Shoeshine Drop

Waking

I woke up in Waterman Memorial, one room down from where I spent a few minutes with Dudley the day before. There was post-noon light filtering in through the half open blinds, but only thin, slanted strands poked at the walls, causing deep shadows to live prominently in the corners. When I opened my eyes, Hannah was standing beside me to my right, reading a monitor unit. I blinked at her a couple of times until clarity returned and I could make a sober collection of thoughts.

"Welcome back, Sheriff," she chimed with a voice soaked far too graciously in good humor to suit the way my head felt, which was a combination of razor wire and someone pounding on railroad spikes in there. I can't say it was unexpected because a monster headache always follows when I get sick, but I'm usually alone and able to come out of it without having to endure a Sesame Street puppet for a nurse. "How are we feeling today?"

"Ugh," I said and let the sound be all the explanation she would get.

"You've been asleep for a while. I'll bet you're hungry."

"Right now my head hurts too much to eat anything. Exactly how long have I been out?"

"Since last night and it's just after four in the afternoon. I'll get you something for that headache. We checked you out when you came in and didn't find any knots or contusions on your head, so I think it's from a mixture of stress and lying there too long, maybe hunger as well."

"Have I been unconscious the whole time?"

I hoped her answer would be yes. The thought that I might have babbled incoherently about anything I remembered from my experience the night before - and I remembered everything - terrified me.

"You haven't made a peep." Hannah kept her face buried behind the chart she was holding, making notes as she talked.

"No noise at all?"

"Should you have?"

"No."

"Doctor Phillips is making his rounds and said he wants to talk to you before he lets you go. I'll find him for you and bring back something for your head. You should drink some water. It's in that pitcher to your left. In fact, let me go ahead and pour you some so you don't pull out your IV." Hannah started to move around the bed toward a tray that was to my left, but she was interrupted.

"I've got it," said a voice from the shadows in the corner near the foot of my bed.

Megan stood up from the chair she'd been sitting in and I forgot all about my headache.

"Megan. I hope you haven't been here wasting your time worrying about me for too long."

She poured water into a cup from a pitcher the same ugly salmon color as the one on Dudley's tray. There was something wrong with her face, though. It had lost its light. That sparkle in her eyes was gone and replaced with a dull, almost haunted quality.

"I came as soon as I heard. Rita called in the middle of the night and asked me what I'd done to you."

"Word gets around fast."

"Some EMTs came into the diner after they brought you here and they were talking about it. I got Regina to bring me as soon as I hung up the phone." Her voice fell to my ears flatly as well. This wasn't the same Megan I dropped off at the trailer and watched bounce through the door. This version had more on her mind than new friends and fresh attractions. She was solemn and worried. That devil on my shoulder, the one that whispers insecurity after insecurity into my ear, started trying to convince me that this was more of an act of courtesy. Maybe she had slept on it and was now about to rip off the bandaid in a place where they were equipped to tend to the wound. She'd come to the realization, and probably the correct one, that any concept of "us" ought to remain highlighted by nothing more than a coffee pot and a full cup.

I told myself I deserved it. That men my age don't get second chances, not when it comes to youth and not without pain. This would be for the best in the long run.

Megan looked at Hannah and shifted on her feet, nervous. "I'd like to speak to Sheriff Reese alone if that's okay."

"Of course," Hannah said, but there was the slightest hint of distrust.  Here it comes, I thought and waited for the nurse to leave and close the door behind her. Megan took a step toward me and I couldn't handle the thought of hearing her say it, so I interrupted her the second a sound came out of her mouth.

"Marty, I —"

"Why'd they let you in here after the middle of the night? Normal visiting hours end at eight."

"I told them you'd be mad if they didn't and I guess since you're the sheriff, they didn't want that. Anyway —"

"Don't." I sighed and took a breath. I felt a rush of blood into my cheeks and knew the embarrassment I felt at being so stupid as to think this could have ever worked would be shining in my face like a beacon. "I know what you're going to say and I don't think I can take it, so I'll say it for you and maybe it'll be easier."

Megan looked confused. "Okay ..."

"I guess I ought to start with an apology. You shouldn't have to be spending your time at the bedside of a man you just met. I feel like after I spilled my guts out to you, somehow you feel obligated to be here for me, even though I imagine you've slept on it and have decided you've got better options than me. So don't worry about it. I understand and there's no need to feel bad if you're seeing clearer now after a good night's sleep."

I stopped and blinked, waiting to see how easy she was going to be on me. I expected she'd either turn and walk away, perhaps whisper a tiny thank you, or maybe she'd release a gush of air in sweet relief. There was even the chance she'd be angry with me for having the audacity to cut her off after she'd sat in that chair for hours, calculating precisely how she would break the news.

I did not expect what she did.

Megan rushed to me a pulled me into her arms. She held me as tightly as she dared without hurting me or pulling the tubes from my body, pressed her cheek to mine, and cried. I let her stay there as long as she needed, returning her embrace and taking in the sour sweet smell of tears and rose perfume.

