Monday, February 19, 2018

Night Drive, by JM Taylor

It was the first time Charlie had driven alone at night, and of course he got lost. In high school, he’d never needed to drive—he had a bus or his mom or dad had driven him to practice. Now, he had to get to the college pool on his own. It was the same one he’d swum in for years, following the same coach from one level to another. But he’d never paid attention to when they turned onto which streets. In the dark, he missed first one turn, then tried to make up for it by making another one at random. Within minutes, he was in a canyon of looming triple-deckers. Cars clogged both sides of the street, and every time he slowed to see about making another turn, the line of drivers behind him honked their horns and flashed their lights.

Charlie’s eyes darted frantically from the windshield to the rear-view to the side mirror. His hands were frozen at 10 and 2, and he couldn’t even pull over to look at his phone. He had no choice but to barrel on blindly, dodging double-parked cars and glaring pedestrians. He prayed for a traffic light, or a parking lot, anywhere he could stop, but it was like he’d been dumped into a bobsled track, and he couldn’t stop until he reached the end.

Finally, he came to an intersection he vaguely remembered. A voice—his mother’s, his conscience, Jiminy Cricket—told him that turning left was the right answer, so he flicked on the blinker and banged around the corner. He hoped none of the cars behind him was a police officer, ready to nab him for signaling at least 100 feet before his maneuver.

He found himself on a wide road, brightly lit, but no less crowded. He wove with the traffic, realizing this wasn’t the road he thought it was. So much for the smart college freshman. The buildings grew seedier and seedier. The blue lights of a cop car appeared in his rear-view, and he had just enough time to clear out of the lane before it flew by him. A pair of creepy looking thugs stared at him from the dark recessed doorway of an apartment building. He locked the doors. He waited like an idiot while three cars took advantage of his getting sidelined before he got back on the road.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. That would be his mom, whose book club was meeting tonight. The clock on the dash said it was 9:30, and he was over an hour late getting home.

Finally, he approached an intersection he knew, where one corner of the zoo intruded into the wasteland. Back in familiar territory, he was fifteen minutes from home. He still had to contend with the crazy drivers—didn’t anyone in this neighborhood take driving lessons?—and with the panhandler stalking the lines of stopped cars, but at last he was safe.

He idled ten cars back from the light, his blinker flashing dutifully. The panhandler made his way from car to car, shaking a large Dunkin’ Donuts cup. Once he leaned into a window and took a bill. No, Charlie realized, it wasn’t a guy, but a girl covered with a long ratty coat too heavy for this time of year. It flashed through his mind that begging at cars was safe enough for winos and homeless men, but a girl could get into so much more trouble.

Her hair fell from under a filthy Yankees cap that covered most of her face, except for the hardened frown and an incongruously delicate chin. His horror grew when she got closer to his car and his headlights illuminated her face. Along with the pretty chin, a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose gave her something of a cute raccoon’s face. Despite the rags and dirt, she was beautiful.

And familiar. It took him a second, but then he realized that she’d once been in his English class. Last year, or eleventh grade? She’d been there only a short time, and the teacher hadn’t even commented when she’d disappeared, as if she’d never been there. But her seat had been left vacant, and his eyes had often traveled to it, like a tongue poking into the socket of a lost tooth.

The sad-eyed girl got to his window. Charlie wondered what to do. Give her something? Shake his head the way his father did, and pretend otherwise not to see her? That voice was giving him nothing. Before he could decide, she’d spotted him. Worse, she remembered his name.

“Charlie!” she called. The light changed, and he had a brief window to take off. But then she was standing in front of him, and he was immobilized. Drivers behind him started honking, and he panicked. His foot slipped off the brake, and he almost hit her. “Wait!” the girl screamed, and she dashed to the passenger door, trying to climb in. Charlie bit his lip, realized he couldn’t ignore her, and unlocked the door. In a second, she was in, and he was pulling away before she shut the door. He saw too late that he’d run a red light.

“Wow, am I glad you happened by. It isn’t really your neighborhood, is it?”

“It’s your lucky night,” he giggled nervously. He wondered how he could ask her what her name was without offending. “What were you doing there anyhow?”

“Just getting some spare change,” she said. “I’m saving up.” He couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. After a second she said, “I can tell you don’t remember me. No worries. I’m Leah.”

