now, it wasn’t likely to repeat itself.

He’d been lonely; she’d been lonely. The perfect recipe for just this kind of thing. (And the copious amounts of beer probably hadn’t helped much.) More than likely, she’d been little more than his rebound from Kate.

God.

Penny closed her eyes tightly on the pain of that thought. Still, she knew she was right. Because there was absolutely no other earthly reason Jake would have jumped into bed with—well, with her.

It’s not like he loved her. It’s not like he was even interested in her that way. No. Nu-uh. No way. He’d been lonely. She’d been lonely. This had been a means to an end. A forgone conclusion to a temporary salve.

“You stupid fool,” Penny whispered harshly to herself, her arms gripping the bed sheet tightly as she quietly tiptoed out of bed. “You stupid, stupid fool.”

Tears forming at the back of her throat, Penny made it soundlessly out of the bedroom, her arms snatching up scattered bits of clothing along the way. Fumbling toward the bathroom, she felt the smothered hysteria trying to claw its way up her stomach…

Quickly throwing on the clothes from the day before, Penny kept her eyes determinedly trained to the ground, refusing to meet her face in the mirror overhead. Refusing to see the red-rims of grief engulfing her as the broad light of day beat down; refusing to see the hurt and humiliation bearing down on her.

She’d slept with Jake.

The moment she’d been waiting for—

And now it was over.

Closing her eyes as the first tears fell, Penny chocked back the accompany cries scratching against her vocal chords. Well, she’d finally gotten her wish, hadn’t she? She knew what it was like to fall in love.

(It wasn’t like she hadn’t known it before. She’d been a little in love with Jake since that first day in the cafeteria when he’d sat down next to her. But she’d never had to admit it to herself, she’d never had to take those feelings seriously, because what would have been the point? He was so far out of her league, she was so far removed from his kind of girl—it’d always been safe before. Loving him. An illusion. Something to cling in the quiet of her mind. But not anymore.)

Now she knew: knew what it was to fall in love; to be in love.

Just in time to learn what it was like to have her heart broken.

Poetic.

“You deserve it,” she told herself as she slipped out of Jake’s apartment, her steps intent as she slunk down the stairs, down the sidewalk, her body pressed up tight to the building’s she passed, her feet making quick work of the distance between there and the sanctuary of her shop. Only fifteen feet…ten….five…

Bursting through the back door, her legs wobbly and unsure, Penny reached desperately for her curtained doorway, barely making it two steps inside before the sobs she’d held back finally broke loose. Sliding down to the floor, her back pressed up against her filing cabinet, knees bent up to her chin, Penny let her head fall forward, the tears spilling across yesterday’s outfit…

“You knew he could never love you back. People like Jake don’t fall for people like you.” Her lips trembled over that last word. “They just don’t.”

At last, the sobs came to a close, dwindling down to the occasional sniffle and heavily in-drawn breath. The pit in her stomach was empty now, replaced with the hollowed-out sensation that always followed a good cry.

Looking at the dark, wet patches smearing the long folds of her skirt, Penny shook her head. “Pathetic, Penny. That’s what you—”

The sudden ringing of her cell phone brought her derision up short. Heart skidding across her chest, Penny quickly fumbled the vibrating thing out of her purse. Fingers shaking, she slowly bright it up to her face, checking to see who was calling.

Please!

Please—

But it was only Kate.

Wiping away at the tracks of tears, Penny hit the ANSWER button quickly. She could actually use the distraction right now.

“Hello?” Her voice came out soft, uneven. But it didn’t matter. The woman on the other end of the line was far too preoccupied to notice the quavering tone of voice anyway.

“Penny—Oh my god…” A scratching sound muffled Kate’s words, making them garbled.

“Hello? Kate?”

“Penny? Penny! Are you there?”

“Yes. Yeah. What’s up?”

“Where are you?”

Penny’s brow furrowed.  “Uh. I’m at my office. Why? What’s—?”

“Can you get away?”

“Now?”

“Yes now!”

Penny’s hand went up to touch her puffy eyes. “Uh. Well—”

“Please Penny!” Kate’s voice shifted, lined with panic. “I need you…”

That decided it. “Yes. Okay. Just tell me where—” Penny heard a thunk on the other end of the line, followed by a quiet groan. “Kate, what’s going on?” Penny demanded again, straightening from her position on the floor. She’d been right. Kate was proving a mighty good distraction. “You sound weird.”

A slight pause. “They found me.”

“Who found you?”

“My parents. Phil.”

“What?!” Penny jack-knifed to her feet. “Where are you?”

“The LitLiber. In Jake’s office. Hiding.”

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

“Hurry Penny.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Four

Hefting a heavy box in her arms, Kate shuffled a little to her right. The storage room at the back of the LitLiber was a mess. Organization had gotten away from the staff…sundry merchandise lay scattered around the cramped space, without thought to order or convenience. Kate had volunteered to stay late to help put the room to rights—a little extra time and effort today would save in the long run, when employees no longer had to hunt and gather for needed items.

Out of her peripheral vision, Kate saw the door to the room crack open, but she didn’t bother turning to see who’d walked it. The box was heavy.

“Kate? What are you still doing here?” Jake asked, coming up to relieve her of the bulky item. “Your shift ended half an hour ago,” he informed her disapprovingly.

Wiping the sleeve of her shirt against her sweating brow, Kate felt her heartbeat pick up a notch or two. Jake was frowning. That wasn’t a good sign. “I know,” Kate argued, “but I-I offered to keep on a little later, to help put this place to rights.”

Jake’s frown deepened.

“Jackie mentioned it needed to be done,” Kate rushed to say. Jackie was one of the floor supervisors. When Kate had overheard this, she’d jumped at the chance…. “And well, it does need a little housekeeping,” she defended, gesturing toward the chaos around her.

Jake sighed. “Kate, if this is about Janessa—” another sigh, “you don’t have to do this. You don’t, you don’t owe me anything.”

Kate swallowed hard. She wanted to deny his claim, but Jake was right. Kate was trying to make amends; she’d blown it with the PR stunt and then this thing with Janessa…. She wanted to win back Jake’s approval, his trust. She desperately wanted to prove her worth as an employee again. She and Jake hardly ever talked anymore. (Ironically, Janessa’s sticky fingers had been the first time in a long while that she and he had discussed anything even remotely personal, it had been the first time in a long time they’d laughed so freely together, teased one another, enjoyed each other’s company.) She missed that. She missed their old, easy camaraderie and she was determined to get it back.

Pushing a smile on her face, Kate waved away Jake’s concern. “Thank you for saying that. But, honestly, my intentions weren’t altogether altruistic.” She was pleased with how natural the lie sounded. “There’s a writing class being held here tonight—of course you knew that,” Kate faltered at Jake’s dry expression. “And, anyway, I’m planning to attend, but it doesn’t start for another hour; I figured I might as well be useful while I wait.”

“If you’re sure,” Jake said, but he still didn’t sound convinced.

“I’m sure,” Kate said, shooting him a breezy smile before turning away, reaching for another package….

 

 

 

At five minutes to the hour, Kate left the storage room. The floors were cleared of cardboard debris, the shelving units were stocked, labeled, and neatly arranged: alphabetized according to category, retail product sat on the left, dry goods on the right, and here and there, other miscellany, all clearly marked and smartly stacked. Wiping her hands together, Kate recognized the effort as a job well done.

Hurrying, following behind a group of women, Kate went from there to the makeshift classroom, located on the far side of LitLiber, where Jackson would be conducting his next writing seminar.

Grabbing a seat, Kate pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. She hadn’t told Penny she was coming tonight. She hadn’t wanted to give the psychic any more encouragement regarding her feelings for Jackson than she already possessed. Truth be told, Kate still wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about the hot English teacher. She just knew she wanted to see him again, that she’d been looking forward to tonight. For now, that was enough.

