North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-One

With something akin to panic, Jake stared down at the concert tickets sitting on his kitchen counter. They were for her favorite band—when he’d found out they were playing in town, he’d rushed out to buy them. It was going to be a surprise.

Grimacing, he pushed them out of his sight.

Kate had the absolute worst timing.

Pushing himself up, Jake paced from his kitchen counter to his living room windows and back again. That would all end now; they would go back to the way things had been before. Because—because, he and Penny’s relationship was a farce, built on the fabric of something false, something that turned out to be, ironically, only in the way….

Because Jake didn’t want Kate anymore.

He wasn’t entirely sure when it had started, but somewhere along the way she’d just become the excuse, the reason to keep hanging out with his old friend, his friend that he’d forgotten how much he missed; his friend that had somehow become more important than the girl.

But he wouldn’t have that excuse anymore.

Jake shook his head, his mind rewinding back to half an hour ago, when he’d heard that unexpected knock at his door…

“Kate,” he’d announced, surprise etching across his features when he found her on the other side of his doorstep.

“Jake.” She’d tried to smile. “I-uh—are you busy right now?”

“No…”

She’d looked momentarily relieved, and at the same time sharply uncomfortable. Nodding with a jerk, she’d taken in a noisy breath. “I was hoping, erm, can we talk?”
And Jake had known already what she’d come to say. Stepping back, he’d waved her inside. “Of course,” he’d inviting, a pit forming in his stomach.

Fidgeting, she’d moved into his living room.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” he’d asked automatically, hoping to dispel some of the nervous energy practically oozing out of her pores.

“No, no, that’s okay,” she’d said. Then, squaring her shoulders, she’d looked him dead in the eyes. “I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’ll just start…”
“Kate,” Jake had interrupted then, holding up a hand. “It’s okay.”

But she’d gone on anyway. “I asked you for time. I asked that you wait for me to figure out what I wanted…which was selfish of me, unfair of me. But you did it anyway.” She’d sighed. “You did that for me—and I’ll always thank you for your patience and kindness. Really, truly. The least I can do is be honest with you now.”

Jake smiled gently, hoping to ease her way. “Okay.”

“You have been such a good friend to me,” Kate said.

“And you’ve been a good friend to me.”

“And I don’t want that to change, but—” Kate bit her lip. “But that’s all we can be. Friends, I mean.” Her eyes stared down at her feet. “I don’t—I wish I could say, ‘I just don’t feel that way about you,’ but we both know that wouldn’t be entirely true,” Kate said with a half-laugh. “Only…. I don’t think I feel it enough. And that’s not fair to either of us.”

Jake reached forward to cup her elbow. “I know,” he told her then, silencing her. “I think I knew it all along.”

Kate’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be.”

“Jake, I would never deliberately hurt you. And I’m so sorry if I led you to believe—”

“Kate,” Jake had insisted, “the only thing you led me to believe was exactly what you just said: that you weren’t sure what you wanted. That you were confused….and  now, now you’ve decided. You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing. I made all the moves, not you.”

“Stop being so nice to me…”

“No, I’ll never do that—”

Kate gave a watery snort.

“And Kate,” at this, she chanced to look up at his face, her eyes finding a gentle, compassionate response there. “Thank you for telling me—that is, how you feel. Thank you for talking to me about it, and in such a graceful way.”

“I know it’s terrible to say, but I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t,” Jake told her. “We’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” And oddly, he’d meant it.

 

 

 

Jake pursed his lips. The irony was, it wasn’t Kate he was mourning right now, it wasn’t Kate who was making his muscles cramp, his throat feel too tight; it wasn’t Kate who he feared losing. It was Penny. Because somewhere along the way, she’d stolen the show, pushing Kate to the backseat, and making a convenient excuse of the blonde—and all in the name of continuing this ruse.

Only, he hadn’t been willing to admit that, even to himself, not until Kate had walked into his apartment, not until she’d started talking, saying words that should have crushed him, words that should have broken his heart. But all he’d felt was relief. That it was over. That Kate wasn’t in love with him. Because…because he wasn’t in love with her.

There was just one small hitch. Without Kate there was no Penny. And without Penny—Jake swallowed hard—without Penny, his life seemed a little duller, a little less humorous. Without Penny….

Walking back to his kitchen, he stared down at those concert tickets again. It had been a week ago: Penny had called, asking if he wanted to have dinner at her house—she was trying out a new dish and she needed a guinea pig. Maggie was out at Hanks and Jake was the only other person she knew desperate enough to be a taste-tester….

“I see,” he’d teased on the phone. “I’m nothing more than a science experiment.”

“Did I mention that I also have a six-pack sitting on ice?” She’d offered laughingly.

“Be there in five minutes.”

“I thought so,” she’d laughed.

Pocketing his phone, Jake had been true to his word. Wasting two of those minutes to rip out of the sweats and into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh button-up, splash on a little cologne, and work his fingers through his hair, he’d been quickly out the door, whistling as he’d locked up.

The topic of conversation had happened naturally enough. They’d just sat down at the table, and Jake had begun talking to her about the idea of booking a concert for the LitLiber’s Anniversary Party when she’d offered up her favorite band as a possibility:

“…I saw them for the first time in Hiltbolt. I was seventeen, and it was the first time I’d ever snuck out to a bar…” Penny had informed him. Her face was pink with the memory. “And, I don’t know, I guess it was love at first sight.”

Jake had grinned. “You were forever resigned to be the number one fan of a group called Stink Pig?”

Penny had wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, they could have picked a better name…”

“Are they actually any good?”

Penny had shrugged. “Who knows—but every time I listen to them, I’m seventeen again….”

“Drinking your first illegal beer…”

“…and having the absolute time of my life!”

Jake had teased her then: “I never knew you were such a wild child.”

Penny had laughed. “That’s just it. I wasn’t. I believe that night went down in history as my one and only experience breaking curfew.”

“Really?” And that had piqued his interest. The most popular guy in school, he’d barely bothered to remember that he even had a curfew…there was always a party to go to, a girl to see.

Penny had scoffed then at his show of curiosity. “Can you really pretend that much surprise? You know what I was like.”

And, unfortunately, he had. Penny hadn’t grown up with much money. Her clothes had always been old, second-hand, and frequently carrying the unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke and booze. Her hair had been bushy, frizzy back then—add that to her eccentric personality and odd sense of humor, and Penny had pretty much been the laughing stock of the school.

 

 

 

Which was how he’d come up the idea to hunt down Stink Pig, and find out where they were playing next. He had it all planned out. He was going to sneak Penny out of her bedroom window and take her to watch them. He was going to help her be seventeen again.

And as luck would have it, he’d found Stink Pig easily enough. Their website stated that they were playing out at the Wild Oak Bar and Grill that very weekend. Barely a twenty minute drive away, Jake had snatched up the tickets without a second thought. It would be perfect.

The show wasn’t set to start until midnight. Jake would be locking up at LitLiber a little after ten. After going home for a quick change, he was going to drive over to Penny’s and throw rocks at her bedroom window or something like that—very old-school, traditional stuff. He was going to tell her to get dressed and that he had a surprise for her….

He stared down at the tickets once more, his mouth setting in a grim line. He hadn’t realized it until right now, how much he’d been looking forward to it. He hadn’t realized until right now, how much he wanted to do that for Penny…and how much he wanted to do it for himself.

But everything would change now. Their reason for getting together, the underlining theme to it all, the only thing that had drawn them back together and kept them that way (namely Kate)…it was dead in the water. And Jake couldn’t care less about that. Only, he didn’t want to lose Penny alongside Kate.

Only, how did he keep her? They didn’t have the same friends. They didn’t go to the same places. Hell, they didn’t even like the same music.

The tickets stared up at him mockingly.

And in a split second decision, Jake reached for his phone. Scrolling quickly through his contacts list, he quickly dialed the number he actually knew by heart.

“Good afternoon, Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—”

“Penny, its Jake…”

The air on the other side of the line changed. Jake could practically feel it. “So—you heard?”

“Heard?” Jake held his breath, playing dumb. Penny knew already?! Dammit.

She cleared her throat. “Oh, ah, I thought…that is, have you seen Kate today?”

