Once when I was a kid, maybe seven or so, my mom, dad, my mom's sisters, and their husbands had this great idea to drive out around the country and look for old, abandoned places to explore. They had a few in mind already, but they weren't opposed to flying by the seats of their pants and checking out a random place that popped up along the way. They were still young and energetic back then and while they never expected to turn up any treasures, it was still fun and there was the rush of knowing they were poking around in places they weren't supposed to be. It was the kind of thing I'd have to run somebody off for if I caught them because it's my job, whether they're hurting anything or not.
My memory of that day of exploration with people I trusted to keep me safe has always been one of terror. I ought to have been able to laugh once it was over, but there was no room in my emotion for laughter and over the years, when I've tried to find the humor in it, there has been no space made. I shook all the way home that day, while the adults laughed and chattered like they were kids again and I did eventually forgive them, but I never forgot.
It was the beginning of spring, I think, because there was the obligatory mention of snakes and keeping an eye out for them, but the serious and frequent reminders that accompany the summer months seem absent in my memory. That's probably why they came up with the idea of driving around the countryside in the first place. The mountains in spring are every bit as beautiful as the mountains in fall with dogwoods and clover and wildflowers all paying their tributes to the sun with gifts of color.
I only recall visiting one place that day, although there were surely others. Whether they were boring to me or got lost in the singular awfulness of the one place, I don't know. I remember being excited to explore, that's all - as excited as any boy that age at the prospect of going on a journey of discovery. There was nothing foreboding about the old, dilapidated and vacant church that sat off some dirt road I'd never be able to take you to now and I was the first one out of the tired, gray Grenada.
That part's pretty fuzzy, actually. My first real memory of it is walking up to the front of the church in step with one of my uncles - Carl - and hearing his warning.
"Let me go in first. I want to make sure it's safe."
"Why wouldn't it be safe?" I'm sure I asked. Going in second meant not being the first to discover whatever amazing things might be behind the door. I knew why, though. The building was standing, but time had done its work on the foundation. Everything was made of wood, which had rotted with the weather and decayed the way things do when they've been denied the benefits of humanity.
"This one's haunted, Marty." He said it with a solemn kind of gravity. He wanted it to have weight enough for me to understand that this was serious business. It was all I needed to hear to be ready to go straight back to the car, but I didn't want to look like a coward.
"How do you know?"
"Everybody knows about this church. That's why they all stayed in the car." He nudged his head in the direction of the Grenada and everyone but me and my uncle was still watching safely from inside of it. "I want to see for myself, but you can go back to the car if you're chicken."
He could have said anything else - anything - and I would have been happy to trot back to mama and daddy, but he attributed the action with my being a chicken and that was just something no self respecting young boy could ignore.
Uncle Carl did go in first, carefully, one deliberate step at a time and disappeared through the door. I remember waiting to hear my uncle start to scream any second, but he didn't and after a short while, he called me in.
"We're good, Marty! Come on, but be careful how you step around some of these rotten floor boards." His voice echoed from inside, bouncing off the walls of the vast, empty space.
I had a vision in my mind of what I'd see in there, but I was wrong. I opened the door, which uncle Carl had closed behind him and it squealed like you'd expect it to. Walking in, I saw that it was nothing like I'd thought. There was a near completely intact sanctuary in front of me with rows and rows of dusty, wooden pews that still held hymnals in some of the pouches on their backs. There was a choir section with a few rickety chairs behind a podium at the pulpit with a large open bible atop it. I remember thinking it was a shame that the bible had been left and forgotten and I intended to ask Uncle Carl if we could take it with us, but I never got the chance. There was a table in front of the pulpit that would have been the place for the plates of broken crackers and tiny glasses of grape juice during communion, or as we call it around here, The Lord's Supper. The table had collapsed at the middle, but the inscription on the front of it could be clearly read, This do in remembrance of Me.
I was drawn to the front of the church with the wonder of how put together most of it remained. Above the last row of the choir section was a square cutout that allowed a view into a smaller room that must have been the baptistry. On the back wall of that had been painted a mural that depicted a gaudy version of heaven. It was a place I wouldn't have wanted to go if it really looked like that, but even at that young age, I realized that good artists were probably not readily available to those who would have commissioned it. I wanted to get a better look at it, though. I've always enjoyed art and I like to examine even the simplest strokes of a brush. I walked clumsily up the aisle with my eye trained on the mural and nearly stumbled when I didn't see that I'd reached the broken communion table and met it with my foot. It brought me out of whatever hypnosis the painting had me under and I noticed I'd not heard anything else out of Uncle Carl. I turned around and scanned the church, but he wasn't there.
