North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Four

A slight breeze wafted against the window curtains of Penny’s room, as the three women stared outside.

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

            Kate nodded. “I’m sure.”

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

Without more encouragement, Penny tossed one end of the sheets over and out the window.  Glancing nervously over her shoulder, Kate felt her heartbeat kick up another notch. “Hurry up—we don’t have much time.” Any second now her mother was going to throw the door open, catch them in the act.

Shifting back to the window, she watched Penny slide over the ledge. Her feet made a soft scabbing sound as she leaned up against the exterior wall. Maggie quickly tied the other half of the “rope” against the window-crank, securing Penny’s dissent.

“Be careful,” she whispered to her sister as Penny’s head slowly slipped from view, her steps almost silent now as she crawled downward.

“All right Kate, you’re next,” Maggie said once Penny had swung herself up onto the tree branch.

Kate nodded. Scooting over the window, she grabbed the sheet with sweaty palms. Shucking against the vinyl siding, her breath shaking her half to death, she lowered herself to the rose trellis…

It was over in a matter of minutes. Maggie’s soft jump from the tree to the ground brought the women together again. Except for a couple of scratches, they were safely outside. The only problem was—it wasn’t dark yet. Wouldn’t be for another hour or two. They stood there in their dinner finery, grouped together on the McDonald’s carefully manicured lawns, for all the world to see.

“What do we do now—they’ll see us if we walk up the block,” Kate cried in a hoarse sort of whisper. Pointing unnecessarily, she took in the large windows facing the foyer and the dining room, which were only too visible from the street.

Maggie frowned, looking helplessly toward Penny for an answer. The physic only smiled.

“How fast can you run?” Penny asked the women.

“Run where?” Kate asked wildly. “We’re miles from a hotel—or the hospital…and I’m not wearing shoes…!”

The sound of an approaching vehicle cut Kate short. With a jerk, she leaned up tight against the side of the building, trying to hide. Just who could that be…?

“You don’t have to run miles,” Penny said, indicating the car that was slowly sweeping toward Kate’s house. It was a taxi. “Just to the curb.”

“Wha…? How did you? What?”

Penny shrugged. “The taxi we took home yesterday. I got his number.” Her tone dripped with dry censure. “Just in case something like this should happen.”

“When did you have time to call for a taxi?” Maggie asked inanely.

Penny gave her a look. “Oh I don’t know, near about the time I hurdled down from that oak tree.” Then with a wave of her hand, she produced her cell phone, as if that answered all their questions. “Luckily, he wasn’t busy when I phoned. Said he’d be here in a matter of minutes. Seems he was right.”

As Penny spoke, the car pulled to a noiseless stop in front of the house. Kate stared at it dumbly, her mind blank. It was all too much. It was only the tug on her wrist from Penny which snapped her out of this reverie. “Come on Kate. We gotta get a move on—before they notice!”

They almost didn’t make it. It was as Kate was on the verge of leaping inside the musky-smelling car that the front door to her home opened, and Calida’s brilliant silhouette, followed shortly by Phil’s, tumbled into sight.

“Kate…! Kate, where are you going! Come back here!”

Sparing her mother one last glance, Kate hopped into the cab. With a resounding thunk, she slammed the door shut.

“Go!”

The squeal of tires and they were off. Clothes, toiletries, suitcases and the like, were all left behind.

 

 

 

            Kate looked around the walls of her living room. The teal-blue accent of the room gave her peace, a welcoming she desperately needed. This was her haven. Her special place. No one could touch her here. She was safe—to think, to breath, to be Kate.

            She felt bad for the way she’d treated Penny. She’d need to apologize

After everything she and Maggie had done for Kate, and how had she thanked them—by freaking out over a stupid boat. Penny had been genius at Kate’s house. If it hadn’t been for her, Kate didn’t even want to think about what would have happened that night.

The stupid boat. Penny had tried. God bless her, she’d only been trying to help Kate move on from that ordeal when she’d rented that stupid, stupid boat. Crane Bay had been a good idea in theory. Kate knew that now. The girls had meant well. Only, Kate hadn’t been ready, not just then. So she’d freaked out. About a stupid boat.

And now, three days had passed since their ill-gotten return.

At first, Kate had been too mad to talk to Penny. She’d needed time to work out her frustrations, to vent out all those feelings her mother had brought back to the surface. So she’d ignored Penny’s frequent attempts to call her. She’d ignored the sundry text messages. It wasn’t because Kate was still mad at her. Not any longer. She just needed a little quiet.

With steady eyes, Kate looked up at the clock. But now that time had come to an end. She could no longer hideaway in the sanctuary that had become her house. Jake had been kind when he’d heard about Nanny Moore. Through a kindly worded text message (the only kind of interaction they’d had since that drunken  night at Julie’s Diner), he’d promised Kate as much time as she needed before putting her back on the schedule. M.T. had been wise. She’d waited Kate out. And Penny—she’d been her typical self. She’d just loved.

On that thought, Kate pulled out her phone and shot off two quick text messages. Then, climbing out of her chair, she headed for the shower. Yesterday had been the last in a long line of days in which she’d requested off of work; which meant that tonight was her first shift back at the beloved bookstore. And she was ready for it. Excited even; to have something to do, something to keep her mind preoccupied. Resolutely ignoring the gnawing sensation in the pit of her stomach, Kate reminded herself (as she’d done repeatedly since the new scheduled had been posted) that Jake would be done for the day by the time she clocked in. He would be gone. Home.

She didn’t have enough energy to face both work and Jake on the same day.

 

 

 

But it seemed Kate wasn’t going to get what she wanted. Walking into the LitLiber an hour later, the first person she saw upon entering the building was Jake. And standing right beside him was none other than Jackson. Huddled together, by the Customer Service Desk, they both turned at her approach. It appeared they were waiting for her.

Stumbling to a stop, Kate felt a blush work its way slowly up her neck. Her eyes skipped from the one to the other frantically, her mind flashing back to the last encounter she’d had with each man.

Jake:

“Do you also know that it’s all your fault?” Jake asked then, his voice even, conversational, a goofy grin splitting across his face.

            “What?” Kate was starting to feel like a parrot here.

            “Ever since you came to town,” he said groggily, “I can’t get you out of my head.”

            Kate’s eyes popped. Had he actually said that?

            Jake may not have been lucid, but his next words were clear enough: “You’re so beautiful. And-and smart, independent… yet there’s something so fragile about you too. A conundrum—that’s what you are!” He smiled hazily. “I think about you…all the time,” he cried languidly, his voice undulating rapidly in his stupor, his filter shut off—the words leaving his lips without regulation. “And I forget about everything else. You’re there, all the time, even when you’re not! I couldn’t—I was cheating Ashley.”

            Kate thought her heart would beat right out of her chest. Her nerves were a live thing, thrumming against her body, her ears drowned by the anxious beating there…Jake wanted her?

            His rough laugh broke into her thoughts. “You’ve disrupted my whole life, did you know that?”

 

            “I’m crazy about you Kate.”

 

Than Jackson:

Making quick work of the storm door standing between them, before Kate had time to realize his intentions, Jackson had done just that– striding determinedly across the threshold, the bulk of his body crowding hers in the small landing; without quite realizing how, Kate soon found herself pressed between the solid wood construction of her front door and the wall of his chest.

            “Jackson?” she asked, her voice pitched in disbelief. The dilation of her eyes, the pulse beating rapidly against her throat, the sultry sound of his voice dripping oh-so-welcomingly off her tongue…Kate didn’t offer up even a token protest.

            In response, his hands came up to cup her face, his head bending down, lips hovering over her mouth. “We never talked about it. You never asked,” he whispered, his eyes gauging her response. Kate leaned into his touch. “But I wanted you to know…”

            His lips brushed lightly against her own, clinging softly in the silence that followed. With a low groan, Kate felt her body step even closer into his embrace, her arms, by their own volition, circling around his neck. And Kate kissed him back, the swell of his tongue receiving an instinctive, heady response in kind. In those brief moments, her stomach dropped away….

 

 

Shaking her head free of these paralyzing thoughts, Kate tried to focus her attention. She was not, absolutely not, ready for this. But, if either man noticed her unease, neither made comment—nor did they seemed besieged by the same awkward memories. Jackson smiled warmly. Jake with a goofy grin.

“Kate, just the girl we were hoping to see,” Jake called, beckoning her closer.

For one wild second, Kate wondered if she hadn’t made it all up—the frenzied, alcohol-induced admission at Julie’s Diner; the stomach-flopping kiss on her front doorstep. But then, as she neared the men, she felt it. That electric charge. Jake’s eyes, up close, were guarded, twitchy. And Jackson’s looked hopeful but scared; they’d never talk about that kiss. After pulling away from her, Jackson had whispered: “Just think about it, okay?” and then, without another word, he’d turned and left her standing there, mouth gaping open, gasping for air.

And after everything that happened with Nanny Moore…well, Kate swallowed. Throwing her shoulders back, she attempted a breezy smile. If they could act nonchalant then dammit, so could she.

“What’s up?” She asked flippantly, but her eyes refused to look in either man’s direction for very long.

Jake cleared his throat. “As you may have heard, every year the LitLiber participates with a local organization to promote literacy and reading for kids.”
Kate smiled. “That’s wonderful—”

“Westleigh Public Schools also help to coordinate the program,” Jackson intoned.

“Yes, of course,” Jake agreed quickly.

Kate fought back a smile.

“Anyway,” Jake continued, “this year we’ve decided to run things a little differently. Usually, we just conduct an informational talk for the families in the area, but turnout has been rather low—”

“So we thought, this time around we’d run the event as a play—”

“Give them a story instead of a lecture.”

“Something educational but also entertaining.”

“A visual look at the benefit of books—”

Kate wasn’t sure where this was going. “Okay?”

“The play will take place here—in the Kid’s Reading Corner,” Jake said, gesturing toward the part of the store.

“And, as chair of the school’s theatre department, I volunteered to direct it,” Jackson added.

Kate nodded. “Well—anyway in which I can help….?”

Jake nodded. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

“You were?” Kate was starting to feel a bit suspicious.

Jackson spoke: “You seemed like a natural choice. First of all, you do actually work at LitLiber; the community would recognize you as an authentic spokesman. And I’ve seen you perform—as Juliet, you’ll remember, last fall at the high school. You were really quite good.”

Kate was starting to get the picture. “Wait. You want me—”

“To play the lead role in the production.” Jackson nodded.

Kate goggled at them.

Jackson looked satisfied.

Jake encouraging.

“But only if you want to.”

“Of course, you’re not required to do this.”

“It is for a good cause though.”

“And your willingness to help out would not go unnoticed.”

Kate felt two sets of eyes peering at her pleadingly.

 

 

 

 

“Well, look at the bright side,” Penny said later that evening, after Kate had gotten off from work. She’d text both women earlier that afternoon, asking if they’d like to meet up with her for a drink once the LitLiber closed. It had been her way of an olive branch and both Penny and Maggie had snatched at it gleefully. “At least this play will keep your mind off dear old mom.”

Kate pulled a face.

“Penny, do you have no tact?” M.T. growled. Turning to Kate, she arranged her facial features into something warmly sympathetic. “So you said yes?”

Kate shrugged. “What else could I say? They just stood there, staring at me. I couldn’t say no.”

Penny took a hearty sip of her martini. “So big picture here: for the next few weeks you’re going to be working closely alongside the man who’s practically admitted he’s in love with you, and the guy who just recently kissed you within an inch of your life? That about it?”

Kate guzzled her beer. “Yeah.”

“One doesn’t even need to be psychic to see what’s going to happen next.”

“Oh Penny, put a sock in it,” M.T. snapped.

Throwing her hands up in the air, Penny looked mildly hurt at the reproach. “What? I’m just saying, Kate needs to tread carefully here…”

“She’s right,” Kate admitted softly, miserably.

“I know,” M.T. seconded.

“So what do I do?”

Maggie shrugged. “What do you want to do?”

“And don’t say avoid the issue,” Penny butted in, “we’ve seen how well that’s worked out for you in the past.” The dim lights of the bar only partially disguised the glare Kate sent her way.

Kate blew out a ragged breath. “I don’t know! I like them both.”

“Oh-I got it!” Penny said. Ruffling quickly through her purse, she pulled out a small notepad and a pen. “Let’s right down a pro and con list. What do you like about each man, and what don’t you like? We’ll measure them together, side-by-side.”

“That sounds like a horrible idea,” M.T. said.

Penny ignored her sister. “First off, tell us: who’s a better kisser?”

Kate felt her stomach pinch at the words, at the remembered feeling of Jake’s lips pressed up closely against her, his mouth devouring hers with passionate, violent intensity. Jackson’s had been softer, gentler, but no less ardent, no less impactful.

Dropping her head in her hands, Kate closed her eyes.

“Equal but different.”

“That’s not going to be a lot of help,” Penny murmured softly to herself. “All right next question….”

M.T. groaned weakly into her glass of wine.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Hobbling carefully, her arms sturdy against the uncomfortable padding of her crutches, Kate made her way slowly into her kitchen. The soft click of the front door closing behind M.T.’s reluctant form ringing from the hall, Kate frowned. She was hungry. She hadn’t realized just how hungry when she’d more-or-less pushed the hovering pastor out the door; in retrospect, she should had her stay just a little while longer…but then again, if Maggie suspected Kate couldn’t even so much as make dinner she never would’ve agreed to leave Kate to her own devices.

Propping her body up against the counter, Kate fumbled a frying pan out from the cupboard. Eggs and toast. That’s what she’d make herself. Eggs and toast were easy, even for a woman with a sprained ankle. Plugging in her toaster oven, Kate spent the next few minutes fumbling about, gathering the required ingredients: milk, bread, eggs, butter, cheese…

Placing a skillet on the stovetop, Kate smiled wistfully. It had been quite a day. Sure, her ankle throbbed, but having Jake carry her out of the LitLiber, a look of frantic concern etched across his face had almost been worth it….

It had happened that morning, during the first hour of her shift at the bookstore. It was Thursday, and like all Thursdays, it saw the staff busily re-stocking shelves with new arrivals, preparing for a busy weekend. And that’s exactly what Kate had been doing, her arms loaded down with science-fiction novels, when she’d stumbled over the edge of a step-stool.  It shouldn’t have been left there, the small step forgotten by an employee who, doing likeminded work as Kate, had been called away suddenly to help a customer.

Tripping hard, one moment Kate was walking quickly across the aisle way and, the next, she was being flung headfirst across the carpeted expanse before her, the books in her hands flying in any direction (some landing with a solid thump against her splayed body there). She’d tried to catch herself, her fingers reaching out for the ledges of the bookshelves, but to no avail. Stunned, for a moment, she’d just lain there, catching her breath.

Her fall had made quite boom of noise and, before she’d even regained the energy to gain her feet, Kate was looking up at Jake, who’d rushed over from his position behind the Customer Service Desk as the riotous sound.

“Jesus, Kate, are you okay?” he asked, bending down on his knee to brush off the bits of books enveloping her. “What happened?”

