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Note from the writer -- I feel the need to let you know in advance this story deals heavily with the aftermath of one person's suicide. I tried to write this as compassionately and carefully as possible from my limited perspective, but if this is a trigger for you, please stop reading now. Take care of yourselves, now and always, and I wish you nothing but peace and warmth this holiday season (or whenever you might be reading this).
* * * * *
They met after the divorce was finalized, lunch at the last place both of them remembered being happy. It was a final olive branch between them before Julie returned home. In her crossover were the remains of a life together. Most of it she was leaving behind. The thought of taking all those memories back home exhausted her.
Funny that Julie still thought of Pike Bridge as home and not Chicago where she lived since she was eighteen. Spend her teenage life preparing to escape the small town, only to get sucked pleasantly back into its orbit again when she was nearing thirty. That was truly the Pike Bridge way. She smiled around a bite of her orange chicken wrap.
"It's good to see you smile," Brendan said, his voice as exhausted as Julie felt. This hadn't been easy for him either, though that was entirely his fault.
"Yes, well. Haven't had much reason to."
"I know. I'm... sorry."
That was bizarre. With Brendan, it was never just an "I'm sorry." It was always quantified, always a way to shift the blame from himself. "I'm sorry you were offended." "I'm sorry you can't take a joke." Rule number one of her future dating life? The guy had to be able to say he was sorry.
No. Rule number one was that her future guy should never, ever make her feel like he might hit her. And Brendan would have. She was sure of it. Maybe he held himself back at the last possible second when he raised his fist in that last terrible fight when they were still together, but there would have come a day when he lost control. Julie knew that on a very basic instinctual level. Stay, and eventually the arguments became something physical. Stay, and be broken. Leave, and be free.
Julie hated that it was so much more a difficult choice than that.
"Thank you," she said simply.
He looked like he might be about to say something else, his cheeks reddening, the signs of his thunderstorm temper upon him, but instead, Brendan settled back and shoved a fistful of golden fries into his mouth. His post-separation diet had not been kind to him. He was up ten pounds, at least, and if he'd been working out, it didn't show under his rumpled suit.
"Promise me one thing?" Julie asked.
He kept chewing, swallowed, and took a long drink of his 7-Up before asking sullenly, "What?"
"You'll get back on the treadmill. Work out. You always were so much more balanced when you kept at it."
"That's not your concern anymore, is it?"
She picked up her wrap again. "I guess not."
Brendan leaned forward. She hated how his anger twisted his boyish good looks, that simple eager puppy dog charm he had that won her over. At first it amused her, but over the last couple years, it frightened her. She wondered if she would ever fully trust a smiling man again.
Brendan spoke his next words like he was jabbing a knife into his ex-wife. "Tell Tammy I loved that day at her house when I ate her fucking peach of a pussy-" Sharp gasps from at least two tables around them "-and she jacked me off into her mouth."
He shoved upwards, his grin like a feral dog's, and walked away, raising a fist up and giving Julie the finger. It should have hurt, because she knew in her heart it wasn't a lie. Brendan was the type to save his most devastating shots for the last salvo. Tammy. Fucking Tammy. Her best friend. It should have made her angry. Instead, Julie blinked away her tears, reached forward, pulled his half-uneaten burger to her, and started eating again.
The restaurant really did make a killer burger.
* * *
The Beast of Pike Bridge squinted through the snowflakes falling fat and fast across his windshield. It was damn near a whiteout. Not the ideal weather for the town's annual Fall Festival.
Traffic moved sluggishly, even if most the town was used to these kinds of extremes. The Beast himself -- Colin, to those who were above the age of eighteen and not terrified of the stories that made their rounds about the man -- moved only at about fifteen miles an hour. If he drove any faster, he might not have seen the two small forms marching their way bravely down the sidewalk on Main.
They couldn't have been too old, in those indistinguishable years between seven and tweenhood, maybe. Colin hit his blinker, slowed, and pulled into a spot well ahead of them. The passenger's side window came down with a groan from somewhere in its machinery, and Colin leaned over to shout at the youths.
He called, "Are you going to the Fall Festival?"
They looked at each other then back at him and nodded.
"You two need a ride?"
They came closer, but cautiously. Smart. Through the snow he recognized at least one face. Cameron Pisani's daughter, but he couldn't remember the girl's name. That would make the boy his younger son.
The girl said doubtfully, "We can't ride with strangers."
