North of Happenstance: Chapter Nineteen

“I think you should wear this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 She can be a bit of a resister, withdrawn…” a common coping mechanism for teenagers to reject before they can be rejected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Kate took a generous sip from her coffee….

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Deliberations like these dominated as nightfall rapidly approached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Beckstrom looked ready to bite…

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

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

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

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

‘Summer Vacation’ didn’t stand a chance.

 

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

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

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

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

No one dared answer.

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

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

 

 

 

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

Whatever. It was done.

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

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

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

Jackson laughed. “Fair enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lift on three.”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just in case.”

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

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

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

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

“Karma baby,” she returned.

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

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

Jackson winked, “Make that two reasons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed to talk to someone. Now.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. No. It’s just—”

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

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

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Eighteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah?”

“The date, Kate. Look at the date.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

“Like you care,” Janessa snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why hadn’t she seen it before?

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Seventeen

Kate thought perhaps it was the loud conversation flowing around them, so she spoke up: “If we plan it on a Saturday, I think more people will be able to attend; however, if you want a reservation at the Rejuve Spa, they’re availability is booked until…” Kate’s voice trailed off. Her companion still wasn’t listening.

“Hello? Are you there?” Waving a hand in front of Penny’s face, Kate stifled a sigh. This was the third time, in the approximately fifteen minutes since they’d first nabbed a corner booth at the local diner that the psychic’s attention had so obviously wandered.

Penny’s eyes flickered at the movement, her gaze shifting slightly, latching onto to Kate. She seemed a million miles away. “Huh?” she asked and then, vaguely: “Yes…uh, what were you saying?”

Kate laughed shortly. “I’m trying to plan your birthday party. It’s coming up at the end of next month,” she supplied unnecessarily. “But it’s tough to do without a little input from you.”

“Right,” Penny mused, her lips hitching upward. Her fingers brushed against the Formica tabletop between them; it was at Penny’s insistent invitation that the women met up for lunch at Sammy’s Deli Shop. Kate had been mystified by the choice—it wasn’t exactly a known favorite. That puzzlement had only grown stronger when, as they’d sat down, Penny hadn’t so much as glanced at the greasy menu set before her,  nor seemed even slightly aware of what they offered, if they specialized in anything. They came for the food, but Penny, it seemed, couldn’t care less about eating anything.

“So?” Kate pressed.

“So what?” Penny asked.

“When do you want to throw this shin-dig?” Kate asked wearily. They were getting nowhere.

“Oh. Uh, let me think here—”

There, in midsentence, Penny stopped, side-tracked by something (yet again!)…Her head turned ever-so-slightly to the right, her stare moving beyond Kate, settling on something just behind their booth. Penny might as well have left the table for all her presence there; Kate had lost her to someplace else, someone else.

Fed up, Kate decided she wanted to know what it was that kept stealing Penny’s usually singular attention span away from her. Half-turning around in her seat, neck craned against her shoulder, Kate followed Penny’s look. Startled, her eyes landed on a man. He was sitting three tables back, a red ball-cap pulled low over his head, flannel shirt tucked into dark blue jeans. His beefy hands were cupped around a steaming mug of coffee.

Well, well, well. “Who’s that?” Kate whispered curiously.

Penny’s eyes snapped back over to Kate. The younger woman had a certain look on her face: expectant and saccharine. Pushing her body firmly against the vinyl of her seat, Penny adamantly shook her head, already in hot denial. “What? I don’t know. It’s nothing,” she answered quickly.

“I don’t know about that,” Kate teased, peeping back at him again, patently staring this time.

“Stop it Kate,” Penny said, tugging at her wrist. “Turn around before he notices.”

“Not until you spill,” Kate told her out of the side of her mouth.

“Okay, okay…just turn around,” Penny pleaded, crouching low in her seat now.

Without loss of time, Kate rotated around, resuming a normal sitting position. Plopping her elbows on the table, she leaned in close. “So, who is he?”

(Finally Kate was beginning to see the light. It wasn’t the food which had attracted Penny to this place.)

“His name is Hank. Hank Burke,” Penny mumbled, sounding just a touch grumpy at being found out.

“And?” Kate hedged. She’d never heard Penny talk about anyone in her life. This was definitely news.

“And nothing.”

Kate made a theatrical sound. “Do I have to start staring at him again?”

Penny grabbed Kate’s hand, forestalling the threatened movement. “No. I-I please don’t.” Her face was flushed, the words forceful.

A Cheshire grin split across Kate’s mouth.  “You like him.” It wasn’t a question.

Penny sucked in a breath. “Yeah, so what?”

The defensive tone didn’t fool Kate. She was nervous, edgy. She really liked him!

“So?! Does he know how you feel?” Kate inquired.

Penny snorted. “I doubt he even knows I exist,” she said in a self-deprecating manner.

“I find that hard to believe.” And Kate did. Penny made herself known wherever she went. “Have you talked to him?”

A look of chagrin crossed the psychic’s usually calm expression: “Uh, not really.”

“Okay—well what are you going to do about that?” Kate challenged, prodding gently.

“I’m doing it now.”

“You’re just staring at him,” Kate clarified.

Penny shrugged, “Like I said.”

Kate shook her head. “And how long has this been going on?”

“About two years.”

“Two years?!” Kate lowered her voice, swallowing back a chuckle. “Progress has been slow then.”

Penny glared. Kate grinned.

“You’re enjoying this!”

“Guilty as charged,” Kate confessed. “It’s not every day I see the esteemed Madame Penny out of her element.”

“Whatever. Just—let’s order something,” Penny said, firmly bringing the glossy menu up to her face, wielding it like a shield to protect against prying eyes from the blush working its way up her throat.

“I know what you’d like to order…” Kate said, her insinuation only too clearly threaded throughout the wording.

“Drop it, okay?” Penny demanded. And then: “It’s- I wouldn’t know what to say to him. We don’t have anything in common.”

“You mean, there aren’t two psychics in Whestleigh?” Kate teased.

Penny stuck out her tongue.

“Okay, all jokes aside, tell me about him: what does he do for a living? What are his hobbies? Maybe I can help you…I’m quite adept at small talk,” Kate volunteered.

“He’s a car mechanic; he owns Burke’s Brakes and Auto Body Shop,” Penny muttered. “He likes hunting and bowling and eating out.”

That wasn’t a whole lot to go off. Still, “Well, why not go to his shop to get your oil changed or have your tires rotated—regular maintenance stuff. It would be a perfectly acceptable excuse to stop in and see him.”

Tapping a long fingernail against her chin, Penny seemed to be seriously considering the idea. “Okay,” she said at last, “but what would we talk about when I got there?”

“What else—cars!”

“Cars?” Penny wailed, “but I don’t know anything about cars.”

“Exactly,” Kate told her. “Tell him just that. Lament that, as a single woman, you would love instruction on some of the simpler, inner workings of your vehicle. Number one, this will show respect for his profession and number two, it will get him talking—it’ll grab his attention. He’ll be able to show off his knowledge on the subject. Make him look and feel impressive and conversation will flow naturally.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“It is. Ask questions, listen carefully, and most importantly, flirt a little. No big deal.”

