29 10 / 2011
AN EVER-PRESENT STATIC had moved into my head like a squatter I couldn’t evict, and I *thought* getting rid of it would be my best shot at survival. Like all I needed was silence, even if only within myself, to feel at home.
I was wrong.
My decision to rid myself of the white noise started innocuously enough—with Mrs. Franklin staring at me from across the diner as though I was possessed by some demon spirit.
She always looked at me that way, and it wasn’t just because I sometimes spaced out and screwed up simple pancake orders.
I crossed the black-and-white tiled floor to the jukebox, hoping Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ would drown out the wasping in my mind.
“Sophia!” Mrs. Franklin’s high-pitched, singsong voice cut into my thoughts.
I gripped the sides of the jukebox and turned my head toward her. “Yes?”
She smoothed invisible wrinkles from her paisley, ankle-length dress. “Check, please. I’d like to get going before any secular music touches my ears.”
I walked to the register, printed her check, and headed over to the red vinyl booth where she sat. “Anything else, Mrs. Franklin?”
“I was hoping you’d reconsider my offer on your house.”
Of course I hadn’t. Why would I sell my inheritance unless I’d make enough to leave this rotten town? “I’m not interes—”
She grabbed my arm, and I forced my glare from her whitening knuckles to her scowling face. I considered pulling free, but if we caused a scene, I would be the one to go down. The customer’s always right, after all.
She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “You either get out of that house, or we’ll take you out of it.”
Great. Why couldn’t she put *that* in one of those notes she was always plastering all over my property? I stared back, uncertain what to say. But I didn’t need to say anything. She gave me a long, warning glare, then released my arm, gathered her purse, and hurried to the checkout counter.
I blew a stray hair from my eyes and gazed past the booths, out the window to the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. Belle Meadow was thirty minutes from Denver but ages from the modern day. This town was a trap, a collection of crazies. Including myself. If Colorado was the heart of the southwest, Belle Meadow was a clogged artery.
On my way back to the kitchen, one of the two boys sitting at table four flagged me down to request a milkshake. I tried focusing on the order as I ran the blender, but I couldn’t tell where the sounds in my head ended and the sounds of the real world began. A swarm of bees, a blender running, the warning of a rattlesnake—they were all one with the hissing curse.
“I heard she’s a witch,” the older boy whispered loudly.
His friend grinned. “She’s blonder than your sister, even…and probably twice as dumb.”
Right. Sophia Parsons, town idiot. Pale, blonde, and brown-eyed. As bland as oatmeal, yet somehow I’d become the rumor mill’s hot sauce.
I wanted to dump the boy’s shake over his greasy little head, but instead, I recalled the Wiccan Rede that had so long guided me: *An it harm none, do what ye will.*
Did they think harassing me would inspire me to leave town? It wasn’t as though I *wanted* to stay. I was only stuck here because Mother would have an aneurism if I moved away and Dad would be heartbroken.
That, and I couldn’t afford the higher utility bills in the city, and my job search since returning from Colorado State University was proving fruitless. Apparently, no one wanted to hire a twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college teaching history.
A few stage-whispers weren’t going to change that.
The greasy-haired boy nodded toward the diner’s front door. “Let’s get out of here. She’s giving me the creeps.”
Though they left, the itchy feeling of their judgments did not. Maybe if Mother hadn’t seen the altar in my room during one of her unannounced visits, she wouldn’t have announced my faith to Mrs. Franklin, and then no one in town would know I was Wiccan. Now, everyone knew, and at least half of them took major issue with it.
The ding of someone opening the diner’s front door brought me back to reality: burnt grease and coffee on the air, along with my duty to serve whomever strolled in. It just so happened that ‘whomever’ was Sheriff Locumb. He entered the diner with a purposeful gait, scanning the room before heading my way.
“Hey, Sheriff.” I righted an upside-down coffee mug and began to pour. “Anything besides the usual?”
His mustache twitched. He brushed some crumbs away from where his stomach bulged against his brown police uniform, then lifted his gaze. “Miss Sophia Parsons?”
I stopped pouring mid-cup. *Hello? I serve your coffee every day. Obviously it’s me.* “Yeah?”
Jack came up beside me, drying his hands on a towel. “Hey, Sheriff. What’s going on?”
Locumb cleared his throat. “I’m, uh, afraid I need to ask Miss Parsons to come with me.”
Jack and I stared at each other and then back at the sheriff.
“Is this a joke?” I asked.
