North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Hobbling carefully, her arms sturdy against the uncomfortable padding of her crutches, Kate made her way slowly into her kitchen. The soft click of the front door closing behind M.T.’s reluctant form ringing from the hall, Kate frowned. She was hungry. She hadn’t realized just how hungry when she’d more-or-less pushed the hovering pastor out the door; in retrospect, she should had her stay just a little while longer…but then again, if Maggie suspected Kate couldn’t even so much as make dinner she never would’ve agreed to leave Kate to her own devices.

Propping her body up against the counter, Kate fumbled a frying pan out from the cupboard. Eggs and toast. That’s what she’d make herself. Eggs and toast were easy, even for a woman with a sprained ankle. Plugging in her toaster oven, Kate spent the next few minutes fumbling about, gathering the required ingredients: milk, bread, eggs, butter, cheese…

Placing a skillet on the stovetop, Kate smiled wistfully. It had been quite a day. Sure, her ankle throbbed, but having Jake carry her out of the LitLiber, a look of frantic concern etched across his face had almost been worth it….

It had happened that morning, during the first hour of her shift at the bookstore. It was Thursday, and like all Thursdays, it saw the staff busily re-stocking shelves with new arrivals, preparing for a busy weekend. And that’s exactly what Kate had been doing, her arms loaded down with science-fiction novels, when she’d stumbled over the edge of a step-stool.  It shouldn’t have been left there, the small step forgotten by an employee who, doing likeminded work as Kate, had been called away suddenly to help a customer.

Tripping hard, one moment Kate was walking quickly across the aisle way and, the next, she was being flung headfirst across the carpeted expanse before her, the books in her hands flying in any direction (some landing with a solid thump against her splayed body there). She’d tried to catch herself, her fingers reaching out for the ledges of the bookshelves, but to no avail. Stunned, for a moment, she’d just lain there, catching her breath.

Her fall had made quite boom of noise and, before she’d even regained the energy to gain her feet, Kate was looking up at Jake, who’d rushed over from his position behind the Customer Service Desk as the riotous sound.

“Jesus, Kate, are you okay?” he asked, bending down on his knee to brush off the bits of books enveloping her. “What happened?”

Kate pulled herself into a seated position. Her butt hurt. Her legs ached. Her foot, however, was all but howling in reaction to this. Grimacing, she hid the evidence of this as best she could. The embarrassment surrounding her—half the staff by this point was circled in witness to her fall—she didn’t have room to focus upon her physical woes.

“I-I tripped,” she said, pointing to the offensive article as she did so. The answering scowl on Jake’s face was fierce.

“Who left this here?” he demanded of the gawking staff. Clearly, someone was about to get their ass chewed.

Kate hadn’t meant to do that. Holding up her hand, she cut him off there. “No, no, it was my fault. I wasn’t looking were I was going. I had too many books in my hands.”

Slowly Jake rotated his gaze back to hers. “Are you okay?” he asked. The anger from just a second again was replaced with a look of genuine concern.

Kate nodded dumbly. She wished everyone would just return to work and leave her to her mortification. “Yes, I’m fine. Really, it was stupid. Sorry for all the ruckus,” she tried to say.

Jake nodded. “All right.” With that he gained his feet. Holding out his hand to her, he added: “Let me help you up.”

Placing her hand in his, Kate was unceremoniously hauled to her feet. Her left boot had barely made contact with the floor, however, when her face blanched. And, before she could help it, a soft cry of pain shot forth from her mouth. Just as quickly as she’d been brought to her feet, Kate felt her body drop back to the floor. She couldn’t stand.

“Kate?” Jake asked, squatting down beside her. “What’s wrong?”

Kate shook her head emphatically. If she just ignored it, refused to allow it to have hold over her… “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Just give me a moment.”

“Is it your foot?” Jake asked suspiciously.

Too late, Kate realized that she’d been unconsciously cradling the throbbing thing against the palm of her hand. Tears pricking against her eyes, Kate nodded in defeat. “Yeah, it’s a little sore from the fall, I guess.”

“Can I take a look at it?” Jake asked, his hand already reaching out to gently take hold of it. Slipping off her shoe, followed shortly by her sock, Jake bent down to examine the swollen, bruised limb in his hands.

Considering the state of her injury (discoloration, inflammation, tenderness), his next words weren’t all that surprising. Kate needed to see a doctor. Immediately.

“It’s probably just a sprain,” Kate had wailed when Jake ordered Jackie, the store supervisor, to bring his car around to the front of the building.

Jake threw her a dark look. “Oh? I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized you’d graduated with a medical degree.”

“I haven’t…”

“No? Then maybe we should leave such diagnoses to someone who has.”

“Jake, really, I’ll be just fine. I don’t want to go to the doctor’s office.”

To this churlish plea, Jake didn’t bother answering. “Put your arms around my neck,” he said instead.

And, despite herself, Kate felt a thrill at the hot demand. Snaking her arms around either side of his shoulder, her trembling fingers clasped one another at his nape. Still, she had her pride…

“Satisfied?” she asked sarcastically, the purpose meant to disguise the reaction his proximity was costing her. Breath trapped in her throat, Kate felt the impact of his own hands curling around her body—the right wrapped around her back, the left cupped underneath her knees. He hugged her close against his chest.

“Exceedingly,” Jake grunted as he gained his feet, his arms tight against her captive body.  With that, he lead her out of the building, his movements followed by every pair of eyes in that stupid bookstore.

 

 

 

Jake’s obvious concern as he drove her to the hospital, his gaze as frequently on her pained expression as it was on the road, was nothing compared to the reaction she received an hour later when, exiting the doctor’s private consulting room for the waiting area, her steps awkward with the aid of the foreign crutches, her eyes landed on the agitated movements of M.T. and Penny.

Oh God.

She’d barely made it halfway across the floor when they advanced on her.

“Kate?” Jake’s voice was soft, questioning.

“I knew it! I had a bad feeling this morning…a black premonition. I should have listened to it. I blame myself,” Penny all but swooned, her wrist draped dramatically over her forehead.

“How are you feeling?” Always the pastor, M.T. looked almost mothering.

The questions, barreling one after the other, hit Kate with the force of affectionate and frankly humbly, worry.

“Jake called us right after you’d been admitted,” Penny said, shooting him an appreciative look. “We got here as soon as we could.” It seemed important to Penny that Kate know this.

“You poor thing, does it hurt much?”

“I’m so sorry Kate. I feel responsible for this,” Jake interrupted, running a hand through his unruly hair.

“I took a personal day from work, so I’ll be able to take you home and get you all set up,” M.T. said, rubbing a hand against Kate’s back soothingly.

It was all just a little too much.

Holding up her hand, Kate pushed her voice forward: “Guys! Calm down. It’s just a sprained ankle.” The look she shot Jake echoed the soft strains of an “I Told You So” comeback.

“It could have been worse,” he groaned.

Kate stopped him right there. “But it’s not,” she assured him. “Jake please don’t—accidents happen.”

Penny made a tsking sound. “Accidents are merely portals of divine will.”

Kate screwed up her face—what?

M.T., giving Penny and Jake a pointed look, laughed gently: “Forgive us, Kate. We don’t mean to be overbearing. We were just worried. Still are, in fact.”

Kate nodded solemnly, gratefully. Her hand reached out to clasp that of her dear friend’s. “I know. Thank you for that.”

Jake shook his head, as if still not appeased. “Whatever you need Kate, just say the word. Okay?”

Kate smiled gently. He did look upset. “Just a couple days of rest, according to my doctor.”

“And rest you’ll get, even if it means I’ll have to sit on you!” Penny threatened, ever the theatric.

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Kate returned drily.

“Do you have school today? Would you like me to call any of your professors, explain what happened?”

Kate blanched at M.T.’s question, unused to all the attention. Her own mother wouldn’t have asked that.

“Uh, no. I don’t have school on Thursdays,” she said. Frowning she considered that though she might not have classes that day, she would the following one and it would involve multiple flights of stairs.  Blocking the unnerving thought, Kate figured she had time to figure that out yet. Either way, M.T. was not calling the college on her behalf. Kate might not walk well, but her ability to speak hadn’t yet deserted her.

“Okay. Good.” M.T. nodded firmly, a woman in charge of her domain. “Let’s get you home then.” The words didn’t brook any argument. Kate was expected to meekly compel.

Taking his cue, Jake hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the parking lot, signaling his intent to depart, as well. “Yeah, I should probably get back to the store. You’re sure you don’t need anything?” he asked again, his voice beseeching.

“I’m fine,” Kate assured him again. “Really.”

“But, you’ll call if…?”

“I’ll call,” Kate lied. She absolutely would not call Jake if she needed help with anything. That would be the epitome of humiliation. Kate McDonald was a burden to no man. (Penny and M.T. on the other hand….)

Besides, a small mean little voice in the back of her head piped in, wasn’t Jake the one who’d called in the cavalry? Not a stupid man, Jake had to have known that doing so would effectively rid him of further ‘Kate Duty’. Probably, he was anxious to wipe his hands of the whole mess, conscience cleared by the presence of her newfound caretakers—caretakers he’d seen to himself, caretakers he wasn’t numbered amongst.

Dismissing the thought as ungrateful, Kate offered him a last line of farewell before turning her attention back to Penny, who was going on and on about the dark energy which surrounded hospitals.

“We should probably get you out of here while it’s only a sore ankle,” she insisted, her eyebrows arched comically. “It’s almost a full moon. Energy has increased power during that cycle.”

Somehow Kate refrained from rolling here eye.

 

 

 

Penny hadn’t been able to stay at Kate’s long. She had a meditation session scheduled for three o’clock that afternoon and, though she’d oscillated back and forth between canceling, neither M.T. nor Kate would hear of it. The psychic needed every paying customer she could fine. Plus, Kate had explained, with some exasperation, it was only a sprained ankle. She wasn’t an invalid or anything! M.T., on the other hand, had been a little more difficult. If Kate hadn’t insisted on some alone time—she’d promised to use the time to rest, keep her foot elevated, take a nap, anything to persuade Maggie— she doubted the pastor would have left her at all.

Now, standing over her stove, spatula in hand as she scrambled the eggs, Kate began to regret her hasty decision to be left unaccompanied. For one thing, bereft of her usual mobility, she wasn’t sure how she’d pass the night. Clicking through one television show after another held little appeal and just the thought of sitting down over homework was enough to send her yawning… Conversation with Maggie would have passed the time nicely. For another, cooking was proving slow-going and less then efficient.

It was her pride, Kate knew, reaching clumsily for the milk. She hated the thought of putting anyone out, for any reason. She hated knowing her situation would prove an inconvenience to someone else…that she’d been a drain on someone’s generosity. Most especially though, she despised the notion that she was weak, lacking in some way. So she’d asked to be left alone. And that was that.

Kate was still deep in these thoughts when the buzzer on her toaster oven went off. Startled from her reverie Kate jerked, the action sending one of her crutches out from under her arm, spinning across the floor. Clanking hard against the hardwood there, it landed with a whack, just out of her reach. The fingers of one hand gripping the lip of the counter, Kate was forced to shimmy forward as best she could, closer to the fallen object. Moving with two crutches was tough. One was damn near impossible.

The buzzer sounded again.

Desperate—the toast could be smelt burning—Kate used the length of the crutch she still possessed in attempts to recover its missing counterpart. Putting this leverage to good use, she tried to hook the cushioned rubber tip of the one crutch against the adjustable hand grip of the other, in attempts to bridge this divide. She’d just about done it but, in her haste, Kate’s hand flinched, inadvertently sending the prop even farther away. Crying in frustration, she tried again, her body leaning precariously forward…!

By the time Kate had regained her crutch, the toast was past the point of no return and worse, the smoke detector had gone off. And so, college notebook in hand, Kate soon found herself standing impatiently beneath the wailing alarm, her hand waving frantically to clear the haze circulating the room. The eggs, frying forgotten on the stove, had hardened beyond consumption by this point; in consequence, small wisps of grey vapors spiraled up from underneath the pan there, floating toward the ceiling. Kate was too busy to notice.

That’s when the knock sounded at the door.

Sighing impatiently, Kate was almost glad for the disruption. It was probably Penny, finished with her client. Thank god. Kate could use a little help here. Unwilling to leave her station, Kate called out loudly, when the rapping at the door only continued to intensify in volume: “Just come in already. Doors open.”

Only, it wasn’t Penny who answered back. It wasn’t Penny who, bidden entrance, came

trudging up the split entryway, her voice fighting to be heard above the din: “Is everything all right in there?”

Kate cringed, her stomach dropping. No, it definitely wasn’t Penny at the door. It was Anne Ganthy. Kate could pick her querulous voice out of a crowd.

“Just peachy!” Kate hollered back, her own voice dripping with distain. Please go away. Please go away.

“Well!” Anne huffed, sailing into view then, “how rude! Your alarms have been going off for quite some time…do you have any idea how loud and irritating—what are you doing?” she accused, stopping abruptly at the sorry sight before her. Kate, wobbling against the kitchen chair, her bandaged foot dangling off to one side, looked anything but composed.

Composure wasn’t really any option anyway. By this point, the excess smoke had spilled out from the kitchen into the living room and downstairs bathroom, coating the main floor in a fine mist. Kate’s battle against the detector had failed. Instead of just one, now three alarms, from each respective room, were a-singing. Hence, Anne’s apparent desire to drop in.

Kate growled. “I’m doing the best I can here,” she shouted, her overwhelming frustration leaving no room for manners or niceties. “You want silence? Then start fanning!”

“Oh for goodness sakes,” Anne cried, marching over to the kitchen window. Cracking it open, it was then she noticed that the stove was still on, and the enamel frying pan, lying negligently against one of the burners, was melting from overexposure.

Watching her neatly dispose of this fire hazard, Kate grimaced.

“Well get done from there,” Anne demanded then, after relocating the demolished skillet onto a safe surface, turning her attention toward Kate once more. “Before you hurt yourself more than it seems you already have.”

Mute, Kate followed this order. It seemed pointless to argue.

“I’m going to open some more windows, try to get some fresh air in here,” Anne informed her, scuttling off without so much as a by-your-leave.

Steering herself back to the counter, Kate took the liberty of seeing to the toaster oven. The contents inside had to be scraped out. She was in the process of doing this when Anne came back. The smoke detectors had since silenced themselves and, with the cool breeze of the afternoon wafting throughout the house, the room was soon cleared of the cloudy residue her disastrous attempt at dinner had created.

Head hanging low, Kate addressed Anne. “I’m very sorry to have disturbed you. I-I sprained my ankle this afternoon…”

“And lost your ability to cook along the way?” Anne asked crossly.

Kate shrugged. “I hadn’t realized how much it’d hamper the process.”

“Humph.” Anne didn’t look to be in a forgiving mood. Nothing unusual there.

“I know how much you value your peace and quiet….”

“That’s right I do. I’ve almost forgotten what that’s like, since you’ve moved to town,” that woman acknowledged, her hands on her hips now. Then, reluctantly, she nodded toward Kate’s ankle. “What did you do to yourself anyway?”

“I tripped at work this afternoon. It’s nothing serious.”

“Apparently it’s the reason you almost burnt your house down just now. I’d say that’s serious.” Anne wasn’t going to give so much as an inch.

“I’ll order take-out from now on. I promise.”

“Humph,” Anne said again. “That’s no way to eat.”

Kate didn’t have any response to this.

“I’m making chicken parmesan for supper. It’s nothing fancy but it’s isn’t scorched either.” Anne’s face puckered with obvious discomfort.

Kate tilted her head to one side. Was that an invitation? “Oh?”

Anne huffed. “I eat promptly at 6:00pm. Shall I set the table for two?”

Kate could hardly believe her ears. “That’s very kind of you—”

Anne waved Kate’s words aside uneasily. “Simply sparing myself the trouble of standing guard outside your house with a fire extinguisher.”

