North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Nine (THE END)

Jackson stared unblinkingly at Kate.

“I love you, Jackson,” she repeated again, her voice barely a whisper of sound. Her teeth gnawed against the side of her lip at his extended silence. “I hope that’s okay?”

Because suddenly she was terrified. She’d said those words before, of course, but never to Jackson (and he’d certainly never said them to her). Only, she’d never really meant them. Not until just now.

But then Jackson smiled and some of her fear melted away. “Yeah Kate,” he said, his voice low, husky. “It’s okay. It’s more than okay.” With a half step, he made to move toward her, his eyes soft as he neared….

Calida cleared her throat pointedly. She’d clearly been forgotten. Her interruption had the desired effect. Jerking at the sound, Jackson ceased in his movement toward Kate. His eyes shifted, swiveling to take in Calida’s expectant expression.

He smiled charmingly.

“Excuse me, Mrs. McDonald.” Shifting gears, he didn’t skip a beat; to Kate’s quiet dismay, his attention was lost now, transferred instead to the elegant woman beside her. Whatever he’d been about to say next—whatever his response to Kate’s exclamation would have to wait. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Dammit.

“How kind,” Calida purred, holding out a hand, which was quickly taken in his own.

“Please, won’t you come inside?” he asked, stepping back to allow them entrance.

Calida smiled, but it held little warmth. “I’d be delighted, I’m sure.”

“No, the delight is all mine,” Jackson assured her as she stepped daintily into the foyer, Kate bringing up the silent rear. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to make your acquaintance.”

Jackson had impeccable manners.

“I only wish I could say the same,” Calida said, her eyes quick to take in everything around her. Opulent surroundings. “But as it happens, I’ve only just heard about you.” Her laugh was a tinkle of social merriment.

Jackson had to bite his lip to keep from pointing out the obvious: that until just recently, she and her daughter hadn’t been speaking at all.

Likewise, Kate shot her mother a speaking look; but Calida was too busy inspecting Jackson’s home he led them down the arched hallway off the entrance and into the main living area, to pay any notice to her daughter. As her sharp eyes gazed around the room, her usually pinched features took on an even harder look. Her long patrician nose quivered as she glanced over the gilded mirror hanging above the fireplace, the authentic Oriental rug underneath the sofa—the tasteful throw pillows and blankets, the classic sconces on the papered walls, all the trinkets and baubles scattered about. The room screamed of money and high taste.

It was abundantly clear that Jackson came from wealthy stock.

And Calida couldn’t find one damn thing wrong with the place.

Clearly it rankled. Kate smiled.

“Well,” she said sharply. Too sharply. “You have a beautiful house. What is it your family does?”

How like Calida to get right to the matter at hand. Before Kate could throw out a reproached, Jackson was answering her.

“Well, if I have my history correct, I believe the earliest Fischer’s were with the railroad industry.” He grinned openly. “But other than that, in the last fifty years or so the family has, er, rather diversified our interests.”

Calida cocked her head. “Meaning what, exactly?”

To his credit, Jackson didn’t look unnerved by her tone. “Meaning…”

“Jackson teaches English at the high school,” Kate cut in, her voice loud and deviant. Her eyes sparkled from a suddenly hot face, her very stance—arms crossed and chin raised— practically begged her mother to mock his profession, to make comment. “And he’s absolutely brilliant at it. The kids love him.”

Jackson shot Kate a quick wink.

“Oh.” Calida smiled. “How…noble of you.” The exaggeration of her pause, the stress she placed on that one word made the hairs on Kate’s neck stand at end.

She let out a huff of breath. “I should certainly say so, mother.”

Calida made a dismissive motion, “Oh don’t be so sensitive Kate, I was merely complimenting the man.” With her hands clasped behind her back, she shifted, her eyes taken with some glass ornaments placed inside a crystal bowl on the mantelpiece. Gone now was the picture of Emily that used to rest so lovingly on its rough-hewn wood. “After all, much like some must invent while others assemble, so too must one educate so another can achieve greatness…” She touched one of the glass-blown bulbs.

Turning helplessly to Jackson, Kate raised her arms impotently. “I am so sorry,” she mouthed. She could actually feel the blood drain form her face. Rude didn’t even begin to cover it…

But Jackson only shrugged, not looking the least put out by Calida’s words.

“I’ve always thought that knowledge is the best kind of power,” he said in quiet agreement.

Kate wanted to throw something. Preferably her mother, right out the door!

It wasn’t until sometime later, after Calida had swallowed her second cup of coffee that, placing the empty cup back on its saucer, she asked politely where she might find the washroom—and Kate found herself alone with Jackson for the first time. Finally.

Waiting until Calida was safely out of earshot, Kate threw Jackson a tremulous look. “Jackson. I don’t even know what to say. I’m so sorry. Really—”

“Nah,” he said, waving her words aside. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s just, I know she can be, ah, tough sometimes, and I’m sorry that I just thrust her on you like that….” Maybe bringing her mother over hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Calida was always going to be Calida.

Jackson moved closer to her. “Hey,” he said. “Stop apologizing. It’s okay, Kate.”

But she couldn’t seem to stop: “But surprising you this way? I mean, what was I thinking? She is not an easy woman and I should know. Only I wanted to—” the rest of Kate’s flustered words were cut short when Jackson’s head bent, his lips silencing hers in a hard kiss.

It was both unexpected and exactly what she needed.

But all too quickly, it was over and Jackson was lifting his head to stare down at her. His eyes were tender, the pads of his thumbs coming to brush away the hair at the sides of her face.  “I love you, Kathryn.”

She smiled gloriously. “Yeah. I know.”

Jacksons looked momentarily thrown. “You do?”

She nodded impishly.

He grinned then, one eyebrow raised             devilishly. “Confident, weren’t you?”

“For the last forty minutes, you’ve not only put with my mother and her rudeness and her sundry inquisitions,” Kate informed him, “but you’ve also been kind to her.”

“Ah.”

Kate smiled. “And, I figured, there could only be one explanation for that.”

“Gave myself away, huh,” he teased, rocking her gently from side to side within the circle of his arms.

Kate wrinkled her nose. “Big time.”

Jackson’s smile disappeared, and his voice, when he spoke next was somber, solemn. “Thank you,” he said, and at Kate’s quizzical look: “For bringing her here. To see me.”

“Thank you for opening the door.”

“For you? Always.”

“I’m all in, Jackson” she told assured him earnestly. “I need you to know that.”

Jackson nodded toward the hallway. “After this, how could I think anything else?”

Kate followed his line of sight. Her lips twisted. “Now perhaps you can appreciate why I ran away from home.”

“Oh, yeah. Big time.”

 

 

 

Penny was so mad she could have spit. Yanking hard on the door of the LitLiber, she crossed quickly inside the bookstore. It had taken two minutes of sitting on her cold office floor, tears flowing easily tracks down her cheeks, before it all started to make sense.

Her conversation with Jake, circling through her consciousness, snatches of his angry words splicing at random across her memories:

“Because I was surprised to not see you…this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.” Jake had been so angry, so upset. And with a snap, it pulled itself into place.

He’d wanted her there. In his bed, when he woke up.

She could still see his face, twisted, distorted in fury. “Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”

            His scorn and derision were nothing but a mask to hide the truth.

… “I’m done pretending.”

            “Pretending?”

            “To be your friend.”

Over and over, the past two months washed over her, pricking and poking at her:

Jake taking her to the concert.

The fact that he’d hidden knowledge of Kate and Jackson’s relationship; he’d continued on with the ruse even though he’d known it was pointless. He’ done that to be with Penny. There was no other reason.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look too bad.”

            “Brunettes….. I like brunettes.”

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

“Oh my God,” Penny had cried out weakly, her head snapping upright as the thunderbolt flashed across her startled mind. “Jake has feelings for me.” Tasting the words on her lips, for a moment, Penny had smiled in dawning realization, her body curling into itself, savoring the statement as it hung in the air, her body warm, safe—

And in the next, she was swearing. “That goddamn—and he had the nerve to call me a coward!” Scrambling unsteadily to her feet, Penny’s eyes had narrowed in a pale face. “Well, we’ll see who’s cowering now.” Straightening her skirt, she’d turned toward her door. Stopping only long enough to lock up, and stick a sign on the front saying that she’d gone to lunch, Penny’s feet had taken her quickly, clipping hurriedly up the block, until she’d reached LitLiber.

Now, striding across the moderately busy store, she only just kept her lips from snarling at the passersby, only just kept her arms from pushing the oblivious customers out of her way as she blazed a trail toward his office door. Once she reached it, Penny allowed herself only enough time to anticipate the look on his face before she stormed in, throwing the door open with a bang.

Jake was bent over his desk, busily writing something down when her shadow fell across the hardwood floor, when his office door crashed angrily against the wall. Looking up sharply, the frown marring his forehead at this extravagant entrance disappeared immediately at the sight of her standing before him.

For a moment, he seemed too shocked to react at all.

At last, he seemed to find his voice. “Penny?” Rising quickly to his feet, his body held defensively, guardedly, he watched her advance into the cramped space.

“Surprised to see me?” She mocked him.

Jake didn’t comment.

Reaching the opposite side of his desk now, Penny leaned across it until her finger, the one she had pointing at him, jabbed into his chest. “You—you…” Her lips twitched, curling. She took a deep breath.

Jake, on the other hand, looked almost bored. “I, what?”

Penny’s mouth thinned. “You want me!”

Jake’s eyes widened. He hadn’t been expecting her to say that. Well good.

“Hah!” With a decided punch, she drilled her finger into his shoulder again. “You do! You want me. All this time—!”

But Jake only shook his head. He looked defeated. Tired suddenly. “What do you want, Penny?”
“I want some answers!”

“To what questions? You seem to have it all figured out.” His tone couldn’t be drier.

“So that’s it then?” Penny asked incredulously. “You’re just done. It’s over. Just like that?” She snapped her fingers. “There’s nothing left to discuss—”

“Penny…”

“You weren’t even going to tell me, were you?”

He sighed. “Please don’t do this—”

“Why not? Don’t I deserve that much at least?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You’re just going to walk away?” Penny pleaded.

Jake raised his hands, furious now. “How could I walk away? You left first.”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then you didn’t slip out of my apartment this morning?”

“Yes, only…”

“I had to find you, Penny. And when I did, you had nothing to say.”
“You’re twisting things…”

“How so?”

“I needed time to think!”

“About what?”

“About what happened?”
“But I thought it didn’t mean anything to you?”

“When did I say that?”

Jake paused, nonplussed.

“Would I be here right now, fighting for you if it had meant nothing to me?”

Jake’s lips curved in quiet amusement. “Is that what you’re doing? Fighting for me?”

“Well duh!” Penny spat. There was no denying Jake’s smile now. “Which, by the way, is more than I can say for you!”

His eyes gleamed. “My savior.”

“Oh shove it, Farrow.”

His grin only widened.

“Don’t be cute. I’m not in the mood.”

He wiped the smirk off his face. “Okay. What do you want?”

“To make myself emphatically clear,” she said. “Because clearly you haven’t been paying close enough attention these last fifteen odd years.”

Jake stilled.

“I’m here to tell you—” She made a rough sound. “That I want you right back, you stupid idiot!” She pulled herself straight, her eyes narrowed on his face.

Jake whistled. “Took you long enough to admit it.”

Penny shot back. “Excuse me?”

Instead of answering her, Jake rounded the side of his desk. He took a predatory step closer to her. “Anything else?”

“Anything—? What?” Penny stuttered, at a loss.

“Anything else you’d like to make emphatically clear?” he asked innocently enough. He was almost beside her now.

“N-no.”

“Good,” he said, reaching for her…

 

 

 

A week later, smiling across the table at Penny and Maggie, Kate reached for the bottle of newly opened wine. With precision, she poured out three glasses of Chardonnay. The smell of fried catfish wafted through the room, adding to the festive scene.

“Okay, Kate I can’t take it any longer,” Penny said, taking the proffered glass from Kate’s outstretched hand.

“What?”

Penny waved around them. “Girl’s Night Dinner?” She looked at Maggie for support. “I mean, the suspense is killing me!”

M.T. nodded. “It usually means only one thing….”

“Something’s up.”

Kate laughed.

“So?” Penny persisted. “What’s the occasion?”

Kate smiled. “Do you know what today is?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Obviously not.”

“It’s my one year anniversary in Whestleigh.”

Penny sucked in a breath. She looked over at Maggie. Then back to Kate. “No way. It can’t be.”

“On this very day last year.” Kate said softly.

“No kidding.” Penny shook her head. “So much as happened. And yet, it doesn’t seem possible it’s been a whole year.”

“We’ve come a long way,” Kate agreed.

“Well. I think this calls for a toast,” Penny said, raising her glass. Maggie and Kate quickly followed suit.

“To new homes,” Kate called.

“Here, here,” Maggie murmured, clinking glasses.

“To friendship,” Penny added, her gaze taking in the three of them.

“And love,” Kate said, blushing.

“And the muddied waters we waded to find it,” Penny echoed. To think: Kate could have fallen for Jake. Penny might have succeeded in stealing Hank from Maggie. And everyone would have been the poorer.

“To finally putting ghosts to rest,” Maggie murmured, her finger going to massage the necklace hanging round her neck.

“In more ways than one,” Kate said, thinking of her mother. She and Calida would never be close, but at least they were speaking to one another. It was a start.

“Ah yes. Ghosts. My bread and butter,” Penny chimed in, making everyone laugh.

“To the next year and what it has in store for us,” Kate shouted.

Penny smiled, her gaze switching from Kate to Maggie. “Side-by-side-by-side.”

“Amen to that!”

And for a moment, Kate’s kitchen was infused in giggles before the women took their drink of wine.

“Oh, did I tell you,” Penny said then, setting her goblet down on the table. “About my client Madeleine?”

“Is she the one who wanted a reading done on her house plant?”

“That’s the one.” Penny looked at Maggie. “She swears it’s the reincarnate of her late sister.”

“Oh goodness!”

“What’d she want you to do this time?” Kate asked, getting up from the table to check on the fish.

“Oh, get this….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Eight

Kate stared nervously down the length of space separating her from her mother. She cleared her throat, her fingers almost white as they gripped the edge of her front porch railing. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she called out. And then: “That is—unless you have to go?” Kate let her gaze drop uneasily. “I know Phil is waiting for you…”

“It’s not as if the man can’t board a plane by himself,” Calida countered drily, her lips pulling into a discerning frown. She nodded sharply, decisively. “I’m not his mother, after all.”

Kate goggled, unsure.

Brushing her hands down the sides of her pretty outfit, eyes not quite meeting her daughter’s, Calida made an impatient noise in the back of her throat. “Yes. All right.”

“Yes?
“I’d like to stay,” Calida admitted. “If you’ll have me.”

“I’ll have you.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Kate felt the weight of those words. “Right. Good.”

For a moment silence descended. Neither woman spoke, neither woman moved, each seeming to be waiting on the other… The air was thick with uncertainty. Fidgeting, Kate wasn’t sure where to go from there; her bravado of moments ago had abandoned her, deflating her courage; she hadn’t thought beyond asking her mother to stay.

“Is the person you’d like me to meet hiding somewhere inside your house?” Breaking the heavy quiet, Calida raised an incredulous eyebrow.