I didn’t really think he was joking. Sheriff Locumb wasn’t the joking kind. Everyone in the diner watched. Even the jukebox went silent.
Jack leaned closer to the sheriff, lowering his voice. “What’s this about, Jerry?”
Locumb sniffled. “Can’t discuss it, Jack. We just need to ask Sophia some questions.”
My heartbeat picked up. Sheriff Locumb could be a nice guy…*in a diner*. But I didn’t want to be on the other end of his questioning. Not again. Not ever.
Jack had nothing more to offer than a shrug. Trying to appear calm, I removed my apron and gently placed it on the counter.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me get my stuff.”
After promising Jack I’d make up my shift over the weekend, I headed to my Jeep and pulled up behind Sheriff Locumb’s cruiser.
I spent the drive to the sheriff’s office in a cold sweat, trying to stop myself from shaking. No handcuffs, no reading of my rights. I wasn’t under arrest. Hell, he was even allowing me to follow him to the station.
That whole thing with Mr. Petrenko—that was long over with, right? I’d only *found* his body.
I hadn’t killed the man. No matter what anyone thought.
SHERIFF LOCUMB and I sat in a small room with a table and two chairs and a cheap light embedded into the suspended ceiling overhead. I wiped my palms on my pants, but the sweat kept coming.
He pulled a picture up on his cell phone. “Look familiar?”
Maybe he should have gotten an eight-by-twelve print. What was the picture of? Wood? Reddish-orange paint? There was a shape: a figure eight and a cross. I frowned and shook my head. “*Should* this look familiar?”
“Someone spray-painted this on the abandoned grain elevator,” he said coolly. “Why don’t you tell me what you know?”
“What I know about spray-paint?”
“Look.” He leveled his gaze at me. “Mrs. Franklin said one of the women in her congregation—well, her daughter got sick. They think you had something to do with this.”
“Mrs. Franklin thinks I have something to do with everything.”
“Well?” he asked.
“Well, what? I didn’t get anyone sick.”
He puffed his cheeks and blew out a breath. “I’m not saying you got anyone sick, Sophia. They think you hexed their child by spray-painting this satanic symbol.”
“I’m in trouble for putting a *hex* on someone? You’re kidding.”
Belle Meadow might be a small town, but surely it wasn’t so dull that they needed to call me down to the station for *this*.
“You’re here because Mrs. Franklin suggested you might be the one who vandalized the abandoned grain elevator, not because you ‘cursed’ someone.”
“And?” I asked.
“Well, did you?”
He stared blankly. Blinked. “What’s that have to do with the case?”
“Wiccans don’t *believe* in Satan.”
“Listen, lady. I don’t care what you believe in. Why don’t you just tell me where you were when the offense took place?”
“When would that be?”
“Three hours from here, at Colorado State, taking my senior year finals.” Something a few minutes of research would have told him without dragging me down here.
Sheriff Locumb leaned back in his chair, slapping his hands against his knees before standing. “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind waiting here while I check with the school?”
I gestured toward the door. “Go ahead.”
Sheriff Locumb returned with a cup of coffee and an apology. I didn’t drink the coffee, but I did ask him about the sick kid, and he told me it’d just been a case of chicken pox. Not a demonic plague or anything like that.
After squaring everything away, I returned to my Jeep in the parking lot and gripped the steering wheel. I was finding it *very* hard to respect Mrs. Franklin’s version of ‘Christianity’ just now, but most other Christians I knew would probably struggle with it, too.
Either way, I couldn’t deal with her crazy accusations *and* the damn hissing. Something had to go.
Taking three deep breaths, I pushed the hissing as far into the back of my skull as possible. I wasn’t about to go back to work. Someone was bound to interrupt my relaxation efforts with a request for a drink refill or a complaint that their jalapeno loaf was too spicy or their ginger-lime chicken wasn’t chickeny enough.
As I drove home, I concentrated on the road—on one mailbox after another, on the way tree branches laced overhead, even on the glare of traffic lights, counting the seconds until they turned green. Anything to distract me from the noise.
My Jeep shushed along the pavement, but the roll of the road didn’t do me any good. The quieter the world around me, the louder the buzzing in my brain. Coping was no longer a viable option.
At the last major cross street before my neighborhood, the noise in my head roared. I slammed my palm against the steering wheel, gritting my teeth.
Enough was enough. I flicked my turn signal in the other direction and veered onto the highway, before my courage fled. It was time to turn away from caution and toward Sparrow’s Grotto. Toward something that might silence the hissing forever.