First off, my sincere apologies for how long it has been since I last posted a chapter. Know that I am fully committed to seeing this story through to its logical conclusion. With no further ado, here is chapter 15.
Blair P. Clavel
Jessa Meets Her Match
Chapter 15: Unintended Consequences
The next morning, Kim printed out the emails that she’d received from Brenda Sowers, Executive Director of Heroes Everlasting. As anticipated, she was offering me a position with the charity. Cathers, bless her heart, was interested in helping me decide what to do. It was a momentous, life-altering choice that I faced – not something that could be taken at all lightly.
The offer was quite a bit different than I’d been imagining – not just a straightforward position involving a salary. Indeed there was a salary, but it was referred to as ‘a draw.’ In the preamble paragraphs, Brenda had included a few things that hadn’t come up in our discussion the day before. Namely, that most Celebrity Spokespersons did not receive monetary compensation for their time and effort. Typically, they didn’t need it – they were already wealthy – movie stars and such – interested in ‘giving back’ by donating their time.
She went on to mention that she understood that wasn’t my situation. The bulk of the remuneration was in the form of a percentage of donations above the level that they were already bringing in each month – one percent. In short, she claimed that it would be a lucrative position for me, but that it would be fully funded by the additional funds that my involvement would result in.
The real kicker, in my mind, came at the end. They would pay off one-third of my total student loan debt at the completion of each year. That meant that at the end of three years, I’d be debt free.
The thought of being debt free provoked a spontaneous emotional response from somewhere deep within me. So many years of school, so many loans. All during graduate school I’d been worrying about how much debt I was racking up – a sizable six-figure amount. It seemed like a mortgage, only I didn’t have a house. This was a chance to shed it all – in just three years – without any of my pay going into the effort. Wow! Suddenly, I was taking the opportunity very seriously.
I knew I had to do it, and yet, the very idea scared me. It meant owning who I’d become. That was exactly the opposite of entering a witness protection program and disappearing off the face of the planet.
As I finished reading each page, I laid it down on the coffee table face up for Catherine. She looked to be scrutinizing the document with a great deal of care.
Once we’d both been through every page, Catherine spoke. “Maybe don’t tell Kim what I’m about to say.”
“Okay,” I agreed, venturing out onto the back deck so that she and I could talk in private.
“Near the end of lunch yesterday, you went to the restroom. I started to follow you, thinking that you might want to talk. But then, Kim and Brenda started discussing something that caused my ears to perk up. I’ll tell you about that in a moment. But once they were done, Brenda went outside to make a phone call. I was imagining that she was doing so for the sake of privacy, likely even from Kim. So I tagged along … to listen.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” I teased.
“I know, right!”
“So tell me,” I encouraged. I knew how much Catherine enjoyed using her superpowers.
“Well, I quickly found out that she was planning to offer you a position. You didn’t learn that until an hour or more later. On her call, she was discussing you with whomever … presumably someone else high up at the charity. I wished there was a way to tell you … about her intent to make you an offer … but then she did when we got to the park. So it all worked out.”
“What else did she say?”
“That you were so much better than she had hoped … interesting, friendly, intelligent, well-spoken, modest even. She was very impressed. They also discussed how to structure a deal. I happen to know that she is prepared to double … even triple this offer. I don’t know what you want to do. But if you’re considering giving this a try, going to work for Heroes Everlasting, you can certainly ask for more … a lot more.”
“It already seems like so much. I’ll have to think about it. After all, it is a charity. What they pay me would come out of what they would have to set aside to grow … their education trust fund … for the kids.”
“It’s up to you, of course,” said Catherine. “But back to what they talked about before Brenda went out to make the call. Like I said, it was a surprise … kept me from following you into the bathroom. Kim told her that she had a bikini on order for you.”
“Wait, Kim ordered a bikini … for me? Whatever for?”
“I’m curious myself. Remember, I can hear people talk. I can’t read their minds.”
“Okay, so she told Brenda that she ordered a bikini for me.”
“What she said is that she bought matching bikinis … one for you and one for herself. Red, white and blue bikinis. She didn’t say what they were for. Curiously, Brenda didn’t ask. I’m thinking that was because she already knew. And then she left to make the call, so that was the end of the bikini discussion.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said, wondering if I should encourage Catherine to spend more time around Kim, looking over her shoulder as she worked on her computer and eavesdropping while she was on the phone.
That afternoon, something unexpected occurred. Kim walked out onto the deck and handed me her phone. “It’s for you,” she said.
“For me?” I mouthed, not wanting to take it from her. She insisted.
“Hello?” I said tentatively.
“Jessa?” It was a deep, confident-sounding male voice, one I didn’t recognize.
“Jessa, this is Butch Adams. Governor Butch Adams. We met a couple of days ago.”
I swallowed hard, clearing my throat. “Umm… Yes, I remember.” Holding the phone to my ear, my eyes swept down my bare torso to my neatly shaven mound. I was dressed just as I had been before – the time we’d met. If he had a mental image of me in mind, it was surely one in which I was naked.
“Well, I’ll get right to the point. I’ve selected you to be the recipient of this year’s Vermont Humanitarian Service Award. This is the highest honor that I can bestow on a civilian, and I’m only allowed to select one recipient a year.”
“Me? Humanitarian Service Award? But why?”
“For your efforts in capturing the most prolific killer the state of Vermont has ever seen. Were it not for you, the Junkyard Killer would still be a cold case, gathering dust. And the murderer, he’d still be adding to his body count. We’ll never know exactly how many, but you saved lives … the lives of young women. Is there any greater service to humanity?”
“I’m not expecting an award. I don’t need an award.”
Kim snapped her fingers twice to get my attention. “Jessa, you absolutely need an award. Heroes Everlasting needs this award. Tell him.”
“Governor Adams,” I said, an uncomfortable smile on my lips. “I take that back. I guess I do need an award.”