Kate frowned. “What? No…”

“Then—” Calida motioned pointedly toward her rental car, which was parked a little way down the street. “Shall we?”

“Oh! Oh, right!” Kate laughed awkwardly. “Yes. Let me, um, let me just tell the girl’s we’re going.”

“That’s fine. I’ll wait in the car,” Calida assured her. “Don’t be long.”

“Yes. Okay.” Grimacing at her lack of conversation, Kate turned on the steps. Quickly, she took herself back inside, back to the kitchen, where she found Penny and M.T. impatiently waiting, their gazes locking on her the moment she passed into view.

“So?” Penny asked unashamedly, leaning forward eagerly.

“Umm…” Kate bit her lip. “I asked her to stay?”

“You did?”

“Why?”

“Penny!”

“I’m just saying…”

“I want her to meet Jackson,” Kate said, interrupting them.

“Our Jackson?”

“Well. Yeah.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Penny asked, glancing frantically out toward the front walkway, where Calida could be seen striding toward her car.

Kate shifted. “I think…”

“Look I’m all about the two of you patching things up, but Kate your mother is a barracuda. You really want to sick her on Jackson?” Penny’s eyes were large. “May I remind you, he’s not any too happy with you at the moment? This might not be the time for the Great Calida McDonald…”

“But that’s just it. I think it’s exactly the right time,” Kate argued. “Introducing him to her—it’ll prove my feelings. It’ll show him that I’m ready to commit, that I’m fully invested in our relationship.”

Penny whistled.

“Jackson knows about me and my mother,” Kate defended hotly. He knew Kate’s situation; that she’d had more-or-less run away from home (at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, no less) just to escape her clutches.

“Don’t you miss your family back home?” He’d asked her one night a few weeks ago. They’d been snuggling on the couch, eating popcorn as they watched an old black-and-white on the television.

“My family?” Kate had stuttered.

“You hardly ever talk about them. In fact, besides that trip to Minneapolis this summer, I’m not sure you’ve ever brought them up.”

Kate’s voice had hardened. “There’s not much to tell.”

“I’m sure that isn’t true.”

“Fine,” Kate had told him. “There’s not much I want to tell.”

Jackson had reached over to kiss the top of her cranky heat. “Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t pry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” she’d said then. “I just—my family, they‘re the reason I’m here. In Whestleigh.”

Beseechingly, Kate tried to make herself understood now as she stared at Penny’s disenchanted face. “I told him how she never approved of who I am; that I was never allowed to make my own decisions or stand up for myself, or even just believe I had a right to make my own choices without the fear of her constantly trying to change me. Don’t you get it?” Kate cried excitedly. “If I introduce Jackson to her—to the very root of my issues with commitment—that’s big! That has to mean something, you know, that I’m done running scared. It’ll make things right between us, I know it will. It’ll show him that he’s worth fighting for.”

“Yeah, well, your mother is definitely that. A fight.”

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” M.T. offered. “Jackson’s an important part of your life and introducing him as such, to your mother of all people, will speak volumes.”

“He’s angry because I kept us a secret,” Kate insisted, “and what better what to show him I’m through with all that then this?”

“But what about our plan?” Penny hissed out of the corner of her mouth.

Kate’s lips twitched. Oh, yeah. The plan, aka the “Big Romantic Gesture”, aka Penny’s scheme to get Kate back in Jackson’s good graces. Like most plots involving the psychic, it had been big, intense, and characteristically nutty. It had called for a whole host of props, among them a fully decked-out float, replete with yards and yards of crepe paper, duck-tape and balloons; discretely assembled loud-speakers, with accompanying microphones and camcorders; a garishly painted banner; music by the local bell-ringers; and one insanely elaborate ruse to get Jackson down to Bailey’s park at 12:07 in the morning…

It was all still in the preliminary phases, but just thinking about it gave Kate anxiety.

“New plan,” Kate informed her matter-of-factly. “And I think this one might work even better.”

“I guess,” Penny relented begrudgingly.

Kate nodded. She glanced quickly up at the clock. “Well, I better get going. Calida’s waiting,” she murmured, taking a half-step backward. “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck.”

“All the lucks.”

“Oh, and lock up when you leave,” Kate called, already making for the front door, her purse slung haphazardly over her shoulder.

 

 

 

“Do you even know where we’re going?” Calida couldn’t seem to help herself from asking when, five minutes later, Kate pulled off the main road down the short, dirt dead-end drive that wound to a close at the base of Jackson and Penny’s private houses.

“Of course,” Kate sighed, pulling over on the side of the rutted track. Getting out of the vehicle she waited while her mother gracefully alight from the passenger side. Now that they’d arrived, she was experiencing some severe second thoughts. What if Jackson wasn’t home? Or worse, what if he refused to answer the door? What if Calida made no impression upon him? What if he’d decided that Kate wasn’t worth all the hassle after all…

“Are you all right?” Calida asked, her voice unusually loud in the stillness of the lake as she rounded the back of the car to where Kate stood. “You look a bit pale.”

“I’m fine, mother,” Kate bit off.  Throwing her hair haughtily over one shoulder, she marched up to Jackson’s front door, heedless of her mother’s faltering steps behind. Bringing a shaking hand up to the doorbell, she pressed the buzzer.

“You never mention who we’ve come here to see? Don’t tell me your also good friends with a Catholic Priest—?” Calida’s jovial words were cut short by the sudden opening of the door before them.

“Kate?” At the sight of her, Jackson stilled, the door only halfway open. His lips formed a thin, hard line.

Kate could hardly breathe. “Jackson. Hi.”

He sighed tiredly. “Look, Kate I’m not in the mood to hear more excuses right now,” he started to say, in a very un-Jackson like tone of voice.

“No, I know,” she said. “And I’m—”

“Look. I know you’re sorry,” he finished, “but that’s not, I need a little…”

“Open the door, Jackson.”

“It is open.”

“No. All the way,” Kate said, and reaching forward, grabbed for its edge. Pushing against his hold on the doorknob, she swung the structure wide.

Jackson’s eyes widened at the unexpected sight of a strange woman standing beside Kate.  Swiveling, his shocked gaze got the full force of Calida’s intense, unwavering stare.

Taken aback, his eyes shifted back to Kate.

Screwing together the last of her courage, she said, her eyes never leaving his: “Mother, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Jackson.” She smiled hopefully up at his inscrutable face. “My boyfriend Jackson, who I love very much.”

Her mother gasped softly.

Jackson’s mouth dropped open just slightly.

 

 

 

Sitting cross-legged on her office floor, Penny tried to relax her mind.

“Breathe in. Feel your body infusing with air. You’re light. Floating… And breathe out. And take all the thoughts and emotions, all the clutter lurking in there out with that cleansing breath. Anchor your body to the ground, to the earth. Breathe deeply. Expand your chest.  Reach up to the sky, open to the celestial world above. And close. Let everything out. Out, out, out. A blank, open canvas,” she muttered to herself, her eyes tightly closed, palms resting, face up, on her thighs. “Be open. Be vulnerable. Be free.”

But it wasn’t working.

She just kept seeing Jake’s damn face.

After Kate had left with Calida, Penny’s problem (the one she’d happily put on the back-burner when Kate had called from under Jake’s office at the LitLiber, the one she’d much preferred not to think about anyway) had unfortunately resurfaced. In a big, bad way. Going home had been out of the question. She needed to think. Or to escape thinking, she wasn’t sure which. She needed to mediate, to be one with the Angels and Spirits around her. Gain a little perspective. So she’d gone to the one place that always steadied her—Madame Penny’s House of Intuition.

But perspective was being elusive and she wasn’t connecting with the Universe.

“Fail,” she muttered, opening her eyes warily.

Then she screamed.

“Jesus,” she cried out, one hand slamming up against her shaking chest. Gasping on a chocked breath, she felt her face infuse with heat. “How long have you been standing there?”

Because leaning up against the doorway to her office was none other than Jake Farrow.

His lips twisted into a cruel smile. “Surprised to see me?” he asked softly. Scrambling quickly to her feet, feeling at a disadvantage on the floor, Penny tried to find her inner serenity.

“Well. Yeah,” she offered plainly.

“That’s funny,” he mused, bringing a seemingly casual hand up to his chin. He rubbed his fingers against a slight bit of stubble there. “Because I was surprised to not see you. You remember: this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.”

Penny’s mouth dropped open.

“Jake.”

He looked disgusted. “I never would have taken you for a coward.”

“I am not a coward,” Penny demanded, pointing a finger at him. “How dare you…”

“No? Then what was that little disappearing act? Shame?”

“No! Never…”

Jake raised a dark eyebrow. “Then what?”

Penny felt her face flush, her heartbeat quicken against her veins. “I just…I wasn’t sure what happened?”

Jake barked out a laugh. “Shall I remind you?” He took a menacing step forward.

“No!” Penny held up a hand, stumbling backward. “I mean, I know what happened.”

“I should think so.”

“I just don’t know—”

“You don’t know what?”

Penny felt itchy. She felt on display. And really, why was she required to do all the explaining, all the talking? Why should she spell out her fears when, for all she knew, last night had been nothing more than a casual fling for him? And God, what would he say if he knew how much it had meant to her! No. No, no, no. She shrugged eloquently. “I don’t know what to say.”

Jake sighed. It held a weary note. “So it would seem.”

Penny’s eyes grew in alarm. “Well, what? You can’t just expect me to…”

Jake held up a hand, cutting her off. “Stop. Don’t.” He pushed himself off the wall. “You’ve made yourself patently clear.”

“You certainly haven’t though!” Penny accused.

“Why bother?” There’s nothing left to say.”

“Nothing—”

“Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”

“No. Yes. I-I,” Penny’s mouth kept sounding out words. “Jake, gave me a minute here.”

“I gave you all morning,” he told her. There was a note of finality in his tone as he turned toward the door.

“Jake. Wait.”

With his back to her now, one fist closed around the thick brocade material of her doorway, Jake only shook his head. “I can’t.”

“You can’t what?”

“Wait any longer.”

“What? I don’t—”

“I’m done pretending.” Penny watched his shoulder’s coil.

“Pretending?”

“To be your friend.”

Penny felt those words all the way to her stomach.

“It’s not enough for me. Not anymore.” And with those words hanging heavy in the air, he slipped through the curtained doorway, his steps hard and quick as he walked down the hallway toward the building’s exit.

Slinking slowly to the floor, her knees buckling from the confusion, the hurt and tension of the last few minutes, Penny felt tears crowding against her throat.

“Don’t go,” she whispered into the empty room.

 

 

 

Bent over her sermon notes, Maggie hummed softly to herself. After dropping Penny off at her office, the pastor had taken herself smartly back to the church, after first apologizing profusely to Heather, the office secretary, for her unexpected delay and promising to have the Sunday service completely solidified by the end of the day.

So here she sat.

Scratching out a line of text, she felt her lips twist. At this rate, she’d be here until midnight, trying to get everything just right…

On the wings of that thought, Maggie heard a quiet knock coming from outside her office door. Pushing her reading glasses off her face, she carefully kept from frowning. The last thing she needed right now was an unnecessary distraction.

“Come in,” she called, careful to keep her voice neutral.

But it wasn’t one of the ladies from the flower committee coming to discuss altar arrangements, nor was it the youth director coming to inquire about Confirmation Sunday; No, no. And certainly, the tall, handsome man standing in her doorway was not the church volunteer coordinator, here to complain about the lack of interest in the Library Board….

Smiling delightedly, Maggie beckoned her guest forward. “Hank,” she breathed, and suddenly his visit didn’t seem like a distraction at all, but a much-needed break in her day.    “What brings you here—not that I mind in the least!” With precise movements, she shuffled the notes scattered across her desk into a semblance of order, pushing them out of sight.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked, as he crossed the room towards her desk. Hank didn’t respond, but then he wasn’t a talkative man. Half-rising from her chair, M.T. continued  “Oh. And I think Heather brought in doughnu—”

Reaching across her desk, one finger fall gently over her lips, Hank stemmed the last of her words

“I came here to tell you,” he paused. “Don’t talk to them.”

Huh? “Talk to whom?” she asked, her voice muffled by his finger.

“The church board. The PPC—whoever in hell that is,” he responded gruffly, slowly releasing his index finger from her mouth. “The congregation. Your staff,” he continued, ticking off the list. “And, I don’t know, anyone else you had in mind—”

“Don’t talk to them about what?” But, actually she had a pretty good idea.

“Our private life. Our-our intimate affairs.” Hank’s neck burned above the collar of his work shirt.

“Oh.” Stall, Maggie. Stall. “But, Hank we discussed—”

“No. You discussed. Now it’s your turn to listen,” he informed her staunchly.

Maggie swallowed nervously. “Oh.”

Now that he had her quiet, undivided attention, Hank seemed to have lost his nerve.

“What is it you’d like to say?”

“Dammit Maggie!” Hank sighed, his hand scratching at his hair. “I don’t want you to have to do that. And I don’t think you want to do it, either.”

“But I do—!”
“I’ll wait.” The words were simple, short. Uttered in a gravely timbre.

Maggie’s eyes widened, but otherwise she remained silent.

“Do you understand me? I’ll wait for you. However long it takes. We’ll do this right.”

“Hank…”

“Tut, tut!”

Maggie quickly snapped her mouth closed. But nothing could wipe away her smile.

Hank grinned. “Don’t underestimate me, Margaret. I’m a patient man. I’ll wait for you.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Four

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

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

Hank Burke.

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

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

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

He nodded formally. “Penny.”

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

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

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

The nerve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah…”

“Do you still have feelings for him?”

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

“So what does it really matter?”

“It doesn’t.”

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

….

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

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

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

Hank shifted from one foot to the next.

Penny waited him out.

Hank opened his mouth. “Penny…”

“Hank…”

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

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

Penny nodded.

“But you mean a whole lot to Maggie.”

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

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

Spit it out, Penny thought impatiently.”

“I want to marry her, Penny.”

Whoa.

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

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

“Permission?”

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

“You want to marry Maggie?” Penny repeated.

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

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

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

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

Penny nodded silently.

“But—I’m sure.”

“And Maggie, how does she feel?”

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

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

“Seven months.”

“Well. Yeah.” Her voice was skeptical.

Hank sighed. “The thing is…”

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

“I’m losing her, Penny.”

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

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

“Oh.” This old thing again.

“At least, that’s what she thinks.”

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

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

Penny shrugged. “Yeah. She has.”

“And?”

“And what?”

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

Penny nodded slowly. “She did.”

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

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

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

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

“No more than anyone else.”

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

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

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

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

“Especially her dating life.”

“Yeah.”

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

Hank’s face flushed.

“So that’s why.”

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

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

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

“I guess,” Hank mumbled.

“Hank…”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

Penny nodded. “Bracing for the inevitable.”

“I can’t get through to her.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Will you? Get tired of it?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re twisting it.”

“Maybe.”

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

Penny smiled. “Yeah?”

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

Penny considered this.

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

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

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

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

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

“Conjugal purposes?”

Hank blushed. “That either.”

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

“So what do I do?”

“Wait.”

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

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

“A fool who’s in love.”

Hank coughed.

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

Hank smiled. “I’ll hold you to it.”

