Charlene turned right onto the one main street through town, not thinking about where she was going, only that she had to get out of that hotel parking lot before she lost it completely. She had felt every eye in that coffee shop on her as she exited it, and no doubt they were still watching as she reached her car and slid into it. The horn had sounded two short beeps as she tried to open the driver’s side door before she thought to move her shoulder bag around from behind her back so that the car acknowledged the key fob tucked away in a pocket inside it. She had fumbled with the seatbelt once inside, her hands trembling, her vision blurring as her eyes welled with tears.
She followed behind a school bus loaded with high school kids, no doubt headed to the same high school she and Roy had attended, for two blocks before turning into the first sizable parking lot she saw. She pulled into a space toward the back of the lot, shifted to park, and turned the motor off. She covered her mouth with her right hand to control the sobs fighting for release.
Her head was spinning. Why had she let Roy get to her? Why had she made a scene by running out as she did?
His words had stung. As much as she wished she could, there was no denying the truth to them. Running away was what she did best, always had. She took the easy way out, the coward’s way. Just like her dad had. She was weak, just like him, and she hated it. When things had gotten difficult for his family, when he’d been unable to find steady work after moving them to this horrible little town, unable to put food on the table for them, he had taken the coward’s way out.
When Roy had gotten in her face at the restaurant, had said things she hadn’t wanted to hear, she had gotten up and run away.
Now she would be the subject of the town gossip the rest of day, just like back then. Only the chatter hadn’t just lasted a day back then; it had continued weeks, months, years.
She hated this town. She always had. So what if the locals talked about her now as they had back then? What else did they have to talk about? The last time it rained? Could any of them remember that far back?
She had arrived in darkness. With the sun now awake, she could see the deadness around her. Nothing was green except for a few trees here and there. Even the weeds in the bar ditches seemed to be suffering.
Why had Roy stayed all these years? It made no sense to her. Had his loyalty to the town, to the people in it, kept him here all this time? Had he never had the desire to go elsewhere, to move on with his life? What kept him here? Or was it who? Raylene? His parents?
If only he’d not talked about coming back here after graduating from college, would things have been different? If he’d wanted to get far away from it, as she had, would she not have married Andrew Billows?
As she used her hands to wipe the tears streaming down her face, she glanced up into the rearview mirror. The reflection of a County Sheriff’s SUV sitting perpendicular directly behind her filled it.
What the—? Had Roy followed her?
She watched in the mirror as the vehicle began moving, circling slowly around her. As it passed in front of her, she could see that the driver was not Roy, but a female, a young female best she could tell as she and the driver made eye contact before the patrol vehicle sped up as it continued through the parking lot. She watched as it made its way up the lot, finally parking in front of what Charlene suddenly realized was the local grocery store, the same grocery store where her mother had worked as a cashier for years to help pay the rent when her father was alive and to pay all the bills after his death.
Scanning the parking lot, she counted only four other automobiles, all old and beat up. Her Mercedes certainly stood out. Was that why the female officer was checking her out or had Roy sent her? If so, why?
Overcome with curiosity about the officer, Charlene started the engine and moved up, parking directly behind the shiny clean vehicle. The driver had checked her out. Now it was her turn. She didn’t care how obvious she was. She watched as the driver stepped out, closed her door, turned and smiled at her. She suddenly felt incredibly exposed and vulnerable.
The woman had a pretty smile. She was tall and slender—more shapely and attractive than Sally, but not voluptuous like Denise. She had chestnut brown hair cut just above her shoulders and big brown doe eyes. She wore a drab khaki uniform with a badge on her chest and holstered gun low on her narrow hip.
Charlene found herself wondering if the female officer ever needed to use that gun on anything other than a rattlesnake. How much violence could this dinky little town have other than bored-high-school-kid vandalism, domestic quarrels, and local bar brawls?
She let out a sarcastic chuckle as she watched the woman enter the grocery store. So, Roy had a young, attractive deputy. Was he sleeping with her, too, or was he exclusive with Denise? The thought of him with Denise, his hands fondling her large breasts, made her stomach churn.
The deputy was even younger than Denise, in her early twenties, Charlene guessed, possibly young enough to be Roy’s daughter. The sudden realization of that made her gag. She had researched him on the Internet, checked his bio as Sheriff of Culberson County. His profile focused mainly on his success as the local high school quarterback, including leading the team to a championship title his senior year.
