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 Fifty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

Save on your house loan….

Delete.

Intuitive: How to Market—

Delete.

LitLiber, Chapter Fifty-Two…

Oh. Better keep that…. Mark Unread.

Case: COOPER, FATHER FOUND

            Wait. What?

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

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

She’d found Janessa’s dad.

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

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

Breathe Penny.

Think Penny.

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

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

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

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

City: Coventon State: CT

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny sighed. “Yes. I found him.”

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

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

“You did?”

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

Janessa nodded numbly. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

Janessa nodded slowly.

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

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

“Uh…yes?”

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

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

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

One minute past in this fashion.

Then another.

Followed closely by a third minute…

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

“Janessa?” Penny asked tentatively in the silence.

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

“Are you okay?”

Janessa didn’t speak.

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

Janessa rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

She ran to Good Shepherd Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry you’re hurting—”

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

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

“Oh Janessa—oh, sweetheart….”

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

Janessa sighed a watery sigh.

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

M.T. nodded.

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

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

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

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

Janessa’s lips quivered again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“So?”

“What should I do?”

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

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

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

“Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“I think you do.”

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

“Janessa,” she breathed.

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

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

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

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

She tried to play it cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Nine

So Kate and Penny headed back outside to try it again. Swim Lesson 2.0

Grabbing up their towels, they walked determinedly toward the water’s edge. Staring out at the expanse of water, the tips of their toes lying against the last inches of grass there, Kate heard Penny take a deep breath, and then another. But this time, she wasn’t the only person nervous of wading inside those cool depths. Kate’s stomach clinched.

Because now she knew. She knew just how terrifying a step this all would be for Penny: letting her feet fall against the wet sand, feeling their weight sink against the surface there, letting her body break against the waves, the semi-suffocating texture of water encircling her, touching her—

Kate reached for Penny’s hand again, only this time she didn’t follow the action with a quick step forward. In fact, her fingers entwined tightly with Penny’s, this time she didn’t move at all. So instead, they just stood there, staring out ahead of them, watching the still water, neither moving.

A minute passed. And then another. Tick-tick-ticking…Kate could feel the panic stealing over her person. The confidence she’d felt earlier that afternoon, when she’d shown up like some heroic savior, was absent now, shadowed by the reality of what her presence meant. She didn’t want to screw this up again. She was no longer certain she had the capacity to help Penny…

The sound of feet crunching against the gravel driveway next door, the echo of movement where moments ago there had been only silence, caused Kate’s head to shift reflectively.

Jackson was home. Lost in her own thoughts Kate hadn’t heard the sound of his car approaching, hadn’t listened for the answering hum of an engine dying, a door opening and closing again.

Not until now…

But it was only too obvious that he’d seen them.

“Hey girls,” he called out then, his arm lifted in greet as he walked over to where they were stoically standing. “Doing a little sunbathing?” he asked, that easy smile on his face, his eyes taking in their outfits.

Sidling up to Kate’s left, the side not holding Penny’s hand, Jackson was suddenly much too close—and another kind of panic settled over Kate’s distraught nerves. Dropping Penny’s grip, she quickly skirted to stand in front of her friend. Her eyes avoided Jackson’s entirely. Instead, Kate focused on Penny, whose face seemed to be carved from stone…or ice.

“Actually,” Kate said in answer of his question, though her gaze never once left Penny, her arms folded stiffly in front of her body, “we’re thinking about going for a swim.”

That got Jackson’s attention. Slowly, his head turned to take in Penny; his eyes were soft, compassionate when the psychic slowly tilted her head in his direction.

“Is that true, Pen?” he asked, an odd note in his voice.

Penny nodded. “Yeah. Maybe. I—,” she cleared her throat. Then, with a decisive word, she amended. “Yes.”

And Jackson smiled. A big, sincere, honest-to-goodness grin split across his face. “Atta girl,” he said, his arm coming up to give her a half-hug.

“Well, don’t get too excited yet,” Penny murmured drily. “We haven’t made much progress yet.”

“That’s not true,” Kate countered. “We got in the water earlier…”

“But it didn’t end well,” Penny finished in a self-deprecating manner.

Jackson gave Penny’s shoulder squeeze. “No? What happened?”

“I ran out screaming bloody murder.”

Kate ducked her head in shame.

But Jackson didn’t miss a beat. “But you’re back here, ready to try it again anyway?” he asked, that soft note still there in his voice.

Kate bit her lip. The way he was talking—in that protective, loving way—it made him almost irresistible. She wished he’d knock it off.

“I guess.”

“Well then,” he said slowly, “I’m not just excited. I’m proud of you, too.”

Then Kate could feel Jackson looking at her next, and she’d just bet that look was in his eyes—the one that said he thought she was amazing and beautiful, and that he was proud of her too, that she was a good friend for doing this, yada, yada, yada. She’d seen that particular look before (he’d worn it two nights ago when they’d gone fishing after dark; and the day prior, when she’d made that corny joke; and the time they’d kissed under that tree before the triathlon, it had been out in full wattage then….)—the one he personally seemed to specialize in, that chased all the butterflies loose in her stomach.

That look made her knees weak. That look made her want to throw her arms around him…it made it difficult for her to breathe properly. Suddenly, she wished there was more fabric to her bathing suit. She wished she could shield her body inside that towel lying down by her feet.

If Penny got a hold of that look on his face, if she got even a hint of Kate’s answering response…well, hell, it didn’t dare thinking about.

Staring determinedly at the ground, Kate hunched her shoulders against a pretend chill in the air. “Well I guess—”

“Got any advice?” Penny asked then, cutting over whatever Kate had been about to say.

Jackson seemed to consider this carefully. “I’ve got a couple actually…”

“Shoot.”

“Number one: we should get you a life jacket.”

Kate wanted to smack her hand against her forehead at the words. Well, duh. Of course! She should have thought of that.

“It’ll make you feel safer and that’s a big part of getting comfortable, gaining confidence…”

“Oh.” Penny’s face fell for a moment. “I’m not sure I have any—we used to, but I think I threw them away a few summers ago. They were pretty tattered.”

Jackson dropped his arm from around her shoulders. “No worries. I have a spare. Let me go and get it.”

And once that was done, and Penny was safely suited up, Jackson offered his second piece of advice. “Well, actually, it’s not so much advice as it is a request…?”

“And what’s that?” Penny asked eagerly. Kate hated herself for the smidge of resentment and jealous creeping over her person. Penny hadn’t sounded or looked anywhere near as calm and unaffected as she did now, with Jackson.

Kate was failing miserably.

“Let me help.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the quiet plea. Penny, too, looked startled. “You already have—”

Jackson waved her words away. “I want to be here, I want to watch you beat this. I know how hard it is for you, just being close to the water. And I know why.” He stops to let the intimacy of this statement resonant. I suppose he has a point. “And…I’d really like to help you get this back.”

Penny’s head rotated slowly. “Kate?” she asked quietly, nervously, waiting for permission.

Kate smiled at her friend, and she swallowed her pride. “I think that sounds like a great idea.” Then, rising her eyes to Jackson, she smiled flatly, in what she hoped was a casual, friendly sort of way. “Thank you. I’m sure we’d appreciate all the help we could get.”

And then, they were each holding on to one of Penny’s hands, with an absolute promise from each they’d let go it she asked, or panicked, or felt like she needed to run away. Slowly, with Jackson talking the quiet lead, they walked out into the water, just up to their ankles. After each step Jackson would stop, tell Penny to breathe, let her body relax, absorb the water—the feel of it playing against her skin. He’d wait until she felt fully in control before moving forward. It took a long time, but finally he had Penny in as far as mid-thigh…

“Well, how do you feel?”

Penny considered the question for a moment. “I feel fine. But that probably has a lot to do with you and Kate being beside me.”

Jackson chuckled. “Fair enough. But what about if Kate and I let go?”

Penny’s face whitened, her fingers tightening….

“No, no, no—” Jackson said, as though he’d read her thoughts. “I’m not talking about you going out on your own. I’m saying, right here, right where we are now, can you stand on your own and feel okay? It’s absolutely fine if the answer is no Penny. This isn’t a test, I’m just trying to gauge your reaction…”

Penny wiggled her toes against the sandy bottom. “We won’t go any further out?”

“No. Not unless you want to.”

“And you’ll give me your hand back if I want it?”

“Without question.”

Then, slowly, inch by inch, she let go of Jackson and Kate’s grip. Her arms stayed out, angled at her sides, as though to keep her equilibrium. For a second no one spoke, and then Penny lowered her arms.

“Yes.”

Kate breathed a sigh of relief.

Penny lit up like a Christmas tree. Or a firework.

Jackson took a couple careful steps backward, making sure to keep himself perfectly parallel to Kate and Penny. “Okay,” he called. “Can you walk from Kate to me? It’s a straight line, and I promise you’re not going any deeper in the lake.”

Penny took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. Slowly she moved toward Jackson.

“You did great!” he cried, once she’d reached him. “Do it a couple more times, Penny. Get comfortable. Let your body adjust to the feel of water on your legs. Don’t worry about your arms right now,” he rushed to say, when the words began trembling out of Penny’s mouth. “We’ll save that for another day.”

“Another day?” Penny blinked.

Jackson smiled. “Yeah. I think we’ve gone in far enough for today. Don’t you, Kate?” He asked, calling the question down the line.

And Kate knew when she’d been licked. As much as she wanted to let Jackson’s take-charge attitude sting her pride, she was also humbled by his approach, grateful for his appearance this afternoon. He was better at this than she was. He was doing it right. And so her pride could go hang.

“Oh yeah. Another day.” She smiled over at Penny, who was making her clumsy way back toward Kate. “Penny, you’re doing so well. So well!”

And so, for the next twenty minutes,  Penny did as Jackson instructed: she moved in the water—back and forth, from side-to-side, her toes curling against the swaying sand, her legs building confidence in the heavy, buffeted water as she circled this small stretch of lake…and she laughed (laughed!) and smiled.

Afterward, Penny insisted that she walk out of the water all by herself (after all, it only got shallower from there on in). Hanging back to watch, Kate felt Jackson cozy up beside her in the water. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched, horror-struck, as his arm came sweeping up, ready to land against her shoulders.

Ducking quickly out of reach, Kate made a shivering motion, her arms quickly going to imprison her body. “Brr!” she called out suddenly, and, rubbing her hands up and down her arms ruthlessly, she scooted out after Penny, who was just then gaining solid ground, her fingers already reaching for the towel ready on the grass there. “Grab mine too, will you Penny?” Kate shouted, her voice breaking out loudly, frantically.

Wrapping the sun-warmed material around her body, Kate kept her voice carefully light. “You did amazing out there today, Penny. Truly amazing.”

Penny blushed. “It wasn’t anything a five year old couldn’t have done.”

“Not true—”

The sudden re-emergence of Jackson, his great strong arms reaching around Penny to engulf her in a gigantic hug, his body lifting hers off the ground in his exuberance, stopped Kate in her tracks.

Penny giggled.

“You! I’m so damned proud…you did it! Look at what you accomplished…” He told a still laughing Penny, whose hands were futilely swatting at Jackson’s shoulders as she pleaded with him to put her back down.

“Stop it, the both of you,” Penny insisted, but there was no denying the sparkle in her eyes, the pride in her smile. “It wasn’t all that much.”

“Yes it was.”

“Don’t be so modest…”

Penny pursed her lips. “Okay,” she relented. “It was kind of huge.”

And Jackson hugged her again, but this time, when he released her, before Kate had time to react, those impossibly strong, masculine arms had engulfed her in a hug.

“We did it, coach!” He said moments before he brought her into his body.

Mumbling incoherently, her arms going slack at her sides, her back poker straight in protest, Kate held her breath, trying not to breath in the scent of his wet skin, not to act on the pull of attraction between their scantily clad bodies…

Training her eyes to some far-off distance, Kate waited stiffly, until finally, she felt his arms drop away. And even though she could sense his eyes on her, could almost feel the insistent magnetism of them drawing her gaze, Kate refused to meet that look. She knew he would be confused, hurt…probably even a little angry at her rejection.

But she wasn’t rejecting him. Not really. It’s just…it was complicated, what with Penny and everything that had gone on with them recently. She and Kate were finally talking again.

They were almost there, back to where they’d been before…they were so close. Too close to muck it all up now.

And if Kate did what she really wanted to do, throw her arms around Jackson’s shoulders and kiss him passionate gratitude, well, muck it up would be too timid a phrase…. She and Penny would be finished. Over.

Because Kate still hadn’t told Penny about Jackson. It wasn’t like she’d meant to keep it a secret. At first, they’d been fighting; and then Penny had started in on her not-so-subtle hints about Jake; add to that Maggie’s lost necklace and…well, the longer Kate went without talking to her, the harder it was to start.

So, backing hurriedly away from Jackson, Kate kept her eyes downcast. A wooden smile etched over her face. And all the while, she wished he’d go away.

Apparently, Jackson read minds, because that’s what he did.

“All right,” he said, taking in Penny’s beaming face. “I’ll leave you two to celebrate this major victory. I’m guessing champagne is in order—”

“Leave us?” Penny asked, clearly oblivious to the tension radiating between Jackson and Kate. “Don’t you want a glass yourself? You were a pretty big factor in all this?”
Jackson smiled. “Another time. Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting at school this evening.”

“It’s summer…”

Jackson grinned. “Only for a few more weeks. I’ve got a syllabus to get ready, a classroom to prepare, the school calendar to consult….”

Penny sighed dramatically. “Okay. Fine. But I’m holding you to your promise. We’ll celebrate another time. My treat.”

“Deal.”

And then he was gone.

 

 

 

She’d explain everything. He’d understand. She’d explain everything. He’d understand.

This had become Kate’s overnight mantra, as she’d tossed and turned, guilt churning away at her stomach…. What if she’d managed to save her friendship with Penny only to ruin her relationship with Jackson?

A pain so hard it caused her to sit bolt-upright in bed, clenched in Kate’s stomach.

No, no. Jackson would understand.

She’d call him and explain everything. He’d understand.

The next morning, blue smudges under her eyes attesting to her lack of sleep, Kate reached for her phone… Of course he’d understand, this was Jackson, after all.

But when he answered, Kate knew she’d been kidding herself.

“Kate. What’s up?” he asked, no preamble, no welcome. His voice was curt. It was unlike any greeting he’d ever given her before.

Kate straightened her shoulders. Okay, so she’d ruffled his feathers more than she’d thought. That was fine. She could handle this. “Hey…listen, I wanted to talk to you about yesterday—”

“What about it?”