“Bye.”

“Goodbye Penny.”

 

 

 

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

Hank wanted to marry Maggie.

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

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

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

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

Squirming in her seat, Penny felt her glee blossom.

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

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

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

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

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

Frowning, Penny straightened slowly in her chair.

Who did she have?

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

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

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

But the words rang a bit hollowly in her mouth.

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

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

Because Penny couldn’t share in it.

Because she desperately wanted it.

Because she didn’t have it.

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

 

 

 

“Hello?”

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

“Yeah. I know. What’s up?”

“You doing anything tonight?”

“Uh. No—”

“Want to?”

A quiet chuckle. “With you?”

“Well, who else?”

“Yeah. What did you have in mind?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake grinned. “Half an hour then.”

“’Kay. Bye.”

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not nothing.”

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

Penny blinked. “Why not?”

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

“Yup. Got lots of those lately.”

“And that’s a problem?”

“No—”

“But?”

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

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

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

“I get that.”

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

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

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

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

“She did?”

“Yeah. A few days ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake smiled down at his beer. “Yeah.”

“I don’t understand.”

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Three

With a weary sigh, Kate shut and locked her outside door. Hefting the overnight bag over her shoulder, she made her way out to the curb, where a nervous looking M.T. stood, beside an equally unsure Penny.

Or maybe they just appeared tense to Kate, who was feeling a little, well, panicky herself.

“Tell me one more time,” Kate said, shoving her bag in the backseat of the car. “That I’m doing the right thing here.”

M.T.’s face gave nothing away. “Kate…”

“She’d go and see him anyway,” Penny intruded, leaning up against the trunk of Kate’s car. “You know Janessa. It’s much better that she’ll have you there.”

M.T. nodded. “That’s true.”

“But—shouldn’t her mother be involved in this?” Kate whined, all her second-thoughts springing hurriedly to the surface. It had been three days since Janessa had turned up at her door, asking her to go to Coventon, to help her track down her father. “Shouldn’t she be the one taking her…?”

And though Kate was honored—truly, honored—to have been the one asked to take the girl, she was worried, scared. There were so many pitfalls facing them. And she had a terrible feeling about the outcome of an impromptu, unannounced visit to the man who’d abandoned his daughter thirteen years ago….

“What if it turns out badly?”

Maggie smiled sadly, as if she too shared Kate’s thoughts on the matter. “Then she’ll have you to lean on.”

Penny nodded eagerly. “You’ll be there to help sweep her back in the car…”

“But we’re talking about Janessa here,” Kate cried, shoving her hands through her hair. “There’s an equally good chance that she’ll just run away from me—”

Maggie bit her lip. She wouldn’t say it out loud, but Kate could see it on her face: the pastor was worried.

“I doubt she’d do that,” Penny improvised drily. “After all, she’ll need you to take her back home.”

“But she may very well shut down,” Maggie countered, despite the glowering look Penny sent her. “Forewarned is forearmed, Kate. Brace yourself for that. Let her react the way she’s going to react.”

Kate nodded.

“Though it may sting at the time, she’ll need to know that you won’t turn away from her—no matter what she says or does,” M.T. finished. “What Janessa needs to know most of all is that you’ll still be there to love her. She hasn’t had a lot of that in her life.”

Kate felt her stomach pinch, restricting her breathing for a second. “You know, I really do love her,” she whispered. It was the first time she’d said it out loud.

Maggie reached out her hand, placing it comfortingly on Kate’s shoulder. “What you’re doing for her—she won’t forget it, even if she doesn’t yet know how to show her appreciation, just know that it means the world to her.”

“Yeah,” Penny murmured. “I was there when she got the news, you know. It was earth-shattering for her. The fact that she asked you, that she trusts you enough—don’t underestimate your value to her in all this.”

Kate opened her mouth to speak but whatever she was going to say was cut short by the sudden appearance of a shadow against the walkway. Turning her head, Kate quickly caught a glimpse of Janessa walking toward them from the street, her shoulders hunched in her typical pose, a ratted backpack riding low on her shoulders.

“Showtime,” Penny muttered. Stepping forward, she gave Kate a quick hug. “You’ll do great,” she whispered in her ear before stepping back.

Then it was Maggie’s turn for an embrace. “I’m so proud of you Kate.”

“Thanks guys,” Kate said, her voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry over to the surly teenager.

And then all three of the women shifted their attention, each smiling tremulously as they turned to watch Janessa beat a grudging trail up to Kate’s car.

“All set?” Penny asked when Janessa was close enough to hear.

Stopping dead at the sound, she looked up, a horrified expression playing out on her face. Her eyes took an accusing expression when they landed on Kate. “I thought it would just be us going?”

“It is,” Penny assured her. “Mags and I are only here to wish you both well.”

“God,” Janessa said, throwing open the back door of Kate’s car to chuck her bag inside. Slamming the door shut again, she rolled her eyes. “We’re only going to be gone for like two days—chill out.”

Penny’s mouth thinned, but before she could open her stiff lips in retort, Kate rushed forward, speaking over her.

“Did you talk to your mother?” she asked.

Janessa shrugged. “Yeah.”

“And?” Kate raised an eyebrow. “What did she say? Is she okay with this?”

Janessa shrugged. “She didn’t really care. Told me good luck tracking the bastard—” M.T.’s eyelids flinched at the vulgar term, “—down and, if I did happen to trip over his body, I should get back the money she’s owed.”

Kate gulped.

“Oh,” Janessa added darkly, as if she couldn’t resist poking at Kate. “And she laughed. A good, long laugh. Told me I was headed for heart-ache but if I was stupid enough to invite it upon myself, she felt it wasn’t worth the effort to change my mind.”

Kate swallowed. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond to that.

“She also gave me some money for the motel we’re staying at,” Janessa admitted, dipping her fingers into her jean pockets to produce two crumpled-up fifty dollar bills. Thrusting them toward Kate, she said: “Mom insisted. Said it was more than fair, since you were the poor sucker being dragged to Coventon in the first place. She said there was no reason you should pay for it, too.”

Kate was oddly touched—she guessed. She’d still never really met Janessa’s mother. Except for that one time earlier this summer when Kate had driven Janessa home after the church’s talent show and Ms. Cooper had just been walking up the porch steps herself, clearly just getting in for the night… But other than  a nondescript wave, she hadn’t seemed inclined for a chat. Jumping out of the car, Janessa had practically begged Kate not to get out of the vehicle too. “She probably stopped by the bar on her way home from work,” Janessa had stated tonelessly. “No point talking to her now.”

And that had been that.

Janessa’s mom (Cathy, Kate believed was her name) had never shown up to any of the church functions Kate more-or-less drug Janessa to. She had never been in attendance at any of the school activities, either. Janessa always walked wherever she was going…

Talking the money Janessa proffered now, Kate nodded awkwardly. Though she didn’t need or want it, she had a feeling Janessa’s pride was at stake here. “Tell her I said thank you.”

Janessa shrugged. “Whatever.”

“All right then,” Kate said, clearing her throat. She nodded toward her small sedan. “Should we hit the road?”

Janessa’s only response was to walk over to the passenger side, open the door, and quickly bend herself inside its plush interior. Then she slammed the door shut, her eyes staring straight ahead.

“I guess that’s a yes,” Kate muttered to herself, sparing M.T. and Penny one last wave before getting in herself.
Still standing on the sidewalk, Penny and M.T. watched Kate’s car slowly roll away from view. Turning toward one another, they shared a knowing look.

“Think she’ll be okay?”

“Janessa?” M.T. asked.

Penny hitched one shoulder. “Her too.”

M.T. stared out toward where the car had sat only minutes ago. “As long as they stick together.”

 

 

 

The car ride to Coventon passed in a relatively boring fashion. After a couple of failed start-up attempts at conversation—particularly about Janessa’s dad and what she remembered about him—Kate had finally given up.

Janessa wasn’t in a chatting mood.

Kate had a feeling all of the girl’s energy and concentration was being consumed by her ever-increasing anxiety—there was no room left for listening, engaging. Kate could hear it in the slightly labored breathing of the passenger sitting beside her, see it in the ramrod straight way she held her body, feel it in the hard, unblinking way she stared out the windshield mirror.

And it only got worse with each mile that Kate ate up.

Bit by bit, Janessa turned into a stone.

But the third hour of this silent road trip, Kate could feel a headache beating at the base of her neck. They were less than twenty minutes outside of Coventon. Her own nerves were starting to sing now. Other than the heavy metal music that Janessa preferred, she’d had nothing but time to think:

The private investigator, after Penny called him to enquire further about what he’d found out about Janessa’s dad, had been a wealth of information. Apparently, Paul Cooper worked in a paper plant, frequently pulling the third shift. Almost every morning, when he punched out for the day, he could be found at a little diner across the street (and every evening too, when he’d stop back in for supper before ambling over for his night shift. Very exciting stuff here.)

He lived alone, in a rundown apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood. He was a lousy drunk; the investigator had found empty bottles littered across the floorboard of his truck, and even more spewed out across his living room coffee table (when he’d snuck a look in through the man’s windows). His weekends were taken up at Joe’s Bar where, according to the locals, he drank himself almost to the point of being passed out.

Rinse and repeat.

As far as the PI knew, Paul Cooper didn’t have any other children. He wasn’t currently dating anyone. He didn’t appear to have any friends. Other than the rare weekend out at the racetrack, his paychecks went to rent, beer, food, and more beer.

The untold story of Paul Cooper.

Boring. Sad. Not exactly the makings for father of the year.

Remembering this, Kate’s resolve weakened. What were they doing? This was a mistake. She should just turn the car around now…

“How are we going to find him?” Janessa asked, her voice shocking Kate out of her musings. “When we get there, how are we going to find him?”
Kate took a deep, calming breath. She couldn’t turn back now. It was important to Janessa and even though there was a part of Kate that agreed with the girl’s mother—at least the part about how Janessa was walking into heartache—she had said she would do it, and she was going to make good on that promise. Janessa needed to do this, and Kate needed to be the one there in case it didn’t end well.

“Well,” Kate said slowly. “At this rate, I figure we’ll make it to Coventon at just about six o’clock, and according to the PI Penny hired, your dad can usually be found at a little diner nearby, having dinner then.”

She winced. They were going to surprise attack him. He had no idea they were coming. He had no idea his daughter was looking forward to seeing him—none of it. When the girl’s had discussed the best way to handle the situation, the PI (who had a sort of slimy appearance, but was nonetheless expert on the subject) and told them this was the best way.

“Otherwise you take the risk he’ll run.”

“That seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?”

“Not in my experience,” he assured them. “Either that or they tell you they’ll meet you but never show up. Believe me, this is how it’s done.”

So that’s how they were doing it.

These thoughts took Kate the rest of the way to Coventon. Sneaking a glance at Janessa when they passed the town’s Welcome sign, Kate saw that the girl’s eyes were wide, unseeing, her breath whooshing noisily out of her mouth.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Kate asked, as she nosed her way toward the diner’s address. She had it converted to memory by now. “It’s not too late to change your mind…?”

But Janessa only shook her head. “No. Let’s do it.”

Pulling up to the curb of the diner in question—it’s grimly, greasy exterior only matched by it’s recycled inside, the booths ripped and worn, faded, the cracked linoleum underfoot spotty with dirt and debris—Kate smiled encouragingly at Janessa before alighting from the car.

Walking slowly inside, she felt her heartbeat kick up, her forehead breaking out in sweat. Kate had been sent a picture of Paul Cooper, which made it all the easier to spot him as she and Janessa entered the dimly light café, her eyes quickly roaming over the miscellany of baseball caps, flannel shirts, and workmen’s boots.

He was sitting in the last booth off to the left, a cup of coffee resting in one beefy hand.

Now that they’d found him, Janessa didn’t seem to know what to do, how to approach him. Walking slowly toward the table, with each step Kate could actually see her nerve leaving her. They hadn’t exactly rehearsed this part. They probably should have. When she’d finally been forced to come to a stop, her body hovering over his table, eyes unable to rise much further than the floor, Janessa seemed to freeze.

Paul Cooper, sensing her shadow, glanced up, a question forming on his thick black eyebrows.

“I…erm—” Janessa’s breath came out in a squeaky blast of air, her body shifting from foot to foot as she stood there. “Um…”

Bloodshot eyes narrowed in her direction, a thin mouth pulling down at the interruption. “Yes?” He asked briskly.

“Ah…I, uh.” Janessa’s face flamed a deep red color.

Paul frowned. “You okay, kid?”

“Umm…”

“Speak up. I can’t hear you.”

Janessa swallowed. Kate wasn’t sure what to do.

“Janessa,” she finally said, her voice pitched nervously.

“What?”

“My name…” Janessa looked pleadingly at Kate. She nodded. “My name is Janessa Cooper.” The words were weak, watery, but still they had the desired effect.

She had the man’s attention now. With a rattle, he set his cup of coffee down on the table. “Janessa?” He asked softly, shaking his head. “Well, I’ll be….”

“Can we sit down, perhaps?” Kate asked, her voice intruding for the first time. Looking at Janessa’s shaking form, she was worried that if the teenager didn’t take a seat soon, she’d fall over.

“”Course,” Paul invited, but there was a certain reserve in the way he said it.

Sliding in after Janessa, Kate waited for someone to speak.

Janessa looked down at the orange tabletop; Paul seemed content to stay silent.

“Do you—do you know who I am?”

Paul grimaced. “You’re Cathy’s daughter.”

That made Janessa’s chin jut out. “I’m your daughter.”

Paul waved his hand through the air. “Sure. Sure, well…”

An uncomfortable silence descended for a moment.

“Your mom sick or something?”

Janessa eyes lifted. “What?”
Paul shrugged. “Is this about that child support? Do you need money?” He turned to Kate. “You her lawyer?”

Janessa’s eyes grew large in her pale face. “No.”

“Then what?” And, as unlikely as it would seem, Paul looked genuinely curious. “What are you doing here?”

Janessa seemed to shrink back against the vinyl upholstery “I just, I came to see you. That’s all.”

“Oh.” His face hardened ever so slightly.

“I wanted to,” Janessa’s voice shook. “I don’t know. Meet you, I guess.”

He sighed. “I see.”

“You know, mom used to tell me you were dead. It was only a few months ago that I learned the truth.”

Paul didn’t seem unduly upset by this information. “That was probably for the best.”

“To lie to me?” Janessa’s voice was ominous.

“Sometimes it’s better than the truth.”

Janessa would not cry. “I don’t understand.”

“I wasn’t nobody’s father. I’m still not,” Paul said, his words brutally cruel. “Listen, kid I left because it was the best thing for you and your mom. I wasn’t fit—”

“The best thing for me?” Janessa’s eyes flashed. “The best thing for me?”

Paul shrugged. “I couldn’t take care of myself, much less someone else. She probably thought telling you I was dead would keep you from doing exactly what you’ve gone and done….”

“What I’ve done?”

Paul made an offhand gesture. “Your mother—I knew the two of you would be just fine without me, better off actually….”

