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

Jackson stared unblinkingly at Kate.

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

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

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

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

He smiled charmingly.

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

Dammit.

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

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

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

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

Jackson had impeccable manners.

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

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

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

It was abundantly clear that Jackson came from wealthy stock.

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

Clearly it rankled. Kate smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackson shot Kate a quick wink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was both unexpected and exactly what she needed.

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

She smiled gloriously. “Yeah. I know.”

Jacksons looked momentarily thrown. “You do?”

She nodded impishly.

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

Kate wrinkled her nose. “Big time.”

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

“Thank you for opening the door.”

“For you? Always.”

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah. Big time.”

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

… “I’m done pretending.”

            “Pretending?”

            “To be your friend.”

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

Jake taking her to the concert.

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

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

            “Brunettes….. I like brunettes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surprised to see me?” She mocked him.

Jake didn’t comment.

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

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

Penny’s mouth thinned. “You want me!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Penny…”

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

He sighed. “Please don’t do this—”

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

“What do you want me to say?”

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

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

“That’s not fair!”

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

“Yes, only…”

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

“How so?”

“I needed time to think!”

“About what?”

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

“When did I say that?”

Jake paused, nonplussed.

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

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

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

His eyes gleamed. “My savior.”

“Oh shove it, Farrow.”

His grin only widened.

“Don’t be cute. I’m not in the mood.”

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

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

Jake stilled.

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

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

Penny shot back. “Excuse me?”

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

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

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

“N-no.”

“Good,” he said, reaching for her…

 

 

 

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Something’s up.”

Kate laughed.

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

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

Penny rolled her eyes. “Obviously not.”

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

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

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

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

“We’ve come a long way,” Kate agreed.

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

“To new homes,” Kate called.

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

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

“And love,” Kate said, blushing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amen to that!”

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

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

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

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

“Oh goodness!”

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

“Oh, get this….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Eight

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

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

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

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

Except.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This what?”

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

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

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

Penny laughed.

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

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

And then they fell into peals of laughter yet again.

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

“Swimming lessons,” Kate told her.

Penny’s mouth pulled down…

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

“Oh—well, yeah, I guess….”

“Then let’s get to it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kate…”

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

Penny sucked in her lip.

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

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

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

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

Only it did happen and no one had forgotten anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny came along reluctantly, her eyes wide, unnerved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, you said you weren’t sure—”

“Shut up Kate! Just shut up.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the words.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

Kate swallowed difficultly.

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

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

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

Penny hitched a shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

Kate bit down hard. “I’m so sorry.”

“I never went back in the water again.”

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

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

Kate blinked back tears.

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

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

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

Kate stared at her uncertainly.

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Five

Kate looked at herself carefully in the mirror. Her blonde hair was brushed carefully off her face, the meticulously curled tendrils falling softly down her shoulders. Her lips were painted a becoming pink to match the dusting of blush covering her high cheekbones. Other than her eye-shadow—a golden hue smudged at the edges with the lighted dabs of grey—which she was seriously starting to doubt, she looked fine. Good. Maybe she should leave off the smokey accents?

With a resigned sigh, Kate wiped off the offending make-up. Her hands shook. Jackson was picking her up in less than half an hour. For their first date. Jackson.

Kate smiled tremendously. At least her outfit was ready: black tights underneath a peach-and-black knee-length accordion skirt and a black-and-white striped full-sleeved shirt (which hugged her curves in all the right places). The lacey scarf tied artlessly over her neck was just enough jewelry. She’d decided to forgo her silver watch in case that sent across the wrong message.

Painstakingly applying a more neutral honey-toned shadow to her eyes, Kate tried to breathe normally. Her stomach was a bundle of nerves. She hadn’t eaten all day. Correction: she hadn’t been able to eat all day. She just hoped it wouldn’t pick an inopportune time to start rumbling. She had a date with Jackson! It had consumed her thoughts all day. And, since she hadn’t been able to talk to Penny about it; and yes, Kate knew what sort of chicken that made her, she’d found herself unable to relax, unable to enjoy the anticipation building in her body, humming throughout her nerves.

Setting her make-up brush down on the bathroom vanity, Kate took a step back to once again view the finished product. Better. Much better. She looked bright and breezy. Retreating into her living room, before she had a chance to change her mind yet again, Kate looked anxiously at the clock.

5:46 p.m.

Jackson would be there in less than fifteen minutes. Oh god! She hadn’t picked out which pair of shoes she was going to wear…!

As it happened, Kate had only just landed on a pair of patent leather sling-backs when she heard the unmistakable breaking of a car right outside her drive, followed closely by the opening and closing of a car door and then the muffled sound of footsteps walking up her drive. And, even if her ears hadn’t already been on a ridiculous high-alert, Danger’s unmistakable bark, following closely by his nose pressed up anxiously against the parlor room window, his doggy breath foggy up the pane there, would’ve tipped her off.

Shushing him ineffectively, whipping the shoes anyhow on her feet, Kate hurried to the door, her fingers patting furtively against her already perfect hair-do as she came upon the door.

Breathe Kate. Just breathe.

Throwing a smile on her face, Kate opened the door with something of a flourish, which in retrospect, was a bit premature since Jackson hadn’t yet knocked on its solid frame. In fact, he hadn’t even reached the doorway yet. Jeez. Could you look any more desperate, she silently ridiculed herself? Good God, at least pretend at being unaffected by his presence.

“Jackson,” she breathed hurriedly, her hand batting at the air. “I thought I heard you drive-up.” Great opening Kate, she berated herself. Very original. Why don’t you just out-right state that you’ve been pacing up and down, anxiously awaiting his arrival!

But if Jackson thought this was a funny way to say hello, he didn’t let on. He merely smiled. “The perks of having a guard dog, huh?” he joked, coming forward to stand before her. Obviously, he’d heard Danger’s mad woofing.

Kate nodded. “Yeah, sorry about that…” and, as if on cue, Danger took that moment to lunge himself toward the door, his nose working overtime in his attempt to sniff out Jackson’s intentions. Only Kate’s quick movements blocked what would have undoubtedly been a full-on pounce.

“Lay down Danger,” she instructed gruffly, pointing the mammoth dog back where he’d come. Whimpering quietly, he did as told, but the button eyes he leveled at Kate told her just how the animal felt about the dismissal.

Turning back to Jackson, Kate smiled shyly, her eyes not quite meeting his. “We’re working on his manners still. Sorry about that.”

“No problem.”

And then, for a moment, a tense sort of silence fell between them. Kate looked down at her fingers, which were busy fiddling together, her nails scraping against one another.

“Would you like to come in—?”