Kate pulled herself into a seated position. Her butt hurt. Her legs ached. Her foot, however, was all but howling in reaction to this. Grimacing, she hid the evidence of this as best she could. The embarrassment surrounding her—half the staff by this point was circled in witness to her fall—she didn’t have room to focus upon her physical woes.

“I-I tripped,” she said, pointing to the offensive article as she did so. The answering scowl on Jake’s face was fierce.

“Who left this here?” he demanded of the gawking staff. Clearly, someone was about to get their ass chewed.

Kate hadn’t meant to do that. Holding up her hand, she cut him off there. “No, no, it was my fault. I wasn’t looking were I was going. I had too many books in my hands.”

Slowly Jake rotated his gaze back to hers. “Are you okay?” he asked. The anger from just a second again was replaced with a look of genuine concern.

Kate nodded dumbly. She wished everyone would just return to work and leave her to her mortification. “Yes, I’m fine. Really, it was stupid. Sorry for all the ruckus,” she tried to say.

Jake nodded. “All right.” With that he gained his feet. Holding out his hand to her, he added: “Let me help you up.”

Placing her hand in his, Kate was unceremoniously hauled to her feet. Her left boot had barely made contact with the floor, however, when her face blanched. And, before she could help it, a soft cry of pain shot forth from her mouth. Just as quickly as she’d been brought to her feet, Kate felt her body drop back to the floor. She couldn’t stand.

“Kate?” Jake asked, squatting down beside her. “What’s wrong?”

Kate shook her head emphatically. If she just ignored it, refused to allow it to have hold over her… “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Just give me a moment.”

“Is it your foot?” Jake asked suspiciously.

Too late, Kate realized that she’d been unconsciously cradling the throbbing thing against the palm of her hand. Tears pricking against her eyes, Kate nodded in defeat. “Yeah, it’s a little sore from the fall, I guess.”

“Can I take a look at it?” Jake asked, his hand already reaching out to gently take hold of it. Slipping off her shoe, followed shortly by her sock, Jake bent down to examine the swollen, bruised limb in his hands.

Considering the state of her injury (discoloration, inflammation, tenderness), his next words weren’t all that surprising. Kate needed to see a doctor. Immediately.

“It’s probably just a sprain,” Kate had wailed when Jake ordered Jackie, the store supervisor, to bring his car around to the front of the building.

Jake threw her a dark look. “Oh? I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized you’d graduated with a medical degree.”

“I haven’t…”

“No? Then maybe we should leave such diagnoses to someone who has.”

“Jake, really, I’ll be just fine. I don’t want to go to the doctor’s office.”

To this churlish plea, Jake didn’t bother answering. “Put your arms around my neck,” he said instead.

And, despite herself, Kate felt a thrill at the hot demand. Snaking her arms around either side of his shoulder, her trembling fingers clasped one another at his nape. Still, she had her pride…

“Satisfied?” she asked sarcastically, the purpose meant to disguise the reaction his proximity was costing her. Breath trapped in her throat, Kate felt the impact of his own hands curling around her body—the right wrapped around her back, the left cupped underneath her knees. He hugged her close against his chest.

“Exceedingly,” Jake grunted as he gained his feet, his arms tight against her captive body.  With that, he lead her out of the building, his movements followed by every pair of eyes in that stupid bookstore.

 

 

 

Jake’s obvious concern as he drove her to the hospital, his gaze as frequently on her pained expression as it was on the road, was nothing compared to the reaction she received an hour later when, exiting the doctor’s private consulting room for the waiting area, her steps awkward with the aid of the foreign crutches, her eyes landed on the agitated movements of M.T. and Penny.

Oh God.

She’d barely made it halfway across the floor when they advanced on her.

“Kate?” Jake’s voice was soft, questioning.

“I knew it! I had a bad feeling this morning…a black premonition. I should have listened to it. I blame myself,” Penny all but swooned, her wrist draped dramatically over her forehead.

“How are you feeling?” Always the pastor, M.T. looked almost mothering.

The questions, barreling one after the other, hit Kate with the force of affectionate and frankly humbly, worry.

“Jake called us right after you’d been admitted,” Penny said, shooting him an appreciative look. “We got here as soon as we could.” It seemed important to Penny that Kate know this.

“You poor thing, does it hurt much?”

“I’m so sorry Kate. I feel responsible for this,” Jake interrupted, running a hand through his unruly hair.

“I took a personal day from work, so I’ll be able to take you home and get you all set up,” M.T. said, rubbing a hand against Kate’s back soothingly.

It was all just a little too much.

Holding up her hand, Kate pushed her voice forward: “Guys! Calm down. It’s just a sprained ankle.” The look she shot Jake echoed the soft strains of an “I Told You So” comeback.

“It could have been worse,” he groaned.

Kate stopped him right there. “But it’s not,” she assured him. “Jake please don’t—accidents happen.”

Penny made a tsking sound. “Accidents are merely portals of divine will.”

Kate screwed up her face—what?

M.T., giving Penny and Jake a pointed look, laughed gently: “Forgive us, Kate. We don’t mean to be overbearing. We were just worried. Still are, in fact.”

Kate nodded solemnly, gratefully. Her hand reached out to clasp that of her dear friend’s. “I know. Thank you for that.”

Jake shook his head, as if still not appeased. “Whatever you need Kate, just say the word. Okay?”

Kate smiled gently. He did look upset. “Just a couple days of rest, according to my doctor.”

“And rest you’ll get, even if it means I’ll have to sit on you!” Penny threatened, ever the theatric.

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Kate returned drily.

“Do you have school today? Would you like me to call any of your professors, explain what happened?”

Kate blanched at M.T.’s question, unused to all the attention. Her own mother wouldn’t have asked that.

“Uh, no. I don’t have school on Thursdays,” she said. Frowning she considered that though she might not have classes that day, she would the following one and it would involve multiple flights of stairs.  Blocking the unnerving thought, Kate figured she had time to figure that out yet. Either way, M.T. was not calling the college on her behalf. Kate might not walk well, but her ability to speak hadn’t yet deserted her.

“Okay. Good.” M.T. nodded firmly, a woman in charge of her domain. “Let’s get you home then.” The words didn’t brook any argument. Kate was expected to meekly compel.

Taking his cue, Jake hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the parking lot, signaling his intent to depart, as well. “Yeah, I should probably get back to the store. You’re sure you don’t need anything?” he asked again, his voice beseeching.

“I’m fine,” Kate assured him again. “Really.”

“But, you’ll call if…?”

“I’ll call,” Kate lied. She absolutely would not call Jake if she needed help with anything. That would be the epitome of humiliation. Kate McDonald was a burden to no man. (Penny and M.T. on the other hand….)

Besides, a small mean little voice in the back of her head piped in, wasn’t Jake the one who’d called in the cavalry? Not a stupid man, Jake had to have known that doing so would effectively rid him of further ‘Kate Duty’. Probably, he was anxious to wipe his hands of the whole mess, conscience cleared by the presence of her newfound caretakers—caretakers he’d seen to himself, caretakers he wasn’t numbered amongst.

Dismissing the thought as ungrateful, Kate offered him a last line of farewell before turning her attention back to Penny, who was going on and on about the dark energy which surrounded hospitals.

“We should probably get you out of here while it’s only a sore ankle,” she insisted, her eyebrows arched comically. “It’s almost a full moon. Energy has increased power during that cycle.”

Somehow Kate refrained from rolling here eye.

 

 

 

Penny hadn’t been able to stay at Kate’s long. She had a meditation session scheduled for three o’clock that afternoon and, though she’d oscillated back and forth between canceling, neither M.T. nor Kate would hear of it. The psychic needed every paying customer she could fine. Plus, Kate had explained, with some exasperation, it was only a sprained ankle. She wasn’t an invalid or anything! M.T., on the other hand, had been a little more difficult. If Kate hadn’t insisted on some alone time—she’d promised to use the time to rest, keep her foot elevated, take a nap, anything to persuade Maggie— she doubted the pastor would have left her at all.

Now, standing over her stove, spatula in hand as she scrambled the eggs, Kate began to regret her hasty decision to be left unaccompanied. For one thing, bereft of her usual mobility, she wasn’t sure how she’d pass the night. Clicking through one television show after another held little appeal and just the thought of sitting down over homework was enough to send her yawning… Conversation with Maggie would have passed the time nicely. For another, cooking was proving slow-going and less then efficient.

It was her pride, Kate knew, reaching clumsily for the milk. She hated the thought of putting anyone out, for any reason. She hated knowing her situation would prove an inconvenience to someone else…that she’d been a drain on someone’s generosity. Most especially though, she despised the notion that she was weak, lacking in some way. So she’d asked to be left alone. And that was that.

Kate was still deep in these thoughts when the buzzer on her toaster oven went off. Startled from her reverie Kate jerked, the action sending one of her crutches out from under her arm, spinning across the floor. Clanking hard against the hardwood there, it landed with a whack, just out of her reach. The fingers of one hand gripping the lip of the counter, Kate was forced to shimmy forward as best she could, closer to the fallen object. Moving with two crutches was tough. One was damn near impossible.

The buzzer sounded again.

Desperate—the toast could be smelt burning—Kate used the length of the crutch she still possessed in attempts to recover its missing counterpart. Putting this leverage to good use, she tried to hook the cushioned rubber tip of the one crutch against the adjustable hand grip of the other, in attempts to bridge this divide. She’d just about done it but, in her haste, Kate’s hand flinched, inadvertently sending the prop even farther away. Crying in frustration, she tried again, her body leaning precariously forward…!

By the time Kate had regained her crutch, the toast was past the point of no return and worse, the smoke detector had gone off. And so, college notebook in hand, Kate soon found herself standing impatiently beneath the wailing alarm, her hand waving frantically to clear the haze circulating the room. The eggs, frying forgotten on the stove, had hardened beyond consumption by this point; in consequence, small wisps of grey vapors spiraled up from underneath the pan there, floating toward the ceiling. Kate was too busy to notice.

That’s when the knock sounded at the door.

Sighing impatiently, Kate was almost glad for the disruption. It was probably Penny, finished with her client. Thank god. Kate could use a little help here. Unwilling to leave her station, Kate called out loudly, when the rapping at the door only continued to intensify in volume: “Just come in already. Doors open.”

Only, it wasn’t Penny who answered back. It wasn’t Penny who, bidden entrance, came

trudging up the split entryway, her voice fighting to be heard above the din: “Is everything all right in there?”

Kate cringed, her stomach dropping. No, it definitely wasn’t Penny at the door. It was Anne Ganthy. Kate could pick her querulous voice out of a crowd.

“Just peachy!” Kate hollered back, her own voice dripping with distain. Please go away. Please go away.

“Well!” Anne huffed, sailing into view then, “how rude! Your alarms have been going off for quite some time…do you have any idea how loud and irritating—what are you doing?” she accused, stopping abruptly at the sorry sight before her. Kate, wobbling against the kitchen chair, her bandaged foot dangling off to one side, looked anything but composed.

Composure wasn’t really any option anyway. By this point, the excess smoke had spilled out from the kitchen into the living room and downstairs bathroom, coating the main floor in a fine mist. Kate’s battle against the detector had failed. Instead of just one, now three alarms, from each respective room, were a-singing. Hence, Anne’s apparent desire to drop in.

Kate growled. “I’m doing the best I can here,” she shouted, her overwhelming frustration leaving no room for manners or niceties. “You want silence? Then start fanning!”

“Oh for goodness sakes,” Anne cried, marching over to the kitchen window. Cracking it open, it was then she noticed that the stove was still on, and the enamel frying pan, lying negligently against one of the burners, was melting from overexposure.

Watching her neatly dispose of this fire hazard, Kate grimaced.

“Well get done from there,” Anne demanded then, after relocating the demolished skillet onto a safe surface, turning her attention toward Kate once more. “Before you hurt yourself more than it seems you already have.”

Mute, Kate followed this order. It seemed pointless to argue.

“I’m going to open some more windows, try to get some fresh air in here,” Anne informed her, scuttling off without so much as a by-your-leave.

Steering herself back to the counter, Kate took the liberty of seeing to the toaster oven. The contents inside had to be scraped out. She was in the process of doing this when Anne came back. The smoke detectors had since silenced themselves and, with the cool breeze of the afternoon wafting throughout the house, the room was soon cleared of the cloudy residue her disastrous attempt at dinner had created.

Head hanging low, Kate addressed Anne. “I’m very sorry to have disturbed you. I-I sprained my ankle this afternoon…”

“And lost your ability to cook along the way?” Anne asked crossly.

Kate shrugged. “I hadn’t realized how much it’d hamper the process.”

“Humph.” Anne didn’t look to be in a forgiving mood. Nothing unusual there.

“I know how much you value your peace and quiet….”

“That’s right I do. I’ve almost forgotten what that’s like, since you’ve moved to town,” that woman acknowledged, her hands on her hips now. Then, reluctantly, she nodded toward Kate’s ankle. “What did you do to yourself anyway?”

“I tripped at work this afternoon. It’s nothing serious.”

“Apparently it’s the reason you almost burnt your house down just now. I’d say that’s serious.” Anne wasn’t going to give so much as an inch.

“I’ll order take-out from now on. I promise.”

“Humph,” Anne said again. “That’s no way to eat.”

Kate didn’t have any response to this.

“I’m making chicken parmesan for supper. It’s nothing fancy but it’s isn’t scorched either.” Anne’s face puckered with obvious discomfort.

Kate tilted her head to one side. Was that an invitation? “Oh?”

Anne huffed. “I eat promptly at 6:00pm. Shall I set the table for two?”

Kate could hardly believe her ears. “That’s very kind of you—”

Anne waved Kate’s words aside uneasily. “Simply sparing myself the trouble of standing guard outside your house with a fire extinguisher.”

Kate hid a smile. Behind that crotchety scowl beat the heart of a woman who had, at least a smidge of, kindness inside her. Besides, Kate had the feeling Anne was a good cook. And hadn’t she only just been thinking how nice it would be to have a little conversation….

“Six is perfect. Thank you.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Five

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

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

“Penny—” Kate warbled.

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

“Penny, did you know Emily?”

“Emily?” Penny blinked, her mind blank.

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

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

“I-I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. How did you know?”

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

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

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

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

Kate sniffled. “He really loved her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kate—”

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

“Kate, give him time.”

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

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

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

“Oh, Kate, I’m sorry—”

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Kate assured her.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go home,” she’d repeated.

“I don’t want to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny stared at M.T. uncomprehendingly.

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

“Why what?”

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

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

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

“Tell me.”

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

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

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

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

Maggie sighed. Her head ached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny choked back a desire to scream herself.

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

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

Swallowing thickly, Penny suppressed a desire to puke.

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

“So what happened next?” Penny asked thinly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Big mouth,” Janessa breathed.

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

“Kate it wasn’t like that—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is her mother?” Jake asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His words were heavy with influence, strong in conviction.

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss perfect,” Jake teased her.

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

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

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

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

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

Jake’s eyebrows rose eloquently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was that…? Please, no.

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

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

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

“In a minute,” Kate hissed right back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate didn’t like it.

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

Janessa giggled. She giggled!

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

Good Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“What about him?”

