North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-One

Now it was Kate’s turn to look shocked, Penny’s words floating across her psyche: “Kate, are you telling me—did Phil? Did he cheat on you?” Stammering in surprise, Kate was nonetheless quick with her denial. “Cheat on me? No! No-no, Phil would never do that.” Early morning streaks of sunlight could be seen now, shining with watery rays over the horizon. Kate didn’t dare look down at her watch to check the time.

Clutching a hand to her heart, Penny took a deep breath, her relief at the news almost palpable. “Okay, then…?”

Kate’s lips twisted. She could still remember the sounds of that night, see the whispered impressions pulsing against her bedroom window: the hurried crunch of cars driving past, the imposing lamplight of a nearby park just faintly visible…She couldn’t breathe, her hands, when she’d pressed them against her aching head felt tingly, almost numb. Phil had been sleeping peacefully beside, his face turned in her direction, the slightest waft of his breath floating across her overwhelmed senses. If he’d woken up in that moment, it would have been to see her eyes wide in a white face, her body hunched forward in a kneeling position. He would have witnessed the stark horror she’d been experiencing.

“Nothing so dire happened, not really. I mean, something happened…” Kate paused for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. “I got a wakeup call, I guess.” Literally and physically.

Penny looked confused.

Kate tried again: “I told you, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to be happy. I had it all—or so everyone thought…”

“And you’d invested time and energy into all that,” Penny prodded.

Kate shrugged. “Yeah, but deep down inside, I knew it was a wasted effort.”

She had Phil had lived in a gorgeous house. Four bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a dining room table that seated twelve people, and a stainless steel kitchen offering every modern convenience: mosaic backsplash, custom-cabinetry, puck lighting, inlaid floor heating…. Phil was well on his way to making partner at work, with Kate as equally successful in her own field of study. They spent their weekends entertaining with friends, sailing, dining out, attending private parties and banquets. She should have been on top of the world.

Only, she didn’t like their friends very much; she was pretty sure Donna was sleeping with Christy’s husband, and Stacey could be downright rude, always picking on Kate’s clothing, condemning her diet, mocking her opinions, her education. And the dining out… it was so staged, so put-upon, their choice of establishments alternating between the trendy and the now. Spontaneity was out, hunger wasn’t considered. Same for the society functions: rooms full of Calida McDonald’s, no escape in sight. It was stifling, boring, intimidating.

Then again…Kate hated going out almost as much as she hated staying in. Phil had decorated the house. His tastes were particular and if there was one area in which he wasn’t a nice man, it was fashion. He’d picked every curtain, every picture, ever knick-knick in the house, and he’d chosen their exact location within each room, too. He didn’t like clutter, he didn’t like chaos. Nothing was ever amiss, nothing was ever moved. Period. Kate had lived there for three years half-afraid to touch anything.

(And that stupid painting, the one Phil had bought her, Kate had wanted to hang it up in their bedroom but he’d only laughed: Absolutely not. It was hideous. Maybe it could hang up in the laundry room, someplace where guests would never have to see it.) That had stung. Kate loved that painting, it held sentimental value, and Phil’s rejection of it had felt personal. She’d thought it meant something to their relationship. His ability to toss it aside so indifferently…. Nevertheless, it sat beside the washing machine, above the folding table. Kate hadn’t dared disagree. It’s not that she feared Phil per se, she just didn’t want to deal with one of his little lectures.

He could be a patronizing ass at times. It was probably the lawyer in him, which stemmed from the lawyer in his father, but Phil hadn’t yet met a fight he didn’t relish arguing his way through. Kate, not so much. She’d rather agree to disagree and move on. It wasn’t completely altruistic on her end either, she just didn’t like fighting. She’d never been allowed to win one. Not with her mother. Not with Phil. Not even about the stupid goddamn vase.

At a work Christmas party two years prior, she’d been gifted a beautiful glass amphora vase by her boss. Feeling reckless, immediately after returning home that evening, she’d set it on the mantelpiece in the living room. She hadn’t asked for Phil’s permission, his input. It was the first time she’d thought to defy him, to decorate unaccompanied. Hell, he did it to her all the time. But she’d barely had time to assess it on the marble surface when Phil sauntered in, his eyes zeroing in on the foreign object and finding fault with its placement. A vase for Christ’s sake!

“It’s cobalt blue,” Phil had stated.

“So?” Kate’d asked, looking rebelliously at him.

“It doesn’t match the color scheme,” Phil had pointed out unnecessarily, waving his arm to encompass the space: distressed leather couch, white shag rug, sandpaper colored throw pillows, a dark maple bookcase. Tying it all together were hints of honey yellow in the wall décor.

