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Kat Astra knows one thing: everything is her fault. A dead-end job. A fear of confrontation. An inability to speak up when necessary. Desertion of her best friend in her time of need.
Natalie Mestecom knows one thing too: everything Kat does is Natalie's fault. The relationship rule is simple; Kat has problems, and Natalie fixes them. But what worked in adolescence becomes more complicated with adulthood, and new developments in their relationship challenge these roles. Kat is no longer sure whether she is willing to be disciplined according to Natalie's rules, and Natalie is no longer sure whether she is worthy of Kat's trust.
Can Natalie allow herself to be vulnerable? Can Kat believe in her own strength? Can Natalie believe in Kat's strength? How will they, each in their own way, learn to move beyond guilt and blame in order to forge a new relationship together? In order to make peace with themselves and each other, Kat and Natalie reconnect with family, re-visit memories of their past, and make plans for taking steps forward in the future. To light their way home.
Lighting the Way is the sequel to The Way Home and second in the Kat & Natalie series.
Prologue: The Lost Blizzard
(Natalie and Kat’s house, present-day)
I meant to save the second half of the Georgia Mud Fudge blizzard for Natalie, but her meeting ran late. I took it out of the freezer, scooped out another surreptitious spoonful, and slammed the ice cream back into the freezer.
I worked on paying bills.
But something tedious needs a reward, right? I have to keep my strength up.
The second time, the spoonful was a bit bigger. And maybe it was two scoops instead of one. After all, Natalie must not want it much if she is still at work. I went upstairs away from the temptation and started making a list of everything to pack for our trip.
Packing is rather strenuous, yes? It deserves one teeny-tiny, microscopic bit of ice cream. But then if I have wasted the electricity to open the freezer and let the cold air out, I might as well make it worthwhile. Perhaps another teeny-tiny scoop. And it is wasteful to dirty a spoon for a few tastes, right?
No, no. I promised Natalie I would have her favorite treat waiting for her after she came home from a long day. She is rushing to get in enough work and meetings so she can work remotely for part of our time away. She knows Mama Jane and Dad will demand our full attention while we visit.
I escape to the living room and sit on the couch. I look at the throw pillow and remember how Natalie said I would need it for the plane ride home. That is worrying, I am sure Natalie would agree. A good reason to need some comfort. Responsibly, I choose not get into a bother about it, and instead deal with the worry constructively. I am being good, really, by taking care of my own worries without laying any of my burdens on her.
By the time Natalie arrives home a full two hours later than usual, my long-handled red plastic spoon is scraping the last bits of fudge and pecan and melted ice cream from the bottom of the large cup. I lick the last bits of ice cream off my spoon and give her my best smile.
She sets down her briefcase and slings her jacket over the back of a table chair. She takes in my relaxing-at-home sweats and ponytail and the little bit of ice cream on my cheek that somehow escaped my notice until now.
I blush to the tips of my ears. “Er� it was delicious?”
Natalie takes a step closer, and I involuntarily take a step backward.
“I sure have one spoiled girl,” she says, so sternly I nearly miss the twitching at the corners of her mouth. “Living the high life, eating my ice cream, lazing around while I do all the work.”
I dip the spoon into the cup for one last bit of now-liquid ice cream and offer it to her. “Want some? I saved it for you.” Then I slowly and deliberately slurp it down while watching for her reaction. Grin at her as I try to ignore the warmth of my ears. They must be as red as Rudolph’s nose�or as red as a certain portion of me will be in a few minutes.
Never one to disappoint, Natalie unbuttons the cuff of her blouse and rolls up the right sleeve. She grips my ear gently between her thumb and forefinger and leads me to the living room. I make a great show of hollering and squealing.
“No, Natty, no! I’ll be good! Even though it was your fault you didn’t come home on time. And I have to do all the packing by myself.”
Natalie is struggling not to laugh as she sits down and pulls me firmly across her perfectly creased suit pants. Mm, brushed cotton today.
“What am I going to do with you, darling?” she asks with a quirk to her lips.
“I dunno. Buy me more ice cream?”
I give an exaggerated shriek as she tugs my sweatpants and panties down to spank my bottom to a toasty glow within minutes.
“Ow!” she exclaims, shaking her hand. “That stings!”
“Like I’m feeling sorry for you�OUCH!”
Natalie has somehow managed to reach one of the wooden spoons she likes to keep everywhere, and she spanks merrily away.
“I’m scared!” I howl. “I’m scared of the spoon. so we should throw it away.”
“Not a chance,” Natalie says easily as the spoon finds its target over and over again. “You’re the one who said you wanted things back to normal.”
