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Second Place: The Sheriff


"The Sheriff" by Christy Morgan in Second Place. Cracked earth and badge


The Sheriff

by Christy Morgan

Second Place


The Choice

            He sat with the barrel in his mouth, his finger loose on the trigger of his county-issued firearm. He suspected his wife, Sarah, had discovered his secret. It was a knowing from the way she looked at him before leaving for work that morning. She had always been reticent, one to reserve her truest feelings, but after thirty-five years he could read the room. He knew that look of disappointment ran deep with intensity, it ran all the way to his act of betrayal. She only looked at him once and then he heard the side door slam, her way of saying goodbye. Perhaps, it would be best to end it all, avoid having to own the accountability. She would suffer less, if she knew he was mired in remorse to the point that he checked out. Was he that remorseful though? Could he face his daughter’s look of contempt, once Sarah told her of his failings? Could he envision a point past this moment in time? No one sets out on this course with the aim to end things. He thought about the first time that he saw Sarah juxtaposed with the first time Laci waved him down. They were polar opposites in personality and presentation. Sarah was his high school sweetheart, dark-haired with brown eyes that could almost appear black in their depth. She had a gentle prettiness that he had often taken for granted. He couldn’t fault her, because she was attentive to her looks over the years, always slim and conscious of not getting stuck in a particular decade of hairstyle or clothing. But hers was a simple approach, and as she aged, she embraced a conservatism in how she related to him, especially in the bedroom.

            Laci was only a handful of years younger, but she could have been from another planet in the way that she moved and talked and set his world on fire. She was known by everyone in town, since they had all frequented the restaurant that she and her husband, Phil, owned and operated. She was a knockout with her short strawberry blonde hair and curvy figure, not afraid to accentuate her God-given femininity, which all the men were thankful for when dining at Ricci’s Italian Corner. Her charms were magnetic. She would ask pointed, direct questions akin to the lawyers he knew, but she did it with such skill and care that you wanted to answer, even if it was personal. She talked about all kinds of things that were foreign to him, like the myriad places she had lived, such as Canada, and the languages she could speak, if only partially, and how she really wanted to undress him. It was her bold sexuality that caught him off guard. He had been a police officer for a quarter of a century, most recently winning the election to assume the highest honor of Sheriff; he had from his own account heard and seen everything humanly possible during his law enforcement career. But it was Laci who left him speechless. There were times she would say things that he had no response for, and it was that unpredictability that kept him engaged.

             How could he have been so careless? You would think that with all his insights into the pitfalls of broken relationships that he could have circumvented this calamity. He could have found a way to end things on his terms, not hers. As he sat there, with the gun angled to erase his humiliation, his cell phone buzzed next to his leg. He removed the pistol and looked down. It was Laci. For all the colliding emotions, he wanted to talk with her; he wanted to hear her voice, steeped in her short-clipped Canadian accent, and always exuding confidence in the way she addressed him. But he hesitated long enough for the call to roll to his voicemail. He laid the gun next to him on the bed, and picked up his phone, moving it from one hand to the other. The chime was loud, announcing the arrival of her message. He sat the phone back down on the bed. He wasn’t ready to listen. No, he had to think on it more, determine the best course. There had to be another way.

            He scooted himself back on the bed and laid his head on Sarah’s pillow. He could smell her, the familiar scent that had held him close all these years. She had supported him through different career changes, finally settling on a path of law enforcement that she had urged. It should have been an easy choice, given his dad, and two older brothers were officers, but he had initially fought it. After working for the newspaper and then the local logging company for the better part of ten years and not getting ahead, he acquiesced to Sarah’s promptings for him to enroll in the next training academy. It had been a wise move, because it had given him an avenue in which to excel. He was quickly and easily promoted, not by his family connections, but for the fact that he was hardworking and dedicated. It had served him well, and he liked the recognition he received. In fact, their daughter, Sam, had just started her third year with the force, much to Sarah’s chagrin, but he liked to think that he was the inspiration. She had wanted Samantha Rae to be a doctor or a dentist, something far removed from his line of work. But she was good at it, perhaps better than all of them, and he was proud. She had always been a Daddy’s girl, and their connection had been forged even stronger with the stories and advice that they shared. Gabe mostly shared it, but he suspected that Sam was thoughtfully listening.

