"Look," he said, "I didn't mean to get into all this. Let’s not even joke about the idea that I picked a suspect to hook up with. I mean, here we are, driving around all night alone in the dark, and I have a gun and handcuffs."
What he was trying to get across is how threatening this situation should have been for me. But I didn't see it that way. I got chills in the darkness at the thought of him coming on to me. Granted, I was allergic to handcuffs, and I didn't want to be threatened with a gun. But the whole scenario smacked of some X-rated leather-heavy adult movie, and suddenly I very much wanted to be an adult. With Johnafter.
I couldn't see his eyes clearly in the darkness, only the lower half of his face. He bit his bottom lip gently. Vulnerable.
"Why did you pick me?" I asked.
"You remind me of someone."
"With blue hair?" I laughed. "Who?"
"No. You know that story you asked me about the first night? Those kids getting killed on the bridge?"
I nodded at the freight train I knew was about to hit me.
"Kids think it's a ghost story," he said, "but adults still remember it as a tragedy.'
"How do you remember it?"
"Both ways." He sighed through his nose, this time a long, slow sigh. "You remind me of that girl who died. She was a lot older than me, but she lived in my neighborhood. You have the same eyes."
I blinked. My eyes were blue. Probably they were accentuated by my blue hair. I hadn't checked. I knew green hair hadn't done much for them.
I felt a low rumble in the floorboard of the car, stronger than the car's engine. Automatically now, I turned to the tracks and saw the white circle of headlight. The train had traveled through town and reached the bridge.
John continued. "Both of you have the same idea that you need some bad boy to show you life. You know he'll get you in trouble, and you don't care. You'd follow him anywhere." He shouted above the train's horn, which was excruciatingly loud through my open window. "And the worst part is, you won't admit that to yourself. A boy will be your downfall."
"Oh." I tried the door handle. "Let me out." I slapped the door with the flat of my hand. "Let me out, John, I swear to God!" I started to climb through the window at the same time I tried the handle again. The door swung open over the gravel, and I fell on my ass on the sharp rocks.
I thought I heard John call to me over the noise filling the clearing, but I just ran, away from him, toward the train.
The captain of the state championship high school track team caught me by the arm in two seconds. "Meg, come on. We're supposed to be looking for that Kia. We don't have time for this."
I pulled my arm away. "We don't have time for me to be completely creeped out that I'm riding around with you because I remind you of a dead girl. But we have time to drive down a dirt road and make sure the bridge is still here." I whirled around and gestured into the dark where I assumed the bridge was. "Well, I'll be damned. It's still here. It hasn't lifted up its girders and waded downstream."
"You don't know me. You don't know anything about me. You see me once, trespassing, stoned, which I might add is somewhat out of character for me no matter what you choose to think, and you decide you have me all figured out? Graduating from the police academy does not qualify you as a psychiatrist."
"Was it your idea to go up on that bridge?"
"It wasn't that other girl's idea, either."
The train passed, but this time I didn't turn to watch its taillights disappear into the trees. I was locked in a stubborn stare with Johnafter's dark eyes.
The racket of wheels clacking on the rails lifted, leaving only the low hum of the police car underneath. This deep in the forest, tree frogs should have been screaming in the trees, but it was only March. They hadn't woken up yet.
"If I could—" he started, then realized how loud his voice sounded. He cleared his throat and said quietly, "If I could save just one person, just you, all this would be worth it."
"All what would be worth it? Carting me around for a week? Or being a cop in the first place?"
There was more gentle lip-biting. He crossed his arms and looked toward the railroad tracks. He wanted to melt into the shadows, I knew, but too bad. He was standing in the beam of the police car headlights, as brightly lit as if he were number one in a police lineup.
"John, did you become a cop just so you can save people from the bridge?"
"It's not that simple," he told the tracks.
"That's screwed up, John."
He turned back to me. "It's not that simple." he said again, through his teeth.
This was really a problem for him. I took in the whole picture of him, dark eyes, scowl, crossed arms.
Then I thought about what I must look like in the headlights' beam. I had crossed my arms at some point without knowing it. I looked the same as John, but with the blue eyes of a dead girl.
We stood there by the bridge, at this impasse, for what seemed like a long time.
Finally I took a deep breath and uncrossed my arms with effort, letting them hang by my sides. I felt na**d. "The Kia knows you're looking for him and you're probably working all night. He plans to hide out somewhere until morning, then blend into the rush hour traffic headed to Birmingham. In the meantime, he knows you're the only one chasing him. He figures he's not that important. So he'll pick a hiding place that has two ways out, like I said."
John uncrossed his arms. "For instance?"
"The quarry. The airport. Behind the rental storage buildings."
He nodded at the car. "Let's go."
On the bumpy drive back to the main road, I tried to gauge whether we were on speaking terms again, or whether we were going to spend the rest of the night plus three more in this uncomfortable silence. I tried it out. "Why are you bothering? He dumped the shit out the window fifteen minutes ago."
"Even if I caught him with something, it wouldn't stick. Usually doesn't. Or he'd be out in six months. I just like to scare them."
Right before he pulled onto the main road, he turned up the radio, probably so he wouldn't have to talk to me again. He still bit his lip gently. But by the time we reached the dirt road through the woods that eventually would snake behind the storage buildings, he'd recovered. With a glance at me, he said, "You know an awful lot about hiding from cops."
"I don't make daily drug buys, if that's what you're thinking. I go parking."
He grinned, showing his dimples.
"Don't act like you're above it," I laughed. "Next weekend, I'd better not find you in all my parking places."