“You look lovely,” Jackson said, speaking at the same time as Kate.

“Oh…” Kate blushed, her hands having turned their attention to splaying nervously down the sides of her shirt. “Thank you,” she mumbled. Then, her eyes peeking up, Kate took stock of Jackson’s appearance. Black slacks. Light brown pullover—very form-fitting, but then again, weren’t all of Jackson’s clothing? After all, the man had an impeccable body.

“You look lovely too.” Closing her eyes, Kate felt heat suffusing her face. “No-not lovely,” she corrected then. “You look Nice. Very…nice.”

Jackson laughed quietly. “Thanks.”

“I’m nervous.” The words blurted out of her mouth before Kate knew she was even saying them. And then, as if she were totally without command of her senses, Kate just kept on talking, making it worse and worse. “I haven’t been on a date, a real date, that is, in a long time.”

She could feel her face scrunching up. “God…please, don’t listen to me. I don’t know why I just said that…”

“Hey,” Jackson said, thankfully shutting her up. “If it helps, I’m nervous too.”

Clearing her throat, Kate nodded jerkily. “Can we start over?”
“Of course.”

 

 

And, miraculously, they did start over, Kate gaining some much-needed composure as Jackson walked her out to the car. And from there, the date went…well, it was perfectly. Jackson had made reservations at a restaurant just outside of town—a fancy place with linen tablecloths, and bow-tied waiters. It was the vicinity, rather than the grand atmosphere, which most pleased Kate.

Because she hadn’t talked to Jake yet; and to have him stumble upon her and Jackson out on what was clearly a date would have been tantamount to cruelty. She was going to talk to him…she was, only Kate wanted to do it right. And yes, okay, she knew she needed to do that sooner than later…. She was being a coward—what else was new?

It was just, Kate had meant what she’d said to M.T. the other day. She didn’t want anything to detract from her excitement over this date. And talking to Jake would have certainly put a damper on things. And—a very, very small voice at the back of her mind had kept insisting—was she ready to fully, firmly close that door yet?

But, by the time desserts were being delivered that evening, Kate knew the answer to that last, lingering question.

Not only was she ready to close the door between her and Jake, she was ready to dead-bolt the thing shut. Tomorrow she’d talk to him. Let him down nicely. Because, smiling across at Jackson, Kate’s stomached pinched tightly at her waist. She was done being wishy-washy on this issue. She liked Jackson.

And she wanted to see where this led.

She was in. Fully in.

“…and then I told her, ‘Hey, calm down. It’s only a book,’” Jackson said, drawing Kate’s attention back to the conversation at hand.

Laughing, she nodded quickly. “I know what you mean. Jake and I had to explain that to a customer the other day, who thought we were racist for shelving Adventures of Huckleberry…” but, at the quick frown that covered Jackson’s face at the start of this tale, Kate’s voice petered out.

“What’s wrong?” she asked quickly. Had she said something?

“Do all your stories include Jake in some form or another?”

Kate blanched at the question. Had she been talking about the other man too much? Mentally she counted off the list: she’d talked about last week’s bookseller conference—but of course Jake would have been there; and there’d been the one about how, between the two them, Kate and Jake had rearranged the entire store a couple weeks ago; and…well, she had told Jackson about the time she’d twisted her ankle, though she’d left out how Jake had literally had to carry her to the hospital.

Maybe she had been talking about him a lot. But-but, it wasn’t like that!

“Oh. I-I’m sorry…” Kate said, staring down at the dessert spoon clenched between her fingers. She didn’t want to give off the wrong impression!

“No,” Jackson insisted, his lips compressed in a tight line. “No, Kate, I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” He tried to smile. “It was completely uncalled for.”

Kate smiled back wobbly. “It’s okay.”

“It’s just—he likes you. You know that right?” And there it was, that edge back in Jackson’s voice again.

Kate reeled. “I—oh…”

Jackson sighed. It was world-weary. “Dammit. Kate…I didn’t mean—”

“Oh, I think you did,” Kate muttered. What was happening here? The evening had been going so well…

“No. Forgive me Kate.” Jackson sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself jealous of another man. I’m not handling it well.”

“Jealous? Over me?” Kate hedged.

Jackson gave her a dry look. “I know, I should be above such juvenile antics…”

Though she’d never admit it out loud, though she shouldn’t even admit it to herself, Kate found Jackson’s antagonism toward Jake oddly…endearing. Though feminists all over the world would despise the notion, Kate found herself more than a little complimented by his words, his attitude. Worse, she found herself more than a little heady of the power she obviously welded.

Of course, it also spelled trouble….

“Can I take a page out of your book, and ask for a redo?” Jackson pleaded then. “—and forget everything I just said?”
But Kate shook her head. “No.”

“No?” Jackson looked worried.

“Look, Jake and I work together. I see him almost every day. And I’m going to talk about him. Probably a lot. I don’t want to have to censor myself around you. Because that would make me feel guilty or, or whatever.”

“I don’t want you to do that either…”

But Kate wasn’t listening to Jackson. “But it’s not—,” she shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything. Jake and I. The stories, they don’t mean anything.”

“Of course,” Jackson agreed. “I’ll stop acting like a jerk now and retrieve my foot from my mouth.”

“You weren’t,” Kate contradicted. And at Jackson’s confused look: “Acting like a jerk, that is. Not entirely,” Kate felt compelled to say.

“I wasn’t?”

Kate sat up a little straighter in the plush velvet chair. “Jake and I…there was som—”

“Kate you don’t have to tell me this.”

“You’re right,” Kate informed him stanchly, “but I want to.”

And when Jackson looked like he was going to say something else, Kate rushed to add: “This is probably heavy talk for a first date, but…” Kate tried not to blush at her forwardness: “But I want to get it out of the way for our second date—or third or fourth…that is, if you ask me out again.”

“Oh, I’ll ask.”

Kate smiled. “Okay, then.” After all that build-up, Kate wasn’t sure what she even wanted to say, so she just started talking. “Your jealousy isn’t completely unfounded. There is history between me and Jake. But it’s just that, history. And his feelings for me, whatever they are, are private, personal, and they have nothing to do with you. His feelings for me are none of your business.”

Jackson had the grace to look ashamed.

“What is your business, however, is this.” Kate paused to gather her nerves. “I have feelings for you. And, just to be clear, not for him.”

A slow, sweet smile curved up the sides of Jackson’s mouth, making fine lines crinkle in the corners there. However, “We’d better get the check,” was all he said in response to this.

“We’re leaving?” Kate asked unnerved.

“Oh, we’re leaving,” Jackson told her. “Because what I want to do now is better left done without an audience.”