“Uh, well…first of all, I wanted to thank you for helping me with Penny.”

Silence met her words.

Kate cleared her throat. “Right. Well, I-I just, you were really great with her.”

Jackson sighed loudly. “You don’t need to thank me. I’d do anything for Penny.”

“No, I know,” Kate amended quickly. “Of course. I just…”

“Kate, I’m kind of in the middle of something here…” Taking the phone off her ear, Kate stared at the device as though it had sprouted wings. Where was the compassion and softness of yesterday? “Was there anything else—?”

She screwed up the last of her courage. “Yes, actually there was. I wanted to apologize.”

A beat of silence and then, “Okay.”

“It’s just, I’m sorry if I can across a little…” Kate struggled to find the word.

“Cold? Unfriendly? Distant?” Jackson, however, didn’t seem to be having any troubles in that area.

“I don’t know if I’d said that…”

“I would.”

“Oh.”

Jackson sucked in a breath. “Why then?”

“Why?”

“Were you were being so…whatever?” Kate had never heard that particular emotion seep into Jackson’s voice. Hard mockery.

Kate decided on the truth. “Because I haven’t told Penny about us yet, and I didn’t want her to find out that way.”

“Wait—you haven’t told her? Why? I mean, I thought she was your best friend?”

“She is…”

“And?” Jackson’s voice was tight, suspicious.

Kate winced. “It’s sort of difficult to explain…”

“It’s difficult to explain that we’re dating?”

“No, not that—”

“Then what?”

Kate felt her teeth clench. “I—the thing is, Penny and I…”

Jackson made a sound. “Look Kate, I know we haven’t been seeing each other for very long—”

“It’s not what you’re—”

“But I thought we were on the same page,” Jackson said. “We talked about being exclusive, and we spend almost everything evening together—”

“Yes, I know…”

Jackson sighed wearily. “I’m looking for something serious, Kate. I thought you were too.”

“I am.”

“It doesn’t sound like it. And it certainly didn’t seem like it yesterday. I have no interest in juvenile theatrics—hot one day, cold the next…”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then why haven’t you told Penny?”

The phone pressed hot against Kate’s ear.

Jackson tried again. “How about Jake? Does he know you’re taken?”

Kate’s mouth went dry. She knew Jake was a sore spot for Jackson.

“I see.”

“I don’t think you do?”

“Then tell me, why the secrecy? If you’re not holding back Kate, then what’s going on?”

“Nothing! That’s what I’m trying to explain,” Kate cried desperately.

“Yeah,” Jackson said quietly. “I’m just not sure I want to listen to you try.”

“Jackson.”

“Actions over words, Kate.”

“Wait—”

She could practically see him shaking his head. “I’ve got to go.”

“Jackson, just wait a minute!

But he’d already hung up.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Eight

It wasn’t until Maggie lost her necklace that Kate really realized it; in a way, she supposed she’d always known. She’d seen it, she’d just never thought about it. She’d never considered how bad it was until that day….

The way she’d forced Kate to stay back with M.T. when everyone else was scavenging for the lost piece of jewelry, to sit there next to Maggie holding her hand while everyone else dove in the cool waters…watching, waiting; they hadn’t both needed to be there, one would have sufficed…

But Penny had felt guilty. She’d felt impotent with helplessness. To have Kate go out there, to have Kate do what Penny could not—no, that could not happen. That did not happen. It was hard enough, succumbing so fully to her fears, she couldn’t be bested by Kate’s heroics, too.

It should have been so obvious. Even before the necklace, Kate had noticed things, like how Penny loved to look out and view it, but she kept herself at a good distance from its edge. How there’d always been this expression on her face whenever she got too close—of whispered reverence and total, abject revulsion and distrust.

Except.

Except, on the other hand, Penny lived on water. She should, in theory, by an avid swimmer. Or, at the very least, she should be able to swim.

But Penny did not swim. She could not swim. She was terrified of swimming.

“And I’d always been fine with that,” Penny had confided to Kate. They’d been sitting out on the patio of Margarita Joe’s, and Penny had probably more than enough tequila for the evening…. “But then, when Mags lost her necklace and I-I…I couldn’t help. I wanted to Kate, I really wanted to rush into that water, but I couldn’t.” Penny shook her head soulfully. “I despised myself for that fear. I hated the fact that it was going to keep me from helping one of the people I love most in the world.”

Kate silently wondered if that wasn’t the reason for the new necklace, the one Penny had bought for M.T. She wondered if Penny’s obsessive, manic urge to replace the lost one, replicate it, hadn’t stemmed from her longing to just do something, anything, to help in whatever way she could—and maybe avail herself of the failure she felt over not being able to swim out to find the old one. It was as though Penny thought that it was because she couldn’t swim that it hadn’t been found, as though some part of its missing were her fault.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Kate had tried to reassure her. “That it hasn’t been found. We’ve been diving for days now and no one’s seen heads or tails of it.” Kate licked the salt off the rim of her glass. “What I’m saying is, whether you could swim or not, it’d still be lost.”

Penny shrugged, her lips pursed. “I know. I know, but it doesn’t make me feel any less pathetic.”

“I know what will make you feel better,” Kate said before ordering them another round of margaritas.

“Yes, because alcohol is usually such a pick-me-up.” Penny chuckled.

“No, not that,” Kate returned, batting her hands at the words. Smiling hazily in Penny’s direction, she offered the psychic a big, toothy grin. Now she came to think of it, Kate may have had one too many drinks, as well. “No. This.”

“This what?”

Kate cleared her throat. “I’ll teach you how to swim.”

Penny’s eyes shone bright in the neon-lighting shining over the outside seating. “Really?” she breathed.

“I’m a great swimmer,” Kate assured her. “In fact, it’s kind of a requirement, where I’m from.”

Penny laughed.

“Right?” Kate snickered. “Because I come from the land of 10,000 lakes…” Another guffaw.

Penny stopped, a quizzical look on her face. “Oh! Wait—” she sounded out, in dawning realization. She pointed a knowing finger in Kate’s direction. “I get it. The land of ten thousand lakes.”

And then they fell into peals of laughter yet again.

 

 

 

The rest of the night was kind of a blur, but when Kate woke up the next morning three things remained perfectly clear:
1. Penny telling Kate that M.T. was one of the people she loved most in the world.

  1. Kate promising Penny she’d teach her how to swim.
  2. The girls deciding that the first lesson would commence that afternoon, at three pm.

 

 

 

“What are you doing here?” Penny asked uneasily, opening the front door to her house at Kate’s insistent knock. Her eyes darted out nervously toward the water’s edge.

“Swimming lessons,” Kate told her.

Penny’s mouth pulled down…

“You do remember agreeing to this, don’t you?” Kate teased.

“Oh—well, yeah, I guess….”

“Then let’s get to it.”

“I thought we were just talking though,” Penny stuttered, her cheeks getting uncomfortably red. “You know how people do…”

Kate tilted her head to the side. “Just talking? But we made a schedule, Penny.”

“Yeah,” Penny ran her teeth over her lower lip. “But, you know, there was a lot of alcohol involved.”

Kate waved away the words dismissively. “So what?”

Penny fidgeted, her fingers playing frantically with the doorknob she still had in her grasp. “I’m not too sure about this…”

“Did you mean what you said yesterday?” Kate asked stubbornly. Her head ached and her body felt like garbage, but she’d drug herself out of bed, and underneath her icepack, to help Penny. She would not be turned away now. “Regardless of the alcohol, did you mean it when you said you hated not being able to jump in that water and help Maggie—that you despised yourself for giving into your fear? That you felt like a coward and worse than that, you felt ashamed—everything Maggie has done for you and you couldn’t get over one small phobia…”

“Okay!” Penny shouted. “Yes. I meant it. Okay. Stop.”

Kate nodded grimly. “Then put on your bathing suit and let’s go out there.”

“Kate…”

The blonde shook her head determinedly. “Penny, I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I promise.”

Penny sucked in her lip.

“I know you’re scared,” Kate continued. “But I will be with you the entire time. I will hold your hand the entire time. I won’t let you go.”

Penny blew out a deep, hard breath. Then, with a quick jerk of her head, she turned on her heel, and made for her bedroom.

Kate smiled in quiet triumph. She wanted to do this for the psychic. It was important. Kate and Penny still hadn’t really talked about the incident… and it was still there, between them, that fizzle of angry words and hurt feelings. Jake and Jackson. And Kate and Penny.

Kate sighed. They hadn’t really talked about it—this topic they consciously ignored, but it weighed down on their friendship all the same; there, between them, laying unsaid in the midst of conversation, was that fight. That fight they were determined not to bring up. To forget. To pretend  never happened.

Only it did happen and no one had forgotten anything.

It’s not that Kate wanted a rematch. She didn’t want to argue at all. She just wanted her friend back. She’d missed Penny. And so she was going to teach her how to swim.

She was going to do for her what Penny had frequently done for Kate. Help her heal, help her find her strength. It was time Kate gave back. It was time she followed Maggie’s heed: this time, it was Penny who would come first. Penny, whose feelings and upsets would take first priority. It was past time that Kate showed Penny she could be a good friend, too.

“Ready?” Kate called when Penny reemerged some minutes later, a brightly colored towel tied tightly around her waist, her face a few shades too pale.

Penny nodded sharply. Speech seemed to be beyond the psychic as the women let themselves out of the house and walked the short distance down to the water’s edge.

Clutching the towel tighter around her person, Penny stared down at the wet sandy shore, staring as if mesmerized at the water lapping gently there. Her knuckles were white, her breathing not quite controlled.

“Penny?” Kate asked. “Here, let me take your towel.” Carefully, she took hold of the microfiber material, pulling it free from Penny’s hold.

Throwing the thing down on the grass, she grabbed for Penny’s hand. It was ice cold in her grip. “Ready?” Kate asked, with a sideways smile. She squeezed reassuringly before taking one step and then another forward.

Penny came along reluctantly, her eyes wide, unnerved.

“Remember, I’ll be with you the whole time,” Kate counseled. Penny looked strange. “Just hold on tight and take one more step forward and…there!” Kate squealed. “You’re officially in the water now.”

And Penny was. At least, the bottoms of her feet were in the water. But it was a start. And slowly, Kate walked Penny onward. Further. Further, until the girls were in the water up past their knees. Penny still hadn’t spoken, her jaw seeming permanently clenched as she allowed herself to be persuaded deeper and deeper.

Everything had been going just fine until that sixth step… when the sand dropped away unexpectedly by a foot or so. One minute the girls were standing mid-thigh and the next thing Kate knew, they were waist-deep in the cool, calm lake.

That’s when Penny panicked. And it wasn’t just a howl of surprise at the abrupt submergence, either. It was a flat-out freak-out.

“No, no, no, no, no…!” Shaking her head frantically, Penny’s voice came out hoarse and high-pitched. Throwing off Kate’s hold, she scrambled backward, her arms splashing frantically against the surface of the water, her feet almost tripping in her haste to get away. Tears filled her eyes as great heaving huffs off air exploded out of her lungs.

“No, no, no, no, no!” she kept saying, her voice rising louder and louder, more frantic and frenzied.  Then, at last, her feet found grass. But Penny was in such a state, she didn’t seem to realize she was safe, free… She just kept screaming, her legs propelling, pushing in retreat.

“Penny—wait,” Kate called, running after her. Her long legs were on Penny in a second. Reaching out Kate’s fingers just brushed the back of her swimsuit.

“No!” Whipping around, Penny railed on her. “I told you—I said I didn’t want to do this! Why didn’t you just listen to me!”

“No, you said you weren’t sure—”

“Shut up Kate! Just shut up.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the words.

“You pushed me to do this. But I’m not—I don’t want to do this, okay?”

“Okay,” Kate relented, stunned by the accusation in Penny’s voice, hurt beyond consideration. Blinking back her own tears, Kate apologized. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean…”

“Just leave it,” Penny barked, throwing her arms out wide to encompass the lake before them. “Just leave it alone. I’m not—” Whipping furtively against the tears streaming down her face, Penny just shook her head. Picking up her towel, she started back up for her house.

The broken, half-suppressed sob that accompanied Penny’s scurry, however, was what cut Kate the deepest.

 

 

 

Kate cracked open the front door. “Penny?” she called, rapping her knuckle softly against its sturdy frame.

She received no answer. Straightening her shoulders, even when every part of her body insisted that she turn around, shut the door behind her and leave Penny alone, Kate walked inside the psychic’s dimly lit living room.

“Penny?” She called again. Listening, stretching her ears for sound, Kate prayed for an answer, any answer…

And then, suddenly, Penny was standing there in front of Kate, having emerged from the kitchen; a caftan was draped comfortingly across her body, a ceramic mug in her hands. For a moment, Kate and Penny stared at one another. Then, holding up the steaming cup, Penny asked gruffly. “Want a cup?”
Kate smiled tremendously, letting out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “I would love one.”

Silence descended as the girls made their way into the peach-hued room, Penny busy taking down a mug from the cupboard, Kate struggling with what to say…

“I’m sorry,” Penny breathed then, breaking the silence. Her back was to Kate as she reached for the carafe, pouring out a cup of coffee.

“You’re sorry?” Kate blinked. “No, I’m sorry!”

“I freaked out,” Penny said, turning then, her eyes wet. “I—I told you to shut up! I can’t believe I said that…”  Penny handed over the steaming cup. Kate took it gratefully.

“You probably had every right too,” Kate conceded. “I was pushing you. And I should have listened when you expressed doubts.”

“No, you were trying to help. I know that. I just…I lashed out.”

“It’s okay.”

Penny nodded, bringing her coffee up to her mouth. Kate mirrored her. For a second neither of them spoke, each busy drinking the beverage in their hands, neither knowing exactly where to go from here…

“I used to swim,” Penny said. “When I was a little girl; I’d go out with Maggie. I was never very good, but I could float.”

“What happened?” Kate asked softly, because clearly something had.

“My mother was a drunk.” The words slapped hard against the air, as unexpected as they were harsh. “Did you know that?” Penny asked, her voice oddly conversational. “It didn’t really start to show until after Maggie’s dad died, until after she’d left…”

Kate swallowed difficultly.

“And one day, after she’d had too many, she decided she wanted to lie out in the sun on the dock,” Penny murmured. “I guess she passed out because when I found her, she was face down in the water, unconscious.”

Kate’s hand went up to cover her mouth involuntarily. Oh God.

Penny laughed without mirth. “I remember it so well. I was up in my bedroom, watching TV and suddenly this strange feeling came over me—like when you get water up your nose and it burns! And I heard this voice whispering in my head: The lake! The lake! Get to the lake! And I knew. I just knew what had happened.”