Pulling back, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. I was at a loss for words and just looked at her.

"I'm so happy you're all right," she said softly and I suspected this wasn't the first time she'd cried over me in the past few hours. "Everybody always leaves me, whether they mean to or not, and I thought I'd lost you as soon as I found you."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"I hope not. We're still basically strangers, but I feel like I've known you for a long time. That's cheesy, isn't it?"

"Not at all. Cliche'? Yep. But cheesy, no. I feel the same way and I think it's a cliche' because sometimes it really happens."

It was amazing to hear that from Megan, but now I was even more afraid. I remembered the end of my vision and there was a part of me that hoped she did want to distance herself from me, thereby distancing herself from The Drop. Megan stepped off - will step off - Megan and her pebble. And while I would do everything within my power to stop that from happening, I had an overwhelming notion I wouldn't be able to.

"Your doctor will be in soon, but I want to talk to you about last night," she said, backing away.

""So there is still a but coming."

"No, not that. I meant every word I said last night and I haven't changed my mind. Also, I don't consider getting a phone call to tell me you'd been found passed out at that place you call The Drop a good night's sleep."

"I'm sorry. Rita shouldn't have done that."

"Yes, she should have and I'm glad she did, but that's not what's got me spooked. They told me you'd be fine when I got here. I just can't shake the dream I had a little while before Rita called. Truth is, I was already awake and shaking like a leaf by then."

I was suddenly awash with a surety. I knew she wanted to talk about The Drop. I knew it just as sure as the coffee cup sitting to my right on the table at Clem's - where I'm writing this - needs refilling. Rita will have to see to that from now on, by the way, or somebody else. Megan will never again don that cheap Clem's uniform and work the room with her coffee pot. There are things that are inexplicable. I've come to realize that I never had any control at all once things got going full tilt. I've got theories, oh yes, but that's all they really are. So to put a guess as to how we connected while she and her pebble lay in their bed and I, a county away, rode the gray, hazy Tom train to both past and future would be an exercise in futility.

For now it would have to wait. Hannah and Doctor Phillips entered the room without knocking and saw us there holding hands. Hannah cocked an eyebrow in my direction that read as an accusation. Why are you robbing the cradle, Mr. Reese? Had I tried to explain myself, I would have told her it was as much a mystery to me. I still hadn't figured out the words to describe such an inescapable attraction, but there it was, like oxygen to a man scrambling up from the deepest part of the ocean. I avoided looking at Hannah and instead, turned my attention to Doc Phillips, who also seemed to have noticed that something more than friendship was playing out, but wore it on his face in a sly sort of smirk.

Hannah came around to my left and placed a small paper cup on the tray. "That's for your headache." She still frowned with disappointment and I reckoned if Megan and I somehow made it through all of this, we'd have to endure a fair amount of that same kind of judgement.

Phillips took a look at my chart. "Anything else feel off to you, other than the headache?"

"Not really. I guess my stomach feels a tad sore, but that's probably from the vomiting." I looked over at Megan, who had retreated to her chair in the corner. "Sorry," I mouthed and she lifted a hand to tell me it was okay.

"We're gonna take your temperature one more time. We drew some blood while you were out and those tests all came back fine."

Hannah pulled out a thermometer attached to a wire and told me to hold it under my tongue.

"Don't you people have better ways to do that now? I hate those things."

"I could have told you to bend over," Phillips quipped and Hannah shook her head. "I'm sorry," he laughed. "It's an old family joke and everybody's sick of hearing it."

After a minute, something to my right beeped and Hannah pulled the thermometer from my mouth, clicking the end of it with her thumb and sending the plastic sanitary sheath to the waste basket.

"98.9," she said. "Can't ask for any better than that.

I winked at Megan, but she didn't wink back, nor show any other emotion. I dreaded what she was waiting to tell me.

Phillips instructed Hannah to go out to the desk and have them print my release forms.

"You can stay as long as you need to, but you're free to go when you feel up to it. Just remember I took it easy on you if you ever have to lock me up."

"Hannah said you wanted to talk to me."

"I've seen the results of your tests since then and your vitals are fine. Blood pressure's good, temperature too. What I was initially concerned about was your stress level and I still recommend you take a couple of days to rest before you resurge. But I can hazard a guess as to why all this happened and I would suggest you never go to a scene like that alone. You have deputies for a reason, right? Let them carry some of your load."

"Already ahead of you," I said, and as if on cue, Clark popped his head in the door.

"Everything okay, boss? They said you were awake."

"Yeah, I'm good. Who's guarding The Drop now?"

"Rose and Farrelly. Simmons and I took a shift as soon as they found you. I figured it was best we got an early jump on it." He considered his words and thought better of them. "Maybe jump ain't such a good way to put it."

I hadn't thought anything of it, but I appreciated his sensitivity.

"Make sure they remember they're to stay in the car at all times. If Ella has to pee, Rose needs to go with her and turn his back. Tell them."

"10-4. Can I get anything for you? I'm gonna assume the doctor here will be telling you to go home."

Phillips turned to him and gave an approving nod.