“Call me Butch.”
“Okay, Butch. I suppose you need a mailing address.”
“A mailing address?”
“For the award. So you can send it to me.”
I heard him laugh. “Awards of this magnitude … they are always presented in person. At an Awards Ceremony. With the press and other dignitaries in attendance.”
“In person? Where?”
“Today’s July second. I’ve already put in motion the construction of our stage. So, this will take place the day after tomorrow, here in Montpelier … on the steps of the State Capitol. The award will be presented right after the 4th of July parade. Speaking of which, I’d like for you to ride in the parade with me. With me and my wife, Tracy. In our parade convertible. Bring your smile. Bring your wave.”
“Sorry. Not doing that,” I told him, handing the phone back to Kim.
She stared at me, an open-mouth, dumbfounded look on her face. “Jessa, you have to.”
“No I don’t,” I said, turning away. “I haven’t agreed to anything.” I made my way down the steps to the stream.
“Are you okay?” Cathers asked as I stepped into the water.
“I’m not going to Montpelier. Been there. Done that.”
“I’ll go talk to Kim,” she said.
I smiled. “You can’t talk to Kim.”
“I most certainly can. I’ll work this out,” she said, turning to go back up the stairs. “You helped me, now I’m going to help you.”
I could hear that Kim was still on the deck. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but she was talking with the governor. As I stood there trying to decide if I’d made the right decision, I remembered Dirk. Cathers could talk with Kim. She was no longer dependent on me for such things.
I walked out into the water suddenly feeling the need for more time. This ‘public appearances’ thing was happening much too fast. The position was too good to refuse – by far my best option when it came to sinking my debt – but a parade and an awards ceremony? I could see the importance of that for Heroes Everlasting – if I were to accept the position – but I much preferred the idea of crawling under a rock. I started making my way upstream.
A short distance from the cabin, I stepped out onto the opposite bank. It was grassy, but there was a small trail leading off into the woods. I started following it. It wasn’t crawling under a rock, but maybe a little ‘me’ time would help me get my head on straight, help me feel comfortable doing what I knew I needed to do.
It was a nice trail, surprisingly straight. It was also quite small, indicating that it was lightly traveled. I let my mind wander, but I also paid attention to where I was going. I didn’t want to have any difficulty finding my way back.
There certainly was something thrilling about what I was doing – no clothes, not even my shoes. And, I’d slipped away without Catherine. For the first time in what felt like ages, I was alone – naked and alone.
I imagined I was taking a small chance, heading off on my own, but as long as I didn’t go far and kept my eyes and ears open, I was quite sure that I’d be able to make my way back safely. The Spencer’s cabin seemed to be nicely nestled into a pocket of uninhabited wilderness – untouched backcountry.
Vermont was lovely in the summer and the path was relatively smooth. That, combined with how my feet had toughened up because of all the time I’d spent barefoot, meant that the going was relatively easy.
I might have walked fifteen minutes at a rather relaxed pace when I first heard them – dogs! The barking was coming from somewhere behind me. I stopped in my tracks, listening intently. It sounded like several dogs, and their bellowing seemed to be getting louder – closer.
I hadn’t counted on dogs. I could hide from people – down low, off the trail in the underbrush. But I couldn’t hide from dogs. They would sniff me out. What kind of dogs were they? Hunting dogs? Surely they were on leashes. Hopefully they were on leashes. But leashes meant people.
In the next moment, I was running. I didn’t know where to – just away – away from the barking. But I stayed with the trail. Dogs or no dogs, I didn’t want to get lost in the forest.
Suddenly, I was thinking back to the hike Nick had taken me on in the restricted military area – the day I’d met Kim and Brent. I’d felt so vulnerable naked, but I’d been wearing boots. And I’d had Nick and Cathers looking out for me. This time, I had none of that. Just my bare naked skin – skin that a dog’s teeth could easily tear into. But I had my wits. Think, Jessa, think. What could I do? The bellowing was getting closer.
I decided that I needed a stick. I probably couldn’t protect myself very well from multiple dogs, but even so, a stick might give me a fighting chance. And then I saw it – about as big around as my wrist and something like four feet long.
I picked it up. As I went about weaponizing it, breaking off a couple of leafy twigs, I noticed how hard I was breathing – due to the exertion but also because of the fright. Suddenly I realized that I wanted there to be leashes, people with the dogs. Dog owners that could keep me from getting bitten. Improvised club in hand, I again took off running.
To my surprise, a few hundred yards on, I came to a fork – a trail branching off to the right – a bigger trail. Making a snap decision, I took it. A larger trail meant civilization – people. Running into people while naked wouldn’t be pleasant, but humans didn’t bite. Meeting someone or multiple people, whoever they were, would surely be safer than an encounter with a pack of hounds in the forest.
Why had I been so stupid? Why was I out wandering around in the backcountry alone? But it was hardly the moment for regrets. The barking was getting louder and louder, closer and closer.
And then the trail ended – just like that – at a fence – a tall wooden fence. There was a gate. A handle. It wouldn’t open. I tried again, wrenching on it as if my life depended on it – maybe it did. Something gave and I was through. I slammed it shut behind me, holding it closed, leaning on it with both hands. My heart was pounding furiously in my chest. Praying that the fence would stop the dogs, I panted, trying to catch my breath.
But a gate meant people. I’d wanted people. Did I still want people? The sound of the dogs was ringing in my ears, still getting closer.
Leaning against the gate, I looked down at my feet. Grass – I was standing on grass – recently mowed grass. Someone’s yard?
After making extra sure that the gate was latched, I turned slowly around. It was a big yard, huge actually. There was a house, a huge house to go with the giant lawn. And between me and the house, there was – a swimming pool.
And then I saw her – a woman or a girl. She was seated on a lounger. Our eyes met across the distance. She was thin, dressed in a bikini – nothing more. The top was strapless – an orange bandeau bikini top, one with a twist between her barely-there breasts.