“Call it a conversation piece, something to direct the eye,” Kate had pursued doggedly, but she’d already known she’d lost. Phil had been shaking his head even as he’d walked toward her, lifting the vase in his hands.

“I think it would look nice in the bathroom…”

 

 

 

Bringing herself back to the present, Kate locked eyes with Penny, a cup of coffee the sole item between them on the table. Absently, she considered that the other woman must be close to consuming the entire pot by now. A niggling of guilt pricked at the base of her neck with the thought, it was unlikely either of them would get any rest tonight. Kate had classes and Penny well…she had extra-sensory stuff to do, or something.

“September 21st” Kate mused out loud, the words seemingly arbitrary, casual…out of place.

“September 2st?” Penny repeated questioningly. “What’s September 21st?”

Kate smiled sadly. “That was the last evening I spent with Phil.” She snorted derisively. “A typical weekend, spent with the typical crowd, we’d attended a surprise birthday party earlier in the day. It was being thrown for a co-worker of Phil’s, and as such, it was essential that we at least make an appearance.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Everyone was there, all in good spirits. The theme was fiesta—margaritas and sangrias to compliment the Mexican fare, paper lanterns dotting the outside patio….” Kate frowned, getting momentarily lost in reverie. She’d worn a flowing white dress with an embroidered top for the occasion.

“But you didn’t want to go?” Penny asked perceptively.

Kate sighed. “No, I didn’t. I was overwhelmed at work, and I’d wanted to spend the afternoon going through some of the account portfolios piling up on my desk. Work rarely stayed at the office,” Kate admitted ruefully. “Anyway, I’d tried to bow out, but Phil promised we wouldn’t stay late. It hardly mattered though, I was tired, abstracted, preoccupied…it was the middle of a busy period at the firm and I felt overwhelmed with the backlog.”

Penny nodded slowly, absorbed with Kate’s ramblings, storing the bits of information into a mental filing cabinet. There was a reason she was being told all of this. Attempting to marshal them into a semblance of order, she kept quiet.

“Still, to give Phil credit we did leave fairly early, but by then my tension was like a livewire….”

Kate had been fidgety, distracted. It was so noticeable that it gave Phil a headache just from being around her, or at least that’s what he’d claimed when they entered the house that evening, immediately excusing himself from her company. He was going to lay down, close his eyes and relax. He had a busy day in the morning. Kate had barely waved him off, her attention already bent over the spreadsheet she’d left open on the dining room table, her eye’s absorbed, figuring economic trends. When she lifted her head again, it was ten o’clock. Phil was already cocooned in the soft flannel of his pajamas, and claiming his intention to turn in for the night, he sternly recommended she do the same. It wouldn’t do for her to be sleep-deprived tomorrow at the office.

“But nothing really unusual happened. We settled in, had a relatively quiet night and then we just—we went to bed,” Kate continued softly.

It was then that things started to get weird.

 

It all started with a dream. Kate and Phil were excavating an underground tunnel. They each held a small shovel in one hand, with only a flashlight (attached to their construction hats) throwing a dim patch of light ahead of them as they slowly crawled forward; the passageway was narrow, the width of their shoulders, no taller than the length from knee to head. The air was sticky, heavy, sweet…Inch by inch, they progressed further and further inside…and then, suddenly, without warning, the tunnel came to an abrupt end. Kate and Phil were stuck, staring forward into a wall of suffocating dirt and soil and earth. Kate felt her heart skip a beat then speed up at the sight. They wouldn’t be able to shovel their way through it, either. It was as solid as cement.

“We have to turn around,” she called to Phil over her left shoulder. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure how they’d manage to do that in the tight quarters, but what other option did they have?

“We can’t,” Phil whispered from behind her. There was a distinct edge to his voice…

“We have too,” Kate insisted, her voice pitchy, breathy, high.

“No, I mean, we can’t,” he said, and giving her a little nudge, motioned for Kate to look behind her. The tunnel had collapsed behind them, an avalanche of splintered rock and filth covering the space.

They were trapped!

 

 

“It was a nightmare. I had a nightmare. That’s why I left,” Kate told Penny gravely, her voice ominous in the quiet room. She’d woken from it with a terrific jerk, jack-knifing in position. Her breath wheezing out of her mouth so rapidly, Kate hadn’t been able to suck in enough air to calm down. “I’m sure it was a mixture of things: acid indigestion from the spicy food, my nerves at work, the terrible dream…add it all up and voila! Panic attack.”