"I'm almost out of coffee at the house. Could you pick up a brick and run it by so I don't have to stop? You know where the spare key is."

"Sure thing."

"Where's my car?"

"It's here, parked in the lot by the ER. Your keys are at the front desk."

"Thanks, Clark. And once you've brought me the coffee, will you please for the love of God go home and get some rest yourself? You've been brilliant during all of this, but now I'm giving you an order."

"Yes, sir." He backed out of the door and was gone.

Doc Phillips wears thin, rectangular reading glasses that sit at the tip of his nose and he looked over them at me. He's maybe ten years my senior, but it made him seem much older, like a great sage or your wise, worldly grandpa. "You take your own orders and rest. There's nothing you can do for Gail Warren, or even Dudley, and you can manage the office from your house."

"It ain't that easy."

"Sure it is. Lay in bed with a fully charged cell phone in one hand and a big ol' sandwich in the other. I wish somebody would tell me that's what I had to do."

"Would you do it?"

He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. "Probably not."

"Thought so."

"Don't worry," Megan piped, "I'll make sure he takes his medicine exactly as prescribed." She shot me a cartoonish evil eye and I poked my tongue out at her in return.

"Somebody in your life can see clearly, Sheriff. That's a good thing. You ought to keep her around."

"I hope to. How's Dudley, by the way?"

"He'll be fine. The grieving will be a long process, but he'll get through it. They usually do. Did you get everything you needed from him yesterday? If not, I can have them wheel him into your room, assuming he's up to it."

I thought about our time together and there wasn't anything Dudley could add that would help. I shook my head. "Nah. He's had enough. I think I better leave him alone. Will you give him a message for me, though?"

"Certainly."

"Tell him I said not to be afraid to ask for anything from the department. I'll make sure he's got access to any resource he needs. Tell him he's not alone."

Doctor Phillips nodded. "I'll let him know. I'm glad we have a man like you looking after us, Sheriff Reese. Compassion is hard to come by these days."

"It's my job."

"I don't buy that. Something tells me it's your heart. And I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I didn't vote for you. I have a real hard time with change and I didn't know much about you, but I'm glad you're our guy now."

"Thank you. That means a lot," I said and cut a glance over to Megan, who still looked bothered, but also sort of proud.

"No problem. Bed's yours as long as you want it, but you're welcome to leave whenever you're ready."

I started to sit up and went for my IV line to take it out. "Second option, Doc."

"Let Hannah do that," he said, stopping me.

"Fine."

"Promise me you'll let your body recharge. If you die, the next sheriff might not have as much Santa Claus in him as you do. Keep him in line," he said to Megan and she nodded that she would, then he left the room for whoever was next on his rounds.

I wasn't a fan of him comparing me to Santa Claus in front of Megan. I didn't need anybody putting images of me in her mind that included old age and white hair.

When we were alone, she came to me again. "You're gonna do what he says, you know, or come next election, I'll tell everybody in Waterman how rebellious and unwilling to do the right thing you are."

"You wouldn't."

"I don't make threats. I make promises and on top of that, you don't want to be naughty or you'll end up on your own list."

I cringed. "Tell me that comment hasn't changed your mind about me."

Megan leaned over and kissed my forehead. It was heaven feeling her warm, soft lips against my skin and I hoped I got the opportunity, when the time was right, to feel those lips against my own.

I wondered how far away the reality of the vision was. Tonight? Tomorrow? Next week? How much time did we have before I either saved her or lost her?

"I'm taking you home," she said, standing back and starting to gather my belongings they'd brought to my room. "Well, you're driving ... do you feel well enough to drive?"

"Yes."

"Good. I'm going home with you until it's time for me to go to work and after that, I'm staying the night to make sure you stay put. I still need to tell you about my dream, too. I'll tell the nurse you're ready to go."

She started to leave, but I grabbed her by the wrist and she stopped. "Megan ..." I didn't want to let her out of my sight, but I had to and I knew it. "Thank you."

"Wait until you've had me taking care of you before you thank me, but just in case you end up hating me, I'll take that one."

"What will people think if they know you stayed over?"

"I'm not going to sleep with you, so who cares what they think?"

"I do."

"Let them think whatever they want. You need some help to rest and unless you have somebody else you can call, I'm your girl."

"It's a date, then?"

"No," she looked at me point blank. "It's a care visit. Our first real date will not involve my constantly fussing at you to stay in the bed and let me get things for you. You can ask me for an official date when you're ready, but I warn you - I'm high maintenance." Now she smiled, beautiful and amazing and real, and I couldn't wait to get the chance to kiss her. I wouldn't try it that night. I doubted her idea of a great first kiss had anything to do with a care visit either, but it would be worth the wait.

"High maintenance, huh? Do I need to plan on taking out a loan?"

"Maybe. I like extra cheese on my pizza."

"Oh boy, you're gonna break me."

She touched my leg as she skirted around to the foot of my bed and let out a playful laugh. She left me there to wait while she went to go find Hannah and tell her to cut me loose and simply watching her leave the room tore my heart to pieces. It would feel like that from then on, every time she left my sight.