“Yeah, flirting has never really been my thing. Subtlety either.”

True, Penny was about as subtle as a brick in the face. Regardless….

“It’s not hard. Just, laugh when he says something clever. Don’t overdo it; a tinkle of sound is enough. Bat at his arm when he makes a joke, or teases you. Touch him, make sure your body is leaning, angled in his direction. Make eye contact—but not for too long…” Kate said, ticking the growing list off quickly.

The door to the diner swished open just then, interrupting Kate’s lecture. Out of her peripheral vision, Kate caught sight of a pink scarf blowing gently against the breeze…the pattern looked familiar, ominously familiar.

“Oh that’s just great,” Penny cut in suddenly; judging by the agitation in her voice, and direction of her glare, she’d also taken note of the newest customer to walk in the joint. “Of all places, what are the odds that she just happened to choose this one? And, of all days, when I just happened to be here myself? Coincidence my foot.”

Diverted from her original point, Kate was now entirely focused on trying to temper Penny’s overly aggressive reaction to seeing M.T. Worrying about her feminine wiles would have to wait. “The deli is close by the church,” she reasoned.

“Whatever. More likely, she saw my car out in the parking lot,” Penny decided.

Kate refrained from telling Penny how childish that sounded.

“Penny…”

“She is not sitting with us,” Penny insisted. Reaching for Kate’s menu, she quickly threw it up in front of the other woman’s face. “Here, hide behind this.”

“Aren’t you being a little ridiculous?” Kate asked, lowering the laminated sheet down to the table.

“She hounds me constantly. You have no idea what that’s like.”

“That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.”

“Shh! She’s coming this way,” Penny said, waving Kate’s words aside.

Sure enough, Kate watched as M.T. moved gracefully further inside the building, her steps light and sure as she passed by the scattered tables decorating the front of the store. She did seem to be heading their way.

Kate lowered her eyes, praying Penny wouldn’t make a scene. Please, please, keep it civil between them, she repeated like a mantra, as the pastor’s steps neared. She was barely one table’s length away now: Please, please keep it civil between them…

Only, to Kate’s surprise and Penny’s ego, M.T. didn’t stop as she came upon their booth, her heels clipping steadily against the laminate flooring as she walked right on by….Her eyes were locked straight ahead at some other, pre-determined, destination. Could it be, was M.T. really here by some odd coincidence? Was it possible she didn’t realize Kate and Penny were also in the building? Shamelessly watching her movements, Kate couldn’t help wondering what had brought the esteemed pastor to such a dive, if not them.

Wait a minute…Oh. God. No.

Oh. God. No. Pastor M.T.—ex-step-sister to one very hostile Madame Penny—had finally come to a halt…three tables back. Oh. God. No. Kate wanted to look away, pretend she wasn’t seeing what she was: M.T. pulling out the chair opposite Hank Burke. Oh. God. No. She couldn’t be joining him for lunch, she just couldn’t be—yet she clearly was. Oh. God. No. Worse, an almost palpable nervousness radiated between the two of them…almost as though they were on a date.

Oh. God. No.

“What the hell?” Penny asked dumbly; her eyes were also glued to the scene unfolding between M.T. and Hank. The menu fell limply out of her hands, one corner bouncing against the tabletop, causing it to fall onto the un-swept flooring.

“Uh—,” Kate had no words.

“Is she—is that?!” Penny seemed to be chocking. Her lips formed a snarl. “Of course. Of course. It would be her if it were anybody!” Penny’s rage, instantaneous as it was, proved a convenient cover disguising her pain.

“I’m sure we don’t know what is going on there,” Kate tried…

Bu it was clearly a date. Hank Burke had lost no time in leaning across the table to kiss M.T. on the cheek in greeting. Her face was flushed in effect. Under the grimy tablecloth their legs brushed up against one another, innocent yet intimate.

Still, Kate tried to be practical. They could just be old, familiar friends. They could be having a meeting of the minds about what to do with the old church van. They could be organizing a Cleaner Air Act….

M.T.’s fingers skimmed over Hank’s hand. Turning his wrist over, he quickly caught hold of them, wrapping them tightly within his own grasp.

Okay, they are definitely on a date.

Kate looked over at Penny. Her face was a picture of devastation. Her skin was pale, her eyes sunken, a blank sort of expression was taking over. Any minute now she was going to snap out of whatever self-induced trance she was in. What happened next would be anyone’s guess.

“Penny—,”

At the sound of her own name, Penny recoiled—her eyes skipping toward the exit sign. “I’ve got to go,” she said abruptly, scooting out of her seat as though it had started on fire. “I’m sorry but I’ve got to go.”

“I’ll come with you,” Kate said, hurriedly making it to her feet. She was at a loss with how to handle this situation: did she pretend ignorance and try to spare Penny’s feelings, treating her like an idiot, all the while denying what was right under their noses? Or did she boldly accept it for what it was, and expect Penny to do the same? One was kinder in the short-term, the other in the long.

Walking, her body deliberately obstructing the view of M.T. and Hank,

Kate hustled Penny out the door. She felt wretched, numb, bemused. What did she say, what did she do? Kate felt helpless, inept. She was only just learning how difficult it was to be a friend.

When they reached the dirt of the deli’s parking lot, Kate felt her anxiety rise. Say something. Do something.

“Would you like to go back to my place? I can make us some lunch, we can talk….” Kate offered. Her voice came out thin, unsure.

“No.” Her feet braking hard, Penny shook her head.

“We—”

“No. I-I need to be alone right now,” Penny insisted, her voice cracking slightly. Averting her face, she moved further away from Kate.

“Are you sure?” Wasn’t she supposed to be offering Penny support right now—comforting her, making her feel better?

“Yes. I—,” Penny stopped talking. Shaking her head, she inhaled sharply: “Yes. Please, just leave me alone Kate.”

With that, Penny started walking away; she didn’t stop.

Mouth hanging half-open, Kate could do nothing but stand there, helpless and impotent. Anger, confusion, and fear battled for supreme position in her emotional turmoil. She was mortified for Penny. She was (perhaps unreasonably) upset with M.T. She was nervous for the future of the sisters.

Kate was in the middle of something she had no business being in the middle of, and worse, she had no idea what to do about it. Penny needed Kate, but she didn’t want her. Kate loved M.T. but she wasn’t supposed to…Hearts were on the line, all the way around.

Kate had to do something.

 

 

 

With a frenzied flick of her wrist, Penny threw the curtain open to her office. The tears she’d refused to shed in front of Kate, the tears that had burned their way up her throat as she’d carefully driven the four blocks from Sammy’s Deli to her House of Intuition, the tears that only one person seemed so adept at bringing to the surface, finally fell from her eyes.

Her face crumbling, Penny stumbled down into a chair, her elbows coming to rest against the oak table before it. Her shoulders shook with the force of her pent-up feelings. How could M.T? It was just so like her: sweep in and take whatever she wanted, and then toss it aside once she’d used it up to her satisfaction. It never occurred to her that other people might be involved, that their feelings mattered too.