He didn't answer. The only face I saw then was the mug of Jesus in a picture hanging on the back wall over the door. It was the one where Jesus has His head tilted slightly, one hand in the air giving something like the peace sign, and the other hand at His heart, which was encompassed by fire. It's an image more frequently used in the Catholic Church, but I don't think the founders of this one had any idea about that. This looked to be of the baptist or methodist heritage.
Jesus looked back at me from His crooked frame, but no one else.
"Uncle Carl?" I asked again and now I was starting to feel the butterflies that show up right before all out panic. Carl had gone in before me, the place was said to be haunted, it was creepy in there, and now Carl was gone. I was a young boy and it all added up. Even as I write this, I feel the back of my neck go cold.
I found myself frozen in that moment, petrified, calling out his name one final time. "Carl?!"
Suddenly a deep, cackling voice filled the room. MWA HA HA HA! It seemed to come from everywhere around me and even though I know that it was reflected and amplified by the space, I can still go back to the utmost terror that flooded me.
I screamed and I ran. I burst through the door and cleared the steps without touching them. Tears fell down my face in torrents and I couldn't catch my breath. My face twisted in a mask of impending death. I pounded on the door of the Grenada and there was mama, daddy, and everyone except Carl on the other side of the glass, roaring with laughter and pointing behind me.
When I turned, Carl was bent double, shaking his head and laughing harder than any of them. "You ought to seem your face, Marty! Priceless!"
That was the moment ghosts stopped being a fun topic around campfires or a great excuse to get close enough to a girl in a dark movie theater to slip an arm around her. It became a phobia - something that conjured up the worst of fear in me. Pshychologists call it Phasmophobia and until now, I called it bunk, at least to myself. It's not the kind of thing you mention at the academy if you want to be taken seriously or if you want your sleep to be undisturbed by cadets in white sheets, gufawing and punching each other's shoulders at your expense.
I guess the time has come for complete honesty about my mental shape once it became a matter of belief in the ghost of Shoeshine drop and once it became a matter of fact that it was me who was going to have to deal with it. I wasn't in a good place by the time I left Dudley at the hospital. He'd gone from ready to go pick a fight with the ghost when I first walked in, to ready for surrender at the hands of whatever came next and there was a part of me - the cowardly part - that envied him the concoction of chemicals they'd be spilling into his veins later that night to help him sleep. I needed food and rest, in that order, so back to the diner I went with a mind for a patty melt. On the way, I realized I'd taken the last of the ancient bottle of cold medicine I'd used to help me sleep before, but I had a feeling I might need something a little stronger than that with the visions of Gail's twisted and mangled body, what seemed like gallons of her blood splashed up and down the side of the cliff and pooling in places to mix with the river water that filtered around the rocks, making a gory palette in shades of red. And let's not abandon the scene Dudley described of being pulled toward the edge of The Drop while the voice urged him to jump, Dudley, jump, sometimes with the giddy glee of a child, sometimes the gutteral, animalistic growl of an angry, petulent creature - It's an impatient little cuss - or in its signature whisper that calls to the name of the place. No, let's not abandon those things. I had them all fighting for my attention so that little else could get through my head. Sleep would once again be a game of roulette, except that the odds of landing large were much smaller. More like Russian roulette, only almost all of the chambers would be loaded with nightmares and it would be impossible to get through it without facing every round. Not without a little help. I had to drop by the office before going home anyway and make sure everything had been tidied up regarding Gail's suicide. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I intended on making a visit to the confiscated substances locker to see if we had anything potent in there.
Clem's was busier than usual and I grunted when I saw the cars in the lot. I didn't feel like fielding questions and there would be some from a few that had already heard about Gail on their own scanners or through the incredibly vibrant gossip vine that wound its way through Waterman.
I would do it if I had to, with the expected remorse and I was remorseful, but my thoughts were occupied with the weightier task ahead of me. The Drop.
My spirits lifted when I walked in and saw Megan standing at a far table, taking an order. She didn't see me at first and I used that as an opportunity to get a better look at her. Every table was taken, but there was a seat at the bar between two of Waterman's local blue collars, so I squeezed in there and picked up a menu. I knew what I wanted, but the rather large selection at Clem's meant tall menus, which afforded me a covert way to steal glances.
It was the patty melt I had a hankering for, light on the onions, extra mayo, and a plate full of crispy onion rings I'd dip into a small bowl of thousand island dressing. Clem's was the only place I knew of that offered thousand island as a dipping sauce, but most folks stay with that once they've tried it and I'm no exception. It was comfort food I needed and the option of setting my mind on other things than death and pain and evil. That was the plan, anyway, but the two men sitting on either side of me saw to it that didn't happen.