Yup. She knew all right. Which meant there was only one thing to do. Closing his eyes tightly, Jake did something he’d never done before to Penny. He lied. “No. Why?”

He wasn’t ready to explain himself. He wasn’t ready to risk losing Penny….because, bottom line: he wasn’t sure she’d still be his friend without the added incentive of helping out Kate. After all, that’s the reason she was talking to him, hanging out with him, wasn’t it? Because of Kate. Because she was Kate’s best friend. Kate, Kate Kate….

What if—what if he wasn’t enough to keep her interest alone? What if…

So Jake lied.

If he didn’t know about Kate, then maybe they things could remain the same…even if it was just for a little bit longer.

“Nothing,” Penny rushed to say, “No reason. What’s up?”

Jake grinned. “What are you doing tonight?”

“No plans,” Penny said.

“The night you went to Hillbolt, when you were seventeen to watch Stink Pigs—do you remember what you were wearing?”

Penny laughed. There was a husky note in her voice. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Could you replicate it?”

“What?”

“Tonight, before you go to bed, put on something like what you wore that night.”

“Before I go to bed?”
“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Penny said, her voice accurately portraying her confusion.

“Oh, and Penny…”

“Yeah?”

“Make sure the window to your room is closed.”

“The window…?”
“I’ll see you later.”

Penny laughed again. “See you later.”

Putting down the phone, Jake grinned. Staring up at the clock, he mentally counted down time. It was almost four hours until he’d start work. Ten hours until he’d lock up for the night. It was almost twelve hours until he’d see Penny.

His heart kicked up a little. Twelve hours.

Walking toward his shower, whistling some old country and western song, Jake stole a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. There was flush on his cheeks that had nothing to do with the room’s temperature. Turning on the water, he stopped to let his mind wander for a second.

He wondered what outfit Penny was going to wear.

His grin only widened.

Twelve hours.

Time couldn’t pass soon enough.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Nineteen

“I think you should wear this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Kate took a generous sip from her coffee….

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberations like these dominated as nightfall rapidly approached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Beckstrom looked ready to bite…

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

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

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

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

‘Summer Vacation’ didn’t stand a chance.

 

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

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

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

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

No one dared answer.

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

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

 

 

 

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

Whatever. It was done.

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

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

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

Jackson laughed. “Fair enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lift on three.”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just in case.”

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

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

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

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

“Karma baby,” she returned.

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

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

Jackson winked, “Make that two reasons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed to talk to someone. Now.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. No. It’s just—”

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

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

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Eleven

As Kate pulled up the church, she was mildly surprised to see that the parking lot was relatively empty. The mixer started in less than ten minutes. Where was everyone?

Getting out of her car, Kate reconciled herself to the evening’s fate. Pastor Thayer had called her two nights ago to seek Kate’s in participation in this event. At first, Kate had balked at the idea, and not without cause. She had reminded M.T. that she didn’t actually belong to her church. This had been worded firmly. She was not a member. While she was honored to be chosen for this selective outfit, she also didn’t want to disillusion the pastor. She wasn’t part of the congregation. She wasn’t ready to take that step, especially what with M.T. and Penny’s current relationship status. Unfortunately, she had also admitted to being raised Lutheran. That, apparently, had been enough for M.T.

Kate was a go.

Without any way to refuse, short of being rude, Kate had reluctantly agreed. It was difficult to say ‘no’ to a woman of faith. They call it Lutheran guilt for good reason. Not to mention, Kate had a sinking suspicion that M.T. was adept at getting what she wanted. She was probably a damn good religious leader because of it. Besides, Kate had reminded herself, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t asked for a favor from the pastor herself; M.T. had sworn she wouldn’t involve herself in Penny’s rent fiasco and yet, miraculously, after only hours of leaving that woman’s hotel room, Kate had been privy to some rather interesting news: Penny’s landlord had a sudden change of heart. He would allow her to keep on as his tenant.

Kate wasn’t naive. Miracles didn’t happen without a little nudging—and M.T. had clout with a certain Miracle Maker (you know, upstairs, if you catch the drift).

How could Kate refuse her after that?

 

Walking up to the white-washed building, Kate had a momentary attack of nerves. She wasn’t even sure where she was supposed to go? Pulling the door open, she walked inside the vestibule, ears stretched for any forthcoming sounds to help lead the way. Nothing. However, when her eyes landed on a directory map hanging above the front entrance, she decided she’d try out M.T.’s office first. Turning down a far hallway, Kate soon saw a door clearly marked Pastor.

Bingo.

As she made her way, Kate could just make out the vague sound of feet pacing against thin carpeting. The muffled sound grew steadily loud as Kate met up with the door. Guess she wasn’t the only one nervous about tonight. At least, they could sit and stew together. Raising her hand, Kate knocked firmly. She didn’t have long to wait before the door swung open before her, granting sight of an obviously harried M.T.

“Oh Kate, you made it. How wonderful,” M.T. said. Clearly she’d been worried about that.

Shaking her head, Kate decided not to be offended by the words. She doubted they’d been intentional. It didn’t take an optometrist to see that the pastor was preoccupied.

“Of course. I hope I’m not too early,” Kate said, trailing behind M.T. as that woman retreated back into the room. It appeared to be an outer office of some sort, with another door stationed at its rear. Probably, it was used for counseling sessions. Either that or M.T. kept her office heavily guarded from surprise visitors. Looking around her, Kate couldn’t help but notice that the room, whatever its real purpose, was painted a god-awful pea green. The interior design hadn’t seen a facelift since the seventies it seemed.

“No, no, not a bit of it,” M.T. answered.  “I’m just glad you agreed to be a part of this little experiment. Now all we need are kids to show up,” she said on a rough laugh.

“Are you anticipating a certain number?” Kate asked politely.

“Well, as the bible says: where two or more are gathered…” M.T. said abstractly.   Translation: she wasn’t anticipating a whole bunch.

“Well, since I am early and they aren’t here yet, why don’t you brief me a little more on what this evening will entail?” Kate asked.

M.T. waved her hand airily. “Well, there’s no exact script in an environment like this. Just talk to them, create an atmosphere of open dialogue. Get them to open up about their experiences, expectations, any questions they have as they grow older. Share what you’ve encountered along the way,” she ticked off. “The goal is to engage with them, being both young enough to remember what it’s like as a teenager, but also old enough to have insight into gaining adulthood.”

It sounded a little vague to Kate.

M.T. must have read that expression. “Honestly,” she admitted, “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m walking into it a little blind myself. The point is, I want these kids to know there are people they can talk to when it isn’t possible to talk with their parents, especially in an arena of grace and security. I want to close the gap between their world and the real world,” M.T. said, speaking quickly.

Kate hoped the pastor had brought along some cue cards. This was sounding more and more ominous by the minute. Kate wasn’t a natural talker, and teenagers? It’s like pulling teeth, on the best of days, to get them to communicate.

“I’m just worried that my being a stranger here will come as a distinct disadvantage. I won’t even be a familiar face to these guys. Why would they open up to me, someone who isn’t even a member of the congregation,” Kate said.

M.T. smirked. Leaning back against a bookshelf lining one entire wall, she asked: “And who said all these kids “belonged” to our church?” Her finger-quote got the point across nicely.

“Touché,” Kate said, moving toward the small velvet settee stationed almost center mass of the room. She took a seat. Silence enveloped the room after that.

M.T. was too busy to talk anyway, moving frantically now across the office, pulling open cabinet doors, shuffling under piles of documents, rummaging around for papers and pens…. Biting her lip to keep from smiling, Kate watched this quiet unraveling, pretending not to hear when M.T. started mumbling under her breath, something about her poor organizational skills; sure she could think up a great idea but execution? Well, that was another matter.

It was at this time, Kate’s eyes ping-ponging back and forth, following the footprints of one harassed pastor that she spotted them…a rather peculiar addition to the room, especially where they rested, on the bottom run of M.T.’s bookshelf. They looked oddly familiar, though clearly out of place; at least, they didn’t belong there, half-buried by the overgrowth of textbook’s fight for space on either side.

“Did you hear that Madame Penny is not going to be evicted?” Kate asked suddenly, the change of topic calculated. “At the last minute, out of nowhere, her landlord changed his mind. And for no apparent reason.” Her words sounded conversational on the surface, with only the slightest of challenges laced throughout.