Fifteen minutes later, Kate decided it had been a mistake, coming here alone. She found herself odd man out, especially after Jackson announced the week’s focus (and accompanying particulars): The memoir.

“This is one of my favorite genres of writing,” he’d said in introduction. “It’s intimate, intrinsic…this kind of writing doesn’t just demand good storytelling; it demands the truth, an exposé within a specific focus and theme of a very personal nature. Not to be confused with an autobiography, the memoir is one story from within the writer’s life—not the whole story. To achieve this, the writer must analyze themselves, find out who they are, how they got there…What is the meaning? From where did it come about? Memoirs can be sad, they can be whistle-blowers, they can be inspiring, despairing…but they should always be purposeful. This is creative nonfiction folks.”

If that wasn’t scary enough, unveiling your secrets to a room full of strangers….

“What do you want your audience to know about you, right now, today, this very moment?”

Kate gulped, but nothing compared to the terror which sparked with Jackson’s next words:

“Memoirs are baring, they leave the writer vulnerable, stripped before their readers. It’s not enough to simply write out a piece of your history…you must also be willing to share that history with others. To fully understand this process, I want everyone to pair up in groups of two for this assignment. Pick someone else from this class; they will be your chosen audience, and you theirs. Because, you’re not just going to write a memoir, you’re going to share it—with them. Read and be read.

Kate felt her throat tighten. What?

“All right, take the next minute to find your partner,” Jackson announced.

Heart beating loudly, Kate watched as the room broke open in noise, women laughing, confident as they quickly teamed-up, the choices obvious; friends leaning, conspiratorially close to one another, hands reaching out, tapping shoulders expectantly…the gestures expressing intent, sealing alliances. And then there was Kate, quiet in the corner, left all alone. She didn’t know a single other person in the room. Dammit, she should have told Penny she was coming.

Her head ducked low, Kate tried to tell herself it was no big deal. So she didn’t have a partner? She’d just skip out on this exercise, that’s all. So what? It was in the midst of this self pep-talk that she became aware of a looming shadow, bent and hovering against her downcast face. Looking up, Kate was surprised to see it was none other than Jackson, squatting down beside her chair, his brown eyes steadily on her.

“Hi Kate,” he said softly, not to be overheard. “I just did a headcount and I realized that there’s an odd number in our classroom today.”

“Oh,” Kate murmured for lack of anything else to say.

“To even it out, keep everyone in groups no larger than two, I’m also going to participate in this assignment,” Jackson continued conversationally. “And I just figured, if you didn’t have one yet, I’d see you’d like to partner up with me?”

Despite her deep embarrassment at being friendless, Kate was grateful for Jackson’s discretion, his quiet handling of the situation. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’d like that.”

Jackson smiled. “Great. We’ll talk later.”

With that he walked back up to the front of the class: “All right,” he said, the sound of his voice immediately shushing the women around him, “does everyone have a partner?”

The class nodded their heads in collective consent, Kate included.

“Great. Now that you know who your intended audience is, take the opportunity to really consider, what is it you want to share with them—specifically with them. What memories or recollections— what in your past that has defined you today—do you want them to know? What story from your life will resonate, impact, what story will stay with them? You’re writing not only for yourself, but for them as well…”

Jackson’s voice droned on a few minutes longer but soon enough, he was wrapping up, glancing at the clock to inform everyone they still had the room for another half an hour: “Please, use the time to start writing,” he prompted invitingly, the words officially marking the end of his lecture.

Pulling her notebook closer, Kate needed no further encouragement. She wasn’t entirely sure how to begin her story, or really what story it was that she wanted to tell. Looking up at Jackson she wondered…what did she want him to know about her? Unbidden, Penny’s words from a week ago nagged at the thought: is she afraid of giving up her power to Jackson, as she’d done with every other person in her life?

Grabbing for her pen, unsure exactly where she was going with this, Kate hunched forward, placing ink to paper:

I always wanted to play basketball. It always looked like great fun. Besides, I think I would have been good at the sport: I’m tall, extremely competitive, in possession of adequate hand-eye coordination. And I’ve always craved being a part of something bigger than just myself. But I never got the chance. Growing up, my mother wouldn’t allow for it.

            Basketball was a masculine sport, she said. It was grotesque to see a woman growling as she dribbled down the court, her face blushed with sweat, her body blocking, pushing, and shoving roughly passed and against other players…. Girl’s who played basketball were merely women who wished that they were men, who acted unbecoming their gender.

            Basketball, my mother firmly informed me, was out. Instead, she decided I would play tennis.  It was feminine, graceful (hell, the girls still work skirts or dresses to differentiate themselves from the stronger sex). I never thought to disagree with her….

 

 

           

Something was wrong with Maggie. Penny, sitting quietly in the dim lighting of her shop, felt her brow furrow with the thought. Staring down at the Tarot cards laying face up on the table before her, the psychic couldn’t help but worry.

Picking up her phone, Penny impatiently hit redial but, after five rings, all she heard was the automated recording of Maggie’s answering machine kicking in…

“Maggie, its Penny…where are you?” she asked into the voicemail. It was the third message she’d left in the last hour. It wasn’t like Maggie not to answer the phone, especially not when it was Penny calling.  “Please, call me as soon as you get this,” Penny pleaded before hanging up. Rubbing her fingers against throbbing temples, she couldn’t ignore the feeling of doom settling across her person.

If Kate had told Penny about the writing class that night, the psychic wouldn’t have found herself in this pickle She would have left the store early, blissfully unaware of anything amiss—she would have safely gone on pretending to loathe her sister. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, Penny had lingered over her closing duties, paying bills and organizing her filing system. It was as she’d been on the point of finally leaving, half an hour later than usual, that she’d heard two ladies talking outside the florist shop, talking about the revered pastor…and the things they’d been saying, the gossip they’d exchanged:

“…drunk, almost passed out.”

“I heard that they had to forcibly cut her off…”

The story they’d been telling, well, it had seemed incredible, unbelievable and yet… Penny hadn’t wanted to admit it, she hadn’t wanted to own it, but a shadow of concern had developed at the words she’d overheard. Retreating back into her shop, she’d pulled out her trusty pack of cards.

She’d done a reading on her sister; she didn’t normally do them without the express permission of the intended client, but after what she’d gleaned listening to those nosey-parkers, she’d felt compelled to break that rule.

Now, staring down at the results of this ministration, Penny knew she’d been correct. The message wasn’t promising:

The Tower Card: a card of struggle, shock, and conflict. This card is frequently attributed to a source of severe fear, pain, and/or escapism.

The Judgment Card: a card of confrontation; a time of movement or inaction, this card represents issues left unresolved, sins and debts which effect emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.

The Justice Card: a card of limbo. Inner balance is off-kilter. This card calls for a reinstitution of alignment—too much excess or too little scarcity carry unknown, unwanted consequences.

Penny frowned. Something was wrong with Maggie. With a weary sigh, she reached for her cell phone one more time….

 

 

 

By the end of the class period, Kate had almost finished her memoir. She hadn’t known where it came from, but it was like the moment she started writing she just couldn’t stop. She was two double-sided pages in by the time Jackson announced the end of the class session, adding to this send-off, his hope to see everyone in two weeks time, for the next class.

Flexing her shoulders, Kate put the pen down. Two pages all about her childhood wish to play basketball. Of course, it wasn’t really about basketball at all, rather learning to take back control of her life. With a smile, Kate stood up. She may be a late bloomer on the study of independence, but she was learning. Calida McDonald, Phil…no one would scare her into quiet submission. She needed Jackson to know that. She needed him to understand her fears….

