North of Happenstance: Chapter Eleven

As Kate pulled up the church, she was mildly surprised to see that the parking lot was relatively empty. The mixer started in less than ten minutes. Where was everyone?

Getting out of her car, Kate reconciled herself to the evening’s fate. Pastor Thayer had called her two nights ago to seek Kate’s in participation in this event. At first, Kate had balked at the idea, and not without cause. She had reminded M.T. that she didn’t actually belong to her church. This had been worded firmly. She was not a member. While she was honored to be chosen for this selective outfit, she also didn’t want to disillusion the pastor. She wasn’t part of the congregation. She wasn’t ready to take that step, especially what with M.T. and Penny’s current relationship status. Unfortunately, she had also admitted to being raised Lutheran. That, apparently, had been enough for M.T.

Kate was a go.

Without any way to refuse, short of being rude, Kate had reluctantly agreed. It was difficult to say ‘no’ to a woman of faith. They call it Lutheran guilt for good reason. Not to mention, Kate had a sinking suspicion that M.T. was adept at getting what she wanted. She was probably a damn good religious leader because of it. Besides, Kate had reminded herself, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t asked for a favor from the pastor herself; M.T. had sworn she wouldn’t involve herself in Penny’s rent fiasco and yet, miraculously, after only hours of leaving that woman’s hotel room, Kate had been privy to some rather interesting news: Penny’s landlord had a sudden change of heart. He would allow her to keep on as his tenant.

Kate wasn’t naive. Miracles didn’t happen without a little nudging—and M.T. had clout with a certain Miracle Maker (you know, upstairs, if you catch the drift).

How could Kate refuse her after that?

 

Walking up to the white-washed building, Kate had a momentary attack of nerves. She wasn’t even sure where she was supposed to go? Pulling the door open, she walked inside the vestibule, ears stretched for any forthcoming sounds to help lead the way. Nothing. However, when her eyes landed on a directory map hanging above the front entrance, she decided she’d try out M.T.’s office first. Turning down a far hallway, Kate soon saw a door clearly marked Pastor.

Bingo.

As she made her way, Kate could just make out the vague sound of feet pacing against thin carpeting. The muffled sound grew steadily loud as Kate met up with the door. Guess she wasn’t the only one nervous about tonight. At least, they could sit and stew together. Raising her hand, Kate knocked firmly. She didn’t have long to wait before the door swung open before her, granting sight of an obviously harried M.T.

“Oh Kate, you made it. How wonderful,” M.T. said. Clearly she’d been worried about that.

Shaking her head, Kate decided not to be offended by the words. She doubted they’d been intentional. It didn’t take an optometrist to see that the pastor was preoccupied.

“Of course. I hope I’m not too early,” Kate said, trailing behind M.T. as that woman retreated back into the room. It appeared to be an outer office of some sort, with another door stationed at its rear. Probably, it was used for counseling sessions. Either that or M.T. kept her office heavily guarded from surprise visitors. Looking around her, Kate couldn’t help but notice that the room, whatever its real purpose, was painted a god-awful pea green. The interior design hadn’t seen a facelift since the seventies it seemed.

“No, no, not a bit of it,” M.T. answered.  “I’m just glad you agreed to be a part of this little experiment. Now all we need are kids to show up,” she said on a rough laugh.

“Are you anticipating a certain number?” Kate asked politely.

“Well, as the bible says: where two or more are gathered…” M.T. said abstractly.   Translation: she wasn’t anticipating a whole bunch.

“Well, since I am early and they aren’t here yet, why don’t you brief me a little more on what this evening will entail?” Kate asked.

M.T. waved her hand airily. “Well, there’s no exact script in an environment like this. Just talk to them, create an atmosphere of open dialogue. Get them to open up about their experiences, expectations, any questions they have as they grow older. Share what you’ve encountered along the way,” she ticked off. “The goal is to engage with them, being both young enough to remember what it’s like as a teenager, but also old enough to have insight into gaining adulthood.”

It sounded a little vague to Kate.

M.T. must have read that expression. “Honestly,” she admitted, “I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m walking into it a little blind myself. The point is, I want these kids to know there are people they can talk to when it isn’t possible to talk with their parents, especially in an arena of grace and security. I want to close the gap between their world and the real world,” M.T. said, speaking quickly.

Kate hoped the pastor had brought along some cue cards. This was sounding more and more ominous by the minute. Kate wasn’t a natural talker, and teenagers? It’s like pulling teeth, on the best of days, to get them to communicate.

