The following morning dawned early for Mal. He was always an early riser, except for the five years he spent on mids – the graveyard shift of the police force. Those were the first five years of Alice’s life. He spent most of it asleep or in a patrol car. No wonder he had trouble developing a relationship with her. By the time she was a teen, he had made detective and was working more normal hours – if constant overtime, weekend, and late nights at the station reviewing evidence or interrogating drug addicts could be considered normal. Mal was forced to concede Alice made far more effort in attempting to connect with her father than he did with her. He was always busy, always working, always rationalizing it with “maybe later.”
When “maybe later” finally came, Alice had grown out of her training bra, had her first three boyfriends, and was taking her driving test. And it wasn’t Alice who brought him to “maybe later” – it was her friend, Erin. Erin was Alice’s lifelong best friend. Mal watched her grow up from a gangly pre-teen into a beautiful young woman. And, apparently, Erin spent that time watching him. Alice tolerated Erin’s crush on her father, as it brought attention from Mal; he became interested in what she, and her friend, were doing. He talked with her, treated her, and Erin, like adults. It was just what the girl was looking for – at least, initially.
In the beginning, Mal was not aware of Erin’s crush or his growing infatuation with his daughter’s friend. He simply thought he was finally taking an active interest in his children’s lives.
That innocence, or ignorance, disappeared on the night of Erin’s sixteenth birthday. Elise brought Alice and Michael down south to visit her parents and spend the weekend at Disneyland. Mal had a long weekend ahead of him – a murder case that made the news. Whenever the media got involved pressure came down from up top to get things done. It always meant overtime and no weekends. As luck had it, that Friday night Mal was going over his notes on his home computer when the doorbell rang. It was Erin, in tears. Mal invited her in and tried to calm her down.
Eventually, through sobs and long bouts of silence, the story came out. Erin’s mother was a drunk and her father neglectful and abusive. Her only close friend was Alice. It was her birthday and, as usual, her parents forgot. Her only friend was out of town. It was her “sweet sixteen” and she found herself alone in her bedroom crying. She didn’t know why she came to the Evers household. She thought nobody was home.
He should have called protective services. He should have put her to bed in Alice’s room. He should have tucked her in and wished her a happy birthday. Instead, he offered to take her shopping for a birthday present. She smiled through tear-streaked make-up and said it wasn’t necessary. Mal insisted and, an hour later, they were in a jewelry store at the nearest mall, picking out a tasteful necklace with more diamonds than any teenaged girl needed. Erin squealed and hugged him in the store. Mal became very conscious of young breasts pressed tightly against his chest. The hug held on long enough for Mal to become aware of the uncomfortable gaze of the store clerk.
He offered to take her home, but she didn’t want to go back to her house. He suggested she sleep in Alice’s room. She thanked him. At home, he led her to the bedroom and made the bed for her. She crawled in. He was about to turn out the lights when she said, with an amused lilt to her voice, “What? No kiss goodnight?”
Mal shook his head and cursed himself. No use in dwelling. It was done. His cereal was a soggy mess, neglected while he was locked in the memory of his mistakes. He dumped it down the sink, hit the disposal, and frowned when nothing happened.
“Fuck. There isn’t a disposal.”
This wasn’t his house – now Elise’s house – this was his grandparent’s house. The switch above the sink turned on a sink light, not a garbage disposal. Mal fished out the soggy mess with his fingers and threw it in the trashcan – sans bag. He really needed to go shopping for supplies. After he finished unpacking. That’s what today would be, he decided, his unpacking day. Get settled into the new house, the new life. Unpack in the morning, run into town in the afternoon and get some basic needs.
The events of the previous twenty-four hours convinced Mal to start with his bathroom stuff. Towels, washcloths, soaps, toothbrush, and everything else belonging in the bathroom came out of boxes and bags and went onto shelves and in cabinets. He paused to shave for the first time in two days, and brush his teeth for the first time in three. A real shower would wait until unpacking was done – even though he really wanted one.
His bedroom came next. When he finished, his stomach was grumbling and he was sweaty and in need of a break. Noon came and went an hour before. It was a good time for that run into town.
– – – – –
The Copperside General Store was an amalgamation of two buildings with an add-on connecting them. The original store, built by the Johannsen Family in 1928, according to the sign, was a one-room western-style store with a veranda and flat gable. The hitching posts still stood, rebuilt and refurbished as time wore on. At some point the owners decided to connect it to the old house next to it and turn both buildings into one larger store with a second-floor apartment for living.
