Cold air poured through the busted window. A chair lay on its side. A half-empty bottle of Jim Beam was on the table. Blood dripped off of Jimmy Furlong’s hands as Casey handcuffed him. Furlong’s wife, Sonya, stood just out of reach in the doorway to the kitchen, dried blood staining her cheek.

“Aren’t you that baseball player?” Sonya asked, smiling despite a gash over her left eye.

“I used to be,” said Casey.

It was the first time he had seen Sonya since high school. Sonya had been the class beauty queen. He’d gotten a thrill the few times she made eye contact in the hallway at school. He’d said an awkward hello, sure that she knew he had a crush on her. He felt like an idiot the rest of the day.

She was pretty then. Now she looked over-polished—her hair was too blond, her face was caked in makeup and her eyes ringed in eyeliner. His mother would have called this “dime store beauty.” But he could still see her beauty.

“You were Sonya Hall, right?”

“Sure was,” she said, reaching out to shake his hand. Halfway to him she let her hand drop and looked down, as if seeing the scene through Casey’s eyes.

“You slut. Stop flirting,” said her husband, straining at the cuffs.

“You go to hell,” she said lightly, looking down at the dirty carpet.

Casey put his hand on Furlong’s shoulder and led him out to the car.

“Take care of yourself,” Casey called out to Sonya, as she stood in the doorway watching her husband be led away.

* * *

Casey Sheppard was the law in Slocum, deputy sheriff in a town of around 600 people. He looked commanding in his uniform, but most folks remembered him as the sweet red-haired kid who’d been the star pitcher. When he was in high school, folks from as far away as Andersonville would drive to Slocum to see him pitch. His name even showed up in the Louisville Courier-Journal a time or two.

It puzzled everyone when he quit showing up for games his senior year, but then they learned his mother had cancer. She died a month after he graduated.

Casey would walk into the kitchen after school expecting to see her and the room would be empty, the counter dusty. Any chance of a baseball scholarship vanished, too, since he’d been at her bedside, not on the field, when the scouts came to town.

The morning the scouts came to Slocum, Casey had suited up and went to say goodbye to his mother. As he leaned to kiss her cheek, he saw her palm full of pills.

“No,” he said, the room blurring as he pried the pills from her hand.

“You just don’t understand, Son,” said his mother, her cheeks hollow. She didn’t cry. She looked him right in the eye.

Casey went into the bathroom and flushed the pills. He came back and buried his head in her shoulder. She cupped his head, just like when he was a boy and murmured, “It’s all right.”

His father would have fed her the pills. Not Casey—he couldn’t fathom suicide. Outside the sun shone. He thought of what it felt like to run the bases as fast as he could. He thought about Sonya’s face and the way she rested her chin in her hand when she was bored in science class.

How could his mother think of leaving him? From that night on, he guarded his mother and doled out her medicine sparingly, even when he heard her cry out in pain. Back then, he thought he was giving her the gift of another day.

* * *

The next morning Sonya showed up at the jail, sheepish, with a wad of cash to bail her husband out. Casey felt glad and angry at the same time.

“I’m here for Jimmy,” she said.

“I see that,” said Casey. “You can settle up his bond with Ms. Ames down the hall.”

“I’d rather talk with you,” she said.

“I’ve got things to do here.” He turned back to his paperwork.

Casey didn’t understand why she stayed with that jerk. There was enough hurt just waiting around, if you lived long enough. He thought of his old coach, Bill Barnes, who had lost his wife, Karen, to breast cancer last year and had just gotten diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Coach Barnes had been the one to encourage Casey to play baseball, the one to show him how to hit the ball in just the right spot to make it fly.

Casey’s father was a bank examiner, three weeks on the road and one week home. He wasn’t much for talking or playing catch. When Casey wanted his attention he’d ask for help with his math homework.

Coach had shown up at the Sheppard’s door the day Casey’s mother tried to commit suicide. Casey’s father led him into the hallway, putting a finger to his lips. Casey sat in a chair in the corner, watching his mother’s shallow breathing.

“Come on, Son. The scouts have come a long way to see you. It will just take an hour.” The coach looked small despite his size as he stood, cap in hand, pleading with the boy.

But Casey wouldn’t leave his mother’s bedside, not for baseball or to deliver newspapers. His teachers let him take his exams at home. He took them at a desk in his mother’s room, with his father or Coach serving as proctor.

After his mother died, Casey had his tryout. He stood on the mound thinking of how empty he felt, and when he threw the ball it was as if his arm were hollow. The ball barely cleared the plate. Casey figured he’d lost his talent just like he’d lost his mother.

He went to the Trumbo County Police Academy and graduated top of his class. Casey wasn’t the skinny kid on the pitcher’s mound anymore. The uniform set him apart from his neighbors. He knew who the drinkers, gamblers, thieves, and fighters were.

He liked watching the Reds play baseball. He liked making school visits and letting the little kids touch his badge and turn on the lights and siren in the squad car. He hated the domestic calls, where the couples he saw sitting side-by-side in church looked at each other with hatred and fear.

