North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifteen

Time: 3:54 p.m.

Rushing up the steps to her front door, Kate was tempted to check the time on her watch—a fruitless endeavor. She knew what time it was. She’d never lost track since leaving Cordwyn College.

Penny and M.T. were coming over for dinner at 5:00 p.m.

It was another of the pastor’s attempts to see her sister and, as such, another of Penny’s provisions that Kate joins them. Somehow, Kate had found herself agreeing once again, and this time, not just to having dinner. She was also hosting the event. M.T. was still living out of a hotel and Penny’s cottage, it had be patently proved last time, maxed out at two dinner companions.

At least, Kate wouldn’t have to cook. Penny was bringing the food, M.T. the wine.

Unlocking her door and reaching the entryway, Kate tossed her book bag on one of the two pink upholstered chairs she’d unearthed from a nook under the staircase in the basement. Frantically, her eyes searched the downstairs: a pair of boots lay sprawled across the tile at her feet, a couple stray dishes remained in the sink, and a throw blanket was spread anyhow across the recliner in the living room. The kitchen floor needed to be mopped and the rug in the parlor room need a good vacuuming.

She had little over an hour to go-time.

 

 

 

Time: 4:38 p.m.

Thanks to the miracle of necessity and speed, Kate’s floors now shined, the rugs professionally turned out; the shoe rack sat, precisely arranged; presently the dishwasher ran, midway through its cycle. The table was carefully set with linen tablecloth and Kate’s delicate china. Add that to carefully placed candles, and the air smelled sweet and fresh.

Brushing a sweaty strand of hair off her flushed cheeks, Kate allowed her feet to swivel in a slow circle, her overly sensitive eyes looking for anything out of order. There were two pegs open in the parlor room for Penny and M.T.’s coats: check. The island was scrubbed clean, ready for the arrival of food: check. Three wine glasses were set out on the counter, a corkscrew placed beside them: check. Soft music whispered out of the television in the living area, and that room’s freshly painted walls—a creamy hue nicely offset by teal-blue draperies against the windows—gave an impression of cool comfort, a welcoming place to relax after the meal: check and check.

Kate’s self-soothed tranquility was soon disturbed by an unexpected rap at the door. Someone was there. Oh God, oh no. Not yet. She wasn’t ready yet, she thought as she raced to answer the call. She still had twenty minutes and she desperately needed that time. She hadn’t even managed to change out of her school clothes. And her hair—good gracious, it needed at least five minutes of dedicated work.

Kate breathed a sigh of relief, however, when she saw who was standing on the other side of her screen door.

At least it was only: “Penny…”

“Don’t worry, you’re not running behind,” she said without preamble, bustling past Kate without so much as a by-your-leave, a tote bag thrown haphazardly over her shoulder.  “I’m early,” she continued, “I just wanted to give myself a little extra time to plate everything. I hope that’s okay.”

“Yeah, of course,” Kate said, trailing after her.

Standing irresolute, halfway through the kitchen, the stairwell just off to her right, Kate was momentarily torn… as a hostess she felt duty-bound to ask if Penny needed any help, but then again, she also felt obligated to look presentable to her guests. Her current disheveled appearance was strictly taboo.

She wouldn’t have time to achieve both of these aims.

“Don’t stand on ceremony with me,” Penny said, as though she’d just read Kate’s thoughts. Kate was starting to think the psychic really could. “Take yourself off, do whatever needs doing. I’m the one early, remember? This is not a reflection on your entertaining prowess.” Kate couldn’t help but chuckle at that, as Penny had intended her to do. “Besides, I’m covered.”

“Thank you,” Kate said. Without loss, she headed up the stairs, her feet taking them two at a time.

“Take your time—I’m fully capable of answering a door in your absence!”

“Never!” Kate yelled back playfully.

 

 

 

Time: 6:08 p.m.

“…and then he told me, it was just a joke. They didn’t even own a dog!”

Kate’s fist hit the table in her current fit of laughter. M.T. wiped a tear off her cheek, chuckling even in memory of that story—the third she’d recounted this evening, reminiscing about her troubles and mishaps as a young American in a foreign country.

