North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Eight

Kate stared nervously down the length of space separating her from her mother. She cleared her throat, her fingers almost white as they gripped the edge of her front porch railing. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she called out. And then: “That is—unless you have to go?” Kate let her gaze drop uneasily. “I know Phil is waiting for you…”

“It’s not as if the man can’t board a plane by himself,” Calida countered drily, her lips pulling into a discerning frown. She nodded sharply, decisively. “I’m not his mother, after all.”

Kate goggled, unsure.

Brushing her hands down the sides of her pretty outfit, eyes not quite meeting her daughter’s, Calida made an impatient noise in the back of her throat. “Yes. All right.”

“Yes?
“I’d like to stay,” Calida admitted. “If you’ll have me.”

“I’ll have you.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Kate felt the weight of those words. “Right. Good.”

For a moment silence descended. Neither woman spoke, neither woman moved, each seeming to be waiting on the other… The air was thick with uncertainty. Fidgeting, Kate wasn’t sure where to go from there; her bravado of moments ago had abandoned her, deflating her courage; she hadn’t thought beyond asking her mother to stay.

“Is the person you’d like me to meet hiding somewhere inside your house?” Breaking the heavy quiet, Calida raised an incredulous eyebrow.

Kate frowned. “What? No…”

“Then—” Calida motioned pointedly toward her rental car, which was parked a little way down the street. “Shall we?”

“Oh! Oh, right!” Kate laughed awkwardly. “Yes. Let me, um, let me just tell the girl’s we’re going.”

“That’s fine. I’ll wait in the car,” Calida assured her. “Don’t be long.”

“Yes. Okay.” Grimacing at her lack of conversation, Kate turned on the steps. Quickly, she took herself back inside, back to the kitchen, where she found Penny and M.T. impatiently waiting, their gazes locking on her the moment she passed into view.

“So?” Penny asked unashamedly, leaning forward eagerly.

“Umm…” Kate bit her lip. “I asked her to stay?”

“You did?”

“Why?”

“Penny!”

“I’m just saying…”

“I want her to meet Jackson,” Kate said, interrupting them.

“Our Jackson?”

“Well. Yeah.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Penny asked, glancing frantically out toward the front walkway, where Calida could be seen striding toward her car.

Kate shifted. “I think…”

“Look I’m all about the two of you patching things up, but Kate your mother is a barracuda. You really want to sick her on Jackson?” Penny’s eyes were large. “May I remind you, he’s not any too happy with you at the moment? This might not be the time for the Great Calida McDonald…”

“But that’s just it. I think it’s exactly the right time,” Kate argued. “Introducing him to her—it’ll prove my feelings. It’ll show him that I’m ready to commit, that I’m fully invested in our relationship.”

Penny whistled.

“Jackson knows about me and my mother,” Kate defended hotly. He knew Kate’s situation; that she’d had more-or-less run away from home (at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, no less) just to escape her clutches.

“Don’t you miss your family back home?” He’d asked her one night a few weeks ago. They’d been snuggling on the couch, eating popcorn as they watched an old black-and-white on the television.

“My family?” Kate had stuttered.

“You hardly ever talk about them. In fact, besides that trip to Minneapolis this summer, I’m not sure you’ve ever brought them up.”

Kate’s voice had hardened. “There’s not much to tell.”

“I’m sure that isn’t true.”

“Fine,” Kate had told him. “There’s not much I want to tell.”

Jackson had reached over to kiss the top of her cranky heat. “Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t pry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” she’d said then. “I just—my family, they‘re the reason I’m here. In Whestleigh.”

Beseechingly, Kate tried to make herself understood now as she stared at Penny’s disenchanted face. “I told him how she never approved of who I am; that I was never allowed to make my own decisions or stand up for myself, or even just believe I had a right to make my own choices without the fear of her constantly trying to change me. Don’t you get it?” Kate cried excitedly. “If I introduce Jackson to her—to the very root of my issues with commitment—that’s big! That has to mean something, you know, that I’m done running scared. It’ll make things right between us, I know it will. It’ll show him that he’s worth fighting for.”

“Yeah, well, your mother is definitely that. A fight.”

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” M.T. offered. “Jackson’s an important part of your life and introducing him as such, to your mother of all people, will speak volumes.”

“He’s angry because I kept us a secret,” Kate insisted, “and what better what to show him I’m through with all that then this?”

“But what about our plan?” Penny hissed out of the corner of her mouth.

Kate’s lips twitched. Oh, yeah. The plan, aka the “Big Romantic Gesture”, aka Penny’s scheme to get Kate back in Jackson’s good graces. Like most plots involving the psychic, it had been big, intense, and characteristically nutty. It had called for a whole host of props, among them a fully decked-out float, replete with yards and yards of crepe paper, duck-tape and balloons; discretely assembled loud-speakers, with accompanying microphones and camcorders; a garishly painted banner; music by the local bell-ringers; and one insanely elaborate ruse to get Jackson down to Bailey’s park at 12:07 in the morning…

It was all still in the preliminary phases, but just thinking about it gave Kate anxiety.

“New plan,” Kate informed her matter-of-factly. “And I think this one might work even better.”

“I guess,” Penny relented begrudgingly.

Kate nodded. She glanced quickly up at the clock. “Well, I better get going. Calida’s waiting,” she murmured, taking a half-step backward. “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck.”

“All the lucks.”

“Oh, and lock up when you leave,” Kate called, already making for the front door, her purse slung haphazardly over her shoulder.

 

 

 

“Do you even know where we’re going?” Calida couldn’t seem to help herself from asking when, five minutes later, Kate pulled off the main road down the short, dirt dead-end drive that wound to a close at the base of Jackson and Penny’s private houses.

“Of course,” Kate sighed, pulling over on the side of the rutted track. Getting out of the vehicle she waited while her mother gracefully alight from the passenger side. Now that they’d arrived, she was experiencing some severe second thoughts. What if Jackson wasn’t home? Or worse, what if he refused to answer the door? What if Calida made no impression upon him? What if he’d decided that Kate wasn’t worth all the hassle after all…

“Are you all right?” Calida asked, her voice unusually loud in the stillness of the lake as she rounded the back of the car to where Kate stood. “You look a bit pale.”

“I’m fine, mother,” Kate bit off.  Throwing her hair haughtily over one shoulder, she marched up to Jackson’s front door, heedless of her mother’s faltering steps behind. Bringing a shaking hand up to the doorbell, she pressed the buzzer.

“You never mention who we’ve come here to see? Don’t tell me your also good friends with a Catholic Priest—?” Calida’s jovial words were cut short by the sudden opening of the door before them.

“Kate?” At the sight of her, Jackson stilled, the door only halfway open. His lips formed a thin, hard line.

Kate could hardly breathe. “Jackson. Hi.”

He sighed tiredly. “Look, Kate I’m not in the mood to hear more excuses right now,” he started to say, in a very un-Jackson like tone of voice.

“No, I know,” she said. “And I’m—”

“Look. I know you’re sorry,” he finished, “but that’s not, I need a little…”

“Open the door, Jackson.”

“It is open.”

“No. All the way,” Kate said, and reaching forward, grabbed for its edge. Pushing against his hold on the doorknob, she swung the structure wide.

Jackson’s eyes widened at the unexpected sight of a strange woman standing beside Kate.  Swiveling, his shocked gaze got the full force of Calida’s intense, unwavering stare.

Taken aback, his eyes shifted back to Kate.

Screwing together the last of her courage, she said, her eyes never leaving his: “Mother, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Jackson.” She smiled hopefully up at his inscrutable face. “My boyfriend Jackson, who I love very much.”

Her mother gasped softly.

Jackson’s mouth dropped open just slightly.

 

 

 

Sitting cross-legged on her office floor, Penny tried to relax her mind.

“Breathe in. Feel your body infusing with air. You’re light. Floating… And breathe out. And take all the thoughts and emotions, all the clutter lurking in there out with that cleansing breath. Anchor your body to the ground, to the earth. Breathe deeply. Expand your chest.  Reach up to the sky, open to the celestial world above. And close. Let everything out. Out, out, out. A blank, open canvas,” she muttered to herself, her eyes tightly closed, palms resting, face up, on her thighs. “Be open. Be vulnerable. Be free.”

But it wasn’t working.

She just kept seeing Jake’s damn face.

After Kate had left with Calida, Penny’s problem (the one she’d happily put on the back-burner when Kate had called from under Jake’s office at the LitLiber, the one she’d much preferred not to think about anyway) had unfortunately resurfaced. In a big, bad way. Going home had been out of the question. She needed to think. Or to escape thinking, she wasn’t sure which. She needed to mediate, to be one with the Angels and Spirits around her. Gain a little perspective. So she’d gone to the one place that always steadied her—Madame Penny’s House of Intuition.

But perspective was being elusive and she wasn’t connecting with the Universe.

“Fail,” she muttered, opening her eyes warily.

Then she screamed.

“Jesus,” she cried out, one hand slamming up against her shaking chest. Gasping on a chocked breath, she felt her face infuse with heat. “How long have you been standing there?”

Because leaning up against the doorway to her office was none other than Jake Farrow.

His lips twisted into a cruel smile. “Surprised to see me?” he asked softly. Scrambling quickly to her feet, feeling at a disadvantage on the floor, Penny tried to find her inner serenity.

“Well. Yeah,” she offered plainly.

“That’s funny,” he mused, bringing a seemingly casual hand up to his chin. He rubbed his fingers against a slight bit of stubble there. “Because I was surprised to not see you. You remember: this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.”

Penny’s mouth dropped open.

“Jake.”

He looked disgusted. “I never would have taken you for a coward.”

“I am not a coward,” Penny demanded, pointing a finger at him. “How dare you…”

“No? Then what was that little disappearing act? Shame?”

“No! Never…”

Jake raised a dark eyebrow. “Then what?”

Penny felt her face flush, her heartbeat quicken against her veins. “I just…I wasn’t sure what happened?”

Jake barked out a laugh. “Shall I remind you?” He took a menacing step forward.

“No!” Penny held up a hand, stumbling backward. “I mean, I know what happened.”

“I should think so.”

“I just don’t know—”

“You don’t know what?”

Penny felt itchy. She felt on display. And really, why was she required to do all the explaining, all the talking? Why should she spell out her fears when, for all she knew, last night had been nothing more than a casual fling for him? And God, what would he say if he knew how much it had meant to her! No. No, no, no. She shrugged eloquently. “I don’t know what to say.”

Jake sighed. It held a weary note. “So it would seem.”

Penny’s eyes grew in alarm. “Well, what? You can’t just expect me to…”

Jake held up a hand, cutting her off. “Stop. Don’t.” He pushed himself off the wall. “You’ve made yourself patently clear.”

“You certainly haven’t though!” Penny accused.

“Why bother?” There’s nothing left to say.”

“Nothing—”

“Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”

“No. Yes. I-I,” Penny’s mouth kept sounding out words. “Jake, gave me a minute here.”

“I gave you all morning,” he told her. There was a note of finality in his tone as he turned toward the door.

“Jake. Wait.”

With his back to her now, one fist closed around the thick brocade material of her doorway, Jake only shook his head. “I can’t.”

“You can’t what?”

“Wait any longer.”

“What? I don’t—”

“I’m done pretending.” Penny watched his shoulder’s coil.

“Pretending?”

“To be your friend.”

Penny felt those words all the way to her stomach.

“It’s not enough for me. Not anymore.” And with those words hanging heavy in the air, he slipped through the curtained doorway, his steps hard and quick as he walked down the hallway toward the building’s exit.

Slinking slowly to the floor, her knees buckling from the confusion, the hurt and tension of the last few minutes, Penny felt tears crowding against her throat.

“Don’t go,” she whispered into the empty room.

 

 

 

Bent over her sermon notes, Maggie hummed softly to herself. After dropping Penny off at her office, the pastor had taken herself smartly back to the church, after first apologizing profusely to Heather, the office secretary, for her unexpected delay and promising to have the Sunday service completely solidified by the end of the day.

So here she sat.

Scratching out a line of text, she felt her lips twist. At this rate, she’d be here until midnight, trying to get everything just right…

On the wings of that thought, Maggie heard a quiet knock coming from outside her office door. Pushing her reading glasses off her face, she carefully kept from frowning. The last thing she needed right now was an unnecessary distraction.

“Come in,” she called, careful to keep her voice neutral.

But it wasn’t one of the ladies from the flower committee coming to discuss altar arrangements, nor was it the youth director coming to inquire about Confirmation Sunday; No, no. And certainly, the tall, handsome man standing in her doorway was not the church volunteer coordinator, here to complain about the lack of interest in the Library Board….