“Right! Did you switch schools?”

“Something like that.”

They were almost at Charlie’s house, the journey through the ghetto fading like a bad dream. “What were you really doing in that neighborhood?” he asked. “My dad says when he was a kid, you couldn’t walk a block without getting jumped. Gangs and shit.”

“Visiting a friend. Listen, Charlie, can you do me a favor? I have something I need to take care of. Could you give me a ride home?”

“Well, it’s late. I need to get the car to my mom.”

“It’s on the way. We’re almost there. Please?”

“Yeah, sure. Of course.”

She smiled and settled back in her seat. “I knew I could depend on you, Charlie.”

She guided him through a section of town he’d never been in. Unlike his own spacious neighborhood, here the houses were tiny cardboard boxes shoved up against each other, or long blocks of old apartment buildings. She led him deeper into the warren of crowded blocks until she said, “Stop here.”

“That’s your house?” he looked at a grim little cottage with a rusted chain link fence and a car older than either of them in the driveway.

“No, I’m over there.” She pointed down the block to a house that might have been the first one’s twin. “Just don’t want anyone to know I’m here. Wait for me.”

“I really need to go. . .”

“Two minutes. I’ll be right back.”

She got out, and Charlie watched her skulk through the shadows. She scanned the block to make sure no one was watching. Satisfied, she edged up the driveway to a darkened window. She stood on a water spigot for a boost, slid the window up, and swung her leg into the opening. She did it so smoothly, Charlie imagined she must have had a lot of practice.

But then it occurred to him, this might not be her house at all. Was she a burglar, hiring him as her getaway driver? He flushed, and it seemed as though all his pores opened at once, soaking through his shirt. Would anybody be able to identify his car? He turned on the radio to drown out the noise in his head.

Five minutes later, she was sliding into the seat next to him. “Thanks,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“That really your house?” he said, starting the car.

“You think I’d break into someone else’s?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“I didn’t even really break in, anyhow. My little sister leaves the window in her room unlocked. This time of night, my father’s plastered in the living room, but he keeps a Glock on the table right next to his glass. If I went in the front door, I’d be dead.”

“Seriously?” But when she didn’t answer, he said more calmly. “So why’d you make me wait?”

She looked down guiltily. Charlie thought she was lovely, despite the grime. “I need you to take me one more place.”

“Leah, I can’t.”

“OK, then just let me ride with you a little way. For company.”

He pulled away from the curb and started home. It was already after ten. They passed through a wooded area, where the road slalomed and Charlie could imagine he was driving in Le Mans. If only he could go faster. “I’m going to have to let you out soon. How are you going to get home from here?” he asked.

“Oh, my God! Pull over!” Leah shouted. In a panic, Charlie heaved to the side of the road, forgetting entirely to signal. The front wheel dipped into a drainage ditch.

Panting, he looked at her. “What? What is it?”

“It’s really important,” she said, leaning close. Her breath tickled his ear. “Do you have a rubber?”

“What?”

“Never mind,” she smirked. She pulled a glove from an inside pocket of her coat and snapped it on. Still breathing in his ear, she reached down and popped the button on his jeans and wriggled her fingers into his Y-front. “I always liked you,” she cooed. Terrified and excited, he was instantly hard, but it took only a few seconds for him to come. He flushed with shame, but her giggle was encouraging, and she lightly kissed his cheek. “You taste like chlorine,” she whispered. “Fresh and clean.”

She rolled the glove off, catching most of the come, and tied it up. He stuffed himself back inside, horrified to think what would happen when his mother climbed into the car tomorrow. Would she see the stain he’d surely left?

“Now about that other stop” Leah said, dropping the glove out the window.

“Uh, sure. Of course.” His throat was dry and he was afraid he’d hyperventilate. He hit the gas a little too hard, and they bounced out of the gully. Finally, he eased off and was able to keep a steady speed.

Before she could tell him where they were headed, his phone was ringing again. “You gonna answer that?” Leah asked.

Charlie gripped the wheel with one hand and put the other in his pocket. Just the thought that her hand had been there only a minute ago made him stiffen again. He slid the phone out and answered it. “Hi, mom.”

“Charlie! Where the hell are you? I’ve been trying to call you for an hour. Are you OK? What happened? Why aren’t you home yet?”