Kate hid a smile. Behind that crotchety scowl beat the heart of a woman who had, at least a smidge of, kindness inside her. Besides, Kate had the feeling Anne was a good cook. And hadn’t she only just been thinking how nice it would be to have a little conversation….

“Six is perfect. Thank you.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Four

Hefting a heavy box in her arms, Kate shuffled a little to her right. The storage room at the back of the LitLiber was a mess. Organization had gotten away from the staff…sundry merchandise lay scattered around the cramped space, without thought to order or convenience. Kate had volunteered to stay late to help put the room to rights—a little extra time and effort today would save in the long run, when employees no longer had to hunt and gather for needed items.

Out of her peripheral vision, Kate saw the door to the room crack open, but she didn’t bother turning to see who’d walked it. The box was heavy.

“Kate? What are you still doing here?” Jake asked, coming up to relieve her of the bulky item. “Your shift ended half an hour ago,” he informed her disapprovingly.

Wiping the sleeve of her shirt against her sweating brow, Kate felt her heartbeat pick up a notch or two. Jake was frowning. That wasn’t a good sign. “I know,” Kate argued, “but I-I offered to keep on a little later, to help put this place to rights.”

Jake’s frown deepened.

“Jackie mentioned it needed to be done,” Kate rushed to say. Jackie was one of the floor supervisors. When Kate had overheard this, she’d jumped at the chance…. “And well, it does need a little housekeeping,” she defended, gesturing toward the chaos around her.

Jake sighed. “Kate, if this is about Janessa—” another sigh, “you don’t have to do this. You don’t, you don’t owe me anything.”

Kate swallowed hard. She wanted to deny his claim, but Jake was right. Kate was trying to make amends; she’d blown it with the PR stunt and then this thing with Janessa…. She wanted to win back Jake’s approval, his trust. She desperately wanted to prove her worth as an employee again. She and Jake hardly ever talked anymore. (Ironically, Janessa’s sticky fingers had been the first time in a long while that she and he had discussed anything even remotely personal, it had been the first time in a long time they’d laughed so freely together, teased one another, enjoyed each other’s company.) She missed that. She missed their old, easy camaraderie and she was determined to get it back.

Pushing a smile on her face, Kate waved away Jake’s concern. “Thank you for saying that. But, honestly, my intentions weren’t altogether altruistic.” She was pleased with how natural the lie sounded. “There’s a writing class being held here tonight—of course you knew that,” Kate faltered at Jake’s dry expression. “And, anyway, I’m planning to attend, but it doesn’t start for another hour; I figured I might as well be useful while I wait.”

“If you’re sure,” Jake said, but he still didn’t sound convinced.

“I’m sure,” Kate said, shooting him a breezy smile before turning away, reaching for another package….

 

 

 

At five minutes to the hour, Kate left the storage room. The floors were cleared of cardboard debris, the shelving units were stocked, labeled, and neatly arranged: alphabetized according to category, retail product sat on the left, dry goods on the right, and here and there, other miscellany, all clearly marked and smartly stacked. Wiping her hands together, Kate recognized the effort as a job well done.

Hurrying, following behind a group of women, Kate went from there to the makeshift classroom, located on the far side of LitLiber, where Jackson would be conducting his next writing seminar.

Grabbing a seat, Kate pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. She hadn’t told Penny she was coming tonight. She hadn’t wanted to give the psychic any more encouragement regarding her feelings for Jackson than she already possessed. Truth be told, Kate still wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about the hot English teacher. She just knew she wanted to see him again, that she’d been looking forward to tonight. For now, that was enough.

Fifteen minutes later, Kate decided it had been a mistake, coming here alone. She found herself odd man out, especially after Jackson announced the week’s focus (and accompanying particulars): The memoir.

“This is one of my favorite genres of writing,” he’d said in introduction. “It’s intimate, intrinsic…this kind of writing doesn’t just demand good storytelling; it demands the truth, an exposé within a specific focus and theme of a very personal nature. Not to be confused with an autobiography, the memoir is one story from within the writer’s life—not the whole story. To achieve this, the writer must analyze themselves, find out who they are, how they got there…What is the meaning? From where did it come about? Memoirs can be sad, they can be whistle-blowers, they can be inspiring, despairing…but they should always be purposeful. This is creative nonfiction folks.”

If that wasn’t scary enough, unveiling your secrets to a room full of strangers….

“What do you want your audience to know about you, right now, today, this very moment?”

Kate gulped, but nothing compared to the terror which sparked with Jackson’s next words:

“Memoirs are baring, they leave the writer vulnerable, stripped before their readers. It’s not enough to simply write out a piece of your history…you must also be willing to share that history with others. To fully understand this process, I want everyone to pair up in groups of two for this assignment. Pick someone else from this class; they will be your chosen audience, and you theirs. Because, you’re not just going to write a memoir, you’re going to share it—with them. Read and be read.

Kate felt her throat tighten. What?

“All right, take the next minute to find your partner,” Jackson announced.

Heart beating loudly, Kate watched as the room broke open in noise, women laughing, confident as they quickly teamed-up, the choices obvious; friends leaning, conspiratorially close to one another, hands reaching out, tapping shoulders expectantly…the gestures expressing intent, sealing alliances. And then there was Kate, quiet in the corner, left all alone. She didn’t know a single other person in the room. Dammit, she should have told Penny she was coming.

Her head ducked low, Kate tried to tell herself it was no big deal. So she didn’t have a partner? She’d just skip out on this exercise, that’s all. So what? It was in the midst of this self pep-talk that she became aware of a looming shadow, bent and hovering against her downcast face. Looking up, Kate was surprised to see it was none other than Jackson, squatting down beside her chair, his brown eyes steadily on her.

“Hi Kate,” he said softly, not to be overheard. “I just did a headcount and I realized that there’s an odd number in our classroom today.”

“Oh,” Kate murmured for lack of anything else to say.

“To even it out, keep everyone in groups no larger than two, I’m also going to participate in this assignment,” Jackson continued conversationally. “And I just figured, if you didn’t have one yet, I’d see you’d like to partner up with me?”

Despite her deep embarrassment at being friendless, Kate was grateful for Jackson’s discretion, his quiet handling of the situation. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’d like that.”

Jackson smiled. “Great. We’ll talk later.”

With that he walked back up to the front of the class: “All right,” he said, the sound of his voice immediately shushing the women around him, “does everyone have a partner?”

The class nodded their heads in collective consent, Kate included.

“Great. Now that you know who your intended audience is, take the opportunity to really consider, what is it you want to share with them—specifically with them. What memories or recollections— what in your past that has defined you today—do you want them to know? What story from your life will resonate, impact, what story will stay with them? You’re writing not only for yourself, but for them as well…”

Jackson’s voice droned on a few minutes longer but soon enough, he was wrapping up, glancing at the clock to inform everyone they still had the room for another half an hour: “Please, use the time to start writing,” he prompted invitingly, the words officially marking the end of his lecture.

Pulling her notebook closer, Kate needed no further encouragement. She wasn’t entirely sure how to begin her story, or really what story it was that she wanted to tell. Looking up at Jackson she wondered…what did she want him to know about her? Unbidden, Penny’s words from a week ago nagged at the thought: is she afraid of giving up her power to Jackson, as she’d done with every other person in her life?

Grabbing for her pen, unsure exactly where she was going with this, Kate hunched forward, placing ink to paper:

I always wanted to play basketball. It always looked like great fun. Besides, I think I would have been good at the sport: I’m tall, extremely competitive, in possession of adequate hand-eye coordination. And I’ve always craved being a part of something bigger than just myself. But I never got the chance. Growing up, my mother wouldn’t allow for it.

            Basketball was a masculine sport, she said. It was grotesque to see a woman growling as she dribbled down the court, her face blushed with sweat, her body blocking, pushing, and shoving roughly passed and against other players…. Girl’s who played basketball were merely women who wished that they were men, who acted unbecoming their gender.

            Basketball, my mother firmly informed me, was out. Instead, she decided I would play tennis.  It was feminine, graceful (hell, the girls still work skirts or dresses to differentiate themselves from the stronger sex). I never thought to disagree with her….

 

 

           

Something was wrong with Maggie. Penny, sitting quietly in the dim lighting of her shop, felt her brow furrow with the thought. Staring down at the Tarot cards laying face up on the table before her, the psychic couldn’t help but worry.

Picking up her phone, Penny impatiently hit redial but, after five rings, all she heard was the automated recording of Maggie’s answering machine kicking in…

“Maggie, its Penny…where are you?” she asked into the voicemail. It was the third message she’d left in the last hour. It wasn’t like Maggie not to answer the phone, especially not when it was Penny calling.  “Please, call me as soon as you get this,” Penny pleaded before hanging up. Rubbing her fingers against throbbing temples, she couldn’t ignore the feeling of doom settling across her person.

If Kate had told Penny about the writing class that night, the psychic wouldn’t have found herself in this pickle She would have left the store early, blissfully unaware of anything amiss—she would have safely gone on pretending to loathe her sister. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, Penny had lingered over her closing duties, paying bills and organizing her filing system. It was as she’d been on the point of finally leaving, half an hour later than usual, that she’d heard two ladies talking outside the florist shop, talking about the revered pastor…and the things they’d been saying, the gossip they’d exchanged:

“…drunk, almost passed out.”

“I heard that they had to forcibly cut her off…”

The story they’d been telling, well, it had seemed incredible, unbelievable and yet… Penny hadn’t wanted to admit it, she hadn’t wanted to own it, but a shadow of concern had developed at the words she’d overheard. Retreating back into her shop, she’d pulled out her trusty pack of cards.

She’d done a reading on her sister; she didn’t normally do them without the express permission of the intended client, but after what she’d gleaned listening to those nosey-parkers, she’d felt compelled to break that rule.

Now, staring down at the results of this ministration, Penny knew she’d been correct. The message wasn’t promising:

The Tower Card: a card of struggle, shock, and conflict. This card is frequently attributed to a source of severe fear, pain, and/or escapism.

The Judgment Card: a card of confrontation; a time of movement or inaction, this card represents issues left unresolved, sins and debts which effect emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.

The Justice Card: a card of limbo. Inner balance is off-kilter. This card calls for a reinstitution of alignment—too much excess or too little scarcity carry unknown, unwanted consequences.

Penny frowned. Something was wrong with Maggie. With a weary sigh, she reached for her cell phone one more time….

 

 

 

By the end of the class period, Kate had almost finished her memoir. She hadn’t known where it came from, but it was like the moment she started writing she just couldn’t stop. She was two double-sided pages in by the time Jackson announced the end of the class session, adding to this send-off, his hope to see everyone in two weeks time, for the next class.

Flexing her shoulders, Kate put the pen down. Two pages all about her childhood wish to play basketball. Of course, it wasn’t really about basketball at all, rather learning to take back control of her life. With a smile, Kate stood up. She may be a late bloomer on the study of independence, but she was learning. Calida McDonald, Phil…no one would scare her into quiet submission. She needed Jackson to know that. She needed him to understand her fears….

Waiting until most of the others had shuffled out of the room, Kate approached Jackson. “When would you like to swap papers?” she asked.

“Well, seeing how much you already have t here, we should probably do it soon, before I’m reading a full length manuscript,” he said, looking down at the sheets of paper in clutched in her left hand.

Kate blushed. “Oh—I can shorten it down. In the editing process…”

“Kate, I was teasing!” Jackson clarified quickly, putting her at ease. “Write as much as you need. It’s very therapeutic, isn’t it?” he asked, leading her out the door and into the main floor of the LitLiber.

Kate nodded. “Yeah, I had no idea.”

“Use it to your advantage,” Jackson encouraged her. “Take as much time as you need…”

 

 

 

Two days later, walking out the front doors of Whestleigh High School, Kate forced herself to relax. She and Jackson had agreed to exchange their papers that afternoon; thankfully a short day at college, Kate had barely been able to contain her restlessness until then, having driven straight there from Cordwyn after her final class of the day. She’d stayed up well into the night on the previous evening working on the piece, and by morning, four pages of fully edited work had stared back at her. With the pride of accomplishment came an equally exhilarating anticipation: what would Jackson think of it? If writing it had been cathartic, his feedback would be the reward.

Gaining her car, Kate exhaled sharply. It was done now, no going back. Jackson had her memoir. She had his. Smiling giddily, Kate couldn’t wait to read. The appeal of Jackson’s memoir—the personal entrance into a private life, the risk of exposure…it consumed her attention. She wanted to know more about this man, she found herself almost desperately anxious to know more. It wasn’t quite noon when Kate pulled up outside her house. Sparing only the length of time necessary to let Danger out to go potty, she’d no sooner shut the door behind them then she found herself stretched out across her living room recliner, Jackson’s essay clasped between her hands, greedy eyes already taking in the first lines…

November 23rd, 1997:

            The day I met Emily. I was fifteen years old. She’d just transferred to Whestleigh High School. Born and raised in Washington, Connecticut’s uptight, strict culture came as something of a shock to the laid-back, casual teenager, but I digress….

            The bell for fourth period had just rung. Gaining the hallway I saw her: standing lost, alone, looking for the girl’s locker room, shorts and a tank-top clutched nervously to her chest. She looked so beautiful, her long hair flowing gently down her face, large green eyes beseeching my help. She was as skinny as a pole but still, there was something so feminine about her, something so right… 

December 10th, 1997:

            She said yes! I asked Emily to Snow Ball and she said yes!

December 19th, 1997: 

            Emily looked flawless at that dance, her porcelain skin offset by the deep turquoise of her formal gown. Her hair was piled in a complicated knot atop her head. I was almost afraid to touch her when we met out on the dance floor… I was no great dancer, but Emily, she moved like a fairy and, best of all, she didn’t laugh when I tripped, accidently stubbing her toe. She just swayed gently in my arms, looking up at me as though I held the moon. It’s was an intoxicating feeling.

            January 16th, 1998:

            The date I officially asked Emily to be my girlfriend. I’ll never forget her response: “It’s about time,” she’d laughed. “I’d despaired of you ever asking!”

            No one was quite like Emily. I knew it even then: I was in love.

            September 24th, 1998:

            Emily and I had a plan. Next year, when we graduated, we were getting out of town. We’d each applied to Ruettier College.

            March 10th, 1999:

            Emily didn’t get into Ruettier. She tried to put on a brave face, told me that it didn’t matter, that it was just one college of out hundreds. She told me I should still go, that I shouldn’t feel guilty because I got in. She held me hand between both of hers and told me that I should go…but I knew I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t leave Emily behind. I loved her too much. There were hundreds of colleges, but only one Emily.

            June 8th, 2000:

            Graduation day; Emily and I decided to take the next year off from school, travel the country. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled. Hers’ offered to help fund the trip. 365 days alone with my best girl. Could life get any better?

            August 21st, 2000:

            Emily and I had sex last night. It was late in the evening when she’d reached over, touching my cheek, to whisper the words I’d been waiting years to hear: ‘Jackson, I’m ready.’

            Afterward, I heard her crying from within the bathroom. I thought maybe I’d accidentally hurt her (I knew it could be painful for girls) but she told me that wasn’t why—that she’d cried because it was so special, because she loved me so much. It had been my first time too, so I hadn’t known what to expect but those words…nuzzling her neck, I made a solemn vow to myself. Emily would be my first and my last; forever. 

            July 25th, 2005:

            On July 25th, 2005, at approximately 3:00 p.m. (with reception to follow) I married my best friend.

            My hands shook when I lifted her veil, they trembled when I slipped the ring on her finger…they quivered as I held her close, leading her through our first dance as husband and wife. I didn’t think I’d ever stop shaking. She was too precious, I was so lucky… I married my best friend that day and all I kept thinking was how I couldn’t wait to begin the rest of my life with her. All I kept thinking was, I’d never be the same again… 

            December 20th, 2005:

            I received my bachelor’s in secondary education. Emily surprised me with a trip out to the sea in celebration of this achievement. Two days and three nights of lovemaking; and that’s what it was with Emily. Thrilling, exciting, but always love.