“Oh yeah, we’ve been just dandy,” Janessa returned, her face twisting over the words. “Mom’s had to work two jobs my entire life, just to pay the bills. And when she’s not doing that she’s down at whatever bar has the best special until she’s so drunk she forgets how much she resents me and everything I robbed her of…”

Paul had the grace to look ashamed. “I never meant—”

“And believe me I prefer it that way. A blacked-out mother is much better than the alternative. ‘God Janessa, I should have had an abortion, that’s what I should have done. I’d’ve spared us both this kind of life,’ or ‘Jesus Janessa, can’t you do anything right? I’ve given up everything for you: youth, beauty, money. Can’t you at least do better than C’s and B’s in school? I’ve sacrificed too much to be raising an idiot.’”

Kate could feel something unfurl itself in her chest at the words. The hateful, hurtful words. She’d known Janessa’s home-life wasn’t great but this—did her mother really say those things? Pushing back the emotions pulsing up her throat, Kate waited for Paul to speak.

But he didn’t. It was Janessa who broke the silence.

“Didn’t you ever wonder about us?” she asked plaintively. “Didn’t you ever wonder about me?”

“Well sure, of course I did,” Paul lied.

“Then why didn’t you ever call? Why didn’t you ever come back?”

“I told you, I wasn’t the fatherly type.”

“But—”

“Listen, Janessa…” Paul took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if I’m not measuring up your ideal—I know I’m not the father you were hoping to find here today. I’m not even sure how you did find me,” he added, half under his breath. “But that’s exactly why I took off. I was never going to be good for you. So I left and I never looked back. Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?”

Deftly, he threw money down on the table, signaling his intent to leave. Reaching for his jacket, he scooted out of the booth, but not before adding: “I’m sorry, kid. Really sorry. But you should forget about me. It’s for the best, I promise.”

And with that he gained his feet, turned and walked away. Without a backward glance.

For a minute no one spoke. Kate hardly dared to breathe. Then, finally her eyes slithered bravely to the side, her gaze zeroing in on Janessa’s face: the pale, dusky color of her cheekbones, the unmistakable glaze of wet tears shining in those big blue eyes, the tense, hard way she was breathing in and out. Janessa’s lips were pulled down, a mutinous line drawn against a hard countenance. Her body seemed to be made of glass and even the tiniest movement and she’d shatter all over the floor.

She’d just been rejected by her father. Again.

Kate’s heart rocketed against her chest. Her fingers practically itched to reach out for the girl….

“Janessa?” Kate asked quietly. The girl’s eyes slowly rotated to take in her face. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” And then, before she could help herself, Kate felt her arms rising, curving to either side of Janessa’s shoulders…

“Don’t touch me!” Janessa’s body jerked, convulsed.

At the sharp command, Kate’s arms dropped back down to her sides.

“I don’t need your pity Kate,” Janessa snarled. “That’s the absolutely last thing I need from you,” she insisted.

Kate breathed slowly. “Okay.” Placing her palms flat on the seat, she was just on the point of sliding out of the booth—to give Janessa her space or to take herself to the bathroom for composure, Kate wasn’t sure—when she heard it. The muffled, low sound of a sob breaking out against Janessa’s tightly closed mouth.

Head whipping around, Kate had just enough time to take in the crumbled expression on the girl’s face before Janessa suddenly threw herself at Kate, her scrawny arms snaking around Kate’s neck to hold on tight, her face pressed hotly against her shoulder.

With something akin to disbelief, Kate felt her own arms wrap themselves around Janessa’s back, her mouth making soothing noises as her arms rubbed comforting circles there. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, sorry.”

“No one wants me,” Janessa cried. “No one ever wants me.”

“That’s not true,” Kate returned. “I want you.”

Janessa buried her head against Kate’s collarbone. “For now, maybe.”

Kate tightened her hold. “Always Janessa.” She rested her chin over the young girl’s head. “Forever.”

“I love you, Kate.”

She took a deep, steadying breath. “I love you, too.”

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 Thirty-Three

“So Penny, tell me, what do you do for a living?”

Kate almost choked on her piece of bacon. Looking nervously from Penny—in her flowing, multi-colored caftan, to her mother, she squirmed a little in her seat. It wasn’t like she hadn’t expected the question, she’d worried about it all night, as she’d lain in bed. (The bed she’d grown up in; the bed she’d thought to never sleep upon again.)

She’d known her mother would ask questions, indeed she’d been mildly surprised that she hadn’t pounced on them the moment Kate had agreed to come home. But Calida had been relatively silent yesterday as the girls had unpacked for their stay, as they’d been slowly taken throughout the house—she’d been watchful, undemanding during the evening meal.

But that was yesterday. And this was a new day. Holding her breath, she wondered if it hadn’t been a terrible mistake…bringing her friends here.

Penny, on the other hand, didn’t look the least taken aback by Calida’s abrupt question. Taking a deliberate drink of her orange juice, she smiled demurely. Kate wondered about that smile.

“I am a psychic.”

Calida’s knife rattled against the side of her plate. “Excuse me?” One perfectly plucked eyebrow rose up half an inch in surprise.

Kate’s stomach revolted. Pushing her plate away from her body, she waited….

“I’m a psychic. You know: visions, spirits, seeing the unseen—” Penny waved an arm about the table dramatically.

M.T. narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.

“Well…how” Calida looked lost for words, “I’m not familiar with that type of thing, of course, but—”

“If you’d like a consultation, I’d be more than happy to sit down with you.”

“No. No, that’s all right.”

Kate swallowed—waiting….

Calida switched her gaze to M.T. “And now, Maggie you’re a pastor, correct?”

M.T. smiled. “Yes.”

“It’s interesting, that’s all, you being sisters, and yet each bound to a vocation of entirely different beliefs?” Calida mused out loud. Then she laughed. A tinkle of sound. “Next thing you’ll be telling me you grew up Catholic!”

M.T. grinned.

Penny looked oddly disappointed.

Kate felt like she’d been hit over the head.

Calida directed her next question to Kate: “Now, my love, what is it you’re going to do today?”

Kate’s eyes rounded. That was it? Calida was just going to accept Penny’s profession without so much as a demure? No criticism? No heavily veiled insults and sarcasm? No demands given or explanations needed? That was it?

Where was the mother Kate had grown up with? This certainly wasn’t her.

“Kate?”

“What? Oh,” shaking her head, Kate brought herself back to the moment. “Right. Well, visit with Nanny Moore, I suppose.”

Calida waved this away. “Of course my dear, but you can’t expect to spend all day at the hospital. You’ll wear Agatha out if you do.”

Aha! This was familiar footing. Here it came: Calida, neatly planning and organizing the entirety of Kate’s stay. Sure, she’d ask Kate what she was planning to do but, no matter the answer, she’d cleverly alter first one thing and then another…there would be some important client in town; perhaps Kate could drop by and pay them a visit? Undoubtedly some particularly trendy exhibit would be in town, with hard-to-come-by tickets that Calida just happened to have laying around—Kate really ought to take in a proper show while she was there….

Jutting her chin out, Kate was determined to forestall her mother. “After that, I thought

I’d play tour guide for Penny and Maggie. Take them anywhere they want to go. Show them the sights.” Kate knew her mother. Calida would detest such a lowly, kitschy occupation—that is, if it wasn’t in aid of procuring the confidence of some important dignitary or whatnot. Maggie and Penny would fall far short on that category.

But Calida only smiled, her gaze shifting back and forth from Penny to Maggie. “We live in such a culturally rich metropolis. I’m sure you’ll be charmed. And who better than Kate to show you around—she knows everything about our beloved twin cities.”

Kate’s mouth gaped open. Her eyes stared suspiciously at her mother’s averted gaze. Just what was her end-goal here? But the chorus of excited echoes streaming from Penny and Maggie’s lips stopped Kate’s scrutiny short. Stabbing her fork into her runny eggs, Kate consigned herself to wait her mother out. She’d find out soon enough what Calida had up her sleeve.

Little did Kate know how very true that statement would turn out to be….

 

 

 

Getting ready for bed that evening, after a whirlwind of all the best sightseeing highlights, Maggie yawned. “I’m exhausted.”

“Yeah,” Penny agreed. She was sitting cross-legged on M.T.’s bed. “Kate was definitely on a mission today—” She’d drug them from one place to the next: parks to museums, shopping boutiques to art centers, zigzagging up and down the streets relentlessly. It wasn’t until Penny had finally protested in complaint that Kate had agreed to some much as hail a taxi. “My feet are barking!”

M.T. nodded. “It is beautiful here, though, isn’t it? Mrs. McDonald was right, Kate sure showed it off well.”

Penny’s mouth set at the mention of Calida. “I don’t trust that woman. There’s something about her.”

“What? Who?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Mrs. McDonald.”

“Oh Penny, get off it already, would you?”

Holding up her hands, Penny demanded: “But you see how uncomfortable she makes Kate. Even when she’s being nice—especially when she’s being nice—Kate gets all fidgety, edgy.”

M.T. nodded reluctantly. “Yes, there are still wounds that need to be healed there.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Penny said, warming up to the subject now, “one day with her mother and Kate turned all weird—running around half-ragged trying to play the perfect host…I mean what was that?”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Come on Maggie!” Penny cried. “Did that girl today seem like the Kate we know and love? ‘And this is a particularly beloved piece of city art depicts the celebration of blah, blah, blah,’ Penny mimicked, impersonating Kate’s voice; there had been an uppity, pompousness to it, missing at Whestleigh.

“All right, I admit, she was acting a bit strangely.”

Penny just shook her head. Clambering off the bed, she shrugged. “A bit? Oh Maggie, don’t be fooled by Calida’s show of warmth. That woman’s a viper. I can see it.”

“The same goes to you,” Maggie argued. “Don’t be so quick to judge her based on rumors of the past. People change. You have to give them the chance to show it.”

Walking out into the hallway moments later, Penny turned toward her own bedroom.  Seeing Regina, busily stacking folded linens in a tucked-away supply closet there, Penny watched her for a moment.

“Ms. Penny—is there something I can get you?”

Penny smiled. “No Regina. Thank you. Goodnight.”

“’night miss.”

 

 

 

The next day followed a similar pattern as the one before, only this time Calida accompanied the girls on their visit to Nanny Moore, insisting afterward on taking them to the family’s country club.

“I think a few drinks around the pool are in order, don’t you darling?” she asked her daughter.

Kate smiled tightly. “If Penny and Maggie would like that…”

M.T. looked at Penny, who shrugged. “I’ve never been to one before—”

“You’ll love it. Maybe we can even sneak in a reservation at the spa.”

And that’s exactly what they’d done. Even Penny, who looked for it closely, could find nothing to complain about. The staff was friendly and prompt, the drinks ever-flowing, and Mrs. McDonald set out to be the perfect companion—even stooping so beneath her position as to enquire further about Penny’s professed occupation.

“I must confess, I’m rather intrigued…”

Kate, against her better judgment, allowed herself to relax, sitting back against the bamboo lounge chair as they women’s talk flowed gently overheard. Maybe Nanny was right. Maybe it was time to bury the hatchet, to let her mother in. Though she hadn’t said so much out loud, Kate knew her mother was dying to know where Kate lived, what she was doing in her “new life.”

Maybe Calida wasn’t the only one who needed to remake an acquaintance. Had Kate let her hidden resentments color her perceptions all these years? Had she missed out on the woman her mother actually was?

“I’m back in college.” The words popped out of Kate’s mouth before she had time to fully consider them.

Calida almost dropped her martini. “What?”

Kate shrugged. “College. I’ve reenrolled. I never really like finance.”

For a moment, silence hung overhead as Calida digested this newest revelation. “What-what are you studying?” For a first question, Calida handled her surprise rather well.

Kate felt her shoulders relax. “Art.”

It was a first step. A baby step, but a first step all the same.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blissful haze of high, good feelings. After a luxuriating mud-bath, Calida took her leave of the girls, but only after extending her wish that they’d all sit down to dinner at the McDonald residence that evening.

“I have a special meal in mind for tonight,” she hinted. Smiling apologetically, she looked pleadingly at the others: “I don’t mean to monopolize your time, Kate. Only, I don’t want to waste a single opportunity to spend with you.”

“It’s fine,” Kate stammered, blushing a little. She wasn’t used to this kind of attention from her mother. “I’m sure we’d love to join you and father.” She looked enquiringly at M.T. and Penny, both of whom, taking their cue, nodded in vigorous agreement.

Calida clapped her hands together. “That’s settled then.”

 

 

 

 

M.T. was just putting the finishing touches on her outfit when the door to her bedroom was unceremoniously thrust open. Tilting her head a little to the side, she watched her sister enter the room.

Only, Penny didn’t look quite like her usual self. The headscarf was gone. Her long, curly hair was set loose, the dark masses spilling over her shoulders and down her back. There was no billowing skirt of patchwork quilt, no peasant top or tie-dye shirt. Penny had swapped out her usual garb for a plain black dress with a square neckline and capped sleeves. The only jewelry she wore was a plain gold ring on one finger and a pair of dangling earrings.

This was a Penny M.T. had never witnessed before. “Ruthie,” she breathed, “you look stunning.”

Penny pulled at the material of her dress. “I don’t know…”

M.T. stilled her wrist. “Really. You look beautiful.”

Penny pulled a face. “Yeah well, I figured dinners around here are probably pretty fancy.”

M.T. gestured toward her own ensemble: a conservative, powder blue shirt with a beige skirt and stockings. “I got that impression myself.”

“Listen,” Penny said, leaning in closer to M.T. “Don’t tell Kate this but—well, I don’t exactly, entirely hate her mother.”

M.T. winked. “Me either.”

The sister’s shared a private look.

But just at that moment, with something of a crash, Kate burst through the open doorway, a blaze of legs and arms. Gazes clashing, M.T. and Penny stared at each other open-mouthed, before two sets of eyes swiveled, taking in that of the newest arrival to M.T.’s room.

Her fingers grasping against the doorframe, Kate pulled herself to a halt. Eyes wide in an unnaturally pale face, in her haste, her carefully coiffed hair had come loose, her camisole ruffled….

“Kate—whatever is the matter?” M.T. asked.

But Kate only shook her head frantically. “Shh!” she breathed. “They’ll hear you.”

“Who will hear us?” Penny asked.

“We need to leave,” Kate insisted. Then, as if her legs simply couldn’t carry her any longer, she slumped against the wall, her body sliding slowly to the floor.

“Leave? What are you talking about?” Penny asked, hands on her hips.

Kate’s head swing viciously from side-to-side, a mirthless laugh erupting from tight lips: “I knew it. I knew she’d do something like this.”

“Kate, sweetheart, you aren’t making any sense,” M.T. said, kneeling down on the floor in front of her. “Talk to us. What’s happened?”

“The table—it’s set for six people.”

It took Penny and Maggie a second to piece together the relevancy of that statement. “You’re mother invited someone over,” M.T. said slowly, as a sinking sensation grew in the pit of her stomach.

Penny seemed to have reached the same conclusion. Smacking a hand over her mouth, she gasped. “She didn’t invite—”

“Phil.” Kate nodded.

“Are you sure?” M.T. asked, a last ditch hope.

Kate nodded jerkily. Raising her arms, she pointed toward the window. “I saw him pull up. That’s when I noticed the extra seat at the table.”

“Oh Kate—”

“I can’t believe it.”

“They were going to ambush me—if I hadn’t been in father’s study….”