"Do you have a phone?" Colin asked.
"Uh huh. My mom's."
"Okay. Cool. Your dad is Deputy Cameron, right?"
"Uh huh," she said. The boy with her stayed silent, watching Colin mistrustfully.
Colin smiled. "Call him up and put him on speakerphone. I think he'll be okay with it but let's find out."
She reached somewhere within her massive down coat and produced a blue-shelled phone. She pulled one glove off with her teeth and called their dad, spitting the glove out into the crook of her arm when it started dialing.
Cameron's big booming voice filled the air. "There's my monster. You feeling better, sweetie?"
"Uh huh," the girl said. "We were gonna walk to the Fall Festival but, um, this guy wanted to give us a ride."
"Who?" Cameron said, nearly a shout.
"Hey Cameron, it's Colin. Shaw."
"Oh, oh God, she scared me. Hey Colin, how's it going?"
"Good, thanks, but it's almost a whiteout out here. I saw the kids walking. They're doing the right thing, not wanting to take a ride from strangers. They're outside the car, with you and me on speaker phone."
"Oh man, yeah. Annie, Colin is okay. You can take a ride from him."
"Okay," she said, immensely more cheerful.
"See you in a couple minutes," Colin said. The girl said her goodbye and hung up, stuffing the phone away again. Colin unlocked the back doors and they slid in. He warned them to buckle up, and they did.
As they drove, he said cheerily, "So, you're Cameron's son?"
"Uh huh," the boy said.
"Cool," Colin said, at a complete loss for words. He was not exactly great with kids.
"People say you're kind of scary," the boy said.
"Lonnie!" Annie said, and punched his hip.
"I... guess I am," Colin said, smiling tightly. He knew how he looked. The hard, thuggish lines of his face. The sheer size of him, nearly six-six and hulking over most people. The scars along his cheek were the stuff of legend, to his amusement. It was no secret they were the result of a hard fall he took hiking in the mountains and a subsequent nasty infection, but the town loved to spin rumors. Everything from one of his victims gouging at his face to a mountain lion to Silje attacking him with a cleaver.
Okay. That last one didn't amuse Colin so much. He spent a lot of days with Silje in her dark moods, and there had been a few times when she shoved him away or clawed at him when they made love, but that hadn't been her, not really.
To the kids, he said with false cheerfulness, "So... you have a good Halloween? Lots of candy?"
"Uh huh!" Annie said, practically bouncing. "We were the only kids to show up at Mrs. Getty's house and she gave us all her candy."
Colin chuckled. Only two trick or treaters came to his own door, and he had a pretty strong suspicion it was the same kid twice, just with a different costume. Not that he cared much. He bought three bags of candy and it would have just gone to waste, so good on the kid for being a smart little scammer. Most the local kids avoided his place like it was a real-life haunted house.
The Fall Festival was the baby sibling to the town's most popular draw, the Snow Drop. Both were vendor-heavy ways for independent businesses, crafters, and artists to get their wares out there. The Snow Drop encompassed more than that, with a traditional Christmas play, live music, visits from Santa complete with sleigh rides that made Colin mildly envious of the kids, and so much free bite-sized food and drink you could get pretty sloshed and stuffed walking the festival end to end.
Both were great times, but the Fall Festival was really going to be hit hard by this weather. The highways into town were all closed, leaving only local vendors and shoppers attending. Colin didn't expect much of a turnout and he wasn't disappointed. Usually the Festival was held in the city park, weather permitting, and weather was definitely not permitting that day, so they had to set up in the school's gym. There were still enough vendors there was some spillage into the parking lot, with a few big tents facing the handful of shoppers' vehicles in the parking lot.
"Any idea where your dad might be?" Colin asked.
Suddenly shy and nervous, Annie said, "No."
"Um. Okay. I'll stick with you until we find him. He won't be too far."
They found a spot up front, which would have been impossible if the event was running at full steam. Annie and Lonnie didn't have too much to fear. Cameron was standing in the middle of the gymnasium one of Bonnie Ashe's legendary gut-destroying meatball canoes in hand. It was essentially a meatball sub in a hollowed-out hoagie bun, without the messy tomato sauce. Instead, the meatballs were made with rice, and lined in peppers, diced sharp onions, and jalapenos if you were eating them the right way. You could do without the peppers, but that would mark you as a weirdo unsteeped in Pike Bridge ways, and would generally be regarded as someone no one in town could trust.