Waiting until most of the others had shuffled out of the room, Kate approached Jackson. “When would you like to swap papers?” she asked.

“Well, seeing how much you already have t here, we should probably do it soon, before I’m reading a full length manuscript,” he said, looking down at the sheets of paper in clutched in her left hand.

Kate blushed. “Oh—I can shorten it down. In the editing process…”

“Kate, I was teasing!” Jackson clarified quickly, putting her at ease. “Write as much as you need. It’s very therapeutic, isn’t it?” he asked, leading her out the door and into the main floor of the LitLiber.

Kate nodded. “Yeah, I had no idea.”

“Use it to your advantage,” Jackson encouraged her. “Take as much time as you need…”

 

 

 

Two days later, walking out the front doors of Whestleigh High School, Kate forced herself to relax. She and Jackson had agreed to exchange their papers that afternoon; thankfully a short day at college, Kate had barely been able to contain her restlessness until then, having driven straight there from Cordwyn after her final class of the day. She’d stayed up well into the night on the previous evening working on the piece, and by morning, four pages of fully edited work had stared back at her. With the pride of accomplishment came an equally exhilarating anticipation: what would Jackson think of it? If writing it had been cathartic, his feedback would be the reward.

Gaining her car, Kate exhaled sharply. It was done now, no going back. Jackson had her memoir. She had his. Smiling giddily, Kate couldn’t wait to read. The appeal of Jackson’s memoir—the personal entrance into a private life, the risk of exposure…it consumed her attention. She wanted to know more about this man, she found herself almost desperately anxious to know more. It wasn’t quite noon when Kate pulled up outside her house. Sparing only the length of time necessary to let Danger out to go potty, she’d no sooner shut the door behind them then she found herself stretched out across her living room recliner, Jackson’s essay clasped between her hands, greedy eyes already taking in the first lines…

November 23rd, 1997:

            The day I met Emily. I was fifteen years old. She’d just transferred to Whestleigh High School. Born and raised in Washington, Connecticut’s uptight, strict culture came as something of a shock to the laid-back, casual teenager, but I digress….

            The bell for fourth period had just rung. Gaining the hallway I saw her: standing lost, alone, looking for the girl’s locker room, shorts and a tank-top clutched nervously to her chest. She looked so beautiful, her long hair flowing gently down her face, large green eyes beseeching my help. She was as skinny as a pole but still, there was something so feminine about her, something so right… 

December 10th, 1997:

            She said yes! I asked Emily to Snow Ball and she said yes!

December 19th, 1997: 

            Emily looked flawless at that dance, her porcelain skin offset by the deep turquoise of her formal gown. Her hair was piled in a complicated knot atop her head. I was almost afraid to touch her when we met out on the dance floor… I was no great dancer, but Emily, she moved like a fairy and, best of all, she didn’t laugh when I tripped, accidently stubbing her toe. She just swayed gently in my arms, looking up at me as though I held the moon. It’s was an intoxicating feeling.

            January 16th, 1998:

            The date I officially asked Emily to be my girlfriend. I’ll never forget her response: “It’s about time,” she’d laughed. “I’d despaired of you ever asking!”

            No one was quite like Emily. I knew it even then: I was in love.

            September 24th, 1998:

            Emily and I had a plan. Next year, when we graduated, we were getting out of town. We’d each applied to Ruettier College.

            March 10th, 1999:

            Emily didn’t get into Ruettier. She tried to put on a brave face, told me that it didn’t matter, that it was just one college of out hundreds. She told me I should still go, that I shouldn’t feel guilty because I got in. She held me hand between both of hers and told me that I should go…but I knew I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t leave Emily behind. I loved her too much. There were hundreds of colleges, but only one Emily.

            June 8th, 2000:

            Graduation day; Emily and I decided to take the next year off from school, travel the country. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled. Hers’ offered to help fund the trip. 365 days alone with my best girl. Could life get any better?

            August 21st, 2000:

            Emily and I had sex last night. It was late in the evening when she’d reached over, touching my cheek, to whisper the words I’d been waiting years to hear: ‘Jackson, I’m ready.’

            Afterward, I heard her crying from within the bathroom. I thought maybe I’d accidentally hurt her (I knew it could be painful for girls) but she told me that wasn’t why—that she’d cried because it was so special, because she loved me so much. It had been my first time too, so I hadn’t known what to expect but those words…nuzzling her neck, I made a solemn vow to myself. Emily would be my first and my last; forever. 

            July 25th, 2005:

            On July 25th, 2005, at approximately 3:00 p.m. (with reception to follow) I married my best friend.

            My hands shook when I lifted her veil, they trembled when I slipped the ring on her finger…they quivered as I held her close, leading her through our first dance as husband and wife. I didn’t think I’d ever stop shaking. She was too precious, I was so lucky… I married my best friend that day and all I kept thinking was how I couldn’t wait to begin the rest of my life with her. All I kept thinking was, I’d never be the same again… 

            December 20th, 2005:

            I received my bachelor’s in secondary education. Emily surprised me with a trip out to the sea in celebration of this achievement. Two days and three nights of lovemaking; and that’s what it was with Emily. Thrilling, exciting, but always love.

            April 17th, 2006:

            Emily brought up the discussion of kids. I’d always dreamt of having a big family.

            October 30th, 2006:

            After months and months of trying, and failing to conceive….

            The doctor’s voice was low but gentle: Emily couldn’t have children. Holding her in my arms, running my hands soothingly up and down her back, I heard the sobs break forth from her mouth. I was devastated but…

            We have each other, I reminded her. That was enough, more than enough. If we had each other we had everything.

            I meant it. Emily was more important than a house full of kids. Family wouldn’t be family without her.

            November 30th, 2008:

            I was at work when I got the call. I didn’t recognize the number…. It was the police. There had been an accident—a car accident. The other driver had died immediately upon impact; Emily was being rushed to the hospital… 

            I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I just kept hearing this cold disembodied voice telling me: Sir, I’m sorry to inform you that your wife was involved in motor vehicle accident this morning…”

            No! No, no, no, no, no. I had just seen her, only hours before, laughing at me across the breakfast nook; she’d been teasing me about my tie, said it was too stuffy for a man in his mid-twenties. She was taking me shopping that weekend….

            No. no, no, no, no, no. It couldn’t be real. It didn’t feel real. It felt like a mistake. She was safe. She had to be safe. She was too young. I was too young. I needed her—I needed her to be home when I walked through the front door, smiling in greeting, asking me about my day. That was my life. This phone call, it wasn’t, it couldn’t be true. 

            February 19th, 2009:

            At twenty-seven years old, I lost my wife. Emily Jean Fischer died at 12:08 in the morning, on February 19th, 2009, suffering from unresolved internal bleeding. She’d never once woken up in the months she’d been in the hospital, she’d never even left MICU. She’d never once felt my hand squeezing hers, heard my voice pleading with her to keep fighting, telling her how much I loved her. She never once knew…she might as well have been alone.

            February 21st, 2009:

            I buried my wife that day. Saying it: it’s such a cold, hard statement; but then, I feel cold and hard inside. Empty. Bereft. The only woman I ever loved, the one woman I was meant to love, is dead. Dead. A cold, hard word.

            January 25th, 2015:

            These memories, these are all I have left of my wife, a mental movie reel to remember her by. Every morning, every night, I replay these moments and for a second, I’m alive again, for a minute I am back there, with her. A broken man, stuck on repeat. On good days, I think how lucky I was to have her those thirteen years. On bad days, I grieve all over again, knowing I’ll spend the rest of my time on this Earth without her—I’ll spend the majority of my life without her.          