“Oh, did he? Well, that’s wonderful,” M.T. called over her shoulder, her head shoved inside a cabinet door, her arms digging through loose papers.

“Yeah, but I’m guessing you already knew that,” Kate said, her tone loaded with implication.

M.T’s head whipped around at that, and her startled eyes tried, but couldn’t quite meet, Kate’s level stare. “Huh?” She asked, buying for time.

Carefully Kate stood up and, as if she had all the time in the world, slowly made her way toward that shelf of staggering literary depth, her fingers sweeping against the bindings of the novels it held as she passed down its length, her booted feet stopping only as she came upon that same decorative peculiarity she’d witnessed only moments before. Bending down on her haunches she reached one hand out, her fingers gentle when they landed upon a soft, almost waxy surface.

“Are you starting a garden?” Kate asked, the redirection a deliberate stall, a well-crafted trap meant not to accuse, rather encourage confession.

M.T.’s eyes widened: the flowers! Kate had found the flowers.

“Oh those,” M.T. said, her voice pitchy, “those aren’t mine. They’re for—um, for the church altar.” M.T. made a horrible liar. Kate could practically see the wheels churning in her mental fabrication station.

“Ah,” Kate said, enjoying herself now. “In lieu of what?”

“Do-donations,” M.T. stuttered. “Just donations.”

“Well, it’s a lucky thing they were only purchased days ago,” Kate mused out loud.

“Excuse me?” M.T. said shortly; however, her defensive tone implied much more than that.

“These books,” Kate indicated them, “they’re casting too much of a shadow on them, they won’t long survive it. But, if they’ve only spent a day or two in this condition…” Kate shrugged. She didn’t need to finish that sentence.

M.T. said nothing to this, only breaking her vow of silence with the slightest of squeaks when Kate’s hand dipped inside one of the flower pots, her fingers skimming across the soil, circling the edges of the hardened clay perimeter. Kate was looking for something and, within seconds, she found it. Pulling out the plant label, Kate lost no time turning it over in her hand. There, clearly marked in all its marketing glory were these words: Massie’s Florist

Without a word, Kate placed the card in M.T.’s hand. “Now, how many degrees of separation is that…?” Kate didn’t even bother to hide the smile from her voice, much less her lips. She didn’t wait for an answer to this question either. She didn’t need one. She knew what M.T. had done.

Kate was damn proud of her newest friend.

 

 

Two hours later, sitting beside M.T., the smell of stale coffee permeating the air, Kate was sorely tempted to reevaluate her earlier estimation of the term ‘friendship.’ Out of the corner of her eye, she caught M.T’s rapt stare, the look of fear she couldn’t disguise, stamped across her features.

She was nervous of Kate now. She had reason for it, too.

The esteemed pastor had been a little less than forthcoming about what this little gathering would require from Kate. She’d rightfully assumed the evening would progress as follows: a roundtable discussion about life post high-school, attending college, meeting new people, getting good grades, learning how to network…that sort of stuff. She’d been prepared to sacrifice a couple hours out of her life for the greater good of the church’s youth. That’s what she’d been led to believe would happen. She was wrong.

In reality, what happened went a little more like this: three kids begrudgingly showed up. Kate watched in mounting dismay as they sprawled out against the chairs, set in circular pattern, as far away from Kate and M.T. as possible. And then poor Janice Spencer, the church’s forty-seven year old secretary, had been more-or-less forced to join the group when none of the other adult volunteers M.T. had expected showed up. All in all, the turnout had been less than ideal.

But it was about to get worse, as Kate would soon come to realize. M.T. had conveniently forgotten to mention certain things about this so-called mixer when she asked for Kate’s assistance. Things like how it would be structured: as a reoccurring discussion of indefinite length, maintained weekly. Things like how it would be organized: one adult matched with one youth, and vice versa. Permanently. Things like how it would be arranged: like a mentoring program. Because that’s exactly what it was. Kate could see the word flashing like a neon sign behind her eyes.

But most importantly, M.T. had mentioned how tough these kids would be. They came from low income, broken families. If first impressions were anything to go by, they had no understanding of words like curfew, respect, rules, decorum….

This held especially true for Janessa, the girl Kate got paired up with. She’d said the “F” word a total of seventeen times throughout the two hour orientation. Kate had started to keep count. Her clothes were dirty, filthy really, and they reeked of cigarette smoke. Her long brown hair was so snarled Kate wasn’t sure a brush would survive running down its length. And according to her file, a compilation of school records and personal history, given with the consent of her parent, Janessa was inches away from expulsion at school for fighting. And her grades! Goodness, they were so low it was almost comical. She was barely managing a D in choir. Choir! Who fails out of choir?

She was mean, too. She kept calling Kate, Missy Prissy. It wasn’t a term of endearment. She’d told M.T. she wasn’t sure she wanted to be teamed together with a woman quite as manufactured as Kate, whatever that meant. On top of that, she’d outright refused to shake Kate’s hand in farewell, merely rolling her eyes when Kate said it’d been a pleasure to meet her.

“Pfft. I’m so sure,” she’d muttered in response. “Who’s surprised? Missy Prissy doesn’t lie very good.”

It took everything in Kate not to correct her grammar.

“The church is planning a youth lock-in later on in the month,” M.T. said, coming to Kate’s rescue at the exact right moment, “we’d love it if you and Kate joined us.”

“That sounds fun,” Kate said hurriedly. “Janessa?”

The teenager managed a shrug.

“There are going to be a lot of fun games,” M.T. assured her. “The lock-ins around here are famous for them!”

Janessa snickered. “I don’t know, my partner here doesn’t look to be all that hand-eye coordinated.”

“I’ll have you know I played softball and volleyball in high school,” Kate shot back, stung. Her barb went seemingly unnoticed.

“Whatever. Maybe I’ll come,” Janessa threw over her shoulder, already walking out the door.

Let it not be said that Janessa didn’t share well. She was antagonistic through-and-through.

“I can be tough,” Kate insisted to a highly amused M.T.

That woman patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sure you can.”

“I am not Prissy.”

M.T. wasn’t a foolish woman; she saw the opening Kate’s worded delivered. “Does that mean you’ll show up for the lock-in? I could really use another set of eyes and ears?” she asked slyly.

Kate just shook her head. She had a feeling she may have walked right into that one.

“Maybe,” she settled on, copying the wise words of her mentee.

M.T. nodded, satisfied with that. “Now for the real question,” she said then, changing the subject, her features once again taking on a look of unease, “How did tonight go? Are you in? I mean—”

Kate knew what M.T. meant. Was Kate willing to commit herself to this new enterprise, was she willing to subject herself to future encounters with Janessa?

Kate took a deep breath. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she said. “This was a lot to take in. You led me to believe my participation would be far less…uh, involved. This has become much bigger then what you’d intimated. And I get the feeling you purposely deliberated that misguided notion.” Kate wasn’t about to let M.T. off the hook for that.

Pastor Thayer had the grace to look ashamed. “In my profession, I’ve learned it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” Peeking up at Kate, she paused, waiting to see if her words had any effect. “I didn’t think you’d agree to it otherwise,” she admitted finally.

She had a point, Kate considered silently, but she refused to confess that acknowledgement out loud, and certainly not to M.T. It would probably give her reason to suppose she’d been justified in her little trick.

“I have to think about it. It’s not that I don’t want to help,” Kate rushed to say. It’s not that she couldn’t see that Janessa needed a guiding hand—someone to smooth out her rough-around-the-edges routine, “It’s just, I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job.”

“You’re the perfect person for the job,” M.T. corrected her.

“How so? I don’t have any experience with troubled teenagers.”

“Well, they don’t come one-size-fits-all,” M.T. said dryly.  “Talk to her, get to know her. Listen, care, be there for her. That’s all you need to do to help someone.”

“How do I relate to her?” Kate persisted. “I grew up with nannies, private coaches, tutors! I’m far removed from the world of the underprivileged,” Kate said without apology. “I see it. Janessa sees it.”

“All the better. Teach her what you were so blessed to be taught. Give her the education, the experiences, the love that was bestowed upon you. Close the gap, shift the perspective. This is about growth, about change. Be that for her.”