"I don't need to go parking anymore. I have an apartment."
"That's right. I forget you're the big nineteen." I had assumed he still lived with his parents. Now I wondered what it would be like to make out (or more) in a boy's apartment. No cops to sneak up on you. No parents to walk in on you.
Who liked me only because I reminded him of a dead girl. So. never mind.
He cut the headlights, and the car crept to the edge of a cliff. Below us, we could see the roof of the Kia behind the storage buildings.
"If you drive down there," I said, "he'll just escape the other way. That's what he's counting on. You have to walk down there, point your gun at him, and yell at him in that charming way you have."
John radioed to Lois and opened the door. As he got out, he tossed at me, "You have a brilliant criminal mind."
"Thanks, I think." I watched him walk down the road through the forest with his hand on his gun. The floodlights over the storage buildings hummed low.
“We're doing Mickey D's instead of the diner tonight?" I asked as he steered the car into the McDonald's parking lot.
"No, too early."
True. 11:30 p.m. was way too early for lunch.
"I just need to chase off these loiterers," he said.
The curly-haired loiterer I recognized as Will Billingsley, John's alleged former friend from the track team. I didn't know him that well, but I knew who he was. Everybody knew who Will was. Will was very friendly. The redhead was Skip Clark, and the hunky black guy might even have been Rashad Lowry.
John must feel cocky after successfully apprehending the small-time drug buyer. He'd impounded the Kia. Now he was going after his friends? Yes, they were standing where teenage loiterers stood to see and be seen, at the edge of the playground, by the picnic tables. But they also were eating trench fries, so they were patrons. They couldn't technically be considered loiterers.
John waited for me to round the car, then crossed the parking lot with me. I was about to suggest he reconsider his tactics with the town's youth when Will called, "Little Johnny Afterrrrrrrr!"
John broke into a huge smile, dimples and all.
As John reached their circle, Rashad leaned in to give him a bear hug, but Will held Rashad back. "Don't touch him while he's in uniform," Will said.
"Apologies," Rashad said. "I forgot I am not to touch the incredible expanding Johnafter."
The fit track team boys towered over me, and John was only a little taller than them. But they gave him more room than they gave one another. The dark blue uniform and broad chest and I'm-in-charge stance created a bubble around him. He was one of them, but not. One of these things was not like the others.
"Vat have you been up to, Governor?" Skip asked with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.
"The relentless pursuit of crime," John said. He pronounced crime with a long southern drawl and a wink. Then he burst into laughter with the rest of them.
Seeing him jogging at the park had cracked the window so I could peek into his soul. Seeing him with his friends threw the window wide open.
He was so nineteen.
As if he could read my mind, he turned to me and whispered, "You didn't see me laughing." To the others he said, "Don't make me laugh while I'm in uniform."
Skip asked John something else about work, and Will turned to me. "I know you from high school. Meg, right?"
"Why are you riding around with John? I'll bet you're one of those suspects from the bridge."
John called across the circle, "No, she's undercover."
"Oh, like Sydney on Alias," Will said. Of the possible comparisons, that was pretty flattering. He tugged a lock of my hair to see if it was a wig.
Disapproval flashed across John s face. I wondered whether no one was supposed to touch me while he was in uniform, either.
Will noticed John's look. He moved his hand away. Loudly enough for John to hear, he asked me, "What do you think of Officer After so far?"
"He's an excellent driver."
"He wasn't always," Will said. "I taught him to drive. The police academy may have helped some." He pronounced police academy strangely, the same way John did. This was an old, old joke between them.
"We're headed to the Redneck Riviera tomorrow," Rashad said to John. "You want to come?" That must have been why they were hanging out around this town. They'd stopped here to visit their parents on their way to the Florida Panhandle for spring break.
"I already asked him," Will said. "He has to work."
"Just because you're not in school doesn't mean you don't deserve a spring break," Rashad told John. "Even the fuzz needs love."
"Looks like he's already got some," Skip said.
Everybody looked at Skip blankly.
Did he mean me?
"Anyway," John said, "I don't think I'd be welcome, if Eric's going."
"He's not going," Skip said. "His parents grounded him because of the bridge incident. Can you imagine? Grounded."
Indeed I couldn't imagine. John and Eric were the same age. John was a policeman, and Eric was grounded.
"He's not too grounded," Rashad said. "I saw his Beamer five minutes ago."
"Not grounded from driving his Beamer," Will said. “Just grounded from driving two hundred and fifty miles to the beach. Come on. You don't expect grounded to mean the same thing for him as it does for everyone else, do you?"
Skip took a hit off an imaginary roach. "I am better than you," he said in a stoned voice. "I am a high. School. Graduate!"
Rashad guffawed, but John and Will didn't laugh. In fact, Will seemed to be giving Rashad and Skip a warning look they didn't see.
John pointed at me. "Coffee?" I nodded, and he turned and walked toward McDonald's. I stopped myself from calling after him how I took it: cream and three sugars. After one night with me, John knew how I took my coffee. We drank a lot of coffee.
Will watched John until the door to McDonald's closed behind him. Then he yelled, "Skip, you dummy. What did you say that for?"
"What?" Skip asked innocently.
"Making fun of John for being a high. School. Graduate?"
"I was making fun of Eric, not John."
"Besides," Rashad said, "John's more than a high. School. Graduate. He's a graduate of the police academy."
He pronounced it strangely, too. They were all in on the joke. They must have really ribbed John about it last summer when they finished high school and everyone but John left town.
Will shook his head and turned to me. "So, you're dating Eric? What's that about?" "Not really dating," I said.