            For a long time, I thought my experience with that kind of love was over, buried six feet underground, laid to rest beside my beloved ghost. To this day, she’s still the only woman I’ve ever dated, the only woman I’ve ever kissed. For a long time, that was enough. How could I possibly find that in someone else again? How could I put myself through that again? But just lately…I’m a man at war with himself.

            I want to exist again, really exist, and not just in snapshots of the past. Only, I’m scared to let Emily go, to shed myself of the final vestiges I still possess. Sometimes I think it was a curse, just how much I loved her. I’m not sure I could live through that again, but neither can I deny a sliver of want, an involuntary pull toward something more—more than just cold memoirs. I made a promise to myself: Emily would be my first and my last. A fractured word, I find myself slipping, fighting, alternating, at once scared and confused…

            A broken man, stuck in limbo; a man at war with himself.

 

Reading this, Kate cried.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Three

Whipping open the front doors to the LitLiber, Kate barreled inside, her face a mask of frozen fear as her feet tripped, unseeing, past a throng of shoppers. Her breath wheezing out past her parted lips, Kate quickly found herself outside Jake’s office; terrible images transposed themselves before her eyes—what would she encounter when she opened that door? Frantic, she twisted the handle in her numb hands, her eyes hunted…only, nothing so dire materialized when she bowled across its threshold. Instead, Jake was seated quietly behind his desk, head bent over the computer screen before him, seemingly fast at work; Janessa sat sulkily in a chair across the way, looking bored as she thumbed through her phone.

“Janessa…what…? Jake,” Kate sputtered, her gaze alternating rapidly from one to the other and back again. “Theft?” She finally settled on.

Janessa rolled her eyes. “Calm down Kate,” she muttered.

“Calm down!” Kate squealed. Wincing at the sound, even Kate was surprised by the pitch of her voice. She hadn’t known it could sound so bad. “Calm down? Janessa do you understand…stealing? Stealing!” Kate took a deep breath, fighting for composure. “Do you get how serious this is, how it could affect your record, your reputation? What possessed you?”

Janessa shrugged, not looking at Kate. “I just forgot to pay, that’s all.”

Kate looked helplessly at Jake, whose had lips formed a hard line across his mouth. “Is that true?” She asked him desperately.

Jake sighed, slowly pushing his chair back and standing up. His eyes steadied on Janessa. “No, it’s not true. When I approached Janessa outside in the parking lot, enquiring if she realized she hadn’t purchased the book in her bag, she tried to run.”

“Big mouth,” Janessa breathed.

“Janessa!” Kate railed, shocked at the girl’s outrageous response. What was going on? Sure, Janessa could be a little rough around the edges, but this was bad even for her!

“Kate it wasn’t like that—”

“Shut up,” Kate said impatiently. “Just shut up, Janessa. I cannot believe you. Why? Tell me why? Why did you do this?” Up to now, Kate hadn’t been aware she could even be this upset with another human being. Her whole boy radiated with furious disappointment.

Walking around the side of his desk, Jake touched Kate lightly on the shoulder. “I’m going to step outside for a few minutes, give the two of you time to talk alone. Okay?”

Kate flashed him a thankful smile. Jake seemed to understand, by the surly snarl crossing the teenager’s mouth, that information would be less-than-forthcoming with him present…He was a stranger, an unwanted interloper in an awkward, embarrassing, upsetting discussion.

The door closing securely behind his retreating form, Kate nabbed the seat next to Janessa’s. Taking a deep breath, she opted for a softer approach. “Janessa, look at me. Tell me why you did this?” she asked again.

Shrugging one shoulder, Janessa stubbornly kept her eyes on the phone in her hands. In a hot second, Kate swiped away. That got the girl’s attention. Gasping, Janessa raised surprised, rebellious eyes up to Kate. “Give that back.”

“Not until you talk,” Kate countered, slipping the electronic device inside her pants pocket. “Why Janessa?”

“I needed the book,” Janessa said simply enough.

“You needed it?” Kate repeated incredulously. “For what?”

Her body stiffening, Janessa was all bristling defiance: “It was for this stupid thing at school. You wouldn’t understand.”

Kate closed her eyes. “Then explain it to me. What book did you take?”

Arms crossed defensively, lips curled obstinately, Janessa spat: “it was an SAT study guide, okay?”

“Okay,” Kate said slowly. Janessa was going to take her SAT’s? That was news.

Scuffing her shoe against the floor, Janessa muttered: “Our guidance counselor recommended that we get one to prepare for the test.”

“But why steal it?” Kate asked reasonably. Just for kicks? The thrill of the chase?

“Why else?” Janessa sneered, “because I couldn’t afford to buy it.”

Kate chose to ignore the venom seething out of the younger girl’s mouth. “Why didn’t you ask your mom for the money?”
“You think she can afford some hoity-toity college preparatory book, Kate? Please. She would have just said No. I spared her the opportunity, that’s all.”

Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten. Janessa was probably right. Kate didn’t fully understand her situation. “Why didn’t you ask me, then?”

“Ask you? Yeah right.” Janessa looked down at her hands, clenched tightly in her lap. “Like I’m not enough of a hassle without adding financial hardship into the deal.”

The self-depreciation wasn’t lost on Kate. Taking a mental step back, she tried for a different tack. “Janessa, we’re friends. At least, you’re my friend,” she hastened to clarify. “And friends help one another out. You could’ve asked me, I would’ve said yes. I want you to know that. You can always ask me…about anything. I may not always fall in with your plans, you know—I may not always say yes, but you can still talk to me.”

Janessa’s mouth twisted. “I want to go to college, Kate. I want to get out of this place. I don’t want to end up like my mother.”

Kate felt her body sag at the confession. It was a small, tiny step, but it was in the right direction. Janessa was sharing.

“Okay,” Kate said simply. “I’m going to talk to Jake, see if I can get this thing sorted out. Wait in here,” she said, rising to her feet. Taking the phone out of her pocket, Kate handed it back to a subdued Janessa. “I’ll just be a few minutes.”

Exiting the office, Kate’s eyes scanned the area around her, looking for Jake.

She spotted him easily enough, sitting almost directly in front of her at one of the bistro tables scattered across the small café.  Making her way toward him, Kate tried to calm her racing heart. What if he still planned to press charges? What would she do then?

Glancing up expectantly, almost as if he’d known she would be there, Jake smiled in greeting. “Hey Kate,” he said softly. Waving toward the empty seat across from him, he invited her to take a seat. “Where is Janessa?”

“I left her in your office, for the time being. I hope that was okay?” she said. Besides, from this vantage point, Kate had a clear view of the door. She’d see if Janessa tried anything stupid.

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

“Jake…listen, I’m so sorry,” Kate rushed to say, unsure of what else she could say. Her voice cracked over the words. “I-I please, Janessa is sorry too. I’m sure she didn’t say it in so many words. She’s not good with polite society. You see, Janessa’s had a rough life…” Kate said, deciding that it was probably fair that Jake know a little more of the girl’s background, that he grasp the purpose of her and Janessa’s relationship—where it had stemmed from and why. It might help enlighten him of the situation.

“She just, she just didn’t know of any other way. I’m not trying to make excuses for her, I promise I’m not. She’s young and she’s learning but unfortunately that means making some mistakes along the way. She hasn’t always had a lot of guidance.”

“That’s where you come in?” Jake asked.

Kate tilted her head a little to the side. “Yeah, I guess,” she admitted uncomfortably. She hadn’t meant it like that; put it that way, she seemed little better than a self-proclaimed philanthropic.

“Lucky her,” Jake said, a small secretive smile playing across his mouth.

Feeling her face flush for the second time that day, Kate ducked her head in embarrassed acknowledgement of his words. “Thank you.”

“Where is her mother?” Jake asked.