            April 17th, 2006:

            Emily brought up the discussion of kids. I’d always dreamt of having a big family.

            October 30th, 2006:

            After months and months of trying, and failing to conceive….

            The doctor’s voice was low but gentle: Emily couldn’t have children. Holding her in my arms, running my hands soothingly up and down her back, I heard the sobs break forth from her mouth. I was devastated but…

            We have each other, I reminded her. That was enough, more than enough. If we had each other we had everything.

            I meant it. Emily was more important than a house full of kids. Family wouldn’t be family without her.

            November 30th, 2008:

            I was at work when I got the call. I didn’t recognize the number…. It was the police. There had been an accident—a car accident. The other driver had died immediately upon impact; Emily was being rushed to the hospital… 

            I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I just kept hearing this cold disembodied voice telling me: Sir, I’m sorry to inform you that your wife was involved in motor vehicle accident this morning…”

            No! No, no, no, no, no. I had just seen her, only hours before, laughing at me across the breakfast nook; she’d been teasing me about my tie, said it was too stuffy for a man in his mid-twenties. She was taking me shopping that weekend….

            No. no, no, no, no, no. It couldn’t be real. It didn’t feel real. It felt like a mistake. She was safe. She had to be safe. She was too young. I was too young. I needed her—I needed her to be home when I walked through the front door, smiling in greeting, asking me about my day. That was my life. This phone call, it wasn’t, it couldn’t be true. 

            February 19th, 2009:

            At twenty-seven years old, I lost my wife. Emily Jean Fischer died at 12:08 in the morning, on February 19th, 2009, suffering from unresolved internal bleeding. She’d never once woken up in the months she’d been in the hospital, she’d never even left MICU. She’d never once felt my hand squeezing hers, heard my voice pleading with her to keep fighting, telling her how much I loved her. She never once knew…she might as well have been alone.

            February 21st, 2009:

            I buried my wife that day. Saying it: it’s such a cold, hard statement; but then, I feel cold and hard inside. Empty. Bereft. The only woman I ever loved, the one woman I was meant to love, is dead. Dead. A cold, hard word.

            January 25th, 2015:

            These memories, these are all I have left of my wife, a mental movie reel to remember her by. Every morning, every night, I replay these moments and for a second, I’m alive again, for a minute I am back there, with her. A broken man, stuck on repeat. On good days, I think how lucky I was to have her those thirteen years. On bad days, I grieve all over again, knowing I’ll spend the rest of my time on this Earth without her—I’ll spend the majority of my life without her.          

            For a long time, I thought my experience with that kind of love was over, buried six feet underground, laid to rest beside my beloved ghost. To this day, she’s still the only woman I’ve ever dated, the only woman I’ve ever kissed. For a long time, that was enough. How could I possibly find that in someone else again? How could I put myself through that again? But just lately…I’m a man at war with himself.

            I want to exist again, really exist, and not just in snapshots of the past. Only, I’m scared to let Emily go, to shed myself of the final vestiges I still possess. Sometimes I think it was a curse, just how much I loved her. I’m not sure I could live through that again, but neither can I deny a sliver of want, an involuntary pull toward something more—more than just cold memoirs. I made a promise to myself: Emily would be my first and my last. A fractured word, I find myself slipping, fighting, alternating, at once scared and confused…

            A broken man, stuck in limbo; a man at war with himself.

 

Reading this, Kate cried.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, take a seat,” he offered weakly.

Kate smiled tightly.

 

 

 

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

Breezy, cool, but damn nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Lutheran Church         

            2680 Callaghan Road

            Paisley Way, IN ….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe Maggie, breathe.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes. Kate gulped.

Could this situation get any more uncomfortable?

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

Double yikes!

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is, if you don’t mind?”

 

 

 

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

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

Pastor Thayer,          

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed a drink. Maybe two.

 

 

 

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

Note to self: get another IT guy!

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

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

“Kate?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty

Kate closed her eyes as the memories washed across her consciousness. The utility closet Penny lovingly referred to as her shop, was shrouded in shadows, with only the lamp sitting atop her filing cabinet casting light upon the room. Seated around psychic’s worktable, leaning heavily against the ladder-backing of the proffered chair, Kate tried to breathe normally. The smell of freshly brewed coffee made her nose twitch. It was almost midnight but Penny had assured Kate that coffee wasn’t just for early morning…and hell, it was almost early morning anyway. Really early morning.

“Phil and I met our junior year in college,” Kate whispered, the words harsh, uncomfortable as they echoed across the room. She didn’t want to go back to that place—she didn’t want to revisit it, to dredge up any part of her former life. The wounds were still too fresh, the guilt too new. But Penny was probably right, and if she didn’t talk about it, if she didn’t exercise the ghosts, Kate would never truly let it go.

“His father is a lawyer,” Kate said, recognizing that a little background info would go a long way here. “And anyway, his firm had recently signed a retainer agreement with my father, who is a venture capitalist. Negotiations, investments, money, they hit it off right away—two man cut from the same cloth: out for blood and victory, and just for the sport of it, too.” Kate’s voice was rough, critical.

“I was living at college during this time, so I was only vaguely aware of their newfound partnership. It wasn’t until the New Year that it had any direct effect on my life. My mother called to inform me…” Kate’s voice droned on over her consciousness as she remembered that fateful conversation.

“Kate darling, our family has been invited to dinner with the Sheller’s…” Calida McDonald’s voice had held a note of expectation upon delivering this news, imparted almost immediately after her daughter answered the phone.

For a moment, Kate racked her brain, trying to place the name—wait, that’s right! The Sheller’s: Henry and Margaret. AKA: Father’s attorney and his wife.

“Is father being sued?” Kate asked quickly, fearfully. Why else would she be told about it…?

“Of course not,” Calida spoke impatiently. “Don’t be so suspicious darling. It’s just a dinner party between friends. They’ve asked us over for Saturday evening. I’ll expect you to attend, as well….” Kate was soon to discover that the couples had, in fact, grown quite close in recent weeks, her father and Henry playing a weekly golf game at the country club, her mother left entertaining Margaret in their absence—a dowdy woman who Calida found sadly lacking in fashion (but then, according to Calida, Margaret was also a woman of rather unfortunate curves anyhow…almost as unfortunate as her conversation.)

Kate chocked out an initial denial. “Saturday? I’m not sure I can—”

“Nonsense, of course you’ll come,” Calida went on, cutting Kate off ruthlessly. No one said no to Calida McDonald. It was practically a law somewhere. Kate should have known better. “It would be rude not to accept. The Sheller’s are fast becoming firm friends, and so naturally they want to meet you. Besides, you father and I already agreed to it on your behalf.”

Kate let out a soundless sigh. This was why she’d insisted upon moving into the dormitory on campus this year. It was always the same: Kate would be dressed up and made over, resembling the likes of a life-size doll. She’d be told when to eat, how to seat, when to speak…she was nothing more than a puppet pulled by a string. Her mother was a magnificent puppeteer.

“Don’t tell me you have classes during the weekends too?” Calida challenged.

“No,” Kate agreed, knowing it was pointless to explain further. To tell Calida the weekends saw Kate still studying for classes, finishing the last of her homework assignments, stressing out about her grades…well, that would have been an affront to her mother’s nerves: why couldn’t Kate get that done during regular workday hours? Had she become lazy? She wasn’t likely to get ahead with work ethic like that. To be a McDonald, failure wasn’t an option, mediocrity was an insult, leaving perfection as the only option.

Besides, the Sheller’s son would be present for the evening’s little soiree—and he was prelaw! If he could find the time in his undoubtedly hectic schedule, was it really asking so much for Kate to do the same? And anyway, Calida wheedled: Kate would have someone her own age to talk to. Wouldn’t that be nice?

There was really no response to this nonsense other than acceptance. Kate knew that. Calida would not abide by untoward embarrassment, certainly not the kind inflicted by her own flesh-and-blood. These people represented her father. They were business associates after all.

“What time would you like me there?” Kate submitted wearily.

“You can ride over with your father and me. Be to our house at five o’clock,” Calida instructed, gleeful now. “Oh, and Kate?” she warned in parting, “it will be a formal affair. Do dress appropriately dear. I was thinking maybe that black cocktail dress I bought you earlier this autumn? The one with the lace edging?”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Sure Mom.”

“And for goodness sake Kate don’t wear your grandmother’s pearls with it,” Calida added. Kate frowned. She loved that necklace. It had sentimental value. Her mother’s voice rose over these thoughts: “You looked cheap the last time you wore them together.”

….

Saturday evening descended naturally enough, Kate arriving at her parent’s house promptly on time, wearing the black dress. Her hair, she’d tied into a tight chignon, and low-slung satin pumps cradled her feet. Her irritation at the forced invitation was nicely disguised under the blank face of polite society; her mother met her at the door for a quick once-over, her eyes hawks, vultures…looking for faux pas, looking for the damned pearl necklace. She needn’t have bothered though; Kate had left it obediently at home. Satisfied at last, Calida gave Kate’s appearance her personal stamp of approval, and soon, swathed in couture coats, the family headed out the door.

Arriving at the Sheller’s house, Kate’s first impression had been one of awe: their familial estate was four-story, honey-yellow brick, and curtained on each side with tall shrubbery. An inlaid stone walkway circled to the front door, which, in turn, was flanked on either side by massive stained-glass windows. And that was just in one quick glance! If anything, the Sheller’s were even higher up on the social ranking scale than Kate’s own parents.

That must’ve rankled for poor Calida.

“Phil was the first person I saw upon entering the house.” Kate recited to a captive Penny. “He was standing a little ways back from the door, which had been answered by their houseman—Thomas.” Her eyes glossy in memory, Kate could put herself back in that moment as easily as if it were happening for the first time again, history literally repeating itself.

Phil had looked splendid in his three-piece suit, the dove-gray of the fine material striking an attractive contrast to his olive complexion. His wavy brown hair, cut nicely short, was styled off his face, allowing prominent exposure to his high cheekbones. He had a crooked grin. Kate had always loved that most about him. It was the only obvious imperfection he owned.

Advancing toward Kate and her parents, his right arm extended in greeting, Phil introduced himself, inquired about any pre-dinner drinks, and excused his parents for their tardiness. His father had an urgent call and his mother was going over last minute details of the night’s menu.

“I’m sure you understand, Mrs. McDonald, how stressful these parties can be on the hostess. The planning must be just right, the execution perfectly timed to achieve a satisfactory experience—or so I’m told,” he said, ribbing Kate’s father at the teasing remark.

Mr. McDonald laughed good-naturedly: “Oh, she knows all right!”

Calida smiled, but it was forced, frozen. She hadn’t appreciated the ‘little woman’ joke. Kate hadn’t found it very kind, either. But then again, anyone who annoyed her mother…well, that was just fine by Kate.

The first and second course of the meal went by uneventfully, the men talking shop, the women gossiping idly, generous compliments supplied on the food and wine. It was when the dessert was laid down before everyone’s plate, however, that Kate noticed a distinct change in the atmosphere. The father’s had grown ominously quiet, Calida and Margaret repeatedly locking eyes, communicating silently across the table to one another. Kate watched them watching her.

“Kathryn, your mother tells me that you’re quite the tennis player—the number one seed at college currently?” Margaret voice, consciously loud now, deliberately carrying, roused the table’s attention easily.

A forkful of some chocolate dipped mouse poised halfway to her mouth, Kate paused. “Yes. Though I should admit…”

“How marvelous,” Margaret said, speaking over her. She’d heard all she needed to hear. “Phil is also quite taken with the sport, aren’t you?” she said, a pointed look sent her son’s way.

“I am,” Phil agreed drily, with only the slightest of wobbles in his voice to convey amusement.

Kate had a sinking suspicion she knew where this was going….

“I know he’d love to get in a game or two before heading back to college,” she continued unashamedly, her voice conversational as she let her eyes span over the guests sitting across the mahogany dining set, gaining nodded approvals along the way. “He’s home for another week, then it’s off to the East coast for Spring Semester,” she said, her gaze shifting again, settling on Kate once more.

Kate wasn’t sure how to respond. It was only too evident that Margaret had said all of this for her benefit, but she unwilling to meekly play along. Being Calida’s yes-girl was more than enough. “Oh. Well, plenty of time then,” she invented noncommittally.

Margaret sighed theatrically, contriving to sound fatalistic as she addressed the room at large: “Only, of course, I’m lousy at the game myself and Henry’s work keeps him awfully busy lately. I’d be such a shame for Phil to miss out on the practice…” she hinted heavily, leaving the sentence to dangle there suggestively.

Before Kate took the opportunity to officially shut Margaret down—explaining that she had no interest in being set-up with a mama’s boy, who hadn’t even bothered to assert his own opinion or resistance to such ridiculous, obvious matchmaking—Calida’s voice broke against the wallpapered decor of the formal room: “I’m sure Kate would be delighted to arrange a court date with Phil.” The look she sent Kate was clear: Do. Not. Disobey. Me. “The country club has a wonderful, state-of-the-art indoor facility,” she went on to say.

“Oh, Kate that would be marvelous! Are you sure you can spare the time?” Margaret asked and then, before Kate could possibly be given the chance to actually speak: “Say tomorrow, one o’clock in the afternoon?”

There was a conspiracy afoot; Calida and Margaret were a little too adamant, a little too pushy…it was all a little too staged, too perfectly rehearsed.

“Sure,” Kate said tightly, dejected conformity dripping off the chopped syllable.

Calida clapped her hands together in finality. “Perfect! We’ll call and get everything reserved today.”

Neither Kate nor Phil had spoken a single word. Kate helpless in the face of her mother’s instance, Phil too busy looking bored to have apparently even noticed. Their parents had just arranged a play date for the two of them, as though they were still small children. Worse, they’d both quietly allowed it to happen. If Kate thought Phil was a dandy boy, she dared not think too hard about what her acquiescence made her?

 

 

 

“Our coupling could hardly be called happenstance,” Kate told Penny, her shoulders rising and falling listlessly. She felt exhausted suddenly, and not because of the hour of night.

Penny took a sip of from her coffee. From the bluish tint cornering the edges of her eyes, the caffeine would be required for the duration of this story. “He was from your social circle,” she stated simply.

“Yes, exactly. That was important to both of our mothers—that we associate with the right crowd,” Kate agreed softly. “I don’t mean to make them sound snobbish but…”

Penny shrugged: “Parents always mean well, regardless of how it’s perceived.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah, and to give them credit, Phil and I did mesh well….”

Because despite her reservations, Kate had enjoyed their tennis match the next afternoon; Phil had a nice serve, a graceful topspin, though his backhand didn’t even compare to her own…. They’d played for a solid two hours that afternoon, and even with Phil ultimately winning in straight sets, Kate had rarely felt the time slip by. (Of course, she’d made sure to let him win. Her mother would have been horrified at such a mean competitive streak if Kate had allowed herself to beat him; men should always been led to believe they are the stronger sex. Calida’s conservative views had often confused Kate.) He’d been a gracious winner, even offering to buy her lunch afterward….

“We went out two more times that week,” Kate told Penny.

She probably wouldn’t have if, when she’d returned home from that first outing, it hadn’t been her father who’d met Kate at the door, her father who’d anxiously wanted to know if she’d had a good time, if she had plans to meet up with Phil again. Calida was one thing, but Russell McDonald…. Her whole life, he’d been only ever vaguely involved in Kate’s life, absently agreeing with her mother on discipline and child-rearing, frequently absent…and yet, on the rare occasions when he chose to be present, when he remembered he had one, Russell McDonald doted unashamedly on his only child. His excited questions, the quiet hope in his eyes had done Kate in. She couldn’t disappoint him.