* * *

Casey and Bill Barnes met every Saturday morning at the Goodie’s Diner over plates of eggs and bacon and coffee. They used to talk about sports or the weather. Now they talked about treatment plans.

“Everything I read says to stay positive. But, damn it, I’m mad! Karen is gone. I’ll die alone and soon I won’t have the appetite for a piece of blueberry pie or the strength to make it through a football game without falling asleep,” said Bill.

“It’s not fair, Coach,” said Casey. “Tell me what I can do.”

“When I know, I’ll tell you,” said Bill.

* * *

It was after 10 p.m. when the bell rang. Casey opened the door to find Sonya standing there. It had been two weeks since he’d seen her. Everything Casey had ever been taught, at home or in the academy, was telling him to shut the door.

She wore an animal print dress and big dark sunglasses with white frames. She carried a shopping bag stuffed with clothes.

“Everything all right?”

“Mind if I come in?” asked Sonya.

“Why are you here?”

“I remembered you smiling at me in school,” she said.

“That was a long time ago,” he said. “It’s late.”

“Oh come on, can’t I just sit down for a minute?” she said.

Casey reluctantly stepped aside to let her in.

Sonya settled into the corner of his plaid couch and took off her sunglasses. Her right eye was black. She pulled out a small mirror and reapplied her lipstick as if nothing were wrong.

“Where did you get that beauty?” asked Casey, sitting in an armchair next to the couch.

“It was the second round. I had him on the ropes.”

“I can’t fix this,” said Casey.

“If not you, then who?” asked Sonya.

* * *

Sonya fell asleep on Casey’s sofa and insisted on buying him breakfast the next morning. They went to meet Bill at the Good Enough. Bill sat at the usual table, a peach-colored urn at his side.

“I guess this is a double date,” said Bill.

“Pretty vase,” said Sonya.

“It’s an urn,” said Casey.

“For ashes,” said Bill. “My wife Karen’s ashes. It’s our anniversary and I promised her we’d always spend those together.”

“I don’t know whether to say I’m sorry or nice to meet her,” said Sonya.

Bill laughed.

The waitress looked like an actress, with great cheekbones and shiny dark hair. Terri had been four years ahead of Casey in school.

“What is a beauty like you doing in a diner in the sticks?” asked Bill, smiling at her.

“You say that every time, Coach,” she replied.

Bill ordered a tea and toast. Casey got eggs and bacon. Sonya ordered three eggs, bacon, toast hash brown casserole and a side of grits.

Tea and toast. When Casey’s mother got sick his father walked around in a haze, asking his wife if he could get her some tea and toast. Near the end, Casey had to take him by the shoulders and tell his father to quit asking.

“She can’t drink tea, Dad. She can’t hold her head up anymore.”

His father looked as if he’d been slapped. After that his dad sat quietly by the bedside, holding his wife’s hand as if he was afraid of what would happen if he let go.

* * *

They ate in silence. Sonya polished off her food, while Bill left half of his.

“How about a drive?” Bill asked when they finished eating.

“Sure, where to?” asked Casey.

“Gordon’s Pass,” said Bill.

Gordon’s Pass was a winding road that made its way between two small mountains in a valley outside of Slocum. A stream filled with boulders flowed next to the road. The water rolled over the rocks forming a light mist that hung in the air.

They rode in silence. Casey could hear Sonya fidgeting in the back seat. He felt her foot kicking rhythmically at the back of his seat.

“What are you, six?” he asked her.

He watched in the rearview mirror as Sonya stuck her tongue out.

“Let’s play three questions,” she said.

“How does that work?” asked Bill.

“We ask each other three questions. You can pass on one of them, but you have to answer the other two truthfully. Casey, you start,” said Sonya.

“Sonya, what is your favorite color?”

“Red.”

“What is your favorite food?”

“I pass. Too boring.”

“What would people never guess about you?”

“That I pray every day.”

“Bill, what is the first sin you ever committed?” asked Sonya.

“There were two, stealing and gluttony. I took an apple pie off of Mrs. Prentice’s windowsill and ate the whole thing,” said Bill.

“Was it good?” asked Casey.

“Best pie I ever tasted,” said Bill.

“What happened on your best day?” asked Sonya.

“It was a sunny fall day,” said Bill. “Karen and I spent the day in bed. We had the whole world right there.”

Casey looked in the mirror at Sonya who was staring out the window, her eyes focused on the distant horizon.

“Your biggest regret?” she asked.

“That I didn’t die first,” he replied.

They were all silent and then Bill looked at Casey.

“What is your dream job?”

“Pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds,” said Casey.

“What is your proudest moment?” asked Bill.

“I pass,” said Casey.

“Who was your first crush?”

Casey shot Bill a look.

“Sonya,” he said, looking back in the mirror.

Sonya smiled and looked quickly out the window.

They drove down the highway, away from the ball fields, churches, and cemeteries of Slocum. After a while, Sonya lay on her side in the back seat, her rear touching the urn as she slept.