Penny was used to hand-me-downs, wasn’t she? That’s all she’d ever received, growing up next to someone as delightful, as beautiful, as effervescent as Margaret Thayer. Maggie was the original child, the popular girl. She’d never had to wait for anything, never had to compromise anything; she’d never had a ‘Plan B’ because she’d never needed one. Maggie got everything she wanted and everyone else just had to deal with it, stand by and watch it happen.

Isn’t that what was happening now: M.T. just taking over, unwilling to concede to Penny, unwilling put someone else above herself, to settle for anything!

Well, dammit, Penny was sick and tired of it.

She was sick and tired of Maggie. Hadn’t she taken enough from Penny without adding Hank to the pile, as well?

 

 

 

Hesitantly, Kate pulled open the door to Good Sheppard Church. It took an hour of pacing her livingroom floor before Kate knew what she had to do. It was simple actually. She would explain to M.T., as gently as possible, how Penny felt about Hank. M.T. would never want to hurt her sister. Kate knew that.

Once M.T. was apprised of the situation, she’d let Hank go and all would go back to normal. Penny could resume her silent stalking of the car mechanic without hindrance.

Kate nodded her head sharply as she entered the building’s vestibule. Yes, it was quite simple. Walking down the hallway, Kate was affronted with the soft strains of the pastor’s voice. She was singing. It sounded happy.

“Kate,” M.T. announced moments later, opening the door to her office at the other woman’s polite knock, “what a lovely surprise!”

Kate nodded, her head bobbing up and down woodenly. M.T’s genuine pleasure stabbed at Kate’s conscience guiltily.  Now that she was here, she wanted to get the whole business taken care of.

“Well, come in, come in,” M.T. invited, waving her visitor inside. Kate felt her feet move in answer to this obediently. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so righteous anymore, so correct in her decision to invade upon the pastor’s love life.  “Tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

“Ah.” Absently Kate watched M.T. shuffle a couple papers off the only remaining chair in the room.

“Take a seat, won’t you?” M.T. asked. She, herself, was leaning up against the side of her desk. “I apologize about the mess. It’s been a busy morning.”

That was just the line Kate needed.

“Yeah, I think I saw you earlier…at Sammy’s Deli. You were with a man?” Kate hinted, her voice deliberately inviting.

M.T.’s face went a pretty pink. “Yes. Hank,” she said. Even the way she said his name sounded girlish.

“I—is he an old acquaintance?” Kate asked, fishing.

M.T. giggled again. It sounded odd. “Not exactly.”

“Oh?” Kate asked, the vowel coming out in a squeak.

Reaching forward, M.T. locked eyes with Kate, her tone conspiratorial: “We met last week. He’s a mechanic. I was having some car trouble,” she said, as though she simply had to tell someone about it. “Anyway, we started talking—who knew we’d both have such an interest in fly-fishing—well, one thing led to the next, and before I knew it he was asking me out.” M.T.’s teeth gnawed against the side of her lip self-consciously. “I can’t remember the last time I met a man… romantically speaking. My profession isn’t exactly a turn-on for most of them.”

“Well, the thing is—”

“And he’s, oh I don’t know, he’s nice Kate. Kind and funny, down-to-earth, and…” M.T. sighed “he’s something to look forward to.”

There was a look on M.T.’s face that gave Kate pause. Nostalgic, playful, animated…remembered.

Kate couldn’t take that look away from her.

“You had a good time?” she asked instead.

“I did.” M.T. smiled. She looked youthful. “He asked me out again for Friday. We’re going to a movie.”

“You are?” Kate’s voice was soft and warm, and despite her initial intentions, it was excited.

Penny liked Hank, but clearly so did Maggie. The car mechanic was filling a large void in the pastor’s life: M.T. was lonely.

She’d just returned to town after years of absence:

She didn’t have the steadfast loyalty of a devoted congregation—not yet.

She didn’t have any family—at least, none that would claim her.

Kate was her only friend.

Was she not to be allowed a budding relationship with a man she liked, either?

 

How was that fair, that M.T. should suffer so Penny wouldn’t have to?  Looking up into those whiskey brown eyes, those eyes of such gentleness, such generosity, Kate couldn’t fathom the strength to ask it of M.T.; she knew M.T. would do it, that she’d let Hank go, that she’d stand aside and let Penny have him, and she’d do it without a second thought. She’d put Penny’s happiness before her own. But that didn’t make it right. Kate couldn’t, she wouldn’t ask it of the pastor.

She’d just have to explain it to Penny, convince her to… to what? To move on? To fight M.T. for Hank’s affection? Kate was reminded of how Penny had looked earlier at the deli: at first hopeful and infatuated and then betrayed, lost, hopeless. Kate had never hurt for someone the way she had for Penny in those moments after M.T. sat down beside Burke. Her heart lurched even in memory. Penny was also kind and gentle. She was also undeserving of heartache. Kate felt more conflicted than ever.

“I haven’t looked forward to a movie this much in years,” M.T. continued on to say, her words breaking against Kate’s internal dilemma. She laughed nervously, pressing a hand against her collarbone. “Goodness, I’ll probably have to buy a new outfit; my wardrobe mostly consists of clothing that shouts ‘I love Jesus! How ‘bout you?’ That’s a pretty far cry from the attire of a sexy siren, huh?”

Sexy siren?

“I guess so.” Kate wanted to cry. Or puke. She’d never felt so torn on an issue in her life.

“Want to go shopping with me?” M.T. asked, her words driving the last nail in the proverbial coffin for Kate.

“I-uh…if I have the time. Maybe.” Kate felt like a heel. She should have been leaping up and down for M.T. but instead she was politely if coldly reserved about the whole state of affairs. She had Penny to think about, too.

 

 

 

“So, is it serious between them?”

Kate stared across the threshold of her front entryway to the outside porch, where her friend was standing, impatient. She’d no sooner opened the door then the words exploded in the air between them. Penny’s visit was both unannounced and inevitable.

As a preamble, her words were abrupt, but then again, Kate doubted much else had occupied the psychic’s mind since lunch that afternoon. It was nearing eight p.m. now, hours since Kate and Penny had separated, since Kate had visited M.T., hours still since she’d returned home, resigned to this fated conversation, to her part in the outcome of it all.

Kate motioned Penny inside, but the other woman wouldn’t budge. Apparently, she wanted answers first.

“I know you talked with her,” Penny persevered, “I saw your car at the church.”

Kate nodded slowly.

“So?” Penny repeated, “is it serious between them?”

Kate sighed. “I don’t know.”

Penny’s face contorted. “But, they were on a date right?”

“Yes.”

“Typical,” Penny spat, “just typical. She takes what she wants, regardless of everyone else and their feelings.”

“Oh Penny…” Kate’s voice was soft, sympathetic, hurting for her friend.

“Well, not this time. This time she’s in for a fight. This time I’m not backing down.”

“Oh Penny…”

“And she is not invited to my birthday party. You hear me Kate?”

Kate heard her all right. She heard Penny’s pain—it damn near throbbed from her person. M.T. had let her down (again). And though she didn’t know it, Kate had too.

The urge to puke resurfaced.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Sixteen

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

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

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

 

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

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

…desperate times and all that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was everything okay? Absolutely not!