“Where did you go?” Penny prompted gently.

Shaking herself free of this melancholy thought, Kate brought herself back to point: “A musical one night, tickets to an art exhibit the next.”

Shifting, one leg crossed over the other, Penny tried to make herself more comfortable. “You enjoyed yourself?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement of fact. Such entertainment would have been right up Kate’s alley.

Kate nodded. “Phil has this dry sense of humor. It’s completely deadpan and not a lot of people get it but…but he always made me laugh. There was this painting at the art show we went to,” Kate remembered. “It was a three-dimensional piece, abstract in design, sloshed everywhere in red and gold with sticks of driftwood glued on it, and here and there, an odd penny….” Kate shook her head. “Anyway, as we were coming up to view it, Phil stopped suddenly, as though frozen, his body seizing dramatically at the sight. Then he turned to look at me and said: ‘My God, suddenly it all makes sense!’” Kate smiled even at the memory. “He bought the painting that evening and gave it to me as a present, a token to remember him by, he’d said.”

“He sounds likes…he sounds memorable all on his own,” Penny said, her voice gentle, prodding Kate along. “So what happened after that week, when he went back to college?”

Kate shifted. “We kept in touch, and when we went too long without talking, our mother’s took over in the interim. I visited him during Spring Break; he attended my sororities annual May Wall Ball as my personal guest.” He’d shown up in a fitted tuxedo, perfectly turned out, and Kate had never felt so proud as when all her friends sidled up to him, jealous when they found out he was spoken for…jealous because their dates were the same old campus frat boys. Phil had wowed them with his intellect, his ambition. And everyone had wanted to be Kate. It was heady, intoxicating. Basking in the glow of having what everyone else wanted, she deluded herself in believing that it was what she wanted, as well. The picture-perfect life. The height of societal success. She hadn’t stopped to analyze further than that.

“Even when we weren’t together, we managed to stay in each other’s lives. He’d spend Sunday afternoons on the phone, quizzing me on my statistics homework,” Kate heard herself say, “and I sent him a picture of me standing in front of that hideous painting he’d bought—this time I wanted him to remember me.” Kate lifted one shoulder. “And by then, it was summer and he was coming back home.”

The first thing he’d done when his plane landed was seek Kate out. When she’d opened the door to see him standing there, his travel bags lying on the ground at his feet, she’d felt—she’d felt so special. They spent every day together that summer; they made love together that summer. It had been Kate’s first real taste of intimacy, and Phil had been so gentle and kind, so selfless. Kate would always love him for that generosity of spirit. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t felt alone. She’d wanted so badly for things to work. Between Calida and Margaret, resistance would have been futile anyway, so she imagined herself in love with him. It was easy at first. After all, it was the only experience she’d ever had of it, the only time she’d been allowed to ‘feel’ it.

“I was so desperate to be loved that I was ready to fool even myself into believing it was real,” Kate said, hating herself for how pathetic that sounded. She was so much damaged goods. “But deep down, I knew.”

Penny patted Kate on the knee. “That’s a hard lesson to learn.”

“It took six years to figure it out,” Kate said.

By the end of that summer Kate and Phil were an established item. She’d sent him off to his senior year of college that fall with tears rolling down her cheeks, and only a montage of desperation, dependency, and despondency to keep her company. She couldn’t focus at school, she hardly ate. Her friends had grown banal in her eyes, pedestrian, tiring… She missed Phil.  If only he were here…!

“I let Phil become my whole world. I’m not even sure how it happened. I was so independent before I met him. I enjoyed being single, hanging out with my friends and then, suddenly, I couldn’t make a single decision without first discussing it with him.

“It was like, I lost my ability to be me when I was around him. Phil wasn’t—he isn’t a bad man. He never pushed his opinions on me. I just, instead, I did that. I made myself in his mold.”

Calida McDonald had finally accepted her daughter. Her daughter had done well for herself, the family name shone because of it. She was moving in the right circles. For the first time, she found no reason to nit-pick about Kate’s affairs. If Phil approved than Calida could find no fault either. Kate loved him all the more, if for no other reason than that.

“What a joke,” Kate spat, her hands gripping the edges of the table, “I was accepted as long as I wasn’t really being me. Even I was guilty of it, of lying to myself.”

“Is that why you left?” Penny asked, “because you didn’t belong?”

“Yes. No…” Kate shook her head, trying to understand it herself. “In a way, I suppose. But, it wasn’t until I moved here that I realized how far gone I’d been. It wasn’t until I was forced to make a choice on my own, that I realized I’d forgotten how to do that, that I’d lost faith in my ability to have an answer on my own.” The confession was filled with self-loathing.

“Hey, we can’t grow as people if we don’t make mistakes,” Penny reminded her. “And, whether you were ready to admit it or not then, you knew something was off—you wouldn’t have moved here, you wouldn’t have figured out just how lost you’d been, if not.”

Kate crinkled her nose; tears weren’t far from the surface. “When Phil asked me to marry him that’s when things first started to change.”

Some part of Kate had known in that very instant that she wouldn’t marry him. When she’d seen him get up from the table of the restaurant they were dining at, nodding conspiratorially at the proprietor, Kate had known what was coming next.

No! No, no, no, no, no!

But he hadn’t heard her silent pleading in the moments that passed, as he bent his left leg to the floor, gathering the attention of the rest of the patrons at the establishment. He hadn’t felt her stomach drop despairingly in that unguarded beat of time, before well-drummed decorum had taken over, convincing her that what she’d experienced was nerves of excitement, not dread. This was the man of her dreams! How many times had people told her that? Of course it was excitement! Silly Kate. That’s all it was.

(Except, except it all felt too real suddenly, the truth exposed in that first reaction, and covered-up in the next. And, despite years of training, Kate found she could no longer completely hush that small voice in the back of her head, the one which defied societal imposition, the one which openly rebelled against all things Calida McDonald…. Of course, years of training weren’t easily undone either. Calling it a fit of fancy, Kate nonetheless kept trying, vigorously suppressing its growing influence, tuning out is noisy insistence.)

Phil hadn’t known any of this when his eyes met hers across the linen tablecloth a red-velvet ring box held delicately in the palm of his left hand.

….

“But you still said yes,” Penny reminded Kate.

“Yeah, I did,” Kate said, pushing her chair back. Standing up, she moved over to the window at the back of Penny’s shop. With the flick of her finger, she pulled two blinds apart, her non-seeing eyes looking out at the empty roadway. “I was in so deep…I had gotten so good at pretending to be someone I wasn’t, I didn’t know how to be anyone else. So I said yes, but I didn’t mean it.”

“When did you—what made you…you know, leave?” Penny pushed expectantly.

“I wasn’t the right woman for him,” Kate said simply, pausing here to take a deep breath, the maneuver a deliberate stall. “I didn’t want to see what was right under my nose at first but then…this thing happens! and suddenly there are no more lies left to protect me, nothing to disguise the truth of what’s happening: the late nights at work, the desperate lovemaking, the empty promises…” Kate smiled emptily. “It’s the same old story, I suppose: romance gone awry, needless heartache and betrayal.”

Penny recoiled sharply at the involuntary words, her elbow crashing against the side of her porcelain cup, and almost overturning its contents, in the haste of her movements. “Kate, are you telling me—did Phil? Did he cheat on you?”

North of Happenstance: Chapter Eighteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah?”

“The date, Kate. Look at the date.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

“Like you care,” Janessa snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why hadn’t she seen it before?

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirteen

Kate swung her clothes hangers sharply to the left, her sigh nicely muffled by the shuffle of plastic hooks over the medal rods. Her work’s Halloween Party was tonight and Kate hadn’t had time to shop around for a costume. She’d spent the majority of the last two days in her college art room, working on a new pottery urn for Madame Penny. Her birthday was coming up and in her not-so-subtle-way she’d expressed hope that Kate would use her creative vision to make her something…this would be especially cool if it fit her new house plant. Kate had messed it up twice but, luckily for her, the art instructor, Matt Brice, was a cool guy who allowed her to stay late on the project while he graded papers for a different class. In fact, it was pretty cool that he let her even do the project at all, since it didn’t meet any of the classroom assignment requirements. He’d called it extra credit.

So now, her hands scrubbed clean of clay, except for a small smudge that managed to make its way almost all the way up to her elbow, she stood at the entrance to her closet, two hours from party go-time, with nothing to wear. Well, not exactly nothing. She had a box holding past Halloween costumes, held in reserve for just such instances. She could recycle one of those easily. It’s not like anyone here would notice she’d donned the same attire twice. Her mother’s voice floating between her ears, Kate could just imagine her upset; Calida McDonald never wore the same thing twice.

Splashed across Kate’s floor were numerous options, consisting of a ladybug, a go-go dancer, a wench and a football cheerleader. Turning her back on those options, Kate decided they were a little too juvenile for this party. It’s not that she wanted to impress her new co-workers with her outrageously awesome costume it’s just, she didn’t want them to think she was totally lame either.

In the end she chose the Cleopatra costume. (She’d known even before she started scavenging that she’d pick that one anyway. Woman are such contrary creatures….) An expensive garment purchased two years ago, it was the only item she actually kept in a garment bag and outside the box. It hung in the back of the closet space, expertly pressed and dry-cleaned. She doubted it was much better than any of the other options, but at least it fit well, was moderately comfortable and showed just enough cleavage to keep her from being labeled a ‘prude’ but not too much to give the impression of  ‘easy access.’ At least, she hoped so.

Tugging the wig over her head, she hoped it would look all right. Costumes always made her feel self-conscious. What if people thought her choice was unoriginal, boring, or just…unmemorable. It wasn’t like Kate had friend just knocking down her door, at least not in Whestleigh. The new kid on the block, she couldn’t afford to alienate herself. She could not afford to be dubbed an outcast, or worse: uncool.

Fixing eyeliner to her lower lid with a heavy hand, Kate took a moment to wish that Madame Penny was going to be there or even M.T. Stomach knotting in anticipation, she suddenly felt conspicuously sick.

 

 

Kate pulled up to the party, hosted at Jake’s house, almost thirty minutes late. She hadn’t wanted to be the first one there while simultaneously nervous of appearing rude by disregarding the start time too completely. Relief washing through her person, she noted several cars parked alongside the street. Quickly finding a place to park, she unraveled her invitation, triple-checking the address she’d already memorized by heart, before getting out of her car. What would be worse than knocking on the wrong door? Hitching her chin up, she slowly made her way toward a red painted door, the numbers aligning it clearly marking it as the home of 3442 Hemming Way.

The sequins on her dress glittered underneath the outside porch light, and the gold bangles against her wrist moved musical up and down her forearm as she reached for the door handle. She wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing, but her costume had definitely done the trick: she did not look like herself. Her fair blonde hair was swapped for a short black bob with a gold-plated headdress, her face thickly painted in light blues, ashy oranges, and deep reds. Her eyes looked bigger, wider… her lips darker, fuller…who anyone even recognize her?

Probably not. Most of them wouldn’t even if she’d come without a costume.

 

 

It took three heaping glasses of the heavily spiked rum punch before Kate felt her shoulders relax, her laughter lower in pitch, her body sway more naturally to the music blaring out of the living room speakers. It took three heaping glasses of heavily spiked rum punch before Kate felt the first waves of over-indulgence sit in.

And that was okay with her. Though she rarely drank to get drunk, Kate had decided, only minutes after walking into Jake’s house, that tonight would be an exception to the rule. She’d mistakenly thought tonight’s party was just for the employees. One look at the body of people milling throughout the kitchen and dining room proved this theory wrong. At first glance, it appeared the whole damn town of Whestleigh had shown up for the occasion. Just her luck, however, the only seeming people not in attendance were Penny and M.T.

And there she’d stood, mouth hanging agape, at the site before her, feeling like the gangly outsider she’d so keenly wanted to avoid. Alone in a crowded room with no one to talk to—not even the host himself, who remained an unknown disguise in a room filled with ‘em. Even worse, she wasn’t the only Cleopatra in the room. Granted, hers was by far superior in quality: fabric and design of course, but the other girl in the room, whose name Kate vaguely recalled as being Ashley, looked for more at ease in hers, flit-flatting around the room as natural as the air. A fellow co-worker at the LitLiber, she and Kate had exchanged little more than pleasantries at this point.

(If it could get any worse, as the night progressed Kate couldn’t help overhearing Ashley’s costume repeatedly being showered with compliments while hers, its higher-quality equivalent, had yet to receive even a comment of interest. So maybe Kate had a little competitive spirit, so what?)

It seemed logical that the best course to remedy her current situation of friendlessness was to get rip-roaring drunk. Liquid courage, didn’t they say? So, without further ado she slipped toward the punch bowl, and after one sniff she felt reasonably sure it wouldn’t take long for her to feel the effects of what she supposed was two liters of straight booze. She hadn’t eaten very much before the party. Her stomach had been doing too many summersaults to successfully have kept anything down. She was thankful of that. An empty stomach was an advantage to the thirsty drinker.

Now, less than an hour later, she’d found herself a small group of friends. Granted, she was more-or-less just hanging on and they were probably too polite to ask her to leave, but it was better than nothing:

“…then I found him, passed out in the bathroom half of his body lying inside the bathtub” Sarah (Kate thought that was her name anyway. There hadn’t been any proper introductions made) said laughingly.

The guy on Kate’s left guffawed and added another snippet to this delightfully dim trip down memory-lane. Kate felt her smile slip. The last fifteen minutes had been much the same, a swapping back-and-forth of drunken stories. Personally, she found it sadly lacking of depth or substance but if she said that she’d be kicked out of their little group. Pinning a look of interest on her face, she tried to wrack her brain for anything of contributing matter.

“One time,” Kate made herself say, speaking up for the first time. The sound of her voice, foreign up until now, caused all heads to turn eagerly her way. “Well, um,” Kate felt her cheeks flush at the unexpected attention. Scrambling, she continued: “I got so drunk out with some friends and—anyway, when I got back to my apartment I couldn’t get my key to fit in the door lock. I was forced to break in.” Kate waited a beat before adding,” turns out, it was actually my neighbor’s place.”

“Oh my god! No way,” two of the girls said simultaneously, their show of impression giving Kate a much needed confidence bolster. The way they were looking at her, Kate felt like part of the group. It hardly mattered that she didn’t particularly like any of them, or that none of them could seem to remember her name.

“What happened?” another person asked.

“Well I didn’t even notice at first. I just passed out on the couch. But the next morning when I work up to Kyle Morton hovering over my sprawled out body, let’s just say things got a little uncomfortable,” she said, recovering fast.

The story was false. At least, it was partially true, kind of. Only it was Kyle Morton who’d tied one on that fateful night and it was Kyle Morton who broke into her apartment accidentally and it was Kate who’d found his prone body laying unconscious on her sofa the next morning.

“That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard,” one of them said, almost bent over in laughter.

“Yeah,” Kate said noncommittally, taking another pull off her punch. She needed it. More alcohol was required if she was going to subject herself to much more of this.

Unfortunately, all the booze in the house wasn’t going to be enough. After her fourth cocktail, Kate decided to call it quits. The night had been a bust—except for the free drunks. Her ears were numb from the painfully simple conversations floating throughout the place. She’d tried leap-frogging from one group to the next but she just ran into more of the same: mindless chatter, the sole purpose of which was just to fill the void of silence, rather than an exchange of anything meaningful or purpose-driven.

Calling herself ten times a snob, Kate nonetheless made her wobbly way over to the makeshift cloakroom, a bedroom tucked in the corner of the main floor, where everyone had been instructed to drop their jackets/purses off. Pushing the door open, after slipping between two fat men who refused to move out of the way, even after she politely excused her presence, Kate paused for a moment to lean against the jamb. She was oddly out of breath, having exerted for too much energy simply keeping her body upright and walking in a straight line. Plus, she needed time to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness enveloping the room. Two windows against the far wall were the only source of light.