 

 

 

With heavy steps, Kate let herself back into her house. Danger, the ever watchful guard dog, laying snoring at the bottom of the stairs upon her entrance. Hanging up her coat, she proceeded into the kitchen. She desperately wanted to take a shower, pour herself a glass of wine and shutdown after those last few turbulent hours, but first things first….Saddling up to the island counter, Kate retook her pen; she had to finish her letter. She couldn’t afford to wait much longer or else Nanny might talk….That was to be avoided at all costs.

Smiling in a depreciating matter, she returned to the last paragraph. Hand poised over the paper, her eyes lighted on the last few sentences. She had some corrections to make.

 

            I don’t belong to Pastor Thayer’s church. I think Penny would kill me if I did, but I couldn’t say no either when she asked if I’d partake. I like M.T. Still, the matter remains that I do this incognito, or face a sure fit of hysterics. Besides, it’s just for one night. I figure it couldn’t hurt to lend a helping hand for one night. Right?  

            Turns out, I was wrong. This evening proved to be far from transitory in existence. Pastor Thayer didn’t require my services for just one night. She meant this evening to be but a beginning…to a mentorship organization of a protracted timetable! She was, how shall I say, opaquely transparent in her schematic design of this thing’s overall purpose.

            I got duped, and by a woman of God.

            After being unjustly blindsided by all this, I told her I’d have to think about whether or not I’d be willing to involve myself any further than I’d originally intended, which was only one night! After all, that’s a pretty substantial discrepancy in time.

             Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to do it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more excited I get about the prospect. The girl I got matched with is really something, and you know how much I love a challenge. She’ll be that, and then some. Regardless, I told Pastor Thayer I’d have to think about it—I want her to sweat it out a bit first. It seems only fair.

            It’s nearing ten o’clock now and with it, this letter’s conclusion. I promise to get the next one out much more promptly. I don’t want you calling in the cavalry on me, now do I? Rest assured, I will be placing this letter in the mail presently after licking the envelope closed. It should reach you no later than Tuesday.

 

All my love.

 

P.S. You’ll find mother and father’s version of this letter underneath—aka, the edited script guaranteed to keep up appearances of the daughter they think they raised. Don’t, for the love of all, ever let them know of the existence of our correspondence. They don’t want to know what’s really going on in my head, what’s really important to me, and don’t bother to deny it. That’s why we’re in this situation in the first place. 

 

-Your Katy-Cat

 

 

Kate looked down at the letter in her hand before carefully folding in into thirds. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt a nagging pang in the pit of her stomach. Maybe it was because she missed her dear Nanny Moore, or maybe it was because she had play practice tomorrow and she wasn’t memorized yet? Or it could be fear of Penny’s reaction to her part in M.T.’s machination

….

Kate just didn’t want to screw up with Janessa. She’d never held that kind of responsibility before—counseling someone on how to live life. She didn’t want to let Janessa down the way Kate’s mother had always let Kate down.

Kate stuffed her letter inside its matching white envelope. Maybe M.T. was right. Maybe she would be good for Janessa. Not because of her cultured past, but because she knew how much it hurt to feel forgotten by the very people who should have never lost her, she knew how it felt to be unheard, unwanted by those who should have loved her the most. Because she was learning herself just how special, how healing a true friend could be.

On that thought, Kate pushed herself of the island, and walked over to her refrigerator. On one side of it she’d hung up a magnetized calendar. Placing her hand on its glossy page, and grabbing for the pen hanging on a string beside it, she drew a large circle over one date in particular: Saturday, the 23rd.

The night of the lock-in.

Now she only had to wait and see if Janessa would show up.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Ten

Dearest Nanny Moore,

 

I must apologize for the tardiness of this letter. I know I promised to write weekly, it was, after all, the deal to secure your continued silence as to my whereabouts. I hope you haven’t been worried. It’s surprising how busy life has become in what I’d estimated would be a sleepy little town. This is perhaps because Whestleigh offers a sort of lifestyle I was never prior allowed to partake in. Regardless, I will endeavor to make up for last week’s absence with a longer letter.

            I wish you could come visit me. Maybe someday. Not until I’ve had time to fully furnish my new ‘home’ though. You would be horrified at my hosting amenities as of now. I’ve managed to get a new coffee maker and a microwave oven, but I’m still rather lacking in regards to…well, everything else. Don’t worry, on my next free weekend I plan to hit up the department store in Castlewye, a town twenty minutes outside of Whestleigh. I’ve heard it has promise—whatever that means.

            Classes are well underway now. I made a deconstructed mug in my pottery class. I got an A on it. Truth be told, it’s ugly. You’d hate it. Mother would never allow for its existence. Just to give you a hearty chuckle, I’ll include a picture of within the letter. Please, don’t forward it on to mother and father. I know you hate playing the middle-man in my scheming, as you call it, but it’s the only way. If they were to know my exact location, if they were given insight into what I am doing they’d never forgive me. Or worse, they’d come here to fetch me and bring me back home. You and I both know I’m not strong enough to resist them. Not yet. Maybe someday.

Kate stared down at the beginnings of her letter, the pen dangling loosely in her right hand. Nanny almost had a conniption when Kate had called upon arriving in Whestleigh, that woman worried out of her mind as to her ex-charge’s whereabouts. She’d ceased to be a member of the MacDonald household years ago, but she’d always kept in touch with her Katy. Knowing her parents would reach out to Nanny upon knowledge of their daughter’s defection, Kate decided to beat them to it, while simultaneously swearing her lifelong companion to keep the secret of her locality well-hidden.

This had only been granted under certain conditions: One, Kate had to write to Nanny Moore every week so that she wouldn’t worry, so that she’d know her favorite little baby was safe and okay. Two, that Kate include a secondary letter in each correspondence, this one to her parents, which Nanny Moore would covertly mail off to them upon reception (after first discarding the envelope containing Kate’s return address into the wastebasket). That parenthesis was paramount, as it revealed her concealment. Nanny Moore was the only one allowed to know where Kate was…in case anything should happen. Reluctantly, Kate had agreed to these provisions, including an additional letter in each post, the second marked to her parents—written in her own hand, of course, to eliminate any evidence of Nanny Moore’s role in it all. In these, Kate skimmed, she sometimes omitted, hell she frequently found herself downright lying: about what she was doing, who she was turning out to be, really everything. What her parents didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.

Kate knew how much it bothered her old friend to lie to Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald. It went against her very nature, and to people under whom she was once employed no less! She also knew how much Nanny loved her, and how much she also, desperately, wanted Kate to get out from under their thumb. It was the only reason for her acquiesce.

Placing her pen back down on the paper, Kate forcibly cleared her mind of this thought. It didn’t do her any good to despair of her current situation. It was this or nothing. Besides, it was her parents own fault for this subterfuge.

            I got a job, a real job, this time not one that daddy fixed up for me. It mostly consists of stocking shelves and doling out customer service, simple non-demanding work. Certainly it’s a step or two beneath the education that was afforded me. But all the same, I love it. My boss is nice—cute, too—and my co-workers have been nothing short of welcoming. It’s nothing like the cutthroat atmosphere I grew accustomed to at Banner Investment, the atmosphere you used to pray I’d learn to hate and leave one day. Well, I did leave and you know what? For the first time in my life I’m…happy. Life is somehow richer, even without my fancy title and envied office. I don’t know, it’s just simpler I guess. For example, the whole office is just abuzz about some employee Halloween party our boss is throwing next week. I mean, a Halloween party?! How trifle. How refreshing! Finding a costume is utmost in everyone’s mind; apparently, there’s a contest of some esteem awarding prizes to the best dressed people there. Of course, I don’t know what I’ll wear, and not having much time to put anything together it’ll probably have to be something from a previous year. I still have that Cleopatra outfit….

            Oh! Big News: I have become a bonafide actress, having recently been cast to play the role of Juliet for a small group theatre project. It’s part of my Shakespeare class. We will be traveling to a local high school and performing a short excerpt—just one act of the production—in front of their Drama Department. I’m a nervous wreck. Do you remember the last time I was in a play? I believe I was seven. I don’t think a single audience member has forgotten. It’s not often that the Tree in “Once Upon a Thanksgiving Night” breaks down in the middle of the stage and screams for help because they are, and I quote, “asphyxiating to death”. I was such a precocious little thing. I didn’t handle stage fright very well. Fingers crossed that I’ve outgrown that awkward phrase.