Smiling delightedly, Maggie beckoned her guest forward. “Hank,” she breathed, and suddenly his visit didn’t seem like a distraction at all, but a much-needed break in her day.    “What brings you here—not that I mind in the least!” With precise movements, she shuffled the notes scattered across her desk into a semblance of order, pushing them out of sight.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked, as he crossed the room towards her desk. Hank didn’t respond, but then he wasn’t a talkative man. Half-rising from her chair, M.T. continued  “Oh. And I think Heather brought in doughnu—”

Reaching across her desk, one finger fall gently over her lips, Hank stemmed the last of her words

“I came here to tell you,” he paused. “Don’t talk to them.”

Huh? “Talk to whom?” she asked, her voice muffled by his finger.

“The church board. The PPC—whoever in hell that is,” he responded gruffly, slowly releasing his index finger from her mouth. “The congregation. Your staff,” he continued, ticking off the list. “And, I don’t know, anyone else you had in mind—”

“Don’t talk to them about what?” But, actually she had a pretty good idea.

“Our private life. Our-our intimate affairs.” Hank’s neck burned above the collar of his work shirt.

“Oh.” Stall, Maggie. Stall. “But, Hank we discussed—”

“No. You discussed. Now it’s your turn to listen,” he informed her staunchly.

Maggie swallowed nervously. “Oh.”

Now that he had her quiet, undivided attention, Hank seemed to have lost his nerve.

“What is it you’d like to say?”

“Dammit Maggie!” Hank sighed, his hand scratching at his hair. “I don’t want you to have to do that. And I don’t think you want to do it, either.”

“But I do—!”
“I’ll wait.” The words were simple, short. Uttered in a gravely timbre.

Maggie’s eyes widened, but otherwise she remained silent.

“Do you understand me? I’ll wait for you. However long it takes. We’ll do this right.”

“Hank…”

“Tut, tut!”

Maggie quickly snapped her mouth closed. But nothing could wipe away her smile.

Hank grinned. “Don’t underestimate me, Margaret. I’m a patient man. I’ll wait for you.”

 

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 Fifty-One

With something akin to panic, Jake stared down at the concert tickets sitting on his kitchen counter. They were for her favorite band—when he’d found out they were playing in town, he’d rushed out to buy them. It was going to be a surprise.

Grimacing, he pushed them out of his sight.

Kate had the absolute worst timing.

Pushing himself up, Jake paced from his kitchen counter to his living room windows and back again. That would all end now; they would go back to the way things had been before. Because—because, he and Penny’s relationship was a farce, built on the fabric of something false, something that turned out to be, ironically, only in the way….

Because Jake didn’t want Kate anymore.

He wasn’t entirely sure when it had started, but somewhere along the way she’d just become the excuse, the reason to keep hanging out with his old friend, his friend that he’d forgotten how much he missed; his friend that had somehow become more important than the girl.

But he wouldn’t have that excuse anymore.

Jake shook his head, his mind rewinding back to half an hour ago, when he’d heard that unexpected knock at his door…

“Kate,” he’d announced, surprise etching across his features when he found her on the other side of his doorstep.

“Jake.” She’d tried to smile. “I-uh—are you busy right now?”

“No…”

She’d looked momentarily relieved, and at the same time sharply uncomfortable. Nodding with a jerk, she’d taken in a noisy breath. “I was hoping, erm, can we talk?”
And Jake had known already what she’d come to say. Stepping back, he’d waved her inside. “Of course,” he’d inviting, a pit forming in his stomach.

Fidgeting, she’d moved into his living room.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” he’d asked automatically, hoping to dispel some of the nervous energy practically oozing out of her pores.

“No, no, that’s okay,” she’d said. Then, squaring her shoulders, she’d looked him dead in the eyes. “I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’ll just start…”
“Kate,” Jake had interrupted then, holding up a hand. “It’s okay.”

But she’d gone on anyway. “I asked you for time. I asked that you wait for me to figure out what I wanted…which was selfish of me, unfair of me. But you did it anyway.” She’d sighed. “You did that for me—and I’ll always thank you for your patience and kindness. Really, truly. The least I can do is be honest with you now.”

Jake smiled gently, hoping to ease her way. “Okay.”

“You have been such a good friend to me,” Kate said.

“And you’ve been a good friend to me.”

“And I don’t want that to change, but—” Kate bit her lip. “But that’s all we can be. Friends, I mean.” Her eyes stared down at her feet. “I don’t—I wish I could say, ‘I just don’t feel that way about you,’ but we both know that wouldn’t be entirely true,” Kate said with a half-laugh. “Only…. I don’t think I feel it enough. And that’s not fair to either of us.”

Jake reached forward to cup her elbow. “I know,” he told her then, silencing her. “I think I knew it all along.”

Kate’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be.”

“Jake, I would never deliberately hurt you. And I’m so sorry if I led you to believe—”

“Kate,” Jake had insisted, “the only thing you led me to believe was exactly what you just said: that you weren’t sure what you wanted. That you were confused….and  now, now you’ve decided. You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing. I made all the moves, not you.”

“Stop being so nice to me…”

“No, I’ll never do that—”

Kate gave a watery snort.

“And Kate,” at this, she chanced to look up at his face, her eyes finding a gentle, compassionate response there. “Thank you for telling me—that is, how you feel. Thank you for talking to me about it, and in such a graceful way.”

“I know it’s terrible to say, but I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t,” Jake told her. “We’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” And oddly, he’d meant it.

 

 

 

Jake pursed his lips. The irony was, it wasn’t Kate he was mourning right now, it wasn’t Kate who was making his muscles cramp, his throat feel too tight; it wasn’t Kate who he feared losing. It was Penny. Because somewhere along the way, she’d stolen the show, pushing Kate to the backseat, and making a convenient excuse of the blonde—and all in the name of continuing this ruse.

Only, he hadn’t been willing to admit that, even to himself, not until Kate had walked into his apartment, not until she’d started talking, saying words that should have crushed him, words that should have broken his heart. But all he’d felt was relief. That it was over. That Kate wasn’t in love with him. Because…because he wasn’t in love with her.

There was just one small hitch. Without Kate there was no Penny. And without Penny—Jake swallowed hard—without Penny, his life seemed a little duller, a little less humorous. Without Penny….

Walking back to his kitchen, he stared down at those concert tickets again. It had been a week ago: Penny had called, asking if he wanted to have dinner at her house—she was trying out a new dish and she needed a guinea pig. Maggie was out at Hanks and Jake was the only other person she knew desperate enough to be a taste-tester….

“I see,” he’d teased on the phone. “I’m nothing more than a science experiment.”

“Did I mention that I also have a six-pack sitting on ice?” She’d offered laughingly.

“Be there in five minutes.”

“I thought so,” she’d laughed.

Pocketing his phone, Jake had been true to his word. Wasting two of those minutes to rip out of the sweats and into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh button-up, splash on a little cologne, and work his fingers through his hair, he’d been quickly out the door, whistling as he’d locked up.

The topic of conversation had happened naturally enough. They’d just sat down at the table, and Jake had begun talking to her about the idea of booking a concert for the LitLiber’s Anniversary Party when she’d offered up her favorite band as a possibility:

“…I saw them for the first time in Hiltbolt. I was seventeen, and it was the first time I’d ever snuck out to a bar…” Penny had informed him. Her face was pink with the memory. “And, I don’t know, I guess it was love at first sight.”

Jake had grinned. “You were forever resigned to be the number one fan of a group called Stink Pig?”

Penny had wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, they could have picked a better name…”

“Are they actually any good?”

Penny had shrugged. “Who knows—but every time I listen to them, I’m seventeen again….”

“Drinking your first illegal beer…”

“…and having the absolute time of my life!”

Jake had teased her then: “I never knew you were such a wild child.”

Penny had laughed. “That’s just it. I wasn’t. I believe that night went down in history as my one and only experience breaking curfew.”

“Really?” And that had piqued his interest. The most popular guy in school, he’d barely bothered to remember that he even had a curfew…there was always a party to go to, a girl to see.

Penny had scoffed then at his show of curiosity. “Can you really pretend that much surprise? You know what I was like.”

And, unfortunately, he had. Penny hadn’t grown up with much money. Her clothes had always been old, second-hand, and frequently carrying the unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke and booze. Her hair had been bushy, frizzy back then—add that to her eccentric personality and odd sense of humor, and Penny had pretty much been the laughing stock of the school.

 

 

 

Which was how he’d come up the idea to hunt down Stink Pig, and find out where they were playing next. He had it all planned out. He was going to sneak Penny out of her bedroom window and take her to watch them. He was going to help her be seventeen again.

And as luck would have it, he’d found Stink Pig easily enough. Their website stated that they were playing out at the Wild Oak Bar and Grill that very weekend. Barely a twenty minute drive away, Jake had snatched up the tickets without a second thought. It would be perfect.

The show wasn’t set to start until midnight. Jake would be locking up at LitLiber a little after ten. After going home for a quick change, he was going to drive over to Penny’s and throw rocks at her bedroom window or something like that—very old-school, traditional stuff. He was going to tell her to get dressed and that he had a surprise for her….

He stared down at the tickets once more, his mouth setting in a grim line. He hadn’t realized it until right now, how much he’d been looking forward to it. He hadn’t realized until right now, how much he wanted to do that for Penny…and how much he wanted to do it for himself.

But everything would change now. Their reason for getting together, the underlining theme to it all, the only thing that had drawn them back together and kept them that way (namely Kate)…it was dead in the water. And Jake couldn’t care less about that. Only, he didn’t want to lose Penny alongside Kate.

Only, how did he keep her? They didn’t have the same friends. They didn’t go to the same places. Hell, they didn’t even like the same music.

The tickets stared up at him mockingly.

And in a split second decision, Jake reached for his phone. Scrolling quickly through his contacts list, he quickly dialed the number he actually knew by heart.

“Good afternoon, Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—”

“Penny, its Jake…”

The air on the other side of the line changed. Jake could practically feel it. “So—you heard?”

“Heard?” Jake held his breath, playing dumb. Penny knew already?! Dammit.

She cleared her throat. “Oh, ah, I thought…that is, have you seen Kate today?”

Yup. She knew all right. Which meant there was only one thing to do. Closing his eyes tightly, Jake did something he’d never done before to Penny. He lied. “No. Why?”

He wasn’t ready to explain himself. He wasn’t ready to risk losing Penny….because, bottom line: he wasn’t sure she’d still be his friend without the added incentive of helping out Kate. After all, that’s the reason she was talking to him, hanging out with him, wasn’t it? Because of Kate. Because she was Kate’s best friend. Kate, Kate Kate….

What if—what if he wasn’t enough to keep her interest alone? What if…

So Jake lied.

If he didn’t know about Kate, then maybe they things could remain the same…even if it was just for a little bit longer.

“Nothing,” Penny rushed to say, “No reason. What’s up?”

Jake grinned. “What are you doing tonight?”

“No plans,” Penny said.

“The night you went to Hillbolt, when you were seventeen to watch Stink Pigs—do you remember what you were wearing?”

Penny laughed. There was a husky note in her voice. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Could you replicate it?”

“What?”

“Tonight, before you go to bed, put on something like what you wore that night.”

“Before I go to bed?”
“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Penny said, her voice accurately portraying her confusion.

“Oh, and Penny…”

“Yeah?”

“Make sure the window to your room is closed.”

“The window…?”
“I’ll see you later.”

Penny laughed again. “See you later.”

Putting down the phone, Jake grinned. Staring up at the clock, he mentally counted down time. It was almost four hours until he’d start work. Ten hours until he’d lock up for the night. It was almost twelve hours until he’d see Penny.

His heart kicked up a little. Twelve hours.

Walking toward his shower, whistling some old country and western song, Jake stole a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. There was flush on his cheeks that had nothing to do with the room’s temperature. Turning on the water, he stopped to let his mind wander for a second.

He wondered what outfit Penny was going to wear.

His grin only widened.

Twelve hours.

Time couldn’t pass soon enough.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Five

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

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

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

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

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

5:46 p.m.

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

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

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

Breathe Kate. Just breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem.”

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

“Would you like to come in—?”

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

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

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

Jackson laughed quietly. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

And she wanted to see where this led.

She was in. Fully in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled back wobbly. “It’s okay.”

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

Kate reeled. “I—oh…”

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

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

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

“Jealous? Over me?” Kate hedged.

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

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

Of course, it also spelled trouble….

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

“No?” Jackson looked worried.