Scrambling into a seated position, Kate had tried to swallow but her tongue felt thick, her chest shaking, constricting…her heart beating loudly in her ears, drumming thickly against the blood running there. It kept skipping, stopping and then tripping to a start again. “I’d never had a panic attack before; I thought I was dying.” Kate laughed, the sound scratching against her raw throat. “I’m not being dramatic. I actually thought, in those terrifying moments, that I was having a heart attack.” Sweat had beaded out across her forehead and the room had swum before her eyes to a dizzying effect.

“I felt so weak I couldn’t even force the energy to scream for help, to wake up Phil. And as I stared down at his unconscious form, my eyes fierce in an imprisoned body, I kept thinking: this is how I’m going to die? Next to this man? I don’t love him. I don’t even like this bed! How sad: I’m going to die and I wasted my opportunity to live.” Wiping a stray tear off her cheek, Kate went on: “I was so scared, and not because I thought I was leaving this life, but because I didn’t want to fight for what I thought I was leaving. How pathetic! To leave such a desperate legacy behind…no one would ever know who I really was. I kept thinking about who would show up at my funeral; I didn’t want any of them there. They would mourn the passing of a woman who’d never existed. And I resented that. I resented that they would remember me as someone I hated.”

Kate sighed heavily after admitting to this, her head bowed low over the table. Penny raised her hand in comfort but on second thought, let it drop down to her lap once more. She doubted it was what the other woman wanted right now.

“Obviously you didn’t die though,” Penny said instead, refusing to let Kate stall out. The story needed to be told, no matter how painful it was.

Kate nodded, her eyes tracing the grain of the wood before her. “No, I didn’t. After a couple minutes, my heartbeat slowed back down, the air in my lungs filled again…” It had happened almost without Kate being aware of it, her thoughts so focused upon to her impending doom that she’d hardly noticed at first when her body stilled, the blood flowing freely once more throughout, oxygen levels rising adequately, stomach muscles loosening. “And with it my strength came back, a strength I never knew I even had before.”

Without a peep, Kate had snuck out from underneath the covers of the bed. Rising on to her tiptoes, she’d escaped out of the room, her nightgown whispering softly against the hardwood flooring as she raced down the hallway and toward Phil’s home office.

“I wasn’t thinking clearly, yet I knew I was right. I had to leave. I knew if I waited until the morning, if I tried to talk to Phil about how I felt, he’d just argue me into submission. He’d convince me that my feelings were tied to my nightmare, that it was just wedding jitters, that I was being an emotional woman…I knew that the strength of character running through my system wouldn’t be there in the morning. I knew I had to leave,” Kate repeated.

Entering Phil’s office, she’d floundered for a second. “I knew he had a map in there, an old-school atlas of the United States.” Kate’s eyes flicked in Penny’s direction, trying to gauge her listener’s reaction to this incredible tale; she couldn’t read anything on the psychic’s face. “If I was going to runaway, I knew I would need a destination in mind. I told you once before how I ended up in Whestleigh: I let my fingers run blindly across the map and when they stopped they were hovering over this city. Well, that’s the truth. That’s what I did.”

“And Phil?” Penny asked wonderingly

“Phil woke up in the morning to a half-empty bed and a coward’s note,” Kate said cryptically.

Phil,

            I’m so sorry, but I can’t do this. I can’t lie to you, to myself. I can’t marry you. I’m sorry. Know that I wish you nothing but happiness. Please, do the same for me.

            All my gratitude, my love,

            Kate

 

“You left Phil,” Penny said decisively.

Kate shook her head. “No. I left everything. It wasn’t just Phil I didn’t love; it was everything…my persona, the friends that came along with it. Even my job.” Kate sighed for a moment, sorting her scattered thoughts into words. “It was a foregone conclusion, before I was even out of diapers, that I would enter the investment world. My father was always there, pulling the strings: from my enrollment at college, to my internships, the right networking opportunities, all the way to my position with Banner Investment. And I’d sat by idly letting him—letting everyone but me—live my life. Hell, I don’t even like math,” Kate murmured inanely.

“You quit? Just like that?” Penny asked incredulously. This didn’t sound like Kate.

Kate smiled. “Just like that. I emailed my boss my notice, effective immediately.” No need to stop in, she hadn’t had any personal items stashed there anyway. It was all done, in a matter of minutes, via Smartphone. She didn’t have the convenience of time to offer anything else. “It sounds bad, but in the investment world, any decision to quit is considered effective immediately anyway. Once you state the intent to leave, they want you gone—too much access to confidential information. I wouldn’t be missed. I was barely known.”

“And then you left?” Penny asked.

Kate nodded. “Then I left.”

“You didn’t talk to your parents, your friends? No one?” Penny’s voice was strained, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. In fact, she couldn’t.

