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23 Miles by Renee MacKenzie

 

Chapter One

 

October 1986

Shay Eliot pulled her Chevy C-10 pickup truck into a parking space close to the entrance of the bar. There were only a few other cars in the lot. She turned off the ignition and leaned her head back. She had been to this bar hundreds of times – first as just a patron, then as Dee’s friend, and then as a law enforcement officer.

 

There weren’t a lot of problems at the bar. The fact that Dee would ban you for life for fighting did a lot to deter that kind of trouble. Usually the only problems were an occasional local punk yelling anti-gay rhetoric or the sporadic lover’s quarrel that would lead to sloppy break-ups that only lasted until the following weekend.

 

Shay took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She would continue coming to the bar as a patron and a friend, but never again as a law enforcement officer.

 

“What have I done?” she whispered. It started to drizzle again and she stared through the spotted and streaked windshield at the painted cinderblock of the building.

 

When she got out of the truck, she gave the parking lot a quick, visual scan. Her attention came to the far right corner of the building where two bowls were set off to the side. It appeared Lana, or one of the other bartenders, had taken to feeding the feral cat that had started hanging around. Shay chuckled because she had known Dee’s ‘no strays’ rule wouldn’t last the week.

 

 Here goes, she thought. She pulled the heavy door open and stopped just inside waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darker interior. A woman leaning against the cigarette machine smiled at her. Shay nodded.

 

“I did it,” Shay blurted as she sat at the bar across from where Lana Christianson stood.

 

“You did what and what’ll you have?” Lana asked as she adjusted her long, dark ponytail and reached for a glass hanging above her head.

 

“A vodka tonic and make it a double,” Shay said as she swiveled around, looking at the few people in the bar at that early hour. “Oh, and a shot of tequila.”

 

A Phil Collins record was playing on the jukebox. Shay much preferred his songs to the dance music that inevitably would take over later. She watched as two women chalked up their pool cues as they eyed each other from across the green felt table. Shay found their game of psych-out amusing. She ran her hand over her semi-short, wavy hair as she watched them stare each other down.

 

Lana set Shay’s drink in front of her, and then poured the shot. As Shay reached for the tequila, Lana placed her hand over Shay’s and the shot. “Whoa,” she said. Shay could tell Lana was nervous, probably because she’d never seen Shay do shots before.

 

Lana’s voice lowered to a near-whisper. “What did you do?”

 

“I quit the force.” She slid the shot out from under Lana’s hand. She held it up for a salute, slipped the lemon slice off the rim, and downed the shot. She ignored the salt shaker Lana had slid in her direction and stuck the lemon into her mouth.

 

“You… did…what?” Lana’s voice rose with each word.

 

Shay put the lemon slice in the empty shot glass. “I quit my job.”

 

Shay had told Lana that she was going through a rough patch at work. They’d talked about it a couple of times. About how she hadn’t been considered for a promotion in years, about how she always felt a little on the outside at work.

 

“I thought it was all just you venting,” Lana said. She wiped the bar around Shay and then emptied a nearby ashtray.

 

Shay studied Lana’s face. “Well, aren’t you going to say anything else?”

 

The door to the back cooler swung open. “Lana, can you help me with this keg?” Dee fumbled with the heavy keg as she tried to roll it out of the cooler. The bar manager’s skinny arms were all angles and elbows.

 

“I got it,” Shay said. “Might as well make myself useful before I’m too drunk to be any good to anyone.”

 

Shay saw Dee give Lana a ‘what’s up’ look. She wasn’t worried because she knew Lana wouldn’t say anything until Shay was ready for the world to know. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lana shake her head before following Shay to the keg.

 

Shay maneuvered the keg into place and set it up. She felt both Lana and Dee watching her as she did so. She flexed her muscles an extra little bit. She wasn’t necessarily vain, but had worked hard to stay fit and liked when people expressed appreciation for her physique. She hooked the keg up for Dee, something she’d done many times over the years.

 

Before Shay could sit down, Lana grabbed her by the hand and led her out the door to the parking lot. She didn’t stop until they were a good distance from the door.

 

“Tell me exactly what you did.”