In the seat next to him, Leah giggled again, and he glared at her to shut up.

“I, uh, got a little lost. I had to give a ride to one of my friends, and he didn’t know how to direct me. I should be home in…” He looked at Leah for a number.

“An hour,” she mouthed, finishing it with a silent kiss.

“Uh, just a few minutes. I think I know where I am right now.”

“Do you see any landmarks?”

“Ma, I have to go. I shouldn’t talk and drive. I’ll be home soon.” He dropped the phone, and Leah helpfully hung it up for him.

“Didn’t realize I was corrupting you,” she said.

“Listen, it’s really late, and she’s never going to let me use the car again. Where are we going? Where’s this errand?”

“Turn here,” she said. Her voice sounded choked, so he complied, and they left the woods for one of the main roads. They drove past darkened stores and empty lots. After a few blocks, he said, “What did you get at your house, anyway?”

“Nothing much. Some of my mother’s jewelry.”

“So you were stealing?”

“Just keep driving.” She gave him directions to an address in the next town. When they got there, Charlie wasn’t too surprised to find an abandoned strip mall. One window had a sign that promised “Coming Soon!”, but it had faded and half fallen. Charlie pulled into a space, still careful to stay inside the lines.

“OK, wait here,” Leah said.

“Now what? Where are you going?”

“Around back. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” She opened her coat, and he saw the hilt of a hunting knife in her belt.

“What the fuck!” he cried.

“I said don’t worry. Just don’t leave without me. Be right back.” And again, she was gone, disappearing behind a dumpster.

He spent an anxious five minutes ignoring the ringing of his phone. How long ago had he told his mother “a few minutes”? It was nearly midnight. Then he heard shouting, and a short scream. He hesitated, then jumped out of the car.

Two snarling voices echoed in the dark. He rushed towards the shadows behind the dumpster, just as he heard the thump of a fist hitting bone. He rounded the corner, and saw Leah dazed, slumping against the wall. The orange glow of a useless security light illuminated a nasty cut oozing on her cheek. Her eyes flew open and flicked to one side, trying to get him to leave, but it was too late.

Across from her, a guy in a worn leather coat bent half over, guttural moans of pain, or anger, cascading from his maw. Leah must have kicked him in the balls, Charlie thought. But that wasn’t going to hold him at bay long. He stood up, ready to attack again. Charlie shouted clumsily, “Get the fuck away from her!” It wasn’t much of a threat, but it distracted the guy long enough to turn him away from Leah and face Charlie. A drug-ravaged skeleton stared back at him. Hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, missing half an ear: every nightmare Charlie’s mother had planted in his brain since he learned the phrase “stranger danger.” Charlie wished he hadn’t said anything at all. The monster turned heavily, clearly still hurting from the blow Leah had landed. But when he saw Charlie, the weight seemed to vanish, and he lunged. Charlie had just enough time to deflect the blow, but the second followed faster than he thought, and connected with his eye. A light burst in his head, but somehow he managed to keep his feet, even blocked the third blow, and pushed forward into the onslaught, swinging blindly, scraping his knuckles on flesh and bone and rock.

Somewhere, he heard Leah shouting for someone to stop. Him? The other guy? He couldn’t tell. Then she was joining the fight, wrapping her arm around the guy’s throat while Charlie beat his face and gut. Grunting, but refusing to drop, he twisted and turned, trying to fling the girl off his back. Somehow, Charlie ended up side to side with Leah, and he felt the bulge of the knife in her belt. Why hadn’t she used it?

He reached inside her coat and grabbed the knife. It slid out faster than he expected, and he almost cut her. But she knew what was happening, and let go. She dodged out of the way while Charlie drove the blade into the attacker’s side. It slid smoothly, catching once on something that popped and gave way. Charlie couldn’t tell how deep it went, but pushed harder just in case. He felt warm spurts of blood coating his hand, drenching his shirt. He heaved one more time, and the guy staggered away from them, dumbfounded, and slumped to the ground. He stared into the darkness, and Charlie stared back. There was no mistaking the eternity in his eyes. Charlie held the knife like a live thing, barely aware of what he’d done.

Finally, Leah slapped his face and grabbed him by the shoulder, “Let’s go, she said. “Now!” She took the knife and they scrambled back into the car. Charlie was putting it into gear before their doors were shut, and he bounced over the curb into the street.