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

“I don’t want you to do that either…”

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

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

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

“I wasn’t?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I’ll ask.”

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

Jackson had the grace to look ashamed.

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

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

“We’re leaving?” Kate asked unnerved.

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

And Kate grinned. Then she giggled.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

<  Recepient List: Mags; Katy Kat

—————-07/08/2015 Wed—————–

 

From Penny: Kate, M.T. get ready… I’m

       signing us up as a team for the Triathlon

       Scramble. It’s next Saturday.                                                        

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

       Mags, you got swim-duty. Get training!

  • Sent 8:15 p.m.

 

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

  • Sent 8:23 p.m.

 

From Penny: None at all.

  • Sent 8:24 p.m.

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Three

Kate squirmed quietly in her seat. She was damn near bursting at the seams to talk to M.T. and Penny. Mostly Penny. Kate had big news; news that would end her and the psychic’s stupid feud. News both of these women would really, really want to hear…at least, she hoped so.

And what better time to share-all (and clear the air) than tonight, when they were already together, enjoying one of their infamous Girl’s Night Dinners. Though, to be fair, Kate wasn’t sure if ‘enjoying’ was quite the right word….

But, clearly M.T. needed the spotlight right now. Kate nodded her head. So she would wait. And she would help M.T. Kate was an adult, after all. She could put her big news on hold until they’d reached a conclusive answer to M.T.’’s current predicament. Of course she could. And, after that, she would talk.

So—how did a pastor go about consummating a marriage-less relationship?

Penny’s voice intruded Kate’s thoughts: “…but could you potentially get fired for this?”

M.T. tried to look casual. “Well—I’m sure it wouldn’t come to that…”

“Do you need to tell everyone?” Kate asked quietly.

M.T. looked confused. “I’m not sure what you mean?”

“It’s just, when you say you’re going to tell the people of Good Shepherd do you mean… all of them?”

“Yes. All of them.”

“Yeah.” Kate swallowed hard. “It’s just—isn’t that a bit risky, throwing it out to the entire congregation, giving them authority over something so, uh…ambiguous.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” Penny said under her breath.

“Actually,” Kate returned smartly. “You’ve been saying they don’t have a right to know period. I’m saying—”

Penny smacked a hand over her forehead. “Oh Good God…who cares?!”

Back straight, and chin tilted at a haughty angle, Kate turned back to M.T. “It’s just, does it need to be such a public affair? That’s wrought for emotional and reactive responses. And what if they don’t support it? What would you do then?”

M.T. looked panicky again.

But Kate wasn’t done with her scare tactics. “And, if all that happened, what about the church? Would they be forced to make an issue out of this?—I mean, what is your denominations technical stance on this anyway?”

M.T. fidgeted with a lock of hair—twining it around her ear, letting it loose and then repeat. “Listen, I know it’s risky but it’s also real and genuine—”

Kate cut off her defense. “Okay, but what about if you started smaller? Say the board of directors—see what they have to say about it. I mean, these are the people who quote the by-laws chapter and verse, right? They’ll know how to advise you going forward.”

Now it was M.T. who squirmed in her seat. “I’m not sure—they’re kind of a stodgy bunch. They’ve never been exactly welcoming to me.”

“What about the church staff then—?” Kate offered, but her quiet suggestion was both cut-short and drowned-out.

“And?” Penny boomed loudly, leaning forward to join the conversation again: “They’re just as much a part of Good Shepherd’s as all those countless other strict traditionalists. If you can’t stomach squaring if with only a handful of them how do you propose a whole sanctuary full? Or are you planning on only revealing your intentions with the more liberal church-goers?”

“I’ve just never been the kind of pastor who…” M.T. pushed her plate away as though it had offended her. “I don’t want to feel as though there are parts of my life I can’t talk about to the parishioners. I don’t want to feel like I’m keeping secrets, or hiding things. That feels wrong. And if I can’t be honest and open, how can I ask them to be—”

“All right but, how does Hank feel about it?” Kate asked, praying for a Hail Mary. “About his private life being talked about in such a well, public setting? Because it’s not about just you anymore.”

“Oh.” M.T. looked taken aback.

“Never considered that one, huh?” Penny jeered.

“We never talked about it…”

“You may want to,” Penny cautioned. “Because, according to this conversation, it’s something he’d have to get used to.”
“Well, I mean, I don’t know if I’d put it that way—”

Penny frowned. “You’re asking for the church’s permission to date a guy…I’d say so.”

M.T. made a face. “You’re putting words into my mouth.”
“No. I’m just clarifying. You can’t make a decision—a very personal decision—without their unequivocal say-so.”

“Penny, that’s enough,” M.T. replied curtly.

“Have you told Hank about your reservations—about why you haven’t, well, you knowed with him?” Kate asked meaningfully.

M.T. shook her head. “No. I—”

“Why not?”
M.T. shrugged. “Because when you say it out loud it sounds kind of…” She shrugged uncomfortably.

Penny. “Big Brother-ish?”

“No,” M.T. snapped. “No. Because I’m afraid he wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re afraid it would scare him away,” Penny answered firmly. “Admit it.”

Maggie sputtered. “No, it’s just…there are certain allowances…I’m not sure he’s…it’s a big thing to ask someone—”

“Hey,” Kate soothed, reaching forward to touch the back of M.T.’s hand. Her voice was gentle where Penny’s had been hard, forceful. She smiled at the scared pastor sitting opposite her. “If Hank isn’t willing to do that, then why are we even having this discussion?”

M.T. sighed. “Okay. Yeah. You’re right. I’ll talk to him.”

Penny nodded. “Yeah, it’s—”

The sudden piercing jingle of Kate’s cell-phone rang out, interrupting whatever Penny had been about to say. Reaching apologetically into her back pocket, Kate retrieved the device, which she’d forgotten to silence earlier. Checking the screen, she saw it was a text message. Blushing, Kate was pretty sure she knew who it was from. After all, she was with the only other people who regularly contacted her already.

Penny, staring pointedly at the thing clutched in Kate’s hands, seemed to be waiting. Looking up to see those prying eyes, Kate quickly dropped the phone down onto the seat beside her. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

“Tonight,” Penny said decisively. “After we leave. Call him.”

“Yes, okay—”

Kate’s phone buzzed again. This time, all three pairs of eyes turned to look at it.

“Have somewhere you need to be?” Penny asked.

“No—no,” Kate assured them. “I’m sure it’s just someone from work.” The fib came easily to her lips. “Probably looking to drop a shift or something.”

“Do you need to check it?” M.T. asked, without censure. “It may be important.”

“No, I’m sure—”

“Go ahead,” Penny invited, waving toward the condemned thing. “Otherwise, it may go off all night at this rate…”

“Fine,” Kate replied tightly and, goaded by the words, snatched up the phone with impatient fingers. Opening up the text—now two text messages—Kate saw that she’d been right all along. They were from him. Reading them silently, she couldn’t help the small smile that played out over her mouth as she read the missive.

“Ah. Judging by the look on her face,  if it is from Kate’s work, I have a pretty good guess of who it is that’s trying so hard to get a hold of her,” Penny whispered loudly to M.T. Kate’s head snapped up at the ominous words, her smile freezing uncertainly on her face.

Maggie sent her sister a speaking look. “Don’t,” she mouthed.

Penny pursed her lips. “No actually, I should speak,” and turning to stare at Kate, who bit the inside of her cheeks nervously, added: “Because, the thing is…”

Kate felt her heartbeat kick up a notch. Not again…

“The thing is,” Penny said. “Jake’s a good guy—”

Kate blinked. Wait. What? Jake—? That wasn’t what she’d expected to hear.

“He’s a great guy actually,” Penny continued. “But I think you already know that.”

Kate shook her head. “Penny…”

“No, let me finish,” she insisted. “I shouldn’t have—you’ve been pressured your entire life on who to like and who not to, and—well, I’m sorry if I was doing that too. I’m sorry that I acted like you needed my approval to validate your feelings…and that there was only one way to gain it, by liking what I liked.”

“You weren’t—”

“Yes, I was,” Penny admitted. “And it didn’t even make any sense, because Jake would be perfect for you.” At this impassioned speech, M.T. stared thoughtfully at her sister. And a bit confusedly. (This went double for Kate, who was openly gaping at Penny.) “I-I think I just wanted to be right so badly about you and Jackson that I refused to—that I…”

“Penny, that’s the thing…” but again, Kate’s words were ignored.

“I didn’t want to see what was happening with you and Jake,” Penny made a fleeting gesture with her hand, “I didn’t want to see what I saw down in M.T.’s basement. But, I did see it. And it made sense…at least, once I got over myself, it did.”

Kate felt herself shrinking in her chair. What the hell was happening? Penny wanted Kate to get with Jake? Now? Finally? That was rich. Of all the times to switch sides…

And to think she’d been so excited to talk to Penny tonight, to tell her what had happened yesterday afternoon, when she’d been over at Jackson’s house, rehearsing for the play. She’d been itching to talk to Penny… and most certainly not about Jake. It was a good story, only now she wasn’t sure she had the right audience to hear it.

 

 

 

Because, barring the clumsy, gawkish entrance at Jackson’s front door, it might have been one of the most romantic nights of Kate’s life. The evening started out as most historic evenings go—normal, uneventful even. They’d just been sitting in his living room, scripts in hand, going over scenes for the play…

“…okay,” Jackson announced tirelessly, after the better part of an hour’s rehearsing: “Try that last line again.”

Kate scratched the side of her neck. “Yeah, it sounded a bit cartoonish when I said it, didn’t it?”
“More like an after-school special,” Jackson replied.

Kate laughed. “Yeah. All right.” And so she read the line again—Jackson standing back and watching her movements, her inflection, her facial expressions.

It took three more read-through’s and then…

“That’s it,” he said, with a definitive clap of his hands. “Right there.”

“Oh thank God,” Kate teased playfully, dropping her script down at her side. “I thought I’d be here all night!”

Jackson grinned. “Hey, you’re working with a professional here. No sloppy acting allowed.”

“Because, surely, if that part wasn’t just perfect, I was going to get tomatoed for sure!”

Jackson smiled gamely. “Ready to run through it one more time? From the top?”

“Slave driver!” Kate cried with a wink.

“All right,” Jackson relented. “How about a five minute break?”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Jackson nodded. “Water?”
Kate nodded. “Even better.”

“Be right back,” he said before leaving the room, his steps taking him quietly toward the back of the house, where the kitchen was located.

It was as she was standing there, idly gazing about the room, waiting for him to return that Kate noticed it, a picture frame sitting on the wood-hewn mantle, its gilded border nestled on either side by floral vases, each one overflowing with fresh, wild flowers. The photo was of a blonde woman. A very lovely, and very young blonde woman. A glimpse of the lake could just be seen in the background. She was smiling with such happiness.

“Kate?”
Jumping at the sound of Jackson’s voice, coming from close behind her, Kate turned quickly around. She hadn’t heard him come back in, but it was clear from the look on his face he’d been there for a bit…and that he’d seen her looking at the photograph.

So she decided not to pretend otherwise. Talking softly, as though her words were delicate, Kate nodded toward the picture: “Was this…?”
“Yes.”

“Emily.”

Jackson’s throat bobbed in response. Carefully, he set both glasses of water down on the coffee table before advancing toward the fireplace.

“She was…very beautiful,” Kate whispered.

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate offered belatedly. “I wasn’t meaning to snoop.”

“Of course not,” Jackson said, waving her words away. He turned to look down at Kate then and that’s when she realized how close to one another they were suddenly. “In fact, I’m kind of glad you saw it.”

Kate stared at him, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d feel…having you here. This was her home.”

Kate’s teeth rasped lightly over her lips. “I don’t understand…?”

Jackson took another half-step forward, until he was almost touching her. “I needed to be sure.”

“Sure?”
In answer, Jackson’s right hand lifted, settling against the side of her cheek, his thumb absently caressing the underside of her chin as his face slowly lowered, his breath rustling across her cheek. “And now I am,” he whispered seconds before he fitted his mouth to her own.

And for once in twenty-eight years, Kate didn’t over-think her response; she didn’t question the practicality, or doubt what was right or wrong. She didn’t analysis the moment right out of her life. For once, she acted upon instinct. And, on that, she raised her arms to his face, her hands cupping either side of his jaw as she opened her mouth up to the invading pressure of his tongue….

Long minutes later, Jackson lifted his head and, staring down at Kate’s bemused expression, he smiled. “I have to confess,” he whispered in a mock-serious tone. “I asked you over here today with an ulterior motive.”