Before long, Hannah was back, pulling off monitor receptors from my chest and head and removing the IV line carefully so it didn't hurt. I appreciated that. Megan waited, leaning against the wall just inside the door until Hannah told me I could get dressed. Hannah had a mother hen personality - I'd learned that quickly enough. Before Megan had a chance to move out and shut the door, Hannah fixed her with a scowl and told her I needed some privacy. Megan lifted her hands in surrender.

"I'm goin, I'm goin'."

I hold no illusions that Hannah was jealous of Megan, but it was clear she didn't like something about her and I chalked it up to the age thing. We didn't talk much leaving the hospital and soon we were in the cruiser, headed toward my house.

____________

"Tell me about your dream," I said before we'd even made it out of the parking lot. The sun was starting to coast back toward the horizon, but still blazed brightly enough through the windshield that we both had to squint against it.

"No, not yet. I want to get you home where we can talk about it without interruption."

"Fine by me, but let's pick up some chow on the way. I'm starving."

Megan looked relieved. "I'm glad you said that. I thought I might have to force you to eat."

"What are you in the mood for?"

"Anything but Clem's," she admitted by sticking her tongue out and pretending to retch. "I mean I like the food there, but you get enough of it after a while. Other than that, I'm not picky. Pregnancy has given me some odd cravings, but I'm always up for a meal either way." She patted her belly twice, then allowed her hand to rest there.

"Okay, what are you craving right this minute?"

Megan turned to look at me with an expression conveying that whatever it was would not suit my taste at all. I decided I was up for the challenge.

"You don't want to know."

"Oh, yes I do!"

"You think so?"

"Yep."

"Because I'm warning you."

"Consider me warned."

"Your stomach might not be able to handle the thought of it."

"Lay it on me."

Megan sighed deeply and now I know that when a woman warns you that you don't want to know something, you should believe her. And when she gives you that many opportunities to tap out, you should take them.

"A fried fish stick, bleu cheese, and melted chocolate smoothie."

I quietly pulled the cruiser to the side of the road. A man I didn't recognize was walking his dog a few feet in front of us and both he and the dog - a brindle boxer with a long string of saliva dangling from one jowl - turned to see if it was them we were stopping for. I waved them along and turned to Megan. She was waiting to meet my gaze, wearing a thick mask of satisfaction and victory.

"Why?" I whined.

"Because I'm pregnant and he wants what he wants. I think the chocolate part might be a family trait, though."

"Lindor's, right?"

She shrugged. "Doesn't have to be."

I laid my forehead on the steering wheel. "I had to insist, didn't I?"

Megan settled into the passenger seat and stared straight ahead. "I can wait until I get home for that. I have the ingredients. In fact, somebody apparently brought Aunt Carol a lovely box of what looks like pretty expensive chocolate that she hasn't touched."

We turned to each other and said in unison, "It ain't the Lindor's!" We laughed for a while and then I pulled back into the road.

Eventually, we went for cheap drive-thru burgers and took them back to my house.

I live at the end of my street, dead center of a cul-de-sac, with no one on either side of me. It was the single detail that sold me on the property and I'm still setting a little aside each paycheck in the hopes of buying up the undeveloped lots to my left and right. At the moment, there's no zoning that states I'd have to build on them and all the home owner's association would ask is that I kept it mowed. I'd like to purchase them before any of that changes so I could be grandfathered against any new rules.

I like my privacy and so far, my being the sheriff seems to be keeping anyone else from buying them, as if I have nothing better to do than barge into their homes looking for signs of criminal activity. At the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is look into any more windows than I already have while I was on shift. I don't need skeletons in closets; I want sleep in my bed. Unfortunately, there are those who see things the opposite way when it comes to my privacy. Those who relish the idea of catching a law man doing something he shouldn't. That's why I was a tad cautious when Megan and I turned off into the cul-de-sac. It was Mrs. Henley I was worried about.

Looking out from my front door, down the road and to the right, she was my closest neighbor. One empty lot lay between us, so it's not like she could make out every little thing I did, but she was close enough and she would be watching for my cruiser from her perch in the recliner parked in her living room in front of the door, which would be open. She'd told me as much.

I like to know when you're home, Marty, so I'll know who to call first if something bad happens.

She'd been standing in my own doorway when she told me that, hoping I wouldn't notice her diligently trying to see around me into the house. She'd brought over a chocolate brownie pie just to be neighborly. Of course, I told her that 911 was always the first call to make, even if she knew I was home, but I also assured her that I was there to help if needed, too. She had waved off the notion of calling the well trained emergency services. Nah, you're right there.

I fully expected her door to be standing wide open. It never failed to be and if she was in that old recliner, peering out, she'd lift a hand as I drove past.

I didn't want her to notice Megan in the car with me, but she'd likely step out of her house to watch me go into mine and she'd see. She'd be on her phone within seconds, watering the vine, and by an hour, all of Waterman would know about the strange, young, new girl I'd brought home from Clem's.

