North of Happenstance: Chapter Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

“So?” Kate pressed.

“So what?” Penny asked.

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

“Oh. Uh, let me think here—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m doing it now.”

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

Penny shrugged, “Like I said.”

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

“About two years.”

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

Penny glared. Kate grinned.

“You’re enjoying this!”

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

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

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

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

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

Penny stuck out her tongue.

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

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

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

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

“What else—cars!”

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

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

“You make it sound so easy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate refrained from telling Penny how childish that sounded.

“Penny…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute…Oh. God. No.

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

Oh. God. No.

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

“Uh—,” Kate had no words.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, they are definitely on a date.

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

“Penny—,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate had to do something.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was just the line Kate needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, the thing is—”

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

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

Kate couldn’t take that look away from her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate was her only friend.

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

 

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

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

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

Sexy siren?

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

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

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

 

 

 

“So, is it serious between them?”

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

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

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

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

Kate nodded slowly.

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

Kate sighed. “I don’t know.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Oh Penny…”

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

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

The urge to puke resurfaced.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Ten

Dearest Nanny Moore,

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate did, all too well.

“Then why…?”

“Why meet Danger?” Penny asked perceptively.

“Yes.”

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

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

“That special connection.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who could ignore that guilt trip?

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

It was 5:43 pm

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

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Three

Kate figured it would be hard to get lost in Whestleigh, Connecticut. Not only was the town set up in a grid pattern formation, the Avenues numbered one through ten accordingly and the Streets arranged alphabetically, but the main shops and stores were all located in the same general area: on Gadbee Street. This was particularly nice for Kate who lived on Eveleth Street—a mere two blocks away. Besides school, she figured her car would probably spend the majority of its life in her garage from now on.

Pocketing her house keys, throwing her purse over her shoulder, Kate stepped outside. Turning left down the sidewalk she considered that it was a great day for a walk. She forcibly repeated that sentiment when, ten minutes later, she realized she’d gone the wrong way. Kate shrugged; she’d always been a bit directionally challenged. Reversing her steps, refusing to let this detour get the better of her, Kate firmly reminded herself that if nothing else this had given her the chance to see a bit more of the town. How could that be a bad thing?

Finally reaching her destination, this time Kate had no trouble identifying the cause of her trip into town: The LitLiber Bookstore. This was probably partly due to the fact that she’d been there previously, and to it’s being rather hard to miss. The structure stood proudly on the corner of 2nd street. And it looked imposing there: the red-washed brick exterior, accented here and there with white plaster molding and honey-colored stucco, seemed only too grand for its otherwise demure setting. The bridal shop next door looked downright dowdy in comparison, its vinyl siding and modest window settings sparse.

Not entirely surprising then, the bookstore was busy when Kate walked inside. Bemused she stood for a moment, watching as harried cashier’s busily rang up orders, customer service agents zipped up and down the aisles—some three customers deep—shoppers milled in small groups discussing the newest releases, some waiting to be helped, others content to search through the masses of titles alone.

Still, despite the hustle and bustle, the building remained quaint. Darkly stained pine bookshelves lined the building in myriad of patterns. Even at a quick glance, they appeared to be handmade. There must be a woodworker in town, she supposed. The wainscoted walls, half wood-paneling and half wallpaper, the latter designed in muted yellow geometric designs, created a look both airy and warm. Not to mention, it allowed for the addition of eclectic pieces of furniture smattered about—a mismatched arrangements of recliners, couches, loveseats and table ends all of different origin and décor.

As she walked further inside, toward the small café nestled in the back nearest the Customer Service Desk, Kate overheard two staff members talking, catching a snatched moment alone together:

“…we’re so understaffed right now it’s ridiculous! Look at this place. We can hardly keep up!”

The other girl snorted in agreement. “And we’re running out of everything! A lady nearly threw a temper tantrum yesterday when I told her we’d sold out of the book she was looking for—like it was personally my fault.”

“It doesn’t help any that school is starting up next week. Why does everyone wait until the last minute to buy their books?”

“Beats me.”

The first girl rolled her eyes. “And if one more person asks me ‘where do I find the Self-Help section?’ I’m going to scream! Find it yourself, isn’t that the point? ….”

Carefully circumventing this conversation, Kate reconsidered her options. Asking for help was now out of the question. Turning on her hell, she pulled her school syllabus out of her purse. Shielding it against the palm of her hand, she bent her head determinedly over the list of ‘required course readings’ while purposefully steering her feet toward the section marked Academic. She was an independent woman; surely she could find the books on her own. Plus she was far too proud to admit defeat after hearing all of that. She would not be counted amongst those self-helpless customers.

It took nearly an hour, but at length Kate made her way up to the checkout counter, all necessary purchases held and accounted for. She wasn’t sure who organized the shelves in that building but they needed a serious talking-to, because nothing about it had made sense. Her History of Art book had been sidled next to her Romantic Literature text, while The Works of Shakespeare sat, buried beneath an array of Chemistry titles.