Penny hitched a shoulder.

“I ran outside, my feet slipping, smacking against the dock. I remember that sound so well. And when I saw her—I just screamed.” Penny shook her head. “I screamed and screamed and screamed. And next thing I remember, Jackson and his grandfather came running outside, and then they were in the water, lifting her out. And then Jackson was calling an ambulance while Mr. Fischer was giving my mother mouth-to-mouth…”

“Oh Penny, that must have been so terrifying.”

Penny scratched at something on her nose. “She almost died, Kate. If I hadn’t listened to that voice…If I hadn’t gone out there when I did…”

Kate stroked a hand down Penny’s arm. “I know.”

Penny smiled. “It was the first time I realized I had the gift.” She laughed bitterly. “What a way to find out, huh?”

Kate bit down hard. “I’m so sorry.”

“I never went back in the water again.”

“Of course,” Kate nodded. “I understand.”

“…I tried, but I couldn’t. Every time I—, well, you saw what happens.”

Kate blinked back tears.

“I loved my mother,” Penny said, “but she took so much away from me. She took my childhood away from me. And all she left in its place was scars and fears, lots of them—would she kill herself today? Would I make it home in time to save her? Would she remember my name…?”

“I-I,” but Kate didn’t know what to say.

With an abrupt start, Penny put down her mug. “And you know, I’m sick of it.” She spoke so softly, Kate wasn’t sure if Penny was talking to her or to herself. “I’m sick of being afraid.”

Kate stared at her uncertainly.

Penny lifted a steely gaze to Kate. “I meant what I said yesterday. I want to swim. I do. Can we—can we try again?”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Seven

“My necklace—I can’t find my necklace!”

This sentence, M.T.’s terrible shrill voice echoing off in the air… that was the first thing Kate became aware of after crossing the finish line. Her shirt was sticking uncomfortably to the skin on her back, right between her shoulders blades, as she advanced toward where the rest of her team was huddled. The smile of victory on her face vanished at the somber expression on Jake’s face, the fearful one of Penny, and the absolute terror flashing across the pastor’s pale countenance.

This was far from the welcome she’d expected to receive at the end of their race.

“What’s going on?” Kate asked, jogging up to them.

“My necklace,” M.T. warbled, her hand scratching futilely against her bare collarbone, tears cascading down her cheeks. “I can’t find my necklace!”

“Shh—Mags,” Penny hushed. She had both her arms around M.T.’s quaking shoulders. “Maggie it’s okay.”

“No—!” M.T. ripped herself out of Penny’s embrace, her eyes wild. “I have to find it. I have to—” Maggie made to move forward.

“Stop! Maggie, just stop,” Penny repeated, halting her sister’s mad motions. “Jackson told you to stay put, remember?”

“Keep an eye on her Penny,” he’d warned, adding in no uncertain terms. “And don’t let her get in that water. It’s too dangerous. She’s too upset!”
Kate didn’t know any of this though. Staring blankly ahead, trying to piece together what was unraveling before her that’s when she noticed them—the bodies swarming the sides of the lake, people free diving in and out of the shallow water, combing the sand by the shore and, a little further out, a boat, anchored out in the middle of the lake. Squinting she could make out a few men loaded down with scuba equipment spilling out into the deeper waters.

“I should be out there!” M.T. cried her arms pointing recklessly ahead.

“Jackson’s out there. He’s an experienced diver. So are Mark and John…” Penny was saying in a soothing voice. “If anyone can find your necklace, it’s them. You need to stay here Maggie—you’re no help to anyone in this condition!”

That’s when it all clicked together for Kate. Gasping as the full realization of the situation spelled itself out, she locked eyes with Penny. Maggie had lost her necklace while swimming her portion of the triathlon. Her small, heart-shaped locked was lost somewhere out in the expanse of all that muddy, murky water.

It could be anywhere in there.

“I have to get it back,” M.T. wailed plaintively, her voice thin, quivering.

“And you’re absolutely positive you had it on this morning, before the race started?” Penny asked. Kate could tell by the tone of her voice, it wasn’t the first time she’d presented the question. “You’re one hundred percent sure it’s not at home…on your bedroom dresser or something?”

M.T. made a small gurgling sound. “I’m sure. I never take it off…never!” At the word fresh tears made their way from her eyes.

Kate was stunned. Scared. She’d never seen M.T. so…off balance. So emotional. Her eyes latched on to Penny as if searching for answers but she didn’t find any there. Penny looked just as confused by M.T’s behavior…just as shocked.

In the ensuing minutes, as Penny worked to calm M.T. and managing to only half-succeed in this venture, Kate was able to piece together the rest of the story.

Everything had started out fine. The race had started perfectly, with M.T. stationed right beside Jackson, meeting him stroke for stroke. (Their close proximity throughout would be something of a godsend later, since Jackson remembered their location fairy well, thus narrowing down the search effort.) She’d finished well, close behind him. It was after sending Jake on his way that she realized something was missing.

Panicked, she’d scrubbed frantically at the sandy edge of the lake, hoping, desperate to believe that it had only just fallen off, that it would peek up at her in the glinting sun, nestled against some pebble or driftwood…refusing to believe it had sunk down there…down there in the depths of a formidable watery bottom. When she hadn’t found it, she’d only scrubbed harder. It had to be here. It couldn’t have fallen off anywhere else. It just couldn’t have. Because, if it had—if it had, she’d never see it again.

That’s when Jackson had found her, clambering around on her hands and knees, great hiccups of breath heaving out of her mouth. Through gasping sobs, she’d told him what had happened. And that’s when he’d started up the recovery party….

“I don’t understand,” Kate whispered to Penny some time later, as the girls stood by helplessly, watching, waiting…praying for a hand to rise up out of the wet depths in triumph, a gold chain held in one fist; M.T., quiet now, was huddled on a park bench nearby, just out of earshot. Her eyes were red and puffy, her sobs silent now. “What is it about this necklace? Why is it so important to her?”

Because obviously it was. Someone didn’t react quite so—violently, when it was nothing more than a shiny bauble.

But Penny only shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“I mean, I’ve seen her wear it before…”

“Me too.”

“Actually, she wears it all the time, doesn’t she?” Kate said in wonder.

Penny nodded. “I asked her about it once—teased her actually that she needed to expand on her jewelry selection.” The psychic frowned.

“What did she say?”

Penny sighed. “Nothing really. She just smiled and told me something like, ‘with logic like that, women would have to buy new wedding rings every few months!’”

Kate bite her lip. Her eyes zeroed in on the divers out in the distance. “Do you think they’ll find it?”

Penny blew out a hard breath. “No.” Her voice was soft.

Kate felt her own set of tears closing in. “Me neither.”

“But I know Jackson. And I know he won’t give up until he does.”

Kate felt a jerk of pride at the words, especially because they were true. “At least we have that.”

“Yeah,” Penny said.

 

 

 

But by dusk that evening, the necklace still remained a mystery. Most of the search crew—and the curious stragglers who’d stayed for the excitement of it—had long since packed up and gone home, tired and weary from the lack of discovery. Even Jackson had surrendered, finally coming in out of the water.

“I’m so sorry, Pastor Thayer.” Jackson’s voice was soft, earnest as he bent down to where she still sat on that bench.

Maggie’s body jerked. “Thank you for trying Jackson. I appreciate it. I really do.”

“I won’t give up,” he told her cryptically, a tiny muscle in his jaw ticking at the words. “I’ll go back out tomorrow.”

Maggie had tried to smile, but there was no spark of hope or expectations in her eyes; it was eerie, seeing a woman of religion so…disbelieving.

“I’ll go back out tomorrow,” Jackson had repeated. “We’ll try again.” Then, as if sensing that she needed to be alone, he stood back up and quietly left.

“I don’t know what we would have done without him,” Penny said to no one in particular. Kate agreed silently. Jackson had been a lifesaver. And he hadn’t been the only one, either.

Jake had been equally amazing. Not long after Kate had arrived, he’d gone down to the water to help organize the search—setting up markers and buoys, sectioning off parcels of the lake to streamline the hunt, obtaining food and water, towels and equipment. And then he’d gone out into the lake to look himself, still wearing his cycling outfit.

Kate, too, had wanted to race into that cool body of water and take her turn dredging up whatever lay below its surface. She had experience scuba diving. She knew what to do. But one look and M.T.’s crumpled expression, mixed with Penny’s whispered plea: “Please. Stay. She needs us here,” had decided Kate’s fate.

So she’d stayed behind. She’d stayed behind and held Maggie’s hand, she and Penny, huddled around her, sheltering her from the blow of reality. The necklace was gone.

Kate only wished she could have done more. She only wished it had worked.

“It’s time to go home,” Penny was saying now to M.T. But the pastor only shook her head.

“I can’t go. I can’t leave her.”

Kate’s forehead crinkled. Her? But, once again, when she looked at Penny, she found no forthcoming information. The psychic looked just as startled as Kate felt.

“It’s getting dark,” Penny tried to reason. “It’ll be cold soon.”

M.T. shook her head harder. “I can’t go.”

“Then we’ll stay,” Kate said. She looked at Penny for confirmation.

“I’ll get us some blankets,” the older woman returned ruefully.

And that’s how they found themselves, hours later: huddled on that cold bench seat, wrapped in blankets that Penny had somehow acquired, sitting around a small campfire, staring out despondently at the shimmering water before him.

As night descended fully around them, M.T.’s sniffles and occasional wails turned to whimpers and then to nothing at all. Her eyes took on a glassy, numbed expression. No one spoke. It hadn’t seemed right, somehow, filling the air with inane chatter, pretending as though M.T.’s heart wasn’t breaking. So they’d just sat there instead, looking out and watching. Waiting some more.

“Maggie?” Penny said now, breaking the cone of silence which had accompanied their stakeout.

In response, the pastor merely turned her head a little.

“Can you tell us about it? About the necklace?”

M.T.’s mouth pulled down.

But Penny pushed forward anyway. “Who gave it to you? They must be someone special?”

M.T. turned to look back at the lake.

“It’s okay,” Kate said, silently pleading with Penny to shut up. “You don’t have to talk about it.”

Penny’s hand reached out for M.T.’s “No, of course not,” she rushed to say in agreement, back-paddling now. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to pry. I just—,” Penny sighed. It had a watery quality to it. “I’m so sorry you’re hurting.”

And then the girls lapsed into silence once again.

“I don’t know the woman’s name,” M.T. said, her voice ghostly thin. “The woman who gave me the necklace. She was an orderly at the hospital. That’s all I know.”

The hospital?

Penny and Kate shared a look over M.T’s head. This was getting weirder and weirder by the minute.

She said, she said she gave them to all the mothers’ who’d lost a child,” M.T. said. “She said it was her way of reminding them that, even though their babies weren’t meant to live on this earth, they still carried them over their heart.”

Penny’s eyes were hard, wide. “I don’t understan—”

Maggie’s head turned so sharply she almost butted it against Penny’s. “I was going to name her Arabella.” And just as quickly, M.T. turned back to the water. “And she was going to be mine. And for two days, she was.”

Kate’s throat felt scratchy, tight. “Oh Maggie…” she breathed.

Penny. “You had a child?”

“Yes.”

“And she…?”

“Died.” M.T’s voice was mechanical, cold.

“I-I don’t understand.”

M.T. shrugged. “She was premature.” Then she laughed. “Hell, I was premature.”

Kate wasn’t sure who needed comforting more. Maggie or Penny.

“When?” Penny demanded then, her voice high. “When did you have her?”

M.T. closed her eyes. “When I was eighteen.”

“When you were eighteen?” Penny echoed. “Eighteen? Eighteen!” Penny seemed to be choking on the word. “Is that why…?”
“I left?”

Penny nodded.

“Yes. Partly.”

“You never told me—you never told me!” Penny’s voice broke over the words. Kate winced.

M.T.’s voice was the same. Detached. Clinical. “Dad had just died and I, I went a little crazy. Drinking and partying and…and then I got pregnant.”

Penny couldn’t seem to find any words.

“Your mother and I, we weren’t close,” M.T. said, but there was no accusation in her voice. “I couldn’t go to her. I couldn’t tell her. I was so lost Penny, you have to understand that!” M.T. pleaded, just a hint of emotion finally breaking through her self-imposed monotone. “I was confused and scared and I did what so many scared, confused kids do. I left. I just…ran.”

“Oh Maggie!” Penny wept loudly. “I’m so sorry! All those years I hated you and I never knew. I never knew! You must have felt so alone—”

And M.T. cried. Her shoulders hunching in her pain, she cried all over again. “I wanted to come home after…after everything happened but I didn’t know how. I—I didn’t know where home was anymore. Without dad. Without Arabella. I was angry and hurt and I—I just wanted her so bad! I wanted to be her mom. She was my home, and she was gone!”

Kate, her arms wrapped tightly around M.T’s shaking form, kissed the pastor on the side of ash blonde hair. “Shhh! It’s okay…it’s okay…”

“I didn’t want to share her,” M.T. said, her words becoming as jumbled as her thoughts. “What little time I got to spend holding her, kissing her…even the memory of it, I didn’t want to share that with anyone. And when I put that necklace on, I felt her—”M.T. jabbed a finger against her heart. “Here. With me. And I couldn’t…I couldn’t leave her. And I couldn’t talk about her.”

Penny’s voice was thick. “So you stayed away.”

“I stayed away.  Started a new life. The one I should have had with her.”

“I wish could have met her,” Penny said tentatively. “I would have loved her.”

“Oh, I wish for that too!”

Penny swallowed hard, a new resolve in her eyes when she said: “We’ll find that necklace, Maggie.”

“Oh Penny,” Maggie sobbed hard. “No, we won’t.”

 

 

 

And a week later it seemed like Maggie was right. Jackson had gone diving every day that week looking for Maggie’s locket, and each evening he’d come up empty-handed. A few other swimmers in the community had offered to pitch in but after a couple days of fruitless searching, one by one they’d given up the fight.

“I don’t know how much longer Jackson can hold out hope,” Penny said to Kate one afternoon, while the girls were out shopping.

“Do you think he knows?” Kate asked. She’d wondered about it a couple of times, how Jackson had seemed to grasp, without being told, just how valuable that necklace was to M.T. He had to know, otherwise he wouldn’t still be out there, as he was right now, on a Saturday afternoon, for the fifth day in a row, with the last scuba buddy he could get to accompany him, looking, looking, looking! Everyone else had called it for what it was: a lost cause. She could have lost the necklace anywhere. The lake was too big, the necklace too small.

But Jackson wasn’t giving up.