“No. I knew they would have convinced me to stay. I couldn’t give them the chance. It wasn’t like they didn’t try afterward…” Phil tried the hardest: voicemails, text messages, emails, all of them demanding to know what was going on, where Kate was, what the hell she was thinking…? “But I didn’t respond, wouldn’t answer back. I know Phil,” Kate pleaded to Penny. “My defection hurt his pride more than anything, it embarrassed him. If I’d thought it was more that that—,” Kate paused jerkily, “but it wasn’t. He had lost control and that wasn’t acceptable to him. Phil never lost control.”

“And your mother?” Penny asked next. She’d never meet Calida McDonald but from what Kate said, she sounded like a law unto herself.

“I haven’t spoken to her either. If they knew where I was—any of them, I wouldn’t stand I chance. I’d be back in Minneapolis and married to Phil before I even knew what was even happening to me.”

Silence descended upon the room after that. Kate’s story was finished. Penny knew the rest. Daylight was streaking through the blinds. With a glance at the alarm clock sitting beside the coffeemaker, Penny noted the time: 4:15 a.m.

“And you’re afraid of anyone ever having that kind of power over you again, right? That’s what scares you. This attraction you feel for Jackson—the attraction you’d feel for anyone—it triggers the reminder of what you worked so hard to leave behind?”Penny asked, bringing the conversation back around, full circle.

Kate shifted restlessly. She’d never thought about it that way before. “I’m not good at asserting myself. You know that. You talk me into things all the time,” Kate said instead.

With the tip of her head, Penny conceded Kate’s point. “Yes…”

“I’m a pushover. I don’t have a backbone.” No doubt because Calida McDonald had wanted it that way, Penny thought silently to herself.

“Don’t pigeonhole yourself,” Penny insisted then, her voice infused with energy, passion, anger even. “You can have a backbone if you want one. You just have to want one.”

Kate opened her mouth, no doubt to refute this, but Penny wasn’t finished talking: “Phil, your mother, everyone from your past told you who you were and you hated that—that’s why you left, right? Stop letting people do that. Stop being a pushover just because other people think you should be one. Tell me, right now, what kind of person do you want to be?”

Kate stared at Penny, dumbfounded.

“Because baby,” Penny continued, her voice softer now, “You can be anyone you want. That strength you felt that night, it didn’t dessert you with the rising of the morning sun. It brought you here, to college, to new friends…Don’t be fooled. You are strong.”

Kate swallowed hard, the tears from earlier making an encore appearance. “I want to be autonomous, multifaceted. I want to be free, fearless: to change, to make mistakes….”

Penny stood up, her joints sore and stiff from the extended period of sitting. Rounding the table, she cupped Kate’s chin in her hand and, tilting her head, forced their eyes to meet. “Then don’t make it about Jackson—make it about you.”

“I’m not sure how,” Kate wailed

Penny smiled lovingly down at her friend, at her best friend. “You’ll learn. I’ll teach you.”

“But—”

“No,” Penny said, shushing Kate. “Rule Number One: before you start worrying about other people, you take care of yourself. Let Jackson worry about Jackson for the time being. Right now you need to decide what you want Kate?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, if Jackson walked through that door right now, would you want him to kiss you? Don’t worry about what anyone else may think. Just focus on you.”

Chewing on that for a second, Kate tried to imagine him doing just what Penny said, his body coming into view from behind her curtained door, eyes narrowing as they spot Kate, face flooded with desire. With a purposeful stride, he draws nearer. In her mind’s eye, Kate feels her back arch at the sight, her lips responding to the imagined invitation as he comes closer. And then, just as he’s about to reach her, Jackson’s face morphs, twisting…his eyes turning a darker shade of brown, his blonde hair growing dark, unruly, his build exchanged for something huskier… until it’s the likeness of Jake that Kate sees standing before her.

Gasping, Kate’s jaw dropped at the unintended switch but, before she could make comment on this conversion, the apparition changed back, taking on Jackson’s form again. Then Jake. Then Jackson. Jake. Jackson…over and over, it alternated before her eyes.

 

“Um…Yes,” Kate whispered, but she wasn’t entirely sure to whom she was referring.

 

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.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Four

Madame Penny asked for compete silence from Kate. The best way to channel the universe, as she dubbed it, was to meditate, to clear the mind of any blockage, let go of any worries, knowing they would be intercepted by a higher power. From somewhere near her feet, Penny pressed the Play button on a CD player, the soft strains of some string instrument filling the room.