Kate nodded. “I see. So all this talk of ‘practice,’ was just a ruse, huh?”
Jackson grinned. “Well, only partly. The rehearsal was real enough—your acting did need some help…”

Kate swatted him on the shoulder. “Yeah? Well so does your flattery.”

Jackson’s grinned slipped from his face. “Hopefully what I have to say next will make up for it.”

Kate held her breath.

“Kate McDonald,” Jackson said, “would you go out on a date with me?”

And, for the second time in her life, Kate didn’t stop to consider her answer, she didn’t weigh the pros and cons, and she didn’t let herself wonder what Penny would do, how M.T. should would advise, or if her mother would approve. No, this time, she said the first word that came to her mind, the one that felt right sitting on her tongue.

“Yes.”

 

 

 

But now, staring soulfully at Penny, Kate, who’d dreamed of retelling this story, found herself ironically unable to do so.

“…look, all I’m saying is, I overreacted the other day, seeing you with Jake,” Penny said now. “And I took it out on you which wasn’t fair, because I think we all know I wouldn’t have been anywhere near as upset if it had been you and Jackson down there. What I said, it wasn’t… I was wrong, okay? On all accounts.”

“But Penny…”

“But that’s over now.”

Kate felt her brows furrow. “So you want me to end up with Jake? Not Jackson? I’m confused.”

“Me too,” M.T. muttered under her breath.

“No.” Penny took a deep breath. “I’m saying that perhaps I didn’t give Jake a fair shake. And if that’s the case, then perhaps I stopped you from—just, disregard everything I ever said about him.”

Kate felt a lump forming in her throat.

 

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 Thirty-Five

Kate’s knees felt like jelly as she walked the length of the LitLiber bookstore toward the small, multi-purpose room located in the building’s rear. Her hands felt sweaty as her eyes looked searchingly toward the windows overlooking the white-walled room. The blinds were up and she had a clear view of Jackson standing there.

Automatically, her hand went up to brush back her excruciatingly styled hair (and if she were wearing more make-up than usual, and if her attire was a little dressier than was absolutely necessary, Kate chose not to pretend otherwise). Tonight marked the first play rehearsal…and she felt like puking.

Grabbing the doorknob in her damp palms, Kate twisted it, pushing the door open….only it wasn’t just Jackson whose eyes swiveled in her direction. Two other pair followed suit. Stumbling, blinking stupidly, Kate felt her mouth gape open—just who in the hell were they?

“Kate, good you’re here,” Jackson said, his eyes taking her in quickly and then moving away again to settle more firmly on the other two, mysterious occupants in the room. “Let me introduce you,” he said, waving to the man and woman standing composedly beside him. “This is Gary Park and his wife Allison. They’ll also be in the play.”

Kate nodded. “How do you do?” she asked politely, recovering quickly.

“Gar, Allie, this is Kate McDonald,” he said in return.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Allison said. A tall, willowy woman with honey blonde hair, she looked the exact opposite of Kate—coolly composed.

Kate hadn’t counted on there being anyone else in the room. She hadn’t stopped to consider that she might not be the only person in the play; that she might have cast members. She’d been so anxious and nervous, her thoughts so precisely stuck on Jackson, that she’d thought of only him…and her. Him and her. Together. Alone.

Jackson smiled, handing over a script to Kate. “Now that we’re all here, let’s talk a bit about logistics…”

Kate tried to listen as he prattled on about schedules, staging and blocking, and showtimes, but it was no use. She was too preoccupied with not looking directly at Jackson, not looking consciously disappointed, or interested, or anything…she needed to appear low-key, chill. Totally unfazed. She was too busy trying to look like she was paying attention to actually be doing that.

“…and we’ll end the performance by inviting the kids to circle around for LitLiber’s very own Reading Hour.” Jackson turned to lock gazes with Kate, who kept her eyes somewhere distinctly over his left shoulder. “As staff here, Jake asked that you personally handle that aspect of the show.”

Mute, Kate nodded in agreement.

Jackson cleared his throat, clapping his hands together. “All right. So, let’s just do a quick run-through of the play, and we’ll take it from there, okay?”

“Sure,” Gary seconded. Ruffling the pages of his script, he quickly turned to page one. Allison and Kate followed suit.

 

 

 

One hour later and Kate no longer felt like puking. Instead, she felt like crying. Gary and Allison, it turned out, performed regularly in community theatre, and it showed. They had their lines, facial expressions, and walking cues down pat within the first half an hour. Kate was playing a pathetic, clumsy attempt at catch-up.

“Okay. Let’s stop here—” Jackson said, in the middle of one of Kate’s more bumbling reads. Feeling her face flush, she dropped her script down to her sides. Gary and Allison nodded in quick agreement.

“Now that we’ve got a feel for the play as a whole, let’s pair up—use the time focus a bit more exclusively on one another’s individual lines and parts.” Jackson glanced at the three of them. “Gar, Allie, why don’t you work together. Kate, you’re with me.” Was it just her imagination, or did both Gary and Allison send Jackson a vaguely sympatric look…?

Feeling her shoulders tightening, Kate watched the other actors move off to the edge of the room, scripts open and ready…“I’m sorry,” she whispered when Jackson came up to her. She hated how choked her voice sounded. “I know I’m not doing very well…”

Jackson waved dismissively. “You’re doing fine. It’s a first read-through with the script—”

“That hasn’t held up Gary and Allison,” Kate pointed out. She felt her lips quiver a little over the words.

Jackson shrugged. “They’re more seasoned, that’s all.”

Covering her face with her hands, Kate nodded wearily. “It’s not too late, you know, to find someone else.”

“Kate…”

“I don’t want to ruin the show.” She didn’t want to make an ass out of herself, with half the town watching.

“Kate.” At the firm note in Jackson’s voice, she lowered her hands. “I know it’s scary, but you can’t get defeated. Acting isn’t easy, but this—,” he said, waving a hand up and down, indicating her person, “doesn’t help. You’ve got to be open to learning, and fumbling. You can’t be so prideful.”

For the second time in as many minutes Kate felt her body engulfed in the flames of embarrassment. She was stomping around like a child, and Jackson had more-or-less just pointed it out.

Sighing, her bangs ruffling against her forehead, Kate hoped her cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. “You’re right. Okay, I can do this.” She smiled self-consciously. “Temper tantrum over.”

“That’s my girl,” Jackson said with a wink.

Kate felt that wink all the way to the pit of her stomach. Jackson, however, didn’t seem to be sharing in her feelings. Opening the script, he pointed to page three. “Let’s start at the top here—”

“All right.” Staring down at the typed words, Kate tried to focus. “Reading? No way—what’s so fun about books?”

“Okay,” Jackson said, cutting her short there. “That’s better, but I want you to really emphasis your almost scornful disbelief in this moment—like you’re mocking Gary and Allison. Because, when they answer you back, when they tell you all about the places they’ve been, the people they’ve met through the imaginative world of books, you can’t help but be a little impressed, intrigued even. Against your will, you find yourself wanting to know more.”

Kate nodded uncertainly. “Okay—”

“Just remember: that shift in perspective needs to be impactful. You go from someone who thinks books are totally lame to someone who falls in love with reading. This experience—from one reaction to the next, needs to be big. It needs to be felt.” Jackson was leaning in close to Kate now. Her nose crinkled just the tiniest bit. He smelled really nice.

Nodding jerkily, Kate focused her attention to the topic at hand. “All right—let me try it again.” Taking a deep breath, she screwed up her features to a look of incredulity. “Reading? No way—what’s so fun about books?”

“That’s it, right there!” Jackson reached out, grabbing hold of Kate’s hand. His eyes were playful, but his voice was serious enough: “See, I knew you could do it.” Kate’s stomach twisted, constricted. She wasn’t sure if it was the headiness of success or the effects of his touch.

The opening of the door just then surprised them both into looking up. Jake stood there, just inside the entryway. His eyes flickered with unerringly precision toward their joined grip, their entwined fingers… His lips turned down.  Kate’s eyes followed his line of sight. So did Jackson’s.

“Jake—what’s up?” Instead of letting her go, as Kate had expected, Jackson’s hand, if anything, pressed even tighter against hers’.

Deliberately rising his gaze, Jake opened the door a bit wider. “I didn’t mean to interrupt—” his tone was loaded with meaning. “But I was hoping to talk to Kate real quick…?”

Jackson shrugged. “Sure, we’re almost done here anyway.” And then, with a final squeeze, he loosened his hold. “I’ll see you Wednesday night for our next rehearsal, right?”

“Ah—that’s actually what I was coming to see Kate about,” Jake said quickly—too quickly— “The thing is…we’re going to be a bit, uh, short-handed that evening, and I was hoping she’d be willing to work a shift here instead?” There was no disguising the satisfaction in his voice.

Kate looked between the men. “Well…um—I guess that’s up to Jackson? What do you think?”

“If Jake needs you…”

“And I do,” the other man was fast to reinforce.

“Then by all means, take the shift,” Jackson answered good-naturedly. “Though, since I’m not keen on anyone skipping rehearsals entirely, how about a make-up date on Thursday evening?” Jackson’s eyes never left Jake’s. “We could meet at my house; it’ll be less distracting there.”

Kate felt strange. Something unsaid was definitely being said between Jake and Jackson…and she had a terrible, horrible feeling it had everything to do with her.

“Uh—sure?” Kate faltered, stuck between a rock and a hard place. “That-a, that works.”

Jake looked pissed.

Jackson looked smug.

“Was there anything else?” Jackson asked pointedly.

“No,” Jake said, his voice clipped. “That was all.”

 

 

 

Exiting the LitLiber some twenty minutes later, Kate’s feet took her quickly down the sidewalk. Head turned, eyes sharp …Kate let out a soft breath when she spied what she was desperate to see: the faint amber-glow emitting out the window belonging to Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Penny was still at work. Kate had rarely been so glad of that fact. She needed someone to talk to.

Things with Jake and Jackson had taken an unexpected turn. Kate had only just started to get comfortable with the knowledge that each of them liked her and now—and now she had to worry about each of them knowing that the other liked her, too? It was complicated and confusing.

It was as Kate was on the verge of crossing the street when the door to Penny’s shop opened and, mouth dropping open, Kate saw none other than Janessa, her sixteen year old mentee, come barreling out of it and onto the street. Standing back, frozen with consternation, Kate watched as the teenager disappeared quickly down the street.

What in the world had Janessa been doing at Penny’s?

Doubling up her steps, Kate was determined to find out. Reaching the curb, she lunged forward. Wasting no time, she quickly found herself inside the building Janessa had only just left, halfway down the hallway which led to Penny’s office (which was technically the utility as the back of large florist shop) and the bathrooms. Rapping her knuckles hard against the wall beside the curtained doorway there, she waited…

“Come in,” Penny called in the sultry, husky tone she adopted for her office hours. “Oh—Kate, what a surprise,” she added when the younger woman poked her head inside.

“Yeah, hey,” Kate greeted distractedly. Nodding toward the street outside, she asked: “Did I just see Janessa leaving from here?”

“Probably,” Penny supplied. Then, with a flourished wave of her hand, she gave Kate a knowing look. “Now tell me, how were rehearsals?”

But Kate shook her head. That could wait. “Probably? What was she doing in here?”

Penny shrugged dismissively. “Answering her curiosity, I suppose.”

“Riddles, Penny?”

The psychic laughed. “Of course not. She merely came by to enquire about job-shadowing me.”

“What?”

“I know, I know,” the psychic mused, “I told her that my particular craft is not something just anyone can take up—but she seemed determined. It’s a school project or something—she has to write a report about a profession she finds interesting.”

“And she chose you?” Kate asked, her mouth feeling like sawdust.

Penny shrugged. “I guess so.”

“So—you’re actually going to do it? Let her come in and watch you at work?”

Penny shrugged. “Once I get permission from my clients, yes.”

Kate nodded robotically. “Oh.”

Penny’s head tilted a little to one side. “That is—are you okay with that?”

“Me? Of course I’m okay with that.” Kate’s voice came out a little loudly. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Penny gave her another knowing look. “I’m sure I don’t know.”

Lowering her eyes, Kate watched her foot scrub against the floor. “Well, good. Great. That will be fun for you.” Kate’s voice was flat, monotone.

“Yes…”

“How did she—that is, do you two know each other?”

Penny’s gaze was starting to unnerve Kate. “Not before today, no. She’d heard of me from you.”

“Oh. Right. That makes sense.”

“And you don’t mind, that she asked me?”

“Again,” Kate said, her voice cutting, “why would I mind? Besides, it’s her choice. She can pick whomever she wants.”

