Empty-handed, her change purse still clutched in her fingers and bursting with coins from the coffee fund, Dacie Mae pushed into the cool morning air. The sun was still low. Shadows painted the streets and buildings in abstract shapes, all in a somber gray. A fitting shade, she thought, considering what’s transpired. They waited for her like mutant, predatory leeches. Or maybe birds waiting for their mama to regurgitate her meal into their ravenous, gossiping mouths. “A little bird told me,” she whispered to no one in particular, her heart suddenly tripping wildly inside her chest.
What had she just seen?
The boy who asked her to dance at every dance from sixth to twelfth grade, even though she denied him every time. By their senior year it was their inside joke, though there was no inside between them beyond that one silly thing.
But in light of the gruesome scene hiding behind the shining silver kitchen door, it seemed more like one big thing. The gravity on the earth seemed to shift or the center of her mass was quite suddenly and violently thrown off. “Whoa there, Dacie Mae,” she felt a hand grip her arm and pull her back to standing. She was aware of voices around her, “Dacie Mae, Dacie Mae, Dacie Mae,” they begged her, chirruping at her like starving birds.
“Hank!” The Sheriff’s bark diverted the attention of the assembly. Their cries for satisfaction now took on the form of his name, “Sheriff! Sheriff!” They wanted to know. Was it one of their own? Who else would it be? Why it had to be Tommy Baker, they knew, because Tommy Baker was the only one ever at the diner so early. Their frantic questions settled like a dense fog in her brain. “You all will just have to wait.” The Sheriff made an attempt at a pointed look in Dacie Mae’s direction but the pallor that had swept over her young face switched his mental gears even as the words started barking from his mouth, “Hank, get her outta here. Take her across the street. Stretch her out on Solomon’s cot and get your fanny back over here. We have work to do.” He began to turn, shifting his massive shoulders to fit through the partially opened door, but stopped and threw a dangerous look at the crowd. “You all leave the girl alone, you hear? Leave her be. She can’t tell you anything anyway, so just leave her be. The more you stay out of our way, the faster we’ll have this done and the faster you can have your answers.”
Acquiescing silence was their only reply.
The crowd shuffled away, forming whispering cliques in the stretching shadows.
“All right, Dacie Mae,” she felt Hank slip her arm behind his neck and as he began to dip down she realized with no small amount of horror what he meant to do.
“For all that’s holy, Hank Robertson, don’t you dare pick me up in front of all these people,” she hissed and despaired at the lack of strength in her voice.
She felt the heat of his words on her neck, smelled the coffee on his breath, “I let go and you’re a puddle on the ground.”
“Where’d you get the coffee,” she implored, her words no more than a murmur.
He didn’t hesitate but scooped her up there in front of half the town. She would never recover from this. “I made my own coffee,” his words were steady, not at all winded from carrying what she knew must be a substantial burden. “Some people still do that.”
“You’re stronger than you look, Hank Robertson.”
“Next time I’m just gonna let you pass out on the street.”
She felt the urge to struggle, to fight, to let him and the town know that her one very brief moment of weakness had passed but her muscles felt like Jello, trembling, quivering. Across the streeet, Boss McGee held the door open wide for Hank, welcoming them in to the biggest predatory leech nest of them all, the offices of the Wallace County Gazette. No one inside asked questions. Her co-workers stood near their computers, waiting. They knew Dacie Mae wouldn’t divulge anything in Hank’s presence. So they waited, feigning stunned silence and concern.
In the back office, Billy Solomon was not on his cot at the moment, thankfully. Billy Solomon was a big man with a big snore and Dacie Mae imagined she would rather pass out on the printing room floor than share space with him. Hank lowered her down, gentle as though she were a child, precious and fragile. The indignation must have flashed through her eyes for he said to her, “I could bump you around a bit, smack your head on the slat there. If that would make you feel better about this.”
“The only thing that would make me feel better about this, Hank, would be for you to leave,” but again she heard the lack of conviction in her words, though in her mind they had sounded much more vehement.
Unimpressed, Hank stood and stretched. “Maybe you ought to start takin’ your coffee black. No sugar.” He stretched as though he had just lifted the front end of a truck off a trapped victim, like his muscles were kinked from the exertion and he might never recover, and winked at her. “If you hear what I’m saying.”
Boss McGee didn’t bother to hide his snickering as Hank slipped past him, off to process the crime scene where Tommy Baker lay cold and unmoving. She wanted to be angry again, to focus on the men and their teasing, but at the thought of the black pool against the red tile the quaking took over again and she thought only of being warm and still and in control of herself as she ought to be. This was no way for a future journalist to behave. ©2012 Gwenn Wright