            I told you about my perfectly awful neighbor Anne Ganthy, right? She’s truly a horrid creature, bent it seems, on making it her life’s purpose to annoy me. She’s now got a petition going around the block to get Danger evicted. She says he must be disturbing a noise ordinance somewhere, and either way, she’ll get the city council involved in pursuit of a barking law.

            Backup a minute… I didn’t tell you about Danger, did I? Of course not, he’s the main reason I’m so late in my weekly letter. Danger is my new dog. I know, try not to shudder at the thought. Muddy paws, slobbering tongues, and shedding hair abound! I’m just as surprised as you undoubtedly are, upon reading the news, at this newest addition to my life.     

            I had no intention of getting a dog. Ever. Growing up in an animal-free home had pretty much fixed me upon the illusion of having pets. It’s entirely Madame Penny’s fault; I dare say you’d probably like her. She spouts out wisdom in rather unorthodox ways, rather reminiscent of your colorful teachings.

            Anyway, she decided last week that what she needed was an animal for her shop—she’s a psychic remember? They are said, she assured me, to help the process of intuitive channeling, and are, I guess, super-sensitive to telepathic messaging. I repeat what I’m told. Regardless, because of a so-called capacity to help others heal, she had her sites sit specifically on a cat. Plus, she figured it wouldn’t take up too much room in her small shop. I was forced to accompany her on this journey.

 

            “It’ll be fun,” Penny insisted, more-or-less pulling Kate out the front door of her house. She’d shown up in one of her famous surprise visits. Kate had the day off from school; she’d worked her schedule out to have Tuesday’s free. Unfortunately, Penny knew that.

“Why me?” Kate asked, shrugging on a light coat. Fall in the east coast held a decided nip, not that she wasn’t used to that, a Minnesota girl.

“Who else? You’re practical, sensible…I need someone who won’t let me leave the store with an armload of animals I simply can’t house,” Penny informed her, all but pushing her inside the small crossover she drove on special occasions.

“I have homework to do today,” Kate whined, but it was done so half-heartedly. She wasn’t really in the mood to research the elements of Shakespearean Drama as it compared to more modern productions.

“I promise we’ll be back in plenty of time for all of that. Besides, you need a break,” Penny insisted in a cajoling voice.

Kate buckled up. She couldn’t pretend a want to argue further.

They stayed at the pet shelter for nearly two hours, which was considerably longer than Kate had envisioned but Penny had insisted upon playing which each and every cat in existence and, that activity exhausted to its furthest limit, had then enquired about the dogs. Kate checked an impulse to glance down at her watch.

It was then, as they were being led down a narrow walkway which, in turn, led to a banquet-sized hall housed wall-to-wall with individually caged dogs, that the afternoon took a decided turn.

That’s when Penny stumbled upon Danger. She’d already stopped at nearly each and every stall, reading the attached biographies of its specific pet, when she reached his kennel. Unlike most of the others, Danger’s biography was relatively short. He was approximately two years old, a pit bull mixed with elements of a Labrador. His home life had been unsteady, at best. His original owner had passed away not long after obtaining Danger. He’d then gone to the shelter only to be rescued and returned two more times. Each owner had claimed he was a good dog, affectionate, kind to strangers and even tolerant of cats. It’s just…he was too energetic! He needed a home where he would be allowed to run that energy off. He needed someone who could devote more time than either the previous owners had been able.

Immediately upon Penny and Kate stopping, Danger had rushed forward to greet them, his tail waging eagerly, ready to lick their fingers through the wire pen separating them. It was love at first sight…for Penny anyway. She’d demanded that he be released to the outside corral, the better to play and really get to know one another.  The lady working had agreed at once, almost as eager now as the dog himself.

So that’s how Kate and Penny had spent the second half of their time at the shelter: goofing with Danger. He could fetch like a champion, compete in tug-of-war like a boss, and he lived to have his belly scratched. Kate, crouched on her hands and knees, laughing up at Penny had declared that he was the perfect companion. Of course, she’d never actually known the friendship of a canine, but still, he was sweet.

“He is rather a lover, isn’t he?” Penny said, talking in that baby voice everyone’s prone to using when around small things.

“Yeah,” Kate said, her agreement punctuated by the wet kiss Danger laid on her at just that moment, his tongue leaving a sopping trail down the left side of her face. And, believe it or not, prim-and-proper Kate had only laughed harder.

“Well, maybe it wasn’t a cat we were meant to meet today,” Kate conceded, springing up to her feet at a cue from the worker. It seemed their time with Danger had come to an end.

“Maybe we weren’t meant to find me a pet today,” Penny returned cryptically, as was her way.

Her strong emphasis on the word ‘me’ had Kate’s ears perking anxiously. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Kate, have you ever thought of owning a dog?” Penny asked, turning on her in the blink of an eye.

Baulking, Kate took a step backward. Then another. “We didn’t come here for me,” she said, arms stretched outward. “We came here for you.” This reminder was needless.

Penny waved that away. “Of course we did, but I just didn’t feel that particular…how should I say this—spiritual connectedness?—with any of the animals. That’s necessary with pet purchases, especially on an intuitive level.” She sounded vague, purposefully vague.

“But—but what about Danger?” Kate asked, taken aback. If Penny hadn’t wanted him why in the world had they just spent an hour in his company?

“Oh him,” Penny shrugged, “well, he’s great. Super, really. But he’d be like a bull in a china shop at my store.  You’ve got to see my point.”

Kate did, all too well.

“Then why…?”

“Why meet Danger?” Penny asked perceptively.

“Yes.”

“Because then I felt it,” Penny said simply.

“Felt what?” Kate asked, only mildly annoyed. She was used to Penny’s obliqueness by now.

“That special connection.”

Kate’s brows furrowed. Penny was making even less sense than usual. “But didn’t you just say—?”

“No, no,” Penny interrupted, “the connection I felt wasn’t between Danger and myself…rather the two of you.” There was no mistaking the emphasis of Penny’s final words.

Kate’s teeth snapped together. She really didn’t have time for Penny’s extra sensory perceptions right now! “Penny, we came here to get you a pet not the other way around,” she said slowly.

“Well that doesn’t mean you should deny yourself the possibility, especially when it’s staring back at you with those melt-me brown eyes,” Penny countered. To Kate’s sensitive ears, it sounded a little practiced. “I mean, give me one good reason why you shouldn’t get yourself a furry companion.”

“Give me one good reason why I should?” Kate threw back. Two could play at this game.

“I already did—there’s a definite bond between you and no, before you start, it’s not something that only a psychic would see,” Penny said, cutting Kate short. “The staff recognized it too. Why else do you think she let us stay out with him so long? He adores you and you’ve only just met. That’s chemistry babe. If that isn’t reason enough here’s another: he would be someone to come home to at night, a companion to keep you from being lonely in that big house all by yourself,” Penny said earnestly.

“I am not lonely. And there was no more a connection with him and me than with you,” Kate declared stubbornly, though a small, silent part of her disagreed. Sometimes she did get a little lonely. But a dog…that’s serious commitment.

Penny shrugged with a worldly air. “Oh well, I’m sure someone will come along for Danger and if not, at least he’s cared for here.” She looked around the respectably sized-yard they were still standing in. “He gets fed regularly, and even has a place to call his own—a small 6×6 foot crate holding a thin bed and a food dish,” she paused here before adding, “hardly homey but don’t mind that.

“And yeah, he’s given an allotted time spent outdoors and the workers are nothing if not respectful and kind but they aren’t his best friends, people he can devote all his loyalties and life too, they aren’t his to keep…. But then beggars can’t be choosers can they? And he does see visitors, some of whom even stop long enough to consider him for a moment before moving on, breezing in and out of his sight on the regular, to look at yet another option for adoption. But he’ll wait. What else can he do? Either way, I’m sure life here is…fine. It’s good.”

Who could ignore that guilt trip?

 

            Long story short, I came home with Danger, a two-year old fireball with unsure lineage and history. I’d had little choice once the staff worker expressed her worry over how long they were going to be able to keep Danger. That’s all she said, ‘how long they’d be able to keep him’, but the tone of her voice sent shivers down my spine. I decided I didn’t want to know what that meant. I took him home that day.