“I doubt it,” Penny said, her face pressed up against a glass display case. “I can’t imagine M.T. telling him. It’s not like they’re super close.”

That was true enough. Besides which, Kate had the strong impression M.T. had never told anyone about Arabella. Not before that night, anyway. Not beside Kate and Penny. Even after all those years, the pain had been too fresh, too rich….

“But…well, Jackson lost Emily’s gardening spade soon after she died,” Penny said nex to surprise Kate. “I’m not sure if I ever told you, but she had the most beautiful flower beds.”

“You did actually,” Kate remembered quietly.

“Anyway,” Penny waved her hand, her eyes peering down at the items on the velvet-covered racks. “Jackson was distraught. I’d never seen him like that before—he went crazy looking for that stupid thing. It took us two days of going through that entire house before I found it in a box of her clothes, tucked away in the attic. Probably some family friend had stashed it away in there hoping to spare him the pain of seeing it.”

Kate listened raptly. This was a side of Jackson she was both terrified of and deeply curious to know more about.

“When I gave it to Jackson he took it and hung it back up on the rack in their mudroom. That was it. He just wanted to put it back where she would have left it. He was frantic for days, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat…and the whole time, all he wanted was to put it back on the wall in its rightful place.”

“Because he felt closer to her that way,” Kate said, remembering what M.T. had said.

Penny nodded. “He’s never used it that I’ve noticed. I bet it’s still resting there.”

Kate digested this slowly. “So he knows, he just doesn’t know.”

“Right.”

Kate sighed, her eyes turning to take in the store surround them. Wall-to-wall cabinets and display cases. “And what is it we’re looking for again?”

“We’ll know when we find it.”

“Because I don’t think—”

“There!” Penny squealed, her fingers pointing down through the glass. “There!”

Kate peered closer. “Which one?”

“On the right. Third row. The right, Kate, the right!”

Kate smiled when she saw it.

 

 

 

“And you’re sure about this?” Kate asked as the sales woman bundled up their package five minutes later. “Maggie won’t be upset?”

“I was an aunt, Kate. Aunt’s get to spoil their nieces.” Kate’s eyes traveled back to the jewelry box, inside which lay a gold-plated heart, an almost exact replica of the one M.T. used to wear. Only this time the inscription was different.

It read:

Arabella.

                        Welcome home.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Six

The July heat was oppressive. Kate’s bangs, cemented in sweat, lay heavy on her forehead. Her legs, pumping against the hard ground, were tired, weighted down. And, according to her calculations, she still had another mile to go…! It had been a long time since she’d run any distance; she was definitely feeling it now. And that damn sun!

God, she could almost feel jealous of Penny—her legs propped up on the chair beside her, a cool iced-tea in hand, with only a measly stop-watch to impede her relaxing afternoon sit-down.

She’d no sooner thought this then Kate cringed, silently berating herself. Get a grip, girl! It was a petty, spiteful thing in which to wish. Penny had sprained her ankle. Sure…she was sitting down on that chair, and her legs were propped up, but it’s not as though Penny were having a ball of a time—her ankle a swollen, achy, throbbing mess. And it’s not like Penny had wanted to injure her leg—it’s not like she wasn’t probably sitting there, right now, wishing it hadn’t happened. She’d been forced out of participating in the triathlon this weekend. She was undoubtedly upset about the whole thing. Kate was being insensitive.

Kate frowned. Still, it wasn’t fair. She hadn’t wanted to join this stupid event. Neither had M.T. They’d been forced into doing this ridiculous endurance test—a fundraiser for the school board—by Penny. And yet, here it was, two days to go-time and the only one not feeling the burn, the only one not pushing themselves out in this grueling, hateful heat was the only person who’d apparently wanted to do it in the first place.

How was that for justice?

Rotten. That’s how it was.

Uncaring of the childishness of it all, Kate resumed her earlier way of thinking: she wished it had been she who’d sprained her ankle. She’d have happily traded places with the psychic right now if only that were possible. God—she hated running!

It was a common misconception. When people saw her, all long, shapely legs and toned calves and thighs…they immediately assumed that Kate was athletic. Or that she aspired to be. And especially, they took it for granted that she was a runner.

Kate’s lip snarled. And they were always wrong. On all counts.

Turning at the break in the trees, Kate felt her heart-rate kick up a notch or two. She was almost there now. Just a matter of a few yards. Craning her neck to the side, her feet relieved at the lack of resistance as she sprinted down the hill that would eventually bring her to the mouth of Penny’s driveway, aka her Finish Line, Kate felt the first moment of giddiness she’d experienced since starting her leg of the race.

Ten feet…

Seven feet…

God, she was so close.

Two feet.

Feeling her body verging expectantly, Kate felt first one foot and then the next fall against the rocky, cracked pavement that marked the end of her treacherous journey. Finally, at long last, her feet came to a thankful stop.

Bent down at the waist, Kate tried to suck in her breath. She really, really hated running. Vaguely, she heard the soft patter of feet coming towards her, but she didn’t even bother lifting her head.

“What did you do to piss Penny off?” Jake teased, coming to stand beside her, holding out a cold water bottle.

Kate took it greedily, her fingers quickly twisting the cap off. Her chest heaved with the force of her breathing. “God—it must have been something bad,” she returned, but her eyes wouldn’t quite meet his.

“Do you even like running?” Jake asked, walking with her toward Penny’s yard, where she could just make out the sound of M.T. and Penny’s voices in mid-conversation.
Kate made a face. “That obvious, huh?”
“You looked like a hunted woman.”

Kate made a weird laughing sound. “Yeah.” And that was it, she couldn’t think of anything else to say—her bantering had come to a close; and considering how stilted and unoriginal it had been up to that point, this was saying a lot! It was just too much, talking to Jake this way, all easy and cool, the way it used to be—too much had happened, too much still needed to be resolved, for them to just go back.

Kate frowned. Bringing the water bottle up to her face, she took a strong drink of the icy cold liquid, anything to disguise her lack of conversational skills. Damn Penny.

Because, if the psychic spraining her ankle had sucked, the fact that she’d recruited Jake to take her place in their three-man team had been a total downer. Today marked their first practice together under this new formation—Kate, M.T. and…Jake. Since each member began the race at a different spot, besides a quick, breathy ‘hey!’ in passing, as Jake finished his segment of the race and Kate took up hers, they’d thankfully, mercifully, had little chance to talk.

Until now, that was. After every practice, the girl sat down in Penny’s backyard to talk logistics and strategy, gossip over a beer or two…. Blowing out a hard breath, Kate considered that, of course, Jake would be expected to join them now.

A pang of something uncomfortably close to guilt pinched at the sides of her stomach. Kate needed to talk to him. She needed to tell him…well, maybe not about her and Jackson, per se—that would probably be over-sharing, but the fact remained the same. She wasn’t interested in Jake that way. Not in the way he hoped; not the way he was interested in her.

Wiping her forearm over her lips, Kate dropped the bottle down to her side. It was time to tell him. Past time.

Today. She’d find a moment to talk to him today.

 

 

 

Only that didn’t happen. Instead, walking up to where Penny was perched on the edge of her woven chaise lounge, sunglasses perched jauntily on her nose, and a margarita held loosely in one bejeweled hand, Kate’s intentions were quickly forgotten, easily overwhelmed. Nabbing an empty seat, Kate looked up to find Penny staring mournfully at the stopwatch in her hand. She was tisk-tisking loudly. M.T. rolled her eyes extravagantly. Jake grabbed for a beer.

“Guys,” Penny said, sighing out the word for dramatic effect. “These times, they just aren’t cutting it. If we’re going to win this thing, I’ve got to see you giving more.” The wide grin splitting across her face gave told to her little joke.

Maggie shrugged, a cocky smirk coming to rest upon the usually serene pastor’s countenance. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “I beat my best time today.”

“True,” Penny said. “Very true.”

Kate pouted cutely at Penny. “Unfair—she got a break from all this heat, swimming in the cool water! Plus, I was staring right into the sunlight!”

Penny whistled. Her devilish eyes landed on Jake. “Well, I guess that leaves you.”

Jake’s eyebrows rose. “Me?”
“To take the blame for everything wrong with these times.”

Jake’s eyes narrowed.

Penny grinned. “No actually, now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.”

Kate nodded eagerly, playing her part.

“And hey, don’t worry,” Penny purred, leaning forward to pat the back of Jake’s hand. “We understand. You’re new to our team. Adjustments need to be made. Expectations need to be lowered. That’s all.”

“Expectations need to be lowered?”

“I’m a hard act to follow,” Penny informed him. “I get it. We all get it.”

“A hard act to follow?” Jake said, taken to repeating her most ridiculous comments. “Now be careful Penny… or have you forgotten how many years we shared gym class together?” Jake made a point of turning to look at M.T. and Kate. “Oh the stories I could tell.”

Now it was Penny whose eyes narrowed ominously. “You wouldn’t dare.”

But dare he did, a wicked smile gracing his features. “Do you remember the time, Coach Wilson asked you to go and grab a rack of basketballs?” Jake asked, his teeth flashing white across his tanned face.

“It could have happened to anyone,” Penny insisted, a laugh bubbling up in her throat.

“What could have?” Maggie asked curiously.

“Basketballs are orange Penny. And they bounce,” Jake poked.

Penny flushed. “Well…those soccer balls kind of bounced…”

Kate’s laugher pelted the mid-afternoon air.

“And didn’t you trip once during the stair-step test?” Jake asked. “You go up and down the same step the whole time…it was impressive.”

“Well, we can’t all be athletic stars,” Penny shot back, “and you’re welcome for it, Mr. All-Time MVP. Without us, how would you have stood out so brightly?”

“Wait.” Jake held up a hand. “So, my prowess notwithstanding, I owe my legacy to you—because you sucked at sports?”

Penny nodded slowly. “Exactly.”

Jake chuckled. “You are the wind beneath my wings.”

“In fact…”

And on and on she and Jake had gone, round and round, laughing, teasing, arguing with one another. Kate and M.T. had sat between them transfixed by the witty repartee, the rapid-fire back-and-forth, the parry and thrust.

And, though Kate knew she should have, though she’d scold herself for it later, she just hadn’t had it in her to ruin the fun. Everyone was having such a good time. Jake was having such a good time. He looked…happy. She couldn’t do it. Kate looked around the group. This was neither the time nor the place—the subject matter could hold. She nodded. Yeah. Later. Not tonight.

She’d talk to Jake later.

 

 

 

The morning of the Whestleigh Triathlon Scramble dawned bright and hot. (In fact, it would end up being the hottest day of the summer). Pulling into the cramped parking lot where registration was being set up, Kate groaned weakly as she alit from her vehicle. Already, the sun was beaming generously from a practically cloudless sky.

Checking herself in, Kate looked down at her watch. She still had a good fifteen minutes left before the buses would arrive to pick up the bikers and runners, depositing them at their respective starting places. Good, she wanted to loosen up at bit first. Moving off to the side, bent on finding a quiet spot to do some stretches, one hand shielding her eyes from the heavy beat of the sun, Kate pouted again. “Just my luck. Why couldn’t it be storming out?”

Drifting past the other runners, she found a deserted spot at the edge of a tree line. “And why does running have to come last? The sun will be at its highest point then!” Grumbling to herself, one hand braced against the steady trunk of a nearby pine, Kate reached back for her left foot, bringing the heel of her shoe up against her hamstring. “Why couldn’t I have been picked to swim instead of stupid running?”

“I don’t know,” a deeply masculine voice said from behind Kate, causing her to gasp in surprise, “but I’m sure glad you weren’t.”

And then, before she had time to so much as respond, Kate felt a pair of strong, familiar hands grip her arms and, in a flash, she felt her body being lifted, turned, until she found herself suddenly on the other side of the tree, her body hidden from view of the other racers.

“Jackson.” Amused, breathless at his antics, Kate found herself smiling up his face. Her heart beat strongly against her neck as she watched his face lower…those hands holding her upper-arms were caressing suddenly, the pads of his thumbs rubbing up and down from her shoulders to her elbows and back again.

“Hi,” he breathed seconds before his lips pressed down against hers. Kate’s breath fluttered nervously out of her mouth, her fingers picking at rubbery material of his wet-suit. When his tongue slipped past her lips, Kate had to bite back a groan, her fingers tightening their hold. Then his hands were behind her head, holding her close. Kate felt her body meld against his. Her teeth grazing against his bottom lip, wanting more…

And then he was gone, Jackson tearing his lips away from hers.

Kate stared up at him dazed.

“Yeah. I’m definitely glad you’re not swimming today,” Jackson murmured, breaking away just far enough to utter the words. “It would have been a drowning hazard, competing together in that lake this morning.”

“Promises, promises,” Kate sighed, as his head bent, teeth nibbling lightly against the base of her jaw line.

“Yeah,” he muttered, “and it would have been awkward…you know, when I beat you.”

Kate’s head reared back. “Beat me?” she mused playfully.

Jackson shrugged winningly.

“Pretty confident, aren’t you?”

“Just playing the odds.” Jackson grinned down at the look on Kate’s face.

But whatever she was about to say was cut short by the sudden boom of a microphone amplified through a speaker-system…

“The race is starting soon,” Jackson muttered inanely, his head twisted toward the announcer’s booth; but nothing important was being said yet—parking information, registry reminders, yada yada…

“Yeah,” Kate returned. Reluctantly, she broke free of his hold. “I should probably get to my spot.” With a small gesture, she moved backward, her feet easily side-stepping the tree. Spinning on her heel, she made to start walking, heading straight toward where she could just make out the first of the buses lining up on the curb…

Jackson couldn’t help himself: “Oh and Kate…”

Pausing mid-step, she twisted her head around. “Yeah?”

“On behalf of male’s everywhere, thank you for wearing those shorts.” Jackson winked, a wolfish grin splitting across his tanned face.

Kate laughed. Freely. Then, with a lazy swish of her hips, the action stretching the taut material over her body in all the right places, Kate batted her eyelashes, looking demurely over her shoulder. “You’re welcome.”

“All right,” Jackson groaned good-naturedly, his hand batting at the air. “Get away from me now, you siren. I need to focus.”

Kate smirked. “Afraid of a little distraction?”

“Cold water has never looked more inviting,” Jackson agreed.

Turning back around then, a spry jump to her step, Kate couldn’t help laughing again. “See you at the finish line, stud.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Four

Hands full of dishes, Kate made her way carefully to M.T.’s sink. It was almost nine o’clock at night—and, at long last, Girl’s Night Dinner had come to a close. Penny had cried off ten minutes ago, claiming she needed to be up early for client meeting in the morning. And, though Kate was tired too, she steadfastly refused to leave M.T. to deal with this mess all by herself.

