North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Three

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. nodded. “That’s true.”

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

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

“What if it turns out badly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janessa shrugged. “Yeah.”

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

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

Kate gulped.

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

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

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

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

And that had been that.

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

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

Janessa shrugged. “Whatever.”

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

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

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

“Think she’ll be okay?”

“Janessa?” M.T. asked.

Penny hitched one shoulder. “Her too.”

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

 

 

 

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

Janessa wasn’t in a chatting mood.

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

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

Bit by bit, Janessa turned into a stone.

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

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

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

Rinse and repeat.

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

The untold story of Paul Cooper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s how they were doing it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul frowned. “You okay, kid?”

“Umm…”

“Speak up. I can’t hear you.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you—do you know who I am?”

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

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

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

An uncomfortable silence descended for a moment.

“Your mom sick or something?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh.” His face hardened ever so slightly.

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

He sighed. “I see.”

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

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

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

“Sometimes it’s better than the truth.”

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

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

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

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

“What I’ve done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, Kate.”

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

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Two

With a painful flick of her wrist, Penny thrust on the light switch as she entered her shop. Grimacing at the assaulting yellow glow of the overhead bulbs, her hand instinctively coming to rest against her temple, her mouth letting out a whoosh of breath, Penny slowly steered her way toward the coffee…. God, she’d forgotten how terrible a hangover really was…

Last night had been—well, it had been one of the best nights in her life. There she’d been, sitting up in bed, fully clothed in a pair of leggings and a dark blue tunic with a splash of dark green fabric around the hem, staring out her window, wondering what in the world Jake had up his sleeve—

And then he’d shown up, and he’d snuck her out to his truck—and Stink Pig had been just as good as Penny remembered, and with the tequila flowing, they’d practically sparkled on the stage. And she’d danced: fast, slow, off-beat and everything in between. And she’d drank: cocktails, classics, hard stuff, and beer. But best of all, Jake had danced right along with her, meeting her drink for drink….

Cringing now, as she made her way gingerly toward her desk, Penny considered that perhaps there had been a wee bit too much drinking. Then again…smiling softly, she eased her computer bag open and pulled out her tablet computer. Nah. Never mind. Come to think of it: the hangover was worth it, after all. She wouldn’t have changed a single thing.

High on that thought, Penny opened up her email account, her eyes glancing absently down at the inbox, scrolling quickly through the subject headings, and rifling through the junk mail and advertisements, the email subscription posts and newsletters…yawning, her finger inched toward the delete button.

Save on your house loan….

Delete.

Intuitive: How to Market—

Delete.

LitLiber, Chapter Fifty-Two…

Oh. Better keep that…. Mark Unread.

Case: COOPER, FATHER FOUND

            Wait. What?

            Freezing at the words, typed in Courier New, typed in ALL CAPS, Penny’s eyes widened disbelievingly. Opening up the email, her fingers clumsy on the screen—from the fear and dread of it all, the rising anticipation and excitement, Penny  held her breath, unsure what she was waiting for exactly, what she expected to find within its body…

Her mouth moving frantically to silently sound out the words she read in her head, Penny’s stomach knotted up tight, her fingers shook a little—and her headache from before was lost, forgotten in the overwhelming news staring back at her.

She’d found Janessa’s dad.

Well, okay, actually the private investigator Penny had hired found him. (But really, what more could Janessa expect of the psychic? Penny hadn’t gotten any visions, any vibrations on the man. What else was there to do besides hire the assignment out?)

            Her breath coming slow, sputtering in the aftershock of what she’d just uncovered, Penny placed her tablet slowly, carefully down on the table…pushing it out of sight, her eyes shifted, taking in the busy sidewalk facing her storefront.

Breathe Penny.

Think Penny.

It was barely eight o’clock in the morning. Men and women, in all styles of clothing, from business professional to grungy, and casual, even touristy, walked past, their day only just beginning, fresh and ready to start a brand new day….

With a half wail, Penny realized that Janessa would be in school right about now, probably just sitting down to first period. It would be cruel to text her—to make her way some seven hours before coming over, to sit all day wondering, hoping, dreaming about the information (the potentially life-altering information) displayed oh-so-coolly across Penny’s computer screen.