Sightless, her fingers searched for a light switch, but to no avail. After thirty seconds of fruitless fumbling, Kate abandoned this objective, her hand falling limply to her side. It was luminous enough for her purposes. All she needed was her purse so she could call Penny for a ride. Kate wasn’t stupid enough to drive, not in her condition and she had a feeling Penny would be only too happy to stop in and say a quick hello to…well the entire freaking town.

Kate was fully occupied in this pursuit, bent over the bed shoveling through the masses of personal belongings tossed willy-nilly atop it, when she felt or heard, she wasn’t sure which, the presence of another person in the room.

“God, you look sexy,” a voice said into the darkness. Stifling a scream, Kate spun around, her wig jostling with the movement. No doubt about it now, there was definitely another person in the room. A man, to be exact

Before she could say anything—a word of caution or a call for help—he advanced further into the room, quick strides bringing him within inches of her body. “I’ve been waiting all night for a minute alone with you,” he whispered, “and when I saw you slip inside just now—”

In the sudden proximity, her eyes acclimating to the dim lighting, Kate could just make out the face belonging to that oddly familiar voice. She hadn’t seen him all night, hadn’t even known what he’d dressed up as.

A pirate it seemed.

“Um, Jake—?” she whispered confusedly. Her voice came out thick, a consequence of the alcohol flooding her system. It didn’t sound like her.

“Don’t worry, no one saw me come in,” he said in response. Kate felt boneless when his hands reached out then, gripping onto her hips, tugging her closer, holding her captive. Her breath  hitched, her pulse skipped.

“Huh?” she asked dumbly, her senses dulled by his very nearness.

Apparently, he wasn’t in the mood to answer her, at least not with words. No sooner had her inarticulate question peppered the air then his head dipped down, his lips catching hold of her own. Frozen from surprise, for a second Kate didn’t move.

What the hell was happening?!

Then, God help her, Kate felt her body respond to the pressure of nibbling bites against the edges of her mouth. Parting her lips, she allowed him the entrance he so obviously wanted. Immediately, she could taste the smoky flavor of liquor on his breath. His hands, cradled against the nape of her neck now, tilted her head a little to the left, his tongue skirting past her teeth and tangling with her own.

The silence of the room was broken only by the sound of their breathing, by the rasping brush of skin against skin, by the soft resonance of the music just outside the door….

Letting her head drop backward, Kate felt her body press more closely against Jake’s as the kiss went on. It was probably the alcohol, a small part of her brain reasoned, but she found she couldn’t quite help giving into the seduction of this man. His hands were everywhere: skimming down her arms, pressing against her waist, messaging up her back. They shook with force of his attraction, his body hugged tight against her own.

“God Ashley—” he whispered against her trembling mouth.

Ashley? Oh God, did he just say Ashley?! Not even the alcohol could forgive that telling mistake. Jake thought he was kissing Ashley; the other Cleopatra at the party. Of course!

Wrenching her lips from his, hands shoving firmly against his chest, Kate pushed Jake away.

“What’s wrong?” he asked at the swift rejection.

Play it cool Kate. Though a part of her was horrified at what his confession intimated: she’d kissed him so passionately, she’d wanted him in that moment, and the whole time he’d thought he was kissing someone else…still, the situation required delicacy, diplomacy, tact. It required that Kate somehow manage to save-face. She’d just kissed her boss, she could feel the flames of embarrassment flickering against her face at the mere thought.

“I-uh, I thought I heard someone coming in,” Kate mumbled haltingly, her feet stumbling backward over the words, the posterior of her knees finding stability at the edge of the bed. She needed some distance, figuratively and literally. Now was not the time to give her true identity away.

“Probably we shouldn’t…” she offered then, her arm waving expressively toward the doorway. The wording, its accompanying gesture was deliberate. Mercifully, in the midst of her frantic scramble for cover, she’d recalled something he’d said earlier, about no one having seen him. So Jake and Ashley were having a secret affair. If that were the case presumably they were used to episodes of snatched, clandestine intimacy. It made sense; there was undoubtedly an employee policy against inter-office dating, especially between superiors on their staff.

“Dammit,” Jake said on a sigh, running an impatient hand through his hair, but, as she’d hoped it would be, his attention was now diverted toward the vacant entryway. “You’re right. Not now. But later… you’re mine,” he said slowly, the words a promise of wanton pleasure.

“Hmm,” Kate said noncommittally, her eyes downcast. With a flick of her fingers, she repositioned her wig so the bangs hung low over her brow, further disguising her facial features. At least, that was the idea.

She didn’t know what else to do, what else to say, except: “You go out first. I’ll wait a couple of minutes before following after.” The improvisation was total cliché, but didn’t people participating in such trysts say stuff like that? Tears pricking at her eyes, Kate found she didn’t care either way. She just wanted him to leave the room, leave her alone. She wanted to call Penny and she wanted to get the hell out of there.

 

 

In the end, Penny did come to get Kate, though it should be noted that she wasn’t allowed to step so much as one foot inside Jake’s house upon doing this. In fact, she wasn’t even allowed to drive down his city street. Kate had no sooner placed her call when she snuck out one of the room’s rear windows. She couldn’t take the risk of meeting Jake again. Not out there, in front of everyone. Not now. She’d torn a piece of her dresses fabric in the getaway plan, but then Kate had already vowed to burn the stupid costume when she got home anyway. She didn’t want any evidence of her presence here.

Walking down the block to the gas station, which is where she made Penny come get her, Kate wrestled with yet another dawning anxiety, just another to add to the mix. What would happen when Jake’s promised later arrived? Would he bring up their supposed dalliance to the real Ashley? Heart beating fast at the mere though, Kate prayed that wouldn’t happen. Men didn’t usually succumb to romantic reminiscing, did they? At least, not outside of the proverbial boy’s locker room, right? God she hoped not or the show would be up. He’d know he kissed someone else. Ashley would know it too.

This was the second reason for Kate’s decision to burn her costume the first moment she got. Maybe it was wrong of her, maybe it made her a bad person, but Kate was not about to confess her otherwise anonymous role in tonight’s little tête–à–tête. She wasn’t about to endure the wrath of town gossip. As far as she was concerned, she’d never even gone to Jake Farrow’s stupid Halloween party. So long as it was believed, no one would ever be any the wiser. Besides, everyone there would be too drunk to argue the matter with her.

For the first time that evening she was glad she hadn’t had any friends there that night. At least, there wouldn’t be any viable witnesses.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twelve

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

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

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

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

Her mantra sort of helped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“And who is our esteemed Mercutio?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

One down, two to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate blinked. So did Guy Patterson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate nodded her head. She had to agree.

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

“Romeo,” Kate supplied absently.

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

Kate shook her head. “Penny!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They can have him,” Kate said sweetly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m not.”

“Someday,” Penny said half to herself.

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

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

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

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

She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

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

North of Happenstance: Chapter Nine

Kate stood irresolute, her eyes focused straight ahead on the hotel room door facing back at her: Number 203. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her hand, and, curling her fingers into a tight knuckle, brought it down against the metal surface before her, wrapping hard. Supposedly, this was Pastor Maggie’s temporary residence. Short-term, just until she found a place—or so she’d insisted at the sisters’ ill-gotten dinner party.

Waiting impatiently, Kate wondered, from the umpteenth time, if she was doing the right thing. If Penny found out she was here, if she knew what Kate was about to ask of the Pastor…well, she’d be furious. After seeing how Penny had interacted with the pastor the other night, Kate wasn’t encouraged to pick a fight with the otherwise carefree psychic. If Kate’s presence today got out, well, a fight would definitely be had. On the other hand, what was that saying? Desperate times call for desperate measures?

Before Kate got the chance to change her mind, the door swung open, revealing a slightly bewildered-looking Pastor Maggie. And why shouldn’t she be baffled? Kate hadn’t bothered to call and announce her intention to visit. Honestly, she hadn’t known if she would be able to go through with her little plan until she got here, until her fists knocked against the metal doorframe.

Assembling her features into a grin of welcome, Maggie motioned Kate inside. “Kate, what a wonderful surprise,” she said, leading the way to where a dinky table sat, situated between a boxy entertainment stand and one edge of a queen-sized bed. Pulling out a chair for herself, she invited Kate to take the remaining seat. The faux-wood finish of the oval table was hardly luxurious and the comforter, a thin blanket boasting a splash of brown-and-teal paisley patterns, seemed far from homey.

“Oh! Would you like a cup of coffee?” Maggie asked suddenly, her voice flushed with energy. Before Kate could respond, she was already back up on her feet, making her way quickly to the built-in vanity located just outside the bathroom. A hodgepodge of appliances lined the limited space: hairdryer, percolator, iron, and microwave.

“Uh, yes, that would be lovely,” Kate told her, folding her hands primly on her lap.

“Cream or sugar?” M.T. asked.

“Both please,” Kate said, her own nerves building inside her throat, constricting her airway. Her voice sounded high and wispy, a sure sign she was out of her element.

She felt a little like a double-agent, playing both sides….

“Here you go,” M.T. said then, placing a steaming Styrofoam cup down on the tabletop in front of Kate.

Wrapping her fingers around it, Kate relished the warmth working its way from the inside out. “Thank you.”

A moment of silence descended. Absently, Kate stared down at the strong drink in her hands. She’d managed to get herself all the way up here but now, sitting in front of Maggie, she wasn’t sure how to start.

The pastor seemed to realize this; probably it came with the territory of her profession. “Much as I would like to assume you came here for the fantastic view,” M.T. finally said, pointing toward the room’s front-facing windows, which provided a picture of the parking lot outside, “I have a gut feeling that’s not it.” Her dry tone was rich.

Kate laughed. She couldn’t help it. She knew she wasn’t supposed to like Maggie—she was Penny’s friend and since she didn’t like Maggie, it was predetermined Kate couldn’t either. But she did. Maggie was funny.

“No, that’s not it,” Kate agreed.

“Is it Penny?” M.T. asked, getting right down to it. Her voice was soft, inviting….

“Yeah,” Kate confessed. She paused a moment before continuing. “I’m not sure I should be telling you this. No, scratch that. I’m sure I shouldn’t be telling you this…”

“But?” M.T. promptly when Kate’s voice stalled out.

Sigh. “I don’t know what else to do. I tried. I tried, you know, but all my years in finance, my reputed suave analytical background, hadn’t been enough. Developments, predicted conditions, trends in spirituality and spending habits…all of it, it just landed on deaf ears I guess. I used every trick in the book, but nothing!”

Maggie nodded her head slowly, seemingly content with Kate’s nonsensical ramblings, content to remain patient until that elusive statement was explained. “What happened?”

“I’m not even sure where to begin,” Kate said, her eye closing momentarily. The image of Madame Penny, tears streaking down her face, ruining her cleverly applied mascara, filled Kate’s vision. “That is, it was Monday morning….” Kate began.

She’d woken up to the abrupt sound of pounding at the front door. Trudging down the stairs, a bathrobe thrown hastily around her shoulders, Kate had known, even before peering out a window, that it could only be one person standing outside, knocking with such a vengeance; no one else wouldn’t dared make a house call before 6:00 in the morning.

Throwing the door open with force, Kate had hoped the sight of her scowling face would warn Penny to make it quick. Instead, at the sight of a blubbering, weeping Penny, it was Kate who’d been shocked into rearranging her agenda for the morning. Carefully guiding Penny inside, all thoughts of sleep fled from Kate’s mind as she led the way to the kitchen.

She’d begged Penny to stop crying and tell her what was wrong, what had happened? Putting tea on to boil, because Penny preferred it to coffee, Kate listened as the woebegone tale was thrust forth from trembling lips:

Penny was going to be evicted. She may have been a little late on her rent—try two months late—but the intuitive business couldn’t be expected to perform like other businesses, the psychic insisted. It wasn’t periodic, rather sporadic. Kate had refrained from arguing with her. It wasn’t the time or the place. Penny was obviously not in the mood for a shake-down in economics 101.

At first, Kate had tried to find a solvable solution—a workable compromise, to counteract this dilemma: perhaps Penny would be better off running her business out of her home. (Hey, it’s rent-free!) However, Kate soon lived to regret that comment. Penny wouldn’t hear of it. Her home was too cramped as it was—where would she set up shop? Certainly Kate couldn’t exactly disagree with that sentiment. The three of them had damn near sent the place bursting at the seams with their “sisters’ plus one” dinner party. Of course, a small part of Kate agued silently, if Penny cleaned out her guestroom of its overgrowth of junk, ranging from a fifteen year old treadmill to a guitar with a broken string and a sewing machine, there would be plenty of space…and privacy too; rather more so than that utility closet afforded at the florist’s shop. But, obviously Penny wasn’t interested in traveling down that avenue of options.

“The shop needs to be in the heart of town,” the other woman had gone on to say. It’s central locale brought in a lot of foot traffic. Her house was too far out of town to attract that kind of clientele. She wouldn’t get any more customers than she currently had. Again, Kate wasn’t entirely sure she agreed with this estimation. The discretion of an out-of-sight locale might encourage those who felt bowled over by the weight of public opinion and gossip. Still, she said nothing. It wasn’t her decision to make.

Penny wanted her shop to stay right where it was. She didn’t want to move so much as a foot on either side of it. She had carved out a little niche for herself there. People knew how to find her. She didn’t want to scare off customers with erratic repositioning. Plus, the space held sentimental value. It was her humble beginnings and she wasn’t about to let it go.

Penny had tried to get a loan from her bank. The manager, a slimy specimen of a man, had refused the request offhand. And that’s were Kate came in.

“Maybe you could help me to change his mind? If you were to talk to him, with your background and expertise, it’s just conceivable…I need this application approved. It’s my last option.”

Penny didn’t need much money, just enough to get her by for a few months, and pay her back-rent of course. Her landlord, the owner of Massie’s Flowers, had reached the end of his patience. Penny needed to provide a check, in full, by the end of the week or she was out. So she thought, with Kate’s expertise and all…well, it might be worth a shot

Obviously, Kate had agreed, yielding effortlessly to yet another of Penny’s schemes, unable to find the strength to tell her “No.” All the same, Kate hadn’t been quite as optimistic as her partner, all too aware that this ‘last-ditch chat’ probably wouldn’t amount to much. Banks were really tightening their belts. She hadn’t wanted to dampen Penny’s hopes by admitting it, but she’d doubted if any amount of presentations would be able to effectively show the lucrative earning potential of a psychic’s business. It just hadn’t been likely.

Still, Kate had tried. And she’d been almost as disappointed walking out of the bank, one big fat rejection later, as Penny herself. The meeting hadn’t lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Kate’s pride stung; she’d always fancied herself a silver-tongued devil in the buying/selling market. Kate knew the language to use, the persuasion tactics to turn heads. It’s how she’d landed a junior analyst position straight out of college, a highly competitive field.

Maybe she was getting rusty. They’d barely had time to get comfortable in the plastic chairs provided before they were politely, but firmly, denied. Unfortunately, the bank just didn’t have the faith that Penny would be able to pay the loan back. Her current expenses, debt and credit history pointed to money mismanagement and overextension.

Penny had tried to put on a brave face in the aftermath of this crippling answer, instead telling Kate how much she appreciated the help; she knew how hard the other woman had tried…some things weren’t meant to be. Forcing a grin, she’d told Kate not to worry, and certainly to please stop apologizing. It was Penny’s own fault. She’d figure it out. She always did one way or another.

 

“…I’m not sure what it is I even think you can do,” Kate said to Maggie, in conclusion to this remarkable story. “Actually that’s, that’s not true. I was hoping maybe you could talk to the owner of the florist’s shop? See if you can succeed where I failed with the bank.”

M.T. smirked. “Why me?” The question seemed deceptively simple.

“Well…” Kate wasn’t sure exactly how to answer that.

