Roy tossed his hat on the free-standing coat rack as he entered his office in the west wing of the county courthouse, only to miss and have it land on the tile floor.
After picking it up and placing it firmly on the rack, he plopped down in his desk chair. He rubbed his hand across his brow, and then through his hair, blowing air out his cheeks as he did.
It had been a crazy, frustrating morning, starting early, with nothing going right, and it wasn’t getting any better. Roy hadn’t had nearly enough coffee yet, and when he’d checked the pot at the refreshment station just outside his office he’d found it bone dry. The early morning call from Raylene alerting him to Charlie’s appearance at the coffee shop had thrown him off balance. His heart had immediately begun pumping blood to the point he feared he might be having a heart attack.
And wouldn’t that be just dandy!
He’d make front page news of the Saturday morning edition of the Valhorne Advocate, right below the postings of the local Friday night high school football scores.
County Sheriff Roy Slater, former local football hero, dies while taking a dump. Found in the bathroom of his home, pants down, around his ankles.
Why did she have to keep returning every few years? And why was he foolish enough to allow himself even one moment of hope that she had come back to be with him?
He had entered that coffee shop with his defenses up, wanting to appear indifferent to Charlie’s return, though aware of the fact that he had shown up at all proved otherwise. But he had carried the ridiculous ruse too far, throwing Denise in her face, all the while longing to hold her in his arms, to thrust his lips on hers, even if she protested, just as he had the last time she returned twelve years ago. She hadn’t protested then, but she had been drunk at the time. They both had been, but he had been sober enough to know what he was doing, and he believed she was as well.
“Damn!” he muttered to himself. Why did Charlie still have such an effect on him twelve years later?
Still, Roy? Really? After all these years?
Yes. As pathetic as it was, as much as he wished it wasn’t so, he still loved Charlie as much as he had twenty years ago, and being with her that one night had only reminded him how much so.
He had long ago resigned himself to the fact that he was doomed to always love her. Even so, he was still a healthy, active man with normal sexual urges. Needs. And Denise took care of those needs with no demands of commitment. And he could never commit to her or any other woman, not as long as he continued to close his eyes on occasion and pretend they were Charlie. Not always, of course. Most of the time he was quite content with who he was with. But there were those times when Charlie was on his mind and the memory of what they once had, that last time together haunting him, and longing for her so much he thought he would die. Those were the nights he most needed Denise. But they were also the nights he left her house unfulfilled, lonelier and more frustrated than when he had arrived.
He’d accomplished nothing in the coffee shop by getting in Charlie’s face about Denise’s shapely body, other than sending her running out of the coffee shop, and possibly back to Dallas.
He didn’t want her heading back to Dallas, a least not before he discovered why she had returned. He wasn’t falling for any of that bullshit that she had driven through the night out of convenience of avoiding heavy traffic, and for no other reason than to visit her dead parents’ graves. She hadn’t felt the need to visit them the past twelve years. Why now? No matter what she had said later, when he’d first asked why she had returned, what was here to bring her back, she had replied, “My parents. And you.”
That had stuck in his mind, no matter how much she tried to blow it off later. And what about her husband’s death two years prior?
He knew Kellie could easily find that information with a quick Internet search. So, where the hell was his deputy? A quick glance at the clock on the wall above the door showed that she was almost thirty minutes late. He’d been overly gruff when he’d radioed her, but she hadn’t seem bothered by it in her reply. But then, she was accustomed to him and his bad moods, often referring to him as "grouchy as an old grizzly bear". He hadn’t minded the grizzly bear part as much as the old. He was undoubtedly grouchy as one now.
He had left the coffee shop with plans of going after Charlie, making sure she didn’t get back on the Interstate without at least getting some sleep first, even if he had to arrest her and toss her in a jail cell. But the moment he’d stepped into his SUV and started the engine, he’d gotten a call from dispatch—a disturbance at the dollar discount store just down the road from the hotel coffee shop. Of course, in this town, everything was just down the road. What was there to fight over at the dollar store? The store wasn’t even open at that hour.
He’d noticed Charlie’s Mercedes parked at the J&J Food Mart as he passed by it on the way to the one and only Dollar General. Why had she stopped there, where her mom had worked so many years ago?
He recalled all those times after Charlie had left, how he had hated going into that store when he was home from school, only to find Mrs. White the single cashier on duty. He remembered how awkward it had been for both of them, how they both worked so hard to make small talk as she checked and sacked his purchases, both avoiding eye contact, both avoiding the subject of her. It had been both a curse and a blessing when Charlie had moved her mother away. He no longer had to dread grocery shopping, but he no longer could deny that Charlie was gone from his life for good.
She had moved her mother on the weekend a little over two years after marrying Andrew Billows. Roy would never forget the date. It was the same weekend as his college graduation. He found out about her return a few days later. He’d never once doubted that she had chosen that particular weekend on purpose, knowing there would be no likelihood of running into him, of having to face him while she was there packing her mother up and moving her away from the town Charlie had always hated.
