Officer After cranked (he engine and pulled onto the highway. We sat in silence for a few minutes, except for the radio, Demetrius's moaning, and my own breathing in my ears.
Finally Officer After said, "Meg."
He probably realized I was going to faint again. My arms were crossed. I'd learned in public-speaking class at school that this position told people you felt uncomfortable. As if I could have hidden this. It also pushed my br**sts up so I looked like I had a more ample bosom. In addition, my chest heaved with heavy breathing. My skull-and-crossbones T-shirt looked like a pirate flag waving in the breeze. No wonder Officer After had noticed.
"Meg, I'm sorry," he said. "It's illegal in Alabama to drive without a seat belt. I can't have you doing something illegal in my police car."
It was touching for him to be so sweet to a criminal. I felt halfway guilty about making him feel bad. It really wasn't his fault.
However, as I was having some trouble staying conscious, I concentrated on my own needs. I hit the button to roll down the window and hung my head out like a dog. Between moans. Demetrius complained about the wind and the cold. But unlike Zeke, he didn't mention my privates, so he was easier to ignore.
Watching the sickeningly familiar highway and trees and buildings spin by, I wondered whether Graceland was everything my mom had dreamed or if she was actually more impressed by the chandelier in the lobby of Memphis's Comfort Inn.
I wondered whether the football coach, the cheerleading sponsor, and my classmates had reached Miami in the bus yet. I wondered if they would get drunk first thing, or if they would run down to the beach first, like I would have done. I wondered how the sand felt between their toes, and whether the water was soft and warm.
I sat up when we pulled in at the emergency entrance of the hospital. "What are we doing here?" The hospital was one of my least favorite places to visit.
"I may have broken the suspect's arm." Officer After looked sideways at me. "By accident." I followed at a safe distance as Officer After dragged Demetrius out of the car and led him into the emergency room.
Tiffany met me in the entrance with a violent hug that nearly knocked me down. "It was so exciting to listen on the scanner to what was going on! I wish we could trade places!"
"Be careful what you wish for," I said as Officer After came back alone. "Tiffany, this is Officer After, who arrested you. Officer After, this is Tiffany Hart, who doesn't remember you."
They shook hands more cordially than they should have. Officer After didn't have a problem with her touching him while he was in uniform.
"I am so sorry," Tiffany giggled and gushed. "You know how it is when you're drunk."
"No, he doesn't," I said. "He's been sober since birth."
"Me too!" Tiffany said. "Until last Saturday." She tilted her head annoyingly. Officer After showed his dimples.
"But I do remember him," she said. "You know who this is, don't you, Meg?"
Officer After's dimples faded.
"Mr. Harrison, my yearbook faculty sponsor, also taught AP English last year. John was the only John in that class." She touched Officer After lightly on the hand. He didn't flinch. She prattled on, "But his full name had such a ring to it that Mr. Harrison used the whole thing, Johnafter. The seniors told the yearbook staff about it, and we all called him Johnafter, too. It was a running joke that if we couldn't decide which picture to use in a certain place, we'd say, 'It's the perfect place for Johnafter.’"
"So he's in the yearbook fifty times?" I asked.
"We didn't have any pictures of him. No social shots. We decided he must be very antisocial." She elbowed him in the ribs. "No, just his senior portrait and his track team picture. He was on the track team that won the state championship last year, with Will Billingsley and Rashad Lowry and Skip Clark. And he dated Angie Pettit. And"— she pointed at him as more came back to her—"he was in Spanish class with you and me, Meg."
I turned to him. "¡De verdad!"
"Sí." He eyed me warily.
"I missed that completely," I said. "I must have been in the back of the class, smoking meth and hacking the Department of Defense computers. So, Johnafter, you're only eighteen years old?"
I'm nineteen," he said self-righteously, as if this made all the difference in the world.
Then he cut off my outraged protest by informing me that even though his shift was over, he would have to stay late (or early, since it was 6 a.m.) to wait for the Suspect to Receive Medical Attention and Transport him back to the Detention Facility in his Vehicle. Tiffany offered to drive me back to the police station so I could get my motorcycle. Officer After slipped into the emergency room to guard Demetrius.