“You don’t have to do that,” M.T. said, coming up to quickly relieve Kate of the plates. “I can take care of it.”

“I insist,” Kate told her, and without another word, turned to grab the wineglasses off the dining room table. Coming back into the dimly lit room, she added: “Besides, doesn’t the saying go something like: you cook and I clean?”

Maggie laughed good-naturedly. “Yeah, not in my experiences.”

“Mine either,” Kate admitted ruefully, setting the stemware down on the counter. “At the McDonald residence, we had staff for that.”

“I sort of got that impression.” M.T. winked.

Kate smiled.

“Hey,” Maggie asked softly, as she bent down to load the dishwasher. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

M.T. stood up, staring at Kate. “Forgive me for intruding but I got the impression…”

“Yeah?”

M.T. shook her head. “Well, I got the impression there was something you wanted to say this evening. Only—perhaps someone didn’t give you the chance?”

“How did you—” chuckling, Kate smiled. “Was I that obvious?”
M.T. seemed to consider this seriously. “No. It was only when Penny started talking about Jake—”

“Yeah,” Kate said, brows furrowed. “What was up with that?”
Maggie shrugged. “If I could answer that, Penny wouldn’t be quite the mystery that she so often is, now would she?”
“Touché.”

“I don’t mean to pry but…well, for two women who just recently got into a fight about him, you seemed oddly disappointed in her sudden change of heart this evening.”

“Yeah.” Kate blew out a hard breath. “I guess.”

“And I got the feeling that, once she started in on her…I don’t what that was, campaign for Jake? You seemed uncomfortable, like she’d gotten it all wrong—because,” M.T. paused meaningfully here: “because those texts that were putting such a smile on your face, they had nothing to do with Jake, did they?”

Pulling at the hem of her shirt, Kate shook her head. “No.”

“But they were…something. Something special? Penny was right about that?”

“You would have made a good detective, you know?” Kate teased.

“So I’ve heard,” Maggie murmured drily. She waited a beat then added: “Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is?”

Kate’s fingernail rubbed roughly against the stitching of her shirt. “They were from Jackson.”

“Ah.”
“We kissed.”

“Ah!”

Kate’s nose twitched. “We’re going out on a date. That’s what he was texting me about.”

M.T. leaned back comfortably, her hips resting beside the countertop. “And Penny kind of stole your thunder?”
Kate’s shoulders hunched. “I just—I thought she would be over the moon. I couldn’t wait to tell her. We were fighting and I thought: she’s going to be so thrilled. This will end it—this stupid fight we’re in.”

“Wait,” M.T. made a flicking gesture with her hand. “Are you telling me you’re going on a date with Jackson for Penny’s benefit?” Her tone was incredulous.
“No! No, that’s just it,” Kate wailed, “I’m going out with him because I…because I hadn’t realized until he asked that it was what I’d been waiting for all t his time—for him to finally do it, make a move.”

M.T. smiled. “Ah.”

“The thing with Penny, I just thought—” Kate hung her head. “I don’t know what I thought.”

“You thought that this date could serve as a double blessing? You get the guy, and for extra measure, make up with your friend along the way?”
“Yeah. I guess.”

M.T. came up to Kate, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “Kate, she will be pleased. Honestly. All that Penny wants is for you to be happy. That’s all.”

“Yeah, but you heard her: she doesn’t think I’ve been allowed to seriously consider Jake. She’ll think that, if I picked Jackson, it was because she’d put such a bad taste of Jake in my mouth, and that my decision was tainted or something.”

“Do you think that’s what happened?” M.T. countered. “That you picked Jackson because you felt like you couldn’t pick Jake—not and keep Penny as a friend?”

“No, of course not,” Kate proclaimed.

Maggie gave her shrewd look. “So what are you so worried about then?”

“Of being robbed the happiness I’m feeling right now. I don’t want any doubts or second-guesses to cloud that. I couldn’t stand for it—not now, not after everything that’s happened. I want to be excited…and I want everyone around me to feel the same.” Kate scrunched up her nose. “No, actually, I think I need that. I need that support.”

“Okay, then let me say this,” Maggie said, her voice soft, serious. “I am so incredibly happy for you Kate.”

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

Opening her arms, M.T. beckoned Kate forward. “Come here,” she instructed. With a watery smile, Kate stepped forward, straight into the warm embrace.

“I think this calls for another glass of wine,” M.T. murmured.

Sniffling, Kate pulled herself back upright. “Okay.”

“And Kate,” M.T. said, as the younger girl half-turned, reaching for the remaining bottle of cabernet.

“Yeah?”

“You deserve this. Don’t forget that. So revel in your happiness, and look forward to that date. Don’t let Penny get in the way of how you feel—she wouldn’t want that.”

 

 

 

The next afternoon, M.T. found those last, prophetic words sourly tested. Begrudgingly entering the LitLiber bookstore during her lunch hour—the library society at Good Shepherd had practically coerced to splurge some of the church’s slush money on new reading material. It would seem the congregation members hardly ever checked out books there, and, as such, it was decided that the reason for this lay in the dusty, out-dated selection at hand. M.T. had her doubts about the solid logic behind this argument, but she had neither the heart nor the energy to fight them on this. So, instead, she’d resigned herself to this shopping trip.

It was as she was making her way inside when something—or rather someone—caught her eye. And, incidentally enough, it was neither Kate nor Jake.

No, it was Penny.

Penny, who, for once in her life, was sporting a pair of tight-fitting jeans and a light blue pullover—no bangles, no ruby-red lipstick, no flowing scarves or fake eyelashes; her hair was let loose down her back, its tight black spirals ending almost past her elbows. It was Penny. Only, she looked nothing like herself. And, even more intriguing, she was emerging out from behind a door at the far side of the building, a door with the word Private marked on the glass paned window there.

And, for the pièce de ré·sis·tance: as the door swung shut behind her, M.T. got a clear view of another person standing inside the room with the door marked Private on the glass paned window. Jake.

A Penny who liked nothing like Penny was coming out of Jake’s office…

Stopping dead in her tracks, M.T. watched her sister saunter forward. And she was sauntering—a sort of casual stroll with a little too much swish of the hips, with an undisguisable femininity about it. Add it all up and something wasn’t quite…it wasn’t quite—

M.T. smiled, a saucy rather knowing grin settling over her lips.

“Hey Penny,” she called out when the name’s owner came within hearing distance. Jerking hard at the greeting, Penny’s eyes dilated and it become abundantly clear that, despite the fact that M.T.  had been standing virtually right in front of her for quite some seconds now, Penny hadn’t noticed her. Which only made Maggie’s smirk widen.

“Oh…hey Mags.” Penny’s smile was tight, twitchy.

“Was that Jake’s office I saw you coming out of just now?”

“Uh…” Looking back over her shoulder, as if to verify that it was, indeed, the same door in question, Penny hesitated. “I mean…yeah, I think so.”

“You think so?”

“Yes,” Penny hissed. “It’s his office.”

“Oh.” M.T. nodded. “I didn’t realize you were such good friends.”

Penny frowned. “We aren’t. That is…” She waved one arm futilely. “We aren’t.”

“No?” M.T.’s interest piquing at Penny’s flustered look, she added: “A business thing then?”

“No.”

M.T. laughed. “You’re being awfully evasive.”

Eyes narrowing, Penny pulled herself up to her tallest height. Hands on her hip, she cocked her head to one side. “What’s with the third degree?”
Hands raised immediately, M.T. laughed. “No third degree. Just making conversation. Or, at least I’m trying to.”

Penny’s voice was sharp. “About me and Jake?”

M.T. pursed her lips. “Well, you’ve got to admit it’s a little…curious.”

“Curious?”

“Seeing you here today with hiim, especially after last night’s sudden and rather vehement defense of his—” M.T. searched for the right word, “—attributes.”

Penny sighed. Loudly.

Maggie loped her purse over her shoulder. “What?”

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t nose in on my business.”

M.T. saw with quiet despair the reddening of Penny’s cheeks, the tautening of her jaw. She was putting up walls again. “Okay,” the older sister promised. “I won’t. But—” reaching out, Maggie touched Penny’s arm. “Just so you know, I’d love an invitation sometime.”

“An invitation?”

“To hear about your business. I’m a good listener.”

“I know.”

The sisters stared at one another.

Then M.T. took a deep breath. “But I’m actually talking about Kate’s business.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Penny snapped, and once again, her hands were on her hips, her big brown eyes small.

M.T. held up a hand. “Your being in Jake’s office, that doesn’t have anything to do with her, does it?”

“Okay. Here it comes…”

“Here what comes?”

“The lecture.”

“No. No lecture,” she countered. “Just…she looks up to you, Penny. She really listens to you. Be careful not to abuse that power.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Penny insisted. “At least, I’m trying not to do that anymore. That’s why—”

“Jake?”
“Yeah.”

M.T. sucked in her lips. “All I’m saying is, it’s easy to accidentally…ah, over-correct.”

“I’m not doing that.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Penny shifted uncomfortably and then, looking up quickly, as though the thought had only just occurred to her, Penny asked: “So—what are you even doing here?”
“What else?” M.T. asked. “Buying books.” Checking her watch, Maggie grimaced. “Which I should probably get to—my lunch hour is almost up.”

“Oh,” Penny said. “Yeah. Sure.”

Maggie took a step forward and somehow, without quite knowing why, and being far too anxious to ask, she found Penny half-turning to match her steps.

“So—how late did Kate stay over last night?” the psychic asked casually as Maggie led the way toward the Religion aisle.

Maggie couldn’t quite meet that look, as she turned down the appointed row of bookshelves. “Oh…a little while longer.”

“What did you talk about?”

M.T. paused, as though trying to recall. She didn’t want to lie exactly, but telling her the whole truth wasn’t an option either…

As it turned out, M.T. didn’t have to answer her at all.

Because Penny beat her to it: “I meant to ask her, but conversation being what it was…” the usually chill psychic’s voice came out fast—rushed: “She had a private rehearsal with Jackson a couple nights ago—you know, for the play the LitLiber is throwing later this month.” Penny looked at Maggie meaningfully.

But M.T. only stared back at her blankly.

“Did she mention it by any chance?” Penny asked, and this time there was no disguising the impatience in her voice. There was no mistaking her sharp glance.

“Why would she?”

Penny ground her teeth together. “I don’t know. I just figured—”

M.T. fluttered her lashes innocently. “What? Was there something in particular that thought she’d want to talk about?”

“No. I don’t know—!” Penny crossed her arms over her chest. And then, just as quickly, she sprang them loose. “It just seemed like a thing she would’ve done. You know Kate.”

Maggie pulled out two books. “Was there something in particular you were hoping she’d talk about?”

“You’re third-degreeing me again.”

“You started it.”

“Yeah? Well, clearly you’re better at it.”

“Hazards of the trade, I suspect.”

“So?”

“So what?” Maggie asked, grabbing for another book. She didn’t even bother with the title. Whatever.

“Did she?”

Maggie turned to stare up at Penny. “Did she what?”

“Talk about it!”

Hoisting the books against her shoulder, Maggie took a step backward, toward the aisle-way. “Penny, if you want to know how her rehearsal with Jackson went, then ask Kate.”

“You are so infuriating some times,” Penny grumbled.

“And it’s only going to get worse in the next twenty seconds,” M.T. replied.

“Huh?”
“What was it you said to me not five minutes ago?” M.T. asked, her voice just a shade shy of haughty.

“I said a lot of things.”

“Don’t nose into my business. That’s what you said.”

“Yeah?”

“And what did I say back.”

Penny gave a great, gutsy sigh. “I don’t remember. I can’t be expected to listen to every speech you prattle on about.”

“Never mind. That’s not—” M.T. sighed. “The point I’m trying to make here is this: take your own counsel…and stay out of Kate’s business.”

“You’re not going to tell me what she said, are you?”

Maggie turned toward the check-out counter. “I’m not even going to tell you if she said anything at all.”

“Traitor.”

“Call her,” Maggie insisted, throwing out the suggestion over her shoulder.

“I’m not so sure she’s taking my calls yet.”

“She is.”

“How do you know?”

Stopping, resigned, M.T. looked back at Penny. She lifted one eyebrow pointedly: “Are you taking hers?”

“If she ever bothered to pick up the phone and dial my number…yeah,” Penny mumbled down at her feet.

“Exactly.” Resolutely, Maggie picked up walking again. “Call her,” she threw out a second time, just for good measure.  With her back turned on Penny, the physic was unable to see the extremely satisfied look on the pastor’s face as she made her way to the register.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-One

Penny tried to keep her facial expression neutral, but it wasn’t easy. Jake was sitting inside her too-cramped office, his body effectively cutting off whatever walkway she maintained—knees brushing up against the edge of the table, back chair legs pressed up tight to the wall. The picture of a somber, nervous man sat opposite her—and he’d come to talk about Kate.

Penny just managed not to frown.

Kate. The thing was, she and Penny weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Hadn’t spoken, in face since Penny had more-or-less come unglued on the woman, telling her she was no longer interested in…well, in this.

So imagine Penny’s feelings on the subject. Conflicted didn’t even scratch the surface.

“Now…what’s this about Kate?” Penny asked reluctantly, playing dumb. She really, really didn’t think she wanted to talk about this.  Not to Jake.

“I think you know already,” he returned, and it was clear he wasn’t buying her forced nonchalance.

Penny sighed, a stray ringlet of curls scattering across her cheekbones at the action. “Yes. Okay. I might, uh, have heard some things about the two of you,” she hedged.

Jake’s mouth turned-down. Penny was being far from encouraging. “Did you know I told Kate that—uh…” Jake looked distinctly uncomfortable. Still, he tried again: “It was about a month ago now, and I ran into Kate and I—”

“Oh!” Penny said, rushing to his rescue. He clearly didn’t want to finish that sentence and honestly, she didn’t want to listen to him do it, either. “The thing at Julie’s Diner, you mean?” For a euphemism, it was hardly clever, but it got the job done.

Jake laughed. “Yeah. That thing.”

Penny nodded. “And has Kate—?” Now it was Penny’s turn to look and feel haunted. “How does she feel?”

Jake frowned, his mouth pulling down hard at the corners. “That’s what I came to ask you, actually?”
“Oh.”

Leaning forward, arms crossing over the top of the oak table, Jake looked closely at Penny, his voice plaintive: “You’re friends. You talk to one another.”

“Most of the time.”

Jake gave her a level look. “Penny, you saw us at M.T.’s house.”

Oh god.

