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Officer O’Meara is tired. The coffee at the precinct is so bad that he didn’t manage to choke a cup down before setting off in his cruiser. He thinks about the Starbucks in Oak Grove, the tiny town on the other side of the serpentine route he’s traveling through woods and meadows. He’s taking the long way. Most people take the interstate to get between the burgs of Chester and Oak Grove, but somehow he has found himself cruising along this quiet backroad, through these oaks and pines with their mysteries and their mottled light. He doesn’t know why. Maybe because Janice left and he just needs time to think.
When he comes over the rise, he sees something that makes him slam on the brakes. He pulls off to the gravel shoulder. There on the road ahead is a Volkswagen beetle, not moving.
He stays well back and turns on his lights. He hesitates to call it in, because he’s supposed to be en route to Oak Grove to do a welfare check on an elderly lady, not pleasure cruising. But then he does. Safety protocols and all.
“No, there’s no license plate on the rear of the vehicle,” he says to Dispatch. “Maybe a stroke victim. So many elderly living in these parts. I’m going to check it out.”
The dispatcher says, “Officer Rieger is in the area. I’ll send her for backup. She’s just five miles away.”
“Probably silly,” O’Meara says. “I’m guessing it’s a stroke or heart attack victim. Or somebody on too much dope. But alright.”
He steps out of the cruiser and walks toward the vehicle parked in the middle of the road, his senses alive, his hand on his weapon. The vehicle is spotless, which gives him a margin of comfort. Homicidal maniacs and dope fiends don’t spit-shine their cars, right? At that moment, he thinks of Janice’s parting words. “I just can’t take knowing whether you’re going to come home in a casket.” A tug of sadness wells up in him. It happens at completely inopportune times.
He approaches the window. Inside the car, a man is leaning back against the headrest. When O’Meara’s shadow crosses his face, the man opens his eyes then rolls down the window part way. The man’s face is streaked with tears.
“License, please,” O’Meara says, trying to ignore the fact that the man is crying. He glances down the road, watching for Rieger. “No backup needed,” he says into the com on his shoulder.
“Roger that,” the dispatcher says.
The man sniffs and hands O’Meara his license. “Here,” he says blandly. “I have no record or anything, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
O’Meara thinks about this. He actually wonders what he’s looking for, but in a metaphysical sense. There are birds calling in the trees. For a moment he feels as though he has been sleepwalking.
He tells the guy to hang tight and returns to the cruiser to call it in. The guy has a pristine record. His name is Timothy Watkins and he lives in Oak Grove. O’Meara tells the dispatcher the guy seems like a fruitcake. But at least he’s a fruitcake who’s not wanted for anything. No outstanding parking tickets. Nothing.
“Did you call off Rieger?”
“Yes sir. But she said she’s nearby if needed.”
When he returns to the vehicle, the man is still crying. What the hell, O’Meara thinks. He hands the man his license.
“You can’t just park in the middle of the street,” O’Meara says. “I came over that rise and nearly plowed right into you.”
Watkins sniffs and looks at him, his eyes glistening in the sunlight. “May I ask your name, officer?”
“O’Meara. Nice name.” The man wipes his eyes and turns off some music on his phone, which had been quietly playing in the background. “Officer O’Meara, I think there's more to you than meets the eye.”
Uneasy, O’Meara looks around. “Listen, let’s get you off the road.” He’s not really sure what to do with this guy.
Watkins starts his car and pulls off to the shoulder. He turns off the car. Then he asks, “Do you know who Sam Smith is?”
O’Meara scans his memory banks for knowledge of that name. Politician? No. Famous Televangelist? Nope. Then it comes to him. “The singer?”
“That’s the one. Voice of an angel. Sings so sweet.”
Now O’Meara is pretty certain he has detected a slur. “Step out of the vehicle please, Mr. Watkins.”
O’Meara goes through the routine of testing the man’s faculties. He makes Watkins count backwards from 10. Then he makes him walk a straight line, one foot directly in front of the other.
“Listen,” Watkins says, once he has passed the test. “Let me just play you something.”
As Watkins reaches into the car, O’Meara unholsters his weapon. “Hold it right there,” he says. But the man, unalarmed, stands up again, with his cell phone in his hand. O’Meara puts the weapon away.
“Can I just play you something?” Watkins asks. “I guess it just hit me hard. I’m going through some stuff. My mom passed away. And I think my boyfriend may be cheating on me. You know? It’s just life shit.” He presses a button and the sweet melody of "Stay with Me" fills the air. A hauntingly familiar song. With the woods all around and the birds fluttering through the branches, it feels like the two of them are encapsulated in some small microcosm of existence together. Not a soul has traveled the road since O’Meara arrived.
The rich and melodic voice of Sam Smith sings, “Oh, won’t you stay with me? Cause you’re all I need. This ain’t love it’s clear to see. But darling, stay with me.” And at that moment, something starts to break inside O’Meara. He feels the scaffolding holding his emotions together begin to crumble. He presses his lips together to bolster himself against feeling, because this is absolutely not happening right here, right now. This is not where he’s going to grieve the loss of Janice, or wish things were different, or let the ache of wanting her back come out.
But then their eyes meet. Watkins squints at him. And O’Meara knows he can see right through. Knows he’s not alone in his pain.
“Hey,” Watkins says. “Here, now.” Then he puts his arms around O’Meara, and hugs him tight.
O'Meara chokes out a sob. "Oh for God's sake," he says. He exhales and another sob emerges.
And that’s when another set of police lights emblazons the woods around them, and O’Meara hears Rieger’s cruiser pull up alongside them. He steps back from Watkins and turns to her vehicle, trying to formulate an explanation. But Rieger turns off her lights, waves with a slight smile, and drives on.
Thank you for reading my story! I love writing from prompts. This one called upon writers to incorporate action, dialog and narrative, and offered the picture of the VW in the woods for inspiration.
Be sure to visit our community, The Ink Well, to see the other stories that were inspired by the prompt. And if you're a short story writer, join us!
I will close by sharing some of the most emotionally charged Sam Smith songs, including the one referenced in this story. Doesn't he just grab your heart?
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