Kate, her hair nicely pressed into a topknot, outfitted in a black skirt with grey tights and a loose-fitting silk top, was almost glad she’d been given a forced invitation to this party. Maggie could tell a mean tale!

The only person not partaking in the fun was Madame Penny. Like a stone, she’d remained seemingly unmoved through these little anecdotes. Twice, she’d tried to change the subject, but neither Kate nor M.T. had taken notice.

“I’m sure it’s the pastor in you, this knack for embellishing stories to their upmost ability,” Penny interrupted, her voice propelling like a crack against their merriment.

“Excuse me?” M.T. asked, with just the slightest note of defensiveness. Up to this point, through the spinach salad appetizer and even the shrimp bisque entrée, the sister’s had managed to remain civil. Of course, that was before they’d consumed an entire bottle of cabernet—and half of a second. Kate had a sinking suspicion something stormy was brewing.

“I’m just saying, you’ve always had a flair for, well, exaggeration,” Penny said sweetly, taking a vicious bite of her cheesy dessert.

Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten at the antagonizing words. Swallowing thickly, she could do nothing more than simply wait for what would happen next.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Remember that story you always tell, about how you and Bobby Atkinson were chased up a tree by an elk the summer after you first moved to town? Well, I’ve seen you climb before and, unless that elk was drunk, he’d have trampled you long before even one foot found a low-hanging limb.”

Kate felt sweat break out against her upper lip, her insides churning at the onslaught of what would surely only lead to a fight; acid bubbles were forming, popping….

“Oh, oh, and what about the time we took a family vacation out to Richfield and you claim the bellboy, who’d barely spoken five words to anyone of us, helped you sneak out on our first evening there, to go dancing at that nightclub? And, if that isn’t hard enough to believe—especially since you were sleeping soundly in the bed beside mine when I woke up at three to go to the bathroom—then, while you were supposedly there, the police showed up, raiding the bar for under-agers. Yet, miraculously you managed to escape out the bathroom window. I mean, come on!”

“You think I made the whole thing up?” M.T. sounded more incredulous than angry.

“Yes, I do.” Penny seemed to be warming up to her argument now. “That police raid was a huge story; it made front news on all the papers. I think you wanted to be part of it, after crafting a perfectly viable excuse for why it could never be proven first.”

Kate hardly heard M.T.’s response. Her head was pounding now, her palms felt clammy, her stomach fast approaching a stage of revolt. Gulping, she forced herself to breathe, forced her stomach to keep the contents of her dinner within its system.

“I mean, I could go on and on: the college party you crashed with Melinda Johnson, you remember that one, right? because apparently you passed out on the couch and Melinda and some frat boy had to carry you back to her parent’s house, somehow completing this feat and all without waking anyone up.”

“Ruthie…
“Don’t call me that,” Penny insisted so forcibly Kate winced.

“Sorry—Penny. I don’t understand where this is coming from. All of these stories are real. I did these things, they happened. Out-of-character, larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction, whatever you want to call them, everyone has a few stories like that…”

“No they don’t,” Penny insisted, her eyes averted to her plate. “That’s exactly my point.”

M.T. watched as Penny’s lips twisted, her face contorting with the words. This was far more personal than even M.T. had originally suspected; it was about Penny and not the other way around. Quietly the pastor spoke, her words measured with new insight. “People don’t have stories like that, or you don’t?” The words weren’t meant to be insolent, rather revealing.

Pressing her hands up against her hot cheeks, Kate wondered at the room’s temperature. She felt en fuego. She really, really hated fighting.

“I should,” Penny argued, “but, you’re right, I don’t have any stories like that. I don’t have any stories period—at least, not any to be retold at dinner parties. I guess I have you to thank for that…because someone had to be there: when mom needed her daily fifth of vodka, to make sure she didn’t drown in her own boozy saliva, put her to bed when she could no longer walk straight. Someone had to be home every night to make sure she didn’t accidently kill herself! Someone had to be responsible. So no, I wasn’t allowed to make any stories for myself.”

