Creepy, this cop. "How do you know my name?"
"I'm well acquainted with your driver's license. I've pulled you over twice in the past few months for riding your motorcycle without a helmet."
Oh yeah. Now I vaguely remembered this asshole. But —and it was amazing that my brain could process this in its current state—my driver's license listed my name as Margaret, not Meg. Somehow he knew I was Meg and not one of the other nicknames for Margaret, all of which I’d been called by my elderly relatives when I was little. "How do you know I'm not Maggie?" I asked the cement block wall. "Peg? Margot? Of course, Margot has always reminded me of a fungus." I was panting. "Meg, look at me."
I began to turn. As I shifted my head, the darkness closed in. The cop appeared through the bars at the end of a long tunnel that collapsed as I watched.
My skin shrank against my bones. I could feel myself shrinking and floating up.
One more nose full of ammonia and I knocked the smelling salts away with my hand. The cold of Lois's metal desktop soaked through to my shoulder blades. I turned away from the close-up of her Rolodex and faced the cop's belt buckle. He pressed two fingers to the inside of my wrist and looked at his watch, checking my pulse.
I reviewed what must have happened. I fainted on the floor of the jail cell. Ew. And the cop picked me up in his big strong arms and carried me here.
"She's faking," the cop said, hating me with his dark eyes. "She made herself pass out by hyperventilating." Yes, ew.
"It doesn't matter whether she's faking or not," Lois called from somewhere across the room. "Most high school girls would get upset if you threw them in the pen with a bunch of men."
"There were no men in the cell with her."
"Would you give it a rest, After?" Lois said.
"Better yet," I said weakly, "give it a rest right now."
The cop removed his fingers from my wrist. "Do you have any medical conditions we should know about?" he asked me in his Official Capacity.
"Do I? What year is this?" I remembered running five miles that morning. "No, not today." I sat up slowly on the desk.
"Here, sweetie." Lois handed me a Sprite. I popped the top with tingling fingers and took one gulp.
"Drink faster," the cop said. "You can't have food or beverage in the cell."
"You are not going to put her back in there," Lois said in disbelief.
"Lois, I didn't pick her up for jaywalking. You're going to let her spend the night sipping Sprite and watching
"The other three are spending the night at home with their mamas, in bed."
They stared each other down for a few seconds. "Shouldn't you be on patrol?" Lois hinted.
The cop cussed, stalked across the room, and flung open the door. This time an even larger piece of the cold night stepped inside as the door closed very slowly. He was gone.
"Thank you," I sighed.
"Mmmm-hmmm." Lois helped me down from the desk and back to my metal folding chair. She sat down, too, and spoke softly into her headset.
When she stopped talking and looked at me again, I asked. "What's his problem?"
"He's a good cop," she said. "A little too good, maybe."
"What's so good about him? He harassed me." I set down my Sprite and put my head in my hands. "If this town ain’t big enough for the two of us, I'll be gone to Birmingham soon. All I want is to graduate in June. And go to Miami next week."
She murmured into the headset. Then she asked, "Miami? What for? Spring break?"
"Yeah," I said dreamily.
"With your folks?"
"No, thank God. Tiffany and Brian and I are going with a bunch of seniors from school. It's chaperoned, but loosely. Everybody wants to go on this trip. Each year, the football coach gets the cheerleading sponsor drunk on the first night, and nobody hears from them again until the end of the week. It's a tradition."
Lois slumped a little in her chair. "I hate to be the one to break this to you, sweetie."
"Break what to me?" As if spending the night in the police station was too good to be true.
"I hope you don't think the officer who arrested you is through with you. I overheard him on the phone with the Powers That Be a little while ago. He's got your number."
"He's got my number?" Did she mean my phone number? He was planning to call me, despite his wife and fourteen children and the storage shed? He must he going through a midlife crisis.
"He's hitting you where it hurts," Lois said. "He wants to make sure you kids don't get out of these charges with your parents paying a fine. He wants you to pay. But he wants you rehabilitated, not sent to juvy. So he came up with a plan."