It appeared as if she’d been sunbathing when all of a sudden I’d come crashing through the back gate. I could still hear the dogs. It was an easy choice. A young woman in a bikini wouldn’t bite.
Mustering my courage, I started toward her. Looking frightened, she moved as if to get up. I imagined I’d be scared too – if a naked woman appeared suddenly in my backyard.
“Sorry,” I called out. “There are some dogs. I had no choice. I had to get away.”
She seemed to relax back down such that she was again sitting on the lounger. With my heart rate no longer spiking, I felt the desire to cover up – only I’d been out walking naked. Who was I fooling? It was time to own up to my choices.
“I heard the barking,” she said, but then I noticed that she was staring – staring at the stick in my hand. No wonder she looked frightened.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, tossing it aside onto the lawn. “That was in case they caught up with me.”
“Wait. I know you,” she said. “You’re that woman. The naked one.”
I started to chuckle. “Yes, I’m the naked woman.” Truer words had never been spoken. “My name’s Jessa.” I started to say the ‘without the ick’ part, but stopped myself. “I’m sorry to intrude. Are you here alone?” I asked, glancing up at all the windows that overlooked the pool.
It was a stupid thing to say. The look of concern returned to her eyes. She hesitated, but didn’t answer. I nodded, doing my best to relax. Her lack of a reply meant that she was the only one there.
“I’m Carmen,” she said, seemingly deciding that she wasn’t in any immediate danger.
From there, we started talking. I learned that she was nineteen and a recent high school graduate. She also told me that she didn’t live there, that she was house-sitting for the family that did. They were away for much of the summer, off vacationing in Europe.
Noticing an outdoor shower, I asked if it would be okay to rinse off. Not only was I sweaty, but I was also covered in dust, my legs especially. A short time later, the two of us were swimming. Fortunately, the sound of the dogs had faded down to nothing and my heart rate had returned to normal – almost normal.
Carmen ended up being surprisingly friendly. She even found a towel for me to dry off with after we climbed out of the pool.
Deciding that it was the polite thing to do, I wrapped it around myself, tucking a corner down between my breasts to hold it in place. I’d just gotten it nicely situated, when she surprised me by picking up her phone and asking the same question that the waitress had – if it would be okay to take a selfie. Deciding that would be fine, I stepped over next to her. I was in my towel and she was in her skimpy orange sunbathing bikini.
She hesitated. “Not quite what I had in mind.”
“You’re the Naked Crusader. You should be naked.”
I was taken aback. “You want a picture of me … naked?”
She lifted her eyebrows and then shrugged.
I placed my palms over my chest, right where the corner was tucked in. She had saved me – not that she’d really done anything. And then I realized that the whole world had naked pictures of me. What was one more?
I decided that I would, but there would have to be terms. “Okay. But you can’t show it to anyone … or tell anyone that you saw me … not until after July 4th.” I was realizing that I was going to have to agree to the Awards Ceremony, so I’d probably only be able to hide at the Spencer’s cabin until then. “And you have to promise that you’ll never share. You can show it to people, after July 4th that is, but you can never allow others to have copies or post it.”
Carmen agreed, so I undid the towel, dropping it to the pool deck. We then posed side by side while she took a number of shots. Carmen was impossibly cute and the photos came out nice. It was still quite embarrassing to see naked photos of myself, but I was starting to get used to it. With her permission, I entered my number and texted a couple of them to my phone. “I’m the only one you can share them with,” I joked.
“And one more thing,” I continued. “Can you give me a ride home?” I felt a bit silly asking, but it seemed like my best option. The last thing I wanted to do was to venture out through the back gate.
A short time later, we were in a small Korean sedan, driving around, trying to find the way back to the Spencer’s cabin. I was again wearing the towel she had loaned me. Carmen was still in her bikini, only she’d put on a tiny pair of white canvas shorts and sunglasses before leaving the house.
Eventually, we found the cabin. As I’d been on foot, it wasn’t very far away, even though the road took a circuitous route. As I climbed out of her car, I took off the towel and handed it back to Carmen who placed it on the passenger seat. Just as I closed the door, Kim walked out onto the front porch. Catherine was with her.
“Look at you!” Kim exclaimed, a big smile on her lips.
Glancing back at Carmen, I replied, “It took a little hitchhiking to get back.” I held up my hand, making a ‘thumbing a ride’ gesture.
Kim came down the stairs to meet Carmen. While she was saying hello, Catherine shouted down at me, “Where in the hell did you go?”
Not wanting Carmen to know that there was a fourth person present, I didn’t respond. Catherine would understand. She was used to it. Fortunately, Carmen didn’t say anything to blow my ‘hitchhiking’ cover story. I decided that I liked her. She was a very mature girl for her age – no wonder she had been hired to keep an eye on such a valuable piece of real estate.
“Let’s stay in touch. You’ve got my number,” Carmen said, and then she was gone.
That evening at dinner, Kim told Nick how I’d taken off. How she, Catherine, and Dirk had been worried, but that I’d gotten a ride back from a young girl.
“So … a little naked hitchhiking?” he asked me once he’d heard the story. There was a twinkle in his eye indicating that he suspected there was more to the tale.
“You should try it,” I told him. “Very liberating.”
“Maybe a woman can get away with that. I’d end up behind bars,” he said, playing along. He knew me too well to believe that I’d really hitch a ride naked.
“You probably would,” I agreed. “The world is so unfair to penis-havers.” I didn’t say anything to confirm his suspicions – that I hadn’t actually hitched a ride home. In a way, I had. I’d just never stood along the side of the road with my thumb in the air.
At that point, Kim steered the conversation off in a new direction, bringing up the governor, my award, and the Fourth of July parade.
“Jessa,” Cathers said, getting my attention. “Remind her that she promised not to bring that up until you and I have had a chance to talk.”