“Close your eyes,” Madame Penny whispered, “and picture yourself swimming in a lake. There are no waves, no ripples. It’s clear as glass. The sun is high up in the sky and the warmth of it touches the tops of your shoulders. It’s peaceful and relaxing. Picture this moment,” she repeated.

Kate let out a deep sigh and did as she was bidden.

“Now, imagine yourself swimming from one end of the lake to the other. You feel your right arm lift out of the water, rotate forward, and then delve back underneath the silky depths. Your body sways with the action. You breathe out. Then your left arm lifts up toward the sky, following the same motion. Do you feel the movements of your body? You are not tired, nor are you stressed. It’s rhythmic and as natural as breathing. Keep picturing this movement: your right arm strokes against the water and just as it submerges back downward, the left arm copies its predecessor, sweeping and descending against the current you are creating. Over and over. Over and over.”

Kate felt her breathing slow. Her arms, where they rested on her lap, felt heavy, her feet cemented to the ground as her whole concentration focused on this scene, with only the lyrical undulation of Madame Penny’s voice keeping her steadily on point, keeping her from…. Kate yawned. It was keeping her from—blinking heavily, Kate’s lids drooped, her attention foggy, confused.

Her eyes closed; this time they didn’t reopen.

Madame Penny watched in quiet amusement as Kate slowly feel asleep, her body gradually hunching forward, her neck falling forward until her chin rested against her collarbone; the poor girl was dead to the world, she thought, stifling a laugh. It was too bad really, because Penny had just been about to get to the best part of her visualization technique: Kate was nearing the end of her swim, the conclusion of which would have brought her to a quiet beach where she could lay out in the sun.

It wasn’t all together uncommon for clients to fall asleep during meditation. It took practice to keep the mind and body suspended over a state of quiet consciousness. Although for a woman like Kate, who seemed fixated on the idea of being in control, always in command of herself and her surroundings, it was rather surprising. Shrugging, Madame Penny continued to shuffle the cards in her hands. Perhaps Kate needed the rest, she considered. If that were the case, she’d let her go on dreaming for a little while longer.

 

Something was shining against her eyes. Kate made a soft sound her in her throat and made to turn her head away from the offending light. Just as the thought penetrated, another disruption invaded her senses: the soft pitter-patter of feet moving across the wooden floorboards underneath.

Eyes fluttering open, the first thing Kate saw was a tabletop. It was currently cradling her head where it laid, her cheek pressed up against her crossed arms. It wasn’t Kate’s table. Remaining there for a moment, confusion flooded Kate’s senses. Where was she?

The sudden ping of a metallic lock pushing into place reminded her that, where ever it was, she wasn’t alone. Jerking upward, back into a seated position, Kate’s eyes frantically followed the noise, seeking out its source. They landed on none other than Madame Penny, who’d half-turned at the commotion of Kate’s awakening, her hands pressed up against the filing cabinet.

“What?” Kate asked disoriented, clearly unprepared for such a sight. “What am I—what?”

“You feel asleep during the reading,” Madame Penny filled in, coming back to the table to sit opposite of her.

“Reading?” Kate asked, still out of it.

“That’s it,” Penny confirmed matter-of-factly.

When that didn’t clear up the expression on Kate’s face, Penny continued: “Don’t you remember? You must be really out of it.” She chuckled. “I saw you outside my window? You came in for a tarot card reading” she prompted, stressing the last word pointedly. “We were just in the middle of a meditation activity…any of this ringing a bell?”

And then Kate did remember. She’d been swimming in a lake—her arms propelling her body, back and forth. “I feel asleep?”

“Like a newborn baby,” Penny told her, her tone laced with humor.

“What time is it?” Kate asked instinctively. Translation: how long had she been out for the count?

“It’s a little after three,” Penny supplied. Translation: for almost two hours.

Kate felt her cheeks redden as waves of embarrassment washed over her. She couldn’t believe she’d done that! To a stranger. Well, maybe not a stranger, but close enough. Kate had barely been able to go to sleepovers, even as a teenager, thanks to serve bouts of homesickness yet here she was now, caught taking a catnap—in a professional arena no less—just as though it were no big thing. What the hell was wrong with her?

“I am so sorry,” she began to say, shoveling her hair over her shoulder, completely without regard to order or neatness.

“No apologizes necessary,” Penny assured her.

“I guess I was more tired than I thought.” Kate tried to sound glib in an effort to salvage some of her pride, to mask her deep mortification. It didn’t work. “I haven’t been sleeping very well.” Snapping her mouth shut, Kate decided that was probably more information than she needed to divulge, and to Madame Penny of all people.