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

“Isn’t he a little old for her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm-hmm,” Penny said ominously.

“And?” Kate held her breath.

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, take a seat,” he offered weakly.

Kate smiled tightly.

 

 

 

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

Breezy, cool, but damn nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Lutheran Church         

            2680 Callaghan Road

            Paisley Way, IN ….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe Maggie, breathe.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes. Kate gulped.

Could this situation get any more uncomfortable?

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

Double yikes!

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is, if you don’t mind?”

 

 

 

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

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

Pastor Thayer,          

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed a drink. Maybe two.

 

 

 

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

Note to self: get another IT guy!

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

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

“Kate?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Eighteen

“Bless me father for I have sinned,” Kate’s voice came out soft, questioning…

The metal lattice separating her from the priest on the other side of the confessional was foreign looking, something she’d prior only witnessed in movies—the structure divided into two separate compartments.  She tried to get comfortable but the wooden abode was small, stuffy, her knees jutted up against the door in her seated position. The padding on the chair was thin, no doubt to keep the sinner’s declaration to a minimum.

She wasn’t sure how to begin a confession. Was there a certain prayer or a recitation required in the introductory statement of such a sacrament—a manual for dummies? Closing her eyes, she tried to remember what her Catholic friend’s had said about it.

Something about how long it had been since their last confession…?

“I’m not technically Catholic,” Kate said instead, opting for truth over subterfuge, “so I guess this is my first confession. You see, I’m actually Lutheran but I can’t go to my pastor because, well because she’s a part of the reason I’m here today…I’ve got to talk to someone and Penny would think I was betraying her if I talked to M.T., disbelieving in her psychic abilities—” Kate was babbling. Taking a deep breath, she paused here, taking the moment to regroup. She was probably doing this all wrong.

“Go on, my child,” she heard from the other end of the booth, the voice soothing, non-judgmental, even slightly amused.

Kate sighed, “Perhaps I should begin at the beginning. It all started yesterday. There’s this girl—Janessa. I mentor her through my church. Anyway, she wanted to go to a high school hockey game…”

 

 

 

Janessa had practically begged Kate to bring her to the sporting event. It wasn’t that she was any huge fan of hockey, rather one of the players. She had a crush. But Janessa being Janessa, it wasn’t on one of the players for her hometown team, rather the rival school.

That’s why it was so important Kate take her to this particular game; Janessa would have a viable reason of running into said player, a perfect excuse for drooling all over him—under the guise of school pride. This way she was safe to check him out without making her intentions obvious. Not that it mattered. Kate would have taken Janessa regardless. One, it was the first time her charge had reached out to her and two, Kate loved hockey.

It was only when they walked into the arena that things got weird. They’d no sooner found a spot to sit in the packed stands then Kate spotted them: Jake and Ashley, sitting together. They were two rows over, perfectly within Kate’s peripheral vision (if she craned her neck just so). Jake’s arm was stretched casually across her shoulders, Ashley’s head resting ever-so-trustingly against the side of his jaw. The sight of their canoodling about set Kate over the edge.

Standing up abruptly, Kate motioned Janessa to follow suit. She could not watch this all night.

“What are you doing?” Janessa whined, her mouth twisted into a sneer as she was led back down the steps and around the back of the rink to the bleachers on the other side.

Kate plopped down at the only abandoned spot there—shrouded in shadows from the overhanging balcony above them. Patting the space next to hers, inviting Janessa to join her, Kate scrambled for something to say, not sure how much she should confide in a sixteen year old girl. Secrets were reasons to gossip at that age.

Think, think, why did you insist upon moving…?

“Well, I thought, if you want to cheer for Zack, it would look less conspicuous from over here, in the visitors section,” she settled on, pleased with her quick recovery.

 

 

 

“But, I lied to Janessa,” Kate told the priest now, cringing even in memory. “Jake is my boss. He and I—well, we had a moment. Once,” she clarified, careful to emphasize that last part. “I moved seats because I didn’t want to have to be around him, didn’t want to see him with her—not knowing what I do.” Kate was being cryptic, she knew that, but despite her presence at Holy Cross Catholic Church, she wasn’t ready for a tell-all; the Father didn’t need to know everything and the details surrounding the Halloween Party were decidedly off-limits.

When Kate remained silent for too long, the priest prodded her gently: “What happened next?”

“I tried to hide my discomfort from Janessa but she could tell something was up. According to her, I was acting super weird.”

 

 

 

Jake’s arm, the one flung across Ashley’s shoulder, was fully occupied now, his hand caressing her shoulders, his fingers running lingering touches down to her elbow—

“There he is,” Janessa squealed, her fist connecting softly against Kate’s arm. The players were entering the ice.

Jerking her eyes back to the topic at hand, Kate tried to look interested, “Exciting,” she returned lamely. She tried to think of something to say in connection with this. As of yet, conversation with Janessa was anything but natural. “He-he skates well,” she tried, nodding toward the figure circling the perimeter of the rink.

“No, not him,” Janessa snapped. “That’s Ben Johnson. I don’t like him.” There was no mistaking the condemnation in that remark.

“Oh. Sorry,” Kate mumbled, confused. “Well, which one is he again?”

Janessa’s sigh could have been heard a block away. “Number 18. Right there,” she said pointing at one of the boys standing at the starting lineup.

Kate nodded. “And, how did the two of you meet?” she questioned.

“He showed up at one of Cassie Murray’s parties,” Janessa told her matter-of-factly.

Kate had to forcibly keep herself from a lecture on the dangers of high school parties. Drinking, sex, gossip…

With the slightest flick of her eyes she caught Jake laughing at something Ashley said, his head turned down, smiling at her. A distraction, Kate needed a distraction. Angling her own body toward Janessa, she asked: “So he’s pretty cool, huh? What did you two talk about at the party? What grade is he in? Does he live close by?” The words popped out of her mouth without apparent control or censor.

Janessa’s faced folded up at the inquisition, unintentional though it was. “Don’t third-degree me,” she said mutinously.

“Oh-no, I wasn’t…” Kate floundered. She wasn’t sure how she did it, but she always seemed to say the wrong thing.

“Whatever. The game is about to start,” Janessa interrupted her ruthlessly. Girl bonding was over.

“Okay,” Kate said slowly. Silence descended on the two of them after that, with Janessa cheering and booing alongside the other bystanders—with simultaneously ignoring Kate.

The entire first period was spent in this fashion, Kate going through the motions of watching the game, all the while surreptitiously glancing at the bleachers across the way. With Janessa’s patent rejection, Kate was left with little opportunity to keep her thoughts at bay, her eyes on task.

It wasn’t until intermission that Janessa even seemed to remember Kate existed—or chose to acknowledge it. It wasn’t until intermission that Kate felt the slightest disruption in her twisted version of hide-and-seek.

“Can I get something from the concession stand?” Janessa asked coolly.

At the sound of the girl’s voice, Kate jumped to attention: “Oh! Of course.” Kate quickly dug her wallet out of her purse. She knew, without having to ask, that Janessa didn’t have any spare cash on her. Kate handed her a twenty dollar bill.

The players were no longer on the ice, the ref’s huddled together in a small section on the rink talking shop, and multiple fans were on their feet: the restrooms and cups of hot chocolate calling…. A new fixation took root in Kate’s mind.

“Do you want anything?” The teenager asked begrudgingly, half-turning in her direction at the inquiry.

But Kate was too busy taking up her favorite pastime of spying on Jake and Ashley to notice. Please don’t get up, don’t grab a snack, do not mingle with the other parents inside the warming house…please do not get up, she silently pleaded. Because, if they rose to their feet, stretched their limbs, it would be only too plausible for their eyes to search around the building, idly taking in their surrounding, their concentration freed from the game. It would be only too possible for their eyes to meet…

“Okay, whatever. I guess not,” Janessa mumbled at Kate’s lack of response. With a shrug, she made her way down the stadium steps.

Crouched low in her seat, hair falling deliberately over her face, thankful of the bodies walking past, blocking her behind a sea of legs and jackets, Kate readjusted. The knit-hat she’d worn to cover her ears from the cold temperature of the arena was now pulled low on her head. She needed to remain incognito, well-disguised. Once everyone had moved beyond Kate, she’d be even more conspicuous, alone against an empty backdrop. Scurrying, she buried her nose behind the event program; no more than the brown of her eyes poked over the thick paper cutout announcing each team, their players, and accompanying advertisements.

She’d seen them and that was bad enough. If it were reciprocated, then something would actually have to do something about it.

 

 

 

“I keep fantasying about him,” Kate continued, her voice shaking over the confession. She was probably going to hell. The priest was going to tell her any minute now. “It’s hard enough to face him, but now whenever I do I can’t help imagining what would happen if…” shrugging, Kate let the sentence dangle; no need to paint the man a picture.

“It’s not just my mental state either,” Kate admitted. “This unfortunate attraction is spreading, affecting my job—infecting Jake and my professional relationship” When the religious figure on the other side of the partition remained silent she explained further:  “I made a mistake at work because of it, because I was too distracted. It was a pretty big mistake,” she revised. Her desire to avoid Jake had been unquestionably two-fold.

 

 

 

It was the press release. Kate had written down the wrong date—she’d sent it out to the media with the wrong date! Jake hadn’t noticed it until the following day when the newspaper sent him a copy of what they intended to print, a formality really, awaiting his approval. The good news: no damage had been done—both the radio station and the newspaper were quickly apprised of the blunder, and corrections were made before any public announcements had been made. Still…

“Kate, can I see you for a minute?” Jake’s question, its clipped quality, was the first thing she’d heard upon showing up for her shift that very afternoon. Fighting back a wave of nervousness, she’d nonetheless nodded her acquiescence. What now, she’d wondered as she made her way to Jake’s office.

Kate wasn’t sure what she’d expected walking inside, but it certainly hadn’t been Jake, standing firmly erect in front of his desk, a scowl stamped across his features, the press release she’d written strangled in his left hand.

“Does anything look off to you here?” he asked, pushing the paper into her now- numb hands. Dammit. Kate felt her heart skip a beat. She knew, without knowing, that she’d made an error. They’d be no other reason for the obviously rhetorical question, delivered in such chilling tones.

It wasn’t like she was that surprised, everything considered.

“Ah?”

“The date, Kate. Look at the date.”

Shit. She got the date wrong. That had to be it.

“I—oh, my,” she sputtered, her eyes stuck on what she’d written: Sunday, December 28th

“What happened?” he asked, cutting her off. His voice was hard. The reading was on Saturday, the 27th.

Kate shook her head, “I-I don’t…I must’ve gotten confused.” As far as excuses went, Kate’s was pretty poor.

Jake racked a hand through his hair, swearing softly under his breath. “Kate, I don’t even know what to say.”

Kate nodded, tears pricking at her eyes. “I know. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I did this.”

“That’s just it, I can believe it,” he returned, his words as surprising as they were insulting. “I mean, what the hell is going on? You’ve been distant lately, strange and quiet. I thought—” Jake sneered derisively, “Kate, I asked you repeatedly…‘it’s under control’, you said.” He shook his head. “And then you pull this!”

“I don’t know what happened?” Kate tried.

Jake ripped the paper out of her hand, shaking it expressively. “That’s not good enough, Kate. If I hadn’t caught this…Jesus, do you know what they would have done to me, to this store’s reputation?”

Kate could feel her lips trembling under the harsh reprimand. She deserved it. She couldn’t deny that. “What can I do?” she pleaded, her eyes large in an ashen face. “How can I help fix this?”

“Prove to me that I was right, that you can actually be trusted.”

 

 

 

“I haven’t spoken to him since,” Kate informed the priest. Slinking out of his office, she’d run to the ladies’ room to have a good bawl. By the time she’d reemerged, her nose pink and her eyes swollen, Jake had left for the day. If any of Kate’s coworkers had noticed, they’d been too kind to saying anything. “The awful thing is, he doesn’t even know how I feel. And, all the while, I’m fully aware that he’s not available. Does that make me some kind of of wanna-be adultress? How morally corrupt is that? How pathetic?”

Kate didn’t wait for the Father to answer these questions. “I’ve tried to stop thinking these thoughts, honestly I have. But then I did something stupid…”

Despite her baser instincts, Kate knew she was going to have to tell the priest what happened that night with Jake, she was going to have to face his probable damnation. Then again she’d already blown her resolve to keep the events of that fated October night well-hidden. So what was one more person?

 

 

 

It was last Monday, after school. Kate and her Shakespeare Study Group had stayed late after class, preparing for an upcoming test. It was as they were packing up their respective books, finished for the evening, that the idea of going out for a couple of drinks was thrown out—and quickly accepted.

It wasn’t the first time the group hadn’t gotten together for a little social hour, but it was the first time Kate had decided to tag along. She was feeling the academic pressure and with Penny and M.T. at odds, she was fresh out of easeful companionship. A cold beer would be nice. One beer wouldn’t be any big thing.

Well, one beer turned into two, which turned into seven. At least, Kate thought she only had seven. She lost count somewhere along the way. Regardless…there’s a saying about ‘loose lips sinking ships.’ Kate had never understood the meaning of those words more keenly then after that night.

Sitting around a table with eight classmates, people who were otherwise anonymous strangers, faces she wouldn’t likely encounter again after that semester, Kate had come uncorked. It was as if she couldn’t hold it inside her any longer. She told them the story—what happened at that Halloween Party. She told them everything (even her residual lust-filled erotic daydreams in the aftermath).

She’d needed to tell someone about it; M.T. and Madame Penny hadn’t been enough. They were her friends, her best friends. They weren’t objective observers who could rationally evaluate how deep she was in, what she should do, how she should repair the mess she’d made. That’s what her classmates had become: bonafide analysts of her romantic entanglement.

“Holy shit, that’s dark stuff,” Becky Mellon had mused when Kate had finally managed to shut her goddamn mouth, finishing the woebegone tale.

“Kate, I never would have taken you for such a kinky type,” Phil had teased then, nudging her shoulder playfully.

Kate had giggled clumsily: “You don’t know the half of it.”

“God, your boss must be hot,” Becky had spoken up again, eyes twinkling knowingly at Kate.

“I just want to lick him,” Kate had announced idiotically. She’d had been raised to refrain from overindulgence in alcohol. The Great Calida McDonald had told her daughter more than once: she hadn’t raised a low-brow boozer, the kind who bellied-up to a grimy, germy bar surrounded by scoundrels and (god forbid) the blue-collar sort.

Well, Kate had made up for lost times that night. And, for perhaps the first time in her life, she wished she’d listened to her mother.

 

 

 

“I never said Jake’s name…I didn’t mention the LitLiber specifically,” Kate said, the words uttered more for her benefit than Father Matthews. She frowned. “At least, I don’t think so. I’ve run over that stupid conversation so many times—what was I thinking? These are the smallest towns in the universe! What if someone from Whestleigh overhears this story? It won’t be difficult to put two and two together…” Kate stopped talking, unwilling to travel down that road again. She’d told M.T. she could handle the fear that at any point Jake could find it out. She had to start living up to her word.  “And the whole time, at the stupid hockey game, I kept wondering: what would happen if Jake found out? I hoped he would, I prayed he wouldn’t. I kept going back and forth—wanting him and wanting to avoid him. My brain was spinning in some broken, tangled mess that just kept repeating itself. I did a stupid thing and I just keep reliving it.”