 

Shay crossed her arms over her chest. “I quit my job with the police department. Oh, you mean exactly what I did. Well, what I meant to do was walk in, hand that asshole sergeant of mine my badge and service revolver, and say, ‘Screw you.’” She took a deep breath. “But the reality of it was a little different. The sergeant wouldn’t take my badge or gun. He sent me to human resources where I very civilly signed my paperwork, and then they sent me to property and accounting so I could give them my belt, uniforms, badge, and gun.”

 

“Why?” Lana asked.

 

“Why property and accounting?” Shay asked, knowing she was bordering on being obnoxious.

 

“No, why quit the force?”

 

“My loyalty is to my community, not my employers. That’s not acceptable. Not to them and not to me.” Shay knew it sounded rehearsed but didn’t care.

 

“Did you quit because of that thing with Paulie? Oh my God, Shay, you didn’t, did you?”

 

“You know how much that whole thing sickened me.” She used her foot to scoot some gravel around the pavement.

 

“Shay, we don’t even know if Paulie was telling the truth. What if he was lying? You threw it all away over him?”

 

“We’ll probably never know the truth about that night. Maybe Paulie did resist arrest. Or maybe my brothers in blue” – Shay stopped, almost choking on the words – “maybe Dixon and McCoy did beat the shit out of ‘the little fag boy’ for no reason.”

 

“So why quit if you don’t even know who to believe?” Lana asked.

 

Because I don’t know who to believe. I should have total faith in my fellow officers, but I don’t. I’ve heard enough fag jokes out of them to last a lifetime. The worst part – the very worst part was how my sergeant not only blew off my concerns about the assault on Paulie, but ridiculed me over them in front of the others. When I looked around the squad room and didn’t definitively believe they had my back…” She stopped to compose herself. “…I knew I couldn’t be there anymore.”

 

Lana reached for her, but stopped. “Wow,” she whispered. “Just… Wow.”

 

As a car pulled into the parking lot, illuminating them with its headlights, Shay said, “We should go in.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Once inside, Lana started serving the women on the left side of the bar and Dee concentrated on those on the right.

 

After another shot and two doubles, Lana placed a plain coke on the bar in front of Shay.

 

“I’m such a lightweight. And you know me so well.” Shay joked.

 

“It’s my job to know when it’s soda time.” She reached into the sink and started washing glasses as she spoke to Shay. “Does Kate know you were going to quit your job?”

 

“No. You’re the only one I talked to about the Paulie thing, and other than a softball buddy, the only one I’ve told so far about quitting.” Shay fidgeted with her glass. She appreciated having Lana to confide in, but also knew she’d been using Lana as a buffer between her and Kate.

 

“When’s your girl coming in?” Shay asked.

 

Lana’s face reddened at her words. Shay smiled. She liked how Lana still reacted that way to the mention of Kate. It was no secret in their little piece of the world that Shay had a bit of a crush on Kate when they first met. But Shay was glad that Kate and Lana had worked through their issues. She just wanted Kate to be happy.

 

“She’s going to study sociopaths and psychopaths until she’s half blind, then she’ll come by for a little while. So, probably not until midnight or later.” Lana sighed.

 

Shay thought about the first time she’d seen both Kate and Lana. Shay was one of the first cops at a crime scene. She was interviewing Kate when Lana came in. At the time Shay didn’t know what was going on between all the parties involved, but she did know that she would have hated to be the one Lana had leveled that scathing glare at. At one point Kate was a suspect in Lana’s boyfriend’s murder, then it was Kate’s sister April they suspected. Eventually all the pieces came together and it had been determined that April’s boyfriend, Boyd, had murdered Richie.

 

Shay was left with a mad crush on Kate, a very healthy respect for Lana, and now, three years later, no career. What she hadn’t told Lana when they’d talked about how miserable it was for Shay at work, was that it had all started when she’d gotten involved with the case that was linked to Kate, Lana, and April. After she’d tried to stick up for April during that case, her superiors started treating her differently.

 

She watched Lana serving drinks, and was glad to have helped her get the job there, and to have helped get her an apartment nearby. Shay still wasn’t sure if Lana would have been able to resist her family’s demands concerning her sexuality if she hadn’t put a little distance between them.

 

“If you don’t mind, would you tell Kate about me quitting?” Shay asked.

 

“Don’t you think that it should come from you?”

 

“No. I’d rather you tell her, then I can fill in details later for her. I can hear her now, “Eliot, why would you let them run you off from doing what you love?”