By the time the spanking has stopped, Natalie and I are both limp with laughter. She pats my bottom and tells me to be good. If I were smart, I would keep my mouth shut. It has been so long since we laughed like this, though, that a devilish urge makes me pipe up.
“Natty?” I ask.
“Did you ever wonder what happened to the rest of your Snickers bar?”
I burrow into her lap, giggling and yelping as she puts the spoon to work again.
“No,” she says. “Do tell.”
I shut my eyes because suddenly the tears are choking any words I might say.
I almost lost this. I almost threw everything away.
Chapter One: Remember
(Natalie and Kat’s house, a few months earlier)
I wake up with a start in the middle of the night. Natalie has been having nightmares lately, and even though we’re still shy and awkward with each other, I have taken to sleeping next to her. As if we are still little girls and sharing her bed for a sleepover. Sometimes she cries, and as long as she is not fully awake I can stroke her back until she calms down. When she cries while still half-asleep, she lets me reach for her.
Tonight, Natalie is dreaming peacefully with her covers half off and one leg hanging over the side of the bed. I sit up as carefully as I can in order not to disturb her, and I pat the sheet and blankets into place. I straighten her leg so it is back on the bed. I want to snuggle up against her as if we really are little girls again, but I am afraid I will wake her. Instead I sit cross-legged, shivering a bit in the cool night air, and watch her breathing in and out. It is hard to believe only yesterday I got her spare key from her neighbor, broke in, and confronted a screaming, swearing Natalie who told me to get out of her house. Only a few weeks ago I was sure I never wanted to see her again.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough of your back talk. You’re not staying home alone while I’m at work!”
“I’ve had enough of your rules!” I screamed. “I’m sick of being treated like a child when I’m a full-grown adult! I’m moving out, and you can’t stop me! You’re the one making me crazy!”
Natalie flinched. “You tried to kill yourself! Twice! What am I supposed to do, hand you the pills and say good luck?”
“They let me out of the hospital because I was better, but all you do is control me! For God’s sake, taking away scissors and making me stay with Lily like I’m a two-year-old who needs a babysitter�”
“I trusted you! I trusted you twice, and both times I found you in the ER! Don’t yell at me for not believing you when you lied!”
“When I said you could be in charge of me, I didn’t mean this! You’re twisting everything so you can keep control over every tiny thing in my life.”
“Because I want you to have a life! I want you alive! You want me to wake up one day and find you dead on the bathroom floor?”
“If you keep driving me crazy, maybe you will!”
Natalie’s face drained of all color. She tried to sit down but missed the chair and fell to the floor instead. She knocked her head against the corner of the table on her way down, and by the time I got to her a bruise was already forming above her left eye. I did that, a horrified, monstrous voice told me. I thrust an ice pack at her and lunged for the bathroom, heaving over the toilet until I realized that the lurching upward motions of my stomach were useless without any food to expel.
I shiver and rub Natalie’s back as gently as I can. We have not spoken of that day again. Or of any that followed. If I bring it up, she may throw me out. I am still not quite sure this isn’t all a dream and I won’t wake up in my tiny, dreary efficiency apartment twenty minutes away. I haven’t asked Natalie what will happen next because I am afraid to know. As long as we pretend it is no big deal for me to be here, maybe it won’t be.
The next day, Natalie handed me the “for rent” section of the newspaper with efficiencies circled.
“It’s all one room,” she explained, “but it’s a lot cheaper. And you have some money saved even with your medical bills.”
I tried to apologize, but she cut me off.
“If you don’t have enough for a deposit right away, I can help you.”
“It’s okay,” I muttered, embarrassed. “You’ve done enough already.”
“Oh. Have I?” Natalie’s face closes in on itself, and she says no more.
I wanted more freedom, but I didn’t want to leave. But how could I make Natalie listen when she only told me to go? It was as if she couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. Still, as she always had, she gave to me. The way she and her family had done nothing but give to me for as long as I had known them. All I had was shame without words.
It took less than a day to pack. Natalie came into what would again be her guestroom and sat on my bed. Her bed.
“Katya,” she said.
I wanted to sit next to her, but I was afraid. I wanted to beg her for another chance, to cry it was all a mistake, to confess I wanted to stay with her� but I couldn’t keep living off her money forever.
“Hm?” I said absently, sorting through clothes to keep and clothes to give back to Natalie.
“You call me every day.”
“And no pills. Ever. For any reason.”
“If you have a headache, call me and I’ll give you some. One.”
“Or I’ll make the whipping you got for running away to Lily’s look like pat-a-cake.”
I squirmed and mumbled and pretended not to hear, but Natalie knew me too well to let it go.
“Do you understand me? Or else I’m not co-signing your lease.”
I shouted at her, senseless angry nothings full of the words we promised never to call each other, but she held her ground. Stared me down, even from her sitting position, until I ungraciously agreed.