And Kate grinned. Then she giggled.

 

 

 

Penny frowned deeply as she locked up her store that evening. She hadn’t been able to get it out off her mind lately. Because, it turned out those text messages from the other night, the ones Kate got at M.T.’s Girl’s Night Dinner, they hadn’t been from Jake.

Penny bit back a smile. She’d been so sure that’s who’d been on the other end of those secret missives which had put Kate in such a blushing mood. She’d been so sure…but then she’d made the mistake of stopping in at the LitLiber to talk to Jake….

“Knock, knock,” she’d called smartly before pushing open the door to his private office. Jake had been bent over his desk, his writing hand flying over some form or another when he’d stopped to look up in greeting.

“Penny?” he’d asked in surprise, half-raising to his feet at the sight of her. One eyebrow had risen. “You look…different.”

Penny had made a stiff gesture. “No I don’t.”

Jake had capitulated easily. “All right. Well, what’s up?”

Penny had leaned against the door. “Nothing. I just wanted to say…I was with Kate last night when she got those texts, and I just thought you’d want to know, she seemed happy. Giddy almost. So whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

“Texts? What are you talking about?” Jake had asked ominously, his eyebrows slamming together.

Because Jake hadn’t sent her any such texts messages. Though he’d tried to cover it up, Jake had looked upset at the news. And why shouldn’t he have? Penny had all but told him there was someone else, hadn’t she? Someone who Kate wasn’t demanding give her space to think.

And this, in turn, had made Penny feel terrible about bringing it up in the first place.

“And why did you even go there—the LitLiber?” she muttered crossly to herself as she started walking toward her car, parked halfway down the block.

“Because I thought—whatever, because I thought it was Jake she’d been talking to and I wanted him to know…”

“Know what?” Penny asked ruthlessly, cutting herself off in mid-thought. “That she’d smiled at the sight of a text message? Wow, big news! He definitely needed to hear that—a worthy reason if there ever was one for scurrying over to his place of business at the first available chance,” she mocked harshly. “Even if it had been from him…God, Penny how pathetic, running to him like some lapdog.”

“No!” Penny denied. “It’s not that. I’m just trying to right a wrong, that’s all,” she defended loudly. “I feel guilty. So yes, I want to help him, and yes, to do that I have to spend time with him—which means I may sometimes have to make special trips in to see him, but that’s all it is.”

Looking up at that precise moment, Penny saw it—a flyer stapled to the side of the community board outside the bus stop. 16th Annual Whestleigh Triathlon Scramble. The contest comprised a three-man (or woman) team competing for the fasting times in three separate categories: running, biking, swimming. Each member of the team completes in one leg of the race before passing the veritable torch on to the next member of the team and so on…

That was it! Penny smiled brightly, her frown from earlier dying away as a new plan formed in her mind—that was how she’d make it up to Jake (especially after her accidental slip about Kate’s mysterious texter). Grinning, Penny fetched her phone quickly out of her purse before shooting off a group test message.

 

<  Recepient List: Mags; Katy Kat

—————-07/08/2015 Wed—————–

 

From Penny: Kate, M.T. get ready… I’m

       signing us up as a team for the Triathlon

       Scramble. It’s next Saturday.                                                        

       Kate, you’re running. I’m biking.

       Mags, you got swim-duty. Get training!

  • Sent 8:15 p.m.

 

From Mags: I don’t suppose we have any choice in the matter?

  • Sent 8:23 p.m.

 

From Penny: None at all.

  • Sent 8:24 p.m.

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Two

M.T. felt sick to her stomach as she exited the church. Pocketing the building’s keys, she walked briskly to her small car. Swallowing hard, she just managed to keep the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, at bay. Her shaking fingers gripped the steering wheel hard as she pulled out of the parking lot…only at the last second, instead of turning left which would take her back home, M.T. flicked her right blinker on, turning into the mid-afternoon traffic.

It wasn’t quite two-thirty in the afternoon, which meant that Penny was probably still at her shop. And suddenly, M.T. needed to talk to her sister. Squinting hard, she tried not to look at the LitLiber bookstore as she passed, but it didn’t help. She thought of Kate. Because she really needed to talk to her, as well.

Pulling up outside the florist’s shop that also marked the home of Penny’s tiny House of Intuition, M.T. stepped purposefully out of her car. She wasn’t sure what she planned to say to her sister when she went inside, she only knew one thing: she needed this feud between her and Kate to come to an end. She needed her friends back. Like right now.

Quickly gaining the entrance to Penny’s side of the store, M.T. let herself in, the soles of her shoes making almost no noise as she came upon the thick brocade curtain marking Penny’s doorway. Knocking once, M.T. barely waited for Penny’s breathy: “Come in,” before throwing the curtain aside and stepping into sight.

“Oh!” Penny said at the sight, and instantly she dropped the wispy tone of voice she was using. “It’s you. I was expecting…”
“I’m sorry,” M.T. rushed to say. “I don’t mean to interrupt…but I have something to say.”

“Okay,” Penny acknowledged. “But I—I do have an appointment starting—,” Penny looked down at the watch on her wrist; it was masked by the obscene amount of bangles also occupying space there. “In about two minutes. Can you make it fast?”

M.T. nodded hard, her blonde bob swinging sharply about her face. “Of course.”

“And?” Penny prompted when M.T. remained silent.

“I want to have another dinner—with us girls.”
“…okay…”
“You. Me. And Kate.”

Penny stilled for a moment. Then: “Okay.”
“And I want to have it tonight. Five o’clock. My house.”

“Is everything all right?” Penny asked then.

M.T.’s hand fidgeted with the sleeve of her blouse, her eyes looking down at the frilly cuff there. “You’ll come? You won’t fight with Kate?”
“Yes.”

M.T. nodded again. “Okay. Good. Then I’ll see you then.” With a turn of her heel, M.T. went to exit the building. According to her calculations, Penny still had roughly one minute and thirty seconds left until her client was set to arrive.

“Hey.” At Penny’s soft exclamation, M.T.’s head turned back around. “You still haven’t answered my question—is everything all right?”
M.T. tried for a small. It was lopsided. “It will be. See you tonight?”
“See you tonight.”

 

 

After Penny’s, M.T., still riding high on this spontaneous invitation, pulled her car into the parking lot of the LitLiber next. It was Tuesday afternoon, which meant that Kate was more-than-likely working. Without allowing herself time to talk herself out of it, M.T. walked briskly up to the Service Counter.

“Is Kate McDonald here?” She asked the girl at the counter there.

“Yes she is. Would you like to speak with her?”

