The town burned.
Invisible flames. Only my eyes could see them, but they were real. Smoke wafted up over the hilltop, burying the stars in a dusky haze. Below, people screamed, even if they were unaware of it. Wood splintered and burst. Memories crumbled to black ash. Sirens wailed, but there was no help to be had, because I was up here and they were down there.
“Dude, what’s that song you’re humming?”
I sighed. “‘Gentle On My Mind.’ Glen Campbell.”
“Who?” Rick snorted. “We have got to get you some music from this century. How old are you, twenty-eight? That’s just not right. Gotta hook you up with some Justin Timberlake or something. Ne-Yo.”
I shined my flashlight on the car’s license plate, even though I could see it clearly enough in the glow of the cruiser’s headlights. FOURJ 4.
“Weird plate,” Rick said.
“Second generation. First three names begin with the letter J, then Junior. Number is probably a favorite athlete’s.” I raised the light to the rear windshield. A Green Bay decal. “Brett Favre.”
“I’ll give you a buck if you’re right. Want me to start writing them up?”
I don’t think there’s a need.”
Beyond the glare on the rear windshield, I couldn’t see much inside the car, just enough to know that the couple had separated, and were struggling to put clothes on. Maybe put other stuff away. I went around the passenger side, shined my light in, to make sure the girl was decently covered. She was. Then I rapped on the glass and said, “Ma’am, could you please exit the vehicle?”
Rick did the same on the other side. They came out quickly enough. The girl was about eighteen, legal at least, and she’d gotten on her bra. I doubted her cut-offs had come off yet. She was pretty enough, eyes a little too far apart, a little too thin around the waist. Pale, with blond hair. Dyed; her roots were showing. She stepped barefoot on the gravel, almost slipping. Judging her not a threat, I glanced over the side of the hill again. The fire raged on.
She began stammering. I held up a hand to silence her. “License,” I said.
She bent back inside. The boy was coming around the back of the car, Rick behind him. Kid was around the girl’s age, thank God. A little heavier. Clearly worked out. I judged the girl for a local; the boy looked like he could attend the community college, but with a license plate like that, he was probably a townie as well.
“I’ll need to see your I.D.,” I told him.
He nodded. Calm. He’d been caught out here before. “Sam, could you grab my wallet?”
The girl did. She handed me her card first, then the boy gave me his.
“Jonathan Jeremiah Jacobs, Jr.,” I said. The address was in a residential area, solidly middle class. Parent’s house, most likely. A townie.
Rick grunted. “Shit.”
I gave the kid back his license. “Samantha no-middle-name Southworth.” Also a townie. I handed her back her card.
Both kids of consensual age. I hated coming across a college freshman who’d accidently picked up a high school senior. With the stop called in, and the camera mounted in the cruiser’s windshield, you had to write them up. It was a hassle their parents usually covered up—no one really cared—but I still had to do all the paperwork. Rick could barely spell his own name.
Jacobs hadn’t bothered putting on his shirt, but at least his jeans were still on, and he stuck the wallet back in his pocket. He wasn’t cocky, but I saw something in his eyes. Confidence. He knew he’d get off.
The girl was about to wet herself. She shook like she was freezing, had her arms crossed over her chest, not that she had a whole lot to hide. The boy watched me, and the girl watched the ground.
“You know this kind of thing is illegal?” Rick said. “Public…Mike?”
“Yeah. Public indecency, too.”
The kid nodded. “I’m sorry, officers. It’s just…everybody comes out here…”
“Exactly.” Rick stabbed a finger at the kid. “Everybody. Some grandma could bring her little kid out here to watch the birds. Hell, a cop could come out here and catch you guys.” He smiled. “That’s what happens when everybody comes here.”
I watched Rick. It was a decent rebuttal. I hadn’t expected it of him. He was broad at the waist and shoulders, not obese but barely within departmental regulations. His face was broad as well, with a small mouth and an almost nonexistent nose. With a man who looked like that, you expected certain intellectual limitations, and in Rick’s case, you got them.
The kid was trying to form an apology. I grabbed his attention by saying, “Mr. Jacobs, you’ve been warned against this before, is that correct?”
He turned to me. Surprised. And thinking, too, very quickly. So he probably had a record, and he was wondering if I was familiar with it. Probably shocked at the thought that the local cops knew his name. Going over a list of his offenses.
“If you lie to me,” I said, “it’ll only make things worse.”
His thinking shut down. Kid knew what he was doing. He nodded. “Yessir. I…I’ve been out here a couple times.”