            Madame Penny is still animal-less but somehow I get the impression she never intended to get a pet—not for herself, anyway.

            Whatever. At least he’s a friendly face to meet me at the door. Only, he does get a little nervous whenever I’m gone—like, had an accident on my entryway rug, nervous. So, I’ve started keeping him chained up outside when I have to leave for long periods of time. It’s a good sized backyard, ample room for exercise and potty breaks. This, however, is where the story gets complicated. He has this barking thing. It can get kind of loud, especially when I’m away. At least that’s what Anne Ganthy told me when she rapped on my door two days ago, a petition in hand and a nasty tone of voice in reception.

 

            “I hear you’ve recently acquired a dog,” Anne said, trying to peer around Kate, whose body was leaning meaningfully against the doorjamb, barring the unwanted woman’s entrance inside.  Anne cleared her throat deliberately, continuing on before Kate had the chance to speak. “I say hear because that’s about all I can do lately…hear him! He’s quite the barker. It’s really incessant,” she stressed.

Kate’s eyebrows had rose slightly at the words, the belied attack. Her voice, however, was contrite when she spoke: “Barking? Oh! I’m—I’m sorry,” she staggered, genuinely bewildered. Kate may not like Ms. Ganthy but she was decorum to her roots; she meant her apology. “Please, I had no idea it was so…so disruptive! I mean, I know he gets a little excited first thing when I come-and-go, but—”

“Yeah,” Anne said, speaking over Kate’s fumbling words. “Well unfortunately, he doesn’t just bark at your departure and return home…the problem persists the entire time your away,” Anne said pertly. “And you are away from him an awful lot,” she scolded.

“Is that criticism?” Kate asked, her eyes narrowing at the verbal barrage.

Anne shrugged. “Merely a fact of the matter,” she said.

Kate nodded her head slowly. She didn’t want to get in a fight about Danger. Truth be told, she didn’t want to spend that much time with Ms. Ganthy—fights were rarely short lived. “Never mind, you’re right,” Kate said in surrender. “If Danger’s barking is upsetting that is a problem. I assure you, I will look into it presently.” And then, in afterthought, Kate added: “I did just get him, maybe it’s just be a phase he’s going through as a result? A little separation anxiety perhaps? If that’s the case, I’m sure it’ll abate shortly.”

Ganthy smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. Her upper lip nearly curled in response. “I’m afraid my patience has reached its end.”

“Excuse me?”

“I want the dog removed. Period. I’m in the process of getting the local authorities to see to it.”

Kate’s head snapped backward. “What? This is the first I’ve even been told about it,” she protested.

“Certainly you don’t think I should be responsible for telling you what’s happening in your own home,” Anne said.

“No, it’s just…I’ve barely even had Danger for a week,” Kate told her, one hand gripping the side of the door frame, the knuckle white. “I’m still figuring things out. If I could just have a little more time,” she pleaded again.

“Time is relative dear,” Anne replied, her voice dripping false gaiety. Then Ms. Ganthy tapped the side of the clipboard she was holding in her hand. “This is a petition that I’m sending around the neighborhood. All I need is two other households to complain about the disruptive noise of that dog,” she said, almost spitting out the last word, “and animal control will step in and relieve you of it.”

“Please, Ms. Ganthy, I promise I’ll look into the issue. I’m taking this very seriously.”

Anne pursed her thin lips. “Well, I’m afraid it’s too little, too loud. I’m only here today because written policy has it that any complaints regarding a violation to the city’s noise ordinance first be brought to the perpetrator. That’s what I’m doing, telling you that you’re breaking the law and I’m going after you.” Anne smile at the words, no doubt getting great joy out the experience, before turning sharply and walking away, leaving a gap-mouthed Kate standing, frozen, on her door stoop.

Maybe it hadn’t been wise, making any enemy out of that woman.

 

            So now Anne has made it her mission to see him sent back to the pound—or worse! What kind of person even does that? If it’s war she wants, then it’s war she’ll get. She has no idea the kind of mental and emotional battle field I waged daily in my past life, but if she keeps this up, she will soon!

            But first, I’ve got to go to church. (I thought you might enjoy that transition. See, I’m still the good, proper girl you raised me to be.) The thing is, I promised to help Pastor Maggie out. She’s hosting a little gathering there tonight, something she’s calling the ‘Youth and Young Adult Ministry Mixer.’ Basically, from what she intimated, it’ll be a meeting to help guide high school students in the developmental shift from adolescence to maturity, from teenage years to adulthood. As a young professional/college-student, I’ll remain both relatable to but also respected by, these students; a role model of sorts in achieving this involuntary evolutionary process. From the sounds of it, the class will offer an opportunity for group interaction, networking, counseling, etcetera etcetera…. Of course, it will also be heavily influenced as a community for members of faith and Godliness. 

            I don’t belong to Pastor Thayer’s church. I think Penny would kill me if I did, but I couldn’t say no either when she asked if I’d partake. I like M.T. Still, the matter remains that I do this incognito, or face a sure fit of hysterics. Besides, it’s just for one night. I figure it couldn’t hurt to lend a helping hand for one night. Right?

 

Kate felt her pen stall on the paper. She hated having such a guilty conscience. But why couldn’t she just be a neutral party member in Penny and M.T’s feud? Why did she have to choose between the two of them? Blowing the bangs off her forehead, Kate’s eyes roamed across the kitchen. Shadows were beginning to form against the cabinet doors. Absently, her eyes moved to the wall clock hanging beside the bay window.

It was 5:43 pm

She had to be to the church by 6:00 pm

“Dang it,” Kate mumbled. She’d have to finish the letter later.

Sighing, Kate moved away from the island where she’d been working. She still had to get a kitchen table yet. Tossing the pen negligently beside the nearly finished work, she resigned herself to completing it when she got home. Kate hated to leave anything only partially-done.

Hopefully this thing at the church wouldn’t take too long….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Nine

Kate stood irresolute, her eyes focused straight ahead on the hotel room door facing back at her: Number 203. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her hand, and, curling her fingers into a tight knuckle, brought it down against the metal surface before her, wrapping hard. Supposedly, this was Pastor Maggie’s temporary residence. Short-term, just until she found a place—or so she’d insisted at the sisters’ ill-gotten dinner party.

Waiting impatiently, Kate wondered, from the umpteenth time, if she was doing the right thing. If Penny found out she was here, if she knew what Kate was about to ask of the Pastor…well, she’d be furious. After seeing how Penny had interacted with the pastor the other night, Kate wasn’t encouraged to pick a fight with the otherwise carefree psychic. If Kate’s presence today got out, well, a fight would definitely be had. On the other hand, what was that saying? Desperate times call for desperate measures?

Before Kate got the chance to change her mind, the door swung open, revealing a slightly bewildered-looking Pastor Maggie. And why shouldn’t she be baffled? Kate hadn’t bothered to call and announce her intention to visit. Honestly, she hadn’t known if she would be able to go through with her little plan until she got here, until her fists knocked against the metal doorframe.

Assembling her features into a grin of welcome, Maggie motioned Kate inside. “Kate, what a wonderful surprise,” she said, leading the way to where a dinky table sat, situated between a boxy entertainment stand and one edge of a queen-sized bed. Pulling out a chair for herself, she invited Kate to take the remaining seat. The faux-wood finish of the oval table was hardly luxurious and the comforter, a thin blanket boasting a splash of brown-and-teal paisley patterns, seemed far from homey.

“Oh! Would you like a cup of coffee?” Maggie asked suddenly, her voice flushed with energy. Before Kate could respond, she was already back up on her feet, making her way quickly to the built-in vanity located just outside the bathroom. A hodgepodge of appliances lined the limited space: hairdryer, percolator, iron, and microwave.

“Uh, yes, that would be lovely,” Kate told her, folding her hands primly on her lap.

“Cream or sugar?” M.T. asked.

“Both please,” Kate said, her own nerves building inside her throat, constricting her airway. Her voice sounded high and wispy, a sure sign she was out of her element.

She felt a little like a double-agent, playing both sides….