It wasn't a big deal. That's a small, southern town for you - probably any small town in any part of the world, actually. People like a fresh story to tell. New news to cover the old. What I was afraid might happen is that Megan and I would get settled in and there'd be a knock at the door. It had happened before. Something different breaks the ordinary and Mrs. Henley, pushing eighty, gets to work making sure everything's all right.

Like I feared, Mrs. Henley sat in her recliner, watching through the open front door, and waved as I drove by. I waved back and smiled, praying it would be enough to let her know I was okay and as I made it past, I continued to watch her house in my rear view mirror the way petrified drivers watch me in their's when I get into the lane behind them. That was the moment I decided it was ridiculous to hide from an old woman and started planning to add a closed garage to the side of my house.

Megan watched my intense attention to my neighbor with comical interest. "What are you so nervous about?"

"You can tell?" I asked and directed my eyes immediately back to the mirror.

Mrs. Henley's door opened and she stepped out onto her front porch in a robe and slippers to watch.

"It's hard not to notice when one minute you're going on about funny traffic stops and suddenly you're as quiet and rigid as a hawk on a phone pole when we pull down your street."

"It's my nosey neighbor. She's a talker and she's watching us right now."

Megan snorted, then turned around in her seat and waved through the back window at Mrs. Henley. "Sheriff Reese," she said playfully, "are you afraid of being seen with me?"

"That's not it. There's just something you're gonna have to understand when it comes to you, me, and other people. Wherever this goes, no matter how innocent, there's gonna be talk."

"I've already told you I don't care. You don't have to protect me."

"I'm always going to want to protect you."

"That's sweet and I wouldn't want it any other way. But if I tell you something, I need you to believe me. My whole life, I've had a hard time getting close to people who won't trust me and not just about the big things. It's the small stuff, too. Like if I tell you to let them talk, I mean it."

I snuck a look in the rear view mirror again and saw Mrs. Henley walking toward us. She'd already made it half way. "Well, my dear Megan, it's starts now," I snuffed and kicked my head backwards against the headrest.

Megan grinned big and a devious sparkle lit in her eyes. "I'm going to introduce myself," she piped giddily.

"Don't do that —" I begged, but it was too late. Megan had already bounced out of the car before I could finish. She no longer carried the somber sense of dread from the hospital room and I hoped that had something to do with our spending time together. If so, it was a good sign.

I followed suit, getting to them just as Megan was explaining that everything was fine, that I'd be all right, and that Doctor Phillips had assigned her to me for a couple of days.

"You're a nurse? How wonderful!" Mrs. Hanley beamed, then looked at me. "I'll bet that's going to set the insurance company back a pretty penny."

"No ma'am, I'm from the U.S. Government. We on Capitol Hill are implementing a new service for law enforcement and emergency responders, making sure our heroes are healthy and back on their feet in no time."

"I've never heard of such a thing," Mrs. Henley said, perplexed.

"It's a new program. I'm not a nurse, I'm a government appointed care giver."

I shifted my feet, letting Megan have her fun and noting in the back of my mind that I'd likely have to come up with some explanation when somebody called about this new program.

"We call it the SHART Initiative."

"Sharp?" Mrs. Henley cocked her head.

"No, SHART. It stands for Show Heroes A Restful Time."

I did a double take toward Megan and she winked at me. How long had she been planning to unveil that little nugget, holding it for just the right moment? It hit me that I may have underestimated her. Not that I considered her anything less than smart as a whip, but now I thought she might be a genius, especially if she'd come up with that on the spot.

Mrs. Henley lifted her chin. "Sounds like a waste of tax payer money to me."

"Oh, no ma'am! The initiative is funded by cashing in aluminum cans picked up on the highway by inmates from your state penitentiary. And if funds get low, Sheriff Reese here can just arrest more criminals." Megan smiled triumphantly, showing every one of her teeth. I noted she'd make a fantastic politician.

"I see," Mrs. Henley said. Her housecoat had fallen open, revealing the pink sweatshirt and matching pants underneath it. She pulled it closed at the middle as if the thought of them showing were somehow scandalous. "Well, Marty, why don't you send this young lady to somebody who needs her and let me take of you? I'm just right there." She pointed to her house with one hand and held the housecoat together tightly with the other. "I can be over here in a jiffy with anything you need. I can cook and clean if you want and I can run errands —"

"That's nice of you to offer, Mrs. Henley, but department code says my care giver has to be sanctioned," I added to the lie.

I felt sorry for the old woman. She'd made it known to me as soon as I moved in that she was available any day and any time. For the first few months, she'd made a habit of bringing over food. Casseroles and pies and fresh baked bread. After a while, though, I think she got the picture when I never invited her in. I was rude about it and I'm ashamed of that. She was only being the neighbor she thought she should be, even if she was too nosy. Hers was a day when being a neighbor meant more than a wave. You fellowshipped with each other, knew the details, like birthdays and who was ill and you went the extra mile to show how much you cared for them. Those days are over now and have been for a while. And I got the idea that if I ever invited Mrs. Henley inside, I might never see any peace. Like a vampire at your window. A vampire with pie, promising that if you'll just let them come in, it'll always be nice. There'll always be pie. And then once you do, it's all over. There's no end to the torment and all that pie becomes bitter in your mouth. You wish you'd never fallen into their trap. So I never let her in and it's a strategic move I've used more than once. Megan was the first person I would welcome beyond the draw bridge, across the gator infested moat, and into my castle, with open arms. Dealing with the public like I do means I protect my space when I'm not on the clock.