"I hate plans."
"One of you will spend a week riding with the fire truck, one with the ambulance, and one with the police patrol. All the people you dragged out to the railroad bridge in the middle of the night."
"What about the fourth one of us?" I asked, knowing the answer already.
She rolled her eyes. "I think everyone assumes that lawyer will get his druggie son off, like he always does."
"And by the end of the week," she said, "you'll have to turn in a proposal to the Powers That Be for a project to discourage other kids from doing what you did."
God, how Goody Two-shoes. But I was sure I could bullshit my way through this stupid proposal in my sleep. "It doesn't sound too bad. The riding around part actually sounds like fun. Maybe they'll let me drive." It probably would sound like fun if I didn't feel right now like I'd been run over by that train.
"They want you to do it during the night shift," she said.
"I can handle that."
She shook her head sadly. "They want you to do it during your spring break, so you can spend a week on night shift without missing school."
It took a second to sink in. Then I screamed, "What? That cop is the Devil!"
"No, he just understands how teenagers think."
I wasn't sure this was true. The cop thought I had plans to spend my spring break getting drunk and showing off my tits. Yes, there was that. But there was more. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I pictured the vast blue Atlantic. My parents used to talk about taking me to Florida someday when they'd saved up money. That talk stopped a few years ago. Now I'd spent my entire life five hours from the beach without ever seeing the ocean.
My first thought was for myself, of course. But my next thought was for my mom. While someone else supposedly chaperoned me in Miami, my parents were planning to take their first vacation in four years, to Graceland. They could still go while I served my time on night shift. Anyone else's parents would go. But I knew my mom. She would stay home now. Hell, she'd ride with me in the cop car if they let her. She would cancel her vacation because of me, and I would suffer the Punishment Worse Than Jail: guilt. It was enough to drive a girl to drink. Again.
"I know it seems like the end of the world to you," Lois said, patting my knee. "That's exactly what he was counting on. But an adult can see that you are very, very, very lucky, and you should be grateful. Isn't this better than going to court?"
I considered this question. Bad things could happen at court. Probably I wouldn't get locked up, but there was an outside chance. I shivered and pulled my jacket closer around me.
If I got to ride in the ambulance, it might be better than going to court. I did not like ambulances, and I liked being closed into them even less. But Quincy, my paramedic friend, would ride with me. He understood my problem and could help me out. He'd been an ass to me at the bridge, but I figured he'd been putting on a Disapproving Adult act in front of the other Disapproving Adults.
Riding on the fire engine would be even better. I'd get a lot of sleep. There wasn't much to this town, so there wasn't much to catch on fire. Definitely better than going to court.
But I might have to ride with the cops. Specifically, my cop. In that case, I wasn't so sure it was worth it.
Lois got off work at 6 a.m. and offered to take me home. She said I was supposed to stay in jail until my parents came to sign me out. But when I told her if they hadn't shown up by now, they wouldn't be here until the lunch crowd thinned out, she said screw that. Her exact words were, "Screw that. I'll take you on home, hon."
Like any fifty-year-old who had a little money saved up and considered herself a free spirit, Lois drove a VW Bug with a yellow faux flower in the dashboard bud vase to match the yellow paint job. As we stopped at the edge of the jail/courthouse/city hall parking lot to turn onto the highway, a police car pulled in. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the cop raise his hand in greeting to Lois—and then he erked to a stop half in the parking lot, half on the highway. Yes, it was my cop. I wouldn't have thought he would notice me in the passenger side of Lois's car with the streetlights glinting off the windshield. However, I did have blue hair, which was like walking around with a Sims arrow over my head.
He rolled down his window and scowled at Lois, willing her to roll down her window, too. Uh-oh. He would call her out for transporting a hardened criminal without authorization. He would take me back inside. My heart pounded and my body braced for another blow from this man who'd decided I needed a nemesis, as if I didn't get enough of that from my dad already.