 

“And your response would be?”

 

Shay shrugged. “She’s the only person outside of work who calls me Eliot,” she said, not caring that she was going off topic.

 

“Because for the longest time she only knew you as S. Eliot from your name tag. Calling you S. was a little weird for her.”

 

Shay laughed. “It sounds sweet when she says it. Not like when my sergeant growls it out.” Shay shut up then, afraid her torch might be showing.

 

“What are you going to do for work?”

 

“My friend Brenda set me up with a few yards to mow. It’s not much, but it’s something.” Shay had been so thankful that her softball buddy had such a successful lawn business that she could throw a little work her way. But she wasn’t sure how long that would be enough, both mentally and financially. She had a good-sized nest egg built up, thanks to her parents drilling the importance of saving into her head when she was growing up, but she knew it wouldn’t hold up forever.

 

 

Talia Lisher sang at the top of her lungs to Sam Harris’s “Sugar Don’t Bite” as she drove her 1982 Honda Accord to the Colonial Parkway. The twenty-three mile scenic roadway that connected Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown was many of her old high school friends’ preferred spot for partying. Talia was looking for Fish, the dude she got her pot from. A few minutes later, she pulled off the parkway near Yorktown, into a scenic overview. As if on cue, Fish pulled in right behind her. She’d recognize his Dodge Challenger anywhere. They both killed their headlights, then Fish got into her car and they smoked a joint before Talia bought a nickel bag from him.

 

As she pulled out of the scenic overview, her mouth was dry – cottonmouth from smoking the weed. She craved a Slim Jim and potato chips, her version of a meat and potatoes diet. She’d wash it down with an ice cold Jolt Cola, getting just the desired kick so she could sit down and scratch out a poem or two.

 

She noted yellow and orange starting to dot the trees as autumn’s display of colors started. The yellows in particular glowed in the beams of her headlights. This was her favorite time of year. She loved the changing colors of the foliage and she liked being able to wear her funky-patterned blazers out to the bar without getting too warm in them.

 

When Talia passed the pull-off near Ringfield Park, a dark van pulled out behind her. It sped up until it was right on the bumper of her Honda. She increased her speed, and so did the dark van. She couldn’t tell if it was black or dark blue; she only knew it was too close for comfort.

 

What if it’s the cops, she wondered in her marijuana-induced paranoia. No, no way they’d be out here in a van. Besides, she was on federal land. It’d be the park service rangers patrolling there, not the state or county. Right?

 

Talia turned the music way down, as if to help her concentrate on driving. She sped up further and when the van stayed right on her, the buzz she’d worked so hard to get disappeared and fear took over.

 

The van flashed its lights like it wanted her to stop. She felt a little sick. Again it flashed its lights – off and on, off and on the high beams went. Then the inside of her car lit up with what she assumed was the beam of a spotlight. A voice screaming in her head told her if she stopped, she’d be dead.

 

She stomped on the accelerator and didn’t ease up, not even around the tree-lined curves. The van stayed with her at first, but by the third time she took the curves on two wheels, she’d pulled way ahead of it. She didn’t let up.

 

She meant to get off the parkway at Route 17, but knew she was going too fast by the time she approached. She would have to go to Ballard Street.

 

The stop sign at the intersection with Ballard came out of nowhere. She slowed just enough to turn right without losing control. There were no headlights behind her. She turned right onto Cook Road and kept her speed at the limit, not wanting to draw attention to herself and not wanting to hit a deer. Good thing she hadn’t seen any deer on the parkway. The way she was driving there would have been no way to avoid one.

 

Once Talia was on Route 17 she felt a little safer. She glanced into the rearview mirror every few moments as she wove her way to the intersection of Ft. Eustis Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue. She knew she wouldn’t be able to keep food down, so she didn’t stop at the 7-Eleven. Several minutes later she pulled into the parking lot of her apartment and looked around. Not seeing a dark van, she got out, locked the car behind her, and ran to her apartment door.

 

She locked the door and the dead bolt, and then went into the kitchen and pulled out an Amstel Light. She took several gulps. She didn’t like beer, but bought it when she saw Shay Eliot drinking that brand at the bar one night after her shift as a law enforcement officer.

