Sweet Home Alabama
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2013 by Robert McKay

This story takes place in April and May of 2011

I'd woken up in the middle of the night – something that doesn't happen often, but sometimes does – and was sitting on the sofa reading Foreigner. I was nearing the end of the book, and looking forward to picking up Cheyenne Autumn before moving to the second book of C.J. Cherryh's SF series about humans stranded on an alien planet.

And there was a piercing scream from our bedroom. It was the sound of utter, absolute, paralyzing terror, and I slapped the book down on the sofa and bolted to my feet. As I did I heard Darlia's door slam open, and as I charged down the hall I saw her ahead of me, her long hair – below her waist, and unfettered for bed – flapping behind her as she ran. She shoved open our bedroom door and ran in, and I was right behind her.

Cecelia was sitting bolt upright on her side of the bed, the side toward the door, and Darlia had crawled onto the bed and was holding her mother tightly. I ran around to the other side and climbed onto the bed, and wrapped my arms around them both. It was a couple of minutes, but finally Cecelia relaxed, no longer as rigid as though she'd "flexed" to show her muscles – of which she has plenty. "He shot me," she said, and I knew exactly what her dream had been.

Back in 2009 I had, reluctantly, accepted the position of chief of police in Red Hawk, Oklahoma, where I'd been a cop for two years back in the 80s. One of the conditions I'd attached to my acceptance of the job was that I be able to hire Cecelia as one of my officers, since she'd decided to work toward her own PI license and had already been helping me with a few of my cases. And the suspect in the first murder in the town in ages had shot her point blank with a .22 pistol – if she hadn't been wearing armor, or if the gun had been a heavy caliber, she'd have died right there. One round hit her in the stomach, which wouldn't have been minor if it had penetrated, but the other went in right through her left shirt pocket and would have hit a lung, or her heart, or perhaps bounced around through more than one organ.

He shot me was what she'd screamed over the radio as the suspect sped away after firing his two shots, the falsetto scream of someone who's in the grip of ultimate terror. If I hadn't heard it over the receiver in my office in the police station I would never have believed that Cecelia, whose voice is deeper than usual for a woman, could have hit that high a pitch, but extreme fear does things to human physiology that are otherwise impossible.

Just now I whispered in her ear, "No, he did not shoot you. It was a dream – only a dream."

She took a deep breath. "Yes – a dream. But at the time it was just as real as the actual event." She paused for a moment. "You both may release me, or at least relax your grip – I find it difficult to draw a full breath."

I relaxed, and I felt Darlia doing the same. "Are you all right, Mom?" she asked.

"Yes. I'm awake now, and in possession of my faculties; I know that it was nothing but a dream, and that I am whole and safe. I am prepared to arise and have a cup of coffee."

"You scared me to death, Mom."

"I know – I remember how terrified you were when you were young and your father would dream of when someone shot at him, and how frightened you were in Red Hawk immediately after the shooting. I apologize."

"Don't be sorry. It's not your fault he shot you, or that you dream about it."

If you didn't dream about it," I put in, "I'd worry about you. Getting shot ain't just another day at the office."

"I know, Darvin. I am aware that most police officers never fire a shot in the line of duty, nor have anyone fire at them. But however normal my nightmares prove me to be, I would almost rather be a freak than experience such nocturnal terror." I swear, if the hangman asked Cecelia if she had any last words, she'd have several pages worth, all of them with about 12 syllables.

"I know what you mean." I've been in two shootings myself over the years, though neither of the men who fired at me actually hit me – at any sort of range, actual combat shooting mostly misses the target. As Joseph Wambaugh put it, the fear and adrenaline turn your arm to spaghetti in combat, and a pistol isn't an accurate weapon at any sort of range anyway.

"Well I don't know what you mean," Darlia said severely. "I've never had anyone shoot at me and I like it that way." Now her voice became gentle. "But even if I don't know what you mean, you don't have to apologize. I'm glad you're here to have bad dreams and scare me to death. I don't want you to ever die." And even in the darkness I could see her grin – she's not as dark as Cecelia, but dark enough that her teeth stood out. "But I do want you to have that coffee. Dad, will you for pete's sake let go of her?"

I laughed – Darlia can go from imperial elegance to arrogant demands to gentle persuasion in the space of three seconds, and it's all so utterly natural for her. She's got all of Cecelia's good qualities and none of the bad ones ... if she got anything from me I can't see it, which is a good thing because I'm just not all that great a guy. And having laughed, I let go, which allowed Darlia to let go, which allowed Cecelia to slide bonelessly off the bed. She was wearing her sleeveless nightgown – the only sleeveless thing she wears on a regular basis – and as we all trooped out into the hall, the light from the living room picked out the bumps and hollows of her musculature. She's been working hard all her life, and lifting weights since her teens, and she's one of the few skinny women these days who isn't 95 pounds of pure flab. Cecelia's muscle, and she not only looks strong but she is – she can bench press my weight without any trouble at all, and I once saw her, when proving a point, bench 200 pounds – almost twice her own weight.