Person: Mr. Paul D. Cooper. Age: 42 Occupation: UNKNOWN

Home Address: 13 Crabtree Way ——— (To Be Released Confidentially)

City: Coventon State: CT

 

Her eyes skimmed over the other details that the private investigator had seen able to report via electronic correspondence. It wasn’t much. Other information would be made available at another time, in a private, secured setting, if the client so-desired.

“Well,” Penny murmured to herself. “I guess that’s that.” Standing up, she moved to pour herself another cup of coffee.

 

 

 

As it happened, Penny hadn’t been able to wait until three o’clock to talk to Janessa. She’d barely been resigned to wait until lunchtime, the knowledge of what she had at her fingertips nearly splitting her in two. But, luckily, Whestleigh High offered off-campus school lunch periods, which meant that Janessa wouldn’t be breaking any rules if she stopped in at Penny’s between 12:00am and 1:00pm….

Which is exactly why she’d sent the text message at 11:55 am— Janessa, it’s Penny. I have news about your dad. We need to talk. Lunch?

The clock had no sooner ticked past 12:06 am then Penny  heard the front door click open, followed closely by the echo of heavy footsteps and slightly labored breathing before the thick curtain separating Penny’s shop from the outside hallway was thrust wide open, emitting the dark, snarly head of one Janessa Cooper.

“You found him,” Janessa wheezed, her breath coming out sticky and hot, the sound hitching unevenly out of her mouth. Her large blue eyes shined with so much feeling that Penny’s heart gave a great, hard lurch.

“Janessa, come, sit down,” Penny invited, waving the jumpy teenager towards a chair.

“Tell me,” Janessa insisted, not bothering to move so much as an inch. “You did find him, right?”

Penny sighed. “Yes. I found him.”

“Oh my God. I can’t believe it,” Janessa stated. “I can’t believe it.” The words, repeated, came out more slowly this time, as the full weight of the meaning seemed to settle down against her shoulders.

“I hired a private investigator to locate your father—”

“You did?”

Penny shrugged. “Psychic didn’t get a vision, okay? So I outsourced.”

Janessa nodded numbly. “Okay.”

“And, honey please sit down,” Penny pleaded.

With a lumbering step, as though she could no longer feel her feet, Janessa made her way to the small table in the center of Penny’s office, her body slipping untidily into the seat.

“I was sent an email with some information on your dad—”

“Do you know where he lives?” Janessa’s voice was soft, barely there, so light Penny almost couldn’t hear her.

Penny nodded. “Yes. That is…I don’t have his home address. But I can get it, if you’d like.”

Janessa nodded slowly.

“Where is he?”
“Pretty close by, actually,” Penny advised. “He’s in Coventon—which is about three and half hours from here.”

“You mean, he’s in Connecticut?” Janessa’s question was sharp, her head bobbing up quickly at the words, her blue eyes staring Penny down hard.

“Uh…yes?”

“All this time…” Janessa bit her lip. “He’s been here.”

Penny’s fingers fidgeting, she wasn’t sure how to respond. “Would you like to read the email?”

At Janessa’s slow, silent nod, Penny quickly pulled it up. Pushing her tablet into the younger girl’s hands, the email already on prominent display there, she stood back, biting her lip anxiously as Janessa’s eyes scrolled carefully, almost fearfully down the page.

One minute past in this fashion.

Then another.

Followed closely by a third minute…

Penny wasn’t sure what to say, what to do next. Janessa’s eyes still hadn’t unglued themselves from the bluish-glare of the computer screen, but Penny hardly thought the girl was still reading anything. The email was relatively short after all—a veritable bullet-list of highlights documenting Paul Cooper’s life, and it certainly wasn’t three minutes worth of reading.

“Janessa?” Penny asked tentatively in the silence.

At the sound of her name, Janessa’s head snapped up. Her eyes stared groggily up at Penny.

“Are you okay?”

Janessa didn’t speak.

“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in…” Penny said, her fingers clasped together in front of her body. “You don’t have to make any decisions today. Just—maybe just let information fully digest….”

Janessa rolled her eyes.

Penny tried to smile. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Janessa returned with a definitive tilt of her chin, an edge in her voice; anger simmered just below the question.

“About how you’re feeling? I can only imagine how…how—”

“You can’t imagine anything,” Janessa accused. “You don’t know anything.”