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled. It felt fake, toothy.

“Thank you. But really, I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Kate only wished for the same ease of concentration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the newspaper.

“And Bobby Tomkins at Constitutive Flavor Radio.”

Both. She’d be contacting both.

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

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

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

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

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

Pride was a tough character flaw to shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Jake just looked confused. “What?”

“The author—”

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

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

“Kate—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Book Signing at LitLiber

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, but listen—” Kate started.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welp, so much for distracting her libido.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twelve

Kate took a deep breath, and then another. Her dress felt too tight, but then, modern image had it that Romeo’s Juliet was something of a stunner. Hence, she couldn’t be seen in anything that billowed too loosely. She would have to make do with what little airway she was afforded.

The backstage of Whestleigh High School’s theater department reeked of body odor and fear, but Kate wasn’t positive they weren’t side-effects of her own person. Today was the day: the group theatre project for her Shakespeare class; the one-act revival of Romeo and Juliet.

Kate looked up at the clock hanging beside the left wing entrance. It was 7:50 a.m. They’d been instructed to show up at quarter to eight to have a quick meet-and-greet with the school’s theater director. Kate considered that at least she’d been lucky to have gotten Whestleigh High School as the locale for this so-called production. Unlike her classmates, most of whom lived on campus at Cordwyn—a twenty minute commute—she’d had a comparatively restful morning.

But she probably shouldn’t have eaten that second muffin for breakfast this morning. She’d wanted to make sure she left on a full stomach. Now, an hour later, the contents stirring rebelliously, Kate wondered if that hadn’t been such a good idea. Pinning a smile on her face, she reminded herself that she was fine. She wasn’t going to vomit. She wasn’t going to pass out. These were just a bunch of kids for goodness sakes, what did she care for their critic?

Her mantra sort of helped.

That is, until the teacher worked in. At first, shrouded in the shadows of the dimly lit room, Kate couldn’t make out his features but after the first couple of steps, his patrician nose, sandy blonde hair, those wide shoulders came into striking view…and she wanted to barf all over again, but for an entirely different reason.

If memory served her correctly, and admittedly she’d been pretty drunk that night, the man making his hurried way toward their ragtag troupe of actors was none of than Madame Penny’s next door neighbor. What had Penny said his name was? Jackson?

If Kate prayed that his recall wouldn’t extend to that evening, she was doomed for disappointed. No sooner had he reached their little group then his eyes, scanning what should have been the faces of relative strangers, twinkled knowingly, deliberately upon contact with her own diverted countenance.

Just as quickly, however, his eyes moved on, brushing past her, leaving Kate wondering if she hadn’t just imagined the humor she’d read in them moments ago.

“Good morning everyone,” he announced then, his voice infused with sudden energy. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Jackson Fischer. I’m the resident English teacher and, subsequently, the theatre director here at Whestleigh. I want to take a moment to both welcome and thank you for taking the time to rehearse this scene with our students today. We’re really excited to have you!”

Out of her peripheral vision Kate say the rest of the group smilingly nod at his preamble. Like a robot, she followed suit.

“Now let me see,” he said then, looking down at a piece of paper he’d been quietly holding in his hand, “who is our Romeo today?”

“That would be me.” The guy to Kate’s immediate left held up his hand.

“Ah, Guy Patterson, correct?” Mr. Fischer clarified.

“Yes.”

“And who is our esteemed Mercutio?”

Going down his list exactingly, Jackson called out each individual player, until all had been properly identified themselves. At last, he turned to Kate, who remained the only unannounced attendant.

“That leaves our beloved Juliet,” he said, with a pointed look in her direction, “which means you must be Kate McDonald.”

“Yes,” she said simply, exerting all her energy to keep a rising blush at bay.

“It’s so nice to be properly introduced.” Though the statement was said in benefit of the entire cast, Mr. Fischer’s eyes never strayed from Kate’s downward cast expression. He was baiting her.

Before she could come up with a witty comeback, something that wouldn’t give her away, he spoke up again. He didn’t seem to require much feedback with his commentary, which was probably the teacher in him—used to being listened to.

“Before the students arrive, let’s quickly run over how the day will progress. You will perform for three different classes today: first period, second period, and fourth period. I apologize about the small gap of time in the middle, but at least you won’t be stuck here all day,” he said with a smile at the group.

“I will introduce today’s exercise at the start of each class, a matter of five to ten minutes. I’ll end each speech with this address “Now, without further ado….” When the curtain goes up, you’re on. Following the performance, should time permit, I would like to open the floor for a round of Q&A. This is a rare opportunity not to be missed, granting the audience a session with their actors,” Fishcer said, waving his arm expressively. “Of course,” he added, “it will be limited to the arena of the theatrical process and experience.”

“Sounds great,” Amanda Steven’s said, buttering up to the teacher as though she were still in the seventh grade. Kate rolled her heavily made-up eyes. Either she really wanted an A on this project or the girl was hot for teacher. Not that Kate would entirely blame her…at least on the latter assumption. Even Kate could admit, though she didn’t want to, that Jackson was a damn good looking man.

His slacks hugged his toned gluts to perfection and his polo shirt displayed just the right amount of upper body muscle without being labeled too-tight. And both were pressed with an expert hand (even his nails were nicely groomed!) His eyes were alert, signaling a man who had slept well the night.

Kate shook her head. She had more important things to think about Jackson Fischer’s sleeping habits…boxers, briefs, buff? Telling herself to get a grip, she deliberately shifted her body, changing her line of sight. She now had a fantastic view of the stage curtain, fluttering slightly from a nearby window.

Jackson kept talking, but Kate had now tuned out. Hopefully it wasn’t necessary information, because she just couldn’t summon the strength to listen to him anymore.

 

 

 

It made it so much worse, knowing that he was watching. Kate wasn’t sure why she’d given Jackson the power to increase her nervousness, she wasn’t sure why she cared that he was an audience member. She barely knew the man. Other than one drunken swim she’d have never known of his prior existence.

With or without reason, the fact remained: he was in the audience, watching her…and it had an effect. She suddenly felt seven years old again, her throat constricted, her hands batting against her collarbone, hoping to pat the airway back open.

This extra-sensory awareness of Jackson Fischer’s presence couldn’t have come with a more inconvenient scene, Kate knew as she walked quietly on the stage. In less than thirty seconds, the stage crew would draw the curtain, announcing the beginning of the production. In another five minutes she would kiss Guy Patterson, but all the while she would be thinking of Jackson Fischer. How freaking messed up was that?

But somehow, she made it through—through the kiss, the embarrassing succession of sexual entendres shortly following thereafter, even the flat marriage conducted between herself and ‘Romeo’—somehow she made it through to the conclusion of Act II, constituting the end of her first performance of the day.

One down, two to go.

Now, sitting in the chairs that Mr. Fischer had oh-so-thoughtfully provided for the players, she turned her attention to the students crouched in the theatre seats before them, waiting as the first round of questions began.

“Is it embarrassing, when, you know, you have to kiss someone on stage? Like, pretending to be in love or something?” A lot of girlish giggles followed this question, bravely articulated by a young lady whose face now flamed fire-engine red.