One night down, four to go.
Before my shift at the diner started, I ran inside the trailer to snatch last year's yearbook. Throughout the morning, between cooking orders of bacon and eggs, I flipped through the pages.
Alphabetically, he appeared on the first page of senior photos, where After, John should have been. But his name was printed Johnafter instead. That Mr. Harrison was a real card.
I double-checked the name, because the photo wasn't the cop. It was a senior in the fake tux they made boys wear, with a thin face and longish blond hair. Like a normal boy.
The only thing I recognized was the heavy-lidded dark eyes. At first. But as I studied him, the sensitive mouth seemed familiar. And the chin. Last night in the dark car, the only thing I could see clearly most of the time was his chin in the glow from the radio.
In fact, the longer I stared at this normal boy, the clearer the memory became of glancing at him in Spanish class last year. We passed yesterday's graded homework down the rows and leafed through the pile to pull our own sheets out. One page was always decorated with intricate doodles in the margins, careful little illustrations of the Spanish words. Perro. Sombrero. Corazon. I watched where this paper went. To an older boy with blond hair in his eyes, cute but shy, not my type. Not the type to like girls with purple hair, or whatever color mine was that month. Anyway, he wouldn't look at me, or if he did, not for long. I would have remembered his dark eyes.
I stared into those eyes in the yearbook photo. I examined the caption underneath. Johnafter. Track 1, 2, 3, 4. Track Team Captain 4. ACT High Scorer 4. He got the highest score in the school on the ACT. So did Tiffany.
I was called upon to spoon up some cheese grits just then, but I puzzled over the problem in my head. Something didn't fit with Johnafter.
Just a few years ago, our town was in the middle of nowhere. Lately Birmingham had spread out to meet us. The outskirts of the metropolitan area were only a few miles away. Our small town had lost some of its charm and retained all its backwardness. Families moved to this area from up north to work in the car factories springing up everywhere. Not knowing any better, they bought the cheap houses being built here. They stayed here until they figured out it was no fun and moved closer to Birmingham. So for all practical purposes, our town was still in the middle of nowhere, but now we had a Target.
If you were college material, right after graduating from our high school you escaped to UAB. Then you found a professional job and settled in Birmingham, never to return. Except on special occasions, such as passing through on your way to the beach.
If you weren't college material, you settled here in town. You had a baby at nineteen and then thought, duh, it's too bad I don't have an education, because I need a job. After a few years of working as a janitor, then a telemarketer, then a vinyl-siding salesman, you opened a shitty little diner. Your ingrate daughter got sick and dyed her hair blue. What a disappointment. You wanted said ingrate daughter to remain in town and keep your restaurant out of trouble by doing a large portion of the work for free. But alas, your daughter was college material. If she could keep out of jail.
What you did not do was make the highest score in the school on the ACT, then decide to cut your blond hair off, put on twenty pounds of muscle, become a cop, and stay here.
Something had happened to Johnafter.
I peered across the bag of chopped onions at the yearbook on the counter. I stared at his photo, with my hands over my mouth. And I realized that something was happening to me. For the first time in my life, I had a crush. On a cop. Who was never leaving this town.
Beware the Ides of March.
When I got off work at two in the afternoon, I rode my motorcycle to the city park. I could have jogged my daily five miles up and down the highway in front of Eggstra! Eggstra!, but I preferred the park. The hospital and rehab center were nearby. Lots of people with knee injuries or multiple sclerosis gimped along the track. It made you think that if they could do it, you could do it. Even if you had just spent eight hours flipping pancakes at Eggstra! Eggstra! on top of eight hours being faked out by a teenage cop.