"I see," Mrs. Henley said disappointed. "In any case, you'll holler if you need anything at all. I'm just right over there." She pointed to her house again.

"You'll be the first to know, I swear."

"Don't swear, Marty. It ain't Christian."

Megan leaned in close to her like she would share a secret. "I've been trying to tell him that, but he doesn't listen." She was having too much fun now, but at least for a while, we weren't digging out from under a blanket of darkness.

Mrs. Henley lit up. "You seem like a nice young woman. Take good care of our Marty and see to it he takes care of hisself, too. Now I'm just over there —"

"Yes, ma'am," I said. "I'm glad you are. Thank you."

The old woman patted me on the chest and moved off to her house, just over there. Megan and I took our burgers into mine.

____________

We sat at the kitchen table, as Megan insisted she do all the unpacking of our lunch and setting it out. She wanted to put it on plates and have a proper meal, which she did, locating the dinner wear instinctively without having to ask where it was. I took a huge, obnoxious bite of my burger, forgetting my manners, then took an equally impressive gulp from my Diet Coke. Megan watched me in a natural, sort of motherly way before picking up her burger.

"Good to see you eating," she said. "I was afraid you might try and pull some macho I'm not really hungry BS."

"I told you I was starving."

"Still, I'm watching you."

I shook my head. "Between you and Mrs. Henley, I don't stand a chance of seeing any peace, do I?"

Megan looked hurt. I hadn't learned to read her fully and I couldn't tell if she was playing or if I'd really wounded her.

"Do you want me to go? I will if that's what you want."

"No!" I grabbed her by the hand that she'd laid on the table between us. "It was a joke. I'm sorry, I guess my face doesn't always match my heart. I'm relieved to have you here. For once in my life, I'm happy to have the company, especially after last night."

"You scared me for a second; I thought you were serious."

"Listen, when it comes to nosey neighbors, I guess there's some truth in it, but not with you." She blushed and looked down to try and hide it. I still covered her hand with mine. "Let me tell you something and after our conversation last night, I feel like maybe I won't run you off by saying it. Hopefully. In the supremely short time we've known each other you've brought out feelings I've never experienced until now. I realize that sounds like a line from a movie or something, but it's true. So you should know that as long as I'm in a place I think is safe, like my home, I'm gonna want you there with me. But I want it to be a safe place. You have to promise you won't follow me into anything dangerous."

"Of course."

"I want to hear you say it."

"I promise I won't follow you into anything dangerous."

"Good." I let her hand slip from mine so I could double clutch my burger and took another bite.

Megan leaned forward with her elbows on the table, fixing me with those amazing deep, brown eyes, but there was worry in them. "What happened last night?"

I sat back. She'd been stalling about telling me her dream since I woke up. "Nope. You tell me about your dream first, then I'll tell you what happened to me." She waved it off like it was no big thing. "You've put it off all day. Back at the hospital, you acted like you'd been through something terrible and said you needed to talk to me about it. It's time to spill the beans."

"I don't think so. I've changed my mind." She looked like a petrified child.

I picked up her hand again. She looked at me and now her brown eyes peered through a glassy film of tears she was trying desperately to keep from falling.

"I need to know. Especially if it has anything to do with Shoeshine Drop, and somehow I think it does. I need to know." I felt like I was pushing her. I didn't want her to think I was a tyrant, but I knew down in my bones that this was important.

She pushed her plate to the side, then cupped her head in her palm. "I won't have an appetite after this," she said.

"I'm sorry. On second thought, we have plenty of time. We can wait until later."

"No, you're right. If I put it off any longer, I'll just find another reason not to talk about it. But it seemed so real, like I was really there, that I'm having a hard time making myself be logical about it. And now that I hear myself say it out loud, I get how silly it sounds."

"Don't worry about that. I want you to walk me through as much of it as you can remember."

"I remember it all, but can I ask you something first?"

"Sure."

"Is it really that crucial that I tell you?"

"You're the one that said you needed to talk to me about it, but if you'd seen your face at the hospital ... I don't know why, but I have this sinking intuition that it has something to do with what happened to me last night and if that's the case —" I stopped abruptly, unable to finish because it sounded utterly insane.

"If that's the case, what?" She begged.

"I think it'll be clear once you've heard what I have to tell, but even if the things we both experienced last night aren't tied together somehow, you probably need the therapy of getting it out."

"Okay," she sighed and locked her eyes with mine. "It was about that place. The Drop. I've never been there, but in my dream, I think that's where I was."