As it was, Jake and Ashley never did see Kate at the hockey game. Or, if they did, they chose to pretend otherwise. Either way was fine by her.  She didn’t have to talk to them, didn’t have to pretend. She was allowed to put that off a little bit longer…“I need to find some way to forgive myself of my sins with Jake, to forget about what happened and move on. I can’t have this distraction hanging over my head.  It’s not just work, either. I-it affected my time with Janessa,” Kate said.

 

 

 

Kate tried to get her to open up more about this Zack boy on the ride home. (It hadn’t been possible during the game, what with Janessa more or less pretending Kate wasn’t there).     Had she managed to talk to him after the game? Did she have a plan for meeting him again? Did she know if he was single? Kate’s questions feel on deaf ears. Janessa was shutting her out. Partly, Kate knew it was in Janessa’s very nature, as a sixteen year old, to be contrary, but there was another motive behind her sudden reticence, and it had all to do with Kate herself.

“Like you care,” Janessa snorted.

Kate’s eyes had widened at that. Momentarily taking her eyes off the road, she caught Janessa’s frankly rebellious look. “What? Of course I care. I care a lot,” she defended herself.

“You care because you think it makes you a better person. It’s about you, not me,” Janessa corrected her. Kate’s hands on the steering wheel jerked slightly.

“Whoa. Where is this coming from?” Kate asked as calmly as she could.

“I’m not an idiot, okay? I get it. I’m like some charity case you got stuck with—and it would look bad if you didn’t uphold your end of the bargain, so you play along. But really, you want to be with me about as much as I want to be with you. It’s fine. I don’t care.”

Kate pulled the car over to the side of the road. Things had turned serious suddenly. She’d thought they’d had a good time tonight…at least, as good a time as they ever had.

“Janessa, you are not some charity case,” Kate said, her voice shaking in her determination to make herself understood, “and I do want to be with you. I was so complimented that you asked me to come with you tonight, I can’t even tell you.”

Janessa turned her gaze out the passenger window. “Could have fooled me.”

“What did I do?” Kate asked, genuinely bewildered.

“I know fake listening when I see it,” Janessa said, her eyes clouding over. “My mom excels at it. You would swear, talking to her, that she’s involved and interested, absorbed in the conversation…but then you’d learn, the whole time she hadn’t heard a damn thing, hadn’t cared anyway.”

“You think I did that?” Kate asked, picking up on Janessa’s point quickly.

She shrugged. “I don’t care either way.”

 

 

 

“What do I do, Father?” Kate asked now, her face pressed against her hands. “How do I…where do I go with this?”

“What is it you want from the Lord, how are you hoping he can help guide you—heal you?”        The priest asked instead.

“I want to be free from the guilt I feel, from the wicked temptations that live within me despite that guilt. Does that even make sense? Is that possible?” Kate asked out loud.

“Yes,” he said gently. “The Lord can help free you of these bonds, but not before you act on your own contrition. You must decide to live without sin. Temptations are conscious choices, crafted by human frailty, redeemed by human grace. You must take accountability for your actions: you created this so you must put an end to it. Divine absolution does not exist for you convenience. Admitting to a sin is not enough, you must quit it. Once you do that, you will be given the forgiveness of the Lord, Our Father.”

The advice was so pure, so awesome yet…The words humbling, crushing and…Suddenly, hearing it, Kate felt like a fraud. An imitation stripped bare: her situation was no more real than she allowed it to be… blatantly self-perpetuated, theatrically premeditated.

Why had she come here? Why had she sought out such impressive counsel? She’d talked to Madame Penny and M.T. why hadn’t they been enough? Why had she talked to her classmates about Jake? If was as if she craved the attention, the shock-and-awe factor.

She’d made such a thing out of it, allowed it to have such power, such monumental importance. The whole affair—from the Halloween Party to that afternoon in Jake’s office—it seemed so trivial now, something she’d blown all-out-of-proportion. She and Jake had kissed. Yup, it was weird but now, listening to the remarkable, the esteemed priest before her, she felt foolish, look a woman obsessed.

Why hadn’t she seen it before?

“I’m lonely, and I think I’m only just learning how much,” she said suddenly. “I think I’ve built this up, this thing between Jake and myself. I’ve made this such a dramatic pursuit, such a sleepless anxiety because….well, because it’s better than nothing.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Sixteen

“Kate, can I see you in my office for a moment?”

The words, as unexpected as they were forceful, caused Kate to still, her hand suspended over a stack of outdated periodicals placed on a wire holder near the check-out counter of LitLiber. Luckily her back was turned when the command was issued, so the speaker wasn’t able to witness the sudden tightening of her facial muscles, her knee-jerk hesitation.

Because the voice which delivered that question belonged to none other than Jake.

 

It had been weeks since the Halloween party; if M.T. could see Kate now, she’d be so disappointed. She and Penny had worked hard that ill-fated dinner, running through every possible scenario of just how Kate should present herself toward her boss. It hadn’t worked. The first time she got within one hundred yards of him, staring down the sight of his tall, dark complexion, Kate had bailed, avoiding him just as surely as ever.

Instead, she’d spent all her time, when she wasn’t actively helping customers, re-categorizing each section of the store and when she’d completed that, reorganizing each shelf, as well. Every nook and cranny had been dusted, polished, and otherwise put-to-rights. Her next project: peeling gum off the bottom of the seats in the café.

…desperate times and all that.

With a start, Kate called herself back to the present. Her eyes cautiously moved, raking over the building until they landed with a thud on the exterior wall of Jake’s office. He wanted to see her for a moment. In there. All alone. Without any distractions.

“Sure,” she piped up anxiously, aware now that she’d been a long time in answering.

With a lingering touch, Kate abandoned the magazines. No doubt about it, she felt tongue-tied, uncomfortable at the thought of talking privately with him, even if only for a few minutes. Besides a mumbled hello or goodbye, she’d hardly spoken to Jake since ‘the thing.’ She wasn’t very subtle. Kate knew that. She could see his confusion out of her peripheral vision as she’d scuttle past, she’d been privy to the inner-office chatter—had she and Jake gotten into an argument? Still, she couldn’t help herself. She got weird when he was around.

(But hey, at least the Halloween Party remained a source of anonymity. Kate would rather the staff believe some made-up fight between them then know the truth of that make-out session.)

These thoughts took Kate to Jake’s office door. Standing outside, frantic, she tried to remind herself of what M.T. had said: walk in with your head held high; smile charmingly; don’t be nervous or awkward; nothing happened at that party; nothing is different; he’s still Jake—your boss. Sure, he’s cute but in a safe, distant sort of way. He’s still the same guy and you’re still Kate—a quiet, reserved employee of good standing.

Knocking hard once, Kate turned the doorknob in her hand. Poking her head around the opening, she tried to smile convincingly. In reality, her lips stretched grotesquely around her teeth.  “You wanted to see me?” She asked, staring pointedly at his eyebrows. That was as close she’d get to eye-contact.

“Yeah, take a seat Kate,” he offered, waving her all the way inside, toward one of two chairs placed opposite of him.

Kate did as asked, shutting the door behind her like a hunted animal. She’d always considered Jake’s office rather cramped. It was filled to overflowing with its desk, printer, three chairs, and a small filing cabinet. It hadn’t bothered her before now, but suddenly an attack of claustrophobia seemed like a real threat and Kate wondered if the beads of sweat she could feel pooling around the sides of her forehead were noticeable.

“Thank you,” she muttered, crossing one leg over the other. Her hands she left clenched on her lap. She felt fidgety.

All M.T.’s prompting hadn’t helped. She was acting anything but cool and unaffected.

Jake frowned. “Sure. I—Kate, is everything all right?”

Surprised into looking up, dead into those green eyes, Kate’s body jerked. “What?”

“It’s just, you’ve seemed, I don’t know, upset maybe?” Jake said questioningly. He shook his head, mouth pulled tight. “I just want to make sure that everything’s, well, that you’re good.”

“Uh,” Kate clucked, her tongue bouncing off the roof of her mouth with the sound. Spinning, her brain tried to register what he’d just said—or had he asked her something?

It was no use. Kate couldn’t focus. It had been a mistake, allowing her eyes to travel lower than his brow line…Now she couldn’t stop staring at his lips—the same lips she’d struggled so hard to forget; memorized she remained, her consciousness flooded, her retina’s burned: thin, a dusky shade of coral, with a sexy and well-defined bow marking out the bottom set. She remembered the feel of them pressed up against her and, suddenly a phantom pressure built there, against her mouth.

Cripes! The mere sight of Jake’s lips had turned dangerous.

Was everything okay? Absolutely not!

“Everything-uh, everything’s fine,” Kate heard herself say at last. “I’ve just been under a lot of pressure…”

Bad word choice: Kate was certainly feeling a lot of pressure. Her body ached, her breath felt pitchy, and she desperately wanted to get the hell out of there. It was too intimate.

“Everything’s fine,” she reasserted, more firmly this time. What else could she say?

Jake nodded. “All right. I’m glad to hear that.” Then, as though he couldn’t help himself, Jake added: “You know you can always talk to me, right? If school is getting hectic, any potential scheduling concerns, if you just need a vent-fest—” Jake fumbled, getting momentarily lost in his point: “I’m not just talking about at the bookstore, either. I’m here Kate.”

Kate smiled. It felt fake, toothy.

“Thank you. But really, I’m fine.”

“Okay. Good,” Jake repeated, leaning back in his chair, satisfied with her answer this time.

Was that all he wanted—just a little check-in? God she hoped so. Scooting forward on her chair, the better to rise to her feet and beat a hasty exit, Kate politely waited to be excused, her hands gripping the sides of it anxiously.

At the implication of her movements, Jake frowned. “Now that’s cleared up, the reason I called you in here today—”

“Oh?” Kate asked, trying to cover her disappointment.

“Yeah,” Jake said slowly, “Kate, I’m sure you’ve noticed—,” he paused here, changing tact’s. “I’ve been a little preoccupied lately. What I mean to say is: Kate, I want you….”

Startled eyes flew upward, clashing with Jake’s; a crooked smile played out at the edges of his mouth, the slightest of creases carved across the corners there:

I want you. I want you. I want you.

The reverberation was deafening, drowning out everything else. Jake was still speaking, Kate could see his mouth sounding out words, but they were overpowered now, muted by her overwhelmed senses.

I want you. I want you. I want you.

And suddenly, impossible images transposed themselves across her eyes: Jake standing up and reaching across the distance separating them, his hands rough as they hauled Kate to her feet. Breathless, she felt those hands cup against her elbows, caressing softly as he brought her steadily closer. And closer. Until their noses were mere inches away from contact, until she could feel the slight rhythm of his heartbeat were it pulsed against his neck.

Her nostrils flared, taking in the scent of him as she waited for his head to descend, as she waited for those lips to brush up against her own. In those seconds, she wondered how it would be: to make love on an office desk. It was so clichéd. So trite, but damned if she didn’t want to find out personally.

One knee rising slightly, until it rested against the edge of the particle-board furniture, followed quickly by the other. Jake’s hands dipping down, grabbing hold of her hips. With a hard tug, she was brought across the surface of the desk, her body pressed tightly up against his. The vantage point was different. Kneeling, she stood at equal height to him.

 

“…our first book signing at the Litliber. So this is a pretty big deal,” Jake said, his voice cutting across her fantasy abruptly. His informative tone a rude awakening, an unwanted return back to reality.

Kate was still sitting down in the chair she’d taken upon walking into Jake’s office. He remained across the desk, his posture comfortable where he lounged back against the swivel chair.

“Uh, yeah,” she said absently. What had he been talking about?

“Okay, let’s take a look at possible times, shall we?” he asked then, and this time he did stand up. Pushing a loose-leaf calendar forward, he came over to her side of the desk—the one she’d just been fantasying about. Leaning forward, beside her, his right hand braced on the edge of the hard surface, Jake’s attention seemed entirely bent on the task at hand.

Kate only wished for the same ease of concentration.

Reaching forward, Jake pulled a notepad and pen toward Kate. When she looked at it questioningly, he said: “In case you want to take notes.”

“Right,” Kate said stupidly. Notes? Nevertheless, she took the pad and paper in her stiff fingers.

“Besides just social media outlets, I want to take out radio ads, throw some announcements in the newspaper. But when and how many?” he asked.

Kate’s skin sizzled at his proximity. It didn’t take much imagination to wonder what would happen if he let his left hand, the one hanging loosely at his side, slide against Kate’s thigh.

“…the event is on the 27th, so that leaves us a lot of time still…”

The pads of his fingers would just barely brush against the fine layer of her skirt, tickling her overly sensitized skin there. Sucking in her breath, Kate felt her body tingle at the anticipated impact of that touch.

Jake’s eyes skimmed sideways, catching Kate’s: “…two announcements in the newspaper, you think? Sunday the 14th and the 21st? Yeah,” Jake circled those dates on the calendar with a red pen, something Kate would be thankful for later. “And we’ll really want to highlight the timing of the event, from one o’clock until two-thirty…” Jake chewed on the corner of his lower lip, his eyes an intense leafy green.

Those eyes were even darker in passion, a smokiness which lent them an almost midnight color. She wondered how deep that color would get if he was allowed to give seduction his undivided attention. She wondered how they’d transform if she were to slowly undo the buttons of her shirt, if she were to allow her skirt to glide off the swell of her hips. She wondered how dark those eyes would get if she—

“I can always talk to Bobby about adding more slots if needed, but I think four ads should do. And Anita at the print shop is working on posters, as well.”

Jake’s words floated vaguely over Kate’s consciousness, her mind a whirl of sexual desire, her eyes unfocused in her state of forbidden temptation. All she felt was the whisper of his breath against the tendrils of hair falling against her ear, the hum of his masculinity where he stood beside her, the scent of his aftershave when it wafted against her nose.

“You’re quiet over there. Any thoughts?”

Kate jumped at the question. Shit. She’d done it again. Peeking up through her lashes, she encountered Jake’s stare. Chest shaking, she thrust her prohibitive thoughts to the background. Straightening her shoulders, frantically recalling the snippets she’d managed to hear, Kate fought for composure, for something to say.

“Uh, yeah. I agree. What with marketing on the website, I think those should be enough to get the town’s interest,” she said, fingers crossed down at her sides. She had no idea if that even made sense.

Jake’s smile reassured her that at least she was on the right track.

“It’s settled then.” Rapping his knuckles against the calendar, Jake stood up straight.

Letting out a silent sigh, Kate felt her muscles relax when he returned to his side of the desk once more, the movement offering her some much needed space. “I really want this to be well-attended. Book signings are so necessary for small establishments like this. The first one has to be perfect.”

Kate nodded dumbly, still unsure what it was she was supposed to be doing with this information.

“So, you’ll arrange for those spots today? It shouldn’t take long, write up a quick press release outlining the event and any pertinent details, call the appropriate people… Cool?”