“Yes, please,” M.T. replied, bouncing quickly up and down on the balls of her feet as the brunette nodded.

“Sure—let me go and find her. One moment please…”

Luckily, M.T. didn’t have long to wait. Within seconds, Kate was turning the corner of one of the long rows of bookshelves, her eyes lighting-up when she spotted M.T.

“Hey Mags…”

“Are you busy tonight?” M.T. asked briskly.

Kate balked for a second. “Uh…no?”
“Good.” And then: “I am reinstating Girl’s Night Dinner.”

“Oh.”

M.T. stared Kate down hard when the blonde didn’t say anything more than that. “So? Will you come? Tonight?”

“Tonight?” Kate squeaked. “Yeah. Okay. Um… is Penny going also?”

M.T. took that show of reticence the wrong way. “Yes. And I’m hoping the two of you can put whatever it is that’s going on between you, on hold for the evening.”
Kate nodded quickly. “Yes. I mean, of course.”

M.T. nodded, her eyes not quite meeting Kate’s searching gaze. “Good.”

 

 

 

If only Penny could have lived inside Kate’s head and vice versa, as the women were getting ready for M.T.’s impromptu party that evening. If they could have, all the anxiety and anticipation could have been put to bed quickly and quietly. The girls could have made-up before treading down at that tricky road of apologizes and explanations, defenses and accusations, of word-play and fault-finding.

Because, behind Penny’s nonchalant manner beat the broken heart of a woman who’d dearly missed her best friend, who regretted the words she’d spoken, even if she still felt they held truth and merit, who was nervous, excited, and terribly ready to see her old friend that night.

And buried underneath her cool hurt and righteous indignation, Kate was just as eager (and scared) to sit down in the same room as Penny, to resolve what had gone wrong—to atone for her selfish negligence and resume the best friendship she’d ever known. Because Kate was lonely without Penny. And Penny was almost desperately alone without Kate. But, alas, they were not in each other’s heads…

 

 

Pulling out a loose teal-colored shirt to be paired with her charcoal pants, Kate practiced a silent mantra: Wait your turn to talk. Yes, okay, you have news. Big news; news that will effectively put an end to this thing—whatever that is—between you and Penny. News that will show how seriously I took her words, show that I listened when she spoke… News that I’m changing, growing—things I couldn’t have done without her.

Smiling at the thought, Kate’s fingers absently went to rest against the base of her lips, pressing against them in memory. Penny will be proud when she founds out…

But, Kate scolded herself: You have to wait your turn. Let the other girls talk. Listen to them. Be present. M.T. was right. It’s not all about you.

So I’ll wait. I’ll wait and when it’s my turn to speak I’ll tell them.

God, Penny will be over the moon.

 

 

 

Penny, likewise, was practicing mantra’s of her own as she re-applied a thick layer of ruby red lipstick to her face, her hair spilling out of the loose bun she’d put it in, and the sleeve of her gold-and-blue striped caftan billowing out at the elbows as she leaned in closer to the vanity to inspect herself.

Be kind. Smile nicely. Don’t be weird. And be patient. She’s her own person, not the person you want her to be. And she has the prerogative to change her mind—and after all, haven’t you just done that yourself, and on this very same subject no less? So let her be. Leave her alone. It’s not about you.

Penny smiled at her reflection.

Jake, she mouthed to herself. Jake and Kate. Nodding, she reached for the eyeliner. Now that she thought about it, the two of them together…it had a nice ring to it.

Penny dropped her eyes from the mirror.

Yeah. She supposed it did.

Jake and Kate.

She’d get used to it.

She’d learn to love it.

After all, hadn’t she done that very thing for years now?

 

 

 

Penny showed up first. She was already in the kitchen, leaning up against one of the counters, a glass of wine in hand, when Kate knocked quietly on the door before letting herself in.

“Hello?” She called out hesitantly, poking her head into the entryway.

“Back here!” M.T. called from down the long hallway.
Kicking off her scandals, shutting the door firmly behind her, Kate trudged down the hallway. Walking into the kitchen, the grimy white on the walls now re-painted to their former glory, Kate’s eyes skipped nervously over Penny’s head.

Kate. “Hey.”

Penny. “Hi.”

M.T., bent at the waist, head peeking inside the oven to check on the chicken in there, only waved in greeting. “Wine is on the counter. Help yourself.”

Kate, spying the glasses near Penny, swallowed uncomfortably. Taking a step forward, Kate tried not to blush when Penny also moved—with a jerk no less, sidling quickly out of Kate’s way, moving almost to the other side of the kitchen in her apparent haste to get away.

Silence permeated the room. Kate stared down at her wine glass. Penny stared down the short walkway which led to the bathroom and master bedroom. M.T. shut the oven door, mitts still in hand, her gaze going to the vegetables lying out on the small island in the middle of the room.

“Can I help with anything?” Kate asked hurriedly.

M.T. shook her head, as she filled a bowl with salad fixings. “No—I think I’ve got everything covered.”

Kate’s head bobbed. “Okay.”
And, between the small snaps and cracks of M.T.’s chop-job, there was the melodious tick-tock of the small clock over the doorway, and the occasional sip of wine being drunk from either Penny or Kate’s glass. And nothing else.

Kate wished for the radio.

 

 

 

It wasn’t until the women were all sitting down at M.T.’s table (which, in retrospect looked like one of the plastic banquet tables the church used for their Meatball Suppers and Lenten Services) that anything nearing normal conversation took place.

Raising her glass of wine, as though she had no idea of the static silence that had accompanied the evening thus far, M.T. said: “Thank you both for coming here tonight. Our first dinner in my new home!”

“Cheers,” Kate said weakly.

“Ditto,” Penny said shyly.

And, clinking their glasses, all eyes on M.T., the woman took a healthy swallow of the rich cabernet in their hands.

“And to many more,” M.T. murmured, setting her glass done. “Now then…let’s eat!” Picking up the salad bowl, she passed it to Penny.

If M.T. was hoping that the girls would just go along with this—this pretend happy reunion, this frantically put-upon dinner that was more-or-less forced on them at the last minute, without so much as a hint of explanation, she had another think coming. After all, Penny was never one for following convention.

“Is that it?” the psychic asked, scooping a generous amount of salad on her plate before blindingly passing the bowl on to Kate.

“Is what it?” M.T. asked innocently.

“Is that why you called us here—to christen the house?”

M.T. stared back at her sister. “What?”

“You were frantic at my office this afternoon when you insisted upon this little meal,” Penny persisted, stabbing ruthlessly at a piece of chicken before carrying it over to her plate. “I thought…you seemed panicked.”

“Yeah,” Kate chimed in, though her voice was hesitant. “You did seem a little…off at the bookstore too.”

