It was four months since he got back to her and Michelle Williamson was not pleased.
She knew when she had left him that Chief was flaky when it came to things he couldn’t handle. It showed when he forgot to pick up the kids from school; it showed when he forgot important dates like their anniversary, or recitals. The worst was trying to find him. She’d call and receive answering message after answering message.
Eventually, she’d have to call a babysitter (bless that Larisa), and drive into the nearby city to find Chief. After following a trail of drunken stories from unsavory people, she’d find him blacked out in some cheap hotel room. Unlike many, Michelle had the stomach for the task.
It was her 28th year in the police force, and the detective had seen some gruesome stuff in her line of work. Especially, during the couple of years she worked as a coroner’s assistant, every dead body in a 25-mile radius of Juanita came to the slab at the far side of town next to the lake.
Michelle turned down the radio music in her car, listening to the message on her phone. Chief? Picking up the kids? Where was he going to take him? The fire had destroyed everything. She had gone out at dawn to check if all the telephone calls were true.
Sure, enough, that old, rackety house was burnt to a crisp. Chief had to be hurting, but Michelle didn’t care.
She turned up the radio, listening to the local station play a rock ballad.
Gathering her straw-like hair, she twisted it into a high bun. She flipped down the mirror, checking her lip-gloss. It was a clear shine, one that brought out the natural faded pink. Michelle licked her lips. It tasted like peppermint, soothing. Glancing down the road, she watched as a couple high school students crossed the street to the pizza parlor.
Leaning forward, she set her hand on the dash and peeked at them. “Uck…” She noticed the dash was dusty, a couple dead bugs on it. Flicking one, she brought her focus back to the students disappearing into the building. If Chief wanted to pick up the children, that was fine with her… after all, he was staying with… oh.
Realization hit Michelle.
She snorted, kicking the gas pedal as she leaned dramatically back in her chair. The engine revved, startling one of the students as they closed the door.
Michelle slumped back. Miss Maybelline was there. Chief was staying with her, so of course he’d come to pick the kids /and her/ up. She felt disgusted. Out of all the things in her life, it was envy that made her stomach churn.
Leaning over, she grabbed her water bottle. Gulping down the urge to vomit with the luke-warm water, “The day just keeps getting better.” She said to no one, but herself. Picking up a coffee cup from earlier, she sniffed it, then took a hesitant sip. It was ice cold, but still… it was coffee. She drank it.
Soon enough, the students left the building and Michelle forced herself out of her car. Striding across the street, she waved at the two teenagers, “Hey, stop. Come here, you two.”
They looked hesitant, but stopped.
She reached down, fixing her belt and swaggering from the motion as she came to a halt in front of them, “Right, now, see here,” She sniffed, brushing her thumb lightly against her nose, “I see you got one bag… for the each of you… that’s not much for two people, now is it?”
The lanky, buck-toothed girl spoke up, her voice squeaking, “We’re not very hungry, you see.” She glanced at her raven-haired friend, who dressed in black and orange like everyday was Halloween.
Michelle looked between them, wondering why these kids were taller than her, “Really? Because you know, it’s important you eat enough for your body to grow. Now, let me see here, you’re Johnson’s girl aren’t you?” She asked the fair-haired girl, figuring the other was already a lost cause… she wasn’t taking a liking to the way the goth kept huffing and rolling her eyes. She was just about ready to pop that girl one.
Focusing on the pipsqueak, she watched the girl nod, “Y-yeah, Cindy.” She smiled.
Michelle nodded, holding out her hand, “Good girl, Cindy, well, I’ll be on my way, but there’s just… one thing that strikes me as weird—“
“What?” Came a scoffed sound from the goth girl.
Michelle took a deep inhale, counting backwards in her head, “—is that what comes in a bag from a pizza place? May I see what you got? I’m sure it’s delicious.” She kept her hand out, then, didn’t wait, she grabbed the bag from Cindy.
The girl squeaked, “N-no, it’s not…” Michelle looked inside.
Her brain shut down slightly as she stared at the contents.
Inside the dirty brown bag was… a gerbil? She looked at Cindy, “What is this?”