“Okay.”

 

 

 

But Kate did mind. Rushing quickly out of Penny’s office, on some plea of household work to get done, Kate fumed all the way back home. Janessa had picked Penny? Penny? A psychic? And why hadn’t Kate even known about the project? Why hadn’t Janessa talked to her?

“People used to job-shadow me all the time. So much so that I used to get sick of it,” Kate mumbled to herself as she rounded Eveleth Ave. “And I was good at it, too. I could get the kids interested and I explained things in a way that clicked. I got so many requests I actually had to turn kids down.” She sighed. “Of course. That was then. Who wants to walk around behind me now, watching how I rearrange books on shelves? Clearly not Janessa.”

And that hurt. For some stupid reason, it hurt that Janessa hadn’t thought of her. “I mean, it’s not like I blame her—it’s just…”

Kate kicked at a rock. “I’m supposed to be someone she looks up to, and-and I’m used to being that kind of person, someone that people actually want to emulate.” And she hadn’t realized, not until just that moment, how far she’d fallen from that esteemed position. It was the first time since moving to Whestleigh that Kate felt the slightest, smallest bit…well ashamed. Ashamed of her modest employment, ashamed of her lack of influence and power, of her role-model-esque persona—for the first time, she truly wondered if she hadn’t taken two steps back in life.

“Have you taken to talking to yourself now?” Anne Ganthy’s voice, coming from somewhere behind Kate, said, startling the young woman. Turning around, Kate bit back a groan. “I assure you, it’s much more productive if you have someone to answer you back.”

Kate smiled tightly. “I suppose that depends on who’s listening…”

“Since it seems I have no other choice…” Ganthy said drily, indicating the block-and-a-half they still had to go before parting, “why don’t you fill me in?”

Kate sighed. And then, surprisingly, she did: “Have you ever viewed your life through someone else’s eyes and suddenly questioned everything about it?”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Two

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

She felt bad for the way she’d treated Penny. She’d need to apologize—yes, tomorrow she’d seek her out. Did she but know it, her thoughts aligned perfectly with Maggie’s; she hadn’t meant to get so upset with the psychic—she hadn’t meant to take it out on Penny, all her frustration and sadness.

Sure, the thing with the boat had been annoying—really annoying. Typical Penny fashion: a train-wreck of good intentions. Still, it hadn’t deserved Kate’s scathing wrath. It hadn’t necessitated that big of a response. It had been Minnesota. She couldn’t get what had happened there off her mind.  She’d thought it was a new beginning, seeing her mother standing there, having her wrap Kate up in her arms, whisper so lovingly in her ear:

“Don’t—it doesn’t matter, you’re here now. You’re here now.” Pulling back, Calida’s hands caressed the sides of Kate’s face, framing her cheekbones. “I’ve missed you, oh God, how I’ve missed you. Please don’t runway again…I’m so sorry!”  

            For a short time, Kate had almost believed her….

Staring uncomprehendingly at the tall, well-dressed woman before her, she’d waited for the other shoe to drop, for her mother to scold her, tell her what to do—make the demands the great Calida McDonald was so known for. But they hadn’t come.

“Your father—wait until I tell him. He’ll be so pleased.”

“Mom…” Kate’s voice came out in a protesting croak. She hadn’t signed up for a family reunion. She wasn’t ready for any of that.

But before Kate had time to process her thoughts, to marshal them into a semblance of order, Calida was speaking again, her gaze finally relinquishing its hold on her daughter to take in the other two women standing there…silently, curiously.

            “Pardon me…I didn’t notice we had company?” There was no mistaking the question in her voice.

Over Kate’s head, the sister’s exchanged looks. Maggie’s eyes were wet with unshed tears; Penny’s were narrowed with suspicion.

“Not at all—I’m Maggie.”

“Penny.”

“These are my friends,” Kate’s voice came out hard, defensive. “They’re with me.”

Maggie, taking her cue, quickly walked forward, reaching out her hand. Calida quickly took it in her own beautifully manicured grasp; she smiled wobblingly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. McDonald.

“Please, call me Calida.”

Penny smiled thinly in response.

“And how do you know Kate?” The question was calculating…. “You must not be from around here. That is, I’m sure I’d remember any of her childhood friends…?”

Penny stared her down. “No, we’re not from around here.” She gave Maggie, who had her mouth open in response, a firm, telling glance.

Maggie snapped her mouth closed quickly.

“I see,” Calida responded quickly. “Well, how wonderful to make your acquaintance—Any friend of Kate’s…”

And with that, Calida turned back to her daughter. “Oh, it will do my heart such good to have you settled in the house once again. And not to worry, we’ve kept your room ready… Cook will make all your favorite meals…”

“My room…. Cook?”

Calida’s smile faltered. “That is, you were planning to come back home, weren’t you darling?”

Kate’s eyes zipped meaningfully from her mother to Maggie and Penny.

“And your friends too,” Calida insisted quickly, following her daughter’s look with cunning precision. “You are both more than welcome to stay at our place. Do say yes.”

“The thing is, I’m not sure how long we’re staying…” Kate’s voice was a squeak of sound.

“And I won’t pressure you either way. We’d be thrilled to have you…all three of you…for just as long as you’ll let us.” Calida was adamant.

Kate’s mouth opened and closed but no words came out. Her body felt stiff, her breathing forced. This was all happening so fast. It was just like her mother, to come in and take charge, to put people in corners…

“If you wouldn’t mind very much, I’m afraid those doctors are going to come back any moment with those drugs of theirs that put me right to sleep—” the hoarse, yet forceful voice of Nanny Moore piped in. “Before then, I’d love a few minutes alone with my poppet…?”

Calida, as if sensing a supporter in the frail woman lying so cozily in the hospital bed, nodded sharply, her arms quickly steering Maggie and Penny toward the door. “Absolutely dear Ms. Moore. We’ll leave the two of you alone at once. Penny, Maggie, let’s get a cup of coffee. I’m sure we could all use one!”

Neither sister had so much as a chance to demur before Calida had them outside the hospital bedroom and into the long, sterile corridor running the length of that wing.

Kate stared beseechingly down at her oldest friend, hardly noticing the absence of the other women, her attention stolen by the wheezing plea in her old Nanny’s voice. “What is it, Nanny? Can I get you anything?”
Nanny waved her words aside. “Kate, I know you’re scared. You thought if you went far enough away she would no longer have such a hold on you.” Nanny didn’t need to explain who she was. “Like a mask, you thought the distance would free you—make you brave, give you the courage to be your own person. And you needed that, to be out of her clutches. I understood it then, that’s why I didn’t fight you. But there’s something you need to understand now…”

“Shh Nanny, don’t worry about me…”

“It worked,” Nanny continued as though Kate hadn’t spoken. “It gave you back the voice you’d lost long ago. I heard it in those letters you wrote to me. I saw it in the woman who walked through those doors not half an hour ago. You’re different. You’re stronger then you ever were.”

“Nanny, you shouldn’t tax yourself…”

“Now you have to believe it. You have to trust in that person you’re working so hard to become. Don’t let your fears keep you back—not any longer. You have stepped out of her shadows, be proud of that.”

“I am…”

“Remember that you’re the reason you’re back here—it was your choice. No one made you. No one can make you do anything, not anymore. Say it.”

And so Kate obligated her. “No one can make me do anything.”

“So now, it’s time to forgive her. Love your mother Kate. Find the good in her. It’s there. I assure you. And let her love you—you, Kate, and not the girl she wants you to be. She means well. She just doesn’t know any better, that’s why she pushes you so hard, that’s why she doesn’t always stop to hear you. She means well.”

“She’s a steamroller—”

Nanny more smiled. “It’s one of her best and worst characteristics.”

“What if I can’t? Find the good, I mean.”

“You will.” Nanny sounded so confident. “That’s one of your best and worst characteristics. You always look for in the good in people.”

Kate shook her head, her fingers curling trustingly in Nanny’s Moore’s grip. “What would I do without you?”

Nanny smiled. “Well, thanks to these here doctors, you won’t soon have to find out.”

“Don’t joke Nanny. Not about this.”

“All right, you’re right,” Nanny agreed. Laying back against the pillows, she sighed contentedly. “And anyway, seeing you is all the medicine I really need. Oh Katie—I’ve missed you.”

“I’ll stay as long as you need me.”

“I know.”

“And I’ll stay with her. For you I’ll stay with her.”

“Don’t make this about me….”

Kate laughed, wiping a stray tear off her cheek. “It’s what you want though, isn’t it?”

“For you and your mother to finally come to peace with one another? Oh yes, I’ve wanted that for years—”

“Then rest easy.”

Nanny coughed weakly. “You’re still missing the point, my sweet.”

“No I don’t think I am.”

“Do it because it’s something that you want—do it because you want to love your mother.”

 

 

 

Ten minutes later Kate walked out of Nanny’s room. One of the nurses had indeed come in with a sleeping sedative…. Taking her cue, Kate kissed Nanny’s soft cheek in goodbye and went in search of her mother and friends, sparing the latter a moment’s sympathy. Kate knew better than anyone what kind of pit-bull her mother could be when she wanted something.

And, more than almost anything in the world, right now Calida wanted to know where Kate had gotten off to.

Advancing into the small alcove designated as one of the sundry waiting rooms peppering the building, Kate heard her mother talking. Stomach muscles clamping, her ears turned eagerly to catch the sound of what she felt sure would be pleading demands for information on Kate’s whereabouts:

“…and oh! The dresses that child ruined. You never met a kid so fascinated by mud puddles.”

With something akin to the surreal, Kate waited a beat, the sound of Penny and Maggie’s laughter filtering vaguely though her senses.

“Penny was also quite fond of dirt, and sticky things as a small child,” M.T. recounted reminiscently.

“And of course, Nanny always tried to keep it a secret, how Kate’s clothes managed to get in such shambles, but I always knew.”

“And you didn’t mind?” Penny enquired disbelievingly. Kate could have kissed her.

Calida shrugged. “Well, yes, I suppose I did.”

“But you never let on? Stopped her antics?” Maggie asked, coming between them. “You let her believe she was pulling one over you?”

Calida laughed softly, a tinkling of sound Kate knew her mother had spent years perfecting. It was the epitome societal taste. “I suppose I didn’t have the heart to spoil her fun. I was hard on Kate—I know that. I don’t pretend otherwise. I wanted her brought up a certain way, and that dictated a more rigorous set of manners and behaviors. So when I could allow her to just be a small child, I did.”

“Well…” But whatever it was Maggie was going to say next died on her lips as she spotted Kate, standing uncertainly in the doorway there, shamelessly eavesdropping. Two pairs of eyes soon mimicked the pastor’s gaze.

“Kate, there you are—come and sit,” Calida invited, waving her daughter closer, thankfully overlooking Kate’s ill-bred activity—listening the others talking about herself. Kate’s face flamed with humiliation.

On stiff legs, she heeded her mother’s words, nabbing the seat on the other side of Penny.

“What did Nanny want to talk to you about?” Calida asked.

Kate felt her teeth snap together. “That’s between her and me.”

For a second, Kate felt a certain, tingling buzz going off inside her head. It was the heady sensation of rebellion. Never in her life had she spoken like that to her mother. And it had felt kind of…good.

Calida looked as taken aback as Kate felt. “Oh—well, yes, of course. How rude of me.”

For a second no one spoke. Penny readjusted her position on the hard seat, fidgeting nervously. Maggie sat quite still, composed. She was used to uncomfortable silences; hazards of the trade. Kate stared down at the floor, unwilling to meet her mother’s eyes, which were gazing hopefully at her daughter’s down-bent head.

“Well, we were all having a nice little chat—I was telling them what you were like as a child.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah, I heard.” Then, almost against her will, her eyes looked up, catching hold of her mother’s steadfast look. “Did you really know—about what really happened to my dresses?”

Calida smiled. “Yes. I really knew. Nanny minded most of them rather well, but I could always tell her work apart—especially the items she had to stitch in repair.”

“But you didn’t—you never said anything to me.” Kate’s voice was accusing, disbelieving. It was too much to digest.

Calida shrugged. “And in a way I regret that.”

Kate smiled. That sounded much more like the mother she knew so well.

“…if I had, maybe we could have jumped in puddles, or rolled down hills, together. I think I would have done well with a little more playfulness.”

Kate dropped her eyes again. Water was threatening to spill out of them. She wasn’t prepared to let her mother see that form of weakness. Not from her anyway.

Calida sighed. “Hindsight: what a terrible thing. It fills you with a kind of regret you don’t know is possible in your youth.”