It had been the first opportunity Kate had had alone with her father. Knocking quietly on the door, she’d poked her head inside the dark paneled room that was so clearly her father’s domain. Bent over a pile of papers scattered across his desk, he’d nonetheless looked up cheerfully at her disruption.

“Katie Kat.” He smiled wide. “Come in, come in! You have impeccable timing, love. I could use a break. Have a scotch with your old man?”
Kate smiled girlishly. “Okay.”

He waved toward the built-in shelving unit to her right. “Pour, will you? You know how I like mine.”

“Straight up.” Moving automatically, sunlight from the tall sash windows of an adjacent wall illuminating her progress, Kate reached for the glass decanter.

“I’ve miss this Kate. I’ve missed you.”

Kate smiled softly as she poured the first glass. “I’ve missed you too Dad.”

“You’re leaving like that, it was hard on us…most especially for your mother.” There was the slightest note of censure in his words.

Kate’s shoulder jerked defensively. “I’m sorry—”

“Oh, I know the woman can be difficult. Tough even, but she loves you, Kate. She just wants what’s best for you. We both do.” Kate heard her father sigh. “Remember that, okay?”

A prickle of unease shot up Kate’s spine at the words. Holding the glasses in her hands, Kate was on the point of turning around when she saw it—the flashy black tint of a foreign car pulling onto the street. She knew that car. Doubtless would never forget it. How many times had she driven in it—how many lectures had she received while riding within its plush interior? Too many to count.

With unbelieving eyes, she watched it get steadily nearer. Peering closer, she gasped as it turned into the driveway, coming to a graceful stop. The engine turned over, dead.

Stumbling, she half-turned, lifting questioning eyes to her father’s face.

He blanched, his arms opening wide. He’d obviously seen what she had. “Now Katie…”

“What did you do?” she whispered.

He didn’t bother pretending ignorance: “If you’ll just listen…let me explain—”

“What is he doing here?”
“Your mother thought it would be best. Ah, to give you two some closure, and talk through some stuff…”

With a crack, Kate snapped the glasses down hard on the window sill; her hands were shaking, her head tingling. “I’m sure she did, but that’s always been the problem, hasn’t it? She thinks she knows best.”

“Katie…”

“You weren’t even going to tell me—!” She shook her head in smug disapproval. “I should have seen this coming. She was just lying in wait, wasn’t she? Buttering me up!”

“Your mother thought that if….”

But Kate was done listening to what Calida thought; so she ran, her body propelling headlong out of her father’s office, eyes frantic for the sound of a door opening, for the sight of that long-ago face…but she’d seen no one in her mad dash up to M.T.’s room.

“We need to get out of here. I can’t—I can’t face him. I’m ready for that.”

“Oh Kate,” M.T. whispered, “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe Calida would do something so underhanded.”

“Well I can,” Penny interrupted, conveniently forgetting her earlier words with M.T., uttered not five minutes ago. “You said we need to leave? I’ve got a way out.”

Kate stared up at her sluggishly. “What?”

“You do?”

Penny shrugged. “I figured an escape route might come in handy… Follow me.”

Slinking silently, the women snuck from M.T.’s bedroom down to Penny’s. There, against the set of windows taking up the whole of one wall, was a stack of sheets, which had been neatly tied together, end-to-end.

Taking them in with a look, Penny smiled. “Ever rappelled down a building before?”

“Is this a joke?” M.T. asked. “Sheets? You expect us to climb down the window with sheets? I thought that was only done in sitcoms?”

“Where did you get them?” Kate asked, momentarily distracted.

“The linen closet.”

“Penny, I don’t know about this,” M.T. tried to counsel, but her sister only shook her head.

“It’s this or walk out the front door—and that’s not really an option is it?”

Because that’s exactly where Calida and Phil would be. Waiting….

With a resigned sigh, Maggie made her way over to the window. Sticking her head out it, she looked down nervously. It was rather a long way down. “All right. So what’s the plan?”

Coming to stand beside her, heads close together, Penny pointed: “Shimmy down the sheets until you reach the rose trellis—two steps down from that will bring you within reaching distance of that tree limb and from there it’s a small jump to the ground.”

Maggie looked back at Kate. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

Kate nodded. “I’m sure.”

M.T. sighed again. “All right. Penny—lead on.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Five

Shoulders racking with the force of her sobs, Kate reached blindly for her phone. She was hardly thinking straight. How could she possibly think straight after reading something like that? Dialing Penny’s number, she prayed the psychic wasn’t in the middle of a consult.

“Uh…hello?” Penny answered after the third ring. If Kate hadn’t been so upset, she’d have been immediately alerted to the distracted tone of voice. As it was, Kate was too upset to notice.

“Penny—” Kate warbled.

“Kate? Kate, are you alright?” Taking herself quickly into the kitchen, Penny’s voice came out low, hushed. Unbeknownst to Kate, she wasn’t at her office. Something had held her up…

“Penny, did you know Emily?”

“Emily?” Penny blinked, her mind blank.

“Jackson’s wife…his late wife, Emily?” Kate amended, impatiently wiping away the track of tears pooling underneath her eyes, around her nose. She was calmer now, the howl of her wailing diminished now to a whimpering snivel.

Penny looked back over her shoulder, toward the darkened living room. Moving further into the kitchen, she worked hard to follow Kate’s rambling. “Oh. Emily. Yes, I knew her.” Penny smiled sadly in memory. She hadn’t thought of Emily in a long time.

“I-I…”

“Who told you about Emily?” Penny asked diverted.

“Jackson did. Kind of,” Kate said abstractedly. “It was a memoir he wrote—from that writing class he teaches—you know the one, at the LitLiber. It’s all about her, about Emily.”

“I see,” Penny said; she wasn’t entirely sure she followed Kate’s muddled explanation, but she figured the details weren’t necessary.

“Do you—did you know her well?” Kate felt compelled to ask.

Penny sighed. “Yeah, pretty well. She was wonderful person, Kate. Everyone liked Emily—and I’m not just saying that because she’s dead now. You would have liked her too, I’ll bet,” Penny predicted, her eyes glazing over with nostalgia.  “Let’s see, she loved to garden; she had the most beautiful rose beds. And she sang in a wedding cover band during the summers. She was good people, kind and open. She was one of my first customers, as it happens; despite the town’s then leery appraisal of me and my offbeat ways, Emily stopped in to have a Reading done. That was when she and Jackson were trying to…” Penny hesitated.

“When they were trying to have kids,” Kate guessed.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“It was in the memoir,” Kate said sadly.

“If only they’d been able to have a baby…” Penny mused wonderingly. Jackson would have cherished that child.

“And the car accident?” Kate asked haltingly, morosely.

“It was devastating,” Penny admitted. “The whole town was in mourning…Emily was so young, she had so much life in her yet. After the wreck, she was pronounced in critical condition—her injuries were bad. The crash, it was graphic, terrible. The doctors weren’t hopeful but Jackson—how do you stand by and watch your wife quietly die? His punishment was perhaps the worst of all.” Swallowing thickly, batting away the excess moisture rushing to her eyes, Penny stifled back her tears. Just the memory of it all…

Kate sniffled. “He really loved her.”

Penny pursed her lips. “Yes. He did,” she said simply, but there was a wealth of meaning behind those words.

“Why didn’t you tell me about her?” Kate asked. “You should have told me about her.” The accusation was strong.

Penny shrugged. “I guess I didn’t think it was mine to share.”

“But…you, you’re the one who kept pushing me toward him! You made me—”

Leaning back against the counter, Penny looked down at her bare feet. “I know, you’re right,” she agreed. “I should have told you. It’s just…he’s different around you. He’s carefree and goofy and he’s flirtatious. I didn’t ever think I’d see him that way again…”

“So this was all for him. All of your match-making, it was for him?” Kate asked bluntly.

“No,” Penny disagreed. “Kate—no! I thought, you appeared to reciprocate those feelings. I just didn’t want to spoil it, that’s all. I was afraid, if you knew, it would all be tainted somehow. You two are good together…”

“Apparently not. He doesn’t want to be with me,” Kate said.

“Kate—”

“This letter, it says it all. He’s a man who’s broken, still desperately in love with his wife, living each day just to honor her memory.”

“Kate, give him time.”

Kate laughed hollowly. “Give him time? Penny, she died six years ago! And reading his memoir, you’d swear it was six days ago. He hasn’t even begun to heal; he’s grieving her death just as strongly now as the morning she passed away. ”

Rubbing a hand tiredly against her eyes, Penny tried again: “Oh believe me Kate, he’s definitely healing. The way he is around you…”

“But that’s just it,” Kate cried, “he’s not! He doesn’t know if can ever feel for someone the way he did for Emily. Not ever again. He doesn’t know if he wants to. He’s…it, my heart breaks for him.”

“Oh, Kate, I’m sorry—”

“No. No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Kate countered, exhaling deeply. Pinching her fingers against the bridge of her nose, she continued: “I didn’t mean to yell at you. This is not your fault. I just—it was a shock, learning about her.”

“I’m sure,” Penny started to say. She was interrupted from this by a noise coming from the living room. Jumping to attention, pushing away from the counter, when Penny spoke next, her voice was rushed, agitated: “Ah Kate…I-I have to go. Something’s just…uh, I have to go—”

“Is everything all right?” Kate asked worriedly; Penny’s sudden frazzle was disarming.

“Yeah, yeah,” Penny insisted, her feet shuffling soundlessly across the laminate flooring.  “You’ll be all right now?”

“Of course,” Kate assured her.

“I’ll call you later,” Penny promised vaguely.

“Sure,” Kate said, but she was already talking to the dial tone.

 

 

Hurriedly rounding the corner of the hall, Penny’s eyes went pointedly to the couch. M.T.’s unconscious body was still laying there, a blanket half-on, half-off her body, right where Penny had left her when Kate called. She was moving restlessly in her sleep now which meant she’d probably wake up soon.  Retreating quietly back to the kitchen, Penny went in search of a cookbook…the pastor would need something to ward off what would undoubtedly be a humdinger of a hangover.

Penny’s intuition had been correct. Something was wrong with Maggie. At first, she’d thought her worries groundless; after the reading two days ago, when repeated attempts to contact Maggie went unanswered, Penny had decided to drive over to the hotel where her ex-step-sister was staying, stop by for a quick check-in. Knocking loudly on her door, calling out Maggie’s name, Penny had been pacified when she’d heard, through its thick structure, her sister’s voice: “Go away,” she’d yelled groggily.

And so Penny had left; Maggie was fine. Probably sick from overindulgence but clearly fine. Chalking it up as nothing more than a reckless, if uncommon, night on the town, Penny had gone home with a clear conscience. So Maggie had gone out, so she’d gotten a little drunk—who hadn’t been there before? No big deal. Pastor’s could consume alcohol. They weren’t perfect. Maybe Maggie’d had a tough day. Whatever, she was done listening to the gossip of bored townsfolk.

But yesterday, her fears had returned tenfold. It’d been almost ten o’clock when she’d gotten the call. Ben Sneed, an old high school friend, and the current owner of a bar just outside of town, had contacted Penny: apparently Maggie had gone out again…this time at his watering hole. It seemed she’d taken to the bottle again and was, to put it lightly, smashed. Again. He was concerned for her safety. “You’re family right? Can you come and pick her up?” he’d asked.

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” Penny had assured him, reaching for her purse without second thought.

When she’d entered the bar, Penny found Maggie half-asleep against its counter, her head resting haphazardly in one hand, her eyes bloodshot.  Pulling out the stool beside her, Penny spoke softly, rousing M.T from her inane mumblings. “Maggie…it’s Ruthie. Hey, it’s time to go  home. Put on your coat, let’s go.”

But Maggie had only shaken her head to this. “Ruthie, what are you doing here?” she’d slurred. “No, no, stay. Have a drink with me.”

Penny had looked on helplessly to Ben, who’d only shrugged in return.

“Let’s go home,” she’d repeated.

“I don’t want to.”

The normally pacifist Maggie wasn’t in the mood to make nice. In the end, it had taken both Ben and Penny’s combined efforts to remove Maggie from the establishment and into Penny’s car. Distraction hadn’t worked; the refusal of service had only spurred her on; so Penny had stooped to deception, convincing Maggie she was going to take her to another bar. The lie had done the trick and, as luck would have it, Penny had barely driven five miles down the road then when Maggie had blacked out.

Afraid to just drop Maggie off at back the hotel, leave her all by herself—especially in that condition, Penny decided Maggie could sleep it off at her own place. It had taken all Penny’s strength just to drag her dead weight from the car inside, but somehow she’d managed it. Necessity was a strong motivator. Setting her up on the couch, covered in blankets, Penny had made herself comfortable on a bamboo-framed chair, positioning it until she was facing the floral-patterned sofa M.T. was snoring all over. She sat there all night, awake, keeping watch over her sister.

Now, with heavy bags under her eyes, she searched aimlessly around her cupboards, gaining ingredients, devising a homemade cocktail to hopefully alleviate what would undoubtedly be a terrible morning for M.T. In retrospect, it was probably the continued opening and closing of the cabinets, the jostle of silverware, the slight clinking of a spoon ringing against the sides of a glass, which had finally woken M.T. from her fitful sleep, but next thing Penny knew, she wasn’t alone in the kitchen.

Glancing up, she tried to smile at the haggard looking woman leaning so pitifully against her wall. “Good afternoon. I was wondering when you’d finally get up,” she teased softly.

M.T. groaned. “Yeah…how did I get here? What are you making? Is that what was so loud?” she asked, with a barbed look toward the liquid concoction in Penny’s hand.

“Oh this,” Penny said, looking down at the tumbler glass herself. The drink looked funny, almost an orangish-brown color, and the consistency was chunky. “It’s a hangover cure. Drink it,” she prompted.

“It looks disgusting,” M.T. said rudely. Penny ignored it, however. It was hardly the time to correct manners. “What’s in it?”

Penny shrugged. “How should I know? A little of this, a little of that. Drink it,” she repeated, more forcefully this time. “And when you’ve finished, we’re going to have a little talk.”

“A talk?” M.T. asked through pursed lips.

“Yeah, I want to know what the hell has been going on with you lately.”

M.T. shifted. “I had too much to drink last night, that’s all.”

“It wasn’t just last night,” Penny said knowingly, and at M.T.’s surprised look, added, “Whestleigh is a small town or did you forget that?”

Maggie grimaced. Penny frowned. She hadn’t meant to scold.

“Come. Sit. Talk,” Penny said, invitingly now, leading the way out to her dinky dining room.

“You’re being awfully nice to me,” Maggie said not unkindly, following closely behind her. “The last time I was here, you would have been happy to never have another conversation with me again.”

Penny could hardly disagree with her. “Well, things change. I may not like you a whole lot but you’re family…family takes care of family.”

Maggie bit down hard on the words, instead focusing on pulling out her chair without spilling the nasty looking drink in her hand. “Thank you for taking care of me last night. I…I don’t remember much,” she said. Brining the glass up to her mouth, Maggie managed a small swallow. Judging from the sour expression on her face, it left something to be desired.

“God, that’s terrible,” she sputtered.

“Yeah, it didn’t look very enticing,” Penny conceded.