Kate shrugged. “I’m really not sure. Honestly, I’ve never even met the woman.”

“You’ve never met Janessa’s mother?” Jake asked, clearly puzzled.

“I know…she doesn’t seem concerned with the people that Janessa hangs out with. She heard I was from the church and that was, apparently, good enough for her.” Kate frowned. If Janessa were her kid…hell, Kate would have done a personal background check on any adult who wanted to spend time with her adolescent child. Not to mention, Janessa has a problem with lying…she could have said that anyone was her mentor (Kate wouldn’t put it past her). Would her mother have just believed it then, too, no questions asked? Does she truly care so little?

“Tough break,” Jake said, pursing his lips at the news.

“Yeah,” Kate said, staring down at the wrought-iron table.

“But you care.” He seemed to recognize this as a statement of fact.

Glancing up, Kate tried for a smile. It felt tight. “Yeah, I care. Certainly, Janessa doesn’t always make it easy on me,” she confessed wryly, waving an expressive arm toward the office, “but I care.”

Jake’s lips pulled up slightly at the reference. “Yeah, I’m not sure I’ve ever really heard you upset before today. Not like that anyway.”

Kate felt her shoulder hitch in reaction. “She has a way of bringing that out in me.”

Jake laughed softly and, reaching across the table, laid one hand gently atop her clasped fists. Kate tried not to react to the feel of his skin against her own, locking away memories of the last time he’d touched her…instead concentrating all her attention on his next words:  “Believe me when I say this, your coming here today, how angry you were, how fiercely you barged into that room…she needed that. She needs to feel like she’s worth that kind of energy.”

His words were heavy with influence, strong in conviction.

“Are you speaking from experience?” Kate asked quietly.

Jake laughed. Leaning back against the chair, his hand falling away from her own, Jake nodded. “Oh yeah.”

“Jake the wild child?” Kate mused a loud, her lips pursed in amusement. “I can picture that.”

“Can you now?” Jake teased, rubbing a hand down his chin. “Pretty far removed from the social set you associated with, I’m only too sure.” His voice was dry, confident.

Kate shrugged fatalistically. “Guilty as charged. I was the preppy, popular girl.” She made a face at Jake’s look of mock shock. “It’s not all sunshine and roses under that patch of grass either. There’s a lot of pressure, always competing: grades, sports, academic prowess…”

“Miss perfect,” Jake teased her.

“Rebel without a cause,” she threw back at him.

“I suppose I should be glad we didn’t know each back other then.”

“Why?” Kate asked, not sure if she’d just been insulted.

Jake winked. “I’m not sure you’d have liked me.”

Kate wasn’t sure where she got the audacity, but before she knew it she said: “I always had a weakness for the badboy.”

Jake’s eyebrows rose eloquently.

Before she was allowed time to fully regret that comment, Kate changed the subject. “Actually, my upbringing is a source of contention between Janessa and myself.  She won’t let me in because of it,” the humor eeking out of her voice, Kate felt the monumental weight of those words. “She thinks I can’t possibly relate to her feelings, her situation. It’s caused a wedge I’m not sure how to dismantle.”

“Don’t take it so personally,” Jake advised. “Part of that is just being a teenager. They don’t think anyone can understand them, regardless of social status. They think they’re the first people in history to feel what they do. Give her time. Listen. Stick it through.”

“How do I get past it?” Kate asked on a sigh and then: “Or worse, what if she’s right? What if I can’t … You know, she’s so different from me, her lifestyle so foreign from the one I know. What if I’m not the right person for her?”

“That doesn’t sound like the overly ambitious Kate McDonald that I know and love,” Jake said, his hand snaking out again, this time reaching for her chin. Tilting it up, he brought her face in line with his own, her eyes underneath his. “First of all, it’s normal to flounder with kids. No one knows exactly how to reach them—even parents who live with them.” Jake dropped his hand, but his eyes remained firm on her face. “But you are getting past it. Janessa pleaded with me to call you instead of her mother and, when I called her anyway, the relief was palpable when I couldn’t get through. She wanted you Kate.”

“Are you going to call the police?” Kate blurted out. She couldn’t hold the question back any longer. Hell, she’d scarcely thought of anything else since Jake’s call. If the police got involved….Janessa future was at stake here.

“Listen,” she continued, before Jake had even answered her: “I’ll pay you for the book. Right now. I’ll pay you double for the book…!” Kate’s voice was high in desperation.

Jake sighed, throwing a quick hand through his hair. “Kate—”

“I know she did something stupid,” Kate said, “but the irony here is that she did it to escape this kind of life—the only kind of life she knows. She’s used to going without, to using any means to get what she needs. That’s why she did this, to get ahead, go to college, get an education. She did it to learn better than to stoop to something as low as theft,” Kate pleaded, her eyes unbelievably large in her pale face.

Jake’s hand came up to cover Kate’s mouth, effectively cutting her off from further defenses. “Kate, I’m not going to call the police,” he told her simply.

“You’re not?” Kate mumbled through the blanket of his fingers across her lips.

Dropping his hand back to the table top, Jake shook his head. “No. I thought Janessa would have told you…” Jake sighed. “I won’t be pressing charges, Kate. I think the threat of it all was enough to get through to her.”

Kate opened her mouth in grateful response to this but before she got the opportunity to speak two things happened simultaneously:

The door to Jake’s office slipped open, Janessa’s head poking out: “Kate, are you guys almost done? I’m bored…”

And, from the opposite direction of the store, another voice rose out above the din of the customers milling around them, the sound as unexpected as the visitor himself: “Kate!”

Was that…? Please, no.

With a sinking heart, Kate turned just in time to watch the lanky stride of one Simon Yates stumble breathlessly upon their table. “I’m glad I found you…” his voice petering out, Simon looked over at Jake, as if it had only just occurred to him Kate wasn’t alone. “Jake,” he said.

In stunned silence, Kate watched while Jake gained his feet, holding out his hand in greeting. “Simon,” he returned gently, taking the other man’s grip with easy affection.

“So?” Janessa hissed in Kate’s ear, having snuck up unawares to the other side of the table. “Can we got or not?”

“In a minute,” Kate hissed right back.

“Kate,” Simon said and, gaining her attention once more, continued: “You ah, you left this behind earlier.” He held up a notebook.

“Oh. Thank you,” Kate said softly, taking it out of his hands. “I definitely need this,” she assured him graciously. It had the outline for her class final inside it.

Simon smiled tightly, “Yeah, well you left so suddenly…” he questioned, probing. “Is everything all right?”

Kate felt her body tense; Janessa was standing right there—what could she say? “Uh…yes,” she muttered, “everything’s fine. Thank you Simon,” she repeated in finality.

“Is this your boyfriend?” Janessa asked suddenly, her voice hard. Kate wasn’t sure why, but she swore she saw the beginnings of a glare etch out across the teenagers face.

Startled eyes flying up to Simon’s reddening face, Kate bit down on a wish to muzzle the girl. Leave it to Janessa to ask a question like that…and to Simon of all people! As if things were uncomfortably enough between them.

Clearing her throat, Kate prayed for tact. “Ah, no…” she sputtered clumsily. “We’re, we’re good friends though—”

Janessa’s face cleared. Her voice, cutting ruthlessly across the rest of Kate’s explanation (which was probably for the best anyway), sounded shy, coquettish even as she addressed Simon. “Hi, I’m Janessa,” she introduced herself. With the flick of her wrist, she tossed her hair behind her shoulder, the gesture girlish, almost coy. “Janessa Cooper. I would be the reason Kate had to leave you so quickly.” Sticking out her hand, smiling up through her lashes, Janessa suddenly looked too old for her age.

Kate didn’t like it.

