What looked to be a pile of dirty laundry was actually a person slumped in the seat in the lobby of the small airport. A duffel bag was on the floor, laying there like an old stuffed sock. The lump of a person had been there since early morning. The woman at the ticket counter had seen ‘it’ move several times so knew ‘it’ was alive. She knew the person wasn’t a local, else she would recognize at least the jacket. There had been an early morning landing, scheduled but early, before she had arrived so ‘it’ most likely had been on board.
At lunch in the airport diner, the ticket clerk and the rental car clerk had commented about the ‘it’ sitting in the lobby. The cook and waitress had added their two cents but no one knew anything specific. The only thing they knew was the sheriff ought to be called, just because.
Sheriff Phillips pulled up in her patrol car, leaving it parked out front. She had already circled the parking lot, looking for an odd car or whatever. Nothing to comment on other than Bea the waitress had a flat tire again.
The Sheriff headed toward the ticket counter then saw the lump over in the corner of the lobby. She paused and turned to walk in that direction. To her professional eye, she saw no unusual bulges such as a weapon and the duffel was too limp looking to have a rifle. To the left was a small drum with its beaded strap. Across the lap was a mismatched pair of crutches. She continued over then sat on the seat directly across from the person. Neither the duffel nor the jacket was military issue, which narrowed the possibilities only slightly.
The jacket was at least two sizes too large and both hands were pulled up inside the sleeves. One arm lay loose in her lap, the other held up her head. The face was not pale or gray and the sheriff could tell the person was breathing by the rise and fall of the zipper on the jacket. Ducking down to look under the brim of the hat, she was surprised to find the face of an exhausted looking female, not the grizzled unshaven male she’d expected.
Sheriff Phillips sat a moment longer, waiting for the person to sense her sitting there. When it was evident the other was sleeping, she reached out and tapped a knee. One eye slowly opened and stared at her, then closed again. She waited. She reached out again to tap the knee, but this time the knee moved away at the last second. The eye was open again.
“Listen, I don’t feel like playing with Terrance Hill so why don’t you sit up a minute and answer some questions.”
“My name is Nobody?”
“Well, at least you knew who I meant. I am Sheriff Phillips. And you are…?”
“Jo Wesley. Nice to meet you Sheriff Phillips.”
“Nice to meet you too. Are you waiting for someone or something?”
Sheriff Phillips was a patient woman. She had to be in this rural community where nothing ever happened fast except gossip. But this young thang was pushing the limit. “What would that person or thing be?”
“My nerve. I’m not exactly thrilled to be here. I’ve spent the morning catching up on sleep while I consider moving or not.”
“Probably not but it was polite of you to say it. I’m here regarding Becky Helton.”
The Sheriff twitched. “What about her? Oh, wait, you must be the relative.”
“Yes, I must be.” She sighed. “I had nowhere else to be or go and when the news finally found me, I decided on a whim to come here. Now that I am, I think I just might change my mind.”
“Whatever for? If nothing else, you can sell the house and move on.” The Sheriff stood.
“I know. It just seems odd coming here as the only heir to an aunt I didn’t know I had.”
“Ah. Well, that’s a different subject altogether. Becky Helton was a friend of mine. Reckon I should honor her memory and help you out. Hungry?”
“Actually, yes. I considered going over to that diner but then it would answer their questions, now wouldn’t it?” Jo Wesley’s smile brightened up her face. “I bet I am the most excitement to come here in a long time.”
Sheriff Phillips laughed. “Yes, actually, you are. Why don’t you come with me then? I haven’t had lunch either. I have a pasta salad in my fridge we can share. Then we can discuss your aunt.”
The girl sat there a second and seemed to be thinking it over. “Guess it can’t hurt to at least eat, huh? And I guess you are safe enough, you being the Sheriff and all.”
“Well, some would say that, yes.”
“And others wouldn’t?” Jo Wesley smiled up at the Sheriff again, then struggled to stand using the crutches. Looking down, the Sheriff could see the bulge of the braces under the ragged jeans.
“Need help with the bag?”
“If you can just pick it up and hand it to me…” Sheriff Phillips picked up the bag and the young woman attached the drum’s strap through the handle of the bag before slipping the strap of the bag over her shoulder. Using the crutches, she crossed the room by planting the crutches then swinging both legs in tandem.
“I guess in case of fire you would be in trouble.” The independence of this woman was obviously part pride but mostly sheer stubbornness which both irritated and intrigued the Sheriff.
“Yes, I suppose so.” Jo Wesley chuckled. “I had to sell my chair to get here. Wouldn’t’ve fit on the plane anyway. Little thing I came in on.”
“We don’t get any of the big ones any more. I guess we are lucky to get even the puddle hoppers now. But we are the only airport for quite a distance.” The Sheriff was proud of her small county. They couldn’t afford both a county sheriff and a county seat police chief so instead both contributed to pay for a sheriff. She’d done them proud by fighting for and getting the state capitol to fund an emergency medical triage and helicopter base. While it had been the best thing to happen to the region in decades, it had not been enough to save Becky Helton.
Originally published in Muscadine Lines online magazine, Vol. 6, 2005.