“So what’s the real reason we’re here tonight?” Penny asked, eyes narrowed.

M.T. bit her lip.

“Because there’s always something with these dinners,” Penny argued. “It used to be, you insisted upon these meals as a way to reconnect with me…at least that’s what you always claimed.”

Kate stared at Penny. Penny stared down at M.T. “This wouldn’t happen to be another version of that, would it? Only instead of you and me now it’s…” Penny waved her hand vainly, and, though her eyes would not quite meet Kate’s, still her meaning was clear.

“Here we go,” Kate muttered darkly. “Act Two. Penny attacks M.T. Wow—didn’t see that coming.”

“Excuse me?” Penny demanded. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Kate took a deep breath, eyes staring at the dead chicken on her plate, but her voice warbled a bit: “It means your attitude sucks.” The room grew totally quiet. “But, hey—at least we know one thing about these dinners will remain an unmoving constant.”

M.T. grimaced. “Girls…please, let’s not—”

“Are you kidding me with this? You mean to tell me you’re not the least bit curious why she had us come over tonight? That you’re not wondering where the hell the fire was this afternoon?”

“Of course I am…”

“So what’s the problem?”
“You snip at her!” Kate clarified. “All the time! For God’s sake, she asked us over for dinner. Which she cooked, by the way. That’s it! Dinner! It wasn’t like she demanded blood. But surely, what an inconvenience,” Kate mocked. “So yes, let’s make her feel terrible about it!”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic Kate. Oh wait…” Penny smacked herself on the forehead. “I forgot who I was talking to, did I? That’s practically you’re middle name.”

“Oh, shut up Penny.”

“No, you shut up.”

“Girls,” M.T. tried again, to no avail.

“And by the way,” Penny shouted, leaning over the table. “I wasn’t sniping. I was being concerned. But then, you probably wouldn’t understand that…”

“No?” Kate asked. “Why—do I need a sixth sense for that kind of enlightened understanding?

Penny’s lip curled. “No. I just figured, I wasn’t talking about you directly. So I can see how you just weren’t paying close enough attention. After all, if it’s not about Kate, it’s…yawn.” And, to fully punctuate the point, Penny acted out that last word.

Kate sucked in a hard breath. “I can’t believe you!”

“Oh believe it, babe.”

“I think Hank is going to break up with me!” M.T. shouted over the din, her fists hitting hard against the table, her voice high, angry. “And if the two of you would both shut up for a second…!”

“What?”

“Wait. Hank?”

And then, just like that, Penny and Kate’s fight was over, their attention redirected, shifted. It would have been amusing if the situation weren’t so…well, emotionally charged.

“What are you talking about?”

“What happened?”
M.T. blew out a breath. “That’s just it—nothing’s happened.”
Penny tilted her head in question.

Kate’s brow furrowed.

“It’s different. Dating when you’re a pastor. I’m always on the job. I’m always wearing this hat. At least, according to my parishioners. They don’t understand that I’m also a woman. A single woman. Who—you know, has needs.”

“Ew.”

Kate pursed her lips.“Wait—you mean?”
M.T. shook her head. “Hank has been so patient but I can tell he’s getting frustrated.”

Penny. “Just to be clear, you’re telling us you and he haven’t…you know?”

M.T. “Had sex?”

Penny.“Yeah.”

M.T. “Yeah.”

“Have you ever…uh…” Penny made a face.
M.T. grinned. “Had sex?”
“Yeah.”

“Of course. It’s just—it’s been awhile.”

Penny scowled. “What’s a while?”

M.T. squirmed in her chair. “That’s not the point.”

“It might be,” Penny persisted.
Hank,” Kate said loudly, and with a telling look at Penny, interrupted the sister’s: “What happened with Hank, Maggie?”

M.T. ran the tips of her fingers across the table. “He called me this afternoon; asked if I wanted to have dinner with him on Saturday. And then, just as I was about to say, Yes, he added: ‘And then maybe you could spend the night afterward.’” Maggie seemed to shrink. “And there it was—right in front of me.”

“What did you say?” Kate asked softly.

“I froze,” M.T. said. “I mean, it’s one thing for me to be seen out there dating, it’s another for people to know or even assume—I’m the pastor. Sex outside of marriage? They wouldn’t…that is, it’s not exactly nothing in my profession.” She sighed. “But there’s only so long I can ask him to wait. I mean, it’s the twenty-first century! No one waits that long anymore.”

“You’ve been dating for months now,” Penny said.

“I know.”

“And all this time…?”

“All this time.”

Kate patted M.T. hands. “Okay. But, what do you want?”

M.T. sighed. “I want Hank. But as a pastor, as a spiritual leader, I’m held to a higher accountability. The Bible says it’s a sin…”

“The Bible is also a bit outdated,” Penny muttered.

“Yes, maybe so,” M.T. conceded. “But, while I like to think we live in a more progressive time, I’m not sure the church will see it the same way.” She sighed. “Besides, don’t you think it comes across a little like: do as I say, not as I do? This is an issue of trust as well as an issue of Mission Statements.”

“But you’re not just a pastor, no matter what the congregation wants to believe…sometimes you get to be a regular, fallible person, too,” Kate cried.

“Yes and no…”

“Yea…isn’t that what grace is all about anyway?” Penny argued vehemently.

M.T. sighed. “It’s not exactly the same, not when you’re dealing with members of the clergy. I’m the one who’s supposed to help guide everyone else through the temptations in life, steer them toward a higher morality.” M.T. made a funny noise. “It’s hard to put faith in someone’s ability to do that when their biting out of the apple themselves.”

“I think you’re being too hard on yourself.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

Kate was silent for a moment, chewing on a piece of chicken. “What if—” Kate took a breath. “What if you talked to them about it? The church, I mean.”

M.T. blinked. “What?”

“Like they should get a say,” Penny spat. “This is your private life. They shouldn’t have any rights to how you chose to live it.”

“But they do, in their own way,” Kate insisted.

“Do you—do you think that would actually work though?” M.T. asked.

“I don’t know,” Kate confessed. “But at this point what other option do you have besides sneaking around with Hank?”

“Oooh! I vote for the latter option,” Penny said, sitting upright.

“Yeah, that or get married,” M.T. joked. “Which seems a bit drastic, all things considered.”

“But that’s the whole point,” Penny exploded: “Sex today doesn’t mean what it did when old Lukey wrote his portion of the Bible—or whoever. It just doesn’t. And while you may be held to a higher standard than the rest of us mere mortals, it doesn’t mean you should be stuck in the Dark Ages, either. Besides, it’s all context anyway.”