I'm an introvert. It's a trendy title to give yourself and I suspect there are alot of people who use it to make an excuse for being a jackass. I, on the other hand, was relieved to learn that there was a real mentality I could relate to; something that gave a name to what is an issue of mine and I was glad to know that I wasn't alone. With a true introvert, an easy going emotional state has a battery life and too much seonsory input will run it down in a hurry. I'd already shown a tendency to be short today when Deputy Clark's willingness to talk about a supernatural explanation got under my skin and I snapped at him. We don't mean to be that way, but when our batteries are low, the only thing that will fix things is to recharge. That means stepping out of our current surroundings and allowing ourselves to retrain our focus. Some people bury theirselves in a book or a long, hot bath. I tend to drive a few miles south toward Atlanta where there's a movie theatre and the offering of a couple of hours of darkness and a tub of popcorn swimming in butter. When it gets real bad, though, I eat.
Now I wanted to recharge with a patty melt and the added, albeit unhealthy, bonus of taking in the intoxicating essence of Megan. Right then she was pointing out something on the menu to Brett, the cook with massive forearms that sported the U.S. Marines emblem on the left one and Semper Fi on the right. It would make sense that I had all but ignored the two men on either side on account of Megan. They were local men I'd had business with in the past, mostly listening to their opinions about the officiating on Friday nights, but I wouldn't exactly call them friends. That didn't make them any less willing to speak their minds now.
Jerry McCullough was on my right, leaning over a plate of biscuits and gravy. To my left was Curtis Peters. I believe his was the cubed steak under a congealed layer of its own gravy. Curt and Jerry could be found at Clem's most days, unless there were games on TV too good to miss.
I was having another glance in Megan's direction and trying to figure out how to go about talking to her without showing how smitten I was when Curt wiped his face with a napkin and then, having tossed it onto his plate, addressed me.
"Sump'n's got to be done, Marty. I caught my son texting with his buddy not two hours ago that they ought to go check out Shoeshine Drop."
"How old is your son, now?" I asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Jerry was nodding. I'd been in that trap before and I knew they'd be teaming up on me.
"He's every bit of seventeen."
"What did you say to him?"
"Told him I better not catch him goin' out there. Told him I'd have his keys, his phone, and his laptop. That ain't no place to fool around at nohow, but right now it'd be disrespectful too." He decided he wasn't quite done with his meal and moved the napkin to scrape up another enormous bite.
Now Jerry chimed in. "What can we do about it? Anything? It's got to be you makes the call, but I'll help any way I can."
I understood their worry and I told them I was working on it, but the truth was, I didn't have the slightest clue how to go about it. If it were in town, I would have made a motion to have the road moved and every kind of barricade there was put up, but that's not an option at Shoeshine Drop. It's a mountain road and moving mountains isn't easy. It had crossed my mind to erect a wall there, spreading from where the woods first give way to the gap of the cliff to the other side where the woods and ridge pick up again. Projects like that take time, though. I didn't think we had that luxury now.
"Maybe it's over for a while," Jerry said. "Seems like it comes and goes."
"I don't know. It used to be news faded with every new issue of the paper, but everything's online now for the whole world to see." Curt raised his hand and pointed to his empty tea glass when Megan noticed him. When she saw me beside him, she grinned a big, genuine smile and for the tiniest moment, I forgot about ghosts. "You can't pee on the side of the road without somebody puttin' a video of it on Face-a-gram."
"It's Facebook." I couldn't help but to correct him. I guess it was a way to position myself as up to date on things. "Instagram is a different thing - well, kinda."
"I don't care. Shoeshine Drop's gone be twittered and facebooked and grammed instantly, no matter what, so it won't be so local no more."
"I can't close the road," I said.
"What about a net? Big heavy duty fishin' net all the way across." Jerry popped one of the remaining morsels of his biscuit into his mouth. A drip of white gravy fell onto his chin and it bothered me that he didn't seem to notice it.
Jerry had a point, though, chin smudged with gravy or not. I hadn't thought about a net, but it would most certainly be faster and cheaper than a wall. I'd seen them where rocks threatened to slide from a rock face into a busy road before, so it might be something the community could get behind. It was definitely something to think about.
Curt shook his head. "No, you can cut through a net."
Megan had made it over to us with a pitcher of tea and filled Curt's glass to almost spilling. She started to top off Jerry's glass, but he stopped her. "I'm good, hon. No sense wastin' it." She stepped in front of me and laid down a napkin and some utensils.