After they’d gone two or three blocks, she told him, “Slow down. We don’t want to be stopped for speeding.”

“He could be after us. He knows who you are.”

“He doesn’t know anything anymore, Charlie.”

“What happened?” He let his foot up off the gas, but he still felt they were flying at a thousand miles an hour.

“The son of a whore got greedy,” she said. “Pull up over there.” She pointed at an apartment complex. Behind it, they found a dumpster, and she buried her coat in the garbage. Then she dropped the knife down a sewer grate. Back on the road, Charlie felt a little safer, but his hands were still sticky with blood.

“What’ll your mother say about the jewelry?”

“Nothing. She’s gone.”

“Like. . . dead?”

Leah laughed. “Yeah, like dead. Except she’s alive and well and ignoring the three of us. That’s why my father sits there with the gun. I think he’ll kill her if she ever decides to come back.”

“So you use the money to. . .”

“Not to get high. I figure she left me a nest egg. By the way, you’re speeding again. Turn into those woods there.”

Automatically, Charlie followed her instructions. He drove as far as the trees would let him and killed the engine. The sudden darkness was complete.

“Open the trunk. Let’s see what we got,” Leah said.

He popped the trunk and they rummaged through it until Leah found a plastic tool case and a length of hose.

“This will have to do.” She dumped the tool kit and left it open on the ground. Then she lifted the fuel tank door and unscrewed the cap. Charlie watched uncomprehending until she stuck the hose in and started sucking. When the flow started, she let the gas pour into the tool case until it was full, and then crimped the hose. “Splash it inside. Leave your phone, too.”

The voice spoke up to tell him no, don’t listen to that crazy girl, but then it fell into irrelevant silence. He sloshed the gas along the back seat and came back for more. After two more trips, Leah took a lighter from her pocket. “Your shirt, too,” she told him.

He pulled it over his head, glad he still wore a ratty T under it. Shivering, he threw the bloody shirt inside. The smell of gas hovered like a toxic fog everywhere, while the last of it dripped to the ground from the hose in the tank.

“Stand back.” She clicked the lighter, and threw it flaming into the front seat. It landed on the shirt, and instantly the interior was blazing with sooty heat. The last thing Charlie saw was his swim bag melting into a pool of nylon gunk.

The heat pushed them back, but they stood watching the inferno. His mind briefly registered her hand in his.

“It’s long walk home,” Charlie said finally. “We better get started.”

The flames threw their shadows toward the road ahead of them, flickering and alive.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lavina, by Richard Prosch


Lavina was short, with a peaked face and a wild mane of salt and pepper hair best described as frizzy. The kind of woman Danny Parks never would’ve noticed even though she lived two doors down, sharing his townhouse building.

The place had four two-story units. Danny and his girlfriend Tammy lived on one end, Lavina and her whatever-he-was on the other.

Lavina’s live-in was too young to be her husband, said Tammy, picking at her cranberry salad, twirling the lettuce around on her fork.

I ‘m still not sure who you’re talking about,” said Danny, pouring another glass of Vignoles.

The woman in the end apartment. The one looks like Rhea Perlman.”

Who?”

Rhea Perlman on Taxi.” Tammy giggled. “She sorta looks like Ronnie James Dio. You know, the heavy metal guy?”

Oh yeah,” Danny got the Dio reference. “I saw her at the mailboxes the other day.” He emptied half his glass. “Are you eating that salad or making and origami duck?”

So do you think the big guy is her son, or boyfriend, or what?

Danny threw back the rest of the wine and didn’t bother to wipe his lips. “Who cares?”

I think she’s a spook,” said Tammy.

Two days later Danny came home to one less neighbor. Before he’d even put his Ford Escort into park, he saw the open door on the unit next to Lavina’s.

Bob, the apartment manager, greeted him on the sidewalk. “Looks like you’re losing a neighbor,” he said.

Elderly couple wasn’t it? What’s going on?”

Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. Apparently she up and walked away a couple nights back.”

I didn’t know she was having trouble. Dementia?”

Not that I knew about.”

Danny’s stomach tightened with the look on Bob’s face.

Oh, no.

Bob nodded as if he could read Danny’s mind. “They found her this morning up in the woods. Been dead a while too. Looks like some stray dogs got to her.”