Kate nodded again, feeling like a parrot. At least she knew what she was doing with the information. Now she just needed to find out who in the hell she was doing it with? The newspaper, the radio station? Both? Surreptitiously, her eyes wandered down to the notepad still clutched in her hands. Scratch marks and doodled circles stared back at her. Jerkily, she placed the pad face down on her lap, so Jake wouldn’t see. She was so screwed.

“And who specifically am I contacting?” she asked out loud, striving for poise…and failing miserably.

Just as she’d feared, Jake looked nonplussed at the question, a pucker forming over the bridge of his nose.  He’d probably gone over this already. “Ed Murray from the Whestleigh Gazette.”

That was the newspaper.

“And Bobby Tomkins at Constitutive Flavor Radio.”

Both. She’d be contacting both.

“Listen, I know this is a big favor to ask—if you’d rather not do it, I completely understand. I can miss a Chamber of Commerce meeting.”

“No,” Kate said sharply, her embarrassment at an all-time high. From the sounds of it, Jake was fast losing faith in her credibility. That was not acceptable.  “No,” she repeated, softer this time. “I just, I’m not good at remembering names that’s all,” she fibbed.

When he didn’t respond, Kate rushed to add: “Please, I want to do this. Let me help you out.” I’d rather not do this! I have no idea what I’m doing. I should not be left in charge.

Jake’s lip pulled upward a little at her words. “I know you can.”

“Go to your meeting,” Kate said, fighting an internal war with herself. She was in way over her head. Jake had given her an out and, idiot that she was, she’d declined it.

Pride was a tough character flaw to shoulder.

“Thanks Kate,” he said and, checking his wristwatch: “Shoot. I’ve got to get going or I’m going to be late.” Jake gained his feet.

Kate also rose from her chair, feeling at a disadvantage.

“Any last minute questions?” he asked, shrugging on a sports coat.

“No.” Kate tried to sound confident. “Oh, wait,” she said, when his hand reached for the door. It just occurred to her—she couldn’t remember him saying…

“Yeah?”
Kate pretended to look down at her notes, her brow furrowed, trying, at least, to look adept at her job. “I want to double-check that I’ve got the author’s name written down correct. Will you spell it out for me?”

Kate figured that sounded plausible. Better then admitting she plum couldn’t recall which novelist they were showcasing at the event.

But Jake just looked confused. “What?”

“The author—”

“Her book is on the desk Kate. Right there,” he said, pointing at the large hardcover novel beside his computer. “I put it there for you to reference—along with an excerpt of what she’ll be talking about. I told you that.” The last words were said emphatically.

“Oh,” Kate said. “Right. That’s probably why I skimmed over it in my notes,” she added, tapping her pen against the pad for dramatic effect.

“Kate—”

Before Jake was allowed to get any further, she interrupted him: “That’s all I needed,” she insisted. “Enjoy your meeting.”

“Yeah.” Jake looked at his watch once again then back at Kate, weighing the options.

“You’re going to be late,” she prodded softly.

He sighed, conceding. “Yeah. All right—I’ll keep my phone on me at the meeting. Call if you come across problems,” Jake said uncertainly.

“There won’t be any,” Kate assured him. When Jake still didn’t move, she persisted: “Go. I’ve got this under control.”

“All right,” he said slowly, “Then I guess I’ll leave you to it.” Kate hadn’t thought it was possible, but he sounded even less convinced than before.

Finally though, he left. Kate was alone at last.

Sitting down, her body pressed snug against the desk, she opened a word-processing document. Her fingers trembled. It was fine, she assured herself. It wasn’t a big deal. Kate felt her fingers fix themselves over the keyboard. She could do this. She remembered most of what Jake had said (at least, she thought so), it was just scattered around in bits and pieces; she just had to fit the puzzle together.

It took a long time, and some undoubted back-tracking, with multiple phone calls to both Ed and Bobby’s office, but finally Kate finished the piece:

Upcoming Book Signing at LitLiber

The LitLiber Bookstore is hosting their first ever book signing event, honoring author Lindsay McBride’s recently released novel, “A Life Uncharted,” which follows the journey of a twelve year old girl embarking on the life of a professional gymnast. Join us, from 1-2:30pm on Sunday, December 28th as she shares her experiences writing this gripping story of dedication, obsession, lust, and loss.

 

 

 

Pulling the office door shut behind her, Kate took a moment to congratulate herself: it was done, put to bed, over. She only had a couple hours left of her shift, and then she could begin putting this day behind her. She couldn’t wait. Walking up to the cash register, Kate went to relieve one of the other girls at the check-out counter. She relished the thought of mind-numbing transactions….

At ten minutes to 5:00 p.m., (ten minutes to shift-change) Kate watched Madame Penny breeze through the front door of LitLiber. No sooner had the psychic walked inside then her eyes latched on to Kate. Scurrying over to where she was standing, behind the Customer Service Counter, Penny motioned her over.

“Are you almost done?” Penny asked bluntly—without even a ‘hello’ in welcome. “Otherwise we’re going to be late.”

Shit. Kate had almost forgotten: she and Penny had signed up for a writing class. It was being held that evening, in one of the spare conference rooms located at the back of LitLiber. The class was free to the community and when Penny asked, Kate had agreed to attend with her. Kate figured it would be something to file the time away. Plus, it was the first time in Penny had shown any interest in a subject that wasn’t a little kooky. If Kate was going to pick a time to decline her friend’s invitation, it wasn’t going to be now.

Except…Kate really didn’t feel up to it tonight. Her confrontation with Jake had been a real doozy and that stupid press release had almost cost her sanity. She’d never worked so hard to remember a conversation in her life (particularly, a conversation that had happened within a half an hour of the fact).

“Yeah, but listen—” Kate started.

“I’m so excited for this,” Penny said at the same moment. Her eyes sparkled with it. “Imagine the stories I could tell with the information I know!”

Kate smiled tightly. Penny did look eager. That sealed the deal; choking back a sigh, Kate managed to nod in agreement. She didn’t have the heart to cancel on her friend—especially this late in the day. Whatever, maybe it would be good to go to the class. It might prove a worthwhile distraction from her current x-rated condition.

“Let me clock-out,” Kate said, trying to invoke a little enthusiasm into her voice.

 

 

 

At least a dozen other women were already seated, pens and notebooks out on the table before them, by the time Kate and Penny walked into the classroom. Long rectangular tables spanned the length of the room, lined up, side-by-side, in four rows. The front of the room remained open, with a small podium standing center-stage and a whiteboard at its back.

Scooting down one aisle, Kate and Penny grabbed the last available seats. The large attendance size had Kate wondering who was running the course. Must be one hell of a teacher.  She’d seen the flyers circulating around the building, but before Penny had tossed the idea her way, Kate hadn’t given it much thought. She was learning more enough without it.

Kate’s thoughts were cut short when the door to the room opened once more. Following the crowd, she turned in head in its direction, trying to spy who was walking through it. When a tall, broad-shouldered man with a distinct sandy head of hair came into view, Kate wanted to die.

“Good afternoon! So sorry I’m late,” he announced to the room at large, making his way further inside. He mumbled something about student conferences holding him up and, judging by the sympathetic murmurs in response to this, it appeared all was forgiven. Dropping a shoulder-bag on the floor underneath the whiteboard, he sauntered up to the podium.

Good Christ, he’s teaching this thing? Didn’t Jackson Fischer get enough of that at the high school?

Without wanting to admit it, Kate felt her heartbeat kick up a notch or two. Without wanting to admit it, she felt her excitement for the night’s seminar grow. Without wanting to admit it, she felt herself respond to his presence. Down girl, she reprimanded herself. What the hell had gotten into her? First Jake now Jackson? Her hormones were definitely in overdrive.

“Shall we get started?” Jackson asked rhetorically. Heads bobbed up and down excitedly. Focusing on her breathing, Kate tried to pull herself together. The day had gone from awkward to weird.

Jackson was addressing to the class: “…last week we did an exercise in imagery, consisting of a five hundred word essay describing one memory by using all five senses,” Jackson carried on, the undulation of his voice steady and sure. “I’ll pass those back now, with my comments and feedback. To those joining us for the first time: welcome! Don’t worry if you’ve missed any of the previous discussions—each class is structured fairly independent of those preceding and following it.

“While we will continue employing the use of imagery, it will not be the primary objective in this week’s lesson. Instead, we are going to learn how to properly express (and harness) our writing by applying it to a very specific literary genre—to get a better acquainted with the individual rules and formulas which govern these fields of study. As an adult writing class, some of the content we’ll explore will be of a mature nature. On that note, there is one particular style of writing which has just recently blossomed in popularity. Its genus was once thought to be taboo…a guilty pleasure,” Jackson insinuated.

“Today we’re going to review—and you are going to write–erotica!”

The giggling gasp that followed his words effectively disguised the paling of Kate’s face.

Welp, so much for distracting her libido.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifteen

Time: 3:54 p.m.

Rushing up the steps to her front door, Kate was tempted to check the time on her watch—a fruitless endeavor. She knew what time it was. She’d never lost track since leaving Cordwyn College.

Penny and M.T. were coming over for dinner at 5:00 p.m.

It was another of the pastor’s attempts to see her sister and, as such, another of Penny’s provisions that Kate joins them. Somehow, Kate had found herself agreeing once again, and this time, not just to having dinner. She was also hosting the event. M.T. was still living out of a hotel and Penny’s cottage, it had be patently proved last time, maxed out at two dinner companions.

At least, Kate wouldn’t have to cook. Penny was bringing the food, M.T. the wine.

Unlocking her door and reaching the entryway, Kate tossed her book bag on one of the two pink upholstered chairs she’d unearthed from a nook under the staircase in the basement. Frantically, her eyes searched the downstairs: a pair of boots lay sprawled across the tile at her feet, a couple stray dishes remained in the sink, and a throw blanket was spread anyhow across the recliner in the living room. The kitchen floor needed to be mopped and the rug in the parlor room need a good vacuuming.

She had little over an hour to go-time.

 

 

 

Time: 4:38 p.m.

Thanks to the miracle of necessity and speed, Kate’s floors now shined, the rugs professionally turned out; the shoe rack sat, precisely arranged; presently the dishwasher ran, midway through its cycle. The table was carefully set with linen tablecloth and Kate’s delicate china. Add that to carefully placed candles, and the air smelled sweet and fresh.

Brushing a sweaty strand of hair off her flushed cheeks, Kate allowed her feet to swivel in a slow circle, her overly sensitive eyes looking for anything out of order. There were two pegs open in the parlor room for Penny and M.T.’s coats: check. The island was scrubbed clean, ready for the arrival of food: check. Three wine glasses were set out on the counter, a corkscrew placed beside them: check. Soft music whispered out of the television in the living area, and that room’s freshly painted walls—a creamy hue nicely offset by teal-blue draperies against the windows—gave an impression of cool comfort, a welcoming place to relax after the meal: check and check.

Kate’s self-soothed tranquility was soon disturbed by an unexpected rap at the door. Someone was there. Oh God, oh no. Not yet. She wasn’t ready yet, she thought as she raced to answer the call. She still had twenty minutes and she desperately needed that time. She hadn’t even managed to change out of her school clothes. And her hair—good gracious, it needed at least five minutes of dedicated work.

Kate breathed a sigh of relief, however, when she saw who was standing on the other side of her screen door.

At least it was only: “Penny…”

“Don’t worry, you’re not running behind,” she said without preamble, bustling past Kate without so much as a by-your-leave, a tote bag thrown haphazardly over her shoulder.  “I’m early,” she continued, “I just wanted to give myself a little extra time to plate everything. I hope that’s okay.”

“Yeah, of course,” Kate said, trailing after her.

Standing irresolute, halfway through the kitchen, the stairwell just off to her right, Kate was momentarily torn… as a hostess she felt duty-bound to ask if Penny needed any help, but then again, she also felt obligated to look presentable to her guests. Her current disheveled appearance was strictly taboo.

She wouldn’t have time to achieve both of these aims.

“Don’t stand on ceremony with me,” Penny said, as though she’d just read Kate’s thoughts. Kate was starting to think the psychic really could. “Take yourself off, do whatever needs doing. I’m the one early, remember? This is not a reflection on your entertaining prowess.” Kate couldn’t help but chuckle at that, as Penny had intended her to do. “Besides, I’m covered.”

“Thank you,” Kate said. Without loss, she headed up the stairs, her feet taking them two at a time.

“Take your time—I’m fully capable of answering a door in your absence!”

“Never!” Kate yelled back playfully.

 

 

 

Time: 6:08 p.m.

“…and then he told me, it was just a joke. They didn’t even own a dog!”

Kate’s fist hit the table in her current fit of laughter. M.T. wiped a tear off her cheek, chuckling even in memory of that story—the third she’d recounted this evening, reminiscing about her troubles and mishaps as a young American in a foreign country.

Kate, her hair nicely pressed into a topknot, outfitted in a black skirt with grey tights and a loose-fitting silk top, was almost glad she’d been given a forced invitation to this party. Maggie could tell a mean tale!

The only person not partaking in the fun was Madame Penny. Like a stone, she’d remained seemingly unmoved through these little anecdotes. Twice, she’d tried to change the subject, but neither Kate nor M.T. had taken notice.

“I’m sure it’s the pastor in you, this knack for embellishing stories to their upmost ability,” Penny interrupted, her voice propelling like a crack against their merriment.

“Excuse me?” M.T. asked, with just the slightest note of defensiveness. Up to this point, through the spinach salad appetizer and even the shrimp bisque entrée, the sister’s had managed to remain civil. Of course, that was before they’d consumed an entire bottle of cabernet—and half of a second. Kate had a sinking suspicion something stormy was brewing.

“I’m just saying, you’ve always had a flair for, well, exaggeration,” Penny said sweetly, taking a vicious bite of her cheesy dessert.

Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten at the antagonizing words. Swallowing thickly, she could do nothing more than simply wait for what would happen next.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Remember that story you always tell, about how you and Bobby Atkinson were chased up a tree by an elk the summer after you first moved to town? Well, I’ve seen you climb before and, unless that elk was drunk, he’d have trampled you long before even one foot found a low-hanging limb.”

Kate felt sweat break out against her upper lip, her insides churning at the onslaught of what would surely only lead to a fight; acid bubbles were forming, popping….

“Oh, oh, and what about the time we took a family vacation out to Richfield and you claim the bellboy, who’d barely spoken five words to anyone of us, helped you sneak out on our first evening there, to go dancing at that nightclub? And, if that isn’t hard enough to believe—especially since you were sleeping soundly in the bed beside mine when I woke up at three to go to the bathroom—then, while you were supposedly there, the police showed up, raiding the bar for under-agers. Yet, miraculously you managed to escape out the bathroom window. I mean, come on!”

“You think I made the whole thing up?” M.T. sounded more incredulous than angry.

“Yes, I do.” Penny seemed to be warming up to her argument now. “That police raid was a huge story; it made front news on all the papers. I think you wanted to be part of it, after crafting a perfectly viable excuse for why it could never be proven first.”