"Whatcha drinkin', sheriff?"
"Tea." Jerry and Curt had decided I wasn't needed in the conversation just then and were leaned back to continue it around me.
"If somebody takes a mind to jump, they'll find a way to do it. I'm talkin' about seein' to it the ones that're just curious stay safe."
I wanted to listen to more of their ideas, actually, to see if there might be a nugget or two I could run with, but my heart thought Megan was better balm. I needed the distraction of her. The clink of glasses on tables and forks scraping across plates were add-ons to the constant murmur of conversation that droned like the sound of a vast bee hive. A part of me thought it ought to be welcome vibrations that might settle the piercing phantom voices moaning in my head, but I'm hyper-attentive, especially when I'm under stress, and I hear everything at once. That's why the larger part of me disagreed with the smaller part. I needed to focus on Megan and only her.
She had fleetly whirled around on her heels when I gave her my drink order, but was now back with a tall, beautifully dark amber glass of sweet tea. There isn't much Clem's doesn't do well, but there are a few things they do that stand above the crowd and sweet tea is one of them.
From the look of it, she'd had a hard shift. Her hair had been pulled up tidily early on. I imagined her giving a quick nod of approval to the image in her mirror just before she stepped out for the day, her deep brown hair perfectly drawn back in a ponytail and finished with a clip to give it a little extra hold. Her lipstick would have been the perfect shade to accent the light wash of foundation she'd used. She didn't need much makeup and she didn't use much, which was a good thing. Her skin was pure, just a touch into what I'd call olive, but still pink enough naturally to give her that misleading effect of extreme youth. Now she looked tired. Her lipstick was mostly gone. Her uniform was stained. Her hair still held the ponytail that fell to a couple of inches below her shoulders, but there were some ringlets that had escaped and hung around her face, which she kept blowing at to keep out of her eyes. That singular detail accentuated her beauty and dug at me way down in my gut.
"You look like you could use some rest," she sang in a motherly tone as she sat down my tea.
I instinctively grabbed a salt shaker and sprinkled a little between the napkin and the glass. "It's been a long week and doesn't appear to be getting any better." I have a hard time tolerating complainers, so when I realized I was being one, I added, "But I've still got it good complared to people with real problems."
Behind me, the bookends were still inventing solutions to the Shoeshine Drop issue.
"Plant a bunch of trees to fill the gap."
"Won't work. You'd have folks campin' out there to try and catch sight of the ghost."
"Poison oak!" Whichever one of them said it, pronounced it Pyz'n, but I wasn't keeping track of who was saying what. The stake of my concentration had been firmly planted with Megan.
"I'm a great listener," she offered with a confidfent smile. "At least that's what I've been told." She leaned forward with her elbows on the bar and blew the unruly strand of hair out of her face again. I caught her breath and inhaled it. It was sweet and minty and felt like an obscenely intimate thing to do - to purposely take in a part of her she hadn't intended to offer. She realized she'd done it, too, and thought she'd offended me.
"Oh man! I am so sorry. I can't believe I did that!"
I laughed. "Don't worry about it. Your breath smells good and I'm a big fan of mint."
"If you say so. I don't like it when people blow in my face. It's a good thing I keep a thing of breath spray in my pocket, I guess."
"Megan, your breath in my face might just be the highlight of my week."
She blushed and I meant it.
"My offer's still open," she promised right as someone down at one of the tables called after her. She backed away from the counter with a wink and I had a tingly, schoolboy feeling from the top of my neck, all the way down my spine. My stomach jumped, too - another feeling that called back to my highschool days when the pretty girl that I secretly pined for gave the slightest indication that there might be a chance. Then I was suddenly slapped out of my stupor, quite literally, when Jerry's monster paw caught me on the back.
"Any of that sound plausible, sheriff?"
"Any of what?"
"Our ideas! We been throwin' out a ton of 'em. 'Lectric fence, extercism. You didn't hear none of that?"
"Gentlemen, I applaud your critical thinking. And I promise you there's no bigger advocate for fixing the problem we've got out there than me." They were nodding like a Baptist's unspoken amen. "Tell you what I want each one of you to do. Write down your top three ideas and email them to my attention. It'll be a good starting point and I'll evaluate each one to see if it's worth looking into further."
"Will do," Curt beamed and got up from his seat, plopping down a twenty. "Keep the change, sweetie," he shouted toward the register where Megan was ringing up another satisfied customer.