            If he had only turned away Laci’s advances, but she was persistent, and he liked the attention. She made him feel alive and needed, and when you are well past middle age, feeling underappreciated, it was an easy choice to follow those conversations, to see what might be offered up. It’s not like he hadn’t been approached before. It was mostly the uniform that would draw the ladies’ interest; in fact, there was a set of women always on the hunt of landing an officer. He never really understood the motivation, if they were simply looking for an authoritative figure, or a way to flirt with danger, but he would ignore the flirtatious entreaties, never allowing himself to be propositioned. But with Laci, it was different. She liked him for him, not his job, not his uniform, not his stature in the community. No, she liked him, so she said, for his smile, honesty, kindnesses, and for the way he made her laugh.

            He couldn’t stay in bed. He was restless, and the morning was gaining ground to afternoon. They would expect him at the precinct, so he had to make a decision. He sat on the side of the bed, looking into the mirror above the dresser, feeling disconnected from himself. He had aged into an attractiveness that he rarely acknowledged. There was a boyish warmth to his blue eyes, even though they had seen more than their share of tragedy and heartache. His smile, when he felt prone to it, held back a full account of his face, because there was something of his personality that he wanted to keep to the side, away from view. He reflected on how he was given to smile and laugh frequently when Laci was near. She brought out a relaxed humor in him that he had forgotten existed. He was grateful, if nothing else, for being reminded that life still held promise of fun and excitement. His sandy colored hair was kept short and close cut, while his nose was distinct with a slant to it, a nose with character, as some would say. His jaw line had a squared edge, and his neck and body were taut with anticipation, ready to face the unexpected. He looked down at his wedding band, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head. In that vulnerable gesture, he looked like anyone you would meet and someone you hoped to know. The building conflict couldn’t be reconciled; he was truly submerged and lost to his thoughts.

            His phone rang again, startling him back to the reality of his situation. He assumed it was Laci again; she could be feverish in approach, if he left her guessing as to his commitments or whereabouts. To his surprise, it was Sarah ringing. He fumbled for the phone, as it slipped out of his hand and fell to the floor. He lunged for it, and answered, scared of what she would say.

            Her tone was cold and driving, “I’ve fixed your problem for you. Now you have to figure out the rest.” She left no time for a response. There was a silence and then the repeating beeps, indicating the call had ended.

            He was numb and confused. What problem had she fixed? She couldn’t begin to fix his problems. And then his mind raced, a hurried slew of images pelting back and forth in his consciousness. Frantically, he accessed his voicemail. He was all thumbs, as he tried to hit the right keys on his phone. His heart, beating wildly, would never feel the same way again. His life in the span of thirty minutes had changed irrevocably. After multiple attempts, he finally got to her message, and he listened to it over and over.

            “Hey handsome. I dropped Sadie off at high school, and surprisingly Phil told me to take my time about coming into the restaurant. Just wanted to see, if you might want to meet me for breakfast in Cherokee. We could have some morning fun. Oh wait, what’s that…oh my God, your wife is coming up the walk. What the hell? Hold on...”

            It concluded with a piercing scream, and then white noise. He was floating in an orbit of shock. What had transpired? His mind was searching for a way back to yesterday when everything lined up, serene and comfortable. At the same time, he was processing the messages, the one directly from Sarah and the other one a staccato, interrupted goodbye from Laci. If only he had been brave enough to pull that trigger, but it was his weaknesses that brought him to this precipice. For all the things that he couldn’t change, he knew that he had to brace for today. He grabbed his gun, phone and keys, madly running to the front door, knocking over the end table in the living room. Nothing would prevent him from reaching her house. The man who he had always been was gone, coalesced into a new image of pathetic helplessness and a bold-driven fear. He sped out of the cul-de-sac, nearly grazing his neighbor’s mailbox, a full-on desperation to somehow find himself again.