“It wouldn’t be because of my influential position as the town’s reverend, now would it?” Maggie asked meaningfully.

“I thought it couldn’t hurt,” Kate confessed, sure she was going to hell.

“Lutheran guilt?” Maggie queried, her tone impassive.

.           Cringing, Kate nodded her head. It hadn’t sounded quite that wrong when she’d laid it out in her mind. She blew out a deep breath. “Yeah, you’re right, that’s a horrible idea. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You were trying to be a good friend,” Maggie assured her, placing a hand over Kate’s wrist comfortingly. Looking down at the contact, Kate realized the sister’s were probably more alike than they even knew.

“Yeah, I guess,” Kate said, feeling more and more defeated by the minute. “It’s just, I’ve never had a,” Kate stumbled, “a Penny in my life before. She has a way about her…she just sort of grows on a person.”

“Oh, I know what you mean. She’s a special woman.”

“And I’ve never seen her look so down. I wanted to give back to her. She really loves what she does. No offense to your religion,” Kate was quick to say. “Frankly, I don’t even think I believe in what she does, but…well, I believe in her.”

“I can see that,” Maggie said softly. “Maggie’s really lucky to have you in her life.”

 

 

 

Kate left shortly afterward. She thanked M.T. for listening to her, for brining her back to reality and for the cup of coffee, as well. Waving a last goodbye from her hotel room window, Maggie couldn’t fight back a grin. Kate was a proper young woman. No doubt she and Penny made an odd pair, but nonetheless, a sincere one. In spite of herself, Maggie found herself jealous at the thought. She wanted to be a part of that.

One hand fingering the heart-shaped locket worn perpetually around her neck, Maggie spoke out loud: “Please understand, even if you don’t agree. I have to help. You taught me that.  After all, the greatest is love, isn’t it?” The words, quiet at first, grew louder in conviction.

God didn’t answer back. Not directly anyway, but then again he never did.

Squaring her shoulders, not giving herself time to back out, Maggie reached for her car keys. Perhaps it was time she learned how to be a good friend herself, even if that meant bending her moral barometer a little in the name of the greater good. She knew He’d understand. “Give me grace,” she uttered in finality as she shut the hotel room behind her.

 

 

Ten minutes later, a hat pulled low on her brow, Maggie found herself standing at the entrance to Massie’s Flowers, her reflection painted clearly across the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Her eyes were bright with anxiety and urgency. She wasn’t sure how much time she had.

Canvassing the scene, she’d circled the block twice before finally parking, her car going at a snail’s pace as her eyes spied for any sign of life over at Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—conspicuously adjacent, discretion was imperative. The coast clear, however, the store seemed locked up tight, the lights turned off, a note taped to the window saying the psychic would be out for the remainder of the day. Breathing a sigh of relief, Maggie felt her confidence grow as she pulled the door open to the florist’s shop….

The sole occupant in the building, it didn’t take long for Maggie to be noticed. Smiling in greeting at an approaching employee, Maggie tried to present a calm and cool front.

“Hello ma’am, can I help you with anything in particular?” A youngish woman asked, stopping a few feet from her. It was exactly the kind of address Maggie had been hoping for.

“Yes, actually I was hoping to talk to a Mr. Chesney, the proprietor of this establishment,” M.T. said, her gaze taking in the building vaguely.

“Sure, I’ll go and get him. Just a moment.” The worker worked skipped behind the check-out counter to a door in the back. Maggie could just make out the girl’s voice as she pushed it open, her head poked just inside its depths, informing the occupant of Maggie’s presence…

In response, a fat little man, with balding hair, stepped into view, lumbering out of t his private domain with a determined, if forced, smiled marring the lines of his face. Kicking her own grin up a notch or two, Maggie met him halfway, standing between an aisle of peonies and tickseed, the arrangement of which both overwhelming and colorful.

“Hello, you wanted to speak with me?” the man asked, getting right to the point. This was obviously Mr. Chesney.

Maggie nodded her eagerly. “Well, yes, though I dare say it’s not about your lovely flowers.”

Cocking his head to the side, Maggie noted that this had really gotten the bored man’s attention. “Excuse me?”

“We haven’t met yet. My name is Margaret Thayer. I’m the new pastor in town,” she said, holding out of hand. He quickly shook it.

“Yes, of course. I heard we had a new reverend in town. How do you do? Is this about flower donations?”

“No, no, uh, at least, not today,” she said, making a mental note to call them back and look into that. Another day. Another day.

“Okay…” he said, obviously waiting for her to proceed.

“Actually, I was hoping to talk to you about Madame Penny…”

 

 

 

Walking back to her car half an hour later, Maggie hoped she hadn’t just made a huge mistake. She’d wanted to help her sister, but if Penny ever found out what she’d done, well, she’d probably hate her. It didn’t bare thinking about. Fingers crossed, Maggie prayed it wouldn’t come to that; she didn’t think they could stand to be any more alienated from one another.

With a shake of her head, Maggie ended that line of thought; it wouldn’t do her any good. What was done was done. Besides, the potted plants she was currently hefting into the back of her SUV required special attention or there was going to be upturned soil all over the floorboards.

A small price to pay, she reminded herself. Penny wasn’t going to be evicted. At least, not today.

Kate’s plan had failed. Throwing her title around hadn’t impressed Mr. Chesney—and, God help her Maggie had tried, sinking to that sorry state of manipulation to no avail:

“Penny provides a unique service for this community,” she’d insisted, “supplementing a necessary element of spiritual connectedness. This form of stewardship is what brings communities together. It’s what keeps them together. Perhaps given a little more time…”

In response, Mr. Chesney had informed her coolly, and in no uncertain terms, that he couldn’t afford to run a business on the foundations of Christian charity. He ran it on money. Madame Penny hadn’t paid her rent. Without payment he had to reclaim the property. It was a cyclical process, and he knew she’d understand.

Still, she’d pushed. “Yes, but I’m sure you can appreciate that it isn’t just money that businesses rely upon, but also a supportive and neighborly commonwealth. These are not exclusive principals.”

Kate’s plan failed. Indeed, in the end, it was Maggie who’d capitulated, not the other way around. She’d come to suppose this as God’s unspoken counter to her half-hatched plan—a misguided if genuine desire to protect her family. She’d misappropriated her position in the community for personal gain, and she’d been fully aware she was doing it, too. Worse, she’d gotten nowhere with it.

When Mr. Chesney remained unmoved by her pretty speeches, Maggie amended her negotiation tactic: she would pay Penny’s back-rent. The stipulation: her involvement in the matter never be disclosed. Mr. Chesney would claim a change in faith, expressing a new offer: as long as Penny never found herself in arrears on payment again, her debt would be forgiven.

“Why so clandestine?” Chesney asked, his eyebrows raised suspiciously.

“Clandestine? No, not at all,” Maggie defended quickly. “I just want her focused on the right thing here, which is going forward! Knowledge of my involvement would be counterproductive, only furthering a sense of backward indebtedness. That’s not the point.”

Without further ado, Mr. Chesney agreed, but not before adding his own terms to this parley. He’d keep his mouth shut, find some reasonable excuse for releasing Penny from her debts, but in the meantime, perhaps Maggie wouldn’t mind taking a look at some of Massie’s selections of flowers? They would make a great addition to a new home, or even the church sanctuary….His meaning couldn’t have been clearer.

Swallowing against the mounting price tag of this impromptu trip, Maggie had no other choice but to turn her eyes toward the rows of greenery decorating the building’s interior. “Lead the way,” she choked out, thankful she’d brought her checkbook with her.

Though Chesney had expressed no exception to her interference in the matter of Penny’s lease, seemingly content with her expression of concern for the welfare of the community members she served, he had nonetheless shown a certain amount of curiosity about her intentions per se—particularly with this community member.

“I must admit, it’s somewhat surprising, you, being a pastor and all, trying so hard to keep a psychic’s business alive, since it directly challenges your own work.”

M.T. felt her face flush. She wasn’t sure but she thought he was subtly calling her out—it had nothing to do with her being a pastor, and he knew it. “I chose to believe that all spiritual leaders are professing devotion to the same God, no matter the name, face, or likelihood denoted therein. I believe He comes to us however it is we need to see Him,” she defended herself. “So keeping her business alive is, in a way, keeping mine as well.”

“Huh,” he said, leaning back against the counter. “And here I thought it was because she was your baby sister.”

Guess he wasn’t being subtle after all.

 

Driving home, Maggie felt waves of guilt wash over her person. She’d never used the divinity of her career for anything even remotely self-serving before. But today, well today she’d played it like a bargaining chip, the ace in her deck of persuasion tactics. She, who guided others to states of moral and ethical righteousness, had fallen into the categorical ‘do as I say, not as I do’ trap.

Still, she’d saved her sister. That had to be worth something.

Maggie pulled into the church parking lot, a feeling of foreboding stealing over her body. She’d made the last minute detour, convinced a donation to the

 

This seesaw of emotion is what led Maggie to make a last minute detour on her way back home. Pulling into the empty parking lot of her destination, she felt a moment’s foreboding. She wasn’t looking up at the wooden siding of her hotel, rather the shadowed steeple of Good Shepherd, convinced that a donation to the church was a necessary salve to her sorry conscience.

Climbing out of her rental, she popped open the trunk. The devastating sight which met her eyes, a mixture of English roses, gardenias and bougainvillea—along with a gorgeous potato tree, sparkled even in the darkened evening air, a rainbow of antique yellow, blushed white and pink, and a dusky blue.

She hoped the congregation enjoyed them.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Eight

Kate dropped out of her Romantic Literature class. She figured it was the lesser of two evils: that or drop out of college all together. Definitely, she couldn’t face the humiliation of that again. Not this year. She still had Art History, the Shakespeare program (so she hadn’t ditched the English language entirely) and a pottery class. Those would keep her sufficiently occupied but not overwhelmed.

Absently running her thumb over the glossy length of the novel in her hands, Kate supposed she’d been partially right. She hadn’t been overwhelmed. Not after that. In fact, she hadn’t realized just how underwhelming three classes would be. The raised letting of some up-and-coming author’s penname skipped across the pad of her thumb—it wasn’t like she got a lot of homework in pottery. Adding another, different course to her workload was out for obvious reasons (been there, done that, failed miserably) so she’d decided to get a job instead. Something part time, just enough to conquer the boredom but remain undemanding. Something which wouldn’t come between her studies…something to quell the slight regret that she’d hadn’t measured up to the challenge of it all.

The LitLiber had seemed only too obvious. It was exactly the kind of environment she craved. Low-key, chill, a job she wouldn’t take home with her. So she’d applied. Maybe her resume was the product of good timing—surely the staff looked nothing short of harassed by the ratio of patrons. Or maybe it was the look on Jake’s face when he came out to talk with her, a cross between flattery and remembrance. Maybe it was neither, maybe it was both…either way:

“The job’s yours if you want it,” he’d said after the shorted interview of her life. Sitting in the bookstore’s small café, only a small bit of table separated him from Kate. “Though I must say, looking over your credentials, it’s clear to see you’re entirely over-qualified.”

Kate had shrugged. “That’s subjective I suppose. I’ve never worked with books before, so I doubt my past experiences will be of much use.”

Jake had grinned at this, not fooled by her elusive response. “Don’t be so modest. I’m sure you’d be an asset here. So, what do you think, would you like to work with us?”

“Yes,” she’d said without reservation. “Very much.”

 

That had been five days ago. She’d since completed her training, passing her skill review with a perfect score. In fact, today marked her first solo shift. Turning the paperback over her in palm, Kate celebrated that, all-in-all, it had gone rather smoothly. Granted, she should have been done twenty minutes ago, but the arrival of a shipping order, earlier than expected, had kept her. Jake wanted those books on the shelves post-haste. Not wanting to look like a slacker, she’d volunteered to stay late.

“Would you like some help?” The words, coming unexpectedly from off to Kate’s left, gave her a start.  Immediately she recognized the voice belonging to that question, even before casting her eyes that way. Jake.

“No, no, I’ve got it,” she said quickly, nervously. Was she not going fast enough?

“Yeah, yeah. Move over,” he retorted easily, coming to stand beside her. Reaching inside the book trolley he took out a stack of novels. Quickly, mechanically he started inserting them into their appointed slots.

“Suit yourself.” Kate shrugged, returning to the pile in her own hands. Meticulous, she placed the books on the wooden panels. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched Jake—he’d managed to put away ten to her three.

“I feel ridiculously slow compared to you,” Kate joked lamely, but she wasn’t kidding. Embarrassment flared.

“Well, to be fair, I’ve been stocking books here since I was fourteen years old. Probably even earlier,” he confessed, reaching inside the cart yet again. Showoff. “Nepotism had nothing to do with it, I assure you.”

“Oh? Is this a family business?” Kate asked, momentarily distracted from proving what a hard worker she was, distracted from trying to compete with his deft maneuvering.

Jake laughed. “I forget sometimes that you’re new to town,” he said. “Yes, this store was founded by my grandfather. I took it over when he passed away.”

Kate nodded, mumbling her condolences awkwardly, unsure what to say.

“Thank you. It’s been almost four years now,” he said softly and it was obvious Jake had been very fond of him.

Kate nodded her head, not sure what to say back. Instead, a strange sort of silence fell between them. Kneeling down, Kate shuffled some books around, making room for a new addition in the ‘P’ section.

“Psst.” The sudden sound, emerging through a gap in the orderly row of books, and coming from the other side of the shelving-rack, startled Kate. She knocked over a couple titles.

“Sorry,” she muttered to Jake, grabbing for the books anxiously. She decided not to comment on the hissing sound one aisle over. Hopefully he hadn’t heard it anyway. Closing her eyes, she prayed that Madame Penny, who she was downright positive had perpetrated the noise, would go away. This was not the time to be caught fraternizing with the customers. Not with her boss right there.

“Psst.” It was louder this time. “Kate?”

That sealed it. Jake heard it. Raising an eyebrow, he appeared to be fighting back a grin. “I think someone’s trying to get a hold of you,” he whispered at her, mimicking Penny’s urgent undertone.

“It would seem so,” she said apologetically, but she didn’t make any move in response. Ducking her head, she resumed her work, wedging a piece of work forcefully into a spot too narrow to fit its hefty breadth.

“Kate? Kate! It’s me, Penny.”

“Aren’t you going to find out what she needs?” Jake asked Kate, who was doing her level best to pretend she couldn’t hear the one-sided conversation playing out on the other side of the bookshelf.

Smiling up at him tightly, she nodded her head. What else could she do? If she didn’t, he might think she wasn’t a very good customer service agent. Not to mention, she doubted Madame Penny was going to shut up anytime soon. With a soundless sigh, she stood up, the remaining inventory left, abandoned at her feet, as she preceded down that aisle, onto the next.

Rounding the corner, her lips pressed into a tight line, Kate had little trouble spotting her intruder. Penny was crouched down, her face shoved against a line of paperbacks, her eyes searching for Kate’s outline….

“Penny, come here,” Kate demanded in a hushed tone.

For once, Penny did as requested. “Oh, I’m so glad I found you,” she started to say.

“Penny, I’m at work. My boss is right over there,” she said in an outraged whisper.

“I know, I know. I wouldn’t bug you normally.” Kate had some doubts about that. “But this is an emergency.”

With anyone else, Kate would have taken that at face value but what Penny considered an emergency, heaven only knew.

“What happened?” Kate asked.

“My sister just called me. It would appear she’s back in town—for the moment, at any rate,” Penny said drily.

“I didn’t know you had a sister,” Kate said, latching onto what she thought was most pertinent in the previous sentence.

“Well, actually, she’s my step-sister. My ex-step-sister,” Penny clarified. “We aren’t close.”

Kate was fast losing her patience. “Okay?”

“Listen, I need you to do me a favor. She wants to get together tonight and have like a “family dinner” or something. Hah! More likely, a sadistic reunion of dysfunction,” she said, her face contorted. “Like we were ever actually a family.”