“I’m just worried that my being a stranger here will come as a distinct disadvantage. I won’t even be a familiar face to these guys. Why would they open up to me, someone who isn’t even a member of the congregation,” Kate said.

M.T. smirked. Leaning back against a bookshelf lining one entire wall, she asked: “And who said all these kids “belonged” to our church?” Her finger-quote got the point across nicely.

“Touché,” Kate said, moving toward the small velvet settee stationed almost center mass of the room. She took a seat. Silence enveloped the room after that.

M.T. was too busy to talk anyway, moving frantically now across the office, pulling open cabinet doors, shuffling under piles of documents, rummaging around for papers and pens…. Biting her lip to keep from smiling, Kate watched this quiet unraveling, pretending not to hear when M.T. started mumbling under her breath, something about her poor organizational skills; sure she could think up a great idea but execution? Well, that was another matter.

It was at this time, Kate’s eyes ping-ponging back and forth, following the footprints of one harassed pastor that she spotted them…a rather peculiar addition to the room, especially where they rested, on the bottom run of M.T.’s bookshelf. They looked oddly familiar, though clearly out of place; at least, they didn’t belong there, half-buried by the overgrowth of textbook’s fight for space on either side.

“Did you hear that Madame Penny is not going to be evicted?” Kate asked suddenly, the change of topic calculated. “At the last minute, out of nowhere, her landlord changed his mind. And for no apparent reason.” Her words sounded conversational on the surface, with only the slightest of challenges laced throughout.

“Oh, did he? Well, that’s wonderful,” M.T. called over her shoulder, her head shoved inside a cabinet door, her arms digging through loose papers.

“Yeah, but I’m guessing you already knew that,” Kate said, her tone loaded with implication.

M.T’s head whipped around at that, and her startled eyes tried, but couldn’t quite meet, Kate’s level stare. “Huh?” She asked, buying for time.

Carefully Kate stood up and, as if she had all the time in the world, slowly made her way toward that shelf of staggering literary depth, her fingers sweeping against the bindings of the novels it held as she passed down its length, her booted feet stopping only as she came upon that same decorative peculiarity she’d witnessed only moments before. Bending down on her haunches she reached one hand out, her fingers gentle when they landed upon a soft, almost waxy surface.

“Are you starting a garden?” Kate asked, the redirection a deliberate stall, a well-crafted trap meant not to accuse, rather encourage confession.

M.T.’s eyes widened: the flowers! Kate had found the flowers.

“Oh those,” M.T. said, her voice pitchy, “those aren’t mine. They’re for—um, for the church altar.” M.T. made a horrible liar. Kate could practically see the wheels churning in her mental fabrication station.

“Ah,” Kate said, enjoying herself now. “In lieu of what?”

“Do-donations,” M.T. stuttered. “Just donations.”

“Well, it’s a lucky thing they were only purchased days ago,” Kate mused out loud.

“Excuse me?” M.T. said shortly; however, her defensive tone implied much more than that.

“These books,” Kate indicated them, “they’re casting too much of a shadow on them, they won’t long survive it. But, if they’ve only spent a day or two in this condition…” Kate shrugged. She didn’t need to finish that sentence.

M.T. said nothing to this, only breaking her vow of silence with the slightest of squeaks when Kate’s hand dipped inside one of the flower pots, her fingers skimming across the soil, circling the edges of the hardened clay perimeter. Kate was looking for something and, within seconds, she found it. Pulling out the plant label, Kate lost no time turning it over in her hand. There, clearly marked in all its marketing glory were these words: Massie’s Florist

Without a word, Kate placed the card in M.T.’s hand. “Now, how many degrees of separation is that…?” Kate didn’t even bother to hide the smile from her voice, much less her lips. She didn’t wait for an answer to this question either. She didn’t need one. She knew what M.T. had done.

Kate was damn proud of her newest friend.

 

 

Two hours later, sitting beside M.T., the smell of stale coffee permeating the air, Kate was sorely tempted to reevaluate her earlier estimation of the term ‘friendship.’ Out of the corner of her eye, she caught M.T’s rapt stare, the look of fear she couldn’t disguise, stamped across her features.

She was nervous of Kate now. She had reason for it, too.