The Outcome

            As he pulled up to Laci’s red bricked, ranch-style house, he knew it was over. Not just that the final breaths had escaped from Laci’s consciousness and body, but that the entirety of the last two years with their sense of wonder and intrigue had been viciously snatched away from him from the one person he had always trusted. There was an irony in expecting a continued trust, when it was the one thing he had forsaken, discarded for a livelier, more meaningful connection. He questioned everything now in his absence of faith. Was Laci more real to him than Sarah, the woman who bore him a child and cooked him nightly dinners? He remembered how he felt with Sarah in those early days of struggle and reward, when they were young and making their way. There were fun times, punctuated with holidays and new purchases like their cars and homes, that he held close. There were memories that evoked a prideful resolve and a deep gratitude. They had always made steady progress, the two of them, and he was amazed and somewhat elated at the financial security they found themselves in as they approached retirement. There were also long hours that became even longer when he signed up for police work. His policing was the first break in the ideal façade, where he felt a responsibility to more than just his immediate family. He had a group of fellow officers that needed and relied on his direction; he had essentially adopted a new family, and it was difficult maintaining a mutually beneficial balance. He and Sarah clashed at times, as to where his focus should be, but she was dutiful and endured his vacillating devotion. When they fought, it was always a subdued anger, never boiling to the surface. She would give him the silent treatment for a few days, holding her lip and perspective stiffly. He would passively ignore the elephant in the room, until the discord subsided. She was his stalwart, stoically bearing the weight of being an officer’s wife, living the with the ever-present possibility that he wouldn’t come home one evening. She took it all in stride and busied herself with friends and family, filling all the lonely hours with her own brand of hobbies and pursuits. He admired her steadfastness.

            With this conglomeration of thoughts sprinting through his mind, he jumped out of his truck, narrowly putting it into park. He ran around the front of his pick-up, and then willed himself up the sidewalk, noticing the closer he got to the modest house that Laci’s front door was ajar. He took the three porch steps in one leap and yanked open the glass door, and there she lay, in a pool of her own blood, looking somehow angelic in a discordant way. He lifted her to his chest, holding her and shaking, crying, confirming her pulse was silent. He knelt there, anchored by an uncontrollable torrent of sobs, feeling wholly responsible for Laci’s demise, a void so overwhelming that he again had the urge to reach for his pistol and end the stark madness and hurt.

            Laci had been shot in the chest, a perfect collision with her heart. The blood from her clothes mingled in with his shirt and pants, a streak of dark magenta, tacky to the touch and without life. He stroked her hair away from her beautiful face, and kissed her forehead tenderly, his tears landing on her skin, sliding down the cute perkiness of her nose. He held her for what seemed an eternity, allowing himself to be swept into the multitude of words and phrases that they owned between them, pleading for her to open her eyes and tell him one more time how much she needed him. Laci had always been free with her feelings and desires, never making apologies for what she wanted. She had pressed him on more than one occasion to risk things, to take a chance at another kind of happiness. In some ways, he relented, but now he sat there a prisoner to his regrets for never having fully reciprocated. If only he could tell her that he loved her too, a different love, but one that was real, and heartfelt and now fully devouring him.

            The first time he touched Laci, there was an energy that carried him for days; if he were truthful, he would acknowledge that it carried him all the way to this dreaded point. He never could disown her from his thoughts. She was there, persistent in her pursuit, knowing fully that he was the yang to her yin. She was the light that projected out his stored darkness, the baggage from his time on the streets where he learned more about the collective evils and griefs of humanity than one person should be privy to in a lifetime. Laci could ease his burdens, while igniting his sexual desires. She left him longing for more every time they talked or shared a bed. She truly was gone, looking at her lifeless face, a finality so brutal in its reality that he wondered, if he could move, or continue to breathe. His shattered soul blew up into millions of more particles, feeling himself disconnecting from his own body, floating into an otherworldly pain.

            His phone alarm rang a stark cadence, snapping him back into the sordid moment. What should I do? The question cycled through his brain on repeat; he rocked back and forth to the rhythm of it, pondering his next move while still grasping Laci tight to his body, holding out the slightest hope that she would open her emerald eyes. He didn’t want to cross anymore lines, especially anything that involved a dishonor to his one true friend, but he had no good options. He laid her softly back on the hardwood floor, and then went into the kitchen to retrieve some over-sized black garbage bags. It would serve as a temporary transport until he could find something fitting for her burial. He was going through the motions, his limbs moving and reacting to the signals from his nervous system, but there was no understanding, a schism between wakefulness and the unconscious.