“Here you go,” M.T. said then, placing a steaming Styrofoam cup down on the tabletop in front of Kate.

Wrapping her fingers around it, Kate relished the warmth working its way from the inside out. “Thank you.”

A moment of silence descended. Absently, Kate stared down at the strong drink in her hands. She’d managed to get herself all the way up here but now, sitting in front of Maggie, she wasn’t sure how to start.

The pastor seemed to realize this; probably it came with the territory of her profession. “Much as I would like to assume you came here for the fantastic view,” M.T. finally said, pointing toward the room’s front-facing windows, which provided a picture of the parking lot outside, “I have a gut feeling that’s not it.” Her dry tone was rich.

Kate laughed. She couldn’t help it. She knew she wasn’t supposed to like Maggie—she was Penny’s friend and since she didn’t like Maggie, it was predetermined Kate couldn’t either. But she did. Maggie was funny.

“No, that’s not it,” Kate agreed.

“Is it Penny?” M.T. asked, getting right down to it. Her voice was soft, inviting….

“Yeah,” Kate confessed. She paused a moment before continuing. “I’m not sure I should be telling you this. No, scratch that. I’m sure I shouldn’t be telling you this…”

“But?” M.T. promptly when Kate’s voice stalled out.

Sigh. “I don’t know what else to do. I tried. I tried, you know, but all my years in finance, my reputed suave analytical background, hadn’t been enough. Developments, predicted conditions, trends in spirituality and spending habits…all of it, it just landed on deaf ears I guess. I used every trick in the book, but nothing!”

Maggie nodded her head slowly, seemingly content with Kate’s nonsensical ramblings, content to remain patient until that elusive statement was explained. “What happened?”

“I’m not even sure where to begin,” Kate said, her eye closing momentarily. The image of Madame Penny, tears streaking down her face, ruining her cleverly applied mascara, filled Kate’s vision. “That is, it was Monday morning….” Kate began.

She’d woken up to the abrupt sound of pounding at the front door. Trudging down the stairs, a bathrobe thrown hastily around her shoulders, Kate had known, even before peering out a window, that it could only be one person standing outside, knocking with such a vengeance; no one else wouldn’t dared make a house call before 6:00 in the morning.

Throwing the door open with force, Kate had hoped the sight of her scowling face would warn Penny to make it quick. Instead, at the sight of a blubbering, weeping Penny, it was Kate who’d been shocked into rearranging her agenda for the morning. Carefully guiding Penny inside, all thoughts of sleep fled from Kate’s mind as she led the way to the kitchen.

She’d begged Penny to stop crying and tell her what was wrong, what had happened? Putting tea on to boil, because Penny preferred it to coffee, Kate listened as the woebegone tale was thrust forth from trembling lips:

Penny was going to be evicted. She may have been a little late on her rent—try two months late—but the intuitive business couldn’t be expected to perform like other businesses, the psychic insisted. It wasn’t periodic, rather sporadic. Kate had refrained from arguing with her. It wasn’t the time or the place. Penny was obviously not in the mood for a shake-down in economics 101.

At first, Kate had tried to find a solvable solution—a workable compromise, to counteract this dilemma: perhaps Penny would be better off running her business out of her home. (Hey, it’s rent-free!) However, Kate soon lived to regret that comment. Penny wouldn’t hear of it. Her home was too cramped as it was—where would she set up shop? Certainly Kate couldn’t exactly disagree with that sentiment. The three of them had damn near sent the place bursting at the seams with their “sisters’ plus one” dinner party. Of course, a small part of Kate agued silently, if Penny cleaned out her guestroom of its overgrowth of junk, ranging from a fifteen year old treadmill to a guitar with a broken string and a sewing machine, there would be plenty of space…and privacy too; rather more so than that utility closet afforded at the florist’s shop. But, obviously Penny wasn’t interested in traveling down that avenue of options.

“The shop needs to be in the heart of town,” the other woman had gone on to say. It’s central locale brought in a lot of foot traffic. Her house was too far out of town to attract that kind of clientele. She wouldn’t get any more customers than she currently had. Again, Kate wasn’t entirely sure she agreed with this estimation. The discretion of an out-of-sight locale might encourage those who felt bowled over by the weight of public opinion and gossip. Still, she said nothing. It wasn’t her decision to make.

Penny wanted her shop to stay right where it was. She didn’t want to move so much as a foot on either side of it. She had carved out a little niche for herself there. People knew how to find her. She didn’t want to scare off customers with erratic repositioning. Plus, the space held sentimental value. It was her humble beginnings and she wasn’t about to let it go.

Penny had tried to get a loan from her bank. The manager, a slimy specimen of a man, had refused the request offhand. And that’s were Kate came in.

“Maybe you could help me to change his mind? If you were to talk to him, with your background and expertise, it’s just conceivable…I need this application approved. It’s my last option.”

Penny didn’t need much money, just enough to get her by for a few months, and pay her back-rent of course. Her landlord, the owner of Massie’s Flowers, had reached the end of his patience. Penny needed to provide a check, in full, by the end of the week or she was out. So she thought, with Kate’s expertise and all…well, it might be worth a shot

Obviously, Kate had agreed, yielding effortlessly to yet another of Penny’s schemes, unable to find the strength to tell her “No.” All the same, Kate hadn’t been quite as optimistic as her partner, all too aware that this ‘last-ditch chat’ probably wouldn’t amount to much. Banks were really tightening their belts. She hadn’t wanted to dampen Penny’s hopes by admitting it, but she’d doubted if any amount of presentations would be able to effectively show the lucrative earning potential of a psychic’s business. It just hadn’t been likely.

Still, Kate had tried. And she’d been almost as disappointed walking out of the bank, one big fat rejection later, as Penny herself. The meeting hadn’t lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Kate’s pride stung; she’d always fancied herself a silver-tongued devil in the buying/selling market. Kate knew the language to use, the persuasion tactics to turn heads. It’s how she’d landed a junior analyst position straight out of college, a highly competitive field.

Maybe she was getting rusty. They’d barely had time to get comfortable in the plastic chairs provided before they were politely, but firmly, denied. Unfortunately, the bank just didn’t have the faith that Penny would be able to pay the loan back. Her current expenses, debt and credit history pointed to money mismanagement and overextension.

Penny had tried to put on a brave face in the aftermath of this crippling answer, instead telling Kate how much she appreciated the help; she knew how hard the other woman had tried…some things weren’t meant to be. Forcing a grin, she’d told Kate not to worry, and certainly to please stop apologizing. It was Penny’s own fault. She’d figure it out. She always did one way or another.

 

“…I’m not sure what it is I even think you can do,” Kate said to Maggie, in conclusion to this remarkable story. “Actually that’s, that’s not true. I was hoping maybe you could talk to the owner of the florist’s shop? See if you can succeed where I failed with the bank.”

M.T. smirked. “Why me?” The question seemed deceptively simple.

“Well…” Kate wasn’t sure exactly how to answer that.

“It wouldn’t be because of my influential position as the town’s reverend, now would it?” Maggie asked meaningfully.

“I thought it couldn’t hurt,” Kate confessed, sure she was going to hell.

“Lutheran guilt?” Maggie queried, her tone impassive.

.           Cringing, Kate nodded her head. It hadn’t sounded quite that wrong when she’d laid it out in her mind. She blew out a deep breath. “Yeah, you’re right, that’s a horrible idea. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You were trying to be a good friend,” Maggie assured her, placing a hand over Kate’s wrist comfortingly. Looking down at the contact, Kate realized the sister’s were probably more alike than they even knew.

“Yeah, I guess,” Kate said, feeling more and more defeated by the minute. “It’s just, I’ve never had a,” Kate stumbled, “a Penny in my life before. She has a way about her…she just sort of grows on a person.”

“Oh, I know what you mean. She’s a special woman.”

“And I’ve never seen her look so down. I wanted to give back to her. She really loves what she does. No offense to your religion,” Kate was quick to say. “Frankly, I don’t even think I believe in what she does, but…well, I believe in her.”

“I can see that,” Maggie said softly. “Maggie’s really lucky to have you in her life.”