 

Talia went into the bathroom and cringed at the amount of mascara smeared under her eyes. Her purple eye shadow was mostly gone, her “big hair” was way too massive, and she was pale. She looked like a vampire. And she was still shaking from the chase on the parkway.

 

“What the hell was that?” she asked her reflection.

 

She went into the living room and grabbed the phone off the side table, stretching the cord out as far as it would go as she sat on the sofa. Dialing her best friend’s phone number in Georgia, she wished Debbie hadn’t left Virginia. If Debbie had stayed in the county instead of moving off, they would have been cruising the parkway together. But her best friend had left the area, was oblivious to where Talia spent her time now, and pretty much had started growing further and further from her. Talia knew she was lying by omission to Debbie by not coming out to her, but she could live with that.

 

“You will not believe what happened to me,” Talia said in lieu of ‘hello.’

 

“Talia? It’s late. I’ve got class tomorrow.”

 

“Oh, sorry, but I had to tell you what happened. I was on the parkway. I’d just scored some weed from Fish –”

 

“You’re still smoking that trash from Fish?”

 

“Hey, things have been dry lately. I take what I can get, you know?” She took a sip of her beer. “So, listen. I’m driving home and all of a sudden this dark van pulls up behind me and is right on my ass. And he chases me. He’s flashing his lights and shining some spotlight on me and won’t back off.”

 

“Just some jerk-off messing with you,” Debbie mumbled.

 

Talia felt a surge of energy move through her. Just some jerk-off? Really? She couldn’t believe she was inches from death and her best friend was blowing her off.

 

She felt it coming, but was powerless against it. “Debbie, he hit me from behind,” she lied.

 

“What?”

 

There, she thought, now I have your attention. “Well, it was only a tap, and it didn’t do any damage, but I came really close to losing control of the car and we were going like 70 on that one curving section of the parkway.”

 

“Shit, you need to stay away from there for a while. What if it was someone who knew you’d scored some weed and was going to roll you for it?”

 

Roll me for it? Where in the world did you pick up that jargon?”

 

Debbie laughed. “Too much cable TV, I suppose. Still, you need to be careful.”

 

Talia sat back, snuggling into the sofa, feeling better now that her best friend was showing a more appropriate level of concern.

 

 

Shay rolled over and looked at the clock on the bedside table. Her tabby cat, Poke, was at the foot of the bed, meowing. “Come up here, brat,” she told him. He climbed onto her and she petted his gray, brown, and black head. “Thanks for still loving me even if I probably won’t be able to afford cat treats for too much longer.”

 

He jumped off her and she laughed. “Yeah, I see how you are.”

 

Mornings were the hardest time of the day. It was when she was most likely to examine the place she was in her life. She would have to get up soon if she was going to finish all the lawns on her schedule for the day. She was so glad that Brenda had given her a few clients while she was starting out. Brenda was always so busy that she wouldn’t even feel the effect. But it sure would help Shay.

 

Shay’s head was pounding as she made her way to the bathroom. What was she thinking drinking shots of tequila? Oh, that’s right, she hadn’t been thinking.

 

She threw on an old pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and then made her way into the kitchen. She poured herself a bowl of corn flakes. Poke eyed her. Shay was pretty sure he was convinced that she went without milk in her cereal to torture him. “Sorry, buddy,” she said as she poured herself a glass of orange juice and stood at the kitchen counter to eat her dry cereal.

 

She freshened Poke’s water and kibble, then brushed her teeth and started out the door. She stopped short at the edge of the driveway and wondered how long it would take before she grew used to not seeing her police cruiser there.

 

She checked the time and knew she better get going if she was going to get all the lawns done in time to beat the navy base traffic. She checked that the lawnmower was secured in the back of her Chevy C10 pickup truck, jiggled the gas can to be sure she had enough diesel fuel to mow several lawns with her old, commercial mower, and then was on her way.

 

 

Talia came home from her job at the dental office one town over, in Grafton, and threw the bag of Taco Bell on the table. She grabbed a Jolt Cola from the fridge and settled down to eat her tostada and two tacos. Thank God for Taco Bell, she thought. It was her usual Thursday night cuisine. And Tuesday, Wednesday, and sometimes Sunday. “Okay,” she admitted to herself. “I’m addicted.”