Guy Patterson fielded that question, for all the world as though he were some seasoned actor, and not someone who just last week asked Kate which side ‘stage left’ presided upon. Still, she kept a straight face as he fumbled his way through.

“Once you are in character, all reality is striped clean. I’m not kissing Kate,” he said, pointing at her to further his point, “I’m playing a part, I’m embodying someone else, who’s kissing someone embodying yet another someone else.”

Well, if that doesn’t clear things up, Kate thought humorously, her eyes scanning the furred eyebrows of the puzzled expressions circling around her. That got a little muddled.

“Honestly,” Kate said, piping up, “it is a little awkward…at least, at first. But, as Guy was saying, since we’re both playing a part, it’s easier to move past the weirdness of it all. By that I mean, I don’t consider that I’m kissing Guy when we’re on stage, rather that Juliet is kissing Romeo. I’m in character. Does that make sense? We’re telling someone else’s story through our action. Knowing that helps to make it less… uncomfortable.” Kate doubted that helped much, but she was glad to see some of the creases marring these confused foreheads iron out.

“Now Guy, you said you are, and I quote ‘embodying someone else.’ That’s a very important aspect of acting. Could you expand upon what that means further?” This question came directly from Mr. Fischer. Heaving a slow sigh of relief, Kate sat back further in her chair. She was off the hook this time.

To give him credit, Guy did his best to describe the process of getting into character. Unfortunately, it’s a more-or-less abstract concept. It’s not only hard to explain and, as such, digest, but each person undergoes that transformation differently; certainly Kate doesn’t do what Guy explained: closing his eyes and envisioning his character standing in front of a mirror, the background of which, besides showing his own reflection, playing out a reel of this newfound life, the character’s favorite meal, moments in his past that shaped his person, love interests…the whole shebang. That Romeo’s favorite dish and his first kiss were never spoken of in Shakespeare’s work hardly mattered, Guy defended. These nuances were created in effect, a tool for Guy to better understand his new persona, to make his character feel real by ‘living’ their life story.

Kate simply read the script and tried to emulate the person as they were written, copying her behavior to their language, her tone to their meaning, her message to that of playwrights hand. Of course, she’d never considered herself much of an actor either, so it was probably best that she hadn’t been called on to answer that one anyway.

“I tried acting once but I was so conscious that I was acting, you know that I was still really just me underneath it all and it felt…I don’t know, fake like a cheap imitation or—” a young girl started to say then. She was sitting two rows back, her face half hidden behind a curtain of hair. “How do you break out of that? I mean, like so you can embrace the imaginary so completely that it feels real.”

Kate blinked. So did Guy Patterson.

Instead, it was Shelly Bibbon, who played the Nurse Maid, who answered this profoundly insightful question. “It takes a lot of practice. You have to be able to compartmentalize in a way, to mentally lock away the, you underneath all that acting, until the job is over. It takes a lot of discipline but the more you act, the better you get at it. The self-conscious awareness that you’re only acting slowly fades as you continue to embrace other identities. Then, after a while, this freedom of expression takes over, where you are able to be anybody you want to be, and that doesn’t feel false anymore. If feels like a super power.”

Jackson Fischer spoke next, his words indicating the end of the class hour: “What a great exercise. I challenge everyone: when you leave here, I want you to pretend to be someone you’re not. Keep it small: if you’re shy be a little loud, if you’re crazy-expressive be really observant. Be appropriate: this isn’t an excused free-for-all…unacceptable conduct will not be tolerated. The same rules and consequences will be expected and enforced,” Mr. Fischer said in rider to this announcement. “Leave here today as your alter ego, the person you’d be if only you weren’t you…stretch your imaginative prowess.

“I’m sure Kate would agree with me on this,” he said then, and suddenly he was looking straight at her, causing a swift shuffle of heads to follow in wake. Damn him, she could’ve sworn he threw a wink her way before explaining that cryptic little opener: “sometimes it’s necessary to shed our ordinary self for someone new, to thrust out our common appearance and personality, even if it’s just a little bit, and do something different to make us feel alive in a new kind of way. Be daring! Right Kate?”

Gritting her teeth so hard, Kate was surprised her jaw didn’t creak when she answered him. That louse, he definitely winked. “Hmm. Yeah. Right.” The clipped note of her voice didn’t invite further discussion. God, you get drunk one time and sort-of/kind-of go skinny dipping and you can never hear the end of it!

Mr. Fischer turned his gaze back to his students, dismissing her glare as though it weren’t even there, as though it mattered that much to him. “Because that,” he said slowly, dramatically, “is what acting is really about.” On that note he sent them on their way, but not before reminding them once again to relish their assignment for the day—self-transformation!

“Well guys, how did you think that went?” he asked after the door banged shut after the last student.

“That was great! The students were so receptive to what we did. It was great, getting feedback on their experience,” Amanda Steven’s gushed, kissing up to the teacher for all she was worth. Kate hunched her shoulders, hoping her nonverbal message would be clear to Mr. Fischer: she was done sharing, for the moment at any rate.

Mr. Fischer smiled angelically, obviously pleased with her answer. “Great. Well, you’ve got about ten minutes before the next class will get here. Its home room second period so everything gets delayed a little. Take this moment to hit up the bathroom or grab a drink of water,” he said briskly, moving toward the door himself. “I’ve got to run back to my classroom to take attendance. Be back shortly.”

Then he was gone.

Jumping off her chair, Kate lowered herself off the stage and onto the ground floor of the auditorium. Her throat felt a little parched and in her frenzy this morning she’d forgotten her water bottle at home. Walking up the center aisle, Kate had her sites sit on the door Mr. Jackson had just exited. There was probably a water foundation nearby. She’d just about reached the end of the rows, her feet moving quickly, when a hand snaked out suddenly, indistinguishable in the low lighting there, the fingers grabbing onto, and holding fast, a stray piece of ribbon hanging loose on Kate’s dress. The action effective thwarted her process.

Letting out a small squeak in surprise, Kate stopped mid-step, her eyes searching through the darkness until they made out a silhouette attached to the otherwise foreign arm holding her hostage: big hair, chunky scarf, bangles running up the fellow wrist.

“Penny,” Kate breathed in recognition, “Jesus, you scared me half to death.” Kate’s left hand landed with a pause against her chest, over her fast-beating heart. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to miss out on your first performance. I mean what kind of friend would I be, if I didn’t support you in this?” she asked, perfectly serious.

Kate wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or scream.

“Penny, this isn’t a public show.” Kate wouldn’t have set one foot on that stage if it were. High school kids were one thing; she didn’t even compare to their self-experimentation-scientific-study case of weirdness. They weren’t her peers. Everyone else, well that was an entirely different matter.

“It’s for the students. Only,” she said bluntly. Her mind wandered, wondering at the school’s security. Did they let just anyone off the street into the building? What about the student’s safety?

No sooner had that thought raced through her mind then she noticed the lanyard hanging around Penny’s neck, the word: VISTOR clearly marked across the front, with the school’s logo watermarked behind it. The woman apparently had connections, Kate mused.