Cameron had the canoe at mouth level, cradling it above a small paper plate. It was necessary given how much of the sandwich's guts might fall out at any given moment. His children ran to him, and he knelt so he could wrap an arm around them both.
"Can I have a bite?" Annie asked, pulling away.
"You told me your tummy was rumblin'."
"It was," she said.
"All right, small bite." He tore apart the sandwich into thirds, and put two on the plate while he palmed the third. "But honey, you shouldn't have come out in this snow. Especially not with Lonnie. Why didn't you call me?"
"I'm sorry," Annie said, lip trembling. Colin winced. He would have folded in a second if she turned that look on him.
"Next time, you call or keep your tuchus at home." Around a big mouthful, Lonnie giggled at the word tuchus. To Colin, Cameron said, "Thanks for bringing them down. Kids?"
"Thank you!" Annie said, and Lonnie sort of mumbled something approaching that.
"I bought you one of these for the trouble," Cameron said.
"Oh, you didn't have to do that," Colin said, jamming his hands into his coat pockets. "Happy to help. Sorry if I spooked you two."
Annie and Lonnie, now firmly hooked up with their dad and good food, cheerfully ignored him and Cameron smiled apologetically. "I'm set up in the corner booth over there with Mrs. Fisher. Swing by, grab a stress ball and a cookie."
"I'll do that, thanks," Colin said.
Karen Fisher. Colin closed his eyes momentarily, feeling his pulse speed up. Not because of her -- oh, she was a terrifically pleasant woman -- but because of her husband, Sheriff Lester Fisher. The only man in town who knew what drove Colin away from the world for a while.
"It's not really my place, man," Cameron said. "But it's good to see you out, Colin."
"Yeah," Colin said, his voice surprisingly even. "Thanks. And thanks for the sandwich. I appreciate it."
Cameron nudged his kids and walked them towards the closest booth, where a local was half asleep in her chair next to the artwork she was selling. Colin made his own rounds, heading first for the free coffee to get something warm in his hands. The woman who doled it out eyed him with a wary smile. He knew her from the grocery store. She used to always smile so broadly when she saw him, one of the best professional smiles at the place. Now she eyed him like a cat unsure if the dog was going to take a chomp out of her.
He took a cup of strong black coffee, mumbled a thank you, and started to wonder if this wasn't a mistake. Before he left, though, he wanted to find something for his mom, who was down with the same stomach crud Annie had hopefully not transmitted to him in his car. His dad was much easier to shop for. Colin walked there next, and the vendor selling home-collected honey and homemade jams and jellies grinned wide, knowing a sale when she saw it.
A jar of spicy honey and a bottle of hot sauce later, and Colin was feeling marginally better about the Festival, though he kept eyeing the sheriff's office's booth. Mrs. Fisher would maybe take it personally if he didn't stop by and say hello, so he walked there, taking deep, measured breaths as he thought about Lester Fisher sitting across from him, looking as sick and pale as Colin felt.
He pushed the image away. Couldn't dwell on it, or he'd run for the door.
Mrs. Fisher was one of his first childhood crushes, as Colin suspected was the case for many of the young men of his generation. Back then, her motherly attractiveness was amplified by a sugar sweet smile and blonde curls she usually dyed lighter shades than her natural butter blonde. Even now, in what had to be her mid-fifties, she was a beautiful woman. She let her natural gray through, though still kept some of her youthful looks with some choice white and dark highlights that gave her short bob some flair.
He would have given her a fifty-fifty shot at a natural or unnatural smile, but if Mrs. Fisher was hiding any questions about Colin like a lot of the town, she was gracious enough not to show it. "Colin! So good to see you!"
"Hello, Mrs. Fisher," he said, his own smile teased out by hers. "Cameron told me you were here so I had to stop and say hello."
She came around the table and surprised him with a hug. "It's been so long," she said when she pulled back.
"I guess it has, yeah." Colin tried to think of the last time he saw her and couldn't. "How are you? How's your family?"
"With the snow, Lester's hopping. Four accidents last night alone."
"Jeez, sorry to hear that."
She nodded. "It gets better in the daylight, and with no one moving out there, I'll bet he's planted behind the safety signs on the highways, watching something on his phone."
Colin chuckled. "He's a good man." Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Annie and Lonnie look at some cheap scarves, hats, and gloves in the stall next to them. Annie gave him a shy wave, and he waved back.