What M.T. would have said next will forever remain a mystery. It was precisely at that moment when Kate’s body heaved with a force to knock her hands up against her mouth. Pushing her chair back she had just enough time to excuse herself before rushing through the living room and into the bathroom. Slamming the door behind her, she reached for the toilet and fumblingly wrenched open the lid ….

 

 

 

Five minutes later, her face flushed, Kate lay sprawled out on the cool tiling of the bathroom floor. Through a tidal wave of embarrassment, she reminded herself things could have been worse: at least she made it in time.

Of course that wasn’t much help. If only her mother could see her now, Kate mused. Calida MacDonald wouldn’t hear of getting sick at one of her own parties. No stomach bug was strong enough to penetrate that will of steel!

A quiet knock at the door roused Kate of these unwelcome thoughts. “Kate? Kate, it’s Maggie. Are you all right?”

“Ugh,” Kate said weakly, hoping the sound would make it through the door and convince M.T. to kindly go away.

It didn’t work.

“Kate, I’m coming in, all right?”

The sight of Kate, stretched limply across the floor, sent Maggie to her side at once. Squatting down on her haunches, she pressed the back of her hand against Kate’s brow.

“Oh sweetie, you’re burning up,” she said unnecessarily. Kate had intimate knowledge of just how warm her body temp was, thank you very much.

“So sorry,” Kate mumbled, “but I think I’m sick.”

“No doubt about it,” M.T. assured her.

“This isn’t exactly how I envisioned the evening would end,” Kate said, her eyes screwed tightly shut, hoping to ward off another wave of nausea, “but you two should probably go. Tell Penny I’m sorry but, I don’t want to get either of you sick.”

“And leave you here all by yourself? I don’t think so,” M.T. said firmly.

“Really, I’ll be just fine,” Kate tried to assure her.

“Kate, you’re face-planted on the floor of your bathroom. That doesn’t seem like the makings of fine to me. Come on, let me help get you up and into bed,” she said, proffering a hand at the words.

Kate shook her head vehemently. “Please, no. I want to lay here. It’s cool and it feels nice against my skin…not to mention it’s convenient in case of, well, you know,” she said emphatically.

“So what, you’re going to stay here all night then? In the bathroom?” M.T. asked skeptically.

“That’s the plan.”

“Well then at least let me get you a pillow and blankets.”

Kate nodded her consent. If it helped expedite the matter, she’d have agreed to just about anything.  From her position on the floor, she could hear M.T. move out into the kitchen, followed by the faint mumblings of conversation passing between her and Penny before the soft echo of her feet moving up the stairs and, minutes later, back down them again.

When M.T. reentered the room, Kate blinked open one eye. Her arms were loaded down: five pillows, one comforter and two blankets. Before Kate could wrangle the energy to wonder at this excess, M.T. got to work. Instructing Kate to lift her head, she slid two pillows under her neck before carelessly tossing the remaining items to the side. Then she covered Kate’s body with the down-comforter.

“Thanks,” Kate mumbled warily, but it seemed that M.T. was quite finished. Bent over beside Kate, she was now in the process of creating what appeared to be another make-shift bed on the floor…presumably for herself. “Really you don’t need—”

Before Kate could protest this further, another soft knock sounded at the door, shortly chased by the appearance of Penny’s big hair, snaking around the side of it.

“Poor Kate,” she tisked, easing her body all the way inside the room then. She held a glass in her hand. “I brought you some wa-ter…” The last word trailing off, Penny’s attention shifted suddenly, her eyes raking over M.T.’s ministrations. “What are you doing?” she asked guardedly.

M.T. shrugged, not stopping to meet Penny’s eyes. “I don’t think Kate should be left alone tonight.”

“So I see…” she said, and to Kate’s sensitive ears it sounded peeved, annoyed, one step shy of hostile.

Please don’t fight, Kate thought to herself, not now. My stomach can’t take anymore madness.

            Almost as though Kate had spoken the words out loud (or perhaps it was her all-too audible wince), Penny’s stance softened, her gaze sweeping past her sister to the poorly Kate and back again. “Well, I hope you brought down a pillow for me, as well.”