She hollered back, "Thanks, Curt!" without looking up. Jerry layed down a twenty of his own, but didn't say anything to her. "You'll have mine by first thing in the mornin'," he told me somberly and started to make his exit, but turned back. "Marty, mine's not old enough to drive yet, but she's gettin' close. I don't know what I'd do if I got the call that she went over that cliff like most folks that go out there seem to do. I don't know if I believe all that silly stuff they say goes on out there, but it's got a draw to it just the same, so I hope you won't drag your feet."
"I won't. Promise."
Clem's had emptied out without my noticing. There were only two lone customers in booths on opposite sides of the restaurant now and neither seemed to have need of Megan presently, so she strolled back over, pulled a stool, and sat across from me.
"I appreciate it, but I'm not going to burden you my problems. It's stuff a man in my position should expect to deal with anyway."
"No, I don't think so." Megan shook her head gently and the rogue strand of hair fell again in front of her eye. She considered blowing it back, but thought better of it and tucked it behind her ear with a finger. "Suicides aren't normal. Maybe they're common in bigger towns than Waterman, but it's still not something anybody should have to wake up every morning expecting to hear about. I hear this one was the mother of the boy who jumped a few weeks ago. You don't need to process that by yourself is all I'm saying."
"Don't worry about that. We have resources at the station."
"I'm sure you do, but it's not the same as a friendly ear, is it?"
Megan didn't know the gravity of what she was offering. I wanted to think that on any other day, I could have put up a wall - my steel jawed law enforcement wall with layers of briar and pyz'n oak for good measure, but I was on the ropes emotionally. I was weak from the way the world had exploded around me and I was weak in her presence. What she didn't know was that I didn't just want to take her up on her promise - I wanted to take her up. I wanted her.
"You're at work anyway, so you've got people to waitress upon."
"I'm off in fifteen minutes." She winked again and my heart leapt in response. Once more I was a young boy and as if to be the voice of reason, Rita picked right then to walk through the door.
"Hiya, Meg! Hiya, sheriff!"
Megan cocked her head and fixed me with a look that said, check mate.
"Megan, it's probably not appropriate." It was out before I could stop it. It was the truth, but I didn't love the idea of making an ass of myself.
She leaned forward again on her elbows and blasted me full in the face with every bit of her minty breath, then flashed a flirtatious grin. It gave me a crazy rush and I realized she knew exactly what she was doing. It was confusing and maddening and rapturous all at the same time. "I didn't ask you what you wanted for breakfast, sheriff ... wait - what's your last name?"
"Reese," I said almost inaudibly. The shy little boy in me had taken over.
"Sheriff Reese, I just wanted to offer a friendly ear and I also need a ride home. You told me you'd help a poor, helpless pregnant girl." She smiled slyly again and I laughed because we both knew she had me in a corner.
"Okay. I'll drive you home."
"Really? Awesome. Let me call my cousin and tell her she doesn't have to leave work to come get me."
Megan skipped playfully off to the back through two stainless steel swinging doors and came back out a couple of minutes later with Rita's blessing to leave early.
As we were walking out, she stopped in her tracks and I nearly barrelled over her. "Oh no!" I had to grab her shoulders to keep myself from smearing her to the floor. She looked at me, horrified. "I forgot to take your order!"
"It's okay, I'm not that hungry," I lied.
"No, you need to eat something."
"It's fine, really. In fact, I never paid for my tea." I reached into my front pocket and she grabbed my wrist.
"It's on me," she winked again.
My knees felt like they were going to buckle. I seriously needed her to stop doing that.
Megan lived in Shelby county, which meant the drive didn't require me to take her anywhere near The Drop. Megan had become, in quick fashion, the one person in my world I'd would do just about anything to keep away from there, but that didn't mean the ride wouldn't get interesting enough along the way. It started outside Clem's when she was getting in the car. She stood at the cruiser door and waited for me, hands folded together in front of her and turning her shoulders back and forth in an easy sway, expecting from me less the cop and more the gentleman. When I obliged and opened the passenger door, she batted her lashes teasingly. "You mean I get to sit up front with you? I was hoping for handcuffs." I didn't think the comment was out of place or off color, but when I slid into my seat and looked over to her, she had her face buried in her hands, laughing hard. "I'm so embarrassed! I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
I was perplexed. "What are you talking about?" Then it hit me.
"The handcuffs thing."
I grinned big. "You don't really think you're the first person to make that joke, do you? Don't worry, I didn't think there was another connotation."
"Fine, but I'll ask you kindly to turn your head while pry my foot out of my mouth." She cut her eyes to the windowfront of the restaurant where Rita could be seen through the fabulously unmarked glass, staring at us with obvious diaspproval. The old man and the young girl should not appear so cozy.
"She doesn't like that I'm taking you home."