“What do you need me to do?” Kate asked, concerned now, especially after the delivery of Penny’s last line. It held a mixture of resentment and pain. Besides, after all Penny had done for Kate in recent weeks, there was little she wasn’t entitled to.

“Join us.”

“What?”

“We haven’t seen each other in fifteen years—her choice—not since our parents divorced,” Penny explained hoarsely. This time there was no mistaking the hurt that echoed. “She just up, you know, and left. No note, no nothing. I haven’t heard or seen from her since then. And now, she just causally informs me that she’s here and she wants to get together. Like it’s nothing,” Penny scoffed.”

“I see,” Kate said, though she doubted she saw anything.

“If you ask me, she should have just stayed gone. I, for one, have nothing to say to her. But then my feelings don’t count for a whole lot, not with her.” The last part was said under Penny’s breath. “Please Kate. I need you. You’d be a natural buffer, a conversation piece. I don’t think I could stomach it alone.”

“Yeah, yeah of course I’ll come,” Kate assured her. This ex-step-sister must mean a lot to Penny if she was willing to go through with this get-together. Regardless of her demonstrations to the contrary, Kate doubted Penny would have ever agreed to it, if some small part of her hadn’t truly wanted to.

“You will? Oh! Thank you,” Penny said, her fingers reaching out to grab hold of Kate’s wrist. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Sure. No problem. But uh, listen, I’ve got to get back to my job now,” Kate told her, with a speaking glance over her shoulder, remembering suddenly that they were still at the LitLiber, that Jake had probably heard every word they’d just said, and that she was still on the clock.

“Yeah, yeah. Uh, show up at my place around 5pm?”

“Sounds good,” Kate agreed, gently shooing Penny away.

“And dress casually!” If Penny’s voice carried over that last statement, at least Kate could reconcile herself to the fact that she—and her big mouth—were heading toward the exit finally.

Without loss of time, Kate fetched herself back to where she’d been working before Penny’s intrusion. Jake was still standing there, though, by now, the entire shipment of books had been put away. Oh no, had he been waiting for her?

“I’m so sorry about that,” Kate rushed to say, sure she was inches away from a lecture about proper use of company time. How unprofessional could she get?

Jake brushed her words aside with the swipe of his hand. “Kate, its fine. To except that people’s personal lives won’t sometimes interfere with work is entirely naïve. It’s not like sometimes we won’t, oh I don’t know, ask you to stay late,” he said meaningfully. “That runs interference in just the same way.”

“Okay,” she said ineptly, “Um, thanks for finishing the rest of this without me,” she said, indicating the fully-stocked shelves.

“No worries. Now you should have plenty of time to get ready for your evening dinner,” he said with a wink.

“Heard that, did you?” she asked.

“I did,” he confessed and then, with a more serious tone of voice, added: “I know Penny. We grew up together. You probably don’t even know what your presence tonight will mean to her—what her childhood was like, but know this: you’re doing a fine thing. It’s none of my business, of course, but I’m happy to see she’s found such a good friend in you.”

Interest piqued, Kate wondered just how much of Madame Penny she had yet to meet. “She’s been a pretty amazing friend to me.”

“She certainly has a way about her, doesn’t she?” Jake asked with such obvious affection Kate felt a moment’s envy. She doubted any of her old friends back home had ever talked so selflessly about her, without some hidden agenda. Penny was luckier than she knew.

“Have you met her step-sister? Ex-step-sister?” she asked. Forewarned is forearmed.

“Yes. I have.” Jake said guardedly. It was said without disgust or shame. Indeed, it sounded almost gentle.

 

 

Kate pulled up to Penny’s house at 4:45pm. She figured the other woman would welcome reinforcements as early as possible. After leaving the LitLiber she’d rushed home to shower, don a bright yellow sundress, coupled with a chunky necklace in the shape of a sunflower, and apply the lightest brush of mascara to her person, before heading right back out the door. Jake’s words spurring her on, she felt suddenly protective of Madame Penny.

Knocking on the door, Kate couldn’t help being aware of the house across the street. Shimmying for cover, she hoped the tall, yellow Witchhazel shrug would sufficiently hide her person from sight, from potentially prying eyes. She didn’t look forward to any more chance meetings with Penny’s neighbor, like ever again….

Lost in her musings, she was brought back to reality by the opening of the front door.

“Oh God, I’m so glad you’re here,” Penny said in preamble, her expression tight in greeting.

“I hope it’s all right that I’m early…” Kate said, her voice trailing off.

“It’s more than all right,” Penny assured her forcefully. Waving Kate forward she welcomed: “Come in, come in.”

“Do you need help with anything?” Kate asked softly, stepping inside. Penny seemed a little unhinged.

“Do you cook?” Penny asked. “I could use some help finishing up my popovers.”

“Popovers?” Kate asked disparaging. She was more of a microwave-ready type of chef. Anything more complex than that and she ordered out. It was a McDonald clan tradition.

“Nevermmind,” Penny said, leading the way to her kitchen, “At least you can keep me company.”

Kate followed behind her. The room, she saw, squeezing inside its confines, was small to the point of miniscule—undoubtedly more of a kitchenette. What with Penny’s curvy proportions, an intrusive composter, and wall-to-wall cabinets and drawers, Kate found herself wedged up against the pantry closet, her elbow resting against the room’s singular window.

“It smells delicious in here,” Kate said, wrinkling her nose. That was no lie. The air wafted out a warm, smoky scent that sent Kate’s stomach into overdrive.

“Ah—our family’s secret sauce,” Penny responded knowingly. “I basted it over the rainbow trout. You do like fish don’t you?” Troubled eyes latched onto Kate, as though the question only just occurred to be asked.

“I love fish,” Kate said. That was perhaps stretching it a bit, but Penny didn’t need any more worries. Besides, it had a heavenly aroma.

Madame Penny nodded her head in acceptance of this before placing the cornbread mixture into the oven. “That’s good because we’re also having clam chowder for starters.”

“You really went all out,” Kate said impressed.

“Hah,” Penny said, slamming the over door shut with her hip. “For all the good it’ll do me. Margaret will probably contend, in the passive-aggressive manner she perfected in childhood, that I picked it up from a restaurant somewhere. As though she’s the only person in the world who can read a recipe,” she muttered.

Kate gulped. Well, at least she knew Penny’s sister’s name now.

“You know, I really love the color of the walls in here,” Kate redirected, her eyes making a point of traveling along the peachy-hued paint running the length of the room, between jutting cupboards and appliances.

“It’s like she always needed to prove to me that she was better. She ran faster than I did, completed her homework quicker…she was always in competition with me. No doubt she’ll regale us tonight with tales of her culinary abilities!”

“You know, the last time I was here I only really saw the living room. I’d love a tour of the place,” Kate said, but she may as well have been talking to the walls…

“She’ll probably have created a meal just the same as this, only it’ll have been richer, more proportional, the cream thicker, et cetera et cetera.”

Kate gave up. Her attempts at distraction hadn’t worked anyway. “You said it’s been fifteen years,” she reminded Penny, “maybe she’s changed.”

“No. no-no,” Penny said, wagging a finger close to Kate’s nose. “You are not allowed to defend her.”

“I’m not,” Kate promised, holding up her hands in self-defense. “I just thought, maybe…I don’t know. She could be different. That’s all. I know I’ve changed from the person I was before.”

Blowing out her breath, Madame Penny dropped her hand back down at her side. “In her case, I doubt it highly.”

 

Two hours later, a bemused Kate sat looking down at the half-consumed fish on her plate. The conversation (if you could call it that) between sisters, strategically placed one on either side of Kate, went, momentarily unheard, over her head. She was too busy trying to absorb what she’d learned in the last hour to pay much attention.

Margaret Thayer, commonly referred to either Maggie or MT—something she’d invited both Kate and Penny to call her—was a pastor. Good Christ, the woman was a pastor! And that, that was only the beginning of the polarities. Maggie was tall, standing at probably five feet eight inches. Reed thin, she had ash blonde hair cut in a short bob across her chin. She had a look of porcelain grace. Of course, genetic resemblances would hardly factor into step-sisters but the contrast was startling nonetheless.

Where Penny was sarcastic, to the point of hostile, Maggie was demure, almost apologetic in her speech and manner. Try as she might, Kate couldn’t find a competitive bone in the pastor’s attitude. That seemed to be coming from Penny alone; the famous Hamlet line popping into her head, Kate wondered if Penny doth protest too much!

“I was very sorry to hear of your mother’s passing, Penny,” Maggie said, her words bringing Kate’s attention back to the present. She hadn’t realized Penny’s mother had died..

“Not sorry enough to come to her funeral though. Not that I was surprised,” Penny responded bluntly.

Kate cringed.

Maggie had the grace to look ashamed. “Unfortunately, I was holding a mission trip in Africa during that period. I couldn’t make it back to the States in time.”

“How providential. I believe mass means of travel has always been your excuse,” Penny retorted, her fork stabbing into the flaky fish with enough force to break her plate in two.

In counter, Maggie placed her fork discreetly beside her dish. “I’m so sorry Penny. I was young. I didn’t know what I was doing, how much it would hurt you. I just, I didn’t know.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve made mistakes, I won’t deny that—”

Penny snorted. “Well, don’t let me keep you from a guiltless conscience. It wasn’t your responsibility. You made that emphatically clear. I wasn’t—and still, am not— your responsibility.”

Kate had sinking suspicion they weren’t just talking about the funeral anymore.

“I’m not the same person I once was,” Maggie said urgently.

“How convenient for you,” Penny said smarmily. “Me, well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Maggie straightened her back at these words. “I expect I’m happy to hear that, at least.”

Pushing her plate away, Penny leaned across the table. “Why are you even here? After all this time, why now—you never seemed inspired during any of the other fifteen years spent without any form of communication. What’s changed?”

“Oh Penny, this was hardly a rash decision. I’ve wanted to see you, to talk to you, and touch you, oh, every day that’s passed since.”

“Then why didn’t you?” The words tore across the expanse between them.

“There were so many reasons, I suppose, but none of them good enough. I know that now. At first I was just so scared, so lost—I guess, I’d convinced myself I needed to find me before I could find you. I thought it would be better that way; I wanted to believe that I was saving you, but I was wrong. And by then, so much time had gone by it seemed easier somehow to stay away, to hide from the reality of what I’d done. But I never stopped missing you, I never stopped loving you. Not once.” Maggie’s voice cracked. “I’m sorry it took me so long, sorrier than you’ll ever know. But I’m here now and I have to hope—”

“You’re here now? What, am I supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at that?” Penny asked, cutting Maggie off.

“I just meant, I wanted you to—”

“To what? To forgive you?” Penny asked roughly. “Is that it? You came all this way, after all this time, for my forgiveness? You expect me to just forget about all that’s transpired? To be thankful instead, that you decided to grace my dining room with your presence?”

“No, Penny that’s not—”

“Newsflash: I’m not interested in what’s expedient for you. I mean, who do you think you are? ‘Please forgive me so I can feel better about myself!’” Penny’s voice was sharp in mockery. Kate sat, shocked. She’d never heard Penny so cynical, so angry. Before tonight, she wouldn’t have thought the psychic had it in her to be either. Kate knew presence here tonight had been for the sole purpose of avoiding this very confrontation, but it hadn’t been enough; the hurt went too deep.

For still, Penny wasn’t finished: “Are you kidding me with all of this? That sort of cheap, instantaneous confession may work with Catholics but around here, not so much.”

“You know I’m Lutheran, don’t you?” Maggie asked and then, before Penny could say anything to response, continued, “Never mind. I-I’m not expecting you to forgive me. At least, I pray that someday I may be given a chance to atone….”

“Humph.”

That didn’t sound promising, even to Kate’s mystified ears. Neither of the girls had directly mentioned the past but it was obviously weaved into every aspect of their dialogue and, poor friend that Kate was, she was almost desperately curious about what had happened to them. They must have been close once otherwise whatever it is that Maggie had done to Penny wouldn’t have hurt so much, the wound would’ve healed by now.

“All I’m asking for is a chance to…to get to know you again, to reintroduce you to who I am, who I’ve become,” the pastor said, her voice grabbing Kate’s attention. She had a presence about her. No doubt she was good in front of a captive audience on Sunday mornings. “I’d just like to spend time with you—if you’ll allow it.”

“And you’re hoping to accomplish all of this within, what, a week? I’m only assuming that’s the extent of your vacation here?”

Smiling nervously, Maggie spoke, “Actually, I’m not on vacation. I…well, I officially accepted a position as the Worship Pastor at Good Shepherd, only just this morning.”

Wasn’t there a Good Shepherd on Pickett Avenue? Kate’s mind whirled, picturing the small chapel she passed every morning on her way to school.

“What?” The chair scratching against the wood flooring, Penny pulled her body into an upright position.

Other than swallowing thickly, MT didn’t seem all that taken aback by this explosive response. “I’m moving back to Whestleigh, Penny.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Six

 

The day had finally arrived. Waking up to the morning light streaming against the blinds in her bedroom window, Kate groaned. It was the first day of class…and suddenly Kate didn’t feel ready for it. She’d waited impatiently these last weeks and now, now she wanted nothing more than to throw the covers back over her head and hide away from the truth of what was coming.

But she couldn’t, and she knew better than to pretend otherwise. So, despite these baser instincts, Kate pulled her body from the comfort of her bed and headed toward the bathroom.  Her first class, Romantic Literature, started at 9:00 am. It was barely 7:00 am now, but she wasn’t about to launch this new venture blurry eyed and unkempt.  And she most certainly would not be late.

Looking bright in a khaki skirt and loosely flowing green top, Kate pulled into the campus parking lot. It was 8:40 am. She’d hoped the extra time would calm her nerves: she was here, she was ready, she could breathe, breathe! She hadn’t been this nervous her first day on the job at Banner Investment Company as a junior analyst, a position which should have brought her to her knees—she’d seen grown men weep there more often than she cared to remember.

When the dashboard clock read 8:50 am, Kate shut off her car. Quickly snatching up her book-bag and locking up the doors, she hustled over to McCallister Hall, the Language and Arts building. She was looking for room RW307. Her eyes scanned the doors narrowly marching up and down the hallway before her: M209-M221….

The room’s alphanumeric notation served as its geographical coordinates; Kate figured that out quickly. What she couldn’t figure out though, was how to decode this location. Panic clawing up her throat, precious minutes were spent as she trailed aimlessly up and down corridor after unending corridor, gaining further stairwells, alcoves, foyers…all to no avail. It was going on 8:57 am when her hand snaked out, gripping onto the shirtsleeve of a fellow student passing by. Hyperventilation hadn’t been far off when her voice, an unfortunate squeak, pleaded for assistance.

She was looking for the Right Wing quadrant on the 3rd floor, they explained casually.

The second hand had just ticked past 8:58 am when Kate finally, finally spied the room. Hurrying to the door, her fingers closed around its brass knob; her grip was shaky, sweaty, unsure. Fighting down an overwhelming urge to cry, she tugged it open….

Certainly, not the best possible beginning to her college career but, hell, at least she’d made it.  She had a minute and a half to spare—time enough for discrete prayer.

 

“Good morning—and welcome to Romantic Literature.” Delivered a touch dramatically, these were the opening words to the class, spoken smartly by the instructor, a middle-aged woman with fair complexion.

Kate tried not to look as harried as she felt.

“I’m very excited to spend the next sixteen weeks with all of you, exploring what is arguably the greatest era of British writing, indeed some of the most renowned works of literature period,” the schoolteacher practically gushed. It came out perhaps girlish. Nerdy.

Kate felt her shoulders relax a little. This wouldn’t be so bad. She loved to read and she’d been told at orientation this was a highly coveted class.