Out of Kate’s peripheral vision, she watched Maggie’s hand come out, rest comfortingly on Calida’s knee. For some reason, that softened her.

“I would have loved that, you know,” Kate’s voice came out raspy, coarse. “To build forts with you—to run through the sprinkler system with you.”

Calida nodded, her throat constricting visibly. “Then let’s do that.”

Kate snorted.

“No, I mean it,” Calida said then, her voice firm. “Let’s jump in piles of leaves—whatever you want! I would do any of it, just to spend a little time with you.”

Kate shook her head. “I’m going back, Mom. This isn’t home anymore.”

“I know that. I know,” Calida assured her. “Just—stay with your father and me while you’re here. Please. Let us have even that much of you.”

The soft entreaty; the tangible fear in her mother’s eyes—Kate wasn’t aware she’d made up her mind on this issue until her mouth opened and she said: “Yes. All right. I’ll stay with you.”

“And you two, as well,” Calida said, turning to Penny and Maggie. “I meant what I said earlier. Say you’ll stay.”

“We already made reservations—”

“We’d love to,” Maggie said, speaking over Penny, her eyes looking at Kate’s pale face.

 

 

 

Kate’s house was opulent. Penny twirled around, taking it all in at a glance: the massive, 18th century chandelier in the foyer, sprinkling soft light from the lofty ceiling onto the marble floors; the large, faded Oriental rug at their feet; two stripped peach-and-cream upholstered chairs sitting to one side of the door, a small fireplace before them, giving off a cozy look.   Opposite of this grand opening, a winged staircase stood, wrapped around with old-fashioned balustrades. And to the right of this mammoth architectural delight was the large, impressive dining room, the arched doorway flung wide open, revealing a table which would easily sit twelve; floor-to-ceiling windows, and a large, ornately designed serving buffet finished off the formal, luxurious look.

“And Kate just left all this?” Penny muttered underneath her breath.

Maggie silently had to agree. They’d always known Kate had come from wealth but this—this was a whole different plane of rich. The kind that bespoke of instant power, influence…opportunities unfounded.

And Kate had walked away from it all. Without a backward glance.

“Well…money doesn’t buy happiness—isn’t that what they say,” Maggie said, speaking her thoughts a loud.

“Yeah, but being poor isn’t exactly fun central, either.”

“Ladies,” Calida said then, coming to stand beside them, “please, make yourselves comfortable. But first, Regina will show you to your rooms,” and out of seemingly nowhere a young, blonde woman came forward and, reaching for their bags, ushered them up the curved staircase….

Turning to Kate, Calida held open her arms. “Kate. Welcome home.”

 

 

 

 

Kate pulled a sad face. It had all started out so well. She’d thought—just at the first, that perhaps this time around things would be different. She’d hoped for…Kate shrugged. She didn’t know what she’d hoped for, but whatever it was, she hadn’t gotten it.

She’d been duped. Again.

Only this time, it was the last time.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty

Kate was late. Scurrying into her house, she threw her college book-bag aimlessly onto one of the pink upholstered chairs arranged in parlor room, her feet taking her quickly to the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom. Kate hated being late.

Despite this, she was nonetheless steadfast in her decision to change out of her school clothes first. Quickly shucking out of her jeans and t-shirt, Kate scoured through her closet. When her eyes landed on a bulky turtleneck, the material pilling at the neck, she reached for it gratefully. Throwing it over her head, the coarse fabric fell against her body loosely, ungainly, unseemly…it was perfect. Snapping a large scarf out of the woven bin laying on one of the shelves there, she quickly wrapped it over her hair, the style vaguely imitative of Madame Penny. All she needed know was that pair of sunglasses, the ones with the large lens, and she’d be ready.

It was the first time she was going out in public since…well, since her love life had gotten so conflicted. She’d holed up in her house the last three days, claiming school work as her excuse. Almost all the food was gone out of her house now, and the walls had started closing in around her. And, as Maggie had assured her when she’d called that afternoon, it was time to face the world again. She couldn’t hide out forever….Looking at herself in the mirror Kate nodded her head with satisfaction. She was almost unrecognizable.

Kate knew she was being ridiculous, wearing a disguise to go have coffee with Penny and Maggie, but she couldn’t help herself. What if Jackson decided to stop there on his way home from school? The store was only three building’s down from the LitLiber Bookstore….

“Too dramatic?” Kate mused to herself, as she raced back down the stairs. “I don’t think so.”

She had just reached the parlor room again, her thoughts preoccupied with the business of pushing the foot of one leg into her suede shoes, when she felt the unmistakable vibration of her phone ringing in her back pocket.

Rolling her eyes, Kate reached for the device. It was probably Penny, calling to enquire about Kate’s whereabouts, to scold her for being late. But, when Kate looked down at the screen in her hand, she was surprised to note she didn’t recognize the number calling her…except for the area code. She knew that area code all too well.

Abandoning her other shoe, Kate hobbled over to the pink upholstered chair, squeezing her body in beside her schoolbag. With tremendous strength, she answered the call, bringing the phone uneasily up to her ear.

“Hello?” she asked, her voice husky with dread.

 

 

 

“He’s tall, at least six foot four, with a shock of brown hair, hanging long and loose down his face,” Penny said, her voice soft in memory. “At first, I don’t notice him coming toward me. I’m too focused on the task at hand—”

“Oh yes…slaying zombies, right?” Maggie asked deadpan. With an almost imperceptible look, she glanced down at her watch. Kate was more than fifteen minutes late. It wasn’t like her.

“Hey, someone’s got to do it,” Penny defended lightly. “Anyway, I’m in the middle of a field, my machete in hand when I feel his presence behind me. Swinging around, thinking he’s one of the enemy, I raise my sword, ready to fight. That’s when our eyes meet. Stunned, frozen in that position, I can only stare into those amazing brown pools of wisdom, mesmerized by what I see. In them, I read our future, as easily as if I were reading a newspaper—it’s that clear. Standing right in front of me, naked from the waist up, is my soul mate.”

“Yeah, but Penny it’s only a dream,” Maggie reminded the younger woman gently. “You can’t really believe…”

“Of course, I really believe,” Penny insisted. “And it isn’t just a dream, it’s a reoccurring dream. In my profession, that means something.”

“So you think this half-naked man is a real person? Do you also think zombies are going to attack Whestleigh soon?” Maggie teased.

“Of course the zombie’s aren’t real. They’re merely symbolic—a representation of my life’s purpose. Since my life’s work is psychic intuition, the zombie’s are merely an alternate portrayal of my House of Intuition. In my dream, the man comes to me looking for help. So, if dreams imitate reality, I know that’s where I’ll meet him; through my work, at my shop!”

It’s patently clear to Maggie that Penny’s put a lot of analytic—if bizarre—thought and logic into this dream. “Right, well—”

“Where in the hell is Kate?” Penny said impatiently, her voice riding over Maggie’s half-hearted response. “She’s almost half an hour late. Should we try calling her again?”

Maggie shrugged, retrieving her phone from where it lay on the table beside her cappuccino. “Sure.”

But, after the fourth ring, all Maggie got was Kate’s answering machine.

“Okay…we’ll give her five more minutes to show,” Penny improvised. “Then we’ll start worrying.”

 

 

 

In the end, Penny and Maggie gave her ten minutes, but when Kate still hadn’t walked through the doors of Bean Tamptations, when she still hadn’t returned a single call, they knew something was wrong. As per Penny’s edict, they finally allowed the first strands of worry to envelope them. Quickly leaving the coffee shop and settling into Maggie’s SUV, they drove straight for Eveleth Ave.  Penny tried calling Kate again, but again she was treated to that woman’s voicemail.

“Where the hell is she?” she asked, shooting a glance at Maggie’s profile.

“Don’t borrow panic,” Maggie pleaded, but her white knuckles clenching the steering wheel, the high rate of speed she took on the residential road belied the pastor’s cool facade. It was only as Maggie pulled into Kate’s driveway that the women allowed themselves a full breath. Kate’s car was there. She was home. That was something at least.

“She probably just fell asleep,” Penny said, working up the excuse even as she scrambled out of the truck, her feet making quick work to the front door. “I know she’s been stressed out about school lately…” she muttered inanely. Rapping her knuckles solidly against the door, she waited for Kate’s answer.

“And anyone who’s name begins with a J,” Maggie mused drily, coming up to stand beside her sister.

Penny knocked again, her ear pressed up against the door now, listening for any signs of life. She didn’t hear anything.

“Kate!” Maggie yelled. “Kate are you in there?”

Silence.

“Should we just go inside?” Penny asked, her fingers already turning the knob in her hand. “It’s unlocked,” she whispered then, watching in quiet bemusement as the door swung open at her command.

“Kate? Kate, we’re coming in,” Maggie said, and pushing passed Penny, did exactly that.

The woman had barely made it up the two steps that led into the parlor room when they heard it: the sound of muffled footsteps coming from upstairs. Maggie and Penny exchanged glances. Without a word, they advanced further into the home, their steps light as they headed toward the stairs.

Penny had just placed a foot on the bottom rung when another sound penetrated the walls: a broken sob, followed closely by an anguished whimper…like that of someone crying. That did it. Past the point of caution, Penny and Maggie raced up the stairs, their feet smacking loudly against the wooden structure there. Something was definitely wrong!

Clearing the stairwell, vaguely out of the breath, Penny and Maggie pushed past the door marking Kate’s bedroom, their bodies barreling inside on a cluttered whirl of arms and legs and all-around panic. Pausing inside the threshold, that’s when they saw here. Kate, her make-up smeared across her crumpled face, standing before her bed, throwing clothes haphazardly into an open suitcase there.

“Kate?” Maggie queried softly. Of all the things she’d imagined in the frightful flight up here, this certainly wasn’t one of them. Kate was leaving?

“If this is about Jake and Jackson, I think it’s going a bit too far,” Penny parried half-humorously.

But Kate didn’t seem to hear them; undeterred by their presence, her body continued its robotic movement, alternating between the closet and her suitcase…hanger after hanger discarded in exchange for the heaping, untidy pile steadily growing on her body.

“Kate? Come on, talk to us,” Maggie pleaded. Moving forward, her fingers reached out to gently touch Kate’s shoulder.

Jerking at the contact, Kate’s head turned sharply, wild eyes landing with shocked dismay on Maggie’s face.  “What—what are you doing here?” she asked.

Maggie smiled softly; at least Kate was finally talking.

“We’re looking for you,” Penny said simply.

“What’s going on Kate?” Maggie asked, and inkling her head, indicated the suitcase on the bed.

Moving on auto-pilot, Kate’s glance followed Maggie’s prompt. “I have to go,” she said softly, the words clipped, short.

“Go where?”

“Why?”

“What happened?”

“You’re freaking us out here.”

Kate shrugged. “Nanny is sick.”

Maggie’s brow furrowed. Nanny?

But, judging by the immediate response on her sister’s face, it seemed Penny understood who this Nanny person was. Face twisted in instant concern, Penny spoke softly: “Oh, Kate. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

As if her knees had suddenly gone out from under her, Kate slid into a seated position on the edge of the bed. “I was on my way to see you—I hadn’t forgotten—when I got a phone call. I didn’t recognize the number…when I answered it a stranger’s voice told me that Agatha Moore, my childhood nanny, was in the hospital…something about her heart,” Kate’s voice cracked just slightly over the word. Taking a deep breath, however, she found the composure to resuming speaking: “The man, I think it’s her son, thought I might like to know. He knew how close I was to her.”

“Oh Kate—”

“He wouldn’t have called it if wasn’t serious,” Kate sniveled. “Nanny would have never given him my number if she wasn’t scared.”

“Kate, what do you need?”

“I need to go, I need to be with her,” Kate said, misunderstanding Penny’s question. Buoyed by the words, she stood up again and, her purpose reawakened, took herself once more to the closet.

“Of course you need to go be with her,” Maggie soothed.

“When are you planning on leaving?” Penny asked, though she was pretty sure she knew the answer to that.

“As soon as I’ve finished packing,” came the terse response.

“Have you purchased your plane ticket yet?” Maggie asked, shooting Penny a telling look.

“Uh,” Kate stopped walking for a second, as though her thoughts couldn’t keep up with her. “No—”

“We’ll do that,” Maggie said.

Penny smiled secretively. “Yes, let us handle that.”

Kate nodded, but she hardly heard them.

 

 

 

 

Six hours later, three harassed women jostled about in their seats as the plane they were flying in taxied to a landing on the airstrip at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.