"She doesn't like much. She's nice, but she's a busybody. I think she's decided that since I'm going to be a single mother, she needs to step in and take responsibility for me."
"Rita didn't have any kids of her own. Maybe she looks at you as the daughter she never had."
"She's not that much older than I am."
"She's close to my age, maybe a hair younger."
"Like I said." She winked again.
Now two things had unraveled about Megan and I and the cruiser had barely been crunk. Cranked? Cranken? One, she didn't see any relevance in our age difference, which was something I hadn't yet decided was a good thing or a bad thing. And two, whether she meant anything by it or not, her flirtatious manner was making me think there was a chance she was a little bit into me as well - yet another thing I hadn't chosen a side as to good or bad, and likely just a misunderstanding.
The one thing I did know was that Megan and her pebble were in my car with me and while Knight In Shining Armor made too much of it, I was her ride home. I asked her the address so I could plug it into the Tom Tom on my dash.
"I'll tell you when turns are coming up - there aren't many."
"Okay then," I said and backed out of the parking space. I glanced back through the window into Clem's and Rita was still holding her ground with a scowl like she expected us to be naked any second and I knew Megan and I would both be hearing about it, separately, of course.
It turned out Megan didn't care much for silence, not that I minded her talking. When we pulled onto the main road, she set in immediately, trying to get me to bend her ear and it had nothing to do with gathering information for gossip. "I can tell when someone's got too much on their plate and my intuition is screaming at me right now."
"It's not as bad as you think."
"Maybe it's the baby talking - got my senses hightened, but that doesn't mean their wrong."
"Do you know the gender yet?"
"It's too early to tell, but the last ultrasound showed a strong heartbeat, so I guess we're moving along fine."
"What do want--"
"Do NOT ask me whether I'm hoping for a boy or a girl!"
"Sorry!" I raised both hands in surrender.
"Keep both hands on the wheel when I'm in the car, please." I obediently placed them back down at ten and two. "Sorry. I don't mean to sound bossy. I was in a bad wreck when I was about 5 and I get a little nervous sometimes."
"No explanation needed. You're absolutely right. Did your parents or anybody ..."
"No, nobody died. I just don't have anything to do with my parents because they suck."
"And you changed the subject."
"I wasn't trying to, it's just that there's not much I'm allowed to say to anybody in the public."
"I get that. I don't need you to give me any names or details to be a good listener. All I'm looking for you to tell me is how you're feeling."
This didn't sound like a twenty five year old woman. She came across as learned and experienced. "You've taken a course in psychology, haven't you?"
"Nope. Just good at it."
"Well, you sound wise beyond your years."
"I get the idea you see me as a lot younger, like a teenager."
"When we first met the other day, I would have sworn you were no more than eighteen. I hope that's not an insult."
"I get that all the time, especially before I got pregnant and bought beer or cigarettes. I always figured I'd better have my ID ready before they asked."
"I hope you've put purchases like those on hold," I said and pointed toward her pebble.
"I quit smoking a while back and I've never been much of a drinker. I only bought that on occasion and I never really liked the taste of it. Take the next left." I nodded and made the left turn about a quarter of a mile up. Anyway, I don't need it and the baby sure don't."
"There's that old lady wisdom again."
Megan laughed and somewhere overhead an angel got chill bumps just like I did.
She adjusted her skirt, pulling them hem down a bit. It was knee length - a throwback to old fashioned diner wear - and I caught a glimpse of the upper part of her leg, brushed with a kiss of moonlight, and my stomach clenched. My obsession with a girl I'd met only hours ago had grown beyond fascination now. It was infatuation, so much that she could have broken any law - even killed someone - and I would have hidden her safely away. A good law man considers his oath sacred. When he raises his right hand in a declaration to keep the law at all costs, it's a serious act of dedication to a philosophy, one I thought I'd never betray. It's just that they didn't tell me about the Megans of the world.
"Head on in to Shelby," she said. "We have several miles before the next turn."
"You're the navigator."
"Do you have any kids?"
"No. My relationships haven't been heavy enough for that."
"It's the job. I'm married to that first because I have to be, at least as long as I'm at the top of the food chain where I'm responsible for everything and I haven't felt good about making a woman second fiddle."