"Mm. And of course, we're both excited to have Julie home."
"Oh, for Thanksgiving? How's she doing?"
Mrs. Fisher blinked. "Oh. Oh, I guess you're not on Bottlegenie with her?"
"Um, no, I'm not on social media at all anymore," he said. Not since Silje passed away, he didn't need to say.
"She and that... that rotten bastard got a divorce."
Colin wasn't terribly close to the Fisher family but he did know Karen Fisher didn't curse, not even a "bastard." "Is she okay?"
"Better now. But I know what you mean, and I think so. If he laid hands on her, God help him, because I think Lester would... well...."
"Yeah, I can't blame him."
A flash of the sheriff, a hand on Colin's shoulder. "Ah Jesus. Ah fuck," Lester whispered.
Mrs. Fisher brought him back to the conversation. "She was hoping to be home today to help out with this, but she's stuck on the other side of the mountains. Like everybody, I suppose."
"Well, I'm sorry to hear things didn't work out with them. Give her my best."
He started to ask about the Fishers' son, whose name he couldn't quite recall offhand. But in the stall next to them, Annie held up a peach-colored scarf. The vendor said, "Now honey, that's fifteen dollars. Do you have fifteen dollars?"
"No," Annie said crossly.
The vendor chuckled with all the puffed-up arrogance of the old versus the very stupid young. "Well, then, don't touch."
"Excuse me," Colin said to Mrs. Fisher, and she nodded and smiled. Colin headed for the two youngsters, and knelt. "Hey. You think that's pretty?"
"Uh huh," Annie said.
"Well, I do have fifteen dollars, but I think Mrs. Willis is selling hats and scarves and some super cool baseball caps further down there and she's much nicer to kids. How about we go there and see what she has?"
"Now hang on-" the vendor sputtered, and Colin walked the kids away. He turned to give Mrs. Fisher a wave and she waved back.
While Colin and the kids picked out scarves -- him for his mother, the kids for themselves -- he never noticed Mrs. Fisher watching him the entire time, a finger tapping against her hip as she thought.
* * *
The snow came early and hard, stranding Julie across the Harpy Mountains just an hour from home. Well, an hour under the best circumstances, but she saw her father respond to too many accidents up on the pass to risk it.
She stayed in a midrange hotel she vaguely remembered from some youth tournament. With nothing open that late but the gas station, she crashed out in her room with a regrettable sandwich as old as she was and a mountain of snacks. After a bag of M&Ms and way too much teriyaki jerky, she looked down at the half-full bag of remaining snacks, sighed, and headed down to the hotel's gym for a late-night workout. It was perhaps the least sexy she ever felt in her life, and when a guy came in just long enough to leer at her and ask if she wanted a lift buddy, she nearly broke down crying.
But Julie was also a sheriff's daughter, and when the guy drew closer, she told him sweetly she would beat his ass five ways from Friday and stomp his balls into paste if he tried to touch her in any way. He called her a few choice names, but he left. Julie decided it was time to call it quits and asked the clerk on duty to go with her up the elevator, just so she knew the creep wasn't hanging around.
He wasn't, and Julie crashed out again, this time sans snacks. She stared up at the ceiling, an arm behind her head, and thought hard about her future. Finding a job wasn't going to be a problem -- she had an open invitation to join the staff at Pike Bridge Community Hospital, since they always needed nurses. But long term, what did she want? She moved to Chicago to go to medical school, intending at first on becoming a doctor or a physical therapist, but eventually moving towards nursing after working as a CNA her first summer there.
It was a job Julie neither liked or particularly disliked, though the hours could be long and brutal. Hospitals sometimes couldn't afford to care how overworked their staff was if there weren't enough nurses to go around, and Julie would sometimes work north of fourteen-hour days for two weeks straight. It made dating hard. Hell, it made life hard.
Brendan pretended not to care about that. Pretended that he was okay with the long hours and didn't need the attention. But soon that supportive façade cracked and he began to come in towards the ends of her shifts. He tried to explain it away as being the dutiful husband, trying to support her at her career, but when he started to become disruptive or try to help, Julie had to put her foot down. That angered him. They had small arguments, things she thought were in their past. For a while came a brittle peace. Years, in fact. It was only recently he started coming back in again, looking for her, and this time his reasons were naked. He was checking in on Julie, making sure she wasn't seeing someone else, that whenever she had to stay longer she wasn't secretly blowing one of the doctors.