Shaking her outstretched hand, Simon smiled politely. “I’m Simon. Simon Yates. I would be the friendly tutor,” he said mocking Kate.

Janessa giggled. She giggled!

Kate thought her eyes were going to bulge out of her head. Sneaking a glance at Jake, she saw he was also mesmerized by what was materializing before them. Janessa was flirting with Simon!

Good Christ.

“A tutor?” Janessa queried with calculated interest, and the look she shot Kate was filled with promised rivalry. “Actually, you know, I could use a little help with school myself. I don’t suppose…?” Biting down on her lip, she stared up at Simon. The look had premeditated sex written all over it.

Kate stood up jerkily. “We have to go,” she announced to no one in particular. “Jake, again, thank you. Thank you,” she expressed profusely. “Simon, I’ll call you later to reschedule, shall I? And thanks again for bringing this to me,” she was quick to add, talking loudly. Grabbing hold of Janessa’s arm, she asked the young girl: “Janessa, do you have anything you’d like to say before we leave?” She sent a speaking glance toward Jake.

“Oh. Yeah,” she muttered. “I’m—I’m sorry Mr. Farrow.”

“It’s okay Janessa. Just, don’t do it again, all right?”

“Deal,” Janessa said with a begrudging smile. “Thanks for ah, for being cool.” And, before Kate could steer her toward the exit, Janessa turned to Simon. “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Tutor Man. I look forward to the next time we…”

Too late, Kate was already pulling her down the aisle toward the front doors. She didn’t care to hear the rest of whatever it was Janessa had planned to say to Simon. What the hell was she thinking anyway? Simon was a college student for Christ’s sake.

“He’s cute,” Janessa whispered to Kate as they progressed out into the parking lot. “How come you’ve never mentioned him before?” she asked, the words accusing.

Kate shrugged. “I barely know him Janessa. And anyway, he’s too old for you….”

 

 

 

“Well, Janessa is officially not talking to me anymore,” Kate told Penny later that evening. They were talking over the phone, Kate stretched out on her living room recliner, Penny sitting atop her kitchen counter; the soft peachy hue of the painted walls gave the room a warm glow, offsetting the wintry chill.

“What happened this time?” Penny asked amusedly, bringing a cup of hot cocoa up to her mouth. Kate’s protégé was proving to be a definite handful.

Quickly, Kate filled her in on the little shoplifting episode. “But that’s not why she’s mad at me, though it should be noted she was aggravatingly nonchalant about the whole business. No, no, it wasn’t the theft which turned Janessa against me this time, it was Simon Yates.”

“Simon Yates?” Penny asked, chewing on the name. “Simon Yates as in, let’s go to Hooker Station and I’ll puke all over your shoes Simon Yates?”

“The one and the same,” Kate said drily. As if it hadn’t been bad enough, having him as her tutor, now he’d weaseled his way into her problems with Janessa. If it wasn’t one awkward romantic encounter with him it was another.

“What about him?”

“Janessa likes him. Like, she likes him,” Kate said meaningfully.

“Isn’t he a little old for her?”

“My point exactly. Janessa didn’t seem to agree. She told me, in no uncertain terms that my opinion was neither asked-for, nor welcomed. In short, she wanted me to butt-out,” Kate said, trying to keep it light. In reality, Janessa had been all but spitting when she’d yelled across the console: “You don’t get to tell me what to do!”

“That’s tough,” Penny said shortly, treading carefully. Janessa was a sore topic for Kate.

“So, what do I do? Do I tell Janessa’s mom about this? Simon? Do I betrayal her trust or just hope this thing goes away all on its own?” Kate asked. “I’m not sure she even really likes him. I think she just likes tormenting me.”

Kate sighed: “What do I do with Janessa and these inappropriate feelings?”

“Trust your instincts,” Penny said confidently. “What does it tell you?”

Kate sighed. “It tells me that Janessa isn’t ready for something like this.”

“Well, then there you go,” Penny said quietly.

“Okay,” Kate said brusquely, “enough of my problems. Too much heaviness… Tell me about your day, anything interesting happen?” She could use a quirky story right about now.

The question gave Penny pause. She felt stupid—mean, foolish.

“I went to Burke’s Brakes,” she admitted softly. “I uh, I sabotaged my car. Deliberately.”

“You did?” Kate asked warily, unsure she even wanted to know.

“Mmm-hmm,” Penny said ominously.

“And?” Kate held her breath.

“And…Maggie can have him,” Penny spat. “The topic of Hank Burke is no longer of interest to me.”

“Whoa, wait. What happened?” Kate asked, completely taken aback. That was change in tune.

“I told him I was a psychic. He thought I was joking,” Penny said crisply.

Ouch.

“He accused me of being a charlatan,” Penny admitted painfully.

“What?!” Kate asked, her body springing forward in reaction. How dared he!

Penny shrugged and this time her voice was softer, resigned: “Like I said, Maggie can have him. Though I’m starting to think even she’s too good for him.”

“I’m sorry Penny,” Kate said softly. She could only guess how much his remarks had hurt the other woman.

“He just had to open his big old mouth and ruin it for me,” she agreed. Kate laughed. Penny did too.

“I guess we both had rough days,” Kate mused.

Penny nodded against the growing darkness creeping against her kitchen window. “It’ll all look better tomorrow—it always does.”

Kate crossed her fingers. Penny rapped her knuckle lightly against a nearby wooden cabinet.

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twelve

Kate took a deep breath, and then another. Her dress felt too tight, but then, modern image had it that Romeo’s Juliet was something of a stunner. Hence, she couldn’t be seen in anything that billowed too loosely. She would have to make do with what little airway she was afforded.

The backstage of Whestleigh High School’s theater department reeked of body odor and fear, but Kate wasn’t positive they weren’t side-effects of her own person. Today was the day: the group theatre project for her Shakespeare class; the one-act revival of Romeo and Juliet.

Kate looked up at the clock hanging beside the left wing entrance. It was 7:50 a.m. They’d been instructed to show up at quarter to eight to have a quick meet-and-greet with the school’s theater director. Kate considered that at least she’d been lucky to have gotten Whestleigh High School as the locale for this so-called production. Unlike her classmates, most of whom lived on campus at Cordwyn—a twenty minute commute—she’d had a comparatively restful morning.

But she probably shouldn’t have eaten that second muffin for breakfast this morning. She’d wanted to make sure she left on a full stomach. Now, an hour later, the contents stirring rebelliously, Kate wondered if that hadn’t been such a good idea. Pinning a smile on her face, she reminded herself that she was fine. She wasn’t going to vomit. She wasn’t going to pass out. These were just a bunch of kids for goodness sakes, what did she care for their critic?

Her mantra sort of helped.

That is, until the teacher worked in. At first, shrouded in the shadows of the dimly lit room, Kate couldn’t make out his features but after the first couple of steps, his patrician nose, sandy blonde hair, those wide shoulders came into striking view…and she wanted to barf all over again, but for an entirely different reason.

If memory served her correctly, and admittedly she’d been pretty drunk that night, the man making his hurried way toward their ragtag troupe of actors was none of than Madame Penny’s next door neighbor. What had Penny said his name was? Jackson?

If Kate prayed that his recall wouldn’t extend to that evening, she was doomed for disappointed. No sooner had he reached their little group then his eyes, scanning what should have been the faces of relative strangers, twinkled knowingly, deliberately upon contact with her own diverted countenance.

Just as quickly, however, his eyes moved on, brushing past her, leaving Kate wondering if she hadn’t just imagined the humor she’d read in them moments ago.

“Good morning everyone,” he announced then, his voice infused with sudden energy. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Jackson Fischer. I’m the resident English teacher and, subsequently, the theatre director here at Whestleigh. I want to take a moment to both welcome and thank you for taking the time to rehearse this scene with our students today. We’re really excited to have you!”