“Yeah,” Penny drawled. “I did.”

“And Kate told you what happened…?”

Penny felt her cheeks burning a little. “Well, as to that…we never did quite discuss it.”

Jake looked confused—and unless Penny was way off the mark, a little hurt too. “You didn’t?”
“Kate wanted to,” Penny started to say and then thought better of it. She wasn’t exactly, precisely on Team Jake, but admitting that straight to his face? She couldn’t do that. It would raise too many questions. “But—we got side-tracked and honestly, I haven’t talked to her in a couple of days, so….” Penny waved her hand dismissively.
“Oh. I got the impression you two were usually joined at the hip,” Jake said softly.

Penny shrugged. She hoped it looked off-hand, chill. “Usually.”

“It’s just—I don’t know what to do. She’s—” Jake seemed to be searching for the right word. “She’s a hard woman to read.”

“Yeah.”

“I just thought—maybe she would have said something to you about it? I don’t know.”

“As to that,” Penny remarked. “I’m not sure I’d be allowed to tell even if she had.”

Jake accepted this with a jerk of his chin. “Yeah. I suppose.”

“What I can do, though, is listen to your side of the story, perhaps help you gain some perspective on the situation,” Penny improvised, even though every other part of her was screaming: NO! RUN! So much for self-preservation. “So tell me, what happened down there Jake? After I left.” With a movement of resignation, Penny realized she was not going to get that lunch after all.

Jake cringed. Then sighed. “I-I pushed her away. She told me she wasn’t ready, that she needed time, but I—I asked her to make a decision, to choose me anyway. I know!” He cried, raising his hands at Penny’s stern look. “I was a jerk. It’s just…with Jackson right up stairs, I couldn’t seem to help myself.”

“Ah.” So that was it.

“That’s where she is right now, you know,” Jake said.

“What? Where?”

“At Jackson’s.”

“And you know this how?” Penny asked, trying to keep the creeped-out factor from entering her voice. Stalker much?

But Jake seemed to have sensed it all the same. “No, no, no! No,” he rushed to defend, the flat of his hand slicing thickly through the air, as if to validate his denial. “The play at the LitLiber later on this month? Jackson is directing it and he and Kate are having a private practice today to make up for one she missed last week.”

Penny nodded slowly. The fact that Jake remembered they were having that practice today, right now, spoke volumes.

Jake threw Penny a dark look. “I think he likes her. Jackson, I mean.”

Penny was no longer just conflicted. She was acutely uncomfortable.

Jake shook his head. “No, I’m sure he likes her. And—”

Penny’s hand shot up. Talking about Jackson felt like a betrayal. Not to mention, it made her feel guilty. Little did Jake know he was confiding in the one woman who was vehemently against the idea of him and Kate. “What happened downstairs Jake?” She repeated. Redirection, that’s what this conversation needed. “After I left?”

Now it was Jake’s turn to act unaffected. And it was Penny’s turn not to buy it.

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, I kind of know that isn’t true,” Penny reminded him drily.

“No, I mean—,” running a hand through his thick hair, Jake struggled for words. “You left and Kate started back-pedaling, like usual—backing away from me. I tried to stop her but—she kept saying something about not getting hurt again.” Jake stopped here for a moment, his eyes taking in Penny’s form in the gathering dusk settling outside the one window in the room. “Do you know what that means?”

“Yes.”

Jake looked impatient. “Okay?”

“No, no.” Penny laughed. She may be mad at Kate but damned if that skinny blonde wasn’t Penny’s very best friend in the world. She would never ruin that. “That’s all you’re getting out of me. Yes, I know what that means. Next question?”
Jake took the hint well. “Right. Well…she was talking in riddles—something about falling into the same old pattern, about other people getting hurt, about other people hurting her… I tried telling her: “This isn’t about anyone else….” but it didn’t seem to penetrate.”

And finally, though she’d hardly admitted it, even to herself, Penny got to hear the rest of the story about what had transpired down in that basement. Because, though she’d sworn to Kate that she wasn’t the least bit curious, Penny had been practically bursting at the seams, wanting answers. And Jake, bless him, filled them in:

They were standing in the basement, dim shadows dancing against the dark walls. Shutting the door in her quick, and angry departure, Penny had inadvertently given them even more privacy than before. Squared-off, Jake tried to assure Kate…

“You’re dodging the issue Kate… it’s not about—what did you say his name was?” Jake asked. “Phil? It’s not about Ashley either. It’s about you. What do you want?” Jake’s voice was low, barely above a whisper as he waited for her to respond.

Kate’s forehead crinkled. Her blonde hair hung damply to the sides of her face.

“That’s just it,” she cried, her arms motioning frantically now. “I don’t know! I’ve never—I’ve never been allowed to question that before now. So while it’s easy for you to make decisions, it’s all so new to me. It’s scary and unnerving to walk down a road without a map.”

Jake was sure there was a story to be found in that cryptic remark: she’d never been allowed to ask herself questions like what did she want? But those were avenues to be traversed another day. Instead, he took a step toward her. A protective step. A step of intent. “Okay,” he told her. “Then start small. Do you want me to kiss you again? Don’t over-think it. Just tell me what you want.”

Jake stared down at Kate, who in turn, stared up at the spot on the stairs that moments ago had held Penny’s weight. Her mouth opened…

Jake felt his stomach twist.

Then Kate’s lips moved…but no sounds came out. Her eyes still hadn’t strayed from the top of the stairwell. Her body was held tight, taut, as if she might come lose if she allowed her muscles to relax even half an inch.

“Kate?”

At her name, Kate’s head snapped back around, her eyes large when they connected with his. Then her arms were up, warding him off, pushing him back. And her lips were compressed now, tight. “Stop.” And she didn’t sound like Kate anymore. “I told you,” she hissed, “I need time. Space. And you just won’t give it to me.”

Quickly, wincing at the rough sound of her voice, Jake heeded her command, his feet almost tripping in his haste to create some distance between them. “I know,” he confessed. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. So you keep saying,” she reminded him. “You tell me you understand, that you won’t pressure me and yet—here you are!” Kate cried, her arms hugging her body tightly again, her voice an pitchy squeak. “And I just—I can’t. I told you that. Not now.”

“I know, I know.” Arms raised up in defense, Jake thought it best to move yet another step away from Kate. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have—.”

“No, you shouldn’t.” Kate’s face crumpled for a second. “You said—I told you…and you said that was fine. Said you didn’t need me to be ready. Remember?”
Jake nodded. The accusation in her voice, the anger: it told him all he needed to know.     “Then you need to be fine with it,” Kate told him firmly, though her voice cracked just a little.

“I am.”

“Then act like it.”

“Okay.”

Kate looked down at her shoes. And suddenly, all that steam from before seemed to seep right out of her, leaving her listless, fragile once more. “Listen, I understand that this isn’t what you want, and if you, um, you know, if you don’t want to wait for me–to uh, figure out my life and all that, I get it. You have to do what’s right for you,” she stressed. “But so do I. Which is why I can’t—I can’t be there yet. Not where you want me to be.”

Jake nodded silently.

“Do I want you to kiss me again?” Kate asked on a laugh. (Correction: she asked this on a slightly hysterical laugh.) “Absolutely. Yes. And, at the same time: I don’t know. Maybe?” She smiled sadly, shaking her head. “Which probably means No. At least, for now. Not until I’m sure…”

“Shh,” Jake insisted then, his cheeks ruddy with color. “Don’t. I—you don’t need to explain yourself to me.”

“That’s just it: yes I do. Only I don’t know how—”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Jake joked.

Kate laughed. “Stop being so nice to me. I don’t deserve it.”

“Yes you do.”

A soft beat of silence flooded between them. Jake looked at Kate whose down-bent head watched as her fingers fiddled with a ring on her right index finger. Glancing up at him, she fought to look in his eyes. She nodded with a jerk.  “Okay then.”
And there it was.

“Okay then,” Jake consented.
And, turning toward the stairs, her shoulders hunched, pallor off-color, Kate made to leave. After all, what more was there to say? Only, at the foot of the stairs, she stopped, and half-turned back to where Jake still stood, stock-still, rooted in spot. “I’m sorry.” she said then, softly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do what you did.”
“Yeah? What’s that?” Jake asked. There was note of self-depreciation there he hadn’t meant to include.

“Be brave. You know who you are and you’re not afraid of that person.”

Jake smiled. “I know who you are too.”

Kate smiled back. “I don’t think that counts.”

Jake. “No. Probably not.”

“…and then she left the room,” Jake told a rapt Penny. “So I sat down there for a few minutes, telling myself what an idiot I was before making for the kitchen sink. And—” he shrugged. “That was that.”
“Have you talked since?” Penny asked breathlessly.

Jake pulled a face. “No. I rearranged the schedule at work so we wouldn’t have the same shifts….”

Penny grinned.

“I know,” Jake said, disgusted. “I’m actively avoiding her. And to think she called me brave.”

“And so you are,” Penny argued. “Leaving her alone, giving her time and space to think—unclouded and undistracted. Even when it’s probably the last thing you want to do.” Jake’s gaze flickered up to hers impulsively. “That has nothing to do with being brave. It’s noble.” Penny took a hateful breath. “And it’s exactly what she needs right now.”

“I hope so,” Jake said.

Penny smiled tightly, unnaturally.

“I really like her Penny.”

Yeah. She got that. Loud and clear, thank you very much.

Clearing her throat, Penny tried for words of encouragement, but they didn’t come. She just didn’t have it in her.

 

 

 

Kate pressed the doorbell nervously. Then, feeling guilty—and then angry about feeling guilty, because it was none of anyone else’s business anyway—she watched her eyes skip back over her shoulder, looking for any lights on at Penny’s, any movements marking her presence in the small house just across the way.

But the house remained as pitch dark as when Kate had carefully, hesitantly brought her car down the dead-end lane. Penny wasn’t home. And, though she despised herself for owning the weakness, Kate was glad about it. She didn’t need to fuel the psychics flaming accusations with any more ammo than necessary. And seeing Kate, dressed in tight fitting jeans and a stretchy pink tank-top, her face carefully made-up, and her hair pinned back at her best advantage, right outside the door of Jackson’s house, would hardly help the cause.

Then, eyes careering back around, Kate could just make out the muffled sound of footsteps coming from inside the house…and just like that, all thoughts of Penny fled. And, just like that, Kate felt her stomach pinch painfully on itself. And, just like that, it was all-Jackson.

“Coming!” Kate heard seconds before he was standing before her, the heavy door swung open to reveal his lazy smile of greeting. Jackson’s hair, always cut neatly short, shown almost brandy in color, and his shirt, a tan polo (perfectly pressed of course) fit almost as close as a second skin, showing off those beautifully sculpted arms, the by-product of living on a lake, and those impossible-not-to-notice shoulders. A swimmer’s physique. Pair that with fitted khakis pants, and Jackson looked pretty much the same as usual: a well-groomed city boy with the most country-boy muscles Kate had ever seen.

Phil 2.0.

Except, besides fashion and physical appearance, Jackson wasn’t really all the much like Phil. Right? For one thing, Jackson had a wicked sense of humor.

“Kate,” he said now, his voice interrupting her musings, which was probably for the best.

“Hi-hey Jackson.” Kate cringed. That came out breathy. Awkward. Rushed.

Eh.

“I see you brought your script,” he said, seeming unfazed by her gawky speech, staring instead down at the strangled papers she held in her hand. All business.

“What?” Looking down, Kate flushed. “Oh. Yeah.”

“Good. Well, come in, come in,” Jackson invited, moving back to allow Kate entrance into the rather grand foyer there—replete with black-and-white checkered tiles on the floor. Maybe he and Phil weren’t so dissimilar after all. Kate frowned.

Quickly banishing that thought, however, she clung tighter to the script in her hand and, holding it up triumphantly, strutted across the threshold. Play it cool, Kate. Be confident. Funny. Act natural.

“Wouldn’t be much of a practice if I left it at home, would it?” As far as jokes went, it was pretty lame (though it was a definite improvement of the former: ‘hi-hey’ debacle). Kate cringed for the second time in as many seconds. Be casual. Breezy. Relaxed…

Which, it turns out was terrible advice.

For, no sooner had Kate landed upon these adjectives then her less than graceful gait found itself pitching forward…her foot skipping roughly, unevenly over the rug through down in the center of the hallway, causing her to trip. The fine material bunching together underfoot, Kate felt a moment’s terror grip her stomach as her upper body flayed forward, her arms outstretched, hips swaying, overbalancing, trying to force her body back in the upright position.

Or…wait. Had she really erred, at all?

For, no sooner had her body begun it’s forward dissent, accompanied by some unfortunate squeaks and squeals from Kate’s surprised mouth, then that pair of ridiculously strong arms she’d been so admiring seconds earlier, wrapped themselves around her midriff, bringing her to an ungainly stop halfway to the floor. (Picture this: Kate, bent, hunched forward at the waist, her arms out, hoping to break the fall, her face crumpled in expectation of the pain, stuck in mid-air, suspended in this humiliating pose by the strength of Jackson’s arms.)

Despite this, Kate wasn’t worried about how she looked. She wasn’t mortified by this show of gracelessness. She wasn’t thinking about herself, at all. She was however, breathing quickly—and not just as a result of that near-miss. Her heart was beating, shaking in its awareness of the man behind her: his aftershave, the spicy, smoky scent wafting between their bodies, making her nose crinkle appreciatively. The tingle of her skin, especially where it was pressed up close, held captured by his forearms, and those long-tapered fingers, sizzled, diverting her attentions. She held her breath, afraid that even the tiniest movement on her part and it would all disappear.

And, in the space of time it took her to take all this in, Kate was suddenly, inexplicably swamped with a feeling of enveloping guilt.

A feeling of guilt owed entirely to Penny.

“Are you okay?” Jackson asked, breaking the moment, his breath whispering down Kate’s neck and across her shoulder’s; nodding, she allowed him to slowly pull her up to her feet.

Brushing unnecessarily at her knees, hair curtained in front of her flaming face, Kate took a jerky breath. Was she okay? No of course she wasn’t okay! Twenty-five seconds ago she’d been wrapped in his arms (albeit, not exactly romantically but still…) and she’d liked it! She’d more than liked it, she’d savored the sensations coursing through her body at his touch, been damn near hypnotized by it.

And that, in some twisted sort of way, made her think of Jake. And how she’d kissed him the other day. And what Penny had said: what if it had been Jackson who’d walked down the stairs that day at M.T.’s house, Jackson who’d seen her entwined in Jake’s embrace? What would Kate have done? How would she have explained herself?