Damn Mort Johnson!
The man had shown up this morning drunk as a skunk at Dollar General, banging on the front door and yelling for someone to let him in so he could buy some Fritos. Store manager Maria Sanchez had shown up early to restock some shelves before the store opened at eight. The sixty-two-year-old retired librarian had been reluctant to get out of her car and had called in the complaint.
Seventy-year-old Mort, a retired ranch hand, had a reputation as the town drunk—a local nuisance, but otherwise harmless. Any other time, Roy would have taken the old geezer to the man’s one-room shack across the railroad tracks to sleep it off in his bed, stopping along the way at the convenience store to purchase the old geezer a few bags of Fritos. This time, however, he’d been so pissed when he’d arrived at the scene, he’d thrown Mort’s sorry ass in the backseat of his vehicle and brought him in. Let him sleep it off in a jail cell, he’d decided.
But Roy had regretted that decision almost immediately, realizing Mort would probably prefer the comfort of the clean cell to the filth of his place. He’d had to roll the vehicle windows down to handle the old man’s stench, and now his jail would smell the same. The man would probably leave flees, or worse, lice, on the bedding. And bringing him in and locking him up had taken up time, time he needed to be out on the street locating Charlie. He hoped she’d checked into the old hotel once she’d left the grocery store. But he still had to fill out an arrest report before he could check.
He slammed his fist on the cluttered desk in frustration.
“Now just what did that desk ever do to you, Sheriff, to deserve such a pounding?”
Glancing up and seeing his young deputy standing in the doorway, Roy replied, “Well, look who finally decided to show her pretty little face.”
“Sorry I’m late, boss. But I brought donuts, including your favorite with chocolate frosting. And—” She reached into the grocery sack sitting on top of the box of donuts she held and pulled out a twisty-tied, clear plastic bag full of small, colored candies. “Tada! Jelly beans!”
“You do know bribing an officer of the law is a felony, right?”
Kellie chuckled at the comment as she sat the over-sized bag of assorted jelly beans on Roy’s desk, then stood in front of the desk facing him.
“What’s got you in such a foul mood already this morning, boss?”
Roy sat back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. “Let’s see. I already had to throw someone in jail, my deputy is late, and there’s no coffee, just for starters.”
“Oops. Sorry. I’ll get a pot started, and then you can fill me in on who’s in jail and why.”
She started toward the door, then stopped and whipped around.
“Oh, by the way, I noticed a cool Mercedes sports car at the J&J. Checked it out just to see. Dallas plates. Most likely passing through.”
She turned and headed out of the office.
Roy sat straight in the chair, his hands gripping the edge of the desk. “Hey, get back in here!”
Kellie stuck her head in the door. “What? I thought you’d want your donut with your coffee. Did you want it now?”
“Forget the damn donuts and coffee! What else did you find out? What was she doing there?”
“She? I never said anything about a woman. Only the car itself. How did you know the driver was a woman?”
“Just tell me what you know.”
“I noticed the car when I went to the J&J to pick up the donuts and jelly beans. I knew it wasn’t a local, so I ran the plates. The car was registered to a Charlene Billows in Dallas.” Kellie paused, staring into space as she pressed her finger to her lips. “There’s something about that name that rings a bell, but I can’t quite figure out what.”
“So, then what? After you ran the plates?” Roy’s knuckles turned white as his grip on the desk tightened.
“I parked in front of the store, got out to go in. Interesting, though, the driver had moved up and parked behind me.”
“And then what? Did she enter the store?”
“Why the interest, boss? What’s up? Does it have anything to do with who’s in jail?”
“Just answer the question!”
“Okay, okay. She just sat there in the car. When I came out a few minutes later, she was standing just outside the car puking.”
“She was what?”
“Puking. Upchucking. Vomiting. I asked her if she was okay. She insisted she was. You radioed, I replied, and left.”
“Did she hear me?”
“Yes. You didn’t exactly whisper, you know.”
“How did she react?”
“What do you mean, how did she react? I don’t know. How should she have reacted? Why are you asking all these questions about her? What’s going on? Who is she?”
Roy jumped from his chair, sending it rolling behind him. “I gotta go.”
Grabbing his hat from the coat rack, he added, “Hold down the fort, will ya?” Then he headed out the door.
“Sheriff! What about your coffee? And your donut? And who’s in jail?”
He offered no reply as he hurried down the hallway and outside to his SUV.
A large, scrolled, iron gate bearing the name of the local, historic cemetery on the outer edge of the town marked its entrance. Threemile Mountain rose in the northwest background, overlooking the town. The lights to Eagle Field, where Roy had played high school football, stood tall just to the right.