Kate hardly heard M.T.’s response. Her head was pounding now, her palms felt clammy, her stomach fast approaching a stage of revolt. Gulping, she forced herself to breathe, forced her stomach to keep the contents of her dinner within its system.

“I mean, I could go on and on: the college party you crashed with Melinda Johnson, you remember that one, right? because apparently you passed out on the couch and Melinda and some frat boy had to carry you back to her parent’s house, somehow completing this feat and all without waking anyone up.”

“Ruthie…
“Don’t call me that,” Penny insisted so forcibly Kate winced.

“Sorry—Penny. I don’t understand where this is coming from. All of these stories are real. I did these things, they happened. Out-of-character, larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction, whatever you want to call them, everyone has a few stories like that…”

“No they don’t,” Penny insisted, her eyes averted to her plate. “That’s exactly my point.”

M.T. watched as Penny’s lips twisted, her face contorting with the words. This was far more personal than even M.T. had originally suspected; it was about Penny and not the other way around. Quietly the pastor spoke, her words measured with new insight. “People don’t have stories like that, or you don’t?” The words weren’t meant to be insolent, rather revealing.

Pressing her hands up against her hot cheeks, Kate wondered at the room’s temperature. She felt en fuego. She really, really hated fighting.

“I should,” Penny argued, “but, you’re right, I don’t have any stories like that. I don’t have any stories period—at least, not any to be retold at dinner parties. I guess I have you to thank for that…because someone had to be there: when mom needed her daily fifth of vodka, to make sure she didn’t drown in her own boozy saliva, put her to bed when she could no longer walk straight. Someone had to be home every night to make sure she didn’t accidently kill herself! Someone had to be responsible. So no, I wasn’t allowed to make any stories for myself.”

What M.T. would have said next will forever remain a mystery. It was precisely at that moment when Kate’s body heaved with a force to knock her hands up against her mouth. Pushing her chair back she had just enough time to excuse herself before rushing through the living room and into the bathroom. Slamming the door behind her, she reached for the toilet and fumblingly wrenched open the lid ….

 

 

 

Five minutes later, her face flushed, Kate lay sprawled out on the cool tiling of the bathroom floor. Through a tidal wave of embarrassment, she reminded herself things could have been worse: at least she made it in time.

Of course that wasn’t much help. If only her mother could see her now, Kate mused. Calida MacDonald wouldn’t hear of getting sick at one of her own parties. No stomach bug was strong enough to penetrate that will of steel!

A quiet knock at the door roused Kate of these unwelcome thoughts. “Kate? Kate, it’s Maggie. Are you all right?”

“Ugh,” Kate said weakly, hoping the sound would make it through the door and convince M.T. to kindly go away.

It didn’t work.

“Kate, I’m coming in, all right?”

The sight of Kate, stretched limply across the floor, sent Maggie to her side at once. Squatting down on her haunches, she pressed the back of her hand against Kate’s brow.

“Oh sweetie, you’re burning up,” she said unnecessarily. Kate had intimate knowledge of just how warm her body temp was, thank you very much.

“So sorry,” Kate mumbled, “but I think I’m sick.”

“No doubt about it,” M.T. assured her.

“This isn’t exactly how I envisioned the evening would end,” Kate said, her eyes screwed tightly shut, hoping to ward off another wave of nausea, “but you two should probably go. Tell Penny I’m sorry but, I don’t want to get either of you sick.”

“And leave you here all by yourself? I don’t think so,” M.T. said firmly.

“Really, I’ll be just fine,” Kate tried to assure her.

“Kate, you’re face-planted on the floor of your bathroom. That doesn’t seem like the makings of fine to me. Come on, let me help get you up and into bed,” she said, proffering a hand at the words.

Kate shook her head vehemently. “Please, no. I want to lay here. It’s cool and it feels nice against my skin…not to mention it’s convenient in case of, well, you know,” she said emphatically.

“So what, you’re going to stay here all night then? In the bathroom?” M.T. asked skeptically.

“That’s the plan.”

“Well then at least let me get you a pillow and blankets.”

Kate nodded her consent. If it helped expedite the matter, she’d have agreed to just about anything.  From her position on the floor, she could hear M.T. move out into the kitchen, followed by the faint mumblings of conversation passing between her and Penny before the soft echo of her feet moving up the stairs and, minutes later, back down them again.

When M.T. reentered the room, Kate blinked open one eye. Her arms were loaded down: five pillows, one comforter and two blankets. Before Kate could wrangle the energy to wonder at this excess, M.T. got to work. Instructing Kate to lift her head, she slid two pillows under her neck before carelessly tossing the remaining items to the side. Then she covered Kate’s body with the down-comforter.

“Thanks,” Kate mumbled warily, but it seemed that M.T. was quite finished. Bent over beside Kate, she was now in the process of creating what appeared to be another make-shift bed on the floor…presumably for herself. “Really you don’t need—”

Before Kate could protest this further, another soft knock sounded at the door, shortly chased by the appearance of Penny’s big hair, snaking around the side of it.

“Poor Kate,” she tisked, easing her body all the way inside the room then. She held a glass in her hand. “I brought you some wa-ter…” The last word trailing off, Penny’s attention shifted suddenly, her eyes raking over M.T.’s ministrations. “What are you doing?” she asked guardedly.

M.T. shrugged, not stopping to meet Penny’s eyes. “I don’t think Kate should be left alone tonight.”

“So I see…” she said, and to Kate’s sensitive ears it sounded peeved, annoyed, one step shy of hostile.

Please don’t fight, Kate thought to herself, not now. My stomach can’t take anymore madness.

            Almost as though Kate had spoken the words out loud (or perhaps it was her all-too audible wince), Penny’s stance softened, her gaze sweeping past her sister to the poorly Kate and back again. “Well, I hope you brought down a pillow for me, as well.”

With a wink, M.T. held up the fifth pillow. “I had a feeling I wouldn’t be unaccompanied in that thought.”

“Indeed,” Penny said huffily.

Kate’s bathroom wasn’t exactly small but it certainly wasn’t large either. Somehow, though, by sheer force of will Kate supposed, the three of them managed to squeeze together, side-by-side, against the unforgiving tiles, straddled on either side by the toilet and the vanity. It was only as they all got comfortable that Kate remembered: “The lights. Can we turn the lights off, they’re hurting my eyes.”

Madame Penny may not have looked like an athletic person, but Kate learned to reevaluate that judgment seconds later when, kicking her foot up off the floor and arching her back, she managed to hit the switch with her big toe.

M.T. laughed. “Impressive.”

“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear,” Penny said then, into the darkness. All three of them were laying on their backs, looking up at the ceiling. In the quiet of the room, her voice sounded like a foghorn.

“What’s that?”

“Kate did not get sick from my food. I won’t have rumors spread about my shrimp bisque. It was perfect, heavenly.”

Kate was barely listening. Her eyes, now blissfully unaffected by the harsh lighting, looked unseeingly upward at the ceiling. She felt better already. Her cheek, nestled against the porcelain base of the toilet seat, found comfort in both its chilling effect and nearness.

“I think that’s fair,” M.T. mused, “It usually takes longer than fifteen minutes for food poisoning anyway.”

“Good, that’s settled then.”

M.T. nodded, the movement felt by both her companions. “You know, this isn’t the weirdest dinner party I’ve ever been a part of….” Stopping short, M.T. decided perhaps she needn’t expound on that. She’d shared enough tonight. Too much apparently. Her opener was abandoned, left hanging limply in the air around them.

A few seconds passed.

“Well?” Penny prompted, when M.T. remained silent.

“Well what?” the other woman asked carefully.

“What’s the weirdest dinner party you’ve ever been a part of?”

The question was an olive branch, but still the pastor hesitated. “It’s probably not that interesting.”

“I doubt that.” Penny sighed. “Your stories are good. You tell them well.” The admission was said chokingly, begrudgingly, but also…genuinely.

Turning her head a little to the left, M.T. looked at Penny, her features barely distinguishable in the shadows. “It’s not too late to make some yourself, you know. And, I’d love to be a part of them.”

“I know you would,” Penny said, and it was as close to an invitation as M.T. was bound to get.

“I kissed my boss last week at the LitLiber Halloween party.” The words dropped like a bomb around the ex-step-sisters. Kate’s mouth snapped shut at the involuntary admission. Apparently, she wasn’t going to keep anything inside of her tonight.

“What?”

“Jake?”

“Last week?”

“Was it hot?”

The questions, shooting out of her comrades mouths one after another, without pattern or conscience thought, settled around Kate.

“He doesn’t know though,” she said, her half-explanation only adding to the veritable flood of confusion.

“He doesn’t know he kissed you?”
“Was he drunk?”

“How did he miss that fact?”

“Is this one of those…he tripped and his lips landed on yours, kind of excuses?”

Holding up her hand, Kate pleaded: “Stop! I can’t focus.”

“Maybe it would be a good idea to start from the beginning?” M.T. asked, ever the rational one.

“And don’t leave out any details,” Penny chimed in.

Kate obliged them. Perhaps it was because the lights were off and, shrouded in darkness, she felt emboldened to share. Add to that the fact that, in their current position, she couldn’t look them in the eye even if she wanted to, and any awkwardness melted into the mists, crafted by a disguise in which to hide her discomfort. But mostly, Kate needed to tell someone about it. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t. She’d sworn herself to secrecy, but it hadn’t worked, it hadn’t stopped her thinking about it, dreaming about it, analyzing the hell out of it.

She needed some perspective and what better way than in a cramped room with her two best friends?

 

“So that’s why you met me at the end of Jake’s street that night,” Penny said at the end of Kate’s woebegone tail.

“Right.”

“I thought that was weird,” she said, talking to herself.

“Yeah,” Kate said wearily. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from her listeners, but it certainly wasn’t Penny’s current reaction, though that was hardly an uncommon occurrence. No one processed news quite like her.

“Have you seen him since then?” M.T. asked. Finally a question Kate had expected.

“No. I managed to cover two shifts earlier this week, and I had a girl stay late for me yesterday. I’ve been able to avoid him up until now. But tomorrow…tomorrow we work together. No one was able to switch with me. I-I don’t know how I’m going to face him.”

“That probably explains your stomach problems.” Again, this piece of unhelpful estimation came from Penny.

“Maybe.” Kate sighed, her eyes dancing across the ceiling, inanely wondering when the fan had last been cleaned. It was pointless to have one if it was just breathing in and blowing out continuous sprays of dust.

“That’s tough. Are you planning on telling him—what really happened that night?”

“No!” Kate half-sat up in exclamation, only brought back down to the floor by M.T.’s arm, slung over her chest. “No.”

“Okay, I hear you. Calm down,” M.T. said dryly.

“Here it comes, the pastoral beat down,” Penny commented.

Even in the dark, it wasn’t difficult to see M.T.’s quick frown. “You’re right, I don’t condone lying,” she admitted. Raising up a hand to ward off Penny’s snort of derision, she continued: “but I also don’t pretend to preach a perfection I don’t live,” she said clearly. “Besides, I’m not just a pastor; I’m a supporter, a conspirer, a confidant. I’m a friend.”

Kate patted M.T.’s arm in reassurance of this. “A good one, too.”

M.T. seemed pacified. “Bottom line: you have no intention of telling Jake what happened that night.”

“No.”

M.T. shrugged. “Well, if that’s the case, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“How so?” Penny and Kate asked in unison.

“Well, if he’s never going to know, and if, according to you, nothing ever happened then you can walk in there with your head held high, a swagger in your steps and a carefree smile on your face. Because nothing should be any different than it was the last time you saw him.”

Kate shook her head. “That’s easier said than done. Things are different. For me anyway. I do know what happened and I don’t think I can pretend that well. And,” Kate took a deep breath, because what she was about to say next held weight, “I keep waiting for him to figure out that it wasn’t Ashley he kissed that night. It’s bound to happen, right? Then what? Does he start looking for answers? If I make one mistake, if I give one tell away….”

“Why not just tell him the truth then?” Penny asked, playing the other side of the coin.

“How do I do that: ‘Oh hey Jake, gosh I sure had fun at your Halloween party last week! I’m not sure if you remember, but we made out in your cloakroom? You didn’t know it was me, but surprise! You got the wrong girl. Anyway, see you around the office—oh, and by the way, you’re a great kisser?’” Sarcasm dripped off Kate’s voice.

“Kate I never pegged you as the dramatic type,” Penny said.

“I have my moments.”

“We are talking circles here, Kate,” M.T. interjected. “You either tell him or you don’t. You’ve got to decide that first.”

“I can’t tell him,” Kate repeated. “I know I probably should, but I just can’t.”

“Can you deal with the fear of him someday figuring it out—unveiling your secret? Because you’re right, that is a definite possibility,” M.T. agreed, including: “Can you get good at pretending? Can you act like the same person you were before it happened? He’ll see right through the lies if not. Can you be fine with that?”

Kate swallowed. “I guess I’ll have to.”

“Mm-hmm,” M.T. murmured, unconvinced. “Show me.”

“Huh?”

“Practice on me and Penny.”

“Practice?”

“Like a dress rehearsal. Penny, you pretend to be Jake. And Kate, obviously, you’ll be yourself. We’ll run through a couple different scenarios for when you see him next—what to say, how to behave, stuff like that.”

At fist, Kate said nothing to this request, seemingly chewing on the idea with all the vigor of a teenager choosing her first-day-of-school outfit.

“I’m in. What else have we got to do to entertain ourselves at the moment?” Penny asked. “Kate?”

She sighed, giving in with all the enthusiasm of a teenager contemplating her first homework assignment. “I suppose I’ve already lost my dignity, what more could this hurt?”

“That’s the attitude,” Penny enthused. “All right maestro, set the scene:” This was directed toward M.T.

Kate braced herself for what was coming….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Three

Kate figured it would be hard to get lost in Whestleigh, Connecticut. Not only was the town set up in a grid pattern formation, the Avenues numbered one through ten accordingly and the Streets arranged alphabetically, but the main shops and stores were all located in the same general area: on Gadbee Street. This was particularly nice for Kate who lived on Eveleth Street—a mere two blocks away. Besides school, she figured her car would probably spend the majority of its life in her garage from now on.

Pocketing her house keys, throwing her purse over her shoulder, Kate stepped outside. Turning left down the sidewalk she considered that it was a great day for a walk. She forcibly repeated that sentiment when, ten minutes later, she realized she’d gone the wrong way. Kate shrugged; she’d always been a bit directionally challenged. Reversing her steps, refusing to let this detour get the better of her, Kate firmly reminded herself that if nothing else this had given her the chance to see a bit more of the town. How could that be a bad thing?

Finally reaching her destination, this time Kate had no trouble identifying the cause of her trip into town: The LitLiber Bookstore. This was probably partly due to the fact that she’d been there previously, and to it’s being rather hard to miss. The structure stood proudly on the corner of 2nd street. And it looked imposing there: the red-washed brick exterior, accented here and there with white plaster molding and honey-colored stucco, seemed only too grand for its otherwise demure setting. The bridal shop next door looked downright dowdy in comparison, its vinyl siding and modest window settings sparse.