The corners of Kim’s mouth turned down when I did as Cathers suggested.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Your ghost girl … she’s a bit too real,” she mumbled, dejectedly placing a small bite in her mouth.
Once the table was cleared, Catherine and I went into the guestroom, closing the door behind us.
“Okay, so what’s up?” I asked.
“I know you don’t want to do this … the parade and all … so I came up with something that maybe isn’t as bad as what the governor wants. But it’s up to you.”
“I’m listening.” I really liked the idea that Catherine had gone to bat for me – and she’d done so right at the point when I hadn’t been able to.
“The governor doesn’t much like this idea, mind you, but he’s willing. Kim talked him into it, but it was my idea. He’s not exactly in a position to dictate terms.”
“What’s the idea?”
“Years ago, when you were a kid, I remember how much you loved the Fourth of July. You loved the parade … but especially how the whole town gathered for the giant picnic at the lake later in the day.”
“You have a good memory. Hot dogs, watermelon, games, and swimming. Easily the best day of the summer!”
“But all that was in Stonefield … well, just outside of town. Montpelier’s a nice place, maybe, but bigger … not nearly as friendly.”
“And there’s the mental hospital … bad juju.”
“Exactly. So here’s the idea. If the governor wants this … a parade … a ceremony … make him come to you … to us. Tell him to take it or leave it. In Stonefield, it’ll be a small parade. And a much smaller audience for the awards thing.”
“Cathers, you’re a genius.”
“And here’s the kicker. We both want everyone to know that Dirk was wrongly confined, innocent of any and all charges. So the governor has to say that … exactly that … in person to the citizenry of Stonefield.”
“And he agreed to this … Stonefield … already agreed?”
“Tentatively. Kim told him that it was her idea … that she’d pitch it to you because she was sure that Montpelier was a ‘no go.’ But like I said, he’ll do it … if that’s what you require. As I said, he doesn’t like the idea, but he wants the photo op. Above all else, he feels his campaign needs this. You’ve got him over a barrel. Of course, you can say ‘no’ … to all of it. But that would jeopardize the deal with Heroes Everlasting. I’m not sure you want to do that.”
Inhaling, I looked down. “I don’t.”
“Okay then. If you’re ready, let’s go talk to Kim. Say exactly that. That you’ll do it, but in Stonefield. Don’t let her talk you out of it. She’ll probably try.”
“God, I love you. You’re totally the sister I never had. The twin sister I never had!”
As I thought that Kim wouldn’t attempt to contact Governor Adams that evening, I decided to leave our conversation for the morn. That would also give me time to think. I was at a crossroads – a significant turning point. One path led to the life of a recluse. Maybe I could become ‘Jessica with the ick.’ I smiled considering that. It wasn’t something I’d ever actually thought of doing prior to that moment. Not only did it strike me as distasteful, it probably wasn’t different enough. But if I chose that direction, there wouldn’t be any need to ride in the parade or go up on a stage for an award.
The other path led off into the unknown – a scary life never far from the public eye. I’d never given any thought to being famous. It had never been an option. Suddenly it seemed difficult to avoid.
As had become our routine, the six of us – three couples – congregated around an evening fire. Nick kept eyeing me, but bless his heart, he seemed to understand that I needed my space. We were side by side, but he left me to my thoughts. I appreciated the understanding, the compassion emanating from him when our eyes would occasionally meet.
At one point during our time around the campfire, I opened up one of the selfies I had texted to myself from Carmen’s phone. Nick studied the image. “How old did you say she was?” he asked.
“I doubt I did, but she said she’d just turned nineteen.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked, even though I thought I knew why.
“So skinny,” he replied.
“Hey, I’m thin,” I complained, trying to act as if his words had hurt my feelings.
“You’re thin but curvy.”
I smiled, attempting to appear slightly embarrassed. I could see the differences in our respective figures. Carmen was probably three or four inches taller than me but she was a bean pole. She likely weighed about the same.
Later that evening, once we were alone on the small mattress between the couch and the coffee table, Nick brought up the Fourth of July issues that I was wrestling with. “I know it’s your decision, and yours alone, but you are welcome to use me as a sounding board … if you’d like.”
“Oh, Nick. That’s so nice,” I said. I did appreciate his willingness to be there for me. But after due consideration, I couldn’t bring myself to give voice to the myriad of thoughts bouncing around inside my head.
~ ~ ~
Fortunately, the next morning, I knew exactly what I was going to do. Somehow, by simply sleeping on it, I’d come to terms with who I was and what path I was going to take. Helping Heroes Everlasting accomplish their mission – that could be me. Frankly, I woke up excited about being a part of something bigger than myself. Helping those children – the few I’d met – and all of those that I hadn’t.
Kim was right. I’d been handed an opportunity. And if I was going to make use of it, then I had no choice but to agree to involvement on the Fourth of July. But – I also had some inside information that Catherine had graciously provided.
“Okay, Kim,” I said, getting her attention while the three of us were again enjoying our morning coffee. I paused, thinking about how Catherine had said that I could ask for double, even triple what Brenda had offered. “This number right here,” I said, pointing at the one-percent of additional money raised. “Tell Brenda that if she doubles it, we’ve got a deal. Everything else the same. Just two-percent instead of one-percent.” I’d decided to go with the middle of the road. It was a charity, a worthy cause, so I’d decided not to ask for all that I could.
A sad look came over Kim’s face. “Really? I was so looking forward to working together. I’m sure that kills the deal.”
I smiled, but I was not about to compromise Catherine. “That’s my bottom line. If that works for Brenda, then you and I … we’ll make her a very happy woman. We’ll kick some butt … make her look good. If that number doesn’t work, then I’ll finish my doctorate … in obscurity, hopefully. Represent it to her as a take it or leave it offer. That’s what it is.”