“I thought as much,” Madame Penny said knowingly. At Kate’s curious look, she went on: “You have circles under your eyes…plus your carriage seemed weighted when you first arrived,” she said bluntly. “Mediation sweeps the mind of its overriding anxieties and stressors. Yours was so exhausted from this detoxification it shutdown completely, reveling in the coveted and obviously unaccustomed state of an easeful and tranquil slumber.”

Pinned down by the blueness of those eyes, Kate knew she had been right in her phobia of over-sharing with this woman. Madame Penny had that look on her face, the same one she’d worn the other day at the coffee shop, like she smelled a story.

“I’m not sure about all of that. Probably I just need to get acclimated to the new house, new area—different sounds and stuff like that,” Kate said, purposefully vague.

“It can be difficult, I imagine, venturing out and starting a new life,” Madame Penny mused, her eyes steady on Kate’s averted gaze. “But know this, just because you chose to ignore something doesn’t mean it’s not still there, in your mind. It doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking about it. Consciously or unconsciously, awake or otherwise,” she added meaningfully.

“It was one nightmare,” Kate blurted out. Immediately, she regretted the words, her lapse in silence at Penny’s provocation.

“Want to talk about it?” Madame Penny asked. There was no mistaking the triumph in her posture. She’d hoped to make Kate crack and she’d succeeded.

“If I wanted to talk about it I’d have done so already,” Kate snapped, feeling a bit like a caged animal. Maybe she’d have been better off just going home earlier.

“All right, all right, I won’t push.”

“Too late for that,” Kate whispered loudly. Madame Penny said nothing in response. She knew better. She’d gotten a reaction out of Kate and, for the time being, that was good enough for her.

“Well, since you’re up would you like to know what I discovered from the reading?” She asked, changing the topic without qualm.

“You were still able to do that, even while I was, you know?” Kate insinuated, diverted from her earlier resolve at this newfound information. She’d have figured Madame Penny stopped at the sound of her snoring.

“Well, yes of course. Your presence is only superficial in matters such as these. The universe knew what you needed to hear, what questions you sought answers to, long before your head hit the table,” she assured her amusedly.

“Oh,” Kate said stupidly. She wasn’t sure what else to say. It was one thing to agree to have a reading performed, but it was quite another to sit by quietly by while someone told her what her future held—Kate’s freewill notwithstanding.

Madame Penny quickly rose to her feet and twisting a little to one side, with the pinch of her finger, opened the filing cabinet once more. Reaching inside its depth, her hand scuffled around for a moment before presenting the pack of cards. It felt a little like déjà vu to Kate. Hadn’t they done this before?

“I thought you already did the reading?” Kate asked, speaking her thoughts aloud.

“I did.”

“Then why are you taking those out again?” Kate asked, gesturing toward the deck in Penny’s hand.

“I’m not going to reshuffle them, if that’s what you mean. No, no. It’s redundant to do the same reading twice,” Penny said absently.

Kate blinked, more confused than when she’d originally asked the question. Reshuffle them? Do another reading? What?

As she was ought to do, Penny seemed to sense Kate’s consternation, saying further: “I just thought you’d like to see the cards I’d pulled—that’s why I brought them back out,” she clarified. “Sometimes the physical existence of them, their tangible message, is easier to comprehend then the mere mention of them.”

“Oh.”

“I only put them away so you wouldn’t knock them over in your, um, state of slumber,” she said, her hands deftly laying out the top three cards from the pile.

“I did a traditional three card layout—it’s a general reading focusing on where you’ve been, where it’s lead you, and where you’re still headed,” Madame Penny continued, her voice brisk but educational. Slowly she turned the cards, one by one, face up.

Kate looked down. Checking the impulse against knee-jerk deprecation, instead she allowed her eyes to thoroughly scan each one, her attention sober and intent as she processed the images, and their representing notations, shown before her.

They read as follows:

Past: Death

Present: the Hermit

Future: the Sun

“Now don’t be alarmed by what you see here,” Penny warned, her fingernail tapping against the first of these symbolic articles. “The Death Card is often mistaken—it does not imply a physical loss, rather an end to something previously known. It’s placement in your past intimates a recent change in your life’s purpose…though I suppose one doesn’t need to be psychic to have realized that,” she added dryly.

Penny continued: “This is usually a hard transition, because the Death Card is accompanied by a simultaneous fear of the unfamiliar yet a constant urge to find something different. But know that it’s inclusion here—in your past—is deliberate, telling you that you made the right decision, warning you not to go back to that idea, that place-in-time….”