Penny swallowed difficultly. “No, of course you’re right. But if you want—I’m a very good listener. Maybe I can help you—”

“I don’t need your help!” Janessa screamed, her fist banging hard against the tabletop. Her mouth contorting into an ugly line, her face blossoming red, she stood up, the abrupt action shoving her chair back so hard it almost toppled over.

Wincing at the sound breaking out against her four walls, Penny held up her hands. “I’m sorry—Janessa, please…”

“God, just leave me alone,” Janessa sneered, pushing herself off the table and brushing past Penny, her shoulder hitting the psychic as she did so: “After all,” she added, reaching for the curtain. Her words were thick with tears. “I’m used to it, aren’t I?”

Watching her storm out of the office, terribly aware that her company was the last thing Janessa wanted or probably needed right now, Penny nonetheless knew what she had to do…. Reaching for her phone, she let out a momentary sigh as she punched in the well-remembered number. She’d have a lot of explaining to do, but she was willing even to withstand the lectures, the dramatic bits, everything…for Janessa.

 

 

 

Running, her feet skipping, slithering against the sidewalk, Janessa’s breath rasping harshly up her throat and out her parched mouth, the teenager let the tears she couldn’t shed in Penny’s office fall down her face.

Her stomach burned. It burned so hot she felt like she’d explode from the pressure, like she’d die if she couldn’t just let herself cool down. Running, frantic to get away, to hide away, Janessa’s body moving automatically, her steps steered her toward the only place she’d ever felt truly at home—

She ran to Good Shepherd Church.

Wrenching the door open at the side of the building, her shoulders quaking, eyes bloodshot now, and still the tears came streaming down her face—Janessa shot her body through the vestibule and out into the dim, hushed hallway.

A little after noon on a weekday, the building was silent except for the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights flicking haphazardly from the speckled ceiling tiles, and the slight click-clack echo of someone typing…

“Well, good afternoon darling,” Heather, the church secretary, called out then, looking up over her computer as Janessa came shortly into view. Guess that explained the typing noise…. “What can I do for you?”

Wiping the sleeve of her zippy under her nose, Janessa dropped her eyes. “I need Pastor Thayer.” And at the exaggerated silence that passed, Janessa added roughly, her eyes studying the flooring: “Please.”

Taking one good, hard look at the girl decided Heather’s answer. “Well, now, of course. Why don’t you just came in here and take a seat, while I go and get her.” Without another word, Heather was up on her feet, and shoeing Janessa into one of two chairs stationed just inside the office there. “Won’t be a minute,” she said, her feet taking her quickly down the hall.

Knocking quietly, Heather stuck her head inside M.T.’s outer office, taking a moment to smile demurely at the Parish Planning Council, all five of them, stationed around the oval table there, heads bent in serious discussion.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Heather said, “But I’m afraid Pastor Thayer is needed out in the office.”

“Is it urgent?” Gary, the head of the council, asked, turning his head to inquire nicely of Heather. “We’re right in the middle of the education board budget line….”

“I’m afraid it is,” Heather insisted. After all, the congregation should always come first.

And at that, Pastor Thayer rose graciously to her feet and, following behind Heather, soon found herself staring down at a surly, stony-faced expression—not quite what she had expected upon absconding from the PPC meeting….

“Janessa?” M.T. asked, putting a smile on her face as she greeted the girl. “What a wonderful surprise!” Reaching out her hand, she beckoned: “Come—let’s have some lunch…”

“Now tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine afternoon?” M.T. asked, putting a can of soup to heat on the oven. They hadn’t spoken once on the trip from the office to the kitchen. M.T. had wisely given Janessa that time to marshal her thoughts, regain her equilibrium, brush aside the track of tears smudged against the cheeks…

But when Janessa didn’t immediately answer, M.T. started to wonder if she hadn’t made a mistake, letting her keep quiet this long. Janessa frequently needed more prodding than most… But when she turned around, Maggie found the girl standing there, shoulders arching roundly, lips vibrating as large, silent tears—heavy, noiseless sobs—racked her body.

And within seconds, Janessa found herself cocooned in the arms she’d been dreaming about since she’d read that stupid, stupid email.

“What happened?” M.T. asked, her hands caressing Janessa’s disheveled hair. “What happened?”

And, within a matter of minutes, the whole sorry tale was revealed to Maggie, in between bouts of tears and sniffs and gargled words….