With a wink, M.T. held up the fifth pillow. “I had a feeling I wouldn’t be unaccompanied in that thought.”

“Indeed,” Penny said huffily.

Kate’s bathroom wasn’t exactly small but it certainly wasn’t large either. Somehow, though, by sheer force of will Kate supposed, the three of them managed to squeeze together, side-by-side, against the unforgiving tiles, straddled on either side by the toilet and the vanity. It was only as they all got comfortable that Kate remembered: “The lights. Can we turn the lights off, they’re hurting my eyes.”

Madame Penny may not have looked like an athletic person, but Kate learned to reevaluate that judgment seconds later when, kicking her foot up off the floor and arching her back, she managed to hit the switch with her big toe.

M.T. laughed. “Impressive.”

“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear,” Penny said then, into the darkness. All three of them were laying on their backs, looking up at the ceiling. In the quiet of the room, her voice sounded like a foghorn.

“What’s that?”

“Kate did not get sick from my food. I won’t have rumors spread about my shrimp bisque. It was perfect, heavenly.”

Kate was barely listening. Her eyes, now blissfully unaffected by the harsh lighting, looked unseeingly upward at the ceiling. She felt better already. Her cheek, nestled against the porcelain base of the toilet seat, found comfort in both its chilling effect and nearness.

“I think that’s fair,” M.T. mused, “It usually takes longer than fifteen minutes for food poisoning anyway.”

“Good, that’s settled then.”

M.T. nodded, the movement felt by both her companions. “You know, this isn’t the weirdest dinner party I’ve ever been a part of….” Stopping short, M.T. decided perhaps she needn’t expound on that. She’d shared enough tonight. Too much apparently. Her opener was abandoned, left hanging limply in the air around them.

A few seconds passed.

“Well?” Penny prompted, when M.T. remained silent.

“Well what?” the other woman asked carefully.

“What’s the weirdest dinner party you’ve ever been a part of?”

The question was an olive branch, but still the pastor hesitated. “It’s probably not that interesting.”

“I doubt that.” Penny sighed. “Your stories are good. You tell them well.” The admission was said chokingly, begrudgingly, but also…genuinely.

Turning her head a little to the left, M.T. looked at Penny, her features barely distinguishable in the shadows. “It’s not too late to make some yourself, you know. And, I’d love to be a part of them.”

“I know you would,” Penny said, and it was as close to an invitation as M.T. was bound to get.

“I kissed my boss last week at the LitLiber Halloween party.” The words dropped like a bomb around the ex-step-sisters. Kate’s mouth snapped shut at the involuntary admission. Apparently, she wasn’t going to keep anything inside of her tonight.

“What?”

“Jake?”

“Last week?”

“Was it hot?”

The questions, shooting out of her comrades mouths one after another, without pattern or conscience thought, settled around Kate.

“He doesn’t know though,” she said, her half-explanation only adding to the veritable flood of confusion.

“He doesn’t know he kissed you?”
“Was he drunk?”

“How did he miss that fact?”

“Is this one of those…he tripped and his lips landed on yours, kind of excuses?”

Holding up her hand, Kate pleaded: “Stop! I can’t focus.”

“Maybe it would be a good idea to start from the beginning?” M.T. asked, ever the rational one.

“And don’t leave out any details,” Penny chimed in.

Kate obliged them. Perhaps it was because the lights were off and, shrouded in darkness, she felt emboldened to share. Add to that the fact that, in their current position, she couldn’t look them in the eye even if she wanted to, and any awkwardness melted into the mists, crafted by a disguise in which to hide her discomfort. But mostly, Kate needed to tell someone about it. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t. She’d sworn herself to secrecy, but it hadn’t worked, it hadn’t stopped her thinking about it, dreaming about it, analyzing the hell out of it.

She needed some perspective and what better way than in a cramped room with her two best friends?

 

“So that’s why you met me at the end of Jake’s street that night,” Penny said at the end of Kate’s woebegone tail.

“Right.”

“I thought that was weird,” she said, talking to herself.

“Yeah,” Kate said wearily. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from her listeners, but it certainly wasn’t Penny’s current reaction, though that was hardly an uncommon occurrence. No one processed news quite like her.