"Well, I'm proof you don't have to be in a serious relationship to have a kid." She went uncharacteristically silent and I didn't want to interrupt her. Something she'd said had rocked her and when she spoke again, there was the slightest quivver in her voice. "I don't want you to think I regret this. I believe it's all in God's plan and my baby is a blessing. I just wish Reagan was going to be a better father or that we'd been smarter about how soon we got intimate. Now he pretends it never happened and he won't be around. I don't know - everything I say comes out sounding awful and not the way I mean it. I guess I want to make it clear that I wouldn't change a thing and I'd die for my child, but it's a learning experience, too. But you're supposed to be the one on the couch." We turned to look at each other at the same time, both of us sensing how comically dramatic our talk had become. I knew the smile I was wearing had to look goofy to her; the schoolboy now had the girl in his car. Her smile was sincere, but there was pain tangled in it as well. The things she'd said were true, but she was keenly aware of the label she would have to bear and no matter how many people she found, - people who would love her for who she was, - there would always be those who judged, even if it was well meaning. People like Rita. The explanation she'd just made for me would roll over and off her tongue through the passing years for each one she felt needed it. And like a stone, it would take on more polish and maybe become prettier or somewhat shiny, but in her heart it would still be a stone. The story of how she found her beautiful pebble.
"I'm glad you trust me enough to be so open," I said and relented to pay her the same respect by trusting her with what was troubling me. "The things I'm about to tell you stay right here in this cruiser, okay? You have to promise me because there's more at stake than people's privacy."
"You don't have to give me details."
"I think I do. I think it's the only way you're going to get a real grip on what I'm dealing with, but I also believe you're going to think I'm insane when it's all out."
"You have my word," she promised with wide eyed anticipation and as if to offer a physical example, she pulled two fingers across of the width of her lips. They were zipped. The word was mum and I knew I could trust her.
I took a breath and stared at the road ahead of me.
"By the time I'm through with all of this, you're going to be convinced I'm off my rocker."
"So you've said. I'm expecting one dilly of a tale."
"You don't know the half of it and the problem is, I don't think the story's done yet. There's an old lady who lives close to here in Shelby county, but she used to live in Waterman. Forty years ago, there was an accident."
I covered all of it. I hadn't expected to do that, but once I started, it was like a valve got stuck and I was helpless to turn back the flow of information. I think it had something to do with Megan as well. It was alarmingly easy to forget myself and slip into conversation with her like we'd been friends forever. Like she was someone I'd never hide anything from - even the darkest of details - and she'd been right. She was a fantastic listener. She didn't interrupt, but made eye contact as much as was safe with me at the wheel, and inserted the unintrusive word or sound only just enough to let me know I'd kept her interest. I gave her the back story, then moved into the present without mentioning names. I held to that much of the job, but I left nothing else out. Of course, she'd already heard about Jody, Gail, and Dudley simply by virtue of having worked her shifts at Clem's and gathering the news from the talk around the restaurant as it filtered in.
I was so engulfed in telling her the story that I didn't even pay attention to where we were as she periodically punched a finger in the direction of a turn and told me where to go. I noted from time to time that it seemed like familiar territory, but I'd checked mostly out from my internal navigation and figured I'd have to rely on the Tom Tom to find my way home.
We'd gotten pretty deep into the countryside of Shelby county when I finished and fell silent. That's when she asked me to pull over.
"Why do you want me to stop?"
"Just do, please." I couldn't read her, but I had a strong fear as to why. "There's a field up ahead on the right with a gate entrance. I want to say something."
I felt sick then. She'd taken it the way I'd known she would and she wanted out of the car. We'd talked at length for the entire drive, so I couldn't imagine a reason anything new she had to say would require my pulling over. It was a trick to help her escape the mad man and it didn't matter how far we were from where she was staying. She wanted out. Megan wanted away from me and that feeling hurt more than I think I've ever hurt before or since.
"All right, " I said, but I'd made up my mind that I'd follow slowly behind her and light the way whether she liked it or not. I'm the sheriff of Waterman. I might not have had any jurisdiction there, but I still had a duty to protect her. "Point it out or I'll miss it."
The entrance was a little further on and not hard to see with the moonlight. I backed into the entrance as far as I could without bumping the metal gate and put the cruiser in park. I stared down at my lap, severely ashamed of myself for screwing up what might have been the first relationship I'd cared about in years, whatever that turned out to look like. There hadn't been anything solid that told me it would have gone any further than the occasional ride home, but I would have taken that happily, just to be able to spend time with her.
"Look at me," she said softlty. She didn't bolt out of the cruiser. She didn't run. Instead, she shifted in her seat to face me. "Why the long face all of a sudden?"
"Megan I'm going to tell you something I wouldn't have dreamed of saying an hour and a half ago and it's probably going to come across as even more pathetic than me telling you I believe in ghosts, but here goes." I took another deep breath, then emptied myself. "As inappropriate as it may be, I like you. A lot. I've made it a determined point for a long time to keep a safe distance from women because of my position. I can't stand the thought of falling for someone, or worse - her falling for me - only to leave her every day in a constant haze of worry. What I do is dangerous and even if I don't get hurt physically, I bring home a ton of mental baggage. But then you poured me coffee."