Out of her peripheral vision Kate say the rest of the group smilingly nod at his preamble. Like a robot, she followed suit.

“Now let me see,” he said then, looking down at a piece of paper he’d been quietly holding in his hand, “who is our Romeo today?”

“That would be me.” The guy to Kate’s immediate left held up his hand.

“Ah, Guy Patterson, correct?” Mr. Fischer clarified.

“Yes.”

“And who is our esteemed Mercutio?”

Going down his list exactingly, Jackson called out each individual player, until all had been properly identified themselves. At last, he turned to Kate, who remained the only unannounced attendant.

“That leaves our beloved Juliet,” he said, with a pointed look in her direction, “which means you must be Kate McDonald.”

“Yes,” she said simply, exerting all her energy to keep a rising blush at bay.

“It’s so nice to be properly introduced.” Though the statement was said in benefit of the entire cast, Mr. Fischer’s eyes never strayed from Kate’s downward cast expression. He was baiting her.

Before she could come up with a witty comeback, something that wouldn’t give her away, he spoke up again. He didn’t seem to require much feedback with his commentary, which was probably the teacher in him—used to being listened to.

“Before the students arrive, let’s quickly run over how the day will progress. You will perform for three different classes today: first period, second period, and fourth period. I apologize about the small gap of time in the middle, but at least you won’t be stuck here all day,” he said with a smile at the group.

“I will introduce today’s exercise at the start of each class, a matter of five to ten minutes. I’ll end each speech with this address “Now, without further ado….” When the curtain goes up, you’re on. Following the performance, should time permit, I would like to open the floor for a round of Q&A. This is a rare opportunity not to be missed, granting the audience a session with their actors,” Fishcer said, waving his arm expressively. “Of course,” he added, “it will be limited to the arena of the theatrical process and experience.”

“Sounds great,” Amanda Steven’s said, buttering up to the teacher as though she were still in the seventh grade. Kate rolled her heavily made-up eyes. Either she really wanted an A on this project or the girl was hot for teacher. Not that Kate would entirely blame her…at least on the latter assumption. Even Kate could admit, though she didn’t want to, that Jackson was a damn good looking man.

His slacks hugged his toned gluts to perfection and his polo shirt displayed just the right amount of upper body muscle without being labeled too-tight. And both were pressed with an expert hand (even his nails were nicely groomed!) His eyes were alert, signaling a man who had slept well the night.

Kate shook her head. She had more important things to think about Jackson Fischer’s sleeping habits…boxers, briefs, buff? Telling herself to get a grip, she deliberately shifted her body, changing her line of sight. She now had a fantastic view of the stage curtain, fluttering slightly from a nearby window.

Jackson kept talking, but Kate had now tuned out. Hopefully it wasn’t necessary information, because she just couldn’t summon the strength to listen to him anymore.

 

 

 

It made it so much worse, knowing that he was watching. Kate wasn’t sure why she’d given Jackson the power to increase her nervousness, she wasn’t sure why she cared that he was an audience member. She barely knew the man. Other than one drunken swim she’d have never known of his prior existence.

With or without reason, the fact remained: he was in the audience, watching her…and it had an effect. She suddenly felt seven years old again, her throat constricted, her hands batting against her collarbone, hoping to pat the airway back open.

This extra-sensory awareness of Jackson Fischer’s presence couldn’t have come with a more inconvenient scene, Kate knew as she walked quietly on the stage. In less than thirty seconds, the stage crew would draw the curtain, announcing the beginning of the production. In another five minutes she would kiss Guy Patterson, but all the while she would be thinking of Jackson Fischer. How freaking messed up was that?

But somehow, she made it through—through the kiss, the embarrassing succession of sexual entendres shortly following thereafter, even the flat marriage conducted between herself and ‘Romeo’—somehow she made it through to the conclusion of Act II, constituting the end of her first performance of the day.

One down, two to go.

Now, sitting in the chairs that Mr. Fischer had oh-so-thoughtfully provided for the players, she turned her attention to the students crouched in the theatre seats before them, waiting as the first round of questions began.

“Is it embarrassing, when, you know, you have to kiss someone on stage? Like, pretending to be in love or something?” A lot of girlish giggles followed this question, bravely articulated by a young lady whose face now flamed fire-engine red.

Guy Patterson fielded that question, for all the world as though he were some seasoned actor, and not someone who just last week asked Kate which side ‘stage left’ presided upon. Still, she kept a straight face as he fumbled his way through.

“Once you are in character, all reality is striped clean. I’m not kissing Kate,” he said, pointing at her to further his point, “I’m playing a part, I’m embodying someone else, who’s kissing someone embodying yet another someone else.”

Well, if that doesn’t clear things up, Kate thought humorously, her eyes scanning the furred eyebrows of the puzzled expressions circling around her. That got a little muddled.

“Honestly,” Kate said, piping up, “it is a little awkward…at least, at first. But, as Guy was saying, since we’re both playing a part, it’s easier to move past the weirdness of it all. By that I mean, I don’t consider that I’m kissing Guy when we’re on stage, rather that Juliet is kissing Romeo. I’m in character. Does that make sense? We’re telling someone else’s story through our action. Knowing that helps to make it less… uncomfortable.” Kate doubted that helped much, but she was glad to see some of the creases marring these confused foreheads iron out.

“Now Guy, you said you are, and I quote ‘embodying someone else.’ That’s a very important aspect of acting. Could you expand upon what that means further?” This question came directly from Mr. Fischer. Heaving a slow sigh of relief, Kate sat back further in her chair. She was off the hook this time.

To give him credit, Guy did his best to describe the process of getting into character. Unfortunately, it’s a more-or-less abstract concept. It’s not only hard to explain and, as such, digest, but each person undergoes that transformation differently; certainly Kate doesn’t do what Guy explained: closing his eyes and envisioning his character standing in front of a mirror, the background of which, besides showing his own reflection, playing out a reel of this newfound life, the character’s favorite meal, moments in his past that shaped his person, love interests…the whole shebang. That Romeo’s favorite dish and his first kiss were never spoken of in Shakespeare’s work hardly mattered, Guy defended. These nuances were created in effect, a tool for Guy to better understand his new persona, to make his character feel real by ‘living’ their life story.

Kate simply read the script and tried to emulate the person as they were written, copying her behavior to their language, her tone to their meaning, her message to that of playwrights hand. Of course, she’d never considered herself much of an actor either, so it was probably best that she hadn’t been called on to answer that one anyway.

“I tried acting once but I was so conscious that I was acting, you know that I was still really just me underneath it all and it felt…I don’t know, fake like a cheap imitation or—” a young girl started to say then. She was sitting two rows back, her face half hidden behind a curtain of hair. “How do you break out of that? I mean, like so you can embrace the imaginary so completely that it feels real.”

Kate blinked. So did Guy Patterson.

Instead, it was Shelly Bibbon, who played the Nurse Maid, who answered this profoundly insightful question. “It takes a lot of practice. You have to be able to compartmentalize in a way, to mentally lock away the, you underneath all that acting, until the job is over. It takes a lot of discipline but the more you act, the better you get at it. The self-conscious awareness that you’re only acting slowly fades as you continue to embrace other identities. Then, after a while, this freedom of expression takes over, where you are able to be anybody you want to be, and that doesn’t feel false anymore. If feels like a super power.”

Jackson Fischer spoke next, his words indicating the end of the class hour: “What a great exercise. I challenge everyone: when you leave here, I want you to pretend to be someone you’re not. Keep it small: if you’re shy be a little loud, if you’re crazy-expressive be really observant. Be appropriate: this isn’t an excused free-for-all…unacceptable conduct will not be tolerated. The same rules and consequences will be expected and enforced,” Mr. Fischer said in rider to this announcement. “Leave here today as your alter ego, the person you’d be if only you weren’t you…stretch your imaginative prowess.