“I don’t know why I even care,” Janessa said then. “It’s not like he does. I mean, he’s three and a half hours away. All this time, and I haven’t seen him—” a wail followed the words, quickly covered up. “I thought—all my life, I thought he was dead.”

“I’m so sorry you’re hurting—”

“Why did he leave? Why didn’t he ever come back to see me?” And then: “Why doesn’t he love me?”

And for the second time since she’d shown up at the church, Janessa felt M.T.’s arms wrap themselves around her shaking body.

“Oh Janessa—oh, sweetheart….”

Pushing herself out of Maggie’s grasp, Janessa shook her head. “I thought I’d be so happy. You know, once I found out that he was alive and all. I thought—once I find out where he is, it’ll all—I don’t know. I thought….”

Janessa sighed a watery sigh.

“But I was wrong. I don’t feel better. I don’t. It just hurts more.”

M.T. nodded.

“Why?” Janessa wailed. “Why didn’t he want me?”

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure it’s not as simple as that—”

“Then why has he never tried to contact me? Why did he let me believe he was dead?”

M.T. bit her lip. “I can’t answer that question.”

Janessa’s lips quivered again.

“But I can tell you this,” M.T. said. “He sure missed out on getting to know a wonderful, special girl.”

Janessa snorted. “Whatever. You have to say that. You’re a pastor.”

M.T. laughed. “No, it’s my pleasure to say that, because it’s the truth.”

Janessa looked down at the floor, her feet scabbing nervously at the checkered tile. “What should I do?” Then, in an instant, those blue eyes were raised, staring imploringly up at Maggie.

“Have you talked to your mother?” M.T. asked quietly. She knew Janessa and her mom had a rocky, tumultuous relationship, but still, this was important— “Does she know about this?”

“Oh yeah,” Janessa scoffed. “She told me good luck and if I found him, to tell the bastard he owed her ten years back child support.”

“Oh.”

“So?” blowing out a huge breath, Janessa carefully considered her next words.

“So?”

“What should I do?”

But the pastor was too seasoned at her job to be easily manipulated into making someone else’s decisions. “What do you want to do?”

Janessa made a disgusted face. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Maggie only smiled. “All right, well answer me this: Why did you ask Penny to find your father?”
“What?” Rearing her head back, Janessa seemed caught off guard by the question.

“Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“I think you do.”

“So you think I should do it, go and see him—”

Maggie interrupted her firmly. “I think you should ask yourself if you still want to.”

 

 

 

At the sound of knocking at her front door, Kate jumped to her feet, her steps haphazard, frantic as she slipped from her living room, and slid past her kitchen, practically falling into the parlor room, her voice ringing out urgently as she went: “I’m coming, I’m coming—hold on!”

Throwing the door open, a big, tremulous smile etched across her face, Kate started down at the person she’d feared would never show up, the person she wanted to see most in the world right now.

“Janessa,” she breathed.

The teenager was pulling nervously at a loose string on the sleeve of her shirt. “Hey Kate.”

Stepping back, Kate tried to wave the girl forward. “Hey—won’t you come inside?”

“Nah,” Janessa said, shaking her head. “I’d better stay here.”

“Oh, okay,” Kate said slowly, nervously. Resting her shoulder against the door jamb, she waited, but when Janessa only stood there, Kate said: “What’s up?”

She tried to play it cool.

“I-uh,” Janessa’s mouth opened, but the words seemed to get stuck, lodged somewhere inside her throat.

“Is everything okay?” Kate probed, though she already knew the answer to that question. Still, she wanted Janessa to feel like she could talk—she wanted Janessa to talk.

“Have you ever been to a place called Coventon?”

Kate only just managed to keep a blank face. Of course, she knew what was going on here—Penny  had called her a few hours ago, guiltily filing her in on everything that had been going on between her and the young teenager these past few weeks or so; and after that, M.T. had called, wanting to give Kate the news that Janessa was fine. She was upset, but she was fine. And so Kate had waited. And she’d prayed that, after all, Janessa would finally come to her. That she’d finally want Kate.

“No, I’ve never been there. I’ve heard of it though…”

Janessa’s eyes were trained on the floor, where her feet were fidgeting restlessly, kicking at the air. “Do you want to go there—with me?”