“Oh, I know, but when I found out that you were performing at Whestleigh High, well…what else could I do? I asked Jackson if I could get a ticket to the show and he offered to allow me entrance as his personal guest, especially after I explained that it was you I wanted to see. I mean, there has to be some perks to living next door to a teacher, right?” Penny explained, but Kate was hardly paying attention anymore.

So he knew already that I was going to be part of the cast, did he? No wonder he hadn’t seemed that taken aback. He’d probably been relishing that first moment of contact. The jerk.

Shaking her head, Kate decided that it didn’t matter. Jackson Fischer didn’t matter. “Well, what did you think?”

Penny made a slight face. “Eh. I thought the kiss was so-so.”

Kate nodded her head. She had to agree.

“I mean, there was more chemistry between you and Jackson than old what’s-his-name.”

“Romeo,” Kate supplied absently.

“Yeah him. Next time, trying imaging Jackson during that part,” Penny said outrageously.

Kate shook her head. “Penny!”

“I’m just call it as I see it. You two have chemistry.”

“No, we do  not,” Kate argued, cringing inwardly at her overly hot denial. Don’t get too defensive, she reminded herself, that’ll only make you look guilty.

“Oh, yes you do. I saw the look that passed between the two of you when he brought up shedding one’s inhibitions,” Madame Penny said then, fanning herself in response. “It was…hot.”

“I think you misread what was happening. If I was sending him anything hot it was via death ray. He was all but mocking me in front of everyone, and not very subtly either.”

“Oh whatever Kate. Lighten up. You did that night,” Penny scolded her softly.

“Fine. I’ll let it go, but I’m not going to agree with you about any attraction there,” Kate said huffily, crossing her arms over her chest looking for all the world anything but ‘light.’

“No?” Madame Penny asked. “Girl, he’s gorgeous. You’ve as much as admitted yourself. Most of your little crew of there is already half-in-love with him, and that includes a couple dudes.”

“They can have him,” Kate said sweetly.

“Tough crowd,” Madame Penny said under her breath.

“Not really,” Kate defended herself, “it’s just, I’ve seen it all before. Sure, his blonde hair offsets his tan beautifully, giving him the all-American Male look. Couple that off with those brown eyes and yes, he’s sure to set some hearts a-flutter,” Kate said, taking a mental stock of his assets.

“Don’t forget his muscles,” Penny said helpfully.

“Yes, those too. Well-defined and nicely proportioned,” Kate said, getting a little lost in her point.

“And he’s great with kids…surely a huge turn-on for most women,” Penny supplied helpfully.

Kate nodded her head eagerly, having pulled herself together once more. “He’s polished, clean, well put together.” Somehow, these traits were made to sound negative.

“And that’s a problem?” Penny asked, sounding baffled.

“It’s just—,” Kate shrugged, “He might as well be Phil.”

Penny went ramrod straight at those words. “Phil?” she asked, cautiously probing.

Mentally reigning herself back in control, Kate smiled. “It’s neither here nor there. I’m just saying, I’m not attracted to Jackson Fischer. I-I can’t be attracted to him,” she said, more for her benefit than Penny’s. What was that saying, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…any relationship would end much the same. Suddenly the smiled twisted. There was an edge to the lines around her mouth, a stubborn set to her jaw. She was done.

“You aren’t going to enlarge upon that statement are you?” Penny asked, resigned to the answer even before Kate spoke.

“No, I’m not.”

“Someday,” Penny said half to herself.

“I’ve got to get back, the second show starts soon,” Kate said roughly, without bothering to answer.

Turning around, her search for water was now an abandoned subject, Kate returned to the stage. She’d run out of time. It was left to borrow from Guy; he’d brought a large container, plus she had a sinking suspicion he’d enjoyed that stage kiss more than he was supposed to.

Out of her peripheral vision she saw Jackson come back in the room, lean down over Penny’s chair and whisper something in her ear. The psychic’s low laughter could be heard all the way across the hall. Kate couldn’t help wondering what they were talking about. Or who…?

Shrugging, she told herself she didn’t care. She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

If she said it often enough, she bet she’d come to believe it too.

North of Happenstance: Chapter Seven

“Ohmigod, can I just say that I feel great?” Kate shouted at Penny.

Biting her lip, Penny tried not to laugh at the sight before her. It was barely five o’clock, and already Kate was, to put it politely, tanked.

It was entirely Penny’s fault. She’d demanded Kate get in the car—she’d demanded an evening of relaxation. She’d demanded this little girl’s night in.

Kate hadn’t been keen, not at first. “That’s really not necessary,” she’d stressed when Penny informed her of the plan.

“Well, I insist. Now where did you park?” Penny had thrown back, craning her neck to the left, the better to see behind her.

“Why?” Kate had tried to ask, but it was fruitless. Penny had already spotted her compact sedan. Her effects redoubled, without invitation, she’d made her way over to it, knowing good and well that Kate would inevitably follow behind; what else could she do?

“We’re going to need liquor that’s why. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen right.”

As Penny predicted, Kate had finally relented.

“Well, why the hell not,” Penny had heard her say to herself. “I hadn’t been able to with Simon Yates, that’s for sure.”

Penny had a feeling that Phil—from the little she’d been able to glean of his character—probably hadn’t stood for such behavior either. No doubt, Kate was due for it.

They’d left only long enough to grab the essentials: a bottle of tequila, a six-pack of import beer, a bag of potato chips, and enough margarita mix to drown a person. When they returned to Penny’s place, arm’s loaded down, they were stocked-up, settled in, and ready to commence on the evening’s entertainment.

 

Now, four hours later, the snacks were long since demolished, glass bottles were strewn out about the fire pit, the scent of salt and lime remained, permeating the air, and Kate was standing chin-deep in the lake…wearing nothing but her bra and panties. Penny wouldn’t have thought the city woman had it in her to do something so, well risqué.

It had started out innocently enough—lawn chairs were perched around a cozy bonfire, a makeshift bar was constructed, well within arms span, and soft music played out over the still afternoon air. The scene was set: inviting but loose, intimate yet vague. It was exactly what Kate needed. Penny announced herself both the bartender and emcee: firmly resolved to keep the drinks coming and the conversation deliberate. So they drank and talked. Not about anything serious, Penny made sure of that. It was chill. Short anecdotes were swapped back and forth in a lively non-threatening way:

“I had a client last week ask me to get in contact with her dead cat.”

“Shut up. Did she really?”

“Yes. It was a very awkward conversation.”

“With the client or the cat?”

“Well, both really. The cat was glad to be dead. Never liked her owner.”

“I used to have a cat.”

“Really?”

“Well, no not really. It was imaginary. I named him Mr. Whiskers. I know, I know, how very original. My mother wouldn’t let me have a real one. Not the great Calida McDonald. She wouldn’t hear of owning such a filthy animal—the hair, the claws, the meowing. It was all too much. So I made one up. I think I did it to spite her.”