I guess I could’ve gone without hearing that.”

Just saying.” Bob snuffed hard and spit into the parking lot. “The old man’s gone to stay with his kids. Wanted me to water the plants, keep an eye on things until they could make arrangements to move.”

By the time supper rolled around, Danny was starved, but Tammy wouldn’t eat.

I just keep thinking about that poor old woman. Laying up there. Dogs.”

It happens. Pass the ketchup, please?”

You know what? I wonder if that Lavina had anything to do with it.”

How could she?”

Bob told me that the Peterson’s had complained about her. About her arguing with her boyfriend. Or whoever he is.”

I saw the guy you mean. Big, bearded skinhead guy out polishing the wheels on his car.” Danny described the big man and his tattoo sleeve arms.

That’s him,” said Tammy.

If you’re worried about anybody,” said Danny, “worry about him. He’s a hell of a lot more scary than Lavina.”

I think they’re both scary.”

Have a glass of wine.”

Two weeks later, another neighbor was gone. Dan and Tammy had been on a weekend outing to the mountains. When they returned, Bob was sweeping the sidewalk outside of a yellow tape barrier. The tape read CRIME SCENE in big black letters.

Damnedest thing,” said Bob when Danny asked him about it. “Nobody heard a thing. I didn’t even know Jerry was home.”

Jerry drove a truck on long hauls up the coast. He was often gone for weeks at a time. Sharing the apartment wall with quiet, absent Jerry was one of the things Danny appreciated about his apartment.

Now Jerry was absent for good.

Bob jerked his thumb toward the sealed apartment. “Lot of blood in there.”

That night neither Danny nor Tammy ate supper.

A month later, after they’d answered a few routine questions for the cops and most of the excitement was over, Tammy mentioned seeing Lavina at the mailbox. “She was really shook up about something. Real jittery.” She could’ve been talking about herself. “Danny, I think her arms were bruised.”

An image of the skinhead in all his inked glory popped into Danny’s mind. “You think that bastard’s hitting her?”

Remember the Peterson’s complained about their arguing?”

That sonuvabitch,” said Danny. Compared to an unsolved murder next door, old-fashioned domestic violence seemed fairly routine. It seemed like something a neighbor could do something about.

Next time you see Lavina,” said Danny. “Invite her in for coffee.”

It happened sooner than Danny would’ve predicted.

Two nights later, when the knock came at the door, they both jumped.

Danny cracked open the door, keeping the security chain firmly in place. In the darkness outside, by the glow of the parking lot lights, Lavina stood, shrunken, sullen, blood on her sweatshirt. Blood on her face.

Can I use your phone?” Meek. Crying.

If the sight of blood trickling out of Lavin’s nose didn’t immediately jerk Danny’s insides into a knot, the shadow of the skinhead did. He stood back a ways, behind Lavina, close to Dan’s car. His legs shoulder-width apart, his arms loose by his sides.

Then Tammy was there at the door, unhooking the chain, swinging the door wide to let Lavina in.

The woman’s eyes were wide, begging for help. “Come in,” said Tammy. “I’ll get my phone.”

As Danny turned to close the door, the skinhead spoke to him.

What was that?” said Danny. He had to strain his ears to hear.

Send the bitch back out.”

Oh, yeah. Right.

So she can take another beating? Is that it? You haven’t had enough fun?”

Seeing Lavina the way she was had fired up something inside Danny. Two deaths in the same building. Now this creep working over a helpless woman.

Danny threw caution to the wind and stepped outside, closing the apartment door behind him.

By now, Tammy would be getting Lavina some help. Cleaning her up. Making some calls.

This has to stop, man,” said Danny, walking forward. “You can’t just—“

The skinhead staggered forward. There was blood on him too.

Send her out,” he said. “Or she’ll…she’ll hurt you too.”

The big guy fell over in a pile on the sidewalk.

Tammy?

Danny spun, rushed back to the door.

It was locked from inside.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Texas Hot Flash, by Michael Bracken

Sunshine McCall--Sunshine Petunia McCall--stared hard at 40, at the crow’s feet collecting in the corners of her weary blue eyes, at the strawberry blonde hair that was now more Clairol than natural, and at the dewlap that had begun to soften the once-firm line of her jaw. Forty looked exactly like 39, but felt a decade older.