Closing her eyes on a rush of love, and relief, and answered hopes, at first all Kate could do was nod her head in acceptance. “Yes,” she finally said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’d love to.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty

“Okay Janessa, close your eyes,” Penny commanded quietly, her voice in perfect modulated control. Reaching out, she patted down the backs of Janessa hands, in a comforting sort of way. The lights were dimmed in the small room Penny occupied as her office. Two fat candles burned on the table either side of Penny and Janessa, and one small lamp, a mock Victorian-era piece, shown limply, its shade casting a pink hue across the walls.

Penny took a deep breath. Be calm. Be confident. You can do this. Don’t sweat. Don’t frown. Don’t show fear. She took another deep breath.

“It may help for you to close your eyes. Think of your father. Picture him in your mind. It will help to call his spirit. The strength of that memory…it will build a stronger bridge, a deeper connection for him to find.”

“Okay,” Janessa whispered. Her face was screwed up tightly, the bridge of her nose winkled in thought and concentration.

Penny, heeding her own advice, also allowed her eye lids to shut. Behind them she saw nothing but inky, scratchy blankness. Deep breathe in. Deep breathe out.

Blackness.

The bangles on one hand dig into the skin around her wrist as Penny pressed down against the tabletop. Technicolor dots formed through the darkness blanketing her eyes. But it wasn’t because she was getting a vision…she was trying too hard.

Relax your mind, Penny. Relax. You can do this…

“I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper,” Penny called out; Adam, of course, was the name of Janessa’s father. Loosening her shoulders, Penny’s voice raised out again: “I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper.”

Then, she repeated this phrase one more time.

Nothing.

Squinting through the enveloping blackness of her closed eyes, Penny searched furtively. She saw nothing. Her ears were stretch, pointed for the whispered sound of his arrival, as they had been for each of the other three failed sessions she’d had with Janessa. She picked up on the small, cracking sound of the candle wick, and the slight humming of the air-conditioner stationed on the back window.

And nothing else.

Dammit.

Popping her eyes open, Penny swallowed back the invading panic. “Janessa…” Penny sighed.

“Nothing, huh?” Janessa asked knowingly, and her eyes were open too now, staring straight into Penny’s distressed face.

“No. I don’t…I’m not getting any activity on my end,” Penny confessed. She could feel the clammy sweat of failure sweeping over her body. “This has never happened to me before.”

“It’s okay,” Janessa said, but there was no mistaking the defeat in her tone.

Penny reached forward, grabbing the young girls hands. “Maybe—maybe if you can give a little more information on your father: did he pass recently, how did he die? Sometimes spirits get confused when they cross over…”

Penny hated the desperation in her voice. She hated the leading questions she was asking….they made her sound like a fraud. They made her feel like a fraud. She didn’t usually need clients to provoke her senses.

“Die?” Janessa queried. “What do you mean? He’s not dead.”

Penny reared back, her hands falling away from Janessa’s closed fists, her back hitting against her chair abruptly. “He’s…he’s not?”

What?
Now, for the first time in the four sessions in which Penny had been unable to contact her father, Janessa looked suspicious. “No.”

“Oh.”

“Why did you think he was dead?” Now she sounded defensive. Attacking.

And Penny’s unease built higher. Shaking her head, she tried to back-paddle. “It was…I just assumed…”

“Assumed?” Janessa voice was razor sharp. “Assumed? I thought you were supposed to know….”

“Yes, but…”

“So, like, what, you’ve just been guessing? All along? Is that what you actually do here?” Janessa parried aggressively. “You’re a scam, aren’t you? Everyone said, when I read my essay to the class: she’s not the real thing—and it’s true, isn’t it?” Now Janessa’s blue eyes were like ice around her halo of snarled hair.

“No. Of course not,” Penny returned hotly. “If that were the case, do you think I would have so readily admitted I couldn’t make contact?”

Janessa didn’t say anything.

Penny tried again. “You spoke about him in the past tense and I just figured…If he was alive, why would you need my help—?”

“But couldn’t you tell, when you were, like, calling for him or whatever? You didn’t get the feeling that he was still alive?”

Penny shrugged. It was a fair question. “Probably because I never got a read on him, at all. If I had…”

“Yeah, sure,” Janessa barked. “If you had. But you didn’t. How convenient.” Betrayal. Distrust. The feelings all but oozed out of Janessa’s pores.