“It’s a gerbil. Gawd, I can’t believe the town pays you for this.” The goth whined, “Shouldn’t you be like cracking a meth lab or something?”
Breathe, Michelle reminded herself, “Well. Someone has to keep an eye on you kids.” She handed the bag back to Cindy, “Lord knows, your parents aren’t doing it.” Michelle gave a direct look to the goth girl, “Ginger.”
The girl looked insulted, “Uhh, it’s Hell now.”
“My name.” She rolled her eyes.
“…Right.” Michelle turned, walking back to her car. This was a waste of her time. Stupid teenagers and their freaking gerbils… wait, a gerbil in a bag was still weird – though not illegal. She turned again, heading away from the car and towards the building. The girls were still standing in the same spot.
She groaned, gesturing to them, “You can go now!” They jumped slightly, though Gin—‘Hell’ made up for it by flipping a rude gesture. Michelle had to let it go, breathing out harshly as she opened the pizza parlor door. She walked inside, pulling at her belt again.
The woman made a mental note that this was the last time she was shopping for belts at the new department store in town. City folk coming in and running a fashion store in Juanita, she should have known better than to shop there. She’d go back to the local leather shop next time.
As she opened the door, a little bell rung, causing a young man to glance up from a magazine. He was hunched over the front counter, his mouth open in a gaping expression and staring at Michelle.
There was slow realization and he set down the magazine, “Oh, Detective Williamson, so nice to see you again.” His air was mocking. He smiled tightly at her, his long face stretching at the strain.
She snorted, glancing up at the menu as she got closer to the counter, “How’s the business doing, Joey?” Placing her hands in her pockets, she relaxed slightly.
“Oh, you know. People love their fertilizer around here.” He held back a chuckle, glancing up at the menu behind him as well, “Pretty soon, I won’t even need to work here for the old man anymore.”
Michelle laughed, looking back to Joey. Ah, his aging face reminded her of the irony that he worked at the pizza parlor now. “So, I hear you’re selling gerbils now too?” She raised an eyebrow.
Joey returned the laugh, picking his magazine back up, “No comment, officer.” He said, slurring his words, “Speak to my attorney.” He glanced over the edge of the magazine towards Michelle.
She sighed, grabbing the top edge and smacking it down to the counter. “Listen here, you dirty crook,” She teased. She knew Joey, so she wasn’t going to try to get anything out of him. By this point, they were playing around like they use to do when they were kids… only back then, cops and robbers didn’t include gerbils and pizza parlors.
She played along anyways, trying not to smile as she leaned towards him, “I came here hungry. First I hear about grass, then I hear about gerbils. I’m up to my neck in homicides and you’re fucking around with…” She wrenched the magazine away, looking at the busty woman on the cover, “Gamer International?” Michelle rolled her eyes, “Get me a goddamn pizza, Joey, or else I’ll arrest you. Call you a witness for something. Keep you in jail for a few da—“
“Okay, okay.” Joey stood, waving his hands, “I got this. Sit down, relax, pop a few pills, roll in some mud, whatever you gotta do.” He shrugged, walking away to the back of the parlor.
Michelle smiled, leaning against the counter with a nod. She’d wait patiently for her pizza now, feeling amused by the exchange. Even her bad mood towards Chief had diminished some. In a way, she was glad she didn’t have to pick up the kids. Now she had time to…
Michelle glanced towards the back room where Joey had disappeared. Mischief shone in her eyes as she realized they were alone. The woman moved away from the counter as she listened to Joey’s whistling echo from the kitchens. Joey wouldn’t say no to some friendly intimacy, would he?
Michelle didn’t get much time to think about it as a sudden crash sounded.
The noise startled her, quickly looking to the source. The front door of the parlor had swung open, crashing into the wall and swaying from the momentum created by impact. The movement caused the entrance bell to ring softly.
Walking over, Michelle went to close the door. Odd, it wasn’t windy out at all. She stepped out onto the sidewalk, looking both ways. No one was nearby. With a soft hum, she turned to go back in the parlor. As she turned, her chest constricted and she found herself staring ahead, paralyzed.
“Michelle?” Joey’s concerned voice drifted into the woman’s hearing, sounding distant before fading into silence.
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