“I got a letter from the church where I used to preach—the one I worked at before moving here, that is,” M.T. said without preamble, the words seemingly torn from her without conscious thought.

“Okay.” Penny folded her arms across the table. She could only assume there was a point to that otherwise worthless remark.

“They want me to come back.” M.T. twirled the glass slowly in her hands. “That’s what the letter said anyway. They want me to come back,” she whispered, haunted.

Penny stared at M.T. uncomprehendingly.

“That’s why,” M.T. admitted uncomfortably.

“Why what?”

M.T. set her glass down. It was three sips shy of being full still. “Why I was out last night…why I’ve been out the last few nights,” M.T. confessed.

“Because of a letter from a church?” Penny asked incredulously.

M.T. shrugged. “There are certain, uncomfortable memories I have, associated with that church.”

“Tell me.”

“I met a man while I was there—Carl Denny.”

“It’s always about a man,” Penny interrupted, tisk-tisking with sympathy.

M.T. gave her a hard look. “Not quite,” she informed her coolly.

“Oh! Oh,” Penny returned clumsily, reading the other woman’s sharp condescension only too well. Clearly, she’d got it wrong. Uncomfortable under that shrewd stare, Penny had the grace to blush. “Right. I’ll just let you tell the story then, how about that?” she asked rhetorically, self-consciously.

Maggie sighed. Her head ached.

“So, you met a guy?” Penny prompted when the silence had stretched too long.

Maggie’s eyes narrowed—in memory or annoyance Penny wasn’t certain. Regardless, it got her talking again: “Yes, Carl,” Maggie murmured. “Carl was different. He didn’t officially belong to the church, he didn’t officially belong anywhere. Homeless, later diagnosed schizophrenic, though I didn’t know it at the time, he just showed up one Sunday morning and never quite left. I don’t think he had anywhere else to go—and we didn’t ask awkward questions.

“He wouldn’t talk to anyone, wouldn’t look anyone in the eye, he’d just mumbled quietly to himself, shivering…. But anytime there was something going on, whenever the church doors were open, he would be there.”

“Sounds like a rough life,” Penny said quietly, staring down at her clasped hands.

“To compliment a tough man,” Maggie agreed. “I had to fight my parishioners for his welcome; they wanted to kick him out. He scared the children, he scared the adults. He was dirty, unfriendly, he was a reality they didn’t want to believe existed. But I stood my ground, I refused to allow for his removal. We were a church founded on the principle of grace, of forgiveness, of acceptance. He would be received by all. Period.”

The decision hadn’t made M.T. popular, but her congregants hadn’t known of any defense against her words. So they’d begrudgingly given into her demands. No one sat beside Carl on Sunday mornings. No one asked him to volunteer. No one offered a seat at their table during fellowship, but no one asked him to leave, either.

M.T. went it alone. She’d purposefully track him down after her weekly sermons, ask him how he was. He’d rarely answer her directly: once he’d told her his pants were suffocating him, another time that he’d always wanted a pet rock. Sometimes he’d ramble nonsensically; sometimes he wouldn’t react to her presence at all and other times…a man of severe mood swings, sometimes he’d tell her to just shut the hell up—that he hated her. But M.T. recognized a man who was hurting, who was needful, and she couldn’t turn her back on that. So she would sit beside him during coffee hour, she would invite him to fundraisers, concerts, breakfasts. And he always came.

“We went on this way for quite some time. After awhile, the congregation stopped seeing him as some foreign objection, they stopped whispering whenever he walked by. I thought things were finally starting to shift, taking to a state of quiet acceptance, of renewed favor,” M.T. shook her head, “but then, one Sunday afternoon, just I was ready to believe this, everything changed.”

“Maggie? What happened?” Penny asked when it appeared her sister wouldn’t go on.

“In the middle of my sermon, Carl stood up.” She could still see his body springing so suddenly into action. “He stood up and started shouting—quoting verses from Psalm 12; a controversial piece, it’s often a biblical passage of contention for believers,” Maggie said on a tangent.

“Sure,” Penny agreed, but she hadn’t the slightest idea what Psalm 12 was even about. She’d look it up later.

“Over and over again he yelled: ‘They speak vanity every one… flattering lips…a double heart…. The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things….’ Then, slipping out from behind the pew, he marched into the aisle way, arm outstretched, finger pointing directly at me.”

“What…?” Penny murmured, shocked at the mere image.

“He starting moving, ranting and raving all the while, pledging that if the Lord wouldn’t cut off flattering lips, than he would! The congregation, myself, we were all momentarily frozen in surprise, in shock at what was going on before us. Before I could react, before anyone could act, he’d already advanced onto the altar, his hands curled up in fists as he’d approached the pulpit, behind which I was standing.” The words were flat, emotionless.

“Maggie, did he—?” Penny was almost afraid to voice the question aloud.

“I don’t remember everything that happened next, just snatched moments here and there,” M.T. admitted, as though it were something to apologize for. “However, I do remember raising my hands up defensively when he reached me. I remember telling him it was okay, trying to soothe his obvious anger, pleading with him to calm down.”

“Shut up. I hate you. I hate you!” He’d screamed, one hand snaking out and grabbing hold of her hair.

“I remember how hard he tugged on that fistful in his hand, my head snapping back, forced to look up into his face,” M.T. said, her words mechanical, rehearsed. “I remember his eyes, how much anger and pain and hurt there was, locked away deep inside their depths.”

He’s swung her around then, to face the congregation.

“I remember the look on their faces…fear, complete and utter fear and maybe just a little self-righteousness; they’d known it all along. Carl was bad news. They’d tried to warn me, but would I listen?”

From the back of the sanctuary M.T. had spied three men quietly gain their feet, a matching look of retribution stamped across their expressions, as they made their way purposely closer, following Carl’s earlier steps. Heaving a sigh of relief, for just a moment, M.T. had felt the beginnings of hope. They were coming to save her, free her. They were coming to restrain Carl, put an end to this assault.

“I remember how those men looked when, without warning, they just stopped…stopped walking toward me, a mask of terror crossing their faces when their steps faltered. Their attention had been taken, their courage abandoned, robbed by the presence of something far more sinister than Carl himself. I heard a collective gasp ripple across the crowd, followed by an inhaled scream…

“I remember the moment I saw the gun in Carl’s hand. Apparently, he’d had it stuffed into the back of his pants, brandishing it only at the foiled rescue attempt….”

Penny choked back a desire to scream herself.

M.T. continued without notice. “Waving it wildly in the air, I remember him proclaiming it his deed to cease of the ungodly!” Knocking Maggie to her knees, he’d commanded she be punished for her sins.

“I remember the feel of the hard floor against my legs, the scratchy texture of the carpet where it rubbed against my nylons. I remember the feel of that metallic weapon; Carl kept caressing my face with it, almost petting me with it.”

Swallowing thickly, Penny suppressed a desire to puke.

“I remember watching helplessly as the congregation watched on…they were stuck motionless, paralyzed, unwillingly witnesses to an intended murder. Mother’s desperately hushed their children, turning young heads into the folds of their skirts, shielding against what was yet to come. They were just as much a victim as myself.

“So what happened next?” Penny asked thinly.

“The church housed a complex intercom system and on Sunday mornings all the speaker’s in all the rooms—particularly the nursery and the kitchen—were linked to my microphone. It was a young confirmand student, volunteering to watch the kids in the nursery, who, listening, had realized that something was wrong. She’d heard the shrieks, the screams… Sneaking down the hallway, she’d peered inside the half-glass screen of the sanctuary doors. Then she’d called 911.”

“Maggie…” Penny reached out, grabbing for both her sister’s hands.

“Not much had changed by the time help arrived,” M.T. supposed. “Carl was still talking, mumbling about how much damage my words caused; didn’t I know how much I hurt him? It was time for me to go—time to end my wretched weakness. I was still kneeling beneath his gun, sweat blinding me now from everything else.

“I don’t really know what happened next. I didn’t even know the police were there until…. They’d entered from the sacristy door, which was located behind us. Neither Carl nor I suspected a thing. One minute I was praying for my life and the next I heard a voice telling Carl to put the gun down!”

Chills racing up and down her arms, Penny wasn’t sure what to say. She didn’t feel equipped to deal with such a monumental happening. “So that’s why you came here. That’s why you came to Whestleigh.”

Maggie gestured weakly. “It was one of the reasons.”

Penny nodded quietly, trying to absorb this bombshell of information.

“I’ve tried so hard to forget what happened that day. I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t look at them—any of them. It was too much.” M.T.’s look begged Penny to understand. “That sanctuary was no longer a place of safety. Not for me. And I knew, I couldn’t be a good reverend, not there. So I left. I did a cowardly thing and I left. I wasn’t the only one in crisis. All of my worshippers that Sunday…the church was rocked, reeling desperately in response to this atrocity. They needed me to guide them, to counsel them back to a place of peace and godliness, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that. I—I was too shattered to even contemplate putting them back together. I couldn’t be the reverend they needed, the reverend they deserved, and they could no longer be my solace in a world of disbelief.”

“It’s okay Maggie,” Penny consoled, squeezing her hand.

“Until I got that stupid letter, I’d begun to think I was putting it behind myself,” M.T. considered derisively. “In reality, I’d never stopped running away.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Two

With a weary sigh, Kate opened the door to the tutoring room. It had been a week since her midnight tell-all to Penny, and her grades had taken a serious nosedive in the aftermath. She couldn’t seem to focus, her thoughts stuck on repeat; this was why she’d run away from home, so she wouldn’t have to remember, wouldn’t have to evaluate what had gone wrong in her life, so she wouldn’t have to face her decision, guess at whether she’d made a mistake in her defection; so she could forget Phil, her mother, everything. She’d come to Whestleigh to escape but ever since that night….

She’d gotten a C on an exam in Art History last week. It had been a devastating blow. The worst test score she’d ever received. The consequences could extend to her overall grade point average. In order to negate this mishap, Kate needed to ace the class final, a presentation analyzing works from the Dada movement, highlighting their impact on art as it is known today.

She’d done the research. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was in the slideshow presentation she needed to incorporate into the project. When it came to that kind of technology, Kate was lost. Hence her decision to visit the tutoring center. She’d signed up for an hour long study session with a teaching assistant from the computer programming department.

Gaining the lobby of the brick complex, Kate walked up the information counter set up there. She smiled down at the girl working behind the desk. “Hello,” she said in greeting, “my name is Kate. Kate McDonald. I booked time with someone from IT—”

“Kate McDonald…of course,” the girl confirmed, running her finger down the reservation sheet beside her computer. “You will be in room 5. It’s down that hallway,” she said, pointing behind her and to the right.

Kate nodded eagerly, her eyes following the girl’s gesticulation. “Wonderful,” she said distractedly, already moving in that direction. “Thank you,” she threw over her shoulder belatedly.

When she came upon a door marked with a laminated ‘Five’ stamped across its surface, Kate stilled, rolling her shoulders before reaching for the doorknob. She needed to do well here. With that thought firmly in mind, she pushed it open.

In an instant, her eyes took stock of the surroundings: a long table stood in the center of the space, with two computers lined up against the windows on the far side, a long corkboard running the length of the wall opposite them. Posters abounded in every available crevice:

advertising everything from school activities, to political rallies, and even rentals.

It was in the midst of this cursory glance that Kate became aware of another person seated in the room—more specifically, a man, quietly reclining in a padding office chair amongst the clutter. He was staring at her. Conscious of his look, Kate turned to make eye contact. As she did so, the beginning of a blush rushed into blossom across his face….

“Kate,” he announced, pronouncing her name slowly, uncomfortably.

“Simon,” Kate returned just as awkwardly, her voice stilted with surprise and discomfort. Simon Yates. Horrible Date Simon Yates was her tutor?

“Um, take a seat,” he offered weakly.

Kate smiled tightly.

 

 

 

Patting a nervous hand against her hair, Penny silently pleaded for some divine intervention—just this once, she was desperate to keep its bigness under control, to flatten any flyaway pieces into submission. The length of her almost-black hair was displayed in startling effect, hanging over one shoulder in a loose, casual braid. Her usual attire had been swapped for a pair of black leggings, a long teal tunic top, and about four different necklaces. Her lips were painted a fiery red and her eyes wore a fresh application of make-up.

Breezy, cool, but damn nice.

Just in time, she heard the heavy tread of tires turning down the lane, the rumbling roar of an engine chugging closer her way, and she knew it was just a matter of seconds before the tow-truck would come into a sight—a large black vehicle inscribed with Burke’s Brakes and Auto Body down its sides.

With purpose in her steps, she walked out to the driveway in welcome as it lumbered into view. It was all working out perfectly—better than she’d even planned it. She’d known he would be there, at the shop. He never missed a day of work. But even better, as luck would have it, when she’d called in the request for a checkup, it was Hank himself who’d answered the phone, Hank who’d politely asked what he could do for her today….

“I’m not entirely sure,” she’d lied easily, her voice coming out soft. “My car won’t start. I was hoping you could take a look at it?” The plea was girlish, helpless, just like she’d practiced it.

Thing is, she knew exactly what was wrong with her car. She was the one who broke it. Deliberately. It had taken a lot of courage and more than one Angel Reading, but Penny was done playing backseat to the lovely, the effervescent, Margaret Thayer. She was done waiting for Hank to notice her. Her patience had run out. It was time for a blitz, a Hail Mary pass—it was time Hank knew who Penny was.

So she’d pulled the ignition fuse loose. Penny was no fool, she’d read the car manual expressly beforehand. She wanted the issue to have the feel of natural causes without doing any serious damage to her vehicle, all the while giving her a much-needed reason to see Hank, to work up the courage to actually speak to him this time. Unlike a mere oil change, this would require a diagnosis…leaving Penny ample time to capture his attentions.

She was a stranded motorist. He was her oasis. They’d be alone together. And what had Kate said? Engage in conversation about cars—maintenance, safety issues, easy fixes…yada, yada, yada.

“Sure no problem,” Hank had said. “Let me go grab the keys for the tow-truck, I should be able to get ‘er in right away.” He was nothing if he wasn’t blunt. “Is there anywhere you’d like me to drop you off on the way?”

Penny had frozen for a moment at the unexpected question. She hadn’t planned for that.

“Oh,” she’d said, stalling for time. She shook her head, “No. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just tag along and wait at the shop. Hopefully it shouldn’t take too long.” Her fingers she’d kept crossed down at her sides.

With suppressed delighted, Penny watched now as Hank clambered out of his truck, walking toward her. She would get ten extra minutes alone with him on the way back to town. How great was that?!

“That your car over there?” Hank asked, all-business. Rounding the hood of his truck, he sent a nodding glance toward her maroon colored sedan.

“Uh, yes,” Penny stumbled to say, unprepared for the briskness of his attitude. Pleasantries would be kept to a minimal she saw.

“No problem,” he said, his steps bent in that direction. “Give me a couple minutes to get it levered onto the truck and we’ll be on our way,” he said reassuringly.

Penny smiled at his turned back. It was all going according to plan.

She was putting her hat in the ring (and trying really hard to ignore the voice inside her head, ashamed of her machinations…making her feel guilty for trying to steal a man away from Maggie).