Kim was very disappointed, and she didn’t like my lack of flexibility, but I had no choice. I had to put it to her that way. It was July 3rd. There wasn’t time for a protracted negotiation. Catherine was of course smiling. Kim got up and walked into her office. I could tell that she didn’t want to present my counteroffer to Brenda, but that she would.
A short time later, she was back – all smiles.
“What did she say,” I asked.
“’Done.’ Nothing more, just ‘done.’ So you’ve got your deal. It’s printing now.”
I glanced over the agreement when Kim handed it to me minutes later. Brenda had signed it, initialing the change.
“It looks like we’ll be working together,” I told Kim as I signed.
Kim was beaming. “I’ll scan this and send it though. And then we’ve got to get tomorrow figured out.
I smiled. I wanted to appear confident, but the truth of the matter was that my stomach was full of butterflies – and they were all suddenly very active.
Cathers and I wandered out onto the back deck. I had my coffee in hand and I brought hers along as well, setting it on the small table between two recliners. I avoided the midday sun, but I enjoyed the feel of the sun’s rays on my skin in the morning – when my schedule and state of dress allowed.
“So, the red, white and blue bikinis that Kim ordered. I’m thinking that they will be making an appearance shortly,” Catherine predicted.
Ten minutes later, Kim came out, three gift bags in hand. I smiled to myself. I knew that the bags likely held bikinis, two of them anyway. But what was in the third bag? That was the mystery.
“This one’s for you,” Kim said, handing one of them to me.
“For me?” I asked, contorting my face into a look of consternation. “It’s not my birthday.”
“Not our birthday,” Catherine corrected. “Does she know that we were both born on March 20th?”
I asked Kim and learned that she didn’t. I took a moment to fill her in. Every connection to Cathers was golden as far as I was concerned.
“So cool … to share a birthday,” she replied gleefully. “But go ahead, open your present.”
“A bikini?” I said, pulling it out while doing my best to feign surprise. “You got me a … bikini?”
“I did,” she said, nodding smugly. “And these bags are for Catherine and me.”
“A present? For me?” Catherine said in disbelief.
I accepted the bag from Kim on Catherine’s behalf. Catherine hopped up onto her knees and spun around. On all fours atop the lounger, she extended her neck, trying to see into the colorful bag.
I nodded approvingly to Kim. She’d just scored major points – with Catherine AND with me – it didn’t much matter what was in the bag.
Because of the tissue paper, neither Catherine nor I could see into the bag. I started to open it for Cathers, but Kim wanted me to look at my bikini first. I held up the top. It consisted of two triangles. They were small, but not that small – about right for my slightly above average sized breasts. The cups were the colors of the flag. The triangle for my right breast was blue with white stars. The fabric on the other side was red and white – horizontal stripes.
“This is tiny,” I exclaimed, picking up the bottoms. “I’d feel naked in this,” I added, holding up the miniscule garment.
“Says the woman who never wears anything!” Kim commented with a chuckle. I rolled my eyes.
The front panel was indeed quite small. Like one of the cups, it consisted of red and white horizontal stripes. The rest of it was blue, but that portion consisted of nothing more than strings. The top border of the front triangle was a thin blue line that extended on around to form a narrow waistband. The back of the swimsuit, if you could consider it that, was another blue string – one that was clearly intended to disappear between the wearer’s butt cheeks.
“Do you like it?” Kim asked.
“I’ve never owned a thong bikini,” I replied, biting my lower lip. But even so, as she intimated, I had gotten used to wearing quite a bit less – but for a reason – to be able to see and talk to Cathers.
“Do you want to check the fit?” she asked.
I decided to try it on, but for a different reason – to see if Cathers would disappear. It was so tiny that there seemed like a chance – a slim chance.
As expected, she was gone before I’d even gotten the garment past my calves. I sighed, but pulled it up the rest of the way anyway. There wasn’t much to it, but it did fit as intended.
“Spin,” Kim requested, twirling a finger in the air.
I did, but then I slipped the bottoms off, bringing Catherine back into the mix.
“For Catherine?” I asked, pointing at the other gift bag.
“Sure, go ahead.”
First removing the tissue, I pulled it out. It was a matching bikini. I’d started to suspect that was what it might be. But even though I found that slightly disappointing, Catherine’s reaction was much the opposite. Her eyes lit up like a young kid’s on Christmas morning.
“Oh, Kim. Thank you!” she squealed.
A second later, there were tears in my eyes. I was so happy that Catherine liked it.
“Does she like it?” Kim asked.
I nodded. “She loves it.” I spread it out on the lounger so that Catherine could get a better look.
“I got you both the same size, so they’re identical,” Kim explained. “You’re always talking about how much alike you two are, so I figured I’d be safe with the same size.”
I nodded, considering that it probably didn’t matter as she wasn’t going to be able to wear it anyway. But then I was feeling bad. Nick had gotten Cathers donuts and candy necklaces. And now, Kim had gotten her a bikini. What had I gotten her? Nothing. Well, wine refills – but then I’d always downed hers for her.
“I’ve never had a bikini without a butt,” Catherine said, wrinkling up her nose.
“I hear you,” I replied. “Did they even have those in 1985?”
“I remember seeing pictures, but never one for sale … not here in Vermont. Way too racy.”
“Still racy … even now,” I agreed.
“So, Kim. What’s in your bag?” I asked, encouraging her to show us. “A matching bikini as well?”
“Well, almost matching,” she said, drawing it out and holding it up.
“Wait,” I complained, noticing that her bottoms had a generously-sized back panel. “That’s not fair!” The front was red and white stripes, just like our two bikinis, but hers had a sizable blue panel with stars – to cover her butt.
“I can’t wear that style,” she said, pointing at Catherine’s bottoms, still spread out on the lounger. “My derriere’s too big – not sexy like yours.”
“Lame excuse!” I countered. “Men go gaga over booties like yours. Because you’re too shy to let it hang out … that’s the real reason. Admit it.”
She didn’t reply.