            He labored to get her 5’ 9” frame into the plastic bags, using two of them, one starting at her feet to her waist, and the other one fitted on her head and ending in the same mid-place. He took some ropes from the back of his truck to secure the loose bags together, and then used all his strength to lift and carry her to her Kia Sportage parked in the well-organized garage. He quickly ran back in, closed the front door, grabbed her keys, and stole out the side door into the garage, determining his best course of action would be to leave her car in the parking lot of the nearest Baptist church. Once there, he ran the mile back to her house, taking a back path through the woods. Running with a frantic pace, the cool autumn breeze blowing through his hair, it was the only sensation reminding him that he was still alive. The leaves crumpled with each footfall, but he scarcely heard the noise of them cracking and splitting under his weight.

            He went back into her residence one more time to tidy up the scene a bit, but he didn’t want to take a chance of being there long enough to leave behind substantial clues. He quickly paced the house, looking for her designer purse, but it seemed unnaturally absent. With time working fast against his reserves, he left by way of the front door, rubbing down any areas with his shirt sleeve that might foretell his fingerprints, and then locking it behind him. He made a dash to his truck, and drove single-mindedly back to the Baptist church, idling close enough to her vehicle to move her lifeless form surreptitiously into the backseat of his Chevy Silverado, the parking lot empty and the activity unseen by sporadic traffic from the frontage road.

            From there, he drove as carefully as he could through town, not wanting to speed or draw attention. He held his breath only taking in shallow air until he pulled into his driveway, finally exhaling while holding back the urge to collapse. His garage door was already open, his wife’s silver Toyota Camry neatly parked; he could see her watching from the living room bay window. A draft of anger pushed its way from his clenched throat down into the pit of his stomach. He pulled out of his driveway and then forward, angling back in, so he could back into the garage. He was brusquely met by Sarah at the door leading into the laundry room.

             “What the hell is wrong with you?” he screamed.

            She charged at him, hitting him squarely in the chest with her closed fists, a hissing sound coming from her lips, “How dare you blame me.” The words twisted and hung in the air with a foreboding. “I have done everything for you and our family, and this is how you repay me, by sleeping with that whore in town.” It wasn’t a question; it was a proclamation.

             “Did you ever stop to think about why…why…why,” the rage intensifying, “why I might want to be with her instead of you?” And it was a question, aimed squarely at Sarah and her shortcomings.

            She slapped him across the face, and set her teeth in a posture to fight, her jaw square and tight, the next words snarling and full of hate, “You take that whore out of the truck and bury her in the backyard where you will always remember how you betrayed us. While you’re throwing dirt on top of her dead corpse, you think about how close you came to ruining this perfect life, if it wasn’t for me doing what needed to be done. I will not be made a fool, Gabe. Not in this lifetime.” She turned with vehemence and went back into the house.

            He buried her by a row of pine trees on his two acres, his wife watching from the kitchen window in the back of the house. It was a blur of sadness and loathing, some of it directed toward Sarah, some of it toward Laci, but mostly at himself. He knew what he had been pursuing was wrong, sinful, but he couldn’t resist, and it reduced him to this shell, knowing nothing would be the same, not his relationship with Sarah. She would never forgive, and he doubted, if he could forgive her. They had called into work sick, so no one suspected anything amiss, but he wondered how he could walk forward with their secret. Would he be able to live with the guilt, the distrust, the heartache? Once the earth was compacted, he fell to his knees, head bowed, saying a little prayer, imploring the angels or demons to lead him out of here, to a place where he might be able to begin again. The cool air carried his gentle whisper, “I’m sorry, Laci, I am so very sorry.”

The Denouement

            After washing up, the water rinsing away the dirt and blood, the scalding water another reminder of his existence, Gabe dressed and went into the dining room, lingering by the bank of windows, staring out at Laci’s resting place. He could hear Sarah behind him, smell the roast as she was placed it on the table. The sprigs of rosemary were fragrant, an aroma that he normally found mouth-watering. The last thing he wanted to do was eat.

             “Sam is coming to join us for dinner this evening,” she replied curtly and with a certain tone of normalcy.