She remembered that night well, him running with the ball with only seconds left in the game—his receiver unable to get free—and crossing the goal line to victory. She recalled how everyone had cleared the bleachers and run onto the field to congratulate him, her included. But she had stood back on the sidelines. Roy had made his way through the crowd of cheering fans in search of her. She closed her eyes to capture the memory of that fantastic night—him lifting her high in his arms and swinging her around and around in celebration. She opened her eyes and wiped a fresh tear from her cheek.
That victory had sealed him a free ride at the small university in Alpine, one hundred miles southeast, where he’d played for the Lobos for four years while earning a degree in law enforcement. She had not been there to watch him play the last two years or to walk across the stage to receive his diploma at the end of that last year.
Her heart ached at the thought of that. She should have been there for Roy. Instead, she had married Andrew during Roy’s Sophomore year. She had been a coward then, too, not having the guts to break the news to Roy to his face. She had done it in a letter, delivered to him by the United States Postal Service. She had taken the easy way out then, and again eight years later when she left him sound asleep in her hotel room. She hadn’t even left him a note that time. She had just disappeared, just quietly slipped out in the wee hours of the morning.
Roy wore no wedding ring. She’d noticed that right away at the coffee shop. His bio had made no mention of marriages, past or present, nor any children. Of course, that didn’t mean there were none. Roy was attractive, and “big man” in the town. No telling who he had slept with over the years, or how many illegitimate children he might have fathered.
Charlene opened her car door and stepped out into the parking lot just in time to lose what little breakfast she had eaten.
“Are you okay, ma’am?”
Charlene glanced up as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and was immediately mortified to see the young deputy standing in front of her.
“I’m fine,” she quickly replied.
“Are you sure? You don’t look so good.”
That had to be the biggest understatement of the decade. Charlene knew she had to look like hell, if not worse.
“Yes, I’m sure. Just not feeling too well this morning. Just in need of sleep. Long night.”
She immediately regretted the last comment, not wanting the woman to think she was suffering a hangover from a night of drinking.
“Thank you for your concern, Officer—?”
“Kellie.” The young woman pointed to her name tag above her badge as she spoke. “Deputy Kellie Michaels.”
Charlene felt a sense of relief after hearing the last name. She glanced at the officer’s left hand draped over the top of a box of fresh donuts she had just purchased in the store. A plastic grocery bag sat on top of the large box of assorted donuts. No wedding rings.
If she was by some chance Roy’s daughter, she didn’t share his last name. Charlene studied her, seeing nothing about her facial features that resembled Roy’s.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” Charlene said, pointing to the puddle of vomit on the oil-stained concrete.
“Don’t worry about it, ma’am. It’s not the first time someone puked in this parking lot.”
A voice suddenly appeared, coming from the deputy’s shoulder radio. His voice.
“Kellie, where the hell are you?”
Kellie reached up and touched the radio. “I’m on my way, boss. Need anything?”
“Yeah! I need you to get to work on time, for once!”
Charlene shuddered at the irritation in Roy’s voice. Deputy Michaels, however, seemed unfazed by it.
“Roger that. Be there in two,” she replied. She turned her attention back to Charlene and flashed her a dimpled smile.
“Sounds like the bear got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Guess I’d better get going if you’re sure you’re okay, ma’am. You seem to have turned even paler than you already were all the sudden.”
“I’m fine. I just need to go inside, to the restroom, and splash some water on my face. I’ll let someone know about this, in case they want to clean it up,” Charlene replied.
“I doubt they’ll bother. Hope you feel better.”
Charlene watched as the officer returned to her vehicle and drove away. Whether the young woman was Roy’s daughter, one of his lovers, or merely his employee, she liked her.
She turned and faced the store. Did she want to go inside? Could she handle another memory—another flashback—this morning?
The urge to get back in her car, get back on the Interstate and head back home to Dallas, was intense. But she was in need of sleep, too much so, she knew, to even drive to the nearest town. And she had to stay. She had to do what she had come to do, no matter how difficult it would be. She couldn’t run away this time. She would not run away. She had to tell him. He had a right to know.