“Let me guess,” I continued. “These are for the Fourth of July, right? So, tomorrow?”
Kim nodded. While she was gathering together the bags and the tissue paper, I found myself trying to figure out when she might have ordered them. She’d clearly placed the order well before I’d first heard mention of any Independence Day plans.
“Just how long have you been working on this, Kim?” I asked.
She smiled, giving me an infuriating wink as she headed back inside, taking her suit and all the wrapping with her.
Once she was inside the cabin, I turned to Catherine. “Kim’s known about this Fourth of July thing for some time now. I just found out about it yesterday. What else do you think she’s holding back?”
Catherine laughed, but she didn’t say anything. I was pretty sure she’d share any information she had with me.
A short time later, Dirk was up. He came out onto the deck. I went inside so that he and Catherine could have their space. That worked out perfectly because Kim was available to talk.
“So, Kim … why the bikinis? Just what are you planning?”
“Red, white, and blue. What could be more perfect? You of course don’t have to wear it. I just didn’t know what you had for a swimsuit and I wanted a new one.”
I nodded, doing my best to appear grateful even though I was still suspicious. “Okay, let’s sort out tomorrow,” I said. “I understand that my agent has negotiated a change of venue on my behalf … and that Governor Adams agreed. So, Stonefield instead of Montpelier.”
“Well, that’s still up in the air. The governor very much wants to do everything in the capital.”
“Fine by me. I’ll be in Stonefield.”
“What’s come over you? Why so pushy? First the contract thing. Now this.”
I shrugged. “I’m a reasonable woman. This gives the governor a choice. I’m comfortable in Stonefield. I did a fair share of my growing up there. You DO want me to be comfortable, right?”
“Of course, I do.”
“So … I’m agreeing to both the parade and an awards ceremony … but in Stonefield.”
Kim shook her head. “You and Catherine … what a team!”
I could tell that she wasn’t happy, but the events she was trying to get me to agree to sounded much less intimidating if they took place in a small town. Catherine had really come through for me.
“Do you want to call the governor and tell him?” she asked.
I smiled. “I’d rather you take care of the details.”
“I’ll do that,” she replied, her tone suddenly conciliatory. In the back of my mind I imagined that Kim really did want to play that role. Hadn’t Brenda said that Kim would (or could) be a part of my team? After using the restroom, I went back outside to leave her to it.
“How’d it go in there?” Cathers asked.
“Kim’s making the arrangements. Just like you came up with … everything in Stonefield.”
“Are you happy with that?” she asked, her eyes betraying her need for reassurance.
“So very happy. I’m glad you thought of it. I have so many fond memories of Fourth of July parades in Stonefield.”
“I’ll bet you do. When you were real little, your mom and dad would pull you in a little wagon in the kids’ parade. Maybe you remember the wagon … the wood slat sides decorated with red, white, and blue crepe paper. Years later, once you were a big kid, you’d ride your tricycle … also decorated. Playing cards in the spokes. You’d add to the engine noise, buzzing your lips. And then still later, you’d do the parade on a bike, a pink one. An old bike. What they didn’t tell you, was that that was my bike.”
“That was your bike? I loved that bike!”
“You and I … we both graduated from training wheels on that bike. I rode it in the parade, too. Long before you were born.”
By then I was full-on crying. Not only had Catherine been a part of my childhood, but her own childhood had mirrored mine in so many ways.
“And then, when you were too big for the kids’ parade, you’d sit on the curb and scramble to catch the candy being thrown from the floats.”
“Stop it!” I yelled half-jokingly. “You’ve made your point. These trips down memory lane … just too much of a good thing.”
She smiled, but then apologized. “I’m sorry, but since you are thinking of your childhood, then consider all the kids that you’ll be benefitting in your new position.”
I nodded. That was a bit too much of a stretch for me. I was mostly worried about what it would be like to ride in the parade with the governor. “You’re the one who should ride in the parade with him, not me.”
“Oh, I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We’ll do it together.”
“Well, okay,” I said, realizing that it would be comforting to know that Cathers was there with me. “But not together, together. I’m certainly not doing it naked.”
“But you’ll want to be naked,” she said, tossing her head back and laughing happily, “…like Lady Godiva.”
“Is that why she was naked? To see ghosts?” I asked, trying to remember the tale.
At lunch, Kim told me that the Governor had booked a block of rooms in Stonefield – at the Stonefield Inn – the very place Nick and I had spent the night after we’d captured the killer. “He’s offering you a room. I’m also supposed to ask if you and Nick might like to have dinner with him and his wife, Tracy.”
I wasn’t expecting that and didn’t know how to respond. “Can’t we stay here and go in the morning?”
“We could, but it’s a long drive. We’d have to get up early … real early.”
“What would be your recommendation?” I asked.
I saw a smile come across her lips. “You’re really asking me what I think?”
“I am,” I said, suddenly realizing that I hadn’t been treating her all that nicely. “This is all so new to me. My apologies … for coming across as so inflexible. I guess the stress is getting to me, but we’ll get it figured out. I need you.”
Looking thoughtful, Kim replied, “The parade and the ceremony. I think you’ll do best … I mean enjoy the day more … if you’re well rested. So, if I were in your shoes … er, your bare feet,” she added, looking down at them, “I’d accept the governor’s offer. Spend the night in a real bed, not that little mattress on the floor. I think Nick would like that as well. After all, you’re a celebrity now. Why not start living like one?”
“Okay, but Cathers and Dirk? And you and Brent?”
“Let me ask. Maybe not rooms for all of us. But you and Nick should certainly have your own room.”
“That’s a suite hotel,” I told her. “Maybe one of their rooms with multiple bedrooms.”
“Good thought. It might depend on what’s available.”
“But about dinner. I think I’d rather not. I mean, not with the governor. We could do takeout. That’s what Nick, Cathers and I did the night we stayed there. Maybe see if you can get the same room. It’s big and has a nice deck.”