It was big for a small town, but tiny for someone used to the city. Mal figured the entire store could fit into the grocery section of a Walmart, with room for it’s twin. The parking lot had room for ten vehicles. There were two when Mal arrived. Inside, balanced on an uneven and peeling laminated floor, were mismatched shelves and cold-storage cases. The place smelled of stale cigarette smoke – a lingering relic of decades of unregulated smoking from the days before the smoking ban. Every item was overpriced. Nevertheless, Mal was able to find some groceries and basic supplies for his house.
The girl behind the counter looked to be around his daughter’s age.
“Hiya!” She greeted.
“Getting groceries? And garbage bags, huh? This your big shopping trip for the month?”
Mal raised an eyebrow. Why was the checkout girl so interested in what he was buying?
“Uh, yeah. First one. Just moved into town.”
“Oh yeah? Where at? You buy the Hemming house?”
She looked puzzled. “Huh. I thought it was the only one up for sale.”
“I own the place already. Used to be my mom’s.”
The girl bit her lower lip as she ran a can of chili over the scanner.
“Oh! I know! The Old Ambrose place, right?”
Mal grinned in spite of himself. “Yeah. How’d you guess?”
“I remember hearing it belonged to some guy from out of town. I think your mom used to babysit my mom.”
Mal blinked. “How old is your mom?”
“Oh, I dunno. Thirty-three, I think. Don’t tell her I told you.”
Jesus. Mal was twenty-three when Elise got pregnant with Alice. This girl had to be Alice’s age or older – her mother probably wasn’t legally able to drive when she got knocked up.
The girl finished bagging the groceries and totaled it up. Mal swiped his card. The screen blinked. And blinked.
“Nah. It just takes a while out here. Uses the internet and we ain’t got a fast connection, you know?”
After what seemed an eternity to Mal, the transaction approved.
“There you go. Have a good one! Hope to see you soon!”
“Thanks. You too.”
“I’ll tell my mom you moved into the house!”
– – – – –
Mal pulled into Smith and Son’s Gas and Tire and filled up the Explorer before returning to the highway. He turned off Route 7 and onto Old Ambrose Road. The other inhabited house, “The Anderson Farm” CJ Baran called it, looked as lifeless as the day he arrived. He went on, past Bunker Hollow, and slowed to approach his driveway.
A green, late-nineties, Pierce County Sheriff Jeep Cherokee was parked in front of the old farm house, and Deputy Anders sat on his porch.
“Figured I’d wait a few to see if you were coming back. Thought I saw your car at the store on my way out here.”
Mal unloaded the grocery bags. Anders grabbed one.
“Thanks. What can I help you with, Deputy?”
“Call me Grayson. Everyone does.”
“Okay, Grayson. What can I do for you?”
“I checked out Bunker Hollow last night. Found an empty car, locked up. That isn’t that unusual – kids probably met there and decided to go somewhere else in a different car. What is a little weird is it was still there just a half-hour ago.”
“Maybe it died?” Mal opened the door.
Anders nodded and followed him inside. “Very likely. It’s Jessy Larson’s car, and it barely runs on a good day.”
“Have you tried calling him?” Mal set his bag on a table and gestured for Anders to do the same.
“No point. Her parents ain’t exactly class acts, if you know what I mean. I know both of them, and her, pretty well. They don’t know where she is or what she’s doing when she is home. I’m just going to get Mike to tow the car to his garage for now. If Jessy don’t come looking for it, I’ll get it officially impounded. Then I gotta replace that damned padlock again – someone cut it.”
“Why do you even bother?”
Anders loaded a plug of tobacco and shrugged. “It’s government land. Supposed to stay locked up. No big deal, really. Got plenty of locks and such over at the County Shop out towards Eatonville.”
“Well, if you don’t mind making the trip, I guess.”
“Nah. It’s part of my normal patrol. Works out, too. I can do my grocery shopping in Graham when I’m done.”
“Alright. Well, have a good one. Thanks for letting me know about the woods there.”
Anders shook Mal’s hand and turned for the door.
“Hey.” He paused, “You need anything from Safeway? Since I’m heading out that way anyway – I know the store don’t exactly have a huge selection.”
Mal grinned. “No, thank you though, Grayson. I’ll be fine. I need to head into Yelm soon, anyway.”
“Aha. Alright. You have a good one, then.”
Mal shook his head as the green Cherokee drove down the long driveway. His stomach grumbled, reminding him of the reason for the shopping trip. One of the cans of chili was destined for the microwave, and then his stomach.