M.T. took a sip of wine. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not like your preaching promiscuity here,” Penny argued. “It’s just—we no longer live in a world where women get married before they reach the age of twenty. We no longer live in a world where marriage is a foregone conclusion, at all—or when it is, that is lasts longer than a couple years. Sex is no longer only used as a means for the procurement of children. As such, its station in life has shifted, relegated in consequence. Our culture—the timing of things, the purpose, the expectations… they’re different now. And we, as a society, have to adapt or grow extinct. Same with religion, because what’s the point if you can’t practice in real life, what you preach on Sunday morning?”

“Wow,” Kate whispered.

A moment of silence passed. M.T. chewed on a carrot. Kate swirled her wine-glass. Penny stared after her sister.

Then, nodding, M.T. looked up. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Hank and I—” Maggie smiled slowly. “Should I buy some lingerie, do you think? Is that still a thing?”

Penny smiled. “Oh yeah.”

Kate giggled. “For sure.”
“But first,” Maggie swore, “I’m going to tell the people at Good Shepherd. First I just need to figure out how.”

“That’s why we’re here.”

Penny nodded. “I have nowhere to be tonight.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Four

Madame Penny asked for compete silence from Kate. The best way to channel the universe, as she dubbed it, was to meditate, to clear the mind of any blockage, let go of any worries, knowing they would be intercepted by a higher power. From somewhere near her feet, Penny pressed the Play button on a CD player, the soft strains of some string instrument filling the room.

“Close your eyes,” Madame Penny whispered, “and picture yourself swimming in a lake. There are no waves, no ripples. It’s clear as glass. The sun is high up in the sky and the warmth of it touches the tops of your shoulders. It’s peaceful and relaxing. Picture this moment,” she repeated.

Kate let out a deep sigh and did as she was bidden.

“Now, imagine yourself swimming from one end of the lake to the other. You feel your right arm lift out of the water, rotate forward, and then delve back underneath the silky depths. Your body sways with the action. You breathe out. Then your left arm lifts up toward the sky, following the same motion. Do you feel the movements of your body? You are not tired, nor are you stressed. It’s rhythmic and as natural as breathing. Keep picturing this movement: your right arm strokes against the water and just as it submerges back downward, the left arm copies its predecessor, sweeping and descending against the current you are creating. Over and over. Over and over.”

Kate felt her breathing slow. Her arms, where they rested on her lap, felt heavy, her feet cemented to the ground as her whole concentration focused on this scene, with only the lyrical undulation of Madame Penny’s voice keeping her steadily on point, keeping her from…. Kate yawned. It was keeping her from—blinking heavily, Kate’s lids drooped, her attention foggy, confused.

Her eyes closed; this time they didn’t reopen.

Madame Penny watched in quiet amusement as Kate slowly feel asleep, her body gradually hunching forward, her neck falling forward until her chin rested against her collarbone; the poor girl was dead to the world, she thought, stifling a laugh. It was too bad really, because Penny had just been about to get to the best part of her visualization technique: Kate was nearing the end of her swim, the conclusion of which would have brought her to a quiet beach where she could lay out in the sun.

It wasn’t all together uncommon for clients to fall asleep during meditation. It took practice to keep the mind and body suspended over a state of quiet consciousness. Although for a woman like Kate, who seemed fixated on the idea of being in control, always in command of herself and her surroundings, it was rather surprising. Shrugging, Madame Penny continued to shuffle the cards in her hands. Perhaps Kate needed the rest, she considered. If that were the case, she’d let her go on dreaming for a little while longer.

 

Something was shining against her eyes. Kate made a soft sound her in her throat and made to turn her head away from the offending light. Just as the thought penetrated, another disruption invaded her senses: the soft pitter-patter of feet moving across the wooden floorboards underneath.

Eyes fluttering open, the first thing Kate saw was a tabletop. It was currently cradling her head where it laid, her cheek pressed up against her crossed arms. It wasn’t Kate’s table. Remaining there for a moment, confusion flooded Kate’s senses. Where was she?

The sudden ping of a metallic lock pushing into place reminded her that, where ever it was, she wasn’t alone. Jerking upward, back into a seated position, Kate’s eyes frantically followed the noise, seeking out its source. They landed on none other than Madame Penny, who’d half-turned at the commotion of Kate’s awakening, her hands pressed up against the filing cabinet.

“What?” Kate asked disoriented, clearly unprepared for such a sight. “What am I—what?”

“You feel asleep during the reading,” Madame Penny filled in, coming back to the table to sit opposite of her.

“Reading?” Kate asked, still out of it.

“That’s it,” Penny confirmed matter-of-factly.

When that didn’t clear up the expression on Kate’s face, Penny continued: “Don’t you remember? You must be really out of it.” She chuckled. “I saw you outside my window? You came in for a tarot card reading” she prompted, stressing the last word pointedly. “We were just in the middle of a meditation activity…any of this ringing a bell?”

And then Kate did remember. She’d been swimming in a lake—her arms propelling her body, back and forth. “I feel asleep?”

“Like a newborn baby,” Penny told her, her tone laced with humor.

“What time is it?” Kate asked instinctively. Translation: how long had she been out for the count?

“It’s a little after three,” Penny supplied. Translation: for almost two hours.

Kate felt her cheeks redden as waves of embarrassment washed over her. She couldn’t believe she’d done that! To a stranger. Well, maybe not a stranger, but close enough. Kate had barely been able to go to sleepovers, even as a teenager, thanks to serve bouts of homesickness yet here she was now, caught taking a catnap—in a professional arena no less—just as though it were no big thing. What the hell was wrong with her?

“I am so sorry,” she began to say, shoveling her hair over her shoulder, completely without regard to order or neatness.

“No apologizes necessary,” Penny assured her.

“I guess I was more tired than I thought.” Kate tried to sound glib in an effort to salvage some of her pride, to mask her deep mortification. It didn’t work. “I haven’t been sleeping very well.” Snapping her mouth shut, Kate decided that was probably more information than she needed to divulge, and to Madame Penny of all people.

“I thought as much,” Madame Penny said knowingly. At Kate’s curious look, she went on: “You have circles under your eyes…plus your carriage seemed weighted when you first arrived,” she said bluntly. “Mediation sweeps the mind of its overriding anxieties and stressors. Yours was so exhausted from this detoxification it shutdown completely, reveling in the coveted and obviously unaccustomed state of an easeful and tranquil slumber.”

Pinned down by the blueness of those eyes, Kate knew she had been right in her phobia of over-sharing with this woman. Madame Penny had that look on her face, the same one she’d worn the other day at the coffee shop, like she smelled a story.