Kim frowned. “Turning down a dinner invitation from a governor is not in keeping with the spirit of your position.” She paused. “But I’m not in the mood for making that a sticking point. The parade and the awards ceremony … do well there and I’m sure Brenda will be pleased.”
I smiled. She was right. In the future I’d have to accept such invitations. Kim turned and went into her office. I liked the tack we were on. I could see myself enjoying the relationship once we’d gotten things sorted out. It was almost as if I had a personal secretary. I made a mental note to be more careful when it came to pulling rank. I wanted things between Kim and me to remain friendly and collegial.
In order to limit my exposure to the midday sun, I decided to stay inside for a bit. I took a seat on the couch. Connected to Kim’s Wi-Fi, I started doing a little research. I’d never looked for information about ghosts on the web – probably because I’d always been quick to dismiss anything supposedly supernatural as fictitious, meaning that I expected that articles I might encounter wouldn’t contain helpful information.
I’d been slow to realize that I probably wasn’t alone – since I was able to see and talk to an actual ghost – that others likely had as well. In a moment of sudden insight, I realized that I might be able to find some factual information on the web after all.
The topic that interested me the most dealt with gaining an understanding of why Catherine might still be stuck between two worlds. Initially, the obvious reason had been to assist with the capture of her killer. After he was behind bars, it had seemed that she might disappear quickly. Dirk’s situation had been the clear explanation there. Only we’d taken care of that as well.
I’d considered the idea that she was still where she was because she and Dirk were being allowed to enjoy each other’s company – for a period of time anyway. However, the more I explored that hypothesis in my mind, the less I believed it might be the answer. The sudden loss of a loved one was a relatively common occurrence. To my knowledge, it did not typically involve the deceased person being allowed to make an extended farewell visit in the form of a ghost.
There had to be another answer. In the end, it was a rather frustrating subject to attempt to find information on. Much of what was on the internet was clearly fictional. Even the articles that seemed scholarly came across as being based primarily on conjecture.
But then in one article on the subject, I read a line that caused the lightbulb in my brain to switch on. It read simply:
To be a ghost is to be a person who can’t or won’t move on to whatever comes after death.
The ‘won’t’ in that sentence jumped out at me. It had never occurred to me that Catherine might be party to the situation; that she might be where she was because she was unwilling to take the next step.
I was convinced that hadn’t always been the case. However, now that the killer was behind bars and Dirk was free, it seemed plausible. Further into the article there were suggestions – ideas about how one might assist just such a ‘person’ by explaining to them that their time on the earth had come to an end, that their mission was complete, that all that was left for them to do was to walk toward the light.
I sat there for a time wondering if I was interested in playing such a role. Ultimately, I decided that friends needed to help friends. I was just uncertain as to how I might best go about it. I thought about discussing the topic with Dirk. Indeed, it impacted him more than anyone. Of primary importance was helping Catherine.
So that I would not bring the subject up with her until I’d had the chance to consider it from every angle, I put on my new bikini and went out onto the back deck. That’s were Dirk and Catherine were; however, now that I was wearing something, Dirk appeared to be alone.
He nodded a greeting as I came out, one that I returned with a smile. I then stretched out on a lounger, facing away.
A short time later, I heard Dirk speak. “I don’t know why she’s wearing the bikini. Does it matter?”
I tried to ignore him, but from his replies, I could tell that Catherine was bothered by the fact that I’d gotten dressed.
“Maybe she wants to see how it fits, get used to it. I mean, before tomorrow.” he continued.
I listened for a bit, finally sitting up and turning. “Or maybe, I want Kim to see me in it … so she’ll know that I like it … know that I appreciate her gift,” I said. Catherine could hear me even if I couldn’t hear her.
“It’s none of my business,” Dirk said, clearly responding to whatever Catherine had said.
A minute later, he turned to me. “She thinks you’re purposefully shutting her out. Because other than that, there’s no reason for you to be dressed.”
My jaw dropped. Where had that come from? “Catherine,” I said, speaking to the approximate location where I guessed her to be, “I’d never shut you out. The closest I’d ever come to doing that might be to get dressed so that you and Dirk might have a bit of privacy.”
I saw Dirk listening to whatever Catherine was saying. “She wants to talk to you,” he said.
“Jesus,” I said under my breath.
Realizing that I was overreacting, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It was no big deal. I really didn’t want to respond that way. She and I were close, the best of friends. This was nothing to get worked up over.
“Sorry about that. Okay,” I agreed, forcing a smile. “I’m always happy to talk. But first let me go inside and get something to drink. I’d like Kim to notice that I’m wearing the suit, and then I’ll take it off.”
Dirk was listening to Catherine. “She says, thank you,” he said, turning to again look at me.
I smiled. “You’re welcome. Can I get either of you anything from the kitchen?”
“We’re good,” Dirk said, nodding.
Inside, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. But Catherine was right. In the past I’d stayed naked whenever possible – only getting dressed when absolutely necessary.
Minutes later, I walked back out, as naked as the day I was born. I hadn’t wanted to strip in front of Dirk. I’d feel self-conscious doing that. Fortunately, being nude in his presence hadn’t been as awkward as it seemed it could be. He only seemed to have eyes for Catherine.
“Happy?” I asked her without cracking a smile.
She grinned and nodded, but then a puzzled expression came over her face. “Something’s different.”
I shrugged. What could be different?
She just sat there staring into my eyes, the corners of her mouth turned up just ever so slightly.
“So, tell me, what did you want to talk about?” I asked.
She continued scrutinizing me. Was I really acting all that different?
I sat down. Placing my glass on the table, I attempted to clear my thoughts.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“The meaning of life,” I replied, dodging her question.
Shaking out my hair and turning sideways to put my legs up on the chair next to me, I considered how best to respond.