Kate paid for her items, adding a last minute tote bag to the lot as she handed over her credit card; if she was going to walk these back to her house, she wasn’t going to trust their weigh in some paper bag. Scrawling her name across the transaction slip, Kate hastily threw her purchases inside the bag before slinging it across her shoulder and leaving her place in the line. The woman waiting impatiently behind her had been nosily tapping her foot against the floor all the while, the click-clack an angry tattoo, as though annoyed Kate had dared stand in front of her.

Pausing in the shop’s entrance hall, partly to gain her bearings and partly to readjust the tote bag’s position—it was already rubbing funny against her clavicle—Kate had a sinking suspicion that even the two blocks home were going to be tiring with this load. At least her purse was lightweight. On second thought, her car may not become as superfluous as she’d originally hoped.

Absently, her eyes landed on a large bulletin board hung up against one wall, its space filled to overflowing with advertisements, business cards, For Sale signs, and one lone picture of a lost cat. It was so cluttered she wondered how someone could possibly wade through the overload of information, how unlikely it was they’d actually find what they wanted—better luck scrolling through the yellow pages, or Google, at that rate. Chucking mindlessly at the thought, she braced her hand against the doorframe and pushed it open…

It was half a block down from LitLiber, on the left-hand side of the road, when Kate saw it. A small sign nailed just above an otherwise nondescript window. The cursive writing was hardly legible from where Kate stood but she was almost sure it read: Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Crossing the street, Kate called herself ten times a fool, but still she couldn’t seem to stop herself from getting a closer look. Her curiosity piqued, she supposed she hadn’t actually considered Madame Penny’s business being so, well, viable…so brick-and-mortar accessible. But if that sign, and the small flicker of light illuminated from the edges of the window blinds was anything to go by, she figured wrong. Madame Penny was a professional, through-and-through.

Coming up beside the window, Kate couldn’t quite fight an urge to take a quick peep inside. She had visions of velvet covered tables, darkened walls hung with heavy drapery, shelves filled with vases and jars containing herbs, essential oils, pearls and gems, yada yada yada. Laying center mass of it all would be a book of incantations, tea leaves, maybe even a crystal ball, eerily reflected in the shadows of some gilt-framed mirror or something. Circling the perimeter of this would be candles. Fat ones, tall ones, skinny ones, half-melted ones…it didn’t matter just as long as there were copious amounts of candles.

Unfortunately, when she turned to look, all that met her eyes were shadows. The window shade was pulled almost completely shut, with only an inch separating it from the bottom sill. Squinting her eyes, tilting her head, Kate struggled to make out the surroundings. She thought she spotted a table sitting beside one of the walls, and what was that particular shadow to the left? Pressing her nose up against the glass, she peered harder but when the shadow moved suddenly, Kate’s head whipped backward so hard it jarred her teeth. A small shriek may have escaped her mouth, as well. Too late, she realized that what she’d just made out was the silhouette of Madame Penny herself.

Quickly pushing herself away from the building, Kate made to retreat. She wasn’t sure if she was more embarrassed at the possibility of being caught snooping, or just afraid Madame Penny would get the wrong idea about Kate’s intentions. Frankly, she didn’t believe in psychic visions—or whatever they called it. And, it’s not that Kate didn’t like the woman, she didn’t know her well enough to carve out an opinion, but Madame Penny came off a little strong and, well, eccentric. To say the least.

Kate had gained about two feet when the crack of a side door swinging open announced someone’s presence outside. More specifically, it announced Madame Penny’s presence, judging by the musical twinkle of bangles accompanying the matter.

“Kate?” Yup. That definitely sounded like Madame Penny.

Stalling out, Kate stopped. Her back to the other woman, she carefully rearranged her facial expression before turning in greeting. Madame Penny was almost on her by then, her hand reaching out to grab Kate’s elbow in her rush of reception. “I thought that was you peeking through the windows,” she said enthusiastically, just as Kate had feared.

“Oh, yeah, I was just looking around at the local shops,” she muttered inanely, hitching her shoulder a little over the words. “Trying to get the lay of the land, so to speak.” She wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Well, in that case come inside, let me give you the grand tour,” Penny said, gesturing toward the door she’d just exited.

Kate shook her head ‘no’ even while she felt her body pulled in that direction. “Oh, no. I don’t want to bother you….”

“It’s no bother at all. Come inside. I’ve got coffee on. Or tea, if you’d rather,” she insisted, all but pushing Kate’s reluctant body through the narrow entrance.

“Well, all right. But I can only stay for a minute,” Kate heard herself concede. There was really nothing else to say. She was already inside the building, and besides Madame Penny’s bulk was blocking the way out anyway. Plus, a small voice in her head chimed in, you wanted to see what her shop looked like so here’s your chance.

“Sure, sure,” Madame Penny said soothingly, as if quieting the younger woman’s fears. They were standing in a cramped hallway barricaded on every side by doorways. The one directly facing them led to the bathroom, or so the sign overhead said. Oddly enough, it was the door on the left that primarily confused Kate. It was made of glass and it looked out into rows upon rows of potted plants, sorted bouquet arrangements and lawn furniture. A florists shop?”