“I should warn, however, that this class is as tough as it is worthwhile. A 400 level unit, it’s considered an upper division course,” the instructor continued unabashed.  She didn’t sound girlish now. Militant maybe. The shift in tone was startling. “As such, the academia is specific and structured to be rigorous, demanding, exacting….”

The words tolled an ominous bell in Kate.

“I don’t say this to intimidate, rather encourage commitment. To be here, you’ve taken certain required prerequisite classes—they’ve prepared you for this caliber of study: research, analysis, critical thinking. You’ll incorporate what you’ve already learned and take it even further, deeper in here.”

Prerequisite classes? Yeah, maybe…like five or six years ago! It was Kate’s advisor who suggested taking the class, having reviewed Kate’s previous collegiate curriculum. The woman may have been overly hopeful.

The instructor kept right on talking: “On that note, we have got a lot of ground to cover if I expect to leave a solid impression upon you of what the Age of Romanticism did for revolutionizing art—from expression to teaching and evolution of thought. Let’s get right down to it, huh?” she asked rhetorically.

“I won’t bother going over what’s written on the course syllabus. You each received one and should have spent the last couple days familiarizing yourselves with the subject matter. Likewise, I assume you’ve all come to class having completed the week’s reading assignment,” she said to no one in particular. Kate gulped. She’d skimmed over the syllabus, given it a perfunctory glance—but reading assignments? She hadn’t counted on that being due already, five minutes into the first day.

The rest of the class seemed coolly unaffected by this piece of news.

Shit.

Grabbing a dry-erase marker off her desk, the instructor (scrambling, Kate looked up her name in the course directory…Denise Marlow) turned her back momentarily on the class to write down the following excerpt:

 

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

            My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

            Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

            One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

            ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lost,

            But being too happy in thine happiness—

            That thou, light-winged Dryad

            Of the trees,

            In some melodious plot

            Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

            Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

 

“Who wrote this?” she asked then, facing the students once more. She didn’t offer title or context, seeming to think the question were as simple as all that.

“Keats. John Keats,” one of the students supplied.

Apparently it was.

“And the name of the poem?” she queried smilingly.

“Ode to a Nightingale,” one of the female students supplied. “It’s one of my favorite pieces,” she added. Kiss-ass.

“Exactly! Now, here’s for a tough one,” Marlow said, which to Kate sounded absurd. She’d never heard of this man before, much less his poetry—isn’t that would the prof had dubbed it? “What is the piece about?”

From the corner of her eye, Kate watched the class, seemingly as a whole, wrestle with this question. Sinking a little lower in her seat, she prayed one of them would figure it out though, and soon, before the teacher decided to starting calling out on people.

“Is it about his fear of growing old?”

“Perhaps he’s talking about the freedom of animals versus the toils of human emotion?”

“Is he contemplating suicide?”

Kate listened with ever-deepening anxiety as these theories were tossed out, back and forth, from students who, unlike her, seemed to know what the hell was going on.

“These are all great guesses, and in their own way each one is, at least partially, correct. The answer is much broader, more abstract than such a definite idea,” Ms. Marlow said then. She was leaning back against her desk, the pose casual yet forceful. This was a woman who knew her effect on a crowd.

“No, no,” she said, “this poem is principally about the concept of escapism.” Moving off her desk, she went back to the whiteboard to scrawl this word across its width. “This idea, which we’ll touch on in more detail a little later on, brings us to our first lecture: Understanding the Fundamental Precepts Born in Romanticism.”

Kate felt like she was going to be sick.

The rest of the class past in a whirl of terms and vocabulary Kate didn’t even bother comprehending. Hell, she could hardly hear over the rush of blood beating against her eardrums. She’d made a horrible mistake.

At long last, a timer sitting on the edge of Ms. Marlow’s desk went off—the chirping sound apparently announcing the end of the class. Smiling almost apologetically, as if she couldn’t imagine any student actually wanting to exit this ‘stimulating exercise’, she nonetheless dismissed the class, calling out last-minute homework instructions as she did so.

Kate nodded absently as she rounded the door, exiting into the hallway with such a sense of relief it’s a wonder her legs didn’t collapse on her. Trudging down to the main entrance, her eyes sought out the polished double-doors, standing tall and proud at one end of the hall, beyond which lay the outside world. Kate didn’t allow herself to think past breaching this man-made enclosure. She needed the fresh air.

She hadn’t intended to get in her car, but that’s where she found herself moments later. She had another class—pottery—starting in less than an hour but Kate couldn’t have cared less. She turned the key in the ignition with purpose.

Pulling out of the parking lot, Kate wasn’t sure where she was going, but, twenty minutes later, as the city limits of Whestleigh came into view, she only knew she couldn’t go home. To sit in that house with nothing to do, stewing about the fact that she was skipping her first day of school was simply not an option. That thought firmly in mind, she turned left onto 4th Avenue, in the opposite direction of Eveleth St. She still had only the vaguest idea as to the town’s outline, but she was aware that a corner of it hugged against a small body of water—Packham Lake.

That’s where she wanted to go. Gripping the steering wheel harder, she pressed down on the gas pedal. She wasn’t entirely sure why she was determined to go there now. Perhaps it reminded her of home, but if that were the case Kate wasn’t ready to admit it, even after the horrendous morning she’d just had.

Her eyes flicking every now and then to the side of the road, Kate tried to find a designation marker for the lake; she wasn’t sure how far she had to go yet, or if there was a visitor’s section where she could park.

Wait—what was that? Peering her neck around a clearing in the surrounding trees, Kate saw a glimpse of shimmering water. Immediately ahead, off to the right, a gravel road appeared. Turning down its length, Kate pulled over, stopping the car where the lane dead-ended. Sure enough, right before her eyes was a small stretch of grass leading to a sliver of sand before dropping into the mouth of glinting water.

Getting out, Kate saw a quaint bench standing a little off the way, shielded from the sun by a Dogwood tree. Feeling her pulse quiet already, Kate went to sit down upon it. The view was breathtaking. Packham Lake was far from large, she could see the other side of the shoreline easily. Ignoring a pang of envy that she hadn’t thought to bring a bathing suit with her, Kate leaned against the slat-board backing of the chair. Whatever. She’d save that for another day.

Closing her eyes, Kate took a deep breath. This had been the right decision. She just needed peace and quiet.

 

“Class over for the day already?” The question came from somewhere behind Kate. Eyes popping back open, her body jerked at the unexpected sound. Scratch peace and quiet.

Craning her neck to the right, Kate saw none other than Madame Penny standing there, less than three feet from her. God, that woman moved with stealth. Kate hadn’t heard so much as a thing.

“If I’d known that college would take up so little of my time,” Penny went on to say, moving to take a seat beside Kate, “I’d have enrolled a long time ago.” In her usual fashion, Madame Penny had on a billowing Mexican skirt of a muted coral color, paired with a thick black belt and a blue embroidered peasant top. Her hair, however, she’d left down today. Kate hadn’t realized how long, or just how curly, it was. It reached halfway down her back, the dark hued ringlets adding a romantic air to her getup.

“I ditched,” Kate supplied, her lips forming a hard line over the admission.

“You? Why Kate, I wouldn’t have pegged you for the sort,” Madame Penny said conversationally.

“How did you—? Where did you come from?” Kate asked, her surprise giving way to suspicion. “Is this part of your psychic gift?” she demanded rudely, and then, “were you following me?”

Madame Penny laughed, seemingly unfazed by her accusation. “No. I didn’t receive any extrasensory vibrations as to your whereabouts, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Then how did you know where I was?” Kate asked.

Penny shrugged. “I didn’t.”

Kate sighed. “I’m sorry. I just, I came here to get some alone time,” she said by way of explanation, hoping the other woman would get the hint.

“Are you sure about that?” Penny asked quizzically. Not a hint would be taken today, it seemed.

Kate’s head tilted a little at her words. “What?”

“Everyone has intuition—a sixth sense that guides them despite accounts of reason or rationale. Are you sure you didn’t come here, to this very spot, because, well perhaps you did want to be found?” she asked. Kate assumed she meant that to be a clarifying question, but she hadn’t a clue what those cryptic words implied.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” she said, half exasperated already.

“This bench you’re sitting on, this view you’re taking in…it’s on my property,” Penny informed her.

Kate’s eyes bugged out of her head. Startled into standing up, Kate sputtered, “Your property? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—I thought this was public land. I guess,” shaking her head, Kate wasn’t sure what she guessed. “I’m sorry.”

Pulling her back down to the bench, Penny waved away Kate’s apology. “Relax. If I haven’t said it before, let me do so now: you’re welcome here, always. Whenever you want, whyever you want. Call it an open invitation, okay?” Pause. “It’s a pretty fantastic piece of land, huh? It’s a blessing to share with others.”

Kate blew out her breath. “It’s beautiful,” she agreed, subdued now.

Madame Penny settled back more firmly against the seat. She didn’t look at Kate and Kate didn’t look at her. Instead, both of their attention remained on the gently swaying water ahead of them. The silence was broken only by the internal struggle waging war inside Kate’s head.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Kate finally whispered out loud, her eyes still stubbornly set forward.

“I thought we already covered that—” Madame Penny said, her head swiveling to take in Kate’s strained expression.

“No, I mean, what am I doing in here?” Kate asked, her voice cracking under the pressure of this statement. Her hands gestured wildly on either side of her person. “In Connecticut? In Whestleigh? What am I doing, going back to school? I’m not ready for this. Who the hell knows what escapism means anyway? Do you? I mean, what was I thinking? My old alma mater would hardly recognize me now. I graduated summa cum laude, did you know that? It means nothing now. I mean nothing now and, stupid fool that I am, I wanted it that way, didn’t I? What’s wrong with me?” She asked, her voice rising steadily over the words. Madame Penny didn’t attempt to answer these questions. She had a feeling young Kate wasn’t quite through.

“I had a great job you know,” she continued, turning now to lock gazes with Penny. “A beautiful home furnished with ridiculously expensive artwork—it was like a freaking museum. Cold like one too,” she rambled on more-or-less nonsensically. “Do you know, if I hadn’t left Minneapolis I’d be getting ready for my bachelorette party this weekend which, by the way, would have been totally lame. My social circle doesn’t abide by anything as gauche as overindulging in alcohol or opening ogling at men. But-but, I’d be getting ready to walk down the aisle. We were supposed to be married on September 20th—a little more than two weeks from now.”

Her eyes were fierce, almost burning despite the fine layer of film coating them. “I would be getting married. Instead, I’m back in the dating pool with men like Simon Yates, who can barely hold their liquor and whew!—it sucks. God he sang karaoke,” she spat, the memory of that night playing out in her mind with a vengeance.

Kate turned her gaze back to the water once again. Madame Penny followed suit. “What am I doing here?” Kate repeated dully. “Have I just made the biggest mistake of my life?”

“Wait a minute,” Madame Penny interrupted then, playing catch up to Kate’s overload of information sharing, “you went out with Simon Yates? Why didn’t I know about this?”

Kate’s head rotated mechanically at the words.  “That’s what you’re choosing to comment upon? After everything I’ve just said…that’s what you want to talk about, my ill-forged date?” she asked incredulously.

Madame Penny shrugged her shoulders. “Well I could have saved you the headache if you’d bothered to disclose the details of this little rendezvous earlier. You don’t share well.”

“Focus please,” Kate pleaded. “I’m sharing now.”

With a tilt of her head, Madame Penny conceded to the truth of these words, and their loaded implication. They were getting there.

“Fine, but be clear here,” Madame Penny said then, her voice suddenly sharp in concentration, “because after listening to all that I’m not sure I understand: are you upset because you’ve started a new life here and it’s strange and uncomfortable, mysterious…and that’s scary? Or are you upset because you think it was a mistake defecting from your old life, and you want a return to what, even in the midst of nostalgia, you couldn’t help defining as a ‘cold’ and ‘lame’ existence?”

Kate breathed in and out slowly. “I used to know all the answers in my life. I’d managed to convince myself I liked that predictability, that level of steadfastness. But I actually hated it, I felt suffocated by its sameness.”

“Sometimes it seems easier to resort to the safety of what is familiar then to confront the fathoms of that unknown,” Madame Penny supplied innocuously, the language emphatically impartial, careful to say neither one thing nor another.

“A defense mechanism?” Kate considered slowly. She sounded a little more in control of her emotions at the description.

“You tell me?” Madame Penny demanded.

“Simon Yates is kind of a slob,” Kate said.

Madame Penny didn’t so much as blink an eye at this swift change of topic. “I’d say ‘told ya so’ but you never gave me the opportunity.”

“I’m going to hear about this for awhile, aren’t I?” Kate asked amusedly.

“Probably.”

“He took me to this bar called Hooker Station,” Kate said.

Madame Penny made a face. “Gross.”

“No, what’s gross is my Romantic Literature class,” Kate said. “I totally bombed. On the first day. How is that even possible?”

Madame Penny chewed on her bottom lip. “Yeah, no offense, but I thought you were supposed to be super smart or something.”

Kate laughed. “Yeah, me too. I’m accustomed to financing, economics, statistics…that sort of thing. I guess dead poets never ranked very high on the priority list,” she admitted.

“I always say, there’s a sense of liberation in failing—or thinking one has failed. It reminds that there are things yet to accomplish,” Madame Penny said, in that way she has of talking like a fortune cookie. Kate wondered if that wasn’t a by-product of her profession.

“If that’s the case, and the last few weeks are anything to go by, I’ve got a lot left to prove,” Kate said on a laugh.

Penny remained silent.

“I don’t want to go back,” Kate said, the weight of that verdict pulsing against her veins. “It’s just, I didn’t know how hard it would be…beginning all over again. I feel so alone and lost.”

“You are neither of those things,” Madame Penny assured her quietly.

Kate took a deep breath. “I’m not sure how I ended up here,” she said, her gaze taking a panoramic view of the surrounding scenery. Again, Penny wasn’t sure to which Kate was referring: the town of Whestleigh or this spot of land specifically. She figured it didn’t much matter.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision,” Kate went on. “I didn’t plan it. I just sort of stopped here, somehow.” Pausing, as though weighing the consequences of her next words, she nonetheless continued, “I’m glad I did though. I needed this.”

A beat of silence passed and then: “Thank you.”

“For what?” Madame Penny asked sincerely.

“For reminding me,” Kate said cryptically.

“No thanks necessary,” Penny said easily. “You found this place—one way or another.” She sent Kate a mischievous look. “Maybe there’s a bit of psychic in you yet.”

 

The atmosphere changed after that, becoming almost languid, hushed, measured between Kate and Penny. It was as if, but unspoken mutual agreement, they decided to let the subject rest for now. The next minutes saw the girls spent in a state of mindless gossip, punctuated here-and-there by stretches of silent lethargy. When they spoke, if they spoke, it was offhand, deliberately easy. It was comfortable, untroubled, it was the peace and quiet Kate had needed all along. That’s probably why she was so completely caught off guard for Madame Penny’s well-timed question: “So, you said you don’t have any more classes today?” The words were prosaic, remembered.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I’m done for the day,” Kate said lazily.

“Well all right then.” Penny sounded the words out slowly, the beginnings of a smile playing out over her mouth. And suddenly, without warning, that woman rose to her feet. “Get up!” she all but demanded. Her voice maintained the same unhurried drawl, only now it was enhanced with a certain conviction, the sound of which was not lost on Kate.

“What?” Kate asked. The quiet lull of the water slapping against the shoreline had almost put her to sleep.

“Get up,” Madame Penny insisted, reaching for Kate’s hands, more-or-less pealing her off the bench.

“But-but…” Kate began.

“You’ve had a rough couple of days, right?” Madame Penny reiterated.

“Don’t remind me,” Kate pouted.

“No, instead I’m going to help you forget all about it.”

“Huh?” Kate asked with more than a hint of skepticism.

“We are having a girl’s night. Here. Now,” Madame Penny told her in no uncertain terms.