“I’m not sure about all of that. Probably I just need to get acclimated to the new house, new area—different sounds and stuff like that,” Kate said, purposefully vague.

“It can be difficult, I imagine, venturing out and starting a new life,” Madame Penny mused, her eyes steady on Kate’s averted gaze. “But know this, just because you chose to ignore something doesn’t mean it’s not still there, in your mind. It doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking about it. Consciously or unconsciously, awake or otherwise,” she added meaningfully.

“It was one nightmare,” Kate blurted out. Immediately, she regretted the words, her lapse in silence at Penny’s provocation.

“Want to talk about it?” Madame Penny asked. There was no mistaking the triumph in her posture. She’d hoped to make Kate crack and she’d succeeded.

“If I wanted to talk about it I’d have done so already,” Kate snapped, feeling a bit like a caged animal. Maybe she’d have been better off just going home earlier.

“All right, all right, I won’t push.”

“Too late for that,” Kate whispered loudly. Madame Penny said nothing in response. She knew better. She’d gotten a reaction out of Kate and, for the time being, that was good enough for her.

“Well, since you’re up would you like to know what I discovered from the reading?” She asked, changing the topic without qualm.

“You were still able to do that, even while I was, you know?” Kate insinuated, diverted from her earlier resolve at this newfound information. She’d have figured Madame Penny stopped at the sound of her snoring.

“Well, yes of course. Your presence is only superficial in matters such as these. The universe knew what you needed to hear, what questions you sought answers to, long before your head hit the table,” she assured her amusedly.

“Oh,” Kate said stupidly. She wasn’t sure what else to say. It was one thing to agree to have a reading performed, but it was quite another to sit by quietly by while someone told her what her future held—Kate’s freewill notwithstanding.

Madame Penny quickly rose to her feet and twisting a little to one side, with the pinch of her finger, opened the filing cabinet once more. Reaching inside its depth, her hand scuffled around for a moment before presenting the pack of cards. It felt a little like déjà vu to Kate. Hadn’t they done this before?

“I thought you already did the reading?” Kate asked, speaking her thoughts aloud.

“I did.”

“Then why are you taking those out again?” Kate asked, gesturing toward the deck in Penny’s hand.

“I’m not going to reshuffle them, if that’s what you mean. No, no. It’s redundant to do the same reading twice,” Penny said absently.

Kate blinked, more confused than when she’d originally asked the question. Reshuffle them? Do another reading? What?

As she was ought to do, Penny seemed to sense Kate’s consternation, saying further: “I just thought you’d like to see the cards I’d pulled—that’s why I brought them back out,” she clarified. “Sometimes the physical existence of them, their tangible message, is easier to comprehend then the mere mention of them.”

“Oh.”

“I only put them away so you wouldn’t knock them over in your, um, state of slumber,” she said, her hands deftly laying out the top three cards from the pile.

“I did a traditional three card layout—it’s a general reading focusing on where you’ve been, where it’s lead you, and where you’re still headed,” Madame Penny continued, her voice brisk but educational. Slowly she turned the cards, one by one, face up.

Kate looked down. Checking the impulse against knee-jerk deprecation, instead she allowed her eyes to thoroughly scan each one, her attention sober and intent as she processed the images, and their representing notations, shown before her.

They read as follows:

Past: Death

Present: the Hermit

Future: the Sun

“Now don’t be alarmed by what you see here,” Penny warned, her fingernail tapping against the first of these symbolic articles. “The Death Card is often mistaken—it does not imply a physical loss, rather an end to something previously known. It’s placement in your past intimates a recent change in your life’s purpose…though I suppose one doesn’t need to be psychic to have realized that,” she added dryly.

Penny continued: “This is usually a hard transition, because the Death Card is accompanied by a simultaneous fear of the unfamiliar yet a constant urge to find something different. But know that it’s inclusion here—in your past—is deliberate, telling you that you made the right decision, warning you not to go back to that idea, that place-in-time….”

Kate hardly heard Madame Penny; she hardly thought to listen, the psychic’s voice drowned out by Kate’s own inner-musings, her own personal discernment. Kate knew what each card meant; she didn’t need their significance interpreted by an outsider. And with that knowledge came a sense of release, of peacefulness that even the meditation hadn’t quite accomplished.

Her life wasn’t over, rather reincarnated. She was no longer a part of her past. It was gone, done, over. Brighter days were ahead, and when she finally decided to come out of reclusion—when she finally healed herself—the sun would be there ready to kiss her in welcome.

 

 

 

Twenty minutes later, as Kate was walking up to her front door, having just left Madame Penny’s House of Intuition, she was surprised to find a woman standing under her covered porch, waiting patiently it seemed for just such an arrival. She wasn’t a woman Kate had ever met before, but Kate figured she was getting used to that—Whestleigh wasn’t shy when it came to strangers. The woman appeared to be holding a baked goody of some kind in her hand, if the plastic wrap covering the disposable dish was anything to go by.

“Hello,” Kate said, as she mounted the steps to stand beside her.

The woman smiled in greeting. She appeared to be in her mid-fifties. “Hello. My name is Anne Ganthy. I live just two houses down,” she said, pointing down the street. The home, an off-white clapboard cottage, was small but quaint, the grounds immaculately trimmed, yet overflowing with flowers.  “Anyway, I-I stopped over to say: welcome to the neighborhood!” she added awkwardly, the enthusiasm slightly false. With that she thrust the pan, which Kate could now see held chocolate cake of some kind, into Kate’s unsuspecting hands.

“Oh, well, thank you! I’m Kate McDonald,” Kate supplied, fumbling the aluminum sheet to her left hand. Holding out her right, which was quickly grasped and shaken, she smiled in return.

“I wanted to come over the other day but I saw you had, er, company,” that lady said. There was something in the way she said that last bit which unnerved Kate.

“Well, this was awfully kind of you,” she responded instead, deciding to let the comment pass unquestioned. Reaching inside her pocket, she carefully retrieved her keys. Inserting them into the keyhole, all the while balancing her cake, Kate clumsily undid the lock.

“Please forgive my tardiness in making your acquaintance,” Anne started in again, apparently not to be put-off. “Let me assure you, all of us on Eveleth Ave are anxious to meet you. I wouldn’t want you to think our little community was unfriendly.” She trilled in laughter at this small joke.

“How could I think anything of the sort?” Kate asked, feeling oddly comforted by the sentiment behind this woman’s visit. She’d heard of such concepts as welcoming committees before, but in her estimation it had always measured up to nothing more than folk lore. Apparently it was actually a thing. “This whole town has been nothing but inviting and gracious since I’ve moved here. It’s been, well, really uplifting for someone new to the area.”