The esteemed pastor had been a little less than forthcoming about what this little gathering would require from Kate. She’d rightfully assumed the evening would progress as follows: a roundtable discussion about life post high-school, attending college, meeting new people, getting good grades, learning how to network…that sort of stuff. She’d been prepared to sacrifice a couple hours out of her life for the greater good of the church’s youth. That’s what she’d been led to believe would happen. She was wrong.

In reality, what happened went a little more like this: three kids begrudgingly showed up. Kate watched in mounting dismay as they sprawled out against the chairs, set in circular pattern, as far away from Kate and M.T. as possible. And then poor Janice Spencer, the church’s forty-seven year old secretary, had been more-or-less forced to join the group when none of the other adult volunteers M.T. had expected showed up. All in all, the turnout had been less than ideal.

But it was about to get worse, as Kate would soon come to realize. M.T. had conveniently forgotten to mention certain things about this so-called mixer when she asked for Kate’s assistance. Things like how it would be structured: as a reoccurring discussion of indefinite length, maintained weekly. Things like how it would be organized: one adult matched with one youth, and vice versa. Permanently. Things like how it would be arranged: like a mentoring program. Because that’s exactly what it was. Kate could see the word flashing like a neon sign behind her eyes.

But most importantly, M.T. had mentioned how tough these kids would be. They came from low income, broken families. If first impressions were anything to go by, they had no understanding of words like curfew, respect, rules, decorum….

This held especially true for Janessa, the girl Kate got paired up with. She’d said the “F” word a total of seventeen times throughout the two hour orientation. Kate had started to keep count. Her clothes were dirty, filthy really, and they reeked of cigarette smoke. Her long brown hair was so snarled Kate wasn’t sure a brush would survive running down its length. And according to her file, a compilation of school records and personal history, given with the consent of her parent, Janessa was inches away from expulsion at school for fighting. And her grades! Goodness, they were so low it was almost comical. She was barely managing a D in choir. Choir! Who fails out of choir?

She was mean, too. She kept calling Kate, Missy Prissy. It wasn’t a term of endearment. She’d told M.T. she wasn’t sure she wanted to be teamed together with a woman quite as manufactured as Kate, whatever that meant. On top of that, she’d outright refused to shake Kate’s hand in farewell, merely rolling her eyes when Kate said it’d been a pleasure to meet her.

“Pfft. I’m so sure,” she’d muttered in response. “Who’s surprised? Missy Prissy doesn’t lie very good.”

It took everything in Kate not to correct her grammar.

“The church is planning a youth lock-in later on in the month,” M.T. said, coming to Kate’s rescue at the exact right moment, “we’d love it if you and Kate joined us.”

“That sounds fun,” Kate said hurriedly. “Janessa?”

The teenager managed a shrug.

“There are going to be a lot of fun games,” M.T. assured her. “The lock-ins around here are famous for them!”

Janessa snickered. “I don’t know, my partner here doesn’t look to be all that hand-eye coordinated.”

“I’ll have you know I played softball and volleyball in high school,” Kate shot back, stung. Her barb went seemingly unnoticed.

“Whatever. Maybe I’ll come,” Janessa threw over her shoulder, already walking out the door.

Let it not be said that Janessa didn’t share well. She was antagonistic through-and-through.

“I can be tough,” Kate insisted to a highly amused M.T.

That woman patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sure you can.”

“I am not Prissy.”

M.T. wasn’t a foolish woman; she saw the opening Kate’s worded delivered. “Does that mean you’ll show up for the lock-in? I could really use another set of eyes and ears?” she asked slyly.

Kate just shook her head. She had a feeling she may have walked right into that one.

“Maybe,” she settled on, copying the wise words of her mentee.

M.T. nodded, satisfied with that. “Now for the real question,” she said then, changing the subject, her features once again taking on a look of unease, “How did tonight go? Are you in? I mean—”

Kate knew what M.T. meant. Was Kate willing to commit herself to this new enterprise, was she willing to subject herself to future encounters with Janessa?

Kate took a deep breath. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she said. “This was a lot to take in. You led me to believe my participation would be far less…uh, involved. This has become much bigger then what you’d intimated. And I get the feeling you purposely deliberated that misguided notion.” Kate wasn’t about to let M.T. off the hook for that.

Pastor Thayer had the grace to look ashamed. “In my profession, I’ve learned it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” Peeking up at Kate, she paused, waiting to see if her words had any effect. “I didn’t think you’d agree to it otherwise,” she admitted finally.