They sat there, laughing, reminiscing, each one content in their environment. Until…well, until what happened next. In retrospect, Penny figured it was probably the fourth beer-margarita that pushed Kate over the edge. Call it overkill. One minute she’d been calmly swaying against her chair, her speech only slightly stirred as she stared, mesmerized, into the flames of the fire, her actions depressed from the effects of the alcohol and then…boom! Kate pulled a one-eighty. Pushing herself off the chair, her glass dangling precariously in one hand, she was suddenly adamant that it was perfect weather for an evening dip. Then she’d giggled. Then she’d hiccupped. Kate’s behavior was as abrupt as it was unexpected. They hadn’t been talking about swimming—or even the lake for that matter!

Penny tried reminding Kate that she hadn’t brought her bathing suit. Did she forget that? Kate had simply shrugged off this information, telling Penny that she didn’t need swimwear. Then she hiccupped again.

Throwing her hands up in the air, Penny caved. She doubted there was much she could say or do to dissuade Kate after that. And she wasn’t about to be a killjoy. The designated sober party, Penny hadn’t allowed herself to reach even so much of a buzz. She’d been too focused piling Kate with booze to bother overmuch. She was glad for that now. Someone had to keep an eye out.

Scooting one of the chaise loungers closer to the perimeter of the lawn, Penny cautiously congratulated herself on the night’s success. Kate may be a hurting unit tomorrow morning—Lord only knows how that would bode for Tuesday’s class schedule—but tonight, well tonight she was having a damn good time.

“Are you sure you don’t want to-to come in?” Kate sputtered. Coughing, the last words came out garbled as she took in a mouthful of water.

It was the gurgle of her words—that gulp of soggy, accidental, inhalation—that did it. Penny’s body seized at the remembered sound, at its dark influence. She’d worked hard to forget it, to feign that she’d forgotten it. Hell, she’d laughed earlier when Kate jumped into the water, consciously in command of it—or so she’d thought. Not anymore. A mental paralysis, a derelict flashback, a holy nightmare; Penny no longer saw Kate dancing against the tide, she no longer heard her friend’s girlish squeals of delight as the water brushed against her skin; she was no longer mildly amused at the antics. Just like that, one innocuous, wet reverberation and it all came flooding back.

Transported to another instance, to an unwanted memory, the world around her seemed to shrink, as if rewinding back through time, stopping, sticking, and playing on repeat: she tasted bile on her tongue—she couldn’t swallow. Blinded, dots flickered spasmodically across the cornea of her eyes. Brilliantly, they expanded then burst, over and over, hindering her vision, protecting from the sight of what lay ahead.  The sound of her feet, smacking against the wooden dock, beat a hurried drum against her ears, accompanied only by the sound of her voice breaking out over the rippling waves, screaming out an echo of resounding fear….

And suddenly the water wasn’t gentle anymore, the slosh and babble of its movement no longer melodic or soothing. The dusky reflection, broken here and there by the sway and spray of the current, wasn’t picturesque. It looked angry, billowing and spitting out a blackish pit, frothing at the mouth to swallow up everything in its path….

Stop!

“Stop it,” Penny half-scolded to herself. Shaking her head, dislodging any claim of the past, she unclenched the fits she hadn’t realized she’d made down by her sides. Shakily, she let out her breath. Clearing her mind, erasing, she firmly refused its presence, disallowing herself to go back there. Not tonight. Not with company over.

With a concentrated focus, she stretched her lips outward and upward, channeling her energy, centering her spirit, to a lighter plane. She was fine. Kate was fine. Everything was fine.

Opening her mouth, she prayed for glibness: “No, no. I like to keep a dry distance from all that business,” she assured her lightly. “I’m more of a spectator than partaker.”

Kate was drunk and some fifteen yards away, Penny doubted she’d notice the slight wobble in her façade.

“Your loss,” Kate called before dunking her body underneath the darkened liquid washing gently around her.

“Kate don’t go out too far,” Penny called urgently, checking herself just in time. She hadn’t been lying. She couldn’t swim and Kate, in her current condition, couldn’t be all that much better off.  If something happened…!

“Don’t be such a sour puss,” Kate called moments later, her head rising above the glassy surface fearlessly. Madame Penny breathed a sigh of relief.

Easing back against the mesh cushion, Penny decided to follow Kate’s lead; she certainly didn’t appear worried—probably she was an ace swimmer, even while under the influence. She didn’t seem to be sinking, at any rate. Yeah, Penny would follow Kate’s lead. She was fine. She was just fine.

No sooner had Penny come to this conclusion, her body reclining comfortably, her muscles loosening under the strain, then a distinct sound, coming just left of the dock, reached her ears. It was rhythmic, swift and steadily growing nearer. Perking, her attention diverted in that direction, she decided it was the echo of repeated movement: water cresting, splicing and breaking over…over something. But what? Squinting her eyes, Penny could just make out the lines of a shadowy object hovering in the midst of this quiet commotion. Leaning forward, she studied its accent, its voluntary extension, its limber projection. And then she knew, she knew what the sound was.

Good God, it was the stroking motion of a swimmer. And that swimmer was most definitely not Kate McDonald, who was too busy treading water to do much more than simply remain afloat.

Madame Penny didn’t need to be psychic, either, to know who was in the lake with an unsuspecting Kate. It was Jackson Fischer, her one and only neighbor. His was the other house on the lane, sitting almost directly across the way from her own little cottage. Only, his was a dark grey clapboard estate—boasting three levels and 3,000 square feet of space. He’d inherited it from his late grandfather. She’d always wondered how he afforded to keep the place up. Penny had also inherited her home (about the only thing her mother had possessed of any redeeming value and worth), and even that, with its far humbler heritage—a veritable shoebox in comparison—was damn near too much house to manage and maintain for just one person. A mystery, she’d always suspected Fischer had more money than he let on.

Penny and Jackson had grown up together. She knew him almost as well as a sister knows her brother. His daily routine could be clocked to the minute: he swam the perimeter of the lake every evening, right around this time. She should have remembered that. How could she have forgotten that? Had she forgotten that? Had she really?

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Some things were meant to be overlooked. Who knew?

Tall, broad-shouldered with sandy blond hair, cut meticulously short to compliment brown eyes, Jackson was a fine looking man. Even more, he was dependable, honest, always willing to offer a helping hand. Single, too. Penny had it on good authority that Jackson was very single. Truth be told, she would be drooling over him herself if she hadn’t know him her whole entire life. But Kate…well, that could be a different story. He was no Simon Yates. No harm in meeting someone new, right?

Of course, Kate was out there in her underwear. That gave Penny pause.

“Um, Kate I think it’s time to come out of there,” she called out, rising from her chair now to wave her drunken charge back to the shore. If her voice sounded a bit frantic, well, dammit this time she didn’t care; on second thought, they could meet some other day.

“No way, the water feels so-o nice,” she heard back.

“No really, I think it’s—,”

Too late, Kate saw what Penny had been trying so hard not to point out, what she’d been trying so hard to screen Kate from. The screech she let out at the incoming intrusion of Jackson’s breaststroke was enough to send Penny’s hands up to cover her sensitive ear buds. Unfortunately, it was also loud enough to alert Jackson, knocking him off balance.

Bobbing up out of the water, his eyes zeroed in on Kate, who was now squatting in the water, hoping to shield her scantily-clothed person from his prying eyes.