“You didn’t have to come, you know,” Kate said, watching through hollowed eyes as fellow passengers rose to their feet, exiting the massive aircraft. Neither Penny nor Maggie spoke, unsure of what to say. They hadn’t asked Kate’s permission, hadn’t so much as hinted at their intention to accompany her on this trip, they’d just gone and done it anyway. A surprise attack, they’d quietly driven her to the airport and, after ignoring her proffered goodbyes, had simply followed her to the security checkpoint where they’d produced their own tickets.

“…but, but I’m glad you did,” Kate continued. Reaching out on either side of her, she squeezed their hands. “I’m really glad you did.”

Maggie smiled. Penny bit her lip.

It was almost midnight. Going to the hospital at that hour was out of the question. Even Kate, in her current state of distress, knew that. So they took a shuttle to the nearest hotel and settled in for the night. The hospital was still some distance away, but in the blanket of pitch-black nightfall, Kate felt the first band of anxiety unfurl around her stomach. She was close to Nanny. For tonight, that was enough.

“…ain’t that life, the first vacation I take in years, and it’s to a climate colder than our own,” Penny said, walking out of the adjoining bathroom, her wet hair signaling a recent shower.

Kate, looking at the window, staring at the lights of the city she once called home, laughed, but it wasn’t filled with humor.

“Do you miss it here?” M.T. asked, slipping under the covers of the bed she and Penny were sharing for the night. They’d gotten a room with two queen-sized beds; it went without saying that Kate would take the other one for herself.

Kate’s shoulder hitched uneasily. “I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes, I guess.” Turning away from the scenery, a sad smile graced her face. “I missed her. She was part of every good memory I have of this place”

“Tell me about her,” M.T. insisted.

And Kate did. “She joined our household when I was six years old. She looked just the way you’d imagine an English nanny might…plump, middle-aged, iron-grey hair pulled into a tight bun…”

“Does she have an accent?” Penny asked sleepily.

Kate considered this for a moment. “Yes…but it’s not as noticeable as when she first moved here.”

“What did you two do together?” M.T. asked, prompting Kate along. In times like this, the best distraction was talking about the happier times, remembering the good instead of dwelling in the fear of what could lay ahead…

Kate’s eyes softened. “We did everything together. We built fords in the house with old sheets, hunted for bugs in the backyard. We’d slay dragons in the afternoon, using sticks as swords and pillows as monsters. Sometimes she’d snuck me out to get an ice-cream cone. That was strictly secret,” Kate said, lost in her memories now. “If my mother had known…well, if mother had known half the stuff Nanny Moore allowed, she wouldn’t have lasted a week.”

“She was a rebel.” M.T. said

Kate smiled. “Oh yeah…and I was her faithful sidekick. I mean, she still made me do my homework, and I had chores to get done but…she used to say there was a time for work and a time for play, and enough hours in everyday for both.”

“Sounds like she loved you a whole lot.”

“And I loved her. She was my savior.”

 

 

 

At 8:30 the next morning, a solemn Kate led Penny and Maggie to the bank of elevators standing guard at the front of St. Ann’s hospital. She’d already seen to the receptionist. Nanny was on the 8th floor, room 822. Riding inside the cold metal box as it ascended the commanded height, Kate tired to level her breathing.

It had been almost nine months since she’d seen her beloved Nanny; Kate felt guilty about that. In her selfish desire to get away, she’d never considered all that she was leaving behind. She’d never considered this. Nanny was edging eighty, but somehow in Kate’s mind she’d never been allowed to really age from the woman she was all those years ago, when she’d first opened the imposing door to the McDonald house, her smiling eyes meeting those of the shy, nervous little girl standing before her. Nanny had always been there, the one constant in Kate’s life.

And now she was sick.

“Kate, it’s going to be okay,” M.T. murmured softly, her hand sweeping comforting circles on the girl’s back. Kate looked bad today. No amount of concealer could hide her sleepless night; no rogue could disguise the paleness of her cheeks.

“I hope so,” she whispered as the doors ahead of them whooshed open, opening gracefully on the cardiac ward. Stepping out of the elevator and down the accompany corridor there, Kate hardly noticed the beige walls with their neutral paintings, depicting calm, peaceful landscapes, her eyes intent on the plastic door signs she passed: 816…818…820….

 

Room 822

            Agatha Moore

 

Coming to a halt, Kate stopped to collect herself for a just a moment before knocking.

“Come in.” The voice which answered didn’t sound like that of the Nanny Kate remembered. It was too weak, too frail, too devoid of the energy that lady always had in abundance.

Poking her head inside the semi-private room, Kate’s nervous eyes searched for, and quickly located, that of her childhood friend: snowy hair hanging limply around a flaccid, too-still body. Without realizing she’d even moved, within seconds Kate found herself closing the distance between them, shakily reaching for the thin hand resting at the side of the hospital bed.

“Nanny! Oh Nanny,” she wailed, bending down o kiss the paper-thin cheek on display.

“Poppet!” Nanny breathed, her fingers holding tightly to Kate’s hand. “What are you doing here? If they find out…it’ll blow your cover.”

“Who cares,” Kate cried, and she meant it. “You’re the only thing that matters right now. Oh, I’ve been so worried! How are you? Are you all right?”

Nanny scowled. “It’s this damn ticker. If it weren’t for that, I swear I’d live forever.”

Kate blanched at the reminder. “What happened?”

But Nanny Moore brushed this question aside. “Kate, where are your manners?” she tut-tutted. “You’ve yet to introduce me to the lovely women who followed you inside.”

Faltering, Kate looked over her shoulder to where a hesitant M.T. and Penny stood, hovering just inside the doorway. “Forgive me. Nanny—these are my friends, Maggie and Penny.”

Waving them forward, Kate continued: “Penny, Maggie, this is my nanny.”

“Hello,” Penny and Maggie said in unison.

Nanny smiled in welcome. “Yes, yes, hello; I’ve heard so much about you two,” she announced, coughing a little over the words. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”

“I only wish it could have been under better circumstances,” M.T. said, smiling gently in greeting.

“Kate speaks very highly of you,” Penny seconded.

Nanny inclined her head in acknowledgement of this. “I watched her grow up. I like to think, in some small way, I helped contribute to the beautiful woman she is today—”

“Oh, you did!” Kate insisted tearfully.

Nanny went on as though Kate hadn’t interrupted. “For many years, it was my job to protect Kate; somehow, I never learned how to stop doing that. So I don’t mind telling you how worried I was when she up and decided to move out to Whestleigh, a town she didn’t know, all alone in the world,” Nanny’s voice was gruff, hard but on the next words, it softened: “But then she wrote to me about these two women she’d met…these silly, crazy, amazing women, and suddenly I knew: I wasn’t the only person protecting her anymore. She tells me you’re the best friends she’s ever had. You don’t know how good it did my heart to hear that.”

Kate blushed. Even after all these years, Nanny still possessed the power to render Kate speechless in embarrassment. Neither M.T. nor Penny seemed fazed by this response however.

“But who’s taking care of you, that’s what I’d like to know? Who’s protecting you?” Kate wailed, and those feelings of guilt she’d experienced earlier came back to haunt her again.

Nanny frowned. “Don’t be silly, the doctors are. Why, do you think you could do their jobs better?” she challenged.

Kate sighed. “That’s not what I meant. This time around, I’m the one who’s worried.”

Nanny only stared up at her with guileless eyes. “Well, enough of that. All the worry in the world isn’t going to change anything, it’ll just make you grey faster,” came the wise reply.

“But it’s okay for you to worry about me?” Kate returned hotly.

Nanny Moore grinned. “Exactly. You were my charge. It was in my very job description.”

“That’s not fair.”

Nanny smiled. “What’s that expression: do as I say, not as I do? Kate, if there’s one thing I never got around to teaching you it’s this: don’t over-think everything so much. That brain of yours, no matter how powerful, can’t write the future, or rewrite the past.”

Kate had her mouth open in retort to this when another’s voice rang out…

“Kate?!”

The questioning exclamative came from somewhere near the room’s entrance; in their excited chatter, no one had noticed the shadow filling the doorway. Kate’s words dying on her lips, the previous conversation was brought to an abrupt end as four pairs of eyes swiveled around, following the sudden, unexpected sound.

Standing, silhouetted in the fluorescent lighting of the hallway behind her, was a tall distinguished woman. Hair piled high on her head, she wore a plum-colored suit, the fine material making the most of her fit body. If it weren’t for her fingers, strangling the sides of a bouquet of flowers she held in her hands, she would have passed as a flawless.

Penny’s eyes slithered suggestively to Maggie’s.

Kate’s eyes, however, never strayed from the mysterious woman before them. Straightening her back, the movement slow, stiff, Kate brought herself up to her full height. For a moment, no one spoke, they just stared, Kate’s eyes wide with fear, the woman’s with dead disbelief.

Finally, chin tipped up a notch or two, a look of unconscious arrogance flitting across her expression, Kate spoke, her words quiet, resigned. “Hello, mother.”

“I knew it,” Penny hissed softly to Maggie, but no one heard her quiet victory. All eyes were glued to the sign unfolding before them.

Dropping the now-forgotten bouquet to the ground, Calida McDonald, for perhaps the first time in her life, didn’t stop to think before acting—she didn’t counsel decorum, didn’t give a damn about convention. Instead, she ran, her arms outstretched, straight into Kate’s immobile body. Wrapping her daughter tightly into her arms, Calida’s body shook with the force of her feelings: “Oh Kate—I’m so sorry! Please forgive me. I’m so sorry!”

Stunned, Kate brought her arms cautiously around her mother’s thin body. “Mom?”
“We’ve been so worried—where have you been?” Tears Kate had never seen shed fell from her mother’s eyes, messing with her carefully done mascara. “Don’t—it doesn’t matter, you’re here now. You’re here now.” Pulling back, Calida’s hands caressed the sides of Kate’s face, framing her cheekbones. “I’ve missed you, oh God, how I’ve missed you. Please don’t runway again…I’m so sorry!”

Maggie’s eyes went round. Penny held her breath.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Nine

Absently, Kate looked around the empty gymnasium floor which, twenty minutes ago, had served as the classroom for the Dog Obedience School she’d attended that evening. The course had ended for the day, the other participants long since gone in the aftermath. All except for Kate. Kate and Ashley Burns.

            “I’m not sure what happened,” Ashley wept then, her arms crossed over her chest protectively. Her red-rimmed eyes stared questioningly up into Kate’s face. “He just—he just came over last night; he was sorry but he just wasn’t sure he was still in love with me…said he needed some space…!”

            Another bout of tears followed that last, heart-wrenching statement.

            Without thought, Kate grabbed for the broken girl, bringing her tightly into her arms. “Oh Ashley, I’m so sorry,” she whispered into her hair, Kate’s arms rubbing comfortingly circles on her back.

            “This can’t be happening,” Ashley wailed impotently. “We were doing so good. At least, I thought we were. I love him, Kate. I’ve loved him for so long. I just want—!”

            “I know, I know,” Kate murmured softly. She wasn’t sure what to say. It had all happened so quickly. One minute Kate and Ashley had been standing beside one another, trading idle gossip, their dogs winding down from the rigorous paces they’d been set through that evening and in the next, Ashley had sniffled, hiccupped, and then rashly confided that her boyfriend (who she’d finally revealed as Jake) had broken up with her. Kate was the first person she’d told. In fact, Ashley had hardly said it out loud until that moment; it hurt too much.

            Fast-forward to now, Kate desperately holding her fast while that girl gave vent to her feelings. Danger, looking mildly bored at this hold-up, nonetheless sat patiently at Kate’s heels, his eyelids drooping closed. At least, she didn’t have to worry about him.

            Moving out of Kate’s arms, Ashley brought a shaky hand up to her face, anxiously wiping the tracks of tears from her cheeks. “I just keep remembering all these amazing moments we shared—the time he surprised me with tickets to the ballet; I’d never been to one before; he was bored out of his mind, but he took me anyway…or the weekend we spent in New York with his brother. He played the tour guide so I could see a little something of that remarkable place—let me pick everywhere we went. Or his birthday last year…!” Ashley swallowed back a wail. “I don’t understand what happened—what did I do?”

            Kate stuffed her hands in her pockets. “I’m sure—”

            Then, as if she’d suddenly realized who she was talking to, Ashley pulled herself up to her tallest height. “Please don’t tell anyone about this,” she pleaded urgently. “Jake and I—no one is supposed to know about us. I couldn’t stand it if they did—not now!”

            “I promise I won’t,” Kate said quickly, sincerely. “I wouldn’t do that. Your secret is safe with me.”