 

She squirted some hot sauce onto her taco and thought about the crappy day she’d had at work. She had a hell of a time finding the right balance of caffeine to wake up but not be jittery. She couldn’t get in a groove and felt like Dr. Bennett was waiting on her for one thing or another all day. A couple times she’d glanced toward Lacey, the other dental assistant, and caught her making faces behind the dentist’s back. Lacey was always good for comic relief. Talia thought Lacey was nice to her because her presence there took the pressure off of her. She was pretty sure Lacey was the recipient of all the impatience before Talia joined the office.

 

Sauce dripped down Talia’s chin as she devoured her second taco. She swiped carelessly at it with a napkin.

 

Earlier, at the office, she’d been wiping down the handles of the light over the dental chair and looked up to see Dr. Bennett standing in the doorway with a patient. Dr. Bennett gripped the patient’s chart to his chest. Talia wasn’t sure if she’d zoned out and spent way too long cleaning, or if he was just giving her the look he used often to remind her not to think too much of herself. And every time she looked toward the front of the office she noticed Sally, the receptionist, looking at her accusingly.

 

To make matters worse, all day Talia couldn’t shake the discomfort lingering after her encounter on the parkway the night before. Every time she thought about it her heart pounded and she felt a little sick. She decided to think of it as a sign that she was meant to stay home more nights. She should be working on her poetry chapbook after work, not being chased down by some freak up to God knows what. But she could still go to the bar on the other side of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, in Norfolk, and try to talk to Shay Eliot, of course.

 

Standing in her apartment’s small hallway, she looked toward the poem room, as she called it. It was meant to be Brian’s room when he got out of prison, but with a minimum of four years left on her brother’s sentence, Talia could still call it whatever she wanted to for quite some time. And she’d be lying – which she’d been working hard at lately to quit – if she didn’t admit that she would rather Brian not move in with her when he got out. Drama followed Brian, and Talia wasn’t a big fan of drama. Then there was the whole gay thing. She instinctively knew she would always need to hide that part of her life from her brother.

 

So, the poem room… Talia had painted a poem on a canvas two days earlier. It was one inspired by a dream she had about Shay Eliot. She titled it, “Soul Dancing.”

 

Talia had this process where she painted a 24 x 36 inch canvas with acrylic paints. One color, kind of light, covered the entire surface, then she painted on the words, large and bold. It was something new she’d started. So far, other than the dancing poem, she also had “Taste” (also inspired by Shay Eliot), “No,” and “Under the Ball Cap.” It was sort of her thing. Every writer needed a thing, she’d decided.

 

After finishing her dinner, she went into the poem room. “Soul Dancing” was written in bold black letters scratched onto a steel-blue background that reminded her of the color of Shay Eliot’s eyes. Talia was going through a phase where she wasn’t allowing her poems to rhyme. She’d heard that was what the cool writers were doing.

 

The canvas leaned on the easel where she’d left it to dry. She stood in front of it and stared until the light blue background turned into Shay Eliot’s eyes. Then she began reciting it, mostly from memory.

 

“On that day when

strong women

are invited to dance

barefoot in my dust,

I know

you will be there,

beautiful feet glistening

with life’s sheen.

My barefoot Muse,

set free my obsession,

take me with you and

leave a trail of me.

Help me to know what you view,

to see what you know,

strong woman

barefoot in my dust.”

 

 

Talia loved writing but she knew she wasn’t going to make a living at it. She liked working as a dental assistant just fine, but didn’t want to do it forever. Other than writing poems, she didn’t know what else she was interested in. She figured maybe she’d work that out by the time she burned out on the dental assistant gig. She had just turned twenty-three, made a decent wage, loved the car Brian sold to her for ten bucks before being sent away, and liked her apartment in Newport News fine, even if she would have preferred to stay in York County.

 

The only thing she found lacking was her sex life. After fooling around a bit when she first came out, she hadn’t been with anyone in a while. But, she knew that was her own fault for holding out for the woman of her dreams. Speaking of whom, she wondered if Shay Eliot was at the bar. She could go see. No, she reminded herself. It was poem night – even if it meant staring at the walls or ceiling while waiting for her muse.

 

The phone rang. Thursday was also the day Brian got his phone time. She picked up the receiver. “Yes, I’ll accept the charges,” she responded to the operator’s inquiry.

 

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