But most importantly: how could she have liked being in Jackson’s arms just now when, only earlier this morning, she’d found herself daydreaming about another man—when she’d allowed that other man to kiss her, and whom she’d kissed back? It made everything feel cheap and wrong. Which made Kate feel guilty because she was the catalyst. And what was she doing about it: falling from one pair of strong arms into another pair of sweet-tasting lips!

And really, what kind of woman found herself attracted to two very different men at the same exact time? If she wanted Jackson then that should be that. End of story. End of Jake. But it wasn’t quite that easy. And if that was the case, how much stock could she really expect to put in either relationship’s stability, or…or worth or likelihood of being the real thing? If she could like both of them at once when, for all intents and purposes, she should only like the one over the other, then how much substance was there in her feelings toward them, anyway? How much sustenance? Was it all just superficial, on the surface? And, if not, how did she possibly decide between the men? (Because isn’t this supposed to be a glaringly obvious choice—the right one is the right one and you know it when you’re around them, and all that?) The one diminished the other.

And, in that moment of clarity, Kate knew: this guilt wasn’t going away. Not until she could answer those questions, until she could look one of them in the face and say definitively, exactly as Penny had insisted: I pick you and no one else. And I’m sure.

With a resolution she was far from feeling, Kate took a nervous step forward, out of Jackson’s reach, her arms hugging the sides at her waist, her chin jutting out. “Anyway…” she laughed coolly, breaking the silence. “Shall we get started?”

No more flirting. No more maybes.

But, if Jackson was taken aback by the sudden distance in her tone, he did well to disguise it. With a measured gesture, he motioned her to the room just off to the left. “By all means.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty

“Okay Janessa, close your eyes,” Penny commanded quietly, her voice in perfect modulated control. Reaching out, she patted down the backs of Janessa hands, in a comforting sort of way. The lights were dimmed in the small room Penny occupied as her office. Two fat candles burned on the table either side of Penny and Janessa, and one small lamp, a mock Victorian-era piece, shown limply, its shade casting a pink hue across the walls.

Penny took a deep breath. Be calm. Be confident. You can do this. Don’t sweat. Don’t frown. Don’t show fear. She took another deep breath.

“It may help for you to close your eyes. Think of your father. Picture him in your mind. It will help to call his spirit. The strength of that memory…it will build a stronger bridge, a deeper connection for him to find.”

“Okay,” Janessa whispered. Her face was screwed up tightly, the bridge of her nose winkled in thought and concentration.

Penny, heeding her own advice, also allowed her eye lids to shut. Behind them she saw nothing but inky, scratchy blankness. Deep breathe in. Deep breathe out.

Blackness.

The bangles on one hand dig into the skin around her wrist as Penny pressed down against the tabletop. Technicolor dots formed through the darkness blanketing her eyes. But it wasn’t because she was getting a vision…she was trying too hard.

Relax your mind, Penny. Relax. You can do this…

“I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper,” Penny called out; Adam, of course, was the name of Janessa’s father. Loosening her shoulders, Penny’s voice raised out again: “I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper.”

Then, she repeated this phrase one more time.

Nothing.

Squinting through the enveloping blackness of her closed eyes, Penny searched furtively. She saw nothing. Her ears were stretch, pointed for the whispered sound of his arrival, as they had been for each of the other three failed sessions she’d had with Janessa. She picked up on the small, cracking sound of the candle wick, and the slight humming of the air-conditioner stationed on the back window.

And nothing else.

Dammit.

Popping her eyes open, Penny swallowed back the invading panic. “Janessa…” Penny sighed.

“Nothing, huh?” Janessa asked knowingly, and her eyes were open too now, staring straight into Penny’s distressed face.

“No. I don’t…I’m not getting any activity on my end,” Penny confessed. She could feel the clammy sweat of failure sweeping over her body. “This has never happened to me before.”

“It’s okay,” Janessa said, but there was no mistaking the defeat in her tone.

Penny reached forward, grabbing the young girls hands. “Maybe—maybe if you can give a little more information on your father: did he pass recently, how did he die? Sometimes spirits get confused when they cross over…”

Penny hated the desperation in her voice. She hated the leading questions she was asking….they made her sound like a fraud. They made her feel like a fraud. She didn’t usually need clients to provoke her senses.

“Die?” Janessa queried. “What do you mean? He’s not dead.”

Penny reared back, her hands falling away from Janessa’s closed fists, her back hitting against her chair abruptly. “He’s…he’s not?”

What?
Now, for the first time in the four sessions in which Penny had been unable to contact her father, Janessa looked suspicious. “No.”

“Oh.”

“Why did you think he was dead?” Now she sounded defensive. Attacking.

And Penny’s unease built higher. Shaking her head, she tried to back-paddle. “It was…I just assumed…”

“Assumed?” Janessa voice was razor sharp. “Assumed? I thought you were supposed to know….”

“Yes, but…”

“So, like, what, you’ve just been guessing? All along? Is that what you actually do here?” Janessa parried aggressively. “You’re a scam, aren’t you? Everyone said, when I read my essay to the class: she’s not the real thing—and it’s true, isn’t it?” Now Janessa’s blue eyes were like ice around her halo of snarled hair.

“No. Of course not,” Penny returned hotly. “If that were the case, do you think I would have so readily admitted I couldn’t make contact?”

Janessa didn’t say anything.

Penny tried again. “You spoke about him in the past tense and I just figured…If he was alive, why would you need my help—?”

“But couldn’t you tell, when you were, like, calling for him or whatever? You didn’t get the feeling that he was still alive?”

Penny shrugged. It was a fair question. “Probably because I never got a read on him, at all. If I had…”

“Yeah, sure,” Janessa barked. “If you had. But you didn’t. How convenient.” Betrayal. Distrust. The feelings all but oozed out of Janessa’s pores.

Penny fought back. “Look: I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have made sure—”

“I trusted you,” Janessa snarled, pushing back her chair. “I thought you’d be able to help.”

“I’m not a mind-reader,” Penny tried to explain. “At least, not in the way you’re wanting me to be. I communicate with spirits, with the universe, and yes, with the human psyche, but it’s not as simple as what you’re asking.”

“Yeah? What about the physics used by the police to help find missing people. How come they can do it, then? If you’re the real thing, that is.”

Penny fought back. “My line of work has always been called into skepticism for the very fact that it’s not a switch that can just be flipped on or off. I can’t make my extra Sight see things just because I want it to. Predictions, messages, communication…all of it, they come to me—not the other way around. They’re random, unbidden, unannounced, unreliable; and I am merely a conduit, a vessel for them to be realized. So yes, I see things, I know things, I hear things from a different plane, but I can’t, there are serious limitations to that.

“And the reason that psychics are good with missing persons’ cases is because those people want to be found. Their energy is on high alert, and the sensitivity of my Sight picks up on that. If your dad doesn’t want to be found…” Penny let the sentence dangle uneasily in the air around them. “Then there isn’t much I can do, as far as my clairvoyance is concerned.”

Janessa snorted, but she’d stopped her headfirst race toward the door. That was something, at least.

Penny continued: “I can only receive and send messages. I am merely a vehicle for their voice and presence—but only if both channels are open, willing. I can’t control or manipulate the spirits. I can’t imitate them. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Janessa rolled her eyes.

“What you’re asking for is a cold reading. And, in my experience, they don’t work. I need to have consent, I have to be invited, feel connected.”

“I just want to know where he is,” Janessa spoke then, pleaded really. Her eyes were large in her face. Tears were not far from the surface. “That’s all I want to know. I thought, I guess it was stupid. I thought, if I could find him then maybe…” The teenager trailed off uncomfortably. “I don’t know.”

The air seemed too thick, too sickly scented in the room suddenly. Penny’s heart beat hard and fast against her chest. “It wasn’t stupid.”

Janessa nodded sharply.

“Tell me about him.”

Janessa looked at Penny.

“Not as your psychic,” the older woman rushed to explain, “but as your friend.”

 

 

 

Half an hour later, as Penny watched Janessa exit out of her office, the psychic allowed her body to slump tiredly in her chair. Her body felt weary after listening to Janessa’s story, her neck muscles tight and raw. Janessa’s life had been far from easy, her path littered with rejection, abandonment, and a lack of love and support. Penny’s own childhood came to mind; she could relate. And that was probably why she found herself so determined to help the young teenager, to do exactly as asked: locate Janessa’s missing father.

Of course, it was looking like that would require more on-the-ground detective work than other-worldly intervention, but Penny loved a good challenge.

Riding close on that thought, Penny tried not to acknowledge, was guilt at what she’d uncovered, at what she’d found out…because she had no plans of filling Kate in on this new-found information. And Kate would feel betrayed by that. She would claim a right to have known. After all, she was the girl’s mentor and had, for all Janessa’s resistance, really stepped up to that role, committed to helping the surly teenager, advising her, generally being there for her. Kate cared about Janessa. She wanted to help the young girl succeed.

And here was Penny, with intelligence Kate probably needed in aide of that endeavor, and she wasn’t sharing. It felt wrong. And yet, Penny wasn’t sure that going behind Janessa’s back would be right, either. The teenager had trusted her. She’d confided. Penny just couldn’t condone exposing that, exploiting it. Janessa’s story was hers to tell. Period.  Kate would have to figure this out on her own, just like Penny had.

(The fact that Penny knew, without having to be told, that Kate would be more than willing, more than eager to be part of unearthing Janessa’s father, that she’d feel unduly hurt at being left out, the psychic refused to admit. If Kate was going to help, it had to be on Janessa’s terms.)

Straightening up the small table Janessa had only moments ago vacated, Penny walked over to her icebox. She needed a cup of coffee after that session. And a sandwich. Glancing up at the clock hanging overhead, she noted the time: 12:13 p.m.

Good, that left her just under two hours until her next appointment. Rummaging underneath the oval table that doubled as Penny’s desk, she was on the verge of grabbing for her wallet and making a quick lunch run, when a small knock on the wall outside her office, caught her up in surprise.

“Hello?” A deeply male voice asked. An oddly familiar male voice asked, seconds before a hand come into sight, pushing back the heavy brocade curtain she used for a door.

Stumbling upright, Penny’s eyes widened at the face that came into sights seconds later. Of all the people Penny might have expected to drop be unannounced—namely Janessa, coming for something she’d forgotten, or M.T. offering to take her sister to lunch, or her damned landlord, coming to enquire after her little ‘project’ on the ruse of checking she’d cover the rent this month (with a degree of resignation when she answered ‘yes’)—the one which greeted her now stole Penny’s breath, her ability to speak.

Standing there, silhouetted in the light off the narrow hallway, was Jake Farrow. As in, the owner of the LitLiber bookstore. As in, Part B of Kate’s current love triangle. As in, the boy who used to seat two rows behind her in high school geography….

“Jake?” Penny couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of her voice. In as long as she’d been operating as a psychic, Jake had never before graced the doorway of her shop.

“Hey Penny,” he said, smiling slightly.

“Uh…what are you doing here—I mean, not that you’re not welcome,” Penny rambled at his amused raised eyebrow. “It’s just…I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Yeah. Sorry to just drop by—”

“No, no,” Penny rushed to say. With a wave of her hand, she motioned him forward. “Please, come inside.”

Jake didn’t need further encouragement. Quickly, he slipped past the heavy curtain, to take a seat in the chair opposite Penny. Then, belatedly, he waved around the room. (Afraid, perhaps, she was in the middle of some ghostly chat or something?) “I’m not, uh, interrupting anything right now, am I?”

“No. I’m taking my lunch break, actually. Good timing for you.”

“Oh. Okay. I won’t keep you.”

Forehead crinkling, Penny waited for him to speak again. Jake looked uneasy.

“So what can I do for you? Call it intuition, but I’m not getting the sensation you’re here to have your future foretold,” Penny hedged amusedly.

Jake laughed softly. It came out more like a cough. “Uh, no. Not…” absently, his hand came up to rub against the stubble settling across his jaw line. “Um, not that.”

Penny nodded knowingly. “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…” and she’d been sitting at one of the cafeteria tables all alone, her eyes steady on the sandwich in her hands, shoulders hunched inward, ears picking up the sounds of voices coming from three rows behind her:

“Look at what she’s wearing…seriously, she looks ready for a flood in those pants.”

Twittering laugher. “A flood might do her some good. I bet she doesn’t even bathe.”

“So you’d rather she look like a drowned rat?”

“Anything’s better than that.”

And on and on the insults flew, the girls gossiping loudly, enjoying her mortification, and enjoying the notoriety they were gaining from the student body, most of which couldn’t help but overhear the waspish sentiments.

And of course, because it wouldn’t have been a truly clichéd moment if it hadn’t been coming from the most popular girls in school. If these terrible words hadn’t been frothing from the mouths of cheerleaders.

“Hey…mind if I sit here?” a male voice asked, breaking through Penny’s determined resolve to ignore the chatter going on over her head.

Looking up quickly, on the verge of warning this unsuspecting visitor that sitting next to her was the closest thing to status suicide—that is, sitting next to the most made-fun of girl in school—when her eyes met the kindest green eyes she’d ever seen. The most adored green eyes in school. The eyes of Whestleigh football star, Jake Farrow.

Penny’s eyes thinned into slits. Now what. “Just haven’t had quite enough of a laugh yet, huh?” she asked venomously. Painfully shy, it was probably the longest sentence she’d ever spoken to the boy who’d shared the same school schedule with her for the past eleven years running. Only, she was past her limit today. She was over being the subject of everyone’s ridicule. And this was just too much, anyway.

Why did they have to pick on her? Penny had never done anything to them. She was quiet. Kind. She’d never pretended to be cool, tried to fit in. She’d never vied for their attention. So why wouldn’t they just leave her alone? She’d tried the old adage: kill them with kindness. It hadn’t worked. She’d tried not to react, to appear bored with their little games, hoping it would eventually ruin them of their fun. If anything, it had only spurred them on more.

“Excuse me?” Jake asked, and for his part, he looked genuinely baffled.

“What, you’ve come over here on some dare to sit beside the freak show, what her in her natural habitat, telling everyone just how weird she is—what, that she speaks in tongues or wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her filthy shirt? Or…oh, wait, I know: that she can’t chew without drooling? Anything to please the masses, huh?”

Jake’s mouth turned down. “No…”

And suddenly, Penny knew why she was so particularly upset now. Because, through all the harassment, all the hurtful things her peers had slung at her, Jake had never partook himself. Granted, he hadn’t stopped them either. But he’d never been outright rude to her. He’d never joined in their mockery and jeers.

But it seemed at last, he’d stepped over to the dark side.