Not entirely surprising then, the bookstore was busy when Kate walked inside. Bemused she stood for a moment, watching as harried cashier’s busily rang up orders, customer service agents zipped up and down the aisles—some three customers deep—shoppers milled in small groups discussing the newest releases, some waiting to be helped, others content to search through the masses of titles alone.

Still, despite the hustle and bustle, the building remained quaint. Darkly stained pine bookshelves lined the building in myriad of patterns. Even at a quick glance, they appeared to be handmade. There must be a woodworker in town, she supposed. The wainscoted walls, half wood-paneling and half wallpaper, the latter designed in muted yellow geometric designs, created a look both airy and warm. Not to mention, it allowed for the addition of eclectic pieces of furniture smattered about—a mismatched arrangements of recliners, couches, loveseats and table ends all of different origin and décor.

As she walked further inside, toward the small café nestled in the back nearest the Customer Service Desk, Kate overheard two staff members talking, catching a snatched moment alone together:

“…we’re so understaffed right now it’s ridiculous! Look at this place. We can hardly keep up!”

The other girl snorted in agreement. “And we’re running out of everything! A lady nearly threw a temper tantrum yesterday when I told her we’d sold out of the book she was looking for—like it was personally my fault.”

“It doesn’t help any that school is starting up next week. Why does everyone wait until the last minute to buy their books?”

“Beats me.”

The first girl rolled her eyes. “And if one more person asks me ‘where do I find the Self-Help section?’ I’m going to scream! Find it yourself, isn’t that the point? ….”

Carefully circumventing this conversation, Kate reconsidered her options. Asking for help was now out of the question. Turning on her hell, she pulled her school syllabus out of her purse. Shielding it against the palm of her hand, she bent her head determinedly over the list of ‘required course readings’ while purposefully steering her feet toward the section marked Academic. She was an independent woman; surely she could find the books on her own. Plus she was far too proud to admit defeat after hearing all of that. She would not be counted amongst those self-helpless customers.

It took nearly an hour, but at length Kate made her way up to the checkout counter, all necessary purchases held and accounted for. She wasn’t sure who organized the shelves in that building but they needed a serious talking-to, because nothing about it had made sense. Her History of Art book had been sidled next to her Romantic Literature text, while The Works of Shakespeare sat, buried beneath an array of Chemistry titles.

Kate paid for her items, adding a last minute tote bag to the lot as she handed over her credit card; if she was going to walk these back to her house, she wasn’t going to trust their weigh in some paper bag. Scrawling her name across the transaction slip, Kate hastily threw her purchases inside the bag before slinging it across her shoulder and leaving her place in the line. The woman waiting impatiently behind her had been nosily tapping her foot against the floor all the while, the click-clack an angry tattoo, as though annoyed Kate had dared stand in front of her.

Pausing in the shop’s entrance hall, partly to gain her bearings and partly to readjust the tote bag’s position—it was already rubbing funny against her clavicle—Kate had a sinking suspicion that even the two blocks home were going to be tiring with this load. At least her purse was lightweight. On second thought, her car may not become as superfluous as she’d originally hoped.

Absently, her eyes landed on a large bulletin board hung up against one wall, its space filled to overflowing with advertisements, business cards, For Sale signs, and one lone picture of a lost cat. It was so cluttered she wondered how someone could possibly wade through the overload of information, how unlikely it was they’d actually find what they wanted—better luck scrolling through the yellow pages, or Google, at that rate. Chucking mindlessly at the thought, she braced her hand against the doorframe and pushed it open…

It was half a block down from LitLiber, on the left-hand side of the road, when Kate saw it. A small sign nailed just above an otherwise nondescript window. The cursive writing was hardly legible from where Kate stood but she was almost sure it read: Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Crossing the street, Kate called herself ten times a fool, but still she couldn’t seem to stop herself from getting a closer look. Her curiosity piqued, she supposed she hadn’t actually considered Madame Penny’s business being so, well, viable…so brick-and-mortar accessible. But if that sign, and the small flicker of light illuminated from the edges of the window blinds was anything to go by, she figured wrong. Madame Penny was a professional, through-and-through.

Coming up beside the window, Kate couldn’t quite fight an urge to take a quick peep inside. She had visions of velvet covered tables, darkened walls hung with heavy drapery, shelves filled with vases and jars containing herbs, essential oils, pearls and gems, yada yada yada. Laying center mass of it all would be a book of incantations, tea leaves, maybe even a crystal ball, eerily reflected in the shadows of some gilt-framed mirror or something. Circling the perimeter of this would be candles. Fat ones, tall ones, skinny ones, half-melted ones…it didn’t matter just as long as there were copious amounts of candles.

Unfortunately, when she turned to look, all that met her eyes were shadows. The window shade was pulled almost completely shut, with only an inch separating it from the bottom sill. Squinting her eyes, tilting her head, Kate struggled to make out the surroundings. She thought she spotted a table sitting beside one of the walls, and what was that particular shadow to the left? Pressing her nose up against the glass, she peered harder but when the shadow moved suddenly, Kate’s head whipped backward so hard it jarred her teeth. A small shriek may have escaped her mouth, as well. Too late, she realized that what she’d just made out was the silhouette of Madame Penny herself.

Quickly pushing herself away from the building, Kate made to retreat. She wasn’t sure if she was more embarrassed at the possibility of being caught snooping, or just afraid Madame Penny would get the wrong idea about Kate’s intentions. Frankly, she didn’t believe in psychic visions—or whatever they called it. And, it’s not that Kate didn’t like the woman, she didn’t know her well enough to carve out an opinion, but Madame Penny came off a little strong and, well, eccentric. To say the least.

Kate had gained about two feet when the crack of a side door swinging open announced someone’s presence outside. More specifically, it announced Madame Penny’s presence, judging by the musical twinkle of bangles accompanying the matter.

“Kate?” Yup. That definitely sounded like Madame Penny.

Stalling out, Kate stopped. Her back to the other woman, she carefully rearranged her facial expression before turning in greeting. Madame Penny was almost on her by then, her hand reaching out to grab Kate’s elbow in her rush of reception. “I thought that was you peeking through the windows,” she said enthusiastically, just as Kate had feared.

“Oh, yeah, I was just looking around at the local shops,” she muttered inanely, hitching her shoulder a little over the words. “Trying to get the lay of the land, so to speak.” She wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Well, in that case come inside, let me give you the grand tour,” Penny said, gesturing toward the door she’d just exited.

Kate shook her head ‘no’ even while she felt her body pulled in that direction. “Oh, no. I don’t want to bother you….”

“It’s no bother at all. Come inside. I’ve got coffee on. Or tea, if you’d rather,” she insisted, all but pushing Kate’s reluctant body through the narrow entrance.

“Well, all right. But I can only stay for a minute,” Kate heard herself concede. There was really nothing else to say. She was already inside the building, and besides Madame Penny’s bulk was blocking the way out anyway. Plus, a small voice in her head chimed in, you wanted to see what her shop looked like so here’s your chance.

“Sure, sure,” Madame Penny said soothingly, as if quieting the younger woman’s fears. They were standing in a cramped hallway barricaded on every side by doorways. The one directly facing them led to the bathroom, or so the sign overhead said. Oddly enough, it was the door on the left that primarily confused Kate. It was made of glass and it looked out into rows upon rows of potted plants, sorted bouquet arrangements and lawn furniture. A florists shop?”

As if on cue, Madame Penny confessed, “I rent the space from Massie’s Flower Shop. It’s just over here, on the right.” Kate’s eyes followed the words. A curtain, hung up where a door might have been, met her look. This was presumably the opening to Madame Penny’s workspace? A curtain?

Either undaunted or unaware of Kate’s inner musings, Madame Penny swung the curtain to the side with a flourish, its plastic rings jingling against the rod support at the action. “Welcome,” she breathed.

Kate’s first impression of the setup was certainly surprising, just not in the way she expected. The room was kind of boring looking. And, truth be told, she wasn’t entirely sure if it could really be called a room. It felt more like a utility closet.

A small icebox was wedged against the back wall, the top holding a service tray with a carafe of coffee, a sugar caddy and a container of creamer resting atop it. She watched as Madame Penny opened one of its side doors to pull a saucer and a cup. Directly before it, so close it barely allowed for a walkway, was a small oval table, big enough for two, maybe three people. It was wooden. Oak and bare.

A space heater was kicked underneath the street-side window, and pushed out of the way. But it was actually the placement of a braided rug underfoot, colored with soft pinks, greens, and blues, which kept the floor from appearing hard and cold. The only other form of adornment came from the two paintings hung up on the walls: one, a picture of the night sky, stars blazing out at the spectator, the other an orchestra of flowers blossoming beside one another in a wild field; Kate found it a little amateurish. Winter Jasmine and Sunflowers would never bloom simultaneously.

“It’s small, but it’s mine,” Madame Penny said, the words tearing Kate’s inspection short, reminding her that she wasn’t alone.

Turning to smile at the other woman, Kate found she couldn’t imagine what that felt like. “You must be very proud of yourself.”

Penny shrugged this off as though it were of no consequence. “This is my life’s purpose. I’m just lucky enough to have stumbled upon it early enough to be useful,” she said, as though it were that simple. Kate felt a pang of envy at those words, at the easy acquiesce, even as they came from a person dressed in caricature.

“Listen, since you’re here why don’t I do a reading on you?” Madame Penny suggested then, her hand sweeping Kate toward a seat at the table.

“That’s okay. I don’t—,” Kate stopped, unsure how to proceed.

As it happened, Madame Penny seemed to know exactly what it was she couldn’t quite say. “You can tell me you aren’t interested in this all you like, but I’ve got eyes in my head. I saw your pert little nose pressed up against my window, your eyes searching out for answers. You weren’t just looking at the shops in town. You were looking at my shop. Because, whether you like it or not, you are… intrigued, curious,” she said, testing out the words.

“Might as well indulge yourself. And me,” she finished bluntly.

The words rankled a bit, but Kate found she couldn’t necessarily disagree with Madame Penny. It wasn’t so much what she said. Kate still didn’t buy into her profession and she wasn’t about to change on that, but she was lonely and maybe, just maybe a small part of her had been counting on Madame Penny noticing that when she’d been thrust up against the window outside.   It wasn’t that Kate was intrigued by Madame Penny, rather that Madame Penny seemed intrigued by her. Kate couldn’t remember the last time she’d been that to someone. Intriguing. And it was either sit here and play pretend or go home. All alone. The taste of that now familiar fear filled Kate’s tongue once again.

Without further ado, she took the proffered seat, dropping her heavy book bag and purse on the floor beside her feet. Within seconds, a cup of coffee was placed discreetly by her elbow, replete with a packet of sugar and creamer beside it. Stirring the contents together, Kate noticed that Penny had not poured any refreshments for herself. On the verge of questioning this, Kate was forestalled when she spied Penny reach into a filing cabinet shoe-horned in beside the icebox and retrieve from within a pack of cards. Kate swallowed back her disquiet. Apparently the psychic wasn’t thirsty.

“If you don’t have a preference, I think I’ll do a tarot card reading on you,” Madame Penny said, wasting no time. “There are many different formats available in psychic readings but I frequently find tarot cards, with their more specific instructions, easier to digest for those a bit more, shall we say, skeptical of the craft,” she said, adding half under her breath, “and of course, sometimes they aren’t! But I felt my hand tugged in their direction and I took that as a sign. Signs mean everything to me,” she told Kate deadpan.

Kate nodded, unsure what to say in response. Her stomach muscles tightening, she watched as Penny claimed her seat, the pack held loosely in her hands. They looked like cartoon trading cards. Kate wasn’t sure how seriously she could be expected to take ‘the craft’ when its supposed messengers looked as though they’d just stepped off a medieval comic strip. She kept that thought to herself however.

“Finish your coffee,” Madame Penny instructed, shuffling the deck. Kate did as she was told, swallowing most of liquid whole. She could hardly believe it herself but she was kind of, maybe, sort of excited to—

“Let’s begin, shall we?” Penny asked rhetorically, her voice cutting off Kate’s rambling thoughts, which was probably for the best. The less she confessed to herself the better.

Kate felt her head nod in response.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter One

Kate McDonald looked up from the newspaper in her hand to the house in front of her; according to the rental ad, the two bedroom one bathroom residence, located at 257 Eveleth Ave, had a semi-furnished basement, a fireplace in the rustic, high-vaulted living room, and a modernized kitchen. She narrowed her eyes. The price was a steal. She’d paid more for her 750 square foot loft in Minneapolis.

Welcome to Whestleigh, Connecticut.

Rolling the newspaper up, and sticking it in her back pocket, she climbed the stairs to the front door. It was painted red. She might as well give it a look, despite vague doubts—just what exactly did they mean by ‘modernized’?

“Mrs. McDonald,” she heard as the door ahead of her swung open, revealing a middle aged woman with upswept blond hair.

“Ms. McDonald,” Kate corrected quickly, holding out her hand to greet the realtor, who she recognized from the advertisement’s accompanying picture.

“Pardon me. Ms. McDonald,” she said with a smile, her arm guiding Kate through the threshold and onto the split entryway landing.

Grey speckled rubber tile met her feet. It was far from appealing and the wood paneled walls screamed eighties chic, or something. Kate’s fears confirmed, the word modernization had been stretched to its furthest limit. To be sure, it wasn’t love at first sight.

Kate listened with half an ear as the woman prattled on. This, she was told, opened onto the mudroom, situated two steps up and to the right; from her vantage point, Kate saw it was composed of the same material design. Mentally, reclassifying it as the vestibule, Kate considered that given a couple rugs, some fresh paint and maybe a potted plant or two and the room would be almost charming.

Immediately to her left were stairs leading to the basement. A bare light bulb flickered ominously overhead. Kate wasn’t sure what compelled her but, swept by impulse, and perhaps already a little bored, she ditched propriety and, without waiting for invitation, made it her intention to check out that area first, her feet steering her downward even as she spoke. Accordingly, much to the chagrin of the realtor, whose name eluded Kate at the moment, this resolve could only be pronounced as off-script.

“It might be best to look through the upper levels first,” she called to Kate, her high-heeled footwear impeding her attempts to catch up. Indeed, Kate was already halfway through the first of the rooms hosted in the dank compartment by the time she huffed and puffed her way to down.

Kate took a deep breath. The cinderblock walls and green felt carpet hardly constituted as semi-finished in her mind. Narrow but long, the rooms were attached to one another like soldiers, lined up back-to-back in a stately fashion. It was only in the next of this succession that Kate managed to find some degree of relief.

A sauna, of sturdy pine, had been built into the walls. Beside it was a late model hot tub. Both needed a good scrubbing out but Kate figured she could work with that. Nothing was more comforting after a tough exam or hard day’s studying than muscle-relaxing heat. She had the best of both sources right here. And, the green carpet hadn’t extended this far, so that was a definite plus.

Scurrying past Kate, the harried realtor pressed on, despite interrupted attempts to properly show the house: “And here, through this back door, is the utility space, replete with a fully working washer and dryer…or so I’m told.” The last words came out haltingly as that woman turned into the room’s corner, her eyes ominously following the direction of her voice. Squeezing her own body into the small, cramped space Kate immediately saw the source of this sudden reticence.