 

 

 

It was going to be a long day, Pastor Maggie thought as she walked into the main office at Good Sheppard Church. She’d only just arrived at work, and already she could feel a stress headache pounding at her temples: marital counseling at eleven, a sit-down with the youth director to talk schematics for the Christmas Pageant at noon, and a meeting with the Parish Planning Counsel to look forward to at five…and she still hadn’t written out her sermon for Sunday.

Reaching for a cup of coffee, at the small kitchenette just inside the doorway, she called a quick hello to Heather, the building’s grandmotherly receptionist. Inching close to ninety, Heather had been with Good Sheppard longer than most of the congregants combined. She’d had yet to mutter so much as hint at her desire to retire, and M.T. wasn’t about to force the issue. Heather did a fine job and the people loved her. Plus, she baked the best cinnamon cookies this side of the Mississippi.

Speaking of that…M.T.’s hand snaked out, grabbing for one of the delicious treats; Heather had them spread on tantalizing display beside the coffeemaker. Popping it in her mouth, Maggie figured she deserved the sugar.

“Good morning Pastor,” Heather said, barely pausing to lift her eyes from the computer screen before her in greeting. It was almost ten o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon which meant that Heather was busy writing up the bulletin for the Sunday morning service.

“It’s going to be a busy morning,” M.T. said inanely. Cup in hand, she wandered over to the inner-office mailbox. Her slot was, as usual, overflowing. Snatching the contents out, she figured she might as well rifle through some of them before her first appointment. “Guess I better get to it, huh?” she said, not really expecting a response from Heather. Body angled toward the doorway, she prepared to exit.

M.T.’s private office was located further on down the hallway, completely separate from anyone else. She had her domain, the secretary hers. The Youth Directory and the Nursery sat between them respectively. Some days M.T. valued the reclusively the space provided…of course it also meant a lot of back and forth between there and here—faxing, filing, arranging the church calendar. She and Heather worked together an awful lot for two women on opposite ends of a corridor.

“Oh, before you go,” Heather said, giving M.T. pause from her intended retreat, “another letter came for you this morning. Hold on.” Stopping momentarily, Heather bent to retrieve it from underneath a stack of assorted paperwork on her desk. Handing it to M.T. she added corridor apologetically. “It only came this morning…hadn’t had time to sort out the post yet.”

M.T. waved the words aside. “No worries. I’ve got it now,” she said, her eyes absently running down the length of the white envelope, her gaze zeroing in on the sender’s address…

Grace Lutheran Church         

            2680 Callaghan Road

            Paisley Way, IN ….

M.T. didn’t read any farther than that. She didn’t need to: Callaghan Road. Paisley Way. Callaghan Road. Paisley Way.

It was probably the shock to her system which caused M.T.’s fingers to go numb, the additional letters slipping out of her grasp, falling in cascading effect to the floor. M.T. hardly noticed. Not even Heather’s surprised gasp resonated. M.T’s eyes were transfixed on the innocuous looking letter before her, her senses drowned by the haunted associations marked by those words: Callaghan Road. Paisley Way.

It was only the slosh of hot coffee spilling over the lip of her cup and splashing against the incriminating return address, which snapped M.T. back to attention. Righting her hand, she steadied the liquid back into the mug, vacant eyes looking down at the littered floor beneath her feet.

“Are you okay, Pastor?” Heather asked tentatively, getting down on her knees now to gather the mess together.

“I’m fine,” M.T. assured her. Setting the cup down safely and tucking the letter into the back waistband of her pants, M.T. bent to help Heather.

“Bad news?” the other woman asked, not unkindly.

“Just a surprise, that’s all,” she assured her and, reaching for the scattered post, rose to her feet.  “I’ll-I’ll be in my office if you need me,” she said, and with that, she hurried out the door. The coffee lay abandoned on Heather’s desk….

In the silence of her office, locked safely inside, Maggie sat and stared at the letter. She didn’t move to open it. She wasn’t sure she would. Breathe Maggie, breathe. Her thoughts were flooded, sorting together images she’d rather have forgotten. Her fingers clutching the heart-shaped locket she worn around her neck, Maggie tried to shut out the memories of that one day, that one horrible, fateful day: the shrieking cry of the congregation, their faces blotted by the stark fear of what they were witnessing…the cold sharpness biting against Maggie’s cheekbone, the hard felt of the altar carpet pressing up against her knees…the taste of bile rising up her throat, the film of tears covering her eyes, separating her from everyone else…

Breathe Maggie, breathe.

 

 

 

Janessa, a dark hoodie pulled low over her brow, gazed out across the myriad of bookshelves smattering the floor of LitLiber Bookstore. Her heart was beating a rapid tattoo, sweat pooling across her upper lip—she felt clammy, queasy. Secondary educational books stared back at her. Preparatory books: GED, GRE, ACT…where was it, she wondered, looking nervously over her shoulder, checking to make sure no one was watching her frantic searching. Where was the SAT book? Her fingers landed against the bindings on the second shelf; they were shaking…

 

 

 

Kate stared down at the computer before her, Simon’s words barely making an impression on her senses. He was showing her different applications available on the school’s slideshow software system. Vaguely she watched while he uploaded an audio file.

“A multi-faceted presentation helps to keep the audience’s focus,” he said.

She nodded dumbly, trying to pay attention. “You’re really good at this,” she said, for lack of anything else to say.

“Yeah well… if there’s one area in my life where I’m sought-after its computers,” Simon said drily, his eyes never leaving the screen before him. There was a decided edge to his words, and Kate had a feeling he was making more than just a frivolous comment. “Know what you’re good at and stick to it, right?” This time there was no mistaking the undercurrent to his meaning, the double ententre present in the words.

Blanching, Kate scrambled for something to say. He wouldn’t even look at her for Christ’s sake. Not that she could blame him, she was also having trouble with the whole eye-contact business. If only this were a normal tutoring session…. But it wasn’t. There was that disastrous date they went on that one time, and the reminder of it hung like a heavy veil in the air around them, punctuated in every stiff movement, every forced sentence.

He’d tried to call her afterward; he’d sent out various texts; until Kate’s voicemail had been overwhelmed with apologies and her message threads laden with hoped-for second chances. Kate had responded back only once, a quick reply, graceful in forgiveness, gentle in letdown, but still, firm in rejection. She hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings, but she also hadn’t wanted to lead him on. She’d gone with swift, quiet truth; no flowery speeches, no clichéd sentiments, just an honest, clean break; it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Now she wasn’t so sure. The room was practically charged with unsaid tension. Something had to give. They still have forty-five minutes left of their allotted hour session. “Simon,” Kate said, her voice high, rushed with anxious self-reproach. Clearly, some tact was needed, some excusable explanation to soothe his hurt feelings. He deserved that. Contrition lining her words, Kate continued: “Listen, I-I…you and me, we… I had just gotten out of something—”

“It’s fine Kate,” Simon interrupted, waving off her feeble comeback, her belated apology. “Please, you don’t need to do this. I get it.” He shrugged, his voice low, hurried.

Yikes. Kate gulped.

Could this situation get any more uncomfortable?

Simon shook his head: “I’m used to it,” he added, the words said softly, so softly that Kate wasn’t sure she was meant to hear them at all.

Double yikes!

 

 

 

“Are sure there isn’t some place I can drop you off?” Hank asked Penny as he pulled his truck into the car shop.

Hiding a secret grin, Penny shrugged: “Not really. I mean, I wouldn’t have any way to get back here. Cool if I just stick around?” she asked, reaching for the door handle as he put the truck into park.

Now it was Hank’s turn to shrug, leading her inside the industrial-sized garage doors before them: a tan sedan, raised up on hydraulic lifts, lay suspended in the air overhead as they advanced into the dimly lit space. “Fine by me,” he said, and making his way to the small service desk stationed over to one side of the building, directly before the front entrance, he reached for a notepad off its grimy countertop. Scribbling from memory, he jotted down her car’s information: make, model, problem, Penny’s name and number…

It was only as he finished this that he seemed to remember that she was still standing there, in front of him. Clearing his throat, Hank hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “Waiting rooms that way…make yourself comfortable. Should be plenty of coffee on.”

Penny’s eyes landed with dismay on a small, glum-looking alcove. The walls were decorated with sundry tires, tools, and emergency car-care kits. Three vinyl chairs were scattered any which way around a metal cart holding a very old bubble TV. The speckled tile floor was smeared with dirt, mud, and salt. Just to the right of this “homey” space was a bar housing a microwave, mini-fridge and burnt coffee.

Her eyes narrowing into slivers, Penny swallowed mounting displeasure. This was not how she envisioned this going down. She hadn’t gone through all this mess just to sit and watch Hank …been there, done that, got nothing.

Shifting, Penny watched Hank leave from behind the desk, his stride steady as he walked across the length of the garage alley to the last empty stall, where another mechanic was already carefully depositing her car. She had to do something and quick.

“Actually,” she called out, her voice echoing loudly against the thin metal walls, “If I may, there are one or two questions I’d like to ask you about my car?”

At the sound of her voice, Hank automatically slowed down, giving Penny time to catch up to his stride. With the tilt of his head, Hank gave her the benefit of his attention, albeit, his quiet attention. Nevertheless, Penny went on: “I figure, since I’m here, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to learn something—who knows, it may save you the trouble of another SOS call in the future…”

She gave him her sweetest smile, accompanied by her girlish giggle.

“That is, if you don’t mind?”

 

 

 

M.T. wasn’t sure how she’d managed to get through that pre-marital counseling session. She could hardly remember what had been said, what advice she’d given to the young couple who’d sat on that couch before her, listening gravely to her so-called words of wisdom.

It’s because she’d opened the damn letter. She knew she shouldn’t have, but she hadn’t been able to help herself. She hadn’t been able to control her shaking fingers from slipping open the seal, plucking out the paper which lay inside…And now, all she kept seeing, burnt across her retinas, imprinted on her consciousness, were the words she’d read on its generic cardstock surface. The missive had been short, written in neat penmanship underneath a simple biblical verse (Isaiah 41:10):

Pastor Thayer,          

            Please come back home. Help us heal the wounds—let us mend yours. Together, we can get through this period of crisis, of mourning. Come home.

 

That’s it! Nabbing up her purse and jacket, M.T. staggered out into the hallway, the door to her office shutting firmly in her wake. She knew what she had to do.  After a preliminary knock, she poked her head inside the main office quarters, signaling the attention of her one-woman staff.

Heather, hard at work, looked up at her entrance, smiling softly.  “Pastor—”

“Cancel my meeting with Sandy,” —the youth director—, “and inform the Parish Planning Counsel that I’ll be unable to attend the meeting tonight,” M.T. said briskly.

The usually unflappable Heather looked visibly baffled at the news. “Uh…sure. Is everything alright?” She asked softly.

M.T. nodded shortly. “Yes…ah, something’s come up though. Something I need to take care of immediately. I’ll be out of the office for the remainder of the day.”

Without waiting for a response, M.T. turned on her heel, her steps leading her quickly out into the parking lot of the church. She needed to get out of there. She couldn’t breathe in there.

She needed a drink. Maybe two.

 

 

 

The sudden vibration of Kate’s phone sliding across the laminate worktable, accompanied by its sounding ring, came as welcome interruption distracting from Simon’s most recent lecture on widget functionality…. Shooting an apologetic smile his way, Kate reached forward to grab it. At this point, she’d welcome the automated voice of a telemarketer.

Note to self: get another IT guy!

If it were possible, the atmosphere had gone from awkward to down-right uncomfortable between the two of them since Kate’s regrettable faux pas earlier. She couldn’t focus. Simon couldn’t talk fast enough. It was tutelage hell. Worse, they still had twenty minutes left on the clock.

“Hello?” Kate answered, her voice giddy with relief.

“Kate?”

Her stomach muscles tightening, Kate felt her face flush for the second time that day. She recognized that voice.

“Jake?” She asked. Good God—please, tell me I didn’t forget a shift?!

“Kate, I’m calling on behalf of a Janessa Cooper. Do you know her?”

“Janessa?” Kate asked stupidly. Huh? Why would Jake be calling her about Janessa? “Uh…Yeah. Yeah, I know her. What—? Is everything all right?” Kate asked anxiously. This didn’t make any sense. A knot of fear was forming slowly in her stomach.

Jake sighed on the other end of the line. Kate could practically see him running a hand through his thick dark hair. The knot expanded. “No, it’s not. I-Kate, I caught Janessa trying to steal a book from the LitLiber this afternoon.”

“What?!” Kate screeched. Pushing her chair back roughly on the words, stunned surprise stealing throughout her body, Kate gained her feet.

“I’m sorry to call you about this, but when I couldn’t get a hold of the girl’s mother, Janessa gave me your number instead. I hope that was okay.” Jake’s voice sounded, just for a moment, unsure.

Kate nodded numbly. “Yeah, that’s fine, it’s fine… Um, where is she?” she managed to ask through tight, dry lips. Please, please not the police station!

Jake seemed to sense her unease. “She’s here, at the store,” he told her quickly. “Can you—can you come?”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-One

Now it was Kate’s turn to look shocked, Penny’s words floating across her psyche: “Kate, are you telling me—did Phil? Did he cheat on you?” Stammering in surprise, Kate was nonetheless quick with her denial. “Cheat on me? No! No-no, Phil would never do that.” Early morning streaks of sunlight could be seen now, shining with watery rays over the horizon. Kate didn’t dare look down at her watch to check the time.

Clutching a hand to her heart, Penny took a deep breath, her relief at the news almost palpable. “Okay, then…?”

Kate’s lips twisted. She could still remember the sounds of that night, see the whispered impressions pulsing against her bedroom window: the hurried crunch of cars driving past, the imposing lamplight of a nearby park just faintly visible…She couldn’t breathe, her hands, when she’d pressed them against her aching head felt tingly, almost numb. Phil had been sleeping peacefully beside, his face turned in her direction, the slightest waft of his breath floating across her overwhelmed senses. If he’d woken up in that moment, it would have been to see her eyes wide in a white face, her body hunched forward in a kneeling position. He would have witnessed the stark horror she’d been experiencing.

“Nothing so dire happened, not really. I mean, something happened…” Kate paused for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. “I got a wakeup call, I guess.” Literally and physically.

Penny looked confused.

Kate tried again: “I told you, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to be happy. I had it all—or so everyone thought…”

“And you’d invested time and energy into all that,” Penny prodded.

Kate shrugged. “Yeah, but deep down inside, I knew it was a wasted effort.”

She had Phil had lived in a gorgeous house. Four bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a dining room table that seated twelve people, and a stainless steel kitchen offering every modern convenience: mosaic backsplash, custom-cabinetry, puck lighting, inlaid floor heating…. Phil was well on his way to making partner at work, with Kate as equally successful in her own field of study. They spent their weekends entertaining with friends, sailing, dining out, attending private parties and banquets. She should have been on top of the world.

Only, she didn’t like their friends very much; she was pretty sure Donna was sleeping with Christy’s husband, and Stacey could be downright rude, always picking on Kate’s clothing, condemning her diet, mocking her opinions, her education. And the dining out… it was so staged, so put-upon, their choice of establishments alternating between the trendy and the now. Spontaneity was out, hunger wasn’t considered. Same for the society functions: rooms full of Calida McDonald’s, no escape in sight. It was stifling, boring, intimidating.