Darlia had on a nightgown too, this one with elbow length sleeves that hid the fact that while she's stockier than Cecelia, she's also strong, for she's been lifting weights most of her life too. She'll only be 14 next month, but she's about Cecelia's height, which puts her just an inch shorter than me – but because she's chunky, she doesn't look as tall as she is. As we got into the kitchen, with the light coming on overhead, the dark blonde of her hair with its natural lighter streaks jumped out of the dimness. While Cecelia got the coffee maker ready – she'd used an old percolator for ages, but it finally gave out and she got a modern contraption – Darlia got out a cup and spoon. Cecelia drinks coffee – period, end of discussion. As far as I know she's never even beein in a Starbuck's parking lot, much less inside, and she likes just plain coffee, black, without sugar – and strong enough to stand the spoon upright too. She didn't grew up with lattes and whatnot – they just didn't have such things in the late 60s and the 70s on a sharecrop farm in southern Alabama. It was all her family could do to put food on the table, never mind waste $5 on a cup of coffee.

Being useless in the kitchen, I went back around the counter and sat down on one of the tall chairs we have there. Darlia gave Cecelia a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and came around to join me, sitting at my left hand as she does whenever we're sitting at the counter. Cecelia, having made sure the coffee maker was doing what it was supposed to, turned and leaned her backside on the counter in the kitchen. "Lady and gentleman – well, lady and man – I am not about to crumble to powder; I'm not quite that fragile. You do not need to examine me as if I am some strange specimen from the oceanic deeps that might perish at any moment."

"Well, you at least withdrew the 'gentleman, ' so I don't gotta smack you for insulting me," I said.

"At another time, Darvin, I know I would find that funny. Just now I cannot laugh, nor even smile at it. I find I have no emotional energy for amusement at the moment."

"I can dig it," I said. "I ain't up to a circus after one of my dreams either."

"No, I recollect that quite well." She paused. "Darvin, as you know I must be in court today – it is today, is it not?" Cecelia had gotten certified as a translator between English and Spanish back in March of 2009, just before we'd headed for Red Hawk, and in addition to everything else she does, she occasionally serves as a court interpreter. She had a case to work on Monday – which, as I looked at the wall clock in the living room, I saw it already was.

"Yeah," I told her, "it's today. It's just a misdemeanor, right?"

"Yes." I don't think I've ever, in all the years I've known her, heard Cecelia say yeah. "But the defendant will enter a not guilty plea, which means a trial. I don't anticipate more than an hour or two; this is the city court, and the case is not a major one."

"So why you bring it up?"

"Certainly not to provoke you to proper grammar – which it did not do, making me glad I did not waste an attempt." She smiled slightly, for we've been having a friendly feud about my habitually casual English for years and even emotionally drained by the nightmare she couldn't help some amusement. "I mentioned the matter because I shan't be able to do what I shall now request that you do – see Dr. Chalmers."

"Why see Dr. Chalmers?" Darlia asked. Vernon Chalmers is the founder and principal of Darlia's school.

"Because, Darlia, we are going to visit Leanna, and he deserves to be aware of what we're doing and why. Your father shall not request an absence from class, but shall inform him of the absence, and present a request for an accommodation which will allow you to keep up your work."

"I guess I could write another paper..." She'd spent a month on the Lahtkwa reservation in Washington earlier in the year, studying the tribe's winter ceremonies and writing a paper on them for credit.

"Perhaps," Cecelia said, "but you shall also continue to work on regular assignments – your father shall make those arrangements." She turned to me. "I am aware that I would be better suited to this task; Dr. Chalmers is my friend, rather than yours; you and he are not enemies, but his personality suits mine better than it does yours. But my prior commitment, and the sudden nature of this decision, require you to take up the matter."

"I'm glad you asked me about a trip to Leanna," I said mildly.

"Darvin, do I often give orders or deliver ultimata?" Her voice was mild too, but I got the impression that if I wanted an argument I could have it.

"No, you don't do that much," I said.

"Nor do I wish to; you are my husband and, therefore, the head of this family; I willingly submit to you per God's instructions, just as you love me according to those instructions. But recent months have, I perceive, driven me into dark realms, and I am confident that time with Mama and Daddy will prove curative."

I looked at her. Her hair's going gray at a great rate – it'll be half gray before long. Otherwise she doesn't look 46 – her 46th birthday would be in not quite three weeks. At this distance I couldn't see the fine lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth that smiling has given her, and her neck doesn't yet show the rings that come with age. Her face is still smooth, and I knew that if I touched her cheek it would be as soft as Darlia's. That face is all edge, all but the broad African nose – even her lips are thin, the result of what she jokingly calls "a honky in the woodpile" – and her black eyes have tilted sockets, so that she's got genuinely slanted eyes, like a cat's. Objectively she's not all that great to look at, but as far as I'm concerned she's the most beautiful woman who's ever lived.

"All right," I said, "I'll see Dr. Chalmers. If you can find a minute to call him I think it'll help. I'll stop in when I drop Darlia off at school." That settled the question of who was taking her – Calvin Academy is a private school, with no buses, and it's way up on Paseo del Norte. "Once I've arranged that, I'll call Mama and Daddy to let 'em know we're coming." I took a breath. "And you know, I think you're right. Hunting that serial creep wasn't an easy job, and you have been more restless, and having more bad dreams, than normal. For that matter so have I – I'm up tonight, after all." I looked at our daughter. "Be prepared to pack a ton of books and do a lot of homework. I'll take my laptop and you can borrow it for schoolwork."

"Okay, Dad," she said. "But I think Mom's coffee is ready, and maybe you guys aren't, but I'm still tired, so I'm going to bed. I gotta go to school in the morning ... later in the morning, 'cause it's the morning already." And she got off her chair and stalked down the hall, like Queen Victoria after delivering a pronouncement.

I looked at Cecelia and shrugged. She just turned and poured coffee.

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