She wasn’t sure how old the washer and dryer were but if the muted yellow color was anything to go by she felt sure they were a product of a bygone decade… or two.

“Well, as you know, machines from these generations were really, um, built to last,” the lady said then, slapping her hand solidly against the washer’s lid.

“Yeah, I guess they do say that,” Kate agreed awkwardly. What else could she say?

Nervously, the realtor sprang into action. Grabbing Kate’s wrist she more-or-less pushed her backward, forcibly retracing her steps. “Now, listen, before you make any quick judgments, you haven’t really seen any of the house yet. Let’s take a spin upstairs and check out what this place really has to offer.”

Kate didn’t have the heart to tell her no, plus she was too busy trying to keep up with her to offer up any protests. Those shoes may have been hell on the stairs two minutes ago but, dang, if that woman couldn’t sprint when she’d set her mind to it!

It was only upon reaching the mudroom—no, vestibule—that Kate was allowed even the smallest respite to catch her breath, but only because the realtor had come to a halt, stopping to rifle through a briefcase, which Kate, up until that moment, hadn’t noticed she’d been lugging along with her.

“Aha,” that woman said triumphantly then, pulling out a brochure from within its faux leather depths. “Shall we start?” she asked while simultaneously shoving the glossy pamphlet in Kate’s hand. It didn’t appear there was any other option.

“Sure, why not,” she said with a shrug. How much worse could the building get?

 

 

Two hours later, sitting in a nearby coffee shop—she couldn’t remember its name, something kitschy like Bean Tamptations or something—Kate wasn’t entirely convinced she hadn’t just made a year-long mistake. The beginnings of a headache beat at the edges of her temples. It was done, the decision made official, the contract binding… The pressure against her sinuses grew at the thought. It probably didn’t help any that she was sitting in a room crowded with strangers, anonymous conversations floating overhead. Still her decision to stop at the local cafe had been deliberate. She was suddenly desirous to get better acquainted with the town, and the people within it. She’d thought the public place might help calm her nerves (though on second thought, caffeine may not have been a wise choice). After all, she would soon live here too.

She’d signed the lease agreement. She was the tenant. For another twelve months, give or take.

Certainly, the rest of her tour with the realtor, whose name she later learned was Cathy, proved as underwhelming as the basement. Admittedly, the kitchen was large, with solid oak cupboards bordering three-fourths of the walls but unfortunately they were also painted a soft peach color and offset by red tiled countertops. Still, the pine-covered flooring was open, and the bay window, tucked in an alcove where Kate pictured a dining room table would sit, brought in a lot of natural light. Of course, it also brought in an imposing view of the neighbor’s lawn and possible goings-on, but one couldn’t have everything.

The living room was moderately sized. Windows lined the south side of walls painted olive green, a byproduct of the previous tenants. Very drab. Cathy assured Kate she could repaint anything she wanted. The bathroom was old, with originally laid hexagonal tiles and a claw-foot bathtub (which, ok, was actually pretty awesome). The upstairs was boring, nothing but a long hallway with four doors on either side, all beside one, which turned out to be a linen closet, leading to identically arranged bedrooms: four walls and a couple square windows.

So the house wasn’t anything to write home about. Especially not to Kate’s family home, but she’d figured it was good enough. For now anyway. Besides she needed a place. The hotel she’d been staying at the past couple of days smelt kind of moldy and the elevator made an unnerving squeal every time it charted her up or down from her third story room. Classes started next week and she didn’t want any distractions or unknowns. It had been five years since she’d last seen the light of a classroom. She was twitchy with her nervousness. She needed a place to call home, a place of consistency. Even if it was only temporary.

Pocketing her keys, Kate nodded her head decisively. The house on Eveleth Ave it was.

“Too much of that and you’ll give yourself a headache.” Kate’s head snapped back at the unexpected, and unsolicited, advice coming so close to her left ear. Looking up, she encountered a pair of striking blue eyes staring back down at her. Above them, sitting high on the stranger’s head was a beehive of dark curls, the monotony of which was broken only by the addition of a bejeweled head scarf, wrapped in the form of a bow. The owner of these features appeared to be near Kate’s age, perhaps a little older—maybe early thirties?

“Huh?”

A festively painted fingernail tapped a rhythmic tattoo against the papers clutched in Kate’s hand. “You’re staring pretty hard. It’ll give you a headache. Or worse, wrinkles. What is it anyway?” Kate felt those eyes peering heavily over her shoulder, “a rental lease?”

Carefully placing the stapled contract back down on the table—face first, Kate answered this more-or-less rhetorical question. “Yup.”  She hoped her show of brevity would convince this newcomer it was a private, personal matter.

“You’re new in town, right?” To Kate it sounded like another statement. “I hope you don’t mind, but curiosity is my profession,” the person continued, pulling out the chair opposite Kate and taking a seat. “This spot isn’t taken?”

“Uh no, go ahead,” Kate reassured. It was probably too late to say anything else anyway.

“I’m Madame Penny, the town psychic,” the woman said at last, holding out a hand expectantly. Kate shook it.

“I’m Kate McDonald.”

“Yes, I know.” At this frankly curious look, Madame Penny went on, “No, no, I didn’t channel my intuitive senses. Nah. I’ve noticed you around town the last couple of days—it’s not very often leggy blondes with ridiculously clear skin come into town, especially when they’re housing enough baggage to outfit an entire orphanage—do those things even still exist? Nevermind. What was I saying? Oh yes, your name. Well, I saw you in here today,” she said, waving her hand around the coffee shop, “so I asked Jenny and she told me.”

“Who’s Jenny?” Kate asked.

“The barista,” Penny said.

“How’d she know my name?” Kate asked.

“It’s on your credit card,” Penny told her a touch impatiently now.

Kate nodded her head, all the while making a mental note to pay with cash from now on. She’d never lived in a small town before now and Whestleigh, Connecticut seemed a far cry from the city. The town’s population sign claimed that 9,000 people lived there. Kate was starting to have some serious reservations about that math though.

“So you’re a psychic?” Kate asked, latching on to that piece of information belatedly. She hoped it sounded conversational. She’d never met someone of that profession, at least, not someone so vocal about it. Besides, she didn’t have any other talking points ready at hand. She hadn’t counted on actually meeting any of the townsfolk yet.

Madame Penny waved away the question as if it were a gnat to be shooed by the flick of her wrist “Why Whestleigh?” she asked instead, leaning her elbows against the table, her head propped up against her open palms.

“What?”

Penny made a face. “You’ll have to excuse me, it’s just, no one moves to Whestleigh. It’s a small town damn near in the middle of nowhere. Besides Bailey’s Park there’s little here to draw visitors and even then it’s just for a Sunday afternoon picnic. This town is made up of lifers, those who never saw the chance to escape and have since resigned themselves to its ghostly appearance. You aren’t one of them, which begs the question: why move here?” she asked, pointing one of those catlike nails at Kate’s face. “What gives?” Leaning forward as far as the table top would allow, she pitched her ears eagerly in the direction of Kate’s mouth, determined not to miss a word of this.

Kate let her chair scoot back a little, trying to be unobtrusive. Madame Penny had gotten awfully close all of a sudden.         “I moved here for college.”

Madame Penny shook her head bemusedly, unused to hearing those words, that particular explanation. “What, you mean that little bitty school the next town over, in Hiltbolt? What’s that place called? Cordwyn College?”

“That’s the one,” Kate said drily, reaching for her cup of coffee.

“Humph,” the older woman said, “I’m not buying it. What’s the real story?” Grabbing Kate’s wrist, she effectively forestalled the intended action of bringing cup to mouth.

“Huh?” Kate asked, tugging her arm free. She wasn’t sure if this Madame Penny was annoying or if her overly-invasive conversational tactics were refreshing. It was, after all, her first real dialogue in over two weeks. She supposed it was nice to talk to someone no matter the subject matter, which was probably why she hadn’t vacated her seat yet.

“No one moves here for that college. Hell, they don’t even market outside a thirty mile radius of the campus. The only people that go there are as follows: those that don’t have the money for a big name university, those that have SAT scores too low for one, or those that are preparing for their role as a town lifer. No offense,” she persisted, “but you, with your designer hand-bag, $500 dollar hair cut, and intellectual carriage are none of those things.”

Kate smiled, remaining stubbornly silent.

“So? What’s the real story?” Madame Penny asked again, doggedly determined to have her own way.

Kate pursed her lips. She had to admit that while she didn’t believe in psychics, Madame Penny possessed a heightened sense of perception. And a frank tongue. Kate shook her head; it wasn’t as if she hadn’t given herself the same lecture, asked the same questions a thousand times already in the past two weeks. And, in a way, Penny had kind of complimented her.

“Life is unpredictable,” Kate said simply.

When it became clear to Madame Penny that that was all Kate planned to say, she took it as her turn to speak again. “Don’t want to talk about it? Okay, that’s fine. Listen I won’t pressure you.”

Kate opened her mouth in thanks but before she could get a word out Madame Penny continued: “It just seems to me that everyone’s got to talk to someone and well, girl you look likely to explode if you don’t spill it, and soon.” She shrugged. “Since you don’t appear to have anyone in this town…”

Kate didn’t bother to answer her this time, which was for the best because Madame Penny wasn’t yet finished. “But as I said, no pressure. Besides I love a good mystery—just about as much as I love solving one,” she said meaningfully.

Because her business was in curiosity, Kate silently reminded herself.

“Honestly,” Kate said cutting her off this time, the aim of which was to shut her up. The tactic worked, but for how long Kate didn’t care to wager. “You’ve made this out to be something bigger than what it is. I think you’d be letdown by the truth now. There’s nothing of intrigue about it.”

Much as expected, Madame Penny’s lips had barely trembled to a close before starting up again, her expression perking up at this. “Does that mean you’re going to tell me?” she asked hopefully.

Kate sighed, the action blowing her bangs, which were cut in a heavy fringe across her narrow forehead, in complete disarray. She’d worry about that later. Right now she had a story to disclose. “I don’t see any way out of it.”

Madame Penny leaned even closer, if that were at all possible.

“You’re right, I’m not from here,” Kate began drily. “I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

“That explains your accent,” Madame Penny interjected before resuming her role of active listener.

Kate nodded absently. “And you weren’t all together wrong about my place at Cordwyn College either. I have an MBA—and yes, I did receive it from a prestigious university, as it seems you would’ve supposed.” Her voice softening, Kate couldn’t help but be transported back in time, if only momentarily. Her voice, when she continued, softened slightly with nostalgia. “I was only twenty-three years old then. After graduating, I accepted a position with an investment bank, a cushy ladder with which to climb by way of corporate speak. It was the life I always thought I wanted. I was even engaged to be married for a little while—”

“You were engaged to be married?” Madame Penny interrupted, exploding into speech. “Whoa, kind of buried the lead there, didn’t you?”

Kate felt her lips twitch. Like a bloodhound on the hunt, Madame Penny seemed bent on sniffing out the story, replete in all its faded glory. Well, if that were the case, she was doomed to disappointment. Kate hadn’t traveled near half-way across the country to revive the story of a life she left behind. “I guess. To me it’s all one-and-the-same—the past.”

Madame Penny accepted this statement with the bob of her head. “I see, but how’d you get from there here—to the present?”            she asked emphatically.

Kate laughed glibly. By aide of distance and hard-won perspective, with the advantage of a mental ‘no trespassing’ sign stamped on certain memories, she almost felt like an impassive narrator.  “How does anyone? Life happened. Things change, people change. You can’t control it, instead you find yourself just tagging along for the ride,” she added meaningfully. Smiling with an air of flippancy, she meant to leave it at that, before the rigid control she had over her emotional paralysis exhausted itself.

“The life we think we want is often mistaken for the life we are meant to live,” Madame Penny mused in consent to this, the meta-cognizant statement unknowingly pushing her companion nearer the limit of her restraint.

“Amen. You can’t dictate the realm of reality the way you can the imagination,” Kate thought out loud, sounding oddly relieved at the unexpected rally, “dreams are invariably disappointed, duped by illusions of…nonsense.”

But of what, Madame Penny wasn’t sure. The inference of those last words, loaded with significance, reinforced her intention to find this woman out. Patience, she told herself. It wasn’t going to happen today. She could see that by the stubborn set of Kate’s mouth, the lines of strain curving the edges of her lips. She’d shared enough.

Kate had come to the same conclusion herself; staring down at the table where her fingers were clenched tightly together, the maneuver a deliberate stall, she wondered if she hadn’t meant to confess that last bit vocally, least of all to this unsettling neighbor. “What happened is irrelevant,” she amended. “I just, I needed a fresh start.”

Madame Penny nodded, looking oddly wise for a woman in that getup. “You left it all behind,” she said.

“Yeah, I did,” Kate said, remembering the frantic movements that night which lead her to Phil’s home office, her hands filing through stacks of papers, scattering pens and sticky notes onto the floor in her rush, searching blindly through the darkened room for the tri-folded escape route. “I took out a map—an actual atlas, and ran my fingers across its length. When I looked down they were hovering over this city.” Kate shrugged, determined to keep it light. “So I packed up my bags, enrolled in the local college, this time for an art history degree, and found myself a new home. Here.” The ease with which she spoke now was not lost on Madame Penny.

Needing no further encouragement, the psychic’s heavily ringed hands reached out across the span of table between them to cover Kate’s balled-up fists. The action was protective, sheltering. “At some point, you’ll have to get it out. All of it,” she demanded, serious suddenly despite Kate’s best attempts otherwise. “The aura shadowing behind you—this clinging sensation of heartache and betrayal—it’ll consume you if kept locked up inside for too long,” she informed her, not bothering to mince her words. “Everyone’s got to talk to someone,” she repeated with resonance. “That’s how it gets better, whatever it is.”

And when you’re ready I’ll be here, she considered silently to herself, waiting to hear the rest of it.

“Dully noted,” Kate answered, the touch of Madame Penny’s hands, where they imprisoned her own, casted a peculiar impact on her. Instinctively, she wanted to recoil at the imposed vulnerability of that hold but, before she could do more than flinch in self-defense, her hand stilled. To pull away would be a dead giveaway. Her lips pulling up sardonically, she forced her hand to relax.

“But we’ll leave that for another day,” Madame Penny said, patting her hands once before relinquishing the hold.

Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, Kate took the opportunity to push her empty cup to the edge of the table, scoot her chair back and make a move to stand up, signaling her intention to leave. “It was-a, really nice meeting you,” she told the physic then, holding her hand out demurely for it to be shaken. “I’ve got to run—school supplies, you know. Where do you suppose is the best place to purchase my textbooks?” she asked politely, by way of explanation.

If she’d hoped to dissuade Madame Penny and make a smart departure it was now her turn to be disappointed. Her face perking up at the words, Madame Penny eagerly nodded her head.  “LitLiber. It’s our local bookstore. I’ll show you the way; I have to stop there myself.”

Kate made a noncommittal sound in her throat as the other woman linked her arm through the crook of Kate’s elbow, effectively leading her out the door.

With a sigh of defeat, Kate matched her steps.