Now she was the one who sat quietly.
"Say something," I begged.
"It's nice. What you said - I think I needed to hear something like that tonight."
"I'm too old for you. We both know it and I can't see a real possibilty that a beautiful young woman like you would be interested in a relic like me. Now I've handed you even more reason to run as far from me as you can with this Shoeshine thing and I don't blame you. So, yeah. Long face."
"Why did you think I asked you to pull over?"
"So you could jump out and walk home from here."
Megan looked out at the empty road and the tree line across from us. There was a trim of soft blue light lining every surface and it stole into the cruiser to mark her as well; a masterpiece of contrast. Peace and Pain. That strand of hair did its dance again that ends over her eye and she brushed it back once more with a finger as she turned to look at me. It was just a simple thing that for some reason held the power to sweeten my admiration for this woman. It was a portent of both youth and vitality, two things that had gone missing from my life.
"I asked you to pull over because I want to try and settle your mind. You're pretty transparent, Sheriff Reese."
"Don't do that. It's Marty."
"I could tell you liked me from the start, Marty. A woman usually can anyway, but with you it was different. You really seem to care about people and that's attractive. So maybe it will surprise you to know I like you too. There was something I couldn't explain about us from the second I poured your coffee, as you say."
"It does surprise me."
"Well, surprise surprise surprise!" She did her best Gomer Pyle, which wasn't great, but was without a doubt, adorable. "We're almost there and I don't want to talk about this with my family peeking through the blinds."
"I'm still a good bit older--"
"I don't care how old you are. I didn't expect to get into this part so quickly anyway - maybe not even tonight, but here we are. I only wanted to assure you that I'm willing to plow through this with you, however far you can let me."
"It's not a situation for a pregnant woman to be a part of. There's somebody else to think about."
We paused the conversation as headlights topped the hill to our right, coming fast. It was a Ford pickup by the shape of the lights and once the driver made sense of my cruiser, they slammed on their brakes and fishtailed for a few feet. I flashed my toplights as a warning as they passed and the driver, a teenaqe boy, stuck out his hand to tell me he got the hint.
"Justice served," Megan joked and we both laughed. "I don't plan on doing anything that would put my baby at risk. I figure you've got your deputies to handle that stuff, but subordinates don't always make the best listeners."
"Being the boss is a lonely gig. You nailed that one."
"I can see that telling me this has embarrased you and I want you to know that I believe you. Every word. We can take the other stuff slowly. It's probably better we do that anyway, because I'm about to blow up like a cow."
It was the first ting she'd said that I didn't like. "Don't say that. Pregnancy doesn't detract from a woman's beauty. It enhances it. There's scientific proof."
"I hope so."
"Thank you, though. This is the kind of stuff I didn't want to bring to the table with anyone else, especially a woman I care for. It's nice to know you've given me an open door. We have some good councelors available to us, but it's not the same as someone who's there for you because they want to be."
"A doctor's a good thing to have, but mama's care feels better, right?"
"Exactly. Let's get you home." I turned the ignition and the cruiser purred to life.
For the rest of the ride, the conversation was light and we avoided anything that leaned toward our new revelations about each other. I wouldn't call it awkward, but maybe respectful and patient are better terms. So much had already been said in so short a period of time, but she hadn't been lying about her part. The pretty young girl liked me.
My mind began an inner monologue, trying to become convinced that she'd said what she said because she's vulnerable. Soon to be a single mother. A job with little upward mobility and few prospects. A family life that involved God knew what. Why wouldn't she turn her attention to the local sheriff who had an obvious affection for her? A father figure. A symbol of authority and protection. It made perfect sense.
We turned down another familiar road at her instruction and a new feeling shot through me. Dread. I'd been there before, recently, and there were only two or three homes down that patch of asphalt. I prayed I wasn't right. How cruel had fate grown to be?
"This is me." She pointed down the driveway I had feared would be the one. We pulled to a stop in front of a small, wooden deck and from under it scooted a droopy eyed bassett hound with a signature Whoof!
"Thanks for the ride and the talk. I'm on shift again tomorrow from 8 to 8 if you want to drop by."
"I'm sure I'll find the time."
Megan opened the door before I could do it for her and slid out. "See you tomorrow then."
"Megan," I called and she ducked her head back in. "You never told me your last name."
"St. Claire," she smiled. "Megan St. Claire."