Another Happy Holiday Ride-Along with Officer Alex
“Ah, happiness courts the light so we deem the world is gay. But misery hides aloof so we deem that misery there is none.”
— Herman Melville,
Bartleby, the Scrivener
That's what had been used to render the young girl unconscious. Age 15 and beautiful, her whole life ahead of her, and she had been found piece by piece in submerged chunks of concrete in a creek on Christmas Day. Giftwrapped, now that I thought about it.
"Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad," I thought to myself. "Here's a gift that keeps on giving: Emotional scarring that will fester for the rest of your lives due to the end of your daughter’s." And here was my present, a room-temperature glass of peppermint schnapps, picked intentionally for both its horsepower and my inability to drink much of the horrible stuff. What was I going to do on a night like this, though? NOT drink? Please.
The few people around me at the bar who may have recognized me assumed I’d stopped in here for the same reason everyone else did: The bartender was hotter than the cherry on a cigarette, but only she and I knew the real reason. I only showed up here on the nights I was looking for an abrasive sponge for the temporal lobe of my brain, and she provided such without a word. It was the silence I sought, not the stimulation. I could only assume she appreciated my own silence for different reasons, but really, what did I care? I didn't even have to order the drinks, they just appeared like magic. It was that or employee assistance, and only one of those made me drunk. Tough choice for the cynic.
The story of the Halothane Girl was actually from a year ago, another chapter in the story I was being forced to read in my head hour after hour, year after year.
I still saw the crude pieces of concrete just below the surface of the frigid water, made visible in an otherwise visually impenetrable lake when TVA placed it at "low bowl" during the winter months. Things once submerged seven and eight feet deep were now nearly exposed to open air even in the creek beds of our fair city. Someone foolish enough to fish in this creek used the apparent random chunks of concrete as steppingstones—until one cracked beneath his rubber-booted foot, and its hidden treasure was released: In this case, a young girl's partially decomposed upper thorax. In my case, another brick in the wall of unsolicited nightmares.
"I know you," said a voice to my left. Some kid must've pulled up the stool next to me while I was journeying down memory lane. I said nothing.
"Yeah. You're the cop from TV." I smiled slightly and shook my head in an attempt to politely wave him off. Nothing doing.
"From that thing, that shooting at the storage unit place. Right?" he continued, unable to take a hint.
He was right, of course. How does this happen? "It happens," I muttered to myself, "because I don't drink enough." The confusing response worked: He paused.
"Hey, man. What are you even doing here? That was just last night, wasn't it?" Such a stupid question. Of course it was. "Aren't you guys supposed to get counseling or something?"
What the shit do you think I'm doing now? I said to myself. "Yes," I responded to him. “I did. I'm cool, just on the way home." My new fan paused, allowing my guardian angel bartendress to intervene. "Can I get you something else, hon?" she said to him with a tone that can only be conveyed by someone who deals with drunks for a living even more frequently than I.
”No," the kid said. I wouldn't bet money that he had gotten the memo, but he definitely changed his demeanor and begin to back off. Now that I thought about it, he didn't even look that young anymore.
He was right, of course. I'd answered a suspicious person call at a storage unit facility the night before and encountered someone leaving as I arrived. I stopped them to make sure everything was kosher, and all appeared outgoing and well until I noticed the woman in the passenger seat of the black Ford F150 pickup in question staring forward, jaw rigid and sweat trickling down her face despite the incredibly low temperatures, and her right hand was trying to bury its nails into the armrest. My eyes moved from these clues back to the eyes of the driver about the time his smile turned to a frown and he opened his door with his left hand to knock me back as his right hand went for his belt. I fell back on purpose, and drew my own weapon as I did so, taking aim as I—
"Hey," an old man to my right said. "You've got red on you," he said, pointing at my stomach as he interrupted my thought. I looked down and saw a stain appearing on my shirt beneath my leather jacket, fairly dark red and spreading like an oil-rig fire across my chest and down my stomach. What the hell?
I backed my legs around the top of the circular barstool to step back away from it, and I hit the ground ass-first as my legs grew weak and a chill stuck me that was at least as bad as the wind chill from my car to the pub’s door in the freezing night earlier.
I placed my open right hand on my stomach and heard a wet slap as I did so, pulling the hand away as quickly as I had placed it there to examine the coating of blood on my palm, transferred there from what was once a relatively clean T-shirt. Shit.
As I lay there on my ass and elbows, hand full of blood and feeling stupid, I looked up and there was the black F150 again, the driver raising the business end of a pistol up over the base of the window, jaw muscles now rigid in anticipation and index finger being obscured first by the trigger guard, then a flash of light. He was shooting.
When I went down in the scene earlier, my gun cleared leather on the trip down and I did not wait for my ass to hit the ground before I started firing at the threat. I shot once, twice, then more as I raised the pistol forward between our faces, and before it was over the flashes seemed like an accidental glance at a fresh sunrise and I couldn't see for a few seconds...then it was over. I was on the floor of the bar instead of a parking lot, my shirt clean again but my confidence soiled in its place. I must have fallen or slipped. After all, I wasn't crazy or anything.
I'd been re-certified sane by a professional just hours before.
My hand went back to my chest and I was happily surprised to see there was no blood there, just the chill and spearmint odor of Rumple Minze where it spilled upon me during my now-unexplained descent.
I awkwardly crawled back up to an upright position to resume my seat, and began to question how much time had passed since I slipped because both the young guy and the old guy were no longer at the bar on either side of me. There was just the bartender, and she was clearly leaving as well because she'd put on a long black coat with a hood.
"Relax," she said. "tonight's on me," she said, pulling my bar tab back across the counter towards her with long, slender fingers. "Go home."
I muttered a thank you as I begin to back away, never really having gotten back onto my stool in the first place. "Think nothing of it," she said. "You're my favorite customer. I'll see you soon enough."
And with that she smiled, and her teeth seemed to stretch from one side of her jaw to the other, her lips nearly disappearing, a feat so distracting I barely saw a bug drop out of the sleeve of her coat as she placed my check under the counter. Another beer and a Rumple for the road home on the house. Such a strange place to find such comfort.
I hated Christmas, positively despised it, but she was always there for me, now that I thought about it. Cold and unreachable to some, even frightening to others as the young man earlier may attest to on some level he probably couldn’t explain, but always there when I needed her, never judging, never biased, just professional.
The bar was now empty, but I paused for a few seconds, then slowly sat back down as the lights were dimmed further. She’d be back.
She was never far from me.
I reached towards my chest without looking, and slowly massaged the area I thought I’d been shot in during the hallucination and began thinking back to the girl I’d found last year, gift wrapped in concrete for her parents and...
She was never far from me either, I supposed.
The lights dimmed further and further.