Lois floored it. The g-force pressed me back against the seat as the Bug tore onto the highway. The little engine whined in protest. "Give it a rest, Officer After," Lois muttered. "I'll put you over my knee and spank your bottom."
I turned to stare at her in surprise.
She glanced nervously over at me. "What."
"Nothing." I didn't want to admit I'd been too drunk to figure out the cop's name until now. And since she was nice enough to drive me home, it seemed rude to broach the subject of sexual relations during the graveyard shift at the police department. If she wanted to engage in extramarital spanking with a man ten years her junior, well, that was between her and Officer After and his wife and fourteen kids and Lois's iguana, et cetera. Though I seriously doubted that Lois—or anyone else—ever inflicted corporal punishment on Officer After. The whole way home she checked her mirrors, expecting blue lights to burst on behind us. But he had let us go.
She pulled into the diner parking lot. Gravel popped beneath the tires. Wiping his hands on a rag, my dad glowered out at me from behind the counter. Then he turned back to the grill.
"I don't want to see any more of you," Lois told me, "at least until next weekend. Keep your nose clean." She tapped the tip of her nose twice. Some of her heavy makeup had rubbed off overnight. Red veins showed through.
Yes ma 'am, I will, would have been the polite thing to say. But I did not make promises. "Thanks for everything."
Instead of the diner, I headed for the trailer. It had come with the diner. My parents had decided we would live in it temporarily to save money until the diner got established as the town's premier eatery and they could afford to build their dream home. We lived here still.
The whole thing shook when I slammed the metal door behind me. The floor creaked as I walked to the bathroom. After my fainting spell in the jail, my body wanted to go for a jog and prove to me that it was not sick, it was not wasting away, it was okay. But my head throbbed. I needed more time to recover from the beer. And I was scheduled to work all morning. Something in my dad's glower had told me I'd better not use jail time as an excuse to skip out of work. I could jog later. I showered with the curtain open, mopped up the water on the floor with a towel. Then I slipped on a low-cut shirt that seemed inappropriate for work, yet 50 percent less inflammatory than my Peer Pressure T-shirt under the circumstances, and went to face the music.
I made my entrance through the front door so I could bus dishes and greet my dad with my arms already full. My mom sat in a booth with a couple of regulars, probably complaining to them about what I'd done now. She looked like the before on one of those TV makeover shows. Bad perm. Forty pounds overweight. Enormous T-shirt with a picture of a kitten, paws on its head, and a thought balloon: "Is it the weekend yet?" Which made absolutely no sense because both my parents worked through the weekend. We all did.
When my mom saw me, she opened her mouth. Her eyes darted to my dad behind the counter. She closed her mouth and watched me with a tortured expression as I passed. I knew my dad had coached her: When Meg comes in, don't you go over there and hug on her like she won a beauty contest.
Without a word to anyone, I stacked dishes into the washer, tied on my apron, and took customers' orders. I waitressed and cooked, cleaning each little mess before my dad could point it out to me. If I worked fast enough, adrenaline put up a wall between me and my throbbing headache.
T was chopping sausage and reliving my jail time, wishing I knew exactly where Officer After had put his hands as he picked me up off the floor so I could turn the tables and get him in trouble with the Powers That Be, when my dad grumbled from the grill, "You've got a lot of nerve to come back here."
His beard hid his chin, so I couldn't tell anything from the set of his jaw. But his blue eyes snapped at the eggs on the grill. This was new territory. He might have washed his hands of me, but he'd never suggested I couldn't come home. Until now.
Normally the implied threat would have scared me silent. But Officer After had shocked the life out of me quite a few times over the course of the night, and I'd had enough. I banged the knife down on the cutting board beside the sausage. "Oh, you're kicking me out of the 'house'?" I made finger quotes. "And you're 'firing' me?" My parents made me work, but they didn't pay me. I reminded them of this whenever I got in trouble. "Good luck getting Bonita to cover my shift. She keeps her grandkids in the mornings."