Staring up at his face, which was rigid above the red plastic food tray, Penny had a new terrible horrible sensation. “Oh God…”

“What?”
“You’re going to dump your food on my head, aren’t you? Claim you tripped.”

“No. What?” With a plop, Jake dropped the rectangular tray carefully, upright, on to the table. “Why would you…” and with a sigh to beat all sighs, he shook his head. “Never mind. I know why.”

Silent now, Penny watched him take a seat on the bench chair opposite her. “Is it a social experiment then? See how it feels: to be the most un-liked person in school?” Penny didn’t know where the nerve was coming from. She’d never spoken to anyone this way before, and certainly not the most popular guy in school. Only, once she’d started she couldn’t seem to stop.

“No. I came over to say I’m sorry.”

Penny blinked. “Excuse me?”

“For everything we’ve done to you. I’m sorry.”

“Well, you actually never did anything,” Penny felt obligated to mention.

Jake gave her a look. “Maybe not. But that changes today.”

Penny cleared her throat, bringing herself back to the present, hearing her voice carry over the quiet office: “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…I can only assume this isn’t a social visit?”
Jake laughed softly. “That wasn’t the last time we shared a table at lunchtime,” he seemed compelled to say. “We shared that table every lunch for the rest of that year.”

Penny smiled. “And the year after that.”

“Yeah.”

“Fair enough. But, since high school ended, you’ll allow that they rather came to an abrupt end?”
Jake shrugged. “I went always to college.”

“And I didn’t.”

“And when I came back…”

“I was a full-fledged freak,” Penny teased. “One that even you couldn’t save.”

“Don’t.” Jake didn’t smile in return. “I always hated it when you called yourself that.”

Penny nodded sharply. “Okay.” She cleared her throat uncomfortably, her shoulders jerking with the sound. “Well, anyway…I think we’re getting a little off track here.”

“How do you know?” Jake challenged, and there it was, that note of amusement threaded in his voice again. “After all, I’m the one who came to see you.”

Penny stared at him levelly. “And this is what you came to talk to me about?”

Jake grinned. “No.”

“I didn’t think so.”
“Actually, I came to talk about Kate.”
As if she hadn’t seen that one coming.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Nine

Penny unlocked the back door to her office with more force than necessary, her wrist cranking hard against the metallic key in her hand. Moving inside, she dropped her purse down on the filing cabinet before plopping down in a seat.

It was almost four o’clock and she didn’t have any clients set up for the day. In fact, she’d posted a sign on her door earlier this morning, informing any passersby, that the shop was closed that afternoon.

Only, after spending all day at Maggie’s, tearing up carpet and carefully avoiding Kate, Penny hadn’t felt up to going back home. Not just yet. She didn’t want to be found, and with that sign on her office door, who would think to look for her here?

(Translation: Penny didn’t want to talk to Kate. She didn’t want to hear any more explanations. And she didn’t want to have to apologize for what she’d said earlier. Kate would assume Penny had gone home after M.T’s, hence her strong inclination to be anywhere but there.)

Penny knew what she’d said to Kate…. Closing her eyes, Penny shook her head. She’d been mean. Awful. Hurtful. And even knowing that, even running from the remembrance of that look on Kate’s face when she’d told her to leave Penny out of her love triangle…even with all of that, Penny wasn’t sorry for what she’d said.

She’d meant it. In fact, she hadn’t realized how much she’d meant it until all those words had come flying out of her mouth. She’d just stood there, and listened to a whole slew of truth as she’d spoken to Kate. Sure, it could have been worded better. And yeah, it could have been presented more calmly. Penny knew this. She regretted that it hadn’t been.

Still….

If she was sorry at all, it was only about that lack of diplomacy, not the message itself. She was tired of Kate’s attention-seeking indecisiveness. Kate just wanted to talk about herself…and to hear others talk about her too.  Rinse and repeat. Penny was done being Kate’s lackey, patiently hanging by in the sidelines, apparently only good for her part in Kate’s daily saga of one dramatic episode after another.

The problem was: everything was always about Kate. Kate. Kate. Kate.

Perhaps Penny had enabled this behavior. When Kate had first moved to town she’d seemed so fragile, so unsure of herself. Penny had wanted to help her. She’d wanted to know what had happened to Kate to make her so terrified of…well, everything. So Penny had coddled her, and she’d encouraged her, and she’d checked-in…

Only now, it would seem she’d created a monster. Everything being about Kate had become a habit. When Kate had a question, it was an emergency and everyone around her was expected to drop everything and come to her aid. When Kate was uncertain about something, she considered it a crisis—and honestly expected everyone to do so, as well.

Which wasn’t so bad expect, lately, Penny had felt a keen lack of reciprocation in that department….  It had been weeks since Kate had so much as enquired about anything going on in Penny’s life. No: ‘Hey, how’s business?’ No: ‘Did you see that cute guy at Bean Tamptations, earlier? I think he was looking at you…’ and certainly no: ‘Hey, how have you been? Want to spend a relaxing evening just hanging out, you and me, with no agenda?’

No, instead Kate just barreled—

Penny’s musings were cut short by the sudden, expected knock coming from outside her office door. Closing her eyes tiredly, Penny realized she’d forgotten to lock the outside door when she’d come inside.

Damnit…

Maybe if she didn’t say anything, the person on the other end of the wall (namely Kate) would give up and go home.

“Hello?” A young, girlish voice asked through the thick curtains doubling as Penny’s door. That voice did not belong to Kate. Or Maggie.

Furrowing her brows, Penny tried to give a face to the small, nervous question. That voice sounded oddly familiar. “Hello,” Penny answered back. Standing up she moved to the curtain, and with a flourish pulled it back. “I’m sorry. We’re actually closed for the—Janessa?” At the sight of the teenager, Penny’s earlier sentence went into eclipse.

“What are you doing here? Is everything okay? Do you need Kate?”

Janessa pulled her signature eye-roll. “No, I don’t need Kate. I came here, didn’t I?”

“To see me?” Penny couldn’t keep the incredulous tone out of her voice.

“Yeah, well…I was outside when I saw you pull up and I thought…” Janessa’s words petered out.

Penny pulled a face. That had cleared up nothing for her. “Okay… is this about that job-shadowing essay? Do you have more questions for that?” she hedged.

“Hardly . I turned that paper in a week ago.”

“Okay…then?”

“I thought you were supposed to be psychic? Shouldn’t you know why I’m here?” Janessa asked belligerently.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“But you are a psychic, right?”
“Right.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here.”

“Okay…”

Janessa shrugged. “Can I come in?”

“Oh…Oh!” With a flourish, Penny stepped back, allowing Janessa room to advance into her small, cramped quarters. “Sure. So, what’s up? You looking for a reading or something?”

“Or something,” Janessa returned.  Now that she was inside the room, the youngster looked uncertain, her mascara laced eyes looking down at her hands, which were fidgeting down at her sides. She shrugged again. “That is, I was wondering, um, you said you can communicate with people’s spirits, right?”

Penny motioned for the girl to take a seat. “Yes, as long as the spirit is willing.”

“Oh.”

Penny tried again. “Is there someone you’d like to speak with?”

Janessa picked at her nail. Then, as if the thought just then occurred, she looked up: “First, I want you to promise me you won’t call Kate, and tell her, you know, that I was here or anything.”
Penny wasn’t sure she liked the sounds of that. “Why not?”

“Because she’ll just turn this into some kind of after-school special….”

“Turn what into an after-school special?” Penny asked patiently.

“I want you to promise first,” Janessa insisted. “I mean, isn’t there like some kind of client confidentiality thing with stuff like this?”

“I suppose so…” Penny had never given it much thought before, but it sounded right.

“So, do you promise?”

“No. Not until I know you aren’t in some kind of trouble.”

“I’m not in trouble.”

“Then what?”

Janessa looked up at the psychic, her shoulder’s squared. “I want you to help me contact my father.” And, while Penny sat there, mouth a gap, staring at her, Janessa pulled out her wallet. “That is what you do, isn’t it? I can pay you.”

Penny swallowed, overcoming her surprise. She hadn’t realized that Janessa’s father had died. She knew he wasn’t in the picture, but Kate had never mentioned this fact before. Perhaps she didn’t know it herself. Janessa, Penny had heard often enough, wasn’t one for opening up.

“Yes. That is what I do. And—does your mother know you’re here?”

Janessa bit her lip. “No, not exactly. But—she wouldn’t mind. I know she wouldn’t. She’s always saying how she wished she could talk to him too…”

Reacting on instinct, Penny didn’t comment on that. “All right, when would you like to make the appointment?”

“What about right now?”

Penny nodded stupidly. “Okay…” In hindsight, perhaps she should have just gone home.

Firmly thrusting the niggling worry at the back of her mind that Kate would be far from pleased—would probably throw a major freak-out—when she found out about this little private session (if she found out, that is), Penny reached for her stack of cards. There really was no reason for her to call Kate. Janessa had a right to her privacy. And the teenager was probably right, if she learned what they were up to, Kate was bound to blow things all out of proportion. And wasn’t that, Kate’s tendency to embellish ever little thing to it’s utmost capacity, at the root of all Penny’s resent resentments toward? Wasn’t that (Kate’s almost too-predicable reaction) just the kind of thing Penny so sorely wanted to avoid right now?

 

 

 

With a weary sigh, Kate closed the front door of Maggie’s house behind the retreating figures of Jake and Jackson. It was almost five and, walking slowly back to the kitchen, Kate couldn’t help but feel proud, even if incredibly tired, at what had been accomplished that afternoon. Besides just the kitchen sink and the guestroom carpet, the five of them had managed to re-paint the living room, re-caulk the tub in the master bathroom, fix the storm-door out back, and re-hang all the curtains. And, after Penny had left, on some lame excuse about getting her dinner ready (Kate made a face), the remaining four had even chipped away the backsplash in Maggie’s kitchen. There was still a lot to be done, but the house was starting to take shape under all that construction.

“Kate, I can’t thank you enough…” Maggie started to say the moment Kate’s person came into view.

Laughing, Kate waved her off. “Stop. Really, M.T. after the five-hundredth thank-you, I can honestly say, I believe you’ve shown more than enough gratitude.”

Maggie blushed. Then, nodding toward the coffee maker, she asked: “Want a cup?”

“God yes.” Pouring herself a generous mug-full, Kate turned to face the pastor, her hip leaning back against the countertop.

“Maggie…can I ask you a question?”

The pastor, who was bending inside an open cardboard box, a spatula in one hand and an old-fashioned cheese grater in the other, looked up at Kate’s plea. “Of course,” she said, carefully putting these items in the drawers earmarked for them.

“Well…Penny seemed kind of upset with me today.” Reaching inside the box, her eyes carefully dodging Maggie’s gaze, Kate retrieved a whisk and a thermometer, before handing them off to the pastor.

When Kate didn’t expand on this, M.T. nodded slowly. “Yeah. I guess I noticed she was a little snippy with you earlier.”

“It wasn’t just that,” Kate admitted. “When she was ripping out the carpet, I went to talk to her and she—she seemed really mad. And I got the impression she’s been that way for a while. Has she said anything to you? Have I done something?”

Maggie moved on to the next box, pulling out more mugs and coffee cups. Moving methodically, she seemed to be carefully deliberating her next words. “I don’t think it’s really about you…”

“I’m not so sure. She said some things—” Kate shrugged.

“Kate,” M.T. shook her head. Her tone was insistent, persuasive: “It’s not…the thing with Penny that you have to understand is that her whole life has been spent in the shadows.”

Kate tilted her head to one side questioning.
M.T. shrugged. “Growing up, I was my father’s pet. He adored me. Lavished me with attention and love. And when he married Penny’s mother, while he was fond of Penny, it wasn’t the same. She didn’t fill his world the way I did and, kids notice things like that.” M.T. made a movement with her shoulder. “And, well, her mother wasn’t very…ah, maternal. Or particularly demonstrative.”

“So you got most of the affection.”

“And Penny got what was left over.”

Kate took a sip of coffee. “But you loved Penny.”

“Oh, yes I did. But I was also a teenager and there were times I viewed her more as a pest than a wanted companion. So she really only ever had me, and even than it was only part-time. When I left,” Maggie pulled her lips tight. “She was very much alone.”

Kate nodded. She’d heard this story before. Only, she’d never really considered….

The pastor grimaced. “And it’s easy to overlook—or just not see—how desperately Penny’s always craved that attention she never got as a child. It’s probably why she’s so faithfully followed the path of an intuitive…and why she’s so flamboyant in the expression of that work.”

“Because it would get her noticed,” Kate mused meaningfully.

Maggie smiled. “But in a weird sort of way, that’s actually alienated her from the town more than anything. Made her ever the outsider. She got attention, but not the right kind. Not the kind that cares about you.”

Kate stared down at her coffee. “I never knew…”

Maggie smiled. “Of course not. Because, for all that her profession involves in-depth communication and contact with people, and for all her persistent delving into the intimate, personal moments of other people’s lives, Penny is actually a very private person, herself.”

“I guess you know a lot about her though,” Kate whispered.

“And so do you,” M.T. said to surprise the other girl. “Penny talks to you, Kate. And while it may not seem like she’s saying all that much, know that, to her, it’s everything.”

Kate swallowed the hot liquid. “But I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Just like everyone else.”

Maggie smiled. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s been a tough couple of months for you. Penny knows that. Between your nanny getting sick, traveling to Minnesota, and all that transpired with your mother…”

Kate made a self-depreciating noise, feeling compelled to add when Maggie didn’t: “And then there’s the whole Jackson-or-Jake debate.”

Maggie grinned ruefully. “Well, yes, there’s that too.”

“That’s what she was mad about this afternoon,” Kate confessed. “She thinks I need to make a decision between them. Jackson and Jake, that is—and to stop stringing everyone along.” Kate grimaced. “But it’s not as easy as snapping my fingers, you know?” Her pleading eyes landed on M.T. “I have feelings for both men, and…” Kate waved her hand fruitlessly, adding glibly: “And she’s completely biased anyway. Penny just wants me to chose Jackson—”

“Kate.”

At M.T.’s prompting, the younger woman stopped talking.

“You asked me what was wrong with Penny—why she was upset?”

Kate nodded.

Maggie gave her a direct look. “You wanted to know, you asked me about her.”

“Yes.”

“And yet, here you are, talking about what’s wrong with you.”

Kate put her cup down on the counter. “No, I was just saying—”

“And so am I,” M.T. persisted. “So am I.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

M.T. smiled. “I know you didn’t. And she does too. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Just remember her, Kate. That’s all. Remember everyone else, too.”