Kate hardly heard Madame Penny; she hardly thought to listen, the psychic’s voice drowned out by Kate’s own inner-musings, her own personal discernment. Kate knew what each card meant; she didn’t need their significance interpreted by an outsider. And with that knowledge came a sense of release, of peacefulness that even the meditation hadn’t quite accomplished.

Her life wasn’t over, rather reincarnated. She was no longer a part of her past. It was gone, done, over. Brighter days were ahead, and when she finally decided to come out of reclusion—when she finally healed herself—the sun would be there ready to kiss her in welcome.

 

 

 

Twenty minutes later, as Kate was walking up to her front door, having just left Madame Penny’s House of Intuition, she was surprised to find a woman standing under her covered porch, waiting patiently it seemed for just such an arrival. She wasn’t a woman Kate had ever met before, but Kate figured she was getting used to that—Whestleigh wasn’t shy when it came to strangers. The woman appeared to be holding a baked goody of some kind in her hand, if the plastic wrap covering the disposable dish was anything to go by.

“Hello,” Kate said, as she mounted the steps to stand beside her.

The woman smiled in greeting. She appeared to be in her mid-fifties. “Hello. My name is Anne Ganthy. I live just two houses down,” she said, pointing down the street. The home, an off-white clapboard cottage, was small but quaint, the grounds immaculately trimmed, yet overflowing with flowers.  “Anyway, I-I stopped over to say: welcome to the neighborhood!” she added awkwardly, the enthusiasm slightly false. With that she thrust the pan, which Kate could now see held chocolate cake of some kind, into Kate’s unsuspecting hands.

“Oh, well, thank you! I’m Kate McDonald,” Kate supplied, fumbling the aluminum sheet to her left hand. Holding out her right, which was quickly grasped and shaken, she smiled in return.

“I wanted to come over the other day but I saw you had, er, company,” that lady said. There was something in the way she said that last bit which unnerved Kate.

“Well, this was awfully kind of you,” she responded instead, deciding to let the comment pass unquestioned. Reaching inside her pocket, she carefully retrieved her keys. Inserting them into the keyhole, all the while balancing her cake, Kate clumsily undid the lock.

“Please forgive my tardiness in making your acquaintance,” Anne started in again, apparently not to be put-off. “Let me assure you, all of us on Eveleth Ave are anxious to meet you. I wouldn’t want you to think our little community was unfriendly.” She trilled in laughter at this small joke.

“How could I think anything of the sort?” Kate asked, feeling oddly comforted by the sentiment behind this woman’s visit. She’d heard of such concepts as welcoming committees before, but in her estimation it had always measured up to nothing more than folk lore. Apparently it was actually a thing. “This whole town has been nothing but inviting and gracious since I’ve moved here. It’s been, well, really uplifting for someone new to the area.”

Anne frowned a little of the words. “Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but…Listen, you do want to be discreet within your, er, associations. The people around here, well they can get to talking…. That is to say, Whestleigh prides itself on the reputation of the society it keeps,” she explained rather obtusely.

Kate felt her head tilt a little to one side at the words. They sounded ominous, and ironically, a little less than friendly. “Excuse me?” she asked then, and to someone who knew her well, it was done so icily.

“Well that psychic woman, what’s her name?”

“Madame Penny,” Kate offered, though she doubted the woman’s name actually eluded Anne.

“Yes, well, I saw the two of you chatting the other day, and I happen to know she was over here the other night. If I were you I’d be careful of being seen together too frequently. She’s not made much of a name for herself around here, if you catch my drift. Frankly, she’s considered: weird, peculiar, an outcast,” she said exhaustively, waving her hand in the air expressively. “I’m merely trying to offer up some helpful advice. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Just what kind of impression are you hoping to leave on our townsfolk? You seem like a nice, respectable young woman, that’s all I’m saying.”

Kate felt her mouth drop open. She couldn’t believe she’d just heard all of that nonsense. She wasn’t sure where the energy came from. She wasn’t even entirely sure she was upset on Penny’s behalf. She was weird and peculiar and those were traits Kate didn’t think the psychic found all that insulting. Rather it was the way that Anne had said it, with such scathing holier-than-thou judgment that did Kate in. If Kate didn’t know any better, she’d swear she was talking to her own mother.

Swap out Anne’s dark brown hair for a blonde coif and change her slacks for a couture skirt with a silk blouse and they could be dead-ringers for one another. Kate couldn’t count the number of times she’d come home to find her mother waiting in the kitchen, her fingers tapping against the jut of her hipbone, her mouth turned downward. This scene always precluded the onslaught of a lecture. Lectures about Kate’s daily choices and opinions, almost all of which her mother found fault within. Lectures which Kate knew as the only mother-daughter bonding offered in her household.