“Wha—?” His half formed question was only too well understood by Penny. No one other than she lived on that side of the lake and he knew all too well that her idea of submergence went no farther than the dip of her toes. He’d probably never run into another person here before—much less on a school night, much, much less howling like some crazed animal.

“Oh hello there,” Kate said, demure now, her alarm giving way to a correctness of manner she’d probably had beaten into her at a young age. If Penny hadn’t been so embarrassed for her, she’d have probably laughed at that. As it was, Kate’s eyes rose no higher than the water level and Penny’s heart went out to her. “Pardon me. You gave me a fright.”

“I noticed,” Jackson said drily.

“Jackson, Jackson,” Madame Penny called, waving her arms overhead to get his attention. It worked.

“Oh hey Penny,” he called back, seemingly less disoriented at the entrance of her presence. At least he wasn’t going to have to kick someone off the property now.

“So sorry to startle you,” she told him, coming up to the sandy shore. “Um, have you met Kate?” she asked dumbly. Shooting an apologetic glance her way, Penny called herself a fool; she’d meant to distract his attention away from Kate, not redirect it there. She’d panicked.

As if on cue, Jackson turned back to Kate, who was only visible from her chin up by this point. “No, I can’t say that I have,” he answered, with just a hint of mirth. “Uh, it’s nice to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand to properly introduce himself. Water dripped across the splay of his fingers. Awkwardly, he made to move closer, stopping only at her frantic half-step backward.

“Yeah. Yes. It’s, um, nice to meet you too,” Kate replied back, saluting him from the safety of the distance carefully kept between them.

Jackson noticed that too. A wicked glint entered his expression. “I’d be careful of moving back too much farther,” he cautioned her. Pointing up at the yard light situated exactly between his and Penny’s property line he added, “Pretty soon I’ll have a clear sight of what you so obviously don’t want me to see.”

Kate stopped, petrified at the words. Her eyes, hunted, wide, sought out Penny for help. It was clear the psychic would be of little assistance however, even to an inebriated Kate. She was damn near bent over double in her fit of laughter.

“Oh Jackson knock it off. You’ll give the poor girl a heart attack.” Penny guffawed out, her voice far from commanding. It seemed Kate would have to make do with that.

“Sorry,” he said to Kate, but he didn’t sound sorry. Not in the least. “But if you’re going to skinny-dip you’ve got to be prepared to be found out.”

“I am not skinny-dipping,” Kate protested, straightening her back artlessly at the accusation. The action left her shoulder’s bare. The cups of her bra could just barely be made out from the outline of water pooling around her.

“Yeah,” he said slowly, his eyes eloquent, “I see that.”

With a second screech, Kate feverishly crossed her arms over her chest, plunging her body back underneath the wet layer of protection, her knees buckled meanly. “That was a low thing to do,” she seethed.

“I didn’t do anything,” he protested, arms raised in defense. Smiling boyishly between Kate and Penny, he seemed to be looking for reinforcement on this issue.

“Oh Kate, its fine,” Madame Penny said soothingly. “You aren’t showing anything a bikini wouldn’t put on display.”

In response Kate whimpered, hugging her arms around her chest even tighter if that were possible. Jackson laughed. Kate shot him a scathing look which he ignored.

“Hey, if it bothers you so much, why don’t you just get out of the water?”

“Because—because you’re here,” Kate garbled. “I can’t—you’ll see…stuff,” she ended lamely.

“All right, all right, calm down,” Jackson chuckled. “Listen I’ll swim out away from the dock and you can escape, how ’bout that? I won’t be able to see anything that way, okay?” At Kate’s suspicious look he added, “If it’ll make you feel more comfortable I’ll even agree to remain completely underwater throughout. I can hold my breath for about forty-five seconds. That should give you enough time to reach land and cover up sufficiently.” There was nothing for it but to agree to this.

“You better not peek,” Kate said.

Jackson didn’t respond to this, which was just as well since he’d already told her he wouldn’t. “Penny have you got a something to cover her up with?” he asked instead, turning away from Kate without so much as a by-your-leave. His indifference smarted, not that Kate was about to admit it.

“Oh!” Turning in earnest, Penny wondered where she’d put the beach towel she’d brought out earlier. “Yes,” she called triumphantly, grabbing it from off the back of the lounger she’d since vacated; she’d hung it there for easy reach.

“Great. Ready?” he asked Kate now and, without further ado, dove under the water, his feet kicking out for momentum behind him.

In all Penny’s life she’d never seen anyone move as quickly as Kate did just then. She was up and out of the water and swaddled in Penny’s microfiber towel before such much as thirty-seconds had passed. They never even saw Jackson’s head rise above the water. Kate had Penny firmly inside the house, the blinds pulled, tightly closed, and the lights dimmed down before then.

“God, what a righteous jerk, making fun of me like that. So I went swimming without proper attire, so what?” Kate said, her voice infused with feeling, her wet hair dripping on Penny’s carpet. She’d barely allowed for the front door to swing shut before barging into speech.

Penny tried to be neutral. “Jackson’s just a teaser—it’s nothing personal. You’d have to know him but—”

“Pfft. Nothing personal? That was the very definition of personal out there Penny!”

“I just meant he’d do it anybody, regardless,” Penny said, but she might as well have been talking to herself for all the attention she received.

“And as for getting to know him, that’s not likely,” Kate seethed, pacing the short length of Penny’s living room. “I mean, he was just so—so, like casual about the whole thing.”

Penny shrugged, unsure how to proceed. “Well, it wasn’t a big deal Kate. You were decently covered—in your underwear. Like you said, so what?”

“It wasn’t a big deal?” Kate shouted, turning on Penny. “I was practically naked in front of the man, and…instead of being a gentleman and, you know helping me out of an uncomfortable situation, he just sat there, snickering!”

“He was caught off guard too—”

Kate was hardly listening. “Did you see the way he was looking at me?”

“Uh, I don’t know?”

“I mean, am I so unappealing? Is it ludicrous, to expect a level of deference rather than hilarity at the site of my body?”

“No, no—”

“Is his body so perfect?” Kate damn near shouted.

“Well…”

Kate’s eyes narrowed at Penny’s hesitation. “Yeah, okay, fine. He’s in great shape. He lives on the freaking water—I should hope he takes advantage of all the aquatic exercise at his disposal!”

Penny fought back a smile. Aha, so maybe there was something there, between them, after all—or at least, there could be, in time, fostered by a certain amount of pushing and prodding, here and there, of course. Without a doubt, Jackson had made an impression on Miss Kate. And it was definitely strong. Madame Penny wasn’t a conceited woman but her gift of intuition hadn’t led her astray yet. Besides, she figured, everyone needed at least a little companionship. Who better than her oldest friend and the woman fast becoming her dearest?

Silently she turned her attention back to Kate:

“I’ve never been more humiliated in my life! You don’t think he saw anything, do you?”

“No, I’m sure he didn’t,” she soothed quietly.

….

 

Okay, so maybe the night hadn’t been a complete triumph but at least Kate wouldn’t find her life in Whestleigh boring. That had to count for something.