She grabbed two tampons from the box under the sink and stuffed them in her pocket. Then she strapped on her holster, checked her weapon, and headed outside to her year-old Maxima.

The drive across town barely outlasted a Tuesday two-fer from Tommy James and the Shondells on her favorite oldies station, and McCall pulled into the employee parking lot just as the local weather report began. She listened to predictions of triple digit heat by mid-afternoon before climbing out of her car and walking inside.

She found a sign taped to her locker, a bad photocopy of her photograph from thirteen years earlier when she’d joined the force fresh from the police academy. Someone with a shaky hand had written “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40!” above the photograph. The sign looked like the work of the civilian receptionist, a blue-haired woman who had worked at the station since Heck was a pup. McCall tore the paper down, wadded it into a ball, and threw it toward the trashcan.

She missed.

After she clocked in and picked up the keys to her cruiser, McCall spent a moment chewing the fat with the patrol sergeant, a crew-cut Vietnam vet who had killed more men in the line of duty than he had killed during his brief tour in country.

“Any special plans for tonight?” he asked.

“I’m going to slap a T-bone on the grill, microwave a potato, and wash everything down with a six-pack of Lone Star,” McCall said.

“Beats the hell out of my fortieth,” the patrol sergeant said. “My old lady took me out for Mexican food. Over sopapillas, she said she was leaving me for my son’s third grade teacher. I haven’t looked at Mex food the same since.”

“Women,” McCall said. “Go figure.”

The patrol sergeant’s laugh let her know that he appreciated the sentiment, so she joined him.

Later, alone in her patrol car tagging motorists with her radar gun as they crested the hill near Wal-Mart, McCall glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror and pondered her need to denigrate other women when surrounded by police officers. She cut her thoughts short when a minivan crested the hill at seventeen miles over the posted speed limit. McCall pulled onto the road behind it and flipped on her lights.

Half a block later, in front of Lowe’s on the other side of the Franklin Avenue intersection, the driver pulled her vehicle to the shoulder. After McCall keyed the license plate into her computer and discovered the plate number was clean, she stepped out of her cruiser. As she approached the minivan, the driver’s door opened and a pudgy brunette swung her leg out.
Stay in the car, ma’am!” McCall instructed.

The driver hesitated, and then drew her leg back inside and pulled the door closed. She was rolling her window down when McCall reached the door.

“I’m sorry,” the driver said. “I didn’t realize--”

McCall cut her off. “License,” she said. “Proof of insurance.”

“Sure. Yes. I have those,” the woman said as she dug through a suitcase-sized purse. McCall watched the woman closely, her hand on the butt of her sidearm, prepared to draw if anything unexpected came out of the purse.

In the back seat, a baby of indeterminate gender began to fuss, sounding as if it was working itself up for a serious wail. The driver stopped fishing through her purse and handed a wad of things through the open window.

McCall took the woman’s driver’s license and proof of insurance, carried them to the cruiser, and keyed the information into her computer. The driver had no wants or warrants, so McCall wrote a ticket and carried it back to the driver. By then the backseat baby was at full volume and the woman was anxiously shaking a stuffed rabbit in its face.

“Sign here,” McCall said over the baby’s screams.

The woman turned, hastily scribbled her name at the bottom of the ticket, and took her copy from McCall’s hand a moment later.

McCall returned to her cruiser, drove to a small diner where she knew the restrooms were kept clean, and called in to say she would be out of pocket for a few minutes. Inside the restroom, a one-seater with a secure door, McCall stripped off her holster and used the facilities. Then she changed her tampon. Her flow had started the day before, six days later than usual, and she would have worried about pregnancy if there had been a man in her life. Instead, she attributed her increasingly erratic cycle to the same source as the midnight sweats and the mid-afternoon hot flashes.

As she pulled from the diner’s parking lot, McCall spotted a faculty parking sticker on the rear window of the Lexus in front of her and wondered what subject the driver taught at the local university.

Her brother Moonbeam Able McCall--M. Able McCall on his academic papers, Dr. McCall to his students, and Abe to his friends--taught medieval literature at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. They hadn’t spoken since their parents’ funeral following their death in an automobile accident. Their parents had been returning from a WTO protest in Seattle when an intoxicated high school student T-boned their Volkswagen Vanagon at a poorly lit intersection.