As always, I stretched my muscles in front of the decorative park gate tiled with red, blue, and yellow handprints from my elementary school. Tiffany's handprint was there, and Brian's, and even Eric's. Mine was toward the bottom-left corner. I still remembered how thrilled I was to see my handprint and name on the wall for the first time, back when I was young and dorky(er). I thought I was famous. Along with everybody else in the third and fourth grades. Now I regretted that a little piece of me would be cemented to this place forever.
I braced myself on the wall with one hand, put my leg behind me, and pulled on my ankle to stretch my quadriceps. My head throbbed and my blood tingled from too much caffeine.
The trees in the park held tight to the tiniest bright green leaves. The sky was so blue it looked fake, and the yellow daffodils looked plastic, like in a cemetery. This told me I was really sleepy and/or I really needed to get out of town.
And jogging toward me came the ghost of Johnafter.
I think I actually did a double take. His shirt was off, showing the sort of six-pack abs I saw all the time on TV but rarely in person. His white skin glowed against the bright greens and yellows of the park. Probably from living in the dark on night shift. His blond hair looked white, too, and from this distance, his dark eyes were holes in his face.
He didn't look like a forty-year-old cop to me anymore. I didn't see how I had ever made this mistake, either. And he didn't look like the boy from the yearbook. He looked like what he was, a nineteen-year-old with a fantastic body. Get this—I resisted the urge to hide behind the tile wall, I felt shy in front of him. Like I admired him from afar, but I knew I didn't have a chance with him. Suddenly I wished my hair was not blue.
He jogged to a stop in front of me and panted a few times to get his breath back. Finally he said, "Hey," as if I was some girl from school instead of his prisoner.
"Hey," I said.
He looked at the wall. "Are you on here?"
I put my leg down and kicked my handprint on the wall to show him. I picked up my other ankle behind me.
He bent down to look at my handprint. "Mmph," he said. "Near Eric."
This irked me for some reason. "Are you on here?" I asked quickly. As I said it, I realized I'd been scanning the wall for his name the entire time I'd been stretching.
He walked to the opposite end of the wall and reached way up to put his hand over a handprint. It was almost as far from mine as possible.
I craned my neck to see. "Why is yours the only one on the wall that's black?"
"I went through a Goth phase when I was nine." He looked pointedly at me. "T grew out of it."
Did he mean my blue hair was immature? Ass. I said, "And you grew into your cop phase."
He turned without a word, walked into the parking lot a few paces away, and opened the door of a pickup truck. Great, I'd pissed him off. Riding around with him tonight would be fun fun fun.
To cover his na**d muscles, he pulled on an Audioslave T-shirt I remembered him wearing in Spanish class last year. Only it fit him more tightly now. He lit a cigarette, slammed the truck door, and sauntered back to me.
I gestured to the cigarette. "What do you think you're doing? Flaunting your youth and good health in front of the cripples?"
His brown eyes widened at me, and he glanced toward an old lady moving at glacier pace on her walker. "It's the one thing I do wrong." He took a drag and sighed through his nose like he did when he was frustrated, but this time he exhaled smoke. "It keeps me awake. I'm tired. I'm always tired. The human body is not designed to work from ten p.m. to six a.m."
"Have you tried coffee? Mountain Dew? Red Bull?"
"That would keep me up too long. I want to sleep when I get home. I already tried and failed for eight hours. After my days off, my first day back is always the hardest. I came here to run and tire myself out." The picture of health took another drag from his cigarette. "Did you just get up?"
"No, I just got off work."
"Work!" He ran one hand back through his hair with a puzzled expression, as if he couldn't quite believe it was gone. "Where?"
"For how long?"
"Since your shift was over."
"My parents are at Graceland. I was supposed to go to Miami on the senior trip.' If he'd been in uniform, I probably would have added some sharp pricklies to this, such as, "I can't go to the beach thanks to you, bastard." Strange how I could say this to an enormous cop, but not to a cute blond boy in an Audioslave T-shirt. "They thought it was safe to leave town when I was leaving, too. Now that I'm staying, they need something else to keep me nailed down. Like Purcell, the as**ole cook from last night, calling them to say I haven't shown up for my shift or something. They don't trust me. I wonder why not."