Penny fought back. “Look: I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have made sure—”

“I trusted you,” Janessa snarled, pushing back her chair. “I thought you’d be able to help.”

“I’m not a mind-reader,” Penny tried to explain. “At least, not in the way you’re wanting me to be. I communicate with spirits, with the universe, and yes, with the human psyche, but it’s not as simple as what you’re asking.”

“Yeah? What about the physics used by the police to help find missing people. How come they can do it, then? If you’re the real thing, that is.”

Penny fought back. “My line of work has always been called into skepticism for the very fact that it’s not a switch that can just be flipped on or off. I can’t make my extra Sight see things just because I want it to. Predictions, messages, communication…all of it, they come to me—not the other way around. They’re random, unbidden, unannounced, unreliable; and I am merely a conduit, a vessel for them to be realized. So yes, I see things, I know things, I hear things from a different plane, but I can’t, there are serious limitations to that.

“And the reason that psychics are good with missing persons’ cases is because those people want to be found. Their energy is on high alert, and the sensitivity of my Sight picks up on that. If your dad doesn’t want to be found…” Penny let the sentence dangle uneasily in the air around them. “Then there isn’t much I can do, as far as my clairvoyance is concerned.”

Janessa snorted, but she’d stopped her headfirst race toward the door. That was something, at least.

Penny continued: “I can only receive and send messages. I am merely a vehicle for their voice and presence—but only if both channels are open, willing. I can’t control or manipulate the spirits. I can’t imitate them. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Janessa rolled her eyes.

“What you’re asking for is a cold reading. And, in my experience, they don’t work. I need to have consent, I have to be invited, feel connected.”

“I just want to know where he is,” Janessa spoke then, pleaded really. Her eyes were large in her face. Tears were not far from the surface. “That’s all I want to know. I thought, I guess it was stupid. I thought, if I could find him then maybe…” The teenager trailed off uncomfortably. “I don’t know.”

The air seemed too thick, too sickly scented in the room suddenly. Penny’s heart beat hard and fast against her chest. “It wasn’t stupid.”

Janessa nodded sharply.

“Tell me about him.”

Janessa looked at Penny.

“Not as your psychic,” the older woman rushed to explain, “but as your friend.”

 

 

 

Half an hour later, as Penny watched Janessa exit out of her office, the psychic allowed her body to slump tiredly in her chair. Her body felt weary after listening to Janessa’s story, her neck muscles tight and raw. Janessa’s life had been far from easy, her path littered with rejection, abandonment, and a lack of love and support. Penny’s own childhood came to mind; she could relate. And that was probably why she found herself so determined to help the young teenager, to do exactly as asked: locate Janessa’s missing father.

Of course, it was looking like that would require more on-the-ground detective work than other-worldly intervention, but Penny loved a good challenge.

Riding close on that thought, Penny tried not to acknowledge, was guilt at what she’d uncovered, at what she’d found out…because she had no plans of filling Kate in on this new-found information. And Kate would feel betrayed by that. She would claim a right to have known. After all, she was the girl’s mentor and had, for all Janessa’s resistance, really stepped up to that role, committed to helping the surly teenager, advising her, generally being there for her. Kate cared about Janessa. She wanted to help the young girl succeed.

And here was Penny, with intelligence Kate probably needed in aide of that endeavor, and she wasn’t sharing. It felt wrong. And yet, Penny wasn’t sure that going behind Janessa’s back would be right, either. The teenager had trusted her. She’d confided. Penny just couldn’t condone exposing that, exploiting it. Janessa’s story was hers to tell. Period.  Kate would have to figure this out on her own, just like Penny had.

(The fact that Penny knew, without having to be told, that Kate would be more than willing, more than eager to be part of unearthing Janessa’s father, that she’d feel unduly hurt at being left out, the psychic refused to admit. If Kate was going to help, it had to be on Janessa’s terms.)

Straightening up the small table Janessa had only moments ago vacated, Penny walked over to her icebox. She needed a cup of coffee after that session. And a sandwich. Glancing up at the clock hanging overhead, she noted the time: 12:13 p.m.

Good, that left her just under two hours until her next appointment. Rummaging underneath the oval table that doubled as Penny’s desk, she was on the verge of grabbing for her wallet and making a quick lunch run, when a small knock on the wall outside her office, caught her up in surprise.