As if on cue, Madame Penny confessed, “I rent the space from Massie’s Flower Shop. It’s just over here, on the right.” Kate’s eyes followed the words. A curtain, hung up where a door might have been, met her look. This was presumably the opening to Madame Penny’s workspace? A curtain?

Either undaunted or unaware of Kate’s inner musings, Madame Penny swung the curtain to the side with a flourish, its plastic rings jingling against the rod support at the action. “Welcome,” she breathed.

Kate’s first impression of the setup was certainly surprising, just not in the way she expected. The room was kind of boring looking. And, truth be told, she wasn’t entirely sure if it could really be called a room. It felt more like a utility closet.

A small icebox was wedged against the back wall, the top holding a service tray with a carafe of coffee, a sugar caddy and a container of creamer resting atop it. She watched as Madame Penny opened one of its side doors to pull a saucer and a cup. Directly before it, so close it barely allowed for a walkway, was a small oval table, big enough for two, maybe three people. It was wooden. Oak and bare.

A space heater was kicked underneath the street-side window, and pushed out of the way. But it was actually the placement of a braided rug underfoot, colored with soft pinks, greens, and blues, which kept the floor from appearing hard and cold. The only other form of adornment came from the two paintings hung up on the walls: one, a picture of the night sky, stars blazing out at the spectator, the other an orchestra of flowers blossoming beside one another in a wild field; Kate found it a little amateurish. Winter Jasmine and Sunflowers would never bloom simultaneously.

“It’s small, but it’s mine,” Madame Penny said, the words tearing Kate’s inspection short, reminding her that she wasn’t alone.

Turning to smile at the other woman, Kate found she couldn’t imagine what that felt like. “You must be very proud of yourself.”

Penny shrugged this off as though it were of no consequence. “This is my life’s purpose. I’m just lucky enough to have stumbled upon it early enough to be useful,” she said, as though it were that simple. Kate felt a pang of envy at those words, at the easy acquiesce, even as they came from a person dressed in caricature.

“Listen, since you’re here why don’t I do a reading on you?” Madame Penny suggested then, her hand sweeping Kate toward a seat at the table.

“That’s okay. I don’t—,” Kate stopped, unsure how to proceed.

As it happened, Madame Penny seemed to know exactly what it was she couldn’t quite say. “You can tell me you aren’t interested in this all you like, but I’ve got eyes in my head. I saw your pert little nose pressed up against my window, your eyes searching out for answers. You weren’t just looking at the shops in town. You were looking at my shop. Because, whether you like it or not, you are… intrigued, curious,” she said, testing out the words.

“Might as well indulge yourself. And me,” she finished bluntly.

The words rankled a bit, but Kate found she couldn’t necessarily disagree with Madame Penny. It wasn’t so much what she said. Kate still didn’t buy into her profession and she wasn’t about to change on that, but she was lonely and maybe, just maybe a small part of her had been counting on Madame Penny noticing that when she’d been thrust up against the window outside.   It wasn’t that Kate was intrigued by Madame Penny, rather that Madame Penny seemed intrigued by her. Kate couldn’t remember the last time she’d been that to someone. Intriguing. And it was either sit here and play pretend or go home. All alone. The taste of that now familiar fear filled Kate’s tongue once again.

Without further ado, she took the proffered seat, dropping her heavy book bag and purse on the floor beside her feet. Within seconds, a cup of coffee was placed discreetly by her elbow, replete with a packet of sugar and creamer beside it. Stirring the contents together, Kate noticed that Penny had not poured any refreshments for herself. On the verge of questioning this, Kate was forestalled when she spied Penny reach into a filing cabinet shoe-horned in beside the icebox and retrieve from within a pack of cards. Kate swallowed back her disquiet. Apparently the psychic wasn’t thirsty.

“If you don’t have a preference, I think I’ll do a tarot card reading on you,” Madame Penny said, wasting no time. “There are many different formats available in psychic readings but I frequently find tarot cards, with their more specific instructions, easier to digest for those a bit more, shall we say, skeptical of the craft,” she said, adding half under her breath, “and of course, sometimes they aren’t! But I felt my hand tugged in their direction and I took that as a sign. Signs mean everything to me,” she told Kate deadpan.

Kate nodded, unsure what to say in response. Her stomach muscles tightening, she watched as Penny claimed her seat, the pack held loosely in her hands. They looked like cartoon trading cards. Kate wasn’t sure how seriously she could be expected to take ‘the craft’ when its supposed messengers looked as though they’d just stepped off a medieval comic strip. She kept that thought to herself however.

“Finish your coffee,” Madame Penny instructed, shuffling the deck. Kate did as she was told, swallowing most of liquid whole. She could hardly believe it herself but she was kind of, maybe, sort of excited to—

“Let’s begin, shall we?” Penny asked rhetorically, her voice cutting off Kate’s rambling thoughts, which was probably for the best. The less she confessed to herself the better.

Kate felt her head nod in response.