She had a point, Kate considered silently, but she refused to confess that acknowledgement out loud, and certainly not to M.T. It would probably give her reason to suppose she’d been justified in her little trick.

“I have to think about it. It’s not that I don’t want to help,” Kate rushed to say. It’s not that she couldn’t see that Janessa needed a guiding hand—someone to smooth out her rough-around-the-edges routine, “It’s just, I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job.”

“You’re the perfect person for the job,” M.T. corrected her.

“How so? I don’t have any experience with troubled teenagers.”

“Well, they don’t come one-size-fits-all,” M.T. said dryly.  “Talk to her, get to know her. Listen, care, be there for her. That’s all you need to do to help someone.”

“How do I relate to her?” Kate persisted. “I grew up with nannies, private coaches, tutors! I’m far removed from the world of the underprivileged,” Kate said without apology. “I see it. Janessa sees it.”

“All the better. Teach her what you were so blessed to be taught. Give her the education, the experiences, the love that was bestowed upon you. Close the gap, shift the perspective. This is about growth, about change. Be that for her.”

 

 

 

With heavy steps, Kate let herself back into her house. Danger, the ever watchful guard dog, laying snoring at the bottom of the stairs upon her entrance. Hanging up her coat, she proceeded into the kitchen. She desperately wanted to take a shower, pour herself a glass of wine and shutdown after those last few turbulent hours, but first things first….Saddling up to the island counter, Kate retook her pen; she had to finish her letter. She couldn’t afford to wait much longer or else Nanny might talk….That was to be avoided at all costs.

Smiling in a depreciating matter, she returned to the last paragraph. Hand poised over the paper, her eyes lighted on the last few sentences. She had some corrections to make.

 

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

            Turns out, I was wrong. This evening proved to be far from transitory in existence. Pastor Thayer didn’t require my services for just one night. She meant this evening to be but a beginning…to a mentorship organization of a protracted timetable! She was, how shall I say, opaquely transparent in her schematic design of this thing’s overall purpose.

            I got duped, and by a woman of God.

            After being unjustly blindsided by all this, I told her I’d have to think about whether or not I’d be willing to involve myself any further than I’d originally intended, which was only one night! After all, that’s a pretty substantial discrepancy in time.

             Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to do it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more excited I get about the prospect. The girl I got matched with is really something, and you know how much I love a challenge. She’ll be that, and then some. Regardless, I told Pastor Thayer I’d have to think about it—I want her to sweat it out a bit first. It seems only fair.

            It’s nearing ten o’clock now and with it, this letter’s conclusion. I promise to get the next one out much more promptly. I don’t want you calling in the cavalry on me, now do I? Rest assured, I will be placing this letter in the mail presently after licking the envelope closed. It should reach you no later than Tuesday.

 

All my love.

 

P.S. You’ll find mother and father’s version of this letter underneath—aka, the edited script guaranteed to keep up appearances of the daughter they think they raised. Don’t, for the love of all, ever let them know of the existence of our correspondence. They don’t want to know what’s really going on in my head, what’s really important to me, and don’t bother to deny it. That’s why we’re in this situation in the first place. 

 

-Your Katy-Cat

 

 

Kate looked down at the letter in her hand before carefully folding in into thirds. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt a nagging pang in the pit of her stomach. Maybe it was because she missed her dear Nanny Moore, or maybe it was because she had play practice tomorrow and she wasn’t memorized yet? Or it could be fear of Penny’s reaction to her part in M.T.’s machination

….

Kate just didn’t want to screw up with Janessa. She’d never held that kind of responsibility before—counseling someone on how to live life. She didn’t want to let Janessa down the way Kate’s mother had always let Kate down.

Kate stuffed her letter inside its matching white envelope. Maybe M.T. was right. Maybe she would be good for Janessa. Not because of her cultured past, but because she knew how much it hurt to feel forgotten by the very people who should have never lost her, she knew how it felt to be unheard, unwanted by those who should have loved her the most. Because she was learning herself just how special, how healing a true friend could be.

On that thought, Kate pushed herself of the island, and walked over to her refrigerator. On one side of it she’d hung up a magnetized calendar. Placing her hand on its glossy page, and grabbing for the pen hanging on a string beside it, she drew a large circle over one date in particular: Saturday, the 23rd.

The night of the lock-in.

Now she only had to wait and see if Janessa would show up.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cream or sugar?” M.T. asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, that’s not it,” Kate agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess he wasn’t being subtle after all.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

She hoped the congregation enjoyed them.