“I’ve just been trying to work out in my mind why a person … such as yourself … might become a ghost. I imagine that the overwhelming majority of people pass straight through to the afterlife.”
She nodded, smiling pleasantly.
“Initially, it was clear … to me anyway. Your assistance was needed to restore balance. But now, it’s suddenly quite confusing. Twice now, I thought the qualifications had surely been met. But now, days later, you’re still here.”
“Do you want me to disappear?”
“I guess I want that for you … because I think it has to be what’s best … again, for you. It’s what’s supposed to happen, right? I’ll be sad. Of course, I’ll be sad. But I think you’ve earned … deserve your reward. I don’t know what the afterlife is going to be like, but I imagine that it’s very special. That you’ll be happy.”
“I’m not unhappy … here. I mean … where I am.”
“I didn’t say you were. And I’m not unhappy. As far as I’m concerned, you can haunt me forever.”
Catherine chuckled, but then her eyes grew serious. “Wow! So now, I’m haunting you? That’s certainly putting a spin on things. A rather negative way of looking at all this.”
I shrugged. “Ghosts haunt. It’s what they do.”
She glanced over at Dirk. “Am I haunting you Dirk?”
“I’m staying out of this,” he replied.
Catherine looked back at me. “So why do you think I’m still here?”
I took a deep breath. I, of course didn’t know, and this was why I’d put on the bikini in the first place – because I wasn’t mentally prepared for this discussion. “Maybe you’re just not ready to move on,” I said, lifting my shoulders in a shrug.
“Ready? What do you mean?”
“Willing. Might you be resisting … the natural order of things?”
“So you think it might be me? That it’s my doing? I’m to blame?”
“I didn’t say that. Of course not! You’re the murder victim, for Christ’s sake. But maybe you need to relax. Walk toward the light.”
The look in her eyes changed. Had I hit upon a sensitive subject?
She sat up. “What light?”
“I don’t know. THE light,” I said. Wasn’t that explanation enough?
“There’s no fucking light!” she exclaimed, her hackles clearly up. She never swore.
“Sorry,” I said, lifting my hands in surrender.
“You’re not sorry. Not at all.” Looking at Dirk, she continued, “One of the two people on the whole planet that I can talk to is tired of me ‘haunting’ her … wants me to be fully and completely dead.”
Dirk came to my assistance. “To be fair, I don’t think that’s what she said.”
“It’s not what I said,” I interjected.
“You want me to disappear? I’ll disappear.”
With that, she stood. Turning her back, she sped off, her legs passing through a bench at the edge of the deck. She was moving fast – into the forest – going through trees rather than around them. In the blink of an eye, she was gone.
In a state of anguish, I looked over at Dirk. “I’m sorry. So sorry,” I mumbled. “The last thing I wanted to do was upset her. I … uhh.”
He didn’t reply. We were both in shock – both of us trying to process what had just happened. Suddenly the forest was so quiet, just a faint breeze in the uppermost branches.
Leaving Dirk, I hurried inside, dressing quickly in the topmost outfit in my suitcase, a loose-fitting dress.
The next thing I knew, I was pacing back and forth across Kim’s living room. What had just happened? I was so upset I was shaking – clenching and unclenching my fists. How was this even possible? Catherine and I – we’d gotten so close. We were a team, an inseparable team. Weren’t we? We’d been through so much – always together. Done so much – for each other. Suddenly all shattered – our relationship – shards of glass scattered about in the dirt. Not watching where I was going, I ran into the coffee table, not quite falling but hurting my shin and knocking things onto the floor.
“Are you alright?” Kim asked, racing out of her office. She started picking things up, but sensing my state of mind, she abandoned that. Grasping my shoulders, she peered deep into my eyes, alternating from one to the other.
I attempted an explanation, but I was hyperventilating. “Oh, Kim. Catherine and I… She got mad … raced off. A falling out … of sorts … I guess.” I was struggling to get the words out. Stringing phrases together incoherently.
Kim held me, running a hand along my cheek she tried to get me to relax, to calm down. I started telling her the whole story – hoping that by replaying the conversation I might figure out where I’d gone wrong.
Suddenly she interrupted me. “Wait. You said that? That you wished she was fully and completely dead?”
I was taken aback. Even Kim was mishearing me. “Nothing of the sort! But somehow that’s what she heard … I guess. I love Catherine. You know that. I don’t want her to be dead.” I collapsed down onto the sofa. Somehow I’d messed up, messed up badly.
A while later, still struggling to deal with Catherine’s abrupt departure, I made my way back outside – on unsteady legs – to see how Dirk was coping. He was sitting slumped over in a chair. Sensing my approach, he glanced up.
“Dirk, I’m so sorry. You guys have been having such a nice time … and I ruined it. And there might not be all that much time left.”
He attempted a reassuring smile, but his eyes were red. “Jessa, it’s fine. You gave me Catherine back. Even if it ends up being just these two days. Those forty years waiting … she was always so glum, eternally depressed. But then you showed up. She brightened right up. She was almost herself again. Witty and energetic. And together, you caught the killer. And with him behind bars, her vivacious self returned. Whatever happens…”
“But she ran off. She’s gone.”
“Not sure exactly what’s going on there. Must have struck a chord. Maybe what you said … something she’s been thinking about. But I doubt she’s resisting. Would that even work?”
We talked for a while, but I was still having trouble thinking straight. Dirk had no idea where she might go or how long she might be gone. Fortunately, Catherine knew the plan for the next day. She knew we were going to Stonefield. If she didn’t come back right away, she’d be able to meet up with us there – at the Stonefield Inn or during the Independence Day festivities.
To Be Continued…
Author’s note: If you are reading and enjoying Jessa Meets Her Match, I would love to hear from you! You may comment here on the storyboard (as ‘anonymous’ or register and give yourself a name, any name). Alternately, feel free to send me an email: BPClavel@gmail.com
Very best regards,
Blair P. Clavel
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