A couple times. Meaning caught at least once, out here several more, unsure if I knew that or not. They didn’t call the place Makeout Point for nothing. Lazy name, but it’s the lazy ones that stick.
“So you were told not to do this kinda thing, then?” Rick said. “Is that right?”
“Yes, officer. I suppose I was.”
“I never been out here before,” the girl blurted, but the lie was so obvious I ignored it. I wasn’t interested in her anyways. Guilt was written plain as day across her face.
Jacobs glanced at the girl, as though he were annoyed. “Sam…”
“Ms. Southworth,” I said, then stopped. I waited until she looked up at me. Five full seconds. A long time, when a cop asks for your attention. Her eyes were naked, on the verge of panic.
“Ms. Southworth,” I said again. “If I ask you a question, will you tell me the truth?”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Y-yes.”
“You’re scaring her,” Jacobs said.
“He wasn’t talking to you,” Rick said.
“Ms. Southworth, are there any illegal substances in the car?”
The question shocked her so much that she looked away. I couldn’t smell anything, couldn’t see anything, but it was windy, and the breeze may have carried the odor, or it may have mingled with that of the smoke coming from the dying town. I could feel Rick’s eyes on my face, not doubtful, but worried. Had I picked up on a cue that he hadn’t? It wouldn’t have been the first time.
“No,” she said, softly. I couldn’t even hear her; I watched her lips, thin with fear, form the syllable.
“Can you say that again, Ms. Southworth?”
I turned to the kid. He looked angry.
“We ain’t got nothing, okay?” he said. “Jesus.”
“Easy, kid,” Rick said.
I turned my eyes from one kid to the other. One defiant, one about to pass out. Something in me itched, something deep down, between my heart and my stomach. It itched, then it burned, and I had to do something.
“Officer Huddleston,” I said, “I am searching the vehicle.”
“Probable cause!” Jacobs shouted as I stepped forward. “You don’t have probable cause!”
“You’re breaking the law,” Rick said, as he put his hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Step aside, kid, and let Officer Kirkpatrick do his job. Don’t make me cuff you.”
The girl burst into tears. I thought she was going to fall, but she just hung her head. “Go to her,” I said to the kid. “Get out of my way.”
Jacobs met my eyes, but he didn’t hold them long. When he went to the girl, there was something on his face. Mostly confusion, but partly fear.
I searched the car. Backseat first, because that’s where they’d been. Then under the front seats. Then the glove compartment. The doors. Ran my hands along the lining of the floor and ceiling. Seat cushions. Popped the trunk, checked the spare tire. Got down and shined my light across the undercarriage. Stood back up with my uniform streaked with mud and grass. The burning continued.
“Let them go,” I said. “They don’t have anything.”
Jacobs stepped away from the girl. “I told you!” he shouted. “I fucking told you!”
Rick started to interrupt, but when Jacobs moved, the girl, who’d been leaning on him, moved as well. She fell onto her side. Her head hit the gravel, not hard, but it bounced. Rick stepped forward, turning his back to me, bending to check on her. Jacobs didn’t notice; he was stepping towards me, arm outstretched, full of self-righteousness.
I turned my back to the cruiser. Camera saw only my spine. I lowered my right hand just to the side of my belt buckle. Not on my gun, not so that the camera could pick it up, but close enough so that the boy stopped in his tracks. My intent was clear. I watched him and waited.
The boy stared at my hand. Then he looked up, slowly, to my face. Behind his small, pale head, flames and smoke that he couldn’t see burned the night. The fire framed the boy’s head perfectly. He looked like an etching as he stood there, motionless, mouth hanging open, eyes full of fear and recognition.
My itching gradually subsided, the burn easing away. I removed my hand from my waist, although the kid did not look any more relaxed.
“Check on your friend,” I said.
He obeyed immediately. Rick already had the girl on her feet. She wasn’t even bleeding.
“She just lost her balance,” Rick said to the boy. “She’s fine.” He looked up at me and grinned. “Good thing, too, huh? Getting an ambulance up here’d be a bitch.”
“Officer Huddleston, we’re done here.” I turned and went back to the cruiser.
I waited for the couple to leave first. They drove a little too quickly down the hillside, but I let them. I barely noticed. Rick said something to me, a joke of some kind, because he started laughing. I just stared at the flames, rising, and Rick’s laughter eventually merged with the screaming, and only then, when there was only one final cacophonous roar, did I drive away.
Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. Currently, he is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can follow him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com, or on Facebook.