After the funeral, after everyone had returned home and she was left with her brother in the only building that remained at the commune where they had been raised, he called her a “sell-out.”

They had stood toe-to-toe while he accused her of perpetuating the growing police state, of violating the civil liberties of the innocent and underprivileged, and of betraying their parents’ ideals. After the first two minutes, McCall imagined seven different ways she could put her brother facedown on the floor without breaking a sweat. Then she smiled and walked to her room, packed her suitcase, and carried it to the rental car. Moonbeam followed her like a yapping Chihuahua until she opened the car door and turned to face him.

“Bite my ass,” she told her brother before climbing into the car and driving away.

The first time she’d left the commune--a patch of land on the northern California coast halfway between Mendocino and Ft. Bragg--McCall had been squeezed in the backseat of Ford Pinto, unaware of its flammability. A long, circuitous route took her from the commune, through the coffee shops of San Francisco, to performing as the lead singer in a Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead cover band that toured the U.S. for a year before collapsing under its own pretentiousness following a Saturday evening gig at a Holiday Inn just north of San Antonio.

She bounced from job to job until a one-night-stand’s off-hand comment about her conservative opinions led her to the police academy.

Since then, she’d spent more than her share of time in redneck bars where overly familiar men called her “Sunny” and invited her to ride their moustaches. Sunny? She’d never been Sunny, not even as a round-faced hippie child attending the small-town school where the commune sent its children in their peasant dresses and hemp sandals.

That life had been long ago and far away, a time when her parents’ generation believed they could change the world by wearing blue jeans and love beads. Except for a few holdouts, those same people were now worried about Social Security and Medicare Part B. Instead of protesting against the pigs, they were demanding better police protection from departments straining under the weight of increased need and decreased budgets.

Sweat rolled from McCall’s armpits and stained the elastic of her bra. Her hair clung to her forehead and she pushed it away before reaching for the controls on the cruiser’s air conditioning. She pushed the fan to its highest setting. The air conditioning in the car hadn’t been designed to combat central Texas’s triple digit summer heat, and the fan did little more than shift tepid air from one part of the cruiser to another.

An hour after leaving the diner, McCall responded to a domestic dispute and was the first officer on the scene. She pulled her cruiser to the curb and stepped out. As she pushed the door closed, a large man burst from the house. He had shoulder-length hair, glassy eyes, and a fat roll that obscured his belt. He stood on the porch waving an automatic nearly engulfed by his meaty fist.

McCall pulled her sidearm and dropped behind her cruiser. She rested her forearms on the fender as she drew down on the man. The metal seared her bare forearm but she didn’t flinch.

“Put the gun down!” she commanded. “Put the God-damned gun down!”

The man stared at her as if he didn’t understand what she was telling him.

A woman with a baby on her hip stepped onto the porch behind him. McCall no longer had a clean shot.

“Put the gun down, Harry,” the woman implored. Her voice sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.

A second police cruiser slid to a halt behind McCall’s and the patrol sergeant slipped from it.

“Put the gun down!” McCall shouted again.

Harry raised his hand and the sergeant shot him in the forearm. When he dropped the gun and collapsed on the porch, his wife ran to him.

“Nice shot,” McCall told the sergeant.

He glared at her. “I missed. I was aiming at his chest.”

McCall radioed for an ambulance as the sergeant approached the wounded man, kicked away the automatic, and suffered the verbal abuse of the man’s wife.

After the ambulance had taken the fat man away and the scene had been secured, McCall returned to the station to prepare an incident report.

The bluehaired civilian receptionist gave her a chocolate cupcake with a single burning candle and sang “Happy Birthday” in a warbly voice.

McCall thanked her, blew out the candle without making a wish, ate the cupcake, and sat at her desk until she completed the paperwork required following any officer-involved shooting. She never mentioned the sergeant’s comment that he’d missed.

After she completed the paperwork, she stepped into the institutional gray women’s restroom, changed her tampon, and returned to the streets.

Nothing much happened the next few hours and McCall returned home after the end of her shift, slapped an inch-thick steak on the grill, and sat on the back porch killing her first Lone Star while the steak sizzled. She could hear children playing in the next yard, heavy metal music from down the street, and dogs barking somewhere in the distance. What she couldn’t hear were her own thoughts.

Forty was better that way.