My head was starting to hurt again, not because the pain meds were wearing off, but because my heart was pumping blood so hard into it that I thought I might have a stroke. I didn't want to hear what she was saying, but I had no choice. They say the best offense is a good defense and to know your enemy. I needed to know how this evil was operating.

"Can you describe it for me?"

"The Drop?"

"Yes."

"It was dark there, except for headlights. There were cars shining their headlights - two of them - but I can't remember anything else about that."

"That's okay."

"There was a lot of fog. It was thick, but not like what you told me from that old deputy's story. I remember you were there and Deputy Clark."

"Are you sure it was Clark?"

"It was him. I was looking right at him. When he poked his head in the door of your room this afternoon, I nearly screamed."

"How do you know him?"

"He's been in Clem's. He always plays Toby Keith on the jukebox."

"That's Clark."

"There was an old man and one other person with them. You."

I swallowed hard. So far she was setting the stage of my vision with all the same players.

"What happened, Megan?"

"Everyone was yelling at me and I was scared. You were all reaching out to me, begging me to come back and I wanted to, but I couldn't. I didn't have any control. I tried to come back to you, to at least call out and tell you I was trying, but I didn't have a voice. I couldn't move and I couldn't speak. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you're so terrified that you can't make sound come out even when you're yelling? Like the muscles in your face work, but your lungs don't?"

"I've had that happen in the field once or twice. It's a real thing."

"Well, that's not what was going on in the dream. Everything but my mind was blocked. Nothing worked. I ... I ..." Megan's voice stuttered and she started to cry. "I can still feel the helplessness. The loneliness and sadness. The no-control and the other thing. It's like it stayed with me after I woke up to Rita's call." She covered her face and let go. Tears came and I wasted no time going to her, pulling her tight against me and holding her, stroking her long, delicate hair while she dug her face into my shoulder.

"I'm here. I'm here now and it's over," I promised. "I'm here and it's over."

After a couple of minutes, the tears abated and we moved to the couch. It was dim in the living room. The sun had slid behind the other side of the house and only pastel slivers of light shone into the room past the blinds.

I sat Megan in a corner crook of the couch and tried to pull away from her to give some room, but she held onto me and refused to let me move far away.

"Please, stay close."

"All right. We don't have to do this anymore if you don't want to."

"I've got to finish. I still feel stupid, but if you could feel it like I do, you'd understand. I've never had a dream follow me out of my sleep and into the rest of the day like this."

"I think I understand more than you know."

She smiled at me in a way that I took as a promise. That this was real. That Megan St. Claire honestly could have deep, true feelings for me. If not yet, then some day.

"Be patient while I get this out."

"I'm not going anywhere."

There was quite a bit of time before she worked up the strength to continue and that was fine with me. I sat there and squeezed her hands tenderly in mine; silently.

"I kept trying to call out to you, hoping my voice would eventually come back. But then there was another voice that didn't belong to me or any of the people there."

"A voice?"

"It started the way you told me. It was a whisper, but it wasn't on the outside. It was inside of me. Shhooooeeeshhiiiinnnee."

Megan did the impression and my skin tried to crawl right off of its frame.

"I started to beg. The three of you were still yelling at me, but I knew by then that there was nothing I could do. No way to reply or come back to you the way you wanted me to. You told me the ghost was a girl and I remembered that, so I tried to appeal to her. I told her to let me go. That I had a baby inside of me and surely she could understand why I needed to live. After a while, I stopped pleading and just cried. That's when she spoke to me. Not the whisper. Not Shoeshine. She said, 'Not yet. I need you.'"

I wasn't sure what to make of that. It didn't seem like the sort of thing I would have expected from Tom. The Tom train barrels down the track, taking what it wants, running through obstacles, not offering explanations or hope. It must have been Regina. Had Megan and I seen the same vision from opposing sides of the forces at play?

"Are you sure it was her? Shoeshine?"

"It was a girl's voice. I'm sure of it."

Tom Renault had made a show of being quite the impressionist. I saw that in my own vision. I won't call mine a dream because it wasn't that. Something - Tom or whatever - had wanted me to see those things and had taken me there subconsciously. He'd made Dudley believe Gail was waiting for him at the bottom of The Drop. He'd spoken to the hippie boy in the voice of his father. I knew what she thought she heard, but I still couldn't be certain.

"Did the voice say anything else?"

"It repeated that last part a couple of times - I need you - like a fading echo. Then it was just me looking back at you, unable to communicate."

I bolted up straight. Too fast, actually, so that I dinged my back muscles a touch and I winced.

"Are you okay?" Megan asked, alarmed, and grasped my right forearm. My left hand shot behind me to touch the area I'd insulted.

"Fine. Made that move too quickly. Did you say you were looking back at me?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Because I thought you were standing at the edge of The Drop, looking out over it. I thought we were behind you."

