This is the seventh part of a fiction serial, in 1315 words.
Lauren and I became a habit. I suppose you could say she was my girl. Every Friday, and sometimes on a Sunday night, I would drive over to pick her up. If we didn’t go to a movie, there wasn’t much else to do. She never wanted to go for food or ice cream, because she worked in a diner all day. Inevitably, we would end up at the picnic grounds, making out in the back of my car. She had stopped talking about seeing the world, and started to talk a lot about what happened when I finished college. It had never occurred to me that she thought of us as a long-term thing, and came as something of a shock when she asked why I had never taken her to see my parents.
Meanwhile, I was doing better at my studies. It had started to fall into place for me, and although I still found some parts hard, I was getting a good enough average to graduate, if I kept on at that same level. As I had no intention of going on to do any further studies in law, it didn’t matter that I didn’t get any distinctions. I was happy to let the smart kids boast about their high grades.
As promised, I took Lauren to meet my folks one Friday evening. Mom was excited. “Well, it’s about time, after all these months”. Dad was suspicious, and took me to one side. “Tell me you haven’t got the girl in trouble son”. A big spread was laid on, and Lauren dressed up as if she was going to a fancy ball. She even brought flowers for Mom, and that went down well. Part of me hoped they wouldn’t like her. I had started to feel a little trapped in our relationship, as it always seemed she called the shots. But what young man is going to turn down an eager girl in the back of his car? Certainly not me.
Mom and Dad liked her right off. Mom stood behind her at the dinner table and gave me the thumbs up. And when Lauren insisted on helping Mom wash and dry the dishes, Dad leaned over to speak quietly in my ear. “She’s a keeper, Clay. I tell you, a good one”. They couldn’t have known then that their very approval was the last thing I wanted to hear. I liked her a lot, but I had no intention of her becoming my fiance, or wife. I left early to take her home, and she asked me to take her somewhere quiet. “You know, some nice place where we can celebrate”.
I knew what she meant by a quiet place, but her use of the word celebrate worried me a lot.
I drove off the road close to the river, and parked on some grass near our old spot. Instead of getting in the back as usual, I sat and told Lauren about what had happened that Sunday. She said she had heard about the case when Old Man Henderson stood trial, but had no idea I had been involved. “So you knew the girls, Clay? Everyone in the diner talked about that. It was horrible. That nasty old man”. I polished the story a little, making out that I was much closer to Melanie than I had been. And then I told her that I didn’t believe Henderson had anything to do with it. She shook her head. “No, Clay. They found the swimsuits at his place, and he was known for bothering girls and ladies. It was all in the papers”. I tried to explain that it had all been too easy, too obvious. But she argued against me, even though she had only heard gossip.
By the time we had finished talking, it was too late to get in the back, and she acted miffed all the way back to her place.
The following week, I didn’t go into the diner for breakfast. On Friday, I phoned and told her I was having trouble with the steering on my car, and wouldn’t be able to drive back later that night. She went and asked her Dad if he would bring her down to Riverdale instead, and I was relieved when he told her no. We talked on the phone for a while, and I promised I would get the car fixed over the weekend. When she phoned on the Sunday, I said it was too expensive to fix, and I didn’t have the money right now. I would have to get the bus into college, and that meant we would have to wait to see each other.
I left it five days before I phoned again. Her Dad answered, and said she had gone out with a friend from work. I never heard from Lauren again.
Despite thinking I had a lucky escape, I did miss her. Well, I suppose to be honest I only missed the sex. It wasn’t like we talked much. I carried on working at the lumber yard and studying hard. Mom and Dad guessed things hadn’t worked out, and to my great relief, they decided not to ask me about her. The rest of the year just slipped past, the way years tend to do when you are not really thinking about them.
At the end of Spring Break the following year, I went and sat by the river again. I watched the water bubbling around the rocks for a while, then something came over me. I pulled off my shoes and socks then rolled up my jeans. The cold water made me catch my breath as I waded in, but I soon got used to it. I walked up to the swimming place, with no real idea why. The deeper water there wet my jeans, but I carried on. I walked all the way to where the railroad bridge crossed over, and sat looking at the spot where they had found Donna. I tried to imagine her propped against the heavy wooden support. She would have been very white, and looked pretty skinny too, I reckoned. A goods train passed over the tracks above, shaking down dirt and dust. That snapped me out of my thoughts.
The next day after college, I drove over to the Sheriff’s Office and asked to see Vince DeWalt. Since the murders, the town had made more money available for policing, and there were two new deputies. One was Vince’s daughter, Olivia. She was a mean-looking woman, almost as big as her Dad. People knew she lived with Velma, a black girl who worked at the motel cleaning rooms. They said they were just room-mates, but nobody was fooled. Vince kept me waiting twenty minutes, then waved me into his office. “What can I do for you, Clay?”
I was up front. I told him I was studying law, and asked if he had a job for me when I graduated. When he hesitated, I reminded him. “Remember when I spoke to you about Old man Henderson? You said I should come work for you. So I am am taking you up on that offer, if the offer is still good”. He did that familiar nodding, as he thought about his reply. “Tell you what, Clay, you come see me after your graduation. If you still want the job, I will send you to Renton for training, and all being well, you can come work for me. But think about if you really want to. Don’t forget you know folks here. Being a cop in a small town is not for everyone, I tell you”.
I stood up, and extended a hand. He gave the handshake without standing up. As I left his office, I turned in the door.
“It’s what I want, Sheriff, I will be back after graduation”.