            Ashley sniffled. “I just want him back Kate. That’s all. I want him back.”

 

 

 

            Fifteen minutes later, walking out to her car, Kate suppressed a sigh. In a way, she felt responsible for Ashley’s pain. Wasn’t she the one who’d wanted Jake to be free—wasn’t she the one who’d quietly waited—silently hoped—for something like this to happen? Well, now it had and Kate couldn’t have been less pleased, couldn’t have felt less triumphant.

            Letting her car warm up for a moment—the night was carrying a chilling breeze—Kate reached for her phone; she’d kept it on silence during the dog obedience class. Now, looking down at the screen, she was surprised to note three missed calls from Penny. Mentally rolling her eyes, Kate prepared herself for any eventuality as she called her back.  

            “Hello? Kate, where the hell have you been?” Penny demanded upon answering the phone.

            “Dog training,” Kate said noncommittally. “Why, what’s up?” Judging by the tone of Penny’s voice just then—a mixture of impatience, with equal doses excitement and anticipation, clearly this wasn’t an emergency.

            “Big news: I just heard, Jake broke up with his girlfriend,” Penny expulsed on a rush of breath.

            “Yeah. I know,” Kate answered drily.

            “You know?” Penny asked, sounding bummed at not having been the person to deliver the news. “Who told you?”

            “Yeah, I know,” Kate repeated. “And nevermind who,” she insisted crisply, warding off Penny’s more inquisitive nature.

            “Kate the vision I had—the two shadowy men!”

            “Oh, Penny don’t start in on that again,” Kate cried. She’d just spent the last fifteen minutes consoling the poor girl he’d dumped. Even Kate wasn’t hard-hearted enough to summon pleasure out of the incident—or hope, for that matter.

            “Are you going to try and tell me you aren’t the least bit interested? That you don’t feel the tug-of-war my vision foresaw?”

            Kate remained stubbornly silent.       

            “I’m just saying, there’s something there, between you two, even if you’re too chicken to admit it. I see the look that comes into your eyes whenever his name is mentioned.”

            “There’s no look,” Kate scoffed.

            “Sure there is! It’s the same one you get whenever Jackson comes around,” Penny argued, making her case nicely. “And don’t bother denying it. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. Maggie has as well.”

            “You guys are awfully chummy lately,” Kate grumbled. She didn’t like having them on the same side—not when it meant she was pitted two against one anyway.

            “Don’t try to change the subject,” Penny said. “I’m serious Kate. What are you going to do about Jake?”

            Backing her car out of the parking lot, Kate pulled onto the street. Her fingers against the steering wheel were white. “What am I going to do?! Are you kidding me? Nothing—that’s what I’m going to do! For Christ’s sake, Penny, the man just broke up with someone.” Doesn’t proper decorum call for even the most desperate of man-hunters to wait a day before stalking their newfound prey?

            “I wasn’t talking about this very minute,” Penny argued, but she sounded a little sheepish now. “I just don’t want you to let fear keep you from something—”

            “I am not afraid. I am, however, hanging up now,” Kate insisted and, with the flick of her finger, did just that. Tossing the phone onto her passenger seat, Kate called over to Danger, safely kenneled in the back. “You’ve got it made, you know. You got sniped at an early age. You’ll never know the frustrations I’m currently living!”

 

 

 

            Kate stood inside the dingy bar, her eyes slowly adjusting to the soft lighting, her heart thudding sickeningly against her chest. She wasn’t sure why she was there. Scratch that: she knew exactly why she was there….she just wasn’t ready to admit it to herself, not just yet.

            Jake had looked terrible at work that morning, his eyes bloodshot, his skin secreting the evidence of a late-night bender. She’d tried not to notice, but it was hard, knowing what she did, while simultaneously knowing she shouldn’t know it at all! It made for a confusing day.

            That’s how she’d ended up at Julie’s Diner, at nine o’clock at night, on the weak pretense of getting a cheeseburger for herself. Julie’s was Jake’s favorite watering hole and, well, if he just happened to be there as well, that would be a handy coincidence, right?    

            Walking up to the bar, her eyes scanning the patrons pulled up alongside its high counter, Kate felt a momentary stab of disappointment: Jake wasn’t counted amongst them. Not that it mattered, she reminded herself. She hadn’t come here for him anyway; (so, okay, the burger had been an excuse, but she’d be damned if she’d leave without one, especially now. She had her pride!) Calling out the unwanted to-go order—Danger would be only to glad to eat in on Kate’s behalf—she pulled out a chair at the bar. She might as well have something to drink while she waited.     

            She’d just ordered herself a glass of wine when the door the bathroom banged open from down the hall. The sound was loud, clumsily, and, craning her neck at the unexpectedness of it all, Kate’s eyes followed the noise…landing with a thud against the frame of one very inebriated Jake.

            Jake! He was there!

            Averting her face, Kate suddenly felt like the chicken Penny had recently accused her of being. Now that she’d spotted him, his steps none too steady as he barreled down the corridor,

Kate wanted only to run and hide, pretend she wasn’t there. Her bravado fading quickly, she wished herself back at home, wished Jake as far away from her as possible.

            What the hell had she been thinking, coming here like this? Just how desperate, how low, how pathetic could she get? Ducking her head, Kate closed her eyes, praying that, in his current state of mind, Jake wouldn’t notice her at the bar.  

            “Kate?” The slurred speech did little to disguise Jake’s voice.

            So much for prayer.

            Turning toward the sound of his voice, Kate worked up a look of mock surprise. “Jake? Uh, what are you doing here?”

            He smiled crookedly. “Probably the same thing as yourself,” he said, pointing to the alcoholic drink set in front of her person.

            Kate swallowed. Even drunk, Jake had a way of making her sound like the stupid one.

            “Right,” she said softly.

            Without waiting for an invitation, Jake sat down in the empty bar stool beside hers. For a moment, neither of them spoke. Kate took a dainty sip of her cabernet.

            “Come to check up on me?” Jake asked with dead precision.

            Sputtering, the wine lodged in her throat, Kate patted a hand against her chest. “What?” she asked breathily.

            Jake inclined his head. “Don’t play dumb. I saw the way you were looking at me earlier today at work, watching me, that cute worried look on your face,” he said, tapping Kate on the nose. “You don’t have a very good poker face. It was right there: that combination of sadness and pity, like you saw right to the inside of me, knew something you shouldn’t—Kind, sweet Kate…that’s why you’re really here, isn’t it?”

            Kate stared, open-mouthed. Was she that obvious?

            “Because you do know, don’t you?” he persisted. “About me and Ashley?”

            Shrugging awkwardly, Kate decided upon the truth. “Yes—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Jake—” While Kate couldn’t deny the spark of attraction his words brought her, she also couldn’t ignore the consequences they proposed. Other lives were involved here, and despite her feelings, Kate liked Ashley. They were becoming friends. How could she turn her back on that?

            She was standing smack dab in the middle of the clichéd rock and hard place. She needed time to process this. Jake needed time to sober up.

            “Jake,” she tried again, “you’ve had too much to drink.”

            “No, no, no,” he disagreed, waving her words aside. “I’ve had just enough. Just enough to tell you how I feel—”

            Before he was allowed to get any further, Kate abruptly stood up, pushing her chair back nosily as she did so. Holding up her hand, she interrupted him. “Jake, stop!” Once he said the words, no matter how hard she tired, Kate knew she’d never be able to unheard them. Not like this. She didn’t want it to happen like this!

            “I’m crazy about you Kate.”

            But she shook her head to this—almost frantically, reminding herself that he was way over the limit, that he was hurting, that he probably didn’t mean half the stuff he was saying.  His words were intoxicating, filled with a promise she’d hardly dared to hope for but…in the sober light of day, he’d inevitably regret them and Kate, being Kate, would never forgive herself for having believed them—even just for a second.

            “No! I can’t do this. We can’t do this,” she swore, the words torn from her throat forcibly. Without giving him the chance to change her mind, Kate turned on her heel and, half-running out the front door, the take-out long forgotten, the soft echo of Jake’s voice crying out her name ringing against her ears, she left.  

 

 

 

            “He said what?” Penny asked, pulling the sash on her robe tightly against her body.

            “Oh Kate,” Maggie wailed softly, her hand reaching out grasp her tightly balled up fists.

            The three of them were standing in Penny’s living room. It was half-past midnight, but no one seemed to notice the hour. After leaving Julie’s, Kate had lost little time in sending out the mayday text that had resulted in this impromptu get-together. Sleep was out of the question; she needed a little perspective.

            Shrugging inelegantly, Kate sighed. “He basically accused me of being the reason he broke it off with Ashley.”

            Penny made a face. “Can’t say I didn’t see that coming,” she said drolly.

            Maggie smiled sadly. “He is awfully protective of you.”

            “But-but I can’t—how am I supposed to respond to that?” Kate asked.

            “How do you want to respond?” Maggie asked instead.

            “I don’t know!” Kate cried in frustration. “That’s the whole point. I don’t know!”

            “Shh,” Penny hushed softly. “Kate, this isn’t a decision that needs to be made tonight. You’ve all but said that yourself. Breathe.”

            “I wish I would have never walked into that bar,” Kate moaned.

            “Yeah, what happened to the whole, I’m going to do nothing, thing?” Penny asked.

            Kate glowered at her. “Comments like that are the opposite of helpful.”

            Penny didn’t look the least bit contrite. “Sorry.”

            “Isn’t there some kind of cosmic plan you can point me toward? Some meditation session you can perform which will answer the question for me?” Kate pleaded.

            Penny smiled sadly. “It doesn’t work that way, sweetie. Free will is a very large part of that plan.”

            “Well, that’s stupid,” Kate pouted. “It was your vision that got me into this mess in the first place. Seems only fair it should help get me out of it, too.”

            “Kate, you don’t need someone—or something—to tell you what to do,” Maggie interrupted.

            “That’s right,” Penny agreed. “Remember, you’re not just going to sit by anymore and allow others to live your life for you.”

            “You know, no one likes to have their words tossed back in their face,” Kate said, but her voice was softer now, calmer.

            Three elongated shadows danced across the walls of Penny’s house. Kate took refuge in the impressions marked there. She had great friends. Her love life may be the pits, but at least she had Penny and Maggie.

            “I’m sorry,” she said then, “I’m being a brat. I’m the one who pulled you out bed, asked for your help…I’m sorry.”

            Maggie laughed softly. “Kate, we love you.”

            “Very much,” Penny agreed.

            “Lean on us, that’s what we’re here for,” Maggie insisted. “Call at odd hours, confide your frustrations, good mood or bad mood, we can take it. We take all of you babe.”

            “Gladly.”

             Kate smiled. She’d never really known love before, not like this anyway. “Thank you.”    Two simple words, but the hearers received from them a wealth of meaning.  

 

 

 

            The next afternoon, as Kate was sitting at her kitchen table, pretending to study for an upcoming test, instead of which she just hearing Penny’s parting words from the night before: “Just consider,” she’d said, “if there were no Ashley, how would you then feel about what Jake said tonight? How would you react?”

            Rubbing her tired eyes, Kate sighed. But there was an Ashley and, whatever Kate’s feelings for Jake, she played a very real role in this equation. Kate liked Jake; that was unquestioned. The kiss. The fantasies. They were testament to that. Only, on the other hand, Kate couldn’t help but wonder: Jake had always seemed like a safe sort of crush—he was taken, out of reach, of no real contest. Had she blown up her infatuation because of that, used it as something to relieve the boredom, all the while secure in the knowledge she’d never have to actually act on those feelings?

            Her mind ping-ponging back and forth, Kate was startled from these ministrations by a sudden knock at her door. Her body tensed at the sound, her eyes growing large in a white face.

            Oh god, not Jake.

            Stealth mode taking over, Kate crept over to her kitchen window…head tucked low, only her eyes were visible as Kate spied the identity of this unannounced visitor. Breath whooshing out of her body, Kate was almost comically glad to see it wasn’t Jake’s car parked outside.

            It was Jackson’s.

            Tripping toward the front entrance, Kate’s thoughts raced: what would he be doing outside her house? Swinging the front door open, Kate smiled in greeting.

            “Hey—please tell me I didn’t forget plans to play basketball or something?” she questioned in preamble. 

            He smiled. It looked funny though. “Ah—no, you didn’t,” he drawled, his brows furrowing together uncertainly. The usually cool, cocky school teacher looked anything but in that moment.

            “What a relief,” Kate joked. “Won’t you come inside?” she invited, waving him forward.

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

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

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

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