“Maybe I’m too big for spankings now,” I muttered.
“You’re smaller than I am.” And she stood up to prove it. That’s not what I meant, but she wasn’t listening.
She hugged me, and even though I stood as stiffly as a dressmaker’s dummy she kissed my cheek.
“I’ll miss you,” she said. Something heaved in my chest at the unfairness of it all, her helping me to leave when I wasn’t sure I wanted to� and then telling me she would miss me. Didn’t she see I didn’t want to leave? If she would miss me so much, why couldn’t she ask me to stay? Was this all a show to make nice and let her feel better about moving on with her life?
“Get out!” I screamed. “Get out of my life!”
She let me finish packing on my own, but I was crying too hard to see. I shoved everything into boxes and didn’t care what broke.
I didn’t know then. I didn’t know hatred and love could feel nearly the same, that fear and hope could get all mixed up until I convinced myself that I hoped she would leave and feared she would make me stay. I would be better off on my own, but she wouldn’t let me go. It was time to say no to her rules and her heavy-handed idea she could determine what happened in my life.
I hold Natalie’s sleeping hand in mine and stroke the soft coolness of her skin. Natalie’s hands are always cold, no matter how warm the rest of her body might be. I am the one who shivers even in the summer�she calls me her “little lizard” or “little gecko,” but her hands are cool. It is lovely in the heat of summer, but less nice in the freeze of winter. I think of the very few times her hand has hit my bottom and the many more times her hand has used a wooden spoon, paddle, or even a belt or hairbrush to spank me to tears.
I thought being spanked and restricted like a child were the worst things that could happen to me. I thought if only she left me alone everything would be fine. I thought it was her rules that made things difficult.
I didn’t know I needed them. Or that I needed her.
The first day, I called as instructed.
“Hi. It’s me.”
“Kat! So good to hear from you. How are you?”
“Okay, I guess. Work sucks.”
“Did you go to the cooking club like Dr. Mitchell suggested?”
Irritation. “Why are you talking to my counselor again?”
Hurt. “No, you mentioned it. Last time.”
“I was making conversation.”
Rage. “You don’t need to take care of me anymore, okay? I’m a big girl. Leave me alone! Stop interfering with my life and assuming I can’t do anything!”
The second day, I waited until Natalie’s bedtime to call.
Irritation. “You’re supposed to call every day.”
Self-righteousness. “I’m calling now.”
“Well, I was worried.”
Cold, cutting disdain. “I thought you were my friend. Not my jailer.”
This time Natalie hung up first.
It felt good. For the first time in years, I called the shots. I made the decisions. I ran with scissors and petted strange dogs. Every single life decision was my own. Except my apartment deposit was partly paid for with Natalie’s money, and her name was also on the lease. I didn’t have a high enough credit rating to sign solo because I was still working part-time at the department store. Having to miss three weeks because you’re in the loony bin doesn’t exactly qualify you as an indispensable employee.
Natalie stirs in her sleep, and I hastily lower her hand to her side. I lean against the headboard and close my eyes. I’d raged at Natalie for not letting me help her, for insisting always that only I receive help. I wanted to be a real person, a capable adult instead of someone’s project.
One of Natalie’s unbreakable rules, besides not taking pills and not lying to her, is that I must talk to her. Not answering a question or not telling her what is going on always means a spanking.
But how do you talk to someone who won’t listen?
By the end of the week, I stopped phoning altogether. Ignored her calls. Refused to open the door when she visited. At one point, she shouted at me when she caught me in the apartment stairwell, tears streaming down her face.
“For God’s sake, Kat, I’m SORRY for caring about you! For wanting to make sure you are okay! You want to die? Who the hell do you think you are that you can hurt everyone this way? Whatever I did wrong, I’m sorry! Talk to me! We can talk things over. It can be different. Stop shutting me out!”
I hardened my heart and walked away, willing myself not to feel. Not to hear.
Much later, I realized it was one of the few times I’d seen Natalie crying�and not hiding it. When I heard she was taken to the hospital and she refused to talk or see me, when I found out the text messages and calls I’d ignored were her frantic attempts to get medical help and she had to resort to dialing 911 for an ambulance� I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to face her, or anyone else, again.
In the morning, Natalie gently shakes me awake. She says she heard me crying in the night and asks what is wrong. I tell her I’m sorry, but I am not sure she understands. How can she? Has she ever done something so wrong that the guilt never will go away? Has she ever hurt the one person who loved her most in the world?
She cradles my head in her lap and speaks softly.
“Remember where we came from, Katya.”
I give a big, shuddery sigh. “All of the fighting?”
She shakes her head.
“Before. In the very beginning.”
I snuggle with her as if we were never apart.