“Have you seen him since then?” M.T. asked. Finally a question Kate had expected.

“No. I managed to cover two shifts earlier this week, and I had a girl stay late for me yesterday. I’ve been able to avoid him up until now. But tomorrow…tomorrow we work together. No one was able to switch with me. I-I don’t know how I’m going to face him.”

“That probably explains your stomach problems.” Again, this piece of unhelpful estimation came from Penny.

“Maybe.” Kate sighed, her eyes dancing across the ceiling, inanely wondering when the fan had last been cleaned. It was pointless to have one if it was just breathing in and blowing out continuous sprays of dust.

“That’s tough. Are you planning on telling him—what really happened that night?”

“No!” Kate half-sat up in exclamation, only brought back down to the floor by M.T.’s arm, slung over her chest. “No.”

“Okay, I hear you. Calm down,” M.T. said dryly.

“Here it comes, the pastoral beat down,” Penny commented.

Even in the dark, it wasn’t difficult to see M.T.’s quick frown. “You’re right, I don’t condone lying,” she admitted. Raising up a hand to ward off Penny’s snort of derision, she continued: “but I also don’t pretend to preach a perfection I don’t live,” she said clearly. “Besides, I’m not just a pastor; I’m a supporter, a conspirer, a confidant. I’m a friend.”

Kate patted M.T.’s arm in reassurance of this. “A good one, too.”

M.T. seemed pacified. “Bottom line: you have no intention of telling Jake what happened that night.”

“No.”

M.T. shrugged. “Well, if that’s the case, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“How so?” Penny and Kate asked in unison.

“Well, if he’s never going to know, and if, according to you, nothing ever happened then you can walk in there with your head held high, a swagger in your steps and a carefree smile on your face. Because nothing should be any different than it was the last time you saw him.”

Kate shook her head. “That’s easier said than done. Things are different. For me anyway. I do know what happened and I don’t think I can pretend that well. And,” Kate took a deep breath, because what she was about to say next held weight, “I keep waiting for him to figure out that it wasn’t Ashley he kissed that night. It’s bound to happen, right? Then what? Does he start looking for answers? If I make one mistake, if I give one tell away….”

“Why not just tell him the truth then?” Penny asked, playing the other side of the coin.

“How do I do that: ‘Oh hey Jake, gosh I sure had fun at your Halloween party last week! I’m not sure if you remember, but we made out in your cloakroom? You didn’t know it was me, but surprise! You got the wrong girl. Anyway, see you around the office—oh, and by the way, you’re a great kisser?’” Sarcasm dripped off Kate’s voice.

“Kate I never pegged you as the dramatic type,” Penny said.

“I have my moments.”

“We are talking circles here, Kate,” M.T. interjected. “You either tell him or you don’t. You’ve got to decide that first.”

“I can’t tell him,” Kate repeated. “I know I probably should, but I just can’t.”

“Can you deal with the fear of him someday figuring it out—unveiling your secret? Because you’re right, that is a definite possibility,” M.T. agreed, including: “Can you get good at pretending? Can you act like the same person you were before it happened? He’ll see right through the lies if not. Can you be fine with that?”

Kate swallowed. “I guess I’ll have to.”

“Mm-hmm,” M.T. murmured, unconvinced. “Show me.”

“Huh?”

“Practice on me and Penny.”

“Practice?”

“Like a dress rehearsal. Penny, you pretend to be Jake. And Kate, obviously, you’ll be yourself. We’ll run through a couple different scenarios for when you see him next—what to say, how to behave, stuff like that.”

At fist, Kate said nothing to this request, seemingly chewing on the idea with all the vigor of a teenager choosing her first-day-of-school outfit.

“I’m in. What else have we got to do to entertain ourselves at the moment?” Penny asked. “Kate?”

She sighed, giving in with all the enthusiasm of a teenager contemplating her first homework assignment. “I suppose I’ve already lost my dignity, what more could this hurt?”

“That’s the attitude,” Penny enthused. “All right maestro, set the scene:” This was directed toward M.T.

Kate braced herself for what was coming….

 

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.”