Then again…Kate hated going out almost as much as she hated staying in. Phil had decorated the house. His tastes were particular and if there was one area in which he wasn’t a nice man, it was fashion. He’d picked every curtain, every picture, ever knick-knick in the house, and he’d chosen their exact location within each room, too. He didn’t like clutter, he didn’t like chaos. Nothing was ever amiss, nothing was ever moved. Period. Kate had lived there for three years half-afraid to touch anything.

(And that stupid painting, the one Phil had bought her, Kate had wanted to hang it up in their bedroom but he’d only laughed: Absolutely not. It was hideous. Maybe it could hang up in the laundry room, someplace where guests would never have to see it.) That had stung. Kate loved that painting, it held sentimental value, and Phil’s rejection of it had felt personal. She’d thought it meant something to their relationship. His ability to toss it aside so indifferently…. Nevertheless, it sat beside the washing machine, above the folding table. Kate hadn’t dared disagree. It’s not that she feared Phil per se, she just didn’t want to deal with one of his little lectures.

He could be a patronizing ass at times. It was probably the lawyer in him, which stemmed from the lawyer in his father, but Phil hadn’t yet met a fight he didn’t relish arguing his way through. Kate, not so much. She’d rather agree to disagree and move on. It wasn’t completely altruistic on her end either, she just didn’t like fighting. She’d never been allowed to win one. Not with her mother. Not with Phil. Not even about the stupid goddamn vase.

At a work Christmas party two years prior, she’d been gifted a beautiful glass amphora vase by her boss. Feeling reckless, immediately after returning home that evening, she’d set it on the mantelpiece in the living room. She hadn’t asked for Phil’s permission, his input. It was the first time she’d thought to defy him, to decorate unaccompanied. Hell, he did it to her all the time. But she’d barely had time to assess it on the marble surface when Phil sauntered in, his eyes zeroing in on the foreign object and finding fault with its placement. A vase for Christ’s sake!

“It’s cobalt blue,” Phil had stated.

“So?” Kate’d asked, looking rebelliously at him.

“It doesn’t match the color scheme,” Phil had pointed out unnecessarily, waving his arm to encompass the space: distressed leather couch, white shag rug, sandpaper colored throw pillows, a dark maple bookcase. Tying it all together were hints of honey yellow in the wall décor.

“Call it a conversation piece, something to direct the eye,” Kate had pursued doggedly, but she’d already known she’d lost. Phil had been shaking his head even as he’d walked toward her, lifting the vase in his hands.

“I think it would look nice in the bathroom…”

 

 

 

Bringing herself back to the present, Kate locked eyes with Penny, a cup of coffee the sole item between them on the table. Absently, she considered that the other woman must be close to consuming the entire pot by now. A niggling of guilt pricked at the base of her neck with the thought, it was unlikely either of them would get any rest tonight. Kate had classes and Penny well…she had extra-sensory stuff to do, or something.

“September 21st” Kate mused out loud, the words seemingly arbitrary, casual…out of place.

“September 2st?” Penny repeated questioningly. “What’s September 21st?”

Kate smiled sadly. “That was the last evening I spent with Phil.” She snorted derisively. “A typical weekend, spent with the typical crowd, we’d attended a surprise birthday party earlier in the day. It was being thrown for a co-worker of Phil’s, and as such, it was essential that we at least make an appearance.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Everyone was there, all in good spirits. The theme was fiesta—margaritas and sangrias to compliment the Mexican fare, paper lanterns dotting the outside patio….” Kate frowned, getting momentarily lost in reverie. She’d worn a flowing white dress with an embroidered top for the occasion.

“But you didn’t want to go?” Penny asked perceptively.

Kate sighed. “No, I didn’t. I was overwhelmed at work, and I’d wanted to spend the afternoon going through some of the account portfolios piling up on my desk. Work rarely stayed at the office,” Kate admitted ruefully. “Anyway, I’d tried to bow out, but Phil promised we wouldn’t stay late. It hardly mattered though, I was tired, abstracted, preoccupied…it was the middle of a busy period at the firm and I felt overwhelmed with the backlog.”

Penny nodded slowly, absorbed with Kate’s ramblings, storing the bits of information into a mental filing cabinet. There was a reason she was being told all of this. Attempting to marshal them into a semblance of order, she kept quiet.

“Still, to give Phil credit we did leave fairly early, but by then my tension was like a livewire….”

Kate had been fidgety, distracted. It was so noticeable that it gave Phil a headache just from being around her, or at least that’s what he’d claimed when they entered the house that evening, immediately excusing himself from her company. He was going to lay down, close his eyes and relax. He had a busy day in the morning. Kate had barely waved him off, her attention already bent over the spreadsheet she’d left open on the dining room table, her eye’s absorbed, figuring economic trends. When she lifted her head again, it was ten o’clock. Phil was already cocooned in the soft flannel of his pajamas, and claiming his intention to turn in for the night, he sternly recommended she do the same. It wouldn’t do for her to be sleep-deprived tomorrow at the office.

“But nothing really unusual happened. We settled in, had a relatively quiet night and then we just—we went to bed,” Kate continued softly.

It was then that things started to get weird.

 

It all started with a dream. Kate and Phil were excavating an underground tunnel. They each held a small shovel in one hand, with only a flashlight (attached to their construction hats) throwing a dim patch of light ahead of them as they slowly crawled forward; the passageway was narrow, the width of their shoulders, no taller than the length from knee to head. The air was sticky, heavy, sweet…Inch by inch, they progressed further and further inside…and then, suddenly, without warning, the tunnel came to an abrupt end. Kate and Phil were stuck, staring forward into a wall of suffocating dirt and soil and earth. Kate felt her heart skip a beat then speed up at the sight. They wouldn’t be able to shovel their way through it, either. It was as solid as cement.

“We have to turn around,” she called to Phil over her left shoulder. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure how they’d manage to do that in the tight quarters, but what other option did they have?

“We can’t,” Phil whispered from behind her. There was a distinct edge to his voice…

“We have too,” Kate insisted, her voice pitchy, breathy, high.

“No, I mean, we can’t,” he said, and giving her a little nudge, motioned for Kate to look behind her. The tunnel had collapsed behind them, an avalanche of splintered rock and filth covering the space.

They were trapped!

 

 

“It was a nightmare. I had a nightmare. That’s why I left,” Kate told Penny gravely, her voice ominous in the quiet room. She’d woken from it with a terrific jerk, jack-knifing in position. Her breath wheezing out of her mouth so rapidly, Kate hadn’t been able to suck in enough air to calm down. “I’m sure it was a mixture of things: acid indigestion from the spicy food, my nerves at work, the terrible dream…add it all up and voila! Panic attack.”

Scrambling into a seated position, Kate had tried to swallow but her tongue felt thick, her chest shaking, constricting…her heart beating loudly in her ears, drumming thickly against the blood running there. It kept skipping, stopping and then tripping to a start again. “I’d never had a panic attack before; I thought I was dying.” Kate laughed, the sound scratching against her raw throat. “I’m not being dramatic. I actually thought, in those terrifying moments, that I was having a heart attack.” Sweat had beaded out across her forehead and the room had swum before her eyes to a dizzying effect.

“I felt so weak I couldn’t even force the energy to scream for help, to wake up Phil. And as I stared down at his unconscious form, my eyes fierce in an imprisoned body, I kept thinking: this is how I’m going to die? Next to this man? I don’t love him. I don’t even like this bed! How sad: I’m going to die and I wasted my opportunity to live.” Wiping a stray tear off her cheek, Kate went on: “I was so scared, and not because I thought I was leaving this life, but because I didn’t want to fight for what I thought I was leaving. How pathetic! To leave such a desperate legacy behind…no one would ever know who I really was. I kept thinking about who would show up at my funeral; I didn’t want any of them there. They would mourn the passing of a woman who’d never existed. And I resented that. I resented that they would remember me as someone I hated.”

Kate sighed heavily after admitting to this, her head bowed low over the table. Penny raised her hand in comfort but on second thought, let it drop down to her lap once more. She doubted it was what the other woman wanted right now.

“Obviously you didn’t die though,” Penny said instead, refusing to let Kate stall out. The story needed to be told, no matter how painful it was.

Kate nodded, her eyes tracing the grain of the wood before her. “No, I didn’t. After a couple minutes, my heartbeat slowed back down, the air in my lungs filled again…” It had happened almost without Kate being aware of it, her thoughts so focused upon to her impending doom that she’d hardly noticed at first when her body stilled, the blood flowing freely once more throughout, oxygen levels rising adequately, stomach muscles loosening. “And with it my strength came back, a strength I never knew I even had before.”

Without a peep, Kate had snuck out from underneath the covers of the bed. Rising on to her tiptoes, she’d escaped out of the room, her nightgown whispering softly against the hardwood flooring as she raced down the hallway and toward Phil’s home office.

“I wasn’t thinking clearly, yet I knew I was right. I had to leave. I knew if I waited until the morning, if I tried to talk to Phil about how I felt, he’d just argue me into submission. He’d convince me that my feelings were tied to my nightmare, that it was just wedding jitters, that I was being an emotional woman…I knew that the strength of character running through my system wouldn’t be there in the morning. I knew I had to leave,” Kate repeated.

Entering Phil’s office, she’d floundered for a second. “I knew he had a map in there, an old-school atlas of the United States.” Kate’s eyes flicked in Penny’s direction, trying to gauge her listener’s reaction to this incredible tale; she couldn’t read anything on the psychic’s face. “If I was going to runaway, I knew I would need a destination in mind. I told you once before how I ended up in Whestleigh: I let my fingers run blindly across the map and when they stopped they were hovering over this city. Well, that’s the truth. That’s what I did.”

“And Phil?” Penny asked wonderingly

“Phil woke up in the morning to a half-empty bed and a coward’s note,” Kate said cryptically.

Phil,

            I’m so sorry, but I can’t do this. I can’t lie to you, to myself. I can’t marry you. I’m sorry. Know that I wish you nothing but happiness. Please, do the same for me.

            All my gratitude, my love,

            Kate

 

“You left Phil,” Penny said decisively.

Kate shook her head. “No. I left everything. It wasn’t just Phil I didn’t love; it was everything…my persona, the friends that came along with it. Even my job.” Kate sighed for a moment, sorting her scattered thoughts into words. “It was a foregone conclusion, before I was even out of diapers, that I would enter the investment world. My father was always there, pulling the strings: from my enrollment at college, to my internships, the right networking opportunities, all the way to my position with Banner Investment. And I’d sat by idly letting him—letting everyone but me—live my life. Hell, I don’t even like math,” Kate murmured inanely.

“You quit? Just like that?” Penny asked incredulously. This didn’t sound like Kate.

Kate smiled. “Just like that. I emailed my boss my notice, effective immediately.” No need to stop in, she hadn’t had any personal items stashed there anyway. It was all done, in a matter of minutes, via Smartphone. She didn’t have the convenience of time to offer anything else. “It sounds bad, but in the investment world, any decision to quit is considered effective immediately anyway. Once you state the intent to leave, they want you gone—too much access to confidential information. I wouldn’t be missed. I was barely known.”

“And then you left?” Penny asked.

Kate nodded. “Then I left.”

“You didn’t talk to your parents, your friends? No one?” Penny’s voice was strained, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. In fact, she couldn’t.

“No. I knew they would have convinced me to stay. I couldn’t give them the chance. It wasn’t like they didn’t try afterward…” Phil tried the hardest: voicemails, text messages, emails, all of them demanding to know what was going on, where Kate was, what the hell she was thinking…? “But I didn’t respond, wouldn’t answer back. I know Phil,” Kate pleaded to Penny. “My defection hurt his pride more than anything, it embarrassed him. If I’d thought it was more that that—,” Kate paused jerkily, “but it wasn’t. He had lost control and that wasn’t acceptable to him. Phil never lost control.”

“And your mother?” Penny asked next. She’d never meet Calida McDonald but from what Kate said, she sounded like a law unto herself.

“I haven’t spoken to her either. If they knew where I was—any of them, I wouldn’t stand I chance. I’d be back in Minneapolis and married to Phil before I even knew what was even happening to me.”

Silence descended upon the room after that. Kate’s story was finished. Penny knew the rest. Daylight was streaking through the blinds. With a glance at the alarm clock sitting beside the coffeemaker, Penny noted the time: 4:15 a.m.

“And you’re afraid of anyone ever having that kind of power over you again, right? That’s what scares you. This attraction you feel for Jackson—the attraction you’d feel for anyone—it triggers the reminder of what you worked so hard to leave behind?”Penny asked, bringing the conversation back around, full circle.

Kate shifted restlessly. She’d never thought about it that way before. “I’m not good at asserting myself. You know that. You talk me into things all the time,” Kate said instead.

With the tip of her head, Penny conceded Kate’s point. “Yes…”

“I’m a pushover. I don’t have a backbone.” No doubt because Calida McDonald had wanted it that way, Penny thought silently to herself.

“Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” Penny insisted then, her voice infused with energy, passion, anger even. “You can have a backbone if you want one. You just have to want one.”

Kate opened her mouth, no doubt to refute this, but Penny wasn’t finished talking: “Phil, your mother, everyone from your past told you who you were and you hated that—that’s why you left, right? Stop letting people do that. Stop being a pushover just because other people think you should be one. Tell me, right now, what kind of person do you want to be?”

Kate stared at Penny, dumbfounded.

“Because baby,” Penny continued, her voice softer now, “You can be anyone you want. That strength you felt that night, it didn’t dessert you with the rising of the morning sun. It brought you here, to college, to new friends…Don’t be fooled. You are strong.”

Kate swallowed hard, the tears from earlier making an encore appearance. “I want to be autonomous, multifaceted. I want to be free, fearless: to change, to make mistakes….”

Penny stood up, her joints sore and stiff from the extended period of sitting. Rounding the table, she cupped Kate’s chin in her hand and, tilting her head, forced their eyes to meet. “Then don’t make it about Jackson—make it about you.”

“I’m not sure how,” Kate wailed

Penny smiled lovingly down at her friend, at her best friend. “You’ll learn. I’ll teach you.”

“But—”

“No,” Penny said, shushing Kate. “Rule Number One: before you start worrying about other people, you take care of yourself. Let Jackson worry about Jackson for the time being. Right now you need to decide what you want Kate?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, if Jackson walked through that door right now, would you want him to kiss you? Don’t worry about what anyone else may think. Just focus on you.”

Chewing on that for a second, Kate tried to imagine him doing just what Penny said, his body coming into view from behind her curtained door, eyes narrowing as they spot Kate, face flooded with desire. With a purposeful stride, he draws nearer. In her mind’s eye, Kate feels her back arch at the sight, her lips responding to the imagined invitation as he comes closer. And then, just as he’s about to reach her, Jackson’s face morphs, twisting…his eyes turning a darker shade of brown, his blonde hair growing dark, unruly, his build exchanged for something huskier… until it’s the likeness of Jake that Kate sees standing before her.

Gasping, Kate’s jaw dropped at the unintended switch but, before she could make comment on this conversion, the apparition changed back, taking on Jackson’s form again. Then Jake. Then Jackson. Jake. Jackson…over and over, it alternated before her eyes.

 

“Um…Yes,” Kate whispered, but she wasn’t entirely sure to whom she was referring.