Anne frowned a little of the words. “Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but…Listen, you do want to be discreet within your, er, associations. The people around here, well they can get to talking…. That is to say, Whestleigh prides itself on the reputation of the society it keeps,” she explained rather obtusely.

Kate felt her head tilt a little to one side at the words. They sounded ominous, and ironically, a little less than friendly. “Excuse me?” she asked then, and to someone who knew her well, it was done so icily.

“Well that psychic woman, what’s her name?”

“Madame Penny,” Kate offered, though she doubted the woman’s name actually eluded Anne.

“Yes, well, I saw the two of you chatting the other day, and I happen to know she was over here the other night. If I were you I’d be careful of being seen together too frequently. She’s not made much of a name for herself around here, if you catch my drift. Frankly, she’s considered: weird, peculiar, an outcast,” she said exhaustively, waving her hand in the air expressively. “I’m merely trying to offer up some helpful advice. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Just what kind of impression are you hoping to leave on our townsfolk? You seem like a nice, respectable young woman, that’s all I’m saying.”

Kate felt her mouth drop open. She couldn’t believe she’d just heard all of that nonsense. She wasn’t sure where the energy came from. She wasn’t even entirely sure she was upset on Penny’s behalf. She was weird and peculiar and those were traits Kate didn’t think the psychic found all that insulting. Rather it was the way that Anne had said it, with such scathing holier-than-thou judgment that did Kate in. If Kate didn’t know any better, she’d swear she was talking to her own mother.

Swap out Anne’s dark brown hair for a blonde coif and change her slacks for a couture skirt with a silk blouse and they could be dead-ringers for one another. Kate couldn’t count the number of times she’d come home to find her mother waiting in the kitchen, her fingers tapping against the jut of her hipbone, her mouth turned downward. This scene always precluded the onslaught of a lecture. Lectures about Kate’s daily choices and opinions, almost all of which her mother found fault within. Lectures which Kate knew as the only mother-daughter bonding offered in her household.

Her mother—the great Calida McDonald—would wonder why in the world her eight year old daughter had decided to play football with the Douglass brothers, who lived down the block. Hadn’t she been brought up like a proper young lady? And why, when she was in the seventh grade, had her only child thought it would be a good idea to visit the planetarium instead of the Manuscript Library? Where was her culture, her class? And how about the time that Kate had befriended the Larson girl from her geometry class? She’d been picked on at school for her wardrobe choices. Kate had taken her shopping. Calida had damn near burst in half when she found out just who Kate was seen with—an inferior little girl of no-stock.

Kate had always bowed down to her mother. She’d loved that split second after these go-rounds when Calida would smile lovingly, pat Kate on the shoulder (sometimes even bring her in for a hug), explaining that she was only trying to protect her daughter and Kate would understand one of these days just how much. She’d go on to say how proud she was when Kate inevitably collapsed to her bidding. She had a truly wonderful daughter, didn’t she?

She sincerely doubted her mother was saying anything of the sort nowadays, but she supposed she didn’t really know, did she? Kate had never gotten up the nerve, even at twenty-eight years of age, to tell her mother ‘no.’ She’d never challenged her, forced her voice into existence, she’d never been able to argue that what Calida wanted and what Kate wanted were not the same thing. She’d just run away, escaped into the night. But she was done with that. Here. Now.

Kate felt her hand curl around the doorknob. “I suppose you’re right. It is of great consequence with whom I chose to fraternize.” She gave Anne a saccharine smile, a disguise to hide the blow of her next words. “Which is why I’ll kindly ask you to leave. Right now.”

Anne’s noisily indrawn breath was as far as Kate allowed her to get in retort.

“I will not be bullied, coerced or shamed into this arbitrary and antiquated format for propriety and social suitability, especially by a woman whose nerve is such to speak to a veritable stranger in this manner.”

With that, Kate felt her wrist twist, the knob turning over in her hand. Tucking the cake against her elbow, because she refused to give it back to the conniving woman, Kate pushed the door open. Striding over the threshold she spared Anne, standing, shocked, her mouth contorted in stupefaction, one last glance before promptly swinging the door shut once again.

Breath coming out rapidly, knee’s wobbling uncertainly, adrenaline taking over, Kate stumbled backward, her body sagging thankfully against the door she’d only just closed behind herself. Safely protected from the piranha outside by its secure bulk, nonetheless, she could still hear Anne talking quietly to herself as she made to exit Kate’s property, muttering something about how she’d never been treated so poorly in her life and what was this world coming to?        Kate had shut the door on that woman’s face. Feeling the force of this realization with wonder, Kate corrected this statement. No, she’d slammed the door on that woman’s face. And it had felt kind of good. It had felt amazing.

This same foreign state of impulsiveness encouraged Kate to take her phone out of the back pocket of her pants, along with the business card Madame Penny had given Kate at the end of their session together, the psychic’s office number boldly printed across its glossy length. Without thought, Kate punched its numeric sequence into her keypad and hit the call button. Putting the phone up to her ear she waited for the line to be picked up on the other end.

“Hello?” Kate heard after the third ring.

She didn’t need further encouragement. “The nightmare I had, it was about my ex-fiancé. But that’s all I want to say on the matter,” Kate said breathlessly, “I-I don’t believe in dream interpretations, I’ve never bought into the idea that they are the windows to our souls, so please don’t go there.”

“Okay,” Madame Penny said, sounding out the word slowly, probably unsure what to say in reaction to this preamble-less confession.

Kate felt the sigh that expulsed out her mouth intensely. “I’m not even sure why I’m telling you this,” she admitted, the emotion which had buoyed her into making the call having suddenly abandoned her.

“Sometimes the simple act of admitting to something relieves you of its power, its hold over you,” Madame Penny offered in answer.

“Yeah, maybe,” Kate said, chewing on the bottom of her lip—a habit her mother had spent many years trying to break her from.

The line remained silent for a beat.

“Was there anything else you didn’t want to talk about?” Madame Penny asked, the slightest note of amusement trailing the question.

Actually there was, Kate thought, her confrontation with Anne only too fresh in her mind. “Someone dropped a dessert off at my place tonight, a sort of housewarming gift I guess.”

“Yes?” Madame Penny prompted when Kate stopped there.

Kate cleared her throat, unused to the sensation of vulnerability rushing through her. “Well, how do you feel about chocolate cake?”

“Are you offering?” Penny returned eloquently.

“Yes.”

Madame Penny smiled softly, the dim light coming off a table lamp casting a pink glow around her closet-cum-office, making it look almost beautiful. “In that case, I love it.”

 

 

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.