 

 

 

Kate left shortly afterward. She thanked M.T. for listening to her, for brining her back to reality and for the cup of coffee, as well. Waving a last goodbye from her hotel room window, Maggie couldn’t fight back a grin. Kate was a proper young woman. No doubt she and Penny made an odd pair, but nonetheless, a sincere one. In spite of herself, Maggie found herself jealous at the thought. She wanted to be a part of that.

One hand fingering the heart-shaped locket worn perpetually around her neck, Maggie spoke out loud: “Please understand, even if you don’t agree. I have to help. You taught me that.  After all, the greatest is love, isn’t it?” The words, quiet at first, grew louder in conviction.

God didn’t answer back. Not directly anyway, but then again he never did.

Squaring her shoulders, not giving herself time to back out, Maggie reached for her car keys. Perhaps it was time she learned how to be a good friend herself, even if that meant bending her moral barometer a little in the name of the greater good. She knew He’d understand. “Give me grace,” she uttered in finality as she shut the hotel room behind her.

 

 

Ten minutes later, a hat pulled low on her brow, Maggie found herself standing at the entrance to Massie’s Flowers, her reflection painted clearly across the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Her eyes were bright with anxiety and urgency. She wasn’t sure how much time she had.

Canvassing the scene, she’d circled the block twice before finally parking, her car going at a snail’s pace as her eyes spied for any sign of life over at Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—conspicuously adjacent, discretion was imperative. The coast clear, however, the store seemed locked up tight, the lights turned off, a note taped to the window saying the psychic would be out for the remainder of the day. Breathing a sigh of relief, Maggie felt her confidence grow as she pulled the door open to the florist’s shop….

The sole occupant in the building, it didn’t take long for Maggie to be noticed. Smiling in greeting at an approaching employee, Maggie tried to present a calm and cool front.

“Hello ma’am, can I help you with anything in particular?” A youngish woman asked, stopping a few feet from her. It was exactly the kind of address Maggie had been hoping for.

“Yes, actually I was hoping to talk to a Mr. Chesney, the proprietor of this establishment,” M.T. said, her gaze taking in the building vaguely.

“Sure, I’ll go and get him. Just a moment.” The worker worked skipped behind the check-out counter to a door in the back. Maggie could just make out the girl’s voice as she pushed it open, her head poked just inside its depths, informing the occupant of Maggie’s presence…

In response, a fat little man, with balding hair, stepped into view, lumbering out of t his private domain with a determined, if forced, smiled marring the lines of his face. Kicking her own grin up a notch or two, Maggie met him halfway, standing between an aisle of peonies and tickseed, the arrangement of which both overwhelming and colorful.

“Hello, you wanted to speak with me?” the man asked, getting right to the point. This was obviously Mr. Chesney.

Maggie nodded her eagerly. “Well, yes, though I dare say it’s not about your lovely flowers.”

Cocking his head to the side, Maggie noted that this had really gotten the bored man’s attention. “Excuse me?”

“We haven’t met yet. My name is Margaret Thayer. I’m the new pastor in town,” she said, holding out of hand. He quickly shook it.

“Yes, of course. I heard we had a new reverend in town. How do you do? Is this about flower donations?”

“No, no, uh, at least, not today,” she said, making a mental note to call them back and look into that. Another day. Another day.

“Okay…” he said, obviously waiting for her to proceed.

“Actually, I was hoping to talk to you about Madame Penny…”

 

 

 

Walking back to her car half an hour later, Maggie hoped she hadn’t just made a huge mistake. She’d wanted to help her sister, but if Penny ever found out what she’d done, well, she’d probably hate her. It didn’t bare thinking about. Fingers crossed, Maggie prayed it wouldn’t come to that; she didn’t think they could stand to be any more alienated from one another.

With a shake of her head, Maggie ended that line of thought; it wouldn’t do her any good. What was done was done. Besides, the potted plants she was currently hefting into the back of her SUV required special attention or there was going to be upturned soil all over the floorboards.

A small price to pay, she reminded herself. Penny wasn’t going to be evicted. At least, not today.

Kate’s plan had failed. Throwing her title around hadn’t impressed Mr. Chesney—and, God help her Maggie had tried, sinking to that sorry state of manipulation to no avail:

“Penny provides a unique service for this community,” she’d insisted, “supplementing a necessary element of spiritual connectedness. This form of stewardship is what brings communities together. It’s what keeps them together. Perhaps given a little more time…”

In response, Mr. Chesney had informed her coolly, and in no uncertain terms, that he couldn’t afford to run a business on the foundations of Christian charity. He ran it on money. Madame Penny hadn’t paid her rent. Without payment he had to reclaim the property. It was a cyclical process, and he knew she’d understand.

Still, she’d pushed. “Yes, but I’m sure you can appreciate that it isn’t just money that businesses rely upon, but also a supportive and neighborly commonwealth. These are not exclusive principals.”

Kate’s plan failed. Indeed, in the end, it was Maggie who’d capitulated, not the other way around. She’d come to suppose this as God’s unspoken counter to her half-hatched plan—a misguided if genuine desire to protect her family. She’d misappropriated her position in the community for personal gain, and she’d been fully aware she was doing it, too. Worse, she’d gotten nowhere with it.

When Mr. Chesney remained unmoved by her pretty speeches, Maggie amended her negotiation tactic: she would pay Penny’s back-rent. The stipulation: her involvement in the matter never be disclosed. Mr. Chesney would claim a change in faith, expressing a new offer: as long as Penny never found herself in arrears on payment again, her debt would be forgiven.

“Why so clandestine?” Chesney asked, his eyebrows raised suspiciously.

“Clandestine? No, not at all,” Maggie defended quickly. “I just want her focused on the right thing here, which is going forward! Knowledge of my involvement would be counterproductive, only furthering a sense of backward indebtedness. That’s not the point.”

Without further ado, Mr. Chesney agreed, but not before adding his own terms to this parley. He’d keep his mouth shut, find some reasonable excuse for releasing Penny from her debts, but in the meantime, perhaps Maggie wouldn’t mind taking a look at some of Massie’s selections of flowers? They would make a great addition to a new home, or even the church sanctuary….His meaning couldn’t have been clearer.

Swallowing against the mounting price tag of this impromptu trip, Maggie had no other choice but to turn her eyes toward the rows of greenery decorating the building’s interior. “Lead the way,” she choked out, thankful she’d brought her checkbook with her.

Though Chesney had expressed no exception to her interference in the matter of Penny’s lease, seemingly content with her expression of concern for the welfare of the community members she served, he had nonetheless shown a certain amount of curiosity about her intentions per se—particularly with this community member.

“I must admit, it’s somewhat surprising, you, being a pastor and all, trying so hard to keep a psychic’s business alive, since it directly challenges your own work.”

M.T. felt her face flush. She wasn’t sure but she thought he was subtly calling her out—it had nothing to do with her being a pastor, and he knew it. “I chose to believe that all spiritual leaders are professing devotion to the same God, no matter the name, face, or likelihood denoted therein. I believe He comes to us however it is we need to see Him,” she defended herself. “So keeping her business alive is, in a way, keeping mine as well.”

“Huh,” he said, leaning back against the counter. “And here I thought it was because she was your baby sister.”

Guess he wasn’t being subtle after all.

 

Driving home, Maggie felt waves of guilt wash over her person. She’d never used the divinity of her career for anything even remotely self-serving before. But today, well today she’d played it like a bargaining chip, the ace in her deck of persuasion tactics. She, who guided others to states of moral and ethical righteousness, had fallen into the categorical ‘do as I say, not as I do’ trap.

Still, she’d saved her sister. That had to be worth something.

Maggie pulled into the church parking lot, a feeling of foreboding stealing over her body. She’d made the last minute detour, convinced a donation to the

 

This seesaw of emotion is what led Maggie to make a last minute detour on her way back home. Pulling into the empty parking lot of her destination, she felt a moment’s foreboding. She wasn’t looking up at the wooden siding of her hotel, rather the shadowed steeple of Good Shepherd, convinced that a donation to the church was a necessary salve to her sorry conscience.

Climbing out of her rental, she popped open the trunk. The devastating sight which met her eyes, a mixture of English roses, gardenias and bougainvillea—along with a gorgeous potato tree, sparkled even in the darkened evening air, a rainbow of antique yellow, blushed white and pink, and a dusky blue.

She hoped the congregation enjoyed them.