They pulled the car to the side of the narrow road in the shadow of Mount Sanders. The sun reached down through the chasm and touched the water with light. The air was a cool mist. Casey helped Bill over to a flat rock where he could sit and watch the stream flow. Sonya skipped rocks while Casey jumped from boulder to boulder.

When he reached the rock in the middle of the stream, Casey looked up at the strip of blue sky framed by the mountains. “I’m here, God,” he shouted. There was silence.

“Right here,” shouted Bill from his perch on the rock.

“Hey, God. I’m right here,” yelled Sonya from the bank. Then they started to laugh, first softly, then building on one other until they were doubled over, their laughter echoing against the mountain walls.

* * *

“What’s he got?” Sonya asked after they dropped Bill at the diner.

“What do you mean?”

“What’s his diagnosis?” she said. “I see the dark circles under his eyes and how tired he is. He has the look of someone who’s saying goodbye.”

“Pancreatic cancer. It doesn’t look good. Let’s focus on your problems.”  He unrolled the window, thinking back to the days in his mother’s dark bedroom.

“Which are?”

“You need to find a job and a place to live.”

“I was hoping I could clean house for this cop I know in exchange for room and board,” said Sonya.

“You can’t hide out from your life with me.”

Sonya sat up a little straighter and ran her fingers over the dashboard like she was playing the piano.

“Did you play?”

“No. Mom didn’t have money for lessons.”

“You should take lessons now.”

“Maybe I’m ready for something new,” she said.

“Then go out and find it,” said Casey.

* * *

Sonya found a job keeping house for Bill. She washed his clothes and made him lunch. In the afternoon, they sat down together and watched soap operas while Sonya gave a running commentary on the fashion.

* * *

“How is it going?” Casey asked Bill over lunch.

“She’s a sweet girl, but gullible,” said Bill. “She wants people to like her. That’s probably how she ended up with a jerk like Furlong.”

“She’s a mess,” said Casey. Still, he loved to think of her and Bill talking over coffee. He imagined her bare-faced, no makeup, her chin in her hand as she watched television.

* * *

She’d been sleeping on his couch for three weeks. One night Casey woke up to find her climbing into his bed.

“There was a noise in the kitchen.”

“Out.”

She reached her hand under the covers and rubbed him low on his belly.

He let her hand linger for a moment.

“Out,” said Casey.

But Sonya stayed put. She leaned close and rested her head on his chest. He lay there tortured, while Sonya fell asleep. After ten minutes he couldn’t stand it anymore. He shook her gently, and when she opened her eyes Casey kissed her.

“Just once,” he said, though he knew that was a lie.

* * *

Sonya brought a cup of tea with milk and sugar into Bill’s room. He hadn’t moved from the bed in several days.

“How are you doing this morning?”

“Lots of pain today,” said Bill, his voice weak.

“Let me get you another pill,” said Sonya.

“I’m not sure that will do it. It’s time,” said Bill.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Sonya came back with a bowl of applesauce and began emptying capsules into it.

Sonya sat on the edge of the bed. She propped Bill up on some pillows, placed the urn beside him in bed and began to feed him the applesauce.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“We’ll meet again in a better place,” said Sonya.

They were interrupted by the sound of the front door slamming. Jimmy Furlong stood in the doorway. Sonya stood up.

“What are you doing here, Jimmy? You need to get out of here.”

“What are you doing playing nursemaid to this old man?” he asked “I should kill you.”

“Kill me,” said Bill, with a smile.

“You’re already on your way,” said Jimmy.

* * *

When Casey pulled up to Bill’s place the front door was wide open. Sonya sat at the kitchen table staring into space.

“Sonya, what’s going on?” asked Casey.

She didn’t say a thing.

He ran to Bill’s bedroom. Bill lay on the bed, unresponsive. Jimmy Furlong was sprawled across the floor amidst the pieces of the broken urn, blood seeping from a cut on the head.

Casey saw the remains of the applesauce and the empty shells of the pills. He saw what Sonya had done and knew it was an act of mercy. He knew then that he had been selfish to cling to his mother. He flushed the medicine and the applesauce down the toilet. Casey pulled Sonya to her feet.

“You need to go now. They might do a toxicology screening,” he said. “Get your things from my house and get out of town. Go anywhere, Lexington, Cincinnati. Just go.”

He kissed her and guided her to the door.

Casey made the call.

“Bill Barnes is gone,” he said. “Looks like he just slipped into a coma. Natural causes I’d say. We need an ambulance. It looked like Jimmy Furlong came in, probably looking for drugs. Bill was able to get him with his wife’s urn. Maybe the effort did him in.”

* * *

With Sonya gone his place was quiet. Casey sat down in his recliner and turned on a baseball game. He felt something behind him and pulled out a pair of sunglasses with white frames dotted with rhinestones.

He imagined her on a bus gliding down the highway, the fields and farms of Slocum far behind her, her fingers tapping out a tune on the back of the seat in front of her.

 

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning, multi-genre writer, teacher and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press). Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, The Clackamas Literary Review, Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, and others. She is a graduate of Queens University-Charlotte. She loves travel and capturing the unique sites along the way. ellenbirkettmorris.ink | Facebook

 

(Photo credit: Flickr.)