He found Charlie sitting on the hard ground in front of her parents’ matching headstones, hugging her bent knees to her chest.
He tried to focus on her face and not her exposed thighs as he parked and walked across three rows of grave markers to join her.
She stared at the ground rather than him as she addressed him.
“Don’t you and your young deputy have anything better to do this morning than follow me around?”
“She wasn’t following you. Just checked out your car, since it wasn’t local.”
Charlie glanced up at him and offered a touch of a smile. “Guess you found out why I left Dallas in the darkness of the night. All those outstanding arrest warrants.” She held her arms out in front of her, wrists together, palms up, fingers curled. “Here to slap the cuffs on me, Sheriff, take me to jail?”
He grimaced at the thought of her in a cell next to Mort, though the idea of having her locked up so she couldn’t leave town did have its appeal.
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay, Charlie.”
“Why? Because of the way I stormed out of the coffee shop, or because your deputy reported on me soiling your pretty little town with my vomit?”
Any sign of the earlier smile vanished, her voice harsh, biting. Roy hated it. Why couldn’t they just have a civil, normal conversation?
“I was just worried about you, Charlie. But I don’t want to intrude here, so I’ll go.”
“No, don’t go. Stay. Please.”
She looked up at him with tired, red, swollen, pleading eyes, and it took his breath away. God, he wanted to gather her in his arms. She needed sleep. If only he could pick her up, carry her to his bed, and hold her close while she slept.
“Sit,” she said, patting the ground next to her.
As he did, he noticed the fresh flowers in the vase between the two headstones. Apparently, the purchase of them had been her motive at the J&J Food Mart. The local florist shop would not have been open at that early hour.
“I did not want to bring her back here,” she began saying, staring at the two graves. “I wanted her close to me. But it was her wish. She made me promise. She wanted to be by his side. She didn’t want him to be alone any longer.”
Roy wasn’t sure if she was speaking to him or herself. He sat and listened as she continued.
“But he had no problem leaving her alone. Her. And me. He left us both alone. Her without a husband. Me without a father. He left us to fend for ourselves, taking the coward’s way out, and yet, she never stopped loving him, never stopped worrying about him. That’s why it took me over two years to persuade her to join me in Dallas. She didn’t want to leave him here alone. Can you imagine?”
“We can’t help who we love, Charlie,” he quietly replied.
She turned to face him, her eyes meeting his and holding them. “No, I guess we can’t.” She quickly looked away and continued.
“She forgave him, but I never could. I can still see him as if it was yesterday. I had just gotten home from school. I came in through the kitchen. The house was so incredibly quiet, but not in a peaceful way. More of a creepy way. I remember feeling a strange chill shoot up my spine. I walked into the living room, and there he was, in the middle of the small room, dangling from a rope. His face was so pale, with just the tip of his tongue exposed, his lips purple, his eyes bugged. I grabbed my mouth to keep from screaming. I just stood there for what seemed forever, staring at him. And then I realized I needed to get him down before Mom came home from work. I was thirteen years old, and all I could think of was I had to get him down before she saw him. I didn’t want her to see him that way. I ran into the kitchen to get the largest knife I could find. I picked up the overturned chair he’d taken from the kitchen table, the one he had used to hang himself, and tried to stand on it to cut him down. But I could just barely reach the rope standing on my tip toes in the chair. I tried to hold on to the rope with one hand, cut it with the other. But the chair tipped over, and I fell, into him and then onto the floor. I looked up. He was swinging wildly from that rope, his body turning and twisting. I don’t remember what happened to the knife. I just remember jumping up from that cold concrete floor and running out the front door and down the street. I just kept running and running, wanting to get as far away from him as I could. They found me about an hour later, sitting under a tree, shivering. My teeth were chattering so hard I thought they would break in my mouth.”
She turned away from the graves, looking at Roy, who had sat quietly listening to the story he had already heard before.
“Do you know,” she continued, “I never shared that with Andrew. Not the details. I never shared them with anyone, except the sheriff at the time, and then later, you.”
Roy cringed at her mention of her husband’s name, the intimacy it implied between them. He much preferred when she referred to him merely as her husband.
“Why not?” he asked. “Why not with Andrew?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not sure. Too embarrassed, too ashamed, I guess—?”
“Ashamed of what your father did?”
“I was ashamed of that, yes. But more ashamed that I ran.”
“That was nothing to be ashamed of, Charlie. You were just a little girl.”
“Yes, I was. But I wanted to be strong that day, for her, and I wasn’t. I couldn’t get him down, so I ran away and hid.”
Roy remembered the day she had told him all this for the first time. He had held her in his arms while she cried. She wasn’t crying this time, and she didn’t seem to need holding. She had repeated the story in a very matter-of-fact manner, with no outward show of emotion.
When she finished, she continued to sit, staring toward the mountains in the distance. Roy continued to sit with her, focusing on them as well.