“I’m sure Kate would agree with me on this,” he said then, and suddenly he was looking straight at her, causing a swift shuffle of heads to follow in wake. Damn him, she could’ve sworn he threw a wink her way before explaining that cryptic little opener: “sometimes it’s necessary to shed our ordinary self for someone new, to thrust out our common appearance and personality, even if it’s just a little bit, and do something different to make us feel alive in a new kind of way. Be daring! Right Kate?”

Gritting her teeth so hard, Kate was surprised her jaw didn’t creak when she answered him. That louse, he definitely winked. “Hmm. Yeah. Right.” The clipped note of her voice didn’t invite further discussion. God, you get drunk one time and sort-of/kind-of go skinny dipping and you can never hear the end of it!

Mr. Fischer turned his gaze back to his students, dismissing her glare as though it weren’t even there, as though it mattered that much to him. “Because that,” he said slowly, dramatically, “is what acting is really about.” On that note he sent them on their way, but not before reminding them once again to relish their assignment for the day—self-transformation!

“Well guys, how did you think that went?” he asked after the door banged shut after the last student.

“That was great! The students were so receptive to what we did. It was great, getting feedback on their experience,” Amanda Steven’s gushed, kissing up to the teacher for all she was worth. Kate hunched her shoulders, hoping her nonverbal message would be clear to Mr. Fischer: she was done sharing, for the moment at any rate.

Mr. Fischer smiled angelically, obviously pleased with her answer. “Great. Well, you’ve got about ten minutes before the next class will get here. Its home room second period so everything gets delayed a little. Take this moment to hit up the bathroom or grab a drink of water,” he said briskly, moving toward the door himself. “I’ve got to run back to my classroom to take attendance. Be back shortly.”

Then he was gone.

Jumping off her chair, Kate lowered herself off the stage and onto the ground floor of the auditorium. Her throat felt a little parched and in her frenzy this morning she’d forgotten her water bottle at home. Walking up the center aisle, Kate had her sites sit on the door Mr. Jackson had just exited. There was probably a water foundation nearby. She’d just about reached the end of the rows, her feet moving quickly, when a hand snaked out suddenly, indistinguishable in the low lighting there, the fingers grabbing onto, and holding fast, a stray piece of ribbon hanging loose on Kate’s dress. The action effective thwarted her process.

Letting out a small squeak in surprise, Kate stopped mid-step, her eyes searching through the darkness until they made out a silhouette attached to the otherwise foreign arm holding her hostage: big hair, chunky scarf, bangles running up the fellow wrist.

“Penny,” Kate breathed in recognition, “Jesus, you scared me half to death.” Kate’s left hand landed with a pause against her chest, over her fast-beating heart. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to miss out on your first performance. I mean what kind of friend would I be, if I didn’t support you in this?” she asked, perfectly serious.

Kate wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or scream.

“Penny, this isn’t a public show.” Kate wouldn’t have set one foot on that stage if it were. High school kids were one thing; she didn’t even compare to their self-experimentation-scientific-study case of weirdness. They weren’t her peers. Everyone else, well that was an entirely different matter.

“It’s for the students. Only,” she said bluntly. Her mind wandered, wondering at the school’s security. Did they let just anyone off the street into the building? What about the student’s safety?

No sooner had that thought raced through her mind then she noticed the lanyard hanging around Penny’s neck, the word: VISTOR clearly marked across the front, with the school’s logo watermarked behind it. The woman apparently had connections, Kate mused.

“Oh, I know, but when I found out that you were performing at Whestleigh High, well…what else could I do? I asked Jackson if I could get a ticket to the show and he offered to allow me entrance as his personal guest, especially after I explained that it was you I wanted to see. I mean, there has to be some perks to living next door to a teacher, right?” Penny explained, but Kate was hardly paying attention anymore.

So he knew already that I was going to be part of the cast, did he? No wonder he hadn’t seemed that taken aback. He’d probably been relishing that first moment of contact. The jerk.

Shaking her head, Kate decided that it didn’t matter. Jackson Fischer didn’t matter. “Well, what did you think?”

Penny made a slight face. “Eh. I thought the kiss was so-so.”

Kate nodded her head. She had to agree.

“I mean, there was more chemistry between you and Jackson than old what’s-his-name.”

“Romeo,” Kate supplied absently.

“Yeah him. Next time, trying imaging Jackson during that part,” Penny said outrageously.

Kate shook her head. “Penny!”

“I’m just call it as I see it. You two have chemistry.”

“No, we do  not,” Kate argued, cringing inwardly at her overly hot denial. Don’t get too defensive, she reminded herself, that’ll only make you look guilty.

“Oh, yes you do. I saw the look that passed between the two of you when he brought up shedding one’s inhibitions,” Madame Penny said then, fanning herself in response. “It was…hot.”

“I think you misread what was happening. If I was sending him anything hot it was via death ray. He was all but mocking me in front of everyone, and not very subtly either.”

“Oh whatever Kate. Lighten up. You did that night,” Penny scolded her softly.

“Fine. I’ll let it go, but I’m not going to agree with you about any attraction there,” Kate said huffily, crossing her arms over her chest looking for all the world anything but ‘light.’

“No?” Madame Penny asked. “Girl, he’s gorgeous. You’ve as much as admitted yourself. Most of your little crew of there is already half-in-love with him, and that includes a couple dudes.”

“They can have him,” Kate said sweetly.

“Tough crowd,” Madame Penny said under her breath.

“Not really,” Kate defended herself, “it’s just, I’ve seen it all before. Sure, his blonde hair offsets his tan beautifully, giving him the all-American Male look. Couple that off with those brown eyes and yes, he’s sure to set some hearts a-flutter,” Kate said, taking a mental stock of his assets.

“Don’t forget his muscles,” Penny said helpfully.

“Yes, those too. Well-defined and nicely proportioned,” Kate said, getting a little lost in her point.

“And he’s great with kids…surely a huge turn-on for most women,” Penny supplied helpfully.

Kate nodded her head eagerly, having pulled herself together once more. “He’s polished, clean, well put together.” Somehow, these traits were made to sound negative.

“And that’s a problem?” Penny asked, sounding baffled.

“It’s just—,” Kate shrugged, “He might as well be Phil.”

Penny went ramrod straight at those words. “Phil?” she asked, cautiously probing.

Mentally reigning herself back in control, Kate smiled. “It’s neither here nor there. I’m just saying, I’m not attracted to Jackson Fischer. I-I can’t be attracted to him,” she said, more for her benefit than Penny’s. What was that saying, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…any relationship would end much the same. Suddenly the smiled twisted. There was an edge to the lines around her mouth, a stubborn set to her jaw. She was done.

“You aren’t going to enlarge upon that statement are you?” Penny asked, resigned to the answer even before Kate spoke.

“No, I’m not.”

“Someday,” Penny said half to herself.

“I’ve got to get back, the second show starts soon,” Kate said roughly, without bothering to answer.

Turning around, her search for water was now an abandoned subject, Kate returned to the stage. She’d run out of time. It was left to borrow from Guy; he’d brought a large container, plus she had a sinking suspicion he’d enjoyed that stage kiss more than he was supposed to.

Out of her peripheral vision she saw Jackson come back in the room, lean down over Penny’s chair and whisper something in her ear. The psychic’s low laughter could be heard all the way across the hall. Kate couldn’t help wondering what they were talking about. Or who…?

Shrugging, she told herself she didn’t care. She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

If she said it often enough, she bet she’d come to believe it too.

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.