Her mother—the great Calida McDonald—would wonder why in the world her eight year old daughter had decided to play football with the Douglass brothers, who lived down the block. Hadn’t she been brought up like a proper young lady? And why, when she was in the seventh grade, had her only child thought it would be a good idea to visit the planetarium instead of the Manuscript Library? Where was her culture, her class? And how about the time that Kate had befriended the Larson girl from her geometry class? She’d been picked on at school for her wardrobe choices. Kate had taken her shopping. Calida had damn near burst in half when she found out just who Kate was seen with—an inferior little girl of no-stock.

Kate had always bowed down to her mother. She’d loved that split second after these go-rounds when Calida would smile lovingly, pat Kate on the shoulder (sometimes even bring her in for a hug), explaining that she was only trying to protect her daughter and Kate would understand one of these days just how much. She’d go on to say how proud she was when Kate inevitably collapsed to her bidding. She had a truly wonderful daughter, didn’t she?

She sincerely doubted her mother was saying anything of the sort nowadays, but she supposed she didn’t really know, did she? Kate had never gotten up the nerve, even at twenty-eight years of age, to tell her mother ‘no.’ She’d never challenged her, forced her voice into existence, she’d never been able to argue that what Calida wanted and what Kate wanted were not the same thing. She’d just run away, escaped into the night. But she was done with that. Here. Now.

Kate felt her hand curl around the doorknob. “I suppose you’re right. It is of great consequence with whom I chose to fraternize.” She gave Anne a saccharine smile, a disguise to hide the blow of her next words. “Which is why I’ll kindly ask you to leave. Right now.”

Anne’s noisily indrawn breath was as far as Kate allowed her to get in retort.

“I will not be bullied, coerced or shamed into this arbitrary and antiquated format for propriety and social suitability, especially by a woman whose nerve is such to speak to a veritable stranger in this manner.”

With that, Kate felt her wrist twist, the knob turning over in her hand. Tucking the cake against her elbow, because she refused to give it back to the conniving woman, Kate pushed the door open. Striding over the threshold she spared Anne, standing, shocked, her mouth contorted in stupefaction, one last glance before promptly swinging the door shut once again.

Breath coming out rapidly, knee’s wobbling uncertainly, adrenaline taking over, Kate stumbled backward, her body sagging thankfully against the door she’d only just closed behind herself. Safely protected from the piranha outside by its secure bulk, nonetheless, she could still hear Anne talking quietly to herself as she made to exit Kate’s property, muttering something about how she’d never been treated so poorly in her life and what was this world coming to?        Kate had shut the door on that woman’s face. Feeling the force of this realization with wonder, Kate corrected this statement. No, she’d slammed the door on that woman’s face. And it had felt kind of good. It had felt amazing.

This same foreign state of impulsiveness encouraged Kate to take her phone out of the back pocket of her pants, along with the business card Madame Penny had given Kate at the end of their session together, the psychic’s office number boldly printed across its glossy length. Without thought, Kate punched its numeric sequence into her keypad and hit the call button. Putting the phone up to her ear she waited for the line to be picked up on the other end.

“Hello?” Kate heard after the third ring.

She didn’t need further encouragement. “The nightmare I had, it was about my ex-fiancé. But that’s all I want to say on the matter,” Kate said breathlessly, “I-I don’t believe in dream interpretations, I’ve never bought into the idea that they are the windows to our souls, so please don’t go there.”

“Okay,” Madame Penny said, sounding out the word slowly, probably unsure what to say in reaction to this preamble-less confession.

Kate felt the sigh that expulsed out her mouth intensely. “I’m not even sure why I’m telling you this,” she admitted, the emotion which had buoyed her into making the call having suddenly abandoned her.

“Sometimes the simple act of admitting to something relieves you of its power, its hold over you,” Madame Penny offered in answer.

“Yeah, maybe,” Kate said, chewing on the bottom of her lip—a habit her mother had spent many years trying to break her from.

The line remained silent for a beat.

“Was there anything else you didn’t want to talk about?” Madame Penny asked, the slightest note of amusement trailing the question.

Actually there was, Kate thought, her confrontation with Anne only too fresh in her mind. “Someone dropped a dessert off at my place tonight, a sort of housewarming gift I guess.”

“Yes?” Madame Penny prompted when Kate stopped there.

Kate cleared her throat, unused to the sensation of vulnerability rushing through her. “Well, how do you feel about chocolate cake?”

“Are you offering?” Penny returned eloquently.

“Yes.”

Madame Penny smiled softly, the dim light coming off a table lamp casting a pink glow around her closet-cum-office, making it look almost beautiful. “In that case, I love it.”