Thirty minutes and two slices of pizza later, the school year officially ended and the student body surged from the building like a pimpled-skin tsunami.
Gabby kept a steady pace toward the parking lot as the wave passed around her. Emma trudged next to her, lugging her stuffed backpack on her back, the searing June heat adding to her suffering.
Gabby, carrying nothing but a notebook, smiled. “You need any help?”
Emma grunted. “Nope.”
“I got it. I should have emptied my locker before today.” Emma readjusted the straps cutting into her shoulders. “That was a great way to end the year, Gabs.”
“Yeah, it was better than finding Marcus’ tablet or proving Sandy didn’t cheat on a test. At least I got paid this time.”
“In pizza,” Emma said.
“Still counts.” She laughed.
They stopped on the border of the parking lot and watched the juniors and seniors screech off the school property with joyful urgency.
Gabby sighed. “Look at them. It’s not fair. In middle school, it used to be cool to be a year older than everyone else in my class. But now, I’m the only fifteen-year-old freshman— “
“We’re sophomores now,” Emma said.
“Freshman, sophomore, it doesn’t make a difference. My dad still won’t let me get a driver’s permit. I’ve been stuck riding my bike since sixth grade. It’s…”
“Embarrassing,” Emma said.
“That’s a good way to put it. I want a car so bad! What about you? What kind of car do you want, Em?”
“I’m in no hurry.” She motioned across the parking lot. A short blast from a police siren split the exiting cars like the Red Sea and a sheriff’s cruiser approached. Emma grinned. “I like my ride.”
“Your dad isn’t going to let you drive that around town, you know.”
“Well, not with permission.”
Gabby laughed. “You are an awful influence.”
“You wanna ride home?”
“I’m not going home.”
“Right,” Emma said. “Father Peters.”
“That’s okay. We can drop you off there too.” Emma leaned against the cruiser like a television model showcasing a contestant’s potential winnings. “This ride will be substantially sexier than your pedal-powered two-wheeler with nubby pink tassels.”
“True.” Gabby grinned. “Yours has cool lights. Mine only has reflectors.”
Emma opened the door and leaned in. “Dad, can you pop the trunk?”
The trunk creaked open. Gabby retrieved her bike and tossed it inside, using a bungee cord to hold the trunk down, the front wheel dangling out of the back.
Easing into the back of the police car, she slid across a hard, plastic seat with two indentations wide enough for two average-sized butts or one massive ass with two large cheeks. Each seat included a deep notch for cuffed hands.
“New back seats, Mr. Durant?” Gabby asked.
“Do you like ‘em?” Sheriff Durant said, putting the car in gear.
“Not my first choice, no.”
“Our passengers aren’t too kind to the furniture. This should help ‘em last longer. Besides, it’s easier cleanin’ up the vomit.”
“That’s… nice,” Gabby said, raising her butt off the seat to make sure she wasn’t resting in day-old bodily fluids. “You have a lot of vomit, do you?”
“Mostly just the drunks,” he said.
“Can you drop her off at the church?” Emma asked.
“Sure. You still meetin’ with Father Peters after all these years?”
“Every Friday at three,” Gabby said. “It still helps. I guess I’ll stop going when it doesn’t anymore.”
As the car bounced out of the parking lot, Gabby glanced over to the empty seat next to her, wondering, conflicted.
Gabby knew God had given her gifts, great gifts that allowed her do things most kids her age couldn’t do, like take on Mr. Thompson’s challenge without a second thought. But she also knew those same gifts might direct her here one day, to the backseat of a police cruiser, with her hands cuffed behind her back. It wouldn’t be because she was pursuing something illegal, probably. It wouldn’t be for a slice of pepperoni pizza. In fact, it would probably be for all the right reasons. Yet, no matter how noble her intentions, Gabby was certain such a ride was inevitable. She just hoped Sheriff Durant would be the one to put the cold, metal cuffs around her wrists. At least he’d be gentle.
She sat back and tried to enjoy the air-conditioned ride, knowing the drive to the church wouldn’t take long. Safety Harbor was only five square miles. It took her less than thirty minutes to ride her bike from one edge of town to the other. It’d take a lot less in a sheriff’s car.
She knew most people in town and nearly everyone at her high school. Gabby loved that.
She knew few as well as the Durant family. The town elected Emma’s dad as the sheriff seven years ago, and he had ran the small police force ever since. They had ten officers in all. Five full time, and five part time. The bigger cities surrounding Safety Harbor had claim to bigger crimes and that was fine with Gabby. Her small town wasn’t perfect, but she couldn’t imagine a better place to grow up, despite the scars it had given her.
As it turned out, their ride to the church would not be direct. A blare from the police radio pierced Gabby’s thoughts.
“Ten-eighteen, Sheriff Durant,” the radio chirped.
Durant pulled the hand set from the dash. “This is the sheriff. I am en route to Espiritu Santo Church.”
“We have a ten-thirty-three across from the Depot Ice Cream Shop,” the dispatcher said. “It involved a train.”
“Oh God,” he mumbled as he hit the sirens and turned on the lights. “Hold on, girls.”
Gabby’s body pressed into the plastic seat as the businesses on Main Street flashed by in a blur.
“What’s a ten-thirty-three?” Gabby asked.
“An accident,” Emma said.
“Dispatch, how many cars were involved?” Durant asked.
The radio hummed with an ominous pause. “None, sir. It was a pedestrian.”
Gabby could see Durant’s head drop slightly and his hands grip the steering wheel a little tighter. There was no way he could shield himself from the gruesome scene that awaited him.
“When we get there, you two will stay in the car. Do you hear me?” he said with a fatherly tone. “Do not get out, and do not approach the crime scene. I’ll have one of the other officers take you where you need to go.”
“Yes, sir,” Gabby and Emma said.
Other than her father, Gabby trusted few people. Sheriff Durant was one of them. Not because he was the top dog in local law enforcement. That was just a side benefit. It was because Emma and Gabby had been friends since preschool and had rarely spent a day away from each other. The Durants were as close to blood as Gabby had known and she needed that. Within her was an unrelenting void she couldn’t define, and it drove her to create a patchwork of friends to fill the emptiness.
The Durants were the first she let into her heart, and they had helped stem a rising tide of loneliness that seemed to grow inside of her each year.
The car lurched as it slowed, and the tires shuddered as they passed over the raised railroad tracks. Gabby peered through the window at city and county vehicles scattered along the side of the road, their lights sparkling the sky. Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances. It seemed as if every city employee with flashing lights showed up.
Between two fire trucks Gabby spied a large, taped-off area near the tracks, in the middle of which lay a body covered with a bloody cloth. Almost two hundred yards further, she could see the end of a long train. A shaken engineer rubbed his forehead as he relayed to an officer the events that led to a mangled body lying in the grass.
“You girls wait here,” Durant said as he thrust the car into park. He hurried over to the scene, his large frame moving with surprising speed.
Gabby and Emma sat in the idling car, the fan of the air conditioner dulling the sounds outside.
“I wonder who it was?” Emma asked.
Shivers ran up Gabby’s spine. “I hope it’s not someone we know.”
“Gabs, it’s Safety Harbor. We know everyone.”
“I know, but…”
Above the whirl of the air conditioner, through the noise of cars, onlookers, and the occasional siren, Gabby heard a sound she recognized.
“Oh God, no,” she said.
She opened the door to hear the pained cry of a wailing child.
Tomorrow – Chapter Three.