“Hello?” A deeply male voice asked. An oddly familiar male voice asked, seconds before a hand come into sight, pushing back the heavy brocade curtain she used for a door.

Stumbling upright, Penny’s eyes widened at the face that came into sights seconds later. Of all the people Penny might have expected to drop be unannounced—namely Janessa, coming for something she’d forgotten, or M.T. offering to take her sister to lunch, or her damned landlord, coming to enquire after her little ‘project’ on the ruse of checking she’d cover the rent this month (with a degree of resignation when she answered ‘yes’)—the one which greeted her now stole Penny’s breath, her ability to speak.

Standing there, silhouetted in the light off the narrow hallway, was Jake Farrow. As in, the owner of the LitLiber bookstore. As in, Part B of Kate’s current love triangle. As in, the boy who used to seat two rows behind her in high school geography….

“Jake?” Penny couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of her voice. In as long as she’d been operating as a psychic, Jake had never before graced the doorway of her shop.

“Hey Penny,” he said, smiling slightly.

“Uh…what are you doing here—I mean, not that you’re not welcome,” Penny rambled at his amused raised eyebrow. “It’s just…I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Yeah. Sorry to just drop by—”

“No, no,” Penny rushed to say. With a wave of her hand, she motioned him forward. “Please, come inside.”

Jake didn’t need further encouragement. Quickly, he slipped past the heavy curtain, to take a seat in the chair opposite Penny. Then, belatedly, he waved around the room. (Afraid, perhaps, she was in the middle of some ghostly chat or something?) “I’m not, uh, interrupting anything right now, am I?”

“No. I’m taking my lunch break, actually. Good timing for you.”

“Oh. Okay. I won’t keep you.”

Forehead crinkling, Penny waited for him to speak again. Jake looked uneasy.

“So what can I do for you? Call it intuition, but I’m not getting the sensation you’re here to have your future foretold,” Penny hedged amusedly.

Jake laughed softly. It came out more like a cough. “Uh, no. Not…” absently, his hand came up to rub against the stubble settling across his jaw line. “Um, not that.”

Penny nodded knowingly. “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…” and she’d been sitting at one of the cafeteria tables all alone, her eyes steady on the sandwich in her hands, shoulders hunched inward, ears picking up the sounds of voices coming from three rows behind her:

“Look at what she’s wearing…seriously, she looks ready for a flood in those pants.”

Twittering laugher. “A flood might do her some good. I bet she doesn’t even bathe.”

“So you’d rather she look like a drowned rat?”

“Anything’s better than that.”

And on and on the insults flew, the girls gossiping loudly, enjoying her mortification, and enjoying the notoriety they were gaining from the student body, most of which couldn’t help but overhear the waspish sentiments.

And of course, because it wouldn’t have been a truly clichéd moment if it hadn’t been coming from the most popular girls in school. If these terrible words hadn’t been frothing from the mouths of cheerleaders.

“Hey…mind if I sit here?” a male voice asked, breaking through Penny’s determined resolve to ignore the chatter going on over her head.

Looking up quickly, on the verge of warning this unsuspecting visitor that sitting next to her was the closest thing to status suicide—that is, sitting next to the most made-fun of girl in school—when her eyes met the kindest green eyes she’d ever seen. The most adored green eyes in school. The eyes of Whestleigh football star, Jake Farrow.

Penny’s eyes thinned into slits. Now what. “Just haven’t had quite enough of a laugh yet, huh?” she asked venomously. Painfully shy, it was probably the longest sentence she’d ever spoken to the boy who’d shared the same school schedule with her for the past eleven years running. Only, she was past her limit today. She was over being the subject of everyone’s ridicule. And this was just too much, anyway.

Why did they have to pick on her? Penny had never done anything to them. She was quiet. Kind. She’d never pretended to be cool, tried to fit in. She’d never vied for their attention. So why wouldn’t they just leave her alone? She’d tried the old adage: kill them with kindness. It hadn’t worked. She’d tried not to react, to appear bored with their little games, hoping it would eventually ruin them of their fun. If anything, it had only spurred them on more.

“Excuse me?” Jake asked, and for his part, he looked genuinely baffled.