             “Really, Sarah, do you think this is the evening to have her here?” He stood in his despondency, shaking his head.

             “It’s over. We might as well start acting like it.” She abruptly returned to the kitchen to bring out the rest of dinner.

            With the table fully set, Sarah lit a candle, and they sat across from each other, waiting for the inevitable, for Sam to arrive.

             So you’ll know, I took her purse after I shot her. I drove across the state line to Riverton Rose Trail and threw her wallet out near the water. Someone will find it and hopeful it will be a distraction. I think that I’ll keep the purse. It fits my style. Oh, and you can thank me for that too, for thinking ahead, for covering your ass,” she said it with smugness.

             “Anything else I should know about?” He looked at her like he was looking at a stranger.

            She stared through him, piercing with her resentment and fury.

            They heard the door open and shut, and the lighthearted walk of Sam down the front corridor. “Hey Mom and Pops. Y’all here?”

             “Yes, Sam, we’re at the dinner table,” said Sarah. Her face masking back to a wholesome, nurturing gaze.

            Sam kissed her mom on the top of her head and nudged her dad’s shoulder. “You guys look somber. Someone at work said you were sick.”

            “Oh yes, we’re feeling better. Not sure if it was something we ate yesterday…nothing lingering though. We feel fine now, don’t we, Gabe?”

             “Never better,” he replied, making little eye contact, still absorbed in the events of the last nine hours.

            Dinner moved along at its usual stride with talk of the upcoming holidays, a possible trip to the mountains, and other mundane topics like the missing dog in the neighborhood. They all relaxed into the meal and conversation, a soft October night with family.

             After eating the last bite of apple pie, Sam remembered something she had been wanting to tell her Dad, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I forgot this, but did you hear that Phil’s wife, what’s her name, ummmm, Laci, she’s missing. I was actually called out to the house, and there was blood everywhere. We processed it as best we could, no signs of a struggle, but her purse and car are gone. It’s the strangest thing. There are people combing through the area now. In fact, I just left for a short bit. I need to get back, told them I would continue helping.”

             Sarah and Gabe sat motionless, hanging on her every word, while acting casual. “You know who I’m talking about, right?” asked Sam, curious why there was no reaction.

             “Of course,” chimed in Sarah, “she owns that Italian restaurant.”

             “Yep, it sounds like she’s been having an affair,” stated Sam.

             Gabe stiffened in his chair.

             “You don’t say,” implored Sarah.

             “You’ll never believe who it is either. Chuck Dunwoody. The guy who works at the car lot. I would’ve never guessed it in a million years,” said Sam with disbelief, as she got up from the table. 

            With all the day’s surprises, Gabe couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He stayed frozen in his chair, glancing out into the darkness where Laci lay, still forever, with her known and unknown secrets.

             “Thanks for dinner. I’ll let you know what else I find out. I’m sure you’ll get more of an earful than me, Pops, when you get back to work. Love you guys.” With those parting words, she left, her lighthearted walk fading with her departure. A long silence ensued.

             “I told you she was a whore, Gabe.” Sarah took his plate and hers and retreated to the kitchen.

             He sat there, transfixed by the candle and its wavering flame. He didn’t know, if it was a dream or a joke or the worst nightmare that he would never unlive. He wanted badly to be engulfed by that flame, to burn out the pain, laughter and all the suffering to come, to return to the ash from whence he came. Sarah’s phone, sitting next to him at an angle, chimed, announcing a new text that she received. He looked over, half-seeing, not feeling anything, until he noticed who it was from:

            Phil                                          6:50 PM

            Hey Sweetie – Love you. We’ll talk tomorrow. Goodnight.

             He read it again, thinking his eyes must be deceiving him. He stood up, stealthy, quiet, leaning forward to blow out the candle, his hand resting on his revolver, and walked slowly to the kitchen.



Winning pieces are published as received.

 
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Fiction Potluck

October 2023

Second Place Winner:


Christy Morgan

A recruiter by day and a writer tucked in all the other endless hours, Christy Morgan heralds F. Scott Fitzgerald as her primary literary influence. She enjoys writing about the idiosyncrasies of the deep South. Christy resides in northern Mississippi with her husband, twins and four beloved corgis.

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