"No," she said and tilted her head curiously, trying to recall the details she'd told me. "Come to think of it, I don't know that I mentioned where I was during all this and that might be the most important part. It's what I mean when I say I can still feel it - the other thing." She still had a grip on my forearm and now she tightened it. I could feel trembling and it was hard to tell whether it was Megan, me, or both of us. I was afraid of what she was about to say. I was afraid she was going to tell all about the sensation of falling. How the crisp mountain air pricked at her cheeks as she dove and tumbled, faster and faster toward her meeting with the rocks. Or maybe she'd describe the sensation of being pounded like a pinball against the wall of the cliff, adding her own shades of scarlet to the gruesome painting started by Gail Warren. Whatever came next, I didn't want to hear it, but I had to.

"What is it, Megan?"

"I wasn't on the ground." She paused a second and I closed my eyes, readying myself. "I was flying."

I opened my eyes. "What?"

"I was flying, or more like floating. Hovering in the air away from the cliff, looking back at you. I was a little bit off to your right. I have this weird certainty that it was close to the spot where she fell. Then all at once, all three of you lunged forward, but I could tell it wasn't because you wanted to. Something pulled you hard and fast, like it wanted you to fall over the edge, but I stopped it, or at least I tried to."

"You stopped it?"

"I felt this insane surge of energy when I saw you stumbling toward the cliff and I screamed. NO! Leave them ALONE! I've seen videos of hurricanes coming onto shore from the ocean and ripping houses off their foundations and there was a story I heard once about a paper straw that was driven like a nail into the pulp of a tree by a tornado. And that's what it felt like was coming out of me when I screamed - this incredibly strong power that blew you back toward safety, out of the grip of the ghost. You flew back and doubled head first over the guardrail. Two of you made it, but I wasn't strong enough for the other one. He ..." Megan stopped and pulled her hands away to cover her face again. "I'm sorry."

I reached for her and pulled her to me the way I had before and for the longest time, we sat like that with only the sounds of our breathing to counter a whipporwill that had just begun to call.

I was convinced that hers was no dream, either. It was a mystery, to be sure, and on some subnatural plane. But it was no dream. She'd been a part of the same vision, except she'd seen the play from the stage; had been a member of the cast, but the outcome had been different. She'd seen one of the men with me die, but she hadn't said which one and I wasn't going to ask her just then.

Megan pulled back and tucked herself as deeply as she could into the corner of the couch with her knees against her chest. She reached behind her and clicked on the lamp that sat on the table next to us.

"I need the light."

"Anything you want."

"The phone rang after I woke up from that and Rita told me you'd been taken to the hospital."

"Okay," I said and squinted at the room beyond her, hoping something might give me a hint about what to do next. After a couple of scans around the room, I decided that nothing was exactly what we would do for the moment. The Drop would be covered 24/7 until further notice and I trusted my team. Megan was safely with me and I intended to keep it that way, except when she was at Clem's. She'd stay with me, if she would agree to it, and I would keep an eye on her. We'd already set the ruse for her as my care giver with Mrs. Henley and frankly, it didn't bother me one way or the other what people thought. That should give us a couple of days to settle down, process things, and rest like Doctor Phillips had instructed. And it would give me time enough to arrange something that resembled a plan of action.

I leaned forward and wiped a drop of water away from Megan's cheek with my thumb.

"Here's what we're gonna do. I'd like you to stay with me for a few days. I have an extra bedroom and plenty of fresh linens. There's also a guest bathroom, fully stocked, so you'd have all the privacy you need. I can drive you back and forth to work. Is that something you'd be willing to do? If not, I'll understand. We still barely know each other, but I'm nervous right now and I want to know you're safe."

Megan smiled and wiped away another tear; the last of them for a while. "I'd like that. Aunt Carol won't miss me and Gina won't care. She'll be glad not to have to cheauffer me around for a change anyway. I'll call them tonight."

"Good. Right now I'd like to lie down in my room and nurse a ginger ale after I take something else for this headache."

Megan sat forward and furrowed her brow. "I have one stipulation and it's a deal breaker if you say no."

"Name it."

"You have to let me take care of you. None of this you're a guest in my house nonsense."

I furrowed my brow to match hers. "I promise. It'll be nice to be taken care of." I extended my hand and she shook it firmly.

"What about your story?" she asked, suddenly remembering that we'd only plowed through half of the madness. "What happened to you last night?"

"Can I tell you later? It'll make my head hurt worse to talk about it right now, but you have my word that I'll tell you after your shift."

"It can wait, then. I have to be there in two hours. Is that enough time for you to rest?"

"Plenty. I'll come back and lay down again after I drop you off."

"Okay."

Megan saw me to my bed and tucked me in. It felt natural. It felt right. She leaned over me to straighten the sheets and a breast accidentally brushed my cheek. It was innocent and I don't think she even felt it, but the electricity it fired off within me was definitely registered in every nerve. I would have to keep my focus and contain the man I was out of respect for the woman she was.

She grabbed the remote and asked if she could find me something to watch. I stopped her on an episode of COPS. I didn't expect to doze after sleeping so hard in the hospital, but the body knows what it needs and I coasted in and out of a light sleep until Megan woke me and said it was time to take her to Clem's.

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