“What, you’ve come over here on some dare to sit beside the freak show, what her in her natural habitat, telling everyone just how weird she is—what, that she speaks in tongues or wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her filthy shirt? Or…oh, wait, I know: that she can’t chew without drooling? Anything to please the masses, huh?”

Jake’s mouth turned down. “No…”

And suddenly, Penny knew why she was so particularly upset now. Because, through all the harassment, all the hurtful things her peers had slung at her, Jake had never partook himself. Granted, he hadn’t stopped them either. But he’d never been outright rude to her. He’d never joined in their mockery and jeers.

But it seemed at last, he’d stepped over to the dark side.

Staring up at his face, which was rigid above the red plastic food tray, Penny had a new terrible horrible sensation. “Oh God…”

“What?”
“You’re going to dump your food on my head, aren’t you? Claim you tripped.”

“No. What?” With a plop, Jake dropped the rectangular tray carefully, upright, on to the table. “Why would you…” and with a sigh to beat all sighs, he shook his head. “Never mind. I know why.”

Silent now, Penny watched him take a seat on the bench chair opposite her. “Is it a social experiment then? See how it feels: to be the most un-liked person in school?” Penny didn’t know where the nerve was coming from. She’d never spoken to anyone this way before, and certainly not the most popular guy in school. Only, once she’d started she couldn’t seem to stop.

“No. I came over to say I’m sorry.”

Penny blinked. “Excuse me?”

“For everything we’ve done to you. I’m sorry.”

“Well, you actually never did anything,” Penny felt obligated to mention.

Jake gave her a look. “Maybe not. But that changes today.”

Penny cleared her throat, bringing herself back to the present, hearing her voice carry over the quiet office: “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…I can only assume this isn’t a social visit?”
Jake laughed softly. “That wasn’t the last time we shared a table at lunchtime,” he seemed compelled to say. “We shared that table every lunch for the rest of that year.”

Penny smiled. “And the year after that.”

“Yeah.”

“Fair enough. But, since high school ended, you’ll allow that they rather came to an abrupt end?”
Jake shrugged. “I went always to college.”

“And I didn’t.”

“And when I came back…”

“I was a full-fledged freak,” Penny teased. “One that even you couldn’t save.”

“Don’t.” Jake didn’t smile in return. “I always hated it when you called yourself that.”

Penny nodded sharply. “Okay.” She cleared her throat uncomfortably, her shoulders jerking with the sound. “Well, anyway…I think we’re getting a little off track here.”

“How do you know?” Jake challenged, and there it was, that note of amusement threaded in his voice again. “After all, I’m the one who came to see you.”

Penny stared at him levelly. “And this is what you came to talk to me about?”

Jake grinned. “No.”

“I didn’t think so.”
“Actually, I came to talk about Kate.”
As if she hadn’t seen that one coming.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Big mouth,” Janessa breathed.

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

“Kate it wasn’t like that—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is her mother?” Jake asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His words were heavy with influence, strong in conviction.

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss perfect,” Jake teased her.

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

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

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

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

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

Jake’s eyebrows rose eloquently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was that…? Please, no.

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

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

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

“In a minute,” Kate hissed right back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate didn’t like it.

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

Janessa giggled. She giggled!

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

Good Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“What about him?”

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

“Isn’t he a little old for her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm-hmm,” Penny said ominously.

“And?” Kate held her breath.

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, take a seat,” he offered weakly.

Kate smiled tightly.

 

 

 

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

Breezy, cool, but damn nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Lutheran Church         

            2680 Callaghan Road

            Paisley Way, IN ….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe Maggie, breathe.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes. Kate gulped.

Could this situation get any more uncomfortable?

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

Double yikes!

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is, if you don’t mind?”

 

 

 

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

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

Pastor Thayer,          

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed a drink. Maybe two.

 

 

 

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

Note to self: get another IT guy!

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

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

“Kate?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter 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 Eleven

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

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

Kate was a go.

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

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

How could Kate refuse her after that?

 

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

Bingo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sounded a little vague to Kate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate was damn proud of her newest friend.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took everything in Kate not to correct her grammar.

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

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

The teenager managed a shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not Prissy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

            I got duped, and by a woman of God.

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

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

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

 

All my love.

 

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

 

-Your Katy-Cat

 

 

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

….

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

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

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

The night of the lock-in.

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